Red Knit Gloves
She has a pair of red knit gloves. They are the nicest thing she’s ever owned, the only thing her mother ever made her. Her mother spent the entire summer working on those gloves, although she never seemed to make much progress. Most of the summer was spent in her terry cloth robe, the windows closed against the light and heat. They had no central air, so she sat in a circle of electric fans. The fans engulfed her like a little shrine, her damp hair blowing out in a halo of shadowy sweat.
She’d walk into the room, and her mother would look up as though interrupted. Then she’d go right back to staring out the window, clicking her hands every now and then when she remembered them. When her mother gives her the finished pair of gloves, she is surprised. She puts them on. They share a smile. She feels a sense of safety. Something beautiful can come from barely anything at all.
Today, she stands in the sunniest spot on the playground, glowing and superior to all the other children. The girls with nicer gloves couldn’t possibly know what they mean. She traces a line in the dirt with her shoe, which is scuffed and peeling on the sides. She does this absentmindedly, but she’s secretly thinking, don’t cross. She digs the line deeper. She pictures herself as a castle, the line as a moat. The red gloves are bright banners that bear her family’s seal. The dirt gets in between her toes. Worms start to crawl up, and she tramples them, smearing their blood on the ground.
Children loom on the other side of her blood-stained line. They barely know her name, but they hate her. They resent her misplaced sense of superiority. They resent her secretive smile and the way she stands clasping her hands by herself. Who is she, anyway? They too have nothing, but they don’t feel proud of it. They cherish no false sense that something good will happen. On top of everything, she’s ugly. Her hair hangs flat and straight against her flat dumb face, like dead twigs decorating someone’s tombstone.
She too resents them for their cruel stares. They’re not the same as she is; why can’t they accept that? A pair of boys moves closer. One is tall and lanky. One is small and hairy for his age.
What’re you standing there for? The tall boy asks.
Dunno, just like it here, she says. She feels no need to explain herself. She thinks she owns this spot as much as any.
I mean why are you standing here? He says. The group ambassador. He sees this as a different question. She sees this as a threat. She says, go on. I don’t have anything to say to you.
I’m not trying to start any trouble, he says, just trying to talk. She shakes her head. She’s learned when people say they don’t want trouble, what they really mean is they don’t know they want it.
I mean, what I’m trying to say is. The boy trails off.
The short boy takes over. Your mom is a whore.
A horror? She says. She knows this word, but not the other. She assumes she understands. She shudders, recalling their house at its worst, with the boxes stacked up, with the mice running loose. Her mother slouched down like a burial shroud in the midst of it all, blankets drawn up around her. The cigarette wavering back and forth on the tip of her lips. It flickers in the fan, but it still threatens to set them aflame.
A whore, he says, flicking his tongue against his teeth.
What do you know? She says. Who are you, anyway? You know nothing about me.
My dad knows the guy who gives your mom money, he says. How else does she got money if she doesn’t got a job?
They don’t have money though. There’s never any food in the house. The Meals on Wheels woman comes by once a day with her rattling cart, letting a thin ray of light in the room for 15 minutes.
Why would he give her money, anyway? She asks.
He gives her money cause she puts out, he says simply. She’s a whore. Your mom’s a whore.
She gets his meaning now, but still it doesn’t make much sense. Her mother’s pretty, but she wears that faded nightgown every day. As far as she can tell, her mother never leaves the couch except to lie in bed, still smoking in the dark. Even the cigarettes are cheap. Her bedroom smells like burning toast.
The boys move closer. What we really want to know, he says, is if you put out, too.
Her eyes widen, but she stands her ground. It’s not her fault. They’re ignorant. She takes her gloves off, just in case. She folds them in her pocket. She thumbs at the delicate grain of her mother’s careful offering.
The boys take this as a sign of resignation. In a way, they’re not completely incorrect. Like mother, like daughter, he grins. The tall boy moves behind and wraps his arms around her. He holds her in a way that’s strangely calming. She feels so much relief being held in the light, without the stale smell of home, that she lets them continue. The short one mostly just gets close and rubs around on her, which seems like no big deal. He unzips her coat and feels around like he lost something in there. She doesn’t struggle til he tries to rip her dress. It’s her only dress that doesn’t have stain somewhere.
Let go, she says. The teacher’s going to see.
