He was on a soundstage in Paramus, New Jersey. The producer spent the first few hours of the day exchanging aggressions with the agency rep for the paying client, a pharmaceutical company. Then Grover was late, the Muppet, and when he got there it wasn’t him at all. It was a 50-year-old woman lugging a pelican case that bounced off her thigh as she struggled toward the assemblage of kids wearing brandless T-shirts. She wasted no time unceremoniously pulling the puppet from his casket, shoving her hand inside him and asking the director where he wanted her. Hank cried, he was tired from doing nothing all day, barely eating, looking up at taller people exchanging simmering aggressions. Then he was confronted with Grover’s real nature and it was a violation to his senses and he bawled.
His mother was nowhere to be found so everyone just stared down at him. Then Jane grabbed his hand and sat pretzel style in front of him and wrapped her arms around him and giggled in his ear and told him Muppets are just puppets; they weren’t real. He was too young to understand his feelings and so was ruled by them. He had no idea why he had cried, and he also had no idea why he started laughing along with Jane. It was the kind of reluctant laughter expelled out of children who are learning something new.
Her style of smoking alternated between a rebellious debutante or a battle-hardened line cook. As his new babysitter, there wasn’t a thing she couldn’t do with a Marlboro hanging out of her mouth. When there was nothing to do, she would recline like some aristocrat exhausted from a day frolicking, holding up her arm like a periscope from her languishing body, wrist limp with sophistication as smoke curled up and away. Other times she’d whip a U-turn with the phone wedged in between her face and shoulder sipping a thin ice coffee pulling hits from a stub of filter. Hank started picking butts out of ashtrays and puffing on them. Jane found this amusing. He fell in love with her and she found it hilarious and laughed at him when he revealed his feelings with the candor one possesses as a child. He asked to kiss her while they were watching cartoons and she said no. When he asked why she said she didn’t need a reason.
They were at a grocery store buying supplies for a picnic. Jane ran into a guy from her improv class, and during the course of her conversation she let out a note of laughter. Hank swung his leg back like he was executing a 40-yard field goal and kicked him with all his strength. He went down to the ground and a chaotic scene followed. The guy wept, and medics had to be called. She thought this was all hilarious.
He was in love especially on Thursdays because she stayed over. His mom was gone almost all of the time and the only time he really noticed was when he thought about how her appearance would result in Jane’s disappearance. He came to hate his mother this way, but luckily her returns became less frequent. Eventually she took a position teaching in the UK and sent Cadbury chocolates back dutifully. He and Jane ate them for breakfast on more than one occasion.
“Mr. Minze kisses but never tells,” Jane said one summer evening. Hank was 11 by now and they were leaning against the windshield of a Pontiac Grand Prix with their bare legs stretching the length of the hood, the last July her legs would be longer than his. He grabbed for the bottle and she told him to only take a little sip, a baby sip. The sting of menthol coated his throat and burned like an antiseptic. He went to take another and she snatched it back, finishing the last of the schnapps before flinging the bottle into the dusk. A freight train rolled by slowly. Hank waved at the conductor, who pulled his hand from outside the window and sounded the whistle in response.
There was heat coming off the parking lot as the stepped over the massive cords that powered the rides on their way to the ticket booth. When they entered the rent-a-fence that enclosed the whole carnival the lights of the Ferris wheel flashed on.
“Look at that,” said Hank.
“Look at that,” said Jane.
She insisted they eat since they skipped lunch and had only split a toaster strudel for breakfast. She bought a couple of burgers and a bucket of fries. She asked him if he wanted vinegar and he didn’t, but he said he did because he remembered her telling him that vinegar on French fries reminded her of the beach vacations that her family used to take. He remembered everything she said and tried to apply every trivial piece of information. He manipulated, which he wasn’t proud of because of the connotation. His mother had called his father manipulative many times. He was not proud of being manipulative, and even felt shame when these soft manipulations resulted in affection, like he was a cheat, but he had long since resigned himself to doing whatever he had to do to get to Jane to fall in love with him. A popular theme of his daydreams was thinking about the drastic lengths to which he’d go to win her affection. Examples included sawing off his own arm or giving up 20 years of his life or robbing a bank or jumping off a non-lethal height of a parking garage. He’d commit acts of violence or sacrifice. During these daydreams he sometimes shouted in his head that he would do anything, but he knew he wouldn’t do anything. There were things he wouldn’t do, but he concluded he would do most things.
