Michelle Ross and Kim Magowan
Drew was used to Renata leaving notes on the spare side, limited in their delivery of information. “Taking off. Pls look after Zazu,” a post-it gummed to the toaster, did not fill him with any particular alarm. He made himself coffee, and when Zazu padded into the kitchen in her footsie pajamas, helped her pour milk into her bowl of sugar pops, sniffing the carton first because it was a couple of days past its expiration date. It smelled okay. Zazu, like many children of users, was good at being quiet. The only noise that emitted from her end of the table was the soft clink of her plastic spoon. It wasn’t until Drew looked at his watch and realized he needed to be at the hotel in twenty minutes for his shift that he picked up Renata’s note again, and processed that “taking off” had no endpoint, nor did “Pls look after Zazu.”
Renata had freaked out last fall when the form for preschool required no fewer than three emergency contacts. “As if this country isn’t hard enough on mothers already, now I have to feel deficient because I don’t have any help?” When she’d put Drew down as emergency contact #1, he’d sheepishly asked if that meant Renata expected him to take custody of Zazu if something happened to Renata. (For emergency contact #2, Renata had written in the name of the city’s mayor and his phone number at City Hall. For #3 she had written in the chief of police.) This had been before they’d moved in together, before they’d had boring sex, the kind of sex he would have sworn back then wasn’t possible with Renata. Like how it wasn’t possible for something with sugar as its primary ingredient to taste anything other than sweet. Renata had said, “No, asshole.” Then, “But you would, wouldn’t you?”
Drew couldn’t very well rely on the mayor or the chief of police for last-minute babysitting, so he told Zazu to get dressed and pack some toys: he was going to have to stash her behind the hotel’s reception desk and hope Susan, the manager, either didn’t find out or that she was fonder of kids than she was adults.
It took Zazu less than two minutes to load into her backpack her elephant, a box of crayons, and a Dora the Explorer coloring book Renata had got her at Goodwill that depressed Drew because it had already been partly filled in. That had been his most recent dispute with Renata. “Who cares? She’ll color it in herself soon enough,” Renata had said. Which escalated into a diatribe against pointless consumerism and the military-industrial complex, and who the hell did Drew think he was, questioning her parenting choices? To Drew, giving a child a coloring book where the monkey’s boots were already filled in, and messily, by an artist who did not draw inside the lines, and on top of that, used the wrong color—brown, not red—well, it was like giving someone a stem with the flower yanked off.
But he’d backed off once he realized how angry Renata was.
Anyway, Drew recognized it didn’t make much sense to be shocked by the coloring book. He’d packed bowls for Renata when Zazu had been five feet away, clicking together her Duplos. Or there was that time when they’d been screwing, Renata on top of him, and he saw Zazu standing in the open bedroom door. Renata, without twisting her torso, had said, “You know where the water glasses are.” She’d then gotten gruff with Drew too. His dick had gone soft at the sight of Zazu, her pajamas streaked with toothpaste stains.
Only when Drew opened the car door and confronted the empty to-go cups, wadded fast-food napkins, and a collection of animal bones—steer mostly, but also deer—he’d gotten from his friend Mal for a garden project he was planning as a surprise for his mother’s birthday, did he remember that he didn’t have a child’s car seat. That Renata hadn’t transferred Zazu’s seat could be a promising sign, but it could also mean that Renata simply wasn’t thinking about Zazu at all. Either way, no car seat meant Zazu was going to have to ride all the way to the hotel without even a seatbelt holding her in because a seatbelt, he knew, could strangle her or, worse, slice off her head.
“I’ll drive carefully,” he said. “But maybe ride with your arms out in front of you to brace yourself against my seat in case I have to hit the brakes? Better your arms than your head.”
Zazu didn’t ask what he meant by this. Like a person used to making do with strange and inadequate methods of self-preservation, she dutifully held her arms out, palms facing his seat.
Drew thought of the reflective, neon orange runner’s vest his mother wore if she had to be out of the house after dark. How at odds that vest was with his mother, a timid woman who shriveled when attention veered her way. But visibility was a price she was willing to pay to stay safe. He remembered her one friend, a knobby woman named Deirdre, telling his mother over flowery smelling tea that bright colors conveyed confidence and that confidence deterred predators. He’d been flipping through Deirdre’s National Geographics, admiring images of Portuguese man-of-war. Their poisonous tentacles glowed iridescent blue in the dark.
In the house, he didn’t mind Zazu’s stoicism. He appreciated how un-childlike she was in that regard. But in the cramped space of the car, the animal bones rattling on the seat beside her, Zazu’s silence was unnerving.
“What do you think that sculpture is supposed to be? A zebra or a horse?” he said as they drove past a park. The animal was all skeleton, its steel bones painted a matte red. Three massive ravens perched along its spine, one crooking its wings. With the birds squatting on it, the sculpture reminded Drew of another National Geographic image: the picked ribcage of a wildebeest like a table decoration around which a group of vultures gathered.
