Nonfiction by Melissa Wiley

Pennies in Tin Foil

by Melissa Wiley

A film of black dog hair had darkened the once sky blue couch dividing our departments. Later we found mushrooms growing behind it, rising from baseboard lined with black mold overspreading the carpet.

We worked for the same pet magazine no longer making a profit, neither of us with a plan for retirement. Everyone who worked there thought of it as a job between others endowed with more reality and insurance. Yet for me at 28, two years after the death of both my parents, I knew life became no more solid.

I was also recently rich, at least compared to what I had been, living paycheck to paycheck. I didn’t need a job at all if I lived on grilled cheese sandwiches and went to no movies and bought no concert tickets. My dad had been a farmer, and the income from the rent of his land just paid for the half I owed my husband for our garden apartment. I wouldn’t save a cent, though I wasn’t living for a future I had no reason to covet.

After a few suicide attempts, I needed nothing except some company during the daylight hours. And the job at the pet magazine on its last hind leg is still as near a thing to a godsend as I’ve ever gotten.

To say I needed a reason to keep living might be putting it too simply. Then the most painful things are often the least complex, and lust itself needs no description, its undertow no raison d’etre or philosophical defense. It comes upon you like the sun when you waken, blinding you by virtue of its existence. Your skin burns just as you begin to feel the warmth of it.

And lying on that couch because my boss didn’t mind if I napped so long as my work got finished, I almost fondled myself then made shadow puppets, an advantage of an office as dark as ours with only one light in the room beyond it. With my fingers, I simulated bunnies locked in coitus against the wall to make him look in my direction, when I used a knuckle to show penetration. The black terrier that was the office manager’s pet came sniffing at my crotch, as if knowing where my fingers wanted to start scratching.

He asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving when I stood in the break room mixing curdled cream in my coffee, and I told him I was renaming it Thanksween. I was combining it with a holiday I now liked better but hadn’t celebrated. Renaming holidays, I kept silent, was one of the advantages of having no parents.

He followed me to my desk, where I had printed out Jesse Jackson’s headshot. I planned to pin it to the belt of my Rainbow Brite costume, I told him, to make her more political, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition mascot for all intents and purposes. He told me that was racist, and I said it was the opposite, that as far as I was concerned the world was far too colorless. Because in addition to a deep appreciation of people with all shades of skin with various amounts of melanin, I now know seeing color less vividly is a physical symptom of depression.

My sister and brother-in-law were living in my parents’ house then and invited my brother-in-law’s family to dinner as well as myself and my husband. The living room ceiling had begun to splinter around the chandelier, whose tungsten had frayed into dog-torn rope within bulbs shaped like tulips. The oak tree flanking our driveway, a hundred or more years old, was split by lightning a few weeks earlier, my sister explained when I asked her how it had fallen. One of my sister’s aging Labrador Retrievers now slept on my bed at all hours, leaking urine onto a quilt my mom had sewn me for Christmas. The screen doors had collapsed from all their hinges, and the white carpet too was clouding amid a surge of black mold as dark as that in my office. It had overgrown most of my parents’ clothing, so my sister soon burned them along with all my baby blankets.

And while my sister made a broccoli casserole, I folded my mom’s blue silk nightgown into my purse pocket. When I tried it on later in my old bedroom, it barely fit over a body that had long dwarfed that of the woman who’d bought it, who had survived largely on salads and remained the same size since college.

I had offered to bring no dish, pleading the four-hour drive from Chicago during which anything good would spoil, I said, though I had mandated we all wear costumes nevertheless. Formerly my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving had grown tasteless without my dad’s aftershave infusing the broth with his scent. Our garden had lain fallow since the summer previous. Another farmer now harvested the corn my dad had planted in the fields encircling our home like light behind an eclipse.

One of my brother-in-law’s sisters arrived as a witch in black cotton, another as an ice princess in azure satin, neither saying hello as they walked inside our kitchen, both bringing pie in Tupperware cases with crusts bought frozen. When their mom appeared in a black turtleneck wearing a headband with red horns attached, I drove to town for tomatoes for the salad we had always grown on trellises overlooking our garden.

