plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue Two

Wanton Poems


by Matthew Weiss

My Mother's Home by Emily Giorgione My Mother's Home by Emily Giorgione

“As a Bee gathereth the sweetest and mildest honie from the bitterest flowers and sharpest thorns: so some profite may bee extracted out of obscene and wanton Poems and fables.”—Plutarchus in Commentario, quomodo adolescens Poetas audire debet (Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia, 1598).

Deafness

She couldn’t have gone up to his fence in silence. Now it was the wind that barreled down the long street, through the windows of single-story rows, atop the surface of above-ground pools, and bristles of short, sick grass. She’d woken to the radio of the construction workers contracted to refinish the other side of her tilting building; then it was the roar of the wool pulled over her head and wrapped around her ear. The scratching of Baines against the sliding-glass door kept her busy in the kitchen, then the mid-air hiss and drip of the coffee machine blotted out the quiet closing of the liquor cabinet with all its contents intact. Walking around the kitchen, bundled up against the chill reaching in through her hole-ridden house, she felt focused, intact, aware of a pleasant hum all over her body, centering around her belly and her head. There were no ill-feelings in her, no contradictions, only hope and stasis. She was so happy to have him back.

She took out a fluorescent bundle of plastic bags from the drawer and set about filling them up, letting flour, sugar, eggs, creamed corn float down from their homes in the cabinetry onto the counter and into the bags. She considered taking him milk, but the carton in the fridge was nearly empty, and he was sure to have that.

She let Baines in and, taking two bags in hand, walked through the living room to the door. Her house was frosted with dust, the carpets were stiff and brown, the walls unfinished or stained with lifeless floral wallpaper, but the living room was where she let George experiment the summer after it seemed he’d come back from the dead, the way he appeared on her doorstep after being missing for so long; as if she, his mother, still had a doorstep; as if she, his mother, could always be a welcome mat. All enmity put aside, he begged her to let him come back home for a while. He had nothing to offer her.

She wanted the walls painted and he had offered to do it and she remembered him on the porch outside, leaning against the latticed divider that set off her half of the rented house, explaining why there was nothing interesting in monochrome walls. Why not have visible brushstrokes, hints of layering and blushes of other colors? He wanted to paint the walls so that they developed in color, in mood, from one entrance to the other, so that, walking through the room, one had a sense of change, of purpose, coming together.

She came back inside from the cold, feeling the distance in her knees, experiencing the faded colors of the walls in reverse, took in hand the last bag, along with two aluminum oven trays. Baines, spooked, slid on his nails across the linoleum in surprise.

The door-slam, the wind-chime, and then it was the grating of her sedan that occupied her, a continuous consumptive cough that kept her mind busy as she turned down street after street of neighborhood into neighborhood, collating through poorly defined aggregations of poorly-kept houses on adjacent streets.

His house was the last one before the highway, a chain link fence at the top of a short group of stairs. The drive was empty, the windows half-shuttered against the wind. She ignored that; she couldn’t carry everything at once, so she took in hand the two oven trays with their tops and, with effort, emerged from her car, wishing she had another hand to hold against the buttons of her thick red coat, wishing the ballet-flat shoes she’d squeezed into could have fit some kind of sock.

The gate was shut, but the wind buffeted her forward. She opened it and knocked on his door. Rang the bell.

“George? Can you help me carry in the stuff?”

She knocked again, then tried to look in the window, tried to peek past the cracked glass and chipped window sill. She shuffled back down the stairs and tried to lean over the fence into the driveway.

“George?”

She remembered when he was a kid, when it was more than just mother and son for Thanksgiving, she would break from her cooking to go look for him, when he hid from his cousins, when he wanted to be alone.

“George?”

She wanted to make something for him now, just the two of them, together in the kitchen, him leaning on the side of the table which divided the room.

“George?”

She tried walking around the house, looking through for some kind of opening, but everything was dark. The wind gave her limp hair one last toss from its grey roots, then died down.

“George?”

She told herself she wouldn’t think this way.

“George?”

She was trying to ignore the pounding in her chest. This was it, wasn’t it?

“George?”

This was the place, she thought, where you heard footsteps behind you, where you didn’t have time to look before you went down. This was the place, she grasped, where you got threatened by spit gushing down onto rain-smashed duplexes, where you left on your own accord if you didn’t live in a room under the wet mouth of the sky. She wanted to smash in a window with her purse, leap into the house, rouse him from bed, that’s what it had to be.

