Ninth Stepping by Kim Magowan

Ninth Stepping

Amends to her mother:

Cheri hasn’t spoken to her mother for two years, so for a second she wonders if the number will be disconnected, if Denise has pulled a reciprocal vanishing act.

But Denise picks up, and her voice is the same: a baklava pastry, pleasure layered with skepticism layered with caution honeyed over with sarcasm, sprinkled with (the crushed pistachios on the top) frostiness. “Cheri. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

So Cheri explains Step Nine and making amends. To communicate with her mother, she requires a script. Cheri has the AA pamphlet in her lap, the language she needs highlighted in yolk-yellow. She finishes, “I’m sorry for telling you I didn’t want to have a relationship with you anymore. I’m sorry for whatever pain I caused you.”

There is a pause. What a loud breather her mother is.

Denise speaks carefully, but even so Cheri can hear, piercingly, the hope in her voice, three phyllo-dough levels down: “So, let me get this straight. Does this mean that now you do want to have a relationship with me?”

“Um… no.” Cheri looks at the pamphlet in her lap. But she’s off-road now, there’s no guidance about what to do at this point, so in a fluster, she hangs up.

She sits on her fire escape and lights a cigarette, her third today, and tries to quell the image of her mother holding the phone, listening to dial tone. Cheri enumerates her mother’s infractions: Denise driving away and subsequently alienating Cheri’s father; her own drinking (the first alcohol Cheri ever tasted was her mother’s Johnny Walker’s, hanging out in the living room for anyone to sample); her disparaging remarks about Cheri’s body. “Do you really need that second pancake?” she said, when Cheri was fifteen. “Do you even need that first pancake?” she said, when Cheri was fifteen-and-a-half.

There are infractions Denise committed from the moment of Cheri’s birth, when she saddled Cheri with her impossible name. In French it is the masculine version of “darling”: it isn’t even spelled properly. Her mother would have known this, if she combined her aspirations to culture with competence.


Amends to Eloise, her former best friend:

“It’s so good to hear your voice, I miss you! No, I can’t see you, because… well, you drink. You’re still drinking, right? Well then.”

Cheri moves to the Eloise page of her notebook.

“Sorry for starting you drinking when we were in ninth grade and my mom left us alone with all her booze. Remember when we were six, and we used to take baths together, and make potions? We’d mix shampoo, lotion, and those lavender bath salts that we called ‘bath boogers’, and swirl it around? Sometimes I think that’s what we were doing when we were fourteen: making more potions.

“Oh, and sorry for stealing your charm bracelet — yeah, that was me.

“So good to talk to you! I miss you. It’s like you’re on one side of a cliff and I’m on the other, and there’s a white-water river between us. But look, we can wave to each other across the river! Hello, hello!”


Amends to Stephen’s wife:

“Sorry for fucking Stephen. Sorry for fucking him for six months, all over Hayward and San Leandro. Sorry for fucking him on the floor of that hotel with the gas fireplace where we turned on the fire by flicking a switch. Sorry for fucking him in your bed, and afterwards looking at all of Stephen’s pretentious black-and-white photographs. Sorry for getting pregnant, though technically that was Stephen’s fault…”

The wife (Annabel) hangs up. Cheri carries her phone onto the fire escape, and tells the dial tone every last crime.


Amends to Stephen:

“I think you’ve got your verbs and direct objects mixed up,” Stephen says. “I think you’re confusing, ‘making amends’ with ‘wreaking havoc.’”

“Do you remember?” Cheri says. “When you said, ‘Desire is an anarchic force’?”

She had her own metaphors: affairs are runaway trains. You embark with particular intentions, but then they fly away.

Cheri knows the drill with the Ninth Step. Her sponsor prepared her. “Only make contact if you expect to do more good than harm.”

But on her way home from her Meeting, she walked past the Planned Parenthood on Valencia. It made her kind of crazy: that lunatic proselytizer right outside, holding a placard with a picture of a flayed, bloody baby. Its veined head in profile, averted. Even if Cheri knows her embryo looked more like a seahorse than a baby, she wanted to grab the sign and smash things with it.

The sidewalk in front was torn up by construction, her city incessantly renovating itself.

Ten years ago in high school, when Cheri began seriously drinking, she remembered feeling whenever she was drunk that the true course of her life was once again picking up from where it left off, her last binge. Sober life was watered-down, fake. Drunk, she was authentic. Then she had permission to hone in, again, on whatever person was in her sights, but whom her cowardly, sober self let disappear. In vino veritas. Drunk, Cheri was a missile re-activated, the switch flicked.

Rage functions similarly, as does vindication: they flood Cheri with invincibility. Cut the “d” from amends, and really she’s uttering prayers. Amen, amen to some blood-drunk god.

“Do you remember?” Cheri asks Stephen now, and she proceeds to tell him.




Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department at Mills College. Her fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and long-listed for Wigleaf’s Top 50. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in Arroyo Literary Review, Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Breakwater Review, Broad!, Cleaver, Corium Magazine, Crack the Spine, descant, Fiction Southeast, 580 Split, The Gettysburg Review, Gravel, Hobart, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, JMWW, Literary Orphans, Moon City Review, Oakland Review, Parcel, Sixfold, SNReview, Squalorly, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Word Riot. She is working on a novel and a short story collection.


(Next: De Monstris by Jessy Randall and Daniel M. Shapiro)

(Previous LADY MONSTER story: Charybdis by A. E. Weisgerber)