Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock
Three days from today on the first of April, Denora Johnson will die. She hangs herself with Father’s ties. At first Sister thinks it’s another attempt, but then after the fourth call from Mother, she knows it’s finally the big one. Because Mother and Sister love Denora, they’ll miss her. They’ll mourn her. They’ll question her death as they submit prayer requests into wicker baskets. But once Denora’s flesh begins to rot like road kill, they will agree she wasn’t meant to be. She’s been like this since second grade and just wouldn’t snap out of it.
Father’s grief? She doesn’t know. He’s a variable no longer accounted for. Like most girls who tell boys she’s complicated before the first fuck, she blamed Father’s absence for hating herself. Blaming Father was easy and even some spoken word came out of it, but now she’s graduated from Daddy Issues to Denora Issues. Her graduation robe was a hospital gown and her diploma took the form of a bill for two hospitalizations her insurance wouldn’t cover.
As the years pass by, she sits there thinking and thinking and waiting and waiting, and while she waits, death eats her. Once death is full and has a belly stuffed with all her hope for a life, she’s officially Do Not Resuscitate. There’s nothing particular in her life that prompts death to eat away at her. She wakes up, works at job X doing Task 1 and Task 2. If she doesn’t die this April 1st, she’ll get promoted to Task 3. Joy. Perhaps after the promotion, coworkers will stop calling her Suicide Sally behind her back.
For now, she will try and distract herself from this parade of self-pity that marches in her head. Her favorite distractions are planning what she’ll leave in her will and what will happen to her body. She plans on giving Sister her shoes and collection of books. She’ll give Mother her sterling silver bracelet. Everything else she wants donated to her favorite thrift store, Mortenson’s Closet.
Next is the matter of her body.
She hopes Mother and Sister won’t be the first ones to find it. The sight and smell of her hanging body would be unnecessary. Also, she might’ve pissed and shitted herself after dying—embarrassing, but oh well. Maybe once she begins to smell, her neighbor will complain and call the landlord.
As her body is wheeled away, she will wait in line to meet with God. If she could, she would preschedule the meeting to skip the line. She knows she won’t end up in Hell. She once gave a homeless man half of her everything bagel with chive cream cheese even after he told her to smile. Between his chews, he said “thanks, sugar tits.”
Comments like this confuse Denora. Nothing about her tits is sugary except the color of her bras. During the clearance sales, only the neon ones are left and they’re a cup too small, forcing her to the full priced bin of boring bras. The dressing room woman with sandbag cheeks tries to persuade her to the overpriced bin. Near it, there are two teenagers trying to pick out a cherry bra that will pop through their shirts. After Sandbag Cheeks has assured herself the teenagers will buy the bra and Kiss Me Silly lip-gloss, she inches closer to Denora, invading her personal bubble. It bursts when she scoops Denora’s chest.
She cackles as she calls them juicy mangoes twentysomethings don’t have.
This is another comment that confuses Denora. Her boobs aren’t sugary, juicy mangoes. Most days she thinks they smell like a milky something. She has not quite put her nose on it because she cannot. Her nostrils flare every time they dip toward her chest. Funky, funky, funky, but lately the smell is not as bad. Her tits are deflated because her appetite is gone. The official number of dress sizes she has dropped is three. 13 à10. Her new psych said appetite would return in seven weeks, but eleven weeks later, she still spits up like a baby. The doctor keeps recommending another medicine other patients love. So far, Denora is fine. She’s getting skinnier, and after her weight, next thing to disappear is her body. All she has to do is wait and until it is her time, she must play along with Denora. Wake up, get dressed, swallow happy pills, nibble on food, call Mother, call Sister, have a pity parade for a few moments, and then finish her registered life activities, which are her distractions.
Tick tock, tick tock
Today is the day before Sister’s marriage to Mr. ConvenientlyRight. He’s an engineer with a salary. This job security makes Sister, Mother, and Mother’s prayer circle have one less request. To celebrate this modern romance, the life activity of the day is the strip club—don’t worry Mother’s not there.
