“And the times of this ignorance God winked at;
but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent …”
Acts of the Apostles, 17:30 (King James Bible)
The girls sit in a cold, sterile basement on a semi-busy street in a medium-sized city in Middle America. One of the girls watches an artist drawing a circle in imitation of the moon.
The clouds are silver and are positioned above and below the satellite; curlicues loop through their masses. The moon and sky and sea are contained within an oval; half is given to the heavens and half to the sea. The artist shades a portion of the sea to suggest at the moonbody’s cascading light. Then, the artist photocopies the picture, cuts out the oval, and gestures for the girl to approach.
The artist takes the inside of the girl’s wrist and considers it in silence before wiping it with a wet paper towel and then pressing the paper to it. When the artist removes the paper, the moon and sea are now black lines and shadows on the girl’s skin. Does that look like what you want? the artist asks the girl.
Her friend Rose observes, That’s a lot of shading. I heard the shading is the most painful part.
The artist shrugs. Depends on your own tolerance.
The girl eyes the tattoo gun, no, the guns that are motionless and hanging from hooks beneath the stand where the artist has brought out a few paints. She uses marker to add blue to the clouds and gold to the moon and teal to the ocean and she rubs purple into what were the outlines of a star’s heat.
Is that what you want? the artist gently asks again.
No, the girl says. No color.
I want it black.
She grabs kindling and a stack of newspapers; she tears a thin sheaf of papers into small strips, leaving the sheaf connected at the very ends of the strips. Then, she shakes the sheaf to loosen the strips and she places the loosened papers at the bottom of the fireplace and creates a small tepee out of sticks above it. She sparks a match and holds it to the papers; the wood is so dry it seems to suck in the flame.
If the girl tries to recall who taught her how to build a fire, she thinks she sees a man’s face appearing behind her as she labors to lift what were then heavy pieces of wood onto a burning flame.
Don’t confuse the flame for the fire, she hears him saying. It’s no work at all warming yourself so long as you remember that.
The Last Winter
Twelve months before the tattoo shop, Doris pulls on her mom’s snow boots and goes outside to gather the wood. It doesn’t take much for the tiny stove to heat the tiny house, but she’ll gather a big pile to stack beside the stove; with a little help, her mother will be able to heat the house through the night. Her mother’s room and the main area with living room and kitchen will stay warm enough for anyone who stays over, but Doris’s door will be closed as soon as she goes to bed; she’ll have to warm it up before the others come home and she seals herself in from the heat, and the noise.
She lifts the tarp off the wood pile outside the house and gathers a big armful of the dry wood. She doesn’t know what kind of tree it came from or from where, but she knows that, unlike money, there’s plenty of firewood to go around in Lake Bottom, Wisconsin. John, her mother’s boyfriend, took it upon himself years ago to keep the wood pile stocked and it’s the tidiest thing about their house, other than Doris’s room, which Doris keeps locked whether she’s inside or outside of it.
The flimsily locked door is more of a suggestion than an actual preventative, but it’s worked for Doris since her mother started pilfering through her room in middle school. The locked door somehow serves as a reprimand even though her mother could easily enough violate it in order to rummage around for change got the laundromat, or for an item to sell or trade.
Doris pauses before she gathers her second armload and looks up into the clear night sky. If you can endure the middle of nowhere, you do get the stars. Off in the distance, about a mile to the east, she can hear the Interstate, but it’s easy to pretend that it’s the whooshing patterns of something more majestic.
She hopes her work will exhaust her body and bring to it an easy night of sleep. Sleep is hard-won in these long January nights in her mother’s house in Lake Bottom. The winter pushes her mother deeper inside herself. Her mother goes silent for long periods, so that Doris would almost forget that she was still awake, until her mother burst out with an insult or condemnation, usually of Doris.
