Stuffy Time

It’s not the heat, Grandmother would say, it’s the humidity.

The haze hangs around the streetlights and Allie checks her pocketwatch. It’s still too early to head to the cemetery, so she lays her bike down in the grass and stretches her long—some would say “awkward” or “gawky” or “adolescent” or even “she’ll grow into herself one day, just give her time”—frame next to the rust-pitted steel one.

The bike, a hand-me-down like many things, used to be metallic red with sparkly silver flecks. She remembers seeing pictures of her older brother with it, back in the early eighties. Way before she could even walk without falling, let alone ride a bike. She doesn’t know how she remembers things from so long ago, from back when she was a kid.

There’s that one picture, the one she loves, the one she keeps in the box in her closet, the one where her brother stands in front of her dad, who holds Allie on his broad shoulders. Dad grins in the picture and holds on to Allie’s legs, makes sure she doesn’t fall. She smiles in the picture too, looks down at the top of Dad’s head. Mike has that funny look on his face. Not quite a smile, but something in his eyes, something Allie never could and still can’t name. Anyway, he’s standing there in front of her dad with the bike propped against his leg, and Allie’s sitting on her dad, and off to the side is their old, arthritic German Shepard, Bruno.

It must’ve been Mike’s birthday or something. He’s all dressed up and he’s got the new red bike and everyone looks happy, even Bruno. You could swear Bruno was smiling, too.

She remembers Mom and Dad and Mike talking about Bruno and saying that they missed him and maybe they should get another dog. They got Dewey when she was nine. Dewey, the shaggy mutt who likes to roll in shit-smelling things and then run up to Allie, or any two-legged being, really, wagging and smiling and proud of himself.

The bike isn’t red anymore. Well, it is, but it’s more rust-colored than anything, and the silver flecks have gone dull, and it’s covered in splotches of her mom’s nail polish where Allie had tried out different colors. Red, orange, pinks. That was a long time ago now, when her mom had worn nail polish.

She was about ten when she borrowed her dad’s tools and installed the orange banana seat herself. He said he was proud of her for figuring it out on her own. Called her a smart cookie. It’s worn out now. The vinyl doesn’t look new anymore; some yellow foam sticks out along the seams and the metal frame is scratched and rusting on one side. She pokes the foam with a forefinger and gazes out across the lake.

She notices the first lightning bugs of the summer, and she feels a little more warmth in her core. Not the heat, the humidity. She pulls at the front of her oversized T-shirt. It’s from her first concert, the one she went to in May with Johnny. She couldn’t believe how many people were there, how loud it was. Johnny said they had great seats, but they didn’t really sit in them; they stood up and sang all the words to every song. They even stood on the seats for a while, until the man in the red polo shirt came along and asked them to please get down, because it was against regulations to stand on the seats.

Johnny bought her a Coke between the opening band, who wasn’t very good, and the main one, who was. She spilled the Coke on herself and the ground on the way back to their not-seats after some girl with a blue Mohawk slammed into her. “Aw, shit,” Johnny said, with a look that wasn’t quite amusement but wasn’t quite disapproval, either. “That Coke was like five bucks!”

Even though Allie and Johnny had been friends since second grade, she mumbled a sorry and hoped he couldn’t see her face turning red.

She didn’t want to talk back, to tell him it was his fault for stopping right in front of her like that and forcing Mohawk girl to push her to the side. Talking back will get you into trouble, Grandmother would say. Nothing but trouble. Now be a dear and pour me some more of that iced tea. And I need another ice cube.

On the drive home from the concert, her ears felt funny, like cotton. She could still hear okay, but she felt the noise even after it was over, the boom boom boom of the bass drum and the singer’s silky voice and the crowd singing along, off-key but with glee. Her ears protected themselves, and she liked it. Johnny had offered her a cigarette that night. That night, she said no thanks.

She wonders where Mike is now. After the accident, he disappeared for a while. He’s only called twice. Both times the phone sounded funny, like he was inside a soup can with a big box fan blowing on him. “Hey, Sis. Miss you.”

“Miss you too.”

“How’s Mom?”

“What’s that noise? Mike?”

Click.

