Alison dreamed that Daddy climbed out of a deep, kelpy lake to give her a box. Inside was an iPod Nano. Without speaking, he walked back down into the lake, which swallowed him like he was a globule of saltwater. When she woke, the floor was damp at her feet, and she was almost crying.
The refrigerator coughed. Water dripped from the sink. The pendulum swung on the grandfather clock. Alison sat on the futon, resenting the haste of time. The transistor radio was kept at low volume to keep the neighbors from complaining, but it had to always be on, near a whisper so you could hear your thoughts in the ghosts of melodies, thin faraway cries lost in a breeze. Five more years, it said, and she closed her eyes, hands knitting yellow yarn without design. The TV was blank, used only to watch the boring Newshour. There was nothing to cook with in the refrigerator. Soon Mom was home, unpacking groceries and opening and closing cabinets. “Alison,” Mom said, “do you know what happened to the last can of tuna?”
“I didn’t take it,” was all you could say, to skip past the insinuations. You had to keep your eyes on the needles, because that’s what you were really interested in. You weren’t worried, because Mom was too tired to fight for long, you could tell. Maybe she would crash early, and you’d have the studio to yourself. A copy of The Giver was face down on the table, a book report due tomorrow, and though you hated school, and reading even more, it was better than a lot of things. Wind, slide, pull.
“What I’m saying is,” Mom said, putting stuff in the refrigerator, “is if you want to take anything, you have to let me know first. That’s all I’m saying.” She was already putting painful emphasis on every other word like a bad actor.
“I didn’t take it, Mom,” you had to flatly maintain, because you didn’t, and you weren’t afraid–Mom was a feeble woman, and when you stood, you were almost eye-to-eye now. Wind, slide, pull.
“Well, Alison, it didn’t just grow legs and walk out on its own.” Now Mom stood behind the chair.
There was nothing you could say to that. In five years, you’d be out on your own, and you could find Daddy, that fabricated monster, and you would write a book about how rotten she was, your mom, and it would be a #1 New York Times bestseller and she would be sorry. Wind, slide, pull.
“I told you,” you had to say, finally looking up even though you really were more concerned with knitting. “You probably already used it and–”
“I know what’s in my house, Alison,” Mom interrupted. She put the remaining items in the cupboards. Mom didn’t appear to be that angry, at least not by her standards. You could never be sure, though: either this would reach a certain point and collapse into a merciful silence or would escalate until Mom started the hitting of you. Either way, you just wanted it to be over. And if things did go that way, toward the hitting of you, you would fight back for a change. You would. “That’s why I need to know. I could have gotten more at Safeway.”
“So, I don’t know, go shopping again? Or go without tuna for a couple days.”
“You are a brat, Alison,” Mom said. “I don’t work twelve-hour days, five days a week, to come home to this attitude. I lift 250-poundmen, change adult diapers–I put a roof over your head. I am your mother and I deserve respect.” You had to notice she didn’t mention having back pain the whole time. Or was it the shoulder now? Also, she hadn’t changed an adult diaper in six weeks since she hopped employers again. The speech continued; the word “ungrateful” would come soon. “You can’t just take things without asking,” Mom added as though to herself, now turned back to the counter.
The best thing to do was to stand up, put on your coat, and go to the Bartell’s.
“Where are you going?”
“To get more tuna.”
“This isn’t about the tuna, Alison. It’s about taking things without asking.”
You had to leave, but there would be consequences. Whatever: there were consequences for doing nothing. At least you had your keys so Mom couldn’t lock you out or something. Quiet, yes. Alison took the elevator, which halted with a shudder on floor five. The door slid open, but nobody got on. She pressed the “close door” and “lobby” buttons many times, but the door didn’t close. She got out and headed down the hall, which was identical to the eighth floor, toward the stairs. Many quiet lives lurked within these doors, infinitely preferable to her own. Was an iPod Nano so much to ask for? She could pay for half, too. She heard a nonvocal sound coming out of apartment 507. The door was open. The lights were on, but nobody was inside. There was a grandfather clock, its pendulum stuck in an upswing. And then she heard it: a transistor radio, the volume almost inaudible. She stormed away, but the sound followed her. She bought the tuna and fought some more with Mom, who (unsurprisingly) threw the can away immediately, accusing her of theft, and said it was the wrong brand and reiterated that what mattered was not taking things without asking. Meatballs and rice was for dinner, and she had better not complain, which was all she ever did. Finally, Mom collapsed like a handful of twigs into the futon before setting it up. Alison went to bed on the air mattress, she dreamed of an open door. She went downstairs. The door was closed but she did not knock.