My husband stayed and played folk songs on his guitar while wearing an Elvis costume with his hair gelled into a pompadour I had molded. My brother-in-law later emerged from my parents’ bedroom as a knight in blue jeans, my sister a medieval maiden. I ate beside a 4-year-old Batman on the end of the couch sunken low where my mom had painted her nails each evening, and after dinner we all changed out of our costumes. The boys built a bonfire over top my dog’s grave and beside the mulberry tree my mom planted when I was born but no one now watered or watched blossom. I detached Jesse Jackson from my elastic rainbow belt, taped him onto my long-sleeved shirt, and followed the smoke as it stretched its wan fingernails toward the rusting silo peaks.

Before she brought color to a colorless world, Rainbow Brite was a lonely orphan named Wisp with hair the color of smoke, graying prematurely. Spare and undernourished with a wishbone clavicle, she pulled her tobacco-stained blinds shut in the afternoon glare, the sunlight too stark for her too-blue eyes with only white eyelashes for shade. Her eyelids too were veined like an old woman’s hands once they closed for the evening. Then an unknown force ushered her into a world even darker than the one where she had always lived. Only with the help of a white horse and multilingual sprite named Twink, translating the language of Happy Talk into English, did she suffuse this new planet with colors more dazzling than any she had known on Earth before. Or so goes the legend.

Behind her raging celebrity, Rainbow Brite remained little Wisp, I still have a feeling. Left to her own devices and bereft of Twink’s translations, she may well have lived the commonest of common lives, bleak beyond reckoning, once Saturday morning became Saturday afternoon and the talk less happy. And sometimes I wonder whether all that color was compensatory, neon fecundity borne of an interior otherwise wintry. I wonder whether her hair was really dyed yellow with mouse brown roots, whether she could sit quietly through the colorless thunderstorms that ushered in the rainbows to come afterward and prove too fleeting. I wonder how she warmed herself without a plain khaki trench coat during the overcast days of late February.

My dad died inside the same room where he flew out his mother’s birth canal, its water damage just beginning to fork into russet jags of lightning around our chandelier as he stopped breathing, his eyelashes yet long and lustrous at almost sixty. His parents gave him the house the year he was married and built a new one across the road on which few people besides ourselves ever drove. I was born nine and a half months later, so pretty a baby no one now remembers. Within two years my blue eyes and blonde hair both changed to brown, however. My skin turned dark as copper beneath the sun in summer while remaining white as cotton all winter, undecided whether to love light or darkness.

For a time during my adolescence, my mom convinced me to highlight my hair a light honey blonde, but I stopped once I realized the futility of trying to outpace the roots, growing raven in comparison. Brighter hair, I told her, wasn’t worth the effort. She tipped back a can of Diet Coke then swallowed, tacitly disagreeing, always associating blonde hair with me as such a pretty baby, while I walked to the kitchen to refill my glass of water. And transparent though what flowed from our faucet appeared, it contained colors no tap in any town uncovered.

Our water came from a well and dyed my hair a brash, kinetic orange when we ran low on softening salts then forgot to buy them. I never saw this well I secretly wished was framed in a stone circle, whose waters I might extract with a wooden bucket I raised and lowered with rope when I grew thirsty. I still can’t tell you where it is, though I will always envisage it mired in brume on a treeless hill, flat as our land was from a glacier’s passage millennia ago. I only know that when my hair became brassy, primed for pairing with a bright blue dress with Jesse Jackson at its bodice, my mom bought more bags of softener from the hardware store. She told me to wear a canvas hat and tuck my hair into a ponytail until the color muted. I did as I was told, but then I was no orphan.

During my dad’s last hours, with my mom lying underground for four months through autumn and winter, my hair grew orange again now she was no longer watching. No one had thought to soften the water, not when there was morphine to dispense and enemas that needed inserting, death to stave off for a few more days and hours. And as his friends filed in to mumble and pray for a miracle that wouldn’t transpire, holding hands in a circle with bent heads that were balding, I interrupted their shadowy talk of a brighter afterlife to ask if anyone had noticed how orange my hair had gotten. How funny, orange hair, I said, and I hadn’t even dyed it. It had gotten brighter on its own. Imagine.

