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You Can't Imagine, a short story by Brendan Todt

 
 

Rebecca looks at the drink menu, which is half of a sheet of paper, cut longwise, and printed front and back.  “I’ll have the house margarita, no salt,” she says.  “And he’ll have—” she scans the menu with her finger—“the Just Peachy.” 

The bartender, come around from his place behind the tap, looks at Erick, skeptical that a guy this big would really let his wife order him a drink like that.  “And for you, sir?”

“The Just Peachy will be just fine.” 

Rebecca giggles like she never giggles at home.  The server walks away, maybe chuckling, maybe not. 

“Does this ever get old for you?” she asks. 

“Being with you?  Never.” 

“Right…I mean the girly drinks.  Does it ever get old?”

“It’s tradition,” he shrugs.  “It’s what we do.” 

“Like date night?”

“Like date night.” 

One Thursday a month, Erick and Rebecca meet after work for dinner and one cocktail apiece.  They’ve tried weekend date nights, which are, of course, more luxurious and romantic, but sitters are harder to find—the daycare closes on weekends—and the restaurants always filled to capacity.  Rebecca hates waiting: in lines, in traffic, for water refills, for the check.  She waits tables herself and can’t stand the servers that give hard working, talented people like her a bad name. 

“Good day?” Erick asks after she tugs the wedding band off his finger and slips it, one by one, over each of hers. 

“I survived.  It felt like—you know when we go out with Mark and Amanda and she starts talking about his drinking?  It was like that.”

“That bad?”

“Bad tips.  Bad customers.  Bad boss.  Bad day.  But it’s over.”

Erick looks into his Just Peachy and sees the reflection of the light fixture dangling above their heads.  This date night they met at McGillicuddy’s, an Irish dive on the west side of town, not far from the daycare.  One of the fixture’s two bulbs has burned out.  In a way, the poor light adds to the almost-romantic ambiance.  In another way, the empty bulb reminds Erick of his foreman’s dead tooth. 

“And how was your day?” she asks. 

“It was just another day.  One of the young pups almost fell off a roof.  Kind of funny.  Only—you know—because he didn’t.” 

“Hot day to be on a roof,” she says.  “Getting a nice tan for it.”  She smiles and squeezes his biceps. 

 

On Thursdays, Eli is one of the last kids picked up.  Before he comes around the corner and sprints at them, they position themselves in a familiar stance: shoulder to shoulder, Erick’s right leg and her left leg close enough so that Eli can grab them both when he greets them. 

Rebecca leans down and asks him how his day went.  Eli swaps a knowing glance with his dad first, then looks at his mom, kisses her on the mouth, and says, “Goooooood.” 

“I’m so glad to hear that,” she says.  “I want you to tell me everything.” 

And so, at home, Erick unfolds the card table and Rebecca pulls the Uno deck out of the desk, and Eli shuffles up—sort of—and deals.  He tells them about lunch—PB and J with bananas—and dinner—cold turkey sandwiches with Swiss cheese: “I do not like Swiss cheese.”  He tells them about how Aprile spilled the watering can and how Billy Carter was a bully, “not to me but to the little kids.” 

“Do you stand up for them?” Rebecca asks. 

“Sometimes I try, but Miss Meagan puts her hand on my shoulder and says ‘I’ll take care of this, hon.’”  He smiles so big and enthusiastically his hand of Uno cards sags to where both of them can see.  “She doesn’t call everyone ‘hon.’  I think she has a crush on me.”

“Is that so?” Rebecca says, dropping a Draw 4 on Erick, who is two cards from out.  “We can’t have another woman gobbling up my Mister Man, now can we?  Do I need to have a talk with her?”

“NooooOOoooo,” Eli says.  “She tries to hide it.  I don’t want you to embarrass her.”  Even drawing cards three and four, Erick has to laugh. 

Later, around eight, during game two, Eli asks for some crackers.  “You know where they are,” Rebecca says. 

“But I can’t reach.  Daddy, will you help?”

