Spotlight: Shells II by Savannah Johnston

[fiction]

Our room is around the back of the motel, away from the highway floodlights. Hiram and Baby are sleeping in the backseat by the time we pull up, and Mama carries Baby while Daddy slings Hiram over his shoulder like a sack of flour. Myself I walk. I’m grown enough to see the motel before we even get there, before Mama’s even started folded up her quilts. Quilts is about the only thing she brings anymore.

This last house I kind of liked, but once Mama and Daddy decided it was time to leave, Daddy pulled the stove off the wall for its copper. Left a mess, dust and plaster all over the floor, but the landlord’s a real prick. When Mama finally got Hiram and Baby and Daddy to just get in the damn car already we ain’t got all day, I said I had to pee and ran back in, though the water’d been shut off all week.

The house wasn’t empty, just empty of us. The mattress with the busted coil was against the front window and a pot of macaroni and cheese on a shelf. I hopped over cups and old clothes into the kitchen. There was this knob on one of the drawers that I liked, a little painted metal flower, and I’d been working on loosening that screw. No time for that now. I sat on the floor and put my feet up against the drawer, trying to wrench it out. I wanted it.

“Frankie!” The car horn honked out front, two short beeps, not enough to get anyone’s attention.

“Gimme a minute,” I hollered.

I kicked the drawer as hard as I could, the wood cracking and, finally, splinters and all, the flower was mine. Brushing it off as best I could, I put my flower in my pocket.

One thing I don’t like about Mama’s wandering bones is that we always drive at night. Hiram’s only six and Baby’s just a baby, so they sleep, but me, I see the road. This time, I think we’re heading east, but it could be south. If the sun were up I’d know. We’re between towns, so there’s nothing but the blinking lights of the wind farm and the occasional floodlights of an oil rig. The windows are down and it feels like we’re driving through stars.

“Where we going?”

“We’re just gonna go until we can’t no more, punkin,” Mama says. “Maybe we’ll find a place where you can get back in school, huh? Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“Nice as a kick in the ass,” I say.

“Watch your language.”

*     *     *

I think it’s the routine that drives them nuts, Mama and Daddy. It starts with a hiss in the blood, then a settling feeling that strikes low, deep in the gut, weighing you down like a cinderblock. Sometimes I feel it in my palms, like when your hand goes to sleep and it’s just waking up. This last time I knew it was coming when Mama started talking about investing in a nice set of silverware. She was doing the dishes. Washing those pink plastic forks Daddy swiped from the Party Mart. She had suds up to her elbows and maybe she looked happy, but every time she brought the sponge out the water, she’d blink real fast like she caught smoke in her eye.

*     *     *

The room is like all the rooms: varnished table with a plastic gold-colored inlay down the legs, cheap varnished chairs, a nightstand, a TV, and a large bed with a scratchy, pink and blue comforter. Mama and Daddy will sleep with Hiram and Baby, and I’ll get a pallet on the floor. At least this room has carpet, even if it’s thin and has a deep tread into the bathroom. While Mama settles Hiram and Baby in the bed, Daddy clicks on the TV and throws himself into a chair. It’s the Weather Channel. He takes out the little bottle he keeps in his pocket and takes a drink, smacking his lips.

I make my place on the floor and open up the sack of boiled eggs Mama made for the trip. She left the shells on because she knows I like to roll each egg between my palms, cracking the shell until it peels away in one solid piece. I do this now with two of the eggs and spread the shells out side by side. They make me think of earthquakes, something I’ve only seen on TV. I imagine the earth opening up beneath me, swallowing me into its yolk, and then I crush the shells beneath my thumbs. The dust feels good on my fingers, but Mama swats my hand.

“What’re you doin’? Making a mess already?” Mama says.

“I’m eating, duh.”

I don’t look at her as I say it. She grabs my arm and digs her nails in like she does when she’s angry. She lets me really feel the pink half-moons forming on my arm, and she talks through her teeth. “Frances Marie, you pick that shit up now.”

She lets me go and I stuff a whole egg in my mouth. “They on the sheets, it’s easy,” I mumble, talking through egg and shame. I sweep the crumbled pieces into my hand and toss them into the trash. Mama doesn’t look at me as she lies down, just motions for Daddy to hand her the remote and starts flipping through. The TV wobbles into focus on each channel, and she settles on Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. I’ve seen it before—Daddy and me watched it at this one motel that had concrete floors. Mama takes a boiled egg from the bag and carefully, delicately peels the shell off in pieces, dropping the bits into the garbage. She glances at me from the corner of her eye. I know this is just for show. She’s probably not even hungry.

