fiction: Marla Cantrell
We had been to a specialist that morning with our daughter, Penny, who had started sleepwalking at six years old. Winn and I were divorced more than a year by then. Our marriage had been a disaster, although not much of it was my fault.
I had on a red skirt that cinched at the waist and then flared out, all the way past my knees. If I had spun around in that skirt, it would have flown out around me in a circle. I had on a white sweater with red trim at the neck and wrists. Black heels because I had to go to work—I was a secretary for a hardware company—after the appointment.
I dropped the doctor’s prescription, and Winn had knelt to pick it up. He looked like a football player taking a knee, and then I felt his fingers slip around my ankle. In another mood, I might have said it was a stranglehold, but the doctor was still talking, pontificating on our daughter’s diagnosis and it sounded as if he was laying blame somehow. Winn’s fingers felt rough and solid. I put my hand on his shoulder.
Penny, by then, had been taken out of the room to dig through a tub of plastic toys to find the one she wanted. A treasure for being a good patient.
The doctor said, “You could take turns the first few nights on this medication, sitting by her bed, making sure she doesn’t wander.”
I had found Penny on the next-door neighbor’s porch the week before, standing in the yellow beam of the porch light, her arms raised above her head. Her hair was in a braid, her plaid nightgown tipping off one shoulder. Her feet were bare. It was nearly freezing outside.
When the doctor finished, I took my hand off Winn’s shoulder, “We’re divorced,” I said as if that settled the matter.
Winn stood up and crossed his arms. The moment was gone.
The doctor scratched his nose, recovering, I think. “If it helps, sleepwalking usually doesn’t last past the twelfth year.”
I laughed, a wobbly, nervous laugh. “Six more years,” I said. “Should be a snap.”
In the lobby, Winn said, “You embarrassed me back there. Telling that doctor our business. He didn’t need to know we’re divorced.” Winn put his hands on his hips. “Unless you wanted him to know.”
The doctor was forty, at least. Slight. He’d recently had hair plugs. You could see a series of little crosses on his scalp. I was a looker, no doubt about it, but I wasn’t in his league. I drank cheap beer and wine coolers, rode dirt bikes on weekends when Penny was with Winn, thought a trip to Vegas was about the classiest thing a man could surprise you with.
Still, I enjoyed pulling Winn’s chain. “Maybe,” I said. “He wasn’t bad looking.”
Penny was beside us, still looking through the tub of cheap toys, the plastic whistle she ended up choosing right at her fingertips. A cloud passed over her face, and then a thunderstorm, and she started to cry.
“See what you did,” I said. And I scooped her up.
Winn roared off in his pickup truck, his rubber work boots stuck upside down in the gap between the cab and the bed. An orange water cooler sloshed near the tailgate. He’d be spending his day in the sun, building a new post office the next town over, so small it must have looked like a postage stamp to any pilots flying over.
At home that night, I slipped off my heels. I took off my pantyhose and tossed them in the bathroom sink to wash later. The ankle Winn had claimed thrummed as if it were full of electricity. I put on jeans and an old sweater, and I fixed Penny fish sticks and mac and cheese. While she ate, I drank a wine cooler that tasted like strawberry lip gloss.
“The doctor was nice,” I said.
“They gave me a whistle,” Penny said, “but I can’t find it.”
I went to the counter where I’d hidden it earlier and handed the whistle back. “Just don’t blow it inside,” I said, and Penny tucked it in her pocket.
“I wish I knew why you walk in your sleep.”
“The doctor thinks you’ll outgrow it. Just like you outgrew your baby bottle and sucking your thumb.”
Penny’s eyes were green with specks of brown. She looked down. “I still suck my thumb, sometimes,” she said.
“Well,” I said. “Life is hard.”
When I put Penny to bed, I made her keep her robe and house shoes on. I pinned a note to the robe with her name, address, and phone number, just in case she got away from me somehow. When I was finished, I crawled in bed beside her, the two of us crowded beneath her Care Bear comforter.
We woke up before the sun did, in a sweat. Too many clothes. Too many covers. But Penny was safe, so what did I care?
When it came time for Winn to take her for the weekend, I didn’t want to let her go. “Please,” I said, “let her stay.”