The lights in the room were still on. Everything was the same: the lamps, the grandfather clock (except it was broken), the gray futon, the small TV, the position of the refrigerator and microwave, and of course the whole floor plan. The shower curtain was decorated with horizontal lines rather than vertical ones, and the window viewed the opposite side of the building, which was dotted with blank windows. There was a buildup of trash on the roof of the lobby. Alison turned off the radio, which felt like finally cancelling the wind because it irked her. The place was immaculate–there was no clutter, no scent, no sign of being lived in. There was an apple which she rinsed and ate. There was an egg carton in the fridge, a single brown egg inside. The refrigerator coughed. Water dripped from the sink. Settling into the futon, she went to sleep. A few hours later she woke so deeply rested that her memory of life itself was foggy, that every muscle of her body, every bone and joint felt renewed, like an engine, after being deprived of the right grease for years, now receiving it. That she wasn’t home was immediately apparent, since she never felt this way. So, she returned home furtively, noticing that no time had passed since she left, and slept some more until morning. When she woke, Mom had already gone to work. In the fridge there was a bowl of chili covered in saran wrap. She left for school.
During lunch, Alison sat with Jasmine and others. She ate the cafeteria meal of the day (macaroni and cheese and peas), plus some Corn-nuts Jasmine shared. Rachel kept showing everybody pictures of famous boys on her phone. They were something to look at, but so were a lot of boys in class. Like Eric. Alison joked about a man in the background looking like an anorexic penguin, to laughs and general agreement. They texted some of the second-lunchers who were in fifth period right now. She and Jasmine shared a pair of earbuds. Most of the music was alright, the kind of stuff black girls listened to, but for whatever reason Drake sounded really good. She really needed an iPod Nano but was $40 short of a good used one. It was humiliating not having one, but she couldn’t ask Mom because the answer would be no even though Mom had a Galaxy S8, and because then she would get the pleasure of knowing how dearly her daughter suffered every day.
Alison and Jasmine sat together on the bus, grooving to their music with silly improvised hand-dances. A couple of her other friends were in the seat in front of them. She suggested they jump out and get ice-cream at the Baskin Robbins around the block but was summarily overruled. “Oh, you guys have big plans?” Other possibilities: the pool (they’d have to get their swimwear), a stay at Jasmine’s house (weird), or a movie (doable, but her friends would worry about coming home late). Oh well, forget it. Jasmine got off the bus and her father opened the door to greet her on the steps of this normal house with a normal family in it. There were no endless fights or any kind of hitting of her going on in there. Jasmine even had a little brother to complain about. Daddy never did any hitting of her. If only he’d managed to get custody. Five years and three months. Allison wanted to die sometimes. She went to room 507. There was another apple. The (same?) egg had shifted to another place in the carton. Shutting off the radio, she sat down and closed her eyes. Water dripped from the sink. The wind clamored at the window.
Alison slept. When she woke, the refrigerator coughed. She started The Giver (she had been given an extra three days with a letter-grade lateness penalty). Jasmine had suggested that she just read the SparkNotes, but she didn’t have a computer. After twenty pages, she wrote a few sentences. She would probably get an F anyway: she had barely gotten through sixth grade with Cs and Ds and a B, in earth sciences, somehow (maybe just that Mr. B was awesome), and now things were a little harder even. She took a break and at first started knitting, but then dusted off the TV screen, turned it on. There was no remote, so she sat right in front of the it, turning the dial. As she scrolled the channels, she discovered it was hooked up with cable! MTV, Comedy Central, TNT, the works. Eventually she wound up watching an episode of That 70s Show, a program she had seen at a friend’s house. It was really funny. For too long she had lived in the dark bog of TVlessness (except for the news). If you could call that living. She watched another episode.
