2023 Spring Fiction Contest Winner
Janet lies in the bathtub with the phone shouldered to her ear. In a long lace dress with its back zipper open. It sags off her chest. She sits in her empty tub in upstate New York and wind whips the windows. Animal Medium Maria speaks into Janet’s ear from Central Valley, California. Animal Medium Maria sits on a lawn chair inside her apartment that functions as both Healing Center of Psychic Exploration and Meth Lab. Pretty Bitch hops along Janet’s tub on three-pronged feet.
“And take me back to the moment that you found Pretty Bitch,” Animal Medium Maria tells Janet. It’s their third tele-session this week, and Animal Medium Maria’s prompts are almost always the same. “Take us to the moment that Pretty Bitch chose you, and the parrot made its way into your psychic plane.”
Janet trusts Animal Medium Maria because she sounds like a radio DJ. So Janet closes her eyes and again sees the parrot as she bought it: naked, without any feathers. Netted in veins like croquembouche. The parrot sat there looking at Janet, its flesh pink with want.
Janet, who bought the parrot at age forty-eight, sometimes sat in her blue-tiled bathroom and felt like an infant. Red-fleshed, she’d sit on the tub’s rim and take her pills with Merlot. She’d sit in her sore hip and flesh folds and think, I am an infant, no more than skin covered to elastic bone. Unswaddled, unheld. Naked — my skull soft against tile. Times like this, Janet locked out the dog. She needed a mother, not to be one. And then she’d wake in the tub from a good sleep, narcotic. Seize the day! she’d yell at her face in the mirror. Slap thick foundation, too tan for her now, over rosacea. Manifest! A clear-skinned destiny.
Janet was sick of her dog. A Pharaoh Hound, who she once found to be regal. Janet was tired of avoiding eye contact. Tired of the dog’s human and judgemental stare. Looking down at Janet, at her softening jawline, from its lithe neck. So one morning Janet took off her old and unzippable dress. She put on a terry cloth tracksuit and drove to the pet store.
There sat the parrot. Helpless and naked and tiny. So small, so skinny. Smart enough to be manipulated. Her mother would have loved it. Janet didn’t ask the teenage employee about life spans. Didn’t ask about feather-upkeep or pecking. She took the baby in its cage to her car. Once inside, Janet released it. The parrot sat on her lap for the ride. Its piss pooled on Janet’s crotch, like their streams synched, like the parrot and its fluids emerged from her own. The air filled with ammonia and it was too cold to open the window.
It smelled like piss one month and eight days before this.
“You’re so skinny,” Janet had congratulated her mother.
“I haven’t looked this good in years,” Janet’s mother agreed from her hospital bed, from the puddle of urine she sat in. “If I lose three more pounds I’ll be at my Golden Number.”
Janet’s mother told people — her husband, her son, employees at the DMV — that she weighed 98 pounds for her whole adult life. She’d been 98 pounds at sixteen and refused to admit otherwise since. Except to Janet, who she confided in, who it was her duty, mother to daughter, to warn of the threat posed in eating.
Janet drove in the parrot’s piss and it had been one month and nine days since she smelled her mother’s. Janet was sure those three pounds were gone off her mother — that she had likely surpassed her Golden Number — because she was decomposing. Underground, calcified, fat melted from her body. Her skin peeled, as if from fruit with a knife, single-spiraled down to where worms live. How lucky it is! To be dead. Bone-thin and weightless. Hair growing still, wispy in curtains.
The parrot’s hair grew. Not hair, feathers. Janet expected the Scarlet Macaw to be scarlet. Her mother’s name, and she’d name the parrot in her mother’s likeness. But the parrot’s feathers grew in neon and blue. Sprouted green and in crimson. And the parrot wouldn’t accept the name Scarlet. Each time Janet called it, the parrot replied “Pretty Bitch” until Janet switched over.
“And how did that feel?” Animal Medium Maria asks Janet now. “That the parrot grew, and not into the form that you’d hoped for? Do you think the parrot’s self-naming was an act of defiance? Towards the prescriptive manner in which you were raising it?”
Janet moans. Pretty Bitch pecks at her toe-nails.
Janet tried training the parrot in her mother’s key phrases. So that at 7:30, when the phone didn’t ring, when Janet’s mother no longer needed to distract herself from dinner, Janet could hear her.
“If you shoot for the stars, you can always land on a lamppost,” Janet imagined the parrot saying, with a tapered r, her mother’s inflection. Or, “It’s just as easy to love a rich man as it is to love a poor one.”
“If you eat so many truffles your fat lumps will look like them,” Pretty Bitch could say with a locked jaw to Janet as she stared into the freezer of Lean Cuisine, at the box of layered flaking chocolates.
But Pretty Bitch said nothing. Janet ignored the food and instead ate her diet pill. Bit into it; sloshed powder on her tongue to feel it turn chalky.
“Mmm,” she said out loud like her mother taught her. If her brain hears this enough, she’ll start to believe it.
“Mmm,” Pretty Bitch parroted. But none of the phrases.
Because Pretty Bitch is interested only in re-namings. Pretty Bitch renamed the dog from Zelda to Cleavus.
“BYE BYE, CLEAVUS. GOODBYE, CLEAVUS!” Pretty Bitch screamed through the night until Janet got in the car and left Cleavus at the fire station.
Pretty Bitch moved in and chose only to re-name and sing. To memorize songs from the radio. Pretty Bitch likes reggae. Prefers Bob Marley. First, the parrot sang “No Woman, No Cry” because it seemed easy, then advanced to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Pretty Bitch tilted its head back and stood on the table. Swung its tail feathers. And this song stuck, as did Pretty Bitch’s affected Jamaican twang. But Pretty Bitch is a logophile and began switching the verbs. To evolve with the parrot’s ever expanding subjectivities.
“Don’t snarl, be contrarian,” Pretty Bitch sang at Janet as she stood in front of her mirror, trying to shove an arm into her mother’s old cocktail dress. “Don’t care, be transcendent,” Pretty Bitch sang when Janet gave up and let the dress hang off her chest. The décolletage billowed forward and Janet’s breasts spilled over, breathing. “Don’t live, be empty.”
“And this is what brought you to me?” Animal Medium Maria interrupts Janet. “Your pet parrot’s affinity for reggae?” Animal Medium Maria covers her mouthpiece to hack up the dip that’s slipped into her throat.
It wasn’t just the reggae. It was Pretty Bitch’s increasingly despondent verb arrangements. “Don’t wake, be nothing. Don’t breathe, be happy,” Pretty Bitch sang at Janet while she tried to soak in the tub. She became worried. Janet turned to the internet, where she found the website for Animal Psychic Communicator: Animal Medium Maria. Advertised in melty, psychedelic lettering.
And so Janet sits in the bathtub and calls California. $70 sessions feel worth it, to have a parrot who isn’t spewing suicidal ideation.
“I think it’s important, Janet, that you hire Pretty Bitch a companion.” Animal Medium Maria tries to make her voice groovy. “It’s important that you summon a human spirit who can act as both companion and canvas. Due to your inherent psychic sadness, Pretty Bitch is blocked. Not until Pretty Bitch has access to a psychically neutral human presence will the parrot actualize its potential.”
Janet hangs up the phone. She goes onto Craigslist.
“Seeking quirky, spiritual, creative girl for employment as Animal Companion,” Margot reads from her friend’s couch in Brooklyn. “You should be a girl, who is chatty and non-judgemental, who has her bachelor’s degree in Art History, French or Philosophy from a reputable four-year college.”
“So, be professionally 24,” Margot says to her friend who is reading, breathing, over her shoulder.
“It could be kind of funny,” Margot’s friend says, because this is how they choose jobs and make their decisions. And because Margot has been on the friend’s couch for upwards of a month.
When Margot gets there it’s icy. To the upstate town, that people call Hudson but isn’t. From the train, she takes a forty minute taxi.
Margot enters the house and steps over bejeweled Krishnas. She follows the skin of Janet’s back down the front hall. It spills from her unzipped dress, from fabric faded and muddied. They enter the living room into a cloud of Chanel and bird shit, ficus candles and vagina. Margot sits on the sloped velvet sofa and dust lifts. It hovers, suspends over everything, sparkles on purple curtains. She traces her toe on the rug, outlines patterned peach shells and nipples.
“I like your dress,” Margot says.
“It was my mother’s. It’s vintage, from the 40’s. I only ever wear my mother’s old pieces.” Janet doesn’t mention that she only wears her mother’s old tights, her lace panties. That she changes them every three days as a calendar.
“What would you like to drink,” Janet asks.
Margot says a margarita since she’s supposed to be quirky.
“Good thinking. Drinking something freezing while it’s freezing outside matches your innards to your outards and makes you feel warmer. Like the Inuits do in Antarctica.”
“Do you mean Alaska,” Margot asks.
“I was a Cultural Studies minor at Brown,” Janet answers.
She serves their drinks with tiny umbrellas.
Margot downs hers and her teeth ache. She stands to look at the empty walls. There’s one oil painting in a gilded frame: Le ville de grand-père, NICE, FRANCE written on the wall beneath it in Sharpie.
“It’s like Grey Gardens,” Margot says, fingering then accidentally snapping the head off of a houseplant.
“The Bouvier’s were friends of my mother’s.”
“They seem great,” Margot says and Pretty Bitch flies in from the sun room, singing full volume.
“DON’T WONDER, BE THOUGHTLESS,” Pretty Bitch yells and Margot screams as Pretty Bitch swoops and drops liquid shit from the air into the margarita pitcher.
“I find it fascinating how both Pretty Bitch and myself feel such a profound spiritual connection to the Rastefarian,” Janet says. She scoops shit from the pitcher in silver tongs. She refills their glasses.
Pretty Bitch sings and Janet speaks and Margot sits there and listens. And then Margot stops, once she realizes she can. Once it’s clear Janet will ask her no questions, that she wouldn’t listen to their answers. Margot slides down the back of her chair. Lets her mind turn swimmy. Her stomach sloshes, full only of ice and tequila. Her eyes wiggle. She watches Janet’s face melt, as foundation sweats off and her red face shoves through, like a burst, bulging eyeball.
“In my family, growing up, I was a lot like you,” Janet is saying. She stops, stares at Margot.
“What,” Margot says.
“I was always the pretty one — my brother was the smart one — he became a famous financial analyst at our father’s firm, and I was only ever pretty.”
Margot has a hard time believing this. But then she stares at Janet’s face. Her skin puckers like gems. Weaves into red patterns, her eyes bright-blue against it. She looks like a painting.
“No one ever took me seriously. I got access to my trust early and moved to Paris, where I was a muse. Do you know how hard it is Margot? How hard it is to be a muse?”
Margot stares. She reaches for her glass. Janet pulls it out from her fingers.
“You’re young, with your fast metabolism and clear skin and long limbs so you think you’re invincible.” Janet pats the hand she’s left empty.
And Janet hears her voice, her words, but they’re not her own. She stands to make Margot a vodka martini.
“Drink this — it gets the job done faster, with only 120 calories .”
Janet hears her mother.
Janet and Pretty Bitch lead Margot to the guest bedroom. Janet hands Margot a nightgown. Her face warms when Margot strips off her sweater, unzips her jeans and pulls down her underwear. Margot stands there, all ribby and tight-stomach-skinned, her bush full like Janet once wore hers. Margot slips the silk nightgown over her head and it stops at her ankles. She gets into the dusty twin bed and her edges blur. She becomes two-dimensioned.
“Sweet dreams, Scarlet,” Janet says as she shuts the light.
“Don’t wake, be sleepy,” Pretty Bitch sings gently.
Margot closes her eyes.
Margot wakes in her nightgown. In its mesh top that plumes, that holds air where her breasts should be. She walks downstairs to Janet, who’s seated at the kitchen table and sobbing. Tears streak white through her red face like peppermint candy.
“Don’t try, be ready,” Pretty Bitch sings close into Janet’s ear.
“Do you know how painful it is Margot,” Janet says as a greeting. “Do you know how painful it is to live with this level of profound consciousness?”
Margot stands in the doorway.
