“The first time her father came back from the psych ward, he was given tasks to occupy his eyes.”
The report read clearly at the top of the page to fill out all sections in blue or black ink, ONLY. This last word was typed in all caps and underlined twice for emphasis. There were other lines provided, some for dates and times, but the entirety of the handwritten text was a single line:
ms. klammer eyes was on my stomach
It had been filled out in pencil, the eyes dotted over with wide, unfinished circles. It was signed Ayanna Morris. It had fallen from the closet shelf in Paula’s bedroom. Lydia was looking at it, trying to decide why it was sitting there, folded into fours, and stacked on top of some old floral bed sheets.
Lydia wasn’t a teacher, but her girlfriend taught seventh grade at a local middle school. She specialized in Social Studies. Lydia had been dating Paula Klammer for three years, but they still lived in separate apartments and didn’t plan on moving in together any time soon. Lydia was digging through the top shelf of her girlfriend’s bedroom closet because she thought she’d seen a roll of felt stored there once. She had a foggy memory of it piled next to the stacks of winter sweaters, the green kind they use on pool tables. Lydia wanted to make some cat toys for Paula’s birthday, tiny fish stuffed with catnip and rags, but the note had fallen out and she’d forgotten about the felt.
She was alone in the apartment. Paula hadn’t given her a key, but she’d seen her girlfriend take it out of the hiding place inside the post cap of the chain-link fence. Lydia had always assumed that meant she could come inside whenever she liked; otherwise why would Paula have shown it to her? Sweat beaded along Lydia’s hairline. Paula liked to keep the air conditioner set at a humid seventy-nine degrees most days, and the closet didn’t have a vent. The dresses and pants hung limply alongside of Lydia’s body like shrouds. She ran her finger along the crease of the note.
Lydia reached up again, back to where she’d been looking for the felt, and her hand slid over a tall stack of folded notes. She lifted them up for a second, pulling them toward her, but then her eye caught a flash of green. The roll of felt was propped on floor behind a wire rack of purses. Lydia took the felt and closed up the closet. She turned off the bedroom light, then the hall light, and then the light switch by the kitchen. She locked the apartment door. When she was sliding the key back into its hiding space, she realized she was still holding onto the witness statement. She put it in her pocket and drove home.
One week after Lydia’s fifth birthday, her father began seeing stars in their ceiling. He hadn’t been looking through the large rectangular skylight in their kitchen, or any of the large picture windows in the dining room; her father saw swirls and spangles pressed into the pattern of the actual paint. His eyes saw constellations mapped out in the bubbles and whirls of the popcorn finish of the living room. These imaginary stars magnetized his eyes, taking him upward on solitary journeys, leaving Lydia and her mother behind in the boring old house with its split-level ranch aesthetics and the paint peeling in gray strips off the shutters out front. Instead of watching television with them after dinner, Lydia’s father was out in the cosmos, mapping new destinations with his finger, while her mother drank a glass of sherry and pretended not to notice his increasingly erratic behavior.
Lydia couldn’t stop watching her father explore his imaginary worlds. When her mother was out grocery shopping, Lydia would sit beside her father on the couch and follow the movements of his hands, trying to pick out the stars from their secret hollows. Sometimes her father would speak to her and sometimes he wouldn’t, but she sat quietly next to him either way, wondering what he saw when his eyes rolled up and didn’t come back down again for hours.
At night, while the TV glowed and the ceiling picked up new shapes and in the static fluttering of the blue light, her father sat perfectly still in his recliner. He stopped eating and lost so much weight that his clothes began to sag against his body. Lydia’s mother would cook all of his favorites – lamb stew and fried okra and bread pudding for dessert with extra cinnamon and the raisins poking out like eyes – but he would only take small, sporadic bites, until the food congealed and her mother took the plates away again, back into the kitchen.
“Astronomy is magic. Cosmic enchantment.” Her father pointed up at the swirls while Lydia’s mother slept beside them on the couch, worn out from working another eight-hour shift. “There, see? Right there. It’s the Big Dipper.”
Lydia followed the movement of her father’s finger.
