by John Oliver Hodges
Ethel taught me guitar when I was like nine. I wrote one on trying to kill Maria, my mother, with rat poison. Woman wouldn’t die so I dropped a brick in her face. Nowadays I’m a forgiver. Don’t obsess over stupid shit. I look around, sure, and say see, I’m not the only sad tit with a slit. That’s quoting a boy I knew. A prince! A creative genius! There’s tons of them out there. I was hit by rocks—that’s what made me strong. Only when Ethel picked me up from Malaprops, this cool bookstore in downtown Asheville, I hoped she wouldn’t know me. On my bench I wanted to be nobody, a eyeball in the air, but my posture, Ethel said, told it. I felt my strength trickle out my ears. If that wasn’t injurious enough, Ethel said, “You look like Maria.”
Ethel stopped at a roadside market for tofu and cauliflower. Her treat, she said, but for future meals we’d split shit fifty-fifty. I bought McIntosh apples special for me, plus a bag of salted peanuts, roasted, in their shells.
Ethel drove, turned in at a dirt road that steepened ridiculously. Those ridiculous hills what like I see featured in my dreams, nightmares more like. In those dreams my life is like held together by a hair. Snap, that’s it. I had broken up with another asswipe. Another creative genius. A prince! The thought of living with Maria horrified me so bad. I emailed Ethel. Ethel said live with me in Asheville.
Before I say another word, gotta say: once upon a time Ethel was to receive her doctorate in psychology. From Harvard. During those last weeks of school she quit the deal and traveled to Africa’s Ivory Coast with a religious group called The Brotherhood of Light. For two years Ethel lived in a grass hut on the beach and made love to two hundred black guys. She had a monkey that she loved very much. It slept on her mat with her and screamed like a baby. In Africa Ethel played cello on the beach. She “breathed light,” purifying herself so that she could positively influence others when she returned to the United States, where she picked up as a “Creative Consultant” and suffered from insomnia that she fought by counting, instead of sheep, the faces of her black lovers. I know this detail from overhearing Maria, or, “my mother” gossiping with a friend about Ethel. But also, it was right after Ethel returned from Africa that she babysat me for the eight months that Maria and my dad toured Europe. My dad is a history professor. He was writing a book on the architectural consequences of ancient Rome—that’s why they went there, to gather clues overlooked by writers of the same topic. While they were gone, Ethel spoke often of her monkey, and of the “negroes” that she considered family. She spent a lot of time in our backyard, naked, playing cello.
Ethel pulled into her place on the side of the mountain, a half acre carved from the rock, her trailer laid out under the sun like a Wonder Bread loaf. Fucking loaf sat lonely in the center of a rectangular field of high weeds and grass. Somebody threw it out, looked to me like. Whoever would’ve thought the thing was hollow, that a woman or two could live in it?
In Ethel’s living room an upside down machine greeted me, and a bunch of ad hoc musical instruments. Ethel shelved the groceries, then escorted me down the hall to the room where she kept her books and unsold artwork, a gazillion swirly colorful paintings of moons and stars and angels and clovers and shit. The colors were just like major fucking colors with little variation—she had a psychedelic theme going on. Some of Ethel’s paintings looked like botched tie-dye shirts. Together we carted the stuff down to the backmost room, what had been Ethel’s painting studio before she switched over to doing collages in Adobe Photoshop. Back in the room I was to sleep in, Ethel pulled a blow-up mattress from the accordion closet, and brought out her vacuum cleaner which had a blowing function. Halfway through blowing up the mattress, using her hand to form a tunnel for the air to pass through, she realized it wasn’t the best way to inflate a mattress. I took over. I blew with my mouth. I blew and was blowing up the fucking mattress, really blowing up a sweat with my mouth, but Ethel said, “You probably shouldn’t do that, Nix. I used the vacuum cleaner on the wasps and roaches.” The white dust issuing from the valve between blows, what I had been sucking deep into my lungs, I realized, was boric acid. The black specks in there were dried ant bits and wasp legs and stuff.
I did not stop blowing. I just blew the mother up and capped her. The mattress took up eighty percent of the room.
