The babysitter was asleep again. Clemie Miller twisted on the vinyl stool behind her lemonade stand. It was a three-legged card table, sagging in the middle. She wished she had a red checkered tablecloth for it, like the Saturday Evening Post, but the only one her mother had was festooned with queasy chartreuse flowers. On the table sat a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a pitcher of lukewarm lemonade. The ice had melted, rendering it weak as half-brewed tea. Backup supplies were stowed in the cooler she had borrowed from her brother, who used it on Fridays to surreptitiously transport beer. Clemie had made an awning using butcher paper, meter sticks, and duct tape. Lemonade $1, it proclaimed.
Her location was bad, she knew. The last cul-de-sac before the suburbs melted into lodgepole pines and sagebrush is heavy with foot-traffic. The sun pulsed, an egg yolk through the haze. The vinyl stuck to her bare legs. In her lap, a rag doll. Its name was Hanna. She whispered to it.
“Why is no one coming, Hana? We squeezed the lemons for the lemonade by ourselves. No mix, no instant fake lemonade, no like those lazy McAllister boys. We made the cookies all by ourselves. Homemade. They’re good.”
Clemie thrust the little cloth effigy up to her ear. Its head snapped back. Her eyebrows angled and her lips pursed as if she was listening to a real voice. “Oh.” she nodded. “Hana, what an idea! What a good idea!” Clemie peeled herself from the vinyl and rocketed down the block to her own house.
A breeze worried the edges of the tablecloth. Hana fell onto the concrete. The flight of a crow was reflected in her shoebutton eyes. Scraggy elms lined either side of the street, and beyond them one-story ranch houses.
The houses were nocturnal. At night they watched each other with yellow eyes like cats, during the day curtains were drawn to keep flies out, and the houses slept. Behind the houses was a hundred acres of dry, oaky woods where her brother slunk out to at night.
A man came huffing up the street, arms pumping like the pistons on a steam engine. He wore a red flannel shirt and kept pitching his head back to look over his shoulder. A car grumbled somewhere down the lane. The man scrambled, pivoted, fell on one knee and grunted as a tinge of red bled through his jeans. Seeing the lemonade stand, he heaved himself under it, almost knocking the pitcher over. Underneath it was shady and smelled faintly dank, like long-festered canvas. The tablecloth draped to the ground on all sides. Perfect coverage.
He counted to twenty. S***, what are you doing? This isn’t hide-and-seek.
But it was. He almost laughed.
From the telephone wires the crows watched Clemi run. She had a massive rectangle of paper, felt pens in twelve colors, and three Band-Aids because her mother hid the tape after the prior week’s varnish-stripping incident. She noticed a shift under the tablecloth. Funny, Clemie thought. The wind, again. She spread the paper on the cement and wrote Come Drink Yummy Lemonade (spelled “right” this time) and wreathed it in rainbow polka dots.. The pebbly surface distorted her letters, jostling them off their tracks. She stuck it to a telephone post with the Band-Aids.
Five dollars. That was her goal. At first it had been twenty. Enough money to buy real, grown-up things. But after an eternity of waiting she had halved it, and now it was halved again. Five dollars. Is that much to ask?
Under the tablecloth the man’s fingernails dug into the palms of his hands.
Clemie snatched up Hana and leaned her against the pitcher. Then she took her seat.
A police car rumbled down the street. To Clemie it looked like a panda bear, all black and white. It halted, and a man with a red face stepped out. His pores were like little craters, from them sweat erupted.
“Do you want to buy-” Clemie began
The Flannel Man was praying. Jesus, can you please save this crazy life? It felt awful similar to swearing.
Clemie was interrupted. “Have you seen a man in a red flannel shirt come past, miss?”
“I have cookies too-”
The officer smelled like coffee. It was a nice, grandpaish smell, but so close and so strong. “I asked; have you seen a man in red flannel shirt?”
“No.” said Clemie. A voice from the driver side of the car sounded. It and the driver had a quick back-and-forth. They decided to not bother asking at the doors. They weren't in the right part of town, anyway. They had lost the trail back in Burlington.
The officer told Clemie to be careful and tell her mother if she saw anything. He did not buy any lemonade.
