“Tilting at Windmills” by Debbie Vance

I spent opening night of my first real art show staring at the exposed pipe hanging from the ceiling of the hip Boston gallery, wondering if the angular symmetry of these pipes was more visually stunning than the work I had chosen to display. The wine I drank tasted like its plastic cup, but that didn’t stop me from drinking it.

My boyfriend, Paul, owned the gallery. He was a big deal in the art world, famous if you asked the right people, and he believed in me, my art. He said I was a sea of unrealized potential. He was helping me realize this potential, which is why he’d agreed to let me show alongside a younger, more popular artist, Cheyenne, who sculpted horse penises like the völva priestesses of ancient Scandinavia and set them erect on a pedestal beneath a pink spotlight.

Cheyenne wore a ceremonial goat mask to the show and walked around touching people lightly on the shoulder, whispering divinatory secrets into their ears. It was a magic act, and the people loved it. Already Cheyenne had sold five giant members, and I’d sold nothing.

My work was not phallic or divinatory, and no one even noticed the blue iridescence of feathers adorning the mother bird in the corner, her face, my mother’s, the wings sprouting from her cheeks, structurally perfect. They didn’t notice the cellophane river running under their feet, even as they stepped on it, or the small winged bodies floating in its current. They didn’t look twice at the cavernous structure, built out of papier-mâché in the corner, that viewers were invited to enter. Had they gone in, they would’ve seen a girl’s charcoal memories of a lost mother, an estranged brother. They would’ve seen the narrative of life and death, a girl-phoenix reborn from ashes. But no one wanted to crawl on their hands and knees inside a handmade structure. The risk of collapse was too great, maybe, or they didn’t want to dirty their designer jeans.

“I never expected this to go so well,” Paul said, kissing me on the cheek. Beside us, three old women in pearls quietly discussed the nuances of uncut horse skin with the staid disinterest of people married too long. “You must be so proud,” Paul said, and I couldn’t tell if he was being serious. What did I have to be proud of, other than my intimacy with Paul, the big wig owner?

“No one even knows there’s a second artist here,” I said.

Paul took my elbow and guided me to the refreshments table, where he refilled my plastic cup with Big House Red.

“It’ll take a few tries to get your name in the right mouths,” he said. “Give it some time.”

Paul knew better than anyone that’d I’d already spent too much time. He’s the one who’d been funding my work for the last three years, letting me fill his apartment with paper and plastic and glue. He got me into small shows, slipped my name into conversation like it mattered. This was it, the final test, and I was failing.

Paul left, and Cheyenne glided across the gallery to me.

“Isn’t this great?” she squealed, her voice girlishly high behind her demonic goat mask. She was just a Kansas girl after all, raised on corn and Jesus, and now here she was, a success. I could smell the commissions dripping off her milky skin like honey. She was the chosen one, and I was not.

“Yeah,” I said, watching Paul smile in her direction, as though I weren’t standing right beside her. “Fantastic.”

Cheyenne smoothed her skirts, repositioned her goat mask, and waded into the crowd. Paul lifted his hands in quiet applause, and I locked myself in a bathroom stall until the show was over.

* * *

Later that night, I slipped between Paul’s overpriced bedsheets and picked up my phone to read the bloggers’ midnight reviews of the show, and the screen flashed with three voicemails, all from an unknown Missouri number.

My brother’s house in the Ozarks was being foreclosed, and Simon, my brother, refused to leave. The auction was set for Monday, four days away. If he wasn’t out by then, the bank would take legal action. This is what the man on the phone said, the one who’d found my contact information and decided it was his duty to tell me it was my duty to go and talk some sense into my brother, like I was capable of such a thing.

Lying in the dark of our bedroom, listening to Paul sing in the shower, I thought of my brother, silent and unshaven, the skin around his eyes dark from too much artificial light. I hadn’t seen him in almost five years, not since our mom died and my brother blamed me for her unhappiness, and the thought of going back now made me break out in a cold sweat.

