Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Fall 2013    poetry    all issues


Slater Welte
What Made Us Leave

Heather Frese
The Coffee Table Book of Funeral Etiquette

Gibson Monk
The Cedar Orb

Bronwyn Berg
Try to Be Normal

Jessie Foley
Night Swimming

E. Ce Miller
A Shock to the System

Lucy Tan

Daniel C. Bryant
En route

Marc Burgett
Armed and Dangerous

Liz Cook
Why You Should Never Speak To Your First Love

Eileen Arthurs
Investing in Plastic

Barry Bergman
This Mascot Business

Katherine Enggass

Maria Hummer
The Person I Was Yesterday

Tony Burnett
Painting Over Stains

Karen Pullen
Something to Tell Henry

Catherine Bell
Getting Away

Steven Lee Beeber
The Box

Jessica Bagwell

Jodi Barnes
Six Days of Pritchett

Writer's Site

Karen Pullen

Something to Tell Henry

Tugging on her floppy hat, Ava steps off the bus into the baking oven that is Tampa in July. She walks past pastel-colored stucco walls softened by red hibiscus and spiny agave, the only sound the stuttering of sulfurous sprinklers. An armadillo enlarges its burrow under an azalea bush. She watches for a moment. It’s something to tell her son Henry about. Is an armadillo a reptile? Does it lay eggs? He will know, or pretend to know. Though only seven, he likes to be an expert in everything scientific.

Ava is the nanny for Terry and Clara Wicker’s three-year-old twin sons. She got the job two months ago through her sister Fran, whose husband works in Terry’s bank. Ava prefers being a nanny to her previous job at a daycare, except for Clara’s never-ending requests for favors—“Ava, would you mind . . .” folding the laundry, starting dinner, cleaning up after Sigmund? Sigmund, a large colorful parrot, has the run of the house, and deposits crusty cement-like blobs wherever he perches. But the pay is decent and she enjoys working with two boys instead of a dozen. Even though the twins are holy terrors with ten-second attention spans, Ava’s already made a difference in their lives. For one thing, they’re now potty-trained, mostly. Clara still puts diapers on them at bedtime, but the first thing each morning Ava removes those diapers and lets them run around in their shorts, no underpants, so they can easily access their little squirters when they have to go. Clara gave Ava a fifty-dollar tip for potty-training them. Now Ava is working on their language, which, until recently, has been nearly unintelligible twin-speak. She withholds treats until they pronounce words correctly. It’s working, almost too well. Just yesterday Dylan said perfectly, “I want more cookies, please,” shrieking it over and over until he was banished to the naughty seat.

The Wicker house is a peach-colored stucco mansion on the bay, with a red tile roof and a flagstone courtyard already, at eight-thirty in the morning, stunningly hot. Once inside, Ava pulls a sweater out of her tote bag; Clara keeps the thermostat on frigid. In the Florida room, Joe and Dylan sit slack-jawed and unmoving in front of the TV—the only time they are ever immobile while awake—still wearing their pajamas. Cute dark-haired boys, with thickly-lashed blue eyes, dimples and a sprinkling of freckles, they need activity. Today it’s too hot for the park but they can play in the sprinkler to work off energy. She can drag their wading pool under the pergola so they’ll be shaded. She sends them upstairs to put on their bathing suits and goes back to the kitchen to fill a pitcher with cold water.

Ava halts in the kitchen doorway because Terry Wicker stands by the sink, dressed for work in his banker’s navy suit and shined shoes, his thick sandy hair gelled into submission. His unsmiling face is a particular shade of red Ava knows well. Her ex had the same dark flush, a sign of high blood pressure, booze, and a temper. Ava tends to avoid Terry though he is polite enough.

“Look.” He points through a window. A few feet from the seawall, black dorsal fins break the bright choppy water. Dolphins. A pod, Henry has told her. A pod of dolphins. One of them spouts a gust.

“Cool,” Ava says, “my son’s favorite animal,” though she suspects Henry would adore Sigmund, who clings to his perch in the sunny corner muttering as he combs through his feathers. She wishes Henry could hear the bird talk. Sigmund sounds exactly like Clara, who’s taught him “don’t worry, be happy,” “peace, brother,” and other upbeat sayings in her lisping girlish voice.

Terry drapes his jacket and tie over a chair. “My boys like T-Rex. Anything that roars and bites and scares the crap out of people. Like them.”

Ava laughs. “You’re right. They’re tough.”

“We must’ve had hardy forefathers. Clara and I are easily bruised types.” A smile opens his face, suddenly likeable. He goes out the back door into the garage. Through a kitchen window she sees him come around the corner wheeling a metal tank and carrying a long wand. He aims the wand at the ground and a blast of flames roars out. He sweeps it back and forth over the white gravel, incinerating every stray blade of green. Now that’s something to tell Henry, how Mr. Wicker uses a flamethrower to get rid of crabgrass.

“Ava?” Clara calls from the top of the stairs. She wears a white negligee so sheer that Ava can see her dark nipples and bikini underpants. She is not a typical mother-of-toddlers like the daycare moms, frazzled-looking women who put themselves last, no makeup, hair scraped into a pony tail. Curvy and dimpled, with dark-gold hair flowing over her shoulders, Clara had been some sort of entertainer, a dancer or possibly a stripper, before getting pregnant with the twins and marrying Terry, a bank president. Marriage hasn’t changed her clothing style—skin-tight with cleavage—though according to Fran the labels have had a significant upgrade. Fran says everyone at Terry’s bank thinks Clara is a piece of work.

Clara tilts her head and bites her lower lip, a flirty look. “If you have time today? Terry loves your potato salad. And oven-fried chicken. And while the boys are sleeping, the living room needs cleaning. ” The living room needs cleaning because Sigmund frequently perches in there. It’s easy to get his poop off the marble floors, swirled pink-white-brown like Neapolitan ice cream, but the blobs stick to the upholstery. “One other thing. Can you take the boys out this afternoon? I need privacy.”

Ah. Ava studies Clara’s face, her almond eyes, dark brows like crescent moons, slightly pink skin. Pink with guilt, perhaps. Ava strongly suspects that Clara wants them gone so that she can spend the afternoon with her lover. Ava’s never met the man, but nearly every time she takes the boys out to give Clara “privacy,” a black Ford 350 will be parked down the street, Eric Nowicki, General Contractor printed on its door. And once she overheard Clara on the phone, talking about Eric and his penis the size of a beer can. “A tall boy, not the 12-ounce,” she’d whispered, giggling. Something Ava would rather not know, though the image is now stuck in her head.

“It’s kinda hot to be outside,” Ava says.

“You can take my car. Go to the mall or the movies. I’ll pay extra.”

Ava shrugs. “Sure.” The money is a bribe to buy her silence, completely unnecessary concerning the business with Eric since Ava wants no part of the Wicker family melodrama. She’s happy to go to the mall and know nothing, la-la-la-la-la, avoid the man entirely.

“Try to be gone by one.”

“The boys don’t wake up until two.”

“Then get them up early.” Clara sounds exasperated.

Okay. Clara doesn’t care how tired, cranky, and hyperactive her sons are, as long as they are out of the house when Eric arrives. Ava goes back to the kitchen muttering the words she saves up to say when no one is listening: useless fucking whore, repeating the words until she passes the dining room and realizes that Terry stands inside the doorway. He has come in from the yard. He has heard her. His bleak angry eyes bore into hers, and she looks right back, embarrassed. She smacks her hand over her mouth. “Geez, sorry.”

“No problem.” His expression is frozen but his face matches the dining room walls, tomato soup.

She feels an impulse to say more, to make an excuse for Clara, then an impulse to warn Clara that Terry might have heard her—competing impulses that cancel each other out.

As potatoes simmer and breaded chicken bakes, Ava watches the boys splash in the wading pool. She’s lulled by a breeze warming her skin, the iodine smell of the sea, the cries of gulls. She wonders what her son is up to in his classroom. He doesn’t seem to miss having a dad. Before Henry was born, his father lit out for Nevada to find work, promising to send money. Though she never heard from him again, Ava managed. She and Henry lived with Fran while Ava earned her associate’s degree in early childhood, not a money-making career but Medicaid and food stamps kept them healthy and fed. She’s even bought a little house recently, a fixer-upper near Fran’s, and does that feel good, her own place with a yard. Not the greatest neighborhood, but a short walk to the bus, the library, the school.

A cry for help startles her. Leaving the boys fighting over the hose, Ava finds Clara in the courtyard, dancing around the base of a royal palm. Thirty feet above them, Sigmund nestles in the fronds, preening and muttering to himself.

“I’ll get a ladder if you want,” Ava says.

“No, he’ll fly away. He’ll only come down when he wants to. Problem is the other birds will attack him, he’s so big and odd.” Clara sighs. “Ava, dear, do you know what I need? I need a mud wrap. Get me an appointment for eleven, would you? The spa number’s on the bulletin board. You’ll keep an eye on Sigmund, won’t you? Keep him out of trouble.”

Add parrot rescue to Ava’s list of chores.

Ava calls the spa to make Clara’s appointment. The receptionist is rude, inspiring thoughts about making numerous fake appointments. Maybe another day. Ava is horrified by the price—$195 would feed Henry and her for a month. Clara seems so careless with her money. Terry’s money. Many of the clothes in Clara’s overstuffed closet still sport price tags, and there are at least sixty pairs of shoes. How many shoes do you need? Well, Ava needs another pair—her left big toe is starting to poke through—but it’s not until the fourth paycheck each month that she has any extra cash. She’s been saving up a cushion, a few hundred dollars so she won’t have to worry about getting sick, or buying medicine. If they stay healthy, knock knock, some day she might be able to afford a car. Today’s bonus will go to a new pair of shoes for herself, and a trip to the thrift store to buy pants for Henry.

She gives the boys lunch then drags them protesting into their beds where they immediately fall into a deep sleep. She boils eggs, chops celery, pickles and onions, and mixes it all together with the potatoes and lots of mayo. In the living room she sprays cleaner on the coffee table, a slab of glass on driftwood legs. A brick planter is crammed with fake dust-coated plants. More spray, more wiping. Sigmund has pooped all over the leather sofa so she mists the sofa liberally, leaving the cleaner to work. A shelf holds dozens of dusty glass figurines and she wipes them one by one, admiring a little dolphin in a graceful mid-leap.

Outside, Sigmund has migrated to the back of the house, high up in a clump of palm trees leaning over the seawall. She calls out to him, and the bird caws but doesn’t budge. A pair of seagulls circles the clump of trees and lands close to him. “Peace!” he says, as one of the gulls opens its wings and hops toward him. Sigmund raises his crest, cries, “Peace!” again, and takes flight. The gulls attack him, screeching, diving until they knock Sigmund into the water. Ava watches to see if he can swim, but his feathers are soaked and he bobs up and down with the lapping waves. He looks stunned, his beady eyes closed. She trots onto the dock and grabs a fish net hanging from a hook. The water isn’t very deep so she removes her shoes, climbs down the ladder and wades over to Sigmund. She scoops him up in the net and cuddles him as he mutters little caws. She wonders if the swim will loosen his feathers. She has been wanting one for Henry, but Sigmund doesn’t seem to shed.

Awakened too early, the boys are cranky as hell as Ava jollies them into going potty then putting on their shoes. She has to promise ice cream to get them into the car. Clara’s Cadillac is custom-painted a pale mint green and clean as new. Ava drives slowly. She likes driving a rich lady’s Cadillac, pretending it is her car.

They wander around the mall for hours eating ice cream and candy, playing in the mall playspace, riding the escalators. It’s not hard to entertain three-year-olds if you devote yourself to them utterly, and that is Ava’s job. At four o’clock, the boys have had enough of the mall, and Ava figures it is safe to take them home.

Driving home, she passes Chickadees, the daycare where she used to work in the two-year-old classroom. Do the potty dance, sing the alphabet, feed dollies. An exhausting, hard job, where the kidlets clung to her all day, banged on each other, screamed “no” and “mine” every other word. Nanny work is much easier.

The sight of Eric Nowicki’s big black pickup in the driveway surprises Ava. Her heart begins to pound a little faster.

She turns to hush the boys. Joe has just socked Dylan, who is shrieking like it doesn’t happen twenty times an hour. Dylan reaches out and grabs Joe’s ear and pulls, hard. Ava needs to get rid of these children, collect her paycheck, and catch the 5:12 bus in order to pick up Henry at Fran’s by 5:30. She refuses to drive around for another hour, waiting for Eric to leave. She releases the twins from their car seats and leads them along the side of the house to the back door.

The house is freezing cold as usual, and quiet. Clara must be upstairs. “Can we watch a show?” Joe asks, enunciating perfectly, and Ava smiles at him for being such a good little talker. TV will keep them quiet, occupied, while she figures out what to do. She turns on the TV and gives them a bowl of pretzels. With a table knife she begins to scrape the softened blobs from the leather sofa. They come off easily, and she is soon finished. Now what? She stands at the bottom of the stairs, listens, hears the murmur of their voices. Clara’s bedroom door must be open. For Christ’s sake, doesn’t Clara realize the boys are here?

Ava climbs the stairs, leans against the wall and knocks on the doorframe. “Uh, Clara? I have to leave now.”

Clara says, “Come on in, honey.”

Ava doesn’t move. “It’s Friday and I need to get paid.”

A man appears in the doorway, muscular and shirtless. His thickly-lashed blue eyes are wide-apart, his skin lightly freckled. Ava takes him in, the dark floppy hair, the deep dimples as he grins, and she gasps, not because he’s nice-looking, not because he’s half-naked in Clara’s bedroom with a tall boy in his pants. She’s shocked because she’s seen the smaller versions of his face a thousand times in the past two months. She claps her hands to her mouth. Over Eric’s shoulder she sees Clara reclining in bed, smiling at her, her head tilted. Repulsive.

“What the fuck is going on?” Ava asks. Clearly it’s not necessary to be polite.

Eric takes hold of Ava’s arm with a vise-like grip, locking her gaze until she flushes and sweat breaks out on her face. “You gonna tell on us?”

She yanks out of his grasp. “I need to get paid.”

“Can it wait till Monday?” Clara asks in her whispery voice from inside the bedroom.

“No.” Ava doesn’t feel like explaining that she has to buy groceries, pay the electric bill.

“Bring me my checkbook then, in my purse. Downstairs.”

She finds Clara’s purse, a beautiful red Coach bag, and rummages for the checkbook. She glances at the twins; they are feeding each other pretzels as Ernie sings about his rubber ducky.

Upstairs again, Clara’s wrapped the sheet around her chest, dark-gold hair tangled on her bare shoulders. Eric sits on the bed tying his shoes. The room smells of perfume and sweat. “Shouldn’t he be hiding in the closet?” Ava’s voice is strangled, she can barely choke out the words.

Flushing, Clara hands her a check. “There’s extra for you.” She’s added a hundred to Ava’s weekly wage.

“It’s not right, you know. The boys might come up here.”

“Well, they didn’t, did they?”

“Terry will be home any minute.”

Clara sinks down onto her pillow, turns onto her side, pulls the sheets over her shoulders. “You better say nothing. And go.”

“That’s right.” When Ava shuts the bedroom door, she is shaking.

What a mess.

Ava unzips the red Coach bag, takes out Clara’s wallet with its wad of cash, and removes six twenties. Clara will never miss it, she doesn’t know what she has. She goes into the living room and slips the glass dolphin into her pocket. She scoops half the potato salad into a plastic tub along with four pieces of the oven-baked chicken and puts the container into her tote bag, along with a bottle of citrusy bath gel, part of a gift set Clara’s forgotten about in the laundry room.

She kisses the boys’ freckled noses, forcing Joe then Dylan to meet her gaze for an instant with their lovely blue eyes. “Goodbye, little friends,” she says, and they turn back to the TV. Elmo is talking about imagination, something Ava needs no more of today.

As she’s smartly plucking a green feather from Sigmund’s tail—he doesn’t say a word—she hears the garage door open. It’s Terry, no doubt rolling his gold Lexus past Eric’s black pickup. This is going to be interesting but Ava won’t stay to witness Terry’s humiliation. She folds her sweater and tucks it in her tote bag. She opens the back door, stands aside to let Terry in. He’s even more red than usual.

“Why is that prick here?” he asks.

Ava shrugs. “I have to leave now. The boys are watching TV.” She studies his face. Is he angry? Perhaps ashamed that there’s a witness. “I won’t tell anyone,” she says. He nods, then charges past her, knocking a stool to the floor. She pictures Eric burned black and crispy by the flamethrower.

The twins will be okay, she hopes, though Sesame Street will never produce the Big Bird episode addressing this particular muddle.

At Fran’s, Henry sits on the steps clutching his backpack. He jumps up. “Look, Mom, I got a WOW sticker. I was the only kid in the class to get one today. Mrs. Harmon says I am a whiz at math, and I am way ahead on my book tally, I’ve read sixteen books this month. Knock, knock.” He waits. “I said, knock, knock, Mom.” His hair is sweaty, his glasses smudged, and something sticky has spilled down his front and collected grime. They walk along slowly, three blocks to their house.

Ava’s been murmuring oh my, and that’s great. “Sorry, who’s there?”


“Mister who?” She takes Henry’s hand and squeezes it.

“Sorry I missed her name, what is it again?”

“You’re funny.” Ava unlocks the door to her frame house with its four cramped rooms and peeling paint. She wants to scrape and paint it soon. She has almost decided on yellow but might go with a light creamy green like the Cadillac. She puts out the chicken and potato salad, glad she doesn’t have to cook dinner.

Tucking Henry into bed, Ava gives him Sigmund’s bright green feather, tells him about the parrot’s escape and rescue. She sets the glass dolphin on his bedside table. “I saw a pod today.”

“It’s a bottlenose. They’re the smartest of all dolphins,” Henry says.

“I am the mother of the smartest dolphin.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“Mrs. Wicker gave it to me.” Ava slides Henry’s glasses off his face and gently rubs the faint red marks they’ve left on each side of his nose. “Oh, and I saw an armadillo digging a burrow. Do they lay eggs?”

“Mom, it’s so cool. They lay one egg, with four babies in it.”


“What’s that?”

“Quadruplets, means four babies born at once.”

“Your job is good, isn’t it.”

“Yes, sweetie. It’s pretty good.” Ava hugs her son for a long moment, pressing her face against his cool silky cheek. He smells faintly orange from the bath gel.

Ava counts her money. Forget new shoes, she’ll need it all to tide her over while she finds a new job. Maybe a classroom of fours. Fours use their words, love silly jokes. She can teach them letters, how to use scissors, the difference between right and wrong.

She lies down on her bed, feeling wiped out. She thinks about Terry’s face when he’d overheard her call Clara such a terrible name. Did he already know about Eric? Had he seen the truck parked outside his house all those afternoons? Did he know everything?

She allows herself a brief pang of sadness at having to leave the boys. Goodbye, little friends. Hang tough.

Karen Pullen’s first novel Cold Feet was published by Five Star Cengage in January, 2013. She’s written short stories for Spinetingler, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, bosque, and Every Day Fiction. She is an innkeeper in Pittsboro, NC. “Something to Tell Henry” was inspired by her long-ago experiences as a babysitter in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Dotted Line