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13 minute read.
Jillian knew better, but she was still thinking of the house on Third Street, just East of Ashland, that had long since become someone else’s place. She knew better, but she was still thinking that she could make things conform to her liking. There had been a long drought this year, months on end of no rain and now it was summer. She planted cactus on her patio and made a little painting called My Desert Bed. Even though she knew better, tonight she gathered her small family together to meet her new boyfriend, Dylan. She collected things like rain gutter drainpipes and faucets with smooth red handles and small black river-worn stones.
Squinting her eyelids almost shut as she turned west onto Fourth Street, Jilly tried to find an empty parking space. The mid-summer sun was just now dropping behind the coastal hills and light spiked out between buildings as she worked the car around each corner. There were no parking spaces left near Ocean Avenue, just this side of the park. Jilly thought they had left early enough, but every spot that looked as if it might not be taken ended up being just a red curb. Six blocks from there and inland, there wasn’t much traffic now, but there didn’t seem to be anywhere to park there either and people were everywhere. From cars and on foot, everyone seemed to be making their way to the edge of Ocean Avenue. It was the Fourth of July.
She washed the car earlier that day and polished all the chrome. She wanted it to be a night of meetings, all shiny and reflective, a celebration. She wanted this to be a night above the ordinary. Finally, she was moving on just as the father of her child was moving on. It was time. But this was still just the beginning of what Jillian always considered to be one of the two red months. January was a cool, blue-red, and July she thought was definitely a warm red, with lots of yellow and orange undertones. Her mother called it “jewel-eye,” rolling the word off her tongue with perfect elocution. Normally this bothered Jilly, but tonight she was considering her mother’s disposition toward a kind of snobbishness, a distinct mark of something Jilly knew she had within herself and was trying to understand. She thought it was precisely this drive she had that caused her to think she could make things over into a version she found more palatable.
Jilly was driving tonight, an old Rambler two-door that she bought for $100 from a friend a few months after the divorce. It was a creamy white, with a slick turquoise interior that stuck to the back of bare legs in the summer heat. Her new boyfriend Dylan was an architecture student and they’d been spending a lot of time together. Jilly was feeling as if maybe things would improve. She was trying to let things be. He was moody though and blew up from time to time over nothing. Sometimes he’d withdraw. He was smart, she liked that, and physically things were good. He was spending a lot of time at her place now. One morning, while he was getting ready to leave, just a few weeks ago, Dylan found his boots were full of water. All they could figure was that Jilly’s little boy Aiden had done it while they were sleeping.
So anyway, tonight seemed to be a good night for introductions. Jilly offered to drive, and her mother Jean sat in the back seat next to Jilly’s brother Mark. Mark’s girlfriend Lisa sat huddled in tight under the crook of her brother’s arm. Aiden sat on Dylan’s lap in the front seat. The car had never been this full of people and it was hot. So far, no one seemed to feel like talking. Jilly flipped the dial on the radio from some incessant talk to Coltrane and hoped some real conversation would begin to form and float around the car. Aiden was kicking the glove compartment and Dylan was silent. A few snippets of whispering between Mark and Lisa were the only sounds that came from the back seat. Jean was pressed against the window on her side of the backseat, not saying a word.
Dylan had not yet spoken to anyone beyond initial greetings and so Jilly glanced towards him and suggested he tell her brother Mark about the construction class he was taking as part of his architecture program. Mark had taken some woodshop classes in school so she thought he might be interested. At this prompting, he suddenly piped up from the backseat and announced abruptly that he had dropped that class and didn’t know why he’d taken it in the first place. That guy Palmer was in the class, the guy he’d known in school who had visions of being the next Gropius and it ruined it for him. Mark was also a drummer and if something wasn’t elemental, based on facts and grounded in something he could touch and feel, beat like a drum, he didn’t like it. Jilly knew that Dylan’s tempers stemmed from his own frustration about this same kind of thing, but Mark was raging and nipped any further exchange with the statement that he’d dropped the class and had better things to do. Jilly saw Lisa reach for one of Mark’s hands and put it on her thigh. She said something about the drummers’ hands, almost cooing.
