Paper Thin – A Story and Two Images by Maggie Rawling Smith

Paper Thin

       Nanette wakes up at seven-fifteen, looks out the window, and tries to convince herself that today will not be so gray and cloudy if she can just doze off for another couple hours. Outside it is late Southern fall, but Nanette wishes for Spring in the desert, when everything is just starting to bloom – the first neon pink flower on a cactus, the first pansies, fashioned into hotel logos surrounded by fountains. As soon as she thinks of those transplanted flowers, she remembers how They see each mountain vista as a future luxury condo, each “scrubby” desert acre as a potential mall or golf course. Her Phoenix has long ago been flattened or gentrified, rebuilt and expanded. The first and last time that she and Matt visited her parents there, Nanette wondered aloud if the only mountains people bothered to look at anymore were the crappy renderings on state license plates. They were stuck in traffic and she wanted nothing more than to destroy the waxed and polished silver Cadillac in front of them, to floor the accelerator of Matt’s battered Subaru and launch them both headlong into the oversized trunk that she was sure contained at least two sets of golf clubs and a dozen Neiman Marcus shopping bags. Matt recognized her clenched jaw, white knuckles gripping the wheel, and urged her to pull over just in time. He coaxed her out of the car at an upscale supermarket, where they walked around counting bird shits on every American-made luxury car. By number eight, a disgusting brown and white splatter job across an otherwise spotless Escalade, Nanette was doubled over with laughter. Matt rescued her that day, as with so many others. More than pills or self-starvation or $200 sessions with strangers who could not relate to the unending circles in her mind.
       So she agreed to move here. Away from wide open skies and ever-present sun, trading sweeping vistas for endless forest shade. With him. For him. Nanette searches the five hundred and sixty-two tin foil stars (one for each night they spent together) that hang from beaded ribbon strands across the ceiling. It is impossible to believe he is gone.

       She slides open the bedroom window and goosebumps rise beneath her sexless flannel robe. She remembers for an instant how satisfying it is to fuck on a morning like this, passion rising with fog on the window pane. Until the outside world is eclipsed. Until everything is heat and sweat and containment.
       The air smells of damp rotting leaves, and then, acrid, like a menthol cigarette. She slides the window all the way open to let in the scent of her neighbor. She imagines B, hitting his first Merit of the day through their thin duplex wall, his thick lips and perfect French inhale. The cherry floats through the breeze and lands just off their divided patio below.
       Nanette glances up at the clock. 10 am. Time to shower. This must happen every day. She used to be a salon girl, with expensive products protecting her waist-length blond hair. But she no longer cares. Matt wouldn’t recognize this sickly sweet dollar store scent. She shakes the last of it loose before tossing the spent bottle in the mesh basket by the sink.
       Nanette spots a daddy-longlegs crawling up the drain. She glances at the chipped mug beside the soap dish. His legs could be crushed if she caught him wrong so she just stands there, towel wrapped around her bony frame, watching. There was this book when she was little about a spider in red sneakers who did homework and shot hoops at the same time. Her eyes narrow and her chin spreads. She has to quick wipe a hole in the mirror steam to prove that she is smiling.
       The phone rings and Nanette holds her breath. “Hi this is Matt and Nettie’s place! Leave us a message.”
       Soon she will take his name off the machine. But not yet. What if he calls but hears his name erased, like Peter Pan’s mother closed the window? Like she’s forgotten him so he never comes back.
       “Nanette? It’s your mother. Again. Honey, I know you’re there so just pick up. Matt called and said I should make sure you’re okay. What’s going on? Sweetheart. You know you can tell me if you’re in one of your moods. We’ll call Dr. Z and – ”
       Boom boom thud. Boom boom thud. Nanette isn’t sure how B can stand that volume, but she is grateful for the interruption. Through the wall, it sounds like a heartbeat. She curls up on the couch, hasn’t slept since the night she heard footsteps out back and called Matt’s cell to find, “This number has been disconnected or is no longer in service.”
       She stares out the window for answers. Tree branches loom like gnarled fingers. The bird house swings in the breeze. Nanette has just drifted off to sleep, when the 12 o’ clock news blares through the wall into her dreams.
       She runs her hands over a stubbly shaved head. Still in her bathrobe, discolored with collegiate Manic Panic. She slips her feet into matted orange slippers, dry leaves still stuck in the toes from his last stroll up the drive to retrieve the Sunday paper.