When Alison went back home, again no time had passed since she arrived in the building. She popped the chili in the microwave. She thought of changing the station on the radio but didn’t. She tried to read, but under this hanging cacophony it was impossible. About an hour later, Mom made a lot of noise outside the door. You had to open it for her, though you couldn’t be sure what door you were opening.
“Oh, thank you,” Mom said, smiling. “Sometimes it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.” She stepped inside. “I hope dinner was OK.”
“Your chili’s always my favorite.” Allison had tried making it herself, but it never came out quite right. Although Mom’s always changed in spiciness, consistency, and meatiness, it was unfalteringly great. It was one of the few meals she left to Mom’s special finesse. “How was work?”
“Oh, same old.” Mom dropped her purse on the chair, fetched the chili, and popped it in the microwave. “You know the chorizo that’s in there? You should fry it up for tacos tomorrow. I think there’s enough. It’s only got a couple days.”
Mom started on about her day being alright, except traffic, which was becoming a nightmare, even more than before. The microwave beeped. She retrieved the bowl, sprinkling shredded mozzarella on top. She mentioned her client getting angry when she couldn’t find a certain type of light bulb at Walmart. But overall, it wasn’t a bad day.
“Yeah,” Alison said cautiously. “I got an extension on my book report.” Maybe she could have finished on time, she wanted to say. “I’ll be docked a letter grade, but it’s better than nothing.”
“Since when do you care about grades?” Mom wondered abstractedly, looking at the juice in her glass. “Some of us can make the grade, other can’t.” She blew on a spoonful of chili. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. That’s just how the world works.” She then complained about how “rich fucks” were ruining the country and how idiots were all over the road, thus steamrolling Alison’s small, naive hope for a conversation.
So, Alison went to apartment 507 every day after school. She would sleep and eat the apple. She would fry the egg and clean the dishes. Encouraged with a 72% on her book report (which was really an 82%), she would read and do homework and watch TV. It was nice. She would watch so much TV. Outside the window on the roof of the lobby was all that accumulated rot that was hard to get to. But it was easy to ignore. The wind would rap at the window. She would sleep. She would watch crime dramas and sitcoms and Adult Swim cartoons. She would watch MTV trash reality shows and TLC “educational programs.” Her favorite was That 70s Show. Would she ever have a boyfriend like Hyde? At least on TV, men weren’t all garbage. On TV everyone had the right words. On TV, the poor young girls all had these miraculous talents–they were smart, or beautiful, usually both. On TV, you had both parents, and neither of them was shitty. She couldn’t watch Modern Family. It made her mad, not so much that they were happy, but that they were so casual about it, like they didn’t know or even consider anything else–that people like Allison, they didn’t exist. She watched a Comedy Central standup special because the comedian was hot. Cable TV was truly a miracle. The refrigerator would cough, and water would drip from the sink.
Alison’s grades improved, not that she cared. She even got a few As but decided to keep that to herself. Her science teacher was curious about what sparked her “turnaround,” and to be nice she answered that she realized science was, like, totally cool, and he suggested she join the math and science club or whatever. Her history teacher was less generous, seeming to suspect her of cheating on the last quiz. Mom would agree. Alison kept pace with the reading assignments on Lord of the Flies, which had a lot of big words, and she always forgot the dictionary, but you could guess. It was a good book. She was getting Cs in math, which was an improvement, but she felt like every problem required a completely novel concept that none of the examples prepared her for.
One day when Mom was out until 8, she went to an afternoon showing of Black Panther (in 2D) with her friends. Insanely-priced popcorn and soda abounded. They laughed too much and even got shushed by some old guy, but who cared. Afterward they took the giddy affair out onto the streets. “Ewwww!” they exclaimed in unison at some scenario involving a scrawny crooked-toothed classmate. Alison mentioned her own brainy crush, who she had never spoken to, and the consensus was that he was pretty cute. They went to Chipotle and were a noisy bunch, and except Alison they left a mess. As they waited for the bus, the mood finally settled. They bemoaned their assignments and teachers and agreed that Lord of the Flies sucked. She was the last to get off. Weeks ago, she sat on this ride wishing she was anybody else, please, but now being Alison seemed alright. Well, not as terrible at least. It would have been even better with an iPod Nano. She had $35 more to save. Daddy would have bought her a full-fledged phone. He always got her exactly what she wanted, watching her tear open a present, and then they would embrace, and he smelled like cigarettes.
