Cleanin’ ‘er up

Began work on a long-gestating idea, but before I jump into that, thought I’d post an edited version of my last story, which I’ll submit to a few contests and have it unceremoniously declined. This will not dissuade me but challenge me to do better. I say this in the hopes that I don’t end up a crying ball of mush on the floor.

And *DRUMROLL PLEASE* I am enrolling in my first UCLA Extension class for short story writing! So I can bogusly claim to have “gone to UCLA.” Pretty stoked about that lie. 


The Dance

“In all things earthly and heavenly, I see myself.”

Standing in the doorway, staring into her parent’s living room, Leigh addressed all objects in turn. The navy corduroy sofa covered in white cat fur, the philodendron that had taken over stained bookshelves, the half-full glass of warm orange juice her mother had left on the coffee table that morning – she nodded and smiled at each one, like old friends.

She had been found at a Greyhound station in Amarillo, arriving three days before in an attempt to collect change for fare to Dallas. Food had been carefully parsed out – a sleeve of Ritz crackers and dry ramen, and after that any food that travelers left behind on top of swelling trash bins. While she had become a dedicated vegan, her hunger led her to a half-eaten turkey sandwich left on a picnic bench that made her violently ill. For ten hours she writhed and soiled herself in the darkness of an unused storm cellar, mumbling Sufi mantras and seeing visions of her mother reaching out to stroke her hair. Finally, dehydrated and delirious, she walked to the Greyhound ticket booth, vomited on the counter, and passed out. Her sister Jessie was the one to make the six-hour drive to the hospital.

No one had expected her to speak.

“Well of course you feel that way, sweetie,” said her mother. “You’ve always been such a sensitive soul. And I’m sure it’s nice to be back at home with all your things, right? I hope it’s just like how you remembered it. Maybe I’ve let Pauline’s fur take over the house a bit, but…”

Leigh dragged her finger across the china cabinet, then drew a wide circle around the dining room table. She closed her eyes and smiled at the introduction of each new piece of furniture, a rapturous, wistful look of lost love found. After the nascent ritual she held up her finger, rubbed its collected dust with her thumb, and blew it toward her family.

“I so wish I knew what you were doing right now. I mean, what the hell?” her brother Landon said, arms crossed and testing the limits of his newly deepened voice.

“Brother, if you knew what I’ve learned, you’d feel the same way. Our objects are an extension of ourselves. They don’t breathe, but they’re alive.”

“Are you fucking high again?”

“Landon! If you’re not going to support you sister then you can just go to your room until dinner,” their mother said, nostrils flared.

“It’s OK, mom. He can ask all the questions he wants, even the hurtful ones. It was all the questions I asked of the universe that brought me to my enlightenment,” Leigh said as she ran her fingers through Landon’s hair and kissed his forehead. Landon shook her off and rolled his eyes.

Leigh was six weeks clean and still had the glassy, unfocused gaze of someone whose return to sobriety was violent and unexpected. Six weeks in detox and therapy, meant to unravel a tightly sewn hem. They had picked her up from rehab that morning and set out the clothes their mother had bought – a gray sweat suit, white sneakers, and a canvas tote with an electric blue peace sign used to cart off her few belongings. Jessie had begged her mother to buy something that didn’t so closely resemble the drab uniform of a mental patient, but she had insisted on purchasing the e rough, formaldehyde-scented cotton of a clean slate. They had compromised on the peace sign tote, but only because it was on clearance.

“I’ll bring Leigh’s things into the bedroom and have her put on something else for dinner,” said Jessie, heaving the tote over her shoulder. “Let’s get take-out from Ming’s and maybe have a little wine. Leigh, I mean, how long has it been since you had their fried tofu and eggplant? I’m actually drooling right now thinking about it.”

Jessie grabbed Leigh around the waist and led her, stiff and smiling.

The sisters had shared a room for as long as they could remember. Late-night whispers, wardrobe consternation, make-up tutorials – it was all there, soaked in the shadows. The room also held the hair pulling and nail scratching that marked their teens, and later, scenes of sorrow so immense and heavy that it crushed the room flat.

Jessie threw her overnight bag on a wicker vanity and hung the peace sign tote on a hook made to look like a crawling vine. Leigh began her finger dance anew, this time stroking the legs of a porcelain ballerina that she had once treasured, then opening dresser drawers and holding her face against old flannel pants and balled-up gym socks. Bubbled and yellowed rosebud wallpaper pasted the walls, and hand-stenciled shelves held well-worn copies of Nancy Drew and The Babysitter’s Club. As teenagers their collecting habits hadn’t been a concern, but the years brought grotesquerie to Leigh’s porcelain drama masks, their hollow eyes and pursed lips hung on the wall with dull streams of rainbow ribbon. Even Jessie’s snow globe collection brought to mind the spirited, misguided choices of a hoarder.

There was a time when the sisters believed that every toy, game, and piece of clothing had a beating heart. Leigh was the one who held tight to the belief that nothing was transient so long as you gave it a soul. This may have explained her reluctance to redecorate the room or disturb its objects, even after Jessie moved out five years before.

“What do you want to wear to dinner?” Jessie asked, pulling a teal jersey skirt and white button-up from the closet .

“Oh what I’m wearing is just fine, don’t worry. I feel beautiful in anything. Manny used to say I look even more exquisite when I’m wearing nothing, because skin is the soul’s shelter.”

Jessie recoiled when she heard Manny’s name, and a brief vision of spitting on his pauper’s grave floated across her mind like a small, dark cloud.

What was most insulting to her was the name – Manny. Like a sour plumber or a co-worker who never shut up. A name that was antagonistic in its benignity. Manny couldn’t have taken Leigh from them. Manny hadn’t filled the cramped three bedroom house in Lancaster with powerful incense, books on every contradicting spiritual matter, and a rainbow of pills, rocks and nugs to wash it all down. Manny hadn’t grabbed Leigh’s face and held it to his before fucking her on a filthy Persian rug. Manny was Charlie Manson without the guitar. Ted Bundy without the charm. It was impossible that she didn’t see.

Leigh said everything with a smile now. Not the way she had as a high school cheerleader, all teeth through the pain of Herkie jumps, but a smile that was at once human and alien. When she was 15 Jessie had worked briefly for a portrait studio  where the Polish photographer endorsed “smiling with eyes and not only face.” The first thing Jessie noticed when she saw Leigh were her eyes – like they couldn’t have cared less about her smile.

They sorted through her belongings – a few colorful thrift store tees and skirts, stained from cooking and gardening, a short book on Zen Buddhism, a pair of utilitarian black house shoes, and a flimsy, curled chapbook that held Manny’s self-published manifesto. Jessie held it up and crinkled her nose, but Leigh squealed and lunged for it before she could drop it in the trash can.

“Please please don’t throw it away yet. Dr. Johnson said I need to hold onto it until I’m ready.”

“OK, but until I go back to the apartment, I want you to keep this away from me. Put it on the shelf in the closet. I don’t care. I just don’t want to see it.”

Jessie convinced Leigh to change into a pair of old carpenter jeans and the white hoodie she’d once worn for morning workouts before school. She ran a brush through her hair – at one time thick and glossy, but now cut short in ragged chunks. Her yellowed teeth and receding gums made her look horsey and 20 years older.

They walked down the stairs arm in arm, Leigh looking serene but holding on tight. Their father had picked up Ming’s and their mother had portioned it on the fine china and filled cups with jasmine tea. A heaping plate of crab wontons sat in the middle of the table, along with two lit taper candles and a bouquet of flowers with a card – “WELCOME HOME LEIGH! Love, Mom, Dad, Jessie, Landon, and Pauline (meow!).

Leigh hugged each of them then slowly lowered herself into a dining room chair. They had all expected some sort of foreign chant to precede their meal, but Leigh just placed a napkin in her lap and asked for more wontons. With no one knowing quite what to say (“how’s life out of the cult treatin’ ya?”), they ate in silence until their mother raised a glass of wine.

“I’d like to make a toast. To Leigh – for coming back to us after a long, long year, and to my family, for never giving up hope that we would see her again. Honey, we’re all so glad you’re home.”

They raised glasses of water and wine while Leigh sat perfectly still and wore the far-away smile. Jessie glanced at her lap and noticed one slight movement – her forefinger scratching deep into the skin of her thumb, leaving a thin streak of blood and torn tissue.

The doctors advised that she stay longer, but Leigh had implored them to let her go home. They’d seen cases like this before – young woman experiences trauma of an emotional and/or physical nature, rejects her family, meets a friendly woman to whom she can relate, introduces her to a man with soft, gentle words with a tyrant’s gaze. Communal work, difficult work, all on the backs of broken women. Their mother and father were self-admitted hippies in the 60s, but they had the good sense to steer clear of these fumbling gurus, who usually ended up in prison. They were shocked to know those worlds still existed.

What nobody wanted to admit was that the only reason Leigh was home was because Manny was dead. Killed by a self-inflicted gunshot to his chest as police swarmed the home and found a macabre scene of filth, with  a cornucopia of drugs and stolen goods tucked in every corner.

They attempted dinner conversation: Landon’s upcoming lacrosse match, Jessie’s long hours at the bookstore doing inventory then studying at night, their father’s latest pro-bono case involving an immigrant mother and her U.S.-born children. It was only when their mother began a long story about the upcoming church breakfast and all the planning involved that Leigh perked up.

“Manny used to tell us that if we were in disagreement about dinner or one of our festivals that we should sit in a circle and hold hands while voicing our complaints. The one who was angry enough to let go of the hands and break the chain would not be allowed to make any decisions. I never broke the chain, which is why I was one of his favorites…”

“I will not hear another word of this!,” said her father, slamming his fork on the table and pushing back his chair. He approached Leigh and put a finger to her face.

“I am a patient man, and I am a good man. But I did not just spent $20,000 to hear you talk about this goddamn lunatic at the dinner table. If you can say anything, ANYTHING, that doesn’t involve that twisted motherfucker, you can stay here and finish your dinner.”

Leigh blinked and her bottom lip quivered. Jessie caught a glimpse of the burden that had gotten her wrapped up in this business in the first place – Leigh couldn’t stand to be disliked. She found her pleasure in giving others pleasure.

She recovered quickly and the smile returned as she cleared her plate and walked up the stairs. Their mother sat sobbing into a dinner napkin while Landon slumped and moved sweet and sour chicken around his plate. Their father had retreated red-faced to the kitchen, where he clutched a double bourbon and stared out the window.

Jessie felt her stomach tighten and gurgle, reaching the toilet just in time to vomit moo shu pork and kung pao beef. Her eyes watered and she stared in the mirror, its corners still plastered with cellophane butterflies and ladybugs.

She found Leigh on the bed with Manny’s chapbook open on her lap.

“Jesus fucking Christ Leigh, are you kidding me?!”

Jessie’s body shook with rage as the room went dark around her except for the book. She grabbed it from Leigh’s lap and tore it across its length, then turned her back and began crushing and ripping pages despite Leigh’s weak protests.

“Please Jessie, please stop. PLEASE. It’s going to take me a long time to find another copy. Please, please, sweet sister.”

“You know, it WOULD be nice to have a SISTER again. You have no idea Leigh, no idea what I’ve gone through, what we’ve all gone through. What did we do? What the fuck did we do to make you hate us so much? I need you now and you aren’t here with me…you’re still with him. Always with him.”

Jessie surveyed the remnants of the book strewn across the room, then collapsed on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

“I’m pregnant. It’s Jason’s. And I’m scared and I don’t know what to do and I just really wish you could give me good advice like you used to. Because this is my last year in school, and I don’t want to be the fattest girl getting my diploma.”

Jessie cried into a ruffled embroidered pillow that they had sewn together – rainbow floss with the words “Sisters Forever.” She waited for Leigh to give her the tone-deaf smile and congratulate her, or to leave the room and immediately tell their parents. Instead she curled up and wrapped her in her arms, face pressed to her neck so Jessie could feel hot tears.

Again, she was not expected to speak.

“Well, Carla Lesser goes to State too, so you’ll never be the fattest girl.”

They both let out wet giggles, followed by bigger laughs of relief.

“Fuck Leigh, what am I going to do?”

“Well, a baby is a gift. But Jess, I know you have big dreams. I can’t tell you what to do, but I love you and support you no matter what.”

“That’s not Manny talking?”

“Well, it is, but it’s also me. One day you’ll understand why. And on that day, all will be revealed to you and you’ll reach your arms to the sky and feel the sun on your face and you’ll want the same gift as he gave me.”

Jessie sighed. It was useless to argue.

“OK. I hope that day comes someday soon.”

They heard a gentle knock on the door and their mother entered the room.

“Hello my sweeties. Dad’s watching 60 Minutes and thought you’d want to join. He feels very bad about dinner. Come downstairs and we’ll have brownies.”

Having socially conscious parents meant Sunday nights of 60 Minutes for as long as they could remember. They changed into pajamas and sat in front of the TV, wrapped in a pink crocheted blanket while Morley Safer spoke grimly about Pakistan.

Another knock, this time on the front door, this time much harder.

“That must be Jan. She said she wanted to say hello to Leigh after dinner,” said their mother as she set aside a bowl of popcorn.

She opened the door to four police officers and two cruisers.

“Good evening ma’am. Are you the mother of Ms. Leigh Cook?”

“What is this?” said their father, opening the door wide.

“We’re working on the case of Manuel Contreras, and would like to ask Ms. Cook a few questions.”

“Well I’d like a little more information.”

Jessie heard only bits and pieces of the ensuing conversation: evidence at the scene… he’d been dead before the raid……Leigh’s fingerprints…anonymous phone call…a few other girls in custody. She went cold and numb, then grabbed Leigh’s arm and held her close. Leigh stared at the muted TV screen and clawed deeper into her thumb. Pauline sat between them, purring and kneading Leigh’s thigh.

Leigh turned to Jessie and Landon.

“I love you both. I’m so sorry. Keep me in your heart. Please read Manny’s book. It will guide you to me.”

The police picked her up from the floor with swift efficiency. She whimpered when they handcuffed her, and her face wrinkled as her rights were read.

“I’m a lawyer, and I’d like to accompany my daughter to the station.”

The police led her to one of the waiting cruisers. Neighbors began peeking their heads out of windows and from behind blinds after seeing a blaze of red lights. Their mother noticed this and reflexively covered her face with both hands before realizing it was useless.

Their father backed his Volkswagen out of the driveway and followed. Then they turned right and disappeared, leaving the street dark and quiet.

The day Leigh was declared a missing person, they had all held hands and asked an undefined higher power for strength. They had made her favorite meal – vegetable lasagna – like she were a lost dog who could be led home by smell. They turned through old photo albums and remembered trips to Disneyland and the water park, the broken bones and broken hearts. They mourned her before it was time to mourn, so that every scrap of energy could instead be spent on finding her. Combing the woods, dredging lakes, following leads that went cold. To find her, but not truly find her.

To lose her again.

They held hands.




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