Fiction by Lindsey Crittenden
The summer before her twin brother, Ned, was killed after stealing a vial of crack, Wendy stayed indoors. The heat broke records, riots erupted in neighborhoods she’d never heard of, building supers found newborn babies in dumpsters (the police suspected a copycat phenomenon), and humid glare pressed against office and apartment windows. Wendy blasted the A/C, unplugged her phone, and read every word of the newspapers. On Fridays, when the office closed early, she went home. Neither her office nor apartment felt good—nothing for some time would feel good—but being alone freed her from the proximity of other people’s bodies and the relentless, sticky heat. When invitations arose to a movie, a party, a weekend at a friend’s sister’s lakeside cabin, she said No. Wendy didn’t know if her brother was back in jail, back on the streets with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Carla, or back on the basement couch at their mother’s. She’d stopped listening to the messages on the answering machine, especially when her mother went on so long about “your brother’s latest shenanigans” that the beep cut her off and she phoned again to keep going, except that Wendy hit Erase as soon as she recognized the voice.
HOT HOT HOT, screamed the Daily News. ENOUGH ALREADY, entreated the Post. The Times announced, Con Ed asking for restraint in home appliance use and ran features in the Home section on old-fashioned remedies for heat rash and sleeping on fire escapes. And, one Friday in August, Newsday asked, WHAT’S A MOTHER TO DO? Daisy Hutson, a sixty-eight-year-old Queens woman with ample features and tired-looking eyes, had shot her daughter once in the chest. “Addicted to crack,” “only child,” “stolen ATM card,” “stolen cash,” “failed rehab,” “at the end of her rope”—Wendy bought all four papers and carried them to her office, where she closed the door and read how mother and daughter had once enjoyed a close relationship until daughter started smoking crack. The Times reported that Daisy—as Wendy thought of her, though all four papers called her Ms. Hutson—had told police that lies, theft, and violence had changed her only child. Daisy, as the News put it, had had enough.
A close relationship. That was the phrasing of the Daily News—so vague, and yet in that vagueness, plenty of space for Wendy to move right in. All morning, she signed off on layouts only to remember later a date she hadn’t checked, a spelling she’d forgotten to verify. Distracted and, by lunch, determined, Wendy tapped into databases and found Daisy’s address, out on the blue line of the A train.
Wendy left work at one o’clock. Laughter exploded from the art director’s office where her colleagues huddled over proofs and drank shots from pleated paper cups taken from the water cooler. At the elevator bank, she almost collided with Jackson. A freelancer, he came in the office once or twice a month and had asked her to movies, dinner, a day of sailing up at City Island. She made up excuses, avoiding contact with his large, limpid brown eyes. Like a puppy at the pound, she’d told Melissa in June, over beers on Columbus Avenue, the last time Wendy had gone out, before the heat got so bad that no one sat outside by choice.
“It’s like he wants to get to know me.”
Melissa raised an eyebrow. “That’s usually the way it works, Wen.”
At the elevator bank, Jackson’s face broke into a smile as he thrust at Wendy a bunch of tulips. “Here. From the farmers’ market.” Pink and white, the petals had begun to curl.
She held the newspapers to her chest and pushed past Jackson into the open elevator, the brushed-metal doors of which slid shut to bounce back her distorted reflection. She felt no relief, no twinge of conscience at her rudeness, only the urgency of her errand.
Outside, the sun gave no appearance of having changed its position since dawn, beating down through a thick layer of gauze. Every air conditioner on the block strained like a truck pulling a hill. By the time Wendy got to the subway, her cotton skirt clung to her legs and grit peppered her chest. The steps stunk of piss, and stale heat rose faster and hotter as a train pulled in, brakes screeching. Wendy sat between a woman filling out a book of word puzzles and a man whose overcoat, the sight of it, made Wendy itch. The doors shut.
At 57th, the woman with the puzzles got off and a man wearing brown trousers and a thin-woven Filipino shirt took her place. He stared at Wendy’s feet. Some cultures, she’d read somewhere, consider bare toes and painted toenails dangerously provocative, almost a crime. The closest she’d ever get. “Our model citizen,” her mother used to say in what had, for a while, sounded like praise, when—after Wendy made the case that she and Ned would be safe at home in the afternoons without a babysitter and their mother agreed to give it a go—she’d come home to find not only an unloaded dishwasher and a table set for dinner but her children on the living room floor, coloring or playing Crazy 8s and Go Fish or, later, War. Ned got deemed “our free spirit,” a moniker that continued up through seventh grade, when he rolled pencil shavings in binder paper during a Just Say No presentation. He lit up, which resulted in a trip to the principal’s office, and their mother had laughed despite herself. A recent rambling message had exclaimed, “Outran all those guards! Your brother always was the fastest boy in his class.” At such moments, Wendy felt sour, rigid, humorless. Hush, hush, Daisy would murmur, pressing Wendy’s face into her soft shoulder, and Wendy wouldn’t have to say a thing.
