In the summer the locusts spit on my arms when I walk down the street. It’s not because I’m hurting them or because they hate me. They just don’t know what I am. They see me coming and worry I’ll put them in a bag and carry them home. They treat me like an enemy their own size, try to poison me with one drop. Sometimes I think it is raining and I look up at the sky, but then I remember that rain consists of many drops, all coming down at once.
I don’t like locusts much. I have read that they lay their eggs inside twigs, and when the babies hatch they fall to the ground, dig holes and burrow down like it’s their own funeral. They stay there for 17 years. All that time they suck on root juices, shifting around in the soil, finding the best roots. When they come crawling out they look around for their mothers, search for a drink of water, wonder what their names are. No one is there. The mothers have died years ago. I don’t know what happens to the fathers; the book I’m reading doesn’t say. But I do not like locusts. I would not take one home and care for it. I would not talk to it and make it feel more comfortable. It is not my favorite animal.
The spitting, though. If I had that spit. Imagine what would happen if I used it on someone who pushed me down or bit me or called me a bad name. Think how this person would fall paralyzed to the ground, would die a few seconds later. Think of the surprise. My own killer spit. As it is, my saliva is only good for the first stage of digestion, and at night it also keeps my mouth from drying out if I breathe through my nose. Now that I’m 52 it’s hard to breathe quietly; Lucretia says I snore on purpose.
For a while, each night before I went to sleep I would concentrate on having saliva as potent as mace. I would envision my victim covering his face, saying ow ow ow ho boy what is this stuff, and his words would run together, his ears would shrivel, his eyes would turn to prunes, he would pick them out and eat them. His hands would flutter to the ground and land palms up. I would act surprised, mumble something about a new brand of chewing gum, say a small prayer. The prayer would go something like, Please make sure he has a good bed and healthy meals in heaven. Sorry, God, it was an accident.
The God part is not so much for God as it is for me and any bystanders who happen to be listening. They should be on my side from the beginning.
The first person I spit on was a young woman, probably in her mid-thirties, at the produce section of the grocery store. She was examining the lettuce, her eyebrows knit together, her teeth large and square. Her hands grasped each head and shook it lightly. I did not want to hurt her; I just thought it would be good to practice. The way she frowned — as if choosing the best head of lettuce were a serious matter, as if it would solve everything. The way her feet pointed away from each other, the way she stood on her toes, her well-manicured hands. I could not help myself.
I have, it turns out, a natural talent for this sort of thing. I did not miss. My aim was true. Right on the neck. The woman reached her hand back absently to wipe the drop away. She did not look up. I waited for three whole minutes, and she did not do a thing. The lettuce drew all her attention. I decided I would have to practice even more. I picked through the apples and felt for bruises and I told myself, Martha, you just have to be patient.
My mother and father named me Martha almost by accident. Before I was born they spent months tallying a list of the names they loved. As they said each name, they must have imagined certain characteristics. For example, if I had been named Zill, the most beautiful name in the world, I would have had a passion for skydiving and late night walks in the rain. If my name were Em, short for Emily, I would have developed a penchant for canning home-grown vegetables, and I would have been afraid of the dark until the day I died. And if I had been named Richard, well then, of course I would have been a boy.
But I am named Martha because one day when my father was driving down the road that goes to the next state, the list, which rested on the dashboard, flew out the window. It was summer and my father leaned his arm out the window and whistled the first lines to all the songs he knew. He did not notice. My mother sat at home, holding her pumpkin belly with one hand and drinking a glass of water with the other. Neither of them noticed. Their precious list was gone forever. Their plans for the color of my hair, my likes and dislikes, the size of my feet. My ability to cook and draw and swim.
They must have scratched their heads, rummaged through the entire house for that little scrap of paper. They probably tore their hair out. Maybe they wept, threw things. The list of my names lay in a puddle by the side of the road. But instead of starting all over, instead of trying to remember the 20 or so names, they looked at each other, crestfallen, and said, Guess we’ll just have to name it Martha if it’s a girl and Herb if it’s a boy. And that was the end of that. I was a girl and Martha is my name. I have mop hair that used to be the color of pinto beans and large feet and crooked fingers that bend in several directions, and a good brain.
