Fiction: “The Terrible Twos”

Last weekend, I was one of four “musicians who write” asked to do a reading at one of the events for the first-ever Florida Bookstore Day. (Kudos to Tiffany Razzano, who made Florida Bookstore Day happen pretty much singlehandedly.) I wasn’t sure what I was gonna read, but I settled on one of the first stories of mine to be published by a third party, “The Terrible Twos.” It was a great, if sparsely attended event—hell, it was the first-ever Florida Bookstore Day!—and I really enjoyed being able to share something outside the journalism that sort of defines me locally. 

The publisher that originally put out “The Terrible Twos” gave up the ghost (and all rights) a few years ago; reading it, I rediscovered what I do and don’t like about it. And since it’s no longer available anywhere else, I thought I’d post it here.

Clay fought it as hard as he could, but by the fourth time his cell phone launched into the chorus of The Replacements'”Answering Machine,” he was fully awake. He swung his bony frame into a sitting position on the battered sofa, and took about a million years to focus on the tiny amber glow emanating from the coffee table.

He grabbed the phone, brought it closer to a pair of bloodshot eyes socketed in purple velvet. The phone’s window never showed the time when a call was incoming ­­ as if it mattered, the middle of the night was the middle of the night, unless you happened to be an insomniac, in which case the middle of the night was generally just a couple of hours closer to sunrise ­­ only the number.

The same old goddamned number.

He halfheartedly tried to kill himself by squeezing his temples with a thumb and forefinger, then answered.

“Do you know what time it is?”

“You were up.” Ten words between them, she was already over the small talk, and itching to get to the point.

“Actually, I wasn’t. That’s why I’m truly curious to know what time it is. You see, my phone never shows the time when a call is incoming, just the-­”

“It’s almost four. Clay, she’s doing it again.”

His right hand found a soft­-pack of Roscoes, the brand he’d adopted in an attempt to sicken himself into quitting, and shook out a butt.

“So wake her up.”

“We’ve been over this. You have to do it.”

They both knew that wasn’t quite the truth. It took both of them, the thing that was created when they were both present, their us-ness, to rouse their daughter from her inexplicable, sometimes terrifying dreams. But it had always been Sherry Ann’s way to lay the bulk of any responsibility, or at least the perception of it, at his feet when it suited her. As independent as she was, she could always play the hapless small-­town girl, and he’d long since given up asking her why it was always him she called when her hot water heater went out, or her satellite dish stopped getting The Style Network, or she couldn’t figure out how to work the knife sharpener she ordered from New York ­­ wasn’t that the sort of shit ex-­husbands used to do, but didn’t have to anymore?

Of course, Jessie’s dreams were something else entirely.

“Besides, I can’t reach her. I need you. Please.”

The lighter froze on its way to the tip of his cigarette. The offhand way his ex­wife mentioned she couldn’t get to their two-year­-old daughter hardly phased Clayton Wells when compared to her use of the word “please.” In five years of courtship and three of marriage, he heard it so infrequently he’d once suggested during a fight that she might have an obscure speech impediment that prevented her from forming the required phonetic sounds.

Please, from Sherry Ann, meant more than I don’t know what else to do. It meant the world, her world, was hanging in the balance, that Jesus was coming and boy was he pissed.

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“I’m downstairs.”

“Fuck, Sherry Ann-­”

“Just get a move on, will you?”

He flipped the phone shut, noting how far less satisfying it was than being able to slam a handset back into its cradle like in the old days, and cast about the tiny loft for a T-shirt. He found one over the stairway railing that didn’t smell too much like sweat and everclear, threw it on as he descended to the ground floor, and headed through the tiny control room of the recording studio that was his late father’s dubious legacy. Four locks later, the metal door swung open and there she was, smoking under the glare of the motion-­sensing light and looking better in an old pair of board shorts (formerly his) and an even older wifebeater (also formerly his) than most women ten years younger do after drinks but before dancing. Only the ends of her city­-short auburn hair and the hinky way the smoke came off the tip of her coffin nail betrayed her jitters.

Coming into close proximity with her always made Clay wonder why it was again that they split up, just before he wondered why they had to again be in close proximity. He always had to search for the current reason why he was pissed off at her.

But he never had to search too hard.

“Tell me you didn’t leave her alone.”

She was already headed back to the Wagoneer parked at the end of a couple of gracelessly arcing ruts cut into the gravel.

“She’ll be fine for a few minutes. I told you, I can’t reach her.”

“What does that even mean?”

“Get in the truck, asshole, and I’ll show you.”

She pulled out of the lot onto the only stretch of two-­lane blacktop for five miles or so, headed east, away from town. Thirty seconds later, she took the second left, and he knew they were headed back to her place. Clay sighed; contemplating how the events of their separate lives had conspired to place them within a five-­minute walk of one another made him more bone-­tired than any bender ever would.