Days later, after an argument with Mom, Alison said, “I hate you,” and tore down to apartment 507. She opened the window because it was hot. When she woke after a nap, a cockatoo was perched atop the broken grandfather clock, displaying a crest streaked with yellow and black, staring at her with some interest, first with one galactic eye, then the other. Still sleepy and perhaps still dreaming, she closed her eyes. “Color.” It said. She sat up. “Color. Color color. Color?” It looked from side to side, then forward, its crest falling. It bit its talon. “Color.”
“Yes,” she said, “you’re very colorful.”
“Color.” It jumped-glided to the table and preened its feathers. For a while it was silent, turning to the left, then the right, then forward. It then said the word in a panicked barrage, pacing back and forth as though frustrated that the word hadn’t had the desired effect upon her. It knocked something off the table, underneath which was a post-it note, on which was a doodle of a sailboat in blue pen. Alison remembered. In kindergarten class, she had painted a big old-world sailboat, with thick masts and multiple sails. It wasn’t a pirate ship but carried strawberries (her favorite), lots of strawberries, which was what was painted on the flag. She had taken liberties with the shapes and colors. When she got home with it, of course Mom was brimming with praise, saying, “I love the colors.” Who knew if she was just saying that. Alison hated her. But Daddy was there too. She didn’t remember what he said exactly, but he smiled after Mom put it on the refrigerator, standing at her side, and a year later they were divorced. Oh God how she hated her!
The cockatoo displayed its crest again. “Color,” it said.
“Go away!” She stood and swiped at it. It took flight, seeming to be drawn to the window by some great magnet. She closed the window, ate the apple. The refrigerator coughed. The egg in the fridge was cracked, running.
Alison watched TV, but it didn’t help. She couldn’t read, and the fractions were even more cryptic than usual. The wind started, kicking about the trash between the wings of the building.
The next day in apartment 507 there was an apple, but the egg was missing. The grandfather clock was ticking. The refrigerator coughed. The water dripped from the sink. The radio started playing, though she was sure she had turned it off. Having resolved to take a well-deserved nap, however, she fell asleep. She dreamed of this room, floating on water, tethered with chains to some unseen place, being cranked nearer. Meanwhile, heavy things piled into the room, like a dresser and a coffee machine, then lighter things–papers everywhere in little cyclones, the cloth she had knitted like a disfigured dinosaur–but in the dream they were just as heavy. Awakening, she felt as though she were somewhere different. She closed and opened her eyes to catch reality shifting and shuffling around her. A moth fluttered by and her eyes followed. She nearly jumped to her feet when she saw a woman–her mother–standing at the window. Mom was chewing on a mouthful. “Mom?” Allison said.
Mom turned around, held a finger up until she finished chewing. The wind outside had grown fiercer, like a storm was about to break. She took a seat in the chair. “Hi, Allison,” she said at last. “I love hard boiled eggs. Don’t know why I don’t make them more often. A little salt & pepper, and they’re perfect.” She popped the remainder of it into her mouth and tapped at her phone screen. The light flickered. Mom scratched her left arm, which was covered in burns, lined with overlapping layers of light brown, spotted with purplish pools of flesh. The refrigerator coughed and the water dripped from the sink. Mom scrolled, scrolled. That was all Allison wanted, was to get to scroll herself, like all her friends. Or not even to scroll, but to have something, some charming distraction so that she didn’t always have to be here in this cramped place.
“Mom… I’ll be thirteen soon… For my birthday… could I…”
“No,” was her stentorian reply. She did not look up.
“You don’t even know what–”
“Let me guess: a phone. Right? So, what am I supposed to do? Shell out three hundred bucks, four hundred bucks, plus a seventy dollar bill every month? And then you’ll go around using data willy-nilly because you’re just a child with no impulse control, and I’ll get slapped with fifteen on top of that. I’m spread thin enough as it is, thank you, just to keep you alive. You should be grateful for what you have, Allison.”
“I don’t even want a phone.”
Mom laughed. “And then every year you’ll need a new one, because all your friends, all those rich snob friends of yours, are getting new phones. You live in a fantasy world. Money doesn’t–”
“I don’t want a phone! Gosh.”
