An Awkward Shape to Carry

Mim is helping Cousin Porter move from a sad apartment into a sadder apartment in the next complex over from where he lives now. Porter doesn’t own furniture, unless you count a weight bench. If it weren’t for the dumbbells and his mattress, there’d be nothing particularly heavy or unwieldy to lug. He could have walked his stuff from one apartment complex littered with cigarette butts and dehydrated dog turds to another on his own, no need for Mim’s station wagon. Those dumbbells go up to 100 pounds, though, and he said on the phone to her earlier (Mim receives and makes every phone call on speakerphone to minimize her risk of cancer of the ear and brain), “A hundred pounds is nothing. In the shape of a suitcase or a box, I could carry a hundred pounds back and forth all day. It’s just that a dumbbell is an awkward shape to carry that distance, you know?”

I should have offered to help, too, for Mim’s sake. My grandmother isn’t all that old as far as grandmothers go; at sixty-three, she’s not young, either. But I’m busy ruminating. Stewing, Mim calls it. She says I’ll turn to mush stewing all day, like beef, potatoes, and carrots simmering in a pot. The first time she said this, I said, “Gross, Mim.” But she’s right. Days like this, when I can’t stop thinking about myself, wondering why the things that happen to me happen to me, why I do the dumb things I do, I feel myself turning to goop. 

Last night was our senior dinner theater, a fundraiser for prom. Parents, grandparents, and superintendents bought overpriced tickets to consume mediocre food and mediocre entertainment. Mim bought two tickets, one for her and one for Great Aunt Jane. They wore mumus with flowy sleeves that made them look like Jesus, sans the long, flowy hair. At their table, Mim poured clear liquid from a flask into her iced tea, passed the flask to Jane, who did the same. “Medicine,” I imagined Mim saying to the other guests. When I was little, I popped candy into my mouth and called it my prescription. “I’m feeling ill. I need my meds.” I gave myself injections via retractable pens. 

We are all storytellers, Mim says. My mother sends a card for my birthday, and in it she writes that there’s no more valuable gift than to model the great sacrifice required to devote one’s life to doing God’s work. We glimpse my mother once on television holding up a cardboard sign that reads, “Let God Plan Parenthood.” Cousin Porter tells anyone willing to listen that he is deficient in some fundamental way, incapable of making a better life for himself. When Uncle Mark offered to help pay for community college, Porter shook his head and said Uncle Mark just didn’t get it; he’d be better off using that money on lottery tickets.

Our senior English teacher, Ms. Furbush, oversaw the dinner theater fundraiser, from the choice of play to the dinner menu to the calligraphed place cards. When she crowned Clarissa Mayflower, one of the most popular girls in school, assistant director back in January, I didn’t bother to try for a part. Probably I wouldn’t have had the nerve to audition anyway, no matter who Ms. Furbush selected to help her direct, but I was certain Clarissa Mayflower wouldn’t cast me even if I were auditioning for the part of a one-eyed mutt. So, like most of the seniors, I was a server. I wore the white blouse with a Peter Pan collar that I often wore to church. I didn’t own black pants, so Mim leant me a pair from her closet. No sense spending good money on pants I might never wear again, she said. Mim’s pants were loose around my waist, so I had to cinch them in with a belt. They were big everywhere else, too, made of a thick, heavy polyester. Mim prefers clothes that keep the contours and textures of her flesh secret.  

After the dinner guests filed in, we servers delivered bread and butter, water and iced tea. Right before the play began, we brought out dinner: baked chicken breast with rice pilaf and asparagus for the meat eaters; roasted cauliflower “steaks” with rice pilaf and asparagus for the vegetarians and vegans, of which there weren’t many in our little Texas town. During the show, we scanned the room for drinks that needed refilling. A few servers snuck out the back of the kitchen to smoke. 

While the smokers were outside, a man at one of the smokers’ tables jerked his head this way and that. The skin encasing his cranium was wrinkled like an overripe cherry tomato. At any moment, that skin might split, I thought, and I hurried over to ask what the man needed. “More butter?” he said, and when I brought him a little plastic cup with a slab of butter, he knifed a small chunk into his mouth, then, apparently satisfied, he scooped the rest out onto his asparagus. 

Carlos Lopez, whose table it was, returned just in time to watch me mosey to the back of the room where my fellow servers leaned against the wall like it was the only thing keeping them upright. 

“Hey, thanks,” he said. 

Carlos is beautiful. He has long, fluttery eyelashes that make me think of the spiky petals of the fiery red flowers on Mim’s bottlebrush shrub. So, even though he had thanked me, I felt afraid, like maybe “Hey, thanks” really meant “Hey, loser” or “What the fuck were you doing at my table?”

When Carlos smiled, you could see how as a boy he had probably used that grin to charm women into giving him whatever he wanted, how probably he still did. 

“No problem,” I said. 

