Kim hadn’t realized how big the sky was, how much room it held, room for almost anything. They were all out on the lawn, except Wolfgang, watching the November night for some sign of beauty or God, Kim wasn’t sure which. The meteor shower was supposed to start at eleven, and Kim waited for it, sitting in her pink, plastic lawn chair, sipping a cup of hot chocolate. When she saw the first one shoot like a rocket across the sky, she sucked in sharply, burning her tongue. Behind her, Celeste, her mom, sat close to Eileen, their next door neighbor, their chairs parked so they could pass a thermos of coffee back and forth. Kim heard the lid twist off and the sound of liquid pouring. Another star fell, briefly. Then another.
“That ain’t nothin’,” Eileen said, lighting up a cigarette. “There’ll be more.”
“Make a wish,” Celeste said, laughing, patting Kim’s shoulder. “Everybody make a wish.”
“Looks like there’s about a thousand wishes comin’ and probably a million people makin’ em,” Eileen said. “Don’t seem right.”
Kim could hear the sound of the television in the background. Eileen was keeping the screen door open to listen for Wolfgang, her retarded nephew, who was watching his TV show, uninterested in stars or wishes.
“Go to the house and get me another blanket real quick, Kim. I’m cold.” Celeste rubbed her hands together and blew inside them.
“I’ve got one in the house,” Eileen said, and she stood up, passing the thermos back to Celeste. “I don’t want her to miss it.”
“No, have Kim do it, Eileen. We’re right next door. Kim.”
Kim took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. They were starting to fall fast now, not one here or there, but two or three, five, six, ten at a time. She walked to the house without looking down, bumping her feet against the uneven gravel like a blind woman until she reached the edge of the porch.
She looked down for a couple seconds. The house wasn’t really a house. It halfheartedly pretended something beyond its worth and failed, so that when Kim looked at it, she knew it was a trailer that wanted to be something more. Her mom found it a week after they moved to town. The whole building sat 50 feet back from a gravel road, the trailer’s rectangular body deformed by an add-on living room that bulged from the front like a growth. The porch hung three inches away from the front door. It was nicely built, wide and spacious, but placed just far enough away that Kim had to take a big step on her way in or out. The outside had a light coating of mildew that gave the building, in daylight, a mottled, gray appearance, and where the living room showed plywood and tar paper at the edges, the rest of the siding was accordioned metal, reflecting moonlight now. Sometimes Kim imagined a great wind crumpling the whole building like a soda can. Then she could walk away with no regrets. She could move back to Chicago, without her mom, or up to New York City. She imagined herself forty pounds lighter, on a stage, singing. I’d like to be an actress, she thought, trying the door, looking back at the stars.
No luck. It was locked, and she hadn’t brought the keys. City habits die hard. Kim had been a freshman when they moved, and she’d endured three-and-a-half years of high school in Bristol, a small southern town with a name halfway between a horse brush and toilet cleaner. Then factory work. At least the pot was decent. Kim took advantage of the distance to secretly light a joint, a small one, hidden away in her pocket. She toked once, coughing a deep low cough, and stared at the sky, letting her mind roll forward like a ball of yarn unraveling. It’s funny how sometimes things happen fast. One day Celeste said, “Honey, let’s move.” She said it like it was a dream come true. They moved the next week.
In a small town, life moved slower, in familiar rings, like a stone dropped through pond water. These days her thoughts were like that farthest ring, a faint receding echo that could only be heard when it was quiet. I’d like to be an actress, she thought again, remembering Nicole Kidman in “Days of Thunder.” I’d like to be an actress. She saw Nicole’s red-gold hair spilling out into the wind as she leaned in to kiss Tom, and Kim puckered her pink lips to the night sky, imagining kissing a man like that. I’d like to be an actress. She could barely hear it now, behind the imagined kiss. She took another drag off her joint and held it in.
Kim ducked behind the house and walked back, slowly, to Eileen’s, smoking the joint on the way, taking great big breaths and holding them before exhaling a white cloud. When she could hear Eileen’s and Kim’s voices again, she wet the tips of her fingers with spit and crushed it out, putting it back in the inside pocket of her coat.
She could hear the TV at Eileen’s front porch, and she banged her boots there, calling back before walking in, “House was locked. I’ll look in Eileen’s.” Wolfgang was sitting there in the lazy boy, a short dumpy man, with his boots up on the footrest, wearing a red and black flannel shirt and cheap jeans. His belly, larger than everything else, hung over the edge of his pants. At the moment, he was holding his axe against the right side of the chair, his hand on the handle, watching the seventies movie “Xanadu.” He didn’t see her come in. Kim thought he probably didn’t see anything but what was in front of him.
Wolfgang Davis was the local retard, an obsessive little man who chopped wood most days, watched TV or played checkers with Eileen at night, muttering to himself the whole time. Wolfgang had lived with Eileen for over twenty years. Eileen wore a wig and had too many cats. Her house smelled like cat piss. Kim looked around at the sagging couch, the old lace doilies that draped the side tables. It made her skin crawl. Yeah, there are some houses that make you feel like you don’t really want to touch anything in them. Her aunt Sophie had a house like that. She lived in a trailer out in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Sin City, Celeste called it. Every time Kim visited she wanted to pull herself so deep into her body she would be untouchable. It was the same at Eileen’s. It wasn’t so much that her house was dirty or gross. It wasn’t. But there was something not quite right about it just the same. You walked in, and suddenly you felt like the sadness stuck there might be catching. You feel like it might stick to you too, and then you’d be walking around, drowning in sorrow. It was too much.
Kim remembered Chicago. How could she forget? She’d been a kid when they’d moved from Sin City. Celeste had worked at a home for mentals, not anyone like Wolfgang, but other more complicated stuff like cerebral palsy. Kim liked it because they lived down the street from a cheap Chinese place and a bagel joint. She could walk to school, and even though Celeste was mostly not home, Kim didn’t have to cook. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Kim by sight. She would stop and chat with the newspaper vendor on the way home from school. That was before Kevin had moved into the apartment.
Kim felt an uneasy feeling hanging like a shadow, distant but close. She might be doing something wrong, or at least something kind of wrong, watching Wolfgang. Still, she couldn’t help noticing his eyes were just a bit too close together, and his head sat large and bobbling above his fat tummy. Like a misshapen tree, he gave off the impression of wrongness, and that impression touched Kim’s own fears. She couldn’t breathe, watching him. She noticed the axe’s bright tip.
Shaking herself, Kim quickly walked behind Wolfgang’s chair, careful not to touch anything, and into the hallway, looking for the linen closet. When she found it, she reached inside searching for an extra blanket. In the living room, the TV said, “Look at those boobs.” Wolfgang repeated the words, laughing a little to himself. “Look at those boobs. Look at those boobs.” She shook her head and tried to take a breath before walking back through the living room, threading her way behind the couch and chair, out of Wolfgang’s line of sight.
Out in the yard, stars were dropping like fireworks. She handed Celeste the blanket and settled back into her chair. There were so many now it looked fake, like a TV show, and she watched with less interest as the sky fell.
“I used to run around like a cat in heat. You couldn’t keep me home at her age.” Kim heard Eileen as if she was far away, at the end of a long tunnel, and she was eavesdropping. There was the sound of the cigarette burning, and then the long exhale.
Celeste hesitated a second. “Well, that’s not what I want. I’m just saying a little bit of fun wouldn’t hurt, you know. A little might be what she needs. Not a single boyfriend. Early trouble didn’t help either.”
“Trouble never does. I know a thing or two 'bout that.” Eileen coughed once.
“You don’t know a bit of it,” Celeste snapped. “Still, there’s good ones out there. Hard to find though.”
“Damn near impossible to find, I’d say,” Eileen laughed. “Have that friend of hers, what’s her name, take her out dancin’, a little bit of dancin’ never hurt nobody. They got those clubs in the city, a little bit of dancin’ might loosen her up.”
It occurred to Kim, slowly, that they might be talking about her. I don’t want a damn boyfriend, she thought. I’ve got to get out of this town.
