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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Eaves

 

by Emily Taylor

 

 

 

The eaves distilled the sounds of the house into something like a hum or a roar, depending on who was there, and if they were talking, and what they were saying.   Caroline turned on the flannel sheets, experimenting with what the fractures in her arm could bear.   Modern homes like the one in which she was raised amplified the sounds of the neighbors and told you things you didn’t want to know.   Despite the buzz of city traffic on the broad street, this narrow house resonated like a bucket or a bell.

 

                When Jonathan was home, his voice became the steady burr of a foraging animal.   His father, Garth, had more of an up-and-down tune that he probably learned from Melanie, his girlfriend, who let out staccato bursts and wild laughter and everything in between.   This afternoon, Caroline heard only Melanie, shouting back to whomever she listened to on public radio.

 

                Jonathan had found Caroline when she was injured at the ski resort where he worked and had visited her in the hospital.  As she knew he would, he loved her helplessly and brought her home to Brooklyn, where Garth and Melanie leaned in the doorway of their brownstone, welcomed him, and let her in.   Caroline did not stop them, though she knew she should have.

 

                It was the first home Caroline had been in for so long, she didn’t have a sense of what to do and how to be, and so she slept a lot, like this afternoon.   The kettle was whistling for an afternoon tea.   Caroline went downstairs.   She could feel the swirls in the wood on the stairs.   Her feet were soft from disuse at the hospital.   They used to be tough enough to withstand glass, back when she used to run barefoot in the night to her grandma's house from her mother's boyfriends.

 

                "Two ill women, we’re like a bad Victorian novel," Melanie said.   Melanie’s legs were propped on an orange pillow; her head was buried away from the light into the beige back pillows of the couch.   She pointed the remote towards the stereo and shut off the radio.

 

                "What kind do you want?" Caroline said.   She had never served her own mother tea.   They didn’t even have mugs at home, just plastic cups that came for free at sporting events or from signing up for something at a bank or in the grocery store parking lot.

 

                "Rooibos," Melanie said.   "As if it helps."  Melanie’s eyes were the sharpest Caroline had ever seen.   Like a mole or some other underground animal watching for light.   Melanie shut her eyes again.   "Nausea hits me in the afternoons," she explained.  Jonathan and Garth had to work, so it was Caroline who stayed.

 

                The cup jangled in its unmatched saucer when Caroline carried it from the kitchen, and Melanie opened her eyes and sat up.

 

                "What did you want?" she said.

 

                "Green tea.   Sencha.   I got it," Caroline said.   She held up her own mug.

 

                "Maybe there’s something else in there," Melanie said.   "Biscuits.   I used to have biscuits."

 

                "Don’t need them," Caroline said.

 

                "We always have ketchup.   Garth can’t do without it."   Melanie shifted her weight and seemed to wince.   The bottles of pain pills were on the coffee table, and her eyes darted there.   Her hand hovered.   Caroline leaned into the couch too, and they sat side-by-side watching the bottles between them.   Caroline’s mother had used packets of frozen corn to dull the pain in her shoulders from work at the warehouse.

 

                "I’m trying to figure out where you come from," Melanie said.   "Notice I haven’t asked yet?  I like to figure out accents."

 

                "And?" Caroline said.   She hoped that was a word that wouldn’t carry a hint of the narrow stony roads near home, where the occasional dark horse pulled the dark wagon of a family who did not believe in electricity.   You had to swerve for them at night, whenyou saw the glowing decals on the back of the rig.

 

                "Haven’t decided yet," Melanie said.   "I’ll let you know."   Caroline nodded.   There was no accent with nodding.

 

                "You think you’ll ski again, after the accident?" Melanie said.

 

                "Yes," Caroline said.   But she wasn’t sure if that was true, she just knew it was what Melanie, from her couch, wanted to hear.

 

                "Good," Melanie said.   She smiled a brief flash of what her face must have been like before she was sick.   Caroline breathed the steam from her tea and felt gratitude for having the right answer, and for being someone who Melanie would care to root for, ever.

               

                There was a game Caroline and Jonathan played in the hospital when she was letting her memories of the past stay in the past.   She’d say, Maybe I was a fighter pilot.   And he’s say, Maybe you were a housewife in Cincinnati, your sleeves always rolled up to your elbows.   Or maybe you wrote sad songs.   And she’d say, Maybe I sold perfume.   She wasn’t any of those things.   She was beyond broke.   She was deep into a valley of debt, and she excelled at opening new credit cards and going on the tide of money, which was what she was doing in New England at a ski resort for the weekend.   The collection agencies had been launching themselves at her, teeth and fangs.   She had taken out credit cards under false names.   She had paid for things she had no business owning.   And somewhere along the way she had taken some money—not a lot of money—but still—from the bank account of the spa where she was a receptionist.   She knew that was the anchor with the long chain that was going to sink her.

