CALL ME BACK, the wall of the defaced bathroom stall said, which had to be important, or wanted to be important, Mallory wasn’t sure. No phone number accompanied the demand. She was in a bar on East Carson. Uncle Errol was still alive.
The stall’s message reminded Mallory of her cousin Joe’s voicemail inviting her to a party. The whole family got his exuberant voicemails, coagulated with mumbles and sudden increases in volume. These voicemails mentioned a party. They always did.
She had just talked to Aunt Nancy about it earlier and somehow still forgot in the between hours. Aunt Nancy said she was bringing yams. Aunt Nan was the only person Mallory knew who called sweet potatoes “yams.”
Mallory was already thinking about moving away at this point and now the walls were demanding things from her. She wouldn't actually go through with it until much later since she never made decisions, only reacted to things that happened.
Joe lived in one of the many places that passed for a suburb beyond the rivers and hills of the city. This was the suburb very much like the suburb fifteen minutes away that unfurled from the woods and clearings and bludgeoned auto body shops.
Somewhat disenchanted with his parties, due mostly to their frequency, Mallory admitted they had never been very effortless to navigate, even in their prime.
Joe wore Transitions lenses and kept his ringer at full volume.
When she arrived, he was pacing beside a card table covered with a tablecloth.
“I can’t feel my left arm. It’s numb. That’s not good,” he said. “Oh, now it’s back.” He walked away.
When he returned, the room had started to populate with relatives and a few neighbors. His wine glass was filled to the very top and the corners of his mouth were marked with one tiny red triangle on each side.
“Tonight, I will be revealing everyone’s secrets,” he said rather quietly to no one.
He watched over everyone’s loitering, triumphant. Then, only about twenty minutes later, he seemed eager for them all to leave.
Really, Joe wished not only to be suddenly rid of these people but that the heavy curtains in front of his living room windows would hide a single person behind them. That someone would want to lurk in waiting for him. To be that desperate to ensnare him, even if for dubious pursuits.
Mallory ended up talking to her mom most of the time, who everyone else called Bootsie. A neighbor sidled up, warning them not to go out in the yard. Joe had just aerated it or treated it in some way, and it was fragile, the neighbor wasn’t really sure. But she was sure he was getting exceedingly angry when people came close to approaching it.
A froth of surrogate embarrassment rose up in Mallory that she hadn’t planned on dealing with.
“I hate…” she looked around the room, “...those table legs. They’re too spindly.”
She actually might have liked them, went back and forth about them, but just needed to complain.
She went into the bathroom, caressing one of the spurned table legs as she passed.
Oh yes, their grandmother was there too. She was smarter than all of them. This disappointed her initially since she wrongly assumed generations would progress. But she was so old that she just laughed at them now and wished them luck with the rest of their lives. At least she wouldn’t have to see what might be the worst of it.
Grandma June didn’t want to use the walker one of them had given her. It stayed at home in the closet. She was perfectly comfortable being old, had been waiting a long time to get to this point, so it wasn’t about that. It just seemed to her like no one cared enough to update them. For years, all those old folks shuffling around with split tennis balls on the ends of their walkers. Like haven’t they figured out how to do this right yet? But she let whoever think whatever they wanted to think.
Joe was slouched beside Grandma June on the couch. He picked up some wadded cocktail napkins from the coffee table and tossed them over his shoulder without looking.
“It’s okay to throw trash behind your own couch. It’s yours to do what you want with,” he said, then scanned the room to see who had noticed.
In the bathroom, Mallory stared at the birthmark below her right eye. Birthmarks are really just the visible manifestation of being born with a human nature, she thought.
She wandered into Joe’s office and unearthed a book called The Orient from the shelves.
As a constantly disoriented person, this seemed like a good place to learn about.
The author’s last name was Sleeper, which made her think about all the last names formed from professions. Smith, Wheeler, Hunter. There were more. The bar could be set pleasantly low for someone with the last name of Sleeper.
She put the book down.
“You know what you’re really doing. You’re making your way out of here,” she said aloud.
There was this event she could go to out near the Slopes, some performance art thing a friend had invited her to on Facebook. At the time, she didn’t know this event wouldn’t last long. That it would literally be a large man walking onstage with cymbals the size of Thanksgiving platters, holding them about a foot apart, waiting approximately thirty seconds, then walking offstage. The cymbals were maybe supposed to be symbols, she would think later.
“A Megabus driver is greater than a regular bus driver. It’s simple math,” Uncle Errol explained to a stranger in the hallway as Mallory slinked through.
The dog whimper of the door hinge and it was done.
She left feeling corn-shucked and echoey inside as kids turned cartwheels of destruction in the yard behind her.