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What the Lonely Know

by Kami Westhoff

Elsa’s knife has just cracked through the apple core when a smear of movement snares her gaze. Outside the window above the kitchen sink, a rope swing, still slick and tightly woven with lack of use ticks the tree with the knot before slitting the air with its tock. Wind that can whip a rope, flip a car, uproot an entire house from its foundation is something she’s seen before, but the day is thick and still with the raunch of late summer. She quarters, then eighths the apple, carves the core away from each fraction’s flesh, her movements quick hushes against pushy air. Something surges in her throat, then settles in her stomach. The lid to the peanut butter resists then offers itself to her palm with a soft pop–its salty-smooth calming the tang of the apple, and she forgets about the swing.

She sits at the table and gently slides the clumps of puzzle to make room for her plate. Once complete, twenty-two puppies of twenty-two breeds will have been reconstructed, but as of now, all that’s apparent are a dozen or so bodiless faces. Her father bought her the puzzle when she was eight and wanted a dog “more than life itself.’ Elsa had refused to open the box for months (why did people always think one thing could so easily replace another?), but one day she came down to find two plates full of strawberry waffles and her father separating the edges from the middles. Jordan, her husband, had recently rediscovered the puzzle, set it out to make the meals less tedious.

Elsa stares at the puzzle while scooping the portioned peanut butter onto each apple wedge. Something eeks the swing again, and her gut clenches. Somewhere someone mows the lawn. A plane drags itself across the skin of the sky, leaves a white scar. Sometimes she forgets where in time she is and for a split second thinks if she stepped outside, she might trip over her son’s scooter and land in the world of two years ago. Or she might descend the porch stairs and smell the sweet hint of blossoms from the decade-dead apple trees. Maybe her father would be lying on cardboard under his turquoise pickup swearing about how tight the goddamned oil plug was. Maybe he’d be listening to the radio, and someone would be singing about a coat of many colors or what only the lonely know.

Elsa finds the mane-like fur of an Afghan and attaches it to the face it belongs to. Onto the poodle. These were the obvious ones she’d left for a day when she needed something to be easy. Eventually, a dozen years after her father had brought her the puzzle, she’d gotten the dog she always wanted, a Golden Retriever. It was a good dog. There was nothing particularly unpleasant about it. But she had yet to find getting something long-wished for to be as good as the imagined.

When Jordan gets home from the park, his hair is smeared onto his forehead and the back of his neck in thick, dark strips. She can taste the sting of sweat before her lips touch his neck, smell the hint of curry from his lunch from across the kitchen. He clangs his keys on the counter and unhooks the leash from the dog’s collar. The dog’s tongue slaps water from its bowl like the water owes it an apology. She tosses the rest of the apple into the compost bin. Her stomach releases its grip and she takes a deep breath while it doesn’t hurt. She knows she shouldn’t, knows what it means that she wants it more with her blood than her body, but quickly her underwear are at her feet, skirt bunched around her hips. He’s never found a reason to say no.

She tells Jordan to shower first. When she hears the screech of the curtain’s hooks she wedges a pillow under her hips, focuses on contracting the muscles she once desperately tried to relax. It’s when she finally relaxes that she thinks of what she saw by the swing. In this smudge of memory, she notices something blue behind the tall stalks of yellowed grass. Then something the shade of a crayon–red-orange, or orange-red. What she remembers is more color than shape and when she focuses, they dissipate like the flash of sun behind an eyelid. She stays horizontal, their fluids an expanding planet on the sheets beneath her hips. She doesn’t mention it to Jordan when he spills from the bathroom in a fuss of steam. Whatever it was, it’s hers. How it rolls and rests over the waves of consciousness. How it settles on her tongue, still as stone.

While he dresses, Jordan talks about what he’s planned for dinner then about another dog at the park that theirs had taken a liking to. He says he exchanged numbers with its owner, since the dogs had gotten along so well, and maybe they’d all meet up one day and see how it went.

