Airbag

by Ted Sanders, recommended by Graywolf

EDITOR'S NOTE BY Katie Dublinski

Electric Literature asked me to address how “Airbag” is representative of the work Graywolf publishes, and in terms of content or style, there’s nothing about it that is; other than that it’s utterly distinctive, operates on its own terms, and expands our ideas of what literature can look like. When we’re asked here what makes a book a “Graywolf” book, often the defining characteristic is that it’s different than anything else that we’ve read or published before, not what it has in common with the rest of our list.

“Airbag” showcases the powerful and unique imagination at work in all of the stories collected in No Animals We Could Name. What I love about the book is that every story shows me the world from an odd new angle. Sometimes that can be uncomfortable — there are certainly some uncomfortable moments in “Airbag” — but seeing the world anew is a tremendous reward, and it’s remarkable to be given so many different vantage points in one book. I’m excited to see where Ted Sanders will take us next. For now, I hope you all enjoy this story, and will find your way to No Animals We Could Name.

Katie Dublinski
Associate Publisher, Graywolf Press

Airbag

THOUGH SHE DOESN’T OWE ME ANY, Dorlene pushes an apology my way every few miles. I’m the one that should be sorry, letting the conversation hang like I have, like it’s a hand I won’t take. I can’t yet manage to do any different. At the farm, when I step out of the car into the late September cool and open her door — because it seems like the thing to do — I turn away. To be honest, I only pretend not to watch, craning like I’m peering up toward the farmhouse. And even though seeing the house again does have me jangling, Dorlene is a hell of a distraction. A couple of what must be Tom’s art-and-design kids slouch across the lawn, headed down past the garage, but those kids can’t really compare. Maybe not even Triti herself. What I’m saying is: though I’ve got my head turned toward the house, I’m pouring a highway of thought into my peripheral vision over at Dorlene. To see how she manages. I figure she’ll clamber out, ass first, feet dangling, but instead she scoots herself to the edge of the backseat, face forward — a tiny, unbelievable thing — and she pops right out, stiff. She’s airborne for a blink, sticks the landing, her arms and legs apart at just the same mute angles, like a paper-chain person. She looks dispensed. And then she’s limber again, throwing the door shut with both hands and all her weight. Her head doesn’t even come as high as the door handles, not much higher than the tires, really. She could maybe stand upright inside the wheel well. Maybe. I can still hardly gather up the idea of her.

“Your door’s open,” she says in that voice, and she steps up and slams that one shut too, one little foot lifting. She cocks her head at me. I go ahead and look down at her outright then, because you can’t go on not looking. I’m cool about it, I think.

“I do apologize again for that awkward car ride,” she says. “I hope you understand. Those fucking airbags, I’m serious to god.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s a complication. And it’s out of kilter already.” She moves her hand between her chest and mine, like she’s singing. She had to sit in the backseat because she’s so small, an airbag could kill her — just the concussion of the thing. According to her. Back at the bus station, she checked my dashboard and excused herself to the backseat, and that’s how we drove. Hence all the apologies. Back at the station, she said, “They inflate by controlled explosion, did you know that? Like rocket exhaust.” She kind of half jumped at me and threw her little stick arms out, and went “FOOMP!” which with that painful squirt of a voice — an unbelievable voice, really — sounded like an animal noise of alarm. A little dog, or a monkey. I don’t know if she noticed my flinch.

Now Dorlene smooths her tiny dress, a rust and brown plaid thing with pleats. A little kid’s dress, probably. Her sandals are the size of butter dishes, and inside them her naked feet look long-toed, almost like hands. And her hands? I don’t look at any of her for long.

I’m caught up in Tom’s idea of a joke, I know that much. Picking Dorlene up at the station, driving her out here to Tom’s farm for the party, him not warning me and all. At the time he said he just needed someone who’d have room for her in the car. A joke all right, but at the time I took it differently. What with Lisa and all, I mean. And Triti. Plenty of room in the car these days. So I said I’d pick this friend up, this former student, really, this Dorlene, despite my nerves about driving out to the farm with a stranger, a woman. All that bedeviled conversation. When I asked him what she looked like, he gave me this: “You’ll know her when you see her.” And when I wanted to know what the hell that meant, he just laid me one of those closed-lip grins of his, his eyes fairly fucking twinkling. “You’ll know her when you see her,” he said again, all sphinxy.

I nodded at him like I got it. I figured it’d come to me. People give you that line, and then the thing — the thing you’re supposed to know when you see it — starts to take on the color of a surprise. Something you’d appreciate, or hate. And you start to wonder what kinds of things those are. So at the station, as I was waiting for Dorlene beside the bark-filled flower beds by the ticket window, I was mostly on the lookout for somebody spectacular — attractive, I mean — or maybe somebody hugely fat. Maybe both. If I’m honest, by the time the bus showed up, a half hour late, I could’ve drawn a picture of the woman I was waiting for, like Lisa, only taller, and fiercer, a tank of a girl with long dark hair, or red, a real killer.

