That Hollow of a Poppy Stem
Alexa grabbed her package of Miracle-Gro, slammed it down to loosen the chunks inside, and opened it. It was her day off but the date nagged at her. She knew something was happening on the twenty-third. What was it? Regardless, it was 2014, April. They were on the phone, Alexa in Chicago, Leann in their hometown, their conversation beginning on autopilot. Whatever animosity existed between them, Alexa Dirac loved her best friend Leann who had never even questioned taking her husband’s name. She’d done it, the whole thing with the children, the boot-scuffing doormat, the citronella nights out back in all their favorite old lawn chairs.
Alexa fell into their familiar pattern, heard herself telling the story of what had happened. “Do you know what Ellis did when he left?”
The response from the other end was rhythmic.
“He took one of each of my earrings. Not both. Just one. Of every single pair.”
The response was one of astonishment.
“I know. He’s a real SOB. I finally broke down. Cried all night.”
Alexa gave up on the indoor/outdoor scoop, abandoned the watering can, went directly to her walk-in closet off the bedroom. She moved purposefully out of habit. It was impossible for her to drift aimlessly, to arrive somewhere for no reason. But there she was staring at her shelves, cloistered in relative darkness for no reason. It was fine. Everything was fine. Alexa had a California closet with all the interconnected compartments.
Shoes in cubbies, sweaters folded, purses hung on pegs. The perfection of her surroundings comforted her. She could almost breathe. Her rituals were familiar, soothing. She pulled out a pair of shoes for work then realized she wasn’t going to work. She said to her friend, “I just can’t believe he got to me.”
She did need to get dressed. In motion again, she snapped hangers from one side of the clothing bar to the other, searching. The cellphone reception wasn’t always great in the closet but this morning that didn’t seem to be a problem.
The laugh and the question were careful.
“Well, he did know what would really piss me off. I’ll give him that.” Ellis traveled for work so she had no idea where he was, what he was doing, and as of two weeks ago Thursday she couldn’t ask. Right at that moment she didn’t know if he were in traffic heading to his office or bypassing a TSA line at the airport. She couldn’t let go of the dissipating patterns. She snapped one more hanger eight inches along the clothes bar. That did it.
Something gave way. “Shit!” She couldn’t stop the bar from falling. Once the middle bar ripped out of the wall, the upper and lower bars came down as well. The whole custom closet system split apart and collapsed. Alexa reacted instinctively. She sandwiched the phone between her shoulder and ear and caught as many clothes as she could with two hands as everything sank to the floor. When the bars broke they took the perfect little stack of shelves with them. The sweaters slid off. She looked at the section of wallboard into which the shelving unit had been drilled. The screws were still perpendicular to it, still came through, the whole thing wrecked on the floor. One of the rods had snapped in half. She could see light through it.
She stood there with her heart racing, hugging an armful of clothing.
Her friend asked about the noise, asked if she were okay.
That wasn’t it, Ellis leaving. It was this sickening gut feeling about what her best friend might have done. “Nothing happened,” Alexa said. “They’re doing construction upstairs.” She tossed the clothes on top of the broken closet system, picked one dress off the top of the pile, and left the closet. She suppressed the habit of checking the day’s meeting schedule on her laptop. She’d taken a few days off, which was understandable.
She needed a break. She was not going to look at her calendar.
She picked up the phone again. “But somehow Ellis knows about what went on at Olivia’s wedding.” She struggled out of her bathrobe, which was silky and sticking to her self-tanner, left the phone on the bed momentarily, and pulled the dress over her head. “He’s gone. It’s over.” She charged back to the living room, carrying her shoes, letting her wet hair shake down out of a towel. If someone had been there, they’d have seen her moving with all the grace and nobility of a young queen on her coronation day. But no one was there. “You guys don’t even need to come up here for the wedding. He went and called it off.” She tossed the wet towel on a bar stool. “I don’t mind calling my aunts. That’s fine, but I’ll have to call all my cousins. And. God.” It was ridiculous how all her cousins, with their babies and men, were so traditional. Half of them had never even been to Lithuania. Yet at Christmas they all worried about having the right wafers for their two-year-olds. Every year Alexa got cards full of crumbs from every single relative. What was the point? Why should she take it all on herself? It’s not like Ellis would get it. His family didn’t even do traditions. There was no reason for her to spend five hours shopping online for old world stuff every year. Leann, her friend, didn’t even have money for fancy boutique toddler hats. She had four kids and not one of them had ever had any organic cotton anything except for what Alexa had sent. And it didn’t matter. Those kids were fine.
Alexa asked, “Did you keep that little hand-crocheted christening dress I sent?”
Leann said nothing.
Alexa dropped the subject and tried to be glad she didn’t have to have her kids be the ones to write Love in crayon and send broken bits of a shared wafer out to distant family members. It was fine. She shoved one foot into a shoe and then the other. “I’ll have to call everyone, Leann.” The towel had slipped off the bar stool, ended up in the watering can. Alexa yanked it out, hung it on the banana hook. “Olivia had her stupid over-the-top wedding. Charlie will never realize how much she cheats on him. What kind of sacrament is that to celebrate? Why did I even go? And now I won’t even have one.”
There was a question.
Alexa didn’t want to have to explain. “What do you mean one what? My wedding.”
Surely Leann hadn’t told Ellis. It wasn’t like her to go behind Alexa’s back. Leann was supposed to be her best friend. But who else knew?
