by Lauren Gorski
There is a hole in my brain that is very small and you could barely see it unless you had a very special magnifying glass with x-ray vision, which Ronald has and I find to be very lucky as he is the only nine-year-old doctor I trust. I had a slip in the middle of the green where we play games (like tag and candy monster) and Ronald was there to make sure that my head had not come loose. During his careful inspection, he pulled out his special x-ray vision magnifying glass and gasped as he noted that within the wrinkled worm of my brain there was a hole. A small hole, he assured me, but a hole nonetheless. I asked him where, and he said to the left, and then I asked what it meant, and he said it probably meant something big because the brain is the most important part of your body.
I told Ms. Fitz there was a hole in my brain, and that was probably why I wasn’t very good at math or fractions.
“Gracie, sit in your seat and stop chewing gum,” she said, as she licked her fingers and pulled at her bangs. My mother thinks she’s too young to teach second grade. “And stop talking to Ronald.” She didn’t understand that I was Ronald’s patient and not his girlfriend.
“But, Ms. Fitz, what if it gets bigger? I might not even fit anymore.”
“You need to show me your sentences,” she said and I didn’t really understand, so I opened my mouth very wide to let her see them. She pushed a little on my forehead, and I wondered if she could feel the hole too. “The worksheet, Grace.”
Ronald made me swear I wouldn’t tell anyone else, because they would want to see it and he had only one pair of special x-ray vision magnifying glasses and they had cost a lot of money. Ms. Fitz was okay because a hole in the brain was very important for a teacher to know about, like allergies. I asked him if I could tell my mother, because she gets so frustrated with almost everything (like baby powder on the piano and pet mice) and I think if she knew about my problem she would not get so frustrated. Ronald said she probably knew anyway.
I wonder if this hole has always been there or if a piece of my brain fell out along the way, like when I ice-skated last December or that time I tried to walk my cat. Maybe it had slipped out my nose during a sneeze, or snuck away out of my mouth while I was sleeping. I tried to retrace my footsteps like when I lost my favorite pencil with the strawberries on it (I found that on the bathroom sink), but it is very difficult to retrace nine years of your life unless you had someone following you with a video camera. I found my baby books in the closet, but there was no evidence of anything strange except that it took me awhile to learn how to talk. But now I talk everyday, so it’s okay if you’re a little late talking sometimes because you might end up talking a lot later and people will say that it was like you had always been talking.
When I was five, I got lost in a giant department store where they sell clothes and water glasses at the same time. I could have lost a piece of my brain then, because I don’t remember a lot of what happened except that I scared a woman in the dressing room and my mother was crying when they found me. When I was eight, my father left, and he took a lot of stuff like the desk and the blender and maybe he also took a little piece of my brain to remember me because he knew he wouldn’t see me a lot. To be honest, though, I think it makes much more sense that I never had that piece of my brain. I think it has always been a hole.
* * *
FROM MRS. BURNHAM:
The doorbell rings, as I fuss with a wrinkled blouse, in our bedroom. It’s missing a button, but I haven’t done laundry all month. The dryer has been broken, so I only wash when there’s good weather. I’m such a mess with this dark grey wrinkled blouse and my hair hanging on me like wet straw, dark and slightly snarled. Thinking about my tattered parts, the red lines below my belly and the sagged weight of my arms, reminds me too often that I don’t look my age. Whoever is coming over shouldn’t expect any Marilyn Monroe.
The doorbell rings again, and again. She knows it can’t be, but just the same she hopes that it might be Jack. I mean, I know it can’t be.
I’m hopping through the house, from the bedroom to the hallway and to the front door. The floor is freezing against my bare toes, and I worry that the house smells too much like burnt oatmeal. Gracelynn asked for oatmeal this morning and I didn’t have the heart to say that I didn’t quite know how to make it. She ate it, even though it was burnt, and I think that is how I know I love my daughter. She wrapped her small fingers around the spoon, and shoveled big bites into her crooked mouth. A piece of her sandy hair fell into the Elmo bowl, and even then she made a point to eat a little off the strands as if she could not bear to waste a morsel.
Someone is knocking and knocking. It makes the insides of my fingers sweat because I never usually have such urgent company. I open the door and there’s Dorothy. Oh, god, Dorothy the perfect parent, who is already telling her child that he is going to be a doctor. She probably doesn’t have a real job, but I don’t know that. I only assume, because a real job would tell you that no one gets to be a doctor these days.
