Obsidian by Christie Wilson
I haunt the people we were before, visit them often, stand close enough to hear them whisper things I can’t remember having said. I have my favorite moments, little excerpts I revisit, like the night you spilled beer on the bed.
It just tipped over and foamed out in a brown pool, a baptism of domesticity. You cursed, and I laughed. You laughed, half irritated, but then you really laughed and stuck your face down on the comforter with your lips out, and you sucked up all the beer you could, and I couldn’t stop laughing. You looked so funny; I was crying with laughter, and you kept looking at me and grinning. And then you were kissing my bare knee and my thigh, and we were so happy in the lamplight and the bed all wet with beer and spit.
Now there is another pool, but it isn’t brown and frothy. Its surface is black, obsidian, and glossy. It rests in an empty parking lot with the interstate looming above and to the north and the city buildings protruding skyward to the south. Flanked by motion, it is as still as a doll’s eye, and we have all become children watching for it to blink.
Most afternoons the entire seventy-five foot perimeter is rimmed with us. We sit in ferocious silence, a palpable pact of acceptance because no one wants to break the spell they aren’t sure isn’t there. But when we return in the evenings to our homes and the alleyways between our buildings that we have taken as our community, the pool is no longer silent. It pulses with our conjecture; it punctuates our every breath, taking identity from our conversations that shape it one way and then another; we twist and we steal and we assign as we see fit. Here we can convince ourselves that it is ours, though the next day, standing before it, we swallow fear-coated relief. We did not imagine it, and it does not belong to us.
But right now, standing in the dusky yellow of the streetlight in front of our building, I ache for that brown pool of beer on our bed at the beginning of our life together. I want these people with the stench of hope on their breath back in their apartments, and I want your eyes to return to normal, unravished by the fever we can no longer pretend to ignore.
“It’s just a fucking hole.” Richard is kicking against the lamppost.
I pull you backwards and guide you down onto the two concrete steps that lead to our landing.
“Did you hear me? A fucking hole.”
“That’s enough, Richard.” Margaret’s voice is steady, easy to identify in the small nightly crowd that gathers here. But Richard is persistent tonight, emboldened by a bottle of scotch that he has begun to wave.
“That black on top, it’s just run-off from somewhere. It has to just be water underneath. It don’t mean anything when you think of it, but we go sit around it like it’s going to open up and give us something. We’re just foolin’ ourselves is all. We’ve got to get back to our lives.”
“But what about Mack?” This is John speaking. He is leaning against the lamppost, face angled toward the light.
“Yes, yes, we can’t forget Mack, can we? Nobody wants to forget Mack! The gospel of Mack. Supposedly jumped in a puddle and don’t remember a damn thing. It’s a miracle.”
“Richard.” Margaret doesn’t increase her volume, but it is the tone that one would use with a petulant child. “We all loved Mack, and we miss him dearly. If he’s somehow gone to a better place, then we wish him…”
“A better place. A better place? He went to fucking Sixth Ave, Margaret. You saw him two streets over, and just because he pretended not to know you doesn’t mean he crossed over to some better place.” Richard’s words are coming faster now, and I can tell he is working himself into frenzy. “No one saw him! No one! No one saw him go in! No one saw him come out! But we’ve all told ourselves this story of him, descending into the puddle and coming out on the other side. It’s madness. We are all fucking lunatics!!” He is crying now, and Margaret goes to him. The others come closer to him too, but when I turn to look at you, I can see that you are tired. I put my arm around your waist and pull you up.
We make our way into our apartment after I finally find the key in my coat pocket. Your face looks swollen, and I help you to the bathroom before making sure to pull the curtain in the front window so those outside won’t be able to see me peel off my clothes.
My body is red with cold, skin like brail, but I’m not blind and can’t receive the message. I hear you coughing and spitting behind the bathroom door. I pull on a blue hooded sweatshirt and some old warm-up pants that were once part of your basketball uniform. When you emerge I turn down the bed and try to help you, but you shrug me off. I turn off the lamp and sit beside you, pushing the greasy hair out of your eyes.
“You’ve been quiet tonight.” I try to smile hard so you can feel it in the dark.
“Sorry, just tired.”
“Are you cold?”
“Yeah, a little.” I tuck the comforter up around your chin and rub my hands over your body, up and down. You want to say something, so I stay quiet.
“I don’t want to go there anymore.”
“Go where?” I say it, trying to keep my voice even.
“There’s nothing there for us. I know they all think there’s something there, and they’ve convinced themselves, telling stories, and I know you love Margaret, but it’s just a black pond.” This is the most you’ve spoken in days, and you start to cough. The sound is harsh in the dark. When it passes you put your hand on my knee and squeeze.
“It’s OK. Pain bad?”
“Not too bad, no. You got any of those left?”
“I told you. He only gave me five. You shouldn’t take one if it isn’t bad. You should save them for when you need them.”
“OK.” You take your hand back, and I resist the urge to rush away from you. I’ve become your caretaker and the manager of your moods. I am your pharmacist, your mother, but I never made it to your wife. We were moving there, pushing towards that inevitable future, when it all just sort of fell away.
