There were blue bags underneath Randy’s eyes. The space around each pupil was pink.
Jack stopped when he saw him. He was on his way for eggs, butter, steak.
“How’s it going, Jack?”
“It’s just one of those days,” Randy said. “Not sure I wanted to get out of bed.”
The sky was blue in the mornings. Sometimes it was black. Randy’s hair was long and unkempt.
“Read the paper?” he asked.
“I try not to read it much,” Jack said. Randy showed him the headline anyway: “Yesterday’s Fears Fade as We Adapt to Tomorrow’s.”
“What new fears you suppose they’re talking about, Jack?”
“Don’t know,” he said. He kept walking.
In the store, there was a copy of National Geographic. It was sitting on the shelf, the cover an illustration of a black sun. Once there was a man’s face, bearded and white. The man had climbed Mount Everest and come back frosted with snow. Up there, he saw the clouds. He might have seen a black sun, too.
Jack was not a traveler, but he knew the inside of things. Snow was the most beautiful of all. There were layers to the earth. The crust. The mantle. The core. Underneath the cornea there was an iris, a lens, an optic nerve. These were the parts. But, there were thoughts, too. There were words that never reached the mouth. They glistened, instead, water below the eye.
Snow was light on the inside. Underneath the surface, it was dark. All that lightness was trapped, you see, the surface casting a shadow on the layers of light. But, it was there. That light was falling.
When Jack left the store, Randy was on the curb. His hair twisted across his face. He looked up as Jack passed him on the street.
“Jack,” he called, but Jack didn’t look back.
All that light.
“Jack,” and he was already crossing the street.
Jack rode the bus to the edge of town. It was a quieting act. People talked on the bus. They read. They tapped their feet. But in the end, the bus was moving, and everything else was still. The town passed.
He rode past the grocery store to a vacant house. There was a piece of wood with a metal head in the front yard. Each time he looked away, he saw it moving out the corner of his eye. The house was dead otherwise.
He had claimed this place as his even though tenants came in the summer. There was a swinging bench in the backyard he sometimes sat on. Today, he crouched behind it, the slats breaking the backyard into green grass, silver porch, dirty window.
It was easy to sleep there, in the presence of things. At night, the weight of sleep startled him. Like a heavy mask, sleep covered his face and held him down. His eyelids felt different in the sun.
When he woke, Jack read the newspaper. He searched for Randy’s article. There were editorials about the upcoming election. Political cartoons featuring a man with a large nose and big front teeth, but he couldn’t find the story.
Jack walked towards the bus stop and closed his eyes. Standing in the sun, the light flickered off and on.
She watched the man in the backyard. He was sitting in the grass, socks off and sweating. The girl watched him peel an orange.
She hadn’t tasted an orange in years, but if the man smelled like one, she would remember the taste. Clear, she thought, it would taste clear, the orange already in her mouth. Each morning, her sister threw coffee grinds into the trash. The taste was always bitter.
“What are you doing, Marmalade?” the girl’s sister called from the kitchen.
“None of your business,” the girl wanted to call back but was quiet instead. Her sister was the one who didn’t allow oranges. She didn’t like the sunlight either. There was no butter or jam.
A list was kept in the kitchen. Sometimes the girl would go in and trim the list small so there was no room to add to the margins. But with each new item, her sister peeled down the old list and pasted a new one in its place. No cranberries. No eggs. No scented shampoo.
Now, looking at the sun and the man who smelled of oranges, the girl thought she understood the logic. The man’s hair was brown in the shade, but in the light it was blonde. Her hair never saw the sun. Her skin was pale and opaque.
That night she would forget the man’s face but smell the clearness of his skin. When she woke, she searched the pillow, her sheets for that smell. Finally, she found her hands. They were the same pale hands. Opaque and white. When she touched her face, they smelled of powder.
In the morning, there were tin cans and an empty plastic bag, nearly torn in two. Each time the wind blew, one of the plastic handles flapped up towards the trees. The other half was caught under a rock, anchoring its twin to the ground.
“Why are you sitting at that window, Guinevere? Come help me with these dishes.”
The water smelled stiff, the lemon souring the grease from the coffee pot and the frying pan. The girl dipped her fingers into the water. Brown water. Black. Her fingers would turn to grease.
“Kitty Kat,” her sister spoke. The girl’s hands were pulled out of the water. None of the grease was left on her fingers. Her sister was putting on the gloves. The gloves that smelled of powder.
