Stephanie Austin's short stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, American Short Fiction, fwriction: review, Eclectica, the South Dakota Review, Washington Square Review, Prime Number, and Emrys Journal. Essays have been published at the New England Review and Used Furniture Review. She is currently an essay contributor at The Nervous Breakdown.
So, it snowed. Just a little. Enough to blanket the empty trees. Enough to collect in the corners of my bedroom window.
I close my curtains and pick up my roommate’s ruined cardigan. I scratch at the red drink stain and then look at the cleaning instructions. DRY CLEAN ONLY. I fold it so the stain doesn’t show and tuck it away.
All the blinds in our living room have been pulled open. I open my bedroom door to light. The room spins for a moment; I have a vague sensation of falling. Daniel has texted me three times telling me he’s coming over. My phone is almost dead. I plug the phone in and figure I should eat, but the hangover is settling in. I’m dehydrated and depressed. And late for calling my mom.
“Baker residence,” she says when she picks up the phone.
“Hi Mom,” I say, “I’m sorry I didn’t call earlier. I was out late last night. Just kind of woke up.”
“Hi Shannon, how are you?” she asks in a strained and overly pleasant voice.
My insides sink. “He’s home today?”
“I know, honey, I saw that on the news,” she says. “Be careful when you drive, okay?”
I sigh loudly and pointedly. “Mom. It’s a light dusting. The amount is negligible. It’ll melt by the end of the day probably.”
“How are classes?” she asks.
My classes. I don’t even give a shit about my classes lately.
“Fine.” I pause. “How is everything going with you?”
My stepdad is behind her coughing like he’s dying. His cigarettes are all he has in this world. On a good day, he just coughs. He’d developed bronchitis or pneumonia or tar or whatever other horrible shit you can imagine breeding inside your lungs. At Christmas, the first evening I was there, my mom and I sat at the kitchen table catching up while he coughed up both lungs. We were supposed to go to dinner just us two. Maybe if he cut off the smokes, I said, he might recover faster. My mom told me to keep my voice down.
Halfway through our evening, he shuffled out of the hall, walked near the dining room table, and collapsed. I sat at the table and watched him on the floor while my mom rushed over to him. She helped him stand, helped him sit on the couch, then asked him why he wasn’t in bed. He wanted some water, he’d said. So my mom got him the water, helped him back into bed, and an hour later, came out and said she needed to take care of him, be really focused on him, and she was sorry, but he’s sick and can’t help it. Maybe with the falling he should be in the hospital, I said. No, she said, I told him he’d be fine.
I spent the weekend watching movies and broadcast TV. They don’t have cable. My mom gave me a card with money in it, promised a rain check on the dinner, and then I left and came back to school.
“You’ll do great,” she says. “You always did. You always do. A room full of Shannons. All your teachers said that.”
She doesn’t know, but last fall I pulled C’s. Barely. I couldn’t even tell you why. School was always my thing. I did well. My family didn’t have to worry about my potential, my drive, my future ability to succeed. But now it’s like why run when you can walk and still get there? Why walk when you can sit off to the side and no one pays attention anyway?
My stepfather—still coughing.
“Mom,” I say. “Why don’t you give me a call later when you can talk.”
“I’m hanging up,” I say.
“Honey, can you hold on just one second?”
I hear shuffling, like she’s putting the phone on her shoulder. In a muffled voice she calls for the dog, and then I hear the wind, brilliant and alive.
My mom comes back. “So I’m outside now. I want to hear about your date last night.”
“There’s nothing interesting about it.”
“It wasn’t good?”
What I hear in her voice now is real concern, motherly concern. The hotshot’s voice in my head. “That was good,” he said. He didn’t even look at me when he said it. He looked at the wall. He was talking to himself, I think.
“It was whatever.”
“What did you do? Have dinner out somewhere?”
She has longing in her voice. The background noise calms down. She’s probably standing against the side of their salmon-colored house. We went to his bedroom. That’s what my dates are like. We go to the booze and to the bedroom and I guess the new trend is that I’m not even part of the decision-making process.
“We went to the Olive Garden.”