Bracing himself against the Jeep’s dirt-­road jostling with one hand, he leaned forward and opened the glove box with the other. The pint of Wild Turkey lay where it had for nearly three years, since the seventh anniversary of the divorce ­­ the night Jessie was conceived. Usually he just looked. Tonight he pulled the bottle from its shroud of receipts and Wet­Naps bearing the cartoon­-boar-­in­-shades logo of the Pig N’ Pint, and spun the cap.

“Don’t.”

Sherry Ann turned off the dirt road. The Wagoneer’s one working headlight didn’t do much to illuminate her family’s farmhouse. It didn’t matter; the late­spring moon was fierce, and the house appeared to be traipsing unhindered along its way to ruin. Paint continued to peel from the wooden siding, the once­-quaint wraparound porch continued to sag. She hadn’t done much to the outside of what locals still called The Old Morton Place besides hiring somebody to keep the dooryard mown, and installing an expensive and out­-of-­place modular playground setup, but Clay knew the interior was more contemporary New York City loft than ancient Unincorporated Cumber County, Tennessee hand-­me-­down.

He took a medium­-sized pull off the little bottle.

“Damn it, Clay, it’s a memento, not a beverage.”

“The bottle’s a memento. That it’s not empty means there are memories yet to be made.”

“That’s beautiful, Clay. I’d write it down if I didn’t know it was coming from someone who’s drinking to forget something he hasn’t even seen yet.”

The truck stopped where three sagging steps led up to the porch, close enough that Clay misjudged the gap and nearly went sprawling. He regained his balance without having to grab the railing, which would likely have broken off in his hand. He caught her conspicuously not watching him; she’d always been quicker than he was, and it had always been a problem for him, maybe the deal-breaker. He took another drink and headed for the front door, which had probably last known true square sometime during the Fifties.

“She’s not inside. Come on.”

Sherry Ann disappeared around the northwest corner of the house, toward where the rabbit hutch had been when they were teenagers. It was just a memory, as was the backyard swing that once hung from from the single live oak between the house and the treeline. The woodpile looked pretty much the same. Everything else was long gone or gone to seed.

She waited, like a dare, where the woods started.

When he reached her, he didn’t bother asking why their daughter was somewhere out there in the middle of the night. He didn’t point out that had she told him they were going hiking, he would’ve taken the time to put on some shoes. Instead, he bolted the next-­to-­last shot of bourbon, coughed, and inquired, pointedly, inanely:

“So, what’s up with The Baker’s book?”

The Baker was Thatcher Morgan, Sherry Ann’s most recent New York City distraction and the attractive, pretentious twit whose blog about the Zen­like state of spiritual clarity attained by baking she’d promised to turn into a hip memoir. It was petty ex­-husband needling, sure, but she was already making her way down the path he remembered so well, and it was dark beneath the trees, and he didn’t want to think too much about what Jessie might be dreaming this time.

“Thatcher thinks a book would be presumptuous.”

She sounded the tiniest bit perturbed. He figured she was no longer sleeping with The Baker, and that The Baker’s dreams of becoming the next foodie-­wet-­dream publishing success story had been crushed some time in the very recent past..

“So,” she said, “written any more disposable album tracks for the teen-­pop set recently?”

He kept his mouth shut, stumbling behind her, until they reached the glen.

He’d called it The Veldt, after a story he’d read in junior high school. The Europeans would have terraced it off with short walls of ageless rock and grown something, anything. Here it was just a great, sloping break in the woods where rainwater ran downhill through the high grass to the creek. They’d camped here, innumerable nights, sneaking out of their houses to meet where the land flattened a bit at the edge of the shallow water. The house had changed, the yard had changed, their relationship had irrevocably changed, but the hip­-high grains and trip-­you-­up weeds of The Veldt were, apparently, eternal.

The two hundred­-foot-­tall Ferris wheel at the bottom of the hill, however, was new.

Clay recognized it immediately, giant, glowing letters spelling out its name notwithstanding. It was the Texas Star, the largest Ferris wheel in North America. They weren’t at the state fair in Dallas, but there it was anyway, towering twenty stories above the crawfish, current­-polished stones and various vampiric bugs that defined this particular swatch of nowhere. It looked just like it did when Clay saw it in its actual location. Just like it did on the postcard he’d sent Sherry Ann out of drunken melancholy, the one that hung on the stainless steel SubZero fridge standing incongruously inside The Old Morton Place.

“My holy fucking fuck,” he muttered. It seemed to sum up the situation. He briefly considered finishing off the Wild Turkey, decided against it, and pocketed the bottle.

He started down.

He moved quickly for a lazy, barefooted, half­-drunk former rock star nobody remembered, crashing through the growth. Pre­dawn dew soaked his dirty jeans. He ran unmindful of snakes, of mudholes, of the heart attack that couldn’t be more than a couple of years of not­-really-­all­that­-strenuous activities into his future.

