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Rita Non Fiction

Lindsey Ferrentino

DRAGON WOMAN

 

 

Her back always faced the house, her feet the shore. Was born on this island, would die

here too. Made of steel and cement, she guarded this place; this place that was her home.

Protecting palms that grew around her, lizards chasing each other along her spine, each

and every love bug and citizen and creature, watching over everything she’d never get to

see. Her legs sloped down to the riverbed, half submerged in murk, sprouting from the

coquina rock, preserved from the waves. Where the river met the lagoon, she lived.

People took to calling her Annie, which was a funny name for a dragon after all.

 

Hollis fished for the last beer, letting her hand go numb on the melting ice. She rolled the can up and down her arms, her legs, her breasts, stealing its temperature, resting it at the nape of her neck; her PBR pillow. Fuck, it was just fucking hot. Rick snored in his beach chair, his gut rising and falling with each heat-heavy breath. She watched his chest birth beads of sweat, chasing each other south, disappearing into his bathing suit’s waistband. Fuck. July always made her irritable and disgusted with everything-- with crowded bodies at her beach, with her clunking air-conditioning singing fix me, fix me, and her shit-colored lawn that was watered all year, and for what? For a few months of green before letting everything, flowerbeds, palms, weeds, and the feathery cogongrass succumb to the leonine sun. Fuckfuckfuck, at least she was tan.

She tried, coughing, humming, sighing, shifting loudly in her chair to get his attention, but nothing. She fanned Rick with her magazine, letting pages ruffle near his ears. And nothing. A small fire ant trudged along the hillside of wiry leg hairs on Rick’s knee and Hollis hoped it would bite and wake him. Nothing. When she thought about Rick, he was always sleeping, waking from a nap, or complaining about being tired. This thought annoyed her so she kicked his chair. He croaked, “What?”

“You’re snoring.” she said, even though he wasn’t.

He turned over, lying on his stomach, his backside a red intricate pattern of plastic

imprinted flesh.

“So…” he said.

“So, I can’t think.”

“You’re lookin’ at a magazine...”

“Well I can’t concentrate.”

“It’s a magazine.”

            With that, he fell silent, as if he’d won. Perhaps he had. Hollis has wanted to spend her vacation elsewhere, anywhere else, but Rick said, “Where we gonna go? Got paradise right in our own backyard. We’ll go on a staycation.” What a stupid word, she thought. Yeah, a stupid fucking word. She’d persisted, but he brought up something about money. Everyone was always talking about it, punctuating arguments with “And in this economy?” She didn’t see what the big fuss was about. Her job still paid, just as it always had, and Rick’s disability checks seemed like they’d hold out, at least through the summer. Everyone was always preparing for doomsday.

Hollis’ girlfriends clucked that she should just go without him, but Lord knows what he’d do in her absence. Probably look exactly as he did right now, only with no one to drag him away from the water, and make sure there was something in his stomach to absorb the liquor and sun. It was like living with a two hundred pound beer drinking baby, but he had a boat, was useful when it came to fixing things, and who couldn’t use the extra money? Damnit, even she somehow ended up talking about the economy.

            She met Rick four years ago at the local dive bar F’uglies. It was the only one on the island that didn’t play Jimmy Buffet music and have “tropical” in the name. On Fridays, after her shift at the post office, she’d rub on purple eyes shadow while changing in the employee bathroom, heading there to smoke a few cigarettes and rub up against men smelling of hops, cologne, and meat. They’d make obvious innuendos, saying that they wished Hollis was their mailman, that she delivered their package, and so on. She’d laugh and respond with a meaningless “Don’t you know it!” and “I’ll come over anytime” enjoying their admiration and inane banter, letting herself believe they believed she wasn’t a day over thirty five.

The night the Seminoles were in the semi-finals, there were free shots for every

touchdown, the bar roared, and she ended up in Rick’s unfamiliar lap, hot whiskey breath

in her hair. She bounced on his groin in communal excitement, her friends rolled her eyes

and called her a tease because she liked to talk dirty, wear short skirts and lace up boots

long after this was considered fashionable, though she hardly ever brought anyone home.

She pretended that this was due to her high moral standards, but really, she was just

ashamed of her condo, with its yellowing houseplants and the next door neighbor’s potent kitty litter. She moved in to save money, but had never gotten around to looking for a better option. Though her team won the night she met Rick, Hollis had excused herself from his flirtatious embrace to puke outside.

Fuck it, Hollis thought as she’d taken off her heels to hobble home. Fuck it, Hollis

whispered on waking up alone, feeling older than she had the night before. Fuck it, she said in the shower, letting hot water wash Friday night out of her hair. Fuck it. Her favorite phrase.

Fuck it” she told Rick, slamming down her magazine, folding her rusting beach chair.

“What?” Rick rolled towards her, wiping sweat from an overgrown brow.

“Let’s go do somethin’…”

He itched his armpits in response.

“Let’s go someplace.”

“Where?” He began rubbing coconut sunscreen into his feet and knees, indicating that he

planned on staying the rest of the afternoon.

“Whatever. Go for a drive or somethin’”

“Just drive around?”

“I dunno-yeah.”

“What’re you talkin’ about, drivin’ around. Just get in the car for fun?”

“Fuck off.”

Palms zipped past as Hollis drove away from the beach, alone. I’ll just kill some time, she told herself heading north passing souvenir shops, hotels, Chinese buffets. She got off the beachside parkway to avoid tourist traffic, navigating around the old Catholic church, and through the maze of local neighborhoods she knew by name. Presidents first, then the flowers. Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Carter. Wisteria, Oleander, Daisy, Dandelion. Dandelion… technically a weed, her father used to say… and a downright bitch to get rid of too.

Driving past the converted motel turned halfway house, a man sitting in front of his doorway waved at Hollis and spat chew into his tin bucket, enjoying the soft ping of the tobacco settling. She kept on driving and lying to herself, saying that it was too long since she took the scenic route on the island, as if she didn’t have the penny saver ad circled in her mind; her destination’s address branded on her tongue.

Where the road grew narrow, the houses grew larger. Double waterfront property was valuable, though Hollis didn’t consider anyone who lived in these mansions locals, even if they lived in-state year round. She drove past the last of the island’s shops, grocery stores, the diner only open during the week. Driving until her tires tapped the gravely sandy dirt road that all back streets eventually ran into. Driving until the sign for Dragon Pointe caused Hollis to hit the brakes, sending billowy dust to the wind.

The private gate was open with a sun-deflated Mylar balloon tugging on the mailbox. Just as Hollis remembered. I’ll just drive by the front, see if they have anything I want, she lied to herself again, hitting the gas, just barely, just enough to roll down the driveway and pretend to survey the lawn’s contents. She watched a mattress being hoisted into the bed of a pick-up until suddenly her car’s air conditioning seemed too cold. When Hollis went to turn it down, she noticed her hands were shaking.

She parked and went inside where shoppers filled every room, opening closets, poking through drawers. A cheery obese woman working the estate sale with a fannie pack approached, asking if Hollis needed any help. Breathe, she told herself, look natural.

“Do you got any-- beanie babies?”

“Any what?”

“Beanie babies.”

“What’s that-”

“Ya know, like the toy-”

“Some stuffed animals in the back rooms I think-”

“No, they’re like filled with beans, like little beans.”

“What?”

“Forget it.”

The whale of a woman turned to help someone with a simpler request, as Hollis wandered through the rooms, one by one, just as they were, just as they’d always been, until coming to the backyard. The house sat on the very tip of the island, water all around, a small John boat tugging at the dock, and that’s when Hollis saw her. No longer breathing fire, Annie still stood, after all these years…

“Hollllliiissssssssssss, hurry, hurry!” her mother had hissed that day, with the powerful ease of her breathing. And hurry she did, shoving feet into her older sister’s patent leather communion shoes, getting into the car quickly to avoid the blaze of the sun. “Arriving in style,” her mother told her. Hollis had chosen her Christmas dress, the fanciest she had, black taffeta and red velvet that spun when she did. Her feet stung, but pain is beauty her mother told her, while plucking her eyebrows in the rearview mirror, Hollis and her sister giggling in the backseat, watching her mother’s reflection with each wince, each seemingly insignificant hair.

Hollis remembered now that her mom had dressed up, as if she, too, were going to the party. Instead, she'd dropped Hollis off out front, speeding away leaving Hollis to ascend the long gravel pathway alone, shoes scratching to their own rhythm, in beat with her heart, with the trees, the laughter of children in the backyard, balloons pulling on the mailbox. Finally. Finally, the joyous chorus sang. She’d somehow been invited to this house, the biggest on the island, to the birthday party of Adele of Dragon Point, the best dressed girl, the girl whose plastic surgeon parents never aged, who lived at the southern most tip where the river met the ocean, where the backyard ran into the water, and where Annie, like a Phoenix, rose and stood proudly in the neatly trimmed backyard.

She knew the legend, as told by her father, that Annie was conjured by a witch doctor to protect the island people from hurricane wind, from bad luck, from enemy tribes on the mainland. At night, her father said, smoke poured from Annie’s nose and flames from her mouth, bringing weary boatmen home, with the same silent fiery call of a lighthouse.

