Ginny stood on the counter of the diner decorated in tinfoil. She’s my wife, if you want to call her that, which I do. She’d made bracelets and earrings and a fake-fancy necklace by folding and shaping tiny glinting pieces. She even made a tinfoil tiara, perched on her red wig from the chemo clinic. Ginny clasped a ketchup bottle to her chest. “I really didn’t expect to win,” she gushed. “It’s such an honor to even be nominated. I have so many people to thank.”
“Get your skinny ass down from there and get back to work,” Joe said. He was standing over the flattop cooking us all some eggs. “Deb, get your honey’s skinny ass down from there before she breaks a leg,” he said to me.
I didn’t care about getting Ginny’s skinny ass down from there. She looked too damn pretty being all silly and shiny, like she used to be before she got sick. Her only customer at her only table was laughing his ass off anyway, and everyone else was home watching the Oscars. It didn’t matter if you lived six hundred miles from Hollywood. People still acted like all that business mattered.
“And really,” Ginny said. “There’s someone who deserves this award more than me, and that’s my high school drama teacher, Mrs. Futtlebutt. Mrs. Futtlebutt, will you please join me on stage?” She extended a hand down to me with a dopey look in her eyes.
“Oh my,” I said, clutching my throat. “What an honor.” I grabbed the edge of the counter to steady myself, then crawled up next to Ginny’s tennis shoes. The Formica was hard on my knees and my knees were hard on me, so I pushed myself the rest of the way up fast. Nobody could accuse me of being young and graceful, that’s for damn sure.
Ginny handed me the ketchup bottle. “Mrs. Futtlebutt, this is for you.” She placed the tinfoil tiara on my head.
“You sure are a couple of silly broads.” Joe stood there holding plates of fried eggs and hash browns. “Now get down before your dinner gets cold.”
We helped each other down. Ginny wiped off the counter with a rag, just like she did a dozen times a day, and we slid into a booth with Joe. I put Tabasco and ketchup on my eggs, but Ginny ate hers plain. That’s about all her stomach could handle these days.
When the phone rang, Ginny got up to answer it. “Eureka Diner, Home of the World’s Best Eggs, Crafted by Joe the Master Chef. How can I assist you this evening?”
“Wish she’d stop answering like that,” Joe said through a mouth of hash browns. I knew he didn’t really mean it—there’s just no way anybody could.
Ginny screamed. Not in a scary way, but more like she was at a Beatles concert. “No, really?” she said into the phone. “When? For how long? . . . Oh, I can’t wait! I love you!”
“Got competition, Deb?” Joe elbowed me in the ribs.
“Ha, ha.” There was only one other person Ginny said I love you to: her daughter.
Ginny slid back into the booth. “You’ll never guess what?”
“Christy coming to visit?” I said into my runny yolks.
“Yes! Tomorrow. She’s driving up first thing in the morning.”
Christy used to come stay with us for a week in April and another at Christmas and for six long ones in the summer. That was before she turned eighteen, when she still had to do what the custody agreement said. Too bad that agreement said nothing about looking me in the eyes, or saying anything more than “Let me talk to my mom” when she called, which wasn’t real often. Not since Ginny got sick. Not since I was left to handle it all.
After Ginny’s shift was done, we went straight home. We brushed our teeth side by side, taking turns spitting in the sink and passing the water cup to rinse. The sink was only a couple feet from the toilet which was only a couple feet from the bathtub— everything was only a couple feet from each other—but we knew how to make it work. We’d even figured it out with Ginny kneeling in front of the toilet and no room for me behind her. I could sit in the bathtub and reach one hand over to Ginny’s back to try and cool it off.
We got in bed under the wedding quilt my brother Keith gave us. Ginny curled onto her side, and I curved around her back. I put my hand on Ginny’s stomach. I didn’t rub, because that could be too much for her sometimes. But she liked a little pressure there. A little warmth.
“You should sleep in tomorrow,” I said. She didn’t have to be at work until eleven—Joe was real good about letting her work short shifts.
“I might go in early,” she said. “See if I can catch part of breakfast and pick up some extra tips.”
