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erin lebacqz

New Fiction


by Erin Lebacqz

      It wasn’t the first time I’d driven all day only to wind up facing a body of water I wouldn’t dare doink my little toe into. I asked her if she wasn’t trying to set a record for longest time submerged in the type of oil slick that kills wildlife off the coast of Louisiana, but she just looked at me as if I couldn’t possibly have been borne of her, and proceeded to straighten the strap on her goggles.
      “You got the stopwatch ready?” she asked, shaking her arms to toss out any shoulder kinks, and jumping up and down a little to get her circulation going.
      I held it up between us to signify my answer and asked her how far she was going.
      “See that pier to the west? It’s probably about a mile and a quarter out. There shouldn’t be any boats this time of day.” She exhaled sharply a couple times, marched purposefully into the water until it reached her thighs, then dove in and put strokes to water. I’d come not to expect much more dialog than this lately; my mother was action-bound. She said that’s what Nike meant: no more talking.
      Once she’d motored out a few hundred yards, my fifty-five-year-old mother turned left and paralleled the wandering shore as best she could, heading towards the flotsamish specks I assumed represented boogie boarders. Ten minutes into it and she’d resemble the remote hundredth target in a dot-to-dot requiring one final line to complete a bow and arrow or fishing line or the tail on a cat. Twenty minutes and she’d be included among the dots as just another freckle on the face of an ocean known for its turbulence and cold temperatures. It was our fourth weekend in a row spent ocean- or lakeside; the shit, as I liked to tell her in a tone I wisely kept just south of sarcastic, was getting real.
      It would, of course, turn out to be a phase like any other. A year from now, deserted pairs of goggles would rival other now-impotent twos for space on a closet shelf: knitting needles, roller blades, chopsticks. This latest idea had been around for months — good thing, considering the physical level of stamina my mother needed to build towards in this particular case — but I knew one day it would dissipate into fodder for future nostalgia, just like its brethren, other goals she’d temporarily pursued over the last few years, efforts I’d witnessed and remembered well.
      2009 saw the birth of this side of my mother with goals including: First Prize in a Sugar-free Pan-Asian Baking Contest; Total Literal and Figurative Comprehension of V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow; and Acquisition of a Complete Fifty-state Set of License Plates from the Previous Century. (A classic twofer, this was also known as Acquisition of a Complete Fifty-state Set of License Plates from the Previous Millennium.) Not to be outdone, 2010 followed with the illustrious: Most Glass Balls on Display in a Single Yard this Side of the Mississippi, Spontaneous Memorization of a Traditional Pack of Playing Cards Recently Shuffled by a Bystander, and Passing a College Physiology and Anatomy Course with a “B” or Better. The current year had started strong as well: Top Regional Jump-roper in the Fifth Decade of One’s Life took only months; Creation of “We are the World” Sock Monkey Replica waited patiently in the wings. And, with the goal she now spent each weekend building towards, 2011 promised also to go out with a bang, or with a splash, as I’d say if I were severely lacking in self-respect.
      My mother used to talk to me about aging, before all this started. She used to say that more than the goals themselves, it’s the goal-setting that fades away as we get older. It’s the only part of aging she fears. And that belief, that worry, was part of why she does this. The rest of it, sad to say, is for my benefit.