Gone.

Not smiling in photographs doesn’t mean anything. She doesn’t do that either, not anymore. She might be happy; she isn’t sure. How do you ever know?

Sometimes Allie wonders what “happy” even means, really, beyond the self-help books that Grandmother reads. Her English teacher would say that those books use “abstract language,” or words that lack clear definitions. Maybe nobody ever knows when they’re happy. They just know when they’re not. Mom isn’t. Allie doesn’t wonder about this, she knows it, but she doesn’t know how she knows it because it’s abstract and not concrete. Maybe it’s the shuffling down the hallway. The dilated pupils, the gray sweatpants, the distance.

She checks her pocketwatch again (it’s still too early for the cemetery) and thinks about Grandmother. “Your grandfather would have wanted you to have this, Allison,” Grandmother said when she gave her the gold watch with the white face and the black numbers. Allie cupped the watch in her hands like it was an insect before turning it over. She felt its cool, smooth surface on one side, which didn’t match the rough engraving on the other side. For Richard, it said. 1945.

“He’d want you to have it,” Grandmother repeated.

“Thanks,” Allie mumbled, her thumbnail tracing the ridge near the clasp.

She learned later that 1945 had been kind of a bad year, that Grandpa had been a Marine, and that he’d gone to fight in World War II against the Japanese. Her Grandmother called them Japs, but she meant Japanese. After they blew up Pearl Harbor, where her great uncle had died and never been found—she always wondered how they could know that he died if he’d never been found—Grandpa was on a mission to kill all the Japs he could. And he did. He was there a few years later when we—Grandmother always called the U.S. forces “we”—blew up the Japs at Nagasaki.

“He stormed the beach,” Grandmother said, pushing her long silvery-gray hair out of her face and tucking it behind her ears. “He was there right before the bomb went off.”

“What bomb?” (This conversation was a couple years back, when she was still just a kid and hadn’t taken AP American History yet. Now, she wonders what beach Grandmother was talking about.)

“The atomic bomb.” She pronounced “atomic” like it had four syllables, like the “tom” was “taaaa-oooooom.”

Allie wonders why Grandmother does that. She doesn’t really have an accent or anything; they’re all from the same place and it isn’t the South, so why does she say
“ataaa-oooooom-ic bomb”?

“What happened then?”

Grandmother paused as the sunlight started to peek through the smudged sliding glass door at the back of the house. It reflected off of her gray eyes and gave Allie a chill, just a brief one, but she started to feel like something bad was going to happen.

“Well, dear, that’s another story for another time.”

Allie had been immersed in Grandmother’s weird eyes. Or maybe she’d been consumed by that feeling she had, one of those feelings she didn’t have a name for yet, when she gazed into that gray. A cold, oily feeling in her stomach. A thin line, tracing its way up into her throat. Gray eyes and gray hair with some silver in it, smudges on the glass, the smell of soup on the stove.

Grandmother had named the watch “stuffy time” because “you stuff it in your pocket, like this.”

She always went on, added details. “He’d want you to have stuffy time. You always were punctual.” Except “punctual” became “punctuuuuuuuellle.”

Allie never really understood that accent, and it was only much later that she ever thought about whether she understood Grandmother’s words for things or if she understood words at all or if anyone could ever know what someone else means when they talk.

*

She doesn’t think about Mom. She doesn’t really have to, since Mom doesn’t really think about her either, not anymore. They just go about their business, do their own thing. Mom lets Allie take her bike out late at night. Allie tells Mom that she’s going to Charlene’s house to study. Mom doesn’t ask questions, because Allie takes honors classes and gets good grades and wears oversized T-shirts and jeans instead of slutty miniskirts and stays out of trouble.

Mom has been miserable for two years, but Mike didn’t mean it. It was an accident. He was experimenting; he didn’t mean to blow up the shed. He didn’t mean to blow up their dad. He didn’t mean to make their mom into some kind of simulacrum—that’s a word Allie learned from a copy of Rolling Stone magazine she read at Johnny’s house—into some kind of hollow vessel. He didn’t mean for Grandmother to have to come and babysit her or whatever Grandmother was doing. Sometimes Allie worries that no one else knows that it was all a mistake, that they blame her brother, or that they blame her for not stopping him, because they always said she was the smart one.

