OCTOBER 2006 – NO. 9
The second original story selected by our third Guest Fiction Editor, Nicholas Montemarano.
Someone has dropped a potted plant just inside the doorway to the otherwise empty apartment. No one has cleaned it up yet and its dirt has been tracked in. Luke and I find Leigh and Cade outside where they have their things in boxes, have begun to load the truck they've rented for the day. Leigh's parents are there to help too, her mother heavy and silent, her father balding but confining it to the scalp and fit in the inexplicable way some men have of reigning in age. When we were younger and Leigh did things he didn't like, he would grab her by both shoulders and steer her into the kitchen where I could hear but couldn't see. After, he would smile at me apologetically and look at his daughter to say What must Nora think of you? She would never meet my eyes. My parents whispered things about Leigh, using words like flinch and nervous and control. Today, the deep opening of the moving truck is inviting against the hot sun and scorched grass we walk through from the back door of their apartment. The grass looks like the sun has eaten it up and laid down straw. It crackles under our feet while we carry.
As the truck clunks off, its back dips down toward the road. Leigh's father is driving and he isn't good with a manual. The truck is going to a manufactured home. Leigh and Cade told us this embarrassedly over drinks, acknowledging the stigma of houses that ride the highway. We'd all seen them. Strapped to a flatbed, sides encroaching into other lanes, a person behind them drawing attention to the oversized load. I've seen the perforated siding, the rooms behind the windows, and I've imagined families there — I've seen playing children run too close to an edge that overhangs the flatbed and tilt the house into the median. I've pictured couples making love in beds in those rooms behind the windows, rearing and thrusting with passion as the truck takes a curve too tightly and they tumble apart as the bed crashes against a wall. There are dogs and cats who learn to open doors and spill out on the highway; there are babies rocking calmly on counters, and they giggle and coo and fly right out a window that hasn't been glassed in. I have seen these houses on the highway but I have never seen one lived in.
As the moving truck lurches and stalls, Luke and I, the friends, the movers, follow. We are nervous that the house will be everything we fear, so we make jokes with words like hick, rube, hayseed. After stalling the truck on the street, Leigh's father leaves the house to us, kissing his daughter then nodding his thanks to us. And the four of us carry in boxes. The plates and bowls are heavy clay worked smooth and glazed thick in dark and mid-tone blues, colors that comfort a person while eating. I carry a crate of candles which, if I could touch with particular ability, might show me images of a night they fought over Cade's drinking and, after, fell into each other as the candle wax reformed itself from heat. There are bags of clothes labeled neatly by season, one bulging with thick sweaters bought against a Michigan winter three years ago that seemed colder than Leigh could bear. Wrapped around the stereo is the quilt, now worn, that her mother made four years ago when Leigh left for college, the panels of greens and white whipped together with stitches so fine they are invisible. After the boxes there is furniture, heavy enough that we all lift together. In goes the couch they pushed aside last year for Thanksgiving dinner. Leigh insists on carrying her cello. She has wrapped the bed in plastic to protect it from the move. It takes us hours and by then it is raining. Luke trips over the curb, drops the poster he is carrying, a framed print I got Leigh for her birthday, years ago. He swears when he sees the broken glass.
Behind the house where the sod turns to real grass, dry and sparse, holes have been dug down into the earth for electricity. The holes are still open, waiting to be filled, and I see a small girl crouching next to one, looking in. What are you looking at? I ask, and she says Bunnies. Two of them, brown and squirming, rub their noses back and forth against the plastic coated power line. The larger one is half on top of the smaller, anchoring it to the dirt. The girl reaches out a finger and runs it lightly across the larger rabbit's head, smiling privately. Then, glancing slantways at me, she grabs the animals, stuffs them in her shirt, and runs off toward the road as the rain turns to mist.
The weather cannot be counted on for ten minutes' constancy. This is a real Michigan summer and meteoric indecision seems more exciting out here than it does in town, where I live and where Luke lives and where Leigh and Cade used to live. There is nothing out here and I wish for a violent storm that will keep us a little longer.
I take a few steps in the direction the girl ran, but she's slid between the houses. The house next door sits on lower ground, and from where I'm standing I can see in the side window. If the houses are as identical inside as they are out then I know I am looking toward the washer and dryer, just off the kitchen. There is a woman in the window, I can see her head and round shoulders. When she sees me I look away toward Leigh and Cade's house, putting out one hand to touch the plastic siding. She opens the door and steps out onto the poured cement. You just move in there? she asks. No I tell her. My friends.
When Leigh and I left for college together she was convinced she shouldn't go. She had been accepted to the University's School of Music and heard a rumor that most students practiced nine hours a day. She vomited twice the morning of her first day. She moved into an apartment building with Cade while I moved into the dorms. When I would go to their apartment for dinner or to watch movies, relieved to be away from my box of a room, the cello was always out, always warm and just played. She had gotten it used years before and she kept it immaculate. She polished her fingerprints off the fret and kept the bow loose and rosined when not in use. If I arrived while she was playing I would hear music from the stairwell.
