Boxed In

            Fact: The Komodo dragon can reproduce sexually or asexually depending on the availability of a partner.  

            Between the icy patches on the road and the lousy directions, it took Aubrey an hour to get there. The house on Whip-poor-will Lane was scheduled to be opened by noon. A white clapboard Colonial with a front porch, a grove of pear trees, a tractor parked out front. Instantly, a plan unfolded. A bed of hydrangeas. Blue shutters. Perhaps some bay windows on the second floor. There was no doubt about it. Hank was right. The house had potential.

            Twenty minutes later the realtor opened the door. Aubrey, as usual, was wearing a skirt. Long flowing skirts were her signature look, cottony ones in the warmer months, wool when it was cool. In Aubrey's eyes, every person presented a picture. She glanced at the realtor. A painted face. Sensible pumps. Smart pantsuit. The woman meant business.

            A half hour later, Aubrey had finished snapping photos. Then she walked from room to room tape measure in hand. The threadbare furniture faded while new layouts zoomed into focus. She would tell Hank to meet the asking price and to do it soon. The house had bones, good bones. It would be the perfect weekender for a Boston professional. And with a reasonable budget, Aubrey could easily stage it to sell.

            Outside the house, the wind was whipping and scaring onlookers away.  Inside, the realtor was driving her crazy. Holding her clipboard, she nipped at Aubrey's heels.

            "Do you have any questions? Would you like to see the basement? The attic's been winterized. No expense spared." She thrust out a flyer with the listing. "If you don't mind me asking. Are you a broker or a buyer?"

             The consonants were sharp, the vowels short. Not a native New Englander. A native New Englander would be smart enough to keep her distance.

            Aubrey nodded. "It's a hobby. I like to decorate. You know those makeover shows on TV?  I imagine the possibilities."

            The house was old but immaculate, the hickory floors polished to a shine. But when she peeked in the garage, Aubrey noticed a stack of boxes. And when she stuck her nose in a few closets, she saw that they'd been emptied. If they hadn't already, this family was moving soon. Aubrey knew what desperation felt like. This place reeked of it.

            She needed to call Hank. Her fingers practically itched for her phone. Meanwhile the realtor hovered like a case of indigestion.

            "Would you like a cup of coffee?  Some cookies? Perhaps a cup of tea?"

            "Tea would be perfect," said Aubrey.

            The instant the woman left the room she breathed easier. Then she walked to the fireplace. A plaster mantle lined with photos. Above it a large framed mirror. To Aubrey, a home and its occupants were intertwined, their fates tied up in knots. Who knows what family drama precipitated this sudden change of events, this harsh abandonment. Death? A divorce? A demotion? A mirror always reflected more than a couch, a chair, a table.

            Aubrey's pulse quickened. Heartache seemed to plague every abrupt move, and every sudden move made her heart race. She breathed slowly in and out. Then she glanced toward the kitchen. The realtor was bustling around now, fiddling with the cabinet doors. Quickly she opened her purse. Then in one swift gesture she grabbed a photo off the mantel and slid it inside. She straightened the pleats in her skirt, and without saying a word, turned around and headed toward the door.

            Just as she opened it, the realtor walked out of the kitchen holding two steaming mugs in her hands. "Leaving so soon?"

            Always.

***     

             Fact: Stranded in the depths of the ocean, the male anglerfish converts to a parasite. It attaches itself to the larger female while all of its body parts are slowly absorbed. Only the penis with its store of sperm is left intact. 

            For the last six months, Aubrey lived, worked, and breathed Open Houses. She'd scour the newspaper ads. Then rain or shine, snow or sleet, she'd steer her truck through the solitary lanes and small towns of New Hampshire. When pressed, she'd point her vehicle west toward Vermont or south toward Massachusetts. Humming, her foot on the gas, she'd smile as the radio blared.

             Before she fell into business with Hank, she was more of a tinkerer. She'd spruce up a neighbor's living room. She'd help friends pick out paints. On Sundays she'd haunt garage sales. She hated antique stores, the prices crazy at antique stores, and prided herself on gleaning that special find. Then she'd barrel her way home with her bounty, the truck bouncing over the dirt roads and highways, the tarp stretching and pulling, the silver tinkling, the cartons shuffling, her weary knees and sore shoulders reminding her of a job well done.

