All fictions are DOMESTICITY. Please enjoy.
Karen Craigo / Michael Czyniejewski
She'd been afraid of getting dull. Like that new baby would roly-poly over her body till all the edges were hulls. Smooth out her brain too. Just work her into a nothing no-face, the way her momma taught her to knead dough. It should be smooth and tacky to the touch. Tacky. She had something to say about that. A story to tell. A hot car, a pulling over. A boy rolling a cool beer can over her edges. Was that her, or someone she'd heard about? The joke was the boy. Rolling that can. Must have been something he read. Such an innocent mistake, and she, whoever she was, let him. Let that innocence roll right on over her. Tacky. Ah, that's who she was. Is. A stickiness, but not a holding.
We were our own animals. You and I. Our apartment was always a fever dream. We slept on the same mattress your father slept on before he died. We woke without really knowing where we were. Those mornings were never quiet. We were the worst kind of poor. "You actually should keep more secrets to yourself," you said. Soon we were sleeping differently, in different rooms. You were cutting your hair over the kitchen sink. You were moving pictures on the walls and rearranging the furniture. I was sitting at the kitchen table, staying quiet. The roof leaked rain and the pilot light was out. I was locking doors. The neighbors never screamed like us. Nobody screamed like us. We tried to eat dinner together and you threw a plate against the wall. There was spaghetti sauce on the curtains. We became all hands and teeth. We became some slow violence. We tried to sleep in the same bed again. We were forever vacant. And, listen, just listen for a second, we won’t worry about any of that. Because when we had that home, when we had that home together, we got to see what a home really was.
Husbands know how to do men things. For instance, tools and wood. For instance, cars and sports. Another thing—finances. And when it is nighttime, the sex. How to poke in and out while gauging response. How to navigate our fleshy splash with their tongues. How do they know these things? The wood with tools. Scraping things even and molding things flush. Beveled things. Weighted and angled and caulked. Pipe things. Under a car hood mysteries; a fire pit they stand around, staring at the metal guts. Talk about it knowingly. The big mess in there. I can fill up the gas. I can vroom vroom. I can rear view mirror. But, the husbands…so much more! The sports with numbers and opinions. So many fields and balls. So many cities and teams. Colleges. Stats. Rules. Arguments. But also, taxes. Percentages and stock market. Deductions and accrued interest. Budgets and withdrawls. So very important. So very worthy. I don’t know how they do the man things as I am but a wife. I am only kitchen, cleaning, children, sex. I am only serve, cower. My life is cease. Husband my life. Husband tells me this so I know. Thanks for husband!
And so it goes. Like this. 5:38am. An unseasonably cold August morning. Holding both hands to both hips of the only woman you've ever loved. The mother of your children. An unkempt queen sized bed. Your head against her bare chest. Hard and deep she sleeps. Her lungs fill and empty in rhythm. Her heart beats the same. You think of Reno and Little Rock. Old friends in old cities you will never touch again. Fat gray cat on the windowsill watching everything. You squeeze her hips tighter. Fingers become flesh. Blood and bones and heartbeats synchronize. You try to remember a day you didn't love her. You can't. In her dream she calls out for a man she once knew and loved. Still loves. The cat jumps from the windowsill. Startles her awake. She slips on your white tshirt and goes to the kitchen for cereal. Tomorrow she will consider leaving you for this man. Walk out on eighteen years. Meet him in a jacuzzi suite and let him climb on top of her. After dinner she will tell you how much she loved it when he first entered her and his dick parted her labia. How wet she got in anticipation. You will stay anyway if she lets you. But that's tomorrow. Right now she's eating cereal and you are asleep before she's back in bed.
She did not cry and this was surprising! She believed in her ability to be funny, too. She entered the house and the house was silent in a way that had not occurred to her. She thought about all the jokes she could tell. She climbed the stairs to the girl’s bedroom. She could not kid herself… There was no other reason to climb the stairs. One of the girl’s friends had drawn a penis on the outside of the bedframe. He had drawn the penis in permanent marker so that the penis could not be easily washed away. She remembered telling him he should go into comedy. "You should be a comedian," she had said to the girl’s friend many times. "You are so funny," she had said to him again. She wondered if the girl was ever jealous. The girl had wanted to be a rapper for a while. They had classes for white kids, you know. Now the girl’s friend was old enough for the woman to see his penis. The girl said, "I don’t want to be friends with Saul anymore." She still believed in his ability to be funny.
