There were cobwebs in the old apartment, hanging, forgotten in high corners. Dated dishware and yellow lampshades stood like stage props, untouched for too long. Roused shag carpet spun the tale of the many strides taken over the years. It told the life of Elise and Herbert Memphis: a couple well into their eighties, well into being forgotten themselves. Their steps once mashed the carpet. Now shuffle lanes crawled across the living room like paths made when the dead are dragged through dirt. It was a slow-paced life. The apartment smelled like old fabric and dead skin, like things smell when their colors fade into yellows and browns.
Herbert and Elise were set together in a past that never meant to grow into its present. And where once their love for one another meant passion, tears, smiles and future, it now meant fear and comfort, a result of eighty plus years of a know-nothing-else lifestyle. All they knew and loved died many pulses back, and second and third generation grandchildren hardly knew their names. Their Christmas cards were never answered, their funds cast away into an abyss, to a family tree with stretching branches and dying roots.
Across the hall from them was a young woman in her early twenties. Though kind, the girl was mockingly nubile with her fair, tight skin and bouncing auburn curls. Her clothes were solid colors stacked on one another, layered by fashion know-how. She wore jeans or Capri’s, flip-flops or sneakers. She never wore polyester or plain-colored fabric, never ankle-length dresses peppered with fading pastoral prints.
The girl next door didn’t just look youthful, though; she smelled of fake fruit-packed candles, lotions and oils, of mystic smells of incense and the bitter smell of pot. Though the Memphis’s had never viewed the girl’s apartment beyond the refrigerator and the back of the chair at the dinner table (which was all they could see through a cracked door), they guessed there were posters all over the walls of crazy-haired youths, haggard from rebellion and deviance. They envisioned pictures of musicians standing in bullet-proof stances, eyes cast down like they couldn’t care less that to some people they were everything. They both thought (though never discussed) there were likely tapestries with mesmeric patterns draping the length of whole rooms, making entire sections look like puzzle walls in some Egyptian pyramid. They both figured that her closet and dresser drawers were filled with light, lacey things, with bright colors and white colors, things made seamlessly by an artist on a sewing machine.
They were right.
One year for Christmas they left a card in her mailbox. Merry Christmas, neighbor, from the Memphis’s, it said.
The girl next door wasn’t sure how to respond, so she didn’t.
The three of them co-existed. They passed one another on the stairs from time to time, the girl flying down the steps, the Memphis’s floating up as if on an escalator. On occasion the girl would knock on the Memphis’s door and ask them to turn their television down. If played too loudly it would rattle with a blown tweeter. Elise and Herbert were near deaf after almost ninety years of listening to the sounds of the world.
It was one night, though, that Elise’s hearing opened the world back up to her.
She was shuffling into the kitchen to make some decaffeinated tea. It was mid evening for most, but well past bedtime for Elise. Herb had been sleeping for three hours already while Elise sat up in her chair, under yellow lamplight, looking at crochet patterns that her arthritic hands hadn’t been able to reproduce for years. She looked anyway, awake, victim to an aging body forgetting life’s basic rhythms. She had slept little the last two days. She was worried that her body couldn’t handle sleep deprivation like it once had. Pushing somber thoughts away, she got up for her tea, something to sip away the night.
As she approached the stove to turn on the burner, she heard a dull, repetitive thumping that resonated through the wall of her sink’s back splash. It was coming from next door. The thumping wasn’t direct, like a hammer hitting a nail. Instead, it was the sound of something larger and padded slamming up against the wall. It was repetitive, but controlled and different every time. There were variances in the speed and sounds of the impacts, and it all sounded uncanny, so strangely familiar, common but far removed.
Elise filled her teapot with water and continued listening to the sounds in her walls. What was making the sound, a sound quite familiar to her? She didn’t know why she was interested, but she was. She listened a bit longer, believing she’d discovered the source of the sound. She had to cross the hall to find out for sure. Her anxiety made her ashamed. She twisted the motive.
“Something could be wrong,” she mumbled out loud to herself, placing the pot over the wavering flame. “I should make sure everything is okay. Something might be the matter over there,” as if she, a woman of eighty-seven years old, could be of assistance in a struggle.
She shuffled from the kitchen and into the hall. The sounds became clearer now. Other sounds accompanied the thudding. There were higher pitched sounds, vocal sounds, muffled utterances—moans getting lost in soft things. The girl was making love. Elise knew it. The girl next door was making love to some boy. Was it the tall, stocky, fair-skinned boy, the jeans and tee-shirt boy? Was it the rather plain boy that Elise had passed on the stairs from time to time? Was it the boy with the heavy booted step that drummed up the stairs late at night when Elise wished to be in bed? She’d heard those steps many times, but these sounds beating through the walls were new ones. Was this their first time?
Oh, God, she remembered her first time. So many of her friends regretted their’s, lied about the splendors of it, but not Elise. No. Her first time was amazing. It went through the walls, too. It had its own set of muffled ecstasies, its own rhythms of bodies drumming together. And though the pillow that had cradled her moans that night had long decomposed by then, she remembered offering to it her first sounds. And she left her sounds in the walls and in the dirt; and she left herself on the bed of straw, and he left himself in her that night, too, inside all of her, inside her mind and heart, and in that sleep deprived night he tore the door to her past from its hinges.
She spread her palms open and put them to the wall. She sprawled there with her arms stretched wide and her face and chest pressed against the cool sheet rock. Her ear was there against the wall, soaking in the sounds—the sounds that made the yellow hallway fall away behind her. There were smothered moans wafting from the room. But Elise heard her own moans from sixty-seven years prior; and the hall was now that straw-filled pallet on the floor of the old work shed. The smell of stale apartment paint dissipated, replaced by the scents of lithium grease and dirt—straw and kerosene from a glowing lamp. The scratching from next door (maybe legs to furniture being ground into the floor) was no longer there. For Elise the sounds turned to crickets that purred together in that cool night, on that farm, in that machine shed, with that boy, that strong farm boy with shaggy hair and the first sprouting of a beard; and how her hands spread over his back and his fissures of muscles and his hard ass that worked like a piston; and her face was against his, and his lips were to her neck and shoulder.
“Oh, God,” Elise heard exclaimed from next door.
Oh, God, she said to the straw, to the crickets in the night, to the silent machines.
“Oh, God” Oh, God.
Elise’s legs were tense and ached deeper than they had in years. Her pulse drummed away in her chest, and her arms stretched, joints screaming.
“Yes,” mumbled Elise. “Oh, God, Lord, yes,” she said, sinking down to the floor slowly, where she collapsed into herself like a folding flower. She held herself there, on the floor, in sobs. Her body jolted. She smothered her mouth with her shoulder and stared into her kitchen through the door, slightly ajar. She could see a third of her refrigerator, and on it was a cat magnet holding a desiccated and cracking newspaper clipping. It was a clipping of her great granddaughter. Haley was seven in the picture and smiling with a gap-toothed grin from losing baby teeth. She was the daughter of a dead mother. Twenty-seven now, and about to be a mother herself. Elise hadn’t heard from Haley since the funeral nine years before. When Elise was there, and she approached Haley with remorse, Haley smiled, and Terry Lee—Elise’s granddaughter, Haley’s cousin—whispered Elise’s name into Haley’s ear so that Haley would know who that haggard, shrunken woman was floating over to her with an aged smile and a collapsing face on the day she was to bury her own mother.
She’s in a better place. This is the last thing Elise heard Haley say into her ear, while in an empty hug.
“She’s in a better place.”
Elise looked at the clipping curling in on itself, yellowing with age, and she moaned into her shoulder, alone in the hall, under a bulb with a glass dome cover full of dead bugs.
The next day Elise awoke to Herb offering her coffee. “Elise, get up. It’s getting late. It’s a nice day. You should try and see a bit of it.”
He placed the coffee on the nightstand by the bed. Elise, rolled up in heavy blankets, looked around at the once white room, now yellowing with age. Herb had slept away the early parts of the morning by the time Elise had collected herself enough to sleep.
“Smidge, your eyes look like two piss holes in the snow,” Herb said, matter of factly.
Elise looked from the window, where a shade sliced a beam of sunlight in half. Herb stared at her for a moment, waiting for a response to his comment. He shuffled sluggishly from the room without one.
Elise looked around at the four walls, at the dated wooden furniture (that Herb had to have), at the mirrors framed in matching wood, and at the little wooden shelves with dusty doilies holding random dottings of china, flowers, and old pictures. In the corner was an antique wash stand that, in another time, she had used nearly every day. She had relied on it for years. Now it was a decoration, a symbol of older ways.
Elise thought about the early morning experience, in the hall, at the top of the stairs. It was time travel to forgotten places, to times with the smells and sounds of life sprouting and dying around her. In her youth she was amongst the life cycle, amongst the living and dying, amongst it all happening together at the same moment. Now, towards the tail end of the cycle, life was stale. It was mothballs and thick-soled shoes. It was the same smell of Ivory dish soap for forty years, the same bar soap and the same perfumes, now practically given away at the local dollar store, relegated for more favorable scents. Her scents were forgotten among the many new ones, like her life forgotten amongst the many that were birthed after her, forgotten with all the ones that died at better times than she would. That was it, she thought. She waited too long to die.
She had cried while the morning broke. She had cried in joy and in pain, in fear and in remembrance. As the sun pushed its way through a gray, sheet sky, like shale stone, she lived, briefly, on the floor of that hall, in a corridor that connected two disparate lives tumbling together into the same chasm.
Once Elise was out of bed she spent all day waiting for the night to come. Herb squandered his day away in front of the television. Herb held the TV’s remote like a fizzled out wand. It was nearly useless to him, as big as his forearm and making no sense at all; anything on the remote that wasn’t arrows or numbers was alien to Herb. Elise sat in front of the television. She didn’t watch it, though. She was digging her way into her past, trying to discover ecstasy like earlier that morning. She climbed through her past like legless soldiers over leveled cities. She struggled and found nothing like before, nothing like that morning.
All day Elise sat in her chair doing nothing. She watched Herb lumber across the apartment from time to time, occasionally shaking her head to his random questions. With the exception of the occasional bathroom break or coffee refill, Elise simply watched the crisp bright day sink to a cool blue, like the blank face of a mountain. When the television began casting itself in long shadows on the walls, Herb kissed Elise on the cheek and made his way to bed. As he disappeared down the hall and the closing bedroom door plugged the sounds of his shuffled strides, Elise’s pulse quickened. Her head grew light. Her feet tingled, fingertips tapped rapidly on the soft, stained, arm of her old chair. She sat, enthralled by the night, by her sudden hope to hear those heavy footsteps up the stairs.
Eventually they came. Much later than usual, but they came. The boy climbed the stairs, his boots dropping like bricks in the hall. Elise listened, hearing a knock on the door. There she sat, beside her yellow lamp, holding her breath, waiting to hear the door open, her heart punching her sternum. Elise couldn’t just sit and wait; she was up, making her way across the room to look through the peephole. She pressed her face to her door; the young man stood in the hall, waiting, wearing jeans and boots and a dark blue tee shirt with a few noticeable holes here and there. He wore a stone-colored ball cap and held a case of beer under his arm. Raising his fist, he went to knock again, but ceased as the swoosh-clink of the dead bolt sounded, followed by the sliding and dropping of the chain. The door opened, and Elise caught a brief glance of her neighbor’s red hair. But the boy stepped into her embracing arms, blotting her image out entirely. The door slammed behind him, leaving sounds of the limp chain scratching.
She stood at her door, still peering through the hole and out into the hall with the spilling yellow light. She stood there and opened her hand slowly. She ran her fingertips down the smooth wood door as she stared. She listened, her ears gripping dead air—air with no sound waves other than the scratching of the flagging chain. Elise watched her neighbor’s door, hearing her own punching heart, thinking what might be transpiring behind the wooden rectangle.
He was telling her about work, maybe. She was telling him she had waited all day for him to come home, and he would say that work had never seemed so long, and that he couldn’t wait to see her, that he’d been thinking about her all day.
Elise’s hand caressed the door; her fingertips were blooming petals, making their way up the smooth wood, fingering a cold hinge on the way.
Thinking about earlier that morning, the boy would joke alluringly; he’d tell her how tired he was at work because of how late they had stayed up enjoying each other’s bodies. This would make the girl so wild for him. It would.
As if on cue, Elise heard it happening. It was a ruffle followed by the sound of nothing at all—the sound that is the start of anything important. The silence was long and pulsing, pregnant with absence. Then there was a loud thud against the door. Elise was forcing her eye into the peephole now, the metal ring pushing painfully against it. She stared at the neighbor’s closed portal. There was a deep scratching sound against it now. A button on his jeans, maybe? Her nails? The sounds halted for a moment, but were rejuvenated with a clank. A belt buckle hitting the floor? Would it be his belt, wrapped up in those heavy jeans, bunched up about his ankles now? Would he be standing there, hard? What would she do? What should she do with it? Her hand? Her mouth? Inside her? Anywhere?
Elise heard moans and the creaking of pressure against the door. She reached her hand to her doorknob, cool to the touch. It opened slowly, silently, and she passed through, floating across the hall, pressing her ear to the neighbor’s door. She heard passion, lust, flesh sliding up and down the wooden surface, grinding against it with hot friction, with young, tight bodies connecting against one another again and again. Elise’s hands were pressed to the door, her head held sideways, her ear tunneling in the sounds. She could feel their warm bodies heating the wood—two people so caught up in each other that the world could fly from its axis and it wouldn’t matter much. Nothing mattered to them right then but their own selves. They were one another’s balance, sanity—everything.
Elise slid slowly to the floor, peering through the crack below. She saw two feet, large and veined. The feet flexed and bulged as they balanced two slamming, dancing bodies. The toes were clenched, clutching and gripping, to only moments later bloom into a spread-toed grapple. There was a sweat pant pile on the floor as well, the girl’s, no doubt. Her foot was wrapped up in the maroon folds somewhere, fighting its own battle for balance. Elise lay there, listening to the girl moan, call God, curse; and she listened to the boy grunt and exhale breaths and guttural moans.
Amongst all the noise—the girl’s body bouncing off the door, sliding up and down it, and amongst the boy’s hellish growls and clutching toes—Elise was able to find herself there on the floor, on the dirty carpet of the hall, with her fingertips, with her hand of so soft skin, visible veins and old, uncared-for yellow nails. She found herself. It had been years. And she stared under the door at the boy’s feet, now on their balls, and let the children’s music tumble into her ears. She heard them orchestrate deep sounds together. She heard the door scream with the weight of them pressing against it. Elise watched the boy’s feet fall back to their heels, and he sunk to his knees.
“Oh, baby,” Elise heard through the door.
Elise’s eyes filled with tears. The boy’s legs turned to a diaphanous rippling as Elise’s hands pulled her away from the dirty floor, the yellow hall, her present state.
Elise lay in bed. A tree outside her window stretched the length of the ceiling, a silhouette cast about by a streetlight. It looked contrived. It looked like a replica of a real thing meant to convince someone it was the real thing. Elise couldn’t sleep. She looked around her room, at everything in a veil of butter light, piss yellow sterility, smelling stale and forgotten. Next to her, Herb snored away the night with the noise of viscous lung tissue splayed to ribbons. His face was glowing butter-crème yellow, and his skin climbed over itself in wrinkles, like that of a smashed grape. His eyes rolled under his lids, vividly watching everything in his mind, casting glances in all directions, despite being blind to everything in hours of wakefulness.
Elise squeezed her hand, bunching the sheet below her in a clawed grip. She stared at Herbert, who was still as stone. The comforter on the bed was like a coffin to her, pressing her to death, tucking itself in around her, below her, crawling furtively to her throat. Herb laid somnambulant, oblivious to life creeping along to put an end to things, creeping around everywhere, anywhere. Elise flailed with fists and feet, her legs and arms like working gears, jolting like the barrels of fired guns. The blanket over her bounced around like it might rupture back into atoms. After much fighting, the blanket lay, felled, in a silent pile on the floor at the foot of the bed. Herb laid on his side, curled up like a fetus that felt numb and dumb in the womb.
Elise was up now, out of the room and into the kitchen. She was sweating through her nightgown. In the hall, only moments ago, she had remembered everything from her past. Yet she had forgotten a great many things already, revived memories were now dead again, an identity asphyxiated by time. Her life was seized by time’s gorilla grip, and that leech drank her gone, so gone, until she alone heard her pulse. It was a slow and tired. Even it wanted little to do with her anymore.
On the floor, in the hall, she remembered for a moment what it was to be something to someone else, what it felt like to be anything at all. Now she is a habit to others. That is all, she thought. She was lover, she was nervousness and butterflies; she was blushing cheeks and stumbled speech. Now she is forgotten, old. She is…was.
“Something wrong?” asked Herb through slits for eyes. He leaned against the frame where the kitchen met the hall.
The kitchen light was beaming from the ceiling, bleeding white and antispectic, uncaring of the hour. Elise leaned against the refrigerator and stared right through Herbert. She felt magnets prodding into her shoulder blades and her flesh—a thin, skin sleeve, nothing more. Herb made his way over to Elise.
“I asked you what’s wrong.” He stepped closer to her. “ Well, are ya feelin’ all right or no?”
Elise stared him down with lost eyes.
“Do I need to call an ambulance? Elise! Are you okay?” Herbert seized her shoulder. “Don’t just stand there, God damn it, respond. Are you all right?”
Elise, as if her gaze were pulled from the end of the world itself, jumped from Herb’s touch. She was looking at him now, into his hazel eyes; she was looking at him, into him. He was unflinching, unblinking, utterly stone and entirely confused. He was lost, not even breathing. Elise leaned in, and with warm lips placed a gentle kiss to his mouth. He didn’t know what was happening, what it meant, but so many years told his mouth exactly how to respond, and it did.
He kissed her softly, like he did on the day of their wedding, like he had every morning and evening for the last eighty years. He didn’t kiss her like he did the first night they fucked behind a hill in a small cemetery, gated in black cast iron, pinned in by walls of onyx-curtained cornfields in August. He didn’t kiss her like he did over and over again that night, under a sky full of thin gray clouds that passed below a gleaming moon, looking like grease stains on a napkin. He didn’t kiss her like the way he kissed her neck and shoulders that night, the way he bit her breasts and ears while she spread out for him in the grass. He didn’t kiss her the way he did when he held her small hands pressed into the cool earth while he panted over her, while she watched thin-skinned clouds linked and dragging across dense night sky. Right then, in the kitchen bursting white, he didn’t kiss her like he did the night he thought the baby boy was conceived. He didn’t kiss her like he did on the night he believed he filled her belly with the boy who would never know knowing. There, in the kitchen, Herbert didn’t kiss Elise like he did on the night he was told the origin of the miscarried child, the child he would be led to believe was his and not some other boy’s from a farm, some other boy with a shed and a pile of straw. She would never tell him about the child, the only boy ever made in her belly, and he would never kiss her like he did on the night that forced them together for eighty years, forced them together till death.
“Elise.” Herbert touched her jaw softly. He was looking into her now, with sorry eyes. He felt something thick and sorrowful growing in the room. His sagging face begged for an answer.
Elise moved in close to Herbert. She could feel his moist breath blow warm on her lips. Her lips touched his softly. She rested her upper lip on his lower. “Fuck me,” she mouthed. Her lips traced the F and M over his lower lip—pushed it away with the F, wrestled it up with the M.
“Wha?” Years appeared to drain from Herb’s face as the demand sunk in.
“Like you did that night.” Elise stepped up to Herbert, closing any space between them. He looked away into the sink. ‘Fuck me, Herb. Again. Fuck me again.”
“Can’t.” his reply was soft, barely audible.
Herbert suddenly stiffened, pushing Elise’s hand from his hip.
“What the hell’s gotten into you?”
Elise grabbed Herb’s nightshirt collar in a white-knuckled fist.
“You fuck me!”
“What? No! You’re Goddamned crazy. What the hell’s come over you?”
Elise grabbed Herb’s jaw with her open hand. “You fuck me, Herb. You do it, you son of a bitch. You did it then! You had no problem then, did you, you son of a bitch? When I was young, and you wanted nothing else more, you didn’t have a problem then, did you?”
Herb chopped her hands from his face and collar.
“What’s wrong with you? Are you out of your mind? What are yo–”
“You fuck me!”
“God damn it, woman! I will not—”
“You never have. Once. Once you did, and never again.”
“You’re my wife.”
“I’m a woman, Herbert, you bastard! I always have been, always had passions, drives.”
“Christ, Elise, you’re almost ninety—”
“I’m still alive. I’ve been alive for years after that night. Now you fuck me!”
Herbert stood still, his face blotchy with red and pink.
Herb looked at the floor, unresponsive.
“Fuck me, you son of a bitch,” Elise belted, running her hands down the front of the refrigerator. The magnets bounced and slid about the linoleum, clicking like tumbling tacks. Haley’s picture floated with a whisper to the kitchen floor. “Fuck me,” Elise demanded, growling almost demonically now. Herb stepped back with genuine fear.
“Elise, you need to calm down.”
Elise looked at him, pressing, heavy. “Fuck me,” she whispered.
“You son of a bitch,” she said, with her head cast down, staring up at him.
“Calm down, Elise.”
“Eighty God damned years, you son of a bitch. You never meant a bit of it.”
“Fuck me. Fuck me, now. Do it!”
“Calm,” Herb, said, quietly like he would to a whimpering child.
Elise began flailing with nails that swatted at Herb’s face like a chainsaw. “Enough!” she belted in tears, tearing at Herb’s nightshirt, face, eyes, everything, right into his soul. “Enough! Enough!” she screamed. “You son of a bitch, enough!”
She stepped into Herb, pressing her body into his, and stomped Haley’s clipping, busting it into jagged tissue particles. Herb placed one foot behind the other in his clumsy retreat. His body spilled to the ground like a great felled tree. Small incisions bled from his forehead and scalp, where her nails had found a home in its soft skin. He looked up at her, blood crawling slowly down one cheek and across the bridge of his nose. She stood over him, a compact, heaving shadow, blotting out the light above. Herbert lay bleeding, sweating, panting—staring with wide eyes.
“You know, Herbert,” the shadow spoke sardonically. “That night…I have a secret about that night at the cemetery.”
Herbert just stared up at her.
“You know, Herbert; the night you filled me with a boy not strong enough to make it?”
A tear found a place on the rim of Herbert’s eye as he lay sprawled at the feet of the shadow.
“Let me tell you, little Herbert; let me tell you about that night. It—”
“Mr. and Mrs Memphis?” came a voice in the hall, followed by a knock at the door. “Is everything all right in there?”