“George?”

The wind was gone. There was silence all around her. And for the first time she could hear herself yelling at the top of her lungs.

“George?”

Again and again, she felt it rising in her throat.

“George?”

A few people walked past.

“George?”

She couldn’t pause for a second, she couldn’t stop.

“George?”

The name died away.

She stood there in front of her son’s abandoned house, at last completely silent.

Twelve footsteps back to the curb. Every thought drained out of her head.
Then it was the groan of her car as she drove it up the street, her eyes blinded by the handkerchief that had engulfed her nose.

Then it was the rustle of her big red coat, the way her breath matched the car’s respiration, involuntary and open-mouthed, as if she sat there with a needle hanging out of her arm.

I want to gather her in my arms and breathe hotly into her ears.

Shitting

Every time I walk into a bathroom, I think of Martha, hunched over, trapped in a stall, shitting. Her eyes are welded shut—she can feel the crusties in her eyes needling in the comfortable, wet nook under the frightened curves of her eyelids. Her hands are clamped around her stomach, her back arched, and she bends over, rocking back and forth a little, sweat beading on her back, under the scratchy middle part of her bra. She presses her fists into her lap, she presses them again, because now she just has to wait.

Why?

She asked the question in her mind, although she was not religious.

What had she eaten? It must have been something she ate.

Why?

Had there been dairy in anything she’d eaten?

Why?

She could feel gas burbling back and forth inside her, she could feel the dull cramping, the damp air rising out of her throat. She tried, she really did, she just wanted it to stop, she thought the blood vessels in her eyes would burst like she’d heard sometimes happened in medicated pregnancies; and then she felt the gas gurgle out of somewhere into something that felt huge inside her and slam against her rectum, then it came sputtering out.

Sometimes as a kid she imagined that, when the cramps came and nothing came out, she could cut herself open and let the gas escape. Just a straw would do, a pointed straw she could stab herself with and let the hot, hateful poison out.

And then the roar would subside, she would feel the sweat cooling, and she’d finish up and leave, her legs unsteady. She would tremble to the sink, she would open a window, she would stare into her eyes and inhale, hoping to bring something fresh and clean into her body.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be her. Always excusing oneself, blushing and wondering if anyone noticed the smell. I know the way it frustrated her to be like that, how she hated her body, how she hated that her body that exercised such control over her mind, how the two were inseparable, and she accepted that, but it made existence frustrating, that she could feel in her brain the amount of lactose she’d had, when her thoughts would come sluggishly and she would feel big and bloated and heavy.

It was times like these that she needed something sharp.

Two months to the day since Martha had moved in with George and she was still doing laundry at the Laundromat. She was in there now, hoping the detergent, fabric softeners and assorted sprays would cover the smell. Something in the sauce she’d had the night before, and the rosé wine had been so good, some part of her considered the possibility of cream only distantly and she hadn’t taken a pill. Now, as she loaded the machine, she imagined that, one knee up, hand on cloak, her man was cutting through the waves to meet her, an American flag tugged at by the wind.

She remembered thinking, as a kid, that when her man came, she would have to stop him on the shore, tell him to get back on the boat. Only then, surrounded by his men, could she board his vessel, she couldn’t be alone with him, not until the smell died down and she was presentable. Sometimes she couldn’t even go to the bathroom with other women in the room, the sounds were too embarrassing.

Something was wrong with the stain stick. She threw the sweats into the laundry machine and started it up, standing there for a minute. Feeling her hair tickling her face, she lay down on the wooden bench that divided the two sides of the Laundromat, working around the heaviness in her middle, ignoring the people around her. All she could hear was her breathing. Every time she exhaled, she thought she could feel the carbon dioxide spreading in her veins, soaking her.

I see her now in a different laundry room, many years ago, in the all-girls school she attended, hunched over, gathering up the unclaimed socks and placing them carefully in a basket. There they’d lie, beside neatly folded piles of discarded panties, blouses and bras, hoping to find their owner. Martha couldn’t let them stay like that; she’d tighten the oversized bras around herself, sometimes two at a time, so they’d feel useful. It got to the point where her friends accused her of padding herself.

In the next room, it seemed eternal, her friends would be drinking, always a water bottle of vodka, and Martha would hear it thud against a table and roll onto the floor as she passed, basket held against her hip.