Then Ethel said, “Let me show you how I do things, Nix.” I followed her to the bathroom where, forgive me but, uhm, it smelled really bad. I wanted to split. Turds wallowed in the commode like bloated tadpoles! “This is how I flush,” Ethel said. She lifted a bucket from the floor, poured the water into the basin where the stored-up turds broke apart in the bubbling turmoil before zooming through the pipes. In my mind I was like GET ME OUTTA HERE, so you can imagine my happiness when Ethel took me outside to see the barrel that collected rain water off the roof. This water I was to flush with. After “dropping a load” as the princes say, I was to go outside, fill the bucket with rain, return, then flush unless I wanted to “maximize flushes,” in which case I should save the turds for later. “Why don’t you just do it outside?” I asked.
“I can dig you a hole,” I said.
“Are you serious?”
“Wouldn’t you rather do it outside?”
“I don’t want you shitting in my yard, Nix.”
“I would never do that in your yard, Ethel,” I said. “I’ll make you a compost toilet, it’s one of the more useful things I’ve learned in life.”
“That doesn’t sound right.”
“I can walk up high on the mountain,” I said.
Ethel eyed me, not just eyed-me-eyed-me, but busted straight through my eyes with her eyes. She scanned me head to foot, eyes lingering on my unshaved shins and sockless ankles. My shoes were like ratty pink Converse with duct tape wrapped around one. Ethel brought her eyes back to my face. She said, “You really do look so much like your mother, Nix.” She’d found my weak spot, was trying to exploit it, jab me, push my buttons, make me scream. To her ugly-ass comment I made zilch-o expression-o. “The blue hair is a cute distraction,” she said, “but it’s no smokescreen. I see straight through you.”
“How’s my liver? Nice and healthy?”
“Why did you change your name? Sarah’s a lovely name. I don’t know why you changed it.”
“I’m a woman of the new world.”
“The world is neither old nor new,” Ethel said, us the arguers. After thirteen years you’d think we’d be peachy, but Ethel was bitter. When she picked me up from the bookstore she went on about how Asheville was a spiritual wasteland, Ethel an expert on spirituality. Hadn’t she spent two years on the Ivory Fucking Coast living in a grass hut while making love to black guys? She was proud of her spiritual knowledge, took comfort in the poems of Rumi. Her bumper sticker read ONE WORLD, but as she drove she boiled over the guy behind us. She’d look in the rearview, go, “Slow down you creep!” and jam the brake pedal then let go, looking back and forth from the mirror to the road, sweat dripping all down her forehead. She’s big, Ethel, you’d have to call her fat. Not fat but huge. All over the place. The word is obese.
“The world is a pain in my ass,” I said. I said, “I see no problem with a hole in the ground way out here in the middle of nowhere. I never liked sitting on a thing like that, doing it like that, but that’s what they teach you when you’re little, right? If you think about it it’s a little funny.”
“Don’t listen to me,” I said.
“Are you condescending to me, Nix?”
“What? No. I’m just saying that nothing I ever say is worth a shit.”
“That’s no way to talk about yourself,” Ethel said. We were quiet then. It was weird. We had all this time ahead of us. It was like three in the afternoon, only, so I asked Ethel could I mow her yard. Her yard was a mess of really tall weeds and grass.
The shed was behind the trailer. Ethel walked around with me. An enormous wasp nest hung above the entrance. I amazed Ethel by crawling up there and using the key to unlock the thing. On my knees I slid open the doors, yanked the mower out and pulled it into the yard. I amazed Ethel again by crawling back into the shed to retrieve the gas can. I filled the tank, primed the engine, yanked the cord a half dozen times until the engine kicked to life. The grass was way too high for a normal mow. I had to always be like fucking starting the mower again each time it died. The only way to mow really was to lift the front end of the mower, doing wheelies, and then let the mower blade down slow. Lift it, let it down, like a Pac Man mouth, lift, let it down, chomp chomp chomp. I chomped along all beautifully, knocking down the homes of lady bugs and really destroying that miniature ecosystem unique to Ethel’s trailerside terrain. I loved the smell and the sound the mower made. I was in motion. I was a powerful, happy, active entity of the world, only brushing up against the trailer a wasp dropped down from a nest concealed below the rain gutter. It fell upon my nose like a shred of leaf and curled up and stung. I felt another sting my neck. Then my belly. A wasp flew up my skirt. All over I was getting it, so ran, slapping myself as I took the steps on into the trailer. I shot down the hall and burst into Ethel’s room. When I saw her on the bed, I screamed.
