Untitled (2004), by Katherine Wolkoff. Courtesy of the Sasha Wolf Gallery
By Antonya Nelson
“What is it saying?”
“What is what saying?”
“That annoying bird, hear it?”
She’d been awake a long time waiting for him. Finally she could not help herself and began talking—just like the bird, unable to keep still—and the man beside her propped himself up—a wave of his warm naked scent passed over Angela, replete, arousing. Between them swayed the metal dog tag hanging from his neck. It informed anyone who knew or wished to consult it that he was an epileptic. His first sexual experience, Angela remembered suddenly from last night’s scattershot conversation, had ended in a seizure. “I don’t know you well enough yet to tell you how much of a mess that made of my life,” he’d added.
Yet, Angela had tucked away. A little word like a vault in which she’d begun to invest far too much. She was hungry, he’d offered a morsel.
The bird went at it again, a plaintive lone voice in the icy air, no doubt an ugly sturdy bird, the winter type. The man, whom Angela had met only eight hours earlier, said, “He’s calling for a mate. Wanna fuck? Wanna fuck? Wanna fuck?” Apparently his beard, had he allowed it, would have blended with his chest hair, from lip to navel a full hair suit. Was that where the word hirsute came from?
“Any port in a storm, you’re saying.”
“Come here! Come here! Come here!”
“Come here,” Angela said shyly.
“You come here.”
He threw himself over her, his chest abruptly at her chin, his muscled legs thrillingly on either side of her like a sprung trap. She’d missed the rabbity ways of men, with their hard thighs and long feet. “Um, this is a canopy bed?” he murmured into her ear, nipping in a way that made her close her eyes. “And? You still have dolls, who are watching us.”
“Those are my sister’s.” But she had no sister, only a brother. Owen. Had Owen gotten rid of any of her dolls? She could detect no obvious absences, that pantheon made of birthday gifts, a collection Angela had had bestowed—forced!—upon her over decades, everyone certain she must love dolls. She recalled no particular affection for them, no desire to dress or hug or practice motherhood on them. These dolls instead stood on their shelf, prim audience, perfectly arranged, clear chilly eyes perennially smacked wide open.
Beside the bed the baby monitor flashed, as it had been doing all night, a blue light racing up and down to accompany the sounds: breathing, snoring, faint clicking, the mewl of one or another of the cats. If Angela held it to her ear she would also hear the ticking of the mantel clock. These new monitors! So much more sophisticated than those of yore. Nineteen years ago, when last she’d tuned into one, the monitor would occasionally pick up the cell phone call of some stranger in a passing car, some weird adult voice suddenly blaring from the baby’s room.
“Check it, we didn’t finish our wine.” On the bedside table beside the monitor were the red Solo cups, smuggled from the bar. “Half-full,” noted Angela. “I must be an optimist.”
“Or a lightweight,” said he. “Give me that, it’s hair of the dog o’clock. Today I’m an optimist, too, why not? And hell, maybe it’s two birds, and they’re talking?”
“That’s a sweet thought.”
“Hey, I’m a sweet guy.”
She took herself to the bathroom now, to get away from that statement, which didn’t please her. What had pleased her last night was the opposite, the way he didn’t make eye contact or use familiar flattering pick-up lines, that he tended to talk under his breath so that she had to lean toward him and say, “What?” again and again, which led to his putting his mouth at her ear to repeat himself, which led to her kissing him, there at the bar and then again on the dance floor, such as it was, at Dick’s Tavern, a small cleared area en route to the back wall where the broken electronic games were stacked dangerously high, cords dangling, a space lit by the red word exit over the emergency fire escape, some awful slow song to which they both knew all the lyrics.
Who was he, anyway? In the bathroom mirror, Angela’s cheeks were chapped. There was a suspicious mouth-shaped mark on her neck, she hadn’t had one of these since high school. Maybe she’d made a matching mark? She ran warm water on a washcloth and held it between her legs, the damp heat radiant, pulsing. When she closed her eyes she swooned, hungover, dizzy, back somehow in the world.
“I’m sore,” she told him when she returned, “but I still want you.”
“Please sir,” he said in a British falsetto, “I want some moooor.” That was better, that was what had brought them together in the first place, their shared stockpile of quotations, the junk of their generation, the way they’d made each other laugh, the way they’d grown close so quickly over Dick’s Tavern’s extremely bad wine, purple in color, served in plastic.
