Call from San Fran Sicko

Holly Hunt Click to read more...

huntphotoHolly Hunt, poet and novelist from Bismarck, Arkansas, has published work in The Southern Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner and other good places. She now lives in Vancouver, Washington.

It had been six months since her mother had run away from home in the middle of the night, leaving Denise, the seventh grader, and her little sister, seven-year-old Amanda Jane, to wonder what had possessed her to flee like a reptile that quickly forgets her eggs. Their daddy, Paul, didn’t see it coming. Lena had always seemed like such a warm and fuzzy mommy, starching and ironing the pillowcases, singing along with the radio. But, really, how shocked could Paul afford to be? He took off one day’s personal leave from his job at the post office.

For nearly a week, the girls hardly ate a bite.  They stared at their pancakes with strawberry and whip cream topping. They stared at their Madame Alexander dolls, unable to touch them.  The last thing Paul could afford to do was suffer some breakdown himself.  What if they both turned wall-eyed anorexic?

Finally, though, the three began to watch TV in the evenings, but just the picture and hardly any sound. Then they actually turned it up loud enough to hear it. They started to shop at the mall a little bit on the week-ends, even though they didn’t want anything. Nothing looked pretty. They resumed playing board games together, eating pizza and other fast foods that made them smack their lips once again. It was eventually salt and grease that pulled them back into the land of the great mistaken whatever.

Twelve-year-old Denise was the first to get her hands on the postcard when it came. She pulled it from the mailbox and read it, immediately after school.  It prickled in her hands as she breathed harder.  She frantically penciled an ugly face with horns and a tail on the postcard before Paul got home from work.  After scratching the devil on the card, she ran to her room, completely hating the person who used to be her mother.  She slammed her bedroom door and turned on the radio full-blast. She now played the most hateful, brutal music she could find, and it made her feel steely and not easily bug-smashed.

She was secretly placing little sharp rocks in her shoes, actually inside her stocks and inside the feet of her tights so she could not kick them out while walking.  Nobody knew about the rocks. She was training herself for something. Whatever it was, she had no clue, but it was something important.  The rocks hurt a little bit, because some of them were sharp, annoying little irritants.  But whenever she put them in her socks in the morning, she got a very happy, anxious feeling.  It was a little weird, how she laughed to herself, and she didn’t say a word about it to anybody.  But it was happening more and more, ever since Lena had left them. Whenever she was alone in her room, Denise indulged in outrageous laughing fits, falling on the floor.  The whole of creation would suddenly strike her has hilarious and she would fall laughing uncontrollably, and then roll off the bed onto the floor, tears streaming from her eyes, laughing until she was gasping for breath.

Amanda Jane didn’t think anything was nearly that funny.  She would sit on her bed, in her yellow bedroom, and hug her giant teddy bear, barely breathing, like lichen that grows on rocks for centuries.

When she heard the screaming chainsaw of music in Denise’s room, she slipped in, quiet mouse, and turned it down. She picked up the postcard on Denise’s vanity and sighed, acknowledging, “At least she’s not dead.” Amanda had taken the abandonment under the radar, but Denise had slammed back hard, thundercloud to thundercloud, boasting and raving about those black-lipped Goth boys and girls who had their teeth filed into sharp points.  She might try that someday. She might tear the heads off of rabbits, too.  She had turned a very cold water hose in full spray on the neighbor’s cat and laughed for half an hour.

Denise said, “Toss me my brush.”

Amanda just stood there looking at the hairbrush.  It was full of Denise’s dark brown hair.

Denise said, “Are you deaf, Helen Keller? Toss me that damn brush.”

“Maybe I don’t want to.”

“God-damn it!”  Denise jumped off her bed and grabbed the brush and glared at Amanda Jane.  And then she began to brush her hair as Amanda Jane watched her violent strokes, as Denise ripped and tore through her tangles, breaking and popping strands, wincing at her own ruthless attack on her hair.