Eli knows they keep his crackers in a cardboard box on the floor where he can get to them.  But he likes to pretend he’s an adult, that his food is where his parents’ food is.  In reality, there isn’t enough space to keep their son’s crackers in the cabinet.  Besides, it makes more sense to keep them somewhere accessible.  But Erick takes the crackers from the box on the floor and leans it against the cereal in the uppermost cabinet, lifts his son up, and lets him take the box back down.  It’s a cute act, Rebecca has to admit, although she wishes they had space enough she didn’t have to see it. 

As Eli pours a few too many crackers into his bowl, he leans in to his father’s ear and says something Rebecca can’t quite decipher.  “Oh yeah, how?” Erick asks.  Eli says something, again too quiet to hear.  “Ooh, that’s creative,” she thinks she hears her husband say. 

Rebecca and Erick are trying hard not to scold their boy for little misdemeanors like pouring too many crackers, so they make a special effort to eat some themselves when he gets situated again at the card table.  They’ve learned not to let their son fill himself up before bed.  Otherwise, he just can’t sleep through the night. 

Though Eli wins neither the first game nor the second, he doesn’t come in last either time.  He laughs, pointing his finger at both his parents, and says, “You lost and you lost and I didn’t!”  With that final gasp of energy, it’s clear to them all it’s tuck time. 

 

In bed, Erick says, “I had a nice night tonight,” but Rebecca’s antsy, ruffling the covers, preoccupied. 

“He said it again, didn’t he?  In the kitchen.  He said it.” 

“Come on,” Erick says, “he’s a kid.  And he didn’t say it to you.”

“What was it this time?  Shark?  Blow dryer in the bathtub?  Because they show shit like that on his cartoons now.  He can’t even watch his cartoons without death knocking at every door.”

“Didn’t you ever have quirky habits?  Hanging onto a blanket?  Sucking your thumb?  Wearing the same shirt every day?”

“This is not some quirky habit.  Every day he comes home and says, ‘Daddy I died today,’ and you just roll with it like it’s not the least bit fucked up.  And not only do you entertain the conversation, you feed it.  It’s not so hard to stop him, you know.  You just have to want to stop him.  Why don’t you want to stop him?”

 

The next day, Friday, Rebecca calls Erick to tell him someone wants the dinner shift off.  She typically doesn’t work dinner because she values—they all value—the time spent together at home.  “It’s good money,” she says, “as long as you don’t mind keeping Eli.” 

“I never mind keeping Eli.”

An empty pause passes between them.  “Great,” she says.  “If it’s a really good night, maybe we can move date night from McGillicuddy’s to somewhere downtown.  Cleo’s looks interesting.”

“That’s great,” he says, “but I think the money should really go—”

“Yeah,” she says, “I know.  I’m just saying, it’d be nice.  In theory.”

 

When Erick arrives at Tots Tall and Small by himself, he tries to stand with his legs barely farther apart each time.  When Eli wraps him up around the knees, it amazes Erick how long his arms are getting.  Basketball arms, he thinks.  Wrestler arms. 

“Why don’t you grab your backpack?  I’m going to talk with Miss Meagan.” 

Eli shoots him this quizzical look, then beckons him with bent finger.  “Don’t mention our secret,” he says. 

“What secret?”

He mouths the words “the crush.”  Erick smiles.  “Don’t you worry.  Her secret’s safe with me.”  Eli gives him a smooth thumbs-up. 

“How’s he doing?” Erick asks Miss Meagan, a twenty-seven or -eight year old wearing an apron with colorful handprints finger painted onto it.  She washes dishes.  On a towel drying under a window on the counter, Erick can see Eli’s favorite Elmo cup. 

“Great,” she says, “a delight.”  She wipes her wet hands on the apron, so that there’s the damp imprint of her own hand along with all the children’s.  He can’t help but notice a gentle jut in her hips. 

“My wife’s concerned that he might still be—”

“No, no.  Not at all,” she says.  “It’s surprising, actually, because he used to march around all the time saying it, but now it’s nada.  I don’t know what you guys did to get him to stop.” 

“Well, he hasn’t stopped entirely.  Not at home anyway.  So he hasn’t said it here?” 

“Nope.  And I try to break up any war-type games that some of the other boys might start up.  It doesn’t always work, but I figure it’d help keep his mind off of it.” 

“I appreciate it.  We both do.” 

“No problem,” she says.

“Anything else I should know about?”

