Julie Brooks Barbour
Make a Racket
As she does most mornings, Claire takes a Miller Lite into the bathroom to give to her mother.
The steam is so thick and the floor so slippery that Claire loses her balance and has to grab the sink to steady herself. “You have to remember to turn the fan on, Mom.” Claire drops the beer into the back of the tub, where she knows it won’t hurt Brenda. It hits the ceramic with a thunk.
“I like the cloud it makes,” says Brenda’s voice from behind the curtain.
Brenda showers sitting down, hugging her knees. Claire had tried putting a plastic chair under the nozzle once, but her mother had thrown it back outside onto the lawn.
“Don’t you try to baby me,” Brenda had said. “Don’t you dare, baby girl.”
Brenda must believe, it seems to Claire, that she’ll shower standing up one morning. And maybe she will. Maybe one of these mornings, Brenda will fry an egg for Claire, rinse the pan, get out to the car in enough time for the two of them to sit inside and chat for a few minutes while the engine warms, before Claire drives them into town. This morning, though, Brenda needs her daughter to deliver a beer to the bathroom, as usual. She picks it up now and presses it to her forehead. Both hot and cool at once: Claire knows that’s what her mother craves most on mornings like this.
“Pass me some aspirin?” Brenda asks.
Claire feels for the mirror, takes two out of the bottle. She puts one back. “Give me your hand.”
Brenda extends an arm through the curtain, dripping water onto the bathmat, which Claire has asked her not to do. Claire places the tablet on Brenda’s open palm. She notices a new bruise on Brenda’s wrist bone. Claire’s guess would be as good as anyone’s. Probably better than her mother’s best guess.
Claire always spots every mark or bump, but Brenda can rarely manage to explain these kinds of things. Brenda might say that it’s possible she fell going up the stairs, but she wouldn’t swear to it, or to much of anything. The previous night is often no more than a dream to Brenda by the following morning. Claire has given up on asking questions. Brenda might remember one rude thing a man at the bar had said, a shade of blue, a certain mood, a car commercial jingle from just before the TV had turned to static.
“This feels like one, baby girl,” Brenda says, shoving her palm back toward Claire.
“How many times we been through this? Doesn’t the bottle say two?”
“Eat one, Mom. Same as the number of livers you got.”
Claire goes back to the kitchen. She knows her mother’s showers can last a lifetime, so she washes a bowl and fills it with Raisin Bran. There’s no milk in the fridge. She dumps the dry cereal back into the box.
She grabs the keys from the nail between the light switch and the toaster. She steps into her winter boots, struggles into her down coat. She stops to tie the plastic strings of the overfull trash bag with a precise bow. She slings the bag over her shoulder, hurries outside, pops the trunk, and tosses in the bag. She’ll drop it at a dumpster on the way into town.
Next on the list is to make sure the car starts, crank the heat, set it to defrost. Everything has to be ready to go, if she wants to be on time. Brenda will run out in her undershirt, wet hair freezing in clumps, clutching her compact and a sweater. Or, she won’t do even that, and Claire will have to go back inside and plead.
When Claire twists the key, the engine turns over a few times, doesn’t seem up to it, but finally catches. Claire thinks she hears a small squeak like a rusted hinge. Something smells of burnt hair.
“No,” Claire says, turning the car off, because she knows what must have happened. “Nope,” she says, and she sees the word bloom into fog in the freezing air above the steering wheel. All she can do now is pray that, whatever it is, it’s still alive. The last time, she’d cried to herself in the passenger seat the whole way, while Brenda’d had to drive.
“Make a holy racket,” Mrs. Westerman, her homeroom teacher, had suggested. She’d allowed Claire to rest quietly with her head down on her desk for one whole period. “Make the car sound like a scary place.” Claire had promised herself that she’d always remember to lay on the horn from then on. She’d raise the hood high each morning before letting it slam back down.
Now, Claire slowly lifts up the hood. She peers through squinted eyes, wanting to find out without seeing. The kitten has its paw stuck inside the fan belt. Its eyes look like giant marbles, and Claire worries they’re frozen open. She feels that it’s not dead, but that’s the way she’d felt last time, too. After a few seconds, the kitten blinks.
