from S P R A W L

I decide to take a bath in the middle of the day and stare at myself in the mirror. I observe all kinds of transformations on my skin and in my muscles. I move in different directions, with subtle variations in my eyes or knees, or I crouch by the hamper to play with the cat. Then I fill the tub for goodness knows how long and ornament myself richly with a variety of fragrances. I enjoy raising a bowl of scented water above my head. I sometimes even take an active part in anything strange. The book in my hands describes “a land of enchantment, a garden most gorgeous, a plain sprinkled with coloured meteors, a forest with sparks of purple and ruby and golden fire gemming the foliage.” The book says pearls, shells, and certain precious man-made objects can assist in scenarios of craving. I can’t wait to open them up to see if there might be something fascinating inside. I do it on a chair or with my hands or feet. I get pleasure from acquiring knowledge about everything from hands and feet to handmade wicker baskets. For instance, the arrangements around the house are meant to show my attention to such items, to things placed at an angle, or pinned up, or to religious teachings (indicated by an open book on a chair), as well as decorations and collections of plates, peaches, candy, etc. Several of my tabletops are tilted for better locating the center of my domestic charisma. It takes approximately three hours to appreciate the importance of a mislaid knife on a wooden table, an enormous stain on a white linen tablecloth, or a landscape of leftovers floating weightless around a room. Meanwhile, a copper pot on its side sends a gleaming reddish glow onto a honeydew melon and a number of objects: a glass of milk, a bowl with a knife in it, the skin of my own hands. I shift small decorative boxes from room to room and begin to feel ungainly. The small boxes glint in the half-light as I place them in specific patterns, as markers of my own personal history, or like a new museum. In all the boxes are remnants of past relationships, specific locations, like statuettes within homes, or a range of associations—letters, photographs, scraps. Dear Mrs. Roberts, I sympathize with you. I really do. Mrs. Roberts, you possess a kind of impenetrability most Americans find “smart.” I feel I know you intimately without ever having met you. You are America’s Sweetheart. You are like no other person, Mrs. Roberts. You know a lot about how a woman’s mind works. Mrs. Roberts, you know just when to start and when to stop. You are seen and heard from south to north. Also, there is a third reason: your house is your castle with its mock-Tudor exterior and precocious children. We all greatly admire your long driveway and eagle ornaments. Warmly, etc. For one whole summer, Lisle and I believed the water tower in the center of town was filled with enormous spaghetti and meatballs and that if we were rude or unpleasant a giant meatball would fall out the bottom of the tank and roll down the sidewalks and find us and crush us dead. Years later, Lisle and I applied ourselves sincerely and with tragic dignity to photographs of people long dead, or to stories of mysteries in foreign landscapes, or familiar landscapes, or murder mysteries, or stories of children locked in attics, or cheerleaders, or stickers, or public pageants, or photographs of squirrels, or turtles, or turtles’ eggs. For a period we tried to be industrious witches who could open and close doors with our minds. We rode bikes at the edge of town, through orchards and fields, collecting stray cats in baskets. Then Lisle began cutting notches on her ankles or wrists to mark the years. Needless to say, we developed a whole host of human concerns, physical mythologies, and informing personal principles regarding “natural” curls and hair that looks “sexy” or “head-turning,” or hair that is “long” and “angled in front for movement.” We learned all kinds of protocols involving “how to,” such as how to make your life “prettier” or “better organized,” or how to get “more bang for your buck,” or how to “make a splash,” or how to walk through a garden with a rosy bloom on your cheek. Haywood and I enjoy walking through the lawn equipment area in a department store in the mall. There’s a smell of chemical fertilizers and a real-life sparrow is trapped in the branches of a potted tree chirping at passing shoppers. In other sectors of the mall we pick out bathroom tiles or formal wear or pickles. We return home and change clothes or put things in cupboards. We hold hands in the dining room. We watch the evening news and learn about weather, ping-pong, hot air balloons, war, and celebrity scandals. Hundreds of people are nominated for awards. We watch the parades on television. Haywood asks, “What ever happened to real cheese?” We shake boxes of food. This method imposes a deliberation. We postpone dinner and walk the empty street searching for signs. On the sidewalk I find unfriendly footing on a section turned up by roots, yet leaf-buds delight me. Young boys run by with red fire engines in their arms and complain about the rest of their lives, but looking at the stars I take a cheerful hint and am invaded by the memorable. I whisper to Haywood with a vulgarity that seems surprising. In bed I think of all kinds of individual names, and some numbers, and other names. These aboriginal or primary thoughts are depicted as I drift to sleep. My mind clicks like a machine and I see men walking, and a chair and clock, and a stranger, and a thousand other particular things, and am suddenly bathed in the language of another person, or persons. Then I dream we have an indoor pool and I serve sophisticated snacks to neighbors poolside (hamachi tuna and rack of lamb). In the morning, the cat licks Haywood’s face before he gets out of bed. It’s an approach to nature. Haywood shaves and showers before work. He carries a cup of coffee onto the driveway and backs into the street without looking. A husband will do all sorts of things. We stare at each other. Actually, he stands next to me and puts his hand on my shoulder. We are united by all sorts