The Ghosts of Happiness, A Short Story by Gregory Wolos

The Ghosts of Happiness

Stuckey propped himself up on his elbow and studied the young woman sleeping beside him. He was making a mental picture—what he really wanted to do was take an actual picture with his iPhone and save it forever. Sex after the third date! It wasn’t so much that Jenna Stein was his first—but he’d exaggerated his sexual history so often and with such elaborate detail over the half dozen years since he’d graduated high school that he’d lost sight of the truth. His sex life, viewed through a haze of pot and beer, shimmered with images from Penthouse Forum letters and Internet pornography. There had been a few other girls—but none like Jenna.

She was exotic. She was completely without hair! He didn’t remember exactly the name of the disease that caused it, but she’d told him about it matter-of-factly on their very first date. They were in a diner, sharing a plate of French fries.

“I’ve only got little patches of hair.” Her eyes were round and almost gold and popped out of her head, a little like a frog’s, and Stuckey had looked close and seen she had no eyelashes and that her eyebrows weren’t real.  Most people didn’t notice that frogs had beautiful eyes. “I shave them off and wear a wig. I shave wherever it’s needed at least once a day. Twice, for special occasions.” The way she’d smiled at Stuckey, lifting the corner of her mouth and dimpling one cheek, he felt like maybe he’d earned the extra shaving.

Jenna had been the talk of the community college that nearly everybody from Stuckey’s high school wound up at sooner later—most, like him, just to take a course or two at night for something to do. It was a way to toss a pebble into the abyss of the future that sometimes opened up during lazy hours at whatever fast food restaurant or carpet warehouse or car wash they worked at. For Stuckey, it was the Walmart, where’d he been putting in hours for what seemed like half his life. Everybody at the community college knew everybody else. Jenna, nobody knew. She couldn’t have been more than twenty, was pretty, but distant in the way that made guys afraid to approach her and girls say she was stuck up.

Rumors leaked out that there was no reason to challenge—that she was a rich kid from the bordering suburban school district who’d dropped out of a four-year college when she got pregnant. She’d given up the baby for adoption, the word was. And her hair—it was a different color every day—regular blond and brunette and black, but also pink and blue and purple. Some said her hair would fall out form so much dyeing. Others guessed she was wearing wigs.

In classes, everybody said she was the smartest one in the room, including the instructors, who were a little afraid of her. Then, one evening Stuckey had been sitting in a class he’d attended by mistake—he’d thought he was in room 201, Basic Business, and had joined a small group around a table. He was waiting for the instructor to stop talking about Shakespeare and get to the class material when it dawned on Stuckey he was in the wrong place, and he’d have to wait another hour for the break so he could sneak away. He half-dozed, listened to the chatter, and when his eyes focused, he was looking at the girl everybody talked about. She had blue hair that evening, and she was smiling at him across the table. During the break, she’d asked him out for coffee.

“It’s not catching, what I’ve got,” she’d said in the diner, holding his gaze and dabbing at the mustard Stuckey had pointed to on the corner of her mouth. Her skin was so pale it was almost as blue as her wig. “You won’t go bald yourself just because you’re with me.” Then she’d told him he had eyes like Leonardo DiCaprio, which was why she’d asked him out. And he told her he’d been in the wrong room: and she’d looked disappointed at the news, but then laughed. He knew enough not to tell her that her eyes reminded him of a beautiful frog’s.

And two dates later he was in bed with her, resisting the urge to slide his hand over the smooth slope of her scalp while she slept. Her head had been cool to his kisses. There’d been a bristly spot near her temple. Stuckey thought about his own five o’clock shadow and how his cheeks must have felt to Jenna’s lips. The black wig squatting on his night table reminded him of a crow.

She was as hairless as any woman he’d seen in the magazines or on the porn sites. There was a professional finish to her smoothness, as if she’d been sculpted from marble and polished. When his eyes swept down her curves, he believed it was true that she’d had a baby. Evidence? None really, except that below her left nipple three drops were tattooed. At first Stuckey thought they were supposed to be drops of blood, and he imagined her nursing a baby vampire. But the drops looked more like tears. Jenna shifted, and Stuckey looked at her face to see if she was awake. Something showed through the smudged makeup on her eyelids—the faint outlines of six-pointed stars, one on each lid. Somehow the stars had escaped gossip. He wondered if she kept her eyes bugged to hide them. Stuckey slid back and tried to sleep, but he was too excited and nervous—the girl lying next to him made him feel like he was in a fairy tale.

*******

 

Within weeks they’d moved in together, splitting the rent on a tiny bungalow on a side street paralleling the edge of a bluff over the river. It would have been nice if they could have seen the water, but none of the windows in the place faced it. Jenna had finished her associate’s degree in English and American literature, and she talked about enrolling at the university. “Maybe I’ll be a teacher,” she said. “But I don’t know if I could stand principals telling me what to do.” She had some money saved up and didn’t have to work right away to pay her share of the bills. Stuckey wasn’t exactly sure how Jenna killed time while he worked at Walmart, but he didn’t pry. He didn’t want to spoil the nice harmony he’d fallen into with his smooth girlfriend.

He didn’t ask whether she’d had a baby or about the star tattoos. She never mentioned family, and he didn’t push that either. He made his occasional calls to his own parents, who’d retired to a trailer in Florida, from work during his breaks so she wouldn’t feel like she had to ask or answer questions. His sister Tara and her son lived nearby, but that was it. The couple lived in the present, without reference to either of their histories or a plan for the future.