“I love the Olive Garden.”
“If you ever make it back up here, we’ll go.”
Behind her, I hear my stepfather’s voice. He wants to know what she’s doing. She puts the phone on her shoulder again and steps back into the wind. Our conversation slips into the dead air. When she comes back on, the world behind her is quiet. She’s in the house again.
“I’m glad you called,” she says.
“Yeah, it’s always a real pleasure, Mom.”
“We’ll talk soon, okay?”
“Do you have to go make him coffee or something? Is that why it’s time to get off the phone? Does he need you to get him lunch?”
She lowers her voice slightly. “I love you very much, honey.”
The pain in her voice is like glass under my skin. I hit the button and end the call and feel like crying until the guilt erupts as I imagine her in the kitchen talking over her shoulder to my stepdad about my classes and driving in the snow. My stepfather always accused me of never loving my mother enough. Holding a cigarette, I call again. He answers this time. I say nevermind, my mistake.
“See you later,” I say.
He hangs up. I hang up.
We are not allowed to say goodbye to my stepfather. His first wife said goodbye to him and didn’t come home. She served him with divorce papers from her sister’s house in North Carolina. Goodbye to my stepdad means never coming back.
So we say see you later, or talk to you soon, or talk to you later or we say nothing. I don’t love him, but somehow it’s ingrained in me to pander to him. When I put the phone down, my hands are shaking.
There’s a loud knock on the front door. Daniel is standing there, all bundled up like a second-grader, curls sticking out under his beanie, cheeks flushed with cold.
“It’s not that cold for your gear today,” I say.
“Cold enough,” he replies.
. . .
In his car, Daniel drums his thumb against his steering wheel in rhythm with some Icelandic band he likes. Last night feels like a movie, like a movie on TV that’s on in the middle of the night and you’re half asleep but you force yourself through most of it until you wake up in the middle of a commercial.
We’re sitting at a four-way just around the corner from my complex. A car to the left of us is waiting for us to go, but Daniel stays put. The car inches out, then proceeds to go all the way.
“Daniel,” I say, pointing. “It’s your turn. Go.”
He glances at me, then looks back at the road. “How are you feeling?” he asks.
“I’m hungover. You said you’d take me for coffee this morning. Let’s get coffee.”
Another car approaches the four-way, and Daniel waves them through.
“What happened last night?” he asks.
“Daniel, go. It’s your turn. Seriously.”
He finally moves forward, and we’re on track again.
“I’d love some coffee, actually. Can we go get some coffee?”
The movement of the car makes me sick. My mouth is dry, and my head is starting to hurt. Without saying anything, he drives toward downtown. It’s too early and cold. We’re the only idiots out right now.
He parks. In the street, there’s a broken bottle that’s been swept off to the side. It’s crispy out and the sky is clear and still, washed clean by the snow. I want to breathe in all the stillness, lay in the middle of the street and breathe, and breathe, and breathe, until all the still is in me.
Latte for Work is across from the police station. Police cars and SUVs are lined up out front. I say I’d prefer to stay in the car. Daniel asks what I want in my coffee. Cream and sugar, I say. He gets out and I stay in. A cop comes out of the building. A woman. She walks across the street and goes into Latte for Work. Daniel is in there standing next to her. I get out of the car and go in.
“Hi,” I say to Daniel.
Two people are ahead of him. The cop is looking at nothing on the wall over our heads.
I cross my arms. Feel warm. Sweaty.
“Why aren’t you in the car?” he asks. “What’s happening?”
“I changed my mind,” I reply. “I’m allowed to do that.”
The line moves. I turn and angle myself, my body, away from the cop then toward her then away. I open my mouth but then suck the air back in. The guy in front of us is ordering something complicated. The cop looks at her watch.
“Someone stole my watch,” I say.
Daniel thinks I’m talking to him. The cop also turns. I don’t know which person to address, which person I want to address.
“What?” Daniel asks.
Then I feel dumb. Sorry for bothering her. Sorry, I’m sorry.
“In class,” I say. “I don’t know who it was. Probably never see it again.”
