Fiction · 06/20/2012

Debris

Davis chooses her for her scuffed eyes, which as he lifts the trash can lid meet his own with a look he can only describe as imploring. She lies prone, embedded between a wad of paper towels and a heap of moldy grapefruit skins, her arms reaching up: get me out of here. As he tilts her toward the sun, her green eyes flash open and shut and her yellow hair falls along his arm. He runs his fingers through the tangled strands, exposing the skin underneath, disfigured by black marker.

He presses her eyelids shut.

To hide her nakedness, he tucks her underneath his shirt, and together they stride down Wycoff Avenue, the warm, soft skin of his belly pressing against the cool, hard plastic of her back.

At home he sets her on the kitchen table and fills a glass with water. He drinks hanging over the sink. When he finishes, he fills the glass and drinks again, but the water does nothing to alleviate the dryness of his mouth. He looks at her lying there on her back, waiting for him to take care of her. His jaw clenches. For a moment he forgets why he has brought her here. Then he remembers: she is for Jessie.

+

The metal cuts Davis’ finger, but he lets the sting pass through him without pausing, without looking down. As he twists the strands together, he thinks about the arbor over the entrance to his grandparents’ small backyard garden in Barberton, Ohio, the pale, intertwining branches of grapevines his grandpa’s thick, arthritic fingers cultivated. The garden itself was weedy. Bare patches of stubborn clay dominated, and if you dug a hole, you found worms slithering among shards of glass.

Out the front window, dawn spreads over the flat roofs of Bushwick, casting the room in gray, gaining light. Beeping comes from the back of the apartment and then a creak as Davis’ roommate Ben emerges from his bedroom.

“Cool,” Ben says, his voice raspy with sleep. “Is that going to be, like, an installation?”

Davis bends over the wire, willing his hunched back to send Ben away. When the bathroom door closes, his body relaxes.

He rocks back on his heels. The arbor was strong. The branches withstood lightning storms, tornado winds, lake effect snow. The strength came from the weaving.

When he finishes the base, he will stop. Less than five hours remain before his restaurant shift, and he should shower, he should sleep. Already he feels his heartbeat slowing, the nervous bubbles in his bones fading. If he had more MDMA, he would take it, which is why he made sure to calculate for three days only. No temptation to stray so far away from reality, he couldn’t find the way back.

The arc smirks at him from across the room. Through the metal, he has braided brightly colored ribbon, red and yellow electrical wire, wooly yarn, scraps of fabric. To his clearing mind, the result looks both festive and deranged.

+

Ten years ago, the weekend after high school graduation, Davis stuck to their plan and left Barberton. He and Alex had chosen Brooklyn so that they could be part of what they saw as a great Midwestern Diaspora — they would be joining the ranks of the talented, the creative, the off-beat who were meant for something better than the disappointments and persecutions of small town life. Only Alex had changed her mind; she had decided to keep the baby.

The night he left, he pulled up outside Alex’s house. He stared at her window and imagined her sitting beside him wearing one of the colorful dresses she designed and sewed herself out of old t-shirts. As they drove down the turnpike, she’d put her feet up on the dashboard and fiddle with the radio, trying in vain to find a good station. She’d sigh theatrically and flop back, dragging her black fingernails along his arm, tracing their initials as she looked out the window at hours of nothingness that would deliver them to everything they had ever dreamed of.

If he’d been more heroic, Davis would have barged into her house, burst through her bedroom door, and carried her off. But he had never been a hero, so he started the car and drove away.

Alone in Brooklyn, he did his best to assimilate quickly. The week he arrived, he gave up meat. He found a job in the kitchen of a farm-to-table restaurant and never admitted to his co-workers the years spent coating sickly pale chicken legs in stale breadcrumbs, stooping over the deep fryer. He still smokes, but now he hand rolls, and when he drinks, he chooses whiskey over beer.

Nostalgia surrounds him, but none of it is his. At vintage clothing stores he pays too much for three piece suits and tight cardigan sweaters. He wears wingtips, bowties, fedoras, newsboy caps. He has grown his hair to his shoulders and occasionally considers a mustache. Back in Barberton, he would have been called a fag for the way he looks. In Brooklyn he is the epitome of cool.

+

Rain splatters against the window. The preceding hours stretch behind him, a tunnel caved in, covered over in dirt and rock and dust. Davis lies in bed, wearing a white button down shirt and no pants, one white gym sock. Work comes back to him vaguely: a knife moving across a cutting board, seemingly of its own accord.

He needs water, but his limbs refuse to lift from the mattress. Instead he opens his mouth, wishing the ceiling would collapse, the rain rush in and drown his parched tongue. He licks his lips. Then he rolls onto his side and switches on the lamp.

From his nightstand drawer, he removes Jessie’s photograph. He doesn’t know how Alex got his address. His grandparents are long dead, his aunts and uncles scattered. He has tried his best to distance himself from Barberton, to forget anyone living there might want to reach him.

Nine years old would be the third grade.

