Since you ask, most days she cannot remember
by Lindsay Parnell
They spit in the old man’s face, shoving him into the stucco wall of the Korean grocery that sells ditch painkillers after midnight most nights. The old man is weeping, or maybe laughing, as his knees buckle, falling forward into a pathetic slouch. Tired moans escape from the lowest part of his belly and he’s hugging himself, crying or laughing and coughing, his skin suffocating underneath layers of tattered fabric, shit stained trousers, a hunting jacket three sizes too big. He’s swimming in the skin of strangers.
The empty bottle joins the others in the recycling bin with a sharp clank. She leans over the railing letting a track of dark saliva fall onto the pavement, two-stories below. Rita from the high-rise old folks home sucks on a Marlboro Red while dragging her blind Shih Tzu through the construction site across the street. The anorexic co-ed from around the corner jogs through a red light.
Pinching the stem of her glass she watches them, again. Themin the hooded sweatshirts, themsomebody’s sons senseless as sick dogs roaming the litter strewn city blocks for the conveniently weak, for the rotting. They are unprovoked and they are hungry, thrashing in daylight. They take turns in their drunken slaps, punches and stomps. In a warning for passersby, they invite gazes. Cowards with their daddies’ faces. Their full-toothed smiles will make them standout senators. Themunderneath her, themlike the others last week, themsomebody’s sons, they should have never been born had their mothers been brave.
This is the rot. She is silent and she is of it. Their mothers are somewhere and they are silent. Standing on the concrete slab of her south side balcony she knows they won’t find her perch or place her gaze. She pulls an empty wine bottle from the growing pile and lobs it towards them. It smashes in the intersection. They turn from the man’s motionless body with their slack jawed mouths hanging loose.
“—you at asshole? Show us your face, fucking faggot—”
She drains the glass into her throat before picking another empty bottle from the bin. With a side armed toss it sails in a clean arc and breaks at their feet. Shards of glass confetti coat the corner. She’s always had good aim.
“Do it again, faggot. Do it again—kill you, asshole,” the short one yells.
This time, smiling, she raises the glass hatchet of a depleted Merlot above her head and chops downwards. It spins then clips the short one hard enough to displace his balance. He topples over, kneeling like a good boy on a prayer rail, into the bed of shattered glass and she smiles still.
With an ache knotted in her lower back and the distant throbbing of her could-be womb, she pulls the freshly kissed cork its bottle. Wine rises above the streak of dried detergent staining the tumbler. She has her habits, never fumbles her rituals.
She sets the glass onto a stack of sealed mail and her pulse finds itself hidden behind her ribs. She read three of his handwritten monologues before she stopped reading, and before she stopped reading he wrote things like, “I know I want it all, I wish the sky would fall on me.” And his letters were like the stories he wrote—stories about boys who smoked joints and drank and went on chemical benders for days, boys who were bored with raves and boys who made fried breakfasts with a cigarette pinched between their teeth, boys who didn’t care if his girl left or not, if his girl died or not, boys who fucked girls who were bored but mistook it for sadness.
She tongues detergent then swallows. And when she lifts her gaze to the ceiling, the roof’s steep tilt taunts her. Each day the walls lean further inwards, exhausted, just waiting to fold, she’s sure of it. It will be the roof that goes first, collapsing underneath itself, and then the walls will fall like playing cards she’s sure of it. And she’ll be smothered in the building’s imploding skeleton, and she knows if she’s crushed she’ll be easily claimed in death—she has one of those faces. And she knows when she’s dead she’ll have the face she has now, the face of a dead girl.
And she knows when he’s dead he’ll still be pretty.
“Last time,” he said, with the plastic bag hanging from his wrist. With his free hand, he reached for hers. She lit a cigarette then shoved her empty hand into her coat pocket letting it collapse into a fist. He was blind in places.
His tenement housed students, insomniacs and drunks, the after dark derelicts. She tripped over the broken stoop, a nagging habit and she never learned because he always caught her.
