I’m writing to you from the inside of a wooden cupboard thirty five years ago. The corners are swept clean. They are solid and sharp, exactly as corners should be. Sitting cross-legged, the bottom shelf can hold me with the doors pulled closed, I only need to bend my neck a little, a swan eying the surface of the water. I have nudged objects aside to enter and though the darkness is carbon black, I know what the shelves hold without looking. Extra linens, stacked like soldiers, proud chests held high. Rubber bands rolled into balls bigger than my hand. How unlucky, I thought, to be any but the outer. But hadn’t they all been on the outside to begin with and then buried and slowly squeezed tighter? They would never see the light of day again and I had the sudden urge to unravel them to the core, to free the captives.
I need to describe the basement which holds the cupboard, to let it break my heart. If I descend the wooden stairs, open-backed and painted pine needle green, to stand on cold gray concrete at the bottom, a pantry door still holds a pocked dart board. It’s slightly askew. So many sharpened tips have found their way into the surface that the numbers were hardly legible, even when I was small. The board had been holding court in that exactly same place since my father was a child. The nail that holds it is large and dark with age. On either side of the dart board, on the wooden flesh of the door, is ample evidence of poor aim.
You showed up breathless at my bedroom door weary from seventeen years of haunting. I still had four items left to strikeout on my to-do list but had the presence of mind to tuck the notebook under the mattress. No sense in resurrecting old grievances in this singular moment and the truth is, I’ve become more organized as time has passed. My day had gone perfectly according to plan except that I had failed to include reunite with dead sister at 9pm. Your hair was still a glorious forest fire and if I could have buried my face in it, I would have done so immediately. I wanted to hold your hand but my wrist had a mind of its own. I could not move and so I sat, fifty years old now and gobsmacked into silence listening to your voice running circles around the room.
It’s after noon and nothing of note has been done. The sound of the dishwasher foaming, keyboard tapping, and nothing else at all. I can’t tell if this sounds like the heavy drop of heartbreak or whispers with the stillness of possibility. Some things gather slowly. Remember the way people used to wind clocks with a key, bending time backwards with each tiny tick, until the gathering came alive as loss and exploded forward with barely controlled violence? None of us can stop that so we pretend not to notice, paying particular attention to the tomato seeds on pale green plates, the misshapen water spots on fat bottomed wine glasses. And most days, this is enough.
“Help me up, Harold.” Kimmy’s been tottering around on purple sequined stilettos all evening, but the addition of just the right amount of alcohol has suddenly rendered her incapable of standing upright for anything beyond five minutes at a time. Harold slides his arms under her armpits and hoists her tiny frame with hardly a glance. He’s still talking. His absentmindedness makes the tenderness with which he handles her exquisite. He props her onto a barstool, hooks her hair out of her eyes and behind her left ear, and patiently begins a rambling toast for the third time – it’s loosely related to the positive influence Johnny Walker has had on his life - until he stops in mid-sentence and stares blankly at me. He’s lost his train of thought. Again.
Harold and Kim have been a couple since junior high school, and had given birth to their first child while everyone else in our grade level attended orientation for high school. Another of their children, a daughter this time, had entered the world junior year during a pep rally for the homecoming football game, which we lost devastatingly to the Coventry Cougars. Kimmy sometimes jokes that if she had been at that pep rally, we might’ve won. The truth is, she didn’t play sports and she wasn’t a cheerleader; she had a history of spending assemblies under the bleachers getting high and making out with Harold, so I don’t think her presence would have helped all that much, but I don’t have the heart to tell her that. Their oldest, now ten, was at this very moment babysitting his younger siblings. All six of them.
“Let’s dance.” Kimmy punctuates this request by closing her eyes for a full minute and letting her head droop slightly. Snapping her head up, she opens her eyes and slides off the stool and onto the floor in one fluid movement.
