The Tapes

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

The summer after Mom died Dad took my brother and me with him on tour. He was in a production of “The Dumb Waiter,” traveling through three states in three months. Rather than stay with Grandma and Pop-Pop at their house, which smelled like tuna and cough syrup, Doyle and I begged to go with Dad until he finally gave in. When I packed my duffel, I included the set of cassette tapes that Mom made for us kids. I found them in the attic several months before, when Dad put away the paintings Mom hadn’t sold. The tapes, corded together with rubber bands, were in a shoebox next to storage bins full of our baby clothes and Dad’s old playbills.

“What are these?” I asked and held one up for him to see.

“Oh, your mom made those when you were babies. She put them on when you couldn’t sleep, and they calmed you down.”

I began to play the tapes on my stereo every night. Doyle curled up at the foot of my bed, and we listened to them together, as Mom sang made-up songs or recited stanzas from poems, often Keats or Wordsworth but also Akhmatova, if she was feeling particularly sad. She talked about her day, her painting, and how she’d climbed all the way to the peaks of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, with her easel strapped to her back, to paint Lake Michigan at sunset. “You should have seen it,” she said. “Not that you would have remembered it, but it’s the principle of the thing.” Doyle eventually fell asleep, but I would stay up with Mom’s voice for company. I didn’t want to leave her at home while we were away.

The first day of our trip, we headed south to St. Joseph. Doyle sat behind me in the station wagon and kicked the back of my seat. “Gemma always gets to sit up front,” he said.

“Whining is beneath you,” Dad told him. “You’re nearly seven. Learn to be graceful in defeat.”

I sketched the old farmhouses we passed, the cows that huddled in the fields, and the signs for fresh cherries and tomatoes—just half a mile down the road. Mom had told her artist friends I had a good eye, though I knew she didn’t mean it. She was too nice to say otherwise, but I could tell she didn’t think much of my drawings, the images less defined and more abstract than her own. She refused to critique my work when I asked her to, wanting to improve. Instead, she busied herself with cleaning her brushes or explaining why she decided to use chiaroscuro in her portrait of our next-door neighbor, the horse wrangler Dee. I never believed I was as talented as my mother; I still don’t, but I wanted her to be proud of me, or at least of my dedication. I accompanied her to the beach or into the woods by our house, and we’d sit together and work shoulder to shoulder.

At a rest stop Doyle, Dad, and I ate the salami and cheese sandwiches Dad had packed. Doyle took his apart, eating the slices of bread, then the cheese, and then the salami in tiny bites.

“What are you, a mouse?” I asked him. Doyle was neat and precise, not like the other boys in his grade. He kept his shirts tucked into his pants and his hair combed, and he habitually cleaned the dirt under his fingernails with a nailbrush he kept in his shirt pocket. Like me, he didn’t have many friends. My one close friend, Lydia, had gotten chummy with Kimberly Sanders and her lemmings while I was out of school after Mom died, and when I returned she hardly spoke to me.

When we got back on the road Doyle asked Dad if we could listen to one of Mom’s tapes, but Dad said no. “I have to rehearse. Pull out my script, Gemma, and read Gus’s part.”

Dad’s character, Ben, was either silent or shouting, and he startled Doyle when he repeatedly yelled, “The kettle, you fool!” trying to get the emotion right. When I stumbled over lines, Dad made me start again.

“What does it matter if I mess up?” I asked.

“It throws me off. Just say it once more. That’s what professionals do when they flub a line.”

I rolled my eyes but did what he asked. I wasn’t in the mood for a fight. We practiced until we arrived at the pizza place where we were to meet up with the rest of the crew for dinner. When we came in the door, Annie, the company’s director, got up to hug us, the top of her head grazing my chin.

“Gemma! Doyle!” she said. “Glad you got your father here. How responsible of you!”

“Traffic,” Dad said. “Sorry for the delay.”

The rest of the Traverse City Theater Company sat around one long table. They were a small group, especially this summer, as Dad was one member of a two-person cast. Dad had performed with the group off and on since before I was born, and Annie and the rest felt like family. Many of them took turns cooking us meals after Mom died.

