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"Neat Neat Neat" by Mike Lee

On the drive to Austin, when Katerina passed the Brenham exit, the anxiety hit, and the verbal processing commenced.

“We have only four things in common, Sherry. We are women, Texans, have the same shoe size, and are bi. Let me make it five. We love punk rock, especially The Damned: New Rose, Neat Neat Neat, Love Song, Smash it Up, Plan 9, Channel 7, Wait for the Blackout and Alone Again, Or. Thank you again for making that tape for me because I’m listening to it while screaming into the air at my teenage memory of you.” Katrina hunched over the steering wheel, pretending it was Sherry’s neck while driving ninety on the highway to her..

“Damn, you were so adorable dressed up as the girl on the Foreigner Head Games record cover. Oh, wait. That was my skirt, and the Candies slides, too. I want them back. Okay, not the Candies, and you probably threw them out ten years ago. You can take me to the mall. There is a pair of stilettos I want. Run it on your American Express gold card, booshwah.”

”The skirt will look better on my ass now than it did then.”

“Okay, on second thought, I don’t want the skirt back. However, my nightlife has changed, my self-image has matured, and I no longer do jailbait, trashy suburban girl. Personal growth. You get it while paying attention when in your 20s.”

“Well, all right, sometimes I do want to. Maybe I can get away with it at Antone’s”

Katerina paused, easing off the gas pedal. “No, I do not want the slides back or the skirt. And—”

She stopped herself.

“Let’s be clear: I don’t want you.”

Katerina revised and reordered her thoughts again. “Yes, I want the skirt back, and instead of the stilettos, take me to Last Call and buy me a pair of job interview pumps. But, wait, no, that’s too weird.. I don’t want anything. It is too much trouble, and your boyfriend may think that this is peculiar and get ideas. Uh-uh, no way.”

“I am afraid you may have the impression I am still interested in you—and you will be right because every other thought is of me wanting to be drawn in. But, every other thought alongside clashes, saying "I do not want anything to do with you.”

“No kitty kat kisses or hanging out at the record store and watching the guys play pinball, waiting for them or each other. Knotty, complicated, tortuous, convoluted immature thoughts minus wisdom, complexities spread like a thunderstorm flying through with a blue norther, binding, tying, bonding, and always invariably left hanging”

“I hated the marks you left. I am feeling them right now.”

Shit. No. Katerina felt the sweat between her palms and the steering wheel, her chest pounding from the anxiety.

“Sherry, I cannot do this internal dialogue anymore. I feel like I will drive off the road.

“Goodbye for now.”

Katerina slowed down to switch tapes, grabbing without looking at a Northern Soul compilation, jamming it into the player, and tossing The Damned on the pile beside her.

Liz Shelly, No More Love.

Katerina turned it up loud and began singing.

Sherry was waiting on the porch as Katerina turned into the driveway, wheels crunching on the remains of dead trilobites, and slowly guided the truck into the garage.

She noticed Sherry had cut her hair short and had taken to dangling earrings. Katerina liked neither, though the white Ray-Bans and magenta lipstick were appealing. Unfortunately, Sherry’s red plaid boxers, the light green ribbed tank top, and the gold gladiator sandals did not match.

Unless she was hung over, which was possible, Sherry certainly was not looking to impress Katerina.

“Hey, Kitty Kat.”

Sherry threw her arms around Katerina’s shoulders and gave her a smooch on her cheek. Katerina had steeled herself for that greeting and did not shrink away. Instead only patted Sherry patronizingly on the shoulder in response.

While Katerina wiped her face with the back of her hand, Sherry swung the whitewashed door closed and locked the latch with a heavy bike chain.

“It’s safe here until we have Arthur help us move the boxes into the laundry room. Oh shit, I’m sorry, babe—is there anything you need from the truck?”

“Um, yes. I have a few bags I would like.”

“I’m sorry, girl.”

As Sherry reopened the garage doors, Katerina mused that she could not stand the shrill Southern girl tone Sherry put on when she was nervous and insecure. It could crack a windshield.

Finally, Katerina unlatched the gate, pulled out a suitcase, and handed it to Sherry.

Katerina took the two small cloth duffel bags she bought in Houston, clutching the improvised reinforced straps against her shoulder while doing a balancing act with her black leather shoulder bag.

The house smelled of lilac air freshener Sherry probably sprayed when she saw her turn the corner and cooking of unidentifiable ethnicity.

However, the house was immaculate, even for Sherry, and somewhat adult since the furnishings matched the posters. In addition, the television was new, a high-end Sony with a 25-inch screen.

She recognized the dark walnut Moderne Martinsville credenza from when Sherry lived with her parents. As Sherry led her into the hall to her guest room, Katerina spotted the Eames chair, still broken, in the dining room, with laundry stacked on top of the seat.

