A Pleasant Fiction

Naked Light

On rare rainy nights, Melindia Carter would take off her wig and dance naked in the cul de sac.  The mercurial shine of rain in the street lights made her body glow, and the drops, like diamonds, shimmered on snaking arms before being flung to gutter.  None of us who lived on Williamsburg Circle ever talked about this ritual—even the kids, but on nights when rain started to fall, the lights would go out in all eight houses that formed a semicircle around the street.  We’d crowd at dark windows to watch—indistinct faces of a ghost audience peering at an ivory form that moved and twisted to music we couldn’t hear.

Jason Suffold bought the home at 5 Williamsburg—the four-bedroom ranch style at the base of the cul de sac that abutted to the green belt—last March when Melindia Carter did an open house with margaritas and sangria from 9 to 4 everyday, even on Sunday. My dad laughed at everything Mr. Suffold said. Over after-work beers, Mr. Suffold would speculate, “That heifer’s ex-husband must have snatched her bald-headed because she’s so G-D ornery.”

Mom hated after-work beers.

“I heard it was a rare recessive genetic thing—generalized alopecia or something like that,” she’d defend Melindia Carter just loud enough to be audible but not loud enough to goad Mr. Suffold into further talk.  Later I’d listen to Mom and Dad talking in the bathroom when they thought I had gone to bed.

“I wish you wouldn’t laugh when he talks about her like that.”

“What? He’s from Texas. They all talk that way.”

“He’s angry.  I don’t like it.”

“Well, she did lead him on when she was selling that house with all those fruity alcoholic drinks and rubbing up on Jay as if she were a cat in heat. Then taking his money and not even a neighborly hello from time to time. Women: they only want our money.”

“Please don’t talk like that, Matt. You’re from Buena Park, not Texas.”

“Besides, that naked behavior is just plain deviant.”

“I think it’s beautiful—“

“What?”

“He needs to grow up and let that little bit of flirtation go.  And she didn’t ‘take his money.’ She got a commission from the sale of the house because she is the Real Estate agent. Jason needs to let it go; Melindia’s had a hard life before she moved here.”

“Because she’s hairless? No one would even know if she didn’t run around naked all the time.”

“It’s not all the time. And not because of that. They ladies told me at Bunco that her ex—”

“Oh God, I don’t want to hear your Bunco gossip. That woman is a weirdo bitch and I’m sure she gave as good as she got to her ex.  Being an immigrant doesn’t mean you can be deviant and rude.”

“Deviant, deviant, deviant. Define it if you love that word so much.”

“Jesus, Kelli, why are we even fighting over that stupid lady.  I swear you’ve romanticized her DEVIANT behavior.  Next thing I know, you’ll be out in the street with her, though your black snatch will probably shock all the neighbors who think you’re a natural blond.”

“Matt! Your child is sleeping in the next room! Stop now!”

Mom would always stay in the bathroom a few moments after dad left.  When she came out, she’d pour herself another vodka tonic and get my dad a beer.

***

Melindia Carter bought the first corner lot—“because that’s what she thinks she is: number one on our street,” Dad would joke with Mr. Suffold under his breath—four years ago with “her nice, fat divorce settlement.”   It was almost directly across the street from our house, Number 7. Along with the house in her settlement, she got a red Jaguar convertible, a seemingly never-ending wardrobe of form-fitting mini-dresses that she paired with either red or leopard printed heels, and a lifetime supply of Treasurer cigarettes—“foreigners always smoke,” my mom would excuse the ashes in the fuchsias, as if lung cancer hasn’t jumped continents yet.

Melindia Carter drove her car fast—a hazard to the children who occupied our free hours in the curved street. After a few near misses, we started drawing straws to see who would serve as a lookout for the others.  She kept her blond wig on with a scarf tied over her head, keeping time to the turning of the engine with her long fire engine red fingernails that matched the paint on the car perfectly.  She’d hurtle around the corner, frantically pressing the garage door opener.  At the base of her driveway, she’d abruptly cut the gas, coasting, still at an impressive speed, into the garage where she’d come to an immediate stop.  Standing on the other side of the street where we’d fled for our lives when our lookout spotted her car, we watched this parking spectacle with mouths agape, certain that this time would be the time when the garage door didn’t open fast enough; this time she would be decapitated—or at the very least, she would catch her wig on the rising door.

