Clean
A Short Story by Lisa Burstein
Written using the suggestion "Cleaning"
Originally featured on 03-23-2007
As part of our series "Springset"

The first of the month always starts this way. She cuts and dyes her hair, this time a pixie and Clairol #213 Spicy Cinnamon; she has never been a redhead. She wants to try it.

She buys new clothes, a black turtleneck and black Capri pants, very Audrey Hepburn. She ties a polka dot scarf on her head, the cinnamon hair peeking out like small flames. Maybe she will pretend to be a poet. She burns her old clothes, the long batik skirts and diaphanous gauze shirts. Her hair was brown and parted down the middle, Clairol #607 Burnt Chestnut.

She cleans where she was living for the past month. This time above the Gas-N-Go. She borrows a vacuum from the Jimmy across the hall; it has a light on the front of it like a small headlight. He tells her he bought it so he could vacuum in the dark. Sneak up on the dirt, he says snorting and laughing. She realizes this is the longest conversation they have ever had. Jimmy is retarded. She wonders if he is faking. If he is pretending like her.

There’s a guy named George that lives next door. She’d see him in the laundry room. Sometimes he sat there even when he isn’t doing laundry. He liked the smell he told her. Clean.

She wanted to find him going through her clothes, so she could yell at him. So she could yell at anyone. He always had his eyes closed, breathing in deeply, smiling.

She sweeps the kitchen, scrubs the counters and floor with bleach water and steel wool until her cuticles bleed, metal shavings under her nails.

She bought the bleach six months ago in Savannah, Georgia. She like it there, hot, wet like a steamy towel on her face. Her hair was a blonde bob then, Clairol #102- Champagne. She was a waitress, she is usually a waitress. She named herself Savannah. She liked the connection. The repeated questions about whether she was named after the city. She always said she was. She liked the river, the iron gates that surrounded her apartment building like black vines. Sitting at the bar after her shift drinking Alabama Slammers, the bartender would tell her that she drank like she was in high school. Savannah sucked on her maraschino cherry stem and smiled knowing she should be.

After that it was Ft. Lauderdale, Clairol #203 — Ash Maple. She worked at a beach grill and made corn dogs, dipping them into a vat of liquid dough and watching the ocean. She didn’t know how to swim. Her name was Star and she pretended. Star liked the salt water taffy and sea shell shops. She wore a necklace with a starfish on it that her boss gave to her. She slept with him.

She calls no one to tell them where she is going, because she doesn’t know. She will not show up to work today. She will find a new job tomorrow. Somewhere without food this time, maybe a receptionist. A cinnamon haired receptionist named Lacie. Her last name will come.

There is a knock at her door, the landlord for the final walk through. She carries a black cat in her arms stroking it like a fur stole as she walks.

“We’ll miss you,” the landlord says, her words echoing in the empty space.

“Yes,” she says, putting her hands in her pockets, wondering if we is her and the cat, or the other people in the building.

“You were quiet,” the landlord says, nodding, taking stock, lamp, nightstand, stripped bed, dresser with three legs.

“Yes,” she says, it is all she can think to say. It is how she answers most questions. Are you from around here? Do you need a place to stay? Can I buy you dinner?

“Jimmy, he’s quiet in his way, and George well, he thinks he’s quiet and I guess he would be if it weren’t for the extra weight, but you, it was like you weren’t even here.”

“Thank you,” she says because she takes it as a compliment. She doesn’t want to be here. She doesn’t want to be anywhere.

“Was that shelf on the fridge always broken?” The landlord asks, putting the cat on the counter and bending down to look inside.

“Yes,” she says, the cat purring, weaving a figure-eight against her chest.

“What about this drawer?” The landlord says, pulling on a broken hinge.

She wants to leave, to stuff the old woman in the fridge and go. Test herself. But she figures the woman’s life is worth more than a.50 hinge. “No I broke it.” She says even though she didn’t. She’ll admit to that at least.

“It’ll be $10 to fix,” the landlord says, pulling the hinge off, like she’s breaking a wishbone in half.

