Higgins lived with his mother, but then she died. Higgins now in charge, her house smells like dry things. Paper and wind. Coffee like brittle green leaves, as if he’s making tea. Periodically, he opens the door and calls for Calla, his old calico. His voice sounds like gravel under spinning tires. Like he yells a lot, but in all my knowing of him, Higgins has never yelled once, not even at the cat.
We sit in his living room, me reading his journal. His short stories are like haunted houses. Dark window eyes and peeling paint. Squeaky plank porches. There’s that screen door on rusty hinges. Bang! No lights, of course. Telephone wire cut. Formerly dead person now ghost at the top of the stairwell holding an axe. Things will not go as planned.
And they haven’t, at least for me. Higgins is the backup to my backup plan. He might even be in the third position. The stay at my mom’s fizzled. All my other friends had turned into or were Marcel’s friends, too. They know what I did to him. So I ended up here at Higgins’ house, slightly preserved, circa 1992, white counters and appliances, electric range with black saucer burners. Lots of rose and gray upholstery, walls festooned with farmhouse-design borders: chickens, eggs, barns, sunrises with pointy yellow suns.
I met Mark Higgins in kindergarten. We called him Tiny instead of Mark because he was, slight and reedy with leprechaun ears and thin, flyaway hair. Now he’s twenty years older but not much bigger, though no one calls him Tiny anymore, much less Mark. Just Higgins.
“What?” I say, feeling his owl eyes.
“You’re a slow reader.”
“You’ve been saying that since seventh-grade English.”
“I’m still reading,” I say.
“Do you like it?” His eyes are round, dark, and deep, black as the inside of something no one should ever see. His hipster beard thin, patches of skin like reverse leopard spots.
“I’m only halfway through,” I say. “Can’t make a statement yet.”
“What’s happening?” Higgins leans forward.
“Hard to say.” I close the journal. “We’re in a house. There are a couple of creepy characters. Plus that narrator. I’m not sure about him.”
Higgins sits back against the couch upholstered with roses or chrysanthemums. “You like it?”
“I didn’t say that yet.”
“But you will.”
Outside, a car starts. So do I.
“Chill,” Higgins says.
My heart doesn’t agree with him. My heart doesn’t agree with me, either. What am I doing here away from Marcel and his casseroles and pot plant factory in the back bedrooms? Away from my mother and her hairspray and little dogs. Away from my formerly adequate string of retail jobs. Hiding out in Higgins’ house, hoping the cops don’t come looking for me.
“No one knows you’re here,” Higgins says. He clicks on the baseball game. The Giants are still winning. Higgins grabs a handful of popcorn.
I go back to reading.
Tuna and green bean. Chicken and dumplings. Beef and barley. Tofu and something peanut. In a pan. In a crock pot, simmering all day long, the kitchen thick with spices. Chopped onions sautéing in a cast-iron pan. Mounds of garlic, green bell peppers, carrots, snow and sugar peas. Chunks of chorizo, mounds of sausage, strips of bacon. Slabs of steak and pork and ribs. Flames and hot fat crackling. Thyme, basil, oregano. Cooking shows on 24/7, Marcel pausing the show to stir the veg or to check on the humidity in the back rooms. Coming back with a joint tucked into the corner of his mouth. Wafts of smoke so dense I’m high just from breathing. So high I don’t do much more than read magazines at the kitchen table, drink green tea, learn how to cut an onion like a pro.
Days and nights of cooking and eating and smoking, so many I forgot to enroll at the community college or get a temp job that would lead to the awaiting bigger and better things these jobs always promise.
From Marcel and his cooking to Higgins and his short story. My fabulous options.
“You should go in, you know. For a scan or tests or whatever they do with babies.” Higgins passes me the box of cereal, the same kind we ate for breakfast before he headed out to the old folks’ home where he works. English major. He teaches them how to write about the lives they still remember. After that, he runs a needle at a tattoo parlor on Telegraph Avenue, though his own skin is white and pale and untouched.
I look down at the soggy oats floating in the milk. I can’t even bear to think about the orange juice container. Homeless, jobless, mostly friendless, I’ve accomplished most of the known mistakes (not going to college, staying with the wrong man, living a life of near-crime) and now I am going to add another person to this festival of delights. Add it to the list.