Once parked, Melindia Carter would thrust her thin, pale legs out of the vehicle, stabbing the cement pad of the garage floor with her spiked heels then rise from her seat, her dress making her slim, pale form look elongated so that it seemed she would keep rising until she hit the ceiling.  She’d carefully remove her scarf, tossing it back into the car, then jab her fiery fingers at the wall-mounted garage door controls.  As the door slowly fell, our last view would be the red Jaguar sitting in a completely empty garage. She didn’t even have a washing machine.

***

“They don’t wash—their clothes or themselves.”  Dad announced at our annual Memorial Day barbecue, waving his Corona bottle for added emphasis.  The men grouped around the grill with my dad nodded at their beer bottles in agreement.  “I mean, come on,” Dad’s voice rose as he caught Mr. Suffold’s eye, “That country, it’s not like civilized Europe.  It’s practically Russia.  It’s probably still communist.”

Mom, catching the word “communist,” looked up from the table of salads she was arranging in order to fit Melindia Carter’s black caviar and crackers. Dad wasn’t paying attention to anyone but Mr. Suffold, “Who do they think they are? Coming here and stealing good Americans’ money.”  Mom set Mrs. Reynold’s coleslaw on the grass and hurried over to the grill.

“Matt, can you come into the kitchen and help me with something?”

“Kelli, I’m in the middle of grilling,” Dad waved the tongs in his beer-free hand to show the guys.  “Can you get someone else to help?”

“No, I need you.” Mom shrugged.

Dad handed the tongs over to Mr. Suffold. “Okay, Jay, you take care of these while I’m gone. I hear that men from your part of the country are good at grillin’.”

Mom’s smile pulled tighter at that. I knew they were going to fight, so I quickly ran upstairs to the guest room that shared a heating vent with the bathroom. The bathroom was my mother’s battleground.  Through the grating, I could vaguely see the vanity and half the toilet. Crouched behind Grandma’s secretary desk, I waited out the familiar routine: listening for vital information about my parent’s moods and fights so that I would know what to do later when everyone went home and I was alone with them. Sure enough, Mom pulled Dad into the bathroom.

“Good at grillin’?” I could hear the grimace in my mom’s voice.

“What? We’re here? Now? This is ridiculous. What do you need my help for?”

“Why do you always have to affect that yokel act when Jason Suffold is around?”

“I’m not affecting anything.  Is that why you pulled me into the bathroom for Christ’s sake?”

“No, that’s not why I wanted to talk to you.  Melindia’s here. You can’t talk about her. It’s rude.”

“I wasn’t talking about her.  I was talking about those people. If the shoe fits . . .”

“Jesus, Matt, you are the host. Stop. Now.”

“Oh, really. So you call me up here to boss me around like I’m some titty baby—“

“Titty baby??—“

“Stop interrupting me—“

“Who talks like that?”

“Woman!”

“Woman? Really?”

“Stop. Fighting. Stop. Interrupting. Me.” I heard the defeat and exasperation in my dad’s voice.

Through the grating, the faint form of my mom pushing herself up to sit on the sink looked unreal—like a grainy old days movie. They were silent as Mom waited for Dad to go on.  After a few seconds, Dad took a deep defeated breath. “Okay. I won’t talk about her anymore today. But you have to admit she’s weird.”

“Fine. She’s weird.”

“Okay, so what am I supposed to tell the guys I was doing this whole time in the bathroom with you?”

The decorative soaps jangled in their glass dish as Mom jumped down from the sink and wrapped her arms around Dad’s neck. “Tell them whatever you think a couple in love would do in the bathroom on a Saturday afternoon.”

Dad’s hopeful grin reflected ghostly in the mirror. He kissed Mom. “That’s great babe.” He slapped my mother on the rear, “I think we should do something about that tonight.”

“That’s the plan.” Mom’s voice sounded cheerful but thin; still Dad only grinned wider and quickly left the bathroom. I pulled back behind secretary as Dad hustled past the guest room door.

As usual, Mom stayed in the bathroom a little longer—so long that I thought she must be using it, so I moved to join my friends downstairs again. We collided in the hall. Even though she quickly shifted her face into a smile, I could tell she wasn’t happy.

