Grandma died, you know. Grandma was dying. No surprises there. She was an old broad. She gave money to people, all that. She had friends. Soon the family will divvy up her things, grabbing at scarves and candleholders and picture frames like it's the last round in some Japanese game-show. There's going to be some big shindig in Idaho, sure. Everyone will be there, with their hams, their stories, their Jell-O with fruit. And all of this is fine, fine—the old bloated snatch-and-grab buffet of matriarchal death. But what to do with Jane?

I'll stay by myself, says Jane. I'm sixteen.

Mother packs in the bedroom, a cigarette dangling, hair slanted over one eye like a vamp or a pony.

Three days of Hot Pockets and barely scrambled porn? she says. God forgive us, you'll stay with the Sparks.

The Sparks live at 665. They call themselves "the neighbors of the beast."

They're artists. Mrs. Sparks writes; Mr. Sparks makes huge convoluted collages out of garbage, fire engines out of Monopoly money and cigarette butts, churches out of milk crates and orange peels. Once he set fire to a trailer in the center of town and danced around it with his shirt off screaming, you can learn to love me! And, you'll never take me alive, Mr. Bush!

Mr. and Mrs. Sparks, you know, they are very much in love. They call each other Sparks or Sparky or Smokey, or Buddy. It's always the bastard ghost of some holiday at their house, jack o' lanterns, Christmas trees and inflatable turkeys molder cheerfully on their porch and in their side-yard. And they show their affection publicly, those Sparks. They grab-ass at the gas station or in line for the movies as though they've just heard that kissing is about to be recalled by the manufacturer, and if you have the bad fortune to ride the bus and select a seat directly in front of the Sparks, you know, it sounds like they're eating a bucket of chicken back there.

I don't want to stay with the Sparks, says Jane. I'll go with you.

You've missed enough school, says Mother. And, it's just going to be boring, adult things.

She closes her suitcase and takes Jane by the arm.

Remember, she says, we're Catholic. Don't let those Sparks give you any crazy religion. And only drink from the tap. And keep your eye out for funny-smelling plants.


Well, says Mother. Hippies.

The Sparks home smells of nicotine and Hawaiian Topic oil and newsprint and lacy, lemony bundt cake. And something gone over, something souring gently at the edges. The lights are never on.

Mrs. Sparks is delighted to have Jane; she is a clapper, things delight her frequently. She covers her mouth with her hand when she laughs, like an anime schoolgirl or a raccoon washing its food.

Do you like video games? she asks. Do you like Beck?

It's not a slumber party, dear heart, says Mr. Sparks. He's small and stoic. He carries a drink like a prop, and his cigarette points out, all Liza Minnelli. To Jane, he says, So, what do you do?

Sorry? says Jane.

For a living. What do you do?

I'm a kid.

When I was your age I had two jobs and one of them was the mayor.

Don't lie to her, says Mrs. Sparks.

Work is very important, says Mr. Sparks. When I was your age I'd already given my youth for my country and I was a drifter, I drifted through towns and you know who hassled me? Brian Dennehy.

That's Rambo, says Jane.

Yes, says Mr. Sparks, that's what they called me.

The Sparks eat crazy shit with crazy names. Spelt. Kamut. Flaxseed. They buy cereal from that one place in the strip mall that looks like a lava lamp inside and smells like Madonna's Like a Prayer album.

I mostly just eat normal cereal for breakfast, says Jane.

Oh, says Mrs. Sparks. Well, we'll just buy one of those, then. Or many.

With what? says Mr. Sparks. Our vast millions? Well, I'll just go break off another gold bar right now, Ivana. Is one enough? You want milk from some sacred cow's teat?

Baby, says Mrs. Sparks.

I'm sorry, says Jane. It's just new, is all.

Eat the cereal, kid, says Mr. Sparks. Don't you want a great big rack like Sparky, here?

Baby, says Mrs. Sparks. She covers her mouth with her hand.

The Sparks insist upon walking Jane to school. In costume. Mrs. Sparks is a zombie social worker; Mr. Sparks is a sea captain.

Mother hasn't walked me to school since kindergarten, says Jane, who is dressed as Jane.

