Wendy Fox is a graduate of the Inland Northwest Center for Writers. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, The Madison Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, PMS poemmemoirstory, The Puritan, Quiddity International Literary Journal, Tusculum Review, Washington Square Review, and ZYZZYVA, among others. She was also included in The Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey (Seal Press) which went on to be a #1 English language bestseller in Turkey. Her debut collection The Seven Stages of Anger And Other Stories, winner of the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, launches this fall. Though the book is not out until October, it is in pre-sale now, and anyone who pre-orders is entered to win Press 53 books for life (as in every book Press 53 publishes, excluding hard backs and special editions!).
Excerpted from The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories
© Wendy J. Fox 2014
From “Maps of the Americas”
When she was in fifth grade, they did their lessons in portable classrooms with squeaky walls and floorboards full of soft spots. She disliked, intensely, the school. In the spring and summer, her desk was always dusty because the classroom windows were open, and the wind blew off of the Front Range in pressurized, howling bursts, carrying specks of grit, which Melanie was sure was made up mostly of dead moths and rotten leaves. Out the windows they had a view of the Rockies, but she could live without it. She’d rather have the glass tucked into the casements and the blinds down, out of the glare and the gusts. At school they told her she was lucky to live in a place like Colorado, where the sun shone often and the mountains kept watch over them, but all she had to do was look in any direction but west to see nothing but grass and flatland sprawl and the Platte snaking pathetically along, like when the boys peed into a dirt clod at recess and then jumped back so they wouldn’t get their own piss on their shoes. At school they said that if you asked a kid in a big city where meat came from that they would say, The store, and so children in the west should feel proud they possessed more survival skills, more expertise in the natural. Melanie did not feel proud, and as far as she was concerned, meat did come from the store. They took a field trip to a ranch once, but it wasn’t like her parents kept a beef in the backyard. Usually they got everything at Costco.
Melanie thought it was boring, school, but she couldn’t see what else she could do. She wanted to get on with it, but she understood she was a child and that part of being a child was years of waiting. At lunch, she ate in the cafeteria alone or with a friend and was depressed by the plastic trays and the plastic sandwich bags and the plastic smell of the food that had been either in the coat closet all day or recently scooped from a vat. It was hard not to feel like it was wasting her time. Every other Friday, hot lunch was pizza and maple bars, and these days were the worst because the entire school reeked of industrial pepperoni and fake syrup.
The school was in a suburban spot outside of Denver with a tiny historic main street surrounded by low-slung suburbs, and her parents lived in a one-story ranch with pretty shutters and clean eaves. They’d bought the house when they were newlyweds and could now afford more, but they loved the rooms and didn’t want to move. Some of her best memories were of the improvements they made, months of new dust softening the edges—like her mother’s powder, like glitter shaken from a jar. One year they put in another window in the kitchen to catch the early light, and her mother grew philodendrons in a line of clay pots on each windowsill. Her mother staked the vines until they were beyond the height of the walls, and then her father screwed hooks into the ceiling at tidy, six-inch intervals, each curve of tin cradling a rope of green. Melanie’s mother watered faithfully and new leaves unfurled, the vines constantly reaching. It seemed important when it was time to mount a new hook. Her father would use his measuring tape for accurate distance, and little bits of the popcorn finish would scatter onto the kitchen tiles. Melanie remembered being lifted so she could pull the vine into its new support; it was like they had accomplished something. Another six inches, some proof that life was moving forward, even if it was only to the other side of the room.
Sometimes, she was surprised when she visited her friends’ homes and the kitchens were dark and wallpapered or decorated with roosters—she loved the lush of their vines, and in the library at school, she learned that her mother’s houseplants were poisonous to cats, and Melanie kept this as one of the many secrets an only child has. When she walked through the kitchen, rummaging for dry cereal or a glass of juice, she thought of the chemical danger and imagined herself feline, padding safely out of reach on the jungle’s linoleum floor while her mother cooked whole chickens in a Dutch oven, stewed eggplants.
There were three bedrooms, and a half bath off the master. The carpets had been replaced and the old paper steamed off. Her parents helped her paint her room whenever she felt like it, and she went through coats of green, purple, cream, and finally yellow, taping the trim carefully and putting down a drop cloth to catch any errant blobs on the floor. She liked living there, the big backyard and her mother’s irises—there were fresh flowers all summer in a vase on the kitchen table, and in the winter cuts from the philodendrons rooting in murky water.
Her father traveled for work sometimes, enough that they missed him but not so much that they didn’t know him. He sold medical devices and this, to Melanie, seemed like a very important job, because what if your heart stopped and no one had the paddles to get it going again. Her father solved this problem. On nights he was gone, her mother would put on her records, and they would sing along to Stevie Nicks or Carole King, waiting for their pork chops to finish.
In the living room they had a comfortable sofa and a few chairs. Sometimes the three of them would sit on the sofa and watch television, Melanie nestled in the middle. Sometimes they would work on the house, small chores like replacing the peephole or reworking the hinges of a sticky door. She liked these jobs, sitting on a low work stool in the garage with her father, polishing a cabinet pull or greasing an old drawer slider with paraffin until the glide was perfect. She had her own screwdriver with a pink handle and a small hammer that her father taught her to hold correctly, with her hand in the wide part of the grip, low to the base, to get the most leverage.
After school, her friends did cheerleading or basketball, but she would sit in the library, or on nice days take her books to the park and read. When Melanie’s father was traveling, she liked to meet her mother where she worked as a teller, her fingers greased in glycerin from the tubs of pink Sortkwik, slips of deposit waiting for tally. She would walk through the empty drive-up window and press the call button so someone would unlock the doors.
The bank was order. Drawers of currency, counted. Bags of coin, rolled. Her mother was head teller, so she was always there late with the cash drawers. It was quiet after-hours, and there was something calming about her mother’s expert handling of money—the way she could, after years of practice, spot old dimes made of real silver or wheat cents, measure fifty-bill bundles by weight or by running her thumb along the edge of a stack. Her mother asked her if she knew why all of the presidents faced right on coins except for Abraham Lincoln’s mug on the penny. Melanie did not know. Alone, her mother would confirm her own work in an electric counter with two clawed wheels that whooshed like a half-open window in a speeding car. When Melanie was at the branch, she would load the hopper, verifying pile after pile, waiting for her mother to err, which so far had never happened. She came to love the incongruousness of it: someone who made just over clerk wages working through thousands of dollars with more expertise than the richest gangster. Her mother didn’t actually care that much for money, but had the lingo anyway: A hundred bills was a strap, a thousand a brick. Melanie learned the treasury colors; she liked the wrappers for the twenties and hundreds the best, violet and mustard. At school, they had taken a field trip to the Denver mint, and she felt superior because she already knew about money in large quantities, moving quickly.
At the end of the day, if her mother was in a good mood, they would walk home, arms linked, chatting. She would tell her about what she hated about school: her teachers, who were as interesting as a bar of soap, and how she had gotten in trouble for saying out loud that she thought studying American colonialism was boring.
“They boiled shoe leather in the winter at Jamestown,” Melanie said. “I’d rather eat a dog.”
“They had probably already eaten the dogs,” her mother said.
“The map I drew of the settlement was mostly brown,” Melanie said. “I left some blank spots because there was also a lot of snow.”
Her mother told her stories of trying to educate her elderly customers on how to use debit cards and explained why she alone couldn’t open the safe (because half of the employees knew the beginning of the combination, and the other half knew the end).
When her mother was in a bad mood, they made their way down the sidewalk side by side, both staring at the pavements Melanie knew by heart—here was the square that looked like something heavy had been dropped on it; here was the one with the concrete cracked in the shape of a star.
It’s not too far, she thought, the space between happy and sad.
At night her mother would peel off her stockings and rummage in the kitchen. The thing Melanie didn’t like about her father traveling was that it made her mother agitated. Sometimes they did work on the house projects, but the rooms seemed empty. She wondered what it had been like before her and what had been in her room, but she didn’t ask.
Emptiness was the idea she liked most—the floors glossed and the walls a shell pink, the air kept fresh by a slow-moving ceiling fan. Probably they had used it for storage or something worse.
Once when her father was gone, they spent a week in school on Ponce de León arriving in Hispaniola and continuing on to Florida, searching. Pierced by an arrow anointed in poisonous sap from a manchineel tree, he took his last breath in Havana. Who cares, Melanie thought, but she colored in her hand-drawn map of the Caribbean anyway—in school they always drew maps, and Melanie’s mother saved them all in a poster tube in the hall closet—making a hashed line to mark de León’s travels.
“It looks like a heart,” her mother said, putting beef roast with a crown of perfect onions on the table. Her father had not called, Melanie knew, because her mother slammed the pan.
“It’s not,” said Melanie. “It’s just a circle and then he dies.”
“He was the one who was looking for the Fountain of Youth, right?”
“He didn’t find it,” Melanie said, rolling up the paper.
“Thank God,” her mother said. “Who’d want to do this crap forever.”
But on the next night, he did come home. The weather was nice and so they had leftover roast sandwiches with horseradish on the patio. The earlies were in bloom, and the daffodils rimmed the yard like a corona.
Melanie liked the way the food looked, spread on the glass table, and she liked it when her father was there with them. When he traveled, it was not only his body gone; there was less sureness in the house.
* * *
When she was in sixth grade, her parents sat her down on the center spot on the sofa and turned two chairs to face her: They would separate, they had decided, and the house would have to be sold. Her mother’s face was caved in, like bread punched down after it has risen. Her father looked like nothing, almost, a tiny fleck of flaked-off veneer. The house felt loose to her then, the years spent oiling creaks and tightening joists unraveling in a moment, the tiers of birthday cake and fluffy soufflés collapsing to wobbly floorboards.
