Joan was convinced she had cancer. Sometimes it was a dull ache in her side, sometimes a cut that didn’t heal. She knew of a woman with Crohn’s Disease and just recently an old friend of hers died of pancreatic cancer. It was just a matter of time before those alien cells took over her body. Her body was on the edge of a cliff, ready to fall. When she got out her Tarot deck, she always drew the Fool. Once she saw the Hermit in a dream. He dropped his lantern and the light tumbled down into a rocky canyon, glowing on the silver cliffs as it fell. It was winter, with pockets of snow on the peaks.
It was winter again and Joan was swimming three days a week, teaching composition, and training dogs. She was trying unsuccessfully to wrangle her unruly children. The children were tracking mud in the house, driving in the snow, and staying for the most part invisible except when they were hungry. Once she’d let them have a party, and after Joan had passed out at midnight, the kids smoked weed and drank. The next day Joan had to deal with an irate mother, who said she picked up her daughter puking on their lawn. Joan wondered whether puke was good for the soil.
One day after a grueling day of swimming, where she barreled through a series of 100s that just about killed her, she walked into the house and saw a bottle of glue on the table. She thought it strange. And yet, her teenage children had been acting especially odd lately—sniffing a lot and saying it was a cold. She knew she was a bad mother. Jeremy was flunking pre-calculus, and Michele wore lace bras that stuck out of her shirts and her neck was adorned with hickies. She thought about their waggish attitude and dismissive excuses of just having too much homework. They always either diverted or rolled their eyes when she talked to them. When she kissed their messy heads, they turned away from her. She decided her teenage children were sniffing glue, and this time she would be a better mother and do something about it.
That evening at dinner, the sun was waning through their windows, and the dying orchid above the kitchen sink on the windowsill, was blooming. Darren sat where she, opposite from him, could see the big willow out of their window. She looked at all the abundance of purple candles and oak floors and willow branches climbing, and she thought about what a contrast it was to their life. She was dying of cancer. And yes, she realized, her children were sniffing glue. She pressed her eyeballs, so round and delicate under those thin lids, and it occurred to her that if it weren’t for the turpitude and moral depravity of her children, the world would be a better place.
Finally she pushed a potato on the side of her plate and sighed. “Michele, Jeremy, what’s this about the glue?”
Jeremy sat behind his plate of fried steak and mushrooms and asked, “What glue?”
“I mean the glue on the counter.”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Mom, weren’t you cleaning out that drawer with all our old school supplies?” asked Michele.
Joan didn’t remember putting anything on the counter. She had been distracted before leaving to swim. She’d just returned from a new job training two young Huskies. Their owner was a glass artist, with sculptures of red camels, murals of the rainforest of women with long black hair with toucans on their shoulders, abstract pieces of blue swirls embedded in clear glass. His dogs were named Loki and Freya, and he talked about mythology and the tree of life. He showed her a sculpture of Odin with a patch across his eye and a cane. The dogs were beautiful, like wolves. Loki had blue eyes, and Freya’s eyes were black. She worked on sit and down with them, but they weren’t interested in her treats. She knew from her training as a dog trainer that praise was sometimes enough, so she praised them lavishly, and they sauntered away from her, sniffed each other’s noses, and plunged their faces into her crotch. She needed to find treats that worked.
The next day she returned from buying Jeremy socks, and there was another bottle of glue, this time in Jeremy’s room in the dresser drawer where she put his socks. Joan opened it and took a big sniff. It didn’t really smell like much. She sniffed again, as deeply as she could. She then brought the bottle downstairs and poured the glue on a paper towel and inhaled with her mouth, but still it failed to make her high. The kids must be mixing it with something, so she looked up how to get high on glue. She watched videos of children in South Africa reeling and falling on the dirt with cloudy bottles of it in their hands. She watched a mother of two strolling down the dirt streets in a shanty town, everything bathed in dust, collecting money to feed her children buy selling bottles of glue. She found out that it needed to be industrial glue.
She walked downstairs and opened the door to the garage and peered at all the cans on the shelves. Surely one of them was industrial glue. Finally on the bottom shelf she found a can of furniture glue behind Jeremy’s bike hung on the ceiling. She pushed the wheel aside and it hit her in the back as she approached the can, surrounded by cans of paint and lacquer. It was already partly pried open. Yes, the kids were sniffing glue. She needed to figure out what they were doing to their minds. She pulled off the top and inhaled it deeply and felt dizzy, light-headed, and slightly nauseous. Her brain felt like it was on fire, and she saw another image of the hermit from the dream. This time his lantern shined a red light that swirled into a rose as she closed her eyes.
When she found her balance, she came into the house and read about the Hermit card in tarot. It was the ancient spirit that represents the deepest part of her, knows what to do, how to respond to the world, an indication that one should find the answers within oneself. Joan needed to follow her own intuition.
That evening before making dinner, she did some more research on glue sniffing and it was harrowing. Children holding broken bottles to their noses in Africa. Brain damage. Death. Joan realized that she had been so concerned lately about her own impending death that she had failed to see that her children were killing themselves.