Ten stops to go. The man across the aisle pulled out a sketchpad. Wendy often saw people sketching on a crowded subway, where so many worthy subjects presented themselves: the guy in tight jean cut-offs, as high up his leg as hot pants and wearing a live ferret around his neck; the young boy kneeling on his seat to watch out the window for the third rail to spark; the punker with a lapful of knitting. But here, on this sparsely and not very interestingly populated train, what could have caught the man’s eye? Wendy’s toenails? Tears pricked her eyes, not the first time lately that she’d choked up for what seemed like nothing, while what seemed to merit crying left her dry-eyed. She picked up a newspaper.
Daisy had pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree manslaughter and third-degree weapons possession. Bail was set at $50,000 and Daisy placed on suicide watch. The Queens DA said that while he couldn’t condone the taking of a human life, he couldn’t help but understand the depth of Mrs. Hutson’s despair and the extent of her anguish. Wendy recognized “couldn’t help but understand” as the kind of phrase that only someone who meant it literally would use, and she felt a stab of solidarity with the DA.
The last time she’d seen Ned, at a sushi place on East Eighth Street, he’d hugged her hard enough to break a rib. She’d been fifteen minutes late, running from Union Square to find him seated at the glossy teak bar where a narrow current of water carried domino-sized slabs of raw fish on small rafts. He’d already heaped his plate with yellowtail and fatty tuna, and deftly chopsticked so much more for her that she had to cover her plate with her napkin to get him to stop. He’d insisted on paying, pulling out a roll of twenties as thick as an Ace bandage.
“Where’d you get that kind of cash?”
He’d grinned, raised an eyebrow. “Diversification.”
“Meaning Mom gave you some and you stole the rest.”
The grin vanished. She looked for a glimmer of the little boy facing her down over a deck of cards, saw someone she barely knew.
“I’m just worried about you.” Her words sounded hollow and wasted, and her hand hovered over his arm because she was afraid to touch him. “He’s gotten so skinny,” her mother’s voice had announced one day before Wendy got to the Erase button.
At the corner a block from the restaurant, she turned to him. “Take care, okay?”
“Take care? Shit, Wen, you can do better than that.” He rolled on the balls of his feet, grinned fast and loose, a longtime signal that he was teasing. His gaze darted everywhere but at her until, for a blistering split-second, their eyes met and she knew that he wasn’t joking at all. She could do better, a lot better. A sound came out of her mouth, but by then he’d dashed around a bus, dodged a cursing taxi driver, and was gone.
The train climbed out of the tunnel onto a rickety elevated platform. The man across the aisle had fallen asleep, his head lolling and the sketchpad slipped to the bench. Wendy felt sharp disappointment, way out of proportion to its cause. The train passed a grimy building, eye-level with fourth-floor windows jammed with swamp coolers, a dusty pink pelargonium in a coffee can, Little Mermaid pillowcases hanging limp from a laundry line, a mattress wedged onto a fire escape, looking like nothing from the Home section.
The train began a wide turn, its front cars doubling back so that from the rear, where Wendy sat, the windows looked out on the train’s red exterior, now faded and scoured to pale pink. Once, she’d covered sheets of paper with crayon, the more complicated design the better (double and triple rainbows, checkerboard grids, tangled doodles), and painted over the crayon with black. While Ned shot Hot Wheels off the kitchen table and turned chairs upside-down for ramps, she’d waited for the black paint to dry and used a pencil to scrape through the layer of black to reveal the pattern beneath.
The train slowed to a stop, the doors beeped, and a long arm snaked in through the gap. A body followed, two more, and three lanky teenagers pushed each other into the car, laughing and howling obscenities. Wendy flinched, the man in the Filipino shirt jerked awake with rapid blinks and a wipe of his mouth, and a heavy-set woman stood up and moved to the other end of the car. The boys sprawled on the bench seats, legs and feet jutting like felled trees, pants so far down that their belts cinched their thighs. Reefer rose from them, thick and cloying.
