fiction

SUSPENDED

Chris R-0317.jpg Image by Christine Renney

Three or so hours ago it seemed like a good idea. Set off this evening and drive through the night, arrive home in the early hours and sleep until late. Manage to snatch back some time for myself. But it is only just midnight and already I am beginning to flag. The road ahead is bleached by the hard light from above. It has the jarring urgency of film and I have grown weary from its unspooling. I squint through the windshield, watching, because I must.

Motorway services aren’t ever entirely deserted, not even at two o’clock in the morning. There are a handful of motorists sitting as far away from each other as possible. The service area is cavernous and my every movement is amplified. The scraping of my chair as I stand and my footsteps as I walk back up to the counter for a second cup of coffee. As I wait I notice an image printed on a sheet of paper. It is laying just beyond the till alongside the napkins. I move along the counter and reach for it.

It is the reflection of a man in one of the windows here at the services. He is sitting hunched over his coffee. The motorway fills the frame and the image is blurred. The quality of the print is poor and the paper is thin. It has the look and feel of a photocopy. But the man is much more clearly defined because someone, possibly the photographer, has taken the time to draw around him with a blue pen. And not only the man but also the space he is occupying; the chair and the table and of course the all important coffee cup. Head down, his face hidden, he is sitting amidst the glare of the headlights. I hold up the photo so that the young woman behind the counter can see it.
‘Who took this?’ I ask.
‘Don’t know.’
‘No?’
‘No, no idea,’ she shrugs and I go to put it back.
‘It’s been there for a while,’ she says, ‘surprised it’s not been binned.’
‘Do you mind if I keep it?’ I ask. ‘Save it from the trash?’
‘Yeah, take it if you want.’

I move along the walkway which divides the service area on this side of the motorway from that on the other. The man was sitting out here when the photograph was taken. I’m not sure exactly where but it was at one of the tables closest to the glass. I settle down with my coffee and I fold the image, stow it in my wallet and I gaze beyond my own reflection and down at the road below.

Standard
art, fiction

Outside my Window 7:26 – 7:59 P.M.

hijben

A man is standing by the cars outside my window, smoking. He is not a man, really, younger. A boy. But he is wearing a suit like a man. I don’t think it is his car, it is nice. Something with an animal for an emblem. But then again, it is a nice suit.

Turns out it is his car. It seems he didn’t want to smoke in his nice car. He must be a man.

A boy in an orange shirt; bright orange. Oranger than orange, the orange of a blind, elderly fashionista. He is standing in front of the market across. There is no telling what he will look like when he is older. He is wearing glasses, his hair is a mess. One day, he will see, I won’t. Oh well, he went inside.

A woman pushes her daughter on a silly looking carriage. It is shaped like a bike, with a fat seat. She is eating ice cream, the little girl. The mom has a small boy in the other hand; jealous of his sister, probably. I would be.

A whole group. A messily clothed slog of meat walk by. A disturbing amount of floral shirts are among them, despite age. They’ve passed.

A woman in heels heads into the market. I can hear them click from here. I am on the second floor, across.

Two twenty-somethings and a girl in a gray dress stand outside the middle eastern restaurant beside the market. She is smoking, they aren’t. One of the men has his hair up in a bun. I don’t like that, I don’t know why.

The young man in the nice suit and nice car has been sitting a while outside. In the air-conditioning, most likely. It is a decent day. A woman just got in. I only just noticed his scarf, it is floral, too. They are driving away now. It his nice car with an animal emblem, like a leopard, but without spots. They are gone, off somewhere nice, I suppose.

A man walks with his girlfriend in one hand. Not his whole girlfriend, of course, just her hand. In the other he holds a skateboard. It is bright orange, but, at least he is wearing sunglasses.

A girl in an orange scarf passes with her friend. It is a sensible orange, more sluggish. She is talking with her hands outstretched, holding an invisible ball. I can only imagine.

An Asian looking an with blue streaks through his hair passes, drinking Gatorade. It is blue, too.

A man in lime green shoes, violent green, sour–a sour, sour green–he walks by. I can’t see the rest of hm.

