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issue 38: september - october 2003 

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Anne Has A Thing, Makes Her Crazy
Sarah Strickley


There are flowers in my bedroom linoleum, big as bonnets, pinks and yellows, and the greenery surrounding them is a worn gray. It awkwardly rings each little bunch of color in tiny blocks, hard little shapes. The pattern, if you look too closely, falls through to plain lines of squares. A worn grid, old dirt caught in the crevices. It's beautiful, though, a perfectly repeated bouquet, if you don't look closely. If you don't really look, if you walk with your eyes leveled, floor blurred below, this floor can approach beauty. These flowers, they're amazing. Their petals blush in their folded centers. Their unopened buds are shaped like hearts.
      You would expect this sort of floor in a kitchen. A place where things are spilled, where traffic is heavy. You could easily envision easily a woman stooping in her kitchen to sweep mud from kids' shoes onto a postcard dustpan on this sort of floor. You could picture maybe a dog eating from a metal bowl on a floor like this, water dripping from his curled tongue, while the family eats dinner at the table. But from my bed it looks like it belongs in here. Those flowers look like bedroom flowers. They feel like bedroom flowers. You can't buy this kind of feeling. Can't find the pattern in a store. You can't ask for this to happen.
      "It's rare, precious," I would say, when Lee wanted to tear it up for me. He wanted plush you could comb like hair. He wanted it wall-to-wall. "You want the kind of floor you can get down and die on," he said. "Out of love." I would tell him you don't give up what's rare. You just never do.

The flowers were in the bedroom floor when I bought the place. Probably layered over the bad Ohio wood thirty years ago. Something somebody had extra. Some scrap rolled up in a garage. The woman showing the house said she'd seen it in other old places, the same odd pattern. I like to think of the conversations surrounding it. I like to think of the different kinds of people, the different kinds of lives lived on that same floor at those same times on these same streets. The children tracing the shapes with yet loose-jointed fingers, the black-soled shoes leaving lines, heavy furniture leaving deep indentations, they're all in here, all recorded in this floor. It wouldn't be hard to pull up, but there is this particular something about it worth saving. I believe you can build yourself a life out of rare things like these.
      "It's worth saving," I told Lee. He pointed a finger at me. "You only think it's worth saving because you need it to be," he said. He wasn't talking about the floor then. And this is where the story begins, this is the place it all comes back to. When he mentioned my needs in a way that meant they were a weakness, some disease from which he was keeping distance, I left the bed and slept on the bedroom flowers. I slept there without a sheet, without anything, and I never stirred that night.

