By Beth O'Sullivan
Angie could paint the toenails of a gorilla in deepest Africa in the pitch-dark, one-handed and hanging upside down from a Bilbao tree. Right now she is stretched out on the couch with her foot on a pink sateen pillow shaped like a heart. She has carefully placed folded tissues between each toe while she paints her nails with high-gloss, bright-pink polish. The television is on and she looks sideways at it whenever she hears Drew Carey bark on The Price is Right.
“Come on, “ Angie says. “Why don’t you sit on the sofa arm here and let me paint your nails?”
I’m sitting in the rocking chair doing my math homework, which drives Angie crazy. She’s been trying to marry me off practically since she moved in with Angus when I was five and claims my lack of dates is due to the fact that I won’t let her paint my nails.
“We don’t actually share any part of a gene pool, ” I say, without looking up from my pre-calc.
“I could teach you to swim, ” Angie says and I wonder what she thinks a gene pool is. She starts fanning her foot with a Dinky’s Diet flyer. “I was on the synchronized swim team in Passaic, New Jersey. We came in last but that was just because Ruby Lou saw her boyfriend in the audience and started swimming sideways.”
“She must have been one of Pavlov’s dogs,” I said.
“Watch your mouth,” Angie says. I look down and cross my eyes but all I can see is my nose.
I don’t know what to call Angie. She isn’t actually my stepmother. And Angus isn’t actually my stepfather either. Angus is solid rock. He was one in a long list of boyfriends of my mother’s and he’s taken care of me ever since my mother went out for a pint of Southern Comfort and never returned. Then Angie showed up. They’re both Pavlovians. It’s their religion. Luckily Angus’s knee-jerk reaction to everything is to take care of us all but Angie’s is to get me married off by the time I’m sixteen. I don’t think she knows anything about the laws in this state. She’s a perfectionist when it comes to denial. She doesn’t even realize that Angus is dying.
Angie turns her head back to the TV. Drew Carey is showcasing a model whose face and enforced smile prove the fact that her four-inch heals are pinching her toes. Her legs are too long for the Band-aid size skirt she’s wearing, and she in turn is showcasing a talking refrigerator that sings Betty Boop:
You can feed me bread and water,
Or a great big bale of hay,
But don't take my boop-oop-a-doop away!
The way Angie’s lying on the sofa, it’s easy to imagine her encased in a shell of high gloss gold nail polish, like that woman in Goldfinger. I love mysteries and spies; it gets my mind off of Angie and marriage. I don’t know why she’s so huffy about it anyways, after all, she’s technically not married either.
It’s hard to believe in mathematical induction when you’re sitting in the living room with Angie. For example, how can you prove the hypothesis that we’re all one big happy family when you start with the premise that it's true for 1, Angus, and then show that if it’s true for n, me, then it also has to be true for n+1, Angie. So I forget about real life and go back to numbers while I sing to myself:
Pretty girl beware of this heart of gold
This heart is cold.
He's the man, the man with the midas touch.
Angie says I’m going to be rich when the class action suit is settled. It’s against the shipyard where Angus worked. He was exposed to asbestos and now he’s dying of mesothelioma. When I told Angie about it, she thought I was talking about the Garden of Eden, having heard somewhere about Mesopotamia. I don’t know why I bother trying to explain anything to her. She doesn’t get it that the reason I’ll get all that money is because Angus will be dead.
A Spider’s Touch
Such a cold finger
“Shh, Shhhh,” Angie says, brushing my singing away with a wave of her hand. She’s enraptured by a new model on the TV who is swinging her legs out of a gold roadster. Angie studies the model and then swings her legs around like she’s a retarded mirror mimicking the model a few seconds late.
She’s been perfecting the role of retarded mirror ever since I met her with all her just-a-little-too-late acts of heroism on my behalf. Like the time Roland Kink pushed me into the deep end of the pool before I’d passed my swim test. I remember breaking the surface of the water with my back. I watched a rippling version of Angie through my watery grave. She was stretched out along side the pool, in her bathing-beauty pose. Through the water, she looked even more remote than she was in person. She raised a finger as if to say, I’ll save you, just give me another minute, while I sank deeper. Then she took a lipstick out of the left bosom of her bikini and a compact out of the right bosom and opened it and as I fell through the water, she took a long hard look at herself before painting her lips.
