Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Winner of BOMB’s 2015 Fiction Contest, selected by Sheila Heti
I’ve been given a fresh start, a new beginning. It’s almost like being reborn, but without birth and childhood. I get to start as a young adult, when you are capable of looking after yourself and making decisions. When your body is in its prime. The only rules are you start pretty broke, and you have to have roommates. There are six of us in the house. I share a room with a guy named Lorry and a girl called Susan. Allen has his own room and Diana and Horse share a room. What people do most is sit in the house and watch television. There are things we can learn, like I’m interested in painting and gardening and possibly fishing.
My memory is mostly gone, though not entirely. What’s left is the impression of fullness; for example, the supermarket. Here it contains a limited number of items, but memory fills in the blanks—brands, flavors, packaging, etc. Memory has proven to be useful for livening things up in the town; filling leaves in the trees, reading expressions on other people’s faces, seeing trash on the streets. It’s good to have reminders like that, that life is more detailed than it appears here, though not too many.
I meet Tyler Burnett at a party I’ve been invited to. People in the town have parties often. Tyler Burnett wears dark sunglasses always, even at night. I cannot see through his sunglasses. Some people say they might be painted black. I think he may have no eyes. Nevertheless there is a romantic energy between us. It’s still somewhat difficult for me to understand people when they speak here, but I understand much more than I did in the first few days. Tyler Burnett says “Chemicals and fishing, the water. Yes, television. Art, no. A walk. To swim. Jokes and such are not my kind. Sexy and rubs are my sort of thing. With you, something distracting.” He is the most interesting person I’ve met.
After the party I ask Allen, my roommate, about Tyler Burnett. Allen tells me he owns the chemical plant. Allen tells me that Tyler Burnett is married and that he has a baby. They live in the big cliff house at the beach. Tyler Burnett’s house is the last big house at the beach, a relic from when beach living was the symbolic height of wealth in town, before the rising ocean and strong waves destroyed most of the area, making the mountains prime real estate. The house had been his father’s, his father’s father’s and so on. Tyler Burnett’s father died amidst his mid-life crisis in a localized gas station earthquake while simultaneously being given head by his young girlfriend and filling up his tank. Tyler Burnett’s father then became a ghost, after which his relationship with his son disintegrated. I’ve seen Tyler Burnett’s house when I’ve gone down to the beach. The cliff erodes daily and the property depreciates in value yearly, though the grandiosity of the place is not diminished by its crumbling foundation. Allen says it shows that Tyler Burnett is the richest person in town that he doesn’t care if his whole mansion falls into the ocean.
Here you must work. Jobs have titles, but duties are vague. I’m interested in the arts, so have taken a job at the newspaper instead of government or business. As a young person you must choose one or the other. I get rides to work in the morning with a woman who always speaks about needing to make a hair appointment. At work it is almost like I do nothing. Some papers. Running errands. Computer stuff. I talk to a guy named Jimmy who does something like research on the computer all day. He’s into the arts too; he plans on being a singer and performing to large audiences. Jimmy goes out to lunch with a young business type guy who works at city hall named Cass. I eat no lunch at work. I eat very little in general.
Communication is getting easier. At first, when I could understand nothing, people were either happy with me or offended by me often and I did not know why. Now speaking with other people is not the stress it was just a few short weeks ago. What I’ve learned is you don’t ask questions and then things begin to make sense.
Hobbies are essential; without them, people get bored and turn to loitering and vagrancy and vandalism. I go to the little farm near our home and plant tomato seeds since there’s a packet of seeds and a patch of dirt. I read books in the farm tool shed by local authors with titles likeIf Your House is Yellow and Other Problems of Interest, or How To Make Apple Salad For Parties, or, Three Ways to Fix Broken Toilets, or Clean Your Room, Cook Your Food, Go to Work and Do Hobbies: A Life.
I take up painting in my spare time and paint little things—ideas of a sunset, a bird—that I sell for ten to fifteen dollars apiece to people who also work jobs and live in houses, possibly with families. Here quality does not matter. It’s a tremendous relief when attempting to make something. It was harder before, but here I can paint a blue sky and black V shape for a crow, and a tree in the distance, maybe an undetailed person walking on the street. Everything here goes into a category depending on intention, so if I paint something and then paint something else, I’m gaining experience in the category of painting, despite the absence of any stylistic progress, artistic vision, or knowledge of what I’m doing. The only classification that matters is time spent doing the thing; here god is a clock with memory, logging hours.
