The Little Things
Becca hears her father banging around in the kitchen, looking for his cigarettes again. He’s been like this since the funeral. Not needy, he’s never been one to ask for help, but she can feel him getting used to her being here, the little things that comfort, the graceful habits that become a lifetime. She’s already stayed two days longer than she’d planned. She heard him come in last night, well after the rain started, his shoes squeaking on the linoleum, a cough peeling his throat apart. She slides off the edge of the bed, careful not to wake her son, slips on her mother’s robe and pads down the hall to the kitchen.
“Daddy, what are you doing? Tyler’s still sleeping.” Her father is on his knees before an open cabinet staring into the dark interior. He reacts slowly, distracted.
“Oh, Becca. I’m sorry.”
“Do you want some breakfast?” she asks, reaching to help him stand.
“I got it, I got it.” He refuses her hand and pulls himself up by the oven door handle, which creaks under his weight and threatens to open as he gains his feet. “Can’t find my cigarettes,” he says touching his shirt pocket.
“Sorry,” she says, lighting a flame on the stovetop. “Where were you last night? I heard you come in.” He’d made a pot of coffee and sits now, hands around a mug, staring out at the remains of the garden, the colorless stalks rising into view as dawn creeps closer through the woods behind the house. The grey light carves lines in her father’s profile.
“I’m gonna need to head back home soon…” Becca says, breaking eggs into a pan, “…by Friday at least.” He turns slowly, the lines deepening, his smile becoming a wince.
“Oh, ya…okay, pumpkin.” Then she is seven. The plastic soles of her footie pajamas causing whispery scrapes as she slides around the kitchen making pancakes, her first time preparing breakfast for her father, who waits with a bemused smile and a paper napkin tucked into the neck of his t-shirt. Her mother is away somewhere and the air a little brighter for it, their world much simpler then.
“I’m sorry, Daddy, but I got a life, too. I got things to take care of.” She remembers Tyler’s father Greg, unconscious in a ditch, his chopper in pieces along the road, herself pregnant and crying in the front seat of her father’s truck, afraid to look any closer.
“Is he dead?” she had asked through the little triangular vent window. She wonders now how different her life would be if he had been. She doubts that she ever really loved Greg. He’d just been a way to fight back. Something to throw in her mother’s disapproving face. And then she’d carried the weight of those choices, quite literally for a time, Greg’s useless legs trailing behind as she’d heft him up from bed to chair, chair to toilet, toilet to tub. She’d felt trapped by the solid walls she’d built around herself. Now, with her mother gone, she’s finding those walls much thinner, like cardboard sets she’d only believed to be real.
Her father nods. “No, I know. You got others. That’s fine,” he says as she sets a plate of eggs and toast on the table in front of him and steps back. Her hair is a sleepy nest and she gathers it roughly, ties it up at the crown of her head. His eyes follow, curious.
“You looked like your mother just then,” he says, his mouth full of toast. Becca’s arms drop to her sides as she sighs.
“I don’t mean nothin’,” he forces a swallow to clear his words. “I’m just sayin’.”
Becca runs water into the sink, tossing a few utensils into the foaming suds, a pan thuds loudly against the heavy enamel, then a plate, which breaks with a sharp crack. She turns off the water and stands leaning on her arms, head down.
“She wasn’t always the woman you knew,” says her father. Becca looks up, her eyes swimming. He doesn’t look away. “It was hard for her. She—you just didn’t get her best years.”
“What about your best years, Daddy? How come she got those? Why did you put up with all that?” He flinches at her volume but smiles sadly, wipes his mouth with a napkin and eases himself up to standing.
“She didn’t get my best, honey…you did. I stayed here for you.” He checks his pocket again and finds no cigarettes. He lifts a jacket from the back of a chair and slides into it.
Becca busies herself at the sink, head down, her hands deep in the scalding dishwater, the pain like a meditation.
“Now, I got one more shift at the liquor store to pay off the mortuary and I can be home by four…” He watches his words push the tears from her lashes, “…if you still feel you gotta go.”
After he’s gone, Becca packs Tyler into his swing chair and turns on the radio. She’s got more cleaning to do and she’d like to box up her mother’s clothes—or maybe just burn them. She sorts through the hangers and thinks of her Dad. He’d gotten up every morning like regular, but she wonders if he’s really working. She’d been making him breakfast but he never ate much, just stirred his coffee, saying he remembered this and remembered that, mostly about her as a baby. All the while, he’d have streaks of shaving cream along his jaw. Yesterday, she ran to town for cleaning supplies and saw his truck parked out behind the off-sale, smoke curling out across the roof. Could be on a break, she’d supposed.
