White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Josh Howatt
Josh Howatt is a freelance writer and editor. His writing credits include pieces featured or forthcoming in The Wilderness House Review, The Battered Suitcase, Relief, The Melancholy Dane, and Hear Us Roar. He is in the process of editing his first novel, The Law of Lilies, which he has begun shopping to literary agents and publishing houses.

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Josh Howatt

 

Before it starts I’m already trying to forget this.

I’m watching Lindsey and Mom in the kitchen. They’re sitting at the breakfast table, eating what they’ve decided to call “the last supper,” even though it’s 10 AM, and neither has yet to even brush their teeth. Lindsey is in her jeans from Dior, Mom in that sweater that Grandpa Joe gave her for Christmas. It’s happening like this, a .22 revolver between them, and all I can think is that it’s July and Mom is wearing cashmere. She stabs her fork into a mound of pasta, spins until the semolina threads have worked into a knot, raises it to her mouth and gently places the swollen lump onto her tongue. Her eyes close. Grinning, she begins to chew. The pasta gets washed down with a sip of the most expensive wine Gristedes carries: red, Chilean, what she’s just described as orgasmic. She raises the glass to Lindsey who’s curled over a bowl of rice pudding. As a baby, she loved the stuff. Still does. Timing it carefully, Lindsey takes a bite, then

covers her mouth, unable to keep from laughing, trying to keep from spitting all over the good china.

Yesterday, I asked Mom what it was for, the gun. I wrote the question down on a Post-It note and handed it to her. She told me the gun was a statement of will, that having a gun was, well, American. Then she took the firearm and placed it into a brown paper bag, and folded down the top, real neatly. One fold, two fold, three: like that. For the last 24 hours, the thing has sat on the kitchen counter like fruit being rushed to ripen. Then this morning, first thing she did was take out the pistol, and place it onto a saucer in the center of the table.

After swallowing another bite of Carbonara, Mom picks up the revolver, takes the napkin from her lap, wipes the barrel, then her mouth.

“Shall we?” she asks Lindsey. I only know this because I’m reading her lips.

Lindsey is so overcome with a case of the giggles that all she can do is squint and nod with her hand over her mouth, not wanting to baptize her mother in milky buckshot.


I fidget on the kitchen counter. It seems like there should be background noise for this sort of thing, so I run the faucet. I know it makes a sound because both of them—out of the corner of one eye—glance in the direction of the sink.

“Lindsey.”

“Yes, mother.”

Mom smiles, you naughty daughter. Lindsey—who’s 15 and supposed to be as familiar with booze as an Eskimo is with sunscreen—grins like she’s drunk and has been asked to leave the bar, who me?

Mom asks, “Tomorrow, if I’m gone, will you be sad.”

Lindsey thinks for a moment, scraping her spoon along the edge of her bowl. “I’m not sure. It’s not really up to me.”

“Wrecked, at least.”

“Perhaps,” she decides finally.

Licking something out of her teeth, Mom raises the gun to her temple, places her finger around the

trigger, and pulls. I watch the gun go click, and not in the slightest does she flinch.

Instead, she shrugs. Lindsey rolls her eyes. Mom passes the gun across the table, two-handed, as if it were a bowl of mashed potatoes. Lindsey accepts said potatoes, and with a swishing of her head, tosses the hair off her face. She wipes the edges of her mouth, clears her throat.

“Mother,” she starts, then forgets what she’s about to say. She thinks. Her lips go flat. After a moment, she says, “Oh I know,” then rocks back and forth on her backside, getting comfortable. She leans in and whispers, “If, say, a man were to come in here, right now, and ask you whether you are to live or die, what would you say?” The gun dangles in her hand, its aim hovering back and forth between me and the microwave. “A tall man, lets say,” she adds.

Mom’s mouth does that thing where she sort of purses her lips and crumples her nose, so all that’s left of her face is forehead and chin. “Does this man have arms?”


“One.”

“What’s he wearing?”

“Fatigues,” Lindsey says. “Oh, and a tie. A paper hat, also. The burger place kind.”

After scratching at a spot of sauce on her sweater, and dabbing at it with a napkin dampened with spit, Mom says, “Well, if it’s only the one arm, I guess there’s really no decision to be made, is there? One arm, one hand, that’s… Well, that’s like the credits have already rolled, haven’t they?”