Time here goes quickly and little is ever accomplished. It’s unclear if there is just nothing to accomplish, or if there are endless things. I go swimming often. I spend hours at the pool. I meet people, older women and kids, who like to play water games like splash-in-the-face, drown-a-bitch, and punchies-and-kickies. A man with silver hair sits on a chaise lounge and watches me several nights a week. I’m unsure if he comes here to watch me swim, or if he’s always come here and just watches me because I’m new.
Horse is throwing a party. He’s invited people from his gym and from city hall. He’s invited the neighbors. Horse tells me I can invite whomever I want, but I don’t have anyone’s phone number. Everyone cleans the house and I make a salad for the party. I say, “I hope you all like apples,” to my roommates, since it’s an apple salad. They watch the television and don’t say anything about liking or not liking apples.
People come in and out of our house for the party; children, grandparents, people whom I’ve seen in town, people I’ve never seen. People leave their dishes on the floor. Someone breaks the toilet. Jimmy from work comes and plays the guitar and sings in the front yard. The oven catches fire and the fire department is called. Everyone goes outside. A female firefighter comes in with a hose and puts the fire out. “Recklessness,” she says. The fire truck leaves and she stays behind, dancing with Horse to tinny music coming out of the boom box on the floor. A smell of burnt plastic comes from the house. Outside, the man with the silver hair I see down at the pool hides in our hydrangea bush. The bush shakes. A stream of urine trickles down the ground from the bush. It smells strongly of asparagus. “It’s you,” the voice from inside the bush says. Jimmy plays a song that everyone seems to know the words to. It’s up-tempo. Some girls have love in their eyes as they watch Jimmy. A loud sigh comes from the hydrangea bush. “Relief, ” the man inside the bush says. I look inside the house through the partially blackened kitchen window to see Lorry either playing a mirror game or fighting with a child; they both stomp and fold their arms and stick their tongues out. Diana is going at the toilet with a plunger, but it is only making things worse. Susan lip-syncs to the boom box music. The female firefighter grinds on Horse’s hip. Horse has a giant erection that is visible through his track pants. The female firefighter licks her lips and waggles her tongue at Horse’s erection. “Oh,” the man inside the hydrangea bush says, very close to my ear, “All I want is to be with you.” The man’s words or voice remind me of something from before. Jimmy begins smashing his guitar. People clap and jump up and down and chant Jimmy’s name. Jimmy puts two middle fingers up and flails his arms around, flipping everyone off. The people cheer louder. The female firefighter comes out, “Stop!” she says. Horse is directly behind her with his erection sticking out of the flap in his track pants. Everyone goes back inside. No one seems to be bothered by the burnt plastic smell or the dark smoke that fills the house. They continue the party. Horse and the female firefighter go into the bathroom and screw loudly. The neighbor, Mrs. Olson, is snorting ketamine off the kitchen table while her husband, Mr. Olsen, takes photos. Their daughter, Lizzie Olsen, is assembling a nail-shooting gun from a kit. Susan has taken out my paints and is doing portraits of the reveling party guests. She hands me a vulgar portrait she’s painted of me—done with my paints on my canvas—of my legs spread wide beneath a ceremonial robe to show a little pink heart covering my vagina. The heart is surrounded by pubic hair. Susan laughs. “It’s so you,” she says. I feel something like envy over Susan’s natural talent in so accurately representing the figure. I thought I’d left such feelings behind.
The man with the silver hair stays outside in the hydrangea bush, at least I think he’s still there, since I see someone’s eyes flash from time to time. It’s very late and I am drunk. I eat some apple salad. Around midnight Tyler Burnett comes through the door wearing his shiny grey suit and black sunglasses. His hair is slicked back. His lips are thin. His nose is sharp; all of his features are sharp. He looks as though his bones don’t fit in his skin. “I didn’t know you were coming,” I say.
“I hear you look nice in a swimsuit,” he says.
“Where did you hear that?” I say. I realize this is exactly the kind of question I should not ask. It’s the kind of question that makes everything here fall apart.
I go to my room and put on my bikini. When I come out, no one seems to notice that I’m in my swimsuit; no one seems to notice me at all. Tyler Burnett is sitting on the burnt counter that is still smoldering and glowing hot under the ash.
