The sun. Well. What can he say about the sun that hasn’t been said already. He resists description and thinks instead of a relentless open mouth kiss. The humidity of it. The voluptuous pressure bowing him closer to the petunias he’s pruning. Hybrid. Black velvet. That sounds like a song, he thinks. A rolled newspaper smacks into the screen door. He hears a cat-call whistle, looks up to see golden tresses streaming off the bicycling paper girl who’s noticed he isn’t wearing any pants. It’s a dressing gown tied in front, hanging to mid-thigh when standing. He hadn’t considered its length when knelt over with a trowel. It isn’t made of anything impressive—cashmere or silk. It’s terrycloth and second-hand, the color of well-chewed bubble gum. And the tie is slipping.
He pushes his sunglasses further up the aqueduct of his nose, lets the robe open uncertainly. He likes the draft it allows. A sudden gasping thirst brings the watering can to his mouth. He gulps down half the sulfurous blend and the swelling tide of it in his stomach makes him heave over a patch of empty soil next to the petunias. I’ll plant some tulips here, bright coral ones.
A bright choral arrangement balladeers from a passing convertible enchanting his hands to flirt with dirt, trowel tossed aside. Burbling air, his fingers hear the arrangement again, convertible long past. He grunts. I play the piano. He observes with humor the obedience of his hands. I may even play well.
He pulls out a pack of cigarettes from his robe pocket, lights one, leans back in the grass with the slumped elegance of a fashion model, skeletal legs and sunken belly stretched out narrow as the shadow of a sundial. His dial should be hitting forty-five years old any month now, but he’ll have to be told this. Several times. And it won’t matter to him anyway. But falling asleep will. If he dozes now, he’ll roast into lobster red, he knows this. He can see uneven burn lines fractured across his body from some time before. Like that Nudist Distending a Stairwell, and takes another drag. Someday, he thinks, I could have a yard like this, live in a neighborhood like this one. Where news is wielded, and sprinklers tick and hiss away the afternoon, a chorus of occasional laughter in the distance. First, he’d have to figure out which neighborhood this is, then, years from now return, buy a small corner house—more ground for planting. He’d find a piano and throw dinner parties that carry on into scandalous hours. He sleeves his forehead and notices the terrycloth frosted in scarlet, looks over to his car parked in the shade of a nearby tree. The tree is pressing into the radiator, which is smoking. In fact, the tree is making its way into the central engine, an area he knows nothing about. There are one or two things left to do today. Maybe three. He’s just beginning to realize he won’t remember what they are.
There’s the matter of a flywheel buzzing in his chest, a tiny turbine standing valiant in a motionless field of sallow lung tissue exhausting his desire for anything but sleep. And it makes him wonder—if there isn’t a way to open up his chest like window shutters and reach in, hold it still. Jerk it out. He looks down into the opening robe at the bruises and claw marks haloing his lower ribs. Maybe he’s already tried.
There are one or two things left to do today. Maybe three. He’s just beginning to realize he won’t remember what they are. And stands, robe opening completely, cigarette limping from his mouth; decides to leave the trowel in the garden and not return it to the shed where he had chanced it. Walks past the rose bushes and chrysanthemums, the deep puncture of earth where he had found the petunias, dug them up. Opens the car door, collapses to the seat, pulls the lever to drop it back. The sun can’t kiss me here, and sucks on his lips, remembering the watering can. A slumber hovers over him sounding like Beethoven’s Moonscape Serenada. In silhouette of flowers crumbling across the ruptured dashboard, his hands rise above the steering wheel to play heavy uncluttered chords with astonishing ease.
He awakes in a coma of cerulean blue. Sheets, pillow, the kicked-off comforter. Listens to the hushed even scream of a shower insisting itself in another room. On the floor are two pairs of men’s trousers—khaki and black tuxedo. He recognizes neither. The window curtains are new, wedding-white, badly hemmed, bursting sunlight. He stands woozy and wobbles to the front door wrapped in a blue fitted sheet.
