When You’re A Star by Ali Wilding

Long hours and rules in sweat-sour rooms. Sky, Band-Aid blue, beyond locked panes. The TV buzzing sluggishly, like a fly chock-full of shit.

Momma’s in the Adult wing. I’ve seen her in her diaper through the shatterproof doors, her eyes like the eyes of a rancid fish.

They came for her first, when the sun was sideways on our peeling trailer and cables throbbed electric overhead. Sleeping in our coats by then. Mom held me close. From their van came the clamor of dogs.

Five things I’ve learned:

I

Rules And Routines Must Be Observed: That’s Lesson One. Doctors Morley and McDonald, our sallow, suited shrinks, don’t care much for tardiness.

Eight a.m. means Treatment. They start with a photo of the man who brought me here, his face a tenderized steak. (I’d wound a bike-chain round my fist.)

“How do these images make you feel?” asks Morley. He’s predictable: pop him and the pus seeps out.

“Remin’ me somethin’,” say I, my tongue still pulpy-thick.

“And what’s that?”

I tell him and he frowns. “Your mother has admitted to fabricating that.” His ink pen hovers in the silence like a bird of prey.

“Libel is a serious crime, young lady,” drones old McDonald, Jell-O jowls aquiver. “Actions have consequences, you know.”

I almost laugh.

II

Eight p.m. means Swallow Two Yellow Pills then Lights Out. Dreams like lurid memories: Women with placards where Momma used to work, their breath-clouds bright in helicopters’ lights; and death-threats in the mail, or sprayed in the shade of our old porch; Momma, down on all fours; and policemen, licking ketchup from sticky pink fingers.

It’s been 115 days since they stole my belt and shaved my head, unlaced my boots, stitched up my face. Lesson Two’s a tough one: Witnesses only count if they’re male and white.

III

When they trial their drugs, McDonald holds me down, his fingers like fronds of curdled milk. They’re obliged to stop when I vomit blood, so vomiting blood is Lesson Three. I’m a pretty quick learner, me.

I lie dribbling, like Momma, all woozy on white sheets. The hospital TV’s abuzz with news – it’s inky-dark and spawning: words swell in gloopy loops and spill, a dribble of crude oil. The curtains flinch as type-bars swing to stamp their pitchy mark:

[A city park, after midnight, below the Mason-Dixon Line.

The carriage-return’s clank makes me jump.

The noise of crickets can be heard beneath a generator’s whirr. Police-cars lend the scene a bluish tinge. Enter CITY WORKER, masked, in helmet and bullet-proof vest. He climbs onto the spot-lit platform of a cherry-picker and slowly ascends.]

Then I’m nobody-knows-where – containers piled tall like the crates of girls in the port, rats between dark stacks, and the statues chanting:

Unstack me

Unwrap me

O take me as your totem!

Then a whispered chorus like the hiss of gas – You-will-not-replace-usssssss! – and a megaphone barking with McDonald’s voice: The beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!

The sentence loops, just like a noose, but the statues can’t applaud: Their hands are bound in bubble-wrap. There’s one so broken that he can’t be fixed. His knees of bronze are buckled. Eyes bulge from his skull and his arms end in wrists; from a twisted red mouth, paint drips. The typewriter clatters its death-rattle:

[Pastoral scene of the gallant South]

A lawmaker said those who did this should be lynched. In caps, he wrote it:

LYNCHED!

One Mississippi Two Mississippi…I’m counting, boy, and progress sure seems slow.

IV

Two p.m. means Quiet Time. On page six of the paper, I spot Mom’s boss. Mental health in the workplace, he says, is a real concern.

I fold it closed.

And breathe. (That’s Lesson Four.)

There’s a kid sitting beside me so I point to the front-page: wildfires bloom in the forest. “They gotta rake it better,” I say. (Morley said that if I’m good, I’ll be on Momma’s ward before I turn sixteen.)

Rake it?” repeats the kid, moving away. “Lady, you crazy.”

They do say it’s genetic – the female line – and I don’t feel so good. My head’s so full of words – on baseball caps and slogan-tees; in rhymes for little girls; in rally-cries and ceaseless tweets and victims’ twisted words; on radio-screens and pod-TV, all insta-bright and streaming – the words, I say, too many words.

Doc gives me a shot of God-knows-what and the day turns densely dark. Then curtain up and bleachers bright: We’re in the trailer, Mom and I; the chants are coming closer. Their banners shriek against the sky, the words bright white on black:

Blood and Soil! Blood and Soil!

Now they’re banging on the walls and door, coiled tight and night-time seething. Pans clatter in the kitchenette and Momma takes my hand. McDonald’s here, with a burning torch, and his head is peaked like piped meringue.

The kid next-door is watching the show. His eyes are big and scared. Please, Pop, he begs, Please make it stop.

The channel flips – he gets his wish – another pastoral scene. A golden field, a cornflower sky. A woman, jogging by. She’s sprinting, now, but it’s no good. They catch her anyhow. Nearby: a pylon, so they fry her. Sweaty meat turns sweet.

Satisfied, they drive to town, plough calmly through a crowd. Protestors raise their hands and cry, O Sweet Lord Jesus, save us! But now they’re on the ground, and leaking heat, their bodies like spent casings.

V

“Don’t cry,” says Mom, and holds me tight, her breath soft on my cheek. Beyond her shoulder, in the sky, words twirl like blazing planes. And bodies, bloodied, swing from trees; kids scream in sandy cages. But this is drowned by wild applause, triumphant cries of glee. When you’re a star, they let you do it – do anything, you see.

And that’s Lesson Five, amidst all this pain: that the future’s just the past – again.


Ali Wilding is an English teacher, originally from the UK, but now living in New York. She is new to creative writing and her debut story appears in Quip Literary Review. She was selected as a finalist in The Iowa Review’s 2019 Short Fiction contest and semi-finalist in American Short Fiction’s 2019 flash fiction competition.

 

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