Author’s note: I discovered Stephen Dixon in 2002, and he’s become one of my favorite writers. For a while, I was deep in the grip of his prose style. This story is Exhibit A: Long paragraphs, domestic drama, staccato dialogue, characters and actions revealed mostly through their talk, constantly interrupted action, a general sense of escalating chaos. Wrote/revised this in 2004-2005, and just today I’ve changed the final paragraph, because I’m too embarrassed by the original one to let it stand. I still like how this one turns on a dime, switching subject, mood, and style with just a single word.
The story starts after the jump.
“Tollywander” by Walter Biggins
protected under a Creative Commons License 4.0
She said she’d quit smoking but he can smell it on her hair. Pot’s bubbling over and water’s sizzling on the electric stove. Can’t find the pasta—are they out? She nearly trips over Antwon’s toy truck. Phone’s ringing too loudly. Grace is yelling, “Dad! Daaaaad!” but it doesn’t sound like an emergency. The machine says: You’ve reached the Masons. We’re not home right now. Please leave a message. Smells smoke that’s not cigarette smoke—the garlic bread. Paula pulls it out, black around the crust but the inside looks all right, sets it on the kitchen counter. They wave at the smoke frantically. “Hi, Dave, it’s Anna. Give me a call. It’s important.” “Daaaaad!” “Not now, Grace.” Smoke detector goes off, beeping above everything. “I’ll get it,” says Paula. She nudges him with her hips as she passes. On purpose? Couldn’t tell by her facial expression. Her hair smells weirdly wonderful, her vanilla-based perfume mixed with must be clove cigarettes. Beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbee— Paula comes back into the kitchen. “When’d you start back on smoking?” he says. “The mushrooms are done,” she says. He carries the saucepan to the sink, pours the mushrooms and olive oil into the colander with the bell peppers, garlic cloves, and chopped onion. Phone rings. “Are you ever gonna figure out how to turn that ringer down?” “As soon as you quit smoking.” “It’s Julianne’s. We met for a drink after work.” Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep. “Goddamnit,” she says, passing him on the way to the smoke detector in the hallway. Hip thrust was definitely intentional this time. You’ve reached the Masons. We’re not home right now. Please leave a message. He spoons the sautéed vegetables into the pot with simmering tomato sauce, sprinkles basil and oregano in, turns the burner to LOW. Water’s bubbling and sizzling, foaming out from under the lid of the other pot. “Hon, where’s the pasta?” “Check in the cabinet with the stuff,” she says from the hallway. “Which stuff? Canned vegetables or the cabinet with the croutons?” “Dave, please give me a call. It’s about Bre.” Beepbeepbee— Paula comes back in the kitchen, waving away smoke. “The cabinet with the cereal and syrups,” she says. “Why on Earth would it be there?” he says. “Just check. And have you made a salad yet?” “In the fridge, in the stainless steel bowl.” “What about dressing?” “Make some, please.” “Daaaaad!” “What is it, Grace? For God’s sake!” “Antwon won’t lemme play Nintendo and it’s my turn!” He opens the cabinet and sees the angel hair pasta. The rice jar is open. How many times has he told Paula. Something black is jittering in the rice. “Tell Antwon it’s time to set the table for dinner.” “But I want to play Mario, too.” “After dinner. We’re almost ready.” His fingertip, resting on the edge of the cabinet, stings suddenly. Splinter? “It is not her turn, Dad!” says Antwon, clomping on the tile. “She was playing Zelda for, like, two hours!” “Was not!” Additional stomps—now Grace is in the kitchen. “You heard your father,” says Paula. “Set the table.” “Mom!” He crushes the fire ant between his thumb and finger. Red ants everywhere. In the rice, climbing up the maple syrup bottle, going into cereal boxes. It’s too dark in the cabinet to see their trail. Phone rings. “Pick up the phone before I throw it out the fucking