“Little Men with Knives” by L.S. Johnson
In the darkness, I listen to the couple next door. Paul and Theresa. She sobs and sobs and he bellows, so loudly I have the urge to get up and check my own house, to make sure he hasn’t invaded with his liquor and his fists. He calls her terrible names and then there’s a crash, something large and alive hitting a wall. A moment later a dog starts barking.
Beneath the staccato barks someone is weeping. I would say Theresa but perhaps it’s Paul, who’s to say he doesn’t cry afterwards? Her face is distended by bruises sometimes; they make no secret of his violence. Margie across the street used to call the cops and got her car pummeled with a bat for her efforts. Nearly a thousand dollars worth of damage. Now everyone just turns away; not a one of us can risk Paul’s anger.
We turn away, but I sneak a glance at Theresa now and again. She’s a lovely woman, younger than I am, but there’s a look on her face that’s familiar: it’s the same look that I see in my own mirror. The look of someone trapped.
Silently I plead with the dog to shut up, for Paul to pass out, Theresa to get a hold of herself. I need to sleep, I must sleep. I can’t afford another write-up in my file, I can’t afford to be hopeless. That’s what Bill says when I’m late, when I spill food, when I curse in front of the kids. My pay docked each time.
Hopeless, Michael said on the phone, that last conversation. Hopeless, meaning us.
I read in a magazine that if you imagine something, really see it in every detail, you can make it happen. Actualizing, they called it. Each night I lie here, rigid and bleary-eyed, and imagine the next day. I imagine myself sleeping long and deep and then getting up promptly, showering and drying my hair and pinning it neatly for once. I imagine myself putting on a clean uniform. I drink a cup of instant coffee while I chop up the hotdogs for the dwarves and toss them with some leftover fried rice. Put on my orthopedic shoes and my coat, and go out the back door, leaving the platter of food on the porch. The neighbors think it’s for strays, they think me the mad cat lady of the neighborhood. But in truth what began as an occasional act of kindness has become a necessity: skip a meal and the little bastards will cut up my uniform again.
I come home smelling of industrial lasagna and children, tacky with sweat from the polyester double-knit. The platter is washed clean and standing upright in the dish drainer; the floors are swept, the windows washed. My kitchen chairs have been dragged all over the place. Afterwards they helped themselves to some half-pints of milk I keep on the bottom shelf of the fridge, and I add dwarf milk to my shopping list.
In a corner of the kitchen window someone drew a penis using the soap, which I patiently wash away. I always imagine a younger one, bored with his chores, sneaking in a little bit of petty revenge. I’ve found genitals scratched in the patches of bare dirt in the yard, a swollen-looking woman that I assume is me, a muddy Fuk fuk fuk once on the siding. Each time I just wipe it away. It’s a small price to pay for a clean house.
Under the sink, next to the trash, is the bloody carcass of some animal – a rat? a chipmunk? – skinned and in several bony pieces, all its meat neatly pared away.
It’s still warm.
I make Hamburger Helper and Vienna sausages for their supper and put it on the porch; I’m so tired I just take a scoop for myself. They love anything processed. They especially like Fridays at the cafeteria, when it’s Sloppy Joes. It’s hard to tell what they think about anything just by looking at them; their faces are hidden by thick, knotted beards and woolen caps pulled low. But they make a cooing noise over the Sloppy Joes that they never make at any other time.
I eat my dinner standing up, watching them through the kitchen window. As soon as I shut the back door the ivy covering the back fence starts rustling. They emerge one by one through the hole in the chain link, tramping up to the porch single-file. About a dozen this time; I would say it’s the same ones but I can’t really tell them apart. I call them dwarves, like in Snow White, but they’re more like those dwarves’ skid row cousins: besides the caps they mostly wear old baby things, grey with dirt. Their coveralls and rompers are bedecked with rainbows and toot-toot trains, cheeky monkeys and happy daisies, all as grimy as a mechanic’s uniform. Around their waists they each wear a leather belt with a sheath, and in each sheath is a knife with a long, curving blade.
No matter how filthy they are, their knives are always spotless.
Once they’re settled about the platter, crossing their legs and chatting in their strange, chirping language, they each draw out their knives and stab at the mound of food, spearing sausages and pasta gleaming with red sauce, shoving the wet blades into their mouths.
As always when I watch them, I try to think how to prove, once and for all, that they’re just figments of my imagination. I never believed in Santa Claus, I hated Disney movies: it seemed cruel to be taunted with these kind fairies and handsome princes that could never exist. Why, then, would I imagine this? Have I become so sleep-deprived I’ve gone off my rocker? Am I drinking heavily and blacking it all out? Hallucinogens in the school food? What about when I was on the pill, did it have some secret ingredient to drive poor women crazy? And so on and so on, until I’m not sure that anything in the world is what it seems, least of all myself.
There is no such thing as dwarves, or dirty little men about two feet high who do housework for franks and beans.
And yet there is my clean house, my supermarket bill, the snapped links in the fence. The carcass in my trash. The metallic whispering of their sharp, bright knives.
Today I’m salad; Ethel, who is too old for this but has no savings, is drinks. Every day we get a different station in the cafeteria and no more than an hour and a half to clean and prep everything. Lunch lasts for two and a half hours, the classes are staggered; then there’s two hours for cleanup. Al, who’s been here the longest, says that there used to be more time at both ends, and we would work special events too, but budget cuts scaled everything back. Now the special events are catered by a company from the city, and we get just enough hours to get by, just enough benefits to keep us hanging on.
