SYCAMORE REVIEW

Red City

Ashley Kunsa

January

Tonight I’m eating fish sticks alone. Cod probably, or haddock, something white with flimsy breading that sticks to the foil. Ginger can’t worry about food right now. Or the dripping sink, or my paycheck, which is about to stop coming.

All she can worry about is Warren’s sperm. How much he’ll produce, whether it’s got high motility, proper morphology—all this stuff she read on the internet. Warren’s forty-three and childless. Two Christmases ago his wife, Beth, died of a brain aneurysm.

What if it feels too weird? Ginger says. Having part of a man inside me?

You can always change your mind, I tell her, there’s no pressure. I squirt more ketchup onto my plate.

Isn’t this what we want? she says.

Sure, yeah. I mean, if it’s what you want?

Yes, Gabby, she says, rubbing a thumb over her frayed cuticles. I really really want this.

Okay then. I swallow. Warren in the drawing room with the syringe.

Ginger frowns.

Joking, I’m joking. Look, it’s not like it’s his penis. This is totally different.

And you’d know.

Seriously? I say. We’re bringing this up? It was once in college.

There’s a knock at the door, and Ginger tightens her ponytail. I lean across the table, rub her shoulders. Come on, I say. Let’s go make a baby.

Really, I’m the one with the syringe. And we’re in the bedroom, Ginger and me. Warren’s back at his house across the street, the Second Empire where he and Beth did crossword puzzles and hunted the heavens for nebulae for more than a decade, years before I moved into Ginger’s condo. He’s ejaculated into a Smuckers jar and placed it in a brown paper bag, dropped it off like Chinese delivery. I push the air from the syringe then draw up the liquid as Ginger shimmies blue sweats toward her ankles.

This good? I ask. She’s on her back, two pillows propping up her pelvis. Above her hangs the neon acrylic of Carson St. that Beth painted for my twenty-fifth birthday.

A little deeper, Ginger says. She shifts.

I press the plastic plunger and wait, half-wondering if I’m supposed to feel something, some—I don’t know, connection? Nothing happens, except Ginger reminds me for the fourth time to pull out slowly. When it’s done, I drop the syringe in the garbage can and rinse Warren’s jar out with warm water and hand soap. It takes a while for the bubbles to disappear down the drain.

I never took him for the strawberry type, I say, coming out of the bathroom with the jar.

Ginger’s feet float high overhead, hands bracing her hips, like some sort of fertility yoga pose. You’re supposed to hold them here for twenty minutes, she says. I saw it online, keeps the stuff from sliding out.

The clock reads 7:36. By 7:42, her legs have started to tremble, so I kneel and wrap my arms around her calves as support.

The next morning before the sun’s up, Ginger’s out the door to the fast casual chain she manages north of the city. I drink three cups of coffee and start in on a cover letter for a job I’m only half qualified for, one that pays even worse than the Pittsburgh Center for Literacy, where I’ve been teaching GED classes for the past five years. Though, as of tomorrow, when the grant funding my position runs out, I guess anything pays better. After the letter, I speed through my last set of math worksheets until I get to Marilyn’s, which is only three-quarters done and one-half right; she’s never missed more than two on any given assignment, so I draw a dramatic red question mark at the top and circle it half a dozen times.

Around lunchtime, I knock on Warren’s side door. When he answers, in his slippers, I hold up the jam jar. In case you want to take up canning, I say. He smiles sheepishly and rubs a hand over his head, shaved clean to mask the balding.

The kitchen’s warm; a space heater churns in the corner. While Warren makes tea, I flip through colorful brochures littering the counter.

So, I say. Where’s everyone jetting off to these days?

Warren’s a travel agent. He started working from home after Beth died. Queenstown’s been big, he says. Paris, of course. London, New York, Rome—the usual suspects. And Marrakesh. Everyone’s going to Marrakesh this year.

I attempt a knowing nod.

Any leads? He hands me a mug of Darjeeling, the milk and honey already stirred in.

Define lead, I say.

His narrow face is sympathetic. How about pictures? Get anything good lately? He glances toward a black-and-white photo tacked to the fridge, Beth sitting on their front stoop, sharp chin in her hand, one from years ago, back when my Canon was a permanent fixture around my neck. She taught me to knit that afternoon, and I made rudimentary scarves as holiday gifts before forgetting completely the simple choreography of needle and yarn.

I guess I just haven’t been feeling it, I say.

The pictures on the fridge, the blankets folded on the ottoman; nothing in this house has changed since Beth collapsed in the living room and refused to wake up. Warren still fills the clay pot next to the front window with flowers, still makes her mother’s paella the second Sunday of the month.

His cell rings, someone asking about tours in Istanbul, and I set my mug in the sink. As I reach for the door, Warren pulls the phone away from his face. See you around 8? he says.

It’s a date, I say.

My boss tears up as she pours iced tea into Dixie cups lining a card table.

I just want you guys to know how proud I am of you, I tell the class, who’s seated before me in metal folding chairs. You’re in great hands with Steve, he’s been here forever, and I’ve got no doubt every one of you will pass.

Once people start chatting, I find Steve by the cookies and ask if he’s heard from Marilyn. She’s never missed even one class, I say. And the time she was ten minutes late, she called so they’d let me know.

Steve pokes a balloon. Something probably came up, he says, grabbing three snicker doodles and eating them, literally, at once.

I just can’t picture her missing today of all days, I say. You know? My last day?

Still chewing, Steve shrugs and stares into his Dixie cup. Then Patrice edges up beside us with a Ziploc container of Rice Krispie Treats and makes me promise I’ll come back to celebrate once they’ve all taken their tests. Kristina, a dyslexic junior who dropped out last year after relentless bullying, is next; she gives me a #1 Teacher mug in her school’s colors. In fact, they’ve all brought something—Dwayne and Liu and Stephanie, even grumpy Paul, who thrusts out a slightly creased photo of his “baby,” a nineteen seventy-one cherry-red Plymouth Barracuda.

Then it’s Denis’s turn. He stands from his chair and adjusts the faded ball cap on his head. Been fun, he says. Wish my own kids had been more like you. Maybe the grandkid’ll turn out okay.

That might be the nicest thing I’ve heard all year, I say.

It’s only January, Denis laughs. We got something for you, me and Marilyn did. Pitched in. But I don’t know where she’s at.

You haven’t heard from her?

No, but you know Marilyn, she’d be here if she could. One of the boys must be sick or something. She’s fine, I’m sure.

We’re the only ones left now, and at the stairs I take a last look around—balloons floating on the chairs, streamers trailing from the drop ceiling, this claustrophobic, blue-carpeted basement where I’ve spent so many hours. Denis puts a hand on my shoulder, and I flip the light switch. Yeah, I say, she’s probably fine.

Sorry I’m late. Had a physical, Warren says. He wipes his feet on the mat and nods in my direction. Apparently I’ve got the vitals of someone fifteen years younger.

I can feel Ginger’s body light up across the room. She’s pushing thirty-six, right on the cusp, but Warren’s age has prompted no small number of internet searches. A nod from a doctor though—that’s got to be at least five points for Team Baby.

Well? I say, when she climbs into bed two hours later. Her dark hair is damp from the shower, her robe hanging loosely from her shoulders. Do you feel weird?

Let’s just hope this happens fast, she says and buries her head in my ribs.

Two and a half weeks later, the garbage fills with Tampax wrappers, and I say nothing.

February

Votives flicker by the vanity mirror, on the bureau, along the windowsill. I open the bag and set the jar on the night stand, next to Ginger’s iPhone, which is playing a Stan Getz album. The toilet flushes, and she steps out from the bathroom in a t-shirt and panties. I run my toes across her calf, along the delicate tangle of purple veins she hates, which have always reminded me of little streams feeding each other.

Fast forward to the next song, Ginger says.

I lean into her neck.

Not right now, she says and starts rearranging pillows.

What’s all this?

It’s more likely to work if I can convince my body it’s the real thing.

The real thing would probably do that, I say and sprawl out on the bed.

Gab, I need you to focus, not be moaning and on some other planet. Okay? This is serious.

Serious adult stuff, I say. I salute then unscrew the lid of Warren’s jar.

You know what I meant.

Forget it. I stare into the cloudy fluid. It could be snot as soon as anything else.

Look, I’m sorry, Ginger says, spreading her legs.

It’s fine.

I said I’m sorry. I’m not trying to argue. Really. Stress isn’t good for conceiving.

The baby talk started about a month before I found out I was getting canned. I’d had the job since college graduation, and though it was always a possibility, news of the grant drying up arrived like a package addressed to the old tenants.

The babies were a shock, too. Suddenly, we saw them on every hip, in every lap that could accommodate thigh rolls and double chins. Or, Ginger did. Whole Foods was full of organic babies. Walnut St. brimmed with trendy babies. At Tom’s Diner, hungry babies slurped their mothers’ soup.

I just feel like we’re finally ready, Ginger said one day, sitting on a bench across from Phipps Conservatory. It was unusually warm for November and ten feet away, on another bench, a woman bobbed an infant in her lap, half-humming, half-singing in French. You know?

