“Zebra Sounds” was originally published in the Winter/Spring 2007 issue of the literary journal, So To Speak.
You are tired all the time now. You drink coffee in the evening to stay awake but suspect you’re developing an immunity to caffeine. In the kitchen, you set your cup on the table, pull out a chair, spread your bills in front of you like a fortune teller’s cards. You stare at them, look at your name at the top of each bill and wish you were someone less pronounceable. In the end, you sort them according to due date, and then a second time according to what you can least afford to lose.
Your son, Ben, sits across from you, drawing houseflies with colored pencils. At six, he is a remarkable artist, a prodigy you’ve been told, but he draws in streaks, one subject for days or weeks at a time, picture, after picture, after picture. Right now, it’s flies, in brilliant, iridescent detail, on window panes and dusty sills, on books and plates and the petals of flowers. They are perfect, the flies, and in their perfection there is, you suppose, an uncanny sort of beauty, but they are ominous, too, portentous in the way of dark clouds, howling wolves. Later, when Ben goes to bed, you’ll collect the flies he’s drawn today, one by one, turn them all over, stack them upside down in a moving box, painted orange and labeled in glitter: Ben’s Art.
Ben stops drawing now and looks at you, his expression vaguely accusing.
“What did I say?”
He tilts his head, frowns.
You look from your son to the bills and back again, make your eyes wide and guilty, cover your mouth with your hand. “Oops,” you say, conspiratorially. And he smiles.
From the bathroom down the hall, Ben’s nine year old sister cries out and you scramble from your chair, stumbling, calling her name, colliding in the hallway, where Callie, breathless, points and whispers, “In the tub.” Stepping past her, a few feet short of the tub, you lean forward, peer over the side. A fat, black, red-eyed mouse stares back at you, and before you can stop yourself, you scream. And then Callie screams, and so does the mouse, it’s tiny, helpless shrieks chasing you both back down the hall.
In the kitchen, you try to collect yourself, tell your children, forcefully, that it’s just a mouse. “No big deal,” you say, “We can handle this. Right?”
They look doubtful so you laugh, a reassuring, lighthearted chuckle as you pick up the phone and dial Greg, the super, who answers on the fourth ring sounding groggy as if you’ve awakened him, though it’s only seven o’clock in the evening. “We have a mouse,” you tell him.
He makes a sound. It might be a yawn.
“Did you hear me?”
In the silence that follows, you listen to the mouse cry, scamper, try to escape. Callie’s furtive glances down the hall unnerve you.
“Greg!” you shout, trying to wake him up. Both kids jump. You lower your voice. “I need your help.”
He says okay, but not like he knows what it means.
“You’ll come over?”
“You want me to come over?”
A pause, and then he hangs up without saying goodbye. For a few seconds, you just stand there listening to the quiet, the tick-tock of the sunflower clock that hangs above the sink. Downstairs, your neighbor begins to sing, her voice drifting up through the floor vents, silvery soft and sweet, like the soundtrack to someone else’s life.
Ben and Callie, standing so close together they look conjoined, gaze up at you with big brown eyes, like orphans, like an infomercial: Just ten cents a day could feed these two hungry children. “He’s coming,” you tell them, brightly, hanging up the phone. “Greg’s coming,” you say. Hoping it’s true.
Later, standing in the doorway of their room, you flick off the wall switch, watch their nightlights come on as if by magic – Ben’s Spiderman, Callie’s seashell.
“I don’t like the mice,” Callie says.
“One mouse” you tell her, “and it’s gone now.”
“There could be more.”
“I’ll buy traps tomorrow.”
“What about tonight?”
“I’ll keep watch.”
“Our old house didn’t have mice,” Callie says softly, an accusation.
You close your eyes, brace yourself, but when your daughter speaks again, it isn’t to ask about her father, where he is, or why he left.
“Is Greg on call?” she asks.
“Yeah. Is he on call?”
