Marionette

Marionette BY MELANIE PAPPADIS

Inside their apartment, Samuel closes the bathroom door behind him and turns, with both his hands, the skinny silver lock. He checks for Fita in the mirror. He checks for her after what happened last time she was here, how she snuck up, how he didn’t even hear her coming, how she yelled in her loud Spanish voice, and yanked his hands from his mother’s drawer, how the drawer came off its rollers and everything went falling, spilling out onto the bathroom floor. A hundred tubes of lipstick rolled around their feet. Fita bent down, hugging her arms across the floor, sweeping the lipsticks together. They clicked and clattered and Samuel stood staring. He saw a pink paisley case slip behind the toilet. He begged it not to move. Fita dumped her chestful of lipsticks back into the drawer, smacking her lips together saying ay, ay, mi hijo. Then she pulled his arms too hard over the edge of the sink, stretching them until they reached the faucet, and pressed his hands between her palms as she scrubbed them together. No mas, she said as she washed his hands under the warm running water, squeezing each little finger with soap.

So now, he looks for Fita in the mirror, checking every corner of reflection, any glimpse of her big black hair, maybe even floating—he decides now glancing out the bathroom window overlooking the street—like a witch. Big Fita and her smoky spine. But nobody is there, and he double checks the lock then gently pulls open his mother’s drawer of make-up.

Samuel takes out three tubes of lipstick from the bathroom drawer, uncaps them all, and lines them up next to one another so they stand like red and pink soldiers in shiny gold armors. They face the mirror and Samuel leans in close, choosing the brightest pink first, he starts at his eyebrow, then down the inner side of his nose, making a circle around his left eye. He rolls the lipstick higher from its tube, and then fills in the circle completely, making sure none of the skin around his eye is left undone. Then he takes a red, the color of his mother’s toes, and rolls it up, watching the pointed wedge of color rise. He draws a mouth larger than his own around his lips, starting beneath his nose and continuing across the middle of his chin. He remembers the show he saw on TV, and how their faces looked with all their bright colors, flying high above the stage from some invisible ropes overhead. Two faces painted together on one. What were they called? He tries to remember as he fills in the mouth around his own with red.

He runs up the hallway and back to the terrace door, thinking he’s got it. He presses his painted face against the screen and calls to his mother reading in her sun chair.

Mama, he calls, mama, what’s a Smiling twin?

What’s a what? Her voice trails slowly back to him.

Smilings twin?

A Siamese twin? She asks.

That! He presses his face into the screen, closing one eye. Can I be one?
A Siamese twin? Sammy! No! It’s a medical..it’s…they’re born like that.
Through the screen he can see the back of his mother’s ponytail hanging off the low chair. He can see the small black type on the page as she holds up her book to shield the sun from her eyes. He wonders what it says.

I’m going to be one, he tells her. A Siamese twin.

Her ponytail swings lightly as she shakes her head. You don’t become one, she says, and turns another page.

Why not? Samuel slides open the screen door and steps back out onto the terrace as his mother lowers her book, and now there are two sets of eyes looking at him– the woman’s on the back cover and her own peering over the top.

See? He shows off his face covered in his mother’s lipstick. It’s how they looked, he says, with the pink like that on one eye, and the mouth. He squiggles his finger in front of his face, demonstrating.
Ah, Jesus, Sammy, she sets down her book, the pages splayed out, the woman staring up at the clear blue sky. I told you, that’s not for you. That’s only for me. You don’t use make-up to draw on your face like that. Now go wash it off.

She stands up, leading Samuel back in through the door that is now stained with bits of pink and red pressed into the screen’s grid.

Samuel goes into the bathroom, while his mother rinses some cherries in the kitchen. She fills a bowl with the fruit and carries it back outside.

When Samuel comes out again, his face is clear except for a smudge of red near his cheek. His mother looks at him and licks her finger before wiping the smudge away.

Have some fruit, she says moving the bowl between their chairs. Samuel takes a cherry and holds its stem over the balcony.

On the street below, a policeman is writing tickets. Samuel holds the cherry over the little spot of the policeman’s black cap. But the policeman walks ahead, and Samuel moves along the short terrace, trying to keep the cherry positioned over his cap. He imagines it falling, dropping on the little spot and painting his police face red. He watches it rise—the cherry-covered face—and float back up to him where he swings the cherry by its stem. But at the end of the terrace, at the brick wall dividing all the other terraces of the apartment building, he cannot go further. He leans forward, around the wall, and dangles his arm out into the empty air, until the policeman goes ahead and the cherry moves off.

