Friday, March 19, 2010

with everything cancelled but shadows

Word Count: 5320

This is a story I've been working on for a while, so I thought I would post it since I have not posted anything in a while. The title comes from an e.e. cummings poem and the poems quoted in the story are also e.e. cummings poems.

He never let them cut their hair short. Her mother promised to take them to the salon right before school, but now Gabi doesn’t think she will be able to get her hair cut anytime soon. Gabi can’t hear what the police officers are saying because all she can see is her mother’s hair, fanning on the ground around her body. Gabi had tried to brush it out of her face before they made her let go, but in this heat there wasn’t any way to keep hair from clinging to skin.

Jocelyn is screaming. Gabi can’t understand why. It is hardly the time to scream. It is hardly the time to do anything. If he was still alive, maybe Gabi could shoot him, but he beat her to that. So she has nothing left to do except wait for her mother to open her eyes again. Gabi twists a strand of her own dark hair between her fingers, lets go and notices wetness on her fingers. Her mother's blood is smeared over Gabi's new blue jeans and the bottom of her t-shirt. Even the tips of her hair has been dipped in it.


He came into class seven minutes late smelling of smoke and sat next to Jamie in twelfth grade English class some seventeen years earlier. He slouched in his chair, legs spread wide, arms taking in as much space as possible. His dark hair was messed up, falling over his eyes.

"What'd I miss?" He asked her, so close that Jamie imagined she could feel his breath caressing her jawbone and her earlobe. Her skin seemed to stretch itself up towards his lips.

She composed herself and pointed at the aging anthology opened on her desk. "We're continuing the poetry unit. e. e. cummings," she whispered back.

"Alright. Finally, there's a poet," he said, flipping his book open to "my sweet old etcetera." "This poem," he said, finger lingering over the words.

Jamie's breath caught. "You like e. e. cummings, too? You don't strike me as a poetry kind of guy."

His laugh sounded as though he was purring. "Well, I don't like that rhyming Emily Dickinson crap. But e. e. cummings is pretty cool. I mean, what kind of person comes up with this crazy shit?"

"Do you two have something you want to share with the rest of the class?" Mr. Green had finally tuned into their conversation, turning away from the blackboard to face them.

Jamie didn't know what to say and began to stutter, but he didn't even have to compose himself before answering, "We're just discussing the poetry, man."

Jamie didn't believe in love at first sight, but she let him walk her home that afternoon anyway.


The air was thick; the sun was low enough on the horizon that Gabi couldn't see the orange sphere, just the shoots of light that it sent out until the earth swallowed it. Distress signals.

"You have hold still," she hissed at her sister. "You don't want him to find us."

"I want Mama," Jocelyn responded, trying to pull away.

Gabi tried to keep from slapping her. She was fourteen, too young to explain to a four-year-old that her mother was in no position to spend time with her right now. Besides, the movement among the cornstalks might tip him off.

"I want her to run with us." Jocelyn wedged herself underneath Gabi, stringy golden hair sunning itself over her knee. She felt the urge to kiss her forehead but restrained.

The bugs were so loud at night. As the sun got lower, the earth got louder. Gabi's leg cramped up, but she forced her body to stay in that rigid position so she could hear if anyone was coming. Sweat congealed with the hair on her neck. Jocelyn's body had gone limp at her feet; the regular rise and fall of her ribs was comforting. She slid my fingers between Jocelyn's, both because she needed to touch another human being and in case they had to run deeper into the cornfield. Then she could just yank Jocelyn behind her. Once, they had to run all the way into town before he stopped following them.

Maybe he had forgotten about them tonight. He did that sometimes.


The hair on his chest was just visible in the moonlight that seeped through the yellowed curtains into Jamie's room. He smelled like cheep cigarettes and wood overlaid with a heavier man-sweat smell. She had never been with anyone who smelled like man-sweat. Most of her other boyfriends had just smelled like the high school gym. He was only a few months older than she was, but his goatee and deep eyes made him seem so much older.

