Dinah Cox’s first book of stories, Remarkable, won the fourth annual BOA Short Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from BOA Editions in 2016. Her stories appear or are forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Calyx, Cream City Review, Salt Hill, South Dakota Review, J Journal, and elsewhere. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the English Department at Oklahoma State University where she also is an Associate Editor at Cimarron Review.
A Trip to South America
Her name was Diane Allgood, but, like most people with such surnames, she was, in fact, all bad. Or at least she liked to pretend as much. She lived alone except for the company of an Amazon parrot and two pit bulls, littermates and only a year old. Another, better person might have said she “rescued” the dogs, but Diane, even after finding them abandoned in the city park, disliked the self-congratulation so prevalent in the animal rights crowd. She knew she was supposed to take credit for teaching the dogs to deny the brutality of their genetic makeup—like white foster parents who adopted “at-risk” African American children, boys usually, to beef up their otherwise lackluster local football teams—but more important than trumped-up morality was the idea the dogs, named Rosie and Charlotte, would have no problem sinking their teeth into the legs of intruders, and Diane, unmarried her entire life, fought hard to keep the wolf from the door. She was good to the dogs and good to the parrot, but bad to everyone else.
Unfortunately for her, she had a nephew. His father had been her twin brother, Dudley Allgood, the prosperity-gospel televangelist, more famous for surviving a suicide pact with his followers than for serving ten years in federal prison, though his parole hearing was just around the corner. The nephew, Jason Allgood, was sixteen and surly, and so was coming to live with Diane.
Jason’s mother was in a mental institution. Really it was more like a group home, the kind of place where they taught you to make things like no-bake lasagna and potholders from the twist ties that came with bags of bread. (Diane had two of these potholders, gifts for her last birthday, though she kept them deep in a junk drawer and never actually used them). Somehow the crazy woman—Arlene Allgood—knew about the Reverend’s upcoming parole hearing, and the knowledge he might rejoin society had made her crazier, still. Lately, when Jason came to visit his mother in the group home, she had begun to call him “Silas,” and, since there was not a Silas in the mental institution and not a Silas in the entire Allgood family, no one knew the source of the misnomer, and, fearing her further retreat into the dark caverns of her own mind, no one dared ask.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” Jason said, his first day at Diane’s. “My name is not Silas, okay?”
Diane looked up from her daily chore of changing the newspaper in the bottom of the parrot’s cage. “And my name is not ‘auntie,’ in case you were tempted. You can call me Dr. Allgood.”
“But you’re not a doctor.” She noticed for the first time he was carrying a duffel bag, though it was limp and voluminous, like a parachute retired from flight. And so what if she wasn’t a doctor? She wanted respect.
“Dr. Allgood,” she said. “That’s me. And my first order is that you to put that duffel bag in the garage. We don’t want any bed bugs in the doctor’s house.”
To her surprise, he did not seem offended by this request and instead complied without incident.
As the days went on, she learned he was a quiet boy, more interested in insects and geological formations than he was in television, video games, or the various online obsessions of the young. He did not have a computer and in fact never asked to use Diane’s, even though she imagined he would need it for school and so gave him access to the login password right off the bat. Rosie and Charlotte seemed to like him, and he seemed to like them back, but his relationship with the Amazon parrot—Dean Acheson—started off badly and only declined.
“I hate that damn thing,” he said one morning over cereal and toast. “I don’t know how you can stand it. Doctor.”
She noticed for the first time his habit of eating the crusts from his toast and then using a butter knife to slice the remaining squares into strips, each surgical rectangle just like all its friends lined up like tally marks on the edge of the plate. He proceeded to eat each strip of toast as if it, too, were a kind of crust, taking small bites and chewing harder and longer than really seemed necessary. He also drank his orange juice through a straw, even though Diane hadn’t provided him with one and couldn’t remember buying any at the store. That the kid was weird was certain, but she thought him more or less harmless, too, like a foreign exchange student maybe, or an animal rescued from the rain. His manners were excellent and he took twice-daily showers, though both were short enough he could not be called a bathroom-hog. And he took the dogs on walks and remembered their favorite treats and called them Rose and Char, which they seemed to like. But she could not ignore the fact he was outright nasty about Dean Acheson’s noisy chatter, and, for this offense, she kept him at arm’s length emotionally and also made shellfish for dinner every now and then even though she knew he was allergic. Make yourself a sandwich, she said on these occasions, and he always did.
“Dean Acheson likes you,” she said. “He imitates the way you call the dogs: ‘come on!’”
“He’s imitating you,” Jason said, and she supposed he was right. If imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, Dean Acheson was the biggest sycophant on the block.
“You could try sweet talking him,” she said. “Couldn’t hurt.”
“I wish he was dead,” he said. “Fucking Silas.”
