The Other Susana
Carl and I sit in folding chairs at the Café du Nord, thighs touching. Ostensibly we are companionable, but the last thing I said to Carl before the show started was if he wasn’t going to do a thing to help, he could stop patting me all the damn time.
The Burlap Slackers are a husband-and-wife cowpunk act. Wild West types in red velvet and corduroy. The husband has one of those syrupy, bottomless baritone voices I could tip my chair into. Disappear.
The tech bros in the audience continue to talk though the show has begun; which reminds me, things are going badly with our son. Thor is 20 and living in South America. His texts are infrequent but specific. Here is a photo of the redheaded, size-zero mother of his girlfriend, who is “an actual grifter!” Now, he is writing a choose-your-own-adventure book about his drug dealing experiences. Now he is breaking up with his girlfriend. Now he needs money for rehab.
At home, a hole remains in the wall above our fireplace. I have covered the hole with an oil painting of a sea captain I bought at Thrift Town. But I left visible the daubs of blood on the mantle, the words, “Fuck off” in pencil on the brick hearth.
Carl gives me a happy little punch on the arm and sucks back the last of his 7&7. The Burlap Slackers really are so good. Between songs, the wife, Susana Creosote, tells the audience about the courtyard complex where they lived in Philadelphia. That winter, she says, there was always some crazy person or another in the courtyard, yelling in their underpants. Now she and her husband live in the tallest building in Bisbee, Arizona, she says. The house’s turrets are sharpened to razor points.
There are two Susanas. The one at work is a waxy-skinned receptionist Thor’s age. This morning, she told me she went through two canisters of asthma inhaler her first week at work. On Susana’s first day, HR issued an e-mail memo to the staff, reminding us that we have a scent-free workplace. Yet those bitches from finance still descend upon our conference room each Tuesday morning in a veritable cartoon cloud of perfume.
This morning when I entered the office, I smelled something pleasant and familiar. Tea tree oil, Receptionist Susana told me. She was spraying down all the cubes with it, using a small plastic squirter bottle. Tea tree oil, alcohol, and water. The alcohol kills dust mites! Was I allergic to dust mites? No? I told her about Carl’s asthma, and about how it’s really kicked up since I can’t stop rearranging our furniture. We should replace our pillows every six months, Susana told me. She also recommended a lamp I should buy, a special pink one made of salt.
After the show, the glamorous Susana Creosote sits at the merch table with her husband, hawking CDs, shirts, and her original paintings. All of the paintings are of forest animals. Up close you can see the circles under her eyes from all the traveling. You can smell her healthy sweat. She confides that if they’d known San Francisco was so close to the water, they never would have come. "Right now, we’re surrounded by octopus" she pouts.
Her baritone husband whistles through his teeth, just like my Grandma Mildred. He confides to Carl and me that squirrels are stealing his pills. Do you have a hard time getting refills? Carl asks kindly. In the fraction of a second that follows, I see gratitude in Susana’s and the baritone’s eyes. She takes care of him. He needs her.
Receptionist Susana told me she plans to arrive at tomorrow’s holiday party in a glittery sweater with big fake birds clipped to it. The finance staff will be dressed alike in red and green. They will watch from their flowery nimbus of scents, their smoky eyes like arrow tips. Again and again, I will excuse myself for the ladies room, where I will thumb my phone open to search for a scrap of evidence that our child is alive.
I will return to the party to squire Receptionist Susana to the food table and ensure she gets the best of the Safeway cheese ‘n’ lunchmeat platter. I will tell her which Secret Santa gift to choose. Whistle through my teeth and position the two of us to disrupt the background of all the selfies those finance housecats take. I will let my hands hover over Susana’s bird-bedecked shoulders. I will channel my inner mother hawk, beholden to no archer.
Patricia Bidar is an alum of the UC Davis graduate writing program and a former fiction reader for Northwest Review. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Wigleaf, The Citron Review, Jellyfish Review, Blue Five Notebook, fomercactus, Flash Flood Journal, Train Literary Magazine, Riggwelter Press, Postcard Shorts, and Spillwords.