The ceiling light flickered in faint beats. When she looked to the sharp slant of the ceiling, her head spun, nausea crept from her stomach to her throat. He let his jacket fall onto the floor joining paperback novels, uncapped pens and the overflowing ashtray of a left shoe filled with exhausted roaches. Grabbing two dirty tumblers from the windowsill, he smiled as he filled each glass until vodka lapped over its edge and pooled beneath it. The open collar of his plaid shirt fell limp to his shoulders. Her eyes settled on the skin between the top buttons, just below his throat, because it was an easy thing to do. She was many things but she was never blind.
Screams of rutting foxes echoed in the garden and cubs scratched at trashcans. She peered through his window while taking long pulls from her glass.
“The foxes are fucking,” he said.
“They’re so loud.”
“The only time you’re quiet is when I don’t want you to be,” he said.
She looked to the ceiling again. “This is the perfect spot to hang yourself. I hope I have the courage to die here—I couldn’t bear it anywhere else.”
“I hate it when you say things like that,” he said. “You shouldn’t speak that way. That’s a terrible thing to say. You’re not sick like that so why do you pretend to be?”
The light illuminated his stains: the cuts along his jaw and cheekbones from a drunken scrap at the park last weekend, welts on his forearms after falling through the pub doorway. He bruised easily. Sometimes she pitied him, but mostly she didn’t. And he had always been blind in places.
Sometimes he needed pills to sleep but he never swallowed them. She grabbed the orange bottle from his desk and shoved it into her pocket.
“Open your hand,” he said.
“Something’s missing,” he said, “last time—I mean it.” He sat on the unmade bed and lit a cigarette. Smoke leaked from his lips, dissipating before it met the ceiling. She ran her fingertips along the neck of his guitar.
“It’s out of tune,” he said.
“You make me feel foolish,” he said.
“Put on a record.”
“And you make me so tired,” he said, with spastic fingers anxious for each drag. “I wish I didn’t have to beg you to say things.”
“You said you didn’t like when I spoke like that.” She took the cigarette from his lips and placed it between her own. “Put on a record, why don’t you?”
“Yeah, things like before. I don’t like it when you say those types of things,” he said.
“What do you want me to say?”
“Say what you’re thinking,” he said.
“I wish the foxes would stop fucking.”
They chased spirits with cans of flat beer he nicked from underneath his flatmate’s bed. Then he told her everything he thought until his mind and mouth were empty. He thought too much, always. He kept busy, making plans to better himself, waiting for things to happen outside himself. But she was content, stagnant and simmering. Nothingness suited her, she welcomed silence and this was her sin.
“It won’t be me who goes mad,” he said, more than once. And through it all, she said nothing.
Then he said they should go to bed because that’s what was left. Out of habit she peeled the shirt from her body and pushed her tights, then skirt, to the floor.
“You should sleep in his room,” he said, “he’s gone for the night—his bed is empty.” He ground his sixth cigarette into the wall. It left a dark stain like the others and matched the ashy constellation branded into his pillowcase.
She emptied the last can into her throat then climbed into bed with him. He found her underneath the slanted ceiling and he never betrayed her, not once.
And she never left him until she did.
No one will look at the man’s body or his shit-stained trousers and oversized hunting jacket—even in daylight. No one saw anything, always. This is the rot.
She crosses the room, slides the door shut and locks the handle, separating herself from his bleeding and bloated face. He is invisible but he’ll never leave her.
Her hands seize softly as she fills the glass again, the track of detergent nearly absent. She fingers the edge of an unopened envelope then places it in-between the crisp pages of a novel she’ll never open. He wrote her letters until he didn’t. The sealed stack stopped growing three years ago when she stopped growing, when she bled again and when she bleeds she’s bored, and bored she’s a liar—when she’s a liar she’s lazy, playing God to pass the time. She allows him to exist, to be and breathe in her wake.