of facts, a divine ordinance, or something like that, slogans. In the pursuit of milk, yogurt, progress, etc., we are long, maybe fourteen feet stretched out, and together we know thousands of miles worth of information. Also, we develop guilt feelings and interpret each other’s physical uniformity or discordances; for example, when I see a mysterious spot on his cheek, or when he would connect my breathing to what I eat for breakfast (jam on toast and a pot of tea). When we first met I stopped seeing another man so many times a week for so many years in a row. This other man lived in the city and had a habit of forcing his way into my ear, to suck out whatever was in there—air, feelings, space to oneself. This was a last straw; things were messy. He would be introverted because no one would say anything. Maybe he was right. He was certainly enthusiastic and he grabbed my arms and held them over my head when he did it. Today Haywood is tied to the bed and I am going along to vacuum the other room. I shift fruits from the floor to the heavy glass tabletop; I line them up on the edge. It’s exciting and I look forward to him telling me how surprising it is to poke and scramble about in the midst of our intimately satisfying personal relationship. On the other hand, less feminine attributes pass through my mind at times like these—everybody’s walking barefoot on Mrs. Williams’ carpet. They say, “Can you believe it?” We are given fresh glimpses of the ground: mounds of plush grey carpet, pebbles, concrete, trash. No one wants to consider the importance of this earthy destiny. Meanwhile, the kids with no names are all over town. They supply a stylish language with which to talk about serious issues; they live on the edge of my habits. I think I should be allowed to solve their problems. I think about a lot of unnecessary things. For example, I walk down the sidewalk and think about three chairs in my house. Then I get home and observe my dirty floor. A green glass bowl, a peach, a blackberry, an apricot cut in half, cake crumbs, and fallen purple petals litter the tabletop in the kitchen. And yet, in spite of these surroundings, I have friends like everyone else. I have talents and am easily dazzled and I can say “I’m sorry,” or “That’s the upside,” or “Right up my alley!” whenever the moment arrives. On any average evening I remove my clothes like anyone else. Afterward, there are a number of erotic rituals. I’m often inaccessible during such amusements. I say stupid things. I say, “Woodpile,” or “What’s this?” Then I do stupid things. There are some misunderstandings and some feathers, and later there is some irritation. Still, I can be anything I set my mind to. I can be a movie star vixen or a saucy French maid. It’s true I turn into a cleaning lady at times; other times I refocus my attention on my own movements, such as twisting or turning. I never really meant to be born at such and such a time with such and such habits; however, I was raised during the last fifty years and trained to match my outfits to the décor. There are all kinds of chronological stages. For example, there is a parade of lights each year. One townsman tells me it’s a time-honored tradition, but I don’t believe it. In this place, we once upon a time drank water from leaves and set traps for wolves and North American Indians. We invented houses with conveniences or luxuries or we sat in the open air to gather dust. Travelers passed by in herds, diligently following each other like railroad cars for safety and convenience to saloons run by men with glass eyes. The modern drawing room consisted of a divan, an ottoman, a sun-shade, and an oriental rug. Today I imagine busily dusting furniture. Then I imagine throwing furniture out a window instead of dusting it. I imagine dust gathering on broken furniture and horse shit on the ground. Meanwhile, the countertop is crammed with apple and orange peels. A half-eaten lollipop rests on its clear wrapper beside a pestle and mortar, also a white plate dirty from a slice of cherry pie, several aspirin cut in quarters, and an empty glass container. Before lunchtime, alone on the sidewalk, the world rolls by like a magical ride. The ice cream truck jingles as I pass and all the lawn gnomes offer a cheerful “Hello!” They look out with dead aim at the perfect beauty of lawn care, carpools, mailmen, etc. It’s their nature to inhabit such scenes like temple guards. Throughout the day this is more or less the quiet language of the block. It partakes of leaf blowers and competes visually with daytime television and advertisements for migraine medication and the sacred rights of citizens. I feel my instincts concentrated in my hands and feet. My feet search out the shallowness of the sidewalk like a clear stream. I follow it by degrees, in soft ripples, around children, churches, lawn mowers, dogs. I don’t even think about the permutations of violence or beatitude: plastic marigolds, stone pigs, lawn jockeys. One old man in a blue house in the middle of the street paints his sunflowers red, white, and blue every July. It’s my job to send him letters. I ask about the good and the bad. He responds by sending me books on arithmetic or old-time almanacs, but one day he drops dead without ever having entertained me, without ever having written down his wise thoughts, and without actually appearing to know anything beyond his strange whistling to himself and his painted yard. So I have lunch with Mrs. Batt. Together we have long eyelashes and remember many outings and activities, such as being upside-down on our heads, or sitting motionless like ducks, as well as ceremonies, disappearances, personal tragedies, and other stories that express whole years, if not centuries.

Danielle Dutton lives in Colorado with her husband. She is the author of a novel, S P R A W L (forthcoming from Clear Cut Press), and a collection, Attempts at a Life (forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press). Her work has appeared in various journals including NOON, 3rd bed, Denver Quarterly, and Fence. She teaches in the Writing & Poetics Department at Naropa University in Boulder.