A. Katherine Black


A. Katherine Black

My toes grow numb as I sit in the car, sick of the radio, sick of my coffee gone cold, and sick to death of waiting for Johnathan who I knew would never show. My painted nails tap on the steering wheel, their muted sound loud against the silent evening. No phone call, no text, and I fight the sadly funny urge to check the dimming sky for smoke signals just in case. I wait in the driveway along the quiet lane as sparkles dance in my vision, announcing the migraine parade that promises to arrive tomorrow. I blame it on Johnathan. I should've let Harry come and help like he always does with everything. Harry said my brother wouldn't show, like always he said.

And so I heave out of the car door as if I were twice my age, but then I easily walk the path toward the house in the dark, because I've known the way all my life. I know the third stone is wobbly. I see my handprint in the top step without looking at it, almost feeling the heat of that sweltering day when earthworms baked to the road and I pressed into the cement and burned my soft young hand.

I stop at the door and rub my temple with one hand as my ears begin to ring. I finger the key, deep in my pocket, as slippery as it was when I was a kid and wore it around my neck. I buff it on my coat sleeve as always before sliding it into the lock, and I’m disappointed when the bolt frees the door. I leave the key there and grab the handle. It nudges my memory in response. Still I push ahead and cross the threshold and think of Dr. Gail's warning that I'll need a bite block soon if I keep clenching my teeth.

The house is dark inside, but I don't reach for the light switch because I know all the crap probably looks better this way. So I stand and survey the shadows. I left the bags and boxes in the truck at home and drove the little car over here instead. I wonder where I'll put all the stuff I collect tonight. I stand, cold and nauseous, and because I forgot my watch and because my phone is in the car, I have no idea how long I stand there. I don't trust the clocks in this house. I finally reach for the switch and gasp when the light shows it all. The dust and the dirt and the webs remind me how long Mom was in the nursing home. And then the smell finally registers and I’m glad I skipped lunch.

Piles of magazines and stacks of bins holding yarn and fabric and who knows what else all crowd around me. Like a grotesque abacus they count the years Mom lived in this house, before me, with me, after I was happily gone. I hate the moldy stench, yet for some reason I breathe it in deeply. A flush hits me and I feel trapped and almost turn and run out the door. I push ahead instead, through the narrow entry and into the living room.

I switch on the light immediately this time and face it. I feel the weight of the mounds of junk and shelves of dusty cheap figurines and I vaguely notice myself picking at the skin behind my ear. I’ll kick that habit when things are more settled. Maybe next month. I feel so tired, so I head for the one chair that isn't covered with pointless stuff.

I sink into Mom's recliner and decide it's best to keep my coat on in this place. I lean back and stare at the blank TV Johnathan bought Mom a couple years ago, then at the sofa table on my right. All this shit in the house, gobs of it everywhere, but Mom only really touched this chair and the things on the tiny table next to it.

There sit Mom's extra glasses, gaudy and big with wing tips and purple flowers. I wonder where in the hell Johnathan and I got our fashion sense and puff a small laugh as I picture the two of us, pink and warm in Mom's womb, draining all her style along with her calcium and her sanity. We always got what we wanted when we teamed up.

Mom loved to tell the story of the surprise we were, our two heartbeats so synchronized they sounded like one at her first appointment. She didn't find out for months that twins were coming. I always interrupted this story with rolling eyes and told her I’d heard it all before, come on. But then she started to tell the story more and more in the last few years, and I just listened, glad that she remembered the story, that she remembered something about me, even if it wasn't my name.

I think of my own twins, the ones I never touched, never named. For so many years I hadn't wanted kids. I’d wanted my own life and my own career and as many hobbies as I pleased.

There were more than enough people in the world as it was. But then there was the drunken weekend with old friends in the city and the blurry messy sex that left me with nothing but embarrassment and a torn zipper in the green silk dress I’d only worn twice. I’d thought a ruined dress was more than enough to show for that weekend.

That's what I’d thought until six weeks later, when I vomited and cried and cursed better than I’d cursed since my teen years. At first I imagined how awful and exhausting life would be with a baby, but then part of me wanted to know what it was like. Being alone was terrifying sometimes.

I believed friends like Harry when they said they'd help. Then I learned one baby was actually two and I was shocked and numbed by double the hormones and double the fears. But by then I was hooked.

I sink into Mom's chair. I put on her glasses and see a lopsided world, left eye a little off and right eye a complete blur. It’ll bring on the migraine faster, but I leave the glasses on and look at all the stuff engulfing the sofa and the floor and the shelves. A sob pulses from deep inside and shoves tears into my eyes, about to fall. But I stifle even though no one is there. I stifle and bite it back as I always do.

I pull off the glasses and return them to the tray, next to the remote with the small buttons. Mom was infuriating, refusing to use the remote with the big buttons I gave her and ignoring the fancy pillow remote Johnathan gave her. Instead she pushed the wrong buttons on this tiny remote and called me at ten o'clock at night, insisting I come over immediately to fix the damn TV. Watching TV was the only thing she could do toward the end.

It was me she called, always me. I obeyed and cleared my day and my schedule and my life for her. I was repaid with this dusty sea of crap floating all around me, threatening to drown me. I picture Johnathan in his corner office with a bird's eye view of the city, sitting at his immaculately empty desk and yelling on some conference call. I wonder how he can really be too busy when his assistant does all the real work around there. He said he'd handle the Will and Trust if I take care of the physical property. He said it over the phone while I heard his fingers clicking the keyboard, typing something else to someone else. I wondered who really had his attention.

I pick the remote from the table and consider throwing it at Johnathan's TV that's as sleek and blank as Johnathan himself, but I see a glint of something on the little table where the remote had been. A tiny wavy circle of silver and green sparkle. My hands still as I look at it.