I didn’t know, not really. I hadn’t realized we’d been inhabiting some kind of not-ready state. I tried to imagine us—the us-before-how-we-were-right-at-that-moment, there under a stretch of bare maples—floating in an un-ready limbo, going about our lives two or three inches off the ground, not ready for dinners with her district manager and parking tickets and sleeping late on Sundays.

Don’t you just feel like we’re in the right place for this? she said.

My eyes followed a man at the top of Flagstaff Hill, trying to fly a Pennsylvania state flag kite with his daughter. There wasn’t even enough wind to make the dead leaves blow.

Gab, you hear me?

I do, I said.

Just beyond Ginger’s shoulder, bird poop dripped slowly down the back of the bench, and when she tightened her ponytail, the tips of her hair skimmed white goo.

You could probably come work with me, says Ginger. At least part-time.

I grab my throat, make gagging noises, then drop my head onto my laptop.

Funny. Ha ha. She walks to the sink, which is still dripping.

I mean, do you really think that’s a good idea?

Okay. What about your photographs?

I drop my head to the laptop again.

You used to love that, Ginger says. I don’t know what happened.

At the circulation desk, Bunnie pushes my books across the counter and grasps my fingers between her doughy hands. My containers are going wild, she says, beaming. I used to bring my classes here on Tuesdays, and she misses our chats about her gardening and grandsons.

Outside, a woman’s pacing the bottom step, hands shoved in the pockets of an over-sized Angry Birds hoodie.

Marilyn? I say.

She looks up, brushes permed bangs from her face. Hey, hi, she says. Oh am I glad to see you. She takes the steps two at a time and wraps her arms around me without hesitating.

You okay?

Know how sometimes you got to clear your head? Marilyn says.

Well, yeah. But outside in twenty-degrees?

You remember Kelly?

She okay?

She’s getting books for a world cultures project, making seventh-grade honor roll this term. How about that? Marilyn says. She lights a cigarette, then stubs it out, shoves it in the pack, bats hair from her eyes.

Great, I say, but you seem—my last day? You weren’t there and now—

Gabby, she says. I think I’m—

Just then a girl in skin-tight jeans pushes through the revolving doors. She presses a grocery bag of books into Marilyn’s stomach, then slings her backpack over her shoulder and flips up her hood.

Marilyn checks her watch. We got to get the boys from my sister’s, she says. I just got off work, Dan’s doubling.

When are you taking your tests? I ask.

Marilyn hesitates, then says, First one’s supposed to be next week.

Why supposed to?

Gabby, would it be okay for me to call you sometime?

Definitely, I say. I look from Marilyn to Kelly and back to Marilyn. Yeah, of course.

What happened is Beth died, and I stopped taking pictures. Not on purpose; it just turned out that way.

Ginger and I were at home, finishing the salmon nicoise for Christmas dinner, when the ambulance pulled up. I had a napkin in one hand, my phone in the other, the first two digits of their landline dialed—Hey guys, food’s ready—before I caught the spinning lights through the parted curtains. Something’s wrong, I said, and Ginger turned, an egg falling from her hand into the sink. Harry Connick Jr. was playing so loud over her phone that we never heard the siren.

When we got back from the hospital the next morning, the smell of sulfur and fish smacked us in the face. I dumped everything down the disposal while Ginger shut herself in the bathroom. I heard her throwing up as I wormed under her grandma’s quilt, ignoring the sweaters and new books and other presents piled across the bottom of the bed. My camera was on top of the nightstand along with the ultra-wide zoom lens Ginger had gotten me, the one I’d been admiring for months. I closed them both in the drawer. I didn’t want to see the camera, to think of the memory card inside, which had pictures from a Halloween party at the neighbor’s and Beth’s first gallery show, pictures I both could and couldn’t remember taking: ones that would show Beth drinking a glass of rum punch, maybe, or eating candy corn, smiling at Warren and palming his knee and pointing at a pick-up truck in one of her paintings—moments I didn’t need a zoom lens for because they were already seared into my brain.

Do you think I’ll just know? Ginger asks. Once it happens? Do you think my body will register the change before a test picks it up?

How could I have any clue? I think. But I don’t say this. Instead, I set my magazine on the bed and run my fingers through the damp strands of her shoulder-length hair, separating them out onto her pillow like a chrysanthemum. She’s on her side with her eyes closed, her breath even and her lips slightly parted. I love her this way, hip bone jutting above the waistband of her sweats, a flimsy tee clinging to her belly and breasts. On the ridge of her left cheekbone, a birthmark hangs like a chocolate raindrop.

I think the female body is a variety of wonders, I say.

She smiles, eyes still shut.

I pick up my magazine, but after a page I look back at her. Do you know where Marrakesh is?

What?

Marrakesh, the city. Do you know where it is?