“What are you doing up here, Sweetie?” She asked me.

“I needed some Pokemon cards to show Timothy.” I thought quickly then mentally slapped my forehead—I hadn’t played Pokemon in at least a year.

“Oh.” She was already moving past me to the stairs. “Okay. Don’t let your friends wear their shoes up here.”

“Mom?”

“Yes, Sweets?” My mother turned, and for a second she looked like the pictures of Grandma back in the war times.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I just have a headache.”

Dad wasn’t going to like that.

In the backyard, my dad looked for Mr. Suffold at the grill, but he had moved to the corner of the yard my mom had designated as the “smoking section” for Melindia Carter. She stood with her back against the stucco wall, smoke wafting from her upraised cigarette as if she were wading through murky water and didn’t want it to get wet. Mr Suffold had one arm braced against the wall just over Melindia Carter’s shoulder and was intently speaking into her left ear. Her face was stone.  She barely shook her head to indicate that Mr. Suffold was even talking, the cigarette-less hand resting on the bony jut of her hip as red nails drummed against the triangular arc under her zebra-striped mini skirt. Suddenly, she dropped her cigarette onto the Spanish tiles and without touching Mr. Suffold—even though he was inches away—stamped out the butt. She then deftly twisted down, picked up the butt, dropped it into the giant abalone shell my mom had brought back from Portland years ago and didn’t know what to do with now, and walked to the kitchen. She didn’t say a word to Mr. Suffold the whole time.

Mr. Suffold’s face twisted in rage for a moment, then he grabbed a beer from the cooler and sauntered back to the men at the grill. His booming laugh soon drowned out the others’.

“Gentlemen!” He grandly proclaimed. “These women are interfering with our god-given manhood!” The men raised their beers; the moms close enough to hear laughed indulgently. “I think it’s high time we did something about this sad state of affairs,” Mr. Suffold continued. “Men of Williamsburg, I propose a gentlemen’s poker game at my place in the yet to be determined future!”  More cheers. More chuckles. Everyone went back to enjoying the party as Melindia Carter walked back to her house.

***

The entire street seemed excited about the upcoming poker night. But despite his circus caller’s bravado at the barbeque, Mr. Suffold kept avoiding setting a date for the event. He claimed he had to special order supplies first. “I’ll let ya’ll know when it’s gonna happen. I gotta get my man cave ready first,” he drawled to Dad every time the UPS truck dropped off a new box.

“If you ain’t gonna do it right, then it ain’t worth getting done,” Dad quoted Mr. Suffold to Mom.

“Apparently, that adage doesn’t apply to speaking proper English,” Mom shot back. “And what’s he supposed to mean by ‘man cave.’ That whole house is a man cave,” she scoffed. “It’s not like there’s anybody else there to occupy his space.”

“He’s got the right idea: set up your territory now that way no one can run you out of your own home later.”

“Oh, is that what I do? Run you out of your home?”

“I’m just saying that a man can use his space.”

“And your ‘office’ isn’t space enough? What do you even do in there besides play computer solitaire and darts?”

“Ah hell, Kelli, can’t you just stop for a second.” Dad sputtered, grabbed his beer and dinner plate, shutting himself in his office.

“See?” Mom flashed me a glittery smile all sharp on the edges. “He’s got a man cave.”

Still, that summer, my parents didn’t fight all that much. Dad was just too excited about poker night to respond the barbs Mom slung over the top of her vodka tumbler. Sometimes she’d even get infected by his childish anticipation, once even designating an old cookie jar as Dad’s poker fund, putting a few dollars into it every now and then.

“You’d better buy me a red Jag like Melindia’s from your winnings,” Mom teased.

“Baby, I’ll buy you the moon. I’m going to clean up that game. I’ve been studying strategy.”

Summer passed and boxes stopped coming to Mr. Suffold’s drive, but still no word on poker night. “It’s not ready yet. Can’t rush art,” he’d cryptically smile every time my dad would bring it up. I went back to school, and that tiny knot in my back that grew every summer started to work loose as I spent long days away from home, busy with school and sports.

As the Southern California fall barely made its way through our lives, the truce in my house became brittle and thin. My parents both seemed to silently agree that they were on the brink of something being irrevocably broken and neither wanted to disturb the delicate balance. By October, when the Santa Ana’s started bringing dust and smoke from distant wildfires, Mom and Dad had stopped contributing to the poker fund. It sat on the counter, next to the basket of keys, like an urn containing the ashes of their last hopeful moment.