window.” “Language, David.” “Sorry, sorry. The ants are back.” “Shit, where?” “No cursing, Mom,” says Grace. “In the cabinet with the rice. How many times have I told you to shut the rice jar?” “About as many times as I’ve told you to refill the ice trays after you empty them,” she says, holding open the freezer compartment’s door, the trays clearly devoid of ice. “Please answer the phone,” he says. You’ve reached the Masons. We’re not here right now. Please leave a message. “I guess you’re really not home, though what are you doing out on a Wednesday night when the kids probably have school—” “Hi, Anna, it’s Paula,” which is broadcast, along with feedback, so loudly the spice rack seems to rattle. “Sorry, sorry, wait a second.” Paula presses a button and the broadcast goes off. He dumps pasta into the roiling water pot. He hears a crash and a tinkle in the direction of the dining room. Antwon smirks as he comes into the kitchen. “Grace dropped a plate,” he says. “You made me!” says Grace from the dining room. “Did not!” “Christ,” David says. “Language, David,” says Paula, one hand cupped against the phone’s speaker. “Since when is the Lord’s name a foul word, honey?” He walks into the dining room and sees the shards on the hardwood floor. It’s that godawful thing that Paula’s mother gave them one Christmas, with the luridly colored fruit painted on the porcelain. He suppresses a smile. “Grace, what do you mean, ‘he made me?’” “What happened was—” “Don’t listen to her, Dad!” “What happened was,” she says, more firmly this time. “David,” says Paula, striding into the room. “It’s your sister. She says you might want to take it into another room.” She hands him the phone. “Figure out how they broke the plate,” he says. “Aye, aye, captain.” “What’s up, Anna?” he says. “You seen today’s paper?” “Not yet, why?” “Find the Metro section. It’ll be easier to believe if you see it.” “Come on, Anna. What’s with the games?” To Paula: “Where’s today’s paper?” “Check the bathroom.” “And then he pushed me,” says Grace. “Liar! Mom, she’s ly—”, but by then he’s in the bathroom and the newspaper’s not on the sink or next to the tub or on top of the toilet. “What has Bre done this time?” he says. “It’s almost funny. You’ll see. Once you see, you’ll understand why we have to find her.” “Oh Christ.” Checks the bed and under it, then his nightstand. The paper’s on her dresser, with the jewelry box and the makeup kit. He picks up the paper and under it is a pack of clove cigarettes, which he pockets. “You find it?” Anna says. He spreads out the “Metropolitan” section on the unmade bed, and sees it immediately. “Holy shit.” “I know,” Anna says. “Holy fucking shit,” he says. He’s looking at a photograph of his younger sister, Breanna Mason. In the picture, she’s smiling. He thinks he remembers the party this photo was taken at. He thinks he may have been the one who took the photo. He wonders how this photo could have possibly gotten to the newspaper. It’s one of four portrait shots, all black-and-white, laid out side by side on the page. Above them is the headline: FBI’s Most Wanted. “Holy shit,” he says. “You can get on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for check fraud?” “Apparently so,” says Anna. “It’s just bounced checks, right?” he says. “Yeah, but, Dave, it’s about three hundred thousand dollars worth.” “Says who? This doesn’t mention a figure.” “Says Mom.” He looks at the Metro page again. “How the hell does Mom know?” “You’ll figure it out.” “When did she last talk to Bre?” “You’re getting warmer.” “Today? When?” “Keep going.” “Please don’t tell me—” “But it’s true.” “No, no, no, no, no.” “Yep.” “Mom knows where Bre is?” “Even worse than that. Keep going.” “What could be worse than your own mother not telling the Feds where a known fugitive is, if she knows?” “You’re almost there.” “No.” “Yes.” “No.” “Yes, Dave.” “Mom is harboring our sister, a fugitive from justice?” “Apparently, Bre showed up on her doorstep a week ago. Mom didn’t know what else to do.” He bangs his head on the wall. “David, dinner’s ready!” says Paula from the