The waiting room of the psychiatric clinic was crowded as teens of varying piercings and tattoos awaited a group anger management session. Sharalyn, sitting quietly next to her husband, Mike, noted which teens sat with a parent, and concentrated on their multiple silences, the ways they ignored one another, waiting to be united against conflict.
Mike was busy with his Blackberry, checking his work email and the score of the Dodger’s spring training game, lamenting aloud the trials of being a fan of losers. If only LA could get a decent owner and be winners again. When this didn’t carry him through the wait for the psychiatrist, he switched to his fantasy baseball league, scratching his graying temple as though some strategy were to be awakened there.
“See, Sharalyn, if you had gotten an iPhone for your birthday, you could be listening to music right now. This guy is 30 minutes late.” He pointed toward the office door—one of four—with the “Dr. Burman” nameplate.
“Maybe he had a psychiatric emergency.” She thought that she probably should have agreed to the iPhone. But ten months ago, she hadn’t been able to admit that she was afraid she couldn’t learn to use it. Then, it had seemed like magic. How quickly the device became commonplace.
For Sharalyn, each new piece of electronic gear quickly floated into rare use, flecks of entitlement, unhealthy additions. She wanted to brush them away, shake off her snow globe existence, create a clear, clean path.
“Mrs. Mitty?” the receptionist looked up. “Doctor will see you now.”
Sharalyn stood. Why do health workers always say “Doctor” like it’s a first name?
Dr. Burman was Indian, maybe. Sharalyn had meet him a month earlier at her first appointment and had wanted to ask about his origins but wondered if he would perceive it as prying. Instead, she focused on herself, going with a few incidents from her youth. The time that her fourth-grade teacher grabbed her and pulled her to his crotch, and she had flung the can of paintbrushes she’d been holding into his face. She’d never told anyone the story, and thought that was the kind of thing the doctor would want to hear if he were to make sense of her.
But Sharalyn discovered that going to a psychiatrist wasn’t about therapy. It was about getting drugs. So on that first visit, she had walked away with a prescription for Prozac in the hope of lifting her spirits because she did tell Dr. Burman that Mike said she was just too hard to be around—a real downer. Now she was here to report on the drug’s success or failure.
She sat down on the couch across from his weighty desk, scooting toward the edge and clutching the armrest, tracing the pattern of leaves on the navy and emerald upholstery.
“How do you feel?” the good doctor asked.
“Any thoughts to hurt yourself?”
“What? No—no. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“Do you feel the way you would like to feel?”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“How would you like to feel?”
“Madam.” That made her smile, this form of address, Dr. Burman’s own polite vestige from some other life previously lived. “I don’t mean to alarm you, but there is a worm on the sofa, making its way toward you.”
A worm? Curious. What is a worm doing out of the ground? Here, no less. How can it move on a couch? She edged forward, so that she could turn her head over her shoulder. A chubby little creature, green and fresh as iceberg lettuce, inched along the back cushion to her left. She wouldn’t have called him a worm, but she wasn’t sure whether he was a caterpillar. He had the inching suction—but no soft, furry pelt, certainly not the black caterpillar of her youth. No potential monarch.
A moth? She thought of the green becoming brown, the powder-dust covering that would allow its night flight toward distant stars or death on a burning electric bulb, as chance had it.
Fresh as the pale green was, lucid and wet, the poor little creature was still ugly.
Sharalyn shifted right. “He’s like the very hungry caterpillar,” she motioned at the creature.
“What is the very hungry caterpillar?”
“The children’s story? Everybody reads it to their kids. The caterpillar has an amazing appetite and eats a lot of junk food and gets sick. But then he finds a nice leaf, feels better, and takes to his cocoon. Don’t you know it? My son loved it.”
“ I do not know that story.” Dr. Burman cut in. “How has your sleep been this month?”
“How many hours each night?”
“You have to try to sleep regular hours. Go to bed an hour earlier each night.”
“So, no thoughts to hurt yourself?”
“Are you sure?”
“If you want to increase the medication, we can increase it. If you want to be happy.”
Dr. Burman stood up, and for a second Sharalyn was confused, thinking she was being dismissed.
“Madam,” he came around the desk and stepped toward her, leaning down. “The worm.”
Just as she turned to observe its progress, the caterpillar leapt—yes leapt, as though to prove that flight was his creature purpose—to her shoulder. She sprung from the couch and yelped, banging her shin on the ebony end table and knocking over the mica-shaded lamp. The caterpillar, having missed his target, plopped onto the seat cushion.