And then, at the end of October—on first true dreary day of fall, Mr. Suffold called my dad at dinner. “Sure looks like it’s gonna be a nasty son-of-a-bitch storm. You wanna play some poker tonight? That is if your woman can stand a little weather alone.”

Dad paraphrased the invitation to my mom as if we couldn’t hear Mr. Suffold’s voice loud and clear over the phone.

Mom shrugged, “I’ve got some reading to do. Go if you want.”

“Great, great,” Dad beamed into the phone. “I’ll bring over a six-pack.”

He hurried through the rest of the meal and gave Mom a perfunctory kiss goodbye. “I don’t know how late I’ll be but it’s your turn for school carpool anyway,” transferring the cookie jar money to his wallet.

My mother nodded, slowing chewing the last bite of her salad; Dad slammed the front door in his excitement.

Mom and I were reading in the living room when we heard the first pitter and then rushing applause of approaching rain. She set her book down, spine up over the arm of the couch and half-stood to turn off the lamp. We sat facing each other in the darkness for a few moments—Mom on the couch and me in the oversized stuffed chair. The street light slowly infiltrated the room, casting everything into dim relief as the rain made a continuous shushing noise in the background with the occasional clink of drops down the copper gutter.

“Your father won’t walk home in this.” She rose and peered out the window as if to emphasize that she was interested only in Dad’s three-house trek home which—as we both knew—would happen much later tonight when we were already asleep.

I joined Mom at the window just as Melindia Carter’s pale form sprouted from the dark asphalt. Tonight, she looked longer than ever. Knobby kneed and elbowed like a Dali elephant, arms ridiculously stretched into the night sky. She reached high into the falling rain. A skeleton dance no less beautiful as it was weird. Where there had been curves of white flesh before that wore the falling drops like a sheer silk slip, there was now bleached angles slapping at the water in defiance—rattle and shake, skin taut across Melindia Carter’s bald skull. Whirling so fast the water streaking down her face leapt off—broken again into individual drops—she shattered the rain into a million gemstones that disintegrated on the dark ground.

“She’s gotten so thin. I hadn’t realized.” My mother put her arm across my shoulder as if to vicariously protect the dancing form. Her mouth opened to add something when a blinding light froze the world in a white rush. I couldn’t make sense of the piercing light, making the rain seem like static on the black and white TV my grandma had at the home. “Oh no,” Mom moaned, clutching at me. She staggered to the front door, dragging me out into that frozen tableau.

Melindia Carter was a statue—arms and legs akimbo—bent at the waist as if she were about to take a curtsey, tail bone thrust to the air, her back to Mr. Suffold’s open garage where the center of that bright light partially obscured the raucously laughing men inside.

“Well, will you just take a look at that.” Mr. Suffold’s voice rumbled across the cul de sac. Beer bottles clinked.

The rain continued its standing ovation.

Melindia Carter straightened and turned to face the light. She didn’t try to hide herself—not from pride but from something deeper, something darker. Some defeat that made it no longer matter if she were clothed or naked. If she were watched or alone. With seemingly empty eye sockets, Melindia Carter looked full into Jason Suffold’s array of stadium lights that must have taken dozen of UPS shipments and weeks to arrange.

“In this country, women have sense to dress with decency,” he called. For a moment, one of the men crossed the light, blocking the glare and  revealing Mr. Suffold, hands in his pockets, a picture of string-bikini clad Miss October from last year’s “Guns&Girls” pinup calendar clutching an assault rifle to her bare midriff over his shoulder. The chuckles of the men seemed uncertain now, but I could faintly hear the clash of ice as someone rooted around in the cooler for another beer. “In this country, we don’t condone deviant behavior in front of our women and children.”

Melindia Carter remained silent. Her empty eyes absorb both light and rain like two black holes in her face. Water poured across her skull and, unhindered by hair, tumbled down her knobbed vertebrae, over spiked hips, pooling in the wells of her sharp clavicle before spilling down her ridged chest. At the same time, Mom and I saw the two puckered, half-moon scars making mirrored concave points on Melindia Carter’s breastbone. Mom gasped and ran inside. For a second, I thought she had abandoned me—expecting me to deal with this situation as I have so many others—but just as quickly, she was back with a blanket, rushing into the street, leaving me alone again on the doorstep.

