Fiction: Meanwhile Across Town by Kathie Jacobson

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Photo by Robert Guss

A woman with a black bob, she speaks for the survivors. Twenty-three times the clip of her replays. How the shots were fired. How people had nowhere to go. How cars lost control,  drivers felled. The woman’s face is headline news. I cannot turn away. I cut her picture from the newspaper and pin it to the fridge with a magnet shaped like an eggplant. “Is this a shark?” my nephew asks, and I can’t think what he is asking about until I see he has positioned the magnet with the stem up as if it were a dorsal slicing through the ocean’s skin.

“No shark,” I say. I crumple the remainder of the page, mix my sweat with ink and fiber. In my open hand, a pulpy mass; my skin grayed.

Once, grief from gun violence was a solo affair. Across the country, one hundred people, two of them children, shot dead, murdered. Sixty-one, two of them children, shoot themselves dead, suicide. Across the country, a woman killed every sixteen hours by her partner. Eight children shot each day by family fire.

Family fire should be the hearth, should be the stove with a warm stew cooking, cinnamon, cardamom, curry steaming through the air. Should be rice bubbling.

Eight children. Every day. Family fire.

Now death arrives in quantities: forty-eight, thirty-eight, thirteen, twenty-three, forty, thirty-four, fifty, eighty-nine. Murdered en masse. Grief, feral and forever, pummels. Flattens neighborhoods.

My nephew is waiting. “Your turn,” he says. We are playing Sorry. I flip a card and cannot move, which pleases my nephew. Behind him the television mumbles. The woman, the same one I have clipped and pinned, is on the screen. Her eyes shift with the vagueness of an undead soldier. Daily she is on the news. She stands beside reporters who hurl questions while worrying about the angle of their cameras. She rolls her hands inside her sleeves. She looks at all the faces. Winces. A bouquet of microphones wilts toward her.

My nephew will not let me tie his shoes. He turns away when I stoop. Cold shoulders me. “We will be late,” I say, and he shrugs. I slip a note into his lunch box having read somewhere that self-esteem notches up with small affirmations encountered by surprise.

Surprise, as when my mother called. “Fetch him,” she said. Him being my nephew. Him being the progeny of my sister. My sister being the emergency. “Unconscious,” my mother said.

My nephew waits for my sister to return. “Is she dreaming?” he asks, still hunched and busy on the floor.

I don’t think so.

“Tommy Birdsall says she is dead in her brain.”

My nephew is a patient child. Laces fluster his fingers and he sighs. Begins again.

I call my boss. “I can’t make it?” I say. It is the third time this week I have called off.

“Again,” Dave says and waits.

“Call Nance,” I say.

Dave doesn’t ask what changed and I know he thinks I am a flake. Uncompromising. Uninterested. Unable to follow through.

“The news,” I begin and then I shrug, which he cannot see, which underlines the state I am in, the state in which words fail.

“I saw,” he says. “Another.” He vexes on about the sorry state of the nation. The state of inaction. The travesty.

I do not interrupt to tell him it is the other news. Not the big headline. Not that bloodbath story, but the small story. The meanwhile across town story.

My nephew stands and takes the lunchbox from my hand. His laces loop, facsimile of being tied.

A billboard on the edge of town:  Buy her a diamond, get a hunting rifle for free.

My nephew and I play Stone soup, a card game in which a person wins by lying, for one is never lucky enough to have what they need on the final turn. “Two carrots,” I say placing cards face down on the pile.

“I doubt it,” my nephew can’t resist showing me that he has all the carrot cards, six, in his hand.

I pick up the pile.

My sister labored twenty-three hours to deliver a small miracle of a baby, now this boy who makes new cells as we play, who grows without giving a single moment of thought to growing.

“One tomato,” says my nephew.

“One onion.”

I look at him as he concentrates, his brow furrowed as my sister’s furrows, his eyes speckled but green like hers, his hair curly, not like hers.

My nephew collects the pile after I doubt the authenticity of his potato. He sorts cards on the table to organize his hand.

“Three mushrooms,” says my nephew. He catches the stone I slide in with my turnips.

Once, when he was still small enough to buckle into a carrier on my sister’s back, we hiked at the ocean. My sister dreamed he would be a man who loves the sea. She dreamed he would be a man who knows the names of the stars. He was tired and cranky on her back. She sang, her voice blending with the pulse of the ocean’s rhythm and he slept. She dreamed he would be a generous boy with many friends and few worries. She dreamed he would make music.

“One lamb shank,” I say.

“No,” says my nephew. “That’s not in the game.”

When my nephew lies, he grins. He has not yet learned to hide his mischief. I point this out to him and, when it is his turn to lie again, he places all his cards on the table and presses his palms against his cheeks to distort his face. “Three onions,” he squeezes out words.

I laugh, but I do not doubt that it is time to end the game. “You got me,” I say.

