The second pair of ears are on the sides of my neck. They’re a little smaller than my head ears and can’t actually hear anything. All four ears are pierced, four holes each in the top ones, two holes each in the bottom. Most of the time I forget about the second pair, don’t even notice them when I’m looking in the mirror. When I go out I wear turtlenecks and scarves because I’d rather not be stared at, but when I’m at work at the tattoo parlor I let them show. Customers tend to think they’re some sort of body modification.
I become a tattoo parlor mascot the day my roommate Lee moves out to live with her asshole fiancé. We live on the bottom floor of a three-story house—Lee and her daughter share a bedroom, and my son shares a bedroom with me. Lee’s fiancé has stayed the night at our place several times. Her daughter sleeps on the couch then, but usually ends up in bed cuddled next to me because Lee and the asshole fight so loudly. Even in my bedroom with the door closed you can hear the names he calls her. More than once I’ve told Lee that she and Prince Caustic have to keep it down. I don’t want my son or her daughter to be hearing such things. She says the kids are asleep, but I know that’s not true.
By the time Lee is packing her last few belongings I’ve known about the move for two weeks, but it’s still a shock.
“You can’t move in with that jerk,” I say for the twentieth time while Lee loads her collection of stuffed animals into a milk crate. “He’s abusive.”
“He’s small,” she says. Burke is an inch shorter than Lee and maybe ten pounds lighter, but Lee’s body is hunched in the morning after Burke’s been yelling at her. “He always feels like people are challenging his manhood or something. I can’t yell at Burke. It would hurt him too much.”
“The bastard’s not made of glass,” I say.
“We’re going to get counseling,” she says. “He agreed.”
My ex-boyfriend did, too, but I never managed to drag him within a mile of the counselor’s office. It took me six damn years to figure out he was a loser. He’d yell at me one minute and say he loved me the next. He claimed it was stress from his job and from us having a little kid that made him moody. I thought I’d marry him. He was Jacob’s dad after all. Jake was three when we moved out. I had to do it while my ex was at work. We’ve been living with Lee ever since.
I don’t understand these men we choose, how they can be so sweet about one thing, the thing that is most painful, but they’re bastards about everything else.
Lee is thirty-four and can barely read, convinces Jake or her daughter Izzy to help her understand her mail. I think she has some form of dyslexia and I’m not sure how she managed to graduate high school, but Lee is determined to a fault and won’t get tested for a learning disability. She says she gets along well enough, but I know she’s too embarrassed to admit to anything. That’s why she’s been working third shift at the auto parts factory for sixteen years. That’s why she hates dating. It involves someone else finding out she can’t read. Burke is Lee’s first boyfriend since Izzy’s dad left six years ago and moved to California. I’m pretty sure part of the reason they broke up was because she refused to get help and he refused to keep reading everything to her.
Burke is impossibly sweet and kind when it comes to helping Lee, reads her mail and books and magazines aloud, and follows under the print with his finger so she can pretend she’s reading along with him. I don’t understand these men we choose, how they can be so sweet about one thing, the thing that is most painful, but they’re bastards about everything else. Lee and me, we both want to hold onto that drop of sweetness, but it nearly kills us in the process.
Izzy is clinging to her bed, refusing to leave.
“I want to stay here,” she yells. “I won’t go live in his stupid apartment. It smells funny. I hate Burke.”
“Everything is going to be fine,” says Lee, putting her hand over her daughter’s fingers, probably in the hopes of easing them off the mattress. “You’ll have your own bedroom and a new daddy.”
“That jerk is not going to be my daddy,” yells Izzy.
I’m tempted to stay and see how Lee resolves this dilemma, but Jacob and I have to get to the tattoo parlor. I work Tuesday through Saturday eleven to five, take a dinner break and go back with Jake at six-thirty. We stay ’til nine-thirty on school nights, eleven on the weekends. Lee waves good-bye to us and promises Izzy the moon if she’d only sit up.
At the tattoo parlor I work the register, do bookkeeping, sterilize equipment, and draw tattoos. My boss Zip is great at tracing pictures on skin and getting the colors right, but says he can’t draw worth shit. Jacob climbs up on a red leather stool and sits still as a sphinx while Zip inks half a birch tree on some guy’s back. Zip doesn’t have a wife or kids and likes Jake, has already told me Jake can come to the tattoo parlor after school instead of going home to wait for me. I’d rather not let Jake be a latchkey kid, and I figure watching people get tattooed is just as educational as anything he could see on TV.
For months, Zip has been asking me if he can use my face to advertise the tattoo parlor. He’s a good guy and never pressured me about it, but he’s mentioned the possibility from time to time. I’ve never been desperate enough to sell my picture before, but now I’ve got to figure out how to cover twice the usual rent plus make car payments and add to Jake’s college fund. So with Lee and Izzy on the road to Burke’s, I agree to be the store’s mascot.
“You won’t be a mascot,” Zip says. He’s finished inking the tree and is sponging ink and blood off the guy’s back. The guy grits his teeth. Jake stares. “You’ll be more like an emblem or insignia,” says Zip.
Of course, this is just a nice way of saying mascot.
Zip says he’ll get an artist to do a black-and-white drawing of me and give me an extra hundred dollars every month in royalties, plus fifty percent of the profits from the sale of any merchandise with my face on it.
“I get to choose who draws the new logo and paints it on the front window,” I tell Zip, hoping that calling it a logo will make it seems less like it’s my face. “You can use it on t-shirts and business cards. That’s as far as I’ll go.” I have a certain pride in how I look, but don’t want to be on a bumper sticker or book of matches or inked on someone’s arm.
Zip snaps off his rubber gloves and scratches his nearly invisible blond goatee.
“What about bottle openers?” he says.
“No dice,” I say.
“Story in the paper?” he says.
I shrug. “If they care to do one,” I say. I’m not figuring they will, but I’ve never been a good guesser.
Four weeks later Zip’s photo is on page seven of the local paper. He’s standing in front of the tattoo parlor beside my three-foot-high head, holding a t-shirt with the store logo on it. Me. I have to admit it came out rather nice—my black and white face looks cheerful, even attractive, and the four ears seem natural as wings on a butterfly.
Monday afternoon I’m standing in the driveway washing my car and not wearing a turtleneck or scarf when the lady appears at my side. Or at least it seems like she appears. She probably just walks right up to me like any normal person but I don’t hear her because I’m thinking about Lee and Izzy and how they moved out a month ago and I haven’t heard from them in a couple weeks. The last time I spoke with Lee on the phone she said things were just fine and Izzy was getting used to the situation. I took that to mean she hadn’t yet tried to kill Burke.
“You might be a sign of the apocalypse,” says the lady.
“Are you a harlot?” The lady beside me is plump, has short brown hair permed in loose curls, is wearing jeans and a pink t-shirt and carrying a lawn chair. She is vaguely familiar, like I might have seen her at the grocery.
“I haven’t had sex in six years,” I say. Not since I left the ex and swore off men. I think Zip may have a thing for me but he’s my boss and too nice a guy to try anything.
“You might be a sign of the apocalypse,” says the lady. “Perhaps you should have been killed at birth.”
I try to not take the last comment personally, as she stands tiptoe and scrutinizes my forehead.
“Do you mind? I’m washing my car.” I swat at her with the damp sponge and she steps back but doesn’t leave.
“I’ve spoken with the angels,” she says. “They said you may be a sign of the end.”
“So?” I say and dip my sponge back in the bucket of suds. “They could have meant the end of jelly donuts or something.”
“But the end is near,” she says. “I knew it the moment I saw your picture in the paper.”
“I’m thirty-one for God’s sake,” I say, “I have a kid. I’m not a harbinger of destruction.”
The lady nods but sets up her lawn chair beside the sidewalk, takes a small pad of paper from her purse, and watches me with her head tilted slightly. I give her fifteen minutes of polite silence before I say anything else.
“How long are you going to sit there?” I ask.
“Until I get a sign,” she says.
“I don’t appreciate being stared at,” I say.
The lady bites her lip. “This is nothing personal against you,” she says.
“Pardon me for feeling so goddamned insulted,” I mutter and resume washing the dead bugs off my windshield. I remind myself I’m used to worse than this.
In elementary school at recess I stood by the chain link fence with three other outcasts. The smart girl insulted all the other kids in polysyllabic words. The fat boy had the best spitting range and accuracy of any kid in the fourth grade. The six-foot-tall girl was only teased from a distance because she had a great left hook. We moved after I finished eighth grade. When I started high school my mother bought me a lot of scarves and turtlenecks. She said there was nothing wrong with me but with the rest of the world. Around then I realized my parents probably just didn’t have the money for surgery to get the ears off.
Jake’s dad and I started going out during my senior year in high school. After three years of hiding the second ears under layers of cloth, I let him be the first person outside of my family to see them. He loved my ears, thought they were beautiful, said I should show them off in public. Of course after a few beers he’d call me a lazy cunt and a good-for-nothing bitch, but even when drunk he never made any mean comments about my ears. I never understood how he managed to hold me up and destroy me at the same time.
The strange woman is still staking out our yard from her lawn chair when Jake gets home from school.
“Hello, Mrs. Simon,” he says to her. He gives me a hug, goes inside.
I glance at the woman scratching notes on her pad, drop my sponge in the bucket, follow my son.
“You know that lady?” I say.
“Her son is in my class,” says Jacob. “Isaiah.” He tells me all the kids tease Isaiah because his mother stands on a corner between the school and post office downtown and tells everyone the world is going to end. She’s been doing this since school started.
“Sometimes we sit across the street and watch,” he says. “People driving by yell at her, but she doesn’t shut up. Isaiah’s mad at her because his dad divorced her a year ago after she went crazy. Now she lives in a yucky apartment and his dad sends her money every month and she doesn’t do anything but yell at people. Isaiah has to stay with her every other week. He hates it.”
But Jacob tells me odd things have happened. Mrs. Simon said a light would fall from the sky and the next day a streetlight cable broke and one of the lamps almost landed on a car windshield. She said it would be a time of monsters the day before Isaiah’s dog had puppies, and the smallest one in the litter only had three legs. She said there would be an end to joy and a week later the bakery down the street from the school closed.
“The lady who worked there gave us free two-day-old cookies,” says Jacob. “Now we have to buy them from Shop Rite and they’re not as good.”
She smiles at both of us. I try to smile back but it probably looks more like a grimace.
After listening to Jake I decide not to call the police about Mrs. Simon. At least not yet. You can’t go through life with four ears and not have compassion for people who get mocked or called crazy, even if you think they might really be crazy.
Tuesday, when Jake and I get home from the tattoo parlor for dinner, Mrs. Simon is already stationed on our lawn in her chair.
Jacob waves and says hello. She smiles at both of us. I try to smile back but it probably looks more like a grimace. We eat macaroni and cheese in the kitchen, and from my place at the table I can see her out our living room window. She doesn’t do much other than take notes and look at her watch. There’s extra macaroni and cheese and since I don’t like it reheated I consider letting Jake take it out to her. In the end I put it down the garbage disposal. Mrs. Simon waves when we leave for the tattoo parlor. You could almost think she was a kindly neighbor sunning herself instead of a second-rate prophetess.
“Lady,” I say, “I don’t want to be mean, but you realize I could call the authorities and register a stalking complaint.”
Mrs. Simon cocks her head. “But I’m not hurting you,” she says. “I’m just taking notes.”
“And I’m not calling the police,” I say, scratching the ear on the right side of my neck. “Not yet. I just wanted to let you know.”
Mrs. Simon looks down and scribbles more in her pad.
Jake crosses his arms once we’re in the car. “She’s really kind of nice,” he says. “Just crazy.”
I shake my head. I guess being stalked by nice crazy people is better than being stalked by mean crazy people, but stalking is stalking. It takes me a while to focus once I get back to the parlor. When I start playing around with a few tattoo sketches I feel a bit better.
Around eight in the evening two college-aged girls with multiple piercings in their ears bounce into the shop.
“You’re the woman on the window,” they bubble. “Can we get a picture?”
I blink at them a couple times then glance over to Jake. He’ll probably want to take swimming lessons at the Y once school lets out, and he’s going to need new summer clothes. I look back at the girls and tell them it will cost two dollars. The girls whip out a little camera and Jake takes the photo since Zip is inking an apple onto some lady’s ankle. The girls both hug me and tell me my ears are really cool. Then they buy shirts. It feels nice to be appreciated and yet rather disturbing, like I’m some sort of pop star.
Thirty shirts have sold in the past few days and Zip says he’ll have to order more from the supplier. At least my slight celebrity is profitable. Zip is good to his word on my extra cash, gives me a hundred dollars plus another two hundred from the t-shirt sales. I treat Jacob to ice cream on the way home.
“I want a shirt with your picture on it, too,” says Jake.
“No,” I tell him.
“But a couple kids at school have them,” he says. “And you’re my mom. If anyone gets a shirt it should be me.”
“You need to be wearing shirts with sports team names or something,” I say. “Not me.”
“But you’re better than any stupid sports team,” he says. “I want a shirt with you on it.”
“We’ll see,” I say, which is what my mother said when she meant no.
Jake knows this and kicks lightly at the dashboard as he licks his ice cream.
Mrs. Simon reappears in her lawn chair on Wednesday afternoon, has her pad, a can of cola, and a sandwich in a plastic bag. She watches while Jake and I play Frisbee in the yard. Jake asks if she’d like to join us. She smiles and shakes her head no and scribbles more notes.
When we go inside to eat dinner, Jake says, “She made good cookies for Isaiah’s birthday treat last month. We should ask her to bring some next time she comes.” I decide it’s not a bad idea, send Jake outside with his request. It’s the least she can do since she keeps staring at me.
Wednesday night Izzy calls the tattoo parlor and asks if she can come back and live with me. She says things at Burke’s are awful.
“Has he yelled at you?” I say.
“He yells at Mom and she defends him,” says Izzy. “She says he’s the only really understanding guy she’s ever met. It’s a load of shit.”
“Is your mom home?” I say.
“She just left for work,” says Izzy. “That’s why I called you now.”
“I need to talk to her about this,” I say.
“You know she won’t listen to you,” says Izzy.
I bite my lip and say I’ll call Lee tomorrow.
On Thursday, I phone Lee on my lunch break, maybe not the best idea because I think I wake her up.
I say Izzy called me. “She’s not happy.”
“She’s adjusting,” says Lee.
“She says Burke still yells at you,” I say. “I thought you guys were going to start counseling.”
“We will when he can work it into his schedule,” says Lee. “Everyone is adjusting now. Izzy is learning what it’s like to have a dad again, and Burke is figuring out how he needs to act around kids. They’ll be good for each other. He’s helped me so much, you know. No other guy has ever done that. Izzy just needs to give him a chance. She’ll be fine.”
Lee hangs up the phone.
I think about calling her back but I don’t. I know she’s a stubborn woman, won’t listen. And I hate telling others how to parent.
Thursday afternoon Jake and I find Mrs. Simon in her chair on our lawn with a paper plate on her lap filled with chocolate chip and sugar cookies. She hands me the plate cheerfully while telling me that my second set of ears look slightly pointed at the ends and that’s probably a bad sign. I thank her for the cookies.
At work we have sold almost one hundred shirts. People are popping in and out of the store, wanting to get photos with me and paying five dollars for the privilege. The fuss is strange because I’ve been working at the parlor for a few years and nothing like this has ever happened. Zip says I was just keeping too low a profile and not to doubt the power of merchandising.
The annoying part is when people take pictures of me without permission. Tonight I’m near the back of the shop sterilizing equipment and all of the sudden there’s a flash like lightning and some college guy is hightailing it out of the store.
“Asshole,” I yell and glance over to Zip who winces and looks at the floor. I glare at my black and white image on the tattoo parlor window. Before Jake and I leave, Zip gives me a large check for shirt royalties. It’s money Jake and I need, so I don’t press the issue further. I tell myself things will get better, that all the stupid publicity will die down soon and I’ll still get my extra hundred a month.
Friday afternoon Mrs. Simon has moved closer to the house, is halfway between the sidewalk and the porch.
“Other people live here, too,” I tell her. “They might have problems with you taking over our lawn.”
“But I’m not hurting anything,” says Mrs. Simon, knitting her eyebrows like sitting in the middle of our yard should be the most natural thing in the world.
“I don’t care,” I say, walking around her and grabbing the arms of her lawn chair, heaving back with my whole weight. I can’t budge her. She’s too heavy.
“That’s it,” I say, stomping around the chair to face her. “I’m calling the police.”
“Mom,” Jake says, “she gave us cookies.”
“The cookies were very good,” I say, “but this is an invasion of privacy. Mine and my son’s. I could file a harassment charge and get you arrested without much trouble.”
“I’ll move,” she says, “I’ll move.” Mrs. Simon stands up and touches the back of her chair, looks at me with sad eyes. “But don’t you understand I’m trying to help people? I’m making them aware.” She sounds genuinely hurt and I can’t help but feel a little sad for her.
“You need to understand that I need my lawn,” I say quietly.
Mrs. Simon turns and drags her chair back to the sidewalk. She doesn’t look at me or Jake when we leave. Jake grumbles for a while about Mrs. Simon’s cookies and our chances of getting more of them, but Zip gives him a sheet of temporary tattoos and my son invests the rest of the evening putting them all over his arms.
Jake spends Saturday afternoon with me at the tattoo parlor. When we get home for dinner at five, Mrs. Simon and Izzy are sitting on the front porch, chatting. Izzy has a suitcase.
“I can’t stand it there,” she says. “Last night I hit Burke when he yelled at Mom. He hit me back and Mom yelled at both of us to cut it out. I called him a bag of rat shit and he called me a little cunt. He grabbed my arms and shook me, then I gave him a shiner.”
Izzy pushes up the sleeve of her t-shirt to reveal four dark oval blotches.
“Oh God.” I slump against the porch railing. “Is your mom home? Does she know you’re here?”
Izzy shakes her head. “She was taking a nap when I left.”
I call Lee and tell her Izzy’s at my place. I don’t have time to ask her what the hell she’s thinking living with a child abuser before she slams down the receiver. Ten minutes later Lee pulls into our driveway, erupts from the car with her hair uncombed and makeup smeared. Burke steps out of the passenger side, stands beside the car with his hands in his pockets. He’s wearing dark glasses and is smaller than I remember, maybe five foot four. He glances down and toes the pavement. Just looking at him you wouldn’t think he was a bastard who hit kids.
“You scared the shit out of me,” Lee says. “I woke up and you weren’t there. Get your ass in the car right now.”
“Not until you break up with Burke,” says Izzy. “He treats you like shit.” Izzy glares over her mother’s shoulder at the accountant. She’s almost as big as Burke, and stockier.
“What the hell is this about Burke hitting Izzy?” I say.
“They slap like kids,” Lee says. “It’s not bad.”
“It’s a grown man hitting a twelve-year-old,” I say.
“He didn’t hit,” says Lee, “he just grabbed her arms. Izzy shouldn’t have been in the room, anyway. When Burke is mad he says things he doesn’t mean.”
Mrs. Simon squints at Lee and Burke in turn.
“I don’t care,” says Izzy. “He’s not going to be my dad, and you’re not going to be my mom if you marry him.”
Lee grabs Izzy’s wrist and tries to haul her off the porch, but Izzy hardly budges.
“Lee,” I say, “let her stay the night if she wants.”
Lee doesn’t stop tugging. Mrs. Simon bounds up and grabs Izzy’s other arm, pulls her toward the house.
“What the hell,” says Lee.
“She doesn’t want to go,” says Mrs. Simon. “It’s not a good place for her.”
Lee stomps off the porch and back to the car. “One night,” she calls to Izzy, “but you’ll have to come home tomorrow.”
Izzy clenches her jaw as her mother and the bastard drive away.
Jake and I are both hungry and there’s not much time before I have to be back to work, so I microwave a couple frozen pizzas. Izzy drags her suitcase inside the house and Mrs. Simon, good to her word, slinks back to the sidewalk. Even though I’m hesitant about it, I invite Mrs. Simon to eat with us because I’m happy she helped get Lee to leave. Mrs. Simon wanders around the kitchen while the pizzas are cooking, peers into cupboards and drawers. I wonder what the hell she could be looking for, if she thinks my silverware may give her clues about my true nature, but when she finds the plates in the cupboard she sets the table.
While Mrs. Simon is busy I think about calling child protective services, flip through the phone book until I find the number. I scribble it down on a notepad and stare at it for several seconds, but in the end I don’t call. I can’t. Izzy is safe now, and maybe this is the sort of wake-up call Lee needs to leave Burke on her own. Shouldn’t it mean something to her that her daughter has run away? But I recall too well how hard it is to leave a guy you think you love, even if he treats you like shit. For six years I stayed with my boyfriend, despite his hard words. I told myself things would get better. I told myself Jake needed a dad. I finger the ear on the left side of my neck. My boyfriend really loved those ears. I miss that.
At dinner Mrs. Simon and I let the kids talk about school while we give each other sideways glances. I take Izzy and Jake to the parlor in the evening. Izzy brought half of her clothes and her school books, so she’s set for a few days. In the car she tells us what Mrs. Simon told her as they sat together in our yard, how she started seeing little pinprick lights about a year and a half ago, started sensing things were going to happen before they did, started being struck with messages.
“The streetlight did fall down,” says Jake. “It was cool. Glass everywhere, like an explosion.”
That night I make up the couch bed for Izzy who frets over her mother.
“Maybe she won’t come back,” Izzy says. “Burke hates me. I hate him. I want to stay here for good.”
“I don’t know how much I can do since I’m not your mom,” I tell Izzy. Unless I call child protective services. But Lee helped Jake and me when I left Jake’s father, when we didn’t really have anywhere else to go. I don’t want to see her prosecuted.
“Even Mrs. Simon makes more sense than Mom does,” Izzy mutters.
I bite my lip.
I have Sunday and Monday off work. Because I can’t stand the thought of watching Mrs. Simon in the front yard all day, I take the kids to the zoo after lunch. We have dinner out and go see a movie, get home at nine-thirty. There’s a message from Lee on the answering machine. She says Izzy can stay with us for a couple of days, and I figure Lee is feeling guilty because deep down she knows Burke is an idiot. I also figure Burke wants a break from Izzy.
Monday the kids walk to school together. I go grocery shopping and to the laundromat, come home just before they get back. When they walk in the door, both of them are wearing plastic ears on the sides of their neck. Izzy’s are pink and Jake’s are green. They show me how they attach with little adhesive strips.
“We got them at the drugstore,” says Izzy. “Everyone at school is wearing them now. They have all colors. Pink and blue and red and green.”
“Oh Lord,” I say. “Take them off.”
“No,” says Jake, touching his green ears with the tips of his fingers, pressing them against his neck. “They’re cool. I like them. They’re like yours.”
“My ears are not toys,” I say, stepping toward him. “Take them off.”
“We paid a dollar for them,” says Jake, clamping his hands over the green ears as if they are hearing some awful sound his other ears can’t.
Even though I don’t like the ears, I let the kids keep them on. They can be removed.
“All the kids are wearing them,” Izzy repeats.
“God,” I say, leaning my head against the doorframe. The kids glare at me, their arms crossed, their ears bright. I shake my head. Dammit. I always said I’d be the sort of parent who wouldn’t care about dyed hair, tattoos, or piercings. Even though I don’t like the ears, I let the kids keep them on. They can be removed. And I’ve always tried to think of my own ears as something of an accessory. It would be funny if I weren’t pissed, didn’t have to fight the urge to swipe Jake’s ears off his neck when he walks past me in the kitchen.
Mrs. Simon and a little boy arrive at our house around four-thirty. I figure the boy is Isaiah. Jacob waves to him and they start playing Frisbee in the yard. Izzy talks with Mrs. Simon on the porch, keeps glancing at the driveway like her mother and Burke are going to materialize.
“You were right to leave that place,” says Mrs. Simon to Izzy, but she looks at me and squints hard, like since I’m a sign of the second coming I should have the power to right things.
Sorry lady, I think. I’m not as magical as I look.
Even if Lee hasn’t left Burke yet, Izzy is safe and that’s what matters for now.
Tuesday afternoon at the tattoo parlor, people with plastic ears filter through the store to get pictures with me. After the eighth or ninth photo it starts to get annoying. Part of me feels like I’m being appreciated. Part of me feels like I’m being mocked. Zip stares at the plastic ears and I tell him about the ones Izzy and Jake were wearing. Zip nods and rubs his hands together. I know tonight he’s going to make a few calls, find a plastic ear supplier. Izzy and Jake arrive at the parlor still wearing their extra ears. I don’t think they took them off for bed last night.
When we arrive home for dinner, Mrs. Simon and Isaiah are on the porch. I give them a nod and troop inside. Izzy chats with Mrs. Simon and I hear them through the open window.
Mrs. Simon says, “That’s how he’s going to be known, as the kid whose mother tells the future. That’s what I’m giving him. Maybe he’ll have a gift, too.”
I shake my head, keep my fingers crossed that Isaiah can just live down his mother’s reputation. Everything she says sounds so earnest, I can’t help but feel bad for her. Maybe she really thinks this is a good thing for Isaiah. But she doesn’t hear the playground teasing. Or she ignores it well.
Back at the tattoo parlor Lee troops in around seven. Izzy locks herself in the restroom in back. Lee knocks on the door until her knuckles are red.
“Dammit,” she says, “you need to come home. Things are going to get better. They are getting better. Burke and I are going to counseling next week.”
“No, you’re not,” I say, leaning against the wall by the bathroom door.
“If that bastard yells at you again I’m going to punch him even harder,” says Izzy.
“Counseling,” says Lee, pounding on the door. “I’m going to make an appointment.”
“That’s bullshit,” Izzy says. “You said you’d make an appointment last week and the asshole said no way in hell was he going.”
Lee gives up after a half-hour, has to get to work. She’s near hoarse and Zip is giving her dark looks, says she’s going to scare away customers.
I watch her leave. On the way out she passes three people with plastic ears coming in.
By Thursday morning the ear trend is all over town. At the grocery store there are little kids, toddlers, with tiny ears on the sides of their necks. Even some of their mothers have two sets of ears. Elementary school kids running past the tattoo parlor window on their way home have two sets of ears. Half of our customers are wearing them, too. It’s so pervasive that the ears start looking normal to me. Expected. When the kids and I get home, Isaiah and his mother are in the front yard arguing about ears.
“I don’t understand why I can’t wear them,” he says. He has his fists clenched. Mrs. Simon is trying to pry his hands open and not having much success. Isaiah writhes out of her grasp, tucks his fists close to his chest, and pretty soon he’s in a tight ball on our lawn. Mrs. Simon looks down at him, frowns, and shakes her head, hands on hips.
When she sees me and the kids, she blushes.
“Isaiah,” she says, “you need to stand up.”
“No,” he says, his voice muffled since he’s in a tiny ball. “Not until you let me wear my ears. Not until you stop standing on the corner and yelling things and making the kids laugh. Not until you get a real job and move out of the stupid apartment. I hate you.”
“We’ll talk about this later,” she says. “There are people here. Jake. Your friend.”
Isaiah raises his head, sees Jake, uncurls from his ball and runs toward my son.
Mrs. Simon watches him, hands on hips, says, “I’m sorry about that,” to me.
Mothers embarrass their kids. Kids embarrass their mothers. Such is life. I shrug. By the time I call the kids in for dinner, Jake has helped Isaiah attach the ears to the sides of his neck. Mrs. Simon mutters something about the devil under her breath but doesn’t make him take the ears off.
Friday afternoon the middle-aged guy comes in with his camera and starts taking pictures of me. I stare at him for a moment. Most people realize their audacity and stop photographing me when I glare. Not this one. He snaps six photos then turns around. I think he’s going to leave, but he starts taking pictures of Jake sitting on his red stool.
“Hey,” I say, “my kid is off limits.” I march over to my son but the paunchy guy is still clicking away, gets a couple of pictures of me and Jake before I get between them.
“Quit it,” I say, but the guy skirts to the side a bit, gets shots of us both before he puts down his camera. I’m trying to decide if I should lunge for the camera or not when he fishes in his jeans pocket and hands me a twenty, then tousles Jake’s hair.
“Thanks,” he says cheerfully.
Maybe if it were the nineteen-twenties and I were in a sideshow with fat ladies and bearded ladies and skeleton women, I would be fine with the fact he doesn’t ask to take pictures, just gives me cash and figures that makes everything okay. Even now, maybe if I didn’t have a kid I wouldn’t mind weirdoes like him as long as I was paid enough to be on display. But I do have a kid. I am a mother. And mothers do a lot of things because of their children that they wouldn’t do otherwise. I left my boyfriend because I was worried about the effect it would have on Jake to hear his mother called all those awful names. And now middle-aged men are patting my son’s head like Jake is just another exhibit.
I lose it.
“You are not fucking touching my kid.” I wrest the camera from his hand and grab his arm, grip hard enough to make him wince and writhe and clutch at the air trying to escape.
“Lady,” he yelps, “you’re hurting me.”
The middle aged man is bigger than me, maybe six foot and two hundred pounds to my five foot four and one-twenty, so I’m not quite sure how I manage to haul him past Zip, four staring customers, and thirty feet of wall covered with tattoo flash pictures. Must be adrenalin.
I fling him out the door and throw the camera after him. It cracks against the sidewalk.
“To hell with it,” I tell Zip. “This is it. No more shirts. No more logo.”
Izzy and Jake and I take all the shirts and there’s nothing Zip can do about it. Of course there are already lots of ears and shirts in circulation and I can’t do a damn thing about that, but I can stop more from being sold. Kids and mothers and tattoo shop patrons will wear the ears for another week or two until everyone has them, until they look so normal they are old, and then everyone will move on to the next fad.
For a very brief moment I’m certain that my second pair of ears can hear the voices of angels.
When we arrive home, Lee and Burke are standing beside Lee’s car in the driveway. Mrs. Simon and Isaiah are at the edge of the driveway, maybe five paces away from them, and Mrs. Simon has her hands on her hips. Lee marches up to Izzy as soon as she gets out of the car, grabs her daughter’s arm.
“Honey, you need to come home,” says Lee, tugging.
“Not if you’re going to put up with all that shit from that bastard,” says Izzy.
“Don’t talk to me like that,” says Lee.
“He does,” says Izzy, glaring at Burke. “Just learn to read already. It’s not some big fucking secret that you can’t.”
“I love Burke,” says Lee, but her throat catches.
“He gave me fucking bruises,” says Izzy.
“A great storm will strike you down,” Mrs. Simon says to Burke.
“Your wealth will be consumed,” Mrs. Simon says. “Your stone heart will be crushed.”
Lee glances at Burke. Izzy glares at him. Lee tugs harder and Izzy’s feet slip just a bit, a couple paces closer to the car, and I’m wondering how long they will keep this up, who will win out, and I hope it’s not Lee. Izzy should not be going back to Burke’s, whether or not he’s afraid of her. Mrs. Simon grabs Izzy’s other arm and she and Lee are both tugging.
For a very brief moment I’m certain that my second pair of ears can hear the voices of angels. Maybe it is the brightness of the sun in my eyes but I see Lee with many ears on her neck and chest and arms, plastic ears that don’t hear. I see her skin pocked with closed eyes. But as I say, the sun is bright and what I think I see only lasts a moment.
I take a deep breath because Lee is my friend. Because she is a mother. Because I want to believe she is trying to do what’s right for her child. But she’s not. I walk over to Lee and she smiles at me like she thinks I’m going to talk with Izzy and tell her to go back to Burke’s.
“If you try to take her,” I say, “I’m going to call child protective services.”
Lee’s eyes are huge. “God.” She drops Izzy’s arm. “You’re my friend. You’re supposed to support me on this.”
I shake my head.
Mrs. Simon lets go of Izzy’s other arm. Izzy steps toward her and Isaiah and Jake, their plastic ears bright on the sides of their necks.
“Come on,” Lee calls over her shoulder to Burke. “We have to get her home. She’s our daughter. You said you’d help me do this.”
Burke toes the ground and doesn’t move.
“Come on,” she says again, but he is still.
Lee looks from me to Izzy to Mrs. Simon to Burke. She drops to her knees on our lawn, her elbows on the grass, her head on the grass, her hair spread out like a dark halo against the green. She is shaking, crying, and when I squint I can see her trying to cover her many ears, her many eyes, with one pair of hands.
Teresa Milbrodt received her MFA in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University. Her stories have appeared in Nimrod, North American Review, Crazyhorse, The Cream City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New Orleans Review, Natural Bridge, and Indiana Review, among other literary magazines. Her work has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western State College of Colorado.
Tabloid Dreams by Robert Olen Butler.
Robert Olen Butler is one of my literary gods, and this short story collection is why. It contains gems such as “Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Philandering Husband,” “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed,” and “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot.” Butler is a master of voice, humor, and the magically real. Many of these stories rank right up there with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich.
Erdrich’s novels are always fun combinations of myth, magic, humor, and characters that are easy to fall in love with. This is one of my favorites, and not just because it involves a cross-dressing priest.
The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction edited by Michael Martone and Lex Williford, 1999 edition.
I love this collection because it involves a wide range of stories, styles, and authors, and all the fiction is fantastic. My favorites include “Tall Tales from the Meekong Delta” by Kate Braverman, “Gryphon” by Charles Baxter, and “The Prophet from Jupiter” by Tony Earley. Sadly some real gems were taken out of the 2007 edition, so I advise you to find the earlier version.
Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie.
This is a very thought-provoking collection of stories as the characters are exploring cultural gray areas and asking themselves (and by extension, the reader) a lot of difficult questions. It’s the best fiction I’ve read about what it means to live in a post 9-11 world, and how that tragedy changed the way we think in the United States.
Great Vegetarian Dishes by Kurma Dasa.
If you read one cookbook by a Hare Krishna this year, this should be it. I love reading recipes (occasionally I make them, too), and this is the only cookbook I own that discusses karma and the connection between food and spirituality. It’s also multi-ethnic, as it includes recipes for how to make yogurt, ghee, enchiladas, asparagus and tomato quiche, and deep-fried milk balls in rose syrup (which sound interesting and I keep meaning to try them…).
I also recommend the artwork of Sandy Skoglund. Google her name, and you’ll find many great hits for images of her work. She builds and photographs life-sized dioramas (my favorite involves cheese puffs), and both the pictures and sculptures are phenomenal.