The quilted woman was the first woman I saw nude. I was eight that summer, taking a shortcut through her yard on the way to the ball field, and I caught a glimpse of her through a window. She danced as she dusted the mantel in her dining room. Her back was to me, and the rhythm she used to wipe the cloth across the wood grain came up from her feet and through her hips with a ripple, the chink-chink of her bracelets just whispering below the cracked window with every revolution of her wrist.
I thought about what I saw, thought about it into the night. I dreamt the quilted woman and I were in a room together, her back to me. I felt the urge to tell her something, though I don’t remember now what it was, if I ever knew at all. I reached out to touch her shoulder, but when I did her tattoos roiled on her skin. They reached out towards my hand. I jerked it back. I wanted to say, “Excuse me, mam,” but couldn’t, or I could but knew that I must not. I reached out again. This time the tattooed portrait of a young man’s face turned from the scapula where it rested and opened its mouth, the green outlined tongue pulled back, the mouth ready to bite.
I never dreamed of her again, but I thought of her for days, dancing with the rhythm of lunar waves, her bracelets sashaying crisply as she dusted the mantel. I packed a camera and walked past her house every morning on the way to the bus stop, though it was out of the way. Then, one morning I heard the whisk-whisk of the bracelets, even before I could see inside the window. I took the Polaroid from my bag, aimed, and shot. The camera was like an engine firing in my hands, and I thought for sure she’d hear it, but she dusted the mantle without missing a beat. I took another picture and then another, the images gliding to the cool grass. Then, just as I was about to take another picture, she stopped. I ducked, scooped the loose pictures from the ground, and collapsed to the wall below the window. I could feel the weight of her gaze above me, surveying where I had been. I stuffed everything into my bag, crawled to the edge of the house, and ran.
I just made the bus and powered my way down the aisle that smelled like diesel and rubber and vinyl. The doors shut behind me while I looked for an open seat. Then I felt it, the tip of my shoe drag the floor. I buckled and tumbled. My book bag flew forward, and my zipper, not secure, splayed wide, spitting the camera and pictures everywhere.
I stood. “Give me that,” I said, yanking a picture from a boy who gaped slack-jawed and wide-eyed at the image. He snapped out of his trance when I snagged the picture and then turned a curious but accusatory face up at me. It was too late. The half a dozen pictures were making their way down the aisle. Kids stared at me or at the images. One boy laughed and turned in his seat to show the girl behind him. She screamed. Then another boy snagged the picture from the first boy, the picture making its way back.
“Sit down back there!” Hollered the bus driver, his bearded face watching from the long mirror.
I seized a picture from a girl next to me. I worked my way down the aisle, taking pictures from people until I tried to take one from Dennis, an older boy. He laughed and swatted my hand.
“I said sit down. What’s going on back there?” the driver asked, the bus coming to a halt.
I tried to take the picture again, but Dennis leaned back, smashing the girl next to him into the window. I came at him and reached for the picture, but he grabbed my wrist and pushed me away with his foot. I fell into the girl behind me. A few kids laughed. I came at him again, this time swinging. The laughter stopped as my fist made contact. One punch slipped past Dennis and caught the girl next to him in the side of the head. Dennis swung at me from his back, the picture falling and coming to rest beneath the seat. I immediately stopped swinging and bent down to grab the picture, catching a punch to the side of the neck. Just before my fingers reached the picture, I felt myself lifted from my feet and drug down the aisle. The bus driver threw me by the scruff of my neck in the single occupancy seat directly behind his, the seat for trouble makers.
“Don’t you move from that seat,” he said and then turned. Dennis hid the picture beneath his leg. “Give me it,” said the bus driver. Dennis handed him the picture. The bus driver looked at it a moment, then said, “The rest of you, pass the pictures up to me.” Most listened, getting rid of the pictures as quickly as possible, but it was clear some disobeyed.
“If I find out you’ve kept a picture, you’ll be suspended from the bus for the rest of the year.”
There was rustling as the rest of the kids pulled mashed pictures from the pockets of their pants or bags. The pictures made their way to the bus driver in a slow processional where most kids took one more look before passing the images on.
Once at school, I was led to the student counselor’s office for questioning and then sent to the principal’s office, where I sat until my dad picked me up. The principle gave him a manila envelope with the pictures, which he never opened. Then we drove back home. I waited for an explosion or questions, but my dad steadied his gaze on the road without a word.
When we pulled into the driveway, my dad killed the engine and said, “Stay here.” He went inside the house and returned with mom and then came around the car and opened my door. “Let’s go,” he said.