“I don’t know what’s going on in your story,” I say, rather than answer him about the tests. “It’s in parts. One minute we’re in the living room. The next in the past. Back at his grandmother’s house. How did that happen?”
Higgins chews. “Magical realism.”
I pause. “What’s that?”
“When magic exists with the ordinary. Talking mirrors. Headless horsemen. Girls who turn into spiders. Ghosts who like bedside chats.”
“There’s nothing weirder than reality in your story.”
“Not yet,” says Higgins. He pushes his glasses up his nose and sits back against his chair. He’s wearing an old blackish T-shirt from some decade we barely lived through. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, though “Heartbreakers” is missing three e’s and a k.
“I’m deep in the conflict,” I say. “You can’t bring in a ghost now.”
“Not a ghost, maybe. But something. You’ll see.”
I swallow, forcing the cereal to stay in my stomach. Higgins chews, the sound of his staying alive the worst sound ever. Here we are, pushing stuff inside ourselves just so that we don’t die. What is the point? And how much work. Every day, over and over again, and then for what? We are still here and just shitting everywhere. Marcel’s specially prepared meals ended up the same as this cereal, of which Higgins needs to get more so we can keep on living for a few more days.
Suddenly I long for my mother, forgetting that I didn’t long for her when I lived with her. Not once, except if longing can be in reverse, me wanting her to go away. Like Jamaica or Peru. But now all I want is to breathe in her cigarette breath and smell her Diet Coke and rum on ice. How many drinks did I hand her from the minute I learned to pour? Right now, my hands curl into the memory of a tall drinking glass. My foot readies to kick away my mother’s mutts, Corkie, Phoebe, Tootsie, Palmer, Gorgeous, fuzzy little shits barking up my leg.
I hated those times, and now, ten years later, I want to go back to them. Maybe if I time-traveled back as the “now me,” I’d figure out how to change it, her, everything. I’d make her be a parent who cared so that I would. I’d go to college. I’d get a good job. At this great job and because of my brilliance at doing something important, I’d attract the attention of an even more brilliant man. Brilliant and handsome. Then bam! A happy life. I’d never be the girl who bounced around the mall, finally ending up at Williams-Sonoma, where Marcel found me the day he needed to buy a pasta wheel and a four-quart saucepan.
“Don’t cry,” Higgins says now. “It’s going to be okay.”
He gets up and hands me a paper towel so thick it feels almost like cardboard.
“Is it?” I ask. “Really?”
“I’ll take you,” he says. “Dress you up in a clown costume. It’s almost Halloween.”
“Being pregnant feels like constant Halloween,” I say, though really, Higgins’ plan is the best I’ve heard in weeks.
The nurse pushes up my clown outfit, though it’s not just a clown outfit but “sexy clown,” and comes with garters. I didn’t bother with those, the red thigh-highs, or the cute button clown nose, but I do have on the red wig and the striped blouse.
“Cute,” the receptionist said when I checked in.
The wig itches, the clown blouse sleeves pinch. Before we left the house, Higgins painted my mouth red, my eyes white, a big black tear on my left cheek.
“Why do you have this thing hanging around?” I asked.
“Just in case.”
“Of what? A transvestite Halloween? A random girl victim to kidnap and dress up?”
Higgins blushed and started to hum “Tears of a Clown.”
“Don’t you dare,” I told him. “Don’t sing that song. I mean it!”
He put down his mother’s old eyebrow pencil, and I had half a mind to pick it up and draw a spider on his nose. He crooned in his light, clear voice:
But in my lonely room I cry
the tears of a clown
When there’s no one around
“Bastard,” I said, yanking on my wig.
Now the nurse measures my belly with a yellow measuring tape. I stare at the ceiling, wondering why no one ever puts up signs on clinic room ceilings.
Cheer up! It could be worse!
At least you have insurance!
At least you could get insurance!
Too Bad Your Baby Daddy’s in Jail!
Better luck next time!
“It’s been awhile since you’ve been in to see us,” she says, jotting down my stomach’s prodigious growth.
“Three months,” I say. “I was away.”
She doesn’t look at me, sexy pregnant clown girl that I am. “The baby is developing well. Everything’s fine. Due date December 1.”