The heat outside is a torrid affair. Like breathing flesh, he thinks. I stand in another’s mouth; the pebbled porch step is a calcified tongue. He raises his arms to dive down what could be a flight of throat, bed sheet blooming behind like a cancerous tumor. “PARISTALTICATE ME MOTHER FUCKER” he cries across the morning serenity to the sun—a fearless uvula over the cul-de-sac. He spits a fist of solar-aimed saliva and hits a perfect bullseye.
Inside again he looks around the room. The boudoir—a wall closet standing guard to a double-twin mattress low on a box spring—is the left wing of the main room centering a butcher-block table and chairs and a wall of empty shelves behind which lurks a kitchen. There are no music books propped on the mudstone colored upright piano camouflaged in shadow facing the front door. And beside the front door is a Greek column of wood, a ledge hip-height, perfect to pageant a set of car keys. But no keys are there and he doesn’t think to reach for any. Above the stand is a chalkboard slashed with bone-white letters: NOON—BATHROOM CABINET. Once closing the cabinet and swallowing a second glass of water, he peeks behind the shower curtain.
Back in the living room he wants to put on an apron and clean. And he wants the apron to have ruffles, with that friendly pattern of two red cherries conjoined at the stems, one snug above the other like testicles. He looks in the pantry closet: ironing board, broom, dust pan, lightbulbs, orange hazmat suit. By now he’s realized the apartment doesn’t need cleaning. Though not without dust, it is unlived in. Politely desolate.
At the chalkboard he wonders at the handwriting and decides to rescript the words but hesitates which hand to reach. He writes with each, taking several minutes, every line and hump a dare upon dare. “How about me?” asks the first O, “Am I familiar?” “And how about me?” asks the fourth. Neither mimic matches the original. He wants to draw more. The floorboards’ varnish has long ago vanished and slats rise up like a drafting table as he kneels down with chalk, still cloaked in the sheet. Arcs and swirls curiously soothe until he’s tracing his hands, then his whole body. He stands to examine the outline, tilting his head, pouting his mouth. The lines are light, questioning, quivering. Having traced only the pressure of his flesh, the figure is smaller than his. He has drawn somebody else. He lies down beside it, retracing with firm attention. Now the contours are over-pronounced, blubbery, dumb-looking. Maybe he is somebody else. And he remembers the bandaids.
Days ago—was it only days—he had arrived back to this apartment—yes, it was this apartment—on the table top a pyramid of boxed bandaids, different sizes and shapes. That night he had used every bandage to tape on the floor a life-size likeness of his body, arms out prostrate, face embedded. He had fallen asleep to wake up hours later, his skin stuck to the gummy veneer, shoulders sore, hands numb. Peeled from the portrait, he was pocked with rectangular stamps, like burns. Like sunburns.
Now he traces his feet—prints not quite webbed, not quite articulated either. He crawls beneath the table where he means to trace himself again—himself—and settles on his back. On the underside of the table top the word TEN is written in marker. Probably warehouse-speak, but for a moment it looks like TED, and he thinks of his Uncle.
He had met him only once when he was eight at the funeral of his grandfather, the patriarch of both his father and Ted. Uncle Ted was a pilot, flew safaris in Africa. The brothers had had a rift, though over what he hadn’t known then and can’t remember now. Uncle Ted was a tall man who loomed like a bell tower resonating above everyone, his voice baritone and abrupt, deft at dismissing “the dialectic dysentery” of others, as he called it. None were spared.
As a boy, he had been agitated by the whole funeral affair. The weight of the rituals, the coldness between adults that seemed less like grief and more like boredom, loneliness. As if they were all loitering in the lobby at the end of a sold-out show, having missed it. The chapel was emptying, family one by one abducted through light beyond the foyer doors. He was still whining about whatever, loafing as the very last to leave when Uncle Ted turned on him gruffly, clutched his small face in his broad suntanned hand and leaning down, kissed him full on the mouth. Several heartbeats later Uncle Ted pulled away, glaring. “Now shut up.” Then turned and boarded the blinding light.
