Short Story by: E.S. Sparks
E.S. Sparks is a writer and artist based in New Orleans, LA. You can find more of her work here.
At the tail end of her dream, nudged awake by Miles, Mona again saw the sad janitor leave his bar stool and walk out into the sweltering night. She had dreamt about him four times now since she read that article, barely two weeks ago. Found it in a dog-eared copy of a nature magazine on her lunch break; a feature on the first documented account of animal suicide. It wasn’t exactly her first choice in reading material, but she had forgotten her book at home.
A male bottlenose dolphin, removed from the care of his long-time trainer and relocated to another facility, deliberately ceased breathing in his isolated tank. Dolphins and whales, Mona learned over her skirt steak, breathed voluntarily. In somewhat lurid detail, the dolphin was described to have had romantic and sexual feelings for his female trainer and was terribly depressed when she was reassigned. Captive wild, brain encased in slick-skin rubber, thick as a helmet. One night not long after, he emerged and rammed his nose on the edge of the tank several times, wailing, then swam to the bottom and held his breath. The only eye witness to this bizarre tragedy was the night janitor on duty. This janitor, whose name escaped Mona, was haunted by it for some years after. She only ever dreamt of him.
“I know what I saw,” he stared at his glass somberly, slumped on a bar stool amongst fellow regulars in a neon-signed dive. “It just sank. It gave up. And I don’t blame him.” Then he would toss back another pint, and they’d all go quiet, politely waiting for him to leave before carrying on with their blue jokes.
But how could that be? An animal overcome by human heartbreak overrides its evolutionary instinct and rejects life. Mona imagined Miles, separated from her due to some terrible circumstance, her little furry boy, bumping his wet nose against the bed, and holding his breath to die, tragically, on a pile of her dirty underwear. The thought nearly brought her to tears. It was her intention that Miles should, in every way, remain a dog.
At the moment he was sprawled on top of her pillows, chewing bits he specifically knew not to chew, especially on her clean bedding. But no matter, she wrapped her arms around him and cried, “I love you, my sweet mutt!” and kissed him on the muzzle. All Miles knew was that he liked it when Mona hugged him, and was thankful she hadn’t smacked his butt for chewing on his bits.
Emerging from her bedroom, she laid out on the couch and caught a cigarette in her mouth. It was one o’clock, and the sun was high and blood orange. Mona’s day off. She was expecting to receive her favorite cousin that afternoon, though it wouldn’t be the first time he was a no-show. She fumbled in her silk robe for a light. She couldn’t find it.
Rising to start the coffee, something slipped down her silken front, and she caught it in the clutch of herself. An empty matchbook. Drip drip, the coffee overflowed, sizzling on the linoleum right by her toes. From the bed Miles lifted his head and yawned. At once Mona decided it was too hot for coffee, and set it in the sink. Then came a knock at her door.
Jack Perry. The young American man on the run. From what? Who knew. It changes, moons change, plates shift… He was a littler taller than Mona, thick-boned but springy. Wavy ash blonde (almost grey) hair, and somehow always vitally tan. He grew a mustache, which he knew she hated without her saying so, and kept it to annoy her. His baby cousin. Mona hadn’t heard from him in months and was beginning to worry.
If there was ever a reason to not just pick up the phone and call, Jack had it. Almost always a fantastical reason, a superstitious one, but an authentic one nonetheless. He was right to keep it from his cousin until this moment, sitting on her red woven rug reaching up to light her cigarette, light her mouth up really, as it curled into a smile. She delighted in his storytelling.
“At last,” she said exhaling. “You’re here.”
In addition to being darkly pretty, Mona resembled her mother (and ostensibly Jack’s aunt) in the pervading but delicate sense of guilt she elicited from her loved ones. It was her affectionate nature, her low coos, her warm eyes, that harpooned recipients with guilt gut. How have I taken so long to see this woman who loves me so? they’d always leave thinking. It was a natural part of her charm but she was not unaware of it.
“I know I’ve been away a while,” said Jack, flicking his lighter. He closed one eye and focused the other, flicking the flame on and off, holding it up in such a way to give the impression of fire running up the left side of Mona’s face. She unnerved him.
