Spring 2014, Volume 16

Fiction by Jared Yates Sexton

One Way Or Another

Joseph walked downstairs to find that the cat had tracked paint through the house. Everywhere he looked there were sets of paw-prints leading this way and that. They crisscrossed the floor and up and over tables and into the kitchen and the living room and when he looked he saw they were even leading up the stairs he had just climbed down. The paint was pink, the color he had painted the nursery the day before. He was standing in the living room and trying to decide the best course of action when the phone rang.

Hello, he said into the phone. Before he heard an answer he had the urge to tell them about the cat tracking paint through the house.

Joseph, his wife said, I’m glad you picked up.

You wouldn’t believe it, he said. Gloria, he said, the cat tracked paint all through the house. All over the floor, the furniture, the stairs. It’s the biggest mess you’ve ever seen.

The cat? Gloria said. The cat got into the paint?

Everywhere you look, he said.

She sighed and then said, I told you to put that paint away, Joseph. If I told you once I told you twice.

All right, he said. You got me there.

He heard a bell ring in the background on the other end of the phone. A period was coming to an end or beginning. There were the sounds of a crowd of children rushing past. Joseph, Gloria said, I need you to do me a favor. I got a phone call from Erin.

Erin? he said. Your sister? Honey, he said, I need to track down the cat and get to work cleaning this place. We’re looking at a situation here.

The paint can wait, Gloria said. Erin turned her ankle. I guess it’s pretty bad.

Turned her ankle? he said.

At a grocery store, she said. She was reaching for something on a shelf and she turned it pretty good. I need you to go get her.

I don’t know, Joseph said and scratched his beard. He didn’t know Erin too well and didn’t always feel comfortable around her. It wasn’t just that they were identical twins – although that did its fair share of putting him on edge – but she was also a different kind of person, a real piece of work is how Gloria put it. You sure there’s no one else who can get her? he said.

Joseph, Gloria said, her voice hurried, please?

For the briefest of seconds he thought of asking again, but he knew that tone and he knew it wasn’t any use. All right, he said, where’s she at?

Gloria said, The Bi-Lo on the other side of town. The woman who called me said she was set up in the manager’s office there. Go and take her to the hospital. I’ll try and get out of here as quick as I can, but I don’t know when that’ll be. I’ve got conferences all afternoon. It doesn’t look good.

Don’t worry about it, Joseph said, looking at a trail of prints that lifted off of the floor and climbed up onto the plain white wall. It seemed to him that the cat would’ve had to have gone back and got a refill on paint to make all the prints in the room. I’ll head over here in a few, he said.

Thank you, Gloria said. Thank you, honey.

Joseph hung up the phone and took another survey of the room. The more he looked the more prints he could see. It was like the cat had tried to paint the room and got tired of the job. He trained his ear and tried to listen for any sound, any meow or hiss or any sound a cat would make. There wasn’t any so he went into the bathroom and saw more paw prints there. He looked into the mirror and assessed himself. His hair was plastered across his face from where he had laid and his beard had grown out of control. Gloria had told him it only served to make him look like a desperate homeless man. He tugged on a tuft of hair on his chin and grimaced into the mirror.

Within five minutes, after a quick swipe of deodorant and a brushing of the teeth, five minutes he was in the car. The last thing he wanted to do was make the interaction with Erin anymore awkward than it was already destined to be. The few times he’d been around her had been strained and forced. He’d ask her something practical, about the news or what she was doing with her time, and she’d kidnap the conversation and take it to some strange and far-off place.

Once she had told him she believed there could very well be a race of reptilian people who controlled the government.

Another time, over Thanksgiving dinner, she’d kept everyone on edge by talking about how she’d read an article that said humans had figured out ways to weaponize the weather.

The one that got Joseph though was when she’d found out that Gloria was pregnant and launched into a rant about how bringing a child into the world was the most selfish thing a person could do.

When it’d happened Joseph had rolled his eyes and found the quickest excuse he could to leave the room. But later that week, as he and Gloria were shopping for cribs and strollers, he suddenly remembered what Erin had said. He could hear it exactly. Gloria had been comparing price tags and he heard, in the back of his head, The most-selfish thing a human being could do.

The Bi-Lo was in a small strip-mall in the center of town. It was at the end of a line of stores and sat right next to a discount Payless shoe-shop. Joseph liked to look at the two neighboring stores and say out loud, Payless and Bi-Lo. It never ceased to make him laugh. He pulled into a spot in the lot and said it to himself, Payless and Bi-Lo, but it didn’t seem as funny all of a sudden.

Inside he went to the customer service desk and it was manned by a teenager suffering a tragic case of acne, his whole face aglow with sores that looked terribly uncomfortable. Hey, Joseph said to him, I’m here to pick up my sister-in-law. She hurt her ankle.

The teenager gave him a look like he’d never heard such a thing before. Then, in an instant, his face changed like he’d made some kind of scientific breakthrough. Oh, he said, all right, the girl that hurt her ankle.

That’s right, Joseph said.

The teenager led him around the desk and into a small office. There were leprechauns decorating the door and windows and Joseph had to stop and remind himself that St. Patrick’s Day had been the week before. When the teenager opened the door to the office he saw Erin sitting there in a desk chair, dressed in a long handmade skirt and a peasant top, drinking a coke while elevating her right foot, a bag of frozen peas wrapped carefully around her ankle.

Heya Joe, she said as she saw Joseph. What’s new?

Heard you took a spill, he said.

Nah, she said, removing the peas and standing up, I just like to hang out in grocery store offices.

            The teenager was next to Joseph and as they watched Erin get out of the chair he moved like he was going to help her but instead shoved his hands into his pockets and excused himself. Let me know if you need anything, he called from the desk.

That was Chuck, Erin said. He’s been working at the Bi-Lo for exactly two months.

How about that? Joseph said. How you feeling?

Hurting, she said with a smile.

Joseph nodded. He didn’t know what to say. He found himself looking at Erin and, like he always did, marveling at how exactly alike her and Gloria were. They both had the long, straight red hair and big eyes and mouths. They grinned the same way. Hell, they even limped the same way.

All right, Joseph said, let’s get you situated here. He took Erin’s arm and wrapped it around his neck. You lean into me, he said, and we’ll get you out to the car.

You got it, she said.

The two of them made their way out of the office and past the customer service desk. As they did Joseph could feel all of the shoppers watching him. There were whispers, a few people straining to get a glimpse. He wanted to yell out, She’s my sister-in-law, but decided against it.

He got Erin situated in the passenger seat of the car and got behind the wheel. As he turned the key she reached over and got a hold of his beard and gave it a pull. You got quite the forest on your chin, she said.

Guess so, he said and looked over and saw her smile, the same smile Gloria had always offered him. Where are we going? he said. Hospital? Your place? You tell me and we’re there.

Gloria wanted me to go to the emergency room, she said, but I told her no way. Can’t exactly foot that bill.

Joseph looked down into the floorboard and saw Erin’s ankle. It was already swelling up pretty good. I don’t know, he said. That ankle looks bad.

Doesn’t feel too good either, Erin said. Gloria said I should go over to ya’ll’s place. Said she’d take care of me tonight and we’d figure out what to do from there.

Our place, Joseph said. The words brought instantly to mind all of the paint and tracks. I don’t know, he said, the cat got into some paint last night.

Paint? Erin said. Cat?

Nevermind, Joseph said. That’s fine, he said.

Nah, she said, if that doesn’t work for you guys that’s fine. I can just hunker down at home.

No, Joseph said, don’t worry about it. Was just thinking about that damn cat tracking paint all over the house. You don’t need to worry about it.

It’s fine, she said. I don’t want to put you out.

No, he said, no, like I said, don’t worry about it. You’re family, he said.

Erin smiled and ran her hand through her hair. It was something Gloria was prone to do whenever she was touched or felt loved. Thanks, Joe, she said.

At the house he helped Erin up onto the steps leading to the back door. When he opened it he looked inside and it was like he couldn’t recognize anything. Everything was covered in the cat’s tracks, like it was an experimental new decorating scheme Gloria had read about it in a magazine.

You weren’t kidding about the paint, Erin said, glancing quickly around the room. That cat of yours really went to town.

You can say that again, Joseph said, tossing his keys onto a track-covered table by the door. He tried to scratch the paint off with his fingernail with no luck. I’m gonna kill that thing when I get ahold of him.

Oh, Erin said, hobbling over to the couch, you are not. What’s his name again?

Gus, Joseph said. Gus The Cat.

Hey Gus The Cat, Erin called and then whistled. Come here, buddy. I promise you’re not in trouble.

I wouldn’t go that far, Joseph said.

Say, Erin said, what’s with the pink anyway?

It was for the nursery, he said. Painted it yesterday.

Pink, Erin said. I didn’t know it was a girl.

He looked at the machine to see if there were any messages. The light said one and he pressed the button for it to play. It was Gloria calling between periods again. Honey, she said, I told Erin she could stay with us tonight. Figured it’d be best if she had someone helping her. Don’t worry about the paint, okay? It’s not a big deal. She won’t care.

She’s got a point, Erin said.

Joseph deleted the message and glanced around the kitchen. The food in the dish by the washer and dryer was nearly empty. Gus had come out for a bite to eat while he’d been gone and then went and hid again. So, Joseph said, walking in to find Erin sprawled out on the paint-covered couch, what can we do for you?

Erin scrunched her face in thought. I remember, she said, when I was little and I’d twist my ankle that my mom would get out this stuff and put it in a bath.

What kind of stuff? he asked her.

Um, she said, I don’t know. It was in a cardboard carton. Like milk.

Joseph tried to picture it. He imagined himself pouring a jug of milk onto Erin while she laid in a bathtub. Quickly he said, I don’t know. Not sure what that stuff was.

Epsom Salt, she said, snapping her fingers. That’s right. Epsom Salt.

I don’t know if we have any of that, Joseph said and went back into the kitchen and looked through the cabinets, the shelves by the washer. Next was the bathroom and he searched under the sink and in the cabinet over the toilet. There was no Epsom Salt to be found, but there were prints everywhere he looked. On the sink, the toilet, the cabinets, even one solitary pink paw on the mirror.

Any luck? Erin said when he came back.

No, he said, but I’ll tell you what. I’ll go run you a bath and then run out and get some. How’s that sound?

Sounds perfect, Erin said, rubbing her ankle and grimacing.

You all right? Joseph said.

Fine, she said. Just embarrassed.

Embarrassed? he said.

You know what I was reaching for? she said. You know why I hurt my ankle? This about beats all, she said. I was in the aisle with all the baking goods. The flour and sugars and pie crusts and marshmallow fluff. I was over there because I wanted to get some raw sugar. The kind that hasn’t been messed with?

Okay, he said and tugged at his beard.

She said, I was reading a book the other day about all the additives they put in our food. Joe, you wouldn’t believe it.

I bet I wouldn’t, he said.

It’s bad, she said. They want you to get cancer. That’s the bottom line.

Who? he said.

They, she said. The bankers, the businessmen, the Illuminati. You name it and they want you to get cancer. Makes their mission easier if everyone’s getting sick off their food and dropping dead. I tell you, she said, if it’s not sugar it’s pollution. If it’s not pollution it’s vaccines. They get you, she said, one way or another.

All right, he said, so you were over looking for sugar.

That’s right, she said, and I was looking for raw sugar, and here’s what’s embarrassing, she said, I looked up and I saw Hershey’s Syrup. I saw it and all I could think about was how back when I was little Gloria and me would get ice cream and Hershey’s Syrup on Sunday’s. It was special, you know. And all I wanted right then was some ice cream and Hershey’s Syrup.

Joseph found himself smiling as he thought of the two of them, the little twin girls with long and straight red hair, sitting down to eat some ice cream at their kitchen table, the spoons large and shining in their little hands.

You tell me how ridiculous that sounds, Erin said. Here I am, trying to turn over a new leaf and beat them at their game and I get one good look at Hershey’s Syrup and I’m back on board.

So what happened? he said.

Well, she said, I reached up to get a bottle. I was gonna get a bottle and put every other thing in my cart away. All the vegetables and tofu and everything. I was gonna put it up and go get the biggest tub of ice cream I could find and just eat it and that syrup all day. But the bottle was up on the top shelf. God knows why. And I had to climb up on one of the shelves and really reach for it.

You fell off, huh? Joseph said.

Exactly, she said. I fell and my ankle just rolled right over when I landed. You never knew such pain, Joe. You never felt anything like this in your whole life.

I’ve turned a few ankles, he said with a smile. He said it and then he thought he heard that cat upstairs. Maybe it was a meow and maybe he was jumping down off something. You hear that? he said.

No, she said, but anyway, you know what I mean. These ankles aren’t worth the bones they’re made of, Joe. All they do is turn and twist and hurt, if you ask me.

You bet, Joseph said. Listen, he said, I’m gonna go upstairs and run you a bath. Like I said, I’ll get some Epsom Salt and we’ll get you better than new.

Erin flashed him a thumbs-up and a smile. I like the way you think, Joe.

He followed the tracks upstairs and into the master bedroom. Gus had gone and tracked more pink paint all over the hardwood floors and onto the white down comforter. Joseph stood in the doorway, shaking his head. Cleaning up was going to take days, maybe weeks. He thought he could already feel a headache coming on.

In the bathroom he searched for Gus under the tub, one of his favorite hideouts, but there were only tracks from where he’d been there earlier. Joseph turned on the water and made sure it was hot and steaming. Again, he thought of Erin in the tub and of pouring milk atop her, but fought it off quickly.

All ready, he told her downstairs. Let’s get you up there and I’ll go and snuss out some Epsom Salt.

She threw her arm around his neck and he helped her up to the bathroom. Man oh man, she said, looking at the mess in the bedroom, Gus The Cat strikes again.

Joseph closed the door behind him and let Erin have some privacy to get into the bath. Before he went to buy Epsom Salt though he went looking for Gus again. He wanted to isolate the problem before it got worse. Already he could imagine a house that’d been overtaken by pink paw-prints. But Gus was nowhere to be found. Not in the guest bedroom, the closets, even the crawlspace.

Damn it, Joseph said to himself. Where the hell is that little bastard?

He didn’t have long to consider the question. The phone rang again and when he picked it up it was Gloria. There was the constant sound of kids walking by, talking, saying hello to her. Hi honey, she said. Did you get Erin?

I did, he said. She’s soaking in the tub now. Say, he said, do we have any Epsom Salt?

Sure, she said, there’s some in the utility closet downstairs. It’s generic though.

Generic? he said.

Gloria said hello to someone and then, Magnesium Sulfate. It’ll be in a blue bottle. It’s the same thing though.

Epsom Salt’s a brand? he said. Something about the conversation was confusing to him. He felt odd being on the phone with Gloria, particularly with Erin upstairs in the tub. Huh, he said.

How’s she doing? Gloria asked him.

Joseph wanted to say fine but the words bunched in his throat. He felt guilty but wasn’t sure why. She’s okay, he said. Ankle’s a little big, but you know.

I’m sorry this got put on your plate, love, Gloria said. I don’t think I’ll be able to get away either. I’ve got appointment after appointment. It’s a madhouse today.

It’s fine, he said. No problem at all.

Okay, Gloria said, go find that bottle. Magnesium Sulfate, love. Tell Erin I hope she feels all right.

You got it, Joseph said and after he hung up the phone he found the blue bottle in the utility closet, right where Gloria had told him it would be. He carried it up the stairs, reading the label. Works just like Epsom Salt, it said. Try us, it said. Hey, he said, knocking on the door to the bathroom, I got some Epsom Salt. Gonna leave it out here.

Bring it in, Erin called back to him.

What? he said.

I can’t exactly come get it, she said. Just bring it in.

Joseph paused. He looked at the door. At the bottle in his hand. At the paw-prints littering the room. I don’t know, he said. I’ll just leave it out here by the door.

Joe, she yelled at him, just bring it in. I’m not in good shape here.

Joseph swallowed hard and turned the knob to the door and let himself into the bathroom. He looked everywhere but the tub. There were more pink tracks in there. On the scale by the window. On the wall and the base of the toilet. Here, Joseph said and held out the bottle.

He felt it taken from him and heard the cap being twisted off. Joe, Erin said, you look uncomfortable.

I’m fine, he said, suddenly aware of how full of steam the room was. The water made a sound like Erin was shifting.

Hey, she said, Joe.

Joseph looked. It was like every time he’d ever wandered into the room and seen Gloria there in the tub. Only it was different. What? he said.

Thank you, she said, smiling Gloria’s smile, only it wasn’t.

You bet, Joseph said and walked out of the bathroom.

He sat downstairs on the couch and tried not to think about anything at all. He failed and thought about the tracks and the Epsom Salt and Gloria and Erin and everything else. A half hour later Erin limped downstairs in his bathrobe, a white number with a belt tied tight around her. That, she said, did wonders.

Good, he said, looking at her smooth legs that seemed to emerge from under the robe like a miracle.

Feels like nothing ever happened, she said with a smile. Feels all new.

Good, he said again.

Say, she said. Do you hear that?

He tried to listen but couldn’t concentrate. I don’t think so, he said.

Yeah, she said. I hear it. Don’t you hear that?

He couldn’t hear anything but the sounds he was making, the sounds his body was making.

That’s Gus, she said. Don’t you hear him crying?

Joseph got up and tried to listen. He decided then to follow the tracks and he picked one out and then traced it back to the other end of the living room and then into the kitchen and up onto the counter and then the table. Erin was with him, right at his side, her hand occasionally touching his shoulder.

I still hear it, she said.

Me too, he said.

They followed it together, the sound of Gus crying, until it led them to the cracked door of the nursery. Joseph pushed it open. He flipped on the light. There on the floor was the pan of bright pink paint, a buzz of prints surrounding it and running out and over the drop cloth he’d crumpled under it. There was nothing on the walls and only the crib he’d put together the week before stuffed into a corner.

Isn’t this darling? Erin said, her hand on his back.

He could smell her now, the soft warm scent of her skin.

Where is he? Joseph said. Where’s that damn thing?

Here, Erin said, lowering herself to her knees and crawling across the drop cloth, ruining his robe with pink paint, her legs tracking it across the carpet.

Joseph had no choice but to get down on the floor with Erin and as he did he knew he was wallowing in it too.

There he is, Erin said, peering under the crib. There he is.

Joseph crawled over and stared into the shadows. There it is, he said, seeing a pair of eyes glinting under the slats, seeing a face he could recognize.




Jared Yates Sexton is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University and the Managing Editor of the literary magazine
BULL. His work has been published around the world and nominated for four Pushcart's, The Million Writer's Award, and was a finalist for The New American Fiction Prize. His first book, An End To All Things, is available from Atticus Books.