Come summer, her mother will take her friends to John’s place by the lake and drink until one of them, usually Doris’s mother, goes too far and then it was, best-we-head-home-party’s over-see-ya-at-the-plant-tomorrow-eh? Doris’s mother will go too far; she will stay out from the shore, quiet and inward, for a day or two. Then, she will quietly return.
Doris reminds herself that this summer, Doris won’t have to see it because she’ll be graduated and 100 miles from Lake Bottom.
Doris eats a dinner of French fries while standing at the kitchen counter and reviewing her history notes. There isn’t much else in the cupboards; some cereal and a banana sit on the counter. Doris carefully pours herself a taste of cereal just to appease her hunger for the night. Tomorrow, she’ll get breakfast and lunch at the school. She doesn’t understand why she’s always hungry, always craving more. She’ll eat this and her body will silence itself for a while until it sends another impulse to her brain: Snack! Have snack! She could eat until her stomach burst and still these impulses would fire.
Doris closes her book.
She makes lists in her head that are short enough to easily memorize and repeat as if in a mantra: Shower, do make-up, be patient, take extra underwear, leave. The last item in the list sticks a little in her throat and Doris swallows hard. By the time summer comes, she thinks, all that will be left will be the final item: leave.
It’s quiet now, but it won’t be for long. Doris gets a few paper towels from the kitchen and dampens them, folds them into a palm-sized square, and warms the makeshift washcloth by the fire. There’s no hot water until tomorrow, the first of the month, when her mother said she’d be able to get it turned back on. The hot water got turned off just before Christmas, but luckily they spent two nights over at John’s apartment, where hot water is included in the rent. Doris’s mother stops off over there before work in the morning most days, but Doris feels strange asking to use it. Experience has shown that it’s best for Doris to not ask her mother for anything Doris’s body needs. Asking will only elicit an unfair, unbelievable comparison and a nasty burn of an insult.
With her paper towel washcloth all heated up, Doris wipes her face, neck, and under her arms, and then returns to rewet the cloth, heat it once more, and take it into the bathroom to clean her lower half.
It’s almost 10:30 and they’ll be home soon since it’s only a Thursday night. Doris rushes through her washing up and grabs two Benadryl from the bathroom cabinet.
Car wheels crunch through the gravel driveway, car doors slam, her mother laughs for the neighborhood, not that there’s much of one out in their lake country. Doris slips inside her darkened room and quickly closes and locks the door. The light is off and her mother and two friends are inside the house. They cry out when they register the heat.
“Look at that roaring fire there,” Doris’s mother says. She’s pleased, Doris can tell. It’s her mother’s comment that is the last thing Doris listens to before she shoves in earplugs, pulls on a thick hat, then, over the hood of her sweatshirt, she puts on the cushioned headphones that John gave her for Christmas. The headphones are a knock-off and the audio is patchy, but the cushioning works pretty well at blocking sounds so that Doris can only feel the thumps and scrapes of the furniture they move around occasionally.
And then, Doris feels a wonder, the start of sleep, pulling her in. She’s a badger, conserving her warmth and fat for the winter; she burrows deeper.
The Body Numb
Body made of nausea. Body’s receptors American-made: trained for pain. Body receives into itself a pill. Body waits. Body made of couch fabric.
Body contains more fear than anything else. Body can be broken when it needs to be.
Body made of other bodies. Body wants nothing, has nobody but body.
Body like a marionette.
Body shits out the world.
Body occasionally sees god. Body is terrified of pain.
Body afraid of American bodies.
Body has no memories, but, most of all, body hurts and body takes a pill.
Body made of world; world made of stardust.
Rose and Doris are waiting for the breakfast crew to show up, trading sips of a cappuccino Rose brought in a coffee travel mug, when Sydney Schiller appears behind them in line and tells them about the party.
“Pat’s brother is supposed to be staying at the Murphy’s house while Mr. and Mrs. Murphy are on this cruise, or whatever, but he’s bounced and gone to see his girlfriend in Fishkill, so you know what that means.”
