Come With Me
What one person sees as a cross to bear, another can see as a tremendous gift.
Faster, louder, faster, louder, the alarm clock beeped. Becky, again regretting her New Year's resolution to never leave the alarm clock close enough to reach without getting out of bed, grabbed the lamp stand by its closest leg and pulled it towards herself. After stopping the lamp stand from tipping over, she turned off the tiny siren.
The bed's other occupant remained undisturbed. Becky looked at the man she had eloped with four months earlier; a hint of a smile creased his face into dimples, making him look even more boyish than usual. Seeing this twenty-year-old as a child made her think of her own childhood, staring out the school bus window, into her dreams. The other children, who rarely talked to her but often talked about her, thought she stared only at the dismal houses and roadsides of their tiny Louisiana town, as if nothing else could exist there.
"Is everything the same as yesterday?" one of the children once asked her. "Are there any new blades of grass?"
As Becky got out of bed, Kyle rolled over and mumbled something about his pickup. "Okay, honey," Becky whispered, in case he wasn't just talking in his sleep. Kyle kept fixing everything -- her car, his truck, the broken refrigerator shelf, the bathtub faucets with hot and cold on the wrong knobs. He even tried to fix the washing machine, which kept stashing their socks in some secret hiding place.
She told him they could both use her car if they set up carpooling schedules with their co-workers, but what he mostly needed was for the three-month lay-off to end so he and the other newer workers could go back to the factory.
The older workers cherished the same job they had complained about for years, from what Kyle told her, cherished it as deeply as Becky's sister had cherished her status as the only child for the eight years before Becky's birth, then cherished her position as "the older one." Becky couldn't see why the factory managers wouldn't want to hire Kyle back; he always worked so hard and got so excited about his projects.
The phone rang. She ran into the living room to get it before it could wake Kyle.
"Good morning, Rebecca Wilma."
Becky cringed at the sound of her middle name.
"Good morning, Regina." She tried not to yawn while she spoke, but her sister's name came out as Ruuuhjeeennnuh.
"I know it's early, but I've been with Dirk every night, and I just haven't had a chance to see how your little job is doing."
"Which one?" Becky wanted to point out how much Regina's big mouth got on her little nerves, but she resisted, as always. She just thanked God that Regina and Dirk had gotten back together, so Dirk could keep Regina occupied.
"The new one, at the Japanese restaurant."
Regina grunted. "Who can tell the difference? Those places get closed down all the time. I hope your husband's planning to go back to work soon."
"Yes, he is," said Becky, stressing each word to the point of sounding like a bad typist, speaking while hitting one key at a time. "I have to get ready for work. Did you need something?"
"No. Just seeing how my little sister is doing."
"Your little sister is doing just fine and dandy. I have to get my shower. Bye." She hung up the phone before Regina could remind her to take her medicine; she hated the way Regina always brought up her condition.
Her mind drifted into the past, where a ten-year-old girl with blonde pony tails stared at a basic skills exam. "Becky's unable to concentrate," she heard one of her teachers tell the principal. "Unwilling." Her teachers never understood how a bluejay's song from outside the window could ignite her imagination, sending her dreaming away while still awake. Then came test after test and Regina's teasing and her parents telling her they loved her, no matter what was wrong with her.
Wrong? She never felt wrong. Why would her parents call her wrong? She stayed out of trouble and never hurt anyone.
Then she went to special education classes, in her principal's words, "for a little while, to see how you do." A little while became a semester and a year and an endless list of simplistic classes that bored her even more than her old classes. She tried to improve, but none of the work interested her, until the school hired a special-ed teacher who used creativity in her teaching style and the assignments.
At thirteen, Becky "assimilated" (a word mostly said with pride) into lower-level classes with the "normal" kids. She soon missed her special-ed teacher, a sweet woman who loved her students without ever calling them "wrong." She even told Becky, "there's nothing wrong with you. If anything, you're exceptionally gifted." Later, she moved into honors classes, where she made straight A's. Nothing wrong.
"What's wrong?" asked Kyle, wearing the polka-dotted bathrobe she had bought him as a wedding gift. He wore it every morning, never voicing the repulsion his face had revealed when he first unwrapped it.
"Regina was on the phone, being... herself." Becky touched the top of his long, thick brown hair, after noticing how it stood up on one side and lay flat on the other. "I like your new hairstyle."
"Hey, some people pay fifty bucks to get their hair to look like mine does in the morning."
"I can't imagine you spending fifty dollars for a haircut."
"No way. You didn't make breakfast, did you? I wanted to take you out for breakfast."
"That's sweet," she said, rubbing one of the orange polka-dots on his chest. She wondered if she had ordered the wrong robe, but she couldn't remember what the others looked like. Why would she buy him something so frightening? "But I don't have time. We're marking all the men's shoes down for a sale, so I'm supposed to be in early."
"You should've told me. I would've made breakfast."
"I'm sorry. I thought I told you. I know I told someone. Anyway, you don't have to make me breakfast. If you don't stop being so nice to me, I'm never going to run off with the mailman."
"Oh well." He kissed her.
"I have to get ready." Becky lightly pushed away from her husband, like the way she reluctantly put down a novel when she would rather read all night than sleep.
"I'll scramble some eggs real quick, while you're in the shower," he said. "Too bad we don't have a microwave. Then I could cook up a big breakfast in just a few seconds."
"Maybe when we get our tax refunds."
"We already spent those."
"Oh yeah." Becky wandered into the bathroom, trying to remember what they had bought, but she soon lost herself in the pressure and coolness of the shower. She always loved cold showers -- they reminded her of a fall rain. She saw herself dancing on a stage with the children from her special-ed classes. And they sang, perfectly. Neither the dancing nor the singing embarrassed them, though they sang before hundreds of people.
Then one of them spoke, his tongue barely moving as he mumbled his lines. No one could understand; everyone left. "No," said Becky. "It shouldn't end that way." She used to control her fantasies, always granting happy endings.
"Breakfast is served." Kyle's fake Cajun accent rang through the bathroom door. Becky had met him when he went to visit his relatives in her Louisiana hometown. Her parents loved him and kept saying what a good man she had finally found, but Regina never liked him at all. Regina never liked anyone Becky liked, and she made sure everyone knew it. But Regina still followed them to West Texas and kept checking up on them.
Becky dried off and dressed, omitting the sparse lipstick and eye shadow she usually wore. She stopped at the mirror only to brush her wavy blonde hair and to put on the earrings she had made in twelfth-grade art class, tiny replicas of the elflike creatures she created for one of her fantasy paintings, Come With Me. Her art teacher wanted her to enter the painting in a state-wide contest, but Becky convinced herself she couldn't win. Still, she showed it to her parents, who said "How cute," and pointed out that she shouldn't travel to Baton Rouge or anywhere else without them.
She had gone into the living room but stood outside the door to hear what they really thought. Instead of their voices, she heard Regina's: "Most of those modern artists take drugs to get their ideas. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they tried to get Becky to take drugs. And you know how naive she is." When Becky heard that, she knew they wouldn't change their minds about letting her go. Regina had spoken.
Becky opened the door to see Kyle reaching for the doorknob.
"Hey, you're wearing the earrings," he said, pushing her hair behind her eyes so he could admire the intricate details she had also stopped to see: olive-like eyes, flat noses, harmless smiles, star-shaped buttons. Kyle always showed interest in her art, unlike anyone else -- other than her high school art teacher. "Aren't those from the painting I like?" he asked, stroking her hair.
"Come With Me. Yes." She smiled. He always knew what to remember, what to say.
"Well, then, come with me." He threw his muscular arms outward, then lifted his hands, motioning toward the kitchen. "I think I've perfected the scrambled egg."
Staring at the Bathrobe from Hell and the man inside it, she walked into the kitchen, buttoning her work clothes. The all-blue shirt and slacks of Sam's Shoe Store cried out for a patch, a stain, anything to break the monotony -- anything but orange polka dots. Poor guy, she thought, eating the over-spiced eggs and smiling contentedly.
"When are you going to get all your paintings from your parents' house?" he asked, again examining the earrings. She had asked him one night if he daydreamed like she did, though she feared bringing up the subject, letting him see the side of herself that everyone despised and wanted to destroy. He replied, "Of course," then rolled over and began snoring, as if the subject held no controversy.
"One day. Maybe the next time we visit."
"When will that be?"
"I'm not sure." She never told anyone the next thing she had heard Regina saying to her parents, as she leaned against the door, losing all hope of entering the contest. Regina said they should take the paintings to that horrid family therapist they visited every month. Becky left the paintings in Louisiana, left them to rot like Skydown.
She could just hear his likely reactions: "Yes, yes, very special -- unhealthy repressions -- what's wrong with her?" But he never said anything about the paintings. Instead, after two years of sessions, he read them part of an article and said, "Becky has Attention Deficit Disorder." Becky got up and walked out, saying, "You're the one with the disorder." They never went back to counseling.
"Well," said Kyle, yanking her from her thoughts and pointing at his five-dollar watch. "You'd better go if you're going to be early."
"Kyle, am I crazy?"
"No more than the rest of us." He kept staring at her earrings. "You shouldn't listen to Regina, especially not after that speech she gave us last week about the hazards of ADD. She sounded like a public service announcement."
"You hate that robe," said Becky. "Why don't you go right out and say it?" Her voice became louder as the words leapt from her mouth.
"I've gotten used to it. Weren't we talking about Regina?"
"I don't wanna talk about Regina." She saw that annoyed look, when his eyes get big. "I'm sorry, honey. Having two jobs is wearing me out."
"Having no job isn't exactly a thrill for me."
She took one of his rough hands between hers, squeezed gently. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. I have to go."
Becky spent most of the next five hours staring at feet: thin feet, fat feet, feet shaped like dog bones. With the attention of an artist, she noticed every detail. Even the toes varied in width and length. Some people's small toes surpassed their big toes. She liked the children and college students who wore no socks, allowing her to see every scar, wrinkle, callus, or whatever else socks might conceal.
One young man asked her if she'd even seen a foot before. "Not yours," she replied. He shook his head, put his shoe back on, and marched to the manager's desk. Becky worried about customer complaints, afraid of losing one of her jobs before Kyle got his job back. He needed her. Someone actually needed her!
The manager, an older woman with hair like white cotton candy, called her aside during their lunch in the break room to warn her about this latest complaint.
"I know you've been working too hard. You can take a few days off if you need to."
"I can't quit. My--"
"Becky, honey, I don't want you to quit. You're too popular with the children who try on shoes just so you'll tell them a story. Besides, who would make all the posters? I'd have to go back to those generic ones we get in the mail, with square letters and a white background."
Becky smiled. "I'm all right. I'll get some extra rest this weekend."
"That's a great idea. Still, I'd rather you cut back to twenty hours a week for the rest of March. We'll be slow anyway."
"No. I can't do that. I mean, I don't wanna do that."
"You're a special girl, Becky."
Becky went back to work, trying to convince herself that her boss knew nothing about her past. Special, after all, usually meant something good.
Clock-out time soon came, and Becky walked three doors away, to Chuck's China Town, a building painted with green and red stripes. Regina called it Chuck's Culture Shock Express and said just looking at the place could make Santa Claus hate Christmas. "Regina. I hope she isn't planning a visit," said Becky.
A chubby man with a cigar, walking out as she walked in, asked, "Who's Regina?"
Becky felt her cheeks redden as she realized she was talking to herself. "Regina's my big sister."
He blew cigar smoke in her face and said, "Well, if she wants a decent serving for lunch, she won't come here." He walked away as Becky walked inside.
Chuck's China Town used a steam line set up cafeteria-style, where the customers pointed at what they wanted and could see the employees prepare their plates. Becky didn't like it. Several times each day, she'd hear: "Put some more meat in there; I'm not a vegetarian!," "Is that all you get for a dollar?" and "You're going to give me more than that or I'm not coming back."
The idea of not coming back appealed to her. She liked most of the customers, but the mean ones reminded her of Skydown, where everyone made her feel wrong, abnormal, unacceptable. Chuck, a self-proclaimed cowboy, said to her from behind the cash register, "Hey, Becky, wanna quit giving everyone double servings?" Just before time to clock out, someone dropped a glass of papaya juice, in keeping with the secret rule that something must spill before Becky's shift could end.
When Becky got home, she found Kyle wearing his traditional black T-shirt and blue jeans combination and smiling like the Cheshire Cat.
"What have you been up to, Kyle Blake?" she asked, pointing at him.
He nodded. "Not full-time yet, but it's a start."
"Honey, that's great." She hugged him; instead of the expected smell of Kyle's sweat from all his work around the house, she smelled the cologne he wore whenever they went out.
"I wanted to do something special, since this is Good News Day aannnndd... it's also March the fifth. You remember what March the fifth is, don't you?"
"The day I dropped the phone in the blender?"
Kyle laughed. "You're joking."
"Never mind. Could it be my birthday?" Becky never mentioned her birthday, because her family never really celebrated birthdays or anniversaries.
"Could be. I caught a ride uptown with one of the guys from work to pick up some things. Come with me." He grabbed her hand and pulled her forward, as if he were ready to lead her through Wonderland.
She found newspapers spread out on the kitchen table, with a stack of paints and canvases in the middle, and she touched the paint tubes as if touching the charred remains of some treasure lost in an invader's arson. "Why did you buy all this?"
"For you. It's what you wanted, isn't it?"
"No. Yes. I don't know. I don't have time."
"Becky, I think your artwork could make you happy, just like having my job back makes me happy. When I saw your work at your parents' house, I felt like I was seeing inside you. And when you left all your paintings and supplies there, you left a part of yourself."
She shook her head. "I'm not an artist, Kyle. That was just something I did when I was bored."
He tossed up his hands. "Whatever. Why don't you go change? We can at least go out and eat."
"Let's not talk about it. If you don't change your mind, I'll take it all back tomorrow. God knows we could use the money."
Becky stared at the supplies for a second, then went to the bedroom and changed clothes. She could see how much it hurt Kyle for her to refuse his gift, but why bring back something that made people call her crazy?
At 3 a.m., Becky grew tired of laying awake, so she got out of bed, slipping from the accepted weight of Kyle's encircling arm. She couldn't stop thinking about the blank canvases.
Pulling the paints and a canvas closer, she sat down at the table. She would work on a painting, only for Kyle and for herself. He would keep her secret, that she had to paint. No one would see her work and call it cute or dumb or psychotic. She would sit at her kitchen table every night. If Regina called, Becky would continue working while listening to Regina rave, continue creating worlds that only Kyle would see.
Her hands moved, unbound, across the page, releasing an image she held captive in her mind.
Duane Simolke has had his work published in Midwest Poetry Review, Mesquite, the New Voice of Nebraska, International Journal On World Peace, and others. His electronic publications include Ydrasil, The Bridge, and Poetry Exchange. An English major, he received his B.A. at Belmont University, M.A. at Hardin-Simmons University, and Ph.D. at Texas Tech University.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Duane Simolke.