Maybe it seemed like Ginny should save her energy, but it was so good when she got it that she used it right up. I didn’t blame her. The energy surged in waves, and when a pretty one came along, she just had to jump on and ride it to the shore.
Ginny turned toward me, leaving a space just big enough for her to lay a hand on one of my breasts. She traced my nipple with her fingers, traced it like you run a finger through soft sand. That might have been all, just Ginny tracing my nipple because she often wasn’t up for much more, but my nipple got hard and I felt myself going warm and wet. I ran my hand from Ginny’s ass up to her head. Ginny moaned when I got to her smooth scalp. It turned out there were lots of nerve endings up there, and it felt good to Ginny in a way neither of us had known about before the chemo. Even though Ginny was in remission and her hair could grow back, she kept on shaving her head and wearing that silly wig.
Ginny slid her hand off my breast and travelled down to my stomach, and when her hand was there, on my stomach, I hoped that my healthy insides would soak into Ginny’s palm and make their way back inside of her. Even though some of her stomach had got cut out, I figured there was still a way for her to be whole. Her hand kept sliding down and between, and then it was less about Ginny’s hand and more about her fingers.
She’d caught a pretty wave and we were going to ride it to the shore.
I once saw a movie about three girls who were maids at a resort. They’d go into a room together and talk about boys and surfing while they stripped beds and folded towels and wiped down sinks. But I worked alone at the motel, pushing my cart from room to room.
I knocked on a first-floor door. “Housekeeping,” I said, even though there was probably no one to hear. Most people only slept in Eureka for one night on their way to or from the Redwoods. By the time I got to a room, the sheets were heaped and the towels were damp, the trash nothing more than a strand of dental floss or a dirty Band-Aid.
The inside of the room looked like a ghost town, with pages of the Times-Standard scattered over the floor. A pink lipstick stain rimmed a plastic cup next to the bed. I went about changing sheets and scrubbing the toilet and vacuuming the floor. It was the kind of job you didn’t need to think much for, which was good last fall. I’d been too worried that the surgery didn’t get all of Ginny’s tumor and that the chemo might not get the rest. Maybe a job that didn’t keep me on my middle-aged feet all day would have been nice, but at least it forced me upright. Made me move.
A shiny gum wrapper in the trash made me think of Ginny standing on the counter the night before. She used to be silly like that all the time. Her husband sometimes left her in charge of the market in Fresno while he ran to the bank or a meeting. As soon as he left, Ginny’d take over the P.A. system. “Knock, knock?” she’d say to the entire store.
“Who’s there?” I’d yell from the floor.
“Interrupting sheep,” she’d say.
At least once a week Ginny brought in food for the employees, Rice Krispies squares or chocolate pretzels or pumpkin-shaped cookies. She didn’t mind pitching in, either. Once a customer spilled a bag of rice on Aisle 6, and a kid threw up on Aisle 4. Ginny rolled a bucket and mop out to 4, and didn’t complain one bit while I swept up rice two aisles away.
After work, I stopped by the diner to see if Ginny wanted anything special from the store. She had a couple of tables, so I sat at the counter with a bowl of clam chowder. There wasn’t much lying around the kitchen that morning, so all I had for lunch was a hard- boiled egg, some saltines, and two slices of American cheese. I devoured the soup, not even chewing the bits of clam.
Three pencils stuck out from the curls of Ginny’s red wig. The hospital had wigs people donated after their hair grew back or after they were gone. One day I came home to find Ginny lying on the couch with one hand on her belly, and this red bouffant wig on her head. “Joe’s not gonna like it,” I told her. “Well, then he can just kiss my grits,” she said. Turned out that Joe got a kick out of the wig, and took to calling her Flo and fake-yelling that she was a silly broad.
Ginny wiped her hands on her apron and leaned toward me. “More coffee, babe?”
I shook my head. “Anything you want from the store?” What sounded good to Ginny changed from day to day, and there were some days when nothing did.
“Vanilla ice cream,” Ginny said. “With little brown specks in it. And noodles. And peas.”
I wrote it down on a piece of paper so I wouldn’t forget. Anymore, it seemed if I didn’t write something down, there wasn’t much chance of me remembering.