“What a rude old man.” Clemie said to Hana, and for need of something to pinch, she took Hana’s slack arm between her thumb and forefinger and squeezed. Then she poured herself a Dixie cup full of lemonade. It was thin and sweet. Needed more of a punch. She ran back to her house to fetch more lemons and returned. She stopped in her tracks.
A man in a red flannel shirt was crawling out from under the table.
“Hey!” she yelled. “Hey, you!” The man froze. As she reached the stand, her voice sweetened. “Sorry I left the stand. Do you want to buy a cup?
“I like your ribbons.” said the Flannel Man. “Those are lemons, right?” He didn’t know why he said this. Clemie inwardly beamed. She had made the lemon hairpiece in art class last month specifically for the purpose of running a lemonade stand. Each nylon bow, the color of egg yolks, had been hot glued onto a metal barrette. In the center of each bow was an oven-bake polymer clay lemon. At least that had been the intent. He was the first person to recognize the lumpy, yellow forms as citrus.
“Thanks.” she said. “Art’s not my best class. I like drama and math more.” The bow of the left side of her head slipped a little lower. “Are you good at art?”
“I studied painting in college.”
Clemie nodded, duly impressed. “Are you like my friend Noelle, then? She can make anything she wants on the page. Like a dog, and it looks like a real dog. Or a castle. Or a giant battling a chipmunk.” Clemie laughed at this last one.
“That last one sounds hard as hell.” The Flannel Man said. Stop it, he told himself. You can’t sailor-mouth her. He looked at her hands, sticky from the sugar she had pinched into the lemonade.Her nails were gnawed short, just like his. “Look.” he said, “I’ve just gotta go to my car and pick up a dollar, and then I’ll come back here...”
What was he telling her? His words twisted in on themselves, tying him tighter into a lie. She knew he was in trouble, and it was too soon to take off, anyway. The cops were only a few blocks away.
“I think you should stay here for now.” Clemi said. She lifted up a corner of the tablecloth and he crawled under it like a dog. Cross Legged, the denim chafed his knee and the blood strained through. Clemi trotted over to the sign and peeled off a band-aid. She gave it to him and he patted it on his knee, just to humor her. God, this is weird he thought.
“What did you paint in college?” she asked.
“Um, mostly post-card landscapes for the first half. And then I switched to lyrical abstraction.”
Having no idea what lyrical abstraction was , Clemi nodded. “Why?” she asked.
“I’m sorry. That story’s kind of long.”
“It’s ok. No one's buying my lemonade today anyway.”
“I should really get going.” To where? He asked himself.
Like a sailor seeing the great shapes of whales below the water, Clemie sensed something. “Let’s go to the woods behind the Smith’s house.” The Smiths were ancient and never went outside, except to church. “You just go under the table and I’ll lift it.”
The Flannel man sighed. Clemie picked up the entire card table and heaved, but the lemonade pitcher sloshed and the cookies jostled off the plate. The flannel man, still crouching, pushed up from underneath, balancing the table on the palms of his hands. With Clemi balancing it from above they shuffled up the street - a little girl and a magically moving table - up the block and into the stand of pines.
Clemi stuffed Hana into her shirt, but left the vinyl stool. It looked strange there, a lone pushpin of red in the grey street.
Sitting on the pine-needle carpet the Flannel Man begun his story.“I was in my sophomore year at Emerson College in Boston.” he said. “And I was painting this winter mountain scene. There was supposed to be these jagged peaks in the back and a lake and some trees and a snowbank.”
That was a rather sparse description of his ambition. He had hoped for majestic, Mordor-like splendor to emit from the peaks, and for the lake to look like glass, with punkish spiked conifers reflected in its serene surface.
“But I couldn’t get it right. Every brushstroke I took made it worse and worse.”
He cringed, remembering the garish, green tint the mountains took on, the snow accidentally smudged with yellow, and the stiff, artificial lines he’d made in the trees with the palate knife.
“Eventually, I got fed up and just began slapping splotches of paint on the canvas. I thought I’d feel like Jackson Pollock, but it just looked like mountain-colored vomit. It depressed me so much I threw the painting out of the window and went to eat some Vietnamese pho noodles.” He half-smiled here, imagining a self twelve years younger who thought like’s ailments could be cured with spicy noodles.
