From The Bottom to the Top

By Adam Michael

I had overheard her telling the beautician this dreadful tale, while she endured an equally horrid and frightfully archaic therapy—I suppose even for the 1940s. She struggled to speak properly while undergoing a freckle freezing procedure. Her eyes had been covered with airtight plugs, her nostrils filled in for her health and protection from the carbon dioxide. Unsettling as it was to watch, the beautician confidently delivered the poison to the unwanted spots, through a stainless-steel tube, attached to a plastic tube and a blue cylinder gas-bottle.

I regret that, on that morning, I was not in a position to take notes as I listened in.  My hair had been tied up in a mess of thick heated wires, where the electrical current hummed away at my ears. I was concerned that this was going to do damage to the applied synthetic colouring, which cost me considerably. My beautician reassured me that it would not damage the colour: ‘In thirty minutes you will have the adored appearance of Cora Sue Collins.’ I didn’t care for Cora Sue’s later career but liked her in her 1932 debut The Unexpected Father. My hair would be curled like hers and so I didn’t rebuke the beautician’s well-intentioned comment.

Her home, as the freckled woman had said, was a ramshackle of tiled porous roof that leaked when the sky merely drizzled. Framed by oxidised iron and wood that had been chewed by three species of wood-boring beetle, its lumber bowed and flexed, even where the structure bore the least weight. The cracked bricks and mortar showed where the home had repositioned, over four decades in the dampened sarcoline matte-toned clay. The windows, with time, had accumulated grime, hazing it as if the humidity prepped to consume the structure that neither she nor her husband desired to own. She supposed that is why Barret had taken the news of the missed win in the state lottery, of April 1947, so badly to his heart.

On the day she received the news, she had been rehearsing with her eldest child. He practised his one and only line for the third semester school production of Stuart Little. His teacher had artfully condensed the concert down from a gruelling fifteen-minute calamity to just three minutes of live pre-schooler storytelling, filled with suppressed coy singing, hurdled and random jumping, and bewildered laughter from their parents. ‘I can’t believe I’m arguing with lunch!’ the boy said. She ushered her son into another recital when she noticed through the stained sepulchral window a vehicle that was not familiar. It was Officer Jameson’s own private vehicle. His only allocated police car was having mechanical work completed for the second time in a week, each visit having something major replaced and this time it had been the master cylinder.

Sombre and unassured by his own unproven abilities to be consolatory and empathetic, the constable handed her a Polaroid, but first warned her of the portrait it held. She processed his words and her body’s physical functions seemed to slow as she did. Cool air pulled inwards where it furrowed into her airways. She felt each breath now. In her mouth, it found the nerve of her left incisor that had been cracked by her Aunt Christina’s gold ring two decades earlier. It had been a Christmas hug gone terribly wrong. Her mind was boggled by her husband’s closing expression captured in the Polaroid that had been taken at the morgue.

‘A smile or a smirk?’ she asked the officer, whom she knew—via small-town chatter—had recently passed his nineteenth birthday. He was, peculiarly, eager to tell her that the forensic pathologist noted this also and had said it was neither.

He believed it to be what he termed a twinkle. ‘A twinkle?’ she asked. The word twinkle is not to be associated with death, she thought.

‘Yes, a twinkle,’ he said.

He dug his index and tall finger into the top pocket of his uniformed t-shirt to retrieve a notepad from where he then tucked the photograph taken from the morgue.

‘Doctor Rumbery had explained that a twinkle forms when the urge or desire to smile is lost. Usually caused by prolonged situational disappointment followed, very suddenly, by an unexpected throw of excitement. And so, what he described to be a twinkle can form to replace more palatable expressions, which as kin to the deceased you may have grown accustomed to or are more likely to associate with them.’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I have never heard of such a thing.’

She felt around the couch with her hand, then lifted a suede purse out from the deep gap in the cushion. Within it, tucked and folded was a tram ticket and a photo of her late husband—a more palatable expression on his face.

‘Do you mind if I take that?’ he asked. She obliged.

Officer Jameson, whose experience in such circumstances of tragedy was as green as her mossy covered windows, realised he had said too much and so deferred her thoughts towards questions of investigatory matters. Only after he realised his state-sanctioned authority wouldn’t suffice in instilling confidence in her, he cleared his throat and deepened the pitch of his words.

‘Had your husband attempted before?’ he asked. Powerfully affected by her reflection to his question, she waited a moment before answering him.

‘The first time that I noticed the anomaly, I warned him of it. I told him that one day he would likely pay dearly for it,’ she said.

Her paled, flushed countenance sketched to him the emotions she inwardly tussled. As too did the reddened area under the eyes where, to him, tears were noticeably missed. Her hands were two strained balls of tensed anxiety. Her forearms cramped up and betrayed her emotions through the taut muscles.

‘Oh, and what was this anomaly?’ he asked.

It had been raining from first light on the day her husband took his life and Officer Jameson’s dark blue slicker jacket was still gleaming from the moisture it had caught on the walk between his car and her porch. Most of the rainwater carried by it now soaked into her sofa. Lesser things had set her to anger, but now she wasn’t inclined to notice or care.

‘More of a deviation than an anomaly, but I suppose you could use both words to describe it,’ she said. She put her finger to the air, not ten centimetres from his face, and drew a great big B.

‘Was that a B or an 8?’ he asked.

‘Exactly the point,’ she said. ‘My husband would write his B’s, starting first at the bottom moving then to the top of the letter. I told him that it distorted them—warped them and made them hard to decipher between the letter B and the number 8.’

Officer Jameson was perplexed and flummoxed and thought on his next question carefully. ‘Are you telling me that your husband—’

‘Yes.’

‘—because he starts his B’s from the bottom?’

‘He had entered the state lottery,’ she said, ‘and when his winning ticket was drawn the scrutineers had struggled to decode my husband’s B and so moved to the next successive ticket-entry. Not only did the name on his driver’s licence not match his lottery entry but they had also found a discrepancy in his winning numbers. It contained both numeric and alphabetic characters. Referring to his 8, they’d believed it to be a B.’ Officer Jameson’s face sunk, as he slid back into the chair his slicker jacket squeaked.

‘Suppose that explains the twinkle then,’ he said.

She’d told the beautician—between carbon dioxide burns—that if time truly did heal grief, then two weeks hadn’t been near enough time. It was her first attempt at grief and she wouldn’t have been glad for any more practice. ‘I’ve purchased a puppy,’ she proclaimed.

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