The Clarion Content is delighted to introduce a new recurring feature from Kate Van Dis. Back in October she shared a piece with us about the Durham Public Schools Hub Farm.
Her latest project is the Palmetto Blog, weekly new short fiction stories. Each one is based on a Durham photo shot by Kate Van Dis. The Clarion Content will be publishing one every other week. Read them all and subscribe here.
Pine State Electric
by: Kate Van Dis
When we arrive, Carli likes to go in and look at all of the lamps. “There are so many of them,” he whispers, walking slowly through the multi-leveled shelves and the mismatched tables covered in lamps. There are also crystal chandeliers, linen drum lanterns, wrought iron sconces – all of them burning with different levels of intensity. Some white-hot, some soft yellow, some a deeper glow that borders on auburn. “Who turns them all on?” wonders Carli. There is a bald man at the front desk who is frowning over a stack of paperwork, his desk the one spot in the emporium that is not lit up. “Can we have this one, mom?” asks Carli. His hand is resting on a roughly carved table lamp that is part lamp, part planter – wilted green tendrils trailing down to the table it sits on. Carli has a thing about houseplants: they increase oxygen levels, they remove toxins from the air, they can decrease blood pressure and improve your mood! We have so many that the house is getting a humid, earthy smell.
“How much is it?” I ask, picking up the lamp. Up close, it looks more like a teenager’s failed shop project than something you’d find in a high-end lamp shop.
As I am paying for the lamp at the sales desk, Carli taps on the counter until the old man looks up at him. “Who turns on the lamps?” Carli asks.
The man lowers his glasses to the tip of his nose and tilts his head back to look through them at Carli. “I do,” he says.
“One at a time?”
“How else would I do it?” the man says, and he looks down to finish writing my receipt. Carli looks up at me with huge eyes. He can’t believe it. I shrug.
“Mom,” Carli says as we are walking out. “He must get up before it’s light out, just to have time to turn on the lights and then he’d have to start turning them off as soon as he got them on. That place is huge, all day and all night, all he must do is turn light switches.”
“Or he’s magic,” I say.
Carli nods. “Yes. It must be something like that.”
I strap the lamp plant into the passenger seat and Carli climbs into his seat in the back. I can hear him counting under his breath, his eyes searching the front windows of Pine State Electric, the halfway point between his father’s house and mine. His father suggested the fast food restaurant up the street as a better meeting place, but Carli hates fast food, and he loves looking at the lamps. So, Pine State Electric it is.
While Carli counts, I close my eyes and lean into the headrest. We wait.
Carli is six now. His teachers want to tell me that he is on the spectrum, whatever that means, and they are always raising their eyebrows when I tell them to stop labeling my kid. They are unpleasant, unhappy, terrible women, and after our last meeting there, I heard one of them whisper to her crony, “And who names their little boy Carli?” This was his fulltime classroom teacher who apparently couldn’t be bothered to read his transcript on which his full name is printed: Carlin Robinson Allen. “Three first names!” On weekends, he makes me alternate between them. Some Saturdays, he is Robinson (a favorite because Winnie-the-Pooh), other Saturdays, when he wants to “blend in more,” he is “Al.” I indulge him. But he is always Carli to me. His father, on the other hand, refuses to call him this, because it makes him sound like a girl. To Richard, Carli is Carlin, and nothing else. “My dad does not like to pretend, mama,” Carli tells me after his last visit. Instead of the million things that pop into my mind, I say, “Oh?”
He shrugs. “I guess it’s because he’s a boy,” he says. “Boys don’t have as big of imaginations as girls.” He is always coming back from Richard’s saying things like this, things I would never dream of saying to my child, or any child. My hands tighten on the steering wheel.
“Well, you have a great imagination, and you’re a boy.”
“Well, not really,” he says. “I have a girl’s name.”
“Carli is not a girl’s name. It’s your name.”
“From now on, I think it’d be better if I went by Carlin.”
I force myself not to say anything, still waiting. Trying not to wonder if his father will show up this time.
“But you can still call me Carli,” he says. And I nod, hoping that my face in the rearview mirror does not betray my relief.
Other mothers say that I am too attached. But most of them have husbands. And most of them stay home full time. And none of them have Carli for a son. Who says things like:
“Mama. I think my papa is out there somewhere.” (When he is two, despite me never one time mentioning that he even had a papa, which I preferred to pretend he did not.)
“Mama. Your hair is lovely like lilacs.” (When he’s in the bathtub, age three, hysterical laughter ensuing.)
“The trees are pushing their leaves into the world ALL BY THEMSELVES!” (When he is four, springtime.)
“School is a sad, invasive, unnecessary procedure.” (Yesterday, exiting the car pool pick-up lane.)
It’s late December and past 5:00 pm, our decided-upon meeting time, so the street is pitch black, the parking lot empty. At 5:30, we watch the lights in the store turn off, all at once, except for one in the very back that stays on. We watch the old man lock the front door and shuffle across the parking lot to his car. “Liar,” Carli whispers from the back seat.
I want to get out of the car. I’d like to walk up to those plate glass windows and smash them to bits with the metal baseball bat I keep on the floor of the backseat “just in case,” as Carli likes to say. I want to scream. But I don’t do any of these things. I just sit in the front seat, listening to Carli breath until finally, at 6:00 on the dot, he says, “I guess he’s not coming,” and I start the car, and we drive home.
Though Katherine Van Dis is a long time Durhamite, her roots are in Michigan, where much of her fiction takes place. After seventeen years in the Bull City, she thought she would try her hand at fiction set in the south. Palmetto Blog Durham is a project dedicated to the people and places of Durham. Each tiny fiction is paired with and inspired by an original photo taken in the city. Katherine’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review and The Carolina Quarterly. She is currently finishing up a short story manuscript.
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