RUMPUS BOOK CLUB EXCERPT: THIS WARM AND BREATHING THING by JENNIFER FLISS

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Our June 2023 Rumpus Book Club selection is Jennifer Fliss‘s, As If She Had a Say, which uses an absurdist lens to showcase characters—predominantly women—plumbing their resources as they navigate misogyny, abuse, and grief. Read an excerpt below and subscribe by May 15 to the Book Club to receive this title and an invitation to an exclusive conversation with the author via Crowdcast.

 

THIS WARM AND BREATHING THING

Under the blitzing buzzing lights and above the flecked shiny flooring reflecting that blitzing and buzzing yellow lights, I sit and wait. Every time I move, the pleather and metal seat creaks and squeals. Then everyone in the room looks up, assessing where the sound came from. It is the most interesting thing happening in the room. We are all sitting and we are all waiting.

In the corner, runner-up for most interesting thing is an old woman needlepointing. In and out go the thin threads, she pulls and yanks and uses her teeth. She has a tiny pair of scissors that occasionally get taken from a basket. Snip, snip.  Even from across the room I can tell they’re sharp. She doesn’t look up. Punch and pull. Punch and pull.

Beyond the door, there is so much happening of interest. A flurry of tests and fluids, imaging and bodies cracking under pressure. Interesting. Tragic. Hopeful. Depressing. Miraculous. Hopeless.

I’m concerned about the salmon I left in the skillet on the stove. I turned the stove off – of that I am sure. Will I ever get home? And when I do with all the time elapsed and all that has happened, will that salmon have gone moldy and embedded its low tide sea stink into the curtains? Will I have to move? Will I have to get rid of everything?

I have to go to the bathroom, but I don’t want to miss it. Anything. I am also hungry. Do I buy a bag of Combos? It’s leaning against the window of the vending machine as if begging me. As if I could just shake the machine and it would fall and I wouldn’t have to pay for it at all.

The fish will start to stink. It had already smelled up the house as I cooked. It was Copper River salmon. Short season. Expensive. Pinkety pink. It was our anniversary and Brendan had to work late so it was 9pm and I was cooking and the cat came around the corner at the aroma and I fed it canned meat they call pate. I was preparing Brendan and I a fine meal. One we would eat together with wine and the dimmer down low and the local dance station playing on our old kitchen radio. Or maybe he’d just have the wine and we’d listen to classical.

There were vegetables roasting in the oven. Cauliflower – that also stinks when it cooks. Why do we even eat such things? Pulled the baking dish out at first forgetting an oven mitt and nearly burning my fingers. Switched that off too. I am pleased with my foresight to turn these things off – things that could burn down our house. If we let it.

As I had prepared, the lemon had stung the tiny cracks in my hands. I have eczema and I forget this every time. Acid burns. Even know, hours later, my hands are splotched with tiny red dots like an expressionist painting.

A doctor comes in on white sneakers. We all look up. He walks toward one man. Two children, about seven and ten years old, are sitting on the floor by his feet, reading. They belong to the man, the children. He listens to the secret treasures the doctor is imparting. He pulls his son and daughter up by their collars. They’ve grown lethargic in the wait. I had noticed them turning pages of their books, slowly – too slowly. They are led out of the waiting room, the doctor’s hand on the man’s shoulder. The boy and girl trail behind.

The needlepointer still does not look up. One of the kids has left their book under a chair. I wait to see if they return. The clock tick tick ticks. I watch the second hand and I am sure it moves backwards before moving forward again. I dive for the book, then return to my seat without looking at the others in the room. It looks old, worn, used. The pages are yellowed. I recognize the series from my own childhood. There is scrawl inside. Red pen, block lettering. Smiley faces. Doodles. I return to the first page and start to read.

Four pages in, I get a paper cut and am surprised the soft old paper has it in it to still cause such pain. I suck the wound, small, barely visible but painful. It’ll pass, I know.

At 9:07 I got a call. I thought it would be Brendan saying he was going to be late. But it was a bland sounding woman calling from Hartland General and could I please come in as soon as possible? But first she asked if I was in fact Jenna Bartlett and I said yes, yes I am who wants to know and are you calling about Brendan? She said she was but couldn’t say more and could I please come down to Hartland General as soon as possible Mrs. Bartlett, thank you, and then she hung up and the dial tone I was left with a dial tone that sounded like something out of 1990 when Brendan and I met and we were only fourteen and we crank-called people all night. We had eaten pop tarts and grapes and orange soda until we burped. He didn’t kiss me that night. Didn’t for over a decade in fact.

