All My Pretty Ones by Amy Stuber

Amy Stuber_AMPO

It is easy enough to purchase a plane ticket from Boston to Kansas City over the phone in 1987 using the memorized numbers of your grandmother’s American Express. It is easy enough to do a shot of your roommate Kim’s vodka, pack a backpack, and hail a taxi on Comm Ave. It’s snowing, and the flakes make lace of the sidewalks. Homeless men immobilized by blankets sigh and shudder when the T shakes by. The taxi driver maneuvers the taxi as if in a video game where nearly hitting every moving thing will get him the high score.

Your grandmother is dying slowly in an assisted living center in a Kansas City suburb, a one-story building shoe-horned between a chain deli and a dollar theater. Everyone at eighteen has a dying grandparent, it seems. Still, you feel as if it might actually take your forearm or your foot, like it might be that consequential. When the cab driver asks where you are heading, you tell him, and he turns the wipers to high, shrugs and says, “Ah, the dying grandparent. It happens. But, sure, condolences.”

The cab bumps up against the curb at the passenger drop-off in front of Logan, and you catch sight of what you swear is a bloody-pawed gibbon just to the right of your head. Close your eyes and practice the meditative breathing you learned in Montessori kindergarten. Count. Breathe. Repeat.

In August, you started seeing things in your peripheral vision. At first, it was just a sensation of something, a shadow, a scurrying. But on that first night alone in Boston when you walked past men smoking in a huddle against the brick wall of Store 24, you saw a rat the size of your foot, and that could have been believable because it was a city and there were, of course, rats, but this one was gashed open on its rat back with jeweled pomegranate seeds pouring out of the wound. And that had continued: wounded rats, howler cats, bats that came right up to the side of your eye but leaked squid ink into their airspace, your airspace. It was erratic, and sometimes you went days without anything, but then suddenly there it was: as unexpected as a peacock and maybe it even was a peacock but decimated a little and with feathers battened down in blood to its small question mark of a head.

You spent days on the floor of the science library rooting through textbooks about the brain. It was an irritation of the visual association cortices, you became convinced. Or it was the bleak irrefutable shadow of schizophrenia setting up shop.

The brain was a reliable thing until it was not.

After a week of research, you stopped wondering and did what your mother had trained you to do with unpleasant thoughts: wrap them in a bag tied to a helium balloon and watch them float into a cartoon blue sky.

Inside the terminal, you buy a soft pretzel and wait with your Walkman and a paperback of John Stuart Mill. “Heavy reading,” a businessman says and raises eyebrows that are like two premature squirrels. You gesture to your headphones to squelch any further contact, but the man moves one seat toward you anyway and covers the armrest that separates the two seats with his arm, which looks prehistoric with hair.

You are smart but a bad student, and it was a fluke that you’d gotten into a decent college and no surprise that your acceptance was provisional and as part of a program for lower-achieving students who “showed promise.” While you wait for the flight to be called, you listen to the same Clash tape several times because it makes you feel like someone who might punch those deserving it right in the squared-off bone of the jaw, but then switch out for Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark.

Outside the bank of windows, men in earmuffs and quilted coats force suitcases into the undersides of gaping planes. A women in a fur cries as a man in a United shirt pushes her beribboned dog into a crate. A mother stuffs an unlit cigarette into her mouth, gestures to twins who have toppled a trash can near the bathroom, and says to her husband, “Why is it always our kids? Why are our kids always the ones?”

It is November, and your first two months of college have been an embarrassing array of dormitory stairwell hand jobs for a couple of near strangers, late-night overeating followed by late-night bulimia, listening to your roommate Kim scream and talk and cry into her Mickey Mouse phone for hours after midnight, and a heady loneliness whose self-indulgence makes you hate yourself more than you already do. You spend all of your free time riding the T to all its endpoints and then back again with headphones on and not saying a single word to anyone.

When it is finally time to board the plane, you walk heavily in your Doc Martens. You wear black ripped tights and the olive hooded wool coat your grandmother bought for you the previous summer at Loehman’s. “No one will be able to take their eyes off you in this,” your grandmother had said outside the dressing room curtain, but that has not, in fact, been the case. As if eyes could be pulled out in the way of spotlights and positioned to cast light unceasingly at one thing. Your grandmother drives a pewter Cadillac that she often pulled in front of your house and honked repeatedly until someone came out and retrieved whatever item or article she hoped to drop off. Your grandmother was once the kind of woman to wear a pale pink leather suit and place a cigarette in a holder, but now she lives in embellished nylon track suits, has converted from Judaism to Christian Science, and when you ask her if she was once Jewish, she blinks several times before saying, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Since you look younger than you are, even with the thick rims of eyeliner, the flight attendant calls you dear and relocates you to an empty seat in first class. You end up near the squirrel-browed businessman. When he goes to the bathroom, you down his entire Bloody Mary. The snow gives way, and within an hour you can see nothing but the patches of farm fields bisected here and there by straight-line highways most likely untroubled by traffic. You imagine a woman, a zombie, clinging to the side of the plane and humming or maybe it’s screaming. You have started doing this: preemptively and with intention imagining things more disturbing than those tracer images your brain surprises you with. The zombie woman has the hair expected of the undead, long and with dirt and leaves cleaving to it. Now make this zombie woman your mother: breasts ballooning with the slight girth of middle age, the hollowed-out look of someone who has torpedoed all of her expectations. Shrink her hair down into a fifty-something bob, and unstick her undead fingers from the side of the plane. Watch her until she’s a doll and then a speck and then gone.

