CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place
Jessica Hollander


PART ONE

1. Only one dream the mother remembered: driving, dead bodies on the road, the word PAPER large and black on a billboard. Sometimes she made up different dreams when she woke panicked in the gray morning, imagining an airport chase, a lake drowning—but they weren’t really hers, only dreams she believed she should have instead of always the one: driving through death and the urge to pull over.

2. The girl spent a Saturday morning cutting snowflakes from a pile of paper she’d found on her mother’s desk. The snowflakes were peppered with sliced negotiations, diamond-pierced words like child and property and alimony, and when the girl finished she strung the flakes together and hung them from her window so they trailed to the berry bush and flapped in the stirred summer wind.

3. Screamed in the kitchen one night. Too many cooks in the saucepan. Too little wine. Granite counters crusted with crushed tomato, sea salt, sausage casing, but no food besides the steaming meal bleeding over the bin. The girl sent to her room— Now. The father’s recipes stacked and chopped to pieces and confettied across the tile. Division always makes less unless one was a fraction to begin with. “Divide by me,” the father said. “Then we both come out ahead.”

4. Over summer break, the girl wanted projects similar to school but better. The babysitter gave cartoon-spelling tests and driveway geology lessons, brought Dickens and Shakespeare from her Sophomore Advanced English. They read aloud, and with special gaits and one arm thrown theatrically, they trailed one another through the long grass, and the babysitter didn’t mind the books this time because words weren’t meant to be studied, they were meant to be screamed.

5. The mother missed something every night. Grocery line stretched back to frozen foods, her customer-in-training next to her pushing a full-sized cart in which lay a package of egg noodles. The mother craned her neck come on come on. Girl steadied, observing tabloid banners. Mother slipped a five into the girl’s rhinestoned purse, said, “Why don’t you pay this time Little Miss Grown Woman?”

6. Gray stripes on the walls at the Hampton Inn Extended Stay seemed appropriate to the father. A wallpapered prison for the middle-aged no worse than the previous wallpapered prison (the mother’s pick—expansive blue and black flowers). A whole world of prisons! The father turned animal, twice filled his ice bucket and dumped the contents on the concrete balcony, jumped up and down to hear the crack crack crack. A man got into a car. The father’s wife and daughter in the parking lot, and time to be human again.

7. “A sad situation,” the babysitter told friends lounging at night on her parents’ screened-in porch. She planned years from now to marry the boy holding her hand, though he’d quit his job and all summer hung around his mother’s pool smoking cigarettes with his mother. Dark ahead; behind them bright inside with television and bills, an electric piano and screwed-together projects. The babysitter said, “Stay together for the child,” and one friend said, “Yes,” and another said, “No,” and another said, “Life is life,” and the boyfriend said nothing.

8. A man with a bare face—no moustache. The twitch of his sharp muscles made the girl nervous, the view of his top lip, the shape of words meant for her mother. Long candles glowed in the center of the table, a bowl of fruit tasted waxy—the girl had tried them earlier after her mother said “You can’t.” An extra fork had appeared beside the girl’s plate. She took one in each hand and learned to eat quickly.

9. A newspaper—The Home Times. The babysitter helped with the layout, even wrote an article about the disappearance of a gray tabby beneath the porch. The girl’s headlines: Magic Money Appears Where Needed, Shakespeare Beats Dickens in Death Match, Snowflakes from June Still Breathing. The girl shoved her mother’s copy beneath her bedroom door. “Impossibilities,” the girl’s mother said over blueberry waffles. “What all good news makes use of.”


PART TWO

1. Only one dream remembered: driving, dead bodies, the word PAPER large and black on a billboard. Sometimes when the mother woke panicked in the gray morning she imagined the dream continued—pulled over and the dead bodies woke up. They staggered toward her car with handfuls of colored fliers, shrieking, “Try this! Try this!” They covered her car with fliers until she opened her door and the dead surrounded her, pulled her limbs, called, “Come with me! There’s a saying! An expression! A humorous disposition you must try!” This is when the mother pushed off her covers and washed her face vigorously with hot water.

6. The father at the Hampton Inn missed the girl’s birthday—called once, twice, opened his mouth—nothing. His hands shoved in the ice-cube-filled sink kept him still. All good dates bring memories. Last year he’d rained confetti on the girl and her mother, and for months they found tiny bright circles between couch cushions and carpet threads and pages of books. Once the mother found one in the collar of her shirt and told the father, “It’s a reminder that today’s not a party.” And the father said, “It was a bad idea. A few seconds of humanity and then too many trips to the trash can.”

2. The girl spent a Saturday morning with a hole puncher and any paper she could find: envelopes, magazines, toilet paper. She confettied the house. When the floors and counters and tables and closets seemed sufficiently lively, she opened her window and littered the berry bush where soggy snowflakes clumped. Like fresh snow. Her hand cramped and burned. When her mother came out of her bedroom, the girl strapped on a party hat and went to see what was the problem.

9. A newspaper—The Home Times. The babysitter helped with the layout, wrote an article about two teddy bears placed in different rooms to years later find each other again. The girl’s headlines: Hampton Inn a Fun Place to Die, Burping Good for Heart, Girl in Need of New Purse: Less Girly. The girl shoved her mother’s copy beneath her bedroom door. “Hmm,” the girl’s mother said over Wheat Flakes. “This paper needs a new publisher.”

7. “A sad situation,” the babysitter told friends lounging at night on plastic playground structures. Minutes before, she’d slid open a basement window, jiggled loose the screen, and hopped on her bike, skidded down abandoned streets to the elementary school where her friends waited with rolling papers—not that she approved, but she wouldn’t be left behind. “The girl’s lost her role models,” said the babysitter, taking a puff but not inhaling, and one friend said, “I’ve lost mine and my parents are still together,” and one said, “I hate my dad,” and the boyfriend said, “People who look up to their parents must spend lots of time in cupboards and beneath racecar and princess beds.”

5. The mother missed something every night. She tucked her daughter into bed and realized no vegetables. No animal-shaped vitamin. No hug-and-a-kiss. Late, late, late, she snuck into the bedroom and placed a carrot in the girl’s purse. Next time—a parrot-shaped vitamin. Once she stood in the yellow night-lightened room watching her daughter sleep, the heave of her small chest, and, not knowing what to do, she hugged the girl’s purse. She kissed it.

8. A man with a bare face emerged from the mother’s bedroom one morning. The girl stopped, hands on hips, and stared behind his shoulder. “Excuse me,” the man said, his eyes on the bathroom. “You can’t stand there,” he said. “I like your pajamas,” he said. Finally he turned back to the bedroom, and the girl heard him say, “There’s something wrong with your daughter,” and the mother said, “Just wait a minute until she’s cleared out of the hallway.”

4. Over summer break, the girl wanted projects similar to school but better. The babysitter assumed a curious mind: the sewing-needled insect dissections, the ketchup-smeared Hamlet diorama—the king and queen as throat-slit teddy bears. “It’s not easy to sew heads back on,” the babysitter said, but she played audience to the girl’s special gait, her one arm thrown theatrically, and she tried not to notice the bears were the ones she’d reunited after years of circumstantial separation.

3. Screamed in the kitchen one night. The girl’s mother and two men the girl didn’t much recognize, not even the one her father who neatly-tuxedoed smelled of too-strong cologne and ripped a document to pieces over the dinner table. “Now, now,” said the bare-faced man. “Now.” The girl sent to her room. “That can be recopied,” said the mother. Beneath the girl, exhausted crying. “Divide by me,” said the unrecognizable father. “And we both come out dead.”


PART THREE

9. The Home Times—The babysitter put on assignment to interview the father. Answered Hampton door in a tuxedo. Offered plastic cup of water. Yes—a man. Married, but. Tuxedo wasn’t practical purchase so getting practice out of it now. Enjoys new place would I like another ice cube? Choices are difficult young lady. Blows nose. Stares long time at girl. Concludes interview. The girl’s headlines: Search for Paper Thief Continues, Mysterious Living Room Weather, In These Times the Home is a Tired Place. The girl slid the mother’s copy beneath her door. “Yes, I read it,” the mother said over a cup of weak tea. “He’s probably getting that thing filthy.”

8. A man with a bare face seen leaving early one morning with an armful of clothes go go go. The girl hole-punched her curtains.

7. “A sad situation,” the babysitter told her boyfriend floating in his mother’s pool. The boyfriend had his ears beneath the surface and she wasn’t sure he’d heard. Plus she wanted to say it again. So she did. And he said, “Here’s a sad situation.” He climbed out of the pool and went into his house, and she waited awhile, and then she toweled off and pulled her sun-warmed clothes over her still-wet suit. She went home to her books and lifted each one: A sad situation. A sad situation. The carpet dampened around her.

6. Between wallpaper-prisoned walls, the father bathed in ice cubes, wondered was steady clanking better than furious shaking and upheaval of the foundation. No one’s fault his body ran hot. Sufficiently cold, he pulled on his tuxedo and stood on the balcony, watching for other humans.

5. The mother missed something every night. Just home, she wore elastic sweatpants and ruined-neck sweatshirts. The girl watched from the staircase, ready in skirt and Mary Janes, with necklace and sequined purse—“What is it?” the mother asked. The girl stayed silent, while barefoot in the living room the mother walked through bits of paper, toed them high into the air so they fluttered around her. A phone call. An anniversary. The mother missed the father.

4. Over summer break, the girl didn’t need a babysitter asking why the confetti. Asking if the girl felt alright, if she wanted to talk, if the babysitter could teach her anything about happy mothers and fathers staying together; perhaps a field trip to the babysitter’s house? The girl said, “Last I checked my parents weren’t in pieces like a leg here an arm there.” The girl confettied. The babysitter watched.

3. Screamed in the kitchen one night. “I’m home!” The father a department-store mannequin run through mud. He looked at the mother. “Let’s stop the division.” The mother took his hand and they left the kitchen together, two humans, one in sweatpants, one in filthy tuxedo. Smile, the girl thought, alone and watching them sent to their room. Now. Now, now, now.

2. The girl spent Saturday morning littering the house. Clothes, tax forms, books, photos—shred and chopped and thrown in the air. She filled her small sequined purse. She filled her parents’ bed. Yesterday, the babysitter had called the mother, said, “This may be my last day.” A celebration.

1. Only one dream. The mother woke next to the father and a pile of paper. She thought up new dreams. She thought up the dead. She thought up new words and faces and natures to try—yes yes she should try! Then she settled the dead down. She settled down beside them.


Jessica Hollander is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Alabama. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in BLIP Magazine, Cincinnati Review, The Journal, Quarterly West, Sonora Review, and West Branch, among others.