She’s taking the clothes to Goodwill, the boxes stacked in her hatchback as she drives. It feels like a hearse. She hadn’t gone to her mother’s interment. Sulking at the back of the chapel was the best she could manage of the funeral. She’d smoked half a dozen cigarettes just for the excuse to step outside. Her throat finally raw, her stomach roiling, the casket moving slowly up the aisle towards her, she’d claimed it was Tyler’s nap time and escaped to the car for a long drive of the county roads.
Now, as the stone arch of the cemetery entrance rises on the shoulder ahead, she finds the car slowing and curious. She turns in. She’d only ever been here at night, a teenage girl in some boy’s car, reaching out in the dark for something safe or something dangerous, whichever felt better. She stops the car on the gravel path and listens to the tick of the engine. She half expects her mother’s ghost to come wobbling between the graves in her heels and eyelashes, cursing her late arrival, but she gets only a squirrel, who watches them suspiciously before bounding into the shadows.
She leaves Tyler sleeping in his car seat and finds the new grave easily enough. The air is cool but the sun slips brightly through the trees. The fresh dirt is mounded like a coffin lid, a wreath of mud-splashed greenery on top. On the headstone lies a soggy pack of her father’s brand. She makes a mental note to stop at the convenience store to get him some more.
• • •
Arthur sits down, rubs his face with both hands, and studies the ceiling tiles. One is much whiter, newly replaced. It’s the white of new beginnings, a blank page, save for the texture of tiny holes. The surrounding tiles grow dimmer, yellowed, older now in contrast. A young nurse passes the lounge, her cell phone screen glowing through the pocket of her skirt. She strides with a purposeful whisk and is gone. The old wall clock stutters around in its obsolete way.
He feels some pride at the upkeep of the facility but begins to worry about the problem that must have ruined the previous tile. Pipes installed decades before, enclosed in the ceiling, trusted to perform and then forgotten. Trust turned to rust. A stain that spread like cancer.
“Everyone dies,” his wife had said. Which was an argument for what? he wonders. We’re all born as well. Their daughter Katie had done both and yet here he is again, spared from none of it. Stealing a moment of peace, a moment of cowardice.
A florescent bulb in the far corner blinks out, back on, and then settles into a half-lit flicker. The arrhythmic strobing seems syncopated with his heart rate. He feels a flush rise on his scalp and imagines the wires in the ceiling. Years of steady current flow suddenly become a sputtering pulse of confused purpose. The brittle old insulation warming with the increased impedance, the connections arcing until a flash of blue ends the trauma.
Arthur slides out of the chair and moves to the hallway, a wary eye on the ceiling above. He finds a fountain and drinks. The cold water brings relief even as he grows short on air. He gulps, afraid to stop. And then he does, a pain in his temple. He wipes his mouth with his sleeve, steadies himself with a hand on the brick wall. A cooling unit kicks on inside the fountain, vibrating the stainless steel cabinet. Arthur checks the floor below for leaks. He should be upstairs, at the bedside, holding the paper-skinned hand of his wife. He sees her frail fingers on the call button, the remote control for the bed, which she manipulates deftly even while her body fails. He was never very handy. Has he ever been a help to her, a comfort? He feels no burden from their shared life. Only a void.
He moves to the elevator and steps in as the door closes. A young man sways against a cart of supplies, tethered to a device beneath his smock. A hip-hop beat squeaks from the buds in his ears. The elevator rises. Arthur’s stomach lags slightly behind until a screech of metal from below drags the compartment to a halt. The lighted panel goes dark and a small overhead light blinks on. He looks to the other man who nods in rhythm but seems to understand.
“Shit happens, man. No worries,” says the young man and sags against the paneled wall. For a second Arthur appreciates the quiet and isolation and then realizes he has neither. An alarm buzzes deep in the elevator shaft. He imagines maintenance personnel scrambling to repair the inevitable breakdown that none had anticipated. The latest in a series of escalating failures of a complacent infrastructure. He feels a panic ripple through his body like a vibration of the cable; he’s dangling in mid-air. He should be upstairs—he should be with her, scanning her hollow eyes for some kind of sign, an acknowledgement that it’s alright to continue without her, that it’s okay to go on living. He doesn’t know what else he would do. But she gives only light. As if the whole of her being has amassed itself behind her irises. All the wisdom, all the kindness, all the forgiveness pouring forth in a blue-green clarity that unnerves him.
The alarm stops abruptly, mid-buzz. The lighted panel blinks on, sequencing through its numbers, a resetting of its original capabilities. His fellow passenger shifts his weight, taps his phone and the music becomes a swirl of classical strings, a ghost of violins evanescing in the small space. He presses the button for Arthur’s floor and smiles, the elevator rises smoothly.
Arthur pauses for half a step in the stillness of the hall outside her room then rejects his old reticence and breezes in through the doorway. The thick canvas blinds have been thrown wide and an afternoon sun glows warmly in the empty room. He sits down slowly on the rumpled sheets and tries to recall her small form in the massive mechanical bed. He can’t remember loving her. Not like he should have. Not like he will, now that it’s too late.
