The self must explore a thing until it screams. As a child, I would sit in the grass, touching the cold tufts with my fingers. Dig, dig, dig. I made a fist-sized hole. Inside it, a gray worm flipped over, curling like a question mark.
I would scream at the worm. I would scream at the hole I made. I would scream at what was inside it.
The self can be a receptacle.
The mouth takes everything in.
Batman, obviously not my husband’s name, and I always joke about gunshots when firecrackers are launched in May, June, July, August, and September in our Chicago neighborhood on the west side.
Batman likes to walk me to the L when I’m leaving for an early flight at 4:00 AM. He rolls my suitcase over the curb. Bump. Bump. At the exact moment when the wheels skipped concrete, we heard two gunshots explode the shadows from the trees.
With his arm, he barred me from moving forward. The echo came from a block away—the McDonalds parking lot. Sometimes, during gang initiation season, two men in white will chase a third man through the L cars. On the platform, I once saw two men try to push the third over the edge. This happened at rush hour in the morning.
I’d never really heard a gun go off like this: I’ve heard the stray shot of hunters in the forest when I played at my friend’s house in the country. Those guns made me think of crows scaring off a roof. It frightened me still.
The sound is like your neighbor screaming at your friend in the backyard. Profane in its proximity to the swing set, your friend paling blank-faced as the wall of a warehouse.
It splits time for a second.
Batman and I paused, and so did a bicyclist coming home from somewhere—bartending? The sun would rise in two hours. He was about to cross the intersection in front of us, but he stopped and touched the toes of his Converse sneakers to the road. His bike made a clicking sound, and the wheels turned into the gravel of a pothole. We all looked around.
“Hey . . . shit,” I found myself saying. The bicyclist slowly started backing up his bike, still on his toes. Then he pedaled it out of there and disappeared.
“Let’s go,” said Batman.
I didn’t want to go. I wanted to find out what was going on. “What happened?” I asked, not him, but the night, I suppose. I broke free of Batman’s hold. Reason took over.
“It’ll be too late to check this bag if we go around the block. I’m going to be late,” I said.
I stepped toward the road and looked down it.
“No,” said Batman.
My mind sometimes renames places. Corner of Weed Wolf Graffiti Stickers. Pepsi Man’s Curb. Daffodil Boulevard. One afternoon, after Batman and I had a minor argument—I wasn’t sleeping well—I grabbed Charles Wright’s Zone Journals off the shelf and took a walk: past the Grecian Statue, the Blind Corner, and Red Light Number 1. I joined the community of bums in the park between two roads. They were here a lot. Today, they were sharing a long yellow bottle. I decided to sit on a bench that faced away from the road. When I sat down, I noticed white graffiti arrows on the path that pointed at the seat. Oh well.
I opened my book. People walked their dogs through the grass. I wanted a dog. Then it caught my eye, a blocky white symbol. Someone had sprayed a different, frazzled purple symbol over it. I lined up my sandals with the arrow points. One, two. The symbols near them reminded me of when my little sister would copy my signature. The sunlight warmed my arms.
A man in a ripped T-shirt walked by, whistling. He slowed down.
I wondered if I had become part of a pattern of some kind. I had recently realized the apartment building on our corner was a major distribution center. The vans came on Thursdays. I would cross the street and then cross back. I was followed home once, but nothing happened. The two men, really young men, just watched me as I keyed into my apartment.
I stood up, stretching. My bench was the only one labeled with symbols.
I’m touching a sheet of tulle threaded with gold plastic beads.
The cloth hangs above me. The cloth is deep purple, not quite plum. The room is lined with curtain displays. Like the one in front of me.
The curtains cover the perimeter of the room and also create alleys through it. I am standing at the farthest edge from the door. I like the plum one. It looks like a magician’s curtain.
I put my face to the sheen.
A whisper of material. The creases still accordion-edged where the cloth had been folded inside its plastic packet. I think about putting my palms on the Corinthian columns of a museum.
Someone screams. A girl is standing by the front window.
I slip behind the magic scrim.
I admire the cloth from inside of it. My back presses against the concrete wall behind me. The curtain is just opaque enough.
Men stamp through the aisles. Five or six, I would guess. I can see them even though I am layered outside of perception.
And now I can see them from above, as though I’m clinging to one of the curtain rods and looking straight down.
The curtain barely touches my mouth.
The curtain feels like the hair of someone sleeping next to you, strange, different, almost yours. It wakes me. My husband’s hair brushes my mouth.
There is actually such a thing as a cloak that removes you from time.
Batman explained this to me while he washed knives.
You can slip the cloak over your body and walk across a room.
You can stay inside the cloak as long as you like. When you slip into it, no one will see you. Then you will be seen again, reappearing next to the stove a breath later.
Your body is erased, zapped, swallowed by a hole.
The light will receive your body.
Then, your body will block the light, and you will re-enter the world.
I’m touching a sheet of tulle threaded with gold plastic beads. The cloth hangs above me. My mother is touching another curtain next to this one, talking about how she would like to use it in a weaving she is making. She is an artist.
“I could do a lot with this,” she says. Her glasses are pushed on top of her head.
“Why don’t you get it?”
“It has to be juuust right . . .” She inspects the hem.
Because my apartment doesn’t yet have a shower curtain, or a shower curtain rod, or window curtains, my mother thought we should check out Dollar Linen on Milwaukee Ave. on our way back from the bakery. I love dollar stores. So does she. My family would buy Christmas gifts for each other at the Dollar Store next to the Aldi’s when I was growing up.
Dollar Linen takes up two Chicago storefronts. Rugs hang in the window.
