UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Shadows of Wonder
The only thing that Barbara Dostie can call her own is a small, mobile home in a place called Wonder, where she has unintentionally made her life. Just twelve miles southwest of Grant’s Pass, the town got its name when a man opened
Barbara suffered a severe stroke almost four years ago, losing her mobility and voice but kept her mind. There is no one to watch over her except for Bill, the owner of the general store and the property that the Dostie home sits on. Her frightened, skittish son, Daniel, who has grown into a quiet, reserved man, rarely visits but sends letters every week and pictures of her granddaughter’s firsts. Barbara regrets not doing more for Daniel when he was growing up but takes comfort in the promise that she made him keep - to leave Wonder behind. Staring back at her, on top of the television, is a picture of Daniel’s father, Jack. Though Barbara had always remained delicate, her husband grew into twice the man she married and new wrinkles added to his forehead and around his mouth with each passing year like rings on a tree trunk. He was a popular boy in his youth, who went with girl to girl with ease, starting fights without hesitation, knowing the sheriff would never dare arrest the star basketball player. Even years later, when someone called the police, Jack invited the officers, many of them old buddies, inside for beers and jokes about how clumsy Barbara was, as they reminisced about games and parties. He died from a brain aneurysm, driving home one night just before Daniel’s high school graduation, a time when Daniel already recognized that not all fathers are heroes and love is not a requirement of family. Barbara tries to remember the good things about Jack. She still loves him. But as she stares into his eyes from the recliner she lays in, she cannot help but feel a chill pass through her thin, almost translucent skin.
Bill places Barbara in different parts of the house - the living room, her bedroom and outside on an old wicker lounger when the sun is out to give her a change in scenery. Laying in her recliner, she knows that M.A.S.H will be on television at least five times, interrupted in the mornings by a purple dinosaur and in the afternoons by Rosie O’Donnell and a handful of court shows. Down the hall, her bedroom door is halfway open. She can see faint shadows dance on the foot of her bed as a gentle breeze tugs at tree branches in the sunlight outside. Before the stroke, Barbara used to lie on her bed, naked for hours, feeling the warmth of the sun in patches, exploring her body, trying to imagine the pleasures of a younger self. She thought about how it was, when she first married Jack and what it would be like with Bill and wondered if he was a large man. Daniel’s old room is next door. The door is always closed. It’s used for storage mostly, filled with boxes, folding chairs and Jack’s life. But last night, in the darkness, somewhere between being awake and dreaming, Barbara saw the door creak open. If she weren’t already paralyzed, she would have been. She felt her heart beats grow heavier inside her chest. Her eyes focused on the glimmer of moonlight that poured out of the room, ready to shut tight at any sign of movement. When the outline of a shadow appeared, she closed her eyes but held them open by a sliver, trying to make out the dark figure. It was a man. She could tell that much at first. He walked out of Daniel’s room and headed toward hers but turned around as if he couldn’t see Barbara but could sense her presence. Barbara held her breath, just for a moment as the night light fell on the man’s face just enough to reveal that it was Jack. He smiled and turned away, his shadow enveloped in blackness.
The sounds of a nearby creek rush through the thin walls of the house after the rainfall last night, masking any sounds of civilization and cars in search of wilderness. Barbara gazes out the living room window. There is a light mist hanging in the air as if a piece of heaven has come down for a better look of the world. When she was a girl, Barbara thought that people could live on clouds. She remembers telling Daniel how she would get mad at airplanes for crashing into heaven and this was why she was afraid of flying, though it was really a fear of being trapped in a place with no way of getting out. Barbara can hear Bill’s soggy footsteps tromp down the muddy driveway and up the two steps to the door. Sometimes she can imagine her hands, lifting to fix her hair, wiping the crusty build up on the corners of her eyes. But her hands always stay where they are - wherever Bill left them.
“How’s it going today Barbs?,” Bill says, hanging up his coat. “Watching your shows?”
What else would I be doing? Barbara thinks to herself. Her colostomy bag must be nearly full. She hopes that Bill notices. She wants him to come closer and sit by her. She wants to tell him that she saw Jack last night. Hold her hand, brush her hair. It was just a bad dream he would say.
Bill was best friends with Jack in high school. They played basketball together and Bill played the part of the sidekick on and off the court. Best friend status was lost as time passed and the two men changed and grew apart enough to warrant the label of “just friends” followed inevitably by “just very old friends”. Barbara always liked Bill and it was no secret that Bill was in love with Barbara. If Bill had been more assertive when he was younger, just enough to escape the realm of sidekick-dom, Barbara might have married him instead of Jack. But Jack was the hero in those days, a shining star in an otherwise dim town and Barbara was his girl. Whenever Bill did something even remotely considerate for Barbara, Jack would always say, “Hey, Prince Charming, get your own girl!” and then stick his tongue down Barbara’s throat. Barbara usually closed her eyes when she kissed but held them open when Bill was around, a part of her wanting to reach out and touch his soft, wounded face.
