A Hole Too Small

A poet has an insight as to why she hates zoos, a little girl smiles over a pickle jar of flittering ladybugs, an aunt reclines on a bed to let the pills do their job. Is anyone watching? The poet speculates about human beings in cages, how our captors would provide facilities that best reflect our natural surroundings, like we do for animals in zoos. Put a tree into the cage of a forest-dwelling creature. Put a large rock in with a mountain goat. They would peer into our houses without us knowing it (this is my addition to the poem, the part the poet didn't speak to, the back story) to catch us at living, at doing what we do. Peer in and observe us lounging in leather chairs, eyes glued to a chattering box flashing pictures. In one house they see a fat toddler grapple with a loud-colored plastic toy. In another, adults gathered in a large kitchen sipping from wine glasses, while teenagers sulk in postered rooms pulsing distorted bass guitar.

I imagine the poet in a room lined with bookshelves, crowded with bookshelves, bookshelves overflowing. She will be given a book for her cage. Should beings much larger than myself lift the roof from my house, I fear they will find me in the living room, television blaring, cutting my nails, or in a messy kitchen washing dishes. I fear the eternal company of nail clippers or a washrag. I don't want to be defined by the in-between me.

My aunt owned a convertible and drove it with the top down in the winter so icicles formed on her eyelashes. She was the only Divorce in the family, and she called me Meg when I was Margaret to everyone else. In late summer, there were ladybugs in her backyard. There were ladybugs in her front yard. My aunt had a habit of attracting things: people, objects. In a house filled with objects, I cannot decide what they would have chosen for her cage.

I start in the basement because the volunteers tell me to work from the bottom up, they say it will go faster. I don't need it to go fast. There are thirteen rooms in her house. Thirteen is an unlucky number, but it's not my unlucky number. The unfinished basement is cool and damp. I never played down here. It was haunted back then. His clothes, folded neatly into stacked boxes, labeled and sorted, dusted weekly, reek even more strongly of mothballs. It's the smell and the cool air bringing goose bumps to my bare arms that catapult me back to my seven year old self, peering down the curving wooden staircase into the dark dampness, the damp darkness, daring myself at each step to descend further. The sound of my aunt banging around the kitchen gave me courage until the last step, until the boxes became visible, and the smell crept in through my pores, and the memory of an absent uncle with a booming voice hustled me up the stairs to throw my arms around her waist. I used to imagine he crouched somewhere behind those boxes, engaged in an endless game of hide and seek that my aunt wasn't privy to.

Next to the boxes is the tricycle he bought for me before he left for good, that generic red tricycle with the white streamers on the handlebars that every kid owns. There is a load of wash in the laundry machine, still damp, smelling of mildew. I picture my aunt in her cage with a washer and a dryer but no laundry. I fill up a garbage bag with Christmas decorations. In another go the dusty games from the wooden shelves: Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, Monopoly, Uno, various pieces from various overplayed others. The washer and dryer will go on the truck, as will the freezer, the bike, the rest of the boxes. His clothes can go to Goodwill. I am stopped on the stairs by a thought. Why didn't she finish the laundry first?

On the wall, a star-shaped clock ticks away while I finish the living room and two more bags are filled with half-burnt candles, picture frames, lopsided elementary school pottery. The hall zigzags toward the back of the house. Two bedrooms, a bathroom, one linen closet alive with dust balls. I leave the dust balls. My pocket fills with silver dollars left on a night table in her bedroom, where I stand staring at myself in the full length mirror on the back of her closet door, a black trash bag slung over my shoulder. Inside the closet hang dresses two rows deep. Dark purples, fuchsias, loud oranges, side by side with hand-knit scarves, wrinkled button-down blouses with butterfly collars, ankle-length flowing skirts pleated all the way around. I spun elegant circles in front of this same mirror as a girl admiring my lavish self in her lavish clothes, thinking ahead to a time I wouldn't need pins to keep the dresses from falling off my shoulders. My aunt once stood behind me, piled my hair onto my head and taught me how to pout my lips. She said I was going to be a heartbreaker. She looked into my eyes and then her own before she took her hands from my head and my long hair fell down to my elbows. She said I reminded her of herself. I leave the clock radio and take the jewelry, though I know it will end up in a garage sale. Before I close the closet door I look in the mirror one last time, then climb a set of winding stairs.

