I live in a world where I own a garage, and in the garage there is a person I don’t know, waiting for me. The person has a 401(k) but doesn’t know what it means. In their head, they read it as “Four oh one, kay?” I know this because I do the same. John Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt? Is that you?
This person has a damp, stained purple rag in their right hand, a present for me. On their mouth is a stain, too. Of convenience store, cherry-red slush.
It is April and I am moments from it now. There is an odd breeze flowing through the still-dead husks of oak leaves leftover from winter, just behind me.
If humans had cat eyes I would open the garage door and see this person’s gaze reflecting against the soft light from the streetlamp. If I saw them, I might freeze for a moment. I might stop and reflect on the state of things — on the weather — on how content I might be feeling — whether what I have eaten agrees with me — whether I have a runny nose.
But then? What? I would know what it means, to be there, to see those deep-sea eyes hovering blindly where they are, just in the corner, unblinking; I wasn’t born yesterday. I would like to think that I have even lived a life fulfilled, have seen and done enough to feel content with what was about to happen. I might think that it would be time to join them, and I would close the door, shuttering their eyes and allowing them the courtesy of approaching me in a perfect stillness. I wouldn’t even scream.
Photograph by Todd Hido, an artist I deeply admire, from his collection “Homes at Night.” Whenever it gets warm and I find myself outside at night, I can’t help but think of this collection as I roam the alleyways in search of something I don’t think exists. Consider checking out and supporting this artist.
Feeling inspired by Etgar Keret lately, so I wrote this. Thanks for reading!
I wasn’t sure what was happening. The tears didn’t feel natural; they were not the tears I had cried the day before, at least. Yesterday’s tears were shed so freely, so deep into the stacks that I might have been all alone, tucked between an odd alcove near a riot-proof window and a shelf of outdated psychology journals. Since picking up this work study job, I have learned all the best places to cry in the library, from the service elevator (only accessible by library staff), to the most secluded desk in the quiet study, my face pressed against the cold, scarred wood.
Today’s tears were reluctant tears, jammed up inside my eyes. As hesitant as they were to be born, that didn’t stop my body’s other functions from *wanting* them to surface. I parked the book cart outside a bathroom, relieved to find it empty. Standing with my nose pressed against the mirror, I tried my best to avoid scrutinizing what I saw, but my tired and slouched posture, the premature lining on my face that hadn’t been there when I left for college, the puffiness in my eyes, were enough to release the hot, painful tears from their prison.
I wrote this piece as a part of Write Now, a 48-hour flash fiction writing contest for University of Iowa Alumni, and was selected as a finalist. I hope you enjoy it.
My grandmother’s hands are veined tributaries of deep, blue memory, as warm as her famous Sunday dinner rolls, as even and steady as a taut clothesline. Whenever I visit, I make sure to hold them at least once, while we’re sharing a pot of tea, or during our afternoon walk, or when we’re cleaning the dishes.
That connection makes me feel safe; it always has, since I was a small girl, when she would run her hands across my back until I fell asleep. Now a woman myself, I nurture a longing for that connection again, to sleep away the world’s problems on her couch, wake to the small sounds of chores, the clink of plates stacking in the cabinet, the spray of an aerosol cleaner against a dusty surface.
Uncle Leroy’s bare arm was pressed against the vinyl seat cushion for so long that when he unstuck himself to stand and deliver Cousin Darryl’s eulogy, the creases that remained were shaped like the design on a fresh-opened pat of butter. But what could you expect, wearing a cutoff shirt to a funeral? We tried telling him each time we had one of these damn things (the number was getting up there now) that they were supposed to be places of respect, but he always responded that Cousin Darryl (or Sister Patricia or Grandma Diane or Toothless Jim, whoever might be sunnyside up in the casket that week) wouldn’t have gived one fuck what he wore. He had stumped us there, so we let him dress how he pleased.
Hell, he’d likely be laid to rest sleeveless—and soon, by the look of him—so we took the whole ordeal as a premeditated dress rehearsal. Today, for added style, he wrapped a tie around his neck (knotted that fucker, all right, just like you’d tie a noose) and let it hang between his apish tits like a pendulum counting down his final days. It featured a selection of music notes cascading out of a trumpet, overlaid on a pastel gradient. Nobody knew where the hell he got it, but there was something about how it clashed with the dirt and grease stains on the rest of him that made it work.
There were a great many things that triggered Tamal throughout the apartment that had once been theirs and was now just his. The dishes in the sink, unfinished bars of soap, the blender that had been left behind in the cupboard where small appliances were sent to die, the collection of condoms that had fallen between the bedpost and the wall. The list went on and on in his head, ad nauseam.
