What We Own
by Eileen Marie Toth
Albert's room is a wreck. Absolute disaster. It reeks and it's dark and musty and the bed is rumpled and an ashtray's dumped into the sheets and I can't find my Joni Mitchell CD anywhere, my favorite: Miles of Aisles, the live one with the L.A. Express, her voice all breaks and hushes, crowds in the background, where she's talking about Van Gogh and art and thanking everybody and singing about how her heart is full and hollow like a cactus tree. And I can't find my Emerson biography, the new one, that we wrote our names in together but I paid for, and I can't find my hiking socks, the wicking ones, and the anthology of New England writers Jackie gave me for my birthday. Everything's lost or water-stained or wrinkled. A fan whirs, the air conditioner in the window rattles. The blinds are closed. Old cigarette smoke and garage sale curtains and underwear from the hamper and ancient red wine in coffee mugs and sweaty baseball caps mingle. I haven't washed my hair in three days, and I can smell myself.
The hallway light's burnt out. The walls hold reproductions of Matisse, Rivera, Renoir; postcards from places he's never been; bookshelves. There are plaster moldings and cracks in the ceiling. None of these things are his, really, and neither is the stereo or the computer in the corner or the television at the foot of the bed, on with the sound muted. The dark brown shag rug only looks thick and lush. It has thin spots. I've walked around barefoot, that's how I know. The floor's cold.
The air conditioner drips moisture on the wood floor, which has warped in that spot where the air conditioner has dripped for years and it's dripping on me because I'm lying underneath it trying to see if Joni Mitchell has wedged herself into the loose, buggy floorboards against the moldy wall. It's a sound like rain pattering on the roof, the glass panes, the pavement below the window, and it's trickling on my neck right now. A distant wind's picking up outside. I'm shivering, shivering, but I can't go yet because I'm about to give my key back to Albert who's downstairs and I need to get everything that's mine in this room, this one room that's his, before he really wakes up and shakes himself off and realizes I'm leaving, because I'm not feeling anything right now and that's the best time for me to do anything bold, rash, real, because I'm thinking so clearly right now, so rationally—brilliantly, really!—and I know if I don't do it now I won't and I'll have nothing left, ever, just curdled rage and such disappointment, gag-bitter, like gulping down tap water soaked in cigarette filters, that I'll want to go to bed and pull blankets up past my eyes so everything turns the color of what I'm looking at, blue cotton and knitted afghan patterns, stiflingly warm, and I'll want to just live in that little tent with my elbows by my ears and feet flexed and forget I am anything outside of that, forget I ever was anything else.
We're careful where we step, really careful, even though it's just piles and piles of junk, because it's not our junk.
It's somebody else's, somebody who abandoned this barn years ago. The entire room is full. The mounds reach as high as my thighs in parts, my shoulders in others. There are places where the stuff is flatter, and that's where we step. Dust, thick as felt, layers everything. I feel something crusty in my nose, hard and itchy, but I don't want to dig around with Albert so close.
He's three steps ahead of me. I see his profile, his double chin, his cowlick, his leaning-forward walk. Hazy light wavers through slivers in windows boarded up hastily, maybe. The planks have splinters, cracks, gaps; they're hammered shut with nails gone rusty and crumbly, easy to yank out. We've slipped through on the side away from the road.
He's wearing my blue Columbia University T-shirt with the tar stain on the back, hole in the armpit, big rip in the middle of the O sewn badly with green thread. His arms are out, balancing. He doesn't want to break anything. It looks like he's expecting a sinkhole. I tell him that.
"You know, someone might catch us. It does say NO TRESPASSING," I point out unnecessarily, since he had to pull the sign off to get at the boards underneath. I'm laughing at us, quietly.
"Patch." That's all he says, just that, his nickname for me, and I breathe in the fusty air, squinting, discerning sizes, shapes, guessing at textures. It's hot. I shouldn't have worn a long-sleeved shirt.
