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Clarice Johnson

Clarice longed to go to Nevada by train in a small dove-colored hat with netting, stay in a dusty hotel, and get divorced in the 1940’s. Then, the landscape, the act of rebellion, and the pain she felt would match. Now, the words were draining away her will to move forward. In Colorado the crystalline word divorce is replaced by the amorphous dissolution of marriage. Her life wanted that crystalline form divorce, but it was submerged in a solution, a chemistry experiment, created by Phil, her still-husband, and the state of Colorado, to dissolve her instead.

Clarice Johnson

Illustration by Patrick Gill.


All she had done for months was make fish sticks and French fries with tartar sauce and catsup, and she couldn’t remember the words tartar sauce, so that now, her children knew it as fish dipping sauce. This seemed to Clarice a failure of large proportion, but she had no idea how to remedy it.

You can’t look a word up in the dictionary if you do not know what it is.

After the fish sticks and French fries: story time. Clarice made up stories about strong women, women who were doctors in the old West, who took care of bullet wounds and ended up running away and becoming Anasazi, or who poled up the Amazon and discovered ancient ruins and became princesses of new tribes who waged peace. Somehow she hoped that the two girls, looking like Snow White and Rose Red, on either side of her with their bath wet hair, two girls who smelled so good she climbed into their bed to sleep at night, who reminded her not at all of her still-husband, would listen to the stories and instead of seeing their mom dissolving they would see dusty, rugged heroines.

Instead, after the girls were asleep, Clarice Johnson lay in her bathtub silently screaming, “I can’t do this,” over and over to herself until the desire to call her dead mother abated. It was a high-pitched and a panicked scream. The bathtub was Clarice’s private world, away from her daughters. The only part of her life the three of them did not share.

Clarice had not had a job since before Snow White and Rose Red were born. She remembered, vaguely, the world of office parties and betting on football games. Clarice had once worked in a tall building with so many people and there were fads and animosities there, a small universe. There was a woman with cinnamon rolls who came through at ten every morning and sold them still hot out of a basket. Clarice would buy one and eat it with her eyes closed, a napkin spread on her lap so that no crumbs would fall on her grown-up clothes. The wool suits and cream silk blouses Clarice once wore to some fictional workplace where crimson-lipped secretaries and suited bosses eyed each other warily now hung slack in her closet. She dieted there, ate salads, and discussed men with other women and then she landed one. Like Lot’s wife, but she never turned back.

Now Clarice could feel a distant jealous rage when she saw the cows on the way to her daughters’ school. The cows knew how to function in the world. They got some kind of divine messages Clarice must have gotten before, in order to move smoothly through the carpeted halls of the downtown San Francisco office building. The cows understood how the world worked. They had friends who were other cows. They appeared to have everything Clarice had lost. They had internal cohesion. All at once every cow along their forty-minute route would be under the trees, in the middle of the field, just reclining, on their sides, en masse. The next day, as if nothing had ever happened, all the cows would be standing up again. Clarice pointed it out to Snow White and Rose Red, “Look, the cows are all doing the same thing, all over town. It must be cow rest day.” What she didn’t say was “the cows are better at life than mommy.”

The one thing about Clarice Johnson that was not dissolving was her tattoos.

Clarice and Phil Johnson fell in love. No. Clarice was ready to be molded by a stronger force and Phil Johnson came along. Phil told Clarice he loved her, but that she was a clumsy girl.

“Watch how those French women walk,” he said.

Clarice looked around for a while. She sat in Union Square at lunch and stared. San Francisco was cosmopolitan, but who was French, who was Senegalese, who was from Montreal, it was so hard to tell. Everyone walked differently anyway. Some women rolled, some bounced, some swayed. Clarice knew the sidewalk jumped up at her occasionally, but it never mattered to her.

Eventually Phil took her out to the Avenues to a tattoo parlor and he had two tattoos placed on her feet. A snail on her right foot and wings on either side below her left ankle joint. He hoped they would remind her of how to walk with grace.

She never asked Phil what the snail was about. Escargot. Slime. Slime mold was supposed to be the closest thing to cerebral-spinal fluid. That she should be ready to go at any moment, carrying her house on her back. Probably it was the way they glided, smoothly and left a trail of silver. But, Phil was so prosaic, Clarice was afraid to ask. It was probably something technical, something that would make Clarice sad and sorry she’d asked. The snail was crudely done. The tattoo artist had never done a snail before. It had acid green polka dots. Clarice developed an attachment to its awkwardness, so like her own. She did not understand it but she didn’t have to grow into it.

