By Amanda Howland
Judith Star went days without hearing her true name. She was most accustomed to being called ‘Miz-tar’. The children’s calls were first clear and sparse in the articulate morning hours. After lunchtime their voices became hoarse, lazy and whiny. Sleazy almost. Finally, in the giddy hour before final dismissal, the voices were rowdy, punching and pompous.
Judy didn’t dislike children. ‘Oo–‘oo–‘oo–Miz-ta-ar! She didn’t particularly like them, either. She wasn’t one who loved kids, couldn’t wait to work with kids, etc. She was a failed scientist. The thought made her cringe. Teaching fifth grade. Science, Math, Homeroom. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about the students. They just seemed to her like an undifferentiated mass. It took her longer than the other teachers to learn her students’ names—much longer. Even past Halloween, she’d question if one were a Jason or a Joshua. She felt self-conscious calling him ‘young man’—could he tell she actually hadn’t learned his name yet? Sometimes at home, a particular student would come to mind and she would think maybe she did have a special fondness for him or her, only to discover the next day that the student was not a current student, but one from a previous year.
The creases slashing from her nostrils to the corners of her mouth had grown deeper, and her cute little, red, bubble haircut, once spunky and sharp, now had become a middle-aged-lady hairdo. And she was aware of it on some level, but even when she tried a new style, it reverted somehow to its sassy quips, the expressions of feather and form that had been her look through the seventies and eighties.
This weekend she would leave. Break her contract with the Canton City School System and disappear.
It was Earth Day assembly. 1989. A distracted Thursday. The winds were warm—swooping in like banshees across the black asphalt playground, rippling the new leaves on the maples by the empty swing set, the swings still banished from wintertime. It was that changing April time. When dreams are vivid. Assemblies were usually held in the gym, but because it was Earth Day, this one was outside. So the voices of the young presenters scattered in the open air. The kids had all been dressed in blue, green or brown t-shirts. They took on the voices of endangered animals, the rainforests, the polluted air and soil. It was all vague, generic and heartbreakingly futile. Judith listened to the little voices plead on behalf of trees, creatures and the atmosphere itself, knowing that they would forget the suffering of the planet and be playing their Super Nintendo in less than an hour, and why not? There was nothing they could do.
She liked children at a distance. And as she walked away from the school at the end of the assembly, their receding voices pulled at her. But she was no one’s favorite teacher, and would not be missed. Her classroom had a silver-tipped shark as a pet. She flashed on its rubbery body writhing on the floor, tiny silver whiskers flickering in pain—she would be gone, and so, who knows what damaged child might flip it out onto the floor, and the sub, naturally, would be powerless. Afraid of a shark the size of her index finger.
Judy walked the comfortable walk, zigzagging through the neighborhood, past patches of the sweet green lawns of post-World War Two box houses to her own box that she’d inherited from her aunt. The inside answered her with empty air, sitting air that had been just lingering while she worked. She wished she had a dog or a cat. She sat on the hard antique couch, kicked off her flats and crossed her panty-hosed feet on the glossy wood coffee table. Her back crunched, her eyes closed, and she felt a second of shame when the faint smell of her feet hit her like a whiff of Swiss cheese.
Thirsty, she jerked up and went to the kitchen, poured herself a glass of warm water and drank it down. There was a blinking red light on her answering machine. She pressed the button.
Charles. Her heart jerked for just a moment, and she smiled in gratitude that his voice could still make her feel this way. “Judy. Call me. Things are not going to work out for the weekend. Something’s changed—I—just call me. Sorry to go on.”
She reached for the yellow phone then stopped, panic flashing in her mind. She put her hand on her belly. Judy was a skinny woman with a slouch and a paunch. She pinched the skin, punched her stubborn belly, made a sour face and let out an angry sob-word.
Out on the sidewalk again. Walking. The wet sidewalk creases let out worms. He was canceling. This weekend. This was the weekend she was going to go live with Charles in Colorado. He had a job for her in a state park. It was seasonal. She’d applied for a position as a tour guide, or something in nature education, but she’d been hired in the landscaping and grounds maintenance department. She was to be a groundskeeper in State Forest State Park. That’s why it had to be this weekend. The job started on Monday.
Charles was in textbook sales—she’d met him six years ago when the principal brought her in as consultant—she was the most well-respected science teacher, since her degree was in Biology and not Education. Charles listened to her criticisms of the textbooks. It felt good. He stopped traveling soon after and settled in Denver. Their whole relationship had been long distance.
They pretended not to mind—she imagined he slept with other women, but then, maybe not. He seemed not very interested in sex. Not gay, just more interested in the routine of working long days, driving home, picking up the remote where he left it. Their monthly visit was enough for him. That suited her okay. She liked her house, her walk home from the school.
