Wool

Mark Labowskie

For our readers, we’re sharing an excerpt from the short story “Wool” by Mark Labowskie, which you can read in its entirety in Issue 121.

Martin exits I-89 before he needs to and progresses town by town. He keeps pulling over to eyeball a fiery spruce or an outcropping of mica, admire quaint inns with ivy wreathed around their VACANCY signs and crumbling breweries offering hard apple cider tastings. He’s eager to reach Tunbridge, but knows anticipation is the greatest pleasure. He stops to buy a mason jar of corn whiskey from a sweet old man on a porch, thinking how happy he’ll be once he reaches Lola and Dot’s barn. Then, realizing his spirits are at that peak where they’re in danger of toppling over into confusion or sadness, he drinks two beers in a gloomy pub. The people here are not part of the world of ivied inns and apple cider tastings; they’re leathery and anonymous, faces raised mutely to the TV, and Martin feels comfortable among them: alone and unseen.

Somewhere, Diana Ross sings, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.”

It’s nearly midnight by the time he arrives. He pries himself free of the car, walks through a hedge, and ends up on grass nibbled to a crew cut. He shivers in his jeans and Wonder Woman T-shirt. This is his third time up to the barn in the thirteen months Lola and Dot have lived here. His first without Eli.

“Martin?” A beam of light bounces up, and Dot’s voice, nervy and excitable—the voice of a mom who stills holds her twelve-year-old’s hand while crossing an intersection—finds him.                                    

“I missed the exit.” He wraps her up and finds he doesn’t want to let go. “Then it was miles before I could turn around. Miles and miles on the lonely road.”

She disentangles. “Ginger’s asleep.”

“On a Friday?”

“Her bedtime’s still ten.”

“I see.” He puts his hands on his hips. “You look swell.”

“I’m checking the girls.”

Well, Ginger’s asleep and it wouldn’t hurt to show an interest in the animals. “I feel instantly at peace,” he says to Dot’s back as they round the barn. “This is like coming to a spa for me. Getting away from the noise and dirt and chaos of the city. Breathing country air.” Jesus, what’s wrong with his voice? Why does it sound so plummy? It was like this when he first came to New York, trying so hard to mask his Kentucky drawl that people thought he was British.

“It’s not a spa for me,” Dot says. “I have a thousand things to do every day. But I love it, you know? The whole day gets used up.” She unlatches a flakey set of doors, and they step into the part of the 1919 Sears-Roebuck barn that’s still a barn. A chorus of bleats and moans abruptly dies down, and the roaming flashlight picks out aggrieved and bemused faces, turning from what might be private conversations. Jo, Matilda, Titania, Galadriel—Ginger got to name them all. Two (Martin doesn’t know which they are) have been shorn, their heads lumpy and desolate atop naked throats.

“Don’t they look sad,” he says.

“The Angoras, yeah. It was time. Wait till you see the house.” Dot completes an inspection of the alcove, then pivots, expecting

Martin to follow. The four goats gaze at him, like they’re waiting for this intruder to offer them something. One of the shaven relents and ambles forward to nudge him with her forehead. Martin scratches the back of her neck, touches the dry nubs on her head where her horns were lopped off in infancy; her rectangular eyes meet his own with equanimity.

“Titania’s headed for auction tomorrow,” Dot says.

“This is Titania I’ve got here?”

“No, that’s Matilda. Titania is one of the Nubians. White nose, pancake ears.”

Ah yes: wide, droopy ears shrouding a rabbity face. “She looks alright to me.”

“She’s a peach, that’s why I can sell her for more than I paid last year. Then we get the floors refinished.”

Dot always has a plan. Standing in muck boots and Army Navy Surplus jacket, chunky black bangs over a lightly pockmarked face, she makes Martin feel languid and spoilt in his campy T-shirt. When Lola first introduced Martin to Dot fifteen years ago, they shared a formal, slightly embarrassed mutual regard. Martin admired her brisk compassion, her way of enlarging whomever she was speaking to via the particular intensity of her concentration. Also, the tattoos of sea anemones and roses crawling up her arms and down her cleavage. Dot, for her part, had been cowed by Martin’s longstanding friendship with Lola, whose moods she was still trying to interpret. During their brief early breakup, Lola had sat for hours on Martin’s fire escape in the hideous frilly nightgown inherited from her hated mother, smoking like a junkie in recovery, enumerating all of Dot’s microscopic flaws: she was insecure about her grammar, she under-tipped, she made fun of the acting in Lola’s beloved Ozu films. Martin defended Dot: “She’s the only person you’ve ever dated who gets up before noon and goes to a job every day. Plus, those lips, that ass.”