It was like this huge white body down there that shifted, its network of dangly fat pockets jiggling all over. The large body raised its head, peeling its gaze from the TV where Coleman Barks did Rumi.
“They bit you?” Ethel said.
I crouched, trying to hold back the pain, but it kept needling into me. I whimpered and slapped my side, further squashing a wasp that I had already killed. I pulled my shirt away from my skin and Ethel and I watched the gross thing plop dead into her rug, its legs still twitching.
“You are all physical desire and greed,” Ethel said. “You have an imbalance. You feed your body but not your soul.”
The massive body seeped from the bed and pressed against me and sort of folded around me, the milkyness drooping over my arm.
“No,” I said. I pulled away and fell backwards, kicking. “Don’t!” I cried, and Ethel stood, her extremities taking up so much space in the world, in many ways beautiful. If I was a pair of eyeballs perched like flies in some corner of the room, I would have been impressed, and would have held Ethel in high regard, my second cousin so very very fat, a woman whose pride fed itself on the flakes of skin raining down from the Great World Spirit.
“It hurts,” I said.
“They attacked me. I was just—”
“You invaded their world.” Ethel helped me back into the crouched position, the smell of her sweat all gushing around me in bitter waves. Ethel put her hand on my spine.
“Careful,” I said.
“The sting of a wasp is a minor catastrophe, Nix, that’s what Uncle Stanley always said about the hole in his tongue.”
“I remember Uncle Stanley.”
“Uncle Stanley would pull his tongue out for me to see the hole in it that was shot out by the Nazis.”
“He didn’t show me that,” I said. It hurt to talk, Jesus.
“I know it hurts, Nix, but you really shouldn’t barge in on me. I like to be naked.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Yes, but I do. I mind.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You should be ashamed,” Ethel said, and was looking down at me with her furrowed brow. I felt as if I needed to be punished. Ethel said, “Get undressed. I will be back in a minute but it may take a while to find the calamine lotion. I don’t normally have these little emergencies.”
Ethel left the room in a huff. I stayed crouched, holding the pain to myself as Coleman Barks continued to read Rumi on the TV. His face was all bearded and sly with horned eyebrows and a huge enraptured forehead. He was filled to the brim with himself, the fucking asswipe. “The worried wife reaches the door and opens it,” he said, and I really wanted to cry. I was remembering how, back in the old days when Ethel was my babysitter, she often made me act like her monkey.
Ethel returned with a pink bottle. She wore a purple dress now. She looked mad.
“What?” I said.
“I told you to undress. I don’t understand it, Nix. Here I am taking time out of my day to help you and all you seem able to do is fight me.”
“Oh gosh, Ethel, it’s not that bad. Give me the lotion. I can do it myself.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Ethel said, “you can’t get your back,” and she leaned over, grabbed the hem of my top and pulled it. The material scraped over my stings. I wanted to scream. “Goddamnit Nix, lift your arms!”
I should have knocked. I wasn’t thinking is all. I was real sorry about it now. It was easiest not to fight her. She threw my top onto her mattress and told me to stand so I stood and she applied Calamine lotion to my stings. There were two on my back. One of my breasts had been stung down low on the side. She was very gentle with her administrations, but then she said I had lovely breasts, “symmetrical” she called them. I was supposed to say thank you, which I did say even though it made me feel like the stupidest asshole. I just wanted to get this over with. “Your nipples have grown out nice and long,” Ethel continued. “That will be good for when you have children. They’re unusually dark in color. That means you are smarter than the average woman.”
I was not going to stand here having a conversation about my nipples, but when I didn’t say anything, Ethel sighed, clearly disgruntled. “Thank you,” I said. Ethel smiled, eyeing me enviously, or so it looked to me like. What I was beginning to fear, that she would now ask me to remove my skirt and underwear, didn’t happen. She shoved the bottle into my hand and said she guessed I could do the rest. She left the room to cook dinner, closing the door behind her so as not to let out the cool air issuing from her dumbass wall unit.