“Well stop messing with that already and tell me why.” Mona had impatiently lost the robe, and now hiked her long floral slip around her calves and placed her Amsterdam ashtray (the one with the canal and the little blue boat) on her lap. The heat was stifling and on the rug Miles panted in his fur coat.
“It started with the car.”
The “car” he was referring to barely qualified; it was technically an old mail car that lacked doors and was a flaking pale yellow. It looked like a bad joke.
Jack smirked and dropped his lighter into his linen shirt pocket. Like most things that came his way, he took her teasing in rakish stride. He pushed back his cockatiel coiffure.
“Yes Mo-NA.” Just like that: Mo-NA. “That mailbox,” he pointed a conspiratorial finger towards the parking lot, “got me in quite a bit of trouble.”
Normally Mona could conceal her piqued interest but by now Jack could read her tells. It was difficult to remain cool when she kept pulling at her nightgown, jerking it around to air out her knees. She hated the heat, it always got the better of her, and she fantasized about moving to a place where her cheeks would only pinken when she colored them that way. But Jack thought the cold would only harden her, and for all the maddening delirium the Texas heat incited, almost always at night, locked under the furnace of stars, big and bright and hot as Baptist hell, effect it had on Mona was outwardly pleasing at least. She was an absolute peach. Forsaking her cigarettes, Mona took to fanning herself with an overdue electricity bill. The ashtray remained on her lap. “Go on.”
This was a good moment, Jack decided, to punctuate by standing, or at least moving upright because he quickly shifted up onto his knees, but sat back on them, like a kid who has already dealt the cards face down and is about to explain the rules of the game. He brushed stray Miles hairs off his trousers and dug all ten fingers into his knees. He was barefoot.
“The mail car,” he started with titular unctuousness, “was only the driving vehicle. As you know, my wayward big brother has been holed up with some woman in Wyoming—”
“His wife you mean?”
“Sure. Well since he’s moved I’ve been very concerned. Very concerned. It’s like he’s forgotten about his real family now that he’s got some waitress—”
“Bartender. Be careful, she’s your sister-in- law now.”
“What law? I don’t live in Wyoming. Nobody does.”
“The buffalo do.” Mona pressed her hand against the left side of her face. She pictured all the buffalo she could conjure running wild off a jagged cliff, the thunder rolling behind them. Why wouldn’t it just rain?
“Don’t be romantic. There’s no romance here. There was a solid month when the kid wasn’t his. I heard about it. He was ‘too blonde.’ It was summer, she said. It was the sun in his hair. The kid needed a hat, not a paternity test. And dumb old Jim believes her.”
“The kid’s cute.” Mona sighed, fanning herself still with the coffee-stained bill. “I’ve seen the pictures.”
“Everyone’s seen the goddamn pictures!” he squirmed. “She’s nothing if not showy.”
Jack reached across the coffee table, pulled a cigarette from Mona’s pack, sniffed it conspicuously, and stuck it in his mouth. He had begun to perspire in a way that made his shirt slightly transparent and his lighter hung in his pocket like a silver trinket sealed in an envelope. If one held it to the light they might make out the name engraved on it (but no one, not Mona, not the stray lover nor lifelong friend, were privy to this secret). He pulled it quickly from his pocket and lit the cigarette. The steel felt cold in his palm and he squeezed it tight, as if the heat of his hand would turn it liquid mercury and it would seep out his fingers. When the metal resisted against him, and he had absorbed all of its coolness, he slipped it back in his pocket, where his fingerprints slowly dissolved like invisible ink. He sat back and folded his legs Indian style, resting his palms face up on his knees. He regained his composure— at times so easily fractured by his childish temper but restored just as easily with a silent count to ten— and went on:
“I just sensed last time on the phone— something— that he needed me. He needed me to remember who he was. He was talking about the groceries, how she’s so particular about what he and the kid eat. And he said something offhand, half-joking, about how he can’t eat the same peanut butter anymore.”
“No more Jiffy?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head, “it’s more fundamental than that. No more crunchy.”