Of all the stations, drinks and pot-washing are the hardest. Ethel can’t work pots because of some medical waiver about the detergents, but she gets drinks a lot. I think Bill’s trying to get rid of her. Drinks have so much prep: heavy powders and syrups to carry and maneuver, machines so high you need the stepladder to set them up, the ice maker to clean out, hundreds of cups to stack. I do what I can to help, and Al does her cups, but we’re nearly open when she realizes she’s out of Coke syrup.
And then the kids pour in.
It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. Every day the kids guzzle soda, especially Coke; they swarm around the machine now, beating the nozzle with their cups and kicking the cabinets beneath. When Ethel tries to shoo them away they yell in her face and hit her with their empty cups, like she’s just another machine.
Everyone looks to the manager’s office, but Bill just shakes his head and shuts his door. I finally manage to get a monitor’s attention, and she rolls her eyes and drags herself over to intervene. Ethel looks stricken, and again I feel that twinge of recognition at her expression, a combination of anger and impotence.
Later, Bill yells at Ethel in the office, yells and yells, his voice reverberating through the heavy steel and glass door. When Ethel comes out, her face swollen from crying, everyone pretends to be busy cleaning. Like we’re all fine, like it couldn’t be any one of us next.
I follow her into the break room to try and say – what? something, anything – but she won’t even look at me.
“You could have said something,” she says through gritted teeth. “You could have backed me up, you know damn well that station has too much prep for one person.” She throws her spare uniform on the table. “Take that, for all your trouble. I won’t be needing it anymore.”
Every day, on my long walk to and from work, I pass by a church. Today the sign reads What good deed have you done today? and I think of Ethel. That will be me soon enough – too old to work and too poor to quit. All of us, trapped: myself, Ethel, Theresa and her bruises.
Had I said anything, would it have mattered? Or would we both be jobless now?
I come home to find the lawn in the backyard trimmed in jagged waves, the bushes pruned to about waist height, and the one flowering bush deadheaded. I heat up some leftover fish sticks and put them out with a stack of chopped carrots and celery. It’s getting harder to take food: Al’s wife just lost her job so he’s stealing everything he can, and Bill rounded off his day as an Utter Bastard by making us throw away the last of the cream of tomato soup.
I make myself a bologna sandwich and sit by the back door, watching the dwarves as they clamber onto the porch. It took several months to get to this point. At first they would vanish the moment I stepped outside; now as long as I keep my distance they don’t seem to mind. They even wave at me sometimes, or touch their caps.
Like stray cats. Stray cats that do housework. My craziness in a nutshell.
When Michael and I first looked at rentals out here, the agent told us that this was the “elf house.” The old lady who had lived in it used to call the police complaining about “little men.” She said they would sneak around the house at night, messing with her things, and she had tried leaving out pans of milk, did the police have any other suggestions? The agent told us this while rolling his eyes, and then he drew circles in the air by the side of his head. “Crazy old woman,” he said, and then, “She was a widow,” as if that explained it.
It was only after Michael left that they first appeared. I thought it was possums, making that much noise. When I saw them rooting through my garbage I opened my mouth to scream, only to close it again. I wasn’t afraid; in a way I had been expecting them. I was a middle-aged woman living hand to mouth in a shitty town, with no friends or relatives, sagging and fattening and graying with every passing day. There was nothing to be afraid of; I was just going mad. Crazy old woman. It was the order of things.
One of the dwarves spears half a fish stick with his knife. He bites into it with a scowl, tearing at it like it’s the haunch of an animal, and I find myself laughing. What else do I have to laugh at anymore? Not for the first time I wish I was on the other side of the door. As nasty as they are, I doubt any of them lie awake at night, hating the present, terrified of the future. I doubt they’re afraid of anything at all.
In bed I half-watch Johnny Carson and try to write a little note to Ethel, to say how sorry I am that she got fired. I am sorry, but I’m not sorry for keeping my mouth shut. The want ads in the local paper fill one column, and half is solely for mechanics and appliance techs. This town only needs people who can keep putting bandaids on it.
On the television, Ed McMahon is clearly lit: he keeps blurting out nonsensical responses and squinting at something we can’t see. Little pink elephants. I haven’t had a drink since that one night Ethel took me out, right after Michael left. Forget about him, she kept saying. They’re all bastards, it’s a shitty world and you gotta toughen up if you’re gonna survive it. It’s survival of the fittest, I’m tellin’ ya.
Her face today, when she realized what was going to happen, how it would be one write-up too many. All of us unable to control our lives, the only lives we’ll ever have.
What good deed have you done today?
Later the dog begins barking again, its yapping as relentless as a jackhammer. Why doesn’t someone stop it? I wait and wait and then storm out into my scrubby moonlit yard. At least if I can figure out who it belongs to, I can go over and complain. I go right up to the back fence, ears straining, trying to pinpoint what direction, I turn to my right–
and look directly at Theresa looking at me. Her red eyes seem huge in their dark hollows; her thick brown hair hangs loose to the middle of her back. She’s in that thin robe of hers, clutching a beer bottle. She looks like something out of a movie, beautiful despite her suffering. I open my mouth to speak, but she only bares her teeth at me, her smooth face contorting into something animalistic.
“Creepy lesbo,” she snarls, “mind your own fucking business.” She turns and stomps back into her house, her bare legs flashing beneath the hem of her robe, the soles of her feet black with dirt.