Consumed with my hair’s color and unwilling to pray to Jesus, I must have looked in little danger of disappearing into the looming darkness.

It never completely changed back to what it had been before after my parents both were buried. Instead of a walnut brown, it has remained an auburn greedy for light with higher frequencies. It turned then stayed a little lighter spontaneously. Approaching 30, my body too began a new developing. My breasts bulged out farther while my waistline shrank a few inches like a tree deprived of water. My husband noticed I had grown a few inches taller.            

He thought it all coincidence, a late growth spurt a little freakish. He had no idea my body was begging for a lover. He never noticed all the black dog hair on my clothes from the couch where I took naps during working hours. He had no conception just how many pennies I had saved to buy myself some pleasure.

The morning after Thanksween, we left early for the drive back to Chicago. Seeing the ice princess and the witch eating pie for breakfast in their pajamas with their hair still matted from sleep, I shuddered with a twinge of revulsion, because breakfast the day after Thanksgiving was only for turkey and stuffing. The four of us would have all been dressed, in jeans and long sweaters with our teeth and hair neatly combed, for a long morning of raking leaves then more chores after and pie only following supper late into the evening. A dusty leaf blower leaned against our croquet set, strung with the webs of spiders. Pointing the blower at the ground like a metal detector for an hour would make a quick job of the yard if they decided to do the work they’d promised, but I left before I could know for certain they wouldn’t.

The Monday after Thanksgiving, Ryan asked me if Rainbow Brite with the face of Jesse Jackson was a hit in Indiana. I acknowledged only middling, adding I had come back richer, however. I had taken pennies kept in tin foil stowed inside my closet. I left the nightgown that hardly fit me a secret.

I didn’t explain any further, merely left it there and took my coffee back to my desk to begin some editing. I didn’t tell him there were so many pennies they looked like giant chunks of iron ore wrapped in foil crinkled for decades.

Inez was my elderly great uncle and aunt’s yet more elderly neighbor. Her skin, though mottled with purple spots of age, felt smooth as a cat’s paw as I kissed her on her cheek to say hello and goodbye to her, her back curved so her head hung low as a clock pendulum swinging to extoll the hours, her knees permanently buckled into a stoop that doubtless explained why she never crossed her threshold and stayed always indoors. Her fingernails were foundered with age, yet her eyes gleamed and calmly witnessed the decay of the rest of her. With her back knotted into a skein of vertebrae too close to the surface for my liking, she yet allowed vast amounts of light to pass through her. And her luminosity could be sensed before you saw her, as something in a room beyond seen through the reflection of a fogged mirror.

I was a gift to her end of life, I thought, because Inez was without children, husband, or any family, her only sister having died several years before. I was in middle school, 11 or 12, when I walked half a mile to the nursing home on Mondays once she could no longer live alone, in what must have been good weather or I would not have taken the trouble.

My mom told me once while driving me home that Inez had been a classy lady before she was someone we’d known. Classiness implied money, I assumed, which Inez seemed to be lacking. And classy ladies didn’t live in the town where I went to school, ten miles north of the farm where Wisp had her beginning.

Yet Inez had once lived in luxury, my mom averred, before she moved next door to Aunt Millie, when she lived in Chicago with her first husband, who had been a surgeon. The surgeon had died and left Inez his fortune, which her second husband spent before leaving her for another woman, or so went the story. Inez and her much younger second husband divorced quickly. At the court proceeding, Inez wore a pink Chanel suit with a string of diamonds. Her lawyer frowned at her appearance. That her case’s success pivoted on proving her destitution they had already established, when she haplessly pleaded it was all she owned, as it was truly.

Inez was able to recover none of her money and had to move to a small town in southern Indiana with her spinster sister to have somewhere to subsist on social security. She had to live somewhere to die as lonely a death as possible, though someday I may match her.

I never left her little yellow kitchen, where we sat and did our chatting, without a clump of pennies wrapped in tin foil for protection. She said she knew that they weren’t much, darling, but that if I kept them all I might have enough to buy a makeup bag for myself by the time I began wearing lipstick. Altogether, Inez had probably given me $15 or $20, and I didn’t dispute the pennies’ value. Some of the tin foil I used to make furniture and silverware for my Barbie dolls, which was also useful.

I asked her few if any questions, conscious of my kindness in talking with an elderly woman until my mom came and took me home rather than skipping rope or watching cartoons. All I can remember her now saying was that my Great Uncle Joe was vain of his hair, something I had never noticed, and it never occurred to me that there were things I hadn’t, because I thought I saw everything. I had seen that it was slicked back from his forehead like a silver seal, with no discernible part, but that was all. From her kitchen window, Inez and I watched him walk from his El Camino across the yard and up three steps to his back door as he pulled a comb from out of his pants pocket and smoothed his hair back into its knot at his nape. What else did Inez see? I couldn’t help but wondering, though at wonderment I stopped. I took my pennies in tin foil and left, wishing her a nice evening.

Inez’s house sold for $50,000 in 2008. My mom had inherited my Aunt Millie and Uncle Joe’s home after their death six years earlier and had decided to buy Inez’s to bolster the value of her own new property. And so I inherited her house with my sister. My parents had originally rented Inez’s home to a man named Tim, a mechanic who neglected to pay his rent but who liked to vacuum and whom they never caught smoking, they reasoned, defending him.

Tim moved out after my parents both died of cancer, when my sister and I saw no reason to keep the house he had lived in, when I became $25,000 richer with her pennies still inside my desk drawer until Thanksween evening.

Later that week at the pet magazine, Ryan was fired for spending too much time on social networking while I was napping. It was hardly a real job, he wrote me, and I didn’t disagree with him. Without him there, though, I had no reason to lie any longer on a couch the color of storm clouds that never bothered raining. I was never really tired, only pretending.

The work days grew longer without Ryan to imagine naked beneath me, his hands massaging my breasts still growing in my late twenties. Eventually I emailed him again, asking if I could lend him any money, maybe a couple thousand. He wrote back saying three grand would be lovely.

Three thousand dollars bought me one more meeting, at a bar after work so he could buy me a glass of wine and give me a CD with some of his band’s music. I was thinking of quitting the pet magazine too, I told him, even though it was all I had going.

The last time I went trick-or-treating was the year I began menstruating, something I don’t know if Rainbow Brite has ever done, because I’m not sure if Rainbow Brite ever became a woman. I assume her planet has its own moon pulling the lining from out her uterus, but perhaps she hides from its light come evening. Perhaps she never succumbs to natural phenomena, or perhaps she is addicted to ultraviolet radiation and as a result has trouble sleeping. Her inner thighs may well be the one woman’s never stained with blood bright enough to paint a barn, blood scarlet enough to smooth over the flaking patches of my dad’s barn growing only more colorless deeper into autumn.

When my husband and I returned home to visit my sister and brother-in-law for Christmas, the leaves were still blanketing the earth, compacted into thick mulch where in summer we had once played badminton. The leaves had swelled like a cyst beneath the magnolia tree that had held the Easter Bunny’s pale purple eggs my mom had loved hiding. The grass wouldn’t grow until March or April even if we raked them. And if it didn’t grow then, no one would have to mow it later. There was no hurry and little light for any young buds to grow toward in late December; the darkness would do as well all over. The barn’s paint was peeling like birch bark, and this holiday none of us were in costume either. We didn’t need any more color and my skin had once more turned white as the snow that refused falling that December. I walked inside my parents’ closet and noticed all trace of their scent at last was gone. With my eyes closed, I knew I was home only by the absence of mold. The dampness that had dried into something unknown.


Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her narrative nonfiction has appeared in literary magazines including [PANK], Superstition Review, Prick of the Spindle, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Poydras Review, Gravel, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Beetroot Journal, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Midway Journal, Pithead Chapel, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit.