Judy ran down the dark-stained stairs of her two-story house for the third time that morning, emerging at the junction between short entry hall and kitchen. She bore with her a bright-green laundry basket full of carefully folded laundry, lemon-fresh and still warm. Her apron and hat with horizontal stripes was balanced at the very top. Her hair a chestnut-henna, it stood out in harassed points. Her face was stretched with a stress that was becoming habitual, replacing the more youthful, engaging face that haunted the photographs of family, work and other occasions displayed in neat little art-store frames about end tables and shelving. Dropping the basket next to the pile of newspapers wrapped in twine for recycling, she stood for a moment, and whistled upstairs, to be promptly followed down by the white and brown puppy whose tongue wagged in appreciation. He always stepped frighteningly quickly on four paws as if getting ahead of himself. One worried he would collapse, tumble down, defy the evolutionary process. Finally coming into the kitchen she turned the element on upon which the kettle lay waiting, recently boiled and still warm. She said in a quiet voice, a voice that betrayed the exact degree of the stress she was under in immediate correlation to how calm she was trying to sound,
―Gordon, have you seen my shirt for work?
Gordon saw: truck driver needed, box-office attendant, security personnel, charity fundraiser.
―Really? Not something else?
On the counter a television was on. Breakfast television discussing ways to make a home homier, in a southern country way.
Gordon tried to jog her memory.
―What did you do with it last night?
―I saw them again last night, pronounced Zowie, with the dead tone of a forensics expert
Zowie had on her morning glazed look, absent-mindedly cramming mouthfuls of unnaturally sweetened puffs, loops, wheat biscuits, what have you, between her parted lips. She let the spoon clink at the back of her teeth. Milk dribbled down.
―I took it off in the bathroom before watching TV with you in bed. Then I swear I brought it down with the other laundry before we slept.
Zowie let the next spoonful deliberately miss her mouth then land in a sinister plop into her magnificently discoloured milk. The puppy ran to her, wagging excitedly. Zowie squealed, then began lecturing the puppy.
Judy was wringing her fingers.
―If one more thing goes missing in this household, I swear I don't know what.
Zowie sighed because she knew her mother was not listening to her.
―Mo-om, astronauts were wandering through the upstairs hall again. I saw them come up the front porch last night. I heard them and I saw the light come on under my door. They have respirators. I hear them breathing. I don't think the air in this neighbourhood is natural for them.
Gordon got up from the table, put his arms around Judy's stomach. She took his embrace, cupping her hands over his that joined around her front, and though deeply distracted, let him kiss the back of her neck, falling against the door of the oven, feeling his body press to hers, breathing out her nostrils. Turning her around and looking into her worried eyes, Gordon said,
―You just do what you have to right now, all right, sweetie. I'll find the shirt. You just get ready for work.
She smiled, strained.
―Gordon, you're one in a million.
Zowie was picking out just the fruit loops from the melange with her fingers. She had decided she wanted only fruit loops.
―I think they're looking for specimens to bring back. Maybe to their planet. But they could be from NASA. Or maybe psycho sex killers just dressed that way. So if the police see them, they will give them clearance.
Judy shook her head, apoplectic stress mounting. Mornings like this it was impossible to manage her daughter. To correct her was to encourage her, to point out what was wrong was to give undue significance to the wrong, something her daughter was impishly sensitive to. Instead she would address Gordon.
―I don't want that girl reading any more papers. I don't want her watching any more tabloid shows on television. I don't want her thinking about anything more than what normal nine year olds think about. For god's sake, Zowie, why don't you go out more with your friends?
Judy switched off the TV to punctuate her point.
Zowie, in retaliation, fed the puppy fruit loops, giggling as it licked milk from her fingers. She pushed his snout away then and became gravely serious, as only a nine year old can be serious. That note of blame that every daughter has in reserve came to her voice.
―Everyone at school hates me because they know our stupid house is haunted.
Judy gave Gordon a resigned look, the helpless look of someone drowning.
He reassured her gently on the shoulder.