Mona gave the theatrical gasp she sensed was prompted here. Jack nodded accordingly.
“She’s afraid the kid will choke. The dumb bat! And maybe he can handle it, maybe he even likes being told what to do. He was never great at making decisions. Everything always happens to James, not for him and never because of him. But even so, no man should be told how to chew his food and I think that’s why he called me, underlying or not. He needed his little brother to kick him in the nuts— forgive the expression— to remind him they’re still there.”
Here in the play Jack was subconsciously writing, always writing, is where Mona might have laughed, or acknowledged his crudeness with mock upset, or at least agreed that he was qualified to uplift his brother from such distinct marital miseries as smooth peanut butter. But she did no such thing. Absently clutching the hemline of her slip dress, she sank back into the couch and sighed.
“I always wished I had a brother,” she said dreamily.
This statement was part of an inner tapestry that would easily, perhaps eagerly, unravel if someone were polite enough to pull at its unseemly string. Jack contemplated pulling it. But he knew where it would lead. Because one look at Mona and you could tell she lacked the kind of brotherly influence that so often left kid sisters with a protective layer, a tough-headedness, a few scars around the knees. Mona, still so buttery and soft, you could tell had been wishing her whole life for a brother. For one, she secretly loved being picked on because hardly anyone ever dared to do it, which made her feel untouchable and remote. As a child she longed to be one of the boys, and not having a traditional American boyhood— summer camp, poison ivy, climbing, trapping frogs, burning things down— was among her greatest regrets.
She ruminated on this for a moment and Jack quietly obliged until finally the cloying combination of her florid slip and perspiring thighs made her feel amphibian, made her jump up and say, “Oh, there’s champagne!”
This Jack took as his cue to continue. “Where was I? Oh yes, my nearly castrated brother—”
“Be kind! I’m still listening.” He could hear her shuffling around in the kitchen, swinging open cabinets in search for two matching glasses.
“It’s a metaphor, Mone. I know you know what that means.”
A pause. The cabinet doors stopped shuttering.
“No, it’s fine. I swear, I must have a dozen cups and not one single match.” She carried two slightly different shaded blue teacups and an already opened bottle of champagne to the coffee table. “I opened this last night but it should still be alright,” she said pouring him a glass. The fizz was slightly less enthusiastic than it had been the night before when it aided her to sleep. She emptied the rest of it in her teacup.
Jack took the cup from her but did not drink from it. Mona’s eyes lingered on her own little cup, cerulean glass with a chip in the handle. She could feel Jack looking at her and she couldn’t tell if the flush of her face was from the sun bearing down on her through the thin-lidded blinds or from within herself. Yes she could. She drank the whole cup in one thirsty gulp and looked over at him.
“Listen, not to change the subject but,” Mona hesitated.
Happy to take the heat off himself, Jack leaned forward. “Go ahead. What’s on your mind?”
Mona scooted over onto one arm of the couch, and Miles hopped up onto the free cushion, resting his chin on her now-bare knees. “Do you think it’s ever worth it? All that suffering?”
“God no, haven’t you been listening? I think he ought to lose her.”
“No, I mean in general.” Mona massaged Miles’ ears. “Do you think loving someone, or something, could ever justify…”
“Well, the ultimate sacrifice?”
She didn’t need to elaborate. Death suddenly hung in the air along with the cigarette smoke. Reflexively, Jack clutched his breast pocket. His grandfather’s lighter was still there.
“I don’t know, Mone. You’re asking the wrong Perry.” He got up on his feet, and shook his legs awake. “Hey, it’s hot as hell. You’ve got a pool here, don’t you? What do you say we go for a swim?”
Mona nodded, and considered the subject officially closed when Jack shut the front door behind him, leaving to retrieve his trunks from the mail car. Languidly, she rose, and stretched her speckled limbs. Miles hopped down and after his own downward-facing dog, followed Mona into the kitchen, where she remembered she had hidden a second bottle of champagne under the sink, lukewarm but dying to be uncorked. Hastily, she banged it against the corner of the countertop, and its neck broke apart in her hand.