“Hello, Mrs. Burnham. I’m sorry to bother, how are you doing?” she says, and she’s very prim with her curled red hair pulled tight against her scalp. She is even wearing a matching skirt and blazer in a fiery blue that maddens her self-defined image as a classical homemaker. There’s a dark nose hair hanging that distracts me.
“Fine, I’m fine. And, you?” I say, wiping my palm under my own nose. Her eyebrows bother me because they are so thin and they remind me of two little worms dying in the sun.
“Actually, I’m sorry to bother, but I’m a little concerned about Grace.” Dorothy peaks her head around the doorframe, as if to ask – can I come in? I have to say yes and suddenly I’m very self-conscious about the missing button and its matching open hole.
She sits on the ratty loveseat in the living room. Cat hair from the couch catches onto her power suit, giving an orange hue to the blue fabric. I hate this woman now, looking around at my home like a parrot. It’s nothing much, Miss Parrot, it’s just a three bedroom with a kitchen and a living room and two bathrooms situated on a highway bypass that makes rent cheap and family picnics stressful.
“What did you want to tell me?” I stand across from her, clinging to my chest and pieces of my blouse. This is my day off, but she probably won’t understand.
“About Grace, yes. I love this rug, by the way. It looks hand tufted or something similar,” she says, flicking her wrist. “My husband owns a discount furniture outlet, there are some great pieces that would really compli-”
“I’m expected somewhere later, so I don’t really have any time to chit-chat,” I say.
“Right, I understand. But, about Grace, yes… is she a little off? Jesus, I hope I’m not sounding blunt,” she says and she touches her mouth, embarrassed.
“What do you mean?”
“Well… I know kids will be kids, but Grace is… I caught her trying to eat Ronald’s goldfish. She had her hand in the bowl and she was making sounds like a cat-”
“Oscar Wilde, he’s our cat. She likes to pretend sometimes that she’s a cat, that’s not very strange. I mean, I’m sure she didn’t eat your goldfish.”
“She didn’t, but she tried to. I just don’t know any nine-year-old that would try to eat someone’s pet, even if it was just a goldfish.”
“I don’t see any cause for alarm,” I say, and I fake a smile.
“I just was wanting to know, because, you know, her and Ronald get along so well and I worry.” She crosses her hands in her lap, because I just don’t get it.
“Gracelynn is fine, she’s normal. She’s not very good at math, but lots of kids aren’t.” Now I am even more exposed beyond my blouse. If Jack were here he would be smirking behind his fist and think, I told you so. The new Jack, that is. The new Jack with his fancy office job and polished hands who left us here to rot.
“Right, okay. I’m sorry to bring it up. She just says some off things too, and I know it isn’t any of my business. But I thought, from one mother to another, you might appreciate my saying something.” Dorothy stands up and she is so much taller than me again. The air is stiff against my skin and my strangled hair.
“I’m a good mother,” I say, though I don’t know why I should defend myself. Dorothy is an awful mother, who tells her kid to be a doctor, and pretends that only my kid says strange things. She should know, I am a good mother.
* * *
My mother tells me I should never get married, because she says it’s painful and it hurts and once you are married, the boy you love stops loving you, which is why all the good romance movies end with a wedding and not with the day after. I try not to worry about it too much because I’m not going to be married for at least nine more years and most people don’t get married until they’re older. I don’t tell my mother, but I really want to be married because I like how the word “missus” sounds.
My mother thinks I don’t understand her sometimes when she talks about marriage and weddings, but I do. I asked her if I could just marry myself so I could still wear the pretty dress and get presents when it wasn’t even my birthday or Christmas. She told me that I couldn’t because that wasn’t proper and she sounded offended, like I was my father and we were talking about work.
I’ve tried to talk to Ronald about the future and stuff, but I think doctors are all one-sighted about everything because he can only see that one single future. We were sitting under our tree on the green, the last tree in a line of twenty.
“Do you think you’ll ever get married?” I asked, picking clumps of grass out of the ground and rolling it into meatballs.
“Maybe when I’m old, but not right now,” he said.
“Duh,” I said and I smacked his arm. “I mean, really though.”
“I don’t know, you?” He poked the ground with a short stick and it was turning into splinters and dirt at the end but he kept poking.
