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Mike Lee: Subsumed


Images: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/liuWJ2EHDnY) 03.07.2022.



Tartan Week



For her thirteenth birthday, Kat spent a weekend with Aunt Betty Lou and Uncle Howard in Bellaire, at their ranch-style home with the front yard of pines blanketing the ground with needles, the sweet smell of honeysuckle growing up the brick façade.

This time, Kat had a bed to herself since her cousin named Betty, like Kat’s big sister, was away at SMU. So Kat went through Betty’s closets and drawers, trying out the makeup she left behind and some of her clothes. She couldn’t fit into the jeans; Cousin Betty was taller, and Kat didn’t like the bell bottom flares. Also, her shoes were out of style, and no girl would ever dare inherit the dainties. The dresses and skirts were rather ugly, but Kat did find several striped t-shirts and stuffed them into her suitcase.

The Galleria had a skating rink, but Kat was afraid of skates, as much as she was fond of gymnastics, and was more interested in Frost Bros. and the boutiques set along the tiers under the golden chandeliers hanging high above them. Aunt Betty understood the concept of fashion-forward, mainly when it came to her favorite niece, finding her an adorable white leather waistcoat with zippers at one boutique. Later, Kat got a pair of Chic blue jeans and a wine-colored pair of Gloria Vanderbilts from Frost Bros. A faux ivory compact, several lipstick tubes, dangling Celtic coil earrings with opals, and a pair of black leather strappy sandals made a full shopping day. Kat deeply desired the black off-the-shoulder see-through top, but Aunt Betty gently drew the line at that one.

When birthday and Easter break were over, Kat returned to school wearing the white leather jacket over a black t-shirt, the Gloria Vanderbilts, and the sandals she bought at The Galleria. The teachers complimented her, and she smiled shyly when she caught a boy staring at her from behind a row of lockers. Girls were somewhat stunned and confused. Bubbling jealousy appeared with whispers and furtive glances.

The one who seemed the most jealous was Sherry Abernathy, a dark-haired girl who had arrived mid-winter from Midland.

Unfortunately, Sherry was her table partner in earth sciences class, the final period, and Kat grew anxious, hoping she wouldn’t be mean.

She waited for the onslaught. But, instead, it opened with a question. “Hey, where did you get that jacket?”

“In Houston. At Le Maison in The Galleria. Do you like it?”

“It fits your name, Kat. A stalking kitty in leather and ginger hair. Hmm, like Kat Kat Kitty Kat.” She didn’t sound like she was teasing or insulting, but sweet and friendly.

Sherry added, “I like that name. You’re now bestowed, Kitty Kat.” While she made a blessing motion with her palm over her head, Kat couldn’t help but blush. After school, they went to Sherry’s house, spinning records by The Ramones, The Cars, and The Skids, while munching on crackers smeared with peanut butter and drinking Dr. Pepper.

By the end of eighth grade, she fell in love with science fiction, Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, Latin, and Debbie Harry. Katerina went to her first concert, Elvis Costello and the Attractions at the Austin Opry House, and her hair turned green the first time she tried to dye it blond.

Also, her father had a heart attack, Mom began to seem distant, and her big sister married an Orthodox and moved to Israel.

This prepared them all for the high school up the hill, the sprawling campus of the Fightin’ Scots of John C. MacGavin Heights High School. The basketball program was a heap of God help us except when playing non-conference games against below-average teams from lower classifications. The football team was good because incorporation meant staying out of the more competitive Austin district.

The Fightin’ Scots had a bagpiper with a Golden Retriever sitting loyally at his side as their mascot. The dog was officially named Culloden, of whom the current was the third bestowed this historic and proud name, but who the students derisively called Schmoe.

After breaking from his leash, he had chased the skateboarders in the school parking lot until he got hammered by a board flung during a failed kick flip. The dog wasn’t the same after that, becoming known by legend as the only retriever that allowed Frisbees to bounce off its noggin, eyes staring unknowingly, tongue-wagging, unmoving. Schmoe usually needed to be pulled hard by the winner of the annual Tartan Week competition to get him on the field for football games, and on occasion, Schmoe had to be dragged, his hind legs and rump firmly against the turf, as intermediate level bagpipes wailed and the roar of Fightin’ Scots rippled through the aluminum stands of the newly-christened T.J. Weiner Memorial Field.

Nearly all girls proudly or grudgingly wore the school colors, tartan green, blue, and black knee-length pleated skirts with gold trim on Tartan Week, and occasionally sported berets. Katerina and Sherry loved the berets and often traded Katerina’s wool royal purple beret that Bubbe gave her for her birthday in eighth grade.

