Knock It Off, Honey by Doug Bond
"There is a crack in everything. It's how the light gets in." -- Leonard Cohen
It’s been years now since everything got turned upside down. I just didn't see it coming. The way things needed re-arranging. Back then I thought I had a handle on it all. How to make her feel at home, keep her safe, lift the collar on her coat from the cold. She didn't feel at ease in the city, so far from the warm winds and bright beaches that she'd known. My place was small, but I wanted to hold her close, feel her breathing beside me in the dark, make everything fit just right. That's likely how the trouble got started. But as I said, it's been years now and she and I have found our balance again. Mostly I’ve learned to just let things go.
Unfortunately, I had to tell her we wouldn't have room for her birds, not with the rest of her stuff filling the place. It was sort of last minute, so I can see why she screeched. Skittles and Mr. Schuyler were such a mess, a pain in the ass really. Her place always had this "off" odor. I don't think she even realized.
I think it did finally hit her, looking around at all her boxes on the floor, that I was right. No sturdy built-ins, too little wall space, reed thin closets, and all of it on top of a railroad floor plan that squeezed things even more. I needed her to dig in, to feel more connected to the place. It wouldn't be right for whole parts of herself to lie unseen and forgotten in packing papers and peanuts, never again to see the light of day.
First thing, I bussed all the way out to the edge of Frowbington, to the discount home decor store, Umlaut. She seemed pleased to see me when I got home. Maybe the bird fight was over after all. I was sure she was beginning to understand. Those damn Budgies were a fucking nightmare. They chewed wood. I hated their freakish puffy heads.
"Look at the great deal I got at Umlaut!" I said and pulled out "The Berka Shelf" kit from an oversized black stenciled bag. She read out loud the big script font on the side of the cardboard box, “The shelf for precious things.”
I fussed for awhile finding studs, and finally just banged in some toggles and hung it, square and true, right smack in the middle of the one unfettered wall in my bedroom. I was pleased with myself for finding the perfect shelf and the perfect place on the wall for her things.
Earlier that day, she had given Skittles and Mr. Schuyler to the nice quiet man in her building who had helped her move the moving boxes to her car. I felt it was a good sign she had stopped talking about them.Slowly, and with extra care we lifted from their wrappings and placed out all the special things, with what felt like the shared joy of parents laying about presents and brightly colored eggs for children on Easter morning.
First out was the hand painted Horsie, two inches tall, that she’d bought at the Art Faire up in Pealsborough back in July. On our way back on the train from the Faire she had handed it to me and told me she wanted me to have it. I told her I loved her. It was the first time it had been said.
Then more treasures. The little curled cat that we named Chat Chagall. The antique nested Russian Dolls my Nonna had given me back when I was nine, "A doll for each year you've been you!" Nonna had said. The Dolls were special to me. I’d kept them my whole life, and on our six month anniversary I said, “This is for you now. My heart is inside.”
When she had opened the last doll, the very small one, she cried. Inside was a tiny red pistachio shell I’d tried to carve into the shape of a heart. She said she knew what it was, but I felt bad about a chip that had come off and a thin trace line that ran from the bottom end to the upper right corner. A little pink stain came off on her fingers.
We finished emptying the crate and filling the shelf with a half dozen more trinkets. A cheap Chinatown snow globe, a picture of us from the coin photo booth at the Zoo that I’d set in a faux leather gorilla frame I’d ordered online. And the one-legged pygmy rhino with the hand painted horn and thin purple stripes ringing its ribs.
She'd been overnight at my place countless times, but that first night of it being "ours" together, the loving was raw, rough edged and all over the room, above and below the sheets, the bed, even halfway up the walls themselves. When we woke in the morning, I lay looking up admiring the shelf, its arrangement, how we’d placed things, the special things, just right.
The first time it happened, I’d just come back from another shopping run out to Frowbington and found the shelf was empty, with all the things lying on the carpet below. She was gone, so I put them back, each one in the exact spot we’d placed it in before. She came in with a bag full of groceries, from Strigley's, some paper products we’d run out of. I asked her about the shelf. She said flatly, “Oh, they fell, yeah, that’s right, they fell. They fell to the floor.”
That was that, I didn’t push. Something about the way she said it told me to back off. Then later that week, I came into the bedroom and there they were all strewn on the carpet again. She was watching TV in the other room and didn’t answer when I called out to ask her. I didn’t want to yell, so I thought better just to pick them up and place them again. That night while I was brushing my teeth, I heard the sound of things falling in the bedroom and rushed in with Crest foaming out of my mouth.