She smiles like she’s the one who made a mistake. The line moves forward, and Daniel and I get two coffees and we’re back in the car.
“So now what?” he asks.
“Let’s go to that place you talked about last week. The market.”
He nods toward his glove box. “There’s a thing in there somewhere,” he says. “The glovebox.”
I go through his car insurance, various maps, receipts, disembodied pens, a shiny blue tire gauge, and finally find a piece of white cardstock that reads: Emotional Garage Sale.
On the second to last Sunday of every month, Aurora Dahl welcomes your items of emotional significance.
75 W. Pointe Rd. You determine the price based on its impact in your life. Items sold on consignment. Start fresh. Breathe again.
“This chick does garage sales in the cold?” I ask.
“It’s a niche,” he says.
My phone rings again, and I pull it out of my purse to see who it is. I toss it back in, and Daniel glances at me.
“Who was that?” he asks.
It continues to ring.
“Are you going to answer it?”
“Do you want to tell me why?”
“Shit Town is home.”
Daniel calls him Shit Town. It usually makes us both laugh. Daniel has turned onto a street full of large, bare trees. Brick houses. Brown lawns. Happy mailboxes. Sophisticated sidewalks. I think of my mother’s wandering career as a secretary. She was a legal secretary in Illinois. Now, she’s a secretary at the trucking company where my stepdad is a driver. They have good insurance, she always tells me. This neighborhood is where people who can make good choices, live good lives, earn good livings live and make good plans live.
Daniel pulls alongside the house and puts the car in park. “You know, I’ve known you for almost two years, and I’ve never even met your mom. You’ve met my parents. Twice.”
“Yeah, she doesn’t go anywhere. I’m surprised he lets her go to work.”
Briefly glancing at him before getting out of the car, I catch him smiling at me—genuinely smiling—and I look away.
From the outside, the garage of the house where we’ve stopped has taken possession of itself and gives off a fuck you vibe. Fuck you if you want to park here and drip oil and fluid all over the place. Fuck you if you want to chunk up my space with your mess. I’m winded by the time we get up the drive, and I consider how much I smoke, how much damage I’m doing to myself.
In the garage, she has a space heater going. Pieces of art hang on the walls, mostly recognizable paintings of flowers and fruit. A sheet hangs over a large piece mounted toward the back, so I peel a corner back and see a mirror. A white-haired woman bustles toward us. Maybe the mirror is hers, and she doesn’t want anyone to make an offer on it. Or maybe she just doesn’t want to look at herself anymore.
The back door is open to reveal a wide, bare backyard dotted with patches of grass. A stocky black and white dog with cropped ears and a long tongue follows the woman. The dog stops when she stops and then sits at her feet, looking up at me, panting-smiling.
“Welcome, welcome, brave souls,” she says, folding her hands as in prayer. All her silver bracelets knock together and sound like wind chimes. “When the weather is nicer, I’ll spread out into the backyard.”
She’s talking to us as though we’re coming back after a break in a conversation. She winks at me like I’m in on the secret. The woman is petite, like my mom, and her hair is cropped short and styled; hair that announces attention to detail. Her makeup is delicate, not too showy, not too cakey, but enhancing. When she smiles, the skin around her mouth and eyes create deep lines, but her skin looks well-kept. Her clothes are loose and flowing; a billowy yellow cotton blouse is weighted against her chest with a heavy silver necklace. She’s wearing a woven white and gray shawl with some sort of Native American art embroidered on the back. Music comes from a CD player she’s plugged into the wall. It sounds like the top 40 from the late 1950s.
“This is Gracie,” the woman says in a big, confident, full voice and the dog wags her tail. “I’m Aurora. I’m so glad you’re here today. Do you have items or are you just browsing?”
Daniel steps forward and offers his hand. “Just browsing.”
“You’re from Hadley’s,” she says. “I’m glad I was pushy enough to finally get you over here. And this is your girlfriend?”
“I’m not his girlfriend,” I say.
“I’m Daniel,” he says, and reaches out to shake her hand. “This is Shannon, my best friend.”