In Chicago, Kevin, the perfect boyfriend, moved in a month or two after he and Celeste started dating. At first Kim liked him, it was nice to have someone to watch “Cosby” reruns and “X-Files” with her and share supper on the days Celeste worked. Then he started to watch her. Kim remembered how he would track her from door to door, room to room, complimenting her hair or the stupid jeans she wore to school. One day he encouraged Kim to sit on his lap while they were watching TV.
She was too old for that, Kim told him. She started hanging out more at the park, but he finally cornered her one night while her mom was working evening shift. Kim had just finished taking a shower and was walking down the carpeted hall, wrapped in a towel, when he called her name. Kim stepped back, away from him, into her doorframe, trying to escape. She felt the door handle give way as he traced her shoulder and collarbone down to the towel. She was scared of him, his size and his adult eyes, so she didn’t fight.
She asked Celeste to get rid of him a week later, and when her mother refused, Kim pulled out the bloody towel from beneath her mattress. There had been tears then, and whiskey. Six months later, Celeste proposed the move.
Kim preferred to remember it that way, rather than the slow collapsing her life had made on itself while her mother had taken her to doctors’ visits, a shrink’s office, the school nurse, teachers. Kim had gotten sick almost immediately, and when she heard the word pregnancy drop into the heart of that small white office with white walls, bouncing off each of them—pregnancy, pregnancy, pregnancy—she thought she might die. She didn’t though. She just threw up everything until there was another white room, another doctor, and then the knowledge that it was gone—they, actually. Kim would have had twins at fourteen.
Kim forgot to watch the sky, so when Celeste said, “Show’s over. I think we’re done,” she was surprised. Kim looked up. The sky was clear. No sign of the shower remained.
“Well,” Eileen said, gathering her chair and blanket. “Bedtime.”
“I’ll send Kim over tomorrow to get a grocery list and drop off the mail.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Eileen pulled the edges of the chair together.
“It’s no worry. She’s off tomorrow.”
They talked around her, as if she were not there, as if she were Wolfie. Kim felt angry, but she didn’t know what to say. She walked the 50 yards home in silence. Celeste unlocked the door when they got there. Without speaking, she went down the hall and right to bed.
Kim watched television until she couldn’t think anymore. She woke up around three or four and moved to her bedroom. Wolfgang woke her up at seven. Thunk. He had already started chopping, thunk. She had cotton in her mouth, and with the damn chopping, thunk, she couldn’t think straight. Today was her day off. Damn.
She lay there, trying not to listen to the rhythmic sound. When she was in high school, Wolfgang started just as early, a little after seven o’clock, and he stacked pieces from the day before first. Close to eight, she would hear either the heavy thunk of an axe hitting a log, or in summer the more delicate tap tap tap of metal cutting kindling. Once he started, he would keep cutting until Kim heard the bus rumble down their street. Then magically he would stop.
Hearing the bus, Wolfgang would come out to the front of his yard and wait. He would watch the heavy, yellow bus lumber down the street. Wolfgang must have been in his thirties, but every day he waited for her bus just the same. He’d watch until Kim rode out of sight. Kim watched him right back through the safety of the bus window, wishing he would stop, wishing that maybe the hatchet would slip just a little. Dying didn’t seem like such a big thing anymore. The twins had died an easy, antiseptic death. She imagined going out like that, not knowing. That would be the best way. Alive one minute. Gone the next. No warning. It would be a relief to be released from the daily pressure of having to continue.
Now Kim swung her feet over the side of her bed. She wanted to watch TV, but she heard the television and realized her mother hadn’t left for work. She lay back down. Celeste came to the door just then, and knocking said, “Kim, are you up honey?” Thunk. She kicked the covers off. Always with the damn chopping, she thought. “Could you run over to Eileen’s and get that list? I’m gonna leave soon.”
Kim sighed and started pulling clothes out of her drawers. She didn’t answer, and finally Celeste walked away, sighing loudly. Kim gathered the mail quietly and slipped out of the house, listening to the birds and the sound of gravel crunching against dirt under her feet, thunk, Wolfgang chopping wood behind the house, thunk. When she knocked on Eileen’s screen door, she heard the TV in the living room. It was “The Price is Right,” and even though she knew it was always O.K. to go on in, she waited until Eileen called out, “Come in, honey.” Then she stepped into the house and carefully threaded her way around furniture, trying not to touch anything.
Kim found Eileen in the kitchen frying bacon and eggs. Eileen’s brown curly wig was a little crooked, and Kim could see some gray hair poking out. It looked like she hadn’t showered today, but that was typical for Eileen; she didn’t get much time to herself. Eileen said, “Looks like you just woke up, poor thing. Sure is pretty out though.” As she spoke, she wiped her hands on her apron and went through her mail.
Kim cleared her throat. “Eileen, Mom wanted me to see if you need something from the store. She’s going shopping, and she could pick up something if you need it.”
“Matter of fact, I do need some things. Let me think...” Eileen looked down at her hands still damp with bacon grease, ticking off one finger at a time. “I could use a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread. Your mom knows the kind I get. Also, we’re out of ice cream. Wolfgang likes Ne-a-politan–really just the chocolate. I eat the other two to please him, and Kim, tell your mom I said thank you, honey.” Eileen reached over to get a cigarette out of her green Pall Mall pack. Kim heard the paper crinkle and then the dry flick of the lighter as Eileen straightened. “Usually my nephew Taylor does the grocery shopping for us, but this weekend he didn’t get the chance.”
Wolfgang came around the corner as Eileen finished talking. He stopped when he saw Kim and got that slack-jawed look. “Kim, Kim, Kim,” he said. Then he just stared. Eileen ignored him, so Kim did too. It made her mad though. He was so rude.
Wolfgang was still standing there, sweating and staring. He blinked twice before Kim finally said, “Hi,” and left it at that.
“Come on in, Wolfie,” Eileen said. “Breakfast’s done.” Then she looked at Kim. “Are you hungry, hon? Do you want some sweet tea? I just made it.” Eileen pulled on Wolfgang’s arm, gesturing to the table. There was a plate ready: macaroni and cheese, a biscuit, bacon, and an egg.
“I’m not hungry yet, Eileen. I’m used to a late breakfast because of my shift. I need to get back home though. Mom’s leaving soon.” She traced the countertop’s edge, feeling its hard point against her finger.
“I understand. When I worked at the gas station, I used to be thin as a beanpole. My sister used to call me Bean, and she would laugh when she said it. But skinny only lasts when you’re young. You already know that, don’t you honey. Yesterday that Oprah had somethin’ on losin’ weight, somethin’ ‘bout people not eating bread. She was standin’ up there, laughin’ talkin’ to some doctor ‘bout it. She ain’t skinny though, so maybe it don’t work.” Eileen laughed then, a thin, flinty sound that cut against the refrigerator and walls. She had a smoker’s laugh.
Kim took Eileen’s pause to say, “Well, Eileen, I’ll get going.”
“Oh honey, stay awhile. I pulled out some of my old albums to look at with you.” There was a note of sadness in Eileen’s words. Kim took a breath and looked over at the table. Wolfgang hadn’t started eating. He was still watching them, his small, thick hand holding the fork in mid-air, and Kim felt her heart respond as if stabbed.
“I’ll come by tomorrow with the food,” Kim said and fled toward the living room. Eileen wanted to talk, and she loved to talk the way lonely, old people love to talk. She talked like she was pouring water. It just kept coming, gushing. Kim knew it wasn’t that Eileen wanted to spend time with her, particularly. She just had stuff she wanted to get off her chest.
Celeste was still home when Kim got back. She didn’t say hello, but she put a glass of orange juice on the countertop when Kim walked into the kitchen. “What did Eileen say?” Celeste asked, talking out the back of her head as she opened the refrigerator.
“She wanted some milk, white bread, and Neapolitan ice cream. She said that’s Wolfgang’s favorite, but I don’t know why she lets him eat it. He’s getting fatter. He came in while I was there and did his staring thing. I hate when he does that. It makes me so uncomfortable.”
“Wolfgang is harmless. I don’t know why you get so upset about him.” Celeste’s tone was irritated.
“I don’t get upset. I just don’t like him. He makes me nervous.”
“Kim, Wolfgang is more scared of you than you are of him. Was that really all Eileen said?” Celeste turned around and pushed her hair back from her forehead, wiping sweat off of her thick neck. “God, it’s hot in here.” She went back to making her lunch. “Can you write those things down on the list? I’m afraid I won’t remember them. My memory is shot.”
Kim got a stubby red pencil out of the drawer beside the refrigerator and wrote “milk, white bread, ice cream.” She’ll have to remember that it’s Neapolitan, Kim thought smugly and walked to the living room. Celeste should hang out with Eileen herself. They could talk all day.
Celeste had gone right back to work in Chicago, like nothing happened. “Life has to go on, sweetie,” she said to Kim, and it did move in similar circles. The Chinese place still served excellent General Tso’s chicken. Kim still went to the movies on Friday nights with her friends. Celeste still worked at the retard farm. Then without explanation, they moved. Kim knew her mother well. They had lived together her whole life, no dad to speak of, but she still didn’t really know Celeste’s mind, how it worked.
Kim walked from the kitchen to the living room and lay down on the couch, thinking about her mom. In Kim’s world, Celeste was like a distant planet orbiting a distant sun. Her path coincided with Kim’s at some points, but was completely separate at others. Eileen was a star. Mr. Goldston, her boss, was space trash. Kim giggled to herself at that thought and sat on the couch, putting her glass of orange juice on the coffee table. And Kevin–Kevin was a black hole from day one. He was a thick, sucking spiral of darkness that had left nothing untouched; he had destabilized everything. She heard another thunk followed by the lighter tap tap of the hatchet. Wolfgang was at it again. She wondered, as she settled onto the couch, What was Wolfgang? Nothing in space…more like a rock or tree. She knew he was alive, but beyond that he was a mystery. She remembered him sweating in Eileen’s kitchen and wondered if he liked chopping wood. He’s got to get bored. He does it every day, she thought, flipping the remote back to see if “Days of Thunder” might be on cable again.
One day, Kim had delivered Eileen’s mail and when she didn’t get an answer at the door, she went around back. The back yard had an enclosed porch wrapped by white trellis with a wooden swing. Nearby, a low willow tree trailed its feminine arms against the ground. She saw that wood ringed the porch and the entire shed, piles and piles of wood, stacked in neat rows, one against the other, three deep, enough wood for three or four winters. Wolfgang had been at his spot, cutting kindling. He had his hatchet in hand and his shirt off, and he didn’t notice her for once. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. He seemed peaceful, absorbed in his work, so she didn’t disturb him, just turned around and put the mail on Eileen’s doorstep.
Kim wasn’t finding her movie. She lay on the couch, cool and comfortable, drifting. She thought about Tom Cruise, glad her errand was finished. She didn’t have to work today. She could go back to sleep, and thinking that, she closed her eyes. Tap. Tap. Tap. The sound filtered in gently at first, like a soft brush on a top hat, and then with its insistence, became colder, more probing, surgical. She thought, Wolfgang must have finished his breakfast. Tap. Tap. The noise pulled Kim toward a restless sleep until it became the sound of a scalpel hitting bone, and she was beneath it. Tap. Tap. Layers of skin and muscle were peeled back. Underneath she could see blackness and stars. Kim gazed deeper into her opened stomach and was surprised to see whole galaxies drifting, alight with foreign suns, dark moons. She shut her eyes at their brilliance and swallowed. She whispered, “Take them out. They don’t belong.” Then a faceless doctor was cutting and cutting, mercilessly, until she sank beneath a sea of sleep like a stone.
Kim took a long shower the next morning, preparing for work. Second shift started at 11 o’clock. At 10:30, she couldn’t find her keys. She looked everywhere: near the front door, on the nightstand, in her purse, in her jeans from the day before. The clock's hands moved forward until in a panic, she realized, first, that she was late and, second, that she had probably left them in the console of her car.
Kim jumped into her old maroon Buick, found the keys instantly, and was at the factory in 17 minutes. Gray lettering spelled out Goldston Metals on the front of a square brick building that squatted rather than sat on cracking concrete. Weeds pockmarked the outer edges and seams of the parking lot. Toward the back of the factory, a large smokestack clawed up 25 feet into the sky, belching thick, dark smoke. Otherwise there was nothing aspiring about the place.
