Tuesday, October 28, 2008

If you don't, or can't.


My arm didn’t fit so well into the sink because the basin was small and cramped, so even bunched up and standing on a stool, it was giving me cramps to hold myself in that position to let the water run over the cut in my skin. It would have been a lot easier to do this in the bathtub, but the tub was broken and the water which poured from the nozzle was pinkish in color and I wouldn’t want that anywhere near an open wound.

If I didn’t get cleaned up soon, I’d get found out and I’d have to explain away something that didn’t happen in the better interest of avoiding talking about what really happened, which would land me in a pretty bad situation, especially in that it could get us in trouble with the landlord again and they might kick us out for good instead of just threatening it.

Someone would be asking questions regardless of how well I avoided the subject, but I just needed to get cleaned up and I hoped I didn’t bleed everywhere in the apartment across the hall. It was the first time I had tried climbing in through the window, and in my haste I cracked my elbow pretty good and sliced my arm open recoiling from it and then fell headlong through the kitchen window and into the bushes outside, one floor down.

My pants were fucked up, my ankle twisted and my arm looked like it might need stitches. The pants could be thrown out and no one would notice. My ankle would get better. But the cut looked bad. I was so scared that I could just barely register the actual pain of it, but I know it looked bad. It wasn’t bleeding too much, though. It was hard to look at it.

If I needed stitches there would be nothing that I could do about this, they would find out, and I would place all of my allowance on it that we would be kicked out of the apartment.

The next morning when I passed by Mrs. Jakob’s door, I could hear them talking inside, her and Mr. Jakob. I heard the word ‘police’ and I ran to school. I think they thought it was a burglar. By the time school was out, their broken kitchen window was replaced, and it was quiet in the complex.

In my bed, I stared at the stains on the ceiling. The apartment above ours had probably been leaking since before I was born. Any day now, some part of the apartment above might fall into mine, right through that ceiling. It might even happen while I slept in my bed, in the night, and I’d never know it happened; the ceiling would finally give way, and the softened plaster and beams or whatever would fail underneath the weight of whatever was in the room above and it would come crashing down and crush me and kill me.

I stared at the stains and thought of Mrs. Jakob.

During the day she cries sometimes, when her husband is out at work. I slid in through the kitchen window to watch her this time, and she had no idea I was there until the little alarm went off on my wristwatch and I panicked and ran. Mrs. Jakob probably didn’t hear my watch go off, because she was in the next room and because the sound of the little alarm was so faint it couldn’t possibly work to wake anyone up from sleep. It was probably better suited as a reminder to a fully-awake person, like if they had something in the oven and were reading a book while dinner was baking.

My arm throbbed and I could barely move it all day, so I held a plastic shopping bag partly filled with ice against it. And just stared at the ceiling, thinking of Mrs. Jakob. She looked really sad to me all the time. Sometimes she winked at me, slowly, smiling a little, like she had some shameful secret and I was supposed to know what it was, or that I did know what it was. It made me feel a little shady, that strange look, and a little afraid, but also a little neat too, in some way I couldn’t know. I certainly wouldn’t mind knowing a secret with her, but I didn’t know one. She just winked at me and every time she did that I grew red in the face.

Part of me knew that I liked her, but the other part of me—the one that always made more sense out of things—would just laugh inside my head and tell me what an idiot I was being. I thought sometimes that maybe she winked at me because she liked me too. But I was in the third grade, that other part of me would say, antagonizing and shrill.

I liked to look at Mrs. Jakob whenever I could. And I did too, through her kitchen window sometimes after school, when she was sitting in the small dining room, crying very softly to herself. It was only just that one time that I went any further and crawled into the house to watch her cry.

Out in the hall, the large gray hound that belonged to another neighbor slinked past me, nosing at Mrs. Jakob’s door, and then it turned around and eyed me suspiciously. I had lately grown very nervous about the dog, and thought that maybe it knew I had broke into Mrs. Jakob’s house and that it knew I was the one who broke the window. We’d get kicked out of the apartment complex if the dog told anyone. I already broke the dryer in the basement and got caught, and I spilled bleach all over another neighbor’s television set during an Easter Egg hunt and the television blinked out and killed the power in the complex for one whole night. My parents had been so embarrassed that we hadn’t been invited to the next party that they have only just barely spoken to me since.