He laughs. The teacher doesn’t care. He knows about your mom. She claws at him, and she gets a good swipe at his face. The teacher does see this. He blows a whistle, and the class runs back in line. She doesn’t notice til they’re all inside, seated at desks. Her gloves have gone missing. She raises her hand. She realizes that her fingertips are bloody. She lowers her hand then, ashamed.
So she goes for months with cold red hands while somewhere, her gloves become dirty. They unravel along the line she dug, their threads sewing into the earth. They fill the muddy moat with red until the snow falls down. Bit by bit the red absorbs each snowflake. Eventually, the gloves are buried under solid sheets of white.
His parents send him upstairs after dinner. He goes to bed earlier and earlier each week. He isn’t bad or anything, that’s just the way they do it. He says, I’m not tired. They tell him, that’s ok, just go play in your room. Go cool off before you go to sleep.
It doesn’t take too long to learn that cooling off means being quiet. As long as they can’t hear him, he can do whatever he wants. He likes to poke around the planter by his bedroom window, pulling out the wilted vines and braiding rope with them. He hides the ropes under his bed. He is plotting a way to get up on the roof. The houses in his neighborhood are set so close together, he could probably jump off from one to the next. He wants to look in other people’s windows. He wants to investigate.
He lines his plastic army men along his unmade bedspread. All the rolls of fabric look like hills or dunes. The pinkish sunlight blooms through the shutters like toxic gas, or bombs.
Sometimes he watches war films with his father. The best parts are always the explosions. He can watch the sounds. That’s what he likes. He likes to watch the color of the sky change. He knows that even the most beautiful land is more beautiful being destroyed.
He plays the story of a third world war, not just to play it, but to practice how he’ll tell it when it happens. He sees the shadows cast on sand at dusk; the moonlight barely shining through suggests this. He sees the straining of the soldiers as they crouch for hours, barricading themselves in the folds of his own bent knees. He buries himself in the covers, crowned with handmade ropes and hand-plucked leaves. He even takes sips from a flask that he found in the back of the closet. It was empty, but he can imagine what the liquor tastes like from the rusty smell that rises up. It tastes dirty, old, and burning. That sounds about right.
Someday he wants to document a war. He’ll be a writer or a photographer or something. Just as long as you can open up a magazine, see pictures of explosions, and then see his name right next to them. He wants his name to be on a photograph of bodies. He, the boy who goes to bed before the sun goes down. He will be named by nameless things.
When a stranger shakes his hand, he’ll see the image of a mushroom cloud reflected in his gaze. He thinks the writers must be braver than the soldiers. It’s their job to know what’s going on at all times. They can’t close their eyes when bombs are raining overhead, when sand is pouring from the sky. They have to keep them open. They can’t miss a moment of the action. Or at least they have to know enough to make it up.
He fills his head with headline words like axis, launch, attack. Surprise, attrition, loss. Suffer, struggles. Strengthen, stand, regain. The forces, overrun, declare, collapse, defeat, surrender. Soldiers can’t call each other by names because they’d give away their hiding spots. They know what’s going on, but they must speak it in their far-off sounding voices, codes and hints jabbing desperately into a curtain of static.
When he plays, he doesn’t play with plots or characters. He just lines the soldiers up and lets the scene play in his mind. He hears the bass of bullets growing as they drum into the earth, as bodies catch, flesh hisses, and absorbs them. Most of all, he hears the shrieking. He imagines based on what he’s seen in movies, but he knows that there are things the movies aren’t allowed to show. His father told him. He can hear the screams and shaking through the floor, the howls reverberating through the walls. Glass breaking, things shoving, hitting things. He’s been told he has an active imagination.
One night the crying of the soldiers overwhelms him. He can’t control the feeling that it’s just a movie, something waiting for the future, or the magnitude of his imagination. He can’t take responsibility. He hears specific words now. Lush, whore. Liar. How? Don’t tell me that. I trusted you. No. I don’t trust you. Bastard. Don’t you think about it. I don’t care. No. That won’t help now. God, it smells in here. Just one more time and then. I swear. Christ. Woman. I don’t think I even know you.