When she looked in, the girls would be leaning lifelessly against the bed, laughing about themselves, asking who was overweight, who had the wide forehead, making superheroes out of their faults. The girls would hear the creak of the door and Martha’s footstep, Nicole’s hand would dart up to the lamp cord, and in the darkness, she would hear Nicole whisper, “Clean it up!” and she would take it to mean herself.

But Martha would ignore her friends and sit down and talk about nothing but shit and shitting until they were rolling on the floor. She loved the feeling of power it gave her to talk about these things, to make these people double over, drunk inside and out. It was a feeling like jogging through a crowded hallway, seeing one comforting friend after another, smiling at each one, but being most excited to see him at the end of the hallway—she felt like that, as she shouted about going into the stall and shitting directly next to the toilet, taking a shit on the side of the road, feeling the wind of the cars going past on your rear end, making the loudest fart possible in the bathroom, the muttering of other ladies.

Then she would return to her room and paint her toenails. She would go to bed and the next day would be Sunday and although she was not religious, the music of Thomas Weelkes would make her cry in the pew. That’s the image she felt most, as she lay with the small of her back on the wooden bench in the Laundromat. In that memory, she hummed, surrounded by warm polyphony, her soul lifted up under the shoulders by the strong arms of musical lines into the chamber over the gate. It’s a dignified image. For what it’s worth, I want to remember it for her.

When I think of her, when I think of all my characters, I want to gather them up in my arms, hold their tired heads, hers pale and freckled, black glossy strands of hair splayed on her forehead, his hair—the hair of Martha’s George Washington—the warm color of mucus, a frame of wispy facial hair providing a halo to his dimples. I want to hold their heads against my chest and close their eyes and provide for them a consolation. I think of all the things I can do for them and I find those things in the feelings I can give them, the feeling in the cups of coffee, in the apple juice mixed with ginger ale, the feeling of wearing two pairs of pajama pants at once and the feeling, which starts in the legs, of knowing one another is beautiful.

When the laundry was finished, George met Martha for dinner at six in a French bistro with tiled floors. She didn’t ask him how he could pay for it. The restaurant was equipped with fake, autumn-colored gas lights and a collection of newspapers draped over pale wood rods. In that light, she looked like she was in the midst of her twenties; he looked much older, the way the light brought out the separate chunks of his face.

And now let me give you to understand something about George.

Stretching

There are a number of feelings which are exactly alike:

(1) The warmth of snowpants tucked into boots, sweater in snowpants and scarf into coat when lying in a snow bank, feeling the snow packed around you, the snowflakes drifting down from the boughs of the pine tree which stood in your way as you slid down the hill that led to your mother’s house, where you and she lived and where she waited in the room where she laid out your snowpants and boots and sweater and scarf in the shape and size of you on the floor of the kitchen.

(2) The feeling of being held in her arms, not your mothers, but another woman’s arms, when you were trying to work and she climbed onto your chair and into your lap, encircled you, kissed you with her mouth and you kissed back, holding your head to the side, connecting with her so she had to breathe through her nose, face red, mouth open—her face needed you, something warm inside her presupposed a dependency, an everything which ascended in curls of smell from her neck, from the golden divide where the oils of her forehead ended and the oils of her hair began, exactly the curls of smell which confronted you when you unhooked her bra and she let it fall away and her breasts humbly offered a clean, warm, laundry bra smell; all these curls which latched onto your brain suggested that warmth, freshness and she were all contingent on you, that you could, later on, close your eyes and re-experience all of it, feel enclosed by the skin of your eyelids like she enclosed you.

(3) I can only imagine this, but what the cookie dough feels when one heavy, fluffy slab of it mixes against another in the metal bowl which you have to twist into the threads of its little altar and then lower the weighted head of the KitchenAid mixer into it, but you had to lock it before it would turn on, and your brother would never believe you when you said you had to lock it and you couldn’t believe him, so you pushed him and elbowed him into the floor while the chocolate chips were melting from the warmth of the friction of the churning KitchenAid attachment, which is all part of the feeling, especially the part when the cookies come out of the oven and you bite into them at the table with your brother, breathless and sweaty after fighting, and in between gasps you devour the chewiness and the chocolate, and your eyes close, but you could feel your brother’s eyes on you, mimicking your enjoyment, because it seemed like fresh baked cookies were the things to have, and you inhaled deeply and you drank cold milk.

