Chelsey Grasso is currently an MFA candidate at UMass Boston. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Mortar Magazine and The Harvard Review Online. She placed 2nd in the 2018 Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Contest.
“This type of thing doesn’t just happen overnight,” the man in the white coat told him as he shined a blinding light into his cornea, but Mirko was quite certain that’s exactly what had happened. Marija squirmed in the corner of the ophthalmologist’s office. “Probably hereditary,” the doctor told him as he ushered Mirko and his daughter out the door, “but who can really say.”
At first he had thought it was a speck of soil on the iceberg, a mere stain of earth defiling the cool head of green, but then it showed up again on the limbs of the butter leaf, and again, hidden in the wrinkles of the darkened kale bunches. The frisée, the cress, and the endives, Mirko soon realized, had it too.
On the walk home, he stole glances at his daughter. His attention always came back to her nose, to the profile she had stolen from her mother, and to the small black patch that now obscured it. It was not a speck of soil, and two months, as the doctor had estimated, was not a lot of time.
The pair came to the town’s only intersection, and Mirko asked his daughter which way would lead them home. When Marija’s frustration presented itself in her furrowed brow after she suggested a wrong turn, he assured her, “It’s okay, my goose.” It was a name Mirko also called his wife, given to her after she told him the first thing she would buy if she won the lottery was a nose job. Marija, being only six years old, took no offense at the nickname. Mirko pointed his daughter in the right direction, letting her lead the way. “You’ll learn.”
. . .
Mirko didn’t have an air conditioner that sticky July morning. His wife had taken it. She had also taken the curtains, the floor lamps, and most of the unit’s borrowed furniture.
With no AC in the modest one-bedroom apartment, Mirko left the windows shut with scratchy wool blankets thrown over them in hopes of keeping out the heat. Because of this, the place was beginning to acquire a stale damp taste—the humidity dense enough that you might as well swim through it. A swampland, as his bride had once put it before the couple had purchased the now absent AC on a maxed-out credit card.
That morning in the barren apartment, Mirko let the sink water go until it ran clear. It had just lost its final traces of rust when Marija wandered from the yard into the kitchen that did not smell like eggs or bacon or grease sizzling. As she itched the golden bird’s nest that rested atop her head, she looked around at the blankets that hung from the windows. The expression on her face hadn’t changed since she was born—like a doe, it was a wonder Mirko hadn’t taken to calling her Bambi.
After fourteen hours of labor, two failed epidurals, and an episiotomy, Marija had at last crowned. When she was finally delivered, her mother was too tired to hold the infant, refusing to take the bloody mucus-slathered child from the nurse. Mirko stepped in and held Marija to his powder blue scrub-covered chest while doctors pressed down on the mother’s stomach to force out the afterbirth. She has your eyes, Mirko told his wife delightedly. And your nose. He wasn’t sure if she heard him, as she was instead screaming at the nurses who continued to pump her abdomen until what looked like a rotted head of red cabbage was expelled between her legs.
Marija clapped her small pale hands and turned her attention to her father.
“What will we do with all this space?” he asked her.
Her eyes lit up, dark pits surrounded by almonds. “Let’s ask mama,” she whispered back, her voice stolen by the thrill of it all. She jumped down from her seat at the table, but before she could make it so far as her parents’ bedroom door, Mirko spoke again.
“Mama is on a vacation.”
Marija carried on, turning the doorknob. Mirko’s bed was missing too, as well as the nightstands and the dresser. The child turned around and looked at him.
“It’s okay, my goose. She will come back.”
Mirko and Marija talked a while of making a fort in the apartment’s emptiness, and then of perhaps creating a puppet theater, but in the end, they did nothing. Instead, at noon they walked a half-mile to a farm’s entrance, where Mirko started his days driving a produce truck from one end of Cherryville, Maine, to the other, delivering small batches of lettuce between the town’s only farm and the local grocery marts.
Past infinite rows of romaine, chard, and collards bursting from the muddy soil, the father showed his daughter where the delivery truck always sat waiting for him, already loaded, the keys hanging from the ignition. He lifted Marija into the raised passenger seat where she could barely see over the dash. The first stop was Smedburg’s on Route 62.
The two settled themselves into the cab of the produce truck. Mirko sat at the wheel while his daughter gazed out the rolled-down window. The back roads would become nearly impossible to drive during the winter, the snow, rain, and sleet tearing them up until they looked like umber rivers with all their bumps and divots and curves. For now, though, the summer heat kept them dusty and taut. Mirko admired his daughter as she took in the sights of the passing landscape, the deep dense lines of maples, oaks, and spruces. The touch of breeze cooled her chaste skin; the flush left her cheeks.