One half of the store, which could be a store in itself, is devoted to every possible household item. Drain plugs. Salad spinners. Juicers. Sets of picnic plates. And toys. Plastic doll heads that you can fit onto doll bodies. Feathered felt spiked with catnip. And toiletries. And cocoa butter. And candles of any scent. Candles with images of the Virgin Mary on them and prayers printed up the sides. My mother bought a Virgin Mary candle for me to burn.
When Batman and I first started seeing each other, back when we lived in Maryland, we walked from my apartment complex to the dollar store in the nearby strip mall in one of the D.C. suburbs. At the Dollar Store, we bought weird greeting cards for our mutual friend, who was driving to Georgia for her uncle’s funeral. We laughed about how the cards said something a little wrong. We thought she’d laugh, too.
Congratulations! May your Riches Bring you Friendship.
Enjoy Retirement. You have the Rest of Your Life.
She liked the retirement card.
As we walked down the aisles, my mother and I ran our hands through robin’s egg gauze, through butter yellow taffeta, through swaths of cotton spotted with cherries, and through lace tiebacks hanging up alone like ribbons lost from a dress.
On the way out the front door, she stopped at the cashier.
“You have a very nice place. What are your hours?” she asked.
“Thank you, Madam.” With formality, the man handed us each a laminated business card. I could smell incense burning: cedar and raspberry. A man without teeth smiled at us and bowed his head as we crossed the threshold into the bright afternoon.
The last time I went to Dollar Linen was because of a sign scrawled on the window:
We Cut Keys
It was winter.
“Hello. May I help you?”
It was the man who stood near the door. He wheezed. I noticed he was missing many teeth.
“Do you sell cat food?” I asked.
I took off my mittens.
The man opened his mouth in surprise. The winter wind on his gums must have cut to the nerve. I was wearing two pairs of pants and a hat under the hood of my coat.
“Cat food?” He stepped closer to me. “You don’t want to get that here.”
He looked down at my mittens. One thumb was beginning to unravel.
“Do you have drain traps?”
“Yes, yes. Follow me, Madam.”
This store had everything. Roach traps in S, M, L. Hand towels dyed in red spots: prints that tomatoes make when hurled at a garage. The toothless man led me down one of the aisles along the room’s edge. I could hear my boots scuffing the linoleum floor. There were no sounds, not even the radio. If I were by myself, I would have cut straight down the center of the room. The back door was in the center of the room.
I thought of my body cutting through the air.
Some guys appeared: they sauntered toward us.
“Thanks.” The man’s eyes were red.
“Good day, sir,” responded my guide. He turned to me.“This?” he asked me and pointed to a series of hooks.
There were four different drain traps hanging on the wall. We were in the back of the room.
I felt warm and unzipped my coat. I loosened the scarf at my throat, and chose two traps (one was $1.00, and the other $1.75).
Then, my guide led me to the front, where I could smell the incense. I put the traps on the cashier’s counter. I asked about having some keys cut. The cashier took my key ring from my hands and marked the two I wanted copied with a Sharpie. I didn’t like that. He turned away, and the machine began.
In the machine, my keys made a shrill, grinding noise: it reminded me of that sound of bones being run through a wood-chipper from Fargo.
“It sure is cold out,” I said.
The machine ground and ground.
“But it is nice and warm in here!” I said. I don’t know why I said that.
The man without teeth walked briskly toward the door. A kid walked in. The kid was wearing a puffy Blackhawks coat that touched his knees. He must have been twelve, and in his older brother’s jacket. Or, maybe it had always been his. The toothless man was happy to see him. They shook hands and laughed.
The child’s skin was pocked. His eyes were red. The two of them disappeared for a moment, and when they reappeared the boy was putting something into his pocket. I stared, and the cashier caught me.
“Yes, it’s warm. My poor heating bill!” he said in mock good humor, his voice lilting. But his were eyes sharp as he looked up at me from his work.
“Oh, yes! I can only imagine!” I sung. The shriek of the key-cutter cut out just as I began to speak. “Heat is so expensive these days.”
It was like I was projecting to an empty theatre.
I felt like a fool, making this kind of conversation. Who says, “Heat is so expensive these days?”
For a moment, the cashier held up both sets of my keys: the thicker, copper-colored ones my landlord handed me in August, and the shinny new gold ones.
His fingertips played with the new keys, the ones he made, showing the metal to the light.
I remembered the men that kept coming to the front of the store from a room in the back. I noticed I was the only woman there. I noticed no one else was buying anything. I realized there was always a man on lookout at the front door. I thought about how the plastic cups, the dolls, the candy, all of it looked old: some of it dusty. I thought about my comment, about the heat. How did Dollar Linen pay to heat the building? I remembered the men that kept coming to the front of the store from a room in the back.
I looked around. The cashier watched me look around.
Get out, a voice said. It wasn’t my voice, but it was inside me.
It’s the voice that said Stand up when two men sat, one in front and one next to me, on an empty train car of the D.C. metro.
Sometimes the voice has a form. It pushes you, gently, to the door of the train and onto the platform when you need to go. There is a shift in atmosphere, and you feel the gentle push on your back. Back up.
Stop digging at it. The thing. Stop thinking about it, wondering about it. See the hole? Stop it. You will dig something up. You will dig up the thing that exists out of sight. The thing that coils around the roots of it all.
The Midwestern sky sometimes stripes with clouds so high that it feels like we are inside a giant bowl.
It is headache bright.
One day, the sky will be just like this: glaucoma blue.
Listen. You might not believe it, but there is such a thing as a scrim. One day you will rip it.
You will fight against the hands pushing you to walk away. Goodbye, Batman. You’ll take a shortcut.
The sky—I want to say it will rip, too. That the epiphany will dissolve. That there won’t be one. That the shadows aren’t already making lace of your arms.
(winner of the Editors’ Prize in Prose for issue 21)