“You’re going to burn your rear ass,” I say. I sometimes say odd things here, but I forget quickly and no one seems to notice. Tyler Burnett seems to have not heard me and continues to sit on the burning counter.
“How old are you now?” Tyler Burnett says.
“Seventeen. But I might be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two. I think I have a birthday soon. I heard talk of a cake at work. I may know more then.”
“I am between forty seven and fifty two—I’ve just had a birthday—though some days I feel ancient, as the saying goes.”
“I’ve not heard that saying. Anyway, you look younger.”
“It’s the shoe polish I use on my hair. It’s the truest shade of black and it can only be achieved with shoe polish,” he says. “Now child, would you like to get some ice cream?”
I look around at our house, the party. Another fire starts near the television. The female firefighter runs out of the bathroom in only her helmet and boots and puts the fire out with a mini-fire extinguisher that she has in her purse. “This is the last goddamn time,” she says. “This is my job, idiots, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not on the clock right now.” Music continues to play from the boom box. Suzanne looks at me and makes a V with her fingers over her mouth, sticking her tongue out and gesturing toward Tyler Burnett.
“Yes,” I say to Tyler Burnett. “I’d like some ice cream.”
The beach is freezing. Tyler Burnett brings me an ice cream cone from the vendor at the top of the hill. Tyler Burnett watches me eat the ice cream in the moonlight. He pats me on the head. “You like that?” He nods his head. I nod along.
“My house will fall into the ocean one day. Possibly soon,” Tyler Burnett says. He points to the cliff where his house is located.
“What a beautiful home. It’ll be a shame when it goes.”
Tyler Burnett takes a tennis ball out of his pocket and throws it to me. I throw it back. He throws it to me again. We play catch. “Use your whole arm to throw,” he says, “not just your wrist.” When we’re done playing catch, I see the lights go on in his home atop the cliff. Tyler Burnett pats the sand for me to sit next to him.
“Did you get homework today?”
“No. I’m not in school.”
“If you ever get homework and need help with it, we can arrange something. It’s been a while, but I’m pretty good with homework. Arithmetic specifically.”
I almost repeat that I have no homework, but I decide against it. “Thank you,” I say.
“My wife,” he says, “is up there in the big house. She’s writing an autobiographical opera. I have no idea what it’ll be about. She’s an actress as well, and a painter. In the day she paints the interior walls and courtyards of the house. In one of our courtyards she’s painted two hundred different versions of herself in various wedding dresses, different hairdos. The dresses can be described as ethereal. The hairdos can be described as fingers-in-an-electric-socket. There is no groom to be seen anywhere in the mural. It is called The Bride’s Courtyard. In our dining hall she’s painted a sea of wild horses, very life-like, called The Wild Horses Dining Hall. She’s considered a Great Artist in the town.”
“She sounds lovely,” I say.
Tyler Burnett sits closer to me. “Please take your top off,” he says. I take my top off. Tyler Burnett puts his head on my chest and kisses my breasts. The waves crash against the cliff below his house. As I lay down, I see pieces of earth falling from the cliff. Tyler Burnett pulls his erect penis out of his shiny grey pants. “Child, I would like you to suck my dick.”
“Alright,” I say. I suck Tyler Burnett’s dick for a little while.
“Child, I would like to titty-fuck you,” Tyler Burnett says.
“Alright,” I say. Though it’s as if I’m coated in a thick layer of plastic, Tyler Burnett’s penis thrusting between my breasts is nice.
“Child, I would like to fuck you vaginally or possibly anally. Climb on top of me backwards with your bikini bottoms pulled down to your knees so they’re stretched wide, lower your chest to my knees so that your ass is up high then lower yourself onto me.”
“Ok,” I say.
At work Jimmy talks about his performance at the party, how everyone loved it, how he logged four solid hours of singing and playing guitar the night of the party and would now get offers to play other parties. Jimmy says, “My dreams are coming true.” I make copies, buy pens, and order lunches for the people with desks. I’m not sure what all this has to do with a career in the arts, but the people around me seem to be making progress.
Whenever I am not at work, I’m in my bikini. It’s convenient for most of the activities I do outside of work, like fishing with Tyler Burnett. Or eating ice cream sundaes at the ice cream shop with him. Or playing catch with him. Or holding a balloon he’s bought for me. Or babysitting his baby. Or going to the swim club on weekday evenings. Tyler Burnett says I look like the cutest kid in my suit.
