My mom recently suggested to me that I write a short story based on a time in my life and housing situation that was particularly weird, even by my standards. At the time, I was hesitant, pointing out that I didn’t see what kind of narrative could come of it, and not wanting to write a simple “slice-of-life” piece. However, I was surprised to find that the idea stuck with me; I kept turning it around in my mind and eventually realized ways that I could transform a set of amusing but shallow anecdotes into a meaningful story. And for the most part, the meaning of this story is genuine– that is, it charts changes and reactions that I actually experienced. The roommates in the story and their interactions with me are also almost entirely factual. In other areas, I’ve taken many liberties, so it should be made clear that this is a work of fiction and not just a weirdly stream-of-consciousness blog post; I hope that on those terms, as a creative narrative, it proves more interesting than simply hearing about that crazy house some person used to live in years ago.
I’d been offered the choice of the room with wood flooring, or the one with carpeting. The wood floor seemed easier to keep clean and easier to roll a chair on. The house was quiet at first, except for the low hum of the basement dryer shaking my feet. I stared at the dust motes floating in the skewed window-shaped sunlight. A daylight space sized for a cat, if I had been a cat.
Cats never get bored, husband had said, because they know they’re badass. A cat doesn’t feel guilty for sleeping. They’re carnivores, I responded. Their metabolism requires them to sleep to conserve energy.
Half the room was occupied by the heap of pillows and duvets, an elasticized sheet curled around it as if to designate it a bed. The mattress springs had screwed their way to the surface until the floor seemed a luxury. I leaned it, the mattress, against the wall. Naked, it revealed enormous Rorschach-esque stains of origin immemorial. Husband rolled himself in the spare bedding up to his eyeballs and snored like a death rattle during the living hours. He’d get up when the computer screen was glowing blue on his back and stumble to the shower without his glasses, fumble for his packed lunch on our shelf of the fridge.
Can you type quieter, he slurred, not a question. I lifted the keyboard off my lap and went to the toilet and sat on it forgetting why.
In the morning I’d walk to the supermarket with my hood tied around my chin, and pay for ten pound sacks of potatoes and dumbbell cans of vegetable juice before remembering the return journey. The wet sky had fallen to the pavement, illumined by the sickly, immaculate disc of an unused yellow condom. The bottle-blond hypochondriac had tried insisting on driving me. I can walk, I said. I like to walk.
By the time I got back she’d be gone to some sort of job that changed often, resurfacing in the afterschool hours to drink melon balls and watch Hallmark movies with the kids. I sat on the couch for a few minutes and tried to piece together the plot, while next to me the son’s girlfriend absent-mindedly yanked off her boyfriend under the crochet blanket.
As I was about to abandon the man dying of the gay cancer and read in the dark, a scalding plastic plate got thrust onto my lap. White noodles glued together by white sauce like papier-mâché. Fettucine alfredo, she announced generously.
I’m sorry, I’m lactose intolerant.
Oh honey, it’s just Velveeta, it’s not real.
My cocktail then was The Vodka Still Works. It didn’t work very well anymore, but there was the comforting, dwindling hope of finding a buzz. Somewhere along the line I’d forgotten how to write on a page. The words sat there looking sorry for themselves. I didn’t blame them, I was sorry for them too. I tried different pens. None of them worked either. I dissected the margins with plane geometry and jotted down erroneous six-words. You were supposed to sum up yourself or your life or something. I’d seen a contest, but it was long over, probably. His middle name is not AIDS, I wrote in homage to the Hallmark movie. Her middle name is not antidisestablishmentarianism. To be or not to be. Misogynist baker kills and bakes girlfriend. Totalitarian barber detains, shaves disloyal customers. Six words is not very many.
The invisible landlord’s son was setting off the smoke alarm making cheese sandwiches in the toaster when the cops knocked on the door and he went out with wrists crossed, ready to get cuffed. If there was a reason, no one seemed to care, or maybe I wasn’t listening. He was a skate punk and a pothead and probably a petty thief, any of which was reason enough anyhow.
Don’t be pu’in your feet on that counter, said the old man. Use the ladder.
I didn’t say anything. He’d left his popups open and horny housewives with free webcams were parading their wares across the PC screen. I was too embarrassed for him to say what I should have. I just hopped down and left the electrodes of the alarm dangling batteryless, mute, waiting for a mental patient perhaps. Or maybe it was the patient, circuit lobotomized, unable to scream any more.
I wasn’t sleeping; twilight swarmed around me, clocks without numbers, voices without sounds. The deluded poseur bed was sweaty and cramped with husband in it, and too empty at night. The vodka still wasn’t working anyhow. Neither were the pens, and the manic depressive wasn’t taking his meds and was bursting forth on the hour to ask me to look things up on the Encyclopedia Brittanica or admire where he’d cut his thumb open trying to alter his curtains with a jackknife.
Dust wildebeests gathered in herds around the static of the electronics, stragglers trailing across the frigid floor. I put down a rug; the rubber backing was rubbed off and it tripped husband on his way to the shower so I took it up and bought slippers at the Episcopalian thrift store downtown. Somehow my phasic receptors failed to attenuate the dryer. It passed from a comforting rumble to an intolerable roar like freight trains somewhere in the night out West. Half asleep in the criminal hours, I forgot its source and shook over the fear of poltergeists. The saccharin smell of dryer sheets pervaded the kitchen cabinets. Why did they all do so much laundry anyhow, I wondered, how does everyone else get so dirty, and need to get so clean.
The methhead was sometimes there and sometimes not, his presence ragged and inexplicable as a Wal-Mart sack buffeted from tree to tree. He tottered in after dark scratching the back of his neck and circling the table where my notebooks were intently giving me the cold shoulder.
I just walked around the block, man. I just walked around the fuckin block.
He didn’t seem to require a response, and I didn’t know if he was talking to me. I just walked around the block, I wrote in the margin next to an equilateral triangle.
Only after he’d gone undetected on his way did his wife, brain supposedly irreversibly tumor-riddled, emerge silently from their room, the carpeted one, smelling like smoke and soap, kinky hair frizzing around her neck. She bent over me and breathed moist on the side of my neck and thrust a stack of papers on top of my page. Line drawings, not inspired, but executed with confidence, like tattoos. The frontmost one was a perfectly symmetrical ankh entwined with a voluptuous heart, her name emblazoned across it all.
My wedding present, she rasped.
They’re beautiful, really lovely.
He’s very talented when he’s not—. Pride ached in her voice. The drawings themselves were pristinely preserved, but the edges had frayed and bent. She showed them to everyone, I realized. After she’d faded back into the carpeted room I wrote, Her middle name is denial in the bottom margin. There was no sixth word in reach so I scribbled it out.
I went down the stairs in the afternoon when I thought no one would be sleeping. The invisible landlord was loading the second dryer he’d just purchased. I’m, we’re, moving out after this month is up, I told him. Just so you know.
He looked at me dazed, as though I’d just surprised him with the news I was having a bigamist prison marriage to his son. Why? Where to? he wanted to know.
I got a job, I said. Nursing home. Does anyone want the mattress?
Bobby will buy it off you cheap, he said resignedly. I nodded and the rite was finished.
When the paltry boxes were packed and the duvets were rolled up, the floor was easy to sweep. It came from under the bed, I wrote on one of the boxes. Contains whole universe including this box. After the wildebeests were consigned to the dustbin of dust, I sat in the floor’s window of light watching the motes settle around me. No time later at all, I stretched and stood; began carrying my boxes out of the empty house.