Hmmmm. She yawns. Don’t think so. Then she says, Tunisia? No—Morocco? Maybe? What would even make you think of that?

Nothing, I say.

Well? she says after a minute. Where is it?

So I tell her everything I can remember from the library book: western Morocco, at the base of the Atlas Mountains, the country’s fourth largest city, nearly a thousand years of history.

March

None of these pictures show any pipes, Warren shouts.

Anything? I ask.

More dripping.

This was my idea. Warren suggested a plumber.

I climb out from under the sink, where, according to Gardner’s Illustrated Guide to Household Plumbing, I’m not supposed to be when the faucet’s leaking. I flip to the next page, which shows an array of tools on a workbench, labeled with arrows and captions, shiny implements awaiting their singular purpose, nothing like the sad things I dug out of Mrs. Fisher’s rusted toolbox. The plumbing guide’s hers, too, an ancient tome I found when I went upstairs in search of the wrenches neither Ginger nor Warren had.

I’m going back in, I say and grab a screwdriver.

What are you doing with that? Warren says.

The injection stuff, now that was him. Ginger started talking babies, anonymous donors, intrauterine insemination, maybe adoption, and Warren was like, Let me do it.

Do what? we said, in unison.

Give you guys the sperm, he said. Let me help. I can be the donor. Please. Let me.

Hand me that little one, I call. The wrench.

After everything with Beth though, he didn’t want to be at a hospital. From Ginger’s endless internet research, she figured we could do it at home with roughly the same chance of success as anyone else.

How about now?

Same, Warren says. Dripping.

Do you really think this is such a good idea? I asked her. Involving him in this?

You make it sound like some wicked plot. I’ve known him forever, he’s our best friend. Why would it be a problem? she asked.

How about now? I call.

I think it might have actually—worked? Warren says.

Maybe because his wife died a year ago? I said. And he’s in pain?

Everyone’s in pain, all of us, Ginger said.

I scoot out from the cabinet, and Warren gives me a hand. For the first time in months, the plop plop…plop has ceased. We stand there a minute, staring at the sink, waiting for something to happen. Nothing does. Warren takes the wrench and the screwdriver. I grab the dishtowel from the counter.

You going to do it? he says, leaning in toward the faucet. Or should I?

Go wild, I say.

Then he pushes the brass handle up in one swift motion, too fast for me to leap out of the way once water starts sputtering into the air.

Ginger and I first met in this kitchen five years ago, at a fortieth birthday party, when I was twenty-two and forty was light-years away. I was photographing the party for the birthday girl’s partner, who I knew from the center. I’d only been working there a month and did photo gigs for extra cash whenever I could.

Actually, I met Beth first. I was switching lenses on the pub table when she offered me a crab cake. They’re good, not great, she said, scrunching her nose.

Quite the saleswoman, I said, but I took one anyway, and while I chewed Beth leapt into the educational budget cuts, asking what I thought about the slashes to elementary art and music funding. I didn’t now anything about them, but Beth was an art teacher in the city schools and more than happy to fill me in. About ten minutes later, a woman came up beside Beth in the arched doorway and kissed her on the cheek, leaving faint traces of lipstick behind. Her dark hair was an oil slick against her pale face; from her ears, mottled green leaves, jadeite maybe, fell in a series of long swoops. Earlier in the night, my friend had pointed her out as the hostess, and I thought she might ask me to get back to work, but instead she said, Hope you weren’t planning on an after-party anywhere.

Me? What? No, I stumbled.

Bethy’s quite the artist, the hostess said. She paints hot pink coal cars and lime green bridges with superimposed x-ray people swimming—or are they drowning?—in the river beneath. Sometimes she throws in a spleen or a pair of lungs for good measure. Oh, and she’ll talk your face off about funding for the arts.

For your information, Beth said, switching her tray to the other hand, Gabby here’s a teacher and an artist and, she’s very interested in the state of arts education in our ailing nation.

That so? said the hostess.

Oh, I’m not, not really. An artist, I mean. I don’t think you’d call me that. I just do this on the side. But I do teach, that part’s true. I shifted the camera around on my neck.

The hostess smiled a slow, thoughtful smile, looking right at me, and that’s when, in the dim light coming from the dining room, I first noticed the tiny chocolate tear not more than an inch below her left eye. I’m Ginger, she said. This is my place. Nice to meet you, Gabby. She put out her hand, and I took it. It was cool and slightly callused, the cuticles ragged—the hand of someone who spent a lot of time behind the scenes of a restaurant, I would learn, but that night I was startled to find it attached to someone as put together as Ginger.

Love the crown molding, I said. And super excellent neighborhood.