Hollis had thought that the house looked beautiful for the party, as if it had dressed up along with the guests. Standing out front, looking at it all, she was proud of her father. She’d tell him how good it all looked and how she got to see the pool that he always cleaned, play in the grass he mowed every day, and finally pet Annie’s long, winding tail that she’d heard so much about, but never seen.

 Hollis knocked on the door as her mom drove off with a wave. “Girls are out back,” said Adele’s mother with a frozen, lock-jaw-plump-lipped smile and perfect rich people skin. And Hollis kept walking, waking through the cool tiled house she walked through years later, moments ago; this house still filled with strangers, then for a party, now for a sale. Hollis wished then, and wished for even now, that she could buy this house and the sea breeze that went along with it, the curtains permanently damp with salty air that a garage sale shopper was dismantling and stuffing into a Walmart bag for $6.99.

How she had wanted this house to be hers. Back then, she’d pictured her mom bustling in the kitchen, her dad playing racquetball with her and her sister out in the yard, all smiles and dirty knees. Now, in her mind, she lived here with Rick. He’d work and bring home a few pounds of crab from the local fish market. They’d take beach chairs, beer, and melted butter to the water’s edge, sitting in the shade of the dragon, eating with their hands, tossing the emptied shells into the riverbed. They’d kiss in between bites and laugh when Rick dropped butter on his shirt, leaving a permanent trail of stains that had the vague resemblance of a star. They’d eventually shed their clothes, swim in the night’s mud-black water, and sleep naked under a blanket on the concrete floor of the dragon. Hollis would wake before him and laugh privately, an inside joke she’d discover with herself, as she watched the sun stand up on the water through the window in the dragon’s eyes, living in the house of her childhood fantasies, watching Rick’s soft, hairy body shift in sleepy silence.

Reaching the backyard, she saw Adele sitting on the dock in a folding chair which may very well have been a throne, adorned with a pink birthday crown and pink bikini. Adele’s classmates lined up along the edge, jumping into the water one by one, as Adele gave the order to “walk the plank.” No one had on dresses, or party shoes and Hollis hadn’t even brought so much as a towel. She didn’t know why, but thought it might have something to do with the fact that she hadn’t received a pink envelope in class, like the other girls, but rather a verbal invitation passed on through her father… The sun beat on her face, until it was as red as the dress, velvet stuck to the skin between her shoulder blades, and white tights hugged sweat stained knees. The scene blurred as Hollis’ eyes watered with sweat and tears and she ran towards Annie, to the shade of the great dragon, whose elegant neck reached up towards the trees.

Annie was larger than Hollis could have ever imagined, taking up the entire point of the peninsula, taller than three of her fathers stacked on top of each other, longer than her entire family lying down, foot to head, in the grass. It’s not that Hollis had expected Annie to be real, she was too old for that, but there was something disappointing when she’d approached the dragon, that day, at the party. Rather than breathe fire, Annie’s crude cement body stood still as a corpse. Hollis ran her fingers down the creature’s bumpy spine until finding the door of the playhouse, entering quietly, as the squeals coming from the water became muffled by Annie’s thick skin.

And there Hollis waited. Protected in the belly of the beast. Waited for the swimming to be done so she could join the group, inconspicuously. Waited on a cold stone bench, decorated with large plastic bones and feathers, in the style of the Flinstones. Even then, as a girl, Hollis had wondered why the Flinstones would be present inside of the dragon. Annie wasn’t a dinosaur, and if she was, shouldn’t she have organs, blood, and guts inside? Shouldn’t Hollis be seated on a pulmonary cushion in the shape of a heart? Hollis, more than anything, waited for her mom and sister to return and take her home. Away from the dragon that her father had to scrub with a Brillo brush. Away from the pristine pool that made him smell permanently of chlorine. Away from the sudden realization that Hollis’ parents would never own a stone bench, in the style of the Flinstones. Her parents could never afford a dragon for their front lawn, or a lawn large enough to hold a dragon. That they would always work. Work for smiley, pearly toothed grinning parents of Adele and later, Hollis would work for Adeles of varying sizes and shapes.

So it was with some perverse joy, some sick pleasure, that forty years later Hollis had seen the newspaper article on a random Sunday morning, while lying in bed with Rick. Hollis never even read the paper, and had only gotten it because, in the Lifestyle section, there was a picture of her friend Sue eating the award winning fish chowder at F’uglies. But there Annie was. Forty years later. Only one picture away from Sue’s greasy grin.

Annie was positioned above a blurb, detailing the family’s loss. Even Adele and her parents, stock market be damned, had to sell the home. The dragon. And every piece of life that went along with it. Hollis’ hands had shook the same way they did when she arrived at the party. The same way they did when, on that hot summer afternoon, she emerged from the dragon and joined the girls whose fingers had shriveled to prunes after hours of swimming.