So I didn’t even notice Dorlene. I mean, I saw her get off the bus, but like anyone would I dismissed her as a kid — a very together kid. She had a miniature suitcase, with the trombone-slide handle and the wheels. She made a beeline for me, but I was looking past her for the thing I’d know when I saw it, until she got close and I saw she was holding up — figure this — a greeting sign like you see in airports in the movies, white and rectangular. Big black letters read: DAVID BRESLIN. But I was so invested in the bodies still trickling from the bus that for a second I didn’t recognize my own name. Or I recognized it, but I think I thought it belonged to somebody else in this particular case; I laid my eyes on her, and the sign too, and went right back to the bus — just for a second, but still: I feel a little stupid about it.

Dorlene tittered about my confusion all the way out here to the farm — her in the backseat on account of the airbag, her little suitcase in the front seat on account of all the stuff still in the trunk, all that miscellaneous crap I claimed from the house last time, I don’t even know what all anymore. I drove — humming past nearly done fields of corn and soy, passing every little while through gritty brown blooms thrown up by combines — and Dorlene chattered, apologizing for the seating arrangement, teasing me, talking about herself. The fact she’s willing to joke about it shows you she’s not shy. She tells me all kinds of things, like how the reason she looks the way she does is because her particular kind of dwarfism — this is her word, dwarfism, like it’s a religious movement or a philosophy — just makes her all around tiny. She looks like an actual miniature person, so small she might be a toy. Or like something you haven’t ever seen before. Her body’s not stocky. She’s well proportioned, willowy, even. Her hair is brown and straight and ordinary. Mostly it’s her nose that’s off — long, and built along the same plane as her forehead, giving her face a rodenty slant, but not in an unpleasant way. Her eyes are extremely dark. Plus she’s got that voice, high and nasal, almost like her voice can’t make it through her mouth and so instead resonates out from somewhere behind that nose. Sometimes I can hardly make out what’s she’s saying. And it doesn’t help that her voice is smudgy around the edges, like a deaf person’s voice. I figure it’s her throat: maybe her vocal cords don’t come together, or apart — whichever would make her voice so high and displaced. I’ve seen pictures of vocal cords before, but I’ve only got a dim idea how they work. They’re extremely vaginal looking, if you want to know the truth, but that’s a whole other thing.

And now that we’re finally here, Dorlene is still apologizing with that voice. She props her hands backward on her hips and sticks her chest out, says she’s sorry again about the backseat.

“It’s okay,” I say.

“Well, it doesn’t seem okay. I mean, you seem pissed. You’ve seemed pissed this whole time, David, I’m serious to god.”

“No, no, I’m not pissed. Why would I be pissed?”

“Well, you don’t talk much.”

“I’m not much for small talk.” That’s what I say.

Dorlene doesn’t bat an eye. She peers down at herself and pokes her belly with a tiny finger. “Christ, I’m hungry,” she keens. She looks back up at me. “That’s all right, then. I make you uncomfortable.”

“Not really.” Up at the house, Tom goes by carrying a white plastic bottle. I start to wave, but he’s far off and not looking our way. No sign of Triti anywhere, not really. I decide I will say something like the truth. “Or, okay, I guess. Unsettled, maybe.”

“Unsettled.” The word leaks out of her like a squirt of air from a balloon. And here’s what I mean about her voice: unsettled, when she says it, only has two syllables. “Okay, that’s good.”

“Is it?”

“So ask me something.”

“Ask you something.”

“About me. People tend to be curious about me. It’s a curious thing. You’re not curious?” She says: cyuh-yuss.

And here’s the thing: I am curious. I’m pretty fucking deep in already, if you want to know the truth. I’d really like to ask her something like: So is it that your vocal cords never split, or that they never met? Or maybe is that a doll’s dress, or why are your toes so long, or can you swim, or where do you keep your crackers, but I don’t want to ask a question that could be taken the wrong way. I’m beginning to doubt that Dorlene is the easy-to-offend type, but you just never know. “I guess I wouldn’t know what to ask you,” I tell her.

“Ask me how old I am. No one ever asks me that until later.” She gazes up at me, cocking her little head again.

“That’s because it’s not polite.” I haven’t even thought to wonder about her age — not because I’m polite, but because she’s outside the yardstick. My best guess figures her for about twenty-eight, but honestly I wouldn’t be shocked to hear it swing ten years in either direction. Thirty-eight would put her in my range, and I guess that’d be a comfort.

“Polite,” she says, and laughs, pressing both her hands across her belly: oh-oh-oh-oh-oh. She rocks back on her heels. “That’s quite funny of you, David.”

I don’t know what’s funny, but she seems to mean it. “Well,” I say. “I guess we should go on up.”

“Cigarette first,” Dorlene says. She wiggles her fingers at me.

“What?”

“Cigarette. You smoke, don’t you?” She grabs at the air between us. I haven’t lit up this whole time, not even when I was alone on the way down to the bus station, on account of who I might be picking up. It comes to me slow now, looking at her little grasping hand, that I shouldn’t have bothered. Dorlene wants to smoke.