Mr. Goldston, her boss, was in the foyer talking to the receptionist when she walked in. He was wearing a sky-blue shirt and a tie patterned with balloons. He held his coffee cup in his left hand, and as Kim walked by, his pinkie ring flashed in the light. She passed him holding her breath. Then she was inside the great room, finding her station. She sat down and got settled, pulling her first sheet of metal onto the table. Her job was to set the gutter pattern and then make the seam cut before passing the piece onward to the next station. She made 126 cuts that morning. Then it was time for lunch. She and Kelly, who also worked at the factory, went to get a burger at Sonic, smoked a joint in the parking lot as they finished their meal, and headed back to the factory. When the clock read nine, she turned the lights off at her station and put her tools away, gathering her purse and keys. When she got home, Eileen’s lights were still on. Celeste’s lights were out though. Her mom went to bed early. Kim walked up the porch steps carefully, taking that last big step to cover the gap from the porch to the door in the dark. She put her stuff down near the front door and walked to the bathroom, passing the living room on the way.
Surprisingly, Celeste was still up, watching TV in the dark, an empty plate on the coffee table. She looked tired, like she might have been falling asleep. Kim didn’t say hello. Instead, she went to her room. She got a pair of soft pajamas out of her drawer and laid them across her bed, standing in front of her dresser, puckering her lips in the mirror. Her own face looked tired too, and she could see the extra weight gathering on her arms and at her neck. She sighed. There was a soft knock on her bedroom door.
Celeste waited for Kim to answer before opening it. Kim said, “Be done in a minute.” She slowed, using a few extra moments to take her earrings out, arranging them on the wood, making Celeste wait. Then she flounced to the door, opened it, and scooted back to sit on her bed.
“What do you want, mom?” Kim asked. She looked down at her toenails. Her pink nail polish was chipped and coming off in places.
“I want you to take those groceries to Eileen.” Her mother was dressed in dark green sweat pants and an oversized sweatshirt that read “Queen for a Day.” It blocked her shape into a square.
“Eileen’s asleep,” she said.
Celeste ignored Kim. “They didn’t have the brand she likes, so I went to another store. You know Wolfgang won’t eat a different kind. You didn’t put the kind of ice cream, but I remembered anyway.”
“Get out mom. I’m changing.” Kim didn’t look at Celeste as she quickly pulled off her shirt. She grabbed the soft pink pajama top and yanked it over her head. Her cheeks felt warm and prickly against her arm. She didn’t like it when anyone saw her naked these days. “Take the bread to Eileen yourself. Your legs work, don’t they?” She dropped her dirty shirt on the floor.
“Don’t talk to me like that, Kim. I’ve put food on the table for twenty years. I’m asking you to do a simple thing. I'm tired. I have to work tomorrow.”
“So do I.”
“But you don’t go in until eleven.”
“I don’t have time.” Kim pulled her hair back into a ponytail and stalked past her mother entering the kitchen. There was a tall container of sweet tea in the fridge, so she got herself a glass and went back to her room, digging under her bed for an old Teen magazine to read. She was so angry she didn’t even watch TV. She fell asleep half an hour later, barely remembering to set her alarm when she felt herself drifting off. The next morning she found her keys early, put them in her purse, and was ready to go at 20 to 11. As she got to work, she realized that she had left her small cigarette case at home. By then it was too late to drive back. At lunch, she bought a chicken sandwich instead of the Sonic burger. She and Kelly listened to eighties music while they were eating, dancing, and laughing in the car. They didn’t smoke a joint because she’d left it at home, so the afternoon felt longer than it should have. She went by the gas station that night and filled her tank. Then home again.
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday followed the same pattern. She moved from home, to factory, to Sonic, to home. She was like a pet, a rodent whose world was defined by a series of immoveable glass walls. There were only so many places to go in the cage of her life, and once she went, she was left to move among the same spots, only sometimes in a slightly different order. This regularity gave her life an unremarkable feeling that simmered just beneath the surface of her thoughts and stained them with a certain gray color. Not the soft easy gray of fog or woodsmoke. No, this gray resembled nothing so much as the thick greasy bilge that poured from the factory’s boiler, blocking out the sunny blue sky with its dark, leprous spots.