It didn’t have to matter. It wasn’t just the breakup. Something had changed in her twenty-eighth year. Suddenly Alexa found herself in constant negotiation. It wasn’t only about seeing Jason at Olivia’s wedding after so many years. There was always some battle of wills. It wasn’t fair. Most of the deposits for the wedding preparations could still be refunded. And anyway Alexa wasn’t really jealous of Leann’s retractable hose on the side of the house or of the Arbor Day trees she got once a year to plant with the kids. She knew it was all a huge pain in the ass.
An hour before, though, mid-stride on her early morning lake-front run, Alexa had picked up a little turquoise and navy striped hat. It must have been cast to the ground by a furious toddler, she thought. She felt the soft ridges and laid it carefully on a nearby concrete block, hoping the child’s mother kept to the same paths.
Chicago’s polar vortex winter was slipping away toward sun-warmed sewer drains, and Alexa knew what her best friend had done. She damn well knew. And even if it didn’t matter whose fault any of it was, she wanted to force Leann to admit it. Still, God, she didn’t want that little hat getting all trampled and slushy for no reason.
So she crossed the breadth of Congress Parkway and headed home. She was in her new black body-skimming hoodie under a fitted gray vest, and she felt the compression of her black running capris—the ones with reflective okapi-like stripes. She wanted her headphones to cut her off completely. But the mental space around the sound was disturbing. Ellis, who had been the one, was no longer there burrowing into her days—with his texts, his constant voicemails, and his infuriating way of opening windows when she didn’t want a draft.
It still wasn’t her fault. Rapidly, her bright running shoes kept pushing her up and over the pocked asphalt. She would not panic. Wouldn’t. But she forced away the sinking feeling, glad to be getting closer to home.
She was two blocks from her place and felt less ready to cry, more ready to punch a newly-installed solar-powered trash can. Her long straight ponytail swayed and swung happy-like. She made sure of it.
Tears welled up. She didn’t want a confrontation with Leann, but she had to know. Something was definitely wrong.
Sunlight wedged itself between buildings and into a shadow. She didn’t care how early it was in Marble Hill, Missouri, whether it were time for Leann to drive her kids to school. She had to ask her best friend, right now.
It was all over. The way it had been, the way Ellis had created for them both where she knew when he was taking off, landing, waiting for his baggage, jumping in a cab, hanging around before and after meetings, checking into hotels, finding little trinkets for her at partnered gyms, chatting about weather delays, and about time zones, about local customs—it didn’t matter.
The image of him rolled over and over in her mind—always with that same damn naked smile of his, so trustworthy, happy. She remembered him hopping up when the alarm went off. No one’s that happy in the morning. He was. She remembered him humming in the shower. That was what divided them, his happiness. She didn’t share it, couldn’t. The whole thing came apart. She remembered lying in bed hating how self-satisfied he was in it all, in their togetherness. Somehow she didn’t want him to have it so easy.
Back under the steel and glass awning of her condo building, she was almost safe. The season of heat-lamps had passed but there was apparently no end to contending with salt-choked shoe tread. Just hold it together, she thought, get inside, cut a mango according to the online directions, eat it, and then call Leann. Then ask. Then know. Don’t rush it. Just don’t be a page out of a stupid psychology textbook. Don’t obsess, don’t be compulsive. Don’t react. Don’t respond to the idiocy of emotion, however overwhelming. Don’t give all those asshole friends of his the satisfaction of a complete collapse. She forced herself to hold it together. It was fine. She just needed to stay focused: elevator, shower, nail polish, mango, call Leann.
Paul, the doorman, held the brass and glass door open for her. “Today’s the day, right?” She nodded though she had no idea what he was talking about. She focused on a well-lit profusion of artificial flowers recessed in a wall of the lobby and went inside and up to her place.
Call Leann. Just do it and get it over with, just ask her.
But even if it was inevitable, it could wait a few minutes. Alexa took a moment to be comforted by what she’d managed to get for herself. Her place—her home, really—was worth all the bullshit she’d been through. She had started in interior design at Pratt, ended up finishing at The Ohio State University after her grandmother insisted she take six months off to retrieve her politicized younger cousin from some Armenian exclave in Azerbaijan. Alexa was expected to do things for everyone else but it wasn’t like her grandmother was demanding this NGO-addicted cousin come and bake for Alexa for the past several weeks, get her out of bed, keep her laughing now that Ellis was gone. That girl had fallen off the face of the earth again, of course, taken in by another good cause. But it was fine. Work helped, the endless pile of paperwork on her desk, living out of a suitcase half the year, the overtime, the missed holidays, and finally not even bothering with all the imported Lithuanian traditions. It was better—this condo, this well-conceived arrangement of furniture, this living space, really.
She had a great job. A boss who couldn’t go forty-eight hours without her. If that woman was in Sweden and needed an invoice? Alexa would go right to it, scan it from her phone and it would be over the Prime Meridian in two minutes. This place was worth it. Alexa paid the mortgage. (Most of the time.) So they were hers, these forty-seventh-floor windows that seemed to hold up idyllic views of Lake Michigan over light gray carpet.
The day, a white-gold blazing one now, made her squint. She didn’t see the expanse of water in that moment or appreciate the reflected light. A window washer had left a streak.
She couldn’t stand looking at it. She went back into the kitchen. The mangoes were in a basket by the toaster oven. She pressed buttons on the pre-programmed coffee maker.
