Zero is a Seashell
My husband and I are hangover-late to Bob and Starla’s garage sale, and hungry to see the house they bought. We got married earlier this year so I say husband a lot when I mean Michael.
All the most beautiful parts of the house come from audio engineer Bob’s hands and artist Starla’s head. Drying blood-colored window frames with rippling glass that splinters the late summer light. Open-angled shelves for Starla’s harrowed paintings. Michael and I exchange smiles that mean Damn, we’re never going to live like this, are we.
Bob says How’s not drinking going? to my husband, who’s gone twenty days, except one, without. Right now, it’s okay. Like the first few underwater seconds of held breath.
No one comes to the garage sale.
Around back, Bob and his stepson Zander have built a slip ’n slide down their steep backyard hill: a 70-ft blue tongue of staked tarps clamped to ladder railings, its tip a curved ramp above an inflatable pool. Looking down its length, I feel gravity’s tug.
Steepness and height didn’t rattle me when I was young. We lived near a park dominated by a massive concrete slide. At its base were always cardboard scraps to slide on. We never brought our own. It was exhilarating, hissing over smooth cement until your speed approaching the end forced your eyes shut.
My younger siblings were born one year and one day apart. When they turned six and seven their birthday party swelled with children who crashed into and bounded away from each other beyond the slide’s shadow, screamed and giggled up and down its pyramid steps.
No kids are around now, so we go to a bar for lunch. Michael sits apart from us, crushing it at Ms. Pac-Man. Something between worry and anticipation wells up as I swallow my gin. He announces, I’ve decided to have a drink. It is relief, like falling. He wants it to be different this time. Later he says I thought about taking a secret shot but wanted to tell you instead, because you’re my wife.
When we return to the house, some wigs are gone. A few dollars unwrinkle in the money jar and Zander drives back from his teenage errands ready to slide. He inflates and fills the sagging pool as Starla and I wobble inside, explains there’s no way this pool will burst, it is physically impossible. We shriek at the water our bodies splash over the electric pump he is waving and teasing us with.
Bob and Star’s other son is twelve and doesn’t eat much more than birdseed when he’s home between hospital stays. He’s with his biological dad. In his kiddo handwriting, dust on the car outside says the end is nier.
On the slide’s highest steps, I painted flowers and spidermans on younger kids’ faces. Eventually Justin, a blond loose acquaintance, climbed up with a girl whose bobbed hair was electric box dye red. They were older, seemed like boyfriend and girlfriend. She rolled a pepsi can down the slide and chirped Go get it!
They were both grinning when Justin flew down in pursuit. He reached, slid wildly off course, and spun with his arms out. His twirling slowed, he stopped at the bottom and didn’t move. The party sounds receded. Strange to see all those people and hear nothing.
From my perch I watched a frantic man—Justin’s father?—pump his hands on the boy’s chest, creating waves across the pale skin of his exposed belly.
Further up the hill, Bob cuts my husband’s hair. He flits, slices and rearranges with the same delicate focus he gives Michael’s music. Seven years ago when I drove to Seattle from Sacramento to spend the night with Michael, he sent Bob to keep me company until band practice was over. We drank whiskey, talked about my dead brother and his dead father.
Stretched out in Starla’s bikini with the 5pm sun beating my skin, I sip a boozy huckleberry something. Not for the first or last time I feel the space in me, like the empty seashell that was the Maya symbol for zero, where I could grow a child.
Papi traces us to the Olmecs, who influenced Maya writing and math. They knew of zero, knew there was nothing and no anything without that nothing. That Michael isn’t struggling not to drink, but struggling to drink nothing. That to be alive is the moment of hovering between slick blue tarp and re-inflated pool.
Justin was twelve when the undiagnosed heart condition killed him on the concrete slide. I wrote a poem about him, went back to my third-grade classroom and kept it folded in my pocket all day.
The only evidence of the incident I can find is in the town’s wiki. Someone wrote in the 1990’s a kid with a heart condition went down the slide, had a heart attack half-way down, and died. In other words, some caution is occasionally advisable.
After Zander squirts yellow Dawn all over the tarp, Bob lets his stepson push him on an inner tube. His foot bangs hard into one of the ladder-rails along the side, and one of the big clamps holding tarp to rail whirls into the air. Michael and I feel its impact through the dirt and wide-eye each other as Bob dips gracefully into the water.
It is a marvel how they land every time. How Bob’s thin hands in his wiry frame that Michael points out could be Zander’s in thirty years propel this kid, belly down and pointed like Superman, over dish soap and hosewater.
I don’t breathe as Bob builds speed for Zander. I wait for an ankle to snap, a tumble off the ramp, bone, blood, for the pain and fear. I see my husband. Zander cruises to the bottom of the slide, flies straight up, and hovers forever above the crooked pool.
Lauren Lavín’s work appears in Triangle House Review, HAD, Jarnal Vol.1 (Mason Jar Press), Sundog Lit, The Hard Times: The First 40 Years (Mariner Books), Reductress, and elsewhere. She is nonfiction editor for Word West Revue and managing editor for interactive fiction anthology Los Suelos, CA.