*scroll down for fiction by Alison Barker and Jenna Dietzer
The woman who came to pick up the bags of clothes seemed like she wanted more than clothes from us. That was what I'd told Greg later, that she had hungry eyes and that made him laugh. But she did have hungry eyes and long hair the color of whiskey and a way of touching her face when she talked. And Greg asked later why did we let her in? She came in a beat up Datsun. She probably took those clothes for herself. Why'd we let her in? And I reminded him that we got to talking about the moths in the basement and the woman wanted to see.
So we took her down and there they were, hundreds of them, bright green, fluttering around. Greg had thought if we turned out the light and left the sliding door open they would simply fly away, but they stayed. I sat on the top step and watched the woman go down and stand in the middle of the room, raising her hands as if to touch them and I half expected the moths to lift the ends of her hair, the hem of her skirt, and fly away with her.
These are luna moths, the woman said. Do you have a walnut tree? And we said yeah, out there, pointing to the back yard. She said they're mating, they'll mate all night long. Greg wanted to know what then and the woman said they rest. How do we get them out of here, I asked from the step and the woman said, oh they'll just die. They only live a week, their journey is a short one. And I stood and said I'd go and get those bags and it seemed like she'd forgotten all about them.
One of the moths flew directly into Greg's face and he batted at it, saying fuck, fuck. The woman put her finger to her lips, shushing him, like oh no don't swear in front of the pretty bugs and we got pissed all over again remembering it later, like how dare she. She said words get embedded in a place, they settle into the walls and furniture like ghosts, to which Greg said horseshit and the woman said are you afraid of strange ideas and Greg said no, I'm afraid of strange people and we smirked at each other then because we seriously wanted this Moth Woman out of our basement and finally she put her arms down and came upstairs and carted away the bags of clothes in her crappy little car.
The next morning I went down to the basement, and just as the woman had said, the moths had all died. At first I didn't realize. At first I thought everything, the floor, the furniture, the shelves, was covered in thick green leaves.
Kathy Fish's stories are published or forthcoming in Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, New South, Quick Fiction and elsewhere. A collection of her work is now available from Rose Metal Press in a book entitled A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women.
Acts of Seeing
“You just don’t see how mean she is to me, Tati,” Jessie stopped. “Oh, my—” She yanked my sweatshirt and I stumbled backward against the Victoria’s Secret display window. “God.” She chewed the inside of her fat cheek. “It’s like she popped up when I said her name. Don’t look,” she hissed. I steadied my eyes on the head of a pink lingerie mannequin with no eyes or mouth. “What, Monday through Friday isn’t enough torture? Now the witch goes to the mall on Friday night?”
I turned, feeling crumpled against the display window, and Jessie absentmindedly twisted my sweatshirt.
“I can’t wait for high school next year. I’ll finally get her off my back. No more ‘Jessie, you could try harder and talk less,’ and ‘Jessie, I’ll be calling your mother tonight.’”
I batted Jessie’s hand off me and craned to see: our English teacher Miss Natale, in a smock, sat in the hair salon opposite us. Some sort of purple and blue make up covered the top half of her face. It was too close to her face to be a mask. With a handheld mirror she examined her hair, teased inches higher than I’d ever seen it. Her eyes popped out in the middle of the dark make-up. Where were her glasses?
“What is on her face?” Jessie’s hiss grew, increasingly incredulous. Her cheeks got red all the way down her face when something excited her. Something always excited her.
“I don’t think that’s her, Jessie.” I wanted it to be true. Miss Natale smiled tightly at the hairstylist with the teasing comb. He daintily blew her a kiss.
I admit to eating lunch in Miss Natale’s classroom once or twice a week—whenever she was cool with having me in there she’d prop her classroom door open, and I’d notice on my way to grab my lunch from my locker. I liked that she didn’t need to be buddy-buddy. She didn’t yell “hey, sweetie!” or fire questions about favorite hobbies like other teachers ground into us. Her shirts stayed crisp and ironed, and the color matched the designs on her skirts.
