How Long Do Snails Sleep?
Tuesday afternoon shift at the Walgreens when it happens: he smiles at her from a tabloid magazine cover, placed indiscriminately into the rack across from her checkout counter. Blocked partially by the man attempting to purchase adult diapers from her, she instinctually smiles back at the glossy cover.
The man with the diapers hands her cash, and she’s trying to make change, but she can’t look away from that magazine. She so badly needs to get a little closer to the familiar face. Casey Mason, the magazine cover says in bold yellow letters, colon, reality TV’s newest hunk.
Casey Mason, she says, to no one. Who’s that?
After her shift at the Walgreens she must drive to the elementary and pick up her little girl. Her work smock smells a bit like sour milk, she notices in the cramped area of the car. There are so many little children waiting at the curb of the school that it’s hard to remember exactly what hers looks like, and then, there she is. She reminds her daughter to buckle up.
The little girl has reached the age of questions, and they start again this afternoon as soon as she clips her seatbelt. What’s for dinner? Did you bring me any candy? Were the people nice to you today? How fast do cars go? Why does gasoline smell like that? What’s your favorite flower? What’s mine? How come some people take the bus? Did you ever ride a bus? Did Daddy? Can I?
Enough with the bus already.
When they arrive home Daddy is already there, stretched out in the easy chair with underarms exposed. He looks for any sign of groceries or something that his wife needs lifted, but stops when she gestures for him to sit. So his attention turns to his little girl, and he asks her what she learned today. She doesn’t answer.
Why are you home so early, she asks instead. Did you get in trouble at work?
Daddy didn’t. He swears by it.
What times is it? What’s on TV tonight? Can we go to the zoo tomorrow?
Daddy tells the little girl to go off and play somewhere.
She takes her place on the couch next to the easy chair. Daddy’s hand lightly brushes her knee and that’s it. They watch a news program about Hollywood celebrities because that’s what’s on. She doesn’t ask him to change it. She knows he has been sent home early from the job site, and she understands he feels badly about himself, so it’s better not to ask about it. This is something she appreciates deeply, his feeling bad about himself. Angelina Jolie is on the television. Daddy gets up from the easy chair because he needs to take a leak. She tells him she’ll start making dinner soon.
But she doesn’t make dinner because on the television she sees the familiar face again. She scrambles for the remote control to turn up the television’s volume, even though it is already too loud. The remote is nowhere easy, maybe between couch cushions or something. A woman’s voice says his name again: Casey Mason. What a stupid name, she thinks. The news reporter is talking about the tabloid article. She says that at least one woman has come forward. Come forward, the woman on the couch thinks, forward from where? The television is just a big smiling face of Casey Mason now. She cannot look away.
Daddy is back from the bathroom and the news story is over.
How far is it to Alaska? Do you know any Eskimos? Can I have ice cream later? Chunky Monkeys?
They are sitting at the dinner table and listening to questions from their little girl. Do you guys know how to play chess? When was America made? How long do you have to put a potato in the oven? Where do babies come from?
Eat your spaghetti.
Do I have to?
In the meantime the adults say nothing to each other, but Daddy lays a palm against her thigh beneath the table.
After dinner she stands at the sink and rubs the dishes, unable to think. Her daughter watches from a stool. The marinara has caked on already. Maybe he just has one of those faces. She leans forward to get better leverage on the saucepan. Maybe.
Can I have a pair of shoes like your red ones? How long until Christmas?
Mommy, the little girl says, can we play the internet now?
She says yes, because this is one of their favorite games. And anyway this pan needs to soak.
So they sit in front of a dusty secondhand desktop with an open browser window. Go ahead, she says.
How far away is the moon? Just about 239,000 miles. How long would it take to get there? About three days for a spacecraft. Why are clouds so big?
I don’t know, she says, after clicking through several of the links. No one seems to know.
You’ll just have to figure it out for yourself someday, she tells her little girl. Go tell Daddy to get you ready for bed.
With her daughter gone for a moment, she is free to type his name. Casey Mason. Where do I know him from?
Daddy was supposed to tuck in their little girl but he was so tired he went to bed early. So she’ll have to do it. She offers her daughter a bedtime story. Of course not. Why can’t you tell me a bedtime story yourself? Why can’t you make one up? Did Grandma tell you stories? Can we call Grandma? Why is she asleep? How far is it to Cincinnati? Why is Daddy so tired all the time? Who is Casey Mason?
What did you say?
I said, how long do snails sleep?
She tells her daughter to go to bed already.
Her little girl does, and then so does she. She pulls her shirt up and her jeans down in the darkness beside the bed. With a foot she searches the floor for the tee and gym shorts she calls pajamas. She slides into bed next to Daddy and pushes her chest against his back. He doesn’t stir.
What if that night her dreams are so real that she can taste the slurry of vodka and Kool-Aid on her teeth?
Their daughter is also at the age of waking early. Even before sunrise she is crawling between them. Daddy is always happy to see her first thing. This morning he begins a tickling game. No one can sleep any longer.
How come we have Pop-Tarts but not Toaster Strudels? How old is Mrs. Auerbach? Will I get old? Can we get a dog?
Throughout the morning routine, its coffee and clean underwear and roll-on deodorants, the little girl’s questions never cease. Who invented the hot air balloon? Where’s the biggest rollercoaster? Has anybody ever farted so loud that they died?
Not at the breakfast table, Daddy says.
Will you tell me later?
Later they are putting on shoes and backpacks and Daddy is back on the easy chair because of whatever was said during his earlier phone call, and the television is on again because it is on unless someone turns it off, and whatever morning talk show has cut to a short segment about the Casey Mason controversy. She stops and watches the television. She drops the little girl’s shoes. The reporter says the word allegations.
Are you okay, Daddy asks, because he sees the shoes dropped onto the floor.
She asks, who, me?
Then: Actually, can you take her to school today? I’m not feeling well.
When she sees the pickup round the bend at the edge of the street, she fires up the desktop to retrace her steps. She is astounded by the availability of answers. She finds an address, and it’s far but not too far. She calls in to her shift manager at the Walgreen’s, who asks, are you sure can’t make it? She’s sure.
And within an hour and a half she is pulling off the freeway and into a little grove of bungalows. There is nowhere to park, not with all of the news station vans and gawkers. She leaves her car in a Taco Bell parking lot and walks a couple miles in the midmorning sun. A barricade has been erected. Women wait in a shiftless crowd, some bearing signs made with permanent markers and the eggshell poster board she recognizes from Walgreens shelves. A few cops wait near the barriers. Men wait with cameras on shoulders, their on-screen counterparts barking into cell phones. She takes her place among them. They are all waiting for him, she knows, that familiar face.
Nothing happens for a very long time. She goes for soft tacos and a piss break and returns in the afternoon. She leans against the barrier.
Casey Mason emerges from the front door of the bungalow just a little after one o’clock. He walks with a jacket held in front of his face. She cannot see him. She wants to yell out and ask him to move it, if just for a second, but he is in the driver’s seat of his car before her words find their way out. Everyone else shouts, though, with so many questions they tangle into a cacophony. Then the cops are moving the crowd back, the car is backing into the street, and she is squinting to try and see his face through the tint of the driver’s side window, and she yells a question after him, but it dies in the sound of the engine moving off.
When she returns home, she finds Daddy dozing in his chair. She wishes she could wake him and ask him, why am I acting like this? But he is so easy to watch, stretched out vulnerable before her. His lips move as if he’s talking, but no sounds come out. And anyway it is time to pick up their little girl again.
It is in fact a little after time, she realizes, because theirs is the only little girl left on the curb. She apologizes to the teacher standing there checking her watch. It won’t happen again.
Her daughter sits in the backseat, clasps her seatbelt across her little jumper. She smiles at her in the rearview mirror.
What did you do today, she asks her daughter. Was it a good day? Did you make any friends? Were the boys nice to you? Did you play with them? You didn’t cry, did you? What about your nap? Did you miss me? Did you like the lunch I made you? Do you remember when you were born? Do you remember the way I held you? You don’t remember it at all? What’s the first thing you do remember? Who was that teacher at the curb with you? Do you want to play the internet later? You will always love me, won’t you? And Daddy? No matter what? Why aren’t you saying anything?
Alexander Luft’s work has appeared in Yemassee, Midwestern Gothic, Chicago Literati, and a variety of other magazines. He currently lives in his wife’s apartment in Sydney, Australia.