Everything past this chokes on a spoon: Walter and Mary touched each other.
“Where are you?” asked Mary. There is a feather bed she wants.
Every week is more or less the same: Mary assumes a new regional dialect, buys a pie and puts flour on her cheeks to pretend she made said pie for Walter. Mary diets on pineapple and cottage cheese, finds some new object to covet. This week, a feather bed. (The same feather bed Rita Hayward sleeps on.) Next week, Mary will want something less tangible—something akin to the very things she might already have if she bothered to look in Walter’s ear or at the way he often rubs the space between her forefinger and thumb; a space that hadn’t felt anything before he noticed it.
That is to say, there’s a lot Mary doesn’t notice.
Walter folds his glasses and puts them into his pocket. After reading a book about vision, Walter decided it mattered more what you think you see than what you see. Without his glasses, Walter thinks he sees halos and is certain that is more desirable than living in a world where you see just what is in front of you and nothing more.
His glasses don’t have lenses, but there is something about the frame on his nose and the practice of folding and unfolding wire to read the paper, a menu, a woman’s face; there is something about looking at a child from behind spectacles that makes Walter feel comfortable knowing he is watching everything pass him or he is passing everything by getting older and slower.
“You’ll want a new bed next week. You’ll suddenly take up bowling and want no bed at all, an alley in the house.”
The glasses feel good in his breast pocket and he taps his chest twice. He remembers, in the vision book, learning that humans have underdeveloped eyes. And, for more than a moment, he wishes he was a lizard, a bird, something with a moveable lid to purify the stain he sees when he looks at Mary.
He isn’t sure if it is a stain. Maybe it is a different kind of halo.
Maybe it’s disappointment. Walter remembers Mary when she didn’t want anything at all—when she only wanted to wear his flannel shirts, to acquire the scent of him and feel small in all of his things.
“Are you available to look at the bed tonight?” She isn’t looking at him so she doesn’t see him looking at her. She is looking at her wrist, which has a brown spot. This is new, she thinks. This is like what her mother said about Irish women: they show their age in the hands first. At that moment she wants to cut into the brown spot and pull it out in full. She imagines it is attached to some root and, if she can just get that root out of her she will stop watching everything change.
Walter considers not responding, but he cant stop looking at Mary. He wants to tell her it’s going to snow and they should consider staying in for the night, sharing something warm. “No.”
“What are you doing?” She folds her hands and pretends civility. She folds her hands and imagines a new quilt for her new bed; maybe new diningware to match her new quilt.
Mary doesn’t even like the idea of purchasing a new bed, but she likes the idea of needing something. She likes the idea of uncoupling the house: the matching candlesticks, the stove and the fridge, the mugs whose handles all face the same way. She likes the idea of standing before a completely uncoupled house in the woolliness of August and becoming the bridewell to all objects in the house.
Of course, Mary is not thinking any of this. At least, she is not knowingly thinking any of this. Instead, Mary is layering sweater on top of sweater to build an austere sincerity. She looks at Walter with a look that is so hybrid a sentiment nobody can be stirred to thinking Mary is feeling one way or the other way about Walter, the feather bed, or her expired egg yolks.
“The usual thing. Standing in line. Sitting with a newspaper. Buttoning and unbuttoning my coat.” Finally, Walter looks away from her. There’s a stray cat in the yard and this makes him remember that he wanted a whole fact and it is always half fact.
It is strange to begin and we have to begin telling the story somewhere because Mary and Walter are really real, and at least one of them is really desiring featherbeds and truths.
There is so much time spent not speaking—Walter is quiet in front of TV and Mary is quiet when she is talking for the sake of talking to her friend Irene, her cousin Babs. It is quiet because they live in Buffalo and, everyone knows, there is a silence so deep in the rust belt, so deep and so unable to come to terms with a history still beautiful only in the architecture of the place.
There is snow. There is a lake. There is nostalgia that keeps people’s toes curled into their feet.