A truck just went by. It was dirty, so dirty. The men in the front look dirty; in a good way, an almost-dangerous sort of way.

A woman, carrying her blanket walks by. The blanket is checkered. Black and orange; soft. Two boys, one bigger, one smaller, chase her on bikes. I don’t think she realizes the chase is on. She finds the right song.

A woman walks out of the market. I didn’t see her go in. She isn’t a woman–really, few are. She has a fat face. I wonder why that is all I can see, I hope she sees more.

A girl, maybe three, or four, just ran by, calling for something, or someone.

A man–I think it’s a man–walks by holding a painting. I can’t see the painting. His hair is frizz. He turns. It isn’t a man.

The man I buy coffee from in the morning walks on by. He has very long hair, messy. Off he goes, in the wrong direction of where I’d expect him to be.

The girl, the one who might be four, has found her mother. She is quiet now.

A younger man, a less well dressed one, stands across, he is on the phone. He looks like the boy in the orange shirt. It turns out he won’t be all that handsome after all.

Standard
fiction

CAGED

Chris R-2-20 Image by Christine Renney

The bird had fallen down into their chimney. They had missed this, hadn’t heard its descent. Trapped and stalled but still attempting to fly, the bird bounced against the bricks.

They could hear the wings beating, its head and body bashing against the thin board that had been tacked in front of the fireplace.
‘We have to do something,’ she said.
‘Like what?’ he asked.
‘What do you mean, ‘like what’?’ she glared at him, incredulous. ‘We need to get it out of there, to set it free.’
‘How?’ From where he stood he studied the board. He couldn’t see any screws or fixings and suspected it had simply been glued into place and that removing it wouldn’t be difficult or particularly disruptive.
‘If we’re going to remove the board we need to get in touch with the landlord,’ he said. ‘It’ll pull the plaster away with it and could cause some damage.’
‘I don’t care!’ she stepped closer and, reaching out, placed her hand at the centre and the board wobbled slightly. The bird had quietened a little but now began to thrash and flail more violently.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she said to it. She moved back.
‘We have to help it,’ she pleaded.
‘It’s a wild bird,’ he said. ‘If we let it out it’ll be disorientated. How will we deal with it? It’ll be covered in soot and I don’t know what else.’
She crossed to the window and, drawing back the net curtain, she flung it open.
‘It’ll find its own way out,’ she said defiantly.
‘I’m not so sure, why don’t we go out and when we get back it will have gone.’
‘No,’ she shook her head, ‘it won’t be gone, it will be dead.’ She moved to the kitchen.
‘I don’t care,’ she shouted back at him, ‘about the damage or the consequences.’
He listened to her rummaging in the junk drawer until at last she came back brandishing a paint stripper.
‘If you won’t do it then I will.’
He had been annoyed by just how indignant she had become and at how quickly. But the indignation had now turned to something else, something less fleeting, more settled. He took the paint stripper from her.
‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I’ll do it.‘
The board was indeed flimsy and, pulling away from the wall, it started to bend. The bird was bashing against it and then it wasn’t. He was shocked by how small it was.
He released the board and, letting it flap back into place, he stood and together they watched the little bird fluttering in front of the open window.

Standard
art, fiction

The Hung-Man’s Bottle Cap

She sat there, social as a dead butterfly, bending beer bottle caps in half.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked.

She paused, ruminated over the words “Miller High Life,” then responded.

“When I can’t do this anymore, I will hang myself.”

“What if you break your fingers?” I said, smirking.

“Then, it will be a loose knot,” she replied, without humor.

I laughed–tried to. I picked up a cap; gave it a squeeze.

“Ouch.” It dropped. We both looked at it, she looked up at me.

I frowned. “I’m not going to hang myself!”

She shrugged, looking rather disappointed.

 

 

Standard
fiction

Stranger

Is this your girlfriend? The guy at the next table asked me loudly in one of those booming broadcast voices, pointing at her, as if she couldn’t answer for herself and was some kind of stranger even though she was clearly sitting with them, clearly sitting and smiling, and clearly smiling at me when I looked at her not so clearly like he’d asked me to identify a set of keys he’d found on the floor. She had blondish hair, soft features, a sweet smile with slightly too-big front teeth, and classic curves, I remember thinking, odd thought, thought it just like that, classic curves, and I was pretty sure she wasn’t mine, but she did look like a girl I saw in a dream one time so I took the bait and told him so.

Ah! Dream girl! AHAHAHA! No no, that’s not what I meant, not at all, but he was too full of toothy guffaws and eyeballs to hear my feeble clarifiers so they got left dangling and I gave up and laughed a little, just some, to mold to the mood a bit, I’d say, a little uncomfortable because he seemed a little like the relentless type and I had no interest in being hung out to dry, friendly-like or otherwise and thought that thinking who knows where this might go was nothing but a weary cynic’s rhetoricism.

It was probably 4-ish in the afternoon on a cold, overcast day, at the big café on the corner there, the one where that diagonal crosses perpendiculars to make six and no one knows when to turn or where to look when they do. And when I say cold I mean not jack frost in your face but old man hiver with the north wind freezing you from the inside out with each breath you take through numb lips and stiff nose. North because it’s cold up there.

Four of us, there were, to go with the time, my friend and I and an acquaintance and the acquaintance’s ladyfriend who was more like an acquaintance squared, if I math’d it—we’d just met her, were meeting her for the first time, maybe the last. She wore a pink coat and smelled like marshmallows, I thought, and I wondered how he found her, then thought maybe by scent because maybe he likes marshmallows. How little I really knew about him, faintly surprised at how little I cared.

We’d paid our bill by the time of mr. loudbusiness, as had he and his, and we sat, lingering, talking small-ly, coats on as if in preparation, and the boisterous one just had to jump in and make us nine with his five—himself, a couple other guys who seemed straight out of a clockwork orange, a girl with pigtails, grown girl with grown girl pigtails, and my “girlfriend,” who was by then engaged in an elaborate process of bundling up to what must’ve been twice her actual size and I wondered if she was Russian. Not because of the bundling, though, just because. Maybe it was the accent in her smile and the clockwork boys.

Thing was, I’d just finished getting mad at my friend and our squared acquaintances, so maybe the mouth had stopped talking long enough to hear me, us, and that was his in, when I flipped out in an animated but uncrazy way in the middle of a conversation my table’d been having about not love (in its magnificence) but relationships (in their banality), and he—my part-known friend—had taken to joking and teasing me about my apparent indifference, my unwillingness to Put Myself Out There, which, yes, I heard as a bad title to an even worse book that I wondered if maybe I should write for purposes of fame and riches, to hell with dignity. And I let go of my stoicism and let them have it, tracing my words out angrily on the table like they’d be etched there for the record.

And so we got up to leave and so did they and so we ended up leaving together, the two groups linked by his simple tease, the common bond of banter, and with the subtraction of our head count we all but cleared the place and I realized on our shuffling departure how empty it had been and how much space he managed to occupy with his booming broadcast relentlessness, and how blind I’d before him been with my first silent then outward aggravation.

We stood out front for a moment by one sixth of the corners to say farewells and chat like strangers do, searching the moment for the unsaid signal from the angel of dispersal before he gave me a congratulatory shoulder slap and “eh?” combo and I wondered what I’d won, with no idea what had just been said before. I smiled and laughed again anyway, more freely this time because we were on the outside then and I could run if I wanted, into traffic if I wanted, in front of a bus if I could find one, so I let him have whatever fun he was having while the magnificent nine shivered and shrugged and rubbed their hands and squinted in the wind and coats ruffled and breaths condensed and vaporised and the mumbled talk that we dragged with us from inside had shrunk even smaller with the influx of weather and strange strangers merging two separate into one single midst was chopped through chattering teeth.

The angel did at last descend and he and his mates and I and my friend (our acquaintances had already gone on their way), began to separate, our brief communion stretching like melted mozzarella, making me wish more than ever for a knife, even just a fork, either of which I felt might then and there serve several purposes. But she and the grown pigtail girl—who appeared to know her better than the clockwork fellas did—came along with us, fiend and I. They just came along. No invitations, no acknowledgement, we simply started to cross the street in our direction and they joined. You kids have fun! AHAHA! the boisterous one called out over his shoulder, and I waved a goodbye that was more of a good riddance, even though I kind of liked him when I was leaving.