My brain has never given me any trouble, and I can say with certainty that if it had been me who had lost the list of names, I would have sat right down with a pen and tried to reconstruct it. I would have gone straight through the alphabet, and I would have said to myself, “a” recalls Anastasia and Alyssa and Allerine, and “b” reminds me of nothing interesting and neither does “c”, but “d” is definitely Desiderata and Desdemona and Diamond Darling and Dalia. I would continue this way until I ran out of letters. And when I got to “m,” Martha would not have come to mind as one of the better names.
It is obvious that in my sister’s case my parents did not lose the list; she was born with good fortune. Her full name is Lucretia Miranda Cala. All her names end with “a,” whereas only my first and last names did, before I got married. My middle name is Jane. That was part of the accident, also.
Lucretia is seven years older than I am. I will turn 53 in twelve days. Lucretia says I have had enough parties and that this year we will just sit in the front yard and sing the song to me and eat pound cake. We will see. I have told Lucretia time and time again that pound cake tastes like moist cardboard, and that I want a small secret thing for a present, maybe a sparkly glass eye or a marble to roll around in my hand. Maybe a piece of luck, a horseshoe, for example.
Lucretia used to have brown hair down to her waist. Her eyes blinked wide open and closed again; she was easily surprised. She fancied herself a joketeller, a comedienne, and she told jokes to herself while she cleaned the toilet and dusted the furniture. She was never in love with anything. All her life things have fallen into her lap: good grades, invitations to fancy events, men with perfect eyes and Valentines held anxiously behind their backs, her own house. As far as I can tell, she still cares little for these things.
Now, Lucretia’s hair falls out in the shower and while she sits on the couch. I find the long silver strands; sometimes they wrap around my arm or one of my toes. Always I am careful to hide them. They upset her like that, lying scattered throughout the house, intertwined with the shag of the carpet. She complains she is going bald, that it is a sign of death. So I put them in the cat food bag since I am the one who feeds the cats and I know Lucretia will not look there.
Every day I go to the grocery store. Lucretia sends me in the morning and at night, and during each trip I pick up two or three items. We do our shopping this way, product by product. One day I will buy frozen peas, paper towels, and apples, and another day I will get chocolate pudding — Lucretia’s favorite dessert — and a can of olives. I walk the three blocks to the American Food Store, past the small boy eating pillbugs, the four grey houses all in a row, the construction workers in their bright orange hardhats, the shuttered windows, the whirring locusts, the parked cars.
Lucretia points her finger. Out out right now, she says. Go pick up some plastic wrap, a bottle of juice. Leave me. She says I wander around the house too much, click my teeth, wave my hands. But she imagines this. I know people see twice as much as they really see, their minds making up most of the pictures, changing colors, covering up shadows. I know it just like I know I have an ingrown toenail.
The yesterdays creep into my head, mice in the corner, twitching their fine whiskers, showing their teeth. Closing my eyes does not help. Neither does tapping my feet and humming Christmas carols. They ask, soft and shrill, where are those yellow button-up-the-side galoshes you had when you were seven? Where is he, that bald-headed man, the brown plastic glasses on his nose, your husband? What was the first thing you learned after you were born? How do you know you look the same in the mirror as you do to other people, when you have never seen the color of your eyes and the shape of your nose for yourself?
When we were young, Lucretia used to give me things. People called her beautiful. Long limbs and a smart face. She did not need presents the way I did; people gave her more and she valued them less. For example, the time Albert Sanders gave her a rock shaped like an egg. Lucretia was 16 and our parents said she could go on dates. She dated Albert first: calm, nice, a moose, thick-bodied and eager.
I came into her room once and she was sprawled on the bed reading, absorbing the words, her face very still.
“Can I see your egg-rock again?” I asked her. I liked to touch the smoothness. I liked the fact that Albert had found it in a field, that he had not bought it in a store.
Lucretia put up her hand to shush me, her palm flat as if she were directing traffic. “Wait a sec,” she said.
She did not have any pictures anywhere. The walls were white and blank. Almost a motel room; anyone could have stayed in it.
Finally she looked up. Her lips were thinner than usual. “Over there,” she said, “on the dresser by the mirror.”
I picked up the rock. It was the size of a chicken egg, white flecked in with grey. I rolled it around in my hand and rubbed it against my cheek. In the mirror I watched myself pretend to crack the rock in two, pour out the contents, scramble them up in a pan. I made gurgling, hissing noises, the sound of an egg frying.
“Shh,” Lucretia said. “I’m trying to read.”
I said nothing. I rolled the rock along the top of the dresser. I wished I had a smooth gift, a boy to ask me places. I wouldn’t mind if he was a moose. Nine years old, my face plain as dough, I would not mind at all.
Lucretia slammed the book shut. “Just take it, Martha. Just take the stupid rock,” she yelled. “Anyway, I don’t even like Albert. A rock is a rock. You find them on the ground.”
I watched, fascinated by the sudden transformation: one minute reading, the next furious. I paid careful attention to the way her face creased up in anger.
“Take it. It’s yours. It means nothing.” She propped herself up on her side, opened her book, pretending to read again.
She gave me things in this way often. But somehow they were never as nice as when they had belonged to her. I wished I could leave them in her room, could go in to examine them from time to time as if they were pieces in a museum, on display.
The second person I spit on was a small boy, perhaps two years old, blond stringy hair matted with food. It was in the supermarket, too. His face was squinched, red from crying. He reached his arm out to his mother. On the floor next to the shopping cart lay a half-eaten cookie. The boy had opened his mouth wide, filling his lungs with air to let out a howl or sob in a kind of terrible mourning. His mother faced the shelves, glancing over brands of raisins, perhaps, or comparing prices per ounce.
I could not bear the sound. I know I should have felt sorry, especially since a cookie must matter quite a lot to someone who cannot see over a kitchen tabletop or tie a shoe. I know loss is proportional to possession, that it could be graphed on a chart by a famous scientist. But this boy bothered me. I gathered the spittle to the front of my mouth, walked slowly over, deposited a drop or two on his head. His mother turned around, a box of raisins in her hand. She gave me a concerned look, but she had not seen.
The boy stared at me. Mama she drooled, he said. His voice, now that he did not cry, was high and wobbly. Nonsense, his mother responded. She scratched the side of her face, put the box back on the shelf. They continued down the aisle.
This day marked the third week in which I had spent at least an hour each evening developing my talent. At night I sat on the love seat and thought of cells with different skills, with super protoplasms and abilities to produce deadly chemicals. Lucretia read in the rocking chair. Every few seconds the back of the chair hit the wall. With each dull thump she said “sorry”. This is what we did with our evenings.
But I had been thinking hard. I knew when the boy did not die that the food and leaves stuck in his hair must have saved his life. There was no other explanation.
I met Bartlet Johnson in the eleventh grade. He had moved in with his Aunt Jessica because his mother had run away. No one could find her. She left in the night, and the next morning when Mr. Johnson planted himself at the head of the table, expecting his breakfast, he did not realize he had a long wait in front of him. He sat for a full 25 minutes, got all the way through the news and sports sections of the paper, and still only the placemat lay before him. No eggs, no bacon. Mrs. Johnson had left no note.
This was Bartlet’s favorite story, the one he told most often. When I met him he was telling it. The night of our wedding reception, all the friends and acquaintances standing in a cluster around us, he told it. Sometimes he said his father was a stern businessman, frowning mostly and wearing a great deal of black and navy; other times he was jovial, raw-faced, the manager of a gas station, wearing a crusher on his head to work in the mornings.
But always his father decided Bartlet must go live with Aunt Jessica, his father’s sister. And always, Bartlet said he thought his mother had gone to find her fortune. The country she went to varied, but the result was the same. Mrs. Johnson no longer wished to attend the town Ladies Guild tea parties. She did not want to partake in Sunday afternoon dinners. The hill country did not suffice. She planned to see the ocean, a mountain or two, but no more flatland.
I first saw Bartlet leaning against a stop sign, hands pushed down in his pants pockets, legs so long and gangly they looked as if they wrapped around each other three times. It is true that his skin had a yellowish pallor, that his hair already receded from his 17-year-old forehead. He coughed periodically, and had the nervous habit of rubbing the thumb and index finger on his left hand together, brushing off invisible particles. Three or four kids stood around him. As I approached it looked as if the kids were paying special homage to road signs. But it was Bartlet, voice low, emphasizing the importance of the story, of what would happen next.