She ran her finger up the muscular indentation from his belly button to his breastbone. She thought he was asleep, but he slowly closed his hand around hers and brought her fingers to his lips. He exhaled hot air through his nose across her knuckles. She moved her face closer to his, wanting to feel the warmth of his breath roll over her face.

"I love you, baby."

She rolled over to look at him, her chest pressed against his, the sheets sliding from her shoulders. "Really?" Her voice was so small she wondered if he could hear her.

He sat up to face her, sheets falling forgotten into their laps. Their sweat glazed skin cooled in the night air. "I was going to memorize another poem for you, but I couldn’t find one that matched the magnitude of your beauty." Sure it was cheesy, but she couldn't help blushing. She leaned in to kiss him, but he stopped her, putting a warm finger against her lips. "Marry me. I'll die if you don't marry me."

"You don't leave me too much of a choice," she teased. He was absolutely serious, though, the muscles around his lips unmoving, his eyes cold, searching. "Of course I’ll marry you." She winced as he wrapped his arms tightly around her slightly bruised ones. He got excited and I bruise easy, she told herself as she shifted her weight, knowing she'd have bruises inside her thighs in the morning too. If he noticed her flinching, though, he'd kiss her bruises and massage her until he had to leave. She loved that. He didn't push her for anything; he just wanted to make her feel good. And he made her feel good all right.

But he didn't notice her pain. He just held her tightly against him and began to kiss her, pushing her back beneath him onto the bed, murmuring about how much he loved her. Afterwards, he got out of bed and pulled his clothes on before climbing out the window and walking back to his house. It would be nice to live in their own house so they could lie in bed together the whole night without worrying about her parents freaking out about it in the morning. Then she wouldn’t mind so much when he didn't notice.


At fifteen, Gabi still slept in her mother's bed. It wasn't real sleep, though. The only real sleep she ever had was when she was ten. That time he went to rehab.

They turned the fan on high so that it moved the curtains, which were yellowed since they were so old. Gabi liked it better that way because the sunlight against new white curtains probably would be so bright that she wouldn't be able to allow her body to relax into that almost-sleep. Her mother always said that one day she'd get new white curtains. Gabi wondered when this one day would be. Her mother never specified.

Jocelyn slept in a little ball, her head on her mother's ribcage and her knees pressed against her hip bone. Her mother stroked her hair so that Jocelyn fell asleep. Gabi liked it better that way.

Her mother winced when Jocelyn moved her head higher. "Be gentle, baby," she murmured. She moved her hands from Jocelyn's hair to the top of the little girl's head, rubbing her forehead with her thumbs while trying to keep Jocelyn from accidentally hitting her fresh bruises again.

"Mom?" Gabi waited for her mother to open her eyes. "Can we go to the library tonight? I wanted to get 95 Poems out like you told me too."

"You need to start reading some good poetry. I should go to some PTA meeting and insist that all Emily Dickinson be banned from high school classrooms. If you want to read bad poetry in your own time, there are plenty of anthologies devoted to her pitiful ramblings." Her mother's voice was a hollow, warm ringing pushing up through the humid air.

Gabi turned delicately onto her shoulder so she could better look at her mother. "You know, Mr. Green says that e. e. cummings rambles," she offered, allowing a smile to tweak the edges of her lips.

"Ha." Gabi's mother rolled herself up onto one elbow, checking a gasp as Jocelyn's golden head shifted to press against her abdomen. "Mr. Green is a terrible excuse for an English teacher. I know, he taught me when I was in high school. He taught twelfth grade then."

Gabi scooched closer to her mother, even though the humidity was so thick that it tried to keep them apart. The three of them lay there in the bed, Jocelyn and Gabi cuddled into their mother's stomach as close as they could, even though their sweat made the sheets damp. Their mother still leaned on her elbow over them, trailing her fingers through Gabi's dark, tangled hair. He had dark hair too. Her mother always told Gabi that hers was beautiful anyway.

Gabi looked up at her mother's chin, trying to hear her breathe over Jocelyn's soft snores and the whirl of the fan. Her mother wasn't looking down at the girls anymore but at the flapping curtains. Her fingertips still caressed Gabi's scalp until she was falling asleep. She didn't want to miss a waking moment with her mother, though. Such moments were much too precious to waste on sleep.