Early on, Stuckey took Jenna shopping at his Walmart on his off day. He wanted his coworkers to see his pretty girlfriend, and he was proud when Harold, the store manager, nodded from across Home Decorating and winked. Jenna pulled a purple ski hat from a bin and tugged it on top of the day’s wig, a blond one. Stuckey sidled up beside her, and they’d looked at themselves together in the mirror. Jenna batted her lids. Eye shadow covered the secret stars. The reflection made a picture Stuckey would have liked for his wallet.

“I’m thinking about Halloween,” Jenna said, winking at her reflection. Halloween was months away. “—Something colorful. But my favorite costume is ‘folklore girl.’”

“I’m usually a zombie,” Stuckey said. He pulled on a yellow ski cap. The Halloween parties of his past blended together— at most such social events, he got wasted too soon to remember much. But becoming a zombie was easy—he’d burn a cork from a wine bottle and smear it on his face, put on his oldest pair of jeans, misbutton a shirt, and mess up his hair. Once, he’d brought the arm from a broken mannequin home from Walmart, covered it with red magic marker, and carried it to a Halloween party, intending to fake-munch on it. He’d lost that arm when someone passed him a joint and he had to choose between the limb and his beer. “What’s a ‘folklore girl’?” Stuckey asked.

“It’s the ‘drowned prom date’ girl. The one somebody picks up from the side of the road on a rainy night, maybe by a bridge, and she’s drenched in her prom dress. She tells a story about a fight with her boyfriend or something, and whoever picked her up drives her to her house, then comes back the next morning to check on her, and a distraught mother says that the girl had drowned a dozen years ago on prom night. I started being drowned last year. I took a wig with long hair and poured shellac over it, and got a gown from Salvation Army and covered it with lacquer and sparkles so it looked wet. I rubbed a little light blue eye shadow around my cheeks and put on purple lipstick. Oh, and I let a wrist corsage turn brown and wore that, too. I didn’t have a party to go to last Halloween. I just dressed up at my apartment for the trick-or-treaters who never actually showed up—which was a good thing, because I forgot to buy candy.”          Now and then, when Stuckey got back home very late from his Walmart shift, he’d find Jenna undressed and asleep in their bed. He’d look at her hips, then between them. She was baby-smooth. That she’d opened up herself and given birth was amazing. Stuckey didn’t know what to think about her giving a baby up for adoption.

Stuckey convinced himself that he and Jenna were building a life in their riverside bungalow. He quit classes at the community college and worked full time at Walmart. Any day he might be promoted to assistant manager. They kept to themselves and stopped going out at night altogether. Staying home was fine with him—he kept the refrigerator stocked with beer, and one of his coworkers was a reliable source of weed. Jenna didn’t drink or smoke, but they lived together compatibly. The only arguments they had were whether to watch a movie or his favorite reality TV shows. When he was tired or buzzed, Stuckey couldn’t follow a plot. Jenna had tivoed Titanic from HBO and watched it at least once a week at first, then just about every night. As far as he knew, she watched the same movie during the day, too. Stuckey didn’t complain, though, and even bought her the CD. Before long, he found himself mouthing dialogue from the first half of Titanic. It flattered him that he reminded Jenna of Leonardo DiCaprio. But he always either fell asleep or slouched off to bed before the movie ended. It was too long, and who didn’t know the ending?

Some nights Stuckey would come home to find Jenna cuddled up with his seven-year-old nephew Danny. The boy had some kind of autism-related handicap, which kept him from interacting much with people, but he and Stuckey had always been special pals. He’d even started taking Danny to Cub Scouts.  When Tara needed a sitter, Stuckey had always been the first option; seeing Jenna and the boy so comfortable together, eating popcorn and watching Titanic, warmed Stuckey’s heart.

“I put my hand over his eyes during the scary scenes,” Jenna said. “He doesn’t seem to mind.”

Once, Stuckey found Jenna watching a movie with his nephew without her wig on. Usually bed was the only place she let herself be bald. Ritually, she’d shave and massage fruity smelling cream into her scalp before crawling between the sheets. The night Jenna was bald with Danny, Stuckey’s nephew was bobbing back and forth and staring into the popcorn bowl on his lap as if the leftover kernels held the meaning of life. Jenna glanced toward Stuckey, and he lifted a finger to his lips to signal he wouldn’t disturb them, but she’d already blinked back to the screen. The light from the TV sparked her eyes and made her naked head gleam. The three of them could be a family, Stuckey thought, before he pried Danny from under his girlfriend’s arm, carried the sticky-fingered boy to his car, and delivered him back to Tara.

 

*******

Jenna and Stuckey were watching Titanic, she lost in the pre-iceberg romance while he slipped into a doze, when the power failed.

“Whoa,” he whispered. He pawed for Jenna’s hand. Her fingers were cold. “It’s the wind,” he said. Downed limbs frequently knocked out the power. With everything electrical silenced, they could hear the wind shushing through leaves and stirring branches that scratched against the siding. There was a hollow wump. “That’s Dora’s garbage can. She’ll find it down the block tomorrow,” Stuckey said.

“I’ll get a candle,” Jenna said, but she didn’t move. Their eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness. Shadows shook like cheerleaders’ pom-poms at the window. It seemed like they’d slipped into some alternate version of their house, where light didn’t exist. Jenna sang softly: “Little girl, little-little girl, my Sviddy-pretty kid, such a Sviddy-pretty kid . . .” Stuckey had heard her sing that snatch of a lyric before.