Jillian sighed a little and gripped the steering wheel. She liked men’s hands too and thought of Dylan’s hands who were now holding Aiden on his lap. No one was talking or making any effort to get to know one another. Jilly decided to keep her mind on hands for a while. She drove on steadily and thought about something she’d read about intelligence in a man’s hands. She thought of her father’s hands, so adept at making fists. Her father had been some kind of figment of her imagination. All she knew was that something in her was still trying to smooth rough edges, soften hard light.
Jillian’s throat was beginning to feel tight as her eyes scanned the roadside for an open parking space. She noticed the edge of her mother’s face looking out of the side window of the car and tried to read what was there. Why couldn’t she make an effort to pull this evening together somehow? Her mother Jean had not really wanted to come tonight and Jilly knew that. Jean never wanted to come to these kinds of things, family things.
Jilly didn’t know what made her begin telling them, but she just remembered seeing this girl in the park a few days ago who was standing in the middle of the baseball diamond. She was all by herself, hurling her arms around and stomping and screaming that she hated guys and that they were all jerks. She had lost it. She was having some sort of psychotic break or something. She was raving about how they had all killed her. Jilly relayed all this without thinking about anyone’s response really and there wasn’t any to speak of. It was one of those nights. Lisa, sitting in the backseat with Mark, just mumbled something and that was it. It was one of those nights that feel as if a lid is on too tight.
Dylan sat motionless with Aiden on his lap who kept kicking the glove compartment, even after Jilly had told him to stop. It seemed as if they were in some sort of endless, silent, impossibly awkward circling toward disaster that Jilly couldn’t make out. Finally, a parking spot appeared, and she pulled in as quickly as she could maneuver the car. She pressed the lever that allowed her seat to swing forward and watched her mother Jean, squeeze out. She was a dark-haired, solid woman with a wide, crooked mouth. Jilly’s stomach signaled something resembling love as she watched her mother get out of the car, but also a churning repulsion. Why couldn’t this woman make some effort to be with the rest of them was a question Jilly was trying to keep down. Still, she was skirting this discomfort with concern about her mother’s sweater, reminded her to bring it with her, and asked her if she was all right. No definitive reply was made, and Jilly ignored it, moving her attention to Dylan and Aiden moving to the sidewalk. Jilly wanted things to be “right” if she could make them so, but they weren’t.
As they all moved onto the crowded sidewalk, Dylan kept his eyes locked straight ahead. Their small group joined the tributary of bodies moving toward the ocean.
Now that they were scattered along the sidewalk and separated by groups of people, Jillian kept her eyes on Aiden. He walked just ahead of her, striding along, arms in full swing. His little body began to sprint as they approached an intersection and she called to him to stop the moment her heart caught in her throat. Quickly catching up with him, she leaned down and caught hold of his arm. Jilly interrupted Mark and Lisa’s private walk and asked if Mark would take Aiden on a ride on his shoulders. Her brother Mark whisked Aiden up in one wide motion, high up into the air, saying, “Climb up here buddy.”
Aiden squealed with delight. Now he could see over everyone’s heads. Lisa continued walking beside Mark, her eyes lowered to the sidewalk in front of her, and then made her actual objection to this change in attention, indicating that she wanted him back before long. Lisa was really clinging to Mark tonight, and it was getting to Jilly. Dylan was walking some distance ahead, his broad shoulder muscles showing through his blue shirt, and she wished he’d walk with her. But they were all walking single file now.
As Jilly glanced at one of the street signs along the way, she noticed the word “entropy” scrawled in black on the white base of a stop sign. The second rule of thermodynamics has something to do with energy, and there not being enough of it, she remembered. ut she couldn’t remember the definition clearly and quickened her step, edging in next to Dylan. “Strange that word entropy in graffiti on that sign,” she said, asking him if he remembered what it meant. He didn’t remember any more than she did, just something about stagnation. They walked on silently, carried by the crowd. When they were alone, he was different. She put the fingers of her right hand up to her chest near her breastbone and pressed, trying to catch her breath.