The ass is hidden by the coat, but Dot still has full lips, which she gnaws to perpetual dryness, and when on occasion she smiles it can feel thrilling because Dot appears to ration out her joy.

Now she clicks off the flashlight, signaling to Martin it’s time.     

“How is she?” he asks as they leave the barn.

“She’s fine,” Dot says. “The same as always, only more so. She’s been getting more online tutoring students, which is great.” She looks at him. “Wait, who are we talking about?”

“Ginger,” Martin says.

“Oh. She’s good.” As he nears the illuminated kitchen door, she says, “Your stuff.” They return to his car. Dot grabs his suitcase; he grabs the corn whiskey, an assortment of Ronnefeldt tea bags he’s collected from hotels and airport club lounges, espresso beans coated in chocolate and cannabis (these he pockets), and (for Ginger) a small purple digital camera.

Right before they enter the house, Dot adds, “I mean, she’s twelve, what can I say? Her main mission in life is to make me feel sad all the time.” Then she unleashes a burst of laughter: “I can hardly wait for the teenage years!”

“Where the hell have you been?” greets him when he enters the hot, bright kitchen. Lola and Sadie bear down, Sadie’s nails clacking on the tiled floor, Lola Medusa-haired, wearing sneakers and—yes, it’s true—the same ancient nightgown, dotted with pastel-blue figs.

The kitchen suggests a losing battle with the forces of chaos. Books, mail, and notepads are stacked up on the table; mugs and dishes line the counter that borders three-quarters of the room; sweaters and scarves in festive shades dangle from wire hangers attached to cabinets, exposed beams, and pipes; two deep sinks hold knotted masses of wool soaking in cloudy water; on the stove, a cauldron bubbles.

“Wrong exit, wrong exit,” Martin pleads as Sadie invades his crotch.

“Where’s Eli?” Lola asks. She hugs him, not noticing the gifts she crushes against his chest.

“Have you been checking this?” Dot says, lowering the flame under the cauldron. “It shouldn’t be boiling.”

“There’s a deadline for some kind of fellowship or grant approaching, some kind of starving-artist pesos…”

Always get the last word.

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This was within the realm of truth—Eli was always deciding at the last minute that he was good enough to apply for such things. Still, Martin hopes Lola will call him on his lie, will drag the truth into the light just as she once took him by the hand and dragged him down Avenue B, back when he was newly arrived, twenty-seven but barely out of the closet. Instead she inspects his offerings.

“She’ll go nuts,” she says, rubbing her thumb over the camera’s face. “It’s a shame you’re so late. Are you starving?”

“I just put everything away,” Dot says.

“There’s chocolate cheesecake.” Lola starts shifting items around in the packed fridge. “Honey, why is the cake way in the back when we’re not going to be using this corn till Sunday?”

Dot drags hunks of dripping wool out of the sink and into the pot.

Martin sits on the one available chair. Really, he just wants to go to bed and see Ginger in the morning. His voice is annoying him, the kitchen is too warm, it smells of vinegar and animal oil and—piss? In fact, he notices now, as Sadie retreats to a berth of towels in the corner, the Irish Setter is wearing a makeshift diaper composed of a sanitary napkin, safety pins, and strips of old denim.

“My God, Sadie.”

“Believe it or not,” Lola says, presenting him with a brick of cake on a paper plate, “she received a traumatic brain injury last month that has left her with no control of her bowels. Oh, you need a fork, don’t you? Well, I would clean one, but both sinks are currently occupied. We’re at T-minus ten hours here for llama fest 2015.”

“A traumatic brain injury?”

Dot pours something from a plastic jug into her steaming pot. She stirs the wool with a butter knife.

