Thursday, August 6, 2009

Of two sisters one is always the watcher, one the dancer.—Louise Glück

A SHORT STORY

LAUGHING GAS

LIFE is unfair.”

Diane turned cautiously from her mother’s sharp rebuke, avoiding what might have come next. She pressed her chin into her breastbone, biting her tongue. She’d already tempted fate by questioning the unfairness of it all, but that hand of fate could pack a wallop if she didn’t just zip it immediately. There is nothing she can do about it now. She fingers the soup can-sized rollers in her hair. It had taken her all morning to carefully section her fine straight hair, demanding patience she had very little of. If only she looked like Sandra Dee she’d get a boyfriend like Bobby Darin who was a lot better looking than Frankie Russo.

Not that she has a boyfriend. Not that she’s even allowed to have a boyfriend. That’s what the argument was about last night. The Shrimp had tracked Diane and Frankie to the playground. Her little sister Suzie was called The Shrimp—among other things—because she was so tiny. Anyone who didn’t know guessed she was much younger than her ten years. Diane should have raced from the grasping, juiced up boy as soon as she heard her mother yelling from their first floor window into a courtyard already emptied of kids who had come when they were called. And when her little sister peered into the cement barrel tunnel on the playground and urged: “Better get home for dinner. Mommy’s gonna kill you,” she should have been nicer to Suzie, not screamed at her as she sped away from them. She should not have yelled, “You suck!”

Her mother’s expression twisted from annoyance into rage as her youngest delivered the reason for Diane’s lateness. If her father had not been there, resigned under the desultory plume from his cigarette, staring at an empty dinner plate, then Diane surely would have felt her mother’s hand across her cheek. Instead, he tossed the cigarette into the sink on his way to the refrigerator. “She’s boy crazy that one!” Her mother stabbed a finger at Diane. “She’ll wind up like that…that Sharon.” A familiar hiss escaped as he popped the tab on a can of Rheingold and halted her rant. He looked at Diane. “You are too young for a boyfriend.”

Now Diane’s Saturday is ruined. “You want to be a grown up?” her mother challenged. “Then take your sister to the dentist.” At least this time she had been spared her father’s mantra: “Yours is not to reason why. Yours is but to do or die.” Well, she was dying, that’s for sure. Whatever she might have been doing was far better than what she had to do now.

“You aren’t going out like that, young lady.”

Diane had painstakingly ironed the ruffled bands on her prized “angel” shirt, which stopped just at her midriff, leaving a bare patch above her favorite pair of pedal pushers, cinched at the waist with cute little buckles. Her mother’s sting still on her skin, she tossed the offending blouse to the floor and replaced it with a plain pink button front, sleeves rolled to the elbow. Out of sight, she will flip the collar up and pull the shirttails into a knot, freeing her tummy. Her Keds shine whitely with a fresh coat of polish. She’s pulled her useless hair into a tight ponytail until it hurts. Even teased within an inch of its life it has no body. Suzie stares dolefully from the foot of her bed, one of two identical single beds in the claustrophobic room they have always shared. “It…your hair…looks better like that.” She had no privacy, no privacy at all! Diane shot back: “You suck.”

“Hold her hand crossing the street. Especially on Northern Boulevard.” Diane prodded her sister through the front door and into the courtyard mumbling, “If she’s so worried about you why doesn’t she take you?” Susie’s lower lip puckered. “We could walk.” “Well, of course we could walk, stupid. We are walking.” Diane held out the coins her mother had given her. “Save on carfare,” she mimicked, “you have nothing better to do with yourself so walk there.” “I mean,” Susie piped, “we could walk back, too.”

They exchanged a conspiratorial look. This had happened before. They could be arguing, screaming like banshees one minute, punching, and pinching each other. Then something would happen to bring it all to a stop, some way of getting back at her.

Ahead, slouched onto a bench as if he was joined to it, sat Frankie. Older than Diane by a few years, he pretended not to see her. He plucked the cigarette pack from his sleeve and tapped it onto the back of his hand. “Hey there, little one.” He winked and ran the palm of his hand over slick black hair. Susie giggled and lowered her eyes. “Come on,” Diane urged, pressing her sister’s delicate shoulders, sneaking a glance at Frankie who was still not looking at her.

