March 19, 2024

Ali Banach

When Wilma and Ruth were roommates, neither of them grew gray hair. They were both in their early twenties; Wilma recently graduated and aimless, Ruth a dropout. Before she moved to the city, Wilma had envisioned a yellow kitchen and the sun moving over the skyline when the train crossed the bridge. Maybe she would go to the movies or a museum on her day off. She accepted a job as a nanny because it paid enough to cover rent plus a little extra. She could shovel puréed food into the pink mouths of sweet children before laying them down for a nap. She could tuck them in. They could love her and she could love them and using one hand, Wilma could wipe their thin bangs back off their damp foreheads in the summer heat. She had worked hard to get there, and the city was going to be a soft resting place for her.

The Ryans’ apartment, uptown, was composed of clean lines, beige, and sharp right corners. The family was Catholic. They had a three foot tall statue of Mary in the corner. The family had three children, but Wilma had been brought on to help with one in particular.

 Her child emerged from the bedroom. His mother, stationed beside Wilma on the tan couch, beckoned him over. The first words that David uttered to Wilma: “Your dress does not look nice on you.” 

A tactic that Wilma employed to survive in the Ryans’ household was to transfigure herself into a researcher. This was both a new and old undertaking. She had studied science in school before deciding the lab was not the place for her. There was no sun. The goggles left marks on her face. Now the children stole essential and particular structures from her. 

The children transported Wilma back to the house in the woods where she was raised: the silver rings her mother twisted on her hands, her father turning the volume of the stereo up as the country light made patterns on the walls. 

In order to become a researcher, Wilma altered her perspective. To lift off, she selected outfits that amplified her part as Maid in the lives of the Ryans’. She donned white Peter Pan collars over blue tops and pleated skirts that came from Ruth’s Catholic middle school days. In their hometown horses and car dealerships, the boys drove light blue pick-up trucks and screeched out the rolled-down windows at any girl-like shape. 

The pleated skirts on Wilma’s grown-up body rode up her thighs. Wilma assumed the character of Maid as honestly and unironically as possible. 

Though her Maid body cowered around the boy, the middle child she loved instantly. This was a violation of protocol, this tenderness. The girl’s name, Poppy, rounded itself in Wilma’s mouth, and her stomach distended beneath her shirt. The girl was watchful and soft and abused tirelessly by the older boy. Poppy reminded Wilma of her barefooted early days when her primary role in life was Sister.

  When Wilma met Poppy, a big round pit grew in her stomach because each of Poppy’s limbs were catalogs of her older brother’s rage. Wilma touched each scratch and bruise and asked the cause, and the girl lisped, “David, David, David, David.” 

Wilma’s first weekend as a researcher, she navigated to a bar in her neighborhood utilizing her new detached vision. She felt inclined towards drinks that she had never ingested before that would make her feel more adult. That would draw the line between the kids and the rest of her life. 

Because of a dirt bike accident and a shattered femur, Ruth was serious about drinking and well-versed in its variety. The girls sat at a picnic table outside the bar. In the mosquitoed night, red light illuminated the edges of the building, rendered the groups of people clinging to the perimeter barnacles. Everybody stuck to a wall and whispered with people they already knew. Ruth and Wilma had not been close friends in their hometown, but Wilma had responded to Ruth’s post for a roommate, moved her things in shiny black trash bags, and then grown reliant on Ruth’s raspy laugh and bitten-down fingernails.

At the Ryans’ the next day, Wilma used her bare hands to excavate the old food from the mouth of the kitchen sink. She employed this method despite the packets of rubber yellow gloves in the cabinet beneath. 

While instructing Wilma, the mother peeled a clementine and dropped the bright bitter skin on the floor between them. Wilma bent and picked it up.

When the second week of the job began, Poppy and David were killing her. In the Ryans’ living room, they murdered each other with foam swords painted red and blue. `

When David came into the room, Wilma always tensed. Her wiping movements got jerkier. Sometimes the dad arrived home, yelled, “Hey, everybody,” from the doorway. When Wilma swiveled her head to check, however, it was just the sound of her own father ringing in her head.

“Why are you still cleaning the kitchen when my mommy told you to pick up my toys?”

“Nobody wipes like that, you have to spray the cleaner on the cloth first.”

“StoP Stop StoP.”

The boy had learned to speak like this somewhere. Maybe his mother complained when Wilma left for the day or maybe the father did when he arrived home. David screamed at Wilma to stop whenever she turned on the vacuum. Wilma tried to explain that this was her job. She lifted the statue of Mary by the crown and held her aloft.

