by Kristen Ploetz
They don’t give out awards for women like her, the ones who pluck ticks off the family dog and find mangoes on sale for a dollar and get their children to swim lessons on time. No gold. No silver. No bronze. Not even a tarnished brass ring for going round and round. The teens at the bus stop don’t give her a standing ovation just because old school hip hop thumps on her iPod. She unfairly disregards, of course, that they cannot hear how she tries to erase stretch marks and cellulite to the hooks and back beats of KRS-ONE and Talib Kweli and Wu-Tang Clan. Or how she knows the arcs of the hip hop life cycle since long before they were born, as intimately as any woman like her could anyway. She doesn’t know it like they do, how it twists deep and dark into their family helices with seemingly forgone conclusions. She understands this lacuna between her life and theirs cannot be filled with late nights watching MTV or reading album credits, but she studies it from the other side just so she can comprehend and not remain complicit in whatever part she has inadvertently played in the outcome of their lives. But they don’t know that. They don’t know how it cleaves her heart when she offers an unrequited smile, that extended olive branch of primitive humanity, often heavy with the pull of some kind of inchoate guilt that sprains her feeble mouth from doing anything more. She knows what they assume when they glance to the side or look straight ahead. That jagged shard of assumption is the one that cuts deepest along the bias of her heavy cloak of invisibility, ripping the seams that hold her all together. Even men no longer notice her. She blends in to the background like the rusty chain link fence circling the dilapidated house around the corner, weeds and broken branches poking through but not far enough to snag a crisp pair of khaki pants to look in her direction. She sees the way her husband surreptitiously stares at half-naked women selling airline tickets on television as she eats her dinner braless in a t-shirt while sitting on the living room floor, hoping he doesn’t notice the latest roll of fat toppling over her pants. Doesn’t matter she tested genius at five years old. Doesn’t matter she once closed a $25 million dollar industrial deal with the hard ass broker across town. Doesn’t matter she gives away her time or money; that kind of ascribed relevance is reserved only for new hospital wings and plaques over lecture halls and labs that hope to cure cancer. Doesn’t matter she was once voted some kind of superlative, valuable when she was eighteen but which no longer applies. She doesn’t matter. Each morning it consumes her, standing there in the mildew-spotted shower as the citrusy scent of bargain bin soap mixes with steam. Hot water courses through her matted hair. She stares down at the rivulets of water and tears trickling and crisscrossing down her blue veined breasts, knowing full well that she’s nobody, really. Anonymously homogenous. Stays within the lines long since laid down by other people. A bland concoction of slack sinew and grey matter where the good stuff has long since settled to the bottom, gritty and thick and no one wants to drink it. It’s why she sometimes conjures ways to be breaking news, something relevant and shocking to unsettle everyone as they sit down to dinner or right before bedtime, shaking their heads as they pick up the remote to turn off the TV because it’s almost too much to bear. Something big to make them take notice. For a time, she wanted it to be tragic and out of her control, dark and unexpected. So people—people she never even met, but mostly the ones she had—would say what a loss, we should’ve paid more attention to her. She sat at red lights imagining brutal car crashes while fiddling with the radio so that the perfect heartbreaking song would bleat from the car’s cheap speakers when the ambulance arrived. She fancied hijacked planes and midnight murders, mainly because she was too chicken shit to run into a burning building or wrestle a gun away from a mad man. But she’s a mother now. She needs to be more cautious in case she can somehow manifest her own catastrophe, a power she knows is latent within her but she is no longer willing to risk. She understands, in a way like never before, how the margin between her life and death is like the skin of a bubble, evanescent and waiting for the next breeze to obliterate it. She knows she needs to stay. She wants to, and realizes she always did. So now she looks for dead bodies in the perfect wooded spot she found near the murky brown stream running alongside her daughter’s school. Thorny brambles and poison leaves twist together in motionless chaos as she walks toward the school with her daughter’s young hand laced into her calloused fingers. Year to year, desiccated leaves layer together under the stand of oaks and black walnut. How perfect it would be, she thinks, to see the blue-grey marble of a dead ankle poking out of the russet-colored duff or a tuft of a woman’s hair undulating from the mouth of the storm drain mere yards where schoolchildren squabble over turns on the swing. She scans the leaf litter more keenly on Mondays when weekend violence might still remain unnoticed with no one yet absent from work or the commuter train, and a chance to yield something new like the contrast of a torn sleeve or a tossed shoe. But not just any body will do. The remains must be recent enough so that a loved one is still around, someone to care that the body was found in the first place, not some weathered femur or yellowed dice of teeth from another generation long-dead itself. Nobody covered with dust in the cold case file. She wants her found treasure to go viral with clicks and likes and tweets. She wants to be a savior to someone, even one that might be too late. She wants to be acknowledged and important. But now in the fourth year of her quest, she is no longer certain her heart is still in it. She barely offers a sideways glance toward the stream on her walks home, knowing that nothing except flattened beer cans and empty donut bags ever litter the bank of the slow moving stream, that only once in a while does the stench of some decomposing rodent or baby bird hover low near the pitcher plants in spring. Maybe her own death is all that she can conjure after all. And then she spots it, something tucked behind the lone maple in this roadside stand of trees, the only tree that ever yields color in the death of fall: the small heap of a woman’s cream-colored blouse still damp from the early morning rain and spotted with the rust red of dried blood. She walks over for a closer look, searching for more clues. Her sneakers briskly swish through the brittle detritus. With a muffled thud, the toe of her shoe kicks something heavy and soft hidden under a freshly mounded pile of leaves and branches. The hot pistons of rapture quicken her heart and poison joy pumps through her veins, the long awaited rush forcing her eyes closed as she pictures the glory and the glow of late-night newscasts.
Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former land use attorney living in Massachusetts. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in The Hopper, Gravel, The Healing Muse, NYT Motherlode, The Manifest-Station, The Humanist, Modern Farmer, Literary Mama, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. You can find her on the web (www.kristenploetz.com) and Twitter (@KristenPloetz).
Editor’s note (Spencer): I chose this story because I didn’t get it at first…and maybe still don’t.
It’s these technically excellent but literally confusing works that tend to fascinate me. To lay out their bare facts would undercut the sensations on display, which are subverted beneath detail after detail, so I’ll just give the broad strokes. There is: a central heroine; she is comically and critically under-appreciated; maybe she comically and critically under-appreciates other people; in heavily ironic tones, she is handicapped by some external force…or an internal one; she is at once wildly successful and utterly invisible; she is getting older; she is getting tired; she is getting curious; she is exhausted; but her heart and mind beat on, two thunderous tumults of insecurity and ego; and so on, and so on.
Tragic? Yes. Self-loathing? Almost certainly. Am I projecting? I’m thinking some.
There’s enough NOT-said to still feel uncertain: what sensations are on the page? What have I imagined? Does this even matter?
In the end, we’re left with a nuanced portrait of a character at the crux of all sorts of conflicts.
The author does it in under 1300 words, too, which is pretty neat.
Obviously, I recommend it.