“She was riding in Marge Hasselbeck’s truck,” Lola says. She pauses for a moment to stare at Dot’s back. “Did you meet her at Ginger’s birthday? Lives about a mile down the road. Our closest neighbor. And her son looks, I swear, the spitting image of Julyana: all otherworldly and translucent. Unfortunately, he’s a real moron. This little boy, I mean.” (Julyana was a drag queen, videographer, and fire eater Martin and Lola had been vaguely friends with a million years ago.) “Anyway, Marge offers to drive Sadie to the vet in Bethel because I’m Skyping with a sixteen-year-old in Jakarta about her college application essay and Dot has gotten herself roped into doing costumes for the school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof.” She presents him with a pair of disposable chopsticks in a paper sleeve. “This is the best I can offer.”

“Sadie,” Martin says.

“There’s no dignity in getting older. Remember what a fiend she used to be for popcorn? Remember how she used to touch your face to wake you up when you were stoned?”

Of course, Martin remembers these things. He was with Lola that summer day on East 12h when she traded a sixteen-year-old drug dealer her Olivetti typewriter for the indefatigable puppy.

She clears a chair and sits opposite him as he pierces his cake with chopsticks. Dot sifts brown powder into her pot, stirring slowly. She’s making…what? More Technicolor wool to hawk at the llama fest tomorrow, along with the sweaters and scarves (and poor Titania). Dot having transformed herself in a year’s time from a librarian at P.S. 107 in Brooklyn into a rustic mohair artisan. “It might not be the greatest timing,” Lola had said on the phone when Martin proposed this visit. She invoked the llama fest, which didn’t strike Martin as a particularly urgent cause, not compared to the death throes of his relationship with Eli. Which he decided then not to mention.

Lola unscrews the mason jar, sniffs, grimaces, tips some whiskey into two not-totally-clean-looking teacups that happen to be on the table. “You want to get in on this action?” she calls over to Dot.

“I literally don’t have a free second,” Dot says.

Martin has stumbled into arctic moments between Lola and Dot before: how can one not, with any couple? Normally, he would subtly support Lola, even if he didn’t know what the fight was about, enjoying the covert authority of predating Dot in Lola’s life. It was only during the period of time in which Dot was pregnant with Ginger, growing larger with Martin’s child, only for those months did Martin’s alliances unexpectedly shift; for nine months Dot was right about everything; for nine months Martin was in love with her body; he felt its swellings and aches, caught the flickers of ambivalence Lola thought she was concealing. Dot had been elected to carry the child because she was, after all, seven years younger than Martin and Lola, but what Martin hadn’t expected was that the pregnancy, rather than drawing him closer to Lola, would for the first time in their acquaintance lead him away.

“That stupid bitch wasn’t watching the road,” Lola says, speaking of the woman with the dumb son. “She went into a pothole, Sadie’s head hit the roof of the car.”

“It was an accident,” Dot says. “Marge feels terrible. She’s paid all the vet bills.”

“I’d’ve sued otherwise. She’s also been baking us an unending series of cheesecakes, as you can see.”

“It’s more than you could expect in New York.”

“And she’s having cognition issues. Her balance is off.”

“Her balance was off before. She’s thirteen.”

Martin isn’t feeling an alliance with either woman right now. Their voices sound small and peevish, and he’s picturing his father having to wear a diaper. He talks about his job as a communications director at an LGBT community health center. He somehow ended up as this unglamorous agent of good after years and years of jobs that served mainly to fund his social life, and though he likes the work he can’t seem to convey that fact to other people; the words seem jittery and defensive (I love it! I really do!). Lola goes over to the stove to interrogate Dot about Dot’s plans for the rest of the evening (“You don’t have time to knit anything more, sweetie. Who’s going to buy a random bale of purple wool?”), and as they bicker Ginger appears in the archway leading to the hall. It jolts him; it always does. Ginger has Martin’s father’s square grim jawline, and Martin’s mother’s vivid, unmanageable curls. She has Martin’s tan freckles spattering her nose. He hadn’t imagined that looking at your child would be like seeing a series of ghosts nesting inside one another, matryoshka-style. Dot must see her own series of ghosts. He smiles shyly at Ginger. She bulges her eyes, and he realizes they’re in a staring contest. He doesn’t move. She’s wearing track pants and a fuzzy, eggshell-colored sweater that’s way too big, sleeves drooping over hands, collar swelling around her chin. Regarding his daughter in this transient shell of privacy, before the two women turn from the stove, Martin feels obliterated by love. Ginger snorts like a stalled car.

Once noticed, she seizes center stage. She wants to see her camera, wants to have some cake, wants to show Martin the list, tacked to the fridge, she and Dot have compiled of all the bird species they’ve observed in the last month. Pie-billed grebe. Northern fulmar. Common grackle. Glossy ibis. Dovekie. She wants to take pictures of the adults, but both Martin and Lola howl and cover their faces; only Dot submits unreservedly, standing by the stove with steaming fistfuls of purple wool, breasts untethered behind a shirt that reads Queen of the Fucking Universe.

“Doesn’t the water hurt your hands?” Ginger asks.

“Yeah,” Dot says, “but my hands have developed an all-over callous. Wanna feel my crusty hand pads?”

“No!” Ginger runs over to Martin’s chair. Impossible though it is, Ginger resembles Lola more than anyone: her pale angularity, her reedy voice, her predilection for dominating a room. Lola slouching into a bar and lighting up in a corner, selecting the object or objects of her attention for that evening and drawing them unerringly to her post.

Ginger helps herself to a chunk of Martin’s cake. “Do you have Sia on your phone?” she asks. “Can we listen to ‘Chandelier’?”

“I have Katy Perry.”

“I don’t like her anymore.”

“Bedtime,” Dot says.

Ginger frowns at Martin. “Where are your glasses?”

“Ah,” Martin says, pleased she caught this. “I finally got Lasik.”

“That’s so dangerous,” Ginger says.

“No!” Lola says. “I loved you in glasses.”

Ginger picks up Lola’s teacup. “Are you guys getting drunk?”

“Will you please get out of here?” Dot says, snaring her fingers in Ginger’s hair.

“I have to show Martin the ducks.”

“They’ll be there in the morning,” Lola says.

“Do you notice anything, Mom? They feed at night when it’s cold.”

“It’s wet and freezing out,” Dot says. “No way.”

“I wouldn’t mind—” Martin says.

“You see!” Ginger cries, vindicated.

“Guys,” Dot says.

“Oh, let them go,” Lola says, but they’re already going.

She takes him to the hallway, which is lined with buckets of frothy white wool. Ginger chooses a blue nylon jacket from a peg and gives Martin a black-and-white woven hoodie of vaguely indigenous design. “Dot calls this a drug rug,” she says. “Like, I guess, a drug dealer would wear it? I don’t think that’s very funny.”

He doesn’t tell her he wore similar sweatshirts in the ’90s—maybe even this sweatshirt—after he’d moved to the East Village and Lola had begun to effect her transformation of him. From the front door the arc of Ginger’s flashlight progresses down a hillside. She doesn’t speak, intent on the project of navigating the darkness, and her stride is bold and arrhythmic, the length of her legs not yet synced up with the rest of her body. She’s taller than when Martin saw her last, two months ago. She’s going to be tall, he realizes, like him. This should be exciting, but all it does is make him think of how else she might have changed in two months. What else he might get wrong. She hates Katy Perry now, for instance. Outside the zone of the flashlight the whole world is dark and dripping, full of rasps and shuffles and the gradually perceptible rush of the creek. She lowers the flashlight’s intensity and cautiously scans from left to right. There are at least a dozen ducks in the inch-deep water, some with their heads thrust under the surface, others patrolling from rock to rock, muttering, asses swinging.

“You think it’s wrong to spy?” Ginger whispers. “Maybe we should give them privacy,” he says.

By unspoken agreement, they don’t turn back but wander further along the creek. Above, the stars form a pale, gritty ocean.

“Are you excited about the llama festival?”

“They make them perform tricks,” she says. “Literally jump through hoops. It’s demeaning.”

“They might enjoy that, you think?”

“I do not.” She kicks the ground.

Lola and Dot purchased five acres, and save for Dot’s vegetable garden and wherever the goats’ mobile pen happens to be parked that day, the land is Ginger’s to roam and catalog, imbue with fantasy. That was part of the goal in moving out here: relieve her from the psycho competitiveness of city schools. Not, Martin has to remind himself, to get her away from him.

