the wax paper

Aluminum Jazz

It had been cold for May, cold enough for Larry’s arms—wrapped around Sarah’s knees to hold her steady in the bouncing bed of the pickup—to radiate warmth through her jeans and to a spot deep in the pit of her stomach that he wasn’t even touching. She looked away from the sweeping darkness rushing along the sides of the truck. Carol Anne and Kevin were making out on the opposite side of the truck bed, while Jake and Melody exchanged pulls from a bottle of strawberry vodka Melody had stolen from her parents’ liquor cabinet. Larry looked up at Sarah hungrily, his broad Midwestern teeth almost glowing in the moonlight. This was the exact opposite of the softball diamond. In the batter’s box, all eyes were on Sarah, all hopes were pinned to her bat, and she couldn’t bear to shatter anyone’s expectations by striking out. In the pickup, it didn’t matter if she bashed the mailbox into oblivion or missed completely; what mattered was that she was having fun. She couldn’t bend her knees like Coach Fairbanks had taught her, couldn’t loosen her body into the supple machine it became when she was at the plate, but that was all right because this wasn’t school, this wasn’t softball, and she wasn’t the old Sarah any more: this was the future.

Old Sarah could tell you exactly what she’d be doing at any given moment of any given day: 6:17 a.m. on a Wednesday? Running three miles across dirt and gravel on 500 South. 11:42 a.m. on a Monday? Drinking a strawberry-peanut protein shake from a thermos while simultaneously stirring black pepper into cafeteria applesauce. 3:37 p.m. on any given weekday? Riding third base with Coach Fairbanks yelling in her ear.

Her parents made sure she stuck to her rigorous schedule. “Michael Jordan neverslept in past six,” her mom would say as she whipped the comforter from Sarah’s bed. “Pain is just weakness leaving the body,” her dad, a former Marine, would recite when she complained about post-practice conditioning. And then there was the complex list of things she could and could not do, foods that might ruin her agility, activities that might hurt her knees, people (usually boys) who might serve as distractions from what really mattered: school and softball. By the time she graduated high school, just a few hours before she found herself next to Larry in the pickup, she felt that the endless flow of one carbon copy of a day into another had turned her brain into Play-Doh. She knew rationally that she should be happy—she was young, fit, a power hitter with a bright future, in the “prime of her life,” as her dad would say, which made her feel like a steak that was too perfectly cooked to eat—but instead she counted reps while marking off the days until the next game.

The games were the only things in her high school life that were unpredictable. She loved playing softball; the cheering crowds, the moment she stepped to the plate and her focus narrowed to the thin avenue from hand to bat with the ball in between. She loved the utter absence of thought as the approached her, its trajectory clear in her mind as she brought her bat to meet it in a perfect arc around her body, the hollow vibrating thrill of connection when the ball sailed away and the powerful metallic tonk of aluminum was swallowed by the roaring crowd before it had a chance to echo among the bleachers. No matter how prepared you were, no matter how good your team was, you could never tell what was going to happen during a game. One mistake could lead to a quick defeat, or it could inexplicably give you the victory; all you could do was cross your fingers and play the line-up you’d been given. Contrasted with the endless martial rhythms of her strictly regimented weeks, a softball game was like jazz in seven innings; it had a basic structure—three strikes per out, six outs per inning—but beyond that it was all improv and instincts. It was dynamic, unpredictable. It was art.

Moreover, it was an art she was good at. She excelled at both hitting and playing third base, taking her team to the State Championship her senior year. But when she got her trophy, a two foot high tower of polished faux metal, and her flimsy high school diploma, printed on what felt like office paper with the photocopied signature of her principal scrawled across the bottom, she felt only crushing disappointment. These were the things she had stayed up late for, the grindstone her parents kept her nose to, the excuse to study in her room or take practice swings in the backyard while Melody and Carol Anne and Lauren were kissing boys, eating pizza, and doing whatever else high school girls who weren’t married to softball did. It was a total rip-off.

Maybe that was why she said “yes” when Larry, a soccer player whom she’d talked to maybe twice before, invited her to a party at his cousin’s house that night. “It’s graduation,” he said, “Last chance to be irresponsible and get away with it!” All the usual objections—I have practice, I have to study, I’m really tired—didn’t matter any more. For once, she felt the complete freedom to choose. She knew what she would have done were she still striving for straight A’s and a good batting average, but all that was over. And Larry had that corn-silk hair, those perfectly spaced teeth, and an endearing little half grin that made her feel unpredictable and wanted, like she was a tigress Larry was trying to pet through cage bars. So she agreed, and several hours later she found herself streaking down country roads, a little buzzed, anxious in the dark.