Amanda said, “Will you stop it!”

Denise laughed roughly and said, “Why, are you scared?”

Amanda said, “Stop hurting your hair!  Stop talking so bad!” She ran from the room as Denise continued to tear her hair to pieces.

Denise called out to her, “Ha! Poor little whiny baby!”

Paul got home from his job at the post office and confronted the message the estranged Lena had finally sent them. He leaned over the breakfast bar. No return address. Lena’s loopy backhanded writing held his eyes to the card:  “Dear cupcakes, I am fine. I have a brand new life. I am in love again.  Please get a new life, too.  Best Wishes, Lena.” Postmarked Sacramento, California.  The other side of the continent, far from their home.

Denise said, “Ain’t no cupcake. Wish she was dead.”

“Don’t say that,” said Paul.  “And why did you have to draw Satan on it?”

Denise said she thought it needed some artwork.

He puzzled at the message:  “In love again?”

Denise, glued to the images on TV but not listening to it, barked back at Paul: “Means she’s fucking some other guy!”  It was the first time she ever said the F-word to anyone.  It was a horrible sound and her mother deserved a foul dig, but the word sort of backfired and stung Denise as she said it.  She wanted to take it back, because her daddy had gasped to hear it come out of her mouth, but even more, she also wanted that hideous word to travel across the country and stab her mother, stab her smack in the middle of her new fucking life’s back.

The next morning, early in her sleep, Denise received a call from inside a redwood forest.  It was a young man who introduced himself to her as Poor Boy, with a crackling voice who spoke in spurts.  Calling from Fran San Sicko. He said he was a little Sicko Santo. There was wind in the redwoods and in his cell phone.  Sometimes it blew him away and he would come back clearer from another locale, his voice swinging on a vine in an earthquake.

She pieced together his message, though, and the truth was declared at last, and it brought her great relief:  Her mother Lena had died of an overdose, overnight. Heroin.  It was a car accident and the car had flipped twenty times and cut off her head.  Great.  Lena had gotten slut drunk and been run over by a freight train.  Wait a minute: Lena had actually fallen from a cliff and drowned in the cold Pacific. She had been immediately chewed to pieces by sharks.  Her mother Lena was dead dead dead.   Finally, it was certain. She was a hundred times dead and gone. Poor Boy said that she had died so many times, so many different ways,  that now there was nothing left of the body to send back home.

Poor Boy told Denise that he and Lena were married on a whim in Las Vegas with plastic rings and on their West Coast honeymoon headed for Nirvana together when tragedy struck them over and over.  In quantum space and time they sang songs with the wacked out motorcycle riders that had murdered both of them.  Poor Boy sounded like he was losing his mind in eternity.  Sometimes Denise could not figure out what he was saying.  Only that Lena was dead dead dead.

Denise burst into tears.  Poor Boy said he was very sorry, very sorry for everything. Poor Boy did not understand how she felt, really.  How could he be so dense?  Her tears were not from grief.  Oh no.  They were tears of absolute peace. Lena dead?  Like in a freak-car accident and smashed by a truck, drowned in the ocean and eaten by sharks?  Most wonderful news she’d heard in six months, ever since the mamma bitch had left them all to take care of themselves as she followed her own air-headed dreams.

But wait, said Poor Boy. Wooooo, said the wind as it cleaned off New Mexico and Arizona.  Big Sur ate Mamma clean off her bones.  Poor Boy wept to remember where he and Lena had first heard together the big Ohm. Denise listened quietly to his phone voice.  He hummed directly into her ear so that it tickled, Ooohhmma.

Poor Boy didn’t sound too healthy.  When he began to cry at the loss of his newly beloved, as he sobbed deeply, Denise could not help but laugh out loud at his mournful wailing. She told him to dry it up, and that is when his call finally dropped off the edge of the universe. She woke herself up laughing. Denise decided she would keep his message to herself, and she felt empowered with the secret of knowing the truth.  Daddy could believe that dumb postcard if he liked, that Lena was alive and had found a new life.  Denise preferred to believe Poor Boy’s report. Maybe it wasn’t a dream. Maybe it was real.  She relished the dream and replayed it in her head.  It made her feel comfy in a brand new way.