direction of the kitchen. “Jesus fucking Christ.” “See? It’s almost funny.” Beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep. “Motherfucking smoke detector. So what the hell do we do?” “I was hoping you’d come out to Marshall with me tomorrow morning, and maybe we can convince Bre to turn herself in.” “I’ve got work tomorrow,” he says, turning into the dining room, “and then I’ve got to pick up the kids from school.” Grace is standing in one corner of the room, Antwon in another. Both are facing the corners. “It’s not like I’ve got loads of free time, either, Dave. But every day she’s out there makes it worse for her in the long run.” He swirls and walks into the kitchen. Paula is ladling sauce onto plates loaded with steaming pasta. “How much longer are they in timeout?” he says to Paula. “Till you get off the phone. So take your time.” He goes to the hallway and waves his hands frantically under the smoke detector, though there’s not even a filmy trace of smoke near it. Then, he stands on his tiptoes and yanks the device out of the ceiling. “What was that?!” says Paula. “Anna, I’m so tired of this shit. Now we’re gonna drive three hours out to Marshall to bail her out of this.” “There’s no bailing her out of this.” “I know, I know, I know.” He walks back into the kitchen, grabs the cold salad bowl in mid-stride, and feels his right foot slide and he tries to hop on his left foot to regain balance. Doesn’t work. Salad cascades onto his face and chest as his legs fly upwards and he lands on his back. The bowl spins and hums by the cabinet with all the ants in it. He’s still holding the cordless phone. “Anna, I’ll call you back.” He hangs up. The toy truck is upside-down, wheels still spinning. “Goddamnit, Antwon! How many fucking times have I told you to pick up your toys?” Paula and the kids rush into the kitchen. “Are you okay, Dad?” Grace says. He stands up and kicks the salad bowl into the hallway. He stomps on the truck and then kicks it onto the stove, and then bangs his fists on the cabinet doors. “David, stop it. You’re scaring the kids.” “Fuck the kids and their fucking toys and their fucking Nintendo and this fucking small kitchen and this fucking small house and my goddamn sister Bre.” One of his knuckles is bleeding. Antwon is bug-eyed but Grace is smiling. “What’s so funny, Grace? What is so goddamn funny?” “Dad, it’s just—” “What, Grace? Do you think it’s funny that I could’ve broken my goddamn neck?” “Language, David.” “Shut up.” “Don’t tell Mom to shut up,” says Antwon. “You, especially, don’t get to talk right now,” David says. To Grace: “So what’s so damn— darn funny?” “It’s just— You’ve got lettuce and stuff on top of your head and when you were yelling and throwing things you looked like the Jolly Green Giant on those commercials.” “And that’s funny, is it?” he says. “Go to hell, you hateful cunt.”
Grace’s face droops with the weight of silence and dead air. She walks slowly out of the room.
“Oh my god,” he says.
“What did you just say?” Paula says.
“Oh god. Grace, honey, I didn’t—”
“What did you just call her?”
David hides his face in his hands. His fingertips knead his forehead.
“Antwon, go to your room,” she says. “Now.”
“Okay.” Paul barely hears the boy as he runs off.
“Paula, I don’t even know what to say.”
“Look at me, damnit.”
He lowers his hands. He expects the slap—one sharp rap—and the pain tears its way from the bridge of his nose to his hairline.
“What are you thinking? That is our daughter.”
“She is nine years old.”
“Tell her that, not me.”
“At least she probably doesn’t know what it means yet.”
“Are you kidding me? If she doesn’t, I’ll have to tell her now, won’t I?”
“I’ll talk to her.”
“No, you fucking won’t. I don’t want you near her, and she doesn’t want to see you, anyway.”
“Are you ever going to lower that ringer’s volume?” she says. “And don’t you dare pick it up. I’m not even close to being done with you.”
“It’s probably Anna again. I need to take this.”
“I said no.”
“I don’t care what I said— You can’t treat me like I’m Antwon.”
“Why not? You act like a six-year-old.”
