Literary Orphans

Cherish the Muffin Top by Gregory J. Wolos

gery_is_looking_16_by_plamen stoev

Becca opened one of the hard lemonades they’d brought for the Saturday night party the GPS couldn’t locate. They were looking for a farmhouse ten miles deep in the dairyland outside of campus. She took a sip and offered the bottle to Danielle, the driver, who waved it away. Katie, lounging like Cleopatra across the backseat of her own Toyota, waggled her fingers for the drink. She always surrendered the wheel when the three roommates drove to parties because she liked to get high before they started out.

Becca opened a second lemonade. “I’ve seen that barn. We’re lost, we’re going in circles. We’re going to die.”

“This isn’t The Blair Witch Project.” Danielle let the car glide to a stop in the middle of the road. “I need to know where the shit we’re going.”

Re-dy-recting,” Barry, the Australian GPS voice, insisted. “Re-dy-recting.”

“You can’t just stop,” Becca said. “We’re going to get rammed from behind.” She looked back over Katie into the darkness the rear window framed. “Some farmer is going to smash into us with his hay wagon.”

“I’ve got the flashers on.”

“A ‘combine.’ Isn’t that some kind of farm thing?” Katie yawned. “We’re going to get crushed into a bale by a combine.” Night air spilled through their open windows from ghost meadows riotous with crickets.

“Where are the stars?” Becca asked. “You’re supposed to see millions of stars out in the country.”

“It’s cloudy. I smell rain.” Danielle folded her arms. “I don’t want to be driving out here in a downpour.

Re-dy-recting—”

“Shut up, you bastard.” Danielle choked the wheel at ten and two, lifted her foot from the brake, and the car lurched forward. “This was the last party. There’s supposed to be a bonfire. Why don’t we see a bonfire?”

“We’re screwed,” Becca said. “Some cult will murder us and chop us up and spell out a message with our body parts—‘CONGRATULATIONS, CLASS OF 2014.’”

“Let’s give up.” Katie squinted at her wrist where she’d inked the party’s address. “Gerber Road? Did we see a Gerber Road?”

“There isn’t any Gerber Road,” Danielle slowed the car again, this time coasting to the side of the road. “You wrote it wrong.”

Katie stuck her pale arm over the seat back. “You read it. Should I get a tattoo?”

“I vote for home,” Becca said. “We can bake brownies. We have the rest of our lives to meet people.”

“Home,” Katie repeated.

“Just home?” Danielle asked. “Okay—”

“Then the Peace Corps. Whoa—” Katie rolled half out of her seat as Danielle spun the Toyota into a U-turn. “I spilled my lemonade.

Re-dy-recting.”

“Even Barry wants to go home,” Becca said.

Becca was the one who’d thought of the Peace Corps. An English major, she’d decided she needed some gap time and an accomplishment or two for her resume before applying to law school. One snowy January night she’d dreamed she stood in front of a group of blond girls dressed in folk outfits with fancy stitching. Ukrainians, she knew somehow. Becca had the sense she was telling these children the most important thing in the world. She shared her dream with her friends the next morning.

“I’m going to join the Peace Corps.”

“Me too,” Katie clapped.

“We’ll all three save the world,” Danielle said. “We’ll eat rice and beans and come home skinny.”

Becca patted her belly. “Not me,” she said. “I cherish my muffin top.”

As it turned out, Katie was the one who’d be situated in the Ukraine, her college Russian deemed sufficient for all Eastern European placements. Danielle’s Spanish had earned her a spot in Ecuador. But Becca only knew French. “It’s a language for tourists and Canadians,” she concluded. “With just English, they’ll put me in Africa.” Where cute little Slavic girls were in shorter supply than antibiotics and agricultural know-how. “I’ll find another way to see the world,” she said, as her friends filled out applications, interviewed, and celebrated acceptances.

With graduation a week away, all three young women had finished their finals, and only Katie had work left, a project for her non-major art elective, “The Politics of Regret.”

“I need an idea—” Katie sank into the living room sofa after smoking a fat joint. The grape wine she’d been gulping from a coffee mug had left her with a purple mustache. “It can be anything. The professor said last year a girl shaved her pubic hair and put it in a baby food jar. She got an A. Help me, guys.”

“You want our pubic hair?” Danielle asked. She and Becca, seated cross-legged on the carpet on either side of the half-empty jug of Carlo Rossi, nursed their own mugs.

“It’s got to be original. I can’t just copycat.”

“What would your professor do with a jar full of pubic hair?”

“Knit a tiny sweater,” Becca said. “For a mouse.”

“For his dick,” Katie grumbled. “He’s a dick. Why do I have to do a project? Come on, guys—be helpful.”  She twisted onto her stomach and buried her face in the sofa cushion. Her voice was muffled: “I’m not going to graduate, and it’ll be your fault, because you’ve got no imagination.” She raised her head. “No Ukraine. No nesting dolls.”

“My matryoshkas,” Becca sighed, caressing the wine bottle as if it were a glass cat. “You don’t deserve them. You stole the Ukraine from me.”

“Wait—” Danielle lifted her mug in a salute. “What about your dolls—your Barbies?”

“What about them?” Katie’s features shrank into a scowl. “I told you you’re not allowed to touch them after you made them watch you have sex with Roger. That was sick.”

“I washed them in Lysol. And I swear we didn’t use them.”

“They’ll never be clean again,” Katie struggled onto her back and shut her eyes. “They were humiliated. I should never have brought them up here. They weren’t ready for college.”

“But now you have to sacrifice them,” Danielle said. “So you can graduate. So you can get to Ukrainia.”

“Ukraine,” Becca said, “not ‘Ukrainia.’ They’re in a shoe box under her bed.”

“Nobody’s supposed to know that,” Katie whispered. “They hate you, too.”

“If they catch you smoking pot in Ukrainia, they’ll send you to a gulag,” Danielle said. She turned to Becca. “Get some markers and scissors. Foil and tape, too. And a knife, the sharp one for bread. I’ll get the dolls.”

“Oh my God,” Katie groaned without opening her eyes.

Two hours later, Katie’s graduation had been secured: four modified Barbies and one Ken stood on the coffee table beside their sleeping owner. All but one wore an identifying sash.

“Wake her up,” Danielle said. “Katie—wake up!”

“Katie—” Becca whispered. She brushed her friend’s hair from her face. “We’ve finished your art project. You’re done.”

Katie rolled to her side and blinked at the display with an open mouth. Danielle and Becca exchanged glances that dipped to the scissors, tape, and markers on the floor, rose to the dolls, then settled back on their friend. Danielle cleared her throat. She tapped the shorn head of the first Barbie. “This is ‘Iraq War Veteran Barbie.’ She had a leg and both arms blown off by an IED. We made her prosthetic hands and feet out of foil. That tiny letter poking out of her shirt pocket is a note from the military psychiatrist documenting that she’s also suffering from PTSD.”

Barbie number two, a pony-tailed blond, wore only a T-shirt. She held her head between her hands and leaned forward, staring at her legs: red lines streamed down her thighs and shins. Her feet were red. The sash slung over her shoulder read “Barbie’s First Period.”

The next Barbie was dressed in slacks, a button down shirt under a sleeveless sweater, and hiking boots. She wore glasses, and her hair had been cut short and teased into a ‘fro. A pair of sashes crossed her torso like bandoleros and she wore glasses. “This one has two names,” Becca said. “‘Transgender Barbie,’ and-or ‘Transgender Bobby.’ You can pick one or use both.”

“We should move Ken next to ‘Barbie’s First Period,” Danielle said and shifted the dolls. Ken was naked except for the condom rubber-banded over his head and his name-sash. Red dripped from his smooth crotch and ran down his legs. His feet were as red as the Barbie he stood beside. “Ken-struation—” was printed on his sash, “a Hostage Situation.”

