Fiction 2014 / Volume 44

Where Pickled Jalapeños Grow — Sean Taylor

She misplaced her trauma through running, pressing the seconds into the ground, her long legs time-stamped away hours.

“My shoes are coming off!” she yelled as the front door finished its crescendo; first the brass section hinges all worn down to different notes, then the beaten air of a slammed door drum.

The tile was colder than she expected. She wished nothing more than to agitate her household with bare feet and slammed doors, though she did place her black dress slip-ons safely to the side to keep from obstructing anything.

The funeral was two hours earlier and the overbearing heat of a church parking lot led her astray. She remembered that she forgot the iced tea in the fridge at her home two miles away, and excuses were just that to her, she was free. Besides, the air conditioned car and the acceleration of escape in her right foot felt like running, and she had not run in twenty years. She did roll the window down, and she did close her eyes anywhere past thirty-five miles per hour or third gear, whichever came first.

Of course, she knew the route home, she knew the traffic, she knew the speed and everything came effortlessly, everything except for breathing and blinking. That is what the pressing stream of air was for, flushed upon her face, and why she needed to close her eyes.

The funeral was her husband’s. He passed one week earlier while sleeping next to her. The events of that night led her to stay at their lake house the following week, only returning home to attend the funeral.

It wasn’t his death that led her away to the lake; it was the sleep walking.

It wasn’t his death that scared her either; it was the way her husband carried himself so unconsciously to his old oak desk catty corner from their bed. He was a Halloween ghost that took off his white sheets. Once there, hovering over the tucked-in chair, he mumbled what he attempted to write out, which she could not begin to understand. He then carried himself back into their bed and under the covers, now a Halloween ghost within his sheets, back to sleep before he passed sometime that night.

She spent all week wondering when he stopped living. Was it directly after the trip to the desk, or hours later?

She spent all week wondering what he mumbled and meant to write.

She spent night after night waking from dreams of his lifeless hand, naked of a pen, dancing to the beat of misplaced syllables and mutterings. Her mind time-stamped him standing there in a sagging off-white undershirt and old, vertically-striped, blue and white pajama pants.

She had seen a sailor lost at sea.

She spent all week trying to remember if he had ever walked or talked in his sleep during their fifty-five year marriage.

If he ever did sleepwalk, she certainly must have been asleep while he did. She was a very deep sleeper. He had called her a rock in a hard place the mornings she slept in and would not leave their bed for even a fire or a flood.

“Flood?” she had said. “This is Arizona; say drought.”

“Why would you leave your house in a drought? It is much more dry outside,” he had returned.

Now, barefoot, she slowly walked down the entranceway to the kitchen to the left. Every step left a warm, wet breath of her life on the tiles, sometimes bridging the grout with her feet, crossing borders initially left forever separated (though mostly staying within the lines). She hasn’t opened her fridge since his death. Her friend Debbie tended to her house while she was away.

At first glance she thought to leave the pickled jalapeños. They were his favorite; he would draw them from the jar then down his throat like a sword-swallower, head tilted back, neck straight.

Throughout the entirety of their relationship the sight of pickled jalapeños gave her headaches. She spent a lifetime asking him, “Who eats jalapeños in this desert heat?” It disgusted her.

“These are going, now!” She yelled as her clammy hands choked the jar and tossed it, not into the wastebasket, but straight out the window above the sink and into the garden. The glass shattered and in two hours the neighborhood cats will lick it, then their paws, then the glass again.

She could have fallen fast or slow, she could never remember it the way she hoped. The action was lost in the weight of falling, the weight of vertigo, the result, the floor. She fell from the springs in her diving board ankles, for running and jumping was once easy. She had come from a long line of women with strong thighs and long legs; she was his baby giraffe.

In two years in a rest home she would brag about the coldest part of her house. She spoke at lengths about how it changed her life, just how she landed in it, five feet out from her refrigerator. She landed deep in the center of her linoleum ocean. She was lost at sea, in the center of gravity of her home, the belly button of it. To say she could not wade and dig into the surface would not keep her from pressing further into the tile. She did so until it was no longer cold. Then she swam two feet to the left and traded that cold for her warmth. She wanted to drown though, to put all the willing parts of her body to sleep. She was done trading warmth, wanted to get all the Arizona heat out of her.

After several hours of swimming through the cold linoleum the doorbell rang and she jumped to gather herself. It was Debbie, her friend, her house sitter.

“Jean, are you okay? Is everything all right? Did you still want to do John Wayne Sundays?”

She felt like a fake, like a recovering alcoholic drinking everything out of his wine glasses, brandy snifters, and champagne flutes.

He brought her flowers before every date for the first year they were together, even though she was then a florist.

She stole five vases before she just started planting the flowers in the garden where, fifty years later, the pickled jalapeños would grow.

He would tease her; “You’re taking your work home with you.”

She would water them five times a day, the only flower bed in Arizona. He would tell her, “That’s us,” when he found something beautiful in the middle of nowhere.

John Wayne Sundays were a weekly ritual her husband, Debbie and Debbie’s husband Paul would take part in. Every Sunday they would gather around the T.V. turn it over to AMC and watch The Duke do his thing. She could not watch The Duke today; she decided then that she could not watch The Duke ever again. In truth he had always secretly reminded her of her husband. Her husband’s name was Bill or William but never Billy.

“Jean, The Duke misses you,” Debbie yelled through the thick front door while peering through the abstract stained glass window.

She will not respond to these demands. Not today. She hovered squat with her knees just inches from her teeth. Her back to the wall, east of where the hallway ends, just out of view, like a bank robber. She was, however, without his favorite expression, his six-shooter, his Smith & Wesson.

She eyed the junk drawer across the kitchen, across the linoleum ocean she only just drowned in, and waded towards it. Once there, she began to search for something. She was crouched beneath an excuse, a reason, a justification for a gun in a shoot out. She searched with only her hands, and her hands searched with only her fingers. She found a staple gun, some thumb tacks, and a pad of paper that soaked up the blood from her fingers prodding at the thumbtacks.

“Jean, I know you’re in there. Look, everyone just wants to know you’re okay … Jean, will you just let us come in?” Debbie shouted.

Debbie said “us.” Debbie was not alone.

“Hey Billy, can you hear me?” Jean yelled back, still crouched, tracing a map of the house on the tile with her finger. She’s cased this bank of memories for the past half century, she dreamed of hitting the vault they made in the bedroom. She drew out the escape routes, she motioned down hallways to guest bedrooms.

She’s seen this movie, she knows this hostage negotiation.

Jean stood her ground, staple gun in hand.

Secretly grinning inside her clenched teeth she perspired from only the nerves on her forehead.

She checks her gun twice, loaded as always, he must have left it for just this occasion. She was his cowgirl. She grew up twice.

First in Arizona, second in his eyes.

She grew in elation, on her toes to see over roses and into his eyes. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, and had just returned from fishing. He tilted his hat in her presence, just like The Duke does, though he had never seen any of John Wayne’s movies. She wore tacky yellow gardening gloves and a beat-up canvas apron. She spent the day trimming roses and removing thorns.

“How much for some of those thorns?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t sell the thorns.” She stood with her hands in her lap, head down, hair up and held loose in a bonnet.

“Can I buy some roses with thorns?”

“I see. I suppose I can just give you the thorns, but why, what for?” “That’s all right. I’ll take one dozen roses with thorns.”

He gave up fishing with metal hooks and lures, finding the idea to be cruel and uncreative. He liked to work with his hands, threading the fishing line through the thorns over and over again. It looked medieval when he was finished, and with pride, he took full credit for every catch.

She sold him the roses and threw in a free bag of thorns with little to no negotiation. He liked that so much that he came back the next day and asked if any other flowers had thorns.

She told him that nothing had been easier than pulling those thorns out. He assured her nothing had been more difficult than putting them back into the fish.

This day, however, everything was difficult. She started with her little toe that began to pretend to get her out of bed. He had named her smallest toes his tugboats. It all led up to her last panicked breath, right before she fell asleep in the cold white linoleum waves of her kitchen floor, not but a couple of hours ago.

Now Debbie, and now demands, and now she is so adamantly dis- placed. She is thinking of the words oratory and gesticulate, and the game of Bridge she lost to him the night he passed. She is thinking of what it means to win anything, why they count stairs in flights, and all the energy he wasted living in a two-story home. He might have aged differently had he not been so fond of flying her up those stairs in his arms every night after their wedding day for the great length of their marriage. Now she was his flightless bird, anchored to the bottom floor.

The staple gun in her hand became wet and clammy. She thought about fingerprints in all those heist movies, they must be so easy to dust, all those assailants just sweating out the evidence. Crying guilt. She wondered how long it will be until Debbie would leave, or if more relatives would show up. She pictured paddy wagon headlights staring into her living room, a small barricade, someone in a suit with a bullhorn. She imagined the neighbors pouring out of their homes, someone setting up a lemonade stand to combat the heat. It was a Sunday so cotton terry robes must be prevalent, and slip- pers too. Questions come out with the neighbors, they’re all center stage for a shootout. She is her own hostage, and she is her own bank robber.

“Hey Billy, can you hear me?” Her voice this time cracked and her yell came at a much weaker volume. He’s never responded to Billy, and this is why she called it, to free the silence of guilt and quiet.

