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Once Upon a Tantrum by A.K. Benninghofen | Word Riot
Short Stories

March 16, 2016      

Once Upon a Tantrum by A.K. Benninghofen

Legos, Barbies, Barbie’s tiny rubber shoes. Crayons litter the floor along with pages ripped from a Little Golden Book — a prince, a poison apple. Lucy’s fisted fingernails carve crescent moon trenches into the skin of her palms. She stomps, beet-faced, quaking the china cabinet. She stomps to punctuate each word. I. Do. Not. Want. To. Clean. Up. Colors crumble under her feet. She kicks the empty aluminum pail, painted polka dots peeling from its sides, bonk-ding, into the refrigerator. Bonk-ding? Bonk-ding is not enough. Something hostile swells in her belly, gathering strength and volume as it rises through her chest, up and up and out, caterwauling through a wall of clenched teeth. From the hands of a baby doll she snatches a miniature porcelain teapot and hurls it against the oven’s tempered glass. Yes! The teapot shatters and Lucy disentegrates. Her body goes limp as rage gives way to grief and rosebud shards skitter across the linoleum. Face and neck soaked with tears, she looks up and gasps to see her husband leaning against the kitchen counter. Wreckage.

“Forgot my wallet.” Chad. He looks like a chalkboard drawing of himself, colorless, only his edges defined.
      Outside, beyond Chad, the world is coming to life. The slanted shadows of early morning are sliding away; the cottony half moon has vanished; cunning yellow light rouses everything in its reach and the day, out there, begins to pulsate. The engine is running in the driveway where Lucy’s three year old (Chad’s three year old, their three year old) waits, buckled into her car seat, waving her graham cracker hand. Expressionless, Lucy waves back.
      “Take one of those pills, why don’t you,” Chad. His eyes dart around the great room — toy-strewn floor, baskets of unfolded laundry, a puddle of spilt apple juice, the tabletop splattered with crusty, dried oatmeal, “and stop watching this crap.” He picks up the remote and aims it at Oprah, shuts her off mid-sentence.
      Lucy wipes her face and blows her nose on a dishtowel.
      “Taking care of others,” Oprah was saying, “means taking care of you first.”
      Lucy tightens the drawstring on her Kappa Delta sweatpants. Her friends (her sisters) are out in the world, interning in Washington, backpacking through Europe, earning master’s degrees. Dancing all night in flat-tummy clothes. The illusion had been — when they were her bridesmaids, draped in deepening shades of purple velvet, from pale lilac to orchard plum — the illusion had been that Lucy was the one embarking on a life. Flute notes of Canon in D floated them up the center aisle of First Methodist toward a candlelit altar, the heavy scent of stargazer lilies wafting from their bouquets. New Year’s Eve. It was a New Year’s Eve wedding and, outside the church, the first and only snow Mississippi would see that winter, just dust. Elegant, feathery flakes prisming the light of the moon against the almost midnight darkness. She was the one embarking on a life; they were the ones being left behind. That had been the illusion.

Chad pockets his wallet and kisses Lucy on the cheek; she knows he does even if she doesn’t feel it. He leaves, the screen door banging after him. Mothers’ Morning Out is held at First Methodist in the basement room beneath the sanctuary, one day a week, nine to noon. This is supposed to be Lucy’s me time.
      The pills are on the island, the butcher block, an amber plastic bottle nestled between Chad’s protein powder and a stack of sippy cups. Press and turn, Lucy empties the childproof pills into the palm of her hand and steps to the sink, her wedding rings there on one of those crystal fingers intended to protect them, to keep them from going down the drain while you’re washing the dishes; they have been there for days. She is reminded of how stirring it had been when Chad proposed, how dreamy and impetuous it all seemed. And now. He could have written her a check, driven her to a clinic. She could have finished school. She could have…
      Chad’s car disappears down the road. Lucy turns on the faucet. She takes the first pill between her thumb and forefinger, holds it up to the morning sunlight pouring over the windowsill lined with pots of fading African violets, and lets it fall. Side effects may include: weight gain, sexual dysfunction, insomnia, confusion, increased sweating… She holds the next one up to the light and again lets it fall. One by little blue one, she drops them ceremoniously down the drain. All gone. She draws the blinds and starts the disposal, resting her forehead on the counter to feel its violent hum. She pictures the pills diluting, disintegrating, flushing through the pipes.

In the bath last night Lucy’s breasts rose toward the surface, lifted round by lavender scented-water, her nipples emerged perfect pink pencil erasers, symmetrical and erect. Water hot as she could bear it darkened her skin like a day at the beach. In the misty mirror she stood just so — back straight, pelvis tilted, stomach sucked in — her chestnut tresses falling loose and wet around her shoulders, dew steaming from her naked scalded skin. This would be a first. To begin, she simply petted herself there. Fresh from the tub and toweled dry, the hair felt silky, downy-soft, not coarse as expected. Her head lolled, her eyes went soft, and she pressed into the wetness a searching finger.
      “Hey, I need to get in there.” Chad. The thunk of his gym bag hitting the bedroom floor. The oddly sterile non-smell of his sweaty workout clothes. His pecs, slick and hollow-seeming, as Barbie’s boyfriend’s. Three nights a week he spends lifting, pumping, shaping himself to fill his starched oxfords.
      Lucy wrapped herself in towel and opened the door — do-si-do — they traded rooms.

Sunshine penetrates the flimsy blinds, some bent or broken, some missing. Lucy sits in the floor, plinking into the pail pieces of teapot and broken crayon. No reason to save them, bitty bits of Midnight Blue. Raw Umber. Maize. The shattered teapot, past the point of super glue. The ripped and ruined fairy tale. It would make sense to get the broom, sweep the whole mess into a dustpan and throw it away, except making sense doesn’t make sense; sitting and plinking does. Thistle. Aquamarine.
      The screen door creaks. A stranger — a man — walks into the kitchen.
      Lucy scrambles to her feet. “How did you get in here?”
      “Knocked. You said come in.”
      “I did?”
      “Just now.”
      Lucy has a blurry memory of this, as if it occurred weeks ago, or years. The man is taller than Chad, ropy, and dark in a vaguely non-Caucasian way; his sawdust-stained jeans cling to his strong thighs. He regards her as a skittish animal, as if he might hold out his hand and offer a small treat before inching any closer. He speaks with an accent.
      “I am here to give an estimate.”
      Lucy recalls warped floorboards on the deck. She nods.
      “Are you okay?” the man says. Spanish? Italian?
      Blood is pooling on the Formica countertop. Seeing it, Lucy smarts with the sudden awareness of pain. It must have happened when she pushed herself up from the floor; she cut her palm — the meaty part, the pad of muscle — on a porcelain shard of teapot. It’s as though she has never seen blood before, as though she doesn’t know why it was inside her, much less spilling out.
      “Here. Come here.” The man takes two steps and leads her gently by the wrist to the sink.
      Lucy flinches under the sharp rush of the cold tap, blood and water spiraling pink down the drain. The man takes the last paper towel from the roll and pats the cut dry. He tells her to keep pressure on it, keep it elevated. His warm hands on her shoulders, he guides her to a chair and sits her down. Then he gets to work.
      On her knees, craning and bent over the back of the chair, Lucy watches the man through the window as he slides his hands into grain-leather work gloves, the kind that stay suede-soft inside. With ease, he pries a piece of splintered railing loose and tosses it aside. He rips a plank from the deck floor discovering moisture underneath, rusted screws. He shakes his head. Steps down. Rolls the Tinkerbelle tricycle out of his way. Lying on the ground, on his back, in the grass, he shimmies his torso beneath the deck. No doubt, the man is thorough. When he climbs back on top, he strides — first length, then width — broad deliberate paces, measuring for approximate dimensions. He removes the gloves, jots some figures on a thick tablet and, taking care not to let the screen door slam, enters again. The dirty perfume of damp mown grass follows him inside.
      “The estimate.” He tears out a sheet of gray, lined paper and weights it down with the sugar bowl; the carbon impression of his handwriting swoops across the page. “It will cost you, but I do good work.” His work boots, their sturdy rubber soles, step around the rubble.
      Lucy stands to get the broom, too fast. Colors zoom behind her eyes. Black spots.
      “Let me,” the man says, taking the broom.
      Lucy pinches the bridge of her nose and lowers herself into a chair. Swish-swish, swish-swish. The man is sweeping up the mess for her, into the dustpan, into the garbage. Her head lolls, her eyes close against the spinning. She settles in to the soothing sound of the swish-swishing broom. Fuschia. Forest Green.

“It’s bleeding again,” she says.
      The man props the broom in a corner.
      Lucy offers her open palm.
      There are no more paper towels.
      The man moves toward her, takes her hand in his, places his lips around the cut. His tongue. He tastes her metal, salty-sweet copper — she too can taste it, just watching him. The blood is not coagulated, not sticky and thick, not the dark maroon of staunching. But fresh. Liquid, bright red, flowing, pulsing, it keeps on coming, pumping from her body out into the world. Into the man’s mouth.
      When Lucy opens her eyes, the man is still sweeping. Lucy gathers Legos into a shoebox and returns Barbie to the terrace of her dream home. The man sweeps the last little pile of her domestic debris into the dustpan, into the garbage, then he raps a knuckle twice on the counter and, closing the screen door gently behind him, he’s gone.
      Lucy turns on the television. Credits roll over Oprah as she waves farewell. “Do something nice for yourself,” Oprah is saying, “something just for you.” Lucy reads the estimate — time, labor, materials. Contact number. A dab of her blood soaks through the paper; crimson blooms against the gray.

IMG_0137About the author:

A.K. Benninghofen’s work has appeared in Passages North, Evergreen Review, Monkeybicycle, Necessary Fiction and elsewhere. She lives with her husband and children in Asheville, North Carolina, where she is completing her first novel as well as a collection of linked stories.

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