2012 Fiction Contest Winner, judged by Christopher Coake
The Pasadena city pool, once the gilded lagoon of an orange-juice heir, was set back from the street in a grove of citrus trees and cleaned by a cripple who’d been shot in Vietnam. On afternoons when our mother lay blank-faced in bed with the radio up, smoking mechanically in her tangle of sheets, I took my sister swimming. I made ketchup sandwiches and pulled bath-towels from the tray of the birdcage and walked Dodie four blocks through Old Town to the pool. Mom hated going because it meant passing the tiki lounge where she’d first met our father, back when she, Miss Ukelele 1965, sang hula songs by the aquarium and he was an out-of-work actor tending bar in a hibiscus bowtie. That summer, the sight of the bamboo door—along with the taste of ketchup, the smell of chlorine, and the birdseed skittering from our towels onto the hot squares of cement below—was folded into the memory of my father, who was somewhere in Texas with his new wife.
He’d left a few months before, in the spring, and afterwards a strange thing started happening to Dodie. Whenever she scratched her head or pulled the plastic band from her ponytail, her hair fell out in fine, filament-white bursts. Soon I was finding clumps around the bathtub drain, in static tantrums on the pillowcase. After we went swimming I’d comb her hair, and the soupy tangles seemed to melt right off into my hands. When I knocked on the bathroom door and told Mom about it, all she said was turn off this television! Only we didn’t have a television then, and she was just sitting there on the toilet, staring intently at the handtowels, ash curling down to her thumb.
By August, Dodie was completely bald.
I tried to call Dad in Texas, but all I got was a cranky jangle from the phone company: “We’re sorry. The number you have dialed…” I stood there in the kitchen, watching green maggots snout around the trash.
“Is he there?” Dodie asked. “Can I talk to him?”
The last time we saw Dad, he came over with two Dixie cups of ice cream and sat on the back steps with us. He told us he was going away for a while, but if we ever got sad or missed him, we could just tap our shoulder and he’d be there. In spirit, was how he said it. Like a ghost? Dodie asked. But how can you be a ghost if you’re not dead? I was mad because the ice cream he brought us had nuts in it, and I hated nuts, and since it was Saturday I wanted to go feed a can of peaches to Mrs. Wicker’s tortoise. But it looked like Dodie was going to cry, so I just sat there and chewed the wooden spoon until my tongue started bleeding and I had to stick it in the runny rum raisin to make it numb.
I hung up the phone and ran my hand over Dodie’s head,which looked pale and powdery, like a macadamia. “He’s auditioning for a movie,” I said. “A big one. But he’ll call us back.”
Down the hall, Mom was still in bed, swaddled in her hunting-horse duvet and talking to Mr. Yehudi, the name she’d given to the cartoon man on the pickle jar, where she used to keep her tips but now stored her pills. I shook her ankle and told her someone had to do something already. I pictured us all trooping into Dr. Legault’s; I wondered for a moment if they’d give Dodie a shot in her head, right behind the ear, then let her pick out a lollipop—which were always stale anyway, and always lemon. Dodie, meanwhile, wandered in and stood in front of the vanity. She clipped on a pair of long, shimmery gold earrings and twirled around until they chimed.
Mom wobbled up on her elbows, scowling. “You look like a cocker spaniel.”
“Arf!” Dodie said.
So Mom stumbled into a dress, went out for an hour, and came back with a box. Dodie parted the tissue and blinked at the wig inside. It was gray.
“But… it’s an old lady’s wig,” I said.
Mom’s nostrils flared. “I spent thirty goddamn dollars on it!”
Dodie tried it on. “I think I look pretty?”
I could smell Mom next to me, swaying and leaning against the table, fumbling in her boxy purse for a cigarette. “Fuckface,” I said under my breath, only she heard me, and slapped me upside the head. Hard.
