ELBOWS or Where Sex Hid
text Caroline Picard
illustration Ryoko Tamura

 

 

 

He re-examined the thin stack of playboys and penthouses. Lillan Muller’s face was smudged under his thumb. He had kept her under his mattress for eight years now. He didn’t know why he’d kept her under his mattress. He didn’t have the heart to throw her away. Still.

 

He cried.

 

A light little knock drummed on other side of his bedroom door.  “What’s the matter Toby?” Freddy asked in his small young man’s voice. Freddy was twelve years old.

“Nothing.” Toby sobbed, “Leave me alone.” His voice cracked.

His room was dark. The darkness crept in on him like an army, shadows leaning through the attic beams of his boyhood room.  Only his bedside light was lighted. It made his shadow long, in the middle of the room, where it bisected the circle of light. Toby returned the magazines to the slip between the mattress and box spring. He smoothed the plaid bedspread underneath him, then smelled his pillow that smelled the same. There was starch in the sheets.

*

      Outside, suburbia was dark; everything under the fifteen countable stars was a varying shade of gray. Cicadas chirped and moths flitted on the kitchen screen, flinging themselves with obtuse flagellation into the warm domestic glow. Inside, the family sat around the round table, on wicker chairs, with cloth napkins and special napkin holders, one for each boy. The kitchen was yellow with flowers crocheted on the curtains, an herb garden sitting on the window ledge just above the sink, and a stack of newspapers, recently moved, stood in attendance by the recycle pile. The dishwasher groaned as it began the rinse cycle, and a bloated frog jiggled in a terrapin tank above it. Its tank was steaming from the rising heat.

      In this place time had forgotten itself. The passage of minutes into hours had been badly kept, there were debts unaccounted for in the seeming eternity of their prairie home. The only one who seemed to grow older was Elliot. Everyone had watched Elliot grow from a worm to a boy; they noticed his change regularly, but never their own. Elliot was part of another world where days and months and years had meaning. With the dog gone, time rushed in, demanding his rent with violent abuse, bringing with him a plague of age and degradation.

The frog was twenty-two years old. Elliot got it during the second grade mail-a-frog fad. Everyone else’s frog died within the first week, and for the sake of its obvious and forthcoming end, no one bothered to give the frog a name. Twenty years later, Elliot out of the house, the frog was still nameless and rarely moved except during the daily rinse cycle, which seemed a passive kind of motion, and during its weekly feeding when he spasms brought it nearer to floating fish flakes. The pale floating frog like a specimen in a science pickle jar; its passing had been suspected for a month at a time.

*

Freddy attributed the frog’s longevity to the neighboring microwave. The parents, being champions of the microwave age and space innovations, were staunch supporters of this idea. They called their boy clever.

*

Elliot was the only brother, not yet arrived. He was coming from Philly on a redeye. The rest held hands over his chair, reaching a little to compensate for his absence, while chicken tetrazini casserole steamed on an oven mitt in their center. After grace, Mary, the mother, served plates.

      “Don’t forget about your salad,” she said. She was twisting the wedding ring on her pinky. She always took it off when she cooked. She had left it beside her placemat. Her band was simply gold.

      “How’s your school, Toby?” asked the father.

      “Fine,” he said, “it’s been a good semester.”

      “Met any girls?”

      Freddy grinned. He was still proud of his braces.

*

      Michael was the eldest. He’d come from Cincinnati. It was the first time anyone had met his wife, Edith, who was plain and tall and friendly but quiet. She wore a cotton dress. She wore it as though only ever wore cotton dresses; only the prints varied. Her hair was drawn back with a ribbon and Michael touched it tenderly over the course of dinner, returning to its end as point of recourse. He was careful to leave the knot undisturbed. 

When Edith she smiled, she smiled abstractly. She was prim.

      “Mike, would you pass the bread, please?” Edith asked. It was the first thing she’d said all evening, after introductions, and she dabbed the corners of her mouth with deliberate grace and poise. She was using the guest napkin.

      Michael passed the bread.

      “It’s really so nice to meet you, Edith,” Mary began. She was looking at the empty spot on the kitchen floor. To her, the wood seemed worn from the dog that had been. This was impossible, she decided. “How does it feel to be a newly-wed?”

      Mitch pretended not to notice, leaning into his plate with an affect of total concentration, he peered under the awning of his eyebrows and waited for Mary to misstep.

