• Batshit

    Ashley Wurzbacher

    Spring 2022

    They’re crammed in the cab of George’s blue pickup, Rose and George up front and the three kids—two hers, one his—sharing the bench seat in the back. Fourteen-year-old Lili, Rose’s youngest, sits in the middle, feet on the hump, plastic fruit on her head; her sixteen-year-old sister Alex—or Lexa, as she demands to be called now—is smushed against the window behind George, thumbs drumming on her phone’s screen. Rose can’t see Aiden, George’s fifteen-year-old, behind her, but every now and then she feels the press of his knees into her seat back in a weird, covert nudge to her spine that makes her squirm, and she can sense Aiden’s eyes flicking with interest to Alex—Lexa—as keenly as if they were trained on her own body.

    This is Rose’s sixth date with George, and his interest in her is even more palpable than his son’s in her daughter. Rose reads it in the warm enthusiasm in his voice, his seemingly practiced questions for her girls, his preoccupation with temperature control, and the brand new, vanilla-scented air freshener fighting back a vague but not unpleasant manly musk. She’s less certain of her own feelings, but she’s keeping an open mind. They are on their way to the Sawmill Theater, where Lili will appear in the Northwestern Woods Youth Theater’s production of Copacabana, and this excursion, this—what should she call it? Family date? Audition?—is a sort of test, one that so far, they’re failing; it’s been all forced joviality and pent-up longing. Rose imagines the five of them aglow with infrared light, the truck’s cab illuminated with clouds of radiant energy: father and son pulsing red with romantic ambition, Rose and Lexa pools of cool blue.

    And Lili? Rose turns to glance at her. She’s a rainbow of shifting colors, temperatures, textures. What’s it like inside that strange and lovely head?

    Rose reaches back to touch Lili’s knee. Like a fawn, she’s all limbs; she’s nearly Rose’s height already—five-eight—and will soon overtake her. Her dancer’s legs are folded into the tight space of the truck’s back seat, her knees peaks rather than plateaus, her skirt slipping down the slope of her thighs. It’s too hot for pantyhose, which Rose has tucked into Lili’s costume bag. She gives the hem of Lili’s skirt a tug, and Lili smiles blankly, humming without melody, and lovingly adjusts her headpiece.

    “Are you sure they want you to wear this?” Rose asked the other day as she helped Lili affix a plastic banana, dredged from the tubs of the girls’ old toys she stores in the basement, to an old winter cap with hot glue. Lili’s sketched design seemed overly elaborate for a girl without a speaking role. For Lili with her singing voice like a bobcat’s shriek, Lili who struggles to stick to even the simplest script. Lili was “company,” she was “ensemble”; she would appear in the playbill tonight as Dancer 1. And this headdress—Rose set the glue gun down in the pie tin she was using to catch its drippings, watched a clear drop of hot glue bulge, bubble, and drool in an oozy string onto the aluminum—was meant for someone more…central to the story, surely. But Lili was insistent, and so Rose had helped her hollow out a wicker cornucopia, an old Thanksgiving centerpiece, tossing the dried ears of corn and the silk sunflowers that had filled it and replacing them with a plastic pineapple, a mango, half a grapefruit, and then, since they’d run out of fruit, a plastic bell pepper. Rose supposed Lili was capable of gluing the items herself, but she took over anyway, nudging the girl aside when she reached for the hot gun. Lili didn’t seem to mind, just arranged things where she wanted them to go and pas de bourréed around the kitchen island as Rose pressed the pieces into place. But sometime between then and now Lili added to the bouquet a cluster of real grapes, and now she reaches up, plucks one from the bunch, pops it into her mouth, and chews thoughtfully.

    “Stop that,” Lexa scolds, looking up from her phone to swat her sister’s hand. “There’s glue on those. Mom, she’s eating her hat!”

    George’s eyes flash to the rearview mirror. Rose doesn’t know him well enough to read his thoughts, but she understands that Lili is not a selling point to most men, including Lili’s own father, and so out of habit she mentally rushes to the girl’s defense. So Lili’s eating grapes off her head, so what? So Lili’s . . . here Rose comes up short. There is no label she’s comfortable sticking on her daughter, though plenty have been stuck there by others. Batshit, the last boyfriend Rose brought home had called Lili, after she’d caught him in his PJ pants in the kitchen with a boner and said, with characteristic matter-of-factness, arms limp at her sides, face flat, “You have an erection.” Batshit crazy. This was two years ago, during the reign of the Arctic fox, when Lili would not go anywhere without the plush toy perched on her shoulder, its bushy tail reaching down her back like a frizzy, white ponytail, its lifelike eyes staring. When she went around reciting fox facts all day (mate for life, raise their young with the help of extended family members in complex underground tunnels that they use for decades, steal and eat the eggs of tundra birds). Rose knows more about Arctic foxes than she does about—well, George or Aiden.

    “I’m not eating glue,” Lili says, “just grapes.”

    “They’re on your head,” Lexa persists. “They’re in your hair. When something’s on your head, it stops being food.”

    “I love grapes,” George offers, and Lili plucks another one, leans forward, and holds it out to him, the pale green fruit like a jade marble pinched between her fingertips. For a moment, everyone waits to see what he’ll do. Lexa leans forward. Aiden leans forward. Rose holds her breath. Then George accepts the grape, tosses it playfully into his mouth, and Rose thinks she hears the skin split and the sweet liquid gush as his teeth break through. She smiles.