Two more stops, and the train screeched into Bedford. Wendy moved to the door and when it opened, a wall of heat pushed in. She hesitated, and the teenagers jostled her, the bare skin of their arms sticking briefly to hers. Metal gleamed deep in the gap at the platform’s edge. Dizzy, she looked up. In a dark mouth, a diamond glinted against a startlingly white tooth and wet, pink gums. She shut her eyes, tasted pennies.
“Miss. Miss!” A hand pulled her onto the platform. The teenagers bounded ahead and down the station steps two at a time, their voices ricocheting in what sounded like a foreign language and one of them tossing something that flew through the air before falling on the platform. A brown bird, shot down. Wendy’s wallet. She gave a cry, reached out.
“Miss. Please sit.”
She was being moved across the platform until hardness met the backs of her thighs, and she sat.
“There you are. Right here. Excuse my touch.” A hand pressed her shoulders. The man—for it was a man, she could smell a man’s hair product from long ago, an uncle at Thanksgiving, maybe—picked up her wallet, gathering the spilled coins and the spare key. Her ID and debit cards remained tucked in their slots, but the dollar bills—ten or twelve of them, all singles—were gone. She spat a long, sour thread out onto the platform, and leaned forward on spread knees, bending into the apron of her skirt, where the weave and texture spun in complexity.
“All right. All right now. That is better. You will be all right.”
The man from the train, the one with the sketchpad, held her wallet in his palm, his fingers curled to show fingernails as small as a child’s. Swirls of soft dark hair grew beneath his ear and along his jaw. Fine beads of sweat hung from the peach fuzz on his upper lip.
“You’re just a kid!” Wendy gripped the hem of his shirt, bunching the thin fabric. “I wanted you to draw me!” Tears again, stinging and hot, down her cheeks. She didn’t wipe them away.
He stared straight ahead. She let go of his shirt and he drew himself up, as though trying to appear taller.
“In my country, women do not often travel alone. I will help you to the street. It is very hot. Can you stand?”
“I think so.”
She took his arm, and they moved to the staircase. At the bottom, between the turnstiles and the curb, a small cart sat top-heavy and perilous with mangoes and plantains and bananas and plums, watermelons stacked like green cannonballs. The boy spoke to a sweating man seated on a folding stool behind the cart, and the man nodded as the boy reached for a plum. “Here.” The boy handed it to Wendy. “You should go home.”
She stared at the plum, dense with the promise of juice, and peered at the fruit vendor. Had Daisy eaten this man’s fruit?
“I’ve been home all summer,” Wendy said, but the boy had slipped away. She staggered a rough circle but couldn’t see him, so much grabbed at her—the bright awnings of the stores across the street, the belch of exhaust from an idling bus, the shrieks of children dancing around an open hydrant, foot-tall superheroes lurching mechanically from leashes tied to the open door of a discount store. So many people, chatting and laughing and shouting. A man leaned across the front seat of a double-parked car, shouting at a woman in a tank top and shorts, who stood with her arms crossed and her back to him. One of the superheroes fell over, and its feet continued marching in the air.
Some answer would emerge, if she stood there long enough. A flash of hope moved through her, followed by grief and, just as fast—could it be?— lightning. Another, and the sharp crack of thunder. Faces turned skyward, a man cheered. Wendy hadn’t thanked the boy, hadn’t asked his name or where he was from. The sky darkened, and an ailanthus tree bent in a gust of wind. Women began to run, their sandals flapping. One of them held her belly, as round and full as if she’d strapped on a ball, and shouted at kids swarming a cooler of ices. One of the kids stuck out a bright green tongue.
Wendy bit into the plum, its juice mingling with the salt of sweat and tears. Wind blew her hair into her mouth, and her tongue caught its strands tangled in the plum meat. Something tapped her shoulder like a finger, and she turned with relief. He’d come back.
No. It was rain—rain that fell harder and faster, rain that poured, rain that mingled with plum juice and ran down her chin, rain that plastered her skirt to her thighs and hips and her hair to her scalp, rain that pelted the sidewalk and street and buses and cars and awnings. She stood, drenched, before the storm moved on and she crossed the street and climbed to the inbound platform. In the years to come, Wendy would think of this summer and recall the way the heat, when she lifted her face to it, felt good for an instant before it became too much again.