      “You must tell me what your wedding was like. I know I saw the pictures—the beach looked lovely, honey, your dress was lovely. I saw those pictures and I just couldn’t help thinking what a lovely looking girl you are. What a handsome couple. I’ve always thought Mike a handsome young man, but my: what a spitting image of loveliness. Tell me what was the wedding like? It would have been so nice to be there. Did you go swimming? I love swimming in Hawaii. You can’t keep me away from the beach when I go. I’ve only ever been twice, but I love it there. Did you see any turtles or anything like that?”

      “We saw a dolphin—”

      “It came as such a surprise, you understand, it’s just so nice to meet you all of a sudden! It’s almost as if you were a part of the family—”

      Mitch sniggered. “Is there any more of that bread, Mer?”

*

      Mary struggled with menopause. She cried at the zoo in front of the monkeys. Freddy was confused.

*

      “Hey,” Freddy said, swinging his legs back and forth in his chair, “did I tell you my theory on the frog and how he’s lived so long? I think it’s because of the microwave. I think the micro-waves have passed into his tank and made his body last longer. It makes sense, right? I think it’s a good possibility.”

      “That could be true,” Toby said, “it’s as good a reason as any other.”

      They watched the frog kick for a moment before it went back to sleep.

      “That thing is disgusting,” Michael said. “I cant’ believe you still have that thing.”

      “When is Elliot coming?”

      “We have to pick him up at the airport at two.”

      “In the morning?”

      Mary nodded, a fork fixed between her lips. She picked at the pile of celery on her plate. Although the recipe called for it, she always picked it out. “He had to work the evening shift.”

      “I think it’s so nice you all could come together for this,” Edith said, her eyes blank and brown.

      Mitch laughed. “You might think we’re crazy.” He laughed again, a big barrel going off in his chest, husky and drawn out to awkwardness. “Well,” he sighed, “there it is. Here we are.”

      “Where is your college?” Edith asked, sitting straighter to listen.

      “Hartford, Pennsylvania.”

      “That’s nice,” she cleared her throat. “It must be nice to visit Philadelphia.”

      Toby shrugged, “I’ve never been, actually.”

*

      On Sunday morning four brothers stood in a line in the backyard around a freshly dug grave. Michigan flatlands extended around them and in the distance they heard a train. Mitch, in a Tony Cabana button up, bent over a plastic garbage bag without having shaved. He tore the bag apart, struggling to strip the plastic efficiently. Instead, its parts stretched into a web of thin unyielding strips. They had to be peeled off the corpse. Mitch’s fingers stung with the stick of unseasonable cold. He wrinkled his nose. 

The plastic clung to the dog’s form. Still unthawed, the dog was bent to the shape of the freezer in their basement. Its neck was at right angle. The hair was cast into the wrinkles of the plastic bag and everywhere around the dog was the taught and linking halo of yellow hair standing up against gravity in frozen mossy stalactites. The dog’s front legs were twisted and off center. Its’ elbows struck out against the corn yellow field of fur, black and hairless, like chimp fingers, where the dog had worn its follicles away. Toby imagined the sound of Cassie slumping on the kitchen floor and wondered how long they would find her old hairs in their food. He wondered if her hair was still growing post-mortem. The tongue was purple. It stuck out to the other side.

      “I still can’t believe you froze it, Mom.”

      “I wanted you all to be here,” she cried with a little choke, pressing a napkin under her soft-skinned eyes. Maudlin, she added, “Thank you for coming.”

*

      The neighbor was sanding a wooden hoola-hoop on the deck. When she leaned around to touch the farthest arc, her torso was roundly parallel.

*

      Mary studied the hula-hoop, waiting while the dog wilted, and she realized the strange and arbitrary mythos of America. We strive to shelter the ones we love, the ones we grow, shielding them from the burden of pain, and mystery. It is security we defend and curiosities we vie, struggling to preserve the myth of their innocence; in this country we believe in innocence. They live as through they were deathless. They have an insurmountable ignorance. For all their simplicity, they are poor.

*

I see my sons are impoverished. 

*

      Toby was crying again, in a way.

*

      The ceremony was simple. The boys took handfuls of dirt and scattered it on top of the carcass. Toby threw Cassie’s collar in. The dog tags made music momentarily. Freddy bit his lip. Toby ruffled Freddy’s hair. Michael held his new wife’s hand and Elliot, the second eldest, was wearing a suit.

