Mascots

by Ted Thompson, recommended by Maggie Shipstead

EDITOR’S NOTE by Maggie Shipstead

Remember being a teenager? Remember how the adult world, growing ever larger on the horizon, looked disappointing or disgusting one minute and then shimmered with thrills and promises the next? Peter, the seventeen-year old narrator of Ted Thompson’s marvelous story “Mascots,” is a profoundly liminal creature. Not only is he in the midst of ordinary adolescent flux, but the death of his identical twin, Carter, means his physical self has become an uncanny surrogate for someone tragically lost. Subtly, through his body, in listening to music or encountering a woman, he attempts to inhabit his twin, and other people try to reach Carter through him. “People kept touching me,” he says, “hands on my back and head and neck, as though in doing so they were reaching across the divide, as if I was a creature with one foot in this world and one in the next.”

Far from being a lugubrious tale of teen death, “Mascots” is a spare, airy piece of writing that abounds with wit (Heintz and Deiter — I will say no more) and pleasurable tactile details: Carter’s club kid hoodies and his “rainbow of rare European sneakers,” the translucent lime green vinyl of one of his records “spinning there continuous as a hypnotist’s spiral,” a “patchwork of family photos that cluttered the hallway wall… like the portholes on a deranged ship.” The world here is tough, funny, vibrant, wrenched out of shape.

A word that always comes up in discussions of why short stories are difficult to write is “compression,” but this story is less an example of compression than of exclusion, of expertly deployed mystery. We don’t know how Carter died, though there are clues. We don’t know why Peter, returning from Outward Bound, wants to show his mother “in a single glimpse, that I had changed.” Changed how? Why? We don’t know. We don’t even learn the exact circumstances of how a lifeguard’s nipple ring came to be rippled out. In the work of a less capable writer, all these questions might make the story feel incomplete, but here the gaps suggest the silencing effect of pain, how some things must be gestured at rather than spelled out. Mystery in fiction makes room for the imagination, and isn’t the chance to imagine, to wonder, one of the best parts of reading?

“Mascots,” which appeared in Tin House in 2009, was, remarkably, Ted’s first published story, and I’m delighted to recommend it just after the publication of his excellent first novel, The Land of Steady Habits, out last month from Little, Brown.

Maggie Shipstead
Author of Astonish Me

 

Mascots

There was a cutter who had scars like tiny plastic slugs on her arm, and a guy who torched his high school gym with a bucket of gasoline, his neck and jaw still shiny and melted. They were kids who had been given everything and still terrified their families with an unexplainable urge to destroy. All they need is self-confidence, promised Outward Bound, we’ve seen it time and time again. But I knew, even before I went, when Mom had set the catalog in front of me and showed me the pages of kids smiling, arm-in-arm at the summit of a Teton, that the trip wasn’t for me. I don’t belong on this, I’d wanted to tell her.

But marching up our granite walkway, pushing open our heavy front door and entering again the familiar air of home, I was ready, after twenty-eight days in the woods, to put that behind me. I was ready, in a way, to start again.

The front hallway smelled of Pine-Sol, and even though I knew better, I charged in with my boots, their hard muddy soles echoing with each step, and turned the corner hoping to see my mother, to appear before her with my big, dirty backpack and face darkened by the Wyoming sun, and show her, in a single glimpse, that I had changed. But neither of my parents were in the living room. Instead, two boys were on the floor in front of the television, leaning forward as if transfixed.

“Hello?” I said. They turned their heads, staring at me for a long moment. On the television, a game show contestant was being suspended from a helicopter by a cable.

One of them climbed to his feet. “I am Heintz,” he said, holding out his hand. He was small and soft, a mop-headed blonde who wore a tight polo shirt over his doughy middle. As I shook his hand, the other one came up beside him. He was scrawny as a marathoner and wore a baggy tank top that exposed his entire bony torso through the holes at his armpits. Neither could’ve been more than fourteen.

“Who are you guys?” I said.

