July 6, 2018

Fiction by Jacqueline Masumian: "New Teeth"

Jacqueline Masumian, a graduate of DePauw University, is the author of Nobody Home: A Memoir. She grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, and has enjoyed careers as actress, performing arts manager, and landscape designer. Her stories have appeared in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Beechwood Review, and Gravel, among others. Her website is jacquelinemasumian.com.

New Teeth

Wrapping the robe around her waist, Audrey pulled the sash tight. Banging noises in the kitchen downstairs had ripped her from sleep. The itchy tension began to gnaw. He was in the house.
She thumped down the steps, holding the handrail and cursing the stiffness in her knees. She blinked at the morning light. The banging stopped. Edging around the corner into the dining alcove, she found her son rifling through a drawer in the sideboard, the exact place her grandmother’s silver tea set had been before it had gone missing.
“What in the world are you doing?” She couldn’t hide the acid in her voice.
“Lookin’ for somethin’.” His strawberry blonde hair with its persistent cowlick, unruly tufts, caught a shaft of sunlight. Her thirty-year-old son—thirty going on sixteen—had let himself in again, like he still lived there. A hundred times she had told herself to get the locks changed.
“For what?” She rubbed her fingers across her forehead, trying to smooth the scowl she knew was there.
“Well, what do you think, Mom?” His smoky blue eyes accused her. “What am I always looking for, Mom?” The caustic “Mom” wrenched at her.
He continued tearing through the kitchen. “Richie, you’re not going to find money in a kitchen drawer.” She pictured her pocketbook safely stowed in her bureau upstairs.
“Well, how do I know, Mom? How do I know you haven’t stashed it somewhere I’d never think to look?” He slammed a drawer full of metal utensils. She flinched.
“Richie, you are completely nuts.” She moved to the coffee maker to start a pot.
I’m nuts. I’m nuts. You’re the one—loony, that’s what you are. Your youngest son has to come begging, and you turn him away, and hide all the money. You’re making me crazy!” Like it was her fault.
Audrey spooned coffee grounds into the paper filter and tamped down the little mound they made. “You been up all night, I suppose.”
Richie slumped into a kitchen chair, his right knee bouncing, his fingernails tapping the wooden tabletop. His jaw worked as he ground his back teeth.
“I can fix you some eggs,” she said. “When was the last time you ate?” His scrawny freckled elbows stuck out like chicken wings.
“Jesus, Mom. Shut up. I’m not here for food.” Leaning forward he took a deep breath and hissed it back out through his teeth. “Look, Mom, there’s a guy I know, from high school days, I borrowed some money from him, and…hey, he really needs it back. He really needs it, Mom, he’s got a family, three little kids and all.”
Audrey stared out the window at the wide Texas sky threatened by cumulus clouds forming off to the west, trying to decide if this story was plausible. Or, did it sound familiar, had she heard it before? As much as she wanted to go along with his stories, her baby son had lied so many times. That twisting ache in her stomach started up, that pang she felt every time he came around.
“What about it, Mom? Are you going to help this guy out?” A new tack, she thought, making it sound like charity.
She shook her head. “Richie, please, I haven’t even had my first cup of coffee⎯”
“Mom. Look, I need it, Mom. If you don’t give me some cash right now, I’ll find some other way to get it, I swear I will. I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but…all I can say is, you’ll be sorry.”
His eyes bugged out and his jaw dropped open, revealing hideous gray teeth, crooked and marred by spots of decay, protruding from watery gums. That’s what that meth stuff had done. If only she could brush his teeth with one of those whiteners, she thought, they might look a lot better. Then she winced—what a moronic idea.
“Richie, what about hitting up your father for some money? Drive on down to his place.” She knew her ex-husband Wayne wouldn’t help him, but anything to get Richie out of her house.
“What’s that gonna do? The son of a bitch won’t give me a dime. His trampy wife’ll make sure of that.”
“What about your unemployment?”
“Mom, you know that ran out months ago. What are you, dense? They’re not giving me any more.”
“Then, get your job back. Just go back and ask them⎯”
“God, you’re dumb.” His father’s favorite phrase shot through her. “They don’t want me there. Jesus!”
“Richie,” could he hear the trembling in her voice? “I can’t do anything for you. You know my money’s tied up. And I have expenses. Your brother and sister need help, too, and they’ve got kids. What am I supposed to do?”
“Give me something!” His eyes, watery from tears or terror, shredded her heart. His lower lips stretched over broken stubs of stained enamel disgusted her. “I’m the one you love. Mom?”
“I don’t have the money,” she said. Her usual tactics she’d used so often were running out, but she had to keep at it. That’s what Wayne had told her—just keep saying no. “My checking account is down to⎯”
“Come on, Mom!” He was whining like a three-year-old. “You have all that other money. You have so much.”
She shot her glance out the window. Telling him about the trust fund her grandfather had set up for her was the dumbest thing she’d ever done. “We’ve been over this before, Richie. It’s not easy for me to get to that money. I have to call up that bank manager and ask. It’s embarrassing. Then I have to write a letter and give them a good reason⎯”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” The palm of his hand slammed onto the table. The salt shaker bounced.
“Look,” she said, “last time I drew money from the trust, you promised you’d get some help for…your problem, and then you never even looked into that rehab place.” She dabbed a paper towel at stray water drops on the counter. “It’s just such a waste! Again and again I give you some cash, and you go buy drugs, and then you’re back in ten minutes like a boomerang. No, Richie. That’s it. No more. It’s not going to happen.” She was doing what Wayne had said, sticking to her guns, but the clenching of her stomach nearly took her breath away.
“Don’t give me that bullshit!” He hammered both fists on the table, once, twice, then on and on until she thought the oak would split. The salt shaker dropped to the floor, bounced and skidded across the vinyl. “Don’t be so stupid, woman. What’s the money for, if not your children?” He switched to pleading. “Children that need it?” His face was pathetic, ugly.
If her heart would stop pounding, maybe she could think straight. “No, Richie, no. You’re going to have to find some other way. Now get out of here. Just get out.” She turned from him and stared out the window, seeing nothing.
“Shit on you, Mom! Shit, shit, shit!” Richie jumped up from the table, yanked open the door, and darted out the screen, letting it slam.
Audrey watched him stomp across her cool green lawn and peel down the driveway in his dusty sedan. She pushed the door shut, the sound of the latch a comfort. She’d done it; she’d stood her ground and sent him off.
She pulled her robe tighter around her. Feeling a sharp twinge in her breast, she raised her hand to soothe it. The familiar image came back to her, Richie as an infant, staring up at her from the crook of her arm. He had always sucked so much harder than the others had. He’d sucked and bitten till she’d wanted to scream. Was that her fault?

She poured a cup of coffee and hung her head. Little oily bubbles clustered on the surface of the dark liquid. They shone up at her, giving her an ounce of hope, then burst slowly, one by one. As bad as things were, she was still his mother, wasn’t she? The one responsible for him? Her youngest was sick. He was in pain. She took a gulp of coffee, letting it scald all the way down. If she phoned that man at the bank, maybe she could tell him about Richie’s teeth. She could say her son needed major dental work. New teeth. It would be the truth, and maybe then he’d release the money, and then she’d have something for her boy. A little something to tide him over till he got himself straightened out.
~Jacqueline Masumian

Jacqueline Masumian New Teeth, Indiana Voice Journal

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