Samuel! his mother cries. Get away from there! You’re too close.

He turns quickly, cherry still in hand.

Why don’t you get the crayons like I told you to? He shakes his head. Why not? his mother asks. Samuel shrugs and disappears inside.

After some time, his mother puts her book down and goes inside.

Sammy? He doesn’t answer. She walks down the carpeted hallway, past the bathroom, her bedroom, a closet, to his bedroom at the end of the hall. Her eyes still adjusting from the change of light, she goes to his room, and stops short in the doorway. She stands silently looking at the small hump of her son’s body under the bed sheet. And through the curtains held open by the row of tiny nails, the sunlight falls in one thick stripe across him.

A few months ago Samuel lay in bed listening to his mother hammering each of those tiny nails to hold back his curtains. She kept hammering one after the other until they were pinned open to let in light. She pulled back the sheet and made him get up. You sleep when it is dark in here, she had said, that’s all, it’s a beautiful day, she kept saying, it’s a beautiful bright day. Samuel got up and understood. He thought, Mama’s in love with the sun.

But now, she stands quietly against his door, looking at him striped in a single band of light, and knows she can turn around and quietly go back outside.

But she doesn’t know Samuel is already dreaming. Dreaming of all the things he wants to be, because even in the light he still can. Because there are things he has not yet learned to name, things that when he does will fall away. He will learn which ones these are without effort or even knowing how, he will learn them like words to a song you never meant to remember. Somehow it will happen in the small un-spoken ways of faces telling him yes or no, telling him right or wrong, telling him boys don’t dance on moons, no one sleeps in day, telling him green is for apples, blue is for moons, you are a boy spelled S-A-M-U-E-L.

But he is already dreaming. He sees bright painted faces marked with kisses, the round lipstick O’s that stay on cheeks. The beautiful O-marked faces calling his name, coming from their mouths in script, in perfectly shaped letters floating through the air. And sometimes they say words he doesn’t understand but he likes because they look the most free, all the swirls and curves.

Sammy, his mother whispers, and he sees his name again, in script, floating behind his closed eyes. She sets her hand on the curve of his head and stares across the room at a painted frame on the dresser. It holds a picture of the two of them together. They are at the zoo. She thinks of Peter, imagining how it would look with him standing there in that picture with them. She and Peter on either end with Samuel in between. Like a family. The three of them out together on a sunny afternoon, doing things that people do.

Hey, she says into the air, and rocks his shoulder back and forth under the sheet. Come on, babe, let’s get up, go do something. Anything you want.

Samuel pulls the sheet down off his head, his eyes fluttering open as he sits up.

Can we make shadows?

She stares at the frame fitting snuggly around their picture. Maybe there isn’t room for anything else, she thinks. How about the park, she offers looking at his feet hanging only half-way to the ground, his soft cheek still smudged, she notices, with that faint trace of red. She licks her thumb again, there are other things, you know, she pulls his head in, like trucks and games and things, there’s even plenty of markers if that’s what you like, and his face contorts as she rubs her thumb over his cheek. She lets go of his head, leaving a light pink mark from the rubbing, how about doing some of those things?

Samuel makes a fist around his thumb and then with his other hand works to open his first and second finger. He holds it up and bounces it in the air, looking for a shadow on the wall. In the corner, a little clock tat-tats, a metal head tatting and shaking what a shame. Something Fita would say, Samuel decides as he moves the rabbit to the sound of the tic across the green and white striped wallpaper. Except she would say it louder and in Spanish, he thinks, and he wiggles the rabbit’s ears behind the green bars of wallpaper cage. Fita—the big bad witch. How many brooms would it take, how much fire, how much water, to make her shrivel into nothing, poof, make her go away for good. Tat, tat, tat. Shame, shame, Fita says. Her Spanish voice saying, shame on you, nino. But he knows that is not his name.

Sammy, his mother says.

Samuel moves the rabbit through the green bars, along all four walls of his room. His mother sees the shadow of her son’s hand pass quickly across the picture frame as he continues aiming his fist around the room. She considers calling Peter, asking him to join them. They could all go to the zoo. It’s something people do, she thinks. They could go for the afternoon. She reads the clock in the corner, come on, she says, it’s already 12:15.

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