Oct/Nov 2023  •   Spotlight

Screen Door

by Grace Glass

Public domain image

In the summer of 1975, an LLC with a forgettable name, a division of a conglomerate based in a country nobody can pronounce, builds a KMart on Main Street. It has a dull, flickery red sign, a greasy cafeteria, and neon-yellow banners proclaiming the lowest prices in town. The town in question is slow, dusty, often infuriating, a haphazard chunk of Ohio landscape heated by a heavy, indifferent sun. The store breathes life into a formerly empty strip mall. On its edges spring a tattoo parlor specializing in crucifixes and Psalms, a Chinese takeout, a nail salon, and a coin shop that's always empty. Gracie Simpson's father says it's a front for something nefarious. Gracie's just ten but she knows what nefarious means, and as they motor past in their two-toned Caprice Classic wagon, she hatches fantasies in which she's just like Nancy Drew, triumphantly finding and revealing secrets. Sometimes she whispers details to her small brother, Jacob, who's serene and potbellied and entertains himself by smearing boogers on door handles. Because Jacob's smallest, he has to ride in the rear-facing seat, which makes him carsick, so the upholstery always smells of bile, despite their mother's diligent scrubbing. On Saturdays, while their father sleeps, the three of them run errands. The bank, where their mother scribbles deposit slips and mortgage checks, and tellers slip Jacob cherry lollipops, turning him manic with sugar. The library, the post office. Finally, KMart. Women's shoes, sporting goods, a toy department redolent of new plastic and wood shavings, where the children drown in dizzying desire. Transformers, jigsaw puzzles, Princess Leia dolls, EZ Bake Ovens. A mechanical dinosaur, lurching, chuckling in a crackly, ominous voice. They name it Gary and laugh at its big, jagged teeth. When it's time for lunch, they drift to the cafeteria where their mother buys popcorn and french fries. The children feast, squirt ketchup at each other, compete to see who can read the funniest passage from a library book. When they get home, empty corners have been filled, and even their most shameful, half-conscious questions have all been answered yes.

One day, after the year's first snow, Gracie's mother grabs each of them by the hand and leads them into the master bedroom, where normally they aren't allowed. Their father's gold-plated alarm clock drawls. A lone ant toils stubbornly over Jacob's untied shoe. Gracie's a little repelled by her mother's hand, which is ice-cold, veiny, pulsing with a feverish, erratic heartbeat.

Listen, she says, your father and I are getting a divorce. Do you know what that means?

I know all about it, Jacob boasts. Stevie Litman's mom got one. Now the cops come when his dad shows up late at night and bangs on the windows. Is Daddy going to get arrested?

No, baby, no, it's not that kind of divorce. It just means your father's going to move. He'll have his own place and we'll live here. You'll still see him every weekend.

Well, says Gracie, all I have to say is, finally. All he ever does is drink beers and yell and blame us for stuff that's nobody's fault. Like when the racoons shredded the screen door and he said it was because we're so goddamn selfish.

Don't use that language, young lady. You know better.

But we can still go to KMart on Saturdays, Jacob says. Their mother's eyes, gray or green depending on the quality of light, get narrow and hard, and her lips press together so hard they nearly vanish. It isn't okay, Gracie thinks, how we are, and will it be this way until we grow up, like being so thirsty it makes you sick, or seeing a dead person in a coffin? Maybe she's wrong, and this yawning emptiness won't leave with their father. Maybe it's more insidious, tangling through their blood, a plucky, relentless virus. She winds her fingers through Jacob's, which are warm and sticky, and pretends the three of them are particles in an atom, held together with electric, indelible bonds.

Their father tapes his clothes and books and stereo into boxes, and loud men who smell of onions and sweat stomp through the house and take the boxes away. On Saturdays, instead of KMart, Gracie and Jacob are driven to their father's apartment in the city. It's a twisty, confusing wedge of an old coffee factory with high, echoey ceilings, a screaming radiator, wood floors painted the color of daffodils. Their father's face gets thinner, and he starts to hug them hello and goodbye. He makes lemonade and lets them win at Monopoly. Jacob's too little to understand the win isn't real, and he crows joyously as he slides his token, always the horse, rearing in some mysterious, glistening fever, down to Boardwalk, where he scatters hotels, grabs handfuls of pink and blue money, announces he's rich enough to be president. They eat lunch at McDonald's and trudge through a park bisected by a lazy brown river heaving with trash and slimy, iridescent plants.

Right here, you two, says their father, resting his hand on a rotting park bench shedding flakes of blue paint.

Right here what, asks Jacob.

Here's where I got mugged. I was out for an evening run, and I stopped here to rest, and then these two guys, big guys, with loud voices and eyes I couldn't see, punched me in the stomach and took my money. See, I still have the bruise. He shimmies up his shirt to show the purple amoeba blooming from his olive skin.

