Robert Hayes stared out the window listening his partner tell the new admin some lame joke;
listening to her laughter, bright and thin and so utterly expected. Part of the requirements of the job, he
supposed. Nothing like the laughter of
He smiled and took
a sip of his tea, thin and green and disgusting. Celeste had forced him to abandon
coffee. And meat. And dairy products. He wondered what his wife—in ever pursuit of
eternal life—would press him to give up next.
What would be the next thing to drop out of his life completely?
If he were to
examine the facts—and that was his job, wasn’t it? To sort through the facts and find some Truth
within them?—he would have to admit the fault was his. He had allowed
it to happen. Had started it,
actually; had set things in motion all those years ago.
He put his mind in
reverse, reeling backwards a single frame at a time, each important moment a
snapshot in his memory: The purchase of the Lower East brownstone. His Columbia degrees—three in all. His move to New York. His mother, the day of his high school
graduation, pushing him out the door towards town. “Go, Bobby Joe,” she said. “Go and make something of yourself. Go and make me proud.”
leaving, he took one last look around that cabin—except for the bathroom, one
main room, with beds all around the perimeter.
No decorations, save the calendar tacked to the wall and his various paper
awards, yellowed and curling up at the edges: perfect attendance certificates—twelve
in all; his National Honor Society card; his name printed upon the honor roll
year after year after year.
After he left, he
never looked back. As his awards grew,
as his brain expanded and filled with Important Things, he found his family—his
past—his history—embarrassed him. He discovered
that it was easy enough, to change one’s name; to lose one’s parents in a
tragic accident. With enough money, it’s
simple to invent a life.
And one day, Bobby Joe Jones died. And Robert B. Hayes was
were often illusory and realities pressed deep.
It didn’t take much to call memory back.
Sometimes all it took was a laugh to bring back the memory of his mother
and his siblings.
Momma had grouped them,
for the sake of convenience: The Little Ones, the youngest boys. Twins.
The Middles. Also twins. His sisters.
Two by two, twins marched from his mother’s womb.
expected to Know Better, but often he didn’t.
* * *
It had been meant
as a joke. The Little Ones were always trying
to introduce a bit of levity, to fill a situation with enough hot air to lift
the tiny cabin from its formidable foundation and move it, on the trails of
their laughter, to a happier place. To a
Someplace Else. To that place everyone
wanted to find.
There was no
map. There were no directions. And yet, it was a place everyone sought. A place that to this day everyone seeks.
Momma finished the
breakfast dishes and then poured herself another cup of coffee from the blue
spatterware pot that boiled nonstop on the woodstove. She wore her thin threadbare nightgown that ended
just above her knobby knees. Her feet
were jammed into fuzzy pink slippers. In
one hand she carried her cup of coffee.
In the other, a bottle of dollar store lotion. Once a week, Momma would bathe and then rub
that lotion over her tired sagging skin, the only luxury she’d ever known, in
an attempt, Robert supposed now, to smooth away the harsh realities that were
Momma walked into
the bathroom. Shut the door behind
her. They could hear her humming. Could hear the shower curtain drawing
back. They started at one another,
biting upon their lips and pressing grubby hands against dirty faces to keep
the laughter inside. Bobby Joe wondered whether
the Little Ones had gone too far.
A moment later,
Momma emerged, hands on hips.
“Do y’all mind ‘splain’
how the hell our donkey got into the
bathtub?” She paused. Crossed
the room to the kitchen area and parted the curtains with one hand. “That is
our donkey, ain’t it?”
One of the Middles
then. “Well, at least it ain’t a
elephant.” She sank her bony self into a
wooden chair and for an instant Bobby Joe got a profile view of his twin
brothers growing in her womb: Last Ones.
Momma laughed long
and hard, and her laughter gave them the permission they needed to laugh also. They all joined in and that little cabin,
deep in the mountains, surrounded only by trees and abandonment and
hopelessness, filled with laughter. And
despite the fact that the house remained resolutely upon its foundation, Bobby Joe
felt them travel to that place that had no map and no directions.