The girls walked with us for a couple blocks before I politely took my leave and drifted off the way I tend to drift away and she gave me a wink that I missed. My friend grinned devilish and we exchanged a quick nonverbal in the midst of audibly saying ok see ya later ok yep and he continued on with the two girls ever so predictably, bundled curves and pigtails, while I went back to the old flat we were staying in, sharing, I should say, sharing so he could look for a job and I could look for ways to avoid one, just around the corner on a street that was almost always perfectly empty, and I thought as I walked both away and toward, chilled but not yet frozen, that the whole scene was like something from Dr. Zhivago, kind of around the beginning, and maybe she was Lara which definitely would’ve made her Russian unless she was the actress from the movie who was probably British or something.

He texted me not long after I got back to the creaky coldness of our beat up flat, probably an hour or so, saying some shit about how he was getting on smartly with her and I felt more stupid than jealous because I knew he was telling me I could’ve been in his shoes if I hadn’t been so stupid but what I really felt stupid for was thinking for a second that he was right. Which he was, but not how I mean it.

He came back late that night when I was taking a hot shower because I couldn’t sleep and my feet were iced. I heard the door slam and knew he’d been drinking and would probably barge straight into the bathroom to recount the tale of the past several wasted hours, hours I’d spent in some roiling combination of tossing and turning and trying to write a story, first on paper, then just in my head, then back on paper again, before my feet got me up. He’ll barge right in, I thought, right in, to make me uncomfortable and give himself something to do, which he promptly did, succeeding on both fronts. I told him to shut the door to keep the steam in and he said She gave you a wink when you left. Really? I totally missed it, trying for an unknown reason to sound like I cared, but for a second I must say I did forget how cold my feet still were.

There’s diversity in the mystery, he said, endless and seeming possible; details get tired, and then you do too. This girl is sweet, pretty, and other. Yes. I’m not thinking now on details. They’re really not attractive anyway, and I mean that philosophically. Not listening: You and I both, attracted to preliminaries and basics, then blanks get filled in and we get bored and/or annoyed, as much with ourselves as with them, he said,

and I knew right then and there that that was it for us, me and he and these non-entities, and all I wanted in the great wide world was to be left the hell alone.

Standard
fiction

Skinny Girl

Silently crying on the morning train she was, all arms and legs and despair half-heaped and sliding like a pile of melting Dalí clocks over the blue vinyl seat-back beside her and I thought she might finally pour off onto the floor in a puddle of person if not for that crooked arm all crooked for cupping her buried face, crooked and hooked and holding her in place, I saw, snagged as if on a broken branch like the one that cut the inside of my thigh when I was seven, it seemed, and I wondered if I should do the thing and go unhook her.

It was just us we two, me and she perched up above on high on inward-facing foldouts on the car’s second level, windows at our backs, the always-empty aluminum luggage rack overhanging the first-level aisle in front like some kind of gang plank running from the front end of the car to the back, complete and perfect strangers separated by unknown degrees and about four empty seats.

I watched her without watching; lingering peripheral scans and a few quick eye darts enough to catch piecemeal sights of her face once it had risen from its hiding hanging place upon hearing the conductor rapping, gently rapping, rapping on the metal bar by her feet with his shiny silver hole-puncher from the floor below, requesting her ticket.

Miss, ticket. Tap tap. Ticket miss. Miss. Ticket please.

She looked at him with liquid eyes from deep underwater and I peered into the pool as best I clandestinely could from my angle and saw hair matted to moist cheeks streaked with eyeliner like two river deltas viewed from airborne heights before she broke the surface and leaned forward to extend a mechanical hand at the end of a mechanical arm to pass the kindly mr. blue-capped conductor fella her paper rectangle ticket just like mine and I thought he should’ve just left her alone this time, should’ve just let her be.

Maybe he thought so too once he saw, because his expression changed slightly just barely for a split of a split second as he reached up to receive the offering. Just for a split, I saw it seemed, before his sedately aloof workdayman-like placidity washed it away and without a word or gesture he resumed his business of minding his own, punching her ticket with three rapid clicks like they were a single motion and handing the maimed marker of mostly guaranteed safe passage back without his eyes landing anywhere near that teary face of hers again, handing it back with the subtle, arm’s length cordiality we learn to show to strangers with the sads, and I wondered where we get it.

She cried quietly, quietly draped, hooked, and sliding, from the moment I noticed her till we got off. Yes, we. Seven stops, and the last the same as mine. Then off the train and half-hurriedly with obstinate resignation into the small crowd of bobbing mannequin heads she went with my eyes a few degrees shy of squarely watching, off into an undulating stream of hair and coats and bags so thick I could hardly tell her from the rest. But I caught glimpses, and down the platform she went till around the back of the train and across the tracks at the crossing and gone and I walked myself along to work like nothing happened but inside my insides were stumbling back and forth between relief and apprehension and I can only imagine what my face said about all that.

*

It wasn’t the first sighting, or the last, just the end of that one. I’d spot her often, almost every day twice and both ways in quiet reverence for the benefits of solitude, from and to the city, morning out and evening back, as a matter of fact. She wasn’t unpretty, as far as people go, but I don’t remember what she looked like, only how she seemed, and how she seemed was not unpretty if I had to put a silly watcher’s word on.

But details… those are another story, one I’m in no position to tell. I surely couldn’t pick her out of a lineup of tall, skinny, crying girls of indeterminate age with light brown hair and colorless coats and bags, and long, almost cartoonish limbs like she’d been pulled and stretched to fit almost any situation and eyes of some other shade of brown or maybe blue or hazel, the kind of girl with a nose and mouth and ears and all that, a being of unreal, deceptively shifting proportions and implicit indistinction whose movements conveyed a middling grace that suggested she could be some things and not others and I often wondered all the things anyone would, like why does she feel familiar. And she was so something that day that it hurt to look at her, and hurt more to look away.

Then I lost her, and here’s the beginning of the twist. Because one day, not long after that tearful morn when I wanted so badly to go sit beside her and quietly absorb the pain my own often in those days un-dry eyes were already soaking up, kind silent dumb companion of the moment, she wasn’t on the train, not in the morning, not in the evening, not at all, as far as my perception could concede. And I didn’t even notice she was gone till that one day became a bushel or a slew or a jumble or whatever a bunch of days become—the day after and the one after that and after that and that and that and after, absences adding up to an almost perfect almost nonexistence held together in frayed scraps of recollection and splintering cross-sections of feeling and I began to wonder what kind of real she’d been in the first place, if that whole crying melting mechanical arm thing had even happened. Or if I had.

And after a while I even forgot to look for her, the alluring mystery of objectified miseries fading into a distant-seeming moment and that moment into a span and that span into just time, plain old time, sights and senses diminished from the hopeless, ditch-dug perpetuity it seemed to be when I finally climbed up the slippery, muddy banks and out, my coiled insides finally unwound and on to bluer skies and greener stretched out open pastures, gleefully naïve in ceasing to think about how we feel and think and act in cycles.

But I never forgot that day of the tears and quiet agony and matted hair and spiritless reach. In thinking about it now, I wonder how much more beguiling she became when she was suffering and I was looking on like watching my very own self suffering too, that true and honest and irrepressible disclosure of person in the midst of a traincar full of regular empty day-blank faces that so utterly seemed not to see, not even to be. And how much clearer, stronger—how emblematic, say—this little big memory came to be once its object was no longer around in the rough-regular outline flesh to impede my ever so impressionable impressions.

I think about it now, today, on the same train, gliding west, and thought runs like this, speeding, slowing, stopping, opening up: An essence not so much hers as ours, hers and mine, very much mine, it seems, I saw, in fact, I think, now, thinking—a still-life living composition of sadness on the morning train, that’s what she was, unbound by time, disentangled and abstracted from me and my own sad days, for once unhidden and picture-perfectly present, not photographed, though, not captured on film or pixel but painted, painted in the thick, soft-textured strokes of another being, being. Bodily-departed and there, comely, delicate she—per the grandiosest corners of my imagination—sitting just out of reach, crumpled in quiet tears, and doused in the merciful gray light of an immemorially cloudy autumn morning blur diffused through big, green-tinted heavy scratched-plastic train windows. Just sadness, another -ness, shining back at me.

And I think about never forgetting how for a while, looking at her there beyond me as the towns rushed by and the stops came and went, I didn’t feel so misplaced, and I loved my sadness like a woman who couldn’t possibly love me back, vaguely distinct and sort of beautiful—for a moment, that is, one drawn out and elevated to beauty by rumination and incomplete forgetfulness, by misplacement and self deep-diving for a long, slow resurface.

That’s what I think, sitting here without thinking, gazing out the window, detached and present, and as I do so the train stops, pauses, opens, people on, people off, closes, starts again, picks up speed, slows, stops, opens, people off, people on, and I look outside and there she is. There she is, standing on the platform alone, same coat, same bag, far as I know, same hair and limbs and expression, same eyes staring straight ahead, apart, straight through the car. She makes no move to board, just stands, waiting for the next train, maybe just waiting. I don’t wonder, though, I only shift my vision to my own faint reflection in the plastic window, the face I see there encircling the figure on the platform and how fitting, mind says, how fitting, all in my head, passing by.

Standard
fiction

PARASITE

Chris R-0651-2 Image by Christine Renney

The man pulls his house along with him, wherever he goes. It is cumbersome and unwieldy but he is young and strong and full of vigour. He has attached ropes to all four corners and whenever he needs is able to turn the house around. But he is thankful to be in a country that is big and flat. The landscape can be desolate and harsh but it doesn’t matter because the man can always take shelter in the house.
The distance between places is vast and he is often on the road for weeks, even months, before reaching a settlement. But again, it doesn’t matter because the man hasn’t any intention of stopping, of staying put. In fact, it is when he is forced to pass through the populated areas, the townships and such, that he is at his most anxious. It is then that he wishes the house were smaller and not so heavy, that pulling it along wasn’t such a slow and gruelling task.

The people watch him from inside their own houses, staring through the windows, scrutinising his progress or they stand out on the pavements, huddled in small groups, talking quietly and conspiratorially.
They call him a freak and a parasite and it is the latter which baffles and troubles him the most. He doesn’t feel that he is a parasite, but quite the opposite in fact, whatever that might be.

Out on the road he is constantly tempted to turn the house and himself around. But he suspects that, if he did, eventually he would grind to a halt. Also he needs to buy supplies from time to time. He has considered setting the house down outside of a settlement and walking in with his rucksack. No-one other than himself would be any the wiser. But travelling through the villages and the towns is unavoidable and he can’t help feeling that if he were to do this it would be the beginning of something else.

When he traverses the populated areas the man tries to keep calm and stay focused. He tugs a bit harder and toils for longer. Dragging a house along a road is a noisy operation. Out on the open road he stops hearing, becomes immune to it. But amidst the people and their houses his every movement is blaringly amplified. He watches the bystanders as he works, and studies their faces. He is alert to each flinch and every grimace registers as he ever so, ever so, slowly makes his way. If he could he would continue throughout the night but of course he can’t. And when at last he takes to his bed, although bone tired, he is unable to sleep. He can still hear them, the towns’ people or the villagers, shuffling around his house, ever vigilant, ever observing.

On the road the drivers are much more vocal. They don’t whisper and shuffle. The man and his house are an obstruction and he is often the cause of lengthy traffic jams. When the lorries are able at last to manoeuvre around him, the drivers are angry and sound their horns loudly. They lean red-faced from their cabs, gesticulating wildly.
Almost oblivious and head down amidst the dust he can’t really hear what the drivers are shouting. They are yelling names at him but he is pretty sure they aren’t calling him a parasite.
When he is able the man pulls his house off to the side of the road. He waits for the lorries to pass, until the road is clear, and he is able to gaze out across the landscape.

Standard