      I’d told him repeatedly that I really was going to go back for my BBA, or at least an AA in Business Administration. That I wouldn’t always have nothing more than an AAS in Clerical Studies. That I consequently wouldn’t always be a receptionist in a proctologist’s office — that someday, I’d be so educated and powerful that I’d be the one sticking it to people, as I would add whenever this conversation arose on a night when I’d had more than one glass of wine. In the early days of our relationship, jokes like that would have won me a laugh, or even a high-five, but over recent months, they only elicited groans and rolled eyes.
      “I think the word you’re looking for is ‘pshaw,’” I’d say, when he appeared thusly unable to verbalize his non-verbals.
      I’d also pointed out, over the three years we’d been together, that my sewing of 100% organic cotton aprons, baby bibs, and tea towels infused with themes like “It’s all squeak to me!” wouldn’t always be only a hobby.
      “There’s a market for organic textiles with embossed rodents,” I’d say.
      “I just feel like you’re not going anywhere,” he told me one day, in a different tone than usual.
      “You’re right,” I said calmly, narrowing my eyes in wistful meaningfulness, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay right here by your side, baby.”
      “Nice try,” he replied steadily. “It’s just I need to move on.”
      Turns out it was me who moved on first. That night, in fact — though only in terms of the dwelling. I moved back in with my mother; Carlos went on to quickly become a celebrated city cop, open a restaurant with his two brothers, and father three children within a span of time so short it made me review my times tables. A headline in the local paper Mom had tried to hide from me in the recycling bin read, “‘My Wife Makes it all Possible’: An Interview with one of the City’s Finest.” That lovely Lucinda had kept him motivated and seen him through it all. Needless to say, he no longer lived in our small apartment on Fourth anymore either.
      Just like so many playground bullies, it turns out proctologists can’t take what they dish out either, and so when I made things uncomfortable for my boss by not showing up for work for a week after getting dumped, he gave me my second dose of it. I giggled about the “dumping,” but he didn’t. I said I thought I was showing some class by at least keeping my jokes out of the “in the ass” realm, but his threat to call security showed me my sense of humor was becoming unpopular not just with Carlos, but across the board. And so, when I returned early in the fourth decade of my life to the home where I’d spent most of my first two, I did so both single and unemployed.
      Mothers want us to feel better and so mine made no move to censor her excitement at my moving back in with her. I guess she wanted me to feel wanted, something I’d told her was unnecessary, considering I’d been conceived after January of 1973, after laws would have allowed her to take action if I weren’t wanted. Sadly, her thrill level had an inverse relationship with that of my tolerance for it, and our first few weeks together again were consequently a bit tense. Over the months that were to become years, though, I learned new skills like patience and the ability to swallow an increasing fraction of my words, and we got along well enough. Plus, once we’d moved the crates of decorative spheres ranging from transparent to fully opaque, and from diameters of a few inches to nearly a foot, out of the “office,” we had separate rooms, which helped immensely.
      She did her thing and I did mine, mostly. I’d walk through the living room and find her sewing eyes on her 25th sock monkey for the day. She’d be in the garage and I’d go out to look for an old magazine and discover her hunched over a microscope, her left arm wrapped around the elbow in colorful tape that kept the cotton ball in place over a vein inside her arm. “It’s important to strive for something,” she’d say, half-way through a set of jump roping exercises or air punches, as I’d walk into the kitchen for coffee. In between temp jobs, I hung around the house, mostly, reading romance novels or listening to old cassette tapes I found in a plastic case in my room. For the sake of tranquility, I didn’t remark on or react to the brochures I started finding in my room for colleges or vocational programs; instead, I fashioned them into new cassette covers that mocked their originals. When my mother said I should do something with them, maybe set up a booth at the local craft fair, I just started throwing the brochures away.

     I’d watched as it first came into focus around the Ides of March, this new seafaring fixation, at a time of year when restlessness was always at an all-time high, even for her. For all I knew, this was her version of spring fever. She always brought me along, under the guise of needed assistance. Though I knew she really invited me in hopes that her intrinsic and apparently indiscriminate self-motivation would rub off on me, I didn’t argue: it was warm out, and I had no issue with letting the hours drift by at beaches along oceans, rivers, and lakes, sunning myself while I smoked cigarettes and read books and covertly scoped the male visitors from behind my sunglasses while mom did some kind of laps. There were worse things that could happen.
      Each weekend varied little from the previous. I’d try not to gag at the suspiciously-darkened sand that squeezing up between my mother’s toes and not to think about the dribbled pollutants that would surely result from any loss of structural integrity in the boats’ septic or fuel systems in the surrounding harbors. In one case, sailboats passed between us and the famed island where so many were held to serve out their sentences years ago. There wasn’t an official race going on, so it wasn’t safe to swim all the way to Alcatraz in order to then “escape” from it, but my mother had mapped out some kind of course for herself. I supposed it was as good a place as any to practice, if you didn’t mind your feet either freezing or being bitten off by seals.
      One Saturday, she pounded an energy drink and identified the two miles she was about to put away as the official practice swim for her first big event. I tried calling it a “dry run,” but she wasn’t feeling it. “Undress rehearsal?” I offered.
      “I swam in high school, you know,” she told me, admonishingly. “I did the 500 free in every meet.” I didn’t ask how many decades had been put to work between then and now creating the tree trunk rings that now formed around the edges of her goggles.
      Since she was in the mood for explaining, though, I took it one step further and asked about the second half of the goal at hand. Even before she had identified the course where her event would take place, she had gotten very specific on what kind of nourishment she would take.
      “Objective,” she clarified sternly, and I did a sort of curtsey.
      “You’re right,” I added. “‘Goals’ are for amateurs.”
      She paused, and then she did explain. “They’re waterproof,” she told me.
      Like those other worthy goals, “Timed Two-Mile Swim in the Pacific Relying Only on Gummy Bears for Sustenance” would recede into the sunset one evening as well. For now, though, it was happening.
      “Back in the 1800’s, they’d swim across whole channels on nothing but beer,” she explained.
      “Great, so I’m the daughter of a drunken mermaid,” I answered.
      “Thomas Pynchon went around disguised as a bag lady, and he had a son,” she answered. I was about to tell her that it was precisely those kinds of nonsequitors that showed she shouldn’t take up drinking during athletics, when she added reassuringly, “No beers for me, honey, just bears.”