Carlos asked then if I was going to Vivian Shaw’s party after the play. 

Did this constitute an invitation? I didn’t know. Not since the fourth grade had anyone invited me to a party. 

Vivian Shaw was a theater kid, one of the few students cast in the senior play who actually had acting experience. Her mother was an actress, too: Sophie Shaw was cast in every play our small-town theater put on. She was easy to identify in a crowd: colorful scarf draped around her neck, hair pulled into a loose, soft bun. Vivian wore neck scarves, too, sometimes, though hers were tiny and solid colored, more like decorative ribbons tied around the lids of jars of Christmas jam.  

I said I didn’t know, and Carlos said, “We barely have a month of high school left. This is it! Do you have Vivian’s address? I’ll text it to you. What’s your number?” He’d whipped out his phone.

I didn’t know what he meant by “This is it,” and I didn’t ask. I told him I didn’t have a cellphone.

“You left it at home?” he said.

“I don’t own a phone,” I said. “My grandmother—” 

Carlos didn’t wait for me to finish. He said, “That’s cool. I’ve got a pen.” Then he grabbed a clean napkin from the drink station and scribbled Vivian’s address. 

Of course, I worried Carlos was messing with me, but later, after the applause, after we bussed the tables, Carlos said, “I’ll see you there, right? Oh, and you know Vivian has a swimming pool, right? Bring a swimsuit.” His smile seemed sincere. 

The only time I’d ever swam with kids my own age was when the entire church was invited to Paul Snyder’s house after his baptism. That was in the eighth grade. I’d gotten my period that morning and didn’t want to go, but Mim said I’d be fine if I used a tampon. Mim was wrong. When I stepped out of the pool forty minutes after having gotten in, blood, diluted by the water in my suit and on my skin, trickled down my leg before I could locate my towel. 

I felt equally mortified last night when I emerged from Vivian’s pool after having let Carlos kiss me, after letting him put his hands where I shouldn’t have—and right there in the pool in front of anyone who cared to watch, including posh Vivian Shaw who eyed me from her kitchen window like I was a turd floating in her pool.

While Mim helps Porter, I lie on the sofa with the cat. Console myself with monster movies—first King Kong, then Dracula, now Frankenstein—and junk food—first powdered-sugar donuts, then tortilla chips, then peanut M&Ms. I intend to bury last night beneath TV and junk food. Not just last night, in fact, but everything I’ve ever done that I later, if not instantly, regretted. Bury all my shame under so much rubbish no one will ever find it, myself included. But as I watch Boris Karloff, whom I had a crush on as a kid, toss flowers, then that little girl, into that pond, I understand that there’s no burying feelings like this. Everything you throw in on top just mixes in and grows the stagnant feeling larger.

When Mim walks through the front door a little before sunset, she hangs her keys on the hook, pries off her orthopedic sneakers and leaves them in the hallway. She eyes me as she washes her hands at the kitchen sink. Drying them, she says, “Is this how you’re spending a perfectly good Saturday?”

“Spent,” I say. “No refunds.” Her eyes flick to the window where the world has turned slightly pink as the sun bleeds into the spidery trees in the west. 

Mim says with exasperation, “I need a drink.” 

When a new catalog arrives in the mail for Mim, I flip through the pages looking for anything worth wanting. Rare is the catalog in which I want just a few things. It’s usually all or nothing. A company makes desirable things or it does not. People are like that, too. Some have a lot to offer, others nothing whatsoever. My cousin Porter is the latter kind of person, but then so is my mother, which is why Mim has been raising me since I was seven. I’ve flipped through Porter’s and my mother’s pages over and over and found nothing worth dog-earing.   

Sometimes I worry that I’m that sort of person, too.

For instance, now Mim pours a glass of rosé and slinks off toward the back porch, saying she needs to rest before thinking about what to do for dinner. I know that the right thing to do is to get up and make dinner for my grandmother, who has been hauling Porter’s stuff for hours, but, strangely, my guilt is more palatable than standing up from the sofa. So, what I do instead is hold up the bags of tortilla chips and M&Ms and say, “Don’t worry about me. I don’t need dinner.” 

Mim shakes her head on her way outside.          

I think of the moon last night. How swollen it had looked. Waterlogged, like the bloated corpse of the cricket I once found in Mim’s watering can—its belly plump and pale.

I remember the air last night. Syrupy with booze and cologne and chlorine.

The bitter taste of the beer Carlos handed me in a plastic cup—foamy, how it smelled like hay. I had never tasted beer before, or any alcohol for that matter, hadn’t even snuck a sip from Mim’s many bottles of booze, and it had made me feel giddy and flimsy, like the laundry Mim hangs outside, how it flutters in the wind. 

The softness of Carlos’s lips. The cigarette taste of his mouth. 

