Upheavals

The Absence of Gravity

by Sarah Freligh

Nominated for 2019 Best of the Net

 
  Upheavals Home  |  Contents  |  Authors  Wordrunner eChapbooks  | April 2019  |  echapbook.com      

By March the days are warm enough to melt the snow into rivers that empty into the depression near the end of the street. At night the water freezes into a pond that extends into the intersection. Vince sits in his easy chair by the window, a magazine open on his lap. He listens to the clicking of tires on the wet street, the silence when the car reaches the ice, tensing for the accident he’s sure will happen. Some nights he’ll put on his overcoat and stand in the intersection, a paper bag in his arms, scattering handfuls of salt on the ice, cursing nature for the weather, the city for its indifference. Warming up in the kitchen with his hands around a mug of coffee, he says to Marie: One of these days somebody’s going to get killed out there, mark my words.

On an early spring evening, a light snow starts falling at dusk, polishing the ice underneath to a high shine. Vince is opening a bottle of beer in the kitchen when he hears the crash, the thump of metal followed by glass shattering. By the time he gets outside, the driver is out of the car and staggering around the intersection. A kid, Vince can see, blood running from a gash on his forehead onto the white “E” of his varsity jacket. Vince takes the boy by the arm and leads him into the house, steering him to a chair in the kitchen where he calls for help. Marie calls an ambulance, Susan brings a clean towel. Vince will remark to Marie later how the kid smelled like a brewery; drunk as that, he had no business driving a damn car, fast or slow. But Vince calls him “son,” offers to give him a clean shirt to wear home from the hospital.

“His name’s Billy,” Susan says. He’s one of the wild boys at her high school. She knows him by reputation, admires him the way she would a tiger in a cage.

Her father looks at her, surprised.

“Billy O’Rourke,” she says.

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A month later, they pass in the hallway at school. The scar on his forehead is scarlet against the deep tan of his skin. He has been in the South somewhere—Tennessee or Kentucky—with the baseball team. Susan has already heard the story of how Billy and two of his teammates pooled their money one night and bought a bleached-blonde hooker who drank a pint of bourbon and danced a shimmying limbo under a broomstick. Afterward, the hooker took Billy to bed while the other boys huddled in the bathroom and listened.

“Hey,” he says now, touching her shoulder. His eyes are turquoise against the tan of his skin. “Thanks. Tell your dad thanks.”

Susan nods. She shifts her books to hide her heart. Surely he can see it trying to pound its way out of her chest.

“Sure,” she says. “Okay.”

He says something else to her, something she can’t hear over the sound of her heart sliding sideways, skidding into love. No time to brace for a collision.

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 Marie and Vince don’t understand. That boy, that drunk. No more son and solicitude. Now whenever Billy comes around, Vince shuts the door of the den and turns the radio up. Marie, though, can’t leave her alone.

“Those shorts you’re wearing. I thought I threw them away.”

“I found them again.”

“You can see your rear end hanging out.”

“So?”

“So? You dress like a tramp, you act like a tramp.”

Susan turns away. Marie stomps up the stairs, her mouth set in a slash of disgust. Susan can hear her thumping from bathroom to bedroom, trailing words like exhaust.

“I don’t understand . . . that girl . . . why she can’t . . . ”

When Billy honks for her, she slips out the door, shutting it on her mother and her disapproval.

In the car, she slides up close to him. He folds her into his arms. “I love you,” she says. She rests her head against his chest and feels his heart beat, like a bird’s wings as it rises from the ground.

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Man is about to walk on the moon for the first time and Susan is bent over the toilet in Annie’s bathroom, throwing up the Coke she’s been drinking to keep from being sick to her stomach. After she’s finished, she stretches out on the floor and rests her cheek against the cool tiles. She can hear the rumble hum of the refrigerator, Billy and the others watching television in the living room, the voice of Walter Cronkite weaving over and under the noise. “Man on the moon,” she says out loud. She still can’t believe it.

When someone knocks on the door, she lifts her head enough to say “Go upstairs, okay?” She hauls herself up with the help of the toilet and tucks her T-shirt into her cutoffs, tries to smile at herself in the mirror. In the fluorescent light, her skin looks yellowy-green. She splashes water on her cheeks and forehead and pats her face dry with the one of the guest towels Annie’s mom has hung next to the sink. She reapplies mascara, adds eyeliner. “Not bad,” she says. Not good, says her reflection. She gives it the finger.