“They’re our guests,” said Mom, coming in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on an apron tied around her waist. She seemed to have shrunken while I was gone, as if all that time at the beach had somehow boiled her down to her concentrated core. Her hair had grown and been bleached by the sun, its straight golden strands pulled back and barretted over its sandy base. She reached up and cupped her cool hands along my jaw. It had been a month since I’d shaved, which at seventeen was something like watching weeds grow in an abandoned lot. “Your hair,” she said, grabbing a shaggy bit that poked out from behind my ear. “It’s so long.”

She stepped back, clutching the clumps behind my ears, as if trying to picture me without it. “There you are,” she said, and kissed me, almost angrily, on the cheek.

The boys had come from Austria, she said, part of a summer exchange program for German-speaking youth called “Surfin’ USA!”

“Stupid name,” said Deiter, shaking his head at me. “Nobody surfs.”

“That’s not true!” chimed in Heintz from the kitchen. “We went at Block Island.”

“That was boogie boarding! It’s not the same.” Deiter looked at me and rolled his eyes. “It’s for babies.”

As I sank into the sofa, I felt suddenly filthy. There were dark strips on my polypropylene shirt from the pack straps and my armpits were nearly black. The little one was hustling around the kitchen, carrying trays and bowls back and forth for my mother. Mom had always been a health nut, serving us celery chutes after school and, much to Carter’s and my embarrassment, tempeh cheese steaks to our friends. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen her bake.

“Who wants a coo-kie?” said Heintz, carrying in a plate piled high with warm Tollhouse.

“These boys can eat,” said Mom, and Heintz lit up with a crumbly smile. “I’m at the grocery every other day.”

“It’s Deiter,” said Heintz. “He’s so greedy.”

“What?” said Deiter, launching into a long stream of German. “Heintzy is so stupid,” he said to me finally, shaking his head. “See for yourself.” He pointed to his chest, then at Heintz’s round belly. “Who eats more?”

“You’re both beautiful,” said my mother, and we sat for a moment with that thought and the soft crunching of our cookies.

“Where did they come from again?” I said. I had called from the airport and she hadn’t said a word.

“Peter,” said Mom with a sigh. “They lost their exchange family and were going to have to stay in a motel.” She shook her head. “They’re great kids.” Heintz kicked his feet, the toes of his socks flapping.

My father came down the stairs in his pajamas. It was late for him, and I could tell he had been sleeping. He wore his hair pulled back, no ponytail, like an Italian soccer star, and had his suits snugly tailored by a man who did the same for GQ. He had a bony face that he shaved smooth each night, shaking his razor in the sink so that it sounded, from my room down the hall, like a school of minnows were surfacing. He held his arms out but his hug was feather-light. He eased himself beside me on the sofa and I could see for the first time, under the living room lamps, that he had been dying his hair.

“So tell us everything,” said Mom. “I want to hear the whole trip.” She leaned back and, in her snug workout clothes, was swallowed by the armchair. It seemed a feat for a woman of her size to have borne a child at all, much less twins who had towered over her from the fifth grade.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It was a lot of hiking.”

She nodded. “And what did you learn?”

It was a good question. On day three the cutter had arranged a group rendezvous, where we’d met in the dark nearly a mile from camp and snorted meth that she’d smuggled in the hem of her rain pants. I felt again for a moment the awful burn it produced in the back of my throat, then the exhilarating lift as my skeleton took flight. Of all the discoveries I was supposed to have made, the only one that felt real was that when you lose your identical twin, in a way you become two people.

“I learned how to tie a bowline,” I said.

She squinted at me, and I could see the same urgency she’d had when she’d signed me up to go. Though small, she was a little knot of muscle who could silence an entire sleepover with a single look. “And what else?”

I knew what she was looking for so I made up a story about running into a grizzly while I was peeing on a young alder tree. I told them about how I held my arms up and said, “Hey bear! Hey bear!” as they’d instructed us, and that the massive animal had wandered away, bewildered, while my pants were still around my knees. “It wasn’t until he left that I realized I was still peeing.”