“Christ, woman. How can you dance when you can’t even stand up?” I help her off the dirty floor and try to brush the black smudges off of her ass, but it’s no use. She rallies, and then we dance, removing our shoes and hiding them behind the pounding floor speakers, which are almost as tall as we are. The music is loud, the lights are bright, and we are very drunk. The cigarette smoke is so thick it throbs and sifts itself into colored ribbons. The night takes on the taste of a carnival. Suddenly, there is motion everywhere. The music continues, but we’re shooed from the dance floor. I can see the boys across the room, smoking and patting each other on the back. They’re probably drunker than we are which is astounding. We stop dancing and lean across the bar to order shots, shoes in hand. It is exactly then that the bear appears. He’s in a rolling cage, which says Cesar the Wrestling Bear in silver letters and the cage is hauled by two grunting and heaving men. This is new. “A toast to big, strong bears.” Clink, gulp, hiccup.
Kimmy and I have been coming to this particular establishment for years, starting way back when it was The Chuckwagon. Then, barrels of peanuts lined the walls, free for paying customers, and the shells were tossed directly onto the floor. Sometimes there was a dinner crowd, but mostly it was just barflies ordering nachos and anything fried. The biggest attraction for us wasn’t the peanuts or the food, but the fact that the owner turned a blind eye toward underage drinkers, particularly those of the female persuasion. Kimmy and I had gulped down our first shots in the Wagon at fourteen and two weeks later, I performed my first blowjob out back near the peeling and reeking dumpster. Somewhere along the line, ten years had passed.
Now though, the important thing is that I’ve lost Kimmy. One of my ex-boyfriends currently occupies her seat, a faded Pink Floyd concert t-shirt stretching tightly across his extensive paunch. Glancing around, I look across the dance floor and Harold’s eyes lock onto mine. He shakes his head slowly, drunkenly, and points toward the back of the building. Then he is carried toward the cage by clapping and shouting and the DJ is saying something that I can’t quite make out.
After ten minutes of a blind stumbling search, I find her in that familiar spot behind the building, her palms pressed flat against the rust and blue dumpster; her dress is pushed up into a roll around her middle, and her panties hang in a crumple from her right ankle. She is poised on her toes and barefoot. To his credit, Lenny doesn’t miss a beat, he just keeps grinding. “What?” She asks, “Is it time to go?” Her chin hits the lip of the dumpster, sprouting blood, and she sways slightly.
“Harold is wrestling the bear.” I say. She closes her eyes and hangs her head back for a moment, so I begin to think she hasn’t heard me, or has passed out, but then she opens her eyes and jerks her head to the side, somehow dismissing Lenny in one deft movement. He grumbles, but he goes, zipping and buttoning as he walks.
‘Fuck. Damn. Damn. Damn. Why? Why would he wrestle the bear?” She is shouting and mascara runs in rivers down her face. By now, she has righted the straps, smoothed her dress, and fluffed her hair, but no cosmetic in the world will fix the emptiness in her eyes. Her shoes are missing. We are nowhere near sober when we hear the sirens approach, but even we can tell they’re in no hurry.
Planting a tree is an act of rebellion.
The dirt nestling under your nails
is the color of well worn boots.
It whispers into the ear
of an eleven year old girl
fifty years from now,
promises her something worth
climbing at dusk. It implies that
she will be here, the tree will be here,
and that this superstar of a moon will still
dance in the smear of a night sky.
“Something’s fucked up over here and it ain’t my fault.”
Louise recognized the voice immediately; it was Donnie Owens, better known to most as Spike. He’d been released from state custody last week and it had only been a matter of time.
She lunged forward in her chair, eyes squeezed shut, pen frozen in mid-air. “Donnie, honey, this you?”
“It’s nobody you know. Mind your own business, you nosy old bitch,” the caller growled, further convincing her that it was, in fact, Donnie. She knew that he preferred to be called Spike, but for years, as part of her ruthless campaign to simultaneously love and rehabilitate him, she’d refused to acknowledge that name. Now, in desperation, she gave it a go.