Her coffee had a metallic tang. How many times had she told her fiance—well, her ex—not to store ground beans in that cheap canister from his mother? He never listened. She pitched the nearly full mug into the sink. Coffee splashed everywhere up to the light switch. She did not grab a sponge. She walked away, picked up her phone, and dialed her friend’s familiar number. She had to know. Because, if it were true, who could do that? How could any friend do that? And if it were not true, well—
The thing with Jason at Olivia’s wedding had not been totally on purpose. Things just happened. It wasn’t a big deal. It shouldn’t ruin everything.
If she and Leann were speaking in person, they’d been friends long enough that any glance would tell Alexa all she needed to know. But it was hard to parse the truth from so far away. She pulled on some dead leaves of the philodendron. The stems weren’t quite dry enough that she could snap them off. She grabbed her kitchen scissors and clipped away what had already started to decay. But then it hit her again. She jammed the shears back in the wooden block.
If Alexa were there, though, back home, Leann would recognize how wrong she had been. Alexa would go right over there, pound on the door, rip that stupid Easter wreath off the door, toss it out in her mother’s azalea bushes, charge in there and scream right in her face. Leann wouldn’t even know what was coming. Alexa was angry enough to just about put her in a chokehold and make her wish she’d never opened her mouth.
But Alexa wasn’t back home to make her best friend pay for the transgression. It was all so simple. Leann probably hadn’t said a word to Ellis, had probably just messaged him on Facebook. Actions were so slight these days and reactions could be so disproportionate. Alexa didn’t want to be that way; she wanted to maintain a measured calm. Still, it was unforgivable. They were supposed to be friends. The thought of that little toddler’s hat waiting on the cement block came back to her. Would the child’s mother find it? She wanted her to find it, to get it back, to have everything come together instead of falling apart. She was sick of having everything destroyed. She shoved the dead leaves down the garbage disposal, flipped the switch on, and then off, quickly. Just a vorticose burst of blades.
She had to know. She grabbed her phone, thumbed down through her contacts, pressed the picture of Leann’s new blue heeler, and the phone rang in Missouri—Leann always took forever to pick up—
Now Leann didn’t allow herself a real reaction when the phone rang. She knew it was Alexa. Because only one person ever called this early and only ever when there was some kind of problem, and there was always a problem. With the resignation of those consigned to the multiple duties of this life, Leann picked up her telephone, and searched for her glasses. She fell into the familiar pattern of their chat with, “Hey girl. What happened?”
She didn’t need to say much to flush out her friend out like some quarry under the gun. Just a couple words and it came tumbling toward her, the truth. She said, “No, what’d he do?”
She cradled the telephone and searched again with her hands for her glasses. They weren’t on the windowsill where she usually left them. She leaned forward over the sink and looked behind the ceramic frog, the soap dish, the copper scrubber, and the neck of the faucet. Leann knew her best friend well enough that she could almost see her pacing around her condo, cooling down after her run.
Even if she was off by fifteen minutes, she was pretty much right. They really were best friends. Her side of the conversation that morning took place in a little Missouri kitchen where she could wipe splatters of cherry juice off the butter-yellow semi-gloss walls. But harvesting the cherries from that row of trees along the fence-line would still be another six weeks.
She didn’t remember what christening dress Alexa was talking about. When had that been? It was a blur. Leann couldn’t even focus on the piece of paper in her hand: evicted. How could such a thing happen to her family? She had a husband working full-time, had kids, had everything on neat shelves in the shed. It wasn’t possible. The kids were next door, likely swirling in a fury and watching cartoons, gleeful that school would be starting a few hours late with a fog delay. They were on heightened alert, though, ready to go whenever she called them. The eviction notice wasn’t all that threatening, just a piece of paper. But, God, she didn’t want to lose her homes, she wanted to have friends over again to pick and pit cherries, wanted to laugh, holler at each other over nothing, clear away layers of soggy newspaper folded up around all the hand-torn pits and stems, dripping juice all the way to the trash can. She wanted to have another cherry cobbler with ice cream for the neighbors. She did not want this foreclosure upon her home.
But for Alexa—at least for the moment—the thing about whether her friend had been the one to tell Ellis wasn’t worth belaboring. She knew Leann was totally disempowered, had only finished three years of a degree in corporate communications at Southeast Missouri State in Cape Girardeau when her husband made her quit. Who could live that way? That totally diminished sense of self wasn’t healthy. Alexa said nothing but mocked her friend’s tone internally as she replayed the wonted, “Oh my gosh. What was that? Are you okay?” Of course she was okay. It was just a closet bar.
Alexa’s doorbell rang. Who could it be? It was still pretty early. It had to be Ellis. He’d canceled his meetings for the day and come home. He loved her, they’d figure it out, the earrings would be together again. They’d be together again, the problems would not be a big deal, and she’d get to marry him, to live with him in his amazing place—which really was better than hers—and she’d have that car, that designer trench coat she wanted, that trip to Switzerland they’d talked about, the quilted headboard, the butler’s pantry, the diversified investment portfolio, the insurance, the matching jet skis—all of it.
She just about leapt to the door, just about hung up on her friend. But at the same time, since she knew it was Ellis, she didn’t want to seem too eager, too thrilled. Let him knock again. She’d be cool and offhand. She’d just open the door, nod, motion for him to come in, and then make him wait while she kept talking to Leann.