Luckily, Herc Manley dove in and pulled me out. Story of my tiny life. Men are saviors; women are narcissists.
Angie swings her legs around and rises. She flicks off the TV and puts "You’re So Vain" on the CD player and starts dancing backwards like an ice-skater. With both hands in front of her, she beckons me to join her like a maestro conducting with platypus fins. To top it off, her chartreuse halter top with pink polka dots, her skin tight chartreuse jogging shorts down to her knees and her pink toenail polish have turned her into an optical illusion. She sings along:
You walked into the party like you were
walking onto a yacht.
I wish she’d walk into an Escher painting. I imagine a miniature Angie wearing all that pink and chartreuse running up and down Escher stairs bumping into walls.
What the hell. As she sidles towards me with those platypus fins I put down my pre-calc and join her. She grabs my shoulder and runs her razor nails down my arm.
You had one eye in the mirror
As you watched yourself Gavotte.
Then she clenches my hand and makes an arch out of our arms and gives my elbow a shove and I kind of duck and do a little pirouette and then I step on the shoelace of my purple High Fly basketball sneakers and come crashing down on her.
Angus has a coughing spell in the next room. Since we don’t share a gene pool, I’m twice Angie’s size. I’m pretty sure I’ve killed Angie. Angus is wheezing and gasping for breath and coughing more so I get off Angie and rush in to help. As I open the door to Angus’s room, I hear Angie croak from the floor along with the music:
But you gave away
The things you loved.
Leaning forward over a pillow, Angus is taking in gulps of air. He hears me come in and sits up. His eyes are glassy. He tries to smile before leaning over and coughing again. I rush to his side and massage his back administering chopping motions with the edge of my hands, like the visiting nurse showed me. At the VA, they gave me all the information about hospice care for Angus and I know I’m going to have to call them in the morning. I sit on the edge of the bed. Angie comes in and lies down on the other side of the bed. She curls up next to Angus, rests her head on his shoulder and he puts his arm around her.
I don’t shave Angus. I’m afraid that if I shave him and my hand shakes, I’ll slit his neck. I wouldn’t want to do that because he’s the only person in the whole world that I truly love. As a result, Angie is able to file her fingernails on his beard. It could pass for a caress. I could take an American Gothic portrait of her titled Necropheliac Narcissist.
At dinnertime, Angie comes into the kitchen. I’m doing my math homework at the table. The sicker Angus gets, the more math homework I do so I’ve done two years of math in the last five months. In two more months they’re going to send me to the university for my math classes. We have to keep thinking, otherwise we’re just maggots going extinct. Angie is running her hand up and down her leg. She looks at her leg with a furrowed brow. I think she’s counting hairs. Angie has a high tolerance for boredom.
I practice logic statements. If mama implies Angus, and if Angus implies Angie and if Angie implies me, then doesn’t mama=me? I think about that a lot. I wonder if mama did math homework all the time. I doubt it. Maybe she slept with her math teacher.
It’s easy to look at Angie and imagine the end of the world. She’s a representative of the fruition of the human race and the folly that is its demise. I imagine me and Angie in a cave high above the apocalyptic floodwaters. I can’t wait. She’ll be my captive and then I’ll teach her math. I like impossible challenges, like keeping Angus alive. I imagine curing Angus with herbs and chicken soup. I’ve been cooking soup all afternoon. I cook, Angie cleans. That’s our deal. I found a recipe called "New York Penicillin." I take a bowl into Angus. I feed him; he is able to take a few sips. Then I sit with him for a long time. We don’t say anything. We don’t need to. He’s a man of few words. It’s always been like that. But we just love being together. We stay together until it's too dark for shadows and Angus’s hand falls off the bed and hangs limp just above the floor. I wring out a cloth and wipe his brow. The only time he looks peaceful is when he’s asleep.
Back in the kitchen, Angie starts in on me.
