Substitutions

 
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Jess Richardson

Art by Pippa Healy

 
 

The mother insisted it was time to learn feathers. Mae fidgeted. She was imagining a fine necklace with prosciutto for the jewels, stretched out in opal octagons, delicate gold filigree enclosing the sparkling ham.

“We come from a long line of featherers,” Mae’s mother droned.

Mae wanted to try on the meat necklace in their new house, which was smaller than their old house, but better. There were more dogs in the neighborhood and there was a downtown to walk to and keep her parents busy.

The servers were late with their glasses of ice water, which had her mother’s eyes rolling.

Mae noticed one of the servers, an unkempt blonde with black and blue painted fingernails, was sent home when they arrived. The one stuck working alone was flustered. She wore clear nail polish and didn’t have enough folded napkins. Mae’s mom could be dense. Cruel, even. Fog pressed against the windows and slid in thin drips.

“Are we to take out our kits?” Mae asked.

“Why are you talking like you’re in an old movie?”

Mae touched her invisible prosciutto necklace and demurely shrugged. “Why, am I?” she said, and her mother and her mother’s best friend laughed. They went back to talking about what to do with the new porch.

 

“Mae knew about drugs. Mae knew all about drugs, even if nobody suspected her with her glimmering hams.”

 

In Mae’s opinion, the new porch was perfect. You could fit one little table on it, for one friend at a time. Or multiple dogs. It hugged you in from the rain. What more could you want from a porch? But these unsatisfied women wanted a great deal more.

The flustered server had guilted the one leaving into folding napkins before he left. Mae could tell he was annoyed, with his sloping shoulders and painted fingernails tapping the drum kit of the banquette. He wanted to go out on the town and do some drugs.

Mae knew about drugs. Mae knew all about drugs, even if nobody suspected her with her glimmering hams.

“You don’t need a kit for understanding feathers. What you need is an imagination.” Mae’s mother said this as if she thought herself extremely wise and speaking to a toddler. “For now, a notepad will suffice.”

Mae obliged. She liked her notepad’s clasp, it clicked. She opened the pages and wrote feathers at the top. Then she got busy drawing arrows with her multicolored gel pens.

“What do you need those for?”

“Shooting,” Mae said and crinkled her nose to appear ominous. It worked. The women giggled uncomfortably. Then madly. They flashed horrendously lipsticked canines and meaty gums, curling their wet crow’s feet to the heavens.

The flustered server stammered the specials. Mae’s mom asked her to slow down and repeat some of them and Mae kicked her. A cockroach hid behind a flowerpot and only Mae knew.

“I’m already good at feathers. I was born good,” she said.

“Oh yeah,” said her horrible mother. “Prove it.”

 
 

Mae stood up and offered a miniature performance. She did her whole cabaret act, but in smaller movements and in fast-forward. The women were overjoyed. It had nothing to do with feathers as far as Mae knew, but they seemed to accept the substitution.

Most people will accept substitutions. It’s a great trick, Mae uses it often. Around them a chorus of smartphones sparkled and Mae wished she had time to dive into all the tiny worlds.

When the server arrived Mae said, “I’ll have whatever’s easiest. A coffee?”

The server looked uncertain. But the heinous mother twinkled her fingers in permission. “The kid drinks coffee all the time,” she said, as if it were out of her hands.

“Coffee is not easiest.”

“It isn’t?” Mae pressed her fingers to her chest.

“No, you’ve got to brew it. Pour it. Set up creamer and sugar service.”

“Wine then,” said Mae, waving the trouble away and the women laughed.

“Can I see your ID?”

Mae handed her the feathers worksheet. The server nodded solemnly and brought her grape juice in a long-stemmed glass.

Her derelict mother ordered the beef bourguignon.

“Boeuf,” Mae said.

“What?”

“Boeuf,” she repeated.

It was as if the best friend had never heard the word spelled right there in ink. Mae was glad her mother had her best friend again. In their old town, she’d been alone with Mae’s dull father, and her heart had crisped into a dry wafer.

 
 

The drug abuser finally left the restaurant. Even though it was busy now. He failed to read the room on purpose, so that he could be up to no good like he preferred.

The poor left-behind server responsibly napkinned the crap out of the place, all on her own. Mae invited her over to sit on her new porch when she finally brought out the boeuf.

To Mae’s surprise the server accepted. “It’s tradition to show the new folks our feathering,” she said. Mae shivered with delight.

The women appeared disappointed with the seasoning, but they chewed their little French stew and shut up about it.

Mae hardly knew what anyone was talking about. But it didn’t matter.

The restaurant was practically falling down around them. It wasn’t the napkinner’s fault she was a two-bit server. She shouldn’t have to be all alone just because her coworkers run around in nefarious drug worlds.

Mae sipped her grape juice and strategized in her notebook. The key to feathers, like everything, was to pretend you were the whole sky. Become a blanket and parachute. Fray off.

Her mother insisted the key was in your bank of options. But Mae stood up again and danced like she was thunder itself, and none of them could say a word. The server joined in, and they brought down the house. Everyone accepted the substitution.

“We have never seen better!” Mae heard people say. It was ludicrous they wanted curtains of wool pulled over their steamy glasses, but fine, Mae would give them reams. She would feather it all into oblivion until no one knew who they were.

On her way out of the restaurant, she pocketed a napkin and a clear barrel of salt. No one saw. She winked at the roach.

 

At home, dog after dog visited the porch to pay their respects to Mae. They sensed the awful beauty of her jewelry collection. She donned a salami bracelet in greeting.

The server never arrived as promised. Her mother tried not to be cruel. She said it was because the server was a professional. Mae sat at the table alone, while all around her they hung real and fake plants to upsize the tiny space. All they did was green it and sneeze. Mae allowed the dogs to sense the grandeur of her crystal-studded liverwurst rings, which she was honored to let them lick while the fog rolled right into their eyes. Eventually, she knew, her parents would leave the porch to her and stumble to the art gallery or some other absurd space admiring all they’d never understand.

When they returned, she would ply every secret from the weak and paltry tendrils of their hands until they shrugged their bony wings and clapped for her and all her dogs and gems.

Unfortunately, Mae was correct. Except to her surprise, her parents brought the untalented server back with them from the galleries. They laughed right up the street, disturbing her carefully constructed canine luncheon and emerging from the dusky froth like a set of goats.

The server looked guilty. She should. This wasn’t right at all, the three of them becoming best friends, which obviously they were. Mae almost pinched the server’s leg but showed restraint.

“She’s agreed to tutor you in—”

“Bologna!” Mae said to her nasty mother and sat the three of them down for their lessons, which they never learned.

All around them owls and bugs woke up and Mae willed the adults to follow, but they just laughed like empty bags at the crevasses in her where words had not yet blended every splotch to mud. She laughed right along, pretending for now.

She would pretend like this her whole life.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Jess Richardson

Jessica Lee Richardson (Jess/she/her) is an associate professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art. She is the author of It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides (FC2). Her work has been honored at The Short Form, Zoetrope, Short Fiction, the National Society of Arts and Letters, PEN America, and won the Grindstone International Novel Prize. Stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Commuter at Electric Lit, Gulf Coast, New Delta Review, Propagule, Slice, and other places.



Pippa Healy

Pippa Healy is an artist based in London. She studied photography at Central Saint Martins and University of Westminster and received an MA in printmaking at Camberwell College of Arts. Healy works with both analog and digital photography as well as screen printing and photopolymer. Her diaristic practice is concerned with themes of loss, longing, violence, and grief. Her handmade zines are in the collections of the Tate, Martin Parr Foundation, and Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris. Her work has been exhibited internationally.



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