Mama told me once that she never really considered herself the mothering type until she had me, and then the “surprises,” meaning Hiram and Baby. Surprise is just her way of saying “accident” or “mistake.” It’s moments like this when I think what she must have been like before we came along, when it was just her and Daddy, living like we do now, I guess. Could she really have changed that much? On the other hand, Daddy says that people don’t really change; they just get better at hiding what they are.

*     *     *

I wake up and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is still on and Daddy’s dozing in the chair, feet propped up on the little table, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Mama and the babies are curled up and around one another: Mama, then Hiram, then Baby. Hiram and Baby have her nose and her so-black-it’s-blue hair, and she lets Hiram wear his hair long so the image isn’t a stretch.

On TV, Elvira’s finally got that show in Vegas she’s worked so hard for, and she does this thing where she spins these black boobie tassels around and around just by popping her shoulders back and forth. I thought it was a little weird the first time I saw it, but now I’m more impressed than anything else. My boobs just started growing and they’re nothing like hers. Mama called mine mosquito bites once and I told her hers looked like socks filled with sand. I felt bad about that.

Something shakes the wall behind the TV and I jump. The digital clock on the nightstand says 4:43 AM. The highway hums outside, and I listen. I expect to hear bedsprings next, like I’ve heard before, but the quiet makes me clench my hands into fists. I watch Elvira shake around some more, applauded by her punk-rock poodle, and then the wall shakes so hard that the picture fuzzes out and Elvira’s lost in a grey and blue swarm that rides up and down the screen. This one wakes up Daddy and he pops out of the chair, bleary-eyed but ready.

“What the fuck was that?” he whispers. He doesn’t realize I am awake.

“There’s something in the wall,” I say.

“What are you doing awake?” The wall shakes again, this time with the sound of glass shattering. “Never mind. It’s not our business.”

He sits back in the chair and lights the smoke, pulling the plastic ashtray across the table with his thumb. The TV shudders back into focus and the credits are rolling.

“What were you watching?”

Elvira.”

“Oof, sorry I missed that,” he says. “But you shouldn’t be watching that.”

“I’ve seen it before,” I say, “with you.”

“Fair enough.”

The room next door thumps and rumbles. It reminds me of the dryers at coin laundries. When we got here, I saw that the windowsill of Room 11 was lined with little ceramic figurines—dogs, mostly, but there was a six-inch high unicorn in the center position. The curtains were drawn, the little corgis and cocker spaniels pressed up against the glass like the display in a gift shop. It was out of place, all the little knickknacks set up like that where no one would ever see them. If Hiram had been awake, he would’ve asked or maybe even begged for one. He liked trinkets like that, and even though he was almost six and a half, he still didn’t understand the difference between theirs and ours, them and us. Whenever we stopped at gas stations we had to watch him. He would stuff his pockets if he thought he could. I finger the flower knob in my pocket.

It used to surprise me that people lived in the places we stopped. I imagined they came to these places like we did, passing through, and something held them up, like they were waiting for something that had yet to come. Or maybe they got tired, or maybe they really did love their motel room, though I saw little to love and even less worth staying for.

I sit up when I hear a soft knock on our door. I look at Daddy and he looks at me, like neither of us are quite sure what to do. He goes to the door and, hand over the switchblade he keeps tucked into the back of his pants, opens it just a crack. Hurrying to my feet, I peek around his elbow.

It is a woman with stringy, bleach-blonde hair and thick eyeshadow around her eyes. Her left cheek blooms purple and snot drips onto her upper lip. She cradles a baby not much younger than Baby in her arms, and the baby fusses and pushes against her.

“I’m real sorry to bother y’all,” she says as she jostles the baby, “but my mama and my boyfriend are fighting and I can’t get’em away from each other with this little one in there. Could you—?”

Mama presses my head away with the flat of her palm and opens the door wide. Sometimes I forget what a light sleeper she is, and my ear burns where she smashed it.

“Come on in, honey,” Mama says, “You sit down now. That cheek don’t look too good.”

The woman sits in Daddy’s chair, and in the light she doesn’t look much older than me, but the lines around her mouth say different. She tries to smile but it comes out crooked because of her cheek.

“It’s nothing, really,” she says. The baby in her arms begins to cry and she gets this panicky look and starts to rock the baby, but she rocks it too hard and even I know that she won’t be able to calm it.

Mama goes to her and takes the baby, propping it against her shoulder the way she does when she’s burping Baby. “What’s his name, hon?” Mama eyes this woman the way she does cops, park rangers, and social workers, even though it’s obvious she’s none of those.

“Elijah,” she says. “Elijah. He’s not mine, though. He belongs to this lady at my work. She asked me to keep him tonight.”

