Toti O’Brien was born in Rome, and lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Indiana Voice, Surreal Poetics, LitBreak, and Door Is A Jar, among other journals and anthologies. More about her can be found at totihan.net/writer.html
I’ve made my bed in the workshop, right under the window. The glass panes are coated with a crust of dirt—almost natural, like a moss. Light seeps in softly. Muffled, remote, rarefied.
The bed was already in. I only had to push it—feet occasionally stuck between crooked tiles. The iron frame is in good shape, reddened here and there by a touch of rust, like a kiss. The mattress is horsehair-filled—I had forgotten those—crunchy and squeaky. You’d think you were in a nunnery, or in jail. It takes a little while to get used to, then of course it starts feeling like feathers. You can take anything with a little drilling. One, two, three—like magic. One, two, three, and even hell becomes heaven.
I dive into this bed of thorns, since night three, like a baby bird in its nest. It has a rustic feel . . . and quite pleasant.
How should I call this place? Pavilion? Garage . . . It’s a workshop, I said. A large table, off center, occupies most of it. An electric cord hangs above it, socket at its end. No light bulb—I’ll have to find one. Easy, though . . . it is still summer. At this latitude the sun sets by ten, eleven o’ clock. I can call it a day by then, negotiating my rough, prickly couch—an old curtain for a blanket. Before winter (it sounds weirdly remote), I . . .
I have spread my backpack across metal chairs, very close to the bed. I need to keep gathered, collected, my belongings compact—an island in this empty space.
It is very crowded, in fact, although surreptitiously. The shelved walls are an arsenal of undecipherable entities: piles of randomness, abandoned stuff. A hitch runs through my fingers, through my brain—unavoidably I’ll start sorting those relics, see what is what, get them organized as if this were home. God! When will I tire of starting anew?
But the table is clear. Nothing on it. A smooth dusty surface. I am inclined to leave it as is—like a barren field, an off-ramp ready for landing.
A sink is in a corner—rust, like lipstick, etched around its hole. I am glad, since my bottled water is gone. Behind a shade there’s a minuscule toilet. It works. I wouldn’t mind going outside but, especially at night, I prefer not to.
I love nights. I always did, and now more and more. In this dimness, here, this permanent twilight, I will try smudging days into nights—one long unbroken suspension. And I might succeed.
I dig out from my pack a can and some crackers. Breakfast, dinner, lunch—meals do not differ. Spoon in hand I go sit on the front steps and I watch the landscape—hills and vales, the peaceful countryside. I know cottages are in walking distance, a few. None of them is visible—hidden by a mound, a thicket, a turn of the road. Not too far there are a few cottages, I know, but I hear no noise. I feel safe.
I have found the phone on one of the shelves, on day two. Do you remember those? Horrendously old . . . Do you still remember home phones? They were huge. They sat on dedicated small tables. Kind of rounded, in the beginning, kind of bulging and bulky. Very old phones had curves, like the actresses of the same era. Remember those? Funny—old phones looked human. The main body an astonished face, the receiver a wig, a hat, a pair of headphones.
This one is of an indefinable grey. Once it must have been white, or beige. To me it is a teddy bear . . . I have put it next to the bed, on a stool where I toss things before sleeping: ring, hair tie, stuff out of my pockets (my knife, lighter, and keys). I ran out of cigarettes, but I am not going ballistic. I don’t miss them—believe me—more than I miss the rest. But I’ll keep the lighter.
I’ll get rid of the keys, throw them into the river (there’s a creek not too far, I recall. Only, it isn’t in view and I can’t hear it). Momentarily I’m leaving them on the stool, where the telephone stands like an icon . . . a candle, a framed portrait. A cross.
Yesterday when I woke up it was on my chest. It of course tumbled on the side as soon as I stretched. I have no idea how it landed there. I must have grabbed it. Asleep? I have never been somnambular before.
Later in the day, the dream came to mind. They have such a way to reemerge . . . like someone whispering in your hear. I recalled: I was on the phone, talking to my uncle. I had called him, or did he call? I was happy . . . I liked uncle a lot.
He died young. How was never clear. He went out, one night, to get the fresh air. For—he said—it was a beautiful night. He was right: breeze blew from the sea, bringing saltiness to the nostrils, to the skin. I know the feeling. A sea wind gives you a natural high, of the soft kind, yet pervasive and strangely intense. The breeze had swept the clouds far away. The sky was so pure it looked bottomless—its vault electrified by myriads of stars.
Uncle stopped at the ice-cream parlor. They close at midnight. He sure was the last customer: not unusual. They knew he’d get a small cup of almond sherbet, or jasmine. He surprised them—they later told the police—when he asked for rose and mulberry instead, without whipped cream. When they found him at dawn—car parked on the Vista, doors unlocked—a dark crimson stain edged his lips. The front seat was reclined. Uncle looked relaxed and peaceful—reports said.
The car wasn’t rescued for a month or so. Parked there, in front of the straight, it enjoyed the sumptuous sight, I believe. It (the car) couldn’t get enough of that openness, that mighty blue wildness—the two seas, the other coast, the twin town mirroring from across the water. And the vanishing shadows, behind.
Every morning the windshield was scattered with petals—said the passersby. Why did they recount such a trivia—mulled the clerk, typing it for the twelfth time. Who possibly cared if angels flew by, sprinkling the abandoned vehicle? Was it true? Just a local legend? I don’t know. I didn’t live there any more. I heard it said.
Roses—dead ones, pulled apart—were scattered on the windshield, night after night. In the day, breeze from the sea blew the petals away.
In my dream I called uncle on the phone (the cord, by the way, has been cut two feet long with a neat, sharp clip. Seems like all sort of wires in this residence have been made superfluous . . . just relics or so).
His voice! Happy and crystalline. What were we talking about? I remember a word out of nowhere, also severed, useless, unattached. “I can’t . . .” Nothing sad about it—uncle was as cheerful as always. “I can’t”. What?
I am remembering this while I’m busy in front of the shelves, salvaging an impressive number of tools (I have been at this all day). They are in good shape, though some of them obsolete, some of quite obscure function. Not a problem. I have been cleaning them with a rag, accurately sorting them.
The collection is huge. I have skipped lunch and postponed dinner (for the best . . . my reserve of cans will not last forever). Before sunset my project must be completed. I am hanging this all—with some metal hooks I have dug out—on a rack, next to the front door.
From my bed, I can see them. Moonbeams seep through minuscule cracks in the door—I spot glints of silver. Blades are shining—perhaps the huge teeth of a number of saws I lined up, on the right . . . yes, toward the door. Wood saws. For log cutting? I guess. A fire . . . cozy, heartwarming, in winter. Though there’s no fireplace in this hangar. Pavilion. And winter is far.
So is the sea. The straight. The smell of jasmine and roses.
I am dreaming again. I was. I have suddenly awoken. Not entirely. I am half-dreaming—please, let me resume. I got uncle on the phone—pray, don’t bother me. I have long waited for this chance . . . now it is fucked! No matter how hard I try, consciousness has taken hold of me. When it sneaks in, you can’t kick it out.
My eyes, glued by sleep, slowly focus. I am sitting in bed, phone against my chest, tip of its broken cord in my hand. My grip is so strong, my palms—red and sweaty—almost hurt. I don’t let go. I close my eyelids and savor echoes of our conversation. “I can’t . . .—he said—help . . .” That’s it! I can’t help! But it wasn’t all.
It is gone now. The dream has dissolved. I sit still, while a sense of emptiness invades me. As if . . . All is suddenly crumbling on me. Right now.
Then I hear him breathe. Him? I don’t know. I hear it. Breathe. Pant. An animal? Huge.
It is not an animal, I’m sure. Right outside the door, upon which my eyes are riveted. My blood freezes. A great weakness lowers into my limbs. I hold my chest, careful of not making a sound—while out there I hear labored inhaling, exhaling. Almost hissing.
My hands cramp on the device I’m crazily clinging to. I should put it down, grab the knife instead—right here, on the stool. Will it be . . . better than nothing, I guess.
I can’t anyway . . . leave the phone, ease my deadly grip. My eyes are magnetized by the door, until something makes them shift to my proud range of hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, and saws. They are glistening. My gaze swings like a pendulum. From the dark wood, thinly parting inside (me) from outside (him, it), to the ominous smile of the blades I have hung in the perfect place. Why did I? I am dead scared.
Is this a neighbor? Mad? Just curious? How intentioned? How did he find me (so fast)? Is the pavilion visible from one of the cottages? From them all? Do they all know? Have I been imprudent?
Do I care if—didn’t I come here for—why should it matter how . . .
I don’t want to be attacked. Don’t want to be hurt. To be slaughtered—no. I don’t want to see blood…
Suddenly, I don’t know what inhabits me. I just can’t stop myself. My finger—ostentatiously stumbling, pushing hard to make the mechanics rattle and click, louder, louder—digits the number. I am letting it ring. Once, twice, thrice—here we go! Then I start, my voice boisterous, each word an explosion, each phrase a St. Elmo’s fire.
“Do you hear me?” “ It’s me!” “ I know it’s late . . .” “What?” “Speak out!”
After all he is very far, is he?
“Yes! I’m good. Just miss you. What did you say?”
I am talking to my uncle, and I am feeling better. Strength is getting back to my limbs, my blood has resumed its course. I keep yelling, deaf to all but the sound of my own voice. He is answering, of course—I say to myself. I have to believe it, understand? I have to fake it with truthfulness, see what I mean? I have to fool myself in order to make it credible. Anyway, it gives me courage.
He is answering—cheerful as always. His voice, though, is kind of indistinct. Kind of brittle. Fragile like shattered glass. Cheerful, still. I can’t hear what he says, exactly. Wait . . . “I can’t . . .” Help? Help it? Is it what I heard? Uncle dear . . . what is you can’t help?
This becomes extremely important. What is he can’t help? I need to know. Suddenly my eyes fill with tears, and my voice chokes. Silence.
Silence outside. I don’t hear the ominous noise any more. True? I don’t move. I’m still holding my breath. All is quiet. The shine on the tool rack has dimmed out—the moon must be setting. I am still afraid, but too exhausted for thinking. Should I get up, push some furniture against the front door? Sure. But I am too weary for action.
I put down the phone, grab my knife, squeeze it into my fist till I fall asleep.
It must be late. Not only I have slept: I have overslept. I feel confused still.
First, I look at yesterday’s job—the tool rack—with a kind of reverence. Painfully, memories of last night’s panic emerge. I make it to the front door, push it open, look at the wide expanse of nothingness. Did it happen?
My bare feet feel mushiness where stone steps should be. I am treading on a carpet of petals . . . a variety of red—scarlet, crimson, pink, rust.
I almost smile. “I can’t help you”—he wanted to say. “I can’t help you, love. Sorry.”
I know. It doesn’t matter.