The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story TINY LITTLE NOTHING

Spring 2013: Issue 93

Annie Mountcastle

I stole the doctor’s stethoscope. I pocketed it on my way out of the ER. It was an awful, impulsive thing to do, but I did it anyway. Now the river is screaming across the rocks, maybe asking me something, maybe not.

The Roanoke River is spectacular and gross. My father used to bring us here to skip rocks. He said God made this river and people polluted it. We weren’t allowed to go in.

“It’s dirty,” he said and skipped another flat stone across.

I’d like to press the stethoscope against the water’s surface, find out if the old thing still has a heartbeat, but I know the answer already and settle instead onto a silt-covered rock, just beyond the reaches of the river. I don’t want its dirty fluid fingers touching me. I’m sure it would infect my own newly stitched finger, driving me back to the doctor and his endless questions. “Does it throb or just ache?” I don’t know.

There’s a 3 am show on church radio called Yoga-Jesus. Dennis the Christian Menace hosts the show from a little radio station in the back of a truck stop in Virginia Beach. He’s always saying, “Your body knows what it needs.” I listen to the show when I can’t sleep and want to hear someone else’s voice. “Ask your body,” says the radio man, “what do you need?”

I come to this spot at the river often, always wondering what it is about this place that draws me to it. I ask my body, but she is silent, only present enough these days to remind me that we are no longer on speaking terms.

Whatever brings me here, it isn’t the nasty leftovers forever littering the place, remnants of past strangers who stopped here too. There are beer cans, the occasional used condom, pieces of tires, biggie cups from drive-thrus, and always a stray sock, somehow a different one every time. Today the sock is gray, with yellow stitching at the toe, like some awful promise of brighter days ahead.

     

My mother says everyone has their mountain to climb. Some time ago she suggested that maybe I’ve climbed mine. It was another way of saying maybe I’ve suffered enough.

It’s an absurd notion. After she said it, we laughed.

Who has suffered enough? What does that even mean?

If it does mean something, it certainly doesn’t apply to me. Unless you’re willing to concede that privilege is a kind of suffering—in which case, yes, perhaps I’ve suffered enough.

I was nineteen when my life imploded and my mother started suggesting that maybe I was climbing my mountain and would reach the summit soon. It was her version of what our rabbi kept saying: “It will pass. It will pass.”

I kept thinking, “Like a kidney stone it will.”

My mother says things get better because they get over. Even life, she says, you live and then you die. Find comfort in that. It gets over.

My priest, like my Catholic grandmother—the one on my dad’s side—does not agree. My priest talks to me about life everlasting and suggests I return to the confessional a bit more regularly than I have, say, ever in the past.

I asked him his thoughts on hope. He called himself “a big fan.” He meant he’s a big fan in the way that someone might be a college football fan, but I can’t stop thinking of him as an actual fan. “I’m a big fan,” he said, and I imagined a fan so much bigger than a ceiling fan, something like the rotor blades of a helicopter—a giant fan facing the sun, big enough to lift off, to fly rescue missions through hurricane winds and save people clinging to trees or already neck deep in the floodwaters.

I’d like to be a fan like that, fly right over those mountains. But I am not. That said, my most recent haircut involved so much of the technique called “feathering” that I would not be surprised if I suddenly became airborne, not like a hope-fan but like a new strain of bird flu.

Of course, everyone’s nice about my haircut. Everyone says they love it.

I hate it. It’s almost exactly the haircut I didn’t ask for. It’s a Richard Gere-inspired voluptuous mullet.

I’ve had this haircut before.

How is that even possible? I guess it’s the go-to haircut for people like me—people with curly-wavy hair and no straightening iron, unassertive types with deer-in-the-headlights eyes, who enter places like Cheap Cuts and anxiously request “something simple, just a trim, really.”

This time I tried. I even took a picture, made eye contact, and said, “This is what I want.”

The hairdresser took one look at me, my frizzy, damaged, vitamin-deficient hair, and said, “You style your hair every day? You gonna straighten it, mousse it, curl it?”

