Jodi Paloni grew up in rural Pennsylvania, lived in Vermont for 25 years, and recently settled on the coast of Maine. She is the debut author of They Could Live With Themselves, a collection of linked stories set in the fictional town of Stark Run, a runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, and recently published by Press 53. She won the Short Story America Award and was a finalist in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Learn more on her website.
They Could Live with Themselves
©Jodi Paloni 2016
From “Bench Girls”
The three teenage girls perched on top of the park bench shouldn’t have been there, their stinking cigarettes, their foul-faced glances. What about school? This was Jack’s special time, his after play-school fresh-air time with his granddaughter.
“Higher, Pop-Pop,” Mandy May cried from her swing.
“You got it,” Jack said, though his heart wasn’t in it.
He had seen these girls before, taking up most of the sidewalk in front of the hardware store. They shoved each other into boys who mooned around them, boys who slouched, standing as if height had invaded their unsuspecting bodies and they didn’t feel right in their clothes, their laughter high-strung and unnatural. Jack had been a boy like that. He remembered how the girls he could push down in a game of tag transformed into something altogether terrifying. It happened overnight. You went to bed a lord and woke up a servant. And here they were, a version of those girls from his younger days, only these three with their piercings, dark eyeliner, and scruffy get-ups looked as though they’d been put through the wringer.
One option was to take Mandy May to play up at the farm. He’d grown up there without a fancy playground, but Mandy May loved the swings down here. His wife would say the girls were harmless. They were just making a statement; all kids do it. Molly knew what was what in the world. She knew how to remain calm, tolerate others, but now she was gone. For three months! An internship at a yoga center! He’d quit the hardware store to spend more time with her and she left. She was as gone as a person can get outside of death as far as he was concerned, at least for a little while. Then she’d come home. If she were here now, she would tell him to relax.
He loosened his jaw, making circles with his chin—three times clockwise, three times counterclockwise, the way Molly had taught him, followed by deep breaths. They’re just girls. They’ll leave. He ground his right foot forward in the gravel, leaned, and pushed Mandy May higher.
“Good one, Pop-Pop!”
“Just showing you my best stuff, little missy.”
Molly’s philosophy was to focus on the positive, look around for beauty, trust the natural order of things. There’d been cold rain and winds for most of September. The last Sunday in September brought a hard frost on the farm, late for Vermont. But now an Indian summer sun streamed mid-day heat through half-naked branches. It was a gift. It made everyone a little giddy. The park smelled of leaf rot, the scent of changing seasons, Jack’s favorite. The light, the leaves gold and burnt orange on the trees, even the tidy buildings lined up on the street repeating themselves seemed gorgeous. But the girls were like pigeons sitting there, an imported species. They ruined the splendor. Jack scowled and pushed Mandy May higher.
“Wheee,” she cried.
From the bench a laugh came from the girl on the left, the one with the honey-colored hair. He watched the girl lean forward, hovering over the other two. They were hunched over a cell phone. Except for the combat boots with the pink shorts and a few chains dangling from her hip, she looked the most normal of the three.
Her hair swept like sunlight across bare shoulders. Bangs framed her face. The look of her and the smell of cigarettes reminded Jack of Molly at that age, the alto he’d fallen for during a choir weekend in the mountains, senior year in high school, about a thousand years ago; she was new in town. He’d first seen her with a group of girls smoking behind the shower house and was knocked flat by her beauty, but more, he could tell by the way the other girls looked at her that she held the power. Her laugh was rich, while the other girls seem to cackle. She was the real deal.
He couldn’t remember exactly what Molly looked like back then, her features, the details, he meant, up close. Could he remember what she looked like now? She’d only been gone a couple of weeks. A slight panic consumed him. He tried to picture Molly in yoga pants in a pose like the gray-haired ladies in the catalog she had left on the end table by her comfy chair. He admitted the women at the yoga center did look healthy for their age, their bodies fit, and their skin taut and glowing. He searched his mind to find Molly’s face on a yoga body. There it was; he found it, and felt relieved.
Mandy May whomp-wobbled the swing from left to right. “Where’s your head, Jack?” Mandy May asked, something Molly would ask and not necessarily expect an answer. Heat rose up his neck to his face. He felt they had all been reading his mind, Mandy May and those girls, which was ridiculous, of course, but there was never any doubt when old Jack felt embarrassed, all rashy-pink, right there for the world to see it. Then he remembered that he was the grown-up here. He stood taller and rolled his shoulders back.
