Fiction

What she understands

By: Mary Rohrer-Dann

From upstairs comes a sound she cannot understand. Because she cannot understand it, she cannot walk to the stairs and peer up the cobwebbed steps sagging under all that can never be said. She cannot call to her son in his room upstairs, the room where he still sleeps, long after his childhood has ended. Because she cannot understand the sound, she sits very still in the living room while the TV gibbers.

She is not a smart woman. She understands that. Until her husband disappeared one New Year’s Eve, shortly after their son pinned him against the wall, saying, Enough, old man, he had reminded her with fist and word whenever she forgot just how stupid she was. But that sound— a thick, muffled boom–like a tendon snapping–she knew it hadn’t come from the T.V., or from outside, or from within her own skull. She waited for her son to shamble down the steps, thin shoulders hunched beneath the scuffed jacket he wore even in summer, cigarette jittering between chewed lips, his eyes like coiled wires flaked with rust. Finally, she walked next door and asked the neighbor, a security guard at the mall, to please come over.

As a young woman—a girl, really–she had caught her husband’s eye because she had auburn curls and wore yellow, the only color in all their wretched village. He married her because her laugh made him laugh, and she made K’rchik the way he liked it. She married him because he returned from the war. He returned with his limbs intact, and he wanted her. She liked how he whistled when the sky shook with thunder. She mistook his boasting for confidence. They left their village the day after the priest placed the wedding crowns on their heads. They left Armenia, where there were no jobs and two born-too-soon babies buried in the churchyard, crossing the Atlantic on a smelly ship. When they landed, they realized that her bad stomach was not sea sickness.

America did not welcome them. Her husband labored at kayats’av jobs because English baffled him and because he could leave no insult unanswered. He refused to work with any black man, Turk, or Russian. Soon, she began rubbing the baby’s gums with a drop of whiskey, putting him to bed before her husband came home from work. She forgot the color yellow. She wore shapeless dresses and crepe-soled shoes that helped her keep her balance when his rage flared. She hid her hair under dime-store babushkas. Still, they saved their money and bought a house, a house they could never have imagined back home. Both forgot how pretty her hair had been once.

By the time the police had found her husband’s body in an abandoned hunting cabin upstate, he had been dead for two weeks. She thought he’d taken another unannounced trip, leaving her without grocery money or bus fare. She spent the first two weeks of the New Year listening for his key in the lock, waiting for his blunt-fingered hands to shove aside her nightgown before she fully awakened, waiting to hear him mutter, fat sow. Her son, like his father, often stayed away for days, weeks, at a time. He never said where he was going, either. But he’d leave her two fifties in the tea tin for groceries if he would be gone long. He had been a sickly baby, a child prone to accidents, a teenager with itchy fists and a taste for trouble. But when he was small, he had a laugh that sounded like bells. Everything made him laugh. Road Runner cartoons. Bonking himself in the head with his yoyo. Beatings from his father.

At some point, like his father, like her, he stopped laughing. When the skinny girl who sometimes came around tittered at the T.V. or something he said, he’d scowl, clench his fists. He worked nights at Joseph’s Pizza, drove a salt truck when the city took on extra drivers. He smelled of cigarettes and whiskey and burnt plastic and was still quick to fight. She held her fear for him like a blown glass ball in her hands.

And now the police are again in the house. A policewoman makes her a cup of tea while heavy-footed men move overhead in her son’s room.

(space break)

She bathes less and less often, wearing the smells of her body like a poultice. She favors chunky turquoise necklaces, candy-colored skirts, silver earrings like anvils. Her hair, dyed butterscotch, fizzes down her back. Sometimes she walks to the dollar store at Five Points, or treats herself to lemon meringue at the Quaker Diner. Sometimes, she walks to the little museum nearby with its high-ceilinged rooms of Victorian plunder. Ivory pipes, jade combs, porcelain vases as high as her chin, grimacing bronze statues with multiple arms. Who knew the world contained such treasures?

She stands before her favorite exhibit, two armored warriors—one Japanese in lacey, rusted mail, the other a classic Roundtable knight–both astonishingly small, with shoulders narrow as a girl’s. She tells them–just as she tells the dollar store cashier, the pinched waitress at the Diner, the neighbors she encounters on her walks and who shrink at her smell–the story of how she lost her son, a good boy, who died accidentally while cleaning his gun in his bedroom upstairs.

Categories: Fiction

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