I stared at my feet. “No.”

“Well then, you don’t want that haircut. I know what you want. Come on.”

I imagined she knew something I did not. And even if she didn’t, I told myself, it doesn’t really matter. Hair grows.

I let her do what she wanted.

My mother said I should have said no thanks when the hairdresser said she wouldn’t cut my hair like the picture I gave her, but my mother also said it’s the best haircut I’ve had in years. It’s hard to win sometimes, harder still to know when to trust your own instincts and when to trust someone else’s.

When she started tapering my hair, I could have said, “No. Stop.” But she’d already started and more to the point, what if I’d asked her to stop and she hadn’t? Better then to consent, to say, “I like what you’re doing with those side bangs. It’s like an avalanche of layers.” At least this way I can pretend that I got what I asked for.

People keep telling me to find a hairdresser I trust and stick with that person. But how do you find someone trustworthy, someone who listens? And how many more times will I have to try again?

Most people I know spend big dollars on haircuts. I’m a self-employed clown and a part-time intern. I can’t take their salon suggestions. So I bounce around, trying different haircut places, only ever finding people who give me their go-to, short-in-front pseudo-mullet for women with curly-wavy hair. After this latest adventure, reeling from the horror of my apparent incapacity to communicate with people holding scissors, I decided to cut my own hair.

      

The other day my aunt asked me about any possible love interests and then suggested I start volunteering at the fire station.

“Firemen,” she said. “Right?”

Right. Someone who specializes in putting out fires would be perfect for me. Most firemen are probably a real catch.

“They’re strong and brave. They risk their lives to help people. I’ve never met one I didn’t like,” she said.

She’s probably right. I don’t know. I’m better at picking hairstylists than I am at picking men.

Besides, after the last two bad listeners I loved, I haven’t the nerve to date anyone, so the whole conversation is moot. I’m exaggerating. I’ve dated maybe half a dozen men in the last four years, most of them very briefly. I’m not even sure it ought to be called dating.

And it isn’t true that I loved two of them and it isn’t true that two were bad listeners. I only really loved one, Jake—the one who was on-again-off-again during all those years. That he is also the one who didn’t know how to hear me, or didn’t even try to, is perhaps the part where my story falls apart, where it becomes clear that the violence perpetrated against me is violence I perpetrated against myself. I knew what he was about. And yet somehow I let myself spiral back to him again and again.

We were eighteen when we met. He was still a boy-man and I was so naïve. I managed to keep him at arm’s length for that first year, let intuition guide me in the other direction when he started serenading me with songs like “Steal My Kisses.” Or, I guess that isn’t intuition, I guess it’s common sense. In any event, the sick feeling in my stomach only worsened when he said things like, “I thought if we got drunk and had sex, then we’d be dating.” This after I very specifically did not get drunk and have sex with him.

But year nineteen brought with it a special variety of self loathing, and I sought out that son-of-a-bitch like he was the answer to my prayers.

Only recently have I been able to consider the whole mess with anything resembling honesty, and even now real and imagined memories merge and I can’t always decipher what is and isn’t true.

      

I’m twenty-two years old. I know what I want. It’s way past time to be bold and go for it. That’s what I told myself after this latest thirteen-dollar haircut and a lot too much whiskey. Pixie cut here we come. I heard sharp scissors were a must for cutting hair, so I tried to sharpen mine with a knife sharpener, sliced through my first finger, and ended up in the ER being stitched back together.

At least I have my Halloween costume all figured out. I’ll be Richard Gere for the third year in a row.

I’m kidding. I don’t celebrate Halloween. It’s too scary. I mean, it’s fine for kids, but I don’t understand the adult version. Parties are frightening enough without people in costume. Even a clown, in the wrong hands, can become perverse. And if I never see another drunk man in a priest costume hitting on a sexy kitten for as long as I live, it will be too soon.

I attended a university in a town I call Collegeville, where Halloween is a terror-fest of too many young men in masks tearing through tangled legs in festive fishnet stockings.