(4) The warm tension resulting from having had two glasses of rosé wine, golden pink bleeding into red at the bottom of the glass, and feeling it like an anchor at the bottom of your belly, tying you to the shore of home, a private enclave, like a forested island in the middle of the Mississippi, which you saw in your head once when you were reading Huck Finn; and you imagine swimming ashore in bright sunlight to meet someone on the island, but that storm comes and the water is swift and the waves are high and you’re in someone’s living room, sitting back on their couch, your eyes are too dry and you’re sleepy, but not tired and you can see all the familiar people who are squished up against you on the couch, on the floor, coming in with hors d’oerves from the kitchen, all corpses tossed about in cold water, heads bobbing and breaking the surface of the water in intervals; you’re not happy about it, but soon you’ve got ashore and the wine fills in the rest of the picture and you remember her saying doesn’t this feel good? and smiling so happily, a little scarily, and rocking back and forth, and you realize that if only you’d let yourself, you’d be happy.

(5) The satisfaction after a well-sized meal and a moderate walk, an absorbing conversation, and you make it back home and head for the toilet and you sit down and you have a good, big poop and it comes out smoothly, but not too much, and then you feel evacuated and refreshed and ready to confront the world, with clean hands and empty bowels.

All these feelings are the feeling one gets after working intently at a desk for a long time, then standing up and stretching your arms and throwing back your neck and flexing your legs, so that the blood rushes to your head and you’re imbued with oxygen and ready to confront the world as it exists, not sitting down, but at eye-level.

I think that gives you a fair picture of one side of George. But there are some other feelings that are also alike:

(1) The feeling of sweeping up an empty auditorium, feeling the grit that you’re kicking up coat the broomstick and your desiccated hands, and feeling your back and your armpits and the crux of your thighs itch with your sweat as you move among the discarded, dusty papers and wait to get out, even though you chose this, you chose this so you could concentrate, get to the bottom of things, you’re waiting to leave, but you realize there’s nothing out there, you gave everything up so you could concentrate on yourself and you’re inside this auditorium, and it gives you trouble moving, you can’t rub your face enough, there’s nothing you can possibly accomplish, nothing you’d dare to do, except escape and you lust and dread and you just wait to leave.

(2) The feeling after a large cup of cold tea, with an oversoaked teabag, it shakes your legs up and down and scratches your throat, feels like cold sewage in your stomach, and you try to pay attention to what she’s saying to you, but you can’t, and after ten minutes, realize it’s because your bladder is full to bursting and painful and concentrating on that helps you concentrate, until you can’t bear it anymore and you find some relief in the bathroom, but after you’ve come back into the room, it happens again and you can’t sit right, and now the walk to the toilet is interminable, her face behind you, and you imagine yourself faraway, in a green field, streaked with flowers in the shape of a huge paisley yellow necktie, on a hill overlooking a town, standing by a large rock, illuminated from behind by the setting sun as you throw yourself back and piss, letting the glorious, pleasurable stream sparkle in the blazing sun behind it, but the only place given to you to let loose is a dark bathroom with earwigs steeping in the sink bowl, and when you return there’s nothing you want to say, you only want to scratch your face across the bumpy, patterned pillow that’s propped up against the couch, but she insists on having a conversation, which is just beyond you and you’re sorry.

(3) The feeling of sitting straight up in a cold bedroom, picking at your fingernails until the dirt and skin under them is ripped away, and you can feel a dull pain in your cuticles and your wrists grow weak, but although you can see your fingers start to bleed, you can’t stop because there’s no thoughts to replace the movement of your hand, and so you get up and start to pace, you walk into the living room as the doorbell rings and your girlfriend comes in and sits down on the couch beside you, and she comments on the smell of your mother’s cooking which is delicious, and your mother smiles at her from the kitchen, which opens into the living room, and you hate your mother because she knows the truth about you, the truth that you’re a flake, that she’s seen you high and drunk, degenerate and defenseless, that you can never right yourself because she knows how wrong you’ve been; so you tell your girlfriend, leching at her lank and dirty hair, her face like a frying pan, get up, and she does and you both stand there in front of the green couch in your living room, and you grab her left breast as you reach around her back and force yourself against her mouth and moan so your mother can hear you, and she whispers you’re insane in your ear as you lower her onto the couch and slide your hand down her body and you don’t want to do it, but you keep coming back, and every release binds you further, as you bury your head against her, eyes shut, and breathe so heavily that you can forget who everyone is, as you hear your mother walk out of the room and take the stairs slowly.