Ethel prepared our plates and we sat cross-legged on her living room shag, her upside down machine hovering over us like a black ironing board used as a torture device. The ankle straps really bugged me, but across the ironing board, in pink cursive, was the cheerful slogan: Get Your Life In Shape. Ethel promised to show me how the thing worked once I was nice and settled in, a demonstration I looked real forward to, as you can imagine.
Our dinner was steamed cauliflower, tofu and rice, very white, which we pointed out to each other with some amusement. What kind of diet was that? Not a good one, you could be sure. Ethel tried asking a few questions about my mother, but I evaded the topic. I simply had had it with Maria. I thought of her as that woman. She was all taken up with her image of herself as a matronly do-gooder sort, a woman of infinite longsuffering patience and understanding. She drove around Atlanta in her expensive hybrid automobile, stopping in at the lower-class elementary schools where she had implemented programs for kids to learn how to play music. When I was little, she played the guitar, but was it her who taught me to play? It was Ethel during those eight months that she and my dad romped Europe, checking out the cathedrals and public stadiums and castles and chalets. When that woman returned with her fattened ego and heard the song I wrote about her, the one where I drop a brick on her face while she lays out by the pool, trying to get a tan, she slapped me, even as I sang, and snatched away the guitar Ethel gave me. I don’t know what she did with my guitar. I asked Dad for a new one. He said if I wanted to express intense emotions I should learn ballet and offered to buy me lessons. I should have done it but I wasn’t feeling very creatively inclined at that point. Looking back, I see what a stupid little pouting bitch I was. Did I mention that I’m a forgiver these days?
Ethel and I talked music throughout dinner. Ethel hoped we would play tons of great stuff together, and said I would fall in love with her Dobrograph, this instrument she designed and was seeking a patent for. The Dobrograph was a regular dobra rigged up with a few extra low-end guitar strings to give it a bassy sound. The main special feature of the Dobrograph, Ethel said, was that you could plug it into the computer. When you played the instrument, a digital painting was made. You could control the color settings to match your artistic vision, and Ethel was working on other settings, too. A friend helped her with the software and technicalities, she admitted, but the concept was all hers. She would show me her Dobrographic images later, but what she really wanted to know, right this minute, was how I saw myself in five years.
“You have to imagine yourself surrounded by the circumstances you want to create.”
“Is that Rumi?”
Ethel laughed heartily. “No dear, it’s not Rumi, it’s Wayne Dyer, probably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.”
“Okay,” I said. I said, “I want circumstances where everybody doesn’t want to be liked by everybody. That makes them unlikeable. I want circumstances where everybody wants to be hated.”
Ethel didn’t like my answer, so I elaborated. I said, “I don’t like that everybody wants to be kings and queens.”
“Why don’t you try telling the truth for a change? What kind of woman do you want to be in five years? I think that’s a pretty simple question. Will you please try to answer it? I don’t ask questions for no reason, I mean, wouldn’t you like to be a famous musician like Jewel? I’m telling you that I can help you achieve your goals.”
“I hate my voice,” I said. “I gave up singing when I was nine.”
“So what would you like to do with your life?”
“Race cars in the Daytona Five Hundred.”
“You’re just like your mother.”
“No, really,” I said.
“The spitting image,” she said. “Ever since you arrived you’ve kept me at a distance. You’ve condescended to me, and acted like art is a thing that people who can’t live a normal life do as a second choice.”
“I don’t want to talk about her,” I said.
“When I visited her last year, I met her new husband. He was all right, I guess, but I had been thinking that we would bond and that I could help her achieve her goals, but she let me know, through her behavior, that I was crowding her style. I had to pick up and leave a week early. She wasn’t like that at all when we were little. I don’t know what happened to her.”
“She wants to be a queen,” I said.
“You’re just like her,” Ethel said. “You contradict everything I say.”
The stings were beginning to itch. I hadn’t smoked since Ethel picked me up outside of the bookstore earlier. I wanted to go out and be alone in the new night under the stars. Ethel just talked on and on about her art projects. I sort of interrupted her to see if she wanted me to wash the dishes, thinking that would get her to shutup. She surprised me by saying, “Why yes, Nix, I’d love it if you washed the dishes.”