“When is Mom coming?” he asks.

I offer to read a book.

When we ride in cars we buckle up. It is the law. When we drink, we do not drive. Also law. When kids ride bikes, they wear helmets. Cigarettes are not sold to minors. Cars pass safety inspections. Drivers pass tests, prove they can see, can follow rules. Want gun? Have gun. No pre-req.

We are at the park. At the slide, my nephew soldiers up and surrenders down. He wants his mother. Other children leave space around him, gaps before and after, as if they feel ghosts who keep place in line. Children accept the urgency of one another, take turns, give space, summon adults with a wail when surprised by gravity or velocity or the sudden cruelty of another.

My nephew doesn’t smile when he slides. His body recites schoolyard games. Habits of living. We eat, we breathe.

They have names. They call them Smith and Wesson, Uzi, Annihilator, Glock. They call them Honey Badger, Cheetah, Wolverine, Shrike. They call them Judge, Constable, Ranger, Protector. Will they christen the new models: El Paso Special? Newton? Will they call them Domestic Bliss?

My nephew blows small raspberries of air. In the hour since he fell asleep, seven people have died. Most, like my sister, alone with the shooter, who they one time loved.

I don’t expect my nephew can count that high, but I offer the box of coins deposited from end-of-day pockets. “Roll them,” I say, it will be easier to count small stacks. He hums above the shuffle of coins on the table as he uses his fingers to sort by size and color.

“We can buy cat food,” he says.

“We don’t have a cat.”

“We could get one.”

“We’ll let your Mom decide,” I say and regret, sometime between the first and last M which is to say sometime while the middle sound, the ahhh leaves my throat, having gone there.

My nephew looks up, concentrates, deciphering. Betrayal, raw and frank, shadows his face and I feel the rise of shame on the back of my neck, the sweat on my forehead. I watch my nephew count coins, not for value, but for quantity.

I count the living. I count the wounded. Values jolt me as if with day-time apnea. My body snaps with a myoclonus twitch as if touched by a high voltage wire.

I keep the tally on my wall. A red mark for every headline of a shooting. A sub-tally of every injury, another of every death. By the time I write this, I estimate another eight or nine incidents. By the time my nephew understands, the dead will exceed the population of our town.

Newspapers blame mental illness, bad parenting, drugs, PTSD, a history of violence.

I resolve to get a cat. A kitten. Now. While my sister is alive.

In the morning I pack a sandwich inside my nephew’s Spidey lunch box.

Television news plays in the background. Interviews with survivors. A woman who sat beside her best friend in the back seat of an SUV. A man whose son was driving home from football practice. A fellow with white hairs and the face of a raisin whose daughter died chauffeuring him home from chemo. The woman with a black bob is on the screen again, her sweater made soft and gray by the television. She wears a single, unadorned chain that rounds her neck. “My sister,” she chokes and turns away from the camera. Like me, she is buying children’s clothes and coaching homework. Like me, she is fielding questions at drop-off and pick-up, navigating well-wishers who, if she let’s them in, will weaken her knees and flood her eyes. Like me, she is playing Chinese jump rope with her nephew, a chair holding the rope where her sister’s feet should be.

My mother knocks. Her eyes sink into her face. “I can take him to school,” she says. She needs to disrupt the routine, hers, ours. She holds up her phone. Fifty-seven unanswered calls from Devin. She taps the screen, hands the phone to me. In the messages, Devin curses. Cries. Threatens. He wants her to rescind the TRO. He wants my sister. He wants his son.

“Does he ask for him?” she wants to know.

“Not once,” I say.

“Okay then.”

My nephew arrives from the back of the house. “Nana!”

We raise our voices from whispers to what I hope is an ordinary volume.

I find a number for the woman from the news. We meet at the Boot and Shoe. We eat. English peas and mint on creamy polenta. We drink lilet, cold and sweet against the burning sun. Comfort in communion, in breaking bread, in parallels. She talks of her sister. She tells me that she sees her in the shadows, through the window over her kitchen sink, walking on a crowded sidewalk. She sees her sister and drops what she is doing, chases figments.

They have names: Laquita, Ryan, Tara, Mary Louise, Alexander. The woman’s sister is Keyla. The woman’s sister is Brandy. The woman’s sister is Gloria, is Irma, is Eugenia. The woman’s sister is Esther Rose.

My sister’s heart beats. “Lucky.” The woman blurs in my eyes. Not lucky. Lucky wins at horses. Lucky stops a flood two steps from your door, all your neighbors are safe, all your town. Lucky catches you when you trip, before you fall. Lucky ricochets a bullet away from you, away from anyone, leaves you standing, the air violent in its stillness when the sound has stopped. I look at my watch and though the woman’s sentence is not finished, though polenta steams from my plate, I rise.