The gray dog sniffed at Mrs. Jakob’s door and eyed me again.

If the dog really knew what I had done then I had to get rid of the dog.

I called this kid Menden over from down the street and offered him five dollars to kill the dog. He said he would do it, though I kind of feared he’d just steal my money. But I had no choice. I gave him the money at school so the dog wouldn’t know it happened, and I told him to come over on a Sunday morning before noon when most of the people in the complex were either sleeping or at church, and I watched out from a crack in the blinds as the kid snuck into the hallway and then, a couple minutes later, snuck back out. At school he told me he hadn’t seen the dog anywhere but I told him that dog isn’t allowed inside the apartments so he’s always roaming the halls if he’s not sleeping in the sunny spots of the fenced-in yard. So Menden came back the next Sunday—at a loss of three more dollars on my part—and since that Sunday morning no one has seen the gray dog anywhere. There are badly-lit pictures of him on half-assed but seemingly earnest photocopied sheets of paper over a telephone number to call if anyone sees him, and these sheets are stapled to telephone poles across the next two streets over. I also gave Menden my lunch at school if he promised not to tell me what he did with the dog or if the dog knew that I had paid for its death.

“It is dead, right, Menden?”

“I thought you didn’t want to know, smartass,” he says to me, eating my lunch.

“That’s right. Forget it, I don’t want to know. The dog’s not coming back, though, seriously?”

The kid looked at me and smiled and told me it might be worth my money just to make sure, and so two weeks later when I could save up another five dollars I gave that to him too.

Within that time my arm got infected and I had to go to the hospital and my father told me that he was going to kill me if I didn’t shape up, and I figured that meant he might send me away to live in a boy’s home, which is how he threatened me every here and there when I acted up or broke something or got caught trying to break something. This time he didn’t even ask me how it happened. He just told me I was in for it if I didn’t wise up. The doctor asked him how I did it, though, and my father said, “Who the fuck knows? The kid’s a goddamned idiot.” I got really scared for a second that they would think my father had done it to me, and the grief that would cause could get us kicked out of the apartment complex for sure; if they thought for a second that my father was beating me up they’d kick him and us out. The doctor told my father to calm down and after they left the room and talked where I couldn’t hear them, I tried to come up with an excuse. My arm wasn’t just cut, it was sliced open. And infected. I couldn’t move my arm so well or the shoulder either. I pictured myself with one arm, like if they had to cut it off. But they only had to clean it and gives me stitches, and I said I broke a window, but didn’t finish with the where or how, and my father squinted his eyes at me and I could see his face getting red, and I knew he wouldn’t hit me, but I also knew that he didn’t like me. And that this was going to get a lot worse at home, and that nobody would ask me what window, or where, because they knew already.

But no one ever said anything. About the window, my arm . . . or anything else.

Mrs. Jakob was sitting down in the basement one afternoon, reading a magazine while waiting for laundry to dry. The new dryer was faster than the old one, which I had broke one day playing inside of it. Somehow I broke it for good and it wouldn’t spin. The landlord told my parents I wasn’t allowed down there anymore. But I went down because I had followed Mrs. Jakob down there, and when I walked in, she winked at me, and I could swear she thought I knew about some kind of secret that she did.

I watched her patiently, for about half an hour, while she sat in a small plastic chair and read from the magazine, turning the pages leisurely, looking up at me every couple of minutes or so, but she didn’t say anything to me, and I didn’t say anything back.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Get-even spiders and wall insects of Mollimore.


In the livingroom. Steven and his sister, and the rifle from their father's bedroom. They only speak to each other when friends are over. At night the wind cuts through sore spots of the screens on the window in Steven's room and sounds like a soft little echo of a siren. His sister's room is cold and the lights are dim because she never changes the bulb. His sister's eyes are closed and her dress is hiked up so she can sit on the couch with her legs crossed. The music from the video game start screen is familiar. They played it earlier. At dinner she put the video game start screen back on after they'd already played it enough, and they both went to the table and they could hear it from the dining room. Their father was always polite, with his shirt tucked in, and he answered the front door with what could maybe have been a sigh of relief most times. His way of speaking had no audible sense of really being there, but he spoke better than most fathers. It wasn't a chore. By turns, his reception could be utterly surprised, or blatantly resigned. There was no authority in it at all. He'd probably invite you in at four in the morning if you just knocked on the door and asked if Steve was home.