Robert looked out
the window and watched the people on the sidewalk, thirty floors below. The rich rubbed shoulders with the artists
who rubbed shoulders with eager interns, all of them taking care not to spill
their coffee as they stepped with eyes averted around the homeless woman who begged at the
corner every day.
Every day, he,
too, averted his eyes from the face of the woman, so as not to see the truth of
the facts contained therein. But today,
as she’d turned to a woman with a designer dog and held out her torn paper cup,
Robert had noticed the gentle swell beneath her shirt; the roundness of her
hips. He wondered whether the child
within would be Oldest or Last One.
He stood and
slipped on his coat. The new admin, the
laughing, briskly efficient admin removed her glasses. “Where are you going?”
“Can you cook?” His voice was harsh and impatient.
She reddened. “I didn’t realize that was a job requirement.”
“Can you stone a
squirrel, gut it and fry it up for dinner all within the span of an hour?”
She blanched. “I’m a vegan.”
He sighed. Another one.
He tried another tactic. “If I
dropped you off on the side of a mountain, how many days would you survive?”
“You mean like one
of those reality shows?”
“No. I mean like reality. Hold my calls.”
He took the
stairs, thirty flights of stairs, because that would be faster than the elevator
at this time of day. He walked to the
corner, drawing his coat up closer, wishing for his thick scarf.
He went up to the woman. Smiled tentatively. “Are you hungry?”
“I’m not looking
for one.” Robert removed his coat and
wrapped it around the woman’s bony shoulders.
“When was your last meal?”
“I can count.
I’m homeless, not stupid.”
“I’m not a stray
you can take home to your momma.”
cringed. He hailed a taxi and flashed
the driver a hundred dollar bill. He saw
the driver curse as he pulled to the curb.
But even in New York, a hundred dollar tip was a hard thing to come by.
Robert opened the
back door, helped the woman slide across the vinyl seat, dull and green, yellow
foam pouring through a hole in the center.
He sat beside her; gave the driver his address and leaned against the
back of the seat.
Neither of them
bothered with seatbelts.
The driver pulled
up to the brownstone. Robert helped the
woman from the car. He felt the curious
eyes of nameless neighbors upon him.
He unlocked the
front door, led the woman inside. He removed his coat from her shoulders and
hung it in the closet. He studied her
fingernails, blackened and bruised; her sunken eyes still holding a touch of
pride; her mouth, slack and harsh and challenging.
His cell phone
buzzed. His admin. “Excuse me a moment.” He stepped into the library, the library full
of books nobody had ever bothered to read.
Before he could
respond, there came a scream and a shattering of glass. He dropped the cell phone, returned to the
door. His wife stood there, perfectly
made up, blond tints, muscles hardened by her daily jogs in Central Park and weekly
yoga sessions. There was a shattered
vase upon the floor; a packet of florist flowers wrapped in green paper.
“Robert, there’s a homeless person in our
foyer!” She pronounced it the French
way, faux-plump lips tripping across the word, expanding it into three
syllables rather than two. Foyer. A foyer the size of his mother’s cabin.
The homeless woman
sighed and sank her bony frame into a chair.
“You’re sitting on Louis XIV!” Celeste had the ostentatious habit of slipping in the names of their fancy furniture whenever she could, quick as a lemon drop and twice as sour: What Celeste called Louis, Robert simply called expensive. "Get off of Louis!"
The woman grabbed the arms of the chair. Hauled herself up. Gave a neat little bow to the seat. “Begging your pardon sir. I didn't see you there.” Then she doubled over herself and laughed and
“Celeste, I want a
laughed, too. And the laugh was loud and
mighty and for an instant Bobby Joe Jones thought he could feel the house
rocking upon its fine and stately foundation.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week,Lance challenged me with "explain how the donkey got in the bathtub". I challenged SAM with "frostbitten fingers on a ninety degree day."
Labels: flash fiction, Indieink Writing Challenge