This time his Aunt Jessica, whom we all knew as Mrs. Culver, was a witch. All through supper the night Bartlet arrived, she had pretended to play the piano on the dining room table, and would only speak to him when he stared at her. She chanted to herself every night, muttered things under her breath, wore dirty aprons, raved about baked beans. She had eight cats and they all bit. She said reading was the devil’s pleasure. She would not let Bartlet draw pictures; she claimed it was voodoo. She had eyes that flashed green in the night but remained dull all day long.
Of his mother, Bartlet said only a few sentences. She had gone to find her fortune, probably in Australia but who knows, maybe Canada. She had black hair with a little bit of grey. She knew how to play the flute.
Bartlet’s father had a long nose. He wore a brown crusher to work. He liked bacon for breakfast.
We stood there transfixed, gathering his words like marbles, stowing them in our minds for future reference. Bartlet’s Aunt Jessica ranked among the most popular and respected women of our town; our mothers invited her to every luncheon they gave. To imagine her wandering the house in filthy aprons, talking of voodoo and the devil, thrilled us to no end. We waited for Bartlet to tell us more. But he shut his mouth into a straight line, crossed his arms and just stood there, the stop sign a few feet above his head. Tom Jasper invited him to his house for a game of football. I continued on my way home.
So, really, the first time I met Bartlet he did not meet me. I remember this and wonder if it means anything the way a horoscope or a fortune would.
One day a few months after Bartlet disappeared, Lucretia showed up at my house. When the doorbell rang I was brushing my teeth, and I had to spit all the paste out fast and wipe my mouth.
“Coming,” I finally yelled. I nearly tripped over Bartlet’s old golf clubs laid out in the middle of the living room floor. Every afternoon I examined the contents of the closets — I liked to rearrange the objects by shape. Just the day before, I had begun to put all my long, thin belongings in one closet: mop, broom, candlestick holders, vacuum cleaner, tarnished coat rack.
I looked through the peephole. Lucretia was itching one of her ankles and did not see my eye through the hole. I opened the door. “Oh hello!” I said. “I didn’t know you were coming. Is everything okay?”
Lucretia stood up straight. She nodded. “You’ve got a fleck of white stuff on your chin.” To show me she pointed to a place below her mouth.
I wiped the toothpaste away. Lucretia peered past me into the room, taking in the golf clubs, the sofa against the wall, the coffee table in the right place.
“May I come in?”
I moved to the side and followed her into my own house, watched her stop and sniff.
“I’m roasting chicken for supper. Would you like to stay?” I said.
“No, thanks. No. I was just in your neighborhood, you know, taking the bus to that coat store up the street. Winter’s coming.” She stretched her arms out, one on each side, and then she yawned. “Well. Nice seeing you.” She smiled, but I saw that she was staring at the golf clubs.
“You don’t want to stay?”
We had not even sat down yet. We’d barely made it past the foyer into the living room.
“I’ve got to catch the bus back.”
And then Lucretia turned to leave, brown leather pocketbook draped over one arm. She walked briskly across the lawn on out to the street, her steps so careful and dignified.
These visits happened again and again. Lucretia arrived, stayed a few minutes, then said she had to go before I could give her anything to eat, before we had a chance to say much of anything. Sometimes she just asked me questions. Why didn’t I have any photos of Bartlet anywhere? Why had I moved all the furniture into one room? Did I rearrange my house every day?
But now that we live together at her place I no longer have to answer. Five months of staying alone was enough, Lucretia had said one day. She said I would be better off living with her. At Lucretia’s house the routines keep us silent, which Lucretia would consider an improvement. The living room is always a place for reading and watching television, and the pictures on the walls are all paintings, no photographs, no one we would recognize and start to talk about. I go to the grocery store, Lucretia reads, sometimes we take the bus to other parts of town.
Bartlet did not have handsome eyes or graceful hands. He was a terrible dancer. He only loved me for a few minutes, long enough to ask me to marry him and to wait for me to say yes. Then in a few days we were married, just like that. We were together for 16 years.
