Storyglossia Issue 46, August 2011.

Impossible Object

by Robyn Carter


I know you've probably lost a lot of your English, and I'm sure a version of what happened must already be lodged somewhere deep in that strange part of your mind that lets you know when to eat your own shit, but I'm going to tell you what I remember about our wet-brained month together anyway. I'm going to leave this letter with the sausage man. Maybe he'll read it to you and the words might sound familiar in a primal sort of way. You might think I'm doing this because people say to retrace your steps when you lose something, but I don't really think anything like that is going to work in this case. That might work for people who have identified an underlying logic to their universe, and even then, I think it only works for keys. What I'm doing here is just gouging out my eyes and fumbling around in the dark for clues about where things went wrong. Maybe the answers are in the letter you gave me. But that thing was completely unreadable so I let the babies have it. And by now I'm sure it's been sucked to a gummy pulp.

I never told you this, but the day we met I woke up in the forest, on the ground between two redwoods a hundred feet tall. I'd left Anchorage weeks before. The light-starved winters there made me sleep too much and gave me terrible dreams about turning inside out, snagging fallopian tubes and arteries on doorknobs, constantly putting myself back together. The day we met I woke up between lives.

When I opened my eyes I felt your soft pull through the branches, reaching toward me from a small, shattered sky. You were there in each fragment, reflecting the morning's silvery pallor, bathing me in lazy, frayed light. It hurt my eyes but I didn't squint because this was what I'd been looking for. I was hungry but all I had to eat was a mushy apple. I found it in my backpack and bit into its bruised skin, shaking pine needles from my hair. I rolled up my sleeping bag and picked my way through a thatch of thorny bushes.

When I got to the 101, I stuck out my thumb and after an hour of nothing, a man in a nylon windbreaker picked me up. He played with the zipper of his jacket while he drove and told me he was a geology professor who wrote a book about the effects of pollution on the oceanic crust. Eventually everything ends up in the sea, he said. In between gaps of thick silence he talked about sediment and the drawbacks of slash and burn agriculture. When we rumbled onto the Golden Gate Bridge he said, Let's make a deal. And I asked him what kind of deal and he said never mind through perfect teeth, his eyes shrinking into angry little prunes. I remembered my knife, its tiny, serrated blade, almost nothing really. I slipped my hand into my pocket and stroked its plastic handle, concentrating hard on the steel cables rushing by. If I looked straight ahead they blurred into an orange whisper I knew would spirit me to safety because that was you too.

The professor dropped me off near the bottom of Leavenworth. I think you'll fit in nicely here, he said, gesturing at a blind man sitting on the curb, making something out of retractable ballpoint pens and duct tape. His expression didn't say anything because there were two milky planets where his eyes should've been but his cardboard sign said Reaganomics. I grabbed my backpack and slammed the door of the professor's Volvo. He sped toward the intersection as the blind man followed his cane off the curb, an otherworldly cadence to his lope. The professor swerved to miss him then bled into rush hour.

I turned around and walked into the Laundromat behind me, beckoned inside by the calming warmth of its fumes. That was your way of calling me. There was a kid covered in Cheeto dust playing Pac-Man in a corner and a pretty girl with a beat-up face folding baby clothes. She sat under a TV bolted to the wall and a sticky-mouthed toddler slept in a stroller beside her. Sabado Gigante blared above her head, the show's jiggle and flounce reflected in the glass doors of a row of dryers behind her. All of the machines spun with heart-breaking synchronicity then one of them slowed to a stop. Something stirred behind the neon-clad hips swaying in its door. I pulled it open and there you were, balled up inside, smelling like Bugle Boy and Bounce. It wasn't until you climbed out and unfolded your spindly frame that I realized you were not a child. You smiled at me and dragged a finger through your wispy beard, stroking the rubbery scar along your jaw. Your eyes burned yellow with loss and a dirty strip of gauze hung loose around your wrist, partially exposing a seeping wound. You parted your lips as if to speak but said nothing and I felt a tug on the taut strand of bleak, guarded desire knotted up between us. I thought you were beautiful and perfect.

I asked you what you were doing in the dryer and you told me it was really warm, and completely safe as long as you turned the dial to the lowest heat setting. You tightened your bandage and said, I've been waiting for you.

I know, I said.

Do you wanna try it?

The dryer?


I don't think so.

You can always kick the door open if it gets too hot.