―Get ready for work. I'll find your shirt.
Before stomping up the stairs, Judy accused Zowie,
―You watch too much TV.
It was not an effective comment but Judy's mind was on other things.
The kettle went off and Gordon removed it from the reddened element. He filled a mug for Judy, mixing in the instant and whitener. Gordon smiled to Zowie, the corner of his lips curling a little irony he assumed the girl could not detect. He sat down and raised his coffee mug, addressing the girl,
―The house is haunted?
―You seeing ghosts now as well as aliens?
―Whoever said anything about aliens? You guys don't even listen. They could just as well be men from the government, looking for samples from a typical family undergoing exposure to radiation. They are astronauts of some sort but they could very well be from this planet.
―The weird lights at night. Mom's vanishing objects.
―Why on earth would we be being exposed to radiation?
―The earth is overpopulated. Maybe the government needs to reduce the numbers.
―Men in robes with red masks. Because mom's afraid she's gonna lose the house.
Gordon paused, a bit startled. He tried to maintain composure, to be the adult, shielding Zowie from possibly the bogeyman but more definitely from the hard details of her mother's affairs.
―Zowie, what does this have to do with radiation or ghosts?
―Ghosts usually appear to people in times of extreme stress.
Gordon was momentarily speechless. The girl obviously was following a devious logic of her own, which, in her quirky way, came dangerously close each time to the truth. The truth. That awful thing you are supposed to protect children from. That these worlds they spend so much time dreaming into existence will invariably undergo immense pressures from the outside. They will crack, they will fall in upon themselves. They will become one more puzzle piece in a reality not unlike the squiggle drawings of children.
―Zowie, have you really been seeing ghosts?
―I've been seeing something.
She wasn't giving Gordon eye contact, but watching the dog discover, for the umpteenth time, his food dish. And gulping down food in a ravishment that spoke of biological memory of famine.
―Listen, Zowie, I have to help your mother get ready for work. You be a good girl and get ready for school and no more talk this morning of ghosts or men from other planets. We'll talk about this later.
―How about tonight I show you?
And Gordon, merely to stall the issue,
―Fine. Get ready for school.
―I show you the astronauts and where the ghosts live.
―Yes. Fine. Now I'm going to go find your mother's shirt.
He took one last sip of coffee.
―And the bloodied face of Virgin Mary.
He laughed, almost spewing coffee.
―Where in hell did you get that from?
Zowie, dour, in the dour tone of childhood oaths,
―Just promise me.
―I'm serious, Gordon. Don't bail on me.
―Pinkie swear. I mean it.
She carried her finished bowl to the sink piled with dirty dishes, noting the instant coffee jar emptied save for a bottom sparse layer of brown crystals.
―Can I use that for my carnival when it's done?
He thought of the girl's ever-expanding model carnival upstairs. Which showed her imaginative brilliance but also a little of her growing insularity.
―What are you doing with that model, anyways? Are you planning to one day live there?
―No, I am going to live in a mansion, with Duckie.
* * *
The sun was yellow, the sky blue. Zowie edged the crescent of sombre brick homes, paying attention to the motion her knees made. Under gaunt maples that weaved together overhead in shivering red-green canopy, she zigzagged in the general direction of her school, careful to avoid cracks in the sidewalk. Her bright-pink binder was tucked tightly under one arm. Ahead, younger children, maybe kindergarteners, walked with an adult. She did not like how the kids were dressed and mentally condemned them to hell.
She refused on point of principle to have backpacks or tote bags like other children. Deep down she felt by developing an ascetic sense, by refusing things her mother offered her, the saints, or whomever Zowie believed to be up there, the saints would go easy on her mother. She suffered this with the self-importance of a heroine, an undercover agent on missions of international importance, her mother's secret redeemer.
She sipped juice from her juice box. Stepped over some dog poo.