Heintz and Deiter laughed at this and I could tell Mom was satisfied. “It sounds transformative,” she said, standing up and brushing the crumbs from her lap. She clapped. “Alright, boys, it’s bedtime.”

Dad put a hand on my shoulder, his spidered eyes fighting sleep. “We’ve missed you,” he said. I started to say something in return, but he let out a moaning yawn. Mom leaned over and kissed the Austrians on the forehead.

When you’re twins in a town like ours you become a kind of institution. Carter and I, at eight, modeled for the local department store, and a billboard of us in matching corduroy jackets had hung outside the public library until we were well into middle school. Everywhere I went people knew me, the way a mascot is never anonymous, and they often referenced conversations I’d never had, mistaking me for my brother and assuming what was said to one was said to the other. At the wake, the house teeming with strangers, people kept touching me, hands on my back and head and neck, as though in doing so they were reaching across the divide, as if I was a creature with one foot in this world and one in the next.

I had been gone all of July, and now the heavy days of August had set in, leaving even the beaches in our seaside town crowded and airless. I sat with Ian in his lifeguard chair, perched high above the sunbathers, while he twirled and untwirled his whistle around two fingers. While I was away he’d had his nipples pierced with two heavy rings. Now there was only one, the other covered by an x of Band-Aids.

“Shit got ripped clean off,” he said and made a slicing motion with his hand. “I swear to God if I ever see that asshole — ” he stopped. “Three o’clock,” he said as a clump of seventh-grade girls scuttled past in faded one-pieces. They were all skinny and self-conscious, not a real breast among them.

“You’re sick.”

“I’m just predicting the future,” he said, and scanned the beach. Somewhere in that patchwork of towels the Austrians were sharing an umbrella and fanning themselves with my mother’s sun hat.

“Germans are a trip, huh?”

“They’re Austrian.”

“Whatever. They kill me. I saw them at the grocery store with your mom. The little one gave me a hug.” He looked back the other way. “Mm mm mm,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, some of these older ladies…” He shook his head in wonder. This had been Ian and Carter’s territory, the two of them heading out to private school dances and wedding receptions, places with open bars and no discernable guest list, to work some kind of magic I had never possessed. When Ian gave the eulogy, I kept waiting for it to devolve into a tale of pantyless girls in party dresses.

“You spend way too much time up here.”

“No, listen. Foxy moms are what’s up this summer. While you were off hugging trees, Pete, you have missed a seismic cultural shift.”

There was a haze above the surface of the water, as though what little of it was left in Long Island Sound was evaporating before our eyes. Underneath, who knew what’d be there. There could be whole canyons. It could be like the briny surface of the moon. There would also be dead things, a whole pit of them, a mass grave. As children, Carter and I would spend hours on those jetties, hunting for crab shells beneath the giant stones, amazed again and again by the husks that’d been discarded there.

“You only like going after the women you can’t have.”

“There’s this one lady — ” he paused, as if to conjure her precisely in his mind. “So sexy.”

I’d seen this routine before. “So you’re fucking her.”

He grinned and raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me, I gotta guard some lives.” He stood up, blowing his whistle at some kids who’d passed the swim buoy.

“You’ll see,” he said when he sat down. “They’ll be at your parents’ party.”

“What party?”

Off in the water, Heintz was running with a Styrofoam kickboard, trying to catch a wave. The water was still as a bath, but eventually the wake from a passing boat gave him enough momentum to float onto the sand. He grinned at Mom and gave her two thumbs up before wading into the water to try again.

“It’s a going-away thing. For Hans and Franz.”

“I haven’t heard about a party.”

“Whatever, dude, it’s small. Like family and close friends.”

“And you.”

He grinned. “Pete, I’m like a son to them.” He hung his heavy arm around my neck. It was sticky with sunscreen. “You and me,” he said. “We’re like brothers.”

I hadn’t heard the sound since before Carter died. It startled me awake from a dream, one in which I was back in Wyoming with Outward Bound and we were torching the forest with flame-throwers. The beat came from down the hall, a steady electronic thump that vibrated the walls as if the house had an enormous pacemaker.