Creepy lesbo. It’s as if she reached over and slapped me. Is that what everyone thinks? My face feels hot despite the cold air. Is that what everyone thinks? I’ve always thought her pretty, but not like that. Not like that.
Did Michael spread something around, before he left for good? He once asked – but that was because I didn’t want to go down on him. I’ve just never liked it. It doesn’t mean anything.
I tell myself: she’s just hurting, who wouldn’t be with a husband like hers. I tell myself: I should have called out to her, I should have explained that I just wanted to make sure she’s OK. I should have spoken to her months ago. I’m her closest neighbor and I have listened night after night and done nothing but will her silent. Each in our little cage of chain link and shitty wages and cheap food that makes my fingernails turn yellow.
What good deed have you done today?
The dog barks again, even more violently; I hear a chain jangling far to the right. “Someone make that goddamn dog shut up,” I blurt out, my voice loud in the night. “I can’t take it anymore! Either you shut it up or so help me, one of these nights I’m going to wring its goddamn neck.”
I leave the dwarves crackers and cheese sticks as well as franks and beans. I don’t usually leave something so expensive, but I feel guilty about Ethel and Theresa, I even feel guilty about hating the dog. Someone in this world should be happy, even if it’s a dozen imaginary men who wear baby clothes and smell like dirty laundry.
On the front step of Paul and Theresa’s house is a battered suitcase and a bag of groceries. Off to her mother’s again. At least I’ll have a few nights of peace, before she comes back. Because she always comes back.
The church sign today reads, What is desirable in a person is kindness.
At school there’s a police car outside. At first I think it’s something to do with the kids, but the cop at the door waves me in with barely a glance. In the cafeteria another cop is in Bill’s office, taking notes.
“What’s going on?” I ask Al.
“Ethel,” he says.
I have a sudden vision of her in a rage-induced frenzy, driving a car into a school building or threatening to jump off the water tower, and I feel a stab of longing. To just cut loose like that, to just scream and rage. To make other people serve you for once. “What did she do?” I ask.
He looks at me like I’m an ass. “She killed herself,” he says. Then, with a shake of his head, “They said she hung herself from a rafter in her living room. I know it’s sick, but I just keep thinking, did she use a stepladder to get herself up there?”
Before I can think of something to say Bill waves me in. The cop asks me a few questions: how well did I know Ethel? Did she seem nervous or depressed? Did she have a man in her life, did she have any relatives nearby?
And I want to say so much, all at once, the words frothing up inside me. I want to tell him how hard this job was for her, that she hated children. I want to tell him that her pension got screwed up in the budget overhaul and she actually lost money. I want to tell him that I feed imaginary dwarves who leave dead animals under my sink, and my neighbor beats his spouse, and I can’t remember who I was before Michael left. That I am broke and alone and I don’t have enough years or resources to start over.
I want to tell him a noose isn’t the worst idea I’ve heard lately.
But Bill is watching me like a hawk, so I swallow back the words and choke out instead that Ethel always seemed fine, I was never close with her, and I need to get an apron as I’m serving today–?
As I tie on my apron I hear, clear as day, “Take that for your trouble.” I don’t even bother to look around. I already imagine little men with knives; it makes perfect sense that I would imagine Ethel haunting me, too.
The smell hits me as soon as I open my front door, pungent and so thick it coats the inside of my mouth. It smells like a butcher’s shop; it smells like the dead raccoon in the street last year, hot blood and something oily and burnt. The kitchen radio is on, tuned to the local pop station, and Rod Stewart’s voice blares through the empty house. With each step the smell gets worse, and yet I keep walking towards the kitchen.
Somehow the thought of calling for help is more frightening than whatever I might find.
The dog’s corpse is sprawled across the kitchen floor, oozing blood in a wide pool that reaches nearly to the walls. There is a half-dried smear where they dragged it in from the yard. I know it’s a dog – the dog – because they left the head intact, but they’ve been working on the rest: they skinned the torso and haunches, and chunks of meat have been cut away.
There is still a collar around its neck, and a length of rusty chain spiraling towards the back door.
Tonight’s the night, the radio says over the fading music. If you’re up for the big drive, you can still win tickets to see Rod Stewart live! Be caller–
I smack the radio off and at once the room fills with the sound of my panting. Something ripples close to the ribs and at first I think flies, very logically, but then one of the dwarves stands up. He has his bloody knife in one hand, a hunk of ragged flesh in the other. Smiling at me, he raises the blade and then saws at the flesh, tearing it off the bone as he works it free.
It’s the noise of ripping flesh that does it. Everything becomes bright and sharp; my stomach rolls, the air burns my nose like pepper, and I run across the kitchen to the sink, skidding in the blood, and vomit. Even when I’ve emptied my stomach I keep dryly heaving, until I’m so wrung out I feel faint.
At last I turn around. The dwarf is watching me curiously, the knife held out as if ready to protect himself. Ready to protect himself against me. I hiccup at the thought, though whether from nausea or some kind of hysterical laughter I’m not sure. He’s got the dog meat rolled up neatly, like a little roast; he’s used one of my spare shoelaces to tie it. I hiccup again and my mouth tastes like bile.
“Take it away,” I squawk. I clear my throat and point at the corpse. “Take it away.”
He cocks his head at me, now clearly intrigued.