Lydia only saw that her father had started chewing his fingernails.
Drinking black coffee at her kitchen table, Lydia cut pieces of felt from the roll and then shaped them into small fish and birds. Between snips, she stared at the note, smoothed out on top of one of her plastic placemats. Paula didn’t seem like the kind of person who would hide things from anybody. That was one of the main reasons Lydia had been so attracted to Paula in the first place; she was always so painfully honest about everything. Once she’d told Lydia that she hadn’t liked her haircut because it made her look like a medieval squirrel. Lydia had cried over it, but she’d appreciated her girlfriend’s forthrightness. Paula was always able to refine things to their most essential elements. Lydia had trouble sending back food, even if it was something she hadn’t ordered. Paula was a good compliment to her. Three years into the relationship was just long enough that it felt comfortable and worn in, like a favorite sweatshirt stretched into the perfect fit.
They’d developed a routine. They walked to the farmer’s market every other Saturday to pick out fresh veggies they’d cook for their evening meal. They both liked red wine, and they’d drink half the bottle while they chopped up the ingredients in Paula’s small kitchen. Paula always insisted on gumbo, even though Lydia argued they should try out new recipes. The next morning they’d hike together at a local park. They’d bring picnic lunches – ham and cheese for Paula and roast beef on rye for Lydia – and they’d take binoculars for bird watching, though Lydia could never recognize any of the birds. She wasn’t sure Paula could, either, even though she always claimed to know everything about what she saw. Smiling in that lopsided way Lydia liked, her finger pointing out a trestle, a griffin, a mockingbird. Lydia always liked the crows best. They were so dark they shone blue in the sunlight, and they were so much bigger than the other birds. She thought it was charming how they were called a murder when they came in spates of three, but Paula said they were just scavengers.
During the week, they had a standing Wednesday night dinner date, the restaurant choice alternating between the two of them. The relationship was defined clearly. It was dependable in a way that Lydia craved..
Lydia set down the scissors and looked at the note again. She ran her finger over the letters, smudging the soft-gray pencil lead, and wondered if it hadn’t been turned in because the form wasn’t filled out in ink. That there was perhaps a duplicate lodged in the filing cabinet at the middle school bearing this same complaint, and that’s why her girlfriend had kept the original. Maybe it was as trivial as a fast food receipt; something Paula had simply set down and forgotten about.
ms. klammer eyes was on my stomach
Lydia put a hand to her own belly, which was soft and liked to pouch over the tops of her jeans. Paula had a flat stomach that was tiny like the rest of her. She was brown and toned and compact, and she always wore straight-legged khaki pants with buttoned oxford shirts and dark brogues. Her favorite color was sky blue. As Lydia rubbed her finger over the note, she found herself trying to catalog these likes. She knew that her girlfriend loved fresh flowers, but only in pots, because cut flowers depressed her – she called them morbid and funereal. She loved the beach and liked to collect shells. Lydia knew that Paula was an only child and that both of her parents were deceased, and that her girlfriend had been teaching middle school for over seventeen years now and that she claimed to like it, but not love it. Paula never really talked about work unless Lydia brought it up.
There was a large red dot smearing over the pencil marks. Lydia’s finger was bleeding from where she’d accidentally jabbed herself with the sewing needle as she pieced together the felt. She put down the paper and went to wash her hands in the kitchen sink. The soap next to the faucet was lemon-scented and she went ahead and poured some into the bowl of leftover soup that was sitting in the bottom of the sink. It filled up with bubbles and frothed up some of the leftover soup mix, which was milky and red from the tomato. The smell was rotten, like a garden where old fruit baked in the heat. She washed the dishes and forgot about the note for a while, catching the soft hunks of celery and carrot with her fingers before they ran down the drain.
The first time her father came back from the psych ward, he was given tasks to occupy his eyes. That way whenever he found them drifting upward, he could root himself on earth and stay moored with Lydia and her mother. He gained weight and looked less skeletal. He wasn’t back at work yet, but he spoke in a voice that didn’t sound soft and reedy, and there were times that he went almost acted like he had before his visions started. He tucked Lydia into bed at night and kissed her cheek and her stuffed pig, and at his best he’d brought home an amethyst bracelet for her mother. He put it on her gently, holding her wrist in one large hand while he stroked at the skin. Her mother acted like it hadn’t affected her, but her fingers were shaking as she held up her wrist toward the light from the kitchen window, the sun shining through the delicate purple stones.