Down the hall, I found Deiter standing over Carter’s turntables, wearing his headphones, bobbing and grinning to the beat. It was a bright morning, and all of Carter’s things were pretty much as he’d left them — crates of records by the window, a closet full of hoodies hanging above a rainbow of rare European sneakers. The two speaker stacks, connected by turntables, made a human-sized capital H. Heintz sat on the bed, smiling and covering his ears. Deiter noticed me and waved, then leaned forward and scratched a little, flicking randomly at the knobs and levers.

Carter had stashed his equipment in padded silver cases like precision weapons and wouldn’t let me touch them, even to help him carry them after he’d arrived home late from a gig. In those last weeks, during spring break, he’d arrive back at the house long after Mom and Dad had left for work, and I knew that he was coked up and rolling on whatever trendy concoction the club kids had been peddling at their after-parties. And one morning, as I was sitting at the counter working my way through the end of Bleak House, he came in lugging a crate of records. His hoodie was hanging open and he had a pizza stain on his V-neck like an open wound. His eyes were puffy, as if whatever blood was left in his face had gathered around the sockets. It’s an odd thing to look at your identical twin and see a ghoul looking back. I reached for the crate. His hands were shaking.

“I got it,” he said.

“What happened to you?”

He shrugged. “It was a long night.” He wobbled for a moment like a drunk and I reached again for the crate. “Just let me,” I said, and for a moment he did. “You need some sleep,” I said. He smiled blandly, the color gone from his lips, then snapped awake.

“Get your fucking hands off this,” he said, and pushed past me up the stairs.

I’d never been a fan of club music, with its endless thumping songs, but I also wondered if the monotony was just a product of not understanding it, as though listening to poetry in a language I didn’t speak. Carter insisted on it whenever there was music to be played, hogging the CD player in our shared Wrangler, then walking around school with his ears encased in plastic, the party muffled just enough that I could never quite hear it. There was even a joke at his service that when the State Patrol found the Wrangler flipped on the side of the Merritt Parkway, they couldn’t figure out how to silence the throbbing beat. “Jackass wouldn’t even turn it off then!” Ian had told the church. People like to laugh at funerals, even if the story’s not true.

I went to Deiter and clapped him on the shoulder. It was all bone and ligament.

“You don’t like techno?” he yelled.

I reached forward and flipped it off. The silence was sudden. Somewhere downstairs a TV was on. “It’s too loud?”

“Listen,” I said. “This stuff,” I motioned around me, looked back at Heintz. “It isn’t for you. It’s off-limits.”

Heintz looked down for a moment. I was still in my boxers, disheveled and shirtless. On my chest was the lighter smiley the cutter had burned into my flesh as a memento of our trip. Deiter stared at it. I said, “Does that make sense?”

He nodded.

“Look at me,” I said, snapping my fingers in his face. “Does that make sense?”

His big eyes came back up to me. “Of course.”

When I turned around, Deiter spit something in German and Heintz laughed.

I yanked the cords from the speakers and took them with me.

At the wake I had been careful to wear a new suit and to comb my hair unfashionably to the side so as not to disturb anyone who was still clutching a program emblazoned with my brother’s face. And it worked, except for with Mom, who stood across the room and refused to make eye contact with me. Her doctor had given her some pills and she remained for the most part polite and mild, even though twenty minutes before the guests arrived, as the catering was being delivered, I’d heard her shrieking at my father from their room, “This is not a party! I will not celebrate this!”

I came downstairs at noon and found Mom in the kitchen, humming to herself. The boys were in the basement rec room watching DVDs of old Jerry Springer episodes, impersonating the fights and falling over with hoots of laughter.

“How many of those do they have?”

“They bought a whole set,” said Mom, spreading mayo on several slices of bread. She wore only the wispy cotton of a bathing suit cover. “Will you get them?”

