The Sock Drawer
He sat at the table, futzing with the paper. Sleep still nuzzled in the corners of his eyes. It was the time of morning when the kitchen looked infested with dust. She wore his old gym socks. The oven clock said 3:47. It wasn't right, hadn't been for some time. Sometimes she'd take a running start and skate across the kitchen tiles in his old socks. He scratched his head, first absently, then with some vigor. A dog across the street stood outside his door and barked once, a lazy bark. A bark and a yawn she heard through the open kitchen window. Her husband stared at his nails and she tried to guess what he was thinking.
The man on the radio said something about Azerbaijan. She slid past the sink to flip the toast and landed in a puddle.
“We can’t even,” he looked at her with a serious face.
She considered changing socks to a dry pair, decided against it.
“...damn bananas?” his voice trailed and his head shook.
She listened to the drip of the coffee maker. Plop. Plop. It was almost done; she could count the drops. The buds on the neighbor's tree were each in a closed fist. Mr. Coffee. The name kind of bounced around inside her. The sun was warm and pleasant. She let her jaw go slack for just a moment.
“Forget it,” he said.
“Huh? Sorry, what?”
The branches rattled from the wind or the rangy squirrels or both. She rubbed her toes together. She liked when her toes tingled – that was one of the reasons she'd smoked for so long.
“Oh. Nothing,” he said, defensive.
The man on the radio kept saying it over and over. Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan. He seemed proud of himself for the elocution. An unlit cigarette looked like it was going to fall out of his mouth any second. Ah-zer-by-jahn. She couldn't catch anything else. Why was this radio man chanting this foreign word? Her husband wasn't reading the paper, she could tell. How do you change the time on the oven clock?
“No, come on.”
“Nothing. It was nothing.”
After all these years he still couldn't quite fold the paper right. Crinkly. Crinkly. She liked the sound of certain words. Serendipity is a favorite. He used to say it again and again: Serendipity – you and me – serendipity – you and me, and she couldn't help but smile.
“You always do that,” she said.
The sun was just inching above the house across the street, its white light spilling over it like a halo. The air between them was poison. She took off the socks, left then right, and flung them down the hamper chute. One of the few joys. Some bug or piece of dust moved through the channels between the tiles below her feet. She decided to let it pass.
“Forget it. Okay? Is that so hard?”
“I hate when you do that. I wasn't listening, okay, sorry, but why don't you just —” Her tone was more caustic than she'd meant. It wasn't her saying the words; she was watching them come out and sort of wincing at herself but unable to stop them. I love you. This is what she wanted to tell him. Let's stop all this and I love you. But no. That wasn't it at all. Look at him. Those were the least truthful words in this universe. “Why don't you just make your big announcement now instead of us doing this whole thing where I beg and beg and you just love your ego stroked, don't you.”
“Do what? It was nothing. Relax.”
She brought him his damned coffee and scanned his damned paper. Sprawled out like some ancient atlas. Azerbaijan. The flakes in the milk like petals in a swamp. She was not hungry – when was the last time she had been hungry? She trailed her finger through the bowl of cereal, wondering if he was watching her. Something smelled. Something on the edges of her senses, trying to poke its way in, but unable to articulate itself.
Azerbaijan. There it was again. She whispered it: Azerbaijan. It really rolls off the tongue if you learn to say it right. If you don't bite down on the 'bai' too hard. Right on the page fanned out in front of her: Six killed in sectarian riot in Azerbaijan. This startled her briefly. What are the chances ... but, no: this was not such a coincidence. And this depressed her, not quite because of the dead. Something else dropping in her stomach. She tried to give it words. Nothing. Just something about the angle of the sun or the air between them or the way he slouched or how he held his mug real tight but still hadn't taken one sip or that disdain in the bottom of his eyes or maybe just sitting there with this man, trying to remember the last time he'd said a word like serendipity to make her smile and just feeling the strain of both of them hating each other so, how love gone stale can lead to the worst kind of hate because they are really just opposite ends of the same blade, aren't they? hatred and love, and she felt the razor edge of each passing moment. Three fifty-three. How the hell do you change the time on an oven clock?
The radio had moved on to weather, a woman now asserting something about currents moving west to east. He turned the page. That damned smell again. More immediate now. The sun was filling the sky, forcing the day upon them. It was the toast. Burnt. He looked at his phone and groaned. He told her that the toast was burning, and then there was a long silence.
“Green one day. Fucking brown the next.”
“The bananas. That's what I was going to say.” And with that, he got up and left the room.
