By Katherine Sinback
Every day after school got out, Gilda hopped onto the city bus, glided past the stop for her house, and let the bus deposit her on the downtown transit mall. From there she eenie-meenie-miney-moed her way onto another bus to another neighborhood packed with houses that had never felt the press of her black Converse high-tops on their doorsteps. On the bus she waited for the vibration in her chest that felt like the ringing of bells. Once the bells sounded, she pulled the cord to get off at the next stop, then proceeded to meander down the streets and alleys until she felt the vibration again.
On this day, rain came down in sheets. Her sneakers squished with every step. She shivered beneath her olive-green surplus jacket emblazoned with a stranger’s name—Marco—on the breast pocket. She adored the jacket in the exact proportion that her mom despised it. The bells vibrated sooner than usual, just a block away from the bus stop, in front of a dark blue craftsman with golden trim set away from the street and flanked by swaying Douglas Firs. On the front porch, a rainbow flag rippled violently in the wind. Gilda hoped her instincts weren’t failing her because of the weather conditions. She surveyed the scene. The coast was clear.
Gilda gained entry the usual way, through the back door after using a tiny hammer to break the window above the doorknob. She had swiped the hammer from the glove compartment of her dad’s Mercedes, where it was kept in case the car plummeted from one of the many bridges that spanned the city and became submerged in the river. Every time Gilda broke a window with the hammer, she imagined her parents trapped inside the car, banging against the windows having one last fight about where that goddamned hammer was.
She had been caught breaking in once before. A housewife had found Gilda rooting through her lingerie drawer. “Lace and silky, ooh là là. Let me slip into something more comfortable,” Gilda had murmured. On that day Gilda was, at fourteen, still emerging from her pupal stage, her voice lingering in the register of squeak. The housewife was more confused than frightened by the strange girl she found huddled in front of her dresser. The girl wore all the badges of cuteness—plump rosy cheeks, bright blue eyes framed by a spray of long lashes and a bow of a pink mouth. Her golden hair hung in actual ringlets! What child wore ringlets these days, much less a pubescent girl? Gilda didn’t put up a fight. She allowed herself to be corralled down the stairs, pushed out the front door by the housewife’s punch of a voice, “Get out!”
Gilda hovered outside the backdoor of the craftsman. Nobody rushed to the door, roused by the sound of the broken glass, so she slid her hand through the open mouth of the broken window, careful to avoid the shards of glass still clinging to the frame. She clicked the lock horizontal and turned the knob. She knew it was simple mechanics but the swivel of the knob in her palm always felt like magic.
The deadbolt, or lack thereof, had been a point of contention between the three men who lived in the house. Samuel, the eldest and owner of the house, was also the least mechanically inclined and harbored the most faith in humanity. Also, as his longtime friend and housemate, Daniel was quick to point out Samuel was lazy. The youngest member of the household by twenty years was Ben. He didn’t like to insert himself into the long simmering if only minor resentments between the two men, but he tended to agree with Daniel. A new lock was needed. It was a cruel world out there.
The three men were tall, solid, hirsute, and bearded with varying degrees of softness layered upon their physiques. Samuel, ruddy and blonde, was occasionally mistaken for Grizzly Adams by the older generation even though that particular actor had been dead for years. His mother, who he visited frequently in the retirement community across town, never failed to joke that he needed a haircut, but she also never failed to swell with pride whenever he walked into a room. She hadn’t been understanding when he came out to her, had wept and wailed and prayed that it was all a misunderstanding, but she had come around. Times had changed. Samuel was a good boy. She still held out hope that the previously coupled Samuel and Daniel would come to their senses and get married. Time had gotten slippery since she had passed the threshold of seventy and she often forgot that their coupled status had ended over a decade ago. One thing remained firmly in her mental grasp. She was ready for her son to settle down. She was ready for grandchildren.
Daniel would have been happy to oblige on the progeny front, although with Samuel? No. Their relationship had fizzled romantically because they were constitutionally incompatible. Whereas Samuel was happy to lock eyes with his computer screen all day, be it work—coding—or play, Daniel would lose his mind if not for his daily run and pre-dawn trips to the weight bench in the basement. Samuel was locked in place. Daniel needed movement.