In the kitchen, she pours herself another glass of Coke. Little sips, she thinks. Marie’s voice, Marie’s hand on the plastic Captain Kangaroo cup Susan drank from whenever she was sick. The reflection from the television glitters in the kitchen window, ghostly rows of crew-cutted men in white shirts.

 Simple physics, Mr. Mondschein told her physics class. Thrust. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Man on the moon reduced to numbers and equations, no miracle there. The classroom was over the cafeteria, the windows open for comfort in late May. The tomato soup smell of the cafeteria rose and filled her nose. She had to swallow to keep from throwing up all over her notebook.

For every action.

Billy comes into the kitchen, carrying a handful of empty cups that he sets on the counter next to the sink. “You okay?”

“Fine,” she says. Marie’s Law: You dance to the music, you pay the piper.

 He opens the refrigerator and pours himself a beer from the keg, tipping the plastic cup to catch the right amount of beer and foam. He holds it up. “The perfect beer,” he says.

“Perfect,” she says.

“Refill?”

She shakes her head. The smell of beer makes her stomach feel as if it’s sailing on rough water.

“Tell me you’re not hung over already,” he says. “Not on rum and coke.”

“I’m not hung over,” she says.

“Good,” he says. “Because the night’s young.” He sets his beer on the counter and picks up the copy of Life magazine Susan was reading before she got sick. He rolls it into a tube and hefts it like a baseball bat, pausing at the end of his swing to stare down the pitcher.

“He takes ball one, low and way inside. ”

Susan looks past him at the white-shirted men on the television. What a job they have, spinning men out into purple space and back again, to a car-sized spot in the ocean. What faith in numbers, in action and reaction.

“Swing and a miss, strike one.” Billy steps out of the batter’s box and pretends to spit over his shoulder. He touches his crotch and stands in again.

“The windup, the pitch and it’s going, going . . . It’s gone! A home run for O’Rourke over the right field wall. This kid can really wallop the ball, Ernie.”

He starts to trot around the imaginary bases, then stops. “This is where you’re supposed to cheer wildly.”

“Oh.” She rattles the ice at the bottom of her cup. “How’s that?”

“Not very wild.”

“Nope.” She is so tired. In the morning, iron hands hold her close to the bed, pulling her back into sleep. She wakes and is still exhausted.

He taps the rolled-up magazine against his thigh. “Paul and I are going downstairs to play pool,” he says. “If that’s okay.”

“You don’t need to ask.”

“I’m not.”

“So go.” Not very nice. Her reflection again.

“Fine, I will,” he says. But he stands there, looking at her like a dog waiting for a command from its master.

“My uncle used to do that,” she says. “The thing with the magazine. All the time. He always had something in his hands.”

 “You sure you’re okay?” he says.

 “Yeah,” she says. She reaches up and touches his bicep. She loves him best there, the soft skin sheathing the hard clot of muscle. But when he grabs her fingers and tries to hold them, she yanks her hand away.

 “What the fuck, Susie?” He stands there, halfway between hurt and angry.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I am, really. It’s the heat, it’s so hot.”

She hears him exhale, realizes he’s been holding his breath.

“Yeah,” he says. He touches her cheek with the rolled-up magazine. “Look, I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Sure,” she says. She watches him walk away, his wide, pretty shoulders. Graceful, she thinks. He would laugh if she told him that, said it out loud. Or be a little pissed. Guys aren’t fucking graceful. So many things she can’t say to him.

In the kitchen window, her smudged reflection winks and smirks back at her: Chicken.

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When it was no bigger than a suspicion, she would lock herself in a stall on the third floor bathroom at school and pray: Stupid, made-up prayers, whispered over and over, until the hurried words jostled and shoved up against each other in their urgency: Pleaseggoddontletitbeso. The hoods lit cigarettes next to the open window, fanning the smoke with their hands, while she sat on the toilet and made deals with God. Afterward she’d flush the toilet and wash her hands. The hoods studied her, slit-eyed, through shrouds of smoke. They knew.

At first she tried to pretend it away. What else was there? She’s heard of things, of ways out. A rich girl in Erieville, Pauline Hawkins, whose parents sent her on a week’s vacation in Sweden. Afterward the gossip, the snide remarks that trailed her down the hallway: In the middle of winter? A thousand dollars, cash. Susan doesn’t have a thousand dollars and even if she did, she knows she couldn’t go through with it. She couldn’t trust the airplane to get her there without crashing or the taxi to deliver her to the clinic without a collision or the Swedish doctor not to sever an artery that would cause her to bleed to death. She is afraid to die, but every morning when she leans over the toilet to throw up, she wishes she were dead.