            Now, with her daughter heading for college, a window in her life opened. Their new business was booming. First one house then two. Short sales and foreclosures had hit the state hard. Between Hank's building know-how and Aubrey's good taste, they turned someone's else's loss into their gain. Aubrey never made a lot of money. But Hank was smart. Whip smart.  I'm the nuts and bolts, he liked to say. You're the beauty and the brains. Together the possibilities were endless.

            Like always, she took her time that Sunday afternoon. The sun set around four o'clock, and she watched the horizon turn every shade of purple and blue.  She liked to squeeze out every minute on the road, give herself time to think, time to hear the wind whistle, time to count the chickadees sitting on a fence. Anything to stretch the time.

            She knew she'd find her home in a state of chaos. A table devoid of dinner. A basket filled with laundry. Their daughter ensconced in her room. Her partner Rae would be glued to the TV, shouting at umpires or referees, eating chips and chugging beers.

             Fact: Immune to its poison, clownfish are the anemone's best friend.  They scare away predators, filter the surrounding water, provide nutrients with their waste.  Since they never leave home, potential mates are scarce. Males will become female in order to lay eggs.

            Aubrey eased down on the brakes. Then trudging in her boots, feeling the crunch of the snow under each foot, she made her way to the front door. Their house, a reconstructed barn, had no foyer. Aubrey waited for the wind to die before she went in. Then she announced herself, slamming the door and stomping her feet on the rug.

            "It's wicked cold out there."

            "Yup."

            The entry level was one great room with the kitchen and family room combined. Sitting on the couch, Rae ran her fingers over her hair. Aubrey always loved her hair. Kept it buzzed in the summer, maybe an inch long when the weather got cold.  Ignoring Aubrey, immune to the snowflakes twirling in the air, Rae squinted at the TV. Then she grabbed another handful of chips.

            It's nearly as chilly indoors as it is out, thought Aubrey. Lately there were always confrontations. And as usual, what went unsaid was louder than anything they put words to. Meanwhile Aubrey busied herself. She dropped her purse at the base of the stairs.  Then she hung up her coat on the hall tree, unwrapped her scarf and peeled off her boots. When she was done, she made her way back to the TV. Hands on her hips, she sighed loudly and theatrically. Then she planted her body in front of the screen.

            "Humdinger of a storm heading our way."

            Rae tilted her head and shifted her shoulders to get a better look at her program. "I've got a grocery list going.  We're low on milk. Juice. Lianne wants to order in pizza. You feel like pizza?"

            "Pizza? Again pizza?"

            It had been over twenty years since she and Rae set up house. Those first years were like lightning. Electric and sizzling. Aubrey thought herself blessed. But the luckier they got, the more things slid. First Rae's auto shop took off.  Next they found an old barn on ten acres for a song. Then by some miracle, an adoption agency in China sent a baby their way. But instead of feeling fuller, Aubrey came up empty.          

            "I'm thinking Dominoes," said Rae. "Poochie Rayburn's doing delivery on Sundays. I just fixed his carburetor. Says he owes us a pie."

            Sometime after their child's arrival, without knowing how or why, Aubrey was boxed into the role of caretaker. One day she was flipping through fabric books, debating whether to go with chenille or chintz, thumbing through Architectural Digest, sipping tea from china cups. The next day she was wiping a baby's butt and cooking mac and cheese by the pan. Now at the age of fifty-one, that box seemed smaller.

            "Lianne finish her science project? You know. The paper on DNA?"

            Rae pressed the mute button. Still she kept the remote control in her hand. "She wants and doesn't want to know where she came from. She's been in that chat room again, talking to other adoptees."

            Aubrey plopped down on the other end of the couch. Within seconds she felt her eyes slowly close. As usual, two parallel conversations ran in her head. One was listening to Rae, concerned about their daughter, dreading another junk food meal, thinking about how much better off they'd be if Rae would just stop bartering and charged her customers what her services were worth.

            But another conversation always floated in the ether.  Before her mother got sick, years and years ago, Aubrey had thoughts about going to college. She'd get out of New Hampshire and pick some place sunny and warm. Someplace she only read about.