“No,” the girl called out. “No.” The gloves were already on her hands. “I won’t,” she said. “I won’t.”
She pulled at the yellow fabric until the gloves ripped. She threw them onto the floor and stomped out of the house. The anger was short. Soon the girl would sit on swinging bench. It would be cold. She would cry, her face puffing from the sun.
Her sister would lock the door. Only tomorrow would there be lotion. More powder. White. White. Snow.
On the swinging bench she tried to shield her skin from the sun. She tucked her hands into her sleeves, pulled her hood tight. The plastic bag was torn in two, one half floating over her head.
When she stopped crying, the girl unfolded her feet. There was a crunch on the ground. Broken glass. She crouched down and rubbed her fingers across it. She took a small piece from the shattered ones. The girl walked up to the porch and waited for her sister to open the door.
“It didn’t quite happen that way,” the girl’s sister would say later, if anyone asked. “Wendy is a troubled girl. Always wanting things. I’m never quite sure what to give.”
The girl admitted this. When she was outside, she wanted the sun to blister her face. She wanted a scarf to protect it as well. She picked up that glass to feel its smoothness; she hoped to know its sharp edges.
“Wasn’t it cold outside?” they would ask the girl later, when they did.
“What does that matter?” the girl’s sister would say. “Kathleen is always welcome in our home.”
Jack’s lips were thick and chapped. His chin pronounced. He grew hair, except in two round areas just below the cheeks. Those spaces were dotted with stubble. Sometimes hair from thicker, more populated areas would cross over into those spaces, but the two round spots were always balding underneath. They reminded Jack of his inefficiency.
“Damn hair,” he would say, looking in the mirror as if that flaw, when fixed, would restore him to the whole man, not the mirror man sitting across the room.
He stared long enough to be confused by the black shadow when it appeared. Tan legs. A green striped dress.
“Jack. Ready to order?”
The waitress with the thin blonde hair.
“Black coffee. Two eggs and a beer.”
“A beer, Hun?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said.”
As he waited for the eggs, Jack watched the day outside. The morning was dull and gray like night. Sometimes Jack wondered if the sky confused itself. Woke up in the morning and thought it had slept through the day.
“We’ll give a few more clouds, just in case,” the sky could have said. “That way, there won’t be any questions.”
Jack hadn’t seen Randy today and was glad. There was something about the man’s jaw. It was too wide or the teeth too big, and the nose crawled out of and into a space where it didn’t belong. If Randy shaved more often, the jaw might fit. The face wouldn’t be so wide.
“Look, man,” Jack would tell Randy the next time he saw him, “ever thought of a clean shave?”
But, Randy’s face would be puckered underneath. There was too much sun. Not enough sleep. Something.
Jack waited. He was just about to leave when he saw the steam from the eggs mix with the green striped dress. The waitress put down the eggs.
“Enjoy your meal, Jack.”
“Thanks, Kathleen,” he told the waitress. Only her name was Jennifer. Melissa. Roxanne.
The girl thought of herself as Miss Scarlet. Her sister was Professor Plum, the purple, armless game piece.
Professor Plum was in the kitchen that morning, cleaning.
“Be a good girl, Pamela, and stay up there.”
“It’s Miss Scarlet,” the girl wanted to call back, but the opening to her bedroom door was blocked with an old kitchen towel. The girl opened the vent to her room and breathed down to her sister.
“Can I get a drink?”
“No, but you can close that vent and stay up there, Charlotte. This is ammonia and bleach.”
The window to the girl’s room was sealed tight. At night, the girl turned on her desk lamp and pointed it towards the screen. It was her reflection in their sun. Her pointed eyes in their black wings.
On cleaning days, the girl drew blueprints of the house on her chalkboard wall. There were squares for rooms with windows and trap doors.
“Professor Plum to square 1,” the girl wrote. “The kitchen.”
The girl liked knowing her position on the board. She was geometric, a flower drawn on graph paper. The shape of its petals was not random.
In the afternoon, the girl could smell bleach leaking through the bedroom door. What would the chemical do? she wondered, but she wouldn’t ask her sister.
Instead, they ate lunch in the parlor. The girl sat on the old wicker chair. She ate jasmine rice. She drank powdered milk.
Most nights, the kitchen smelled of poached eggs, burnt toast, blueberry jam. Tonight, there was only the faint smell of ammonia. In the trashcan, the girl found a shell with a tiny strip of egg stretched across it. In the afternoon, she had watched her sister eat that egg.
