She pulls Daddy’s Penthouse magazine out from beneath the rumpled bedclothes and strokes the cover he’s crumpled during the night.
Probably slept on it, she thinks.
She smooths the creases with her thumb and clutches the magazine to her breast.
What would he do without me?
She glances at the clock on the bedside table. There is so much work to do before school begins, and the day is already leaving her behind. She slips the magazine beneath her arm and begins to make his bed.
Smooth. Pull. Tuck. Smooth. Pull. Tuck.
The winter morning is an anxious stranger waiting beyond the yellow curtains, but though she quickens her pace, she remains careful with this particular job the way Mama always taught her. Her hospital corners are crisp and neat, and so tight that even on his most anxious nights he doesn’t kick them free.
She is determined that this will remain a warm place for him to sleep.
She examines the comforter, picking the black mites of beard hair from the stark white cotton. The comforter will need laundering soon, as will the sheets, but that will have to wait until Sunday. On Sunday, she can sort the baskets of his dirty clothes into whites, lights, and darks. On Sunday, she can pilfer a twenty from his wallet for quarters and detergent, and borrow the truck during the Giants’ game to make the trip down to the laundromat.
She wonders which books she’ll bring with her, which homework assignments can best be accomplished leaning against the lid of a shimmying top-loader.
She fluffs the pillows and arranges them at the head of the bed, then bends over to retrieve a balled-up wad of tissue from the floor. It has landed beside one of Mama’s blue, terrycloth slippers, still tucked beneath the bed, just as she might have left them.
She shudders as she plucks the tissue from the slipper with pincered fingers, then walks it into the bathroom to flush like a dead thing.
The bathroom is small, cold, gray. She glances at herself in the mirror above the sink as she passes by. Before Mama died, he always said how much alike they looked, with the same whole-milk skin and hot-cocoa curls, and though nowadays he can barely stand to glance in her direction, she doesn’t need for him to say why. She can see for herself how Mama stares back at her from the reflection.
The toilet flushes.
Her cellphone rings.
Once… Twice… Three times.
She doesn’t move to answer it. Donna will be calling to ask if she would like a ride to school, as she does every morning at precisely this time. Donna wants to be a true friend and has lots of good advice to offer on how she should try to live now that so many things have changed. Donna wants her to start wearing dresses and makeup again, to go out to dances and parties, on dates. Donna offers helpful tips on what she should be doing with her hair and worries she’s getting too thin. Donna understands the stages of grief, because her mother is an LPN and “knows death.”
She lets the phone ring and ring, feeling like a cornered animal, until the ringing finally fades away, and she can breathe again. Then she shuffles back into the bedroom, the shaggy carpet generating whorls of static against the soles of her bunny slippers, and glances around the room frowning. There is dusting to be done. Vacuuming, too. The oak paneled walls could use a lick of polish. But all of this will have to wait until later. If she hurries, she might have enough time to catch the school bus. But she doesn’t like to rush her morning routine. She’d rather take her time and hitch a ride into town or wait for the county bus to make its mid-morning run like she often does. Not that it even matters. On Thursdays, first period is a study hall and second period gym, and she’s had a doctor’s excuse to get out of that for months. Emotional distress. One of the perks of grieving.
She could probably blow off the entire day if she liked and no one would say a thing. Unlike Donna, most people are not true friends. They’re too afraid to confront her with anything like demands or expectations for fear she just might fall to pieces right in front of their eyes. Nobody wants to get stuck trying to put a mess like that back together. Boys don’t come around or call anymore. Teachers don’t complain when she skips their classes, although she’s made sure her grades haven’t slipped, so they really don’t have much to say.
Still, she could almost love each and every one of them for their merciful, selfish silence.
She revels for a moment in the silence of the empty doublewide. All is still, save for the winter wind battering the aluminum skirting outside. The rattle reminds her of the spinning wheels of a gurney, and she thinks, Yes, I could go back to bed if I wanted to.
For a moment she allows herself the luxury of picturing a life spent floating within the hushed cocoon of her blankets. For a moment she imagines leaving the whole dirty world to shudder and heave itself to bits while she remains safe and warm inside. But it’s only for a moment, because she knows if she were to give in to that temptation, even just this one morning, she might never get out of bed again.
And then who would look after him?
She pulls the Penthouse from beneath her arm, flicks off the light, and walks into her own bedroom across the hall. She shuts the door behind her. She hasn’t opened the curtains in months and the room is dark, the oak paneled walls diffusing the feeble green glow of her alarm clock. She sets the magazine on the unmade bed and flicks on the desk lamp, the overhead light, the lamp on her bedside table. The room is suddenly awash in light. Strewn across the floor and on every flat surface are jumbled piles of well-worn textbooks, romance novels, SAT prep exams, pencils, pens, and a junior yearbook with an un-cracked binding. At the foot of the bed lie several pairs of jeans. Her tee shirts are sorted into two haphazard piles: clean and dirty. There are no more posters on the walls. Her stuffed animals have found their way into a cardboard box in the storage shed out behind the trailer.