In the hair salon, Miss Natale picked up her purse and walked to the cashier.
“Is she going on some sort of effed up date like that?” Jessie’s eyes turned into slits.
“Is she in a show or something?”
“A costume party. Harry Potter.” Jessie loved Harry Potter jokes.
“A fantasy lover’s convention. Erotic fantasy.” Jessie busted out in laughter at this and I smiled. My other friends winced when I went too far with my jokes.
“She’s all, I’ll get you my leetle preeety!” She bared her teeth at me. I liked that jokes could go through the roof with Jessie.
I liked Miss Natale’s class. Mostly because I knew what to expect. I knew Thursdays would be spelling quizzes in her class, and we’d always do three drafts of every writing assignment. We didn’t have to work with partners, except one time, when we were randomly paired up to write each other’s biographies. That’s how I met Jessie. Jessie made up shit like how her Dad was in the Marines, when we all knew her Dad was a junkie somewhere in Southeast D.C. I left the part about her dad out entirely when I did my final draft, and Jessie read it, then said it would be cool to meet up at Manchu Wok after school that day. We ate fried egg rolls with a lot of that pink sugary sauce and then we tried on prom dresses for fun in Macy’s. Since then, the mall is our regular getaway.
Miss Natale emerged from the salon, and walked primly into the costume shop next door.
“Costume party,” Jessie and I said together, looked at each other, and giggled.
Two stores down in Sephora, where they let you play with make-up samples and no one bugs you about buying the stuff, I thought we both forgot about Miss Natale. We sprayed each other with perfume and pretended to be dumb-eyed cheerleaders posing for Glamour Shots. We picked lipsticks in bubblegum pink.
I sniffed mine; it smelled like the plaster of paris in fifth period art class. We had counted off by two’s: Twos had to lean back in their chairs while Ones placed wet, goopy strips of plaster on our faces. All the Twos were messed with—pinched, tickled, or robbed of their stuff—except me. Jessie was my partner. She smoothed the plaster on my nose and eyebrows over and over during the five minutes I sat in darkness, so the bends of the mask were round but even, a perfect copy.
“Aghh! I know!” Jessie suddenly yelled. She stopped fingering the bottles of lip balms and pointed at me. Two ladies with shiny hair and lookalike sweaters stopped examining moisturizers to watch us. “She’s going to this— ” Pink gloss stretched and bubbled in the corners of Jessie’s mouth when she spoke. “—a drag queen fundraiser.” On the poster, which was wedged between two cosmetic displays, displayed a group of heavily made up women laughing and clinking glasses of different colored cocktails. It took me a second to realize she was talking about Miss Natale.
The poster read Glam For Charity: Support Public Schools by Being Fabulous.
“She didn’t really look like those ladies,” I mused, and pressed my goopy lips together.
“Yeah. She looked more…drag queen.”
“Less Paris Hilton,” I suggested.
“More like…that old rock dude in that faggy movie she made us watch. The guy in the leotard with the big hair. That old movie,” said Jessie.
“It’s not a faggy movie, Jessie. The movie was Labyrinth. It’s like, I don’t know, the way they did fantasy back in the 80’s.”
One of the Sephora ladies inched closer to us and raised both eyebrows at me. I screwed caps on jars we had fingered and wiped the labels clean where we left smudges.
“Well, she looks like the main drag queen dude.”
“You mean the goblin king. David Bowie. He was the goblin king in Labyrinth,” I said.
“God, Tati.” Jessie’s frizzy hair bounced from the sides of her face. “You love her.” She reddened as she fired the accusation.
“I do not.” I didn’t love Miss Natale. I just knew the difference between a goblin king and a drag queen, I told myself.
"You want to be part of her warlock crew, wearing velvet skirts and lesbian shit.” I opened my mouth to say something, but stopped, mostly because the cramp in my stomach from the morning had grown and my head floated too easily on my neck.
Jessie watched me, and then, “Miss Natale showed your poem to us in second period.”