Sometimes she played pieces I liked when she knew I would be coming over; it was the only indication that she noticed my presence. I would knock softly and Cade would answer the door, greeting me with a hug and leading me into the kitchen for a drink. Leigh never looked up at my entrance. She didn't mind being watched while she played and sometimes Cade and I would sit in the hallway and watch. She was prettier with the cello, her light brown hair pulled into a low ponytail, out of the way. Her eyes were unfocused and she never looked at the strings or at anything in the room either, but it seemed she watched some delicate change in the air to see if her music was working.
One evening Cade called me and asked me to come for dinner. I could hear Leigh playing in the background. It was nothing I recognized and I asked Cade what the piece was. She's been having this one out for weeks now he said. She wouldn't even stop to call you, but she really wants you to come. I knew Leigh wrote music, but she had never let me hear it. When I stepped into the stairwell of their apartment building I could hear her playing and I was sure it was the piece I'd heard on the phone. The notes sounded torn and thin and I leaned against the door to hear, my backpack bumping the molding. The playing stopped like I'd scratched a record with the needle and I took a step back as the door opened a minute later. Leaning out of the apartment, Leigh hugged me tightly and whispered Nora, I think I'm pregnant and Don't tell Cade.
Inside, we paint, clean, unpack, lug, arrange. After a few hours this thing built elsewhere and plopped on a plot of dirt and sod looks more like a home than anything we movers have ever had together. Mathematically it makes sense: there are simply more walls. They are orangey now, the walls. A dark shade of terra cotta that, with the greenish carpet and lighter orange ceilings, looks like the pottery I've studied in my art history classes. They, the moved, make up their bed and arrange clothes in the closet and folded
in drawers. They watch each other and touch in a way that says mine and ours.
We order pizza from the only pizza joint this far out, and I volunteer to pick it up; they do not deliver here. The rain is still only a mist but tree branches bend in the wind. Cade says It's blowing up out there. Leaving the house, I realize there is something terrifying about this location. The other manufactured homes look dingy and gray; the children playing around them are dingy and gray. I can see the girl with the rabbits sitting cross-legged on her stoop with her back to the street doing something in her lap. The subdivision is at the bottom of a hill with a graveyard on top. There is the theory, I must tell them when I return with the pizza, that the Brontë sisters died in a place like this — at the bottom of a hill. It is said they drank water that ran through earth that held graves.
Three months ago my boyfriend cut his wrists with glass. When I got to Luke's apartment he was lying on the bathroom floor, losing blood slowly but in quantity. There was his vomit in the toilet. When I woke him he said Don't call anyone and Don't take me away from here. I led him into bed like a little boy, in the T-shirt he was wearing, smears of blood on his underwear and I climbed over him and lay down beside, breathing a little finally and could only smell on him not his smell but the blood and vomit and in it something he had eaten. There was no light in the bed and no clock but I kept looking for one, never sleeping but drifting from myself to him to me again, thankful every time they were not the same. I could not move to get up and could not sleep, could only hear his breathing and the quiet sleep sounds that meant he was alive. In his sleep he turned over to me, said, Come in. He didn't make sense, not for days. Sometimes I could feed him some bread and some water, but nothing else. He wouldn't go into the bathroom, just pissed in the wastebasket.
I pull into the parking lot to pick up the pizza and no one else is there. Inside, the only one working is a pimply boy, maybe 14 or 15, who touches the ingredients nervously with pale hands as he waits for the oven to beep. He does not speak to me, but must know who I am as he seems to have no other orders. When he takes the pizzas out of the oven and slides them into their boxes, he leans in close and smells them, his nose so near the cheese that he pulls back from the heat. It's gonna storm the boy tells me, and it is beginning to rain harder.
Sometimes I want things so badly I fear I might die if I don't get them. There is no logic to these things, only what I think might be need. I could eat the pizza myself, all of it. I could drive home and lie under the blankets and watch the rain and eat the pizza. I could run the shower so hot that my skin would seem cold under it and stand there until feeling is blasted away. If Luke came looking for me and rang the doorbell, knocked, shouted, I could turn the music louder, the water hotter, pull the blanket tighter. I know after not too long I would open the door, unable to take not knowing if things could be better.
Maybe the storm will keep us at Leigh and Cade's. Maybe there is a chance we can stay together in the home we have carved out. And then I want only to be allowed to stay; to curl up on someone else's couch the way Sunday nights are better if you aren't at your own home. And I could not be lonely with Luke in the new home of the moved: there is so much orange and green, so many possessions. I ease the car onto their street, past the hill where, if the rain ran through the graves and into the homes of their subdivision, everyone would weaken, maybe produce something great before dying by 30.
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