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mother De'ath kneels before the bed, as if in prayer. What prayer can she offer up? What words to soothe the cramped bone, the empty cradle, her ribs? The gutting of fish, maybe, a love of flesh so taut it slices the belly open. What does this love reveal? A few odd stones, an embedded hook. A gullet that loves the rusted snare so hard she has to twist and wrench to pry it loose.
Mother De'ath reinflicts her wounds, time to time, to keep her throat supple. Otherwise, she fears, her voice box will be constricted by long and looping ribbons of scar. The burns on the palms of her hands, doled out as carefully as wartime sugar. An empty tureen is a slow seduction, fingers sliding close as they spark the gas flame.
Maddie renumbers her father's fingers. How impossibly dainty, ladylike, as they extract the gall. The stomach presented to Maddie, her thick hands laying it on a rock to slit the sac open, hoping to scry another, smaller trout, a crawfish, or maybe even a ring. Once, she found a small metal fishing weight that she mistook for a gem, the metal casing smoothed to a fine green patina. Her father opened the weight with his knife, pressing it close over her necklace with his teeth. But the green-gem of it smeared across the hollow of her neck, leaving the bauble indecipherable as the dull gunmetal sky. And then the gulls came, to bicker over the eyes. Watching fish heads knocking in the shallows against rocks, Maddie felt the weight on her neck grow heavy, drawing her down to the water below. Her father's hand, on her shoulder, broke the spell.
The memoryis felt as a longing for touch, here and here. The simple want of more than the clean starch-white of hotel room sheets. The linen laid on the blue-striped mattress; by Roses; the rust-coloured stain, the sag. The pillowcase swallows whatever scraps there are left of her. Maddie turns the case inside out, fingers rummaging for the fishing weight, a phrase, some debris dislodged from memory perhaps. Finding nothing in the case but the cold white clean of it, she turns to go.
Somewhere, an object whose bare insistence will restore her. Whose simple dimensions will assert nothing more than its own existence and, not implicating her in textures, offering no shape to hold her, will reassert the content of her skin; the rustle of her dress, the susurrous hiss of stockings, the clack-clack-clack of heels as she strides down the hotel steps and out. Yes, she thinks, a touch. Though she cannot recall why the urge; the urge.
at market, shapes sound through her fingers. The soft scuffle of brown paper as it wraps meat. The words for the shapes on her tongue. The pound of meat hammering into her mouth as her arms cradle a leg of lamb. The butcher's features so exquisite, so sharp, they stab into her. Under Maddie's glance, the bones of her face shuffle and fall. Measured and marked, the butcher passes the shape. The pound, just so.
Discrete shapes. Not at all like the soft delve of time that wraps one man into the next, so it is an effort to remember. But tell it to the roses, tell Roses how one man or another, sounding through the hollow depths of you, can make you disremember which one it was and when. That first insistent cry she made: a demand for a name. Maddie looking down at Roses, as if to say, who told you it had to be like that? And, gazing past Roses to the blank white wall, mounts fragments of faces, clockwork parts, turning a white light on each in turn to make her choice. No different than these fingers of asparagus lined up before her now. This would be the thumb, this the index, the rest leaping into place. Peas for eyes, maybe; a cauliflower brain. String bean well-placed and Voila! My love, there you are, there is your father, well-made-up and good for you, too! Eat, my darling, eat, eat. Put that mouth of yours to good use. (And that cauliflower brain.) Maddie tells her stories of the dead and gone, who, crouching, mutter liar from beneath the bed.
When old Bathhouse Jones laid himself down on the river bottom to drown, Maddie laid her body out on the bed, awaiting his revenant. She was almost certain it was the living who laid on her next. Almost, but not quite. Sometimes, you go blind when a man dies like that, and sheets have a way of stretching or shrinking the bodies wrapped in them. But the small of the kisses on exposed nape told her: Bathhouse is dead. All done, finished. Perfectly figured. Had she done wrong?
Eyes closed. Mother De'ath presses her eyelids firmly closed. When Bathhouse's revenant makes its appearance, it has been too long at the bottom of the river. His eyes distended slits, the sweet, sweet flesh — O God, his hanging flesh a ruin. Closed. Slipstitch the eyes closed, basting seams, but still she sees the suppurating skin, shallow sores, irises blistering over as he waits for her. His gait estranged, a broken shuffle, as he makes his way to their favourite table in the backroom of the De'ath Inn. O God, Bathhouse. O God. Closed. Eyes closed, suturing the lids shut, she presses him down into the soles of her feet. The clack-clack-clack of her heels against the hard linoleum tiles of this ice box-sterile IGA. Frozen goods, labelled and figured. Soundlessly so. Not even the shuck of peas to frozen peas. What had she buried in her husband's grave? The soundless shuck, turning meat. But there was Bathhouse again, hissing from beneath the closed casket, she was sure.