She pours herself another Coke and opens the French doors to the patio. Annie is sitting on a folding chair in the shadows at the edge of the patio, smoking and looking up at the moon. Susan kicks off her sandals and goes outside. The flagstone feels like cool water on her feet.

“I think I see them,” Annie says. She holds her thumb up, squints at it.

Susan drags a chair up next to Annie and sits down. “See who?”

“Neil Armstrong and Buzz whatever the hell his name is.”

“Aldrin.” Susan sits down, undoes the button on her cutoffs. Better.

Annie gestures with her cigarette hand. “See? Those black specks there. It’s them.”

Susan laughs. “You’re high.”

“God, who names their kid Buzz anyway? A little baby.”

“His name’s really Edwin.” She’s surprised at herself. A fact, a shining nugget, retrieved from the soggy water of her brain.

Annie snorts. “That’s even worse. Edwin. Geez.”

 “Edwin Drood,” Susan says.

Annie looks at her. “Drood?”

“It’s a book,” Susan says. “By Charles Dickens.”

Annie snorts. “Miss English Major.” She tosses her cigarette into the grass. “What are they doing in there anyway? I’m afraid to go back in the house.”

“Paul and Billy are playing pool. Dane’s passed out. Marion got pissed off and went home.”

“Slut,” Annie says.

“Billy loves her. He says to me, why don’t you do your eyes like Marion’s? Why don’t you wear boots like Marion’s?”

“Those ones with the high heels that make her butt stick out?”

“She’s claims they’re leather but they’re really vinyl,” Susan says.

Annie yawns and reaches for her pack of cigarettes. She pulls out a joint and holds it up. “Voila!” she says.

“You smoke too much,” Susan says.

“You sound like my mother,” Annie says.

“Or mine,” Susan says. When Annie hands her the joint, she takes a deep drag and then another, holding the smoke in her lungs until her ears pop.

They pass the joint in silence. Already the moon looks softer. Maybe it’s not made of rock, but something loose and shifting, like baby powder. She imagines the astronauts stepping out of the lunar module and disappearing into that. Who would save them before they suffocated?

“So,” Annie says finally. “You told him yet?”

“Nope.”

“You said you would.”

“I will,” Susan says.

“You said that last week.”

“Maybe later.”

“Yeah, right,” Annie says. “Look. If you get married now while you’re still skinny, you can wear a white dress and nobody’ll know any different.”

“They’ll know,” Susan says. Whoever they were. She supposes she has been they, whispering about the girls who dropped out of school one year and were back the next. Hoody girls who screwed their heads off with everyone and their cousin or mousy, unlikely girls who did it once and got caught. Stupid girls. Now, here she is, in the same stupid boat.

“They have the cutest wedding dresses down at Stram’s,” Annie says. “Ones you could cut off and wear later, for New Year’s Eve or something.”

“With a baby? Yeah, sure.”

“I didn’t mean this New Year’s,” Annie says.

“How about New Year’s 1999?” Susan says. She holds the joint in her fingernails and takes a last drag. She imagines her lungs inflating, growing like balloons that will lift her from her seat and into space where she will float with the satellites and the astronauts.

“Besides,” Annie says, “you can always get a babysitter.”

“Where do you think that comes from?” Susan says. “Babysitter. BA-by, SIT-ter.” A cheerleader of a word, all bouncy and rah-rah, doing handsprings across her head. She laughs out loud.

“I don’t know, someone who sits on your kid?” Annie says.

“Yeah. Until 1999,” Susan says. She does the math in her head: 1999. She’ll be 48, god, 48, ancient, the kid nearly thirty. Not a kid anymore, but still her kid. Her baby.

She shuts her eyes and sees red—pinwheels whirling away from a nucleus, atoms shattering and forming other atoms, the original in pieces. What are you then, who are you? Vince shut away in the den with his baseball games and train books, Marie banging dishes around the sink, talking out loud to herself.

She opens her eyes. Vince and Marie evaporate, Annie condenses, atoms and molecules. She’s bent over, picking the nail polish off one of her toes. “A marriage of convenience,” Susan says.

Annie looks up at her, surprised. “Don’t you want to get married?”

Ten years they’ve been friends and Susan has never noticed how pretty Annie’s feet are, tidy little hills of bones and muscle where hers are jagged and sharp. “Your second toe is longer than your big toe,” she says.

“What else can you do? Not get married? Give the baby away to some total stranger?”

Susan twists a strand of hair around her finger. “Maybe I’ll go to Paris,” she says.