The day she planned on killing herself was the day she opened her sock drawer and found herself sitting in it. The day was the day was the day, and she was ready, she was ready, and then this. She wasn't as surprised as she might have been — her brain hadn't been the most reliable narrator for some time. She rubbed her eyes and waited for the fuzz to clear. The sparrow outside the open window made a horrible sound. Something stuck in its throat — a shrill, phlegmy battle cry. She turned towards it. So graceful in its descent, though. A flying contradiction. Seeming to her to land like a fallen leaf on her lawn, but once there its movements were of another creature. Flitting and spastic. She opened the drawer. There she was, still: the size of a cell phone with a stupid smile on her face no bigger than a belly button.
She shut the drawer with a start, went to the bathroom and splashed some cold water on her face. The mirror offered no clues or solace. She did not know who or what she was looking at, or who was doing the looking. She picked a loose hair from her chin, a short blonde hair, not her hair, but whose? The tiles were cold and she liked to angle her feet in and slide her pinky toes in the grooves. Floss unspooled on the counter – she really should floss, her teeth always felt like cotton candy until she did. His joke (he was always telling jokes, most bad, and these were the ones she'd found the funniest): What do you call the person who finishes at the absolute bottom of their class in medical school? A doctor. She hadn't understood it at first, and this initial confusion is what she remembered then while analyzing her toes – pink and chubby and almost see-through against the smooth tile. She went back and re-opened the drawer: there she was, still. Miniature and exact, sitting on top of one of his old gym socks and waving as if at an old friend spotted at the opposite end of a bar.
She shut the drawer and swallowed. This time there was the faintest of pounding from inside, like drizzle on a car windshield. She took a breath. Air up the nostrils and the mind becoming a chalkboard and what else did the charge-by-the-hour yogi say ... but she felt him in the doorway, still. His presence around the house wasn't so much an apparition or memory; it was the loose fuse connecting her to the linear world. She was thinking, what? She wanted to show him; she knew he'd never believe her though, stubborn as he was, but yet, she found herself glancing at the doorway, just in case. The way you can feel someone's presence in a room before they make a peep. But he was not there, of course he was not there, idiot, but this tiny replica of her was.
She often caught herself talking to herself. Talking to him. “Why don't you get it yourself then!” she'd say, catching herself halfway into an argument. And she'd take turns indulging and hating herself. What was happening to her? She returned to the drawer, opened it, found her standing now precariously on the same clump of socks, holding her hand into a tiny fist.
The phone call hit her like an electrocution. But it was just her sister. She tried to press the ignore button but answered instead. Fuck.
“What? Hello? Is everything all right?”
She watched her scale the mountain of socks and climb onto the top of the dresser. They stared at each other. She even moved pigeon-toed, the little thing. Next to the framed photo of their time at the Grand Canyon, she stared at her not like someone seeing someone for the first time. Her sister was saying something. It was a piercing look, she had. A look of harsh judgement. Her sister's voice in the telephone. Unconnected words. If you really looked at it, every inch of the bedroom wall was chipped or stained or marked or smudged. What's the word? Perforated. No, that wasn't right. The purple carpet didn't hide a thing, either. It seemed to flout her accumulated dirt. He had always made fun of her – she was afraid of vacuum cleaners the way a young pup is. Well, she would have to sweep. Bristle. Bristle. It was a word with a nice sound to it. He had always liked a clean house. Her sister was not saying words anymore, but syllables. Her shirt was uncomfortable around the neck. Not even syllables, but emitting sound, pointless sound, like the drone of the radiator below shooting dry puffs of air into her shin.
She was going to kill herself with a single gunshot to the temple. Her whole life, she realized, was preparing herself for this moment. She swayed from side to side and felt the slight bulge in each calf. Cowardice would be to not do it, whispered the tyrant in her head.
The sun poured over the room and she saw herself pacing the dresser. Pensive. She was not alone. There was definitely another presence in the room. Is this not what religion is? A lurking presence on the seams of our senses, a hollow in our stomachs. Every once in a while she had to countenance her own insanity – its parameters. The little person scuttling along the dresser and scaring her the way a spotted spider does; she watched and waited for her to disappear. Her shirt was itchy. Her sister was babbling.
“Marty was talking about taking the kids to see you. But you know how his boss is. He’s trying out a soul patch, too. Marty’s boss is. He goes in there to request the day off but he just ends up staring at it, the soul patch. I don’t know. If he gets off we could come next Friday to Sunday?”
A plane wormed its way across the sky, and was it possible that the second and third toe on the her right foot had gotten tangled?
Laura said, “Like a bullseye.”
You are not insane if you can stand outside of the spider web woven by your madness, if you can stand outside it and watch; but what if you are watching yourself entering it? Perhaps insanity is nothing more than the loosening of time's grip, the refusal to blink — the choice not to listen to the beat of one's heart or the senile ticking of the oven clock.
She looked down and noticed — her shirt was inside out. That's why the collar rode up so high. She tried to hold the phone while righting her blouse.