     Carlos and I had met back when my life’s trajectory didn’t resemble a line graph of the nation’s economy during the Dubya years. I had high hopes in those days; it wasn’t all about proctology and homemade crafts. We met at the local state university. He’d returned to college to train for the police force after discovering the boredom inherent to a management position in retail; I’d signed up for a series of evening dance classes based around a visiting professor who’d be in town for only a year. I’d never imagined myself going for a cop-in-training, but had found myself unable to resist his offer of a ride home from school one evening after I got out late and found my battery dead. I’d stayed in the studio to practice for an upcoming audition. Like me, he took his classes at night, after working a whole shift that day.
      In addition to enrolling in dance classes, I’d also taught them. Like I said, I hadn’t planned on being a receptionist forever. I did some private kids’ lessons on the side, but my main employer had been the Department of Children and Family Services, for whom I consulted as a “Connection Specialist.” My classes were filled with parent-child pairs trying to rekindle some kind of union or awaken some now-hidden trust for one another after the parents had bombed out in their lives one way or another. We were one of the last steps, meant to rehabilitate, before parental rights could be terminated. The idea was that bonding through the arts would translate to the home and perhaps even serve as an inspiration to not accept that next invitation or opportunity to make easy money, to turn a trick or a buck, to be somewhere you shouldn’t be.
      Turned out one of my parolees’ daughters was somewhere she shouldn’t have been alright: in my class. A fractured ankle in the foot of a six-year-old whose mother can barely handle getting her to school in the first place meant much more than a simple six-week restriction from P.E. class. The broken foot would lead this little girl to cry not only from the physical pain, but from the final loss of her mom; the mother’s reaction to an unforeseen issue had been a 48-hour distraction fest that would serve as the final nail in her parental coffin.
      That night in the hospital, while I sat in the otherwise empty room by the side of the sleeping girl, I finally had a chance to play my phone’s messages and found I hadn’t gotten a part I’d recently auditioned for. Despite a lifetime of walking under ladders and flamboyantly allowing black cats to cross my path, I apparently chose that moment of dual failure to become fatalistic and superstitious. You can call it cowardice — I do — but I never danced or taught another step after that.