Tyler Burnett buys me a stuffed animal; a pony. “What will you name him, child?” Tyler Burnett says. “Pony?” I say. “Wonderful, child. Excellent. You’re a beautiful child.” He gives me a bag of candy from the grocery store and pats me on the head. At times I forget if we are lovers or if he’s my father. He does not feel like a father.
Tyler Burnett buys me a pair of saddle shoes to wear on our walks. I think they look bad with my bikini, but Tyler Burnett thinks the saddle shoes are sexy. The shoes blister my feet. Tyler Burnett dresses the blisters with smiley-face band-aids. He kisses my feet. “That’s better,” he says. “The sores will heal and you can continue wearing the shoes.” He kisses my saddle shoes.
At the beach, where we go at night to eat ice cream and have sex, Tyler Burnett looks up to the nursery window of his home. “My baby does not grow. He never will,” Tyler Burnett says. I had noticed something peculiar about the baby now that he mentioned it. “The baby will always remain a baby,” he says. “It is a curse to have a forever baby. The baby will not inherit my property, my good looks. I thought the point of having a baby was so you could age and die. You could be released after cursing someone else to this existence. With this baby sealed in infancy, I fear I may live a very, very long time. I age, but I’m not dying. I can think of nothing worse.” “Rotten pineapple cake,” I say. Pineapple cake is the favorite dessert in town. I’ve noticed that people are disgusted by the idea of rotten pineapple cake. “Yes,” Tyler Burnett says. He takes out his bag of ketamine.
When I’m not with Tyler Burnett, I think about him often. His image comes to my mind and I have a fantasy. In the fantasy I am decorating his new mountain house. I imagine painting. I imagine becoming a Great Artist. The fantasy is in prime-colored symbols; a star, a heart, a palette. He seems to enter my thoughts the same way logging hours doing anything else does. I wonder what category the hours I’m logging with Tyler Burnett go under; sex, sexual positions, sore butt-holes, chaffed nipples, vaginal hickies, blisters. Things that are not mine. It could also be ice cream, or swimwear. Youth. Forever babies.
Tyler Burnett’s wife speaks of the baby when I’m to babysit. “My baby does nothing but gurgle and shit all day,” she says. “Have you looked in his eyes?” I look in the baby’s eyes. They are quite pretty eyes. “At first it was like, Great, a baby. But then the baby stopped growing, and it was like, Whoa, a baby. Like forever. You’re supposed to give all of yourself to a baby if it’s going to grow up and use the things you’ve given him out in the world. The whole point is for your child to transcend what came before him with the benefit of your experience. But when you know there will be no adult form of the baby, it changes the relationship. For the first two years I worried a lot and then the doctor told me, ‘I’d say you’re lucky, many women want only a baby, not all that other shit that comes after.’ Then he said, ‘Look at it this way; your baby will probably never hate you because he won’t be able to feel things like disappointment or resentment that develop with memory and time. At least you don’t have to worry about damaging him in any way he’d be cognizant of.’ His words helped, but I was not one of those women who wanted a forever baby. Anyway, we’re used to it now, it’s been a long time. I’m making corn on the cob and pineapple salad when I get back from my archery lessons. You may stay for dinner if you’d like.”
The thing about forever babies is that you know they will never get older, so you must treat them differently than other babies. You have to suppress your natural urges to point to your nose and say nose or teach them anything like language since they’ll never speak. You don’t say no or don’t do that to a forever baby because there is no lesson they can learn from it. No knowledge is retained. You have to remember to do stuff like tickling and peek-a-boo and cuddling—loving, comforting stuff. Mostly I say, “What a good baby,” or “What a beautiful baby you are,” and “I get paid ten dollars an hour to watch you,” to remind the baby that I am not his mother. I hug the baby all day, I kiss him and tickle his belly with my eyelashes, but I catch a strange look in the baby’s eyes often.
At dinner, Tyler Burnett watches me as I eat corn on the cob. A corn kernel falls into my bikini top and Tyler Burnett stares at my chest. He eats his pineapple salad. The baby looks at me from his high chair. He looks very much like any baby. “Ooh,” I say from across the table. The baby coos. “You are a sweet baby. I get paid ten dollars an hour to watch you. I love you baby.” I detect cynicism in the baby’s eyes and wonder if even though you’re a forever baby, cynicism develops over time, after hours logged watching people and seeing the things they do.