He had nearly swooned as a child then in the vestibule, and nearly swoons now in remembrance. Below the table, pulling up the meager sheet, surrendering to sleep, he recalls the smell of him. Bourbon, cigar smoke, the pages of a rare used book—tannic with intelligence, sour with secrets. And a hint of talcum baby powder.
“Dude, let’s chase those kids!” Someone snickers. “Let’s scare them shitless!” These must be buddies from college. It feels like college. In their old Buick, the upholstery smells like so many other Saturday nights wagered in bets and blasphemy and black-tipped cigarettes. It’s one of their parents’ homes, the folks on holiday. The house, retired and mono-mahogany, sits like a brick of mud measuring itself against the night with a rope of daffodils snaking its perimeter, their hopeful yellow ashed in sleep.
At the neighborhood intersection is a half-dozen children playing catch-football under a tall streetlamp casting over them an arachnid web of light. The wrong song is playing on the car radio, making him impatient. The Buick swings into the driveway and halts, engine exhaling. And for an instant the whole night hesitates. He sees their academic faces indistinct, a plot of headstones in a photograph. His mind clicks the flash. All doors clack open and they buckshot into the street with the relish of a well-paid mafia. The best at pool fronts as cue, the rest as follow-through, breaking apart the billiards of kids. He veers behind the smallest, a girl in loose boy clothes and matted hair. She sprints him up the block, her strides five times his to stay ahead, both blindfolded by darkness. And it’s now that he realizes how unprepared he is for joy, how painful that can be—the face flexing as one muscle, the catapulted heart, the gibberish brain, the mayhem. The terror in her squeals staccato as she turns to glimpse him, gasping euphoric when she turns back. The sound of her pulls a ripcord of bubbles through his spine, shimmering his bones with pleasure and an urgent guilt to wonder, What if I catch her. She hitches a sharp left through an armoire of honeysuckle as he stands huffing and puffing with an idiot grin.
He awakens to the ultimatum of drums.
Snapping upright with mouse trap intent, he clunks his head on the table top, falls back in surprise. The drums lead from his forehead and get lost somewhere in his chest. The word TEN stares at him in countdown. He drags himself from dreaming, dresses with anticipation.
Outside, humidity is still as pressing and perverse as body heat, but a river of breeze moves the fever enough to breathe. It is already night. His cramped, hard sole shoes make the drumroll, popping pavement as he remembers the extract: Van Gogh was a formidable walker. He could walk with this borrowed confidence all night, and perhaps has—his heart pulsing in fresh blisters on his feet. Past bodegas and caged shops, past butcher shop windows with pendulous legs of peeling meat, past a neon night club with rows of boys posing in cut-offs and lipgloss and aerodynamic desire calling to him. He swerves to the street. From the club’s open door a woman’s voice heavy and sweet smogs the avenue. Vowels… on this he meditates—their ambrosial delay of consonants, opening wide the mouth for what it can only hope at.
He thumps deeper into the domestic, past colossus homes asleep in their opulence, the corridor of tremendous elm trees out-doing them. A contusion of night colors spring off car windows, through leaves and swim like Northern Lights up his pale khakis and white t-shirt, rippling his arms aquatic. His hands slither up his body and he wonders if he has ever touched himself like this before.
He’s unaware there is an indifference in him so deep it will be mistaken as understanding, for it needs no conversion, seeks no argument. It will be mistaken as strength and swagger. It will be conspiracy, he will be dreaded. He volunteers his solemn face to the sky. Tonight he is an offering, come what may. Tonight he is a deep lagoon of a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y; he is purple and dark turquoise and aquamarine. And for now there is nothing to wish, nothing to correct, nothing to account for. He needs no witness, believes nothing needs him as witness either. He dances like a phantom, like a fool.
The propeller thwacks in his chest, skewering what must be his ribs. He crumples to the ground, face scraping concrete. The abrasion feels good, so he drags his face further down the residential road, tearing open more skin.
“NO ONE WAS SUPPOSED TO GET HURT” he shrieks, forgetting the words as soon as they hit air.
Kat Mandeville graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and is finishing her PhD in Philosophy & Critical Thought at the European Graduate School. She has published two books of poetry, with various poems published in various journals. She lives in New York City.