by Aurora Brackett
There was a treacly smell in the room, something on the way to rot. The walls were yellowing. There were no windows. There was only the door that I had long since stopped hoping would open and the chair where I sat, riffling through children’s books, memorizing the texture of fluff on the down of an ugly duckling. The metallic spines holding together thick cardboard pages. Why children’s books? I wondered. The room wasn’t so much silent as it was stuffed, like cotton balls in the ears. Plugged up with nothing. I was waiting. I had been waiting. I waited. I came here to complain and now I am waiting, but I have forgotten my complaints.
Once, there was a front room – a small office with wood paneled walls that ended abruptly a foot from the ceiling, giving way to visible joists and crumbling sheet rock. There was a brown carpet that did not reach the walls, around it the cold tile floor where I stood and cleared my throat. A woman sat behind a desk in the middle of the room. She held a calculator in her thick hand and poked at its buttons with the top of her thumb. A wide face, a smudge of dirt across the forehead, fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. A farmer-secretary. She didn’t look up.
I have combed over this moment hundreds of times. I took the bus. I walked from the corner (A bus stop bench. An empty cup on its side rolling back and forth.) to this building – a brick building, a state building, a school or a business office or a department of something or other under the undersecretary of someone dash someone, someone. I stood on the cold white tile and waited for the woman to notice me. I looked for a chair. There was nowhere to sit. I cleared my throat. “I want to complain,” I said. She looked up and said nothing, stared like she was still waiting for me to speak, her eyes saying, Yes may I help you? but without much interest. I had spoken. I heard myself. “I want to complain,” I said again. Again those dull eyes, the color of dirt. I know that I spoke. She looked at her calculator. I took a step closer. “They told me to come here,” I said. The woman stared. Her face was too round for that metal desk, those sharp bright edges. Swollen feet in pinched heels swung toward my legs. “They told me to come,” I shouted. “On the phone. They gave me this address.”
The farmer stood up and gathered her crops: her clipboards and stacks of paper. She walked to a door behind her desk, pulled a key from under her sleeve and gestured for me to follow. A long white hallway: no pictures, no marks on the walls. A white paneled ceiling, a dull gray floor. At the end of the hall, another door opened and the stack of clipboards were pushed into my chest. “Wait here,” she said. A voice that I heard just inside my head and then it was gone and the door closed.
But what kind of voice? Bored would be too easy. A misplaced voice: wadded up closed fisted politeness barely hiding a solid squawk.
It isn’t metal, but a thin gold paper that covers the spines of these books. Pictures of barnyard animals stamped on both sides float down the length of the spines. I’ve been peeling off the paper. Sometimes I can get a good long strip in one solid piece: a cat in shoes, a cow on the moon. I spent some time yelling. The yelling makes me thirsty, and though I hear my voice fine, I can feel it being swallowed by the stale air as soon as it leaves my throat.
I had an apartment. A refrigerator and a sink on one side of the room, a bed on the other. I had a window that looked out onto a supermarket parking lot. During the day, I sat in my chair at the window and took guesses at what people had in their bags. I watched vagrants steal shopping carts. An old woman in a stained green quilted coat pushed a cart away from the store, ducked beneath my window, and thinking she was alone, began to empty her pockets. Every few minutes she stopped her work to push the palm of her right hand at her face, first one cheek and then the next, a light slap, grinning as she did it. Nearly half of what she poured into that cart – pennies, stones, scraps of paper – fell through the metal bars onto the pavement below. The woman wheeled her cart away leaving half of herself behind. I had an apartment. The telephone rang and I answered it. Often there was a pause, static over the line as I said hello, hello? A high-pitched nasal voice, a language I couldn’t understand came through the static and I listened to the voice worrying for me, worrying with furrowed brows, a clicking tongue. A question followed by a pause in which I cleared my throat, prompting another question. I’m sorry, I whispered, I don’t know.
I could see from my window, the old woman, a bald spot and heavy gray hair matted at the forehead, yellowing fingers gripping the cart handle as she pushed it away. Wait, I yelled. Paper folded in the front child seat. The old woman paused and moved a front page to the back. She touched the page now revealed, shocking white against gray sky. It was about to rain. There was an old woman who lived in a… Wait! I say. You forgot!
