I was assaulted the following morning by my mom’s paintings and my new partner. I wasn’t technically assaulted by Anthony, unless I considered his barking at me over the morning coffee as physically harmful to my ears. And the paintings—they assaulted me with sadness.
After Anthony finished ranting about how the coffee I’d made tasted like road tar, he drenched his bedroom carpet with it while madly searching through his boxes for missing files. To be accurate, I searched through the boxes, and he wielded the box cutter, slashing at the packing tape with ferocity. When the search yielded nothing but Anthony’s personal items, he stalked outside and slammed the door.
I refilled my coffee cup and washed up the breakfast dishes. I made a to-do list that didn’t include cleaning the new mess in his room: call lab, study paintings, mail letter to my parents, listen to messages on their answering machine, study paintings again . . .
Outside, it was another hot, sky-blue day. From the kitchen window, I could see Anthony in the bare front yard, pacing back and forth with his phone glued to his ear. He bit his nails while he paced. He spit on the ground and pulled the cap from his head and slammed it back on. Clearly, he was agitated.
Heat and agitation were unpleasant bedfellows, as Anthony and I both knew, because he’d turned off the cooler the night before. The muggy air that blew from the cooler now reeked of burning rubber, which meant Anthony needed to repair it.
I looked at my list. I couldn’t call the lab—Anthony was monopolizing the phone. Paintings—what else could I see in them that I hadn’t already seen? My mom’s paintings were bold and clean, rather than intricate. Secrets didn’t hide themselves well in her perfect layering that allowed for luminescent color. Even the ruby butterfly, almost photographic in its beauty, shone from within, as though light emanated from inside the board. And to describe the butterfly’s coloring as ruby was a stretch. Her wings were pink.
I skipped to the third duty on my list and pulled on my running shoes. I would now make a second attempt to mail my parents one pathetic plea for help. Since it was still morning for another few minutes, and therefore not the hottest part of the day, I managed to jog most of the way to the nearest postal box. When I returned, Anthony no longer paced the yard. His truck was gone and, I assumed, his phone with it.
I cursed him, and then repented of my sin. Cursing my neighbor could not be construed as loving. Besides that, all caring aside, I had myself to consider. My life was too enmeshed with his to desire him ill-fate. For example, his home was now mine as well.
“Bless you, Anthony,” I said, and marked a check beside my one accomplishment. I nearly added make lunch to my list when I saw Angelica’s sedan pull in the drive. She stepped out, dressed in her waitress black and white and carrying a take-out bag. I opened the door for her.
“Lunch delivery! You wouldn’t believe how many people I had to call to find this address.”
“And you don’t know how much I needed this,” I told her, my eyes tearing up.
“Yes I do. Are you living here? Your brother said you weren’t at his place.”
I found melamine plates in the cupboard and set the table with them and a few pieces of mismatched silverware. “It’s only temporary.”
“I know.” She unpacked the lunch boxes, opened them, and scooped out Manuela’s smothered burritos with beans and rice on the side.
I loved Angelica. I loved her for not arguing with me about the wisdom of living with my boss. And that was not to mention lunch. “When do you have to be at work?”
She looked at her watch. “In an hour. I have to work the dinner shift tonight.”
“Will you listen to my parents’ answering machine with me before you go? I’ve been putting it off because it scares me.”
“Why do you have . . .? Should I even ask?”
She nodded, and we fell to eating. Because of her time constraint, I ate my entire plate of food in five minutes. Angelica ate half of hers so the other half wouldn’t end up on her thighs, and then she followed me into the living room.
I held my breath as I placed the machine in the middle of the desk. I unwound the cord and plugged it in. When I breathed again, I smelled the chile from our lunch, and it gave me comfort.
“They could be meaningless,” I said.
“Or not. Press play, Ella.”
The first was dead space—as well as the second and the third. The fourth was a woman called Carlina begging money for the police fund. On the fifth, sixth and seventh, I finally noticed a pattern. My parents had run away months ago, yet they had only nine messages, all of which were recorded within the last week or so. The eighth crackled with dead space. I was ready to stop the ninth in the midst of nothingness, until I heard a faint voice. It sounded like Victor’s.
I rewound it and played it again to catch the exact time and date. If the machine’s clock was accurate, Victor had recorded his message within hours of his death. And all I could hear of it was Tell Ella. Tell me what?