She walks up to the full-length mirror nailed to the closet door and kicks off the bunny slippers, then shimmies out of her flannel pajamas and cotton panties. She stands naked in front of the mirror for a long while, examining her pallid body with clinical scrutiny in the unforgiving light. She inspects her small breasts, runs her fingertips along her narrow hips. She shivers. A trail of gooseflesh skitters down her legs and she falls backwards onto the mattress, snuggling for a moment into the warm sheets before sitting upright on the edge of the bed.
She reaches for the magazine and fingers the creased cover. She knows where he keeps it and the others like it, in the bottom drawer of his dresser, tucked deep behind the church sweaters he hasn’t worn in months. But this is the only issue he ever looks at anymore, and when he comes for it tonight, eager and fumbling, he will find it once again safely home.
But not yet.
She flips through the well-thumbed pages, past the pouty redhead with the freckled shoulders and torso, past the bleach-blonde centerfold with breasts like beehives and feet so small they could belong to a toddler. She flips past the phone sex ads, past the reviews of dirty movies, past the ludicrous “true-life” tales of the Forum, until she reaches the final photo-spread of the magazine, page 78, the one he’d marked so long ago with one folded corner.
This is Velvet, popping out of lacy red panties and bra, with her whole-milk skin and hot cocoa hair, and a splash of cheap makeup like a neon boulevard paved across her face.
Velvet is hardly the most beautiful woman she’s ever seen. She isn’t even the most beautiful woman in the magazine. Her face is narrow, her nose too long, and there is a weak, vapid quality to her hazel eyes that makes it seem as if she might be stupid.
Yet, there is something compelling about her. Something in the way she arches her shoulders as if she’s daring you to look at her nakedness. Something in her no-nonsense fingernails, clipped close like a tomboy’s and free of polish. Something in how she thrusts her pelvis defiantly forward, as if to compensate for the shallow curve of her hips. Something hard and strong in the shadow of her distant smile.
And, of course, the resemblance to Mama is obvious.
She sets the magazine back on the bed and reaches beneath the mattress to retrieve the black nylon panties and bra that were the closest thing to Velvet’s sexy lingerie Mama ever owned. She’d stolen them from Mama’s dresser drawer shortly after she died, even though he’d made her swear the most solemn promise she could swear that she would never touch any of Mama’s things, and even though all those things are now going to waste, moldering away in the closet like the relics of a saint.
She slides the slippery nylon panties over her feet and up her thighs, then puts her arms through the thin straps of the bra and reaches behind and affixes the clasp. She revels in the coolness of the fabric against her skin, how wearing these skimpy garments makes her feel more naked than if she had on nothing at all. She spends several minutes in front of the mirror lifting and shaping her breasts, but no matter how hard she thrusts out her chest, she cannot fill the cups.
It’s all she can do to keep the panties from sliding off her hips every time she moves.
Yet, none of this matters. She will fill out her own pair of lingerie someday, sized especially for her own body. For now, it just feels good to wear Mama’s.
She wonders if, when Mama wore these delicate things, she took as much pleasure in their silky coolness between her rough and calloused fingers as she does now. Maybe, once upon a time, when the world was warm and bright and Mama’s heart still beat strong beneath her breast, maybe then Mama slipped these garments off of her own body with as much tenderness as she slips them off now.
She lies back naked on the mattress and with the magazine spread open beside her, begins to mimic Velvet’s graphic poses, as in one photo after the next the woman arrays herself in ever more ridiculous positions. She does this, too, trying not to laugh as she peers at her own body in the mirror, imagining it to contain a multitude of secrets yet to be discovered.
So nearly a woman’s body… So near to becoming, and yet… not.
She shifts her arms and legs, bending forward and back, all the while feeling something glow warm and pleasurable inside her. Not hopefulness, exactly, but something almost as dangerous.
And then it is time for school.
The chill of the morning has seeped into the room and she dresses in shivers. Panties and sports-bra, dirty jeans, a John Deere hoodie two sizes too big.
She picks up the magazine, tucks Mama’s lingerie back beneath her mattress, slings a backpack laden with books over her shoulder, and flicks out the bedroom lights one by one.
Another day that she doesn’t open the curtains before closing the door behind her. Another day that she keeps the leering world shut outside.
She returns to his bedroom, where the daylight casts shadows like cowering strangers in the corners. She approaches the dresser, compiling a mental list of the tasks she will need to perform today. She may vacuum this evening, though she’ll leave the dusting until the weekend. Spaghetti for dinner, perhaps, or maybe fried chicken, the way he likes it with globs of mayonnaise on the side. He complained of a sore throat last night, and she makes a mental note to stop at the drugstore for a cold remedy before catching the bus home.
She opens the dresser drawer, slides aside his church sweaters, but before she puts the Penthouse to bed, she pauses, and thinking of Mama, flips back to page 78 to plant a small kiss on Velvet’s forehead.
Rob Costello is a queer man who writes fiction for and about queer and questioning youth. He holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is an alumnus of the Millay Colony for the Arts and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. His short stories have appeared in Hunger Mountain, Stone Canoe, Eclectica, and Narrative, and are forthcoming in The Dark Magazine and Rural Voices: YA Stories of Growing Up in Remote Communities (Candlewick, Fall 2020). Visit www.cloudbusterpress.com to find out more.