Whatever tolls whatever taxes, how quietly they melt away. The radio hums another young something for who knows who as we roll by huge trucks that fuck us a little like a mirage of police cars speeding even faster because that blur's sanctified by much more than guns. The highway itself is held hostage by radar and satellite but when you pull out a bag of cookies we might as well be masturbating. This is our fortress, our stand against the fog and weather control and obvious extinction. You turn the station and we dance sitting. We fight with pleasure in our hearts, the strangest battle.
We live in an echo. Graysons, across the street, Billinghams, Coopers... what Mom calls the reason for venetian blinds. Although, she says the blinds are made in Ecuador. Have you been to Venice? We live in Chicago, have cousins in Des Moines, a rheumy great-aunt in Nebraska. Stacks of books reach in teetering high-rises on the carpet next to the couch. Books are not meant to hold up tables, Mom says. Venice is all dark gutters and moldy grays. Ecuador is netted in by hurling hot coils of sky. Elva, remember when you thought that wasp nest was a lampshade? That’s all I’m saying. Mom’s glowing face abandons us, as if we were a carpet stain, to the book open-mouthed on her belly. I follow Ermine upstairs. A stash of Mom’s tiny vodka bottles home inside the sliced bowels of her stuffed bird collection. Mom buys one from the Audubon Society every year on Ermine’s birthday, believes Ermine will become an ornithologist. Vodka burns blisters like a sunburn on the inside. Tom Jone’s sings, She’s a Lady, back-up to Ermine whispering tales of boy’s sticks pillaging girl’s sliced tomato halves. You know, Ermine says, and points to her crotch.
Let’s take drugs this morning! To flow, to flow, the coffee burbling, the Capri Sun and Eggos and Ibuprofen: "Dad, which is better, a cat or a shark?" Well, that depends on your needs, dear—will you grow to leap out of bed or curl like a sodden tie knot beneath the paperwork of the blankets or will you pretend to be asleep to listen? Look, son, there goes a coyote limping through the backyard. Clearly a thousand years old and has three legs so think about that when you ask me, "Dad, could the road in front of the house just burst in flames?" For example, the packing of the lunchbox: Pringles, Oreos, some baby carrots (yes, a vegetable!), and I keep hearing the ticking of a two-shot bottle of Jägermeister secreted beneath my brown socks. (Used socks, gifted by a dead man’s daughter. The last time I wore brown socks was never.) Don’t grow up, you fools; because every day is a lifetime out there in the low sky and poorly mown yard…Mown? That’s ambitious. Twisting blades and dandelion talons that resemble the historical times the domestic and religious and judicial become truly indistinguishable….). What does that mean, dad? Just hug me. You’re not too old to embrace, not too cool or awkward or just miserably insightful. Hug me. And go ahead and grab that warming beer I left atop your fairy doll house. (Dad, Why didn’t the fairies come last night and swim in the tiny pool and eat the Cheetos? You said they would!) The beer, the beer, give a minute, you beauties. I said that? Well, now, just give me a little minute, and they will.
He does not notice when the delicate petals have mounded around the vase, brown edged, curling upward.
She writes: S. Be back soon. Don’t forget to… E.
She writes: S. Be back soon. Don’t forget to… E.
At the market, she floats through the crowd easily. Roses, she says, and her thin voice travels only slightly beyond the front of her teeth.
Long after, her hands hover above the stems on the counter. When he walks past her, the air shifts in the space where her torso had been.
His supper has cooled, it is late, and he takes the plate down the stairs, turns on the television.
The sound rumbles like thunder throughout the house, but she hears only the dull rhythmic snip of the scissors.
A thorn pricks a finger; a small drop of blood rises to the surface like the tip of a submarine. She waits for the sting, but there is none. He thinks there is something he has forgotten to do.
He thinks of breasts, remembers soft rounded nipples. He falls asleep; his feet are no longer there to rest on the pillows.
In the morning the house is lifeless, save for a vase of freshly cut and newly blooming roses.
Despite what might seem a paradisiacal upbringing, it was anything but. Mama, for example, had a penchant for the bottle. Although she usually laid off and held herself together, there were a couple instances that I remember her drunkenness and the effect it had on our happy household. One time Mama came home smashed after a meeting with the ladies of the League of Women Voters. Daddy was angry at her for being drunk in the first place, but then for driving home instead of calling him. He said, For christ’s sake, tomorrow you have a meeting with Mothers Against Drunk Driving! Mama yelled something incoherent back and walked away, into Daddy’s den where he kept his model train collection on display upon the wall. Daddy followed Mama, keeping up the argument—a bad choice. I watched from around a corner while Mama lifted one train after another off the display shelves and launched them at Daddy. She didn’t throw very hard, or very accurately, so Daddy just stood there saying, Look at what you’re doing! Meantime Mama said horrible things to Daddy, things I couldn’t repeat even if I knew what they meant.