Mom fell silent.
“I’ve been saving for an iPod Nano,” Allison explained. “You can get a good used one for about 80 dollars and–” She could already sense her pitch’s impending failure. “–I’ve saved 45.38. So, you could just chip in 35–”
“And… how much per month?”
“Nothing!” Allison gesticulated. This wasn’t entirely true. “Nothing.”
Mom considered this for a moment. “I know you feel like a real loser at school,” she said, “having a Mom that can’t buy you all this unnecessary shit. You think I’m being cruel and unreasonable and probably think I get off on it. But you’ll thank me, when you’re a little older, that your brain wasn’t melted by these things.”
“But it isn’t fair! You have–”
“Life isn’t fair, Allison. Why don’t you go ask your father? If he paid the slightest interest in you, it wouldn’t even be a problem. Your father–”
The word was so massive its impact trembled in her eardrums. Allison was tired of hearing bad things about Daddy, who looked upon her with kind eyes and a smile, and who would never have done any kind of hitting at all of her, ever. The wind was almost visible behind the window, slicing the air. Mom scratched her arm more frequently. The pendulum swung.
“–for one second, not one second, to throw you out like garbage just to–”
The refrigerator coughed loudly, as though something inside needed repair. Mom, once started, was rolling as though down a steep, endless slope.
“–and you know what your father said to me? You know what he said? He said–”
Allison stood up. Mom stopped speaking. Allison looked at the debris outside the window, being kicked about, some of it being carried away, except the heaviest things, such as an empty flowerpot and some kind of cage. An iPod Nano wouldn’t solve their problems, of course. Even this room couldn’t solve their problems. When she turned around her mother was gone, replaced by Daddy, who sat with the same smile as he had when looking at the colorful boat on the refrigerator.
“Daddy?” Her knees grew weak. She stepped closer, but all the words were like a coat of dust on her tongue, and the tears were loose, tears that wet her face with six years, six long years, and she wanted him to know, she wanted him to know. She reached out to embrace him to speak these idle, elusive words, to confirm his presence in her arms, and thereby to be, for a moment, less alone, as she had been for six years, six long years, but as she pushed her hands into his shirt, his head slumped over to one side, and his whole body was a giant ragdoll. Afterward, she tried to prop the head upright again, but it fell back. She grabbed the doll by a seam in the chest and shook it. “Why did you leave?” she demanded. She shook it violently and threw it on the floor, tears streaming down her cheeks. The refrigerator coughed, and between sobs you could hear the water drip from the sink.
The next day, apartment 507 was locked. Allison went home and started on an assignment with fractions. In class today the teacher said that you can’t divide by zero, but maybe the math people didn’t try hard enough to figure it out. It was harder to concentrate here with the transistor radio humming and this Mom-presence all over the room. She would have to lay claim to a “space” for herself by shutting out Mom as much as possible.
So, that’s what she tried to do, and in the coming weeks was able to keep getting Bs. Her birthday came and went, and then she had scrounged enough to buy an iPod Nano. Mom, of course, harangued her for it, commanding her to return it, but Alison didn’t obey, and within a couple days she shut up, though she conjured a set of rules, the first being that Alison could only use it for two hours each night. Jasmine helped her download songs onto it, and she chose the whitest music she could think of, such as Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. It was almost as good as cable. Meanwhile she finished The Lord of the Flies and started To Kill a Mockingbird and learned all about the Civil War and the order of operations and natural selection and the art of Leonardo da Vinci. And now she could put the earbuds in and close her eyes and be in a room by herself for two hours (though Mom talked the whole time). They still fought (Mom yanking off the earbuds), but it wasn’t as bad, because Alison was more careful not to provoke her, and after she started to put up a kind of fight, there was no more hitting, not even a little, of her. She thought of Daddy less, for she realized that he had dropped out of her life willingly, that he didn’t care about her. Nobody did. Five years. But for now, this was it–her and Mom and this apartment and the fortifying tunes of Imagine Dragons.
About the Author:
James la Vigne is a writer and alleged poet with a background in mathematics living in Seattle, where he polishes five antique doorknobs. He has a story in Cardinal Sins.