But in two years she would be fifty. She suddenly wanted to live with a man, to feel his thick legs in bed at night, to have big red mugs of coffee together. She was ready to change and even her body was changing, full of heat and shifting waves of perspiration. She walked. She hadn’t called him back—she wasn’t fortified yet. More than the mugs and the legs she wanted out of Ohio and into Colorado. Out of the city and the school, the chalk and the teacher’s lounge, skinned with yellow smoke and failure. She wanted this seasonal job, even though she’d be breaking contract and her teacher’s retirement would be heavily penalized.
She ground her teeth and turned right onto Whipple, a fast street. Exhaust damaged the spring air. She let out a ha. She didn’t realize how badly she craved Colorado until she heard her own voice.
The silver-tipped shark wasn’t a real shark, of course—it was a fish that resembled a shark. People only remembered the violent part: shark. Like her old friend Parson? They’d say, Who was that guy again? Forget he loved the clarinet in old wartime Christmas songs, forget he parted his hair on the same side as his mother, forget that he had chipmunks living under his porch and fed popcorn to squirrels. He was the guy whose wife cut the ass out of his pants and hit him over the head with a Sony boom box. People only remembered the violent part. She wanted to spit but had nothing.
Fucking Charles. This weekend won’t work. She was coming up to the gas station. Of course, he may mean just that. Maybe she’ll be moving up the next weekend, that’s all. But she couldn’t stay one more week. Miz-tar would be gone Friday at the 2:35 final bell.
Behind the counter—Paolo. Judy smiled easy, but her hands cramped. She tore to the back. Or she didn’t. She probably kept her pace cool, but she felt whipped to the glowing back of the Bell gas station shop, to the pink jugs of cheap rose wine. Paolo was a heavy, sexy man with dark wet eyes. His smiles were faint on his lips, but brighter in his eyes. She’d found it easy to talk with him, flirt with him. In the Bell Station, she manifested a very specific side of herself. Judy just after college. The mid-sixties Judy, when her teased crown and dark rimmed eyes were something. With a biology degree and a little apartment in downtown Canton. Going to the dance halls with her girlfriends, sometimes taking a man home. She had the pill, “Norwegian Wood” playing gently on the stereo, and candles oozing over bottles. She was a biologist and a lover.
The idea was to go to France and work with Cousteau at the Confederation Mondaile des Activities Subaquatiques. Imagine! That was the idea. That was really her plan. And never to settle down—to have a string of lovers pining for her—but her one true love the sea. The sea lions and echinoderms.
Come morning, she woke up with strangers who treated her like she was a clerk in a discount store. And there was no reason for her to have stayed in Canton, for her to settle into teaching fifth grade rather than going out and being a real biologist. But that’s what happened. After she graduated from OSU, she moved to Canton with her girlfriend. None of the masters programs seemed quite right—she’d work a while and figure it out. She inherited the aunt’s house, and all the old lady’s furniture, and she meant to sell it, but the market dipped a little, and she just never did.
Through the seventies she smoked in bed, watching Cousteau on her little black-and-white TV. Marveling at her very audacity. Her window had been so tiny. Seeing Cousteau there in his grey cap she knew was really red, with the spraying water and the octopi and all of it. Going deep in his little diving saucer. Seeing him black-and-white and three inches tall on the dusty TV confirmed that she could never have gone, could never have found him.
“Paolo—just the wine. And a pack of Kools.” Her voice was too shrill. Like an old white lady. Like a school teacher.
Paolo seemed to look past her today. And today she needed him to look into her. She knew her lips had shriveled a little and grown the same color as her skin. She wore black eyeliner, but it didn’t work the way it used to. Now it just looked like a drawn line, when once it had looked like black radiance. Was she bland—an ashy pale frump in his eyes? Did she look better under the florescent lights during the night when she usually came in rather than now in the harsh grey natural light? Or was he just more bored later into his shift, more willing to engage?
“Paolo, the weather’s strange today. There’s the sweet stink of death. Want to picnic with me?” She wanted him at the cemetery. She would tell him about the hole in the ozone layer and he would picture it as a literal hole, floating above them.
He blinked. “I’m working, ma’am. It’s all muddy and shit for a picnic.”
“Yes. No. I was just kidding. Could you put that wine in a couple bags? I’m on foot.” She ground her teeth and fiddled her wallet back into her purse.
“No—wait. Sounds good. I get off soon. Write down your address. I’ll pick you up in an hour.” He looked at his hands, then past her at the man with the Fix-A-Flat and cat food. She stepped aside and pulled a napkin out of the dispenser. She wrote her address on the napkin and left it on the counter.
She packed four ancient but sealed cheese-and-cracker packets and some apples in a green plastic basket, put on pale coral lipstick and, after waiting an hour and a half, called Charles.
She picked up her water glass of wine—couldn’t believe there was just an inch left. But her lips and mouth felt numb while making b’s and d’s. Suddenly she discovered she was mid-conversation with Charles. How did that happen? What had they said?