Outside the bird kept it up, calling, pleading, keening it sounded like to Angela, not cheerful nor demanding, but miserable, lonely, it was the soundtrack to her hometown. Wichita, in winter. Where everything out there looked like it was in black and white. Her father, when he was alive, would cite statistics insisting the sky was blue more often than not but Angela didn’t buy it. Everything seemed the color of dirty snow, gritty run-over gutter slush, the monochromatic concrete hue of grain elevators and clouds.
“Angie,” the man was now singing gruffly, “you’re beautiful,” moving down her face and chest with his rough stubbled chin, murmuring into her bare abdomen whatever came next. It’d been so long since she’d encountered a man’s teeth, tongue, nakedness. Last night was New Year’s Eve: surely she deserved to sort of celebrate? They’d met at the neighborhood pub, Angela having pledged to get out of the house at least once every day, every day a modest trek, a destination of no more than twenty minutes, the length of time she could almost guiltlessly exit, brief freedom. Sometimes she ran—as fast as she could, to her old high school and back, to her old junior high, to her old elementary—and sometimes she carried bags (groceries, Christmas gifts, dry cleaning, wine bottles, wine bottles, wine bottles). Errands, exercise, escape.
But she’d spent more than twenty minutes at Dick’s Tavern, many more than twenty. She’d been testing the baby monitor, holding it to her ear, it worked until the end of the block, halfway across the street, then not, fizzing static. On the way home, with this stranger, she’d picked up the signal again, the blue light suddenly glowing from her coat pocket, he’d been drunk enough not to notice what, exactly, she was doing with a white appliance at her ear. He’d been in no condition to drive; she lived nearby; ergo.
“Remind me,” he said now, “how long you’ve been divorced?”
Was he assuming, or had she told him? Once again she reminded herself to take notes when she drank, to carry a little pad and pen for that purpose. “Seven years. How about you? I mean, is it divorce, with you?”
“Future tense divorce. Like, probably. I told you about my wife and her boyfriend? Boyfriends, plural? And you made me put my feelings on a pie graph?”
“I did? God, I’m sorry. That sounds sorta presumptuous.”
“Homicidal was one of them, I’m pretty sure that’s over the top, but no, it was good, I tend to get ridiculously maudlin about her, especially when I’m in my cups. I can be obsessive on the topic, tedious even. It was really nice. Of you.” He held her closer, shy, sincere. Something about him said he wanted tenderness as much as he did sex. Or that was what Angela hoped. “You said your husband got right back in the saddle, married again lickety split, with like three children? Bang bang bang?”
“Yep.” Her ex-husband’s little boys—six, four, two—more to come, for all she knew. What else had she revealed to the naked man in her bed? This—precisely this—was why she should never have started drinking again.
“Wait here,” he said, giving her a small bite on the spot where he’d marked her. He visited the bathroom, she heard the chuckle of the ancient toilet, the familiar rushing wash. This house and its sounds! The heavy doors which when slammed set off a trickling in the walls of plaster, meanwhile the resonant after-hum, radiating anger. Alternatively, the gentle insistence of the wound clocks, none synchronized, all announcing the hours from their various corners, it was noon on the living room mantel a few minutes before it was noon on the kitchen shelf, noon in the study on the bookcase was a ditzy high-pitched set of pings from a hysteric porcelain model, something castrato or cartoonish about it. The handmade grandfather clock was old and slow as its now-dead maker, Angela’s father, late to the time, always with the last, solemn yet wrong, word.
Those clocks went unwound these days, those remaining. Owen had sold a few, their missing faces in the halls and on the walls still startling to Angela. All through the house all through her childhood she’d found the comfort of human watchfulness—in the wallpaper, in the drapes, in the looming abstract art, in the doorknobs. The doorknob, for instance, of her own room. “Lookit,” she had said to the man in her bed, whose fingers had been lazily plucking at her ribs, the two of them drunk and sticky, the lamp casting strange shadows. She’d pointed out the bulbous nose handle in the doorknob’s center, the two screw-plate screws that made eyes, and the scandalized keyhole mouth, always in its prissy aspect of “Oh my!”