“Oh, I was just looking for some coffee…”
“Psychic awareness isn’t necessarily a blessing, Margot. Consciousness, in such totality, can become a curse.” Her mouth slides into a smile. Tears drip in its spaces. “Even before I began my work with Animal Medium Maria, my level of consciousness could be unbearable. It’s the reason I failed clown college.”
“After leaving Brown, after being a muse, I knew that I needed to do something. To be something, other than pretty. To be a positive contributor to the plane which hosts me, which I’ve been blessed to call home, this pass around the sun. So I enrolled in Parisian Clown College. Collège des cirque.”
Margot lifts a days-old croissant off the table. Bites crusted skin.
“But this was far too mimetic for me,” Janet continues. “So I moved back to attend American Clown College, where the face paint isn’t only white but includes large red lips and dripping black eyebrows. A honking nose. American clowns are boisterous, slap-stick, and you see, there’s a sense of play. Which is what I started my degree in, before leaving Brown. The study of ‘Play.’ But there I was, seated on the mat in the gymnasium with the other clowns in their makeup, and I’d just sit there, so conscious, so acutely aware of the world, aching. And I’d weep, my tears pooling on the mat. I realized then that I was far more similar to Patti Smith.”
“What,” Margot says.
Croissant flakes to the floor. Margot bends down to clean it, but the floor’s covered in crumbs and dust already. Her fingers stick in translucent goo.
Janet walks to the sun room to meditate.
“Don’t think, be barren,” Pretty Bitch sings from the center of the kitchen table.
Margot looks at her phone: there are sixteen texts waiting for answers. She turns off her phone. Slips it under Janet’s piling mail, the bills left unopened.
Janet sets the thermostat to 84 degrees, regardless of season. She and Margot walk around in silk camisoles, admiring their toenails, watching snow turn brown through the window.
They pile hair on their heads to dry sweat on their necks. Point their toes under the kitchen table then flex them, to avoid muscular atrophy. Perform spoken vowel exercises: Janet leads, Margot follows. A-A-A-E-E-E-E-I-I-O-O-O-O-U-U-U-U they stretch in their mouths to accentuate jawlines. Margot’s not so worried by her jaw, by the skinny neck it sits on. But she sits there mouthing vowels back at Janet because it’s nice to make faces through mealtimes. The way that one would with a child.
“I made dinner,” Janet says later and hands Margot a porcelain, blue-flowered plate. On it are seven halved green-grapes, one wheel of Babybel cheese, one and a half packs of Marlboro Reds. What Janet’s mother smoked, instead of eating, rather than speaking. She’d sit in a plume at dinner and cross her ankles.
Janet leans over the table each time Margot ashes, gilded lighter flicked open and ready. Margot smokes till her lunges are streaky and grated.
“Ce n’est pas la mer à boire,” Janet says, cigarette in her teeth.
“Ce n’est pas la mer à boire,” Margot answers, matching Janet’s inflection.
“La beauté ne se mange pas en salade.” Janet ashes on the table.
“La beauté ne se mange pas en salade.” Margot’s never felt so French.
“Ne se mange pas, soyez beaux,” Pretty Bitch sings, flapping above them.
There’s never anything to clean or to soak from their dinner. No leftovers to remind of another day looming. They get in their beds with red faces. Feel their blood slosh — equal parts red wine and water.
It’s still light out and gold streaks Margot’s eyelids. She’s not quite asleep when she hears Janet enter, hears her steps. They stop at the bed. Margot stirs, flits her lids like she’s dreaming.
Janet kneels to the carpet. Pads the blanket up Margot’s legs, her edges. Like Janet’s mother did for her, on the nights Janet slept upstairs through her parents’ parties. Afterward, her mother would take too much Klonopin. Pad Janet’s legs. Janet did the same for her mother, once she was sick, her body the size of a child’s. Janet tucks in Margot’s arms. And Margot breathes slowly, hoping to prolong the light touch, the cool ritual. Of a grown woman touching her softly. Janet brushes hair off Margot’s face. She smells Janet’s tar nails, the salty skin that surrounds them. Then Janet lifts the hair off Margot’s shoulders. Twines it up her wrist and her arm before dropping it, letting it splay down like spiders. Janet buries her face in the hair, sucks its smoke, scalp, smell. Rubs her face in it, swallowing tobacco.
“Mom,” Janet whispers. A guttural moan, her throat like a motor. “Mmm,” she exhales in the hair, sending cold through Margot’s fingers.
Margot stills, holds her breath. Feels her body tense beneath Janet’s breathing. And Janet kneels there, breathing her mother. Margot shifts and grunts like she’s waking.
Janet stands to go. Wings flap, stirring hot air behind her.
The night Janet shows Margot her collection of dresses starts off like most others. Like they have for the three weeks Margot’s been there. Margot walks around in her nightgown and the zippers on Janet’s dresses slide lower. Tooth by tooth, with each day that passes. The women paint their faces and say they’ll go into town for drinks and for dinner. Curly and birdlike: they wing their eyes, line their lips. Smear them in gloss so they’re plastic. They pull on jeans and sweaters and Janet’s fly gouges her flesh and wool scratches the hair in Margot’s armpits.
“Don’t leave, stay inside,” Pretty Bitch sings so they strip back into nightgowns and dresses and eat tinned fish for dinner.
And it’s a relief to them both. To eat meals from containers. To peck hard seeds in their plasticky beaks. And anyway, Margot’s introduced Janet to reality television. They sit with their pills and their wine and watch skinny women in string bikinis drink by the sparkling pool. They watch greasy men flex into push-ups beneath rubber palm trees, Creatine pumping their veins. Janet feels that this — the introduction of reality television — has increased her quality of life significantly. And Margot looks around her and thinks that she’s skipped all the steps. That she’d end up here, anyway. Her relationships end as soon as they’ve started. She leaves messages unanswered until the sender stops trying. She doesn’t need a graduate degree in Play, or to be a French muse. To lay with an arm raised, to smile at watercolors of her disproportionately rendered clit. She burns a hole in the carpet.
And then Margot’s floating upstairs, following Janet into her bedroom, standing in front of the armoire filled with old dresses. Sliding one on like liquid. Janet claps while Margot twirls and Pretty Bitch sings reggae then they’re sprawled in the bathtub, lace logging with water. The tub’s warm and they can’t tell what’s piss and what isn’t, what’s spilled wine and what’s blood, leaked from their sores and vaginas.
They wake and they’re wet. They stand in soaked gowns and look into the mirror. Mascara stripes their faces. Janet sees herself hulking. Shoulders sloping the sides of the beige dress that won’t ever fit her. She stands behind Margot who’s wearing a wedding dress. It fits Margot perfectly. Margot sees herself and knows she’ll never need one. White clings wet to her chest and the lace train is tearing. Janet’s mother’s dress, the one she wore to marry Janet’s father. When for the week she again reached her sixteen-year-old weight, her Golden Number. Janet rests a hand on Margot’s bodice. Counts ribs with her skin.
“Just eat, be heavy,” Pretty Bitch sings, perched on the shower, in the mirror behind them.
Janet sees Margot stand there. Stand so skinny and pretty. She reaches into the cabinet where toilet paper is. Picks up the box of chocolates. Reaches her arm around Margot, chocolate on her stretched palm, except it isn’t her palm, her arm, but her mother’s.
“Eat something,” Scarlet and Janet say, dangling chocolate by Janet and Margot’s pretty girl mouths.
Margot opens hers, lengthens her tongue, and it’s pink like a doll’s is.
“Let go, be nothing,” Pretty Bitch sings and Janet presses chocolate into Margot, fills her mouth till it’s liquid. Until dark lines the rims of her teeth like black spaces. Black holes that you could disappear into. And Janet sees her dripping jowls, the pocked skin that lines her arms like braille. She squints in the mirror to read it. Pretty Bitch sees her mat feathers, her yellow eyes flitting. Honed to the paper dress on Margot’s chest that she’d so enjoy ripping. And Margot sees herself in her wet gown. Sees her reflection waver. She sees her tongue go dark, turn black like a parrot’s.
MAEVE BARRY lives in New York and is a fiction student at Sarah Lawrence’s MFA program. Her stories are in Peach Mag, Expat, Hobart and the Dry River.
Art: “I am From Neptune” by Lena Snow, Acrylic on Paper