We took the dishes into the bathroom where it still smelled like consolidated shit, and she pulled aside the shower curtain to reveal a bucket filled with dark water. She told me to throw the forks into the bucket, and then instructed me on the exact method she used to wash her dishes. I just wanted a fucking smoke, you know, but I knew it would break her heart if I told her I wanted to be alone. She was saying that in the morning we would do toning together. “What’s toning?” I asked, and she smiled in the same sort of Coleman Barksian way where you felt like a heap of raw crap was being splashed in your face. She gave me a long explanation, and said that she wanted to make my Personality Wheel on the computer. I said, “Can we do it another time? I really am tired, Ethel.”
“Well, okay, but there’s something pressing I need to tell you. You know, you ought to know better than to leave peanuts out.”
“Those peanuts. I ate them while you were out there mowing the yard.”
“That’s okay,” I said.
“No, I don’t think it is. You really shouldn’t do that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You should be,” Ethel said, and I felt as if she wanted to slap me.
What a bitch I’d been. I’d gone and messed up Ethel’s system. Sometimes all I’m ever good for is messing shit up for people.
“Forget it,” Ethel said, and I tried to picture myself living here another day. The weird toilet and the wasps and the roiling folds of white flesh sort of hovered all around me, giving me a sticky cramped feeling. Ethel had the same bulging-out cheeks that my mother had, and the Jewish curve to the nose. I didn’t like it, or the eyes pushed down into the sockets, Jewish brown, you’re so full of shit that your eyes are brown, that was us. Ethel wanted me to be a staple in her weird-ass mess of a place where to release your bodily fluids you had to enter a room of atrocious odor.
I said, “Do you mind if I go outside, Ethel?”
“You’re not planning to shit in my yard, are you?”
“No, no, nothing like that.”
“Well, I guess so, but don’t be long.”
Finally! Once outside I lit up and stepped barefoot through the freshly mowed grass. I sat on a cinderblock discarded near where the driveway met with the steep mountain road. When we’d first arrived, Ethel, in her usual complaining way, pointed out how the culvert below her driveway was clogged with bone dry orange dirt. Ethel was afraid that if it didn’t get cleaned out soon, the pipe and a good part of her driveway would wash down the mountain like what happened to a neighbor. She’d asked would I dig the ditch out and clear the pipe. I said sure. I love doing work to help a place out, but I pictured myself tomorrow chopping the dirt with a shovel, sweating away at the whole thing and maybe Ethel coming down from the trailer with a glass of lemonade. I pictured myself hanging upside down in her upside down machine, which was a thing I would also surely have to do tomorrow, and eating more meals with her. This fresh breath of freedom entered my lungs like a warning. I did not want to go back inside, but still it was far better than living with Maria.
My mother was in the clouds, so corroded by arrogance and vanity that if you ever tried to reach her, to make any kind of contact with her on a down-to-earth human level, her only response could be to change the subject, feign ignorance, or bury over your sincerity with new news about some great thing she had done. She’d donated money to some Chinese girl trying to get a degree in chemistry; she’d helped produce a CD by some under-recognized “African-American” musician. She played violin pretty good in a quartet, Maria, but she could not improvise to save the world. Bitch needed a book to read from—that was a sign of higher breeding. She would die believing that all she’d done in life was make the world a better place. The last time I tried to forgive her, because I think I would feel better all around if I forgave her, even if I can’t have a decent relationship with her, she started in on the German artist staying at her house, how he’d recently lost his mother, boo hoo hoo, and hint hint. She didn’t want to be forgiven for anything. The last thing she wanted was to be acquainted with her own daughter. She knew absolutely nothing about me, had absolutely zero interest in the troubles of my brain, or what happened to me while she toured Europe with my dad. Eight months is a long time when you’re little. A lot can happen to your child in eight months. It has always been this way. I wasn’t cruel about it, but she would not listen.
As I sat out there smoking, twice Ethel opened her door and peered out. She felt antsy about me being outside by myself, I could tell, so I headed back towards the Wonder Loaf. I needed to take a dump. I knew that this was breaking the rules of Ethel’s mountain, but I cut into the patch of chest-tall weeds that I hadn’t yet mowed, found a good spot and lifted my skirt and squatted. I wiped my ass with grass and dirt and cleaned my hand on the dry earth and weeds and returned to the trailer.