“She hasn’t been sleepwalking since she started taking the pills, right?”
“Well, sure, but what if you forget to give her one?”
“What if she’s been doing so good because I’ve been sleeping with her?”
“I’ll sleep in the hallway by her door if that makes you feel better.”
“What if you forget to lock the front door?”
Penny was tugging on my sleeve, ready to go. She had more fun with Winn, but then everybody did.
“Let’s go, pumpkin,” Winn said and took Penny’s hand.
Later that night, I drove to Winn’s apartment building. I walked the grounds, around the pool that was drained and covered, beside the swings and the barbeque grills, past the bank of mailboxes in a scary breezeway.
I had a key to Winn’s place, just like he had a key to mine, for emergencies, and for a minute I thought about letting myself in, just to see. I didn’t, of course, but I did walk by—his place was on the second floor—but there was no light shining, no sound from the TV.
I jiggled the door handle to make sure it was locked, and within seconds Winn flipped on the light and opened the door. “What are you doing, Amy?” he asked.
I tried to think of a reason, but none came.
“I can take care of my daughter.”
Winn was beautiful: dark hair, blue eyes, the body of a hard-working man.
It was that phrase my daughter that did it to me. A month before, I was sure he would have said our daughter, but his memory of us as a couple was slipping away.
“Let me come in,” I said, and Winn hesitated. In the stillness I could hear the engines of cars stopping, doors closing, footsteps down below.
I pulled off my knit hat and unbuttoned my coat. “Let me come in,” I said again, and Winn stepped aside as I entered. I walked to Penny’s bedroom. I stepped over a sleeping bag in the hallway, which meant Winn really was guarding her door.
Penny was asleep on top of the covers, a stuffed rabbit in the crook of her elbow, her dark hair, same as Winn’s, wild across the pillowcase. She had on a T-shirt that read “Happy Camper.” She looked like an ordinary, happy six-year-old.
“Feel better?” Winn whispered. There was an edge to his voice, but just barely.
I had a sometime-boyfriend who had called me earlier, hoping I would drop by. He lived in a better part of town. He had a two-car garage and a speedboat at the marina. I don’t think he loved me at all, but I felt like someone different when I was with him.
Winn, though. Winn knew me.
“Some better,” I said.
He took my hands between his. “You’re freezing.”
On his kitchen counter was a greeting card that read “Hello, Sweetheart.” On it was a polar bear blowing a kiss. I could imagine the kind of girl who would pick out that card. Probably six or seven years younger than me. Always happy.
I pulled my hands away and put them around his neck.
“You’re still cold.”
“So I’ve been told,” I said, and Winn laughed.
He put his arms around my waist. In the early days, his arms around me were fire. Later they were a moat that kept the creatures out. In the end, they were a lifeboat sinking in the rough sea.
“No way I could have stayed married to you,” I said.
“Shh,” Winn said, something that would normally infuriate me but tonight made me smile.
He led me to the couch, took off my coat and folded it. I sat down and he sat beside me.
“You,” he said, and I waited for the rest, but nothing came.
He ran his fingers through my fair hair. He pulled me close and I was surrounded by the smell of his aftershave, cedar and sandalwood, the scent of the beginning of earth.
He kissed me in the way that makes your knees fail. His phone rang, and I asked him to make it stop. “Penny,” I said, meaning she might wake up. I think we both knew it was the polar bear girl checking in, making sure her man was where he was supposed to be.
He unplugged the phone instead of answering it, instead of turning his back on me and whispering to her, and when he did, it felt as if I’d won something monumental.
Winn sat back down on the couch and kissed me again, the natural world wild around us, and we were the eye of
“Penny,” I said again, this time with a degree of regret. Winn understood although it took him a while to let me go.
In my car, I could feel the current that looped between us, that stung my ankle every time I tapped the gas pedal, a residual effect of our encounter. I knew enough about science to know that the voltage between us was high and unstable. Electrons travel millions of meters a second through a wire, but never straight ahead. They bounce and drift, they push and pull, not knowing what the outcome might be but unable to stop their erratic movement.
We, on the other end, flip the switch anyway, not knowing what it took to get the light to us. We do this casually, confidently, arrogantly. We do this because we can’t live without the light. We can’t live without all that flickering voltage.