s a d i e    h o a g l a n d

Time Just Isn't That Simple

 

When the kids come by with their research reports, I start by telling them about the excruciatingly long car ride to school. How my family carpooled with a pack of miscreants, one of whom was sickly. I like to use words like miscreants and sickly to evoke the otherness of that time for them. I tell them too, about the television chimpanzee in those years, how smart she was and yet unable to master the art of macramé. They are always amazed, these children, when I tell them there was no Child Protective Services, and that computers were bigger than microwaves.


If they come by and I don't feel like talking, they ask for some spare change. They tell me they like to throw coins at the door of the artist down the street, So he won't kill himself for God's Sake, they say.


Sometimes when they come by they have specific questions. They stand with hands on their child hips on my stoop and want to know if I had ever had unprotected sex. I tell them I don't remember. Then they ask a number of questions concerning my childhood chores, allowance, and birthday parties. They seem to be trying to decide if it was better to be a kid when I was a kid, then or better to be a kid when they are kids, now, but when I really begin to sift back through the years for them and tell them about the free milk at school, they begin to grow restless. Finally, exasperated, they ask what people did for fun.


So I invite them in, sit them down, pour out some lemonade and decide to tell them about the parties. My parents used to have these parties in the summer, I tell them, and there'd always cola and cherry soda and those nights would go late late.


How late? they ask. There are four of them this day.


Orange late, I tell them. Which they understand in terms of homeland security, and I in old streetlights, dreary florescent triangles.


I tell them, My parents' friends would come over and send their kids down to the basement, where I would be waiting with pretzel sticks and goldfish and Uno and movies recorded off the television. The mothers would go to the kitchen, and the fathers, who were all half-fathers, would go out back to the patio to drink beer.


Of course, these kids say, nodding their heads because their own dads in fact drink beer on their own patios. This is timeless. Though they are typing Goldfish, Uno, and half-fathers into their search engines. I tell them to put the contrivances away and give them a bowl of dry beans to fondle, which is both the only way they can listen, and when they know I mean to tell a story.



The fathers were all half-fathers because they stopped at the waist, either because they had no legs like my Dad, had legs too wounded to use, or had gotten too large, their thighs like baby whales. So they had chairs or motorized carts or crutchs and this was because the things fathers did back then, which was go to war, have heavy machinery fall on them at work, or get Disability for inadvertent largeness.


The only one of the fathers who was not a half-man was my Dad's high school friend Danny. Danny had a glass eye, so he'd been kept from the army and the other things that halved you. He had to be a lawyer instead, which came in handy when the neighbor kids' dad was crushed by a steel beam at work that took off his left hand and papered his legs for good. Danny saw to it that they got a hot tub and a big screen and college funds and lots of other things.


I liked Danny because at one of these parties I ran outside barefoot—raiding the patio for father fondles and hair-tugs, half-empty beers, and other tokens of that foreign love—and I asked Danny if I could look at his eye. Danny squinted hard and out it popped, and it was round and lovely like a misshapen jawbreaker with a blue center. I fingered it carefully, it was just a little wet on one side. The eye felt strange in my hand, and as I reached to give it back to Danny, it dropped onto the cement and rolled under the table. I crawled down and got it and it wasn't broken or even cracked, which I thought might be lucky, so I ran to the hose to wash it off but when I came back Danny told me to keep it.


Really? the kids ask, gripping their fistfuls of pinto beans now, imagining probably, the holding of an eye.


Yes, really. I ran to show my older brother the prize and we put it in a little soap dish on our special collection shelf alongside the sand dollar our aunt had sent us, the thin french-fried shape bone we'd found, and the crooked line of our baby teeth. But the next day when I showed my mother our new addition, she bristled and told me I had to take it back, that Danny was probably drunk when he gave it to me. So I had to wrap it in a bunch of paper napkins and then put it in a sock and tie it to my handlebars and bike over to Danny's house, which I'd been to with my Dad and which was not far. Danny's yard was parch-dry but his porch looked nice and bare swept, with an empty swing. When I knocked on the door and no one answered I swung for a while, and looked at the neighborhood, which was made up of clean little box houses like Danny's, some with kids' toys in the yard and one with a dog chained to a tree. It was an old spotted dog and it was sleeping. I watched the street for a while, and I even covered one eye so I could see it like Danny. When I got bored I knocked again and Danny came to the door with a patch like a pirate on his face, even though his socket wasn't gross or anything, just black like the mouth of a cave. He said, Hey kid, what is it? So I slowly unwrapped his eye and held it out to him, but he looked at in my palm and it seemed to gross him out. Like it wasn't his. He looked away, towards the old dog and told me to go on and take it, that really it irritated his eyehole, never quite fit right, and then he looked back at me and told me that he wanted me to have it. I held it out again, but he shook his head and I thought he looked sad, so I asked him if he wanted to swing with me on his porch and he said No, he had some work to do.


