Issue 23: Spring/Summer 2017

Our First Decade

Celebrating 10 Years of Subtropics.

Florida Then

A little gallery of images depicting “the state with the prettiest name” (Elizabeth Bishop)

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Issue 23: Spring/Summer 2017
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Our First Decade
Feature
Florida Then
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Experience Subtropics
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Read Subtropics on Your Mobile Device
About the Cover
The cover of Subtropics 23 features Floral-Patterned Linoleum (2015) by Mark Mitchell. This linoleum was discovered in a bedroom during the renovation of a house in Gadsden County, Florida, built circa 1880.
Works

Champagne

Interviews

A. E. Stallings

Champagne

There’s never enough of it. The bottle’s full,
The glass is to be filled. Call it a flute,
Call the effervescence joy or love
Or song. Demi-sec’s sweet, and extra brut
Is dry, the ratio of alcohol
To sugar posed as paradox: liquid drouth,
As rising sparkles have a downward pull
That brings the lip of crystal to the mouth.
Hold the stem: it bears a brittle flower,
Calyx of nectar, clear container of
What drains away, the bubble of the hour.
The satisfying heft’s deceptive: lift
The bottle by its throat and tilt it south,
Promise of plenty, though all pleasure’s swift
And evanescent, and no heart’s exempt, the
Vessel seeming heaviest when empty.

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Works

Gentleman Crow

Interviews

A. E. Stallings

The City (After Cavafy)

Pacing to and fro
Along the autumn shore
Among the wrack and reek

With your arms clasped behind your back
And sporting your grey frock-coat
Trimmed in black

And your black hat and your lean long-legged stride,
Up and down the strand perusing
The headlines of the tide:

Casualties and statistics, futures, stocks,
The thousand natural shocks,
You clear your throat

Inspecting the ink-black seaweed tossed among the rocks
Like obsolete typewriter ribbons, rusty widow’s weeds,
Scanning the flotsam for

Morsels cast up by the remorseless gossip of the sea’s
Éminence grise,
How elegant you are, everyone concedes,

Gentleman Crow,
With your gimlet gaze, your sardonic beak,
How omnivorous, how sleek.

Life is a joke you crack,
Wry and amusing,
And death a dainty snack.

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Works

The City

Interviews

A. E. Stallings

The City (After Cavafy)

“I want to go to another land. I want to cross the border,”
The young man out of Syria said. “I’m tired of being stuck.
Sure, Greece is nice enough if you can get a job: good luck.
I’m afraid to apply for asylum here. I’ll end up in the street,
With no place to go, nowhere to lay my head, nothing to eat.
I was working on a degree in English literature in Damascus.
And now, what’s to become of us? Nobody ever asks us.
No one cares. Europe is dysfunctional disorder.”

But you can’t get to another land, you’re never going on.
This is your future, where so many others are unemployed.
The smugglers will sell you lies, their faux passports are void.
Your Arabic is native-speaker, naturally; you speak
Excellent English. But to these skills, best add demotic Greek.
Here among this urban squalor, maybe, you’ll grow grey,
If they do not deport you back to Turkey, if you stay.
Time waiting is time running out, youth spent’s forever gone.

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Works

The Adventure

Interviews

Troy Jollimore

The Adventure

There will never be a complete catalog of varieties
of human happiness, human desire, or human cruelty.
Of happiness, we can say that it is by its nature
unrepeatable. The thrill is that it happens only once.
A performance, like the first taste of chocolate or
a first kiss, cannot be preserved or repeated.
At most we can hope for certain evidence
that the event occurred: photographs, recordings, rumors,
recollections that fade and grow steadily less
reliable with each passing year, none of which
come at all close to replicating the experience
of really being there. The movies, though, are timeless:
no viewing is privileged, no viewing comes closer
than any other viewing to being a genuinely
“true” or “real” experience (whatever, in this context,
true or real might mean), and there is therefore
no way to attach to a film a precise date
and time. There is only the time when you saw it,
and how it moved you then, how it changed you. Yet films are,
if anything, even more poignant in the way
they remind us of what has been lost and what we cannot
recover, if only because the illusion
is that they bring us so much closer to it
in the act of watching, and because that illusion
persists so much longer. Repeatable? Sure.
But the actors have all passed away, or eventually
will; the objects, if they were real to begin with,
have all been destroyed, or at some point they will be;
the very landscapes and places in which
the characters are placed and carry on their affairs
have, if they weren’t simply constructed sets
from the start, been altered by the passage of time,
most likely not for the better, in the years
since the film crew planted their camera and captured
their footage. The alluring sadness, for instance,
visible in the eyes of Lea Massari
in Antonioni’s L’Avventura
in the scenes that take place just before she disappears—
she is feeling a distance from her lover, Sandro,
for reasons we, the viewers, can sense but can’t quite
get inside, and which we find all the more compelling
for our very failure to quite get inside them—
reminds us that that world, that Italy, that cinematic
moment, have vanished; even though it is there,
in front of our eyes, larger, as we sometimes say,
than life, it is in fact as finally and irrevocably
gone as is Massari’s character, Anna,
who disappears from the film without explanation.