(4) The feeling of waiting in a line to see a movie, just your little brother and your little sister and you in the blustery cold of the night outside the ticket office, and you look over and you see your mother and your father, her face overrun with liver spots, steaming with a brownish-red, wearing nothing of note except a huge, grimy fur coat, hair unwashed, vomiting to the world a far too vivid portion of herself, one out of her mind with your father and his ugly, scraggly beard and jeans behind her, staggering against her back, and you cringe as they try to join you in line, you can see each individual grey hair on your father’s chin, each droplet of spit illuminated by the streetlight above him, as he towers above you in the cold, the smell is just like the smell of a cat’s litter box, like you’ve just sniffed the plastic scoop when you didn’t realize what it was, you think of that just as the man standing behind you in line says you can’t cut in line here, and you want them all to go away, and someone says fuck you and your mother pushes someone and you get knocked against the wall of the movie theater and soon the manager comes out and carries your mother away shouting, your father has already wandered across the street, your mother shouting thank you, thank you very much, thank you, thank you very much, and she spits at the man in line behind her and your father tries to stop her, but he trips and falls against the street, and everyone in the line gasps because although he did it to himself, you feel as if some violence is brewing as your mother is shaking her finger and hands and arms, and your father tries to laugh it off saying can’t you see she’s drunk to everyone and your mother loathes him, she emits a noise that’s not loud at all, she covers her head get away from me, get away and your father runs after her you’re drunk, can’t you see you’re drunk and she pushes him and he stumbles and he tries to take her in his arms and she is disgusted, and then they’re gone, and you’re left alone with just you and your little brother and your sister in the line outside the ticket office waiting to see a movie, and you wanted everyone to disappear before, you wanted to be alone, but now that they’re gone and have utterly forgotten that you were ever there, all you want is to scrape your forehead against the brick wall behind you and die so they might find it in them to weep when they see your picture in the papers tomorrow, and you hate yourself because you’d even kill your brother and sister too.

(5) The feeling at dinner when your maybe wife accuses you of hating your mother, that it’s her birthday, it’s Thanksgiving, when she says I’ll organize a party for her if you won’t, you can’t even bring yourself to take her seriously, because there’s so much she has to understand if this is going to continue, things she must understand, and you can hear her arguing with you, you see the way her lips don’t quite match up when she talks, the way she sits delicately forward on her chair because you know she hurts too, and you laugh it off, and you feel your chest tighten, and your throat close, and your lips cringe, your eyebrows knit, your lungs gasp for air, and you crack your neck, and look away, you massage your wrists, and wipe your hands on your pants, because you love your mother and you love the woman across the table from you, and the position you’re taking and the feelings you’re feeling are destroying your body, and you remember it feeling something like this when the two of you talked about marriage in this very same French bistro, with the gas-lights and warm baguette, and you loved her and you didn’t love her, nothing is ever that simple, and you can’t even do what feels right, you can only close your eyes and vanish for a time.

I would cradle George in my arms, I would draw the stubble from his chin, I would lengthen him out and press him back into shape. Hand on his chest, I would fill out his uniform, and let him walk out of himself. I could make him feel good.

The two of them went back to George’s house after dinner. Hand on her back, George walked up the cracked stairs, unlocked the door. Martha went in, refusing to see the things that filled up the house, that kept George and her alive. She heard the door close behind her. George had a moment alone as he hung up his coat. He stood there beside the wooden coat rack, cut into the shape of a forested island, and watched Martha walk into the kitchen, closing his eyes for a moment and wondering how to break the sudden silence which had imposed itself between them. He went up behind her and kissed her neck. She turned around and pushed against him, he brought her towards him, she laughed, a little stupidly, they kissed.

In the living room, they had a large bay window, with rough, thick, rose-colored curtains. Below the bay window was a seat for two, with flat, rounded cushions and pink throw-pillows in the corners. A light blue knitted blanket lay folded up on the seat, and below that, on the floor, where lay a blue and white delftware rug, George and Martha made love, he on top, holding her to him. Afterwards, she felt sick from all the rocking back and forth. He wrapped her naked shoulders in the knit blanket and they sat next to each other, leaning against the bay window seat, surveying the forest of unpacked boxes, trash and detritus that had followed him from house to house for so many years.

“It smells like shit in here,” Martha tried to say, she said something like, “I’m sick of this, George, I don’t think I can stand it, it smells all the time, and I don’t like it. I know you say it doesn’t matter, it’s so dirty here, because I’ve got you, you’ve got me, but I feel disgusting, we can deal with these disgusting people because we’re not disgusting it’s alright, well, I can’t do it, I can’t be who you want me to be, I’m not pure, I’m not good, I’m a stupid piece of shit, I’m a whore, a disgusting fucking whore like everyone else, I’m stupid, I’m a stupid little bitch, looking to get fucked, I’m not better than anyone else, and I can’t live up to you, I can’t live up to you, I can’t be like you, sometimes I just want to get drunk, I want to let everything go, I’m sick of living here, I’m sick of you making me into someone I’m not, someone I can’t be, some brilliant, genius, I can’t do everything, I want you to hate me, why don’t you hate me, you don’t deserve me, what do you deserve in this shithole, nothing but a little whore, you can’t have me, I won’t let you, you should be disgusted by me, I’m nothing better than the people who come here, I’m too stupid for you, I’m stupid.”

George turned to her and laughed.

“What do you want? You want to get fucked?” he asked her.

“Yeah, call me a stupid whore,” she said.

“I’m going to fuck you, you stupid whore.”

“Why?”

“Because you deserve to get fucked, you’re made for nothing better, you’re just a stupid, stupid piece of shit,” George said as Martha grabbed his shirt, “but first, I have to go to the bathroom real quick.”

“Noo!” she said, “Don’t go.”

He laughed again, “I’ll be back in a second.”

“I said, don’t go!”

“Just a minute, sexy,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.

George got up and walked out, a little bent over because he was naked and it was cold. As soon as he left the room, Martha rested her head in George’s shirt, which was balled up against her knees. In the bathroom, George sat down to pee because he was tired out and he rested his head on his hands, his elbows resting on his knees. I really don’t want to do this.

“I’m going to fuck you now,” he said to her.

“Good, I want to feel you inside me.”

He touched her hair and tried to lay her down on the floor again.

“I love you,” he said.

“I want you to knock me down onto the floor.”

“I don’t want to do that.”

“Don’t tell me you love me,” she said.

“Look—“

“What?”

“Look, I really don’t want to do this, maybe I’m an idiot, but I want you to stop, I know it’s not true, but if it’s true, I can’t stand it, sometimes when you say that I get so sad,” he said to her, sitting down.

“I want you to slap me really hard, right across the face.”

“No.”

“Slap me! I want you to slap me!”

“Look, I don’t think it’s right—Why? Can you tell me why? I can’t do it until I understand.”

“I don’t care, I don’t care, I want you to slap me,” she said.

George started to get dressed, he reached for the shirt, which was in her hands.

“No!” she shouted and slapped him across the face. She lifted her hand to do it again, but he caught her arm and a shiver ran through her entire body. Her breathing came out in gasps.

“This isn’t right,” he said, “Please stop. Can you stop now?”

She was touching him now, he had to get out, he turned away from her, started pacing and she grunted, she stumbled against his back.

“Are you alright?”

“Don’t fucking ask me that, why do you care about me! Why?” she screamed and knocked one of the cardboard boxes from its leaning tower. It crashed to the floor, spilling old children’s toys, train engines, plastic lawnmower, dolls with miniature dresses, that’s all she saw. She held her hands against her stomach and moaned.

“You must be sick of me,” she screamed, “You want to know the truth, you must be sick of everything.”

She picked up a HotWheels car and threw it at him, it hit him near his temple.

“What—”

She screamed again and flung another little car at him. George was backing out of the room, yelling, “Stop, stop it!” He ran to the door and slammed it behind him and leaned against it so she couldn’t get out. She tried the door once, then he heard a scream and a crash, then another crash and he couldn’t listen any more. He could barely breathe.

“Hi, Liz? Can you do me a favor, Martha had a little too much to drink tonight and she’s not feeling good—What? No, look, we’re having some problems, and I don’t know what to do, and I really just want someone to be with her tonight, I can’t stay here. I’m sorry I can’t. Thank you so much.”

He waited outside his door for as long as he could stand it. He stood outside on the porch, in the cold, but eventually he had to leave.

Soreness

One time, when George had taken up photography for a day, he took a series of black-and-white photographs of Martha. Four of them they liked, and George went to the mall to get some cheap frames. He expected to spend more than he was willing to, but he found a deal at Bed, Bath & Beyond, four 8×10 black frames, twenty dollars. Overjoyed, he took it up to the cashier—had a moment of indecision, when he realized it was sized for 5×7 pictures and a matte, but the cashier assured him that 8×10 photographs would fit in the frame alright—and soon he was swinging his plastic bag back and forth against his knee as he mounted escalator after escalator, in comparable peace. He called Martha to tell her the good news.

He remembered hanging up after talking to her and standing very still, staring up at the church steeple that rose into the sky at one corner of the intersection. Everything seemed very quiet, very peaceful, as if he were hovering above something warm, as if he were suspended above a great bowl of soup and the possibility of falling didn’t appear likely to him, but he imagined that when he did fall into the bowl of soup, it would feel wonderful and warm; soup seemed to illuminate his body from within, it would do the same from without, and he would float in broth, let the tangle of noodles caress him, he would dunk his head in and see peas and pieces of carrots and onions flash before his eyes. Submerged in a broth heavy with oil, he found it was very, very silent. Underneath the surface, it was quiet.

As he walked up the stairs to his porch the next morning, the air was frigid, and he felt very self-contained, bundled up in his borrowed coat. He could hear very distinctly each step he took; the crack of his shoes on the wood was clear and resonant. He stood before the door and ran his fingers through his hair.

She was there, in the darkness, lying in the midst of broken boxes, half of them lying in tatters, her arm concealed by what she had to think were scarves, her legs bent over books, pickup sticks between her toes, her body barely covered by cloth tablemats spilling from the black fabric bag beside her. She was shivering, and as he watched from the hallway, afraid to enter the room, she awoke, slowly righted herself until she was sitting half cross-legged, her arms around herself, and it took his breath away to see her like this, weeping softly.

“George, is that you, what was going on yesterday? There was a woman here to see you.”

George turned around and saw the undergrad who owned the house next door standing in the open doorway.

“Nothing, I’m sorry about last night, can you leave us alone for a second?”

George shut the door swiftly and locked it. He knew she was looking at him, as he turned around, but when he entered the room again, she was gone; the light was on in the bathroom and he knocked on the door.

“Go away.” He heard her voice muffled by the door, but he entered anyway, and in the golden light of the cramped bathroom, past the sink glistening with a stagnant layer of toothbrush water, past the towels half-hanging on their rack, Martha was sitting, legs clamped together, on the toilet.

“I can’t go to the bathroom, I can’t do it, mmrgg, no, don’t come in here, I don’t want you in here,” she moaned, leaning all the way forward, her hands locked against her middle. George brought his hands up to her head and lifted her face, saw her hair pressed against the sweat of her forehead.

“Are you okay?”

“Get out, I don’t feel good.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I can’t go, I—”

She was interrupted by a loud fart, and she groaned, pushing herself forward. George stood right in front of her.

“Why are you in here, why do you want to see me like this?” she said, on the verge of tears.

“I don’t care,” George said, “I love you.”

Martha started to cry, and buried her face into him. He held her head there, stroking her hair, feeling her sniffle against his bellybutton.

“What?” she croaked, looking up, resting her chin against him.

“You’re really sexy when you poop.”

“But it’s disgusting.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“Why?”

“I love you,” George said, as he lowered himself to the floor, onto the white fuzzy rug that lay in the tiny space between the toilet and the wall. He leaned his back against the wall, laid his legs out, one leg on either side of the toilet and placed his hands on her knees.

“I want you to make a huge mess in the toilet, right now,” he said, “and I love the smell of your farts, and I love you and everything about you, and when you finish up here, we’re going to go out and get some MiraLax or BeneFiber or whatever it is and you’re going to feel better.”

“But I won’t, I’m always going to be like this, I hate it, I hate it so much.”

“Shut up. And you know what we’re going to do when we’re done this, because you were absolutely right, we’re going to go to my mother’s house and we’re going to throw her a huge surprise birthday party, and help her cook a huge Thanksgiving dinner, because I’m a terrible ungrateful son because I still love my mother, notwithstanding everything I’ve done to you.”

“You’re really amazing,” she said to him.

“No, you’re amazing. Do you think I’d be doing any of this without you?”