Finally she got up and told Paul and Amanda Jane that she felt puny. Sort of sick, she said. Of course, it was not true in the least.  She hadn’t felt this good since her mother had fled the house. Paul agreed she could stay home from school for the day, and she was playing Scrabble on the little laptop, sitting up in bed, when he left.

Later that morning, long after the bus had come and carried Amanda Jane to school, Denise walked through the house, into the kitchen breakfast nook. The linoleum floor felt pleasantly cool to her bare feet.  The light of mid morning fell softly upon her now that victory had come. Situated high on a triple shelf painted with hearts and rabbits and flowers, which her mother had toll-painted to hold her cherished egg collection, the priceless eggs smiled down at her. Denise and Amanda had watched, year by year, as Lena had pricked the end of the eggs and had carefully blown out the stream of yellow yolks and clear whites, before holidays, ever since they were old enough to remember.

She transformed the eggs into the Magical Egg People of the Land of Delicata, a concept that The Marvelous Mrs. Welch, Lena’s high school counselor, had sent in to a magazine and gotten published as a craft notion.  Lena sewed special clothes for them and decorated them with sequins for eyes, nose and mouth.  Hours and hours went into these masterpieces.   She often reminded Denise and Amanda Jane how they would someday inherit these precious collectibles, and that they must preserve them safely, even for their own little girls someday.  Lena had told them that if the country were to ever be invaded by an evil force, that the egg collection should be hidden and preserved above all things. She had been a mother who had looked far ahead into the future, earning their trust, year after hopeful year.

Denise studied the eggs perched upon their little altar:  Witch, Scarecrow, Quakers, Turkey, Pilgrims, and Hiawatha.   Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and five precious elves. And the imperial Valentine king and queen of hearts. The demure Easter bonnet girls.  Paul Revere in a tri-cornered hat, Ben Franklin with his monocle, Uncle Sam with his top hat and stars and stripes.

Stupidest crap on earth.  How could she have failed to notice all these years the utter worthlessness of this trash before?  Sequins glittering for eyes?  Eggs in hats and dresses?  Oh, so highly valued, this handiwork of her nitwit mamma.

She dragged the folded step stool over and climbed up for one final assessment of them.  She lifted her hand in the air, ready to slap the silliness out of the entire Delicata kingdom.  But she halted.  Ah, the Valentine king and queen of hearts.  Maybe they weren’t absolutely ridiculous.  Tiny fourteen-karat gold foil crowns glittered.  Amanda Jane treasured them above the others and loved to stroke the queen’s red satin gown, white lacy ruff, and the king’s human hair wig of silvery white curled rows.  Thinking of Amanda, she lifted the fragile sweetheart royalty and set them aside with mercy, placing them apart.  It seemed like the only fair thing to do. Now Amanda wouldn’t cry.

Maybe one last picture of the Easter Bonnet girls would be nice.  She climbed down and got the iPad and came back and took a close-up of the egg girls in their mint green and daffodil yellow dotted Swiss dresses. Oh, what a fuss her mother had made over that dotted Swiss material!  Lena had stroked the flocked dots, the tiny little rows of bumps, cooing how it was the most interesting fabric to touch. “So classic, just like in Kate Greenaway,” Lena had said.

Staring at them, Denise almost touched the dotted Swiss one last time, but she stopped herself.  It wasn’t right to touch it.  It would make things too hard.  Things were already hard enough.