Dad sat down by Hank and Alexander, the set and lighting guys, neither of whom came up for air to say hello as they sucked down their beers. Doyle and I took the two open seats across from Anita, head of props, and her daughter, Jane, the business manager. They were in the middle of one of their arguments, and when Jane ever so slightly raised her voice, Anita said, “Don’t you dare yell at me! I’m your mother.” Kenny, the actor set to play Gus, watched them and went at his teeth with a toothpick. He flipped his hair whenever the woman sitting next to him looked his way. I had never seen her before.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Marjorie,” she said. “The new hair and makeup artist.” She smiled at Doyle and me. “But call me Marj.”

Her name called up Marge, the fat old choir director at the Methodist church Mom took us to on Christmas and Easter, but this Marj was young and beautiful. Mom had shown me a book of Dante Gabriel Rossetti paintings once, and Marj, with her pale skin and red wavy hair, could have been the model for Lady Lilith. She wore a floral print dress that showed off her curves and pink high heels; her lips and fingernails were painted the same shade.

I realized my mouth hung open as I looked at her, and I snapped it shut, my cheeks burning. “Where’s Henry?” I asked. “He always does hair and makeup.”

“He’s taking care of his brother in Georgia this summer, so you’re stuck with me. Hope that’s okay. I’ve heard a lot about you both. I think we’ll be friends.”

“I’ll be your friend,” Kenny said to Marj. Jane glared at him. It was a well-known secret that she and Kenny had been fooling around for months.

“How nice,” Marj said.

I snorted. Kenny moved to sit closer to Anita and Jane.

“Excited to be on tour?” Marj asked us. “I’ve seen your dad in rehearsal a couple times. He’s very talented.”

“I guess, but I wish Mom was here,” Doyle said.

“Yes, I heard about her.” Marj frowned. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“No, it’s not. You don’t have to pretend. My mom died a couple years ago from breast cancer. It’s hell.” Marj saw I was upset and changed the subject, telling us about the toothless woman who hitched a ride with her to Michigan and talked the whole way, so Marj had to pretend she could understand her. Doyle laughed hard, spitting bits of pizza across the table onto Anita’s plate.

Annie made a toast after the meal. “To you lovely weirdos. The summer of ’99 is going to be a good one. Huzzah!”

“Huzzah!” we shouted and clinked our plastic cups.

Marj tapped Doyle’s cup and then mine. “To new friends,” she said.

At the motel that night, Doyle and I shared one of the beds, and Dad had the other to himself. He reviewed his script, his reading glasses perched at the end of his nose. Doyle and I passed my Walkman back and forth, as we played one of Mom’s tapes.

“Would you know,” she was saying, “I had to walk around like that all day in my cowgirl skirt, stinking of piss—sorry, I mean urine. What I’m trying to tell you is don’t feel bad if it happens to you. It’s a rite of passage.”

Dad turned off the light. “Enough of that,” he said. “Time for bed.”

“Mom’s telling a story about kindergarten,” Doyle said. “How she peed herself and—”

Dad cut him off. “It’ll still be there in the morning. Now go to sleep.” I gave Doyle a look and punched the stop button. Dad and Doyle fell asleep quickly, but I couldn’t turn my mind off. I listened to cars driving past. Snoring, Dad turned over onto his back, one arm thrown over his head.

I wondered what it had been like for him to go to sleep, Mom alive beside him, and wake up the next morning to find her dead, her body cold and stiff. She had fallen in the shower and whacked her head and went to bed feeling sick. “I think I’m coming down with something,” she’d said. It turned out she had a bleed in her brain. I thought about what it would have been like if Dad had put two and two together and taken Mom to the hospital. I lay awake until sunlight began to filter in through the blinds.


During shows, it was my job to watch Doyle. We sat in auditoriums at small liberal arts colleges or in theaters with scuffed wooden floors and curtains that stirred up whirlwinds of dust whenever they opened, and I would do my best to make sure my brother didn’t fidget too much or talk too loudly. The audiences were mostly middle-aged and elderly people there for “a night of culture,” as Annie put it, and they didn’t take kindly to Doyle’s shrieks when he forgot to look away when Dad’s character shot Kenny in the play’s final moments. Once he made a woman sitting in front of us fall out of her seat. After that, Dad made sure that we sat in the back so that we could slip out before the end.

“It’s not real,” Dad said to Doyle. “You know that.”

“I know,” Doyle said, but he looked at Dad as if some part of him still wasn’t sure.

On days free of shows, the whole crew took trips to the sites townspeople recommended—viewing the World’s Largest Ball of Paint, hiking near the Clifty Falls, or hunting down a Polish woman who served hot babka from her kitchen. Annie had made many friends on the road over the years, and she would bring us with her on visits. One of these people, a pockmarked man who ran a poultry farm in middle-of-nowhere Indiana, allowed us to stay at his place one night.