He called me Mar instead of Martha. I wanted to tell him to feel free to call me Zill but somehow I never got around to it. I did not love him the way he loved thunderstorms or the middle of the night. But I loved all the stories: the way his father turned into a very different man every day, the fact that one week his Aunt Jessica was a millionaire with connections to British royalty and the next she had such a bad memory she could not recall her last name. Bartlet’s eyes gleamed. His face grew sharp. He looked past me as if he were watching a movie.
He hated children and cats. He thought camping was silly. He could not eat dry cereal without vomiting. He demanded bacon and eggs for breakfast, just like his long-ago father before him. He was afraid of the dark. We had to sleep with the bedside light on. I wore eyeshades. He gave me the same present for my twenty-ninth and thirtieth birthdays — a manicure set. His face grew yellower with the passing years. The years passed like stones.
Lucretia never married. She planted a garden, taught third grade, sold her vegetables, bought herself a house. She giggled at her own jokes and did not care whether anyone else found her funny. Her favorite type of joke is a pun, the kind where the words in the joke mean something else. She also likes useless sayings. For example, she loves it when people say, He’s feeling under the weather, or, She can’t see the forest for the trees. Everyone knows, Lucretia says, that there are no forests around here. And it is impossible to be under the weather, especially since one can never see the weather; one can only see what it is doing.
She does not like slapstick, however. She does not find it funny to see me falling down in the garden or on my way to the grocery store, although I find this particularly amusing. It is as if my feet have a mind of their own — of course, Lucretia would at least find this, the saying, funny — and even though I tell my feet to take a step or two forward they disobey. So I find myself gazing at the sky when just a second ago I saw parked cars and the end of the street. But this only happens once in a while, hardly ever, nothing to pay special attention to. Myself, I like the cartoons they have on television, the ones where the characters skid or slip on banana peels and yell, “whoaaaaa.” I like the way they run into walls and fall down stairs even though they are trying hard to watch out, to take care.
The second time I met Bartlet, the first time he met me, I told him I was sorry. I had seen him ahead of me on the sidewalk and had to run to catch up with him.
“What for?” he asked. He was carrying a bag of groceries home to his aunt.
“For your mom running away. And I’m sorry your aunt’s a witch. She looks fine to me.”
“Yeah. She looks fine to everyone. But I know because I live there. That’s the trick. Living there you see a lot more.”
I walked next to him toward his street, the silence between sentences neither awkward or comfortable. It had just rained, and steam rose up from the asphalt in slow curls.
“So what’s your name?” he said, peering in the bag. “I can’t believe how much kleenex my aunt buys.”
It was then I realized he did not remember me from the stop-sign meeting. This didn’t bother me, though; I knew I did not have his caliber of stories. No one in my family had run away. We all still lived in the same house, four of us sitting in the same chairs each night at supper, Lucretia a teacher now, our parents still our parents, me continually worried and in high school.
“Oh,” he said, his face blank and neutral.
“My name’s an accident. It could have been something better. You shouldn’t judge me by my name.”
But he wasn’t listening. “Look at that dog,” he said. “It’s hurt.”
I looked. Mrs. Gibson’s dog, old and fat, limped across the street. “Probably a thorn in its paw,” I said, then tried to call it over. “Here, dog. Here.” I took a few steps toward the animal, but it stumbled off in the opposite direction.
“I’m Bartlet,” he said.
“Yeah, I know.”
He turned, surprised, then rubbed his fingers together.
“We met,” I said. “By a stop sign a few days ago.” I put my hand out and we shook. His palm felt rough, dry; the skin of an orange.
I know I did not love him, but he was easy to listen to. It seemed as if I would be able to love everything else but him all at the same time.
Always I imagine Lucretia in a blue fancy gown, the material crisp and shiny. It is a picture I carry in my mind: my sister with thin white arms stretching to encircle the world, her skin healthy, no regrets. She holds many things: a tin of chocolates an admirer has given her, the future tied in a ribbon around her waist, a grocery receipt, a small mirror shaped like a heart. I watch her laughing, head thrown back, mouth open. She laughs and laughs, so happy with a joke she has just told herself. I carry this picture everywhere, and when I actually see Lucretia I am surprised that she looks so different, jeans on, wrinkles around her mouth and under her eyes, hands on her hips.
