Today, we’re pleased to present an excerpt from Beth Gilstrap’s forthcoming collection Deadheading and Other Stories. Set in the Carolinas, Gilstrap’s fiction explores questions of gender, class, and geography, offering a series of haunting scenes from everyday life – or what Jared Yates Sexton called “heartbreaking worlds, but nonetheless beautiful.”
A LITTLE ARRHYTHMIC BLIP
(originally published in Hot Metal Bridge)
No one thought much of Jolene Merriweather until she covered the whole of her wrought-iron fence with silk roses, every one of those suckers wrapped in bright yarn. She had the whole rainbow binding flowers to metal. A body looks on that sort of thing and thinks one of two things: either you think Jolene is a loon or, like me, you see the desperate beauty of the thing—gaps closed with sheer red petals, hands crinkled from unspooling, sore from tying knots—and your own heart sinks with recognition of the spectacle of grief.
Before those manic weeks last fall when Jolene demanded our attention, she’d already captured it. She would come and go from work on foot, a patchwork bag flung across her body, bopping around listening to God-knows-what on headphones too big to stay on her head, as if she were a teenager. The clunky things looked like the kind a large man might have left behind but none of us had ever so much as seen a man at her little corner bungalow. Each morning, she walked out, fresh-faced, eternally clad in mid-length skirts, and disappeared on the horizon, and—as if from ether—appeared again in the evenings in baggy jeans. Once she closed the door, she only emerged to greet the gal she paid to do her grocery shopping and, on Sundays, to pick dead fronds off her young palm tree.
Jolene had manners, don’t get me wrong. She’d wave if we drove past. She’d speak if spoken to, but she never stretched beyond politeness. Some neighbors might have tried to weasel into her life with doughnuts or a box of wine, advice on how to revive her dead lawn, but this lot prides itself on respect for people’s privacy. It’s her loss if she doesn’t participate in the holiday potluck and caroling at Rhoda and Rafi’s or the monthly ladies’ night at Applebee’s. We have fun, we do. But we figured if she wanted to stay all cooped up except to go to work, there must be a good reason for it. I figured it was booze. After a certain hour, a drunk has no time for anything but drinking. She was pretty enough with her thick black braids, but her clothes were well-worn, and, if you looked close enough, you could see her face had the baked quality of earthenware. But I was wrong about the booze. Sometimes, all you see is the past no matter how clear-headed you think you are.
It was late September when things changed at Jolene’s—a whisper of a day when we first spent time together. We were having an unusually cool streak and the tops of the maples had begun to redden. It takes a long time for us to get to any kind of autumn down here, so that first day below eighty degrees we were all out planting mums and trimming hedges, pressure washing and painting—all the mundane tasks we tackle when the heat breaks. I bought gardenias to try and tease into a hedge between my house and the Grays’ next door. They played heavy metal records until all hours. Early mornings were for spinning raunchy stand-up comedy or classic soul, The Supremes and the like. While they played, the two of them cooked breakfast together, laughing all the while. Frankly, it was more than I could stomach. I hoped a decent boundary might soak up some of the noise. Italian cypress trees were my next step. Tall, fast-growing, and if the wind caught them right, they curled like fingertips. But I hated to get so militant about it. I’d miss the view through their open drapes. Mr. Gray sang to their cats when he thought no one was looking.
I’d taken a break from digging when I saw Jolene come from her shed with a wagon full of fake flowers. The porch chimes jangled sweetly in the breeze, stirring nostalgia for my mother, her Carolina accent, a stack of crêpes slathered in sweet butter, topped with macerated strawberries. Rich and sweet. I massaged the knot in my shoulder, trying my best to feign disinterest, but she looked up from under her flying saucer of a hat to wave me over. I hesitated, looking back at the bushes that still needed planting and the dirt under my nails, but only for a moment. If you want to know an introvert and she waves you over, you go.
The sky was a strange kind of clear—a day with humidity low enough the brilliant light makes your eyes water. A few puffed clouds haunted the horizon. Mist and vapor. Formless and out of reach no matter how much a body longed for such things. Jolene already knelt near the gate with a flower in hand by the time I walked up.
“I see the weather got the best of you, too.”
