Fiction · 07/17/2013

The Lovely Beanstalk Goes Away

The living room was empty except for the girl with pigtails and the going-away card she wanted us to sign. “Not now,” we said with bottles in our fists. The room’s orange glow reminded us of tanning salons and taxidermy. We made for the kitchen and found the corkscrew, the bottle opener, glutted on booze right there by the sink until we had the courage to step outside.

We found her in the backyard, admiring the photo booth she had rented for the party. She was a lovely beanstalk, front tooth slightly askew, with a new dress — a denim boat-neck number — and a matching flower pinned to her chest. Her hair caught the glow from the Christmas lights and shone like golden feathers. We raised our glasses to our lips and stared, conscious of the fact that in the morning she would be gone.

She swiveled toward us and was unsurprised to find us muted and standing there. “Congratulations,” we said and handed her gifts wrapped in brown paper. “Tell us about the promotion.” She told us what we already knew.

“Travel is so important to me,” she said, her blue eyes studded with certainty. “And besides, when I make a big change like this, people tend to follow.” We laughed and stared into our drinks. We thought we had settled in Texas, embraced its traffic jams and level-orange pollution, absorbed its hamburger smell.

The photo booth made a noise like a coin tumbling down a pipe, and we turned to face it. The wood paneling cast a yellow glow that attracted the fireflies. We studied the exchange and decided it was profound — the heavy machine and the weightless animal — though we didn’t know why.

The lovely beanstalk was the first inside. We watched her legs walk around beneath the half-curtain as the flashbulb popped. The photos slid with a click into the dispensary, and the girl with the fake mustache reached for the strip. “Oh my god,” she said and brought the photos closer and closer to her face until her brown eyes crossed.

“What is it?” we asked, setting our drinks aside.

The image resembled the lovely beanstalk — pixie haircut, long eyelashes, red lips that stood in the white sand of her skin. The photo was missing the dirt-colored roots, the crooked tooth, the bulbous end of her nose. It had taken the raw material of her and fashioned a glowing, golden goddess. We sucked the air into our lungs, one giant breath, and held it. The girl with the fake mustache broke the silence. “Let me in there!”

The lovely beanstalk laughed, and it was like a bell ringing, awakening us from a reverie. We helped her out of the booth showered her with compliments. “So beautiful. Just like a movie star.” She brushed them off with the back of her hand. Everything about her was confident, effortless, serene. We wanted to sink our fingers into her like clay; mold her into bricks.

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The booth sank when the girl with the fake mustache jumped into it. She had broken her diet again, which we could see in the bracelet of fat around her ankles, the waddle of flesh beneath her chin. The girl with the fake mustache had grown up on a West-Texas diet thick with butter, fried meats, and cheese. This was a comfortable place: this body, this house, this town, the tangible weight of water in the air. It wasn’t fair for the lovely beanstalk to make plans without us. Now we had to scramble; we had to pull the ends of our noses and talk in tumbleweeds. “I’m probably moving to Portland next year,” the girl with the fake mustache said. “I’m definitely looking at jobs.”

We all were.

The lights inside the machine flashed four times, and the girl with the fake mustache peeled back the curtain. The photo slid into the tray, and she held it up to the light, then squealed and pressed it to her chest.

It was too late, though. We saw the images the girl with the fake mustache held. Each frame exposed more and more of her body, from her pale pink nipples right down to the bracelets of fat around her ankles. There was no goddess, there. She touched the mustache to steady her quivering lip.

“What is it?” The lovely beanstalk asked, her voice a nerve tonic.

“The photo! I never took off my clothes!”

The girl with the fake mustache looked up at the lovely beanstalk and paused. In the grassy backyard and the warm blinking light, they resembled mother and child, suspended in the moment of certainty that precedes reaction.

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The man with tortoise-shell glasses wore a black shirt carpeted in white cat hairs. They stood up like cactus needles, danced in the night air when he gestured. He walked around the party with a cell phone glued to his palm and kicked over beer bottles without knowing it. His girlfriend was running late, he said and fell into the hammock. Twice, the stakes buckled, and the girl with the fake mustache had to reset the strings to better support him.

The photos seemed to clear the heady fog that he had brought to the party; he became a beacon of blind courage. “Ladies, step aside,” he said and popped his collar. He was handsome in a pocket-protector sort of way. His blonde hair fell in his eyes, veiling thick eyebrows. He looked over his shoulder and wiggled his backside before throwing the curtain open. “That’s just a taste,” he said and disappeared.

The girl with the fake mustache laughed, too loudly, and we exhaled one alcohol-laced breath that warmed the air and unclenched our jaws. The fireflies regained their spasmodic shudder.

We glued our eyes to the photo-strip slot, to the man with tortoise-shell glasses’ unlaced brown boots fastened to the floor. We wanted the photos to expose his naked body, to expose him and the lovely beanstalk. We suspected their relationship, searched for sexual undertones. We wanted doubt to scamper rat-like across her face, to seize it and breathe its black scent.

The booth fell silent for a moment before the gears shifted. The paper uncoiled somewhere inside, and the strip ticked into the slot. The girl with the fake mustache moved closer to the machine; we allowed it.

“What is it?” we demanded.

The man with tortoise-shell glasses took the strip from the girl with the fake mustache and turned toward us, still with the glasses on his forehead. “Behold,” he said, flourishing the strip like a magician with a deck of cards. “The Invisible Man.” He dropped the photo, the spectacles floating faceless against the white backdrop, and it landed there in the bedewed grass for us to retrieve.

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If it had been anyone but the girl with pigtails, we would have thought it strange to see her float out of the house in a wedding dress. The train formed a half-moon behind her, the edges crisp with yellow mud. She held a sheet of construction paper to her chest; it was the going-away card we had forgotten to sign. She came around to each of us and placed a Sharpie in our hands, explaining that the dress was a backup, the one she had worn on the beach in Hawaii three months earlier. It didn’t matter that it collected stray blades of grass as it swept the lawn.

We watched the girl with pigtails, eyes wide and unblinking, offer the card to the girl who smelled of musk. There was something about the girl who smelled of musk, the curvature of her body or the shape of her teeth, the way her cocoa-colored hair fell in waves down the small of her back. Something primal. On the card, the girl with pigtails had drawn the Golden Gate Bridge in orange marker. Beside the tower, the lovely beanstalk and her husband stood with their hands clasped, a red heart suspended between them.

The girl who smelled of musk took the card and sketched two clouds above the bridge, one for her signature and one for her date’s. We’d never met her date, the man with small teeth, but he was easy to like, sociable, and smart. He seemed too pale and clean-shaven for the girl who smelled of musk, who we pictured with the type of man who would model chainsaws in Outdoor America catalogues.

“Where’s your husband?” the girl who smelled of musk asked and pinched her date by the elbow to draw him back toward her. The wedding dress made him nervous; we could tell by the way he avoided eye contact and wandered toward the shadows. The girl with pigtails made us all a bit nervous, her deflated dream, her misplaced rising action. We wanted to push her aside and just watch the lovely beanstalk and her husband, their blonde heads nested together. We resisted the idea that our dates loved us like they loved Everton: temporarily, the thought of permanence a clot that travels slowly to the brain.

The girl with pigtails eyed the construction-paper card that the girl who smelled of musk held in her outstretched hand, evaluating the placement of the clouds, the subtext of the question.

“Late shift at the liquor store,” the girl with the pigtails said. “He’ll be here soon.” They parted, and the girl who smelled of musk watched the cream-colored fabric ripple as it tugged the grass. Then she did something we didn’t expect. She grabbed the man with small teeth by the hand and pulled him into the photo booth. We’d never seen her move that way: sudden and awkward. We dropped conversations and found the shortest path to the booth.

If we tilted our heads, we could see the girl who smelled of musk’s taught calves, the color of fresh baguettes, circling her date’s legs. The man with tortoise-shell glasses pretended to peek under the curtain, but he was still too afraid of how the booth might react. The lights flashed four times, thirty seconds between each flash, and the girl who smelled of musk was spit out still wearing a top hat and tie. We hardly noticed the green flicker of unripe fireflies circling her, or that she had opened her arms wide, ready to receive laughter, applause.

Our eyes volleyed from the damp strip to the girl who smelled of musk and back again. Her smile began to droop, her eyes skimmed, searching for the lovely beanstalk, her blue dress and red lips. We already knew the girl who smelled of musk had leased the lovely beanstalk’s old apartment, and that the man with small teeth had accepted a scholarship to a school in Minnesota. The girl who smelled like musk would stay, scholarship-less, boyfriend-less, and the photo showed her this way. Blanched, domestic, the ghost of middle age thick in her shadowing. Her posture relied on the man with small teeth, who had disappeared from the shot. She leaned on something imagined, on shapes stamped into air.

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The lovely beanstalk came over and collected the strip; a thin smile parted her lips. “You’re so funny,” she said to the girl who smelled of musk and slipped the photo into the pocket at her waistline. The girl who smelled of musk removed the top hat and held it with both hands over her chest; she released a nervous laugh, and her skin reclaimed its olive hue. The lovely beanstalk touched the girl who smelled of musk lightly on the shoulder as she passed through the center of the crowd to the outskirts, where her husband waited.

What was so funny about the photo? Why did the lovely beanstalk capture us this way? Was it because she knew it wouldn’t last, that we would rise and slough Everton from our shoulders? Or was she certain that we would never leave, always be here awaiting her return?

We amalgamated, creating a divide between ourselves and the shoulder-locked silhouette of the lovely beanstalk and her husband. The flicker of the former interpretation inspired confidence, and we seized it, held it in our fists. The man with tortoise-shell glasses took the girl who smelled of musk by the shoulder, who took the girl with pigtails, who took the girl with the fake mustache, and we formed a train that trekked into the booth.

The curtain slid shut on metal rings and filled the room with its harried bell toll. The girl with the fake mustache sat on the vinyl stool, and it popped like a bone, screamed when it swiveled. We pressed against the walls, the diamond-patterned gunmetal, and it left tracks on our skin. The camera swiveled its red eye toward us — this time we were unafraid. We did not hear the pulleys whisper to the belts, the lens zoom, the timer tick. We listened to the bustle of props as they flew from the man with tortoise-shell glasses’ hands, the unguarded laughter that somersaulted through the air.

The booth spit us out, and we landed in the grass, misshapen and out of breath, expecting to find the lovely beanstalk bent in half beside the photo-strip slot, waiting anxiously with a thin smile frozen on her lips. Our necks craned outward from the tangle as we searched the hammock, the picnic table, the beer chest. We were experts at searching. A light rain began to fall. Our eyelashes collected dewdrops like blades of grass, and a cloud of steam rose from our bodies and diffused into the air.

We finally spotted the lovely beanstalk sitting on top of the picnic table, her denim dress pocked with water spots, her face full as the moon. A thin smile was iced on her lips, a fist supported her chin. She did not turn her gaze toward us, nor did she call to her husband, who disappeared in the doorway. We wanted to rush to her and hold her to the stars, tell her she belonged here — floundering, feckless — like the rest of us, but we were caught in a tangle of limbs and insincerity and pride. We flattened our lungs and collapsed, finally, into the grass, the slow trickle of rain washing over us like a flood.

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Laura I. Miller writes fantastic tales about miscommunication and magic. She is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona where she serves on the editorial staff of Sonora Review and Fairy Tale Review. Her work appears online at Spork Press.