Lindsey nods. The trigger gets pulled. The gun is handed back to Mom.

Something crashes in the sink next to me. A glass has filled and toppled over. There’s a cereal bowl full of broken glass and water and what looks like oatmeal residue. I turn the faucet off.

When I look up, Mom is staring at me like she’s just screamed my name, the muscles in her neck taught and swollen. She’s waiting for me to answer, knowing that I want to, but can’t. I try remembering what a tongue feels like against the roof of my mouth.

“Should we let him?” Mom asks Lindsey. She’s holding the gun by the barrel, thinking about handing it to me.

“The retard?” Lindsey asks.

Mom sighs like she’s tired, so thoroughly tired. Her eyes close. “Yes, Justin, your brother, the… retard.”

Lindsey looks at me, wincing. “Well, deaf and dumb is really only half a person. He can’t even ask a question. Worse, he can’t even hear himself ask it if he could!” She waves her hand in front of me as if flagging down a car.

“Lindsey!” Mom hisses. “Deaf, not blind. Seriously! What are they teaching you in that school?” She can’t even look at her when she says it: “Half a person is still half a person.” She takes another bite of pasta, and adds, “Basically.”

I think about grabbing the pistol from the table next time both of them go to take a bite. Then Mom sees me eying it, so she places the revolver in her lap.


Without guilt, they go on chewing.

Through the kitchen window I watch our front yard, patches of grass turning tan, asphalt blurring with heat. Across from our house, there’s a dog lying on its side in the driveway, leashed to the garage door. The thing looks dead. Like dead for days. There’s a blue, plastic water bowl next to its head, turned upside down. Probably, kicked it over himself, dumb dog. Should have been that Pomeranian up the street. That’s what I think.

When I turn back around, I catch the last bit of their argument, Lindsey saying something about, “if he were better looking.” She seems passionate. “You know, survival of the fittest. Gene pool stuff.”

Not even glancing up from her bowl, Mom swats away the comment.

My forehead tickles. Beads of sweat are starting to work their way down my face, the back of my neck. I reach behind and flap my tank top where it’s damp and sticking to me. Even Mrs. Gordon, who’s lived here all her life, 76 years, agrees that the humidity in Florida is almost unsurvivable. There

are days, she says—primarily in August—when it gets so bad that she waits indoors and prays for the sun to go down just so she can walk 30 feet to get the mail. I understand. I swear I understand. Most nights feel like I’m swimming rather than sleeping. I dream about Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Great Barrier Reef.

I dream about drowning.

Don’t get me wrong, though; I love the summer. I just don’t ask for it. Because I know that even if I tell the sun to leave us alone this year, if I politely ask it to make its way up towards Northern Canada instead, or even Siberia—another region where the tireless daylight and soup-for-air afternoons could be put to better use—it’s going to come anyway. So what’s the point, right? I mean, if we all woke this morning, did everything opposite, performed the most unexpected act anyone would ever suspect, there would still be no escaping it: that sick, pale yellowing of a garden hose. Perhaps, we could just stay in the house, bring the barbeque, the hammock, all of it, indoors. Park the car in the living room next to the TV. Close the blinds. Unplug


the phone. Tape the windows. Start digging tunnels from house to mailbox, maybe one to the convenience store, or even the laundry place, or…

And there’s the problem: eventually somewhere, a choice gets to be made. Has to. At one point or another, questions have to be asked:

“Have you ever dreamed about Fontana, California, and if so, what would be the one thing you would refuse to tattoo on someone’s body?” Click.

“Don’t lie, but have you ever wished you’d were a mastic farmer on the Greek island of Chios?” Click.

“I’ve willed myself white. Do you believe me?” Click.

“What do you mean ‘believe’?” Click.

Dad comes into the room, then leaves. Seconds later he returns, hunched over and waddling little Carly between his legs. He’s dressed for work. He’s late for work. She’s barefoot and dragging prints across the linoleum. And this whole time I thought it was Saturday.

“Well, hello,” he says to Mom and Lindsey. I get a nod.