She remembered that part, anyway, the intersection of dehydration and desire. The urge to stop, the urge to never stop.
Upon return from the bathroom he inquired as to the whereabouts of the tub, it looked strange in there with the drain and supply lines sticking out of the floor. Angela missed that tub herself, her brother was a shower man, he’d thought nothing of selling the giant claw foot article, color faint pink, for about a thousand bucks.
That had been Owen’s last chore, coming here to mine from their old home whatever treasure he could, stripping brass fixtures and glass pulls, selling stemware and vases and paintings and furniture, the house was huge and formerly grand, languishing in a neighborhood that would raze it when the time came, in its place a Popeyes or Cash for Gold! Every room to a different degree dismantled, a little as if vandalized, Angela had thought upon her return. Or as if clearing space for an event, a ball. The missing dining room table, for instance. Its twelve chairs. The china from the built-in, which only remained by virtue of built-inness. Her brother was relentless. Thorough. Married and father of two, his affections, his sentiments, his soft spots for objects and family, and family objects, had been transferred. You couldn’t go around caring for everything. He’d said something like that to Angela, admonishing her, his big sister. “Be realistic,” he’d said, laughing as if it were both easy to do and obviously correct.
“I’m going to name you Resolution,” she said now. “It’s not a very good pet name but it’s specific. Rez, for short.”
“Happy New Year,” he said. “I’m gonna call you Doll.” He flung back the comforter and made his way with his tongue down her throat, ribs, navel to lay his cheek on her aching pubis. The ache made her feel full, vital, sad.
“Does your head hurt as much as mine does?” He’d said his name was Charles, hadn’t he? And when the bartender had called him Chuck, he’d corrected him, right? And there’d been a woman there, one of a group of younger women at a table, who’d called him doctor something. “What kind of doctor are you?” Angela asked, stroking his hair, massaging his temples, attending to both his breath on her thigh and the breathing on the monitor. In and out, steady yet tenuous, so tenuous. The hard warm skull beneath the hair, the mysterious mind inside it. “Are you the kind of doctor who shouldn’t have been out getting wasted? ‘On call,’ as they say?”
“No, that’d be bad, but maybe you’re going to think the truth is worse?” he said. “I’m not a medical type doctor but doctor of philosophy type doctor, university type. In fact, worst of all actually, community college type. Egads,” he added, raising his chin to check her expression. He had long eyelashes, for a man.
“I think that’s way better than the medical type,” she told him. “Seriously.” Her ex-husband had been a medical type doctor. Still was, over in Wyandotte County on a lake with his second wife, who was also a medical type doctor, and their little boys. In her mind, she always saw swans on that lake in Wyandotte County, two beautiful white swans sailing along stretching their necks, effortlessly stunning, pumping synchronized through the water, twining their lovely throats into heart-shaped shapes.
She said, “I don’t like that it’s called ‘making love,’ do you? It sounds precious. Not to mention impossible. Make? Love? It’s like a whattayacallit, oxymoron.”
“Well what do you prefer?” He stretched himself against her, his mouth abruptly over hers, preventing a quick response. “Well?” he said again, in a minute.
“I don’t know, ‘fucking’ sounds bad, to me, too, for the opposite reason, like it’s angry or random or on a metal table or something.”
“Forni-cate. Procre-ate. Copu-late.”
“Those are things Billy Graham does, although they sound lots better when you say them in my ear like that.”
“In that case, I’m going to count to ten in German, it’s very sexy, just you listen, Missy.” And then a string of sizzling nonsense, some ticklish expectoration, ensued. He pushed inside her and she laughed him out, but he returned and stayed, and stayed. They’d lined their bodies up and joined them, top to bottom, her feet on his feet, pushing into one another as if to close gaps. If they kept their foreheads together, would they think the same thoughts, seeing as how the rest so perfectly matched? Behind her the headboard banged against the wall, had probably banged against the wall last night, unnoticed by them.
Didn’t it mean something that they came at the same moment? In her experience, and not enough of it, this was the kind of thing that led to her falling in love far too fast, for the wrong ultimate reasons, some belief in her body, in magic, in romance and romantic thinking.
