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I’ve just finished giving the day’s last tour at the museum where I work when my husband, Burt, calls me on my cell. I’ve known this call would come for some time, because Burt doesn’t like confrontations, but I didn’t expect it would happen here, in the track-lit gallery on the second floor, amid cases of Maurice Sendak’s early sketches and interactive digital touchscreens. I hold the phone loosely to my ear, and he says what he has to say, which isn’t exactly what I’d imagined it would be, but then, I suppose nothing ever is. When the conversation is over, I press the red button on the nearest touchscreen and listen to Maurice Sendak describe his deep-seated childhood fear of being abducted like the Lindbergh baby, and his brother’s cruel rejoinder, “Who would ever want to kidnap you?”
. . .
Moving, it turns out, isn’t hard. I hate leaving our house and its comfortably creaky front porch, but Burt makes sure to never be around, and I manage to get all my things out in a matter of days, staying in our bed, then when I can’t take that anymore, in a hotel room he pays for, until I’m done. Before I know it, I have a new place and a pile of empty cardboard boxes in the corner, waiting for me to flatten and dispose of them so that we can all get on with our lives.
My new home is a thinly carpeted one bedroom that looks over an alley on one side and a street corner on the other. A sandwich shop and a number of stray cats share my dumpster, which I can see through my alley-side window. I have never before had such a cinematic view of a public dumpster, so on the first night in my new place, for lack of anything better to do, I sit on a stool with a mug of hot tea and watch it, half-hoping a criminal will dump a body there and my testimony will later send him to jail. No criminals come, just the cats, slithering around corners and jumping up on cans. I have almost given up on the show when a little woman in filthy kitchen whites emerges from the back door of the sandwich shop and proceeds to dump a giant canister of food waste. I stand up, nearly scalding my hand, because I’m certain I see something splash into the open recycling bin, where I’ve been planning to take my boxes. She does it again the second night, and the third, leaving a trail of guts and bacteria, at which point I have to accept it as her routine, disgusted though I am.
Of course I’ve brought this on myself. I’d have no problem if I hadn’t made a point of watching. Or if I had no boxes to toss. But I did, and I do, and now it’s clear I can’t go on living my life as I have before, now that I’ve seen what happens in dumpsters. In the end, I make the only sensible decision. I burn my boxes with dignity in the park.
. . .
An elderly woman sits on a wooden bench near the entrance. It’s her bench: she’s been there every time I’ve come. She wears a hat with netting over her face, which makes her look like a man in drag. I pass her with my first stack of boxes, and she nods, as though approving my plan in advance. I set them up, still box-shaped, on the blacktop, making sure to keep away from the grass.
When the smoke begins to rise in little curls from my fire, she calls over to me. “They’re going to see you from the street,” she says. She points to the row of houses on the far side of the park, where families live with dogs. A man shades his eyes from one of the stoops. I wave; he looks away.
“They already have,” I say.
“There are bigger parks,” she says. “Better places for a bonfire.”
“None that I can walk to.”
“Well, if convenience is what you need.”
. . .
At the police station I explain that my method of disposal is more humane than the practice more commonly accepted.
“It is against the law to start a fire in a public park,” the officer says.
“I have no remorse,” I tell him loudly.
He shakes his head, clearly afraid, and hands me a citation and fine. I pay it of course. Generally speaking, I follow the rules.
As I leave the station, I see a man I know turn a corner, as though ducking out of my sight. I can’t determine who he is, though I know he isn’t Burt, whom I haven’t seen in weeks. The sight of this familiar back turning a corner triggers something in my brain, and I know he is a person I have just met, or perhaps someone I have always known, the two conditions being often conflated in my mind.
I follow him, tucking the citation into my purse, and find him holding a hot dog next to a street vendor’s cart. There are no condiments on his dog, so I know it is a ruse. He’s the man who shaded his eyes from his stoop.
“I saw you start the fire,” he says. “Were the boxes empty?” Which is actually a pretty silly question. Who would ever burn boxes that were full?
“What do you think?” I ask, buying time.
He’s a performer, so he has to stroke his chin while he mulls over the options. “I think they were empty,” he says finally, beaming.
Since he seems to expect applause, I offer him a slow, loud clap. Even though it was obvious, I have to admit I’m glad he got it right.
. . .
A boy on a bike escorts me home, ringing his bell at every pedestrian crosswalk. He’s not one of those bicycle bandits I keep hearing about on the news, just a weird, nice kid who likes to share the facts that he knows. He’s been to the Maurice Sendak exhibit more than once, so I feel like I know him, even though I don’t. At my door, I thank him for the information about wood-frog hibernation and tell him I have to clean my place.