They had pulled the cushions from the sofa and were rolling around on each other in their tighty-whities and socks. Deiter straddled Heintz’s bare back, pushing his face into the cushion. Heintz struggled free.

“Peter!” he said. “You like WWE?”

Heintz’s pale belly had been rubbed pink. They were huffing, their faces red. “Not really,” I said, and they both sat for a moment with the slack look of disappointment. “Lunch is ready.”

Heintz struggled to his knees. “I’m first!” he yelled.

The boys piled in, pink and sweating in their underwear and socks, and fought over the chair at the head of the table as if it were a throne. Heintz squeezed in first and Deiter landed in his lap. “I am the King!” said Heintz with his arms up.

“You are nothing,” said Deiter. “You are the servant.”

“You’re both princes,” said Mom, putting the plates on the table.

Deiter plopped down in the seat next to me, attacking his sandwich.

“Ian said we were having a party?”

“Let’s — ” she looked at the Austrians, then back at me. “Talk about this later.”

“It’s a surprise?”

“Peter.”

“Who the fuck do they know?”

“Language,” she said.

I turned to the Austrians. “We’re going to have a party for you. Can you understand that?” They stared at me. “Nod yes if you understand what I’m saying.”

They nodded.

“OK,” I said, looking back at Mom. “So is this one going to be a catered affair as well, or — ”

“Don’t be a little shit,” she said, her index finger pointing between my eyes like a pistol.

She dropped her hand and wiped it on her lap, as if trying to rub away the threat. Mom took her plate to the sink, only half her sandwich finished, then, without a word, left me in charge of the children.

I hadn’t seen the house this full since the wake. People filled the entire kitchen, crowding around the bar and spilling out onto the back deck. Ian wore pink, a crisp flat linen rolled to the elbows, and when I saw him he held up his bourbon highball from the deck and winked at me. I made my way outside, into the stink and haze of cigar smoke, where Ian put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me into his cloud of cologne. “Why you gotta be so damn handsome,” he said. His face was flushed with sun and booze. “I was just telling these ladies about where you’ve been for the last month. What was it, Washington?”

“Wyoming.” The two women nodded. They were in sundresses and clutched their wine glasses with two hands as if they were afraid to touch anything else.

Ian threw up his arms. “Well, they have grizzlies there, too.”

“What an amazing story,” said one, looking at me. She was tall, lifted by her heels so that I faced directly into the freckled tan of her chest. It descended like cheetah skin, plunging all the way into the darkness of her bust. “I was once married to a marine, but the guy couldn’t tell a good story.”

She sipped her wine slowly. Her huge eyes were rimmed in black. Behind her, Heintz worked his way around the deck with a tray of deviled eggs.

“You ladies dry?” said Ian, reaching for their empty wine glasses. He elbowed me in the ribs. “Come on, give me a hand.”

We worked our way back to the kitchen, where there was a tub of wine bottles nestled on ice. Ian tucked one under his arm. “So what do you think?” he said, raising an eyebrow.

“About which one?”

Ian leaned toward the bar on his tiptoes, lifting the bourbon over a wall of backs.

“Both of ’em. All of ’em. I’m telling you man, I never knew this before, but we can have our pick.” He handed me the wine bottle, which was icy and wet. “This summer has been a revelation, Jesus, and I’ll tell you something.” He looked at me again, raised his eyebrows. “That Linda likes you.” I shook my head. “And I’ll tell you something else. She’s well worth it.” He filled his highball to the brim.

“Hey, save some for the real men!” My father braced himself on my shoulder. He leaned in and whispered, “Make sure that punk doesn’t finish my whiskey.”

“Keep your jock strap on, Bradford,” said Ian, holding out the bottle for Dad.

“Who is this punk?” Dad said to me. Ian dumped the rest of the bottle into Dad’s glass. “Besides a goddamn angel!” He threw his arm around Ian’s meaty shoulders and they held each other there like two men who had fought together in the war. “How do we look?” said Dad.

“Blitzed,” I said, and they both laughed.