When they sat down to dinner, Joan decided to take a more indirect approach. As her husband and Jeremy scrolled on their phones and Michele plunged her fork into the chicken as if killing it, Joan said, “So, what’s this with the glue?”
Michele was the only one listening. She said, “What glue?”
“Jeremy, I found glue in your room,” she said. Jeremy stared at his phone and laughed. She leaned over and tapped him on the shoulder. “Jeremy, what’s with the glue?”
He lifted his head and ran his head through his greasy hair. “What glue?
“The glue I found in your room!”
“I don’t know, maybe I should clean my room.”
“What about the open can in the garage?”
“What are you talking about?” Michele looked at her as if exhausted.
Joan looked at the rings under Michele’s eyes and stamped her foot down and yelled, “You two are sniffing glue!”
Both her children looked up at her and rolled their eyes. Michele pushed aside her Brussel sprouts and said, “Mom, we’re not sniffing glue.”
Joan needed some support. “Darren,” she said to her husband, “Can you tell the children not to sniff glue?”
Darren glanced up and said, “What’s that?”
“Can you tell the kids to stop sniffing glue?” Joan felt like crying. She felt a burning in her gut.
Darren sighed and turned to them and said, “Stop sniffing glue.”
When she’d been a teenager, she would go to the local fair in the parking lot of K Mart and smoke bowls of Thai stick. She’d vomited on roller coasters just to eat mushrooms at a friend’s house an hour afterward. She’d wandered on train tracks, balancing on the steel and stumbling onto the wooden ties to laugh until the moon had descended into her eyes, and she still wasn’t blind like she wanted to be. She had to always see the ugly world with its slums and dying trees and suffering.
But Joan had work to do. She had to train the Huskies again. Because they didn’t seem treat-oriented, Joan brought slices of raw steak. The man was in the basement blowing glass, and she spent the time in the living room helping them with their new skills. Freya licked her hand when Joan told her to “leave it,” and Loki lay on his brown dog bed looking bored before Joan brought out the bloody steak, and then he barely gave her a nod when she’d asked him to sit.
The only problem was that the Huskies liked the steak a lot after they’d had a taste. In fact, they were so excited by it that when Joan was working on recall, standing in front of a table with the red glass camel, the dogs came bounding toward her. She lost her balance and reeled into the table, and the red camel tumbled and shattered on the floor. Freya flew across the room and barreled into the sofa, yelping, and limped away.
When the man emerged from the basement, Joan explained that the Huskies were adolescent, and because they were Huskies, they were more genetically attached to wolves. She pulled at a red thread from the leash and looked at a glass sculpture of two women entwined with a tree.
“They’re wild,” she said.
The man rubbed his gray beard, then rubbed his belly. He looked up at the ceiling.
“I’m sorry. Joan picked at her cuticles, nervous, and fleetingly thinking how she would die.
“God, maybe I took off more than I can chew with these Huskies.” The man frowned.
“Well, Huskies are challenging. They’re made to pull sleds. Do you have a sled?”
“No, but I hike.”
“Okay, but keep them on a leash. Huskies aren’t good off leash.” Joan’s cuticle started to bleed. She put her finger in her mouth and tasted the metallic blood.
When she returned home, she decided to excavate the laundry room, which was filled with old mops and dusty rags. She opened up a cabinet and found three bottles of glue. She collected all the glue in the house and threw it away, thinking that there might be a way the kids were getting high on it, and then she went into the garage and contemplated how to get rid of the can. She picked it up and it was cold and heavy. What exactly were the kids feeling when they sniffed glue? She had an idea, but she thought she should try it again so that she could understand. She took another sniff out of the can and fell back against the car. Her mind was turning in circles, and when she closed her eyes she felt a ray of light ascend from her forehead. She saw an image of her father flying out of a window holding a lantern of red light. She heard sirens. She leaned against the car and then tried to stand, but the bicycle tire hit her in the cheek, so she rested back against the car’s door. After a few minutes, she decided to hide the can behind the leaf blower and cover it with a tarp. Now the kids wouldn’t find it.
She walked into the house and opened her computer to watch more videos about glue sniffing. One little boy, flies circling and landing on his face, said that sniffing glue made life much more bearable since he needed to eat garbage, and glue sniffing was a motivator to eat garbage when nothing else worked.
She decided to become a better cook. She would make a soufflé that evening. She pored through the Joy of Cooking but realized she had no milk so used water instead. The dinner left puddles on their plates and the soggy eggs crumbled. Joan sighed as she ate with her family at the dinner table and they said nothing. People just wanted to escape all the time, she thought to herself. Who could blame them? With all the cancer, dying bees, general inertia of humans to find a remedy for this godforsaken world, and the horrific planet destruction, who could blame them? A fire in California burned every home in a town called Paradise and left over 80 people dead. The Supreme Court was rigged, she was dying of cancer, and her children were drug addicts.
It was evening, and Joan leaned over her husband’s shoulder and kissed his face while she and her children were dying. Darren kissed her cheek. Jeremy was scrolling on his phone and Michele was mutilating her souflee, crumbling the watery eggs adorning her plate. Joan felt a pang in her gut and fleetingly contemplated whether she had colon cancer. She felt tears come into her eyes. Her children were young and deserved to live long lives after she died. Now poor Darren would lose his family, and he would have to find another wife, and she would probably already have children whom he couldn’t bond with, and every night he would weep and think of Joan’s beautiful curves, and the days they brought home their newborns wrapped in blankets and she nursing them on soft pillows.
“Kids,” she said, tapping Jeremy on the shoulder, “This glue sniffing has got to stop.”
“We’re not sniffing glue!” yelled Michele.
“You are! It’s a horrible, horrible drug. It ruins your brain and kills you. I’d rather you do crack.”
Jeremy tapped his finger on the table. “Mom, crack is so eighties, people do meth now.”
“Well, meth is better than glue.”
Michele said, “So you’re telling us to do meth?”
“No, we spend enough on the dentist already!” Joan tapped Darren’s shoulder. “Tell them I’m not telling them to do meth.”
Darren lifted his head. “What’s that?”
“Tell them I’m not telling them to do meth.”
Darren said, “Mom’s saying not to do meth.” He looked at his phone. “Hey, Jeremy, check out this video.”
Jeremy leaned over Darren’s shoulder. Joan looked at it and saw a crowd of people in a marathon running. They were covered in sweat and wearing numbers.
Darren pointed at a stick-like figure and said, “This Kenyon man won.”
Joan hollered, “And in Kenya people are dying from sniffing glue!”
Michele slammed her hand on the table and said, “Oh my God, Mom,” and left.
The next day Joan found the perfect treats for Loki and Freya, and she decided to work outside on leash this time. She leashed both the dogs and held them close, carefully walking around a glass blue horse. She put them on a heel as she walked past a pink and orange figure of a pregnant woman. They stepped out of the house and walked a block away and did a sit stay. She moved to the end of the leash. They looked into her eyes and Joan felt a strong connection, a bond as if she were from the same litter, and she was the alpha dog, directing the pack. When she looked into Loki’s blue eyes, she saw the sky, and when she looked into Freya’s, she saw the black night. The three of them together contained the world. After three successful tries, when the dogs sat still for her and waited, she decided to drop the leashes and walk further away.
The dogs bolted. Joan ran toward them with strips of steak dangling from her hands, but they were off, careening around the neighbor’s house. She slipped on some ice while looking at a perfectly swept patio and a chiminera in someone’s backyard. The house was blue. She ran past many houses that seemed uninhabited, their perfect still lawns, not a person in sight, just occasional movement of the two dogs running away, their bodies like streaks of gray light. Then nothing but the houses; the dogs had disappeared.
She returned to the house and went to the basement. The man was surrounded by glass sculptures of what looked like gnomes, small pudgy men with blue hats. In the corner was a stove, and ashes covered the concrete floor below it. The man was listening to classical music and leaning forward, writing a check. She nudged him. He turned to her and for a moment he looked like he didn’t recognize her. He set down his pen.
“The dogs have gotten loose,” she said.
The man rubbed his chin, his hands red from all the glass and fire.
“You’re fired,” he said.
Joan returned home and drank a shot of whiskey. She sat in the kitchen and contemplated what leftovers she could feed the kids, then decided she could reheat the strips of steak for the dogs and mix it with the leftover crumbly soufflé. It could be a kind of stir fry.
Jeremy came into the kitchen. “Mom, I need glue for a project for Spanish.”
Joan sighed. “We’re all out of glue.”
That evening she snuck into the garage while Darren was watching a football game and the kids were at a party. She pushed the leaf blower aside. She pulled the tarp off the can. She circled its edge with her fingers, the cold metal smooth as the ice on their driveway, and pried it open. She put her face down and inhaled deeply until the light shined behind her closed eyes and she fell against the car again. It reminded her of how much she’d always loved the smell of gas when she filled her car, that chemical smell similar, which she could taste in her mouth. She thought about the hermit, how alone he was on the barren mountain. The lantern lit the way for the fool to see the edge. He would watch his feet as he danced off the cliff. Her head swirled and she saw a carousel with horses adorned with golden saddles. She saw wolves running in the mountains, crashing through pine. She reeled back onto the car and then fell on the concrete floor. She felt her body dying into the light outside of the dark garage, becoming the wild wolves, hunting.
. . .
Cover illustration by Tim Gabor
Kika Dorsey’s work has been published in numerous journals and books, including The Comstock Review, Cleaver Magazine, The Denver Quarterly, The California Quarterly, The Columbia Review, Narrative Northeast, among many others. She has published a chapbook of poetry, Beside Herself (Flutter Press, 2010) and two full-length collections, Rust and Coming Up for Air. (Word Tech Editions, 2016, 2018). Currently, Ms. Dorsey is writing a collection of short stories based on a character named Joan.