The wings were different. Bikers have wings tattooed on their biceps. Wings that grow out of a blood red heart. Wings can be dark without the beating heart of the bird to lift them up. Clarice’s wings were from the generic art on the tattoo parlor’s walls and had graphic details and they were silver and looked vicious. Clarice hated them. She took to wearing ribbed white cotton ankle socks with her dusty, black, vintage high heels. She cultivated a whole look around covering her ankles. It made her seem retro.

Until they moved to Denver.

Denver was healthy and rugged and necessitated Velcro sandals with skirts or shorts. Clarice owned no sandals. She remained the same, but she stood out ever more awkwardly.

Phil assimilated. Phil shaved his head and took up rock climbing with the other balding, petulant men who populated the telephone company where he worked. Suddenly Phil was not just one man who needed a mommy to be mad at, he was a type. He was a market force. There were cafés full of them. Stores devoted to them. The woman who had the barber’s chair next to Clarice’s when Clarice was getting her hair cut seemed to specialize in that almost shaved haircut for men who ended up looking like indignant, breast-hungry, pink, baby mice.

Clarice’s tattoos started to itch. Every time she saw one of those mouse men, her tattoos itched. It got worse once she had to tell Snow White and Rose Red about Phil. Snow White was blonde and had curly hair that stopped people in the street. They would comment on what a beautiful child as if only one child were standing there. Rose, a sleek seal, would seem not to notice, but Clarice knew, just knew, that Rose was gathering up a life of insult.

The tattoo itch got worse when Clarice had to tell Snow White and Rose Red that mommy and daddy loved them very much but Daddy’d been turned into a mouse, and she really had not meant to say this, but since Phil wasn’t around much to contradict, it just slipped out. An evil witch cast a spell and this was just how it was going to be from now on.

Clarice wondered, in the bath that night, did the witch cast the spell in San Francisco in 1988 and it just took some magic number of years to wear off, and now Phil was his true self, or was this living apart and Phil being a mouse the magic spell, and only Phil would have said the witch was evil? Perhaps, just maybe, the witch was a good witch who was going around helping nice women trapped in bad marriages, marriages to underdeveloped but controlling men, to dissolve them.

If only Clarice could get her lawyer to play along with this. He could be a troll, and since he rolled his eyes as his main form of communication anyway, it wasn’t a huge stretch to see him as a troll at all. He could be a troll living under a bridge. A troll who would trip up the baby entitlement mouse prince and make the mouse prince give up not only the jewels that the two little princesses and the big princess needed to live, but also the big princesses lease on life. If her lease on life were an actual document that the troll could wrest away from Phil, then maybe she could carry it around in a locket or a rosewood box, or tucked in her ankle socks, and she would be energized.

Maybe the cows were involved, maybe their standing up and reclining was a message to her that she just needed to interpret. They were reminding her of what she used to know, how to behave in public, how to be part of a group. Not just a group that was comprised of herself, Snow White, and Rose Red. That time had passed without her noticing it. The cows were trying to tell her how to do what she should be doing naturally. She was just not able to read the signal. Too much interference. Maybe it was the tattoos.

Clarice emerged from the bath one night desperate to do something about the tattoo itch. Homeopathic Sting Stop did nothing. Band Aids neither. Nor did Neosporin, calamine lotion, triple antibiotic ointment. Clarice went for the Ipecac syrup, that glowing grail in every parent’s medicine cabinet, but rubbing that on the tattoos neither made her throw up, nor did they stop itching. She had always believed that Ipecac was the medicine of last resort. When things were desperate and she needed to call 911 or poison control, they would say, do you have Ipecac, and she would say yes, and they would say administer it, and she would, and then she would emerge at the other side of the disaster, heaving child in her arms, exhausted, but saved.

All those years of secretly checking in her mind, where are the car keys, did I lock the door, where is the Ipecac, did I leave the stove on, one child – two – good I can see them both so no one is lost, and still everything fell apart. Knowing exactly where the Ipecac was, how to give the Heimlich, and infant mouth-to-mouth did not prevent the crumbling of everything familiar into a heap impossible to sort out. Now, even application of Ipecac syrup, reserved for the worst emergencies, turned out to have no effect at all.

Then driving the girls to school, National Public Radio came to her rescue. Like the cows, the radio was always sending her difficult messages, but today not so coded. Some days she would hear about wars and politicians’ penchant for graft, and she would believe that people could not be any meaner and she could not step out of the bath, dripping and skinless, into a world where people were that cruel. Phil was bad enough, but hundreds of children killed on the first day of school by political terrorists was more than she could endure. Somewhere in the program was the formula for how to endure, only she had missed it.