When Burt was around, he liked to sit cross-legged in the hall and wait for me to make my way to his knees with the DustBuster. He’d pull me down into his lap, which was easy because I was already stooped, then he’d kiss me and make me switch off the power. When we were happy, the house was always half-vacuumed. But more often than not, it was clean. Burt was always suffering from something—a corrosive stomach ache, an odd pain behind his brow. He feared pancreatic cancer and als, transverse myelitis and even aids. I read him symptom summaries off the Internet and felt his pulse whenever he asked. He had me so convinced that he would die, that even now I must remind myself he isn’t dead, only living with somebody else.
. . .
Later on, I burn more boxes in the park. The man who shaded his eyes walks up holding a plastic bottle of mineral water still cloudy with refrigeration. He tells me his name is Co. The drag lady snorts from her nearby bench.
“As in company?” I ask.
“As in c-o-e, spelled like toe and hoe—the garden kind, not the promiscuous kind. It’s my mother’s maiden name.”
I think it’s a stupid name, and I tell him so.
“If I were looking for love, I’d go to a bar,” I say, loud enough for my veiled friend to hear. She nods supportively, by now knowing all about my life.
“So are you using lighter fluid or anything like that?” he persists, and in due time he’s following me home.
“Our country’s falling apart,” Coe says, as we step around a chunk of sidewalk that looks like some kind of trap. “Our great American roads, our bridges and sewers. They’re crumbling before our eyes. Philadelphia, for instance? Made of rust.”
“This city’s problem is the accent,” I tell him. I attempt to impersonate it and fail. I was born and raised in Ohio.
For reasons I don’t understand, I let him come up to sit on the edge of my couch. We drink beer, and when no one’s looking, we lean over the back of the couch to throw our empties on the sidewalk below. It’s the day after the garbage pick-up and there are so many broken bottles on my street, ten more won’t make a difference.
“It’s so easy to trash what’s already wrecked,” Coe says, waving his hand out the window. “We’re good citizens and look at us.” Coe is an engineer, so he can really only speak for himself. The Maurice Sendak exhibit is good, but I didn’t create it; I just sell people tickets and tell them things they could just as well learn from the Internet.
“How do you dispose of your trash?” I ask him, looking down. Our broken bottles stand out from the rest with their moss green glass and pale yellow labels.
He smiles at me as though I’m in grade school and have just asked a question that’s a little advanced for my age. “I usually do it the normal way,” he says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with you.”
That evening, when he’s gone, I go down to the sidewalk to sweep the bottle shards into a plastic recycling bin and take them to the city compactor. You can’t burn glass the way you can burn paper, and anyway you can’t do everything yourself.
. . .
Some time passes, and Burt calls to tell me he and his girlfriend are back in town, so I shouldn’t be surprised if I see them together. I tell him it wouldn’t matter if I saw him alone or with a crowd of monkeys; I’d still look the other way. I am proud of myself for being so direct.
“I have a new friend,” I tell him. “His name is Coe.”
“Is he Asian?” he asks.
“No,” I say, and hang up.
Once I know Coe for a while, I find I don’t really like him. He has many opinions on subjects on which I’m insufficiently read. “Community Internet,” he says. “Corporate kickbacks. Prescription drug benefits. Ground troop withdrawal in eighteen months.” He doesn’t make me feel stupid; he just makes me feel like a player who never enters the game. Every time the bets go around, I turn my cards over and fold.
“Look,” he says, “we’ll go for a run.” He’s wearing a sweatband and a wristwatch and he’s dancing around outside my door.
I hate to run, but I don’t say no. He’s the only person offering me anything.
We run around the neighborhood and then up to the river path, where dark lumps of men sleep on benches all day long. Coe talks the whole time, tilting toward me like there’s water in his ear. My side cramps up, and I wonder why I’ve chosen to endure such pain with a man I don’t even like.
We stop at a lamppost and he stretches unnecessarily, showing off his sweat stains and the dark hair on his lower back. “I’m never hungry until I work out,” he says. “Man, am I hungry now.”
Back at my apartment, I make him eggs, because I want him to eat quickly and leave. He lingers awhile, swirling his toast in the broken yolk and talking to me in movie quotes.
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” he says in a weird accent. “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” He giggles for longer than seems necessary, until I am giggling, too, because I’ve never heard a man laugh the way he does, like a little girl or a foreigner unaccustomed to American ways.
. . .
The next day, I return to the park with more boxes I find I don’t need: shoeboxes, a box that once held a printer, empty Kleenex boxes, a box that delivered bed linens in the mail.