            For a few blissful seconds, she was transported. Aubrey pictured undulating beaches, a blinding sun, a pockmarked coral reef. And all around the reef would be hundreds of bright orange clownfish, schools and schools of them, darting in and out. The anemones, their tentacles like waving arms, would embrace them in soft, warm hugs.

            "Did I ever tell you I wanted to be a biologist?  You know. Before I had to quit school."

            Rae blinked. "Does this mean you don't want pizza?"

            Aubrey's eyelids felt impossibly heavy. Just opening and closing them felt like exercise. "Pizza's fine. Chat rooms are fine," said Aubrey. "What's the harm in visiting a chat room?"

            Rae brushed the crumbs off her lap. Then she shut off the TV. "Excuse me if on my one day off I don't feel like cooking. And for your information, your daughter's a mess."

            Some people played mahjong or lifted weights in a gym. But worrying was Rae's sole rest and recreation. Lianne was a straight A student. Grounded and happy. Still Rae worried.

            "Lianne's high school graduation is five months away," said Rae. "You know what she wants to do this summer? Visit China. I think she wants to find her roots. Or worse, search for her birth family. Christ almighty...then where will we be?"

            Somewhere a clock was ticking, a radiator clicking, a pencil tap tapping a desk. Again Aubrey felt herself drift. The conversations in her head seemed to be overlapping, the words muffled and thick. This summer? Find her roots?

            Fact: The California sea hare, a type of mollusk, has male and female organs both.

            And all at once Aubrey could see it. The water was clear, the ocean floor still. And there among the vegetation was a conga line of slugs, each one plugged into the other, shaking maracas as they danced.  Suddenly she laughed.

            Rae stood up. Then she put down the beer. "What's so funny?  Is something funny?"

            Everything.

***

            Aubrey and Hank spent the next few weeks in her kitchen. Hour after hour, they pored over plans, shoulder to shoulder, their hands brushing. Though Hank's name would be on the Whip-poor-will deed, he'd insisted that they'd split the profits 50/50.

            "I've been flipping houses all my life," said Hank. "And barely squeaking by. No one appreciates a plumb joint or a dovetailed drawer. What they appreciate is the "Ah!" factor." Then he'd raise one of his eyebrows. "You, Aub, provide the "Ah!" factor."

            Aubrey was overwhelmed. By his compliments, his generosity, his warmth. She only had known one man in her life and she spent most of her childhood avoiding him. Her father was a drunk, a mean drunk, a flash flood who swept you up and left you stranded. Hank couldn't be more different. She noticed the way the hair curled on his arms, the pine cone smell of his aftershave, the way his back strained when he lifted a piece of lumber. For the first time in years, Aubrey felt that old familiar current recharged, running red hot at the touch. 

            A week after the Whip-poor-will closing, they made love.  It was a blustery afternoon, the windows laced with ice, the chimney crackling with fresh logs. They both knew it would happen. Hank had thrown some blankets in his truck. Aubrey had packed a thermos of tea. They met at the clapboard house and made a nest in front of the fireplace. Then they stayed there until sundown, pawing each other, traversing curves and dips, lingering. Afterwards, when their energy was spent and their bodies raw, Aubrey lay still. Never had she felt so utterly exhausted. Then she started crying.

            "I was always so afraid," she admitted. "I thought all men would be like my father."

            Hank spoke in a whisper. "With Rae. Why'd you pick Rae? Were you running to? Or were you running from?"

            Fact: The blue band goby can change its sex both ways. It can be either male or female, shifting its gender, while it seeks a mate.

            "Who knows why we pick the people we pick," said Aubrey. She rolled onto her back and glanced at the ceiling. "Rae thinks we're losing Lianne. There's always arguments. You know. Mother-daughter stuff. Over colleges. Over friends.  Rae's afraid she'll go to China and never come back."

            "Running to or running from?" said Hank.   

            "It's a mystery," said Aubrey.

            He was upright now, putting on his pants. "Would you ever leave her?  Would you ever leave Rae?"

            Hank supported two ex-wives and two households of children. Closing doors, she guessed, was a habit some people got used to. She looked at him hard.

             Never.