Mother De'ath knows the dead cannot follow her here. Cannot penetrate the cellophane light of the IGA, this holocaust brilliance. Her open-mouthed dead fall still, locked behind glass, husking breath reduced to a faint electric whir.
the moon-faced boy at the counter scrutinizes her purchases. Asparagus fingers, so like a hand. Thin wire ties the flesh, binding the semblance together. Cauliflower dotted with eyes, one too many eyes. A washboard belly and a stringbean, a dried old pod of a string bean laid between the meaty legs. His eyes flood past the ripe-to-bursting plums, focussing finally on the child's block. A single plastic square: the number seven and the letter "g." The block is perched on the cauliflower brain, as though this strange fetish were experiencing some childlike moment of clarity.
It's this single instance of order that disturbs him, threatens to distract his attention from the fetish lying in her cart, time in which his brain, turning, might render that pod normal. If he blinks an eye. Take his own incipient penis out of circulation entirely, make it other, somehow, strangely unpodlike. Perhaps this woman got off that way, wanted him to touch that dried pod, place it on the scale and give her the bare measure of its insignificance.
His eyes fixate on the plastic block. "These are only sold by the set, lady," he says.
Maddie cocks an eyebrow at the lady-word (ladybird; flighty and dismissive).
"I'll have the one," she says, "just the one."
The clerk mutters under his breath, but Maddie has heard him. The child murmured "Old cunt," she heard him, heard him clearly. Is that what she is? Not the remains of a time past, a revenant herself, but an "Old cunt." Worn-out, wrinkled. Not some strange infectious disease, as Roses would have it. But this, and simply: an old, overused cunt. She thought she might haunt this child with her strange fetish, but he'd placed her among the living as surely as a punch to the gut. Mother De'ath is struck by the image of small curling wrinkles, laugh lines marking the entrance to her sex. Balanced, maybe, by a tattoo: "old cunt," warning away trespassers.
She hears the whispering dead gather close in her breath, but already she is touched. And yes, she wishes she were dead, as hands, cold and white as store-bought eggs, urge her from the counter. She grasps the leg of lamb in her arms. One blow to the skull with the leg-bone and this child will fall to his knees, white as an egg. The hands will fall away and she will have long seconds to convince the crack and wheeze of her hip to run. Old cunt born on stilts, broken stilts. Screaming, she is screaming loud: "Old cunt." The whispering dead confined to a small envelope pinned to her blouse by Roses. Inside the envelope a name and address, to be summoned in case of haunts. Postage paid.
The manager's hands slit open the envelope, removing the paper scrap. Suddenly he is gentle because the elongated cursive script has placed her as mother, "my mother," it says. (Mother Goose and lady-bird, fly away home.) Place her, like that, in the back of a yellow taxicab. The driver, cutting his eyes as he takes the scrap from the manager, turns to say: "It's alright, lady, I know the place."
maddie kneels before the bed, as if in prayer. What prayer can she offer up? Little Roses has undressed her, taken her lamb. Poor little lamb, she croons, poor little Roses. What words to soothe this soughing voice? What words? What shape to salve her hands but her own sad shape? Back bending to unmake this bed, skin sloughing loose to hang from bones, empty as a question. No shape to sound through these fingers but the unwrapped meat in her. Nothing for the tongue to shape, no body here to shape it for, nothing but nothing.
Maddie's thoughts turn to discrete measures of oblivion. The smudged black of charred bone. The clarity of flame.
roses could be this nothing, a hushed silence, a pulsing gap. She is the strained shift in speech that has preceded her entrance into every room since she turned the wrong end of the gun. A sifting silence that has taught her to construct herself out of holes. Become nothing more than a series of deflections, postures, gestures struck to occlude just what it is she thinks she knows. Roses De'ath sips bourbon and descends. Something of her still haunts this room, though, considering the wallpaper, fingering the frayed hem of a blouse, spinning an intimate monologue that is sometimes spilt into the hotel air, a brackish musk, too revealing to be polite. Later, Roses' body will return to this place, maybe a little drunk. Maybe then she can lie down and sleep. In the meantime, she concerns herself with obscure minutiae: the crack in the teacup, the tiny scar over Bat's lip, shaped like a tooth.
Roses slips stockinged feet under the table, finds Bat's lap. An intricate brocade overlays the dusty rose-papered walls with black velvet. Sweet black brocades to run your fingertips over in wonder — old and tattered the walls. But still, Roses thinks, someone once thought it would be that nice, that clean, so good they thought the word velvet onto the walls.
"Velvet, can you fricking believe it, Bat? Fricking velvet."
What she wouldn't give to wrap her body round with a black brocade like that. Upstairs, her white uniform hangs from the brass hook like a dried skin, the empty hanging feeling she got when August was out back gutting rabbits for the stew. And today, she thought, maybe she was missing the point. Because she couldn't understand anything at all, not at all, until the thing of it was a bloody smear and what remained, no more than a gutted husk. She remembers the first blow, inaccurate; it glanced off the skull. Nothing to see. But she'd raised a tiled roof. Torn the carpet. Any old domestic metaphor would suffice for the squelch of blood. Then August laid hold of the mallet, and she'd cut her eyes long and slow, until the mallet was laid on the bench, matted with fine white hairs, and it was still. So terribly still. But not before it'd laid a bloody spoor across the thin layer of snow. Roses retraces this spoor, reads in it a desire so strong it clutches her by the throat. Desire for what?
There is no snow, she reminds herself. It is a trick of memory and could as easily leave her imagining black footsteps laid on the carpet when you are learning to dance, laid on the carpet when you are too drunk to dance. Her body, laid on the carpet, a language, like this or this. And his mouth, crouching over her, forms words. Roses deftly replaces this picture of August with Bat before telling him about the dancing footprints. Maybe something of the slant of her eye lays her body down, here, just here, before him. Because her body does seem to lay between them, an unspoken apology. She allows the rest of the stow to fall into broken phrases, scraps and debris. Harvey will come by and brush them from the tabletop with the crumbs.
bat wears his roadwork uniform. He's been flagging old ice-heaves, filling potholes on the second line. His truck moves with the confidence of an old woman's hand threading its way through warp and weft. His consciousness is attuned to sudden declivities, and he follows Roses' narrative without difficulty. As she tells him that a man's penis resembles a blind baby rabbit, he senses the cul-de-sac, knows she hasn't begun to tell him what is really on her mind. He knows he must forget these dead-end passages, the bloody prints, the heel of her foot pulsing down on his blind baby rabbit. Bat places her stockinged feet to either side of his lap, and Roses laughs as though he has just now cottoned on.
Roses calibrates her voice carefully and Bat traces the scales, modulates the C-note. Under all her talk, he hears a single phrase. The rhythmic fragments slur, elide. "She's not so crazy, not so crazy, after all, not at all, she's not so crazy, after all."
Bat knows about Mother De'ath's return.
"She's not so crazy, after all." Out loud her words fall flat. A disappointment she hadn't anticipated, realized even, laying her words under.
Bat gazes at Roses and thinks of August, grips Roses' small feet in fists. He doesn't want to hear her say it. Of course, he thinks, August is out slaughtering rabbits. August is out. Dead to her, falling past somehow. August had Mother De'ath, and where would that leave Roses? Bat knows where it left him. He makes a picture in which he is perched on the highwire. He has a net, here, in his hand. There are hooks suspended in air, ten feet to either side of him. Bat knows that if he flings the net outwards, to snag it on the closest hook, his balance may be thrown. He knows one throw cannot save him. He thinks: so many times, so, so many times. Recovering his balance, a jag of breath between each successive throw. It gets harder — the net grows taut, there is no give. The potential fall endless. Bat dropped a small rock down the rabbit-hole plummet when Mother De'ath returned. He's still listening for the clang. Bat looks tired, so very, very tired. Eyelids heavy with sleep. Bat tosses this picture down the soundless hole after the rock, regrets telling Loralie he wouldn't see her today. She'd wanted him to take her to the zoo. Loralie was crazy for animals in cages, couldn't get enough.
"There aren't a lot of people who'd understand about me and August."
Shaking his head in disbelief. "Yeah, you got that right."
A little hard, maybe, his voice.
harvey places a bourbon in front of Roses, brings another tea to Bat. It was Roses he'd make exceptions for. Roses' mother had owned the hotel outright, before she'd grown fond of flame. Harvey'd bought half the place from the bank, gotten a lien on the other. He'd taken over the business end and was making a slim profit after insuring the place and mounting extinguishers on every wooden beam there was. Unnerved, perhaps, by the residue left in Maddie's last days, the way her lids drooped, hands falling slack, cigarette after cigarette dropping soundlessly. The wooden planks scarred. Roses had scoured the marred planks with steel wool, but the burns were embedded in the oak grain itself. After losing the house, Roses cleaned rooms to pay her board; August worked the kitchen. Together, they'd not managed to keep half of what Mother De'ath alone had kept whole.
Throughout those first days, August watched in amused disbelief, shaking his head at Harvey and saying, "I ain't seen no ghost with a Zippo." Harvey, his hands idling in air, as though trying to describe some mathematical formula beyond the slim vocabulary he possessed, finally let his hands fall into his lap, nodding to say, "You can't be too careful." It was a summation of his world. He found August irreverent, dangerously so, the way he spoke of Maddie as if she were dead. He'd once tried to tell August as much, draw him a picture of how even the bare whisper of her name touched her, somehow. The night stars themselves vibrating with each spoken word. Something of her dreaming body, slim miles distant, slipping through the glass to pluck that quivering light out of sky. Read the suppurating darkness like braille, sense the shape her absence had come to assume. Harvey'd looked at August, hands describing this complex curve, before falling still. "When it comes to a woman," he'd managed to stutter, looking for just the right words, "you can't be too careful."
"Speaking of careful," August replied, brushing aside the reference to Maddie, "you might want to think about that hutch out back, all that dry wood and straw, could go up any second. Might take my hogshead with it. To hell with the hotel," he'd said, "think about my whiskey."
"I guess you can't be too careful," Harvey'd said, not knowing if August was just having him on. But he'd installed an extinguisher by the hutch door, just the same.