If Walter and Mary say something, that something is said and it might be repeated. If they say something, it is always unrecorded. More often, they are thinking of saying something they’ve never been able to say. No sooner than the thought is born, the thought becomes more impossible to say.
The combination of s and h gets mixed with c and h. And pain is never easy to say completely.
A boy down the street, who later becomes the boy Mary’s first child is named after, uses the word “unawares.” Almost everything is plural when he says it. Mary is not sure she recalls a time of singularity, but when she thinks about it logically, there is only one butcher in town, one tailor, and one baker who is worth any flour.
There might be one of her at times.
She is never with Walter in bed anymore. She is at the vanity chair, watching her hands brown.
In the earliest hour, Walter is calling her apple cheeks.
He asks Mary questions he expects her to say yes to:
“Do you think it will rain today?”
“Do you want me to bring home a baguette?”
“Do you believe you’ll have time to get a breath?”
“Do you wonder if I really do love you?”
At the same time, Mary is having a daydream about Joan.
Joan is the animal whose skin is used for fashion or furniture; the animal who, with a good deal of quaintness, decays at the end of October after a fever that was almost like a romance. Mary has never met Joan, but her sheep’s skin coat makes a noise that sounds like Joan’s voice and, suddenly, there is a desire to clean the table.
“Can I clear this?” Mary asks, but she has already taken the tea kettle and the open book Walter wanted to read but never started reading.
(Nothing can make desire a true thing.)
There is a child in Mary’s stomach: an unreal pining. A tight shadow put to the needle in her dull home. At least, the child fantasizes about a needle and has tried to suck her own eyeballs out, which is physically impossible. At this stage,the child is the same as a pig fetus.
Later, the child will act like a trout.
The way out of this world is to have a mother,
a moment to say what you need. Mary needs
breakfast, but she’ll drop two laxatives instead.
“Oh, Olivia,” she says on the phone, “I’ve added a pencil and powder. It takes just a few minutes. You see, we are round inside and experiencing higher in volume calls.”
Walter and Mary share a bird, but only Walter is strong enough to wring its neck.
When Walter imagines being a father, he remembers the accident of an icicle to his eye. The other accident: a snake in his sleeping bag in Germany. And even one more: loving someone who was not Mary on top of a hundred pillows:
In a hat box, not-Mary keeps pocket knives, pocket mirrors, and pictures of Walter. He is very handsome in pictures. Not-Mary cuts inside herself to see what it was that made him leave her next to sheep.
“Is my voice so out of tune? Was there a meteor I called a star? Did I slip on ice and tear my meniscus?” She incessantly lists questions and it is painful to be around not-Mary or to look at any part of her. Even her wrist is physically less so.
The chickens are bound to her, the sheep left after feeling not-Mary’s nothingness and her eyes on him.
At the moment, the only thing inside of her is a hermaphrodite; a pretty brunette with a jaundiced eye. It might be considered lucky that nobody knows this is inside of her and nobody ever will.
“I can stretch on the couch, sleep sideways in the bed, and turn in the kitchen without worrying someone will be there. But sometimes, with the knife and the cauliflower, I want to turn a tight corner and mistakenly gash Walter in the face.”
Secretly, Walter keeps a groan in the china cabinet. His groin remembers not-Mary. The doctor says, “Just take two aspirins.” In addition to the aspirin, he takes bourbon. Walter tells the doctor, reminds his liver, “There is too much fondness.”
He pinches Mary’s stomach because there is nothing round on him.
Kristen Orser is the author of Folded Into Your Midwestern Thunderstorm (Greying Ghost Press); Winter, Another Wall (blossombones, 2008); Fall Awake (Taiga Press, 2008); Squint (Dancing Girl Press, 2009); and E AT I, illustrated by James Thomas Stevens (Wyrd Tree Press, 2009). She is certain about being uncertain and she might forget to return your phone calls.