In addition to being their class’s conduit for information, though conveyed with a heavy apathy, Sydney is their class’s drug peddler. Rose, who works at the same pizza parlor that Doris works at, was able to save her money every month since her parents didn’t ask for Rose’s help in paying the bills and rent. And some of it ends up in Sydney’s pocket for weed, which Rose shares with her best friend, though Doris never asks her to.
“If you ladies have time to come over and help set up after school, that would be really sweet,” Sydney says. “The place is huge, you know.”
Doris and Rose looked at each other and Doris doesn’t know how, but Rose can see what she’s thinking and she speaks up for the two of them. “I’ll come over and help, but Doris has to—”
“I have to help my mom with something,” Doris says. “But I’ll be over as quick as I can.”
The kitchen window opens up and the morning crew, the Ortiz family, who lives just on the other side of the Interstate, is inside. Sydney watches them with appreciation. “They’re a happy lot. Eh?”
Rose starts asking questions about the party and Doris stops listening to the two of them. She swallows the saliva that’s pooling in her mouth. She’s mostly thinking about the eggs that Mrs. Ortiz makes with a yummy melted cheese and a little paprika. And toast. Please, Jesus, let there be toast, Doris prays. By Your grace and divine spirit, she prays, let it also have butter melted across it.
Sydney gently nudges Doris. “I said, good luck on your test,” Sydney says. “God, did you smoke this morning? I’m not judging. . .”
“I was just saying grace,” Doris says. Her voice was brittle enough for Sydney to back off. God and Christ, his only Son, through the authority of their local WELS, were excellent alibis in lake country. “And I’ll put in a good word for you for the test we’re about to take,” Doris adds.
Sydney raises her hands. “I appreciate your efforts,” she says and she backs away.
Doris can feel Rose watching her, but her friend says nothing. They’re almost to breakfast and Rose, with her birdlike appetite, is hungry again, and though Doris knows that her friend shouldn’t be getting a free breakfast, she says nothing. The mothers inside the kitchen laugh and speak in their language with their husbands and sons. Today, there’s a younger man in there with the rest of the kitchen crew. His chin is prickled unevenly with new facial hair and his cheeks have a ridge of purple acne that looks painful even from ten feet away. He could be falling asleep in class with the rest of them this morning, but instead he’s on his feet, up and working.
By the time Doris gets to the party, she wants to blow the whole town up. Jesus Christ, she prays, Will You hurry up with Your work, divine though I do not know thy ways, and return to save us from the ignorance and ill-will of Your people. Fire, Lord, directed at the boat plant while my mom and her fucking friends are working there, is the only way to bring about Thine salvation.
If it be Thy will.
A gust of wind coming up from the belly of the lake slaps across Doris’s face. She shudders with it and pulls her scarf up a bit higher and loses traction on the snowbank. These old snow boots of hers won’t make it through the weekend, let alone through the season. I’ll find a way to hide my money better, Doris thinks, but a moment later, changes her mind. It’s only 6 more months, she thinks. Really it’s just 5 months because January is almost over. Wind screams across the flatlands and interrupts her thoughts again as hard little pieces of clumps of snow pelt her face.
The hot water was a distant memory now. Doris had used the last of a tiny sample packet of shower gel from Aveda that she’d removed from a magazine at John’s house and her hair smelled like a symphony of essential oils. She put on her clothes in the bathroom: A fitted pair of navy jeans and a purple sweater with a swooping neckline that complemented the curves of Doris’s figure. Her blonde hair, trimmed by Rose, was short and dried quickly with a zap from the hair dryer. Doris added some eye and lip stuff for makeup. She didn’t really care, she told herself, but when she looked in the foggy mirror, she saw a full red mouth and darkly enticing eyes. For a moment, her heart lifted.