Until that perfect partner-in-diaper-duty materialized, Daniel was content to scratch his parenthood itch by fulfilling uncle duties to his niece. He had seen her through the babysitting years when she delighted in braiding his long dark beard, running her hands through his close-cropped hair, and painting his nails glittery pink. She had kissed him on the forehead and proclaimed, “You are the fairest uncle in all the land!” and he had worn the nail polish until it chipped off in specks of glittery dust. Now that she was a teenager, she was years past such proclamations and uncle beautification, but not past spending time with Daniel, which had metamorphosed from babysitting to hanging out and spending the night on his couch after watching movies that made them both cry. Because Samuel had been in her life since she was born, she called him Uncle Sam. Both men were uncomfortable with the coupled status that the title implied, but they loved her too much to ask her to stop. Sometimes Daniel accepted that it might be Samuel for the duration, cohabiting in their funky craftsman and commiserating over their lack of luck in love, a thought that was as comfortable as an old couch that you keep swearing you’ll throw out but can’t bear to part with.
The youngest of the housemates, Ben, was certainly no uncle to Daniel’s niece. He was only eight years her senior, a college student with a mop of rust-red curls and a beard that was charitably called patchy. Their circle of friends called him “the baby” and although he rolled his eyes at the designation, he secretly relished it. Samuel and Daniel weren’t his parents, but they were family. They had taken him in when he was practically homeless after he turned eighteen and his parents washed their hands of him. Behind their backs, their friends may have divvied up the Mama and Papa designations, but Ben had cut them off the one time the subject came up, “We don’t go in for that gender binary bullshit so don’t even start.”
As Gilda flitted through the kitchen, running her finger along the counter, dipping it into a pan of congealed polenta then flicking it to the ceiling, she saw traces of the men. Pictures affixed to the refrigerator of Daniel’s niece at various life stages, a blocky print of a lemon Samuel bought on a whim, a pair of pink flamingo salt-and-pepper shakers that she removed from the shelf and delicately placed inside her backpack.
In the doorway from kitchen to dining room, Gilda pirouetted and pointed the toe of her soaked sneaker in front of her. In the center of the room stood a stately mahogany table with three place settings, each spot with a cup of coffee. One of the chairs was toppled on its side. There was a chill to the room, a feeling like it had been left in a hurry.
Every day at three, the housemates gathered for a cup of coffee. For Samuel and Daniel, it was a break from their home offices and the screens that dictated their days. For Ben, it was his lunchtime after a morning on campus. On this day as the men were sitting down to their coffee break, Daniel’s phone rang the barking dog ring that meant it was his sister. “Hey,” he said and then got quiet.
Samuel was pouring coffee into his thermos when the call came. He hated lukewarm coffee and preheated his thermos with hot water while the coffee brewed. Today, he stopped mid-pour. He watched Daniel’s face turn red while the rest of him froze.
Daniel’s niece had been hit by a car. She was in the hospital. “Come now,” Daniel’s sister cried. While Samuel slung an arm around Daniel’s shoulder, Ben turned off the coffeemaker, clicked off the burner, and grabbed the keys to Daniel’s Prius. “Let’s go. I’ll drive.” The three men piled into the car and sped into the rainy afternoon. They had in fact left the front door unlocked in their haste, but Gilda didn’t try front doors.
Gilda stopped behind Ben’s place at the table. She lifted the mug to her lips and took a tentative sip. Iced coffee with equal parts cream and sugar was Gilda’s favorite. It was bitter and thick on her tongue. She spit it onto the table. “Gross!” There was no sugar, just cream.
A chill wrapped around her neck. The cool drink and the cold and wet of the outdoors still clung to her. She spied the silver thermos on Samuel’s placemat, the same thermos her father used. Her father bragged to anyone who would listen, “They use the same materials to insulate rockets,” as if he had personally designed the thermos. Gilda grabbed it from the table and unlatched the top. She tipped her head back, opened her mouth and instantly felt the hot liquid burn her tongue and throat.
She unleashed a guttural howl. She dropped the thermos onto the table, letting the rest of the liquid dribble out before reaching for the third mug, Daniel’s mug. She gulped the lukewarm liquid, which soothed the burn in her mouth.
As the last sting of the burning coffee receded from her throat, the “All Things Considered” theme bleated from the living room. As she had moved through the house, she had been oblivious to the murmur of voices coming from the living room radio that Ben had failed to turn off in his rush to get the men out the door. The familiar refrain cut through Gilda’s musing. She froze. Was someone here? So lost in a public radio reverie that they hadn’t heard the shatter of glass?