“Whhatt’rr yoou dooing thiss frrrr!” I gurgled. She said sorry, only that, nothing more and turned out her light, primped her pillow, faced to her side and went to sleep. I didn’t want to step on them in the middle of the night. Even in the dark I knew where to put them.
The next day, twenty-one times, they got knocked. We soon stopped talking about it altogether and just settled into a stolid routine of comings and goings, still cordial but growing distant. She got quite brazen at the swiping, and slapping, right in front of me at times! But I dug in my heels and kept diligently at their recovery, once catching the pieces mid-air.
Over the next few months my back became stronger with each deep bend, grab and placement. She became toned, lithe with strong arms, her body like a bullet, creative and fluid, flinging with fingers, knees, toes, her tongue, her nose! There were variations, gyrations, all manner of unshelving. It became in time an erotic ballet and I came to like the ritual of watching. My last deep groaning bend of the night, and then the stacking apart, piling it on. “Go ahead! Knock it off honey!” I’d even say it in sleep.
I started to feel part of me hollowing out from inside as each of the items began to show signs of wear, the inevitable grounding down from the routine. A lost leg, chips in the glass, the slow seep of water from a snow globe gone dry. I asked one night if she’d level with me. Try to straighten things out. But I came at her too strong, just when I should have been widening the frame.
Soon after, a tall long-bearded guy in working man’s clothes came to the door and walked himself in, hammer in hand. She nodded him into the bedroom, so I followed and watched as he pulled out the shelf and set it up higher on the wall. He used sawtooth hangers and fancy gripper bolts and left it hung right where she’d asked him. They smiled at each other and he walked out the door.
He showed up again the following morning. I’d barely been able to spackle the walls when he came striding back in and did it all over again. She nodded him to the right and further up so the things were now out of even my reach and almost his too. Even so, she’d managed to get to them, and I needed to buy a low ladder to climb up and reset things. For the better part of that week the man knocked at the door, walked straight to the bedroom and each time moved the shelf up higher and higher. I’d gotten used to his ways and just left the two of them alone in there, with the hammer tapping and banging and the screwing of new holes.
One morning, I heard what sounded like the urgent whirring of an overloaded motor, but deeper. It was a groaning really, so I stuck my head in to check on things. There was a brilliant greasy shine on the walls I’d never seen before and the shelf was moving higher and higher. The tall man had her cupped in his hands, and pushed her chirping and panting towards the ceiling up under the shelf, his tools in a fury. I asked, somewhat cautiously, “Hey, how’s it coming along in here?”
They acted as if they hadn’t heard, like they didn’t even know I was there and kept going until finally her breathing quieted and she settled, composed and unfettered. I have to say, I marveled at the extremity of it all, the power and position and precision involved. When he finally placed her down to the floor, I moved in to say something, but he set straight to buttoning up his coveralls, repacked his tools and left. I’ve never seen him again.
The tall bearded man did good work, I will admit. It was a fine job with the shelf anchored solid, perfectly flush with the corner and expertly leveled. It was so close it almost seemed part of the ceiling. There was barely space for the things now, nothing more.
Setting the shelf up again, this one last time together was hard work, all that stretching, reaching and kind of guessing where to put things, then it was done. Neither of us could reach them at all anymore. Couldn't even see them, not jumping off a chair, not from anywhere in that room, no matter where we stood, or what position we lay in. It was like they weren't even there.
I felt confused for awhile, and almost asked her what was it that had gone down on that wall, but in time there has come, if not a clarity, then a moving out from the harder ache of those uncertainties. We never speak of those days. And the delicate things in their display that lie above us and unseen, we just continue to go about our lives both conscious and unconscious of their presence, as if hushed to a kind of passing, to the way of things grown ghostly, haunting with glimpses of moments gone and out of reach.
Still sometimes at night with the blue clock lights glowing and her breathing beside me, I wonder, and want to see them again. I came close one night too and got out the short ladder, but decided not to set up the steps worried I’d start the whole business back up with us again.
It’s the Russian Lady I miss most, though, the nine nested dolls and what lies deep inside them. I can see it; almost touch it in dreams, lying small and curved in my fingers, the tiny red shell and the crack down its middle. The space inside the space beyond us.
Doug Bond has endured life in Manhattan and along the Western fault lines, most recently in San Francisco. His short stories and poems have appeared in numerous publications online and print, including The Northville Review, Metazen and Camroc Press Review, for which his story "Why Aren't There Fireflies'" was nominated to Dzanc's Best of the Web 2011. Doug has been in the habit recently of sharing a variety of Amuzementz including his own writing at Dougbond.posterous.com