She finally glances up from her notes. In her gaze, a pool of world-weariness due to the uninformed yet still reproducing. “We have prep classes. Every Wednesday night. You start next week, and you can get at least four in before Baby comes.”
Baby. She hands me a pamphlet. Labor Day Hints. Bringing Home Baby. Breastfeeding 101. Diapers—Cloth or Disposable? Baby’s First Shots: Heath Facts and Fiction.
“Are you all set up?”
“Mostly,” I lie, pulling my clown shirt over my stomach.
“Do you work at a daycare?” she says.
“Why do you ask that?” I wonder if I look like a person who could care for anyone or anything other than herself. A person with some substance. Someone you could trust. Someone you would leave your children with all day long without a second thought.
She smiles for the first time. “The clown costume? I bet you forgot you were even wearing it.”
The baby is up all night. Moving her fingers and toes. Under my skin, stretching toward life. I get out of bed and read Higgins’ journal on the couch. I’ve not made much progress, and I think he keeps writing it so I have something to do. The narrator in Higgins’ story is probably crazy, holed up with a guy he met at a bar. They’ve had some pretty angry sex. There was a murder, too, a woman who supposedly slipped down the stairs. Socks. Basket. That kind of thing. But the woman’s head wounds were incompatible with her husband’s story. Police think hammer, hoe, drain pipe. No murder weapon has been found. Yet.
I sip my glass of now-warm milk. I know a little about crime because of Marcel. That last night, we went to bed as usual, alarm set so he could wake up and turn up the heat at some crucial budding phase. The next thing I knew, Marcel’s hand covered my mouth.
“Quiet,” he whispered, slipping out of bed.
At first, I thought it was my heart pounding, but then I knew it was the baby telling me something with her whole, impossibly small body. I got out of bed and put on my shoes. While Marcel headed toward the back rooms, I slipped down the hall toward the kitchen, grabbing things as I did. Purse. Sweater. Keys. A stack of hundreds in the kitchen junk drawer. I was sweating and praying, and then I saw lights go on. Flash. A crack of window glass. Swearing. Thumping against walls. Then lots of yelling.
Marcel always said, “If someone finds me, it’s not going to be good. Guns and shit.”
“But pot’s legal now,” I reminded him the first time.
“Kind of,” he said.
Outside, I thought to turn back. But instead, I called 911.
“Burglary,” I said and gave the woman our address. “Maybe worse.”
Ten minutes later, I was on the highway. The tank was full, so I headed to my mother’s house and all her disappointment and smelly dogs.
“Cops told me about an informant. Female, they said. Who else could it have been? Shit, after all I fed you,” Marcel said when he finally called from Santa Rita, charged with gun possession and possession of a prohibited weapon, those nunchucks in the kitchen drawer. “That steak. The pies.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Not yet you aren’t.” And then he hung up.
Higgins’ fictional murderer is in Santa Rita Jail. Part of me wishes he was real. Part of me wishes he was Marcel’s cellmate. Because Marcel won’t ever believe I made the call to save him.
“No problem,” I imagine him saying with a snap of his fingers. “I could have taken them, like that.”
After another five minutes, the baby spins herself down into the nest of my hips, bones like a crown around her soft head. I can imagine her, eyes closed, arms crossed, knees up and tucked. I turn off the light and go back to bed.
Higgins sets up the crib. His sister gave it to him, along with a baby bathtub, some clothes, a changing table, and a car seat.
“She was all, ‘God, I’m never having another. Let Amber keep all this stuff for life.’ So here it is.”
“You told her I was here?” I say, feeling places in my body where air should have been. “That I was pregnant?”
Higgins blushes like a firewall. Fast, all at once, red. “Who does Karen know, anyway?”
I lean against the wall and watch him set up the crib, Calla winding around my legs. The last time I saw Karen was at Higgins’ and my high school graduation. She looked just like her mom had when I’d met Higgins. Who did Karen know? She was almost twelve years older than us, in her late twenties then. Higgins had been a “surprise baby,” as Mrs. Higgins used to say. So Karen probably didn’t know Marcel or any of his “associates.” She and her husband were shortish and slightly lumpy. Their toddler sat like a potato in her dad’s arms, the other two were running around on the football field shrieking. I can only hope the crib isn’t contagious.