Doyle and I watched from inside the house as Dad, Annie, Kenny, Hank, and Alexander took turns with the man’s old hunting rifle in the backyard, shooting the clay pigeons he threw like Frisbees. Anita and Jane jumped up and down and cheered whenever one was hit, Jane screaming for Kenny in a way that made me feel sorry for her. Marj watched from a distance after she’d made her first shot, barely flinching at the recoil. I’d noticed how she set herself apart from the other adults, friendly and helpful but slightly aloof, as if she recognized she didn’t belong.

She joined Doyle and me inside. “Going to give it a try?” she asked me. “It’s actually not too hard. It’s all about knowing the trajectory.”

“Dad asked me to stay inside with Doyle,” I said, rolling my eyes. I wouldn’t admit how relieved I was when he said it; guns terrified me. “What about you?”

“I’ve had enough shooting for a lifetime.” She explained when she saw my confusion, “Not a lot to do when you grow up in Nevada. What are you two working on?” She hunched down in her mint green stilettos to get a closer look.

“Puzzling,” Doyle said, not looking up from the Spider-Man jigsaw set Mom and Dad bought him last Christmas. I was drawing a portrait of him while he worked, chewing his fingernails as he sprawled out on the floor.

“Wow,” Marj said to me. “Can I see?” Pleased, I handed her my sketchpad. She traced the lines with her fingertips. I noticed then that her index fingernail on her right hand was missing. She had painted the skin the nail should have covered.

“That’s really something,” she said. “Looks Cubist in a way. Where’d you learn to draw like that?”

“My mom.” I paused. “But our styles are really different. This is more my own thing.”

“She must’ve been proud of you for branching out.” Marj presented my sketchpad to me as if it was something of great importance, and I took it from her with as much gravitas as I could muster. She turned to study Doyle. “Here’s a border piece,” she said, fitting it into the unfinished image.

He thanked her before removing it. “I’ve got to do this on my own.”

“I respect that,” she said and winked at me.

We arrived in Chesterton, Indiana the next day, the company performing at the century-old red brick theater on the main street. Before the matinee show Marj invited Doyle and me to lunch at a hamburger place, and I excitedly agreed for both of us. We sat at a picnic table and watched the asphalt swim in the mid-June heat as we munched on a second order of French fries. Children played on the jungle gym across the street, and their mothers swooped in to rescue them when they fell and screamed over their skinned palms and knees.

“Want to go over there?” I asked Doyle.

He shook his head. “Do you want me to get hurt?”

“I sometimes wish I grew up in a town like this,” Marj said after a moment. “My mom and I lived in Vegas, near the Strip. The lights, the stupid drunks. God, it could make you go crazy. I’d drive out into the desert to sit in the quiet.”

I wanted to tell her I liked the quiet too, but the truth was I didn’t anymore. Mom was never very loud, but a vacuum had sucked out the life in our house without her there. The creaking of the floorboards, the clink of dishes in the sink, and the hiss of the radiator all seemed muted. For that first month or so after her funeral, Dad hardly spoke to us. He took long walks, leaving once we got home from school and not coming back until dark. I made SpaghettiOs or cooked hot dogs on the stove and helped Doyle with his homework. I turned on Nick at Nite or played one of Mom’s tapes while we waited for him—anything to block out the quiet. When Dad eventually showed up, his shoes and clothes streaked with mud, he stared at us as if he had forgotten we were there.

Marj pulled a bottle of pink nail polish from her purse, unscrewed the cap, and began to paint my nails. “You need a little color,” she said. She slicked on one coat and then another. “I used to paint my mom’s fingernails before her performances. She worked at a burlesque. I’d do her makeup too. That’s how I learned to do it professionally. Made good money doing shows—not enough to get rich, but good money. I can do you up sometime if you want. I mean, if your dad’s okay with it.”

“Can you do mine too?” Doyle asked Marj. He wiggled his hands.

“Of course.” She smiled at him. When she finished, he pinwheeled his arms to dry his nails.

“What made you leave Las Vegas?” I asked.

“My boyfriend.” She held up her finger with the missing nail. “He smashed it in a door when I didn’t tell him I was going to get groceries one day, and it’s never grown back. I had to ask his permission to do anything. It was stupid and I knew better, but I loved him.”