How can he be dead if she feels him so? And yet — but a moment only becomes a memory if we let go of it, if we open our fists to the inevitable. She was saying these things out loud, not into the phone but out loud, and her tiny self was standing in a bowl of her rings and she scrunched her face into a raisin and was either listening very intently or lost in a world that was her own. She had not taken her medication in some time — this was a fact. The pills had made her feel the way you feel in the first moments after waking up from a horrible dream — everything too vivid and lacking the context of sentiment. Last night's glass of water sweat on her bedside table. A crescent moon by the time she lifted and wiped. Why do we pour cement on the present in order to make statues of the past?
Expectant. Aha! That was exactly how the puny face looked at her from the dresser, as if she was waiting for her to do, what?
Something her sister said caught her, wafted her slowly back. “Hello? Well have you? What did the doctor say? Not supposed to on an empty stomach, but you know that, I know you know what he said, I'm sorry, I don't mean to — well — but I am worried. People need people.”
She leaned to touch her. A quivering pinky against her tiny shoulder. Real as rain. This sent a shudder through her. She wasn't sure how this made her feel. Tingly, sure, but what else? She stared up at her from the dresser, getting poked, like, What did you expect — Tinkerbell?
“Jeez Laura, it's been what — how many years now, three? Three years.”
She puffed her chest out, and in a tiny voice that was both of theirs she said, “Six killed in sectarian riot in Azerbaijan.”
And a feeling that was him, all him, slid down her spine like a fireman down his pole. Ah-zer-by-jahn. She had definitely heard her say this, and the little version of herself looked up from the dresser waiting for a response.
“Why do I feel like I'm not even — allowed — to talk about him. Hello? I feel like I'm wasting my — I'm your sister for Christ’s sake.”
“Yes,” she said, for no reason she could think of. He was inside her, yes, and everything outside seemed static, her view out the window was nothing more than a photo of her view. And she had cleaning to do. She just remembered. He liked a clean house.
What is the ascent of a brilliant sun but deja vu?
“Yes — yes? Yes, what? Would you like me to come over? Are you all right, really? Have you even been taking your — Doctor Kant warned, remember?”
Yes, she would have to scrub. Bleach and steel wool and that lemon Pledge that reminded her somehow of museum toilets but that he liked so much. What was that sound? The radiator, yes. The cawing sparrow, yes. The harmonizing buzz of some tribe of insect, sure. But what else? Something in the seams of the morning wind, trying to tell her something.
“Remember he said traction and losing grip and drifting and seeing …. Look, I know you loved him, Laur, but come on. You're still young, too young ….”
She would sweep too, if she had time. If she had time. Where did the time go? The sun was rising and swallowing up all of her time inside it. She saw herself on the dresser. This tiny person swayed in and out of her consciousness, took turns blending into the things and then not. A loose coin one second, an unavoidable ripple in the atmosphere the next. She was scared. She called out his name. Frantically.
“Sam! Sam! Please, I have to show you something. Now!”
No response. But that noise was still buzzing in her ear. Her sister. Her sister!
“Liz! How are you Liz?”
“Laura, what’s going on over there?”
“How are you, Liz? It's so nice to hear your voice.”
“Are you okay? I’m coming over, okay?”
“Liz, wait. Did I ever tell you — do you know what you call a doctor who finishes in the bottom — no, no, I'm sorry I mean, what do you call a medical student who finishes at the bottom of her class … ?” The phone buzzed in her right hand and a lightning bolt flashed on the screen. LOW BATTERY. She saw herself running up and down the dresser, smiling, smiling, a tornado of dust in her wake.
“I don't know.”
“A doctor. A doctor.” She was laughing, cackling even, but her sister wasn't. It is uncomfortable to laugh on the phone when silence is coming through the speaker. She kept laughing anyway. The sky — the thin clouds genuflecting in front of the white sun, it was hot, and the blue, the blue, the endless world of blue — it was trying to communicate something to her through her bedroom window, some hidden, horrible truth. And the closet was a mess, luggage on top of board games on top of the shell of a bicycle — a failed game of tetris. “A doctor, Liz. You get it. It's because — ”
“Why don’t I come over there today and we'll — ”
“And don't you worry about me. It's a beautiful sun here. It’s the kind of day you want to give yourself over to. I'll call you later, Liz, I'll make some time — we'll chat. But I must run. Run. Run. Run. Things to do. Bye bye. Love.”
She trailed her finger against the phone's screen and laid it on her bed. She picked herself up off the dresser and held herself in her palm. Deranged — it ran up and down her forearm. Deranged and ticklish, like a shiver. Eyes tiny and implacable as a bird's, but seeming to roll backwards into themselves.
The morning unfolded as a concession to compulsion. Raw was how she wanted the house. She wanted the sink floor to bleed white. She carried herself gently from room to room, their smiles shining in the sun like two ends of a telescope.
They were having a conversation. It was lovely.
“Don’t forget about the windows,” she shouted up at her from the kitchen table.
“How could I forget? He wasn’t happy until birds went flying right into the kitchen window here.”
“And the bathroom sink!”
“For all his yapping he never could manage to get all his hairs out of the sink when he shaved.”
“You called the man who snaked drains, remember?”
“The flyer on the telephone pole. I snake drains.”
“He looked like a chick fresh out the egg when he shaved, though.”
“He was nothing if not handsome.”
The lace curtains billowed in the wind, and what a beautiful morning it was shaping out to be. She should floss. Yes. No more putting it off. Maybe in another minute. The thing of it was that she knew it was not just her she was talking to, there was an audience, a tautness to the air which was his mark. She could feel him, yes, but she wanted to see him, touch him; she couldn’t wait any longer to find him, wherever he was.
She stood under the shade of a mug and said, “What did the slug say to the snail? Where'd you learn to run like that?”
She had his voice to a science, this little one did, down to the uneven delivery: she delivered the lines like a poorly dubbed movie.
And how they laughed! She hadn't laughed like this since … well, thinking back like this did her no good, now did it?
What is more real than a feeling? What are we but skin around a surging tangle of feelings? But how real could it be if she was the one asking these questions — when the angle of the sun shifted just so and she was given the slightest glimpse of a lonely woman, on her hands and knees, talking to the refrigerator door. But then there is also the pinprick of a dimple on her left cheek to consider, as she talked and helped with her part, shimmying away the grime just underneath the refrigerator.
A bird flew into the room. Orange and blue and beautiful. A stoic figure on the back of the wooden chair. They all stared at each other, nobody quite sure who had the right of way. A ruffle of its feathers every now and again was the only evidence of the bird’s confusion, that this was not perhaps where she belonged. And then she was gone, a silent ascent into the whiskers of the sizzling sun.
“Did you see that?” they both said, and if she did not feel a sneaking sadness she might have said, “Jinx.”
Nevertheless, the weight of time and polished steel was heavier than she'd expected, and the smile had vanished on the tiny woman's face as they sat together on the well-made bed in the well-cleaned house. The heaviness of the gun was not an obstacle, she assured herself, but a factor, sure. The room glowed, almost.
The little person’s voice was impatient. She said, “Kill yourself.”
He was dead. Underneath it all she understood this. He was dead, had been for 1136 days, and was never coming back; she knew this and it tightened her insides, twisted into her stomach like a screw.
They had all waited for her to get over it, to cope, and she had waited too. She was tired and lonely and scared to the point of convulsion, and she shook herself in her left hand like a lucky die, and she felt him like a child feels a spirit in the closet, like the harrowing presence of a nighttime breeze creeping through an empty house; she could feel him, but she could not touch him.
Serendipity — you and me — serendipity — you and me.
The gun was in her hand, wobbling. The figure next to her was staring at her now with such grim seriousness. She thought of her sister and her parents and tried to feel something about them, but she just couldn’t. She wanted to simply look at the wafting tree in her neighbor's yard and to find him and touch him and tell him that she was sorry, that she was so sorry and she loved him still.
The figure said to her, “Time’s up.”
And was it possible this tiny person was beginning to grow next to her, her shadow spreading across the quilt?
She was thinking about him, at him. You had no right to die and leave me like this. She looked out the window and her heart thumped and her toes twinkled and her teeth clattered and everything jittered in a terrible, non-stop rapid way that her deep breaths in through the nose couldn't do a thing to quell.
And as she steadied her shaky hand and worked up first the nerve and then the strength to pull the cold trigger, her last image was the figure beneath her swelling bigger and bigger, as if her own final rushed breaths were inflating this tiny person until she was not so tiny at all, until she was off the bed and then standing next to her, at her shin then her waist and then they were eye to eye, and, yes, there were two of them, she experienced this as fact as the bullet pierced her skin, eleven feet of them in this room, and tell me this: if this were not really happening then why was her view of the sun blocked so? and why were there two tremoring shadows edging into one another, why was she standing face to face with herself, the look on her face, like, You sicken me, how else to explain the body heat of being watched as her mind released an unfathomable spasm of thoughts, a torrent of him and her and shit, did she forget to straighten out the linen closet and the jungle of hair on his knuckles and the way he held his spoon like a caveman and the time she’d bought him shoes a size too big and he’d horse-klopped around the house for a week and made neighing noises, and what to say about the presence this life-size version of herself standing just outside the torrent, a voyeuristic glitch in the reanimation of her life past? If this were not happening then what to make of this body standing there and watching her go, almost shooing her on, as she said goodbye to this world and saw him waiting at the edge of the white light in the next, shaved and dapper and a knowing smile on his face?
//Mark Jay is a co-founder of The Periphery.