“What’s that from?” Stuckey might not have asked if the lights had been on.

“Just an old song,” Jenna said. “Nobody ever heard of it.”

Stuckey rubbed Jenna’s fingernails with his thumb. They were unpolished and trimmed short. “Who sang it? What’s a ‘Sviddy-pretty’?”

Jenna sighed. She slipped her hand from Stuckey’s and shucked her wig. She pushed it down between their thighs. It felt stiff, like a horse’s tail. Jenna’s head loomed like a planet. “Stuff I used to be into a long time ago. You know Annabelle Hadley, right? I loved her movies when I was a kid. And, you know how everybody thinks they’re a singer? She recorded a couple of CDs. Of course I bought them.  She really can’t sing.  ‘Sitting Pretty’ is one of the only ones that got popular.”

“I thought it was ‘Sviddy-pretty.’”

“Un-hunh. You really had to be into Annabelle to know about that. It’s one of those hidden references. The title is “Sitting Pretty,” but it says “sviddy-pretty” in the lyrics. When she was a little kid she was making a movie and got, like, abused, and they stopped the whole production. The movie’s name was ‘Svid’-something. You wouldn’t have heard of it.”

“She’s just a celebrity has-been now, right?  In and out of rehab? We sell her clothing line at the store. Scaredy Cat, right?” The darkness had started to unsettle Stuckey, and he needed something to take off the edge—a beer or a joint. A pot buzz would have been nice, but the beer would be easier to fetch. Rolling a joint usually took all of his concentration, not like the cowboys in Westerns who could fashion a cigarette with one hand. Then Stuckey remembered a creepy old movie he’d seen one late night before he’d met Jenna. The actors were genuine circus freaks—dwarfs and pinheads, and one African-American guy with no arms and legs they called the “Human Worm.” Using his mouth, the “Worm” lay on the ground and rolled himself a cigarette from scratch, then lit it. The climax of that spooky movie also took place on a stormy night— shadows still danced outside the bungalow’s windows.

Jenna didn’t seem inclined to talk about Annabelle Hadley. “Mmm. I guess. Let’s be quiet and listen to the wind.”

The lights flickered on. Things jumped back to life—the refrigerator hummed, the television crackled. Stuckey wasn’t ready. Everything was too bright. Jenna’s white head frightened him. She snatched her wig from between them and pulled it back on. When the lights went out again, Stuckey blinked like he was staring at an x-ray of his girlfriend.          “Shit,” he muttered. He felt like the two of them were on a seesaw they couldn’t balance—as if Jenna sat on the ground, and he was up, with his feet wiggling in the air. “When the electricity goes off and on like that, it’s close to fixed,” he said. Jenna had asked him to be quiet, but he needed to hear voices—his own, if she didn’t want to talk. He wanted to make himself interesting, and he remembered a conversation he’d had over the weekend with Dora, the elderly widow who lived in the cottage next door. Stuckey had been at his mailbox when Dora waved him over from her porch.  He worried that she was going to ask him to help her with yard work or furniture moving. He didn’t want to start that kind of relationship.

“Did you know that this whole block was an amusement park?” the old woman had begun. And she’d told Stuckey the story about their neighborhood that he decided to tell Jenna while they waited in the dark.

“You know what Dora told me the other day? This whole block used to be set up like a permanent carnival— it was an old-fashioned amusement park! She said there were rides— a Ferris wheel and a midway with a merry-go-round and a stage where they did shows and booths with games and food. There was a trolley bridge across the river that brought people from downtown. It was a really big deal. She said she’d seen pictures of it at night, and you could see the lights from the ferris wheel reflected in the river. It must have been pretty.”

After a few seconds Jenna asked, “Dora saw this herself?”

“No. She said this was way before her time. Her folks told her about it and showed her the pictures.” And then Stuckey tried to say something funny-interesting. “You know what I think all the blowing out there is tonight? I think it’s the ghosts of happiness left over from the amusement park days! People from a hundred years ago partying it up and having all that fun right here, and the ground got soaked up with it, and now it’s coming out of the trees— the ghosts of happiness.” He had another thought: "I bet some people wanted to keep partying and hid until the place shut down for the night. They were probably drunk—then, in the dark, maybe they fell off the bluff, right in our backyard, and they drowned. But they died happy. And their ghosts held on to the happiness that’s in the wind.”

The lights burst back on. Jenna was close and bright and real. She didn’t comment on Stuckey’s happy ghosts. Squinting out from under her disheveled wig, she announced, “Stuckey, I’ve been thinking, and what I want to do is have a baby.”

Stuckey sat back. He wished he’d gotten up for his beer or rolled his joint. A baby! Maybe to replace the child Jenna never actually told Stuckey she’d given away. But she wanted to take their relationship to the next level! The news overwhelmed him—with joy, but also with dread. Jenna’s declaration required a confession he’d always known he’d have to make, unless he became a priest or a hermit.