“Dog, out.” My voice sounds like it’s coming from far away; still I jab my finger at the corpse, then at the door. “Dog out, floor clean.”
The dwarf arches his eyebrows. Despite the grime of his face, for once I can read his expression with perfect clarity: what the hell are you upset about?
Michael made that face a lot, near the end.
With an exasperated sigh he holds out the roll of bloody meat, offering it to me. Small insects are crawling on its surface. The room feels close, so close I can barely get my breath. The light flashes yellow and green and I sink to the floor, warm blood seeping into my clothes.
“Make it go away,” I whisper.
The dwarves’ faces swarm around me, peering at me, chattering among themselves. Like being surrounded by smelly birds.
“Please make it go away,” I say, though I’m not sure I mean the dog anymore. “Please.”
They lay their little hands on me, grabbing at my limbs, my clothes. There is a rhythmic chirping weet weet weet oi! and with the last grunt I am hoisted in the air. The cracked ceiling spins and whirls; I think I must be dead; I am dead and being borne away, out into the night, out into the hole in the fence and into the damp darkness of the ivy.
I awaken to find myself sprawled in bed, bathed in sunlight, still dressed save for my shoes and socks. When had I last slept so long, so deeply? I cannot remember, but I feel something like myself – whatever myself might be.
The clock says 8:12. I’ve slept for over twelve hours–
and then I think of work and lurch out of bed. I don’t see the thing on my chest until it goes flying halfway across the room to bounce off the paneling, landing on the carpet with an audible thud.
It is a ring.
A very old ring, I see as I pick it up, old and thick. The metal is crusted with a sticky black residue, but when I scrape it aside I see a warm yellow and red beneath.
It is so heavy. I pull my wedding ring out of the envelope in my dresser. There seems to be a world between them: the thin, cheap circle and the fat lump of metal and gemstone. My grandmother had been a collector of jewelry before my father frittered everything away, and she had taught me a little about judging pieces. This ring feels real. It feels like a nugget of gold pared into a ring-shape, stuck with some plump garnet or ruby like a cherry on top.
I want it to be real, more than I have wanted something for a long, long time.
Even if it turns out to be fake, it still might be worth a few bucks. But if it’s real, and I can get even a fraction of its value . . . I try to imagine what I might do with the money but at once I feel exhausted. It’s been so long since I’ve had something to actualize other than just getting by.
I’m afraid then: afraid of someone stealing it, afraid of the dwarves demanding it back – because it’s come from them, I’m sure of it, some kind of payment or apology for the mess with the dog. I dig in my closet until I find the packs of shoelaces they’ve been raiding, and I string one through the ring and tie it around my neck. It feels cool between my breasts, slowly warming to match my skin’s temperature.
The kitchen is perfectly clean: there’s not a hint of blood anywhere, nothing to show there was ever a carcass on the floor. Even my shoes are clean and lined up by the back door. The only proof I have that I’m not crazy are the crusted bloodstains on my pants. I strip in the kitchen, soaking the stains in the sink and throwing them right into the washing machine; after a moment’s thought I stuff other clothes on top.
The ring swings from my neck, bouncing lightly against my flesh.
A couple of half-pints of milk are missing from the fridge. I add them to the list, as if nothing has happened. And then I assemble their platter, throwing on it everything I can find: Vienna sausages and Spaghetti-Os, crackers and cheese sticks, even a bag of potato chips I was keeping for my own treat. As I shake the chips over everything else I start giggling like a child.
And then, for the first time ever, I call a taxi to work.
Everything looks different. The cracked sidewalks on either side of my street, is that what I walk on every day? The fences with trash clinging to them, the patchy yards, the rotting cars: in the taxi it all feels both new and distant, like I’m watching a movie of my life. There’s a homeless man in the church parking lot, he’s built a shanty out of shopping carts and pallets, and for the life of me I cannot remember ever noticing him before, though he’s obviously been there for some time.
The church sign reads, Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.
I’m still late, but for once no one seems to notice; indeed, the sensation of difference is here too. For the first time I see just how dingy the school is, how tired everyone looks. The furniture is old enough to be from when I was a kid, the lockers are scratched and dented and stuffed with books that seem from another time. For the first time too I notice the sickly-sweet odor in the air: the smell of secrets, of things being hidden.
In the cafeteria everyone is quiet and somber and it takes me a beat to remember. Ethel. I feel guilty, and guiltier still when I think of the ring under my shirt. What would she have done in my place, what kind of hope might she be feeling now? All of us trapped, and what if one of us should be given the means to be free?
Were she still alive, would I help her, now that I might have the means to do so?
I go to the break room and my name is chalked in next to Drinks. It feels appropriate. I don’t have nearly enough time to prep; the ring might well be worthless; yet I can finally see how pointless half the preparation is, how this job is killing me, how at some point in those first cold days after Michael left I took my self and folded it tight and buried it somewhere deep and dark. Like the hole in the fence where the dwarves come from, shadowy and overgrown.
All of us in our cages, clapboard and chain link, booze and fists and nooses and loneliness: what if what hangs around my neck is the means to change it? Not just for me, but for another? I can’t help Ethel, not anymore. But perhaps . . .
Creepy lesbo, mind your own fucking business.
Yet I can imagine it: the relief in her face, the yellow of her fading bruises, the tentative smile that would signal things have changed for the better. A lightness in her step, as if an invisible hand had lifted a terrible burden from her . . .