As her mind filed swiftly through a thousand imaginary and factual worries that were always occupying her, her eye alighted on Big Al's house. Big Al, the name children her age gave to him, although in reality―reality, that straightahead world of the adults―his name, to one of her age and status, was Mr. Hague. Big Al, she contended to other children, children who were not exactly her friends but nevertheless listened to her raptly while she conveyed to them in hushed tones in the place of all secrets, a creek grove behind the school, that Big Al was conducting grotesque military experiments behind those doors.
There were rumours about oxygen tanks, basement labs, camouflage-covered trucks pulling up in the dead of night, how angry he would get if ever you were caught on his property.
Those garbage bags she saw him haul every Thursday to the end of his driveway. She was convinced they contained mixed body parts from cadavers shipped back from impossibly far frontiers, those wars you hear reported on TV. And behind those windows, which emanated pale cold light onto the street dimming at evening, he was reconstructing life. Zombie armies with sinewy, greenish bodies, undead hoards which he delivered one soldier at a time to government agents who were everywhere present on Mercy Street. Behind maples, sneaking down from the cemetery, landing in cloaked stealth planes with missions assigned by overhead satellite. She had made younger children cry telling them this.
In every darkened car that inched by, in every SUV and minivan, slow and attentive to the sign that read "CAUTION: CHILDREN," Zowie suspected maybe another government agent. This did not stay with her long before her mind was on to other things. A fourteen-year-old boy at the local high school was killed last month by four other boys who beat him lifeless with baseball bats in a church parking lot over something he'd said to them in passing, to which they responded that he was a faggot. Somewhere in her confused but always discerning mind, Zowie wondered if she too was a faggot. The word meant no more to her than a few loose associations. Nevertheless, she decided on a future occasion to inform her mother of this―that she may be one, a faggot.
At the end of the crescent Zowie waited at the traffic lights with overmature composure. Making a prolonged slurping noise as she reached the bottom of her juice box.
She would save the juice box for her carnival.
* * *
Judy wiped the counters clean every twenty minutes. She worked three jobs. One at this deli, on spare evenings she worked at a major video rental chain, and on the weekends when there was time she stuffed envelopes for a bulk mailout company whose purpose in the broader society she was unsure of.
Still there never seemed to be enough, to cover the mortgage, to cover the groceries, to cover the thousand incidental expenses of having a daughter.
How does one get buried so quickly? Obviously a young marriage and an early divorce had helped. Obviously her recent pick in men did nothing to aid the situation. Judy was not yet surrendered to circumstance enough to admit that a man with money may be more desirable than simple matters of the heart, but the suspicion lingered nevertheless, even if unsaid.
The deli was located in a suburban neighbourhood virtually indistinguishable from her own. Today she wore a white blouse, as close a garment as she could find to her actual work shirt which, like a thousand different items in her household, seemed to vanish without a trace. Judy blamed it on the stress of events and life with a child. Zowie's school supplies, a hundred unpaired socks, bills that needed to be paid on time, mittens with no partners. Vanished, and always at the moment when you most needed them, into the maw of all lost things.
A man in a steely black suit and sunglasses entered the glass doors of the deli, triggering a sequence of beeps behind the counter. He smiled. His teeth were very white. He had the smell of a professional. He was moderately handsome, like a man who spent an appropriate amount of time vacationing in more temperate climates and knew something of shaving brushes. Judy smiled in return.
―There was an accident just up the road. Nothing serious but can I use your phone?
―A man like you and no cell phone?
He laughed, heartily.
―Really, I'm on my lunch. I must have left it at the office. What do you have that's low calorie here, hon?
―Phone's around the counter.
He came around the counter that showcased beef shavings, pastrami, specialty meats and salads.
Most days it was quiet here, with the exception of an occasional high-school truant coming to play the arcade game installed next to the potted bamboo tree. The arcade game was a simulator for killing terrorists. There was an old-style jukebox too that occasionally burst into song, chosen at random by some unfathomable mechanic process: usually a song, whether country or rock or upbeat pop, about loss.
