Scavengers

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ScavengersDuring the mid-1970s, he and Jeannie escaped their cramped apartment on the Upper West Side to spend holidays in a small Connecticut town with her uncle and aunt and their three young children. The aunt ran a gift shop that sold handmade jewelry and knitwear, wooden children’s toys, vanity press books of local history. The uncle was a gregarious man with gleaming round spectacles. A psychiatrist, he had a successful practice in the city. They had a large house with a back yard that sloped for half an acre down to a small stream.

One snowy Christmas Eve, Jeannie’s aunt and uncle threw a sledding party—children shouting, sled runners slicing the snow, mist hovering around the floodlights. The other couples were older, with kids, suburban. Baker wandered around, drinking. He imagined this little glowing space seen from high up in the universe, a spot of light on a dark planet. Jeannie had disappeared somewhere and he went inside looking for her. He found the aunt heating up cider on the kitchen stove.

“Grab that jug for me, would you?” she said.

He took the gallon jug of cider from the counter, turned, and unexpectedly bumped into her.

“Sorry,” he said.

The aunt had thick black hair that swept back around her ears like wings, and hollows under her blue eyes. She wore an ankle-length skirt of some heavy, dark material and a tan vest over a white blouse fastened at the neck with a silver brooch. She took the cider, put it down on the counter, stood on tiptoe, and kissed him hard on the lips.

“Don’t be sorry,” she said.

The next day, as the uncle napped, Baker walked into the kitchen where the aunt was preparing their Christmas meal. She looked up when he came in, but said nothing. He stood at the sink and stared out the window into the backyard, where Jeannie played in the snow with her young cousins. His wife was a poet and still looked like the hippy she had been when he met her in Ypsilanti, with her long, straight hair trailing over her shoulders, one pencil-thin braid hanging down in front. They had married fast and driven out east together for grad school, two characters on a literary adventure, Jeannie reading The Bell Jar aloud to him in a clear, arching voice, scrunched back in her seat, angular bare feet pressed against the dash.

Now Jeannie grabbed her youngest cousin and, holding her on her lap, spun down the hill on a saucer sled with the laughing, kicking girl. She was sleeping with the editor of the small press that was publishing her book; sometimes, when she went for drinks with him, she didn’t come home at all. On such occasions, Baker would wait until late in the night and call around to their friends’ apartments, pretending he didn’t know where she was.

Recently, they had attended a party at the apartment of a Russian émigré poet, where they drank vodka and smoked some harsh variety of weed that was supposedly from the Caucasus. The guest of honor was a friend of the poet’s who had been freed after ten years in the Gulag. He was a mild-seeming man of about 40, whey-faced, with sandy hair and an air of deep tranquility. Baker decided that suffering had worn him smooth, like water over a stone, had made him holy. He raised his drink in a toast. “A saint!” he shouted and threw the glass against the wall, shattering it over the dining room table. The ex-prisoner picked glass out of his hair and smiled. On the subway on the way home, Jeannie said, “We should think about separating,” and Baker said, “Fine with me.”

The aunt moved through the kitchen behind him, making what struck his ears as small, careful noises. She came to see him in the city a week or so later, talking as she roamed the apartment, picking up things, putting them down. Then she said: “Well, Ollie, this is a fine mess we’re in.” She felt satisfying in his arms, smaller than Jeannie, lighter and more fluid. She was sarcastic, a bit sly. She rubbed his chest and commented on his hairlessness. Her husband, she said, was like a coarse rug.

They started a routine of meeting at the Central Park Zoo and walking to a pied-à-terre a friend of hers kept on East 70th Street. She wore a sheepskin coat, a pair of big round sunglasses and a leather skirt, a way he had never seen her dress in her town. It was only later that he realized they met at the zoo because it was across Fifth from her oncologist’s office. As they traversed the zoo’s winding asphalt paths, they held hands and she put her arm through his and pulled his body tight against hers, so that they were off-balance a little as they walked. Her satisfaction at being with him—she had the air of a woman who has shopped for hours, and finally found the item she wanted, the perfect thing—made him feel sad and a little thrilled.