“I think I should, but I think it might be awful too,” I said.
“Let’s say I’m the wife now, okay? That makes you the husband.”
“Okay.” He threw the stick off to the side. “What now?”
“Drink some of this,” I said and I handed him one of my grassy meatball clumps, “and I’ll pretend I can’t see you.”
* * *
FROM MRS. BURNHAM:
I talk to the old Jack constantly throughout the day. As I’m changing the sheets of room six, in my dull grey uniform and disgusting shoes, we discuss things.
Are you watching me? I say. I fold the tangy orange bottom sheet into quarters.
You fold exquisitely, he says.
Oh, yes? I tuck my hair behind my ear and try not to seem desperate.
Yes, I always love watching you straighten up.
I’ve been a maid here for too long.
You should quit then.
I can’t. It pays for things. I still need food, and clothes, and then there’s Gracelynn, I say. I take out the trash bag in the bathroom and my face flinches to the smell of piss.
How is she? he asks.
She’s all right, she’s the same. She likes school.
I remember when you were working at that factory, what was it… Toyota? It sure helped us a lot. I throw the red and white striped towels on the floor into my cart.
I miss it; I wish we were all back together.
What do you think you’re doing now? I ask. I’m rinsing out the coffee mugs in the bathroom sink.
Probably sitting alone, thinking of you.
Just you, I’m sure of it.
I’m sure of it, too.
I don’t like to tell him that the new Jack is much different than the old Jack. I haven’t seen the new Jack since he left. I remember that last day he was clean shaven and was wearing a plain business suit. It offended me. When you leave someone, there should be dishevelment. No suits allowed.
* * *
It was a late Saturday afternoon and I was in the backyard looking for my orange tabby, Oscar Wilde. My mother said she hadn’t seen him, as her arms pumped against the batter, but he could be in the backyard. I checked the trees and the bushes and my mother’s flower garden (though not very hard because of the thorns) but I couldn’t find him. In the front yard I had worse luck, but not because I couldn’t find him, because I did find him in the middle of the street and he had been run over. Our house is near the highway bypass, which makes it cheap, but people speed and sometimes there are large trucks and I think Oscar got hit by someone speeding or in a truck. His insides and entrails were hanging out of his tummy and the blood was leaking out.
I tried to save him, I really did. I just wanted to save him. I thought about Ronald, and how much I wished there could be a good doctor around for this. I tried to push his insides back in, and to hold his skin back together and to make him whole again. I picked him up, and his fur was scratchy with dried blood but his eyes were open so I didn’t really understand if he was alive or not. Usually when things die on television, they close their eyes. I held him close to me and rocked him a little, but I couldn’t feel his heart beat so I tried squeezing the rhythm into him. Pump, pump, pump. He was warm still, so he must not have been very dead at that time because dead things are cold, but he still didn’t have any heart beat no matter how hard I squeezed. Pump, pump, pump. It was useless; I just got his blood all over me.
* * *
FROM MRS. BURNHAM:
I am pump, pump, pumping against the cake batter. The heat from outside crawls through the window and puts more effort into the bowl. I always make a cake on the first day of summer, and I won’t stop it now. Not for new Jack, or Dorothy, or anybody. Gracelynn will be out of school for two and a half months soon, and I want her to remember that her mother is gracious before vacation starts.
Today it is a chocolate cake, and secretly it is for the old Jack who would sit as still as a picture if he were to smell chocolate cake. He would tease me, and say it was his Kryptonite and I believed him.
Gracelynn is looking for Oscar, and a moment ago she practically turned the house inside out looking for him. How many times do you have to explain to a nine-year-old that cats don’t play behind mirrors? It should be a simple enough idea. Now I hear Dorothy in the back of my head with her curly nose hairs, reminding me that I don’t have a normal daughter.
I pour the batter into a funnel cake pan. The dark gooey chocolate looks anything but delectable at this point. It smells more like plastic than chocolate, very off brand. Gracie won’t notice, she’s a good girl. She may say strange things from time to time and in front of other people, but she probably got that from Jack, and how could I be blamed?
The pan goes into the oven, and besides the awful mess (a powdered bowl of old flour, three different mixing spoons, and excess batter around the counter), everything seems to be going all right. There is normalcy in these actions; this is what I always do.
I should find Grace; I should help her find Oscar.