He's squatting with the camera now, cocking his head at an angle, bracing himself between a wood stove and an oak bureau. Imagining. Resting his elbow on his knee, looking through the lens, up into the loft, at the line of the crossbeam, how it intersects from this angle with the one intact window, no boards. Thinking. He takes pictures of this. Of that. Now, that. Over there. Now there. He photographs the odd. Finds the curious possibilities, the gasps, in white birch trees, rotten doorjambs, mottled light bulbs in flour sacks, cinderblocks, tires, broken glass in muddy lake clay. His pictures never have people in them. He leaves them for me in my car, my pajama pocket, my pillowcase, long after we've left whatever place and nestled back into somewhere else, long after we've made corn chowder and smoked eight packs of cigarettes and driven miles, through villages, counties, states, to hospitals and payphones and thrift stores and weddings. Valentines with notes on the back. Sometimes just his name, other times mine, sometimes a phrase, a message, one word, a punctuation mark. I keep them in a freezer-strength Ziploc.
My favorite one: Piper Cemetery. It has my shadow in the tombstone. We can just make out a date on it. 1856. The shadow of me is waving at Albert, who is behind the lens, waving back, though nobody else can see that. In the foreground are dandelions as big as my pointer finger, much taller than the grave from this perspective. You and me, it reads on the back, in the bee-loud glade. Yes? He's ripping Yeats off, but I don't care. There's a box to check if it's yes. There are no other choices. Yes, I tell him, after I discover the photo in my soap dish. Yes. I draw an X in the square with my brown eyeliner pencil.
He peers down now, notices the thinness of the planks, how they squeak, give, buckle under his weight. There's a hole in front of him. I touch his arm.
"Should we see if there's a ladder, or stairs?" He's disappeared through the opening before I finish the question, lands messily. Change drops out of his pockets. I hear the click of his lighter, his footsteps, his cough. I know he didn't look before he jumped, and I'm fuming, but it passes. I'm learning to expect them: the risks, the fuming. Both.
Maybe Joni's under the bed. My sandal flops off my foot, I trip on the extension cord to the floor lamp, knock it over, accidentally bite my tongue. The light bulb bursts. Pitch black. I muffle a curse, taste blood pulsing around my teeth. He's got to be awake now. I wonder how much he's taken this time. There's enough moonlight coming in through the slats in the blinds for me to make out angles beneath the metal frame, broad shapes, nothing in detail. No. I realize I can't see anything. I stick my hand out and feel around widely, wildly. I've got to hurry. My cheek's against the metal of the frame, balance is shaky. I reposition myself, kneel on shattered bulb glass. Pieces pierce my knees, burrowing in. I'm wearing shorts.
I see him: He's leaning back against the heavy wooden headboard—a former tenant's, cigarettes and lighter and pen next to him on the plaid comforter, and that ashtray. He never sits on the couch, only on the bed: shoes off, socks on—dry, white, too big in the toes—and jeans. Legs stretched out in front of him. He owns three pairs of pants and six pairs of socks and five shirts. I reach further underneath the mattress. My palm crunches more light bulb shards and finds his guitar. He bought it off a guy in his town for seventy five dollars because the guy, his uncle actually, needed a heroin fix. It's worth at least six hundred dollars. He swears he'll give it back someday, when he goes back home, though he says he'll never go back home. I don't blame him. I hate his home too.
It's getting harder to breathe in the closeness of the barn. There are magazines and newspapers resting in the dresser drawers. 1943, 1932, 1899, creased, yellowed. I leaf through, swallow grainy air. Things are underlined, folded. There are drawings and markings in the margins, a list of names, a sketch of a man's jaw. A drop of my sweat plunks onto the page. One newspaper is rolled, fastened by rusty bobby pins. There are letters in small envelopes, addresses handwritten, cursive slanting left instead of right, brown ink. I don't open these.
Nearby, a chair is on its side, its legs sticking straight out, cotton batting absent, just springs and ripped fabric. The coils are still attached to the seat, tight and wound. I crouch down. I feel Albert underneath me, rattling something, humming Jefferson Airplane, scratching something in his notebook so he doesn't forget how it felt, sounded, tasted, looked. It's my notebook, actually. He stuck it in his jacket pocket in the car. I want it, badly.