It was Paul who made me go. He said I was being selfish, appealing to some better version of myself we both knew didn’t exist but could, maybe, somewhere. He booked a flight for me on his phone. I watched him pay extra so I could sit in an exit row. I watched him double-tap a picture of him and Cheyenne beside her highest selling horse phallus.

* * *

I’d grown up in the Ozarks’ rolling green hills and caverns that spanned miles, and I’d left the Ozarks too, though it hadn’t been easy. I was one of the lucky ones. I’d found a person who was foolish enough to fall in love with me and fill my pockets with cash to fly away.

It took five hours to fly from Boston to Gainesville, Missouri, with a stop in Charlotte, and then I was at my brother’s house, which had been our mother’s house, and her mother’s before. In Missouri, mothers are the ones who pass things on. Hips, eyes, hair, homes. The desire to run away, the need to be someone different.

The house was dirty white, and the front porch was strung with blue paper lanterns that were already on despite the sun.

“What a waste,” I mumbled to myself, thinking of Paul with his energy-efficient LED lightbulbs and trying to fill the hot summer silence with something other than sprinklers and cicadas and my own nervous heartbeat. The neighbors across the street hid inside their homes, but I could feel their eyes burning into my back. Here, neighbors were always watching.

I knocked on the door and peeked through the window at my brother, who was sitting on the couch watching TV.

I counted to sixty, then I knocked again. This time, my brother lifted his hand and waved it around like Hold your horses, so I banged on the window until he looked over his shoulder and saw it was me and not the UPS man or a suit from the bank.

“Bet you weren’t expecting this,” I said when he opened the door. He shook his head like No shit.

My brother doesn’t talk. I mean, he doesn’t talk at all, not since we were kids and we watched our mom jump from a high tree branch into the river and float, belly-down, so long we thought she was dead.

She wasn’t dead, not yet, but it was enough to close Simon up for good. I tried at first to get him talking again. I’d pin him down and dangle a garden snake over his face, shouting that I’d drop the damn thing unless he cried uncle, and though he did cry, big fat boy tears, he never said a word, and I guess after a while I stopped trying. There’s only so much a sister can do. I’m not my brother’s keeper, no matter what Paul says.

“You’ve really kept the place up,” I said now, lifting a pair of boxer briefs from the coffee table with the end of the TV remote. In addition to the underwear, there were dirty plates and take-out boxes and beer cans and crumbs. Simon roughed the back of his neck. He raised his eyebrows at the crumby floor like they were in this together and I was the alien invader. Like the Galaga game we used to play at the arcade when our mom wasn’t feeling too well and we were sent into town or the mall or the woods to entertain ourselves until she could bear the sounds of us in the house.

“Listen,” I said. “A man from the bank called me. Either pay your mortgage or move, Simon. That’s it.” I made my hands like weird little bowls, trying to be generous, but it didn’t work. Simon got his legal pad and wrote furiously.

It’s my house, he wrote. They can’t take it.

“They can and they will,” I said. “In three days.”

I work, he wrote.

“Not enough,” I said. He was a small-town handyman. Fixing every broken toilet in Gainesville still wouldn’t save that house.

Ask Paul to pay, he wrote. He’s a millionaire.

“Paul has no reason to bail you out of what you’ve done,” I said, keenly aware of whose side I had chosen, and that both men would have me choose differently.

Tell me, Simon wrote. Tell me what I did.

He looked at me with his dumb blue eyes, the same shape and color as mine, and I wanted to cry, right there in the house where our mom died. Nothing, I wanted to say. You’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, and neither have I, and it’s not fair our mama died and it’s not fair we weren’t enough for her and it’s not fair that I can’t make the money that would save this house, even though I hate it, and it’s not fair that you can’t either and it’s definitely not fair that you think it’s all my fault.

I don’t want you staying here, Simon wrote, and all the words I wanted to say crumbled to dust around my feet and I had to tiptoe out of there so as not to press all those unsaid things into the already dirty carpet, because if I did they would remain there forever and I could never take them back.

