The house was set back from the street. It was small and looked like a cardboard box. It didn’t seem three-dimensional from the street; didn’t seem like it could be inhabited by anyone or anything.
She lived at the bleakest edge of town, a place other people called “Cully,” a place where there were no sidewalks, just a rather large lip that fell into a ditch along the road. On average, Cully residents were artists or tweakers or young Mexican families.
She had an apple tree, a plum tree, a sad patch of eggplant that remained dark as winter, dark as the mud from which it came.
Next door was a meaty man, his mail-order bride, and a child. The man spent a lot of time fixing tarps to the edges of his house, making bright plastic triangles that he tied to a nearby tree branch, or else drove into the ground that was mostly mud, because it was spring and that is what the ground was.
The meaty man watched her from between the plastic tarps, and though she had put up thin sailboat curtains, the fabric wasn’t wide enough and so left six inches of window exposed on either side.
It was the surety of shadow. Wisps of. The stink of rotten apples. The moon and her chin and a long shoulder. The tarps sagging and making long creases in the mud.
At work she spent time with people who forgot her by the next morning. She was not a trained nurse; she was more on the social end of things. She had been trained to listen.
There was a man she worked with who put bananas in the microwave and rubber bands in the fridge. In six months he went from oil painting and physics to walking in circles around his apartment and asking whose cat this was?
She did not get paid well.
Every morning she woke up and tried to see different stories in the same people she saw every day on the bus. She gave them complicated lives: night classes, oatmeal cookie recipes, appointments to give blood. Her favorite was a woman in a pink sweatsuit, pierced face, with her baby. She gave this woman an ironic sense of self. This woman, she knew, had real clothing at home. This woman did yard work, smiled more often, threw her baby in the air and caught him, laughing. When this woman got off the bus she would jog home with a fancy baby stroller down a parallel street, a neighborhood with trees; not this one—with littered bus stops and donut shops with gang shootings, stained sweat-panted individuals, people with bouncing signs advertising pizza, rent-a-furniture, and immigrants for hire.
No, not this one.
She started to find objects in her cupboard in the morning—things that hadn’t been there the night before: A spatula. A five dollar bill. At first she thought Alzheimer’s had rubbed off on her, from work.
Back in Seattle she had worked at a Turkish rug shop. Most people did not know they faded in the sun. The inks were so old—so unprocessed—that the sunshine lifted them right out of the loops. She thought about this a lot. This and the man who threw fish, across the street and down two blocks from the rug shop.
When she watched him she was never the human but always the fish. She felt the dry gentle heft of his hands. The calluses across her rainbow skin scales, herself flaking like mica onto his skin. Then the sharp ice holding her tight. She was never chosen. She just lay in the ice letting the rain hit, so close to the Sound. This and light. Fish and light. Watching the air above the rugs sparkle.
A package of macaroni. A chain with no clasp. Shoes. A marble.
She chooses to sleep above, in the pink haze of fiberglass, night after night. Like a broken reel she sees herself in a boat, in the skeletons of half-built things, always within the illusion of movement.
Every Saturday she took the train downtown, past the protesters to the bookstore on the hill. She hit the bookstore, then the arcade, then the sushi train place.
The sushi restaurant was like a neutral territory between countries. A stretch of property where displaced people would wait before arriving at their final destination. The cooks were Korean and Japanese. The waitresses Russian or Mexican. No one liked anyone. She had the sense they just needed to talk it out. Look, the Koreans could say, we believe in Confucius. And the Russian girls could have that sadness in their eyes, could open their mouths and explain how they ran. How they arrived here and couldn’t place the smell of the river, the smell of the land, all that skin and those horrible toothy smiles.
The sushi place had lately begun to scare her. It was here that her clichéd ability to calculate numbers at an alarming speed was revealed. Sushi plates. Among the depressed and alienated cooks, she could glance at a tower of plates and recite the prices. In dollars, rounded up.
The fish sat in her stomach oddly. It was like she had eaten something other than food.
A child’s punching bag. Cutoffs.
The night crawled. It was all the same people at the bar—the boys with their upturned noses and their nervous energy, the Mexicans who sat with heaviness at the bar watching whatever was on. And the girls. The girls who slunk like some kind of wild cat into the shadows outside, holding their cigarettes like gifts.
She was tired of them all. But every night she came out with a secret expectation, with a long root that traveled deep in her memory and in the perceived reality of her future. It had the root of a turnip, turning in the soil with its thick, hairy tail. Of course no one ever filled this wild expectation. There was only witty conversation, or Wilder, and the best thing that ever happened was when she and a lover lay long and white in her bed sort of under the stars because her window was in a good position to the sky.
Maybe it’s because she’s a little drunk. She sees him watching her in his windbreaker behind the tarps. He is a sail between sails. Maybe it is because she’s a little drunk, but she stops in the middle of the muddy path to her house. She stops and looks him in the eye. It is less than a second. He rustles and again it is the dark blue flap of plastic.
A trap door opens and lets her inside.
He’s pulling washers from the ground. A fish skeleton emerges like something from a cartoon. There is the usual garbage of non-interest.
The line of the coast takes him out and brings him back in, closer to the kids smoking on a bleached log.
Out in the sand that collapses beneath him is a dog skeleton. Styrofoam. Under a rock is a chunk of blonde hair. He pulls on it. A Barbie from a faraway place, her hair in dreads. Perfect.
In the morning she walks to the bus through the detritus of last night. The local young junkies’ relationship status was updated regularly in chalk on the square’s park bench. Today ’love’ is crossed through, and ‘cunt’ offered in its place.
Every Saturday morning, the white stones that spell out “Cully Post Office” have been kicked to read “Cully Pot Office.”
It was a new way of being. She felt transparent, or like the filling of something when all else is removed. She used to sketch people in her line drawing class at UW. She used to crosshatch chins and squiggle into the dark pockets of the body. Who was it? Rodin? She thought of her body as a sculpture, like the girl under Rodin’s knife. She began to enhance her movements, to perform. She never stood straight up and down, but always offered a sensuous lean—the repose. She started doing her hair. She began to lose weight, only because she hadn’t figured out how to chew, how to gracefully put herself into the meat of the oil painting.
But still, she was not bronze enough. All her life she had been too pale.
A Barbie with seaweed in her hair.
At the turquoise hour, she lets the dog out to pee in the middle of the night. She and the dog crouch in the tall grass, steam coming up from both of them. The smash of plum on the way back. It was a world of fruit underfoot. But these were only Italian plums, small, and it took a handful of them to fill your mouth with the taste of PLUM. She hangs around the yard because it finally wasn’t that cold. Her neighbor’s school bus is not yellow in this light, but a hulking gray shape like a ship.
She moves like a little bird. He could bite into this part of the night. The fruit sings into a sticky-sweetness.
A certain kind of beautiful woman made his throat swell. He forgot which breath he was on—in or out. Believed this to be a side effect of one girl he met in Seattle, the kind of girl with white skin that doesn’t tan, only freckles. This girl led him to a tattoo parlor in a basement where Doberman Pincers lay across the room like rugs. While he got the tattoo he looked one of the dogs in the eyes (his name was Prince) and to this day could not remember the name of the tattoo parlor at all.
Dragging heavy branches in the rain back to the shed. She didn’t ever know how to pronounce certain words—”bough” or “bow,” for instance.
When she was sad.
He wanted to invite her over. Glimpses of elbow were not enough. He needed to see her in the context of his home, holding a stamped “L” glass in his kitchen (one that he had stolen from a factory in Michigan), needed to see her caught in a triangle of sunshine near his front door.
She would hide her head in the floor of her bedroom.
Of all things she had received, this was the best. This was it. A little bit of everything, like cosmic dust or something else from the sky. It was a thing that held her; a miniature globe of her life.
She limped to the shed in the rain. There were twelve rungs to her ladder so in all she stepped up 240 times, and down 240, too. 480 steps. Dragging boughs and boxes and shirts and belts and music boxes and broken frames and stained jeans and curtain rods and baseball cards and a torn bra and a few marbles and a bird with a broken beak out to the curb, where it would all be picked up tomorrow morning.
She walked into her empty shed, pulled the curtains back, and lay down to sleep.
In the rain, above the tarps, the moon.