“Racing Josephine” by Tammy Lynne Stoner
I sleep inside an igloo in my efficiency apartment across from the Jack in the Box on Pine. An igloo I built out of old fifths, stacked one row upside down on another, so that the bottlenecks interlock. Pieces of red and blue fabric cement the rows. It looks patriotic.
Every morning when I wake up, I think, Wow, I’m Alive, because every night in my dreams I die. Killed by my father, my preacher, myself. Hard to believe I’m alive when so many better people are dead, but each morning my eyes open to white sunlight shattering across the bottles around me like I’ve been swallowed by a glass dragon.
I do a few skin pinches with hands as cold as a nun’s anger to confirm the life I feel, then I push up and crawl out of my igloo to face the world—or the harsh light of the fridge, sometimes the maintenance man. He pops in here to check on things. I think my daughter must’ve asked him to watch out for me. Told him I’m a drunk and a danger to myself and others.
The Handy Man asked me to call him Hank. Asked me why I didn’t have any furniture. Why I was living down here. Pretty lady like myself.
Hank is five feet nothing, with a wide head. I think he’s only two dimensional, but I don’t have proof of that. His flat, amphibian fingertips splay out across my counter, re-caulking the torn edges where everything pulls away from the wall. I asked him if he turned sideways, could he slide through the crack on the edge of the door.
“I’ll fix that,” he said, completely missing my point.
I’m forty-five. My daughter’s twenty. I married her father. Maybe that was a mistake, but you do what you gotta when you need cash. Besides, if you overlooked the warts on his hands, he was almost handsome. And I loved him—in the beginning. Before he became what I always told him he would. No sense hoping an entire gender can suddenly redeem itself with the gentleness of one man. Besides, they’re only gentle so you relax and don’t bruise as easy later.
I sweep and clean the bathrooms down at Johnny’s Joint five blocks away. He pays me with a twenty and free shots. White label well shots, but I don’t much mind. I minimize the cheap-booze morning by drinking a glass of water at bedtime followed by a glass of caffeine-free Pepsi and two aspirins. Then I shovel a few crackers into my pie hole and pass out. In the morning I eat a few spoonfuls of spicy beans and cheese from the fridge with a can of beer.
I had a stroke two years ago. I’d been throwing up from gastritis, and had diarrhea for about six months before that. They had to shove tubes up my rectum three times before that man down at the clinic could diagnose me. Afterwards, my daughter said she went online and solved the problem in five minutes.
So I had this gastritis, which didn’t seem to be going away until they put me on antibiotics. But when the pills ran out the shits came right back. Angrier than ever. Lucky I clean bathrooms for a living.
After a few months of this, the doctor said my electrolytes depleted themselves. This screwed up my potassium and I had a stroke—a mild one. They watched my heart for a few days then sent me home. Told me I couldn’t drink more than one glass of water a day or my system would shock itself and the old ticker would tock.
Two weeks of that bullshit then I was up to speed again, back at Johnny’s. Those two weeks were rough—did a lot of time travel, thinking about my daughter. I remember how proud she was the first time she learned to wave; how scared I was when she fell off her bike, a bruise the size of a plum on her forehead. I remember the picture she drew of me in third grade with a big purple head and spaghetti-hair. I wasn’t smiling. I worried back then—worried about her and me and him and us. Every second of every hour I worried, even when I slept.
I had prayed for a boy because I knew the world was cruel to girls, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want my little girl. Just meant I stopped smiling and started worrying.
Johnny owns Johnny’s Joint. His hair is as tall and greasy as a strip club cock. His real name is Milton. Milton Havordford. He builds the thing piled on his head by applying black dye shampoo, mousse, and hairspray. No conditioner. He sprays his hair while hanging his head upside down to maintain the height. Combs black dye into his chest hairs too. Maybe one time he had a nice chest, before everything sagged. Now he’s tanned to a crisp orange, like good duck.
Johnny pees in front of me. Says he likes to be the first in the bowl every day, mark his territory. Makes a big show of pulling out his cock, holding it loosely, spraying slowly. When he shakes off, he pulls a little more than he has to. Tells me they should make a “puller” with the urinals. A hole sitting above the bowl so a guy can straddle the porcelain and pop his stiffy in for a good tug. Says he always feels like getting his rocks off when his bladder’s full.
If they ever invent that machine, I say to him, I quit.
