by Ethel Rohan
Her partner wore breadcrumbs in his beard. She gestured and he wiped at his chin, his pink lips.
“Our neighbors seem nice,” he said.
They had moved from a gated community in the suburbs to a two-bedroom detached in the city. She liked change, to start afresh, but he felt a sense of failure about the downsize, the need to watch their money.
“Yes,” she said, and didn’t mention that earlier in the day she’d spotted the neighbor to the left sunbathe naked in his back garden. She’d never seen a penis so old and shriveled. Like a toddler’s, she imagined, after too long in the salty ocean.
He said he thought Edward, their neighbor to the right, was an alcoholic. He cited Edward’s swollen purple nose and his persistent gardening. Alcoholics liked to garden, he claimed, for the control. They also liked the air for their hangovers, he continued, and to care for living things because they can’t care right for people.
He seemed unaware he was actually talking about his father.
“Weird how most all the neighbors are old,” he said.
“When you’re young everyone seems old,” she said.
He smiled sadly and a fleck of bread fell from his beard. They were both in their mid-thirties and already jaded, the fun somehow gone.
When she was a girl, the other kids called her ‘drip” and ‘squirrel,’ said she was boring, said she looked like a squirrel with her tiny features, fat cheeks, small hands, and greedy binges.
In her teens she’d blossomed and the nicknames fell away, but deep down she’d always felt like a drip, a squirrel. At least until she met Max. In those first heady years of lust and love, she’d never felt sexier or more alive.
Max pushed the last of a vanilla cupcake she’d baked into his mouth. Cake crumbs added yellow to his beard. In recent years, she worried she’d infected him with her true self, that they were both drips, both squirrels.
She led him by the hand into the living room, showed him the stunning purple orchid Edward and his wife, Jane, had dropped off that morning. The orchid her favorite flower.
Edward had eyed her funny, seemed almost angry. “You’re too young to know your favorite anything.”
Jane had threaded her arm through his, smiling. “You told me to tell you whenever you sounded like an old grump.”
Max set the fire and they settled in front of the burning wood.
“They loved the house,” she said.
Max made some noncommittal grunt.
“Jane went on about the light in the kitchen, said the sun was ‘laughing’ in the windows.”
“’Laughing,’” he said. “Jesus.”
She didn’t mention that she’d liked the way Jane said ‘laughing,’ that she’d wondered if Jane could see the sun as laughing because she was so content or because she’d suffered so much.
“I think you’re wrong about him,” she said. “They seemed good together.”
“We’ll be okay, won’t we?”
“We are okay,” she said, although she wasn’t sure that was true.
“We’ve gone backwards,” he said. “I always swore I’d stay on the up and up.”
“I don’t feel that way.”
He moved closer on the couch and wrapped his arm around her. They stared into the fire. She felt both relieved and disappointed that he didn’t ask how she did feel.
An image of the neighbor’s ruined penis returned and she chased it away, her teeth locked. The flames climbed and licked. She wondered if Max also felt the small disturbance in the room, if he knew it to be the rumble of fear.
Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives in San Francisco. She is the author of the story collection, Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Books), long-listed as a 2010 notable collection by The Story Prize. A second story collection, Hard to Say, is forthcoming from PANK, May, 2011. She blogs at ethelrohan.com.
There’s something very squirrel-like about breadcrumbs in a beard, I think, and something wonderfully infectious about food, about crumbs. Is the squirrel-infection spreading? Drip by drip? How safe are we as readers? These are interesting observations, David, thank you. Certainly the image of a squirrel eating suggests urgency, hunger and greed, and all three of those elements are present in “The Move.” As I wrote, as I pictured my character’s beard dotted with breadcrumbs, the image conjured Hansel and Gretel and their fear and urgency, their search for home, safety, and love. I write about food a lot in my work. Food is essential. It sustains and nourishes us. It’s also intoxicating and addictive, and can damage and kill us. It can be our servant and our master. I find such paradoxes compelling. Fear is spreading in “The Move.” It’s airborne. It starts in the narrator’s chest, in her partner’s, in their neighbors’, in everyman, and it seizes the heart, shakes and shakes it until there’s fizz, until the pressure mounts and mounts, until eruption. Are we safe as readers? I hope not.