What would she wish for? Most people wish to start over, but she gets that every month. She doesn’t know. She hasn’t been herself for so long, she doesn’t know what she would want. She could wish for her mother, but she knows that won’t come true. Not yet.

Lacie wants the receptionist job, so she wishes for that. She pictures it in her head, the headset she will wear, the coffee she will make, the black high-heels she will click through the office in. She pictures her smile, her lips caked with glazed donut crumbs.

She hasn’t been herself since her mother left and she’s kept changing. Kept moving and kept changing to be the daughter her mother wanted. She hasn’t found her, she isn’t right yet.

It was snowing in Denver the day her mother left, a blizzard. She left with a man in a red ski hat and a sheep’s wool coat, the kind that look like you are wearing an animal inside out. Her name was Ashley then; her father chose that name and her mother never let her forget that she hated it.

No one was supposed to be awake when her mother left, but the transmission was bad and it whinnied like an injured horse as the truck idled in the driveway.

She had never seen the man or his car before. His license plate said Montana, but snow covered the M. Her mother was taken by the man from ontana.

Her father ran to the door, as the man’s truck pulled out, he was wearing only his boxers and socks. The snow came up to his knees. He chased after the car, slipping at the edge of the driveway. Falling face first like a backwards snow angel.

She pretended to be asleep. She didn’t want to help her father. She didn’t want to see him crying. Didn’t want to listen to him say he was sorry. That it was not her fault.

She hears George walk down to the laundry room. He will sit there all day waiting for someone to run the dryer. It won’t be her.

She considers saying goodbye to him, not because it’s him, but because for once she wants someone to know she is leaving. But, he would ask questions. He would expect answers and she doesn’t have any.

She leaves the key under the landlord’s mat. It says “Welcome”. The black cat meows through the window, scratches at it. She thinks about that cat food, nine lives, she’s had more than that. Her security deposit in hand, she heads north. She leaves nothing behind.

Read More By Lisa Burstein

Train Vs. Plane
A Short Story by Lisa Burstein
Written using the suggestion "Training"
Originally featured on 03-16-2007
As part of our series "Springset"

Steve is afraid of flying. He won’t admit to it, but that’s the truth. He tells me he’s not afraid, he just doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like it so much that he’d rather take the Amtrak from where we live in Portland, to where his folks live in Jamestown, NY. That’s a serious amount of dislike.

“Maybe you should go to a therapist,” I say, but I say it in a kidding way. I know there’s no way in hell Steve is going to therapist. I’ve asked him to go several times during our five year relationship, but Steve is Irish Catholic, therapy is against his religion.

“Maybe you should fuck off,” he says, his way of telling me a conversation is over. But this conversation can’t be over because there is no way I am spending four days on a train.

“I’m serious, this is a real problem for you.” I say, though any one of my failed therapists would tell me I was projecting. See I’m the one who has the problem. I’m the one who should be in therapy, but I’m lazy and broke and I don’t feel like going through my story all over again.

While Steve has the very normal and very common phobia of flying my problem goes way beyond that. It slides right past obsessive compulsive disorder, into full on panic.

I am in constant terror that Steve will die. The thing is he doesn’t do anything that would make him more likely to die than anyone else. He doesn’t skydive and he isn’t in the army. He’s not a police officer, or a lion tamer, or an atom bomb tester. He’s just a regular guy who for some reason I think existence wants to rip away from me anytime he is out of my sight. Every therapist I have ever gone to has told me that my anxiety related to losing Steve is completely irrational, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

“Gracie, go away,” he says, staring at the TV like he asking it to fly across the room and hit me in the head. The thing is I can’t go away, because even when he’s in the next room I still think he might die. Anytime he is out of my sight I think he might die. Like he is a character I’ve created and only I can keep him going, without me there he ceases to exist. My eyes are the only thing that can convince me he’s still alive.

When I don’t hear any noise from the from the next room, I’ll sometimes call out to him just to make sure he’s still there, that he hasn’t succumbed to a heart attack, or a stroke. That he hasn’t miswallowed a Dorito and is choking, breathlessly dying like a fish out of water.