“You’re afraid of love,” her little brother had declared. “Real love.” How had he grown so confident? So smug and self-helpy? These were the words of his wife, Angela had decided, the assured insight of a discussion, of debated analysis. That she was the subject of this intelligence was horrifying, humiliating. “No offense,” Owen had then said, guaranteeing she’d be offended, “but you should have had another baby. You should have forged ahead and tried again. You got stalled in grief.”
She and Owen had been close—as children, they’d shared bunk beds in this crazy huge house when they could have each occupied a whole separate wing, lain in those stacked beds talking intimately into the dark about everything! In later years they’d hid together on the roof, gone on long therapeutic car rides, summoned one another over the phone in the bleakest bleak hours—but no more. Clearly she could not count on him to keep her confidences, to truly listen. To care for her unfailingly, to love her no matter what. No Matter What.
One by one her family had left her, left this house, this life, her side. Owen was just the latest.
Still, Owen’s opinion of her was preferable to her ex-husband’s. Her ex-husband felt sorry for her, and guilty about wanting to leave her, plus he was a physician with the habit of administering aid. An ugly cocktail. He’d hung on, he said, as long as he could. He’d done, he said, as much as was humanly possible. “I’m not responsible,” he told her, in the end. “I can’t keep on pretending. You’ve got to get help, Ange. I can’t stay and watch you self-destruct, I’m not going to martyr myself any longer.”
Neither her brother nor her ex-husband was exactly wrong about her, but the fact that they knew? That in each case she had been diagnosed by them and then somehow thereby dispensed with? Put away out of sight, out of mind? Was sort of unbearable.
“Angela?” said the monitor, faintly.
“Holy fuck!” said the man beside her, “What was that?”
“Hang on a sec,” she whispered, as if the monitor were two-way and could hear them.
Her mother was not in her bed but in her bathroom, sitting naked on the toilet, which was closed. Smiling wanly, her eyes shiny, which meant she was either en route to or fully under the influence of a spell. “What’s going on?” Angela asked, alarmed, yet returning the smile, suddenly aware of a pool of pink fluid on the floor, there on the tile and in the grout, being smeared about by her mother’s circling foot, blood, urine, water.
“Oh it’s another fine mess,” she reported cheerfully. Her garments had trailed her into the bathroom, rubber-soled socks, penguin pajama top, scottie dog pajama bottom, sodden adult diaper. In her left hand nail clippers. Another object to confiscate and hide away.
“You’re right handed, Mom,” Angela told her, taking the scissors.
“A fine mess. Fine mess. Fine. . .” Her toenails looked painfully ragged, yet what Angela more powerfully felt was the warm feet of the man in her bed, those toes hooked beneath her own, pressing. She wanted to get back to him, to fix this interruption swiftly. “Fine mess find mess fondness. . .” Her mother in these spells became, like a child, pleased to locate and string together and then sing the funny, pure, nonsense sounds. No concept of time, of decency, of others.
“Come on, open up, here’s your meds.” Her mother studied the blue and yellow and white pills in her palm, picking at them, turning them over. Angela guided them one by one into her mouth, held a lidded tumbler to her lips and tipped it up, wiped the overflow with her knuckle.
Yes, the very old became like the very young, everyone commented upon it, the entrance into and exit from this world remarkably similar—the innocence and vulnerability and stubbornness, the diapers and the wardrobe that was first and foremost comfortable but also without fine-motor-skill buttons or zippers or laces—forgiving elastic, gross-motor Velcro—and the bland food preferences, soft concoctions served with a spoon, in bite-size portions, sometimes with assistance, with cajoling, a bib, side of milk. The chalky cloying comfort of milk, the word alone vaguely gagging. The constant concern about falling. The treacherous stairs! The adjustments made to the home to prevent accidents, those special implements for safety, grab bars and shower stools and walkers. Down to the non-functional replicas of real things, the toys, the fake checkbook on which she could write checks, undiscerning any longer, moved to tears by the photographs of beaten chimps and disfigured children and desiccated forests. Pledging with all her heart the hopeful ludicrous figures. If not for the perfect Palmer script, the recipient could easily believe the checks had been sent by a child. Make believe.
Scissors, knives, matches, toxic substances beneath the sink.
But mostly she was not to bathe alone. Apparently that had been this morning’s notion.