As I watch bar codes and postage stamps recede in the flames, the drag lady comes by to check on my work.
“I can’t stand Coe,” I tell her.
“His hair is bad,” she agrees. “Too ratty at the ends.”
A cop rolls by on the opposite street, whoops his siren once and heads on downtown. Ever since I paid that first fine, they have all but left me alone. The more I come, the less they care. They have bicycle bandits to catch.
“Why am I friends with a man I can’t stand?”
She shrugs behind her veil. “You miss your husband.”
“Coe says America’s rusting,” I tell her, changing the subject to something less difficult.
“I can’t speak for America, but Philadelphia’s a mess.”
“That’s what Coe says! Admit it: you’re in cahoots!”
“Oh, yes,” she says. “We have many devious plans.”
With that she heads back to her bench, dragging on the ground behind her a yellow purse that looks brand new. Alone with my fire, I pull up some pansies from a landscaped corner while I wait for the flames to subside.
. . .
Coe has tickets to a game. “September baseball!” he says. I can’t think of a worse person to watch baseball with than Coe.
At the ballpark he eats four hot dogs and demonstrates his knowledge of statistics. “Oops,” he says, wiping relish from his shoe. I remember that first hot dog, the one I thought had been a ruse. Now I wonder if, when left to his own devices, he ever eats anything else. With relish, without. It doesn’t seem to matter.
A tattooed man behind us taunts the nearest outfielder, nonstop, for a long half inning. “Hey, JOHNNY! YOU SUCK! I got ya number, JOHNNY. I’m in ya head!”
“What did I say about that accent?” I ask Coe.
He chews another bite of hot dog and tells me someone has thirty homers this season, a personal best. None of his sports facts interest me, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s at least nice enough to buy me lemon ice, which I’ve loved every summer of my life.
For two innings, Coe focuses fully on the game, and I’m able to watch a pair of birds circling the park. They perch in a few different places—the foul pole, the roof of a concession stand—before a burst of cheering startles them and they go flapping to a safer space. Coe is being tolerable enough, but I still think the birds have the right idea. If I leave now I’ll be home in time for the news.
Of course Burt’s the next person I see, making his way to a seat in our section. He sees me too and waves, then points at her in case I’d forgotten the reason he left me. I have always thought she looks like an iguana, and not in a charming way. She appears even more reptilian this afternoon, behind her large sunglasses and under her wide-brimmed hat. She’s holding two giant soft pretzels, one in each hand, and they are covered in salt crystals that are about the same shape as, but much smaller than, the new diamond on her finger.
I tell Coe I will never come to a game with him again.
. . .
Having run out of boxes, I start burning old magazines.
Coe jogs up in his sweatband. “I gave you that subscription,” he says, pointing at a disintegrating New Yorker. “Have you even read this issue?”
“It came yesterday. I read it in the tub.”
“I said I read it.”
“And I said that’s bullshit. You never read anything I give you.”
“I can’t have all this garbage in my life!” I scream.
“Yeah,” Coe says, “I’ll see you around.”
. . .
I know I’ve been cruel, so I stop by his house that night to apologize. “I wish I hadn’t burned your gift,” I say, when he answers the door. “I swear I won’t burn it next week.”
He remains unmoved, a hairy man with a ponytail.
“I brought you something,” I say.
“A mouse pad. How thoughtful.”
“ ‘A broken clock is right twice a day,’” I say, reading the text aloud. “I thought you’d like it.” It’s a thing I’ve had for years. I’d grabbed it because it reminded me of him—the word broken and all our bottles on the street.
He bites into it with his teeth and pulls, like a dog with a chew toy. “Durable,” he says. “Come on, I’ll walk you home.”
He comes upstairs and, as usual, finds a seat on the edge of my couch. I give him a beer and kick at his knee. “Sit back! If you’re here, you’re here.”
“Three months of this!” he says.
Just three? I’ve been trying so hard to lose count.
He gets up to use the bathroom, and for a moment I forget he’s in the apartment. I start putting silverware into drawers, thinking about him as though he’s in another state. My friend Coe I’ve just met; my friend Coe I’ve always known. He’s the kind of person nine people out of ten won’t see.
He calls me from the bedroom. I go to the doorway with my hands on my hips, and there he is in the dark, under the blankets, waiting. He wiggles his toes, wanting me to notice the care he’s taken to remove his shoes.
“At least let me stay the night,” he says. I consider my supply of towels. He could have the bleach-stained one I never like to use. “It’s too late to go home now,” he pleads, though he lives just three blocks away.
