by Sally Wagner
Christine is cleaning the kitchen for her mother when she turns around, and in the low evening light sees her neighbor, Nick Brower, at the back screen door. He is holding a cantaloupe and two spoons. Christine is startled and looks away when their eyes meet.
“Hungry?” Nick asks. “I got this at the store today and thought you’d like some.” He smiles like a comfortable old friend although she hardly knows him.
“Hey, I thought you could use some company with your mom at work. I won’t bite, promise.”
Her eyes dart from his face to the floor.
“Why don’t you get a plate,” he says through the door.
“Well…okay,” she replies, grateful for a prompt. She puts down the wet dishcloth.
Christine expects Nick to stay on the back porch, but hears the squeak of the screen door as she walks to the kitchen counter. The hairs on the back of her neck rise as she opens a cabinet and pulls out a medium-sized plate. The lady down the street said he did time in prison.
“Got a knife we can cut it with?” he asks, now standing beside her. A faint smell of alcohol has drifted into the kitchen with Nick. It reminds Christine of her father.
“Yeah, somewhere….” says Christine, nervously pawing through a drawer. She gets out a knife and hands it to him. She watches Nick put the cantaloupe on the counter and make a clean cut. He scoops the seeds into the sink, places one half of the melon on a plate and holds it out for her to take.
Nick’s dark, shoulder length hair, loosely tied in a rubber band at the nape of his neck, is streaked with silver. Christine catches the outline of an octopus tattoo on his arm.
“I’ll just hold mine,” he says. “No need to dirty another plate.”
“Why don’t we go out back,” Christine says in a higher-than-usual voice. She points to the screen door then wipes beads of sweat off of her upper lip with the back of her hand.
“You in high school?” Nick asks as they walk outdoors.
“Yeah, tenth grade,” she says.
“Last day just around the corner, huh?”
“Yeah, next Friday.”
Christine drags an aluminum lawn chair to him across the cement porch as she balances her plate of cantaloupe, then gets one for herself. Nick settles into the chair and spoons out the shimmering flesh of the melon. The back yard is surrounded by a rusty chain link fence and crowded with oak trees and overgrown bushes that seclude them from neighbors. The grass is mostly patchy and brown except where occasional flecks of sunlight beat out the shade. The faint noise of traffic filters through the vegetation from the main road, otherwise the neighborhood is free of human sound. Christine glances at the small paw sticking out of the newspaper shavings in a cage by the house.
“Nothing better than fresh cantaloupe. Now aren’t you glad I decided to share it with you?” He smiles at her again revealing straight, white teeth.
Christine nods while she slips a chunk of the fruit into her mouth. The evening air is humid and she suddenly feels too warm in her black jeans and T-shirt. She glances at Nick, his facial creases prominent in the outdoor light. She sees the tattoo wrapped around most of his bicep below the short sleeve of his cotton shirt.
“My mom won’t let me get one of those,” she gestures toward the tattoo, “but a lot of kids at school have them.”
“Maybe you can get one in a few years.”
“Maybe. Was it painful?”
“Yeah, especially around my wrist.”
Christine studies the wavy tentacles that reach down Nick’s arm, like the octopus is swimming in its own world far below the surface of the ocean. Small fish in bright shades of pink, green and purple dodge the detailed suckers that line the tentacles. She can see how humanlike the eye is. It is the eye of a cartoon princess—clear blue, heavily lashed and innocent. She looks away.
“Don’t like it?” he asks.
“It’s okay. Sort of reminds me of my old lunch box, the mermaid one I had when I was little. At least the eye does.”
“So what kind of tattoo would you get?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
She looks down at the smeared black ink letters she sketched on her arm yesterday at school. The words I AM ALONE are still faintly legible.
“Always write on yourself like that?” Nick asks.
“Sometimes…when I feel like it.”
“Your own version of a tattoo?”
“I guess,” she laughs.
Christine’s not sure what she’d choose—so many options. The girl next to her in math class got a tattoo. A dragonfly. Figures she’d have to be pretty sure of something so permanent.
Except for the pulsing cricket songs from the bushes the yard is still quiet. Christine raises her eyes and stares into the evening sky while she leafs through mental files. She remembers the mess before her mother got completely fed up with her father’s drinking. It was hard not to be on edge constantly. She’d watch for clues that would signal his mood changes. When her father struggled to keep his chin from falling to the kitchen table things would get real bad. His head would bob on the overstretched spring of his neck and his eyes fade into an alcoholic haze. He hit her if she didn’t do what he said even when she tried to follow his orders exactly. Never could get it quite right. So much better with him gone.
