Spring 2013, Volume 14

Fiction by Kate Sheeran Swed

Being Yoko Ono

Usually the hygienist shuts off the TV on his way out, but right now all Marcia can hear is SpongeBob SquarePants, bouncing around with his fat starfish friend, whatever his name is. Potter? No, that’s the British wizard.

Marcia hefts herself out of her rolling desk chair and ambles around the reception desk. Peter? Piper? The tiny plastic chair creaks when she steps up to reach the power button on the TV, and Marcia cringes, half expecting it to collapse. She should get a remote for this thing. It’s not a good idea, a woman of her size using a kid chair as a step stool. One day she’ll lose her footing, and Dr. Gayle Lewis, D.D.S., will find her sprawled on the floor.

Not that she’s four hundred pounds or anything like that, but ever since she decided that Hostess cupcakes were more fun than bikinis, she’s been a lot happier. No matter what the doctor says about heart disease, blah blah, diabetes, yadda, blah. It’s not like she has kids to take care of, and it’s been thirty years since she had a husband. What she has is Dr. Gayle Lewis, D.D.S., and scores of pediatric dental patients. And who would miss the woman who makes appointments at the dentist’s office?

She makes it back to her desk as the last patient emerges from her cleaning. By now the girl has been issued either a sticker or a counterintuitive lollipop to make up for the scraping and drilling. Everyone always talks about how bad the drilling is, but as a kid Marcia had dreaded the scrape scrape of that little hook. She would love to be the one to give out the sweets for once, instead of bills and appointments for the next torture session, but Dr. Lewis does that herself.

The girl walks right up and puts her hands on the counter, peeking over the edge. She wears glasses with round lenses and thick, black frames. Kids in glasses just kill Marcia. They look like little adults, serious ones who spend too much time reading.

“Did Dr. Lewis give you a sticker?”

The girl plucks at her shirt and holds it out. “I got Patrick!” she says.

That’s the damn starfish’s name. Patrick.

“I love Patrick,” the little girl says.

Why, Marcia wonders. Patrick is no more than a pink blob with eyes and swim trunks. Did it take someone seven seconds to come up with that, or less?

“Our copay is ten dollars, and we need to make an appointment for next week,” the mom says, her too-smooth ponytail swinging into place as she steps up behind her daughter.

Marcia manages not to glare at the mom for butting in. Why do people think it’s OK to interrupt when you’re talking to a kid? If Marcia had a kid, she’d let him talk to people about cartoon characters, even inferior ones, for as long as he wanted.

“Sealant or filling?” Marcia asks.

“Sealant.” The woman thrusts a ten dollar bill at her. They make the appointment, and the pair is gone before Marcia even has a chance to wave goodbye to the Patrick-loving patient.

The kids here are cute. Their parents are assholes.

A door slams in the back, and Dr. Lewis’ heels click down the hallway. “Can you double check the financial reports from yesterday?”

“Why?” Marcia asks, even though she already knows.

“They’re off. You should go through them more carefully.” Dr. Lewis drops the papers on the desk.

“I’ll look at them first thing in the morning.”

“Tonight, please,” Dr. Lewis pulls on her coat. “Good night.”

Because the place will burn down otherwise, Marcia thinks, flipping randomly through the papers until the door closes behind Dr. Lewis. Marcia waits five minutes, long enough for the dentist to pull out of the parking lot. Then she sticks the papers in a drawer, shuts off the lights, and heads out to the car.


On Tuesdays, Marcia’s friend Nancy comes over to watch Beauty Night on the Home Shopping Channel. Nancy buys something from them at least once a week, and her basement is crammed to the ceiling with piles of ugly porcelain figurines, coloring books, Krazy Straws, magic tricks, Christmas ornaments, and all kinds of useless crap. It’s depressing.

Marcia once suggested they switch to watching a trashy reality show, or anything with a plot, but Nancy isn’t interested. She doesn’t want to miss Beauty Night. Last week she bought a ceramic hair iron, even though she’s been perming her hair since the early 90’s. Marcia’s afraid to bring it up again, in case Nancy decides she’d rather watch at home.

“When are you going to take that thing down?” Nancy makes a point of greeting Marcia this way every week, grimacing in the direction of the featured art piece in the living room, a photo from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in protest against the war in Vietnam. They’re inched together on the far side of the bed with pillows stacked behind them. John is looking directly at the camera, but Yoko’s focus is elsewhere. Marcia thinks the smile looks surprised, innocent, as if this one photo somehow caught her off guard.

“It’s indecent,” Nancy always says, but Marcia ignores her. Nancy is too young to act like such a biddy.

“Want some wine, Nance?”

“I never liked Yoko Ono,” Nancy says, not interested in changing the subject tonight. “She broke up the Beatles, and she always looks smug.”

Marcia glances at the photo. She doesn’t think Yoko looks smug. She’s always felt that she understands Yoko, somehow. Their lives are both defined by an era, by a few brief events so intense that they cast a shadow over everything else. Yoko lost her husband, Marcia lost her husband. Maybe Marcia’s wasn’t murdered. Maybe he lives in Milwaukee, sells insurance, and joins every football pool in a fifty mile radius. But he’s as lost to her as John is to Yoko. The difference is that John was rich, and Al wasn’t.

Still, Yoko’s stuck cutting ribbons at memorials, never allowed to move on from thinking about what’s lost. It looks almost as annoying as being stuck with Dr. Gayle Lewis.

And there’s another connection, the tragic one: that track on the album Yoko and John made together with a few minutes of their unborn baby’s heartbeat. Marcia always wonders whether Yoko had had another song in mind when she recorded that heartbeat at the doctor’s office. Marcia pictures her, smiling beside John, excited to start a family together.

Would Yoko have put the same heartbeat track on the album if the baby had lived? Would it make Marcia happy to listen to it, instead of sad?

“I think the Beatles would have broken up anyway,” Marcia says.

Nancy sniffs. “Look at those manicure sets. That one is the size of a briefcase. What do you think all those little tools do?”


Dr. Lewis is sitting at the reception desk when Marcia walks in the following morning. Marcia’s never seen her sitting there before. Her stomach seizes when she realizes Dr. Lewis is paging through the reports Marcia shoved in a drawer yesterday.

“Good morning,” Dr. Lewis says. “Did you figure out the problem with these?”

“Oh, that. You know, I didn’t have a chance to -”

“Have a seat,” Dr. Lewis says. “We should talk.”

Marcia makes her way around and inches behind the receptionist counter. Dr. Lewis doesn’t scoot the chair in to help her pass.

It’s disconcerting to see Dr. Lewis sitting in Marcia’s chair. The butt-print in the cushion could swallow Dr. Lewis whole.

Marcia sits in a spare chair.

“Is everything all right with you?” Dr. Lewis asks.

“Everything’s fine.”

“I’ve noticed the quality of your work has been slipping lately.” Dr. Lewis stares at her, intent, as though she might actually care.

But the quality of her work has never been all that good. She lets the phone ring when she doesn’t feel like answering, puts off invoicing clients, and makes guesses about which services insurance companies will and won’t cover instead of calling to verify. Maybe there’s something wrong with Dr. Lewis, that it’s taken her this long to notice. “I’m sorry, Dr. Lewis. I’ll try to do better.”

Dr. Lewis sighs. “This is hard for me. But the truth is that I can hire someone who can - you know, who can move around the office more easily. Handle the multitasking.”

“And you can pay them less.”

“Well now,” Dr. Lewis says, and adjusts her glasses. “Wouldn’t it be good for you to do something, you know, new with your life?”

“Not really. Yoko Ono hasn’t done anything new in ages, and she’s fine.”

She doesn’t realize she’s voiced the thought—she usually keeps Yoko to herself —until Dr. Lewis frowns and says, “That’s not exactly true. She had that Sky Ladders exhibit a few years ago. It was interesting, did you read about it?”

“Of course I did,” Marcia says, even though she didn’t.

“And I think she might be working on a new album.”

Marcia stands up, insulted by Dr. Lewis’ knowledge of Yoko Ono. “If that’s all you have to say, I’ll be leaving now.”

“That’s the thing. I need you for the next two weeks, until the new person can start.”

“You already have someone?” So the reports were just a trap.

“I’ll pay you two months severance if you stay for the two weeks.”

“Starting after the two weeks?”

“Of course.”

Marcia eases into her own chair, settling into the familiar cushion. “Fine. But I’m not fixing those reports.”

Marcia surfs the internet while Dr. Lewis is with a patient, not that it matters now if she gets caught goofing off. She searches for “Sky Ladders Yoko Ono” and stares at the images that pop up, a collection of ladders in the middle of some ruins. Marcia doesn’t want to be impressed by ladders, but there’s something neat about the way they’re laid out in the space, all different sizes and colors. She clicks on a photo of Yoko leaning on one of them, a straw fedora perched stylishly on her head. The article attached to the photo describes the installation, which was set up in a bombed-out church in Liverpool. Yoko invited people to bring any kind of ladders, along with personal notes.

What kind of note would Yoko leave on a ladder to the sky, if she knew no one would ever read it?

It’s not as if Marcia likes this stupid job, anyway. She could go to England and see things like this. She could make her own art.

She could make her own art.

A bald man shows up at the counter on the waiting room side. “Excuse me?”

“Yeah?” she says without taking her eyes off of the photo.

“We’ve been waiting for twenty minutes. Any chance of getting in soon?”

“You can go back and ask the doctor when she’s planning to finish up,” Marcia says.

“Isn’t that your job?”

Marcia shrugs. “Eh.”

Baldy stands there for a second, tapping his fingers on the counter. She can almost feel his frown.

“I’ll wait,” he says. “But don’t think I won’t be complaining about you.”

Marcia’s turning sixty in a couple of months. How old is Yoko, anyway? She’s got to be close to eighty by now. And still creating art. So maybe Yoko hasn’t let an era define her life the way Marcia thought. That’s no reason to be upset with her.


On her way home, Marcia stops at the craft store. It’s a sprawling building with aisles full of stickers, photo albums, and disconcerting doll heads. Who buys those, and what do they do with them? She goes to the paint aisle, first selecting the biggest canvas they have, a square about four feet wide. It’s expensive, but she places two in her cart.

“What kind of paint do I put on these?” she asks the teenaged clerk.

“People usually ask the other way around,” he says.

“Pretend it’s Jeopardy. The answer is ‘this big-ass canvas.’ What would someone need to ask to get that response?”

“What kind of surface should I use oil-based paint on?”

She refrains from patting his cheek. “And where do I find that?”

He points to the end of the aisle, clearly eager to escape. He can’t be more than sixteen or seventeen. If Marcia’s son had lived, he’d be old enough to be this boy’s father. Barely, but still. She watches the boy scurry down the aisle to help another customer and considers calling him back over so she can ask him to explain the doll heads, to have an excuse to keep talking to him.

The oil paints have names like “Still Life Orange” and “Roman Grape.” She picks out a fifty-dollar set that comes with thirty tubes of mixable colors, whatever that means, brushes, a palette, and a wooden box to carry everything. In case she wants to carry it somewhere.

She imagines her son buying the set as a gift, maybe for her sixtieth birthday. Because she can’t imagine having stayed with her ex-husband under any circumstances, she pictures her son bending down to kiss her on the cheek - he’s tall - and making her promise she’ll try out this new hobby, maybe even take a class, so she’s not alone so much.

“We offer art classes,” the gal at the register says, looking hopeful in her red store apron, but Marcia shakes her head.

“I don’t want to be influenced,” she says.


She’s forgotten to buy an easel. Marcia sets her first canvas on top of the cat house, a three-foot tall apartment building with two stories. Spats and Polar are too fat to fit in the cubbies, so they fight for space on the roof, ratty from their scratching, whenever she gets out the catnip.

The canvas sits pretty low, so she boosts it up with the coffee table book Nancy gave her about houseplants.

Marcia puts on an old t-shirt, clears old dishes off of the side table, and lays her brushes out on a paper towel. There are tiny ones with pointy tips, fat ones that look like purple clover blossoms and big ones with flat ends. There’s even one with bristles spread out like an old-fashioned lady’s fan.

She picks a tube — Lipstick Red — and squeezes a skinny snake of color into one of the depressions in the palette. She screws the cap back on and places the tube back in the box. She’ll start with yellows, reds, and oranges. She’ll teach herself.

This canvas is for fun. The next one will be for real.


“What’re you doing?” Nancy yells into her answering machine. “You haven’t picked up the phone all day.”

Marcia picks up. “I’m busy.”

“Busy with what? They’re selling silk flowers.”

“Just busy. I’ll call you later.”

The canvas is all wrong. It’s her practice canvas, but she can’t get the paint where she wants it. The colors are nice, that’s not it. It’s that nothing she paints looks like anything. She tried a flower. It looks like a blob. She tried a house. It looks like a blob. The problem is, she doesn’t know what she wants to paint, so she doesn’t know what to practice. Not a flower or a house, not really, and definitely not a blob.

Marcia switches on the Home Shopping Channel, something she never does without Nancy. Sure enough, the bored models are holding fake flowers, exclaiming over fake flowers, surrounded by fake flowers. “They look so real!” the fake housewife is exclaiming.

“And there’s so much you can do with them,” the overdressed salesman is saying.

She mutes the TV and focuses on the colors of the flowers. They’re ugly, but there’s something pleasing about the colors. Marcia looks up at her photo of John and Yoko. “What would you paint?” she asks Yoko. But Yoko smiles sideways, looking slightly surprised.

The phone rings. “I bought three boxes,” Nancy tells the answering machine. “We can make wreaths!”


The Patrick-loving patient is back. Her eyes are huge behind her glasses, peering over the counter as her pony-tailed mom checks them in.

“I have a toothache,” the little girl tells her.

“You’re being very brave for someone with a toothache,” Marcia says. Most kids freak out and cry just for cleanings.

“That’s our Heaven,” the mom says.

“Your name is Heaven?”

The girl nods.

“That’s such a cute name.” Actually the poor kid is probably destined to become a stripper.

Dr. Lewis appears around the corner, hands on hips. “I’ve been getting complaints about you,” she says. “If you’re not going to work, I might as well let you go now and I’ll just suffer for the last week until the new girl can start. Two months severance, remember?”

Marcia remembers. She’s planning a painting vacation.

“I am working,” she lies.

“You’ve been yelling at patients.”

“To be fair, I only yell at their parents.”

“Don’t yell at anyone.”

Dr. Lewis clicks back to her office.

“Excuse me,” Heaven says.

“Yes, honey?” Marcia can’t bring herself to say the girl’s ridiculous name.

“What’s severance?”

“It’s the money they give you when you get fired.”

“You got fired?”

Marcia glances at the mom, who’s leafing through People Magazine. “Yeah, but it’s OK. I’m going to focus on my art.”

“I do art at school,” Heaven says. “When you finish your art, will you bring it here so I can see?”


“Why are you so fat?”

The mom does hear this. She barrels up to the counter and grabs Heaven. “What a rude question!”

“It’s OK,” Marcia says. “I’m fat because I eat too many cupcakes.”

Heaven, still restrained by her mother, says, “I eat cupcakes.”

“Not as many as I do.”

The mother can’t stop apologizing, but Marcia doesn’t care. She’s thinking. Heaven might be onto something. Marcia is fat. She’s very fat. And she also needs an audience for her art before she can figure out what she wants to paint. As Dr. Lewis sticks her head out to see what’s happening, Marcia has a thought.

“You’re firing me because I’m fat, aren’t you?” she says.

“No,” Dr. Lewis says.

“You said you needed to hire someone who could get around the office. I’m going to sue you.” Marcia picks up her bag as if she’s going to leave.

“Marcia, I’m firing you because you’re a terrible receptionist.”

“The patients like me. They like me more than they like you.”

“I doubt that.”

“I like her,” Heaven says.

“Shhh,” her mom says.

“Maybe we can work something out,” Dr. Lewis says. “I’d hate for you to leave on a bad note. What do you want?”

Marcia leans against the door frame. “Three months severance.”

“I think we can manage that.”

“And I want you to hang my painting in the waiting room.”

“Yes!” Heaven yells.

Dr. Lewis blinks at her as if she doesn’t understand. “What?”

“I’m a painter, not that you’d know since you’ve never bothered to ask about my life.” Marcia resists the impulse to check the impact of this statement on Heaven and her mother. “I want you to hang one of my paintings in the waiting room.”

Dr. Lewis shifts her weight from one leg to the other. “If it will make you happy,” she says, “I’ll be happy to hang up your painting.”


The second canvas is ruined.

Thinking that bright, fun colors would distract scared kids, Marcia had attempted abstract art. It should have been easy enough. But she hadn’t realized how long the oil paint would take to dry and, eager to finish, had attempted to add the next layer of paint too soon. Now the cheerful reds and greens are globbed together and mixed up like vomit.

Marcia sets the canvas flat on the top of the cat house to get a better perspective. Muddy puddles of paint mar the bright promise of the piece. The whole thing looks like a fairground after a rainstorm. It’s ruined.

She looks away from the painting to gather her thoughts. On TV, SpongeBob is bouncing around, which makes Marcia think of Heaven. Stripper name or not, the girl sure is cute. And she wants to see Marcia’s art. Marcia looks at her photo of John and Yoko. What would Yoko paint?

Marcia steps up onto the couch to get a better look at the photo. She looks at it all the time, but it’s been a while since she examined it closely. Is Yoko really surprised, or is she annoyed? Tired of the photo shoot, maybe, or amused by a joke the cameraman made? Marcia braces herself on the wall and leans in close.

The pillow reflected in the window behind Yoko is fluffed into a fat point. It looks like SpongeBob’s friend Patrick. Marcia laughs a little. That’s how easy it is to create a lovable cartoon characters these days. Rearrange a pillow, paint it pink, and make it a sidekick to a sponge.

Marcia plucks the photo off the wall and removes the back of the frame. She takes the print to the canvas and aligns it against the sticky paint, rubs every inch of it so that it’s sure to adhere, and sets some books on top so it will stay.

In the morning, the paper is wavy with the moisture from the paint, still drying. By the next day, it’s stuck fast to the canvas.

Marcia squeezes “Sushi Salmon” onto her palette and selects a small brush. She dips it into the paint, enjoying the first disturbance in the smooth surface like she does the first knife in a jar of peanut butter. She begins by turning the pillow reflection into Patrick the Starfish, first giving him a black outline, then filling him in with “Sushi Salmon.” While that dries, she paints over the signs above the bed - “Hair Peace” and “Bed Peace” - and takes one last look at Yoko’s smile.

She gives Patrick’s paint plenty of time to dry before adding his eyes and his stupid open mouth.


The photo that was once indecent for Marcia’s living room is hanging in the waiting room at Dr. Lewis’ office. A cartoon boy and girl are sitting together in a rowboat, the girl looking slightly surprised as blob-like sea plants float by. Patrick the starfish peeks out from behind the boat, and even SpongeBob himself makes an appearance in the bottom corner.

“I have to say, I’m impressed,” Dr. Lewis says. “I had no idea what to expect. You should do cartoons, Marcia. You should take a class.” She doesn’t offer Marcia another chance as receptionist. Marcia doesn’t ask for one.

She doesn’t want to do cartoons, either. The cartoon aquarium might have been a great stepping-off point, but she has another audience in mind now. In fact, she might even take one of those classes at the craft store, but not because Dr. Lewis suggested it.

When Tuesday night rolls around, Nancy’s disdainful words for the photo are halfway out of her mouth before she realizes it’s gone. “Good for you, Marcia,” she says. “You can get a nice print at the mall. Maybe an ocean scene.”

But Marcia already has her own plan for the space. She’s working on her next original, a single ladder surrounded by a field of green. There’s a note tied to the top rung, fluttering in the wind, and only Marcia knows what it says.





BIO: After completing degrees in music at the University of Maine and Ithaca
College, I moved to New York City where I am pursuing an MFA in fiction
through Pacific University's low-residency program. In my nine-to-five
hours, I work as an academic administrator at Columbia University. My work
has been published in
Every Day Fiction and is forthcoming in Words and