They picked up the pace from there to the schoolyard at the top of the walk. A few of the neighbor boys were chucking a basketball, but the handball courts were empty. Diane pulled The Shrimp from the low-slung chains looping brown-patched lawns. Because their apartment’s first floor windows eyed the stoop entrance and overlooked benches where tenants congregated, the family quarrels were public theater, their mother’s harangues legendary. Airless summer nights drew the colored kids to the schoolyard with their parents and older brothers and sisters. Diane’s heartbeat fell in with the conga drums and she’d lie in bed imagining the women dancing, the street lights on their skin like flickering candles in the dark, humid night. Until her mother, not content with screaming at them, decided enough was enough and stormed up to the schoolyard. The drums would go quiet. Diane counted off the steps it took before her mother was far enough away from the dancers to be meaningless again and the drumbeats resumed, along with Diane’s sleepy smile.

• • •

Susie meandered in lopsided dreaminess ahead of her older sister’s watchful eye as they traipsed along 48th street heading for Sunnyside. It always struck Diane that not far from the impersonal complex of public housing, there were neat yellow brick homes in comforting rows along a street shaded with trees at the far end, kids’ bicycles tilted into wrought iron banisters. Her mother’s parting reprimand ringing in her head, Diane took her sister’s hand at the crossing on Northern Boulevard. It was a no man’s land of auto dealerships and ill-defined structures split by the broad boulevard. Determined drivers whizzed past them. Safely on the other side, Susie wrenched her hand from Diane’s grip and sprinted on spindly legs in crisp cotton shorts, putting some distance between them. The sight of the Empire State building on her right in the far distance reassured Diane. Next year she would go to a public high school in Manhattan. She’d passed the test. It was a dream come true. No more of this babysitting. She’d have friends and dates and drawing classes and way too much schoolwork.

Susie slowed, squatted and pretended interest in some scrap on the sidewalk but Diane knew that the train trestle ahead spooked her. It was a foul and scarred strip of grimy wall, weeping with blistered paint under a skeleton of iron pilings and train tracks encrusted with pigeon shit. The stench of urine on a hot summer day hurried even those hardened pedestrians. “’Fraidy cat,” Diane jeered and then laughed to soften the blow. Susie turned. Her shoulders were drawn under her ears. Her brow was deeply furrowed, her eyes looked darker and older in her small face. “I’m not!” she cried. Diane laughed again. “You are so.” But she hurried to her sister and in an unconscious move they clasped hands and when Diane shouted, “Run!” they tore under the train trestle, hollering for all they were worth as a cloud of pigeons burst from their path.

The other side brought them to a canopy of trees, alongside a chain link fence woven thickly with ivy. Wooden cottages, cheerily painted, nestled alongside two-story brick homes, front doors shaded with green-and-white striped awnings. Embellished iron gates led from the sidewalk to shady places behind the houses. White wooden porches graced red brick homes and flowerpots hung from hooks. Hydrangea bushes ballooned in front gardens, blossoming violet and blue, lavender and pink, depending on what bit of iron or copper was buried at their roots. Sunlight dropped through the trees onto the pavement, splashes of light from a natural palette. The complex of low-storied houses called Sunnyside Gardens was a paradise to Diane. A few steps up from the street and you were in a landscaped garden so private you could hardly believe it. Lace curtains billowed out from open doors. White morning glories, like wedding bells, shivered when you touched them.

At Queens Boulevard Diane grabbed Susie’s hand again. It was always tricky getting to the other side of the broad, congested road and Diane took no chances as they hurtled across one way, stopping under the viaduct looming above them, before they took their chances again on the other side.

The dentist’s office was up a flight of stairs in a narrow two-story building on a quieter avenue behind the boulevard. The waiting room was a small, nondescript area just outside the office. Dr. Tucher stood in the doorway between the reception area and the examining room, expecting them. His smile was hard to describe. Like it came with his face and never changed. He smelled clean and his hands were always cold. The few straight-backed chairs were old, and so were the magazines piled onto a rickety table in the corner. In the winter, the radiator gurgled and steam coated the window. Today a fan perched on the radiator in front of the open window whirring softly. Diane had never recalled seeing any other patients and she slumped into a chair, prepared to wait.

