Shelly worked at a bed factory in Tuxedo, New York, but didn’t own one. She had a flat, worn mattress that was flopped on her bedroom floor: something left over from a life she was way past well too used to leading. Got to the point where she was treading rye pretty thin over the crushed quartz of her life’s prime dilemma: never finalizing anything in her quest to leave the future be and let the present take care of the past. Parsimony, that great leveler of circumstances (hers and beyond), had captured and/or devoured what was hardest hit of her indefatigable freewheeling spirit, and now the good news was only heartache and resistance to the futile repetition of her routine. Eventually she asked no one in particular (as she was alone), “Why does my whole life feel like it’s just a play within a play, and a dull one at that?” Of course there were reasons she’d rather not have that question answered, reasons she also didn’t want to contemplate, and so, in the bleakest of traumatic aspirations, she decided to play dead until her current paramour showed up.
Coincidentally, or maybe not so, as serendipitous encounters go, Shelly was knocked back to reality and the life that she was currently in the habit of living, by a rapid blast of knocks on her apartment’s degraded excuse for a front door.
“No lawn to speak of.”
“Then shut it.”
He did — the door that is — after letting himself in, as was his wont in all affairs, like these, too, and this one, of course, with the aforementioned Shelly, was getting ingratiating at best.
“Raul. Bad new Raul, again. Here for the rescuing and recusal.”
“That is Row You’ll, to you, my sleep-by-day bedfellow.”
“Ugh. Not that literary rot again. Come on. I’m just cascading back to life here.”
Raul sneered his way to her mattress where she was lying decently in a typhoon of sheets and covers. There was pillow fluff in her hair.
“Tell me about what’s floating your days.”
“These damn same daydreams. Or are they daymares? Something subtle. It’s like getting close to things that have always been only seen at a distance. You’re not always ready for the gruesome beauty of the details.”
“Something to munch on crackers to.”
“Dissenting like Harlan, on that one still?”
“Pulled that one out of your pretzel there.”
“Bleh. I mean, blech.”
“One cannot go on harrumphing forever…”
Shelly rolled over and heard a Ritz cracker get mashed beneath her. The crumbs stuck to her skin leaving an imprint that didn’t look to dissimilar to George Carlin’s profile.
Raul hunched in beside her, not spooning her, but more like spatula-ing her. “Tell me about how this all happened. How you became this particular you.”
“I’ve seen the mermaid show at the Wreck Bar in Fort Lauderdale a few times. I’ve listened through the cracks in an Amsterdam hotel to Howlin’ Wolf at 4 am. There are no shows to go on, now — just ones to relate to and say, ‘Wow. That was how long ago then, now?’”
“Ok. Now sing it to me.”
Shelly nursed her cheeks with her palms, puffing up her face like a sea lion with a migraine.
“Well, it goes like this, I guess:
I’ve sat on my share of barstools
Had my fill of fools
Took the looks away from my face
Of what I was long gone now
Don’t know quite how
So take up that old bowsing line there
and tell the barkeep that I’m the designated biker for the night here
Not that other version of me that I kept running into every time that I’d go out
Some inconnu that I’ve left never far enough behind
As the Transbay trash gathers like distant relatives you’d rather not know
I don’t get weepy over it much
The brush of it overtakes small apartments in Paris
Past that takes before it doesn’t
An umbilical mist to hook you in
Or just some stranger’s front lawn to rub your shoes clean over
I am sometimes not quite
Just who I always am.”
Shelly turned over onto her stomach and burped. Raul lay on his back, crossing his arms on his torso, relaxed as he could get, breathing deep and slow.
“I seem to remember a sneaky old duffer trying to steal precious rocks from an antique store in Vallejo. He got himself booted by the staff who’d gotten wise to him on a tip from some wheezing sucker in a plaid vest.”
“Do people really talk that way?” Shelly sputtered, her head twisted sideways with no pillow underneath it.
“Some do. The lucky ones.”
“No. Nobody’s quite as lucky as us.”
“There are so many things I could do, if I could just find the energy for it. I could be Queen of the Vile. I could be a coin collector. But no. Just this damn insufferable lassitude. Lying here in constant inanition. That’s all I get for my troubles.”
“A real fart in the perfume of existence.”
“We are who we say we are.”
“I am a seamstress for the stars.”
The ceiling rumbled along its fault lines: these tiny cracks that just kept getting longer and less tiny every night. Shelly thought that it was only a matter of time before the whole thing just cracked open and fell apart, leaving her flattened on her mattress by whatever large objects were above. She was hoping for a piano. That would be a real humdinger.
She didn’t tell any of this to Raul as they were lying there, each keeping to themselves for no particular reason. Nobody was vacuuming or reciting the names of their grade school teachers. It was a spell of quiet that had come upon them, and they were enjoying it the best they could.
Of course, someone had to interrupt their shared quiescence with a blurt.
“Shyster. I’m no g.d. carhop in roller skates here.”
“No one cusses like you cuss.”
“Why thanks, Shells Darling.”
The room rattled with a deliberate shake, like God was lightly thumbing the roof: tap, tap, tap, and then, perhaps, a final flick that would be a suffocating boom for them both. But they didn’t believe in such things.
Shelly rotated onto her side. There would be trouble. She knew it. It followed her wherever she went.
“Barbs and other boohoo errata. That’s all we get for the rustic passivity of our nature.”
“Hold on. I’m retaining some information. Ok. Done. Now, what?”
“Just that I’m correcting on the side of caution. I’m in constant need of being ignored.”
“Something to fight against. Sure.”
