fiction from my head
Short Story, Originally Published in Anastamos (Journal of Chapman University).
The reason Tina didn’t have a bed anymore was that she’d left the house for an hour and a half in the middle of the day. Generally, she didn’t leave at all, except sometimes to take Pistol to preschool. Pistol’s name was Petal, but Tina called her Pistol, which is how she said her own name. She was red haired and freckled and had an under bite, which might be part of the reason her language skills weren’t as advanced as most four-year-olds.
Tina didn’t leave the house because she was a freelance ghostwriter who typed until she was so fatigued that her focus locked and her eyes burned and she had to lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling until she could see again. Sometimes she sent emails at two or three or four in the morning. She made good enough money, but every day she shook with terror that it might dry up, that she might not be able to support the two of them, that she might not be able to keep a bank account that was something to gaze securely upon, like a boulder in midstream.
The reason Tina was gone from the house was that the nanny had failed to pick Pistol up and Tina had gotten a call that it was now costing her five dollars a minute to have a teacher wait with the child who was crying hysterically in the background, no doubt because she was hungry for her lunch and maybe a nap. “Can you give her a cracker?” asked Tina. “I‟ll be right there.” And then she said, “Where’s Charlotte?” which was the nanny, who Pistol called Carlot, which made no sense because the teacher had told her that Charlotte was on vacation in South Carolina, and why hadn’t Tina made other arrangements?
The teacher already thought Tina was a nut case because Pistol was always late for school and sometimes her socks didn’t match. The teacher did not care that this was how Pistol liked to dress and expected Tina or Carlot to yank her from her half-finished toast and into her car seat, which resided most of the time in Carlot’s car and not in Tina’s, which Tina remembered only when she turned into the parking lot of the preschool. Partly this was because she had been desperately calling Carlot’s cell phone and leaving messages.
The teacher didn’t check the status of Tina’s car-seatedness or lack thereof and so Tina was able to pay her fine ($100) and strap in little Pistol, the skin under her freckles red and swollen from crying, and drive to the nearest Target to get a car seat. She explained to Pistol that this was a special day because she was now a big enough girl to get a booster seat instead of a baby seat, which pleased Pistol especially when she also got a new 50 pack of washable markers and a bag of cheddar goldfish.
When she finally pulled back into her driveway, water was pouring from under the front door onto the porch. “Our house is floating,” said Pistol, which it wasn’t.
“Stay here a minute sweetie,” said Tina. The push of water made it hard to open the door. Inside she found waterfalls streaming from the light fixtures and cascades on the stairs. She did the right things: wading through to shut off the power, finding the source – the upstairs toilet – and turning off its valve.
She sat on her bed to call the insurance company, realizing too late that the water had wicked up the hanging bedclothes and soaked the mattress where Tina hardly got any rest anyway. First they read long stanzas from the contract to her, then they told her that they‟d send someone to vacuum out of the water after which an adjuster would come.
“We’ll take care of you,” they said.
“Yeah, right,” said Tina. “When?” Which comment they ignored. – stop
She went downstairs to find Pistol standing in the living room, cheddar goldfish floating in the water around her knees. She picked her up and went to her office. Her computer wasn’t damaged, though her printer and fax machine had apparently shorted out and were fried. Pistol squirmed, and she put her down.
She found her inbox jammed with 300 emails from her two current clients. One was a famous Hollywood studio for whom Tina was fixing a Die Hard rip-off screenplay whose writer thought that dialogue like “Cops are freaks. Don’t trust em‟ would rouse audiences to pay the big bucks to witness their pith. The other one was the life story of a man who claimed to have grown up in a gang, though Tina thought it more likely that he was simply trying to cash in on current popular cultural fads.
She called Carlot one more time to yell at her voicemail only to realize that Carlot had answered. “Quiet down,” said Carlot. “I’ll be there in a few days. I’ve had a pressing personal matter.”
“You ran out on Pistol. You just left us both in the lurch.”
“If I’d have told you, you’d have talked me out of it. You’d have said you couldn’t manage. And this is finally something just for me. He talks to me,” said Carlot. “That’s the truth. Carl never says a thing to me. Tyson talks and he listens. It’s like he thinks I’m a TV dinner and microwave combination. Like I’m yummy.”
“What am I supposed to say to that?” cried Tina.
“He had a trip, and I decided to go with him. It’s a free trip for me, and it’s not your business. I’m at Mrytle Beach.” Carlot giggled as though someone had pinched her and she heard a man’s soft voice in the background. It sounded like a nice voice.
“For your information, I met him at the playground. He was there with his nephew because his own brother ran off and doesn’t pay child support, so Tyson tries to give those kids some male influence. That’s the kind of man he is.”
“At the playground?” asked Tina. Charlotte was only at the playground with Pistol. “With Pistol? You were picking up men at the playground with Pistol?”
“Pistol was always safe with me.”
“What are you saying?”
“Nothing. I’m saying nothing. Pay attention to the real situation. I’m taking a break. I’m with someone.”
“The real situation? I was picking her up and our house flooded. I’m standing in ankle deep water and Pistol is crying because everything is ruined.”
In fact, Pistol wasn’t crying. She was just standing in the kitchen watching the water dash out the open door in beautiful, gulping swirls. “And you left her. I had to pay a hundred dollars to get my daughter out of hock. My daughter. You’re supposed to care about her.”
“You’re telling me a story to make me feel bad,” said Charlotte. “I’m having me some life for a few days, and then I’ll be back.”
“He’s married isn’t he?” said Tina. A van was pulling up in the driveway. It was a friendly green van, green like the shoots of some young plant. Disaster Response Squad, it said on the side.