Ginger smiled again, and I felt my face flush. Super excellent neighborhood? I should have just told her she was neat-o. She plucked a crab cake from Beth’s tray. Oh no they did not use crackers? she said, mouth full. Believe it or not, these weren’t cheap.

Didn’t I say we should just do everything ourselves? Beth said.

My friend came over then, to ask me to snap some pictures by the marble fireplace, but I continued to watch them through the crowd, the way Ginger gathered her hair over her right shoulder, picked something I couldn’t see from the arm of Beth’s shirt, how they folded into each other when they laughed. A man joined them eventually—Warren, of course—and squeezed them both around the shoulders, then dipped his forehead into Beth’s. I probably loved the three of them a little already, their teasing way, an irreverence paired with sincerity that could only come from longevity, from having stood alongside people for years and years.

At the end of the night, while the stragglers were saying their goodbyes, I got a shot of Ginger changing a light bulb, just at the moment the lamp lit up. I mailed it to her with a couple of other photos from the party. She asked me out the next week.

One night, while Ginger and I are in the middle of the Great American Reproduction Experiment, the director of the Appalachian Literacy Center leaves me a voicemail. She saw my resume online and wants to set up a phone interview. It’s the first bite I’ve had in three months.

Who was it? asks Ginger, sitting down on the floor.

A job.

What job?

Assistant Program Director of Adult Literacy.

So that sounds amazing? Ginger says. She pulls a cluster of folders from her bag and rifles through them. Didn’t I say something would come along? Something not grant-funded?

It’s in Knoxville, I say. Tennessee.

Oh. She finds the one she’s looking for, opens it up to reveal a pile of spreadsheets. That sucks. Ginger highlights a line then looks over at me, scratches her nose. Want to order a pizza or something?

I’m not hungry, I say.

Marilyn lives up on the slopes, in a clapboard two-storey whose front porch is carpeted like a mini-golf course, only brown. She waves through the front window as I come up the walk. Despite an uncharacteristic week of seventy degrees, she’s wearing her Angry Birds hoodie.

I’ve got juice, Marilyn says. Thanks so much for coming all the way up here.

Not like I’ve got a job to go to, I say. Glad you called.

Just off the hall, a gigantic fish tank glows and gurgles at chest height. Blue and orange fish dart in and out of towers; a fat yellow and black one drifts backwards from under a bridge into a tangle of plastic ferns.

Marilyn hands me a cup. This thing, she says. This is Kelly and Dan’s thing. Well, more his now that she’s getting older, but they started it years ago. I wish he’d just get rid of it already.

I don’t know, I say. It’s kind of cool?

Yeah, until the fish die and you got to replace them so the boys don’t freak.

So, I say, how’d the math section go?

Marilyn pushes her hair behind her ear. I got a one-eighty, she says quietly. She motions me into the living room.

That’s college ready plus credit! Amazing!

Across from the couch, thin frames huddle on the wall above a small flat screen: Kelly on a Big Wheel, Kelly smiling at her first communion, Kelly as a sullen pre-teen in dark lipstick; the boys as bald babies, chubby toddlers; the whole family kneeling next to a tent; a much younger Marilyn with longer, redder hair, and one, I assume, of Dan, baby-faced, probably a senior picture.

I took the science, too, Marilyn says, one-seventy-eight. Her voice has an edge to it, and she’s rubbing her hands together like she’s cold, though the house is stuffy.

Marilyn, this is awesome. This is exactly why you’ve been working so hard.

Yeah, but I screwed up, she says. She grabs my hand across the couch. A door opens at the end of the hall; a few seconds later another closes.

I don’t get it? I say. These scores are like twenty points away from perfect.

She glances down the hall. I’m pregnant, she whispers.

What? I stare at her hoodie. Are you sure? I say dumbly.

I’m sure. Marilyn sighs. Unless five pregnancy tests are wrong and I’m nine weeks late. Dan doesn’t know, but he will soon. It just—happened? Seems impossible after almost fifteen years together for something so, so stupid. But it happened. What am I going to do?

What are you going to do? I have no idea what I’m saying, what she’s asking.

How can I have another baby? Marilyn says. She looks up at the pictures of the kids hovering on the wall across from us. The tank’s filter releases a series of loud gurgles. The fish swim and swim. Down the hall, something crashes, and Marilyn stands, but nothing follows.

She drops back to the couch. I’m thirty-four years old, she says, looking at her hands. My life’s finally starting. Marilyn shakes her head. I can’t.

What do you think Warren thinks about?

When?

Before he comes over here, Ginger says. She’s at the vanity, brushing her hair.

Seriously? I say. When he’s masturbating to produce semen for me to inject into you? Is this the middle school locker room, the twisted version?