The remote falls to the floor so I can run my finger around the shiny rough edge of the baby bracelet. It pulls me back to my teen years when it hung on my vanity mirror, back to ten years old when I wrapped ribbons around it to make it prettier than Johnathan's matching cuff, back further to an unknown blurry young age when I stared at the bracelet laying in Mommy's glass case and begged her to let me touch it for just a tiny second.

It was less than two years ago that I found myself wandering into that jewelry shop. I was supposed to be looking for a birthday gift, but instead I gazed at the baby bracelets, admiring the silver and purple designs for February birthdays. They looked as new and soft as I thought my babies were going to be. I stood that day in the jewelry shop, artificially bright like an amusement park, and I wondered if I needed two bracelets or two cuffs, or maybe one of each.

I allowed myself to laugh a little that day, shy and giddy when the lady with too much make­up came from behind the counter and offered to help. The pride had already swept me up, was lifting me just high enough to be sure it would hurt, it would hurt when I fell only a few days later. Only a few days later I ruptured in pain and blood poured as I stood in the shower. And then I laid in the hospital, falling asleep to the silent rhythm of the IV drip. Falling asleep so they could clean out my insides, so they could scrape away my future before I’d even touched it. Just a few days later I’d be back to the beginning, and then I had to remember why being alone was better. Because I’d almost forgotten.

I sit in Mom's chair as I finger the shiny rough edges of the bracelet and I realize I don't know when she bought it or how, or if it had been a gift from someone else. The tears fall then and continue to fall. I spasm and cough, but my hand never leaves Mom's small table.

The last of the sunlight disappears from thinly curtained windows and I gently scoop up the silver-green bracelet as if it's a fragile baby bird. I shelter it in my grasp. I jump in the chair when I hear someone clear their throat and I wipe my face as I look up at Johnathan standing near the hallway. I wonder how long he's been there. I see his perfectly cut Italian suit and his obnoxiously expensive striped tie, and I’m glad he's overdue for a haircut and has circles under his eyes.

An hour ago I might’ve ranted at him in my best smug voice. I might’ve scolded him for being late. For always being late and for anything else I can think of. But now he's caught me in a dusty old orange chair with my baby bracelet in hand, with wet puffy eyes and a blotchy face.

So I say, hey Johnathan.

And he says, hey Sis.

My chin quivers stupidly as if that was the nicest goddamn thing anyone’s ever said and my voice quakes when I tell him I can't do this clean­out thing. 

He turns sideways and leans against a pile of bins. It shivers against his weight. He takes a deep breath and says nothing. I can’t remember how old Johnathan was when he started doing that. Looking away and saying nothing. Saying nothing until I boiled, until I gave up talking to him.

But then he says something. I consider congratulating him and offering him a medal that must surely be in a bin somewhere around here. But I decide not to mock this time. I sit and listen while he says okay. Still I know there must be more to it than that and so I wait. I lean back in the chair and stare at Johnathan's blank TV as I wait for him to say more.

I waited like that in Johnathan's posh car as he drove me away from the hospital less than two years ago. I needed someone to say something, but I didn't know what. He must not have known, either, because he said nothing as he drove. I remember thinking he must be a smooth talker at work, good at persuading impossible people and fixing impossible situations, and I needed him to fix the impossible right then. But Johnathan said nothing as he drove me home, as he made me soup and slept on my couch and took care of Mom for the next month. He said nothing more to me, and neither of us said anything to Mom, because what was there to say?

And so I’m not surprised as I sit in Mom's old chair surrounded by the solid walls of junk that Mom spent her life building, as I sit and wait too long for Johnathan's words to never show. And then we both jump a little when we hear something fall from the dining room behind us. We say at the same time, rats, and we both laugh.

And then Johnathan says something. He says, I'll sort it out. And he says, just tell me what you want to keep.

But I don't know what I want to keep. I have no idea how to begin to know what I can take from this mess. That's what I tell him. And then I stand, holding my silver­-green baby bracelet in one hand and wiping my face dry with the other. A clicking sound echoes as I lay the bracelet on top of the TV. I walk over to Johnathan and kiss his cheek. He stares at the floor.

I turn off the heat in the car as I drive away. The cold creeps in and begins to numb my fingertips.

Top Ten..
Games to Play on a Rainy Saturday with a Cup of Coffee and your Favorite People

A. Katherine Black

1. Munckhin.  The only place where one can defeat a lawyer armed only with a Really Impressive Title and a Cheese Grater of Peace.

2. Pounce.  It creates a symphonic mix of giggles, smack talk, and cards slapping the table.  It may also leave the occasional bruise.

3. Monopoly.  When you define yourself simply as a shoe or a car or a battleship, and you leave your fate to a shake of the dice, life seems to come into focus for an hour or two.  Or three. Or four.

4. Puerto Rico. Where everyone gets to be Governor and can fill ships with coffee and sugar.

5. Bananagram.  A pleasing blend of tetris and scrabble, this game could make a wordie obsessive.

6. Scrabble.  The only place where the words Qi, Qat, Za and Zee make sense.

7. Railbarron. Who wouldn’t want to own Miami and call themselves Superchief?

8. Euchre.  Best played with old friends.  And spiked coffee.

9. Wordsmith.  A wonderful way to spend quality time with a best friend who lives on the other side of the country.

10. Cribbage. There’s something inexplicably satisfying about counting fifteens.

A. Katherine Black has moved cross-country several times with her military husband, their kids, and their cats.  She currently works as an Educational Audiologist in Maryland.  A. Katherine started writing a couple of years ago, and now notebooks and multi-colored pens are stashed all over the house.  She finds writing as essential to daily life as her morning cup of coffee.  Her fiction can also be found at 365tomorrows.com, and some of her musings at flywithpigs.com.