Johnny tells the bar (again) that he’s never fathered a child. Had an accident in Vietnam that left him infertile. Not impotent, just infertile. He says that every man should be left infertile after their tour of duty. Just set it up like a metal detector that the men walk through before they step on the plane home, he said. We’ll all think they’re checking for weapons but what they’re really doin’ is leavin’ you with blanks.
I think Johnny’s bulimic. Come morning, there’s always a few flakes of vomit under the toilet rim. He and Sick Bob are the only two who are here every day until closing. They call Sick Bob sick on account of his runny nose. Once I saw Bob sneeze into his hands and then lick it up, that’s how sick he really is.
Johnny’s always hinting about his weight—wondering if a certain pair of jeans looks too tight or if he should wear stripes or if white’s too much for him. He is a little on the round side, at least from the ribs down, but his legs and arms are skinny enough. I told him that if he ever has the baby he’ll drop a good forty pounds. He told me he didn’t need me to clean that day, that I should go home before I miss my afternoon shows.
But then the next day he gave me Makers Mark shots instead of well, and he asked what my favorite 45 was so he could load it in the jukebox. “Strange Fruit,” I told him. Billie Holiday. She wrote Strange Fruit herself. She was a poet. A drunk, junkie poet with a heart that dug itself deeper and deeper into her body hoping it would be protected.
Billie and me, we bite our own asses. We both want someone to watch over us, but when we find him, we tear him to pieces hunting for the bad parts. This makes our man become what we fear, but we don’t care. What matters sometimes is who’s first out of the gates.
If you tear into something enough, you’ll turn it bad. Every time. It’s the lucky ones who die before the tearing breaks them open, shaking out a tiny, solid seed of black evil. We’ve all got the seed. Better to die than to see the seed fall out and take root.
But if you cloud the sun, if you fade it all down then maybe that seed won’t grow. I’d rip open every vein I had and drink down every drop in Johnny’s if I knew for sure I could kill the seed and not me.
Sometimes I dream that Billie and I are howling like alley bitches. Bitches in heat after all the men have gone home. Howlin’ out all the old songs. Crying. Passing a fifth of gin between us. Smoking menthols with lipstick smudges around the filters. She asks me if her flower’s on straight. When our throats are sore and we are spinning, we sit down against a brick wall, my head against her bare shoulder where her dress has slipped off, and we never wake up.
When I wake up I know these aren’t dreams. I really am singing with her. There’s some religion that believes our entire existence is just the dream of a god. If that’s true, than who’s to say that our dreams aren’t really happening somewhere else?
A good hunk of my dreams seem to be old reruns of shows I didn’t much care for the first time around. Someday maybe I’ll get the strength to rewrite the endings. My daughter says I’ll never do any rewriting if I’m boozing it up.
My daughter is the main reason I don’t get a phone again. Won’t have to listen to myself slur out “I Love Yous” with a puffy tongue. Holding down the mute button while I pop another beer tab. Forgetting the stereo’s on so of course she knows when it’s muted.
Her father (my husband) and I made up after I quit Johnny’s last year. Three months later he sold the last of our dope, took the car, and houdini’ed. He left all his shoes and socks behind. Walked out in his slippers with a backpack full of T-shirts.
I stared into the empty dresser drawer, then gathered up all the credit cards in his name and bought a bottle of Chambourd, a used pickup truck, and enough food to fuel me on my drive. I also bought my daughter a bottle of Chanel No. 5, but I didn’t get a chance to give it to her before I left.
I drove for three days with Tanya Tucker and itchy feet until I came across a sign hanging at a roadside diner just outside Olympia, Washington. The sign advertised free rent in “a dome” in trade for help working in the gardens. I dropped some silver into the phone and gave a call.
Domes—geodesic domes—are prefabricated houses held together with leftover hippie hope. They hump onto the earth like ladybugs, with skylights for black dots on their backs.
The gardener who owns the dome calls himself Smithy. He adds the -y to his name. Thinks it sounds friendly.
Smithy makes his living pulling life from the earth. “My flowers,” he told me, “are renown for their longevity and height. It’s all about my special fertilizer—coffee grounds and moss biscuits. Family secret.” Or was, I thought.
Smithy’s lady Theresa used to be a man. Had to wear a huge plastic penis inside her surgically constructed vaginal cavity for months in order to stretch it into shape. She can’t have an orgasm vaginally, so she prefers anal sex. At least that’s what she told me one afternoon when we shared a pitcher of vodka and lemonade. I’d never have known she used to be a man.
