? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 12

Fiction

Abbie Lahmers

Strange Belief


My mom usually asked me to wait in the yard while she performed miracles. Sometimes she’d come out onto the patio once it was all over, still wearing the purple bathrobe she embellished with sequins and beads, a cigarette wedged in her sturdy potato-stick fingers. The cloud billowed up into the cool vaporous atmosphere, sneaking off with the chim­ney smoke from the neighbor’s house. She’d see me peering at her from the swing set and with her wicked red lipstick mouth she would say: “That’s the miracle vapors floating away.” She’d flick her cigarette in the wind, wave her potato fingers up to the heavens. “Bye bye!”
Other times, I waited in the basement, which was covered with carpet squares she found at a church flea market, or my bedroom, seasoned with incense. It was self-preservation, her keeping me away from the one good thing she could do.
I should have been in the basement when Ruby appeared outside the living room window, coming up the porch steps. My mother’s houseplants were engaging in their daily ritual with the sun before the blinds crushed against their waxy arms. Mom yanked on the cord and the plastic rungs slapped down to the sill. She lifted me off the ground by my arm­pits as if I were much younger than thirteen. My feet slid on the hardwood floor a few times before I could stand and yank away from her fingers. “Out, Jocelyn, gone with you!” she ordered, giving me a second to disappear, enough time for her voice to melt back into the sticky, throaty melody of green tea drenched in honey. She opened the door, and from the hallway, I could hear her voice lean up against the snowy silence seeping inside.
Ruby was with her mother, whom I had never met, but I knew Ruby from elementary school when we rummaged around in the lost and found, stalling for time until recess ended. We both skipped when it was cold outside but acted like we were trying really hard to find something that was missing. It was weeks before we spoke, coming clean about having never lost anything, laughing at the ridiculousness, me thinking I had made a friend. That had been years ago. Through the window, she looked like a wisp of her mother, a lean shadow following her inside.
I caught Ruby’s eye through the slats in the blinds before my mother banished me. Her eyelashes looked like the deli­cate combs braided into the black hair of the woman on our world history textbook. When she blinked it reminded me of kissing.
Ruby and I never talked anymore, our relationship cryp­tic or maybe nonexistent. I didn’t know where we stood. I remembered her teeth from the time we went on a field trip to the orthodontist office across the street from the school. They crammed wet alginate in our faces to take molds of our smiles. Little ceramic trophies to take home to our mothers and show them the evidence—”I need braces, mom,” I came home and pleaded. “Please, please, please!” She pocketed my mouth and told me, “Braces are for rich girls.” She squished 44
my cheeks in her finger and thumb and said, “You smile just fine.” I found my teeth later in the loose change bowl on the dryer, a chip in the left incisor.
In the classroom, after the little plaster trophies had dried, we played, “Guess whose mouth that is?” holding our class­mates’ teeth in our palms. The spaces between my teeth looked like two pieces of corn had been knocked out of their row on the cob, a bunch of deformed little kernels clustering around them. Ruby’s mold was made of straight little pony beads all strung up in a crescent-moon row. I ran my hand across the rough cement of her smile and wished people would think her teeth were mine.
My mother ushered Ruby and her mom inside. I could hear their footsteps creaking above me. Most of the time, I didn’t mind being banished from the main house when my mother performed readings, so I could pretend she was at an office somewhere, at some made-up “real” job. My pretend mother, who could drive herself to work, who went to of­fice parties and made deviled eggs and casseroles and didn’t wear anything veiled or sequined. But this was not my moth­er whose too-long acrylic nails made it hard to even peel a hard-boiled egg without butchering it.
Once they were on the patio, I crept back upstairs, loitered a moment in the kitchen as their voices drifted in through the screen door. The leaves on the big oak turned inside out and the tea candles flickered. Mom’s hands always got almost too close, stirring up some drama in the psychic atmosphere without setting anything on fire. This trio—a psychic, a mom, and her daughter—looked diced and fractured through the screen window. She left the glass door cracked open, so their words wafted inside. I pretended to myself that I was just passing through to get a drink of water, that I wasn’t paying attention, that I didn’t care. I opened and shut the cabinet doors. But what did it matter? Nothing my mother ever said was true, anyway.