I fish the rumpled pack out of my jacket, swimming in the very idea. I pass her down a cigarette. It’s huge in her hand, as big around as her fingers and half again as long. It’s ridiculous, of course, completely absurd. She snaps the filter off and then she starts to twist the paper, pinching as she goes, squeezing tobacco out the ends. Both her hands bend into tiny teacups. Tobacco sprinkles down around her feet. Some sticks to her palms. She’s a real pro at it, you can see that right off. In no time she’s got it twisted down to the thickness of a juice straw. She holds it up to me. “It’s better when I can roll my own, but this’ll do in a pinch.”

“I guess it will,” I say, and I hear a little squeaky shine in my voice.

“Now, will you light me, please? We’ll smoke, and then we’ll go up.”

I’ve no doubt that’s what we’ll do. I light us both up, and we smoke here in the little splintered herd of cars piled in the crook of the L-shaped drive. Dorlene smokes her tiny cigarette like she won’t get another. She even does a Frenchie now and again, smooth as a cat. I wonder — because of the cars all around us — if I appear to be alone.

“I’m thirty-two, by the way,” she says abruptly.

I nod like I don’t care. “That’s older than I would have guessed.”

“My, you are polite.”

Lord Jim starts barking, far off. His usual big, deep, warning barks. He’s somewhere past the outbuildings, deeper in the southwest corner, at the unmown end of the property. I can’t spot him, but I get a little chill. Down around my legs, Dorlene listens too. She has her nose up in the air, like she’s scenting. She looks mousier than ever. Or something more sleek and keen than a mouse — something more in the middle of the food chain. And I can’t believe that I haven’t thought of the dog yet at all, all the way here. That I’ve neglected to imagine the spectacle coming down the pipeline, I mean.

“You know about the dog?” I ask Dorlene.

Dorlene drops her nose and starts to crack her knuckles, prissing her cigarette way out at the tips of two bent fingers. Underneath the far-off pound of Jim’s barks and the swells of talk from the house, her fingerjoints pop and click — tiny little sounds just her size, like beans being snapped. “I’ve seen pictures.” She looks toward the barking, but she’s surrounded by these cars she can’t begin to see over. She doesn’t sound worried, exactly, but there’s trouble in her voice. Lord Jim goes on hammering the air. “What’s it? Lord Byron?”

“Jim. Lord Jim.”

She arches her eyebrows. “Well, that’s not even real.”

“He’s something,” I say, but I don’t even know what I mean. He lopes into view just then, way off in the lowlight along the cropline — a huge and bobbing white square. He disappears into the high, faded corn.

“I do like dogs.” She puts her emphasis on the word like.

“I do too.”

“I never thought Mr. Shamblin would get another dog after Willa died.”

Mr. Shamblin, she says. Willa. I don’t know much about Dorlene, just some of Tom’s wet-eyed ambiguities about this repeat girl in the Seattle summer program, his favorite student. I don’t know how much she knows. She still has her head tipped aside, listening, though the barking’s stopped. Her neck is long and sweetly bent, her slight shoulders round with muscle in the ordinary places, and beneath her collar, across her chest, the fabric of her dress snugs across the swell of breasts. I hit my cigarette and cross my eyes down at the glow. I wonder if she knows how Willa went deaf and blind at the end, how that good dog became a doddering, snuffling husk. “I wouldn’t say Jim really is Tom’s dog. He came with the farm. He’s more Triti’s than anyone’s. She’s crazy about that dog.”

“Triti. She’s the caretaker?”

I start to laugh at that one — partly because Dorlene’s soft r when she says Triti’s name makes it come out Tweedy. But also, that there would even be a caretaker. That Triti would ever be called something like that. And it seems like Dorlene ought to know better, but maybe not. It’s not even clear why Tom took the farm in the first place. It was the kind of place he and Helen might’ve wanted for themselves, but Helen had been dead five years when Tom closed on the farm. He makes noises about the day he’ll move out permanent. Instead he comes out only for emergencies, or for mundane pleasantries like mowing. Or for the rare party like this one, when he invites the students and the faculty and a few outsiders like me. The rest of the time, it’s mostly just Triti. Triti and the animals. I shake my head. “Triti? No. She just, I guess, wanted to live out here, and Tom let her stay for cheap. I mean, she does take care of the place, but it’s not a job or anything. Someday she’ll get tired of not giving up on it, and she’ll go someplace else. Or Tom will finally realize he’s never giving up the house in town, and he’ll sell the farm. Either way, Triti will leave. I don’t know what she’ll do then. She would hate to leave the dog, at least.” I suck on my cigarette. I feel like I’ve said too much, or said the wrong thing. Plus listening to myself talk, I’m not sure caretaker is the wrong word for what Triti is out here after all, these days. Her and her steely presence, her patience, her sobriety.

“Why did Triti want to move out here?” Dorlene asks me.

I shrug. “It’s away.”

“I heard you had a thing.”

I don’t let her see my surprise. “We did, yeah,” I tell her, and hope that’ll do. A broad bubble of shouts and laughter arches onto us from over past the garage west of the house. Peopleshapes amble back and forth. I half expect to see Triti go ironing by up there just then, but the sun’s got everybody backlit. I don’t feel much like heading up yet, and I guess Dorlene doesn’t either, because we just stand there a while longer, letting the cigarettes go slow.

