ISSUE #64 GUEST CURATOR Miles Klee was previously featured as Storychord's Issue #7 writer. His work has been featured in Vanity Fair, The Collagist, Unstuck, Lapham's Quarterly, The Awl and elsewhere. His first novel, Ivyland (OR Books 2012), was likened by the Wall Street Journal to "J.G. Ballard zapped with a thousand volts of electricity." He lives in New York with the screenwriter C.F. Lederer, his wife.
by Katherine J. Lee
A thing I’ve learned since moving here: according to everyone in California, earthquakes are not a good enough reason to leave. “I value temperate weather conditions over almost anything,” a woman told me, my first day in the city. Protests, I think, had stalled the trains in front of us. We were underground for two hours, waiting for the line ahead to clear.
Today there’s a parade downtown to celebrate the Giants’ World Series win. My sister calls me from her office, where it sounds like she’s waded into the middle of a frat party just to have this conversation. “It is truly a madhouse,” Eugie says.
Issue #64 soundtrack: Astronauts, etc. "Sideswiped"
I’m sitting on her bed trying to clip my toenails into less jagged shapes. I volunteer news of the earthquake I felt this morning, an event the Seismological Society of America seems to have ignored entirely. A plate rattled all the way onto the floor, and still no word on their website. Eugie reminds me that no news is as current as a twelve-year-old girl’s blog. Her way of suggesting I might have time on my hands. “Stop the presses,” she says. “What lip gloss are you wearing now?”
“I’m at least twice that old,” I tell her.
“So, you find a job yet?” Eugie asks.
“Deft,” I say. “Really. A light touch.” Our upstairs neighbor sneezes: three, four times.
“Oh, don’t cry,” she says. “Mean would be pretending I hadn’t noticed.”
After I hang up with her, I spend the morning drinking Cokes, then switch to beer around eleven. The cooler’s still out on the fire escape where I left it. The part that holds ice is flipped over, but the lid’s filled with brown rainwater from sitting out. “It’s a birdbath,” I tell Eugie whenever she makes a face.
People keep telling me I’m lucky to have an older sister who supports me. The plan was to crash on the couch until I found work, which, if you have her credentials, only takes about a week. After six months, I thank Eugie for upgrading me to the guest bedroom. She says, “Thank Nat.”
Nat is Eugie’s girlfriend. She works as a receptionist at a firm specializing in immigration law. Because of Nat, Eugie actually let me in when I showed up at their place with no extra underwear and a baggie of weed I bought with the last of the cash Mom gave me. “You’re sisters,” Nat told us. Her tone implied we could at least make eye contact when in the same room.
I left home following this guy Pharaoh around from state to state, but he turned out to be a drug dealer by night. He was a lawn mower by day, which, my mother was quick to point out, wasn’t better. By the time I’d built up enough esteem to leave, he’d moved on to another girl, still in high school.
“I had you, and now I have someone who displays appropriate emotional responses,” he told me, the last time I called. This someone visits him every day in prison, trying to save him.
I’m still on the balcony when Eugie gets home from work. Mondays I try to stay out of the house, because Mondays I’m supposed to be looking for a job. Whenever I get home, Eugie will want to hear the breakdown. I usually wait until everyone’s back before I sneak in.
“NASA wants me,” I’ll say to Nat, who is kind enough to laugh at almost anything. Nat bakes cakes just because.
I’m about to pull back the curtain when I hear my sister load the dishwasher, my only chore. Then her shoes are loud on the kitchen tile and our front door shuts so quickly the chain lock keeps time against the door.
From my vantage point, I can hear Eugie upstairs. And because it’s been warm, the window’s open. She’s talking to our neighbor who looks like Clooney but sounds like Alan Alda. We’ve never been up to his apartment, even when he blasts what sounds like opera karaoke at six in the morning on weekends. She’s laughing. Then things get quiet and they talk low.
Eugie’s a linguist for the FBI. It’s her job to decode things, defuse the situation and move on. So when it comes to me—when she remembers I’m alive—she tries to figure me out.
“There have to be pills you can take,” she said last Thanksgiving. Adderall. Celexa. Lithium.
“Lithium?” I said. She looked at me like if only she could think of the right way to describe me, I might start functioning, for once.
“There’s no pill for lazy,” Dad told her.
“You’re just like Mom,” she said, as a way of voicing her disappointment. But then Mom snorted, and they all launched into that game they play whenever I get mad. The game is they pretend to fall asleep in their chairs until I stop yelling and walk away.
What can I say about our family that lets the right things shine through? Dad’s always gone for work. Mom stays home. Our first and last family trip abroad, I was in middle school. We went to Versailles and things got so loud I tried to leave out a second story window. In our family, that’s a funny story.
Eugie was accepted at Berkeley after that. I felt like gravity kept switching directions and I hit whichever side was down. I slept through most classes in school and stayed up all night listening to talk radio or static, depending on what kind of mood I was in.
“Do you ever think maybe I’m like you?” I asked her this morning. She was making up her face in the bathroom and wearing one of my tops.
“How would I know that?” she said, winging her eyeliner. “You don’t do anything.”
Which was true. I volunteered to keep bees. They left after a week. I used to run laundry for a youth hostel, but stopped when I accidentally washed a mouse. I can’t remember being interested in anything.
