After the Celtic folktale of King Eochaid and his sons
Sometimes the sun becomes a dragon you can’t escape. It was that kind of Sunday when Nicole and her sisters sat bored and panting on their stoop, too tired and sun-stoned to fight with each other, or to find something to do. Occasionally one of them exhaled loudly, with noise, “Huuhhnnnnn” because that was the only way to feel release.
Four sisters, Nicole the youngest. Inside the row home was worse. Her mother and aunt took up the furniture, spread naked on either chair. They each sat with their legs agape over the arm rests, arms flailed over the back. Dark, tangled hair, and dark nipples laughed at Nicole and her shyness. Her mother said that she wasn’t putting clothes back on until it lowered ten degrees, or she had to go to work. Her aunt didn’t have to work because she collected alimony, so she said she was never getting dressed again.
Even though Nicole thought her sisters were bossy and dumb, and her sisters called Nicole stuck-up, they all had agreed they would never be crazy like their mother and their aunt. Plus, they’d all have their own places, and they sure as hell wouldn’t need to go to each other’s houses to watch TV. Nicole had said she would be living in New York anyway and the rest of them laughed. New York, they said. Ha! What’s so funny, she had said. What’s so wrong with New York. But her sisters kept repeating, “New York” and “she thinks she’s going to move to New York” without ever saying what was wrong with it. Surely it couldn’t be so hard. The bus one way was twenty-three dollars.
Heat baked into the red-brick blocks of their street and turned on them. Even the dirt in the dark corners of the concrete sweat. “Huuuhhnnnnn” the oldest said. But this time the sisters caught a different meaning. They could communicate that way. And now the idea descended on them that they had to go find water and some way to cool off. “I don’t want to die here,” the middle oldest said as they pushed off the stoop, but it wasn’t clear if she meant these stairs, or this house, or the entire city of Baltimore. Nicole suspected she also wanted to move to New York but never would because she would never contradict the oldest. Being the youngest, Nicole didn’t have to listen to any of them. They all canceled each other out.
The three of them walked together while Nicole followed behind. The middle youngest was fat and walked with a tightened, contained gait, as if she was trying to hold the loose pieces of her in against the threat of each dislodging step. The oldest had a butt like her aunt and it smirked at Nicole, smiling slyly from side to side.
The oldest paused, so they all stopped in front of the Texaco on the corner. Nicole could already feel the smell of the small convenient shop, the scent of heated, re-used air and plastic, and also fondness for the familiar, and for the taste of a cold drink. But none of them had any money. The oldest was watching a man put gas in his motorcycle. She stood very straight watching him, holding herself as high as she could above the rest of them, as if she could pull herself off of the sidewalk. The man hopped on the bike and left out the other side. The bike got louder as he drove away until the cry of the engine turned sorrowful and then silent. The oldest started walking again. Nicole wanted to laugh at her sister the way they laughed at her. She wanted to say, “Can you believe her? Thinks some man on a motorcycle is going to take her away.” But then they wouldn’t laugh with her. They were all waiting for something magical like that to happen.
“It’s too hot for this,” the middle youngest said.
They turned right, onto the next leg of their block. The brick homes on this side relinquished a thin, jagged shadow that the sisters tried to stay under. They walked in a single row now, with Nicole at the end. The middle youngest’s feet created puddles of shadow right before Nicole put her foot down and filled them. The shadow stuck to her sole, dropped to the pavement, and was then carried by her step again. Her sister didn’t know what she wrought and took away. Nicole felt bound to her sisters by such secret knowledge. She would uncritically follow them anywhere. When they were together, she imagined they formed a strength that even the sun couldn’t pierce.
Just as she had that thought, the oldest stopped so the others stopped and Nicole almost collided with her fat sister. “Watch it,” she said.
They were in an alley now, in the middle where the street concaved and collected rubble.
“I heard something,” the oldest said. This was the first summer Nicole noticed the scent of her sweat, but it was a sourness she enjoyed. The alley smelled like fumes, as if she could detect with her nose the trapped carbon dioxide gas that they had studied in school. That year, Nicole had triumphantly reported to her mother that global warming was real, they had learned about it, the need for national debate could end. She thought her mother would be so proud of her, relieved to have at least one smart daughter. Instead her mother told her that in other schools, some kids learn that evolution never happened, and that global warming is made-up. And in the end, her mother said, it’s not going to matter which of you was right. Nicole hotly resented this. Her mother was a lump. But Nicole was different; she would bulldoze the world with her Nicoleness if she could.
“Do you hear that?” the oldest said.
“I heard it,” the middle oldest said.
Nicole heard nothing. Her fat sister fidgeted, and Nicole could tell she was weighing the risk of lying to side with her older siblings or saying the truth and getting branded with Nicole.
“You’re full of it,” Nicole said.
“Full of what?” said the oldest.
The oldest smiled. “You don’t even know,” she said, and she started walking again.
Now Nicole was supposed to contemplate her punishment. But she hated her sister. Last week her sister had cut the head off of Nicole’s stuffed animal dog that she’d had all her life. The dog was black and the fur nubbed and worn down. She called him “Doggie” and he had looked so horrible, standing headless on all fours. Nicole’s aunt had sewn his head back on, but Nicole felt distanced from him. Until then, Nicole had thought that he had been protecting her; she hadn’t realized it had been the other way around. And not only had she not recognized this, but she had also failed. This astounding shortcoming nagged at her so that she couldn’t love Doggie with the same, unbridled affection she had before.
“What I heard,” Nicole’s oldest sister said, “is that it’s three o’clock and the ice man is going to be on the corner.”
“No money,” said her other sister.
Nicole stayed quiet. But she wanted to say, thanks for nothing, thanks for the walk on the hottest day of the year, thanks for leading us nowhere, thanks for being good at nothing except being mean and dumb.
Collecting alimony was a disease Nicole knew her oldest sister was going to get. She looked more like their aunt than their mother, and therefore Nicole knew her sister would follow her aunt’s exact same path. The alimony meant that her aunt didn’t work. Alimony watched TV and waited for Nicole, or her sisters, or her mother to come home to have someone to talk to about the TV.
Her oldest sister flat out making things up was a symptom of the alimony. They all knew the ice man came out in front of their house at three on Sundays. They didn’t need to walk through razor-like sun to stumble on that discovery. But here they were, going home with nothing gained but more sweat.
Each of the white, marble stoops on their block glistened in the sun, but theirs sparkled like a throne. They returned to their spots, Nicole on bottom, middles in the middle, and the oldest should have been on the top step but she stayed in the street.
“I’m going,” she said.
Behind her back the middle oldest whispered, “She’s not going to get any ice with no money.”
The fat sister shook her head.
Alimony, Nicole thought.
They watched the oldest sway down the sidewalk. At the corner, the ice man waited. He was a bent, cracked, rickety, old man with hands that loved the handle of his ice cart, that let go only to collect the dollar fifty, slide open the one side of the metal top, and retrieve your cup of flavored ice. When accepting the ice, you had to pinch the cup in a way so as not to touch his fingers. They had made a game of holding their breath to avoid inhaling his smell.
The ice man wore brown sweatpants and a brown sweatshirt even though it was a hundred degrees, and even hotter in the sun. His long, deflated white hair reminded Nicole of a dead balloon.
They watched their sister—the way she touched the cart with two fingers and shifted her hair from one shoulder to the other. They couldn’t hear, but they could see her talking, her lips sliding over her bold, white teeth. Nicole’s oldest sister filled her clothes in a way Nicole did not quite understand. T-shirt and shorts wrapped tight to her sister’s body. All of Nicole’s clothes fit loosely but at the same time were also straight and stiff. Nicole deduced she was a different kind of person.
Empty-handed, the oldest returned. “Stupid man,” she said.
“Uh huh,” the fat sister said.
“You go,” the oldest said to the middle oldest. And because the oldest said it, the middle oldest obediently got up and made her way to the corner.
“If she comes back without ice I’m going to be pissed,” the oldest said. She resumed her post at the top of the stoop.
But how was Nicole’s sister supposed to get it? The worthlessness of this effort exhausted Nicole, and now she had to watch her next sister fail. Her sister glanced back to the stoop with the timidity of a guilty child. Sometimes this sister would play a game just with Nicole, like ponies or circus. Without the other two watching, the middle oldest would indulge Nicole to the point of abandon, neighing importantly and pawing and prancing around their bedroom. When they played like this, Nicole knew the middle oldest enjoyed something she didn’t want to give up entirely yet, or lose. Something resided in the Nicole that needed to be hidden and was also cherished.
The middle oldest shuffled back to the stoop.
“Can’t do anything,” the oldest said, even though she hadn’t been able to get the ice either. She looked at the fat sister. “You’re our last chance,” she said. “Because you know Nicole is worthless. Maybe he’ll take pity on you since you look so hungry.”
“Should have taken pity on you for being half dumb,” the fat sister said. But she delicately pushed herself off the stoop and wiped the sweat from her face with the back of her hand, as if she were the fabled star of a black and white movie. And then with her distinctive, diminutive walk she approached the ice man.
Her sister spoke with her hands, gesturing back to the stoop and then touching the middle of her chest. She placed both palms over her heart. The ice man spoke and her sister countered, miming the sun, the atmosphere-less heat, and their pointless journey past the gas station and through the alley. The glare on the ice man’s cart hurt Nicole’s eyes and she let her eyelids flutter and then close. She leaned herself back onto the stoop so that the stair above her dug into her back and her head rested on the corner of the next step up. She could believe she slept slung over tree branches on a lone, bony tree in the middle of the red, African desert while lions watched her from below. This idea, of resting soundly so close to danger but out of its reach lulled her. Her brain dipped into an arresting, mollifying sleep that felt as complete as an eternity.
A shadow across her face woke her, and her fat sister climbed to the step where Nicole rested her head, and sat, forcing Nicole to sit up. She rose too quickly and startled the sleeping versions of herself, so she had to wait for them to still and settle back into her body. Coils of heat pressed down on her. Her need to get out of the sun lurched through her with a force that brought her to her feet.
The oldest said, “You don’t have the balls.”
The ice man watched her approaching, as if he knew all along this would happen, that all four sisters would ply him. The creases in his face were thick like rolls of putty, as if Nicole could reshape them, or smooth them to make a different person.
“Dollar fifty,” the ice man said. Nicole thought she heard defiance in his tone, or maybe mockery.
She shook her head.
“I’ll tell you the same I told the others,” he said. His gummy mouth shortened each word to its essential sounds. “You can have the ice. But you have to give me a hug.”
Nicole heard what she heard, but the sudden heat in her ears made her question. Her ears swelled as if they had been stung by a hundred needles. Her sisters had not said a thing. Each had been propositioned with the same offer, and yet, here they still sent her. What liars. Nicole wanted to defy them. But touching the ice man, or letting the ice man touch her, carried a weight that she sensed more than comprehended. Her sisters should have done something; they should have told her, because at that moment she couldn’t reason with herself to know what made sense and what didn’t. Was the ice man innocent, lonely, the unfair recipient of their judgement and hate, or was he sneaky, nefarious, a shriveled stick of yearning trying to capitalize one last time? The ice man stared with mirth, or with contempt, or finally with victory because he could probably read in Nicole’s eyes that she had decided there was only one answer.
She stepped around the side of the cart, placing her hand for a moment on the cart handle. It burned her. The whole metal of the cart was burning. How could the ice be so cold while the cart burned? The ice man quickly took her into his thin, tight arms and squeezed her hard into his chest. He smelled like tar and urine. Nicole remained still despite the panic seizing her every living cell. Maybe the panic kept her still, because she couldn’t move while the shock of it roiled through her. He released her just as suddenly, but a part of her stayed pressed to him. She could see the shadow of herself crouched in his arms forever.
He removed four ices from the cart and arranged them in her fingers. “That was for one. I’ll collect the other three. Not today.”
Her sisters said she was infected for life and would die a young death. They said she had lice now, and bacteria, and pneumonia. No one would ever touch her again.
Nicole lunged closer as if to hug them. She threatened to touch them and they ran away. She took her oldest sister’s place on the stoop while they stood on the sidewalk, and gleefully ate all four ices. Her insides purred with cool satisfaction. The sisters shouted insults back and forth over the heat warped road until their mother commanded them inside.
Nicole almost didn’t turn back to look for the ice man. But on her last step before the door, before entering the hollow of her home, she stopped. The corner was empty. He had vanished, just as he usually did, his absence annihilating his presence. His whole existence seemed precarious like that, dependent on others, on Nicole, to continue.
Rachel Kozloski is a writer from Baltimore, Maryland. This is her first publication. She is currently working on a novel.