* * *
I dropped Oscar back onto the road and his head rattled oddly when it landed, like a baby’s toy. I half expected Oscar to jump up and scratch me like he did sometimes when I dropped him too hard. But he just lay there, with the sun glaring down on his skin and bones. I knew I was supposed to cry, but I couldn’t because the red and the orange swirled together were very mesmerizing. The blood stained on my blue dress also seemed beautiful and with my white shoes, it was like I was a picture of the American flag.
A long, slender piece of flesh was splayed below Oscar, it must have fallen out when I picked him up. It reminded me of a soft noodle and I remembered Ronald had taught me about intestines and this is probably where Oscar kept all the mice he caught. It was lighter than I expected, especially since Oscar had been such a heavy cat. I wrapped the intestine around my neck, much like a boa, and I imagined myself as a glamorous girl at a ball. The air felt oily with Oscar’s insides floating on my shoulders, and I enjoyed the strong scent of metals and it reminded me of the times I used to go with my father to the car factory. I began to dance in the street and for a moment it was like Oscar and I were playing again and he was there and he had never died. I swung the bloody boa around my body and twirled to the sounds of birds and airplanes.
The sun was beginning to cool under us, as the afternoon began to set for evening. I wondered if my mother would let me keep Oscar like this. I heard a scream from the kitchen window, that overlooked the front yard, and next I heard the screen door slam and my mother’s heels hit the pavement. I looked up at her, confused by her reaction, and then started searching to see if there was a truck coming which was why she usually yelled at me from the kitchen.
There wasn’t, so she must be yelling because she misses Oscar but I told her it was okay because Oscar was just missing his heartbeat but he could still be fun. She told me to drop it, and she used bad language because she was angry. She had a little bit of brown batter on her fingertips, and as she cried, it got all over her face. If only I hadn’t gotten so much blood on my blue dress, maybe she wouldn’t have been so mad, because I know blood is hard to clean.
* * *
FROM MRS. BURNHAM:
The hot pavement is burning through my socks, but I can barely feel a thing even in all this heat. There is a madman inside my daughter, and he is standing at the edge of the road wearing sinister streaks of red and black. Gracelynn’s thin, sandy hair is strung in knots around her face and I can barely hold two thoughts together. I’m folding my flour stained fingers into my cheeks, and there are words pouring out of me but I’m not sure what the right thing to say is.
“Oh my, can you stop! Oh, shit! Stop it! Put it down, now!” I try to control myself, but it just won’t happen like it’s supposed to. And she smiles at me, smiling as if everything was all right, and it was okay to be a monster. The smell alone was enough to make vomit crawl up my throat. A horn from the distance blares, and blares again.
I can imagine Dorothy behind me, pitying me, because what else is there for a mother in this situation? Jack is standing across the street, and I know the new Jack would be egging her on. Go on, Gracie. Drive your mother mad. The blaring horn sways closer to us. The madman is swinging pieces of Oscar around the edges of the road. The old Jack is watching me, and he knows what to do.
We can change it back.
You should have been there, you should have seen her, and then you would understand what it was like for me to see her.
* * *
She was so loud and angry, and the blood was so red that it was like I saw her anger in everything around me as I heard it. The noises merged together, to make a nauseous sound of shouting and blaring. My head started to pound and I felt the hole in my brain, I mean I REALLY FELT IT. It was like a loud vacuum sucking the outside through my ears and gobbling the earth up into my stomach. There was a piece that was missing and I needed it now and my mother needed it now but neither of us had it and while she was yelling I started yelling too, saying “There’s a hole! The hole!”
I know my mother loves me, I know it was hard for her to be alone after my father left because it was hard for me to be alone and I think my mother is the same as me but a lot worse sometimes. I never thought she would push me so hard into the ground, never ever ever but then again maybe those thoughts come from a part of the brain we don’t all have. I fell onto the dark red stained pavement on Oscar’s tail and I started screaming and screaming until nothing mattered at all only the sounds of the truck swallowing me whole.
LAUREN GORSKI is a recent graduate of UC Irvine with a bachelor’s degree in English with Emphasis in Creative Writing. In 2011, her script “Roulette” won the award for best screenplay during UCI’s 19th Annual Screenwriting Festival. She grew up in the Bay Area of California, and has little to no plans on returning. She currently teaches classes on public speaking and leadership to young people in Orange County. She loves horses, tacos, and most films starring Christian Bale.