Dad ushers Carly over to the sink, runs the tap, picks her up, and starts washing her hands. Her feet are smearing something brown across the pinstripes of his pants. He says, “Like this, Carly. Like this.” Struggling to keep her in his arms, Dad pumps the soap into the stream of water that Carly is trying to cup. She giggles. She sticks out her tongue, gives me a raspberry, giggles again. Since day one, I’ve hated him. For no other reason than his refusing to call me by my actual name. It’s always been “you.” As in “hey, you!” Or “two and you,” which is what he used to tell me at bedtime, even before Carley was born. He’d say, “If it wasn’t for those two and you, my life would be…” Every time, the thought never got finished. Would be what, Dad? Better? Worse? Unfettered? Tiny? A nightly binge of scotch and swearing and meaningless sex? Then he’d turn off the lights, leave, and I’d think at him, “Half is still half.”

“What are you girls doing?” he asks, busy with Carly. Either he’s scrubbing too hard or the water’s


too hot, because her arms are turning pink. Part of me is afraid she’s going to reach down towards the cereal bowl, the one full of old oatmeal and glass. If she does, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Lindsey says, “The ushe.”

He says, “Again?” He’s pushing Carly under the tap, up to her elbows. “Aren’t you guys sick of it, yet?” His neck is craned and he’s facing the table when he says it. He doesn’t even notice Carly’s blond curls turning dark and straight, how he’s basically drowning her. I swivel the faucet into the other sink. She spits a couple times.

Mom says, “Not really a matter of getting sick.” She looks at Lindsey and nods, Right? “I’m mean, I’m pretty sure it’s not up to us,” she adds, laughing at the absurdity of whatever it is she’s afraid to say instead. She strokes the sleeves of her sweater. This is the one she puts on when she wants to feel pretty or fancy or remember Grandpa Joe. A strand of spaghetti gets slurped into her mouth, slow and wistful. I imagine it making a noise like schloop!

Dad dries off Carly’s hands. He sets her down,

tells her to be good, and that if she is, he’ll give her a dollar later. But only if she puts on a dress. She takes off back into the living room, leaving behind a trail of caramel colored prints.

“The one I picked out,” he calls after her. Mom gets up and goes to the fridge, and the door opens right in front of me so that I’m staring at an old picture of us at Yosemite: Mom and Dad, the girls, and me. It’s a nice picture. Pretty, I guess. There are pine trees and a waterfall and blue sky behind us. Lindsey’s arms are thrown around Dad’s neck, and she’s smiling. I remember that right before the photo was taken Lindsey and Dad got into a screaming match over whether or not 13 was old enough to get a cell phone. She wanted something pink, one that was capable of playing songs instead of simply ringing. Dad wanted her to wear a dress to dinner: also pink, one that was capable of keeping her perpetually 8 years old. In the picture, everyone looks posed, like an ad, all of our teeth showing. But whoever took the photo screwed up, because I’m off to the side, cut right down the middle, only half of me in the frame.


With her arms full of Tupperware, leftovers—things like chili, Hamburger Helper, and fried chicken from two Thursdays ago—Mom sits back down at the table. She pops the lids off each, and begins devouring the food like come tomorrow it won’t be there.

“Honeybear, Snickerdoodle,” she says, her mouth full. “Did you paint the fence like I asked?”

Dad leans against the sink, sipping a cup of coffee that’s been sitting on the kitchen counter since yesterday. Normally, he drinks tea. This, I guess, was convenient.

“Sure did,” he says.

“What color?” she asks.

“I think it was called ‘pearl’ or ‘marshmallow’ or something.”

Mom stabs her fork into the Hamburger Helper. “And not ‘white.’”

“Well, no.”

She wipes her mouth with a napkin. She folds the

napkin, sets the napkin on table, then spends another twenty or so seconds decreasing the creases of the poor overworked linen. “You idiot,” she says.

Mom pushes out her chair and it looks like she’s going to leave, but instead she walks across the kitchen to the wood placard that says Home Is Where the Heart Is, the one with an excited and quivering heart etched into the grain, and straightens things ever so slightly. Left, right, left: just like that. After wilting her head and considering this new orientation, she decides she liked it better before and tilts the placard back. She slams a cupboard before sitting back down.

No one says anything for a while.

I try to remember what it’s like to hear no one talking.

You really can’t blame him, the dog, can you? Because who in their right mind leaves an animal outdoors in the middle of summer like that and expects it to survive on yard water splashed from a dirty spigot into a doggy bowl that holds the


amount of maybe two handfuls, right? After the bowl was licked dry, I imagine the mutt must have lain down under the weight of afternoon, panting, knowing that this is the end. How its tongue probably dried into something like a pumice stone.