After the second knock, she pulled the door open.
It wasn’t Ellis.
She was confused. It was two guys, one of them with a two-wheel dolly. She stared at them, very glad she’d already put on a dress.
For an instant she was worried they were repo men. But no, most of her pieces were floor models from the design studio where she worked. The rest was paid for, mostly. Slowly, then in a panoptic rush, she realized they were the movers she and Ellis had hired. Alexa was in shock. Oh Jesus. That’s what was happening on the twenty-third of April. The movers were coming to take her stuff over to Ellis’s two weeks before the wedding.
The plan had been such a good one two months ago. She wouldn’t have to be bothered to meet the movers at her condo. But now? They were ready to take everything she owned. There was a language barrier but it didn’t matter. She didn’t say a word. The deposit had been paid. Paul downstairs had let them in. It was all playing out exactly as they’d arranged.
She realized that anyone else would probably have sent the movers away immediately. She should have. Right then. Should have just said, “Thanks for making the trip but your services are no longer required,” flipped the deadbolt, and called Paul to make them go away. But she had arranged the whole thing. She was the one who had picked the day, made the appointment. Alexa said, “Oh my God.”
One of the guys handed her a work order.
She was trapped.
She held the phone as though holding her best friend’s hand.
God knew what Ellis would do later that night when he got home and found all her stuff in his place. He would probably go ballistic, burn everything in a pyre with her effigy tied to a stake. Or, more likely given his disposition, he would be sensible, sell everything he could and have a donation center pick up the rest.
The discussions with the owner of the moving company flooded back to her. She and Ellis had been so demanding, so adamant about how efficient the crew had to be, and how they absolutely would not get paid one dime until the move was completed to their satisfaction. It was all contractual. Ellis’s lawyer had set it up with the lawyer of the moving company. Alexa and her ex-fiance were not people who left things to chance. There was no trust in the space between them and the world. None. So at this point, the move couldn’t be undone just by waving the guys off with a couple of twenties and explaining that the situation had changed. She vaguely remembered how she’d screamed into the telephone about how much hell there’d be to pay if any duct tape adhesive ended up anywhere on the varnish of her favorite armoire. And she remembered what color Ellis had turned when his lawyer said the moving company would include their belongings in a truck with the belongings of another couple in the same neighborhood, to save fuel costs on both jobs. Ellis said no. Ellis told the lawyer to tell the moving company’s lawyer that under no circumstance were their possessions to be commingled with anyone else’s. The money for the movers was tied up in escrow, the lawyer’s, too. There were line items of pointed instruction about how to wrap the pieces, what packing materials to use, and how not to jostle the two large vases that framed her entry.
It was fine. Getting more furniture wouldn’t be a problem. Her boss was always dumping floor samples in the alley behind the store if no one wanted them. And there was Craigslist. All this stuff reminded her of Ellis anyway. Let him have it. It wasn’t a decision, really. She took the work order and smiled without meaning it. It was as good as done. They were through the door and busying themselves. One of the guys seemed disgruntled that she wasn’t already packed. In two minutes he had gone down in the elevator and come back up with three more guys who must have been waiting in the truck. They had boxes and a platform dolly.
They started taking everything.
As she stood there, helpless, everything was working exactly as planned. The truth was she wanted an answer from Leann more than she wanted to stop these men from taking all her stuff.
Alexa said, “Are you still there?”
Leann muttered yes and the conversation spun on. “So. Okay,” Alexa continued. “The point is, I didn’t think finding his keys on my wet bar was a big deal because he leaves his stuff everywhere. I’ve had to take his wallet to him at work I don’t know how many times. And remember when he had to have the hotel in the Solomon Islands FedEx his phone back?”
Alexa sort of did want to tell Leann that these guys were invading her home, not helping to create a new one the way they should have been. Whatever was happening to her expectations about her future, the movers were there, working. She’d have to deal with all the people she knew at some point. But she could not deal with these men judging her for how she demanded that they be so careful with everything, and then turn around and say the whole job was unnecessary. She couldn’t do it. Let them take whatever they wanted. Let them put it wherever they thought it should go.
She knew she’d never get any of it back.
She watched as they took the utmost care with all her possessions. They were doing a great job. But it didn’t matter.
She wasn’t about to cry, but illusions weren’t as robust as hopes. These strangers didn’t care about her life. They just had a pickup address and a delivery location.
The men took end tables, bar stools, and both sofas while Alexa’s voice grew more tense.
Not knowing the whole of the situation, of how the movers were taking everything right then, her best friend—whose home faced a similar fate—got a little impatient, must have said something snide.
Alexa couldn’t quite tell: had Leann told Ellis? The only way to know for sure was to ask. Alexa didn’t want to lose it in front of the movers. Still, it was unforgivable. She wasn’t paranoid, she knew.
“Can I ask you something?” Alexa blurted out suddenly.
Back in her own kitchen, Leann stretched the telephone cord across the countertop ruining stacks of bills and a child’s arrangement of blue plastic toys.
She wasn’t really paying attention to the conversation but she took her cue. “Of course.”
She opened the refrigerator and leaned all the way in, squinting to look at an expiration date. She grabbed the milk, the eggs, and the tub of margarine. She set the milk carton on the counter so that the picture of the missing child could not accost her. Even without her glasses she knew about that pixilated blur.