“Everything is dirty,” her mother said. “Dirty. It’s dirty.” This word she repeated now for a full minute, her expression resigned and not unhappy about it, fully accepting. Angela knew enough about toddlers to know it was pointless to argue.
“How about I wipe you with some wipes?” One of those pills was designed to cancel the crazy. Angela hoped it would work before the man in her room came to his senses. Came to his senses and tiptoed as he went away. . .
One of the perpetual orange cats wandered into the bathroom, slithering around the walker’s legs, gravitating toward the puddle of pink liquid, pinching its face to lap furiously. “Here’s Gussy,” Angela said, using a powder-smelling wipe at her mother’s shoulder, hoping that would be enough to convince her she was no longer dirty.
“No,” her mother said, recoiling, swatting at the wipe, grabbing Angela’s hand meanwhile tipping precariously on the toilet lid toward the floor. “Hurts,” she said, suddenly in tears. The cat shot out of the room.
“How can it hurt? I’m hardly touching you!” Angela realized she’d gripped her mother’s bicep firmly enough to have left an imprint. “I’m sorry but you were falling.”
“Hurts. Hurts. Hurts.” She rocked on the seat now, pouting. Angela sighed, returning in her mind to that other naked body in the house, her hand moving to her neck, to that mark her mother was currently incapable of noting. Would he stay?
“What do you want me to do?” she asked.
“Take a bath,” her mother replied, “take a bath. Bath. Bat. Bat. Batterbatterbatter. Better. Better. Woodpecker. Wood pecker.” She stopped and they both listened, but there wasn’t a woodpecker. Perhaps that bed frame, down in the north wing, earlier banging against the wall, had brought up the woodpecker. Her mother’s eyes, in which a surgical procedure had left odd prism-like centers, were now faintly bratty. She was looking nowhere, mischievous, as if she’d caught wind of something.
Angela remembered the monitor, then. The man in her room, if he were still there, was listening. Horrified, she reviewed—hurts, hurts, hurts—then wondered what sort of person she wished he would hear? With a voice she hoped seemed husky and willing, she said, “OK, sure, a bath, that sounds great.” In this, the master suite, nothing had yet been removed or sold. “You hang onto the bar, and I’ll start the tub.” Angela slapped down the rubber mat and turned on the faucets full force.
“Woodpecker woodpecker woodpecker wood peck peck peck.”
Her mother’s episodes had been described to Angela before she arrived. They came and went, she was assured by The Help, the group of black women on eight-hour shifts who, when Angela or Owen weren’t visiting, took care of their mother. “It’s like she’s kinda drunk or something,” explained one. “Or like somebody tripping? Just looking at whatever, going ‘wow, man!’” Those women indulged the spells, carried around the monitor, distributed the pills, called their charge Ma’am or Shug or Dear. They wore scrubs, made use of latex gloves. During the first episode Angela witnessed, her mother had mistaken her for one of The Help. “You’re good at your job,” she’d praised her, a more pleasant person to The Help than she was, generally, to Angela. “Your job, your job job job job shop shop shop. . .”
Angela was not her mother’s favorite. That would be Owen, her mother’s beloved boy, her baby. And, by extension, his children, those very good teenagers he’d brought to Wichita for Thanksgiving, which he served with great pomp and circumstance in the kitchen, Angela had heard all about it, endlessly. Owen’s wife was Jewish, which left the long Christmas holiday for Angela. Angela, who had none of her brother’s charm or props to supply, none of the loving carte blanche to receive. She’d shown up with a small tree acquired at the local grocery, installing it on her mother’s dresser. Those cold empty rooms downstairs, upstairs, were now unused cavernous spaces, their contents being sold to help finance their mother’s last wish, to remain here with The Help until the end. Angela had arrived full of jolly resolve, full of sunny southern California, and then felt it drain away, day by day, the relentless weather outside, the slow motion inside, the brutal dictates of pills and dementia and diminishment.
Her mother’s mantel clock chimed the half-hour. Was he there, listening? And wait a minute, wasn’t that Rolling Stones song’s next line kind of ominous, foretelling heartache? Angie, you’re beautiful, but ain’t it time we said goodbye?
“Come on, Mom, up and at ’em, let me help. Mom?”