I've kept a journal my entire life. It reads like a chronicle of sins against me and those I've committed against others. Occasionally I indulge in the very depressing activity of reading back on the past nineteen years of marriage, reading back on those years of crying babies, sleepless nights. How I passionately hated my husband! How little he respected me! If only I had the money to leave him. And my sons, how they've exhausted me physically, taxed me emotionally. I lost my patience often and chronicled every infraction, every harsh word, every time I squeezed an arm until a tiny, innocent boy wailed, "ouch!" The mopping, the scrubbing of filthy toilets, lugging bags of groceries up stairs that seemed so heavy my eyes would tear with injustice. I was maid, nanny, occasionally whore. And yet, where in my journal is the exquisite joy? The love, the laughter, the human flesh against me, sweet and warm? Those must be the secrets I take with me, the beauty, the comfort, to my grave, leaving, sadly, only the darkness for the world to gape in horror. The bad mother.
Last week, my six year old granddaughter, Louisa, visited for a few days. Once she arrived, a transformation took place. I became Ganka and my wife became MiMi (my my), my granddaughter's names for us, which have stuck and will remain our names whenever we're around her. On a trip to the mall, we visited one of those places where you can make your own stuffed animal. When we walked in, my granddaughter began to ask for things. First she asked for clothes for the animals she already owns. Then she asked for a new stuffed bear. When she asked if she could get both, I heard myself say, out loud and without a hint of irony, You can either buy new clothes for your unicorns or you can build a bear. This is what domestic life does. It can reduce you to sounding like a fool in the middle of a store. But it can also open you up to parts of yourself that lay dormant, covered over by the wounds of living a life. Being open to the every day absurdities of being a parent/grandparent can facilitate a writer's imagination. Nothing wrong with that.
I have a giant open wound I'm bleeding out of all the time it hurts so much I feel like a dog with broken bones limping around smiling stupidly at its person "hello yes please I love you" and every time either one of you looks back at me the wound opens up a little more "hello yes please I love you please let me carry you screaming up the stairs please hit me repeatedly with the toilet seat lid while I take a shit please let me walk in circles for an hour while you sleep with my nipple in your mouth please I love you don't ever leave me I love you." Every night I curl up in the contents that were emptied of my wound that day like an animal keeping warm in a puddle of its own fresh blood and I try to remember what I felt like before I was crippled by love and I think to signal to other humans "there is brutality there is a brutality to loving this much help" but I am not sure what the signal will be and I don't want to be saved. I love you.
Home is where the heart is, said Pliny the Elder. Home sweet home. Home plate, home run, home free. Bring home the bacon before the chickens come home to roost. A man’s home is his castle. Make yourself at home.
You can never go home again. I’ve actually thought this while turning my key in the door.
You can never go home again. I’ve actually thought this while turning my key in the door.
Pliny was a sea captain. He died at the foot of Vesuvius in a rain of pumice and ash, his ship stalled by an uncooperative wind.
Me? I just had a long day at the office, and there is a corner of the couch where I try to bury myself in cushions and baby-kisses.
This is nothing to write home about. Unlike Pliny, who was trying to execute a rescue. All the years of his life were expressed in only two digits. I can’t help but feel that something was missing there.
Karen works early in the morning; I function best late. Karen writes in front of the TV, egged on by noise (today it’s a marathon of The Simpsons); I need absolute seclusion. Karen gulps coffee; I’ve only tried one sip and was repulsed. The writing prompts we use differ dramatically, too, Karen’s more general, posing a puzzle: "Write a poem that uses seven different definitions of the word muzzle." Mine are more situational: "Write a story about an artist who finds one of his paintings on the wall of a cheap hotel room."
Should one of us write something, the other adding to it later? Should we go back and forth, a two-headed exquisite corpse? Should we—gulp—sit next to each other and literally collaborate?
Karen wrote the piece you see above, Pliny and all things "home." Before I read it, she told me about how Pliny died at Vesuvius, about the rescue mission and being stuck by the mountain. He may have been simply too fat to get away.
She told me he was found buried in pumice and ash.
But I didn’t hear "pumice." I heard "hummus." An image popped into my head, this obese scholar, waist-deep in chickpea paste, lava oozing toward him, trying to eat his way to safety.