“Judy, I’m saying summer. Why are you in such a hurry now, after six years?” She could see him drawing a circle on his bald spot with the pads of the fingers of his right hand. For a long distance relationship, things felt awfully familiar.
“Hurry. That’s what this is? I’m in no hurry, I’m done, daddy. You’ve got some deceiving scamp living in your attic and I have to lose my job?” The story was that some relative, a nephew or young cousin, needed a place to stay so Charles didn’t have room for her. Wasn’t he planning on her sharing his bed?
“Judith, please. You don’t want this job.”
“I do.” She drank.
“This BS temp job isn’t worth losing a good chunk of your retirement over, but if you still insist on taking it, you could always come and stay in a hotel for a couple weeks until Jason works things out with his—”
“You are one cold FISH.” She slammed the yellow phone down on the wall. Picked it up and slammed it again, hard. Then the loud silence filled the kitchen as she looked at the phone, there on the wall like a sullen bird with its back turned.
The doorbell rang. She turned at the ancient sound. The yellowed wallpaper spun just a little. There was the shadow of Paolo through the gauzy curtains. One last look at the phone. Its silence fading out.
Somehow, Paolo was sitting on her hard couch and there were two full water glasses of pink wine on ice. She faced him in a stiff high-backed chair. She’d lost it. Her armpits were wet. She’d had her last day at the school—she would not be coming in tomorrow. Drunk, she felt strangely shy. She turned to look for the green basket. There it was on the carpet by the fireplace. It looked like a toy. He was watching her. The clock on the mantle ticked. It felt like an old lady’s place.
“I’d love to get out of here,” she said.
“So, let’s go.” He didn’t move.
She realized she was in the midst of a seduction she had initiated. But glassy fear killed any desire she’d felt on her walk to the gas station. He was probably dirty under those sweats—what rank bacteria lingered in his pores? Something like one in three—or was it one in six?— women are raped in their lifetime. She’d been lucky. A former principal had draped his arm over her shoulder and fondled her right breast once, and so she’d had to avoid his gaze for the four remaining years until he retired. But she’d never been raped, never been hurt like that. Paolo’s arms were thick—he could hurt her. Her chest tightened, her mouth went dry.
He put his thick lips to the glass and drank. AIDS. He would have AIDS and not use a condom. She had no condoms. He was a handsome man, so he must have AIDS to be desperate enough to come to the home of an ugly middle-aged woman within two hours of her beckoning him.
Because she was ugly. And not ready for sex. There was an inch of dead grey re-growth at her scalp. She’d shaved her legs, like she did every morning, but her skin was white and dry like paper. She tried to pull in her stomach, but felt the fat at the waistline of her pants. The line of her body was disgusting. What a waste. Sometimes she sat behind her desk while the students were working on something and actually pushed her stomach out, to see how big she could make it. That’s how far she’d come from seduction. And he’d called her ma’am! She’d figured he was older than her, but it was only because she’d lost perspective, clearly he was younger than her. If only—if only she could stop all this and take a shower, soap up her feet, exfoliate her body with a brown sugar oil scrub, rinse out her vagina, slather body butter on her legs, bottom, arms, massage the worried age out of her face. Clear her mind.
He lit a cigarette. “Notice how fat the fucking squirrels are this spring?”
“Usually they’re all stringy from the winter, but they’re still fat. Weird. You think that global warming shit is for real?”
“What? Where did you hear about global warming?”
“The, uh, NPR. The radio.” He looked around for an ashtray.
“Well. I don’t know about global warming, but the hole in the ozone layer is for real. Hopefully Bush will honor the—”
He didn’t take his eyes off her, but cupped his hand and let his ash fall into it.
“Never mind. You know today is Earth Day?” She hopped up and brought in an orange plastic ashtray from the kitchen. “Sorry.”
“No problem, hun.” He let the ash fall from his hand into the tray, put the filter of his cigarette between his lips and rubbed his palms together.
She opened her pack of Kools, took out a cigarette but didn’t light it. She usually only smoked in the kitchen now.
She said, “Have you ever been to Colorado?”
“Naw. I’m from Jersey. Ohio’s the west to me.”
“What brings you to Canton?”
“Ex-wife. We’ve been split five years now—but here I am stuck in this quagmire. She’s black.”
Suddenly, Judy was feeling fun. She sat up straighter. “I read that, you know how in the Afro-American dialect they say ‘aks’ instead of ‘ask’?”
“My kids don’t say ‘aks’. I’d hit ‘em in the mouth. No, just kidding. So, what’s your name, hon?”
“No, no, it’s okay—it’s like ‘ain’t’. It’s just the older pronunciation! It was just retained in the south. Chaucer pronounced the word ‘aks’.”