Why is it called mugged, Jacob asks. Did they have a mug?

No dummy, says Gracie. That's what you call it when criminals take your money.

Oh. Well you had more at home, right? Or was that all your money?

No, no, says their father. I still have money. That isn't the point. Don't you guys feel bad for me?

That depends, says Gracie. She sits down on the bench. My feet hurt. She explains, Mom made me wear these shoes but they pinch.

Their father's face curdles like old milk, and he mutters something inaudible but violent. An imperious duck strides past, fluffy ducklings in tow. There are six of them, and they bumble and list so the line is never really a line but something shifting, shapeless, destabilizing. All over it's the same, Gracie thinks. The thought doesn't feel like hers. It's tired, distant, crackling like an old radio. Jacob and her father sit with her on the bench, and everyone gets blue paint on their clothes, and nobody has anything else to say. Then they walk back to the coffee factory, where the two-toned station wagon idles at the curb. Their mother gets out and puts her hands on her hips.

Late, she says, raising a finger to the sky, as if summoning angels or trying to get God's attention. You know, I don't have all day to wait on you. She wears a lacy dress, sandals with golden straps, shimmery lipstick. She smells like soap and candy. Her hair is brushed flat against her skull until it erupts in a curly, joyous waterfall on top of her head. She's like a painting or a sunset or a baby deer crouching in whispery woods, waiting faithfully for its mother as twilight falls. Gracie's heart stutters against her ribs, and her stomach goes sour.

Don't start with me, Maggie, says their father. Just don't even fucking think about starting. They're my kids, too.

Get in the car, you two, their mother says, and follows him into the building.

Well, says Gracie, I guess that's that.

What's what, Jacob asks.

I swear, Jacob, you're so dumb sometimes, I don't know why I bother talking to you.

When their mother and father get married again, the priest, a fat red-faced man with froggy eyes, tells them the ceremony can't be held in the church because of the divorce. He says, What God hath joined, and talks of holy sacraments. Their father hangs his head and twists his fingers in his lap like discontented snakes. But their mother is angry and says it's pretty rich for a priest to lecture people about marriage. The priest makes a clogged, spiteful noise in his throat. Gracie thinks he looks like he smells like feet, even though she can't smell anything but dust and incense and her mother's insistent wounds. Later that week all the aunts, cousins, uncles, and grandparents squeeze into a small chapel on the eastern corner of the church's land. The priest bellows something in Latin and leads their parents through a stilted recitation of sorrow and sacrifice. An aunt sits beside Gracie in the hard pew and gives her light, fluttery pats on the knee. It's the first time Gracie's worn pantyhose, and she worries the aunt, who has pointy, scarlet fingernails, will cause a ladder. The ceremony ends, and there is a little clapping, some whispers. Then everyone gets on a chugging riverboat. There are tables with champagne in ice buckets, olive canapes, sliced duck, fondue, and cheesecakes topped with bright berries. Their father drinks a lot of champagne and sings Cat Stevens, dancing their mother around the rattling deck, as stars course across the blackened sky, arranged like mute worshippers around the bulbous, self-important moon.

When they get home, the house smells like stale breath. Their father lets out a series of staccato belches. Then he kneels down so he can stare into the children's eyes. His are reddish, sleepy, sullen. Listen, you two, he says, I never left. The time I was gone doesn't count. We're going to forget about it. Understand?

But you did leave, Gracie says.

I didn't, he insists, digging his fingers into her shoulder. Get it through your head. Gracie studies the face. It's the same as always, but there's something tilted and strange about the scale. Stubble litters the hard chin. The teeth gnaw the chapped lips in feral jerks. She sees he hates their missing pieces more than he loves the way the puzzle still fits together, so things will always be lopsided, almost but not quite, as tepid and treacherous as the mindless, slithering river.

They understand, says their mother. Let it go, Jim. A cockroach bumbles up to their father's shoe and struggles against its immensity, tiny legs spiraling pointlessly through the shadows.

Promise, he demands.

Their mother sighs. Go ahead. Promise him.

I don't wanna promise, says Jacob. I might not be able to make myself forget everything. Can I have a popsicle? Orange, not grape.

Fuck, says their father, I'll fucking teach you to talk back. He gives them both a shove, so they stumble backwards into barstools, which grind together at the impact. Their mother wraps long white fingers around their father's wrist and murmurs to him. Gracie rights a barstool, climbs onto it, peels off the pantyhose. Her leg skin cools, effervesces with freedom. She thinks about the men who mugged her father. Maybe they were young, jerky, terrified. Or maybe they were 40 or 50, creased like old maps. Either way, a man shot out a fist that collided with her father's thin stomach, and he must have scuttled backwards, fallen, confused, frightened, in a shivering fractured moment where violence made things easy and inevitable and true. Maybe they stayed and watched as their father clutched his stomach and sputtered protests, or maybe they darted away and spent the money on drugs or candy or new sneakers. Whatever it was, it was worth it, she decides, that moment with her father eroded into instinct, no better than the ducklings or the earthworms or the thousands of quiet, stoic, eternal blades of grass.