This is what she thinks when she’s sitting by the lake looking at stuffy time and it seems like time is standing still even though the second hand ticks around sixty times to make a minute, and then the minute hand moves sixty times and then the hour hand. It never goes fast enough.

*

She lies flat on her back now that it’s starting to get really dark. She remembers being a little kid and having to be home when the streetlights came on. “You know the third one on the left is the first one,” Dad would say, pointing, with his other hand on her shoulder. “So be home after it comes on, but before all of them are on.” Somehow, she always felt a deeper meaning there, like the streetlights measured time in increments that timekeeping devices couldn’t register. She thinks about this now, as she watches the lightning bugs—“far-flies,” Grandmother would call them—light up one by one, like they’re speaking some strange language to each other. In biology class, there had been something about mating rituals, but she hadn’t been paying attention. Knowing might ruin it; it usually does. She’d rather just lie there and watch them light up, one by one and sometimes together and sometimes in threes or fours or more, counting them against the night sky.

She sees a couple of stars and a planet right after she gets to sixty-two far-flies.

She assumes that the rustling in the bushes is Dingo, the big black dog that lives in the house with the dock and the fishing boat and the guy with the guns. Maybe a raccoon. Raccoons—“furry ba-in-dits”—are bad news, Grandmother would say. Always getting into the trash, spreading it around on the driveway. We have to put this brick on top of the trash can or else that fat one is going to get in here again, and then we’ll be out here cleaning it up in the morning.

When Grandmother says “we,” she really means “you.” Allie calls this, silently and to herself, the pronoun game. Grandmother plays it all the time. We should clean that smudgy door. We should warsh that kitty litter box. We should walk the dog before the sun goes down. We should set the sun tea out to brew. We should get you some new clothes. We really need to clean up this house. We really need to vacuum the minivan. We really need to get you some pretty dresses. We should take your mother her soup. We really need to remember to put the brick on the trash can from now on, just look at this mess.

The rustling gets louder. Allie pulls at her T-shirt as she sits upright. She’s been doing crunches in gym class, and feels her abdominal muscles contract beneath her hand. She feels good about this, like she’s accomplishing something, even when Coach Black yells and says she’s not doing them right.

“Alli-SON!” he screams. “Two more! Those last two didn’t count! All the way back and all the way up! That’s it! One! Two! Twenty! Yeah! Now get up and ruuuuuuuuuuuun! You gotta do two laps in three minutes! Go! Go! Go!” His face always looks like it’s going to explode when he’s shouting like this. The veins make a big blue Y in his forehead. Sometimes she worries about him. He had knee surgery last year and isn’t doing well, at least according to Mom. Takes too many pills, Mom says. Several big Vicodins—“seven-fifties,” Mom calls them—per day.

All this counting all the time.

Allie doesn’t like gym class much. She talks about it with Charlene and Johnny at lunch, in the dingy cafeteria with the food-splattered animal mural at the old high school. They’re building a new high school next year, so she and her friends will be back in the middle school for Sophomore year, except it will really be the high school and the middle school will be somewhere else. She doesn’t look forward to this, because middle school was shit—or, if she’s using her SAT vocabulary words, harrowing. Gruesome. Dire. She got made fun of all the time for wearing T-shirts with her favorite bands on them and black jeans and a chain wallet and sneakers.

Sophomore year is easy, Mom says one night at the dinner table, on a night when she comes out of her bedroom to eat Grandmother’s enchiladas. She’s the special ed teacher there, at least on the days when she gets out of her sweatpants and goes to work. You don’t have to do very much until Junior year. That’s when it gets hard. You want to do well Junior year because that’s the year you do college applications.

College. Allie isn’t sure. She thinks it might be nice to stay close to home, go to community college in Grand Rapids with Johnny. But it might be better to get away, to find Mike, to live a mysterious and interesting life somewhere else, far away from Coach Black and Grandmother and Mom and the prissy girls.