Sherry Ann paced him with irritating ease. He stumbled on a weedy vine; she somehow used her momentum to keep him upright and moving forward.

He was acutely aware of the symbolism.

They reached the base of the structure together. Clay was dumbfounded; instead of the large boarding platform he’d seen in Dallas, he found the kind of dilapidated ramps and levers that graced the forty-­foot Ferris wheels of the church fairs. What he saw was physically impossible —­­ a cartoon­-sketch foundation for an engineering feat on a par with a spider web capable of trapping two hundred and fifty human beings in spinning thrall.

Then he remembered that the base of the Texas Star wasn’t visible in the postcard photo on Sherry Ann’s fridge. And that, when he’d run into Sherry Ann at last year’s threadbare carnival to benefit St. Armand’s, Jessie had been with her, goggling from an elaborate stroller that managed to evoke both Louis Vuitton and L. L. Bean.

“It hasn’t moved.” Sherry Ann wiped the sweat off her face with the back of Clay’s T-shirt.

“That has,” he said, and pointed overhead, to where a small plane cruised, and was beginning to turn.

“Do you think he sees it?”

“Oh, not at all. He’s just coming around to mark the creek in his GPS so he can come back and go bass fishing.”

Clay mounted the metal ramp. The rattling sent irritable birds skyward from the nearby trees. He eyed the few levers with the unmistakable look of someone who doesn’t want his audience to know that his next decision is based on random guesswork rather than expertise, then curled his fist around the largest, and leaned into it.

For a long moment, nothing happened.

“God, you’re a clown shoes,” Sherry Ann remarked.

He inwardly perused potential comebacks, until Tennessee’s version of the Texas Star began to turn. The fact that this giant, reality-­defying manifestation turned without any sound at all caught Clay off guard. The cicadas and water flow droned on, uninterrupted, as the big wheel spun with a stately, unnervingly quiet slowness, the large covered gondolas passing within inches of him every few seconds. His heartbeat ratcheted up with each empty one that swept by.

“Is she-­”

He shushed her with a whisper.

Clay counted twenty-­one gondolas, and then there she was, on her side, her back curved in the shape of the semi-­circular bench. The literal embodiment of all the conflicting emotions over which he’d ever agonized ­­— love and fear, joy and heartbreak, anger and hope swaddled in a grossly oversized Ramones T-­shirt, right thumb lodged between her lips.

The soles of her bare feet pointed toward him; he couldn’t help but notice they were as clean and dry as they must’ve been when Sherry Ann tucked her in.

He let her pass, and watched the gondola as it rose back into the sky. Nearly a full minute later, as Jessie’s car swung into the final quarter of its trip, he turned and grabbed the big lever again, leaning back with all his weight, his nonexistent ass hanging over the edge of the platform. The wheel kept spinning. He was beginning to think it wouldn’t stop, that he’d have to wait another revolution, jump into the gondola with her and try to figure something out from there, when it finally began to slow appreciably. She slid under his gaze again, and he walked alongside until he ran out of platform. The gondola came to a halt a few feet later, swinging in silence.

Sherry Ann started to mount the platform. He motioned for her to stay put, jumped lightly into the car, and returned to the metal plating with his sleeping daughter cradled in his arms.

He descended the ramp like he was carrying a bomb rather than a little girl. With the damp, clayey dirt of the creek’s bank under his own filthy feet, Clay exhaled a shaky sigh. He passed Jessie to Sherry Ann; in the Ferris wheel’s light, they could both see her eyes twitching under their lids. They gazed up at the towering structure. They faced each other. Then, without speaking, they turned and started back up the hill.

Clay took the lead, and much more time and care than he had coming down. The light from the Ferris wheel helped. Behind him, Sherry Ann, who had more muscle on her (and fewer drinks in her), bore Jessie along easily.

They were halfway up the slope, and he was pulling the pint of whiskey from his pocket, when she said, simply and quietly:

“Thank you.”

He turned back to her, his face stretched into comic disbelief.

“A please and a thank you in one night? In one hour? Maybe I’m the one who’s dreaming.”

She lowered her eyes, and smiled the lopsided half-­smile that let him know she was embarrassed as well as amused ­­ the rare one, the one he hadn’t seen in nearly three years of snide comments and exhumed bad memories and arguments about the baby.

“Do you think you can stand to stay the rest of the night with us? There’s wine.”

“I don’t know, I’ve got a session around noon and-­”

He broke off when he noticed Jessie’s eyes were open, regarding him vaguely from the other side of the translucent curtain of her doze. As he watched, her lips formed a smile just like her mother’s; her eyelids drooped, hovered, and closed once again.

“Sure,” he said, first to himself, then to Sherry Ann. “Sure.”

They resumed their hike. Clay heard the small plane coming around for a third look, but it didn’t matter. The ride was over, and when he and his ex-­wife couldn’t resist a look back as they reached the treeline, the Texas Star was gone.

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