Which brings us back to cruelty. It is perhaps
the cruelty of the world, or perhaps just the cruelty
of art, which depicts and pretends to preserve
the world, to keep this vanishing constantly in view,
and at the same time gives us the illusion
that it can be avoided, defeated, overcome,
each image returned to without limitation,
resurrected any number of times for our own
reassurance and enjoyment, the film replayed
and replayed, the PAUSE button always at the ready
if we want to contemplate, at our leisure, the barren,
virtually inhuman landscapes, or Sandro’s magnificent
indifference, or Monica Vitti’s face,
which always reminds me a little of the face
of the first woman I made love to, which happened
around the time I first saw L’Avventura,
that first viewing still the most profound, the most shocking,
as if I had discovered a new and unanticipated
version of myself. I suppose the fantasy
is that no one ever needs to die,
that everything that happens survives somewhere,
if not as an object then as an image
or a thought, a strip of celluloid, or a matrix
of digitized information on a hard drive
stored in an underground vault underneath
the New Mexican desert. Or, if not that,
then in the sentimental fragmentary conversations
of people who, for as long as they can manage,
until advancing time gets the better of them,
gather to relive and recollect their chosen slices
of the past. After that first time, I walked home
and, as I recall, the moon was full. What was it
I’d located in myself? An unrecognized capacity
for greed? For brutal passion? I had always
desired the pleasures life offered, but in
moderation; now I wanted them excessively, I wanted
life itself, and also my desire for it, to be
excessive, as if—it was a ten-minute walk
back to my parents’ house, and because the night
was frigid, the air was clear like music, Chopin
or Satie, precise and far away, and the stars
were tiny distant torches looking down—as if
I’d be protected if I made myself someone whose desire
refused to concede any limit, as if I
could be safe and free and live forever if only
I could empty myself, leaving nothing but an ache
that ached to be filled, to be resolved, to find a way to be
pure hunger, absolute. To be nothing but hunger.

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Works

Landscape with Ambiguous Symbols

Interviews

Troy Jollimore

Landscape with Ambiguous Symbols

That sound that sometimes enters the world
as thunder, at others as the boisterous crashing
of waves. That rustling in the bushes

that designates either the wind or the twitching
of unseen lurkers. That smile from the bride
at the altar, expressing nothing or else

confessing I wish it were not him but you.
That siren’s wail telling you this is a test,
this is only a test, if it isn’t screaming

you and everyone here are about
to die an unpleasant and very newsworthy
death
. That kiss that translates as your life

has just ended but possibly means your life
is only beginning. That buzzing that says
that you’re getting old and your hearing is going,

unless, of course, a swarm of bees
is nearby. That look from a beautiful stranger
that means keep your distance or maybe it means

come closer, I get off at eight, I have
a room on the third floor, here is the key
.
That little red splotch on the skin that signifies

nothing at all, unless it’s a sign
that you should perhaps get it checked, though of course
it’s already so late that getting it checked

will not save you. That sweet post-sunset moment
of melancholy that’s there to remind you
that this life, your only life, is not really

yours, that you have assumed it like
a disguise, that you should have done what you really
wanted to do—trained as a chef,

a guitarist, traveled the world as a broke
and itinerant vagabond—and means,
as well, that on such evenings any

existence you might have pursued would have felt
like something assigned or stolen, that time flows
in one direction only, that now

it takes three drinks to make the music
sound the way it’s supposed to sound,
that the taste of the air on late summer evenings

is always a little bit bitter, always
a little bit tinged with regret, that this is
your language, your city, and no one but you

can speak it, and no one but you can save it.

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Works

Committed

Interviews

Russell Dame

Committed

They were taking apart the vacuum cleaner, Carson’s wife of less than three months inserting a hairpin from her chignon through the side of the disposable bag and pulling across sharply. Its contents—a penny, a button, some grains of rice, bits of Styrofoam—spilled onto the newspaper as if from the belly of a shark. The volume was surprising.

A film of fine gray grime covered her magnificent ruby engagement ring. He was a patient man. Sofia once told him that a friend of hers had said, “It’s impossible for him to love you more.” This was essentially true and pleased him, though he did not like to consider his love finite.