Allie looks over at the woods, but then realizes that the rustling is coming from the other patch of trees, over on the other side. She wonders for a minute if she should check it out, but decides to ignore the sound. It’s probably just Dingo or a raccoon. She looks at stuffy time again. She can leave in ten more minutes.

She’s going to meet Johnny and his new girlfriend Missie at the cemetery. Since he started shaving last year, Johnny rotates through girlfriends. Allie isn’t sure how she feels about it. She’s glad that he’s popular now, but she misses him.

She doesn’t like Missie much. Missie called Allie a “lezzie” once, outside during middle school gym class. They were supposed to be playing soccer. They had all changed into their blue-and-gray gym clothes in the locker room, just like always, and then met in the second gym before they went out to the field. Coach Black wasn’t their gym teacher then. It was Coach Matheson, the high school girls’ soccer coach. Coach Matheson had always been nice to Allie, so she stood up for her one day when Missie and her friends had been making fun of her for the thousandth time.

“She looks like a man,” Jenny Green said.

“Totally,” replied Missie.

“Yeah, she’s like a huge beefcake,” said Alexis Hunting.

“And her hands,” Missie affirmed, “are like total man hands.” She moved her eyeliner back into place with her pinkie finger.

Allie thought about an episode of her favorite sitcom that she’d seen a couple of weeks before. Man hands meant that men weren’t attracted to you if you were a woman and you had them. You could be perfect in every other way, but man hands meant that the man would leave. Or something.

“And that hair, like ohmygod,” Jenny went on. “Who is her hairdresser? I mean, like, does she go to the barber shop or something?”

They all laughed.

“I bet she has a dick.” Jenny Green always took it too far.

“Ew! Totally!” shrieked Alexis Hunting.

But Allie remembered that Coach Matheson had stepped in once when Jacob Greenwade was getting beat up by Derek Struthers. Jacob was small and dorky and religious and seemed innocent and didn’t deserve to get punched by the leader of the middle-school jerk pack, and Coach Matheson put a stop to it. She’d taken Derek Struthers to the office, and he got in-school suspension for a week. Allie heard Coach Matheson telling Mrs. Perkins, the science teacher, that she thought Derek should get expelled, because it wasn’t the first time.

“I think she’s cool,” Allie interjected. She remembers that her voice sounded too calm and like it was coming from someone else. Her stomach was a burning pit of hot grease. She wanted to slap all of their faces, knock them to the ground, tell them they were mean prissy assholes who had no right to talk badly about anyone, much less Coach Matheson, who was all right. “I mean, she’s nice, and she’s fair, and she’s just cool.” At that moment, Johnny ran by, dribbling the soccer ball and waving.

Jenny Green, Alexis Hunting, and Missie rolled their eyes and flipped their feathered hair, all at the same time. Allie’s hair was back in a ponytail. It was gym class, after all.

“So, Allie,” Jenny said, too slowly. “You’re, like, standing up for Matheson.” As if it wasn’t obvious, as if there was something else going on. In that moment, Allie noticed that Jenny looked to Alexis and Missie and nodded a little bit while she was talking.

Allie felt uncomfortable, like the grease fire was exploding up to her face and chest. She shifted from foot-to-foot. Johnny ran by with the soccer ball again. “C’mom, Al!” he’d cried. “You’re goalie in a minute!”

“Al,” Jenny said. “Isn’t that. . . a man’s name?” She looked at Alexis and covered her mouth with her hand, like she was trying to stop from laughing.

Allie had watched Johnny run down the field and score a goal against Derek Struthers. She smiled and waved. “Uh, not really. My name’s actually—“

“Yes. It is. A man’s name. And you and Matheson are, like, totally lesbians together.”

Allie didn’t understand. She knew what lesbians were, at least kind of, but that wasn’t the right way to describe her relationship with Coach Matheson; it was just wrong, a lie, a rumor hanging there, waiting to spread like a virus. “Uh, no. . .” She shifted from foot to foot again and looked skyward. Her stomach and face and chest burned. She wanted to punch Jenny Green in the jaw, and she even made a fist with her right hand, but more than anything she wanted to run away and never come back to this damn soccer field.

Missie glared at her. “What are you, then?”