When I was nine or ten, Mom would wake me up by swat­ting me with the paper, horoscope page folded over so I could read them to her before we began our days. We were both Tauruses. She liked to hear the pretty little verses inscribed to us so she could relate to the supernatural scriptures. She would close her eyes, tap her cigarette in an ashtray next to my covers and say, “Mmmm, tell me more, sweet girl. What’s in store for us?” if she liked what she was hearing. I learned to only read her the Taurus horoscope if there was something good in it, and for all the other times, I read her the best parts of the other signs. I quit trying to make it coherent after a while. I told her contradictory things, and she just closed her eyes. Like a coherent life wasn’t the one she was looking for.
On the patio, my mother’s own little incoherent lies drenched the tablecloth more thickly than the rain that even­tually poured all over Ruby’s mother’s reading. Her mother was crying, this starched and stoic woman with blonde hair wearing a blonde suit as she choked through a story about making Jell-O for her son.
“He slumped over when I had my back turned, into the bowl of unsettled Jell-O. His sleepy face covered in red, in­animate—I knew right away something serious was wrong and took him to the doctor. The tests came back a couple weeks later, and that was when we learned. . . .”
She shook her head, fidgeting with a tissue in her lap. My mother said, “A bad omen, the red stain.”
“They say he won’t live past childhood.”
My mother linked hands with mother and daughter so they formed a chain, a perfect trifecta of spiritual energy. Her body quivered. She threw her head back, too elegantly, I thought—too much like a model in a shampoo commer­cial, her hair falling lavishly in the rain. It was too artificially beautiful to be convincing, but mother and daughter’s eyes were too obscured in tears to notice. Mom bowed her head and said, “There was . . . darkness surrounding you both when you came into my house. Darkness surrounding your boy. But it has been lifted.” She used combinations of words that sounded mystic, insightful: “inflictions of the aura,” “shaking off those demons,” “the haunts at his bedside.”
Later on, after they were gone and my mother’s feet were boiling in a foot spa with her shows blaring in the sitting room, I said behind her back, “What are you, an exorcist now?” loud enough so she would maybe hear. She didn’t.
Even so, standing there beside the patio door, feeling her voice and the rain pounding inside my chest, I admit I closed my eyes too and tried to ride away with them on their strange belief.
Ruby slid a piece of folded paper into my notebook. The whisper of paper touching paper sounded like her voice ask­ing a question. I thought at first that she was asking me to her birthday, which I knew was soon. Birthday parties at our school were all-inclusive because there weren’t very many of us. For mine last April, I invited all the girls in my class to go bowling—this year I was considering roller skating or ice skating, anything to keep them out of the house. But usually the other girls had them at home, their mothers lingering in the kitchen comparing recipe notes about lemon cupcake frosting. We wore the newest J.C. Penney dresses or thrift store knock-offs if we could get away with it.
Ruby paused a moment, her hand still sitting on my note­book, a folded little teepee. She dismantled the connection one joint at a time, pulling her fingers away. It was really much quicker than this, but I was so absorbed in the gesture.
But when I looked closer, it wasn’t an invitation. It was a folded piece of scratch paper that opened to a drawing of a ghost, the gray smudgy lines intersecting the stark blue ones. It looked like me, the shape of its face similar, rounded, but maybe that had been accidental.
“What is that?” Tanya, my friend since second grade, poked her bug-eyed face over my shoulder to see the mes­sage and frowned like it wasn’t juicy enough for her. Then her eyes followed Ruby to her locker. “Oh, a Ruby scribbling. She’s a real lezo, ya’ know.”
I spotted an actual invitation wedged in Tanya’s pocket and grabbed it before she could dodge. “From her?” I said.
“You bet. You going?”
“I don’t know. Are her parents going to be there?” I thought of her mom’s streaky face in the rain, the Jell-O on her broth­er’s cheeks that I wasn’t supposed to know about.
“Yeah, but whaddya think, bet I can get away with smug­gling in wine coolers?”
“I’ll bring some thermoses,” I said.
I had to climb up onto a chair to reach them, but most of the thermoses had cartoon characters or picnic themed spreads—red and white check prints with lines of march­ing ants obstructing the symmetry. In the way back were my dad’s old flasks, which seemed a sleeker, bolder solution. I held one loosely when I heard my mother coming in and dropped it quickly in favor of a Mickey Mouse thermos.
“What’s all this about?” She reached over and shut the cabinet as I pulled back, thermos in hand.