Judy gestured the man towards a little desk in the back. A little chewed rat's nest of the owner's personal papers and habits, cigarettes butted halfway, half-read newspapers, empty styrofoam cups. There was a rotary phone on the desk. The men nodded gratefully and said,
―I'll be a minute.
Daily, working, Judy was hit on. Sometimes she caught herself registering the make of car these men left in. A lot of government people in this area. She would note their watches, their make of suit. Still, she was happy with Gordon―well, not always happy, but happy in the main. He painted. He painted verbatim-coloured portraits of slightly harassed-looking women and couples looking slightly distant from one another. He earned a subsidiary income off of this, but worked odd jobs, which gradually depressed him until he quit and moved on to other things. These periodic stretches of unemployment strained Judy. But she had her own artistic impulses and it was nice to have a warm body beside her in bed. He was kind. There was no more or less she could say of him. He was a relief from tempestuous, emotionally overblown affairs of her early twenties with men with high ambitions who inevitably reacted, in just the worst sort of way, when they awoke to their lives to realize that they were simply salespeople and not advertising executives, men who manned phones, and not the daring opportunists of the twenty-first century which the future had promised for them. Passionate men in tiring ever-revolt from fate. She was through with fighting―them, her own circumstances. Gordon, whatever else, was considerate, and gentle with Zowie.
Right now she could ask for nothing more.
She overheard the man talking in muted tones on the phone. As if making clandestine business arrangements and not reporting an accident as he had said. Judy acknowledged that it was none of her business and finished preparing his turkey sandwich on rye bread. She cut the bread diagonally across. Tomatoes bled.
After several straight minutes of murmuring, the man put the phone down and emerged from the office with a grave straight face.
―Sorry but can I borrow a pen?
―Are there no pens on the desk?
―An empty jar.
She reached into her apron pocket. To her surprise, her pen was gone too. The monogrammed pen from her daughter and Gordon from her last birthday. She had carried it with her ever since.
She looked for it now with a sort of desperation.
The man smiled a wide smile, white. He lifted a gold pen from his top pocket. The pen glimmered in afternoon light.
He patted her shoulder.
―So easy to lose things.
His smile made her uneasy. He continued,
―I sometimes speculate it's because we have so much. We live in a land of plenty but we can't hold on to simplest, smallest things. Little functional objects, sentimental remainders. The irony of it speaks volumes.
Judy's mind revolted from her and she thought only of her house. Everything we can't hold on to.
The man, radiant with that worldly and slightly frightening charisma of men who have only ever had it all together, smiled wider,
―But this is coming from a man on his third marriage.
His smile became even broader, in a way Judy found threatening.
―Yes, an age of plenty.
* * *
In Zowie's carnival, she could hold on to a million frozen moments.
―And what the fuck do you expect to do in the meantime, live off of me?
Arguing filled the house as Zowie maintained composure before her carnival. She sat in a little oak chair bought from a garage sale. She had been constructing this carnival with her peculiar, intimate attentiveness ever since she was seven. The more recent additions to her model were showing a superior quality, an ingeniousness with her hands that had before been only the exuberant display of imagination. The model was on a big table that by now took up most of Zowie's room.
The fairgrounds were lit by a string of Christmas lights.
Her mother and Gordon were arguing downstairs. Zowie was trying her best to rise above the situation by steadily and patiently fastening toothpick spokes to the new ferris wheel she was constructing out of a frame of moulded wire. There was another ferris wheel, but she felt she needed a new one. She tried to keep her face from moving, from even twitching.
The puppy wagged behind her.
―Go away, stupid.
The puppy demurred.
The model contained: a roller coaster, a Lego castle, a haunted shoebox, a carousal of ponies gauche with red and green-golden foil. There were gambling stands. There was the marriage chapel. Her world was populated by diverse peoples from broken-up play systems, Lego people, Playmobil people, little rubber babies, Smurfs, Fisher Price people, G.I. Joes with movable appendages. Fantastical and ingenious, with a child's premonition for how quickly things end, she had constructed an ever-expanding enclosure of permanence.
For in small spaces, one could hold on to anything.