That’s not what I mean.

I go back to my library book. After a minute I look up and Ginger’s watching herself in the mirror.

Do you think—she stops.

What? What are you trying to get at?

When she turns toward me, her eyes are suddenly fierce. Do you think he thinks about Bethy?

Oh, I say. I have to look away from her. That wouldn’t have occurred to me, I say.

Ginger smoothes her hair away from her face and slides the drawer out from the vanity. No, she says, it wouldn’t.

April

Marilyn calls, and I agree to come over Monday, after she gets the boys from her sister’s.

Dan would leave me and take the kids to somewhere like Idaho if he ever found out, she says.

Don’t be crazy.

No, he would, she says. It’s not even a religious thing. It’s just because this baby’s a part of us, me and him. This would destroy him.

I hear Ginger in the bedroom and press the bathroom lock. Marilyn, I whisper into the phone, it’s going to be fine. Just stay calm a few more days.

Is this a mistake? Gabby, am I making a huge mistake?

Gabby? Ginger knocks, jiggles the handle. What are you doing? Why’s it locked?

Changing a tampon, I call. Must’ve bumped it. I flush. Hang tight, I tell Marilyn. I’ll see you Monday, okay? I say, then hang up the phone before she can answer.

When I open the bathroom door, Ginger’s on my side of the bed with a thick book in her hands. What’s this? she says.

From the library.

I gathered.

I don’t know, I just checked it out. I haven’t even really looked at it, I say. I take the hardback from Ginger’s hands and shut it in my nightstand.

It’s natural to be scared, Ginger says.

It’s just a book, I tell her.

Once, long before Beth died and Ginger started seeing babies and I lost my job, the four of us piled into Warren’s Accord with old blankets and a cooler I’d found at Goodwill and drove across the Birmingham Bridge into Oakland to watch the fireworks from Flagstaff. Teenagers lounged in each other’s lanky arms while families made picnics and little kids chased each other with sparklers. The grass was high, and Warren had forgotten his allergy meds, and I put the over/under on his sneezes at 42. Beth took the over, Ginger the under, even as she groaned.

She had a new phone, I remember, and I was determined to capture the display on video. I had my legs spread to either side of her with the phone resting on her shoulder. Every other minute I was certain the finale was starting. We watched the video together once, and you can hear her, over and over again, telling me, You’ll know when it’s the finale, trust me, you’ll know, and in the background, Warren’s fevered sneezes punctuated by Beth’s, Good Lord! or startled chirps.

Then sure enough, when it comes, the screen can’t contain it: it’s like a city on fire, red and white and purple and green, a rampage of heat and light across the desert of the night.

Where were you?

I hold up my bags.

I said I’d be here by one, Ginger says. She’s lying on her back, trousers and blouse neatly folded over the back of the chair. I called you five times.

I was carrying thirty pounds of food four blocks. Only got two hands.

Can we just do this? She sighs. I told Marty I’d be back before the dinner rush.

In the doorway I drop my groceries and kick off my flip flops. We’re at this six days in a row now, to maximize her fertility window.

Here, she says when I reach for the jar on the nightstand, I was about to start. She’s already holding a filled syringe.

I squirt, climb down, toss it in the can.

What’s your rush? Ginger says on my way out of the bedroom. She’s got her butt against the headboard, legs up, feet flat against the wall.

Ice cream, I say and hold a bag aloft.

The next night, Warren stops by on his way to a dinner for the Tri-State Travel Agents Association. He looks spiffy in his suit and tie, so different from the sweats and slippers I’ve grown accustomed to. Ginger comes in from work just as he’s leaving.

Thanks so much, she says. She puts her arms around his shoulders. You have no idea how much this means to me. Really.

He clasps his hands at the base of her spine, and I sit there, watching the two of them hold each other. After what feels like twenty-seven minutes, the moment has turned so private, I flip on the TV and lip-read Real Housewives.

In the painting Ginger made me above the bed, x-ray women with gold leaf hair cross Carson at a yellow light. I never thought to ask her whether this suggested their boldness or impatience. Or maybe it’s only that she’d run out of red by the time she got to the light.

They can feel pain, you know.

Who can? I say.

Kelly’s come up beside me, next to the fish tank, in a Harry Potter t-shirt. Marilyn left a half hour ago. At the kitchen table, the boys are eating chicken nuggets and baby carrots in plastic bowls and building with Legos.

The fish, she says. People think they can’t feel pain, but they do. We learned about it in science. They bleed, too, like we do—say you’re fishing and you catch one, it sometimes bleeds where the hook goes in. But most of the time, when they’re dead, they just end up floating, no blood or anything. We find them in there like that sometimes, looking just like they did before. Except they’re sideways.