“Okay,” he said. His eyes were still adjusting to the light. He left them on the soothing blue of the TV screen. “But I’ve got a problem.” Stuckey was a bad story teller, because he couldn’t wait for the punch line. He’d always stick it in too early and spoil the ending. He wanted to explain an important fact about himself to Jenna in a way he’d be proud of when he thought about it years down the road, but the details of his history sprinted ahead like phantom runners. “My folks bought a cheap house in a new development when I was just a baby—the place Tara and I did most of our growing up in. Then it turned out the whole neighborhood was built on a waste site—some kind of nuclear dump. There were tests, and the radiation levels were off the charts, and people—my family and all—had to move out. People I didn’t know supposedly got sick, and there were law suits. Nobody in our family had any symptoms except our husky dog. He got big lumps all over, and he wasn’t that old when we had to put him down. I was in middle school when we moved from there to here.”

Stuckey was looking at the blue TV screen while he talked, but he felt Jenna’s bugged eyes sticking to him. The digital clock on the DVD player blinked “12:00-12:00-12:00.” It probably was somewhere around midnight. “We’ve got to fix the clocks before we go to bed. Except in the kitchen. That’s on battery. Anyway, a couple of years ago I got a letter from a lawyer saying there was some kind of class action lawsuit I could have been a part of. But I chose not to participate—it was a medical thing, and I was smoking a lot of weed at the time and I thought they’d test my piss, and I’d lose my job and never get another one. Afterwards I got to thinking about living over that waste dump and Wolfy with his lumps—one under his neck was as big as a softball. I asked my doctor what kinds of tests I should have, and he said my blood and my sperm count. So, my blood came back okay. But my sperm count did not.” Stuckey looked at Jenna, because he was delivering the punch line. “The doctor told me I had the lowest sperm count he’d ever seen. Just like that, as if he was congratulating me for setting a record. ‘You have the lowest sperm count I’ve ever seen,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid it’s unrealistic for you to expect to produce a child.’” Stuckey’s tongue felt like it was coated with paste. He took Jenna’s hand. Something smelled like vinegar. It was his perspiration.

Jenna smiled. “Don’t worry, honey,” she said. “I don’t want your baby. I want to have somebody else’s. Not another guy’s—I mean I want to have one planted in me. I’d just be like an incubator. For the money. Other than that, it wouldn’t have anything to do with either of us.”

As Jenna explained it, she’d had plenty of money to start with when they’d met, but with the cost of tuition for finishing her associate’s degree and maintaining her car payments and keeping up with her share of the rent, she’d be running out soon. “With what I can get being a surrogate, I can finish up a four-year degree and have a real life. It’s not such a big deal having a baby, if you follow all the directions.”

Stuckey was speechless. Jenna closed her eyes, and he saw her stars. Their outlines pulsed red, as if from something burning inside her head.  The glow reminded Stuckey of the nuclear shit simmering beneath his house while he was going through puberty. Now he was sterile. Shouldn’t Jenna at least have expressed sympathy over his news—not just for what it meant for him, but for what it meant for their future? “I don’t want your baby,” she’d said. It hadn’t made him feel better.

 

*******

The bungalow became a place of new mysteries. Jenna left the house for “appointments.” There were phone calls and messages from doctors and agencies. Stuckey waited for Jenna to share the details of whatever she was getting herself deeper and deeper into, but he was getting left behind. One evening when he came in from work, she was lounging on the couch. As usual, he heard the theme music from Titanic. Jenna lifted the remote from her stomach and paused the movie. The way she pointed the device, Stuckey thought she was going to try to shut him off, and he almost held up his hands. But she let the remote fall back on her belly. “That’s it,” she said. “I’m pregnant. About a month, so far. Early first trimester, they call it.”

An electric buzz passed through Stuckey that felt good until he remembered how little the pregnancy had to with him. “Congratulations,” he tried. “Do you want to celebrate?”

“I’ve got a list of do’s and don’t’s from the agency and the doctor,” Jenna said. “There’s a contract I’ve signed where I agree to all kinds of things the parents want. I don’t know who they are, or their circumstances. They don’t want me to know. But somebody from the agency will be coming to check things out at home—on a regular schedule, but some surprise visits, too. I’ll be provided with what they want me to eat and drink. Oh—and you’re going to have to move out. I told them I live alone. I guess we should have discussed that, but I didn’t know that this was going through until this morning.” Jenna had drawn on thick, flat eyebrows.

Stuckey thought he hadn’t heard right. He sat down on the edge of the recliner. “Move out?”

“And no sex, the parents say. It’s in the contract. They’re afraid that’ll mess things up inside, even though my doctor says that’s not true. But they’re renting my womb, right? I guess I can understand their not wanting someone screwing around with it. And no more pot smoking around me—no exposure to second hand smoke, cigarette or otherwise. They’re giving me an allowance.”

“How much?”

“Enough. Enough so I’ll help you rent a cheap studio in town for a while. I’ll visit you. But if the agency thinks I’m screwing up any details, it’ll jeopardize the whole deal.”

Stuckey felt like he was filling up with ice water inside. He was homeless, was that what Jenna was telling him? She hadn’t used those words, but that seemed the gist of it. The thing that was happening to him seemed like it was happening to somebody else.  “You have a day or so to vacate, I guess, since I just signed things today,” Jenna said. She propped up the remote on her stomach and let it fall like a domino, over and over. The pause on the TV must have released, because the movie music resumed. Jenna’s eyes jerked to the screen. She thumbed it back to silence. She patted the sofa, inviting Stuckey to join her, which made him feel a little better. But he didn’t move right away. “The parents were a little hesitant at first about me—because of the alopecia, I think,” she said. “But I’ve got a special doctor friend who convinced them that my condition wouldn’t be a problem. It doesn’t affect my general health, and it’s not hereditary or contagious. That’s no secret to us, right? Come sit by me, Stuckey.”