Outside the Kansas City airport, you climb into one of the few waiting cabs and ask without overthinking it to be taken not to your mother’s but to a Holiday Inn downtown. Your mother lives in a post-divorce Cape Cod a few minutes’ drive from where you grew up, and your father lives in an apartment complex that is home base to many similarly newly-divorced men who want benign, furnished three-bedroom apartments and covered parking. Tomorrow morning you will take a cab to see your grandmother. You will.

The hotel room is standard: blue and gold carpet in a pattern of vines. Muted watercolor prints of fall trees. Dark wood dresser, brown plastic ice bucket, and a decent TV. You close your eyes and count to ten. No bats. No post-apocalyptically green-tinged bald eagles with bleeding mal-formed mice in their talons. Breathe.

Most of the hotel stays of your childhood went something like this: walk into the room, your father looked at your mother, your mother gave the look that said the room wasn’t right for any one of a number of reasons, and then you all headed back to the front desk to try again. Sometimes it took several tries, and by the time you were settled, you all just wanted to sit there without moving for an hour before whatever beach or lake or island volcano.

You open your eyes and turn on the TV. Little House on the Prairie is on the screen. Pa Ingalls plays his fiddle while Laura dances a circle around Carrie. Calico swings and flounces. After about five minutes, you fall asleep on top of the covers in your olive coat and don’t wake until 10 PM, at which point you pat down your hair, lay your coat on the bed like the skin of an animal, and leave the room.

The hotel bar is done up in a Tiki theme: bent wood and rattan bar stools, carved masks, rope wrapped around railings. Each table has a tea light wrapped with plastic tropical flowers. You sit at a table as if you absolutely belong there.

At a corner booth a woman in a sequined skirt holds a copy of The National Enquirer. Gary Hart’s face is big on the cover so that for a second it looks like the woman has Gary Hart’s face instead of her own. The woman has a coffee in front of her, but she is eating Crunch and Munch that she pours out of the box and onto her hand. Her coral open-toed shoes are propped up on the chair across from her like twin tropical birds.

The bartender is a very old woman who seems unconcerned with the age of her patrons. “I took the liberty of imagining what you should order and making it for you,” she says as she positions a Manhattan in front of you. The woman’s white bun shudders like a loosely-mounted jellyfish. After she delivers the drink, she returns to a bar stool and sighs so loud it might as well be a scream.

The other tables are populated by men that look like your dad. Groomed, wearing suits, sitting with beers in tall glasses and working to sound breezy and jovial. They wear name tags and apparently are from a convention of people who manage hospitals. It is strange to be sitting in a hotel a few miles from the house where you grew up but to feel like you are in another place altogether.

When you finish the Manhattan two of the groomed men show up at your table, and one of them is holding a drink with an umbrella, as if because you are female you must like additional adornment on all things. Your shirt is peppered with lint, and your hair has gone frizzy at the top.

“You look like a younger Rosanna Arquette,” one of them says to you as he sits down. Was the question “which celebrity does the stranger at the nearby table resemble,” you want to say aloud, but you just smile instead, the way you imagine someone would smile when described as “smiling demurely.” It’s actually a smile you have practiced in the mirror of the dorm bathroom late at night when the only people who enter are too drunk to question what you are doing. You can feel the skin over your eye twitching wildly, as it has taken to doing over the last few months, and you wonder how these two men might react if some creature, say a praying mantis, plowed Alien-style through the skin of your forehead. You wish for the temperament to shock.

Because you think it’s what is expected of you, you pull the umbrella from the drink, put it behind one ear, and down the drink in one gulp. Of course, the two men clap. They are thirty maybe. One of them surely has children. This is not who you are, but nothing in the last few months has been according to script, so you are fine with pretending.

One of the two men signals the bartender. “Another please, for the lady.” Yes, you think, he really said that. You drink the next drink with less gusto, but still, you drink it. They are Ted and Allen. It’s as if central casting named them. And it’s no surprise when Allen peels off and Ted walks you to your room. You struggle with the key for a minute, and when you enter the room is entirely dark.

Your grandmother is likely sleeping on a single bed next to a window outside of which the fluorescent yellow lights of the next door sandwich shop flicker. She’s likely unfolded and refolded the letters from her long-dead brothers, and she’s harassed the nurse’s aide into polishing all the brass animals she keeps on the mahogany table beside her bed. Or maybe she’s immobilized and now breathing the measured pulse of machines. You don’t know. You have a political science test Monday. The second-tier football players in the quad at the end of the hall from your dorm room are most likely drinking from a bucket of grain alcohol mixed with Hi-C. You do everything you can to ignore the hum and buzz of a shadowy and insistent yellow-eyed fanged starling just beyond your right eye. Maybe tomorrow morning your roommate will think of calling your parents if you don’t return.