But she also knew her friend would back off. And she did. They were talking about the earrings thing again. “I know how much you love your earrings. He shouldn’t have done that.”
The sun peeked out. There was no more fog. This happened a lot. The school would make the call, announce on the radio that classes would begin late, and then the fog would lift. The rhythm of unmet expectations was no disruption for Leann. What did it matter if the day began two hours later than usual? Who knew what the conditions were like ten miles further out? Fog often did obscure curves in country roads. No rumble strips on their shoulders, just rises and ravines, couldn’t have the school buses out blind in that. So let the kids have their fun next door. Their homework was done.
She kept the radio on, though, half-listening for the next announcement, which would no doubt say the kids should be going within the hour.
Her friend kept talking. Leann moved over to the cabinets, stretching the cord again. She opened the bottom cabinet and jumped back. There was a dead mouse in the trap. She made no sound, didn’t want to interrupt her friend’s story. Quietly she collected herself, leaned close again, squinting, and gingerly picked up the trap by the edges. She walked across the kitchen to the trash, stepped on the plastic pedal to pop the greasy white lid, and dropped the whole mess into the can.
“Were all the earrings from him?”
Leann opened a kitchen drawer. She pulled a new wooden mousetrap from a plastic package and set it on the counter. She ignored how her linoleum was curling up at the baseboards and how a dirty film left by mop water had collected in hundreds of tiny shallow pits. She got a jar of peanut butter. She used a piece of a saltine to dip out just a bit of the bait and took a fingerful for herself. Worried she might be blind at sixty-five, she leaned really close to the counter while cradling the phone on her shoulder. She readied the trap with the saltine and stood up.
“It’s nice when a guy actually does give gifts. He’s pretty generous with you or was.” Her husband had bought her a new transmission last October, said that was the present for her birthday and Christmas.
It was enough.
Leann’s feet were hot, sweaty, so she kicked her slippers toward the sliding door. They landed on the mat near a pair of dirty work boots and a shiny pair of bright purple rain boots. Then, thinking about mice, Leann went and put the slippers back on again. With her slippered toe she straightened both pairs of boots against the edge of the mat.
“When’d he do this?”
Back at the counter she picked up the mousetrap, opened her cabinet door, and placed it in a prime location among the stockpots—close but not exactly where the other trap had been. She picked up a non-stick skillet and noticed a long scratch in its surface. One of the kids must have cut a pancake in half with a metal knife. Shaking her head she walked toward the carport and opened the door wide enough to toss the frying pan into the large cardboard box marked, “Goodwill.” The screen door caught her foot when it snapped shut. She winced, again suppressing her reaction so her friend’s story could go on.
“He put his keys on the floor during the Symphony?”
“Why the hell would he do that?”
Leann sat down and squinted at her foot—no skin broken. She rubbed it until the pain receded. Held her breath, counted to ten in her mind, the way she taught her kids to do. And it worked for her as well as it did for them. When she got to eight the throbbing pain was gone.
“Well, what happened with the earrings? You’re way off track.”
The slipper had dropped outside onto the cold cement when the screen door snapped shut. She needed it. She leaned out the door and picked up her slipper from where it had fallen. The screen door squeaked.
“Why did he even take his cellphone overseas? Weren’t you guys supposed to be on vacation?”
Leann went to the drawer with the mousetraps and rummaged around with one hand until she found a little can of oil. 3-IN-ONE, it said. She returned to the screen door and tested it, listening for where the squeak originated. Leaning close and concentrating on the hinge, she moved the door back and forth with her slippered foot.
“What were you thinking? Weren’t you upset?”
Pinpointing the spot, she pulled the little red conical cap off the oil and applied a few drops to the offender. Before putting the lid back on, she worked the door some more with her foot. Satisfied that the squeak was eradicated, she shoved the tip of the can back into the pointed red cap in her mouth, carried the oil back across the kitchen, and left it on the counter.
“But he hit below the belt. You love your earrings.”
She looked for her glasses again under a stack of catalogs and coupons. She began sorting the catalogs, then, disgusted, giving up, dropped them by heaps into the trashcan.
“Doesn’t he have some stuff over at your place? Maybe you can talk things over when he comes back for it.” Laughing. “Well, so what now? Where do things stand?”
She opened the oven door and pulled out her cast-iron skillet. She went back to the refrigerator, and with a spoon got a dollop of bacon grease from a mug. The white blob fell into the black skillet. She turned the flame on really low and let the grease go clear.
“What rhinestone earrings?”
The kids hadn’t eaten yet; likely wouldn’t have at the neighbor’s house either. She took out a ceramic bowl, set it in the sink, and cracked seven eggs into it. She laid the shells aside on a plastic cutting board to keep the albumin off the counter. The salt and pepper shakers were just out of reach. She missed only a few seconds of Alexa’s story when she put down the phone and went to grab them. A few dashes of salt went in the bowl, a lot more pepper, and then the little kissing bears were returned to the stove. The phone was back on her shoulder in an instant as Leann felt behind the napkin holder for her glasses.
“But then what? My God.”
She poured the milk into the bowl but did not measure it.
Standing at the sink she looked again for her glasses. She ran her hand all along the windowsill and even stood on tiptoe to see if somehow they had gotten between the sash and the storm window.
“How could he know? How—how did he find out?”
Leann picked up the bowl and whisked the eggs with the fork, quicker and quicker. “You’re not missing anything.”