“Spike? What’s going on?”
“Dammit!” His voice was an explosion. “I said it ain’t me. There’s a dead baby over here, you gonna send someone or not?”
Dead baby? Sweet Jesus, how did these things happen? Thirty-two years working in the dispatch unit and she didn’t understand it any better now than she had on that very first day. Unintelligible muttering snaked through the line and she imagined exactly how he must look at this moment. Pacing, slender fingers raking through greasy hair. Still a little boy in a grown man’s body.
Shaken, Louise located him on the GPS but couldn’t bring herself to submit the event notification which would be visible to all on-duty officers. Her finger hovered over the ENTER key. Technology had come a long way since Louise had taken her first call, which had been, coincidentally, a domestic disturbance over at the Owens’ property. They had the internet and smart phones now, but some things weren’t ever going to change. The Owens clan was one of those things.
He’s a monster. The thought came strong and unbidden and she shook her head slightly to clear it. For years she’d defended that boy, made excuses to anyone who would listen. Admittedly, the number of willing listeners had dwindled considerably over the years as Donnie had proceeded to be expelled from junior high school, burn down a barn and two sheds, and sexually molest a seven-year-old boy.
God only knew what else he’d done.
She still had nightmares about the day he’d strode through the streets picking off neighborhood pets with a 0.22-caliber rifle. It was early spring, and the tiny yards were dotted with tulips still gathering the strength to bloom. In reality, he'd been wearing a camouflage vest with many bullet-filled pockets, but in her dreams he was always dressed in something different. Last night it had been the red Dr. Denton pajamas he'd been wearing the night the foster care liaison had dropped him off. How many times between then and now had she recalled that night? Thousands?
It had been fall, but the air was still warm and the windows were cracked open to catch the breeze.
When she held him on her lap for the first time, the wind blew the curtain against his cheek and he startled, uttering a low whimper. A foul smell filled the air. She tried to soothe him by rocking and humming, but his heart was a tiny, battering fist and threatened to blow him wide open. Her own heart was simultaneously broken and soaring in equal parts, a wondrous feeling after so many years of numbness.
So strange, the things which threatened to undo her after all this time. This boy. His small boy pajamas, filthy and much too tiny, even on his slight frame. He’d worn holes right through the bottoms and they ended a jagged couple of inches above his blackened ankles.
When she bathed him that night, she poured dishsoap under the running water, hoping to coax a smile to his face, but he sat in the warm water without acknowledging the mountains of fluffy clouds. His eyes were bruised at the corners and each one of his ribs was clearly visible, as if sketched onto his skin in charcoal pencil. She spoke softly, cajoling and teasing, as she did to the stray cat that hid under their front porch from time to time.
"Don't you worry about a thing, Donnie. Me and Dody will take real good care of you. We’ll make tents and read books. Play with puppets. Fix sandwiches for lunch." He stared at her dully.
He was probably too small for sandwiches, she realized. She made a mental note to look that up in the encyclopedia.
But that had been thirty years ago and Donnie was a grown man now. She could hear his ravings on the other end of the line and it sliced right through her, jolting her back to the present. There wasn’t a soul in town who hadn’t been hurt by Spike in one way or another.
“Spi…um, sir, help is on the way. I’m going to need to you to stay on the line with me while I get more information. Can you do that, please?”
The infuriated bark and the dial tone that followed was answer enough.
The location was a phone booth in Summit Township, a dank and depressing place even on the most glorious of days, but it was the middle of the night and they were currently enduring a February so cold that your fingers could shatter like icicles if you weren’t careful. It was guaranteed to be a long and miserable day for all concerned parties. Aside from the cold, the Summit was permanently coated with a layer of liquor, grime, and poorly executed tattoos.