"you being in love." Gabi could barely hear her voice. "will tell who softly asks in love, am i separated from your body smile brain hands merely to become the jumping puppets of a dream? oh i mean: entirely having in my careful how careful arms created this at length inexcusable," she closed her eyes and placed her hands over her face, muffling her voice, but she couldn't stop. "this inexplicable pleasure-you go from several persons: believe me that strangers arrive when i have kissed you," she stumbled, "into a memory slowly, oh seriously- that since and if you disappear solemnly myselves ask 'life, the question how,'" her voice broke, "'how do i prefer this face to another and why do I weep eat sleep—what does the whole intend' they wonder. oh and they cry ‘to be being that i am alive this absurd fraction in its lowest terms with everything cancelled but shadows,'" I could barely understand what she was saying, her voice was so unfocused. "I can't remember all of it anymore…--what does it all come down to? love? Love if you like and i like, for the reason that I hate people and lean out of this window is love, love and the reason that i laugh and breathe is oh love and the reason that i do not fall into this street is love.’"

Gabi felt the tears, warm and salty against her already salt and sweat stained skin.
"He memorized that poem for me and recited it outside my window on my seventeenth birthday."

"That was a long time ago." Gabi wondered if her mother remembered that she was in the room.

She did'’t. She blinked and looked down at Gabi. "Hmmm?" Her fingers lay dormant in Gabi's tangles. Then she eased herself back down onto the mattress, pushing Jocelyn and Gabi away as gently as she could manage. "Oh. Not that long ago. He had copied it out of a book at school onto a cafeteria napkin." She tried to laugh. "The napkin fell out of his pocket, so I kept it until it…until it disintegrated. That's how I memorized it."

Gabi could see her, sun-drenched hair hanging out the window, dark brown eyes shimmering with tears, cheeks rosy from blushing with delight. She still looked the same way she did sixteen years ago. Except for the bruises.


"Do you want to go out tonight?" Jamie's sister still called her every weekend, even though her friends from high school had stopped soon after Jamie got engaged in her first year of community college.

"He's working tonight," she'd say to Mary-Ann. "He's always so tired after work, and he spends the whole day thinking about me. I want to be home when he gets home." But sometimes she really did want to go with Mary-Ann instead of waiting at home, especially when he came home smelling like alcohol. Mary-Ann said that he had a problem and Jamie couldn't keep covering it up for him. He said that everyone at work drank and he had no problem with a beer every once in a while. Jamie didn’t like how hard he kissed her after he'd been drinking.

He wasn't home too late tonight. She was on the sofa trying to read, but she was up on her feet as soon as she saw the headlights. She opened the door for him, trying her best to smile as warmly as she could.

He kissed her sloppily on her cheekbone. "Hey baby," he greeted her. "What's going on?" He jaunted into the kitchen, which was an extension the family room. They lived in a little rancher that her father had helped them pay for when he gave him a job with his construction business.

She took a deep breath. She was sure he wouldn't be angry. And she didn't need to be afraid; he had never hurt her on purpose. "I do have good news," she started, waiting for him to give her permission to continue. He smiled at her indulgently while eating the food on plate she had set out for him. "I'm pregnant." It sounded so ugly and hollow in the little rancher. "We're going to have a baby," she corrected herself.

His face immediately lit up and he lost some of the tired glazed look in his eyes. He dropped his fork, pushed back his chair and took the room in two steps so he could scoop her up in his arms and whirl her around. She felt immense relief and laughter just bubble out of her, her face flushed with happiness at his approval.
He kissed her and she felt herself melting. She drank him as deeply as she could before he broke away. She tried not to make an obviously distressed noise. He had not kissed her like that for months, and she was not ready for it to be over so quickly. "You make me the happiest man in the world," he told her. She just wanted him to shut up and kiss her.

That night she decided that being pregnant was the best thing she had ever done for their relationship. She changed her mind the next time he came home drunk.