We finish about the same time. I try to pace the last finger of mine to hers, kind of eyeing it, but I get this feeling like she’s doing the same to me, and maybe that’s what made them last so long. This hits me somehow, levels us a bit, I’m not sure why.

We go up to the house. I make my steps small. No one’s out back except a few of the grads. We both get looks, me by association, but whereas I ignore them, Dorlene actually nods and tosses out hellos. We walk on by the kitchen, where slabs of massed talk flicker out an open window. Past the house, on the west side of the lawn, where a big tree went down in the spring, Tom and a bunch more students encircle a big pile of brush: Tom’s promised bonfire. Ernest stands in the front leg of the driveway alone, watching them. The kids are his too, of course, but they avoid him as devoutly as they flock to Tom. Tom plays the piper down below, his voice rolling up the lawn, round and slow and smiling. The fallen tree’s mostly sliced up now, but a patch of trampled, unmown grass makes a chalk outline for where the carcass has been. All the dead twiggy stuff has been dragged out into the short grass, and that’s what they’re trying to light. A stack of burnable logs sits off to the side. Several of the biggest slices of trunk have been rolled out for seats.

In the drive, Ernest’s got a rolled-up newspaper in one hand like a baton. He beats it against his thigh now and again. The sight of him is a little jarring — we used to be neighbors, after all. Friends, in a way. But he’s the only person I see that I know besides Tom, so I start over toward him. I don’t know what the hell to do about Dorlene — I don’t know if she knows anybody either. But she stays close, like we’re together or something.

When we get up to Ernest, he says, without looking over, “They’re using lighter fluid.” I get the impression he knows he’s talking to me, but I don’t know what I did to announce myself.

I nod. “Lighter fluid, huh?”

“They went through a whole bottle already. And on to a second,” he says, real flat.

“Oh my,” squeaks Dorlene, and when Ernest hears that, he does look over. He bends at the waist with his arms still crossed.

“You’re Dorlene,” he says in that same tone of voice.

“I am.”

“I heard about you.”

She doesn’t even look over at him. “Did they really use a whole bottle?”

“I’m Ernest Baines,” Ernest says, like using both names will mean something to her. But Dorlene just walks off toward the brushpile, her ankles disappearing into the grass. We watch her go.

“Holy god,” Ernest says when she’s out of earshot.

“I drove her here. She was in my car.”

“Did she have a carseat?” Ernest says. I don’t tell him about the airbag thing — about how she’s so small it could kill her — even though I’d like to tell someone.

Tom spots Dorlene. He spreads his arms out wide as he walks up to her, but they don’t hug. It’s quite a sight, him towering over her, like a circus bear. Until now it’s been Dorlene who looks not really real, or real in a different way — synthesized, maybe. But now it’s Tom who seems make-believe. Kind of an absurd hulk of a thing, a monster. Next to him, Dorlene looks practically like a perfection.

“Holy lord,” Ernest says.

Dorlene starts wagging her finger at Tom. You can tell she’d have it in his face if she could. She points at the brushpile, the bottle of lighter fluid in his hand, scolding. But Tom just laughs and shrugs, shakes his head. I can imagine his protest even from here.

Ernest turns and looks me up and down. He sighs. “So Dave, how are you?”

“Pretty good,” I say. I add, “Hanging in there,” and right off wish I hadn’t.

“And how’s Lisa?” Ernest slaps the newspaper against his knee — whack, whack, whack.

My head clouds over. They’re still neighbors, and he’s asking me. “She seems good.”

“She’s lost weight.”

“Yes.”

“A lot of weight.”

“Thirty-five pounds,” I tell him.

Ernest nods. “So, you’re still talking, then. I see.”

How much Lisa and I talk these days is no business of his, so I don’t say more. I’ve been out of the house for almost a year and have barely seen Ernest since. I’m realizing right now that he’s not a friend, not so much. Proximity might’ve been all we had going for us back when we used to talk more, when we were neighbors still. But maybe proximity is all any relationship has going for it. I try to think of something to say, and then Ernest murmurs, “Look at that, look at that now.” But all he means is just Dorlene down there, still talking to Tom. Meanwhile, the kids bomb the brushpile with lit matches.

I ask Ernest how Brenda is, trying to rile him. It’s been years, and we didn’t know her long — she moved out several months after we moved in — but we were friendly for a while, the four of us. Afterward she was always coming by to take or leave the kids, and out in the driveway you’d see her and Ernest sometimes, stilted and smoldering. We didn’t keep in touch.

Ernest scoffs. “Yes, how is Brenda.” He lifts his rolled-up paper like a sword. He goes into a fighting stance, and he starts on like he’s fencing or something, stabbing and parrying out at nothing, the whole bit. His shoes scuffle across the driveway stones. “From what I hear?” he says, and then he kind of lunges and stabs down toward the ground, throwing his back hand up over his head like he’s in Shakespeare or whatever. “Sluttish.”