      “Cassie was a good dog,” Mitch said, holding his straw hat in his hands. There were liver spots and spider veins on his hairy legs. He was wearing socks and sandals. On the way back to the kitchen, after the boys filled in the rest of the dirt, Mitch lit a solemn cigar. His eyes seemed always out of focus.

*

      In the kitchen they had brunch.

      Elliot drank whisky.

      “Isn’t it a little early?” Mary asked, softly between small tears.

      “It’s a funeral, isn’t it? We’re Irish.”

      Mitch said nothing.

*

      The peter pan lawn was sleek and consistent, flat, save for the blemish of the burial mount. Mitch tried to replace the sod, but it only looked like a little square hat. Against the grass the earth was almost red.

*

      Toby cleared his throat. “I changed my name to Tobias. I’m not Toby anymore.”

      “When did that happen?” Mary asked.

      “I don’t know. A couple of months ago.”

      “Toby took a professionalism class where they write resumes for homework. The teacher said y-names weren’t serious enough.”

      “I have a y-name. Will I be able to get a job with my y-name?”

      “There’s nothing wrong with your y-name sweetheart.” 

Mary had stopped dying her hair. Her hair was a dirty white at the roots where age crept in like a weed. They’d never realized how many bags she carried under her eyes. She wore thick-framed glasses to hide them. When she laughed she didn’t make any noise, but bared her teeth wide in a white smile.

Except for Mitch, they all had very white teeth.

*

      Every family Christmas card looked the same. Cassie was always in the middle with a Santa Hat on, Mitch on the left, Mary on the right, the boys in between at varying heights. In the last few years Elliot tried to dress more radically. He’d started wearing risky business sunglasses, but in truth it was only Mitch’s girth that ever changed. Or that’s all they every noticed.

*

      Tobias didn’t mean to. He walked in their bedroom to look for something—something he couldn’t remember anymore, a clean towel, or a book that he’d left in their bathroom. She was naked. She’d just gotten out of the shower. Her breasts hung to her hips. She crossed both arms over her pelvis to cover herself completely.

      “Oh. Um. Sorry Mom,” Tobias blushed. “I’ll come back later. Sorry.”

*

      Later he studied the Christmas cards. Her breasts looked the same in every photograph; must have been magic bras.

*

      Mitch was snoring at the head of the table.

      The kitchen smelled like coffee and sausage and bacon and baileys. They let Freddy have some too, but he didn’t like the taste.

      “Your father is tired,” Mary said. She was the shortest and she looked at her tall boys: all the same value. Their eyes the same a light blue-green, their hair curly and sandy brown, the same color as their skin. They were golden and tawny boys. They looked like a product. Her stomach turned.

      She had a special place in the basement. She made excuses to go downstairs, to do laundry that didn’t need to be cleaned. She made excuses, but nobody noticed. Behind the three boxes of laundry soap, slipped tightly in between the cinderblocks, Mary kept her pile of letters, old and faded by now, in ugly boy-run scripts with childish confessions she knew too well to read anymore. Sometimes she just liked to hold them. Sometimes she sat on the freezer, square like a box with Mitch’s fish inside, and then she would unwrap the brown paper package, it’s peripheral butcher wrapping, wax, but still soft and limp from too much time and adjustment; she unwrapped the paper and drifted through nostalgic paths, dreaming of what could have been.

      When the laundry was done, she retuned her secret time capsule and mounted the stairs, into the light of the kitchen, took the laundry basket where it was heaped and overflowing, sometimes dropping socks or a terrible pair panties that always looked too young when she rediscovered them on the linoleum floor.

She always returned to her husband, folding their clothes as he counted NASCAR’s.   “Father Time, it is a terrible time to have come,” Mary said to her basil plant as she did the dishes. Her lower lip was trembling. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a pair of nylons, lying like disembodied legs; the same color as their dog.

 “I’m sorry kids,” she said a little louder, staring out the window at the fresh mound of earth. She moved to Edith’s side, putting her hands on the girl’s head, parting her ponytail into threes, and braiding them into a rope.

      “Aw, come on Mom, it’s not your fault. Cassie had a good life. Seventeen years is a long time for a dog,” Tobias took her hand. He touched Edith’s braid, inadvertently.   

      Elliot smirked.

      “Your bow tie is crooked,” said Freddy.

      “Your bow-tie is crooked,” Elliot returned.

      Michael squeezed his new wife’s hand. They both sat tall.

      Mary looked at each of them, her face stricken with resolve and apology. “I’m sorry that you’re not better prepared,” she said. “I should have prepared you for worse.”