Huh, I say. Two tiny orange fish race across the tank toward nothing.

I don’t get why my mom has to finish her tests right now? Kelly says. Without the dark lipstick and tight jeans she just looks like a kid. She couldn’t wait two weeks till my dad wasn’t doubling?

Not sure, I say. I think maybe the price is going up.

We stand quietly for a minute, watching the fish and the swaying ferns and the bubbles. Then Kelly says, That one’s going to die soon, and presses a long purple fingernail against the glass near a yellow fish with black stripes moving slowly near the middle of the tank. It floats past the ruins of a skyscraper.

How do you know?

See his fins, how they’re clamped against his sides? They should be fanned out, like the others.

Ow! comes a cry from the kitchen. A clatter follows, and I find carrots and bowls on the linoleum, the remains of a Lego city scattered across the table. But the brothers are still in their chairs, each holding a nugget and looking up at me from under girlish lashes.

So what do you do? I find Kelly in her room, cross-legged on a zebra-print bedspread. Against the wall leans a red poster board with cut-outs of the continents jutting off the edges. About the one with the clamped fins? I say. What do you do?

Do? Kelly angles toward the hall then back to me and shrugs. You don’t do anything. It’s a fish.

This isn’t working, Ginger says.

It takes me a minute to adjust to the dim light inside the bedroom, the blinds dropped against the late afternoon, and then I see her standing at the sink, a pink-stained garment in her hands.

She extends the shorts in front of her, beads of water dripping to the tile. All these months, she says, and it’s not working.

It hasn’t been that long—even I know this much, but I don’t say it.

I feel like a factory, Ginger says. Like a defective assembly line or something.

The metaphor’s off, but I just stand there, hands in my pockets.

I’m exhausted, she says and drops the shorts into the sink.

So let’s stop, I say.

You don’t understand, she says.

I don’t understand, I say.

She weeps and I hold her.

Planning a trip, love? Bunnie asks when I bring my books back.

Sorry?

She points to my pile of interlibrary-loaned travel guides—Queenstown, London, Paris.

Oh, no, I don’t think so. Just reading.

Bunnie waves her wand over the spines. Ahhh, Roma, the Eternal City. Spent a week there in the 60s with my Eddie, rest his soul. When she reads the title for Marrakesh, she looks up at me. The Red City? she says. Is it a very violent place?

No, I tell her, not at all, and I open the book to the twelve miles of ramparts, nearly twenty feet high, surrounding the old town, thick walls made of red clay, glowing pink in the falling sunset, a thousand-year-old relic defending the city from no one.

She takes up the final book, 112 Ways You Could Die Right Now (with Illustrations), and flips it over, shakes her head. Poor Eddie, she says and taps the bullet-pointed list on the back cover with her wand. Aortic dissection—ripped his heart in two.

May

Ginger has lined up an interview for me with a company in the Strip District.

Wow, okay. Training employees.

What? she says. You don’t want the interview?

No. It’s just—food service distribution? Cups and napkins.

I thought you’d be thrilled.

Doesn’t this sort of—but before finishing, before saying, feel like the last straw?, I just nod. Yeah, I say, sure. Thrilled.

There’s a picture of the three of them from that Fourth of July years ago that Ginger pinned to the bulletin board in the spare room after Beth died. They’re walking up ahead, Ginger in the middle with blankets under both arms, hair loose about her shoulders, Warren lugging the cooler, Beth a little off to the right, crouching in the grass, tying her sneakers, these grandmotherly Brooks she refused to give up no matter how we teased her. She’s turned slightly, glancing back, her eyes falling just short of the camera, close enough that every time I look at it, I want to say, Right here, Bethy, can you see me? I’m right over here.

What is it, specifically, that you’re feeling? the doctor asks. He breathes onto the stethoscope then tugs my shirt from my shorts.

Nothing specific, I say. But a lot of vague things. Vaguely. His hand on my back is the clammy cool of a damp washcloth. Like that—hear it? Like my heart’s beating too hard. Or sometimes I get this sensation, a burning, around my temples. Or the toes in my right foot, they go numb out of nowhere.

The doctor removes his glasses, squeezes the bridge of his nose. The plastic pads have dug craters into his otherwise seamless skin. You’ve been on the internet, haven’t you? he says.

The plumber spends eleven minutes jiggling the faucet then hands me a bill for $104. I pull Ginger’s checkbook from the junk drawer and scribble across the signature line. He’s on his way down the front steps when the UPS woman climbs out of her truck with a package. It’s a small hand-sewn leather photo album—a going-away present from Marilyn and Denis.