Tamal was a prisoner bound by the belongings his ex had left behind, and instead of clearing them out, throwing open the windows, trying a new scent of candle, disinfecting everything with a bleach bath to remove the residual stains of memory, he let the dishes collect, the soap harden, the blender dust over. There were so many triggers that he could no longer discern the world of triggers from the world of normal. It all spun around and around in his mind, covering everything in blight.
Each day, he allowed himself only one chance to escape the apartment for a few hours. Even prisoners were allowed their daily walks in the yard. He would leave the apartment behind and walk a few blocks to the park, sit at one the benches, and watch people pass by, the air buzzing with the sound of children playing at the equipment in desperate need of replacement.
His boss had scrubbed away most of his assignments when he returned to work the following week, but Charlie was glad to be back to it, in the way that his mind became occupied by the letters and words and sentences of his editing. It was enough to sustain his appetite, but not enough to overwhelm it, like pasta salad in July to his post-funeral palate. There came a preternatural effortlessness to his editing now that he had one less reason to go home; it was like his brain was ready to welcome any tool necessary to forget. He excelled through his first two assignments, inquired his boss for additional work, until he was the most productive in the office, bar none.
But the workday could only last so long, and their home was just that — theirs. There was no separating where Levent’s belongings began and Charlie’s ended. And it didn’t help there were so many things to begin with. Their friends knew them as the packrats of the group, each inherently unable to let go of the bric-a-brac that accumulated seemingly overnight, the kind of people you would ask if you wanted to spend a day trying to make pasta, because, and it was almost a guarantee, Levent and Charlie would have a once-used pasta maker lying around somewhere.
A month after the funeral, Charlie was still confronted by ghosts of his boyfriend each morning. These confrontations started small — harmless, sugarcoated memories — like when he would notice one of Levent’s thick, dark hairs on the brush and think, “Oh, that’s right, he’s…” But then the day would wear Charlie away to almost nothing, down to memories that would pulsate through his mind while he stood motionless in the various spots of their home they had never inhabited together, tucked away behind the stove he had shoved away from the wall, or beyond the closed door of the hallway linen closet, trying to eradicate every wiry, steelwool hair from the carpeted floor. Then, in those dark, forgotten places, the rest of the thought would materialize. “Oh, that’s right. He’s dead. Levent is dead and you will never see him again.”
We dream of ( ) falling in our sleep, remnants of the fables passed from grandparent to child. We feel the pitter-patter of the drops kiss our cheeks with the dignity of lovers long lost—to wake and discover they are only our tears slipping out, ghosts of the past; into the collection jar they go.
A scorched world.
We live underground now, down in the darkness where we are protected from our overbearing father, the sun. We do nothing but collect ( ) any way we can—from geothermal leeching to bloodletting. The various ways, unimaginable, unspeakable, if only because speaking requires saliva we dare not use.
It would be a lie to say that I didn’t know the dead man, but it would be the truth to say I can no longer remember his name. Too many nights filled with foreign smoke and strong drink. Too many days scratched away listlessly. But I know it’s still down inside me somewhere, being chewed up and digested again and again.
It’s been buried so many times, on the tip of my tongue in the pitch of nightfall, but never fully exposed. Maybe it will surface one day, as these things often do, when least expected.
I have wondered why I forgot the name. Before his death he was someone I saw a lot—you couldn’t say I knew him, but he was definitely a constant. We worked at the market for a couple months anyway. A friend of mine said it best over drinks, as we sat next to a shelf of nameless corporate nobodies at some long-forgotten bar in the legal district: it’s easier to forget a face that wants forgotten, he said. That was at least five years ago—my dog didn’t get hit by the bus yet, we had a president worth having, I had more hair. My god. What is five years but an endless and terrifying chasm that has the potential so suck away your very lifeblood?
Both he and the dead man now share a common denominator: both absent from my life.
The spine unhinges when detached from the ligaments that bind it. How naturally a resting body lies on the damp earth, uninhibited. An alarming sense of reanimation, the way wisps of hair catch enthusiastically on the wind or an ant parades up a thigh thick with nutrients for the taking. Laced to the ground through a weave of decay – no longer human, just naked skin pulled tightly to bone. Such intimate moments – a disconnected arm, torn by a fox who slipped under the fence of the enclosure, grasping onward against the pull of time; the stomach of a fresh specimen, bloated with gas; a decomposing face blackened with sunburn.
These are the details of death. Within decomposition hides the incontrovertible fate of all humanity: if left to sit, we rot away to nothing but a cloying stain on the forest floor. We are picked apart and reused.