Lonesomeness and solitude and complacent isolation has a rather disgusting grace with it if it can settle just underneath the skin and float there in the feeling of thickness in the morning that will always accompany awkward bruises and disorganized remembrances of pulling off shoes and placing them neatly by the side of the bed like they belonged there under regular circumstances. With a magazine open to game clues and some records no one listens to, and a dish of hard candy no one eats but the kid from the spider-infested place three houses down who probably views this as fantastical. A cloud of forgiveness always crawls toward the center of the room when lunch is finally decided upon, or drinks decided upon. Being lonely is like wearing a nice suit because everybody notices it when it comes into the room but they don’t really think about what’s underneath it because it usually doesn’t matter if the suit’s nice enough to subtract from the awkward places of silence in between the jerks singing and the ears pricking. It just doesn’t hardly matter what’s underneath. And it’s great, as is the diameter of a continent. Lonesomeness keeps the body afloat. It looms above the top of the horizon, inking a delicate sky with colorless dark smudges. Thick and uncompromised, somewhat threatening but actionless, not bothering to tell as much, until it wants to descend, closing in the night with a cape that blots out the sunlight but doesn’t keep anything actually hidden. From inside it's all the same, just with a twilight about it that means it didn't matter today either.

Then it breaks up into rain or just drops like a curtain and it’s time for bed. And if the bed’s warm or the blankets just comfortable enough to put a smile across the mouth, that’s just fine as a hug.

She stares at the television screen and he stares at the remote control and the laughter from the program fills the room. He hasn't showered in a week. She pulls his blanket over her knees and watches the shadow of the sunset gradually move from the midsection of the wall, down toward the floor molding. Steve thinks to go outside into the driveway, and his sister might follow. If there's a commotion outside at eleven at night. And in the moonlight, with his shirt off and her dress partially unbuttoned, out on the driveway, it's anybody's guess how long summer really is.

All the world’s beautiful things are like this.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The staples and the cuts in your arm.


I cleared the desk of everything, even the lamp, and set before me a square telephone in the center of the desk, then sat down and pulled the telephone toward me, very cautiously, into my lap. And I called the hospital. They hadn't admitted a girl with no hands.

It was all very curious, and so I dialed for the Sheriff's Station. Similarly, they had not received any reports of a girl found with no hands.

But I saw the girl with my own eyes, spread out calmly, longways on the sidewalk, with her arms placed at either side. In the dark it had looked as if the girl's hands were simply buried in her jeans pockets, and that she were passed out, but the closer I came to her, I could see that if the hands were buried anywhere, they weren't around here, and the girl was not sleeping or passed out, she was bleeding profusely. The supermarket towered over this side of the street in either direction for a block. Across the street, in the empty lot of the closed strip mall, there was nothing, and nobody. There were no hands lying around, bleeding on the concrete.

But the frayed end of her wrists were bleeding everywhere, pooled in the cracks of the sidewalk underneath her, creating stained splotches at the bottom of her t-shirt and the thighs of her jeans.

Nervously, I plunged my own hands deep within the comforting warmth of my dress pants and held my head low, walking away from the girl on the sidewalk.

I stopped in at the all-night bakery for some orange juice and toast, sitting in the corner booth, listening to an older gentleman ruffling the hem of a newspaper at the bar. Steam curled up in delicate dreamy clouds over his cup of coffee. On a small white glass plate next to the cup of coffee was a fork and what looked like crumbles of soft cake, with a little frosting scraped off onto the side of the plate. The two ladies behind the counter of the bakery were actually knitting. From my corner booth by the window I could almost make out the supermarket down the road, but it was kind of blurred by the darkness and the trees that blocked the streetlamps from lighting this view.

