short story    
photo of Kevin Canty

  Red Dress

I wanted to be a mixologist. I don't know where I got the desire, or even the word, which still has a kind of magic for me: mixologist. In the syllables of those letters are my parents' parties, nights of smoke and laughter and lipstick. I borrowed the Mr. Boston bartender's guide from the liquor cabinet and read it in my bed, imagining myself pouring, shaking, stirring, holding the sugar cube in a slotted spoon and drizzling the red liquor through. I learned the difference between lemon zest and lemon peel, I memorized the steps for a perfect Ramos Gin Fizz, I knew how to pour a Manhattan, a Stinger, a Grasshopper, a White Russian.

My sister was gone to college by then, and our only television was downstairs. On party nights, I could neither sleep nor read; I lay on my bed with the light on and listened to the undifferentiated oceanic hubbub from downstairs, louder as the night went on, the whole house gradually filling with cigarette smoke. Occasionally a guest, a man trying to find the upstairs bathroom, would come through the door of my room and find me on the bed, awake--which seemed to come not only as a surprise but as an embarrassment to him, as if he had caught me at some shameful act. He would shut the light off on the way out.

Other nights I would sit in the dark at the top of the stairs and listen. I would try to imagine myself among the guests, try to imagine what they were talking about. I could hear my mother's high-pitched, brittle laughter, imagine her mixing and drifting from guest to guest in her red party dress. I didn't want to be one of them; I just wanted to know what made them so loud and excited, what they were hoping for.

I promoted myself to doorman, at some point. My job was to answer the bell, greet the guests, take their coats and point them toward the bar. It's always winter, the way I remember it. I think now that it might have been just one year, one winter giving way to spring and summer, but I remember it as always, world without end. This job as doorman was unsatisfying. I was closer to the action but I was visible. I was always being called by the doorbell just as the conversation was becoming interesting, just as they were starting to forget that I was among them; or coming back after the punch line, the joke I was too young to hear, the women still giggling. They couldn't help themselves. Or else, as I drifted or sidled to the edge of the group, I would be noticed, I would be called attention to with a greeting or a wave of a cigarette, and the talk would instantly turn toward the innocuous--the lives of pets, movies that had been seen, West Side Story or Dr. Zhivago. My parents' life and the lives of their friends seemed even more jumbled and fragmentary than they had before.

My mother, for instance. In everyday life, she was vague, sometimes absentminded, wandering the house while my father was at work like she was half asleep. In my dreams, I see her standing in an almost dowdy, unrevealing floral dress, an I Love Lucy dress, standing just inside the doorway of her bedroom, pausing, with one hand on the dresser, and trying to remember‹you could see it in her face--what she had wanted from there. Was it laundry? Jewelry? Was she going out or staying in? I still don't know what she was actually thinking about, or dreaming about.

When she put on her red dress and her lipstick and descended into a party, though, she became an altogether different person--energetic, intense, almost uncomfortably alive. She was everywhere at once, laughing at jokes, holding her white cigarettes to be lit, carrying trays of olives and crackers and little squares of cheese on toothpicks. When someone spoke, especially if they were talking lightly or playfully, she was lit with concentration, her mouth moving into a half-smile or a half-frown as each new sentence came spilling out. Her attention was as urgent and narrow as a flashlight beam. Yours was the one face in the world, the one joke, the only scandalous story or amusing anecdote. She lit her subjects, one by one, and then moved on, and on.

Never to me. The one place her attention never lit was on my face; and if, sometime after eleven, she happened to notice that I was still awake--watching her, as ever, from my station by the door--all the old puzzlement would return to her face, and she would stare at me, wondering who I was and how I had gotten there, for a long moment before ordering me off to bed.

She would tuck me into the sheets in her red party dress and she would kiss me goodnight and then leave, down the hall in a rustle of fabric. I would lie on my bed with the door open, drifting in and out of sleep, awakening to singing, to arguments and fights, sleeping again to dream of flowers and smoke, the laughter penetrating the thin screen of my sleep. Once I came to the top of the stairs, awake or nearly awake, in time to watch two men carry another out into the snow, a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth. Once I heard somebody singing "Mairzy Doats," which I recognized from an old cartoon. Always the sound of my mother's laughter.