“There you are,” Ethel said.
“The one and only.”
“Will you be going to sleep now, Nix?”
“Sleep sounds good.”
“Wait a second,” Ethel said.
“What, what is it?”
“I didn’t realize that you smoked, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What’s that other smell? Did you shit in my yard, Nix?”
“No, uh uh.”
Ethel grabbed my hand and smelled my fingers. “You did!” she cried, looking at me aghast, her mouth hanging wide open and red and trembling wet with spittle. “And then you lied to me about it!”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Ethel slapped me. It did not feel strange. I was not horrified. I felt that I deserved it, but in my mind I knew I should say something and that I should not stand for this ever from anybody. It was not no teensie slap neither. It was a solid clap across the face. I like to think I would have said something had I more time to react, but Ethel was quick to the draw—she said, “Why why why, that’s all I want to know. Why is it that the nicer I am to people the crueler they are to me? It never stops, I get it from everybody, so why, Nix, why did you make me do that?”
“I said I was sorry!” I shouted.
“Stop that, stop it, stop crying, look at you! Didn’t I ask you please to stop this? We’re supposed to make each other feel good, not bad like you keep doing. I can’t believe you would lie to me, straight to my face, Nix. It’s against everything about us, who we are! I think we should go into my bedroom right this minute and listen to the poems of Rumi on the TV.”
“No,” I cried, and my jacked-up crackling voice disgusted me. I wished Ethel would slap me again, I just felt so awful, and like such a horrible piece of shit. I had backed myself against the faux cedar panel wall. I was trying to smear my tears away with my palms, careful to avoid rubbing the wasp sting that had caused my nose to swell up. Apparently Ethel didn’t like this either. She grabbed my wrist and yanked me down the hall to my room and shoved me onto the blow-up mattress. She said, “You’re gonna have to do a lot more than change your name if you want to become a decent person. It’s coming back to me now, what a thankless unruly child you were.”
I was afraid. I did not want to hurt Ethel’s feelings anymore. She might retaliate if I gave her lip, but hadn’t I promised myself that I would be courageous from now on? No more princes! I had told myself, and this thing about Ethel should have been just as true. She was so huge. She loomed over me all dangerous-looking in her sinister red headscarf, her pale jowls fractured with delicate aquamarine veins shaped like family trees. She looked like she might fall on me if I said the wrong thing, and I remembered myself as her monkey back then, how I screamed out howlingly for her and scratched myself and rolled in the grass and ate bananas. I was too old for that sort of thing, I mean I was fucking nine, but she wouldn’t stop, and then she’d get angry when I didn’t wanna play. One time she even pushed me into the swimming pool. “Don’t think I don’t remember, either,” I said. “You sure you want to go there, Ethel?”
I was looking her dead on. She knew I wasn’t bluffing. I don’t remember a quieter moment. Some seconds passed. Ethel smiled. She said, “We’ve both been through a lot of stress today, seeing each other again after all these years. What matters is I’m so glad you’ve come. You’re still the little girl from before. My monkey,” she said, and winked, and she said, “It’s wonderful how we are everything we have been, how nothing we have been can ever be erased. You are the same as you were, full of music and filled with light, but very stubborn if I do say so myself.”
“That’s quite the romantic revision of history,” I said, and watched the hopefulness that had started to suffuse her face drain. “No, no, forget I said that,” I said. “I’m happy to be here. I’m sorry I was a bitch to you.”
“Oh really?” Ethel said, her face coming back to life.
“Yes, I’m really sorry,” I said, and I was. I should have said this before, but somebody ate Ethel’s monkey. Ethel had loved that thing more than anything. It was her baby, but one of the villagers came and got it while she was at prayer. That’s when she began to distance herself from the Brotherhood of Light. If not for the monkey incident Ethel might still be in Africa.
Ethel sat down beside me. We hugged and made up. Then she stood up. She was going to lock me in for the night, she said, and went to the kitchen and returned with a glass of water and clay casserole bowl. She said, “In case your bladder cries out for mercy,” and giggled. She stooped and set the items on the floor between the mattress and accordion closet. I thanked her, but didn’t mean it, which made me an asshole and a liar, but fuck it. I was just like remembering some extra stuff here and everything, like how she’d wanted me to wear a makeshift diaper to be more like the monkey she’d lost. She said, “I’m here for you, Sarah. In the morning I’ll get you up for our toning session. We can eat breakfast. It’ll be like old times.”