That was the year Davis’ mother had died and his father had left him at his grandparents’ house and never come back. At nine Davis used to bite his lips so hard, he bled. Sitting on the bus, his backpack clasped to his chest, he held the blood in his mouth. He didn’t swallow until the bus pulled up in front of the school, and then he immediately regretted letting go of his secret, missing the warm, metallic taste that was his body.

In the photograph Jessie wears a patchwork dress, a rainbow of fabrics that he recognizes as Alex’s design. She sits at an angle, her knees pressed together and her hands in her lap. Behind her, green streaks cut across a black background, as if she poses in front of a radioactive storm. Her smile is strained, held too long. She doesn’t look like a happy child. She doesn’t look unhappy either. She offers him nothing, but this picture wasn’t taken for him. The fact that he holds her in his hand is a happy accident, an example of Alex’s mercurial mercy.

+

When she told him she was pregnant, she spoke past him, directing her words at the dented fender of his car. They had been tempting fate, she said. How had they expected her to remember to take a pill every day? She couldn’t even remember to do her algebra homework.

In desperation, Davis grabbed her wrists. He had never been violent, but now he shook her.

“No,” he said, as if that one syllable could force a reversal – penetrate her body, split apart the cells.

Alex pulled away.

“Who are you?” she said, rubbing her wrists.

She scowled up at him through a curtain of hair, and in her eyes he saw disappointment. He saw disgust.

That was the moment his heart became useless to him. He left it there with Alex in the back parking lot of Wendy’s, beside the dumpsters, surrounded by cigarette butts and ketchup splatters, the snow swirling down from the impassive Ohio sky.

+

Two days after Jessie’s picture arrived, Davis bought a Hallmark card, a black and white photograph of a man and woman dancing. The couple on the front looked happy, in love or at least like very good friends, and he thought Alex would take the hint. He wrote Dear Jessie, but the empty space was insurmountable. He tore the card in two.

Instead he imagined a letter written in crayon on wide ruled notebook paper. He had no reason to hope, yet every afternoon the mail provided fresh insult: the ConEd bill, credit card statements mocking him with late fees, a leaflet for a film series at BAM.

After all these years Alex would have expected him to have created something — a work of art, a name for himself, a life. Or at the very least a mention in Time Out New York or the Village Voice, a few lines of typeface to show to their daughter and let her know that her father had a reason for doing what he did.

That weekend, on his walks through the wide streets of Bushwick, Davis found his eyes directed toward the ground. He stopped in front of a trash can overflowing with children’s plastic toys, the surfaces cracked, the primary colors faded. He should go home and throw the photograph away. But how would he know where his daughter ended up, who might get their hands on her? Alex had placed Jessie in his protection. The obligation felt enormous. Standing still on the sidewalk, he felt its full weight on his shoulders.

+

On Tuesday night, work over, Wednesday ahead his own, Davis sat on his bedroom floor and swallowed a chalky pill, drinking cranberry juice straight from the bottle to keep from gagging. He put on music to set the mood — looping music, magical music, music so layered he could fall inside, down and down, until he disappeared.

He leaned against the wall, legs splayed, and waited for his stomach to clench, the nervousness to begin. These were the predecessors of the euphoria to come. Only this night the euphoria eluded him. Instead the nervousness spread from his stomach throughout his body until he had to get up and walk, jog, run around the room. Sharp spikes of self-loathing stabbed up from his gut, and he doubled over, forehead pressed against his knees.

+

The next time he swallowed a pill, he took to the streets. He moved by instinct, approaching stealthily, like a raccoon. He lifted the trash can lids noiselessly, plunged his hands inside. The contents of someone else’s life were soft, malleable, interspersed with hard edges and dangerous corners. He thought of organs, bones. He was performing surgery, entering the birth canal.

He found what he thought a little girl would like: a ribbon, baby blue, and a jagged rectangle of pink satin.

+

Dude, reads the note on the refrigerator, your installation smells.

The marker won’t go away no matter how hard Davis scrubs. He brushes the doll’s hair, wraps her in the pink satin, uses the baby blue ribbon as a belt.

“It’s the best I can do,” he tells her.

He lays her on the floor in front of the base. To complete the web, he needs more metal. Chicken wire would be perfect. He could buy it, speed up the process, but that would be cheating. Scavenging is part of the art, part of the way he is being humbled.

When the web is finished, he will place the doll at the center. She will be the Fairy Queen – the controller of lives past, present, and future.

He will take a photograph and send it to Alex.

But right now he needs fresh air. He ducks out onto the fire escape. The stench of waste clings to his clothes, his skin. He leans over the railing and opens his mouth, takes deep breaths. He doesn’t know when he will finish, if he will ever be done.

+++

Courtney Elizabeth Mauk’s debut novel Spark will be published by Engine Books in September. Her work has appeared in The Literary Review, PANK, Wigleaf, and Superstition Review, among others. She has an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and teaches with the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is an assistant editor at Barrelhouse. More information can be found at http://courtneymauk.com/.