Stuckey still didn’t feel enough strength in his legs to take a step. “And how much will you get?”

“Plenty,” Jenna said. “I’m not at liberty to disclose the exact amount just yet.”

 

*******

 

For a while after Stuckey moved out, he and Jenna saw each other almost every evening at his downtown studio apartment. But as her pregnancy progressed past the fifth month, she lost her enthusiasm for visiting. It was hard for her to get comfortable on his futon. She wouldn’t dare sleep over, in case somebody from the agency dropped by the bungalow in the middle of the night and found it empty.

“You really think they’re spying on you?” Stuckey asked.

“Who knows,” she said. “The clients have a lot invested in this. And so do I. It’s too cramped in here—this futon is unbearable. We’ll just talk on the telephone for the next few months. I’ll drop by now and then on your afternoons off. It’s not like it’s forever.”

Stuckey shrugged. He sat on the stool so Jenna could spread out.  They’d been trying unsuccessfully to find a show they’d both enjoy on the little TV he’d picked up at Walmart with his employee discount. Stuckey suspected Jenna wanted to go back to the bungalow so she could watch her Titanic DVD. She stooped to kiss his forehead on her way out, and he hugged her around the thighs, careful to avoid her belly.

The minute Jenna was gone, Stuckey lit up a fatty and opened his first beer. The truth is, he’d been enjoying his time alone. Lately, Jenna had been objecting not only to his pot smoking, which he understood because of the second hand smoke, but also his drinking. As long as she didn’t drink, what was the problem? There was no such thing as second hand fetal alcohol syndrome. Was Stuckey expected to give up everything? It was the surrogacy—it had thrown things out of whack. Just a few months, though, and things would be back to normal—better than normal, because Jenna would have the money she’d contracted for. Stuckey had done some research on his laptop before he’d sat on it and cracked the screen. A surrogate could earn as much as $35,000 for a healthy baby.

But after a few weeks without a visit from Jenna, Stuckey found himself aching for her. When he went to sleep, he tried to force her into his dreams, but her smoothness, her big eyes, her lid-scars merged in lurid combinations, and he woke sweating from nightmares about aliens and snakes. Phone calls proved unsatisfactory. He hadn’t the gift of gab, and Jenna grew irritable and distant, and finally accused him of being drunk or stoned when he called, a fact he denied.

One evening after giving up on everything basic cable had to offer, he stumbled across Jenna’s tote bag. He’d taken it by accident from the bungalow’s bedroom closet when he moved and, after discovering his mistake, had stuck it in a box of loose items he didn’t need, but probably shouldn’t throw away. He was looking for a pen that worked so he could sign his rent check when came across Jenna’s bag in the box. The winking cat’s eye of the Scaredy Cat logo on the tote reminded him of the girlfriend he craved, and, feeling a thrilling intimacy, as if he was reading her diary, Stuckey dumped the contents on his futon. There were half a dozen VHS tapes—movies starring Annabelle Hadley. Some were famous titles he’d heard of, like Poppy Stardust—Girl Astronaut, and Switcheroo; half a dozen others were unfamiliar. Most had the look of direct-to-video releases. Also in the bag were two naked, bald Barbie dolls and a baggie holding a curl of reddish brown hair. There were two CDs—Wicked Wench and Mine is Tasty—Annabelle Hadley’s foray into pop music. Stuckey looked over the song titles for the tune he’d heard Jenna sing, but didn’t recognize any titles. Stuckey would give Jenna her bag back after a while; he’d claim it had gotten buried at the bottom of one of the boxes he’d moved. But for a while, he’d hold it hostage.

Stuckey hooked up the dusty VCR left by the previous tenant and began to watch the Annabelle Hadley videos— all of them—they were full of giggling tween girls playing pranks on each other and on the hapless grownups in their lives. Annabelle was always at the center of the action, talking and laughing the loudest and coming up with the best ideas. The first few, the ones he’d heard of, were set in exotic locations, like Hawaii and outer space. Another few videos seemed like excuses for Annabelle to model Scaredy Cat merchandise and shake her long auburn hair, which, Stuckey realized, was the same color as the curl in the plastic baggie. Had Jenna somehow found herself a lock of Annabelle’s hair? He imagined his girl rubbing the curl on her bald head, praying for magic, and felt a stab of longing.

But after a few days Stuckey was watching only one video, First Time, which was definitely direct-to-video. Annabelle was older, maybe even eighteen. Her breasts had developed nicely, and she wore tight Scaredy Cat T-shirts, halters tops, and bikinis, even though there were no beach shots. The movie was about Annabelle’s “first time,” although exactly what that meant was left vague. It co-starred muscled “college boys” who looked like they were in their thirties. Annabelle wore a lot of makeup and a sly look throughout the picture, as if the whole idea of a “first time” was a joke. Her voice had a husky slur to it, and each toss of her hair ended in a tired slouch. Stuckey got high and jerked off to First Time just about every night. He told himself Annabelle had become his surrogate for Jenna. He began to think of Annabelle at least as often as he thought of his girlfriend.

Which is why Stuckey was so flustered the night Jenna surprised him with a visit. He was sprawled on the futon with his pants down to his knees watching First Time when she knocked,. He’d yet to make it through the entire video. Stuckey wiped himself up with a dish towel and shoved the video box with Annabelle’s leering picture on it under his futon while he shouted, “Just a minute.”  He’d have to distract Jenna to get the cassette out of the VCR if she wanted to watch TV—he wasn’t ready to give the video back or explain why he had it in the first place.

But when he opened his door, it wasn’t just Jenna standing in the hallway. His sister Tara stood beside his girlfriend. Both women frowned. Stuckey tugged his T shirt out of his zipper.

“Where’s Danny?” Stuckey asked. His sister had never been to his studio. He tried to cleanse his expression of surprise and shame over what they’d interrupted.

“Tim’s in town,” Tara said, pushing past him, her nose raised like a hound catching a scent. “They’re getting ice cream.”  Jenna followed Tara. Her belly seemed to have tripled in size since the last time he’d seen her. He blinked at it in surprise. How long had it been? A week? Ten days?

“What can I get you?” he asked. He waved them over to the futon, and they sat, Jenna carefully, as if she were carrying a large fishbowl above her knees. The women looked at each other.

“Nothing,” Tara said, and Jenna shook her head. “Sit down, Stuckey. We want to have a talk with you.”

It was an intervention. Stuckey sat with his back straight on his kitchen stool and furrowed his brow and puckered his lips and dropped his eyes to the floor while first his sister and then Jenna spoke. He nodded and shook his head on cue, grunted when it seemed appropriate, and tried to look guilty and remorseful.

Did he get it that he was drunk or stoned whenever they saw him?

Wasn’t it just a matter of time before he showed up wasted at work and got fired?

He was smart, didn’t he have any ambition?

“I don’t feel like I can trust you with Danny anymore,” Tara said, and this hit home. Stuckey loved his nephew. He felt he had a connection with the boy that nobody else had. The kid needed him, and vice-versa.

“We think you need to go to AA.” Jenna looked down at her belly. Her brunette wig looked new. “You’ve got to make a commitment that shows you can be trusted.”

The women talked and talked, and Stuckey nodded, but his real struggle was to avoid turning his head to look at the TV set. He knew it was off, but he imagined that Annabelle Hadley was on screen, maybe in her bikini, maybe with her hip cocked, maybe with her arms folded under breasts, hoisting up her cleavage, maybe she was looking at him with a weary smile and bored, glazed eyes that begged him to hurry up and get rid of these women so they could pick up where they left off.

“Stuckey—Stuckey, you’re disappearing. It’s not so cute anymore.” This was Jenna. Was she picturing him like he was Leonardo DiCaprio, dropping down into the icy black Atlantic? He got confused for a second, and forgot what the women wanted. Did it have to do with his jerking off? What did they care? It was a private act between him and Annabelle. Besides, he was sterile, had they forgotten? Maybe there wasn’t even a point in his cleaning himself up.

Then Stuckey remembered that Jenna loved Annabelle, too. He’d found her heart in the Scaredy Cat tote bag he intended to hold prisoner in his closet until he had permission to move back into their bungalow. A fragment of the song Jenna had sung from Annabelle’s CD flitted through Stuckey’s memory—something like “shitty-shitty.” He was ready to bet that the song played during the closing credits of First Time.

In the end, before the women showed themselves out the door, Stuckey had agreed to clean up his act. He’d give AA a try, he promised. He didn’t want to lose the special thing he had with Danny, he told his sister with moist eyes. He told Jenna good-night and kissed her on the forehead and pecked her on the lips. Her stomach got in the way—she seemed to lean away from him. He’d expected the belly to compress against him like a nerf ball, but it was firm. When he pulled back from his girlfriend Stuckey thought for a minute he was gazing into Annabelle Hadley’s Scaredy Cat eyes.

*******

 

Annabelle Hadley was at Walmart! How had Stuckey not been aware that such an event was approaching? He was in the stockroom when he heard over the intercom that shoppers interested in meeting the famous Hollywood star should make their way to the front of the store where Ms. Hadley would be giving away signed photos as well as discount coupons for all Scaredy Cat attire. There would be a drawing, and Ms. Hadley would pick one lucky shopper for a Scaredy Cat wardrobe valued at nearly one hundred dollars.

It was a Thursday morning, and the store couldn’t have been less crowded, which led Stuckey to conclude that the special appearance had been under-publicized. Or nobody was interested in Annabelle, which he found hard to believe. He was interested, and loaded his hand truck with paper he could stock in the Stationery and School Supplies aisle, close enough to the proceedings to check things out. Maybe twenty curious shoppers had gathered in Young Misses, mostly moms who were hoping for some discount merchandise, as well as a few elderly couples. The store manager, Harold, was dressed up in a suit, and then, there she was! Stuckey must have been staring, because Harold was looking his way and frowning. Stuckey began unloading reams of copy paper, making a big deal about arranging them on the shelves. The announcement about Ms. Annabelle Hadley’s appearance repeated, and a few more shoppers made their way to Young Misses. Stuckey moved only one ream of paper at a time, bending, then rising for glimpses of Annabelle. Her hair was shorter than in the videos, and she seemed thicker than the legal teen he’d been watching every night. There was something about TV and weight, wasn’t there? Did the camera add or subtract pounds?