“Well.” he continued. “When I got to the noodle establishment it turned out it was under new management. The new guy who ran it had no idea how to make a noodle and wasn’t even Vietnamese. So I ate these awful noodles, with a week’s worth of salt and these moldy bean sprouts. And what do you know? I get sick as a dog. My roommate said I was delirious all night, and I had this dream I’ll never forget.”
The Flannel Man paused here, searching for the right words. “I dreamed that I was back in the studio, at my painting. The paint had dried, and I was just staring at it, hating it so hard. Then it peeled off the canvas. First came the trees. They fluttered over and landed on my hands - I scraped at them with my fingernails but they wouldn't come off. And then it was the snowbank, ripping itself off like a giant scab and adhering to my chest. The lake tore itself apart, the clouds and the hideous mountains, as I thrashed and writhed they clung tighter and tighter. The canvas fell away and another painting of mine, one of a seashore, was behind it. The paint began to remove itself from this one too, coating my eyes, my nose, wriggling inside my lips. I was suffocating under my terrible work. I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t-”
He took a deep breath and glanced up at Clemi. He had been staring at the ground this whole time, and he hoped he hadn’t scared her too badly.
“When I woke the fever began to subside, and the next afternoon I felt good enough to start painting again. But I didn’t paint another landscape. I painted my dream. And it was perfect.”
They sat in silence - her, on the vinyl stool and him under the stand, the tablecloth drawn up around his face. A shy wind at the hedge. The Flannel Man wondered why it had felt so right. To let his subconscious streak the canvas with it’s visceral fluids.
Clemi liked the way he talked to her. Like she was a big person who deserved to know big things. But she had to pee. “I’m going to my house over there.” she told him. “I’ll be back real soon, so just stay where you are.”
As she left the table jostled, and Hana the rag doll fell at his feet. A voice encroached into the waxy catacombs of his inner ear. “Look.” said Hana. “I have a proposition.”
He stiffened, all the muscles in his back ready to pounce. “Um. What did you just say.”
“That I have something I want you to do.” Hana’s voice was muffled, coming through cotton batting. Her facial features did not move as she spoke.
“But.” he shivered. “You’re a doll.”
Hana must have been offended. All anyone ever expected from dolls was to be pretty and submissive, to like having their clothes changed and being wheeled around in prams. No one expected them to have ideas, propositions.
The breeze rustled in the tablecloth, casting ribbons of darkness across Hana’s limp frame. “I want you to make Clemi afraid.”
“Why?” The Flannel Man shifted his weight, maybe moving a centimeter or two farther away.
“Because she needs to be taught a lesson.” said Hana. “She throws me on the ground, she slings me to and fro and nick's me with thumbtacks when she plays doctor. ‘Time to get shot’ she says. Over and over. Leaves me in the rain. I want her to know what it feels like to be completely dependent on the mercy of another being. Put your hands around her neck. And squeeze.”
The man struggled to say something, but it caught in his throat.
“I’m not asking you to kill her.” said Hana. “I’d never ask that. Just for you to take over her fate for a moment.” Like prison had done for him, for ten winters. Taken his life from him. Once he was out, he swore he’d never go back. But now that promise seemed like it’d be hard to keep.
Face in his palms, The Flannel Man shook. The curtained rectangle around them shrank. “I couldn't.” he said. “Once I latched on, I might not be able to ever let go.” It was true, and it had happened before.
Years ago, he had gone to see a piano performance. Afterwards, in the q&a and old woman had asked what his hands felt like while he was playing. “Like someone else’s hands.” the pianist had said. (Chin jutting, sheened under stage light. Pretentious idiot.) “Like I couldn't stop them from playing if I wanted to I couldn't stop them from trying if I wanted too.” As a little boy, that had seemed magical. Now he knew the damage self-motivated hands could do.
And then Clemi was back, she breezed in and Hana fell silent.
“Let’s do something together.” Clemi. “I hate sitting here, waiting and waiting for someone to come. It’s because I’m still a kid, I know it. In three years I’ll be in middle school But I can’t just grow up all at once, you know? Did you grow up all at once?” (Actually he had, but that was a separate story.) “Of course not! . “And I don’t want to except sometimes I do like right now-”
A scalding silence washed over her features. She knelt down and picked up Hana by one foot. Her little cloth torso swayed back and forth like a pendulum. She wanted to cradle her. To make mud pies with her. But that wouldn’t be right. “Do you think still playing with Hana means I’m a baby?”