They talked about several subjects before landing on environmental responsibility. She was young, much younger than him and badly wanted to have opinions. Lately she thought his mother used too many paper towels and napkins.

“I know about this,” she said, rummaging and picking through the debris from the vacuum cleaner with the hairpin. “You should listen.”

Sofia was zaftig and dark, with eyes the deep, otter-back brown described as black in the Russian Gypsy folk songs of her youth. As they leaned over, their heads almost touched, and she fixed him with a certain intensity of gaze that often preceded her momentary exit from a room. His sister had blown into a full ashtray as a child. He was tired of the conversation already, and contemplated similar action. Instead he plunged forward.

“We’ve discussed your disgust,” he said, removing a small piece of wood, examining it, replacing it.

“Thirteen the other night alone, one for each course whether it’s used or not. Drying hands. Wrapping can lids.”

“I don’t have time to do the research,” he said, and he didn’t. “I don’t know, say, the true environmental cost of building a Prius. And I don’t want to believe anybody else’s research on faith.” This seemed reasonable, if tangential.

“Thirteen.”

She’s mad as red ants, he thought. He said, “I try very hard to look at people on balance, and you are wrong if you think my mother is anything but a net positive.”

The ruby could easily chip, but he watched her hand without comment. It was much more ring than he would have chosen to afford had it not been purchased at an estate auction. He thought diamond engagement rings were a marketing campaign. His wife had once said she worried the original couple had been unhappy.

He stopped searching and waited until she raised her head. “My mother committed her mother,” he said.

They met while Sofia was a visiting scholar. She spoke impeccable English. When she was excited, though, her mastery lagged; when she dealt cards, for instance, she relied on Russian for counting. When excited, it was as though he could watch her think.

He’d been to Samara with her, walked along the Volga eating corn in the street and stared up at the Soviet architecture of the building where her grandfather, a war hero first, then a professor of literature, had been given an apartment by the government. Carson had looked down from the balcony, the sixth-floor balcony like a gangplank where she rode her bike as a child, to the crumbling courtyard where her teenage loves gathered the white fuzz of the poplar seeds that envelop the streets there in summer. They’d gather the fluff and spell her name in script and call and call into the night until she appeared on the balcony to watch them set fire to the first letter and watch the flame chase itself until the last was extinguished, exhausted, and the night was black.

She had traveled the world as an interpreter, but he knew it was there, to that city block, that she retreated in her mind when her English failed her. And it was that tiny shotgun apartment that had housed three generations for so long that she was thinking of when she told him, “My mother committed her mother, too. We all do and will. She lost years of her life caring for her.”

For a moment he wondered if it was more common than he thought.

They were looking for a two-inch strip of painted wood, comb-decorated to simulate inlay, from a Maine two-drawer blanket chest circa 1840. The side had an old repair, and the strip had come loose. It had been resting on top of the chest for a week, waiting to be glued. That morning it wasn’t there. He was a patient man. His wife was new to antiques. Money was new. The miscommunication of shared housekeeping was new.

He closed his eyes and waited. He knew he had won, if indeed it was an argument they were having, and if indeed something as base as winning or losing could be attributed to the knowledge he held over her then.

“No,” he said. “No, you don’t understand. She didn’t send her to a nursing home. My mother had her mother put away. Institutionalized. Declared insane. Shock treatments. She was in her twenties, and no one else would step up and do what needed to be done. She made the decision, and her mother never forgave her for it. Can you imagine the strength that took? I can’t. But I try to think of that when I see the paper towel is running low.”

His wife walked from the garage back into the house without saying a word.

She was right to do it, he knew. He’d heard all of the stories, turned them in his mind. But most often he pictured his grandmother on a stool, sitting on a stool for hours, days, watching and feeling watched.

Carson folded the newspaper around the contents from the vacuum cleaner, delivered it to the trash bin, and raised the garage door. The road was quiet for a Saturday, though in several hours high school students would be dumping empty cans and miniature liquor bottles in the ditch. He and Sofia would find them on walks. He regretted fighting with his new bride. It just didn’t matter. Nothing was that important. He had a stack of Saint Valentine’s cards he’d bought with the enormous ruby ring. The woman had saved them, banded together with ribbon. Most were Victorian; all were dated between 1873 and 1909. They had a beginning and an end, and yet, more than a hundred years later, he could hold them in his hands as she had once held them in hers. Some were die-cut, freestanding pop-ups, others were mechanical and turned with a wheel. In February he’d give the first one to Sofia, and then he had thirty-six more.

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Works

blender

Interviews

Heather Wells Peterson

Blender

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.

“Yeah.”

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.

“Ready?”

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.

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