***

            Aubrey's specialty was recycling ordinary objects. A piece of glass laid on top of an old sled became a coffee table. A face jug with a shade became a lamp. So when she heard about the diner closing, again she was the first one at their door.       

            Going out of business sales were another treasure trove. One by one, she scanned the signs on the walls, the counters stacked with dishes, the bins filled with knickknacks customers left behind. The Boston weekenders liked their houses move-in-ready from filled kitchen cabinets to a fireplace stacked with wood.  After an hour sorting through the china, Aubrey came up with a dozen cream white mugs and dishes in perfect condition. For the rec room Hank was building in the basement, she bought a vintage Pepsi sign. For the bathroom, a milk glass vase. But the acquisition that made her heart race was the one she found last.

            After being in business for twenty-six years, the diner had accumulated its fair share of forgotten objects. Sweaters. Jackets. Gloves. Foraging through the bin, Aubrey quickly tossed the clothes aside. Just when she nearly gave up hope, her fingers latched onto something special. Her hand tingled from the fingers up. A pipe. Mahogany. With a lovely curved stem. Somewhere someone, she imagined, sat in his favorite chair, the smoke from the pipe pluming, his head bent, perhaps reading a favorite book. She knew it was wrong to steal it. She always knew that there was a possibility of being caught. But once the feeling took hold, it was impossible to ignore—an itch that demanded to be scratched. Quickly she dumped the pipe into her purse. Then she made her way to the cash register dishes in hand.

            It only took a few minutes to drive to Hank's office, a trailer parked on the outskirts of town. She knocked twice, relieved that it was empty. After opening the door with her key, she unloaded her purchases. Then she hurried home.

            It's was Aubrey's favorite time of day. The house was quiet. Lianne was in school while Rae was at the shop. Again she made the time stretch. First she cleaned the dirty dishes in the sink. Then she spit-shined the floor. Slowly, enjoying the slowness, watching her feet move up the stairs one at a time, she made her way to the attic.

            The light, as always, took a few minutes to get used to. The windows were mere slits in a v-shaped roof, and whatever sun came down was layered with dust motes. Aubrey opened a large wooden trunk. From the depths of her skirt pocket, she took out the pipe.

            Fact: The whiptail lizard leads a life of isolation. Sequestered in the desert, it has evolved into an entirely female species. Even when they reproduce, their offspring are female, too.

             How she loved her forbidden treasures. A worn teddy bear. A Barbie doll missing a leg. A pen without a cap. She never stole from department stores. Brand new had no appeal. Only things with a history and a story tempted her. She never planned it. She never understood how or why. But when the stars were aligned and the mood right, there was a connection. Something visceral and fast, and the more she tried to ignore it, the more it pulled. 

            The attic was filled with them. Stuffed in chests. Stored in trunks. Lined on shelves. And for the rest of the afternoon Aubrey sat there, admiring her possessions, assured of their future and wondering about their past. Those few hours were something she could count on—the relief palpable, the pain eased. It was nearly five o'clock when she heard the front door slam. Lianne's voice rang through the ceilings.

            "Mom, I'm starving. Where are you? Are we like... eating together?  Is someone like...making dinner?"

            Aubrey shook the cobwebs from her head. No matter how often she visited the attic, bad memories still burned bright. Her mother tethered to an IV.  Her father with a belt. A life full of promise somehow detoured.

            With one hand palming the wall, she stumbled down the attic stairway.

            I'm coming, she answered. Here I am.

***

            Fact: The crested newt, a type of salamander, changes sex when the weather varies. When temperatures are high, female larvae become male. When temperatures are low, males become female.

            With spring came Lianne's college acceptance letters. Each big fat envelope seemed to lower the decibel level of their conversations. But when one source of stress dissipated, another took its place.

            For the first time in her life, Rae had business problems. Her shop manager, an employee who knew every customer and vendor, was opening his own place. Five miles up on the turnpike, it would be one of those pit stops that offered everything. Transmission repairs. Showers. Groceries.

            The three of them were eating in the dining room. A bucket of chicken was propped on the table. A quickly tossed salad sat in a bowl.

            "It's a trucker's wet dream," said Rae. "Full service on your chassis plus Ben and Jerry's to boot. The setup could knock me flat, I tell you. So much for loyalty." 

            Everywhere Aubrey looked, change was happening fast. Too fast. While Rae's auto shop was flailing, Hank sold the trailer, hired two new crews, and bought a large warehouse downtown. And sometime when they weren't watching, their little girl had morphed into a woman. Lianne still intended to visit China. But now her travel plans had escalated. She and her best friend wanted to spend the summer hopping from continent to continent. Alone.

            "Think of it as a cultural tour," said Lianne. "Me and Lewis. Seeing the terracotta soldiers. The Eiffel Tower. The Hague. You know. Taking in the sights."

            Whatever her missteps, Aubrey had produced a cool kid. Lianne had developed her own signature style—tights, ballet flats, the shortest of skirts—that Aubrey couldn't help admiring. But there was no doubt they were losing her.  In September Lianne was heading to Penn on a full financial ride.

            "I'm a failure," said Rae. "An absolute failure. I can't even afford to buy my daughter a graduation gift."

            Aubrey's head shifted from Rae to Lianne then back again. Meanwhile her mind rapidly processed figures. The house on Whip-poor-will was going on the market soon with nearly a hundred thousand dollars profit built into the sales price. And there were three more houses down the pike. Once more she glanced at Rae and Lianne. Tears were streaming down both of their cheeks. Shit.

            Fact: While in captivity, the African reed frog quickly adjusts to its surroundings. An all female population transforms, producing a handful of fertile and functioning males. Female organs atrophy while the abdomen shrinks.

            "I think we can swing it," said Aubrey. "I've got some cash, more than enough, that's going to be rolling in."

            Somehow she had to patch things up with Hank. She knew their relationship was a mistake. That one magical afternoon was followed by a clutch of stolen moments, each one more hurried than the last.  

            Looking back, she was mixed up and confused. She never loved him. How could she have loved him? Aubrey felt dirty and guilty and wanted to wash her hands of the whole thing. She wanted to quit her job. She needed to quit her job. But quitting was a luxury she could no longer afford.

            Lianne got up and threw her arms around Aubrey's neck. "This is so great. Really, really great. Are you sure?  Are you absolutely sure?"

            Aubrey reached over and patted Rae's hand. Of course.                   

***

            At first Aubrey thought the symptoms were menopause. She hadn't had a period for three months. Her breasts were sore. Everything she ate tried to work its way up.  The last thing she expected when she went to the gynecologist was having to pee on a stick.

            A pile of papers was stacked on his desk. Blood tests. Ultrasound results.  Doc Stevens looked at her over his reading glasses.

            "Change of life babies happen more often than you think," he said. "It ain't over til it's over."

            Aubrey couldn't believe it. For years she dreamed about giving birth, imagining her own flesh and blood in her arms, picturing a miniature version of herself. For what is motherhood if not a do-over, a chance to set things right?

            Sure she and Rae discussed sperm donation. They sifted through all the options. But adopting seemed so much fairer. Neither of them would have a greater claim on the child. And somewhere across the world an abandoned little girl would find a home.

            Aubrey put her hand on her stomach. Then she felt that box close in once more.

            Fact: The common cuckoo is a brood parasite. It will lay its eggs in another bird's nest then promptly abandon them. While the host eggs are quickly forsaken, the cuckoo eggs thrive. 

            Somewhere, in the ether, the doctor was asking her questions."You're getting close to the second trimester. Have you felt a quickening? They say it's like fluttering. Like a bunch of butterflies."

            Fluttering? Butterflies?

            "You're at high risk, you know. For a miscarriage, for birth defects. If you want an amniocentesis, we need to schedule it soon."

            What I need is an abortion, she wanted to say. If I have this baby, my partner will leave me and my child will hate me.

            "Aubrey, are you listening? Perhaps you'd like a glass of water. Have you heard anything I've said?"

            But all she could see were those crazy birds with their striped chests, their black wings flapping and their yellow feet grappling. And all she could hear were their voices blurting Goo-ko.  Goo-ko. Goo-ko. Goo-ko while their hungry beaks snatched the air.

 

Volume 12.1 - June 2019

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Upstreet Magazine, Arts and Letters, Eclectica, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.