“Mom mom mom mom ma ma ma ma. . .” Her mother was trying to stand, clutching not at the grab bar but at the flimsy towel rack, which popped out of its holders and clattered to the floor, and next to her walker, but from the wrong side.
“Wait!” Unlike The Help, Angela wasn’t strong enough to lift her mother, only to take the position one of them had shown her: not in front, pulling the hands, but from behind, embracing, wrapping her arms around the chest and guiding her mother’s motions with her own, pushing with her thighs to encourage walking, momentum.
But the floor was slick, and neither of them was steady. They dropped backward together, Angela first, hardest, her mother atop her, laughing. Angela had hit her head on the toilet tank, her cheek on the lid proper, and her tailbone on the tile. A ring of sparkling stars now began circling her vision, a ring that could, she believed, grow thick with starry others, she and her mother could plausibly occupy the same woozy place, it would not do for her to pass out, who would, then, be in charge?
“Ma ma ma ma,” sang her mother.
So like a baby, that sound. When he died, Angela’s son had only a few words for what he wanted. Mama, kitty, baba—by which he meant a thing for his mouth: pacifier, bottle, breast. Had he lived, he would be nearly twenty. When she saw the younger men at the bar last night, she had the thought she always did when encountering a boy at whatever age her son had not reached, that he would have been one of them, Cody at nearly twenty, proudly producing his fake ID on New Year’s Eve at Dick’s Tavern in Wichita, Kansas. Escaping crazy Grandma’s house, slamming shots, staggering to the car of a friend, a cousin, a stranger, laughing, vomiting, crass, ordinary. Utterly fine and ordinary. There had been times Angela had passed through either his birth- or death-day without noticing. What good would it do, had it done, to notice? Didn’t she notice his absence, in fact, many more days in the year than not?
Because long ago she’d had to be talked out of an abortion by her husband, Angela occasionally allowed the knife-like thought into her head that she had been justly punished. Wanting to get rid of her baby had made the universe respond. Merely to let her know what it thought of her. Not much, she understood, not much at all.
“Charles!” she shouted from the floor, a sort of dimness crawling in around her. “Charles! Charles! Charles!”
“Charles!” her mother agreed, changing her tune. She repeated his name enthusiastically.
Here Angela was again, about to black out, it wasn’t lost on her that she did this regularly, nightly, so she should be accustomed. For many years she’d been more or less sober but so what? Her husband had kept her in line, once upon a time; when she’d come home to Wichita, her mother and father were paying attention, asking questions. The not drinking was paramount and their policing was unflinching, critical and frightened, respectively, as always, scolding and protecting this difficult wife, daughter of theirs, a project perhaps destined never to be satisfactorily done.
But when her father died, last year, Angela saw no reason not to begin drinking again. And if it hadn’t been then? It’d certainly be now.
There wasn’t going to be another baby, after all. She wasn’t going to be drunk with a baby at the seashore again, was she?
The baby drowned, the baby drowned, the baby drowned.
What more was there to say? She couldn’t say it when she had had to, a 911 recording somewhere in San Diego logged from Coronado Beach of her shouting repeatedly “drownded drownded drownded!”
“Look out! Look out! Look out!” the black winter bird might have been warning, while, at Angela’s ex-husband’s house, over in Wyandotte County? A high, emphatically locked fence between his other sons in the back yard—its swing-set, teeter-totter, jungle gym—and that beautiful swan-graced lake.
“Hey,” the stranger said, “Hey? Hey!” He first turned off the roaring water, next knelt beside her, his dog tag once more swinging between them. He was going to tell her his messy secret about epilepsy and sex, she would hear it, she was pretty sure. “Hey, I’m sorry,” he said, “but I couldn’t figure out which was the right room, this is a big-ass place. And I thought, you know, I might ought to put on some pants. . . ?”
Angela’s mother sat beside the tub with her arm stretched along the rim, smiling placidly, legs splayed out like a doll’s, face rosy in the room’s steam.
“As you can see,” Angela said, clearing her throat, “it’s pretty pants-optional around here.”
“Pants,” said her mother, looking gamely at the man, flicking water into the air. “Pants pants pants underpants underpants ants. . .”
Angela would never forget this moment, the dimness receding, the stars ceasing their whirling, her heartbeat calming, introducing him to her mother, the future to the past.
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