Lee is the kind of man who goes out walking with the dog and comes back six days later carrying cheap jewelry in a felt box. He opens the box and holds it out to you. He doesn't look you in the face, but gets behind, says in your ear, do you like it? He rubs his hands over your belly, like he's trying to make it more round, says, I couldn't keep you off my mind. Says, you've been caught in my head like a song. In bed, you say, where's that dog? And he says, it wasn't such a good dog anyway, and then you know he's been with her, the one he used to live with. He's left that dog with her and you wonder which one of you asked him to walk it first. Which one of you did he first give the dog to? Or is it some other woman's dog altogether, some other woman yelling its other name in the streets, some other woman staring at a coiled leash on the floor of a quiet kitchen. You don't ask questions you don't want the answers to.
      I was working double office shifts exactly four full months the day before the night I slept on the flowers and Lee in the bed above. I despised this job. It was a job. I was a temporary. That's what it said on my name badge. No name, just TEMPORARY. I had to deal with people starting to call me Ms. Temporary when they wanted to ask me to do something. Had to deal with them calling me "you" instead. I wrote my name over and over on a note pad, while working the phones. Ms. Temporary Jones, Ms. Temporary Insanity. Big, arrogant, petty script.
      "What do you do there?" Lee said, stroking my calves in bed. It wasn't the first time he'd asked. Might have been the first time he'd listened. It was early morning. Our voices were still rough and gritty.
      "I do whatever anybody tells me to do," I said. I stretched, threw my arms straight back, kicked his dog off the bed.
      "Describe a typical day," he said, following the dog with his eyes.
      "I sit at my desk. I answer phones. I do what people ask me to do. I make copies. I clean the women's bathroom."
      He nodded like he was understanding something deep inside my leg muscles. "Sounds pretty good," he said.
      "The sick people on the phone get to me," I said. "They do nursing there and the sick people call in asking where their nurses are. I have to tell them I'm only a temp and I don't know anything about pumps or blood or injections."
      "What do they say?" he said.
      "They tell me their sicknesses," I said. I thought about it. I thought about the woman who called to say she didn't know what to do. Blood was coming out of a tube in her stomach. It was spreading like a bruise beneath the skin and she was watching it. She was waiting for her nurse to show. What should she do? I thought about the elderly man shouting, saying I'd billed his dying wife wrong, they couldn't pay, I had to see that. He was telling me numbers, naming doctors. He didn't hear me right when I said I was temporary. Thought I meant something else, someone else, and he beat the phone against its cradle. I could hear the bell ring inside it and then I hung up. I thought about telling Lee this. I thought about how awful the sounds I'd make would be to him, sounds of me complaining to him about work he'd kill for. "It's hard because I can't help them," I said.
      "You want to help them?" he said.
      "Of course I do. Nobody wants people to suffer like that," I said.
      "I don't know," he said. "Somebody might. It might make you feel better about your life to see somebody else in pain."
      "Who would do that?" I asked.
      "You might if you thought about it," he said.
      I told him he was disgusting, rolled his body with my legs onto the side of the bed that was against the wall. Shoved him until my knees locked in place and held him there. "You're fucking disgusting," I said. He laughed a deep laugh, a hearty laugh that involved the full length of his long body. His feet curled under and his legs shook. "You're sick," I said. He spread his palm on the wall behind the bed. Spread his fingers wide and pressed them there, pressed hard enough to cause the veins in his wrist and neck to blue and bulge. He began to cry then and he didn't stop. His moans were raw and low. Fits of rage knocked hard through his teeth, and one high breathless wail, like a scream without a sound, pulsed in his cheeks. He didn't stop until I held my hand over his open mouth, shut his jaw with my thumb, forced the noise back inside of him.
      "What am I going to do with you, Lee?" I said. "What am I supposed to do with you?" His dog cried. I could hear its long nails on the floor, could hear it pacing. Lee looked at my chin, looked at my nose. Grabbed me hard and pulled the whole of me into his chest, pulled my legs up and my shoulders down, rounded me into the shape of a child and cradled me. "You make me crazy, Anne," he said. "Tell me you love me." I told him I loved him anyway.
      Lee is the kind of man you don't much mind sharing because you can't bear sharing all of yourself with someone like him. You tell him squarely, make him look you straight in the face by holding his ears, you tell him, don't get too attached, don't go thinking about me as your wife or your mother, because I don't have it in me, because I'd kill you or me trying to be that. When he asks for a key to your place, you tell him it's your place. You tell him to find his own place. When he asks if he can put your number on the application for the job he'll never get, because he can't sit still, because he can't stop laughing or screaming, you tell him you'd rather he moved back in with her for good. And when he asks you if you love him, you say yes. You repeat this word, yes, and force his head into your chest. You say, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And you say it like you mean it more than anything you ever meant.

