Heather Wells Peterson
June drives the thousand miles back to Palm Valley, Florida, with that darkness growing in her stomach. When she’s in New York, it’s just a small dark spot, a little rotten reminder, an ugly polyp on her soul. But the closer she gets to Florida, the larger it grows, threatening to fill her entirely, escaping the margins of her body and absorbing her until she is nothing but darkness. June hates feeling this way; it’s too dramatic. She turns up the volume on the CD she’s listening to—a mix from her ex-boyfriend. She hasn’t seen him in years, but she likes to play the mix when she’s feeling down. It reminds her of a time when she was loved.
Her hometown is kind of a hole, though she doubts anyone living or visiting there would agree with that assessment. For them, an ocean breeze and sand between the toes are the most important things in life. June thinks of the press of people on the streets in New York City, the way you’re never truly alone there, and her job in Brooklyn, working the front desk at a bike shop, the guys who work there, with their strong arms and tattoos. So many cool haircuts, weird little shops, strange interests satisfied. Meanwhile, everyone here drives, one person per car, from strip mall to strip mall.
The streets grow more and more familiar, and as they do, nausea rises in June’s stomach like the smell of damp earth. There is Mr. Frobisher, always sitting on his porch in a white tank top with yellow underarms, drinking sweet tea. The Garcías’ loopy dog materializes out of nowhere to chase June’s car, barking and nipping at the tires. June turns right, passes the two young black men who moved in just before she left. They fix trucks on their front lawn, tinkering away, ignoring the watchful eyes of their white neighbors.
“God, I hate this place,” she says as she turns into her mother’s cracked driveway, pulls up in front of the yellow door.
When June walks in, her mother is standing at the kitchen counter, wearing one of those dresses made out of towel, her finger on the button of the blender, which is roaring full-blast. Her name is Helen, which is what June calls her. Helen never wanted a mom name, never felt it made sense to learn to answer to something new. She’s got her back to June, and a sudden stiffening of her shoulders is the only hint that she knows someone’s there.
“Helen, I’m home!” June yells over the racket.
Helen lets go of the blend button and turns around, a smile arranged on her face.
“Honey,” she says. She hugs her daughter, quick and tight, then releases her.
The whole house is the same as it was when June left. She’s been gone almost two years, but here she is, back in this house, feeling the same old way again.
June goes to put her bag in her room.
“She’s outside!” Helen shouts from the kitchen. The blender starts back up.
June’s heart speeds as she approaches the sliding glass doors to the backyard. There she is, sitting in the sandy grass, talking to herself. She’s stretched out, lankier and taller than June remembers. Her face has thinned to a more adult composition. She is five years old.
“Go on out and say hi,” Helen says, still shouting.
When June slides the door open, she expects her to turn at the sound. Instead she just keeps doing what she’s doing—digging up sand with her little plastic shovel and letting it slowly spill out onto her toes.
“Polly.” June is standing just a couple of feet away now. “Hi, Polly.”
Polly turns, squinting, her little baby teeth tight in her mouth. Her hair has kinked up a little. She got that from her father. And her skin is darker, too—Helen shouldn’t be letting her get so much sun.
“Hello,” says Polly. Her voice is dull.
June smiles. “Remember me?” she asks.
Polly bites her lip. She nods.
When Helen starts her third margarita, June asks if they should be thinking about dinner.
“Should I order a pizza?” June asks. “Will she eat that?” She nods toward the other room, where Polly is sitting with her back to them, watching television, her little shoulders hunched up by her ears.
“She’ll eat what we give her,” Helen says. Her words aren’t slurred, just a little sleepy.
June would like very much to have a margarita, but she figures the atmosphere in this house doesn’t need any more tequila. She grabs a LaCroix from the fridge—grapefruit—and looks on her phone for a pizza place.
“Emilio’s—that’s new. Any good?” June is trying to stay positive, to avoid comparing Palm Valley’s Yelp offerings to Brooklyn’s.
“It’s all right.” Helen takes a loud sip of her drink. She raises her eyebrows at June mischievously.
June prefers to ignore this. “I’ll call in the order if you’ll be hungry when it comes.”
Helen leans forward. “I’m always hungry,” she says seriously.