Smiling her big smile, she welcomes us and encourages us to walk around and see what we can see.
The table in front of us is draped in a black velvet cloth. Necklaces and bracelets form lines from one end to the other. I pick up a silver bracelet and hold it up to the light. It’s simple, nothing exciting, but there’s a very small charm at the end of it, a cursive e, and I don’t know what that e means, if it means “everything” or if it means “essential” or if it was someone’s name, like “Emily,” but I like it. It makes me happy to look at it. I drape it over my wrist and try to clasp it, but it’s awkward to do one-handed, and there’s Daniel, taking his gloves off so he can hook the hooks for me.
“Thanks,” I say.
“My pleasure,” he replies.
“What do you think this is about?” I ask. “What’s the story here?”
“Probably some poor bastard gave it to a girl and she didn’t like it,” he says.
“Cynic,” I reply.
“You are,” he says.
I expected crap, the way garage sales are supposed to look. Instead, I see a nice dresser, painted light blue, in the corner. Daniel squats down to look at some books. I hear a car door and have to lift my arm to block the sun which has made a surprise visit, the small e dangling off my wrist. I might have some cash. I reach into my purse but my wallet is buried. Dig, dig. Papers. I have to take things out. Receipts. Sunglasses case. Zippo.
Daniel whistles. “Nice,” he says. He picks up the Zippo. “Where’d you get this?”
Two older women in parkas are walking up the drive. We’re not the only fools today.
“That looks gorgeous on you,” Aurora says, coming up behind me. The moment is broken. I awkwardly remove the bracelet and repack my purse.
I cough. The alcohol dried me up last night. The coffee only wet me down enough to keep the dust from blowing.
“May I have a glass of water?” I ask.
I’d hoped she would just point to a cooler—I thought everyone had a cooler in their garage—but she takes my hand. “Come, come.”
The door to the house is like my old garage door from the house I grew up in, all scuffed and beaten because it’s the most used door in the house. The neighborhood, the lawns, the almost Midwest feel to the place, almost makes me expect to walk into my old mudroom and see laundry baskets, a pile of shoes, a washer and a dryer, the closet where we once had a mouse infestation. But the space is wide and open, Spanish style tile, a long Southwest-inspired rug running into the kitchen, which doesn’t reveal my mom at the table, paying bills, waiting on my dad, calling around for my dad, taking her cigarettes and going into the basement for hours, and hours, until my dad came home.
After the divorce, my mom decided she wanted to move to Arizona to start over, and I guess my dad was okay with that because I haven’t heard from him in eleven years. The night before we left our house, my mom and I slept in sleeping bags, just the two of us, in our living room, the one my dad didn’t finish paneling before he moved out. I felt like we were pioneers, that it would just be us against the world. We woke up before the sun rose and drove away from the house in the dark.
Aurora’s kitchen is stuffed with knickknacks. My mom is not a knick knacker. Beanie babies—mostly dogs—line the ledge of the sink. The burners have black and white checkered knitted covers over them. Colorful tea towels hang out of every drawer. She opens a pink refrigerator and takes out a pitcher of ice water. She removes a plain glass from the cupboard and pours. The kitchen attaches to the dining room where I see a large dining room table that looks as though it’s set for a dinner party.
She passes me the glass of water and stands there as I drink it. A mirror hangs on the wall behind her, and I can see my reflection. I look tired and overwrought, almost drugged and on the side of ragged. The dog plops down at my feet and puts her head on the ground as if she’s decided to be sad right along with me.
“I like your house,” I say.
Do I? It’s a thing to say.
“My husband and I built it together, God rest his soul.” She looks up and smiles.
“My parents built our old house,” I say. “Or, you know, they designed it. They themselves didn’t physically build it. Back in the '80s, when times were good.”
When they didn’t have the kind of relationship they have now. How do I know times were good in the '80s? I don’t.
“My husband was a carpenter. Let me show you something,” she says.
I set my water on a wicker coaster on the counter and follow her. She leads me down a bright hall lined with framed color photographs of her and her husband and their kids, three girls. Toward the end of the hall, she’s framed a picture of Gracie that looks like it was taken in a studio. She’s sitting in front of a sky blue back-drop, and her head is cocked slight to the right. Gracie looks like she’s smiling.
Aurora veers off to the right and we enter a large den, lined top to bottom with smooth wooden bookshelves. A section in the middle looks like someone started (and then stopped midway through) carving designs, like tribal tattoos. I reach out to touch it, but pull back.
“Go ahead,” she says. “My Jack built these for us. He started this,” and she touches the carvings, “but then he got sick and didn’t get to finish.”
My fingers crawl along the movement in the warm wood. Natural, imperfect grooves exist along the top.
“He just died last summer,” she says.
I wait for her to smile to heaven, but she doesn’t, and that pleases me. I like people who say die instead of pass. Died is dead. It’s over. It’s done. It’s not gentle or pure or easy. It’s mean and angry and jarring. You are here, and then you are not. Suffering is built into the body.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She gazes at the shelves and at the books on them. I don’t recognize many of the titles. Daniel might.
“That’s what really inspired me to do this sale,” she says. “I just had all of this stuff.” Her voice remains steady, strong. “His clothes and everything. My friends told me to have a garage sale, just get rid of it so I can move on, but I thought, a garage sale. I can’t have a garage sale after forty-two years of marriage. How terribly uninspiring. And was I the only one who thought that way? Surely not.”
She rubs the wood as if she’s trying to warm it. “Jack was an artist. He built these shelves because he wanted to create a home for our books.” With a catch in her voice, she adds, “He didn’t quite get a chance to finish it.”
Everything ends. Love. Marriage. Bookshelves.
A gray photo of a barrel-chested man and a curvy woman on the beach sits on the shelf nearest to me. His chest is shiny, reflecting the sun, and the woman’s hair is curled and pinned. Her bathing suit is a halter top with a bottom that almost looks like a mini-skirt.
“Is this you?” I ask, pointing.
“And my Jack, my husband.”
“You look like a model.”
She laughs now, a big, blustery sound that breaks up the sad space in the room. “Oh, honey.”
My parents were highschool sweethearts. Their senior pictures hung next to each other in the family room. My mom’s hair was dark and long and parted equally on both sides. She wore makeup back then, her eyes dark and smoky. My dad’s hair was long and curly. My mother told me once that the kind of love she had for my dad was the difficult kind.
The photographs in my mom and stepdad’s house are of them at the various Indian casinos my stepdad likes to go to. My mom’s face is drawn now, lined with smoking, age, and ten years of marriage to my stepfather. Her hair is gray and long and always pulled back in a ponytail. She doesn’t smile in pictures, just tilts her chin up and looks straight ahead.
My parents’ senior pictures were the first thing to come down. I don’t know what happened to them—if my dad has them or if my mom has them hidden or if no one has them. I’ll never see my mother young again.
“My parents don’t even like each other,” I say.
Gracie’s toenails tap on the hardwood floor. She plops down at my feet again.
“She likes you,” Aurora says.
“What kind of dog is she?” I bend down to pet her, which she acknowledges by thumping her tail on the floor.
“She’s a pit bull.” Aurora bends down with me and pats her on the back. “Gracie Pants. I got her at the pound when Jack first became ill. She’s been with me through all of it. She’s my best friend now.” Aurora reaches out and touches my arm. “I’m sorry about your parents, honey.”
“Oh my God, no. It was forever ago,” I say, putting my hand through my hair. “No, no, don’t be sorry about that.”
She gives me a sad look, and I’ve been in here too long. We journey back down the hall, Gracie trotting behind us. Once outside, she attends to something or other going on in the corner and I find Daniel holding a small green and yellow tiled lamp. Some of the tiles are missing revealing black, empty spaces. Even though I drank all that water, I’m still thirsty. I haven’t gone to the bathroom in hours.
“Where did you go?” Daniel asks.
“I needed a glass of water.”
“I like this,” he says, holding the lamp to me. “What do you think? I don’t see a price.”
“It’s great. Let’s go.”
“I’m not done yet.”
“You’re not considering buying that, are you?”