    Timed Two-Mile Swim in the Pacific Relying Only on Gummy Bears for Sustenance was scheduled to take place on August 25th, and when this day arrived, I was again given the indisputably honorable role of supply girl. This involved towel and sweatshirt management, stopwatch execution, and, of course, gummy bear administration. We were positioned on the beach, near one wharf, surrounded by swimmers and the kayakers who would chaperone them to the next wharf. Mom wasn’t going that far; there was an out-for-a-mile-and-back option too, and she’d signed up for that, mostly at my behest, and also because I didn’t know how to drive a kayak.
      She stood in front of me that cold morning in just her suit, cap already affixed and goggles ready for duty a few inches above their ultimate destination, I assume performing some kind of visualization technique as I stuffed the zip-locked baggies of bears into the sides of her suit.
      “I should have sorted these by color,” I said, mostly because it seemed like talking is probably a good idea when you’re stuffing things into a swim suit along your mother’s hips and back side.
      “Don’t be stupid, Sylvia,” she responded, adding my name in there like when I was in eighth grade, and pulling irritably at her straps as her suit became tighter now that it had to encompass this added girth.
      “Touché,” I said, but I knew that wasn’t really right either.
      I put some bags along the edges of her suit by her arm pits too, and this made me wonder about the loss of efficiency that would be incurred from interrupting her stroke to reach down for a bag now and then. Due to their placement, these particular bags would surely require a two-arm interruption to retrieve: one arm would surely need to reach under the other.
      “Next time, you could buy the minis, so they’d fit through the straw system on a Camel Bak,” I offered.
      She maintained her steely gaze, undeterred by my frivolity. “Can you fix the zip-lock on this one, please,” she sort of stated.
      “Actually,” I then realized, aloud, “the worms might slide right through too.”
      I had surpassed some kind of patience threshold, it seemed. “That’s bullshit, Sylvia, and you know it,” she told me. “What if they turned horizontal when you were trying to suck them into the straw, hmm?”
      I nodded in deference to an admittedly wise point and scratched my chin as if this were a topic worthy of serious speculation and analysis.
      “OK,” I acquiesced, and I did zip the bag, “sticking with the bears sounds good. But instead of putting them in bags, you could thread some floss through them, you know, like with a big knitting needle from last year, and make like those Cheerios necklaces.”
      Her expression distinctly suggested that I get a life.
      “What?” I countered, shrugging my shoulders exaggeratedly and affecting a look of shock at her inability to understand the genius of my proposal. “If you made the necklaces short enough, they’d be right there in front of your face for the munching; you wouldn’t even have to move your arms. And those suckers are sticky, you know; this way, if you get some stuck in your teeth…”
      I shut up when she looked at me like I’d better. “Just help me streamline all this,” she said, trying to smooth down her now-smushier sides. She had baggie bulges everywhere.
      “I hope you’re not planning to litter,” I added.
      When the race started, she disappeared into a sea of bright-capped heads of all colors, rubbered and bobbing like something coming at you from the other side of a bathtub. I hadn’t expected such a huge turnout, and I toyed with the thought that maybe there was something to all this dedication stuff. Minutes later, kicked-up splashes subsiding as swimmers got past their fast few hundred yards and settled into their grooves, I could pick her out of the masses: the neon green cap and what looked like a navy-blue suit moved evenly among a pack of swimmers who’d chosen to fall behind the others but kept up a consistent pace. I opened my mouth and stood on my tiptoes to cheer, but realized in time that she couldn’t hear me. I shaded my eyes with my hand to at least get a better look.
      “Here, try these,” a man to my right suggested. He carried a backpack and was accompanied by what must have been his daughter, both of them wearing knit beanies, as was suitable for a befogged coast as ours was apt to be. The little girl’s hat was black and yellow striped.
      “You could add eyes right here and antennae here,” I told her, pointing. “You could use felt and pipe-cleaners,” I added. “Or maybe stronger wiring than that, running through some felt,” I added, directing that last part to her father.
      “I have a red one too,” the girl said.
      “Well for that one, you could add dots and a little tiny black head out in front.”
      The little girl smiled at this idea, and the man gestured again with the binoculars.
      At a certain point, a percentage of the swimmers began to turn around to head back, against the current of their competitors, to whence they’d come. The others continued on, kayaks alongside them, to brave the cold water for the remaining miles between themselves and the next pier. As my mother drew closer once again to where I stood, these others drifted beyond my line of sight. I could see through the binoculars as she made ungraceful movements now and then: snack time.
      I handed the specs back to the father when he told me his wife would be finishing up at the next wharf, and that they’d better get in the car so they could beat her to it and be there when she arrived.
      “My mom’s in the race!” the little girl announced.
      “Yeah,” I said. “Mine too.”