When the temperatures drop, all they want is to find the warmest place they can get into, Claire thinks. Is that so bad? That’s all they want. Claire begins to cry, the tears crystallizing before they even reach her upper lip. But she stays calm.
She goes back to the trunk and finds a pair of gardening gloves under the trash bag. She puts one on her right hand. Plucking at the belt, she finds she can easily free the kitten’s leg. She decides to think of it as a boy, though she’s not silly enough to name him. She nudges him onto her palm. His fur is burnt away in several places and his back legs both look wrong, but he is alive. Claire carries him inside, gloved hand held up near her mouth, whispering over and over the whole way: stay, stay, stay.
Claire enters the bathroom and turns the light on. She pulls back the curtain and looks at her mother, who is making herself as small as she can in the front of the tub. Claire turns off the water. She wraps the kitten in a hand towel and sets him down on top of Brenda’s feet.
“What do we do with this?” Brenda asks, not looking up.
I know what we do with this, Claire thinks. What will happen next is Brenda will finally get out of the tub and put a robe on. She’ll say they can’t be affording to mess with a charity mission right now. What they’ll do is they’ll turn the faucet back on. They’ll get a sack from the pantry. They’ll say a few words with their eyes closed. It will all be a bad dream by the next morning. Claire walks out of the room.
“Hey. Hey, what do we do with this?”
If Brenda can’t manage to try harder today, Claire knows forgiveness will not be as easy to come by as it has in the past. What will happen to that poor kitten? She will blame her mother, but not as much as she will blame herself. She will never stop smelling the singed fur. Claire has seen a lot of things done the wrong way.
She’ll probably have to take the kitten into town alone. This morning, it feels important to her that one thing gets done right. She goes back to the car and kicks the hubcap. She slaps the hood with her bare hand. She brings it down again and again, the cold metal stinging her skin red. She leans through the open door and twists the key. The car starts up immediately this time, but the thought of driving it makes her light-headed.
No, what she’ll do is she’ll walk up the lane and out to the highway, hitchhike to the Greyhound station. And she does, starts walking, actually walking away. With each step, her boots break the top crust and then drop suddenly into the softer snow beneath. Looking back over her shoulder, she can see the trail of dark holes she’s left behind. Maybe it is not up to her this time, or any time. The car is still waiting, idling, the tailpipe streaming gray smoke. She keeps walking.
Aunt Jo wouldn’t be surprised to see her if she showed up. During the ride into Chicago, Claire would choose to believe that Brenda is cradling the kitten in her lap and making a plan.
Yes, Claire thinks. Brenda will take a clean cardigan out of the closet and slip it on. She’ll pin her hair up, keep her bangs out of her eyes. Then, someday she’ll start drinking diet ginger ale without the whiskey, adopt a golden retriever. She’ll get married again, to somebody better this time. She’ll ask Claire to be her maid of honor and Claire will write a speech, and Claire will mean every word. Brenda will stop playing scratch tickets, save up her money. She’ll finally learn to make three-bean salad, the family speciality. She will enroll in a few online business courses. There will be baby showers, bottles of champagne, and Brenda will smile at her new friends but won’t take a sip. Someday Brenda will run for city council, have her photo in the paper, snip a ribbon at a grand opening. Someday she will be in control of everything; Brenda will be Queen.
But today, all Brenda has to manage is putting some old T-shirts in a box for bedding. Certainly, Claire thinks, Brenda will call the vet. She’ll want to know what to do. “Got it, got it, I’ll be there soon,” Brenda will tell him. “I’m on my way.”
Carrying the box outside, she’ll find one last gift: the car already running, just like always. She’ll shovel the lane out, check the oil, scrape the windshield, set things right.
ERIC THOMPSON received his MFA from Hollins University, where he was a Teaching Fellow and the recipient of the Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction. His stories and poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Blackbird, Bodega, Word Riot, and Necessary Fiction, among others. He received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train for their May 2013 Short Story Award for New Writers. Eric lives in Roanoke, Virginia.