The ceiling panels are pinpricked. I don’t look for patterns. Nothing can be done with the ceiling, the floor. I don’t touch the walls but already the smell has seeped into my clothes. I can’t imagine the room into anything other than what it is. I can’t leave, not even in sleep. If I close my eyes I see walls; my thoughts hit against them. I form words to curse but the moment my anger begins to build, it flattens. Sometimes I stand up and think I could climb up onto this chair and leap from it. At least a bruise, a scrape might give me a temporary break from stillness. I think if I fell to the floor I would be making use of the room. But in the next instant, I exhale and sit down. I open a book. I only want to remember.
I had an apartment. An old woman walked towards my window wearing a cape, carrying a basket. She hummed as she wheeled away, turning pages. And when I couldn’t hear her anymore, I looked down at what she’d left behind. The small things that no one can hold onto anyway. Pennies and thread, blotches of color. An alphabet swam in newly formed puddles; letters sank under the weight of rain. The phone rang and I answered it.
The phone rang. It was some kind of bureaucrat, a Mr. So and So. I could hear his frowning and grimacing over the line, a fat-choked voice. “Just calling to ask you a few questions,” he said. But there never were any questions. “We’re terribly sorry,” he said, “we’re backed up. Overwhelmed. Please call if you need anything.”
He called and on the days he didn’t call, his secretary called. “How is your little boy doing?” she’d ask and when I told her I had no boy, she’d laugh and ask about the weather and hang up the phone. Or she’d tell me about her children, how they kept her awake. “Hard to manage everything,” she’d say. Her ceiling fan was broken. She was busy too. So many phone calls, she didn’t know what to do. The fat man changed his tone from day to day. I liked it best when he shouted. I could always hear him sneering through his niceties, but when he shouted, then I knew we were in business. “I have six hundred and fifty-seven files on my desk,” he’d growl. “Who in the hell are you? Why did I call this number?” If I interrupted him to tell him my name, he’d yell, “No more names! Fuck you and the fucking mother that named you!” This always made me laugh and hearing me laugh the fat man would chuckle, sensing that we had something in common. He would then clear his throat and mumble apologetically about a hernia that had been giving him trouble, paperwork moving through improper channels. And then caught somewhere between choking, laughing and telling the truth, he would hang up.
If I ever found out what they were calling about, I don’t remember. He never got to his questions and so perhaps it does not matter. I believe they were the only people I talked to, and so I looked forward to their calls, especially to the fat man’s angry days. “Fucking mother,” I’d laugh, and I could hear him slapping his thigh in some tiny, hollow office. “My mother didn’t fuck a day in her life.”
“Your mother lived in a clock and sang cuckoo,” the fat man would shout.
“Your mother was a walrus,” I’d sing.
“You’re an idiot,” he’d say, and clear his throat and quietly belch, apologizing for his ulcers, his bad breath, his tumors. “Just calling to ask you a few questions,” he’d say.
I have spread the contents of my wallet across the floor. The woman left me with forms but no pen. I fixate on the image of her face: the lips swollen and overpainted, the forehead wide and smudged, a sneer, blotched skin, a drinker’s nose. A sour taste forms at the back of my mouth. Good, I can use this. I draw it backwards: see myself climbing the steps of this building, my thin shoes on wet pavement, a lame pigeon teetering on the sidewalk’s edge. I see myself sitting on the bus. My knees shake against rumbling floorboards.
One moment serves as backdrop for the other. I stitch them together clumsily. I hear the slow indifference of her feet, click-clacking against the tiles as I sit on the bus and wait to arrive. In both places, and now in this room, heat rises to my jaw.
She leads me down the hall. Keys clatter on her wrists.
I look out the window as the bus passes through an industrial landscape: an open warehouse door, a metal gate making diamonds of empty space. Behind the gate, a man works a blowtorch. The bus rocks at a stop and the brakes hiss, letting out thick rasping breath. I look for street signs. Across the aisle a teenage girl is kicking her feet against the seat back, drawing stars on her legs with a black fingernail. Her shirt is loose across her chest and when she bends over I can see etched patterns filling the space between her breasts. Her chest is green lines. She looks up as I’m staring, gives me the finger and throws a pencil which hits me in the neck.