“His name is Dean Acheson.”
She knew at once he was the cold kind of hot, the quiet kind of noisy, the methodical kind of mass chaos on a worldwide scale. She didn’t fear for her own life—he was too timid for that—but she most certainly feared for Dean Acheson’s. That afternoon, she put a lock on his cage and stowed the key at the bottom of a junk drawer, the same place she kept Arlene Allgood’s handmade potholders from the loony bin. It was not lost on her that early the following week Jason was scheduled for a “visitation encounter” with his mother on the same day Diane herself was supposed to serve as a character witness at the Reverend’s parole hearing. Though Jason had confessed to her his anxiety about seeing his mother again, Diane had kept the parole hearing a secret and planned to continue her subterfuge without guilt. What good would it do the boy, after all? None that she could see. And if the good citizens of the parole board granted the Reverend’s early release, she would be rid of Jason and his strange habits—a boon for all, she thought, especially since Dean Acheson would be safe.
The next day, she came home from work, and before her keys were out of the lock she spun and started toward the unprecedented sight of Jason and the dogs asleep on the couch in front of an episode of “Criminal Minds,” a fact made odder still since “Criminal Minds” was her favorite show. Also strange was the sickly yellow light emanating from her computer monitor, the screen frozen on the famous photo of FDR, Churchill, and Stalin at Yalta, and not one but two of Jason’s telltale plastic drinking straws littered on the floor below. She dropped her purse and ran to Dean Acheson’s cage.
“Come on,” Dean Acheson said. “Here kitty, kitty.”
Since all the Allgoods were notorious cat-haters, she knew Jason was up to no good. Worse, one of Arlene’s twist-tie potholders lay like a limp rag at the bottom of the cage, the neat and tidy slot where the newspaper usually went now taken over by the handiwork of the mad. Finding the lock secure, she decided at once she would feign ignorance, let the boy go on thinking himself smug and superior while she unearthed more clues to understand the totality of his psychosis, the results of a chemical imbalance or genetic interference from the maternal line. She didn’t know why Dean Acheson had become the object of his rage, but right then and there she renewed her commitment to perjuring herself at the Reverend’s parole hearing and ridding herself of the boy for good.
That night, after Jason had gone to bed, she did some online shopping: a fuzzy sweater to wear at the parole hearing, a case of single-color silly straws for Jason’s drinking pleasure, and the Super-Q Stay-Tite Combination Lock for Dean Acheson’s cage, all accompanied by outrageous prices for overnight shipping and the fleeting but still relevant promise capitalism cured the ills of the nuclear family.
On the day of the parole hearing, she found Jason raking leaves in the backyard, the brilliant colors of yesteryear’s autumn dulled to a grubby, muted brown. She watched as he struggled to keep a trash bag open while scooping wet leaves from a pile soon scattered by the wind. Duty’s burden: a shame to waste its character-building advantages on one so young.
“I’m leaving now,” she said. “There’s leftover macaroni in the fridge.”
“I don’t want it,” he said without looking up. She stood watching as he raked a bare spot on the ground with aimless abandon. He stared hard at the garden hose curled at his feet. He continued raking and said, “In case you didn’t know, sane people—good people—don’t actually save leftover macaroni. It doesn’t keep well.”
“Are you visiting your mother today?”
“Yeah,” he said. He threw the rake to the ground. “They’re letting her out today. For my visit, I mean.”
Arlene had been granted day passes before, trips to the movies, outings to the local petting zoo, and once, a special dispensation for the sake of Jason’s birthday party, a sad affair if ever there was one, since Diane organized it herself and, unable to locate a cake at the last minute, she dug out a tarnished silver platter and served Ritz crackers and anchovies with a side of pickled baby corn. But always there had been plenty of advanced warning for Arlene’s outings, or at least the doctors had issued written instructions: light exercise only and supervised use of cooking utensils, and, Diane’s favorite, no stimulation beyond the everyday. Attending the parole board hearing seemed out of the question for a crazy person—and she had no reason to believe Jason even knew about the hearing, unless Arlene had told him—but she didn’t know how to broach the subject without overplaying her hand.
“Where are you going?” she said. “For your mother’s day pass?”
By then, Jason had given up on raking and allowed the contents of the trash bag—not just leaves but also sticks, plastic bottles, and a trio of crusty dog toys—to spill back onto the ground. He said nothing as he threw the rake in the shed and kicked the tire on the wheelbarrow, for no reason, really, not one she could discern, only because he wanted to pout.
“A nice trip to the art museum, maybe?” she said. “Maybe your mother would like to do some shopping.”
“It’s not that kind of day pass,” he said finally. “We have to stay within one hundred feet of the group home.”
“Give her my best,” Diane said.
“Whatever you say, doctor.”