“What are you going to wear to the dance Friday?” she asks. “I’ve got a real pretty V-neck swing dress.”
I think to myself how I might be able to use it for a handkerchief. “They’re only allowing the girls to wear pants,” I lie. “They don’t want any boys falling from grace.”
“Who’s Grace?” Angie asks.
I pretend to keep doing my homework but I’m really making a list of qualities I’m looking for in a husband:
1. Good teeth
2. Not a teenager
4. Moderately sized feet
Then I get up to make scrambled eggs and sausage and onions for us. I hold the egg up to the light and twirl it around. I love the shadows on its edge. Eggs, I think, look like they could make a baby without sex. Sayonara sex.
After dinner, Angie asks, “So, let me teach you to dance.”
I think she has a death wish after that episode on the living room floor. “If you do the dishes,” I say.
It’s her job to do the dishes but she never does.
“Duh” she says.
We stand in the kitchen under the bare bulb and Angie plugs in her boom box. She never goes anywhere without it. She walks around the apartment hugging it all day. She puts in another CD.
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong starts singing:
Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Angie puts my hand on her shoulder and leans down to put my feet in place.
Let's do it, let's fall in love
In Spain, the best upper sets do it
Then Angie starts kind of cha-cha-chaing across the kitchen floor pushing me along with her. I try to imagine me and Quinton dancing in the gym. He’s the other math geek at school. We’re always together. I hate to think what would happen if we danced together. We’d get ourselves twisted into a forth-dimensional Taurus and never return.
Lithuanians and Latts do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love
I keep stepping on Angie’s toes. It’s not my fault she’s a midget compared to me and I have to wear clown shoes to fit my feet. I wonder what it would be like for people who have something in common to live together. Sometimes I imagine it. Busting up the TV and eating whole-wheat pita bread around a dining room table talking about Plato.
Angie gives up and goes back to the living room and the TV and turns it up real high. I can hear some American Idol singing. Luckily I walk around with earplugs in my pocket.
The next morning I walk in to check on Angus. He’s blue. I run to him and kiss his head. I can’t stop weeping. He moves his head. I reach for the phone but Angus uses all his strength to put his hand on mine.
“No,” he says. “It’s time. No more pain.”
I lie down next to Angus and put my head on his chest.
“I love you, Stella,” he says and he pats my head. Then he puts his arm around me. We stay like that until I hear the silence of his expired heart. I don’t move. After a while I hum his favorite song. Then I start singing it, like some people recite psalms after a person dies.
A sigh is still a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
I wonder if I could keep Angus’s death a secret. How long could I pretend he was still alive? Angie’s easy to dupe; I’d figure out some excuse why she can’t go in and see him, and anyways, she has no sense of time. She’d forget she hadn’t seen him for days. I could just keep making chicken soup and taking it in to him. I can’t stand the idea of having him removed from home.
But I know too much about the half-life of decomposition to leave him there for long. Angie sleeps late so I just sit with Angus. At 11 a.m. I hear Angie’s pink fluffy bunny slippers padding down the hallway, and then I hear her hugging her boom box in the kitchen, so I call the funeral home. They take care of everything.
At the funeral, Angie wears sunglasses twice the size of her head, which isn’t hard to do. On top of that, she chews bubblegum and pops it through the recitation of Psalm 23. The Lord is my Shepherd; POP I shall not want. POP. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; POP. He leadeth me beside the still waters. POP.
So now, me and Angie; I guess we’re each other’s fundamental thing. There isn’t anybody else for either of us. No matter how hard I try, there’s no logic to it all.
Enter Sir Sigmund Doubtworth. He never believes anything anyone says. He’s my imaginary friend and Angus’s ghost. I’m going to use all that money and we’re going to open a detective agency, Sir Doubtworth and Daughter. Angie will be our decoy. She can siphon a confession out of a molehill with her ignorance. We confessors will think it’s harmless to talk.
Two patrons enable Beth O’Sullivan to write in Paris two months a year. She advocates for others to support individual artists. Patronship enabled To Kill A Mockingbird to be written. Recent publications appear in Tower Journal, Belle Reve, 99 Pine Street and After Happy Hour Review.