Bristles

by John Oliver Hodges

CJS15-Bristles-HodgesMarigold wanted a Chihuahua. George gave her a Royal Dansk Butter Cookie tin. What burned was the Chihuahua could not in it be. There was no chance of it, but Marigold peeled the lid off anyway on this her seventieth birthday, and saw the stupid thing, a silver hat squashed down in there. She stared at it motionlessly for two seconds, three seconds, four seconds, then looked up at George. “Where’s my dog?”

“I’m going for a walk,” George said, and left their house that during World War Two had barracked military men working for a coastal division of the Army. Said men spent their lives staring through binoculars at the gulf waters, searching out Nazi periscopes. Now the old base was a retirement community named Indian Haven. The winters were generally cruel and desolate, but come summer families from far away as Maine took up residence. Each year the vacationers gave the place the ambiance of a beach resort.

George walked for the beach, but a child pedaled his way, her hair another of the flower bushes to make Indian Haven so redolent and colorful. “No hands!” she cried, her face radiating supreme joy. The bike wobbled, veered. George and the girl and the bike collapsed on the asphalt in a tangled heap.

Marigold filled a glass with Zinfandel. She brought the glass to her lips, sipped off the top, left the kitchen to sit in her favorite chair by the front windows. Here she donned her spectacles, opened the Sunday edition of the Arrow Point Ledger, found the police blotter, and read: Clyde Bruckheimer was arrested Saturday morning after police found a love letter on the counter of Olive’s Oysters. Mr. Bruckheimer broke into the establishment after closing hours Friday night and proceeded to drink Bud Light. Police believe Bruckheimer wrote the letter while committing the crime, then forgot to take it with him.

How anybody could be so foolish amazed Marigold. This shameless act had marked poor Clyde Bruckheimer as a blockhead. Maybe you couldn’t see the word printed across his forehead, but if you squinted real hard, Marigold betted, the letters might begin to appear. Must’ve been drunk on the Bud Light, she thought. This Bruckheimer character hadn’t much up in the belfry.

Marigold set the paper in her lap, slipped off her specs, and stared out the window at the house across the street, identical to theirs but for its pink paint, and the periwheels and plastic flamingos spearing the yard. Such moments made her yearn for the Chihuahua, but George, dear George, was allergic to fur.

Marigold’s thoughts returned to the silver hat. George probably bought the hat at Flora’s Junque Shoppe, then stopped at Piggly Wiggly for the butter cookies. Marigold pictured George throwing the cookies into the air for the gulls to catch. George loved throwing stuff up into the air for the gulls to catch.

When George returned with the little bloody-faced girl, Marigold was wearing the silver hat. “George!” she cried.

“We’ve had an accident!” George said.

The child’s name was Kimberly Barkesdale. Her dad was the mayor of Gloversville, New York. She liked Sugar Babies. She liked sunflower seeds. She took pride, though, in the fact that her favorite food of all was the corn on the cob. She had been riding bikes since she was six. Now she was eight. This was her first wipeout. The blood taste was not new to Kimberly Barkesdale, but the hot thick stuff wallowing in her throat disconcerted her. A bright river of it streamed down her shin. “It was his fault,” Kimberly told the tall old lady. “He jumped in front of me and knocked me down.”

“Why you little!” George cried.

“George!” Marigold admonished.

“You steered that instrument of pain straight into my groin, you little—”

“For Godsake, George, can’t you see the poor child is hurt? Come with me, dear. Pretty soon you’ll be good as new.”

In the bathroom Marigold sat on the commode. She dabbed the child’s face with a wet washcloth that quickly pinkened. “Dear me, what a brave child,” Marigold said. The little girl had busted her nose and split her lip. An abrasion crowned her knee.

Marigold folded some toilet paper into two small capsules. She plugged the child’s nose. She splashed hydrogen peroxide onto the child’s knee, wrapped the knee with gauze and taped the gauze. “Your mother’s going to be so proud of you,” she said, at which point the child’s mouth began to tremble.

