You are about to read my very first short story ever *crosses fingers.*
"Ava, dear. Over here."
The first rule of this reality T.V. set is: look busy when Her Lady of the Immaculate Clacking Clipboard comes a calling, or she’ll find a less-than-desirable task for you. Testing the dozens of broken bathroom scales I uncovered yesterday, one-by-one, instead of tossing them, clearly isn’t busy enough for her.
The second rule, which I heard the crew joking about is: it’s not a wrap until someone falls in love or gets their heart broken.
My school brain thinks this is gossip spread by someone who should find something more productive to do than testing her weight on broken scales.
Lizard brain—my brains almost never agree—has her money on the busty sorority girl working off community service hours for crimes unstated, who has been flirting with the PA since orientation. Heartbreak is in her future. For sure.
I sidle around the growing pyramid of ancient Keds and cross trainers—who keeps worn through shoes, anyway?—to reach Her Lady, wondering what torture awaits me.
Then I see him, behind her, half shaded under the admin tent: Thor, or some version of a Greek God.
Nitwit, school brain chides. Thor is Norse, which you’d know if you hadn’t napped through Mythologies of the World last year. Lizard brain’s only input is Thor pretty. I’m with her on this one.
Nodding from Thor to me as introduction, Her lady says, "Conner just signed on—show him the ropes,” and then she disappears back into the tent.
I shove my hand at him like a groupie demanding an autograph. School brain is disgusted by my eagerness, but his hand takes mine before mine reaches his, so the eager is mutual. I think. I hope.
“Hey,” I say. “Welcome.”
Welcome? That’s all you got? Try again.
I tug his hand to make his head bend toward me, and scan the lot, overrun with 47 years of hoarded something-or-others, pulling his eyes with me. In my best fake TV announcer voice I say: “This week, on ‘Our Parents Were Hoarders,’ underpaid spring break cast offs shovel shit into a dumpster. People grow. Cry. Everyone’s inspired. Stay tuned.”
Framing his answering smile are gleeful divots. A girl could get lost in one or the other of those.
"So, we’re the shit shovelers, I take it." His sunny syllables loosens the stays of my balance. Holding his hand becomes necessary.
School brain is sure he smiles like that for all the girls, but my internal hearing has gone as soft as my center of gravity. I’m not quite listening.
When we unlock hands, I step back take in the rest of him. The blunt, grunge ends of his dark blond hair brush a smooth jaw. His eyes are kind and open. He’s taller than me, but not so tall I strain my neck to see him. Closer inspection reveals this boy is no Thor.
All Thor has is that dumb hammer. Conner’s superpower, school chimes in, is navigating the vestibular labyrinth. Lizard brain simplifies this to messing with physics.
Conner, my two brains, and my slightly wobbly self spend the rest of morning hauling shit to the dumpster. Broken toys older than both of us combined. Every copy ever of Reader’s Digest. Twisted blinds. Mildewed sofa cushions, sans sofa. The pièce de résistance in this morbid museum of detritus: thousands of empty bread bags Russian-dolled into seventeen trash bags and legions of ants calling them home.
When we clear all that away, there are four decades of flattened boxes stacked floor to ceiling, kinda like the walls of the Grand Canyon, if the Grand Canyon smelled a bit like the alley behind the post office.
“It’d be quicker to burn the joint down,” he says.
“Her Lady of the Immaculate Clacking Clipboard says lighter fluid isn’t in the budget. I asked.”
His laughter is orange poppies.
“Is that what everyone calls her?”
“Just me. But she is kind of imperious with the clacking.”
I walk along the boxes to see around it, but it’s a solid sedimentary wall of cardboard, chipboard, and dust. For a hoarder, this guy was pretty orderly, but it still left the question: for what?
“Ava dear,” Conner mocks Her Lady’s chirp, “why on earth are you frowning?”
I am frowning. I’ve fallen into the dumpster of my own brains again, which is a frowny place.
“Isn’t it dreary? How a whole life adds up to no more than a few dumpsters full of crap no one wants, but this widower can’t seem to part with.”
“It’s kind of cool though,” he offers, closing the distance between us. Closer is nicer. “This is only the stuff of someone’s life. We get to help take the life out of the stuff or something, and give the good parts back to the guy who lives here.”
School brain knows an optimist when she hears one. But she’s got a soft spot for rosy thinkers, and I can’t say I blame her.
We get back to work. He lifts the boxes off the top of a stack, and setting them on the floor, makes a second stack I can reach. As I watch, gravity wobbles again. School brain notes, with uncharacteristic longing, the full curve of his brachioradalis muscles when he reaches above his head.
Good griddle—Lizard brain sounds like an old-timey hair dresser when she’s worked up—School, this isn’t an anatomy quiz. Can’t you just admire the boy’s arms. Or put your smarts to use and fanaticize how a sudden spring storm might send rivels of rain down them—
Rivulets, school corrects.
—You’re always killing the moment. Now, imagine licking the crease of the curve, all the way from wrist to elbow, twisting it round to taste the flex, swallowing those rivels of rain...
I sure hope rain is in the forecast.
* * *
“Was this job in your spring break plans?” I ask Conner during a disappointingly clear-skied lunch.
“I went up to Yosemite with buddies. I thought we’d hike and climb. Adventure stuff.”
“But no adventure?”
“They started drinking the minute we got there. I did a few short hikes, but I’m not stupid enough to climb alone. Or with drunks.”
“This is kind of an adventure. Think of it as an olfactory safari of the suburbs.”
“Yeah, not quite the same.”
Through the afternoon, though, Conner conjures a different sort of adventure. If this one-hundred-dollar-a-day job is my sack lunch, it’s his buffet. Shortly he knows the names of all the fulltime crew, and the majors and hometowns of the college kids. He tugs the matted tangle of my life and pulls clean my story like yarn on a map, moving town-to-town with my migrant farm family, through my school years, and on to my favorite professors and whether or not I underline or highlight in my textbooks.
My brains and I are in agreement about his company.
“So, is this what you’d planned to do for spring break?” he asks.
“I work every break. The university is a stickler about getting paid, so money. Even though we’re filthy and that crate of skunky Louis L’Amour’s will off-gas from our pores well into finals week, this isn’t my worst spring break job ever, if you can believe it.”
“Last year I deep-cleaned the dorm cafeteria for a month’s free board. Considering I mostly lost my appetite for dorm food after that, they got a deal. But that was still better than the year before.”
“Yeah. I went scrap metal junkin’ with my uncle Luis.”
“I have no idea what that is.”
“You go round to businesses and farms and pay to take away their old junk metal. But you can’t sell the metal until you remove all the plastic and whatnot, so you burn it off and breathe in the fumes and think you’re going to die. For days.”
“Sounds super fun.”
“I might have committed felonies. Luis gave me 200 bucks and told me to keep my mouth shut.”
“Luis sounds like a winner.”
“Yeah, but he can bullshit the bark off a tree. Don’t let him corner you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind for when I meet him,” he says. Like maybe he means to.
* * *
As we work deeper into the garage, school wants to learn the lesson here. Lizard’s policy is: keep only what you can carry. Such was my childhood. I still own only as much as I can haul on my bike in a few trips. (I don’t tell either brain that I sometimes fantasize about a wardrobe of shimmery pajamas, a closet full of knee high leather boots, and palates of coffee table books. It would just start a fight and we’re all getting along so nicely today.)
When Her Lady of the Clacking Clipboard reappears, she warns us of the impending camera. “Perk up and smile pretty” is her command, before conferring with the lighting guys.
“Too bad I don’t smile pretty,” I grumble to myself as soon as she’s gone.
But then Conner’s behind me, and he tugs me into him so I am flat to his chest and holds me there with a broad hand on my stomach. I’ve been sweating since morning, but my skin erupts into a parade of goose bumps at the insistence of his touch.
The shifty gravity is back. If he lets go I might perk right down into a lump on the floor.
He’s not letting go. His words “you do too smile pretty,” brush wisps of my hair over my ears and neck.
School barely restrains my urge to rub back against him like a cat might a door jamb.
Lizard is breathing too shallow and quick for words.
Then he takes my opposite hand and twists me until I am facing him. His other hand steadies me at the waist. His curious, earnest face closes in, becoming my whole view.
My brains are useless to this vista.
His thumb teases my jaw line, earlobe to chin. “You’re smiling now.”
I am not, actually, smiling.
But by the time I think the thought, I am, actually, smiling. I smile because he sees me smiling.
Then I kiss him.
Because I see myself kissing him.
For a while, it’s light lips on light lips.
Then it’s not so light lips and urgent bodies and no space between them.
When a voice yells, “roll camera,” my arms are around his neck, my hands in his hair, demanding his face be in my face.
Our kiss tastes like our work day and of spring to come.
And it is not enough.
I get an inkling of it now, this hoarding.
I want to hoard all the seasons of these kisses, and the kisses still to come. To gather them at our lips. To lick the pans of the feast clean. To eat the crumbs from the floor. To collect them all and hoard them in my cells for always.
P.S. Here is how I imagine Ava and Conner.
Original fiction. Copyright © 2014 Cherri Porter.