ϖ

Ten years later, in a different state, a small, subtle sound prods at Sarah’s subconscious through the curtain of sleep. Upon swimming through REM and surfacing, wide-eyed and tense, in an unfamiliar bedroom next to her familiar husband, she grasps at the fading memory of the sound, trying to place it. It was a pneumatic “whoosh” sort of sound, she thinks, like something gliding or moving or . . . it was the sliding glass door in the kitchen. She knows this with a sudden certainty; she and David had been carrying boxes through that door all day, and the sound of it opening and shutting is now the one aspect of the house Sarah is familiar with.

Sarah thinks of rousing David, turns to him and watches his shoulder rise and fall with each breath. Their new house is in a neighborhood where no one locks their doors, where kids can walk home from the playground after dark without supervision. The sound could have been the contents of one of the many unpacked boxes downstairs settling into place. If she wakes up David, he will treat her to a verbal pat on the head (“All houses creak at night. It won’t hurt you.”) and go back to sleep. She’ll feel silly for bothering him. But, she thinks as she throws off the comforter and plants her feet on the cold hardwood floor, what if the sliding glass door really had opened? What if someone is lurking downstairs right now, going through our stuff? The burglar would be sorely disappointed to find nothing but cooking gear and clothes, and even more disappointed to find the owner of the house had keen ears and years of experience with a bat. The thought of charging into her own living room and scaring the hell out of some third-rate burglar arouses a feeling in Sarah that she hasn’t felt since marrying David: adrenaline.

The adrenaline blossoms into an electric current of excitement that ripples through Sarah’s wrist when she clasps the familiar contours of her high school softball bat, pulling it from its resting place in the back of the closet. She holds it for a moment, feeling its heft, its inert potential, the way it rests comfortable and waiting in her palm even after all these years. She grips the handle with both hands, chokes up tighter, assumes her still-flawless stance. She swings the bat, imagines connecting—pop!—with the head of the six-five, 300-pound linebacker/thief that had dared to break into their comfortable new home.

Dropping the bat to her side, Sarah creeps out of the bedroom, taking one last look at David before she gently shuts the door. She knows she should be scared, but the adrenaline tells her not to worry. A feeling of power radiates from the bat to her heart, which has begun hammering insistently. Orange light from a streetlamp outside pools on the floor at the other end of the second floor hallway, next to the staircase. Sarah stands still in the hallway and listens, clutching the bat. When no sound comes from downstairs, she makes her way forward, careful not to step too heavily for fear of alerting whoever may be downstairs. Passing the open door of what will become David’s study, Sarah glances in to make sure the boxes marked “Computer”, “Company Files”, and “Finances” in David’s upright, perfectly-spaced handwriting are still there. She pictures him sitting at the desk already set up in the corner, the blue light from the computer seeping into the hallway where she now stands. She wonders how bright the monitor is, if its light will keep her awake when David brings his work home.

The image is inexplicably vivid. She had seen him at this same desk countless times in their old apartment, but things are supposed to be different in the new house. There is supposed to be less work, more spontaneity, their old routine a thing of the past. David used to come home from his accounting job bogged down in the complexities of his company’s books, his brain in a state of what he called “number mush.” When Sarah would come home from selling overpriced supplements at the pharmacy, she would be suffering from extreme antipathy toward the entire human race. The only cure for both of these conditions was a healthy round of TV crime dramas (which only made Sarah hate humanity more, but at least she got to wallow in her hatred without risking her job). Most evenings at the old apartment were spent sprawled on the couch, watching two-dimensional characters read from two-dimensional scripts and digesting some breed of takeout. Every once in a while she suggested they go bowling, or dancing, or hell, maybe talk a walk, but David would complain of backache or exhaustion and she’d realize that her own feet were hurting, that maybe the couch was the only place for her after all.

But a new house meant a new life. Sarah had insisted on it before the move: “Old habits out,” she said to David after they turned in their last month of rent on the old apartment. “We are doing none of the same things we did before. Except go to work, I guess. That has to happen.”

“Can we still watch TV?” David asked.

“Only if it’s in Spanish.”

He laughed. “Don’t we do some good things, though? Like, things we want to continue? There’s gotta be a baby somewhere in all this bathwater.”

“The only baby here is the one on your List,” Sarah said. David’s List, also called (by Sarah) the Five-Year Plan of the David and Sarah Marital Republic, was a series of life goals written on a yellow piece of legal pad paper that David had created the day after their honeymoon. “Number Ten, I think it is? We’re pretty far from that number, right?”

“Number Nine is ‘Buy a House’, and we’ve got that one pretty much taken care of.”

“I think the Five-Year Plan counts as an old habit,” Sarah had said. “Bathwater.”

Now, Sarah shakes her head, flexes the fingers holding the bat, concentrates on the task at hand. Home defense. She continues past the study, trying to shake the constricted feeling that had gripped her chest when she thought about the List. 