    Lexa flops back against her seat. “Man eats his girlfriend’s kid’s hairy, gluey grape,” she says. “It must be love.”

    “Oh, hush.” Rose reddens. “I should have driven you girls separate.”

    “But you couldn’t,” Lili states, “because of George holding the car hostage.”

    A long pause. Then Lexa says, “Jesus, Lili.”

    Lili looks at Rose. “You said.”

    It’s true: Rose’s car is at Whitehall’s Garage. And here’s Whitehall now—George, that is—reaching to turn down the radio, waiting for an explanation. The car has been there long enough that Rose has begun to wonder. As long as it’s there, she joked to the girls last night over shepherd’s pie, he can keep her needing him. He can swoop in in his big blue chariot and sweep Rose off her feet—literally—boosting her into the passenger’s seat in this pickup that floats high above the pavement, powering through gusts of wind that would have sent Rose’s Kia rocking, carrying her and their children off to the Sawmill Theater: the hottest spot north of Havana.

    “We were joking,” Rose tells George. “You know, because you’ve had it . . . awhile.”

    He laughs. Rose feels relief sparkle in her chest. So they can call things what they are, then, and make light of them. She thinks of their last date, to one of Aiden’s baseball games. George bought her a Coke in a paper cup and an overpriced hot dog, which he called a “weenie”; he threw the word around (Care for another weenie? Relish for that weenie, Rose?) with complete earnestness, even innocence, as if oblivious to its phallic connotations. Weenie, ketchup on your weenie. Rose had been both mildly disgusted and charmed by his ease, his silliness.

    She’s tired of men who take themselves too seriously. She’s tired of doing the same. She’s through with all that. She doesn’t need a man, but if she’s going to have one, she wants one she can poke a bit in good fun. Who’ll poke back, but softly; who’ll nibble, but not bite.

    From behind Rose, Aiden says to Lili, “You really just say whatever’s on your mind, don’t you?” and Lili shrugs, humming.

    “Deer can do a number on a vehicle,” George says of Rose’s car. “I’ve seen one lodged in the grille between headlights, the whole body. You hit—”

    “I didn’t hit it,” says Lexa. “It hit me.” She slips off one sandal and props her foot on her seat, hugs her folded leg to her chest. She’d been so shaken that night, weeping at the sight of the deer’s fur caught in the crevices of the hood’s warped metal. She was fine, just scared, and that night she allowed Rose to take her in her arms and rock her for the first time in a long time. But then Rose had made a mistake. She’d said, “It could have been so much worse.”

    She of all people should have known better. How many times had she used that tired line to minimize her own suffering? To justify what should not be justified? But she’d gone and made Lexa’s pain small, opened up new, shadowed spaces in her imagination. When you tell someone things could be worse, they get worse. Now Lexa wakes in the night from dreams of hooves crashing through windshields, of blood and bone. She dreams of her own death as if it had never occurred to her before—and maybe it hadn’t.

    Rose has done this much, at least, for her child: sheltered her this long, kept bruises hidden and thoughts of collision at bay. She is not proud of what she allowed to go on with the girls’ fathers, but at least it went on behind closed doors, after hours. She kept it out of the way, under long sleeves and scarves, and—Rose is pretty sure, quite sure, ninety-nine percent—unbeknownst to her daughters.

    “Sometimes you hit them, sometimes they hit you,” George is saying. “I’ve seen one leap right through a woman’s back window, right into the backseat. I’ve seen—”

    “Dad,” says Aiden. “Nobody cares.”

    George goes back to fiddling with the temperature. “Too hot?” he asks. “Too cold?” and Rose shakes her head: not too anything.

    They drive past MacBeth’s Cabins, over the bridge, past the Pale Whale canoe fleet. The sun hasn’t set, but the trees are tall enough that the road is in shadow, and thick gray clouds roll overhead. It feels later than it is. Rose yawns, and Lili begins to sing: “This girl’s a wow, all the magazines agree . . . ”

    Sweet Lili. Rose reaches back and touches her knee again. She feels the fine hairs there, still baby-soft, where Lili hasn’t shaved, and for one paralyzing moment Rose thinks with horror that it’s not Lili she’s touching, but Aiden. Then she feels Lili’s hand on hers, and her heart slows down.

    “Anyway,” Aiden says, “that’s why there’s hunting. So we aren’t always hitting them with our cars, so we’re not getting all up in each other’s space.”

    “Great,” Lexa says. “Kill them so you don’t kill them.”

    “You don’t hunt?” Aiden presses.


    “Have you ever shot a gun?”

    “We don’t hurt animals,” Lili declares loudly. “We take care of them.”

    Lexa ran after the deer she hit, Rose knows, once she’d gathered herself, caught her breath, checked all her limbs and digits and found them still there. She followed a trail of trampled grass and blood, fresh drops black in the low light, to the Gothic gate of the trees looming by the road, until something in her whispered, Stop. Stay put, sweet girl.

    Ashley Wurzbacher’s debut short story collection, Happy Like This, won the 2019 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her novel is forthcoming from Atria Books in summer 2023. She teaches at the University of Montevallo.

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