There’s a crash and scream next door and the TV screen flickers. The girl’s face tightens like a coyote’s on the side of the interstate. She’s afraid.

“I’m sorry—real sorry. To ask strangers,” she begins. “It’s just I don’t want him to get hurt.” Behind her I catch Mama and Daddy shooting each other looks.

“What about your mama?” I ask, and I get a swat to the thigh.

“They’re both drunk, and they usually don’t hurt each other too bad, but…”

“Want I should call the law?” Daddy asks. He’s by the phone but he doesn’t lift it off its cradle. My palms itch; I wonder if someone else will call the cops and how quickly we can drive away from this place.

“No, please, don’t,” she says quickly. Mama frowns. She’s sized this girl up and she’s not liking what she sees. “No cops. I’m gonna go back over there, I can settle them down. Could you just keep him for me? Just for a minute?”

Daddy looks at Mama and she nods. Mama rubs the baby Elijah’s back and he’s cooing against her neck. “Alright,” she says.

“Thank you, I’ll be back as soon as I can,” the girl says. She’s got a bounce in her step when she makes for the door. As it shuts behind her, another muffled cry springs from behind the wall.

Hiram sleeps like the dead, but the commotion’s woken up Baby and he begins to cry. I can almost see his baby eyes narrow when he spots Mama cradling this stranger.

“Oh, c’mere, sweet Baby,” Mama coos, “Mama’s here.”

She passes Elijah off to me before taking up Baby and I hold this stranger baby out in front of me like a puppy. He’s skinny for a baby, and I sit him upright on my lap and bounce him on my knee.

“Here, sit across from me,” Mama says. “Maybe they’ll play with each other.”

Daddy lights a smoke and changes the station to the Weather Channel. He turns up the volume, and the easy, instrumental soft rock half-drowns the blows from next door. The week’s forecast is high 90s, strong winds, little chance of rain.

I scoot to the edge of the bed and sit cross-legged, Elijah just in front of me, my hands holding up his curved little back. The flower in my pocket digs into my thigh as I try to keep him from toppling over. He leans forward heavily as if his head is weighing him down. Baby, who is bigger, does the same, except it’s just a means to swipe at Elijah’s head. Baby lets out a squawk and pushes forward again, his legs propelling him forward. His nails scrape against Elijah’s head before I can pull him out of reach and Elijah begins to cry. It occurs to me that Baby’s never seen another like him and knowing he’s not the only one must be terrifying.

“I don’t think he likes him.”

“They’re babies, Frankie,” Mama says. “They don’t like anything.”

*     *     *

For a while after Hiram was born, I stayed with Daddy’s friend Manuel and his old lady, Gizzard. Mama told me not to call her that, that her name was LeAnn, but Gizzard didn’t mind so I called her that out of Mama’s earshot. Manuel and Gizzard were bikers, and Manuel was president of his club, the Dead Rats. Their patch was a one-eyed rat with a knife in its heart, and Manuel never went anywhere without his club cut. He tried to get Daddy to prospect every time we visited, but Daddy always said no.

They lived in a little farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of no-name dogs, and when we visited, Gizzard would make up the screen porch in the back like it was my own room. Manuel took apart cars for a living, and at any given time there might be five or six old frames I could play in. Gizzard took me on her bike once, but I burned my leg on the exhaust pipe and Mama said no after that.

It was cold the day we pulled into their driveway, coming or going from one of the somewheres I don’t remember. My coat was a season too small and my wrists ached. Mama and Daddy didn’t talk as they drove, or even listen to the radio, which I remember thinking was weird, especially as we were going to stay with our friends.

They didn’t say how long they’d be gone. They didn’t even come into the house, or unbuckle Hiram from his car seat. When they each crouched down and hugged me, I felt like a handshake would’ve fit a little better. Gizzard put her hands on my shoulders and pressed her fingers into my collarbones.They didn’t look at me, Mama or Daddy, as they got back in the car. Gizzard steered me into the house like a buggy, sitting me down at her high wooden table. She gave me a glass of something called Ovaltine that looked and smelled like chocolate milk, but it left a thick dust on my tongue, so I spat it on the table and told her it tasted like horse piss. It was something Daddy’d said once. She asked me if I wanted a birthday party, even though Daddy had taken me to Chuck-E-Cheese for my fourth birthday some months before.

I can’t say for how long I stayed there. Mama and Daddy called sometimes, but they always sounded so far away that it felt like it couldn’t them I was talking to because that would mean they’d really gone. I remember being outside a lot, the smell of wet dirt in the air after it rains. I must have been too young for school. I don’t remember going. But a school bus bumped along the road twice a day. Sometimes the kids on the bus would wave if I was out in the field, climbing over some frame or chasing the dogs. A couple times a few boys spit out the window, too far away to even come close to me but near enough that I threw rocks at them.

