Joyland

The South |

Homesick: an excerpt

by Robert J. Stevens

Someone is stealing her dresses. They were only snake skins, snail shells, but he had wanted them. There was once a whole flock of them hanging limply in her closet, and he would lay them out on her bed or hang them from light fixtures to imagine her there. At any moment there could be a dozen of her in the house in various stages of dressed, one teaching him mathematics, another shaving her leg in the sink, another folding his underwear on her bed. But they are being picked off one by one. Every time he comes to the closet the count is lower. Of course the dresses aren’t the only thing she left behind. There’s still the faint print of her lips on the rim of a glass, neat stacks of folded clothes, the alphabetized spices, her cluttered purse, rattling with pills, and half-used makeup. Under the bathroom sink there is a bag of her hair. The pills are interesting and he looks like a hussy with some lipstick and rouge, but the dresses fit him perfectly. Two of them he has smuggled into his closet, but the rest remain downstairs to be scavenged. Jasper has searched his father’s room. He found suits in body bags, a polished row of identical black shoes, and, hidden under layers of ties, a strand of condoms hung over his closet rod, but no dresses. If his father is stealing them, he smuggles them from the house, but for what purpose Jasper cannot comprehend. Does he stuff them with newspaper and berate them? Bury them in the woods? Does he bring them to his girlfriend wrapped in tissue, so he can watch her try them on? One day cumin will nestle between paprika and pepper and no one will bother to correct it. One day her vacuum cleaner will break; its bagged lung will collapse and he will have to set it by the curb. He will throw away her soft underwear. He won’t want to, but you don’t keep that of the dead—it’s grotesque. One day everything that’s left of her will fit in a shoe box in the closet, so that in his middle age he can pick through it to stir up a cheap nostalgia, finding her tortoise shell comb, or a sheet of gold stars, baubles he knows should be important but can’t remember why. He hates the thought of his middle-aged self who is fat certainly and thin of hair, forgetful and oafish with thick fingers, so sometimes in the dull afternoons he goes into her room and resuscitates her things. He combs his hair with that brush. He dips his hands into her satin sea of underwear and spray cleans her windows. He sifts through her dresses, feeling their various skins with his fingers: slinky silk, rough sequins, stiff embroidery. He takes a flimsy black one off the hanger and runs a hand up inside it, imagining its cool, soft lining on his body, brushing his penis. He unbuttons his pants and tugs off his shirt and steps out of his underwear, pulling the dress on over his head and unclasping the black neckband to tie it around his throat. He pulls his hair back off his forehead and looks at his face in the mirror, finding her cheekbones and lips, which he parts, softening his eyes to look sexy and devastated. The dress needs to be touched. It seems to cry for it, like it is alive and hungry. Its collar grips his neck and Jasper is suddenly breathless and tight-skinned, on the verge of tears, yet curiously dry inside. He has to force himself away from the mirror, swishing into her closet to slip on a pair of heels. The kitchen tile is easier than the carpet, which swallows the spikes and bends his ankles. Still, he feels like he has been hobbled. It is an hour before he is ready for the driveway, its asphalt cracked and lumpy from the tree roots underneath it. He shuts the door behind him and takes a first uneasy step onto the woven doormat. With his back bare and the skirt above his knees, he feels exposed to the sky. A frisky breeze runs its hand up the inside of his thighs. If the forest were watching him stagger down the driveway, it would probably feel sorry for this animal, with a coat and hooves so ill equipped for life. As he walks, her hair moves on his shoulders. His skin stretching in the lining is a rough network of scabs and she is laughing at the forest for being such a stuffy prig. At the mailbox he lingers, and takes the mail out piece by piece, hoping someone will drive by and see him. He wonders if she ever did this, linger by the mailbox to let a neighbor see her, sending smoldering looks through his windshield so the man might stop and flirt with her. She must have wanted an affair. She must have sat in coffee shops with an invitation in her smile for every man or boy who came through the door. They would have gone to a hotel. She would have handed him soap and told him to shower before he could touch her. She would have drawn the curtains and kept under the sheets so he couldn’t see her scars. Now Jasper keeps hoping some breathless stranger will call and ask for her. Because it is worse somehow if she never left the house, if they only took her in the clean dark of her head as she stood beside the mailbox in a gown, waiting for a car that never came until she had to turn around and make the long walk back with the fingers of that hungry dress around her neck.
Of course this never happens. He is sitting on the couch in her clothes, but he cannot bring himself to turn the knob of the door. He wobbles into her bedroom and struggles to unzip the dress, leaving it in a puddle on the carpet while he sits naked on her bed and aimlessly touches himself. He thinks about the night he pressed his ear to her door and heard her inside saying, “Oh ah oh,” and breathing through her teeth. Without knocking he had eased open the door and slipped inside. The air in her room was damp and clean-smelling, and her bathroom light cast a wedge across her bed where she sat at its foot with her robe open and her legs spread, drawing a razor blade across the inside of her thigh. The dark eyes of her breasts were uncovered and staring at him. On the hip and ribs of her left side she wore a loose thicket of cuts, some scabbed and some fresh. Hello, Jasper, she had said. The razor blade disappeared into her fist and she pulled the robe around herself. He had made some excuses, some apologies, and she patted the bed beside her and said, Come sit with me. She put her arm around him and leaned her head against his, the wet strings of her hair falling onto his neck. Her robe hung slightly open. Jasper parted it with both hands to let her breasts into the room again. He ran his fingers down the scabs on her ribs. Does it hurt? he said. Yes. Jasper lowered his face into her lap and kissed the fresh cuts on her thighs. They were metallic lines on his tongue. Stop, she said, running fingers through his hair, tugging him up by it. Stop. She was crying. You always kiss my boo-boos, he said. But she shook her head. I didn’t want you to see this. He watched her wipe her face clean. Look, she said, shrugging the robe off her shoulders. She traced the sunken, jagged scars below her navel. You gave me these. No I didn’t. You have no idea how much it hurt to give birth to you. No, don’t look at me like that. You don’t understand. Listen, you took that pain from me. You took it with you. I would do it again if I could. I would do it a hundred times. Do you know why? Jasper shook his head, so she touched his face and told him. Because you’re going to save me.