He's like the artist, the kids whisper, echoing exactlys until I give them a look and go on.


Well then I told Danny thank you and I said, I like your patch. And he nodded and closed the door. I wrapped the eye back up and put it back in my sock and biked home. But I didn't put Danny's eye back on our shelf, or tell my mother I had it, instead I wrapped it in a silk handkerchief my grandmother had given me and put it in my underwear drawer so that I wouldn't lose it.


Do you still have it? they ask, stopping their hands in the bean noise.


No, but those nights were magical, I tell them. The mothers would be in heels and smell like fancy department stores and I would watch them sometimes from the top of the basement stairs. Their skirts would look like lampshades floating around the kitchen, glasses would be clinking and their laughter was rich and deep like it used to be when women really smoked. Sometimes if these parties went more late late than even usual, the mothers would finish the dishes and then began slow dancing together in the kitchen. They missed dancing, they said, the half-fathers couldn't stand close to them, sway with them, and I remember watching my mother and our neighbor Janet holding each other tight, swaying like a buoy. My mother's face was so peaceful then, like a bowl of quiet milk.


And that, I tell them as they grip and grip, curling their feet against the slowness of my story, is how I came to later invent the dancing machine.


This gets them. They drop beans like hail into the bowl. What is a dancing machine? they sing at me in round.


Listen, I say. Shortly after I saw my mother with her quiet milk face, I decided I had to see it again. So, on a regular night with no party, I got my mother to sit on my father's leg stumps and hold him and I rocked his chair back and forth to a slow jazz record. But my father's legs started to hurt because of his lack of circulation and my mom's knees had to hang over the arm of the chair and then she was taller than him, and couldn't put her head on his chest and lose herself. My mother told me, It's just not working and got up and went to watch TV and my father just shrugged and went off to smoke. I stood there listening to Billie Holiday by myself and felt like crying. That's when I first thought I would marry me a man like Danny, who I was sure could dance just fine, I tell them.


Did you? they ask. Did your husband have a glass eye too?


No, I tell them, and hush.


My mother's milk face got put away then and it wasn't until almost a decade later when the idea for the harness came to me. My brother and I were in high school and we wanted to do something real nice for Mother's Day because it turned out our mother was sick, and even though she got better later, after all her hair fell out, we thought maybe it was going to be our last chance. So I told my brother about the dancing I'd seen all those years ago in the kitchen and never forgotten and we got the idea that if we could hang my dad up somehow, suspend him to standing, they could dance. So we decided to convert the rope swing tied to the Weeping Willow out back into a dancing machine.


Then we got serious, I tell them. To invent something, one must get serious.


They nod. This will make a great report, they whisper.


My brother and I went out to the old swing, first I climbed on, then he, two loops below me. We were testing, I tell them, its weight-bearing abilities. We borrowed a chest harness from our neighbor Luke, who had everything because he had once wanted to be a Navy Seal, and we slung it up right according to knots we looked up in a book at the school library. We gave it a test run, my brother clipped in, knees bent so he'd hang like my father would, and I held him and we pretended to dance. She'll have to lead, my brother said, and I unclipped him.


On the big night, I tell them, we hauled a card table out to the yard and put some candles on it, they were apple-cinnamon scented because that's all we could find around the house. Then we told my dad the plan and he said, Well, fine, if you think she'll like it, and I made him put on some cologne, because he'd be dancing with his wife for the first time in years. He said he'd go clean up and wheeled away. Then we got the boom box out with and plugged it in with an extension cord coming out my bedroom window and put it on the card table.


What is a boom box? the smallest kid asks, sucking the beans that have found the way into her mouth.