“Did you buy the bracelet?”
“I have six dollars in my checking account. Seriously. Are you buying that?”
“I like green. I need a lamp.”
“It’s hideous. It’s missing pieces.”
He twirls it around and soon I can’t see him anymore, just his hands holding the lamp as though it’s the light of the universe. I suppose it’s pretty in a non-traditional, broken way. I blink and see green and yellow spots.
“That’s what I like about it.” He taps it. “I don’t see the emotional price here.” He looks around for Aurora. “So, she needs to come over here and tell me so I can buy it and go.”
“Emotional price,” I repeat, rolling my eyes. The green and yellow spots aren’t gone yet. My world is full of flashing polka-dots. I rub my eyes. “Seriously. You shouldn’t buy that.”
“Beholder,” he says. “And I am beholding it. And I do not think it’s ugly.”
“It’s cracked on the bottom. It probably doesn’t even work.”
“I’m going to talk to Aurora,” he says, and walks away without giving me a chance to respond.
I find a tree and lean against it, grateful for the feeling of external support. A new car pulls up. A girl in a black pea coat and a red knit hat and red gloves gets out. She’s young, like us. She gets a box out of the back seat and walks up the driveway.
Daniel emerges from the garage a few minutes later, and I leave the sanctuary of the tree and fall into step with him, his head in the perfect position to block the sun.
“Did she tell you where that lamp came from?”
“No. Why? Do you think that’s important?”
“Well, it’s probably her dead husband’s lamp. That’s why she’s doing this.”
“Did she like her husband?”
“She seemed to.”
“Well, then good vibes.”
“If someone is getting rid of something, it’s all bad vibes.”
“I know you don’t believe that,” he says.
Beads of sweat gather around his hairline. He opens the trunk and sets the lamp inside, then pulls it out.
“Actually, do you mind holding it? I’m afraid it’s going to break rolling around back on there on its own.”
“More so than it already is?” I ask.
“I needed a lamp. The universe provided. Actually, I thought I wanted a floor lamp, but I think the desk lamp will be better. Don’t you ever go to a place looking for something and then, when you can’t find it, look for something else? And maybe it’s even better than the original thing you wanted?”
I get in the car and Daniel gingerly places the lamp in my lap like it’s a live animal. Holding it around its middle, I stay still for a moment before moving my fingers to find new cold spots.
“Oh, I took your lighter,” he says reaching into his pocket. The Zippo fits in his palm. “Here,” he says.
“It’s not my lighter,” I say. “The hotshot. Just throw it out the window.”
Daniel purses his lips then makes a click. “Wildland firefighters shouldn’t have lighters.”
I don’t laugh.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
What would I sell here? Movie stubs, Honey Brown bottle caps, a bottle of Skyy vodka, that conversation we had over the hood of my car in the parking lot, a pair of Tevas, that Leprechaun costume, the smell of mint gum mixed with cigarettes, Swisher Sweets, Red Vines, the gas I spent to get to the airport, the Boy Scout Jamboree t-shirt, orange peels, the pin with the lighting bolt on it, that old, old song about crashing and love and chains. The way I said yes to the hotshot when he first asked me out, which was too much yes, yes that he believed spilled over into everything else.
He starts the car. The heat comes on. We drive again. Back to my place. The gate is open again. That goddamn thing is always broken.
My black car, all snowy white now, is where I left it. Parked crooked, ass end sticking out at an angle. A girl is out in her pajamas. That’s dumb. She hovers in the parking lot like a ghost clinging madly to life. No coat, breath light and puffy, feet hidden by snow. Wind is kicking loose snow around, giving the whole area an ethereal feel.
Daniel parks. He turns to me. He takes out his phone and shows me the texts I sent. I scroll through them. One more panicked than the next. The drink spilling. The stain. The things I said about the hotshot. The sun claws its way back through a gray cloud for a short moment. Vague heat stops just short of my face. I reach for my sunglasses, which I thought I could find on top of my head. They aren’t there. I don’t know where I put them. Clouds move again. The sun can’t seem to decide to come all the way or stay hidden.