Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Coping

Today's will be the last Glass Cases publication of 2011. There are so many great stories still on deck for 2012, and I want to say thank you to everyone who submitted work this year. This blog wouldn't exist without you, and I can't wait to see even more submissions in the new year. 

I hope you all enjoy today's story - albeit a heartbreaking one - by Melissa McNallan called Coping. Melissa is a freelance writer from Minnesota who's been published in regional newspapers and magazines, and has had three short stories appear in various online publications. In 2010 she won the Minnesota State Arts Board
Grant in Prose for her novel currently titled Un(in)tended

Coping
By Melissa McNallan

As soon as Christopher’s foot hits the brake, I catapult from my seat. I move across the grass to the strong shoulders, shined shoes and military-issue cuts. I wonder if their eyes have been trained to hold a certain look for wives and children – sympathetic and distant. I can only see Mom’s struck face.

“Kate,” Christopher hollers. My head is submerged like I’m bobbing for apples in cold water on Halloween. I can feel the color of my face change. His words can’t penetrate. I wondered about coming up for breath while bobbing, because maybe it’d be cheating, like now. Christopher got through and into me last night in his old Ford truck with the rust above the wheels. The one he bought from his father. While he did, I kept my right leg from bumping into the knobs of the stereo he’d installed a week ago.

I can see the message they’re delivering in my mother’s pinched up face with its black streaks. Her eyes have been hollow for weeks. Panic wielded its chisel on the space just above her cheek bones first. It moved onto the cheek’s hollow, around her lips in thin lines and to the pinch in the bottom of her chin. My Mom’s face transformed into a shrunken head of stress that the soul packed up and left. I’ve never felt anger like this; it’s punching from behind my ribs with hands wanting to break free and strangle the men’s calm faces and Mom’s blotchy one, pathetic on top of her worn housecoat. The house coat is peach and quilted with coffee stains. It’s like the cloak of surrender to a blobby brownie filled existence. I won’t live a life of surrender.

I know she forgot to pray. His safety was contained in her ability to fret, pray and hold her breath. It was her job to keep him from falling. 

Mom knew it’d happen from the moment she started packing up the nice Christmas dishes, back when Dad was stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. When the orders were issued for us to move onto Shaw, she started wrapping them in week old newspaper ads. Red dishes trimmed in
silver went into apple cardboard boxes she’d picked up from the back of the grocery store. 

It was then that she started praying, morning and night. She baked as though kneading and braiding breads could hold us together. They meant nothing. He’d arrive in a box, like the dishes – broken. She cried about the dishes too. Whenever Mom wants what she can’t have, tears fall. If you really don’t want something wrecked, like the posters I never let the military move, you have to keep it with you. 

I push at the soldier’s sturdy arm. I feel my arms swinging. Before I make the kind of connection I want, like hitting a home run in softball, the kind of connection that rings through my body, the sort I’d hoped for in Christopher’s truck hours before. Before I feel that connection, the one the angry hands against the inside of my ribs want to make, arms hold me. Not hard, but firm and I feel my back against a man’s chest. I don’t know who the arms belong to but they remind me of my Dad’s the day he deployed. The arms are strong, holding tight as though one body could press through another and always be there somehow. “Shhh,” I hear soft in my ear.

I see my brother, Bradley, behind Mom. His face is a horrified question mark beneath his parted hair. The man let’s go and I move through them. I kick off my flip flops. My legs take me from the living room, through the hallway and into my room. I put my Green Day CD in, set it to replay on 21 Guns and put my headphones on. I close my eyes until everything is as gone as it can be.

I dream of Scott in Jessica’s basement and the way the combination of kissing him and drinking wine coolers made my lips tingle. I loved looking up into his eyes. In the dream he and I start to dance. We look at each other as our feet make a slow circle; my hands are clasped behind his neck. I put my head against his chest. Then I feel this pull on my sides.

Greedy hands that belong to an unseen man pull me from Scott. I move too hard and fast for him to keep me. Then I’m running through doors, down a hall. I keep worrying that the next one will be locked but they keep opening and I can hear the man’s breath heaving behind me. I will my eyes open and they find Christopher sitting on my chair, the one for the desk that I never use. There’s nothing comfortable about that configuration in life – desk and chair. His head is tilted back at an uncomfortable looking angle and his mouth is open.
I slip off my bed quiet, letting my toes touch gentle to the carpet. My favorite thing about this house is how thick and gentle the carpet is on my toes. I like to squeeze each toe into it.

When I cross the hall to the bathroom I see Mom looking out the living room window. She’s done that for the past few months. I want to tell her the only thing coming back is a box she’ll have to put away. I leave the carpet for the bathroom’s hard tile.

I brush my now blonde hair straight and proper, brush my teeth and put on a little lip-gloss. I go out to the living room where Mom is by the window and say, “There’s a strange man in my room.” I put my arms around her because everyone deserves some sympathy once in awhile I guess.

“He was worried about you,” she says. “It’s not a bad thing.” No guy has ever been allowed to enter my room before, except Bradley and Dad. She pulls toward the window and I know tears are finding their way
easy down her cheeks. Maybe she plans to be some kind of window display. We could put up a sign that says suffering widow and prop it next to her.

Bradley must be playing over at Jonathon’s house. Jon lives two houses down. His mother bakes cookies, plays games and helps the boys write letters and make things. I guess Bradley won’t need to write letters anymore. Mrs. Brighton, Jon’s mom, is young compared to ours. She’s upbeat and strong; and, looks powerful with her apron on.

I go back to my room; change out of last night’s low cut and clingy bubblegum pink shirt and the white Cheap Trick T-Shirt my Dad had given me two Christmases ago. It’s what he and I had: Cheap Trick, The Clash and The Ramones. At least he’d given me a proper introduction to punk rock and its awkward siblings before he left. I wake Christopher.

“What?” He looks confused.

“Let’s go,” I say.

As I walk out of the house with my hand in Christopher’s, he tries to tell the window display thanks or good-bye. The display’s fixed its sight and will not be distracted. He looks at me and I shrug. He wanted in.

“Where to?” Christopher opens the truck’s passenger door for me. He gets in behind the wheel.

“Away.”

“You okay?” He turns the key in the ignition. His light blue button down shirt is rumpled. He looks good when his order is compromised.

“Sure.” I know it’s the wrong answer. I turn the stereo’s volume up.

He turns his truck onto Myrtle Beach Highway. I wonder when Dad’s body will be delivered. Will he be brought back in one piece or in parts? 

“Did you hear how it happened?” Christopher asks.

Before Dad left for Afghanistan, he stuck me in Saint Francis Xavier School. I was pissed. On the day he deployed my Dad pulled me to him, pressed me hard against him and my arms just kind of hung there, because they had to. The nuns were better than weepy Mrs. Sandraniski. She’d had glasses, wore skirts with sweaters and really felt for students in her gawky way. The nuns don’t weep. Their attitude seems more, so you have a problem – what is it you intend to do to fix it or cope with it? God doesn’t make mistakes.

“They said his F-16 Falcon collided with another plane, faulty coordinates.” Christopher parks the truck in a lot by the beach. Christopher pulls a bottle of wine out of the back seat of the truck. He uncorks it and I pull the bag of plastic cups from behind my seat. 

I hold the glasses as he pours. I’ll cope as we walk along the beach.

2 comments:

  1. This story has put a hollow space in my chest. It’s a brief moment, and yet you learn so much about Kate’s life… The way she describes sleeping with Christopher as him having “got through and into me,” is so raw and telling, as well as the fact that her mind was on not bumping into his stereo during the whole thing.

    Melissa, your descriptions perfectly capture these emotions… Such as the way you can still have such random and stray thoughts as how carpet feels beneath your feet, when your world is falling apart, and how she immediately needs to blame her Mother for his death.

    This is my first time on this site and it’s delicious.

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  2. @Laura - Welcome! Glad you like the site.

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