“I just mean that she’s nice is all.” Allie pulled at her faded blue Argonauts T-shirt, another hand-me-down. Talking back will get you into trouble.

The three of them had turned at the same time. They began to walk away, in a straight line, tossing their hair and giggling. “Sorry. We can’t talk to lezzies,” Jenny had said.

And that was that. Allie was left standing there, wondering what had just happened and thinking that fourteen was the worst age ever, even though Grandmother always said it was the best time of her life so she should really enjoy it before she had responsibilities. She hated it. She hated these other girls, she hated stupid geometry, she hated that Dad tried to help her with her homework every night but didn’t know how, and she hated herself for getting mad at him when he fumbled around with the protractor and the pencil. She hated Mrs. Perkins and her stupid periodic table of the elements. She hated that Mom and Mike always went out to a movie and then dinner on Wednesdays, too. “Just my time with my son,” Mom would say, with a little chuckle and a weird smirk, like maybe she didn’t need time with her daughter, too.

That was before Mike blew up the shed by accident and then left.

As the other girls trotted over to Derek Struthers, Allie looked up at the sky and thought about Mike, in his Senior year of high school then, getting ready for the big state school. Mom and Dad had been so proud. Mike could play basketball there and do really well, and then make something of himself, stay away from this shitty old rotten, flooding town forever. Allie had wondered if maybe she could go with him. No one would notice if she was gone; she could just stay in his dorm room with him and go to class and practice and stuff with him and get away from all of this.

Johnny jogged up to her then, asked her if she was okay. His blond hair gleamed in the sun and a faint trace of worry glinted off of his blue eyes.

“Yeah, I’m okay.” She jammed her hands into her pockets.

“They’re just bitches,” he replied in a soft voice.

*

And now he and Missie are at the cemetery and Allie is supposed to meet them in twenty minutes. How long can I make it take to get there, she wonders. If I pedal really slowly, it could take fifteen. And maybe Missie won’t be so bad if she’s not with Jenny Green and Alexis Hunting. Maybe she won’t remember middle school gym class.

For some reason the rustling over there reminds her of Mike and the time he hid in the bushes to scare all of them when they got home from her band concert, except it didn’t work. Mike must have hidden out there for hours. The band concert had only lasted for like ninety minutes, but then Mom and Dad had taken her out for chili dogs and ice cream at Red’s Place and Dad said he was proud of her.

When they got home, he had been waiting. And there was rustling, and Dad had said, “what is that rustling?” And Mom said, “I bet it’s that damn raccoon!”

Allie had stood there in the driveway and looked over at the bushes and said, matter-of-fact, “Mike is hiding in the bushes. He wants to scare us.”

“Oh, Allie.” The Sigh.

“No, he’s there,” Dad had said. “Right there.” And then he took out his keychain flashlight and shined it right in Mike’s face. “Gotcha.”

And then they went inside and Mike asked about the concert, and Allie told him all about how Troy Jenkins, who played second trumpet to her first, messed up during “Somewhere Out There,” but she pretended not to notice and just overplayed until the band director made eye contact and that gesture that means “get quiet right now.” They all laughed. Mike asked what kind of ice cream they’d had.

*

The cemetery isn’t as creepy as Allie wants it to be. When she arrives, the first thing she notices is that the gates are open, which means that she doesn’t have to ditch her bike across the street in the woods and break in. She can just ride through. But instead she gets off and walks the bike under the arch, the one that says “Rosewood Cemetery, est’d. 1944.” She looks at stuffy time underneath the security light that comes on when she trudges past. Johnny is probably waiting, over by the mausoleums. She wonders if he went to Taco Bell before or after he picked Missie up. If they walked or if he borrowed his dad’s truck, the one he’d driven to the concert.

The second thing she notices is that the weeping willow trees have more depth after dark. They have more sound. The wind whispers, and they rustle, and she thinks about the rustling by the lake and wonders what had been there and what it was trying to tell her, or if it was trying to tell her anything, or if it was just a stupid sound. She yanks at her T-shirt. She thinks about the concert. She wonders if there will be more concerts with Johnny, or if Missie means no more concerts, if Missie means that she’ll have to go by herself, or maybe with Charlene, who seems like she could maybe be an okay concert friend. Charlene has her driver’s license and a beat-up car that runs okay and could probably get them to Detroit to see Pearl Jam. But Charlene is weird, so Allie doesn’t know. She’s still got four months until she can get her license, and even then, she might not be allowed to take the minivan. “It’s a schoolnight,” Grandmother will say after Mom sighs and trudges down the hallway in her gray sweatpants.