Annabelle Hadley sat. Stuckey heard Harold buzzing through his headset microphone, but couldn’t make out what he was saying. There was laughter, and Harold looked down with a big smile. Annabelle must have made a joke! Stuckey felt light-hearted inside, as if someone had just given him a compliment. He stood on his toes, and there she was again, on her feet for the drawing. Stuckey left the boxes of copy paper and took a few steps down the main aisle. Next to Harold a cardboard display of Annabelle Hadley had been propped—the fake Annabelle had flowing hair and modeled a brilliant red Scaredy Cat T-shirt. The real Annabelle stood beside the life-size cutout, wearing a baggy sweater that revealed a muffin softness above the belt of her jeans. Of her face, Stuckey could make out red lipstick and dabs of blue eye shadow. His heart fluttered. The crowd laughed again, then quieted quickly. Annabelle had said something else. White teeth flashed between the red lips. Harold might have been looking at him and Stuckey backed away and resumed stocking. The next time he peeked, the crowd was dispersing: Annabelle was gone.

After the announcement for “Cleanup in Young Misses,” Stuckey was the first on the scene with mop, bucket, Formula 409, and paper towels. He’d hoped that the cardboard figure of Annabelle would have been left behind—what a souvenir for Jenna! But it was gone, along with the table and the basket they’d used for the coupon drawing. Annabelle, the display, and whatever entourage accompanied the celebrity must already be on their way to the next Walmart. He’d have returned Jenna’s tote bag when he’d brought her the cut out of Annabelle Hadley. Jenna had told him he was disappearing, but he felt that the truth was the opposite: the more pregnant she got, the more she was the one who was fading. He had trouble remembering what she looked like. When he tried to picture her, he saw a swelling balloon. Because of Jenna, he’d be going to his first AA meeting that very night.

Only the chair Annabelle had sat in was left in Young Misses. Stuckey could balance it on the bucket and mop cart and wheel it back to the stockroom, and that would be that. He flattened his palm for a second on the plastic seat bottom; it was still warm from Annabelle. Jenna would be thrilled when he told her about the event, if she was as big a fan as she must have been to collect all those videos and CDs. Only a true fan would be singing Annabelle’s songs.  She’d ask why he hadn’t told her, and he’d tell her he found out about the appearance too late to call her.

Then Stuckey saw the puddle. It was about a foot wide and two feet long, with a kind of tail—the shape reminded him of one of those talk balloons in cartoons, except it was greenish-yellow and didn’t have any words in it. It might have been Mountain Dew, but it was thicker—there were filaments of what looked like mucous strung through it. The puddle had to be Annabelle’s—something she spilled, or even something she coughed up. With great care Stuckey tore off a half dozen paper towels from his roll and lay them on the viscous puddle. He watched the fluid soak into them. He layered on additional towels. Then he swiped the mess together with both hands. He felt the dampness on his fingertips. He stuffed the folded towels into a plastic bag, which he hung on the cleanup cart. He mopped over the spot where the puddle had been. He glanced around, but no one appeared to be watching him work. When the idea hit him to take Annabelle’s puddle home, he laughed out loud and felt his face heat up.

As Stuckey pushed the cleanup cart back to the stockroom, he watched the bag holding Annabelle’s puddle sway beneath his hands. He had a thought that felt like a dream meant to come true. Annabelle Hadley was the rehab queen, wasn’t she? It was likely that she was in recovery from some kind of substance abuse—her puddle might have been proof of that. Was it so far-fetched for Stuckey to hope that she’d show up at his first AA meeting? She was in town, after all. There was a word for that kind of incredible coincidence—Stuckey couldn’t think of it, but he felt a thrill run down his legs all the way to the soles of his feet.

 

*******

 

Stuckey hadn’t visited the river bungalow in months, but the fact that the neighborhood had once been the site of an amusement park had become lodged in his thoughts, and he expected to see evidence lying around the streets and lawns—the decaying head of a merry-go-round horse, stuffed animal prizes from the games, or antique popcorn boxes— had cardboard been invented a century ago? None of these things materialized, and he was surprised by how unfamiliar it felt to stand before the front door of his former residence. He looked through the front window. Jenna, her head uncovered, was propped on the couch with her feet up. She was frosted silver-blue by the light from the TV. The screen was visible, but Stuckey couldn’t make out what was on it. Probably Titanic. A wig lay like a sleeping tabby cat atop Jenna’s huge belly.

Stuckey rang the doorbell and knocked. He watched Jenna struggle to a sitting position, pinning her wig against her stomach with one hand and pushing herself to her feet with the other. By the time she opened the door, she’d covered her head.         “Stuckey,” she said. She opened the door wide. Her voice was neutral, tired. “I thought it might be somebody from the agency checking up on me. They’ve come this late before.” She peered over Stuckey’s shoulder, and he turned around too, but there was nothing to see. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“I’m just a guest,” Stuckey said. “You’re allowed to have guests for short visits, aren’t you? You’re not like a nun in a convent.” Stuckey had Annabelle Hadley’s soaked-up puddle in a plastic Walmart bag under his arm. The idea of his special gift for Jenna excited him, and he was talking quickly. But he’d have to wait for just the right moment—he’d have to explain how he knew she was so totally into Annabelle. He’d tell her he took her Scaredy Cat tote bag by accident, then forgot he had it, which was true, and then that he’d found it recently and figured out it must be something very important to her. He wouldn’t mention that he’d been watching the videos. “Tonight’s my first AA meeting,” Stuckey said. “I came by so you could wish me luck before I went downtown. It’s in the Methodist Church meeting room.”