With my cheek fizzing-hot and neon scribbles in my eyes, I ran to the bathroom and broke a tin of soap against the wall, then lay on the floor with my face to the tile, where Mom might find me and think I was dead. I heard her door slam and bedsprings squeak. Then my sister was standing over me, asking if we could go swimming. Not now! I wanted to yell. I’m dead, you dummy! Instead I kept my eyes closed and body still. She left some cookies by my head and tiptoed away, but the dog knocked in and gobbled them up. I waited there with slobber all over my ear, listening to the radio lament through the wall, but it seemed no one was coming for me, so I got up and went to find Dodie.
She was waiting for me in her bathing suit and wig and jelly sandals. “Now?” she asked, following me into the kitchen, coughing against my arm as I squeezed a bottle of Mom’s Jergens lotion into the sink and refilled it with Elmer’s glue. She hugged her towel to her chest. Her starchy, rat-colored curls tickled my elbow and made me shudder.
“In a minute,” I said. “Hey. You know what you should wear today?”
I dug through the pile of dress-up clothes in our room and found a costume from my Old-Fashioned birthday party, where we’d eaten cornbread and played jacks and made dolls from clothespins. I dressed Dodie in a gingham smock, prairie boots, and a papier-mâché bonnet, which I fastened over her wig. “Now try to walk a little crippled,” I said. “Like the man at the pool.”
She practiced her limp, circling stump-footed around the rug, squinting through a pair of reading glasses. “Hear ye, hear ye!” she cried. She thought all old people were British.
Dad said that in theater school he learned to do a British accent by stuffing a wad of toilet paper between his gums and his lip. He used to show us at the table during Parcheesi games, shredding his napkin and bucking out his teeth: “Allo, guvnah! ’Ear ye, ’ear ye, whot whot!” We laughed, screaming at the fangs of soggy paper flapping from his mouth. I wondered where he was now, what he was doing at that very moment. I imagined him wearing spurs. I imagined him staring out at a desert canyon, thumbs hooked into his vest. Only the canyon was a flat, Pepto-pink cartoon, a Looney Tunes land of teetering boulders, pin-chinned cliffs, and a garish, amoebic sun. Sometimes on Saturdays, after feeding the tortoise, Mrs. Wicker would let us watch TV. How far, I asked her, was Texas? I pictured Dad clanking down a rubbery corkscrewed highway, past tumbleweeds wearing sombreros. Far enough, she said, handing us a plate of saltines, each dressed with a square of cheese and a hot dog slice. Too many snakes and black people anyway! I didn’t say anything to that. I hadn’t even met my stepmother. All I knew was her name, Arloueen. Dad said she had a chinchilla and gave people manicures, but I didn’t tell that to Mom.
On our way to the pool, Dodie and I stopped in front of the tiki lounge. The bamboo door was propped open with a mop-bucket, and cool air was pumping out, misting the plastic palm fronds. We stepped inside. It was dark after the street, like we were up in the middle of the night. I saw thick-pile carpet, grenadine-red, and brittle ceramic parrots swinging from the ceiling. An aquarium buzzed against the far wall, laced with algae and occupied by one ponderous, whiskery fish, who burped lazily along the bottom. The room had a dank, sad clay-smell, with traces of butter and burned steak and old drugstore perfume. A man in an apron came out from behind the bar, wiping the foam from his knuckles.
“Girls?” he said. “Are you looking for someone?”
“My dad’s Steve,” I told him. “Do you know his number in Texas?”
Dodie presented him with one of her deflated yellow floaties, then tried to pull it on over her sleeve. “Don’t,” I hissed, snatching it away and hiding it in my armpit.
“You need to have a grown-up with you,” he said. “You know that, right?”
“But she’s my grandma,” I said. “She’s like a hundred!”
Dodie wasn’t even limping, though, or doing her accent. “Look!” she squealed, galloping towards the aquarium. “Fishy!”
The man just shook his head. “I don’t know any Steve, honey.” He gave us each a toothpick umbrella and ushered us out on the sidewalk.
I was so mad I couldn’t even look at Dodie. I stomped down the pavement, my flip-flops winging up bits of litter and concrete. Dodie twirled the toothpick over her head and sang, “Bumbershoot, my bumbershoot,” which was what Mom had always called umbrellas. Mine wouldn’t even open. I threw it in the street.