“Where are we going?”
“Get out.” Dad shut the door behind me and handed me the envelope. “Let’s go,” he repeated, heading down the block.
I followed a few steps and then realized what was going on. “Dad,” I said.
“Now, or I’ll drag you myself.”
I watched the house down the street grow as I followed my family. We climbed the porch. I heard my mother exhale heavily as my dad rang the doorbell. I tried to hand her the envelope, but she didn’t acknowledge me. Then I tried to hand it to my dad.
“Cut it out,” he said, pushing the envelope into my chest hard enough I took two steps back. He grabbed my shoulder and pulled me beside him.
After a moment, the door opened. It was the quilted woman, draped in a mauve robe, her hair pulled back but with some strands astray. “Yes?”
“Ms., we’re the Murphy’s from down the road,” my dad said, pointing at our house.
“Our son has something to give you and something he’d like to say.”
Dad stepped away, giving me the stage. The quilted woman looked down at me. I stared at me feet and the envelop I crushed in my fists.
“Boy,” my dad urged.
I lifted the envelope without looking up.
“You’d better say something to her,” my dad said.
“A lot,” my mom confirmed.
“I’m sorry,” I wheezed.
“Look her in the face,” my dad said, grabbing my chin and lifting my head.
“I’m sorry,” I said again.
She didn’t answer. She just opened the envelope, her bracelets chinking as she pulled the pictures out. She flipped through a few, dropping them back into the envelope one at a time. Then she sealed it again.
“Come in,” she said.
My mom shut the door behind us. The house was dim, but the light from the window where I took the pictures pushed through and hugged the mantel where she had dusted. Across the mantel were ceremonial flags folded in cases. Pictures hung above them.
“Please, sit, I’d like to show you something.”
We sat. The quilted woman stepped back and began undoing the belt of her robe.
“Excuse me,” said my mother. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Be quite,” said the woman.
“Darrel,” said my mom. “Do something.”
“What should I do?” he asked, looking at the quilted woman.
“There’s nothing you can do,” said the woman. “He’s seen this already. I deserve a chance to speak.”
“He’s just a boy,” my mom snapped.
“Why did you bring him here?”
“So that he could apologize,” my dad answered.
“And feel guilt for how he behaved,” my mom added.
“You want him to learn something from this?”
“Yes,” both parents answered.
“Then be still.”
My mom sat back, but her body tensed as the belt unloosed and gown fell to the floor.
“This is for my husband,” said the woman, bringing her hand between her breasts, pointing at a hearth with a flame. It was a perfect rendition of the fireplace just behind her. “He was a mason.” She turned and pointed to the dining room wall. “He built that fireplace and mantel by hand.” Then she turned back to us. With a fingertip, she traced the picture between her small breasts. “He made every brick before laying them.” She moved her finger along the tattoo. “That’s a picture of him. It matches the real one. And here,” she said, moving her finger to a small triangle shape tattooed on the mantel, “is the flag they gave me when he died in 1958.” She slid her hand across the tattoo and stopped. “This is a picture of our son and the flag they gave me when he died in 1977, fighting the same war.”
“I’m so sorry,” my mom said, squeezing my leg.
“Hold him tight,” said the woman.
The quilted woman took us along the rest of her, showing us a beautiful and detailed rendition of a horse she had as a kid, and a picture of a barn which symbolized the horse farm she grew up on but lost after her father died of leukemia. There was a profile of him on her scapula. She traced a picture of a sundress, which unfurled around her thigh, her mother’s favorite dress, which she wore the day Alzheimers took her, even though it was December and cold. We sat for so long and learned about her life in every inch of flesh. Finally, she stopped.
“I’m a quilt of all I’ve lost. As you can see,” she said, pointing to the tops of her shoulders and face, “there’s not much left to lose. But I have all of this,” she said extending her arms to all that surrounded her. “And all of this,” she said, showcasing her body with her hands, palms upturned.
She saw that I cried.
“Don’t worry. What remains none of you can take from me. Now run along, you and your family.”
We did. We ran along, the three of us, back into the world as we were told.
Mitch James was born and raised in Central Illinois, where he received a BA in English with a minor in Creative Writing from Eastern Illinois University. He received a Master’s in Literature and a Ph.D. in Composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Mitch is an Instructor of Composition and Literature at Lakeland Community College. He’s had fiction and poetry published in Decomp, Underground Voices, Kill Author, Digital Americana and Blue Earth Review among others.
Literary Editor: John Yu Branscum