All at once there’s a flash from below, and the thump of tearing air. A big fantail of fire, all orange and black, blooms from the brushpile. Me and Ernest both startle. Ernest jerks up erect and steps back beside me. Down below, Dorlene’s been knocked off her feet, almost lost in the grass. Tom bends and scoops her up with one hand — under her belly, like he’s scooping up a cat — and he trundles toward us with her under his arm. I find I’m walking down to meet them but I don’t know why. I leave Ernest standing there.

“I am serious to fucking god, Mr. Shamblin.” Dorlene is stiff as a stick, her hip pressed against Tom’s. Her dress hangs down between her legs. “Put me the fuck down.” Behind them, the flash of fire has vanished to black and smoke. Nothing’s caught. The kids chatter and whoop.

Tom comes up grinning, hanging on to her. “You’ve met Dorlene.” He’s wearing a long pink polo that’s tucked I don’t know how far down into his pants. His pants always ride low, and with Dorlene on his hip, they’re sliding into a dangerous zone, but the polo stays tucked.

“David,” Dorlene says to me. She’s managed to cross her arms. “David, please tell this man to put me down.”

“What, you’re friends or something now?” Tom rumbles. “A little time in the car, and now this?” I don’t know if he’s talking to both of us or just Dorlene. He hitches her up against his hip again, re-getting his grip.

“Mr. Shamblin,” says Dorlene. “David.” She hooks her eyes on mine.

Ernest speaks, right behind me — practically in my ear, close enough so I can feel his breath on my neck and smell the dim piss-taint of wine. “Tom, Tom, Tom. This hardly becomes you.”

What that even means, I’d like to know. But Tom laughs and sets Dorlene down. She alights like a dandelion tuft, starts smoothing her dress again. We all watch and then Tom turns to me. “Triti,” he says.

For just a second I don’t even recognize the word, and when I do I blink and shake my head. “I haven’t seen her. We just got here.”

“I need to find her.”

“I haven’t seen her,” I say again, shrugging, and fuck if my face doesn’t burn.

“Well.” Tom turns and considers the brushpile. He drops a two-handed wave of resignation toward the kids still there, then smiles down to Dorlene. “You wanna see the house?”

We head up and in through the back porch, the four of us. The house smells like food and age and Triti. The adults have gathered in the warm kitchen: Martin and Clara, red-faced Bob Everitt, a handful of faculty I know by sight but not right off by name. Fat Susan — partly here on neighbor credentials, like me, but also because she’s co-owner of a gallery in town — has the back seat at the table alone, her mitts around a wineglass as big as a melon. She waggles her fingers at me. Little kids yammer somewhere back deeper in the house, a sound that takes me stupidly by surprise. Triti is here too, standing with her back to the sink, facing us and holding wet hands in the air like she’s prepping for surgery. Water piddles off her elbows. She’s cut her hair a little shorter, and the inside curtain of it, hanging to her shoulders, has been dyed pink. I haven’t even decided yet what I’ll say to her. Looking at her now, standing here, I realize I’ve pretended I might say nothing.

Triti doesn’t snag on Dorlene at all. Her eyes slide up over Dorlene and onto me, right behind. I mean, everyone looks first at and then away from Dorlene, but only Triti seems not to notice her. A small but detectable hit ripples around the rest of the room as people spot her. They fix their faces as far from surprise as they can, most of them mustering up something like a happy expectancy, some of them checking Tom, all of them careful not to stare. But nobody manages to keep their conversation up; only the kids’ voices from the other room keep the moment from sinking all the way down to silence. It’s awful, and I wonder if this is how it always is for poor Dorlene. But she just stands there right out in the middle, hands slid inside her pockets like paper in envelopes.

Tom waits another beat or two and then says, his voice all girled-up with glee, “Now that’s how you silence the rabble.” Everyone waits for him to go on, to flood the uncertain space that’s bubbled up. He steps in behind Dorlene, his face thoughtful and impish, and I can see he’s either working up his joke or already has it and is just weighing the delivery. At last, he dangles a hand low over Dorlene’s head. He booms, “Everyone, this is Dorlene. I know she only comes up to here on most of you” — and he shifts and curls his hand so that he’s making a vaguely lewd gesture of height just at the level of his own crotch — “but don’t think that means she’s going to do you any favors.”

Grumbles and titters sprout up all around. Fat Susan lets out a loud puff of air — whuh! Bob Everitt squawks and Ernest chuckles low. Triti’s eyes roll faintly and she shakes her head. Tom shrugs for everyone, turning and grinning. “What?” he says. “What?”

Dorlene raises her arms. She holds them up like some little prophet or something, and everybody quiets and looks at her — I sure do. Tom stops mugging and beams down at her. She lifts her voice, and it hums so high it sounds like a ringing that’s just in my own ears. “That’s good advice I hope you didn’t need,” she says. “But I am Dorlene.”