Uxoricide 1) murder of a wife by her husband; 2) A man who kills his wife.

Prolicide: destroying one’s offspring; not to be confused with Filicide: killing one’s child. I could have gone a lifetime without learning these words.

How many women imprisoned for self-defense? How many men excused because, a wife like that, who wouldn’t?

I reach his school before the bell, wait for my nephew inside the door.

We get a cat. My nephew chooses a kitten with poor hygiene, its fur spikey as if it has been dunked in hair gel. “Guess she comes with a name,” I say. “Hey Spike,” I say.

My nephew scowls at me. “Her name is Uzi,” he says.

“Oz,” I answer.

“Uzi.”

We are playing a long game of go fish. Two decks of cards. Our hands are full waiting for eight card books. Yesterday my mother asked me what my nephew knew.

“I don’t know,” I tell her.

“Ask,” she said.

I ask.

Fear mars his face.

“Its okay,” I say. “Do you have any eights?”

He looks through his cards one at a time.

“Your mom,” I say.

“Can she talk?” he asks.

Uzi captures the dust mote she’s been chasing, climbs into his lap. I don’t answer.

“Okay,” he says. “Do you have any queens?”

I give him three and he puts his cards down to bunch his queens into a stack.

“Five books,” he says.

“Five,” I say. “You’re going to win.”

She would ask about his homework; she would ask about his friends. He would want to tell her. He says nothing to me.

“Do you want to stay with me a little longer?” I ask. The doctor has said he must. The psychologist concurs. Nana cannot take him in.

“Can my dad come?” His shoulders curve around his ears. He watches me.

“No,” I say.

“Okay,” he says. Air releases from his lungs.

It’s not your fault, I say. But I suspect he cannot hear me.

I work on Saturday, but when someone at a back table calls for a toast and puts his glass down with a bang, I fall into a crouch behind the bar. Kendall has to get me out of there, my crouch being in the way of Nance and Minnie even though Minnie is small and light on her feet like a dancer in an aerial ballet. Kendall has to leave the ovens, push his way through the swinging doors that don’t quite fill the doorway – saloon doors, Nance said once and I supposed she was right for where else but a cowboy movie would you see doors like that? I am afraid for every saloon has a moment when the doors shove open and a black hat walks in, or a white hat, and either way you know there will be shooting between the new hat and the hats already stooped around a back table. Kendall pushes his way through the doors and walks behind the narrow bar where my body crouches, an obstacle, and scoops me up, and guides me between the chair-and-table-maze of the dining room, through the saloon doors that tick as they swing, until they settle into a stillness behind us and weeping, mine, is the only sound left in the room.

I tell Dave I will be back on Monday and he says I have said this about every Monday. It isn’t realistic. I say I have to take time because my sister didn’t take time and then she didn’t have time and without time we cannot imagine children and grandchildren and daughters and grandnieces, assuming, that is, I can get my nephew out of first grade and second and third and, also, high school without further disaster.

Even I can see that Dave wishes he were not standing across from me.

The school yard is a cemetery. The bank, the courthouse: morgues. Shots fired on Main Street, Maple, Elm. Jefferson. Death rises dusty from beneath the backs of the slain. I pray to every god, shuffling religions together like a deck of cards. “Do you have any Vishnus?” Go Fish. “Any Buddahs?”

My nephew asks for sevens and I hand over the cards. He joins them with those in his hand and stacks books: Allah, Jesus, Heras, Demeters.

Uzi purrs on his shoulder, louder than a furnace.

My sister lived on Jefferson. A quiet street of starter homes, single story wood frames with basements. The woman with the bob is on tv again. A vigil, she says, and I know I will go.

I call Dave and tell him I won’t be in on Monday.

In the streets I see my sister in a young girl who sits on a swing, laughing as she laughed when, at six, I pushed her and she let go. Falling is like flying, she said, before you hit the ground. In the streets, I see her in the scuttle and skip of a girl who darts ahead and falls behind her mother. I see her in the cluster of girls who turn without consultation to navigate the oncoming current of adults. There she is in the face of a woman-girl who squints up at a bird, her cheeks flushed with the crispness of the air. My nephew pulls my hand and points. He has seen her too, there and not there. My heart vibrates as if a bow has pulled across strings, rattles and twangs as if plucked. A deep note crescendos in my chest and I know that this feeling, this sound, this is my sister now.

Kathie Jacobson’s work has appeared in The Big Muddy, Eastern Iowa Review, Crack the Spine, Driftwood Press, Pithead Chapel, Necessary Fiction, and other journals, and has been featured as a Longform Fiction Pick-of-the-Week.

One response to “Fiction: Meanwhile Across Town by Kathie Jacobson

  1. I will read this story again when I want to turn away from gun violence and say I just don’t understand what is happening. It’s happening now in this penetrating narrative of wisdom. Amazing story.

    Like

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