That's insane! says Mrs. Sparks. You could be killed by marauding ninjas or rabid squirrels.

Life'll kill you, Smokey, says Mr. Sparks. I learned that at sea. Stick that in the front of one of your high-fallutin' "novels", right beneath the Johnny Cash quote and the praise to Allah.

Duly noted, my love.

She holds Jane's hand as they walk, and tightly.

What do you write? asks Jane.

Oh, lies, says Mrs. Sparks. Lies in a lovely font.

She was once nominated for something, or awarded something. There was some manner of ceremony that took place in a building of great and specious architecture, and there was a fine oyster bar involved, and much wheedling for donations from men dressed as boy scouts or Nazis or valets.

There have been vague accolades, says Mrs. Sparks, like letters to Santa Claus that somehow ended up in Dayton.

I remember urinating in or on something that was never intended for urination, says Mr. Sparks.

Where did you meet? asks Jane.

At a strip club, says Mr. Sparks.

In prison, says Mrs. Sparks.

These are full, chest-beating days of event tourism. The Sparks pick Jane up from school and they go to the library, to the water park, to the Humane Society.

Those poor dogs! says Mrs. Sparks, snapping a picture of a black Pug with a heart condition. Everywhere they go, she buys a matching T-shirt for Jane and herself, so they can be twins, and she's always smoothing Jane's hair back behind her ear and asking, do you have to go to the bathroom, honey? Are you thirsty?

Let the kid alone, says Mr. Sparks. You're barely ten years older than she is.

Oh, Mr. Sparks. He starts and ends arguments intermittently, like jigsaw puzzles. As they drive home from Six Flags he keeps a hand wrapped around Mrs. Sparks' waist like she's the world's biggest bottle of Dos Equis. He says, you know what I despise? The hypocrisy.

He just wants to be encouraged for the work that he's done, says Mrs. Sparks. She's wearing a baseball hat that lights up. There's a unicorn painted on her cheek.

Jane sits in the back seat with her knees drawn to her chin, watching the movement of their heads, this hypnotic drift, this tweaked phenomenon of aquatic plant or flightless bird.

He just wants to be encouraged for being alive, says Mr. Sparks, and I'm not convinced.

Very late on her final night with the Sparks, Jane gets out of bed and goes into the living room. Mrs. Sparks is already there, on the sofa in her white nightgown, watching an infomercial about a big chicken that spins in a remarkable rotisserie. She smiles when she sees Jane, and mutes the television.

Would you like to talk to your grandmother? she asks.

No, says Jane, and then, I'm not supposed to talk about religion with you.

Oh, says Mrs. Sparks.

I didn't know her, says Jane. She always sent me a five on my birthday. On Christmas.

Can't front on that.

Where's Mr. Sparks?

Mrs. Sparks mimes chugging a beer. Then she mimes chugging another.

Oh, says Jane. She watches Mrs. Sparks there, long and pale in the mosaic TV light and she misses her home, her bed.

Has my mom called? she asks.

Not yet, says Mrs. Sparks.

Well, she's busy, I guess.

Sure. These things, they're complicated. When I die I want to be fed to a big shark with all my possessions. It just seems more diplomatic that way.

Will you have babies? asks Jane. Ever?

I'm not sure I have anything to pass on to a baby, says Mrs. Sparks.

Babies are very nice, you know. Wouldn't you like to see Mr. Sparks as a child? Like, at ten?

I can see that right now. Give him another beer, I can see him at five.

Then she laughs and it doesn't sound like a laugh. It sounds like something else. Jane sits down beside her.

You know what I would say to God if He were right here, right this minute? says Mrs. Sparks.

I'm not supposed to talk about religion with you, says Jane. She tilts her head against Mrs. Sparks' arm. Mrs. Sparks smells like coconut and peroxide. Her hair is wet.

Oh, right.

Tell me, says Jane.

I'd say - I'd look right into His face - and I'd say, what, are you kidding me?

Jane nods. I would say, how are you doing?

Yeah? says Mrs. Sparks.

Sure, says Jane. Because, I'll bet no one ever thinks to ask.

On the television, that chicken, man. It just spins and spins.

fiction non-fiction poetry art sounds