The sound of high heels on a tile floor.
The girl on the bus is a bird. She’s all bones and matted hair, her clothes torn and feathery. The pencil lodges in my jacket pocket. I let her laugh. The brakes release a burst of air, a sigh, and with it my jaw slackens and again I’m losing the thread.
The secretary locks the door behind her. I can hate her for this.
On the bus I don’t recognize street names and the driver’s announcements are two blocks off. I don’t know this part of the city. There are alleys every other block, men lurking in doorways alone, standing as if about to move, staring at the facing walls as if contemplating crossing a river. Their eyes see a world of danger. Worry floods the corridors. I touch the edge of my wallet. The young girl laughs at me again and throws a penny. What is the world coming to? I’d like to ask her. The secretary locks the door, the keys clatter against her wrists, but those hands, they give me pause. I have sympathy for the hands – thick fingers and dirt beneath the nails giving lie to another kind of life. The girl on the bus is singing (rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief). Rain hits the window sideways. Raindrops pick up dirt and turn the glass to mud. And I remember the windows of my room when I was a boy, a basement apartment – quick moving feet kicking the city against the panes, walls so thin I wanted to push through them. The girl turns her head. “There used to be more,” I say. There were photographs on the walls of our living room. Pictures of a house built from the ground in flat planes of mud. A few new trees on the horizon. There was an old woman, holding her shoes and skirts in her hands to cross a stream, her eyes wide from the shock of water. Someone outside the frame holds her arm. The bus comes to a stop. The girl is already gone. The woman closes the door behind her and I don’t hear anything after she goes.
In the middle of the night, or what I imagine to be night, I open my eyes to find a man sitting on a low stool in the corner against the door. The stool was not here before. This is my first thought. The man perks up when I open my eyes. I notice my position, slumped against the wall, and quickly stand. He is immaculately dressed – a smooth blue suit, not a trace of lint. He rises and extends a hand, which I take, the palm warm and damp. “Excuse me,” I say.
“Not a problem,” the man smiles. His voice has been polished, organized to reflect a hint of sympathy. He meets my gaze without wavering, ready for anything.
“You locked me in,” I say. The man tilts his head to the side. The smile makes me uneasy. “The lady gave me forms and no pen. I’ve tried to yell.” He nods. There’s no break in the smiling. My throat is swollen. “How do you explain this?” The man tilts his head to the other side, like he’s examining a rare flower. He sits down and takes from his pocket a small notebook and an equally small pen, both red. He has the face of a superhero: glossy, with perfect angles.
“We’re sorry about the wait,” he says. He smoothes his eyebrows with an index finger. I look down at my wrinkled pants and sit, ironing my pant legs with my hands. I notice my smell, the smell of the room mixed with sour sweat, against his cologne. When I look up again his brows are knitted, a paternal frown of concern. “I’d like to ask you a few questions,” he says.
“I’ve been locked in here for days,” I say.
He looks at his watch. His face grows even more serious. It’s a careful deliberation. “Two hours at most,” he concludes.
I shake my head. “Much longer,” I say. I don’t own a watch. My eyes are red and stinging. I haven’t slept. My clothes stink. “I have proof,” I say.
“Now,” the man says again, “a few questions.” I look at the stool he is sitting on, strong wood, oak or maple, no nails visible. I think: This is the stool that carries the man…
“I need you to answer everything honestly, of course.” He smiles again, as if we have an understanding. “While at the same time, taking into consideration that every question I ask is of some import. Consider your answers carefully.”
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“Shall we begin?” He touches the bridge of his nose, pushing up invisible spectacles. The seriousness of the gesture frightens me. The man glances at the contents of my wallet, spread across the floor like a game of solitaire. As he bends to write, his tie swings back and forth across his lap. “Understand?” he smiles. The walls behind his head are unchanged, yellowing, peeling in places. The man seems out of place here. He’s much too healthy. “Understand?” he says again. I nod.
“Do you have parents?” he asks.
“No,” I say, “They’ve passed.” A scratch on the pad.
“Are they living?”
