She couldn't remember the last time she had been totally alone at 7:30 AM on a Sunday. Usually she had two children and a husband to make breakfast for, but today they were all away at the zoo. Their father had been promising to take them for a long time. She had made breakfast anyway, and quietly laughed when she realized she had set the dishes for the entire family.
As she ate her eggs, her toast, and drank her milk at the nearest setting to the kitchen, she outlined the rest of the day for herself. Mentally going over every inch of the house, she discovered that there really wasn't much to do: she had given the house a thorough cleaning the day before, in anticipation of a visit from her mother, which had ultimately been canceled. There were just the few dishes, glasses, and forks to wash and put away, and a load of the children's dirty laundry to put through a wash cycle. Sunday night was leftover night, so the only cooking would consist of opening a few Tupperware containers and heating.
Her husband had promised that they would return at 1:30 PM. She realized that she had about four hours of free time, all considered. She couldn't remember the last time she had been without responsibility or commitment at 7:45 AM on a Sunday. She put the clean dishes back in the cabinets and washed everything that was lying about in the sink, then put it all up on the dish rack to drip dry.
As she made her way upstairs to retrieve her children's dirty laundry, she stopped to straighten a crooked painting hanging in the living room, which made her consider that maybe the house wasn't as spotless as she had thought. While climbing the stairs up to the children's room she kept looking around for dust bunnies or stains on the walls, but saw nothing.
The laundry was in a new, light blue hamper she had bought earlier in the week, which both children shared, just as they shared the room. She liked the room. She liked the whole house, really. It was cozy and familiar, but also sleek and elegant. Especially when it was as clean and orderly as it was now.
She liked the laundry room. The smell of detergents, the comfortable rumbling, and the soft, moist air that was slightly hard to breath. She put the children's clothing in the washer, and tossed in two cups of powdered detergent. She left the machine to churn, and, after grabbing the wash timer, went upstairs to the master bedroom where she and her husband slept.
The master bedroom was her favorite room, because it was white. The kitchen and living room were necessarily cluttered, and she had felt like the children's room needed at least some faint color, but the white walled master bedroom just had two twin beds and a pair of nightstands of the same make. The surface of the nightstands were occupied by a few tastefully placed books and magazines, and, on the husband's nightstand, a pair of reading glasses. Everything else was tucked neatly in the drawers or in the closet.
While loading the washer she had decided that, having absolutely nothing more to do, she could rest a while in her favorite room, and of course set the timer to wake her by the time the clothes had to be moved to the dryer. She would disrupt the sheets she had made this morning, and take a nice, quick nap before she decided what to do with the rest of her day. As she settled in, she already knew that the first thing she would do when she woke up was make the bed again, and she smiled.
It was a fresh, sunny day, and a breeze and bird songs and light were coming in through the one open window in the room. She thought about her family as she fidgeted around, trying to find a comfortable position. She loved them very much, and now that they were gone and she had nothing to distract her, she felt empty. She knew, however, that they would always come back to her. She would always have a husband and two kids to support her, with a third child on the way, and this house to comfort her. She knew she would be alright as long as she had the warm uterine lining of her dream house wrapped around her. And that would be forever.
She had always fantasized that she and her husband would die on the same day, arms wrapped tightly around each other, like the tragic, but beautiful Romeo and Juliet. But for it to feel complete she knew she wanted her two kids to die that same second as well, hugging one another, and their parents. She hoped that when it came time for the service the funeral people would peel back the roof of the house, so that everyone in attendance would see how in love they all were. Of course after the service would be the burial, and they would lower the house carefully into a rectangular hole nine feet deep and cover it with dirt. And when all their flesh rotted away she hoped that their rib cages all hooked into one another. They would be in an embrace forever in this white room, flooded with early morning light. A bird would be singing outside, and neither it, nor the jangle of the milkman's bottles would interrupt their lazy, weekend slumber.
She sang a lullaby to herself until she fell asleep.
She woke with the shrill ring of the timer, and right away realized that she had had a dream. She remained horizontal, staring at the ceiling, while she went over the dream in her head.
In the dream she was a teenager who had dyed her brown hair blond and sat talking in the railway station with her friends. She had kissed a boy named Felix in her dream and fell in love. Even now she could feel that love, mixing with guilt and drowsiness. She and Felix had gathered discarded newspapers off the streets, made a little campfire in the railway station--which now reminded her of the campfire her husband had constructed on their camping trip last month--and watched as the wind flung the burning paper in every direction.
She sat up, realizing that she had once been much happier. The timer stopped ringing, and the sudden silence reminded her that there was some wet laundry downstairs which needed to be dried, then carefully sorted and hung up. She thought about the young her, who was daring and blond, and felt real love around makeshift campfires constructed from newspaper. For a second she hated her family, but the feeling passed quickly.
She decided that the wet laundry could wait a while, and that she would look through the photo albums that her mother had left in the closet on her last visit.
She tossed the sheet covering her legs and lower torso to the side, and opened the closet door. She knew that the box of photo albums was unlabeled and located in the back, under a couple of other boxes. She decided that she would just flip through a few quickly as long as her mind was dwelling on the subject, before she got caught up in doing something else. She reminded herself of how much free time she had today. She didn't even have to cook lunch because her husband was taking the kids to a restaurant after the zoo.
She sorted through the boxes, carefully stacking the ones she wasn't interested in a few feet outside the closet door. She had also made up her mind to call Felix, if she could get a hold of his number, and catch up. She was certain she had to have at least one friend or neighbor who was still on good terms with him, or at least in possession of his phone number.
When she found the box she was looking for, she brought it over to her twin size bed and opened it. There were more loose photographs than she had expected, and only three photo albums. She picked out a lavender album with an embossed teddy bear on the cover, thinking that it looked most like the type where people would store baby pictures. Inside she found a family picture with her and her husband standing with their hands on their kids' shoulders, smiling at the camera. Her belly was already swollen from the child growing inside. She looked the photo over, closed the photo album and set it down at the far end of the bed.
She picked up the next photo album, which was mauve and styled after leather, with little plastic flowers in the corner. She opened it. The first picture was also a family shot of her, and her husband and kids, except at the beach. She gave this one only a glance before flipping to the next page. The first photo on the second page was one of her gesturing and smiling at something unseen. The second picture was her husband sitting on a bench on an esplanade in cargo shorts. The kids had their backs to the camera and were leaning over a railing, and she was leaning against the side of the bench. She wondered who had taken the picture.
She set this album aside on top of the other one, because she hadn't been able to figure out the chronology. She had been visibly pregnant in all the photos she looked at.
She sighed as she picked up the final album, wondering if her mother had given her the wrong box. The first picture she saw was of her playing in a sandbox with her children. One corner of her mouth moved to smile, but it snapped back immediately, and she began quickly flipping through the remaining pages. As soon as she had started flipping she stopped.
She stared at the picture she had found: her mother laying on a delivery table, cradling four bodies covered in amniotic fluid which were wrapped in one blanket. She didn't understand at first, but the proportions of the bodies made it unmistakable. Her mother had just given birth to her, her husband, and her two kids, and was now holding them for the first time in the delivery room. She looked closely, ignoring the scrunched, crying faces, and the loving, tired look of her mother, and saw that she was pregnant in this photo as well.
As she looked through the rest of the pictures she began to feel silly. There was no Felix, except in her dream. She almost laughed, remembering the other times she had mistaken her dreams for reality, and how much further it had gone this time. She had been prepared to start asking around for a phone number. The other times it had only taken her seconds to sort out what was real. This time it had taken photographic proof.
She looked through the pictures of her childhood: days vacationing at the beach with mother, walking along the lake in the middle of town, playing in her beloved sandbox, and getting piggyback rides from her father.
When she had looked through one album she didn't bother with the rest, and carefully put everything away in the box, and the box in the closet. She put away all the other boxes as well, and closed the door. Then she carefully made the bed, and went downstairs to move the wet laundry to the dryer.
She was pleased to realize that the clothes hadn't sat too long, and began relocating them, one article at a time. She recalled when, where, and for how much she had bought each one. She remembered how she had picked each t-shirt out, and what they had been stained with most severely. She remembered checking the sizes on all the pants before purchasing, and all the things she later found in the pockets. She closed the dryer door and turned the machine on.
She had just enough time for another nap, and then some time left over to sort through the washed and dried laundry, and hang it up. As she walked away from the laundry room and back upstairs she thought about a dinner she could make. Tonight was leftover night, but there would be plenty of time to make something even after her husband and children got back, and she suddenly felt like making dinner. She went into the master bedroom and closed the door behind her.
She set the timer to the time of the dry cycle and set it on her nightstand. She walked over to the window and looked outside at the rows of nice white houses and the blank blue sky. She sighed, which turned into a yawn, and closed the window and lowered the blinds. She decided it would be much easier to sleep without the light and noise.
Going over to bed, she looked over at her husband's and considered sleeping in it just until the children's clothes were dry. She knew it was warm from the sunlight that had been falling on it. She went over to her own bed and carefully got under the covers, taking care not to untuck all of the corners. Her husband would have known if she slept in his bed, and wouldn't be angry, but would ask questions.
There was a low hum in the room from the working gears of the dryer downstairs and she noticed it as soon as she got comfortable enough to be still. She listened and the drowsiness returned almost instantly. She recalled the lullaby she had sang to herself before and tried to sing it again, but was too tired and too comfortable to move any of the muscles in her mouth or throat. She sang it in her mind instead and the lyrics soon turned into different thoughts entirely.
She fantasized about her entire family dying on the same day, in an embrace, their rib cages hooked together, warm and cozy without their skins. Their house their coffin. And there, where her uterus had once been: the skeletons of a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other in death. And where the uterus of the mother had once been: a family hugging each other
The Name Harvest
Right before sunset on a Saturday and so the shadows were long and the light was orange and low.
"Still settled on Kurt Jr. for a boy?" Elaine asked, turning a corner in beautiful Carefree, Arizona. It was a warm afternoon and that heat, along with the heat generated from walking and moving, made Elaine sweat a little.
"A boy should be named after his father. You're lucky I'm playing along with this at all," replied Kurt, comfortable and dry.
"I know sweetie. I know darling."
"How about you Elaine?" Kurt asked, "Still settled on some random name off a tombstone?"
"Yes. Well, no. It's not going to be a random name. You know that."
"What are you planning to tell everyone? What are you planning to say when someone asks you who the baby's named after?"
"DO people ask that?"
"I don't know Elaine. I'm as new to this as you. But say someone does, and I'll bet you any sum of money right now that someone will... What are you going to tell them?"