Their group had gotten separated. Her mother was yards behind them. A sinking feeling came over her suddenly as if she had been dropped twenty feet. She wondered why she had even thought that this was a good idea. Nothing was turning out as she’d planned—nowhere near. Just at that moment Jillian glanced up and noticed two old women standing just inside their second-story window looking down at the mass of people on the sidewalk as they passed by. They were standing just behind a sheer curtain that was covered with a metallic gold swirling pattern. Jillian thought they both looked so old, but the curtain reminded her of a Klimt background and Jilly remembered the smooth, black stone she had found earlier that day. She felt for it inside her pocket and closed it within her palm.
The fence along the walkway at the cliff edge was no longer visible. Bunches of people filled the park, all talking and waiting for the fireworks display to begin. Aiden’s excitement grew when he saw small fires down on the sand and he began chanting, “Inside, outside, upside-down,” the title of the story he asked to be read to him every night.
Jean stood by herself, looking out to sea. Everyone stood at the park’s edge, looking west, and waiting. Jillian felt the growing crowd, a great heaving thing. Her heart still strained silently for something to happen that night, something that felt good. From behind her, a loud voice suddenly blared from a tape recording. A little man walked some distance from the rear of the crowd with a small speaker hanging from his shoulder, that was blaring with one of those voices that chant about the last days and signs, prophesies, and apocalypse. The night was tight and hot, and this made it all the more breathless. The voice was very loud, and people began to boo until the little man was out of earshot.
The crowd pressed in tighter and then finally a rocket shot up, exploding with a crack. Bursts of sparkle made prints in the sky for moments and then faded. More rockets came, bursting in the dark. Oohs and aahs began to rise from the crowd. Aiden had fallen asleep, his body slumped forward just to the right of Mark’s head. Jilly turned to Mark, signaling him to move Aiden into her arms. As Mark lowered him into Jillian’s arms, he said, “My shoulders were hurting, the kid’s really heavy after a while.” She held Aiden against her chest, feeling the warmth from his body. His head flopped over onto her forearm and the sweat of his neck burned the skin there.
Jillian glanced to her left, just as the final display began to hit. She saw the light reflected on her mother’s upturned face. The pounding and crackling reached a crescendo of red, white, and blue sparkles raining down in giant blossoms of light that faded leaving only the dark night sky. Jean looked down at the beach below, where campfires blazed, and groups of people reveled and trashed the beach. Speaking for the first time that night, Jean said, “It looks like a war zone. This is a celebration of war you know.”
Mark and Lisa were nuzzling again. Dylan still hadn’t spoken all evening and they simply turned and headed inland. Jean, Mark, and Lisa walked silently a few paces behind. Jilly caught snatches of conversations around her about how it wasn’t as good as last year and that there were a lot of duds. Someone else said that they’d been cold since getting there and didn’t think they would ever do this again. Gradually everyone became very quiet as they walked the few blocks to their cars. Something vibrated between them, something impermeable, something like that thing entropy. She looked for the word on the sign as they walked back. It was still there.
Aiden did feel heavy. She wished Dylan would offer to carry him. But he was making no effort to be with her that evening. It was that flip side she was seeing again. No one was making an effort, and she was thinking that she would never do this again. The lump she felt in her throat joined the pain she’d had in her chest all night and she began to cry. She just walked and cried, and no one really noticed or knew what had happened. No one said a thing.
Inside the second-story apartment that Jilly had noticed earlier, upstairs and away from the crowds, a woman named Frieda was still pushing her food around on her plate. Grainy red meat loaf, reheated from the night before, now long since gone cold. “I’m not hungry at all Nyla, I’m finished eating, thank you. I’m going back to my painting now.”