“Child, please don’t pursue obscure aspirations of becoming something, though I know you wouldn’t know how to even if you wanted. It’d spoil you. You are better the way you are,” Tyler Burnett tells me before I leave for the night.
I decide to log hours at reading places or art places because I’ve learned my comprehension level is basic. At the library, the silver-haired man watches me between the shelves as I readBeing Regular in Town and How To Spot Irregularities. At the art gallery the man with the silver hair watches me from behind a sculpture of a large nose. I am used to the silver-haired man’s presence, but it is better to not say hello. At the grocery store he’s inside the freezer as I go down the freezer aisle; at the coffee shop he sits under a bench with binoculars pointed in my direction.
Diana has become very pale and watches television most of the day. She’s unemployed and I’ve seen her eat rancid food from the refrigerator. An almost visible stench comes off of her. I suspect Allen is the pyromaniac among us who’s been lighting the fires around the house. Lorry has become a chronic masturbator and keeps me up all night with his moaning and grunting. The smell of semen is heavy in our room so I need to keep the window open. Allen has moved into my and Lorry’s room, and Susan has taken the big bedroom since she makes the most money. Susan is excelling in her career as a businesswoman; she gets a raise almost weekly and has the type of personality at work that makes her colleagues like her. She’s also a party animal and can drink like a fish. She’s seeing a widower named Johnny whose wife died in a localized mall earthquake, but she says it’s non-exclusive since she has the type of personality that likes to play the field. The house is a mess. There are pizza boxes everywhere; the bathtub is covered in dead skin and several spots in the house are blackened because of the small fires. Susan’s bought a new TV and a new oven and a new toilet for the house. The new things look odd amongst the mess of the house.
Tyler Burnett’s wife has gone to give a public lecture on how to write autobiographical operas and she’s asked me to babysit for the day. I show up in my bikini and take the baby to the beach. At the beach, the baby eats sand and rocks. The baby picks up a crab and the crab pinches the baby’s nose with its claw. The baby then crawls into the ocean and gets pulled out to sea. I go in to get him and the baby coughs up water once we’re on the shore. “Funny baby,” I say, “you might drown!” The baby giggles then his face turns red. Flies begin to buzz around the baby, so I change his diaper. Inside his diaper there is an enormous shit that is composed of a good deal of sand, some string, and a large crab claw.
“There was a major meltdown at the plant,” Tyler Burnett tells me when he returns home from work. His wife is still giving the public lecture. “It’s pretty much a disaster over there. There was a localized earthquake and it launched the security-setting thing into annihilation mode or whatever. Luckily an engineer knew how to shut it down, but the radiation that leaked may cause some serious damage. Or it might not. But I think these types of things are generally serious.” He looks at the baby in the crib.
“Welp,” I say. I think this is one of those things that should not be discussed. I know questioning him will be wrong. “That’s the way the pineapple cake crumbles,” I say. Here this is the only thing to say.
“Precisely,” Tyler Burnett says. Tyler Burnett pulls the strings on my bikini bottoms and they fall to the floor. Tyler Burnett gets on his knees and sticks his head between my legs. The baby watches us from his crib. He keeps his eyes on his father.
“Child,” Tyler Burnett says with his face half immersed in my vagina, “When I was young, I didn’t fully appreciate young, beautiful pussy. Though I liked it very much, pussy was just pussy. But as men age we are given the gift of young women being attracted to us, before we are decrepit, while we are still able to get decent erections so that we can fuck them.” He takes his head out of my crotch and stands on the little podium the baby uses to balance himself when attempting to stand. “We come to love screwing more than ever before and we screw young girls a special way, with the intention of forgetting everything we’ve ever been. We fuck with a potent desperation that makes us good lovers. We know it’s a frantic stab at immortality in an attempt to destroy everything before it, but it’s still wonderful. At least for a while. Thank you for the gifts of your young pussy and your tight ass. It’s as though I’ve had a mind-erasing serum or a vibrancy elixir or like a really strong energy drink.”
“You’re welcome,” I say. The baby’s face turns red. Flies begin to swarm around him.
“Please change the baby,” Tyler Burnett says. “The smell is nauseating.”