• • •
Below zero. Like me, thought Jeff as he crunched down the driveway, his breath fogging back into his face, sharp and unfamiliar. The cold demanding his attention. He’d fucked up again. Cassie’s battery was dying, couldn’t handle these temperatures, and he’d forgotten to plug it in. He’d have to drive her to work and listen to her bitch about the heater in his truck. He’d tried to order a new thermostat from Bemidji, but they declined his card. She’d be up in two hours. The twelve-hour shifts at the hospital were killing her but he was helpless to lighten her load, to make their lives any easier. And then he fucks up a simple thing like a battery charger. He turned down the drifted lane that led to the lake, the moonlight refilling his footprints.
They’d met in high school and even then he’d known it was wrong, some kind of cosmic misalignment. She’d been way above his orbit. So hot she wore her jeans like a threat. He always expected her to realize her mistake and move on, but she’d stayed for twelve years now. He never lost the sense of inequity, though, even after Brooklyn was born. Now he had two girls he didn’t deserve. He’d always tried hard to make things right, but this last year he started to slip. He’d lost his job with Fed Ex and the convenience store wasn’t paying enough. It wasn’t that he couldn’t work hard. He’d done so for as long as he could remember. There just didn’t seem to be much point these days. There should be something more to all of this than just getting by. The word “responsibilities” hissed up from the powdery snow in his father’s voice and Jeff kicked it away.
He reached the edge of the lake and stepped out onto the endless dark of the ice. Wisps of snow writhed in his path, alive but indistinct, like Brooklyn’s ultrasound images. The lake groaned under his feet, echoing in the depths below. The fish house appeared in the gloom ahead and his father’s voice murmured from within. “Goddamn harpy. Gotta come out here just to hear myself think.” Jeff eased open the heavy wood door, peered inside and remembered his father, half a bottle into the same conversation, sobbing, “There’s nothing better for your soul than a good woman.” It made no sense. He’d heard men, his whole life, talk in this love-hate spiral, praising and disparaging the women in their lives, never committing to either side, never rising above it.
Cassie never complained, but his fear of her disappointment was all that drove him. Her silence implied a confidence he didn’t deserve. Maybe she’d already given up and was just biding her time, the dead battery all that prevented her from escaping to her mother’s place in St. Paul. He’d make himself crazy with this sometimes and then she’d smile. Brooklyn’s little arms around his neck and Cassie’s eyes going all soft and proud, like he’d built the child himself in the garage. And he’d try to hold on to that glow for a while, like the heat of her body. He’d come home late after closing the store, slip into bed and she’d always move towards him. Pushing back into a soft spoon or throwing a silky arm across his chest.
Early this winter, he’d put a new battery in the generator that powered the lights and heater in the old fish house, but he’d only been out here once since then. It always seemed like a place for avoiding something else, a fantasy world that melted away with the spring thaw. He pulled a small flashlight and a wrench from his jacket and knelt to remove the cables from the battery, the cold below the plywood floor pulling at him, sucking the heat from his body. It was madness, defying nature like this. The ice agreed with a long, fractious shudder.
He made his way back, the heavy battery lodged under his arm, slogging through the drifting snow. Dawn lolled below the horizon, silhouetting the pines and sending birds skyward in ragged groups. He thought of Cassie and smiled. She’d be up now, slipping drowsily out of bed, lifting her nightgown to pee and then stepping warm and naked into the steam of the shower.
• • •
It sounded like a scream. Helen Willis pulled the edge of the curtain back and peered into the dark. She kept an ear tuned for Gary’s footsteps, knowing he’d scold her for being the nosy neighbor, but she couldn’t help herself. The La Biancas seemed to be having a party.
She let the curtain fall shut and turned, surveying her living room. They’d had their own party right here only two weeks ago. Leno and Rosemary appeared to have a good time. Could there have been some grievous social faux pas? Were they now excluded from the neighborhood events? Maybe she’d just missed the invitation. Gary might know.
“Gary, honey,” she called toward the den where his raised feet were visible through the doorway. The massive TV murmured its blue light into the hallway.
“Gary, did we—?” He’d just give her grief about her “insecurities.” Besides, he would have mentioned it. Unless he knew all about their banishment and was saving her the embarrassment or he’d found the invitation and just didn’t want to go.
She moved the curtain again in time to see a dark figure disappear up the La Bianca’s driveway. It looked like Frank, Rosemary’s teenage son, but Helen knew that he and her own son Steven were up in the foothills on a camping trip. Does Leno have young friends? Employees from the grocery store perhaps? A skinny blond girl emerged from a car parked at the curb and moved toward the house. Waverly Drive could be so quiet most nights. It was nice to see young people having fun. Gary suddenly appeared at Helen’s side. She hadn’t heard his socked feet on their plush new carpet.