In the bathroom, my hands hurt under the warm water, but I hold them there and avoid the mirror. I am stepping on dirty clothes the hamper can no longer hold, and I sweep them back with my feet, trying not to think about the mess and that I haven’t been to work in a week and that I have no detergent to make this better. I can’t make any of it better.
I dry my hands and turn out the bathroom light. In the hall, all I can hear are your shallow breaths, so I move to the chair beside the window and listen to Richard’s ranting, every now and again joined with the voices of others. Impossible that they still haven’t calmed him down, though it must be the alcohol.
I miss Mack. He lived in our building for something like twenty years. He had kind crinkly eyes and big soft hands. He helped me carry you the night your cough was so bad, and I brought you home from the emergency room, and he gave us two cans of soup another night, heating them on our stove and putting them on a tray so I could eat with you in bed. He must have seen something or known something that we all missed.
And he’s gone now. Gone from us at least, and, in the intervening days, all of us in the building have passed him from flesh into fiction and from this fiction constructed a myth that I can only hope is true. I’ve rifled through the facts and watched the story unfold in my mind hundreds of times in the last few days. John saw him walking toward the black pool on Friday. This is fact, or fact according to John, but I don’t leave it there. I imagine Mack looking back at our building and then facing forward, moving with purpose, moving to give us hope. Another fact, according to Margaret, he was on the street Monday morning, holding the hand of a little girl. He was wearing a suit and a tie, and he didn’t recognize Margaret when she ran right up and put her arms around him, baffled that she even knew his name.
I can hear you moaning a little, and there’s a raspy gurgle in your chest. I think of rousing you and giving you a pill, but constantly I have to weigh the sleep you are getting versus another future night when you might not find any at all. I’m always guilty of denying you something, as if everything were in my control, as if I had the power to change anything. There is an afghan on the back of the chair, and I pull it down over me and push and pull my fingers in and out of the holes. There is a rhythm to it, a pattern to the motion. It calms me, and the voices outside start to fade, and then I am asleep, or rather I know that I’ve been asleep because I am awake.
Everything is quiet. I move the curtain and look out at the street that still holds signs that we were there, bent wrappers and discarded bottles. I go to the bedroom door and listen. Then, I pull on my coat.
This is not the first time that I’ve been at night. The first few steps are always the most difficult, and I sometimes turn back, climb into bed, and huddle against you. But our apartment no longer holds the future I was expecting, and I have to think again if this black pool, appearing three weeks ago, coming into my life through John, the homeless man, who lives in the alley beside my building, who told Margaret and led us all to see it on that first afternoon, if it holds a meaning.
Black like nail polish. Black like how I felt sitting in the dark of my mother’s bedroom with her illness that didn’t go away. Black like ink on that thick paper I coveted in the high school art room, reserved for the students in higher levels, reserved strictly for talent, reserved because it resisted the touch of inexperienced hands. Black like all black and like no black I’ve ever seen. Traveling toward it over the familiar black of the asphalt, I think when I get there I will remove my shoes and run as fast as I can, sliding in my socks. I know I could walk on this water. I could be Simon Peter all alone with the exception that he dealt with waves, and I would have to contend with the absence of waves, the nothingness of glossy surface.
I have slowed my approach. From a block away, the surface appears to continue into the tree line that rims the north of the pool. I know that the trees are not technically a forest. There’s only about twenty or thirty feet of dense trees before the interstate guardrail. I know this, but they shift in my mind when I approach in the dark like this, and my grasp on the physical boundaries of the space around me is tenuous, more and more fluid until I am certain that I am standing at the south edge of a black pool that continues on into an immense forest. The pool is perhaps the life force for this forest of dense bark and reaching limbs.
The scene is a master study of texture and gradation in shade. The sky is a hazy fog overlaid with rough branches, shrunken spires originating from the depth of wooden representations of dark years that have leaked out to form the shiny slickness of the almost metallic surface before me. A perfect painting to illustrate the variations in one color, the possibilities of pigmentation.
But if this is a painting, then I am a part of the scene, standing still, small. The artist is somewhere behind me or in front, peering down and spilling a vision out on this canvas where I’m a character. The only one pictured, surely I am important. I take my usual spot for night excursions, angled to the left of my approach so I will be sure to notice any others that might come, and I crouch there for a few moments before sitting closer than I’ve ever been before.
Breath comes in smoky waves and bursts out over the tops of my knees before evaporating and being replaced by the next exhale. When it is spread before me, there is no need to explain the presence of this pool, dissect its contents, or consider how it came to be. I lean forward to see the top of my head reflected in the surface, and then braver still I move to kneel so that I can see my face. My face in this deep dark, my face held by this ebony vision before me. I am both lost and found in these still shapeless hours.
There’s a benediction of birdsong and flapping wings at dawn. It rouses me, and I rise. Then, I make my way back to you.
Margaret meets me at the door of the apartment.
“I used my key. I could hear him through the wall. He was wailing, a little delirious.” She has my arm, and she pulls me to her. Some of her wiry hair lands in my mouth, and I can taste the stale smoke. “I thought maybe you weren’t coming back, that you had gone like Mack.”