“That’s awful.”

Marj shrugged. “Lesson learned, I suppose. Sometimes I do miss him, though, as strange as it sounds.”

I nodded as if I’d understood. My experience with boys had been next to nil, save for the time Ben Hendricks, drunk from the peach schnapps he had stolen from his parents’ liquor cabinet, tried to kiss me at the end-of-the-year dance. I didn’t expect high school to be much different for me.

Over the next few weeks, I hung out with Marj as much as I could. When she wasn’t busy, she’d show me how to apply makeup without looking like a clown as Doyle looked on, studying how Marj highlighted my eyes and cheekbones. She drove me to a shopping outlet and bought me two dresses, yellow and coral, as well as blush, eye shadow, and lipstick. I put it all on one morning, along with the coral dress. When I came out of the bathroom, Dad said, “It’s nice of Marj to take you under her wing.” I had hoped for more of a reaction, a compliment or even some sign of disapproval, but he continued to clip out a review the local newspaper had written about the play, reading aloud the bits that mentioned him specifically.

I got a better response from the rest of the crew. “Who the hell is this supermodel?” Annie yelled when she saw me. I blushed, embarrassed yet thrilled. I had never been considered attractive before; I was too skinny, too flat chested, and my face too peppered with acne for anyone to pay much attention. I caught Kenny looking at me, and I felt a mixture of excitement and disgust. I decided to wear my new clothes and makeup only on special occasions.

Marj taught me what I needed to know now that I was almost fifteen: boys wanting sex, never drinking so much that I couldn’t remember what happened the night before, and refusing to wear fishnets even if other girls said they looked cool. I was grateful for her guidance; I had a lot of catching up to do. Mom hadn’t prepared me for life as a teenager. She proudly called herself a “weird duck,” and I could tell she was disappointed that I longed to be like everyone else. I was beginning to think she never wanted to understand me, just as she never wanted to understand my art. Perhaps she felt above such petty concerns, but Marj wasn’t. Doyle cried when I told him I was tired of listening to Mom’s tapes; I had better things to do.

I rode in Marj’s Hatchback when we traveled, the flat Indiana landscape traded in for rolling Ohio hills. We listened to Paul Simon, and Marj tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. Her hair blew out the open window, the breeze a relief from the humidity, which left me sticky, my thighs glued to the leather seat. I looked at my oily skin and frizzy hair in the side mirror and compared myself to Marj, who, although a little flushed, looked perfect. I drew the sharp angles of her collarbones and her freckled arms and lingered on her Cupid’s bow lips. Marj asked to look at my work, but I was never satisfied. I smudged the paper so much with my eraser that I had to restart on a new sheet, my failed attempts littering the car floor.

In Dayton, Ohio, the crew stayed at a motel with a pool. We slipped into our swimsuits and took up residence at the deep end. Doyle, who couldn’t swim that well, clung onto my back and wrapped his arms around my neck. Kenny sat with Frank and Alexander at the edge of the pool and let their legs dangle in the water. Anita showed Annie and Jane moves from her synchronized swimming days, trying to kick one leg in the air and hitting her daughter in the process. Dad sat in a deck chair and read a newspaper in his swim trunks. He looked up once in a while and waved.

“Come in with us,” Doyle called out.

“Maybe later,” Dad said. Doyle didn’t ask again. We both knew Dad’s maybes meant no. When I looked over at Dad again, I saw that Marj had taken a seat next to him, having just come downstairs in a turquoise tankini, her hair pulled back in a low ponytail. She smiled at him, and I could see her mouth moving, but I couldn’t hear what she said over Jane shouting about how her nose might be broken. The next thing I knew Dad had folded his paper, and he and Marj stood at the pool’s edge. They jumped. Dad laughed when he broke the surface and shook his head like a dog. When Marj came up for air, her suit had twisted so that her breast was bared. Blushing, she readjusted her top. Dad didn’t look away. No one else had seen what happened.

Doyle tugged on my hair. “Take me to Dad and Marj,” he said. I hesitated for a second and shifted his weight. He suddenly felt heavier than before. Taking a deep breath, I waded over to them.


After we left Dayton, the company performed in an eastern Ohio college town for a week. I was becoming worried about Marj and Dad. Marj went on jogs in the morning, and Dad joined her, never mind that he hated running. He came back wheezing and covered in sweat, but Doyle and I would hear him sing in the shower. They talked to each other as if they knew something everybody else didn’t, and I tried not to show how much it bothered me to see Dad acting as if he and Marj had a bond greater than the one she and I shared. I convinced myself that Marj was nothing more than a match to the flame of his ego.