“Never you mind what’s in my head. The important thing is what’s in yours,” he said. Focus, Jack, he told himself. She was a character, that Mandy May, pretending to be Molly, a little monkey-see, monkey-do. “Just pump your legs like I showed you.”
“Dah, dah, dah,” she sang and pumped.
“That’s it. Now you’re doing it.”
He glanced back at the girls on the bench chattering like three sets of those trick teeth they sold at the hardware store at Halloween. The girl in the middle was the ringleader. Clearly. Her hair stuck out from beneath a ratty baseball cap in thatches, chopped-up lengths, orange, green, and bleached-out white. Her over-sized pants and shirt looked as if she had rummaged a brother’s dirty laundry basket. Molly would say she was the kind of girl who took care to look as though she could care less and that this was what gave her power. The girl passed a brown cigarette that smelled like cloves. Mandy May should not have to see people polluting their lungs like that; she was five for Christ sake. The girl looked at Jack, arching one eyebrow, daring him to look away.
“Come on, Pop-Pop, higher.”
“Hold on tight,” he said, an excuse to break eye contact. After one last ride, they would leave and head up the hill to the farm where Mandy May would be safe. “We’re going to let it fly this time.”
Mandy May squealed. He glanced back at the girls. The teenager in the middle took twice as many drags as she passed the cigarette back and forth to the other two. Yep. The ringleader. Molly would be right, as usual.
All of his life Jack had come across bad-mannered women among the good, and still did. Earlier that week, the receptionist at the dentist office barely looked up from her computer when he stepped into the waiting room, even though the placard had spelled it out: Announce Your Arrival. The cashier at the grocery store tossed a can of beans on top of his bananas. The redheaded librarian who smelled like garlic and coffee snapped her fingers in the direction where he might look for a book instead of getting off her butt to help him. He could find his own book, but still, what happened to basic manners? The girls on that bench at the park were bound to become like those women if they weren’t careful. Women like that made people feel invisible, like thin air.
Molly had way more substance than that. She treated him like a king, which made her a queen. If he had appreciated her more, perhaps he would not be spending the cool autumn nights alone while she slept in a dorm. But Molly had said that her journey had nothing to do with him, which was supposed to make him feel better. It made him feel worse. When did she start saying things like her journey? And how could her journey have nothing to do with him? They were in this life together.
She’d been gone three weeks, seven more weeks to go. Every day, he felt more restless. That day, the bench girls distracted him from that lonely feeling, if only for a little while. He wondered if he would see them next time at the park. He hoped he would, and then as soon as he thought that, he felt ashamed. He couldn’t figure out why he would want to expose Mandy May to their behavior, or why he would want to submit himself to the discomfort he felt around them, yet he found himself thinking about them too much. He wondered what they were like in class and at home. Did they have boyfriends? When he thought about their bodies, particularly the honey-blond in tight clothes, he scolded himself. What kind of pervert was he? It was insane the way thoughts about those girls filled the emptiness he felt with Molly gone.
He needed a project, but the garden was nearly put to rest and the barn was tidy. He could drive up to see his fishing buddy in the Northeast Kingdom, but now he watched Mandy May two days a week, so there was that. He’d just have to think of ways to make his time with Mandy May fill him up. Maybe he could watch her a third day. Maybe he should go back to the hardware store, but part-time. He laughed. Last fall, he couldn’t wait to retire, go hiking with Molly, and watch her bake at the kitchen counter while he listened to talk radio. They were going to work on their sex life. Now he was thinking about getting a job, all because Molly had left him here alone, all because of those girls.
Get a grip, Jack, he told himself. Get a goddamn fucking grip. With no chores or appointments and no Mandy May today, the afternoon stretched before him, long and hollow. He had a new book from the library. He had a bruised banana. He took both out to the yard and stretched on the cedar chaise lounge that their youngest had built in woodworking class his senior year. Crazy Sky, who lived a few miles away from home, couch surfing at a friend’s house, just to get away from his old man. Everybody seemed to be looking for some space away from Jack. He missed his kids. He missed Molly. Now he felt too tired to read. He fell asleep.