“You’re right,” I say. “That’s really nice of her.”
Later, Higgins serves up some soup he bought. “It’s got spinach in it,” he says, handing me a bowl of hotness that swirls with vegetables. “That’s important.”
I start eating, only caring that it’s not cereal. “It’s good,” I say.
“And stuff like that is better for the baby.” He sits down with a bowl but doesn’t eat. I swallow, wipe my mouth, glance at him. He’s slightly sweaty, glowing, his thin hair sticking up straight, his glasses pressed against his nose for a change.
“What?” I ask.
“Aren’t you excited?” he asks.
“About the soup?” I swallow another spoonful and then another, suddenly ravenous. He pushes some sliced bread toward me, and I eat one piece and another, smearing butter over each slice. I can’t stop, draining the soup bowl and then taking Higgins’ bowl, too. It’s like I can finally taste stuff, even if it’s overcooked spinach, canned tomatoes, mushy chickpeas. He sits back and watches until I’m done.
“The baby. Excited.”
On command, the baby kicks, spins inside me like a cog in a machine, her six o’clock gyration. “Not really. But not unexcited.”
Higgins beams, stands up, and gets me another bowl of soup.
That night, Calla and Higgins slip into bed with me. Calla, I get. Higgins? It’s been two months of me hiding out at his house, after all. My mother’s two-pack-a-day addiction had pushed me here. That and her lurching about after her third drink of the night, ranting, “Your asshole father! Your asshole grandmother! Scum of the earth. Ha!”
It gives me the creeps, though, his arm around me. Yeah, we used to spoon like this when we were kids, one of us upset about something huge. You know, what gets us all upset: parents’ horrible remarks, being teased, being rejected by the most beautiful guy in school. Or in Higgins’ case, bullied. Pushed around, beat up, smashed in the mud. But we are officially older now. People who should be sleeping with other people.
But what can I say? He feeds me and got me a crib. He literally butters my bread.
I wait for his next move. Breast. Ass. But it’s stomach. Baby, actually. He rubs in slow circles from my lower abdomen up to just above my belly button, his hand warm and dry and gentle. The baby spins her little spin. Elbow. Knee. Foot.
Marcel used to flip me over like a griddlecake and munch his way down my middle. He’d whap me around to the other and ride me from behind. He’d slap me on top of him and make me gallop him all the way home.
Higgins doesn’t seem to want more. But, I think as I fall asleep, is there anything that easy from anyone?
The baby kicks. Calla purrs. Higgins snores. I blink into the dim light of the bedroom and wait. Higgins pulls me close.
Even though Higgins turned off the porch light and didn’t carve a pumpkin, the doorbell starts ringing about five. The kids stomp down the path and scream, parents waiting up on the street, chatting and drinking out of red plastic cups. The night sky bears down, hugging the streetlight. The neighborhood was closed off about four with yellow police tape, and now, the whole street vibrates with noise. Calla has slipped under the house.
Earlier, Higgins told me to put on the clown outfit.
“Just in case. And if anyone asks, you’re my cousin,” he said as he filled a metal bowl with Dumdums and KitKats.
“You’re prepared,” I said.
“I hate it when I don’t have candy.” He put the bowl on a chair by the door. “It’s wrong. Can’t stand their disappointed faces.”
So now I sit at the dining room table, finishing Higgins’ story and listening to him say, “And what are you? Elsa? From that Frozen movie? And you? A little NASA dude?”
I nod to their high-pitched answers, my clown hair bobbing. In the story, the murderer sits in his cell. Back at the murder house, one character plots another murder. That’s one busy house. After a half hour, Higgins comes into the dining room, the bowl empty.
“I have to go to the store.” He walks into the kitchen and rummages in the cupboards.
He comes back into the dining room, carrying a yellow bag of chocolate chips. Back in high school, they were a staple, what we used to make cookies with after smoking a joint. Marcel never stooped so low. His chips were always from France, slick, dark, and smooth, melting into perfect shine on the copper double boiler. Everything he did was the opposite of what I grew up with. Even his food was mysterious, new, maybe even dangerous.
“Give them these if they come to the door.”
“Their parents will think I’m trying to poison them.”
“Just don’t,” Higgins says with a flick of a smile. “Do you need anything?”