“I had a stamp collection once,” I told her, which finally made her stop and look at me.
I find myself climbing up the fire escape to our neighbor’s unit. These are my limits: I shouldn’t, but I do. Beg me, and I won’t.
They make a show of being surprised, even when I take extra long to open the window and climb in. I catch them dressed, which is a relief.
“Who the hell is this?” I say. I’m still hanging halfway out the window.
“Ted,” says the guy.
“You’re intruding,” Eugie says. She pulls her arm free from around him.
When we were kids, I was happy if she’d just let me hang around her. I’d put gum in her hair so she’d think about me. Dad would come home while we were playing and I watched Eugie run at him with a look that eclipsed anything she’d ever allowed me.
Alone, I had whole months like that—where I wasn’t sure what I was missing, or what help would come.
Ted lets me leave through his front door, an opportunity I leap at. Once I get to the stairs, I have to tell my feet which order to walk in, to get myself to move. Half an hour goes by before Eugie comes down.
“Why are you so upset by this?” She’s watching me rummage through the closet. I’m trying to pack but can’t really see what I’m doing. Instead I make piles of my things next to piles of hers.
“Ted,” she says, “is a really decent guy.”
“And we certainly can’t pass that up,” I say.
Eventually I quit on the closet and just drag the mattress off the guest bed. I balance it on end. I know it’s killing her not to bring up the next step—how to proceed from here and what comes next. So I do it for her.
“I got a place,” I say. A lie so transparent my eyes burn.
“That’s great,” she says.
“Where are you going?” Nat comes in from the kitchen and tucks her chin over Eugie’s shoulder, wraps her arms around Eugie’s waist.
“Friends in the city?” Eugie asks, finally.
“Yeah,” I say. “Friends.”
Nat helps me get my shoes on because I don’t want to let go of the mattress. It takes me half an hour to get it out to the street, and I end up catching a nail in the stairwell and putting a huge tear down the middle. The door’s closed behind me. I can hear music from Ted’s unit, and the Norwegian lady downstairs is cooking.
I’m replaying the Ted stuff in my head. I’m thinking, What did I actually see? I’m thinking, Why did I end up out here? But as Dad would say, it’s not worth asking questions when all the answers are foregone.
I angle the mattress into the back and of course the trunk door gapes open. I start the car anyway, take off down the hill. I blow through a four-way stop, gun through a yellow, but slow at the next one. The streets are desolate. Outside a church, bundles of sticks are propped up where someone apparently tried to help trees grow. A homeless woman is asleep in a mummy bag on a basketball court. I throw on the hazards and keep going.
When Pharaoh went to prison, I walked forty-five minutes to his house in snow knee-deep. His parents let me sit down. After a few hours of my silence, they had to call my father to carry me out.
What had I hoped to accomplish? they asked him, as we stepped back over the threshold, outside into the world.
I braced myself, waiting for his response.
I thought of the time the seventh grade went on a field trip to the White House and a guy on the Metro put his hand up my skirt while I pretended to sleep. The time my mother slapped me in the school parking lot, once for every B on my report card, and no one watching cared.
Think think think think think, a man said on TV.
“Whatever it was, ” Dad said to them, “be glad it’s over.”
In the car he continued at my expense. “Just think,” he said. “Or can you?” He turned the radio off by punching the button.
“When are you going to quit playing the victim?” he asked me.
“When people quit hurting me,” I said.
“Ha ha,” he said.
I pinched him so hard we swerved in the street. He pulled over, cranked the parking brake, dragged me onto someone’s lawn by the collar of my coat.
I stared up into the sky while he paced and made a conference call. Your daughter, he lamented. Your sister, he said. I could’ve made a snow angel but I stayed put.
I know what Eugie thinks: I need to stop screwing up my chances, get it together. Start helping myself.
But I want her help. And because we both know that won’t be enough, I want her life. And when she refuses, I want her to feel for a minute, a fraction of what I hate myself for every day. I want her to feel like it was she who let me down.
I’m on a highway headed south and the lanes open up from two to six to eight. A hill blocks my view to the west, and for a second I imagine myself up there, tiny, breathless with exertion.
I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket.
“What do you want,” I say. Already I’m playing hard to get.
Eugie’s quiet on the other end.
“I’ll let you go,” she says. Then she hangs up before I have the chance to tell her no.
Katherine J. Lee has volunteered with the National Park Service in the historic restoration of the gardens of Alcatraz Island, and started a handmade, printed textile business in San Francisco. She is currently studying fiction at the University of Minnesota.
Eve Biddle is an artist and has worked with Philadelphia Mural Arts, Indianapolis Arts Council, LAND Studio Cleveland, Dieu Donne Papermill, and NYCares. In collaboration with her husband, Joshua Frankel, she has created over 16,000 square feet of public murals across the country. She holds an BA in Art History from Williams College. For more, visit bowieandeve.com and evebiddle.com.
Astronauts, etc. is the solo project of Anthony Ferraro, a Berkeley student who found electronic music when arthritis prevented him from pursuing a career in classical piano. His flavor of restrained, hypnotic electronic pop evokes feelings of space, isolation, and introspection. After releasing an EP in the fall of 2012, Astronauts, etc. garnered significant attention from blogs and media outlets. He plans to release an LP in August of this year. You can follow him on SoundCloud and Facebook.