Fiction from Jennifer Fliss

Image via Pixabay

Towels

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The baby is born at home. This isn’t planned. In a blizzard in Wisconsin, she slips out of her mother and is wrapped, a slush of vernix and blood; a blue child in a crisp white towel.

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We are going to the beach. We carry sunblock and water and snacks. The kids haul pails and shovels. Towels decorated with fish and polka dots and Mickey Mouse flung over our shoulders as we tromp through the sand. We lay them out and position our bodies on them as the surf comes in and goes out and we watch our children play.

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Cotton. Durable. Washable. Imported.

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I had too many margaritas. After the searing hot shower, I step out and blanket myself in the towel. I rub my eyes; black slicks of partying and drinking and dancing. Smeared remnants of Can I buy you a drink? I consider getting back into the purifying font of the shower. C’mon . . . you don’t mean that. I still haven’t been able to wash it all away.

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She was babysitting the two year old. It was her first day and she wanted to get it all right. On a subdivided plate made of environmentally friendly material, she put out cut pears, cheddar squares, thumb sized carrots. She poured the milk into a matching cup. From upstairs, the child screamed out, a prehistoric yowl that caused the babysitter’s hands slip. Milk glugged onto the counter, pooling at the edge and slipped down to the floor. She bent and mopped it up with a dishtowel, the cloth sucked up the liquid and grew heavy. The baby still cried.

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At the very exclusive club at the very end of the boulevard at the very end of the island, the towels were burgundy and white striped. If you had a towel that was not burgundy and white striped, it was clear you did not belong. Lying atop burgundy and white striped towels were CEOs, hedge fund managers, heirs, actors, and trust fund teenagers. After only a handful of washes, the like-new but too-used-for-the-clientele towels found their way into the homes of the housekeepers, pool attendants, reservations staff, and waiters. If they couldn’t pay their rent with the eleven dollar an hour wages, they at least felt like they were two steps instead of one, from the street if they folded themselves into the luxurious cotton.

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Wash with similar colors. Tumble dry on medium heat. No bleach. Cleaning instructions in home economic hieroglyphics.

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You are sitting in the glow of your computer. Scrolling through the hundreds of towels. They look soft. Are they as plush as they look? 100% Egyptian cotton? Turkish? What color? Slate? Ash? What about Aubergine? Lilac? Your fiancé said definitely no purple. If they are not called purple, are they purple?

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They were robins. The blue of their shells still lined the bottom of the nest. Where was their mother? You understand you shouldn’t mess with nature. That you shouldn’t touch or feed or nurture in any way, these fine brittle chicks. But they are right by your kitchen window. And you can’t help but open the window to hear their earnest chirps. A crow hovers near. Those brilliant evil harbingers of chaos. You can’t bear the thought. You hurry around the house. Towel, syringe from the infant Tylenol, a large shoebox. You line the shoebox with red and green shredded party paper that had been in a gift bag carrying a tiny embroidered pillow from your mother-in-law. It read What Part of MEOW don’t you understand? You don’t have a cat. You go out to the nest. There are now three crows perched on the gutter. With a hand towel you lift the nest and place it in the box. Careful. Careful. One little robin is particularly vehement and you name it Stevie and you nurse the three birds over the next month. The mother robin doesn’t return. You release the three birdies to your yard. There are five crows watching you from the gutter. You watch and you wait and you only see one robin ever return.

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There is a fire. Wet the towel, throw it over your head. Run like hell.

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Algodon. Hecho en China.

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Harold the mastiff rubs his 110 pound body in the mud. Though still large, Harold is underweight and his owners are discussing – hushed and tearful – euthanasia. The coolness of the earth soothes Harold’s worn self while fresh drops of rain tickle his nose. Harold has been waiting for this, the arid summer too long, too difficult for his tremendous aging body. Harold! Here boy! Hauling his body around, he slips and slides through the door into the kitchen, mud slicking the linoleum. A towel is thrown over his thick body and he is hugged and dried and hugged again.

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Natalie surveyed the hotel room. In the middle of the king sized bed were two origami towel frogs. She had seen swans of this ilk before. But never frogs. Were they trying to tell her something about the man she just arrived with? Was it an omen? Marcus swept into the room behind her; she jumped and he pinched the skin at her waist. Isn’t this something? Bet you ain’t seen anything like this before. I got this for you, babe. Now don’t say I ain’t done nothing nice for you. She excused herself to the bathroom, marble and larger than the apartment she had been living in. Contorting her body around, she looked in the mirror, saw that where Marcus squeezed, a bruise was forming.

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In an effort to conserve, we encourage you to reuse your towels and linens. If you would like them replaced, please place them in the bathtub.

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He knew his mother would be home soon. He knew she didn’t respect boundaries. He knew she would spit, toss a towel at him, and make him say at least fifty Hail Marys if she caught him. And still, this newly discovered habit brought him an almost yogic peace. He thought about Amanda, his girlfriend who had been a whole year older. She was a sophomore. She did things like blow in his ear like she was trying to cool him off. She did things like slip notes to him through the vents at the top of his locker. She did things like say she was never ever, ever, going to have sex until she got married. She did things like create crossword puzzles with secret messages to him. She did things like promise she could never go for Zack. She did things like forget their date at the ice cream parlor. She did things like not text him back. She did things like get pregnant. She did things like disappear for a few weeks. She did things like never meet his eyes again. She did things like that. And he did things like think of her in those moments when his body still needed her.

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Monica didn’t have enough money to buy new towels. The monogram a bruise that wouldn’t fade. In slick baby blue cursive: MEK. Kevin had left and now she was just ME, which was so literal she couldn’t help but laugh. But she couldn’t pull off the K without also taking the M and the E. She decided to only use the side of the towel that was not monogrammed. After time, only the one half of the towel shredded away, disintegrating with use. On the other side, as if it was the day of their wedding, were letters she didn’t even recognize anymore, despite their genteel perfection.

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You rub your daughter’s hair dry and a minuscule louse peddles away on the white terry cloth.

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Rena had two towels. This was one more than she had ever had in her life before. This was also her first visit to The Club. She had garnered a guest pass as a tip at the bar where she waitressed nights. Rena knew she had to bring a towel and understood the grungy now-gray towel that barely covered her thighs, the one that she had filched from the school pool where she was a substitute teacher, would not be a wise choice. She knew that. She also knew she needed to wear a swimsuit. Picked from a bin also at the school pool, she poured herself into the lycra. A few extra rolls bubbled at the seams, but it was a comfortable fit. She could cover the Wissahocken Warriors logo with a casually placed arm. What she didn’t know was quite a lot. Would food be provided? Was she going to be assigned a spot to park herself? Would people stare at her? Is she supposed to just leave the towel and her things as she went into the pool? Was it okay that she didn’t know how to swim? What if she saw students from school? Would they even know her, her presence so occasional, so inconsequential, did they even see her when she was right in front of them in the classroom? She decided to bring the burgundy and white striped towel, the one she bought at Goodwill. It was in excellent shape with a small insignia sewn into one corner. It was very soft and rather large. Rena too had gone very soft and rather large and felt this was the perfect cover for her in her swimsuit on her first day visiting the swimming club.

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65-gram Egyptian cotton with double-rolled, hand-sewn scalloped edges.

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It is the kind of day that keeps people inside. It is the kind of day that only some venture out into, but then find themselves either tormented or richly rewarded. The rain had temporarily stopped. Steam rose up from the fallen leaves laying in beds of auburn colors. There is no one else at the playground. You probably shouldn’t have taken your 20 month old daughter here. It is a bit far from the main road and anyone could do anything and no one would know. You zip her coat up to her chin, slip on a woolen hat that makes her look like a bunny rabbit, complete with ears, and wrap her tiny fingers in oversized mittens. You walk toward the play structure together. She reaches up with her bear cub paw and you grasp her whole hand with one finger. Hundred foot trees stand sentinel along the path. Your boot heels echo in the ashen sky and cause a flurry of crows to scatter from a poplar tree, leaving behind a silence that is almost reverential. Vapors are emanating from the swings too, also the slide and ladders. You approach the primary colored structure, reminding you of your own 1980s childhood and seems out of place in this place of tremendous nature. Your daughter chirps with excitement as you approach; she loves slides. She goes down them backwards, her entire torso feeling the experience and momentum. But then you realize the whole thing is covered in water, large puddles and small islands of rainwater threaten to soak your child and send her careening off into even greater pools that lay in wait at the bottom of the slide. You should have known that. It only just stopped raining a half hour before after storming for three weeks straight. Your daughter begins to climb, her feet slip on the first rung and she issues a bleat. You remember. You pick her up and haul back to the car. Clipclipclip go your boot heels. You remember there is a towel in the trunk. With it, you return to the playground. You wipe the ladder rungs and the swings. As your daughter watches, one mitten having fallen off, you go to the slide and wipe it down, every foreboding drop being sponged up, providing a safe luge for your daughter to play on this lovely day in this lovely park, just the two of you.

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A bird flies into the window. With a thump that stirs you from your dish washing reverie, you see a wet smudge on the newly cleaned window. You go outside to find a robin lying at the base of the house. One wing twitches and goes still. Its coal eye reflects your own fatigued face. You holler for help, refusing to tear your sight from the bird’s eye. On your watch, it dies. Your husband brings a towel and with rubber dish gloves, you pick up the avian corpse. The robin’s breast is a deep copper, not red like all the songs say. It is buried in the towel at the base of your Japanese maple tree. The leaves are the same color as the bird’s chest and when the wind rustles the leaves, you like to think you can hear the bird singing.
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Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, Fiction Southeast, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @Writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com

4 Comments

  1. Ben says:

    This is great 🙂

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