Then he’s out the door to the garage. I hear the car start, the garage door bang down shut.
No one rings the bell, but I pour the chocolate chips into a small bowl, just in case. But even my mother would have made me throw them out if I returned with this after trick-or-treating.
“God damn cyanide,” she would have said. “Sick bastards.”
I go back to reading Higgins’ story. It’s the narrator’s and his lover’s last night in the murder house. He knows that his lover is going to do something bad. That’s how he rolls, this guy. He probably killed someone just before they got to the house, and he seemed to be wanting to kill someone after. The narrator’s attracted to all his sickness, but he’s tired of it, too.
Of course—and I’ll tell Higgins this later—he should have thought about this murder issue earlier. Maybe in the first paragraph. No one’s going to read this story and not say that. But like most of us, Higgins’ character is messed up, confused, sad. He doesn’t know who he can really trust. And I guess when that happens, one reaction is to kill whoever is in your way.
I snort, sit back in my chair, strain to hear some kids coming down the path. But it’s quiet out there, as if Halloween was cancelled. I close the journal, push it to the middle of the table.
When I met Marcel, I thought he was the one I could be with. I spotted him as he scanned the utensils. He found his pasta wheel, spun, and yes, from across the room our eyes met. Sad but true. Next thing, I was at his place all the time, working in the back rooms, trimming the plants, eating, smoking. Having a lot of clearly unprotected sex. The good news is that I only have a baby to show for that questionable behavior.
But mostly, questionable is all I know. People do one thing, and the next you know, the windows are being bashed in. There you are, driving into downtown Oakland wearing a clown costume. My baby won’t know who her father is or maybe who I am, red-haired and all. The way things are going, I’ll end up in labor wearing this very outfit.
Marcel would have wanted me to testify. To make me say what he wants me to say. I’d never be able to leave after that. Not with the baby. The ongoing legal case. His sudden poverty. His inability to cook anything.
“Escape hatch,” he once said. “Your mom’s house. Get rid of those fucking dogs first.”
The past week, as Higgins spooned me all night, his hand didn’t move from my belly. I always knew he was good. I should have seen it back in school. But like his poor character trapped in the murder house, I wanted more.
Higgins has a crib. Soup. A place where, after Marcel forgets about me, I might be safe.
The doorbell rings, once, twice. A kick of gravel. A shuffle. Giggling? Kids pulling a prank? A trick? I stand, stretch a little, a hand to my sore back. The baby kicks. I pick up the bowl of chocolate chips and head to the door.
“I promise they aren’t poison,” I will say.
But it’s too late. Everything is poison, and I know that when I open the door. Marcel, not in costume, but just as scary as if he were Death carrying his scythe. He’s thinner, his hair cropped close. For the first time, his cheekbones slash sharp ridges across his face. His hands are huge, pale, white, and I imagine them around my neck. For our entire relationship, he’d been high, but now he’s awake and wicked, dark eyes black in the porch light.
“Trick or treat,” he says.
Marcel takes a hard look at my face, my hair, my belly, the end of the story right there in his eyes. “Holiday’s over,” he says.
“No.” I shake my head, back up, holding my belly.
Marcel laughs, unpleasant and harsh.
“Time for our happy little life,” he says, reaching for me. Reaching for me some more, until I realize he’s not reaching but falling, his body thumping hard to the foyer tile.
Higgins’ yell echoes in the house. In the pause between the end of sound and the start of movement, Higgins stands where Marcel once had, a bag of Kit Kats tucked under his left arm, one of his mother’s garden gnomes clutched tight in his right hand. In the yellow foyer light, his eyes are wild. He breathes hard. The gnome is streaked with blood.
Then he steps over Marcel and pulls him all the way inside with one hand. Behind him, his outline, an optical illusion, Higgins’ exact shape, gone when I blink. Standing in front of me, Higgins is straighter, taller, bigger, wider, filling up the foyer.
I nod, but nothing is certain. Just seconds ago, I was at the dining room table, reading Higgins’ story. I have no idea how it will end. Same as tonight.
But for now, we stare at each other. Then Higgins tosses the candy on the foyer table, turns toward the door, and slams it shut.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of thirteen traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her latest, How to Bake a Man, was published October 2014 by Ghostwoods Books. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension.