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Fiction

Brittle

by Maxwell Van Cooper

Fiction from the Spring 2018 issue.

by Maxwell Van Cooper | Fiction | Spring 2018

Prints by Bridget Conway

Irene’s teeth were brittle from the lemons she sucked. Ever since she was a small child, she’d take the curious yellow orbs, delicately place one atop her tongue, and bleed it dry. Sometimes, as a little girl, she’d beg her mother to slice them after eating fish sticks and watching TV. The citrus would sting the inside of her nostrils, just like the man’s cologne—clean and crisp, like his white oxford shirts her mother ironed for hours as he sat smoking a cigar. Citrus and smoke clung to the furniture, even hours after he left in the morning. Sometimes, as a small child, when Irene was very displeased with him, she’d cut them herself, and piece by piece she’d suck every last drop of the entire fruit down. Her teeth felt strange and static, but the tartness was alarming, and that was nice. She could never think over the acidity.

***

Forty lemons for the forty years perched sweetly across her kitchen counter. Pink and rose tiles covered the kitchen, accented by the lace curtains that were oh-so-divine. Black-Eyed Susans stood in a vase on the corner table, overlooking her neighbor’s front yard. Near the flowers was a lounge chair where, in the morning, she would sip her chamomile tea and read last month’s Life magazine. Always tea, never coffee: it stained the teeth. She liked to look at the celebrities and think about their lives. Where did they play when they grew up? Why did they all wear the pink, not red lipstick? What were their fathers like? Had they been good fathers? Irene liked to imagine getting tea with them. Patrick Swayze would compliment the yellow drapes in the dining hall. Molly Ringwald would ask for some lemonade. And Irene would just giggle like a schoolgirl. Not a hair out of place, not a stain on their teeth. 

Sometimes as she drank her tea, she’d see Mr. and Mrs. Sanders’ children playing ball. How dirty their clothes got in the springtime. Irene took quiet solace in knowing that if they were her children, they’d always be very clean. They’d run in after their play, wipe their shoes at the door, and she’d offer them some meringue pie. They’d eat at her little table with the marigolds, always asking for more. How funny children are. Their stomachs are never quite full. Thomas is outgrowing his clothes already, the brute. Jane has dimples just like her father. But somehow, the dirt always seems to seep into the saffron tablecloth. They know she bought it last week. Why put their grubby hands on the table, their muddy legs kicking against the stools? How ungrateful. Their piggy smiles mock her, their laughter echoes in the house. Sometimes children have to have the dirt beat out of them, just like her Persian rugs. Sometimes there are white crisp collars and large hands, and sometimes there are grains of dirt everywhere, embedded in her skin like a code. He leans down, the sharp acidic scent splits the nerves in her body, he says if you have dirt on your soul, you won’t go to heaven. But it’s a good house for children. A good house indeed.

After her morning tea, she would get into a gray muted dress suit, pick up her briefcase, and drive her yellow vintage Cadillac. She was a makeup saleswoman. Enchanted Cosmetics was the nice company that had given her a job when she was seventeen after her miscarriage, and they’d treated her oh-so-fine. She was one of their most esteemed employees—she even got a card at Christmas. Thanks for the years – X, red-nosed Rudolph exclaimed. She kept every single card above the electric fireplace. It was nice to be appreciated. Irene loved her job—she’d knock on a door, and some nice woman in her thirties would answer, maybe with a daughter or son clinging to her dress, they’d chat, Irene would introduce herself, and after a couple minutes, the nice woman would invite Irene inside. Indiana had such nice neighborhoods.

Image by Rachel Weinstein

While the mothers apologized for the mess, offered her a seat, or scolded their children, Irene would survey the domain. Sometimes the houses had couches she had seen in Pottery Barn catalogues, sometimes the wood was varnished and shined, sometimes the women wore pearl earrings. But sometimes the houses were cramped, the dishes dirty, the floor chewed and clawed. Irene liked these homes the best. She would raise an eyebrow, purse her lips. My, what lovely curtains you have. 

Either way the suitcase was opened, and out came lipsticks and mascaras, eye shadow and eye primer, and her favorite—a yellow eye shadow called Bumble Bee Bliss. Irene was a professional. No matter what their homes looked like, she’d smile and treat them all the same. And the mother with the curly mop of hair and the mother with the tooth gap would ooo and aaa at the beautiful display. Yes, it is quite beautiful, Irene thought.