The chair and I are in a standoff. I see a mouth, gaping, no teeth, no tongue. Hanging shreds of upholstery are strings of spit, fangs. It growls at me. I shudder, but I'm tougher: I pantomime a growl back, no noise.
I know I could take a picture of this, from right here, where I am, but the camera's with Albert. I think about what I would write on the back to him, what I'd want to say, composing it in the palm of my right hand, tracing with my left fingers, a mixture of cursive and print, poetry, white space. The letters teem from my hand like river currents. I wish for him to have his own stack of my words in a bag, a chest, a box; I wish for me to make something startling, beautiful, mine.
Just as soon as he comes upstairs.
I pull the guitar all the way out. It's in two. I hold the neck in one hand, body in the other. The strings are still connected, but they're floating now, purposeless, stunned, crooked, between two pieces, two bodies snapped in anger or stupor or mania. I don't know how long it's been under there, broken.
On another night, we're contra dancing. Old guys in flannel shirts and long beards stand outside Dudley's house. Dudley's the caller. They're smoking and telling jokes about Rene Descartes and farts. Some of them wear hearing aids. They stub everything out when the fiddles start up again and we follow them, stepping into line, dancing in patterns where past and present and future weave into swirls of skirts and rhythms and chuckles. We're hopeless. We're stepping on everybody's feet even though people on our left and right guide our elbows and shout out what Dudley's saying over the din of the music. You want to go play, I know you do, I tease him. It's okay, abandon me. It's okay. Maybe that guy'll swoop over here, now that you're not hogging me. I point to an old man with a flannel cap and a long beard and a yellow poncho who's shoving meat on a stick into his mouth. Albert pulls my hair a little, not hard, squeezes my hand, grabs his guitar, joins the band. He belongs there. I know it. And he watches me try to dance and I watch him play, watch him listen, watch him play by ear. We're smiling at each other, grinning hard.
And then I concentrate, moving loudly, over the swells that are now his, too, because he's making them richer, joining Dudley and George and Gemini and Damon up there, and I'm bouncing faster, faster, and harder, focused, and faster, harder, focused. Stomping now, stepping, dodging, ducking, dodging again, oh, shit—I laugh because Albert saw me stumble—tapping, caught up in faces, teeth, shoes, banjos, notes, history. I lose my name, forget where I am, know that I'm here. Here. Here: I am dancing with a local boat repairman who quotes Hawthorne, a playwright who's an expert witness in a landfill case, an electrician, a farmer, a furniture maker. And Albert's here too, with his guitar, finding me, creating the music that's letting us own anything we want, and we're alive in a place that's bigger than the two of us in his room and we're dancing and there's an order to things and now I can't stop laughing even though I can't really see because tears are streaming but they're good tears.
My head's pounding. I can't stand looking in the dark anymore. I sit up, place the guitar on top of the bed, away from the ash and butts, smooth a space for it on the mattress. I can't find sleep here, ever. Springs nudge their fingers into my spine, press into my vertebrae, discs. I wake up, fall back asleep, and feel them again, harder, like knuckles. Insistent. I shift all night while he sleeps, trying to locate the firm reassurance of foam, synthetic filling, cloth, feathers, whatever's in there. The soft never lasts. The morning reminds me.
There's nothing more I want to search for here. There isn't anything I want to find. It doesn't matter. Sweat's rolling down between my breasts, soaking my bra, creeping lower, soaking.
I rest my head on the edge of the bed, try to breathe breathe breathe, try to breathe. The pattering continues, that pitter-patter from the air conditioner, which might be rain after all.
Yeah. It's raining now. Far away thunder, something's rustling on the sidewalk outside the house.
And very faintly, I hear him coming up the stairs, calling for me. Saying my name.
It's what we own.
Copyright©2003 Eileen Marie Toth