As they drove along the road, Mirko saw it. Underneath the flapping of a used furniture tent were the couch and the flimsy mattress, the matching nightstands, and the water-stained coffee table. This is where his wife had taken all the furniture, presumably for some fast cash before her getaway. His entire living room set sat on a patch of uneven grass bordered by high-growing weeds. The set looked strangely serene, acting like it belonged there. Like it had always been outside, and the idea of bringing it into a home was the actual absurdity. Mirko thought about this for the rest of the drive.
. . .
Mirko began taking Marija with him daily, to Smedburg’s, to Pear’s, to Harvest Fresh, to all twelve of the markets to which he was responsible for delivering fresh lettuce. He called her his co-pilot, and he quizzed her meticulously on all the routes, which she did learn with time and repetition. As the doctor had speculated, during these two months Mirko’s small speck of dirt began to grow into a thick mud that filled both eyes. A galaxy with no stars, and most certainly, no sun.
At home Mirko begged Marija to sit with him every day on the stale blue couch which he had bought back for half-price after it went unsold in the furniture tent for two weeks. Perhaps he could have afforded a nicer one from the used selection. He had seen a leather one that looked pretty new, except for a few scratches that a house pet may have made. But in the end, he decided on the blue couch that had already once belonged to him. He had put it into the truck’s bed on the way home from deliveries one evening. In the apartment, it felt out of place in the otherwise empty living room (the only other piece of furniture Mirko had bought back was his mattress). It looked sad to Mirko, from what he could make out of it. Marija had said to him once how lonely it seemed, to which Mirko replied that they must keep it company when they could. It was on this couch where Mirko would spend hours studying his daughter’s small, soft face.
“Does it hurt?” she’d asked him as he stroked his thumb down the bridge of her nose. Beginning at the pupil and spreading over his iris was a milky white that looked less like cream and more like curdle.
“No, my goose. It does not hurt.” Mirko traced the cheeks of his daughter.
“Does it make you sad?”
“The only thing that makes me sad is the fact that I will soon not be able to see my goose.” Mirko brushed his index finger over his daughter’s lips. Marija stood up and retreated.
He listened to her steps. He heard her pull a stool up to the gas stovetop and flick on the burner. From the sound of the sizzling butter, he knew that she was making them grilled cheese sandwiches. This was one of the three things she knew how to make, the other two being canned soup and scrambled eggs. He listened as she slid the plastic spatula between the bread and the cast-iron skillet. When she gave a cry, he told her to run it under the cool water. She kept the water running for a long time, until at last Mirko told her to turn off the stove when he smelled the butter burning. “I like mine a little crispy,” he said.
As he listened to his daughter plate what he imagined were blackened sandwiches, Mirko thought about how nobody had seen his wife when she drove off in the afternoon as he delivered arugula and Marija played in a neighboring apartment. He had asked the neighbors, who, despite the scuffed paint on the wall leading down the staircase and out the building’s entrance, professed to having seen nothing. When Mirko asked if they’d at least heard anything, the banging of furniture or the hushed voices of whispering adults, they shook their heads.
By now all Mirko knew of his wife’s new lover was that he sold tourmaline, which cost less than quartz in most places around the state. A cheap stone, despite its array of colors. A stone formed from crystalized minerals and cooled liquids. A stone, simply put. Mirko wondered how much a decade-old AC would earn his wife. He wondered if the profit from an old furniture set would last her a month, and how many tourmaline rings and how many tourmaline necklaces her new lover would have to sell to make the difference.
The more Mirko thought about her, the more he had trouble remembering the exact details of her physicality. Had the dimple been on the right side of her face or the left?
“Come here, goose,” he called his daughter back to the stale blue couch, telling her to leave the sandwiches in the kitchen to cool.
Smile for me, goose. Had her eyes been deep set or shallow? Keep them shut, goose. Had the bridge of her nose fallen into a slope or remained straight down to the cartilage? Stop flinching, goose. Mirko ached like a man it hurt to watch.
. . .
Leaves burst into color, and catching the sun of the early morning, they shimmered like batches of jewels hanging from the sky. This, Mirko could not see.
He held his daughter’s hand as she guided him to the farm. He wore a pair of sunglasses over his eyes, shielding his sickness from any chance passerby.
Once in the driver’s seat, Mirko felt the familiar curve of the gear stick, tracing the seam that tightly bound the leather to itself with his rough, worn hands. He knew the roads well enough to manage the shifting on his own, he could feel the heavy piece of machinery work when it went up an incline, the vehicle pouring out all of its energy. Similarly, he knew that he could distinguish the feel of his truck when it coasted downwards, picking up speed like an avalanche moments after its fracture.