He spoke softly, not exactly gently. “Come along.” Susie passed under his arm and when he put a hand on her shoulder she flinched. Dr. Tucher urged her, “It won’t hurt, and you’ll be right as rain.” Diane called after her, “Hey, peanut.” Susie turned, her look disengaged. “It’s not that bad,” Diane crooned. They disappeared behind the closed door.

Diane was glad not to have to be in that chair today. Everything about the experience was off putting. The office equipment, all of it a nauseatingly pale translucent green like she imagined the color of sea slugs. She hated the feel of his cold hands prodding the inside of her gaping mouth. They smelled abnormally clean. Her mother was usually with them but after awhile Diane was relieved when she’d disappear on errands for the duration. Her mother was a bit too flirty with the doctor who let his hand linger on her arm sometimes. She and her sister would joke later and call him ‘Dr. Touch Her.’ And that gas mask. Ugh. The first time he placed it over her face she reacted so strongly that he looked distraught and worried allowed that he had somehow hurt her. He carefully explained that the gas would make it painless, even make her feel good. She was not persuaded and instead endured the long needle he’d had to shoot into her gums to anesthetize a compromised tooth. Susie would be distracted with the silvery balls of filling he let them play with.

Diane dropped a thin pile of magazines onto her lap. Life magazine. All old issues. She put an issue of National Geographic back on the table. Her annoyance returned. Not even a current copy of Seventeen. Jack Paar squinted from a cover of Life. Her dad called him the Pinko, or rather, that Pinko. She slid it back onto the table. Here was Debbie Reynolds on the cover of Life, in Spain. She’d like to go to Spain someday. She was surprised to see Marilyn Monroe next. It was an old issue of the magazine but one Diane had never seen. Flipping through it she saw an article about a young woman in Japan who was called a ‘commoner’ and how she was marrying a Prince. So, it could happen. Diane held her breath as she slowly tore Marilyn’s sexy image from the magazine. She folded it carefully and slid the page into her pants pocket.

There was no clock in the waiting area. Diane fidgeted irritably. Her little sister was so little and even more maddening than ever. She hated sharing a room. They were so different. Everything about her life, her dreams, had to be secreted in her diary and then even that was not safe. Diane bristled, recalling with anger the day she arrived home to see Susie, surrounded by her friends on the stoop, reading aloud from that diary, its lock cleanly cut from the covers. Exasperated, Diane pictured their reward after this. A treat at the ice cream parlor on the corner, thank you mother. They would have to walk home but it would be worth it. She might have suggested the White Castle—mystery meat her dad called it—but Susie was the one getting drilled and she would want ice cream.

The door clicked open. Susie, head lowered, slipped quickly past the doctor. “Okay there?” she asked. He assured Diane she was fine, that she was still feeling the affects of the gas. “You’re taking the bus?”

Outside Diane started for the ice cream parlor. Susie stood still, looking around her like she was lost. “What’s up?” “I don’t….” “You don’t what, want ice cream?” Diane crouched down to look at her sister more closely, see if her jaw might be swollen. But apart from that vacant look, she seemed fine. “Peanut?” she urged, “Are you sure?” Then resorting to her father’s precocious nickname she whispered, “No ice cream for the zinzemeier kartuffel glazer?” Diane reached for Susie at her waist, aiming to hoist herself back up. Her sister’s body went rigid, as if a thunderbolt had shot through her. “Get off!” she shrieked, her face reddened and clenched. Diane, stunned, straightened up. “Okay, okay. Sheesh, you’re touchy.”

After a few silent moments Susie murmured, “Bus” and she clasped Diane’s hand.

They rode home in silence. Diane stared out the window. Next year she would go to a public high school in Manhattan. She’d passed the test. It was a dream come true. No more of this babysitting. She’d have friends and dates and drawing classes and way too much schoolwork.

LAUGHING GAS is an original short story by Linda Danz.

STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. ©August 2009.




1 comment:

zbelnu said...

I liked very much this story, Linda. The relationship between Diane and her sister, their quarrelling and suddendly being friends, I liked the dentist atmosphere, the different attitudes of her parents, her dreams for the future at the end. The economy of your language. I (IMHO, with my poor English)think you write better and better each day