Gizzard caught me the last time. She let out a shrill whistle from the porch, a trick I knew she’d picked up from Mama, and even from across the field I could tell she was angry. I loped back to the porch, my wide step trying to fake calm or carelessness. Gizzard put a stop to that right quick. As soon as I was in arm’s reach, she snatched my elbow and tried to whip me around to spank me, but something was off and I twisted but my arm didn’t. I felt my elbow slide into itself and out, like a sprung hinge on a door, and at first it just felt icy cold then, when she let my arm go and I couldn’t hold it up, it burned from the inside.

Gizzard cried. She cried and I cried and she said we’d have wait for Manuel to get home. When he finally did, he drove us to the hospital two counties over, told the lady at the desk I fell out of a tree. Driving back, Gizzard cried some more, though it sounded like she was screaming underwater. I’d gotten a shot of something before the doctor put my elbow back together and it made me too sleepy to listen. I watched the doctor do it, but it was almost like a dream: the click of my bones together like Legos. On the way back, Manuel’s voice carried like a lawn mower’s roar over the soft hum of the road. I slept better in the backseat of that car than I had since I’d been dropped off.

The next evening, Mama and Daddy pulled up the drive, the sideboards of our car caked in red dirt. Mama barely looked at my slinged arm, barely looked at me at all. Hiram had a full head of hair, his fat baby face having taken on some of the shapes and angles of Mama’s. He gurgled in his carseat. I climbed in next to him and Daddy restarted the car.

“Seatbelts,” Mama said.

*     *     *

There’s shouting now, louder than the Weather Channel’s version of “Landslide.” Hiram and Baby are both half-asleep, their eyes open but not moving, lying still on the big bed. Hiram’s lips pucker like a fish, his tongue poking through the gap in his teeth; he was on the bottle too long. He pops his thumb in his mouth and sucks noisily.

Mama paces, bouncing Elijah on her hip. He cries in short, gasping breaths, his face all twisted up and red. I wonder what his mother does. “I’m gonna call them,” she says. “This is fucking stupid. I can’t listen to this all night.”

“It’s not our business, Jemma,” Daddy says. “Leave it be. We don’t want this to come back on us.” He sips from his little bottle. “We can ride it out.”

“You don’t think she’d really not come back, do you?” she says. “Too nice. Shouldn’t have been nice. We’ve got enough on our own.”

Daddy lights up again, relighting the stub of a cigarette that’d gone out, and he exhales through his nose. His lips twitch beneath his mustache. “Oh, come on.”

“Here, Frankie,” she says. “You take this.” She hands Elijah to me, and I lay him down on his belly over a pillow. He still cries, but he’s not as insistent as before. The shouting is just background noise, like static on the radio. On the TV, a pretty blonde delivers a report on riptides in South Carolina. An uptick in riptides has caused seven drownings so far.

“Didn’t you say you always wanted to see Myrtle Beach?” Daddy says. Mama swats his knee.

*     *     *

When Baby was born, we were staying with Manuel and Gizzard again. We didn’t see them so much after Mama and Daddy picked me up, but eventually we circled back, probably because we didn’t have anywhere else. Gizzard was really nice to me, so I cussed and spit at her whenever I could. Mama saw it, but she didn’t stop me.

The night Baby was born, they were playing cards, everyone drinking but Mama, and her water broke right there in the kitchen. Hiram was coloring on the floor, and some of it soaked into his coloring book. Daddy had to scoop him up and take him outside while Gizzard helped Mama into the bathroom. Baby came out in the bathtub an hour later, fat, hungry, and screaming. While Mama rested, Gizzard kept Baby happy, changing him, feeding him, bathing him. I didn’t hate her when I watched her with him. She always wanted a little boy, she told me, swaddling Baby up in a cotton blanket. I told her she could keep this one, if she wanted.

“Oh, hon,” she said. “Some of us are just meant to be aunties. That’s the facts.” She used the soft brush to push Baby’s hair across his forehead. “When I was your age, I wanted five babies. With that many you’d never have to worry about them being lonely.”

A week later, we were back in the car, pointed east or maybe north, Manuel and Gizzard waving at us, sitting side-by-side in their white porch swing, their band of dogs chasing us down the drive.