The puppy barked. Invariably her mother threw things when she got angry. Crash against the stove. Crash to the floor. Drowning out pivotal parts of the dialogue.
Nevertheless Zowie gathered that Gordon had quit another job. And really, these men! How senseless it all was. Zowie made a mental note that if her marriage to Duckie didnšt work out she would marry only wealthy movie stars.
―It's the sixth, Gordon, for fuck's sake. Tomorrow I make my fucking mortgage payment and maybe in the meanwhile you can just sit around here and paint. For fuck's sake, don't touch me.
In a moment there would be lights, ghosts from movies, the Virgin Mary.
Zowie took a deep breath, feeling the excitement build in the pit of her stomach.
She was alone in the universe, with her carnival, next to her little lamp.
―Bloody Mary, she said to herself three times, then procured the bride and groom figurine from by the concession stand.
Her carnival rose up before her, replete with splendour and light.
She put the two figurines before the altar of her juice box.
There were clowns, mimes, soldiers, pirates, religious figures lifted from a Christmas nativity scene.
Zowie knew love. She saw Duckie swimming with his shirt off in the ravine past the cemetery. She had spied on him, while he splashed, alone. Soon, she knew, she would get him drunk. That's what a teenaged girl on television did. She would get him drunk. Then they would marry.
―It's going to end, Gordon, and you're not even trying.
Zowie could not make out Gordon's quiet reply.
Judy was crying.
―Fuck you. You're not! I told you, don't touch me!
Zowie stood the bride and groom now on the threshold of her chapel made from cereal boxes and doilies. There was a lump in her throat.
She was the only creature in the universe. Her and the Virgin Mary with a face of stars and blood. The Virgin Mary who, like Zowie presiding over her carnival, loved all of creation. The Virgin Mary, who bled.
Zowie wondered what other mistakes God had made.
She braced herself for the arrival of the Virgin. The puppy poking its nose into her back.
It would not be dissuaded.
* * *
The shadow came behind Zowie.
―Zowie, I'm sorry.
―Go away. You already missed her.
―I know your mom and I don't always understand each other but―
―Not that, dummy. You missed the bloody face of the visiting Virgin Mary. Do you remember, Gordon? Do you remember promising me? Do you remember giving me the pinkie swear?
―You don't really see ghosts or astronauts.
She was sullen.
―Miracles just walk through your stupid house but obviously you all have better things to do than to see them.
Gordon noted the child had removed her model of the chapel. That it had been stuffed in her garbage pail.
―Do you want to still show me where the ghosts live?
―What's the point, Gordon?
What was the point, he thought. The kid was full of pause for thought. He was not much of an artist. Really not much of a provider. There had been a point once. It was not about immortality of art. Or the sacred unbreakable bond between a woman and a man. Maybe it had been to come down to earth. He had thought that way once. Something simple, terrestrial.
Was that really so long ago?
He decided to be direct with her.
―OK, kid. I have a sneaking suspicion about your ghosts and your astronauts and our lost stuff. That's it, no arguments. Take me on your ghost walk.
She got up, led him to the closet, opened it.
He saw: a yellow sundress, jeans on hangers, and on the top shelf, stacked games, Risk, The Game of Life, Monopoly, games she rarely played. Gordon once sincerely had hoped that she would not remain a single child forever.
Zowie motioned to several corners of shadows. Said,
―Sometimes, they come from there. I awoke to one once. Her face was ghastly!
Good, she was a bit more animate now. He took a quick peek through her stacked laundry before she led him to the crawl space behind her bookshelf, saying,
―There and there. And under the basement stairs too. And I hear them sometimes in the attic.
She hugged him around his torso, not wanting to talk about this anymore.
―How does people's communication get so messed up sometimes?
Gordon smiled, a wan smile. He looked at her carnival and laughed.
―Well, maybe if you can tell me why everything goes missing around here, I can tell you why people's communication gets so messed up as well.
―I already told you. Because we are not alone here.
Gordon smiled genuinely.
―We aren't, Gordon.