Ethel locked me in. I heard the padlock click to. I heard Ethel walk the hall and close her door. I waited, then fucking unlatched the window and slid the lower panel up to check the screen. It was tight. When I pushed on it, the screen along with its frame didn’t pop off like I’d hoped, so I cut through it with my Swiss Army Knife. I wasn’t thinking. I’m a dumbass. I fucking spilled from the slit without first throwing out my knapsack. Plus I was barefoot. Tough titty, bitch! I went out to the road and walked down the mountain and made it to the paved country road that would lead me, if I walked all night, to downtown Asheville.
But like, what kind of person would leave without word? Talk of cowardly! That’s not the picture I wanted of myself, but a car driving along stopped—it was a fancy, shiny black Saab—and I climbed in. The guy taught Experimental Narrative Theory at Warren Wilson College, he said. “Cool,” I said, and he said, “The night’s clear and full of stars and promise.” I was like, is he a poet in his free time? Another creative genius? I was going to ask but he said, “I’m very shy. Normally I would not ask this. . . ”
“Yes, ask what? Go ahead and ask me. I don’t care.”
“I’d like to give you money.”
I thought about it.
“To talk,” he clarified.
“You look dead broke,” he said.
“You wanna talk about what?”
“I just need voices in my life is all.”
“My voice is ugly and cruel,” I said, but he told me his name. He was Abner Gibson Grierson. His friends called him Abby. He went on as if trying to convince me that he was respectable. He said he was mildly famous in his field of study. He said his father had been personal friends with John F. Kennedy, and that his mother’s paintings were currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
By my eye he was handsome. Thin, looked about forty. His hair was the color of dark tobacco, about shoulder-length and parted neatly to the side. His face was the type that might be described in an old book as gaunt or febrile. I liked the dark circles under his eyes. His button-up shirt was crisp around his neck, and tucked in. I felt that if his style of dress varied, it was to the smallest degree. It was sweet of him to break through his shyness to make his offer. I felt sorry for him, especially when like out of nowhere he told me his wife dumped him for a champion long distance bicyclist.
“Ouch,” I said.
He sighed. He looked at me dreamily.
“I’ll check us into a hotel,” he said. “We can talk all night.” When I didn’t say anything after that, he said, “I want to hear your story, Nix. I want to hear what’s missing from your life,” and he started in on what he called “erasures,” saying that what appeared to be missing from a thing was what interested him most. He went into detail about it and I began to see that maybe that’s why his wife left. He probably needled her to death. “You have problems,” Abner said to me, “I can tell,” and he said, “I want to know every little detail about you. That’s where the mystery is. Together we can work things out for the both of us. The trick is to begin to start sharing and see where it takes us.”
Abner was vulnerable, an open bucket into which I could spew my bile. I had gotten his hopes up, which was shameful, but that’s what happens when you’re a stupid fucking bitch like me.
“For all we know,” Abner said, “the beautiful stars have conspired in our favor. Do you believe in the stars, Nix? For all we know we have been chosen by the stars. Do you like to drink?”
“I like you, Abby,” I said, and was flattered, he was so clean. I knew I smelled bad, and was a eyesore with my swollen nose. I wondered if he’d prefer that I showered first, once we got to the motel. How long would it take before we started touching? Would Abner, or Abby as his friends called him, shower me with kisses? I saw us talking, getting heart-to-heart on the bed. I saw the clothes coming off, saw him banging me as the TV light flashed against our bodies. I would be doing some good in the world. Abby would be left feeling wanted and renewed in the morning, but the whole thing would’ve been a patch is all. I was old and wise enough to at least know that.
I told Abby I wasn’t going to any motel with him, but if he wanted I would blow him in the car because I felt bad about his situation. Abby looked at me then as if I’d broken our unspoken contract. Because I’m such a stupid selfish bitch, I’m often confused when it comes to unspoken contracts, that’s how I am, I don’t seem able to help it. Abby’s look made me panic. I grabbed his forearm. I said, “Please. I can make you feel real good.”
