Friday, July 25, 2014

How Would We Help If We Could?

Author: Pia Ehrhardt

Melanie is looking for something to do in the kitchen.  It's Saturday morning and raining. Steam is coming off the roof of the house. Her step-dad is on a business trip. He usually comes into her room at 7 a.m. sharp and invites her to have coffee with him on the screened in porch. She does. She likes coffee. She's sixteen. Her best friend, Donna, thinks he's after her now that her mother's gone. Melanie wishes she had a camera in her bedroom, or one out there on the porch, so she could prove to Melanie that he's not.

There's a twenty-five year old woman she watches on the Internet named Liza who has a camera in her room that's on all day. Melanie checks every few hours to see how she's doing.  There's Liza at her desk smoking cigarettes and paying bills. Liza napping on the bed. Liza dressing with her back to the camera.  She doesn't wear panties and her bras fasten in the front. She's skinny and tall, with straight blonde hair she trims herself into intentionally uneven layers.

One pink grapefruit is in the bowl on the kitchen counter. Melanie peels it over the sink. The outer skin is thin. She gets that off. She picks at the thick white that's covering the fruit and throws it away, then pulls the membrane off each section and eats just the pulp.

When he's home in the morning, Melanie sits with her step-dad and they listen to the birds. Different feeders draw different species. Melanie keeps the Audubon Society Field Guide in her lap on top of the fleece blanket she uses to cover her legs. There are a dozen hairlike scars on both of her thighs. She wanted them as perfect as ruler markings.

Melanie checks on Liza, but she's still sleeping. Sunlight is coming through her window.  She'll be up at eight to leave for work at 9:30. Liza has a job in the shoe department at a store called Maison Blanche. There are boxes of shoes on the end of her bed, and one gray strappy sandal is on her night table next to a stack of magazines.

The rain is sheeting now. Melanie will make stew for dinner. Her step-dad will be home by six. There's a cut up chicken in the fridge. There are German knives on the counter in a butcher block. One for every job. She flays the extra skin with a boning knife and throws the clean pieces into a crockpot.  She lays out four ribs of celery and slices them into even pieces. The serrated knife makes a cool sound against the celery. The carrots are hard, but she peels them and quarters them lengthwise with a French knife, and chops them, too.

She needs a tiny bit of magic. She carefully cuts her finger with the paring knife. There's no pain. Then there is pain. The pause between these two things amazes her. What happens in that time when we don't feel anything? Before our nerve endings catch up to the brain?  Maybe it's the mind making pain up because it thinks it's supposed to. Well, maybe the mind shouldn't be so in charge? Maybe we don't trust the mind today.

Her mom was killed in a car accident eight months ago. She was broadsided in the parking lot of Lakeside Shopping Center by a girl who was cutting diagonally across the empty spaces. Her mom was going twenty and the girl was going forty. Her mom was forty and the girl is twenty-two. Now the girl keeps calling to get forgiveness from Melanie and her step-dad, but they don't want to. They talk about it. They agree they could say the words, but they wouldn't mean them, and what's the good of that?  Who would that help?

There's a glossary of birdcalls in the back of the Audubon book, so you can identify birds by how they sound. 

Do you know any of these?

a. poor-wet-wetter-chee-zee

b. hello, hello, yes, yes, who is this, I should say, I should say

c. who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?

Match up the song with the bird and for a few seconds you are happy. You hear it so plain and clear you promise yourself you'll never forget.

(Answers: a. white crowned sparrow b. brown thrasher c. barred owl)

They eat dinner on trays in front of the television. The dining room table is too big. The wind has shifted and it's getting colder. Her stepfather asks if she's cold. He says he has a chill and turns the heat up.

He is handsome and speaks softly, just wants to add something, not take up your time. She's afraid to ask him about his day like her mother would because he might tell her.

Her friend Donna says she'd sleep with him if it wouldn't ruin their friendship.

The phone rings and the girl asks Melanie to let her do something for them, anything: run errands, cook them food, be their maid, cut the grass, but Melanie says no, nothing, and, tells her, again, to please stop calling.

The help everyone wants to give isn't the help they need. Her step-dad says traveling makes him less sad. He's in motels and different cities that don't remind him of anything. He worries she's by herself. Melanie says she's okay.

Sometimes Liza walks up to the camera and looks right at Melanie like she's concerned, like if she could walk out of her room and into Melanie's she would. Tonight she's putting on makeup, brushing on mascara.  She has a date. She can't decide which shirt. Melanie likes the little green one, but Liza decides on a yellow halter. She looks beautiful. The camera is her mirror. Melanie waves at her and stares for a while at Liza's stuff. Her radio is always on.

There's a storm cell over the house. Thunder on top of lightning. The wind is blowing hard and a branch falls on the roof above Melanie's room.

She can't sleep and turns on her computer to find Liza, but she's not home from her date yet. The shoeboxes have been put up. Liza made her bed.

The door opens and Liza comes in with a guy, and they stand awhile and kiss, and he undoes her halter, but Liza says, not so fast, and grabs the loose ends to keep it up. He tries again, but she's holding on tight, and he looks like he's going to leave mad, and then he says, please, come on, and grabs her with both arms and tries to kiss her. She lets him, but she's still holding the halter and doesn't want to do this. He's not giving up. Liza laughs in a nervous way. He takes off her halter and hangs it over the camera.

Melanie sleeps. At 2 a.m. she wakes up to check on Liza.  The camera lens is unblocked, and Liza is alone and lying on her side. She's in a T-shirt and boxer shorts. Melanie knows her eyes are open; there's a cigarette burning in the ashtray on her bedside table, the smoke thin as string. She's staring at the wall. Maybe she knows how to think about nothing, how to imagine her brain is bare and clean. Or maybe she can't, and she's going over her date, letting in every tiny detail, her mind working non-stop on stuff without answers.

It's dawn. Melanie goes into her stepfather's bedroom and sits on her mother's side. They talk. They have done this before. She wishes he were comfortable in the house, that she could help him and he could help her. He nods. He knows. He lies on his back and looks at the ceiling and cries. There's nothing new to say. It's the same grief, until she takes his hand. He is startled, looks at her fingers, smells her fingers, sees the band-aid and pulls it off. He kisses the cut and she opens her palm, which he presses against his mouth.

How would we help if we could? They need time. They need privacy. There is too much already here.

1 comment:

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