My mother did not have any boy babies, just me and Lucretia. I once asked her if she wanted a boy and she shrugged her shoulders. She said it was the luck of the draw. I never had any children myself, not while I was with Bartlet and definitely not after. I did not want them eating all my food and stepping on the spider plants growing in the living room. I did not want to worry about their fragile bodies getting hit by cars or tripping down the back stairs. And I did not want to wash their clothes. The only thing is, now that I will turn 53 in twelve days, it would be nice to have some relatives coming to my party.
Bartlet will never return. I have been waiting 18 years now, time enough to be born and become a legal adult all over again; or, if I were a locust, time enough to drink root juices under the ground for 17 years before arriving in the world.
An evil person stole Bartlet right off the porch. One evening during the summer he sat on the front steps to eat an apple. When I went out to see if he wanted to watch some television with me — in the evenings it was how we passed the time — he was gone.
His matchbook and cigarettes lay on the top step, so I thought he had ventured around the block for a night walk. Not that he had ever liked walking before, but there were his cigarettes, one poking up out of the pack for good luck. People do not just disappear and leave their cigarettes behind, I told myself. He’ll be back in a few minutes, I said. And, a few hours later, I thought he better get his little pear face in this house right now.
Finally, I called the police. They told me not to worry. An Officer Rochester said they could not do anything until morning anyway since I had no proof that Bartlet intended to come right back inside the house as soon as he had finished his apple. This officer did not believe me for a second, I could tell. He thought I had soft brains and a worrying nature, that I wrung my hands constantly.
In the book I have been reading, it says when locusts reach their full size they can fit into a rectangular box. Insect scientists, who study this all the time, have created a formula to find the normal surface area of the locust. If the insect, with wings and legs carefully plucked, is fit snugly into a box, its surface area should equal one-half that of the box.
I cannot imagine how this practice contributes to the world of scientific knowledge; in order to be measured, the locust has to die. I think of myself all dead and ready to go in the coffin, not fitting because my arms and legs are still attached.
But still: these locusts. I cannot trust them for a minute. Last week as I was walking down the street, one spit on me so hard I fell down. I scraped my knee and both my palms. Lucretia does not believe it was the locust. She says I tripped on a rock or a crack in the sidewalk. She says locust spit is not poisonous anyway, even though I have read parts of the bug book out loud to her. And last night when I told her how I tripped she just laughed at me. I did not see a pun in any of the things I had said, and when I asked her what was funny she covered her mouth as if she were coughing.
I pulled one of her hairs out of the couch and held it up to the light. “Oh look,” I said, “I wonder whose this is.” A breeze shifted the air, and the silver hair moved slightly.
Lucretia shook her head. “You are always trying to use my hairs against me. But they don’t matter. They used to grow out brown. Now they grow out white.” She smiled, all her yellow teeth in a row. “Just shove it down under the seat and I’ll deal with it later.”
I wound the ends of hair around my index fingers. “Too thin. Awfully thin for a hair,” I said, examining it in the light. And then I slid it back under the cushion like Lucretia told me.
Lucretia bumped the back of the rocking chair against the wall. “Sorry,” she said, like always. Outside, the locusts rubbed their wings together, furiously singing to the night.
I did not always think I would be a wife with a husband who disappeared and a sister who loves puns. I thought I would fly like Amelia Earhart: thick airplane goggles, leather jacket, fur around the neck. Planes to land, oceans to cross. Red wool scarf and a strong handshake.
Instead, after Bartlet disappeared I guarded the house. It had a couch and easy chairs and a coffee table. It had curtains and a teapot and a window fan. Bookshelves, pictures on the walls, matching silverware, a radio. Two quiet goldfish. Everything settled, calm. The hum of the heater in winter. I felt as if I were someone in a photograph: I am Martha and this is my backdrop. I cannot move my arms; they seem to be stuck. I wandered the rooms, fished hairballs out from under the bed and placed them under the dining room table. I shoved Bartlet’s neat piles of magazines to the floor. I sat on the couch and picked at my fingernails.
