In the Belly


June 1, 2014 by The Citron Review

by Michelle Lee


When I was eight, my brother came home and said: The biggest heart in the world belongs to the blue whale. I said no. David Cassidy has the biggest heart. He’s been on the cover of Teen Beat six months running.

My brother snorted.

The whale’s heart weighs more than seven tons.

I asked how tall it was. The whale.

Then I put on a Partridge Family record. A 45.

He said: As tall as our apartment building.


Our apartment was on the sixth floor. Twelve flights of stairs. Two flights through a language I didn’t understand but my brother said was French. I didn’t believe him. Pepe LePew was French.

Two flights through a smell my mother said was garlic and onions. Two more flights through a pounding that shook the screws in the handrail.

Just Mister & Missus Giardina, my mother said. Keep climbing.


We didn’t have encyclopedias. A lady came to the door selling them, once. She wore Enjoli, the perfume my mother said gave women the power to fry bacon and never let men forget.

The lady wore black stockings that only came to her thigh. Her skirt was short. My mother told my brother to stop staring.

The lady told us we could take a sample. She gave us B. I found blue whale.

Balaenopteridae (order Cetacea, suborder Mysticeti). The picture looked like a Saturday morning cartoon, purple like my roller skates, as fake as H.R. Pufnstuf.


Every night for weeks, my mother made spaghetti with marinara from a jar. We ate in the kitchen, chairs bumping the cabinet, the sink, the wall.

Good thing Dad left, my brother said.

My mother reached across the noodles and smacked, her elbow knocking into jars of iced tea, causing a flood across bread and paper plates. My brother’s nose bled like sauce.


The super said: Could either be pipes or the train.

My mother said: Could be rats.

It was a shimmy-moan through black and white linoleum, vibrating table legs, rattling spoons, distorting the latest from the Bay City Rollers.

My brother turned the radio up.


I heard it while I brushed my teeth, when I turned out the light, as I fell asleep. The wallpaper curled and wailed.

I dreamed of the sea. A hand hurled me into its waves. A mouth caught me on its tongue.

I read a story at the dentist, in a book that smelled like sneakers and had Jesus on the cover. Jesus in a white dress, smiling. A man didn’t listen to God. A whale ate him.

My mother had stopped believing in God. She said: God doesn’t make you lunch.


I asked my mother, when she was ironing, where my dad went. She said: To take a long walk off a short pier.

I never cried. My father said: It’s not good for the gut.

Mine churned with sound, a groan, digesting.

Or maybe it came from outside of me.


My father kept money in an old book he left behind on the nightstand. I slept where he used to sleep, with my mother, her breath as thin as her nightgown.

Sometimes, I thought she was dead.

Sometimes, I’d peer over her shoulder and poke her spongey cheek.

Sometimes, the wail in the walls made my mother thrash like she was caught on a fishing hook.

Stop calling me, she said. She was not awake. When I asked her about it, she mumbled something about a wrong number. But I knew wrong numbers. They exhaled on the other end like bus exhaust.


The wail became like a train deeper into the city. I began to hum along.

My brother said: You’re so stupid. Stop.

Then he said: Come on, eggface, quit.

And finally: Shut up. SHUT. UP.

Right before he elbowed me, as I walked my cornflakes to the table.

They sloshed over the bowl, onto the skirt my mother had pressed.

She took hold of our hair and shook: We have no room for this.


My mother had a vacuum cleaner with a canister and a long plastic tube. The salesman had given her an extra one, looped in the front closet. On a Tuesday, when I was the only one home, my snot paste and my skin too hot for school, I shut myself inside the front closet and blew through its length and ridges.

I asked the wail why it was so far from home. I asked about God and if it ever saw my father. I asked why my brother stayed in the bathroom longer than my mother or me.

I ran out of air. My mother’s coat still smelled like church.

Keys jangled against the apartment door.

I made for the couch, where I should have been watching Love American Style and resting. My mother’s lunch hour was thirty minutes, twenty if she came home.

My father’s voice: What are you doing here?


The encyclopedia said: Whales must surface regularly to breathe, expelling air from their lungs in an almost explosive breath known as a blow. Blows are visible.

I blew, bits of dry toast and gut on my father’s shoes.

I prayed the wail might never come again.


Michelle Lee received her MA in creative writing and PhD in English Literature from the University of Texas at Austin. Her writing has been published in a variety of academic and literary publications, including PacificReview, Bateau Press, Text and Performance Quarterly, and Northwind Magazine. Recently, Red Bridge Press nominated one of her long poems, published in their Writing That Risks: New Work from Beyond the Mainstream anthology, for the next-round Pushcart Prize. She currently teaches composition and creative writing at Daytona State College.


One thought on “In the Belly

  1. […] Michelle Lee is an associate professor who makes time to grade flash fiction stories in between games of “Old Shark” with her daughter and binge-watching Orphan Black with her husband. You’re bound to find her traveling to Ireland these days or wandering a beach named Wilbur. Published across genres, she wears the Pushcart Prize nominee badge as well as finalist stripes for some recent fiction contests, including december magazine and Arcadia. You can find some of her work online at,, and […]

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