Katerina smiled, somewhat comforted by the continuity.

“Here you go, sweetheart,” Sherry said, dropping the suitcase on the bed. The linens smelled freshly washed and were off-white, as were the towels Sherry had neatly stacked for her on the dresser, next to which was a vase filled with irises, Katerina’s favorite.

Everything was so well prepared yet sterile. Katerina expected chocolates on a pillow and a Gideon Bible. She noticed Sherry and Arthur had money because the central air was running. The window frame of gossamer white silk was pulled back to expose paper-thin Venetian blinds.

Sherry pulled up the blinds and pointed. “Right over there, you can see my little babies. Take a look.”

Katerina looked out at the neatly prepared flower garden, ground upturned in heavy black clay. It looked modeled after a gardening club newsletter and betrayed Sherry’s obsessive compulsiveness.

While technically perfect, the arrangement was dull and looked no different than the garden next door, across the street, and the next town over. Again, neatly arranged rows of lion’s ear and dianthus dominated, though Katerina loved the yellow and white Republic of Texas roses.

Sherry’s gardening bothered Katerina. The sudden onset of adulthood this revealed was not the Sherry she had known. She found this somewhat disturbing, as if a doppelgänger replaced the person Katerina grew to love and hate and learned all over.

While relieved that this new hobby did not involve sex, this also might mean that Sherry was not getting enough.

“They’re beautiful and nicely done.” That was all Katerina could muster.

“Thanks. Arthur helps out too.” Then, sounding like a dig at Katerina’s lack of a boyfriend, she responded with an inappropriate giggle.

“I guess I better get unpacked.”

“Sure! I set aside a shelf for your perfume in the bathroom. You got the low shelf. Oh, and be careful with the hot water. The heater has been acting up lately.”


“When you’re done unpacking, I cooked up some jambalaya.”

“Why, certainly.” Katerina wanted to laugh and throw up a little in her mouth at once. Good Lord, you’d burn water, child.

After Sherry left the room to finish her now-revealed creation, Katerina walked to the window and drew the blinds closed. The garden put the room squarely in Sherry’s sight lines.

Lunch was not as bad as it smelled unless one liked over-salted sausage bits and tomato soup mixed with minute rice passing off as Cajun. The conversation centered on banalities and suggestions on apartments and house shares in the neighborhood and West Austin.

Sherry seemed to want Katerina living near, which Katerina decided not to get too paranoid about, given Sherry’s insecurity and co-dependency issues. In addition, Sherry was an only child and liked having a family, at least in concept.

During the conversation, Sherry started with her complaints about her boyfriend and her struggles with her parents. At least she had them. Katerina still mourned her mother, who died six months ago.

Katerina wanted to blurt out I do not have a tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘Please tell me your traumas.’ Instead, Katerina silently brushed her bangs and touched her forehead—just in case.

The remainder of lunch was a continuation of this avoidance ritual. Katerina was glad she processed on the drive. So much of the pus expiated.

Katerina offered to do the dishes and took extra care to scrub the layer of caramelized tomato soup and rice burned into the pan.

The kitchen was well appointed and looked married with a microwave, toaster oven, Braun coffee maker, and as a nod to Sherry’s kitsch, a pink Hello Kitty toaster. The cups and dishes matched, and Katerina could not help but gasp to see the tableware did too. Perhaps, Sherry had an accident playing with an Ouija Board, and the spirit of Suzie Homemaker sucked through her nostrils. The woman still does not cook worth a damn.

Finished, Katerina got up to go to the bathroom. Sherry was sitting on the commode, the door open in typical Sherry fashion.

Katerina patiently waited in the hall until she could no longer.

“What is that?”

“I am practicing for my role in Salome. Please finish up. I really need to pee.”

“Okay, okay. I’m done.” Sherry turned to change her shirt, pulling her tank top up slowly, showing Katerina the tiny silver clamps attached to her nipples and a hanging chain swinging over her belly button. Katerina blushed, feeling conflicted, as usual.

This time, Katerina spoke up. “Jeez, girl. Why do you want to show me that?”

Sherry grabbed another tank top, pulling it quickly and tight over her shorts. “Shush. Compartmentalize, girl. Compartmentalize, and stop being so paranoid. Not everything is about me trying to make you.”

You just admitted that sometimes you do. I have been in this house less than two hours, and already…

Sherry squeezed past her. Katerina breathed in and held her breath before slowly exhaling. She closed the bathroom door and checked that it was secure.

Later, Katerina sat on the couch with Sherry, zoning out to MTV. Katerina shuddered when The Swans’ cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart came on. The anxiety of feeling trapped began. The truck was locked up in the garage. The boyfriend is eventually on his way over.

Spreading her fingers over her knees, she inquired politely. “Hey, how about we go out for beers?”