The sound of breaking glass can drown out screams. Or at least freeze everything enough that Gabi could breathe before the world closed in on her again. She had enough time to look into her mother’s eyes as her mother brought the bottle down over his head. She could hardly see Gabi through her tears.

"Call 911," was all that she said to Gabi. Gabi didn't know if she meant for him or for Jocelyn, who hadn't moved since he knocked her off the chair onto the tiled floor. He had walked into the room when she was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a picnic. She had wanted both him and her mother to come, but he had said he wasn't in the mood for a picnic.


He stayed completely sober for two months after the baby was born.

His hands were so big that he could hold the baby in both hands without cradling her against his chest. Jamie was grateful for all the attention he gave the baby; it gave her some time to rest. She felt indifferent towards it. She was so tired, and now that he was home more instead of out with his friends, she had no need for the baby's company.

His lips massaged the sore parts of Jamie's body so well. They didn't talk all that much, but he started reading her book of poetry aloud to the baby. She would go and sit beside him, curling her body against his and occasionally kissing his jawbone until his body responded to hers and they left the baby to sleep in the crib in the garishly pink baby room alone.

She was in such shock at the end of those two months when he slapped her the first time that she didn't feel it. She couldn't even remember the string of events leading up to it any longer; even though she was sure she felt it coming. Did she really nag him about hanging out with his friends instead of coming home to help her? Would going back to college to finish her degree in English really sabotage their relationship? She didn’t know anymore, so she stopped thinking about it. She tried to get pregnant again, but she had two miscarriages before she gave up and went on the pill. She hoped he didn't find out.


Jocelyn fidgeted. Her arm was still in a sling, but her bruised ribcage no longer looked that pretty purple black color, having started to fade to mud brown.

Aunt Mary-Ann and Uncle Danny had taken them out for lunch at the family restaurant in town. The restaurant had a toy train that ran along the top of the wall, whistling frequently enough that the one time they had eaten there as a family, her mother had to talk him down from throwing his glass at it. He wasn’t even drunk that time.

Her mother's back was unnaturally straight, but that could have been because she might have hurt her side more badly than she let on. She had French braided her hair and was wearing a suit jacket with the shoulder pads ripped out and jeans from the junior's section in the mall.

Aunt Mary-Ann was trying not to cry. She was not as pretty as Gabi's mother, and she wore more makeup than Gabi's mother did. Uncle Danny had close-cropped hair and was clean-shaven, which Gabi's mother usually teased him about because she said a man wasn't a man without a beard.

"If you knew he was unstable, why did you keep the children in the home with him as long as you did?" Uncle Danny's voice was quiet, apologetic. Whether apologizing for saying something out of line or for telling it like it is, Gabi wasn't not sure.

Gabi's mother stood up. "I tried to keep my family together, alright?" she spat. "I thought he would get better." If she wasn't so angry, she might have started to cry. "I thought I could help him get better."


"I wanted to get you something," he said. Jamie was surprised to see him. His eyes were clear, or somewhat less red than she remembered. He was wearing clean clothes, shirts that she had personally never bought him. "I know I have been a sorry excuse for a man, but I’m going to change that, if you’ll have me."

She didn't answer him. Normally, such a reaction would warrant her a beating, but she was too heavy to care. The baby moved again inside her. It always did that when she thought about it. Not "it," Jamie tried to correct herself. Him maybe. Would he prefer a son or a daughter? She didn't know. They already had a daughter, and he had shown interest in her only on occasion. The little girl helped her a lot, though. She loved to put her small hands on Jamie's stomach and feel the baby move. She had to send her to stay with Mary-Ann while she was in the hospital, though. Gabi had cried as Jamie drove away.

He put the small wrapped rectangle beside the hospital bed. When Jamie didn't pick up the thin package, he picked it up and put it in her hands. His hands were still big, though not as calloused as they had been before he got help. She could smell him, though his sweat was more the smell of nervousness and less the smell from hard work. Still, it was a welcome change from the hospital burn in her nostrils. She opened up the paper and let the book fall into her lap. e. e. cummings. 95 Poems.
"I know it doesn’t have our poem or 'my sweet old etcetera' in it, but I know how much you love---"

She started to cry. "Why do you do this to me?" Her voice was so soft that it was only air; no sound came though.