I majored in religion. It made a nice counterweight to Collegeville’s corporeal hellhole. My professors recommended outside reading.

“I think you might enjoy Elizabeth Bishop.”

Might I ever. And is that curly-wavy hair on Bishop in her photograph on the Library of America Series edition of her collected works?

I think it is.

 

But those days are over. I’ve graduated, moved on, am making my way in the world, no more school days for me. It’s a quieter pace—the life of a clown—or it would be if my mind would ever stop racing.

Whiskey slows me down, but the ER doctor told me no alcohol while I’m on these little painkillers for my finger. In that way scissoring myself this morning may prove the catalyst for some serious self-improvement.

I’ve been meaning to stop drinking for some time now.

Drunk Tiny is no good to anyone.

That’s my name, by the way, Tiny. It’s a nickname. I like nicknames. They’re friendly and intimate, but not too intimate. Everyone doesn’t need to know my name name. Nicknames offer protection. A desecrated body is one thing, a desecrated name is quite another.

Sober Tiny liked being around people and was good company. And when I wasn’t around people, I found refuge and companionship in books, but not anymore. I can’t calm down long enough to read the first chapter of anything.

These days codes are my company. They speak to me. We sit together, on the edge of my bed when I button the last oversized button on my sequined vest. We listen to the whir of the ceiling fan and invent other meanings for things.

It helps me understand my own history. Because “no” could mean “yes,” if you’re working from a code where opposites represent each other, like a language of contradiction. In that context “stop” could mean “more” and “you’re hurting me” could mean “I like it when you do that.” If you knew that this code was at work, then it would make sense when other people heard only everything you were not saying. Then language might not feel so impotent, so unreliable, so able to betray.

 

Here’s an actual fact: my last clown gig was at an ice skating rink. Davy was turning four. I was the entertainment.

I don’t have children. To overcompensate I sell my balloon-making services to the dull parents of children who will never be mine and who will, more than likely, not care for my one-woman clown act. It’s ironic, and tone driven, and the children don’t get it.

I don’t fault them for it. Most children are very serious. When I was a child my brother and I spent whole afternoons playing Leviathan on the jungle gym in our backyard. Our grandmother’d been reading to us from the Book of Job.

We were little and literal. “Hear the ocean monster roar!” my big brother shouted from the top of the slide. I was the monster. He was Job. The game was for him to try to catch me long enough to tie any one of our brightly colored jump ropes to the back of my corduroy overalls like a leash. We were eight and six. I roared.

“Your life will never be as fine as it is now,” said the bent voice of our neighbor from behind the vine-covered fence separating our yards. “When I was a child I was happy, too.”

It was Mrs. McGregor. I clung to the swing set and my brother dropped rocks down the slide. “You’ll put holes in the slide doing that,” she said. “Is that what you want?” My brother said nothing. He dropped another rock down the slide.

The screen door opened and our mother stood on the back porch calling our names. “Lunch!” she said.

My brother raced down the slide and into the house behind our mother. I ran after them, but the voice on the other side of the fence stopped me. “Someday your mother will die.”

I stood still in the grass, my bare feet unable to carry me farther toward the safety of crustless sandwiches and juice. “That’s right,” said the voice. “Your brother will die, too. I was the youngest once, just like you are. Everyone you love will die.”

“That isn’t true,” I whispered and ran inside.

Children let everything scare them.

In my car, in my clown suit, painting my face in the parking lot of the ice park prior to Davy’s birthday, a child on her way into the party saw me and burst into tears. I hoped the birthday boy’s father would pay me. The fathers give better tips. They ask, “Is this your only job? Have you always been a clown? Is it difficult to make balloon animals?” They say, “That teddy bear you made was impressive.” Then, embarrassed for me and all that talk of balloons, or anxious to demonstrate their own wealth, they overpay.

Inside the ice park, I regretted not having worn long underwear under my striped pants. It was cold. A little fellow—he looked about six—introduced himself to me at the door. “I’m Mark, Davy’s brother,” he said. “My mother’s over there.” He pointed toward a round, beautiful woman hanging streamers around the door between the party room and the ice rink. I started toward her, but the child stopped me.