“Yes,” you say. “Yes, absolutely, twenty four, seven. Anytime we need him.” You feel good about your answer, the conviction in your voice. You wait, but after a few seconds, Callie rolls away from you, pulls the blankets up over her head. You look at Ben whose eyes are closed. You can’t tell if he’s asleep. “Goodnight,” you say, softly, but no one answers as you close the door.
Del left after ten years of marriage, on his thirty-fifth birthday. He left after the special dinner, and the cake, and the presents that he said were just exactly what he wanted. He left after the kids were in bed, and the kitchen was cleaned, and the two of you had just finished off the last few sips of a too-expensive petite syrah you’d bought for the occasion. He left after the moment of truth, when, not as emboldened by the wine as you’d hoped to be, you stood up nonetheless, took him by the hand, led him to the bedroom, and proceeded nervously to perform a strip tease, swaying seductively to Marvin Gaye, mouthing the words, “Let’s get in on… Ooo baby, I want to get it on.”
It had, in fact, been months since the two of you had managed to get it on, and you were acting on the advice of Candy, your co-worker at Big Bob’s Market where the two of you work overlapping shifts as cashiers. “Shake things up,” she’d said. “Break the routine, honey. Matrimony shouldn’t equal monotony.” She’d smiled then, the way she does sometimes when dispensing her catch-phrase wisdom, as if her words, a mystery until the moment they are uttered, never fail to surprise and delight her.
Later you’d wonder if there exists a more humiliating circumstance than the one in which you find yourself naked as the result of a carefully choreographed strip tease at the precise moment that your husband, racked with guilt, breaks down completely and confesses his feelings for another woman. In retrospect, you should have raged, should have risen up before him like a storm, let loose upon him all the righteous fury of a faithful woman betrayed, but you didn’t. At the moment of Del’s confession, you became acutely, excruciatingly, aware of your body – not its strength or beauty, but its vulnerability. Its frailty. At that moment it seemed the most pressing matter was not your husband’s infidelity, but your own nakedness, the needle sharp air, the hardwood floor, like ice beneath your feet. You dressed while he explained, while he pleaded and promised and backtracked, and when you were finished, you stared at him, waiting for his words to run out.
“Do you love her?” you asked him, and when he nodded, you felt your insides surge, the floor beneath you sway. Del reached out, but you pulled away, rubbed your arm where his fingers had been as if to erase his touch.
When you think of it now, late at night, too tired to ward off memories, you see yourself dancing, nude, and you hear Marvin Gaye in the background, but this time he’s asking tunefully, repeatedly: What’s going on?
Greg, the super, has decided he likes you. You can tell by the way he looks at you, like he’s seen you in his dreams. You are careful around him, don’t want to mislead him. You bring Del into your conversations, awkwardly, and always with his title. “Del, my husband…” you say, pausing before you continue, watching for signs of understanding, the almost imperceptible drop of his shoulders, the flicker of disappointment in his eyes.
But he’s nice to you, hopeful, offers to check your mouse traps, your leaky kitchen faucet. He brings you the weekend paper after he’s read it, says he’ll install cable (illegally) so the kids can watch Cartoon Network after school. He has a tendency to hover, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, trying on smiles and wearing them uncertainly, like he’s not quite sure if they fit. He waits. He lingers. He lets the words he doesn’t say fall all around you like confetti, like little pieces of the man he wants to be. You know he wants you to pick them up, put them together, rebuild him, but you never do. You’re afraid to make any sudden moves. Afraid he’ll step closer. Afraid he’ll go away.
Every few days, Del calls to talk to the kids. Ben always stands with the phone to his ear and nods. He doesn’t speak. Eventually he gives the phone to Callie who takes it into other rooms to talk behind closed doors. Neither child feels compelled to share these conversations with you.
“It’s private,” Callie tells you before you even ask.
Sometimes, when he’s been drinking, Del calls in the middle of the night and wakes you up. He calls to say he misses you, misses the kids, fears he may be making a mistake. You listen, not to his words but to their rhythm, their tone, because it’s familiar, because it disrupts the silence just so. Sometimes you set the receiver on your pillow and fall asleep to the sound of it, Del’s voice, like an alarm clock in reverse.
At work, during your break, you get a call from the principal of Callie’s school, Ms. Collins, who tells you that Callie, during art class, cut off half of her hair. For an instant, you think Ms. Collins is speaking another language. You can’t think of how to respond.
“The right half,” she says, filling the silence, efficiently sympathetic. “We’re very sorry. The children were working independently, something they do all the time without incident. Callie was very quiet. I’m afraid no one noticed until…” her voice trails off.
“What does it look like?” you ask her.
“I need to know.”
“Above the ear.”
“Hair grows back,” Ms. Collins says. “I’m more concerned about Callie’s emotional well being. I think you should consider having her talk to someone. A counselor.”
And then you hear yourself confessing your life like it’s a sin, telling it like a story, once upon a time. You ramble, lose the thread of it, struggle to find your way back. “There are mice in the new apartment,” you say, finally, weakly.
Ms. Collins sounds unruffled like she’s heard this one before. She says separations are very hard on children. All the more reason to make sure Callie has someone to talk to. “Someone professional,” she adds, after a dramatic pause, and then she doesn’t bother to fill in the silence. She just lets it sit there, a wide, gaping hole for you to jump into.
You’ve named her Jolene, the other woman, given her red hair, green eyes, the hint of a southern drawl. You see them everywhere, Del and Jolene, in parking lots, on street corners, waiting in your checkout line at Big Bob’s Market, laughing, always laughing, holding hands. You see them, like ghosts, in your peripheral vision, roaming the perimeter of your life, but when you turn, they’re gone.
Candy says you look like hell. She touches your hair, shakes her head, says maybe some highlights would help. She squints in an appraising sort of way. “Maybe some makeup,” she says, but she doesn’t sound hopeful.
Embarrassed, you shuffle past her, start arranging cereal boxes into a pyramid display. “I’m just tired,” you say, vaguely alarmed. You can’t recall ever having shuffled before.
Greg is outside when you get home, in the parking lot fiddling with the apartment sign, trying to look as if he has official reasons for being there. Reasons that don’t concern you. He says hello to the kids, tousles Ben’s hair, reaches for Callie’s but stops, mid-motion, his hand hovering above her head.
In the car, on the way home, you’d offered to fix it. “I could cut the other side. Make them match,” you’d told her. In the rear view mirror, she’d looked forlorn, uneven, a fashion amputee. One side of her hair fell below her shoulder, honey brown, silky straight and smooth. The other had been lopped off decisively, a brutally straight cut, just above the ear.
When your eyes met in the mirror, Callie’s narrowed, hardened. “I like it like this,” she’d said, daring you to argue.
It’s the look she’s giving Greg, now. Defiant. Angry. “Like it?” she asks him, and he hesitates only an instant before he tells her, yeah, he guesses he does. It’s different. Bold.
He looks at you and his smile fades. He clears his throat. “The rent,” he says, and your stomach dances uncomfortably. “It was due yesterday.”
You lie. “I forgot. I’m sorry.”
He lets you. “I figured that was it.”
“I’ll write you a check in the morning. Okay?”
He nods, rubs the back of his neck, glances at Callie and Ben, back to you. He offers you an awkward smile. Confetti falls, invisibly, like rain, like snow. You want to tilt your head back, catch it on your tongue, taste it. You feel sad, lonely, reckless, tired. You want to cry. Or scream. The moment stretches itself out absurdly, wraps the two of you inside it, transports you to another time, another place. A place outside of time –
“I’ll come by in the morning to pick it up,” he says, sweet, gentle, earthbound man. “I’ll check your traps while I’m there.”
You watch your kids race to the apartment door, half of Callie’s hair streaming behind her, triumphant, like a mane.