Today, Denver’s Gang Rehabilitation Center set up a program for tattoo removal. All she had to do was get on the waiting list and wait. Waiting she could do; waiting involved no action. She pressed her back molars together and tapped her brake foot until the girls were out of the car, went to the nearest pay phone at the gas station across the street from their school. The man on the other end was kind and he asked no questions. She was put on the waiting list and promptly and, at least consciously, forgot all about it. Clarice Johnson was good at biding her time.

When she saw Phil, the tattoos itched, when she was in court, they itched. In the back of Clarice’s mind one solid thought formed. I must get this colonization of Phil off my body. It is as if Phil and all the soft-boy-men mouse princes have set up a franchise on my feet and until they are gone I will be me only from the ankles up.

Clarice had a dream that she was in the back yard with a group of women. They were sitting around a table and passing a mason jar, a huge mason jar of applesauce, around the table. This was no ordinary jar. First of all the jar had a halo, a crown of branches that met at 45-degree angles to form a beautiful winter scene, and the halo extended the top of the already oversized jar by about four or five inches. The second off-thing about the jar was that the top quarter of the applesauce was laced with bright green mold. It was gorgeous. All the other women were digging into the jar, past the mold, to eat the good food below it, but Clarice could only protest that this was not something she could do. One of the women shook her head, as if to say with pity, “No, of course not.” Clarice woke up sad and confused.

One day, a year later, Clarice’s phone rang. A voice Clarice knew immediately as the man from the tattoo clinic said she could come in tomorrow. She must be wiling to sign a contract that said she was done with her old – and they meant gang – life forever, and she must get some career counseling so that she had the skills to move forward. This sounded like the first rational thing anyone had said to Clarice in her whole life, and she started to cry. The man on the phone said, “Don’t worry, it hurts a lot, but it’s worth it.”

A lot was not even a good description of how much it hurt. Each pulse of the laser under Clarice’s skin broke up and liquefied a bit of the ink so that her skin could re-absorb it. In a way she was being forced to digest Phil. Finally and conclusively. Where was the Ipecac now? The laser made a clicking sound as the doctor, an elegant man, even in jeans and a t-shirt, spoke to her in gorgeous Spanish-accented English. She couldn’t answer his questions, she could barely nod when he told her to breathe so she wouldn’t pass out.

Every three or four clicks Clarice would tell herself that she’d had two kids with no drugs, even though she had been stopped by complete strangers on the street while pregnant and told to sign up for an epidural before even taking off her clothes at the hospital door. She hoped to remember to tell the doctor that natural childbirth was her secret, if she did not die before he was done. Unlike in the bathtub at home, where her almost hyperventilated cries came from her throat and scared her, here, the noises Clarice made were generated from the world of her dreams and moved through her making guttural low waves that solidified inside her.

“You will have to come back a few more times. As the process works, the tattoo fades to grey, until you will barely know it is there.”

Clarice had hoped for instant and complete Phil removal. She started to cry. The wail of “I can’t do this,” sailing back into her. All those months of the belief she could gloriously and completely remove Phil once she was on the waiting list, mixed with the laser’s pain. She did not dare look at her throbbing feet. As the doctor led her down the hall, shoes in hand, to the career counselor, he said to her,

“You will have a much better chance at a new life now. People say that once you leave a gang, if you still have the tattoos, you are marked for life. You are on your way to freedom. If 220-pound men pass out but you did not, then you can do anything.”

Except it sounded much better in his voice. Clarice hoped she could keep that part of his voice clear in her head because she had never done a good job of telling herself this, or anything productive and encouraging. She simply waited in the bathtub for her marriage to dissolve and real life to wash over her.

Clarice thought, this is a kind of dissolution too. A disappointing dissolution of unreal expectations. Instead of a Philectomy, which is what she had hoped for, since the presence of Phil in her body was like a bad ju-ju spell, she needed to adjust to seeing Phil as somewhat smaller and faded and closer to the horizon, like a cartoon of his old dictatorial self. That would be about the best she could do, realistically. Unless the wicked witch came around again and worked some better magic, this doctor and this career counselor who thought she could do anything seemed solid. Let Phil dissolve in whatever woeful solution the State of Colorado had given her in the first place.


Michelle Auerbach is a writer and journalist living in Boulder, Colorado. Her work has been published widely in literary journals, magazines, and newspapers including Denver Quarterly, The New York Times, and Edible Front Range. Michelle is the winner of the Northern Colorado Writer’s Short Fiction Contest for 2011.

Interested in submitting a short story to New West? Check out our Submishmash page.

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