He knelt beside the bed so he could look into her eyes. He covered her hands with his. "I love you. I want a second chance. I want to be a family for once. I want this little baby to have a father who loves her."

So she let him stay. She was reading the poems, her fingers combing through his hair as he slept with his head on her bed. Number 14.

but also dying

(as well as
to cry and sing,
my love

and wonder)is something

you have and I
've been
doing as long as to
(yes)forget(and longer

birth’s the because of a
why but our doom is

to grow(remember

this my sweet)not
wherever the sun and stars and


are we're;but



Gabi's new house had white curtains. Except it wasn’t a house. It was a one-bedroom apartment. They didn’t have any furniture; her mother wanted to buy curtains first. Jocelyn was afraid that he would know where they were if he saw the white curtains.
"Plenty of people have white curtains," Gabi told Jocelyn to get her to shut up.

She shook her head. "No, but I mean really white curtains. Not just yellowed ones."

Her mother was working at a doctor's office in town, so Gabi took Jocelyn to the playground during the day. Jocelyn would go down the slide sometimes, but for the most part they just sat on the swings. Gabi liked brushing the mulch back and forth, making the little furrow under the swing deeper. Even when it got really hot, the dirt under the wood chips was damp. She could sit in the swing forever, rocking gently. The chains holding the seat creaked in different pitches depending whether she moved backwards or forwards.

Jocelyn always tried to see how far she could swing, hoping that one day she would touch the clouds with the toe of her too-small sneaker. Gabi never had such aspirations.


When he saw Jamie standing there, he stopped slowly. "Hey baby," he almost slurred. "Where're the kids?"

"Where were you?" She tried to make her voice sound stronger than she felt.

He laughed uneasily. "Can't a man hang out with his buddies without his wife nagging him to death about it?" He pushed past her and stumbled into the kitchen to his cold dinner plate.

She followed him. "I just don't think this is a good idea with you so soon out of rehab. I know it's been a little over a year, but what you had was an illness. You can’t think that you can just go back and be in complete control---"

"I am in control,"” he spat. She reeled back. He walked closer to her until she was pushed flat against the wall. "Don’t criticize my decisions." He was growling now.

She couldn't keep the tears from collecting in her eyes. "You have to think about your family." She grit her teeth together as she said it. She could not let him slip again.

He shook her. "You know nothing about how fucking hard this is!" He walked away, leaving her to crumble into a pile on the floor.

She pushed herself back up against the wall. "Do you even love me at all anymore?" She needed him to justify her existence, to prove to her that all this was worth it.

But he didn't tell her he loved her. Not until the next day when he woke up and came to find her still lying on the kitchen floor, the two little ones wrapped around her as though trying to protect her. He gently dislodged them and carried her into the bedroom, whispering his apologies to her. She didn't open her eyes until she was laid out on the bed. He stroked her hair and rubbed her hand with his fingers. "I love you, baby." It was all he could say. And she forgave him again.


Gabi watched her mother put the lipstick on in front of the mirror. Her mother was standing in her underwear, the lacey kind that she never wore unless it was a special occasion. She let the tube of lipstick fall in the sink as she fumbled for the eyeliner. She could even stab herself in the eye with a pencil elegantly.

"Where are you going, Mom?" Gabi knew but needed to ask her anyway.

"Hmmm?" She looked over at Gabi when she finished with the eyeliner. "Oh, I'm not going anywhere. We are going out. Can you go get the jeans off my bed? My new pair. And the black heels, too."

"So where are we going?"” Gabi pressed, holding the jeans out to her mother and letting the skimpy shoes dangle from her fingers.

"Well, I thought we'd go visit your father. I want him to see his kids, even if it's only for a day or so a month. He's still your father."

Gabi let the jeans and the shoes fall into a pile on the bathroom floor. Her mother raised an eyebrow at her, but Gabi pretended not to notice as she walked out of the room.