“Mama says mule,” Zazu said. Then, as if invoking Renata had made Zazu for the first time consider her, “Where is Mama?”
Drew glanced at her face in the rearview mirror, then looked away. Zazu didn’t appear to be verging on tears, nor was the question purely casual. What to say?
When he’d phoned Renata, while Zazu assembled her backpack, his call had gone straight to voicemail. He had yet to hear a ping from his phone indicating any response to his barrage of texts, all iterations on Zazu’s question (“Where R U?” “Where the fuck R U?” “?!?”). Getting loaded was the obvious conclusion. Or maybe that part was past tense, and now she’d simply lost track of time.
Ever since he’d first seen Renata, at Coco Loco’s last June, wearing a cropped metallic top exposing a cummerbund of gleaming belly, she’d messed with Drew’s experience of time. He would descend from a high, his head on her lap, and be amazed to find it was late afternoon. Time spent with Renata was taffy: stretchy and sticky.
“I don’t know, Zaz,” he said, finally, and pulled into the parking lot of The Oasis.
“Is this where we’re staying now?” Zazu said, staring out at the pink building—coral, his manager, Susan, called the color. Two palm trees flanked the entrance, but you had to squint to spot another living thing on the street that wasn’t human or pigeon or roadkill—the latter, of course, not technically alive.
“Staying?” Drew said.
“What? No, no. This is the hotel where I work,” Drew said. “And you can drop your arms now,” he added. “Nobody’s going to hit us while we’re parked here in the parking lot.”
Of course, someone could. Car accidents supposedly happened most frequently within a mile from a person’s house or place of employment. The reason: you get comfortable and let your guard down.
Now that he was in the parking lot of The Oasis, Drew was less confident about his plan to stash Zazu behind the desk. The odds of Susan neither finding out nor minding weren’t much better than the odds that Renata would turn up sober, with a legitimate excuse for why she left Zazu with him, despite knowing damn well he had to work.
“Zaz, I need you to stay out in the car, just for a bit. I’ll roll the windows down. I’ll bring you some water and snacks. And I’ll be able to see you through the window the whole time, so if you need to use the bathroom or if you need anything at all, just wave, okay?”
His friend Mal’s sole job duty at the casino was to patrol the parking lot, writing down the license plates of vehicles in which children had been left. Drew’s jaw had gone slack when Mal told him this. That was before Drew met Renata.
“I need to use the bathroom now,” Zazu said.
Drew sighed. “Bathroom” was operating like “Mama” had a few minutes ago: saying the word invoked the recognition of a need. It was like the opening of Genesis, God enunciating the world into being: Let there be light.
“Okay,” he said. “You remember the peanut floor place? You remember that game you play, how to be invisible? That game you play really, really well?” The peanut floor place was the dive bar down the street from Renata’s house. He and Renata often went there after Zazu fell asleep, Renata reasoning that leaving Zazu in the house by herself for an hour or so was fine; the bar was only two blocks away; the distance was no different, really, than if they lived in an extremely large mansion. But several times Zazu had come with them, and it was true, that kid had a special talent for blending into backgrounds. She played on the floor with the husks of peanut shells so unobtrusively that not only did the bartender not notice her and chuck them all out, Drew forgot about her himself. The kid’s spirit animal, Drew reflected, was a chameleon.
“This hotel is like that, okay? Go invisible. We walk in, you head straight to the back of the lobby. You’ll see the bathroom next to the elevators. Make sure you go to the one with the picture of the lady on the door.”
When he’d been a kid, his mother hadn’t let him go into a men’s restroom until he was so old that women were giving the two of them dirty looks. His mother had been wary of men, even men she knew, like Ted Tester, Drew’s friend Wyatt’s dad. The man would drive Drew home after a sleepover, walk him to the door, and Drew’s mother would barely open the door wide enough to let Drew into the apartment or long enough to say thank you to Mr. Tester before she shut it again. Then she’d launch into questions about whether anything weird had happened at Wyatt’s house: Did anyone touch him? Did anyone say something to him that made him uncomfortable? By “anyone,” he’d understood that she meant Mr. Tester.
As for bathrooms, she didn’t say what precisely might happen to him in there, but when she did finally give in and send him to the men’s, she demanded first that he look her in the eye, and then she told him to be careful and to always be aware of his surroundings. It’s like she thinks she’s shipping you off to Iraq, Wyatt had said.
Now as Zazu got out of the car, she said, “Mama hates that word.”
“Don’t I know it,” Drew said. Renata had once given him a lecture about how in Old English, “lady” literally meant “bread maker.” Do I look like a fucking bread maker to you?
He told Zaz to discreetly return to the car when she was done. He’d meet her out there with the water and snacks.