When the weather was nice, he rode with them in the car to go to pick up dinner or just out for drives on the weekends with the windows rolled down. Lydia would watch her father’s hair ruffle like the tops of the trees flashing dark through the blue outside the car. Her mother would steer with one hand on the wheel and the other holding onto her father. Their fingers would interlace, palms smashed together until Lydia couldn’t tell whose was which. She liked to watch her parents hands when they drove like this, liked it even more than looking out the window. When they were driving somewhere together and holding hands, her parents were tethered and inseparable. It was one of the few times she knew that the stars couldn’t drag her father deep into space, like an astronaut cut loose from his shuttle.
The car had a hanging air freshener shaped like a pink hibiscus, which was her mother’s favorite flower. Before Lydia was born, her parents had gone to Hawaii on a belated honeymoon. In Maui, tropical breezes blowing outside the window, her mother had been eight weeks pregnant with Lydia and sick to her stomach all day long. The only thing that made her feel better were the hibiscus that Lydia’s father would pluck and drop into a bowl of water on their balcony. The air freshener didn’t have any scent left of its own, but once a month or so Lydia’s mom would spritz it with her favorite perfume. Even though she knew hibiscus weren’t really scented, Lydia loved getting in the car when the day had been especially hot, because it smelled like sinking into her mother’s love.
“Isn’t this nice?” her mother said, without turning around. “Just the three of us.”
“Very nice. Beautiful weather.” Her father pointed out the window with his free hand, letting his fingers drag upward.
Lydia wouldn’t speak, just in case she jinxed it, but she put her hand out, too. Let her hand fly twin behind her father’s in the passenger’s side window as they sped down the back roads.
Paula asked her if she’d like to attend a gallery opening and Lydia told her that she wasn’t feeling very well. The truth was that Lydia couldn’t stop thinking about the note. It went to work with her every day, slipped beneath the edge of her coffee mug. It sat on her bedside table at night. The paper had become soft and wrinkled in the places where her hands had traced the writing, and the creases had become thinner with every opening and subsequent refolding.
ms. klammer eyes was on my stomach
While Paula was at the gallery opening, Lydia sat home on her couch with the television on mute and tried to think of reasons not to go look for more notes. It had been three weeks. She hadn’t asked Paula about the witness statement; how could she explain that she’d been in her girlfriend’s apartment without asking? There was no logical reason to be prowling through her closet. She couldn’t even use the green felt as an excuse, because she’d never given her girlfriend the cat toys. They sat half-finished on the shelf next to the front door, right beside a little gift bag with a cat on the front. It was a cutesy one with blue and white plastic whiskers poking out of the cat’s jowly cheeks. The cat held a fish in its jaws, one that had slick green-blue scales and stitched black x’s for eyes. Pretty dead. She’d bought Paula flowers instead. A dozen white roses sat in a clear vase with water on the front counter that bracketed the kitchen, off the hallway that led down to the bedroom, where the closet sat with the notes hiding along the top shelf, maybe; she couldn’t know for sure.
Every time they went into Paula’s bedroom, Lydia would stare at the closet. Sometimes the door was cracked, but once it had been thrown open. The light from the standing lamp next to the bed had spilled a buttery pool onto the carpet beneath the hanging dresses and slacks and shirts. Paula had been leaning over her on the bed, running her hands along the tender inside of Lydia’s arms. When her fingertips skimmed her belly, she’d remembered the disjointed font of the witness statement and felt like it was inscribed on her bare skin. She’d looked up at Paula’s eyes then and seen a woman who stared at children’s stomachs.
“There you are.” Paula had smiled, her face half shadowed in the light from the lamp. “I found you.”