* * *

Paul sent me a text: someone was interested in my mama-bird, the sculpted portrait of my mom as a young woman, her cheeks adorned with feathers. I checked into a Motel 8 and called him back.

“They want to buy it?” I asked. I tried not to think about why the hotel phone was so greasy, or who had had sex on the pink and green bedspread I sat on.

“They’re interested in seeing more of your work,” he said, which meant no. “Maybe you could make more portraits when you come home, like a series.” Behind his voice I could hear the rich chatter of gallery clients, people who came during off hours to buy the expensive pieces right off the walls like they could have whatever they wanted. Which was true. I wanted them to buy my art. I didn’t want to make it for them.

“How’s it going over there?” he asked.

“He won’t move,” I said. I didn’t say that when I drove away from the house that afternoon, the front porch light receded in my rearview mirror the same way it had each time I ran away as a kid. Even when it disappeared from view, I knew it was still there.

“You’ve only been there a few hours,” Paul said. “Give it some time.”

“We’ve only got three days,” I said.

“Exactly,” he said. “A lot can happen in three days.”

Paul said he had to go, and I heard him telling a probably beautiful woman that she had good taste before he hung up.

“Lot of help you are,” I said to the phone, then I washed my hands with motel soap that made my skin feel squeaky and dry.

* * *

When I knocked on the door the next morning, Simon answered right away, but the quick fall of his face told me he hadn’t looked through the eyehole first. He was not pleased to see me. Still, he let me in, and I followed him into the kitchen for coffee. After all those years, even we had a routine.

Everything was exactly as I remembered it. The Folgers coffee grounds in the cabinet beside the sink, the selection of chipped blue and white plates stacked haphazardly. Don Quixote’s windmills and little Dutch girls with wooden clogs. Mama had loved these dishes. She’d cried whenever Simon or I broke one by accident, and I had a brief and sudden urge to smash them all to pieces. Just throw the whole stack of them right to the kitchen floor and crush the porcelain under my shoes.

Instead, I scooped coffee into a filter and used the spray nozzle from the sink to fill the well.

“Why do you want to stay here anyway?” I asked. “You can’t seriously like it here.”

Gainesville had a whopping seven hundred and seventy-three people, and the downtown strip looked worse than a rest stop off Route 66. This was not a city of opportunities. It was barely even a town.

“Don’t you want more than this?” I asked, picturing my mama-bird and her feathers displayed proudly at center stage in a gallery owned by someone other than Paul.

The coffee machine burbled, and I turned to the cabinet for mugs. Through the window over the sink I could see the overgrown lawn, full of dandelion weeds, and the garden shed where we kept tools we didn’t know how to use. The door was open and a shovel spilled out, like even it wanted to be set free.

Simon pressed his fingers into his eyebrows, pushing them up his forehead, and I remembered when we were little and I would poke his face, rearranging his features, while he pretended to sleep. “Wake up, sleepy head,” I’d say, and a grin would spread across his face. “Wake up. Wake up.”

This is my home, he wrote now. And Mama’s. She wouldn’t be happy if I left.

The coffee machine sighed against my back.

“Simon,” I said. “Mama’s dead.” As though he needed reminding.

* * *

I walked through the house as I drank my coffee. Photos of Simon and me as kids still hung on the walls, though there was no evidence of my life beyond the age of fifteen, the first time I’d run away from home. In this house, I was half way to becoming a ghost.

Mama’s room was the same, like she might show up from working at the post office and yell at me to get out so she could wash the day’s grime off her. If I hadn’t been the one to wash her sheets after she died, I would’ve thought they were the same ones she’d slept on the night before, still carrying her skin cells and hair, maybe a torn fingernail, a blood stain. I lay on the bed for just a minute. It smelled like Tide, which wasn’t even the brand she preferred.

“Sorry, Mama,” I said to the empty room, knowing it wasn’t enough.

On the dresser, Mama’s jewelry box still held cascades of fake pearls, a locket, emerald teardrop earrings. I slipped these into my ears and felt my lobes descend from the weight of them. I took a picture of myself in the mirror, my face turned to the side just a little, and texted it to Paul.

Do you like them? I asked.

You know I do, he said.

I started texting something about a self-portrait for the series he wanted me to make—self-portrait with costume jewelry from the dearly departed: a retrospective, a reliquary, an erasure—but every word I wrote revealed how afraid I was of losing everything—him, the gallery, my life apart from this house.

I heard Simon knocking around the living room, so I sent Paul a kissy face instead and put the earrings back where they belonged.

* * *

Simon and I walked to Antler Package and Pizza, where a waitress brought Simon a Budweiser as soon as we’d sat down. Everyone in this town a local.

“You need a menu, sweetheart?” she asked me, like I hadn’t been here a hundred times as a teenager, sneaking shots with the bartender while the manager wasn’t looking, same as her. She was Billie Joe, the girl who taught me how to put in a tampon, how to kiss with tongue. The lift of her eyebrows told me she recognized me, too, and that we were both better off pretending I had never belonged here.

“Old fashioned,” I said, a drink I’d inherited from Paul, and she nodded.

After she left, I caught my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Curly hair, bushy eyebrows, freckles. Red lips to accentuate my gap teeth, which had recently become fashionable. I tried to remember the girl I’d been when I lived here but couldn’t. The person I was in Boston and the person I had been in Missouri were not on speaking terms. Billie Joe was right; it was easier to pretend they were different people.

Simon drank his beer and smiled when people said hello to him. He wrote notes to Billie Joe whenever she came by to check on us. Notes that made her laugh. Notes he wouldn’t let me read. I texted Paul: This was a mistake.

He responded: No such thing as mistakes. Just opportunities for a brighter perspective.

I wanted to drop my phone into Simon’s beer, watch it fritz out. I imagined this would feel like strapping duct tape across Paul’s mouth. I’d like to see him try complimenting Cheyenne through a mouthful of silver tape. I’d like to see him tell me there was still time to make a difference.

“Where will you go?” I asked Simon.

He drew a question mark.

“When they evict you,” I added, and he opened his mouth like Ah.

Caves everywhere, he wrote, pointing at our feet. Swiss cheese.

“You can’t live in a cave,” I said, and he shrugged his shoulders like Maybe. “Only bats live in caves,” I said. “And you’re afraid of the dark.”

I’ll show you, he wrote.

* * *

The drive to Bull Shoals Caverns was just long enough to give me a headache, like the time Paul drove me to New York City and we sat in traffic for so many hours I felt like throwing up. I never liked being trapped in one place. Whenever I saw a shooting star as a girl, I wished for wings.

This cave, like most of the caves in Missouri, was limestone, and the river running through it was filled with fish that swam blindly, having lost their eyesight eons ago. This was supposed to be a mark of evolution, the ability to let go of what you no longer needed, but all I saw was a bunch of sad fish swimming circles in the dark.

“It’s a tourist site,” I said as we followed our tour group down zig-zagging stairs. The temperature dropped to a cool sixty, and the walls glistened wet. “Even if you could survive here, you could never live here.”

A long red salamander darted up the wall beside me, and I bumped into a stranger who gave me a dirty look for interrupting the guide. Not that there was much to say. Stalagmites. Stalactites. Limestone. Bats. If you’ve been to one cave, you’ve been to them all, and Simon and I had been to plenty of caves as kids. Our mama had a special interest in Jesse James’ presumed hideout in Meramec Caverns. If we looked hard enough, she thought, we’d find his buried treasure and then we could all take flight.

As the group turned a corner toward the Diamond Chapel Room, Simon took my hand and pulled me through a small tunnel I hadn’t seen before, like one of Alice’s tiny doors, but we had nothing to eat or drink that would make us the right size and my shoulders scraped against the walls, breaking the limestone drips that had taken centuries to accumulate. I thought I might cry, coming all this way just to break things. That’s not what I wanted at all.

At the end of the passage was a tiny cave, like a den for a baby animal. It was nothing. A nook. Less than a nook. Simon opened his hands like Voila.

“You’re kidding,” I said, my body curled into an upright fetal position. “This is a joke.”

Simon shook his head.

“So, what, you’ll just pay for a tour every time you want to go home? Where will you shit, Simon? What will you eat?”

It was dark, and I couldn’t read the expression on Simon’s face, which made it easier to say what I said next: “Maybe you should come back to Boston with me.”

“You could stay with me and Paul,” I said. “It’d be fun,” I said. “Like when we were kids.”

Simon wrote something on his legal pad and pressed it toward my face. Be serious. You don’t want me. He dropped the pad and pushed past me into the lighted cavern, his words an angry echo at my feet.

The cavern was empty when I came out, and the slow drip of calcified water sounded like the water tap at Mama’s house, incessant, irritating. Mama had slit her wrists. That’s how she died. And I wondered now if the leaky faucet had had something to do with it. Simon was the handyman, not me. He’s the one who could’ve done something. Could’ve intervened. As I stood there, the drip turned from irritant to accusation to Simon’s voice, lost long ago, shouting, You. You. You.

* * *

I took a taxi back to the house, where Simon was stuffing everything into black Hefty bags: pillows, books, cables, bobble-head baseball stars, spatulas. He was indiscriminate, erratic.

“What are you doing?” I asked, but he just fixed me with his blue eyes and I retreated to the corner of the living room. I was the one who’d left, following a trail of money to something I had hoped would be better, but all I had to show for myself was a papier-mâché version of the life I already had.

Simon picked up the coffee table with surprising strength, sending its contents shuttling to the carpet, and carried it out the front door. He dropped it on the curb so hard one of its legs broke. I thought of the blue and white plates Mama loved and the sound they would make when they hit the concrete, the way the blue girls would shatter from their blue homes. In all the years I’d spent trying to leave this place, I never imagined what it would feel like when there was nothing left to leave.

Simon pushed the couch to the door but it wouldn’t go through. He grunted as he angled it to fit, and the sound was like a key. Suddenly we were ten years old, tramping through the forest with fallen tree branches as jousts, tilting at imaginary windmills like Don Quixote, delighted at the brutal inevitability of our quest.

“Onward!” Simon had shouted. “We must regain our castle, or the whole kingdom will be lost!” He swung his tree branch like a sword, fighting off the giants that stood in our way. “Go,” he shouted. “Go on without me!” And I ran. I remember running for what felt like miles, until my throat burned metallic and all sign of my brother was lost. I felt victorious, like I was finally big enough for the world, and then I felt very small.

Now, Simon managed to push the couch through the door, breaking the hinges off in the process. He threw the cushions into the street, where they cartwheeled toward the gutter, and the neighbors came out for the show. Maybe they felt sorry for us, or maybe they thought of their own safe houses and everything they had to lose.

Simon stood panting in the yard, and I waited for him to speak, tell me to go on and leave already, run back to my faraway life and forget about the house with the peeling paint and the broken door and everyone who had once lived inside it. But of course he didn’t. He just kicked the broken leg of the broken couch and shrugged like the boy he’d been, the one who’d urged me on to safety while he stayed behind to fight.

I wanted to tell Simon about my papier-mâché cave and cellophane river, his body remade alongside mine. I wanted to show him the wings I’d made for our mama, the ones I would make for him if I could. Instead, I picked up one cushion and then another. I collected the coffee table and its broken leg from the curb. Down the street, someone’s kids ran through a sprinkler—I could hear the water and the screams both. I could smell the dirt as it turned to mud, same as when Simon and I were small and loud and ready to run.

Debbie Vance’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in CatapultBlack Warrior Review, CrazyhorseBlue Mesa Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Colorado State University and is at work on a collection of stories.

At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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