And just like that she pretty much has the whole room. Laughter and friendly voices — relieved voices — rise. And I try to think if in my whole life I have ever said the words “I am David,” or if I ever would, and I try to imagine what kind of thread of connection somebody would have to have with themselves to be able to say such a thing and to find that it’s not just received but received well. And while I’m thinking this, I realize that someone in the room is clapping, and it hasn’t seemed inappropriate, and for a split second I worry it might be me.

“She is Dorlene,” I say to Ernest.

“Mm,” he says.

Triti’s eyes are on me. She still has her forearms up in the air, her hands like mittens. “Tom took all my towels,” she says across to me, and her voice rattles me, but I’m distracted by the sight of Clara Pope shaking Dorlene’s hand. It occurs to me that this is a thing I myself did not do. I’m not sure I regret it; Clara has bent herself into a captivating, awful shape, clearly unsure how to handle the mechanics of the act. She looks like she’s just barely overriding the instinct — a maternal one, maybe — to squat down to Dorlene’s level. The effort does regrettable things to her ass. I’m embarrassed for them both.

“Towels … gone,” Triti says to me. She shakes her wet lifted hands. Triti’s words come through to me like they’re on a wire, through the chatter that’s risen back up. She’s tuning herself to my frequency, throwing a private conversation across a crowded room — a kind of invisibility, a concentration.

And I’m hearing her, I am, but the fact that I’m hearing her — that she would talk to me this way at all — makes me a little sick, drags me back across the months. I shrug at her and press a smile and shake my head. Triti bends and begins to wipe her hands and forearms on her jeans, leaving dark smudges across her thick thighs. She keeps her big black eyes on me the whole while, her face as blank as an animal’s.

“Interesting,” Ernest says beside me, but I pretend not to hear him. I let myself get drawn back into Dorlene making the rounds with Tom. Everyone watches, one way or another. The spectacular handshakes, the looks on everybody’s face as they drink in Dorlene, the eager ginger way they bend to and touch her — it’s all fantastic. Dorlene has a whole battery of greetings, all of them old-fashioned and flirtatious. She stands in front of poor giggling Bob Everitt, practically underneath his outrageous potbelly — a fucking alarming sight, I can tell you — and tells him: “I fancy you a troublemaker, Mr. Everitt. I hope you won’t disappoint me.” And somehow even with all her fairylike slurring, she still sounds prim and precise. Bob fans his fingers and flops his wrist and all but whinnies at her.

Ernest, watching, makes little noises of satisfaction now and then. After a while, Fat Susan hisses at us, trying to get our attention. She tips in toward us, her boobs blobbing over her hands, threatening to snap her wineglass off at the stem.

Pssst,” she says again, giving us both the p and the t of it, baring her teeth. Ernest raises an eyebrow, and she pushes a slow slurring whisper at us: “Who — is — that?” She tugs a hand free and points down, again and again, like Dorlene was under the table or something.

Ernest mimics her, pointing down at the ground, raising his eyebrows even higher. Susan nods. Across the room, Tom is protesting innocence high over Dorlene’s head. A couple of younger guys I don’t know laugh, looking from him to her like autograph hounds. Tom says something about Dorlene’s flat head. “So you can put a drink on it,” he clarifies. Dorlene rocks on her heels.

Ernest holds his finger and thumb an inch apart for Fat Susan, indicating a tiny thing, a little bit. He makes his face a question.

“Yes,” Susan hisses, eyes darting. She mouths her question again, giving it no throat but lots of saliva, the words crackling so wetly you don’t even need to read her lips: Who — is — that?

Ernest whispers crisply back at her. “That’s Dorlene.”

Across the room, a little snigger pops out of Triti. She’s slipped into the laundry room doorway now, watching us, her hands folded into her armpits. Susan scrutinizes Ernest like he’s a cobweb in a high corner.

“She’s a student,” I tell Susan. “Of Tom’s. From the summer thing he does in Seattle.”

Susan leans back and lays her hand flat on the table. “She looks so young.” She slips back into a dead whisper on the word young.

I check out Dorlene again, how she has her hands locked behind her waist, how she’s so pert and erect and attentive. “She’s not, though. She’s thirty-two.”

Ernest looks over at me and makes a sound like a detective.

“That’s still young,” says Fat Susan.

“Dave likes them young.”

“How does a person like that even manage on their own?” Susan asks, not seeming to hear him. I’m hardly sure I’ve heard him right myself. “Is she married?”

“Now that is the question, isn’t it, Dave? Or maybe it isn’t.”

Triti’s still watching, listening. Her jaw is like stone. I point to a used paper plate on the table in front of Susan. Something red has recently been devoured there, scraped down to its stain. “Where’d you get the food?”

Fat Susan raises her wine and drops her head, giving me a vampish gaze. She waves a balloon hand toward the dining room. “Oh, honey,” she says.

I push off, leaving Ernest behind, and excuse my way through the kitchen. I don’t watch Triti watch me go. But as I sidle past Tom and Dorlene, Dorlene — I swear — reaches out and briefly snags me, giving my pants a fleeting tweak, like I’ve caught on a bramble. I glance down, and she slims me the corner of a smile. I’ve no idea what kind of look I’m giving her in return, but blood rushes to my face. She opens her mouth and flashes her eyes, and she tells me, thinly but unmistakably: “Hungry.” I nod before I know it. I sort of stumble past Bob and slide through the butler’s pantry into the dining room.