The fair attendees were changing over from the families who came during the day to the roaming teenagers who would force them out with their sheer numbers and their ostentatious disregard. Hank saw a handful of his peers and stopped to chat, bum them a cig, but didn’t dally long enough for Jane to feel cast aside or feel left waiting. Hank understood he had no real friends and it was abnormal. He moved about through the hundreds of people and still reached out from time to time for Jane’s hand. They didn’t hold hands anymore, he’d grown out of it, but sometimes, when he was leading and felt too much distance separating them, he would reach backward without turning his head and she would squeeze his fingers to reassure him she was near.
They did a few laps and he won a couple things and handed them to her. After knocking down a pyramid of milk bottles with a softball to spare he pointed out a cheaply sewn Elmo doll.
“Almost Grover,” she said.
“Grover was almost Grover,” he said.
They crammed into a teacup and spun around, looking at one another.
They walked off the ride dizzy and went to a soccer field on the other side of a creek. They laid in the damp grass and she rolled close to him until their sides were pressed against one another, like they were sharing a twin bed. He grabbed her hand. She rolled on top of him. She slid down so her hips were in between his legs, he could hear the denim. She pushed some hair out of his face. He felt tears welling up in his eyes, he felt joy so sharp that he almost wept. She smiled and let her head fall to his, kissed him with a closed mouth, then his neck and closed eyes, then laid on his chest for a few minutes. He stared up at the new yellow moon and concluded that this was the best moment of his life so far.
They shared a bed. They smoked pot all day, they took acid sometimes, did molly and mushrooms. It was summer, he was in love with her and she loved him. He talked to his mother as little as possible, and she sent more money. The thin carpet of the apartment started to wear in only the places they walked. They lounged in bed all day long and chain-smoked—newspapers and magazines everywhere, half-crushed beer cans with ash around the mouths on the nightstands. They’d be fucked up by 9 o’clock and pass out on the couch watching CNN or a movie they rented from a Redbox. Neither had a computer. Hank tried to read novels, but he could never concentrate, and Jane didn’t make it easy, since she took pleasure in distracting him. Her love of attention was most present when she wasn’t getting it. Hank noticed this but didn’t write it in his journal because he never wrote about her anymore, he didn’t want her to read any of his thoughts about her good or bad, neither would help him. Once a week they did whatever uppers they could get their hands on and thoroughly cleaned the apartment to sounds of whatever playlist Jane had created for the purpose, usually ‘80s cocaine new wave, sad synths and melancholy singers spitting glitter.
Hank started shaving at 13. Jane would lean on the doorframe of the bathroom and admire him as he easily ran the blade over his face and throat. He shoplifted the razor for no good reason and watched over an hour’s worth of YouTube videos on his phone while she was sleeping so he wouldn’t seem inexperienced. Other than a few cuts from acne bumps, he did a good job and he could tell she was feeling him as she watched. It made him more confident, made him feel like a bit more of a man.
Summer did what it always does and disappeared, bits of youth in tow. June was July and August slipped away like quicksilver. The more blissful, the more fleeting. Hank was to enter high school in a few weeks and the decimation of his current life loomed. The heat hung all through every night that August. This time the year prior Jane had made an event of back-to-school shopping, insisting they spend an entire day and nearly a thousand dollars on clothing, supplies, and a nice lunch at Seasons. This year neither mentioned it. To talk about it would make it real, it couldn’t be discussed without spurring action, action they both wanted to postpone forever. A few days later they were sitting on a Labatt Blue fold-out love seat, flicking ash into an empty soup can at their feet.
“I’m not gonna go back.”
She didn’t say anything, didn’t look at him, just dropped her cigarette into the can. It was so quiet outside they could hear the butt hiss in the inch of rainwater at the bottom. She rubbed her bare legs, from her ankles to her hips, the shins to the calves, the tops and bottoms of her thighs.
“What do you want for dinner?” She asked.
Calls came to the house every day during the first few weeks of September, then they started pouring in from his mother. The police showed up at the apartment. They talked to Jane outside and Hank in the living room. Jane wept and looked pretty while he took the blame for everything, made himself seem like a nightmare, said he threw fits every morning and threatened to get her fired. He got a fine for truancy and a stern warning that he better be in class on Monday.
Thursday afternoon of his first miserable week back he was walking out to the bus when he was intercepted by his mother, who grabbed him by his bicep and searched his eyes. He got into her rental car. She berated him on the first half of the drive and interrogated him on the second half. By the time they were back to the house she was crying, cursing his father. They stood on opposite sides of the living room, a living room she had never lived in, in a home that was his and someone else’s. He felt a violent hatred to his mother, and while she made a shallow show of telling him how things would be from now on, he simmered and held an eye contact that she could only meet occasionally, at the end of sentences she thought deserved emphasis. When she was done, he said nothing. The silence grew so large that she dismissed him to his room where he seethed.