       Shouts out front. Grandma’s mirror rattles as her neighbor’s door slams shut.
       “What the hell are you trying to prove?”
       Nanette crouches down beside the dryer, peering out patchwork curtains at three figures standing in front of her car. She recognizes B, oversized hat tilted to the side, roundball jersey protruding below puffy jacket. The newness of his Nikes gleams in brassy autumn light. Then there’s his mom, a short, stocky woman, well-worn with worry, who’s pushing him in the chest and doing most of the yelling. Hanging back is a tall boy Nanette’s never seen. His hands are shoved deep in his pockets, and it’s easy to tell he’s been slouching that way since adolescence, first wrongly accused, then angry and finally acceptant of his expected role as felon.
       Behind them is B’s Cherokee, the back window shot out. Nanette understands mom’s hysteria without hearing a word. She’s known her neighbor is running with a tough crowd ever since she and Matt ran into him at the pool hall last Fall.
       During her two years of teaching high school art in downtown Phoenix, Nanette learned how to tell when kids were just acting tough or actually packing heat. It was B’s slim friend in the Yankees cap that she knew for sure was armed. Something about his posture, the way he stared through people, his hand pressed against the reassuring hardness at his waist. B stood just in front of him, cap down low, thumb fiddling with a diamond-chip ring on his power finger.
       Matt was making for the door when Nanette laid a hand on B’s sleeve. “Hey Neighbor! What’s up?” Slim pressed a little harder on his jacket, until B lifted his head and extended a hand. “Hey you, what’s up?” The Yankees kid relaxed. Matt sighed, shifting his weight.
       “It’s good to see you!” Nanette gushed, blushing as B pushed up his cap and let his bloodshot eyes fall on her silver hoops and long blond pigtails. For a second, he smiled and his upper lip stuck to his gum. She inhaled the freshly-smoked blunt on his breath. Honey-flavor. Matt bumped fists with B and guided his girl out the door.
       The radio and Matt’s voice muted as they drove away. B mostly stared at his shoes in the parking lot, at the mailbox. But when they’d locked eyes, there was nothing but kindness and uncertainty. She wished that instead of a handshake, she had given him a hug.

       Thursday arrives with a pain in her temples. Nanette spends the morning squinting away the fourteenth day without Matt.

       “You just take it all. Or I can sell it, mail you half the cash.”
       But he kept changing the subject, staring down at her ratty red All Stars. “Just take care, okay?”
       Later, after many state lines, when the radio stopped providing adequate distraction, she imagines that he pulled over in the parking lot of some Cracker Barrel. Puffy clouds drifted through the last Indian summer sky, as he wrote her final note, on a free lobby postcard with a coffee-stained O.
       “You’ve said all you need is my love and your imagination. But that’s just keeping you isolated and estranged. The world will pass me by no more. I have to leave before I start doing things I regret. Goodbye beautiful Nettie. May you find peace.”
       Nanette spent days trying to guess which psychology textbooks he consulted before drafting this soliloquy. Which male colleague sat across the table at some inland seafood buffet convincing Matt she was a crazy lost cause.

       Nanette raps a knuckle on B’s door. She straightens up to be visible through the peephole, since B has taped up blankets and a sleeping bag over all his windows. Slow footsteps pad downstairs and then, “Who there?”
       “It’s Nanette. From next door.” She imagines him peering through the warped circle, and manages a quick smile before dropping her eyes toward the “Welcome” mat. He cracks the door and she extends a turquoise plate filled with cookies.
       B was over once before, when she and Matt were hosting their holiday party. He’d been the only one who didn’t work with Matt, but held his own as soon as Nanette greeted him with an openhearted hug. They’d slumped down together on the big leather couch, where Matt and Nanette first kissed, to talk hip hop. Matt disappeared into the kitchen to top off B’s Solo cup. But Nanette conversed with him for hours, until all the other guests left. Later, she heard a favorite track she’d mentioned booming back at her through the bedroom wall.

