Mimi called the station and asked the bluegrass couple if they knew anything about Thor. The man kept asking her to speak up, so the woman took the phone. "She's a little.....different. Nice girl though, brings us cookies sometimes. Between you and me, I've asked her to stop burning incensce in here, but she hasn't. Real smelly stuff. Think she smokes in here too, which you're not supposed to do. Never makes a mess though, her show never runs over. Very polite when she's not on the air. Not like one young man we had a show before once. He was always late, brought all his friends, and they were always drinking. You could smell the liquor on them from five feet away! Oh I have to cue up this song. Any requests?"
Mimi declined, said she listen, and got off the phone. She kicked off her school clothes and got under the covers, turning the radio down low. She fell asleep with the lights on, like most nights.
Mimi saw Kelly in snatches for the next few weeks; then one day she was back. Mimi didn't ask, knowing Kelly would tell her about the falling out when she was ready. Mimi cooked hearty, large meals with mashed potatoes, hamburger, grilled onions, peas. She made her special pasta sauce, splurging on Gouda. She found a bread-baking book at the library, and spent her nights tweaking ingredients until she had a loaf that didn't collapse while in the oven. Kelly talked on the phone or watched TV. Sometimes she asked Mimi to read the newspaper, but only the Style section. Kelly loved the movie reviews, though she and Mimi rarely went. Well, Mimi thought, maybe she went with her boyfriends. Mimi had only been to a movie theater five times in her life.
Mimi rented Charlie Chaplin films from the library, but Kelly thought them boring. Mimi liked the music, and turned them up loud so she could listen while in the kitchen. It was good to have Kelly home. She never prepared anything big and ambitious when it was just her and Sirocco eating together. She stuffed burritos till the wraps cracked and everything oozed out. She made a coconut stir-fry with couscous from a recipe Tim gave her.
She brought him the leftovers and he swallowed it up in seven bites, the apple in his throat bobbing furiously. He declared the dish 'thoroughly delectable, even when cold.' Mimi flushed. She invited him to dinner, to meet her mom. "I don't know." He murmured. She assured him that her mom was young, fun, and a little crazy. Like a character in a novel, she's exaggerated, a bit too large for life. She told him stories of Kelly shouting at other drivers, at cashiers, at old boyfriends, at the gym teacher who called Mimi weak and pathetic because she couldn't do pull-ups, not even one. Tim was laughing in his boisterous way, as though it were bubbling up straight from his gut. He agreed to come, next Wednesday. He asked what she planned to make, but she shook her head and smiled. He squeezed her shoulder as they parted ways, and Mimi felt the pressure of his fingers all through the next class.
That night, she listened to Thor's show. Instead of the rattling industrial music she played crackly, Haitian records of people chanting and shouting and old, old blues songs recorded in a prison. Thor sounded detached, her voice water-logged. Halfway through the show she started crying, epic, heaving, mucousy sobs. Her cousin had committed suicide. She hadn't known him well, but he was just a year older than her, eighteen. He was the first person she ever knew who died. Mimi started to cry too, as she didn't no know anyone who had died, aside from her first cat, Mister Mister. She emitted little hiccup sobs and only three tears, hot and languid as they ran down her cheek. She thought of all the people she had known, in all the towns. Some of them could be dead now. She had no idea, and suddenly it seemed terrible. All those people she could have known, but didn't. That she refused to engage with, even on the rare occasions when someone tried to talk with her. She decided, that very moment, she must talk to Thor.
Mimi called seconds into “Strange Fruit.” The phone rang fifteen times before she hung up. At the end of the song, Thor said she wasn’t taking requests. She didn’t speak for the rest of the show. She let the Billie Holliday record play to the end, then silence. Mimi called six times. When the elderly couple came in, they sounded concern. “There must have been an emergency,” the old man mused. Mimi still had the phone cradled in her palm.
That weekend, Mimi told Kelly about Tim coming for dinner. Kelly rolled her eyes, till just the slick white orbs glinted under the dull kitchen lights. She sighed. She complained. She didn’t want to meet any teachers. “But you do,” Mimi whispered. Despite all this, Kelly gave her an extra twenty dollars when she dropped her off at the grocery store and Mimi promised to make the eggplant lasagna that Kelly loved.
Mimi cleaned the house three times over. She worried about their mismatched dishes. She bought a lemon verbena scented candle. She mended the gaping seams on the sofa pillows. She carefully cut out pictures of seahorses and squids from an old National Geographic, pasted them in dollar store frames and hung them up around the house. She found blue light bulbs and screwed them into the living room lamps.