“Gross.” And I did feel gross.
Miss Natale had wanted me to write another poem about Assateague Island, but I didn’t tell her that we only went to there once, before Dad started buying big quantities of Cutco knives that he couldn’t sell, and he and mom started fighting most nights. I had to make up some things to write another whole poem.
I waited for Jessie to call me out on lies about wild, biting ponies and crabs pinching toes from hidden holes in the sand. Those animals do technically live there. I checked.
“Yeah,” Jessie wadded up a tissue splattered in tan-colored foundation and tossed it into the trashcan. “You should be on the lookout,” she said slowly. She reconsidered her aim and tilted her head. “You might get, like, recruited, teacher’s pet.” Jessie’s eyes slid over to me before she pocked my forehead with blush. “Mrs. Scott was totally watching my tits during sit-ups yesterday in gym.”
She pin-balled deeper into the store, and I followed her. That’s what I wanted to learn, I told myself—how to not care. These days that I spent less at home, and more with Jessie was an opportunity I told myself, an opportunity to get rid of stupid rules like acting quiet in stores. Unlike my other friends, Jessie didn’t ask why I didn’t have lunch money some days, or why I had a lot of time to roam the mall, even on school nights.
I forced a loud laugh but I still straightened the tissues she upended and wiped the make-up remover spills. She stopped at the counter in the back with rows of bright colors like circus performers might wear.
“Here, these’re for you.” Jessie crammed two compacts of deep purple and magenta in my hands. She got to work drawing electric blue flames over her eyes. “We’re getting made up.” She stared into the mirror. “On account of your love for the goblin queen.”
We crouched by Miss Natale’s car for at least a half an hour, hiding our blue and purple exploding faces. The smell of cinnamon buns and fried egg rolls from the eatery rose around our noses, and my stomach groaned. We’d get something after Jessie got this over with, I promised myself. She was holding our five dollars. Jessie giggled and ran a finger across the slick surface above my eyebrows.
She didn’t hear Miss Natale’s footstep, but I did, and I turned. We were supposed to yell, dance magic dance, slap that baby make him free. I had to tell Jessie the lyrics to Bowie’s soundtrack song, Dance Magic Dance. But when I looked into Miss Natale’s eyes, it wasn’t magic, it was detail. Small lines of green outlined her lids, and tiny dots of white made the purple and blue shine in the shape of a bird’s feather across each eye, poured smooth like paint.
“Dance, magic, dance!” Jessie squealed with delight. Miss Natale giggled, raising the make-up arches over her eyes in surprise.
“Tati? Jessie? How long have you been waiting out here?”
And then seeing me struck dumb, Jessie’s voice grew manic, “Jesus, Tati! Slap that! Baby! Make him free!” Jessie’s chant stripped the melody. Miss Natale stopped rifling in her purse.
“Jessie, what’s going on?” Miss Natale took a step closer and reached out toward her face. Jessie flapped her arms by her face with each word.
“We put the make-up on to look like you,” I said, and something bubbled inside me. I wondered where Miss Natale was going after this, and what she would eat for dinner. I stumbled over a few words and stopped.
“Tati, you can’t be serious,” Jessie drew out the words at my dumb face.
“We wanted you to see us,” I stammered at my teacher’s decorated eyes. It felt good to be next to Miss Natale after the messy day. I thought of the lopsided purple powder I’d streaked with my fingers. I hadn’t been very careful.
Jessie took a step back in the direction of the mall. “Fuck you, Tati.” She gathered speed. “Just, fuck you.” Her blue face twitched over her shoulder a couple times before she yanked open the mall doors and fled inside.
“Sorry,” I mumbled to my teacher.
“Tati,” Miss Natale put her hand on my arm, and I thought my stomach settled a little. “Tell me exactly what you wanted me to see.” Balloons exploded inside me. I hadn’t thought Miss Natale would have to be told how to see something. It didn’t make sense.
