He spoke to a bed upon which sat a corpse, forever listening.
To the sheets he laughed and wept, collecting his memories from every crease and fold. To the pillows he whispered his dreams and desires, things that hadn't come true and things that had yet to be given a chance, things that never were and could never be. To the springs and coils and little wooden joists that held the body above the floor like a bier he apologized; if it were up to him he would have set the mattress on fire and watched the corpse fall away to cinders in a graceful rendition of annihilation. It deserved so much more.
The curtains flickered, blue touched by moonlight. Then they offered him no more. No absolutions. No admonitions. His confession was incomplete.
(There's still so much to do.)
With nothing else to say, he touched his forehead to the bed's edge, trusting the answer would come to him in time. His skin kissed freshly laundered linen and he caught, somewhere between the corpse's fingers, the faintest scent of gardenia.
(come home come see my dead wife do some laundry do some dishes do some)
He spoke to a car seat the corpse occupied on their Sunday drives into town. (You know, I can appreciate the scenery much better when I'm not worrying over your wonky driving,) it said with a small teasing smile on its lips. (Breeze feels good on this side, too. You should try it sometime.)
Its hand dipped in the winds that swirled through the cabin. Minute hairs on his skin had risen since then, but he didn't mind.
Between glances he said: (Then who'll drive?)
(Who says we need to drive?)
On and on the road stretched, till a bright lake appeared in a cleft between trees, glinting pale blue beyond the guardrail.
The corpse sighed. (Someday.)
He shook his head.
He spoke to a bottle that argued. Pushed. Fought back. He hated the way it stuck pins through his eyes, through his brain. He hated the way the meniscus inside the glass warped everything whose image passed through it, including his own reflection, so that he appeared alien to even himself. He hated that loss of familiarity, the sense of things being forced on him and without explanation. Most of all he hated the bottle's promise. To be his friend one minute and then vomit everything he crammed down his throat the next.
The bottle placed a hand on his shoulder and nudged him awake.
(Pack up,) it said. (Time to go home.)
He stared at the holes in heaven. So white. So distant. If he screamed now his voice would taper off and dissolve completely.
(Good one,) he said. And smashed the bottle against the side of 7-11.
It turned over once, then burst on the brick a spray of mist and bad thoughts. He sighed in relief, in satisfaction. The crackle of glass was like the crackle of tissue in a punctured alveolus.
Millions of them.
He spoke to a 1920s speakeasy piano whose keys the corpse stumbled over. He watched with an amused sort of fixation as its fingers prodded sound from old, tarnished teeth. Some of the strings had rotted on the inside and so all the damned thing could play now was A, A, A, A, A. Nothing but A. The first note of a song destined to be left unheard. It plunked in his ears for a good while before he said, (When I get my overtime I'll see about getting that fixed.)
The corpse turned then and, glowing with affection and gratitude, placed one hand on his cheek. There he felt its touch kiss his skin, softly, fleetingly, with such indescribable sweetness a sigh slipped from his lips. He leaned into it for the briefest of moments, savoring this bit of contact.
(You're so good to me,) it said gently. (But you shouldn't push yourself. You always work through your lunch breaks.)
(I do okay.)
(Honey,) the corpse said. (It can wait.)
The smile in its mouth unfurled slowly, like a butterfly.
He spoke to an empty diocese. To leftover plumes of smoke. To an idol made of wood and a window of stained glass. Pleading. Hands clasped in a taut semblance of prayer.
(don't please don't you'll live you'll live and then we'll)
(I'm going to die,) said Mary the Virgin. The Immaculate Mother. Who cradled the head of Christ and mourned His blood as it trickled down. (I am going to die and there's nothing you can do.)
Light flickered behind him. The glare of hospital fluorescents at two A.M. Stray beams passed over Mary's hands, smooth peaceful hands, which had not once transgressed against God.
He dropped his own hands to his lap. As he stared at the broken life-line inside them something twisted in his face, made it briefly ugly. Was it possible? Did Mary the Mother see the same things he did? Did she frown for him?
Or did she laugh?
(It must be easy,) he said. (When you know.)
He spoke to a kitchen table they used to have, long ago, where the corpse sat among two empty plates and a dead candle.
He opened the door and there it was, spread before him. A small murder in their marriage. The corpse was looking fully now into his face, unabashedly, eyes flung open to the whites.
(Do you even love me?) it said. Every word a barb. (No. Answer me.)
(I—) he said, and finally closed his mouth. His tongue felt heavy, swollen, as though all the things he meant to say had been crammed between his back teeth. And his head, oh God, his head … In his head snarled a voice like white noise.
So what if he'd had a few before coming in the house? He forgot the time, it shouldn't hold him to that. Could have gotten in an accident? Really. James Sunderland, the world's biggest wallflower, in an accident.
Of course he wasn't aware of the smirk that crept to his mouth. It quickly dissipated as the corpse shrilled: (Just what the hell are you laughing at?)
