Critical Thought: Fourteen

The other day I was walking up the stairs to the stacks on the second floor of the Monmouth College library, three blocks from my house. There’s an art gallery at the top of the stairs, and I glanced through its glass exterior and saw hanging on the far wall a painting of a Gott water cooler. It shimmered an otherworldly orange. It practically trembled with color. I was struck by how this object I’d seen overturned on countless college football coaches’ heads had been rendered both familiar and completely alien.

I write what most people would call realistic stories. This might or might not have something to do with the fact I am from the Midwest. It might or might not have something to do with the fact my father has worked his entire adult life in pig plants.

The painting I described above, Gott, is part of an exhibition called avenue by a fellow Midwesterner, a painter named Tyler Hennings. In his artist’s statement, Mr. Hennings says that he is attempting with his paintings “to create a dialogue between representation and abstraction.”

I feel drawn toward, if not bound to, representation with my fiction. This representation, of course, does not merely transcribe reality. I tend to take pains in the honing. What I’ve been doing lately, however—and am attempting to do with this story—is somewhat collagistic. I am writing what to me are mostly self-contained units that hopefully begin to illuminate, when they are aligned and juxtaposed with one another, a slightly different reality—one that I hope is at once both recognizable and foreign.

Chad Simpson is the author of Phantoms, a chapbook published in April by Origami Zoo Press. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Orion Magazine, Freight Stories, Crab Orchard Review, and Staccato Fiction. He lives in Monmouth, Illinois, and teaches fiction writing and literature classes at Knox College.

Fourteen

i. the things a dirty mouth might be capable of

jodee likes the baseball players, with their tight white pants, and their mitts cut from cow cloth, but everybody knows it's safe to like a boy's butt, which is made of out nothing but skin and blood and fat. no boy in the history of the world ever raped a girl with his ass.

while jodee sits in the bleachers and fantasizes about the butts that remind her of marshmallows, and the ones that make her want to bounce a quarter off them, i’m down at the football stadium, watching track practice. when they practice, most of the track guys take off their shirts, and i'm pretty sure jodee's never seen in the flesh a body like the one on that guy who throws the javelin.

jodee can stay up at the baseball field all day and night for all i care. she can touch knees with jenni and giggle every time jordan or sam adjusts his cup. she can say eww when the boys sneak a dip behind the coach’s back, and then she can disregard entirely the things a dirty mouth might be capable of.

i’ll take that javelin thrower right over there and forget about jodee in the time it takes him to get a good grip on that spear. he looks relaxed right now, casual, his bangs down in his eyes, the javelin and a hot white spot of sun on his muscle-y shoulder, but anybody—probably even jodee—can see this guy is about to uncoil like a spring.


ii. marks

i’d convinced my parents to let me stay at home for the weekend while they drove to champaign for my sister’s graduation. i’d told them i had two papers and a lab report to finish, and did they want me to fail the majority of the classes i was taking in the second half of my first year of high school? they did not.

but then one of ryan’s friends—i’m not sure which one, though i’m betting it was sam or jordan—taped a note accompanied by an anatomically impossible drawing to our mailbox asking when was it his turn for a blow job.

mom and dad decide in all of three seconds that i can do my work in the car, and at the hotel.

i spend a few hours on friday afternoon in the backseat of their audi, wearing earbuds and punching the keys on my laptop too hard, and we arrive at katie’s apartment at around seven to take her to dinner.

mom calls katie from the parking lot to say we’re there, and then my phone buzzes. i’d told ryan that i’d have the house to myself on friday and saturday, and i hadn’t told him any different after one of his douchebag friends—who shouldn’t even have known about what had happened to begin with—got all horny and picasso and decided to exhibit his work on our front porch. i figured ryan was just then showing up at the house, full of hope and charged with expectations.

i glance down at the phone and tug an earbud free, trying to decide if i will take ryan’s call at all when i see katie’s name on the screen.

katie and i are seven years apart. we aren’t close. i’m surprised her name is even in my phone.

there is a text message: come up? tell mom and dad you have to use the restroom or something.

katie answers the door with one hand pressed to the side of her neck. with her unoccupied hand, she pulls me inside her apartment like she hasn’t eaten for a few days and i’m a veggie pizza.

the bruise on katie’s neck is terrible—like the mark a seatbelt might leave after an accident.

what happened? i say, and i’m really not sure.

i just want you to help me cover it up, she says.

i lower the toilet seat, tell katie to sit down, and then begin with foundation the color of dried-out apricots. katie’s skin is far too pale for it, but it’s going to have to do.

when i start in with the powder, katie’s roommate comes out of her bedroom and stops in front of the open bathroom door. her eyes are red and raw-looking. her hands, balled up into fists, look heavy as stones at her sides.

she is wide enough that she just about fills the doorway, but she’s short, so she’s like a gate but with bad hair. she and katie have been roommates for three years, but i’ve only seen her a few times, and never quite like this. i think her name is megan. she stares at us and sniffles.

i’m standing over my sister, straddling her. i’m cupping her face in one of my hands. she pulls her head back and turns toward the door. go away, she says. then she closes her eyes and puts her cheek back inside my palm.

megan runs her forearm beneath her nose to clean up some dripping snot. she points a finger at me like she is about to orate, like she is about to impassionedly address a throng of zealous millions, but then she retreats. about the time she presses her door closed—she doesn’t slam it—i begin to realize the nature of what has just happened.

the drawing that had been left on our mailbox was of two stick figures. the girl stick figure was recognizable as such by the lines that made up her long hair, by her big round eyes, and by the feminine tilt of her head as she knelt on her hands and knees and attempted to swallow a penis that, if it were brought to life in proportion with its stick body, would be capable of impregnating god. whoever drew the picture had also written my name beneath the girl and run an arrow up toward her breast-less chest. Everything about that picture was obvious in a way that this moment between my sister and her roommate isn’t.

katie? i say. the powder brush in my hands is light as ten feathers, but it hasn’t moved in so long it’s getting heavy.

katie opens her eyes. she speaks with her cheek still touching my hand.

she wanted me to tell mom and dad about us before graduation, she says. she wanted me to come out. the hickey is a punishment.

the bathroom light is fluorescent. it flickers twice as the last seven or eight years of my sister’s life become for me less blurry around the edges.

if it were up to me, i would wipe clean the foundation and powder i have already applied and present katie and her scarlet-letter-like hickey to my parents on a platter. if i did these things, i would get to live for a moment in a world that was a little more honest—and i would get to watch my parents seethe.

but i have love for Katie inside me sure as blood. and besides, none of this is really up to me.

ok, i say, readying my brush, holding her head still in my hand. we’re going to fix this up good.


iii. when we were girls

i’m not a lesbian like my sister but i think sometimes about jodee.

i don’t think i could ever kiss her with an open mouth, or run my hand up her shirt, but when she passes by me in the hall at school without so much as a glance, when she releases into the air one of those laughs so impure it’s like a bad pop song, i wonder what it would be like to do something to her, to touch her in a way that’s different from the way we would touch when we were girls. i wonder what it would be like to stare into her stupid face while I did it, saying, look at me, goddamnit. look. i’m right here.

by Chad Simpson