She recalled the moniker of her least-favorite local veterinarian, Dr. Maria. “You may call me Diane,” she said. “Dr. Diane.”
“Fine,” he said. “Dr. Diane. I’ll be going now.” She followed him to the garage, where he grabbed his deflated duffel bag and slung it over his shoulder as if he were a bank robber or Santa Claus or both. She still didn’t know what was inside.
She had wanted to leave the house before him—to show she had important business at hand—but his early departure meant she had time to check and recheck the lock on Dean Acheson’s cage, remove the bits of brown lint that had collected on the front of her fuzzy sweater, and replace the aging box of baking soda in the refrigerator. Jason was right; no one would eat that goddamned macaroni. She considered saving it for the dogs or even Dean Acheson, but knew in her heart of hearts they, too, would reject the gelatinous mass and so was left with no choice: she wrapped it in a wad of too-many paper towels, stuffed it in her purse, and, making a special trip to the ladies room in the gas station downtown, she first made sure no one was looking, then squeezed it into a ball the size of her fist, and finally threw it away.
The address she had for the parole hearing was unfamiliar; she’d never before heard of Church Street, and since most of the newer streets in town were named after children born in the 1990s—Caitlin Street, Sierra Street, Tyler Street, and the perennial Megan Street—she thought Church Street something of a conundrum. Her GPS took her on several twists and turns, down a blind alley behind the butcher shop, and finally into a wooded neighborhood she recognized as the home of Oak Ridge Farm, also known as the Funny Farm, also known as the group home where Jason’s mother had resided since the Reverend went to jail. Suspecting a trick, she reprogrammed the GPS with the same result; soon enough she realized Church Street was adjacent to Farm Road, and that the address for the parole hearing was in fact next door to the Funny Farm, in a church of all places, and a Lutheran Church at that. Diane had never liked the Lutherans—she didn’t know why, exactly, maybe they just seemed a little smug—and she especially did not like the idea the Lutherans were conducting the very important business of the parole board. Most suspicious of all was that after she got out of her car and paced off the distance between the Funny Farm’s front door and the Lutheran Church, she realized the terrible numerical truth: it was exactly ninety-nine feet.
The church itself was neither beautiful, nor ornate; the metal roof sloped down toward a churning collection of rainwater in the graveled parking lot, and the façade, built from cinder blocks painted a cracked yellow-white, stretched off into the distance, forever a squat, utilitarian skyline, like the sad shadows made by a low-income housing project or the outbuildings adjacent to an abandoned airfield. The contrast with the lush grounds of the Funny Farm was striking.
Finding the front door locked, she went around to the back where a heavy, metal door had been propped open with an overflowing ashtray made of concrete. Immediately inside the doorway was a carpeted stairway leading down. She took one step down and then another. “Heloooo,” she said. “Anybody down here-?” She heard only the low bellow of the wind. “You-who-?” she said. “I’m looking for the parole board?”
A small, Asian man—why did it always have to be a small Asian man?—appeared in the outline of the doorframe where, she noticed, he was smoking a cigarette and talking on a cell phone. Hold on, he said into the phone. I’ll call you back in like, eight minutes, after which he put out his cigarette in the concrete ash tray and sat down on the top step.
“What took you so long, man?” he said. “Everyone’s waiting.”
“Are you with the parole board?” she said. “The letter said 3:00.”
“That’s a good one, man,” he said. “My dad’s going to kill me.”
He went on to explain his father was the pastor of not just this Lutheran church but also an associate pastor at two other churches in town. And though dear old dad rented out the basement for certain occasions and assigned him to stay and lock up after the party, the young man’s father also—unfairly, he thought—had asked him to scrape chewing gum from the bottoms of the pews at the two other churches, and he was going to be late, and so would not get the twenty dollars his father had promised him and would therefore go without cigarettes and wine for the foreseeable future.
“It’s a racket, man,” he said, to which Diane readily agreed. She immediately liked him; in fact, she liked him enough she might have given him twenty dollars herself had her wallet contained anything but store coupons and a book of stamps. Somehow she knew this was Silas.
“Silas Tsang,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you my middle name.”
“I didn’t want to know,” she said.
“You’re late for your party, man.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m looking for the meeting of the parole board.”
“Enough of that shit,” he said. “Better get down there.”
The staircase was steep, each rise and run pitched at an unnatural angle, the creaking wood undoubtedly rotting underneath the drab, industrial carpet. She heard calypso music bleeding through a wooden door visible from the final step before hitting the tiled floor of the basement-proper. She looked up to see Silas standing in a patch of sunlight, his hands deep in his pockets and his lips curled around an unlit cigarette butt probably pilfered from the concrete ashtray propping open the door. She took courage from his strange, knowing nod.
Suddenly, the door slammed open and the calypso music soared to an impossible din, a single helium balloon floating into the hallway. She held her purse close to her body and stepped through the doorway.
“Surprise!” the assembled guests shouted. “Happy Birthday,” they said, though her birthday was still three months away. Hanging from the ceiling were more drooping balloons and streamers made from newspaper—the color comics—and bits of twigs and leaves stuck to the newspaper with messy scraps of Scotch tape and damp-looking glue. Most of the guests were strangers—church parishioners perhaps, pasty-faced people wearing bowties and hair ties and carrying metal briefcases and handbags made of wicker and fake flowers—but the most prominent guests were her own pit bulls, Charlotte and Rosie, each one wearing a pointed party hat and bounding toward her with unrestrained joy. How the dogs had beaten her to the party she would never know, but she was happy to see them, relieved, too, since she knew they would protect her from harm. In the corner, sitting around a card table and drinking beer through plastic straws were all the Allgoods, bad as ever, the Reverend wearing a silk tie, Arlene in a red, sequined evening gown, and best-boy Jason, beaming between them with his hands positioned—generously, she thought—on the proud shoulders of each of his parents. “Happy Birthday, Auntie,” he said. “Silas showed you in?”
“It’s not my birthday,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
“Dudley,” she said to the Reverend. “They let you out?”
“Days ago,” he said.
“And Arlene,” she said. “Are you feeling well?”
Arlene, her face now tilted toward the single, bare bulb hanging among the forest of sad streamers and balloons in the middle of the room, appeared hollow and drawn, her cheek bones more prominent than Diane remembered, her lipstick smeared around the edges, her smile forced and elastic, her hair plastered into perfection. She downed the last of her beer and turned to Diane. “You didn’t use the potholders I gave you for your last birthday,” she said. “Jason told me.”
“I’ve been saving them,” Diane said. “For the holidays.”
“No matter,” the Reverend said, in that self-satisfied way men used to settle the score between rival women. Here he gestured toward another card table in the opposite corner of the room. “Another year older and another opportunity to enjoy the bounty of the Lord.”
Diane turned. Amid the throng of well-wishers, handmade decorations and behind a tall fountain of ranch dressing—without anything to dip in the ranch dressing—was a heap of birthday presents, more presents than she’d ever before received, a teeming pile including bags, boxes, and dirty stuffed animals with oversized bows around their necks. In the middle of the table, like a centerpiece, was Jason’s deflated duffel bag, an elaborate arrangement of curly ribbons affixed to its handles. The assembled guests began to chant, open, open, open, all the while clapping their hands and stomping their feet in a steady, thunderous beat that sounded not like a promise but a threat. The dogs barked. She wanted those presents; she did not care that it was not her birthday.
Jason stood and accompanied her through the maze of hanging streamers. He asked her to open his—the duffel bag—first, and she complied. Once the curly ribbons had been removed, she found inside a sealed envelope, a gift certificate for a free flea dip at Dr. Maria’s Veterinary Clinic, and a handmade birthday card featuring the famous photo of FDR, Churchill, and Stalin at Yalta.
“Open the envelope,” the Reverend said from behind his beer. “Arlene and I helped him with this part.”
Diane felt her chest tighten and expand, blood rushing through her ears like a train leaving the station, her pulse like the flutter of wings. She feared at once she would be insulted by the envelope’s contents—an appointment for a beauty makeover, she thought, or a fitting session for free orthotics. But when she pulled open the flap, she found a one-way airline ticket to Lima, Peru, a booklet of hotel vouchers, and reservations for a bus tour promising seventeen stops and free meals in four exotic locations.
“A trip to South America,” Jason said. “So you can see Dean Acheson’s homeland.”
Diane, unaccustomed to such extravagance, could think of nothing to say.
“I’ll take care of the dogs while you’re gone,” Jason said. “And Dean Acheson.”
“Arlene and I will help him,” the Reverend said.
“Speak for yourself,” Arlene said.
And that’s how Diane Allgood came to leave her life behind and become a missionary in Peru. She hadn’t planned to stay there forever, but once she saw the color of the sky at sunset and the wonder of the city’s sprawl, she knew she would never again rake—or ask someone else to rake—the brown leaves in her American backyard. For a while she made relentless phone calls, sent emails to friends and neighbors, and even hired a private detective, but she never did find out what became of Jason and Dean Acheson, though for twenty years at least she thought of the dogs more often than was healthy. Still, she had the comfort of saving the Peruvians from ruin, and many friends among the rich and the poor. She never heard from the Reverend—rumor was he ran off with a male tuba player from the London Symphony Orchestra—but she and Arlene exchanged emails on the holidays, birthdays that weren’t birthdays, Thanksgiving in July. Dear Arlene, she wrote one Easter morning. The weather is beautiful here. Even the darkest soul can hope for redemption.