Out in the living room, John seemed sober, but Doris’s mother was barely standing as she leaned against the kitchen counter. Her eyes widened when Doris walked out of the bathroom, but Doris ducked into her room to grab her things before her mother could articulate a sentence. It was only through the thin walls of her room that Doris heard her mother: I’m 33 fucking years old and I’ve got to work another 33 fucking years before I can stop. What’s the fucking point? You work your whole life, through the best goddamn years of it, just so you can watch yourself die in slow motion.
Her mother laughed at that last part and, for some reason Doris didn’t understand, her mother seemed pleased. As Doris locked up her room and walked to the front door, she tried to make her mother and John laugh together. “Seventeen thirty,” she said to them.
The numbers referenced a verse from Acts of the Apostles that went something like, Once upon a time, God looked past ignorant sins and granted salvation to all, but now he tells everyone to just go ahead and save themselves. Usually, the reference elicited a knowing laugh from Doris’s mom. Now, her mother nodded and blinked her eyes so slowly, Doris thought her momma might fall over right there.
“Mom, are you OK?” she asked her mother.
It was a mistake to say it, but Doris couldn’t stop herself. “I’m worried about you.”
Her mother’s eyes snapped open. “You worry about yourself.”
Doris nodded. “I’m going to Rose’s,” she said. And as she opened the door, her mother stuck a single spear into her daughter’s side.
“You’d look even prettier now, if you’d lose some weight there, Doris—”
John groaned. Doris’s vision went dark as she left the house. Only as she was halfway down the street did she think to curse her mother and then those curses kept her warm for half the long, dark journey.
Doris builds another pyramid of wood, kindling, and paper and gets pieces of information from the other kids: They each took their hits over two hours ago; they didn’t know how long they’ve been sitting there cross-legged on the floor; the heat was working for a while, but it made a “breaking” sound.
They suspect that the front door was a portal to another world and that Doris has traversed the universes to join them.
Once Doris commands the fire into creation, Sydney makes a proclamation:
“Doris, you are now our leader; you keep us safe — we will do your bidding.”
The others chime in and agree. Doris looks around and sees how the firelight colorizes their faces and she keeps fanning the flames. The heat is good now, she thinks. “Come on over and get warm,” she calls out to her classmates. “You guys, now remember to stay warm.”
When Doris started walking, the temperature was hovering above zero, but she feels pretty certain that it dropped below in the past half hour. And the wind doesn’t help.
But when she walks into the house, it’s colder than it should be, and she immediately sees that this is not an ordinary high school party: Fifteen of her classmates are there and all of them are sitting cross-legged on the floor. They are silent and the music isn’t even playing. They stare at her in amazement when she walks in; Sydney Schuller starts laughing and slowly tips over. Doris looks for Rose and locates her beneath the dining room table and walks over and sits cross-legged beside her friend.
“What’s up?” Doris asks Rose.
Her friend stares at her and slowly reaches out and touches Doris hair. “You got clean,” Rose says. Doris snorts.
“You’re so pretty,” Rose whispers. She leans close and Doris pulls back.
“Hey now,” Doris says.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Rose murmurs.
“How high are you, there?” Doris tries to ask in a disarming way. “Aren’t you cold? It’s freezing in here, you know.” Doris looks around the living room; she can see her classmates’ breath drifting away from their hot mouths.
“The heat’s broke,” another classmate of theirs says from the kitchen where, Doris notices, the oven door is open. Doris sighs and stands up from the table.
“I’m going to build a fire over there in that fireplace, or else you lot are going to freeze stiff,” Doris announces.
Rose tugs at Doris’s pants urgently. “Doris,” she says. “We dropped acid.”
Doris stares at Rose and a rush of heat makes Doris’s vision go black again. But then breath comes and Doris shakes her friend off her pant leg. Doris’s relief in missing that element of the party is extreme. She fiddles with the iPhone connected to the house speaker’s and connects the party back into reality with some Arianna Grande.
