Take Them In, Please

Christie Hodgen

The daughter is leaving home, and the time has come for advice, so the mother tells the story of how she once fought off a high-school state-champion wrestler in the backseat of his Chevy by holding the blade of her ice skate to his temple. The mother and the wrestler had just spent an hour gliding around the local pond with other young couples. They enjoyed those quaint comforts which hadn’t the strength to survive through the daughter’s time: tie-on skates with leather straps, roasted chestnuts, five-cent cocoa served from the back of an old woman’s station wagon. And then the wrestler had tugged the mother to the far edge of the pond, where the ice was nearly transparent, unetched by blades. The mother heard the faintest creaking under her feet, imagined the impression of a fish gliding past, a shadow of its trailing fin. The mother had been offered advice about falling through: If trapped under ice and unable to locate the hole through which one fell, look for the light. If unable to find the light, swim to the surface and raise one’s lips to the ever-so-thin layer of air between ice and water, a small gap which may save an intelligent life. Breathe slowly and carefully through the mouth.

This advice for free. But nothing about a wrestler’s fat fingers, the pinch and snap of cotton tights against the thigh, the fumbling at the hem of a pleated wool skirt, the scuff of chapped lips, the desperate flop of mittens clipped to the jacket cuff. And so the mother, without advice, held up the toe of the skate blade, which was jagged for the purposes of braking.

The mother now wishes to recreate the scene for her daughter. For flair, she pulls a grapefruit spoon from the silverware drawer. “So I held that skate right up to his temple,” she says, with fisted spoon. She makes a vicious face and assaults the father, who is seated at the kitchen table awaiting breakfast, who is frowning at the sports page, who bats away the grapefruit spoon and clasps the short juice glass in which floats his daily raw egg. Tilt of the head and one swallow, the thick yolk rolling down his throat, a glossy rim of albumen around his lips. He gives a phlegmy clearing of the throat. Swipe of the hand across the mouth, his ruined knuckles swollen to the size of gumballs. “That’s when I knew your mother was for me,” he says, still intent on the paper, the slim and tragic wrestling column.

* * *
More advice the mother could have used: it is acceptable to name a child after a warm and inviting month. April, May, June. Days of the week are another story. A name at once unusual and mundane. Wednesday. Sandwiched, too easily given to the influence of its surroundings. Morbid proof: for a few years during Wednesday’s girlhood, the six o’clock news runs a weekly report called Wednesday’s Child, which advertises adolescents in desperate need of adoption. Every week there’s another mumbling boy, slouching in his Celtics sweatshirt, answering the reporter’s questions. “What’s your name?” “Michael.” “How old are you?” “Thirteen.” “Why are you a Wednesday’s Child?” “I don’t know. Because I have no place to live.” Wednesday’s children are never adopted. They grow up under the care of the state, and enter adulthood in desperate need of practical advice: how to polish a shoe, conquer a stain, how to stack a sandwich, how to file a complaint, how to introduce oneself to strangers, how to get home if lost.
* * *
Walk softly, carry a sharp skate. Wednesday heads by train to Louisville with this advice and two pieces of luggage. The first a backpack stuffed with a week’s supply of T-shirts, underwear, and saltine crackers. The second a three-foot-tall cardboard box which the wrestler has brought home from the dumpster of King’s Meat Packing, his place of employ. The box is marked with wobbly red stains of dribbled blood. The wrestler has strangled the box with silver tape, and fashioned a slim handle from a wire coat hanger. He has printed neatly on three-by-five index cards, and taped one to each side of the box: FRAGILE, DELICATE CONTENTS, THIS END UP, DO NOT OPEN UNTIL SETTLED IN LOUISVILLE. The box is awkward but light. It is entirely possible that the box is empty, the latest in a long line of the father’s characteristically last-minute, hopelessly flimsy gestures. The daughter stores the box underneath her feet, thinks nothing of its contents. She is busy with a mock Southern accent, thoughts of white riverboats propelled by giant red paddles, the difference between bourbon and whiskey, the proportions of a mint julep. She is busy with thoughts of her boyfriend, who has moved to Louisville for his first year of medical school and has rented an apartment for next to nothing because it is an unfurnished loft above a hardware store owned by a man who has legally changed his name to Jack Hammer, and because it is also twelve feet away from the intersection of train tracks and a major thoroughfare. Wednesday has dropped out of school, where she has performed just well enough to keep her scholarship, and followed the medical student to Louisville because he is what her family has called a first-class ticket, not to be surrendered to the hardships of geography. Because he is a brief four years away from the white coat, the prescription pad, the crabbed writing and dangling cold stethoscope, the rushed rustle of crisp-seamed slacks. She follows him because she has never spent a night away from her parents’ house, an arrangement which she feels has deprived her of the illicit joys of college life. More than all of these things, she follows him because during their two-year acquaintance he played the cello in a college rock band, because he sat on stage with his eyes closed, swiping his bow across the strings, producing not one sound loud enough to hear. Although she can’t be sure, Wednesday assumes that the medical student welcomes her south because she has charmed him over the past two years with her ability to publicly improvise, in great detail, at bars and in elevators, the most outlandish stories about her personal involvement in globally significant scandals: her love affair with Fidel Castro, her hitchhiking trip across country at the age of fifteen with a series of grandfatherly truckers, with names like Buttsy and Giorgio, all of whom may have been Jimmy Hoffa in disguise. In any situation—at a gallery opening or a funeral—Wednesday is able to enthrall a crowd. It is a peculiar gift for a shy person to bear. When Wednesday’s train arrives in Louisville, the medical student is waiting at the station, sitting in a folding metal chair, the cello between his legs. She sees him through the short train window, and he is there on the platform scanning the crowd, fingers poised on the cello strings, waiting to begin. The longing for that sound. She fits her arms through the backpack and hurries down the narrow aisle, its threadbare red carpet.
* * *
The apartment is a one-room rambling loft with splintery hardwood floors. The medical student has arranged, at random angles, a mattress on the floor, a television at the foot of the bed, and two orange beanbag chairs. The furniture is like the inadequate clothing of gingerbread men, two or three spheres of candy meant to suggest buttons. Buttons without a shirt. The bathroom is a stand-up shower, a toilet, some shelves walled off in one corner. There is a sink and a stove, and a back door leading out to a porch without railings. The apartment was last occupied by a seamstress, who had placed handmade signs in the two front windows facing the street. Block letters on white paper: TAKE THEM IN, PLEASE. LET THEM OUT, THANK YOU. The medical student leaves the signs up for Wednesday’s arrival, then sets them out with the trash in the back alley. But the following morning, at the high yawning sound of the garbage truck, Wednesday runs out and retrieves the signs, returns them to their places. “Take them in, please,” she says. “Let them out, thank you.” The medical student indulges her, since it is a strange city with little amusement. He crouches to read the section of newspaper that is unfolded on the floor. He frowns at the circled classifieds. Wanted: Companion to elderly gentleman. Requires heavy cleaning with harsh solvents. Wanted: Experienced dancers for exclusive gentlemen’s club. Fifty thousand annual potential. Wednesday receives her first letter at her new address. It is a rare occasion, to be savored. For flair, she opens the letter with a steak knife. Dear Wednesday, You’re probably wondering why I sent you off to your new life with an old clock. I wanted to explain and write it down but there wasn’t time before you left. You left all of a sudden. It has taken me a lot of tries to get this letter right. But I figure better late than never. This clock was your great-uncle Eddy’s. Uncle Eddy lived with me and my parents and my brothers. When he worked, he was a butcher like me. He was also a drunk and this clock was the only thing he didn’t pawn or gamble for booze. He was a real gentleman who never spoke unless spoken to. When we ate dinner and someone said anything to Uncle Eddy, he put down his fork and answered and he wouldn’t eat again until everyone had stopped looking at him. I can’t explain how he looked when people talked to him. He was so nervous. He chewed on the inside of his mouth. One time he came to a wrestling match of mine. There weren’t too many people there usually, and he stuck out like a sore thumb. He wore bow ties, and he always had his shoes shined and his shirts ironed, which is funny for a butcher. He had very good posture. And I could tell he would never wrestle anyone. Not that he couldn’t. It was the thought of touching another person. You could tell it made him sick. That happens to guys sometimes in my profession. They don’t want to touch people anymore. Anyway we used to have a piano in the living room and there were sliding doors you could shut and be alone in the room. He used to go in there and play music at night. If you asked him in the morning what it was he was playing, he walked away and said he didn’t know how to play piano. He’d look at you like you were crazy. But he did play. He made up his own tunes. He died broke when he was only 48. They put him in the drunk ward down at Memorial. The nurses were tough broads but he loved them. He always loved women. They were an exception for him. He used to pay women to sit with him when he was sick and just talk, just tell him about movies they went to and things they wanted to buy. But that’s when and how he died. He was absolutely yellow when he died. You’ve never seen anything like it. He had his clock with him in the room because he liked to hear it chime. So that’s a little bit about my family since you always were asking. Great, right? You’re from a family of drunks and butchers. All the same the clock’s yours now. I never wanted to have it out because I'd break it. Be careful with it. It’s worth something. Sincerely, Your father The clock is snug in its box, strangled in silver tape, slid beneath a cushioned train seat, forgotten, rattling south and north. Or the clock is unpacked and chiming in a stranger’s house. There is no going home now. The story of the clock is the first Wednesday’s father has ever told her, and she has lost it. Still holding the steak knife, she makes a quick, angry slice at the arch of her foot, its shiny, unscuffed skin. A cut that bleeds and bleeds.
* * *
Now in Wednesday’s life, keeping the time, there is the train and its accessory, the twenty-foot-high red-and-white-striped traffic arm that blinks and dings every thirty minutes. Cars stop and line up in front of the hardware store, the bass of their radio music booming so loud Wednesday feels it in her ribcage as she lies on the mattress on the floor. And the overzealous train driver gives long pulls at the chain horn, a high note of fear which she is forced to endure as the medical student-cello player sleeps soundly, a mouth-breather. He is not a wrestler or a drunk but a dignified sipper of Earl Grey, wearer of a blue cardigan with smooth wooden buttons on dangerously loose threads. His cello is leaning against the wall in its thin leather jacket, towering over the phone, which is kept, like everything else, on the floor. The phone rings exactly then, while Wednesday is looking at it, as though she had willed it. The phone is an old black rotary with a smooth fabric cord. The handle is heavy. “Hello?” she says. “Hello. What’re your rates?” “What?” “This is Executive Escorts, right? It says here.” “No.” “Oh.” And not a minute later the phone again. “Executive Escorts,” she says. The man hears her voice and is confused. He is calling, surely, from the basement bedroom of his mother’s house with a three-year-old phone book balanced on his lap in which appears an impressive three-by-five advertisement for Executive Escorts, featuring models, models, models. He has called the same number twice and Wednesday has answered twice with her soft voice. “What are your rates?” he asks again, a little sheepish. “A hundred dollars an hour, cash.” At this and only this, instead of the passing train and the fierce ringing of the phone, the medical student awakens. “Who are you talking to?” he says. “Some guy. He says we have the phone number for an escort service.” “Hang up.” She hangs up and takes the phone off the hook. No getting back to sleep. There is the minute-long bleat of the phone line falling dead, and then eventually the train coming through again, the two-tone ding of the traffic arm. There is just enough time to run out on the back porch and wait for the train conductor who, if facing the right direction, will pass at eye level in his high cab and wave, they always wave, sometimes even remove their caps, if she waits on the back porch, the splintery wood and flaking paint, the cut in her foot still open.
* * *
The medical student learns something new each day. Wednesday comes home one evening and is told about the six-feet-in-all-directions spray of fecal bacteria that spreads every time one flushes the toilet. The medical student explains that they must clear all possessions from the bathroom. The towels will be washed and stored in the empty kitchen cabinets. “We are filthy animals,” he says. The next morning Wednesday finds the toothbrush holder nailed to the wall by the front door, the brushes dangling like executed traitors.
* * *
Two weeks after Wednesday’s arrival, the medical student quotes, over supper, a survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health. It seems there is staggering evidence connecting work and well-being. If Wednesday fails to secure meaningful employment, it is almost safe to assume that she will die of a major illness before the year’s end. “How about waitressing?” the medical student suggests. “You can tell wild stories to all your customers.” The next day Wednesday notices a sign in the window of a bar across the street. It is the kind of bar that requires employees to wear white shirts and colorful ties, though the shirts are floppy and wrinkled, bearing the ghosts of old stains, and the ties hang, loose and miserable, dipping into bowls of soup. Wednesday asks for the manager and he appears, an exceedingly short man with thin cornsilk hair. If he were any less ferocious-looking, Wednesday could not resist picking him up and sitting him on the bar like a child. But the manager’s face looks as though it were stitched together from scraps. “You’re a tall drink of water,” the manager says, sliding his hand under his tie, into the gap between the buttons of his shirt. “Yeah,” Wednesday says. Her voice is high and unsure, and the manager is pleased. “Course, not me. I used to be a jockey, case you wondered. Good old Churchill Downs.” The manager smiles. His top front teeth are missing, and he runs a pointed tongue over his gums. “Who?” says Wednesday. “Churchill.” “A great man,” says Wednesday. “So they say.” “The Downs,” says the manager. “The Kentucky Derby?” “Oh. I just moved here.” “Jesus Christ. Sit down, have a seat, take a load off.” The manager makes a slight bow. Wednesday sits on a swivel stool, its split red vinyl mended with silver tape. The manager remains standing, short of eye level. During the interview he picks at a bowl of assorted peanuts, and wipes his fingers discreetly on his tie. There are thin, colorless stitches tied in his cheeks and forehead, sticking out like whiskers. “Just had some moles removed,” the manager says, twisting the ends of a stitch together, just above his eyebrow. “Boy, I’ve been saving forever to do this.” He twists away, dreamily, thinking of his new skin, forgetting that he is a short balding manager of a bar that serves a daily lunch plate special of fried porkchops and peach chutney for $2.95. Wednesday tells the manager the story of her life: how she was raised in Texas, the daughter of a butler who worked for a wealthy globe-trotting oil mogul named Dallas Kincaid, whose phone number she cannot list for security reasons. But the manager should be assured that she can set an excellent table. And she certainly knows how to make a mint julep. “Well, well,” the manager says finally. “Welcome aboard.” He removes his right hand from his face, where he has been fingering stitches. Wednesday takes his hand and agrees to start the next day, knowing that tomorrow if her timing is right, dressed for work, she might instead hop a slow-moving train in search of her lost clock. She imagines a polka-dot kerchief tied to a stick, stuffed with the wrestler’s letter and the loose pages of sheet music that the medical student has not played since the start of classes.
* * *
Again with the phone. Weeks upon weeks of late-night calls. Men, desperate and shy, wanting escorts. Angry men. Tired men. What are your rates? Wednesday answers the calls while the medical student sleeps soundly, dreaming of gross anatomy. He has seen the mechanics of human life, the traffic of blood, the filtering of toxins, and he has begun to think very little of the difference between any two men. The same urges from the same locations. They call and call. Men will never change. A hundred years ago, they sent the same messages by pony. Please, they say. Talk to me. They just want a sound in their motel rooms. Anything. A chime.
* * *
“You’re not the only one with problems,” Wednesday tells the man on the phone. “I’m a waitress. My feet hurt.” It is a small, small step between waitress and escort. She considers this. The phone is on a long cord, and can be pulled onto the back porch. It is four in the morning, and a small bird hops around the porch on its callused feet. Wednesday is still in her uniform, stained shirt and soup-splattered tie. “I’ll pay you,” the man says. “Just talking. Just telling stories. With the money you take tomorrow off, rest your feet. Lucky Motel. Room 508.” The night watchman of the Lucky Motel is asleep in his glass booth, the neck of his shirt open, a gold cross gleaming on its chain. He wakes when the door chimes. “Sign in,” he yells. But his voice is muffled through the glass. He points psychotically at the log, open on a tall podium next to the door. Wednesday takes the pen and signs. Take them in, Please. Let them out, Thank you. The light is yellow, the carpet red. Wednesday imagines the man waiting upstairs, drunk in his room. Sitting straight in his polished shoes, biting the inner corners of his mouth. They will talk. The sound of her voice will comfort him. He will thank her and casually pull enough money from his slim, oily wallet for a train ride home. However unlikely, this is what she imagines.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro
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CHRISTIE HODGEN lives in Louisville, KY. Her fiction has appeared in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999, The Notre Dame Review, The Bellingham Review, and Meridian. She received the 2000 Tobias Wolff Award for fiction. She holds an MFA from Indiana University.

Her story “Take Them In, Please” received an Honorable Mention from The Greensboro Review.