“I just said they’re dead.” Another scratch. This is the man who buried the cat who chased the mouse who lives in the house…
“Are you employed?”
I think of the bus again, the windows washed clean by rain. I’m looking out at the city. Two young men stand half on, half off the curb; one holds his hand to the other’s shoulder. They’re staring up at the skyscrapers, their necks craning. It is raining into their eyes. The tops of the buildings sway close together, closing in the sky. There must be a gate for the rain to enter through. When the light changes, the men open their umbrellas. Sewing machines on desks line the sidewalk, women and men hunched over needles, the cloth growing wet. The umbrellas pass them, sheltering each for seconds at a time. The girl on the bus has gone back to scribbling on herself, now with a pen. She hums.
The man makes a note. “What is your family history?”
At the front of the bus, a woman stands up and grips the metal pole, wobbling in her shoes. As she bends to lift her child, the bus lurches and she stumbles. The little boy laughs. The driver apologizes. The woman sighs heavily through her teeth, brakes releasing air. She walks off the bus, each step loud, the boy slung at her hip.
“Family history. Where you come from. Medical history. That sort of thing,” the man says.
“I’m trying to remember,” I say.
“Good, good.” The man’s lips are a line. He nods his head.
“We came here in order to build something,” I say.
“Of course,” the man says.
A foundation of mud and bricks. Pine split and shaved for beams. “My grandfather made his own house,” I say.
The man scribbles in his book.
My grandfather rode a horse, his feet were caked in dust. “He and his brothers raised up the sides, carved the supports.”
“Staked a claim too, I imagine.” The man smiles wistfully.
“Yes,” I say. “A claim for the land. You remember?” I have a photograph in a drawer. A house half-finished. Unmade beds under an open roof. Ohio? Idaho? Where was it?
“Do you mind if I continue?” he asks, writing as he speaks.
I look at the contents of my wallet on the floor. The man taps his pen against his thigh. “Now,” he says. “What do you want?”
“As I said before, be certain your answers are clear,”
Why did I come here?
Out the window, buildings blurred together in my peripheral vision, whites and greys and metallic lines. At the bus stop, blood rose to my cheeks. The rain overflowed in puddles at my feet, buoying the smallest things to the surface: scraps of paper, splinters and nails, a letter or two. But the old woman was long gone. She had marched off into the rain, victorious, her cart spilling scraps for me to follow.
“Yes?” I say.
“I came here to tell you something.”
I remember standing at the bus stop, looking down at the puddles. I remember leaving my apartment, my mind full of words. I was building an argument. I was readying my attack. Perhaps then it was concise, but now it has overtaken me, spread out in every direction. Standing on the bus, the open door letting in grey light, the odor of exhaust, an empty paper cup rolling back and forth across a bus stop bench. The slick granite steps. The woman who touched my hand accidentally as she opened the door to this room, history under her fingernails, rough hands built for work, a back that rises from its bent position at the end of the day in a wide muddy field. She stands and looks out at the horizon, blues and grays in fading light. The air smells of horses, sweet manure, rain in the dirt. Her boots sink in the mud. She holds a hand to her head to shield her eyes, though the sun has fallen. It is an old habit. She looks out into the distance; the fields stretch for miles. She turns and glances at me and then through me, to the house where her children are waiting. So many children. The future, she calls them. She doesn’t know what to do. Her hand has left a streak of dirt across her forehead. We walk carefully around the furrows. The old woman holds her skirts in her hands and I hold her arm to steady her. The house is almost two-dimensional in the distance; our feet are heavy with mud. She sings a song to pass the time, a thin lullaby. The tune is familiar.
Aurora Brackett lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she is a PhD fellow in fiction at University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Black Mountain Institute. She is a recipient of the 2013 Thomas Morton Memorial Prize in Literary Excellence, the San Francisco Browning Society’s Dramatic Monologue Award, the Wilner Award for Short Fiction, a nominee for The Pushcart Prize and a 2013 Sozopol Fiction Seminar Fellow. Her work has appeared in Nimrod Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, The Portland Review, Fourteen Hills and other magazines. She is currently fiction editor of Witness Magazine and was an associate editor of Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives published by Voice of Witness/McSweeney’s in 2010.