A purple and silver sign reads Aphrodite’s, and a line of men and women stand outside. They watch as Denora tells the bouncer she’s here for the bachelorette party. He winks and tells her to try and behave. She thinks of a funny comment in her head, but is too nervous to vocalize. She enters the club, walks to the reserved section, and sits with the rest of the party filled with pretty girls. In preparation for this night, the pretty girls with foundation, concealer, and weaves have constructed new identities. Denora’s done her best. Pity.
Between five of the pretty and one of the ugly, there’re two Ride Tides, two Dick Licks, an Orgasmo, and a beer. The first round of everything’s on the house because the bartender is a friend of a friend. Hooray.
Sister’s squealing and twirling her hair between manicured fingers. She’s the pretty, pretty princess, and across her chest is a sash that says Bride To Be. Tomorrow, she’ll have a prince, and after the I Do’s, they’ll be king and queen. Denora sucks from her bottle and watches Mr. Chaps. He bites his lip while his hands are locked behind his head. Mr. Chaps stares at Denora as his hips move up and down. During this, she wonders if they should get married. Older sisters are supposed to get married before younger, right? If her wedding happens today, then Mrs. Denora Chaps will be on a honeymoon for about 96 hours before the 1st, which could be enough time, but she isn’t exactly sure. She’s never jumped the broom. Right now, she can’t ask Sister. She is tucking dollar bills into Mr. Chaps’ yellow thong that Denora thinks was originally white. She doesn’t tell this to her future fiancé. Their first fight shouldn’t be about his dirty laundry.
As she thinks of pointless possibilities, Bachelorette 1—5 are jumping, squealing, and gasping while he’s dancing. After the second song, he’s moving closer to the table. Denora taps on her bottle.
Please don’t let him come here and smell the smell that is radiating from her shrunken tits.
Her second therapist asks if she’s ever been sick or asked a doctor about this troubling smell. She replies with a laugh. The therapist then says the smell is all in her head.
No shit, Sherlock.
By the time Mr. Chaps approaches the table, she wants to stop marching in this sappy parade—it makes her feel that today is the first of April.
Mr. Chaps arrives at the table. He has stray hairs on his belly, making it look like a coconut. He places a platter of Slutty Shots on the table. She swallows one and sips another. B 1—5 are flirting with Mr. Chaps while they ask for cocktails to wash down previous shots.
“Isn’t he delicious?” Sister says as she points to the stage.
“Yes, you could just eat’im.” B2 spills some of her drink onto her chin, but no one else notices.
Denora joins in on the laughter between Sister and B2. Their lips, hacked open with happiness. Their brown faces, greasy.
She stops laughing. She’s burped and now there’s vomit lodged in her throat. She swallows it. Looks to see B1—5 clapping and winking. She follows their actions while Sister squeals out details about her honeymoon. As her eyes track the pretty girls, she’s surprised they’re able to move their hands. Charm bracelets weigh down their wrists. B3 tries to make conversation with Denora. She tilts her head back and pretends to smoke a cigarette with her straw.
“When’s your big day?” B3 asks.
“Soon.” She responds.
“Really? You didn’t tell us you’re getting married,” B3 says.
“I’m not,” Denora says.
“Engaged?” B3 sucks on ice. It drips down her chin.
“No.” Denora says.
“You’re hilarious,” B3 laughs and starts speaking with B4 who has a condo of blush beneath her cheeks.
As B3 and B4 talk, Denora cannot join the conversation. The vomit she’s swallowed still rests in her stomach. B1—5 have another drink. As they sip from each other’s straws, they tell her to order another. The next drink name is Fickle Tickle but when Denora orders, it sounds like Lickle Bickle. Mr. Chaps smiles and says it’ll be right on its way. She chews on ice like B3. The taste is nothing, but it gives her something to do. She tries to make another conversation. She says something to B5, and then she giggles between the syllables, but B5 doesn’t respond to words or giggles and returns to staring at the stage. Denora tries to return to staring at her fiancé but his air humping is making her nauseous. The music stops. His hips stop. Denora drinks from her glass. She chokes and gin spills onto her green blouse.