Kimberly Barkesdale did not like the M-word. Hearing it made her heart hurt. She just wished nobody would say it, but they said, Where’s your mother? and I’ll need to ask your mother, and Your mother’s going to be so proud.

“You’re upset,” Marigold said. “I don’t blame you. Come to the living room.” Marigold offered the child her hand. The little girl grabbed it.

In the kitchen Marigold said, “George? Any butter cookies left?”

“You know there aren’t.”

“What did you do with them?”

“I scattered them along the edge of the golf course to try and lure the bears in.”

“Bears?” Kimberly Barkesdale said.

“George is a nature photographer,” Marigold explained. “He’s always trotting off into the woods, looking for animal life.”

“I never saw a bear,” Kimberly said.

Marigold filled a tall glass with lemonade and mixed a little Zinfandel in with it to calm the child’s nerves. As George talked about his great shots of butterflies, birds, turtles and cats, Marigold ran a comb through the child’s hair. “What’s your name, honey?” Marigold asked her.

“Kimberly Barkesdale.”

Marigold loved the soft gold color of Kimberly Barkesdale’s hair. “You have such lovely hair, Kimberly,” she said, and said, “My name is Marigold. It’s my seventieth birthday today.”

“Let’s go see the bears,” Kimberly said.

“Call me Marigold,” Marigold said.

“Marigold, please let’s go see the bears,” Kimberly begged.

Marigold wanted to laugh, but did not dare. The child’s nasally voice brought to mind a gray sky filled with migrating geese. “We can try to find one,” Marigold said, “but I think we’d best ask your mommy. Which of these old war barracks do you live in, Kimberly?”

“No,” Kimberly said, “let’s go see the bears.”

“If it were that simple,” George said, “there’d be bristles in my portfolio.”

“I’m going to see the bears,” Kimberly stated, and tugged herself free from Marigold. Marigold felt a tiny voice cry out inside her. Her hand reached up and grabbed the child’s elbow, a soft turkey-neck-like thing telling of easy bruises. Marigold checked herself, did not grab on tight as the impulse told her to. Had she done that she would have been sore ashamed. She pictured the child yanking, screaming, saw herself falling out of the chair, grabbing onto hair and limb in an effort to hold her, keep her close. Instead Marigold behaved correctly. At the slightest tug she released Kimberly, and the child finished her lemonade concoction.

“Give me a minute to put on my sunscreen,” Marigold said. She stood, took off the silver hat, placed it on the child’s head.

“Goodie goodie!” Kimberly cried out.

Marigold feared that should she leave the room, upon returning, the child would be gone, but stepping into harsh sunlight unprotected was unforgivable. She said, “George, tell Kimberly about the bear we saw when we visited Alaska on our silver anniversary,” and hurried to the bathroom to smear sunscreen onto her face and arms. Normally she would have lathered up her legs as well, but her knee-length dress exposed only her shins. She guessed her shins would survive, and hurried back to Kimberly, and the two of them left the house.

Indian Haven was a city of sunlight built upon a mirror this day. The heat reflected off the mirror and blew up Marigold’s skirt as the green trees beyond the golf course undulated in a thick woof of interlocking branches and worm-like vines. She held the child’s moist hand as they stepped along the bright walks, but once on the greensward Kimberly ran ahead in her eagerness to find a bear. In the wide-brimmed silver sunhat, the child’s body looked like the dangling sensors of a flying saucer, or the legs of a jellyfish. Marigold called out the dear heart’s name, but onward Kimberly soared. Get back here this minute, you! she thought, and was duly surprised to see the flying saucer tilt and swing around and course gallopingly her way above the green.

Marigold held back the impulse to squat and open her arms for the child. She did not want to come across as a touchy-feely sort. Marigold wanted the child to respect her, and to yearn for the sound of her voice.

As the child approached, Marigold straightened her back and shifted slightly so that the sun was behind her. The child looked up at her shadowy breathing tallness to say, “I heard a bear, Marigold. I think he was hungry and wanted to eat me.”

George Ball was not one for digital photography. George, born in the age of the typewriter, still owned his father’s Underwood. Things computer bugged George Ball. He was a strict Kodacolor man who valued utilitarian simplicity, and loved guava paste on pumpernickel toast in the morning. Of late he wished he’d been an artist in life. It did not matter much now, of course, but boy did George love arranging compositions in the window of his Nikon. What a thrill to pick up his developed pictures from Eckerd! Upon gazing at his creations, his butterflies in flight, his palmetto abstractions, he salivated. The week before, Marigold, at the sight of George pouring over his new shots, remarked, “George, if you’re going to have an orgasm, step into the water closet.” That had hurt. George was accustomed to Marigold’s wit, but it seemed to him that Marigold was jealous of his newfound joy in photography, that it would not bother her if he gave it up, him the old childless untalented nothing, an already paid for manicured plot at the Episcopalian cemetery in Tallahassee awaiting his body.

But was George Ball a quitter? Hell no. Inspired afresh by Marigold’s cruelty he slipped on the knapsack containing his camera gear, grabbed the lightweight tripod mail-ordered from B&H Photo in Manhattan, and set out to take some earth-shattering pictures that would leave his mark upon the world.

The child grabbed Marigold’s hand as they approached the forest, and squeezed it, all on her own, without any goading or crafty manipulation on Marigold’s part. This gesture of trust and familiarity melted Marigold’s heart. She felt noble and respectable and motherly and proud. Though she had wanted a Chihuahua more than anything for her birthday, she knew that had George not given her the silver hat, he would not have stormed out of the house earlier to bring back Kimberly Barkesdale. God bless the silver hat! Marigold looked down at Kimberly. “I love you,” she unthinkingly told the child, and added, “If I was your mommy, I would do everything you said.”

“My dad is gay,” Kimberly remarked.

“I’ve known a few gay people in my time,” Marigold said.

“I don’t have a mommy,” Kimberly said.

Marigold stopped walking.

The child looked up into Marigold’s face.

“Call me Mommy,” Marigold said, and smiled ever so slight, awaiting the musical word that would lift her spirits.

Only the child’s face soured. The child looked away. The child removed her hand from Marigold’s hand.

Oh, but would Marigold let herself be crushed by a fly? On her birthday? The twit had it coming. It wasn’t like Marigold had asked much of the brat. As they walked on, Kimberly’s insult grew larger in Marigold’s mind, but the sandy mouth of the woods funneled them onto the trail that led into the unthinkable haywire swamps and trenches of Tate’s Hell.

They looked for bears along the way, found a turtle, counted its plates, sixteen. “That means the turtle is twice as old as you, Kimberly.”

“Is not. I’m a lot bigger than that turtle.”

“Okay dear, have it your way,” Marigold said, “but just think if you had a shell wrapped around your body. Would you like that, Kimberly?”

“Yes,” Kimberly said. “Is that why the bear doesn’t eat the turtle, because of his shell?”

“Oh, my, you are so smart,” Marigold said. “I never thought of it that way, but I guess it would be like trying to eat a pecan without cracking it. What an unpleasant experience that would be. I would not have a tooth left to speak of.”

The child laughed. Maybe there was hope for her yet.

The trail siphoned them through an oak hammock scattered with magnolia, and dipped them into some cool swampy woods where the mosquitoes, appetites whetted by the sweet aroma of the child’s blood, fell upon them in a sudden horde. The child slapped at the air. In her fury, the two toilet paper capsules shot from her nose and landed in the mud. Marigold watched a mosquito land on one.

“We’d best to head back,” Marigold said.

George arrived at the trailhead and saw the narrow imprints of Marigold’s shoes, plus the imprints of shoes much smaller than Marigold’s. The sight made George feel incompetent. He’d married three times, but weren’t children annoying little stinkers anyway? Besides that, George still thought of his father, long dead, as horrible. George kept the Underwood due to a perverse desire to remember the attentions he never received. His father had cared deeply for that typewriter. He dusted it and oiled the joints and changed the spools when they ran out of ink, and just generally put up a fuss over the wellbeing of the thing. Many were the times George fumed over his father’s attentions to the Underwood, and George’s mother was little more than a smudge in his mind. When George thought of his mother, he saw a vertical lump covered in a print dress, leaning over the stove in the kitchen of their coldwater flat in Brooklyn. George was five when his mother disappeared. His father told him she’d moved to Disney Land, but George suspected him of clubbing her to death with a milk bottle then dumping her body in the New Jersey meadows.

The Underwood. It was because of the Underwood that George told Marigold the lie that he was allergic to dogs. By now Marigold knew it was a lie, and George had considered getting her the Chihuahua, only what if she started doting on the damn thing the way his dad had doted on the Underwood? It was ridiculous. To think that a man George’s age could even think of his damn dad all these years later. It was pathetic, beyond pathetic, weird, unreasonable and plain stupid.

Nevertheless, the little footprints in the sand made George wish he had a son. If a man died with no children, what did that make him? A carrier of an anti-life gene? George shouted, “Marigold!” feebly.

Nothing.

Nor had George liked Marigold running the comb through the child’s hair. When she’d done that George pictured himself lifting the Underwood above his head and dropping it down upon the small girl. In his mind he saw Kimberly Barkesdale collapse upon the tiles, the liar. George shouted Kimberly’s name.

Kimberly Barkesdale lifted a dead palm frond and swung it at the mosquitoes. “I hate you!” she cried, but they continued to land on her. Kimberly hated bugs, stepped on spiders and ants and pulled the legs off crickets. Up in Gloversville her dad and his partner sometimes drove her to the Sacandaga where she watched them assemble their sailboards. They spent hours combating the waves wiggling over the water. At the Sacandaga Kimberly battled horseflies while awaiting their return, but worse were the black flies. The black flies left Kimberly dotted with sores that burned itchingly for weeks.

“Stop that, you. It’s not going to do any good,” the old woman said.

“Shut up you dumb bitch!” Kimberly shrieked, and struck the woman with the palm frond. The dry leaves broke into slivers against the old woman’s dress. Kimberly was distressed to see the old lady teeter on one leg, then fall backwards, but her daddies might well have loved it. When her daddies talked about women there was always a bitch in there. “That dumb bitch doesn’t know her asshole from a hole in the ground,” and “If I had a penny for every time I heard that dumb bitch contradict herself, I’d have a dollar.”

A hairpin popped out of the woman’s head when she landed on her butt. A long thick lock of gray hair unraveled snakelike across her face.

“Help me!” the old woman cried.

“You’re not my mommy!”

“Help me, please help me!”

George found a bear print in the sand where the sand thinned out to the side of the trail. He had seen many prints such as this, but this one was both perfect and picture worthy. He opened the legs of his tripod, attached his Nikon, and snapped three pictures. He was going to snap a fourth, but really, what good was a picture like this? This was not wildlife. This was mere evidence of a genuine article, of a creature who through superior senses promised to remain elusive.

George continued along the trail. At a split he examined the forest floor and determined that Marigold and the child veered left. George veered left, stopping here and there to call out the name of his wife. He heard nothing back. Blue-tailed skinks scurried across the path.

George stopped to photograph a bright orange cow ant.

Hawk shadows rose and fell over the scrubby ground.

A slick length of black between two tufts of grass caught his attention. George stepped backwards, fearing a pit viper. The thing was too fat to be a black racer. George picked up a stick and tossed it onto it and the snake peeled out into the little glade. George saw amazingly that it was an Eastern King. He followed it, raising his camera stumblingly and snapping up sloppily composed frames that were sure to be blurred.

