a short story by Felicia Sullivan
([email]felsull [at] hotmail [dot] com[/email])

One Tuesday morning, Claire Foster’s mother died. There had been rumors. Sam Johnson, who delivered the early edition of the Daily News, would see her stumble in heels too high, white vinyl skirt creeping up her thighs, edges ripped, snagging on fishnets — coming off the Eastbound 5:51AM train from Manhattan. Kate Taylor, during her morning jog, would spurt past Diana Foster and pause, “Are you okay?” Kate squeaked, out of breath in her pink parachute-jogging suit, matching fanny pack and stereo headphones. Scratching her arms, skin gathering under jagged fingernails, Diana would mutter a drunken “Uh-huh” and then trip and fall onto her lawn. “There were definitely needle marks,” Kate speculated to cashiers at the local supermarket. People in my town loved a good story. “I didn’t want to help her up,” Kate had whispered to Betty Samson while they were nestled under a scalding hot dryer, hair tightly rolled in sky-blue plastic curlers. “You just never know!” My mother delivered these stories to my father every evening like the late edition of the news.

Claire and I lived next door to another. My mother said we once crawled across our lawns to another other. I do not remember this. My mother continued in a lower voice — Claire poked me in the eye with a chubby forefinger and giggled. My father told me that the sight of a fleshy toddler wailing, tears and snot spilling to form a mask around my mouth caused my mother to careen across the grass. Her heels were submerged in soil; her white linen pedal pushers became sullied with grass stains after she kneeled down and hoisted me up and over her right shoulder. My father chuckled loudly as he retold the story, dabbing the corner of his eyes with the cuffs of his shirt. “Your mother picked you up like a sack of potatoes and shoved you into the crib. I said, ‘Be careful Ellen, careful!'” My mother was distracted by the grass stains on her newly purchased pants; she stood half-naked in front of the sink, scrubbing the soaked trousers with cleanser, with her nails dug deep into the fabric. My father said he closed his mouth, shook his head and sat down on the couch, the morning paper shielding half of his body.

I felt that Claire and I were friends by default since we didn’t enjoy one another’s company and the only thing we ever had in common was the fact we lived next door to each other, her lawn spurting weeds while my mother’s petunias and other gaudy suburban flowers decorated ours. Throughout our early years in grade school, Claire used to speak for me, “Susan wants vanilla!” she would bark on the cafeteria lunch line, spit flying and settling in Betty Samson’s hairnet. Peeling off the wrapping paper, my fingers sticky with cream, my tongue roved the ice cream cautiously. Personally, I preferred strawberry.

My mother loved Claire because my mother thrived on a charity case. When I was eight, one evening after my mother had wiped the dinner plates dry, she sat down next to my father on the couch and flipped through the television channels while my father licked ink stained fingers, turning pages. A commercial spot aired, featuring malnourished children, their spines forming half crescents as they clutched their stomachs, roaming the streets. I could imagine my mother feverishly scribbling 800 numbers with her lead number two pencil. Her obsession festered and continued with bake sales, donation checks to overseas addresses and letters to our local congressman. I have since understood that Claire Foster was her chance to “Save the Children” — she would be my mother’s personal telethon. That night, I handed my mother a letter from my principal, which she quickly unfolded. I had earned the highest reading and math scores in the state. I had surpassed the sixth grade reading level and I was only eight. My mother had patted me on my shoulder as the paper glided to the floor, “Nice work dear.” I picked up the letter with its large cursive script and crumpled it in my palm as I walked out of the room.

At night, my mother would whispered stories to my father in a frantic rushed tone and grew angry if she forgot any details. Outside street lamps buzzed and flickered, burning moth wings; their scorched tips trickled to the pavement in a light drizzle. Raccoons rustled through the dense shrubbery leading to our backyard, curved razor claws slicing through plastic, ravaging my untouched supper. My rear grew numb from sitting on the floor of my mother’s closet listening to her recount her trip to the Fosters. Diana Foster had disappeared for days. That afternoon my mother entered their home, uninvited. She forced windows open, shook Carpet Fresh on the ground, and quietly placed empty gin bottles in their proper recycling receptacles, their clangs reverberating throughout the still home. The only remnants of Diana’s presence were the mixture of Chanel No. 5 and stale beer that hung heavy in the air. A ten-year old Claire had pounced on my mother, her small oval mouth scowling, “She just went to the store, she’ll be right back!” Claire had insisted. “Yes, I know dear,” my mother replied, shoving Claire’s head under the sink, dousing her hair in strawberry smelling shampoo.