“A lot of business at the store today. Looks like a lot of people going down to the Siskiyous. I can’t imagine doing much hiking there anymore after the fire. Told most of ‘em to head back north to Willamette if that’s the sort of thing they’re after,” Bill says, his voice coming from the kitchen under the heavy growl of a blender.
Barbara remembers watching the fires on television. She could smell the smoke seeping through the windows. The faint scent of hickory took months to leave the curtains and upholstery. The Biscuit Fire, they called it. Such an adorable name for something so destructive. Barbara wonders how natural disasters get their names and if it is a job that she can apply for in another life. She’ll write a book like all those books for parents, trying to find that perfect name: Naming Your Natural Disaster and Other Unfortunate Events by Barbara Dostie. Instead of names like Biscuit or Katrina, she’ll choose names with more power and zest like Scone or Spike.
“A package from Daniel came today.” Bill sits in front of Barbara, on the edge of the coffee table. The fruit smoothie he made for her rests on the end table nearby. Barbara’s throat is dry and her stomach has been growling all morning but Bill knows to open the package first. He tears at the small box with his car keys, opening the flaps as stray Styrofoam popcorn spill out. Inside is an orange ashtray with an imprint of Barbara’s granddaughter’s hand on the bottom. Her name is written in bright red letters all around with stars in between: M * A * D * I * S * O * N. She turned five last week. Barbara still has an ash tray that Daniel made when he was that age. Barbara saw her granddaughter once, just after her first birthday. Daniel’s wife, Tabitha, brought her down but Daniel hasn’t stopped by once since the baby.
Madison was quiet when she visited. Tabitha laid her daughter on Barbara as Madison’s little hands held tightly to Barbara’s robe. Madison turned every which way, exploring her new surroundings, adding tiny wrinkles to her brain. Barbara marveled at the innocent on her chest, at how this young life, incapable of speech, could communicate in leaps and bounds with someone that could not hold or sing to her. It was in Madison’s eyes. Barbara could see something in them that told her that this little life, squirming in footy pajamas, could understand that she felt alone, that the walls around them had a history. I wonder if Madison saw Jack that day, Barbara wonders, as she watches Bill run her hands over the ash tray, tracing the handprint of her granddaughter. What Barbara wouldn’t give to feel even just half her pinky for this moment.
“Daniel says that they threw a little party for her, invited some of the kids from her class, says he’ll send pictures next time.“ Bill takes a small sip of the smoothie before bringing it to Barbara’s mouth. Strawberry and Banana. Barbara’s favorite is anything with peaches. If she could communicate one thing to Bill, it would be the word peaches, though sex is a close second. As Barbara finishes her smoothie, she thinks about Daniel’s fifth birthday. Money was tight and Daniel’s first birthdays went by with little fanfare - promises of next year and coming to work with his mother at the general store. Bill would give him a candy bar and a comic book at the end of the day. But Barbara was saving money in secret. It hurt her to watch Daniel look at things she knew she couldn’t give him year after year. She wanted to do something special.
Bill gave Barbara the day off on Daniel’s fifth birthday. She left Daniel home with Jack and drove to Grant’s Pass to pick up a cake she ordered from a bakery. There was a picture of a stegosaurus on top of it with five spikes on its back and on its side were the words: Happy #5 Daniel. Several toy dinosaurs accompanied the stegosaurus. Back home Jack was supposed to take Daniel to the creek in back of the house to play. Daniel always liked to catch tadpoles just when they started to form arms. He collected them in a bucket and poured in water and muck from the creek so they could swim and eat. The few tadpoles that survived long enough to become frogs never made it past a few feet from the bucket. Remnants of their dried carcasses remain in the carpeting. When Barbara got home, she heard the shower running. The bucket that Daniel used to collect tadpoles was clean and stood outside on the porch, where Barbara left it that morning. She knocked and opened the bathroom door and found Daniel and Jack standing naked on the bath rug, their hair wet, beads of water dripping down their bodies, their mouths not uttering a sound. Barbara grabbed a towel from behind the door and wrapped it around Daniel and took him in her arms, noticing the remnants of an erection between Jack’s legs. Daniel had fallen into the creek and Jack was washing him off. Jack had gotten dirty too. It was a slow day for tadpoles.
Watching Daniel blow out his candles and play with his new toys, brought a smile to Barbara’s face that had become all too rare. Still, she couldn’t help but feel that part of her little boy had been taken away, that at the ripe age of five, he had been forced to leave the safety of imagination and fantasy. Barbara hardly spoke to Jack that day. When she acknowledged his presence, it was purely for the sake of Daniel. That night Jack defended himself, his pleading voice becoming harsher and more resonant with each word, leaving a nervous tingling in Barbara’s chest. “I saw how you looked at me. It’s not what you think. I can’t believe you would even think that. I’m his father, for Christ sake.” His face grew red and he began to pace about their bedroom. “Is that what you think of me? You think that little boys get me off? Fuck, Barbara.”