Leftover green felt lumped in a wicker basket that sat next to the front door of Lydia’s apartment. She stared at the fabric and thought about returning it, how Paula would probably wonder what had happened to it. She could drive over while her girlfriend was at the gallery opening and get out the key from its hiding spot and return the felt to the closet. While she was there, she could check out the shelf to see if there were more notes, or if she’d just imagined the paper shuffling under her fingers.
Lydia turned up the volume on the television and sat on her hands so she wouldn’t touch the witness statement again.
When her father came back the second time, Lydia was eight years old. He appeared on their front porch shriveled, like an apple that had sat out on the counter for too long. Her mother still tried to fix him his favorites, but he never filled out his clothes properly again. Lydia’s father maintained a shape she associated with Ebenezer Scrooge from the play her mother had taken her to over Christmas break; graying and stooped, like all of his bones had been broken and wrongly knit back together. When her father smiled, his papery skin stretched unhappily around teeth that looked too big for his mouth. Then his lips would close again and his tongue would shuffle around behind them, searching out the proper way to lie still.
On nights when her mother worked, Lydia would prepare dinner for herself and for her father. She made peanut butter sandwiches on white bread or spooned out portions of casserole her mother had pre-cooked and left with instructions for heating and serving. Then she’d watch her father as he sat on the couch, warming a glass of whiskey in his palms. At first he poured these drinks himself, but then he let Lydia do it, while he sat propped quietly on the couch. He looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy, as if all she had to do was place the glass exactly right and he would start to life. The ice in the glass melted slowly, eating up the liquor until everything muted to tawny beige. Lydia thought the color was pretty, like the downy coat of a fawn.
Sometimes after she got his drink, he would tell her what he saw when he looked up into the cosmos. He spoke of the illusory; the fact that objects disappeared when you weren’t watching them closely enough. Lydia thought this was probably true, because she’d seen it happen when a magician came to school assembly. He’d let her hold his white dove before he put it into the glass box. The dove had felt like a beating heart in her hands, trilling beneath her fingers. Then the magician had taken the dove and placed it inside the box, where the bird sat wise and unblinking, as if it already knew what came next. When he’d tapped the glass, the bird had disappeared. It had turned into nothing, its matter transferring to a place none of the kids could access. Lydia had smiled and felt part of the trick, because she’d been helping hold the dove, knowing she’d the power to squeeze and end that life, but also knowing that she wouldn’t do it, not ever.
When she’d asked the magician where the dove had gone, he’d disappointed her by telling her that he’d magicked it away to a place only he knew. He said that next time she should watch more closely. Then he’d winked at her and asked another little girl to come up to the front and hold the metal rings that only detached from each other when the magician tapped them with his wand and the kids all shrieked the magic words, “purple pickles.”
Lydia didn’t tell her mother that she let her father stare at the ceiling. She took sips from the bottle of whiskey when no one was looking. Lydia wondered if it would help her see the stars, too.
It was hot in the car with the windows rolled up. The breeze was balmy enough outside to ruffle the woman’s hair jogging by with her yellow Labrador retriever, but Lydia just pushed her sunglasses up her nose and crouched lower in the seat. She’d called in sick to work and she was waiting for Paula to leave so she could use the spare key to check out the shelf of the closet. The witness statement from Ayanna Morris was sitting in her lap, and every time she got anxious she’d pick up the paper and read it again to check the words to make sure she wasn’t forgetting what it said.
ms. klammer eyes was on my stomach
Lydia wondered what the other statements would say when she finally got inside the apartment and opened the closet. The thought alone sent her fingers scrambling. She could already feel them in her hands; the paper still crisp and bright, the words written in different typeset or in the same shaky seventh grade hand of Ayanna Morris that had never made it into the hands of an administrator. Maybe these reports would be written in pen or maybe in pencil again. Maybe there would be other statements from different kids, other places that Paula had stared: necks, breasts, or the tender vee of a crotch.
There was sweat building in her armpits and she felt faint from the heat, but Lydia couldn’t go home yet. Paula’s car was still in the parking lot across the street. It was a little maroon sedan with a dark grille that Lydia had always thought looked like a cockroach. She checked the time on her phone again and saw that her girlfriend was already forty-five minutes late for work. Lydia set the note carefully in the passenger seat and called Paula’s cellphone, just to see if she’d pick up. Her girlfriend’s voice was hoarse, as if she’d been sleeping.