“Oh—” Jenna blinked. The yellow light over the door softened her features, but her face looked to Stuckey like a stepped-on doll’s. After a second he realized that she hadn’t bothered with eyebrows. She wore a single false eyelash—he didn’t remember ever seeing her wear those. Were they something new, or had he never noticed? The lash was wet with what might have been glue—but there were shiny patches on Jenna’s cheeks, too. She’d been crying—still over the same movie, after how many hundred times, Stuckey wondered. “Come in, honey, just for a second,” she said, and Stuckey’s heart melted at the endearment. “I just don’t want to do anything that would raise suspicion.”

Jenna waddled from the door back to the sofa, where she sat with a huff, and Stuckey stepped into the bungalow. He didn’t sit. Jenna stared toward the muted TV. It was obvious that the pregnancy was wearing her out.  “It’s a little funny that they’re so fussy about everything I do,” she said. “I mean, I’ve got their baby inside of me. They’re not going to abandon it if I don’t follow all of their rules.” Her eyes were suddenly alert to the TV, and Stuckey looked to see what had grabbed her attention. It wasn’t the scene from Titanic he expected.

“This shit’s been on the local news all night,” Jenna said. Her tone was between peeved and tearful. “It’ll be on the national news by tomorrow for sure.”

Stuckey’s jaw dropped—on the screen was a picture of Annabelle Hadley in a low cut sparkly dress, her long hair windblown—a clip from some unspecified red carpet event. Then came a snippet from Switcheroo. Stuckey was confused. He’d forgotten whose TV he was watching, and felt like he’d just been caught masturbating to Annabelle’s First Time— he checked to make sure his pants were buttoned and fly was up. He glanced at Jenna. Her mouth was open, too. She lay back, as if pinned to the sofa by a medicine ball. Without eyebrows, her face seemed a blank, with holes where her eyes and mouth belonged. Then a dark, grainy video played, something captured by a hand held camera. It was Annabelle Hadley, ducking down, a stocky police officer next to her with a hand on her head to protect it as she bowed and half-stumbled into a police car. Her face turned back for a second before the door closed— there was a sneer Stuckey recognized from First Time, and he was faintly aroused.

“Isn’t that—?”

“Annabelle Hadley, that slutty bitch.” Jenna blew her nose, dabbed at her eyes, and looked at the tissue she’d used. “This is right here. At the Value-Mart on South and Jenkins. She was in town for some kind of public appearance.” A suited reporter was standing in front of a set of gas pumps, his microphone extended to a young man wearing a Value-Mart shirt. “Probably a slut convention. She was pumping her own gas—” In the shot was a red sports car. The camera shifted from the reporter and Value-Mart worker and lingered on the red sports car, then tracked behind it to an older man also in a Value-Mart shirt who had a bucket and a broom and was working away at a sudsy puddle that spread onto the pavement behind the car. The scene seemed to have been shot at twilight. Traffic moved through the background. The clip of Annabelle ducking into the police car, the hand on her head, the sneer, played again. Stuckey watched Jenna watching Annabelle—his girlfriend’s eyes lit up as if she were seeing a ghost.

“Pumping her own gas,” Jenna repeated, “and she called out to a kid in front of the store to go in and buy her some cigarettes. The kid was way too young to buy them, and when one of the workers came out to see who’d asked, Annabelle started screaming at him, and then she let the gas overflow from her car—that’s the puddle that they’re cleaning up. The guy said she smelled like alcohol, and she was slurring her words. I guess she kept screaming that she wanted her cigarettes, and she pulled out her lighter and flicked it on and started waving it around and threatening to drop it into the gas. A police car showed up—I don’t know if somebody called or if one just pulled in by coincidence—there are always police in that neighborhood.”

“I’ll be down by there in a little while for my meeting,” Stuckey murmured. It no longer seemed very likely that Annabelle would be showing up at the church.

“Un-hunh. Well, be careful where you park. The police got her calmed down, I guess, before they took her into custody.” The loop of Annabelle squatting into the cruiser and sneering played again. Jenna punched her remote, and the screen went blank. The kitchen’s fluorescent light kept the living room from total darkness. “That’s what happens when you’re out of control, Stuckey. By tomorrow they’ll have the security video showing her screaming and waving around her lighter. It’ll be on TMZ and E News.”

Stuckey took a deep breath. He imagined Annabelle Hadley standing in the middle of a blazing fire, leering. “You’re right. You’re so very right.”

“God, I hate her!” There was a bitterness in Jenna’s low voice that Stuckey had never heard. “I spent every second thinking about her when I was a kid. It’s like I gave up my own history.”

“Well, you did okay,” Stuckey said. “You’ll do okay.” Was Jenna complaining that Stuckey was the best she’d ever do? And it was Annabelle Hadley’s fault? Stuckey nodded at the dark TV.  “There’s no telling where that story’s going to end. I’ve got to go. It’s like her shitty story’s giving me motivation, right?” He moved to Jenna and stooped to kiss her, closing his eyes as his lips touched her cold forehead. His nose brushed her wig.

“What’d you bring?” Jenna asked. Stuckey had tucked the Walmart bag containing Annabelle’s compacted puddle under his arm like a football.

Stuckey was at the door, looking back over his shoulder. “Bread,” he said. “I don’t know why I brought it in. I’m nervous, I guess.”

“Good luck!” he heard Jenna call as he stepped out into the night. The air was still. There wasn’t a single whisper from a happy ghost as he tossed the Walmart bag into his old neighbor Dora’s garbage can on his way to his car.

 

 

Filed under: Prose/Poetry, Submissions

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