Leigh Claire Schmidli
It’s not often the case, but we’re all hungry for dinner about the same time that night. Me and Anka, my landlady. Her fat-cat Bazo. We collide in the tiny kitchen, circling each other. Anka pulls at the curtains, debates using the oven after such a hot sun. I open and close cabinets, trying to find an easy bite. Maybe cereal. Maybe ramen. Bazo thinks every package that crinkles holds something for him and he noses at my hands, beginning to purr.
How is the shop? Anka asks.
It’s a salon, but she calls it the shop, as in workshop. As if the other stylists and I are crafting something useful in the same way her husband, a welder, used to do. Like my ex did, a machinist. I enjoy how she says it, as if she’s putting us all on the same level. Like we can all be the heartbeat of America or its lifeblood or whatever vital image people are using for manufacturing these days.
Shop’s good, I tell her. Doing a color job next week. One girl. Three shades of green. I stick my hand into a box of cereal and wait for the usual shake of her head. Anka likes to joke—you girls and your rainbow hair. And then I always strike back, her own hair the bluish-black of comic book characters.
Tonight she skips all that. And how is Junior? she asks.
But I just shrug and refuse her eyes. I nearly step on the cat, but I still manage to stalk off, taking the cornflakes to my room. Because she knows I hate it when she acts clueless. When she asks one thing, but wants to know another. Like why I’m home on my night off. Why my phone rings and rings, and I won’t answer. Like how I’m doing with it all. If she just asked, I might tell her. Maybe. If my tongue felt loose. If I’d had a few.
Mostly, Anka knows my side of it. My new guy, Junior, pushing me to buy a place with him. A condo. A cabin. Something. Just so it’s ours. Him rushing because the market’s ripe, calling agents and speaking their language. Like “Mitten siding,” no “multi-use neighborhoods,” a “two-year home warranty.” All recommendations from his bouts of watching the Business Report. Right now he sells tires, but believes he’ll invest his way to riches.
Shouldn’t we be working our way up to this? I’ve asked him. I remind him I’ve never bought anything larger than a mattress. An inflatable one.
Fuck, Dee, he’ll say. People like us need to jump on this.
I keep meaning to ask him what kind of people we are.
Anka knows I’ve moved around lately, my mind a jumble of street names and sticky bus seats. Every beauty shop with those black plastic capes, the same sugary shampoos. A citrus one, a nutty one, one that smells like cake. Mostly, I remember the cheap cups of coffee, every town a little different. Maybe it’s the minerals in the water or because the cream’s from different cows. A guy in Phoenix told me that the tongue has a memory. He was messed up at the time, but I think he was onto something. Anka does too. The nose has a memory, too, she told me. And the ears.
Anka knows that a Shell Station in Oklahoma served my best cup of coffee. Cheap, with a side of buttermilk. She knows that in Nevada I drove down a road called Misty Lake, but the land was so dry there, I never even saw a puddle. Anka knows, because some nights after drinking with Junior, I stand in the kitchen and eat saltines over the sink. I stand there and I tell her and she says things like:
My tongue remembers my first wine. Shabbat wine. My nose remembers too,
Misty Lake, eh? Maybe someone missed home. They named that street for a memory,
Be good to your body, Dee. It will carry you when no one else will.
Anka knows that when Junior starts talking about realtors and mortgages, my mind goes to one thing. How a deed might root me. How I might find so many reasons to stay.
You know, she tells me, settling down in a place is like marriage. Sometimes you stay no matter what. Sometimes you go.
It’s heading toward midnight and the air’s finally cool. Anka’s retreated to her room, and I’m smoking by my window, listening to the muffled voices of her late night programs. TV audiences clap and laugh. There’s the murmur of Spanish. A hint of her dinner, something nice and meaty, still hangs in the air, taunting me. I can’t eat another dry cornflake, but I also can’t have her catch me searching for leftovers. I have a point to make, after all. Just as I assure myself that another cigarette will do, the TV gets louder with Anka’s door opening, and applause fills the hall. There’s a knock.
I need to fix something, she says through my door. Will you help me, Dee?
When I peek out, the hallway is dim, backlit by the blue of her television. And even though there’s no reason to be quiet, she tries to whisper. Will you help me? she says again, her voice a thick, husky one that makes it difficult for her to speak softly. I know this is how she’s saying sorry.
How easily I forget my hunger and my point.