They pulled the tarp off the Ferrari parked under the oak tree.

Sherry noticed Katerina’s expression.

“Sweetheart, it’s a project,” she said softly. “We just haven’t gotten much further than this.”

“Uh, huh.”

The Ferrari was a Cabriolet that belonged to Sherry’s dad. She remembered it far differently than in its current condition. It used to be red, now stripped to primer gray.

Sherry noticed Katerina’s expression. “We’re restoring it,” she said. “You remember there was a lot of water damage in the garage back in the ’81 flood.” The seats are finished, but some of the innards need fixin’ and a new paint job. But, I assure you, this is safe to drive.”

Katerina had a bad feeling about that and proved correct when she felt her jeans were wet after they turned the first corner.

She looked down and screamed. The clamp on the fuel line under the dashboard had come undone, with gasoline pouring onto her lap.

Sherry looked and pulled over, repeating, “Oh, oh, oh, oh,” as they jumped out of the car.

Katerina’s only thoughts were gratitude for quitting smoking the week before.

Sherry stood by the car, hands in front of her face, looking like a bad Catholic girl who got the words wrong during Confirmation.

“I’m sorry,” she said, the sound muffled through the intertwined fingers pressed against her face.

Katerina faked calm and spoke softly. “Why don’t we just walk home, and you call your boyfriend while I take a shower.” She undid the buttons of her black 501s. “First, I am taking these jeans off. Second, I am not walking two blocks soaked in gas,” Katerina said.

Sherry opened the trunk and pulled out an oil-stained beach towel.

“Good thinking, Sherry,” Katerina said. “Because the panties and T-shirt have to go, too. Oh, and my flip-flops, as well.”

Katerina grabbed the towel and wrapped herself before she undressed.

“I-I’ll carry your clothes for you.”

Katerina handed them over. “Yeah. Sure.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“Yes, I know you are.”

Katerina remembered the time when her father said that apologizing for doing something terribly stupid or evil was for the person fucking up to feel better. Oh, Daddy, I hope you were right about being an atheist because if you were looking down at this right now….

As she walked barefoot through the neighbors’ front yards, Katerina left as much space between them as possible.

Back at the house, Katerina showered, scrubbing off gasoline and some of the nascent rage. Eventually, Katerina sat on her haunches, letting the water cascade on her back.

After drying off, she opened a suitcase and began putting clothes away. In the process, she set aside her outfit. Gray ribbed tank top, another pair of black 501s. Black ballet flats with pointed toes—a relic from the teaching assistant year before dropping out of the graduate program.

Katerina saw the other suitcase. She remembered what was inside and unzipped it.

After Katerina went off to Rice, Mom turned Dad’s study into a sewing room. Soon she filled the room with unfinished quilts and crocheted stuffed animals in various stages of completion.

When clearing the house after the funeral, Katerina went through the room, knowing she intended these creations for grandchildren whom Mom would never know or perhaps would never exist.

Katerina picked up a headless Snoopy, then a robin without wings before placing them back into the boxes on top of the extended school table Mom had used.

Next, Katerina found an orange and brown owl with a board and tassel clearly intended for her but was missing its eyes. She searched on the table and saw them cut and ready for placement. Katerina later sewed them on herself.

Katerina sucked in her lips and took a deep breath, placing her eyes on the body, thinking Mom was working on that when she died. Nevertheless, mom was proud of her Rice University Rhodes Scholar regional finalist baby.

Katerina recalled the sadness while she contemplated the owl. Why didn’t she create them when it mattered--when I was growing up, instead of after I had left for Houston?

When Mom died, Sherry and the boyfriend were on vacation in Cozumel.

Though specifically told not to, Sherry sent flowers. Somehow, they were on the coffin, and shortly before the end of the burial Mass, a gust of wind blew them off.

Mom never liked Sherry.

The crocheted, stuffed owl was the last item she packed. After she returned to Houston and added its eyes, Katerina kept it on her bed between the pillows. She kept it s next to her while she slept. Owls were wise, and this one learned all the secrets and provided an audience while she dreamed.

Katerina held the owl to her chest. Finally, she placed it on the bed and grabbed her handbag from the side table.

“Sherry, do you have the skirt I loaned you when X played at Club Foot? The one that looked like the cover of the Foreigner album?”

“That? It’s around somewhere.”

“Fair enough,” Katerina said. “I need you to unlock the garage. I may be back in a few hours.”

“I’m really—”

“Sorry,” interrupted Katerina. “I know.”

Mike Lee was raised in Texas and North Carolina trailer parks. Editor, writer, and photographer for a trade union in New York City. Stories are upcoming or published in Drunk Monkeys, BULL, The Airgonaut, The Opiate, and many others. His book The Northern Line is available on Amazon.


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