God damn it—
Why should he have to take this? He never drove when he was smashed and besides, it wasn't as though he were some idiot frat boy getting nailed every Wednesday night. A beer in the car never hurt anybody. It took the edge off a tense work day. Melted nerves strung too tight from getting screamed at by primadonna customers. That was it. That was all.
God, his head ached. Water. The hell was the water tap? He took a clumsy half-step forward, only to stumble over the threshold and miss colliding with the table by fractions of an inch.
(Unbelievable,) said the water tap. Drying dishes. The ice box. Drops of wax turning to cold fat on the tablecloth. An entire chorus of voices, all chiding and scolding and pinching his last nerve shut. (Unbelievable.) The candle didn't make much noise, but then, candles never do. They only emit the smallest whispering pleas. Much too easy to ignore.
The corpse rose and disappeared down the hall.
He spoke to a laundry room that whispered apologies. He sorted the pants from the wash cloths, shirts from towels, its from his, folding every crease with a mechanical rote.
(What are you doing?)
(Separating,) he told the wicker basket.
The corpse hesitated in the doorway. He noticed it was trying its damnedest not to let slip that thin, cutting cough that had plagued it for days. (I've been meaning to get to it,) it said, (it's just that ... ) A pause. He poured too much bleach in and watched the froth slap the sides of the agitator. (Are—are you—)
(No,) he said.
Its mouth twitched sharply down. (James, stop. You always do this. You never say you are, but then you throw the laundry around like you're some martyr on the cross. If you wanted to piss me off you couldn't pick a better way.
(James, talk to me.
(Look, James. I didn't do it. You were gone and I didn't do the laundry and now you're angry about it. For God's sake, yell. Scream. Bitch me out. Do anything but this. I can take anything but—
(James, talk to me, don't do this—
(James, you're making me feel like I'm a child. Like I don't know any better. Hell, maybe I don't, but …
He went on to fold the blues together. Blues, then reds.
(come home come see my dead wife so some laundry do some dishes have to apologize have to repent)
(James,) said the corpse. The bed. The springs. The mattress. (What are you talking about?)
(you don't really know me at all do you mary)
When the doctors clocked out and the RNs scribbled their signatures on the whiteboard – Jeanne's taking graveyard – he spoke to the malignant cells in the corpse's body that had decided to breed. He pleaded them to stop, to stop eating and killing, couldn't they see they were causing the corpse so much pain? He imagined them as mindless creatures, tiny machines incapable of anything but self-destruction. At times it seemed even that was a lost cause, when the machines fell quiet and the corpse's breathing was finally even and he stopped speaking to the nurses' slippers flickering in the gaps beneath the curtain. Still he persisted. He asked the darkness certain questions he knew it couldn't answer. When. Why. He spoke to the wires that sprouted from the corpse's mouth. To the catheters. Tracheal tubes. To the watery cough of the man two rooms down and to the ammonia that failed to cover the rotten-orange tinge of newly deceased bodies.
He spoke to a medical textbook published in 1953. To yellowed pages as they shivered against one another, revealing nothing. While the corpse slept he recited passage after passage, desperately hoping something would stick. Mend. Heal. For it wasn't just the corpse withering in the bed, it was the connection between them. Its pain lingered long in his body, made his mind ache. And it hurt the corpse, seeing those fresh plastic-wrapped gardenias in his hand, it hurt the corpse so much to see him try. (Why did you even bother, James?) And then it would weep and shout awhile and he would sit at its side, hard, immobile. Perhaps he shouldn't have tried to rouse the dead. Perhaps it was wrong of him. But he just couldn't let go. He wouldn't.
Perhaps the corpse resented him for it.
Perhaps it only wanted to sleep.
(neither do you james
neither do you)
He spoke to a wall.
A wall spoke back.
(If you ReaLly wAnt to sEE Mary, you shOUld just DiE.
But You mIght be hEadiNg to A diffErent place than MARY, James.)
The voices of the past three days swirled about him. The bottle, the bed, the rotten-orange tinge seeping between gardenia fingers. But the trouble was, none of them ever answered with a visceral voice. The voice he wanted. Hers. When he talked now a cold immutable blankness crawled in the walls. Enough to render his thoughts mute.
At last he tried the corpse's name.
(Mary … it's my turn.)
Blood congealed and crackled.
He stepped outside.
He spoke to a wide, shimmering lake. Feeling only a brief flash of panic as the deafening clap of water crumpled the cabin and ripped the polyester and set loose a thousand crystals soaring towards heaven.
(Not someday,) he said.
Toluca spoke her secrets to those who would listen. On her surface she assured the pure ones of her love, turning her bright endless face towards the sun as sailboats drifted across her crests. It was true that on occasion she had known death and sadness, but she had also known joy, and jubilation, and sacrifice. Hers was a fair spirit, blameless, nonjudgmental. When she grew old she would find it in her to tell everyone the tale of the two lovers who lay in the very bottom of her womb.