ϖ

Fear rippled over the back of her neck as the truck jounced over a pothole. She thought for one sickening moment that she was going to go over the side, but Larry’s grip tightened around her knees. The party had been a success; Sarah was feeling exactly unlike herself, and this new Sarah, this risk-taker, this reckless dynamo of . . . something (she wasn’t sure yet who this New Sarah was supposed to be) . . . could do everything the old Sarah couldn’t. Everyone she had ever gone to high school with seemed to be at that party, but they had become different people with red plastic cups in their hands and diplomas in their pockets. That night, the petty alliances of the former high school students had withered away, replaced by a sense of fuzzy camaraderie that even had Ashley Wilson, who had badgered Sarah endlessly about her “chimp fingers,” hugging her at the end of the night.

This is my new life, Sarah thought in the pickup. Saying “yes” to everything. Thinking with her senses. Ignoring the voice in the back of her head that said “bend your knees,” “choke up,” and “be home by 11.” Independence.

Suddenly, the truck slowed, turned, and proceeded down a familiar road. Up ahead, a single light burned by the roadside. As they got closer, she recognized the miniature cherry-red barn that was the mailbox, its real, working weathercock (also miniature), and the gravel driveway winding off beyond it and right up to her parents’ door. She had seen the mailbox a million times before, had even finger-painted “Weatherby” on both sides when she was eight or nine, but never had it looked this plump, like a berry waiting to be picked. “You ready?” Larry shouted over the roar of the wind. Sarah nodded and got into her stance as best she could.

ϖ

When she reaches the end of the hall, Sarah avoids looking into the second bedroom at the top of the stairs and starts down toward the living room. The stairway is almost completely black; she can see the top five steps and the bottom five, but none in between. She feels her way cautiously with her toe before planting her weight on each step. Her ears strain against the darkness, but the happy gurgling of the refrigerator is the only sound now coming from downstairs. When she makes it to the landing, she waits for her eyes to adjust to the light spilling in from the bay window across the living room. Boxes sit in every corner, each in various stages of unpacking. Shadows from open tops and scattered contents bathe the living room in a confusion of angles; she hardly recognizes the room she is standing in. She grips the bat tighter in her right hand. She relaxes slightly when nothing jumps out at her, but she can feel the trickle of sweat running over her wrist and dampening the bat’s grip tape.

She walks cautiously into the living room and lets the cool breeze from the open window wash over her. The house feels larger than it had that morning, full of empty rooms and bare closets. It is not really her house, not yet. A strange feeling of displacement washes over her. Maybe it was me who came through the sliding glass door, she thinks. Maybe there’s a different Sarah, sleeping next to David right now and dreaming happily of the Five-Year Plan. 

The air from the open living room window feels colder, more insistent, now that the sweat is evaporating from her skin. She tightens her thin robe and feels the goose bumps ripple over her. Turning from the living room window, she picks her way around boxes, heading for the kitchen and its sliding glass door. The excitement begins to stir once again as she approaches the dark threshold of the kitchen. The refrigerator has stopped running for the time being, and the silence seems to have shape, it is so complete. Sarah holds the bat at the ready, shifts her shoulders, and steps into the room like a batter’s box. The light switch is, inexplicably, on the far wall, but she can see from the entryway that the sliding glass door is shut and locked. Part of her had hoped that the door would be wide open, that she would see the thin white strip of sidewalk dwindling off into the dark world outside. It would be so easy to slip through an open door like that, just fall through and never be seen again. But the door is exactly as David had left it when they went to bed.

The refrigerator kicks on behind her. Sarah jumps and almost drops the bat. It is a pneumatic, whooshing sort of sound, suspiciously like the sound of the sliding glass door. Her excitement vanishes, replaced by a drained feeling that makes her limbs suddenly heavy. She sinks to the tile floor, feeling her warmth leech through her thin robe and into the foundations of the house. The bedroom is a long way away. She knows exactly how many steps she will have to climb before she reaches the top.

ϖ

When Sarah hit the mailbox, she thought her whole arm was going to pop out of its socket. She was used to the ball coming to her, not the other way around, and a softball had no wooden post to prevent it from soaring into the stands. Nevertheless, it was a clean hit: the mailbox crumpled inward from the fury of her bat, which dislodged the weathercock and knocked the post into an awkward cant.

But it was the sound that sent electricity down Sarah’s spine. It was a sonic boom that rolled and rumbled through the empty fields, the sound that heralded the arrival of New Sarah, the sound that would wake the world and let it know that she wasn’t going to be bossed around any more. She imagined her parents bolting awake at the sound, taking notice of this new thing their daughter had become. They would hold each other, wonder where they went wrong, wrestle with their sudden loss of control. This was her farewell fanfare. This was the sound of her old life imploding. This was the sound of new birth.

As the boom died among the soy and corn, Sarah dropped next to Larry in the truck bed and waited for lights to turn on in her rapidly shrinking house. She was still waiting when the truck turned down another road and the house, still dark, disappeared from view.

Bryan Johnson lis a recent graduate of the Colorado State University MFA program.