On the lawn, under the living room window and between the rose bushes, the three gnomes stand in a single row, cone hats like small red pyramids against the desert yellow of Paul Assenger’s house, names painted on two by his dead wife, on one by my mother.
I destroy them all.
Calvin and Allistair first, the two oldest, all cherry cheeks with tiny axes in their hands, smears of dirt and dust on their name plates where damp cloths habitually do their best but aren’t good enough. I dangle them from each hand by their conjoined booted feet, swing them into the various formations of decorative rocks I’d seen the dead wife place around the lawn two springs ago as she pruned the rose bushes, robed and flip-flopped and bald, the last time I’d seen her out before she died. I swing, stumbling but steady, until they halve, round faces pathetic and grinning as they drop between thorns and roses and roll to the lawn’s edge, leaving hollow feet and name plates in my hands. I take my hammer to the tiny coiling cursive letters until they’re indiscernible, scattering dust of resin like confetti on the grass.
And then I turn to Lloyd. A timid-looking thing, smiling tentatively with the heels of his gray boots kissing, a lantern hanging from his outstretched right arm. A gift from my mother, bought and given last week on our road trip to Portland with Paul Assenger and his daughter Phiona for my thirteenth birthday, where Phiona and I had shared lip gloss and sweaters, and where Paul Assenger had draped his coat over my mother’s shoulders every night and given me the white chocolate flowers off his slice of birthday cake and said, “Come on, girls,” as he took my and Phiona’s hands and grinned for a photo for my mother. For months beforehand my mother had been putting earrings and mascara on, had been calling him Pauly. She’d shaken her dresses out of their dry cleaner garment bags, tried them on for me, said, “This one I wore to prom with your father.” When she’d painted Lloyd’s name across his boots from toe to toe, it’d been in a shade darker than Calvin and Allistair’s, with a shake to her letters and stray dollops drying where her brush had paused. But she’d tried.
When my hammer strikes Lloyd, it lands just above the belt over his indigo coat and shamrock green tights. He hollows, and I strike over and again until his head severs, until he’s an unfinished beard with a red hat like an ice-cream cone, until a car pulls up and opens and shuts its doors behind me, and Phiona asks what the hell I think I’m doing before they realize it’s me.
Calvin and Allistair’s upper halves are by Phiona’s feet. She looks at me like she could hate me. Paul looks at me like he won’t.
I shove my hammer in my backpack. I clasp Lloyd’s head in my hand. I leave them the rest of him.
At home, my mom sees Lloyd cradled in my palms and says, “Oh, Leni.” She sits up. I sit on the couch next to her, where she’s been since Paul told her, as my father might’ve, that he wasn’t ready after all, might never be, and apologized for wasting her time. I move her legs onto my lap, and she cups my face in her palms, swipes her thumbs under my eyes, strokes my hair. She tells me that I learned to walk during an earthquake, that my arms weren’t raised at my front but at my sides, fingers rolled into fists. She tells me that I’d teetered on plump calves, but I didn’t cry, not once. She tells me that before I could walk, I could steady myself.
“You lucky girl.”
Notes from Guest Reader Michael Don
I admire how ‘Earthquake Girls’ simultaneously hits the reader over the head and exercises restraint. This story unapologetically pulls the reader into an outrageous scene—the obliteration of three yard gnomes—yet trusts that the anger felt by the narrator need not be explained or justified. An entire world lurks right behind and underneath and above and around the corner from the main event of this story, and yet in 600 words it manages to feel whole and satisfying.