“Holy shit!” Ginny said, and went for the door. Standing outside the front window was Christy, wearing jeans and a bright blue UCLA T-shirt. Her hair streamed long and blond down her back, like Ginny’s used to.
Ginny started screaming—I could hear that from inside—and jumping up and down. She hugged Christy and it was hard to tell if Christy hugged back, because Ginny had pretty much pinned her arms.
“That’s Gin’s girl, huh?” Joe squinted toward the window.
“That’s her,” I said.
“She looks older.”
“Don’t we all.” Not that Christy cared about how old I looked or felt. I was pretty sure that girl didn’t care one bit how hard I’d had it, working full time and driving Ginny to the clinic, cooking and cleaning and wondering if there’d ever be fun again.
Ginny unpinned Christy and waved, then pointed to Christy like I might have missed the whole thing otherwise. It had been quite a while since I’d seen Ginny smile so wide for so long.
I cooked up noodles for dinner, with butter and peas, and figured we’d have vanilla bean ice cream for dessert. Christy took one bite of the noodles and said, “Kinda bland.”
“Spices are next to the stove.” Ginny pointed.
Christy walked to the drawer, which was only about an arm’s length from the table. Before she’d tasted the noodles, I’d asked what classes she was taking, so Christy went right on about that. “Mostly, I’m knocking out core classes,” she said, sprinkling on garlic salt. “But I’ve got this cool psych class on Theories of Cognition and Abnormal Behavior.”
“That’s quite a mouthful,” I said.
“Cognition means the way people think about things.” Christy stirred her noodles and sat back down. “And abnormal means—”
“I know what abnormal means.” I’d taken a smattering of classes at Fresno Community College when I was Christy’s age. Before it got to be too much, studying, working, paying the rent.
“You still a maid at that motel?” Christy asked. She had the same blue eyes as her mom, but they sure didn’t see people the same way. “It sounds gross. Cleaning other people’s toilets.”
“There’s much harder things than that,” I said. That girl had never cleaned up after anyone a day in her life. She’d certainly never had to wipe up puke or mop up diarrhea that wouldn’t go away.
“It sounds fun,” Ginny said. “Learning about so many different things.” She hadn’t touched her noodles, but I didn’t know if that was about the excitement of Christy being there, or more about her stomach.
“So, what’s with the wig?” Christy asked through a full mouth.
“It’s kind of fun, don’t you think?” Ginny pushed and primped her curls like she was Rita Hayworth fussing to go on stage. She didn’t normally wear the wig at home, at the dinner table. She usually wore a hat or a scarf or nothing at all, and when she wore nothing at all I would reach over and run a hand across her smooth head.
“It’s weird,” Christy said. “You can do better.”
“So, what are you doing here?” I asked.
“Came to see my mom.”
“Well, it’s spring bre—”
“No, why now?” I clanked down my fork. “Why now, when she’s all finished with the surgery and the chemo, why are you coming to see her now, and you didn’t then?”
“Deb,” Ginny reached over to touch my hand, but all she got was a fist. “She was just starting college. I didn’t want her to get distracted.”
“That was your decision, huh?” I looked at Ginny, who was looking at her napkin trying to pretend that the hurt hadn’t dug away at her. “What about Christmas break? Or Thanksgiving? Or just some long weekend.”
“College is hard,” Christy said. “It takes all my time.”
It was the excuse Ginny had told me and herself and everyone else again and again, so you couldn’t really blame Christy for falling back on it. But I wanted Christy to tell the truth. I wanted someone else to say that Ginny being sick was so terrifying you couldn’t see or feel straight, that it made you want to hide away.
“You don’t know one damn thing about hard,” I said.
“Mom!” Christy’s voice got loud and whiny. “Don’t let her talk to me like that.”
“Stop it,” Ginny said. “Both of you stop it, stop it, stop it!” She pulled off her wig and threw it on the table between us. It sat there limp and dull, like a circus balloon that lost all its air.
I pushed my chair back and rose up tall. I picked up Ginny’s wig from the kitchen table and took it with me, out the front door.
I walked for a long time. My legs and feet were already tired from pushing my cart from room to room all day, but there wasn’t much else to do. I’d left the apartment without grabbing the car keys or my wallet, like some teenage drama queen. I didn’t even grab a coat.
