Joyland

The South |

Now We Must Speak in the Past Tense

by Lee Matalone

Sometimes the phone rings and when she goes to answer no one says nothing. Sometimes she’ll wait for five minutes on the line, listening. Nancy says it’s telemarketers, that they do that sometimes. Sometimes Corrine thinks she hears the sound of a breath, the sound of heavy air produced by an exhale, a pregnant human quiet, and she begins saying things into the phone, what she had for dinner, how Cal got an A on his geography quiz, how her hair is starting to fall out in places and that she wears it up and tied back with a kerchief most of the time, now.

After no one responds for a while, she sets the phone down on the counter and walks away. When this happens, she can never bring herself to hang up.

*

It is Christmas Eve Day, and they are sitting in the bathroom, Corrine and her sister Nancy.

“This will help you calm down,” Nancy says, sitting on dirty towels piled on the toilet seat, filing her nails with one of her sister’s emery boards. “I take one of these every few months when it all gets to be too much. And it does. Get to be too much.”

Corrine looks at the little pill resting in the nook of her palm and feels that feeling in her stomach, the dull pain, the coating on her throat, the burning that shoots from her heart up through her esophagus and melts on her tongue as numbness. Recently, she has begun to think that she has lost her ability to taste.

“There are no side effects?”

“Relaxation. Calm. Inner tranquility,” Nancy says, making a show of crossing her long muscular legs. This is a habit, Corrine has realized. How she makes a performance out of every action, which she does not out of vanity or sororal competition, but out of a desire to be appreciated and loved. It comes off as self-absorption, but she knows it’s not. She knows Nancy has a good heart.

Relaxation. Calm. Inner Tranquility. Corrine knows she wants those things. She knows she needs them for the kids’ sakes. “What about Cal and Tina?”

“I’ve been taking care of them for three months. If you pass out for a few hours, I think I can handle them. There’s cooking to do. We’ll sit down and watch the Grinch. Or I’ll have them shovel snow off the driveway. We’ll figure it out.” Nancy wraps her arms around the mountain of towels, balancing on black-heeled ankle boots in a feminine housedress, one not dissimilar to a dress their own mother would wear as she dusted and folded laundry and reared her two girls, husband-less. Nancy is looking the part of the responsible caretaker, though too young for this responsibility, trying to convey to Corrine’s children that someone is in charge here, after all, that the world isn’t falling apart, though it looks to be.

Between her lips the pill’s plastic capsule is warm and soft. She takes one of the tall glasses standing on the vanity and pushes the pill down with the last sip of water.

*

“I wanted a turducken,” Tina says as Corrine removes the ham from the oven, the new dog Pepper hovering around her feet, a satellite around a planet. The black dog wears antlers with bells that jingle as he whimpers.

“You don’t know what a turducken is,” Cal yells back from the family room, video game controllers attached to his fingers. The longer Nancy is in the house, the more he takes on her manner of speaking, the masculine ease with which she makes another feel inferior.

The Christmas tree is fake. It is also pink and sparkly because Tina had requested it, had wanted a tree that matched her bedroom. It had been Christmas since July, more meals out than in, spontaneous trips to the zoo and sugary foods consumed like communion wafers. But Christmas dinner had to be ham with green beans and mashed potatoes and gravy. There was no arguing over this meal. Tradition had to be preserved, for sanity’s sake. Something had to remain the same.

“I don’t think I’m going to be hungry,” Tina says, sitting down on the couch with a book, a mad scientist with white hair and blue eyes disappearing behind a curtain on the cover. “Those onion rings made me feel vomity.”

“I’m hungry. Again. I’m always hungry,” Cal says. Gunfire rings out from the screen.

“Don’t you think that’s enough killing on Christmas?” Nancy says, watching Cal’s solider ignite a straw-thatched hut, instigating cries of children. “Time to turn it off. Dinner’s almost ready.”

Something smokes in the kitchen and Corrine calls out for help. Nancy, in her silk blouse, trips over Cal’s sneakers hurrying into the noxious room.

Someone’s cell phone rings between the couch cushions. “Aunt Nancy! It’s Mr. Sparks for you,” Cal yells.

Corrine and Nancy both appear in the doorframe.

“Who did you say called?” Corrine asks.

“Bring me the phone. Put the game down,” Nancy says.

Corrine looks at her sister with eyes that say: this sternness, this coldness; this is not how you parent.

Without hesitation, the boy sets the controller down onto the coffee table, stands, and places the illuminating object in his aunt’s hand.

In return, Nancy places a hand on the top of her nephew’s head. This is meant to say, sit down. The two exchange smiles, a transaction between officer and rank and file.

Nancy walks into the kitchen and Tina runs out.

“Maybe we can read together tonight,” Tina says to her brother. “I just started this book but I’ll start over again with you because I think we’ll both like it.”

Cal looks at her and sticks his hand out to shake on it. As she reaches for his hand, he pulls his arm back and smoothes his palm over his hair. “Psyche!”

“I think it’s time for dinner,” Corrine says, entering the family room.

Nancy walks out from the kitchen, her eyes alight, the cell phone still tucked at her chin. Her cheeks are flushed from the excited muscles around her mouth. Corrine is incapable of returning an expression of curiosity, so she busies her hands by tightening the bandana around her thinning hairline. She cannot wonder at what happiness is growing. She passes a mirror, her own mouth wilted. She sets the rolls on the table.

“Time is up,” Corrine says. “There’s not much time left before it goes cold.”

*

That morning, the kids had wanted onion rings, so Corrine packed them into the minivan and drove them to a so-called Great American Restaurant that is open 365 days a year.

“Why is Dad in Mexico?” Tina asked, sucking on the tail of a rubber shark that arrived half submerged in her Shirley Temple.

“He’s not in Mexico,” Corrine said. “He’s in New Mexico.”

“But there’s no Jersey.” Calvin had polished off a cheeseburger and was giving the dessert menu a serious inspection. “So how can there be a new one?”

“There is a Jersey. On the other side of the Atlantic,” she assured him.

“Is that where New Mexico is? On the other side of the 'Lantic?” Tina chewed on the head of the shark now.

“No. It’s here in America.”

“So you’re saying Dad’s here in America?” Cal asked.

“That is what I’m saying.” Corrine clung to New Mexico, a myth that maintained the illusion of progress, which kept them moving forward.

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Cal closed the dessert menu and was focusing on his frustration. “America is not that big. If Dad was in America, then he’d be home by now.”

“Do you want to know what happened on this day?” Corrine asked, raising her voice over the sounds of football emanating from the restaurant’s television sets.

“Nope,” Cal said.

“Do you want to know what happened?”

“Maybe,” Tina said.

“Twelve years ago today your dad and I were trapped in a cabin.”

“Where?” they both asked.

“In Utah. For our one-year anniversary your dad wanted to take me skiing. He wanted to teach me how to ski because he was raised in Colorado, you know, and he was very good at it. He thought every person, every woman, should know how to ski.”

“I don’t know how to ski,” Cal said.

“One day I’ll take you.”

“I want dad to take me.”

“Listen to the story. So we went up to the mountains to this cabin in the middle of nowhere, planning to stay for the weekend. But then when we were sleeping, we heard this crack, like a tree branch breaking in half or a bolt of lightning striking a boulder, and the snow came rolling down the mountain. It covered the house up to the front door.”

“Like in the movies,” Cal said.

“Yes. Like in the movies.”

“How’d you get out?” Tina asked.

“Your dad called 911 and told them what happened, where we were. But they said because the avalanche had blocked the roads that they couldn’t get to us for at least another day.”

“Didn’t you get hungry?” Cal asked.

“Know how your dad makes soup and I never eat it? That’s because all we ate was canned soup for three days. It took them that long to get to us, because of a blizzard. I could never eat soup after that.”

Tina held the shark between her palms like a bouquet of flowers, her eyes cast downwards.

“Did you learn how to ski?” Cal asked.

“Not then. Not ever, actually.”

“Guess you’re never going to learn then,” Cal said.

Tina threw the shark at her brother, streaking red across his white button-down shirt. “He’ll be home soon. I know so.”

“If you fell off this planet into a black hole I wouldn’t care not even a bit.” He shoved the shark down his pants. “Shark. Gone.” His lips curled to reveal the gap in the front of his smile where adulthood had begun pushing the child out.

“Are you all interested in dessert tonight?” The waiter in a green apron and visor looked at the stain running down the boy’s shirt.

“I want the rum cake,” Cal said. “But can you make it without the rum?”