 

After a meal of lasagna, garlic bread, and Caesar salad, Jordan suggests a walk. Two years ago, she’d been more bone than body. The corner of her jaw, bulb of cheekbone, the curve of rib subtle as a tsunami under her skin. As a teenager she’d read that when the body is hungry enough it will feed on its own muscle–especially the heart. The information was meant to scare her and the girls in her Women’s Health class, not into chubbiness, of course, but enough to make it sound like something a state of being one should avoid. But it had fascinated her: she imagined the slow collapse of valves, the tedious digestion of atria and ventricle. The stubborn resilience of a body that would kill itself to stay alive.

The sky is the color of grapefruit until it meets the eggplant horizon. Jordan unleashes the dog and it bolts. They both know it would return with an offering: a rabbit or mouse crooked with a snapped neck, look to them for praise before slinking away in shame, belly low as a snake’s. The first time she’d found its offering, she’d held it by its cord-like tail in front of the dog’s face and spoke a resounding No. Dogs are quick to accept blame, but it’d felt odd to punish it for doing what was made to do.

They walk the trail that outlines the perimeter of their property. Jordan grabs her arm when she takes a step that jars her hip. Her muscles contract against the semen that surges onto her underwear. Every day she finds new reasons to give up. It’s much more land than they need, but her father had written into the will his wishes for her to keep it all. He’d been clear about how he’d wanted her life to be after he was gone, made elaborate plans to keep her from increased suffering.

Once on such a walk with her father, they’d seen a pack of coyotes–two adults and six pups edging the field. She’d never been so close, and her father lifted her onto his shoulders. The adult animals held their snouts low to the bodies of the pups, each howling more from the gut than the throat. The sound pressed into her ears like water, settled in the unreachable regions. They watched and listened until the coyotes quieted and retreated into the scattered ribs of the woods. It was then they’d seen that each pup had an angry mouth of cranberry flesh where a tail should’ve been. Her face pinked and fluid graveled her throat. Her father lowered her from his shoulders, told her to run ahead home before she could ask why.

The dog slinks under an old barbed wire fence that once kept their bull away from the cows. It enters the small shed that where the it had often been stanchioned.

I’ll get the dog, Jordan says.

I’ll come, too.

You don’t have to.

I know, she says, and steps on the bottom wire and lifts the middle. Jordan bends his body in half and lunges a leg through. Rabbits and mice could be excused, but the dog had once found a batch of kittens they knew had been born in the shed, and their bodies had ended up on their front step, wet, slick, and still as organs.

Jordan corners the dog in the shed and attaches its leash. Though it’s been years since the bull had been there, she smells its thick, musky scent when she steps inside. She sees a scrap of bright red fabric caught on the splintered beams of the stanchion from where the bull often tried to tug its head free. She reaches for it, but it disintegrates between her fingers. Each spring for years the bull had awaken her with its early morning bellowing. The noise started deep and thick with throat before tightening into a screech. Her father warned her to stay the hell away from it, especially when the cows’ were in heat: It’s hard to say what the son of a bitch might do.

One Fourth of July, the bull had barreled through the fence, twenty-five feet of barbed wire in a flurry behind it. Within minutes, her father shot and killed it. Even though its meat would be tough, it could feed a family for a year, but its body lay in the yard for hours longer than would make its butchering for food safe. The next morning, though the bull no longer stuffed the morning full of its hollering, the cows stood in a line where the fence protecting their yard had been, their slobbery lowing clouding the air. She’d been in the yard since the sun had come up. Or maybe since the night before. Starlings scattered their songs from the crotches of trees. The moon sagged in the sky, a fading stamp of itself. She waited for something to end it–maybe the Russians finally make good and she could step toward the flash and become shadow. Maybe the tectonic plates would finally force the fissure and let ocean reclaims its dryland. Maybe the Earth would unhook itself from the sun’s bullying and give into the universe’s, Come here.

But nothing ended it. She’d have to suffer it. She’d continued to lay on a patch of grass already flattened into a shape like hers but smaller, unable to look away from the black hole eyes of a creature that was even more dangerous than anyone had imagined.

The dog fits into a tantrum of barking and she realizes she’s on the shed’s cement floor. Jordan’s palms her armpits and helps her stand, his arms halo her until she steadies. Tight bright floaters burst then disperse in her periphery.

I don’t know why that happened, Elsa says.

Let’s go back, he says.

Let’s go back, she repeats.

The dog bolts toward a shiver of motion in the field and Jordan lets go and the leash drags in a blue blur behind it.

In the middle of the night she wakes from a dream about fireworks. In the dream, she holds lit fireworks, their fuses hissing sparks, the ones you’re supposed to light on the ground and run. She keeps throwing them down, but others keep appearing in her palm, their sparks scatter her hand with red dot mouths where it burns the flesh. When she wakes she scoots her hips back until they’re cradled in Jordan’s. She is still slick with their earlier lovemaking so she slips him inside.

*

The next morning at breakfast Jordan reminds her it is Good Grief Group day. The kitchen has already been cleaned of his usual breakfast-making mess. A mound of scones cools on the counter. He’s cooked bacon and already sliced and buttered her blueberry scone. She licks a mound of butter and swallows it to ease the path of the scone. Her therapists would argue otherwise, but she’d never worried the shape or size of her body. When she was finally able to gain weight, she was expected to discuss her feelings about it. Occasionally, the muscles of her lower back would seize and cause her a great amount of pain. The skin on her knuckles and elbows was wrinkled well beyond her age. Some days she woke with a headache coffee wouldn’t calm. She’d offer these statements in response to the questions of how she felt about the changes in her body–they were really the only complaints she had.

Okay, she said. So much of their lives consisted of him caring for her. That’s something she’d like to talk about with the therapist. Not what’s she’s gaining. Not what she’s lost. Jordan knows better than to watch her eat, so he lets the dog out and drags the vacuum into the living room where the group will gather. She eats while he vacuums, its hum occasionally catching and coughing when it finds something too hard to swallow.

After she finishes the scone and three pieces of bacon she watches the dog in the yard from the window above the kitchen sink. It finds a pile of shit Jordan missed, eats it, then bolts toward a squirrel skittering up the cherry tree where the swing hangs. When her father brought the swing home she’d watched him fussing through the complicated business of safety testing. He burdened it with his weight in various positions, swung himself vigorously to test its range of motion in relation to the tree’s trunk. It was a couple days before the Fourth of July but he’d been wearing his red, white, and blue baseball hat for days. Each time the aggressive swinging knocked it off he repositioned it and started again. He never spoke about patriotism or national pride, though he occasionally muttered curses about Ronald Reagan, but every year he’d dig the hat out from the winter gear bin. He’d finally exhausted his list of possible disasters related to the swing and stepped aside so it could be used as it was meant to be.

The dog tires of the squirrel being so far out of reach and drops its nose to the grass to look for another pile. When Jordan had mentioned the dog’s eating habits to the vet, he’d assured him it was normal, a natural survival instinct. All we could do was keep the mess cleaned up.

The coffee pot hisses and gurgles. Jordan says the group will be there in twenty minutes and holds out the last piece of bacon to her. She eats it on her way upstairs. Though she rarely dresses with anyone else in mind it’s only the third time she’s met with these women and it matters to her that they think she looks like a woman who matters. She chooses black tights and a striped dress with a tiny pearl button that rests near the top of her vertebrae. She passes over the strappy red shoes and buckles her black Danskos.

The women arrive in pairs or trios. Elsa watches them lumber up the driveway, cautious as school bus drivers, and park with plenty of space between each car. Their cars are silver or black or that non-committal shade a salesman might call champagne. The dog is too distracted with surviving in the backyard to bother barking. From their bedroom she hears Jordan greet each woman with the same tone–almost one of surprise, and thanks them for making the drive. When she enters the living room, he’s already served coffee and set out the scones, butter, and is asking about cream and sugar.

Each woman, even the heavier ones, wears their damage like a skin two sizes too big. There are eight women including her. None of them speak about the loss that brings them together, but Elsa knows everyone knows about hers. It’s the kind of tragedy that travels well. The slow, torturous ones are easier to keep private. Less gossip worthy. The group leader, Bethany, orbits the other women as they butter and cream and sugar. Bethany touches each on the part of the back most like a wing. While the moist heat of her palm permeates the fabric of their colorless blouses and cardigans, she asks, “On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst, how’s your grief today?’ As expected, they are fives and sixes. The ones and twos don’t group any longer and the nines and tens suffocate in their own private suffering.

After each woman shares their numbers, Autumn, the youngest in the group stands. Her body sways, palms pressed against her low back. The woman looks toward the kitchen for Jordan then sees him with a shovel and bucket in the yard. She’s only known Autumn for a few weeks, and is shocked she hadn’t before noticed how ugly she is. The fleshy hump of her nose, the tiny dot eyes, the flat path from chin to throat. Her hair is possibly the only thing about her that could be considered attractive with its thick, shiny, hay-shaded coils.

I’m going to have a baby, Autumn says. Her palms slide forward and rest on her stomach. She slides her eyes from woman to woman, perhaps waiting for one to invite her to linger, to offer something other than pity or disgust, to say how wonderful, to say they’re sure everything will be alright.

It’s not recommended, Bethany says, more to the group than Autumn. Bethany lifts the plate with the scones and passes it to her right. The plate completes the circle as heavy as it began and she sends it on a second round. Too soon.

Autumn smiles and her upper lip is lost. She shrugs slightly, almost more like a tick, sits and takes a scone when the plate reaches her. The scone does what scones do when she bites into it but she doesn’t bother to sweep away the crumbs from her blouse. Bethany asks the group which of the calming techniques they’ve tried since the last meeting and to share their degree of effectiveness.

Eventually, Bethany distributes pieces of lined paper and asks them to take their time describing the image that most haunts them today. Each week’s meeting closes in this way. Fifteen minutes pass without anyone reaching for their coffee or a scone. Aside from the dog’s occasional bark, the only sounds are those of pens scratching image into language. Bethany collects their writing, asks them to think about how their fears differ today than from previous meetings, again pressing her palm to each woman’s shoulder. This is how we heal.

After the last group member leaves, Elsa hurries to the bathroom. She’s barely seated when the diarrhea explodes into the toilet. The sounds her body makes are ridiculous and dramatic, like what you might hear in a movie set in a frat house. She hears the screen door’s croak and click then the hush of Jordan’s socked feet on the hardwood. The air in the bathroom is thick with the scent of shit but she’s afraid to stand to open the window and make a mess. Another round of diarrhea splatters into the toilet.

Okay in there? His voice close enough she knows he can smell her waste.

Something didn’t sit well. The scones, I guess. Can I just have some space, please?

He retreats, and she hears the clinking of stacked plates and coffee cups.

Jesus Christ, leave it! I’ll clean it up! She’s never yelled at him before and the effort raws her throat. She hears him sets down the dishes and the light thud of ascending stairs.

Before the bull had blown through the fence around the backyard, Elsa’d held her son on her shoulders until his weight grieved the muscles in her neck and she’d lifted him off and set him on the ground. They stood in their in their red, white, and blue, watching the fireworks. Her son was so awed by the splattering of color in the sky that he hadn’t heard her call him back when he bolted toward the fence. The neighbor later admitted he’d set off a dozen M-80s, one after another, and that it was likely the constant sound of disaster that had sent the bull on his final charge. Elsa was promised it had happened quickly–the clean snap of the neck and severing of the spinal cord–they promised her son had felt no pain.

When the rage in her gut finally calms, she leaves the bathroom. As instructed, Jordan has left the dishes in the sink for her. She pulls on the rubber gloves, squirts in the soap and fills the sink with hot water. Through the window above the kitchen sink she sees the dog asleep in the grass. Everything is only green and brown. The swing sways because the breeze refuses to let it be. Somewhere, disaster is just a tick away, and people are failing to enjoy the final seconds of its before.