Nick shifts in the chair and the tubular aluminum grates on the cement, the sharp, high-pitched sound startles Christine. The young, orphaned raccoon she begged her mother for panics and rustles in its shredded newspaper bedding. Christine glances over as the animal’s paw disappears.
“I hate these old webbed chairs,” she says. “I wish we could get new ones.”
“Yeah, I wonder if I’m going to break through this frayed webbing and wind up on my ass.”
“They’re a pain to fix if they break.”
“Don’t worry your pretty head about that. Just tell your mom I know how to fix them.”
Christine cheeks redden. Pretty is not a word people use to describe her. She pulls her brown hair forward against her face to hide a breakout of pimples and her pale complexion.
“Don’t look at me that way,” she says, when she senses Nick’s eyes on her.
“Hey, I’m just looking at you regular.”
Christine wonders if she’s imagining. She gets things wrong a lot.
“Everyone knows you were in prison,” she says.
“That’s right. It’s not a secret.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, I’m not sure that it’s any of your business. But I can tell you I know what it’s like on the other side and I don’t want to go back. I did my time, the slate’s wiped clean, now I’m just like anyone else.”
Christine feels somewhat reassured and fidgets with the lock of long brown hair that still obscures her face. She looks at the raccoon cage pushed against the house. The raccoon ventures to the front and stretches its paw through the chicken wire toward an acorn just beyond its grasp. Christine stands up and walks over. She stoops and reaches for the nut, then hands it to the raccoon. It grabs the food, pulls it into the cage and rotates it between its paws.
“Must not be very hungry or maybe he’s just a picky SOB,” Nick says. He snorts a laugh. Christine sees the raccoon startle again, drop the acorn and run to the far side of the cage.
“You scared him,” she says.
Christine glares at Nick from where she is crouching. The octopus tattoo gyrates oddly on his arm as he processes her accusation. The eye half winks at her while the raccoon jumps at the back of the cage.
“You poor little thing. Did that guy scare you?”
She unlatches the door.
“You know that’s a wild animal in there. No telling what he’s carrying,” Nick says.
“He’s fine. I pick him up all the time.”
“What do you want with that dumb thing anyway?” he asks.
Christine puts her hand into the cage, her palm flat and motionless. The raccoon watches her fingers, approaches and raises its velvety snout upward; black leather nostrils move with the constancy of a heartbeat, sniffing, as if to gauge her character by scent. She waits as it climbs into the warm cradle of her palm. Christine closes her hand and pulls it through the door. She pets the top of its head, and in seconds it starts to push back against her fingers.
Christine smiles as she strokes the animal’s back, the silky fur under its chin. A mosquito worries its way around her damp neckline as it looks for a clear path to dive and bite. She hears its high-pitched whining, shakes her head to thwart the attack and it swerves sideways into the ebbing light of the humid summer evening as if alerted to the danger by mission control.
“Do you want to hold him?” Christine asks.
“He won’t bite you. Put out your hands and I’ll bet he’ll crawl right on.”
Nick holds his palms out and she pushes the small animal out to him. The raccoon stalls suspiciously and sniffs the air.
“C’mon little guy,” Nick coaxes softly. C’mon, you can do it.” Christine is encouraged that Nick is willing to hold the animal.
“Go on,” she says. “He won’t hurt you.”
Evening fades. A neighbor’s living room lamp gleams through a window casting shadows. Fireflies emerge from their damp underworld homes into the heavy night air. Christine remembers as a child chasing one through the trees and catching it in her small, grimy hands. She let it crawl around her palm, watched its translucent abdomen blink on and off and smelled its faint musky odor as it traveled up her finger and launched itself into empty space.
“That’s right,” Nick whispers to the raccoon. He takes his forefinger and presses it into the vulnerable underside of the raccoon’s neck. “I won’t hurt you.”
Christine closes her eyes as she takes a deep breath. She looks at the sky, then back at Nick. The raccoon is struggling to claw itself out of his hands. She notices the warmth of Nick’s brown eyes and curve of his high cheekbones. She trembles and wraps her arms around herself tightly.
“Take this guy, will you.” Nick says.
“Okay. Here, I’ll put him back in the cage.”
She recovers the agitated raccoon, puts it back in the hutch and locks the door so it can’t escape.
“I need a drink of water after that. Damn thing scratched me. Get me one would you,” Nick says.