What he didn’t know, and what he couldn’t feel, was the curve of the road. This is why he needed Marija. She would need to tell him when he drifted towards the median, when he needed to slow for a turn. She would need to be his compass. His speedometer. His eyes.
“Am I clear?” Mirko asked.
Marija’s voice was hesitant. “Clear.”
He lightly pressed down on the pedal, feeling the weight of the truck bounce around him as it crawled forward and away from the farm.
“Okay, a little faster. Stay straight.”
Mirko obeyed his daughter. He tried visualizing the road in his mind, but nothing materialized in the heavy black space that had enveloped him. Instead, his thoughts took him back to the beginning of July. It had all happened overnight.
“You’re not on your side.” Marija reached for the wheel and guided his hands.
Alone in his mind’s grotto, Mirko listened. He listened to every creak and every rattle that the cab made. When he heard an oncoming vehicle coming down the road, his daughter gripped his hands more firmly and told her father to slow down. The vehicle passed with a surge of wind that felt as if a ghost had just rushed through them.
“What was that?” he shouted at his daughter who was now crying.
“A truck,” she wept. “Another truck.” Her wails subsided to whimpers.
“Don’t cry, my sweet goose. Don’t cry.” Mirko lifted his hand to place it on Marija’s shoulder, but the instability of the wheel made him immediately replace it. After a minute of quiet, punctuated by Marija’s shortened breaths, Mirko spoke.
“What do you see?” he asked his daughter.
“Trees. Lots of trees.” Her distress was easing.
“A big rock.”
“Is it graffitied?”
“Is it painted?”
“It had a face.”
Mirko knew the house.
“We’re nearing the intersection. Then we’ll go left,” he told his daughter.
“I know!” she replied with the anger of a child.
“I know you know, goose.”
Marija was quiet for the next mile as she held onto her father’s hands that gripped the wheel. She was playing her part. “Okay, slow down. Slower. Slower. Slower. Okay, stop!”
Mirko’s foot slammed down on the brake. There was a heavy jolt that shook them both. He could tell that the cooler, wetter weather was upsetting the roads. His daughter told him when the light turned green.
Marija directed, “Okay, start turning. More. More. Okay, stop. Stop turning now,” a sense of urgency in her voice. The truck continued onward, bouncing along the dirt path, slowly but with a purpose. Mirko knew the rest of the route was a direct shot to Smedburg’s. The pair traveled along in silence, Marija continuing to correct his steering.
Just as the quiet had settled, and just as the moment had felt, almost, like one that any father and daughter might have on any given day, Marija spoke. “When will she be back from vacation?”
He felt his daughter move her hands off of his and onto the wheel itself.
Marija saw all that Mirko couldn’t.
A weathered shed with a tilted metal compass, a rusted mailbox losing its color, and a stone wall that was covered in moss flew past them. The outside world seemed to speed by faster and faster, turning into a blur that made it difficult to render, had anybody been looking out the side windows.
“Do you remember what mama was wearing the last time you saw her?” Mirko at last asked. Marija didn’t speak. She wondered why he asked this. “Do you remember if she was wearing her purple dress with the flowers? Or was she wearing her blue dress?” he continued. Still, she remained quiet, hesitant to answer. They traveled along in silence, passing the towers of forest that surrounded them on either side.
“What is it that you’re wearing today, my little goose?” Her father felt for her hands. As he did, the truck began to drift. The machine crossed the median, though there was no divider visible on the dirt road. The girl pulled away from her father. She released her grip. “My goose,” he said again, grabbing her at the elbow, and holding her hands down to the wheel. The child sobbed. The man pleaded, “Don’t cry, my goose. You look so ugly when you cry.”
When the sound approached, it rose up from the whisperings of a muted hum, growing in power and proximity until it became like the growl of a predator ready to feast. While Marija was certain that her father heard it, it was only she who could see the truck coming towards them. The semi blared its horn. Mirko released his grip, and Marija jerked the truck’s wheel away from the oncoming traffic. The eighteen-wheeler loomed beside them as it passed, its mirror nearly striking their cab. Its weight rocked them. After its rumble faded into the distance, and their own truck came to a slow stop, Marija looked up at her father. Now it was he who sobbed.
Marija got out of the truck. She saw the lettuce that had plummeted from the bed during the vehicle’s abrupt swerve. The iceberg heads were coated with mud. Marija began gathering them in her shirt, their drippings falling through her chilled fingers. She continued doing this until she heard her father calling her back to the cab of the truck. Her arms filled with produce that could not be salvaged, the child made her way.