Bartlet sold hats downtown in his very own store, which he called Johnson’s Hat Store after his last name. Businessmen came in during their lunch hour to buy the newest styles, examining themselves in the mirrors that covered each wall. Bartlet said men did not like to let others see them catering to their own vanity, and if they did not have to turn their heads to find their reflections, but only had to stare straight ahead, they would usually buy the hats. Bartlet said this was the difference between men and women. I told him men were all the more vain for not being able to admit it.
Sometimes I helped him unpack new shipments in the stockroom. White hatboxes with the brand names etched on the lids in gilded, curlicue lettering, smelling of leather, velvet, felt. I stacked the boxes maybe six feet tall in piles around me. Once I accidentally bumped one. The boxes tumbled down, crashing and hitting other boxes. Bartlet came running in the stockroom, said what is it what is it, hand mopping sweat from his forehead. But when he saw the boxes scattered all over, some of the corners bent, he shook his head slowly and closed his eyes. He squeezed and unsqueezed his fingers.
“Mar. Mar. Mar.” I watched his lips say my name, pursing, pushing off each other, opening. “This mess, this mess, the boxes you damaged. Probably forty or fifty.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean it.”
“I think maybe you should go home and never come back.”
He said it as if he could not decide, as if he were discussing whether or not it would rain, whether or not the corn would be good this year.
That was the last time I was in the stockroom. I went in the front sometimes to bring Bartlet his lunches, which had been forgotten on the kitchen counter. Out in the store his stride seemed quickened. His keys jingled in his left pants pocket. Once I even heard him humming low and almost melodic.
When I moved in with Lucretia she let us get a cat. The animal is fat and very calm. We found it in Lucretia’s backyard one afternoon. It would not leave. It just lay on its back with its paws in the air as if it were an actor playing a dead thing.
We think this cat belonged to someone else before it came to live with us; it does not scratch the furniture or jump on the table and eat the dinner off our plates. And it is rather polite — except that when it arrived it was secretly pregnant. We did not know this until we found the babies squirming and mewing in the potato bin. Three we gave away and one lives under the house. At night we hear it stalking mice. We call it Ida for no reason.
The way that first cat arrived, the way it played dead, I thought it was Bartlet in disguise. I waited for it to impersonate other things — a rock, Mrs. Johnson, a dog, Aunt Jessica. But that was just the way it slept; it was not acting at all. Then I began to think that perhaps, just as this cat had arrived-by accident, not even walking, just waking up in a new place —so had Bartlet found himself sitting on someone else’s front porch; apple still in hand, cigarettes and matches left behind.
I could not decide whether I should begin knocking on people’s doors in nearby towns, asking if they had seen Bartlet, or whether I liked living with Lucretia and the cats, going to the grocery store every day. And I did not know what I would do if I found Bartlet eating someone else’s supper, selling hats in a different Johnson’s Hat Store, telling the same stories to someone else.
Yesterday I spit on Lucretia. We will both never forget it. I went to the grocery store for some lentils; Lucretia wanted to make 15-bean soup, but we only had 14 kinds in the house. I bought the orange ones because they were on the shelf. A sunny day, the grocery store nearly empty, a Monday with everyone at work. My favorite cashier, Janet, who never wears her nametag, rang up the lentils.
“The store looks very clean today,” I said. The cashiers like it when I tell them this.
Janet smiled, her braces showing even though I know she hates to wear them; in fact, she often talks without moving her lips. “Thanks, Martha. Frank mopped the aisles this morning.” She handed me my receipt. “Have a good day.”
When I got home, Lucretia was soaking most of the beans in the soup tureen.
“Here you go,” I said, handing her the bag. She opened it up, peered inside, drew out the package.
“Yeah.” I walked over, stood behind her, examined the lentils. They looked fine. “So?”
“I need the brown kind. I told you brown. The recipe says brown lentils.” She spoke slowly as if she were carefully placing the words before me.
I could not remember if Lucretia had said brown or orange. I just knew she had asked me to buy lentils. “I don’t think you said either way. That’s the kind Great American carries. The only kind. They probably taste the same, anyway.”
“But they won’t be the same. Otherwise the recipe wouldn’t have specified. Ruined, possibly ruined.”