The noise from the televisions was so deafening that she wanted to put her head down on the table. Just for a minute. That was all she needed. Then she would sit up, straighten her sweater, the one the kids pooled their allowance money and bought for her the year before, the one with the snowman and the battery in it, a string of Christmas lights wrapping around the snowman’s jovial torso illuminating, the one her husband had secretly thrown out and that she had dove into the trash can at the end of the driveway to retrieve, because her kids loved it, because it was all for them.

She laid her ear against the face of her watch, the sound of time ticking at her as it moved forward and away.

*

The four family members sit down at the long table. Nancy’s velvet dress matches Tina’s, a mother-daughter ensemble picked out at Macy’s for the dinner. Cal’s bowtie is crooked, having learned how to tie one from a stranger on the internet.

“Let’s all say what we’re thankful for,” Corrine says.

“It’s not Thanksgiving any more,” Cal says.

“We didn’t really do a normal Thanksgiving, remember, we had Chinese food and ice cream. So now we’re going to say what we are thankful for. Now.” Her dress is red, long sleeved, and cuts mid-calf, a hole in the hem at her hip that no one will notice, and her hair is pulled back and up in a twist that does nothing to mask the naked spot of skin around her temple, the spot where her carotid reaches up from her heart.

Tina reaches for Cal and Nancy’s hands, shutting her eyes.

“This isn’t prayer,” Cal says. “This is thanks.”

Tina pulls her hand back like Cal has spit on it.

The room waits for someone to show thanks. The gold-dyed candles in the center of the table drip onto the white tablecloth, the ham thins off the bone, the gravy boat drains half empty. The mirror behind the family reflects a room at a loss.

That morning had become like a memory from infancy, remembering without knowing for sure if it had actually happened, a fuzzy knowing. The kids, their kids, had told her that they’d last seen their dad running down route 29 in gym shorts and no shirt and no shoes around seven am, while they were standing at the bus stop, lunch boxes in hand, had told her he had had a shaved head and bright bright blue eyes, like gigantic gumballs, Mom, though when he had put them to bed the night before he had had a full head of curly brown hair and shadowed eyes.

Or maybe that was a tall tale. Maybe that morning he had simply dressed in his suit, taken his briefcase, leaned down to kiss Cal on the cheek, told him that he loved him, that he needed to grow up to be a man who is reliable, and walked out the door, started the car, backed out of their driveway, and pulled out onto the street, just as usual, but not as usual, this was forever.

“I know what I’m thankful for,” Corrine says.

Nancy reaches her hand out to grab her sister’s wrist, as if she’s going to fall.

The bells of the dog are heard moving from the kitchen to the front door. In the soft light, their eyes follow the sound, searching for toes scratching a welcome mat, a key leaving a pocket, a sigh at finally reaching home.

From their places around the table, Corrine’s family reaches out to her, grasping a finger or a knuckle, whatever part of her they can.

*

Soon enough Cal can grow enough of a beard to pass for twenty-nine, maybe thirty, though he is only eighteen now. Soon enough Tina has hair down to her lower back, a girl who thinks of atoms and molecules in her free time, who doesn’t go out much, who is quite a bit of a shut in for a girl of sixteen. Soon enough Nancy has moved to California to grow organic grapes and make artisanal wine with Corrine’s next-door neighbor, Alvin Sparks, a man from Louisiana who is soft spoken and obedient and loving, a man they both agreed would never leave her.

“You’re going to call me the moment you set foot inside that dormitory, right? Don’t forget your mother here.” Against her white tank top, sweat patches form lagoons around her armpits where the corners of her bra peek out. She isn’t too old yet to show a hint of undergarment, is she, she sometimes wonders. She is still attractive, not like her sister, but someone worth looking at.

“You’re going to be busy. You won’t think about me after awhile.” Cal holds his mother to his chest, her head resting on his shoulder like he is the elder here. “Maybe at first. Maybe for a few months it will be hard. But then you’ll not even think of me.” He kisses the side of her head and rubs his hand across the boniness of her shoulder blades. “You’ll go a whole sixty minutes without a thought of me.”

Tina is not home, but she’s thinking of Cal, sitting on a picnic table in the elementary school playground down the road from her house. Her former elementary school, where daughters are forced to stand on the toes of daddies that they think are stupid old men with nothing to give to a girl.

Across the mulch of the playground, the streetlights in the parking lot blink on. Tina clings a packet of subatomic particles to her heart and waits for her ride home.