Jeannie was mainly gone, although when he got home from school he could sometimes see she had been in the apartment. He thought she had moved in with the editor, but wasn’t completely sure. One day after she’d been there, he found a museum postcard tucked into some papers on his desk, one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits, on which she had written: “I love you…”

He stared at the card, turning it over in his hands. Van Gogh’s gaunt face, her tight cursive. The ellipsis. He wasn’t entirely sure how long the card had been there. That night he ransacked her closet of the clothing she had left behind, opened the window, and threw the clothes blindly out into the airshaft. He woke up in the grey early morning to see pants, blouses, skirts festooned across fire escapes, outlined like murder victims in the alley. A few hours later, they were gone.

The pied-à-terre was in a white high-rise with its first few stories stepped back from the street. A giant could stride up them and knock on the upper windows. The building had a doorman who observed them without looking at them and a maroon awning that extended out to the curb, like those he had seen in front of Italian funeral parlors down on Mott Street.

The apartment itself was an impersonal studio with a kitchenette, but it was on a high floor and had a tiny balcony facing south.

One day the aunt told him she was ill and had started treatment.

“It’s making me a little sick,” she whispered, before running into the bathroom. He heard her retching, but wasn’t sure whether he should go in there or not, so just sat on the sofa bed and waited. She came out, naked and shaking, and wrapped herself in his arms. He was so much taller than her that he had to bend down to hold her; their posture struck him as a pose, a tableau.

“Oh, my God,” she said.

It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. Baker stared over her head through the sliding glass doors at the early spring sunlight slanting across the skyscrapers. It was odd: the aunt made his heart ache, but at the same time he didn’t feel anything for her. She was 20 years older than he was, had faded freckles around her shoulders and used a perfume that had a heavy, dry scent, a taste of another era. That particular afternoon they lay back in bed together and she smoked a cigarette—she said it helped with the nausea. She got better. He could see her thinking about the train she had to take back, her kids, the store.

He had the thought, then pushed it away, that this cancer she had was none of his business. Jeannie, her niece by marriage, didn’t like her much. “She’s a taker,” Jeannie said. But she said that about a lot of people, most recently about Baker himself.

It was funny with Jeannie. They went to the same graduate school, in different departments, and he would see her at a distance on campus, or walking along Broadway with her friends, or just solo, as he did one morning, on the opposite subway platform, reading the newspaper as she waited for her train. He always knew she was there, but she never knew he was. He didn’t believe she was faking it. It was his estimation that she was living in a completely Baker-less state, as if she had made a quite deliberate decision to erase the image and spirit of the person who had shared her bed for the past four years. He didn’t understand how it was humanly possible to do something like this, but it was a trick she had managed, nonetheless. Even on days when he didn’t see her, it felt like he was being ground down very slowly by someone’s unthinking heel. He began to be afraid a lot—even terrified. His terror sat in his stomach and refused to move, as if the man who had been erased had taken up residence there.

As the aunt’s treatment progressed, she got sicker, lost weight, and began to lose her wings of hair. One day, walking with him down Fifth, she pulled out a lock, like a crow’s black feather, and presented it to him. He rubbed it between his fingers and it fell apart into separate strands.

They sat down to rest on a bench beneath the outer wall of the park. It was a pleasantly warm day in June and the trees in their little dog proof cages smelled wet and green. The aunt reached out for his hand. Her own hand was cool and very dry. Passers-by glanced at them sitting there and he wondered what they thought. The aunt closed her eyes and appeared to be resting. Lately, she had become very busy with her pain and her life. When he called her at the gift shop, which was how they arranged things, her assistant often said she couldn’t come to the phone. The last time they had made love she said he was hurting her—pushing too hard against her, or something.

The aunt stirred, looked at her watch, and turned to him. She started to say something, but he interrupted her.

“Look, why don’t we just—“ he didn’t know what he was saying. “Go off, maybe?”

“Do you mean get crazy or something?”

She often thought he was talking in slang when he just meant something very simple.

“I mean leave. Go somewhere. Be together.”

He tried to call her several times after that, but no one answered at the gift shop and then there was a message that the number had been disconnected.

During the course of the summer, Jeannie’s life spun farther and farther away until it finally cast itself into orbits completely unseen by him. There were rumors. Supposedly, she had left the editor as soon as her book went to press. Supposedly, she was fucking a tollbooth clerk on the New Jersey Turnpike. Supposedly, she was lead heroine at a dive bar downtown, a former old man’s bar that had been invaded by a phalanx of female poets who gave readings there.