“Tanya and I are bringing orange juice to the party. All Ruby’s parents’ have is filtered water to drink.”
Mom didn’t comment, just scooted the chair back into the kitchen table. I almost wanted to ask her about the reading she had with Ruby and her mother, to hear it straight from her mouth rather than the filtered version I heard through the screen, but I was afraid there would be variations or that her lies would surface plainly before me—that she would tell something differently from what I heard. I wondered if there had been anything about ghosts in the reading that I had somehow missed.
Ruby really did scribble lots of different things—animals and faces, mostly, on locker doors and other people’s class notes (hers were diligent, neat)—a tiny rebellious streak or a desperate attempt to be heard. I wasn’t the only one to ever receive her graffiti. But the ghost was specific. It existed in my mother’s world.
There used to be three people who came to my mother asking her about the apparitions they saw floating out of walls and floors at night. One woman had silver wispy spir­its inhabiting her carpet. She tried sprinkling diatomaceous earth in the corners of her home, but they didn’t go away— they just started crying. Another woman claimed they were messing with her vision, making lights appear in the corners of her eyes whenever she looked at her dead husband’s pic­ture. Then there was a man with ghost problems who didn’t really think they were a problem—he just wanted them to quit being so flighty and sit down with him for a beer and a cigar sometime. My mother said a lot of people with ghosts are just lonely.
If Ruby had ghosts and was trying to tell me, I could men­tor her through it. Not like my mother who would confirm their reality and banish them. No, I would do what people were meant to do—I would sleep over at her house on her tandem bed (which I imagined she had), stuff notes in her locker, stop her from being lonely. She would realize there were never any ghosts to begin with.
Tanya knocked on the front door. Mom ushered us both into the basement before her clients arrived.
“I couldn’t find any wine coolers,” Tanya admitted once the door shut.
“That’s okay. My mom’s wine cellar is down here.” We browsed through the cabinet by her antique turntable, read­ing labels and pretending we could evaluate the aromas through the sealed bottles. We settled for a pink wine, most likely a gift she’d never miss because she only drank red, and squeezed Capri-Suns and Daffy Duck orange juice into it. We poured a Dixie cup to sample, swirled it around in the cup and each took a sip. It didn’t taste like alcohol or like juice, but Tanya said it tasted different enough from anything else the other girls were used to, so they would believe us when we said it was mostly alcohol.
“Sangria!” Tanya said. “That’s what we’ll tell them it is. They’ll believe anything.”
I checked my watch to see when we needed to leave. Tanya started listing the people she thought would be there.
“Oh god! I forgot . . . what about her brother? He won’t be there, right? I heard he’s super contagious. Why would they even have the party at her house?”
“He’s not contagious, he’s terminal,” I corrected her. “There’s a difference.”
“How do you know? He could be contagious.” Tanya sniffed the thermos before taking another sip. I kicked over an old microwave box, climbed onto it and looked out the glass block window. A slushy rain was starting to pick up.
“We’d better start walking if we want to get there in time,” I said.
My mother couldn’t drive. The more miracles she pumped out, the less practical things her body could do, like there were two women inside of her fighting for control. She used to drive. I knew because she told me stories about when she delivered pizzas, about how she looked in all the customers’ coat closets while they were getting the money and stole for­gotten dollars out of their pockets. But when she divorced my father, she couldn’t afford to keep her car, and then it didn’t matter anymore if we had one or not.
We went to an old man’s house a year ago to look at the car he was selling. We had to take a bus all the way to his neigh­borhood and walked until we found the address listed on Craigslist, but when she got in, her hands—her miracle-giv­ing hands, they just gave out. “What is all this? That man must have been tampering with it,” she said angrily, looking at the perfectly normal controls. But then she quit lying to herself and started sobbing, saying, “What do I do, Jocelyn?” Her hands hovered over the wheel, looking plastic and stiff. She couldn’t even figure out how to put it in reverse to get it out of his yard.
She cancelled all her sessions with clients that week be­cause she said she needed the sleep and then came back two inches taller with gems punched into an old pair of heels from the back of her closet.
I could hear the floorboards creaking as she stomped above us, probably joining hands with the client and swaying or circling around a spiral-bound notebook or an old cigar box the client said was cursed until my mother deemed it safe. Her best miracles were the ones that called for theatrics, a chance to dance around in her bedazzled shoes.