Everybody has started to leave dishes or trash on Diana’s bed. Diana does not seem to notice. She sleeps on top of the dishes when she is not watching television or eating spoiled pineapple cake. The garbage, rotten food, fart, and semen odor, along with the now permanent smell of burnt plastic, permeates the house. “Diana,” I say. “Would you like to go to the farm for some fresh air with me?” Invitations are acceptable forms of questions and rarely create confusion. Diana declines the invitation with a shrug then takes a nap.
It is Susan’s birthday soon. Her birthday seems to be a guarantee. She speaks about her birthday party. She wants it to be big; she wants everyone in town to come. I suspect she has ambitions at being popular, but maybe she’s just a naturally social person. She talks about balloons and banquet tables and samovars and candles. “I’d like it to be a pool party. I’ve been honing my masonry skills and I’m thinking of building a pool in the basement.”
“We have a basement?” I ask. No one answers since this is a question I’m not supposed to ask. I wonder where she’s logged hours doing masonry as I’ve not heard of masonry practiced anywhere in the town, but I know better than to ask.
At the farm I put manure on the tomato plants that are starting to come up. I don’t know what I’m doing. There’s a scoop in a pile of manure next to the tomato plants, just as there were seeds the first time I came, so I think I’m just supposed to dump more manure on every time I come and that way hours are logged.
Through the corn stalks I see the silver-haired man from the pool. “Ah, there you are,” he says. “All I want is to be with you.” I assume he’s talking to me since I’m the only person at the farm. Urine streams out from the corn stalks. “Ah,” the silver-haired man says. “Relief.”
Tyler Burnett’s wife buzzes around the house finishing her latest mural on the back terrace. The mural depicts the Burnett home after it’s fallen into the ocean. It’s called The Fall of the Burnett Home. She has buckets and rags and rollers and brushes. She wears her long hair down. Her face is splattered with paint, which is something I think every artist should have on them whenever they’re working. Tyler Burnett’s wife is full of purpose. It comes across in everything she does. She says, “Child, the baby needs to be washed today. Have you smelled him? I can smell him from my wing of the house. It’s putrid.” “Yes,” I say, “what a stench,” though I never smell the baby, I only know he smells because of the flies that swarm around him. She says, “Tonight I’ll be debuting my new mural. We’ll be dining in the cliff gazebo with guests—intellectuals and artists, as well as my husband’s colleagues from the plant. I’d like the baby to be quiet. Quiet and clean.”
I cover the baby in baby powder. I spray perfume on the baby. I stick lavender and rose petals in the baby’s diaper. I rock the baby. I give the baby warm bottles with a thimble of brandy mixed in. I remain in the baby’s wing as the guests arrive. From the nursery window, I watch Tyler Burnett sit at the table inside the gazebo. Big men in grey suits like Tyler’s gesture with their arms and speak loudly. The artists watch the men in suits. Tyler Burnett’s wife drinks heavily. Caterers serve food to the guests. After dinner, Tyler Burnett snorts ketamine on the dining table. The men in suits nod and gesture and snort ketamine off the dining table as well. Tyler Burnett’s wife drinks more. One of the artists knocks over a wine bottle. The bottle rolls off the cliff from the gazebo and lands in the water. The baby sleeps. The men in grey suits put stacks of money on the table. The artists take the money and stuff it in their pockets. Dessert is served. Pineapple cake. After dessert, the artists begin to throw their plates off the cliff into the ocean. They light their napkins on fire and toss them over the side of the gazebo, then they light the tablecloth on fire. They begin to smash glasses. One of the artists lights the gazebo on fire. Everyone laughs as though they are wild. Tyler Burnett doubles over, slaps his knee, then falls on the grass and begins to roll around. His sunglasses stay on perfectly. We all watch the fire. The baby sleeps.
Someone has burgled our house. They took the TV, the new lamp, and Horse’s computer on which he’d been writing a sex drama. Horse says, “What will become of Vaginal Teeth?” “Big whoop,” Susan says. “We’ll buy new shit.” “I can barely pay rent,” I say. Diana calls the police. The police arrive and they eat fresh pineapple cake from our refrigerator. Horse wiggles his eyebrows at the female police officer. He puts music on the boom box. Diana lies where the TV had been and cries. Lorry watches Horse and the police officer grind on each other. Allen reads a book at the kitchen table. Susan takes my paints out and begins painting. She hands me the painting when she’s done. It’s me, on the beach, topless, with one crab pinching my left breast and another crab crawling into or out of my vagina. “It’s you,” she says. Susan’s skill level has accelerated greatly. The painting is beautiful. “I’m having a show at the gallery in town,” she says. “All of the paintings have already sold.”