She turned away and opened the package over the sink. A few lentils scattered on the floor.
“You don’t have to use them.”
She glared at me. “Might as well,” she said, her eyes slightly narrowed and her lips pursed, a look she had perfected years ago. Maybe the day I was born. Maybe as soon as I could see and remember. It was hard to say.
The earthy smell of beans absorbing water filled the kitchen. And then I had to do it. Brown lentils. It was just a color, nothing more. My older sister, always the beautiful one; her long hair and self-made career. The hundreds of books she had read. Her life cradled in her own hands. A marble to guard. I gathered the saliva and spit hard. The drop landed on Lucretia’s forearm; her sudden look of horror. Her mouth open, curled down a little with disgust.
“See, I spit on you. There it is,” I said.
Like the other times, this spit had no poison. Just the same old spit cells producing the same watery stuff. But Lucretia’s face, the degree of offense, her hand holding a spoon in mid-air, as if she would either strike me or drop it to the floor.
I stood taking in the meaning of what I had done. I had spit on my sister. Meanwhile, slowly, methodically, Lucretia pulled a piece of paper towel from the dispenser above the sink and wiped the splotch on her forearm away. Then she folded up the paper towel square upon square, creasing each fold carefully, shaking her head. “I would never do such a thing. I would never spit on you. I just wouldn’t.”
Still I did not know what to say. “Oops,” I managed. But “oops” is never enough. “Oops” implies an accident, but probably doesn’t even exist in the dictionary. It’s just not impressive. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to say I was sorry either — that I would never do it again, that I did not mean it.
I went outside and sat on the front steps. Ida rubbed against my leg and purred. Across the street the boy who ate pillbugs rode his tricycle along the sidewalk, ringing the little bell attached to the handlebars. His short legs pedaled furiously, thin bones, matching outfit. I imagined my own self flying over the countryside, no longer sharing Lucretia’s house, my hands on the controls, red scarf flapping in the wind.
Bartlet and I sat on the double swing in Aunt Jessica’s front yard. It was July. Tent worms spun their massive webs around tree limbs, choking them and turning the leaves brown. Locusts droned melancholy in the heat. We rocked back and forth on the swing, Bartlet dragging his feet on the ground. He began the story of the songs his mother used to sing to him.
“She had this awful voice, so the songs never made me sleepy. They made me laugh.” He looked at his hands, rubbed his fingers together as he would countless times in the years to come. “And when I laughed I didn’t mind the dark. Of course, the night light stayed on. I still needed the night light.”
I nodded my head, trying to look serious. I was 18, my hair pulled back and tied with a blue ribbon. I considered myself on the verge of wisdom and great insight. Bartlet kept talking, his words filling up the still summer air.
“When she sang happy birthday to me my father would look over at her and frown. She sounded that bad. But they would both end up laughing, and then we would eat the cake.”
I searched my mind for something to add. “My uncle is tone-deaf,” I said finally. “He was born that way.”
Bartlet looked at me, confused. We rocked back and forth in the swing, neither of us saying anything. I wondered if he had forgotten I was there. I was supposed to be his girlfriend, but sometimes I felt as if I were just a part of the scenery. Bartlet would have been happy to tell his stories to himself.
“How’s your Aunt Jessica?” I said.
Bartlet wrinkled up his face in disgust, then wiped away the beads of sweat forming on his upper lip. “You should see her. Lately she’s taken to calling the broom her lover. She says, ‘The broom, my love, come dance with me, sweep me off my feet.’ And then she giggles hysterically. She turns to me with the broom in her arms and says, ‘Meet Bartlet. He’s my nephew.'”
I nodded and kept my face neutral. If I asked too many questions Bartlet might lose his train of thought and I wouldn’t hear the rest. It was all I wanted. To hear the rest.
“And the other day she puckered up her lips and gave her hand a big kiss,and then she smeared it on the broomstick. I couldn’t take it. I left after that.” He rolled his eyes. “A loon. That’s all. A grey-haired loon.”
I sighed. “Too bad,” I say softly. “Tragic.”
And we sat the rest of the evening, me sighing and nodding — while Bartlet slowly widened the circle that surrounded his tiny kernel of truth.
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