The way Carlos’s hands felt on my waist, my hips, my breasts—not grabby or rough, as I had read boys’ hands can be, but gentle, protective, like he was sheltering me with those hands.

But he wasn’t sheltering me. He made me into a spectacle. Or rather, I made myself into a spectacle. 

I poke at the flap of skin that lifts like a hinged door on the bottom of my toe. I scraped it on the bottom of the pool after I caught Vivian’s judgmental eye through that window, after I loosened myself from Carlos’s grip. 

The whiteness of that flap of skin, its bloodlessness, makes me feel husked.

I had not been myself last night, I think. 

It’s curious how half the time I admonish myself for being myself and the other half for not being myself.

A few minutes later, Mim calls through the screen door for me to come outside.

Her words tug feebly at my inertia. When I was little, Mim used to say to me, “Eat up. You’re a sack of bones.” She meant that I was skinny, but what the words conjured was dismemberment, torture. Who was carrying my bones around in a sack? I wondered. What terrible things had they done to me? 

When Mim hollers a second time, I reluctantly stand. I slip my feet into the fuzzy, gray slippers I’ve been wearing around the house for months now but for which the weather is becoming too warm. All these months, these slippers have made me think of carrots, and I couldn’t figure out why, and now, suddenly, I comprehend—they’re the color of Bugs Bunny.

Outside, Mim says, “Isn’t it precious?”

I hear the chick’s chirps before I spot it running across the gravel, wobbly and awkward. I wonder if stepping on it would feel like stepping on a cockroach—the bird’s hard parts hardly detectable beneath a shoe.

Years earlier, before my body morphed like the robot Transformers I used to watch on T.V., sprouting breasts and hips that still feel as conspicuous and strange as the pimples that press painfully against my chin every month when I get my period, as though they too wish to escape this wretched body, a quail made a nest beneath a cluster of tomato plants in Mim’s vegetable garden. Through the window blinds, I’d counted twelve chicks poking at the gravel with their tiny beaks. The father had sat on the back wall—a plumed sentry. When I’d gone out to get a closer look, the chicks and their mother had disappeared beneath a sage shrub. Their chirping had turned off as easily as a faucet. I had wondered how they knew to do that when human infants weren’t nearly so sensible.

“Abandoned,” Mim says now. The rosé in her glass is the shade of a faded blood stain.

“Or the sole survivor,” I say, not sure whether that’s better or worse. 

I Google wildlife rescue. The nearest listing is an hour’s drive. 

Mim says, “Too far. It’s almost dark.” 

I don’t want to make the trip, either. I’ve spent the entire day in my pajamas and I’m not about to change out of them now. But also, I don’t want the chick to die. I Google what to feed quail chicks and read that you can make do temporarily with ground broccoli and boiled egg yolk. I go inside and set a pot of water to boil. I consider whether to prepare a shoebox to bring the chick inside for the night. The shoebox would have to go in the garage because of the cat. Would the chick get out of the box? I picture it stuck in one of those sticky bug traps Mim sets around the garage.

I also think that probably my worry is pointless: probably no matter what I do, the chick’s a goner.

Mim shrieks then, and I run outside. I follow Mim’s gaze to a snake banded in orange and black and white, like a clownfish. The snake disappears beneath a purple sage shrub.

Mim explains how she didn’t even see the snake until it lunged at the chick. There must be a gap where she shoved that chicken wire into the drainage holes in the wall years ago. 

I feel a throb in my skinned toe, as if my heart has fallen through my torso then my left leg, and into that toe, which is far too small, of course, to house my heart—hence the constrained throbbing, hence the sensation that my toe is choking on my heart and may cough it up like a hairball.

Then, a chirp.

The chick is beneath the now bare lemon tree, six feet from the shrub with the snake.

Mim lets out a long breath. “Well, I guess it just learned an important lesson: Stay away from snakes.” Between quick sips of rosé, she looks back and forth from the sage shrub and the lemon tree and says, “Hush, baby, hush.”

Mim says mistakes are how we learn—when I fell asleep working on a research paper the night before it was due; when I forgot to set the oven timer and the tater tots were rocks; when I shaved my arms because I’d thought they were too hairy but then they looked even weirder, and they itched.

But lessons are not learned so easily. Learning requires repetition. Learning requires heartache after heartache.

I will set out broccoli and boiled egg. I will set out a shallow dish of water. I will set out all the hope I can muster. And if the chick survives the night, I will take it to wildlife rescue in the morning. 

If the chick doesn’t survive the night, it will hardly be the only thing that doesn’t.


  • Michelle Ross is the author of three story collections: There's So Much They Haven't Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award, Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (2021), and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (2022). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Witness, and other venues. Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and other anthologies. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and was a consulting editor for Best Small Fictions 2018.

  • Stills from The Third Man, a 1949 film directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene. The film stars Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard, and depicts the chaos and corruption in Vienna following the Second World War.