He wanted a train. I’d never made a balloon train before. I gave a snake wheels and handed it to the child. He thanked me and gestured to my oversized, inflatable clown shoes. He said they were very pretty, but if my feet were really that big, they might not have skates to fit.

The mother wanted me stationed beside the presents. I knew that it would be a busy party, that most of the guests would themselves be three and four years old and, accordingly, would not be successful ice skaters. Instead they would spend the afternoon in the party room with the clown.

Toward the end of the event the ice park manager—a slender man who smelled of cigarette smoke and cologne—commented on my vest. He said he liked it. My clown vest is covered in silver sequins. The buttons are multicolor pompom balls of yarn. “It fits you so nicely,” he said.

A little girl in a dinosaur sweater ran over to me in her socks. Her mother, on a bench by the lockers, called after her to put her shoes on, but then gave up. The child asked for a red dog, big like Clifford. When she left, promising her new dog a piece of birthday cake, the manager asked me if I ever work at adult parties.

He said, “The balloon arts also appeal to an older, more sophisticated audience, yes?”

I told him I worked at a carnival some Girl Scouts sponsored at the senior citizens’ home once.

The manager laughed, said that wasn’t quite what he had in mind. Then he offered me a free fountain drink. He said anything you want, coming right up.

I said thanks anyway.

Then a pair of children came over to me—identical twins. They wanted hats that looked different. When they left, the manager, who seemed to be forever inching closer, said, “You’re good with children.”

I wanted to tell him off. I wanted that party to be over already. And when it was, I waited for Davy’s mother to pay what she owed. The manager kept talking, but I had no more kindness in me, and I stopped listening.

 

The river could lull a person to sleep. Water is sly and dangerous that way. I fell asleep in the bathtub once, years ago. It’s amazing I didn’t drown. When I woke up the water had all drained out of the tub and I was covered with bubbles.

I dreamt sharks were eating me.

My rabbi says dreams are like codes we must learn to decipher.

My mother says I should pay more attention to what I’m doing.

“What do you mean?”

“The coffee, darling, it’s all over you.” That was two days ago. I stopped by her house on my way home from Davy’s birthday party.

She was right. I was missing my own mouth—drinking too quickly, too clumsily, too distractedly, letting the dark liquid dribble onto my striped turtleneck, like a baby without a bib.

“Are you OK?” she said.

Would you believe me if I said I am? If I said it’s nothing? If I asked you to stop time and carry us all in the other direction, could you work that trick? I wondered, white paper napkin to my mouth and then my shirt, cleaning up the coffee.

“You must be tired,” she said.

I must be lost. I told her I needed to go home—change my shirt, take a nap, get some work done. She wrapped up half a pecan pie for me to take home.

When I got to my apartment, I turned on the ceiling fans. I washed the paint off my face. I changed into pajamas. I don’t know why I still put on pajamas. I don’t sleep. I haven’t for weeks. It’s like being strung out on nothing. The good news is I don’t dream anymore. I don’t dream anymore. Dreams are messages from God. We must learn to decipher them. But what about nightmares, I asked my rabbi.

“You must learn to decipher them, too,” said my rabbi. “Do not be afraid,” she said. But I am afraid. “It will pass,” she said.

  

Yesterday morning I went in for an emergency appointment with that psychiatrist my mother is always slipping into conversations. Most recently the conversation went this way:

“Remember Lottie?” said my mother.

“Crazy Lottie?”

My mother said she’s not crazy anymore. Lottie went to see that nice doctor and now she’s co-chair of the Potato Festival. She really got it together. Then my mother said, as though her main point was about the festival and not about the psychiatrist, “If you keep working on your clown routine, you might be able to work at the Potato Festival, too.”

All the clinics have at least one opening for emergency appointments, also known as walk-ins for impulsive types who wouldn’t be able to make and keep an appointment if their life actually did depend on it. There are public service announcements about it on the radio all the time. Thinking of killing yourself? Don’t. Help is here. Stop in at such-and-such clinic at such-and-such time, and someone will be there to listen to you. Then they say it all again in Spanish.