In the first slot, Marilyn has folded a sheet of wide-ruled paper, dated last week. Dear Gabby, it reads, You don’t know everything your help and support’s meant to me these past months. Thank you. I finished my tests–165 on Language Arts, 192 Social Studies. Got an interview with the Port Authority next week, let you know how it goes. Keep in touch. Love always, Marilyn.

The second slot holds a photo of the class, taken outside the center. Denis makes bunny ears behind Patrice, while Paul points at something off-camera. I can’t remember this day, not exactly, but it was one of our last meetings, and seeing Marilyn hunched in the front row, arms crossed at the waist, I can’t help but wonder if she was already trying to protect herself, if her body was already sending her signals, telling her something was off. Or was she, like Beth, totally oblivious to the tiny, giant force amassing within her, preparing to wreck her life at any moment?

I read the note again—your help and support, 165, 192—but instead of accomplishment, or satisfaction, I just feel scraped out inside.

Where do you see yourself five years from now? asks the hiring manager, and I think, In five years, I’ll be thirty-two, probably driving the same Ford, graying prematurely like my mom, drinking four cups of coffee a day instead of three.

Gabby?

Yeah? I shift my stare from the bird poop splashed across the window pane and focus on her small, fleshy face. Oh, right, five years, I say. Huh. Maybe Africa?

It couldn’t have been more than twenty degrees the night of Beth’s viewing, but I stayed outside for the first hour, sitting on the curb by the side door, avoiding eye contact with the schoolchildren and parents who shuffled by every few minutes. Around eight, Ginger came out, her face a blister atop her black sweater, and I followed her back to where Beth’s sisters and cousins congregated near gigantic, indiscriminate sprays of flowers. Warren was folded over on a chair at the front, worrying his bare head with one hand.

From ten feet away, Beth looked pretty much like she always had. They’d applied her usual shade of eye shadow and fixed her bangs to the side, the way she did when her hair was clean; Warren had picked out a cornflower blue dress with little yellow diamonds, one she’d been wearing all the years I’d known her, a spring dress, which felt right though we’d had freezing rain just hours before. But up close, something seemed somehow off, like there was strain in her mouth or tensing around her cheeks. She’d collapsed in their living room while Warren was upstairs taking a shower. At the hospital a doctor asked if she’d mentioned a headache. Eggs, Warren said, forehead on his fist. She was looking forward to the hard-boiled eggs.

Now, from all this distance, I realize what it was about her face: she was registering pain.

When I walk in the door, Ginger’s waiting for me in the glow of the TV. My suit jacket’s barely off my shoulders before she’s got me on the couch, her mouth pressing mine. I can taste her lipstick and the sweat on her neck.

I wake just after dawn, still wearing my bra. She’s at the vanity, applying foundation, wet hair brushed away from her face. With the pads of her fingers, she dabs at the tiny lines just beginning to take up residence at the outskirts of her eyes. She sees me watching and smiles. I smile back. But when she moves to the closet and drops her robe, nothing quickens inside me. She reaches toward a blouse and, as the room brightens, morning light falls flat across her pale, still-damp back; her body, once a variety of wonders, has become a factory, its movements mechanical, its desires predictable.

From my nightstand, I pull a tiny black card. I slide my laptop from under the bed and slip the card into the slot at the side. After half a dozen clicks, pictures light up the screen: Beth in a knee-length dress, standing outside the gallery; Beth posing with the gallery owner in front of a neon orange and green panorama of the sister bridges; Warren in a suit, touching Beth lightly at the waist; Beth blowing her nose; Ginger and a stranger leaning forward, studying a painting of Brown’s Dump, a fluorescent yellow slag heap with x-ray figures in hardhats stalking in the foreground.

And then there’s one that somebody—Ginger? Beth?—must’ve taken when I set my camera down. The Steel Building rises up on an enormous canvas, imprecise and electric red, a three-sided imposition on the small, indistinct city around it. I’m sitting on a bench off to the side, half-smiling, while just behind me one of Beth’s x-ray women stands, in profile, against the gaping blue maw of the Liberty Tunnel, her yellow heart caged within her chest.

At the vanity, Ginger turns, sets down her powder and brush. Gabby, she says, voice barely above a whisper. Your face.

I lift my hands to my chin, my nose, and raise my eyes to the mirror, half-expecting to find the stain of her lipstick. But there are only tears streaking my cheeks and Ginger, looking back at me.

from Issue 29.1


ASHLEY KUNSA’s creative work appears in or is forthcoming from more than twenty print and online journals, including The Los Angeles Review, Bayou Magazine, and Tahoma Literary Review. A native of southwestern Pennsylvania, she is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT. Visit her online at http://www.ashleykunsa.com.