Untrue Things by Cezarija Abartis

Agnes thought Sherisse was the smartest person in her eighth-grade class. The prettiest too, with her shiny yellow hair. Agnes’s own hair was mouse-brown. When she grew older, she figured she would dye it, maybe red, but her mother wouldn’t allow it now, “You’re not a slut.”

“Girls who dye their hair aren’t automatically sluts.”

“The next thing they want is tattoos of hearts and motorcycles and skulls. They want their tongues tattooed.”

Agnes swallowed hard. “I’ve never heard of that.”

“Oh, yes. It’s a fact. Now go wash the dinner dishes.”

Agnes slumped to the sink. Outside the window, as the sun was setting, she could see all the signs on the lawns for Nixon and on one lawn a sign for Hubert Humphrey. She wasn’t much for politics.

“Your father and I raised you to be a good girl, a lady, and someday a scientist, or an artist.”

“I don’t even like art.” But she sort of did. She rinsed the plate under the faucet, which hissed when she first turned it on. The remnants of the pigs-in-the-blanket had some of the colors of an Andy Warhol painting. Her mother used Campbell’s tomato soup for the sauce. The cabbage strips slipped off into the strainer. She’d have to clean that later when it became yucky sludge.

“Or a musician.”

“I hate practicing piano.” The lady across the street bent down to pet her dog. “Woof,” Agnes imagined him saying. The trees had lost most of their leaves.

“Look what happened to Mrs. McDonald’s Roxane.”

“What?”

“She broke her arm.”

“So?”

“She won’t be able to play until it heals. But you’re lucky. You can practice right now.”

Agnes glanced toward the living room, where the upright spinet with its battered and peeling veneer sat. “I hate the piano. Hate it. Hate it.”

“People that play the piano live longer. Look at Liberace — he died at the age of one hundred and five.”

“He’s still alive.”

“And Picasso, too, the artist.”

“I would hate to do something I hated for one hundred and five years.”

Her mother put a chipped plate into the dishpan. “Your father works in a factory. Would you like to do that? Breathe hot fumes all day long? He loves you and works hard for you, so you don’t have to work in a factory. You’re lucky you’re a girl. You won’t be sent to Vietnam.”

“And here I thought they needed piano players.”

“Don’t be such a smart-off.”

Agnes smoothed her hair, but her hand was wet. “Someday, I would like to have red hair, or blond hair. Like Sherisse.”

“That girl is not who you want to be.”

“She is, she is.”

“Her mother had an abortion. I heard the baby wasn’t the husband’s.”

“You don’t know that. How do you know that?”

“Mrs. Nilson told me.”

Agnes waved her wet hand. “Mrs. Nilson also believes the world is flat.”

“Even so, she could still be right about some things. A person isn’t one hundred percent one thing. One hundred percent stupid about everything.”

“I wish people wore signs that said what percent they are. Fifty percent honest, twenty-five percent kind, twenty-five percent hardworking.” Agnes rinsed a plate.

“Honey, you’re all those things.”

“But nobody asked me to the Halloween Dance. Some of us girls had to dance with each other. No boy danced with me.”

“They’re shy. They will. You wait and see.”

“Jimmy asked Sherisse to dance.”

“When I was your age…”

“I don’t want to hear about how you didn’t have a car, you cleaned out the stalls, you twisted the heads off the chickens.”

“That’s not what I was going to say. I was going to say I dreamed about having a family, falling in love, and having a baby girl, just like you. Someone kind, pretty, smart.”

“I’m none of those things. I hate myself. Sherisse is beautiful and smart.”

“You are too, honey. You’ll be a famous journalist, or lawyer and deal with facts. You’ll see I was right. You’re our Cinderella.”

A dish slipped from her fingers in the lukewarm water. “I should have never been born.”

“Don’t you dare say that.” Her mother leaned into Agnes and put her cheek on her cheek. “What would your father and I do without you? How could we live?”

“You could get a dog.” Across the street, the neighbor lady walked ahead of her schnauzer.

“Untrue things can be true sometimes.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“The world is flat. But, of course, it’s not. And yet it is. We don’t fly off the planet. But we do fly above it. Although I’ve never been in a plane.” Her mother said this wistfully, took off her apron. “I know you will. Children go farther than their parents. And that’s good.”

“I’ll live here forever in this kitchen. I’ll be an ugly old maid.”

“I’m telling you truths to live by. Someday you’ll be thankful.”

“Someday. Someday.” Agnes dried her hands on the towel, patted her damp skirt. Across the street, the schnauzer trotted joyfully. “Someday.”

 

Cezarija Abartis has published a collection, Nice Girls and Other Stories (New Rivers Press) and stories in Bennington Review, FRiGG, matchbook, and New York Tyrant, among others. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012 and “To Kiss a Bear” was selected for Wigleaf’s Longlist 2016. Her flash “Sisters” was selected by Amber Sparks for Best Microfiction 2021. Recently she completed a crime novel.

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