“I never was,” she said. “Never was, not really.”
Theresa paid for most of the hormones dancing at a she-male club in Portland. Dancing made me think of my beautiful daughter, which made me think of having more lemonade. So I did. She went on talking.
“Smithy is the only man who’s ever loved me as a woman,” Theresa was saying. “Maybe the only man who ever loved me period, except my father. When I told him I was switching teams, my father said, ‘Well, I hope this means your cooking will improve.’”
Come Christmas time, Theresa and Smithy gave me a guitar. An old nylon string, no-name acoustic with a handful of neon green picks. For some reason they thought I’d always wanted to learn the guitar. Must’ve forgotten telling them that.
That was months ago. Now the furniture’s splintering, the windows are leaking, and the outdoor insects have decided they prefer it indoors. Plus, Smithy and Theresa’s niceness is starting to wrap around me like intestines.
The only way out is to find a man. Maybe even one with a job. I can set myself up in a SRO downtown, maybe do another bathroom gig—only this time I’ll follow the proprietor’s lead when he pulls it out. Maybe.
Or better, I’ll get a job in a nursery. Tell them what I know about flowers and mulch and rotation and watering before the sun comes up and yellow leaves brown leaves broken leaves bitten leaves droopy leaves white-dotted leaves. Talk the talk. Could meet a nice man buying flowers for his mother or his secretary or his dead wife’s grave. The wife he thought he’d never replace.
I’ll dry out. I’ll doll up.
Thinking about it, I nearly knock myself over laughing. Thinking I could stand to stay in one place for the rest of my days—ha! Thinking I could stare into the sun without a shield—ha! Thinking I could leave Billie all alone in her alley, me waving goodbye with my three-piece-suit-man coiling himself around me. Ha!
Met a guy yesterday. Came by to deliver a package to the wrong address. He said I looked like Shirley MacClaine. I said thanks. I wanted to say that I didn’t know who Shirley MacClaine was, that I don’t get out much.
I wanted to say that there’s a spot inside me that won’t stop crying and there’s another one that won’t stop laughing and I’m not sure which is sane so I just sit in between the two. But all I said was thanks.
Besides, I’d tried it before. I’d invited them in only to say one stupid thing after another to fill the space between us. There’s nothing worse than watching yourself say one stupid thing after another before figuring it’ll be easier, flow better, be more comfortable with some amber on rocks. Maybe they’ll relax, too. Would you like a drink? Sure! Then: Another sounds great!
Who cares about the world, we’d shout two hours later. Who cares! You’re beautiful. I feel so comfortable around—oops—around you.
Then they don’t come back because they don’t want to feel that comfortable around anyone. They want to impress you with their three-piece suits and bleached smiles. With their laidback smarts, their tight asses.
This man – his eyes looked like my little girl’s eyes before she understood. Like glass polished to a shiny ice blue by a kitten’s tongue.
When my daughter was 13, I told her. Told her with as clear a head as I could muster, with the help of lines snorted up over the sound of the toilet flushing so I could be strong enough to let her in on my secret. Make her part of my world. Try to grab a secret spot before she ran away. Because I knew she’d run away someday.
I came out of the bathroom, running my finger over my gums, and started right in. I told her about the system I’d discovered—the mode of transportation that takes me around my brain on a tour bus, walls flashing scenes that I can step into.
“It’s because time doesn’t move in a straight line, honey. Time zigzags all over the place and I’m not sure if it does that just in my head or if it does that in everyone’s world but either way it’s real to me, understand?
“Time travel requires an altered state,” I continued. “I’ve gotten it down to a science. If I want to stay here, I drink beer. If I want to go to happy spots in my past, I drink chambourd. If I want to feel love, I drink wine. If I want to go check out the angry spots, I drink whiskey. If I want to go into my future, I drink rum or jagermeister. Anything with syrups. Sugars speed you up. See?”
When I looked over her eyes were cloudy. The same way they all eventually turn, some just take longer than others.
It’s time to move along, I told Theresa and Smithy. You’ve been great to me but I need my own space. I’ve decided to dry out and doll up and stand tall and walk strong and shake firm and talk quiet and think clear and rewrite my endings. Theresa cried, her Tammy Fayes running down her pink cheeks.
I clipped on my sunglasses, hopped in my truck loaded down with my guitar and some quilts they made me keep, started up Billie, and took off. I drove and drove, past patches of grains and razor-sharp mountains. Air so smooth you didn’t know you were breathing.