“And Claire had tried to run away! Why would a little girl want to traipse around the neighborhood with dirty hair?” my mother said to my father. She had raked her fingers about Claire’s scalp, making her clean. Claire snapped her head up and sudsy water sprayed and stung my mother’s eyes. While my mother retold these events, I knew my mother wanted to shout, “Who are you trying to kid? We all know about your mother”. But my mother would never say that aloud. She would have considered it rather impolite.

“And the state of Diana! Jacob, that woman is absolutely shameless! That poor, poor Claire! Susan should know she has it so good!” She lamented over my father’s snorts that marked his slumber. My father never paid attention, but I did. After an hour of heavy sighs, I heard her lean over the bed and flick the light. The room echoed the sounds of my father snoring, my mother’s restful breath and my own choked cries. When I crawled into bed that evening, the sheets felt a touch too cold to my skin; the edges ironed so flat, the smell too clean. I lay awake for hours listening for the scraping of the raccoons and the shaky patter of Diana Foster’s heels inevitably coming home.

At 5:30 AM, I rose and slipped downstairs to the kitchen. I peered through the kitchen window and saw Claire sitting on her porch, shoulders quivering under her purple cardigan, waiting for her mother to come home. She held a yellow flashlight that blared over the pages of long division homework that we all had to hand in the next day, eyes squinting over fractions through oval spectacles. When Diana finally came home, she lifted her daughter up off the porch and twirled her around; Claire’s sleeve fell to the crook of her elbow. “Ohhh, my little girl all grown up waiting for her Momma!” she had squealed loudly. Diana never noticed her daughter’s homework; pencil marks smudged, quadratic equations silenced by fresh footprints. I imagined our roses frowning in a collective condescension, fireflies’ darkened wings covered over wide eyes and my mother jolting upright in her bed. I could hear Claire’s eyeglasses crunch under Diana’s white stilettos.

Claire did not appear to mind. I imagined that she would sit in the front row of class tomorrow so she would be able to see the board. I wondered if she had wanted to feel warm, smothered by her mother’s sweat. That evening, I scampered back into my house and climbed up the stairs, jumping two at a time to my mother’s bedroom. I crawled under the comforter, my nose nuzzling under her armpit. She shoved me off the bed while she slept, swatting me away like an annoying gnat. Once, she led me to my room, “Claire, don’t be so childish,” she hissed, half-asleep. “Susan! Mom, its Susan!” I cried. But the door had already closed behind her cotton nightgown.

“OWWWW!” I howled one afternoon in fifth grade as my legs buckled and I fell to the ground. I felt lilacs crush and stick to my legs, purple petals and my blood mixed in with the dirt. My knees were covered in soil. Gravel, twigs and small rocks snagged my knee-highs. My books scattered all over the ground. My fingers searched the ground, palms faced down, feeling around for my glasses.

“Don’t talk about my mother, EVER!” Claire had yelled and shoved her hand, clenched into a ball, right under my nose. Her hands smelled like tuna. She didn’t hit me but she let her fist linger there — just long enough for me to start to tremble. This pleased her. My shoulders caved in, my white button down oxford shirt creased and wrinkled. I bit my upper lip; two chipped front teeth from the fall peeled chapped skin off my mouth. Tiny flakes dusted my chin. I stared at her plump belly falling over her skirt’s waistband like a smooth skinned fruit that would inevitably sour and rot. I held one hand over my stomach, over my pleated flannel blue and green skirt. I thought I might be sick. My whole body started to shake and I cried.

Claire hovered over me, crouched down — her broad shoulders blocked the sunlight. Strands of shiny clean hair dangled in front of my nose. It smelled a mix of rotten fish left aside like garbage and strawberry shampoo. I wondered how she got her hair to smell like that. Her mouth opened wide and I imagined tiny fish flapping their fins on her tongue. “You’re weak,” she whispered. I ran home and told my mother, but she had only scolded me. “You should only be so lucky,” she had hissed. Lucky about what?