He doesn’t want to cry. He squints at the nuclear power plant off in the distance, the dark pipes of a pure white smoke. They plume into the bright sky, slowly changing shades. He opens the window. The smell of his mother’s lilac bush clings thickly to the sunset. He thinks about the H-bomb. Wouldn’t it be perfect if a bomb fell on his house, right now? The chandelier chimes in the hallway below. He’ll use the noise to his advantage.
He ties one end of the rope vine to the radiator and he wraps the other end around his waist. He feels the heat from the pipes running out through the vines, building up in his veins. He eases over the edge of the planter, careful not to catch his shorts on the metal clutch. He’s clinging to the windowsill. He feels steady. There’s an overhang 4 feet away. He tries to swing himself, but suddenly the rope vine feels too hot. The radiator heat unravels through his veins. The liquid in his stomach turns to steam. He breaks his hold. He dangles for a moment, then he falls.
At first he doesn’t realize he’s falling. It feels like the ground moves up to meet him. Then it seems to happen very slowly, and in waves, like swinging back and forth. He only falls in one direction, but a roaring rushes up into his ears, then pushes down. By the time he hits the ground, he’s in a trance that makes the blow feel soft. He barely even hears the thud, which rings through the dark of his head like a swarm of mosquitoes.
He wakes up in a bright room in a cast. His mom leans over him and smiles. Her lips look blue and ugly in the light. Her voice is still panicky, training her words into one long shaky sentence. She says, it’s okay, you fell, but on your arm. You were trying to climb out the window, which you knew you shouldn’t do, you know that, but you were alone. I love you. Don’t you know I love you? Do we have an understanding? We were wrong. We thought you were a big boy now. Are you a big boy now? We thought you knew these things. I told you to play quietly until you fell asleep. You were supposed to fall asleep. You weren’t supposed to fall out the window. She gathers her face in her hands.
His cast is green just like his army men. He asks his mom, where’s Dad?
She wonders if he really is a big boy, if he’s big enough to hear her tell the truth. She doesn’t know the truth is filled with bombs and hissing streams of smoke, with shrieking sounds and actions like the silencing of bodies and her son, who does know better, is supposed to tell it all. But he can’t even tell her. She says, sweetheart, just in case he isn’t big enough. Sweetheart. Daddy had to go.
He’s coming back though, right? Not for awhile. He says, when. She says, I don’t know. How could she not know, though. His mother is a bad mom.
She tries to stroke his hair. Her hands are wet from crying. They just make the strands of hair stick to his forehead. He wishes he could roll away onto his side, but his good arm is pressed up against the guardrail. He is trapped there in his bed, without the soldiers, soaking up the salt inside his mother’s tears.
He hears the whispering of his mother’s skirt as she moves throughout the kitchen. There are other sounds, of course, the clicking of her shoes, the hissing of the tap, the shuffling and throwing out of certain envelopes. When his mother comes to mind, he always hears the swishing of her skirt. He knows that every movement of the skirt, however gentle, could cling, catch, and snag, could kill his mother’s nylons.
She’s still getting used to making dinner for two people. Most of the time, she makes too much. Their serving bowls are white along the outside, trimmed around the inside. In the middle of each bowl, there is a pattern of delicate silver dashes. Most nights, between the two of them, they only finish half the food. The bowls sit in the fridge with bits of beef, creamed corn, and runny lines of beet broth, dirty food splashed up around the silver circle. Collecting in the sink, all the dishes are violently stained. To him, the dark stained lines look like slit throats.
His mother tries her best to make nice dinners. She makes things with cheerful names like Sunshine Salad, Buttermilk Chicken, and Angel Food Cake. She makes too much food because she wants to fill the table. She wants to place a bunch of different colored bowls between them. She wants to fill his belly, fill his face with thoughts that maybe she can speak to.
He eats quietly. He tries to be polite. The food always looks better than it tastes. The chicken is soggy. The noodles are slimy. His mom doesn’t make them from scratch anymore.
Meghan Lamb is a haunted hotel. She doesn’t do anything too horribly disruptive, just billows some curtains and fogs up some mirrors. Sometimes she fondles an exceptionally lovely man with her chilly transparent fingertips. She curates the reading series Dark of the Male, Light of the Female: Women Writing About Horrible Things. (How she does this is anyones’guess.) Her first novel, Silk Flowers, is forthcoming on Aqueous Books in 2013. This makes perfect sense. Many hotels are published authors.