Abby sorta snorted and shook his head but he pulled into the Big Star parking lot. He parked and I leaned over so nobody could see, and tugged his shirttails out, did his buttons and made for myself a decent playing field. I’ve been told by princes that I’m good at this. Most women are cocksucker-cripples they say. Abby wasn’t circumcised. That was new for me, and he was extremely sensitive. Thirty seconds in he said, “Oh my God!” and squeezed my shoulders. I froze, didn’t move, but he started coming. It was only a little, like they sometimes do, a small release, I guess, what the last creative genius I was with called a halfgam, a really attractive word. I had sort of thrown myself on Abby. But then I started back up and his hand reached in through my shirt. I said, “Abby, not that one,” and felt bad for not telling him why. It was ungraceful to speak. Abby took up with the other and it turned him on, but he kept saying, “No, stop it!” and he’d squeeze and we’d freeze. Each time he released me, that was my queue to start back. We went on like this until he couldn’t stand it. His stuff tasted like watery melted Philadelphia Cream Cheese mixed with habanera jelly.
“Pain,” Abby said.
I sat up. “What?”
Abby put it away quickly. “Pain,” he said, not looking at me, and I heard him say, almost in a whisper, “You are such a wonderful sex bunny.”
“For a minute I wasn’t sure you even liked any of this,” I said. “I mean, I know you did, but you made sounds.”
“Look at you,” he said, and was looking at me.
“You know you don’t believe that,” I said. I didn’t like where this seemed to be going. That stuff he’d told me before, about wanting to know everything about me, was garbage apparently. I held out my hand. I said, “Nice meeting you, thanks for the ride.”
Abby grabbed my wrist. He wrote some numbers on the inside of my forearm. “I want you to call me,” he said. “Will you call me? Say you will.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’ll call,” I said, and heard in my voice that I’d sounded annoyed. I hadn’t meant it that way, so when Abby released me I felt really horrible, as if I’d insulted him. I deserved to be smashed in the face is what I was thinking. “I promise,” I said.
Abby just looked at me. He thought I was lying, I could tell, but I was free to go. I was going to go, but Abby said, “Nix?”
“Yeah, hey?” I said, tossing my head back glamorously and free and easy. Wasn’t I a rough and tumble chick, a carefree tumbleweed blowing through the cities of our awesome country?
“Do you know what a scumbag is?”
Please don’t do this, I thought.
“A lot of people think it’s a vile person, but that’s not true. A scumbag is a used condom, which I mention because you didn’t have to swallow.”
“Oh,” I said, relieved, and almost said, “Thanks for reminding me,” but that would have sounded horribly sarcastic, which went against my quest to become a better person.
Abby smiled. He had a nice smile. I opened the door and stepped into an oily puddle.
The walk back to Ethel’s was like seven miles, and the whole way I’m like feeling like a complete shithead. Abby was going through rough times. He’d talked confidently, sure, but it wasn’t a smokescreen. I saw through him. He might’ve been suicidal. That was the vibe I got a little bit here and there, but I dissed him. I just hated the fuck out of me. Walking along the old highway I felt hunched over and drippy. By the time I arrived at Ethel’s mountain my feet were pretty raw.
My first business was to destroy the evidence of my selfish nature. In the moonlight I found my stupid excrement. I carried it down the mountain and threw it into the woods where nobody would find it. I scraped my hands back and forth over the orange dirt road, then smelled them. I smelled cream cheese. I went back to the trailer, propped a cinderblock up longwise beside my window. The maneuver was tricky, but I got up there and jumped, sort of dived through the split screen so that my upper half was in my room, my lower half dangling outside in the moonlight. As I hung there, the sill cut into a wasp sting. I wanted to cry out so bad, but if I woke Ethel she would stomp down the hallway. In my mind I saw my face lift to see her squeeze naked through the doorway. As I imagined it, so it happened. She grabbed my head with both hands and yanked, and my legs disappeared from the night.
John Oliver Hodges has published two books of fiction: The Love Box and War of the Crazies. He lives in Brooklyn, and teaches writing at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “Ethel’s Mountain” is his second story to appear in The Writing Disorder.