 

                So she went to Vermont to start on the top of the hill on stolen skis, and go down fast enough that there wouldn’t be any decisions left.   Her cheeks went numb and she closed her eyes and she slashed into the lowering darkness of the blue-black night.

 

                What was left from the accident was the hurt arm and a strangled fluttering in her colon or her navel, like a strange butterfly baby.   Something got shifted in her mid-section, and her muscles were trying to twist themselves into liking it.   That, a mountain of medical debt, and Jonathan.

 

                When I’ve saved up some money working with my dad, we’ll get on the road again and go to Canada, Jonathan had said.   

                It’s not the sixties anymore.   They track people over the borders, she had said.

 

                Ecuador then, Bolivia, Namibia, I don't care, he had said.   She put her hand—her good hand, her good arm – under his belt, and he clenched his jaw and breathed into her hair.   They were in the hospital parking lot and she didn't let him have sex with her then for fear that the billing staff was looking for her already.

 

                Jonathan, she suspected, was just glad that it was not a lover she had spun off a cliff for.   But money was more complicated, really.   He just didn’t understand how money could tie you up and throw you to the bottom of a well worse than love could.   Love was only moving water over stones.

 

                Your memory’s back, he said.   That’s amazing.

 

                I know, she said.   She couldn’t believe he didn’t see through her right away and run, tipping over the plastic chair in his haste.   There are still some dark spots, she said, so she could feel less like a character on The Guiding Light.

 

                Don’t worry, he said.   It will all come back.   He took her hand and kissed her palm.

 

                So now she was here with Garth and Melanie, and she watched the way Jonathan worked in concert with his father, their heads down over plans for small projects in apartments—carpentry, insulation, whatever it was.   She saw the way he put his hand on the counter, feeling the granite like there was something comforting in the speckle of it.   He brewed tea for Melanie, who might have been his mother except she wasn’t, but that didn’t seem to matter.   And she seemed to be dying.   No one told Caroline how she was really, but it didn’t look good.

 

                "Caroline?" Melanie said.   Melanie was solid as oak.   Caroline often thought of herself as made of whipped milk, or some other form of spun dairy.   

  

                "What’s up?" Caroline said.

 

                "Let’s paint our toenails," Melanie said.   Caroline looked over.


                "Bright purple?" she said.

 

                "Lime green," Melanie said.   When Melanie grasped Caroline’s shoulder to stand, Caroline could feel every bone in her hand.   Flesh pulled tight to sinew, drawing up defenses.   Caroline closed her eyes for a minute, feeling shame wash over her in waves.   

 

                "I’m sorry," Melanie said.   "Oh, I’m sorry, was that your bad arm, honey?"   Caroline shook her head yes.

 

                Jonathan climbed into bed beside her at night.   He pulled the sheets over their heads against the sharp air.   Caroline closed her eyes and saw the darkness and the bite of the snow.   She saw the rocks, waiting, dense and poised to take her.

 

                Ready? Jonathan said, in the tent of soft sheet he made over them.

 

                Electric show, Caroline said, and Jonathan spun his feet to let the static crackle blue sparks.   Warmth spread through the bed.   She hooked her body around his and moved her tongue along his collarbone.

 

                Please, Jonathan said.   Please.  It was what he always said, and she clung hard to the hair that curled at his neckline.   She could see him in the orange glow of the streetlight.   He held her hips and pulled them down until she felt a cavern open inside of her voice.   She pressed her mouth against his shoulder.   The branches scratched at the window in a gust of wind, new growth leaving light mustard streaks.

 

                "Big guy," Garth said.   "I need you on the Garfield street project."   Jonathan’s father called him Big Guy, but Garth was still much bigger than Jonathan.   Garth’s shirts were wrinkled and he smelled of clean cement on a basement floor in summer.   He had the kindest voice Caroline had ever heard on a man.


                "What’s the project?" Caroline said.   Her pajamas carried the static of the bed and hugged her shin.   She tugged at her shirt, feeling that muscle spasm ripple her stomach.

 

                "We’re building a sawhorse desk into an alcove." Garth said.   "Triangles and a rectangle."

 

                "Sounds nice," Caroline said.   "Simple."   She poured more coffee for Garth and  Jonathan.   They both spread their legs as if astride horses.

 

                "Let’s take a walk later.   It stopped raining," Jonathan said.   Caroline couldn’t bear the weight of his eyes today, or the weight of his breath when he slept beside her, as they listened and pretended not to hear Melanie's pain in the night.   When Jonathan tucked his knees nearly into his chest, Caroline pressed the tops of her feet into the bottoms of his and wondered what they felt like to him, cold and boney.   

               

                "We have board games," Melanie said.   "I think."  She swallowed.   She was on the couch again, and today there was something in her skin that Caroline didn’t like.   Something gray and glowing, like pewter.   Melanie cocked her head like a spaniel, and Caroline knew she was trying to hear what she needed to know before she was in a hospital bed with a mainline dripping meds.   

                "I’m not much for board games," Caroline said.

 

                "Too much chance, not enough skill?" Melanie said.   What did Melanie guess about her that Jonathan could not see, blinded so well by her flimsy dollhouse of half-lies?

 

                "Something like that," Caroline said.   She looked out the window.   Someone was putting up pipes for scaffolding on the brick apartment building next door.   A man climbed to the top to fasten the next set of beams.   He had on a sweatshirt that was cut ragged on all the places it should have been tight.

 

                "You’ll be better soon and leave me in the dust," Melanie said.   "Don’t worry."  She sank back into the couch, and her left sock drooped around her ankle.   

 

                Today, Caroline felt the old pull of something, that faithful wanting that came from boredom and having less than you’d like.   She wondered if there was a shopping center nearby that would let her sign up for a card, an account, a new sweater, a pair of warm socks, a lease on a car or a bike or a boat.   She felt the desire and then closed her eyes and pushed it back as far as she could into the cellar of her brain.   She thought of Melanie and all of the things that you can’t bring with you when you die.

 

                "Can I get you anything?" Caroline said.   "Anything at all?"

 

                 I couldn’t even tell you where to start,  Melanie said.

 

                "Almost there," Jonathan said.   "A little bit more."   Caroline was tired.   It felt strange to be outside.   The ground was so damp in the park that a fog rose, a cloud that they pushed through.   Jonathan found a bench and lowered Caroline to it.   Their feet burrowed into mud.

 

                "I feel elderly," she said.

 

                "You’ll be stronger soon," he said.   They sat, watching dogs huff the damp through their noses.   So many people talked to their cell phones instead of to their dogs.             


                "Why are you letting me do this to you?"Caroline said.   She raised her good arm and flapped it against her jacket.   Her voice puffed into the air, and it was there, hanging in vapor front of them.   She didn’t realize how close to the surface the question had been bobbing all along.

 

                "I don’t think of myself as letting anything happen to me," Jonathan said.   He rested his head on one fisted hand.   His plaid jacket did not match the clothing of other people walking by in dark wool or puffy plastic.   His cloud of breath dissolved in front of them.

 

                Caroline had on the only jacket she still owned, the one she’d used to ski into the night.   A nurse at the hospital gave her a needle and thread to stitch the ripped arm.   The fabric had not held the blood.

 

                "I’m saving up to get us out of here," he said.   "That’s the plan."

 

                "It’s too much.   I cost too much," Caroline said.   There was a kind of pain that settled between her lungs and she realized she was forgetting to exhale.   

 

                "I decide that," he said.   A flock of pigeons made a swaying path in between the benches.   Mist pressed against her cheeks, landing in her eyebrows.

 

                "There are limits," Caroline said.   Jonathan turned to her then, his hands still at his sides instead of resting on her neck or her thighs or her cheeks.

 

                "Don’t say that again," he said.   He stood up.   "We’re going back."  They walked out of the park and into the tree-lined streets with brownstones.   She watched the babies in their strollers sheathed in bubbles of plastic.   Their own yawns fogged the bubbles on the inside.

 

                Jonathan didn’t look at Caroline that night, and it was a night when Garth made dinner, a soup of barley and mushrooms boiled to softness with spinach thrown in at Melanie’s insistence.   Melanie used a bowl that could have only been meant for a child, pausing for a long time between the spoonfuls.   Caroline didn't know if it was pain that filled her stomach, or the cancer itself.

 

                "Asparagus would be nice to have fresh," Melanie said.   "We could put some in at the side of the house."


                "What about the soil here?" Jonathan said.

 

                "What do you mean?" Melanie said.

 

                "Lead, minerals, pollution," Jonathan said.   "Do people really garden here?"

 

                "I’ve lived in Brooklyn most of my life, and I’m just fine," Melanie said.   They paused a minute, and then Garth laughed.

 

                "Babe, way to go," he said.   He wiped his eyes on his napkin.

 

                "Did you know that they're perennials, asparagus?" Melanie said.

 

                "Excuse me," Caroline said.   "I’ve got a headache."   Jonathan didn't look at her.   

 

                She got up from the table and went to the room she shared with Jonathan where dark covered the walls.   The streetlight was blocked by the scaffolding which now engulfed the neighboring apartment building.   She heard the sounds of plates in the sink, doors opening and shutting, water running.   She heard Garth and Jonathan sanding wood in the workroom and playing soft rock on the old stereo.   She heard the sounds of Melanie’s painkillers, the plastic caps opening and closing.   She closed her eyes and listened until she heard the groaning of the stairs.

 

                "Hi," she said.   She got up.   But it wasn’t Jonathan.   The sounds of the sandpaper and hammer were still going on downstairs.   It was Melanie, in her blue terrycloth robe worn down to its hide.

 

                "I didn't think you'd be sleeping," she said.   She sat at the end of the bed.

 

                "The soup was good," Caroline said.   "I’m sorry."  Melanie leaned over and embraced Caroline.   The robe was soft and smelled of powder.   Melanie was not strong, so Caroline didn't expect the tight grip like a band stretching around her.   The kind of grasp one person would use to stop another from drowning.

 

                "Jonathan’s not mine, so maybe it’s not my place," Melanie said.   "But I hope you can work it out."

 

                "He is yours," Caroline said.   The lines by Melanie's mouth deepened.

 

                "Well," she said.

 

                "If you knew who I’ve been, you might not want it to work out," Caroline said.

 

                "When you’re young it’s possible to be a lot of things," Melanie said.

 

                "I’ve narrowed my options," Caroline said.

 

                "Doesn’t matter," Melanie said.   "As long as you don’t go skiing off any more cliffs."  Melanie put her arm on Caroline’s shoulder, and rose.   Caroline could see how pain weaves in between bones and knits them together into a hunch.   Melanie was probably never tall, but now she was tiny.

 

                "I don’t know why, but he loves you," Melanie said.   "Try to deserve it, and I’ll forgive you of anything else."  She put the back of her hand against Caroline’s cheek.   Caroline let her head fall, resting on Melanie’s cold fingertips.   She closed her eyes.


                "Do you know where I’m from yet?" Caroline said.

 

                "No, but I think I’ve almost got it," Melanie said.

 

                Caroline heard Garth come up the stairs in his socks and go into the bathroom to clean up.   She went downstairs.   The lights were off.   The sink let a drip go.   A car drove up the street fast, blasting music.   She saw Jonathan's silhouette on the stoop.  He leaned back on his elbows and she pulled a coat off the rack.

 

                "It would be some jail time," Caroline said, sitting beside him.   "Probably probation, community service."

 

                "You don’t know that they’re even looking," Jonathan said.

 

                "They will," she said.   A group of people walked down the street towards the bar on the corner.   The women wore shoes so tall they had to strut.

 

                "It’s Saturday night," Jonathan said.   Caroline had not thought of time in weeks and weekends since before the hospital, when Sunday had been the day when no one from the collection agencies called her.   And now, she knew, it would only be a matter of time until the hospital began to search for her.   The insurance information she had produced, her birth-date, and in fact her very name, were false.   They would find her.   Tonight she could hear the buzz of the highway that went past the harbor, the rumble of trucks somewhere.

 

                "Here’s what I need to know," Jonathan said.   "In the hospital, in the beginning, you said you couldn’t remember anything."

 

                "What do you need to know?" Caroline said.   The question pressed their knees to opposite sides of the stoop.


                "Your arm broke the fall," he said.   "Not your head."

 

                "Yes," she said.   She started to feel the cold in the pins that held her arm together.   A man walked by, smoking, and he coughed out the air caught in his lungs.   Jonathan hunkered down over his lap.   He shut his eyelashes and shadows dripped down his cheeks.

 

                Caroline went up to bed and pulled the flannel sheet over her head and spun her feet, watching the static crackle.   She took in the cold air and the house, the city outside and the way she knew that Jonathan was standing on the stoop, stretching his arms, and coming in.

 

                He came to the bedroom and knelt by the bed, standing on his knees and resting on his elbows.

 

                "You took your skis, you went out in the snow, you found the steepest hill," he said.

 

                "Yes," she said.   "Stolen skis."

 

                "You found the hill with the boulders on it," he said.

 

                "Yes," she said.   The street light outside must have blown completely because the room was now pitch dark.

 

                "And you meant to die," Jonathan said.   

 

                "I wanted to disappear," she said.   "I didn’t care how."

 

                "But," he said.   He put his palm on the arm that had broken, the one that had been so bandaged.   "But you had a plan for what happened if you didn’t die."

 

                "I always have a plan," Caroline said.


                "Why did you lie about not remembering?" Jonathan said.   "Why did you lie to me?"

 

                "If I lost my memory, I would become someone else’s problem," she said.

 

                "Yes," he said.

 

                "I just didn’t know it would be yours," she said.   The wood in the floor below them creaked, and they heard the sound of Melanie groaning pain in bed and Garth cracking the head of a pill bottle.

 

                "You are," Jonathan said.   "But you are, now."  He took off his pants and stripped down his thick socks that held the heat and smell of the wood he was sanding.   He unbuttoned and pulled off his shirt and undershirt, dropping everything to the floor.  His underwear gone, he slid under the covers.   He moved his legs so they locked hers inside.   He put his good arm under her bad one.   His head, he tucked beneath the sheet.