Thinking ahead into the next hour, she picked up a tiny doll that needed to go back to her daughter’s room. She dropped it into the pocket of her apron and heard it clank against her glasses. They were right there in that pocket the whole time.
“I’d love it if you could,” she said. “We’d all love to see you. I’m not glad the wedding’s off. I’m so sorry. But it’s just not a good time with the last month of school.” It wasn’t enough of a reason. Leann added, “The pullout couch is broken anyway.” She kept adding reasons, beginning a wall where none had been. “We’re having our carpets steam cleaned. Gene’s brother said he’d do it while we were in Chicago but now he wants to get it done this weekend instead of next. It’s going to be too chaotic.” And then because that wasn’t enough either, really, she added a final, “Plus, come on, Alexa. What’s the point? Even if you’re down here, you won’t let any of us in.”
Leann put on her glasses, turned off the burner and sat down at the kitchen table. She still cradled the phone to her ear. “Honey, we all want answers. I’d be doing very well to find one matched pair of earrings myself with these kids always rummaging through everything I own and losing half of it. But what’re you gonna do? They all need to eat and somewhere to sleep ’til they’re eighteen.” She picked up the eviction notice again and began reading it while listening to her friend. They would have had thirty days if she had opened the mail three weeks ago. Now what did they have? She didn’t want to think about it and didn’t have to. Confrontation was unnecessary, and Alexa never had to know. Ellis had called out of nowhere, caught her completely off guard, and asked her point-blank. What was she supposed to say?
Her friend must have protested in some unspoken way, to the comment about not letting her in.
Outside, through the bit of fog that had returned somehow, the backyard willow revealed itself, shrouded in its chartreuse veil that hung—hung on—in windless weather.
Leann said, “I promise,” and took off her glasses again, laid them on the table pinched her nose. Her friend didn’t want to let go, wouldn’t hang up. They stayed there together in a moment of long-distance silence, clinging to something of a shared past. Leann leaned her chin on her hand, remembering. She thought about the whole youth group floating down the river on tractor-tire inner tubes as kids, thought about a trip to the mall with their bangs up high, and wondered whatever happened to that broken-heart best friend necklace.
Stupid kid stuff. Junk from some kiosk at the mall. There were never two halves to any whole heart.
But Alexa was in a different place with it. Leann always had that soft touch on Alexa’s heart. That gentle way of leading her home from nowhere. So Alexa didn’t care so much who was right, or wrong. It just wasn’t fair. None of it. She got back to the earrings. “No. They weren’t all from him. He gave me maybe five pairs. The diamond studs, for Christmas the first year we were together when he was still trying to impress me. Another, the gold dangly ones, for my birthday two years ago—and then remember the ones I wore with the green dress to Olivia’s wedding, from those pictures I sent you? Those big drop pearls? Those ones. And I think he brought me some turquoise and silver ones from a business trip to Santa Fe. The little stainless steel stars were for fun last August after we went boating one night. He would not shut up about being out together under the sky. There were the antique rubies—I loved those—he gave me that pair the night I met his parents. So I guess six pairs, not five. Oh. And, of course, the pavé diamond hoops. So seven.”
There was astonishment and then a question.
“Yes. That pair was definitely my favorite. And. He took both of those. I’m not sure why. Probably to return them. I have no idea when he was here. Sometime while I was at work, most likely. He knew better than to start some shit with me home. Chicken shit. All I know is there was no note or anything. I just got home and his set of keys to my place was on the wet bar by the door. I guess the busy pattern in that gorgeous piece of hibiscus oil cloth—remember, the one I brought back from Mexico?—obscured them at first. I set down a bag of groceries and heard something. I just figured he’d forgotten them like always.
The emotional response was questioned.
Alexa left the plants and went to the doorway of her bedroom. The movers were getting industrious. One was in her walk-in closet dumping the heap of clothes into a refrigerator-sized box. Two others were dismantling the bed. Alexa stood stunned in the doorway, watching them, and kept talking to Leann. “You’re right. I don’t know why it didn’t affect me right away. I guess because I was a little bit in shock. And I didn’t really know what it meant. I knew he had done it, taken one of each, but I didn’t think about it. I guess I was hurrying so much that it didn’t sink in. Only hit me when I took these days off.” She watched the strangers destroying the place where she and Ellis had spent so many nights together.
They were efficient. One of them eased the mattress onto the carpet and slipped the slats out of the side rails. He pulled the footboard away, laid it down carefully. Started wrapping it in quilted blankets just as dictated by the contract. Duct-taping the whole thing. They were gentle but not cautious, knowing their work, trusting their hands. They didn’t care but still they did protect this heirloom of some family none of them had known. The guy working on the mattress was just as quick to carry out his orders. He had a plastic bag, a huge one. He laid it out and got it ready. Alexa couldn’t breathe.
A point needed to be clarified.
She was awash in the fact that all this was happening. For an instant she pictured herself in that plastic bag, completely encased, duct tape choking her, wrists bound behind her back, her body forgotten under a dumpster. She finally didn’t fight. Couldn’t cry out. Felt it futile to scream. She just held herself together with the familiarity of friendly conversation. “Yeah. I know. I did find one pair to wear. I had my grandma’s pearl studs in the console of my car.”
Another point needed to be clarified.