It took me nearly an hour to finally go home. When I did, I showered and I thought about the girl with no hands, about bathing her in this bathtub and singeing the ends of her wrists to cauterize them so that she wouldn't be drained of all her blood before the autopsy could be performed. I wondered what the pathologist would make of this situation. I should maybe have tried to talk to her. There could have been a last word on her breath, waiting to be expelled if I just pushed down on her belly a little and parted her lips at the same time. She could have tried to say good-bye, or she could have tried to say no, a failed defensive statement that never quite got out because her body, in shock, had given up too quickly.

And I thought how brave the paramedics would have to be, to wrap her up without crying. They would likely be thinking of the girl's mother; or both her parents, for that matter, and if they were together still, or divorced. They would be thinking of whom in their circle would be responsible for breaking the news to the parents, if either of them could be tracked down at all. Or if they were even still alive.

After a shower I dressed for bed, in a pair of black slacks and a nice shirt that wouldn't look too terribly disheveled in the morning if I were to be tossing about fitfully in sleep, wondering if I should get back up and telephone the hospital, or the Sheriff, to find out if -- or ask when -- someone finally reported (or would report) the dead girl.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

The lines in my hand don't go anywhere.


At the end of the dock road there is a vast horizon of flat sea with an overbearing sky lying prone above it with a sexlessness that confounds me. There is no penetration; it's just the sky above and the sea below, pressed against one another without thought, and it goes on forever in either direction. I look out there and wonder about a couple of things that have lately been weighing heavy on my mind. There's not been work for the past three days since our crew finished early up. The faster and the better you get at things, the money's still the same, so you end up with more free time than you know what to do with.

But I don't get bored. There is too much to look at in this town. Next to the motel there's a graveyard. It's not very expansive, but I felt it would have been rather easy to become lost in the people buried out there if I'd taken the time to read each of their headstones and then really took a moment to think of what it was like when these people were still alive. Some of them I judged by their weak names, while others' names I held in regard for how they rolled off my tongue with a sort of dignity that I didn't enjoy myself when sounding out my own name. I wondered how many of these people I'd not have gotten along too well with, and too, which ones were better than me, or had been anyway. Which of those I might have actually looked up to, admired or even shared of life of friendship with.

By their epitaphs alone to go by, it was impossible to deduct which of these buried sort had grown up minor criminals, or minor peacemakers or unforgivable fuck-ups or unaccountable fuck-ups or humorous, gentle and reliable people. In death they always died too soon, yet gave so much while they were around.

On the other side of the motel was the sea.

I took a mile walk up the coast and down the dock road to where the furthest you can get to sea is paved outward in beams and boards and I nearly lost my balance a few times because the open space was like nothing I had ever experienced back home. The world is so much larger than the town I grew up in. It stretches out into the abyss, like this sea does.

At the very end of the dock I sit at the edge of the wooden rails and hang my legs out over the waves, which are too far below me to touch. People die all the time out there. They sink to the bottom like whales do. Or they float back ashore like whales do, sometimes. I don't know, it's a big place out there. Trying to take it all in without moving my eyes along the horizon from left to right is nearly impossible. I can't even begin to conceive its true volume as a whole from the edge of this little dock, which if cast into the waves would be like a fraction of a splinter stuck into to the skin of the sea.

It's just water, though. I know that. The edge of the world too, maybe. I could drown out there if I started swimming straight out.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

All we ever did was hide.

4 October, 1977 / 5:49pm.

In an effort to control the flow of blood from becoming a problem, I raced across the back lawn behind the church with one hand pressed uncomfortably down the front of my pants so that I could hold a wet kitchen rag against the wound without getting getting my pants damp enough for anyone to notice the spot.

Because of the strain this put on my movement, it looked like I was crippled. A crippled kid charging by the birdbath and small fountain where I could have stopped a bit to rinse out the rag if I'd felt that I had time enough.