Across the river, high in her pink tower, Gilda’s mother switched on the radio that she kept in her otherwise high-tech office for the purpose of listening to the NPR nightly news magazine. She eased back into her Herman Miller Aeron chair and clicked open the computer file that was today’s reason why she wouldn’t be home for dinner. She used to call Gilda at this time. “Just checking in,” she had sung, but Gilda asked her to stop.
“It’s embarrassing. My friends will think I’m an infant,” Gilda had said.
Friends were never one of her daughter’s strong suits. Her mother was willing to endure the nag of worry that followed her all night until she arrived home and laid eyes on her daughter for the sake of Gilda’s social life. She could text her daughter, but Gilda said that was almost as embarrassing. “They’re the cool girls,” Gilda had pleaded.
The truth was that Gilda’s friends were figments, ghosts. Gilda’s true friends were the houses and the absent people who lived in them. Their divans and birch bookshelves, their antique dressers with glass knobs that were cold to the touch and fit Gilda’s palm so perfectly. The thrift store couches and thousand-dollar loveseats, all the objects that passed through Gilda’s life along with the ones she carried home and replanted in the back of her closet beneath the dangling tags of the clothes she never wore. She buried her souvenirs behind the clothes her parents bought for her with a vague wish that they would carry some of the spark she felt when she was in other peoples’ homes.
A familiar radio voice filtered from the living room. Gilda crept around the corner, wondering if the jig was up, but the room was empty. She fumbled with the knobs on the stereo until she found the power button and clicked it off.
From the corner of the room, an overstuffed jewel blue chair called to her. Samuel found the chair at a vintage store that was going out of business back when he and Daniel were still flush with new love and the excitement that Samuel had amassed enough money to make a down payment on a house. They hadn’t yet decided on an aesthetic—and would never actually settle on one—so Samuel took a chance on the chair. What they would quickly learn and what Gilda was soon to find out, the chair was a siren. Its plush cushions and curving arm rests looked so inviting—soft and warm, like a hug, but it was a trap. Gilda plopped onto the chair. Instead of a hug, it felt like she was being devoured by scratchy velvet.
“Don’t eat me!” she screamed and clambered out of the grip of the pillows.
Daniel’s wooden chair was more heirloom than practical, but after feeling so enveloped by the blue chair, its spare wooden design enticed her. She lowered onto the chair with what she thought was proper ease, but the legs began to buckle beneath her. The chair tilted.
“Don’t kill me!” She hopped up before it could collapse. She kicked at the leaning legs once she regained her footing. Broken, one of the legs jutted out at an angle that made her cringe as if the chair could feel the break and lay there in silent agony.
The final chair, a recliner with balding armrests, was perfect. Why had she not tried it first? She sunk into the chair and let it tip her back into a position of perfect comfort. Beside the chair a bag of Cheetos that Ben had left open the night before beckoned. Gilda shoveled the fluorescent orange snacks into her mouth. She tipped her head back and opened the bag over her face, letting the crumbs shower into her open mouth and on the cushion that so perfectly cradled her head. The chemical cheese smell lodged in her nostrils and suddenly the chair didn’t feel so perfect anymore. Her stomach lurched. She needed to get away from the sickly cheese smell. She needed to lie down.
She staggered up the stairs and ducked into the first room at the top, Ben’s room, a room that looked not much different than her own. A few peeling posters on the wall, clothes heaped on the floor and a sprinkling of Diet Coke cans beside the bed. She kicked through the balled-up jeans and boxer shorts to the futon and slumped onto the thin mattress. She felt the slats of the frame beneath the futon. “Ugh. Too hard,” she said and pushed herself back to standing. “Next!” she called to no one.
Samuel’s room was painted a dark plum color and felt like she had stepped into a dark hole. At the center, was a king-sized bed, plush and stocked with enough pillows to supply a small hotel. Gilda fell back onto the bed, hoping for a transcendental experience of feeling caught and gusseted, but instead, like she had in the chair, she felt devoured. “Jesus Christ, too soft.” She rolled onto her side and got back to her feet.
Daniel’s room was spare, painted a stern navy blue, and was all straight lines and defined edges. An antique clock with roman numeral slashes for numbers and a swinging pendulum hung above the headboard, a solitary battleship stationed in the middle of the otherwise empty wall. The bed, which had the Posturepedic mattress that Gilda’s parents deemed essential, was as inviting as a slap, but when she lay back her entire body, every clenched muscle and strained ligament relaxed. The exhaustion of the day mixed with the heaviness in her belly dragged her into a deep sleep.
Outside the light faded from gray to black. The rain kept its steady beat on the roof and Gilda slept like she had taken a bite from a poisoned apple instead of gorging on Cheetos and coffee. She didn’t hear the door open at the return of the three men. Didn’t hear the plod of Daniel’s footsteps as he took each careful step up the stairs.
Nothing felt real to him anymore, not even the hardwood floor beneath his feet. Samuel’s murmur in his ear kept replaying, “At least you were able to say goodbye.”
He walked through the door to his bedroom, flipped on the light and shambled inside. The flash of Gilda’s golden curls caught his eye first, then his vision expanded to take all of her in, the bow of her mouth murmuring as she slept, her arms flung out from her body, the darkened patches on the bedspread beneath her wet sneakers. Was this real?
His last vision of his niece kept replaying in his mind: tubes snaked into her mouth and nose, bruises bloomed on her cheeks. Her arms seemed to be held together by blood-rimmed bandages. Looking at the girl on his bed jarred the image from his mind for the first time in hours. He eased gently onto the edge of the bed beside her. She had to be a figment of his imagination, an incarnation of the grief that was closing in on all sides. He rested his hand on her forehead then stroked the nest of curls that fanned out from her face. Her lips stilled, she quieted. They sat suspended in a moment that felt like it could envelop all other moments. Nothing before or after. Only his hand against her head, absorbing the spun softness of her hair. He didn’t hear his housemates downstairs.
Ben said, “Who’s been eating my Cheetos?”
Samuel yelled, “Who broke the goddamned chair?”
Samuel ambled upstairs and found Daniel perched at the edge of the bed, his hand resting on the head of a girl he’d never seen before in his life. “Jesus Christ! What is this?”
The sound of his voice dragged Gilda from the deep sleep, from the burrow where she had found a momentary solace. She had been deep in the woods, in a cabin she somehow recognized although she’d never seen it before. She had been safe, cocooned. She startled awake. Her eyes bugged wide at the sight of Daniel’s face above her.
“Who are you? Get the fuck out of our house!” Samuel barked from behind Daniel.
Such lovely blue eyes, Daniel thought, still convinced he was moving through some version of a dream.
As she rolled onto her side, almost falling to the floor, she was already crafting the reason why she was not at home safe in bed for her parents’ return from work, why she hadn’t picked up the string of missed calls that would surely line her phone screen the moment she clicked it back on, why she was the way she was although none of the reasons would be true.
She pushed herself up, perched on the edge of the bed. Usually she was nimble, ready to dash out of the house like the day when the woman had caught her going through the lingerie drawer but today her legs felt heavy, cemented.
Samuel stepped inside the room. “I’m serious. Time to move along, sweetie! Get out!”
Daniel raised his hand to silence Samuel then turned back to Gilda. “Are you okay?” he asked.
She opened her mouth to say what everyone always wanted her to say--she was fine, she was good, she was okay—but the words dried on her tongue. The sensation that held her at the moment she had awakened with the press of his hand on her forehead had been everything she had been looking for as she waited for the ringing bells in her chest on the bus, as she walked the rain slick streets, as she ransacked the houses. Just right. And now with each passing tick from the antique clock on Daniel’s wall, she drifted farther away from it. The cocoon had ripped, disintegrated the moment her eyes had opened and she had emerged incomplete. Blood started to flow to her legs, her toes could move again, but she remained still. All still but the tick of the clock.
Katherine Sinback’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Southern Humanities Review, Bayou Magazine, and Taco Bell Quarterly, among other publications. Her stories appear in the recently released anthologies Resist with Every Inch and Every Breath and Hello! How Can I Help You Today. Her essay about Randy “Macho Man” Savage is included in the anthology From Parts Unknown: A Pro Wrestling Anthology. Born and raised in Virginia, Katherine lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. More at www.katherinesinback.wordpress.com. She can be found on Twitter @kt_sinback.
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