“You ain’t lying,” she said, waving her flower. “Come on in.”
She had on overalls. Hot pink ones with nothing on underneath except a black sports bra. You’d never know we were the same age. Dressing like that always seemed so risky to me. You learn to hide when you’re raised by alcoholics. Clothes like that draw attention. I brushed the dirt off my pants as best as I could and hoped she couldn’t smell me, regretting the onion I’d added to my tomato sandwich. “Well, Jolene. What is it you’ve got on the agenda? A little fall decorating?”
“I’m tired of looking at metal,” she said, pushing herself up and dropping the flower back in the wagon. “Do you mind helping me with something right quick? I want to use all the hours in the day to put a dent in this project.”
“I’ve got the gardenias to finish.”
“It won’t take long, I promise. I need another strong back, another set of hands.”
“I can’t make any promises on the strong bit, but I’m happy to help. What are we dealing with here?”
“Follow me,” Jolene said.
Up close, you could see the cracks in the boards, the color the paint used to be in the porch corners—the house needed as much mending as her clothes. But inside, she’d made it her own. The family who owned the house previously had put down wall-to-wall carpet on top of the hardwoods and Jolene had pulled that whole dog- and kid-stained mess up herself. She’d painted the original floors dandelion yellow and put so much varnish on top of them, they shone like the basketball court down at Monroe High. I loved it.
“It’s down the hall,” she said, folding the brim of her hat up so I could see her face. A little patch of brown pigment on her right cheek suggested a lifetime outdoors. A life of engagement. Of oceanside wonder. Of glittering sand. Fold-out chairs. Hands in dirt. Blooms for days.
Her shoulders were thin and looked to me like it wouldn’t take much to make those scapulae of hers meet. I couldn’t help but notice them poking out of her overalls. Ever since I learned in high school biology they were also called wing bones, I had tried and failed to make mine sprout. Mostly by contorting my naked body in front of the mirror, trying to get the triangles to touch. Rub them together until you fly. That kind of thing. But a body will look mad to other people, particularly moms who beat you with wine bottles when you’re caught acting bizarre. My heart stalled at the thought of it—a little arrhythmic blip that popped up whenever I felt anxious.
“I love your home,” I said, taking note of the narrow hallway, the photos of storefronts and big-skied landscapes, dead things on beaches, a puffer fish smiling through death, the friendly eyes not yet cloudy.
“Oh, thanks,” she said. “It’s small, but it keeps me busy enough, I suppose.”
“I envy your style.”
“Honey, it ain’t much of a style. I’m over here living my dream. When I was a girl, I always imagined heaven must have a floor of pure sunshine, so I painted those beat-up boards yellow. I couldn’t afford to refinish them or start over and before I pulled those carpets out, the stink in here would burn your nose clean off your face. Just doing what I can.”
“Makes me wish I lived alone.”
“It has its perks,” she said. “Come on.”
I followed her to the only room upstairs, a space made smaller by eaves. The room was warmer than the rest of the house and precious little light came in from a single window at the front of the house. Hunched, Jolene shifted a few plastic containers big enough to hold a body to clear a path to the stairwell. “There,” she said, blinking hard and lifting her arm like she was about to sneeze into it. “It’s over here.”
“Bless you,” I said. But the sneeze failed. She wiggled her nose. I walked over and stood on the opposite end of a refrigerator box full of yarn. The lid had been folded into the box and the whole soft mountain of the thing looked like it could come tumbling down at any second. And we were tasked with carting it down narrow steps and out to the front yard. “What’s the plan, Jolene? This looks impossible.”
“It’s not as heavy as it looks, but yeah. I guess I better get some of the ones off the top into bags.”
She directed me to the pantry, behind the kitchen, and I disappeared while she started tossing excess yarn toward the stairs. When I returned with two citrus-scented trash bags, she was lying in the box herself.
“I could sleep here and be perfectly content,” she said.
“Because that’s perfectly reasonable,” I said, folding my arms.
“Hey, if I’d wanted a smart ass, I’d have asked one of the girls from the high school for help,” she said. “You don’t get it. Of all the people in this neighborhood, I thought you’d understand—it’s a comfort. If I could knit myself a clone, I would. Let her walk around in the world absorbing all the crap for me without her blood turning cold.”
“I suppose it makes a kind of sense. Finding comfort wherever you can.” I may not have understood her yarn obsession, but I knew about longing, and as she smiled up at me, I felt a budding kinship. The truth was I found her enchanting. The way she moved. The story of her skin. The house. The giant box of yarn. Cakes and skeins and all.
She pointed her toes, stretching her legs as if she was preparing to dance. “Meredith, can I make a confession?”
“Anything,” I said.
“My ass is sinking.”
We both burst out laughing, and when I finally regained my composure I said, “That is a pickle.”
“I guess we could dig me out.”
“Or I could leave. Go back to my gardenias. See how long it takes you to get out on your own.”
As I helped get Jolene unstuck, it turned quiet. The air conditioner clicked on. I thought about the last time my husband had joined me in the bathtub. Bubbles spilling over the edge. The tattoo on his chest from his army days. The ache all the way down to the tip of my fingers. I don’t know what Jolene was thinking at the same moment, but it was as though someone had covered us in white sheets. Like unused furniture. When half the yarn lay on the floor, I offered her my hand, steadying my feet into a wide stance for support. She was more frail than she appeared from a distance.
“Well, that’ll teach me to lie down in strange places,” she said, finally free. “Though you’d think I’d have learned that lesson a long time ago.”
“Do any of us ever really learn that one?”
“Maybe not. I’ll go get the rest of the trash bags. No point in screwing with the refrigerator box now.”
While she was gone, I filled the two bags I’d brought, admiring the names and colors of the yarn. Plum Perfect. Sugar Baby Stripes. Woodlands. Saying these words aloud put me in a better headspace. No wonder Jolene collected the stuff. What would Jack say if I started knitting? Something snarky about embracing my inner grandma, most likely. Would he even look up from his computer long enough to notice? Can a body disintegrate from want?
Jolene returned with trash bags already shaken open and ready. “Let’s do this,” she said, holding a bag on the ground between her legs, shoveling the yarn into it like she would a pile of leaves.
“Do you do anything like a normal person?”
“What? It goes faster like this,” she said, bent over, smiling at me upside down.
“Can I ask you a question?”
I lifted two heavy bags up and over my shoulders. “Where on earth did you get all this yarn? And what in sweet Jesus are you up to?”
Jolene opened her mouth to speak but closed it again. Instead, she got up and walked over to the attic access. The door was child-sized, but she didn’t have to reach far for what she was after. She pulled a carved teakwood box out and blew the dust off it. “You try to forget what you’ve lost. You do everything you know to do. Invent a new person, a new self, a life as different from your old one as you can dream up.” She didn’t look at me when she handed it over. “But you don’t forget. It’s nothing but paint over wallpaper.”
She removed her hat, scratching at the indentation on her forehead. The brown spot on her cheek seemed darker. “Trade you,” she said, nodding at the bags. “I need to get started. I’m burning daylight.”
“Okay. Do what you need to do,” I said. “Are you sure about this?”
“No,” she said, walking away.
I sat with my lap full of her past for eons. I never opened it. I watched shadows. Made shapes in the popcorn ceiling. Counted my breaths. Sat so still my feet went numb below the ankle. I suppose I was waiting for her to come back. I suppose I hoped if I sat there long enough I would atomize. Or astral project. Figure out a way to dip under one of the millions of gravitational waves and live parallel to whatever this place had become for me. And Jolene. And the rest of us ghost people. But amid my drifting, Jolene began to sing something ancient and Gaelic, her voice capable of lower tones than I’d have thought. The timbre of loss coming not from her throat, but deep in the diaphragm. Roused, I gathered four bags and met her out front, where she’d already wrapped several flowers to the left of the gate.
“We’ll do the gate last,” she said.
I lay my hand on her head. Her hair so much finer and smoother than my own. “I have to go. The gardenias.”
“Oh, okay,” she said, without looking up.
“Don’t be, silly. Come back anytime.”