My head and hands were cold. I wanted to blame it on the moon, which couldn’t even bother to get half-full. The cold light made the sequoias look like Halloween decorations, blackened cutouts from giant pieces of cardboard. I slipped Ginny’s wig over my head. It was a tight fit and I had to yank it down hard.
After Ginny left Christy’s dad, the last thing on her mind was being a wife again. She was plenty happy just to be making a home with me. But when they started marrying folks down in San Francisco a few years back, it just seemed like the thing to do. My brother, Keith, even said he’d come up from Fresno with a minister friend who’d do the ceremony for free.
We drove to San Francisco early in the morning and stood in line for nearly five hours. Everyone was laughing and holding hands, sharing coffee and muffins, and someone we didn’t even know handed a single red rose to every couple in line. After we got our license, we took the trolley down to Fisherman’s Wharf and had a glass of wine. We sat staring out at Alcatraz, wondering why someone would build something so ugly in the middle of so much pretty. When Ginny asked the waiter, he said, “They wanted the prisoners to see what they were missing.” I know they were criminals, but it still seemed cruel, forcing them to look right at what they couldn’t have every single day.
By the time Keith got to us, it was all over. He’d heard on the radio. No more marriage licenses were being given out, and the ones already out there didn’t count. Keith said that didn’t matter none, we should still do the ceremony. His minister friend blessed me and Ginny while we kissed and exchanged rings. The fog had come in, and we couldn’t see past the bridge. Only the tops peeked through, and they didn’t look golden so much as a ragged red.
I drove us home the next day, playing the radio to cut the quiet. The signal turned fuzzy about a mile into the Humbolt Redwoods. The giants made it dark like dusk in there, even though it was just past lunch. I looked over at Ginny to ask for a CD, but her eyes were closed. Her forehead rested against the window and her blond hair curled around her neck. Even in the daytime dusk, I could see the collar of Ginny’s pink shirt was blotched by tears.
The red wig made my head hot and my scalp itch. I shifted it around, shoving strands of hair underneath, then pulling them back out. But there was no way to make it comfortable, so I took it off. I took off that wig and dropped it to the ground, and I stepped on it once or twice. Hard.
When I got home the living room was hot and bright. Christy was on the couch watching TV. “Where’s your mom?” I asked.
“Gee, I don’t know.” Christy didn’t move her eyes. “Maybe she’s in the screening room or the conservatory or something.” The girl had no intention of going for sorry, and I suppose I didn’t either.
I pushed open the bedroom door real quiet. Ginny was lying on her side with a pillow scrunched underneath her. I unbuttoned my shirt and unhooked my bra, and while I was taking off my jeans, Ginny turned and watched. The sliver of moon peeking in the window made me feel flabby and ghost white. I pulled on Keith’s flannel shirt, the one I’d been sleeping in since stealing it from him years ago. It was worn and ratty, but sure didn’t feel that way.
“Where’s my wig?” Ginny asked.
I got under the quilt, looked at the popcorn ceiling. The peaks and valleys looked like the far-away surface of the moon. “I lost it.”
“What do you mean, you lost it?”
“I guess I dropped it,” I said. “Out in the woods.”
“How could you drop it?” Ginny sounded exhausted more than mad. “I need it. I wear it every day.”
“Not every day.”
There was as much room between us as could be in our double bed. I’d hate to see how we looked, like two sides of a log split by a dull axe.
“You were too hard on her,” Ginny said.
“She doesn’t respect me,” I said. “Us.”
Ginny turned to face me, and the lack of light didn’t matter. I could see her blue eyes just fine, her sharp cheekbones, her thin lips, bare skull. “She thinks you’re why I left her dad.”
“That makes no sense.” I could see how Christy thought that when her folks split up, because that’s how young people think. But now she was in college, thinking for herself. She should have figured out it was more complicated. That a big piece of Ginny had already left him, long before I came along. That all of her was never really with him in the first place.
“She’s the only family I’ve got,” Ginny said. She had no brothers or sisters, and ten years had gone since her parents last talked to her. Ten years since Ginny decided she couldn’t stay married to Christy’s dad.
