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Cruel Summer

by Michele Finn Johnson

Violet and Paula sit next to each other, cross-legged in the mink-lined nest. In life, both Violet and Paula were much more practical—cotton washables, handbags from Target, generic-brand girls—but up here in the clouds, they fancy themselves a higher-class species.

 

Carla knows Sam is cheating again—late nights at the office, covert loads of laundry. A part of her doesn't really care. What’s one more loss this year? If she could get through last summer, losing Mom and Paula, she could get through anything. Carla’s cell buzzes. Sam. Running late, he texts.

 

Paula stands up in the nest, tilting it off balance. “What is she thinking? Leave him!” she screams.

           Violet pulls Paula’s kneecap as if it were a joystick, steering the nest upright again. “You know Carla,” she says. “She’s like a kettle. When she boils, she’ll boil over.”

           Paula swats Violet’s hand away. “That’s the new Carla. Old Carla would have bit him in the nut sack.”

 

Carla thinks she smells some cheap-ass celebrity perfume, Jessica Simpson or J.Lo, when Sam climbs into bed at 1 a.m.. She moans at the nasal offense.

           “You okay, baby?” Sam asks.

           Carla just lies there—Am I okay? Am I okay? Am I okay?—until her radio alarm clock sounds. Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer.” She remembers dancing with Paula on the hood of Bobby Rosano’s car, Paula with that floppy straw hat she’d bought on the boardwalk for seven dollars. She'd worn it all summer; they'd danced as if there was a proper floor beneath them. If one slipped, the other grabbed.

 

Paula leans back in the nest, her legs draped over Violet’s lap.

Violet puts down her knitting needles; she’s making a spider-silk lap blanket for Carla even though she knows she can’t deliver it.

           “What are you gloating about?”

           Paula smiles. “Promise not to ground me if I tell you.”

           Violet thinks hard about pushing Paula out of the nest, letting her find her own space in the clouds. But then she remembers Carla off to college. Carla off to her first job. Carla off to Sam. The loneliness.

           “For the love of mighty Christopher, just tell me.”

           Paula holds up her hand, tunes an invisible dial. “I’ve figured out how to control Carla’s radio.”

 

Carla unplugs her radio and plugs it back in. Reboot. Bananarama again. For the love of mighty Christopher, she says out loud to no one. Her mother’s 1940s form of cursing. Carla remembers her mom at the end, her last words. Be happy. She unplugs the radio, leaves the cord stretched across the floor like a snake. She hopes Sam will trip. Hit his head. Reboot himself.

 

Violet finishes the last stitch on the spider-silk blanket. She looks at Paula, huddled in the far corner of their nest, knees pulled to her chest. “It will be all right, dear,” Violet says. “You’ll find another way in.”

           Paula throws her hands up in the air. “That was it! That was the way!”

           Violet knows Paula is upset about the radio, but she also knows something that Paula doesn’t. She knows Carla’s thoughts; she knows Be happy Be happy is ratting around Carla’s mind like an egg on an uneven table; Violet knows it’s just a matter of time before the whole thing cracks wide open and for the best.

           Paula rubs her legs like kindling. “It’s freaking freezing up here.”

           Violet wishes she could reassure her somehow—Paula was so young when she left, her love line a wide-open sky. Violet stretches the spider-silk blanket across Paula’s lap, watches as her goose bumps recede.

Author's Note

Death doesn’t have to be a doggie-downer. I like to think that my departed peeps are floating above, with their same lively personalities and a softened sense of judgment . My mom and best friend Paula battled cancer at the same time, and although (thank goodness) I didn’t lose them both in the same year, their fights and losses are tied together for me. I loved placing fictional versions of their personalities in a mink-lined nest. Mom would think it cozy yet too extravagant; Paula would want to make sure that God had at least negotiated a bargain on the mink, or maybe just snuck it in Her pocketbook.

Michele Finn Johnson’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, The Adroit Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, jmww journal, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Follow her @m_finn_johnson, or visit
michelefinnjohnson.com.

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