And on that day, Hollis hung to the back of the group, hiding pruneless hands, singing Happy Birthday, eating her cake dutifully. And when it was time for water balloons, Hollis had grabbed a green one, filling it as fully as elasticity would allow. If she couldn’t swim, she would at least help the others, she decided, and as she carried the bloated balloon out the door, she suddenly tripped, in her sister’s tight patent leather shoes, water spilling on the floor. Oh, how she’d cried! Forty years later, Hollis could hardly bear to think of it. Apologizing ad infinitum, blotting with hundreds of cocktail napkins, as the other girls skipped around Annie, climbing her neck, bombing her sides with machine-gun efficiency. Adele’s parents didn’t seem to mind, but Hollis couldn’t look them in the eye, and with Annie under attack, she had nowhere to hide.

The door to the dragon was open now, a hand written garage sale sign taped to Annie’s faded hide. The obese woman shoved a wad of singles into her fanny pack when someone called from the house “Gimme a hand, Adele!” and the obese woman waddled off following the voice, helping an elderly woman carry a microwave towards her minivan. Hollis stood, shocked, that this beastly creature was perhaps the same pink princess of her youth. Hollis knew she should feel happy that her own body had weathered the years with more grace, that she still had her figure, even though she felt certain Rick wouldn’t notice if she’d lost it along the way. But Hollis couldn’t feel happy about this. She thought, if people like Adele grew old, lost their money, chased dollar bills to be earned from used microwave sales, what chance did Hollis or anyone else have in this world?

As the garage sale shoppers flowed in and out of Annie’s wooden doors, Hollis couldn’t bring herself to walk inside. The sun beat on Hollis’ back, as it did forty years ago. How much of the world changes and how much goes unchanged, she thought, sweating still.

She just wanted to go. Go back to her car. No. Go back to her apartment. No, she still had to get Rick from the beach. She wanted to go. Go back before Rick, before The Seminoles made the semi-finals. Back before her last boyfriend, back before the boyfriend before the boyfriend before. Before her job made her drink, before debt held her to the job. Before she lost touch with her sister, God knows why, before her hair had to be dyed blonde. Back to living in her smelly high rise apartment, the few weeks when she’d lived in her car, the attic above the bakery that smelled of cinnamon most mornings. Back to working at the pawn shop when her looks alone convinced a man to buy a television that smoked when he turned it on. Back to when she spent the summer after high school working the burrito bar on the beach, taking long swims before her shift, letting warm salty water carry her in the tide.

Back. As far as she could remember. Back to Adele’s birthday party. Where she’d cried in the dragon’s belly while the other girls swam. When her mom and sister picked her up, they went out for ice cream and it was okay.

That was back before her father lost his job and her mom stayed in her night gown, and her sister found cocaine and later, Christianity. And maybe. Probably not, Hollis knew, but maybe. If something had been different. If she’d had a better time at Adele’s, had worn better fitting shoes that didn’t make her trip so that she never dropped the water balloon to begin with… maybe then. Maybe. Her father wouldn’t have lost his job. She might have bonded with those girls. Those girls who grew up to go to football games, instead of parties in the woods behind the junk yard. Those girls who went to college, instead of working at the highway motel. Those girls who were now women. Who held garage sales selling junk, instead of acquiring it... Maybe then, Annie and this house could have been hers.

Maybe she’d know how old her sister’s kids were, or have been in love with Rick, or never met him at all. Maybe everything wouldn’t have lead her here. Maybe, just maybe, her entire life wouldn’t have conspired against her.

Yeah, maybe… But probably not.

Even if she could somehow afford this house, she could almost hear Rick asking, self-righteously, “What do we need all this property for?” Yeah. Even Adele got fat and wore a fanny pack. Even Adele’s family lost the house and lost themselves when the bank moved in and sucked them dry. And even Annie, strong and stoic creature that she was, was damp and mildewed, her beautiful body used for storing junk.

Everything was still, except a fly flicking her cheek and a tall blue heron pushing an upturned ballooned fish along the shore. The calm before the storm, she thought, gently closing her raw eyes. The river bumped the bank, like a parched dog lapping water, and Hollis imagined that she was on that john boat, sailing away from the dock, from the river, from the state, heading north until New York and Canada passed her by, to snow piles and icebergs, where she could finally cool off in a frozen bed of white, alone. Alone, in her boat, on top of the world, looking down on it.

Above her, bold clouds sailed in disturbing the sky and below, the tide alerted the murk of the impending storm. Fuck it, Hollis thought. Fuck it, she said into the wind beginning to blow. Fuck it, she’d better get back before the rain woke Rick and she’d have to hear his groggy voice on the phone, asking for a ride.

She looked at poor Annie and turned to go home. It was only then that she realized she wasn’t sure where that might be.

 

 

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