Nyla, Frieda’s sister was more withered than Frieda, even though she had the appetite of someone half her age. She cooked all the meals and talked incessantly. “I don’t know why you keep at that old thing, Frieda, it seems you’re never finished with it. You just go from one thing to another. I don’t have the patience. I like to do something useful with my time, like sewing. What would this place look like if it weren’t for me? Frieda, I so wanted to go to the display tonight, Mick and I went every year and now he’s gone, and I so wanted to go. It wouldn’t have been the same without him I suppose. We used to hold hands all the way down to the park and sometimes we’d even take a picnic. We’d leave early and sometimes I’d bring a little wine.”
Nyla’s shriveled hands worked quickly as she cleared the table of their two plates, the plastic ones with the pink flowers along the edges. This year she picked up a special tablecloth for the holiday, one with little red, white, and blue flags in two rows down the middle. She did it for Frieda. Frieda said she didn’t care much for the holiday, but thanks anyway. She did think it looked festive. Their condo was mostly pink. Pink was Nyla’s favorite color and she’d lived there for years with Mick. Nyla sewed every day and so every piece of furniture had some alteration in pink and all the doohickeys were pink too, and there were lots of them. Nyla was all bones now, but her head was big, almost oversized, especially about the nose and ears. Frieda thought her neck didn’t seem large enough to hold it up.
Frieda hadn’t seen Nyla much during the past fifty years. She had lived in South America since the late 30s, going into the remote forests and making paintings of rare flowers. Someone had to do it, she always said. She remained unmarried but had spent many years in Cusco with a young sociologist. One day he left and never came back. She never heard from him again. That was ‘46 and she’d been alone ever since.
Tonight, Frieda was nearly finished with a painting she started a month ago. Every detail of their kitchen table was in place. The salt and pepper shaker, napkin holder, and pink napkins. Frieda painted all these things a bright, almost glaring pink. Behind these things was their kitchen window, with a tree just outside, a Magnolia Grandiflora, and a bird perched on a branch of the tree. She painted these in full natural colors and decided the bird would be a cave swallow, even though they weren’t ever seen here. Of course, this tree and that bird were not there, but Frieda painted them in every detail.
Nyla looked at the painting as she turned to go to bed, “I keep waiting for that bird to sing and I definitely don’t like it.”
Frieda continued to paint and thought of all the people that flow past that window every 4th of July for the fireworks display. Animated on their way down the sidewalk and so silent returning home. “You can’t even see the starry sky here,” Frieda said as she added the final touches of blue to her bird.
She stood up, leaving her paint rag and brushes on the table, and went to the window. Below her, dark heads moved along the sidewalk. One face turned up toward the window as if to look for someone inside. It was Jilly’s face, all wet with tears. Frieda’s eyes met Jillian’s and she smiled at the young woman through the glass. Jilly smiled for no reason at all, as she passed beyond the light, into the dark, and then she was gone. Frieda turned out the light at her painting table and walked to the bedroom she shared with Nyla. Nyla had long since gone to bed and to sleep, her pink sheet pulled up over her head.
That night Jillian had a weird dream. She stood in some strange house with water filling her mouth, over and over. She was standing over a kitchen sink spitting it out and feeling embarrassed. This went on for some time, long enough for her to finally stand up and try to look out through a window just behind her left shoulder. As she stood up from the sink, she thought that maybe she was having a dream and so she leaned back and decided to push the water up out of her mouth in one long stream, like a fountain, like fireworks.
Carole Standish Mora
Carole Standish Mora has published her writing in Psychological Perspectives: The C. G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles, Quadrant: The Journal of the C.G. Jung Foundation for Analytical Psychology, Grief Narratives, The Seventh Quarry, Prism Review, Indelible Literary Journal, Flint Hills Review, Between Literary Journal, Moronic Ox Literary & Cultural Journal, The Caterpillar Chronicle, Red River Review, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Prism Review. In addition to creative writing, Carole is an independent researcher and scholar, an educator, a practicing visual artist, and a long-time resident of Santa Monica, CA.