Then more knocking at the door, and the glass sounds thicker and safer than she previously supposed. She thought of the bruises left on the knuckles of its tormenters, then she smiled a little.

Of course she understands the demands of her objectors outside; her staple gun, however, most certainly does not, and she wears this well, this fear that she’s been provided with, her hands shaking just enough.

“What would The Duke do? Where is my Sundance Kid? He always said I shot more like Butch. He was always my Sundance Kid.”

“Jean, please …” Debbie now sounding desperate. Will she call off the rescue party and go home, or come back with an army?

Is it still a rescue party if it fails?

She thought about the longest bank robbery in history. At what point do they refer to it as a war? Then about the longest hostage negotiation. Do the hostages remain friends after the event? Do they wish to never see each other again?

Were there wind chimes in hurricanes?

In Stockholm, could there be any other syndromes?

“I’m staying,” she then yelled with an awkward pause, the words not knowing they knew each other, new to one another, like another new language.

She thought again about his last words, his late night ghost mumbles. Do they count if he said them in his dreams, or are his last words, “Good- night,” which he said every night for the last fifty-five years, whether she was a rock in a hard place or not?

Perhaps they count more, his sleeping words. They are surely com- prised of a random sampling of his synapses firing with no outside influence. They are entirely grown in his own garden, himself endlessly.

She slept well that night and remembers dreaming of him. He was in his huge fishing boots, and she was in just her stockings. They were young again. They were in the desert. The sand burned her small feet so she stepped up upon her toes, then up onto the toes of his boots. There she held him with both her hands on his hips, she was his anchor, and he her ship. They then began to walk out away from the scorching hot sand, but it felt more like dancing to travel so close to someone else, to travel in one’s hands. Then, before she knew it, they were dancing, and it was the fastest way to go home, her weight on his biggest toes, his tugboats.

All of this comes back, and now all of her, all alone. Though her face was red, she was not blushing. She does not blush. This is Arizona, and she will tell you that she sunburns quite easily. To her feet, to her feet and with her staple gun.

She approached the hall strong, and opened the door coolly, her staple gun in hand, her long legs in tow. She became the greatest escape from herself, and from her home.

Outside a hot breeze dusted her car with a layer of sand that outlined the oily ridges her thumbprints left on the door handles, which was proof of her driving there. The hot sun caked the rubber from her tires deep into the black asphalt, leaving her car’s fingerprints here as well. Her blood was left on a pad of paper in the kitchen drawer. Her DNA is splayed about this crime scene where she robbed herself of her old life.

She dropped the staple gun on the porch, and slowly raised her arms. She kept them visible at all times to a non-existent crowd of her own imaginary country western demands. Leaving the staple gun on the ground, she got into her car and drove away. After fifty years of putting everything in its place. She was off into the desert, into the sunset.

The credits never rolled, but a missing persons report was filed. When the police did search her home this evidence was, alone, enough. She existed enough, and there was nothing he could have said that last night he hadn’t already said to her, enough.

“The first few hours,” she told me, “of a heist, a robbery, a murder, a funeral or a wedding, are always the worst. Everyone is on edge as if we forgot our lines, lost our stage lights. We just want to fall back into the earth and get the warmth out. To surrender to vertigo. To cool down. Just breathe slowly and retreat. I breathe the same whether running or sleeping, for most of my life I couldn’t tell the difference. Doctors say my lungs are stronger, and my nerves are shot. I really can’t tell you what happened that day. I can tell you what I think, and well, what the evidence shows. Then there’s what the police told me. They said it was enough to book me on some kind of robbery.” She will smile when she gets out that last line.

….

In Arizona there’s a rest home owned by Pat Stacy, John Wayne’s former secretary, whom he was allegedly romantically involved with, which she presupposes in her biography titled “Duke: A Love Story.” The rest home is called “The Alamo,” and all the women who once loved a cowboy go there to fall asleep, and all the men who believed themselves to be cowboys go there to hang their hats. The Alamo looks spot-on like any Western movie set in Hollywood, or like Arizona in the late 1800s.

These long lost widows and widowers all claim they’ll never forget The Alamo. It’s where all of the television screens play black-and-white westerns. You can hear the housemates tell their stories of when they rescued themselves. Ask Jean hers, and she will tell you about walking out to an empty street with a staple gun in her hand. She will tell you about John Wayne Sundays, and Halloweens dressed as cowboys. She won’t cry or embellish. She will beat you at Bridge, but she only sleeps on the bottom floor of the home. She’s not afraid of the stairs, she may have simply forgotten how to climb them. Now retired, this feels enough like home, to be grounded in this fantasy, and to swear against the god-awful heat. She is, however, she says, forever surrounded by witnesses and a jar of pickled jalapenos.

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