“Did I wake you?”
“No.” Paula cleared her throat. “I’m at school.”
“Oh.” She couldn’t think of another reason to continue the call. “Do you want to get dinner tonight?”
There was a long pause. Lydia strained to hear any other noise in the background – the sound of students talking or yelling, maybe the buzz of the intercom, but there was nothing.
“I’m actually not feeling great,” Paula said. “Maybe I’m getting a cold.”
“I can come over, cook for you?” Lydia thought about how close she’d be to the closet. If Paula fell asleep, she could quietly collect the papers while her girlfriend was passed out in the other room, on the couch with the television blaring. Then she could sit on the floor and read them and finally understand what was happening.
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure? I’ll make soup.”
“I’ve got to go. I’m at work, remember?”
Paula hung up. Lydia sat in her car and stared hard at the apartment complex until the woman with the yellow Labrador retriever ran past again, her hair as sweaty as Lydia’s in the heat of the car. She wondered if Paula was inside the apartment looking at the papers, if maybe she would move them or destroy them before Lydia ever got a chance to look at them. She was holding the witness statement from Ayanna Morris on her lap and sharpening the creases with her fingernail, rubbing it hard against her leg. Her nail went through the edge of the paper and left a hole in the center, right through the name klammer.
It was the magician who’d given Lydia the idea, though not directly. He hadn’t told her to steal the parakeet from her classroom, but he’d let her hold the dove and that had fired her resolve. Ever since the magic act, all she’d been able to think of was how she could do the trick herself – how she could make things disappear and reappear at will; her will, her command.
Her father had gotten progressively enmeshed in the ceiling since her mother had picked up more night shifts. Lydia wanted to show him something that would shift his attention off the stars and back into herself and into her mother, who had a vacant expression herself most of the time. She was always tired from working too many hours, more hours than it seemed possible that a person could work in a single day. It took three tries to get her mother’s attention most mornings over breakfast, Lydia clanging her spoon down into her cereal bowl until the milk splashed up over the lip and her mother yelled at her for messing up the tablecloth.
It had been easy to take the bird. Lydia had simply waited until the rest of her class went outside for recess, and then she’d asked her teacher if she could go back and use the restroom. Her teacher gave her the key and told her to hurry. The classroom was dark, but Lydia left off the lights. The blinds were partially open and there enough of a glow to see where she was going. It felt strange to Lydia to be alone in the classroom that was usually so overwhelmingly full of noise, all of the kids talking and breathing and laughing and yelling; she could still hear it, but it was muted now out on the playground.
She walked over to the cage and looked in at the parakeet. It was sitting on its wooden peg, grooming under its yellow and blue speckled wing. Its cage faced the wall of windows that lined the back of the school. The class had named the bird Ralphie, after the kid from the Christmas movie whose friend gets his tongue frozen to a pole. Lydia had never even seen snow and neither had half the class. She’d wanted to name the bird Daisy, like the cutest Disney character, but everyone had outvoted her after the movie had played on cable for a week straight.
Because she didn’t have a box, Lydia took the empty thermos from her lunch, which had been filled with chicken and stars only an hour earlier. Its insides were still damp from her soup She hoped it wouldn’t be too dark for the bird. There was even a tiny bit of broth left at the bottom and Lydia figured that Ralphie could drink some if she got thirsty.
Once the cage was open, the bird hopped toward her hand. It was used to getting treats from the kids. Instead of giving it a seed, she grabbed the bird, thrilling at that same feeling of thrumming life resonating in her palms. She placed the parakeet carefully inside the thermos. It was just like the magician putting the dove into the glass box. The bird simply sat there and looked up at Lydia, waiting for the next part of the trick. Then Lydia closed the lid and stuck the thermos inside her backpack.