This was the most comfortable feeling he’d ever felt, feeling the indentations of the white painted boards of the wall against his back, the warmth of his pants as they hugged the toilet bowl, her hands in his, and that look of hers that bound them together as surely as they are bound to me.

I want someone to be there forever as she sits on the toilet, someone to sit or stand before her, to kiss her head, kneel before her, look her in the eye, cross-legged before her, back against the wall, the stall door, looking up at her, and talking, taking her mind off the pain. Someone to keep the other parts of her warm.

I always knew it was George, ever since I first imagined him in his mother’s living room, winter, years ago, when the windows were cracked, the air whistling in, when the room was finished in wood and George was on his back, his coat streaked with ash from the fireplace, his eyes looking up into the darkness of the chimney, watching the smoke from his cigarette rise into the air.

Food

It was one thing when George’s mother was speeding up the street, in midst of all the motion, it was another thing when she was stopped at the light—then she was just seated, a wet handkerchief crumpled in her hand, her grey sedan idling between strangers. She was trying to figure out where to go, which turn she should make. The feeling that she had, of being overstuffed, pushed into her big red coat, feeling her eyelashes caught in the corners of her eyes, her bones like cold needles threaded with flesh, it was like being alone under the covers in a king-sized bed, with the blankets pulled up to your neck, content and comfortable, if it weren’t only for the strangeness you felt on either side of you.

She turned into the parking lot of the Acme, running over the curb, and heaved herself out of the car into a pile of sodden, crimson leaves. She floated through the doors that parted like wisps of clouds, she slipped from aisle to aisle, taking in the bread, the milk, the peanut butter. She had to move out of the way for a father and his child pushing a shopping cart and she pressed herself against the wall of soup to make room and even after they had turned the corner, she leaned there, hugging cans of Campbell’s soup; she would have done anything to see him, would have forgiven every sin he’d committed, every person he’d hurt, so he wouldn’t have to keep disappearing, so he wouldn’t have to vanish and disintegrate, she was leaning against the frozen chicken cutlets, she was holding tight to the orange juice, if she was good at anything, she was good at recognizing the problems in people, she wasn’t without problems, she knew his problem, and it was that he felt too much, he just lolled his head back and felt.

The carton of milk back home was more than half empty and the only thing she could think of to do was get some more. She took two cartons of 2 percent, paid for them, and left.

She crunched up her driveway and gathered up her plastic bags, holding them to her breast as she drew the screen door open and unlocked the house. She could hear Baines barking inside, a leaf blower exhuming leaves from mounds across the street, the clicking of a bicycle behind her, the faint exhalation of the wind through nearly bare trees. It smelled like her neighbor’s pool. The key turned in the lock and she tried to step into the room, into the room painted in a series of impressions from door to door.

“Surprise!”

George’s mom stumbled back, the screen door slamming shut in front of her. George reached forward and caught the door as it rebounded. He was smiling at her, Martha was beside him holding balloons and a paper bag, flour and sugar and Crisco peeking out from the top. George pulled his mother into the room and gave her a huge hug, pressing his bony cheeks against her flushed, ruddy face.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, crying, “I was just at your house.”

“It’s a surprise party, Mom. Happy birthday—”

“Happy Thanksgiving,” Martha chimed in.

“We already put the turkey in the oven,” George continued, “What’s wrong?”

“Are you okay?” asked Martha.

George’s mom sat down quietly on the sofa. The cushions, entwined with patterns of vines and pink roses, creaked as she brought herself down.

“No, no, no,” she moaned, almost inaudibly. She could feel relief flood out of her from top to bottom. “I’m just glad you’re alive,” she whispered to him, shakily.

With a noise like tears, George embraced his mother and Martha embraced them both. She wrapped her arms around them, and they all leaned their heads on one another’s shoulders. The house was warm with the steam of cooking and the smell of roasting turkey pervaded the room.

About the Author


Matthew Weiss

Brown University

Matthew Weiss of Brown University was born inside a pillow-fort at age six; this was in New Jersey. His first published story spun a picaresque tale, dictated to his dad and disseminated via inkjet printer. Today, Matthew wishes he could write like a Spanish-language author, but he's only read translations. He neither regrets the awkwardness of his writing, nor takes any credit for it. All things considered, he is the author of this fictional biography. He can be contacted via a sister organization: theartmovement@theartmovement.info.