“How many bullets did you use, again?” Lindsey asks.

Mom looks up at Lindsey, aghast, her tongue cradling food yet to be swallowed.

“No, doesn’t count,” Lindsey says. “Doesn’t count.”

Slowly, Mom remembers to chew.

As far as I’m aware, the rules go like this: one person asks a question, the other answers the absolute truth, no matter how painful and/or embarrassing. Eight rounds is the standard for a revolver this size. So far, I’ve seen them play three times, and each time it ends the same. Though, how it ends, I can never remember. Lindsey says that the beauty of the game is in knowing that this may be your last chance before they’re gone for good, and so you have to be completely, utterly

translucent. Ribcage unwrapped. The phrasing, she says, is key. If that’s out of whack, she says, then you might not get the answer you want.

Lindsey asks again, “So how many?”

Mom’s eyes are squinty. She’s not sure how to play this one, or if it’s even to be played. Spitting bits of whatever was in her mouth, she says, “Just the one.” Each word comes out unsure. She waits to see if Lindsey picks up the gun. Lindsey doesn’t.

“Jeez, Mom, don’t be such a psychopath about it.”

Mom scrambles for the pistol. Her wine glass gets knocked. Down by my feet, there’s a splash of glass and cabernet as she lifts and presses the barrel to her head. The question comes out in a furious rapid-fire: “Did I give you that?”

“What?” Lindsey asks.

“That word.”

“Psychopath?”

“Yes, that.”


Lindsey thinks for a second.

Mom’s hand is shaking.

Lindsey nods. She looks sorry. “Yeah, I think so.”

Click.

Mom folds at the waist. She starts to cry. She’s face down on the table, so I can’t read what she says when she says it, but from they way Lindsey is covering her mouth and reaching across the table towards her, I bet she blubbered, “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” or something like it.

When Mom’s face comes up from the table, she has those raccoon eyes and her face is red. Shuddering, she looks towards the ceiling and drags the backs of her thumbs under her eyes. She looks at Lindsey. She tilts her head. She tries to smile. It looks painful.

At some point during, Dad leaves. I only know this because his dress shoes are on the floor in the corner, and he’s left a note. All it says is:

“Gone.

—Dad”

Maybe, he means to the store. You know, for paint.

Maybe, he means work.

Maybe, he means across the street to check on Mrs. Gordon, make sure she hasn’t stroked out from the heat, finally.

Or maybe, he doesn’t mean a new location, at all; and instead, he means gone like there’s something not there where something should be. That this whole time he’s been faking it.

Without turning around I can see the water bowl, the leash, the insect landing upon its open eye, lapping at the wetness of a pupil getting drier.

Lindsey picks up the gun, puts it under her chin. Mom shakes her head no. Though I know what she’s really thinking is: too hard to clean. An annoyed Lindsey obliges and slides the barrel to her temple, only this time she’s using her left hand, so that I


might act as canvas for the spray. Sis, you jerk, I’d scream at her, if I could. These are new shoes. I’d tell her that, too. Among other things.

“Do you ever wonder if we’re wrong?” she asks.

Mom smiles. She’s being smug. “You mean doubt.”

“No. I mean wonder.”

No one moves. I hear my heart beating inside me. Mom takes the gun from Lindsey. She places it against her own temple. “Is that a lie?”

Her throat moves. “Yes.”

The hammer throws. Mom’s eyes flutter. In my periphery, across the street, a leg kicks. One, two: like that. Everyone’s quiet for a minute, maybe a little confused, as Dad runs into the room, and Mom sets the gun back on the saucer. She stacks the saucer onto her plate, picks them up, and goes to the sink. “‘Scuse me, honey,” she says, before tossing the gun into the trash in the cupboard underneath me. She starts washing a spoon, then the bowl. Leftover Carbonara gets scrapped into the

garbage disposal. Over her shoulder, to Lindsey, she says, “This afternoon I want you to mow the lawn, sweetie. It’s starting to look hairy out there.”

Lindsey says nothing. Then she says, “There were no bullets.”

The dog across the street wakes up, stumbles off.

Mom just laughs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright© Josh Howatt. White Whale Review, issue 2.1


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