I notice Orange Crush is an option in the other vending machine. The people in the room have helped themselves to many cups of steaming hot coffee (or maybe cocoa) from the third and final machine, something I didn’t even know they made anymore, the hot drink vending machines, that is. I reach for my wallet tucked deep into my tote bag. There I find a couple of rumpled soft-like-laundry dollar bills and feed one to the machine. It comes right back out. I flatten the corners and try again but it is again spit out. I try another bill. Rejected. Another. I kick at the machine. Fuck, I say as the bill slips like a feather to the ground. Fuck.

“Here, let me help you,” says a voice. I turn and see the needlepointer. She is taller than I’d have thought, about my height – five eight. Her thin hair was clearly once coiffed, but it’s fallen and the clearly dyed dark strands cannot conceal her scalp. It looks so vulnerable there, under the pretense of youth. The woman expertly pushes the bill against the window of the machine, slowly running her hand over every crease and fault. She then feeds the machine. “What would you like?” I want to say Diet Coke as if that somehow is more acceptable, but I push the button for Orange Crush and it rattles down the machine and out. I’ll have to wait to open it; don’t want it to blow up everywhere.

“Thanks,” I say and pull a smile onto my face, sure I look like a carnival’s funhouse clown. She opens her mouth to say something more; I can tell she wants to trade stories. She left her needlepoint on her chair. I can see she has stitched the outline of a person with a long neck and the beginning of a cap of dark hair, but the rest isn’t filled in yet. Perhaps it is this woman when she was younger. Perhaps not. She wears a wedding ring but no one else is with her here. She isn’t checking a cell phone. She doesn’t seem impatient. Her eyes are pale gray in that probably once-blue way. Thin hints of lipstick fill the lines around her lips but her lips themselves are the color of the rest of her skin.

“Want a drink?” I offer.

“Gave up soda thirty years ago,” she says. “Along with cigarettes.” She sounds like a hot air balloon full of regrets and I can almost hear the beginning of the leaking air. “Fat lot of good that’s done me.”

“Sorry,” I say because I can’t think of what else to say and I don’t want to hear her story. I think I may know it anyway, pretty much. I crack the tab of the soda too soon and it fizzes and fuzzes with foam. I quickly bring it to my mouth and catch the sweetness. “Thanks again,” I say and sit back in my chair. She too resumes her old spot across the room, resumes her needlepoint work. I stare at the clock as if that will make time go faster.

My hands have become sticky from the soda can. I should wash them. The bathroom is out of this room and down the hallway and I do still have to go anyway. It is a really long journey and things could be missed so I toss the can in the recycling bin and lick my fingers one by one. Another time this might have been sexual, coy. I wipe my hands along my winter parka, which I still have on, that I wear despite it being early spring. I can’t bring myself to think I’ll be staying long or that I don’t need the warmth.

I married Brendan when we were both twenty-eight, twenty years after that night of crank phone calls. We were on-again, off-again friends, went to different colleges, and had gone our separate ways, but we met again at a high school reunion at a bar on a Sunday at 3pm. Drunk and not wanting to walk into the daylight, we made out in a bathroom stall and laughed at the routine the cheerleaders put on. They had planned it and in the wake of flash mobs and videoed coordinated wedding dances, they danced to Hey Mickey and made a human pyramid that eventually fell and while Rachel Burton nursed an injured wrist, everyone laughed and laughed and drank some more. Oh the good old days, Rachel’s former beau and football MVP Mark said. Rachel eventually made a sling out of a white cloth napkin. Rachel, at that point had four children and a pastor husband in an indeterminate sect of Christianity. She wore a long floral skirt and we think this is why she fell off the pyramid; wrong outfit. I heard she has had four more children and lives in Idaho now. Mark died on September 11, 2001. He was a firefighter. We all chipped in a few dollars to send to his wife to help with the grief.

Brendan and I dated for eight months after that before he proposed and we married on the grounds of a barn. It was supposed to be shabby chic, but ended up more shabby than chic and it rained. But we had a great time and laughed and drank and looked into the night like we had all the time in the world until morning.

We decided no kids. We decided to run marathons together. We decided to live in a condo along a lake that had an extra bedroom but we never had any guests.