I’m dragging the lemonade syrup across the floor, going through the motions by sheer habit, when suddenly the weight is gone. I look over my shoulder to see Bill holding up the other end of the barrel.
“Wasn’t sure we’d see you today,” he says.
“I was running late,” I blurt out, but he doesn’t reprimand me; in fact he seems relieved. Again the strangeness, for when has Bill ever seen absence as anything other than a black mark?
No, no, he thought I was upset about Ethel. Does he feel responsible? Or just afraid for his job?
For a while he just helps, mixing the sodas from atop the stepladder while I shovel out the ice maker and stack the cups. Everyone is staring. I catch Al’s gaze and he mouths at me did hell freeze over and I shrug. Maybe it has; maybe I’m imagining this on top of everything else; maybe it was me in the noose. It all seems possible – no, more that it seems like everything is happening all at once, all these different selves trapped in this town, this job.
Suddenly Bill says, “I had a meeting when we started the shift. The school’s got a doctor coming in next week. In case you want to talk to someone.”
Like Ethel might have wanted to talk to someone?
“I saw in your file you got divorced last year. Must’ve been hard for you.”
I set the last cup in place and look at him. “I’m not going to hang myself,” I say. “In case anyone’s asking. The hours are shit, the pay is shit, you treat us like shit, but you’re not going to get me too.”
As I speak I’m blushing, where did this come from? It’s like I’m not even speaking to him but to someone else, some invisible presence. Actualizing. He stares at me like I’m crazy and blood rushes to my face, but I don’t look away, not even as his expression shifts from incredulity to anger.
“After the shift,” he says in a low voice. “In my office.”
“But Bill,” I say, “I’m crazy with grief, can’t you tell? Write me up and there’s no telling what you’ll drive me to do.”
His face becomes a shade darker at my words; his mouth opens and closes, and then he turns on his heel. “It’s time,” he announces, and goes back into his office, slamming the door.
You could have backed me up, Ethel whispers, but I barely hear her ghost-voice; I’m watching Al take the lids off the steaming pans at the serving station. He takes the big ladle and stirs up the Sloppy Joe meat until the skin on the top disappears, then straightens his tray of toasted buns and readies himself.
I had nearly forgotten it’s Friday.
I should have backed Ethel up. But I’m trying now; it’s too late for her but not for myself, and maybe not for Theresa. I never believed in Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy, or anything save what I could touch and taste and smell. Yet now I have the ring around my neck, gallons of sweetened meat before me, and a dozen armed, hungry dwarves. Imaginary or not, they’ve already brought down one big, stupid animal.
Why not another?
On the way home I stop in the market. The sign says Ace Supermarket but there’s nothing either Ace or Super about it. For Super I need to go out to the Save More on 110, but to get to the Save More I have to walk eight blocks to a bus that comes once an hour, then ride forty-five minutes out and back. Save More is my Saturday.
The Ace isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. The teenagers who work here are to a one sullen and bored, constantly scuttling out to the parking lot to get high; when the manager’s away they make it a point of turning up the radio so they can pretend they don’t hear you. For once, though, I know the song well: it was one of Michael’s favorites. I even find myself singing along as I go up and down the aisles.
The Things We Do For Love.
I had forgotten this, how easily I remember lyrics. A gift, Michael called it. We always had the radio on. I would work on my correspondence class, he would noodle along on his guitar, and inevitably I would start singing . . .
The pain shoots through me, fierce and hot. The things we do for love. What didn’t I do for him? What did I forget, what did I miss, that made him turn away?
I pick up the last bag of tater tots; after a moment’s hesitation I grab a bottle labeled Table Wine for myself. Not since that one night with Ethel. But she’s gone, Michael’s gone, and I have this one terrible chance to change things. I could use some Dutch courage.
As I check out, the sullen girl looks me over and sneers. I don’t blame her; I know how I look in my polyester uniform, buying tater tots and cheap wine. She can probably smell the tubs of Sloppy Joe meat in my bag as well. A middle-aged woman about to drown her sorrows for the weekend. There’s even a crease around my finger where the ring used to be, a smoothness to the skin that’s never gone away. Like I’m married to a ghost.
The song on the radio has changed, now it’s something I don’t know, something about closing a door on the world. No more, though. For once in my life I’m opening my door: I’m letting the world in, the better for me to sneak out.
For the first time in nearly a year nothing’s been done. The lawn and garden look the same, there’s still dust gathering on the cheap sofa, and the wet laundry is sitting in the machine. On the clean kitchen floor is an empty half-pint carton, lying there as if they had just dropped it, as if they couldn’t even be bothered walking the four feet to the trash.
Perhaps I’m not the only one who’s changed since last night.
I fill up a baking sheet with tater tots and scrape all the Sloppy Joe meat into a big saucepan. When everything is cooking I pour myself a glass of wine. It tastes thick and sweet and woody; like something a woman in charge of her destiny would drink.
It tastes like power.
Fucking the secretary. It had all been like a terrible soap opera, right down to the rumors about her blowjob skills, right down to the credit card bills: the overnights in motels at the coast, the fancy restaurants with unpronounceable wines.
There had once been a me who would have sneered at any woman undone by such a thing. Who would have been in Ethel’s seat that night at the bar: you’re better off without him, you don’t need that kind of asshole in your life.
Where had that me gone?