Dr. Burman grabbed the cushion and carried it, hot-potato style, out of the office, while Sharalyn set the lamp right, thankful its translucent mineral cover hadn’t broken. She heard the outer door click shut and wondered about whether this had drawn Mike’s attention. When Dr. Burman returned, she peeked out at Mike, who looked up with a shrug and a “What was that about?” raised eyebrow and then went back to the Blackberry.
“Is that your husband with you?”
“You mean the guy with the crackberry?”
“I do not know what a crackberry is.”
“Sorry—it’s just a bad joke. Yes, that’s my husband.”
When they left the office and headed back to the hybrid Escape, Mike sat in the passenger’s seat. “What else do you have to do?” he asked.
“Grocery store. We need to drop off your dry cleaning. Just errands.”
“Can you take me home before you go?”
“I guess. Don’t you want to pick out some treats for yourself?”
“You can do it—I’ll eat whatever,” Mike said.
“Hey—if you’re bored, why don’t you make a quick visit to your Grandpa Walt? It’s only five miles from the clinic, and I’m sure he’d love the company.”
“I can’t take the smell of that old folks’ place.”
“But he’s probably pretty lonely,” Sharalyn said.
“He doesn’t know who I am anymore. Hate to say it, but he’d be better off kicking the bucket, six months to the century marker or not. Nope, Sharalyn. I’m not going to listen to him hocking up and swallowing loogees. Just drop me off.”
When Sharalyn pulled into the concrete driveway, and Mike opened his door, the familiar tones of a car alarm greeted them. We-woo, we-woo, beep, beep, beep, beep, whaaa, whaaa.
“That’s weird,” Sharalyn said. “That sounds like a voice.”
“It’s that damned mockingbird you were so happy to see the other day. That’s all it knows how to sing. So much for the good luck of a pair nesting in our yard. I guess we’re gonna be listening to that all spring.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’ll learn something else. A mockingbird can be anything, you know.”
“The term ‘birdbrain’ didn’t come from nowhere. Don’t hold your breath.” Mike swung the car door shut and jogged toward the house while pulling his keys from his pocket.
The dry cleaner was in the same strip mall as the grocery store. Sharalyn picked up the week’s groceries, thinking that Mike would like some chips and crackers for watching the week’s many baseball games. On a whim, she grabbed three packages of dough, cylinders that could be popped open to make crescent rolls, cinnamon buns, and biscuits. At one time, she had liked to make bread because when she kneaded the dough, it pushed back, swallowing her fingers with a life of its own. Now, it just felt like a lot of work.
Pushing her cart back to the car, Sharalyn passed a nail salon. She had been born just a bit before weekly manicures had become necessities rather than self-indulgence. But she thought of Dr. Burman’s question “Would you like to happy?” and considered that, yes, maybe she would, and maybe a mani–pedi was a start, so she hauled the groceries into the rear of the little SUV and walked back toward the streaked plate-glass storefront that exclaimed, “Walk-ins welcome!”
As she entered, four Vietnamese women looked up at her, two from stools where they were applying acrylic nails, their mouths and noses covered with surgical masks. Sharalyn wrinkled her own nose at the acetone smell of the place. The two customers were big-boned and white, all the working women pretty and petite. Perhaps a family business, Sharalyn thought, as two of the women appeared to be in their twenties while the others looked to be a generation older, Sharalyn’s contemporaries. Moms and daughters? The younger woman with the UC Berkeley sweatshirt gave a quick smile before turning back to wash the pedicure basin she was leaning over. Sharalyn started to tell her that her glossy, long hair was so pretty. After all, an easy compliment like that doesn’t cost a thing. Before she caught the girl’s attention, one of the older women walked to the front counter and spoke.
“What you like?” she asked Sharalyn.
“I’m here for a manicure and pedicure, please.”
“You want wax, too?”
Sharalyn stepped back into anxiety. “Middle age,” she laughed in a way that she hoped wouldn’t sound offensive. “I don’t need a perfect bikini line. These days my motto is duck and cover, you know?”
The woman pointed at Sharalyn’s lip and spoke slowly. “You like that fixed?”
“Oh. Well, no—I didn’t think I looked like Frida Kahlo.”
“What you say?”
“Oh, nothing. Just a bad joke.”
The woman smiled. “Only nine dollar. Looks good.”
“Well, okay. Why not? I’m here, right?”
Sharalyn imagined a dark room with “the sounds of nature” music, but she was escorted to the chair over the basin that had just been cleaned, and sat under a bright light, as though she had come to the dentist. The woman applied the hot wax strip there, in front of the other customers. “You wait,” she said.