       Nanette is shy, without Matt, and sober. She’s twisting her foot like a girl. “Come in.” Out of habit B looks behind her to make sure no one’s watching. She follows him.
       Unlike her living room, which is almost empty, B’s living space is dim and cramped. Nanette notes a Fresh Flowers plug-in, a pair of violet fans pinned up over the TV, and a few boxes of what look like quilting scraps stacked up in the corner. His mom must have been using the place as storage while he was Inside. Judging from the ashtray and randomly scattered socks and sweatshirts, mom quit cleaning the day he came home.
       “You want something to drink?” Nanette follows B at a distance that only people who’ve never been jumped find acceptable. But he remains relaxed, headed for the kitchen. There are no clean cups, so he rinses out a “Remember 9-11” mug filled with ashes and offers up some Henny and Coke. She accepts the mug like a chalice and uses both hands to guide it to her lips. “I haven’t tasted this since the party.”
       “Yeah. Sorry I never got back with you guys.” She trails him to the living room where they take a seat on opposite couches, their knees only a few feet apart. “I’ve been away for awhile.” He places his left sneaker over the brown stain on the carpet.
       “Well I’m glad you’re home now. Did you play a lot of chess?”
       He catches her eye. “Say what?”
       Nanette sets the mug down between her thighs. “My friend Vinny was in jail. He says it’s really boring but you get good at chess.”
       B turns his eyes to the TV where some white lady is shaking her booty in a gym. “What is this shit?”
       Nanette puts her chin in her hands like she always does when she’s nervous. “Yeah it’s all so formulaic. I used to babysit and BET was the only thing that kept me sane. I must’ve seen ‘106 and Park’ every day for a year. But I dunno. They always play the same three videos.” Nanette catches the third button of her flannel undone and turns her shoulder to cover up.
       B stares down at his thick black laces. “Yeah, I don’t know about this joint. I just don’t know.”
       They sit in silence while the onscreen cars start hopping and the shirtless emcee flexes. Nanette leans forward, elbows on her knees, imagining the warmth of his palms, as they push back and forth across his G Star Raws.
       B hops upstairs to take a call. Nanette goes to the sink and pours out her drink. She quick rinses the mug and sets it down on the empty dish rack.
       That’s when she spots the overturned picture on top of the fridge. She lifts the frame – adorned in pep rally blue and gold. At the bottom “S + B 4ever!” A slight, caramel girl stares back at her. She is wrapped in B’s letterman’s jacket, a basketball stitched to the sleeve.
       Nanette hears footsteps and replaces the frame in its dust. Shoving her hands in her sweats, she prepares for goodbye.
       “I gotta run,” B mumbles as he jumps down the last three steps. “I’m glad you guys didn’t move.” When he’s already half-turned away, she slides in beside him and hugs him tight as she can. Her eyes close – smooth jersey, a magazine scent. B squeezes her back.
       For an instant he cradles the back of her shorn head.
       “Listen, Neighbor. You take care of yourself, ok?”
       She nods, looking down at the carpet so he won’t see that she has stupidly teared up. Instead of walking her straight out, he lets her stand there while he ties on his doo-rag and cocks his Globetrotters brim East.
       Then they’re off, him to a windowless Cherokee, and her to a half-empty apartment. No, half-full, she corrects herself as she retreats back inside. She runs to the bathroom, locks the door and pops a piece of watermelon Bubbilicious. Chewing gum is the quickest way to stop crying.

       Later, Nanette exhales when his front door slams. She climbs into bed while she can still hear his water pipes gurgling. And just as she’s drifting off, first one then two sirens bounce and echo through the leafless trees.
       Banging, shuffling, shouts. Nanette doesn’t know whether to press her ear to the wall or hide inside the closet. She settles for pulling the covers up over her head.
       By the time she’s made up her mind to throw on her bathrobe and run out front, B’s head, hair still shower damp, is being shoved into a squad car. She runs up close to the window, trying to get his attention, but a cop tells her to step away from the vehicle.
       Brandon takes in her quivering mouth, eyes wide enough to see straight into her heart. He presses his fingertips against the glass. Just like all those cop shows she hears him watch through the wall.

       Mist commits to full-fledged rain, and Nanette sticks out her tongue to taste a drop and remember her body. The safety light glistens on the dark, slick pavement and an earthworm wriggles his way up from the dewy grass onto the curb. Soon there will be hundreds, tiny segmented bodies pulling themselves towards dry land.
       A cat darts toward the mailbox, and stops for a moment, eyes glinting yellow, sizing her up. Nanette turns back to the worm. There is something slow but purposeful about this creature that she understands. As it inches its way over the curb and into the parking lot, she remembers the different kinds of dead worms she’s seen on walks after rainstorms. Halved and bloodied. White mush. Brittle brown corpses in the bright morning sun.
       Stooping down, she urges the worm into her hand, feeling the weight of its life in her palm. She thinks about carrying it inside, filling up a shoebox with dirt, but that would be too confining. She looks around and finds the perfect place. Just a few feet away, in case it has family. It wriggles out of her fingers onto a crunchy pile of leaves.

       Tonight she will drag her quilt down the stairs and curl up on the sofa. When the wind picks up and branches beat against the window, she will drift off comforted by her new little friend, just outside, burrowing and inching his blind, cautious way through the world.

Maggie Rawling Smith is a mother, a writer, a filmmaker and an activist who hopes to leave this world just a bit better off than she found it. She and husband Brian co-adapted his collection of short stories into the Amazon Prime series Spent Saints, as well as co-adapting the festival-winning documentary Tucson Salvage, which she also directed. She is the author of Delilah M Pennymaker, a forthcoming young adult novel and is an advocate for the LGTBQ+ community. Maggie studied screenwriting/performance studies at Northwestern University, fiction writing at University of Virginia and Spanish immersion at CalState Los Angeles.

Banner and Image by Maggie Rawlings Smith

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close