More kids arrive, but the acid was taken hours earlier and they bring with them fresh packs of beer and a bag of weed. “Roll us some joints,” Doris tells them. When the newcomers scrunch up their eyes at Doris, Sydney calls out, “Do it!”
Doris has her hands full, keeping the fire going and keeping an eye on Rose, who keeps trying to go outside to smoke, except her hands are empty and she’s not wearing a coat. “Look, if you want to go outside, you have to bundle up, OK?” Doris asks. “Here,” she tells Rose as Doris zips up her friend’s overcoat and pulls Rose’s knit cap on her head. Rose stands still and childlike under her friend’s care.
Doris eyes the fire pit in the front yard and pulls her warm things back on to build up another fire.
Long Walk Home
Now, the children are sleeping.
It’s a long walk home and no one will drive her, but she at least has a room somewhere that is hers to lock herself into. She has her music and her headphones and her softest clothes, the only ones she’ll sleep in. The clock shows that it’s after five. The sun won’t rise for at least another hour. Maybe longer. Though the living room and the adjoining rooms are warm, Doris takes one more look at the fire and sees that it will need some attention if she’s to leave these sleeping bodies to fend for themselves. She pokes at the embers, turns the largest log so that its untouched side is licked by the heat. The flames grow and she stacks another large log up against the first. Now the fire is leaping over the wood; the heat will eat away until there’s nothing more to consume and its appetite will make it possible for these exhausted children to sleep through the night without freezing.
Doris says a quick prayer as she buttons up her boots and zips up her coat and tucks her gloves into the sleeves and winds a scarf around the bottom of her mouth. Lord, You will warm me with Your Word. Lord, I pray that if it be Thy will, I will return home safely and not, Lord I pray, frozen like a deer statue on the side of the road.
She’s walking now and twitching a small flashlight in each hand as she walks along the side of the unlit road. She keeps praying as she goes: Let me hear any approaching cars, Jesus, if it by Thy will.
A train whistles from the depot over at Lake Bottom-Beaver Dam Junction. The conductor is really laying it on and Doris thinks it sounds like the end of an organist’s extravagant performance. She thinks she can hear the ca-chunk-ca-chunk-ca-chunk of the trains rolling out of the depot and to all points north-west-south-east-anywhere-but-here. Then, they are gone and now the crunch of the gravel below her feet is the only sound.
With the little bit of light, the plains are revealed. Now, Doris can see the outlines of homes and barns and the gray rise of the freeway and the opaque frozen ponds and lakes that fleck the landscape. Wind blows a bit harder and whisks the sky orange. Doris turns her flashlights off. She’s in the homestretch.
She thinks that she’ll just say a little prayer of thanks to Jesus for watching over her on this strangest of nights and crawl into bed when she gets there, but sleep is still a long ways off.
Doris walks into a freezing house and her mother is slumped over on the couch, dead or just asleep—her daughter will check her mother’s vitals as she has done several times this year. Doris picks the mirror off the coffee table, shakes off the remaining powder of crushed pills. She pulls her mother upright and uses the mirror to check and see if her mother is breathing. Doris watches the hot fog of her mother’s breath roll onto the mirror and Doris thinks, It’s just a little trial, Lord; it’s nothing at all, Lord, if it by Thy will, I will endure these slings and arrows.
Across the frozen fields, a new train whistles to her.
Stoned. Cold. Sober.
Doris is riding the #10 bus north on Prospect Avenue on her way home from closing up the bar and grill and she sees the full moon rising out on Lake Michigan. Rose has been twisting her arm into getting a tattoo with her once the New Year comes. We need something to celebrate with, Rose tells her. I’ll pay for it, her friend adds.