As the food heats up I open the kitchen window, letting the smells waft into the yard. Sure enough, after a few minutes the ivy rustles, the chain link shudders, and one by one they make their way to the porch. The one in front, the one who was cutting up the dog, keeps fiddling with his belt; I realize that it’s the dog’s collar. The mark of a chief, a leader. Some of the other dwarves wear thick necklaces made out of the rusted chain.
The leader smirks in my direction, as if he can see me through the filthy screen of the kitchen window. He swaggers onto the porch, the others following suit, rolling their hips and baring their yellow teeth in broad grins. I had forgotten about this peculiarly male pride, the strutting and the gloating, the way they side-eye the kitchen as they lean against the porch railings. One says something and the others laugh slyly. Products of my imagination or no, they had definitely changed. They had brought down the dog, which from their vantage was probably some great, howling beast; they would be insufferable for ages.
I carefully ladle the steaming meat onto the platter, ringing it with the golden tots, and lift it onto one hand like a waiter.
As if on cue, I hear Paul’s truck pull up outside. The sound of the door slamming is as loud as a shot.
I open the back door and the dwarves don’t even flinch; to a one they just look at me, a few idly picking their teeth with their knives. Nothing more than miniature thugs. As I lower the platter to waist height, however, I see their eyes start to gleam, their smiles become warmer, more genuine. One takes a step forward, eager for the food.
Something shatters in Paul’s house and he curses at the top of his lungs, a tirade that fills the night air. We turn to look at the fence, the dwarves and I, staring at the lit bedroom window, the unsteady shadow flitting across the curtains.
“Make him go away,” I say in a low voice.
Their faces turn upwards, a dozen pairs of grime-ringed eyes studying me.
“Make him go away,” I repeat. “Make him shut up.” I try to remember what I had said about the dog. “Do anything, just make him shut up,” I say, my voice thick. “Even if you have to wring his neck.”
The leader steps forward, holding his hands out; I carefully hand him the platter, as solemn as a ceremony. I have never been so close to one before, and it’s all I can do to keep from gaping: what are they? How much like me, how much different? What does the world look like, when seen with their little black eyes?
One of the dwarves clears his throat, and another chirps with impatience; the leader yanks the platter out of my hands and steps back, watching me with a wary half-smile as the others fall upon the pile of meat and tots, scooping it up with their knives and wolfing it down.
Past the fence, Paul is in the kitchen now, fumbling with a Tupperware and a saucepan. He works out at the same quarry where Michael had been manager, a shift that has him up and out at dawn. Between his hours and mine I hardly ever see him; I had almost forgotten what he looks like. Now I see that I’d mixed him and Michael up, giving him Michael’s height and broad shoulders in my mind. In reality he’s a small, squat man, the stubble on his bleary face prematurely grey. He shakes his head bullishly as he tries to work the lid off; when at last he pulls it free he spills spaghetti and tomato sauce over himself and the stove. He starts cursing again and flings the Tupperware across the room where it bounces off the far wall–
and then he starts crying, big heaving sobs over the stove, and reaches for a liquor bottle.
I feel a pang of sympathy; I have to remind myself that those were the hands that had hit Theresa, had flung her as they flung the container, like she was just another thing that won’t work right. Who won’t be what he wants her to be, who let him bring her to this shitty corner of the world and then just left her when he found someone better–
No, no, I’m thinking of Michael, that was Michael and I.
When I look again at the kitchen Paul is gone. For a moment the spaghetti sauce seems thinner and smoother, like the dog’s blood, but the sky is growing dark, I can’t really see anymore.
I turn around and the porch is empty: no dwarves, no platter. In the dirt of the yard they’ve drawn pictures, the gouges deep and fresh. There is a woman, full-hipped, and around me the sharp little knives radiating outwards like I am the sun. Beside me is a man with space between his head and his torso, between his arms and his big, bulbous fists.
I look down at my hands and they are grey with dirt. From work, or–?
In Paul’s bedroom the television’s blue glow appears, and the Wonder Woman theme song echoes faintly in the night air. I go back into my house; suddenly I’m craving a drink.
I awake cotton-mouthed, my head pounding. I think it must be a year ago, it’s the morning after that binge with Ethel, and I panic that I might still come face-to-face with a piece of Michael – a paper with his handwriting, a razor, his smell.
But there’s nothing left of him, not anymore. Shreds of paper cover the bed like snow. All the divorce papers, the lawyer letters, the bills, all have been ripped to pieces, so tiny I could never reassemble them. Even our photos, the few I still had, are so many flakes of paper now, pieces of our bodies tossed among the drifts.
The world sways and rolls as I crawl out of bed. There’s an empty liquor bottle on the nightstand, but I can’t stand the taste of hard liquor, I would never have bought–
and then I realize that it’s Paul’s bottle.
I stumble into the bathroom and throw up, the thin vomiting of a stomach filled with booze and nothing else. Memories keep rising up: the crude drawings, the dirt on my hands, how the dwarves and the platter just vanished.
How long I stood at the fence, watching Paul and justifying his murder.
I wipe down the bottle in a fog of panic and bury it in the trash. I’m just about to go out back when the doorbell jangles; with a mewl of fear I manage to pull a sweatshirt over my smelly uniform and get to the door.
My mouth still tastes like puke as I open the door and stare at the policeman.
“Good morning, ma’am,” he says. “I’m sorry to say there’s been an incident next door. I’d like to ask you a few questions and take a look around your property. May I come in?”
Behind him there’s another cop coming up the walk, and no less than three patrol cars parked between my house and Paul’s. Three cars and an ambulance, but no lights flashing. I glimpse Theresa in the back seat of one of the patrol cars.