I asked, says Jacob, looking up at their mother, I asked if—

Shut it, their father hisses, shut it if you know what's good for you. He grabs the collar of Jacob's shirt, jerking him like a puppet on strings, and then Jacob rockets through the screen door, tumbling into a patch of moonlight, wreathed by the broken screen, which undulates almost elegantly in the night breeze. Crickets hum. The night air rushes in. Jacob begins to screech like an angry ghost.

Jesus Christ, Jim, says their mother. What the hell are you thinking? We don't have the money to replace that screen door.

It was fucked anyway. From the raccoons. Jesus, is that all you can think about? The money? When is it time to think about me? All I wanted—

Gracie hops off the barstool, sensing it's better to be outside than in. Better for her legs and feet to be bare, like they are now, her skin open, drinking darkness and moonlight. She walks through the soft grass and disentangles Jacob from the ripped screen. Her parents drift behind her, through the kitchen then down the hall, arguing, their voices getting fainter, losing sense but gaining a faint, blurry, almost musical sound. Jacob snuffles and wipes his runny nose on her dress. She stands on a barstool and gets an orange popsicle from the freezer and hands it to him. His mouth grows a bright corona, and his tongue slips in and out, and gradually the stuffy warmth of the house evaporates. They don't talk, just kneel in the grass, watching mosquitoes land on their skin and grow fat with their blood; then they smash them. Tiny fractured bodies. Slippery, spreading pools of scarlet. The intimate, satisfying cycle of life and predation and death.

On Saturday their routine is back. They go to the bank, the post office, the library, then end up at KMart. Jacob's pallid face is etched with fine scratches, and he whispers instead of talking, even when they're in the Lego aisle. But they still sit at a plastic table in the cafe and eat buttery popcorn and oily fries and read library books. Their mother says today's special, so they can each pick out a toy to have forever. The idea is scary because how can you choose just one thing from the burgeoning, brilliant excess? Gracie and Jacob walk slowly down aisles. They touch stuffed animals, boxes with pictures of spaceships, pull strings causing tinny music to tinkle, then go silent. Gracie chooses a scientist Barbie with a white coat and a smug smile. Jacob doesn't choose. He picks things up, puts them down, wanders away into sporting goods.

Hurry it up, now, honey, says their mother. We need to be getting back so I can start dinner. Italian pot roast tonight. Your father's favorite.

I guess I don't want anything, says Jacob.

It's okay, honey. Pick something. What about a soccer ball with a goal?

I can't. Nothing looks the same. It's all different.

It's just your own insides, says Gracie. But there probably isn't any way to fix it.

Their mother pays for the Barbie, and they ride home in the station wagon, Jacob in the rear-facing seat as always. When Gracie opens the hatch, she finds he hasn't thrown up. Instead, it seems he was crying without noise or tears. His face has gone shapeless, pouchy, and his eyes are great glistening discs.

Come on inside, now, she says.

I can't.

I'll sneak you in.

You promise?

Sure. She takes his small hand and leads him to a triangle of shadow cast by a great oak. They wait until their mother goes inside the house and sings out she's home. Then they scuttle forward, keeping to the dusty corners, backing down the hall like cat burglars, until they're in the cool dark of Jacob's room.

Here, says Gracie, get into bed. Under the covers he's like the mounds they saw on a school field trip. Humming with some ancient purpose. She pulls his shoes off, then his socks, brushes lint from between his chubby toes, then covers them with the quilt. She pulls a chair too small for her up to the bed and sits in it even though her legs come up to her chin and half of her butt hangs off the seat. She watches Jacob's face as he drifts off to sleep. She's never noticed before what a strange concoction it is. A sharp, rubbery nose. Eyes slanting and glittering like obsidian. Their father's tufted cowlick, their mother's cheekbones. Yet despite all the pieces that are her and him and Gracie, too, the essence is something new and will never, no matter what, be different than what it is, even on nights like this one, when they are alone in the gathering dark, with their mother's voice too bright and far away, as tiny as the mosquitoes under the vast, unworried sky. She thinks about how nobody tells you what's really true, not because they're evil, but because as the years pile on top of one another, they forget how. They wander the coiling pathways of desire and shame, forgetting there are worlds beyond the one they've caged themselves in, and the only thing to be done is to love what you have left, as fiercely as you can, until you can reach your fingers out and grasp a tiny, incandescent sliver of forgetting.