"Look at them closely Meg. Watch when they land. Count their spots. More spots, better luck." We were bent over a pickle jar with screwdriver-poked holes in the top. The tiniest ones (finding delight in very small things, these were naturally my favorite) wriggled through the punched holes and flew away. The others, too fat, buzzed from wall to wall, paused, walked a bit, flew in a circle. I picked clover and a handful of grass to place in the bottom of the jar, careful not to let any of the ladybugs escape.

"There's something magical about this jar," my aunt had said. I studied it closely. The ladybugs' wings rustled.

"I don't know what it is, but every time I put something in here and leave it overnight..." she stopped. My eyes must have been as wide as those silver dollars she was always pressing into my hand.

"What?" I asked.

"You'll see," she had said, blowing a goodnight kiss before shutting the door of my room.

The jar is not there when I open the door. The room had been redecorated. All that's left of my childhood is the Strawberry Shortcake sheet set, which I fold carefully and place in a plastic bag to take with me, though I had always preferred Blueberry Muffin and her purple hair.

The third floor bedroom was reserved for my aunt and her ex-husband in case he ever came back. Since I wasn't allowed up there, I had to sneak when she wasn't paying attention, always one step at a time, always heart in my ears. She would be playing music downstairs, Joplin probably, or something folky. Swaying and cooking, always cooking or dusting, always with a look on her face like she knew a secret. As a child, I had mistaken that look as whimsical, reminiscent of the fairies in the bedtime stories she read. As I grew older, she seemed increasingly on the verge of panic, like she had forgotten something very important but couldn't remember what, exactly. After I left for school I realized it wasn't my aunt that had changed, it was my perception of her. During one of our last visits, I asked why she never slept in the third floor bedroom, in that big, comfortable bed. We were sitting at her kitchen table drinking coffee from orange plastic mugs. When she looked at me I saw that age had commandeered her face, the blue eyeshadow and dark rouge she had always worn accentuated her fallen features rather than brightening them. She didn't answer my question about the bed, just stirred her coffee with the end of a spoon and settled further into her chair.

I tiptoe up the wooden staircase. The room has been cleaned, but barely touched. Their wedding picture goes into the bag with the sheets. I turn to the bed, the big bed, I used to call it. It looks small, diminished, like it has receded over the years far into a corner. The bedspread has been stripped, but not the sheets. I look unsuccessfully for her outline. They must have taken that, too.

I think back to that day at the kitchen table and wonder if I could have said or done something to bring her back to me, the aunt I had known as a child, the zany, energetic Aunt draped in vibrant colors. Then I realize that I had only known the in-between Aunt. The poet was given a book for her cage, a book on bicycles, though her shelves were full of Svevo and Kierkegaard. I wonder, would they have left my aunt where she was, surprised to see her already in her cage, surrounded by objects that didn't define her? An image comes to mind of my aunt crawling up the side of a glass jar trying to wiggle out through a hole too small.

I help the volunteers load the bags into the backs of their cars and they thank me, offer me again their condolences, and remind me once more of Saturday's auction. I think of the ladybugs, a night twenty years ago when I first fell asleep to the light tapping of wings against glass, and the next morning waking to silence and running over to find an empty jar. My aunt sat at the kitchen table in rollers buttering burnt toast, humming, like she hadn't heard my stampede down the stairs. I pushed the jar at her, exclaiming, "They're all GONE!" She had barely glanced at it. "Magic," she had said. I caught her late one night several weeks later, out in the middle of the backyard with the jar. I watched her look up at the moon, twist off the lid, and set all of my ladybugs free.

About the author:

Kama Falzoi is currently suffocating in Rochester, New York. Her fiction has appeared on identitytheory.com. Her first novel is hiding in shame somewhere at the back of her closet.