I try to swallow but my mouth is bone dry; still I manage to make my throat convulse, so hard I’m sure he heard it. “Sure,” I say, my voice raspy. “Do what you need to do.”
“No strange noises, nothing unusual . . .”
I shake my head again. I’m desperately trying not to look at the back door; another cop went out into the yard eight long minutes ago, and it’s all I can do to keep from going after him. What’s out there, what has he found?
What have I done?
“Well. If you think of anything at all. Maybe even something you heard, and then decided to ignore.”
I think I’m insane, I say in my head. I think I’m losing my mind. I smile at the cop – Jones, his name tag says – and shrug. “Sorry, I don’t remember anything like that.”
Officer Jones looks at me for a long moment, until a voice calls from the backyard. At once my stomach disappears; the smile on my face feels grotesque.
He tells me to wait while he goes outside. For the first time I see that while my floor is clean, my ceiling is full of webs, whole clouds of them in the corners. I should have left a stepladder out for them – and then I catch myself. There are no such things as dwarves, or little men with knives who eat Sloppy Joes and kill people.
There is only me. There has only ever been me.
“Ma’am, could you come out here?”
I shuffle across the kitchen as if marching towards a gallows. In the backyard the sun is bright, so bright I have to squint to make my way towards the two cops. I had expected them to be standing over the patch of bare dirt but it’s smooth, not a hint of a line anywhere. Instead the two cops are back by the fence.
Near the hole.
Officer Jones waves me forward and points down. “Do you have any relatives, or friends, with small children?”
Between us, among the tufts of crabgrass, are the prints of small, bare feet.
“No,” I whisper. No relatives, no friends. No neighbors, not anymore.
“Any neighborhood children that might have come in your yard? Maybe to get a ball?”
I shake my head. “No,” I say.
“Ah,” he says, but I can’t tell what the ah means. He looks significantly at the other cop. “We’re going to photograph these, and check your fence for fingerprints – we’ll be out here for a little while, okay?”
I nod. I don’t risk a smile.
“Good.” With a look around, he takes a step closer to me. “Look, why don’t you go back to bed and sleep it off,” he says in a low voice. “We can let ourselves out the side gate when we’re done.”
I nod again, a lurching motion, like my head is too heavy for my neck. “Okay,” I mumble.
As I trudge back to my house, still squinting against the glare, another cop, a woman, appears at the side gate. “I’ve read her her rights. Should we wait?”
“Go ahead and take her to the station. We’ve got some kids’ prints back here, might be a witness.”
I look back over my shoulder at Officer Jones. “You mean Theresa?” I ask, incredulous.
But he’s already turned away, studying the fence again.
“She was at her mother’s.” I rush back over to him, seizing his arm. “I saw her leave.”
“Ma’am,” he says firmly, looking down at my hand on his arm. Only when I let go does he continue, “We’re only taking her in for questioning.”
“But she’s the real victim here,” I insist. “He was beating her, everyone knew it.”
With a sigh he drops his head close to mine. “Ma’am, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. Both your neighbors had priors. Drunk and disorderly, creating a disturbance, assault and battery. Both of them.” He pats my arm. “I know it’s hard to think someone so close could be capable of murder. But if it’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years? We hardly know ourselves, much less anyone else.” He angles his head. “Now please. Go back inside and get some rest. We’ll be in touch if we have any further questions.”
But I don’t go back to bed. I go instead to my front door and step tentatively outside.
I have to see her.
Theresa is standing next to the patrol car, gesturing to her house while a cop gently restrains her; the more she gestures the more the police move close to her. Her hair is tangled and wild and even from where I stand I can see how her eyes flash, how her body is tense with fury.
She’s never looked so beautiful.
One of the paramedics props the door of her house open. They work the stretcher through the door, the sheet snug over Paul’s form. I try to imagine what he must look like but I can’t, I can’t conjure him in my mind.
“Who did it?”
I jump out of my skin at her shriek, flinching as her head swivels from one end of the block to the other, her eyes passing over me. “Which one of you killed him?” she cries. “You all hated him! None of you understood, none of you cared!” Her eyes settle on me. “I should have taken a bat to your fucking head.”
“Get her back in the car,” a voice yells from my yard, and for a moment I think Bill? But it’s just Officer Jones.
“They’ll come for you next,” Theresa yells as the cops wrestle her back into the patrol car. “They’ll come for you all, you’ll see! They’ll come for you and they’ll cut you to pieces! To pieces! To–”
A cop slams the door shut; at once she seems to slump, as if her strings have been cut.
“Drugs are a bitch, man,” one of the cops said, and the others laugh.
Nestled among the pillows on my bed is a strand of fat, creamy pearls, coiled and knotted like a noose. At once I want them, I want to take them and run away, as far away from here as I can get.
I should have taken a bat to your fucking head
We hardly know ourselves, much less anyone else
I stand over the bed, trembling with desire, my hands clenching and unclenching. I want them, I want them, and yet I know the moment I touch them I will seal my own complicity.
A small, high-pitched cough makes me jump; I turn and see a dozen dirty, bearded faces crowding in my closet doorway. The leader steps forward, busily wiping his knife with a torn piece of one of my slips, the dried blood flaking off the blade onto the bright white silk.
He speaks, but I cannot understand what he’s saying, all I hear are chirps; I bend over, cupping my ear, and it feels both ridiculous and utterly right, all the more so when he steps close to me and lays a warm, callused hand on my shoulder. I listen carefully to his high-pitched noises, piecing them together until they form a single word.
Everything else seems to fade, then. The noises outside, my own breath, it all fades into a grey quiet. There are only their dark eyes staring at me, full of hope, full of anticipation.
I don’t have much to pack. Half my clothes don’t fit me anymore, either because I’ve lost weight or because they seem to represent that past me, the one I’m leaving behind. In the end, I only need two suitcases: some clothes, a few books from my correspondence classes, the photos and little mementos I have of my parents. I have nothing else; I want nothing else.
Save, of course, for the money I sewed into the lining of the suitcases, and my one decent jacket.
The interior of the police station had been cool and quiet, all marble and old wood. I carefully wrote out my new address on a plain index card; something about block printing the address, and the little studio it represented, it all seemed too easy. “I don’t have a phone number yet,” I explained to the elderly officer at the desk.
“That’s all right, ma’am,” he said. “Just phone it in when you get hooked up.” He took the card from me and read it over. “Up to the city?”
“Good for you.” He looked around at the empty lobby, sighing deeply. “This town’s gone queer, these last few years. Lotta strange things happening, especially with women.” He waved the card at me. “You’re a smart girl to get out now.”
And in that moment I knew I was free. That fluttering white card, that ridiculous girl, it was the moment in the story when the fairy godmother comes, when the pumpkins become coaches and the rats become horses and that tiny, sunny studio was my castle.
I was free.
“How’s Theresa?” I blurted out.
“Who?” He frowned. “Oh, right. Turns out she had an alibi, she went to the pictures with her mother, fellow who makes the popcorn called them a taxi. Just more reason to move, I say. Kids hopped up on drugs, stabbing a man to death for a few bits of jewelry. Shameful.” He sighed again. “If that’s the world today, I’m not sure I want to live in it.”
Neither do I, buddy. Neither do I.
I snap the latches of my suitcases shut now and button my jacket completely. In the mirror the face I see looks rested, resolute. I have slept hard every night since Paul was killed, a deep dreamless sleep that I fall into the moment I lay down. No more actualizing, no more imagining, for what did it get me? All that time working out the minutiae of each day, only to have it all upended by something I never imagined. Even my platter never reappeared.
From now on I will meet each day open and empty. I open the door and walk, empty and ready, into the world. In one of the suitcases is a reference letter from Bill, and another from my landlord testifying to my diligence in maintaining the house. I am empty, I am ready. The walk to the bus station is long and with every step I can feel the money rustling in my coat, I can feel the cool weight of my new apartment key on the shoestring around my neck.
The church sign reads, Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.
At the bus station I board the bus for the city, keeping my cases close, smiling and nodding at the other passengers. I feel open, I feel empty, I feel at once in the world and somehow above it, looking down on this small upright woman walking towards a seat near the back, and the fifteen woolen caps trailing after her.
The dwarves crowd against my legs, bumping and chirping, cursing and shoving like so many children, yet no one so much as glances down at the aisle. My madness, all mine, as much my possessions as my suitcases and my money and the key around my neck.
They swarm under the seats, sprawling on the dirty floor, some promptly falling asleep. I’ve tried naming them but they don’t like it, they make faces when I address them by something specific; I’m not even sure their leader has stayed the same, I tell him apart as much by his belt as anything. He climbs on the seat beside me now along with two others; casually he digs into the kangaroo pocket of his romper and flicks a half-cut gemstone in the air like a teenager tossing a quarter. It arcs into my lap, hard and blue, and at once I cover it with my hand. That wonderful, cool weight: the weight of money, of security. He winks at me, then starts sucking noisily on his teeth and picking them with his fingernail.
I really have to do something about their clothes.
Just before it’s time to depart a man boards the bus, flustered but smiling. He looks about my age; he wears his decent grey suit well. As he lurches down the aisle I look away, a little embarrassed, until his shadow falls over me.
“I think you dropped this,” he says. In his hand is one of their knives, wedged in its sheath. “Are you an art teacher?”
I stare at him, completely at a loss.
“Or maybe you’re an art student?” He turns the handle towards me, and I see in the dimming light Return to Room 1B written on the handle.
From the seat beside me comes a low growl, but the man doesn’t seem to hear. His ring finger has a worn band of skin, the same as mine.
Another growl, and the whisper of another knife being drawn.
“It’s just a knife.” I take it from him hurriedly. “Thanks,” I add.
He seems about to speak again so I look at the window, watching his reflection in the glass until it moves away. Only now do I truly understand what I have chosen: my very gaze is enough to condemn, my words powerful enough to slay. I will always have to keep my distance.
I shudder, as if from a great wave of loneliness and sorrow, and yet even as my body trembles those feelings have vanished. In their wake I feel replete, in a way I have never known before. I lean back in my seat with a contented sigh; the little men move close to me, pressing against my feet, clambering over my lap to look out at the twilit world. Outside the stars are emerging and I feel something dim and shrouded open within me, and inside a great, terrible energy that is wholly mine. I am open, I am empty, I am legion. The leader takes my hand and it feels right and true. All of us, together. All of us racing forward into the night, towards the dark, rich, unknowable future.
About the Author
L.S. Johnson lives in Northern California. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, Fae, Lackington’s, Strange Tales V, and other venues. Currently she is working on a fantasy trilogy set in 18th century Europe.