“He has a few things here but not a lot. I think maybe a pair of cargo shorts and a sweatshirt. He won’t come back for those. He doesn’t care about clothes. Probably doesn’t even know they’re here.” She didn’t explain that in two hours Ellis would have all his clothes and most of hers, too. Who cared? Alexa pushed away the thought of herself under that dumpster, kept her voice steady. “He took both the pavé diamond hoops though. And then he did something else, too. Just low. I’ll tell you in a minute.” Leann might have been compassionate. “Yeah. He was the one, if you believe in all that.”
The mover with the quilted blankets had finished with the headboard. The guy dealing with the mess in the walk-in closet had placed the huge box and the plastic wrapped bedframe on a platform dolly. He maneuvered the unwieldy bulk out through the doorway. Alexa had to get out from under that dumpster in her mind. She focused on herself and Leann as little girls in matching dresses twirling with their fistfuls of poppies, barefoot in the new spring grass, posing, arching their backs, jutting out their hips, hanging doll clothes on scale-model clotheslines, just like grown-ups.
They were too much like grown-ups when they were young and so like children as adults.
Alexa didn’t want the wall she heard begin in Leann’s voice. She remembered not only the moment of their twirling with the poppies. It was that next moment, being five, six, or seven, throwing all but one flower onto the grass, clutching that last poppy stem, feeling the hairs on it, stroking it, holding it up, being pretty, twirling, but then stopping abruptly and, for no reason crushing the stem, ripping it to shreds, to feel it happening, to make the thing come undone. She also recalled that moment of peer pressure—one little girl still twirling, still pretty, the other saying, “Stop. Do this. Snap it,” while demonstrating destruction.
Only the mattress was left in the bedroom. It was there on the floor. The movers didn’t hesitate. One of the guys grabbed the big plastic bag as the other flipped the mattress on its side. They would have begun packaging the thing immediately but one of them stopped and said, “Wait. What is that?”
The other guy knelt and motioned for Alexa to come closer, to see what he’d found.
She could tell he was thrilled, eager to show something to her. When she got close enough, she could see it lying there in the palm of his hand—that second pavé diamond hoop.
So Ellis had not taken both. He had taken one, and the other had been there all the time, lost under their bed.
She froze. She pretended the man held nothing and spoke into the phone deliberately, as if what faced her—that little lost earring—had nothing to do with who she was, with whatever meaning had snapped between her and Ellis. She didn’t care. She said to Leann, “All I know is that I want to have Christmas dinner again. That I want my mother to have a place to come for Thanksgiving. That’s why I bought this condo instead of looking at places like his third floor walk-up on his precious leafy street. It’s not like we’re all fated to some earthly hell. I’m no home-and-hearth goddess. It never would have worked with him anyway. I want Mom to have access, to have that elevator, to be able to visit in five and ten years. No matter how feeble and frail she gets I want her to be able to get into my home. Ellis doesn’t have an elevator. You know? But, fuck, my mom should be able to get in the door. And I just want to be able to get my groceries inside and maybe maneuver a stroller into my own place. Easily, you know?”
Alexa felt a surge of fury because of the moving guys. They were staring at her, not even embarrassed, listening in on her phone conversation though she couldn’t tell how much they understood. But something held her back from launching into a full-blown tirade. Not pride, not decorum. It was that contract. She stared at the pavé diamond hoop in the moving guy’s hand.
She couldn’t acknowledge it, couldn’t take it from him, couldn’t tell him what to do with it. He stayed there kneeling but looked at his boss, who shrugged. Alexa went on talking to Leann, kept staring at the earring in the moving guy’s hand. “It’s like I have all these pieces, I try to come at it from all these angles, and I can’t assemble it. The whole thing—marriage, home, kids, family—it crumbles. I feel like I’ve been trying to build something ever since I dated Jason. Prom and all that. All the stupid hopes of kids who don’t know any better. I didn’t know I had all these idiot dreams about it all. Did you? But I remember meeting Jason’s mother and being like, ‘Okay. This is the real thing. This woman could be my mother-in-law.’ I was aware of that when she was handing me a kitchen knife and telling me to dice two onions for the meatloaf. I did it. I diced those onions just like she told me. Perfectly. But that was it. I never went back. And. Time after time it just does not work. And now it’s not going to work with Ellis.
She could almost see the movers showing up at his place with all her stuff. She imagined herself and Ellis laughing about what a terrible misunderstanding it had been.
And then she imagined what it would do to Ellis when that mover handed him the one last earring.
Without that earring, the confusion about the movers was sweet, was innocent. The two of them fumbling along together. Without that earring, he might accept her back or might not. Maybe they could see a therapist, work through it. But the uncertainty of letting him decide was too hard. Just let it be over. He’d been the one to take her earrings. He should be the one to suffer. She choked on a swell of remorse. She looked at the hole in the wall in the closet where the bar had come down.
She motioned for the moving guy to stand up, to get off his knees. She couldn’t take the earring but she didn’t want him looking at her like that anymore either. She turned her back on him, shut the closet door, and continued her conversation. “Leann?” Her friend was there, was listening. “Last night I had this dream. I was in some inventor’s workshop in a snowy country, way out in the middle of nowhere, where the snow isn’t even plowed. They had to tunnel through it to keep the roads open. Fine. So. There was a guy there, and there was this little bird, orange, white, and black. Not a phoenix. The opposite. It kept dying mid-flight. Very small, maybe only four inches long. Tiny, really, like a hummingbird. But the bird was hovering right there in the workshop. It kept rising and then beating its wings and falling. As it fell, the wings broke, the feathers molted off, and it disintegrated in the air—right as it tried to stay aloft. But somehow it made it to the zenith of its abilities over and over and as it did so, its little wings were fine again, fully-feathered, lovely.