Jamie had had the night shift and, as usual, she was zonked. As Drew grabbed a bag of chips and a banana from the supply drawer for Zazu, he heard Jamie say for the second time to the same customer, “How’s your day going?” Never mind that at nine in the morning, most people hadn’t experienced enough of the day to assess it fairly.
Though it was hard to believe that only an hour had passed from when Drew had first unpeeled Renata’s post-it from the toaster. “Pls look after Zazu”: how casually he’d processed those words. He hadn’t even paused, taking the bag of coffee from the fridge, shaking grounds into the paper filter.
“What’s up with you? You seem super jumpy,” Jamie said.
“I’m fine,” Drew said, though nothing in his life seemed less true. His eyes were trained at the end of the lobby, the ladies’ room door. In his frenzy to assemble snacks, he’d missed seeing Zazu walk in. Had she emerged? He looked out the window, but she wasn’t anywhere near his car. “Has Susan come in yet?”
Jamie shook her head, making the puckering face that the word “Susan” invoked among all her staff. “Not yet.” She continued looking at Drew with her sleepy, half-mast eyes. Her eyeliner was smudged, making Drew think of the black greasepaint he and his teammates had smeared under their eyes before football games. He felt a sudden wave of nostalgia for those days—only four years ago! His mother in the bleachers, veiny hands clenched, twisting them in that nervous way she did—that made his stomach hurt.
“You really okay? Can I take off?”
Drew felt an almost superstitious reluctance to say yes. As long as Jamie was here, in her rumpled dress, a box of Tic Tacs clutched in her hand, the future was still remote.
“I told my girlfriend my mother is dead,” Drew said then.
He and Renata had been at The Oasis, in fact, when he’d said it. He’d snuck Renata into a vacant room on one of his days off. Zazu had been at preschool. Renata loved fucking in hotel rooms for the same reason she loved eating out: because someone else had to clean up the mess.
“But she’s not dead. And you want to know why I did it?”
Jamie narrowed her eyes.
“I thought it was less hassle that way. Ever since I can remember, I’ve done stupid shit because it seemed easier at the time.”
It was true that the prospect of his mother and Renata converging seemed anything but easy. He pictured Renata as a cue ball, his mother the other fifteen balls racked together into a fragile mass that would be no match for the cue ball’s break shot.
But he’d also instinctively understood that Renata would like him less if she knew he had a mother, and an uber-protective one at that. Renata complained about how cushy so many kids had it—mothers always around to pick up after them, bake cakes for their birthdays, accommodate their egg allergies, sew labels into their sweaters. They were doomed to grow up soft, dependent. Spineless, she’d said, and he’d pictured that Portuguese man-of-war—a soft, spineless creature, yes, but hardly delicate.
Renata once contrasted Zazu’s preschool friends to some kids she’d seen in a documentary: five-year-olds from a village in Ghana, building and tending their own fires. She’d described those kids cooking meat wrapped in banana leaves while their parents farmed, and Drew had understood at that moment the story Renata told herself. Neglect was her parenting skill.
So what was Drew’s story then? Whose mother had sewed labels in everything he owned, including his underwear, so the kids at camp called him all that July “Andrew Wilson Huckaby”? She’d only allowed him to attend that camp because he’d promised to call her every night before bed and because he’d promised that if he felt at all unsafe he’d work the word “airship” into one of his sentences. A “safe word” she had called it, the word chosen because of the unlikeliness of him uttering it by accident. But the word had hovered in his head, multiplied, like vultures over a carcass. He’d whispered it under his breath all month long. Imagined the word leaving his lips like rings of smoke from the blue caterpillar’s mouth in Alice in Wonderland, only like the Hindenburg, the word ignited and crashed.
Drew had been the only sober adult in the house when Renata had brought up those kids from the documentary, and he’d noticed Zazu’s pink cheeks that evening, felt her warm forehead. Still, as soon as he’d given Zazu some ibuprofen and tucked her into bed, he’d gotten so high that later that night, he’d tried to order pizza by punching buttons on the TV remote. He and Renata had fallen asleep naked on the living room floor, her nipple like a pacifier in his mouth.
When Zazu emerged from the hotel bathroom, Drew didn’t notice her. She might have made it all the way out to the car if it hadn’t been for Jamie. She called “Hey Honey!” to the little girl in front of the automatic doors, a paper doll silhouetted against the bright outside, and asked her where she’d come from and where she was going.
Drew was too busy wondering if Renata had left for good and what the heck he was going to do if she had. Picturing calling his mother, the way she would loop the phone cord around her wrist while he explained about the four-year-old on his hands. Regurgitating the word airship, airship, airship.
Kim Magowan’s short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming in 2019 from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. www.kimmagowan.com.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award and is a finalist for the 2017 Foreward INDIES Book of the Year Awards in Short Stories. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Fanzine, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Tahoma Literary Review, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and was a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. www.michellenross.com.