They’ve been in the city for 6 months now, living out in Lindsay Heights, just off North Avenue, but not the North Avenue of the Whole Foods and the movie theater and the fashionable underground bar. The girls share the only bedroom and share clothes and cans of food and towels and weed; they get a pungent, but ineffective, highly discounted variety from a line cook at the restaurant Rose works at. Rose has been encouraging Doris to try to get better stuff from her coworkers, but Doris doesn’t really care enough to ask. She knows that they don’t smoke to get high; smoking is just another shared activity, another vehicle for their conversations. The weed is so weak, Doris often looks at the pipe after she’s taken a pull to make sure the lighter in fact touched the greens. I’m stone-cold-sober, not stoned, Rose said once, and the joke stuck with them through their first summer and fall of trying to make it on their own on minimum wage and tips. They can’t afford phones, so when Rose’s mother tries to get in touch with her daughter, she calls the restaurant Rose works at. Doris can tell that Rose’s mom is proud, if not also annoyed, with her daughter for leaving their hometown just when a job opened up at the data center.
For all Doris knows, or cares, her mother is dead.
The girls make pasta every night of the week and they eat tuna and beans and fruit from the can. As the first cold spell comes along with October, they discover that heat is included in the rent and since the two are praying regularly—We need all the help we can get, Rose says—they send off a thank you prayer to the Lord, crank up the heat and take off their sweatshirts, and they send up plumes from the schwag, along with their devotion.
Doris thinks she’d like to have the moonlight tattooed on the inside of her wrist. The moon in its abstraction: a sphere casting light on the water and the water reflecting light back.
The tattoo appointment has been scheduled for the first week of January, almost a year to the date when Doris walked through the night and into the dawn and found her mother dead asleep on the couch. But when the girls get to the basement tattoo parlor, the flashbook contains skulls and crossbones and thorny roses, Celtic crosses and infinity signs, ladybugs and Betty Boops.
I was thinking about getting the moon over water? Doris says to the artist.
Rose looks down and touches the flashbook. The artist takes it all in. I can sketch something real fast for you, sweetheart. No extra charge.
Tears fall with the first stabbing of the needles. The body feels agony. Then, irritation. Then, it pleads for relief. The artist tells her to breathe. In when it stops, out when I start, the artist tells Doris and somehow it makes sense to the girl. It is as if Doris’s body is determined to tolerate this pain: the body sends the message (endure) throughout its cells. Relief comes while the artist’s needles are still jamming their ink across Doris’s soft canvass. The agony opens up into joy.
Body cannot be broken.
Body made of moonlight.
One night, towards the end of the dinner hour, a family of five comes into the grill. They seem to have been dressed from a Ralph Lauren catalog in their checkered, colorful polos and fitted jeans. There’s a boy that seems about Doris’s age, but his expression is trusting and assured in a way Doris’s has never been.
They are celebrating the boy’s early acceptance to a college Doris has never heard of and she politely says this with a shrug that is meant to be funny. Immediately, Doris realizes she ought to have just pretended to know the school because her not-knowing has set off a ripple of unspoken pity. For some reason, the way that the mother phrases her reply, contentedly self-deprecating, makes Doris remember how her mother’s boyfriend would paraphrase that verse from Acts of the Apostles. What was it again? Something about God losing his patience for the world?
The family eats their meal and drinks their sodas, and then they leave her the most generous tip Doris has ever received. In fact, the tip is equal in cost to their entire meal. The tip is a third of a month’s rent, a few nice pairs of shoes, or a tattoo for her other arm, or, no, two months’ worth of groceries, or better yet, the tip is nothing at all except for possibility. The tip is just a crisp piece of paper, but Doris can’t stop her heart from beating a little faster as she carefully tucks the paper deep inside her pocket.
Doris settles up the register for the evening and she breaks apart the fire to just embers. She is the firemaker. She’ll open the restaurant up again in the morning and the embers will be there, waiting, for her touch to bring them back to life.
Mary Breaden has been grateful to work in fields ranging from printing to social services to higher ed. She co-founded the literary journal, Visitant, with the mission of nurturing experimental writing and art. Mary’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Bennington Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Joyland, and Persistent Visions, among others.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain.