Clinging

By Joe Baumann

The girls at the back of the church couldn’t stop whispering to one another when Mrs. Schiffer, wife of their now-dead high school principal, grew her first set of roots right then and there in the middle of the funeral. The service had been going on for nearly thirty minutes at that point, and Natalie, Bea, and Noon were sure they weren’t the only ones to notice. In fact, the whispers through the halls and in the cafeteria ever since Mr. Schiffer suffered a heart attack during second period four days prior had centered on the fact that, even after hearing of her husband’s death, Mrs. Schiffer, who had worked as his secretary for ten years before quitting to start a small bakery that parents frequented out of obligation more than any real love for the apple pies, had yet to grow any roots. So when they finally sprouted while the priest’s baritone voice proclaimed how many students’ lives her husband had touched, Natalie, Bea, and Noon couldn’t help point it out to one another, their hands drifting toward their own heads almost unconsciously, fingers dusting against the roots there.

Natalie, of course, had the most prominent set, what with the horrible car crash that took the lives of her own parents and younger twin brothers. They had been on the way to pick her up from summer camp. Her roots circled her head, the ones for her parents more pronounced than for Tim and Todd, something she felt bad about, but what can you do? You grieve for who you grieve for, she often said with a shrug.

Bea, on the other hand, felt a certain pride for the single tall stalk that emerged from the center of her scalp, parting her hair like an obelisk: for her grandmother, the only real caregiver she’d ever known, who had loved and raised Bea since her mother and father ran off when Bea was nothing more than a fleshy body in a bassinet, a wormy thing that cried for milk and warmth and the sound of a heartbeat. Her parents had come home after the grandmother’s death, but their heads were smooth and glossy, which only made Bea angry.

Then, of course, Noon, with her many small lumps, more like bumps from smashing her head against the undersides of chairs or tables, than roots proper: she hadn’t ever seen or suffered the pain of a real loss, tended to find herself shattered like a dropped plate at every tragedy imaginable. Once while she, Bea, and Natalie watched television, a character’s pet rat kicked the bucket and another bulb popped up on Noon’s head. Natalie and Bea stared at her, their mouths crowded with popcorn. Once they swallowed the buttery kernels they wondered aloud if something wasn’t wrong with Noon, if she suffered some disease that made her too empathetic.

“You can’t be too empathetic,” Noon said.

“I think your head begs to differ. You look like a sea urchin,” Bea said through a mouthful of kernels.

“I can’t help if I care so much.”

Some truth to that, of course: no one could decide what stirred the deep sadness of loss. Mrs. Schiffer’s bump-free head was no more her fault than Noon’s, and no more or less legitimate. The principal’s wife had never felt true, unfiltered grief; Noon was wracked with it—or so it seemed—just about every day. Neither was better or worse than the other. Each one simply was.

As the funeral let out, Natalie said she was hungry, so she drove the three of them to a greasy diner a few blocks from school. They sat, Bea and Noon squashed together, in a booth facing the parking lot, with a wide, unblocked view of the street. As soon as their waitress passed them the flimsy, oversize menus, rain started spitting against the glass.

“Why do you think it took her so long?” Bea said. “You know, like, why not right when she heard he was dead?”

Natalie shrugged, trying to decide between a stack of pancakes and a patty melt. “I mean, maybe it just took that long for her to really feel like he was gone. Maybe she was in shock.” Natalie thought of her own parents and brothers, the feeling that had hovered behind her eyes, a numbing like going to the dentist and being shot up with a tropical-tasting anesthetic in your gums so your tongue felt like a bloated armature poking at your body and gums and dark cavern of your mouth. She swallowed, the tip of her tongue tracing the lines of her palate.

Deciding on the pancakes, Natalie set down the menu and looked at the counter, trying to catch a glimpse at Paul Wilker, the basketball star who was also a line cook at the diner, through the swinging door leading to the grill and pots of brewing coffee in the back. Natalie had gone on one date with him three weeks ago, and she’d kissed him on her front porch before her aunt flicked on the light above them. The kiss was good, made Natalie’s body feel like a receding ocean, and she’d pressed her hand around Paul’s bicep, which wasn’t huge but compact, like a strong tube of dense sand. The golden hairs on his forearm had stood up like a crowd waving at her. His hair was short and cropped like an army infantryman’s, revealing the two roots that swirled up along the crown of his head in a tall, craggy cowlick. For his grandparents, he’d explained on the way to the movies.

They’d lived in his house for all of Paul’s life in an apartment above the garage, his grandmother baking spanakopita every Saturday morning and making the house smell like spinach. They’d died days after one another, and Paul’s grief for the one had seeped into the other. The sadness in Paul’s voice when he told her echoed and caught between Natalie’s ribs, and when she kissed him later that night she felt it pass from his mouth to hers, and the sadness made her shiver, a tingling that ran from the back of her neck at her hairline down to the small of her back, and she’d been about to let her hands drift from Paul’s arm toward his waist, her fingers insistent and filled with a desire to tug at the material of his jeans, when the light had snapped on, a momentary blindness that sucked the energy back out of her and into Paul.

“Did you hear the rumor about Gretchen Keohane?” Noon said. “Marcia Pallard told me that some of Gretchen’s are fake.”

The waitress appeared and took their order, gathering up the menus.

“Everyone’s heard that rumor,” Natalie said.

“But do you think it’s true?” Bea said.

“No, I don’t. Who would do that?”

“It’s like putting on makeup though, isn’t it?” Noon said, twirling a strand of her blue-black hair between her fingers.

“Pretending you have something to seriously mourn is not the same as hiding your pimples.” Natalie craned her neck as the waitress pushed through the kitchen door, which swung with a creak, revealing a flash of the buttery, greased kitchen. No sign of Paul still. It did not occur to Natalie that of course Paul would not be working at eleven-thirty on a Wednesday, when Natalie herself would normally be planted in Algebra II, learning the foundations of trigonometry, were it not for the day of freedom afforded because of the death of her principal. When this did finally occur to her, right as she asked their waitress if Paul was working when their food arrived, her pancakes fluffy and thick and the size of dinner plates, she felt a flash of embarrassed stupidity, not only for her thoughtlessness but also for even mentioning Paul, which elicited a giggling snicker from Bea and Noon when their waitress waddled off to refill the maple syrup dispenser whose sticky lid didn’t want to open.

“You want to have sex with him, don’t you?” Noon said.

“I do not,” Natalie said. “And even if I did, that is not your business.”

“That’s a yes,” Bea said, elbowing Noon and chortling. The noise made Natalie think of a pig snarfling on its gruel. She rolled her eyes and unfurled her knife and fork from the blanket of napkin that cinched them together.

“I wonder if I’ll ever have any like Mrs. Guilford. Hers are huge, like tree branches,” Bea said between bites, lifting her hand from the crown of her hair up eighteen inches, letting it hover there like a watchful billboard.

“But then you might have to shave your head like she does.” Noon swallowed a forkful of runny eggs. “And, really, can you imagine having three husbands die like that? All in car accidents, right before you’re supposed to have a baby every time?”

The thought of Mrs. Guilford, their history teacher, walking through her front door every afternoon to three mismatched children, all crowing for their fathers and snacks, made Natalie’s stomach flop. She pushed her pancakes away and stared out the window and watched cars shoot by, their colors blurred by the rain water thickening on the glass. A weight seemed to be settling in her chest, and she wanted nothing more than for Paul Wilker to appear and part her ribs, root around inside her, and remove whatever was sinking into her. She felt a tightness atop her head, her roots stretching just so.

They did this now and then, their cedar toughness pulling at her scalp when she thought of other peoples’ plight.

Noon, who asked Natalie if she still wanted the rest of her pancakes as she sank her fork into the stack, didn’t notice. But Bea set her knife down and laid a finger on Natalie’s wrist, just one, a light brushing against her skin. She narrowed her eyes and gave Natalie a once-over, asking if she was okay.

Natalie stared back. Bea’s hair was a frizzy auburn that she liked to twirl up into a fifties-style beehive around the thick root that stuck out like a lightning rod. She had freckles to match, which darkened when she was embarrassed.

“I guess,” Natalie said. “I don’t think I’m hungry after all.”

They paid, leaving a generous tip as Natalie’s aunt had taught her to always do, and clambered into Natalie’s car. Bea gave Noon the front seat and chuffed into the empty space behind the driver’s seat, Natalie’s textbooks and a pile of athletic shorts and sports bras occupying the other side. Natalie could sense Bea staring at the back of her head, and she resisted the urge to pat at her roots. Natalie’s were casually attractive adornments, shaped almost like a wreath of laurels around the back of her head, cradling the swaths of her hair like a bird’s nest. Natalie kept her hair short around the sides but let the locks below her roots grow lengthy, and she usually looped them up and over the tendrils gathered there, a small poncho of hair to protect them from the elements. But today her hair was loose, the roots exposed.

The rain was heavy but cool, so they sat on Bea’s screened-in back porch and read magazines, skimming over 100 tips for pleasing your man, guffawing at the suggestions about what to do to his penis and scrotum. None of them had seen a boy naked in person—Noon coming the closest, having glimpsed her father a few times when she was a kid and they had only one bathroom in a clapboard apartment that smelled like Swiss cheese and car exhaust—even though they’d taken sex ed and had to look at the pictures, cartoonish artists’ renditions of the human anatomy, the parts labeled and distinguished in garish pink, purple, and orange swatches. They’d tried to imagine what excitement there could be in letting one of their stinking male classmates put that in them, anywhere, and Bea and Noon giggled and slapped at each other. Natalie kept picturing Paul Wilker, tall and lithe and sinewy. Sometimes he didn’t wear a shirt while shooting hoops at the public court near her house and she would stroll by, his skin tinkling in the sunlight. His hip bones jutted out like the lips of a vase, pointing toward his center, and when Natalie thought of it she wanted to see what was beyond his swishing mesh shorts, a heat rising in her cheeks that she tried to stanch. She pictured herself lying on the white sheets of her bed, Paul towering above her, his shorts flapping like ribbon, her hands parting the scrunched band of material at his waist, the skin near his groin dark and tender, coarse pubic hair like a welcome mat.

Bea’s mother, a bank teller, arrived sometime after four, and offered to order the girls a pizza for dinner. Bea rolled her eyes and coughed up a sighed whatever, giving no response to her mother’s inquiry about toppings. Noon suggested bacon, and Natalie shrugged assent. Bea acted as if she’d heard none of it, and her mother let the door into the house swing shut.

“Jeez,” Bea said, tossing the magazine onto the frosted-glass table. “She just doesn’t get it.”

“She’s trying,” Natalie said.

“I know, but she thinks pizza can fix everything.”

“I kinda think it can,” Noon said. “Especially when topped with bacon.”

Bea rolled her eyes, which made Natalie clench her fists. Whenever Bea hemmed and huffed about her mother, Natalie wanted to punch her. What Natalie wouldn’t do to have her parents back, offering to order pizza, working long hours to give her and her friends a screened-in porch on which to sit in the afternoon after going to a funeral. She rubbed the nylon material of her dress between her fingers and willed the tension in her knuckles to subside. Natalie thought of Paul, the relaxed heft of his hands against her hips, the soft way his fingertips had palmed her skin when they kissed, like she was a basketball he was bouncing with weightless ease.

While they ate their pizza, the noise of laughter rose through the bushes that separated Bea’s yard from the Thompsons’ next door, and two of them, the twins who were the eldest of four, emerged, waving at the girls. They stopped before the screen door, rapping on the plastic frame. None of the girls moved to open it.

“Hey,” one of them, Donny, said.

Natalie glanced toward Bea, who smirked toward Donny Thompson. Bea’s crush on Donny, a baseball player with sandy hair that was verging on too long, was no secret to Noon or Natalie or, Natalie thought, Donny himself. Bea admired him from afar, waving at him and cheering during baseball games she dragged Natalie and Noon to so Bea could fawn over him from the bleachers while Natalie developed sunburn on her shoulders. He was, Natalie had to admit, good-looking, if a bit stupid. Well-intentioned, quieter than the rest of his teammates and certainly the most human of his brood. The Thompsons were known for their wildness, Donny’s twin brother Will having already gotten in trouble for drinking himself stupid last summer and hotwiring Mr. Shiffer’s car, getting nowhere on his joyride when he bonked into a car parked across the street as he reversed out of the principal’s driveway too fast. Donny and Will’s younger brothers, eleven and ten, didn’t bathe, so the rumor went, except on Sunday nights when their mother, an exhausted, frumpy woman, finally broke down and cried, like clockwork, begging the boys into the bathtub where a week’s worth of grime and silt turned the water to brackish soup in seconds, the boys coming out several pounds lighter.

Their basement, where Donny and Will slept, smelled like the ocean and dirty socks.

“Hey,” Donny said again, letting his arm fall.

“What do you want?” Bea said, not looking at him.

“Just wanted to offer you ladies an invite. Party and bonfire Friday.”

“Oh yeah?” Bea flicked her fingertips with her tongue and turned the page of her magazine, propping her feet on the table. Her dress slid up her legs, revealing the snow white of her upper thighs.

“Yeah,” Donny said while Will stared stupidly at Bea’s skin. Natalie felt herself tense at his slovenly gaze, imagining Paul tinkling his fingers over her. He’d set his hand on Natalie’s knee during the movie, but his fingers had remained statue-like. She’d felt the weight of his skin sinking into hers. Paul removed them when the credits rolled and shoved his hands in his pockets when they stood to leave.

“Well, okay,” Bea said. “We could come over, I guess. Seems a bit early to be planning, doesn’t it?”

Donny’s mouth broke into a smile like a safe cracked by a robber. “Well, we want everyone to have plenty of notice.” He winked, then turned away. Will followed him to the brush, then Donny stopped so fast they bumped shoulders. “Hope you don’t have plans.”

“Mmm hmm,” Bea said.

Natalie watched the Thompsons push the brush out of the way. Their heads were rounded and smooth; Will’s hair was cropped close to the scalp so it stood like a brush’s bristles. Neither of them had any roots, as if their lives were absent of worry, scrubbed clean of the tangling feelings of loss.

*          *          *

On Friday Natalie met Noon at Bea’s house, and the girls stood in Bea’s bathroom, cycling around one another as they applied make-up and fixed their hair. Bea went through four different outfits, Natalie and Noon insisting that any of them would do. Natalie had chosen jeans and the t-shirt she’d worn on her date with Paul, with whom she had still not spoken even though she’d caught sight of him at the basketball court on Thursday after school. Noon wore a sundress that accentuated the shape of her attractive shoulders, which were neither bony nor muscular nor fat, but some eye-catching combination of all three, reminiscent of stones washed by rushing water.

They marched down the sidewalk behind a cluster of boys from school whose names they did not know. Although their high school was moderate in size, their class three hundred people, Natalie made it her business to willfully ignore the names of those who annoyed her, including the entire cheerleading squad and the overly-prim girls who took all honors courses and sang in the school choir. Bea and Noon had taken up a similar tack, though Natalie was certain, based on the quantity and urgency of the gossip they shared every day, that they mostly pretended not to know who people were whereas Natalie really did have a void in her brain where most of her peers’ names belonged.
The Thompson house was already crowded when the girls arrived, the air in the foyer sour with the smell of teenage bodies, natural acrid odors covered by floral perfumes and colognes splashed egregiously along necks and wrists. Deodorant smeared over armpits was unsuccessful in keeping up with the sweat forming on bodies and in the tangles of newly-sprouted body hair, and the house was damp. Natalie forged ahead through the crowd, parting people like waves, Noon and Bea slinking through in her wake.

In Natalie’s estimation, two groups of teenage girls existed: first, those who flaunted their roots, like Gretchen Keohane, who was dancing on the Thompsons’ coffee table and holding a red cup of some drink over her head. It sloshed over the halter top that barely covered her chest and revealed a sparkling belly button ring that must have been fake. And second, girls like Natalie, who tended to cover them up with folds of hair; hers, that night, was draped up high on her head in a pseudo-chignon. Natalie preferred members of the latter group, the ones who held their grief close and thought it a personal accessory, like a tattoo drawn across the inner lip or thigh, revealed as a matter of necessity rather than pride.

She led Noon and Bea into the kitchen, where every surface was crowded with crumpled Dixie cups, empty beer bottles, and towering handles of cheap rum and vodka, the uncovered portions of laminate countertop smeared in a layer of spilled liquor and Kool-Aid. Donny Thompson stood next to a keg, shirtless, a red meshed trucker’s hat tilted backward on his head, his thick, young muscles twitching as he pumped beer into a girl’s cup. He caught sight of the three of them and waved them over. Bea practically stampeded to him. Natalie sidestepped, turning her shoulder into the back of someone standing around the greasy kitchen island, and left Bea to fawn over Donny with Noon at her side. Natalie exited the kitchen. She needed to pee.

The Thompson house was foreign to her, the hallways dark and all of the doors closed. She tried one and found a tired laundry room with wrinkled, wet clothes hanging from a wire shelf. A fat cat howled when she opened the door and it darted out. Natalie watched as the cat froze at the din before it, unsure of what to do in the mess of sloppy teenagers and pounding music. Then, bristling, the cat took off toward the stairs leading to the basement. Natalie continued her search, interrupting two couples in bedrooms—one of them Will Thompson and a suddenly-relocated Gretchen Keohane, whose shirt was off, half of her sizable chest covered by Will’s squeezing hand—until she finally discovered a half-bath. She shut the door and sat down on the closed toilet, her need to urinate suddenly gone. Natalie rubbed her eyes and stretched her neck so she could see her face in the mirror, trying to remove the image of half-naked Gretchen from her brain. Gretchen’s lips had been draped open while Will sucked at her neck and earlobe, her head thrown back so her blonde hair dribbled toward the small of her back. As Natalie had backed out of the room, Gretchen had let out a small yelpish peep of excitement.

Natalie checked her own hair, which covered the braids of her roots. She pried her phone from her pocket: nothing. She’d sent Paul Wilker a message about the party that afternoon, wondering if he would be here, but he hadn’t replied. Natalie had spent the afternoon wondering what she could have done wrong, reliving their kiss, her touch on his hips and back, whether he’d found her lips too dry or perhaps too wet. The temptation to send him another message asking if he was in the Thompsons’ house drilled at her like a cracked tooth, but she slid her phone away in her pocket and left the bathroom.

The humidity of the hallway hit her like a sack of flour, leaving her unbalanced and dizzy even though Natalie hadn’t had a single drink. She felt disoriented, and, though intending to return to the kitchen in the hope of finding Noon and Bea, turned the wrong way and found herself at the cracked doorway of the master bedroom.

And perched on the edge of the bed was Paul Wilker, embracing another member of the basketball team, their hands on each other’s arms, lips locked together. Because of the music pumping up from somewhere beneath them, neither of the boys heard Natalie’s footsteps or caught the slight wheeze the door gave when she opened it.

The light was dim, one solitary lamp on a bedside table casting most of the room in shadow, but Natalie could see the contour of the boys’ bodies and, more importantly, the way they held each other. The touch of their lips was full of an electric want, their fingers light and thorough at the same time, like thrusting one’s hand through sand on a beach. Natalie didn’t recognize the boy kissing Paul, his unkempt blonde hair, wide jaw, peach-pink skin all unfamiliar. But the yearning she could see in the way their bodies touched, how both of their eyes were shut in relaxed darkness, was plain and screeching to her: she recognized, with an exacting ache, the way she’d leaned into Paul, the senseless, upside-down feeling she’d experienced when they had latched onto each other. The memory flashed through her brain: the touch of Paul’s lips, his drawn-back shoulders, and she was filled with the realization that Paul Wilker had not felt the same thing as her when they had kissed.

Natalie backed away. She stood in the hallway, frozen against the laughter and cacophony of the party around her. For a moment she was immersed in the darkness of the hall, feeling like she was underwater. Then she turned and made her way back toward the kitchen, where she would find Bea and Noon. They would look at her for a moment, sensing that something was wrong, but she would shake them off and smile, ask for Bea to gather a cup for her from Donny Thompson, which would make Bea smile. They would settle at a low table in the living room and play a drinking game where Natalie would perform well, catching the attention of the boys around her. She would smile at them, bat her eyes, make them wonder and hope, but she would ultimately break their hearts, stumbling down the sidewalk at the end of the night with Noon and Bea in tow, the latter complaining about not hooking up with Donny Thompson who, according to Bea, had the body of a god. He should be carved into marble, she would warble, stumbling into the grass. Noon would help her up while Natalie smiled with a soft sadness.

All of that would come soon. But as she slid down the hall, avoiding the electric touch of her classmates, she reached toward the center of her scalp, where she felt a bump: a root breaking over her skin, a tiny lump that she willed to become nothing more than a blip, something no one else but she would know was there, something Natalie would have no trouble hiding.

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Joe Baumann

Joe Baumann / About Author

Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri. He he has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was recently nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.

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