October is for the Dead


fiction by Jessica Hollander


I liked the idea of chopping myself up, shipping pieces to different locations, keeping them safe. Minimizing losses. Fragmenting myself that way, boiling things down to some concentrated part that could make decisions, could ignore Sid back at the apartment, could ignore my parents flitting around like fat little cupids, as if all these scenarios waited for me and I could jump between them without suffering the consequences of the space in between.

We’d been having sex in Fidelity Too’s break room every day for the past few weeks. The old yellow refrigerator grumbling beside us, the hulking blue cabinet filled with bank slips and money envelopes and a hundred boxes of blue Bic pens. These things helped: these stacks and bulges of paper and plastic, this chiding reminder of corporate identity, while we clawed at each other, hyped up on knowing at any moment someone might break down the door, scream at the troubled red streaks on our backs, the trickle of blood from Blake’s ear.

But on the teller line, something delicate. Blake and I snuck dreamy looks, sniggered at the muzak lady’s eager falsetto, inched close in our stations so our keyboards touched, our hands ran together. I dreaded the evenings. I dreaded the weekends. We lingered at the branch Friday nights, offering to close together: record the bank checks, set the timers, spin the vaults. Then we crept through the quiet branch and lay on the table in the break room, away from the security cameras, until the cleaning crew arrived. They watched us run for the doors.

“I heard you have a birthday,” Blake said one night in the dark parking lot, his arms pinning me against my car.

I nodded. “It’s in my pocket, all tattered and yellow. I didn’t treat it so carefully as a kid.”

He felt around in my pocket.

“Want to buy it?” I asked him.

“Let’s destroy it.” He extracted his hand and squeezed it into a fist. “You’ll come to my place. We’ll smash the day to pieces.”

“All your friends can come here,” Mom said over the phone. “I’ll make a cake. I’ll fry something up.”

My birthday fell on Midnight Madness, a night the town swelled and grew manic with screams and glow sticks, witchy chants about Tar Heels and Blue Devils, people rushing the streets with their arms in the air. October in Chapel Hill was a time for dark magic.

“I’m tired of birthdays,” I told her, alone in the dark bedroom of my apartment. A streak of light shone beneath the door. The noise from Sid’s television bled around me. “I’m tired of pretending one day’s different than the others.”

“It’s an excuse,” Mom said. “We need excuses now to see you.”

“I’ll give you Halloween.”

She sighed. “We’ve become a deformed family. Like we’re missing a leg. It grows back once a month and even then it’s barely there. We limp around.”

“You’ve got Dad to support you.” I liked the image of being cut off, the discarded carnage involved, a bloody leg moving around.

“Dad’s still at the Ramada,” Mom said.

“So give him a room.”

“We’re trying to avoid that.”

I heard some ticking on the line, the shuffling of skin against skin. “Are you by the stove?” I asked her.

“Don’t lecture me. My hands lose circulation and it’s the best way to warm up.”

“It’s not even cold yet.”

“This house is too big. I should just climb into the furnace.”

I listened to her hands rubbed together, wondering about this refusal of happiness, this loneliness, the things we trade to have something to look forward to. Like she pushed Dad out of the house just to remember how to miss him.

“I’ll give you the week before Halloween,” I said finally. “After my birthday, I’ll give you some time.”


Later that night, Sid opened the bedroom door: a thin body in the bright doorway. He had a bowl of cereal. He watched me blink at him from the bed.

“Are you crying again?” he asked.

I pointed to the bowl. “Can I have some?”

He came and sat next to me in the dark, and we took turns eating the cereal, some chocolaty, sugary concoction.

“You’re so glowery in here,” he told me.

“I’ve been practicing.”

“Very sexy,” he said. “Very ‘I like sleeping in caves with bats.’”

“Is that sexy?”

He lowered his head, offering up his neck, but I felt weird about biting it. I slobbered on him a little.

He laughed. “I never got into the dark qualities of Halloween. The graveyard associations.” For the past several years, Sid had dressed as Fred Flinstone; he went to Franklin Street with his friends who all dressed as characters. They’d even built a little car out of cardboard, which they took turns holding up around themselves.

“It’s my birthday tomorrow.” I realized I hadn’t bothered to tell him. I lay back on the mattress, my arms flung above my head. Sid lay next to me and breathed sweetly on my face.

“I’ll make you a cake. I have this book about how to make clowns with icing.”

“I’ll be out late,” I said. “At Midnight Madness. With Jenna.”

“You’re allowed to have friends, Raimy.” He sat up and looked down at me. “I can still make you a fucking cake.”

I imagined Blake’s apartment down some dark, narrow alley. The living room filled with guts of heavy machines: all teeth and fat medal bands, gears the size of steering wheels, rusty and threatening from their angles on the wall, tumbling from the ceiling, wholly unstable.

After work on Friday, I followed behind him in my car. We’d avoided each other all day. Some tension existed. Some nervousness in having made plans, in not knowing how we’d be without the context. A normal relationship would be against what we’d liked about each other in the first place. But here we were, experimenting with that tepid kind of love, trying to move beyond the sex and the anger, the frantic agony of the whole thing.

We got on the highway and drove toward the suburbs of Durham, enjoying our open lanes compared to the ones across from us: the cars bumper to bumper with people going to the game. There were all those bright lights, lined up, a path leading the other way.

The days were getting shorter. It was cold in the car; there was a crunchiness to the air. I kept the heat off. I let my teeth chatter along with the heavy, satanic music coming from Blake’s BMW.

We got off at an exit near Southpoint, the huge mall with Disney-style storefronts, all bright and plastic. I followed Blake into a complex of white townhomes, the kind that seem to hover in the air, on stilts, due to the parking lot beneath.

“Tell me we’ve come to rob the place,” I said. The hallway smelled of paint and detergent. The walls and floors of Blake’s apartment were strikingly white, his machinery sleek and black and current: all speakers and flat-screened televisions. No devices remotely capable of medieval forms of torture.

“I like my stuff relentlessly clean.” He went to order pizza while I walked around the place, uncertain what to touch. I sat on one of the black leather couches, surprised by the stark contrasts, the lack of gray; the lack, even, of red.

When Blake returned, he plopped hard on the couch beside me. “I guess we should get down to the business of destruction.”

“I’ve been wondering about that.”

“You have to turn the day into something else. Like the day you got a tattoo. Or shaved off your hair.” He pulled out a strand of my hair. “Or we could do something together. We could get married. And then divorced, you know. Immediately.” He leaned forward on the couch, his hands between his knees. He had a sleek, skinny back. He had long, pale fingers. He seemed untouchable.

“We could pick out matching tombstones,” I said. I should’ve been someone else.

He looked off to the left. “I guess I’m not in the mood anymore.”

I stood from the couch. “Me either.”

“Shit. I got a lot of pizza.”

“Bring some Monday. It’ll taste better cold and naked.”

“But it’s still your birthday,” he said, watching me put on my shoes.

“Only a few more hours. Then it dies for another year.”

Outside, I shivered. An explosion of the body. I wondered what I could’ve had with Blake if I’d been someone else. I blasted the heat in my car and joined the line on the highway, the slow path toward home, where the streets would be filled with frenetic fans, rushing at cars and screaming on sidewalks, all hopped up on what was really just one team playing itself. A whole divided.

For Halloween, my parents decided to be the Addam’s Family: Morticia and Gomez. They practiced all night Sunday, laughing evilly, Mom speaking French, and Dad going at her arm like an ear of corn. I would of course be Wednesday, and Sid was invited to be the son, whatever his name was, who would trot joyfully along while I killed him over and over.

“We might as well capitalize on your macabre mood,” Mom told me.

“At least I can wear black,” I said. “At least everyone will pretend to calm down.”

In preparation for her annual party, which she now called “Raimy’s birthday party,” Mom had put up gray-brick wallpaper and dim yellow lights so the living room felt like a dungeon. She covered the furniture with drab sheets. But it wasn’t believable with my parents in the room, smiling, cuddling on the couch, asking about Sid, who they loved, who they called “our happy hippy,” “our soon-to-be grunge-in-law.”

Blake would’ve made a better member of the Addam’s Family. He would’ve stood in the corner with me, sulking, superior, saying evil things about corporations and the cheery people who worked for them.

Sid wasn’t a fan of the mock-gothic.

“Does the Addam’s son have a car?” he asked hopefully when I got home from my mother’s. Dad had dropped me off on his way back to the Ramada Extended Stay.

“He’s about twelve years old,” I told Sid.

“I’m going to be able to drink, aren’t I?”

“Maybe in between killings.” I made hacking motions with my hand.

Sid shrugged and turned back to the television. That’s all we did lately: we watched other people. They went to work, they saw family, they talked, they fought; we laughed at them, we felt for them. I even had dreams about them: alternative lives they may have had, choices playing out differently.

I went into our small kitchen, the floor covered with crumbs that stuck to my socks, the refrigerator door packed with broken magnets and pictures of Sid with his friends. It was like living in a coloring book, but someone had gotten there before me and colored the pictures all the wrong shades. I found some food-crusted pots and pans on the stove. I put my finger in the red one. I let myself sink in.

“It’s nice you made dinner hours ago and now it’s cold,” I called to Sid in the living room, over the commercial.

“I thought you’d eat at your mother’s.”

“I don’t want her feeding me anymore.”

“Raimy, are you crying again?” When I didn’t answer he came and put the leftovers in the microwave for me.

“You can change after the party,” I told him. “You can leave early and go with the Neanderthals to Franklin.” I wiped my eyes with a paper towel.

“You’re coming with us, right?” he asked.

“I don’t know yet,” I said. “I’m scared I’ll get run over by it.”

“That’s the point, Raimy.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re such a sad sack. You’re a sack of sadness.”

“Wednesday means full of woe,” Jenna told me later on the phone.

“I guess that’s why it’s in the middle of the week.” I was alone on the bed, in the dark, staring at the line of light beneath the door. I had with me a giant piece of chocolate cake, a red shadowy balloon in the white icing.

“What are your parents doing to you?” Jenna asked.

“They’re of the school that finds laughter useful. Turn my depression into a sitcom.”

“But people don’t change in sitcoms,” she said. “That’s the point of them. What are you eating?”

“Birthday cake.” I shoveled another forkful in my mouth. I only ate ravenously lately: for the adrenaline, to pack myself full of something.

“It’s nice to know how much you like us,” she said. “Choosing disastrous sex when you could’ve spent your birthday with me.”

“I’m sick over it,” I said. “And I can’t throw up. It just swims around inside me.”

“So put your finger down your throat.”

I set down the phone to go vomit in the toilet.

“Figuratively, Raimy,” Jenna said when I came back.

“I couldn’t do it anyway,” I told her. “I’ve got selfish insides.”


The next day I got fired for having sex in the break room. Blake and I had maneuvered ourselves onto the counter and accidentally kicked Linda’s case of diet Coke to the floor. Cans shot across the cement, all those silver cylinders rolling around. When we heard the key in the door, our first instinct after we separated was not to put on our clothes, but to go after the cans. We chased them down. Linda found us that way: crouched, red, naked.

She told us to leave, then she called the regional manager, who of course knew both our fathers: the only reason we got the jobs in the first place. We gathered our things while the other tellers watched, the place silent except for the muzak lady, her careful inflections, listing her rates. Eighteen month certificate. Six month certificate. Something point something.

Blake and I went to the curb across the parking lot. We sat smoking cigarettes, looking at the bank.

“I never would’ve quit,” I said.

Blake flicked his cigarette toward the building. “The worst part is we won’t see the explosion all over Linda. She knows not to drink the Coke.”

We sat there an hour, leaning against each other, shivering. We were in the middle of a cold streak, the sharp wind chasing down. Then we stood up and shook hands. We agreed never to see each other again.

Halloween fell on a Thursday. Jenna came to my mom’s early, dressed like Madonna, eighties style, with the wooden cross earrings, her hair pink and spiked. Mom and Dad were upstairs “changing.” Laughing and making guttural noises we pretended to ignore.

We prepared the green slime punch. I told Jenna about my jobless excursions: making copies at Kinko’s, reading the magazines in the drug store, lying in front of the television with Sid.

“Sid’s a nuisance,” she said. “He’s a non-functioning member.” She emptied the Jello dust into the bowl.

“I think I feel guilty,” I told her. “I’m cemented to him by guilt.”

“You could feel guilty for everything.”

Upstairs, Mom yelled nonsensically. Hysterically.

“You think Blake’ll be on Franklin tonight?” I asked Jenna.

“You’ve developed some unhealthy habits,” she said. “Let me see something.” She put her hands on my shoulders and studied my makeup. I looked at her apathetically. Then a bit evilly. “You can’t be yourself for Halloween,” she said.

“Everyone else is,” I told her. “Just more extreme versions. The nice girls go as angels. The sex-fiends as giant penises.”

“I didn’t want to say it!” Dad yelled.

My parents’ voices dropped; they got low, hollow-sounding. Something crashed on the ground. Footsteps stomped out of the room, and I felt a jolt in my stomach, knowing what was coming, expecting it all along, and craving it in a way.

My parents came into the kitchen still in normal-people clothes: Mom in a ribbed turtleneck accentuating the weight she’d gained, and Dad in a bulky sweater with an orange pumpkin in the center.

“Dad got a call from the bank,” Mom said.

Jenna stepped toward me and held onto my arm. Dad clasped his hands across his stomach and glanced at each of us. “Happy Halloween!” he said finally, as though he could turn things into a joke, a second April Fools Day.

“Go get dressed,” Mom told him. “Go shave your head.”

Dad blinked at me. “You look nice tonight, Raimy.”

I looked at the floor.

Once Dad left, Mom sighed, and we stood in the kitchen, disappointment hovering around us, bloated with detachment, everything slippery and untouchable: a vacant sort of sentence. I wanted to leave with Jenna. I wanted to go outside where the air was cool, the leaves shriveled and crunchy, and climb into her car, which smelled sweetly of autumn and old cigarettes.

“I am your mother,” Mom said finally; but I could already feel myself out of there, walking through the cold gray night, away from this kitchen, this awkwardness, this night I never wanted to be a part of. I imagined Sid alone with my parents and their friends; Sid asking everyone, “Have you seen Wednesday? Have you seen Misery? Have you seen Wretchedness?” Of course he’d do better than me. All of them, these people who had known me my whole life, would like Sid better.



Jessica Hollander