Turning back to the display, she lifted her arm, relishing in the moment before her mighty hand of destruction would fall.  With one murderous swipe, the egg-people flew through the air.  They sailed down and rolled in all directions over the kitchen floor.   Denise ran hungrily after each one, lifting her foot high above each precious idiot egg, imagining its terror to see Big Foot from Hell crashing down. Her laughter peeled through the entire house, a wild howling that seemed to come from someone else, as she stomped and grinded each one, and sometimes the broken edges of the shells pricked her feet.  Suddenly, she froze with her foot high in the air. This was the reason for the stupid little rocks in her socks!  “I’m BAAAD!” she shouted, realizing she wouldn’t be putting them down in her socks anymore.  Now it was time for maybe walking barefoot on softest fur: oh yes, Prince Charming, throw down a full-length mink coat, and another, and another, as I walk on.

She walked out of the kitchen and looked back at the mess on the floor, and then she walked back in, looking closely at each egg, most delighted with each special distortion powerful in ruination. She found the Easter Bonnet Girls.  Picking up the iPad once more, she captured them in their destroyed condition, so that she could have a Before and After shot.  The justice of the contrast was especially delicious to her. And so not like Kate Greenaway.

Thrilled with her footwork, she walked away, looking back on the crushed faces, glitter-eyes, and brains full of air, smashed on the linoleum exactly where they belonged.

The broom and dustpan waited for her in the utility room.  She swiped up the entire eggshell mess and took it into the back yard, sweeping her feet through the cool green grass.  In a little bonfire, some of the shells melted and crackled, and some of the acetate fabrics curled in the fire.  She felt clean as it all burned down and out to black flakes.  She dipped her finger in the ashes. The Magical Egg People of the Land of Delicata were dead dead dead.

So soothing to know. Minty cool dead, like finely crushed ice on a puffed skin blister. And for all the months that she had been tearing out her own hair when she brushed it, ripping the bristles through, with her eyes watering up and dropping tears from the pulling and snapping, she floated back into the house, sat down at her vanity in her bedroom, and slowly, she brushed her hair with tenderness, as if she were her own cherished doll, as if she were her own little girl.

 

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Discussion

5 Responses to Call from San Fran Sicko

  1. Maddie Schaffer says:

    This piece is full of interesting and unique descriptions, my favorite being “flee like a reptile that quickly forgets her eggs.” The change in diction and writing style part way through matches the change that is seen in Denise, a quick turn I wasn’t expecting, which kept me engaged and excited to see what was coming next. This characters in this piece and their situation are relatable, making the struggles that Denise faces understandable, and I found myself being sympathetic towards her despite her angry actions.

  2. Zan Jarvis says:

    What a beautiful tale of fierce anger at abandonment. The dream death shows so clearly how our brains sift and recombine the worst to make emotional justice for our hearts. It’s so true it seems almost documentary. I love it that the mad child loses all sympathy for her family who suffers with her. It shows how defended she needs to be in her new circumstances. We all harbor justifiable grudges. They are the deepest wounds, the ones that hurt us the longest, and the ones that are most difficult to unseat. Looking at the genesis of someone else’s pain makes me consider the origins of my own. That’s the magic of a story. This one’s magical.

  3. denhamh20 says:

    Holly Hunt does an incredible job with a 12-year-old girl’s grieving diction, while still using the third person narrative to incorporate the inner dialogue of the father, younger sister and (absence of) the mother. I especially like the allegory of the tiny rocks that Denise places in her socks that find a use later, representing the process of her grief after the abandonment of her mother. As Zan Jarvis said above, “Looking at the genesis of someone else’s pain makes me consider the origins of my own.” This digs deep inside me, searching for my own child within.

  4. Holly Hunt says:

    I am humbled, truly, by the thoughtful responses to my story. Thank you for examining my character with empathy and allowing her a space in your heart and mind.

  5. Laurel Myers says:

    A raw exploration of grief and anger told in a direct but sympathetic manner. The dichotomy of the sisters highlights Denise’s anger while the inner monologues show the all-encompassing effect of grief. The descriptions are just strange enough to grab my attention while also perfectly portraying the situation. The character development is magnificent, making readers side with Denise even at her lowest point.

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