Originally published in Badlands Literary Magazine
“Mom,” I whisper, not wanting to disturb her. I look down at my hands, fingernails falling off, flaking, like a candle struck by a fork. Skin, soft skin, nail, falling off piece by piece.
“I think something is wrong, mom.” I ease my way into the den. Soft steps sneak carefully past the dark mahogany dining table covered in stacks and stacks of old magazines and newspapers. My body leaves a trail of feathery finger flakes along the way.
“Mom, my hands,” I start, louder this time. They’re peeling away to the knuckles, bone and all. Her face doesn’t turn away from the small antenna TV.
“Can’t you see I’m trying to watch the news, boy?” She doesn’t look at me, she never did. My wrists are nubs now. I try to trace my fingers across my cheek. The pile of skin flecks begins to mount an offensive, rising up into the shape of a rodent, an abomination gnawing angrily at my feet.
I had this dream a lot when I was younger.
Car Accident Leaves Child Dead, Teachers Mute
Seven years later, it happened for the first time.
He was a year older than I was, and we had never spoken. They said that he was in a car, passenger’s seat, when his brother veered off of the road and smashed into a tree. The car was found wrapped around the wooden trunk, hugging the base with both arms. I imagined that he never saw it coming. I always thought you weren’t supposed to know when you died. I wasn’t sure if that was better or not.
The teachers gave handouts to all of the students the following morning. None of them spoke about it, they just handed out the pale-blue sheets like flyers. A robin’s egg, the earth from outer space. We had an extra long moment of silence that day.
“Mom.” I walked into her room the very next day. “I think I’m depressed.” The words came out, rehearsed in a mirror.
Her walls were made of moth wings, her bed frame constructed from petrified sand harvested off of a crowded beach.
She opened her eyes, hazelnuts in a sea of almond butter.
“Oh, sweetie.” She rubbed her eyes as she spoke. “Me too.” She turned over into the covers, an envelope of silt. I hadn’t expected the words to bounce back at me like they had earlier off of the mirror in the cramped and messy bathroom.
“Talk to me when you’ve got real problems.”
Local Hero Drowns in River, Saves No One
The next time wasn’t so bad, either. He was in my world history class, I think, and he never ever showed up. Classmates called him lazy and stupid. He seemed totally useless, until he fell into the river and was carried downstream.
This time, he must have known. He must have felt what it was like to be carried by the water, the immediate loss of control. He had to feel the water trickling into his lungs, sloshing around, a half-empty jug of milk. He knew that he was going to die.
They put notes and flowers at the empty desk that had always been empty anyway.
I still don’t understand how people change when they die. It seems to me that everyone is someone, but also, another.
I never learned how to swim. You would think that I’d try.
New Barbie Worries Consumers, Investors
This one was different. We started talking in English class. I sat behind her every day and her hair would flow down the back of her neck and onto my desk. It lay there, and I would some day muster up the courage to touch it. When I finally did, something changed inside me. She lit a candle in a dark crawlspace, and the air became thick with smoke and heat. You couldn’t stay in there long, but when you did, it was warm, and it was bright.
The next year we switched, and she sat behind me. She traced her fingers down my spine and giggled while she drew hieroglyphics between the margins of my shoulder blades. Her nails were more precise than any stylus. Her illustrations were, if not on the desk of Da Vinci, then surely in his top drawer.
She had taught me the value of art and, more importantly, the importance of using art to impress women. Each day I read a little closer. I started to write poems, not to her, but for her. I read every line of every book as if she was watching.
The final year had arrived, and I decided that I was going to talk to her. “I’m coming over,” I said as we walked out of class, the first of the year. “I’m coming over today.”
I kissed her neck while she played piano. I wondered if she was using art for the same purpose that I was. I wondered if maybe she’d had a crush, another boy, who loved the sound of music. When I asked her, she said it was she who loved the melodies, and it was herself whom she was trying to convince of love.
“When was the last time you talked to her?”
She had been crushed by a box truck while merging onto the interstate, her soon to be father-in-law in the passenger seat. We had been long past our romance, and she had just gotten engaged to the down-to-earth guy from Kansas that she had told me about at our last supper in the shopping strip Mexican restaurant.
“Well, did you hear the news?” Clearly, I had not heard the news. I wished, in that moment, that I could cancel the news, permanently. But the news does not stop because you ask it to. So I spent my first spring break home from college at the wake, but not the funeral, and not the burial. I didn’t own any black ties.
They talked about how she hadn’t felt any pain, that she was at peace now. I stood up amidst the pews and tried to change the channel.
Local Woman Missing, Police Apathetic
I searched for her along the sides of railroad tracks late at night, walking along an infinite path carved by the power of industry so many years ago. I searched for her in drywall, and on the other side of mirrors, and on the inside of the skin on my knuckles. Red and white marble, shiny with ink.
I checked on the inside of cigarettes, hundreds of them. I checked inside the mouths of a dozen pretty girls with short hair and long stories.
I pushed my fingers, one by one, between the caverns of my ribcage. I tore open my chest like a nectarine and sucked all of the juices that came out. Afterwards, I pushed the sides back together and wrapped myself in shoestring.
I laid in bed, completely still, and tried to feel the 1,000 mile-per-hour rotation of the earth on its axis.
The Interview, Pt. 2
“College gets easier.” My mother informed me of this on during on of our ever-nurturing phone calls. I could feel my teeth wriggling loose inside my head. “These are the best years of your life, so you shut up and enjoy it. I tried to pull one out.
A brown recluse stuck in his own web, I haven’t left bed in weeks.
“Just get something to eat. I’ll send you some money for groceries.” I’ll just drink some orange juice, I think. That will stop the dreams.
This was the ninth day in a row that I’d decided not to rise from my tomb of pillows and blankets.
0-9, I thought to myself.
Investors Delusional, Market Despondent
Eventually, winters started getting easier. I decided I was happy that I never went to see that doctor, no matter what the pre-screenings said.
I went home to spend more than just Christmas day with my family. My grandfather was sitting on the couch, sunken, a crab in the sand. I even sat down and watched TV with him.
My mom came in and sat down next to me and stared ahead silently. My mother was the extraordinary type of person who never really listened to anything at all. I imagined her death would come slowly, but that it would still catch her by surprise.
“Did you hear the news?” The waitress spoke, standing above my table at the restaurant. I laid the words out on the tablecloth and read them over and over again.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t hear anything.”
He was another from the English class, a friend. Somebody I didn’t mind doing group projects with. He played the trumpet every day, until one day he faded, like a resonant tonic whose performer simply ran out of power.
She told me he leapt from a bridge that towered over the interstate. Falling, a star into an ocean of endless black.
She asked me if I was going to the funeral. I told her no, I wasn’t. She scoffed and dropped off another lemonade.
I got up and walked over to the television, pulled off the antenna, and tried to snap it in half. The rod bent, twisted, but wouldn’t break. I took my teeth to it, they ripped themselves out in bunches, handfuls. I took my nails to it, clawed at it. They broke off like bottle caps, my skin rubbed raw against the metal exterior.
The news does not stop because you ask it to.