I hope the people at those clinics speak other languages, too. I’m sure a person can be mentally ill in more than two languages. Anyway, I wasn’t thinking of killing myself. I was just feeling a little fiery, a little sleep deprived, and maybe a little depressed.

I filled out the health insurance forms and flipped to the next page in the clipboard packet. I made it through the first few questions—name, weight, occupation. I was honest enough, and I even resisted adding margin notes, for the most part. But the next question I came to was less straightforward.

I went back to the front desk.

“You all done?” the nurse asked from behind the sliding glass window.

“No. I’ve only finished the first part. What’s this questionnaire?”

“It’s a self-assessment,” said the nurse. “It helps the doctor get a sense of where you are.”

“I’m right here.”

“Funny,” said the nurse. “Finish the form.” She closed the window. I tapped on the glass.

“Is it mandatory?”

“You don’t have to fill it out,” said the nurse. “That’s a choice you can make. Of course, it’s a choice we’ll make note of.”

I returned to my carpet-covered waiting room seat. The self-assessment was like a maze: Do you experience moderate to extreme anger sometimes, frequently, or all of the time? Do you intentionally bring up topics in conversation that you know will be hurtful, embarrassing, and/or offensive? Do you set things on fire for fun? Are you bored by everything? Is your defeatist attitude threatening to dismantle every last molecule of your integrity? Do you look like Richard Gere? Is your soul the picture of anarchy? Does your mind wander? Are you counting the minutes until the great apocalypse? Are you expecting hell and still imagining that it will be better than this? Do you think these questions are unfair or aren’t you concerned with fairness? If you had to define the word justice, could you? Would you? Will you now? What would you say if I said: you’re wrong, that isn’t what justice is at all? If you wanted to strike someone, would you? Have you ever? What if they were hurting you? Would you then? What if they were hurting someone else? But what about nonviolence? What about turning the other cheek? What about the laws of God? Why did you let that man hurt you? Is your soul working? Is that alcohol I smell on your breath? Who are your enemies and how do you love them? Are you listening? Additional space on back.

I thought for a moment and wrote, “No comment.” I turned the questionnaire over and drew. When I finished, I decided that even the pictures were too revealing, too much like telling someone your dreams. I took the questionnaire with me, left the clipboard with the nurse, and when they called my name to be evaluated, I was no longer there.

      

Inspiration disappears sometimes. Clocks stop or keep going. Lethargy creates more of  itself. I want mornings full of wakefulness, even if I rise up screaming. I want passion, hunger for something. And I don’t want the coffee stain just to go away. I want it never to have been there.

I want words to mean something. And even as I say this I recognize that it is people, not words, who can’t be trusted. People wield and forfeit power. A code of opposites could be manipulated and used to deceive as easily as any language. Code or no code, it is perfectly possible for me to say, for example, “I would rather breathe nails than make balloon animals at another child’s birthday party,” and only mean, “I wish I were somewhere else.”

I am only angry some of the time. My soul is not a picture of anything, or it is. My priest contends: an image of the benevolent everything. Perhaps. Let me dream about that tonight. Let the whole heartache of history fold into itself and away from me.

      

My grandmother is whispering, “Everything is connected to everything else.” I am seven.

“Is everyone going to die?” I ask her in a hushed voice, snuggling into her pink sweater, squeezed into her easy chair with her. “The neighbor says everyone will die before I do and then I’ll be all by myself, Grandmamma.” Her body rises and falls as she breathes.

“How old do you think I am?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Old?”

She smiles. “Very old,” she says. Many people she has known, loved, are dead. I run my fingers along the arm of the chair. “Am I alone?” she asks, pulling me closer to her.

“No.” I am smiling now.

“And why is that?” she says.

“Because I’m here.”

“That’s right,” she says, tickling me. “You’re here!” I giggle, try to tickle her back. We laugh and laugh. “You will have children and they will have children and they will have children and on and on and on,” she says. “Don’t worry about death. It will come when it comes. Now, let’s make cookies.”