Voices clicked around her, in tones she couldn’t comprehend. Sharalyn focused on the little boy who walked in with his mother. “Sit there,” the mother pointed to a white molded plastic chair near the door before grabbing a bottle of polish from a rack and making her way to the pedicure station with vibrating back massage. She hit the button and closed her eyes, her arms draped over the armrests, so slack that the bottle of polish seemed poised to slip to the floor.
If Sharalyn didn’t keep her eyes on the boy, she knew she’d spend the next minutes, stomach clenching, willing the polish not to fall.
The boy, his eyes electric with awareness, couldn’t have been more than five.
He could grow to be anything, the voice in Sharalyn’s head, her own voice, said before her mother’s voice took over. Then Sharalyn heard the woman who, even before she’d died, was so fused with God that she would have put a nun to shame, was shaming Sharalyn now. Because Sharalyn knew what intrigued the boy, knew what he was going to do, and certainly knew her mother would stop it if she were here and alive. Not for the first time, Sharalyn devotedly wished to be an atheist, someone who could experience moments of solitude when no god or saint watched her every move. A believer never walked alone, true, but she never had privacy either.
Shame or not, a story was going to spin out, and Sharalyn needed to know how it would end.
In the front corner of the shop, hidden from the working women by the intervening reception counter with its cash register, was a low shrine with a gold-leaf Buddha meditating in front of a carved wooden altar. He was not the happy, hefty fellow Sharalyn remembered from the neighbor’s garden of her childhood. He was the silent one, the one so heated with longing that snails took pity and cooled his head, their hundred shells tightly packed over his naked scalp. Now luminous under the warmth of the ceiling spotlight that doubled as his halo, he drowsed, unaware of the long-clawed fingers in the framed posters over his head, multi-colored acrylic nails reaching toward him, a moment from snatching him in their rainbow clutch.
In front of the altar was a raised cake plate full of fake fruit—some golden-red apples, a banana—and real donuts. The donuts were dusty, and Sharalyn’s conscience was uneasy on that account.
Sharalyn thought of the signs she’d seen on walking trails, a triangle of arrows anchored in each corner by a figure. One arrow shows that the walker must yield to the horseman, but the other two arrows show that the bicyclist must yield to them both. Who should yield here? The disembodied hand, the Buddha, or the boy? Add the ancestors in whose memory the altar was placed here, and directional arrows became useless. Sharalyn’s mother’s voice was silenced for once, now, when a mental traffic cop was needed.
The boy slithered from his seat and undulated as he moved, a silent, stealth natural. He cupped a cake donut, was a magician in making invisible the chocolate frosting and multi-colored sprinkles until the circle hung from his mouth. The ancestors whose shrine this was and who hadn’t cared enough for the food to eat it themselves made no move on him.
The boy didn’t like the donut any better than they had. He bent from the waist, gagging, a dark glob slowly sliding from his wide mouth. As it hit the floor, he followed with a hard retch, a thin stream of vomit, and wailing.
The cries woke his mother from her mechanical massage trance, and she jumped up, dropping the nail polish, which broke on the floor. She ran to the boy and pulled the remains of the donut from his hand, throwing it back on the cake plate. The woman who had applied Sharalyn’s wax mustache followed her.
“This boy a brat. Look this mess. Who clean this up?”
“You make my son sick to his stomach with rotten food that you leave laying around when you know that any kid is going to want a donut? And you want to blame me? What is wrong with you people?” the woman screamed to be heard over the pitch of her son’s wailing.
“You teach him. What wrong with you?”
“Listen, bitch, you’re lucky I don’t sue you. I’m going to call the . . . .”
Apparently, the woman wasn’t sure who she was going to call. The police? Sharalyn was embarrassed by her fumbling for words and was about to suggest that she was thinking of the Better Business Bureau, but in a karate kick worthy of a Jackie Chan movie, the mother knocked the cake plate into the counter, cracking an inch from the corner of the plate glass but splintering the platter, and just missing the Buddha and his altar. She then flung herself toward the door, holding the boy, who was still wailing, by the hand.
Sharalyn didn’t think the boy was a brat, only curious, as boys should be.
Meanwhile, the manicure customers paid and slipped away. The proprietor brought a mop and rolling pail out of the back room, all the while letting fly what Sharalyn thought must be curses in Vietnamese.
Ten minutes had passed since the proprietor had waxed Sharalyn’s lip, but she remained silent until the woman remembered her and tore the strip away, causing her to yelp for the second time that day.
“You have soft skin.”
“No—it bleed. Here, you hold this.” The woman handed a gauze pad to Sharalyn and pointed to her lip. Sharalyn pressed it to her face.
While she was having her manicure, Sharalyn held the gauze pad by turns in her idle hand. By the time she had her pedicure, the pinpoints of blood had dried.