Louise knew she should report the event according to procedure, using the laminated check sheet even though she’d done it hundreds of times and could do it in her sleep. Report of body near intersection of Lake Boulevard and Bina Avenue, 0103, male caller, no further information available at this time. Proceed with caution and confirm when on-scene.
She did not. She dialed Officer Matts on his personal cell phone.
“Bobby? Louise here. I got a favor to ask. We got a dead baby down on Lake and Bina. Listen, this is between you and me, Bobby. It was Spike who did it. He called it in. Can you go down there… I need you to…”
She trailed off, unsure of how to phrase what she needed to say. But she and Matts had been working together for decades and he relieved her of the burden.
“I’ll make it quick, Louise. It’ll be better for everyone.” Matts disconnected.
She put her head down on the desk and cried in great gulps. She didn’t care if the cleaning crew heard her or not.
Bending and pawing through the dirt, I find two things: a blue button, and your shadow hovering over me. It's unclear if your posture is protective or threatening, and I realize it doesn't matter. I put the button in my pocket.
That first day, after you'd finished pounding me with your small, sharp fists, you leaned back against the jagged rocks and wolfed air into your lungs. I was reminded of a suckling newborn. Devouring, consuming. Rip, tear, bite. You started to talk and you haven't stopped since.
Something has come loose. Looped out of the warp and woof of time, it has heaved itself, a busted cassette tape, wormed its way to my feet and died. Everything was fine until the day you showed up. My days had long since arranged themselves around food, water, walks. Peace and quiet. I didn't miss the subway in the morning, the pant and glare of the morning commute. I no longer heard my own breath creep up on me, faster and faster, until I had to employ the coping mechanisms that Dr. Havoy had hammered into my head during those hypnosis sessions years ago. In fact, until the day that you arrived, bloody and hungry, I hadn't thought about the subway in a long time.
Last night as you slept, I yearned for gallons of black paint. I wanted to cover the spot where you lay, varnish again and again—emboss, seal the edges against your rising. I would need balls of wax to stop my ears, to block your incessant speaking. Grousing, accusing. Mewling, indicting. Sniveling, howling. Fingering, denouncing.
I wish you could be quieter.
The shelter I've made is hardly visible from a distance. It's woven from branches and leaves, with the odd rock or cement block used to gird the edges. Large panels, maybe portions of a front porch or the side of a house, provide the framework for my hovel. I have weathered many storms here. I have had plenty of time to comb the area, hoarding anything useful. In the back is a long, flat board, so worn that it is soft and pliable.
Here are my most valuable possessions. They are the reason that I arise each morning and begin again. I'm not looking for civilization. I'm looking for remnants of civilization, like the blue button, for instance. I like to know that once, long ago, someone, a girl child probably, wore a dress with shiny blue buttons. She crouched here at the sea shore, and glanced back to check that she wasn’t too far from safety.
I have found that I like people much more when they don’t exist. Yet, here you are.
I have never moved, not once in all of this time. There was no reason to. Morning dawned quiet and pink; night tiptoed away in gradations of blue-gray. Since my arrival, I had never seen another human being until I saw you.
My head jerks with a start. Christ Almighty! Shut up! For one brief moment, I wonder who is screaming, and then with a jolt I realize. Me. I know that even though you are probably the last woman in the world, I would rather be alone. I can build again. I begin walking and I don't look back.
So we’ll do the best we can.
Try not to jam forks between
the fingers of our friends,
twirl straws in beautiful
blue glasses as if we’ve got
piles of money lying
around in the corners of the house.
We’re primed and ready to go.
Prepared to wield feathers like AK47s
to prove that we mean business.
The pursuit of love is deeply unsettling
but when I tell I’m inclined to begin,
I mean it.
