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I am an expert in empty houses. I haven't paid rent in over two years. People are constantly leaving in a hurry. They have plants to water, mail to collect. They have old dogs and worried cats. They get my name from a friend of a friend, and I turn up with a tiny-sized tote--this tells them right away that I'm not an invader. I'm always surprised at how good they make me feel. Warm and trustworthy. Neighborly.

I call my brother Randy on my way into town. It's the end of the day, rush hour, and Randy I know is getting ready to work. I close the door of the phone booth and now I feel like Houdini, Houdini as a woman in a strong glass box. Even with the door shut, I have to shout to make him hear me. There didn't used to be so many cars and trucks.

"I'm back," I tell him. "I've got a new gig."

"A job?" asks Randy. He's joking, I know it. I've stayed with him a few times, between empty houses, but now he's married, and I'm self-sufficient. I haven't dropped in on him for six months running.

"A house," I say. "Right here in town." I lean against the glass; it warms my shoulder. This might be the last real phone booth in all the Garden State. "A shingled house with a yard in back. Nice big elm trees all around. Come over and see it. You'll feel right at home."

"What street?" asks Randy. Already he's suspicious. I can't fool him, but I don't really try.

I name the street. He pauses. I can't wait; I tell him the number.

"So the Jeffreys' house," he says. "Right next door to Mom."

"Janet Jeffrey took Herb to Omaha for new bone marrow."

"That's not funny, Nina. Not funny at all."

"Not the Herb part. Poor Herb. But back on the street--doesn't that give you a chuckle?"

"For how long?" he asks.

"They don't know yet. It could be weeks."

Randy changes his mind. He does that to me sometimes, but I always roll with his punches. "That's great news," he says. I switch shoulders, feel the sunwarmth spread. I wonder if the Jeffreys have lawn chairs in the backyard, so Randy and I can sit outside and smoke.

"You can help Mom," I hear him saying. "She needs company, what with Dick taking off."

I crack the door of the phone booth open.

"I can't hear you," I shout. I hold the receiver to the car-whipped wind. "Come over after work. I'll be there in an hour."

The wind blows in both directions. I can't hear him say when he'll stop by for a visit.

My mother's forearms are hinging like a hatch; she thinks she's on a runway guiding in a loaded jet. I'd rather park on the street for a quick getaway if I need it, but I like to live by certain guidelines, little principles that have seen me through. The one I'm thinking of at the moment is this: Small concessions are never a waste of time. I pull my car into the Jeffreys' garage. It's better than my mother's: a car fits.

"Poor Herb," says my mother. "New bone marrow, can you imagine? They asked me to take the test, but I said no. They're not family."

This is my mother's way of telling me that if I were dying, she'd take the test. I'll save her the trouble: we'd never be a match.

She hands me the keys and Janet Jeffrey's list, "Household Instructions for Nina, Thanx so much!!" Two pages in apricot ink. My mother will be hard-pressed to improve on it.

"Herb can't be that bad off. Janet had time to write this."

"Don't forget to buy toilet paper. Janet will want you to supply your own. Paper towels. Garbage bags. Wet and dry cat food. Janet says Dougie takes both."

I look around and see Dougie lying under the kitchen table and that stuns me. Dougie's as old as I am, which is impossible, but maybe it's true. I can't wait to tell Randy. We had talked about killing off that cat a hundred times on visits to the old neighborhood. We never settled on a nice quiet way to do it.

"Who's been taking care of him?" The Jeffreys have been gone for a week.

"Jim Spinks, the middle boy across the street. He's 13."

It amazes me that she still knows the kids on the block. Most of the houses have changed hands more than once, and the neighbors don't talk to each other anymore, or anyway not to me. They scurry inside when they see me coming, my engine gunning, my hair wild from the wind. There's something about the set of my shoulders and the square of my hips that makes people nervous. If you can't be tall, wide is the next best thing.

Or maybe it's not the way I look. Maybe the stories about Randy and me are legendary, passed like tribal history from neighbor to neighbor, or disclosed as part of any real estate sale on the block. We did a few things in our youth. Maybe they remember all that.

My mother opens Mrs. Jeffrey's refrigerator.

"I'll be fine," I say quickly. I want her to go home. "I'll just settle in"--I wave my apricot pages--"and bone up." My mother sighs and edges out the door. She doesn't offer casserole, such is the reach of my luck.

When I get back from the 7-Eleven, I turn out the lights and wait. I know she's waiting, too, sitting in her living room with her plants and my father's plaster globe. It's a relief map of the world, with ridges for mountain ranges and bumps for tiny islands that Randy called nips on a titty. I checked my own the night he told me that. They were just coming out, ugly, unwanted. Various men have praised them since, but I never did get the praise I wanted from Randy. I tried a few times--I was ten or maybe more. Fourteen maybe; I can't say exactly, but I know I had something under my shirt to show him. He was interested for a while, I remember his interest, until one day he told me to knock it off and he hit me. Not a hard slap, more like a friendly punch. After that, it was strictly boy-stuff between us. Like we had been brothers or teammates all along. If he came over tonight and made that joke again, if he compared those islands to my grownup bruiser bumps, or squeezed me hard, the way he used to, I'd scream with laughter like when we were kids. I'd let him sock me a punch if he wanted to. The globe itself is worthless. It names a lot of countries that don't exist anymore.

I pick up the phone and call Randy again.

"The hell I will," he says. All I've asked is, drive your pickup over and let's clean Dick's stuff out of Mom's garage. He was a great one for equipment, Dick. Ride-on mower, jigsaw, a two-hose vac for my mother's Buick. He left it all behind when he took off, handing my mother his Costco card. Dad's pension will pay till she's gone. She didn't need Dick for the money.

"Just get it hauled away," says Randy. He's got a bar on the other side of town--a sports bar with big-screen TVS and a decent steak off the grill. "I've got better things to do."

"It might be worth something. There might be a few hundred bucks just sitting there. That mower, for instance. The clubs. You can't see Mom needing those clubs."

"The clubs are gone. I took the clubs."

"You took the clubs?"

"I've been playing."


"Muni course. Just nine holes," he says, and I hear that note in his voice, that funny little note. He's done that to me before. You might call it an apology, but then again.

"Just the nine holes," my brother says to me.

"Help me get that mower started."

"The hell I will."

My mother gives up around eleven. Hard to tell, the way her house is lit up, but at eleven, the bedroom lights go low, and I begin to move around.

I don't need light. The Jeffreys' house is my mother's, flipped. Our kitchen, their laundry. Our dining room, their stairs. Only the upstairs bathroom is different. The Jeffreys put in bright blue tile and a long skylight over the tub. That surprises me, for no good reason. A customized bathroom should not throw me for a loop.

I go back downstairs and sit in the living room, away from the window on the street. There are china rabbits on the side tables but no ashtray in sight. I light a joint, take a hit, tap the ash into the palm of my hand. I smoke it down, but the high comes on slow. The days and nights have slowed like that for me. Where everything used to move fast, there are long minutes of stillness. You ought to appreciate that, I say aloud. Everybody else is out looking for that kind of peace. Randy out there on the golf course, swinging the irons, he's looking for a big comfy chair in the Jeffreys' living room, smoking down the butt. I fall asleep sitting there, cupping the ash like a handful of gold.

The next morning, Jim Spinks comes by to feed Dougie. I invite him to come in and give him a drink of water.

"I've got the cat now," I tell Jimmy Spinks. "Mrs. Jeffrey left me instructions."

The boy lights up like a Christmas candle.

"Great," he says. "I don't like that cat. Look what it did." He holds out his hand. His arm is thin and barely freckled. His t-shirt hangs from his shoulder like a cape. I see three long scratches down the back of his hand, scabbed in little beads like poison ivy.

"I know that cat," I tell him. I'm still a little high from the night before so I walk around the kitchen, not wanting the boy to see. "He's a very sneaky cat."

Jimmy Spinks looks interested. I don't know kids, but I've been told they like a story.

"My brother Randy and I used to live next door. So one time Mrs. Jeffrey asked us to take care of Dougie while they were gone for the weekend."

I check his glass and get him more water.

"The first night we came over to feed him, he jumped onto the kitchen counter, right over there, where Mrs. Jeffrey kept a bowl of pinecones and nuts."

"Pinecones and nuts?"

I nod and get up to check. There it is, maybe the same bowl. I show it to Jimmy; he picks up a pecan and tries to crack it with his teeth.

"So Dougie jumped up there and started playing with the nuts. Randy told him to cut it out. The cat didn't listen. So Randy swatted him down, not hard, just a sweep and a swat, to get him off the counter. He took a walnut with him."

"The cat took a walnut?"

"He wanted to play with it. He rolled it down there and back," I point to the hallway, "and in there, too." I get up and walk across the hall to the living room, and Jimmy follows. The Jeffreys have hardwood floors in their living room, something else that's different. They have honey oak floors with the high gloss finish. My mother has Stainmaster.

"Dougie rolled the walnut from one end of the room to the other. It made a big racket. He kept rolling it back and forth, so Randy took it away from him, put it back in the bowl, put the bowl in the kitchen cabinet."

Jimmy Spinks nods twice, maybe three times. I'm telling a good story, and it happens to be true.

"The next day when we came back, Dougie had the walnut again. He was rolling it all over the Living room, batting it back and forth between his paws. We couldn't figure out where he had got it. We checked the kitchen--the cabinet door was shut tight. We looked all around the house for another bowl of nuts, but--nothing."

"Then what?"

"I chased Dougie under the couch and went to pick up the walnut." I lean forward, like I'm scooping up a nut. I raise my fingers to see what I've got and make a magnificent face. "The walnut had whiskers! And two little black eyes looking straight at me!" I throw nothing down to the floor and jump back from Jimmy with a flourish.

"Where was the rest of it?" Jimmy wants to know.

"Randy disposed of it."

"Disposed of it?"

I push my tits together with both of my hands. Jimmy Spinks sees but doesn't comment.

"He put it in the trash," I tell him.

"That's what I would have done," says Jimmy Spinks.

I move my hands to the boy's thin shoulders. "Then you're a smart kid." He looks a little nervous--my wideness again--and leaves the house without finishing his water.

My mother comes over after Jimmy Spinks leaves.

"You had talents," she tells me. "The same as your brother. I want to remind you of that."

"I'm perfectly happy. I don't need more." I hold my voice steady so she'll have to believe, but she shakes her head, leaning on Mrs. Jeffrey's kitchen counter. It's identical to my mother's, green and yellow with metal trim. I imagine we're standing in my mother's kitchen, having our familiar chat.

I want to tell her that I've missed nothing out of life, and it's not my fault that she's alone and old. But what's the point of saying it, when it's so obviously true? My mother is as old as the house we stand in, as old as the house next door, while I'm out in the world, not in need of anything she's got left to offer. The sunlight's coming in strong. I can see the ridges of age in her face, like the surface of the globe she won't throw away, or the shell of a hard brown nut.

"What are you going to do with your life?" she asks. "Tell me that. What are you going to do?"

I left two boxes in my mother's garage. It was the safest place I had to store them, but I wonder now if my mother threw them out. A picture of my parents, my grandmother's shawl. A magic book that Randy gave me which described step-by-step how to stage an amazing escape. The book kept me busy for one whole summer, and that's another little rule that's served me through the years: if you look busy, people leave you alone.

I lean and kiss my mother's wrinkles.

"I have plans," I tell her. "All sorts of projects I'm going to accomplish."

She shakes her head. "You don't know what you're missing," she says. "You should stand right there and figure it out."

I wave to her and walk out of the kitchen. I remember to turn left instead of right as I head down the hall. I think my mother might forget she's in Janet Jeffrey's house and stand there until I come back. But she doesn't. She finds her way home.

After she's gone, I return to the kitchen. I wasn't lying to my mother. I've hit on a project, a little challenge to make the time pass. I crouch down to the lower cabinets. I'm looking for something tall that can take water and a pipe. Out in computerland, people are talking to each other about how to make a bomb. Here in Janet Jeffrey's kitchen, it's Bong Construction 101.

In the third cabinet to the right of the sink, I find a plastic measuring cup with a long spout sticking out near the bottom. The box calls it a gravy strainer, and that's a new one on me. The fat--the smoke--is supposed to rise to the top. The good stuff stays on the bottom.

I can't find another strainer so I settle for a piece of the Jeffreys' screen door. A 3/4" circle near the bottom. I poke the piece of screen halfway down the spout. It makes a snug little shelf, "for keeping us high and dry," I tell the screen, as I back out my pinky. "That's your job. That's all I require."

The thumbhole is trickier. I've got a drill from Herb's workbench, but the bit is bigger than I want. I set the tip a few inches below the lip of the strainer, halfway around between the spout and the handle. It's good, strong plastic. It lets the bit right through without cracking. I blow away the dustings, test my thumb over the hole. Then I go out to enjoy the sunshine. Randy and I will test my handiwork tonight.

In the evening, after my mother drives off to meet a girlfriend for bridge or a movie, I head over to Randy's place. I drive slowly to make sure I don't get there before he does. His truck is there, not Miss Ann's. She's probably at home, sewing curtains. I park in her spot, next to Randy. If she comes and sees her spot taken, maybe she'll turn around and go right back home.

I plan to walk in and pound the bar, demand a cold one before he turns around. But he's just outside the doorway, checking out the lot. He might have been watching when I climbed out of my car. I changed my shirt before I came and tucked the tails into my jeans. Not to meet somebody, not here, at Randy's. But appearances concern him; I've seen that in recent years. I blame Miss Ann. He says it's business.

"Did you ask Mom to come with you?" I don't get a hug, but he does pat my shoulder.

I say quickly, "She had plans."

He cocks his head and gives me a look. He's wearing his old red plaid shirt, but underneath, a blue shirt with pearly buttons. Two-thirds of his beard are gone; there's only the bristle around his mouth, like a basket holding a pair of lips. He's got new glasses--my brother, Ben Franklin, checking me over from the tip of his nose.

"Let's get you a steak," he says. He pulls off his plaid shirt and heads inside. I start to follow, but he turns back quickly, so I have to pull up short. I see copper hairs like clipped wire in his beard. There's hardly a smell of smoke about him.

"No cigarettes anymore in the bar," he tells me.

"But I'm a regular," I joke.

"Even I go outside." He points to the doorway. "People nowadays. They go right out and report you."

"You shouldn't have added food," I say, though that was two years ago. Mom lent him the money. "Before food, you didn't attract that kind of trash."

He laughs, so I show him that I'm putting my cigarettes away, zipping them into an inside pocket. My jacket is thin; I can feel the packet rubbing against my left nipple. I might say something later about the effect, though for now, I save it. Ammunition for Miss Ann.

He tells the waitress to bring me a steak and a beer, and I see her eyes flick at my chopped brown hair, at my dusty boots. She's leaning a little closer than necessary to hear what Randy's saying; I try to catch his eye, meaning to roll mine, but he's busy straightening, stepping back from the girl. She's dumb anyway, doesn't see the family resemblance, or she'd ask me, draught or bottle, and how do I want it cooked. Randy puts his hand on my elbow; I slide into a booth.

"Mom good?" he asks.

I nod. "She's fine." I mock her look and his. "She's at me again--you'd think she'd be glad to see me. Coming home to pay my respects."

Randy frowns. "She's feeling pretty bad for Herb and Janet." He chews a few pretzels. I check out the bowl. No walnuts in there, just pretzels and crackers, powdered orange. "She say anything about Dick?" he asks.

"I forgot to ask." His beard dips; the eyeglasses, too. If he's so pissed at the man, why not help me find a buyer for his stuff?

"What makes a man do something like that?" asks Randy. "What makes him just pick up and leave?" He shakes his head, he doesn't expect an answer, but then he looks right at me, and I see that he does. "Just pick up and leave," he says. "Why would a man do that?"

Well it's true that I've had some experience on the subject. That I've had a few men just pick up on me and leave. But I've never traced that back to a reason, and if I could find one, I wouldn't bring it up with Randy. We have our history, and that's been enough for me. Except now he's asking, torn up for Mom.

"I admire Dick," I reply. "Light on his feet, after all those years." Dick was square and wide--maybe I was thinking of me.

Randy pushes at the pretzels in disgust. He looks around; the bar is getting noisy; business is coming in.

I tell him, "It's a virtue, being light on your feet."

"I don't know about that," says Randy. He looks around again; he's reluctant to stay talking.

"Guess what," I say. "Do you remember Dougie? Mrs. Jeffrey's cat? He's still around. I'm taking care of him now."

"Dougie," says Randy. He stops to marvel, just like I did. "I remember that cat." He starts to laugh. "I remember getting him high."

"In our backyard. He came over to hunt insects after dark. You tried calling him, but he didn't trust you."

"I grabbed that cat," says Randy. He's demonstrating now, his thick arms bulging. "Blew the smoke right down his gullet."

"And Mom wanted to know what happened to your face."

"And Mrs. Jeffrey told her the next day that Dougie had eaten twice his normal ration." We're laughing together, hearing our mother excited to tell the tale. I want to reach over to him when we laugh together like this but I leave my hands on the table and settle instead for his grin.

"Come over tonight," I say. "I've got some good stuff. We can share it with Dougie."

He shakes his head. "Can't tonight."

I don't answer, so he knocks his right knuckles against my hands. We're both looking at his knuckles, like they're about to speak, and I let go my grin now, my fingers stiffening in their curl. I've been like this always, waiting, waiting. I watch his hand slide slowly away until it disappears under the table.

"So anyway," he says. He clears his throat. "Ann's coming in later. Stick around and say hi."

The steak arrives. He leaves me to it.

Miss Ann comes in as I'm finishing my beer. She's wearing jeans, too, only hers end above her ankles so she can show her white feet. Randy kisses her, and she stands with him for a second, sweeping her gaze around the bar to check up on how everything looks. She doesn't look my way, though she knows I'm here. Randy's whispering to her now, stroking her hair. I see her give him a brave smile. Then she shakes her head at his old plaid shirt draped over the chair at the front. She pulls it off the chair and heads towards me, bundling up the shirt in her hands. There's no flesh on the woman, only springy muscle, and that's how I think of her, bouncing like an itty ball, the tiny pink ones the girls used for playing jacks while the boys grappled with each other in the dirt. She moves briskly, but I'm not impressed. It's not the same as light on the feet.

"It's nice to see you," she says, sliding into the booth. Randy is watching us. I don't believe her for a second.

"The place looks good." I wave to Randy; he waves back. His eyes look squinched behind his glasses. "And busy," I add. Randy greets more people coming in.

"The dinner crowd starts about now." Miss Ann gives me a look. There are eight booths, and I'm in the best one.

I lean back, stretch my legs. "What's different about the place? Something seems different."

"I had the shutters replaced. And the lights in front are new." With me leaning back, Miss Ann leans forward. It feels like a seesaw, one up, one down. I want to see her dangle, white feet kicking.

"You should do the same for Mom," I say. "The Jeffreys' house looks a lot better than hers."

Miss Ann pinches her lips together. Her face looks white, too. She's clutching Randy's shirt in front of her stomach, then she notices what she's doing and puts the shirt aside. Hands on her stomach. Her pale pale face. Tits as big as mine now, where before she had nothing. A little speculation works its way into my head, and of course I have to test it. She's looking around for some place to focus, so I push my dinner dishes right under her nose. My heavy glass, with its thick ring of beer foam, my swabbed plate with its pile of gristle. She swallows hard and starts to retch.

"You going to be sick?" I ask her. I push the plate even closer.

"Oh god," says Miss Ann. "Take that thing away."

"What have you done," I tell her. "You've gone and got yourself pregnant? It's a bad idea. It's an all around terrible plan. Randy hates babies. And he beats up on girls. He ever tell you that?"

Her heaving stops. She sits back in the booth.

"Shut up," she says. I see her hand, as white as her pretty feet, wiping itself across her bright pink mouth.

"He used to beat me up," I say. "He'd do anything to get his hands on me. Once there was this dead mouse." I open my shirt by a couple of buttons. "He put it down my shirt. Just slipped it right down there" I shove three fingers down "--and when I started screaming, he went looking for it again."

"Get out," says Randy. He's got an arm wrapped around his wife, and she's crying, telling him I'm a monster.

"You did those things to me," I answer him.

"Come on, come on," he says, pulling me by the arm and hauling me out the door. I drag my feet like the old days, putting up just enough resistance to keep the game going.

"Go on home," says Randy. He opens my car door.

"You come with me."


I want to hit him in the face. I want him to touch me. I lean in, he pulls back, and now I'm the one dangling.

"You used to," I say.

"We were kids," says Randy. "Will you just forget about it? It was stupid stuff, and it should have ended earlier. But for Christ's sake, I wish you'd leave it."

I hit him anyway, a tad more than a friendly punch.

"You should forget it," he says again. When he walks away, I look down at my fists. One is holding on to that plaid shirt of Randy's, and the other starts to pull on it like it's tied to something safe.

My mother is still out when I get home. I wait for a while in Janet Jeffrey's kitchen. Then I go to my mother's garage, to see what all was left behind.

There are tools on the workbench; I put those aside right away, but other than that, I can't get to a thing. The junk and the valuables are jumbled together, nothing boxed or hung up on hooks. I spy the mower under a pile of metal--old bikes, a clothesline pole, an empty gas tank. I can't get close to the mower unless I move all the rest of it out of the way. My own two boxes are nowhere to be seen. They've disappeared like magic. I'd like to do that kind of magic, to wave my hand, make the past go away. The dust is thick; I don't want to touch it. Goddamn Randy. He pawed through here and left the place a mess. I pull my knees high making my way back out. I don't want to trip on a single goddamn thing.

I go back next door and call for Dougie, but he won't come, so I start without him. He'll come running when he smells good shit.

My kitchenware handiwork looks even better tonight. I trickle in the water, stopping just before the spout. The weed I push until it rests against the screen. I get it lit and glue my face to the cup. I suck. The smoke swirls. I have to suck hard; my efficiencies are off because the cup is wide and the spout oddly angled, but I'm used to making do. When I take my thumb off the hole I drilled, the smoke shoots into me, the breath of life.

I finish and go looking for Dougie. He's not in the dining room, the bedrooms, or the bathroom. He hasn't been at his food or water all day. I go back to the kitchen and sort through the bowl of pinecones and nuts. He's not under the radiator or behind the living room couch. I make little cat noises and go out into the night.

It's almost dark, and a shadowy moon is rising through the pin oaks and sycamore trees. No one walks by. I think about asking Jimmy Spinks to lend a hand, but I don't trust myself to get past his mother. I put my head back, sweep my eyes through the trees. The Jeffreys have good, big trees--elms alongside the sycamores, and a dogwood next to the house. I hear Dougie calling me from far above--he's stuck somewhere, I instantly know it. Stuck in a place he shouldn't have tried to go.

He's up on the roof, a little peaked part that sticks out over the dormer to the middle bedroom. I map it in my mind, flipping it as I scramble. That was Randy's room. In our house, you could climb out that dormer window all the way to the roof. Randy had nailed a crosspiece a few feet above the sill, a foothold to get up and back down. From the sill to the foothold, and the foothold to the dormer roof. From there to the main roof, where he would inch along on his stomach, looking down on the world. He never wanted me to follow, so I watched him from the window or took his orders down on the lawn. I went up by myself once or twice after he left. I couldn't find the point in it, since he wasn't there to see it.

Now that I've spotted him, Dougie is really starting to yowl. I sprint up the stairs to the bedroom, open the window and lift out the screen. He swishes his tail; he's happy to see me. I can't rescue myself, but I can do something for Dougie. And I'll have a good story to tell Jimmy Spinks. That cat and me, we go way back. He's practically like a brother.

"Good boy, Dougie. I'm a-comin'."

The window frame is in good shape, not loose with age like my mother's. I ease myself up and out of the window. As I raise my whole body, Dougie jumps to the main roof above. He crouches there, yowling. I see his fear. I can smell it.

"Kitty, kitty, kitty." I wave my arm, but Dougie's too scared to come back down, and how would he do it if he wanted. I'm strong. I can do it, even without Randy's crosspiece. I brace my foot and power up. I make the dormer roof, no problem.

In the old days, Randy would stand on the peak of the dormer roof and lean against the main roof, which was not all that steep. One leg swung up would gain him the ridge. I do it just like that, aiming for a spot behind Dougie.

But the peak of the roof is sharper than I remember, or maybe I've got more belly to drape. It didn't seem so high a moment ago, from the sill. The hind end of Dougie is inches from my face. I reach a hand to grab him; with a second swish of his ratty gray tail, he jumps back down to the dormer roof and disappears through the open bedroom window. He's laughing, I know it, and Jimmy Spinks will laugh at me, too.

I swear a couple of times, but I don't let myself lose it. I'm trying to hang on to another one of my theories: if you keep an even surface, the mess underneath can't reach up and grab you. I hump along the ridge, thinking how to signal. I'm not going to start yelling, but waving seems all right. I'm headed for the chimney stack. With one arm, I'll hold onto the chimney; with the other, I'll try a big wave. I'm strong. I know how to balance.

A few feet below and to the side of the chimney stack, skylight glass bulges, pale against the shingled roof. I sit up and put one hand on the corner of the red brick chimney, bracing my left foot against the frame of the skylight. My right foot I set at the ridgeline of the roof. I stand. I look out from the Jeffreys' rooftop, into the street below.

The Buick drives up; my mother gets out. She walks holding her elbows with her sweater draped, so it swings from her shoulders like a bell. In the moonlight, I see her hair and her hands. I cannot see her face.

"Mom," I call down from the rooftop. She looks up at me. I wave.

"Now can you see," she calls back. Her face is shining like a girl awaiting a kiss. "Now can you see what you're missing?"

"Take me at my word," I call down to my mother. "I've got everything I ever wanted."

I lift one knee high, then the other, ready to show her I could walk off into the air. My feet are as light as smoke. My face is grinning. But something not myself pulls my arms around the chimney, and though I want to, I can't let go.

KATHRYN MA'S short fiction has appeared in the Antioch Review, TriQuarterly, the Threepenny Review, the Portland Review, Kalliope, and elsewhere. A collection of her stories was selected as a finalist for the Bakeless Prize and a semifinalist in the Iowa Short Fiction Award book competition. She recently completed a novel titled The Borrowed Bay.
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Author:Ma, Kathryn
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Short Story
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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