The day I slept on the floor, they paged me by name overhead in the office. When I heard my name, I put my hands on my ears, clamped in the sound, caught it there and held it. They requested my presence in the administrative wing. My presence, as though it didn't exactly involve me. It wasn't the paging itself that startled me, it was hearing my name, beaming out over all of the cubicles, like it was seeking the right body to cling to. Felt like if I moved too fast, it'd never get to me. If I sunk too low, it would pass me by. The secretary in administration told me she wanted me to answer a few questions. She didn't ask any.
      "They want you to sign a five-year contract," she said. "The position would be full time, same hours you're working now, same responsibilities. A benefits package would be instituted at the onset of your second year. Full coverage for you and your family."
      "Five years?" I said.
      "Congratulations," she said. She slid a packet of papers across the desk at me. Told me to double-sign everything. She flashed a strained smile. "Welcome," she said. Welcome.
      At my desk, with my five-year contract, I thought of Lee. There was no one else to think of. I thought of how he would react to the news, because there was no one else to react to it. I thought he might smile. He might lie. He might say it was just the thing we'd been waiting for, the kind of news we needed. He might say this meant it was time to settle down, get serious. I troubled myself, making him shape those words in my mind. Kettle pound, let mysterious. His jaw moved, like a drunk puppet's. Treble round, set delirious. I had him speaking nonsense easily.
      On the radio, a man was talking about starting over with his ex-wife. He wanted to dedicate a half-hour block of love songs to Ginny. He spoke directly to his ex-wife, straight out into air. "Ginny," he said, "this is just to say I love you and I want you back." How horrifying, I thought. How perfectly horrified this woman must be, maybe in an office of her own, sipping coffee, filing papers, fending off inane comments from ridiculous co-workers. I thought of the vulgar insinuations they'd make, the air forced out between teeth, the clicking of tongues. I want you back, Ginny. I want you back. I thought of the skin on the back of her neck. How hot and sick it must feel.

Lee is the kind of man who never wants to say or do what you expect. When you meet him, he introduces himself by another name. Maybe it's James or Mark. Maybe he wants you to call him Chris for the first week of your knowing each other. In your bed, sharing a cigarette with Chris, you tell him of the loves you've had and lost. You tell him of the man you planned to marry, describe, even, the ring, the selection of the ring. You describe the pain of his leaving and what it felt like to drive half of everything once yours across the state in a rented truck, and how it hurt to help to move it into a space where you were not welcome, are still not welcome. You describe how it felt to look at the brown couch in this new room, to see it there and imagine it here, to configure in your mind the whole of the room that once was. You tell him it was impossible to understand. You tell him you've learned enough of living with lovers. He tells you he understands you're afraid. You make love without fear. In the sheets and tangled, his breath on your back, he tells you his real name, a name wholly other than the name of the man you've just let inside you. Some fully other man looks at you square when you turn your head over your shoulder. He smiles. This is Lee. A complete stranger, a lover. All at once.

I pulled into the drive that evening and he was in the yard, hacking up pieces of lumber with a broken axe, the only real tool I own. I drove in real slow and parked level with him, watched him with my hands on the wheel, motor running, air going. I recognized the wood from a green bookshelf we'd torn out of the sunroom, thrown in the garage and forgotten about. He had the broke-off handle of the dull axe bound to his right hand with hemp rope, making of his whole arm a tool. He was beating at the wood, sweating. I leaned across the dash and rolled down the window. "What are you doing?" I asked. He stopped mid-swing and turned his head. Kicked at the pile of old wood with his boot and stood straight. So many times, seeing a lover is seeing a lover for the first time. I looked at him as he shook his legs in his pants, working the fabric down from his crotch. His arms were wet with sweat, his beautiful long face red with dirt, his black hair matted to his head like a tight wool cap. "I was waiting for you," he said.
      "But what are you doing?" I asked. I shouted this across the interior of my car, at this man in my yard. This strange man. His dog was sitting near the heap of wood, his leg stretched over his head, licking at himself like there was perfect logic to it all, as though it was all perfectly logical and normal. And I was almost convinced.
      "You forgot to leave it open," he said. "I've been standing around waiting for you to get home. I told you I'd be over tonight."
      I looked at him. I could see myself, though, looking at him in the rearview. I could see myself, my face. I was cringing. I could just make it out. I cut the engine and sat in the car. He leaned his forearm into the window frame until I threw him the keys. "Tell me you love me, Anne," he said. "Tell me you love me."
      "Love you," I said. He smiled, walked to the front door and unlocked it. He walked straight into the house with an axe on his hand, dog on his heels.