Christine goes into the house, gets out two glasses from the kitchen cabinet and fills them with cold water from the faucet. She opens the freezer, finds ice and drops several cubes in each glass. When she arrives full-handed at the screen door Nick opens it. She waits for him to move aside so she can bring the glasses out to the porch. But he doesn’t move. He half joking and boyishly blocks the way, like he suddenly decides he wants to play a game. Then he pushes her into the kitchen.
“Didn’t you forget something?” he asks.
“Stop it! Why did you push me?” she blurts.
Nick pushes Christine again and water sloshes out of the glasses making a puddle on the kitchen floor.
“God you’re clumsy,” he says. He pushes her a third time.
Christine struggles to keep her balance while more water jumps out of the glasses.
“I think you’d better go,” she says.
Christine hears the engine of a car on the street out front. Nick raises his head as if he has heard a police siren in the distance.
“That’s my mother,” she says.
Nick’s eyes shift back and forth as he scans the kitchen for an exit. For a moment he is like a frantic animal, locked in a summer cottage, hopeful to claw itself through a weak spot in the wall.
“You’d better not be lying to me,” he says. He glares at her, his brown eyes gone a flat black, as he hurries out of the house and slips into the hot night.
Christine runs to the door, grabs the handle with one hand and turns the lever with another—locked—then she races to the front door and locks it—her heart on an involuntary marathon. She laughs as if she has crossed a finish line or made it to first base ahead of the ball. Safe! The thrill of it suddenly feels good. She laughs again, her body releasing tension—satisfying like the first surge of an opiate hitting the pleasure centers of her brain.
She wonders what Nick will do next. She’s read about stalkers. Will he try to sneak into the house at night? What will she do if she wakes up and finds him looking down at her?
Christine rises and begins to turn slowly in a circle, like a young girl on the playground making herself dizzy, enjoying the singular feeling of being alive, then twirls again and again, faster, grinning a goofy, bare-toothed smile, laughing a pirate laugh as if she has discovered gold buried in her yard. She weaves down the narrow hall to her bedroom where she stops and studies herself in the splotchy mirror above the dresser her mother found at the local thrift. She strokes and smoothes her hair until it glistens like the surface of black coffee, then pulls it forward to frame her face and partially cover the fullness of her cheeks. Her face looks thinner when she turns and gets a sideways view in the mirror. She likes that. She lifts her chin and pouts like a fashion model she saw in a magazine as she pulls the crew neck of her baggy black shirt into a plunging V-neck that reveals the cleavage above her thick belly. Giggling, Christine falls back on the striped bedspread that covers her sagging mattress, the taste of cantaloupe still in her mouth, entangled in fantasies that wrap tight around her like octopus tentacles.
She remembers one year at the beach before she could swim. Her father warned her not to go far out in the choppy sound. She ignored him and walked on tiptoe into the gray-blue water up to her neck, thinking she was in control until she stepped into a hole carved out in the smooth bottom sand. The brackish water was just an inch over her head and she could look up through it at the summer sky. She pushed down hard against the bottom with her toes and sprang upward for a gulp of air. She yelled for help. She bounced again and again, yelled out each time, only fully aware of the danger when the current began to sweep her further out. It was forever until she felt her father’s hand twist around her exhausted body to snatch her from danger, to pull her into the shallow water, closer to shore, his deep voice cut through her for disobedience of his order, his body a slippery dolphin as she tried to cling to him and breathe.
Christine rolls over onto her elbow, the curve of her body sinks into the mattress as the memory drifts away. No one can give her orders anymore. She wonders what it would be like to have a man next to her in this moment, a man like Nick, holding her, caressing the side of her body. She can feel herself pressing against him, wanting to be a part of him. She can sneak him into her room at night, he can climb into her first floor window from the backyard and no one will know.
From her window she sees the lights on in Nick’s house. She imagines that he is watching an interview on the Late Show with an actor, a mass of a man with bulky shoulders, who saves his family from a catastrophic earthquake in his latest Hollywood action hit. He’s the kind of man who stays with his wife and children. During a commercial Nick goes to the refrigerator, opens a bottle of Budweiser and returns to the sofa. He lifts his feet onto the coffee table, puts his tattooed arm on the back of the sofa where she imagines she is sitting, then he curls it around her and pulls her into his world. She puts her head on his shoulder and he strokes her hair.
Christine knows she can walk down the dim hall back into the living room, her hands can touch the lock in a matter of seconds. She will turn the lever and open the door to the night and the fireflies, the mosquitoes, the brittle-shelled, black June bugs that are bouncing against the window screens.