“Help!” Marigold called out, her voice too faint to create an echo in the forest. The bark, the sun, the sand, the mud, the sky, the vines, the bristles of the pines—it, they, absorbed her voice, chomped into it and swallowed it. She hoped that she had not broken her hip. The pain was unbearable. “Please, Jesus,” she said, and pictured herself back home with a small dog, a Chihuahua most preferably, that’s all she wanted, and a glass of Zinfandel, to relax in her chair while reading of some Clyde Bruckheimer so overwhelmed by love that he’d leave evidence of his crime in plain view for anyone to come along and find.

George chased the snake across the glade. Half running with his camera raised to his face, he tripped over a rusted muffler and fell into a broad hole in the earth, his camera flying off as with wings, then dropping with him into the hole, his lenses and filters and extra rolls of film squirting out of his camera bag like hot buttered popcorn.

The bottom of the hole was waterless, thank goodness, but George had sprained his ankle in the tumble. George refused to think of it for now. He still had the snake in his mind. What he loved about the Eastern King was that it stored no venom in its body. If you threw an Eastern King into an aquarium with a rattlesnake, the King would win the fight, the rattler left dead at its feet. Or belly, or tail, or at the foot of its illustrious scales.

Kimberly Barkesdale unwound the gauze from her knee and left it on the trail. She retrieved her bike from the front of the old woman’s house, and pedaled it around the neighborhood, enjoying the superhero feeling provided by the shiny silver hat. She rode her bike along the edge of the woods at the farthest back corner of Indian Haven. As she breezed along beside the wooded barrier she scanned for bears, and imagined herself rising from the bike, letting it crumble to the pavement as she, a flying girl, soared above the trees. While flying she spotted a bear and raced down from the sky and hit it with her fist. The bear clawed through her dress and ripped at her and caused her to bleed, but she was stronger. She karate-kicked its mushy black nose while Clyde Bruckheimer, at his brother’s West of Eastpoint, loaded his Camry with his stuff, including all his pictures of Jennifer.

In her mind, Kimberly Barkesdale knocked a bunch of the bear’s teeth out. She wrapped her arms and legs around his neck, and bit his face as her dad, whom everybody called Mayor, made love to a Polish fellow they’d picked up in Tallahassee on the drive down from Gloversville. Kimberly tamed the bear and rode him through Tate’s Hell. Each time she pedaled by the bungalow she heard her dad and the Polish guy talking back there beyond the windows. Now she pedaled her bear in the direction of the beach, a place her dad had forbidden her to go alone while Marigold crawled through muddy terrain. Marigold was not sure of the path anymore. She thought intermittently of the Chihuahua, convincing herself that it was waiting for her back at the house and needed to be fed. She thought also of her daughter that had run off, and was confused as to why the world had suddenly become so inhospitable. There was a time that people had manners, and showed respect for one another. Marigold realized now that she was crawling through poison ivy. In this realization she spotted some shiny dark scales beneath a few heavy-hanging leaves. She tried to retreat but the coiled thing unraveled and moved her way. It struck her arm and held on as another very large viper rushed wigglingly across the forest floor. It struck her face as Kimberly Barkesdale arrived at the highway. Kimberly dismounted her bear, waited for traffic to pass, then led him into the hot sands that tapered down into the beautiful calm waters of the gulf.

Photo credit

About John Oliver Hodges

In 2012, John Oliver Hodges won the Tartt First Fiction award for his short story collection, The Love Box. His new fictions are appearing in The Writing Disorder; Gravel; The Great American Literary Magazine; Knee-Jerk Magazine; and REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters. John teaches writing at Montclair State University and the Gotham Writers' Workshop. He lives in New Jersey.

John Oliver Hodges

John Oliver Hodges is online at