When we got to the pool, I felt like everyone was watching us. Dodie tried to grab my hand but I shook her away. I blew up the floaties, my breath coming in angry huffs, then handed them over without even looking and jumped in the water. In the deep end, one boy was hanging off the diving board. He was all ribs and teeth, splashing the other kids with his feet. “Hey, is that your sister?” he sneered, doing chin-ups on his despicably straw-thin arms, as if that wasn’t easy for anyone in the water. I looked back and saw Dodie wading slowly into the pool, one step at a time, her floaties up to her armpits, her wig slightly askew. I didn’t know what to say, so just swam away.
I heard her call my name but I didn’t look over. I kicked myself underwater and held my breath all the way to the aluminum ladder, which rattled as I scampered out. Shivering, I hid behind the orange trees, hunched over the cold, mildewed ruffles of my bathing suit. I watched as Dodie paddled around in the shallow end, the wig sliding back to her ears. The other children gaped and snickered, until one, the boy from the diving board, chopped his way through the water and yanked it off. The kids shrieked even louder, slapping and kicking to get away from it. I saw the wig bob away, gather water, and sink mournfully to the tiled steps. Dodie just swam in lost circles, crying and tapping her shoulder.
There was a bit of chaos then, as kids splashed and hopped and hooted, and bewildered parents looked up, sun-drunk, from their wrinkled magazines. The cripple, meanwhile, fished the wig out with a blue net and turned it over on the pavement. It lay there like a possum. “Where’s your mother?” he asked, kneeling into the puddle, reaching his hand out to Dodie. “Your pop?”
I was terrified someone would point me out, so I turned and ran, hobbling over the bark bits underfoot, sick with the smell of chlorine and rotten orange peel. I ran all the way back home, barefoot and stringy-haired, then collapsed on the back steps, my heart walloping. Through an open window I heard Mom’s radio playing love songs in the swelter. I gagged and gagged but nothing came up, just the burn of ketchup in the back of my throat.
A few minutes later I saw her—trudging across the lawn in her prairie boots and bathing suit, her towel over her shoulders like a shawl, the wig dripping from a plastic bag. She stopped in front of me. Her scalp had turned pink and rashy in the sun. I wanted to hug her, but instead I blinked in the heat, waiting for her to say something.
She didn’t. She just stabbed me in the knee with her toothpick umbrella. I gasped, watching blood bubble up between the hairs. Then she marched right past me, up the steps and into the cool gloom of the house, the wig leaving a trail of water on the floor. I limped after her, ow-ow-owing down the hall to Mom’s room. “Don’t tell on me!” I pleaded. “Come on, Dodie!” I stopped, though, when I saw what she saw.
Mom was sitting up in bed, her face and hands covered with a layer of crackling, translucent scales. “What happened to me?” she whispered. “What’s wrong?”
Dodie and I climbed up in the bed beside her. The glue around her eyes popped and split as she tried not to cry, as she opened and closed her hands in horrified wonder. In the slant of late afternoon light, her face glowed like the waxy rind of an apple. My sister reached out and peeled a flake from her chin. I did the same. Slowly Mom lay back on the pillow with its mustardy stains of sweat, her lashes gummed up and twitching. Dodie and I each took a cheek, an eye, collecting the wisps in our palms. My knee left dots of blood on the duvet.
“How did I get like this? Girls?”
We didn’t say anything, just worked quietly down her throat and arms. I remembered back to a few summers ago, the Fourth of July: it was just getting dark outside, and black barbecue char fell through the air, and you could hear the marching bands down at the Rose Bowl, the snarl of trumpets and clatter of drums. Dodie and I ran around the lawn, waving our sparklers, until I tripped over a hose. I remembered running inside with a burned hand and seeing them through a half-open door, kissing at the kitchen table. He drank a bottle of beer. She wore an impractical dress. I wanted to ask for a band-aid, a baggie of ice cubes, a kiss. But I couldn’t. I could only stand there just outside the room. Come here, old pretty, he whispered, his hand tangled up in her hair. He wore a Styrofoam boater and a stars-and-stripes dickie made from cardboard. Come here. She just laughed and curled up in his lap, with blissful wet eyes and red cheeks and lips bruised from biting.