Annie bursts out laughing. “Yeah, right. Why not the moon, too. While you’re at it.”

“They make dresses in Paris,” Susan says. She pulls her finger away and lets her hair corkscrew over her face. “I can sew.”

“Look,” Annie says. She taps out a cigarette, lights it impatiently. “You ever see an old lady close up? How their lipstick smears up into their wrinkles? It’s what I do all day at Cunningham’s. I watch old ladies put on lipstick.”

Marie applying her lipstick in three impatient strokes, saying: You think you know everything, but you don’t. You don’t know what love is.

“Yeah and?” Susan says.

Annie exhales, blowing plumes of smoke through her nose. “So I don’t want to work at Cunningham’s for the rest of my life.”

“So come to Paris with me,” Susan says.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Annie says, “and neither are you.”

What was it Marie had said to her that day? Shopping for a prom dress, she looked sad and tender when Susan walked out of the changing room in a blue dress, the color of dusk. Does the neckline have to be so low? Marie said, snapping a loose thread with her fingernails. You think that at these prices they could finish a dress properly.

But she had bought the dress, paying for it with Vince’s credit card. In the car, the box on the seat between them, Marie had touched Susan’s arm and said: Honey, I’m sure you think you love this boy. But there will be others.

And Susan, swallowing down the lump of nausea rising in her throat, thought: no there won’t.

“Say you’re not going anywhere,” Annie says. “Out loud.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Susan says.

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The television is filled with men. Men are walking on the moon, staggering around like Frankenstein’s monster in their white spacesuits guided by rows of men in Mission Control, their cowboy voices furred and thick with static: Roger that, Eagle.

The room is full of men playing pool. Billy leans into his cue, calls his shot: Six in the side pocket, makes it. Now Walter Cronkite, no, a replay of Walter Cronkite the moment the Eagle landed, removing his glasses to wipe his eyes. Whoo, he says. Boy. Walter Cronkite in black and white, younger then but somehow older, removing his glasses and turning to glimpse the clock before announcing that President Kennedy had died in Dallas. That weekend, the funeral. Susan remembers sitting on the floor, the scratch of her father’s armchair against her back, her father saying: I never said I hated Kennedy. I didn’t like his politics, but I never hated him.

Marie saying: Somebody did. Enough to kill him.

Is Kennedy dead? The magazines in the checkout line at the supermarket write that he’s still alive, hiding out with Jackie on an island in the South Pacific. There are photographs of him lounging on a sailboat, boyish and tan, his head whole. The story says the CIA faked his death to fool the Communists, to lull them into thinking things were safe. Maybe he’ll come back now that man has landed on the moon. Or maybe the moon is fake, made of green cheese, and the whole landing is some kind of a stunt, a bunch of actors on a Hollywood sound stage.

Now Annie is holding up a six-pack and asking who’d like another beer. She rips open a bag of potato chips and pours them clicking into a plastic bowl. Paul and Billy peel the tops back, bump their cans together in a toast.

“What are you guys drinking to?” Annie says.

Paul looks at Billy and shrugs. “Nothing.”

Billy is kissing her neck, working his way around to the front of her. His face seems huge, round and soft as a volleyball. “I missed you,” he whispers. His breath smells of beer and potato chips. When he kisses her again, she hugs him, hard. She wants to love him. She does.

“Hey,” he says, sounding pleased.

“God, you guys! Look!” Annie says, pointing to the television.

The astronauts are bounding across the moon’s surface, bouncing around like rubber balls in their fat, white spacesuits, like children made graceful by the absence of gravity.

A baby the size of a seahorse is growing inside of her. Jack Kennedy is alive and sunbathing on a beach in Fiji, Jackie stretched out next to him in a bikini. Which is real, what is real? Men are walking on the moon, high above the blue ball of earth where she sits in an air-conditioned basement watching the astronauts on television while they look back at her, earthbound and anchored, Billy’s arm heavy across her shoulders.

They’re gesturing to her with their gloved hands: One last trip, they’re saying. Come on. Let go.

And oh, she’s floating up and up, out of the armchair and into navy blue space, watching everyone she knows and loves—Billy and Annie, Vince and Marie, Jack Kennedy and Walter Cronkite—grow smaller. Their features blur to smudges, their faces turn to pale dots against the panorama of the landscape.

Before they fade away altogether, she waves to them, first with her hand, then with her whole arm. Waves to them as if she were celebrating something.

 

end of story

© 2019, Sarah Freligh Go to top