“Jesus, Kelli.” I heard Dad moan when Mom hit the light and froze. The rain had already melted her carefully styled hair into stringy snakes that writhed in the downpour, her silk shirt clutched at her body revealing carefully concealed bulges around her waist and upper back. She took a tentative step, saturated pants wrapping themselves around her legs, tripping her forward.

“Here. Let me help,” Mom’s voice was hoarse; she lifted the now soaked blanket toward Melindia Carter. Utterly bedraggled and defeated, Mom looked like a supplicant begging for reprieve from suffering—aching for assurance that everything would be okay. In contrast, Melindia Carter looked like jagged rock, a fossil of a woman purged of any connection to this world of cul de sacs and track homes.

She turned a death’s grimace to Mom, “I. Do. Not. Need. Your. Covering.” Each word heavy and slow. Then Melindia Carter began to walk to 1 Williamsburg—legs trembling as if they were about to slip out of her hip sockets, the final vertebrae of her spine making a sharp tail under her skin. After three steps, she disappeared. My mother still held her arms out, the blanket dangling in a pool of water at her feet. She may have had the Medusa hair, but Melindia Carter had turned us all to stone.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I walked into the light, disoriented by the prism raindrops that flashed like a strobe, and brought Mom inside. Mr. Suffold’s lights went out when we got to the door.

When Dad came home later, he slept in his office. He did that until Mom told him to move out.

***

It rained for two weeks, and Melindia Carter did not dance again. Dad said—when he was allowed to talk—that it was some sort of rain record for Southern California. When the storm passed, two men from the company that developed our cul de sac stopped by Mr. Suffold’s house just as he was getting home from work. The kids had stopped our late afternoon game of roller hockey to let the company sedan drive in. They parked right in the middle of the street.  We couldn’t keep playing, so we squatted in Timothy’s driveway next door to Mr. Suffold’s house and pretended to be cleaning the bearings in our skates while we listened to the grown-ups’ conversation. It wasn’t hard to overhear. After a few soft words by the older, mustached man whose stomach strained against his baby blue polo shirt, Mr. Suffold started yelling.

“What do you mean, I don’t own this house? I bought it outright last year. Cash. Where’d all that money go?”

Mr. Baby Blue Polo pointed to a paper on his clipboard then held out a paper with a photo on it.

“That’s Melindia Carter,” Shelby whispered to us.

“What! That raging whore! I’ll take her for all she’s worth! I’ll take her house!”

At this point, the other man who wore jeans with a sport coat over a tee shirt said something. Then Mr. Suffold got really mad. His face swelled up red, and he started running towards 1 Williamsburg. “You crazy bitch!” he screamed as the two company men ran after him. “You had better be in there! I’ll take this out of your skeletal hide.” He sprinted up the steps to Melindia Carter’s front door and slammed his fist into the wood.

“Ah!” Mr. Suffold shouted, shaking out his fingers. The men caught up, and Baby Blue Polo opened the door with a ring of keys. Mr. Suffold pushed him off the steps and rushed into the house.

We left the pretense of roller skate maintenance and joined the crowd massing in the cul de sac. Sport Coat helped Baby Blue Polo up, and they entered the house, calling after Mr. Suffold. There was a lot of yelling, and we heard wood splintering before a gruff voice (I think it was Baby Blue Polo) cried, “Sir, you will be financially responsible for damage to the property!” Then it was quiet.

The streetlight came on as we stood outside. “The roast is going to overcook,” Timothy’s mom murmured but didn’t make a move to go back home. My mom shuffled her feet, “I think she’s really sick. She may be in trouble in there.” She added in a barely audible voice, “someone should go see. I don’t trust Jason.” I didn’t know if she meant me or not. But before I had to decide, the garage door began to open.

For a second, the contrast between the garage light and the deepening dusk blinded everyone. Then Mr. Suffold’s form came into focus. He was alone in the garage. The Jaguar was gone.  In the middle of that empty space, Mr. Suffold raised a blonde wig in his clenched right hand like a leather-booted John the Baptist clutching Salome’s head.

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