She tries to drink again, and this time all of it goes into her mouth. She smiles, but she doesn’t get a chance to celebrate. Sister is on stage, and her throne is a wooden chair wrapped in feather boas. The red feathers float above the stage as the next act is announced. It’s Taste Master and Doctor Dick. They’re dancing around Sister and she can’t stop giggling even when their moves slow down. Sister feigns embarrassment, acting as if she’s never been this close to a penis before. Denora knows this is a lie. As children, she and Sister shared a room. She remembered being kicked out the room when Sister’s boy came over to study. Mother worked most nights. Father was in a land far, far away, searching for “himself”. She pressed her ear against the door and listened to their laughter, the smacks of their kisses, and then the groans. Once Sister’s boy left the room, Sister opened the door. They didn’t talk about the boy. They fell asleep and then woke up the next morning and got ready for school. They repeated this schedule until Sister’s boy stopped coming.
Some nights there were Denora’s boys. She remembers kissing them, asking them what they thought about when no one was looking, and wondering when she would stop holding them. The best boys were the ones with wet, slimy, terrible kisses—made her feel better. But their kisses always stopped. They wouldn’t deal with Denora-isms anymore.
1. The thing that Denora does: Crying, not wanting to talk, feeling completely alone, feeling suffocated, asking the wrong questions, i.e, why am I always sad, what’s happening, what are you thinking?
A. Her thoughts race endlessly, making her tired. She tried napping, melantonin, and trazodone, but she’s the type of tired that won’t go away with sleeping.
B1-5 are still taking pictures and whispering. They can’t believe this is happening. The lights get brighter and there’s glitter falling from the ceiling. Some land on Sister’s lips, and she blows them away like kisses. The dancing ends and Sister returns to her seat. The women giggle around her. Denora orders another drink.
B4 leaves for the bathroom and the sisters are sitting next to each other. They try to avoid each other’s eyes, but Denora’s head turns.
“Denora, how are you feeling?” Sister asks.
“Fine.” Denora says. She’s pressing her lips together.
Sister notices the clenched lips, but today is her special day. She is careful about her questions because the wrong one will send her down the Denora rabbit hole.
“Are you sure you don’t want to have a birthday dinner?” Sister asks.
“Yes, it would be too much of a last minute hassle.”
B4 is back from the bathroom and there’s nothing left for Denora and Sister to say. They could try and make another conversation, but the tools aren’t there. On the table is a platter of empty shot glasses and a tequila soaked boa.
B4 sits, and then she and Sister talk about whether Mr. ConvenientlyRight has good benefits. He does, and since their marriage qualifies as a major life event, Sister will be added to his plan. He has excellent medical, dental, and vision insurance. Praise, Jesus. B3 joins the conversation. Her words are heavy with Dick Licks.
Denora rolls her head back. A wave washes over. Her head is too heavy and it stays dangling over the seat. Breathe, she’s trying to breathe. It feels like her chest is collapsing into itself. Inhale. Exhale. On the exhale, vomit spills out of her mouth and onto the table. Everyone rushes out of the booth. She watches the men on stage as more vomit spills. They’re assembled in a can-can line. Left leg, right leg, left, again and again until Taste Master comes on stage. He squats down on the floor and says he wants a taste. He points to Sister who’s standing in front of the table next to B1 and B2. They thrust her to the front. B3 screams for napkins but the music is playing and no one can hear. Sister goes on stage. The Taste Master twirls and twirls her. When she stops, he sits her down on her throne. He shakes sprinkles on her arm. Licks them off. Yum.
At the table, grape colored vomit speckled with saltines swims on the tablecloth. She wipes her lips and B3 returns with a napkin that reads congratulations. Denora’s head falls forward. A wave is no longer washing over it. She opens her eyes. Her blouse is stained, and B3 is leading her toward the bathroom.
“It feels like a life is floating above me.” Denora says.
“Messy Nessy, did you say something?” B3 asks while she searches for another napkin.
“No,” she responds.
B3 holds Denora. She’s smoking a real cigarette while laughing at the mess. She shoves her into a cab. When Denora wakes up, she’s sitting on her apartment’s stoop. It’s a late night on 117th St. Her vomit has dried on her blouse. The air smells like piss and wet garbage. She wants to go up but she falls down with every step. An hour later, her landlord helps her upstairs and says don’t drink too much. He’s deaf and speaks mainly Dominican-Spanish. He has to repeat himself three times before she understands.
The wedding. It’s a beautiful spectacle. Along with B1—5, Denora’s wearing a sweetheart dress, but there’s nothing holding it up. As she waits for Sister to make her appearance, she keeps trying to adjust her dress. Wigggle, wiggle, but she stops before she does it a third time. All this movement makes her nauseous, and she cannot leave to puke, Sister is walking down the aisle. She says to herself,
“Smile, be happy, and don’t ruin Sister’s moment.”
Her eyes are watering. She thinks she wants to cry, and now would be an appropriate moment, everyone else is crying. The reason doesn’t matter. Minutes pass, and Sister is now Mrs. ConvientlyRight. As she stands on the side of the aisle, she tries to remember the type of boy Sister wanted. Kind, smart, and handsome are the only qualities she can recall. Be happy for Sister because these are some of the last moments shared. Be happy because sad feelings are too redundant. Sister kisses Mr. ConvientlyRight and he grabs her hand after whispering something into her ear. Both are glowing. In this instant as Denora watches them, she understands two things:
1. This is Sister’s moment.
2. She will never experience a love like this.
As they all proceed down the aisle, the photographer snaps pictures. He asks Denora to stop and stand next to Mother. They pose. He asks for Mother to stand behind Denora and give her daughter a kiss. They pose. He asks for them to sit together on a pew. They pose again. He keeps taking pictures, trying to get happiness from another angle. The camera’s shutter stops. She and Mother follow the rest of the party. They don’t talk to one another. Today is Sister’s day. If she opens her mouth, then she’ll vomit words Mother’s tired of hearing. Mother grabs her hand and then says,
“This is one of the happiest days of my life.”
A feeling of guilt now rises in her as Mother continues to watch Mr. and Mrs. ConvientlyRight drive away. Denora’s wanted memories of mother: her laugh lines and the sounds of her readujsting her tapered wig. She gives her a hug and then says,
“Mother, you know what they say, happy days keep sad ones away.”
“Who said that?”
“I can’t remember.”
Their limo arrives, and takes them to the reception. It’s a spectacle that’s more beautiful than the wedding. Filling the space are galleries of men and women, laughing, sharing love stories, and drinking. As part of her day’s performance, Denora must say endearing words about Sister. She stands in front of the audience. Her mouth opens. She talks, not knowing what she’s saying. Her mind is too concentrated on the collection of eyes staring at her.
Once she’s done viewing the celebration, she leaves for home. While waiting for the 6 train, she sneaks her hand into her crevices, and eats the fallen cake crumbs before they travel down to her belly button. A woman notices her and laughs. Denora freezes. The woman waves. Denora knows there’s the possibility that they could be friends, maybe lovers for a few tomorrows as they try and understand one another, but why bet on possibilities?
She turns her apartment lights on. A mouse scurries from the floor and into a crack in the wall. At the center of her living room/kitchen/dinning room is her throne. She has placed it below the pipes that can hold her weight. Hanging above is father’s ties and his belt, if one breaks, then other is backup. She sits on the floor across from it all and closes her eyes. Seconds turns to minutes, minutes to hours. Phone buzzes. She checks. Text from Mother reads: Give me a call. She and Mother have been here before, and if Denora calls, her death cycle begins again. Another April 1st will approach. The ties and belt will return to their proper place. Her throne will sit across from her, waiting.
1. Painting by Jennifer Chukwu. Titled “Self-Medicated.” 2016.
Jennifer Chukwu is an experimental writer and visual artist based in the Midwest. She has presented her work at National Louis University, UW-Madison, and UC Berkeley. You can find her contact information at dollarstoreartist.com.