Her head wobbles.  “He has his imaginary friend—”

Erick looks like he’s about to say something, but she puts her hand up to stop him before he can.  “That’s nothing.  All the kids here have imaginary friends.  But he walks around talking to Leia.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I think that’s normal, in light of everything.  Especially since he’s stopped—you know—”

“Okay,” Erick says.  “So, do the other kids do it?”

“No, but that’s not—”

“But if it’s normal?” 

“For most of the kids, Leia’s no different than the girls we’ve had a million times before, who come in and move away a couple weeks later.  They don’t distinguish between the two kinds of loss.  These are the kids who like to march around waving foam noodles like swords and point their fingers like fake guns.  They’re interested in killing.  Your son seems to be the only one who understands what happens on the other side of the gun.  He’s the only one interested in the dying.” 

“And that’s normal?”

“Is anything?  These kids go on like nothing’s changed, and maybe in a way that’s healthier.  For them.  For all of us.  But something did change.”  Miss Meagan turns, bends over, and brings her apron up to her eyes.  “Leia is gone.  Gone.  Though it may not be pleasant for any of us right now, I’d like to think it’s the normal thing for Eli to recognize that there’s something terribly wrong with that.”

Erick looks again at the rows of cups on the counter.  In the corner, away from the towel, away from everything, sits a cup just like all the others.  A different color, a different size, but the same.  He wonders if that’s Leia’s cup.  He wonders if Eli isn’t the only one holding on in his own weird way. 

He looks over at the door.  “I think he’s getting anxious.  We should probably go.”

“Yeah,” she says.  “Of course.  Have a good weekend.”

“Right,” he says.  “Friday night. You too.” 

 

In the truck, Eli fidgets fussily with the glove box and window.  He’s unable to focus on anything in particular, even his father, until Erick mentions Miss Meagan. 

“Miss Meagan tells me you’ve been starting fights and throwing mud and saying bad words at daycare.”  He used to sound more convincing, but now Erick can’t help but smile and give it away. 

That’s—not—true!”  Each word gets its own, slow, deliberate, exasperation. 

“You’re saying she’s lying?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, I don’t think she’d say those things if she really has a crush on you…”

 “You don’t know her, Dad.  Trust me, she’s got a cuh-rush.” 

“Whatever you say.  So if you weren’t starting fights, what did you do at daycare today?”

Eli spits out a long litany of Legos, Play-Doh, drawing letters in the dirt, playing Tic-Tac-Toe in the dirt, digging holes in the dirt.  “And I died today.” 

For a split-second Erick thinks about ignoring it, but he can’t.  “And how did that happen?”

“There was a hole in the roof and so all us kids made a human ladder to get up there and Jasper held all the nails and I nailed all the nails, but then I slipped and fell and I died.”

“Wow,” Erick says.  “That sounds scary.”

“It’s not as scary as you think.” 

“Do you feel better now?”

“I do.  And you should too.”

“Oh yeah?” Erick asks.  “Why’s that?”

“Because that’s something that might really happen to you.  But now it can’t.  Because I imagined it.  Because it happened to me.” 

“Well I really appreciate that,” Erick says, “taking one for the team and all.” 

“Miss Meagan tells us we should look out for each other.” 

“That Miss Meagan sounds like one smart cookie.” 

 

With prices at three dollars a cone they rarely go out for ice cream, but after dinner—Eggo waffles with syrup and sausage links—Erick pulls out what’s left of the pint of Cookies ‘n Cream.  “Don’t tell mom,” he says, placing a finger over his mouth. 

They plop down on the couch and find the second half of The Lion King on television. 

“You ever died by eating too much ice cream?” Erick asks. 

Eli looks at him as though he’s heard a word he never knew existed. “Nope.” 

“You should do that.”

“I can only die once a day.” 

“So there are rules to this thing?”

Yes there are rules to this thing.  Du-uh.” 

“You’re such a good boy, always following the rules.” 

Eli looks up with a big grin and two chunks of cookie on either side of his mouth.  “Did Miss Meagan tell you to say that?”

“She made me promise not to say...” 

 

Eli’s in bed when Rebecca gets home.  She always wants to sneak into his room first thing, but she’s learned that the restaurant stink rouses his olfactory and it’s too much of a hassle to get him back to sleep.  So she goes to the bedroom and undresses and puts the cash in the strongbox in the closet.  “Good night?” Erick asks. 

“Yeah, actually.” 

“Make up for yesterday?”

“Not quite, but it’s a start.”

He comes up from behind her and wraps his arms around her chest the way Erick wraps him up at daycare.  “I appreciate all the extra work you do for us.” 

She turns around and as he swoops down to kiss her she covers his lips with her finger.  “Did he say it today?”

Erick backs away and sits on the edge of their queen sized bed.  “Yeah, actually, he did.” 

“Well, I would really appreciate it if you would get him to stop.” 

“Do you want to know how it happened today?”

“Not really.”

“He fell off a roof.” 

“Oh, he fell off a roof.  Let’s throw him a party.”

 

There’s no way for Rebecca to know they had waffles and sausage for dinner the night before, so when a furtive glance slips between Eli and Erick after she fixes them a sausage, waffle, and scrambled egg breakfast on Saturday, she puts her fork down hard on the table and says, “Do you have something you’d like to tell me?”

Erick’s poised to spill the beans about the sausage and waffles—certain to overlook the ice cream indulgence—but she stops him.  “Eli, do you have something you want to tell me?  Something that you tell daddy but not me?”

“No,” he says in a short, quick burst, shaking his head the way he does when the stainless steel instruments creep into his mouth at the dentist. 

“Really?  You mean you haven’t died today?  You haven’t been stampeded by a buffalo or fallen off a bridge?”

“No.”

“Rebecca, stop.” 

“Really?  You mean to tell me you haven’t died?  Really?  Why don’t I believe you?”

“I haven’t.  I don’t know what to say, Mommy.  I haven’t died yet today.” 

“Oh, so you haven’t died yet today.  That makes me feel better.  Do you know how it’s going to happen?”

“Rebecca.”

“Knives, poison?”

“Daddy said maybe I should think of dying from eating too much ice cream.” 

Erick is at once horrified and bemused. 

“It’s true,” he admits, not working very hard to hide his smile, hoping he can somehow defuse this midmorning debacle with a little bit of levity. 

“Really?  That’s a great plan, Daddy.  Where’d you come up with it?”

“While we were eating ice cream last night,” Eli admits. 

“You were eating ice cream last night?”

At this point Erick can see that the morning has spiraled out of control.  “Yes, I gave him ice cream last night.  Yes, I said—I joked—that maybe he should think of dying by ice cream.  Not such a bad way to go, if you think about it.” 

“Great idea, Erick.  I’m surprised the sarcasm somehow escaped our six year old.” 

“Listen,” Erick says, stretching his hand out on the table.  Before he can lay his long middle finger on her little wrist she pulls it away.  “Eli, does Mommy know why you die every day?”

“I don’t think so.” 

“Do you want to tell her?”

“No.”

“Honey,” his mother says, in a way that sounds decidedly unlike Miss Meagan’s “honey,” “I’d love to know why you die every day.” 

Eli clears away some syrup with his fork, but it just comes creeping back.  “I want us to live forever.” 

She looks around the room as if the real answer were written somewhere on the walls.  “I don’t get it.  You die every day—so that we’ll live forever?”

“Mmmhmmm.”

His mother looks at him blankly, her eyes almost closed in squint like when she’s craning at a fast food menu. 

“When Leia died everyone, even Miss Meagan, said they just couldn’t imagine something like that could happen.  Miss Meagan said it and Miss Daniella said it and Mrs. Trudy said it.  And most of the moms and dads said it, too.  They were saying it for a long time.”  Eli runs his hands through his hair, ruffling it, Erick assumes, so that it looks like Mr. Tindall’s. 

“They said it like if they could have imagined it maybe it wouldn’t have happened.  And I know I never get what I imagine.  I want my crackers in the cabinet with you and Daddy’s.  I want a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese with all my friends.  And I want Miss Meagan to kiss me like she kisses Mr. Jordan when he comes to visit.  But those things don’t happen.”

“Wait.  That’s why you die?  Because you think you can’t ever get what you imagine?”

“Nobody gets what they imagine.”

“But haven’t we always told you you can do whatever you put your mind to?  You can be whatever you want to be.  Whatever you imagine yourself to be.”

“Yeah, Mommy, but it’s not true.  You say I can be an astronaut but I can’t be an astronaut.  You say we’re going to move into a bigger place, a house like Derek’s mom and dad have, but that’s not going to happen.” 

“Did you put him up to this?” she asks, suddenly turning toward, turning on Erick. 

“Of course not.”

“It’s not some cutesy, deranged kind of brainwashing?  Something to get him to guilt me into—I dunno what?”

“No, obviously—”

“Listen, I know you don’t like it here.”  She throws her arms out toward the four walls of the living room and slowly pirouettes.  “I don’t like it here either.  It’s what there is.  It’s all there is.  And using your son as a pawn—”

“God dammit Rebecca, a girl in his class died.  A friend.  She’s dead.  You don’t think there’s a little something in all of us that short circuits when someone we know dies?  That obsesses about death?  About the people left behind?”

“He’s six.  He doesn’t know what death is.  Do you, Eli?  What’s death?  Really?  What is it?”

“It’s what happens when you fall off the roof.”

“No.”  She grabs him by the shoulders, squatting in front of him.  “What is death?  Not how it happens, what is it?”

“It’s when your body breaks.” 

“No, no, no.  You’re a smart boy.  You know what I mean.  What is it?”

Eli props both elbows on the table and sets his head in his hands like he does when he can’t remember what letter’s on his flashcard.  And then he remembers. 

“Death… is like taking the cookie cutter…and making the shape of a gingerbread man.  It's like the hole where the man used to be.  It looks like the man but the man is gone.  Miss Meagan says sometimes we want to stare at the hole because the hole looks like the man but the real man is gone.  If we want to keep making cookies we have to ball up the dough and roll it out and cut out another man.”

“Are you getting this?” she asks Erick, only halfway under her breath.

“Sometimes it makes us sad when we ball the dough up because we can't see the hole where the man was anymore.  And then we forget about the man.  But Miss Meagan says that's the way it's supposed to be.  She says the gingerbread man would want us to ball up the dough again and roll it back out.  She says that's the reason the dough is the dough.”

“Miss Meagan.  What is it with the two of you and Miss Meagan?”  She looks at her husband and then at her son.  “There’s no gingerbread man.  The dough—the dough is just the dough.”  She turns again to her husband.  “What are they teaching him, to worship cookie dough?  No.  I want you to keep him away from that woman.” 

“That woman?  She’s his daycare teacher.” 

“Not anymore she’s not.” 

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means—figure it out, that’s what it means.  Talk to her boss.  Find him another place.  I don’t care.” 

“That much is clear.” 

“You can say whatever you want, but keep my son away from that woman.”  With that, Rebecca marches the six or so paces from the living room to the bedroom.  The door, hollow inside but covered in a stained oak veneer, slams shut behind her.  The two of them, Eli and Erick, sit with their breakfasts.  It’s just like the night before, except for the eggs and the weird disoriented feeling hanging around them like when the lights go out and your eyes are still getting adjusted. 

“I’m sorry,” Eli says. 

“I don’t want you to ever be sorry about anything.  Your mom and me, we just want to make sure we get the very best for you.” 

Eli sits there with half a sausage link attached to his fork, thinking about what it might mean to have the very best.  “That’s not what I mean,” he says. 

“What do you mean?”

“It stopped working.  Sometimes I imagine you and Mommy fighting so that you won’t fight.  Leia’s dead and I thought I could stop you and Mommy and me from dying but I can’t.  And yesterday—” he pauses as if swallowing, but there’s nothing left in his mouth or throat—“yesterday I imagined you fell off a roof.”

“I’m not going to fall off any roof,” Erick says. 

“That’s what I thought,” Eli says, “and then I did.  And I died.”       

THE END!

 
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Bio:   Brendan Todt lives, writes, and teaches in Sioux City, Iowa.  His writing can be found in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013, Tin House Flash Fridays, South Dakota Review, NANO Fiction, and more.  He is a proud graduate of Knox College and Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Visit him at brendantodt.com<http://brendantodt.com>.

 

 

 

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