I find myself almost alone. A couple of students — a guy and a girl — are making their way down Tom’s long homemade table, which is just obliterated by food. Further on, the front parlor is full of kids — faculty offspring, loose and loud, flickering between the dark furniture. They’ve got some game going up on the TV screen. I try to let my head clear. I tell myself Ernest doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does. I wait for him to come slinking out after me, snarking — or maybe Triti — but nobody does. I can still feel that faint tug on my pants, so foreign and low.

The couple at the table nod and smile at me. I nod and walk on by. I pass the open door to Triti’s room without looking. I know anyway: her bed like a magazine, quilted and trim and square. I wander into the front parlor. Eight or nine kids, half of them rapt before the jangling TV, some clinging to controllers. Every few moments, the room reacts to something that happens on screen, the kids flinching and howling, but all I see are scrolling colors, flashes, shapes shrinking and growing. Tiny figures move. Someone must’ve brought these things here, hooked this stuff up to Triti’s set. Beside me, a couple of the Gottlieb girls — I think — are sitting on a trunk.

“What is this game?” I ask.

I get a gangly, one-shouldered shrug in return. Neither of them takes her eyes from the TV. “I dunno.” The TV whistles and bangs.

I go back to the dining room. I take a paper plate and step in behind the two grazers. The sight of all this food makes me struggle to imagine what kind of thing Dorlene might want to eat. Why she’s hitting me up for it, I don’t know, but I think it over hard. The spread out here is chaotic: Tupperwares, or whatever passes for that these days, and trays and bowls and plates with lids cast aside or foil pulled half off, almost everything inside tan or green. Bags of chips yawn from the back rows like artillery. The food itself is that pretentious mix of the refined and the intentionally lowbrow they always have at these school things: pita triangles and Jell-O salad and stuffed mushroom caps and macaroni salad and Brie, and some kind of little quiche thing maybe, and who knows how many hopeful homemade dips — I see three different guacamoles alone, and something that looks like salsa but isn’t. There’s a bowl full of curling red chips that I figure for sweet potato. Despite the extravagance, I don’t find much I’d eat. Besides chips, there’s not much store-bought stuff, stuff you can trust. Voices knife up briefly from the kitchen, sparring good-naturedly.

On Dorlene’s behalf I reject the smaller-is-better approach right away; I figure it’s probably stupid to imagine that most of the eating mechanics couldn’t be overcome. I’d follow the lead of the two students, but they aren’t so much taking food as they are browsing, pointing and murmuring knowingly to themselves. They nod at a round Corningware thing full of purple spheres, shining in a glaze. Abruptly the one beside me, a tall girl with a sultry swayback and a pooch that pops out from under a braless tank, turns and drapes a slack hand above another dish filled with a brown-and-yellow bubbly crud. It’s been cut into already; the insides look thorny, wet, and coarse. “Try this,” she says to me, her voice like a rumpled bed. “It’s amazing.”

“All right.” I carve a two-bite spoonful onto my plate. I’ve got no plans to eat it. Experience has taught me that what other people want to eat most is whatever I don’t — not that that’s narrowing it down. But I tell myself this yellow stuff looks promising, not identifiable right off, sophisticated. The girl plucks simple grapes, green and red, from a bowl with her long fingers. I take another half spoon of the yellow stuff. “Did you make this?” I ask her.

“Oh no. I’m allergic. But T — — made it,” — and here she gives me a name, but it’s a name I’ve never heard, something French or Danish or something, something like Terry but with an n in it, and she pronounces it I’m sure exactly right, and the sudden shift her mouth and tongue make startles me — “and so I know it’s amazing.” She halves a grape with her front teeth. “He’s amazhing.” She reaches out with her hand and actually lays three long fingers against the rim of my plate. She chews. She pats the edge of my plate, real soft, just barely, twice, holding the crown of the bitten grape between that same forefinger and thumb. “Enjoy,” she says, and she drifts away from the table, taking the guy with her.

After they go, I consider dumping the yellow crud back into the dish, but I don’t want to get caught. Instead I push it as far to the side of my plate as I can, making a gooey skidmark. I spy a plastic-wrapped plate of Triti’s cookies that no one’s busted into yet, and I slip a cookie out from under the wrap. I take a handful of Cheetos and a few of the red chips. I take a cluster of green grapes. I stand there and I eat the cookie and I stare into the yellow stuff, imagining the swayback girl in different stages of allergic disfigurement or death — nothing personal, just a thing she’s got me wondering about — and after a minute she and her guy go prowling across the lawn outside, headed down toward the brushpile, her lifting grapes and taking them into her teeth. I steal another cookie.

I take some stuff I’m pretty sure is tabouli, and two of the round purple things, which are so slippery they’re instantly problematic. I take some cheese squares, a few crackers, a wobbly blob of Jell-O salad that I fussily quarantine for its own sake. I get a clear plastic fork.