Maybe it was her curse, that she had to become extraordi­nary, that she could not be a pizza delivery girl, a petty thief, my father’s wife—she had to be something else. And magic was what she chose.
Tanya and I slipped out into the rain through the empty garage, leaving my mother to her flirtations with the sticky magic in her living room.
Ruby’s house was pristine, antiseptic. The ceilings were all high and cavernous, etched with a rough texture in the plaster—rolling peaks splayed out like flowers. They had no paintings, no plants, no music boxes, or Precious Moments statuettes, just tepid little studio photographs of their family that might as well have been spritzed with sanitizer. In the adjoined living room, Ruby’s younger brother was confined to a hospital bed with tubes that wound around like crazy straws stuck all over him. Everyone else was huddled in the dining room playing Cranium when we got there. I thought Ruby’s brother was asleep, but every time the girls yelled or laughed, a shadow of life would pass over him, and he would smile, watching. I didn’t see the parents anywhere. I won­dered if this was him on a good day—the rumors all played out a scenario where he was comatose. I had pictured him drawn in faint lines, powdery white and ghost-like, but his cheeks held color ever so delicately.
They were too far into the game to let us join, so Tanya and I sat at the table and watched. Tanya whispered some­thing that I couldn’t hear to the girl next to us, Katie, and then handed her the thermos. Katie cringed when she sipped it and then giggled, wiping her mouth with her hand. She was wearing a red and white chevron patterned dress, made out of that stretchy fabric you can buy off the bolt and sew up the seam to make a dress that looks like it came from a department store. Lots of moms made their daughters dress­es like that.
Katie looked at me with a smirk. “The guest of honor ar­rives! Finally.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that Ruby has the hots for you. Can’t stop talking about Jocelyn. I’d watch out if I were you unless you want to kiss her.” Katie and some girls listening in broke into giggles. Then it was Katie’s turn to roll—she winked and blew a kiss before prancing around on her toes until someone guessed that she was a gazelle.
“Katie’s full of shit,” Tanya said under her breath to me.
But a part of me wanted it to be true. I wanted to have a secret and for that secret to be Ruby—the victim of my mother’s false prophesies. I could comfort her through her grieving when she found out Mom was a fraud. If she loved me (or thought she did), she would see that I didn’t have anything to do with it. That meant I would have to come clean, to confess that my mom was a liar and that her brother was a ghost who wouldn’t pass over into the living world just because my mom said so. She would probably cry, maybe even want to hurt me at first, to punch me in the eye, which would be understandable. We would work through it, over time. It was possible she wouldn’t forgive me for years.
I had dug around in my mother’s jewelry box for hours that morning trying to find something beautiful to give her. All I found was a silly pin shaped like a cat with a long skin­ny neck and a wobbly head. I knew she wouldn’t like it—no­body could—but I wanted to hear what she would say, what she would write me later if her parents made her send out thank-yous. Maybe she would think I was trying to start an inside joke with her, and she would smile understandingly as she peeled back the wrapping paper.
My mom never disclosed any personal details about her clients to me—I had to give her credit for that, at least. I didn’t know what was medically wrong with Ruby’s broth­er. At school other kids would whisper their speculations, standing just close enough to Ruby so she could see their lips moving but not hear. “Car accident, maybe?” “No, nothing that middle class. Probably he’s allergic to money or something.” “I heard it’s contagious—have you seen those marks on Ruby’s face? I bet she’s getting it.” Lately Ruby would come to his defense, as if the accusations of sickness were the reason behind his decline. She would say things like, “He’s on track to get better,” and “It won’t be obvious, but he’s coming around.”
The parents wheeled his bed around in the living room so he was facing the party while Ruby opened presents, but his eyes were droopy, and a tuft of straight blond hair stuck up at an odd angle. Everyone in the living room tiptoed around him as if his bed housed a collection of precious teacups they couldn’t afford to replace.
They were so hyper-vigilant of these things, and Tanya so possessive of the thermos, that they didn’t notice me sneak­ing upstairs. I wanted to see her open the present from me, but more than that I wanted her to look around the room when she opened it and see that I wasn’t there. I wanted to make her come looking for me.
Besides the vases full of fake flowers on almost every sur­face, Ruby’s bedroom reflected her parents’ style of striving to appear unlived-in, untouched. None of the drawers peeked open with spilled over sleeves. The furniture was sleek and modern, nothing leftover from childhood. She had perfume bottles on her nightstand, which I thought made her very el­egant, like she was an old soul or someone who would some­day date college boys even while she was still in high school.