I lift up the covers and slide in next to him, still wearing my jeans and shirt. Coe curls around me in his T-shirt and boxer shorts, his thick arm draping over my hip. He says, “Whatever you want,” which I have to admit is a sweet thing to say. I wiggle myself around and take his face in my hands. Squeezing a little, I push his slack skin into a series of puppyish folds around his nose and mouth. Perhaps it’s the absence of light, but his face doesn’t look nearly as annoying as it once did.
“You have to promise not to lecture me,” I tell him, releasing his cheeks to their ordinary pose.
“And you’re not allowed to laugh at anything I say. Or do.” I realize I’m not giving him much to work with, but it’s the best I can offer right now.
He considers my conditions, and I can see from the shadows that form under his eyes that he’s tempted to call me out, which is probably what I deserve. But this is a singular opportunity, and he knows it, my knee pushing up between his legs, my insides already unrolling themselves in anticipation. To his credit, he does the right thing and obeys, which means he must actually know what he wants.
. . .
In the middle of the night, I leave Coe in the blankets and shut myself in the bathroom to brush my teeth. My lips look ferocious in the mirror, like a model impersonating a cat, an expression that seems to sell high heels. I wonder, brushing, if I could wear my lips like this in the world. Would it be so unnatural to go everywhere, hissing like a cat?
The phone rings. It’s the middle of the night, which means it can only be Burt.
“I found another box of yours,” he says. “Old things from grade school that I’m sure you wouldn’t want.”
I imagine a hoard of eraser caps and magazine clippings, vital clues to the person I’ve become. Finally, something worth keeping!
“Anyway,” he says, “I threw it out. Figured I’d save you the trouble.”
I don’t know what to say. “Did you recycle it?” I finally ask.
“No. Well, kind of. I gave the markers to Time and Again. They still worked! I tried them.”
He knows it was wrong. He knows I care about things from the past. He knows I loved that house and would’ve cured his fake ailments if I could’ve.
“That’s a special thing to have found and thrown away,” I tell him. My eyes are welling. All those pencils and handwritten notes. Not garbage, not garbage at all, even if they’d been forgotten. It would’ve been better never to have known.
“I called to apologize.”
“You’re trying to hurt me,” I tell him.
He protests. He says he’s not mean, just careless. But in the end, I don’t think there’s much of a difference.
. . .
The next morning, over granola, I curl my lips for Coe. He’s dutifully amused.
“You stink,” I tell him.
He sniffs his forearm, as though this were the most likely source of odor. “I’m trying this new thing where I don’t shower,” he says.
“It’s not working,” I tell him, surprised I hadn’t noticed before.
“It’s human,” he says, clasping his hands behind his head to display himself. He’s wearing the kind of shirt ignorant people blithely call a wifebeater, and his armpit hairs huddle together in thick, larva-like strands. “If you can accept the smell, you’ll eventually come to like it. Before long you won’t even notice it’s there.”
“That sounds like a rationale for fascism,” I say, which makes him laugh in his tittering way. “Well, I’d rather not be duped. I’d rather know when a man’s body stinks.”
Coe keeps grinning like a jester while I clear our dishes and clean out the crisper in the fridge, tossing vegetables that might’ve been fine five minutes ago, but have just now begun to rot. He hums and walks around my living room, no less strange for having slept in my bed. I admit I’m disappointed I didn’t awake to a whole new Coe.
He returns to the kitchen to wrap his arms around me. “I’d love to throw you in a big vat of mud,” he says, squeezing upward.
I try to imagine letting him. It’s impossible. It’s hard enough to be looked at as it is. But Coe doesn’t shy from humiliation. He thinks it’s the best way to live.
“You’re a barbarian,” I tell him, rationally at first, but before long I have kicked him back against the refrigerator. Does he think I’ll let him keep bearing down on me like this? Coe has a hard time listening to other people, and anyway, he’s the first to admit he always does what he wants. “Women get what they want; men do what they want,” he told me once on a run. It’s clear from his hanging, corpse-gray face and the way he is rubbing his shin that what Coe wants now is to leave my apartment—and because he is Coe, and not a corpse, he does.
. . .
I sit with my veiled friend in the park on a day when I have brought no boxes.
“Tell me again that thing about men,” I say.
“What?” she asks. “They’re replaceable.” She looks past the horizon as she always does. I’ve never been able to decide how to categorize her life. She’s either constantly at leisure or constantly at work: waiting, keeping vigil, lest everything fall apart.