I reached across the small space between us. I slid my hand over Ginny’s bare head. There was no wave between us that night, but no riptide either. There was just water creeping on the shore, and then draining back, leaving a blanket of smooth, wet sand.
The next day when I got home from work, Ginny and Christy weren’t in front of the TV. They weren’t in the kitchen, so I headed to the bedroom. I heard Christy before seeing her, heard her small, clipped whining sounds. She was on the ground next to the closed bathroom door, hands wrapped around her raised knees. Ginny was behind the door, retching up nothing but bitter bile. It used to be the tumor that made Ginny sick. Then it was the chemo. Anymore, it was because her stomach was so small it didn’t empty out right. Her body knew purging would rid her of the pain.
Christy looked up at me, eyes puffy and pink. “She won’t come out and won’t let me in.”
I crouched down next to her, the muscles around my knees straining like old rubber bands. “How long’s she been in there?”
Christy wiped her nose with the back of her hand, her fist coming back wet and shiny. “I don’t know. Like, half an hour, maybe.”
I was still wearing my work uniform, brown polyester pants and a navy blue smock. I swiped the corner of the smock across Christy’s nose. She was just a scared kid who didn’t know how to deal with a sick mom. She shouldn’t have to.
I reached above the door frame for the allen key. “It’s just me, babe,” I said to Ginny as I let myself in.
Her body was a limp paisley on the cool bathroom floor, her ear pressed down like an Indian listening for footsteps. “Close the door.”
I pushed it most of the way closed but didn’t let it latch, didn’t let it lock. Left some room for Christy to hear, to talk, to move. I stepped into the tub and sat with my legs long. I reached my hand out to Ginny’s back, to her green T-shirt damp with sweat.
“Someone left a brochure in one of the rooms,” I said. “For Lake Shasta.” Nobody ever left clues of where they were going, but sometimes I could piece together where they’d been. “Prettiest picture you’d ever seen, the water like a mirror. Same color as the sky.”
“Was the mountain in it?” Ginny asked.
“Oh, sure.” I reached over and flushed the toilet, sucking away layers of bile. “The snow was so bright that it looked like it was covered in diamonds.”
The bathroom door pushed open real quiet. Christy’s voice had a shakiness that didn’t match up with the girl from the kitchen table last night. “You okay, Mom?”
“Been better, been worse,” Ginny said.
Christy couldn’t get to her mom because there was no space to crouch into. It would have been easy for her to leave, to just close the door and let us be.
“Here.” I folded my knees to my chest and scooted to the other end of the tub. Christy climbed in next to me. I lifted my hand off Ginny’s sweat-stained shirt and nodded there, to the damp imprint of my palm on her back.
Christy reached toward Ginny real slow, like she was moving toward a fire. Her hand landed on my palm-mark. It seemed like Christy might jerk back, away. It was easy to get scared like that, like your hand might just make the pain worse. Like it might make the disease come back. Like it might be your fault in the first place. All that fear never really went away. It just kept shifting around, trying to figure out what else to be. But Christy kept her hand steady. Her mother’s back. Next to me.
I kneeled up in the hard tub. I ran my hand over the landscape of Ginny’s skull, over hills and rivers and flat sand beaches.
“This summer,” I said, “We’ll go over to Shasta. We’ll get a room that looks out on the mountain.” I got a discount at other motels in the chain and, maybe, if we started saving right away, there’d be enough for a couple of nights. “We’ll rent a little boat and pack a picnic, and I’ll row you out to the middle of the lake.”
We’d have wine and vanilla bean ice cream, if that’s what Ginny wanted that day. The two of us would lie back in the sun, letting our skin grow warm and wet in the middle of the lake.
“We’ll take lots of pictures,” I said. “Make one into a Christmas card.”
“I’ll put it up on my mirror,” Christy said. “In my dorm.”
I couldn’t see it, Christy’s dorm or her mirror or the Christmas card held on by clear tape. But I had no problems seeing Ginny lying in a boat caressed by the sun, the water like a mirror, and Mount Shasta glittering nearby.
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Baby’s on Fire: stories by Liz Prato