Later, while we ate, I touched the marks left in his hand by the rope. I raised an eyebrow and ran my thumb through the furrows. He told me he'd been planning on breaking the wood down and putting up some shelves in the garage for me ever since we pulled the old structure down. He said he thought I could get the car in there if we organized the place, got all the shit up from the floor.
      "I don't need shelves," I said. "I detest organization."
      He got at a piece of lettuce in his teeth with his middle finger. The nail there was chewed down, like all of his nails. This is one of the habits that makes Lee, Lee. This is one of his embarrassments. Not a compulsion, he'd say, an embarrassment.
      "I wanted to do something for you," he said.
      "I don't need shelves," I said. "Where did you find that damn axe?"
      He put his hands in his lap, shrugged. His fork sat on his plate, leaned into a piece of chicken. He started to speak, stopped. Started again. "You think I'm crazy," he said. He watched that chicken and then he watched me chewing.
      "No," I said.
      "You do," he said.
      "You're right. I think you're fucking psychotic," I said. I threw a little wedge of blood orange at his head. He straightened his spine, his face tight in a smile. I threw another. He dodged, pulled the chunk of chicken from his fork, tossed it into my coffee. I pulled a slab of meat straight off the bird and flung it at his chest and he was up, dumping salad in my hair, pouring yogurt sauce in my pants. His hands were all over, pressing, rustling, dumping. Glass broke and chairs toppled. "Okay, okay," I was saying, "please stop for real," and he was pinning me to the floor with his knees on my arms and forcing butter down my blouse. He was kissing me, tasting the food on my skin. Softly, suddenly. Soft and deliberate. And then something real happened, one of those pauses in life that fill themselves with years of time. He set his teeth around my chin and bit, set his chin in my mouth until I bit, and I bit him hard. His breath came out and he said, "Tell me you love me, Anne." He said this again and again, breathing heavy, his mouth near my ear. "Tell me you love me. Tell me you love me."
      "I love you," I said, and I looked at the food on the wallpaper, the broken dishes. I looked at the dog, sitting in Lee's empty chair, eating meat off bones.

When Lee tells you about the other woman he loves, he tells you because he wants you to know him. Not out of malice, or spite. He doesn't hide it. It doesn't come out in a fight. He only tells you the bare bones and you understand the rest. He eases his arm beneath your neck and turns your head into his chest. You reach up and touch the skin there. You touch it so softly. He tells you her name is Jay or Monica. Linda or Claire. It doesn't matter. It's all the same. They lived together two years before he moved out. He moved because she asked him to. She said she couldn't handle him, or she said she was afraid of him. He tells you he loves her and he tells you he loves you. You tell him you believe him. You understand where he goes when he goes and you understand inside yourself the places he cannot be allowed. There are words you hold inside yourself, pain you keep hidden. You hold these words because your knowledge of their sound and shape is not his. His knowledge of you is the only kind that can crush you.