As they wait for the pizza, June tries not to stare at the back of Polly’s head. She looks around the house, fixating on various objects, objects to which she has applied more meaning than they deserve. There’s the blender Helen was using when she arrived, which has a chip at the top from a party June and her ex threw when they were in high school, before the whole mess and the breakup. She remembers the wildness of that time—it was horrible, really, the hangovers, the no sleep, the constantly shifting alliances among her friends. At the time it all seemed so important, all that chaos, like the necessary by-product of an interesting, passionate life.
If she remembers correctly, some guy her friend Janice brought was on meth and he threw the blender at her. Luckily, the chip was the only damage the guy did, and the blender was salvageable.
“Is it all right for her to be sitting like that?” June asks.
Helen, off in her own reverie, blinks. “Like what?”
June nods toward Polly, whose small shoulders are still hunched up by her ears. “Like that,” she says, imitating the position.
Helen laughs. “Don’t worry about it,” she says, as if to say, That’s the least of her problems.
The three of them sit around the table. Helen peels the pepperoni slices off her pizza, then the cheese. She scrapes the tomato sauce from the dough, then replaces the cheese and the pepperoni. She takes a bite, grimaces.
“What are you doing?” June doesn’t remember her mother being so picky.
“The doctor says I’m allergic to tomatoes.” Helen takes another tiny bite, chewing slowly.
“You’re allergic to tomatoes?” June isn’t sure she believes this. “Why didn’t you tell me when I ordered the pizza?”
“I can have them a little bit,” Helen says. “Don’t worry about me.” She takes a third bite, a big one this time. “Besides, all I’ll do is throw up.”
“Nice.” June looks at her own slice. The crust is doughy, the sauce too sweet. She misses the huge, thin, greasy slices she can get near her apartment at home.
“What about you, Polly? The pizza OK?”
Polly, June realizes, hasn’t taken a bite. Her slice languishes on her plate, untouched.
“She’s fine,” Helen says. “She’s probably too full. Right, Polly?”
Polly squints at Helen. “No,” she says.
“Yeah, from eating her own scabs.” Helen laughs. “That’s what you’ve been doing all day, isn’t it?”
“No,” Polly says again, slowly, and with no emphasis.
June lies in her old bed, trying not to think. Helen has turned off the A/C, like she always does at sunset. She says the house doesn’t need cooling once the sun goes down. The air is damp and thick and heavy. June is in just her underwear, on top of the covers. She can’t believe her family sleeps like this every night. She can’t believe she used to, too, and easily.
Lying there, June traces the scar on her abdomen—a slightly curving line, like a smile, just under her belly. Right after the operation, it was raised and red, and every time she saw it she thought it must be angry with her. It hurt so much, too, the weeks after Polly was born—though born doesn’t feel like the right word, since she was simply lifted from the womb, no journey necessary. After the surgery, June’s whole body was in such pain it felt existential, as though her entire being, her life, were one enormous ache. Now, though, the scar has faded and flattened, just a pale, thin reminder of what her body went through, of what was done.
Polly is in the next room, what used to be the guest room. She has a little bed there, and a beanbag chair, and a dresser June found on the street before she left. Helen says Polly keeps her scabs in a little dish and eats them when she’s bored, but who knows what’s true in this house anymore?
In the morning, June wakes, unsettled. She has to reorient herself to her surroundings, remind herself that she is just here for a visit, that she really does have somewhere else to live.
There’s banging in the kitchen. June gets dressed slowly, staring the whole time at a photograph on her nightstand. It’s her, pregnant and sweating, and Helen, and Darnel, her ex. He’s got his hand on her belly as if he cares about what’s inside, and they’re all grinning, though it’s obviously hot, the sun beating down on their shining faces. The last time June saw Darnel, he told her he wasn’t coming back, but she didn’t believe him. Even now, in New York, sometimes she thinks she sees him, far down the block, walking toward her.
Polly spends the first half of the day in front of the television again, shoulders hitched up to her ears. June wants to say something about all of this TV watching, but she knows she doesn’t have the right.
Helen has sewing to do—she mends for the neighbors, and makes new stuff, too, curtains and things, in addition to her shifts at the Winn-Dixie. She worked in the bakery department at Publix the entire time June was growing up, often coming home smelling like flour, her fingernails blue with frosting, but last year, for reasons not disclosed to June, she was laid off. Now she sits at the table in the kitchen, stitching together holes in the crotches of jeans, returning buttons to their rightful locations, hemming hand-me-downs. June has a strange feeling, like jealousy, as she watches her mother’s careful ministrations, her gentle focus. She gets up and goes outside.