In the hotel room, you sit with Ted on the edge the bed, and Ted shows you a picture of a baby. A tiny boy in a onesie and a blue baseball hat even though he’s years from actual baseball. “My boy,” Ted says, and his eyes fold up at the edges like he’s the lead actor in a life insurance commercial. You want to send the baby a telegram that says, “Don’t get your hopes up.” Ted puts the photo into his billfold and leans close to your face.

You imagine your grandmother in her pink suit at the foot of the bed. Look pretty, she says, shoulders back. Be funny. Not too funny. Command the room. Not too aggressive. Let him do it. He wants to do it.

Quickly, your tights are off. You had sex for the first time at sixteen with a boy you didn’t know well and who was several years older. You remember him getting up immediately after and walking to the living room where his friends were watching celebrity wrestling and taking bong hits. He wasn’t mean or cruel at the time, just indifferent, which felt almost as bad.

Ted is slower. He looks up at you every few minutes and waits for a reaction, like you are going to grade him along the way, like you have any idea. You try to make the right noises, but you’re also fixating on his reflection in the TV. You can see his bare ass where normally there might be a TV news anchor or a family in a suburban living room making jokes about dinner.

And then he flips you over, and you are just in a button-up shirt, and it’s less gentle. You feel sure your wrists will be circled with tiny purple chains of bruises, and you wonder if the knocking of the bed frame will amuse or alarm anyone in neighboring rooms. You think you see a trio of ferrets darting under the door. Their fur stands on end as if they are being perpetually electrocuted. A housekeeping cart rolls by and you hope for a second for a knock at the door, but there is nothing. He flips you over again, to your back, and he covers your mouth with his hand and his nails scratch at the skin of your cheeks. Out of nothing more than instinct and reactiveness, you bite his hand and he rears back. His dick goes quickly soft, and it looks reptilian. He pulls the rough comforter from the bed and wraps it around himself. He stands at the mirror next to the TV and adjusts his hair with one hand.

“You cunt,” he says in almost a whisper while wiping sweat from his forehead and pulling on pants. “You deserve the worst,” he says. He’s dressed in a minute, and the door makes its soft hotel click behind him. Yes, you think, you will think, yes, I do.

You sleep in the bland hotel room for twelve solid hours, and you wake to the sound of a vacuum in the hallway and someone yelling “You didn’t get from 442 to 401,” and then the vacuum bangs off down the hall. You gather your things into your backpack. You expect a different face in the mirror, but there it is instead: just your face, the wide platters of your cheeks, the dark dots of your eyes. You feel a little raw and blown back, but not so much more than any other day of being a girl in America.

You won’t see your grandmother. You know it already. You know it while you eat bad eggs in the hotel lobby. You know it as you beg a United agent on the phone to change your return flight. You know it when you watch the brown fields of dead feed corn all the way to the airport. Instead, you create her, your grandmother: ten stories tall just outside your range of vision on the right. There she is next to the plane as it speeds down the runway and lifts into the sky, as if flying is the most normal of things. She’s wearing a black floor-length pleated chiffon dress. Her hair is sleek as suede. She holds out her forearms, and they are stacked with gold bangles all the way up to the elbows. They clatter, and small birds, blue, downy, and not at all bleeding, not even a little bit damaged, shake out and blend into the cold blue sky.

Back in Boston, there is snow on all the streets, over all the cobblestones and bricks that are over a hundred years old. The toy train of the Green Line rattles up and down Comm Ave. The cab driver is an older Jamaican man, and he has been talking weather since Storrow Drive.

Your grandmother will die a few days later in her room surrounded by the small gang of curated possessions that made the cut when she downsized. Her two brothers who flew the most Pacific missions of any two brothers in WW2, gone. Her sister who sang with the Paul Whiteman orchestra, gone. All the apartments and houses into which she’d organized the copper pots and Broadway Playbills and cashmere sweaters and candlesticks in velvet-lined buffet drawers were now cluttered with the detritus of other people’s lives.

The cab stops for the light in Kenmore Square, and you see a boy around your age sweep snow off the sidewalk with his arms, throw down a piece of cardboard, and start breakdancing for no one. He is real. You are sure of it.

When you get back to your dorm, your roommate Kim is blasting “Box of Rain” and crying dramatically about something. You can see that she’s likely consumed half a bottle of Nyquil. The outer edges of her mouth are crusty with dried green syrup. Even though you hate Kim a little, all the noise and clatter and need that is Kim, you lie on Kim’s bed staring at the John Lennon poster on the ceiling. He has his arms crossed over his chest and is wearing sunglasses and an “I heart NY” t-shirt. “I love New York, too, John Lennon,” Kim says and then with hands and feet touching, you and Kim both fall asleep.