Barbara, who rarely argued with Jack in order to keep the peace, let down her guard at the thought of Daniel being hurt.
“I don’t know what to think,” she said. “I can‘t remember the last time you touched me, Jack and then today -”
Jack’s face seemed to grow, almost pulsate as he took in a breath of air in his cheeks and blew it out slowly as if to relieve pressure. His eyes were no longer the eyes of the man she married but dark, empty pools surrounded by red. He was quiet but Barbara could hear the chaos inside his head, each irrational fragment clamoring to be spoken. She was waiting f or him to explode but instead Jack’s voice issued clear and unadorned with rage.
“It’s not supposed to be this way, our life.” He picked up an open can of beer that had been sitting on the dresser all day and took a sip, looking out the window, “I was somebody. People knew me. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”
Bill reaches for the remote and begins to flip through the five stations that come in decently. He passes two soap operas, a Pilates infomercial, a court show and The Golden Girls before turning the TV off. He slouches back on the sofa and lights a cigarette, leaning his head back and blowing smoke into the air, trying to create rings with each breath. Barbara concentrates on Bill resting beside her and for a moment tucks away memories of Jack deep within her mind.
“Starting to look nice out. Why don’t we go sit outside for a bit? Get out of the house,” Bill says. Barbara watches him stand up and soon hears the front door creak open. Through the window she can see that Bill is wiping off the two reclining, lawn chairs with a bath towel. He returns and carries her outside in his arms, still with little effort at the age of fifty. Outside, the air seems pure, vacant of any man-made smells and rich with the pungent odor of mosses and hundreds of earth worms. The chair is damp and soaks through the bottom of Barbara’s pajamas. Hanging from a tree not far away is a wind chime Daniel made out of sticks, utensils and some old beer bottles and soda cans. He spaced everything too far apart and only a fork and a spoon hit each other with any sizeable gust of wind. Daniel told Barbara that the chimes were for protection, so that God would know where to find them. She can almost see Daniel standing beneath them the day she told him to leave Wonder behind.
“You don’t have to go to the cemetery with me every time,” Barbara said to Daniel, as he turned off the engine and slammed the door on his father’s truck.
“Why do you go?” Daniel asked, his still puerile face masked ineffectively by a first attempt at a beard.
“He was my husband and your father,” Barbara said, knowing that it was one of those times where she had to state a known fact, for it was the kind of fact that had been unacknowledged for too long. She could see that Daniel had trouble with these words, as if they were a betrayal to their secret society of hating Jack. But Barbara didn’t hate Jack, at least not at the day’s end. If anything she hated herself for not stopping Jack sooner, for allowing him to trap her and Daniel in the empty promises of his glorious youth and then watch their lives unravel when Jack realized that those promises were broken. Daniel would never understand this about Barbara, though he forgave her of it. Barbara planned to move away when she was younger, before she met Jack. She would have gone down to California and picked grapes in a Napa vineyard, waitressed at a bar in San Francisco, where interesting men would ask for her phone number or perhaps just sit on a cliff-side beach, where cypress trees grew. But she did meet Jack and they had Daniel and their life together in Wonder grew seemingly impenetrable walls around the forest they lived in. This was her home now but not for Daniel. Barbara bought a bus ticket to Portland for him, where he would attend Lewis and Clark College on a scholarship, and gave him what money she had been able to save. They hugged for what seemed like the entire history of their lives and Daniel promised to write home.
Bill has fallen asleep as he often does. It is getting dark now and the clouds above have joined together to create a soft blanket of gray, covering the sky. Rain the size of pin pricks begins to fall, tickling Barbara’s nose and cheeks. Bill shudders and turns to the side before waking up moments later when the rain begins to pour down. He carries her inside and tucks her in bed before leaving, making sure to empty her colostomy bag. He says he’ll be there in the morning. Barbara always hated it when she was tucked in too tightly when she was little, but it doesn’t really matter anymore. As the room grows darker, she can see the outline of a body slowly forming and a pair of eyes looking back at her. It’s Jack again. He takes a couple of steps and stands over Barbara, smiling, not saying a word. Barbara wonders why he’s still here, why he hasn’t left for that great beyond that people say lies beyond some radiant light. Is it forgiveness he wants? Is it love that keeps him here? Or perhaps it is the place she and Jack have made for themselves in this house, in a forest, along a highway, somewhere on God’s green earth.Sequoia Nagamatsu is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest and was educated at Grinnell College, Iowa. He currently resides in Niigata City, Japan where he teaches English.
© 2008 Underground Voices