Sometimes a waiffy, confused mother asked her to leave. Irene puckered her lips. It displeased her so. She rose slowly to give her a second chance. Don’t you want to look pretty for your husband? With things so crazy, she said, with the Soviet Union about to nuke the world to bits, isn’t it nice to just enjoy the little things in life? And the mother did stare at her so queerly. Irene wasn’t queer. Sometimes the mother said, no, no, her husband would be coming home soon and it was really time to go. It displeased her so. How she would like to tell that dumpy mother her home is ugly. Her children are brats, her floors are dirty, and she mustn’t be so so so very selfish because he won’t like that one bit, not one bit, not a bit of dirt not a bit of dust don’t track in the mud Irene your shoes are filthy, you are filthy. He puffs his cigar and says that we won’t be accepted to the Kingdom of Heaven if we aren’t clean in and out. Straight from the gospel itself. Take a sponge and wipe the dirt away, confess and God will wash away the sin and grime. His teeth are like razors that cut his fresh linen, and she does shiver as he takes her hand, like raw lemons being squeezed on a fresh cut, but it’s ok, Mother says it’s ok. Maybe it isn’t so strange to suck lemons, maybe she likes her saffron curtains and marigolds. 

No one ever bought Bumble Bee Bliss.

It was days like these when she’d pack up her baggies of cosmetics, throw them in the trunk, slam the trunk of her yellow Cadillac, get in the door of her yellow Cadillac, turn the key in the ignition of the yellow Cadillac, and by God she would drive that yellow Cadillac all the way down the South End. Past all the cornfields and stop signs, as a tempered sun glared in her rearview mirror. Past the peeling playgrounds, and the water treatment center, past the cornhusks, there she’d find the trailer. Its silver reflection wavered under the sun. A dulled jockey statue with a broken eye guarded the front door, its plastic frame decorated by weathered Christmas lights. A faded sign that read Madame Mystic’s Palm Reading hung aslant on the window’s screen. The trailer was next to the county graveyard, small tombstones christened the earth in rows, tall monuments proudly towering behind. 

Irene ignored the various broken beer bottles, and opened the trailer door. The stink was undeniable. Irene was greeted by a squirrel and a crow, new additions to the taxidermy collection which sprawled throughout the trailer. Irene raised an eyebrow. Across the trailer, an old crone in a Christmas sweater sat by the TV. Next to her was a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels, and a small tin of chewing tobacco. She crooned from her corner. Knock, why don’t you? 

Ma’am, I don’t mean to disturb you ma’am, but I gotta see him, ma’am. Irene quivered with excitement. She was practically levitating. Ma’am, please. 

The old woman coughed, and waved her over. Irene took a seat on the TV. Her own home was far nicer. The woman settled into her faded arm chair and spat a thick black liquid into a can on the floor. Her face looked like a prune, her teeth yellow from years of black coffee and chain smoking. Irene took out three twenties, her hands shaking, and let them fall into the woman’s palm, careful not to touch her paper skin. The woman’s face twisted into a grimace, she took Irene’s hand, and squeezed it so tight, so tight she thought it might break. Calm yourself, Irene. Lemme see what your father has to say. The old crone closed her eyes, and rocked back and forth like a small child. Her lips rippled with inaudible words. Irene wished the psychic had drapes. Some yellow drapes would really help lighten up the place. 

After seventeen and a half minutes, the crone opened her eyes. Her lips parted as if to speak. Irene eagerly leaned in. The old woman’s eyes widened, and she erupted into a fit of coughs. Irene winced. He says, the old crone spat, he likes what you’ve done with the house. He says, he likes the couch you bought from Sears. He’s sorry for what he’s done. You know that, Irene.

           Can you ask him to leave me alone?

Lord, I sure will.

           Does he really like the paisley?

He says it matches the rug from Bed ’n Bath.

           I thought of him when I got it.

I know you did, Irene.

***

Irene would arrive home around 6:30 PM. Tulips and roses encircled her house. She’d enter and admire the spotless baseboards. She’d make herself some chicken and peas, and eat it on the circular table with the Black-Eyed Susans. They’d smile at her as she ate in silence. It was too dark to see Mr. and Mrs. Sanders’ yard or children. Overall, it would be a good day. She’d turn on her cassette player, and Billie Holiday’s clear voice would fill the room. 

I’ll be seeing you
           in all the old familiar places
that this heart of mine embraces
           all day through

As she delicately dabbed the corners of her mouth, she felt his presence. He sat across from her, just as he did when she was a child, and it is oh so nice for him to be home. And she forgives him for all the terrible things the man does, as men do. She offers him some chamomile tea, he compliments the new china. This is how it was always meant to be. His citrus cologne enwraps her, and she knows she is home.

           Would you like a lemon? 

Yes, I think I would.