“No, no.” I’m making my way towards the bedroom. You are sitting up in the bed, eyes wild.
“Where were you? I called and called. I was so worried.”
There are warm tears on your face when I hold it in my hands. Cheeks like hot apples in my palms; you are raging with fever.
“I couldn’t sleep.” I’m digging through the drawer of my nightstand, where I hid the last few pills from that bastard on the corner who knows you are sick and knows I can’t afford them.
“Did you go back? I don’t want you out there at night.”
“You know how it is.” I’ve found the pill bottle, and Margaret comes in with a glass of water.
“No, I don’t. I don’t feel what you all feel. All I feel is this.” You put your head in your hands. “I can’t take this.”
You are sobbing now, not a weak motion, but a full expression of your grief. If I could I would rip it from you and shove it in my pockets. I would wipe it over my skin, stick it in my ears and nose and mouth and suck it all away. Wholly, I would consume it into my body, and I wouldn’t let you watch me suffer. I would take it from you, lift it like a backpack, like a fallen limb you were trying to push from our path. I’ll carry that over to the fire for you I would say. And I would walk right off and never, never, never return because I know what it is like to watch you, to feel you disintegrate beside me. I would not wish that on you. I would take it and walk right into that black pool. And then I know.
With the pill bottle in my hand, I turn my back to you and shake out three, but then worry that it will be too much. I put the bottle on the nightstand, and holding two pills in the curve of the last two fingers of my left hand, I break the other in half. You are still a tangle of coughs and cries, shivering with our comforter pulled and held under your neck. I toss the bottle back in the drawer and sit beside you. Margaret hands me the glass and when I tell you to open your mouth, I tip it quickly onto your lips, so your tongue won’t be able to count what I have done. You choke and sputter, water dribbling onto your chin. I apologize to your eyes as you gasp, and then I put the water down and kick my shoes off. I move behind you and pull you up so that your head is resting on my chest. I wrap my arms around you and hold you together.
Through the early morning, we doze and I hear the soft sounds as the building wakes and everyone makes their way somewhere else. Margaret returns at some point and puts her hand on your forehead. She gives me half of a muffin and puts a coffee cup beside me. Your head has slipped down onto my stomach, and my shirt is soaked with your sweat, the fever temporarily broken.
“I want to take him down this afternoon. Will you help me?”
She looks at me. In another life, she could be my mother, perhaps in this life she is. “I’ll find something to carry him.”
Some time later I hear clanging in the hallway that moves out onto the sidewalk, and Margaret enters to say she is ready. I move from beneath you, and we carry you out of the apartment and to a big metal wagon that must have been her grandson’s. She helps me to pile you in. Your body is all bone and loose skin. While Margaret retrieves a pillow, I tuck your hands under you so they won’t drag the ground and crisscross your legs like you are a child. I put the pillow between your shoulders and the handle that I’m holding upright as best I can. I worry about your breathing and wish there was some way I could clear your throat for you, but perhaps it will soon be clear.
When we three arrive at the parking lot, the perimeter of the pool is outlined with silent bodies. To my relief, I do not see Richard, who I had feared might try to intervene. Instead I see the named and nameless faces of our building and the other alleys that gather here. Margaret helps me to turn the wagon so that its wheels are horizontal and won’t roll any further toward the dark edge. The people nearest us have risen and turned, and one man steps forward.
I know that he will help me. I hold out my arms. “Please put him here.”
He lifts you out of wagon, placing you against me. Your head tilts back, but I must not worry about this as I need to move quickly under your weight. When I turn back to the pool, everyone is standing, but those closest to us have shifted to form a pathway.
I don’t know if it is water or something else, but it is around my ankles and swathes me without splashes, just subtle shifts of a murky translucence. You stir, and I have an instant of panic that you might wake here in the middle, before I can get you through, because I know that you would not submit on your own. But now I’m in to my knees, and I can feel a tightening, holding me up, a steadying that allows me to continue forward. I thought your weight would be easier to bear out here, but instead it seems that you are pressing me from above. I am resolute. I will do what I can to save you. What can I do to save you?
I am holding you in my arms in the middle of a black pool. Only your head, the tips of your knees, my shoulders, my head, and the tips of my fingers are above the surface. I don’t know how this pool came to be or how we came to be in it. I can trace back some steps, but they don’t tell me anything about right now or the future. Birds in the trees to the north take flight, and I watch their tiny shapes in the obsidian surface, purposeful and composed, reflected dimly below, vibrantly real above. And, when I am sinking below you and you are still there on the surface, hovering above, when I am so far from you that it is only the faintest of outlines that I can register, when all thoughts of whether they will come in to get you when I’m gone have passed, it is then that I can see the deep tunnel beneath me, the glorious black tunnel that will lead me to the other side.
© Christie Wilson
Christie Wilson lives with her husband and daughter in Knoxville, TN. She is currently writing a collection of short fiction and a novel, Be That Brave. Visit her at www.christiewilson.net or follow her @5cdwilson.
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