“You like flower?”
“Of course. I love flowers. I had some gladiola bulbs on the east side of my house that came up for ten years, and I never—”
“You want? Five dollar each, okay?”
Sharalyn did not want, thought she was too old for that look, but thought, too, of the boy and of his terrible mother, her own need to fix it, and said, “Um, okay.”
The woman quickly painted a flower on each of Sharalyn’s big toes.
Back on the road and waiting at a nearby traffic light, Sharalyn set her elbow on the armrest, her chin in the palm of her hand. “The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone,” she thought to sing, but didn’t. An old oak was growing too close to the street and made an easy specimen for examination. It was burnt hollow through its trunk, but layered branches arched outward, tiny green-gray leaves sprouting skyward.
“I thought only redwoods could do that,” she spoke, still facing the window. She heard a crack and a sharp pain popped the right side of her head. She reached up to finger the spot and came away with a bloody hand.
“Shit.” Drive-by shooting? “Oh, my God. Oh no.” Though Sharalyn felt blood in rivulets down her neck, she was not losing consciousness. She even thought to put her car in park and turn on her emergency flashers. The bullet only grazed me, she thought and reached for her cell phone to dial 911. Cars pulled around her, but no one stopped.
The fire department paramedics arrived first and then an ambulance. “Are you okay?” a young man in uniform asked. He was tall, dark, and handsome, with the obligatory mustache. Sharalyn had wits enough to notice he could have been the calendar fireman of the month.
“Someone shot me, but luckily it just grazed the side of my head.”
“Ma’am, if someone had shot you, your window would be broken.”
Sharalyn hadn’t thought of that.
“But you’re bleeding pretty good here on the right side of your head. Did you hit it on something?”
“No. Really. I promise.” The ambulance attendants stood by while, with the help of his partner, the paramedic sat Sharalyn on a pop-up gurney.
After bandaging the wound, the man told Sharalyn to lie back on the stretcher and they’d get her into the ambulance. “I need my purse, please,” she said, and he leaned over to pull the heavy black hobo sack from the passenger seat.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “What’s this?” He showed Sharalyn a metal disk, just bigger than a silver dollar, with a splatter of blood. “This is your culprit.” He looked over to the back seat and pulled up the rest of the dough cylinder, now popped open and grown over the end of the tube, like that wicked Blob of B-movie fame.
“Are you telling me that I’ve damn near been done in by the Pillsbury Doughboy?” Sharalyn sat back up.
“Yeah, it kinda looks that way.”
“I’ve had it. I’ve had it today. That’s an urban legend. That’s not real. That can’t be my life.” No whining, she thought and added, “If that’s all it is, maybe I can just drive home?”
The ambulance driver looked over, along with his attendant, at the paramedics. They all joined in the laughter. “This is one for the books,” the driver said, then turned back to Sharalyn.
“No can do,” said the paramedic. “Sorry, but doughboy or not, that’s a pretty good cut, like I said. You might get a bit too dizzy to drive yourself. Plus, your lip’s bruised. Maybe you’re gonna get a black eye. It sounds weird, but stuff like that can happen from a hard hit.”
“Ah—no.” Sharalyn touched under her nose to feel the tenderness. “The lip is from something else.”
“We’ll park your car over to the side of the road. Do you have someone who can come to the hospital and pick you up?”
Sharalyn waited until she had gotten five stitches in the center of a shaven spot on her head, was bandaged, and filled her prescription for Tylenol with codeine before calling Mike. When he didn’t answer, she tried his cell. When he didn’t answer there, she left a message telling him that the car was on the corner of Brookhaven and Oak Drive, and that she was taking a taxi home.
“I’m having a crappy day, and the least you could do is answer the phone.” Sharalyn longed for the era of receivers, hefty realities to be slammed down. “Hanging up” now was just an imperceptible touch of a button, soundless.
Sharalyn found Mike in front of the TV with his Bose earphones on. In the kitchen behind him, she pulled a leftover low-carb chicken breast lettuce wrap from the fridge, and filled a glass with water from the door. She got the Tylenol from her purse and sat down next to her husband. She pulled the left earmuff away from his ear. “Is this the Lakers?” she asked.
“Those shorts look pretty short. Is that Magic Johnson?”
“What is this?”
“The 1988 championship game.”
“Why do you want to watch that?”
“Nothing else on.”
“Well, it’s not like you don’t know the outcome.”
“It’s still a good game. And we won.”
“We?” Sharalyn said.
“Did you forget your medication today?”
“No,” she lied. She had forgotten to take the Prozac, but she knew it wouldn’t have stopped working in one day—well, two days, since she’d forgotten the day before as well. It didn’t matter.