Soon we’re outside in our pajama pants. We round the dark yard, pine needles sticking to the bottoms of our socks, and Bazo follows along, hoping for a scratch on the neck. Folded under one arm, Anka carries a tall aluminum ladder. I carry a box of light bulbs.
At 11:45 p.m., she wants to change all of the outdoor lights, front yard and back. More wattage. More glare. She worries about the dive down the block, its tacos featured on TV, online. Stories about them shared and liked. Its tacos have grown famous enough to draw crowds. People arrive hours before the place opens. Their cars line up along our street, some with bumper stickers for the library or the head shop downtown. Others have license plates from far-off states. Montana, Michigan, Vermont. Some nights I walk past on my way home from the bus stop. By dark, the picnic tables are jammed with empty pitchers, beer foam webbed across the plastic. By dark, the people are overflowing from the dinky restaurant, the crumbling parking lot. They’re spilling into our neighborhood.
When speaking of the crowds, Anka uses small words like miffed. Molesta. The ones who get to her? These boys. They could be teenagers. They could just be drunk. They like to walk down the center of the street, playing chicken with oncoming cars. Some hoot and holler at people in their yards. One was seen throwing rocks at the neighborhood cats. Then, one morning, Omar down the road found a brown clump of cat shit on the hood of his car.
Anka believes it’s one of these boys who decapitated the young sapling she planted out by the road, leaving behind just a scrawny trunk. We never found the severed part. And there’s no way to really know who did it or why.
Maybe this place has more than tacos, Anka says tonight.
As she clicks the ladder in place, she watches two girls do a tango down the sidewalk. They nearly fall off the curb and shriek as they stumble. And the sound of them, their jitters, it all sets Bazo to run for cover. Anka shakes her head, turning to me. See? More than tacos. She puts a pinkie to her nose and makes like she’s sniffing. But then she lets out a chuckle. It’s not a true laugh, not really, so I say the first thing I can think of—something to get that sad smile off her face.
You’re not doing it right, I say, rolling my eyes. You’ll never get to tango if you do it like that.
She stops her smile, raises her eyebrows.
I mean, not that I would know.
Then she really laughs. Okay, she says, you know just from the movies, eh?
I’ve known highs and I know coming down. I prefer cigarettes now, a glass of something—anything but whiskey. I know Anka has never so much as smoked a cigarette, but she loved the smell of her husband’s cigars. I know she likes to sip a drink before bed, but never wine. It reminds her too much of prayer.
I know that normally Anka doesn’t ask for much help. She’s a 70-year-old widow who fixes her own gutters. She grouts, caulks, and dabbles with the plumbing. But with all the talk of my moving out, a whole big place with my name on the deed, she’s invited me along for every chore lately. You may need to do this someday, she’ll say. Or, Watch me now and this won’t seem so hard. She crams our conversations with tips:
Pick a quiet street. The world is only going to get more noisy.
Never plant pecan trees. No matter how much you love pecans.
No home is perfect. So simple, but we forget.
Live in an old house. New things break too easy.
You know, sometimes the staying and the leaving are not so different.
And I find myself listening to her, because she must know something about it: how to stay, when to go.
Anka’s parents were Polish Jews who escaped Europe—crossed the Atlantic, but never made it to America. Cuba, they made it to Cuba. Born there, Anka heard the same stories in a mix of languages: Polish, Spanish, English and, of course, there was Yiddish. She heard how her parents and two older brothers left Poland with nothing but thick coats and the stories of Exodus. Wherever they were going, her parents wanted to be certain: that they would be safe from the cold, that they would have scripture. The verses, copied onto thin fabric, were sewn sheet by sheet along the inside of her brothers’ undershorts. Anka’s word, not mine.
By this point in the story, Anka has been laughing about fur-lined coats in Cuba, and then I want to say, Wait. They had scripture in their underwear? But I wonder if some things may never be funny.
I know her family stayed through the Revolution and after. Even when their friends all fled. Even when synagogues began closing. Worried, they hid scripture in flour sacks. They stayed until flour got scarce, the pantry so bare. And here’s where Anka always says, Sometimes you stay no matter what. Sometimes you need to go.
I imagine her family making a list of what to pack for America. The verses of Exodus? The Mezuzah? I imagine them saying, Damn it, what kind of coat?
I follow Anka around the yard, and Bazo keeps running ahead, almost tripping us. Anka can lurch around him somehow and she sets the ladder in place again and again. She insists on changing each bulb herself, not even wanting me to hold the ladder. I’m only here to hand up the light bulbs, to take back the old ones. I’m here to listen to her talk.
Tonight she says, You know, you need a house with trees.
She’s at the top of the ladder and lets the advice hang there until she steps down to the ground. You need to have trees, she says. Trees give quiet to a place. She puts her hand on my arm to make sure she has me. Listen. She nods toward the thick tree in the front yard and looks up at the branches like something’s about to happen.
We wait, and Bazo tries to curve between our legs. The springtime wind has been flirting with us. It messes my hair now. It teases the branches and the top of the pine tree. There’s hardly a sound. Just the wind—a playful sigh.
See, she says, bet you never noticed. So quiet. Even with the highway. And the bus line. Even with the taco place, open so late.
Then she tries to whisper: The trees catch sound. Her eyes grow big and she points up, as if we could see the sound waves, the leaves blocking each one before it can hit our ears. And at first it seems like bullshit—a story she tells herself. These trees, like a force field. Her house, a fortress.
Anka’s had this home for 40-some years. 40-some. That’s how she says it. All of Anka’s numbers are rounded off, the years lumped into decades. I know she isn’t one for digits and names, but she remembers other things. Like the smell of her mother’s challah. The taste of cigar on her husband’s lips. How to bless a meal in three languages. How to curse at the TV in four.
I did not think I could stay in Texas, she always says. I talked in English. No one understood. I talked in Spanish. No one understood. Even Spanish.
But then we found this street, she says. I will always remember. Everyone spoke English with a different patria.
When she says we, Anka means her husband, her girl. She likes to take their photos down from the living room wall. She touches the faces—her husband in his work shirt, Victor stitched on the front. Her daughter all grown, stepping onto a train for California.
Anka likes to stand there and tell me how her husband wrestled the pecan roots when they got tangled in the plumbing. By the end of the day he was in his work shirt and undershorts, covered to his waist in mud. Oh, how he stank. Like a dog in the rain.
Or she tells me about the night her husband died, how she and her girl began to sleep in one bed. How they watched the tree shadows slink along the walls, pushed by the headlights of passing cars. They listened to the branches scratch against the gutters. Suddenly, everything sounded different. One night, Anka talked numbers with her girl as best she could—the checkbook and taxes and the money they could get if they rented her girl’s room. We went to learn karate at the Y, she always tells me, just in case we got a wild man. Then she shows me her punch, her fist tight, a slam against my shoulder. My wince is real and she loves it.
Sometimes I ask Anka if she’ll stay here.
Qué? she says. Why would I go?
Because. So much is different.
No home is perfect, she says.
Then she’ll ask me the same. Will you stay?
Anka knows that if I could name a street for a memory of home, it would be called Jonathan. Jonathan Drive or Lane. For the apples that grew there, not for the man.
That first fall, and many after, he and I borrowed the landlord’s ladder, filled a bucket full of Jonathans. Turns out, we weren’t much for baking or canning, but we ate them all. Slathered with peanut butter. Or peeled and cored, boiled down and spread over pancakes.
If my nose kept a memory of that place, it would be peanut butter and scorched coffee, apple pancakes on Saturdays. Smokestacks by the river, and the smell of his hands after work, like old pennies. If my tongue remembered, whiskey kisses at midnight when he got home from his shift. Coffee kisses in the corner booth at the diner, where he fell asleep sometimes after a meal. That was his super power: he was a good sleeper. Any time of day. Anywhere. He could slip into a deep nap, his face calm as a house cat. Sometimes at the diner, his head would tip back against the vinyl seat, his breath coming out in a soft snore. Sometimes his head tipped onto my shoulder, his hair against my neck. He never smelled like shampoo. No, most always he smelled like a good day’s work, like salt and tobacco and, for some reason, like cold french fries.
Anka knows all the things I want to remember, even the ones I don’t.
His hands, out-of-work, weed-smoke at the fingertips. His tongue going from smoke to sour, his eyes getting sketchy. How his hair, the carpet and curtains—they took on the smell of each new habit.
The sound of the water hose, a gush through the pipes at midnight. Drops hitting the apple leaves as he stood outside in the dark, drenching the limbs, the roots—until they couldn’t take it.
Then there were the apple leaves, the ground covered with them, yellow and dank. The stink stayed with me for days on the road west, stuck on the soles of my sneakers.
Now all I know is what I find online:
Another Mill Falls to the Pressure;
Industry Fading, Drug Use Growing;
Homeless Take Root Under the Interstate.
Anka says, Losing a job can be like losing a friend, a death in the family. She says, Addiction is part of the genes. Like a singing voice or a head for numbers. We can never really tell who will get what. I know she wants me to forgive him. But I know she doesn’t say it to make me feel bad. Because then she says, Sometimes leaving is all you can do. She says, Sometimes the going still feels like you stayed. She says, At least you know he can sleep good anywhere.
Anka takes the box of bulbs and moves on without me. I stay under the tree, certain that close by there are car doors slamming, travelers whipping down the bypass, a city bus braking. I’m certain that not far away there are voices, people full of tacos and cheap beer and who knows what else. I should be hearing all this noise. The wind should be bringing it.
Anka climbs up to do the porch light herself. That tree is very old, she calls to me. 90-some years. Maybe 100.
I know she’ll keep talking, explaining her ideas, repeating old ones. And other than her voice, other than Bazo chasing a cricket, showing off—I have to admit it’s quiet. It really is.
You need old trees, she says. But never pecan, okay?
The last bulb is in, and Anka puts the old ones on the stoop, leans the ladder against the house. The nuts are sweet and nice, she says, but they cannot make up for the trouble. So much trouble. And they will never die.
You know, I say, Junior only looks at the new builds. Just vinyl-siding and bare lots. No trees at all. Not even grass has taken root.
Oh, no, she says. You need an old house. Tall trees. Her voice trails off as she passes by me, moving toward the road. New things break so easy, she says, almost to herself.
Bazo has caught her eye. Done with the cricket, now he’s found her broken sapling. He sniffs at the jagged trunk, then tries to rub against it, his fat-cat body making it lean.
Shoo, Anka waves him away. Go on. But Bazo stays and tries to rub her outstretched hand instead. The tree bounces back up. The cat is so eager, following Anka’s fingers, but she’s reaching for the tree. She touches the trunk gingerly as if checking for a wound. I think it will never be the same.
And I know the things I could say. Maybe the tree will grow back; at least it still has its roots.
Those boys, she says, why do such a thing?
I could say that the tree must still be alive, that at least it’s still standing and that’s promising, isn’t it? Instead I say, If only there was a way to get those boys into the backyard.
Anka’s head snaps up. She looks at me in disbelief.
Yeah, send them to the backyard. Let them get their hands on those pecan trees.
Oh no. Her laughter erupts and soon she’s bending over, hands on her knees. She’s making these sounds, a mash of laughing and sobbing. Oh no, she says, trying to catch her breath. Bazo has been watching her, wide-eyed, and she reaches for him, lifting him up and scratching his neck. It’s okay, she says to Bazo, her eyes glossy. But he squirms from her arms and runs to the porch. He squats on the first step and regards us, squinting in the glare of the new bulb.
Damn cat, I say. He’s been wanting some love all night. And now he finally gets it—
So fickle, she says, and we shake our heads, carrying on. There’s Bazo, of course, so fickle. There’s the trouble with pecan trees, Anka’s husband so covered in mud. There’s the wind getting fresher now, stirring everything small. The leaves, the grass, a paper bag in the street spotted with grease. There’s the way our skin looks an awful green in these lights.
Oh my god, Dee, Anka says. Look at your hands.
We both yelp and grin and stretch out our arms, waving them in the sour glow. The yard is so bright. Electric. From the stoop, Bazo talks back at us and Anka laughs. She is flushed and shining, her face like a ghoul.
Come on, mija, she says and she holds out a green hand to me. Come on. There is nothing more we can fix tonight.
Leigh Claire Schmidli
LEIGH CLAIRE SCHMIDLI thinks of many places as home, from the mountains to the plains to the tropics in the rainy season. Her colorful work history includes: baker, coach, and custodian, complete with jangling keys. All her homes and work have inspired her fiction—which can be found in places such as CARVE, Ruminate Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review—and her writing has been honored by A Room of Her Own Foundation and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She posts snapshots of worms, spiders, and other natural beauties on Instagram: @leigh_claire_in _color.
Art: “Cosmic Lion” by Cat DM, Digital Illustration