      

I’m twelve, in the stairwell of my grandparents’ home. My mother and grandmother are in the kitchen. “That child’s in a dark mood,” my grandmother says. “What’s gotten into her?”

I want my mother to say it’s nothing. I want her to be sure there’s nothing the matter with me, and I want her to be right.

The dog sees me, barks.

I step into the kitchen, head for the door. My grandmother’s stirring sugar into her coffee. I asked for a cup this morning and was sent outside to play. “You can drink coffee when you’re in college, when you’ll need the energy. No one needs to be caffeinated for middle school.”

My mother says, “What have I told you about eavesdropping?”

“I wasn’t eavesdropping. I’m going on a walk.” I slip past them and slam the door behind me.

      

I am nineteen. I tell Jake to stop, but he doesn’t. This happens over and over and over again, before I wake up wishing I was twelve again, out for an angry walk about something I was only angry about for a few moments or a few days, when I was full of an anger that so quickly passed, or six when it was still possible to roar with all the power of Leviathan, or seven when it still felt true that I would not be alone, just as my grandmother had not been.

That was last night, or I guess it was early this morning—the dream about being nineteen—before I woke up to the mad whirring of the ceiling fan moving stale air in circles above my bed, all ready to forget what I’d been dreaming. But it’s the third day of remembering that being awake is worse.

Awake is I’m a clown at children’s birthday parties, taking too long to unlace my oversized shoes, and the birthday boy is already gone, and the party is over, and then guess what happens.

Go ahead and guess.

I remember I was walking toward the door. And then I remember the ice park manager. I remember his hands on my neck. I remember my spine slamming against the wall of lockers in the party room.

Then I kicked him. I kicked him until he let go. Then I ran.

This morning, too awake to tolerate myself any longer, I got totally hammered on Maker’s Mark, that expensive stuff I’d been saving for a special occasion. Even more than the taste, I like the name—Maker’s Mark.

Did you know that the word for sin can be translated from the Greek as “missing the mark”?

Thoroughly cleansed and cross-eyed, I decided to cut my own hair. But I already told you about that—how I sliced through my first finger trying to sharpen my scissors. I didn’t even get a chance to cut my hair before the bleeding wouldn’t stop and I went to the ER where they wanted to know about the bruises on my neck.

I said, “I’m here about my finger.”

They sewed it up, but then they started asking about the bruises again. Then the doctor said he’d like me to speak with someone. Then he left the room for a moment, probably to get a social worker.

What’s a social worker going to do? Invite the police to slap the wrists of another sexual predator? They’re fucking everywhere.

I left with the stethoscope.

      

In Collegeville all they ever did was send the perpetrators to mandatory counseling. Want to know how much good that did? I’ll tell you.

When I was eighteen, I kept my distance—relatively speaking—from Jake. We had coffee and went for long starlit walks, and I was listening when his words became troubling. When his hands wandered, I sent him packing.

A year later we ran into each other. His rhetoric was sly and new. He apologized for having been “so aggressive” the year before. He said he’d been doing a lot of thinking. If I’d known then that his therapist was feeding him these new lines, I might not have been so easily swayed. On the other hand, I’d had a difficult year, and when I ran into him that time I was looking for trouble.

I found it.

I’d already said yes by the time I realized I wanted to say no. And then I was asleep, and that time he definitely wasn’t listening to me.

And then and then and then.

 

Anyone can say I’m wrong for not tattling on the ice park manager, but who knows what would happen next if I did?

No one knows the future.

I might still report him. I’m not dead yet. He might hurt someone else if I don’t. He might hurt someone else if I do.

I didn’t like being in that hospital. It made me claustrophobic. What if the social worker had been all hands like the ice park manager? I was too tired to kick anyone else off me.

I shouldn’t have stolen the stethoscope. I admit that. But I couldn’t resist the possibility of hearing my own heart beating. I couldn’t resist the ludicrous notion that my body might know what she needs, and that she might be able to tell me.