He’s still thin but has grown into himself. He’s the same but his hair is shorter on the sides, clipped cleanly to his skull. His glasses are different—they complement the angles of his face in a way that pleases her. He’s still thin but he’s grown into himself. He has a membership at an expensive fitness club. No more benders and no more bruises. He’s bettering himself.
Now, he’ll wear three-button blazers, tuck his shirt neatly into his pressed trousers and he won’t smoke anymore. He’ll be married in summer to the one he chose—but she won’t know the she he chose or when he chose the she he chose for some months because it’s better this way. But she knows it won’t be her, she’s sure of it.
Now he’ll have a proper job in an office, not a bar, with a view over Midtown, walks home underneath street lamps and through the steady pulse of traffic lights. He’ll move differently, with a quiet elegance he found in adulthood. It suits him.
He’ll transfer loose change from his pocket to his upturned palm and offer it to the homeless woman sitting outside of the bodega near his loft. He’ll do his part to cure the rot—he’ll look her in the eye and smile at her because it’s the decent thing to do. He won’t smoke anymore so he’ll keep his fists in his pockets, occasionally tracing the tip of their apartment key. His pale skin will sting, flush pink from windburn. Pulling the lapels of his coat tighter, he’ll breathe into the wool collar shielding his mouth. He will be silent.
She’ll be flat as tin—the one he chose will sit at their kitchen table, the one her mother bought them, every night when he returns and he will return every night without fail. Pursing her lips, she receives him every night because she is permanent, the icon he earned—the one who fills vases with wild flowers for breakfast and is surrounded by charity brochures and $700 cookware she’ll never use. Their wall of exposed brick swallows a working fireplace. The mantel holds birthday cards, shower invites and christening announcements. Their refrigerator is decorated with vacation photos of their summer in Split, their Christmas holiday in Turkey. They’ll eat each meal together and their weekends will be late evenings that bleed into lazy mornings of gentle and considerate fucking, fucking to breed and reading paperbacks, eating organic produce and napping on the terrace couch during the spring, phone calls to both sets of parents, and watching films with long forgotten actors who got fat after ditching speed.
It will suit him. It suits him. The high-rise buildings and cracked slab sidewalks with weeds pushing through them, and the filthy subway tokens and change of currency. Now, he’ll keep dollars pressed in the folds of his wallet. He doesn’t even smoke anymore. He drinks less but indulges for special occasions like holidays and birthdays and his wife doesn’t have a job because she’s too busy searching for poor kids to save and usually they queue for brunch on Sundays, ignoring the cast-iron pots of their kitchen. He’ll never remove his wedding ring because he’s a good man and he’ll never tire of Bochi-Ball in the park or riverside walks or how hard his cock gets now that it’s American.
When the tremors return to her hands she’s grateful for his absence, removed from his gaze. But she’s still wet knowing that she was a season and nothing more. Temporary, washed away until she played God and chose to bleed.
Now, her body is useless. He was unnamable but she prays for him anyways, every year on the day the walls lean further inwards. Today is the third prayer because praying seems like the decent thing to do—before it’s too late. He was nothing before he was nothing, silent before he tasted a breath. It’s best this way.
She swallows, the glass needs washing but she fills it again. Lighting a cigarette, she steps back onto the porch. The high-rise old folks home across the street swallows the block with its early evening shadow. She often forgets where she is and where she is not. Silent, she’s a lonely thing. “It won’t be me who goes mad,” he had said more that once and he was the decent one.
Leaning onto the railing, watching the broken traffic light beat with sporadic reds, they are as gone as they’ve ever been. His body still and unnamable. He is invisible.
When this is finished she’ll dial the police to report a murder.
Lindsay Parnell‘s short fiction has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Underground Voices, The Prague Revue and Black Heart. Her debut novel, DOGWOOD, is forthcoming from Linen Press in 2015. Additionally, she shares a birthday with eighth wonder of the world, Meryl Streep.