―Same then for our communication.
He patted her shoulders goodnight.
―Zowie, we are not alone here.
* * *
When Gordon came to bed, Judy apologized. She did not make specific reference to anything that had passed between them but murmured an apology nonetheless. Her face was buried in the pillow in utter exhaustion. It was her way of saying, No more fighting, not tonight. Gordon did not answer. He got undressed, got into bed, laid down beside her.
At first they were careful not to touch. But slowly her hands found him, and he responded in turn by crawling on top of her and holding her by her hips.
Making love after fighting was sometimes all they had. They were growing apart from one another by degrees, quietly, irresistibly. He felt it. They made love with quiet diligence to one another's bodies. He felt a coldness, even when he was deep in her, even when she pulled down his head to caress him.
Afterwards they collapsed, exhausted on yellow sheets. It was a warm night and they left the duvet covers off. Down to small of their backs.
Intermittently throughout the night the puppy barked in the hallway.
* * *
When the flash of light came Gordon was still awake.
The light walked upon him in the darkness. It was 12:03 by the digital clock, which was a few minutes fast. He could hear the puppy barking downstairs. Had the day not been what it had been, he would have called this behaviour chasing ghosts.
He walked to the window. The light was brighter than the lighting from all three neighbouring houses combined, which had been all but eclipsed by the now sustained flash. After a minute or so of looking he was still unsure of the source.
Mirthfully, he found himself checking up the walk for astronauts. But no.
He put on his bathrobe. Judy, without raising her head from where it was buried in pillow, mumbled softly,
―What's out there?
Maybe it was time for him to provide the explanations. But really, could he do any better? Astronauts, the Virgin Mary. Could he really tell himself he wasn't afraid?
―I think I know where to find your shirt.
―Tell me you love me.
As he stepped into the hallway he was suffused by a bluish-white glow from the hall window. Deliver us, was one thought among many.
―I love you, he said. But he did not return to reassure her. He gently closed the door to the bedroom and went to check the staircase, then the downstairs.
As he passed Zowie's bedroom, he glanced in and found her fast asleep. He closed her door too, gently, and hoped for her there would be other worlds. Before proceeding to the dark of the staircase. Before closing the front door to the household behind him.
Ryan Kamstra (sCRATCH) is a writer and performer based in Toronto. He has released an album, aLL fALL dOWN (2001, independent), and a collection of poetry, lATE cAPITALIST sUBLIME (2002, Insomniac Press). His writing has appeared in the magazines (on-line and print) Pindeldyboz, Velvet Mafia, Suspect Thoughts, nth Position, The Literary Review of Canada, and the anthologies (2003 and upcoming) 100 Poets Against the War (Salt UK), Common Sky: Canadian Writers Against the War (Three Squares Press), Career Suicide (DC Books) and Everything I Have Is Blue: Working Class Fiction of More or Less Gay life (Suspect Thoughts Press). A film based on a short story from his yet to be published collection, dARBY & tHE aNGELS, was adapted by painter and videomaker Margaux Williamson and will be released (we pray) in late 2003.
Most of the inspiration for this story came from the good invisible pals of mine at the on-line Zoetrope Virtual Studio. The idea was for a handful of writers to produce stories centered around one cul-de-sac in the suburbs. All stories were to contain these devices: vanishing objects and a flash of light that comes precisely at midnight. True to my own life, the clock in the Darling household is not in sequence. Hence the flash comes at 12:03.
For me the vanishing objects provoked the most immediate sense of a theme. A child of the eighties, I came of age in a time when every object had a brand and every brand competed for my affection. I can hardly remember now every brand of soda, every board game, every pop star, every new system of dolls. My later twenties seem to be requiring me to get a handle on the information crunch that comes with age and a memory that cannot be at the service of every novelty.
The Darling household is a place more at home with objects than lives. Deep from within Zowie's imagination it asks: where has the earth gone? Where do we spend our time living? I've tried―sometimes with dismal reversion to poetry―to answer this question through the flash of light.