Here, in the backyard, is where June decided to leave. She stands now in the same spot, her bare feet hot in the sand, the Florida grass sharp against her skin, heat in her hair, and she feels it, the old pull she felt even when she and Helen were getting along, when she and Darnel were still in love and she still found peace in his body, in having it or having it near—even then, she felt that pull to leave this place, to get out from under it before it crushed her. Standing in this yard, her family in the house behind her, she gave in to the pull, and now she rarely looks back. She left these two people—people made up of the same stuff as she is, pumping with the same blood—to fend for themselves. When she’s in New York, she thinks of them as organisms—soulless, cellular, floating under the same roof, incapable of missing her.
In the afternoon, Helen gets the blender going again.
“Since when are you so into margaritas?” June asks.
“Since always.” Helen revs the blender, lets go. “Besides, they had a deal on the mix at the Winn-Dixie.”
The blender’s blades produce an otherworldly growl that is jangling June’s nerves. She can’t remember a time when Helen drank so much. It was something she used to hold over her daughter’s head—her seriousness, her immunity to alcohol’s giddy reverie. June wonders if it’s a habit her mother has picked up since she left or if it’s something she’s only doing now because June is here, reminding her of things.
The TV is off. June looks out the back door, but the yard is empty. Polly must be in her room. June goes to her own room—or rather the room that was once hers. She stands there for a moment, staring at the wall. She doesn’t like to be in this room if she doesn’t have to. She keeps thinking of Darnel, of his hands on her body, the way he’d squeeze her. She’d want him to pull on her harder and harder, she’d swell with it, wishing he’d split her open.
Polly is saying something in the other room, singing or talking to herself. June goes out into the hallway and hovers on her tiptoes, listening. Polly is talking quietly. This reminds June of horror movies, of precocious children communicating with monsters from other worlds, their youth preternatural, a vantage from which to see things others won’t or can’t. Polly is speaking as though in conversation, as though she is with someone, someone who is watching over her, but she is speaking to a void—there is no one else here.
Finally June can’t take it anymore. She steps into the doorway. Polly goes quiet. She is sitting on her bed with her right knee bent up by her face, a pinch of skin between her fingers.
“What are you up to, honey?” June used to call Polly “baby girl,” but she doesn’t feel right about that now.
“Nothing.” Polly doesn’t move.
“Can I come in?”
June steps into the room. Polly reminds June of prey, the way some animals will play dead, hoping you’ll lose interest and go away.
The girl has her hair pulled back in a pouf. So much of her is like Darnel, but June sees herself in the details—the slope of Polly’s neck, the knob of her spine, the shape of her hairline, the set of her jaw. She sees Helen, too, in Polly’s broad shoulders and stumpy toes.
As June gets closer, she realizes that on the skin Polly has pinched between her fingers is a little pink crater, shining with blood. Next to Polly is a ceramic dish. June recognizes it—she made the thing in pottery class sophomore year of high school. She hated that class even more than she hated her other classes. The teacher—a soft, pale man who reminded June of a villain’s assistant in a spy movie—made a habit of leaning close over her as she worked, pretending to demonstrate some technique while he let his paunchy body rest, heavy, against her back. She was also horrible at the craft—nothing came out as she envisioned it. However simple her original concept, she was too impatient to see it through, and her corner cutting and inability to pay attention resulted in deformed, mangled objects that could hardly be called pots, let alone art. She still has them all, here in Helen’s house, unable to let go of these things she went through so much to make, but not really keeping them, either.
The little dish nestled in Polly’s purple bedspread was one of the less horrendous products of that class. The rim is uneven, collapsing in and out in ripples with no pattern or design, and though she meant it to be gold, the color is more the hue of pus or mucus. June snorts, trying hard to be amused at the sight of the thing. She’d begun to think of the feeling she’d had when she lived here, that feeling of failure buried inside her body, as an appendix—expendable and, once removed, easily forgotten. But now that she’s back here, she wonders if it is more integral to her being than she’d imagined, more like her liver or her spleen, if it had been working away inside her this whole time without her even knowing.
The dish, June sees, holds little, dark insect-like bodies, varying in color from dark brown to yellowish green. Without asking, or really thinking, she picks the thing up. Though in this context—removed from the body—it’s hard to be completely sure, June is close to certain that this is a dish full of scabs.
“Are you—” She stops, not sure she wants an answer.