I’m pretty sure I was supposed to have a birthday, but it has not come. It was supposed to be some time ago, but some time has passed and I definitely did not have a birthday.
Susan has completed construction on the basement pool. I go down to the basement in my swimsuit. There is a large stack of unused bricks, a trowel, and a cement mixer. The pool is above ground, almost more like a tank than a pool. Or like a pizza oven filled with water. The structure goes up very close to the basement ceiling so that you have to flatten your body then scoot in on your back or stomach in order to get into the water. Once you’re in, there are only about six inches for your head above the water.
Tyler Burnett has gone on a family vacation. I don’t know where he went. With Tyler Burnett away I spend a lot of time at the town pool. I swim for hours. The silver-haired man watches me from a chaise lounge. I play punchies-and-kickies with Lizzie Olsen. She socks me in the nose then kicks my stomach above water in the shallow end. I punch her shoulder. I kick her knee in. She pummels my ear with her fist then with her free hand drags me down by the hair and kicks me in the neck. I cough and choke. “Good game,” I say when I catch my breath. Injured and unable to swim, I go into the clubhouse. Inside, the silver-haired man rests naked on an oxblood leather couch near the pool table. He is a very large man, very tall; he takes up the length of the couch. “Oh,” he says. “To see your face again. Relief. Please sit. Only for a moment. To be with you. I’ve come so far.” I sit in a chair opposite the silver-haired man. I watch him masturbate. I watch him as he comes. He rubs his come onto his stomach. “Please,” he says. “Please lay here.” I walk across the rug and lay on his naked come stomach. It smells of bleach. “It’s okay,” he says, “I do not want you to remember. Just lay.” My nose stops bleeding. Pain leaves my throat where I was kicked. My skin sticks to his come. The man begins to cry. He’s very quiet about it. His stomach only trembles a little bit. “Relief,” he says. I kiss his stomach only once, very lightly, before going back in the pool.
Tyler Burnett climbs into my bedroom window late at night. “I have work early,” I tell him. I’m the only person who’s not gotten a promotion at work. In fact, I only get coffee and take lunch orders now. It’s possible I’ve been demoted. I think my boss doesn’t like me, maybe because I don’t sleep and look tired at work. I tell my boss “Babysitting and swimming take up most of my time outside of work,” so that she may understand, but she only says, “Turkey sandwich with cheese.” Lorry masturbates under the blankets on the bed next to mine. “I took a night off of my vacation to be here,” Tyler Burnett says.
“Where is your vacation?” I say.
Tyler Burnett becomes rigid. He is usually somewhat rigid, but now more so. “I must be going,” he says. “The baby.”
“Do you need me to watch him?” These questions are a failing. I should know better. There is no point if I am going to continue to think and act this way. But I can’t stop myself. “One quick blow job,” Tyler Burnett says.
Jimmy is no longer at work. He’s singing full-time now and making a record in town. I see flyers for his concerts. I’ve been cleaning the toilets and emptying the trash. When I’m finished cleaning the toilets I sharpen pencils and dust the ceiling fans. I water the office plant. I think I’ve been demoted again. A new girl takes the lunch orders. She’s recently arrived and lives with roommates by the lake. She goes around to every desk and says, “Lunch?” which is very different than my style, where I’d say, “What do you feel like today?” or “Tuna again?” or “Extra ketchup?” I can see now how those kinds of questions lost me that particular duty.
Susan’s rented large buffet tables and the house is filled with balloons for her birthday party. Everyone is dressed up. Somehow the only clothing I have left is my bikini. I’d forgotten I’d had other clothing at one time—workout clothes, formal wear. I have no idea where my formal dress went. Everyone in town comes to Susan’s birthday party, guests spill out onto the front porch and back lawn. I see Diana in a swimsuit, headed down to the basement. Tyler Burnett’s wife arrives to the party wearing one of her wedding dresses, which can be described as ethereal. Her hair is done up in a fingers-in-an-electric-socket-style bun. She is stunning. Apparently she and Susan are good friends. Susan shows Tyler Burnett’s wife her paintings. Tyler Burnett’s wife nods and claps and is very animated in her admiration of Susan’s paintings. Tyler Burnett’s wife sees me and says, “The child, our babysitter.” She comes over to me at the doorway of my room. “I remember houses like this,” she says. “Please show me your room.” I show her the three beds lined up in a row. I show her the paintings I keep under the bed. “I’m also growing tomatoes,” I tell her. “And I’m in charge of caring for the plant at work.”
