Authors: Mandy Mikulencak
“I'm going to finish framing this wall and then I'll cook us some supper.” He slapped his thighs with both hands and returned to his woodpile.
Besides recognizing his voracious appetite for books and an aversion to razors, I still knew little about my uncle, but we felt more and more comfortable around one another. He usually said what was on his mind, which kept things real. Sometimes too real.
“Can I do anything to help?” I asked. “Chop something?”
“Already done that,” he said. “Relax or read.”
I shielded my eyes and continued to watch him work. He assembled two-by-fours into a grid on the foundation. Within forty-five minutes, he had another wall lifted and braced into place. He'd designed the house himself. In fact, he'd drawn and redrawn the plans over and over for the past twenty years. He said he'd never gotten around to building it, but now seemed as good a time as any.
My stomach knotted in a weird wayâhappy and sad all at onceâto know he was building the damn thing for me. I still doubted that sharing a house was enough for us to feel like a family.
I dropped my backpack on the floor and slipped under the thin blanket covering my bed. Although I'd lived in the trailer for more than two months, every day when I came home was like visiting someone else's house. Frank offered me money to buy whatever I wanted to make the room feel homier, but I'd never had stuff to call my own and didn't know what I'd even buy.
Every few days, something new would show upâa lamp, a clock, some throw pillows. Frank was trying his hardest to get me to feel some permanence, but I saw the trailer and all this stuff as his alone.
I heard Frank in the trailer's galley kitchen rummaging for a skillet, but the gnawing in my gut had already told me it was dinnertime. If I couldn't taste food, it seemed unfair my body could alert me to hunger in such an obnoxious way.
“I'm going to start the stir-fry now, okay?” he called out.
This Asian food rut would have to stop. If I wanted to eat something other than rice and slimy lo mein noodles, I needed to speak up.
“Sure, be right out.”
Frank had made me see a doctor about my inability to taste and smell. The specialist couldn't find a medical reason and suggested it was a psychosomatic by-product of the trauma I'd endured in the explosion. He said that once my “mental state” improved, I'd likely regain those senses.
Frank wasn't patient enough to wait so he'd begun bizarre experiments with foods that were bitter, sweet, sour, salty, and savory. My taste buds wouldn't cooperate, no matter how many different combinations he tried.
I grabbed plates and utensils while Frank expertly juggled two serving bowls, a bottle of soy sauce, and a tube of wasabi. He pushed the screen door with his butt and we headed to the cedar picnic table. Protected by a large canvas tarp overhead, this outdoor dining room served as our largest living space since Frank used the Airstream's living room as his bedroom and library. I sometimes did my homework at the picnic table after school while Frank continued his work on the house. On nights I'd come home late from Mo's, Frank would often be sitting at the picnic table, nursing a beer or reading by lantern light.
“Arlie, I know we can beat this. We just haven't found the right ingredient.” Rice dribbled down his chin from talking with his mouth so full.
“Nothing to beat,” I said. “Buy whatever's on sale. Lamb testicles. Cow tongue. Won't make a difference to me.”
“You really do take snark to a whole new level,” he said.
“I don't like to mince words.”
“Whatever,” he said and got up from the table. “I can't eat this crap. I made it spicy thinking you might finally taste it. I'm going to have some cereal. Want some?”
I shook my head. “I'll just finish this.” What did it matter anyway?
Frank didn't like cell phones in general, and never when we were eating. This meant I often forgot to check messages until much later in the evening. Mo had texted several times in the last hour, which wasn't all that unusual except for the news she had to share.
Not gonna believe this, she wrote. Nick punched Cody. Busted his lip.
Can you believe Nick hit a blind guy????
Helllllooooo? You there?
This is about you!
Nick was Brittany's pathetic lapdog, but I thought he and Cody were friends. My gut told me she had to be involved. What I couldn't figure out was how a fight with Cody had anything to do with me.
Get over here, I texted back. With the way my stomach was somersaulting, I just prayed Frank's latest stir-fry wouldn't come up before I got some answers.
Mo laid the Oreos package between us on the bed and pulled back its resealable top. She wore plaid pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt. Her blond hair spiraled around chopsticks in a messy bun. Comfort obviously mattered more than fashion after 7 p.m. on a school night, and I wished I'd changed out of my jeans earlier.
“Have one.” She stuffed a whole cookie into her mouth and chomped, sending crumbs onto my blanket.
“I don't like cookie texture. And stop getting crap on my bed.”
She huffed her displeasure. “Eat them for the calories at least. We weigh the same and you tower above me.”
Her stalling wasn't funny. I needed to know what had happened with Cody. “Why do you think the fight had anything to do with me?”
“Jessica said she saw Cody get all up in Nick's face after school. Supposedly he swung at Nick.
, right in the eye. Must have honed in on Nick's voice.”
I sat up. “Cody took the first swing? Your text said Nick hit Cody.”
“He did. He hit him
Mo's smile revealed a perfect row of teeth dotted with chocolate cookie bits. She was enjoying this way too much.
“Why are you smiling? You look insane.”
“Because he was sticking up for you. Jess told me that Nick called you some name and Cody snapped. No words. No warning. Just fist to face.”
Why would Cody come to my defense? Especially if I wasn't even around to hear the insult. My cheeks tingled with heat and confusion.
“That's not all,” Mo continued. “When Cody fell backward after being punched, Brittany went all Florence Nightingale on him, and he just pushed her away. Then she screamed that he was stupid to care about a reject like you.”
. Yep, that sounded like Brittany. I'd never done a thing to her, but she made her dislike more than apparent. At school and in choral practice, staring her down instead of looking away took everything out of me, but I wasn't about to let her intimidate me.
“Brittany can't stand that Cody is interested in you.”
“She'd normally go for a dumb jock, but once Cody expressed an interest in you â¦ well, challenge accepted,” Mo said.
“Challenge? What are you talking about?”
“For some reason she's made you a personal target. She probably thinks that hooking up with him would somehow hurt you,” she said.
“Why would I care?”
“Because you like him.”
I started to object, but it was pointless to lie to Mo. I'd liked him for a long while now.
“And why are we talking about Brittany?” Mo continued. “This is about you and Cody. Wow. A blind guy who can fight. How hot is that?”
“I'll be right back.” My hand shook as I slid open the plastic accordion door to my room and headed for the trailer's kitchen sink. Tap water would do. My mouth had gone dry, and I had visions of choking if I didn't have something wet immediately. I filled the glass and downed it, then filled it a second time.
“Where's the fire?” Frank sat on the sofa, reading the newspaper. Mo used to be the only person in my life who could say the words “fire,” “flame,” and “burn” without immediately apologizing for saying something inappropriate, but Frank was getting better at it too.
Mo pushed past me and plopped down next to Frank. She held out the package of Oreos and his eyes lit up. Suddenly, they were best friends.
“A boy likes Arlie and she's having some kind of weird reaction. I think she might faint.”
This time both Frank and Mo smiled with chocolaty teeth.
“Figures it'd take a blind guy to be interested in me,” I said to myself.
They frowned in unison.
“Oh, I know you didn't just say that. Don't make me slap you,” Mo warned.
“Yeah,” Frank added. “What she said.”
“Mo got the story secondhand. Cody doesn't like me. We barely know each other.” The trailer suddenly seemed smaller than it ever had. My racing heart began to make me dizzy as well.
“Cody?” Frank stuffed a third cookie in his mouth.
“A super-hot guy who's in Arlie's English class and the choral society,” Mo explained. “Oh, and like she said, he's blind.”
“Well, invite him over!” Frank's enthusiasm only egged on Mo who continued to describe Cody in great deal.
“Mo, go home. Frank, mind your own business.” I needed time to think and to fight the urge to throw up.
“Oh my God, I can't wait to see what happens tomorrow in your English class,” Mo said.
“Go!” I pointed to the door.
“I won't sleep a wink tonight.” Mo's voice trailed off after I shut the door behind her.
“This is going to be good.” Frank tittered like a little girl, then stuffed another two Oreos in his mouth. “Tell me more about this guy.”
Their ribbing set my confused emotions roiling. Anger was the first to bubble up. “Shut up for once, Frank. Just shut the hell up!”
“Hey, now. What gives?”
He took a tentative step toward me, but I raised my arms, indicating I wanted him to back off. “Never mind. I just need to go to bed.”
Frank took hold of my elbow before I could leave. “Sit down. Please.”
The trailer walls closed in further, making Frank's concern too big for the space.
“One minute we're all joking, and the next you're mad as hell. Talk.”
“Maybe I don't find the jokes funny,” I said.
“Mo and I are happy for you. That's all. What's the big deal? Don't you like this guy?”
“You don't get it.”
“Then enlighten me.”
I didn't know what to say.
Stop being so chummy with my best friend? Stop thinking I have a freakin' chance in hell with Cody? Stop pretending this is how I envisioned my life after Mom?
“You're not my dad. I wish you'd stop acting like one.”
Frank stared at me.
me. He didn't seem angry or sad or anything. Just numb.
“That line is getting pretty fucking old.” He got up and went into the kitchenette while I sat there dumbstruck.
My skin felt too tight, and I didn't think I could remember how to breathe on my own. I wanted to be in my room, but I'd have to squeeze past him to reach it. So I remained on the sofa and watched him wash and stow away dishes, wipe down the stove, rinse out the sink, straighten the salt and pepper shakers on the table. His methodical, slow-motion movements freaked me out more than if he'd just yell at me and get it over with.
“Say something, would ya?” I asked.
After a few seconds, he turned to me, the same non-look on his face. “What do you want me to say? Something non-parenty?”
“I shouldn't haveâ”
“You're right. You shouldn't have.” He grabbed his coat off the hook by the front door and yanked it on. “I'm going out. Don't wait up.”
When he opened the door, the cold rushed in and traveled up the length of my body. It stole every breath, every word I might utter to stop him from leaving.
“And do me a favor. Figure out who you're angry at.” The screen door slammed behind him.
It had been past midnight when Frank finally got back to the trailer. He opened and closed the door as quietly as he could, probably to avoid waking me, but I hadn't been able to doze even a little. Sleep eluded me most of the night. I was grateful to finally hear Frank's morning soundsâhis raspy cough, the clank of the kettle on the burner, the radio tuned to NPR.
He didn't say a word when I stole into the bathroom for a shower or when I popped back into my room to dress. By the time I opened the bedroom door again, he was stirring something on the stove top.
“Sit.” He pointed to the table but didn't look at me.
I did as instructed. He handed me a mug of hot tea first, then a bowl of oatmeal. God, that texture was going to kill me, but I vowed to eat every last spoonful in a pitiful attempt at an apology.
He sat down with a larger bowl for himself. He'd added raisins and brown sugar and heavy cream to his.
“What? I don't get the good stuff on mine?” The joke came out flat and I regretted that those were my first words after what had gone down last night.
“Didn't realize you could taste again.” He gulped heaping spoonful after spoonful, rarely looking up from the newspaper. He wasn't going to talk so I stayed quiet too.
I had to follow every bite of oatmeal with a sip of hot tea to make it go down. When I scraped the bottom of the bowl, I almost raised my arms in victoryâsomething Frank and I had started doing as a joke whenever I finished an onerous meal. Instead, I grabbed both our bowls and put them in the sink.
“I'll do the dishes,” he said.
“It's no big deal.” I turned on the hot-water faucet and grabbed the sponge.
“You can wash dishes tonight after dinner.”
Once the dishes were done, I wiped my wet hands on my jeans, then picked up my backpack. Mo had pulled up and was already honking her horn, but I stood frozen. Why couldn't I just say I was sorry? Three simple words. Not so friggin' hard.
“It's all right,” he said. “Go to school.”
“And you look nice,” he added. “Good luck today with Cody.”