You’ve reached the Masons. We’re not home right now. Please leave a message.
“And I’m not just talking about you calling our daughter what you just called her, as horrible as that is. Look at this kitchen.”
“He left his Tonka truck on the floor.”
“You leave your dirty underwear on the bathroom floor. I don’t smash up the toilet because of it.”
“Dave, it’s Anna. I know you’re there, but whatever. I just talked with Bre. I think I convinced her to turn herself in. Maybe. I’d still like you to go with me tomorrow—the more the merrier, right? Listen, I doubt she’d put up a fight or anything like that, but you’d be a big help for the car ride back. I understand if you don’t want to, but this is hard for me, too. Anyway, I think we can turn her in in Marshall, and I even thought about just saying the hell with it and calling the police with an anonymous tip, but it’ll probably be easier in Dallas where there’s a FBI field branch office, apparently. Did you know this? Anyway, call me back. I’ll be up.” Click.
“What the hell?” Paula says.
“Bre’s on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for check fraud and, if I read it right, money laundering.”
“Don’t give me that hangdog look. I’m not giving you any sympathy, not right now. David, you can’t keep doing this. Not only are these tantrums bad for you, but think of what’s going through Grace and Antwon’s heads right now.”
“Let me talk to her.”
“Not now. Look, you probably know what I’m about to say.”
“If you don’t like the idea of therapy, how about just anger management classes? A casual group that meets two, three times a week? Jesus, something.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“We’ve got dents in our cabinets and you just called your own daughter a— I’m not gonna repeat it. You’d better think about it. I’ll run by the library on my way home from work tomorrow, and bring home some books. What time do you think you’ll be back from Marshall?”
“I’m thinking of not going.”
“Paula, stay out of it if you don’t like it. You’re not related to her.”
“Fuck you, I’m related to her as long as I’m married to your sorry ass. Now go apologize to Grace.”
“Think she’ll listen to me?”
“Probably not. Do it, anyway.”
David shuffles out of the kitchen, past the dining room and the four plates of pasta, through one hallway and to Grace’s door. It’s shut but light seeps out from underneath. He knocks.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Daddy, baby.”
“Grace, I’m so, so, so, I don’t even know how to say how sorry I am. It was absolutely inexcusable, unthinkable, and Daddy is so sorry his heart hurts. Can I come in?”
“Who cares if you’re sorry? You always say you’re sorry.”
“I mean it this time. I mean, I always mean it.”
“No, you don’t. If you meant it, you’d stop doing it. Go away.”
“Stop doing what? I’ve never called you that before in my life.”
“I’m not listening.”
“Wait a minute, Grace. When have I ever called you a dirty word?”
“I’m not listening. La la la la la la la la.”
“Damnit, Grace. I mean, darn it. I mean— Oh, hell—”
“See? More dirty words? La la la la la.”
“I’ve never called you such a terrible thing as that, and I’m trying to apologize for it.”
“Noony, noony, noony.”
“Mom! Make Dad go away!”
“Grace, can I at least see you? I just want to say I’m sorry to your face, to say how terrible Daddy is for calling you that.”
“Why? You’ll just do it again.”
“Again, when have I ever called you that before?”
“Dummy. Stupid. Estupido.”
“Now you’re just calling me names. What have I told you about that?”
“Nuh-uh. Those are names you called me.”
“And I’m sorry about that, too.”
“Who cares? You’re just gonna get mad again and throw things and bang on the walls and curse a lot and scream and scare me and Antwon, so who cares what you say?”
He sighs. “I just wanted to say how sorry I was.” He’s in tears. “I don’t want to ever scare you.”
He hears her bed frame squeak and her feet pat on the floor. A sliver of light breaks free as Grace cracks open the door just enough for him to see her nostrils, the thin wisp of her closed mouth, and one piercingly green eye.
“Is a cunt the same thing as a vagina?” she says.
“Is a vagina the same thing as a twat?”