When David was in a yelling mood, Wilma wished she could scream back at him. Her voice could get loud. “BE QUIET” could emerge from inside her over and over until he was as scared as she was. He belonged in time-out or locked in a bedroom or at the very least, his thrashing limbs could be restrained by her hands. This could be so easy. Two of his wrists fit into one of hers. The mother would be scared and helpless but also full of gratitude. The boy could be left alone. Wilma could be left alone. She could rub her hand down the mother’s arm, where David had bitten her over and over, leaving little teeth marks like a paisley print. 

Instead, Wilma scrubbed harder and harder at the white trim where the wall met the floor. She used a vinegar wash she had mixed herself. It smelled bitter, and she kept her head up close to the task. She inhaled often. She told herself she would quit when David leaned over and bit her. She had drawn this line in the sand. She would find other work then, work that would prevent her from returning to the boys of her hometown.

In the afternoon, the quiet hours when the boy was away at preschool, the apartment transfigured into a girls’ home. Wilma, the mother, the baby, and the two-year old. Wilma relaxed her limbs. She dried the dishes fresh from the dishwasher. The blood rushing to her finger pads. The silence ringing in her objective brain.

The mother entered the kitchen to deposit a used glass in the sink. She asked Wilma, for the first time, about the place she came from. Wilma wanted to tell her that she had grown up next to an ex-military man who let off a gunshot or two in his backyard just to make sure he still had it, and that her other neighbor had given birth to a child in an inflatable pool in their living room. The aquatic birth had gone very, very awry, and the neighbor fell into a coma, and when she awoke, the couple decided to homeschool the kids so the mother could learn how to read and write and talk again alongside them. 

But instead Wilma shrugged and murmured, “It was nothing like here.” Wiping each glass with a swivel of her wrist, she held the cup up to the light to check for smudges. The yellow rubber gloves rested inert under the sink.

The mother told Wilma that she had prayed the whole time during the most recent birth for a painless delivery, and that God answered. The baby was strapped with swatches of black fabric to the mother’s chest. The only parts of her that were visible were wisps of dark hair and the echo of that soft skull still forming. 

The first time the baby appeared alone, it was a horror: the small newborn body on the hallway floor outside the bathroom. Mother inside on the toilet just breathing. Wilma picked the baby up, and the small thing drooled a warm puddle in the crook of Wilma’s neck. This love, too, she admitted as a possible contamination.

In their apartment kitchen, which was decidedly not yellow, Ruth asked, “How were the gremlins?” This was a phrasing that Wilma had coined. This was a way of lifting off.

Wilma responded with a story about the violence that David had inflicted on her that day. “You know, the boy slammed the front door with my body in the frame, and his mother cawed over how strong he’s getting.”

Wilma had shed a single tear while stiff arming the door. She left that part out. 

Ruth snorted. Wilma leaned back against the fridge, felt the comforting hum of activity inside. When Ruth headed to the living room with a beer, hiding her limp, she placed a gentle hand on Wilma’s shoulder. Maybe their life would always be like this; best friends crammed in a lightless apartment recounting their days. 

“Angela’s baby just turned one,” Ruth announced when Wilma joined her on the couch.

The popular girls from their high school were having babies. Some cute and some ugly. Angela’s was one of the girls’ favorites, and they always zoomed in on the photos. Neither had befriended Angela in high school, but they rooted for her. The evening light danced over the fried blonde of Ruth’s hair, tricked it into beauty for a yellow minute. The yeast on Ruth’s breath neutral enough to bear. Neither girl could imagine having a child of their own, or a house with a granite island.

During Wilma’s third week of being a researcher, the boy scared her. David often frightened her because he summoned the flash anger of Wilma’s younger brother, who used to charge at her and stick both of his hands into her curly tangle of hair and shake until her eyes rolled back. 

As a scientist, Wilma worked to divorce herself from this history and to face the body of the small boy with an objective eye. Maybe if he was cuter the hours would pass faster.

When he scared her, the two were in the square of the park near the Ryans’ apartment building. The summer day sweltered, the garbage sweat, the tops of Wilma’s thighs rubbed together beneath her skirt. The park was full of many children, heated and angry and sticky all over. Boys played basketball in the far corner. Two girls in tight pants reclined on the entrance stairs, watched the boys jostle, leaned their heads together, gossiping. Wilma and David shot on a small hoop for a bit, but soon sweat beaded around his hairline. His almost-cute face bloomed red. 

After he made five baskets, the pair retired to a bench. In the farthest corner, a group played three-on-three. 

She lied, “This is almost like television or going to a live game.” Basketball was not big in Wilma’s town. The men there preferred football and baseball and hunting. She barely knew the rules. It didn’t matter. David never watched television. Once he interrupted Wilma to ask, “What’s the internet?”

Wilma narrated the game to David. One of the tasks of that job was to keep talking. Maintaining this proved difficult for Wilma as she was often trapped under the penumbra of that small, valley town. The green grass horse-farms loomed as a shadow over that island/city for her, over the playground where nannies lined the benches and fed organic gummies to children who they did not resemble. The shadow-past full of pine trees and tics and real-life deer in the space behind her parents’ house. The past had horses inside of it. Talking sometimes fractured the shadow and sometimes extended it over Wilma. 

While she acted as faulty commentator, David grew absorbed. He dribbled the ball between his short nubs of legs on the bench. He was curious. 

“What’s an assist?”

“Why do you always say defense?”

“I think the boy in the blue is the best, correct?”

Wilma answered the best she could. She made up the answer when she didn’t know. She said his name at the end of her sentences to help him learn that he was a person.

Wilma said, “It is helping someone,” “It is when you don’t have the ball,” and “Yes, David, No, David, Yes, David.”

The two slumped in the patchy shade of the chain link fence. On this summer afternoon, a bit of softness bloomed in her chest toward the boy. She stopped talking. The young athletic bodies moved with such lightness, easy hand slaps between the boys, the way that some of them had hit their growth spurts and others were waiting on it, dropping their voices self-consciously. 

David was distracted by a small bird which landed on the bench five feet away from the two. The miniature, blue bird nibbled on the rind of an orange peel.

Wilma’s father used to love birds. He dutifully refilled the feeder in their backyard each spring. He once owned a small pet parakeet who perched on the edge of his cereal bowl and pecked at his Cheerios with him. He sometimes held the bird in the soft of his mouth, lips covering his teeth. The bird rested there.

The blue bird hopped gently nearby. David’s mouth creased a bit. He was about to say something to make her hate him again. 

“Do you think I could throw this ball at that bird and smush it?”

A beat.

“Do you think it would die?”

There existed an unspoken rule in the Ryans’ house that the mother never said the word “No” to her children. Even when David punched his little sister in the arm, the mother asked, “Why did you do that?”

 Even when he screamed at the baby, “Die, die, die!” the mother did not scream STOP, she whispered, “The baby cannot understand your words, but she can understand your tone.”

Wilma’s attention was divided between David and the bird. She wanted to thrust the shape of her body between this boy and this bird. She wanted to salvage its smallness. 

Wilma prepared to speak. With all the force she could gather, desiring to burrow inside herself but instead emerging, she spat out, “Do NOT do that.” David smiled, closed-mouth. Eyes crinkling.

“But, really, do you think it would die?”

Wilma gripped the edge of the wooden bench with her fingernails. She pressed a little too hard. In that instant, the shadowy hometown descended as an overlay, and the boy was the same as the ones who had tormented her on the bus ride home when she used to watch cattails out the window pass in a blur. The blanket of the past closed over the park, became a hermetic sealant on top of the present.

“Mommy!” David screeched, leaping up and abandoning the ball for Wilma to chase after.

 The mother with the two girls made their way across the blacktop. Chasing the ball, Wilma waved.

Wilma desperately tried to regain her footing as a researcher. The mother reclined beside her on the bench and announced that she believed something was the matter with David. Wilma gasped in excitement. She thought, Finally. 

The mother said that David had a disorder, one that hadn’t really caught on in the States yet, but that was widely known in the UK. A defiance disorder. The mother whispered under her breath that all of this meant that he couldn’t be disciplined in any way, that nothing he said meant anything, it was all just a symptom. 

The mother spoke to Wilma while she ate a goldfish, “It’s really, really crucial that you maintain calm body language around David.”

 The previous week David had screamed at Wilma to jump out the window. He had slapped her on the ass. He had hit her in the face with a ball. But she nodded, agreed, because she doubted she could find another position that would pay her this well. This money allowed her to stay in her small crevice of a room in Ruth’s apartment, to listen to her rasp through the thin drywall. The old world lifted off of that one. It was clear to Wilma then that David would not be like the pick-up truck boys because he would be prescribed small pills that flattened his mood. When he did hurt a girl, his father would use the law or the money or the school board to get him off. The pick-up truck boys got kicked out of school and took it on the chin, and then they had a cute or an ugly baby with an Angela or a Lexie. David would get a job in consulting or finance, spending his weekends in bars with brash screens and blonde girls. He would have his fun before settling down with a girl with slender fingers and the right kind of education. Wilma would be his mother’s spectral ghost from those early years when he hadn’t learned to wear a tie or piss in an urinal yet, another girl he had bruised on the way to his foreseeable conclusion. 

At the bar, Wilma reported David’s new diagnosis to Ruth. Ruth snorted and ordered another round. Ruth reported the new cosmetic procedures her boss had undergone; she was a personal assistant to a woman named Sloane. Sloane screamed between meditation. The pool table velvet glistened lonely and holy. 

That night, the girls decided to let the boys come to them. Wilma did her best impression of a girl who didn’t spend any time with children. She leaned into a man who said a lot of uninteresting things about a historical war. He slithered into their booth. After more war talk, he disclosed that he had fractured his kneecap when someone threw a ping pong paddle at it. Ruth pulled up her pant leg so that they could compare long white scars. Ruth scared the boy and Wilma knew it, but it grew like a secret between them into something lovely.

Wilma tilted her head back, let the liquor pool in her mouth like mouthwash before she swallowed. She traced her fingertip gently up the puckered skin of Ruth’s scar.

The night reached a point where it became clear that Wilma could sleep with the war boy if she wanted. She debated whether or not this would be good for research. His Ruth fear made his cheeks pink, and Wilma liked this. How would a hickey compliment the maid costume she wore to the Ryans’? She grinned like a snake at the thought.

Wilma and the war boy slid out from the leather booth together, and Ruth blew them a kiss like they were embarking on a ship. 

At his apartment, the trains ran directly overhead and rattled the buildings. He fished around for his key and unlocked the door. His roommates were asleep, so they whispered as he poured a glass of water from the filter in his fridge, his face bathed in the blue light.

In his room, a green quilt nailed to the wall was the only decoration. The war boy secured the door behind her as she perched on the corner of his unmade bed. In the spillover street lights, he stepped to her, standing with one of his legs between her two knees. When they fell upward and downward, it was remembered and good. 

But then partway through in the near darkness, his hand found Wilma’s throat, stealing something from her. Her scientist brain needed air to function, her real brain needed air to breathe. Suddenly Wilma was so in her body, she was the specimen, and he was the long arm of the microscope, and she was trying to make her ribs expand, and in her mind, David’s voice chanted die die die die, and the war boy moved above the girl, and she was the statue of Mary lifting off the cold Earth, and his hand was heavy, wide, unmoving on her, and how will this bruise look with the maid’s outfit, will it look like dress-up, am I dressed up right now, is this skin mine, and then all at once, it was over. 

And he was saying “Nice.” And she was looking up the train schedule on her phone.

On the train, she picked at a bump of an ingrown hair until it bled, but there was no hair underneath at all, in the end, just the red of her inside. 

At work, up in the seventies, Wilma’s eyes glossed over while David ran circles around the apartment. She soothed herself by folding the laundry into tight squares.

Then suddenly jerking her out, Poppy screeched in the kitchen, voice grating. The mother did not emerge. Wilma padded over. David had made his way up to the granite countertop where he gripped two cookies in each hand. The small girl reached her little claw-like hands up and screamed for them. As Wilma entered, David reared and kicked Poppy in the head. He kicked her twice with his right foot. The sound from her mouth was no longer a plea but sheer terror. It was all red coming out, no blood, just the noise. Wilma strode over and grabbed David’s ankles, one in each hand. She held on as tightly as she could as he attempted to kick her soft stomach. 

His eyes squinted in calm consideration  of Wilma, and she leaned in close and hissed, “STOP STOP STOP.” Wilma, a girl at the end of her rope. There was chocolate smeared around his mouth, and crumbs covered the tile floor she had just vacuumed. David dropped the cookie and leaned over, latching onto her upper bicep with his teeth. She yelped and dropped his ankles. He opened his jaw, releasing her arm, lines of spit connecting them. Wilma turned and beelined through the kitchen and then the dining area, straight to the door where she calmly laced her shoes and gathered her things. She kissed screaming Poppy on the head. She looked at Mary, who was looking away. 

Wilma left the apartment and pressed the button for the elevator, the yellow light a headlight in the darkness, promising the parting of the doors and her body being taken away, the creaking metal of her joints separating and rejoining with the white fibrous tissue of a citrus fruit.

Ali Banach is a writer from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in The Vassar Review, On the Run, Observer, and elsewhere.