The third thing Allie notices are the gravestones and how the moonlight changes them. When she comes here in the daytime, just to ride her bike around or think or something, they look uniform and organized. At night, they always seem scattered around, haphazard, like someone needed to measure them better, put them in better, root them into the ground better. She thinks about the oldest one she’s ever found in the cemetery. She couldn’t even read the first date, the weather had worn the number down, but the woman—Mary Elizabeth Akers—had died in 1912.

She still wonders how that was possible. “Est’d. 1944.” Maybe they renamed it or something.

She doesn’t notice the lightning bugs. Far-flies. Hundreds of them, lighting up every so often, sometimes alone and sometimes together, spelling out a cryptic sentence in their mysterious language.

The fourth thing is that she’s all alone, at least for a minute. The same as it ever was, she thinks. She smiles to herself and whispers the song lyrics, even though that song came out a long time ago. “This is not my beautiful house!” the song goes. “This is not my beautiful wife!” But her house isn’t really beautiful. It could be, but Mom doesn’t really care anymore about anything except Allie’s grades, and Grandmother’s grays have taken over the kitchen table, and Dad and Mike are gone, and we need to trim the bushes, and we need to give the dog a bath, and we need to clean that sliding glass door, and we need to run to the store for milk, and all-in-all it’s just better if she isn’t there. Allie doesn’t have a beautiful wife; no one in the house has—or is—a wife, not anymore, not really.

She sees Johnny’s silver Camaro from a distance. He and his dad must have finished it last weekend. They put a new engine in and everything, a four-fifty with eighteen-inch chrome wheels and a short-shifter and bright white racing stripes. She sees Johnny and Missie, standing there on the bridge over the little creek, talking and drinking from Taco Bell cups. They don’t see her. She’s quiet, over to the side, among the crooked gravestones and old willows. She thinks that Missie probably got a Diet Coke, but knows that Johnny got Dr. Pepper and four soft tacos. He probably ate one in the car and saved the other three for the cemetery. She wonders if he remembered to get her one.

Sometimes Allie wonders what would happen if she could wear makeup and miniskirts and go to the hairstylist for some highlights, you know, to accent the red tones in her dark blonde hair. If we got her some new clothes, if we got her some cute sandals, if we quit wearing jeans and sneakers, if we painted her nails. “We could go to the mall and get new clothes,” Mom said last year, “if you want to.”

“That’s okay.”

And that was the end of that.

Grandmother says stuff sometimes, too. Grandpa would have liked to have had a granddaughter who acted more like a real girl and less like a tomboy, which Grandmother always says with an extra syllable. “I mean, he would love you, Allison, of course he would—he wanted you to have stuffy time!—but.”

She always ends with the but and she casts her steely gaze out the sliding glass door, back towards where the shed was.

Allie decides not to go to meet Johnny and Missie. She sits up against a willow, bike in the grass next to her, with her legs against her chest and the oily feeling in her stomach, and listens to them talk. “I guess she’s not coming,” Johnny says.

“Good,” Missie replies. And then they’re quiet.

Allie counts to three hundred and forty two before she hears the engine, the four-fifty, rumble to life. “Listen to that!” Johnny yells. “Purrs like a kitten.”

Then they’re gone, and Allie is alone, so she yanks her bike up and rides over to say hi to her dad.


Kate Birdsall was born in the heart of the Rust Belt and harbors a hesitant affinity for its grit. It’s gray and grimy and covered in graffiti, and she loves it. It’s the perfect backdrop for atmospheric fiction, among other things.

She teaches in the department of Writing, Rhetoric, & American Cultures at Michigan State University by day and writes fiction and essays by night. She plays a variety of loud instruments and has an unnatural fondness for semicolons. She might be a dilettante.

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