She bathed a surly Sirocco, despite his wails and wild claws. She swept the porch, beat out the rugs, and stocked the bathroom with toilet paper. She rushed home from school on Wednesday to prepare the lasagna. She sautéed the green beans in butter till they were as tender as an infant’s fingers. She slathered cheese and tomato puree in sedimentary layers between the thick, generous slices of eggplant. She baked the lasagna to perfection, till the house was thick with the smell of it. Sirocco sniffed around the kitchen, knocking into her legs. Kelly was late getting back, and in a dark mood, her eyes hooded. Mimi fixed her a bowl of mango ice cream, bought special for that night. Kelly muttered about the idiots at the warehouse, but the corners of her mouth twitched upwards while Mimi joked and did an impersonation of James Cagney tap dancing. Kelly went upstairs to get ready, and Mimi realized she hadn’t thought of what to wear. She settled on her favorite jeans, with the holes forming in the knees; a black, short-sleeved mock turtleneck; beaded slippers; and dangly earrings made from iridescent sea shells. She nicked Kelly’s black eyeliner and mascara, applying it gingerly as she rarely had worn make-up except as part of a Halloween costume.
Tim showed up early, carrying a small package wrapped poorly in Chinese newspaper and plastic ribbon. He seemed massive on their little porch and Mimi realized he was abnormally tall. She was afraid he wouldn’t fit his wide shoulders in the door frame, but he managed. Kelly was still upstairs, the hair dryer roaring. Tim admired the sea-life pictures and told Mimi of the time he tried to keep three seahorses in an aquarium and how they died within a week. Mimi squeezed the fingers her fingers into her palm, till crescents speckled with blood surfaced. They sat in the living room, talking about the poems of Walt Whitman he had assigned. Tim’s foot skittered across the carpet, his knee bouncing higher and higher. Mimi bit her lip. He asked how long they had lived in the town, where they had lived before.
“You move a lot,” he said.
They were interrupted by the bang and clatter of Kelly’s heels on the stairs. She appeared with an expansive smile, all red lips and gleaming teeth. Her dress was blue, a simple shift over jeans, fitted, but not her trademark tight. She wore low slung black kitten heels, nothing extravagant. Her makeup was light. Mimi swelled with pride. Kelly was tasteful and beautiful, like the mother Mimi hoped to be one day. Kelly strode, shook hands, inquired about Mimi’s progress in school. Her usual slight southern lilt deepened, and strangely Tim was flustered. Mimi excused herself to set-up for dinner. She heard Tim’s booming laugh, nervous at first, but louder and surer. She couldn’t make out what Kelly was saying, but she had settled into her rapid, soft story-telling voice. Breathy, stern, confidential, mocking, thoughtful; when Kelly told a story, you felt you were witnessing it as it unfolded.
Mimi called them to eat. They sat around the small table, dwarfed by Tim whose knees brushed against the tabletop. He handed Mimi the package, and she opened it delicately. Inside was a green bento box, not pistachio, more like the deep green of summer leaves. Tim apologized about the color, but Mimi waved him off.
“It’s fantastic! Thank you. Thank you so much.” She murmured, eating a little jelly candy inside. The box came with a set of ornate chopsticks, pale cherry blossoms set in relief against a matching green. Mimi’s eyes burned along the rims and she blinked back tears. She was quiet for most of the meal, letting Tim and Kelly talk. They both embarrassed her with mellifluous compliments. Tim said if her true calling wasn’t literary criticism, then he’d suggest she go to culinary school. Mimi blushed so deeply Kelly stage-whispered. “I think she might have a crush on you, Tim.”
Mimi choked on her fork. “Mom,” she growled.
“I’m kidding. She never mentioned you before this weekend.” Kelly confided.
Tim laughed. Mimi stared at her plate. God, she hated her mother right now.
Mimi served the mango ice cream in delicate cut glass bowls that Kelly had inherited from her mother. Well, she had stolen them when she moved out, as the story really went. Mimi garnished each pair of scoops with a sprig of spearmint. Kelly sipped on reheated coffee from the morning, watching Tim talk with Mimi. As soon as the subject of writers came up, Kelly had grown silent and restless. She broke in to steer things back to travel, but whenever they mentioned a city or state, Tim would relate it all back to some writer, quoting passages or lines of poetry. Mimi rested her hand on the bento box as Tim talked of his cross-country road trip during college, through the south and up the pacific coast. Kelly nodded her head when he mentioned an area she had passed through, interrupting with a few tales of her own about her childhood in Kentucky and Tennessee. Mimi shut her eyes and absorbed the soft, sharp clatter of their spoons scraping against the glass bowls and the hush of Tim and Kelly adrift in the private chasm between memories and story-telling. Eventually the conversation ground out, and Mimi, with her face resting in her palms and her elbows on the table, watched Tim and Kelly lean back in their chairs, silent and content. The lull lasted only a minute, perhaps, before Tim rustled, stood up, stretched, and began his cordial exit. He promised to come again, hugging Mimi and walking with Kelly to his car. Mimi sat back at the kitchen table, opening the bento box and arranging the jelly candies according to hue. She started planning the next dinner, with courses in each color of the rainbow. She was stuck on what to prepare for indigo when she heard from outside a wet, sucking sound, brief but distinct, like a fish leaping from the water. Like a school of fish, and finally the car door slammed. Kelly returned, shoes in hand, the last traces of her lipstick gone.