“Truck,” said Pistol. “That man here with a book.”
A man in a shoot green uniform was at the door with a clipboard. “I have to go,” said Tina. “They’re here to suck the water out of the house.”
“Mam,” said the man. “Insurance sent us.” He opened the door as if he’d been invited. “Let’s have a look, and you got nothing to worry about,” he said. “Where’s the source?”
The man was talking. He was trying to be reassuring and businesslike therefore Tina wasn’t listening. Pistol came and stood next to her and held her leg. Three or four men and a woman had climbed out of the back of the van and were taking out machines and hoses. Then they started to put on rain gear and boots.
“Where are they from?” asked Pistol, pointing. “Space mans?”
Tina heard the part where the man told them to pack their things and go to a hotel. The insurance would pay for it. It said so on his clipboard. They would lock up when they left and leave the key under the mat.
Tina carried multiple loads to the SUV – clothes, toys, valuables she didn’t want to leave in the house while Martians were invading it, and her laptop –while talking on the phone trying to get a room arranged at a business hotel. Tina didn’t want to know about the refrigerator in the room, she assumed the refrigerator. Tina just wanted to know Yes or No.
Pistol came outside dragging her entire toy chest at the exact minute that Tina was balancing a packed plastic crate against the car door with her hip so that she could read her credit card number to the woman on the phone. Pistol scratched the toy chest all the way down the side of the car, which made Tina burst into tears. She pushed End on the phone and put the crate in the car and sat on the driveway to cry. Pistol gave up on the toy chest and came to sit in her lap. She put her arms around her and put her damp face in Tina’s neck. She cried too. Her warm little arms and her hug and her tearing eyes made Tina feel better. She brushed the wet from her daughter’s cheeks and kissed her. “We’ve had a disaster haven’t we?” she said. Pistol nodded. “But we’re okay,” said Tina. “We get to go to a hotel for a few days. I bet they have a pool.”
Pistol looked up at Tina, questioning. “Carlot’s hotel doesn’t have a pool, only swings,” she said. She stood up suddenly and started back into the house.
“Where are you going?”
“To get my goggles,” she said.
Tina called Carlot back.
“What now?” she answered. “I’ll be back Sunday. I’ll be there Monday.”
“Did you ever go anywhere with this man and Pistol? Like a hotel? She says you went to a hotel with swings.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Carlot. “It’s not like I had sex in front of her. I’ve been with her since she was one. She’s like my own child. She spends more time with me than with you. I’ve committed no crime.”
“You did,” whispered Tina. “You did.” The thought bankrupted her. “We won’t be here when you come back,” she said. “We’re going to a hotel.” She knew what she had to say but was finding it hard. She was alone, alone, always alone. Carlot filled in her gaps. She had conversations with her every day. Sometimes she was the only grown up she talked to. “You’re fired,” she said.
“You can’t afford to be without me. You got no one else.”
Tina was quiet thinking about this.
“You have to be fired,” she finally said.
Carlot didn’t reply. She just hung up.
Tina called her mother, who lived safely far away in Florida, and told her what had happened. “I knew something like this would happen to you,” said her mother. “The minute you ran off with that painter. I knew you’d end up alone. Now, what are you going to do, girlie?”
Tina called her father, who lived safely far away in Montana. “Well,” he said. “I’m sorry. You’ll have a time now. You’ll have to get the whole house rewired. You’ll have to have new drywall, the floors redone. It‟s going to cost a pretty penny, and it’s going to take awhile. Bad luck, little girlie.”
Pistol came out with a backpack, which was wet and crammed with soggy books and a baby blanket. She carried a beach towel and goggles. “My stars,” she said, “are falling out of my sky.”
“Shit,” said Tina. She took Pistol‟s hand and ran into the house. Indeed, the ceiling with its glow in the dark stars was tearing away around the light, sagging like the drooling lip of a stroke victim.
It wasn’t until after she’d schlepped all their stuff trip-by-trip into their hotel room, not until after she’d let Petal watch TV while she set up her computer, not until after they’d ordered up some room service and eaten on the bed, and not until after she’d put Petal into the tub did she realize that the little girl seemed feverish. She wrapped her in a towel, felt her forehead and under her arms. They didn’t have a thermometer. They didn’t have anything. Her phone rang and then a minute later her computer bleeped to let her know that someone was trying to contact her by instant messenger. Petal began to cry again.
She put her pajamas on and smoothed the hair on her forehead while she called the front desk to ask for some pediatric ibuprofen. They didn’t have any. The best they could do, the guy said, was call one of those errand couriers to pick some up, but it would be very expensive and perhaps take a while. She’d do better to take her sick daughter out to the store. It wouldn’t take ten minutes. She asked him to send the courier. “It’s you and me kid,” she told Petal.
After her daughter had her ibuprofen and fell asleep on her chest just as she had as a baby, Tina got up to discover the messages, both phone and IM, were coming from the faux gangster informing her that he was going to make a guest appearance on a morning TV show and needed her to send an advance copy by the end of the month. She replied that she was very excited for him but that, due to a personal tragedy, she wasn’t going to be able to do his book after all. She would send what she had so far to him gratis. She didn’t need the money. She needed other things. Right away the phone began to ring and ring and the IM to bleep. If nothing else, he was ambidextrous.
She stood awhile at the inoperable window, staring out at the cars turning in here and there while the traffic light went through its cycles. Then she curled up next to her daughter on the bed, close enough to smell her clean babyness and the sticky cherry of the medicine on her chin, and pulled the blanket over both their heads so it would catch their breaths and hold them together for a while.