STEMS

BY LEN KUNTZ

When I pick her up from school my daughter says, “Mom always takes us to Chili’s.” I wonder who else goes with, then realize “us” just means them.

After we’ve eaten we get back into the car and I don’t start it. I angle the rearview so I can see my daughter, see how she has my ex’s nose and her cleft chin.

My daughter works her jaw, frowning, straining.

“What’re you eating?”

She slurs the word, “Nothing” but I can see it there between her tongue and gums, what looks like a piece of leather shoe lace.

“What is that thing in your mouth?”

She spits it into her palm and slips it into her pocket like a church offering.

“It’s nothing, just a cherry stem.”

“You’re still hungry?”

“No.”

I haven’t started the engine yet. I’m waiting for an answer, plus I’m nervous myself. I paid a maid to clean my apartment, but I realize there will be comparisons.

My daughter looks panicked. “Aren’t we going to go?”

I turn on the radio. Some band called Everclear sings about still dreaming of the west coast.

My daughter shifts, knees folded toward me as a buffer. “Okay,” she says, “so if you can tie a knot with your tongue it’s supposed to mean something.”

“Mean what?”

She blushes so that her cheeks match her lipstick. “Can we just go? Please?”

Today Doug from work had me go to Human Resources. Some coworkers said they smelled alcohol on my breath, though I proved it was just a new brand of cologne.

“Okay,” Doug said, “but you’ve changed, and that’s not a compliment.”

When we get to the apartment my daughter and I watch a movie, a documentary about the slaughter of an entire African village. The whole time my daughter texts her friends, sometimes giggling at a response.

In the morning I take her to school and drop her off in the same spot I picked her up yesterday. I’m late but I drive back to the apartment anyway.

The maid must have moved the bottle from where I keep it under the bathroom sink. I search everywhere. I punch a wall. The mirror wobbles and glass chinks like sleigh bells.

I remove a tub of Scope and drink from the spout without breathing, gulping, wishing it didn’t burn so much, wishing it burned differently.

My daughter’s sweatshirt is left on the couch. When I pick it up, a skein of a hundred cherry stems falls out. I pick a stray off the floor. It tastes earthy and raw, used. I work with my tongue until sweat drips down my nose and into my mouth. After awhile I use my fingers and it’s it like diapering a fly, but I get the knot made, I do, heart-shaped with a twist. Then I put it back in my mouth and swallow.

Len Kuntz lives on a lake in rural Washington State with rural sea creatures. His work appears in places like Mud Luscious, Juked, Elimae and also at lenkuntz.blogspot.com


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One thought on “STEMS

  1. Mark Reep says:

    Hard stuff, well handled. Great story.

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