It took a bit more energy to hop the fence without ripping my suit or getting it dirty. But once off church property, I kept my hand out from my pants, took off the jacket and button-up so that I wore only the thin white undershirt now and I ran for the market over on the other side of the ravine. Despite the dress shoes, I crossed the moldy log without a problem. If I'd have slipped and fell into the shallow mud of the ravine, that might have been an excuse not to attend the funeral, but it would not have kept me out of trouble, and probably might make it worse. So I was persuaded to do the only thing I possibly could to preserve some kind of anonymity for the next couple hours, and I ducked into the market, swept swiftly through the aisles until I had a small black dish towel, some black thread and a needle, and I stuffed it all into my pocket and just ran for dear life out the the way I came in, through the front door.

I didn't hear a word of protest, though at least five people probably saw me running. They would have no way of knowing what I'd lifted unless they caught me, but I had no intentions of being caught. I only hoped that no one from the church had been there to spot me out.

At an even thousand miles per hour, I doubled around the corner, flew down the sidewalk bordering the store, toward the back lot. Into the small thicket of woods and toward the stump where the bundle of my overclothes were waiting. Without re-dressing I made it back across the log (again, without a single slip), paced unevenly across the lawn again.

But this time I hid in the tall circle of bushes that surrounded all but the entrance of the fountain. There, I pulled my pants off, wiped the sweat from my face with the stolen black dish rag and then tied it around the knife wound on my thigh. Satisfied that I would not be bleeding during the funeral, I then set to mending the hole in my pants where the knife had slid through and ripped it up. I'd never sewn anything up before, so this took the longest. Actually, getting the black thread through the pinhole of the needle took the longest. I pricked my finger a couple dozen times in the process.

By the time I showed up at the chapel, people were just beginning to take their seats. My face felt itchy under the quick rinsing job I'd done in the fountain, probably because of how dirty the water was and the fact that a cat or something had pissed in it.

But I looked clean, well-dressed and I'd caught my breath again.

I knew that the older kids wouldn't saying anything about the fight, at least not during the funeral, and this would all pass slowly and my leg would hurt really bad, but eventually it had to be over and I would be able to go home, put on some jeans and then pretend to go out to play, and I could come home bleeding, finally, and I could say I'd cut myself while playing and then my parents would take me to the hospital and I wouldn't be forced into ratting out the older kids.

And maybe if or when I got a little older, I would get them back later. But probably not. I'd slashed their bike tires last week for no good reason at all and although I think turning the knife on me was a little extreme, I had deserved some of it, and anyway, it could have been a lot worse if I hadn't ran. In fact, when I tried to run in the first place was how I got cut, so maybe it could or couldn't have been worse. They might not have wanted to do anything but scare me and maybe fuck up my suit. It's over now, anyway.

I only hoped that I could get through the damned funeral without anyone noticing. Or before I passed out. My leg throbbed badly by the time I took a seat at the back of the church and curled up in the pew and agonized over the pain while everyone else looked forward and cried for the dead kid in the open casket. His sisters and parents were surrounded by people and they were all being hugged and kissed and paid attention to in ways that made me feel pretty left out.

I'll see you later,

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Shedding skin before leaving the house.


Called to the table once again, this time with more of an emphasis paid to urgency, I picked my way carefully through the barbs of the living room and stole a moment by the mantle. The dampness of the air hurt my lungs tremendously, making me hunch down as I walked, so that I was just skulking around like the other animals. I was called to dinner again and the banshee wail of the voices in the dining area stabbed at my head, clawing its way inside my ears. Another syllable more from within the dining room and I would cave in, I know it. They no longer sounded like people, but now more like flutes and horns that were out of tune. This had been the worst week yet. There'd been no water until last night, when the hill burst open and a small creek formed to bore its way through the back part of the house, and our clothes were beginning to smell like dirt because we had all stood in the water and let it clean us.

But the water was infected too, and where it had soaked us the most, our skin had turned yellow or greenish-pink. Without a second's caution I lifted a small framed portrait of the family from off the mantle and tucked it into my sweater, then made my way through the nettles, toward the kitchen, through to the dining table.

It had been especially cold inside the house since the shudder in the ground had cracked it open and the vines and weeds and the chill had had a chance to grow in through the house. The entire bottom floor was like a forest, and because of this I spent most of my days in the attic, peering through the smeared, smudged lens of a telescope, waiting to be rescued by people not affected by the quake. Heroes, angels, marauders even; anyone. To do something, and hopefully take us out of here before the fact of decay became too normal. I didn't want to become so soft that my flesh would smear away on the chipped wood of the knob on the bathroom door. I could still feel my muscles wanting to work.