In the bath together, we washed food from each other's hair, dog making horrible noise in the toilet bowl. Lettuce floated in the water. Our skin was red. Steam rose. After the bath, I got into bed face down. I breathed hard into the sheets, felt the warmth of my own damp breath on my face. I could hear Lee in the kitchen, fooling with dishes, singing his same song. I could hear him come up the stairs, two at a time, flick the switch in the bathroom and run water over his hands, still singing the same song he always sings, something without words, only sounds made in a familiar pattern. It was impossible, the sound of him moving. It was impossible knowing it, every soft inflection, loving it and its denial simultaneously. I felt him there, in the room, unbuttoning his shirt and hanging it on the bedpost, kicking his boots beneath the bed. He walked his knees across the mattress and yawned enormously, beautifully.
      "I want to do something special soon," he said.
      "Like what?" I said. I said this into the sheets, shouted.
      "Dinner or something. An official date," he said.
      "I don't date guys like you," I said.
      "I see," he said. "You're just in it for the sex." He laughed at his joke, poked me in the side with his knee. He got me by the ribcage and rolled me over, made me look at him. "What is it?" he said.
      "They hired me full time," I said.
      He pulled me up, embraced me. "That's terrible," he said. "You hate that job."
      "I don't hate that job," I said.
      "Yes you do," he said.
      I thought about asking him to marry me. I thought about killing him. I stroked the back of his head. "You don't get a job offer like this every day," I said.
      "I don't get any," he said. "You're right. You should be happy. I should be congratulating you. Congratulations. You should let me take you out someplace special."
      He leaned me back into the bed and fell down next to me. Propped his head up on his arm and played with his ear. "Maybe we can use the extra money to fix this place up," he said. He looked around the room.
      "What's wrong with things the way they are?" I said and I imagined the words he could say to try to convince me of himself. He could say that he would change, that he would settle himself, that he would be there and really be there. I imagined the entire conversation, imagined I'd say something sarcastic, tell him to get a life, tell him to get a job. I imagined a different conversation then, one in which I told him I'd change, I would learn to trust, I would invite him in and really mean it. I looked at his blank face, empty and white as a clean plate.
      "It's a wreck in here. The place is falling apart," he said. "Maybe we can refinish the wood in here. We could do it ourselves."
      "I can't take this floor up. I love it," I said.
      "It's horrible," he said. "Look at it. Have you ever looked at it?"
      I leaned over the bed, touched it with my finger. I traced a flower's stem, the dog following my finger with his nose, licking after me for food. I saw the gray squares, lopsided lines, stained flecks of plastic. I saw the dirt and the grit. "It's rare," I said. "It's worth saving."
      "No," Lee said. He straddled me, pointed his finger at me. "You only think it's worth saving because you need it to be." He shook me, grabbed my shoulders and shook. He was crying then, without tears falling, just noise. "Same thing with us," he said. And so he had heard. He had heard me all along.

In the night, on the cold of the floor, I heard him ask from the bed. I heard him say, "Do you love me? Do you love me, Anne?" And I didn't say a thing. I heard him rise from the bed and put on his shirt. Heard him buttoning it and knew he was starting from the bottom. I heard him pull his boots from beneath the bed and knew he was tying the right one first, the left one second. I heard him call to his dog, patting his knee through his jeans, the way he does, always. And I heard him leave, say good-bye, and leave.

Anne is the kind of woman who wakes and finds herself shoving a noise back in her mouth with her hands. She wakes on the floor and hears herself saying, screaming, no, or maybe, yes. It doesn't matter because it's all the same. She pulls a T-shirt over her knotted hair, pulls some boots over bare feet and runs to her car. She's driving before she shuts the door. She drives until she catches you. She drives until she finds you walking, dog at your heels, up a steep curve. She leaves the car in the street and runs to you, half naked, and you hold her. You tell her she's crazy and she should get back in bed. When she asks you if you love her, you say yes. You say yes, and you touch the side of her face. You say yes and you keep walking because you know if you stay, she'll never want you fully. She never will.
      

2003 Sarah Strickley

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author bio

Sarah Strickley
Sarah Strickley received an MA in Creative Writing at Ohio University and is currently in her first year as a Truman Capote fellow at the University of Iowa.

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issue 38: september - october 2003 

 
Short Fiction

Ron Butlin: The Mighty Handful Versus the Rest of the World
Alicia Gifford: Surviving Darwin
Ryland W. Greene: What D’ya Know
Sarah Strickley: Annie Has a Thing, Makes Her Crazy
Richard Ailes: The Bounce

   picks from back issues
Anthony Bourdain: Bobby at Work
Bill Broady: In This Block There Lives a Slag . . .

Quiz

Book Titles
answers to last issue’s Literature-to-film - the Sequel

Book Reviews

Night Visits by Ron Butlin
Loot and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer
Love Me by Garrison Keillor
Tiny Ladies by Adam Klein
Fear Itself by Walter Mosley

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