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“Through the Space Left” by Mauree Pendergrast

Published on Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Teeth, 1976

I stared at Jamey through the dirty-dish window at Holly Manor Nursing Home. He stood behind the counter, biceps flexing under a steaming pot, flashing his chipped-front-tooth smile. Jamey’s smile teased my mind’s eye, like a billboard missing half its message. I kept trying to fill in what wasn’t there.

As for me, my teeth pitched this way and that, each tooth misplaced in the next one’s spot. Now that I was working, I thought, I could get my teeth fixed.

At sixteen, I’d spent three years pining for Neil, a boy in Arkansas, after my father brought our family to New Jersey when he took a better job. If I had known Daddy would leave us for a commune in California a couple of years after that, I would have pined even more. I stopped missing Daddy the day the electric company turned off our lights because Mother couldn’t pay the bill.

Except for Jamey, all the Jersey kids were rich, with straight teeth like picket fence posts. “Steecy,” they clipped my first name, the long “a” in “Stacy” stunted. They didn’t open their mouths enough. Not like Southerners, whose deep-throated vowels floated, hung in the air. I longed for Neil, who gave me slobbery kisses under the bridge by our neighborhood creek. “Stah-cy, thank you,” he’d breathed. I had already lost my virginity, but the Jersey girls, with their big hair and teeth, would never have suspected that from me, a quiet girl with a close-lipped smile.

My new job as a nursing home kitchen aide: line up the food carts in front of the window. One at a time, remove each tray. Dump the scraps. Wipe. Toss the utensils into their bucket. Stack the smeared plates, cups, and trays. Slide the piles to Jamey.

“North wing takes the longest,” Jamey said on my first day of unloading. He waved a giant spray nozzle at the end of a metal hose. He filed the dishes in a plastic bin, levered open and shut the jaws of the steel washing machine. “They’re the sickest, so they don’t eat and the trays are full.” He sprayed the counter with lilting waves of his hand, as if polishing a silver platter. “Watch out for shit they leave on the trays … but keep it moving,” he added, boss man in his tone.

“Uh … sure,” I said, fiddling with a rusty latch on a cart. I swung open the door and clamped my lips together, trying not to suck in vapors of puréed peas and spit-up.

“We’ll get into a rhythm,” he said, his voice rising over the swoosh of the machine. He lifted a bar, slid a basket of shiny spoons down a stainless steel ramp.

I pulled out the first tray and sighed when I pictured the old lady who might have left the plastic-wrapped bowls of broth and vanilla pudding untouched. Was she sick or dead?

“Don’t think about it,” Jamey said, watching my face through the window. “It’s Friday night and I wanna get out of here.”

“Me, too,” I said, but I had nowhere to go. I didn’t have a car yet and it was hard to get around. Back in Little Rock, all a girl had to do was step out on a road and put out her thumb. Girls didn’t do that in New Jersey.

Jamey cranked up the radio when the Grateful Dead came on. Tapping a bucket, he sang, “Driving a train, high on cocaine,” his baritone booming as the wash cycle ebbed. His voice cracked at “Lady in red.” He seemed to be singing to the girl of his dreams.

I found out later about Jamey’s love, Cindy, a long-legged beauty who went to modeling school. Things were on and off with them and that day he was teetering in that moment between I-love-you-so-much-you’re-the-only-one and you-fucked-me-I-hate-you. A few months later, Cindy would move to another town with her family and refuse to answer his phone calls. Then she would mail him a snapshot of her hugging a new beau, the captain of a football team. Jamey would end up keeping that picture folded in his wallet, taking it out whenever he wanted to tell someone how Cindy screwed him real bad.

“Trouble ahead, trouble behind,” Jamey sang, his eyes fixed on dirty dishes but seeing something else. Bend. Swipe. Stack. Slide. … I splashed mandarin orange juice on his wrist. He didn’t notice. Tray after tray, we worked. I started humming when the song got to “Trouble with you is the trouble with me.”

Then — on a saucer in front of me — drool-covered dentures. I dropped the tray on the ledge and reeled.

Jamey’s bare hand darted through the window to grab the teeth. Down the counter he sprayed them, clattering and trailing a string of saliva. Then he looked at me and smiled a big, chipped grin.

On break, standing on the cement truck dock, he gave me a cigarette, the last one turned upside down in the pack. “What are you doing tonight?” he asked, wiping dishwater from his brow. He dragged on his cigarette, blew smoke through the space left by half his tooth.

I smiled, covered my mouth. Six hours and seven beers later, in his VW Bug parked in the back of Hoover’s, Jamey ran one finger over my face. He traced my lips, pulling them apart. My tongue trembled. I leaned back. A piece of vinyl was peeling from the edge of the door. He kissed me, running the tip of his tongue across the turns and ridges of my teeth.

I still can’t believe I let him.

 

The Marantz Stereo, 1972

I paced, peering out the big, draped front window. We’d been inside that house way too long.

“We’re really gonna jack it?” I asked Neil. Before this, I’d only lifted lip gloss and belts from stores like Osco’s and Spencer’s. Nothing like a high-priced stereo from a stranger’s home.

That spring, Neil and I had started out loitering on the construction sites of houses sprouting up in our neighborhood. After a while, carving cuss words into bare studs and driving backhoes just wasn’t giving the same rush.

If Neil and I had been born twenty years later, we would have had diagnoses and prescriptions, but what we had then were whiskey and pills Neil hocked from his father, the doctor.

That house was clean and neat, as if a maid had just polished it up. There were vacuum tracks. Not a thing out of place except us. Its blueprint was the same as our houses, which is how we knew to head upstairs. In the master bedroom, we circled and pawed each other before Neil backed me onto the king-sized bed and pulled my fringed jacket off of me. I felt a lump like a tennis ball in his jeans.

“Uhh,” he groaned, his eyes rolling. “I’m on bone,” he said through gritted teeth. He bumped his hips against mine — gasped — and bumped harder. Our belt buckles clinked. He ground against jeans and zippers and underwear. The bedsprings hummed. I didn’t stop him until I turned my head to a photo on a nightstand, caught the gaze of a bride.

“They might walk in on us,” I pleaded, pushing him with my legs.

“Goddamn,” he moaned as he stood up, holding himself.

I stood and smoothed the spread on the bed, fluffed the pillow. “Don’t be mad at me,” I said, not looking at him. His was the first skin I’d really known, the first warm press of comfort. I didn’t want to lose his touch.

“Goddamn,” he repeated all the way down the stairs. He needed a distraction to save face. He found it in the living room.

“It’s a Marantz,” he slurred. His eyes narrowed as he rubbed his hand over the tinted plastic cover. “Model 2245,” he read and nodded.

“Man,” I said, as I tucked in my shirt. I didn’t know anything about stereos, but those gauges and blue lights on that silver panel looked like the dashboard of the Apollo rocket. I rifled through the collection of records, looking for any Three Dog Night or The Who albums, but then sunlight bounced off of a passing car and roamed the room like a spotlight.

“We’ll get in trouble,” I said, tugging at Neil’s green army jacket. Neil always wore that jacket with its deep pockets for hiding stuff, like flasks and packs of cinnamon sticks he sold to kids at school.

“I’m the one ripping this off,” he said as he yanked the wires. “You’ve got nothing to do with it — in case they catch me.” He rolled the wires up, as if routine. He tried to shove the amplifier under his jacket and had to unzip it partway. “It’s a big ass,” he said. He grunted and patted his huge square bulge.

That view of Neil — loaded with cargo like an army jeep — sobered me. I pictured us in handcuffs, then imagined a sweating Neil, under a bare bulb, being browbeaten by a man with sleeves rolled up while I begged him not to hurt Neil.

“I hear a siren,” I lied. I wanted out of there before we broke something or before Neil stuffed his pockets with cassette tapes. “Shit!” I yelled, believing my own lie.

“Haul ass!” he yelled.

Neil cackled as we tore across the lawn. We ran a mile down the street, all the way to the creek — about the dumbest thing we could have done. Walking would have been more professional. Neil charged full speed ahead of me, looking left and right, stopping only to crouch and get a better grip.

My lungs hurt by the time I got to the creek behind his house. He was waiting for me in a gully, his arms hugging his load.

“What are you going to do with it?” I asked, panting and holding my side.

“Bury it in the woods … in some plastic bags. We’ll dig it up in a few months,” he said, his eyes zigzagging.

All that trouble and risk — for him to cover the stereo with dirt? I knew then I would never get to hear the Marantz play music.

I hadn’t told Neil, but I’d just found out my family would be moving across the country in a couple of months. In protest, I was already planning to run away. A few weeks later, I would take a suitcase and a sleeping bag into the woods. I listened to Mother holler for me all night. The woods were the first place the police looked, their flashlights cutting through trees, illuminating me.

After that, I shut down my feelings for Neil, buried them like the stereo. I played a game in my head, pretended I’d already left. Wearing shiny nylon shirts and shorts that didn’t cover my ass, I enticed Bo, the younger boy across the street, to reach down my pants. Pretty quick, a series of wide-eyed young men came around, groping. On the creek bank, I went all the way with an older boy who’d hitchhiked from the poor side of town. Afterward at home, I shook leaves and twigs out of my panties, then rinsed them in the bathroom sink. This almost made me forget Neil and the good touch I’d lost.

But that day after our theft, Neil and I hugged like lovers and kissed goodbye, the stereo between our heaving chests. I watched Neil splash through the creek. He clutched the mound in his jacket as he leaped from rock to rock.

 

Phone Number, 2010

“What can I get for you, ma’am?” the Starbucks counter guy asked. He was sandy-skinned with hair the same tone. His features ran together — except for his eyes — bits of sky poking through clouds.

I had just flown to Little Rock for my eighth-grade reunion. The morning sunlight had that slant of childhood memories — direct and unfiltered. I was an hour early to meet Neil. We hadn’t seen each other since we were 14 and now we were 52. Neil had been married most of his life and had a grandchild.

“Do you make a chocolate Vivanno?” I asked the barista. I searched the menu over his head. “I get them back in Jersey,” I said.

“We don’t have them up on the board, but we make ’em,” he twanged. His speech cadence lulled like stew on the kitchen stove. “It’ll take just a minute.”

“No problem,” I said. “I’ll wait on the patio.”

“I’ll bring it to you,” he said.

They don’t do that in Jersey, I thought, as I went into the bathroom. I gave a fake smile at the mirror. I wished I had gotten braces again. Back at age 20, after working three years at the nursing home, I did get orthodontia. I was so proud of my new smile, I put a model of my “after” dental profile on the coffee table in my apartment. But a few years later, I lost my retainer and my teeth moved back.

I removed the sunglasses big enough to hide my crow’s feet. My pupils looked like the glossy black rocks Neil and I used to skip in the creek. I smeared on some ChapStick. My lips twitched.

I didn’t know why I had come 1300 miles to see people I didn’t really know. And Neil … just how fast would we run out of conversation? He was a businessman now, I knew from Facebook. Not sure he’d want to chat about our juvenile delinquency.

I went back outside.

“So, you just got to town?” the barista asked, my smoothie in one hand and a broom in the other. We were under the canopy, the only ones there. Traffic sped by us.

“Yes … flew in for a reunion — after 38 years away,” I said, trying not to wince.

“Wow,” he said, as he swept crumpled leaves.

We made small talk about the grade school I’d attended, how green Little Rock was even though it needed rain. He told me he’d dropped out of college and wanted to go back. I told him moving North, to a town where most kids went to college, had prodded me to get a degree. Most of my Arkansan girlfriends hadn’t gone on after high school.

“Where in Little Rock did you live?” he asked. He swept in an even rhythm that soothed my pulse.

“Rocky Valley Drive,” I said, taking off my glasses to shine them.

He straightened, held the broom in the air. “I live on Rocky Valley now … with my parents,” he said, his eyes widening. “What address were you?”

“11212,” I said, sing-songing it. The last time I’d said that address aloud was when I was a teenager.

“Wah-ow,” Starbucks Boy said again. He gave an extra strong sweep of the broom. “I’m at 11225 … a few doors down.”

“You don’t say,” I said. “Wow,” I repeated, hearing myself copy the way he drew that word into two syllables. I jerked with a giggle. “Hey, that house was one of those being built when I lived there and my boyfriend and I used to” — I stopped myself — “party there when it was just boards and beams.” I flashed on a mental picture of Neil and me tracking mud from fresh-laid sod onto sawdust-covered planks. I winked and put my glasses back on.

“My God, what a coincidence,” he said. “You … were in my house before I was born.” His voice trailed off. He moved his gaze toward mine. “I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Ben,” he said, and held out his hand. On his chest, the logo of the crowned mermaid, fish tails and hair flowing, grinned at me.

We shook hands. His hand looked pale and downy next to my tan and manicured one. Then, he excused himself to get back to work.

I mentally drew a map of the old neighborhood, tried to figure out which house was Ben’s, pondered whether it could have been the one with the stereo.

A few minutes later, Ben was back at the table. He shifted from one foot to the other.

“I was wondering,” he said. He faltered, his lashes flickering. “I know you have reunion activities this weekend, but I can give you my number if you’d like to meet for a drink.” His eyes flitted toward the traffic, then back to me.

I fumbled in my purse for a notepad and pen. He gave me his number, which seemed like too many digits with his drawl.

After he walked away, I replayed the exchange, sighing. Here I was in a strange town halfway across the country, searching for something — I didn’t know what — flirting with a guy half my age. I wondered who I reminded him of, what scene he pictured in the raw shell of his house. Staring at the phone number, I thought for sure I wouldn’t call it.

But I kept it.

 

Text Picture, 2010

“You really went back and dug it up?” I asked a gray-headed Neil. We were at the reunion party, sitting in a dark bar. He was six inches taller, maybe 75 pounds heavier. I don’t know if I would have recognized him. He was wearing a brown suit and he showed me a picture of his grandson.

“Yep, six months later. You had moved by then. … It’s in my basement now,” he said, his brown eyes — eyes I knew — ricocheting and then landing on mine.

“You kept the stereo all these years?” I asked the next day, when we were sitting in his car with tinted windshields. I searched his face. I wasn’t sure I believed him. He owned a chain of hamburger restaurants. He wore rings and a fancy watch. He was a Republican.

“What do you remember about me?” I pushed him to tell me, the third time that day.

“Still have that cowgirl jacket?” he asked, and laughed as he looked out the window. He fiddled with the radio dials, took his time adjusting the radar detector on his dashboard, then turned to look at me. “I remember how bad it hurt when you left,” he said.

A few days later, he texted me a picture of the stereo, blue lights pixelated. “Still sounds great,” the message read, vibrating in my palm.

 

A Word for It, 2012

Even though he didn’t have a computer or access to the Internet, it was easy for Jamey to find me. He called Mother, who still lived in the same house.

“That boy you worked with at the nursing home keeps calling — all the way from Florida. You ought to get back to him,” Mother said.

Mother doesn’t have a cell phone and doesn’t know that calling long-distance isn’t as expensive as it used to be. She doesn’t realize that Jamey, that boy who’d now been middle-aged for eons, had called 20 years before. I ignored him then. I was married at the time and focused on something besides nostalgia.

One late night at home, for lack of anything better to do, I Googled the “most difficult-to-translate” words. I didn’t know why I did this — except that I needed to express something I couldn’t define — until I found saudade: “a deep state of longing for an absent person or way of life that would likely never return.”

It’s now the only Portuguese word I know. Portuguese people are used to longing for those who go out to sea. They formed this word to reveal the unspoken truth — that who or what you miss is not ever going to come back, at least not in the same way.

As I dialed, I worried Jamey would ask if I’d gotten my teeth fixed. Instead, he stuttered, “How are you, Stacy, how was your life?” He asked if I still had long hair, and did I ever think about him. His voice was deeper. His spaced words held few syllables. He told me he had worked on cars all his life. He had money troubles. His brother had died. I asked him about Cindy, wondered if he still had the folded picture.

“I never heard from her again,” he said.

“She didn’t realize how much she meant to you,” I said.

“You sound mature,” he said, after a long silence.