“Did you talk to the doctor about the dose?”
“Knock it off—you are the one who is being a pain in the ass here.”
Mike turned to look at her. “What the hell happened to you?”
She stifled the desire to cry, to admit openly her fear that all her relationships were transactional, that she was desperate for the sense of the unconditional that she had lost.
“Long story,” she said instead, handing him the Tylenol. “It’s no big deal, but we have to get the car. Listen to the message on the answering machine.”
She walked back into the kitchen and stuffed her lettuce wrap down the garbage disposal. “I’m going outside to check for stars.”
“It’s cold. Why don’t you take some of that codeine and hit the sack. You’ll feel better. You look awful, I swear to God, I wouldn’t lie to you. You’d better take care of yourself.” Mike had gotten up and was heading toward the phone.
“I feel awful. But I was wondering where Van Gogh got the idea to paint his starry night. Maybe I’ll take a painting class down at the rec center.”
“I hope you won’t be too disappointed if that doesn’t make you a Van Gogh.”
“I’ve already given up on being Frida Kahlo.” Sharalyn touched her lip.
“Nothing, just a bad joke.” Sharalyn went to her room and fumbled through her bottom dresser drawer for her fleece hoodie. She stopped to outline one of the cowboys on the boy’s pajamas, an unworn pair she had kept all these years. The boy had refused to wear them because, he said, no one wears cowboys anymore. She knew even then that they had been a funny thing to keep, without a scent or a memory. But they reminded her of what he’d been. Not a brat, just someone who could say what he’d wanted.
He could have been anything. And then he was nothing. Sharalyn learned that she could not work her will on the world, that the world was having none of it.
Sharalyn opened the front door and stepped into the cool breeze. There were few stars visible, but they were out there.
Taking another step into the night, she felt a strand pull across her face. She tried to grasp it, but she couldn’t quite manage. Whether it was a thread blown from some intricately designed spider web or just her own hair blown out of place was impossible to tell.
When she was no bigger than the boy in the salon, no bigger than the boy who refused to wear cowboy pajamas, her family had visited her grandfather, who, in his summer cabin in the Pennsylvania Blue Mountains, spent most of the time drunk on the porch. She thought of the spider webs there, which decorated every corner, top and bottom.
That was the first time she’d met Grandpap, but she immediately fell in love when he’d shown her how to shoot watermelon seeds into an empty pie tin. “Come here,” he motioned to her as she looked for bunnies under the rotting foundation. He had a can of mixed nuts in one hand. He picked out a large nut. “I want to teach you a song.”
She moved into the circle of his outstretched arm, and it closed on her.
“Crooked teeth and crooked nose, that’s the way the n—-r grows,” he bellowed.
Grandpap had laughed and spit tobacco juice into a beer bottle. Sharalyn ran inside to repeat the song for her mother, who narrowed her eyes and said nothing. For a moment, Sharalyn thought her mother was going to spit on her, spitting being something the family seemed to do with accuracy. But her mother decided to ignore her throughout the evening and wouldn’t kiss her goodnight.
But I could’ve been anything, Sharalyn thought.
As awful as the old bigot was, he had sober moments during that vacation. In one, he taught her how to cup her hand into a bowl for water, clamp her other hand over it as a lid and then blow into the opening between her bent thumbs, making a trilling noise. “Bird whistle,” he’d said, and she’d left the bunnies to their underground hideout in order to captivate the jays in the trees.
Sharalyn stepped into the little gravel path through the drought-resistant xeriscape of her front yard, for which she’d given up her gladiolas last year. Bending to the faucet, she turned the spigot, and water and air blasted in alternative bursts, making sounds like quacking ducks. At the sound, the mockingbird, which was hiding in the old crape myrtle on the side of the house, took flight, landing across the street atop the Jetson’s-styled shrub next to the neighbor’s door.
Cupping the icy water as her grandpap had taught her, Sharalyn blew. When she took a breath, she accidentally sucked back the water. Gagging, she pulled away to see tiny red dots of blood on her upper thumb. She held the cupped hand of water to her lips to wash the blood, then spilled it onto the saguaro cactus, and tried the faucet again. She held her hands to her lips and turned outward toward the street, a Pied Piper in her white glowing bandage with the crimson blot soaking through, her red and blue swollen lip, her jewel-toned peasant top and cropped purple pants. She sent out a call for all winged creatures to join her in her march, and the mockingbird echoed her quavering warble.
Victoria Waddle is an unapologetic reader, a closet writer, and a lover of all things literary. She is also a high school librarian in the Inland Empire and writes teen book reviews for her Colony Library Lady blog at http://colonylibrarylady.com.