It's not the heat, I said. It's the spinning.

What's wrong with spinning?

If I'm moving I need to be going somewhere.

Let's go then, you said, and we wandered across Market, down Seventh then followed Folsom's leather whips and chaps to its hollow-eyed baby thugs. Chiva-chiva, they whispered as we lumbered past, everything we owned jostling on our backs, clinking in our pockets, my knife, your can opener, old keys we held onto just in case. Armored against the wind in sweatshirts and thick layers of grime, we hiked on through the dusk until we reached the top of Bernal Hill. From here we could see the whole city. At night it's just a blanket of moving light so you can't make out any of the love or misery crossing paths below and we liked it this way so we closed our eyes and let the wind rake our bones clean. We fell into a deep, dead sleep, moving in and out of each other's dreams, breaking off thin pieces of plot, leaving holes.

We spent our days nourishing ourselves on whatever we found. Expired tater tots, abandoned Happy Meals, wild fennel that only made us hungrier. Once we smashed open a watermelon and fed each other its heart. It was January so we knew that piece of fruit was far from home.

I feel like we're eating our young, you said.

Or someone else's.

Yeah, in the most violent way possible.

Sometimes we waited at the end of a line that stretched for blocks, a chain of grey-faced people full of Jesus and the government. One of them used the word impecunious a lot and drew portraits of us on the sidewalk with chalk. He rendered our gaunt features with surprising speed and accuracy, considering his hands were riddled with shrapnel. My wind-chapped eyelids, the shadows in the hollows of your cheeks. How can you draw shadows with white chalk? Impecunious found a way. He knew all about shading. But he never drew our mouths.

Once we traded him some pills for a key to the Safeway dumpster. We waited until it got dark then unlocked it and threw back the lid. A manual typewriter and the N and O volumes from a set of World Book Encyclopedias sat in a cushion of past-date Twinkies. I thought those things were supposed to last forever. We split one and both puked from the sweetness. I took the encyclopedias and you kept the typewriter. It was heavy and there was barely any ink left in the ribbon, but you said the clacking sound it made would give our lives structure. I thought of ceilings and walls but of course this wasn't what you were talking about. You were talking about the kind of structure a counselor from your last group home used to mention a lot.

What else did she tell you? I said.

She said I had promise, but no discipline.

The place we'd been sleeping had rules against clacking, which you saw as rules against structure and discipline. I didn't get what you meant. We weren't allowed to stay together; males and females slept in different rooms. There were lights without switches and color-coded arrows on the floor pointing nowhere. There was a room for women with oxygen masks and there was a rule that said they had to share it with the scabby-faced girl who screamed in her sleep.

At intake that night, every plastic surface there sparkled with ironclad rigor. It made my face ache, my cheekbones and gums. What are you talking about, I said. What do you mean, there's no discipline?

You can't see the chaos here?

Everything seems in order.

A fine dust had gathered in your eyelashes and when you leaned against the wall, something sticky rubbed off on your shoulder. We left and decided never to go back. I fingered the contents of my pockets, feeling for matches because we'd need fire. I found plenty but my knife was gone. When I mentioned this you said, Don't worry, it's safe.

We climbed Bernal Hill that night—and every night after that unless it rained—pulling the typewriter behind us on a skateboard, its hulking metal frame strapped in place with bungee cords. The wind scared everyone else away so we were always alone. When we got to the top we drank red Cisco and you read aloud to me about N and O things while I licked your hands. There must have been iron in those typewriter keys because you tasted like blood. We ripped out the pages after you read them and set them on fire to keep us warm, but the wind was so fierce the heat never lasted. It was too cold for sex but we learned to use zippers and buttons creatively. Once it ended with you saying, tell me tell me tell me. Tell you what? I said. Tell you what? Nothing, you said, but you were crying, rolling and unrolling the same cigarette over and over. It had to be perfect. After that, we practiced fucking fully clothed until we could do it without actually touching. Until certain N and O words became kinky sex things between us. Narwhals got you hard; oology made me moan. But the nine worlds of Norse Mythology made me uneasy because of the way they were connected by a giant tree with serpents gnawing at its roots.

When you first found the entry you skipped to the part about the world of fire and the world of ice combining forces to create a giant and a cow. The giant gave birth to a human daughter from his armpit, and a giant son seeped out through his pores. Then the new father sucked on the cow's udders while she licked a salty stone and this was a form of reproduction that resulted in a powerful new god. This kind of thing went on and on. Eventually I couldn't take anymore and told you to stop reading.


It doesn't make any sense.


You're the one who wanted order.

On our coldest night together it got below freezing, thirty degrees maybe, cold enough to snow but it didn't. At least we had jackets by then, heavy overcoats that probably lent an authoritative and respectable air to their previous owners but made us look like turtles with oversized shells. Breathing hurt and I couldn't feel my feet anymore, just a vague heaviness between my ankles and the ground. That's not good, you said, we need to wake them up. So you pounded on my shoes with your fists while I knelt on the ground, ripping out pages to burn, the bones in my neck and jaw making popping sounds you said you couldn't hear. I stopped tearing and wrapped my arms around my knees. Your eyes raced with an urgency I'd never seen in them before, unblinking and frozen.

I want you to read to me, I said.

What about your feet?

They're ok, just read. Please?

I twisted the pages I'd ripped out into a torch and struck a match. It blew out.

You took the book from me and read. Since the Renaissance, necromancy has come to be associated with black magic and demon-summoning. You looked up from the page and said, Too bad we can't summon any right now.


You know, because they'd be so warm. From the hell-fire and all that.

I don't want those things around us.

I'm just talking about their heat.

You can't pick and choose what qualities you want. It's all or nothing.

They're not real. I'm just saying—

My stepfather used to tell me I attracted them.

Did you ever see any?

I'm not sure.

I set the twisted pages alight again and this time the flames licked at my cupped hand, but didn't blow out. I touched the torch to the seat of a wooden chair we'd dragged up the hill and you held your coat open in front of it to block the wind. When the wood finally caught fire, I could feel the ends of my body again, my powdery white mind, my feet rejoining my legs. I curled up next to the burning chair and you pulled my head into your lap.

It's ok, you said, we have heat now.

You were right but there were only two matches left and your wound was seeping again. Your wrist doesn't seem right, I said.

You looked at it and tried to fix the bandage and said, It's fine.

Pretty soon we're gonna have to find something else to burn.

The next day you wrote me a letter, typed it right over the entry for Optical Illusion so your words were impossible to make out. I asked you what they said and you told me I'd figure it out eventually. You said you had to go to work.

What? You have a job?

Yeah. It's seasonal work.

But the seasons haven't changed.

I guess it's actually pre-seasonal then.

I studied those overlapping layers of text for a long minute then looked into your face. Something was turning around and around behind your suffering like the tiny insides of an intricate machine.

I give up, I said.

It's not a puzzle. I just didn't have a blank page.

Then you disappeared into UN Plaza. I watched you slip across an empty patch of concrete between a flock of pigeons and a soggy box of fish heads left over from the farmers market. A group of elderly Chinese women seemed to be guarding it, the infants strapped to their backs staring into the pile of blood-rimmed gills and eyes, soaking up the twitchy splendor of new death. I peered into the box too and thought of headless bodies, fins and tails, still swimming through the sea, a school of nervous systems severed from their hubs, so many urgent messages forever undeliverable. We're hungry. We're suffocating. We're swimming through untreated sewage. Move! Move! Move! And you were moving, swimming past the babies, their insatiable new eyes darting from the fish heads to the shine in your wake. One of the infants spotted your note in my hand, perhaps drawn to the Escher stairs on the back. The caption under the illustration said it was an example of an Impossible Object. That's when I tucked the page into her little fist. She made a crumpling sound with it and her grandmother turned to scowl at me, waving her hand around as if shooing away a fly. Sorry, I said, and backed away, my palms raised in surrender.

Babies must be used to things not making sense. Probably because they don't even know what sense is. Their worldview is in a constant state of recalibration. No wonder they sleep and cry so much. When I found you in the dryer I was nineteen but when I discovered you were gone I felt like I was six months old. In a way, you gave me the gift of time travel. The kind of time travel nobody makes movies about. The kind where the world stays the same, but you go backwards on the inside, the kind that carves away certain parts of your brain so you're nothing but instinct. If given the choice, most people probably wouldn't choose this type of time travel, but I would. I'd rather jangle under the weight of something too bright or too loud than be dead from the plague or lost in space. I know you probably disagree with me about this. I'm starting to think maybe it's impossible for two people to maintain any real connection if they can't see eye to eye about something this fundamental. Is this something you mentioned in your letter? I wish I could go find you at your pre-seasonal job and ask you, but it turned out you didn't go to work. You actually walked halfway across the Golden Gate Bridge and jumped off.

And lived.

I know you're still alive because I see you from time to time in front of the Twenty-fourth Street BART station. You're the one running around, panting at all the winos and revolutionaries, right? You're the tan colored dog with the bum paw. I know it's you because of the way you smile when you see me and run to me in your beautiful three-legged way.

Since you're a dog now, you don't talk of course, but you didn't talk much when you were a human either. Sometimes you sent messages through the ether that came to me as colors, amoebic and shimmering, exquisite the way germs under a microscope can be, so harmless-looking, but deadly powerful. I know people might think this had something to do with the PCP, but I'm not so sure. Osmosis is a physical process in which a solvent moves across a semi-permeable membrane. There were mostly shades of blue, and when you sent me yellow I knew you were communicating profound sorrow because the thin, runny quality of that particular hue made my eyes sting. At first I thought it was from the chemicals they used to clean the hospital floor. But eventually I understood. What a mess.

Do you remember that night? How that loud paper sheet got all soggy because your typewriter was wet. Because you were wet. I was too. The whole city was drowning. That night the sky turned a blinding, pale grey and rained on our pretty cardboard house. It drenched our overcoats, sagging their boxy shoulders. The nurse said, You're lucky that blade was so dull, and you said, It wasn't dull, I probably didn't press hard enough. And you were right. I knew my knife worked fine. Promise, but no discipline. She said she could put you on the waiting list for mental health counseling and you said, I'm not crazy, we just wanted to sleep in the waiting room. Then you quit talking and laid there, slack-mouthed and shivering, your eyes trailing the nurse's pink fingernails as they fluttered over knobs and buttons while I tore the dry end of the paper sheet into an anxious fringe. You tried to explain to the nurse that it was raining, but your murmur was too hard for her to decipher and she adjusted a dial on a machine as if that would make your words sound right. But I knew what you meant because I was pulling colors from the air like cobwebs, stuffing them into a cigar box I kept in my backpack. I still have it now but I keep it shut tight with a rubber band.

I'm sorry, the nurse kept saying, but there's no typing allowed here.

The man who grills bacon-wrapped sausages in front of Factory-2-U on Mission Street takes care of you now. I guess you must sense this somehow. I wish you could give me a sign, or just whisper a couple of words. Maybe you actually can, but choose not to because you'd rather avoid a media circus, or because you fear scientists might take you away if they found out you could talk, and hook you up to machines like in ET, and then there would be a plant that died when you died and lived when you lived. I used to think that plant could be me. I'd imagine myself as a crocus in a terra-cotta pot, bleeding from its eye sockets. I thought I could protect you. I could tell how happy you were because of the way you frolicked and wagged your tail and I was sure I could figure out how to make it so you stayed that way. You seemed so healthy too. I heard it was because the sausage man gave you dog vitamins. I never realized there was such a thing. There's so much I don't know.

This morning I hiked up to where your typewriter still sits at the top of the hill. I'm kneeling in the dirt in front of it right now, the sun hot on my back. I'm banging on the keys, but I can't get them to clack the way you did. They're so rusty now all they do is make a scraping sound, but aside from that the machine still works ok. The wind is almost gone but the encyclopedias are still here, warped from the rain, but dry now and readable enough. When I picked up the N volume its stiff pages crackled as I pulled them apart. I turned to Norse Mythology and found the spot where I told you to stop reading all those months ago. It was halfway through an excerpt from a poem narrated by a clairvoyant priestess who predicts the world's destruction and rebirth. I read the whole thing and at the end she says, Now I must sink and her prophesy is over. There's a synopsis in the section that follows, details about the war between gods that brought about the end and a dragon that swoops in to carry away the dead when the world is reborn. But there's nothing about the sinking. There's no explanation for that.

I don't think I'm going to give this letter to the sausage man after all. I don't think I need to anymore. I'll leave it here and let the wind blow it away. I know it'll find you some day because eventually everything ends up in the sea.

Copyright©2011 Robyn Carter

Robyn Carter's writing has appeared in Playboy and Tempslave, and is forthcoming in Switchback. "Impossible Object" is her first published fiction. She lives in San Francisco where she works for the school district teaching creative writing to kids. You can spy on her class at