The crew grew aware of what was going on between Dad and Marj, and they watched them with interest, though they were wary of bringing up the subject around Doyle and me.

“Being on these long trips can make people act in ways they wouldn’t normally,” Annie said to me when we were alone. When I asked her what she meant, she just shook her head and gave me a small smile. “Forget I said anything.”

When Marj and I were together, she spent most of the time casually asking me questions about Dad—anything from what he liked to do in his spare time to his views on the government. Annoyed, I decided to make a point of spending time with Doyle, who sulked with his superhero action figures whenever we went off without him. Rather than get lunch with the rest of the crew one day, I convinced Dad to give me money so Doyle and I could go somewhere else. I expected a fight, as he’d recently argued that we didn’t spend much time together—and whose fault is that, I’d asked—but instead he handed me a twenty-dollar bill and told me to keep the change, his gaze drifting toward Marj, who waited for us, the others having gone on ahead.

The sky had turned gray, and thunder grumbled in the distance. I asked Doyle where he wanted to eat, the diner down the street or at the one several blocks over, but he said he wasn’t hungry. I’d lost my appetite too.

“Let’s go to the hill,” I said. We walked toward the college’s football field, which sat at the foot of a large rise. Doyle had eyed it since the day we arrived, but I knew he wouldn’t actually go down it; the risk of getting dirty was too great. Mom would have made him do it, though. She reveled in the muck and told us she’d wanted to be a pig when she was little.

“If dirt was so terrible, we wouldn’t turn into it after we die,” she used to say when she wanted Doyle and me to hike with her to the nearby bog, where she’d paint the herons and cranes that hunted the scum-coated water for insects—big sellers at the Traverse City galleries. We’d come home covered in mosquito bites and sludge, but we were happy.

“Go on,” I now said to Doyle.

“I’m wearing white.”

“It won’t kill you. I’ll do it too.”

We lay down on our sides, and I counted to three before launching myself down the slope, faster and faster, until I was at the bottom alone. A raindrop splotched on my cheek. I climbed back up the hill. Doyle hadn’t moved.

“Why didn’t you go?”

“It’s starting to rain.” He began to get up.

“Not so fast.” I pushed him and he tumbled down, shrieking.

When he stopped, he got up and ran back to me, his t-shirt dotted with grass stains. “Again,” he said.

We went several more times. We slogged through the rain, our clothes drenched, and laughed until we were out of breath. I fished around in my pocket for the money Dad gave me, but it was a lost cause. We returned to the theater and found everyone sitting in the lobby with sandwiches. Marj sat next to Dad as they ate, deep in conversation.

“Is there anything for us?” I asked Dad. I stood close so that I dripped on him.

“What happened to you? Look at your clothes. You need to be more responsible, Gemma.”

I looked at Marj. I expected her to defend me, but she only took another bite of her ham and cheese.

Marj was chattier the next day. “How about we go out later?” she asked. I wanted to be angry, but I was too relieved that she was paying attention to me again.

“Just us?”

“Why not? A ladies’ night.”

“I want to go,” Doyle said, tugging on my arm. “I can be a lady too.”

Feeling generous, I said okay.

Doyle and I waited for Marj outside after the show ended. He hopped around and sang “ladies’ night” under his breath.

When Marj appeared, Dad was with her. “I invited him,” she said. “Hope that’s okay.”

“He’s not a lady,” Doyle said and frowned.

“He can be the exception, can’t he?” Marj asked.

“Why don’t we go for a walk?” Dad said.

“But—” I said.

“Good idea,” Marj said.

We meandered through the campus quad, empty except for a couple making out on the lawn. We claimed a pair of benches, Doyle and me on one, Marj and Dad on the other. The lamps turned on as it got darker. Doyle went off to catch fireflies, but I stayed and listened to Marj and Dad, who talked as if I wasn’t there.

Dad told her how he pursued acting in high school and then moved to Chicago, appearing in plays for the Shakespeare Company and even serving as an understudy at Steppenwolf. “I would’ve stayed in the city,” he said, “but Sharon wanted to go back to Michigan after she graduated from the School of the Art Institute. I was happy with her, you know, and I love the Company, but I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t left.”