Some people downstairs laughed, and I wondered if Ruby had opened the cat pin. I didn’t go back down. I promised myself then that I wouldn’t, that I would wait for Ruby, and then there was the part of me that felt like I was hiding from Ruby instead, that she wouldn’t come upstairs at all.
I leaned back and thought about the clean walls that sur­rounded Ruby’s existence. I loved the house, the order of it, the way everything was where you would expect it to be. Even with her sick brother and the smell of rubbing alcohol braided into the afghan on the couch—those things were predictable and they belonged. And there on her dresser was the perfect set of pony bead teeth. I closed my eyes and tried to be so still it would seem like I was asleep, and then at some point I was.
The door creaked loud enough to wake me when Ruby slid inside. She stood over me but did not look alarmed. “I saw the light on from the hall,” she said. “Tanya’s been look­ing for you. I think she already left.”
“That’s okay,” I said.
“So I guess you work for your mother, right? You’re her se­cret spy or something. That’s what I always think when I see you in school.” Ruby ran a brush through her hair, recoated her candy pink lips with shimmery lip balm.
“It’s not really. . . . ”
“No, it makes perfect sense. You’re making sure the magic is working. I knew you would be here.” She pulled out every blonde strand from the hairbrush and shook them off her fingers into the trash before she sat on the bed next to me.
“Let me look at your hands,” she said.
These were my mother’s words, her lure. It was the warmth of another hand that made people feel assured when she is­sued the verdicts of their palm lines.
Now Ruby was saying these words, her knees folded and socked feet wedged into the gray and yellow patchwork quilt.
I put my palms out for her to see, and she took them, picking them up like two bags of soap beads, careful not to crush what was inside. “This is what your mom did when we came to your house, but she could read the lines.”
“She can’t really read the lines,” I murmured, taking my hands back. “She’s a fraud. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
Ruby shook her head. “My mom doesn’t think so. Your mom was right about everything.”
She turned around to reach for a red pen off of her night­stand and unfurled my fingers, taking back my palms and tracing tributaries in red all over the creases. “Here. There you go. Now you do mine.”
Ruby took me outside to her backyard. I felt like there should have been gates and manicured bushes lining the house, but instead there was a wilderness nestled outside the back porch, the beginnings of a pine grove swathed in foggy blankets. The trees held each other, their shadows leaning into us, and Ruby held my hand. I thought the trees and the fog were everything she wanted to show me. I felt like I was on the edge of understanding something from seeing it, but then she tugged on my wrist to stop me and shook my hand roughly.
“We have to do the thing!” she said. “To make the positive energy surround us like your mom taught us to do. I’ve been coming out here and doing it everyday to make the dead hamsters come back.” She knelt down into the pine needles and brushed away the muddy slush. The dirt and needles were loose like someone had been scratching around in it. “See where they’re trying to get out?”
I tried to be gentle, tried to hold her hand again, but she was faraway and gazing at the hamster ruts. I touched her dirty fingernails and said, “I don’t think it works like that.”
“You said your mom was a fraud, but she’s not. She can bring people back to life, like what she did to Tony, waking him up from the coma. In a couple days, he should be able to get out of bed, the doctors say.” She crossed her legs like she was about to meditate, and I tried to inhale the smell of her perfume, but the fog had carried it all away. I wanted to tell her to stop behaving like a child. “I remember when my mom spent the end of her pregnancy in that hospital bed from complications. It used to be in my parents’ bedroom where she would sleep all day, and then it moved to the spare room—Tony’s bedroom—and then all around the house, fol­lowing me. Now where will it go?”
My feet crunched the pine needles as I stood up. I felt surrounded by the possibility of hamsters coming out of the earth. I didn’t want to have to explain them. “I think I have to get home soon.”
Ruby was still planted in the earth. “Did you notice how he’s there but not there?”
I shrugged. “Maybe just don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s really lucky, that’s all—a miracle. You’ll be happy later. But it has nothing to do with my mom.”
She looked down at the scratch marks, touched the dirt, and said, “Maybe.” Her body started swaying like it was moved by something else, something she had found on my patio when my mother trilled about positive energy, and Ruby just closed her eyes. The dirt quivered just a bit, ready to turn over.