“Can’t I have a slice?” she had asked.
“No, Cherie. I have told you.”
And, the girl knew. She remembered the nurse’s red gloves.
The sister tapped a second egg against the side of her chair.
“I’m not allergic to the smell, you know,” the girl said, watching her sister peel the shell.
“Only with a few foods,” said the sister, and they had eaten in this way. The girl returned to her room.
When her sister was asleep, the girl crept into the kitchen and opened the lid to the trashcan. The egg shined back at her.
Slowly, slowly, the girl lowered her finger into the trash. When she felt the cold flesh, her finger jerked back, her nail covered with a clump of white.
The second time, the girl was not afraid. She lowered her hand and scooped the egg out of the trash. She carried it in her fist up the stairs and into her bedroom. Underneath the sheets, the girl watched her fist. Slowly, slowly, she let her fingers unfurl.
At 12:45, the girl called her sister into the room.
“Does my tongue look different to you?” she asked.
“What do I care, Amanda? It’s 1:00 in the morning.”
The girl stuck her tongue out at the mirror on top of the vanity. She looked out through crossed eyes. The girl had done this for an hour before, sticking her tongue out and then back in.
“What if I have poisoned myself?” she thought while her tongue was still inside her mouth. The girl imagined doctors cutting it out and placing the tongue on a Petri dish. That one part of her, so small, would be detached and lost to doctors who would dissect but never understand it.
The girl imagined, too, the tongue growing thicker, stuffing itself down her throat. The tongue would be larger than the rest of her, and the girl would have to care for it more, forgetting her lips, her teeth, her nostrils.
These were tiny, unreasonable fears, so unreasonable the girl could not speak them.
“You woke me up for this?” the sister would say if she told her. “Go to bed.”
It was easier for the girl to stick out her tongue and let her sister take a look.
“I’ve eaten an egg,” she told the sister.
“A whole one?”
“Only what was in the trash.”
“Jesus. Get your coat.”
“You think I will die?”
“Not if you haven’t already,” said the sister, and the girl was bundled up and put into the car. As the sister drove to the hospital, the girl watched the sunless sky.
One of the patients kept sticking out her tongue. She was sitting behind a curtained room, but Jack could see her in the space where the two curtains met.
“That’s nice. That’s nice, Jennifer. But, keep it in your mouth,” the woman with her was saying.
“How long has he been here?” asked Jack, looking back at the nurse.
“How long has who been here?”
“Randall. Randy. I don’t remember his full name, but he called me.”
“That’s not much help, Sir.”
“He called me. He said he was here.”
“You sure it wasn’t a different hospital?”
“Look. He’s sick. He’s probably been out all night.”
“Oh, I see,” said the nurse, turning her back and opening the filing cabinet. “I’m sorry, Sir, but I can’t help you.”
Jack had already tried the other hospital in town. He had been to Allegany where he thought Randy was staying.
“What are you doing across the river?” he had asked on the phone, but there hadn’t been an answer.
Jack had given him an old business card once. Jack Wright, sales associate, it had said.
“The home number’s still correct,” he told Randy. “If you need anything.”
Jack was afraid to find Randy, but if he saw him at the hospital, he would turn around and leave. He would let Randy follow him at a distance.
“We used to be friends,” Randy might call.
“You were Michael’s friend,” he would say, but he would let him follow.
Jack took out the bottle from his back pocket and breathed through his nose and down his throat, his stomach puffing out like pregnancy.
The nurse might have seen a drunk before. She might have taken the weight and measure of a drug addict, a homeless man, but she had never met Randall.
Randy and Mike used to shoot hoops at the flowerpot on the front porch, hitting the ball against the screen door each time they missed.
Jack would shine his flashlight up from underneath the porch where he watched. The ball was flat and unspectacular from that angle. Jack imagined the light from his flashlight could carry the ball. It moved it backwards and forwards, towards his brother and away.
“You okay?” Mike would ask, looking down at him from the sidewalk. Jack would shine the light in his brother’s eyes and smile back.
“He’s a weird kid,” Randy would say. Mike would crouch down and look at Jack through the stairs.
“I want to work for NASA,” he would tell Mike if he asked him to play.
“I understand,” he would say, and Mike would let him watch from underneath the porch.
Ten years later Jack would hold up his college degree.
“NASA, here you come,” said Mike. But, by then Jack only wanted to shoot hoops.
Jack’s breath escaped him, and the nurse looked up. No. No. The breath should stay, he thought to himself. He tried to hold on, but the bottle slipped from his fingers. It shattered to the ground.
The nurse looked back at Jack. “You sure you don’t need to see a doctor.”
“No. I’m fine,” said Jack. He shoved the glass to the corner of the room with his sneaker and turned to leave.
Bleach only covered the smell of a place like that. There was dirt underneath the white walls. The man next to you was always sneezing, his finger bleeding a little. It wasn’t the blood but the skin around it that made you sick. The pale curls of fragmented skin.
If Jack sat next to a man with arthritis, he wondered if his hands wouldn’t ache a little, too, if his knuckles wouldn’t redden and crack. All disease was contagious, as people were melting and transforming into each other. It was best to stay away, really, to look at some higher life form. The sun, swallowing its own heat and light. It was more than any other form of energy could bear.
The street outside the hospital looked familiar, but the stairs were tilted a little more than Jack expected. He didn’t remember the rotten leaves by the landing. Jack could try to explain the unfamiliarity of the place. He had entered the hospital and now he had returned. It was the same set of stairs, the same weeds sprouting from underneath the cement. But, it was as unfamiliar as a place reconstructed in dream.
Jack walked down the street towards his apartment. The smell of the bakery and the produce below often poured into his place.
“All that home baked bread,” Timothy, the grocer, once smiled at Jack. “Must be comforting to live to.”
But, the smell of sugar made it impossible to sleep. Jack’s clothes always smelled of it. His tongue would dry out and stick inside his mouth. There was rising dough, cracked wheat, cooked cheese. The nights were hot and uncomfortable. In the mornings, the grocer placed old fruit out by the dumpster. By afternoon, the heat would shine though the windows and onto the newly placed fruit and vegetables.
“Good baking night,” the grocer smiled as Jack passed him on the street. It was late, but the grocer seemed never to sleep. He was always unpacking produce, marking the prices of new goods.
Jack would drift between consciousness and sleep that night. Randy would transform into the grocer. The grocer’s hands would become minced meat pies. His shirtsleeves were strings of dough, and the sugar would sift into Jack’s sleep. Long before the smell settled over him, the day broke.
That night, the sky was black. The moon was gone. It was white outside. Snow, thought the girl, but the earth was bouncing back at her.
“I should taste it,” she thought, but each time she bent down, the earth moved farther away. “It’s bouncing. Bouncing,” thought the girl. “Away from me.”
And, it was. It wasn’t. Then, it was morning. And, the girl was awake.
“Must have been a tiny slice of egg,” the doctor at the hospital had said, looking down the girl’s throat. “I don’t see much swelling.”
“There you go, Emelia,” said the sister. “Nothing to worry about. Of course, Doctor, you understand our concern.”
“I do,” the man said, pausing to remove his mask. “No more eggs from the trash, you hear?” he said to the girl. “Although, I must say, ma’am, children sometimes do outgrow their allergies. Have you had her tested?”
“You mean, I might not be allergic?” the girl said. She was sitting on the examining table, her legs crossed. She was a shrunken version of herself. The girl had tucked the corners of her white robe underneath her thighs. She sat on top of her hands.
“You might not be,” the doctor said, “although your skin is quite red.”
“That’s right,” said the sister, blocking the light between the two curtains. “Must be a reaction to something.”
The girl wanted to tell the doctor about the closed vents. The bleach and ammonia.
“It’s like I’m breathing the same breath,” the girl would say. She could try to describe the staleness of the place. “Nothing is moving.” But, how could she make the doctor understand?
“Sometimes my sister cleans the house,” she might say. “I have to wear a headscarf outside.” Inside, the words were meaningful. They were secret. Outside her head, they meant nothing at all.
The girl started to cry. “Don’t worry,” the doctor said, bending down to touch her forehead. “No shots today.”
That night, the tears made her skin turn red.
“I am poison to myself,” the girl thought. Her skin trapped the rest of her body inside. There was salt on her pillow. The fabric would scratch against her cheeks in the night.
“Eat another slice of egg?” the sister might ask in the morning when she saw the girl’s red face. “Rub against some strawberry jam?”
The girl was afraid to let anything touch her. One strand of hair could irritate her skin. A piece of cloth could tighten itself around her throat. If her fears were imagined, they were also real. Without an egg, her throat still swelled inside.
Asleep in her bed, the girl felt the largeness of the world. She could map the room on the chalkboard wall and find she was a speck compared to the things in which she was contained. A girl inside a bed. A girl inside a room.
It was almost morning, and the girl looked outside her window. The ground reflected back at her like rounded light. It is bouncing, she thought, opening the blinds a little more to see. In the light, her skin didn’t redden or flake. She was the same pale glow.
I’ve got to go see, the girl thought, her nightgown sagging from her body like excess skin. The girl climbed out of her bed. She tiptoed into the dark.
The man sat with his head tilted forward. His hair lay in strands across his face. When the girl sat beside him, his eyes flew up so that she could see their whites.
“Are you awake?” the girl asked. The man’s eyes looked everywhere. Into the space and out of it.
“Over here,” the girl said waving her arms, but the man’s head drifted back down, his eyes closed. “I think I’ve seen you before,” the girl said.
The man looked up once more. His face was pink and tired. He shook his head.
“No. I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve never been here before.”
The man’s breath smelled of licorice. His clothes looked stiff and unwashed.
“I’m Randy,” the man said. “Randall. Do you know Jack?”
“No,” the girl said. “But, do you— Can you?” she wanted to ask him something, but this was not the man with the oranges.
Randy tilted his head back down. “Guess not,” he said, and the girl watched his crown. The strands of hair did not fall straight down but spun in circles as if woven into his head.
If the man with the oranges were here, he could give her the fruit. She wouldn’t be sick then. The peel would stick underneath her fingernails. She would spit out the seeds.
Randall seemed to drift asleep. She watched his breath and the gray sky, which was the same gray, one second to the next. In her sleep, the sun would rise in a blink. She would wake to its redness.
In another second of gray, Randall seemed to stop moving.
“Are you awake?” the girl asked. She touched him. The man began to shake. The girl looked up and saw the sun rising, the man’s body swelling, his face turning red.
“Don’t worry,” the girl said. She ran into the house. Outside, his body moved without breath.
By the time the girl returned, it was no longer gray outside.
“Here, Randall. Here,” the girl said, and she was covering him with blankets. “Here,” said the girl, and he was shaking.
Jack lay in his bed, red light surrounding his closed eyes. I don’t ever need to leave this space, he thought, his arms and legs stretched. The cold air outside his sheets had not yet deprived him of heat. He wondered how the night could trap all that warmth inside him. Throughout the day, the same warmth would drift from his body, lingering over the mouth like breath. When he returned later that night, his body would be flat and drawn.
And now, there was the cold, slowly making its way underneath the covers. When he had woken, Jack hadn’t recognized the inconvenience of the way he had slept. Near the foot of the bed, his sheets were twisted and unmanageable.
Jack quickly moved the comforter away, so the cold came all at once. He lifted himself from the bed.
Outside the window, Jack saw Timothy placing carrots in a wooden crate outside the awning. The carrots were bunched together, the leaves of one vegetable twisting with the others.
Jack saw dirt at the roots of the carrots. The skins of the tomatoes were partially dented. He watched Timothy’s gloves collect dirt and felt sick. The sun bled through the faded curtains.
“Read the paper this morning?” Jack asked when he saw Randy sitting on the street corner a few days later. Randy’s hair was strung over his face like a dried cornhusk.
“Not today,” he said.
“Well, you’ve made it out of bed,” Jack said. “That’s something.”
“I guess,” said the man.
Jack looked down at Randy’s feet. A few toes poked out of his shoes, and Jack could see a toenail, yellow and overgrown. He wished Randy would cut it.
A bus passed by and Jack closed his eyes. He often traveled alone and untrammeled on that bus. His window was a camera lens. There was the river, black and silver. From his window, the dirt did not obscure the beauty. He knew he would pass that river hundreds of times and never see the same view.
Jack opened his eyes and looked down at Randy. There he was: wrapped in a wool blanket. The blanket belonged to Randy’s pink face, his pale tufts of hair. It had been woven for that moment, so that the eyes, the cheeks and wool were exactly positioned.
“Hey Jack,” Randy was saying, and the moment was passing. The light through the trees shifted just enough for the blanket to fade.
“I better go,” Jack was saying.
“But, I had something to tell you.”
“Save it for the next time,” he said, looking down at Randy’s untrimmed nail.
Jack turned and headed for the grocery store at the edge of town. He would ride the bus from there, passing a tree, a river, an old wooden house.
Photo By: rubygirl jewelry