Three hours later she was back at home, helping her mother set the table for dinner. There were the three scalloped yellow placemats and three white plates, which Lydia thought made them look like inverted eggs. She curled the paper towels around the silverware to make them look like real napkins. Her mother asked her to go and collect her father, who was sitting in the bedroom with the lights off. He was staring at the ceiling again, his eyes looking past the ceiling fan with the blades drooping down like flower petals. It spun slowly, barely generating air.
Lydia took her father’s hand and guided him toward the dining room. Their chairs were set in a triangle around the table, and Lydia helped her father to his place nearest the kitchen. Her mother brought out the salad in a big wooden bowl. It smelled strongly of vinegar and diced red onions. While her mother scooped out the ham and potato casserole onto the plates, Lydia ran to her room to get the thermos. She held it to her chest and skipped back down the hall, waiting at the dark edge of the doorway to make her entrance. When she went back into the dining room, her mother was sitting thin-lipped and angry as her father stared down at his plate, moving green beans around with the tines of his fork.
“I’ve got something to show you,” Lydia said, holding up the thermos. “Magic.”
Her father’s lids trembled he trained his eyes on her, darting upward every few seconds and then back down again.
Lydia unscrewed the top to the thermos. “Purple pickles,” she yelled, tossing her arms up dramatically.
She’d done it just like the magician, but the bird didn’t fly over to the china cabinet or perch on the oak sideboard like she’d imagined. It didn’t fly at all. Its body dumped out like a rock, skittering across the tablecloth, until it finally came to a stop between the bowl of green beans and the casserole dish. Its feathers were clumped and damp with leftover soup.
Her mother stared at the bird, but Lydia’s father looked skyward, as if the bird had flown through the ceiling and vanished into thin air.
There was no saving the witness statement. Every time Lydia touched it, she made the paper worse. She couldn’t stop smoothing it. Her eyes bounced over the words like they were hieroglyphic fragments. There was no linear pattern.
Her palms tingled and itched and she shredded the paper into little bits of confetti that dropped onto the rug and stuck to her sweaty fingers. Later on she couldn’t find any part of the statement, not any scraps, but there was a gummy taste in her mouth, as if she’d ingested Ayanna Morris and Paula and now the eyes lived inside her stomach and they couldn’t ever leave. The tingling and itching spread from her palms, up her forearms, through her body until her brain caught fire.
That night Lydia drove to Paula’s apartment. She parked alongside the dark exoskeleton of Paula’s sedan and carried up a paper grocery bag filled with ingredients for soup. On the way over, she’d stopped to buy chicken, lemon, celery, and a fragrant bunch of basil. Instead of ringing the bell, Lydia took the key from its hiding place and unlocked the front door to the apartment. It was dark inside, but she could make out an open pizza box on the coffee table and a roll of paper towels on the floor in front of the couch. The air was dense with the smell of garlic and grease. The television threw shadowy shapes onto the walls. The glow magnified her body into something monstrous, a hulking thing with long, dangling limbs. She left the bags of groceries in the kitchen, next to a dirty pot that needed to be scrubbed down before she prepped the chicken stock.
It was quiet, but there was a similar blue glow from the cracked bedroom door. Lydia felt the pull of the eaten witness statement in her stomach. She pushed open the door and felt it drag against the plush of the carpet. There was a rerun of a home renovation show on the TV, one that Lydia had seen before. The husband and wife overspent their budget by more than thirty thousand dollars. In the blue light on the television, Paula looked much younger. She was curled up in the bed with a woman that Lydia didn’t know. Both of their faces were turned toward each other, though they weren’t kissing, just looking at each other. They had their clothes on and their legs were tangled together over the covers.
Lydia didn’t say anything to either of the women, just walked toward the closet. When the other woman finally noticed Lydia, she let loose a wild, high noise that went on and on like an emergency siren. Paula was yelling, stammering something, but Lydia wasn’t listening.
It was open. Lydia walked inside, closing the door behind her. In the dark, she reached up and felt along the shelf for the papers, her fingers searching, until she found what she was looking for. Then she sat on the floor of the closet, surrounded by the hanging dresses and pants, crushing the papers against her chest. Even through the fabric of her sweater, she could feel the thrumming of her heart. It beat starkly through her body and down into her fingertips.
Image by János Szüdi