“Well,” she says. “That’s something.”
People dance and drink. Lizzie Olsen shoots people with nail bullets from her wooden gun while her parents snort ketamine on the banquet table. Jimmy shows up in a limo with Cass, who is now his manager. A stage is set up in the backyard. Everyone goes outside to watch Jimmy play. Jimmy does not remember me from work, but he is familiar with Susan because they’re part of the same social group. Outside, I stand near the hydrangea bush but the silver-haired man is not there. Tyler Burnett shows up high on ketamine and we screw under the bed in my room. “Do you need me to sign your permission slip?” Tyler Burnett says before leaving. “I’m not in school,” I say. “I don’t want the truancy officer showing up at my door,” he says. “Don’t worry,” I say. “I’m not in school. I’m between seventeen and twenty-two. And I hope to have a birthday.”
In the morning, the house is destroyed. Horse, Allen, Susan, and Lorry sit at the kitchen table eating cold pizza. “Susan, why do you still live here? You are very successful,” I say. Horse belches then says, “Where’s Diana?” “She died,” Susan says. “When?” I ask, “How?” “Susan sealed her into the pool,” Allen says. “I got pretty drunk last night,” Susan says. “I wanted to show off my masonry skills. I didn’t know she was in there. By the time anyone realized it, it was too late and the quick-drying mortar had dried. She could’ve cried out or something before I was done.” In the backyard, there is a small headstone with Diana’s name on it.
The woman who drives me to work has finally made her hair appointment. She got long extensions that were then made into a hundred little braids. At work I go to water the plant. I lost my work clothes at some point, as I did with my workout clothes and formal wear, so I’ve been going in my bikini. I hardly recognize anyone in the office anymore. My boss, or someone who is my superior, approaches me. “Your services are no longer needed, Child,” she says. “Has the plant already been watered today?” I say. “Your position is being terminated,” she says. “For watering the plant, or for cleaning and dusting too?” I ask. “You are fired,” she says.
After I’m fired I go to the farm. My tomato plant bears no tomatoes. I take a scoop of manure and dump it on the plant. “That won’t help,” Lizzie Olsen says from a hammock. She shoots her nail gun at me and gets me in my rear ass as I run away through the corn. I go to the beach and then I walk up to Tyler Burnett’s house with my rear ass bleeding through my bikini bottom. Tyler Burnett is at the plant. Tyler Burnett’s wife is conducting a séance in the Wild Horses dining hall. “You’re late,” she says. “The baby is in his wing and you really should’ve been here hours ago.” “I had work,” I say. I see Susan and Jimmy sitting at the large dining hall table waiting for the séance to continue as I go upstairs to watch the baby.
“You’re such a sweet baby,” I say. The baby throws blocks around. Tyler Burnett’s wife has painted a new mural in the baby’s room with the title written in gold paint at the bottom:Gazebo in Flames. She has also painted the baby’s changing table with a scene that appears to be me in my bed at home, lying on the last of the three beds in my room, in my bikini, staring at the ceiling. Above Tyler Burnett’s wife’s signature it says, The Babysitter at Rest.
“I get paid ten dollars an hour to watch you,” I say to the baby. “I am not your mother.” I give the baby kisses on his belly. “When is your birthday?” I ask him. He supports himself on his little podium then falls to the floor on his rear ass. “When is my birthday?” I ask. The baby swallows blocks. “Funny baby! You might choke!” Flies begin to swarm around him. I change his diaper, which is full of shit-covered blocks and whole tomatoes. I wash his blocks and the tomatoes, then I stuff bay leaves and sage and cedar into his diaper. I cover him in sandalwood oil. I polish his tooth with baking soda. I put a tiny bit of mascara on the baby’s eyelashes. I put clear polish on his fingers and toes. I put a thimble full of absinthe in his bottle and wrap him in a sheepskin then I put his little gold crown on his head. I rock the baby in the rocking chair, looking out over the cliff. “Your father’s good looks and his property will never be yours because you will always remain a baby,” I say. “It is better this way.”
Jen George lives in New York City. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.