When Mama gets upset, she paces and she does this thing with her hands where they flutter at her sides like hummingbirds. She used to hide it, sitting on her hands in a chair or in the car. Here, in the little matchbook motel room, the quickness in her hands makes my skin bristle. I press my palm into my thigh; the hard edges of the metal flower in my pocket dig into my skin. I imagine a perfect flower stamped into my leg, a perfect purple scar blooming. I flinch, a wood splinter having founds its way through my jeans and into my palm. There’s not much blood. Just enough to leave a pin-sized bloom on the blue denim.

“Come sit down, hon,” Daddy says. A bedspring bounces in the room next door. “They’ll wear themselves out soon.”

“Well, we’ve got to do something,” Mama presses.

“What, you want me to go kick his ass?” She gives him a look and Daddy snorts. “No, sorry,” he says. “It’s not good for anyone if we go over there.”

Wood splinters next door, and this time, the screaming doesn’t stop.

A man on television explains that a tornado forms when the cool air of an updraft meets the warm air of a downdraft. The video playing behind him shows a Jeep sliding across a four lane highway.

Do something.”

Daddy shakes his head. He looks old in the yellow light of the lamps, and from my place on the floor I can see the shadows running beneath his cheekbones. He rubs his eyes with both hands and sighs, putting his hands out like he’s praying. He doesn’t look at Mama, but I catch his eye for a flickering second. He opens his mouth a little in a way that feels sad. Mama just stands over him, her jaw set tight. The muscles in her neck play like piano strings.

I saw Mama fight once, with Gizzard, but she didn’t know I could see her. It was somewhere between Vinita and Chouteau, some big thing Manuel was throwing for the Dead Rats. It was too hot to stay in the tent. All the grown-ups were drunk and more than a few were laid out with half their clothes off in the grass. Gizzard must’ve said something that set Mama off; Mama was on her like a dog on a rabbit. It took three men, Manuel included, to pull her off. She chipped Gizzard’s tooth on her knuckles. Daddy told me later that they fight like sisters.

But Mama isn’t flaring mad like that now. Her face is hard, even as another crash echoes through the thin walls. Time feels slower, but I know it’s not because I don’t think anyone can scream that long. “Give me your knife,” she says. Daddy hands it over, the blade still clipped into the handle.

“The clasp is sticky,” he says. She gives him a short nod.

“What are you gonna do, Mama?” I say. She looks at me like she’s just remembered I’m there, and then turns to the door. The screams have stopped; only a thin whine, interrupted by bursts of coughing. The handle on our door twitches. Mama opens Daddy’s knife and, with the blade in her left hand, she jerks open the door.

There in the door frame, stark against the yellow security lamps in the parking lot, is a man. Even shadowed, he’s pale and thin, like a bad cartoon. For a second, he starts and stares at Mama. His eyes shine so bright it’s hard to imagine he can see anything with them. Mama raises the knife. She screams. She screams louder than the people next door have all night, waving the knife wildly, stamping her feet, shaking her hair. It only takes about three seconds of this before the man sort of shudders and takes off, tearing through the parking lot as fast as his legs can carry him. Once he’s gone, Mama stops screaming and brushes the hair back from her face. I go to the door and watch him run. He doesn’t have any shoes on. Mama puts the knife on the table and sits on the side of the bed. She puts her head in her hands and her shoulders begin to shake. At first it looks like she’s crying, but she starts snorting, and then she’s laughing hysterically, giggling. Daddy starts to laugh, so I start laughing, too, and the babies, woken up with Mama’s tantrum, stop fussing.

When they’ve finished, Daddy scoops up Elijah and takes him out of our room. The voices next door are nicer, quiet. One even laughs. Mama sets about getting Baby’s bag and some of our odds and ends back out to the car. Hiram sleeps with his eyes open again; he can sleep through anything.

The weight of the metal flower feels good in my pocket. I feel like I haven’t slept in days, almost giddy. When Daddy comes back, he and Mama hustle the little ones into their seats. Hiram they let lie on the floor, curled into the floorboard. I’m last, like I’m always last. “C’mon then, Frankie,” Daddy says. He shoos me out of the room, shutting the door behind us. I glance at the window to the room next door: the trinkets are gone, except for one ceramic corgi. The figurine has a chip in its ear, giving it a cockeyed look.

I climb into the backseat and rest my head against the window. The glass is cool on my forehead. Daddy turns the ignition and off we go, headed east or west or I don’t know. I keep my eye on the horizon, waiting for the sun to tell me where we’re going.

Savannah JohnstonSavannah Johnston is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She completed her undergraduate degree at Columbia University and received her MFA at New Mexico State University. She was most recently the Managing Editor of Puerto del Sol, and her work has appeared in Portland Review and Moon City Review. She can be found shouting into the void on Twitter at @savrjoh.