There was one last Barbie. An experiment, Becca and Danielle had convinced one another during its reconfiguration. Their piece de resistance.  A risk—wasn’t that what art was all about? The ‘Politics of Regret’ had to mean something. But Becca couldn’t lift her eyes to Katie’s, and she nearly snatched the doll from the table.

“This is ‘Breast Cancer Barbie,’” Danielle said quickly. “She doesn’t have a sash.” The doll was bald and naked. The plastic on her chest puckered around twin cavities opened where Becca and Danielle had sliced off her breasts. “We’ve given her a double mastectomy. And she lost her hair during chemo. But she didn’t make it.” A black X covered each of the doll’s eyes. Danielle laid the Barbie in a cotton-lined shoebox. As the two creators sat back on their heels, Becca felt the sash with the doll’s first name against her belly flesh—it was crumpled inside the band of her sweat pants where she’d hidden it: “Katie’s Dead Mother Barbie.”

“Tah-dah—” Danielle swept her hand over the display like a magician.

Becca held her breath as she watched Katie pull herself upright on the sofa, still staring at the final doll. Her lips twitched, but she didn’t speak. And though Becca felt Danielle’s eyes on her burning cheek, she didn’t face her.

Katie rose, tore her gaze from the dead Barbie, and padded down the hall to her bedroom.

The next morning, when Becca woke with a dull ache in her chest that had little to do with a hangover, Katie was gone. She’d taken the dolls and left a note in their place: “I’m done. Will return to clean out my room and anything you two leave around after graduation. Split my share of the deposit. Thanks for finishing my project.”

They might have seen her at graduation, arriving late in her black gown and cap to merge into the procession. They might have seen her sideling out of her seat, rows and rows behind theirs, after the speeches and proclamations. Had they seen her glide across the green quad like a windblown slip of charred paper?

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Gap time. Becca remained in town, alone, after graduation, moving into a basement studio in a neighborhood she was afraid to walk in after dark. A starved cat haunted her stairwell, probably deserted by the previous tenant. “I’ll get a job and prep for the boards,” she promised herself and her parents. “There’s an academic atmosphere here—it’s a college town.” But when sirens wailed down her street after midnight, and another gray dawn exposed the bars in her single window, Becca sometimes felt like her desire to stay hadn’t been a choice.

“I thought I was applying for a job at a creamery, not a crematorium,” Becca lied to her mother after calling to announce that she’d found work. “You know how the city’s surrounded by dairyland.  I imagined I’d be seeing cows. Free milk. I thought maybe they’d make ice cream right on the premises. Instead they burn bodies. So I switched fire for ice, right? We hold memorial services, too, like a regular funeral home. But we make sure that there aren’t any incinerations scheduled when we’re holding a memorial service. The smoke, you know? It would be a turn off for the loved ones of the deceased. I’ve got a lot of responsibilities—I help schedule memorials, and I make copies of death certificates. And I keep track of the bodies sent here from hospitals and adult care facilities and funeral homes. For burning.”

When Becca’s mother, who knew nothing of her daughter’s sour last days before graduation, asked if she’d heard from “the girls,” Becca realized that her “we” had shifted from her college friends to her crematorium connections.

“Danielle’s in Ecuador. I think she had some kind of “born again” thing. Her letter was full of “Jesus this” and “Jesus that.” Katie? Nothing—the Ukraine is a black hole, I guess. But the guys I work with, we’re like a little family: Nick, the manager—the one whose wife died and I’m replacing—and Ethan, who does the actual cremating—he puts the ashes in the urns, too. He’s divorced and old. Thirties old. It’s like these guys have adopted me or something.”

Nick’s dead wife Rita had been gone two months when Becca was hired at Memory Garden Crematory Services, but her perfume lived on. It visited Becca’s reception space nearly every day, wafting from opened drawers and file folders. Nick kept his wife’s ashes in a small, bejeweled urn on his desk. He’d rested a plump, hand tenderly on the urn’s cover during Becca’s interview.

“This is my Rita. Not all of her. She was a large woman. We had to have a special casket prepared. Her body is interred down in New Jersey in her family’s plot. This urn contains the cremains of her heart. Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to take her place completely. That would be too much pressure.”

After three months at the crematorium, the closest Becca came to a date was her Friday lunches with her boss at the Golden Corral.

“Rita and I ate here every Friday,” Nick repeated like a blessing over each afternoon’s first platter of ribs, shrimp, mashed potatoes and gravy. And Becca surprised herself by digging right in, the mountain of food on her own dish nearly as high as her boss’s. But she drew the line at dessert. She kept her back to the gushing chocolate fountain at the pastry and confection table and, instead of a brownie, made sure to spoon an extra dollop of steamed vegetables onto her plate. She watched Nick seem to swell as he ate, his features smoothing out as if they were painted on an expanding balloon, and she wondered if she looked the same to him, and if he liked it.

“We couldn’t have children of our own—Rita had too many health issues,” Nick shared one Friday. “But we planned to adopt. We were going to go to the Ukraine. The trip was set, and then she passed.”

Becca licked mashed potatoes from her lip. “I have a friend in the Ukraine.”  The chocolate fountain thundered like a waterfall behind her. She raised her voice. “She’s in the Peace Corps. I haven’t talked to her in a while.”

Nick’s head bobbed. “They have rules in the Ukraine. Only married, straight couples can adopt. So I lose my wife, and I’m not allowed to have a kid.” A tear that might have been a sweat droplet slid down his cheek. Becca’s gaze fell to the chicken and rib bones piled on her plate.

On Saturday’s and Sundays, Becca purged: a cherishable muffin top was one thing; fat was another. She abandoned exercise in favor of starvation, laxatives, and diet pills, and waggled a finger down her throat when absolutely necessary.

“I’m not bulimic,” she insisted to herself. “I’m a friend. I’m accommodating.”

Mondays through Thursdays Becca lunched on rice crackers and seltzer with Ethan in his office at the end of the long hallway separating his cremation equipment from the front office and memorial chapel. She sat on a folding chair and picked at flavorless crumbs from the napkin on her lap while he sat at his desk, washing down bites of his sandwich with gulps of coffee. Urns of all kind were stacked on shelves and on the floor. Some of the lidded ones probably contained ashes. Ethan’s calendar was posted on the wall over his desk, incineration times highlighted in yellow.  Becca watched the muscles in his jaw and throat knot and relax as he chewed and swallowed. When he ran his hand through his curls, she expected the silver tipping them to flake off like ashes. After a season at Memory Garden Crematory Services, Becca only knew one detail about Ethan—he was divorced. But how she knew that, she couldn’t recall. Usually, the conversation was up to her. She told Ethan about her college life: books she’d read, professors; parties.

“It seems like a hundred years ago,” she said.

One day Becca asked Ethan if he and Nick were close. She’d learned from Nick that the two had worked together at Memory Gardens for nearly a decade.

“I hardly see you together,” she said. In fact, she wasn’t sure she ever had.

“He’s got his wife’s heart on his desk,” Ethan said, as if that answered Becca’s question.

“I know.” Before she could ask if he’d noticed the lingering smell of Rita’s perfume, Ethan swiveled his chair and faced her straight on. His eyes were black, and something flitted deep within them like bats in a cave.

“Except that it’s not her heart,” he said.

“Not her heart?”

Ethan cocked his head. “Did you know if you burn up a baby—a dead infant—in a cremator like ours, where it gets to 2100 degrees, sometimes there’s nothing left of it? It just disappears. Vaporizes.”

Becca blinked. Had he blown something into her eyes? “This happened to you?”

“I read about it. Professional knowledge. I know people it happened to.” Ethan said nothing for a ten count. “A heart is smaller than a baby.”

“Yes?”

“So—I was afraid I’d incinerate Rita’s heart into thin air and have nothing to give Nick. I burned up a book to fill her urn. Two books. I took them from a box my ex-wife still hasn’t picked up. She was an English major like you. Now she sells real estate. We got divorced for two reasons: one, she said she’d thought I was funny when she met me, but it turned out I wasn’t; the second reason was that I didn’t want to have children and she did. I told her that the last page of everybody’s story is the same—it ends here at the crematorium. Why bother with kids? If every life came with a set of directions, ‘Add fire’ would be the last one.”

“Hold it—” Becca’s head spun from the burst of revelations. “What about Rita’s heart? It’s not in the urn?”

Romeo and Juliet. And Anna Karenina. Books ash right up. They aren’t mostly water like people are.” Ethan nodded toward the tabletop refrigerator in the corner. “There’s only room for one thing in that fridge’s freezer, and that’s Rita’s heart.”

“I keep my seltzer there—” Becca stared at the refrigerator as if a glowing heart throbbed through a translucent door.

“You want to see it? It’s in a plastic bag.”

“No—” Becca stood. She’d lost feeling in her feet and reached past Ethan’s elbow to grab a corner of the desk. “Lunchtime’s over.”

Most evenings, Becca struggled to suppress her workweek hunger, but the night she learned of Rita’s frozen heart, she had no appetite. Her own refrigerator threatened her, and instead of the yogurt she’d planned on, she munched Special K from a box. She watched the family with nineteen kids mill about on her TV while she poked at her Ipad.

Romeo and Juliet. Anna Karenina. Was there a book to replace her heart? If she died, who would choose it? An email message blinked in Becca’s inbox, and she caught her breath: it was from Katie, whom she hadn’t heard from in half a year. The subject was “my girls,” and the first thing Becca saw when she opened it was a photograph of a six little girls seated in a semi-circle. Each cradled an identical naked baby doll, except for a heavy girl with braids who balanced hers on her palm as if it were flying. This doll’s head was still wrapped in plastic—the dolls must have been fresh donations. Katie’s message read, “These are my girls with their new dolls. I got an A. Was it worth it?

The message and photo had also been sent to Danielle, who Becca knew wouldn’t be able to access it in her Ecuadorian village. Any reply would be Becca’s responsibility. What was there to say? “Congrats for the A”? “Cute Kids”? The message was a cue for an apology or at least an explanation. Dolls. Becca thought of the Russian nesting dolls, the matryoshka, and typed, “You never know you’re at the last doll until you try so hard to open it that you crush it.”  She imagined pinching a pea-sized matryoshka into dust, then saw herself stirring the false ashes in Rita’s urn. She cleared her reply to Katie—it could wait. They were on different sides of the world now, each committed to a different “we.”

“I need the heart,” Becca told Ethan the next day. “Tomorrow’s Friday, and Nick and I go to the Golden Corral. Knowing what I know, how can I face him across the table?”

“What are you going to do with it?” Ethan asked. “You can’t just stick it in the urn.”

Becca shrugged. “I’ll incinerate it myself and put the ashes where they belong. I know you tried to do the right thing, but last night I couldn’t sleep, thinking about it.” She’d lain in bed for hours, envisioning empty coffin-cradles and matryoshka dolls shrinking in endless mirrors. She’d seen a giant heart pumping a fountain of chocolate blood. She’d become ravenous, and thought of the men at Memory Garden Cremation Services. Then she’d touched herself, her fingers hidden behind the gentle swell of her empty stomach.

I love your muffin top—” she’d heard Nick sigh in the dark as an ambulance moaned down a distant street.

I love your muffin top—” Ethan’s voice had joined in, and Becca had squirmed with the dangerous pleasure she shared with both her men.

“You won’t be able to get it hot enough.” Ethan dragged his fingers through his curls.

“I’ll figure it out,” Becca said.

And a few hours later at the end of the workday Ethan dropped the frozen heart into the shopping bag Becca held open. She glimpsed a red lump for just a second before its weight tugged at her wrists.

“Bring it back if whatever you try doesn’t work,” Ethan said. “You can’t just cook it up like a steak.”

 

“Scat—” Becca whispered at the skeletal cat in her stairwell. She hadn’t seen it in months, and it grinned at her with needle teeth when she told it to “Go home.” She hoisted the bag with the heart high on her chest as she unlocked her apartment door and slipped inside. She hurried to her freezer and felt a cool puff as she opened it. She withdrew the heart from the bag, worried it might have softened, but it was still stone-hard. Bright red patches showed through the frost covering it. Did the thing that killed Rita still lurk inside? Becca tucked the frozen organ between a carton of ice milk and a bag of Green Giant broccoli florettes.

How would she turn the heart to ashes? The only thing she’d ever burned was toast. She couldn’t fry it—that would just cook it, like Ethan had warned. She imagined the odor of a cooking heart—like barbecued ribs? It was Thursday evening, the last of her fasting nights before her Golden Corral Friday with Nick, and she imagined them sitting in their booth, their overflowing plates between them: how innocent he’d been of the deception she was determined to correct. Becca studied her oven’s controls. Five-hundred-fifty degrees was its maximum setting, nowhere near the two thousand plus degrees Ethan said the cremator reached. The oven had a self-cleaning function. Didn’t that burn the hottest? She’d check the internet.

According to Ethan, an incinerated body came out of the cremator in a compacted chunk. A machine called a cremulator stirred this chunk into ashes and sifted out non-combustibles, metal from repaired joint sockets, for instance, or overlooked jewelry.

“I found a ring once, had it cleaned at a jeweler’s, and gave it to my wife,” he said. “She put it on, admired it, then asked where it came from. When I hesitated, she took it off and threw it at me. She was right. Keeping cremation leftovers for personal use violates best practice.” Ethan’s tone had reminded Becca of Nick’s when he’d explained why Golden Corral didn’t allow doggy bags: “It’s ‘all-you-can-eat’ for one meal, not forever.”

Becca sat on her futon, opened her laptop, and puzzled over key phrases to search: “generating extreme heat”? “ashes”? She paused to check her messages before connecting to Google. Only spam in her inbox, and the message from Katie that had reached her all the way from the Ukraine. She reopened it: there were the little girls with their baby dolls. Wasn’t it likely that these children were orphans? Which one might Nick have picked if his wife hadn’t died? It would be simple to ask: Are these orphans?  But Katie’s question still hung: Was it worth it? That was a question for the life Becca had left behind.

What was Becca searching? How hot does an oven get when it self-cleans? Because she had a heart in her freezer that needed burning. If she didn’t take care of it right away, what might happen to it? After a week, after a month, it would get pushed back into the frigid shadows, buried behind bags of ravioli, lost beneath frozen pizzas. But of course she’d get to it eventually, the incineration. Even if the heart wasn’t always foremost in her thoughts, it would still be waiting for her, frozen and beatless. If Becca got her act together—when she got it together, maybe she’d be free of the men she’d been collected with at Memory Garden Crematory Services. Maybe there’d be law school, marriage, children. But the heart would follow her through a lifetime of freezers, wouldn’t it? Whenever Becca came across it in its frost-covered plastic bag, it would remind her that some things change and some things last forever. Until she threw it away.

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Gregory J. Wolos’ short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road, A-Minor Magazine, Nashville Review, JMWW, Yemassee, The Baltimore Review, The Madison Review, The Los Angeles Review, PANK, A cappella Zoo, Jersey Devil Press, and many other journals and anthologies. His stories have earned two Pushcart Prize nominations, and his latest collection was named a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. He lives and writes in upstate New York on the northern bank of the Mohawk River. For lists of his publications and commendations, visit www.gregorywolos.com.

gregoryjwolos

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–Art by Jan Rockar

–Art by Plamen Stoev

–Art by Joel Hohner