"Make sure Jocelyn brushes her teeth," Her mother called after her.

Jocelyn was sitting on the bed, having slipped her shoes inside a pair of red stilettos. "Do we have to go see him?" she asked Gabi. She whispered so their mother wouldn't hear. Gabi didn't say anything. She just took the red shoes off of Jocelyn's sneakers and picked her up to set her on the floor. She was too heavy.

"Let’s go get you cleaned up," Gabi said. "And please don't cry. Mama gets upset when you cry. You don't have to worry, because I won't let him hurt you again."

The jeans were snug, but her hips didn't bulge out of them. Jamie liked buying the jeans in the junior's section when she went shopping with her oldest daughter. She wasn't that old anyway; she could get away with it. The girls were quiet in the car ride over to their old house, but she didn't notice. She whistled some and smiled into the rear view mirror at them.

"Daddy's going to be happy to see his girls," she told them as she hit the brakes. She was speeding a little too much.

But as they approached the rancher and pulled into the driveway, Jamie knew something wasn't right. He was waiting for them, a mess. His clothes weren't clean and his face was red.

She felt stupid for getting all dressed up to see him, even though she couldn't suppress the little lightness of her heart as she saw him. She got out of the car, throwing the keys on the seat and slamming the door shut. She wanted him to know that she was not pleased that he was such a mess. She heard the girls get out of the car and knew that Gabi was shielding the Jocelyn. She could always count on her for that.

She strode towards her husband, trying to appear brisk and in-control. She couldn't keep up the fa├žade though, when she saw that he was sobbing. She hesitated ever so slightly before kneeling beside him on the steps. "Hey, what's wrong?" She tried to make her voice soothing. The girls stood back, still close to the car, as though they were ready to leave already. Well, they would have to wait.

He smell was heavy, almost musky, laden with alcohol. "I just love you so much, Jamie."

"Shhh," she patted his hand. "It's going to be okay."

"Please come back to me," he whispered. His face was wet, and he brought it closer to hers.

She pulled back. "I can't yet." Her voice was firm even though she thought her heart was exploding in her chest. "You need to get better. I can't put the girls in danger."

He eased up to his feet. "There's someone else, isn't there?" he snarled. She looked up at him, still crouched on the ground, unthreatening.

He pulled out the gun before she could answer him.


Aunt Mary-Ann has fluffy toilet-seat covers. Gabi is sitting in Aunt Mary-Ann's bathroom. She can hear the faint beating on the other side of the door.

"Don't do this, honey," someone is saying. "You have your little sister to think about."

"There's still blood everywhere," Gabi says.

"There's no blood," the voice on the other side of the door is saying. "We washed off all the blood already, honey."

They lie. Gabi picks up the scissors. The scissors are monstrously sharp sewing scissors. Aunt Mary-Ann likes making quilts.

Gabi's hair is heavy and stringy. Maybe no one else can see the blood because her hair is so dark. Like his. Gabi pulls her hair tight and cuts. The sound of the scissors shearing her hair off makes her spine tingle. The tips of the scissors are sharp and Gabi pokes her scalp accidentally. A little pain is okay as long as she can just rid herself of this feeling.

Her hair lies on the floor around her. Fans around her. What’s left on her scalp isn’t even so she takes Uncle Danny’s razor to try to smooth it out. The pounding on the door is louder now, but it’s hard to hear over the sound of the razor.

She finishes. The door splinters. Jocelyn is screaming again. Uncle Danny bursts through the door and stops. "It's okay, Mary-Ann," he says. He does not turn around in Aunt Mary-Ann's direction; he just looks at Gabi as he says it.

Aunt Mary-Ann comes through the broken door and gasps before she starts hiccupping from crying so hard. "Honey, you scared us," she addresses Gabi. Gabi pats her aunt on the head and opens the destroyed door. Jocelyn is on the other side. She has stopped screaming.

She grips Gabi tightly, burying her face into her stomach. "Can you cut my hair too?" she whispers.

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