Polly blinks. She seems not upset so much as put out at being interrupted mid-task.
“You aren’t eating these, are you?”
“I don’t eat them.” Polly straightens her leg back out. The little crater gleams. A small dribble of blood runs from it, down the side of her knee. “I just keep them.”
June can feel that Polly is uncomfortable with her holding the dish of scabs, but she isn’t sure what the correct response is—hand it back and let the kid get on with it? Take it away with an expression of disapproval? Call a therapist?
“Why do you keep them?” June tries her best to keep her voice level.
“I don’t know,” Polly says. “I like to. It feels good to take them off, and then I like to keep them in the same place, where I can’t lose them.”
June holds the dish out to Polly, who takes it from her and rests it carefully on the bedspread. June stares into the dish, wondering how many scabs it contains. The whole bottom of the dish is covered. From where June stands, they seem to writhe, alive.
“When did you start doing that?”
Polly frowns. “I can’t remember,” she says. “Always, I guess.”
The afternoon bleeds away. June decides to give in and have a margarita herself, which turns into two, then three. She sits with her mother at the kitchen table, both of them shiny with sweat, their shirts damp under their arms, under their breasts, in the smalls of their backs. Polly is still in her room.
“When does she go back to school?” June asks.
“A couple weeks, thank God.” Helen presses her finger into the puddle of condensation on the tabletop where her glass was sitting. “It’s been a long summer.”
A dense mist of anger gathers in June. Multiple responses rotate through her mind before she says, “She doesn’t eat them, you know.”
“Who eats what?” Helen asks.
“She doesn’t eat them.” June pushes her chair back, crosses her legs. “The scabs.”
Helen tips her glass and head back dramatically to drain the margarita, then straightens back up, smacking her lips with satisfaction.
“I’m just saying,” June says. “You shouldn’t tease her about it.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t.” Helen is still grinning, still smug. “You think it’ll damage her or something?”
June glares at her mother. The space between them is shifty from the heat and alcohol, as though some normally invisible barrier has been revealed. She looks away from Helen’s proud, condescending face. Her margarita glass—blue, with little bubbles and flecks, which reminds June of the wind chimes a friend’s mother used to collect compulsively and hang from her porch, as though to conjure more consistent weather—has just one melting sip of margarita left. The ice that remains is solid, white, grainy at the bottom, with a thin, light, green, almost oily surface layer. It’s surreal, the way everything seems to pull itself apart this way.
In the middle of the night, June is in and out of sleep. The heat has settled around her like a dropcloth, draping her body with its weight. Whenever she struggles toward consciousness, the memory that she has been in Florida for two and a half days—only three more to go before she can get back in her car and drive north again—lulls her back to sleep. This visit may have been a mistake, but it will be a short mistake. She pictures herself leaving, adjusting her rearview even though it doesn’t need it, watching this place shrink in the distance behind her. She won’t even play the mix Darnel gave her. She’ll play the radio—country, maybe—and just accept whatever it gives her.
It feels like morning when June jolts from sleep to the sounds of crying in Polly’s room. This isn’t nightmare whimpering, but full-on yelping. June lurches out of bed before she’s even fully awake, remembering how the baby would cry and she would burst from a dream as though from underwater, her body responding before her mind. She feels the baby’s soft, warm mass against her chest.
When she gets into the hallway, she can tell by the quality of light coming through the windows that the sun is just beginning to near the horizon—it’s a clearer, thinner darkness, but it’s still dark, probably only four or so, not morning at all. She hurries down the hall and opens Polly’s door without knocking.
Polly’s in bed, sitting up. June can feel, more than see, her little body shaking.
“I’m going to turn on the light,” she says. When she does, Polly blinks resentfully but keeps crying. “What’s wrong?” June asks, taking note of the ceramic dish, which is still within reach on the bedside stand.
“It’s my tooth,” Polly says. Her voice is impeded, as though she’s favoring an injury.
“Where? Show me.”
June perches on the edge of the bed. Polly looks skeptical, but she opens her mouth and points with a stubby finger. June pulls Polly’s bottom lip down a little. Blood has pooled between her gum and the inside of her lip. Polly’s tongue presses a bottom tooth, and it leans forward, loose but still attached.
“Does it hurt?”
“You’re sort of hurting me,” Polly says, pulling back. June lets go of her lip. “But the tooth does, too, kind of.” She swallows loudly. “I’m bleeding,” she says.
June tries to remember losing her teeth. She can’t remember the first to come all the way out, where it happened or when, or how, even. Had it just come out on its own, or had she helped it along in some way? Usually mothers did that, she thought, the whole string-tied-to-the-doorknob thing, but any memory of that happening to her is probably invented.
What June does remember is a friend, Sarah, losing her tooth in kindergarten class, out of the blue—it basically fell out into her hand. It was her first, and she was excited to tell her mom. June was coming over after school, and her friend made her swear she wouldn’t say anything. They both sprinted from the bus stop to the house. June burst through the door first, having outrun her, and without thinking—without really knowing, consciously, that she was going to do it—she blurted out the news. Sarah was devastated, and June regretted that her friend was mad, but she didn’t regret ruining the news, seeing the look it brought to Sarah’s mom’s face.
Polly is flicking the tooth with her tongue. June can recall the feeling of a loose tooth, the way she’d play with it with her tongue all day, worrying it. The memory is visceral, stored in the roots of her teeth, that sense that this thing that was part of you was readying to leave. The way the tooth is moving, June is pretty sure it’s close to coming out. She would just let it do its thing, but then Polly might choke on it in the night.
“I think it’s got to come out,” June says. She tries to sound authoritative, like an adult.
“My tooth?” Polly looks incredulous.
June has a flicker of a memory of a warm washcloth and a quick twist. “Hang on a second,” she says. She goes back into the hallway. Helen’s door, just six feet or so away, is still closed. Somehow she has snored through all this noise. June wonders what would have happened if she hadn’t been here for this moment. Polly would have done whatever it was June did, she guesses, though she can’t quite remember what that was.
There is a stack of neatly folded washcloths under the sink in the bathroom. June lets the faucet run on hot until it’s scalding, then she holds the washcloth under it until it’s soaked. She squeezes the extra moisture out. The washcloth is now warm and heavy in her hand.
Back in Polly’s room, June perches on the bed again. Polly eyes the washcloth warily.
“Will it hurt?” she asks.
June sighs. “Honestly? I don’t think so, but I’m not a hundred percent sure.” She remembers the snap of the root as the tooth comes out, but the sensation of pain is so much harder to recall once it’s over. “What I’ll do is hold it with this cloth. I’ll count to three, and then I’ll twist it and pull it out.”
Polly is still flicking the tooth with her tongue.
Before June gets an answer, she pulls down Polly’s bottom lip and pinches the tooth with the warm washcloth. The muggy heat of it fills her hand.
“One …” She tightens her pinch. “Two …” She can feel Polly tensing. “Three.” She twists, and feels that snap, feels it in her own mouth, and then pulls. It’s harder than she’d hoped—she has to really tug—but the tooth comes free, and she’s holding it, nestled in the bloody cloth.
Polly sees the tooth and starts crying again. There’s enough blood in her mouth to turn her saliva pink.
“Here.” June finds an unbloodied part of the washcloth and presses it into the empty socket. “Hold it in there so it’s comfortable,” she says.
Polly’s little, pudgy hand takes the washcloth and presses it against the gum. She isn’t crying as much anymore. The tooth sits in June’s palm, its root revealed, longer than it should be—primitive. Polly reaches over and moves it with her finger, rolling it back and forth.
“You OK?” June asks.
Polly nods. June watches the tooth rolling in her hand. It’s hard to believe that this part of her daughter, something once so useful and integral, is separate now, inert in her hand, ready to be discarded and replaced with something better, something that will last.
“Is it still bleeding?”
Polly pulls the washcloth out, presses a fresh patch into the hole, inspects it. “Not really.”
“You should get some rest.” June takes the cloth from Polly and waits as she snuggles back down in her bed. “How does it feel?”
Polly pokes her tongue in the hole. “Weird. Like it’s missing something.”
“Does it still hurt?”
“Not really. It’s just gone.” Polly closes her eyes. “Can you turn out the light?” she asks, her voice suddenly sleepy.
“Sure thing.” June stands in the doorway for a moment, playing back through what just happened, already unsure it really could have happened the way she remembers. She flicks the light switch off and shuts the door.
Back in bed, she realizes she’s still clenching the tiny tooth in her fist. She remembers when Polly was three, when she left her. She hugged her and then stepped away, but Polly continued to clutch at the air, spreading her arms wide and then squeezing them closed, over and over. June tightens her hold on the tooth until its jagged root bites into her skin.