A stereo. I'd made a mix of Billie holiday, Al Green, Ella Fitzgerald and some of my own favorites like Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time. These are musicians who sang good love songs then. When evening came we told Mother her surprise was ready and she best clean up. She had her hair still then, but was really very tired because she'd had a big surgery not too long ago where they took out most of her insides, or at least that's how it looked to us, like she'd been sucked empty. It took her a long time to put on a skirt and a blouse. While we waited my father wheeled outside, all fresh shaven and hair-combed. He looked at the harness and shook his head. Damn Kids, he said.


The artist says that, two of these kids say almost at once.


When mother appeared out of the bedroom she looked shiny, and I felt glad she'd put some cream or makeup on or something. You look beautiful, I said. You have to stop a minute, and I stood her behind the backdoor screen and put the silk handkerchief, borrowed from Danny's eye for the occasion, around her eyes. Wait here, I told her and I went to help my brother with my Dad. He smelled like cloves as my brother picked him up out of the chair and held him while I fastened the harness to his broad arms, across his chest, and cinched it against his heart. Might as well be a meat hook, my Dad said. But he smiled. We lit candles and the willow leaves shone like a curtain in an old painting, I hit play on the tape deck (boom box) and then my brother and I went to lead my mother outside. We were so careful with her between us.


When we got her to my father's arms, she started and my father laughed. You forgot I was taller than you, didn't you? He said and she took off the blindfold. I said Dance, Dance! The song You can't take that away from me was playing, and sure enough they began to sway, my mom smiling big, and I thought she was happy but I did not yet see the milk face.


The children stop touching the beans altogether. Was the dancing machine invented for nothing? they ask.


I put a finger up. Wait.



I wanted my brother to dance with me, but he pulled me back out of the willow tree umbrella, into the evening light and said for me to shush, that we should go, leave them alone. But I shook my head, I wanted to watch at least one song. Plus, I told him, we got to get Dad down.


So I crept back in the dark and lay on my stomach in the cold grass, chin in my hands and watched my father swinging. He had no control and my mother had to lead like my brother had said but even then, when she was everyday disappearing, diminishing, she held their dancing ground. She didn't float like she did with Janet all those years before, but still she closed her eyes and put her head against my father's chest. He stroked her hair and held her tight and then, even in the shiver of candlelight, her face was finally still. They hung their together like the willow boughs themselves and I thought my father looked like an angel, come to carry her away but for her feet, reaching down like roots.


It was that night, I tell them, that I thought maybe my mother wouldn't die, and she didn't, at least not that year or even the year after. She got better.


The dancing machine saves lives! the kids suddenly yell; they are up now.


I shake my head, That is not the point. But they have abandoned the beans and are dancing around the table like strange birds. Hush now, I say but they are paired off now, dancing together, one in a chair, one standing, cooing fake child love.


Suddenly the oldest stands on a chair. Wait, he puts his hands to his head. What happened to the eye? Danny's eye? And they all halfway sit again.


I shrug.


Maybe the artist has it, they say, picking up stray beans off the table and putting them back in the bowl like they know they're supposed to.


It's possible, I say and I don't tell them that a year or so after the dancing machine, Danny put a gun into his empty eye socket and fired, so it didn't matter that I didn't have it.


I guess we could ask him.


I didn't mean to lose it, I tell them.


If it were ours, they say, We never would have lost it.


I know, I say and lay a hand on my eyes so that I can see my mother again, floating and rooted.


It could prove your story true, they say. We could pass it around when we gave our report.


Well, I shrug again.


Now we'll have to make a power-point, one moans.


They look hopeless.


Can we at least take the beans? the oldest one asks.


Yes, I tell them, but then you can't come back. As I say it then, I mean it.


So they gather the beans into their pockets, spilling them and picking them up over and over again until they finally run out of the door, leaving it open to the daylight like a gaping mouth.


I sit inside in the dim like a tooth, smooth-faced.



Two weeks later, they're throwing coins at my door and chanting Boom-box, Boom-box, while I am still dreaming of orange and bones and ropes and all that means nothing to them without the eye itself.

 

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SADIE HOAGLAND's work has appeared in The Black Herald, Mikrokosmos Journal, and Slush Pile Magazine. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from UC Davis, and is currently a PhD candidate in fiction at the University of Utah.


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