Claire stopped leaving her house after school in junior high. She closed the blinds, and dead-bolted the door whenever my mother came over. One day, Claire’s mother raced outside and started dancing. Frail hips undulated. Fingers snapped. Her legs were covered with large purple bruises; her skin draped over her skeleton like a thin film of grime. Claire dutifully filed out like a soldier — steps quick, body erect and tight. She covered Diana with a Strawberry Shortcake blanket. She glared at me as I watched from our lawn. Once her mother was safely secured in the house, she returned carrying a black plastic bag and dumped it in the garbage can. After, my mother brought a tray of left over biscuits wrapped in foil to the Foster’s home. My mother knocked then pounded on the door for several minutes. Defeated, she left the biscuits on the doorstep. Ants scurried for the buttery bread as soon as she turned her back; they tapped on the aluminum. From my porch, I sat angry, stomach growling. Where were my biscuits? Why did I have to wait until dinner? I scurried over to Claire’s house, grabbed the bag and brought it safely to our backyard. I savagely ripped the plastic. Hundreds of tissues with dried blood turned putrid brown and green phlegm, torn permission slips, dozens upon dozens of tan empty prescription bottles, cold strands of spaghetti, torn sheets of paper with the smooth script of Diana Foster’s name repeated on each line scattered about the grass. I sat on the ground of our backyard. Who cared about empty bottles and pasta when I made honor roll every single semester and my mother simply filed the awards in our den? She barely acknowledged them with a nod, “Good job Susan. Can you take out the garbage?” I wanted to tear up all the awards and throw the shredded pieces at my mother.

At school, Claire ignored me. In eighth grade our lockers had been next to one another and she would always scotch tape every inch of moss-green metal with pin-ups from Bop magazine — she would align them neatly, straight and perfect. She frowned at my display of pin-up pictures all slanted, gummy fun-tack residue on the insides of my locker. “You’re so disorganized,” she mouthed in disgust. Furious, I slammed my locker door and stomped to homeroom, the sharp clang of my ankle boots echoing long after the first period bell. In ninth grade, her locker was on another floor. I joined all the other girls that whispered about Claire’s mother in homeroom, inventing stories, exaggerating others. Our furiously moving lips would come to a collective halt once she entered the room. Bonnie Taylor drew sketches of a mop with blond colored hair and cheap heels giving a blowjob to the principal. Folding it neatly in four, I slid it in her desk, shoved it in her locker, or sometimes Bonnie would tape it on her back. I never summoned enough nerve to touch Claire. But Bonnie was bolder. If Claire ever noticed, ever flinched, ever unfolded the countless drawings, we would never know. But she came to school every day, turning in typed book reports on bond paper, realigned her protractor, and licked a tissue to polish her silver ruler. Sometimes I would catch her tracing over the indented lines of the metal: �, 1/3, �, and one, precise, complete whole. She kept sharpened pencils in a neat metal case that read, “You CAN succeed!” Claire always got straight A’s. I made Varsity cheerleading and was president of student council. She never noticed. My mother didn’t either. My father read the paper cover to cover, including the ads.

My mother lay awake most nights, drumming her fingers on an unfinished book, often wondering who braided Claire’s hair, who had given her money for school clothes and shampoo. She put out feelers around town, made inquiries. “Lust money,” my father said. I knew that Claire braided her own hair. In the morning my mother hovered over the stove, oil shot sparks from the pan. My mother set my plate of thin strips of fatty bacon and eggs whose yellow eyes seemed to burn right through me. “Susan, you know, I was thinking. You should invite Claire over more often.” “Why?” I asked, defiant. She ignored me, “Maybe today after school or perhaps tonight for dinner. I’m making that salmon your father likes.” “If you want her over so badly, why don’t you call her yourself?” I shouted. “Don’t be FRESH!” My mother yelled and lowered her voice to a thin, biting tone. “I’m going over to Bonnie’s tonight, I detest fish!” I stood up, shoved my chair under the table and ran out the door.

The day her mother died, I came home from Varsity cheerleading practice to find Claire fidgeting on our leather couch. It was unusually warm for spring and she continuously peeled one thigh, then another off the seat. I thought about vanilla ice cream in grade school that day. She was silent, a pile of books on her one side, my mother on the other. Her arm draped over Claire’s shoulder, fingers massaging smooth skin. My mother never held me that way. Claire winced in pain at my mother’s touch. They looked every bit the dysfunctional family portrait. “Susan, Claire will be staying with us for a while,” she beamed. I stood in the center of the livingroom, facing the two of them and I suddenly felt dizzy. I ran upstairs and slammed the door behind me. Curled up on top of my bedspread, I saw two duffel bags stuffed in the corner of my closet, a ratty Strawberry Shortcake doll resting on the larger of the two, one arm appeared to have been ripped off, chunks of cotton dangled from the socket. I wanted to fling the whole lot of it out the window and watch the doll roll on the grass. What did it matter that I made captain when Claire’s mother died?

Claire hadn’t bothered to knock when she entered. She pushed the door aside, the screeching creak severed through the tension in the room like a dull butter knife. She sat on the edge of my bed while my body was scrunched against the bedpost.

“Why are all of your posters slanted?” She asked, pointing to the Kirk Camerons on the wall.

“Who cares?” I snapped, rolling my eyes. She regarded me like milk that had gone sour.

“It looks funny, it’s weird,” she said.

“No, you’re weird,” I replied and felt a sense of relief as the words fell off my tongue and onto the bedspread like an unwelcome gift.

“Oh yeah, and I suppose me being here, your mother scoring charity points — you call that normal?” Claire said. “Like I’m some damned charity case that fits neatly on a tax form. ‘Oh that Diana Foster’s girl, remember the biscuits? Now we can remodel the kitchen. CHECK!'” Claire said bitterly, her hand making an exaggerated check mark in the air. Then I remembered Claire in grade school, her long greasy hair, wearing the same outfit for days at a time and now, years later, she sat confident in a short, clean bob and denim jeans that smelt of fabric softener. I wanted to kick her off my bed.

“Get out!” I screamed. My feet started kicking the bed. My hands pulled at the bedspread that she was now sprawled across. Claire stood up, smiling and walked over towards my wall and tore my Kirk Cameron poster down. His cr�me chinos, his mint-green blazer and curly locks all torn in half. With half the rolled up poster nestled under her arm, she turned to me. “You’re all crooked,” she said and closed the door behind her.

* * *

I had not seen Claire for ten years. I flew home in November for my mother’s funeral. My father had called and the message on the machine grunted, “Your mother died. I thought you ought to know. Bring a jacket, it gets chilly in the evenings, you know.” At La Guardia, I watched my bag move past me at baggage claim and stood there, letting it circle the ramp. I watched as passengers accidentally lifted my duffel for a moment and then abruptly drop it when they read the tag “Property of Susan Sullivan” with the address of my law firm. I watched it swerve on the carousel. Finally, I picked it up and slung it over my shoulder, my black crepe suit slightly wrinkling. While pushing through the revolving door, I dialed for car service. The air outside Terminal D was not cool and crisp, but dank and humid for November. I stuck my tongue out and swore I could taste the air, swallow it whole. Pages from newspapers, torn boarding passes and taxi cab receipts were momentarily lifted by a slight breeze, a slight shift and movement of the air but then fell tired and weak.

When the car stopped in front of my house, waves of dread filled me to a point where I felt I would burst. I promised myself that I would only attend the service, and immediately fly home; that was as much as I could possibly bear. When I had left for college, I told my mother that I hated her. I hated her for never paying me any attention, for caring only about Claire. My mother’s eyes had narrowed to slits. “Ungrateful!” she said. “You don’t get it do you? But I guess you never will,” I said, and slammed the door behind me. My father’s car pulled into the driveway. When he opened the door and saw my face streaked with tears, he opened his mouth but said nothing. I shook my head and ran down the street to the train station.

My heels clicking on the sidewalk quickly fell silent as I stepped on my mother’s flowerbed — petunias and roses turned brown, their petals peeled down in a frown. I turned and looked over at Claire’s house, now inhabited by a new family. Two small toddlers played tag on the lawn. “You’re IT!” one of them shouted. I stared at the flowerpots on the porch where I had secretly viewed Claire and Diana all those years. For years, I had wondered about Claire and not really known or understood why — that I just did. When I walked up the steps, I saw a tray of biscuits in front of the door. The fluorescent yellow seemed to glow in daylight. I bent down and a small white slip of paper was nestled under the pan. “From Claire,” it read. I swirled my head around, eyes darting at the street, other lawns and fell before a car that had replaced my taxi. The window rolled down and a blonde bob peeked out. “My turn”. She said and rolled the window up.

[b]Author’s Note:[/b] Felicia Sullivan is a New York based writer attending Columbia University’s MFA program. She is the Founder and EIC of an online literary journal, Small Spiral Notebook and is a fiction editor at the Adirondack Review. Felicia has work upcoming in The Oklahoma Review, The Adirondack Review, In Posse Review and Salt River Review, among other publications. A self-professed yoga junkie and culinary goddess, she loves French pastries and wearing down the jackets of her favorite novels.

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