Since Baker’s TA stipend had ended with the semester, he found work in the mailroom of a manufacturer of thread and sewing products down in the Garment District. The head of the mailroom was an egg-shaped man named Stu who walked with metal canes and leg braces, due to childhood polio. The owners of the company, two brothers, came downstairs on a regular basis to ceremonially berate him; once, one of them crumpled up a memo that had been mis-delivered and threw it in his face.

Baker hid in a back corner with his partner, an older Filipino man named Rod. They took turns opening mail from old ladies ordering needles and thread and stealing the dollar bills they inserted into the envelopes. During their breaks, they went out onto the fire escape to smoke and stare west over the old brick buildings, a corridor of the 19th century that ran right down to the Hudson between the skyscrapers. On one of those mornings, Rod told him a story about a cousin of his, a senator who had been murdered during the course of some political warfare back in the Philippines. Assassins had jumped through his open windows and blasted him with gunfire while he slept. The next night the cousin appeared to Rod in a dream, begging Rod to find his false teeth and return them to him.

Rod went to his cousin’s home and found the teeth in a pile of blood-soaked sheets the police had thrown in a corner.

“I put them in his coffin, but he kept coming back to me with his arms spread out.”

Late one night, Baker’s phone rang. It was the aunt.

Her voice was so hoarse he barely recognized it.

“I miss you.”

He lay in the dark, staring out the window. A few blocks away on Broadway, unseen neon signs sent colored pulses over the rooftops. It surprised him, how happy he was to hear from her.

“Me, too.”

“Still want to go off?”

“Ha. Yes.”

He heard another voice, and then the aunt said: “I have to go now.”

During the sweltering week that followed Labor Day, Baker’s terror became extreme. It had something to do with the time of year, the cusp between seasons. Kids wearing school uniforms walked by people sunbathing in the park. You could dive in the ocean and buy Halloween candy. He rounded the corner one afternoon and there was Jeannie, standing by his building. She had cut her hair very short and her face looked naked, more angular. Another rumor had it that she was not coming back to school, but instead moving up to Maine to write.

“Did you change the locks?”

“What’s your best guess?”

“I need to get my clothes and things.”

“Any time.”

Early the following Sunday, he heard car doors slam and leaned out the window to see Jeannie walking across the sidewalk to the building, while the man she was with—it was the editor, after all—slouched against the car.

He buzzed her in and lingered in the living room, listening to clothes hangers zip over the closet rod. Finally, he went into the bedroom. Jeannie stood by the bed, staring down at several dresses—one he recognized she had worn at their rehearsal dinner—and a few sweaters she had pulled from drawers.

“What the fuck, man? Where are my clothes?”

“I gave them to Goodwill.”

“You never gave a thing to Goodwill in your life.”

“You’ve obviously been surviving pretty well without your clothes.”

“That doesn’t matter. They’re mine. What happened to them?”

“I threw them out the window.”

Jeannie sat down on the bed. He sat next to her.

“Did you really?”

“Yes.”

“And they disappeared?”

“Pretty much. You know how people are around here.”

“Why did you do that?”

He just shook his head. They sat there in silence. After a minute, she touched his shoulder.

“I probably should tell you that my aunt died last week.”

“Last week?”

“Did you guys have some kind of thing, by any chance? It’s fine if you did.”

Baker stood up. Being this tall could sometimes be a disadvantage, since people tended to look to him for answers and he had none. Even Jeannie was doing it now, staring up at him with a question in her eyes, until she remembered. She got up and leaned her head against his chest and he put his arms around her. He hadn’t actually touched her in a long time and it was painful to smell her familiar soap and shampoo, to feel the curve of her back through her t-shirt. He closed his eyes as her arms tightened around him, imagining her clothes flying through the night like superheroes, leaping at their chance.


Photo used under CC.




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About Author

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The London Times called Joseph Cummins’ novel The Snow Train “a wonderful, sustained piece of intelligent and emotive writing.” His short story “Killed by Car at 12th & Collingwood,” published in the Apple Valley Review, has been nominated for the 2018 Best of the Net anthology. He has also published short fiction in The Carolina Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Sleet Magazine, Blue Lake Review, Chagrin River Review, and elsewhere. He has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and is a MacDowell Colony Fellow. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, and teaches English composition at Hudson Country Community College in Jersey City.

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