The Flannel man thought back to the painted trees, how they jeered with their angular branches and how he loathed them.
“Do you think it’s time Hana took the high road and I took the low road?” Clemi had heard that in a song, and the phrase had a certain romance to her.
Hana’s eyes were flat and reflective: two twin mirrors showing his own twisted expression. He couldn’t speak with her staring at him.
“Here.” Clemi took his hand in her sticky one and wrapped his fingers around the doll. “You can have her.” Terror began to spiral in The Flannel Man’s gut.
“NO.” he said, louder than he planned. “No, it’s not a good idea.” The crows watched from the telephone wire, and a cheeky red squirrel darted across the street. “I think we have to-”
“Get rid of her?”
“Humm. Maybe-” He felt mesmerized by the shoe buttons, the opaque smile stitched in pink thread, the limp yarn hair. He couldn’t imagine the things she might tell him to do.
“She’s the problem?”
“Do you want to…”
They make a solemn funeral procession, through the shambling pines and into the culvert by the stream. Hana was changed into her best dress, a pink, Audrey-Hepburnish thing. She lay in a crisp black shoebox, carried on the flats of The Flannel Man’s palms, like a butler carrying a platter. Clemi, wearing the tablecloth as a cape, had fetched her violin from the house and was playing “Silent night” somberly. She had received Hana on Christmas Eve when she was four, so the piece seemed appropriate. Their posture was erect, their gait smooth.
In the culvert, witch tall enough that the Flannel Man barely had to stoop, they stopped. Clemi stared down at Hana, her childhood helplessness, all rolled up in one pitiful bundle of fabric. Hana stared at the ceiling, looking peaceful, if a little stiff in her coffin. Clemi remembered the box she came in, wrapped in red with a grand bow. She thought of playing school, playing doctor, playing espionage and cooking and Macbethian dramas out together on the back porch, the screen door slamming for sound effects. All the things, innocent and cruel, that they did together.
Under her breath, she said the only prayer she knew: Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the lord my soul to keep and if I die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.
She untied the table cloth from around her neck. The Flannel Man placed it over Hana and they worked together, folding, smoothing out the wrinkles. They were Hana’s gods. All-powerful. Omnipotent. Then the Flannel Man took out his cigarette lighter, with was red and plastic. He flicked it with a practiced thumb and held it to the fabric. First came the curling recoil of the fabric. Then flames shot up. Crackling, licking, scarfing it down. The box’s They stayed by it, sitting folded on their knees, the smoke tormenting their eyes. It contorted, tortured, like dragon's breath, billowing black cloud castles that felt like granite on their throats. Clemi liked the smell. It reminded her of barbeques at her cousin's house in late August. Her eyes watered, but if he asked if she was ok she could blame the smoke.
The Flannel man was comforted by the bitterness of the smoke, it seemed to him that all the hatred inside Hana was streaming out, raw as blood. Or maybe that was just the polyester from the tablecloth letting loose it’s strench.
When the flames subsided The Flannel kicked it with his boot. A pile of ash, a puddle of molten polyester. The shoe buttons were nowhere to be found, they must have melted too. they crawled to the disc of light on the other side of the culvert and sat on the edge. Dandelions proliferated around their feet. A dainty praying mantis skirted along the rim of a tin can.
Clemi took out the refreshments. They had two dixie cups of lemonade and three cookies each. The lemonade was the backup from the cooler, and it was tart and smooth. Fresh as wind on water. The cookies had caramelized on the bottom, were chewy in the middle, and harbored sun-melty pockets of dark chocolate.
“That was a cool story about the painting.” said Clemi. “Do you still make paintings?”
The Flannel Man munched his cookie. “Not so much for a couple years, there.” he said. “But I want to got back to it.” Clemi nodded.
If he was going to be honest, he wasn’t sure if he deserved freedom. But, for the time being, he had it. He would burn all his demons and paint wonderful pictures. He wanted to live like Clemi imagined him living. Or try to, at least.
When the cookies were gone he shrugged off the flannel shirt and handed it to her. It was sweaty and smokey. She would keep it for a long time, a souvenir for the first time she’d held someone’s future in her palm. She gave him a lemon hairclip, and then he slipped off, down the culvert and into the unknowable maze of the grown-up world.