Katerina was fond of that beret; Bubbe bought it in Paris before the war, shortly after she married Papa.

Bubbe would always say to Katerina that it looked perfect on her when she tried to dress up as a little girl, finally parting with it when she felt her granddaughter was old enough to take good care of it. Katerina pulled it over just above her right eye, just as she saw it in the faded photos of Bubbe from her European days and the later years living with her husband out in the oil fields near Kilgore.

During Tartan Week, Katerina and Sherry pretended to be English schoolgirls, wearing navy blue blazers with favorite bands and British mod roundel buttons pinned to the lapels draped over their white button-down blouses; white knee socks purposely pushed down punk rock fashion with ballet flats and topsiders.

It wasn’t all that far apart from the preppy style their female cohorts in the class favored, along with stacked heel sandals and black pencil skirts, Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein jeans in various colors, namely purple, which Katerina loved, and black, which was Sherry’s usual choice.

Sometimes Sherry ventured daringly with black Danskin tops, pulled tight over her burgeoning breasts, usually accessorized with her black beret or Katerina’s touched off with a men’s Arrow shirt rolled up to the elbows. Katerina was deep into her darling cutesy phase of teenage fashion: sporting striped blouses with jeans or a shirt dress, namely her favorite red crew collar with thin horizontal stripes cutting across along with her Lolita glasses and as much of the Mary Kay and Max Factor lipstick palette as common sense allowed.

After the first year, styles began to change. Year two, sophomore, began with Katerina and Sherry getting more into punk and new wave, adding bicycle tights and oversized sweaters. They raided respective mothers’ closets, pulling out old dresses.

Katerina had less luck; what did not go to Catholic Charities, St. Vincent the Paul, usually remained from the oh gross early 70s, but a week in Kilgore solved the dilemma when Bubbe gave her several of her best old dinner party frocks dating to the late 40s.

They were Katerina’s size, tailored to fit by a seamstress Bubbe used in Dallas. When she returned home, Katerina laid out the dresses, carefully touching and staring at them as holy relics, admiring the fabric, taffeta, cotton, satin, the flaring pleats, the colors, running fingertips up seams, across lace trims, zippers, over clip hooks. Bubbe threw in a couple of crinolines and a black cashmere overcoat Katerina could only realistically wear five times a year.

The following Monday, Katerina arrived at school wearing a cotton YSL in royal blue along with her first pair of heels, and Sherry’s black beret, with a black shawl over her shoulders. It was the first time boys noticed her—like, really saw her. Behind her bright red lipstick and powdered face, Katerina thought as she looked at the stares, am I stepping out through the threshold from just darling to exotically voluptuous, or is it coed college way back when or Lana Turner sucking on a straw at the soda shop? Is it late-night old movies, pictures of your mama and her pals, and sorority sisters’ arraigned Greek lettering and Texas Longhorn glee club 1959?

Maybe I will do Manic Panic hair color tonight for tomorrow, and I will be Debbie Tide is High Dreaming Denis Call Me Hanging on the Telephone X Offender utterly into Rapture for y’all.

Or Pat with the wet lipstick, or go totally punk Siouxie Sue with Egyptian eyes and angled sharp lips that take forever to do right, but I will do them for all of you, and I kind of have those Betty Davis eyes, but no statuesque blond am I because I’m a short redhead and Austrians and Russians lack angles, and I seemed to miss the train on Mom’s Scots-Irish Celtic flavoring. I can try, though, if you like, because I have those soft curves I know all of you won’t, but only noticed because I am out of my cute girl clothes and became that butterfly kind of out of season testing wings and when you dare, ask me out. I will say yes, yes I will go to the first who dares. Come on. Knock.

I’m waiting. Kat Kat Kitty Kat is waiting for you to call. Ummmm, notice me. Hello?

Instead, teasing and sweet was Sherry, who wowed over her, pretending to take photos of her at her lockers, drawling out daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn as Katerina fumbled with the combination lock.

Sherry touched her, running her fingers down her forearm, looking strangely intimidated. Years later, Katerina pointed out that was the moment, recalling that Sherry flipped the lid, taking the first peek into the Pandora’s Box while Katerina stood there at her locker, frozen, wondering why. She remembered how her fingertips felt. Katerina paused, staring into the shelf holding her paper biology and Spanish folders, the American History textbook halfway pulled, still in her grasp, frozen, different. She touches different, and I seem to feel the ridges of her fingerprints, what is behind them. I. I. I don’t know. When her fingers withdrew, I felt a lingering touch like she left a mark, expressing intentions.

She’s staring at me. I know it.