His black eyes moved. He was watching her face. “You know you look like, uh, the—Shirley Maclaine! That’s it.” He sat back, closed his mouth and smiled.
She looked down. There was the flicker of shame she’d felt in her life whenever compared to someone else. Even when it was a compliment, it felt like she’d been found out, reduced. She tapped her unlit cigarette and then started to the kitchen to fill up her wine glass, only to see the jug of wine right there on the living room floor. She knelt down and carefully tilted the jug, oozing out a couple inches of the warm wine. She felt herself creak as she pulled herself up, and laughed.
He put his hands up. “No, hon, she’s hot!”
“Well, I don’t know why you say that.” She drank.
“It’s getting dark. I’d like to kiss you on your mouth.” He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees but didn’t make a move to cross the room to her.
“No. What? This?” She put her hands on her lips. Suddenly warm. She felt like she was standing in a pool of honey. And her lips felt full. She finished her wine. Her eyes felt glossy. She smiled at him. “Oh, Paolo, can we be friends?”
He laughed. “Sure. You like animals?”
“I do.” She wanted to put on a record. Ha. She hadn’t had a stereo in the living room in years. Why not? It was okay to listen to music alone. She didn’t even have a tape player, let alone a compact disc player. Why wasn’t there a stereo? Whose living room was this, anyway? She raked her fingers up the hair at her nape.
“You wanna go get some dinner?”
“Oh, no. I have this.” She stood up and wobbled over to the picnic basket. She bent at the waist when she picked it up so that her bottom looked round. She could feel his eyes and got warm.
“Let’s go out! There’s this chicken place up on Whipple.” He swallowed. He stood, but she held up her hand.
She closed her eyes and saw a golden box. Dizzy, she curled her stockinged toes in the pale blue carpet.
When she was a child, she stayed with her grandmother in the summers. In her tenth summer, she explored her grandmother’s attic. She discovered a small teak chest, painted gold, engraved with hummingbirds and chrysanthemums. The lock looked newer than the box. She was afraid to ask her grandmother to unlock the box, and so she stewed on it all summer. Now, she felt Paolo standing in front of her, but still she kept her eyes closed. Her lids twitched like they twitch during insomnia. It was important to remember.
By the end of summer curiosity had eaten her up. It was 1951. She wore baggy pegged jeans and two ponytails fastened with little leather bands. The attic air was thick with hot dust, old breath. She took a hammer from her grandfather’s garage and crashed it into the lock. It was soft, just a little gold thing. She picked up the chest and opened it. There was a dead rat inside. She didn’t even scream, but dropped the chest, and the rat tumbled out. But there on the floor, it was not a rat. It was a hand. A small black hand. A monkey’s paw.
She shook now thinking of it, but was it a real memory, or a dream—a fantasy about what might have been in the box. That can happen. Neuroscientists say memory is plastic. But what if it was not the paw of a monkey, but the hand of a child?
She opened her eyes and locked them with Paolo’s. “I’m sick.”
She wanted to tell him everything. Would the story of the golden chest be everything? What was opened that day, what came out—would that be her life to tell him?
He staggered into her, and gripped her hard. She ground her teeth. They breathed. He held her for a long time. The embrace loosened. There was space in it. And in that space between them energy sparked and fizzed. Nervous love and strange trust. They breathed.
Then, when the sun was down, and the only light in the living room was the light that spilled in from the kitchen, he undid her button and unzipped her blue pants and let them drop. She was not afraid. She whispered, “I’m going to Colorado this weekend. I’ve got a job in the forest.”
“Okay.” He slid his warm dry hands down her thighs. He ran them from her knees all the way up—soft skin to skin, up and down.
“Will you come with me? I’m really going. I’ll be in with the trees and the water and the stones. The animals.”
“Sure. I’ll go. My kids are grown.” He traced sigils on her thighs and she shivered. She swayed with her eyes closed and her hands on his shoulders to keep steady as he stroked her skin. The golden box, the severed hand, the taste of chalk dust, powdered soap in the faculty lavatory that left her hands smelling of ketchup, the chorus of young voices that called her name in varied intensities throughout the waxing and waning of the day, the flat impermeable grey sea flicking away from Cousteau’s ship. And still, Paolo traced magical signs on her thighs. The pads of his fingers, the skin of his knuckles stroking her skin surged through to her core.
After long moments of this, he gently pulled her pants up, fastened them, put his hands on the sides of her head and kissed her right cheek, then her left.
“Want to go to the chicken place?”
“Okay,” she said.
And then they walked to the restaurant in the deep violet spring night. They sat down together and ate.
Amanda is a writer and noise musician living in Lakewood, Ohio. She won the 2013 Cleveland State University Creative Writing Contest for fiction and received honorable mention for the 2013 Alberta Turner Poetry Prize sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. She has a degree in fiction from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts Program (NEOMFA).