Somewhere inside of me there is a little girl, her hair in waves and her heart in shambles. I have ignored her for so long that I no longer remember how to pull her to safety. What I do remember is sobbing the night of the tornado, the shutters clattering and the windows shaking. I remember the heat, the way it lay still and thick across the top bunk of the bed. I remember that small bedroom, that there was no solace, no quiet, no escape. I remember, and this is the sharpest part of all, that it wasn’t all bad. Sometimes she made cinnamon rolls from canned biscuits, the spoon hitting the seam until it spilled out speaking love in someone else’s language. That she searched for me not once but three times, which implies that she cared. That she couldn’t sleep until I had been found and put back to bed. So much easier to think that she didn’t love me but also not true. How, then, does love look? How to shape and twist love into something that makes sense? If not protection, not care, then what? Instinct, perhaps. Obligation, I suppose. She is sitting in her apartment at this moment, I imagine. Sitting and smoking, the oxygen cord twisted around one ankle. I am ashamed that I don’t love her. When I think of her, then, now, anytime, my heart becomes a three ton tank and nothing can gain entrance.
They’d had one of their own, years ago. He was a gurgling, chubby baby who was so alive it almost hurt to look at him. Eyes as clear and bright as a full moon at midnight. Skin so soft that they couldn’t stop touching it.
She came up behind him, carrying a load of laundry in her arms. “What in the world…?”
He jumped slightly, looked sheepish. “Just smelling him.” He bent close over the crib again and breathed deeply, to keep his nose full of the fresh, sweet smell. She rolled her eyes, but there was fondness in it. She did it in a motherly way, which was the thing that had amazed him the most since the baby had come. The way she’d taken to pregnancy and motherhood without the slightest hitch. It was wondrous. More incredible to him than even the miracle of childbirth was the fact that Louise, the same girl who couldn’t hold a job for more than six months, who cried at the slightest provocation, this creature who flinched if he moved too quickly or spoke too loudly, had suddenly found within herself a deep river of patience. She seemed wise for the first time, solidly rooted and grounded in her body instead of wispy and thin, as if she were haunting herself.
They tucked Max into his crib that night and instead of crying, he nodded off to sleep easily while they stood there in the doorway gazing in amazement at what they’d made together.
“You know, he looks just like his Daddy,” she whispered, and then she winked and slid her leg out of her ratty pink robe. After all the months of care and worry, all the well-meaning visitors who came bearing casseroles and stayed too long, this one simple action opened something in him that had been clamped down for longer than he’d realized.
“Move it along, pretty lady.” He swatted her behind and guided her onto the dining room table, still cluttered with unfolded laundry. He swiped it all away in one movement, feeling a little grandiose and liking it. And why not? This was his castle, and he felt like the king of it for the first time in a very long time.
“Come here, you.” She grinned wickedly and dropped her robe to the floor.
It was two days shy of the six week mark. They’d been planning on waiting and he knew they probably should, but everything seemed to be pointing towards this one glittering moment and he was not going to squander it. The air between them had been lighthearted and playful all evening. Not that they’d been having problems, not at all. It was just that with the pregnancy and now the baby, well, she’d been focused and he understood that. He hadn’t resented it. Resentment was a strong word, but he had to admit, it had been wearing on him a bit.
The real truth of it was that he missed her. Missed hearing her soft sighs, missed how their bodies fit together perfectly, she being the little spoon. Max had changed all of that so suddenly. It was exciting to be a father, but he was also scared and more than a little lonely. He felt left out, a spectator, and he wasn’t used to that.
He tried to pull off what she called his howdy-do wink, but he failed and they both laughed, then fell together on the table, lights fully ablaze.
He was kind and gentle and she was just as lovely and warm as he remembered. Afterward, they talked about how lucky they were to have this little house, their beautiful boy, and each other. They grew hungry and neither wanted the night to end, so they raided the kitchen, giggling like teenagers as they shushed each other in the dark. They ended up in bed with crackers and cheese, a cup of chocolate pudding, a spoon, and pickles. They murmured in low voices, so as not to wake him.