What is this place, Melanie wondered then, without us.
* * *
It was the first days, after, that were the hardest. The wind would blow and Melanie would feel it in every real and imagined crack in the house; she would feel it in her body. Her mother came home with banker boxes and rolls of tape; her father hit the road, off to Omaha, Topeka, St. Louis. A realtor came and drove a sign into the front lawn. It was fall and Melanie came home from school one day to the white post and the red letters of For Sale and the leaves swirling around the place where the stake had pierced the grass.
She packed her things very carefully, wrapping even the softest items in a cushion of newspaper and a protective layer of cellophane tape. She filled the boxes slowly, labeling with a permanent marker, and her mother did not rush her. It didn’t seem like there was much in her room, but it was surprising how much a small space could hold. When she was finally finished, her mother asked her to help with the rest of the house. Some things Melanie was instructed to pack, some she bagged for the Salvation Army. They also had a pile near the entryway that belonged to her father: mostly a heap of clothes and tools with a half-used tin of mineral oil on the top, leaking onto his old trousers.
While Melanie was sorting knickknacks and wiping windowsills, it was hard for her not to catalog improvements that needed to be made: a loose screen, an almost imperceptible ding in the drywall. She wanted spackle and her screwdriver. She wanted her father to return from traveling with a sheaf of orders, her mother to core apples for a pie, and the three of them to set out to repairing a bit of scratched hardwood, all on their hands and knees with putty knives and sandpaper, her parents stooped to a height close to her own.
In the kitchen her mother was on a stool, loosing the philodendrons from their hooks, the vines in a coil in one hand like a lasso. It was terrifying to see the plants come down, the ceiling pitted and water-stained. She stepped down to push the stool closer to the wall and then climbed it again to start on another section. Melanie heard her mother talking, under her breath, goddamn you¸ goddamn you. It was rare for her to be angry like this, but even then Melanie knew. She was old enough to have already been stung by the nasty boys who talked her into showing her panties one day, her best friend the next, all while the meaner girls looked on, laughing.
The tangle of ties and hex wrenches by the door was growing, and still they had not touched the garage. Melanie had trouble with the pile—half of which was just household junk her mother had decided belonged to her father now. The pile was not like him. It was disorganized. She kept working. It was the first time she had moved and the first time her mother had moved in many years, so they were slow.
She had a girl in her class who would take anything apart. Melanie herself had donated a cassette player she thought was ruined and an alarm clock that she had dropped so part of its guts were exposed through the chipped plastic shell. This girl returned the cassette player—reassembled and working—but pronounced the clock a goner. She didn’t really care so much about fixing things; she said she liked to understand how they worked.
Melanie thought if she got this girl to help her take the house down board by board, they would not find the same answer, like a malaligned gear or dented soldering.
In the living room, there was an end table that had not been packed and on the bottom shelf, a bowl of restaurant matches. Melanie selected one of her favorites, a blue cover and the inside match heads as silvery as snow. She squeezed the rest of the leaking mineral oil onto her father’s things and struck one of the phosphorus tips until it flamed. Her hands were shaking, but she managed to ignite the entire book and launch it onto her father’s things, which caught quickly with their sheen of petroleum. There was a whoosh as the oxygen sucked away from her.
She inhaled heat and wondered if her father’s breath caught too, ash on her face, ash in his lungs.
When the smoke detector sounded, her mother came running, a torn philodendron vine laced through her fingers. There was a fire extinguisher still in the hall closet, and it took just a second to dampen the flames. They stood there for a minute while the foam settled around them. Melanie could see that the wall was stained black.
The girl at school was not really her friend, but sometimes they ate lunch together. When Melanie had gone to her birthday party this year, she was the only kid who showed up. The girl told her that day that her parents sometimes got angry at her, for example, when she had smashed the casing to the microwave to get inside. They thought she was violent and odd. They thought she should just use the buttons to heat up food, like everybody else.
“Are you okay?” her mother asked. She held the cylindrical red can like a weapon, out in front of her, fingers gripped tightly. The smell of burnt synthetics was deadly, and her mother’s face looked more tired than anything.
“Do you have any more boxes?” Melanie asked. “We have a lot left.”
“Sure,” her mother said. She tossed the extinguisher onto the smoldering heap and led Melanie to the garage. “We’ll be fine. You do the living room and I’ll finish the kitchen. There are a few things in the bathrooms, and then the movers will come and we’ll be gone.”
“I’m sorry about the wall,” Melanie said. “I could paint over it.”
“It’s your father’s problem now,” her mother said.
When the moving truck came, they took their boxes and some of the furniture and all of the plants and left the rest in a mess.
She wanted to feel anger when she got into her mother’s car, driving away from the house for the last time, but she did not. She felt sad and in-between. They all loved the way the place had held them. Melanie was sorry for the scar up the wall, sorry for all the projects they’d never finish. She was sorry for the way the light fell as they followed the bumper of the moving van, the house shadowed under a canopy of cloud.