And now I’ve got my plate, loaded in a way I’d never load a plate for myself, and hell if I know what I ought to do next. I feel sort of stranded. From the kitchen, Tom’s voice still booms, and I have trouble even beginning — mentally, I mean — to orchestrate the act of taking the plate on in to Dorlene.

I venture into the butler’s pantry, up behind Bob Everitt. I lean into a shadow. I don’t know if Dorlene’s even thinking of the mission she’s got me on. In the kitchen, Ernest is talking to a woman in a sagging tan. Tom stands at the laundry room doorway, and just over the hump of Bob’s shoulder I see Dorlene beside him. I shift a little and then I freeze because there is Triti: she’s kneeling in front of Dorlene. She’s gotten right the fuck down to her knees, eye to eye, just like I suspected Clara Pope wanted to. I can’t see Dorlene’s face, or Tom’s, but Triti’s shines with pleasure as she chatters and nods, looking for all the world like some chirpy preschool rah-rah gushing to a toddler about her finger-paints or her teddy or whatever. She kneels like you would kneel for a dog. And as I watch she looks over at me, finds me. Her eyes are dark with glee, sharp and deep.

I turn and leave. I pass Triti’s room again. I head out the front door and onto the open porch. The presence of the porch swing surprises me — I don’t know why — but I go ahead and take a careful seat on the peeling slats. I eat a cracker and swing a little and look out over the lawn. Nobody’s gotten the brushpile lit yet. The kids down there look to be lost between tries, an idle cluster talking and glancing stupidly around. Somebody upwind’s got some weed going, somewhere out of sight. A round of Triti’s laughter comes bulldogging out the kitchen windows, down the house, big sudden heartfelt hunh-hunh-hunh’s. Tom’s voice rides it loud, unintelligible, undercut by a sharp trill from Dorlene. And then, fleeting but plain — bobbing momentarily to the surface of that sea of noise — I hear my name slip from Triti’s lips: Dave.

And I suddenly just feel a thousand, feel spread thin and sick again, retrograde. I can’t figure out how I ended up back here. Here on this swing, here at this house, here with Triti nearby at all. This is not what I wanted. And look — even though I maintain that everything that crumbled would have crumbled no matter what, still I can’t help nosing at the rubble I’m crawling through now. I nose at it and I hate like hell the freedom of suspecting that different flavors of ruin might have been available to me. I doubt that Triti can say the same. The Cheetos on this sad plate I’ve put together look like sickly little neon turds, embarrassments. I pick one up and flick it out into the grass. I expect it will alight and glow there, but it disappears.

I swing. I eat the pineapple. I light a cigarette. I go ahead and toss more Cheetos into the lawn. Whatever they’re talking about inside, I imagine Triti’s got Dorlene fooled by now. And Tom’s a lost cause, of course. Not that you can’t trust Triti, but you do have to mind the gap between what she says and what she’s thinking, because of her stranglehold on it all. She has magnificent control, I mean. Her telling me just now that her towels were gone, for instance: it’s no surprise that her first words to me after five months weren’t a greeting, any reminder of my absence. No, she squeezed those words out smooth for me, like pearls. And that is maybe her exact nature, now that I think of it — pearl-making. It comes to her like breathing. And I guess I don’t know after all how you can trust a person like that in the long run. I’m going to say I can’t — not in the long run, I don’t think so. I doubt anyone will warn Dorlene.

The slippery stuff on my plate has been sliding around, slopping together; the Jell-O is compromised and mostly inedible. I pluck grapes from the mess of my plate, some of them frosted in the yellow stuff. They go into the lawn, too, one by one. They bounce and tumble in and out of the grass. I give myself points when one reaches the gravel drive that leads back to the road. I watch the sun drop toward the hill out west and I listen to the house leaking sounds, words I still can’t quite make out.

Author’s Bio

Ted Sanders’ stories and essays have appeared in journals such as Georgia Review, Black Warrior Review, Cincinnati Review, Gettysburg Review, and Massachusetts Review. His work has been featured in the the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and he was the recipient of a 2012 NEA Literature Fellowship Grant. He has lived in Illinois for most of his life and now resides in Urbana with his family. He holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he currently teaches writing.

Guest Editor

Graywolf Press is an independent literary publisher based in Minneapolis. The press was founded in 1974, and was originally devoted to publishing fine letterpress editions of poetry. It now publishes about thirty books each year, divided evenly among poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, with a healthy number of first and second books by exciting new writers. This year Graywolf’s fiction list includes three story collections: No Animals We Could Name by Ted Sanders (July), Four New Messages by Joshua Cohen (August), and The Book of Mischief by Steve Stern (September). Graywolf is a nonprofit organization, which means it relies on government and foundation grants, as well as contributions from individual donors, to cover about half of its annual budget. It also means that Graywolf has the freedom to take risks on books that might not be instant runaway commercial successes, but that will find their audience over time.

“Airbag” is part one of a three-part novella excerpted from No Animals We Could Name with permission of Graywolf Press.

Originally published at recommendedreading.tumblr.com.

About the Author

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