I still feel that humid night on me. Back then our apartment perched above the sidewalk like a vulture; my head perched above my heart like a parrot. Just before you wedged that stupid laundry basket you use as a suitcase out the back door, you told me to stop messing with the frays of things, and I spent I don’t know how long on the rim of the bathtub. Early, early, I wandered outside. I found one of your button-downs wadded in the yard—still wet from its vagrancy. I took off my shirt, smoothed yours on my skin like lotion.
Waiting for the bus, Osage slipped her hands into her pockets and found something. Cellophane crinkled as she pulled out four bright orange and yellow Jolly Ranchers. That was the third time this month.
Osage spotted her friend Jessica’s shock of purple hair in the fourth seat from the back of the bus, their usual. She heard bubble gum snapping as she walked between the seats. “I found more candy just now,” she said when she reached Jessica. Jessica looked up from her phone. Osage recognized the deep-voiced narrator of Candy Crush saying ‘Sweet.’
“You don’t think it’s me, do you?”
“Yeah. I think you totally woke up early, carried a ladder five blocks, and snuck into my bedroom window just to put some stupid candy in my pocket.”
“Ever hear of doors, smart ass?” Jessica’s phone cheered and whistled before she continued. “Have you checked your other jeans? Maybe whoever did it hid the candy before and you’re just finding it now.”
“I checked. Nothing. It gotta be Mom because she’s not letting Jimmy, my step-dad, sleep in the house anymore. No way it’s Camden. That would require him to acknowledge my presence.”
“Why don’t you just ask her?”
“I don’t know. Why doesn’t she just give me the candy?”
“True. She’s being pretty stalkery. Like how does she even know which jeans to put them in?”
“I lay my clothes out on my dresser at night.”
“You’re such a freak, Ozzie. No one sane does that.” Jessica’s attention shifted back to her phone. Osage watched a few purple locks of her friend’s hair come loose from behind an ear. They reminded her of the tentacles of a cartoon octopus.
“Shut up. My mom does it, too.”
“That just proves my point…is she any better?”
“Sort of.” Osage traced the seam on the edge of the vinyl seat with her finger. We’ll get through this, her mom had said between sips of beer, we’ve done this before.
A few summers ago, her mom and dad packed her and Camden up for a surprise trip. They acted weird on the drive down, being super nice to each other, like Mom asked permission before she changed the radio station, and Dad didn’t check his phone once while he was driving. Camden and Osage spent the car trip tossing looks across the back seat of the Blazer.
They stayed the night at a La Quinta outside Jeff City. Boys on the floor, girls in the bed. In the morning, her dad told them to put their swimming suits on before they got in the car. After another hour of driving, her dad pulled into a parking lot near a river. They walked down a pier that ended with a tin shed, brightly colored canoes nodding at them as they passed. A man with a long beard handed them four lime green life jackets and two oars, then pointed to a canoe the color of a pencil eraser. Her mom got in first, and Osage followed, then Camden and her dad. For some reason, the morning didn’t feel fun to Osage, it felt like doing chores.
After about ten minutes of half-steamed paddling, their father pivoted to face his family. “Do you kids know where you are?”
Camden shrugged his shoulders; Osage scanned the buildings. Her dad pointed to the shed they’d just walked past. “That’s the boat rental place I worked at in college.”
“This is the Osage River?” Osage dipped her fingers into her namesake; the cool water pushed against her fingers.
“Yeah, and that’s Camdenton,” her mother finally said. “We wanted you guys to see how gorgeous it is here, how special.”
“This is where we started,” her dad said, using his oar to turn the canoe. “And this is where we want it to end. There’s no good way to put this: your mother and I have decided to break up.” Twelve gongs of a church bell announced the arrival of the afternoon.
“It’s going to be weird for a while.” The boat reeled as her father shifted his weight. “But we still care for each other. We just think we’ll be a stronger team apart. Right, Traci?”
Back in the bus, Osage thought of the last time she’d seen Jimmy at the house. He had offered to pack their lunches. He’d never done that before.
Osage pulled her own phone out of her backpack, clicked on Jimmy’s text thread, and typed, “Thx 4 the candy!”
Miranda giggles—the kind soaked in toddler glee—when she finds my paper heart. She wanders the house clutching it, screaming whenever I reach toward her. Eventually I find her heart-less, crying. I search, not noticing the pink drool on her chin.
(photo credit: http://hdwgo.com/)
PHILIP HAD SPENT THE MORNING before the wedding stewing in the bathtub. He told Ben before he closed the door that taking a bath before a major event was a Taggart family tradition, but really he just needed an excuse to be alone for a while. A curtain of steam was the perfect device to hide him from distraction. He took his time undressing and slipping into the water, his mind buoyed with worries of the day ahead. He imagined the scowls on the faces of certain relatives when they saw him with Ben later that day.
The Taggarts were a passionate lot, his father especially. Joseph Taggart presided as the town’s mayor and had worked very hard to get there. Philip’s early childhood memories consisted almost exclusively of his father standing yards away at a podium, the fiery words he spoke matching his blaze of red hair. Growing up, Philip and his family attended all of Joseph’s functions: they canvassed the town as a family, they manned the polling stations as a family, they even bumped heads kissing the babies of the town. The Taggart name was synonymous with Michigan politics. Philip had known since he was 14 that some of his views clashed with his father’s, but it wasn’t until his senior year of high school that he actually challenged the platitudes he heard at the dinner table. His mother and brothers took his audacity silently, while his father grew taller in the dining room chair. Philip would have been intimidated, but their hold on him had long since loosened. Philip believed his father had many fine qualities, but he was self-righteous to a fault so the conversation leveled off into Philip offering his views on the environment and his father listing off the reasons Philip was wrong. It was true that his Aunt Leslie and her partner had tempered some of the Taggarts’ views—even his father tamped down his fervor slightly while his little sister was in the room, but flip comments could still be heard, especially about Aunt Leslie. They mostly talked about Uncle Jimmy not speaking a word to Leslie since she told the family she was gay. After Philip came out himself, he noticed the topic was never broached. He doubted they had ceased talking about it; it was just no longer mentioned in his company.
Philip didn’t notice the steam dissipating from the small room. When Ben tapped lightly on the bathroom door, the imaginary verbal smackdown Philip was rehearsing in his mind clicked off and he was jolted back into the bathtub—naked, sitting in chilly water with only a thin line of bubbles clinging to the edges of the ceramic.
“Did you fall asleep in there?” Ben said, opening the door.
“No, just deep in thought.” Philip caught a glimpse in the blurred mirror of the red that was his own hair.
Ben dipped his fingers into the water. “Yikes. Get outta there, baby, unless you’re training for the Polar Bear Plunge. I’ll grab a towel…what were you thinking about?”
“Nothing specific. Just stuff.”
FROM WHERE PHILIP SAT he couldn’t tell why people were laughing. The bride was only seconds into her march up the aisle and the back pews were already snickering. Since everyone was facing her, he saw the backs of fifty people’s heads tilt up in laughter. He felt his date, Ben, shrug his shoulders and then half-stand to get a better look. The laughter in the sanctuary swelled with each step of the bride. Philip looked toward the groom, who was smirking, and the groomsmen—there were 4—all looked toward the back wall with brows set deep in concentration. Odd.
The church was long—one of those monstrosities they built in the 90s, the kind crammed with Escher stairways and skylights shaped like amoebas. Everything in the church could have come straight off the set of Beetlejuice. A large skylight shaped like a cross shone down over the chancel. The day was overcast, but Philip imagined the drama of the moment the sun peeked out from behind a cloud and shined a spotlight on the…minister? Preacher? Father?
He leaned to Ben’s ear. “What do Methodists call their preachers?”
“No, that can’t be right.”
“Look, Philip. Behind her.” Ben pointed above the bride. Given the dramatic and glacially slow step-together walk that, for some reason, was only employed during weddings and graduations, she was only about a quarter of the way down the aisle. She was gorgeous, Philip’s Aunt Stephanie, even more so after a morning of facials and waxings and touch-ups and blowouts. She had the Taggart nose—that same bump on the bridge that made everyone ask Philip when he broke it—but her complexion was darker and her emerald eyes made her look more like a Greek woman in an epic poem than the Irish lass she was. Philip spotted a gray disc bob above his aunt’s head. The drone held her veil in two places from above, making the edges wave to both sides of the congregation. Occasionally, whenever the drone fell behind pace, the veil tugged on the bride’s hair. Aunt Stephanie didn’t look bothered by it though. She kept her gaze on the nervous bald man awaiting her on the steps that divided the sanctuary from the chancel. The groom patted beads of sweat from his boxy forehead. The light shining down on his bald head made him look like one of those strange IKEA light bulbs.
“Is that a Millennium Falcon?” Philip asked.
