The apartment turned out to be a crash pad on concrete behind a garbage-filled courtyard. Her sons rode their bikes right in, like men living with horses. The trunk of the toilet was cracked, and cockroaches pimped the rim. The shower curtain was a towel she did not recognize, meaning it didn’t come from home; on closer inspection, loose contrails were bloodstains. But she was a nurse, nothing scared her except airplanes, a fear like a vaccine against fear, and she had made Cal and Edward promise not to fly. Never mind. From the beginning, they’d been fused to two wheels. They’d figured out how to fix them, how to steal them back from teenagers, and by seventh grade, they were male domestics, butlers to their drug dealer, careful with their dreams.
Dad, their dad, was a lineman. He’d been working Saturdays for the overtime, and when she woke up late that morning, his side of the bed, as they say, was already cold. When he died that’s how it would be. She made her way to the kitchen but he’d been gone so long the coffee he’d left in the pot had a sheen on top like gasoline. She looked out the window. He’d put up the snowman flag for her years ago and once again its season had come around. It was Cal’s twenty-fifth birthday today.
Twelve blocks to the station, where she and her lungs waited in the shallows until the conductor brayed, “Stand by for the ten-fifteen!” She changed in Newark for the PATH train.
One cigarette, a beacon, a torch, to navigate crosstown. She steered into a bodega for flowers, pushing the plastic tent aside, who was she to say if the flowers were real despite the fact that they had no scent and came in colors like nail polish? A girl in a Santa hat reeled past. A businessman stopped mid-stream to say, “My wife?” Did he think the sidewalk was the privacy of his own home? The phone seemed tiny, negligible, the way he pinned it with one huge finger to his ear. “She’s a tall blonde.” A booming laugh. “She looks like she’s a lot of fun, I’ll tell you that. They all do, at that age.”
They’d tried marriage counseling after Cal overdosed the first time. But she couldn’t bear to see Dad disoriented, unmanned. Saturday mornings he’d conducted cursory room checks, taken them to the barber, the hardware, the fire station. Now all his common sense was undermined by a new code. She passed a bald park with baggy squirrel nests scaled in camo sycamore trees. The sun was rotting like a lemon. She missed her boys, their fleet of bicycles tangled in the garage, they wove in and out of the house all weekend for years—
There was a shiny squeeze pillow of ketchup on the sidewalk. Another boy would step on it and squeal.
The windows of a coffee shop were festooned with colored lights and a lighthearted sign on the sidewalk was meant to entice her in, but she would have felt like an alien. What was the age at which young people began to own the world? Their age or hers?
She began to fear that the avenue was coming to an end, but just then the numbers matched, the grated door was ajar, and there was a half-stairs and a narrow passage that came out into a courtyard. She looked up to see that the tenement rose six floors but was blocked on all sides by other tenements. She missed her step and tripped forward, catching an old metal trashcan. Dad could always be counted on to watch cartoons with them when it rained. The can clattered and rolled, leaving a wet trail. A muscular seagull re-settled, slit its steely eyes.
She hit the buzzer. Not so different from knocking on their door when they were outgrowing their twins, sticky feet hanging off the frames. Those years, the purpose was to sort the naturals from the un-naturals. Twelve, thirteen-year-old boys, sweet-and-sour with fresh testosterone, under the impression they were baseball stars. Not her boys.
But then there was Edward at the door, trying to make sense out of a petitioner with a sleeve of flowers, the lost wife of some old man. When she saw in his eyes that he remembered his own name, she said, “It’s Cal’s birthday.” He let her follow him inside. Cal passed out along a sofa, fully clothed, boots and all—he looked waxed in death, but his hair was breathing. She looked quickly around the room but she could hardly see. She laid the funny flowers on his chest. The place was dark, yes, but it seemed to have a different gravity, too, a force that didn’t resolve.
Kirstin Allio’s novels are Buddhism for Western Children (University of Iowa Press, 2018) and Garner (Coffee House Press, 2005), which was a finalist for the LA Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Clothed, Female Figure won Dzanc’s Short Story Collection Prize in 2016. Other honors include the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, a PEN/O. Henry Prize, the 2019 American Short(er) Fiction Prize from American Short Fiction, chosen by Danielle Dutton, and fellowships from Brown University’s Howard Foundation and the MacDowell Colony. She lives in Providence, RI. kirstinallio.com