“For what it’s worth, I think you’re great,” Marj said. “And you made some good out of your move.” She looked over at me.

“I mean, I’ve done some solid work, but I don’t know.” Dad sighed. “Is it enough?”

Not wanting to listen anymore, I went to capture fireflies with Doyle. I let him name mine while I kept an eye on Dad and Marj. They sat close together. Dad faced her, and Marj, cupping her chin in her hand, stared right back at him as they talked. When Dad put his hand on her knee, I accidently squished one of the bugs, and Doyle began to cry.

“I’m sorry, Thor,” I said. We buried him under a bush, and Dad and Marj came over for the funeral, Marj laying dandelions on top of the mound. When we got back to the motel, Dad walked Marj to her door. When he returned, I joined him in the bathroom while he brushed his teeth.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” He leaned over the sink and spat.

“With Marj. What are you doing?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t lie to me.”

Dad’s eyes met mine in the mirror. “I miss your mom too, Gemma,” he said. “Don’t I deserve to be happy, even a little bit?”

That night I listened to Mom’s tapes with Doyle for the first time in weeks. I turned up the volume extra high, loud enough so that Dad could hear it. He didn’t tell us to mind the volume. He listened to Mom count down her top ten favorite spy novels, his face pained. He sat like that for half an hour until I couldn’t take it anymore and shut off the Walkman.


The company headed back to Michigan at the beginning of August. Dad pulled me aside the morning after I confronted him and told me he wouldn’t spend time with Marj anymore. “I don’t want to make you unhappy,” he said.

Those final days went by quickly; it seemed we arrived somewhere only to leave again. I was tired of driving long distances almost every other day, staying in one motel after another. I rode with Marj often, and it felt almost like the way it used to be, the car our bubble. We listened to audio books and talked about school.

She told me about her own high school days. “Don’t care too much about what people think of you. Practically all the girls in my grade hated me, but I ended up okay.”

“Why did they hate you?”

“Oh, I was prettier than they were. All the boys liked me, so someone made up a rumor that I gave blowjobs during lunch in the out-of-order bathroom.”

“But you didn’t.”

“Only once.” She grinned at me.

She mentioned Dad a couple of times. I was surprised to hear how much he’d told her about my mom, my brother, and me. She brought up our last family vacation to Venice and how we sailed the Adriatic, almost as if she had been there too. I didn’t like to think of the time Dad spent with her, sharing our stories. It ruined the vision I had of her, which was separate from him—a Venn diagram where the circles, if they overlapped at all, were only connected by a sliver.


The final show was in Petoskey. Annie surprised us by splurging on rooms at a fancy old hotel that looked onto Lake Michigan. At the theater, Doyle and I sat in the front row with Annie. We dressed up; I wore one of my new dresses, and Doyle put on a button-up shirt, slacks, and the bowtie Marj gave him as an early birthday present. Dad shot Kenny one last time; by now, Doyle was able to watch without flinching. The lights went down, and we clapped loud and hard.

We went to the hotel restaurant and bar afterward to celebrate. The crew drank the endless cocktails Annie ordered, and even Dad was tipsy, smiley and talkative. Marj was the only crew member who looked somewhat with it. She wore a strapless emerald dress, and her hair was pinned back to show off gold hoops.

Annie reached out for Marj’s hand across the table. “So happy to have had you on board this summer,” she said. “Wish I could keep you, but Henry’s coming back in a few weeks. God, he’s dreadful. Don’t tell him I said that. What are you going to do now, do you think?”

“I’m not sure,” Marj said. “Maybe I’ll stick around if there’s work.”

Dad went still next to her. He didn’t seem to hear Doyle when he asked if we could get the chocolate lava cake. “You should stay,” he said. “There are plenty of good theater companies in Michigan that might need someone.”

“I’ll consider it,” Marj said.


“Make sure you ask me to write a letter of rec when I’m sober,” Annie said. “Anyone would be lucky to have you.”

“Exactly,” Dad said. He tipped back his already empty glass.

I hadn’t considered what would happen after the tour ended. I thought about Marj leaving, going home to a life where it was just me, Dad, and Doyle, which wasn’t the greatest, but it was okay. If Marj stayed, I didn’t know where she would fit in. I imagined her in our house, her heels clicking down the hall and her soft bell of a voice filling the spaces Mom’s raspy one used to inhabit. In that moment, I missed Mom more than I ever had before.

“Gemma, take your brother to the room,” Dad said when he saw Doyle yawn. “We’re leaving early tomorrow.”