They were walking along a gathering of tall cacti that cast even taller shadows. Their bodies blinked in and out of stripes of light as Elaine considered this.
"I don't know."
"See? You're ashamed."
"I am not ashamed. What have I got to be ashamed of? I just want my child's name to have some meaning, just like anyone else. Why, only last week someone was telling me all about how they named their baby with the Zodiac."
The moon was already peeking out through the darkening blue on the other side of the sky. It was full and so brighter and bigger than it usually was toward sunset.
"Oh so will we have an Aquarius or a pair of little Geminis running around the neighborhood before long?"
"Oh don't make fun. It's not like that at all. She had a beautiful little girl and she named her Mary."
"Wouldn't happen to have been that crackpot friend of yours would it? Trying to one up her again?"
"No, Sally's daughter is named Samantha, as you know full well. And I know you don't like her, but she's a childhood friend, darling. She was like my sister, try to understand."
"Sally's a fool if I ever saw one. Everything that comes out of her mouth is gossip or fashion blabber or a 'news' article she read on how the stages of the moon affect your emotions."
"Honey, I believe in that," Elaine said, carefully brushing her fingers on the skin on a cactus, nimbly dodging the needles.
"I know, but with you it's... different."
"A left here," Elaine pointed out, as they reached an obvious corner.
"I know. I know how to get there Elaine."
As they turned a corner a warm breeze appeared that they hadn't noticed before.
"Sometimes you just amaze me. I mean, I don't understand how you get these ideas sometimes." A plane caught Kurt's eye. It was slowly making its way across the orange sky, but in reality definitely moving very fast.
"I've always liked the name. Of it, that is," Elaine said. For a second Kurt seemed to see one wing of the plane burst into flames, and his heart sped up, but he quickly realized that the plane had just tilted and in that moment that wing had reflected the setting sun directly to his eyes.
"It's named after the town, just like any old cometary," he said.
"But. Carefree Cemetery. Doesn't it just seem profound? I mean the street names and everything are nice--they're why we moved here--but this really takes the cake, I think."
"Maybe that's why YOU moved here, but those of us here still grounded in reality moved here because they got a job offer and wanted to support their wife and child."
"Oh I know all that sweetie, and I love you for it, but still. Don't you think there's something special about this town?" The sky had also grabbed Elaine's attention. Now the darkening sky was no longer behind them, but on their left, so she could see the faint stars appearing, and remembered what it was like in the summers with Julian and Sally, and then later that last summer with Kurt, when she had fallen in love with the only person who wasn't in love with someone else.
"Well, it is a nice place to raise a family. Quality housing, clean air. Warm year round."
"Yeah, I guess it is. Oh." Elaine noticed that they had walked right through the parking lot and were directly in front of the archway inscribed with the words 'CAREFREE CEMETERY' in fat letters which almost seemed to be made of little tombstones.
"Alright Elaine we're here, let's get this done."
They walked into the cemetery side by side.
"This place reminds me of Grandpa," Elaine said, walking between two particularly ornate headstones, "Sally's grandfather, I mean." The ground was brown, and not at all like the fresh grass either of them had been expecting.
"You're the one who wanted to come here."
"No, no, it's good. I feel like he's here with us."
"Is he going to help us pick out a name so we can get out of here and go home?"
"Sweetie, please don't. Don't poke fun."
"Okay Elaine, start judging. How about this- Karen?"
"No. Died too young."
"Burned out bright," Kurt offered, still thinking of the airplane he had seen.
"We don't know that- no inscription. Try to look at the ones with the inscriptions. Also, are you sure sure? Kurt Jr. for the boy?"
"I've only answered a million times. I'm sure Elaine," Kurt replied.
"Okay. Well, how about this one. 'Here Lies Bertha - Loving Wife And Daughter.'"
"Really Elaine? Jesus Christ, I thought you wanted meaning or something."
"I'm just trying to get started is all I'm doing honey."
"We don't have a lot of time Elaine, I'd like to remind you. It's going to be dark soon." There had been a sign outside the cemetery, right by the arch, where a sign warned visitors that Carefree Cemetery would be closed at night. What they were afraid of Kurt wasn't sure, but Elaine knew.
"I remember," Elaine said, kneeling in front of a headstone with a little difficulty, "Oh this one is nice. They died on the same day. 'R.I.P. Janet and David.' I want my daughter to have a love life like that. Like Romeo and Juliet."
"You want her to have a love life like Romeo and Juliet?"
"You know what I mean. They died a little young, though, for my liking. Let's move on."
"Yes, let's please move on," Kurt said, remembering a summer when he would have happily killed himself to be with Elaine. He wasn't sure what he felt about it now, but it seemed silly to consider it.
The shadows were starting to disappear, not getting any shorter, but fading into the darkening light around them.
"You know Elaine, it really doesn't matter. It's going to be a boy," Kurt said.
"We don't know that yet."
"I know," he said, putting his hands on Elaine's shoulders, and then moving them quickly down to her swollen belly, "I mean I know that it will be."
"How do you know?" Elaine asked. She had just seen a ghost out of the corner of her eye, or thought she did.
"Well, it's silly. It sounds like something you would believe in," Kurt said. Elaine's face twisted a bit, but Kurt was looking at another plane, and this one looked more like a blinking star than an airplane. He remembered that each star is a sun, and wondered what life would be like if their sun blinked like that. Kurt moved a strand of sunny hair from his pregnant wife's face, and the sky was now mostly a bright saturated blue. He decided that if that were the case he and Elaine would be inside making love, not out here trying to name an imaginary girl.
Something seemed wrong, in that second.
"I think my water just broke," Elaine announced.
Lullaby For The Male Voice
Carefree, Arizona was a wonderful town that lived up to its name. From Carefree's giant sundial, the third largest in the Western Hemisphere, standing in what approximated a town square, to Carefree Cemetery, way on the outskirts of town.
The street names were ecstasy to Cassy, like to many residents, because they fit. Around the center of Carefree, where the sundial stood, ran Easy Street; sporting two roundabouts. Out of that obvious beginning sprouted Tranquil Trail, Ho Road, Hum Road, Serene Street, Nonchalant Avenue, Languid Lane. Each street name more carefree than the last. The street names were ecstasy, but no Ecstasy Esplanade was to be found. In fact the only water in Carefree was inside pipes, cacti, people- certainly not in any place that would be open and large enough to allow for an Esplanade to be constructed beside it.
Cassy sang the Lullaby For The Male Voice to her two year old boy and he pretended to sleep. She rocked him gently and the crocodiles with their yellow eyes and their sleepless nights were everywhere in the room, and Cassy was the one who had lured them. The boy was afraid and wanted her to stop.
Cassandra, named by her father after an old girlfriend, was tired and alone. There was no male voice available to sing her favorite lullaby to her favorite creature in the world. Sometimes she still cried at night about the man she had loved, who would have loved the child too, had he ever had a chance to see him. Still, she was young, and her baby was getting on in years to the extent that she could finally trust him to a babysitter and go to social gatherings, trying to meet someone who she could love, who could love a child, and who could carry a drowsy, masculine tune.
She cradled her child by her chest as she would only be able to do for a short while longer, before he grew too big and too resistant to the idea, and carried him out to the backyard and to the swing set, where she rocked him, singing. It was a nice, warm night in Carefree, as it always was, and the moon was nearly full: the pale light coloring everything slightly blue. There was an accompaniment of cicadas, from unknown places around the backyard, and Cassy's little boy opened his eyes just a slit, hoping that his mother wouldn't see, and quickly closed them again. There were more crocodiles out here, hiding in every shadow like the cicadas hide in every bush and shrub. Cassandra sang,
"Quietly in the window yellows the moon,
In the soft embrace of the clouds.
In Africa the elephants sleep
and birds perch on their ears.
Birds perch on the elephants' ears
Sleeping and snoring a song.
Only the crocodiles don't sleep
Quietly someone they eat.
And behind great China's wall
The Chinamen quietly snore.
In the great river Yangtze
Submarines sleep in the deep.
So many wonders can be found in the world
All of them you'll never count.
There in the window one drunken fool
This song started to shout."
Her child shut his eyes tight, hoping that his mother would think he's asleep, and let him wrap himself in a warm sheet- to feel comfortable, cozy, and safe. His mother didn't stop, but kept repeating the song again and again, and pushing the swing back and forth feebly with the tips of her shoes. She stared at a cactus illuminated by the moon, right on the opposite side of the yard, which hid the clearest crocodile of all. In his mind the crocodiles were already inches from him- the only thing stopping them was the internal darkness of his eyelids, and the dead limpness of the body in his mother's arms. Cassie was thinking about her husband, and the cactus, seeming to her more like a person than a crocodile, was where her eyes naturally turned.
Eventually the boy was truly asleep, and Cassie was tired, so she put him to bed, and the boy dreamt of approaching tanks, and Cassie of pigeons living on crumbs thrown by park goers.
Cassandra always loved the toxic thrill of getting to know someone new. That feeling usually faded as she reached a point when she felt she was on good, comfortable ground with this former stranger. It had remained longest with her husband, and he had faded before the feeling had a chance to. That night, for the fourth time since her husband's death, she was going out to dinner with a man who she was hoping would result in the same strength of feeling, but last long enough to watch her son grow up.
Her feelings with her son were different. She knew that she would never know him as fully as she knew him now, so she hung on for comfort, and braced herself for the transformations. She feared only the day he grew as old as she, and settled into family life and a job and a pattern. She couldn't stand the idea of that change slowing down, but, as all the people she grew bored of, she wanted him to be happy, so she would allow the change to slow, and bear him for the rest of her life, smiling.
She finished assembling her purse for her date. The last thing to go in, as always, was a book of sheet music folded in two: the letters of the gilded title Lullaby For The Male Voice were stretched and cracked by the crease. She was standing by the front door, balancing the purse on her knee, and carefully zipping it up, as the zipper was a little busted. Cassie's mother and her child were in the living room- the boy's happy screams muffled by the closed door. She finished zipping up the purse and slung it along her shoulder, then turned with an almost military movement to the door, pulling her skirt a little further down along her thighs, even though she knew that no one could see her in the dark, and that she would adjust her skirt a hundred more times before the night was over. Having done all this, and feeling totally prepared, she opened the door and stepped outside, feeling a buckle in her confidence as soon as she passed over the threshold and saw the emptiness outside. The unpleasantness faded as she started walking and gaining momentum. She was about to transverse the streets of Carefree to meet a man at a beautiful restaurant, and her blond hair was trailing behind her, smooth and perfect. She was excited.
The moon was out that night, and Cassie could see it reflected on her windshield, distorted by the curve and the angle, and half-swallowed by the clouds. She fumbled her cold-fueled, excited momentum for a moment, as she rounded her car and climbed into the driver's seat, but regained it in time to turn the ignition key with a particularly energetic, meaningful motion. She backed out of the driveway like she was about to tear down the street at 100 miles per hour, but caution and timidness gripped her again as she was faced with a blank, black road. She turned on the headlights and drove carefully forward into the semi-circle of light eternally in front of her. She was on Peaceful Place, and was pleased to see that it was true to its name.
She thought about her other dates as she drove down her street. Each one was great in their own way, but none in the way she was looking for. For a start, none of them had the right lilt in their voice. They were all so solemn when they sang The Lullaby For The Male Voice that she started to feel the same crocodiles her son saw, crawling underneath her eyelids, and nesting behind her eyes. The most important thing that the dates had taught her was that she could find out all she needed to know about a person from the way they sang the lullaby, and after that there was no need to go on with any conversation. She felt like she had been working at people with a child's plastic shovel all her life, and now that she had bought an excavator she hit the rocky bottom much quicker.
Cassie turned onto Never Mind Trail. Thinking about the other failed attempts to find a father for her child had drained her of all the excitement that had possessed her just minutes ago, and she began doubting that her excitement had even been genuine. A crocodile curled up and sank to the bottom of her stomach. She decided to give up on people forever.
She had been to The Elephant two times before, and enjoyed herself. Now her third visit was already playing out in her brain, and she was growing increasingly miserable sitting in the driver's seat of her car, ordering a polite salad in her mind.
She turned onto Carefree Drive. As she turned each visit to the restaurant went black in her mind. She saw the lavishly and thematically decorated building turn dark inside and out- a feeble, white 'CLOSED' sign smiling through the night like a woman's teeth. Some familiar excitement was building in her now- the thought of defiantly turning home. Yet it mingled with a feeling of defeat, regret, and the apprehension of having to face her child and her mother without a prospective husband once again, so nothing came of the impulse.
Even as Cassie still held the bitter, multiplied image of the closed restaurant in her mind, she felt herself warming up to people again- thinking about all the people that made the cogs of the opening and closing of the restaurant turn. She felt deeply grateful to people, that they had perfected such a graceful dance that it allowed her, sometimes, to avoid interaction with them. She thought there was something beautiful in that. The crocodile had dissolved in her stomach acid, and she was on her way to The Elephant again, instead of just driving down a road.
Her heart even warmed towards her date. She knew little about him and thought that he could turn out to be a musician. Cassandra and her new man would climb upon the roof of The Elephant, sit with their legs hanging off the side, and chirp The Lullaby For The Male Voice to each other in smiling voices, inside a walking dream.
She smiled, pushed down on the gas a little, and rolled down her window. She was almost to Easy Street, off which both the giant sundial, and the restaurant were located. The only problem, she realized, was that she couldn't tell how she herself sang lullaby, because the voice in her mind was different from the truth. She turned on Easy Street, but drove onto Ecstasy Esplanade and hit the breaks.
An Esplanade is a pedestrian street, so Cassandra got out of her car, not even bothering to lock the door behind her. She walked down the pleasant, smooth concrete of the street, moving faster and faster until she was going at a run. On one side of the Esplanade was land: the Elephant in plain view, and brightly lit. On the other side was water. All the water from all the cacti in Carefree. Why Cassie was running she didn't know, until she got to where she was going.
She saw the light of day peeking out from behind the night sky at one startling spot, which formed the most magnificent spotlight Cassie had ever seen. It was shining on a giant cactus, made from water and standing thirty feet up in the air, in which a naked woman swam. The surface of the cactus flowed and mutated constantly, the contours remaining more or less the same all the time. The sun shined- a sunset contained within a little tear in the sky. The psychedelic colors of the sunset ran through every facet of the cactus, and the woman was a little speck in it all. Cassandra shouted everything she could think to shout to her, but nothing seemed to catch her attention. The sun was slowly but surely going down, and soon the little sunny patch would match the rest of the sky.
Cassie sat down, legs dangling over the edge of the esplanade. It almost seemed like a swimming pool, with an even border on at least this side. Cassandra glanced at the swimming woman one more time, and made up her mind. She unzipped her purse and took the worn, bent sheet music from it, and then jumped into the water. The juice of the cactus innards was ice cool and smooth as liquid metal, not sticky and warm like Cassie had expected. When the shock of the cold hit her brain her eyes popped open, and she found it was clear as well. She felt a current carrying her fast, away from the Esplanade. She fought at first, struggling against the current, but then she thought of the poor pigeons in the park, living on crumbs that strangers drop at whim, and relaxed every muscle in her body, even letting the breath flow out of her mouth and rise to the surface without her. Only her left hand was tense- clutching music desperately.
And as suddenly as her car had ended up at the Esplanade, she was inside the watery tube of the cactus. Motion stopped, and she was suspended in water, positioned like a frog floating in formaldehyde, but feeling like the center of everything. Indeed she glanced and saw the woman swimming in quick, graceful circles around her like the moon orbiting the earth. Then Cassandra remembered her lost breath and kicked frantically, panic pooling in her lungs, and rising up her throat. She was at the tip of the cactus in a matter of seconds, where physics had been carrying her all along, and sweet life pushed the insides of her lungs apart again.
The gap in the night sky was almost closed up now- the sun was entirely out of view and now the hole was a light, evening blue. Cassie's breathing slowed itself as she stared. The brighter stars were beginning to appear. She hadn't realized she had been underwater for that long.
Once her breathing returned to normal, and she was once again capable of exhibiting all the symptoms of surprise, she noticed the swimming woman floating alongside her, focused on the hole as well, and gasped. The woman heard this and looked over at her, smiling. Cassandra was at a loss for a few seconds, mouth agape, but eyes examining this strange creature. Then Cassie remembered, and handed the woman the sheet music. Looking at the title, the woman immediately beamed and began to sing, in a happy, carefree voice, The Lullaby For The Male Voice.
"Quietly in the window yellows the moon,
In the soft embrace of the clouds.
In Africa the elephants sleep
and birds perch on their ears.
Birds perch on the elephants' ears
Sleeping and snoring a song."
The woman hesitated, both her and Cassandra aware that the water was filling up with crocodiles. Cassandra nodded encouragingly, deciding.
"Only the crocodiles don't sleep
Quietly someone they eat."
The crocodiles were upon them, tearing apart the flesh of their calves with their razor sharp teeth, adding a red coloring to the water that went well with their glowing yellow eyes. The woman pressed on.
"And behind great China's wall
The Chinamen quietly snore.
In the great river Yangtze
Submarines sleep in the deep."
Every inch of the cactus was now teeming with crocodiles, ripping skin and meat. Eating.
"So many wonders can be found in the world
All of them you'll never count.
There in the window one drunken fool
This song started to shout."
Cassandra knew everything about this woman. Everything that had the remotest relevance. They smiled at each other, almost gone now. Their muscles and fat were in ribbons, dancing and tangling in the water, and some dissolving slowly in the stomachs of man eaters. Their blood stained the entire cactus, which was losing form now that so many rapid beasts were crammed into it.
Still Cassandra liked The Lullaby. It was honest and not sickly sweet like all the ones her mother had ever sang. It was funny, finally. She always smiled at the ending. If she ever had grandchildren, she decided she would like it sung to them. Cassandra and the swimming woman embraced with all the body and all the arms they had left.
Cassandra remembered her mother- sweet soul in the arms of a man who didn't love her. She remembered her father- sweet soul holding a woman he didn't love. There was no such problem here.
Cassie and the woman died on the same day, in the same second, in an embrace. Once the crocodiles were done with them they receded back into their hiding places.
Been years since I've seen him, and the longer it was the more I still loved him. There were green streamers on the walls and a small artificial pond out back that had a few statues of frogs with their open mouths facing up to the sky and they seemed to be ALL mouth, with no throat or innards. Just mouth. And that's how I felt, kissing Julian. All the nerves swam to my mouth and I was all mouth too. I didn't like that.
I liked when he hugged me and made me warm.
My parents were there too. It was the sort of party that your parents brought you to, if you were my age, and not many there were of course. He was. He was exactly my age, my parents had always claimed, but it's not true. Still, the thought of it made me feel even warmer as he held me.
The thought of my parents seeing me made me shiver, because he was like my brother. He was my brother until we were about five and then I knew better, and now he was holding me and nuzzling my neck and saying, Sally, Oh Sally, with his sticky voice.
His voice had heat as well, like heat waves and sound waves flowing in sync, especially when his mouth was close, but not quite inside mine. Julian called me a fool and laughed and I frowned and then forgave him because his voice and his arms were the warmest at the party. Every other man had skin the shade of frost, with sickly uneven hairs sticking out of their shirt cuffs.
Julian wore all black, but black wasn't cold. I knew even then that black is the warmest color of all. It's the color you see inside your eyelids as you lie under your warm sheets, just falling asleep. The color you see when you're safe inside your mother's uterus.
Julian was like a wall of my mother's uterus that had reconstructed itself in the world, to warm and protect and nourish me. And he held me and whispered I Love You a million different ways, sending little warm gusts to wrap around my neck and flow down past the frilly bit of my dress that rested on my collarbone.
When we were small he held me too. My grandfather sang us the same lullaby every night and we closed our eyes and hoped he would think we were asleep, and after he left Julian got up and got in my bed and hugged me until the crocodiles had all run away from the heat we made.
There at that party too he sang me the song and no crocodiles came, just more human heat from his mouth. He had loved me a long time, so I held him closer. I was afraid that the frogs would come to life and send waves from the pond to carry everyone away. I didn't want to have to find everyone again.
As the party waned and the guests started leaving we were still one clump of human and I knew that this was how I wanted it to be when I died. I wanted to be warm in his arms, and then we would both die like Romeo and Juliet, and the warmth would leave us both, so no one else could warm themselves with either of us.
My parents chatted and didn't even glance. He told me that I made him laugh and that he loved how beautiful and how naive I was, and when I asked him if he would take me somewhere warm someday he laughed and ran his hand through my long black hair, and told me Yes Honey, Yes. I Will Love You There Forever, And Never Let You Leave.
Great Wall Of China
Betty quit, then drove over to the supermarket, passing the lake where the giant sundial used to be. It was early morning, and her husband was still in bed, but Betty had a shopping list longer than her forearm burning a hole through her purse- the compartment where her daily pack of cigarettes traditionally rested.
Thanksgiving was tomorrow, so there were people all over the store, clogging up the aisles and eroding the usually perfect arrangements of boxes, cans and jars. Sometimes Betty liked the shelf arrangements more than the people. She liked the way the products seemed to suggest the thin, white, almost invisible shelves through their organization alone. She had to keep reminding herself that it was people even more anonymous than these afflicted shoppers who made those patterns possible.
Betty hadn't brushed her teeth since her last cigarette, and so she could still taste the ghost of the very much material smoke in her mouth. Her whole brain felt like a giant itch, and she fought through the crowds in the canned foods aisle with a small basket inadequate to her goals, and wished for the itch to leave.
She got her shopping list out after a minor struggle, and noticed that, aside from the purposeful crease exactly at the half-point of the paper, another crease had formed on the list, and they, together with the section of the edge they defined, formed a triangle. As Betty tried to iron out the unintended crease with her thumb, she read over her list again, though she had it pretty nearly committed to memory.
There was Turkey and Stuffing Mix and Yams and Canned Cranberry Sauce, which, along with the Peas, was the reason she was in the canned food aisle…
Betty stopped a moment, which wasn't a problem, since her way was obstructed anyway, by an overflowing shopping cart trying to go the opposite way, and took an opportunity to peek over at the list of a woman who had just elbowed her in the side a moment ago. She saw that aside from the handwriting their lists were identical.
It occurred to Betty, at that moment, that this wasn't quite true, because at the top of hers were cigarettes. The air wasn't thick enough for her lungs, and the taste in her mouth was turning rotten, and needed to be replaced. The itch in her brain made her want to level the entire crowd, leaving the orderly shelves upright and offering.
Instead she quietly, in the selfish confusion, unzipped the purse of her neighbor, and to her joy and jealousy found a freshly bought pack of cigarettes. Not her brand, but she took them anyway.
She put her basket down on the floor and, unburdened, made her way relatively quickly through the canned food aisle and to the back of the store. She quickly found the door to the bathroom, and rushed in, feeling more at ease already.
On the other side of the door was a forest of palm trees and birds and animals, and none were moving. The room was hot, warmer even then outside, and there was the sound of a waterfall coming from an unknown place. Everything was painted unreal colors. Betty froze, trying to understand.
"Hello!" a voice from somewhere said. Betty looked all around her, but all the exotic birds had their beaks firmly closed, and didn't look likely ever to open them.
"Hello!" it said again. Betty took a tentative half-step forward, peeking past a large tree that obscured most of her vision. She could now see the Great Wall of China stretching between a waterfall and a large white elephant.
"Who's there?" She finally asked, her voice unexpectedly raspy. She cleared her throat loudly and it echoed for a few seconds. No birds flew frightened from their trees.
"Me. I'm over here," the voice replied, and then, when Betty didn't move, continued, "Don't be scared, it's all newspaper."
Betty looked closely at the bark of the tree next to her, and, past the thin, uneven layer of brown paint, saw headlines and photographs and Sunday comics and a million billion lines of tiny text. She touched it and felt the texture of the unvarnished paint.
"It is," she observed quietly.
"Come here," the voice urged again, starting to sound impatient. Betty let go of the tree, and carefully began moving through this newspaper rainforest, trying to look both at her feet and all around her.
It was night. She hadn't noticed before because everything seemed so bright and colorful, but there were stars above her and a full yellow moon was in the sky, wrapped in little wisps of clouds. Betty carefully stepped over a reclining crocodile.
"Watch out. Don't fall in the river," the voice instructed, and Betty noticed that there was a river made up of a painted newspaper current running through the rainforest floor. She hopped over it and found the elephant directly in front of her, staring sadly into her eyes.
Unlike everything else the elephant seemed to be made of plastic, with no newspapers or cheap paint anywhere on his body. Betty realized where she must be.
"Is this that restaurant?" she asked, "Is this that restaurant they closed down?"
"Yeah," the voice answered, stepping out from behind the Great Wall Of China and revealing itself to be a half-naked man, nearly a boy really, with complex patterns and psychedelic colors running across his skin. It took Betty a little time to realize that the mess was supposed to be a tribal design. It looked like it was painted on with the same stuff that colored the trees and the birds.
"So what's all this doing here then?" Betty asked.
"Well it's kind of a weird story," the boy said, "You smoke?"
Betty had briefly forgotten all about her pilfered box of cigarettes, but now felt herself clutching it in her left hand.
"Now and then I do," she said. Still holding the pack down by her thigh, she started picking at the plastic with the nail of her index finger.
"Let's light up a pair and I'll tell you all about everything. But first tell me: you ever wondered about that lake out there?"
"Who are you?" Betty asked accusingly, even as she tore the plastic from around the box and started fishing out a cigarette. The boy smiled.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I never was very good at the niceties… I'm Felix."
"Okay then Felix," said Betty, placing her newly exhumed cigarette in her mouth, "light me up and start talking. Quick though, I've still got a lot of shopping to do."
"Don't worry you've got plenty of time," he said, lighting Betty's cigarette and then his own, "So you came in from the supermarket?"
"Oh that's right isn't it? All these buildings are connected."
"Yeah. They usually lock that door."
They both paused to take a puff, and the smoke floated up toward the ceiling. Felix continued, "You shopping for Thanksgiving? You have a family?"
"I have a husband."
"Listen, if you don't want to tell me what all of this is, fine, but don't expect me to stick around."
"Relax, I'm getting to all of that."
"Get to it faster."
"Let's take a tour," Felix suddenly decided. He threw his barely used up cigarette into the pool at the base of the waterfall and it gave out a little sizzle. Betty furrowed her forehead, still sucking on hers. The taste of this new brand bothered her.
"What haven't I seen yet?" Betty asked.
"Not very impressed anymore, huh? Fine, let me tell you a story. It's about my mother." He took her hand and started leading her into the part of the room where the trees grew thickest and closest together.
"My mother was probably our age when she got married to my father. You're mid-twenties isn't that right?"
They both went further and further into the forest.
"That's none of your business."
"Well, My dad died before I was born. Car crash on one of the roundabouts on Easy Street," Felix continued.
"I'm so sorry," Betty said.
"It's fine! Really. When I was born my mom named me after him, and then raised me for three years alone, until one day she disappeared."
"What happened to her?" Betty asked.
"The thing you've got to understand was that all this time my mom was trying to find me a new father, and she was on her way to a date when she disappeared. This was the early 60's, so lots of pressure."
"So do you know what happened to her?"
"No, not for sure. My theory is, and I hold to it pretty strongly, she just got fed up with all the pressure to conform and drove right out of town and to somewhere where she could be free."
"That's awful. You think she just left you?"
"It's not awful. It's not awful at all, it's beautiful. I wish everybody had the strength to do what my mother had done. If I thought she had done something awful I wouldn't have created all this for her."
"You built all of this because of you mother?"
"She had a lullaby she liked to sing me. It was my first memory. I don't remember the words, but I remember images. There were elephants and birds and crocodiles and deep waters and a yellowing moon… And I put it here because this was where my mom was heading before she drove off. There was already an elephant, and paint and newspapers everywhere from those renovations they never finished. A waterfall. It seemed perfect."
They were both quiet for a bit as they moved carefully through the thickening trees. It was getting darker, but there was a bright slit of light ahead and it was getting closer.
"That's beautiful," Betty finally said, in a solemn whisper, then gave out a little noise of pain and surprise as her cigarette singed her finger. She took a moment to stomp out the butt that had fallen to the ground and they continued on in silence until they came to the narrow slit in the trees.
They squeezed through and emerged into a small clearing, blocked off on all sides by trees packed as closely together as the cigarettes in a fresh pack. Everything was lit by soft, warm light, but if you looked up you could see the night sky bordered by newspaper canopies. In the middle was a table set for two. Felix pulled a chair out for Betty and she took a seat.
"The best table in the house!" Felix said cheerfully, extracting a collar shirt somewhere from below the table, and putting it on, "Hungry?"
"I haven't had breakfast," Betty replied, closely observing Felix's rapidly disappearing chest and the symbols and patterns drawn on it.
"Don't worry, I'll fix that. And if you have any more questions about any of this I'll fix that too, but afterwards I get to ask you a few questions. Alright?"
"Alright," replied Betty. Felix finished buttoning his shirt, straightening it, tucking it in, and went over to a low-hanging branch on one of the trees, where, Betty now noticed, there was a bird sitting in its nest.
Felix scampered up to it and lifted the lifeless creature up, revealing two large eggs. He took them, cradling them with one arm, and returned the bird to its place. Then he jumped down, beamed at Betty, and handed her one.
"What's this? This isn't newspaper," she said, taking it and rotating it in her hands.
"It's what I eat. Crack it open."
"What's in it?"
"Breakfast. Crack it open. Like this." Felix placed his egg on his plate, and, with a spoon, hit it repeatedly until the shell started to crack. From there he peeled the shell off, revealing a breakfast of eggs, toast and milk.
"How?" was all Betty asked.
"With your spoon."
"No, how are all those things in there?"
"The birds lay them like that," Felix replied, digging in. Betty watched him eat for a while, and then picked up her spoon and followed his example. Suddenly she could hear the sounds of birds echoing faintly in the canopies.
Betty ate quickly, glancing all around her between bites, but Felix took his time, and she was done long before he was. She was left to stare up at the sky, as birds flickered past the stars every now and then.
"What are the stars made of?" Betty asked, the first words the entire meal. Felix just held a finger up, hunched over his plate and slowly sucked the last of his runny eggs into his mouth. Finished, he dabbed his mouth with a napkin, and looked up.
"What?" he said.
"What did you make the stars out of?" Betty repeated.
"Oh, well, what are stars usually made of?"
"I don't know. I don't think it's your turn to ask questions yet."
Felix smiled and stood up. "Come on, let's go see the submarines," he said, before disappearing back through the slit. Betty wiped her lips and followed. She emerged immediately at the edge of the forest, and Felix was already there, standing by the painted newspaper river.
"Where did the forest go?" Betty asked.
"So many questions," Felix said, not diverting his gaze from the river, "and I don't know the answer to any of them."
"You said you'd answer them."
"Forget about that right now. Stick your head in the river."
"Do what?" Betty asked, before glancing at the river and seeing, for the first time, that the sky-blue newspaper current wasn't just stagnant, but flowed and broke against the rocks, sending splashes of newspaper into the air.
Betty kneeled down and tested the waters with her hand. They were as warm as the air in the room.
"Why is the water so warm?" she asked. Felix shrugged.
"Well, would you be able to sleep if your sheets were ice?"
Betty looked at Felix and then back down at the river. She took a breath and thrust her head beneath the water. She could hear the current as it bubbled and roared past her head. She opened her eyes and found herself in liquid, clear water.
The river was deep, but even the dark part of the water was illuminated, just as the night above the surface of the water had been. Betty could see a million quiet submarines sleeping, floating just above the very bottom of the river, where the current wasn't as strong and everything was quiet and peaceful. Their metal frames rocked serenely back and forth, otherwise not moving or showing any signs of life.
A dark shape swam past rapidly and Betty instantly submerged, hair covered with shredded newsprint, but otherwise dry.
"There was something down there!" she exclaimed, pointing at the river and looking at Felix. He smiled.
"No! It swam by and scared me."
Felix stopped smiling.
"Oh," he said, "That must have been a crocodile."
"Why on earth would you make a crocodile?" Betty asked, picking the newspaper out of her hair.
"I didn't! I don't know where they came from… But did you see the submarines?"
Betty paused to pour a handful of newspaper back into the river. It flowed away. Then she replied, "Yes. They were beautiful."
"Well alright, I have another question for you."
"You've already asked me so many," Betty said playfully, getting on her feet.
"Well this is the important one: Are you happy Betty?"
"I'm happy," she said, putting her arms around Felix. He held her in turn.
"Will you be happy when you leave here?" he asked.
"Thanksgiving dinner with your husband and maybe a few parents and cousins. A life of happiness raising two children and a dog in a house behind a nice white fence."
"Here, take this," Felix said, letting go of Betty and digging his hand into his pocket, emerging with two small, white pills. Holding them out.
"What are those," Betty asked.
"Poison," Felix replied, smiling.
Betty understood. They couldn't hide here forever. Her husband would get worried and call the police, and they would find her and drag her out. Or, just like the crocodiles had gotten into the river, someday a real estate dealer would come along with some middle-aged couple looking to start a family business that would finance their middle-class suburban life in The Capital Of Leisure: Carefree, Arizona. They would tear everything down, they wouldn't care that the birds were alive and that submarines were sleeping in the river. They would both have to leave someday.
Betty took one of the pills. Felix kissed her on the lips.
"Come on Betty, over here," he said, taking her by the hand, and leading her up a grassy hill that she hadn't noticed before, and up behind the Great Wall Of China. There was a bed there, but around it was a vast field of prairie-grass through which a herd of motionless elephants stampede. It felt like the most private place in the universe.
Betty and Felix tore off all their clothes and, lying down on the bed, both popped a pill in their mouth.
"We're like Romeo and Juliet," Betty remarked, before Felix sealed her lips with his.
The stars were swirling, multi-colored points of light, and the newspaper trees grew rapidly, covering everything in a blanket of psychedelic foliage and in roots that gently caressed. Birds sang and flew, filling every square inch of warm air with the vibrations of song and the flutter of wings. The elephants, gathering speed, passed like ghosts through everything, carrying wind with them and leaving a trail of existence that sparkled and faded in the moonlight like fog, and the river flooded, mixing everything into one substance. Their nerve endings extended everywhere, and they held each other as their movements slowed and everything turned to black.
Betty woke up. Felix was snoring lightly beside her, and now the night sky felt more like a predawn. The elephants were still once again and the branches and roots had retreated. As had the waters. Betty stretched out her arms and legs, then grabbed her purse from under the bed and got out the pack of cigarettes she had stolen the day before. She lit one.
She watched her first puff of smoke rise and disappear into nothingness. Betty found herself enjoying this new brand a lot more the second time. She took another puff.
Felix's snoring skipped and he woke up stretching and yawning. When he noticed Betty he smiled at her. Some of the paint had rubbed off his chest.
"Good morning," he said.
"That wasn't poison," Betty said, handing Felix a cigarette.
"Ha-ha. Well nothing lethal anyway." He took it and lit it up. "Hey Betty, I have one more question for you."
"And what's that?" she asked.
"Someday let's get in a car and drive right out of Carefree together."
Betty exhaled a cloud of smoke and looked. The elephants were standing in the field, painted white, showing through to the newspapers underneath. Beyond the wall the trees stood sparse, reaching up halfway to the ceiling, which was covered in black cardboard with stapled Christmas lights. The river was still, painted snakes of crumpled newspapers arranged to form a line. Behind the cardboard murals of rainforests the green of the exit sign peeked through, and morning light was starting to come in through the sheets the painters had hung to protect the windows.
Betty looked at Felix, at the smooth skin pulled taut by youth, and the brilliant smile that crumpled his face in just the right way. She lay back down and rolled over to kiss him.
"Of course," she replied.
Sally wondered if she could set a carton of milk on fire. She knew that it was coated with a thin layer of plastic, and that the inside was really very wet, but at heart the carton was made of cardboard, and that certainly burned. There was a lighter, one of those grill lighters with the long, thin neck, just laying around the kitchen and Sally was sure that if she introduced the milk carton in her hand to the lighter that was just in reach they would become fast friends and between the two of them fire WOULD grow.
Instead she unscrewed the cap off of the milk carton, tilted it slightly and listened to the milk gurgle into the glass: filling empty space with pure white, layered beneath the shine added by the glass and the fluorescent sun. Sally then closed the milk once again, sealing everything inside, and returned it to the fridge for additional protection. Picking up the now full glass of milk she began to empty it, tilting it the exact angle she had tilted the carton before, only now she was pouring it into her mouth, which was filled with the human fumes of bacteria, and the soft scent of chocolate. She drank slowly, taking almost unwilling gulps, and let each small mouthful sit for a few moments, mixing with saliva and growing sweeter. She looked over the rim of the glass at her kitchen: perfectly ordered and white, like the bubbles obediently lined up against the sides of the glass. More than anything, Sally wanted to see a bit of color light up the room.
Outside the window she could see gray clouds, monochrome and flat, covering all of the sky. The light was barely seething through them, and everything in sight was thoroughly unsaturated: almost colorless. Sally had once learned that white was all the colors of light mixed together, and that black was the lack of all those colors. So now she found it odd to think that they would be able to combine and form gray like they did. But it didn't matter, because to her each of those colors was nothingness: she wanted blues, reds, yellows, and oranges. Everything looked flammable.
The cutting boards, paper towels, paper plates, cheap plywood counter, recipe books, and the gas stove were no-brainers, but that was just the beginning. She found herself wondering how oregano would smell when it burned. Was the liquid that flowed through the tubing in the back of her fridge flammable? What color would the flames be if she set a box of salt on fire? Would the handles of the knives burn?
She felt the coarse fabric of her house dress between the fingers of the hand unoccupied holding the glass. It was a nice, strong material, and Sally could already tell it would burn well, though she had very limited experience burning things. One thing she did know for sure was that alcohol burned, and there happened to be a whole cabinet full of it.
She could mix up the biggest and baddest Molotov cocktail ever and with the rest she could drench the walls and the surfaces of the kitchen and just throw a match on the floor and watch the fire climb the walls. She wondered if she could somehow include the fluorescent light in all the fun. At what temperature did glass melt?
She could set the dining table and, heck, the entire dining room on fire. And then there was the living room too- it was carpeted. She wondered if she could siphon some gas from her car and pour it all over the carpet. She could even do it in some sort of cute design. From the living room the fire probably wouldn't have any trouble spreading upstairs- engulfing the bathroom and the two bedrooms. Pretty soon the fire wouldn't need any edging on from her and would eat away the whole house, leaving nothing in its wake.
Instead she put her glass in the sink and rinsed it with tap water. Then she went back to vacuuming the living room.
The boy was dancing in a room on the other end of town, full of strange, happy people. Betty looked over at her husband, but he was hidden by a newspaper, so she focused on his left arm. His old, baggy skin betrayed veins once nestled more closely to bone. And through them ran newspaper clippings and headlines, pulsating under flesh, eventually fading and being replaced.
They were both sitting on the couch in the living room, eating breakfast at the coffee table, as the dining room was occupied by a mountainous stack of old computers that Betty's husband refused to throw away. There was nowhere else to store them, but Betty made sure to express her displeasure about them often, especially during meal time. Today, though, they ate soundlessly.
Once they both finished their eggs, toast, and milk Betty picked up their empty plates and carried them through the dining room and to the kitchen.
Betty came back into the room carrying a silver tray holding up a matching tea set, and managed to hold on to it even when she saw what had occurred in her absence. Her husband's head was resting on the coffee table in a position it made her uncomfortable just to see, and there was a line through the veins in his left hand. The whole room was scattered with newspaper clippings, and more were slowly trickling out from inside the slashed veins.
Betty set the silver tray carefully aside, on an edge of the table more or less free of newspaper, and went over to her husband, carefully repositioning him so that he looked more comfortable. Once she was done Betty stepped back to look over her handiwork, tilting her head to the side, and was pleased to see that her husband's face had already positioned itself to look happy.
The scraps of hastily cut headlines had coated the entire living room, and Betty set to work carefully picking them up and sorting them. All of them would be thrown away, maybe even burned, but they were her husband's blood after all, and they had patterns screaming out to be recognized. Some papers were lighter colors than others, and some were straighter, and they all belonged with their own kind. The words didn't concern Betty, unless the print itself contained some individuality, since she knew she had seen them all over the years, staring at the freshly read pages over her half-finished breakfasts.
Yet there was no point in ignoring them either, so soon Betty's mind was saturated with brief, punchy statements.
UNEXPLAINED FLOOD IN CITY CENTER
MISSING PERSON DISCOVERED TWENTY YEARS TOO LATE
U.S. COMPUTER STOCKS PLUMMET
'MILK: A CLOSET KILLER?' NEW HEALTH STUDY ASKS
MAJOR COMPANY SEEKS TO CORRECT MISUNDERSTANDING
BIGGEST MASS SUICIDE OF MODERN TIMES
FAMILY OF CROCODILES ESCAPE LOCAL ZOO
Into piles they all went, their edges lined up carefully, and the creases straightened as much as was possible. Betty wasn't sure what to think. If anything was bad blood this was. Why were the headlines important enough to live in her husband's veins all so negative? Why did none of the hope she had always seen in him seemed to shine? How could this smiling man have so much bad in him?
Betty took the piles into the kitchen and burned the headlines one by one on the pale blue gas stove fire, throwing the ashes into the sink and letting the faucet run to carry them away.
HOUSEWIFE'S STOVE NEARING DEATH- NO MAN TO REPAIR
Betty placed her husband's hand in the bucket she always used to mop the floor, to collect the bad memories he had decided to drain. She had considered wrapping up his wrist in the ace bandages she kept in the bathroom, but it hadn't seemed right to do that.
The rest of the living room was clean, and all the splattered newsprint was ashes, safe and wet in the darkness of the garbage disposal. A soft rustling noise was coming from the bucket as the blood poured in, and Felix had a happier look on his face than Betty had seen in years.
DECEASED LOCAL'S EXPRESSION COMFORTS WIFE
The bed upstairs was cold without her husband, and the sound of his familiar snoring wouldn't be there to lull her to sleep, so Betty made her bed by the pile of computers. The old pillars of electronics couldn't do a thing, but they hummed and emanated heat when Betty plugged them in and turned them on. Settling down next to them she felt like she was laying beside a great sleeping elephant, his body humming and whirring with the processes in his giant frame. And when Betty ran her hand lovingly against the computers' warm metal skin it felt like her husband when he was still young.
Not all the computers were exactly lined up, but she would take care of that in the morning. For now she sang her companion a song her husband had taught her long ago that was all about elephants.
BROKEN COMPUTERS WARM WOMAN ON COLD NIGHT
Betty was starting to focus on her husband's life again. Every day she recalled some new detail that made him worthy of love, and each day the happy smile wouldn't leave his face, instead becoming more and more permanent. She couldn't remember any bad times, even if the good times had long since ceased. Betty sat next to her husband all day, remembering, and then slept by her elephant each night, forgetting.
Mornings were simple. She ate a simple breakfast, and cleaned just enough for everything to remain the same. She had never been much of a Tupperware housewife, so she stayed away from larger, more complicated meals, not wanting to feel an obligation to either store or finish them.
One morning everything was gone, and she wasn't sure where to get more.
CITIZEN RUNS OUT OF EGGS
Betty stepped out of her house into the warm Carefree morning, walked over insecurely to her neighbor's front porch, and knocked on the door. She knocked hard for a long time, in case only the dead husband was home and couldn't hear. A woman opened the door.
"Do you know where I could get some more groceries?" Betty asked her right away. The woman looked at her strangely and backed slightly away.
"What?" she asked, scrunching up her face.
Betty didn't understand.
"I ran out. I need to eat. Do you know where I could get eggs?" she asked, enunciating every word very carefully. The woman only shook her head.
"No, I'm not getting this at all. Sorry, are you foreign?" the woman asked distastefully.
Betty could see that the woman didn't speak English, even if her skin was as white as snow and her outfit as American as fireworks on the Fourth of July. Betty started backing down the steps to the porch, body turned to the side and hurriedly speaking.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry to bother you, I'll find someone else to ask. Sorry. Good day. Goodbye."
The woman stood silently, face scrunched up like a newborn, watching Betty go.
SUBURBAN COUPLE INVENTS NEW LANGUAGE
Sitting without food at home, having given up searching after nobody in the neighborhood had understood her, Betty slowly starved, and realized that she hadn't talked to anyone but her husband for twenty-five years.
Felix was still on the couch, stiff and happy. Beginning to smell of rot. He had been the only one who understood her, but what language were these newspaper clippings in, and why did they all seem so unimportant to her?
FAMINE GRIPS HOUSEHOLD
Betty had considered doing desperate things to save herself. She had considered cutting her husband's stomach open and eating the remains of his last breakfast. She had even considered eating her husband himself, and tried nibbling on a bit of his cheek, but he smelled horrid, and the rot was now heavily coloring his skin. The smile that had seemed to show a carefree relief had now morphed into a twisted vagueness.
And his cheek didn't taste like it did when she first kissed him.
There wasn't any life left in him, and it seemed impossible that he should absorb or create any heat, unless set on fire. Now Betty hated him. Now she could see, through the hunger pangs and through the almost tactile stink, how loathsome he had become.
SMELL BECOMES UNBEARABLE
Betty climbed upstairs and locked herself in her pristine bathroom, still smelling wonderfully of her last bath, and of the cleaning products covering the floor like the skin on top of a warm glass of milk. She sat down on the floor and inhaled deeply. Everything was flowers and sweet spices.
Calm now, the hunger at the back of her mind, Betty remembered how her life had gone, and she remembered it all in headlines that no one would ever read.
And suddenly she imagined she could feel the stink of her husband escaping out of her head, and she sprang up and grabbed a can of lilac aerosol air freshener that was standing on the counter and she pushed down on the right place and sprayed.
Sprayed her hair first, soaking it, and the fluid leaked down her face and down her neck and down her body. Sprayed the mirror, so that the foamy liquid blocked her reflected view of the visible odor. Sprayed the carpets, because they seemed to suck smells in and become completely saturated, and she wanted them filled up entirely with the good smells before her husband had a chance. Sprayed the ceiling until the fluid was dripping from it like rain, because she feared that the rot would hide there and the spray wouldn't reach.
Sprayed until the air was as saturated with the smell of lilac as the carpets, and she tore and scratched at her throat, brain and body attempting desperately to let in a little fresh air, or to at least tear out the nerves that were responsible for feeling the chemicals coating her insides. Sprayed until her eyes refused to open, and she wasn't sure if her tears were tears or the wonderful perfume leaking from her soaking hair. Sprayed until her nose was devastated and puffy, and all the pores on her body were slurping up the essence of lilac.
Except that she couldn't smell lilac anymore. The ghostly smell that remained, and that had engulfed all, was of pure chemicals, without a hint of any flowers at all.
But she was happy as she died, and finally let go of the trigger.
Lullaby For The Male Voice (Reprise)
The glass had cut into Samantha smoothly and gracefully, so she didn't notice the pain right away. The first thing she did notice was that the feeling in her foot was unbalanced, as if all the nerves had swam through her flesh to the center of her sole and arranged themselves in a line. And even after she noticed that something was wrong she saw the blood before she felt the pain.
Samantha lifted her foot awkwardly, bending her leg to the outside rather than inside, and though she wasn't able to see her sole, she saw the redness issuing from it plainly in the clear, cold water. She screamed out in pain, and only then did the pain come.
Samantha's swimming instructor rushed into the pool to help her and she felt a bit sick as he pulled the shard of green bottle glass from her foot. The vomit rising in her throat felt like liquid lollipops. The swimming instructor carefully floated her out into the shallow end, where the stairs were, and she bounced buoyantly on his fingertips as her foot throbbed, and the chlorinated water hit her brain like lightning at frequent, though uneven, intervals.
Once she was out of the pool the swimming instructor picked her up and she could feel the hair on his arms, wet like the rest of him and clinging to his skin, rub comfortably against her thighs and her back. Samantha was set down on a dry, clean part of the concrete surrounding the pool, where she could lean against a wall. She wasn't entirely comfortable though, as a bar or beam was competing with her spine for space, and the discomfort forced her eyes open.
The swimming instructor had gone, probably to get a first aid kit, but Samantha felt content to know that her blood had touched him when they were both underwater, and that he had touched her like he hadn't since she was smaller and needed help learning even the basics of swimming- such as getting into the water. Samantha also knew what would happen next.
After the swimming instructor had thoroughly painted her wound with iodine and wrapped the midsection of her foot with an ace bandage, he disappeared from Samantha's vision. He had probably gone to call her parents about the mishap, with the phone in his office. Then, after a long while, he blinked quickly in and out of Samantha's sight as he strode towards the pool. She didn't turn her head, but just stared at the sky through the wire fence that surrounded the pool on four sides. The sky was grey and cold, and goosebumps formed on Sam's skin. The swimming instructor was trying to excavate the broken glass from beneath the water. She could hear the muffled splash of the net as if she were underwater with the shard- waiting to be picked up and carried to land. The lollipops in her throat receded and left behind the taste of rancid meat.
In another while, during which the scraping of the net against the pool bottom had been pushed fully to the back of her ears, Samantha was greeted with the sight of her swimming instructor leaning close to her, smiling in triumph, and holding out the offending shard of green bottle glass. She smiled back at him, finding and tracing a line with her eyes, composed of creases, shadows and hair, going from his nose to his Speedos.
Samantha felt tired, and knew that she was sick. Even her heartbeat, which usually sped up at the sight of her swimming instructor, felt dull and muted. And finally, thanks to the temperature rising inside her, she was warm by the pool on a cold morning, in the same cloak of heat she had often wished for.
Once her parents had arrived she was packed away in the backseat, limbs limp, and neck and spine set at stubborn, unnatural angles. She watched her parents scream and argue with her swim instructor, still wet and Speedo-clad, through a closed and slightly dirty car window. She knew she would not see him again, and she knew she should be sad at this, but she felt nothing. There was also a chance she would never again have to get up at six in the morning and dive into a freezing pool on a grey day. Samantha smiled, to see if the appropriate feeling would arise, but nothing floated up. Her empty smile faded when she saw her parents returning to the car and the swim instructor standing and watching her lips, looking lost and defeated.
Suddenly she felt urgency, but the underlying feeling that caused it was still muffled. Her eyes widened a bit and made contact with the eyes of her swimming instructor, but her face failed to convey any emotion and she just stared blankly at him as the car pulled away.
Ten years later Samantha was turning onto the highway, merging into the traffic she had hoped to avoid. Few things got her out of bed this early in the morning, but today the idea of speeding alone down a deserted highway toward Carefree turned out to be one of them. She decided it all the night before, laying nestled in three layers of covers with her eyes shut. Samantha decided everything and then climbed out of her cocoon for just a second to set the alarm clock to five. She wasn't under any obligation to her alarm, however. She had failed it and herself many times before, and regretted it to the bare minimum extent she was expected to. It was really the next morning, when she heard the alarm and decided to heed it, that she made her decision.
It was many miles to Arizona, and grey clouds were overhead. Samantha hoped to get out from under cloud cover and into the hot desert sun before it started to rain, though she wasn't optimistic. As was natural for a sworn enemy, she observed the harbingers of cold weather closely whenever she came face to face with them, and so understood them well. Just eyeing them, she could tell that the clouds stretched to the next few towns at least, if not states, and that there was no way she was getting out of this traffic jam without hearing the aggressive patter of the rain against the metal frame of her car first. Still, she had a working heater and plenty of gas money to burn through. She had been saving for a possible trip for months, though she had expected something more pedestrian of herself than driving to Carefree.
It wasn't that the town was odd, though it could have been as far as Samantha knew- all her knowledge of it was derived from looking through her father's collection of glove compartment road maps one day when she was twelve, sick and bored in the backseat. All she knew was that it was in Arizona, that it was called Carefree, and that each street title beautifully matched the town name. And all those things suited Samantha just fine. She had long held the view that she had spent her life with too many concerns which stopped her from living in the spontaneous bursts in which she had always thought life should be lived. She was living one now, on the road to many more to follow.
When Sam was in college she was on the swim team. She was fast, had a graceful dive, and had even won a few medals in competition with other colleges. She would cut the water with her body, and propel herself to the other side of the pool almost as if she was being chased by some sharp-toothed monster, but Sam wasn't sloppy either- she was celebrated for her focus and precision. She hadn't done well in college otherwise, not even as far as social life was concerned. The few friends she had won, she felt fairly ambivalent about, and the feeling was mutual. They drifted apart after college was over. Not much else had changed after her education concluded, though she quit swimming.
Sam went over all this in her mind, as she focused on moving her car in choppy bursts down her lane. She felt like it was important now to go over her life up to that paint, to gain a good perspective on how it was going to change, and why she wanted it to change in the first place. None of this had been thought through, but it wouldn't have been a spontaneous burst if it had. Samantha had just thought that all the concepts this trip involved would fall into place by themselves, in a sudden epiphany. Instead, she decided it would be fine to piece it all together as she went along. And she had a while, now, to do that.
The biggest worry she had was Carefree. There hadn't been an epiphany, so would the symbolic aspect hold its end up? Should she worry that Carefree also had streets called things like Bloody Basin Road? She had always ignored those. And what fantastic aspect of the town would allow her to forget her worries? Was it the famed sundial, third largest in the Western hemisphere? Maybe a sundial was more organic, and more laid back then a clock, but all time ever seemed to imply was impending appointments and approaching death.
When she was sick once in the back of the car her father gave her his collection of road-maps to look through, and that's when she first saw Carefree, Arizona. When she got home she was still sick, so her parents put her to bed and buried her under three layers of covers and fed her flavorless soup, which she dutifully ate. And when Sam wasn't eating or sleeping in warmth, her mother would sometimes come into her room to tell her stories that she made up herself. She liked that much better than when her father came, usually to sing her a lullaby that gave her nightmares crawling with crocodiles. One of those times Samantha asked her mother about Carefree, Arizona, and her mother told her a story about that.
It was a disjointed story, maybe partly because her mother was a little buzzed after a Tupperware party downstairs, where cocktails had been served. And it was a little sad too, maybe partly because downstairs at the Tupperware party she had been feeling especially melancholy about her husband, who wasn't the man she had once imagined being with. Sam didn't remember the story very well, as her fever, unchecked that particular evening, made it difficult to concentrate on people, but it stuck in two important places. That was the point when Samantha started thinking of her mother as a fool, and of Carefree Arizona as a town where it was always warm and never rained.
After Samantha's mother was finished with the story Sam asked her if she had ever been to Carefree. And her mother answered, No.
She had stayed up a little longer after that to watch her mother out her window, shepherding the guests to their cars. Then she fell asleep, and, not much else being on her hot little mind, she dreamt of Carefree Arizona that night.
Many hours later--how many exactly Samantha didn't care to count--Carefree was near. Two things had just become clear to Samantha. One, that the train of thought she had been so excited to pursue had gotten lost and later disappeared altogether in the placid hum of the radio. And two, the clouds were not going to be gone once she reached her destination. Then, just a few yards further down the road, she noticed a third thing: she was sick. Stress had always done that to her. Now she felt warm and the events taking place around her seemed softer and less important. Everything she did seemed to happen slower and more or less automatically. She drove into town this way.
As Samantha eased into the new speed limit that came with the new street she forced herself to look around at the houses. Little suburban affairs, with earthy colors perfectly suited to the desert, not to mention plenty of white. There were smiling amateur grill chefs cooking stakes, chicken, and corn on their front lawns for their annual 4th of July barbecue; children running around from house to house in costumes begging for candy; whole families, with wide open windows, sitting praying around a table filled with as yet uncut turkey and untouched cranberry sauce; and each house was, of course, covered with happy Christmas decorations. Plastic snowflakes in the heat.
Samantha looked up at the sky, discovering that the clouds WERE thinning after all, allowing the warm light to illuminate all this activity on the peaceful, empty street. Hum Road, Samantha confirmed as she passed a street sign. She decided to smile. It was only a turn onto Easy Street and she would be at the Giant Sundial. And before she had even really noticed it, that's where she was: parked by the sundial and stretching her stagnant muscles as she made absentminded steps toward it.
The giant sundial was large. It cut into the sky. Samantha got to the base and laid down, near the little reflective pool right underneath the gnomon, feeling the heat that saturated the concrete.
The cool water woke Sam, and the anguish was instantaneous. When she was still in elementary school every Saturday morning at four thirty her father had rinsed his coffee mug of yesterday's curds, filled it to the brim with water as cold as the tap would give him, and emptied it on her sleeping head. This was the feeling of anger and frustration. There was cold in the world, there was a schedule full of other people's ideas, and it all hit her brain in that one second when her head was technically submerged, all dreams and comfort washed away.
This was beyond that in every way- she wasn't supposed to be swimming today so there was no reason to wake her, and on top of that she was sick. Her father would have never poured that water on her when she was sick with a fever. A sick person couldn't have cold, they had to be covered in further warmth.
Samantha opened her eyes and saw the brilliantly bright blue ceiling above her, before realizing that it was a clear morning sky. The cool water was still there, wrapping around about half of her horizontal body. She realized that she was in a puddle, in Carefree, Arizona. Maybe it had rained after all, and the dispersing clouds had just been a misleading prologue to the storm. But then why had the rain not woken her?
Samantha sat up, and then stood up, dripping. The puddle stretched into all directions, mimicking the blue of the sky with near-exactness, excepting the reflection of the sundial, and the disfiguring ripples her movement had sent out across the surface.
The water was rising.
Unless it was the ground that was receding.
Only The Crocodiles Don't Sleep
The Dealer stepped out of the house, into the warm Carefree afternoon, gently closing the door behind her. She had a large black case in her hands, which was a little too heavy for her, but she managed to make her way down the path, past the fence, and to the car relatively graceful. Her heels clip-clopped at an even rhythm as she walked.
The car was a small, sky-blue one. It had a lumpy design and the paint lacked varnish, but overall it looked strangely natural for a car, like it could fade into the sky at any moment. She loaded the case into the backseat, together with the others, and then got into the driver's seat, slamming the door behind her as soon as she had climbed in..
"I'm finished here," The Dealer announced.
Felix looked up from the collection of road-maps lying in a pile on his lap.
"Alright," he said.
Elaine opened the door after the knock and in came Mary and Bertha and Janet and Karen and Julie and Carolyn and Kathy and Margret and Janice. The couches had already been rearranged into a rough semi-circle, in the middle of which stood a table full of cucumber sandwiches and barely alcoholic cocktails.
The Dealer was already in position at the very front of the room, wearing a subtly floral print dress which tapered into a full rose garden for the frilly bottom. Directly below her stocking-tinted ankles were a pair of red high-heel shoes which tried, almost successfully, to match her lipstick.
Beside her was a table supporting a baffling mountain of Tupperware which, when viewed from The Dealer's vantage point, seemed to arrange itself into some sort of order.
The Dealer smiled, unnoticed by the guests, who were busy chatting away and deciding who should sit where. In contrast to her perfect skin and hair and nails, her teeth were yellow and crooked.
They drove through town. Past Ho Road and Hum Road. Past Serene Street and Nonchalant Avenue. They drove until they were halfway down the street on Languid Lane.
"I want to stop here for a second, is that alright?" said The Dealer, pulling over by the curb, "I might not get another chance."
"Go ahead, I'm not in a hurry. I can wait a few extra minutes," Felix replied, unbuckling, "Anything I should see?"
"If you want. I doubt there will really be anything to actually SEE, but you might find it interesting anyway."
"Is this another one of your things?"
"One of my things?"
"Yeah, that you tell your little housewives."
"Yes. It's one of those things," The Dealer said, getting out of the car. Felix stuffed the maps back into the glove compartment and followed.
"I think I figured out the directions," he said, joining The Dealer on a stretch of sidewalk running along a plain white house, "I could probably walk it from here."
"I drove you here, so we still have a deal," she replied, staring fixedly at the leftmost open window on the second floor, "You finish your end, and then if you want to walk from there, feel free."
"Okay. Alright. But I'm still confused about that. About my end. I didn't even know there was a lake in Carefree."
"There is. Right in the center of town."
"I must have been gone longer than I thought if they had time to build a whole lake."
A figure appeared in the window which The Dealer was staring at. The Dealer tapped Felix on the arm and when he turned to look The Dealer pointed up at the figure.
She was a decidedly average, middle-aged woman with brittle brown hair done up in a style that might have looked attractive on someone five years younger. She leaned out of her window and lazily surveyed the sky and the nice clean row of white houses standing across from hers. She never shifted her gaze downward enough to notice either of the people standing in front of her white picket fence, and soon she withdrew back inside and let the blinds drop, shutting them tight.
"Who was that?" Felix asked, after she was gone.
"She," replied The Dealer, "is the universe."
Felix considered this, staring at the blinds.
"You love her?" he asked. The Dealer tilted her head to the side and took her eyes off the house.
"I suppose so," she said, "Come on, we have a job to finish." She turned around and walked off back to the car, briefly placing her hand on Felix's shoulder on the way. He followed her, and soon they had driven off.
It occurred to The Dealer that Elaine was like a mother duck, and all these women were her baby ducklings. They looked the part too, full red lips flapping up and down as they spouted inane chatter. Matching yellow dresses hugging their round, childbearing hips. The part where the similarly broke down was the eyes. The Dealer had never seen looks like this in the eyes of ducklings.
"Shall we start the party ladies?" The Dealer said, clapping her hands together once for effect. The chatter quieted quickly and everyone's eyes turned to look at this new figure.
"As you have probably guessed, I come here representing the Tupperware Corporation," she continued, gesturing to the mound of Tupperware to her left, "But I'm not being paid to sell you Tupperware. That's my official job description, yes. Saleswoman. But I'm really here to help make this party as fun and worthwhile for you as I can. Now, before we begin and lose ourselves socializing, who here has a Tupperware Brand resealable plastic container keeping some leftovers fresh in their fridge right NOW? Show of hands."
Most of the women extended a hand into the air.
"Well fantastic! I'm glad to see we're all so familiar with Tupperware here. I guess I'll just quickly run through a list of some of our newest products," The Dealer picked up a stack of Tupperware, a move which seemed like it would undermine the structural integrity of the mountain, but it remained standing, "Or… you know what? Let's play a game. Here, everyone take a Tupperware container."
The Dealer handed the stack to Mary, who was sitting closest to her, and motioned for her to pass it on. Soon each of the women had a container, and The Dealer flashed them all a warm, closed mouth smile.
"Fantastic," she said, "Let me tell you what I have in mind."
The ducklings in their yellow dresses looked up at her with rapt attention.
"Why don't you just go up to the house, knock on the door, and talk to her?" Felix asked, tracing their path on the map with his finger.
"That would be a bad idea," The Dealer said, turning a corner, "She wouldn't have anything interesting to say anyway."
"I thought you said you loved her."
"I love her because I love Carefree. Because I love the world, and I love Heaven. And those things are all inside her."
"Oh God, this IS some of your cult shit," Felix said, smiling at The Dealer and then pausing a while, "Do you really believe in that stuff? Or is it just something you tell people?"
The Dealer nodded.
"Of course I do. It's all true. I don't lie to anybody. And it may seem insane, and I may seem insane, but really it's all true."
"Well then, Great Prophet, explain the world to me."
"It's a whole lot more simple than most religions, really," The Dealer started, "and that's because it isn't one. It's plainly visible from an outside perspective. About as visible as a baby bump, because that's essentially what everything is."
"What does that mean?"
"The simple truth of existence is that all of it is contained within a housewife's eternally pregnant belly. And the world reflects that. Everything is pregnant with meaning, but nothing ever quite gives birth."
"That's absolutely ridiculous," Felix said. The Dealer just shrugged.
"I've fallen through more ridiculous worlds than this," she said.
"Oh, and now you're from another world?"
"Things are what they are. I'm sorry if it upsets you, because really there's quite a bit of beauty here, if not happiness. If you can manage to see it from the right perspective."
"It's a simple game. There aren't any winners or losers, just a little fun game to demonstrate what the Tupperware line is all about," The Dealer explained, holding a Tupperware container of her own for the demonstration, "The idea is the same as whispering into soap bubbles or tree hollows. You open your Tupperware Brand container a slit and whisper your deepest, darkest secret into it... and then seal it quick--with Tupperware's patented easy resealing design--before the secret has a chance to crawl away. And then of course we all put our secrets in... well where does one usually store Tupperware?"
One of the yellow women raised her hand.
"The refrigerator?" she offered. The Dealer nodded.
"You store it in the fridge to keep it nice and fresh."
The Dealer looked into each and every one of the guests' questioning faces in turn, and something about the electric indigo sparks frozen in the grey Jell-O of her eyes reassured them. Elaine's living room filled with the sound of Tupperware containers being opened.
"Assuming what you say is true, how do you explain ME?" Felix asked, now fully distracted from his maps. The Dealer moved a stray strand of hair from her face and pushed down on the gas just a little more. She could see The Elephant now, coming into view from behind a clump of cacti on the side of the road.
"Well, that's the best part. When you die you go up there, of course" she said, pointing upward, "To Her brain, and you live in her dreams where you are free to live out all your hopes, should you choose."
"So why aren't I up there? Because of my wife?"
"Of course. And why exactly will become clear to you soon."
"So why her dreams? Why don't we just disappear and suck into her uterine wall."
"THAT," The Dealer said, "is the best part. See, any death is like a miscarriage, and each unborn child with all its infinite potential becomes an eternal thought, haunting the dreams of the mother for as long as she lives. Which in this case, is forever."
"But where is... She, then? Are we all in that woman we saw in the window?"
"In a sense. In Her uterus is another universe and another Carefree just like this one, and in that one Carefree there is also a white house with a picket fence and another identical woman with existence eternally swelling Her belly. I suspect it goes on infinitely like that, and so obviously we aren't the end or the beginning. The big difference here," The Dealer said, turning to Felix and smiling wide, "is that you've got me."
Everyone was whispering into the plastic hollow.
"I'm afraid I'll never be able to be with the person I truly love."
"I'm afraid without my husband I would run out of money and not be able to do anything to get any more."
"I'm afraid if I leave my children will grow up to be criminals."
"I'm afraid I'm going to live in the same house for the rest of my life."
"I'm afraid to think about who I am."
"I'm afraid no one will ever understand me better than my husband."
"I'm afraid that if I change at all I'll be just as unhappy, but more confused."
Everyone closed their Tupperware with two easy clicks.
"There, isn't that much better?" The Dealer said, and the women slowly realized that it was, and nodded and smiled, "Now off to the kitchen with you!"
The women stood up cheerfully and, in a chattering procession, went off to store their fears in the fridge. The Dealer was alone in the room, with Elaine and everyone's drinks. There were happy noises coming from the kitchen. The Dealer picked up another Tupperware container and went up to Elaine, handing it to her.
"Go on darling," she said, "You're the host, show a little cheer!"
Elaine looked to her, her face old, much older than any of the other faces at the party. She opened the container and put her mouth close to it. She whispered, letting the heat from her mouth swim inside.
"I'm afraid that my daughter is dead or run away because I named her wrong, and that my grandson ran away because the daughter that I had named wrong named him after the husband who died.
"I'm afraid Kurt's death is my fault, and my grandfather's, who I'm afraid never considered himself my real grandfather.
"I'm afraid my friends don't love me, and I'm afraid they're the last people who will ever bring me joy, and I'm afraid of what might happen to them, and if it will be my fault.
"I'm afraid that I'll never see Sally again, and I'll live in Carefree my entire life, and that I'll never see the meaning I used to see in the street names and I'll have to lie in the same cemetery where I realized I didn't love my husband.
"I'm afraid there isn't any meaning, and I'm afraid everything I've ever believed is wrong and ghosts don't exist and the moon has no effect on anyone's emotions and the zodiac means nothing at all, and there is no heaven and no reward."
Elaine sealed the container tight, and handed it to The Dealer. A smile was growing on her wrinkled face. The Dealer smiled back with her yellow teeth, and handed Elaine a little bottle of pills.
"Put one in each of their drinks," she instructed, "and bring them to the kitchen." Elaine nodded.
"Drag all these bags out to right near the lake," The Dealer said, getting out the car and pointing at all the black cases in the backseat. Felix started right away, with some difficulty- the bags were much heavier than he had been anticipating.
"What's in these? Bodies?" Felix asked.
"You'll see. And hurry up, no one comes around here anymore, but we still have to be careful not to be seen."
"That explains why all the stores are closed. This used to be like the town center. Why don't people come anymore?" Said Felix, dragging two bags to the even edge of the lake.
"Well this lake appeared here for seemingly no reason, and people didn't want to come here and worry about it when they saw it. So they stopped coming," The Dealer answered, dragging one bag, her heels digging into the overgrowth surrounding the lake.
"Typical. Do you know why the lake's here?"
"I have my suspicions, but they're vague and not worth sharing."
"It's really more like a pool than a lake. Where did the sundial go? I remember a giant sundial."
"It's where it's always been, only at the bottom of the lake."
"Oh. That's strange. I kind of wonder if it can still tell time."
"Of course. Come on, faster."
"Okay," Felix said, adding a third bag to the ones he was preparing to drag to the pile forming by the lake, "I have another question?"
"I have an answer," The Dealer replied, trying to take two bags this time.
"I know your whole cult thing, but why Tupperware parties?"
The Dealer stopped, and unzipped one of the bags, taking out a Tupperware container with something green swimming inside it.
"What's that?" Felix asked, stopping as well.
The Dealer carefully packed up the full Tupperware containers into her black bag. When she was done she zipped it up, and gently set it down on one of the couches for the time being.
She made her way to the bathroom, where she washed her face and hands, and fixed her hair. When she was done she sat on the sink and massaged some moisturiser into her tired hands. Then, while she was waiting for it to suck into her skin, she smoked, opening a window and positioning the mirrors so they were parallel to each other, and the smoke became infinite.
The Dealer pulled a new pair of stockings on, and changed into some more comfortable, black shoes. She flicked the cigarette out of the window and closed it, before leaving the bathroom and closing the door as well.
As she moved through the hallway from the bathroom to the living room she glanced inside the kitchen and saw a dozen smiling corpses lying on the tiled floor.
The Dealer traversed the living room, picking up the black case off of the couch, and as she opened the front door and walked outside into the dwindling afternoon she hummed a little tune and looked forward to later that day, when she would be getting out of here.
The Dealer unsealed one of the Tupperware containers and poured the crocodile into the lake, where it splashed, and then swam down to the bottom, out of sight.
"Don't you think this is dangerous? Why not just keep the crocodiles inside?" Felix asked, following The Dealer's lead, as instructed.
"It's better to be eaten alive by crocodiles from the outside than from the inside," The Dealer answered.
"What if you go to heaven and the crocodiles are still inside you?" Felix asked.
"Well, nothing. Dreams aren't that much more different than reality. Crocodiles aren't always crocodiles there," she said, "but in all, I feel it's better to keep dreams as free of crocodiles as possible."
"Do I have crocodiles in me?" Felix asked. The Dealer glanced at him
"Only the one," She replied, "Listen, take the empty cases back to the car. Throw them in the trunk. And after that just help me stack the empty Tupperware, and you're free to go find your wife" She freed another crocodile, and this one lingered on the surface a little longer than the others, snapping its jaws at the two of them.
Felix gathered up the empty black cases and got up, walking over to The Dealer's car. But before he got there, he noticed another car in the distance. The Dealer smiled silently, focusing on her work.
Felix laid the bags down near the dealer's car and walked over slowly to the other one. The driver's side door was still open, and the car was overgrown inside and out with vines, and covered with desert dust. He kneeled down and brushed off the license plate.
He realized what must have happened.
"Felix?" The Dealer called. He didn't answer, and when the Dealer looked around he was nowhere to be seen.
The Dealer released the rest of the crocodiles into the lake, and stacked the empty, conveniently modular plastic containers before taking them back to the car and dumping them in the trunk, along with the empty black cases in a pile nearby. She got into the driver's seat and turned on the ignition.
She drove right out of Carefree, Arizona and onto the long desert highway that stretched until the next town. But before she had reached it, she and her car faded into the blue summer sky.
Carefree Arizona by Taras Tymoshenko. 2009.