“What do you think he’ll be when he grows up?” Dody mused. “He seems kind of strong for a baby.” He shook his head in disbelief at the superhuman strength that his offspring possessed.
“Well then, he’ll probably be a weight-lifter. Or work in a circus,” she teased.
“He might get married someday. And have kids of his own,” his eyes wide, his forehead creased with the effort it took to imagine Max grown-up.
“Well, I certainly hope so, silly. Everyone needs a family, don’t they?”
The truth was, sometimes Max hardly seemed real; they were still shocked at his existence in their lives. When they fell asleep that night, Louise was the little spoon and Dody was happier than he could ever remember being.
When they woke the next morning, Max was dead. Cold and blue. Emergency services were called. The police came and went. There was nothing to be done. No amount of crying, sobbing, railing, or wishing could change it. The clean laundry still lay in a heap on the dining room floor, but now it shouted of their negligence and inability to order their lives. In the few short hours since they had walked together into his room, sunlight piercing a sword through a space in the blind, Louise had aged years.
“Don’t touch him, you son of a bitch.” Her voice was a growl as she punched a paramedic in the temple. Hard. He sat down on the couch, dazed. She was taken to the bedroom, but her sobs could still be heard throughout the house, punctuated by breaking glass and splintering wood. Dody would hear those sounds again and again, in waking and dreaming hours, for the rest of his life.
That had been more than thirty years ago, and in all of that time, he and Louise had never once discussed the sex of the evening before.
But discussion or no discussion, their lives were clearly delineated into before and after. Before the light went out of her eyes. Before he began heaping guilt upon his own head. Before their lives took on the echo of an empty, cavernous room.
And after. After they had gotten their hopes up, only to have them dashed upon the rocks. After she had carried a living creature inside of her body for such a long, magical time. After they had learned the words to lullabies. After they had plastered the picture holes and repainted the room. After he had been alive, and laughed for the first time, no teeth yet in that tiny, pink smile.
And the one which reverberated and bounced around every room they inhabited; after they had abandoned their son for their own selfish enjoyment. While they lavished in each other, Max was in the next room preparing to die, his lips moving in that sucking motion, his eyelashes trembling ever so slightly as he struggled to breathe.
No, they hadn’t ever discussed that night and he suspected that they never would. It had been rendered even more powerful and appallingly awful by the fact that the sex had been transcendent. Better than it had been in years. One of those experiences which surpasses the physical, and becomes spiritual in nature.
Dody had been told more than once that he was a sensitive man and on that night, he had indulged his sensitive nature and allowed himself to be awed and amazed by the circuitousness of life. He wasn’t normally religious, but that night, he wondered how such perfection could be achieved by two mere mortals. He looked into Louise’s eyes and understood for just a moment how people could get caught up in that Jesus nonsense. She was a goddess. A beautiful, potent force. She had just created a human being.
He tried to explain this to her later, during the pickles, pudding, and cheese, but words ruined it. His mouth made it into something awkward and unwieldy. Overwrought and under-thought. He finally settled on this, “I want this moment, this night, to last forever and ever.”
She laughed lightly and tapped him on the shoulder. “You know better than that, my one true love. Everything changes. Max will grow, we’ll get older.”
“But I don’t want to get older. I want to stay right here with you for the rest of eternity.”
“Eternity or not, I’m going to check on Max,” she half rose, one arm outstretched to reach for her robe, but he pulled her back towards him into the dark and warm cocoon that they had created. He pulled the covers over her, tucked them in around the sides, and thought as he did that he would keep her safe for the rest of her days. He felt as he imagined men of antiquity used to feel, standing on a craggy hilltop, club in hand, surveying their holdings. He thought of his small family and was proud of his part in it. He wanted to beat his chest, but instead he ducked under the blankets and attempted to distract her. It worked. Two hours later, both spent and sweaty, they collapsed into a pile of sleep.
Then morning spilled over the horizon and their lives were forever changed.