“What are you studying these days?” he asks.

“Oh—” Massive sigh. “The beginning of civilization. Tigris and Euphrates. The Fertile Crescent.”

“Sure. I remember those. Do you like that stuff?”

“It’s hard to believe people were alive so long ago, doing the same nasty things people do today.”

The harshness of these words catches him by surprise. He can’t tell how serious she is.

“It might seem that way,” he says, “particularly when you turn on the news. But the truth is the world has changed in so many ways, for the better, since I was your age.”

“Mostly I just put a book inside my textbook and read. Last week I finished Middlemarch. I’ve read all the Brontë sisters. Emily and Anne are awesome, Charlotte is a pill.”

“Right…” He hasn’t read any of those books.

“Sadie’s going to die soon. It’ll be my first death. Not even a grandparent.”

“Well, now, that’s not true. There was my mother who died last year. She was your grandmother.”

She glances at him. “Yeah, but I never met her.”

All these years, he has treated the exact nature of their relationship with massive circumspection, as if Ginger hadn’t been told as soon as she was old enough about the crucial role Martin had played in her formation. He never uses the word “daughter” around her, around Dot and Lola—he uses it in his head. He’d signed a paper that rendered her nothing to him.

They walk on in the buzzy, insecty hum.

“Poor Sadie,” he says, thinking about his father, whom he saw for the first time in two decades at his mother’s funeral. Now his sister’s weekly phone calls report the old man’s unvarying condition.

“Lola’s lost so much weight, haven’t you noticed? I think she’s smoking again. And Dot’s gained. It’s like a dance.”

“Maybe Dot is a vampire,” he says.

“Oh, please.” They come to a stop at the edge of a meadow, glossy in the moonlight. Ginger inspects her elbow. “I think something bit me.” She looks at him. “There’s this boy at school named Roy Cowans who offers girls twenty dollars to send him pictures of their vagina.”   

“My God,” Martin says, and wants to say, You must tell someone, but recognizes this is what her moms would say. Settles for: “That’s terrible.”

“He’s never asked me,” Ginger says. “He knows I would punch his face in. He’s such a stupid little dickhead.”

This assertiveness, this confidence, this is Dot and Lola. He stands there, watching her blurry outline in the dark, in wonder. He traps a yawn in the back of his throat—doesn’t want her to ever doubt that he always wants to spend time with her.

“Why isn’t Eli here?” she asks.

“We broke up, dear. It ended.”

“Why?”

That night on the Brooklyn Promenade, the candied sunset, Eli lowering himself to one knee, his long serious face aglow with hope: I want to spend the rest of my life …Christ, he was twenty-eight—where did he get those balls from?

“I’m not really a great boyfriend,” Martin says.

“You’re so nice.”

Nice! That there is a person in this world who thinks of him as simply “nice.” To hide his happiness, he dissembles anguish, rubbing his brow. Whoa, whoa, whoa—what’s the rush? We just moved in together.

What was the rush? Well, he was fifty-two, for starters…

“I’m really sorry,” she says. And then, as if he’d asked her this out loud: “Don’t worry. I won’t tell them.”

They start to walk back to the barn. He feels cozy inside the drug rug, which retains the greasy animal scent of the entire barn.

“I am nice,” he says. “But, sometimes, you can be nice instead of saying what’s on your mind. Or nice instead of trying to listen to the other person.”

She nods; this might make sense to a twelve-year-old. “I know people like that. Fake nice.”

“Do you hate it here?” he asks.

“I love it. I don’t care if I never see New York again.”

“It’s your hometown.”

She shrugs. “I wish we didn’t have to exploit animals. Taking the ducks’ eggs, the mohair. Why should we own them? Why should we steal from their bodies?”

“I bet your moms love that kind of talk.”

“I convinced them not to electrify the mobile pen. Galadriel chewed through the wire three times. I’d miss her, but I want her to be free.”

“You’ll be saying bye to Titania soon enough.”

She stops. “What?”

Somehow he’d known this was being kept a secret from her—had known, perhaps, even when Dot was telling him in the barn. And he couldn’t resist exerting his influence in this tiny way. As if to say: I am a part of the family, too.

To read “Wool” in its entirety, you can order a copy of Issue 121 from the Shop page.

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