“On and off, again. Or, maybe, again, too.”
Hands met on bare skin, intertwining fingers and smoothing over curvy surfaces. The ceiling fan was covered in thick catacombs of dust. Nobody moved. A siren wailed and then faded away. Now there was only the distant lonely sound of the clock tower’s chimes to keep them company.
“I hate raindrops on roses.”
“All these things I used to want to have. Now. Now, when I get them, well, I just don’t ever have the time to do something with them? Usefulness is its own cure, but I’m sick with convenience. Let’s move to Larkspur. Or maybe Luxembourg.”
“Alright. I’ll unpack the bags and send in your resignation letter to them master bed makers. You get the footwear going and make some sandwiches. Then, we’ll take a long, long nap.”
A trash truck hammered its way along the alley outside her window, tucking into curbs in bursts and starts as the collectors got out and ravaged the cans, tossing them like grandiose toys along the gutter. It was all a building pulse to nowhere that never carried or reached a climactic charge. Shelly wanted to sing along with it somehow, as if her chromatic scaling could send this awful sense of incompleteness into a whole, could reshape the diligence of waiting and waiting into a sudden ethereal chance to finally be someone who accomplished things and became something more than the mechanical motions and by-rote phrases of getting by. But she remained silent. She let Raul run his hands along her sides as if he were searching for one particular lost piece of pretzel. It made her wince on the inside, all lush and creased and, also, somehow, moribund. There must have been something she enjoyed more than being touched this way, but she couldn’t think of it.
“That junk-ship spit of moon’ll be out there to guide us.”
“What else is old?”
“As old as we get…or get to be.”
“Our bread’s buttered, but we’ll be toast soon enough.”
Shelly cringed. The light fixture above the bed started to sway gently back and forth as if rocking to its own internal rhythm. She let her eyes go blurry while staring at it, letting her mind flex and fall and then draft through to the past.
“I never get postcards anymore. My mailbox used to get full of letters from people I knew. Now it’s just junk mail and bills. I want to write you a letter.”
Raul arched his head back and sang out in a rich baritone, “My baby, she wrote me a letter. She wrote me a letter that said absolutely nothing about me, to me, without me no more, en-eeeee…waaaaay.”
They lay there, both on their back now, toes dangling off the end of the mattress, heads resting on the thin, hard pillows Shelly preferred for sleep.
“Where are we going to go to?”
“My Honda. It’s parked just a few blocks away. It’ll take us away from here.”
“Always somewhere to go to. Always trying to get away from here.”
“Yep. The last great escape for loungers of the hemispheres like us.”
“Put a look on you that I’ll remember for a while.”
“Holy shit. All I get are bad grammar and worse punctuation. Sharper shots, please.”
“My whole system could use a jump.”
The red digital numbers of her bedside alarm clock went blurry as she watched them without a squint. They were just passengers held captive by a glance; nothing too substantial in the furious onslaught of getting older and older, of moving on, of constantly becoming something new but always staying the same. The wainscoting trembled, and Shelly’s eyes traced the outlines of a spider web stretched over a corner of it as she pondered the flimsy yet sturdy nature of being alive: always on the precipice of being nothing, stable and insecure in the bounded relativity of having a body to exist in for a limited time only.
“I want to open a restaurant the only serves dessert. I’ll call it ‘Room for Dessert’ and it’ll have every flavor of pie you could ever think of.”
“Even dandelion lingon berry?”
“Sure. And we’ll have ice cream made from giraffe milk. And baked-plantain, sarsaparilla-cream cakes. And ginger-beer floats with shredded coconut.”
“Plenty of options. I like it.”
“People need choices, but maybe not too many. Damn it. I don’t know now. I can’t make up my mind.”
“Figurines of things. A born vacillator, you are. Busted!”
Raul pushed an index finger into her back. It was gentle as could be — a soft and soothing delicacy that prodded less than it caringly poked, something to be savored and then erased from consciousness — and she enjoyed it while she still could. Everything was passing, or would pass, and then it would be on to other differences in more of the same. The windows rollicked with a percussive din, seeming to liquefy inward in tiny waves. The world was unhinging itself from the patterns of her life.
“Is this slothfulness? Are we being lethargic and lazy?”
“It might be, but that’s ok. As long as we’re tidy about it. I cannot stand sloppiness.”
“The part I hate is when you get all that lovey-dovey stuff out of the way and it’s just down to business. Everything is work and it’s like the pleasure of getting somebody to like you whom you like is all over. It’s just rigor and bored frustration. It’s no fun, let me tell you.”
“You’re telling me. Let’s behave like top-story crooks, wash our mouths out with peanut punch and scare up some feelings for old movies. We don’t have to be serious people. We can just pretend.”
Shelly started singing, “…all the things that I want to do when I have the time to do all the things that I never have the time to do,” and then stopped abruptly and just let silence fall on them like a rain-soaked wedding coat.
The curtain rods on the windows snapped. The curtains dropped to the floor in a ruffled heap, leaving the sun to do its worst to the room’s tragedy of objects.
“We’re all falling apart…one, two…a billion. It ain’t what it used to be. Nothing is. But it is too, you know?”
“No. Let’s get this peep show moving along. Places. People. All the incorrigible intactness of dodging around the real article, you…you…you Snuffleupagus, you.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“I’m going to go outside, go to a park and read a book in a beach chair.”
“An actual paper book? With pages you can turn? Out of doors? In the sunshine?”
“I’ll only believe it if there are eyewitnesses.”
The sky split in two with a peaceful roar, and the ground, well, it just sort of disappeared.