“Six of them!” The crowd’s laughter muffled Ben’s excitement. Behind the first drone, five others became visible to the front of the congregation, working to keep the veil afloat above the train. Philip took a second to study what joy looked like on the side of Ben’s face he could see—the dimple, the etches around his eye, the sharp arc of his hair around his right ear. The abrasion on his forehead was almost fully healed. Today was their seventh date, which is why Philip hesitated to invite him to the wedding. But the days following the mugging shifted their relationship into a higher gear, convincing Philip to do something he’d never done before: introduce a boyfriend to his family.
“Did you see the bridesmaids?” Ben asked. All four women wore a flurry of taffeta and thin garlands in their hair. From their garlands dangled long teal ribbon, four or five of which were attached to still more drones that topped the women’s heads like mechanical halos.
“Who’s steering them?” Philip checked the front of the church again. He hadn’t noticed the little black boxes in the groomsmen’s hands before. Tangles of lace and ribbon fell from their antennae. Their looks of concentration suddenly made sense. That accounted for four drone pilots; who were the others?
“I don’t know,” Ben said, still beaming at the wedding procession, “but they’re really good at it. Have you ever tried to fly one of those things? It’s harder than it looks.” Ben flashed Philip a wink. Thank God it was going well, Philip thought.
For another story with Ben and Philip, read Periphery.
Red oak leaves circled the edge of the parking lot just to the left of Ben’s head. He watched them swirl in mid-air like cardinals, zigzagging from hedge to fence to light post; all three seemed to be looking anywhere but at him. A few leaves finally gave in and fell face-up around him, but they didn’t say a word. The charity bins sat in silence nearby. Eventually he watched the whirling mass clamor over the hedge and scatter into the yards of the neighborhood beyond. The corner of the church across the pavement stood erect like a spine. Its broad, gray shoulders blocked his view of the busy city street. Only the wind acknowledged Ben, nudging his left side.
Through the bushes, Ben saw what looked like a long, thin earring swinging on a tree branch. The name of the thing escaped him. He also couldn’t think of any reason a tree would need jewelry, but there she was: her hair piled high like green meringue, her solemn face questioning his presence. A parking lot is a byway, not a point of destination, she said. Are you a hooligan? Only hooligans waste time in parking lots and only homeless people sleep in them. An alarm rose above the breeze…cicadas, that was the word. Maybe those cicadas had been sounding all along, he couldn’t remember. Panic shot up his spine: his thoughts were so slow. The cicadas’ drone rattled in his hips, his ribs, his head. The sun peeked out from behind a cloud, flashing light on the car keys about halfway between him and the church. A leaf landed on the key ring…no, that was a CVS card attached to the key chain. Those were his keys, but how did they get out of his pocket?
Hummingbird feeders, that was the name for the tree earrings.
He was aware of the car beside him and then of a sound, the smack of liquid hitting pavement. The hatchback door was raised, an iris dilated in surprise. In the back of the car, Ben knew, sat a box of donations: a few old blankets, a frisbee from Tybee Island, ice skates, some old leather belts. Up front on a clipboard in the passenger’s seat, his work ID waited for him. He could imagine his smile in the photograph on the plastic card, a relic of his days before the break-up. At the bottom, his name loomed in all-caps, his last name just barely fitting within the margins. Ben remembered flashing the card to the church office assistant before stepping into the class he taught.
He needed to call someone. In the space between the radio console and the stick shift lie his cell phone. Behind the cracked display and the over-designed icons— the stylized F in the blue square, the white envelope edged in red, the black mask on a yellow field— were pathways to his friends, his mother, and Philip, the guy he’d met a few weeks ago. His friends would ask questions, his mother would cry, but Philip was also a social worker. He would not be afraid of seeing people at their lowest, which means he would enter that church parking lot, observe the open trunk and the wandering keys and the blood on Ben’s shirt, and he would take over. No explanation needed.
But, no, they would have taken his phone. And his wallet. The muggers. His headache stomped and he retched again. Black loafers skimmed into Ben’s periphery. He looked up.
“Sir? You ok? Can you tell me what happened?”
Yes…no, something was in the way.
She reconstructed a smile, the kind flight attendants reserved for saying goodbye to passengers. “That’s ok. Can you nod for me so I know you understand?”
The woman was backlit, but Ben was still struck by the contour of her neck sliding past the collar of her uniform. Maybe he had misunderstood her smile. He tried to reach for her sleeve but his arms refused.
“Someone’s messed you up pretty bad,” she said, “and I think maybe you have a concussion, so I’m going to let you rest there. But I won’t leave until the ambulance comes, ok?”