I'd had something small, with matted fur, crossing over my legs earlier today, in the dark, and I've decided not to venture through the house anymore without wearing a thick pair of pants, to keep this from ever happening again.

In my mind, at night just before bed, the touch of an unseen animal is like the clutch of a corpse, coming for your skin because it had lost its own. The matted hair could be fungus. Could be the mold that creeps over human skin before maggots appear. Somewhere in the unplumbed rubble, our Grandfather lay buried. We lost him in his desperate search for Grandmother, whom we'd heard screaming as best her tired body could. I don't want to know that his hand is searching through the dark, to clasp an embrace around my ankle.

I would almost rather eat some of the dead raccoons we found underneath a pile of bricks in what's left of the basement. Hungry and badly scared, I'd tasted one of the babies. It was cold and my stomach turned. That's the taste of everything now. And I don't want dinner anymore, anyway.

The thorns were the worst part, though, somehow sharper than the shattered windows. At night, in the dark, it was useless to try using the bathroom. Better to hold it in and squirm through the night than get cut up and fall prey to the insects that waited patiently for the slightest spray of blood on the kitchen tiles or the dusty floorboards where the bearskin rug had become a small home for ants and snakes. One of the sisters fell ill from a rattlesnake bite. We never caught the culprit, and she never woke from her fever. We're all going to die here unless help comes. We'll be eaten before the ghosts of everyone can even find their ways here from the other side. I won't have to worry over the unseeing hands of a corpse, because the night vision of some malevolent thing with small sharp teeth and a thick, dry fur and a skitter and a squeak will get me first if I don't keep to the attic.

I entered the the dining room and every last sick, yellowed eye fell upon me. All of their mouths were turned down into frowns, steam billowing from the two open pots at the center of the table. What would we be eating now? Tonight, when everything safe was rotted. Prepared in the fire built in the collapsed stove, what sick animal were we to eat tonight?

It was Christmas. The last Christmas in the house, if the local stories could be understood to be correct. We would all perish in the forming snowstorm if animals did not eat us first.

Father could not be moved to board up the cracks in the house; not since the accident and the loss of his spirit. He built this house before I was born, and it was not strong enough to help us, but strong enough indeed to crush some of us. It cracked open like an egg and it fell down upon us in a rain and crushed some of us. My brothers could be trusted with nothing. Likewise, neither could I. I was useless to repair a thing. And everyone else was either a girl, or old. The girls laughed and played with dolls made from the splintered floorboards that shot up in a well of burst wood. The surviving elders were almost dust in their late-historied age.

We were helpless.

The sisters all sat in a bubble of cackling heads at one end of the table, pulling the balance off with their noise in the relative silence of the room, pointing their brittle, discolored fingers at me and wagging the sharp fingernails with sincere distaste for my delayed arrival. They began to sing, sounding as if wind were just passing through their hollow heads instead of their voices being created like that from within; until Mother hushed them I was transfixed, and, dropping my head, I was beckoned to dinner by someone. To sit down. And eat. The closer I got to the steaming pots, the more I felt I would be sick. I shot a glance down into my open palms, at the portrait of our family taken before this happened, before the earth opened up and spilled this all over us.

Probably this was better after all. The smartly dressed family in the tiny little portrait was already dead. Saving anything sitting alive at that table would be to raise monsters in the privacy of a mass grave.

My skin was turning a very pale green. In broad daylight, lately I looked like the belly of a frog. Underneath the thin, nearly transparent skin of my chest, my blue heart beat weakly. Sliding bones to the side with the heel of my hand, I pressed my fingers a little too hard and they sank into the flesh and I touched my own heart. The dim lamplight from the bulb over the table cast a shadow inside my chest so dark that for a second the blue heart virtually disappeared. The cold I felt at this was somehow forgiving in its severity. The brothers pulled my breastplate back to the center of my chest and made me promise I wouldn't stick my hands underneath again. Mother looked at me with contempt, not trusting me at all.