“Us—this make-up. It was Jessie’s idea, I didn’t really-“
“Yes, that’s clear. But what did you want me to see, Tati?”
I allowed myself one last glance at her when I reached the mall entrance, but it only made me feel worse. She said my name a couple times, but I couldn’t just stand there, and tell her: me. I wanted you to see me. The sun caught the feathers of her brown hair, and green shimmers rose from the butterfly on her face. I slumped directly to the restroom sinks and scrubbed my face. By the time I found Jessie she was slumped in a corner between pay telephones and fake marble benches, the remnants of a hot pretzel and jumbo soda, all our money spent, crumpled at her side. Girls hold loving and hating like artichokes inside them. If you want to get to the heart, where it’s soft and melts like butter, you have to skillfully pick through terrible sharp leaves.
We were apart for an hour. Jessie stared down at her knees, her cheeks and nose still red. She must have touched up her make-up because lines were re-drawn over and over, and filled in with a blue gunk that lumped up heavily on her skin. Many blue flames rose like fire from her eyes, clear proof of my betrayal.
Alison Barker Alison Barker is a former middle school student and teacher from Wheaton, Maryland. Her fiction piece "Move Me" can be viewed in Issue number 8 of University of San Francisco's online journal Switchback. Her micro fiction has appeared in Pen Pricks Micro Fiction. She is the Assistant Non-Fiction Editor at The New Delta Review.
This is a public notice: In cooperation with seller's remorse and continual indecisiveness, I am recalling the following items sold at yard sales in front of our home, between the summers of 1982 and 2004:
Item 1: Size 5 pair of Levi's jeans with a hole in the crotch.
Those jeans have been stained, stolen, stripped off and – it goes without saying – sat upon. They have survived an attack from a Miniature schnauzer that mistook my leg for a mighty bone, a Peter, Paul & Mary reunion concert with my father (where the band swore to an audience full of former hippies that "Puff the Magic Dragon" was not about getting high), and three changes of major. They have walked up Central Avenue and down the trails of the Grand Canyon. And they have felt the passing of my grandfather, a time when I discovered solace in the hills behind his home, where the sun wrapped blue and lilac arms around the naked trees.
Item 2: Navy Blue Mu Alpha Theta T-shirt. Small.
The best I can really hope for is that this t-shirt has not evolved into a dishrag. Contrary to first impressions, Mu Alpha Theta is not a high school sorority (which would be the epitome of cool), but in fact a club for advanced mathematics students (the epitome of uncool). I was the president. We understood of all life's lessons: reciprocation, inequalities, and logic – something our peers often lacked – but we hadn't quite mastered the art of applying those lessons to our own lives. Instead, we had a theme song. It was set to Jingle Bells. And before Winter break every year, we would go from class to class caroling the song, which went like this:
"Quadratic equations often make you cry
But now there is a way to wave those tears bye-bye
No need to factor now, no need to complete the square
Just use one simple formula, this secret I will share:
Oh! X equals minus B plus or minus radical
B squared minus 4AC, all divided by 2A, hey!"
And so on.
I heard through the grapevine that our teacher sponsor lost his job after sleeping with a student, then went to jail on drug charges. But the year we brought home a trophy from county, he was our hero. And on the back of the t-shirt is a Thomas Edison quote that to this day both spurs me on and keeps me humble: "If we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astonish ourselves."
Item 3: Tan teddy bear.
A gift from a former boyfriend and future marine pilot, the cliché love of my life. He presented it to me unwrapped, dressed in the same aviator glasses and brown leather jacket he'd wear one day, because it would remind me of him. I was too old for teddy bears by then, too old for men who only fall in love with things that remind them of themselves. But I kept them both for a time, then learned to let both of them go. Perhaps, then, it is the memory I wish to recall more than the thing itself. But the eyes, the eyes, like his–so black the pupils and irises melt together–on the night I said it was over, did nothing but stare back at me with sweet insensitivity.
Jenna Dietzer is originally from St. Petersburg, FL. She graduated from the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro and now works there as a lecturer in English.