Most nights, she watched television until two or three in the morning and dreamed of a different life, a life where she remained undefined. Often they were dreams of juvenile romance that counted nothing of lust or responsibility, those two spices that are so often in the dreams of the young. She wanted neither cheap sex, having had the worst of it, nor a white picket fence. Instead, she dreamed of shedding her extra weight and moving to a city where there were no friends, no neighbors who weighed on her with a thousand inconsequential needs, no past nightmares to haunt her. Her dream was the dream of a series of unconnected moments, a life full of passion or desire, full of longing. She wanted, in some unspeakable way, to live in a land of want where beautiful things were not already three times surrendered to a dull, mechanical existence.
She wanted her owner, although she was not sure exactly who that larger idea was, to lift the lid of her cage and release her. The larger dangers of the outside world seemed more digestible than these tiny, daily hurts, and she longed for them with a child’s longing. She fell asleep that Saturday night dreaming about buying a ticket to New York City.
When she woke up Sunday morning, Celeste was nowhere to be found. Kim assumed that her work schedule had changed again. She found a note in the kitchen that confirmed her suspicion. At work—bread still in cupboard, ice cream still in the freezer. Irritated, Kim made herself a quick scrambled egg. The sound of cooking filled the quiet kitchen, and by the time she was finished, she had decided there was no harm in making a quick trip over to Eileen’s. She went upstairs and pulled on a light sweater.
“Fine, mom. I’m going,” she said aloud to the emptiness of the house. Outside the air was cold. The morning sun warmed the grass, and the light frost burned off in white waves disappearing into thin air. As she got closer, Kim could hear the rhythmic thunk of an axe on wood.
She knocked on the front door, shivering a little in her light clothes. Eileen’s house faced west, so the front porch was still shaded and cold. The button for the doorbell was chilly to the touch, but she pushed it twice, leaning over to look through the window. She could hear the television going in the living room. The noise was a bubbling sound and she could make out the occasional Praise Lord Jesus. That is turned up really loud, she thought and knocked harder. She hesitated, wavering between returning home and going on in, but decided it wasn’t worth another trip over. She opened the door a crack and called out, “Eileen. Mom got the groceries. I brought them over. I won’t stay long.” But there was no answer.
Kim heard the thunk again and pulled the door closed. Maybe Eileen is out back, she thought, turning the corner towards the thunk, thunk. Wolfgang’s back was to her. His axe came down one, two, three times as she silently considered what to do. She didn’t want to scare him. Her heart beat faster at the thought. That axe is sharp, she thought. She watched as Wolfgang brought the blade down again, and it sunk into the last two inches of wood, breaking the piece off in a clean stroke. Wolfgang took that moment to reach down and move the piece over to the pile at his right.
She walked quickly into his line of sight while the axe was down. “Wolfgang. I’m looking for Eileen. Is she asleep?”
He turned to look at her. “She’s wrong,” he said. “Wrong, Kim. She’s wrong.” He leaned the axe against his boot. His small eyes looked red and swollen, and he was sweating. She looked into his face and then at the siding on Eileen’s house, realizing there was something in the stiffness of his body that signaled fear. He’d been crying. The front of his shirt–blue plaid today–was covered with wet splotches.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. But Wolfgang didn’t answer. He just slowly shook his head from left to right.
She ran back to the front door, not stopping to knock. The screen door slammed shut behind her as she entered the kitchen. The TV blared Sweet Jee-sus. Damn the thing, but Eileen wasn’t downstairs. Kim was suddenly sweating. Moving to the living room, she looked at the stairs for a second and started up to the second floor.
Reaching the landing, she opened the first door on the right. It was Wolfgang’s room. There was a small bed with an airplane comforter on it and nearby a dusty nightstand. She noticed a picture curling on its surface. A young Wolfgang smiled out from it, his hand held by an unfamiliar woman’s hand. They stood in front of a school bus. Kim swallowed, looking to the window. She closed the door and stepped down the hall. The next door she tried was a bathroom. It was small, dark, and smelled like cat poop.