A word flashed to mind: subsumed.

“Hey, you okay there, Kat Kat Kitty Kat?’

“Um, yeah,” Katerina slid out the textbook and pushed the locker door closed, flipping the lock-in carefully, trying not to show emotion as she turned the dial to secure the locker. “Nothing.

I was thinking about the translation exam I have today.” She dared to look. Sherry held her bundle of notebooks, folders, and American history text against her chest, her chin resting on them, looking up, and her lower lip sucked in. Holy shit.

Katerina summoned from her mental files a diversion and faked her best-received English accent. “You are showing poor posture, Miss Abernathy. If you keep that up, you will be mistaken for a South Austin girl and not a true tartan MacGavin Fightin’ Scot lady.”

“Yes, Miss Linsky, I beg pardon, and do straighten up for the Empire of Schmoe.” So they walked together to American history, with Katerina stealing nervous glances over at Sherry during class and catching her doing the same, mainly focusing on her legs. Yes, they are friendly, Sherry.

Thank you for noticing how fetching they are. Shit.

For the remainder of the week, Katerina was uncomfortable. That word “subsumed” was what got to her. She didn’t think that was a word she would associate with her best friend. But, to her relief, Sherry was still Sherry with the telephone nightly gossip calls and homework help and the semi-weekly pizza study party with her and Stacey, the weird, socially obtuse girl from Biology, on Thursday at her house.

Katerina and Sherry only shared one class that fall quarter. Nevertheless, it set the tone for Katerina’s day with her looking toward the front of the room, but in her peripheral vision watching Sherry sitting directly two rows away fidgeting, glancing over occasionally, and abruptly turning to the blackboard when Katerina turned in her direction.

Katerina had a sense that it was best to be a little discreet: Tuesday was jeans and baby blue striped t-shirt, Wednesday, purple Gloria Vanderbilts snug tight, and a blue and silver rugby jersey with topsiders. Thursday, Sherry wore a high-waisted low cut dress and her Mom’s old stilettos, which, when asked, was Sherry’s, hello I’m here kitty kat notice my dress, so Friday, Katerina decided to be daring and put on a vintage wine colored tailored suit with fan pleats with purple stockings and beret.

Clipping down the halls, Katerina watered mouths of the boys, but the only one who seemed to really notice was again Sherry, she quite resplendent trying to out-do in preppy punk, pin collar blouse and black jacket, band buttons on lapels and inkwell black skirt, stockings and heels, adding a touch of Texas bowhead, hair pulled back and gloss. Even did her eyes better than usual, Katerina noted as her friend went into daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn mode when she spotted her going to her locker.

When Sherry touched her again, Katerina was prepared, and she liked it a lot. She felt her back, folding forward the jacket lapels for a more authentic punkish look and commenting on how well Sherry did her eye makeup. Sherry blushed and seemed tense, just a little, probably discovered, though Sherry never admitted it and seemed not to remember much of that day. Katerina, however, did, this time teasingly looking over at Sherry, smiling with faux innocence during American History.

Looking back, one of the few precious memories Katerina had of Sherry was that she was looking at her somewhat dreamily, following her movements as Katerina turned pages, wrote notes, and sat up listening during the drone of the lectures. Mostly, it was during the periods of downtime in class, when Katerina opened the blue spiral notebook she used as a writing journal, coming up with thoughts, snatches of story ideas, bad modernist poetry written out in patterns she picked up from, e.e. cummings in Literature class, and the occasional doodles when inspiration failed to conjure. Katerina stirred in response, touched by her best friend’s attention.

She had relaxed about it by then, though she did not exactly know how to approach the concept of women, and the friend Katerina was closest to was an intriguing idea she was not wholly prepared for. They shared the bed for sleepovers, with bodies touching through shirts and panties, and she liked how she looked in the shower at the gym. Of course, Katerina had thought about it, fantasizing about Debbie Harry, mainly, sometimes a model in Vogue that caught her eye, but oh Debbie! Yeeeaaaaah.

She was also totally flattered by the attention. Sure, she got the stares in the halls this week, but Katerina by then wondered if they were mainly the collective look of curiosity, not of attainable romance.

Also, they were from guys she wasn’t too keen on. So she decided to bide her time. Sherry was spending the weekend with her divorced aunt in Midland—see what some space would do about this sudden situation. The chaos of Tartan Week began the following Monday, with its stupid rituals of fight songs in the hall, dopey pep rallies, and dressing like hot little school girls all week and who was unlucky enough to emerge victorious in the dragging Schmoe across the field sweepstakes. That would divert attention, probably--how much, Katerina didn’t know, but she wanted to see how fleeting Sherry was, if at all.

That night Katerina decided to try thinking about Sherry and liked it. She also thought about Jim Kerr of Simple Minds but went back to Sherry; she was different, possibly available, and prettier.

Sherry’s brunette waves mingling with her, Katerina’s, kit kat kitty kat auburn, and Sherry’s dark eyes staring under lashes, thin lips below pert nose—Katerina always liked the turn of Sherry’s shoulders, and how the collarbone protruded, and her neck, how regal and prim, holding her head with authority without trying.

Thinking of Sherry was like sliding underwater in the bath, Katerina staring through the surface at Sherry looking down, face framed by black Irish brunette, distorted, and shimmering exquisite, gorgeous—a rippling dream image seen different from before. Afterward, Katerina felt less undecided, though she retained a reserve level through her brooding. Complexities Katerina hadn’t thought of swirled in her head, feelings detoured unexpectedly, patterns rearranged as Katerina remembered Sherry’s fingers on her forearm and the smitten looks in class.

Sherry tended to express her feelings, and they were none too subtle, but Katerina decided to take care, and wait, hoping she wasn’t misreading. Her poster of Debbie Harry didn’t talk back, freak out, or cut you off and start spreading stories when you asked her if she would. Not that Sherry would, though she might, certainly was capable, and whispers developed into coiled ropes, and Katerina read in books what generally happened to girls when the stories weren’t straight.

Tartan Week unfolded as expected. This week’s victim was Austin High, with its distinction of being the oldest high school in Texas, an old-money student body majority and alumni resentful of upstart MacGavin Heights with its new money defense contractors, land developers, state bank start-ups executives, and third-generation inherited oil money thrown into hillside manors and boat docks with speed boats. But, of course, old money Austin wasn’t all that old, and not at all different than MacGavin Heights money, they were Texans, but MacGavin Heights rich was seen as too rich, at least by the way they expressed their lifestyle, which by observation was three simple words—up your ass.

To complicate matters further, attending Austin High was a large contingent of working and middle-class students from South Austin and the University area, Mexicans from the old barrio, and African Americans from East Austin and Clarksville. They had even less reason to like MacGavin Heights people, and when playing at House Park or Berger Center, Austin’s home fields, and after a few run-ins by packs of pick-up driving rednecks, the Fightin’ Scots discovered the wisdom of traveling in a caravan. Of course, it also didn’t help that MacGavin Heights looked down on Tarrytown from the hills. The old money Texans could not abide that mere fact of urban geography alone; the old money Texans could not accept. No, indeed.

This year, Austin’s turn to fight on MacGavin Heights turf. The Fightin’ Scots were free to bellow forth their chants of “Hey, hey that’s okay, you will work for us someday,” which sometimes even made their parents squirm considering many of them were clients of Austin High attorneys or competed with them in banking, or as lobbyists at the Texas Legislature, but chant they did.

Katerina sat in the stands in Bubbe’s cashmere, happy she could finally wear it in public instead of vamping in front of her bedroom full-length mirror to her own adoring audience.

She brought a couple of heavy blankets but misplaced her gloves at home in the rush to leave for the game. Since being picked for the eighth-grade cheerleader, Sherry won the dubious Tartan Week honor in keeping with her staggering winning streak. She stood freezing in her tartan skirt and topsiders on the field with the dog leashed beside her behind the school banner, along with the old bagpiper mascot, the football team, the cheerleaders, drill team, and the majorette, who wore heavy work gloves and three layers of pantyhose. The dance guard canceled due to the weather. Skimpy costumes translated to hypothermia as the winds kicked up and the chill factor slid down.

The crowd roared as the public address system crackled with feedback, and the new coach motioned to Sherry to get ready as he held his hand up to signal them to run, breaking through the paper banner, with a bagpiper in the lead, Sherry and the dog closely behind with the drill team and majorette, leading the football team onto the field. Sherry looked down at Culloden/Schmoe. He sat on the ground, seemingly unfazed by the cold, looking up at her and panting. She knew what she had to do, which was simple—run through the banner, then cut left toward the home field sidelines to avoid being stampeded by the football players.

Coach shouted.

“NOW, GO!”

With her topsiders slipping and crunching on the frosted turf, Sherry bolted behind the bagpiper, who bleated out a tuneless wail as they ran through the separating paper.

The air filled with the roar of the crowd layered over by the public address announcer declaring, “GIVE OUT A WARRIORS WELCOME TO YOUR NINETEEN EIGHTY TWENTY-TWO FOUR A DEFENDING CHAMPS, THE JOHN C. MACGAVIN FIGHTIN’ SCOTS!” Sherry was surprised and relieved that Culloden/Schmoe didn’t hesitate and loped along beside her as she ran down the football field toward the mark where she had to make the turn to the sidelines. They made the turn cleanly and were almost to the chalk when suddenly the leash jerked behind her with such force Sherry tumbled to the ground, knees, and elbows skidding on the grass. When she turned, she saw that the dog had gone down as hard as the Stuarts did at the battle that was his namesake. He had fallen down, cutting a two-foot-long divot into the turf, and was decidedly dead.

“Oh fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck, I killed Schmoe,” she whispered, stunned, staring at the lifeless eyes and protruding tongue. His snout was jammed into the ground; front paws spread askew, his lifeless rear in the air. The old boy just seized up and died like an old Studebaker. Several Fightin’ Scots saw the dog’s corpse on the field and gathered in a short line, shielding his body, and the bagpiper gathered him and carried him none too gracefully to the sideline.

During the game, Katerina had already eschewed comforting Sherry. In fact, as they sat freezing wrapped in their tartan blanket in the open bleachers, Sherry was now the local hero because most of the students were sick of that useless retriever. “So, you finally got rid of Schmoe,” Katerina said as they sat under the blanket, shivering. “Miss Sherry Abernathy, ye have bestowed forevermore the title of the killer of Schmoe, loyal yet truly dense mascot, otherwise known as brave Culloden.”

“I think the cold got to him.”

“Yes, it did, but he died a hero’s death on the field of battle. Like a Fightin’ Scot.”

“Brave Culloden died with his snout dragged a foot or so into the grass, which I don’t believe happened to the Bonnie Prince Charlie. By the way, this game is surprisingly close. I didn’t think Austin was ever this good.”

“Yes, it is. I like the quarterback’s ass. Nicely framed, squeezable. Like my teddy bear.”

“I can’t believe this happened to me, Kat.”

Katerina shrugged, “At least it’s not me. Usually, I’m the one these things happen to. Killing all the plants, pet turtles, cats run away, never had a fish last more than a week in an aquarium. I’m just terrible with pets.”

“Yes, but I killed Schmoe.”

“But you have increased your popularity and reached legendary status. Think of that when at every high school reunion. Maybe you can include that in the yearbook, which might mean something someday. At least you can tell your children, whispered over campfires.”

“Shush or I will call you by your middle name—Mildred.”

Katerina pulled out her hands from under the blanket, blowing on them. The coat, though warm, wasn’t enough against the freezing cold.

“Okay, she may be dead, but I liked my Texas grandma Miss Mildred—what little I can recall, but she was nice and would have me help in her flower garden. Now, Schmoe-slayer, my fingers are numb. May I hold your hand under the blanket?”

“Sure.” Sherry wrapped her fingers between Katerina’s, and Katerina put her other hand over Sherry’s other hand. Katerina held her hand delicately and was a little disappointed that she could not feel Sherry’s skin through the leather glove. Katerina liked the warm feeling this connection Sherry gifted her. She remembered the bright red and the texture of the wool blanket on their laps and missed that green, blue, and black tartan skirt with the gold thread, with the pleats she learned to iron herself, though now long out of style and age, and drifted away, somewhere unknown, out of reach, just gone.

Katerina looked to see Sherry’s expression if there was any reaction. Sherry remained focused on the play on the field, but her grip on Katerina was rather tight for a best friend. Give it time, Katerina mused, dwelling on Sherry’s neck and curious about pressing her lips against it.

“Whoa! Did you see what happened to Tommy Odell on that tackle?”

“Oh God, yes.

That running back nailed him to the throat with a forearm. Number 30.

Wow, he laid him out flat.”

“It’s the curse of Culloden! Kat, I fucking jinxed them.”

Katerina leaned against Sherry’s shoulder. “Shhhhhh,” she whispered, discreetly brushing her lips briefly on Sherry’s coat.

The crowd descended into murmurs throughout the stands as players from both teams and training staff gathered around the prone figure of the fallen Fightin’ Scot.

In his Southern drawl, the announcer read out, “Austin, Breaking the near silence. Number thirty, Maynard Kynard. Sixteen yards, first down.”

But the girls weren’t paying attention.



About the Author: Mike Lee is a writer and editor at a trade union in New York City and the chief blogger for Focus on the Story. His work appears in or is forthcoming in ZiN Daily, Flash Boulevard, BULL, The Quarantine Review, Drunk Monkeys, and many others. In addition, his story collection, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon and other online bookselling outlets. He was also recently nominated for Best Microfiction by Ghost Parachute.

 

#MikeLee #newprose

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