Marva and Jones liked to go swimming in the late afternoon. They would walk down the steps built into the steep hill that delivered the college from the town. Both college and town were compelling in their ways, but they were not meant to be together. Marva remembered the townspeople’s strong, nasal vowels as she looked over their houses. Many favored pale pinks and blues and yellows, the colors fading into the sky, the harbor. When Jones looked over the rooftops, he saw home.
The steps, wooden and split, had once been painted the same alternating pastels. She pulled up a few paint chips with her fingernails and put them in her pocket. When they went home, she would place them at right angles to some of the other things in her collection, small and bright and salvaged.
Jones was breathing hard. They stopped in the dry bowl of grass at the base of the stairs and stood together, her stomach pressed against his back. He turned to nip at her cheek, and they walked to the part of town built for tourists.
The streets were empty, and though the buildings were not tall, the hills rose dramatically around them, turning sidewalks into tunnels. It was very hot, the blue of the sky stretched thin. Marva’s lips were swollen, her arms and thighs wet and embarrassed.
The town was once a colonial port. The oldest houses had pineapples carved over their doorways, symbols of luck and prosperity. The streets were arranged around wide, shallow canals. Once barges ran along them, unloading tall ships. After trading fell off, they were stagnant and murky for decades. Finally dredged and made beautiful with boardwalks and tall, wrought iron lampposts, carts selling lemon ice, some nights they were eerie with gondolas, drifting people leaning out to fill firepits that seemed to float on metal stems with cedar and rosewood, lighting them, sap snapping and sparking out over the water. A crowd would come to watch, people sitting in shadows just off the boardwalk, and it felt safe and ragged, like the town, a brittle cocoon. Marva could just remember these nights, but Jones said he could not. He was glad that the canals had been cleaned, the bottoms paved. They could float and paddle in the faintly flowing water. If he kicked out hard, his feet hit the bottom.
They undressed and dropped gingerly over the edge, the lukewarm water cool enough, dirt streaming from their faces and hair. Jones saw that Marva had freckled. He noticed the little pocks before, but thought they were remnants of the iris paint they had once smeared on their faces and arms to block the fierce sun.
They pulled themselves out, fingers curled over the edge, and she picked up the wires left on the boardwalk, wound them around her shoulders again. She had pulled the wires from the wall, some to wear as necklaces and some to tie back her hair. She loved to shred the plastic casing, the hard line below unexpectedly cold against her skin, as if it could still shock. When she was outside, the wires kept the walls close, memories of the humming radio and television, the heating pad and the coffee maker’s rumble as the last of the water left the chamber.
The wires also filled her with doubt, a panic that rose predictably. “Should I have left them?” she asked Jones. “What if we need them?”
“No, you should have them,” he said. “It’s not going to work again.”
Jones seemed to be losing language, or refusing old words, like electricity and theft. He claimed to know Buddhist sayings. “Being alive is a burning building,” he told her often.
She only felt like she was on fire when she saw the dog. It was walking close again. It had long black hair and one lidless eye, swollen and white. Marva thought the dog used this eye to find them. She wished she wanted to feed it, but did not.
The dog reminded her of before. She had a little black dog, groomed and playful. She took him walking outside every day until the television said that the sun was too bright, that everyone should stay home. Marva did, kept still in her little basement apartment where the walls were still cool to the touch. Her dog could not bear it, and finally she let him go. The television broadcasts stopped, the radio died and the lights went out. Friends knocked on her door, told her to come to the harbor for relief, to board the cargo boats. Marva was afraid to leave, to sail, and her friends stopped coming. Her dog did not return.
When she at last had to come out into the twilight, the town was empty. There were no boats tied to the stumpy piers in the harbor. She met Jones after pushing through the plastic sheeting in the back of a dried up grocery store, finding the cavernous stockroom. He was eating from a can with his fingers.
Jones began to trip over his words when he saw her, to tell her everything. He knew somebody else was there; each time he came back there were fewer cans and he knew he would find her. But she had not been to the store since it worked, food replenished and cash registers on. Later, outside, she saw a raccoon, brilliant and adaptive, slip up a deserted crane with a can in one of its sensitive paws, let it fall and crack on the sidewalk below. She did not tell Jones.
For a few months, they saw mammals everywhere, rats and possums and housecats panting in their fur. Now they only heard birds, singing the reptilian world awake again, and the dog. Marva was afraid that it was hers and she could not remember it. The dog followed them through town but did not mount the stairs behind them. They were safe when they climbed to the top, when they burrowed into Marva’s little room.
Home, Marva arranged the paint chips, pulled Jones to her beneath the cool beams. Jones thought about the day, released the day. Once more, things had not crystallised. In some ways, everything was simpler, but really it was not. They were bound together in the sea, forming neither the current nor the canoe. They gathered their talents close. Night wreathed their unmoored shoulders.
Kathleen Andersen’s fiction has also appeared in CROWD, Eleven Bulls, and Washington Square. She holds degrees from Brown University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Kathleen lives in Chicago.