“Where did you hear that word?”
“I suppose, but that’s a really bad word. I hate that word.”
“Do you hate ‘cunt,’ too?”
“Of course I do.”
“But you called me a cunt.”
“Grace, I’m so, so, so— I don’t even know what to—”
“Is a twat the same thing as a snatch?”
“Jesus. Yes. ‘Snatch’ also means to grab something, like if you wanted to snatch the remote control out of Antwon’s hand or—”
“And a snatch is the same thing as a pussy?”
“Christ almighty, who taught—”
“And a pussy is a vagina, too, then?”
“Yes. Grace, can we—”
“And a vagina is the thing I have, that you’d put your penis into if you wanted me to have a baby?”
“Daddy would never, ever, ever put his—”
“Yes, but please understand—”
“So, why are there so many words that mean ‘vagina’? Isn’t one word enough?”
“I suppose so. I don’t know why.”
“It seems like a waste. Those words are taking up space where other words could be.”
“But, honey, that’s not the way language works. You can have as many words as you like.”
“Of course. People make up new words every day. Dictionaries get bigger every year.”
Through the crack in the doorway, he sees her smile. “That’s great. So I can make up a new word?”
“Sure, like ‘tollywander.’ What does that mean?”
“Cunt,” she says.
“Let’s not say that word.”
“We won’t. It’s an ugly word. I like ‘tollywander’ better. I have a tollywander. Mom has a tollywander. All girls have tollywanders.”
He kneels so that he’s at eye level with her.
“Grace, I am so, so, so unbelievably sorry I called you a tollywander. It’s inexcusable, it’s grotesque, it’s hurtful, it’s absolutely unforgivable, but I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”
“Go away,” she says.
She shuts the door. He stands up and leans his forehead against the warm, wooden door.
“Can I at least bring you your food?” he says. “You can eat in your room, if you like.”
He snatches the plate laden with the most pasta and sauce from the dining room table, and tears off a hunk of charred garlic bread. He sets the plate and a glass of apple juice, mixed with sparkling water, on the floor in front of her door. He turns around and, as he does, he hears her door creak open. By the time he turns back around to face the door, it’s shutting and the food has disappeared.
In the living room, Paula sits in the large brown armchair with Antwon. She’s reading a picture book with him. Antwon’s eyes are drooping. The boy’s yawning. With his brown-skinned head glowing from the lamplight and leaning on Paula’s shoulder, it’s the most beautiful Madonna and Child tableaux he’s ever seen.
He goes to the dining room, sits down, and eats. The sauce is a little too tart, but the bread is good. After he’s done, he fills the kitchen sink with soapy water and soaks the dishes. He watches the fluctuations and colors of the soap bubbles for a long while.
He hears a soft creak. With whispering steps, Grace walks into the kitchen and slips her dishes into the water. Her black, bushy hair is unmanageably large and stunning. Brown skin like Kahlua and sweet cream. He and Paula have always wondered which side of the family gave the girl those green eyes. She looks at him in a way that could, perhaps, be construed as almost a smile, and then she walks back to her room.
He scrubs dishes and sets them out to dry. Occasionally, he stares out the window, watching sparrows jockeying for position on the birdfeeder.
“So, you going to Marshall tomorrow?” Paula is standing in the kitchen doorway. She’s tapping two books against her hip.
“Good. Take these with you for the drive.”
He reads the covers.
“The kids aren’t even here.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Fine, fine. How long have you had these?”
“Knew you’d like ‘em,” she says. “They’ll at least be a start. Read them, and then let’s talk.”
She slides next to him, grazing her hip against his, and plunges her hands into the scummy water. He thinks about apologizing again to her, about asking if that hip bump was intentional earlier, about a dirty joke Bre once taught him when they were kids, about a million other things that he comes this close to saying out loud to Paula. But he decides that he shouldn’t push his luck, and that he should just keep washing and drying the dishes. After all, he doesn’t get much quiet time these days.