Somewhere in the middle of California’s wine country I drove by an overgrown cemetery that felt strange, familiar. I stopped. I felt like reading the stones, smoking, stretching.
The day was cool but something inside me blew hot. I walked through the boneyard’s ankle-high grasses as if I was being led by someone. I walked on and on.
Near the end of the third row, I bent over one of the smaller, overgrown headstones to light a match, and read the name: Josephine Marit. My beautiful little girl. My daughter who, according to the chiseled dents, died six years ago—23 days before she turned 14. She fell off a pier and drowned.
And just like that my heart stopped beating. My skin turned cold. Time shifted: Officers were asking me if I knew she couldn’t swim. Of course I knew, I answered. Of course I knew.
The next thing I knew, I was racing out of the boneyard and flying down the freeway toward Palm Springs, figuring the desert might be as good a place as any for a lady such as myself to find refuge. The winds became hotter and hotter until it felt like I was trapped inside a huge hot air balloon. The air down here doesn’t blow, it wobbles. I pushed the gas down further.
I roll down the window and let the air rip through the truck, and grab two small bottles of a generic Jamaican rum from my glove box. Twisting off the caps, I toss the trash out the open window, and drink them both one after the other.
I started thinkin’ that maybe it wasn’t the smartest move, moving to Palm Springs. There aren’t many nurseries in the desert. The ones that are here take care of things I don’t really consider plants—they take care of succulents. Succulents are plants that are stronger than their gardeners. That doesn’t feel natural to me.
I stop in a liquor store off Exit 23a, and buy a pint of light rum, the cheapest one, for the road. I must look dangerous because the bearded clerk steps back from the counter and eyes up the baseball bat leaning behind him, where the airplane bottles are. Fuck him.
God it’s hot. Sadly, the air conditioning in my truck only runs cold when it’s cold outside—when it can pull in cold air and take credit for the work. The heater works, though. Maybe I should have turned north, too late now. My mind races.
Josephine, her face blue and red from eating a rocket pop on her first birthday. Josephine, asking me if it was snuggle time for her and Henry, her stuffed Horse. Josephine telling me I’m a drunk nutjob—and that she was going to jump in the lake.
I remember her on the pier while I toasted her. Yelled out that she shouldn’t jump in, but she did anyway. I waited, calling out but she never surfaced. By the time I got to the edge it was over.
I still have my daughter’s Chanel No. 5 in the glove compartment. I worry about it evaporating in this god-damn heat. That worry, plus a need to use the facilities, forces me into a bed-bug motel just off the freeway. A tan and single-story structure with a pool and free HBO. It also has a cute little watering hole attached to it with a sign for a Waitress Wanted taped to the front door.
I push up my boobs and walk in.
Tammy Lynne Stoner is a writer and artist living in Portland, OR. She is also the creator of “Dottie’s Magic Pockets,” a kids’ show for modern families, the fiction editor of Gertrude Journal, and a consumer of entirely too many Moroccan olives. This year she was nominated for a Million Writer Award, awarded a fellowship to the SLS Summer Seminar, and had a painting chosen for the cover of the New England Review. She recently found out—to her greatest joy—that her wife is pregnant with twins! Her website is TammyLynneStoner.com.
Read Tammy Lynne Stoner’s comments on Emily Dressler’s “The Bloody Nose.”
Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
What drew me most to this particular story was the energy of the writing and the exciting use of language. Once I was in the grip of the story, however, our amazing narrator took charge, propelling me forward through the piece, revealing layers of her past and her personality throughout in a way that made the piece really latch on to me and not let me go. This is a great, moving piece of writing that draws the reader into the character’s world, and the raw, unvarnished truth of her experience.
Comments on this story by Ramona DeFelice Long, author of “Traiteurs”
I was impressed with this author’s unflinching opening—the description of the booze bottle igloo—and how she thrust me so vividly and immediately into the narrator’s sad apartment, sad job, sad life. Every day, she wakes up shocked to be alive. After reading the story, I shared her shock. There are ugly and coarse things, and people, in the narrator’s life, but Tammy Lynne Stoner allows her protagonist to bare her wounds and grief with an honesty that makes me respect her, as much as pity her.
It’s not a pretty story about a pretty person, but it’s written with pathos and depth. The image of Josephine on the pier, of time shifting after she jumped, stayed with me long after I’d finished reading.
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