Across the green, Coe opens his door and walks east without looking our way. I’ve told him I don’t want to see him anymore, and so far, he’s heeded my wish, which is a relief. When I was with Burt, I used to sit next to him on trains and imagine him erupting into a fatal seizure, struck at last by the catastrophic illness he’d always known would come. I’d cradle his lurching, foaming head on the sooty metal floor, sobbing myself silent, then flash forward to the eulogy and the difficult days beyond when I’d be clutching at his pictures and tie rack, and generally never getting over it. It became even harder to please him after fantasies like that. Of course I still loved him and never wanted to stop, but I guess loving someone just isn’t the same when you’re always preparing for his death.
I ask my friend if she’s ever seen a man foam at the mouth, and she looks at me as though I’ve just admitted some shameful habit. I ask her again, louder this time, in case she hadn’t heard me correctly, being elderly and perhaps a little deaf. But she just shakes her head and blows air from her mouth, then reaches out to pat my hand several times, apparently having nothing to say.
I hate awkward silences, so I’m forced to say goodbye and head home, where a fresh package of printer paper sits atop my desk. I’d felt good when I bought it: 100 percent post-consumer waste, made from recycled newspapers. I open it now and stroke the top sheet, which is dull and slightly roughened, far purer than all those brighter whites one sees on china patterns and advertisements for detergent with bleach. The page is blank, of course, but suddenly, all I can see are the ghosts of its old news, the kind of stuff that would’ve excited Coe’s politics and encouraged Burt’s despair. Teenagers overdosing on heroin in a gentle suburban town. An Irish cop killed—always there are Irish cops killed—the assailant still at large. A plane crash in Florida, where several people I know have moved. All stories I’ve recently read, all of them making it clear that no one survives. Not even elite athletes, who drop dead in summer practice when their small hearts can’t sustain the weight of their bodies in the heat.
It would mean a new level of purging to burn material that’s not technically waste. I understand this. But I know what it is that I do, and what it does for me. It’s not that I think two human beings can never truly understand each other, for I think Burt and I reached that state for a short time many years ago, when the caving gable of our porch seemed proof that space contracts in the presence of people in love. But it’s not a permanent way to live, and it can’t be counted on in any case.
Back at the park, I make the paper last by crumpling and lighting the sheets one at a time. The more I can get going at once, the more they look like the first signs of a revolution. The fireballs are attracted to each other, and they amass before me in such a glittering mound that for a silly but powerful moment, I feel the way I imagine an athlete feels when he makes an important play. I feel as though I have a special skill, and that the act of living is to use and perfect it as often as I possibly can.
It doesn’t take long for someone to call the cops. The tired pair that drive up get out of the car adjusting their belts, hardly seeming to know each other. One is middle-aged, mustachioed, and white—probably Irish. The other is young and black, with a boxer’s ear like a failed bagel. Of course it’s the mustachioed one who writes up my report, while I sit in the back of the squad car, with my legs stretched out to the curb.
“Everybody knows about you,” he says, flattering me. “We had a running bet down at the station over which one of us was going to get you next. Sergeant said we had to space it out, since you’re not really a threat to public safety.”
This was incredible! I had been the subject of gambling among cops I’d never met; I was practically a celebrity criminal.
“So you won.”
“Sure did.” He scribbles something on his pad: clearly nonsense. “Luck of the draw.”
“Who else have you caught? Drug dealers? Those kids who snatch purses from their bikes?”
The young black cop reappears with what remains of my paper. “I’m giving this to Maria,” he says, ruffling the edge of the stack. “Still good.”
The white cop shrugs as though he doesn’t care what his partner does, ever, and turns back to me. “So tell me, just what did you think you were doing?” he asks. He’s got the tough talk down—must have watched a lot of cop shows as a kid. He raps his knuckles on the side of the car. My neighbors loiter with grocery bags across the street, and I can see a few of them craning their necks to see if they know me. One woman shakes her head, and a man glides up on a bike.
For all the thousands of people who ride bikes in this town, you’d think it’d be someone other than Coe. A purse-snatcher even, of the sort I’ve been longing to see. But it is Coe, that impossible man, who I didn’t even know owned a bike. He pauses at the intersection and looks my way, and even though I’m glad we’re through, for a fleeting moment I entertain the thought of sprinting from the back of the cop car and, in just two or three strides, coming close enough to jump up behind him on the bike, which he’d pedal wildly down the street, turning shadowy colonial corners to freedom. Assuming I could hold on tight, it would be the perfect escape vehicle, stealthy and impossible to track. Not that I’d ever get away with it. Coe could maybe, but not me. I never get away with anything.
About the Author
Katherine Hill holds an MFA from Bennington College. Her fiction has been published in Philadelphia Stories and Word Riot, and her articles and reviews have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Bookforum, The Believer, Poets & Writers, and Philadelphia City Paper. She lives in Philadelphia and is at work on a novel.