Last summer I had stopped taking the pill. Wasn’t I too old anyway? Aren’t we past this?, Brendan had asked. And then we were celebrating our anniversary two days later and we still didn’t talk about it and I was making his favorite meal and we would talk about it and revel in the change of plans and it would all be great and I would share my love of reading with her and we would love him so, so much. Would she love salmon? I hope he isn’t allergic to cats. Would I have to deliver via c-section? Could we have a home birth? A water birth? Talk and talk and talk, he said, as I went through our options and he flipped another page of his economics magazine. He said you just talk and talk and talk.

So I said nothing.

A man in pink scrubs comes in and whispers to the needlepointer. She shoves all her things into the basket and follows him very closely, almost stepping on his heels. She nods at me and pulls her mouth thin. I smile back and blink several times as if trying to send her a message via Morse code. I don’t know what I’m saying. A couple minutes later, she comes back in and hands me her embroidery hoop and basket, carefully indicating where the needle is stuck so I don’t hurt myself.

“You’re going to want to have something to do with your hands,” she says and slips back out of the room. I look at the image, which she has made significant progress on. There’s a sun in the top corner. The woman has the same long black hair I do though my hair is currently up in a bun, the same lilac scarf, glasses. A cat rests curled by her side.

I tuck the children’s book into my purse to save for my future reader. Will someone set up one of those personalized fundraising pages for me? At least we have the extra bedroom.

The clock tick tick ticked.

The surgery went well.

We had a few hiccups…

Good news…

I’m sorry to say…

Well, the good news is…

Your Bob is a fighter.

She’s asking for you.

He’s asking for you.

She came through.

I text my neighbor to ask if she can feed the cat. Tell her Brendan is in the hospital. I had woken her up. She said yes of course. Anything else, she asks. I say no and she says she will pray for Brendan. I don’t tell her it’s too late, probably, and that she should pray for me instead.

A half an hour later, I realize I’ve forgotten to ask my neighbor to put away the salmon. I don’t want to bother her further, it’s past midnight. The house will smell like a low running creek. Like cat food gone bad and the wretched section of the local value grocery store displaying previously frozen shrimp and crab legs.

The clock tick tick ticks.

I’m starting to get uncomfortable after that soda. I want to go to the bathroom but what if they come right then? What if I miss the doctor and the update? Then I wonder if I’m not there to receive the news, did it really happen and could Brendan still be in that magical space where he is alive to me still. I cross my legs. I uncross them, let my shoes dangle and then fall off, and wrap my legs to sit cross-legged. I tie my scarf tighter around my neck and look down at the basket of needlepoint supplies. I am not good at crafts. Will I never see that old woman again? I contemplate leaving the basket behind when it’s time for me to go, but I know I won’t.

The seat creaks again with every movement, but there is no one else to hear it. They have come for everyone else. I hear the distant PA and talking just outside the door. Rain pings on the windows and I realize this whole time I could’ve been looking outside, studying something, who knows what, something that is outside this room, something uncontrollable, the weather, the sunset, the night’s descent. That’s it. I’m going. I stand to go to the bathroom, but as I do, the door swings open and I see a white sneakered foot.

At home I notice the salmon and vegetables are gone. The neighbor has cleaned the frying pan and scrubbed the char from the baking dish and they’re now resting in the drying rack. I open the trash, but can’t find the remnants of the meal. The house doesn’t smell like salmon and I am relieved beyond measure. I spy small flakes of pink in the cat’s bowl and I am okay with this. She enjoyed it, I’m sure, this small luxury. Sammy never jumps on counters; she is so well behaved.

I take out my contacts with shaky hands, let my hair down, and wind the scarf back around my neck in the apartment’s chill. Our bedroom is unbearable so I go sit on the couch in the dark. A little light from outside – a streetlight, the moon – gets in, so it’s not entirely dark dark, though it feels like it is. It will be morning soon. The cat comes in and meows, stretches her back and claws the couch before hopping up and settling beside me. I stroke her with tremoring hands and she begins her wind up purr, vibrating her body next to mine. I burp, from the soda. I see the collected anniversary cards we’d received and gave to each other in the morning. It’s a pile of brightly colored envelopes, pink, orange, cornflower blue. I will take up embroidery. I will hang this image on the wall, the gift from the older woman. I will see the sun in the morning. I will feed the cat. I will cry and cry and cry and then the sun will come up again. It feels so good, to be next to this warm and breathing thing.

***

Excerpted from AS IF SHE HAD A SAY by Jennifer Fliss. Copyright © 2023 by Northwestern University. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Curbstone Books/Northwestern University Press.

 


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