After six hours of laying on his bed with his eyes closed, feeling his blood pump through his body like a machine reaching operating temperature, he changed his clothes and stole his mom’s rental car. By the time she realized it was gone, they were already in North Carolina heading further south.
The air got saltier. When they went over the bridge into St. Augustine they picked up her friend and the three of them drove around and smoked a joint while Carla pointed out different landmarks around town and pointed out the park where the homeless people lived. They got out and walked the narrow streets under the stars and the palms trees and felt the course grass on their feet. They tagged along to the back of ghost tour and heard about ancient deaths and pirate crimes and mysteries that haunted the thick night. Despite his mother’s expatriate lifestyle, Hank was not well traveled. The total newness of the place was exhilarating to him. He was emboldened, he moved with acuity and stood with his shoulders back. He made the girls laugh. On their way back to Carla’s they passed a dock near her apartment complex. They got out of the car and he pushed it down the pier boards into the water. It nose-dived and bobbed back level before slowly disappearing into the deep green of the bay.
Carla was a stripper. They were living in Carla’s apartment and it wasn’t long before Jane became a stripper too. The club made a whole night of her debut and billed it like it was her 18th birthday at midnight even though Jane was really 20. Hank hung around the apartment and had a quiet night of wrestling demons, experiencing spikes in adrenaline while he fell into vivid hypotheticals, and he wondered if she could have taken up a worse line of work. When the idea came up a few days earlier, Hank nearly bit his tongue off to keep his mouth shut. He didn’t want to impose his will, because what he knew about human nature vis-à-vis women led him to believe that the more he resisted the more he would guarantee a bad outcome. He couldn’t be a source of negativity, he couldn’t drive her away, he couldn’t be jealous and controlling like a high school boyfriend. He had to be strong and aloof, had to let her come to him now that he had her. It cost him all his energy. He lived confined all day and was left to brood at night, safe in the dark from any eye that might discern his suffering.
He stared at the walls, yellowed eggshell from years of smoke decorated with cheap decals of horseshoed vines surrounding pictures of anonymous family members, unhappy looking people staring at the camera through tinted eyeglasses, deeply uncomfortable about having their photo taken. He rooted through the drawers of a living room desk that had bulbous old PC on it. He found paper clips and envelopes and clear plastic lighters and realized there was nothing to find anywhere because he wasn’t looking for anything. His mind ran wild imagining everything Jane was doing, from the moment she walked out onto the stage under the colored lights and took to the shiny pole, spun about and lay on her back spread eagle crawling to men that looked like little league coached on her hands and knees so they could shove dollar bills into her G-string. He ripped a chunk of his hair out and stared at it in his hands, felt the blood leaking from where it had been uprooted. He ran to the bathroom mirror to see how noticeable it was—very. He stormed into the kitchen and ripped a bottle of Smirnoff from the freezer and tiled it back till he halved the bottle. He laid his head against the wall. He cried. He prayed. He drank more, then sat on the couch with the lights off, like a hitman waiting for the return of his mark.
Two days later Carla and Jane walked in the door laughing like schoolgirls but came to a silence when they saw Hank. He looked like he’d been jumped. Jane explained that a customer had taken them on his yacht, they went to Miami, and she was sorry she hadn’t called but her phone had died. When Hank didn’t respond Carla announced that she was going to buy cigarettes. The door shut and Hank wept and begged and got down on his knees and pled with her to come home, to leave, go somewhere new. He was a scabbed over baggy-eyed adolescent and she was a sun-kissed goddess looking terribly concerned and contrite. Hank pulled himself to his feet and sat himself down as she eased her way into explaining some things she had realized. When she mentioned their age difference Hank got up and walked out the door. She didn’t come after him.
A policewoman took Hank to the airport. They bypassed TSA and he thanked her before boarding. The day was ending in a golden sky when the plane took off, and Hank stared into the intense beams that washed across the world, trying to distract himself by staring into the sun until his row mate asked him very politely if he could close the screen. Hank looked down at the modest diamond on her ring finger and asked her how long she had been married.
About the Author
Sefton Eisenhart is a writer living in Philadelphia. His work has appeared on VoxPop, YDR, and Sonic Pop.