“What going on over there?” he asked, peeking through the parted fabric, a head taller than herself.
“Well, don’t you know?” she asked and then realized it would be unlike Gary to burden himself with any kind of secret, or plan, or activity.
“How would I know?” He shifted sideways, inadvertently pulling the curtain wider. Helen yanked it back to a narrow slot and whispered,
“I thought I heard screaming.” Two more figures moved from the car, up the driveway and around to the side door. A few more lights had come on in the house.
“Why don’t they go to the front door?” muttered Gary. “I mean if it’s a party, you know, wouldn’t—?” They both watched figures moving behind the lighted windows.
“You didn’t see an invitation, did you?” asked Helen.
“No, Leno had the boat out all weekend.”
“I could call Laverne.”
“Well, they’d be over there already, wouldn’t they?”
Gary was right. If there were a party, then Tom and Laverne De Jesus would surely be there. They just seemed to know how to live. It was always parties and travel and gallery openings. Tom with his studio connections and Laverne with her book clubs and blood drives. They were always the center of attention. But not tonight.
“Hi, Laverne, it’s Helen.”
Helen envied the lives of her friends like Rosemary and Laverne. She hated them as well. She’d never gotten used to the smugness of Los Feliz. She’d grown up in another, much plainer, middle-class suburb of Los Angeles and although she’d thought she wanted this life, she’d begun to resent the blissful ignorance of some of her wealthy neighbors. They’d all been horrified by the Tate murders the night before; “pigs” scrawled in blood on the walls, the hippies declaring war on the Hollywood elite it seemed. But a small part of Helen had understood that rage. Now she just wanted out. Out of the marriage, out of this suburb. Out of her life.
“Helen WILLIS…yes, 3304. Hi. I was just wondering if—I’m sorry? Oh really, I’m sure it’s just fabulous. I can’t wait to see it, but I was actually calling about Rosemary. I hate to be nosy, but it would appear that—Yes! See, that’s what I thought. Well, no, that’s why I wondered. I mean if—you didn’t? Oh, of course she would, Laverne, don’t be silly! Well, yes, I thought it was very strange, and they’re so young! That’s what Gary said too. Well, I suppose we’ll hear all about it tomorrow. N‘kay, Goodnight, Laverne.”
She hung up the phone and found Gary standing on the front porch smoking a cigarette. She flicked the switch for the porch light with no result. He’d unscrewed the bulb to hide his habit from her, or the neighbors. She wasn’t sure which. She stepped out into the darkness. A scream scythed across the wide lawns, its source anonymous behind the gates and pool houses.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Don’t know,” Gary said and pointed with the glowing end of his cigarette, apparently he wasn’t trying to hide it from her.
“What d’ya s’pose a boat like that costs?” The dark shape loomed in the La Bianca’s driveway.
“You don’t need a boat, Gary. What was that sound?”
“The sound of money, I suppose. Everybody needs groceries.”
“Everybody needs something, Gary. We just don’t always get it.” A strange, song-like chant began, floating in the stale, August air.
“I’m going to go see my mother in Palm Springs,” said Helen and waited.
“Howdy, friends!” They both jumped as their neighbor, Bob Lutz, appeared at the end of the walk.
“Jesus,” breathed Helen.
“Hey, Bob,” said Gary.
“Nice night for a party, huh?” said Bob, a small dog sniffing at his feet. He nodded towards the La Bianca’s.
“I don’t know,” said Helen, shaking her head, “maybe I should call over there.”
“What, and complain that they’re too loud or something?” said Gary.
“Nooo! Just to check or…I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m going to bed,” said Bob, turning for home, “To sleep, perchance to die,” he spoke into the dry air above, “or dream, I guess it is…whatever.” He faded into the darkness, the white dog glowing a few steps longer.
A door slammed and running footsteps fluttered up behind the silhouette of the boat. Gary stubbed his cigarette out against the iron railing and dropped the butt into the bushes. Helen swatted his arm,
“It’s August, you’ll start a forest fire!”
“And burn down Los Feliz? Would that really be so bad?” He must have seen her expression, even in the dim light. “What?” he asked, moving closer, his smile shining.
She was tempted to reach for the light bulb but didn’t. It was nice here in the dark. She sighed and touched his arm. “Are you tired?”
“You mean sleepy?”
“No,” she looked over the dark neighborhood. The car at the curb roared to life and screeched away, the quiet of the night air closing in quickly to cover the disturbance. “No, I mean, like…just tired.”
• • •
Andrew O’Kelley–whose interests include woodworking, photography, and playing the guitar–has had stories appear in Emerge Literary Journal, Eastern Iowa Review, Vines Leaves, Literary Journal, and Fiction Attic.