“Why are you so angry?” I ask, not that I really want an answer and not like I’ll really get one, but I have to keep the conversation going, I have to get him on that plane. Four days on a train is four days without him. Four days where he could die in any number of ways, not the least of which a fiery crash involving an ill-placed cattle drive.

“Why are you so angry?” This is a tactic of his, accusing me of being the one who is feeding the argument, by repeating what I’ve just said.

“I’m just trying to talk to you.” The worst is when he’s driving. Of course, being in a vehicle does make him more likely to die than sitting on the couch eating Doritos. The car accident I see play in my head every time he puts his keys into the ignition involves an eighteen-wheeler and is always fatal.

The train is like a huge car, which exponentially multiplied by the size of the accident would make it all the more likely he would die.

“They are my parents, I should be able to choose how I go and visit them.” I’m not sure if this is a dig at the fact that we are not married yet, or this is how he is choosing to justify his side, so I let him continue. “Do I tell you what to do when it comes to your parents?” The thing is he does, but I’m not going to go into that. I don’t even want to start talking about his need to tell me on a pretty consistent basis that I don’t know how to stand up to my parents. Which I don’t, but I don’t need him to point it out for me either.

My parents are just one of the reasons on the list of why I don’t want Steve to die. Because if he did die I would probably have to move back in with them, and that because it would be all my mother needed to prove to herself that she was right about Steve all along. That he and I would never work. Also, on that list are having to take care of his disgusting lizard and be alone and unloved for eternity.

“How are we ever going to be able to go to Europe?” I ask trying to get him caught up in a game of logic. Of course, you could just take a boat but Steve is more afraid of sharks than he is of flying. It goes back to a babysitter who let him watch Jaws and then tortured him with stories of Sharks fitting through sewer pipes throughout his bath time that night. This works for me because it takes all the disaster at sea scenarios out of my possible Steve death rolodex.

“Who says I want to go to Europe?” I take this as another knock towards our never to be consummated relationship. He knows I want to honeymoon in London.

“The therapist would give you drugs.” I say, and I am pretty positive this will work. Steve loves drugs. He loves drugs almost as much as he hates flying and sharks. The thing is I’ll have to watch him take the drugs to make sure he doesn’t overdose. I’ll have to look them up online to make sure none of the side effects include death.

“I can get my own.” He says, looking very Miami Vice. Truth is he buys pot from our gardener. Far more Golden Girls than Miami Vice.

“Valium?” I ask, hoping that mentioning Valium to a druggie is like mentioning fat-free, calorie free chocolate mousse to a dieter.

“Whatever.” He says, but I can see him starting to wear down. If we take the plane and it crashes, at least we will die together. At least, I won’t have to spend four days thinking that he had a stroke in the Amtrak bathroom.

“What if I bought our plane tickets?” I ask. There is no way I can afford this, but I could put it on my credit card. It’s worth $500 to keep Steve alive, to keep me sane for four days.

“Who said you were coming?” He asks, and I can’t tell if he’s saying this because he wants to irritate me, or because he really means it. If he goes without me that’s ten days of not knowing where he is or what he is doing. He could die in any number of ways without me in Jamestown: tractor mishap, poison lemonade, apple tree collapse.

I consider starting to cry, this usually gets me my way, but I don’t feel like letting him make me cry today. “Fine, we’ll take the train.” I sigh, I haven’t given up, but this is as far as we will get right now.

“I’ll get us a sleeper car,” he says, rubbing my shoulder as he walks into the study to make the reservations.

I hear him typing and then I hear nothing. It’s happened, he’s popped a blood vessel in his brain.

“Steve,” I scream, like I was holding him from falling over a cliff and I’ve just lost my grip.

“What?” He yells, like I’ve been calling his name over and over again and he doesn’t feel like answering.

He’s ok, for now, he’s ok. “Make sure you order me a vegetarian meal.” I say. Like Steve and the plane it’s not that I’m afraid he’ll die, I just wouldn’t like it. A lot.

Read More By Lisa Burstein

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