Someone turned up the stereo, and the warm, familiar harmonies of the Beach Boys came over the room. Deiter was grinning, standing near the old oak stereo cabinet with one hand on the heavy brass volume knob and the other holding a cardboard record casing. The party chatter turned to a roar. Behind me Dad and Ian barked, arm in arm, “Help me Rhonda, help, help me Rhonda!”

The room was a pile of legs and limbs, a collection of strangers with sunburns, and if I closed my eyes I had the distinct impression that they were all yelling at each other, that this was one massive argument. I found Mom across the room, in her party dress, telling stories to an amused circle. She was animated, leaning in, had them all captivated, as her hand rested gently on the back of Deiter’s neck. Ian and Dad had slipped back out to the porch and I realized that, other than an Austrian and my own mother, I couldn’t recognize a single person in the room.

Upstairs it was dark. The patchwork of family photos that cluttered the hallway wall looked like the portholes on a deranged ship. I ran my hand along them as I passed, feeling them shift in my wake. Carter’s door was open, a lamp on in the corner. The old air conditioner shuddered in the window and the dim room felt suddenly chilly. I took a hoodie from the closet and put it on. It was loudly patterned in teal and pink. I closed the door and sat in the middle of the floor with the wet wine bottle between my knees. I’d forgotten an opener, so I stabbed at the cork with scissors and then took a pull, filling my cheeks and picking bits of cork from my tongue.

The room was a sealed chamber. I could barely hear the party over the clatter of the AC. I dragged over a crate of records and flipped through their mysterious covers, abstract designs and Japanese characters, rarely any names even printed on them. Some were even blank, just white sleeves with a serial number at the bottom. I took one of those and put it on the turntable. The vinyl was lime green, translucent, spinning there continuous as a hypnotist’s spiral. I touched the needle to it, clicked off the light, and pulled Carter’s headphones over my ears.

At first there was just static and I wondered if I’d placed the needle wrong, but soon a rhythmic clicking emerged and then came the trademark thump, the beating pulse that tied together entire warehouses of strangers. I tried to listen for whatever it was Carter had heard, some sort of meaning in the repetition, a kind of code somewhere that explained for me why he had loved it. I tried to picture walking through a world with this soundtrack, its mechanical, programmed noise, its slow-building, manufactured crescendos, and I was lulled into a deep, pleasant trance, so that when the door cracked open, its bright blade of light seemed for a moment an extension of that dream, until I realized someone was talking to me.

“So do you always sit alone in your room in the dark?” Linda was backlit, a single smudge leaning against the doorjamb.

“It’s not my room.”

She walked in and picked the wine bottle up off the floor, filling her glass to the brim, then handed me the bottle by the neck. I clinked it to her glass. “Cheers,” she said. She slid off her shoes one at a time in the middle of the carpet and walked over to the crates of records along the wall. “Look at all these.” She pulled out a record with a tarantula on it. “What are you listening to?”

The music, coming from the headphones at my chin, was tinny and distant. “I don’t actually know,” I said.

“Can I hear?” She came around to my side of the speakers and I put the headphones on her. They made her skull look tiny. She nodded her head to the beat, then began shimmying her shoulders, swaying back and forth. “It’s good!” she said, the hem of her dress swishing against my leg. She pulled the headphones off and dropped them in my lap. “Now that’s a party.” She wandered over to the windowsill, standing with a hand on her hip as if posing there. She picked up a picture of Carter after a gig, his purple hat cocked to the side, smoking a cigarette in the white surgical light of a bodega.

“So where are the pictures of the bears?” she said.

“There aren’t any.”

She turned around, tapping her finger with her cheek. “Why is that?”

“Because I made that story up.”

She turned back to the sill. “I know,” she said, her back to me. “So tell me something that is true.” The cotton clung to her rear so that I could see the entire triangle of her underwear. “Something you would never tell me.”

“I’ve never had sex,” I said, but when I looked up she was holding an old snapshot of Carter and me with our hands up on a roller coaster.

“That’s old,” I said.

“Which one’s you?”

I looked over her shoulder. “I’m on the left.” I sat down on the edge of the bed. She stared at it quietly, a lengthy pause that made me uncomfortable. “Now you tell me something true.”

She turned and smiled, leaning over me, her hands down between her knees.

“I’m sloshed,” she said, shaking her head slowly. “Absolutely stinko.”

“I know,” I said. “Something else.”

She plopped down on the floor and took a long, noisy breath. I could see the white flash of her underwear. “Fine,” she said, looking up at me. “I knew your brother.” She was running her finger around the rim of her glass, as if trying to create a musical note. “Did you know that?”

I shrugged. “No.”

“Well I did. He was amazing. So funny, just adorable, just — ” She shook her head, rubbing her eyes with her palms, then looked back up at me. “He was my favorite.”

“What do you mean?”

She smiled. “Shit. You shouldn’t have asked me to say anything. It’s just nice to be able to talk to you. It feels like a dream or something. I miss him.” She reached forward and grabbed the shaggy mass of hair behind my ear. She pressed it against my head, squinting at me. There were wrinkles on her face, folds she could no longer control, and a fading rim of lipstick, smudged from wine and, from what I could smell, cigarettes. There was something beautiful about her, sad and needy and playful, and I wondered if that’s what Carter had seen, if this was what he’d felt.

“Will you cut it?” I said.

She pulled her hand away. I pointed to the scissors beside her. I could see her thinking. “Here,” she said, motioning for me to sit on the floor. She knelt behind me, her fingers running through my hair, pulling at its lengthy bits, then snipped a clump. It felt sharp and clean and good. “I’m no pro,” she said and took a chunk away with confidence. “But I think I know what would look good.” Her hands were firm, assertive. She cut again and again, littering it by the fistful onto the carpet as I felt my hair disappear. “How does that feel?” she said after a while.

I rubbed my head and it felt smaller. She came around and looked at me, running her hand through my hair slowly, surveying her work. Her face seemed to soften in recognition.

“I’d say that’s right,” she said and tipped her head back, downing the rest of her wine. “Gimme that. I’m way ahead of you.” I handed her the bottle and she scooted forward and held it up to my lips. “Open up,” she said, and tilted my head back as if I was a nestling bird. Wine dripped down my chin and she giggled as I struggled to keep up, cupping her hand beneath my jaw. I yanked my head away, coughing, and wine spilled down the front of my shirt. “What?” she said.

I shook my head, wheezing, and she climbed on top of me, trying to kiss me as I coughed. Her mouth was tart. I turned my face away and coughed until there were flashes behind my eyes. “You OK?” she said, gently rubbing my back. She was heavy in my lap. She pulled the hood up over my head. “D’you mind?” she said. I led her up to the mattress, where she climbed onto me, kissing me again, and I felt her breasts graze the top of my chest. “You poor thing,” she whispered through the hood. “You poor, poor thing.” Her hand was working my fly down and then I felt its cold touch.

“Relax, baby,” she whispered, and unzipped the hoodie, which was damp with wine. She pulled my shirt up and rubbed my chest, stopping at the lighter welt and fingering its tender skin. Then she leaned back, her hair falling to the mattress behind her and her face tilting to the ceiling. I must’ve been doing it right, must’ve been doing it exactly right, because I felt her shift and relax, then speed up, as I looked up and saw my mother in the doorway. She was holding Deiter’s hand, as if he had been leading the blind, and she stood there, looking in, slack and motionless and tired.

“What is it?” said Linda.

“Nothing,” I said, and closed my eyes.

She was heavy and forceful, a machine that made the bed frame squeak, and I held on as long as I could while she kept at it, eyes clenched, as if trying to force out of me something she could never have again.

When Linda finally slowed and I opened my eyes, the doorframe was empty.

She opened her eyes and carefully lifted herself off me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. She came over and pulled the hood off my head, ran her fingers through my patchy hair.

“You know, I actually can see the difference,” she said, running her fingers down my forehead, my eyelids, my nose. “After a while, it’s not really so hard to tell.”

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