October came and went. We all watched Jolene work from behind closed doors, from stoops and sidewalks, talking amongst ourselves about what it could mean. Rhoda begged me to tell her what her house was like inside, but I was unwavering in my silence on the matter. Something changed in me once I’d spent some time with her. She needed whatever protection I had to offer. By November, when sunny days were rare, she had finished everything but the gate. We hadn’t talked again. She’d waved a few times and I nodded back. Jack asked me what happened over there, but I wouldn’t tell him anything beyond the tangible. I helped her carry a shit ton of yarn down to the yard. “You can see the truth of it yourself. The evidence is on her fence for heaven’s sake,” I said.
“I know what I know,” he said. “You’re different since that day.”
“Maybe it’s you who’s changed.”
“I know what I know,” he said.
It was a Sunday when she got to the gate. A warm, dark morning, but the weather called for drastic temperature drops and a fifty percent chance of freezing rain overnight. I covered my gardenias even though Jack said it was unnecessary. Jolene came out in her pajamas and fox head slippers, one last bag at her side, and set to work. This time, I walked over uninvited. “Morning,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “It is.”
“Need some help? It’s supposed to get cold.”
“No, I’m all set,” she said.
Up close, the fence was breathtaking even on a day when thick cloud cover muted the color in everything. Sugar Baby Stripes. Woodlands. Perfect Plum. The memory of Jolene’s cackle as she sank in the refrigerator box six weeks earlier. She worked silently, braiding red, yellow, and orange together, wrapping it around another flower, and another, and another. I knelt on the other side of the gate. “I’m sorry.”
She took a deep breath and finally looked me in the eye. Those dark eyes like a priest’s. The splotch on her cheek, lighter. Her chin, pink with emotion. “What kind of person are you?” she asked.
“The kind who runs,” I said.
“No. I don’t believe that’s true.” She looked back down at her work, started moving her hands again. Her knuckles had swollen in the past few weeks. She had new scars and hangnails. “I’m the runner of this little duo,” she said, sliding the lock on the gate.
I joined her on the other side. Scooping up a lapful of roses, I asked what she wanted me to do.
“Tell me the truth,” she said.
I handed her rose after rose. Picked out yarn colors: Starlet Sparkle. Sea Fret. Boho. Darling and Archangel. The air chilled. I pulled my cardigan tight, but it wasn’t enough. I wondered how long it would take to wrap me in Archangel, which you wouldn’t imagine by the name but was in fact a scrumptious, albeit mellow, variegated pink and purple.
Several hours passed. We had almost closed every remaining gap in the gate. Jolene sang more of her Gaelic songs that I imagine had lyrics about heart love and dead children and harvest moons. When she stopped singing, she said again, “Tell me the truth.”
“Anything,” she said.
“I didn’t open the box from the attic.”
“I didn’t have to.”
“You think you have me figured out, then?”
“Those aren’t the right words.”
“Is there any more Archangel? I think I want to finish with that.”
“I think I mean I didn’t want to know. Whatever you lost.”
“Because you lost someone, too.”
“Tell me the truth,” she said again. “You can’t be a part of this project unless you speak truth. What kind of person are you?”
“I’m the kind of person who withdraws. I’ve buried too many people. Jack doesn’t love me anymore. I resent him for not wanting children. I don’t want to let go.”
“Maybe you won’t have to.”
“I always have to.”
“Yes,” she said, tightening the loops around the bar she worked on. “Where are we on that Archangel?”
“Fresh out of Archangel,” she repeated. “They’re never around when you need them, are they? I suppose I’ll settle for Emerald City.”
And so, Jolene wrapped the rest of the gate, spikes and all, with an eye-blasting green, which seemed completely off compared to the colors leading up to it, but who was I to judge. It wasn’t my place. Or my project. Or my grief. She did what she needed to do. When she finished, she put her hands on her hips and turned counterclockwise to survey all she had accomplished. I have no way of knowing what she was thinking in that moment, but I imagine our minds wandered parallel universes. Ones in which we were still alive, despite everything. And maybe, just maybe, we could come back to the present. Allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to become old friends.
She bent down to the ground, still warm from where we’d been working, and wiped the dew from a few blades of grass. When she turned to face me, she smeared the dew across each of my cheekbones and then fell to her knees. She repeated the motion, this time marking her own face. I knelt next to her, the moisture tingling on my cheeks, and from my throat a single call—war paint.