“It just kept happening. In slow motion. I watched it, mesmerized. That bird wasn’t me. I didn’t feel any strong connection the way you do sometimes when the meaning in life piles up and really, really matters, is some kind of spirit of your own in others. It didn’t matter that much. The bird was apart from me, living its own cyclic hell. But I couldn’t do anything for it, neither could the inventor. But, Leann, the inventor didn’t care. That was Ellis. I know it. He turned away from the bird. I couldn’t. I felt like someone should at least be aware of what was happening with it. So I was its witness, watching it rot in flight like that, in this guy’s amazing place.”
The movers were getting impatient. Alexa didn’t want any loose ends though, no open doors. Just finish it.
She held the cellphone away, looked directly at the mover with the earring, and said, “Make sure he gets that with the rest.”
The mover slowly closed his hand around the earring, like a hurt child treasuring a butterfly.
The other mover didn’t think much of her decision, that was obvious. But in the way they’d been instructed to wrap the heirloom headboard, they would deliver the earring. Still, the mover had his judgment about how she was handling things. He waved his arm, mumbled something in another language, and the two men sealed the mattress in the plastic, took it away toward the freight elevator, and were gone.
Alexa fled the bedroom, paced the hall for a few moments, walked in a circle in her kitchen, and then ended up in the living room. There was a sound in Missouri, in Leann’s home, over the phone.
“Was that a mousetrap? What are you doing?” Alexa asked, but she didn’t wait for an answer. “The only earrings Ellis did not take were the rhinestone ones. They were the ones Jason got me when we went to the prom together. Tacky, really, but grown-up-looking, you know. Something to feel dressed up in—tin foil pretty much—but a little bit elegant. They were both in the jewelry box—right there together. Only they weren’t where I had put them. I had them tucked away forever kind of hidden in a little Asian embroidered pouch. I don’t even know why I kept them; I’d never wear them now. Just a keepsake, I guess. Well somehow Ellis must have found out about me sleeping with Jason at Olivia’s wedding. Because instead of that pair being tucked away, those crappy earrings from prom were lying side by side right in the middle of the second drawer of the jewelry box.”
It wasn’t that Alexa said a word about her furniture disappearing or that Leann admitted her family was being thrown out of their home. But still they shared the void. “I know. What am I going to do, Leann? We were supposed to move in together this week. Today. I don’t even know how to deal with canceling all the wedding stuff. Mom’s completely clueless. She keeps tying dried lavender in tulle thinking everything’s fine. I’m going to have to tell her but I don’t know how. She’s already imagined three grandchildren, with presents under the tree every year til she’s dead. So damn hopeful. What am I supposed to do?”
They were no longer defenders of the hearth.
Neither were they little fourth grade girls anymore being told it’s best to love a world by stuffing slips of paper—names of individual pediatric cancer patients—into balloons to release from a hospital rooftop. That that’s what to do. That that’s how to show others matter, that you care. That that’s enough of an action to take, facing death with colored balloons. There was none of that. None of the way things should be. Entropy swiped away the reasons. Alexa put her hand on the tall window, reached out toward the city below, toward the lake, toward that cloud-covered horizon.
There was a quiet moment. Neither of them cared that their homes were dismantled. They did. But, not the way you’re supposed to with deference to the head of the household, with meek persistence, with every moment devoted to three jobs, two mortgages, endless toil, confident pride, and a white-picket heroism, undefeated. Instead, Alexa sat down cross-legged on the floor. The movers had left several dead leaves on the gray carpet. She picked up a leaf, cracked it between her forefinger and her thumb, and ran her fingernail along the spine of the particularly large stem. “Can I come stay with you for a week or so? I just need to be home somewhere.”
She helped the brittle thing come apart while listening to her best friend’s refusal piling up. She choked, put her hand back on that window glass, then gave up totally, leaned her forehead against it, looked down at the nearest swimming pool still covered with a taut tarp, at a rooftop garden coming back to life. It was someone’s tax deduction, someone’s contribution to the way things should be, someone’s pride and joy likely showed off to giggling dates who probably weren’t allowed to be up there.
She had to have her friend. “Well, so leave the kids with your mom for a few days and come up here. Doesn’t Marble Hill get old? We can have a spa day, get our hair done. Get some wine. I just really need to see you.”
The question was calculated, though careful and kind.
Alexa was sensitive to the piteous tone of it. She jerked away from the glass, collected herself, jumped up, grabbed each of the dead leaves off the floor, stood firm, looking out over the entire city. She drew power from the east-west boulevards, from the parks greening up, from a weather helicopter banking north. “I don’t know how he found out.” She did know. It was over, their savored friendship. There was no balloon release from any rooftop. Alexa walked to the sink and threw the dead leaves down the disposal, thinking maybe she heard a little remorse mixed with her friend’s empathy. That did it. With all the inflexibility of Atropos she fell forward into the impossible hell of what was most likely true.
“You told him about Jason, didn’t you?”
Best New American Voices nominee Nath Jones received an MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University. Her publishing credits include PANK Magazine, There Are No Rules, and Sailing World. She lives and writes in Chicago.