The Strongest Netting

by Karen Lenar

I tried to capture time when my mom told me that my father was sick.

Cancer, she said. Incurable. Less than six months.

My aunt frowned. Donna, you never were one to beat around the bush. Don't scare the poor girl. She gave my shoulders a squeeze, pressing into my skin with her long, red nails.

My father was more optimistic. Who knows how long? That's between Him and me, he wheezed, pointing up to the stained ceiling.

The water stain was shaped like a kidney bean. A leak from the upstairs bathroom, my father had said at the time of discovery. I'll fix it. And I believed him because he always fixed everything.

Soon after we noticed the stain my father had been admitted to the hospital. Cramps, he said when I visited, and tried to make a joke about menstruation.

That's when the air began to get caught in my throat. One night it got so bad I thought I was going to have to give the universal choking sign we'd learned about in our fourth-grade health class.

Luckily my aunt from South Carolina had arrived then, taking up residence in our guest bedroom. She assured me one morning over eggs and grits that she knew how to do the Heimlich maneuver.

After a couple of weeks of tests and needles we took home both my father and a hospital bed. My aunt offered to vacate the guest bedroom, but the medics said my father wouldn't fit in there, so instead they set him up in the family room. My mother and I, wanting to be close to my father, put our cot a few feet away. It was directly under the kidney bean, and when the air got caught in my throat, I'd outline the edges with my eyes, and gradually the sensation would pass.

Donna--you never were one to beat around the bush, I practiced saying in the mirror.   When my aunt talked she drew out her words and made them sound sweet. I discovered that if I spoke like her, the air didn't get caught so much in my throat. One day she took me for my first manicure, and I chose red like the color she wore.

My father began to sleep more and more. Sometimes all day. I brought his brown slippers down from the bedroom and placed them at his bedside, but he never got up to use them. He started to look different, like he was someone else's dad. His arms were purple, and he was skinny. I haven't been this weight since your mother and I started dating, he joked one day when he caught me staring at him.

Visitors came and brought lots of food. The smell of lasagna and garlic chicken--my father's favorite--overflowed from the kitchen and spilled into the family room, making him nauseous. We learned to keep the front door open to air out the house while we hurriedly ate. Most mornings my mother sat on the front stoop, a jacket thrown over her bathrobe, to drink her coffee.

By the time my aunt left, my nail polish had started to chip. It looked ugly in splotches, and I tried to scratch off the rest of it. Donna, you never were one to beat around the bush, I said to the mirror, waving my half-polished hands, but with my aunt gone, I couldn't remember how to pronounce her Southern accent.

Now that it was just my mom and me, time moved slowly and without definition. My father remained sick, laying on the now familiar metal bed with electric buttons and occupying the space where our Christmas tree usually stood. The smell of garlic chicken and lasagna continued to permeate our house until even my pillow reeked of it. As soon as one casserole dish was empty, another appeared at our doorstep, as if our neighbors could see through our walls.   

I had the thought that if every day appeared the same, if holidays didn't exist for us anymore, then maybe I could stop time--capture it. Maybe I could hold it in my hand and watch it, press a play button and when I grew tired, push stop.

The next morning, instead of going to school, I rode my bike to the hardware store and asked the old man behind the counter for the strongest netting he had.

What are you trying to catch? he asked.

Time, I replied.

He looked at me hard. Time, he repeated. Time. That's tricky. We don't have that netting in stock. But we could order it for you.

How long will it take?

A few months, he answered. Maybe three or four.

I thought quickly. How long had my father been sick? I looked down at my hands and saw a little nail polish remaining on my thumb. It couldn't have been too long, but what if I was wrong? What if less than six months had already nearly passed?

The old man leaned across the counter to peer at me, and I was struck by a familiar sensation. What was it? We matched stares, and then I realized. It was his eyes. They were pale blue like my father's.

I had an urge to hug him.

I'll tell you what, he said in a low, even tone. I'll get it express delivered. So you could have it in about four weeks, give or take a few days.

I was grateful and wondered if maybe he had also once tried to catch time.

He charged me one dollar for the netting, and I left to find a container to capture the time. I decided to get a perfume bottle, so I could spray a few whiffs of time when I desired without wasting too much of it. At the pharmacy I searched the beauty counter until I came across a brand called Giorgio, whose smell reminded me of my mom.

When I got home I went into my parent's bathroom and tried to unscrew the top, but it was stuck. So I just puffed the spray into the sink and under their bed until the bottle was empty.

Afterwards I came downstairs and found my mother sitting on the edge of the cot, watching over my father. You smell like me, she said.

Is that okay? I replied. She just drew me in and hugged me so tight that it surprised me. When she let go I saw that her eyes were red.

What's wrong? I asked and swallowed, and then I swallowed again. I looked over to my father to make sure that his chest was still moving, but I couldn't tell.

We're going to be okay, you know that? my mother said, and she pulled me in again.

I pushed her away. What's wrong? I spit out the words. My throat was nearly closed, and it was difficult to speak. I was facing her and didn't want to look at my father again. Why hadn't I gone to the hardware store earlier?  

Honey, she said. That was all she said.

We lay together on the cot looking at the kidney bean while our tears leaked out. I thought that if we cried enough the room would get flooded, and then we could just float on the cot down the streets to South Carolina, where my mother said we'd go live to be near her sister.

It was the perfume that I smelled again first. My throat had cleared while I was crying, allowing me to breathe easier. I smelled the lasagna, and I smelled my father's sickness.

At the funeral I would smell the flowers with a hint of garlic chicken.

I went by the hardware store to tell the old man to cancel the order. The man said he assumed as much. A dollar rested on top of the counter.

How did you know? I asked.

I smell it on you.

That's probably my mother's perfume you smell, I said, sniffing my arm.

That's time, he replied. You caught the time.

As I left the store I pressed the dollar bill into my face. It smelled cold and metallic, like my father's hospital bed. I passed by the pizzeria, whose tomato sauce reminded me of the lasagna aroma that had pervaded our house. Next door, as a woman exited the beauty salon, I was hit with a gust of my aunt--the scent of red nail polish. I imagined it was how South Carolina would smell.

I sniffed my arm and smelled my mother kissing me goodnight after she and my father returned home from one of their evenings out. Downstairs the garage door chugged open as my father left to drive the babysitter home. Poor girl, I used to think. Having to listen to his corny jokes. I let my arm fall and pinched my side as my vision blurred.

Then I lifted my arm once more. This time it smelled nothing like Giorgio, nothing like my mother, and everything like my father.

BIO: Karen Lenar is a recent MFA graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University and lives in Boston with her husband. This is her first published short story.