Kim realized how scared she was in the last few seconds. As she opened the third door, the doorknob solid against her palm. Her body was shaking with light tremors that came and passed in waves. She stood in the master bedroom. Eileen was there, sitting in front of the far window, pitched back against an old, patterned velour chair. Her right hand, claw-like, covered her chest. Her face looked old and haggard in the morning light. Leathery skin showed the deep lines of a smoker. She wasn’t wearing her wig. Eileen’s bald head had a few stray hairs but mostly gray fuzz that caught the light in a halo. This small nakedness bothered Kim most.
Kim walked toward Eileen slowly, saying her name over and over. “Eileen. Eileen. It’s me, Kim.” But Eileen didn’t answer. Kim hesitantly reached over to touch her arm. Her body was still slightly warm, but without her chatter, without her wig, Eileen seemed a stranger. More than that, she was gone. This body was not Eileen. Kim leaned back, confused, and sighed. She felt for Eileen’s pulse, just to be certain. Nothing. When Kim turned around, she almost yelled.
“Dammit, Wolfgang!" She yelled. "Why won’t you say anything? You’re scaring the crap out of me.” Wolfgang’s tongue lolled a bit, but she could see the muscles in his neck tighten at her words. The axe, with its stippled tip, was in his hand. Kim didn’t see it at first, but as she rounded the corner of the bed, she caught a glimpse of it. Her heart stopped and then began beating wildly again. “Why didn’t you come get one of us, Wolfgang? Why didn’t you call the police? What were you thinking?”
Silence. He didn’t answer. He shuffled to one side as Kim passed him and headed down the hall. She washed her hands in the small bathroom, touching them to her face before she opened the door, and when she came out, he was still standing in Eileen’s room, looking at her empty body. Tears fell down his face onto his shirt. They dropped onto the blue fabric and stood still for a moment before dissolving into the fabric. He was so like a child that Kim didn’t know what to say, so she walked over and grabbed his free hand. His skin felt thick and rubbery.
They walked down the stairs together, unlikely companions. She held his left hand, rough and red, cradled in her own. Aware of its warmth, she hugged the banister to make room for both their bodies. The sound of the television dissolved into white noise as it approached them. They reached the door together, in silence. Kim opened it and led them out. She was not afraid anymore.
She wondered what Wolfgang would do without Eileen. Eileen did everything for him: cooked all his meals, took him to doctor’s appointments. Now he was alone. Kim fast-forwarded in her mind to him living in that big house, alone. He would chop wood. That’s what he would do. He would chop wood until the house was full of it, every room stacked neatly in rows. She could see the pathway he would leave from the living room into the kitchen, the small halo around his chair at the dining room table. He would line the stairs with small pieces of kindling and stack it to the edges of his own room, only leaving space for the dresser and bed. The picture on the nightstand would be covered in a layer of wood chips and dust, forgotten. The upstairs bathroom would become unusable, and he would fill Eileen’s bedroom last, out of love.
Outside, the sky was so blue and bright that it burned her small eyes, and she first turned her forehead away from the light. Then, breathing in the fresh, clean air, she tilted her head way back and let the sun bathe her skin. Kim could see a small silver airplane threading between the clouds. She wondered where it was going, wondered if anyone ever truly escaped. Wolfgang had stopped crying. The time for words had passed, so she walked him around to the back of the house. He was like a block of wood, difficult to move, but willing under her direction. She dropped his hand to vaguely gesture out. “There you go,” Kim said. She did not say it would be all right. She did not continue to touch him. Instead she propelled him out of her orbit, toward the chopping block.
She turned to walk back to her house, talking over her shoulder now. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with other people, Wolfgang, my mom, police–men in uniforms. Don’t be scared. They’ll be here to help.” She felt true kindness toward him now.
Kim got to the corner of Eileen’s house, Eileen’s name already shaded and heavy in her mind. Kim wheeled around to say she was sorry about her unnecessary fear, the coldness of the morning, Eileen’s death. Instead, she stood quietly watching the axe make a wide arc. There was nothing to say. Wolfgang was already lost in his work, a man chopping wood.