Doyle and I said our goodnights and headed upstairs. He fell asleep, but I sat up with my sketchpad. Annie had rented out a block of rooms on the floor, and I heard the crew begin to come up for the night. Hank and Alexander shuffled down the hall, followed by Anita and Jane. “Good Lord, I can’t carry you, Jane. Walk!” Annie unlocked her room next door, and the sound of her shower being turned on leaked through the wall. I kept drawing, and when I looked up, it was almost two in the morning.

Doyle woke up when I opened the door. “Where you going?”

“To get Dad. Just stay here.”

“You’re not my boss.”

“Fine, come on then, but be quiet.”

Doyle followed me downstairs. We met Kenny on the way. “Oh hey, you two,” he said. He swayed and nearly fell. “Funny to see you here. By the way, you look nice tonight, Gemma. Really nice. Wanna come with me to—”

I took Doyle’s hand and kept moving.

The lobby was practically empty, save for the man at the front desk, who gave us a weird look. We peeked into the restaurant, but it was closed. I pulled Doyle down the hall.

“You’re hurting my arm!” he said.

“Shh.” Opening the door that led out to the terrace, I found Dad and Marj and felt my stomach drop. They sat on a sofa, or more accurately, Marj straddled Dad who sat on the sofa. They were kissing or maybe more; I couldn’t tell. Dad’s hand slid up the slit of her dress, and she swayed against him, her hair shielding his face. I turned around and Doyle plowed into me. I manhandled him inside, but he had already seen what I had seen.

“Let’s go upstairs,” I said.

“What was Marj doing to Dad?”

“Just shut up.” I walked quickly, and Doyle had to run to catch up with me. Back in the room, I paced. I could feel bile rising in my throat. I took out my sketchpad, and I tore out all of my drawings of Marj.

Doyle looked at me, scared. “What’s going on?”

I said the first thing that came to mind: “Marj is trying to take Mom’s place.” I was briefly satisfied by the look of shock and anger that crossed Doyle’s face.

“But she can’t do that,” he said, his lower lip beginning to tremble.

I couldn’t get the image of Marj and Dad out of my head. I didn’t know whom I was angrier at and decided it didn’t matter. I found my purse and grabbed Dad’s car keys from the bedside table. “We’re going home. Grab your coat.”

Doyle opened his mouth as if to argue, but he obeyed.

As we headed down the hall, I stopped in front of Marj’s room. I fished around in my bag until my hand closed around the tube of lipstick she had given me. I uncapped it and began to write on the door—bitch, slut, skank, whore, twat, and cunt: words I heard girls call other girls in school and once thought were immature. Doyle didn’t recognize them, but he knew I was doing something bad. He touched the markings, smearing some of the letters, and added some frowning faces when he asked me for the lipstick. When our work was complete, I left the tube on the carpet by the door.

The man at the front desk was gone when Doyle and I walked out to the parking lot. It had grown cold, and I shivered as the breeze stirred against my bare legs.

“Can I sit in front?” Doyle asked after I unlocked the car. He was all excitement now.

“I don’t care.”

“Wait, you don’t know how to drive.”

“I know enough.”

When I went to put my purse in the backseat, I saw Mom’s tapes sitting there. Dad had forgotten to bring them in with us or had chosen not to. Suddenly I was angry with Mom, angry with her for not being there, so that none of this would have happened. Before I knew what I was doing, I opened each container and dropped the tapes on the ground. I stomped on them but didn’t do much damage, so I picked them up and started to tear out the tape from their spools.

Doyle jumped out of the car. He screeched and pummeled me with his fists, scratching me with his nails. It hurt, but I didn’t stop. He finally gave up and watched me, crying, as I destroyed the cassettes. “Those were mine too,” he said. “I’m telling Dad.” He ran back toward the hotel.

I slid into the driver’s seat and stared out the window. When I looked down, I saw one tape left in the cup holder. I turned the car on and popped the cassette into the player. Mom’s laughter filled the car, and I couldn’t help feeling I was the butt of her joke. People had turned on lights in their hotel rooms, and I could see their silhouettes as they looked out the windows to see what was going on. I heard footsteps coming toward me, fast. Closing my eyes, I waited to be found.

Leigh Clouse grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and graduated from Hope College. She received her Creative Writing MFA from Boston University and currently calls Somerville, Massachusetts home. This is her first published story.

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Issue 5

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