The summer Ava turned fifteen, she began measuring her parents against Other People’s Parents and they always came up short. Other People’s Parents folded laundry and made dinners with ingredients that went together. Ava’s mother’s meals were applesauce meatloaves with olives and deviled eggs and dates on the side. There was lint in their dryer, and they never took the clothes out soon enough, so Ava’s shirts were always wrinkled. On Sundays, in springtime, they took family car rides and her mother said this is what it meant to be free. Her father spoke in palindromes. “Do geese see god? No word, no bond, row on.”
The rides took them nowhere but out and back, past field upon field stubbled with beans. Her mother rolled down the passenger window and blew kisses at the sky. In the backseat, Ava pressed her temple against the glass and looked at the clouds. The smallest ones sped by like they had somewhere to be and their urgency depressed her.
“Poor baby,” her mother said to the side-view mirror. The mirror was angled so Ava could see the car door and half her mother’s face and none of the road.
At home, Ava had a cat named Harriet who slept in a shoebox under her bed. Ava felt bad that Harriet’s world was so small, and when she turned sixteen and got a license, she put the shoebox in a carrier and the carrier in the passenger seat of the family car. She took the only road she knew. She drove and drove, and Harriet mewed and mewed, until Ava turned around and took her home. She scooped food into Harriet’s bowl and Harriet ate it in an instant. Her father came into the kitchen and made a sandwich and offered her half. “A nut for a jar of tuna?” he said, and Ava shook her head.
Ava went to college and came back. She stayed in her room while her parents threw parties in the backyard with balloons and bright fruit. They served shrimp curved like commas, strange cheese and nuts. They ate silver kisses from cellophane bags. From her bedroom window, Ava watched the guests grow larger as they crossed the yard to their cars. Her parents stayed where they were. A donkey piñata swung from a branch and her blindfolded father stood on tiptoe and struck it with a stick. Candy spilled from its busted flank and her mother, on hands and knees, picked lollipops from the lawn.
When had Time cut them loose? Was it a moment or a slow unwinding? Maybe it was something they’d eaten or drunk or a wish they’d been granted at a roadside fair. Maybe it was a curse. Her parents never said how it happened and maybe they didn’t know. Winter came and her father made angels in the driveway. Her mother did somersaults in the snow.
When Ava turned thirty, she moved to a house down the street with a little square garden. She grew cucumbers and tomatoes and kept wreaths on the door which she changed with the seasons. By the time she was thirty-five, she had a baby of her own who had tiny socks that matched and bibs she scrubbed with a sponge. Her mother wore tube tops and tennis sneakers and knelt on the playroom floor cooing at the baby and the baby cooed back. Ava’s father made the baby a scooter out of plywood and rode circles in Ava’s driveway to show the baby how. The baby chewed its fist and watched in a diaper from behind the screen door.
When the baby turned ten, Ava’s father bought it a trampoline. They jumped while Ava poured lemonade for her mother in a bright plastic cup with a cartoon face of a fawn. Her mother sucked the lemonade with a straw. The baby and her father went boing, boing, boing until the baby got tired and climbed off and Ava’s father jumped alone. When her mother’s lemonade was nearly gone, Ava refilled the cup.
Ava turned fifty-five and the baby got a college degree and an apartment in a faraway city. Her parents came to see the baby off. Ava stood on the porch and her parents stood on the grass looking very small. Her father’s shirt was untucked and buttoned wrong and the shoulders drooped at his elbows. Her mother wore her hair in braids.
“Bye, baby!” her mother called when the baby drove away. She hopped and blew kisses and her father waved with both hands. When he could no longer see the baby, he stopped waving and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Wow,” he whispered. “Wow, wow, wow.” Her mother climbed onto the porch and stood beside Ava and leaned her cheek on Ava’s hip.
By the time she was sixty, Ava’s knees were bad from all the gardening. Sometimes she napped in the baby’s old room where stars on the ceiling glowed in the dark. One evening her parents came in while she was resting in the twin bed. Her father toddled over with a bag of ice. There was a hole in the corner of the bag and water dripped onto the quilt. Her mother held a small plate of green Jell-O. They had shrunk so much their foreheads barely cleared the top of the mattress and her father’s freckled scalp showed through wisps of hair. Ava’s mother put the plate of Jell-O on the bed and touched Ava’s cheek. “Poor baby,” she said.
Ava took the Jell-O and the ice and got up and turned down the quilt so her parents could crawl under. Her father’s t-shirt was old and too big and stretched at the collar from years of wear. They lay on the narrow bed and her mother held her father’s hand and her father sang in a soft, high voice. “Was it a car or a cat I saw?”
When they fell asleep, Ava walked to the kitchen. She put the Jell-O in the fridge and the ice in a new bag. Back in the bedroom, she wiped drool from her mother’s lip and tucked the quilt beneath her father’s chin. She lifted his head to fluff his pillow and the circumference of his skull nearly fit in her hand. What would happen when they couldn’t get any smaller? There are some things you just can’t ask.
Ava sat in a chair across the room. Her father whispered nonsense and her mother snored, almost a purr. Ava looked out the window at the little square garden. It was a summer evening, but in the frame, she saw a December scene: greens and reds and fat tomatoes hanging like bulbs from the vines. Ava put the bag of ice on her knees and held it there until her knees were numb. Then, she shut the bedroom door and went outside and knelt in the garden to tend her crop under what little light was left.
Kate Crosby’s stories have appeared in Pleiades, The Journal, The Bellingham Review, PANK, Bartleby Snopes, Beecher’s Magazine, and others. Her flash fiction received nomination for a Pushcart Prize and Queens Ferry Best Small Fictions. She earned an MA from the Bread Loaf School of English and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She lives in Salem, MA and teaches high school English.