     That night, back in our motel room, I lay on one bed, snacking on the remaining gummy bears my mother said she now found nauseating. She was tired, and lounged beneath the stiff covers, eating what appeared to be an endless supply of energy bars. She watched the cooking show on TV half-heartedly; it had been awhile since she’d given up the dream of appearing on some kind of Iron Chef reality cook-off. I grabbed a toothpick from dinner and stabbed holes in the bears’ middles and started lining them up on the nightstand. I’d already finished a couple of the vodka coolers I’d picked up at a gas station on our way back.
      “Sylvia, honey, I’m too tired to get up,” my mother said presently.
      “These coolers are really good for muscle pain,” I said.
      “Can you just go get it, please? There’s money in my purse.” She pointed limply to the pastel-upholstered chair on which sat one of her old knitting totes.
      “Sure,” I said, looking at how honestly tired she appeared. “The fresh air will do me good. Besides, I need to buy some floss.”
The air outside, moist yet brisk, immediately woke me up and gave me the sense of youthful hope I still associate with being outdoors in the sneaky night. I took the two flights of outdoor stairs down toward the office, stopped by the vending machine of toiletries, paid the couple of bucks for wireless access, and returned to the room to get out my mom’s laptop.
      “They’re up!” I told her, and she straightened in bed, switching off the TV with the remote. “How old are you again?” I asked, searching for the age group divisions on the race’s website and enjoying the ability to torture her through stalled time.
      As silent responses seemed to have become her default lately, I kept scrolling until I found her section, divided by sex and age. “Let’s see… Natalie Kingman.. Kingman, Kingman… here it is.” I looked at her and enjoyed a few moments of keeping my announcement to myself. She threw a pillow at me. “You got twelfth,” I said finally.
      “Twelfth!?” she declared, gleefully bounding out of bed as if in direct retort to the age group in which we’d just both agreed she was listed. “I placed!?”
      “Appears so,” I answered, swiveling the laptop around to show her.
       “I placed!!” she screamed, jumping up and down, then running around the room in tiny circles in her night clothes, then completing a series of air-punches, and finally, grabbing one of my coolers and downing it.
      I smiled at her. “Yeah, well I’m pretty sure I could beat a bunch of 50-year-olds too.”

     It wasn’t the first time I’d driven us back home while my mother slept, exhausted from the endeavors she probably hoped would inspire me in some way. Return drives differ from the more anticipatory sort, but this one felt optimistic enough. Sand dunes gave way to fields lettuce and strawberries and then to orchards as we cut inland towards home. The smell of garlic took my mind to a whole new species of gummy bears, which took me to my mother’s goals. She stirred drowsily next to me and opened her eyes.
       “So what’s next, Mom?” I asked her. “I hear some people are doing this swim where you go off the coast of the U.S. to Cuba and back.”
      “Very funny,” she answered.
      “It’s called the Fidelity Race. You know, not just because of the leader, but because you really have to trust in your government to have your back if you run into any troubles.”
      “Yeah, right, Sylvia.”
      “Just look!” I pointed at a sign out the window. “Here we are in Castroville now.”
      “The artichoke capital of the world,” my mother read.
       “They could change it to ‘heart,’ and sell T-shirts with the center of an artichoke where your heart goes,” I speculated.
       “I don’t know,” my mother said, “I might take a break from swimming now. What about you?”
      “Not sure, Mom,” I answered. I had some thoughts about opening up an account online to start selling the kind of stuff I used to make, but wasn’t ready to share them. “Guess I’ll just wait to see what’s next on the agenda for you.” We continued driving through heavy agriculture in the parts of California that had been settled long ago. “What if you come up with something like Construction of Mission-Era Nunnery Using Only Pasta and Glue, or the more practically-manifested Installment of Spanish-style Roofing to One’s Abode? You’re gonna need an assistant.”
      She had no idea whether or not I was serious, but it didn’t matter. We looked at each other in mutual amusement: at her because she tended to do things that a euphemistic speaker would deem “whimsical;” at me because I tended to do nothing at all. We marked two ends of a spectrum along which “normal” fell somewhere in between. My mother pulled a floss-chained line of gummy bears out of her bag and hung it from the rearview mirror. “Just in case we get hungry,” she said.

Erin Lebacqz grew up in California and currently lives in New Mexico. She has been writing fiction for the past few years, and has recently been published in Little Fiction and One Title Magazine. In her free time, she enjoys swimming in lakes and oceans, and hiking in the wind.

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