In the morning, before my parents woke up, which was never before ten-thirty or eleven, the house was mine: the ashtray-smell of dead cigarettes, lipsticky glasses, the toothpicks with their frilly cellophane tops scattered at random on the tablecloth. Only the flowers, the flowers which my mother and I had picked out so carefully the day before, had managed to stay fresh. I would wander barefoot through the wreckage, sniffing the half-finished drinks, the bourbon-smell of my father in each of them, and having little conversations. I was winning. I was charming. I left laughter behind me wherever I went.

Sometime in spring, I was promoted to bartender. Not without an argument though--my mother roused herself into one of her fits of motherhood, which were always a little imaginary, hypothetical. She was acting as if she were my mother, as if I were her son.

"I don't think he needs to stay up that late," she said.

This was the eve of another party--I can't understand how they could have had so many parties; it must have been two or three or four years altogether, not just one. My father, with my help, was setting up the drinks table, watching me carefully prepare the bowl of lime wedges, arrange the ice and shakers and Angostura bitters.

"He likes it," my father said. "Besides, he's always up till the wee small hours anyway."

"I always send him to bed."

"Doesn't mean he goes to sleep," my father said, turning his attention on me. "What do you do up there, anyway, Champ? You aren't sleeping, are you?"

I didn't know how to respond to this. I didn't know what this was code for, or what the secret response might be.

"I never could stand to be left out myself," he said.

"Could I talk to you for a moment?" my mother asked.

They disappeared into the kitchen, leaving me to bustle, straighten and cut, laying out ashtrays, putting the glasses in an accurate row: wine glasses, cocktail glasses, highballs. If I could make myself indispensable, they would have to let me stay. The pleasure that I found in this kind of work‹tidying, straightening, fussing‹was intense, illicit. I straightened the flowers in their vases until they looked attractive from every angle. I placed ashtrays, coasters, bowls of pretzels and mixed nuts while my parents were arguing in the kitchen. My father would win, eventually, as he did. He would wear her down like water. I took uneasy pleasure in knowing that he would prevail, knowing that I was fooling him. He thought I was pretending to be the little man.

Her face, when they came out of the kitchen, had a mixed, unsettled, lost look that made me feel lost with her. She was right and it didn't matter.

"You're on, Champ," said my father. "Let's see if we can find you a necktie."

"Just until ten-thirty, though," my mother said.

"Ten-thirty or eleven," said my father. "We'll see how it's going."

She looked at him helplessly. He shouldn't have contradicted her in front of me, but she could do nothing about it. And then she looked at me and it was strange; it felt like she could really see me, like the fog had cleared away momentarily and she recognized something, realized something.

"You be careful," she said to me.

"What does that mean?" my father asked her. "He's in his own living room, for Christ's sake. What could go wrong?"

She didn't answer for a moment; abstract, musing, she stared into my eyes, wondering what she saw there. I didn't know myself. I knew it was guilty, I knew it was something to hide, but I didn't know what it's name was.

"He could cut himself," she said, turning away from my face, back to my father. "That's all I meant."

"He's not going to cut himself," said my father; though I did, in fact, slice my finger wide open with a paring knife while cutting up a second batch of limes, at almost midnight.

Sixty or seventy men and women milled and perched and chatted in the first floor of the old house that night, a few of the men--hardy souls in wool sport jackets--out on the patio smoking cigarettes, a group around the stereo listening, I remember distinctly, listening to Olatunji and His Drums of Passion. The night had gone quickly, up until then. It amused them all to treat me as a genuine bartender, to make jokes about stiff ones and wet ones that I didn't quite understand--though I laughed eagerly--and to stuff dollar bills and loose silver into the jar that my father had insisted I put on the table in front of me. I had the glassware and the bottles and the mixers and the utensils all neatly aligned, near at hand. I wore a dish towel around my waist, as a sort of apron to tidy up any spills; and I thought that I had fulfilled my duties as well as any grown-up bartender could, that I had been crisp and professional and nearly invisible, and I was proud of myself.

All of this changed in the course of one second. I was cutting a lime and something--a shout, a burst of laughter--distracted my attention. When I looked down again, I saw that I had cut myself, and cut myself badly--that moment before the blood begins to flow, before anything starts to hurt, when the cut flap of skin turns white. I was immediately filled with shame. Quickly, before any of them could see me, I wrapped the cut finger in three or four thicknesses of cocktail napkin and slipped away from my post, through the kitchen and up the back stairs to the third, hard-to-find bathroom in the old part of the house.

I sat on the edge of the toilet and gingerly unwrapped the napkins. Blood seeped eagerly from the cut. In the bright, pale-green fluorescent light, the hand looked disembodied, already dead. I thought that if I lifted up the flap of skin I might see all the way to the bone; but I was already a little dizzy, a little queasy, and I didn't. What if I died there? What if I bled to death while the party raged downstairs?

But I wasn't going to die. I was going to get caught. I had overstepped myself had pretended to be what I was not: competent, reliable, safe. In fact I was just a child, pretending.

I cut the light so that nobody would find me, and waited for the bleeding to subside. Clear moonlight came through the window, through the leafless trees outside. Stupid boy, I thought, stupid stupid boy. Soon I would have to face them, and they would all know. The bleeding continued, slower and slower. I soaked the blood up with toilet paper. It hurt, by then, considerably, and I had to bend and unbend my finger several times to convince myself that I had not severed something vital.

After a few minutes, the blood slowed to a manageable trickle. In the moonlight--my eyes had adjusted perfectly well--I found gauze and adhesive tape in the medicine cabinet over the sink. Clumsy, single-handed, I wrapped the wound in bandages, finishing off with a pair of flesh-colored Band-Aids, in the hope I would not be discovered; in the hope that I could return to my post behind the bar. I hid the bloody paper under a magazine, artfully placed over the top of the trash basket, slipped the lock and went out into the hallway.

There in the moonlight was my mother with a man: Kendellan, my father's college friend. They weren't touching, but something about their bodies alerted me, awkward, like frozen bodies in a game of freeze-tag. Something had been started, interrupted. They must have been kissing--that blank unseeing look on her face that only slowly cleared, the flush on her neck--but I didn't know that then. I was an unwelcome surprise. Apart from that, nothing was clear.

"Ray," she said. "What are you doing up here?"

I held my injured hand behind my back, as casually as I could.

"Nothing," I said; and then, when I realized this didn't make any sense, I said, "The other bathrooms were all full."

"It's late, sweetie," she said, stepping away from Kendellan, who wouldn't give me his face. She bent toward me and I smelled her perfume. "It's late. Off we go. Let's go."

She took my hand--the innocent hand--and led me down the back hallway to my bedroom. The ebb and surge of conversation spilled up the stairs but it was not for me, not that night. She led me to my door and kissed me briefly, dryly on the top of my head, as she had for most of my life, an assertion of normalcy, a statement that everything was, after all, in the right place, where it had been before.

She was wearing the red dress, same as always.

Then she turned, and closed the door, and went back to wherever she was going, leaving me, again, alone in my room. And maybe she was right--maybe I was overtired, maybe it was not right for me to be out so late--because when I caught sight of myself in the mirror, my crisp white shirt and real bow tie that my father had tied for me, it struck me as awful, and wrong, and unfair, and I didn't even have a name for it. I curled into a ball on my bed and cried, until I fell asleep in my clothes.

The finger became infected in the following days. I concealed it from my mother as long as I could, as the swelling grew and the pain drummed along with every beat of my heart; I didn't know exactly where I stood with her, I didn't want any new event between us until the old one had subsided. Kendellan and my mother, my mother and Kendellan, like something out of a dream--and in fact I did see the moment replayed in dreams, with photographic literalness; and I nearly managed to convince myself that it had never happened. If anything had happened at all.

By midweek, though, I had to do something. I couldn't sleep, and strange colors were appearing around the swollen cut. Awake, asleep, I felt like I was half-body and half-finger, every part of me focused on this one throbbing spot. I confessed; I was examined, taken to the doctor, pronounced purulent. The cut was drained and cleaned and freshly bandaged, I was put on antibiotics and ordered to stay home for the rest of the week. I may have been seriously ill--I felt a kind of pleasant haze or fog in the edges of my vision, and the doctor and my mother were worried. It was in their faces. The gifted child does not miss this kind of thing.

Home, then, and a short week of television-watching, soup and crackers, the sound of the washing machine and the hot breath of the dryer. I was special, once again. This should have been perfect; home alone, my mother and I, the chance to see the daily life she led, the life that was hidden while I was at school. I don't think I was sick any more than the next child, but I did enjoy being sick more than most of them. But this week was different; in the afterimage of that party--the dream of Mr. Kendellan, the interrupted moment--I felt like I was always on the verge of a question, I had to hold it back, a box I knew I didn't want to open. And my mother, when she saw me at all, seemed always about to launch into some new explanation. We were not easy with each other.

So I slept, and I read, and I slept some more, and I waited for the weekend, and after the weekend I would be back at school.

On Friday, though, I woke from my nap midway through the afternoon and my mother was gone--shopping, I thought, dry cleaning, general errands. Nothing was planned for the weekend, no flowers or special foods, no trips to the liquor store and hundred-dollar bills. My sister was coming home that evening. All the pieces of my world were in place. I went to my parents' bedroom, overlooking the street, and I looked out on the place where her car had been, the outline of her car in dry pavement on the rain-darkened street. It was three or three-thirty, overcast and dark. The light in the room was dim and gray, soft-shadowed, a delicate touch on skin.

I went to my mother's closet and I opened the folding doors and I touched the red dress. I was alone in the house. There was nobody to stop me, nobody to see. The barriers between my dream life and my waking one had been let down. My own clothes felt like a mistaken costume; quickly I took them off and threw them under the bed, where I wouldn't have to look at them. Now I was alone with the mass of dresses, the colors spilling out into the dim light, the disorderly crowd of shoes on the floor. Dresses and dresses but there was only one for me. I was almost exactly my mother's size. My skin was soft as hers was, softer. I could feel the softness of my own skin. I slipped the dress on, the red dress. I looked at the lipsticks, the bottles of perfume; I looked at my shoulders in the mirror. A strange face stared back at me, a girl's face, mine.

A car door slammed shut outside.

I ran to the window--stupid boy, stupid boy--and that was where she saw me, maybe nothing more than a flash of red but she saw me. In a moment she would be in the house and upstairs and what would happen after that? I couldn't imagine. I took my clothes and ran to my room, closing the door behind me as the front door opened and closed downstairs but it was no use--there was no time. She was bound to find me. She had already found me. I sat at the edge of my bed and waited.

She didn't come.

A minute passed, another minute. As quietly as I could, I slipped out of the dress, into my boy's clothes, watched over by models and dinosaurs. I opened my door as gently as I could and put the dress back in the closet. When the door was closed, everything was where it had started. I went back to my room and waited, but she wasn't coming up. After ten or fifteen minutes, I went downstairs. She was waiting in the kitchen.

"How are you feeling, sweetie?" she asked, putting the cereal box in the pantry, the milk in the refrigerator door. She didn't even look.

"I'm fine," I told her.

"I'm glad to hear it," she said; and that was all. She looked at me once, and I knew that she had seen me, if ever I had doubted it. But we never spoke about it--never spoke about that afternoon, or Kendellan, never spoke openly to each other again. She was still my mother, I was still her son. But everything after that was in code, ambiguous, the silences full of unasked questions, the words empty of answers. And now I am grown, and my mother is dead, and my father is dead. And this is all the childhood I will ever have.

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    Copyright © 2001 by Kevin Canty. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.