The phone rings and you know it’s Del because he is the only one who calls you anymore. He says hello, asks how you are, says, “I called for the kids” before you even have a chance to answer.
“I need money,” you say, softly, quickly, before you change your mind. He hesitates. You clutch the phone. You tell him the rent is due. “Yesterday,” you say. “It was actually due yesterday.”
“I see,” he says, distracted, like he’s busy with something else – checking email, making a sandwich, caressing his new lover. Jolene. Jolene, moving catlike against him, pouting, purring, Do you have to talk to her now?
Callie turns on the TV. From the kitchen table, Ben looks up to see what’s on, loses interest, picks up a pencil and begins to draw.
“Del?” you say.
“A cashier’s job isn’t enough.”
“I know. It’s just that – “ his voice trails off. Jolene’s tongue is in his ear, her hands unbuttoning, unbuckling, unzipping, undoing. She is beautiful, fertile, ripe and full. You are disappearing. Don’t forget to breathe.
Callie watches I Love Lucy, runs her fingers, absently, along the razor sharp edge of her hair. Del says he’s sorry. You don’t say anything. Jolene kisses a trail from his neck to his hip.
“I know it’s hard,” he says. “It’s just that money’s tight for me too ba–“ he stops, just in time, before he actually calls you baby.
Your downstairs neighbor begins to sing, pitch perfect, a song so beautiful it makes you ache, about magic and moonlight and love. And it is there, standing in the absence of an endearment, in a lyric so soft and inane that you feel it, the shift inside you, like a rock tumbling down a mountain’s face. One rock, tapping out the rhythm of a landslide.
“Are you crying?” Del asks, and you want to tell him no, but when you open your mouth, what comes out is something else entirely, an explosion of words, everything stored, let loose. You hear your voice, frightening, exhilarating, a terrible, beautiful, discordant sound that rips through the air and the fabric of your life like something unleashed. You are zero to a hundred in no seconds flat, demanding, exacting, furious, loud. You are unafraid and unstoppable, clear and magnificent.
You are the storm rising up. At last.
Afterward, you rearrange the furniture, move the TV into the corner, the chair up against the wall. You are exhausted, and wired. You can’t stop moving. Callie and Ben watch you, surreptitiously, a study in sideways glances. You ask them to help you slide the couch in front of the window, and you smile at them, reassuringly. Change is good.
You help them with their homework, make them dinner, tell them the one about the elephant standing on the marshmallows, feel relieved when they laugh. You let them go to sleep in your bed because they like the street light outside your window, the way it shines through the blinds, stripes the floor, the wall, the bed. It turns you into Zebra Woman, you say, dancing a little jig in the filtered light, “and you are my wild zebra children.” They get up to dance with you and you let them. They throw their heads back, screech like monkeys, trumpet like elephants because who knows what sound a zebra makes?
You find Ben’s picture on the kitchen table later, after the news, and the late show, and the late, late show. It’s a picture of Callie, wearing her purple sweatshirt, her pink backpack. She’s squinting, the way she does sometimes, smiling. One side of her hair is missing, the other catches light from a setting sun (or maybe it’s rising, you can’t be sure). She is lovely, and lopsided, and fierce. You look carefully, study her clothes, her face, the ground. There are no flies. Before you go to bed, you put the picture on the counter, prop it up against the coffee machine like a greeting card…
They are on opposite ends of your mattress when you come to bed, their backs to each other. You crawl up in between them, lie down in the center. Outside a car door slams, an engine starts, someone calls goodbye. Your downstairs neighbor turns on her shower and the pipes rattle beneath your bed. She will sing now, she always does, and you tell yourself this one’s for you, whatever it is. Whatever it is. You imagine her stepping into the shower, clearing her throat, tilting her face to the ceiling. You spread your arms out, rest a palm against each child’s warm back, and wait. You fall asleep just like that, an audience of one, waiting to hear her sing.