CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Joseph Aguilar and Daniel Miller
We descend. We pass through the roof, inside the house, onto the scuffed hardwood floor, down a long dim hall, where we search out our subjects. Here are three. Here is a mother opening the door into the night for her son while a father sits on the couch in front of a foldout tray, listening to low-volume radio baseball. A luminous blimp floats over the stars. It snows lightly. The wind pushes leaves over the street. The tree in the yard, now bare of cherries, shivers its scent out. Although the three family members are arranged near each other in space, their faces aim in different directions: the mother stares across the street at a house with shadows in the window, and the son gazes at the blimp hung over the moon, while the father’s eyes hide behind his bare left hand. What can a gaze show? We want their eyes to meet. We want it to signal friendship. We want to see proof of friendship in marriage, a relatively new technology. While the marriage ritual once served to keep the elite elite, to sustain inheritance of capital, it has developed into an ideal of happiness shared between equals, where parity leads to friendship. So we’ve been told. So we’ve been trained. But data is demanded of us. We have little time. In the adjacent kitchen, the wind shrills through the seams of the window, the ledge damp from the moisture of the air inside, slowing against the glass. The dryer in the corner thumps. The refrigerator hums faintly. Dishes drip in the rack. Here is the ring, solid and silver, on a dry, folded washcloth. We recall the father’s bare left hand. Was his ring left off on purpose after finishing the dishes? The way in which the ring has been carefully placed in the clean squared washcloth signals respect. Still, it is worth clarifying that this is only a ring on a washcloth, not a knife with blood on it, not a note from a lover, not a bag of gold. Is it even his ring? We resume inspection of the kitchen. The tile of the floor is faded but clean, evidence of duty, certainly, but not necessarily of feeling or meaning. One can scour hatefully. One can clean from boredom also. A door shuts somewhere in the house. We hear a harsh muttering of words. Footsteps down the hall. We return hurriedly but too late, the father has left, his tray is folded beside where the mother sits by her son on the couch watching television. They do not appear to be distressed, although the mother seems to nervously rub the knuckle of her forefinger under her chin. Perhaps we only assign her action the quality of nervousness. The door to outside is shut—the blimp, the night, the snow, the cherry tree hidden like eyes behind a hand. The mother and son are watching a trivia show meant for children, which seems like a compromise for her, perhaps trickle-down equality? Friendship? This is only speculation. One must free oneself from preconception. One must be an empty vessel for data, an instrument of science. “Mexico,” says a boy into a microphone. It’s the correct answer; balloons fly up from under a hidden panel in the stage. We pass impatiently through the hall, through the door, and find the father undressing in the bedroom. His pectoral muscles have softened underneath. He slides on sweatpants with a state name down the thigh. He flings himself over the bed. He turns on the radio to the baseball game, on low volume. He shuts his eyes. Interaction with his partner does not appear imminent. We have found intention but not motive, not clarity, but intention is something. Now the father lies still under the covers, the lamp near him lighting the room dimly. Over the headboard of the bed hangs a print of a painting of a farmhouse in fields buried in snow, the moon coloring the roof in light. We pass inside.
We pass inside through the drifts of snow whirling up over the front of the farmhouse, the light of the moon, the sharpness in the air, a sport-utility vehicle juddering past, the silence of the beaten-down truck in the drive, a quiver through a chain link fence, over the ice-slick floor of the veranda, through an entryway, down a staircase, into a bare, cement basement, a drip echoing from somewhere, the must of mold unseen, into a room with two subjects: a husband and a wife. The husband rests in bed, eyes shut. His breath sounds faint and raspy. Beside the bed sits a bucket, freshly rinsed but stinking, and our other subject, the wife, in a rocking chair, afghan over her knees. She hums to herself, an old gospel song. She knits. It could be a scarf, long like the house, or it could be nothing, only how she busies her hands, a kind of worrying. Her eyes shift from yarn to husband and back. We search through rooms, up stairs. There are no photos of children. There are no trophies, no toys, no diplomas. The wind rattles over the roof. We move past the bath, past the laundry room, through the dining area, and into the living room. Here is a living area of the working class, the struggling class. The couch is tattered and empty, bowed, the memory of our subjects’ bodies still held in it. The radio is off. There is a low table, a coffee table, though no tan rings suggest coffee. On the table pile envelopes, bills, bank statements, credit-card statements, warnings of varying severity from various agencies. We consider one envelope in particular, marked urgent, all red and capitals, mailed from the financial department of a medical center. The envelope is torn up top, its contents read but replaced. It is an itemized list of tests. Three barium x-rays; one radioisotope gastric-emptying scan; two upper endoscopies; three ultrasounds. Total bill: eleven thousand and six hundred dollars. The medical center requires immediate action. The medical center may contact a collection agency. The medical center offers payment plans for all incomes. What we have seen inside suggests no payment plan will work, no matter how generous, how patient, how flexible. Back in the bedroom, the husband has opened his eyes and lifted himself over the bucket. He vomits while the wife, who holds the bucket, continues humming. Why don’t they speak? But the coordination of their interaction, her holding the bucket, him using it, indicates understanding, symbiosis, and equivalence, perhaps. When he has finished she wipes his mouth. She rises from the chair to a dresser where she prepares a syringe. The bottle contains insulinum humanum, for diabetes. The wife has returned to the bedside. She removes the cotton sheets covering the husband, lifts his shirt, and inserts the needle in the husband’s abdomen, right of his navel. The husband does not cry out, does not resist, but his continued wheezing suggests discomfort. The wife replaces his shirt and she fixes the sheets and she kisses him in the space between his right eye and his cheek. There is suffering here, although the degree of suffering is difficult to pinpoint. The husband’s eyes are full of the heaviness of dreamers. How blissful it might feel for the husband to fall away from his suffering. How painful the weight the wife must bear under her alertness to her husband’s suffering. There is power in either position. There is submission in either position. The dark, suffocating boredom of the caretaker. The exquisite, beautiful hurt of the victim. These may be their feelings. These may not be their feelings. We can’t know. We can report, however, that they remain connected despite the deterioration of life, that the relationship implies durability, longevity, a union in service of an aim beyond passing on inheritance to heirs, of whom there exists no evidence here. The wife is rocking slowly, drowsily. Her humming stops. Her hands rest in her lap. The lids of her eyes are closed but her eyes move underneath.
We follow her into the folds of her mind, into the dream, where the release of neurotransmitters has been suppressed, where snow piles up in drifts, hills flattening to white in the distance, where it smells like winter, and now the difficulty of the task we’ve been demanded to accomplish annoys us, we shake our fists internally at our higher-ups. How do the symbols cohere, the ring on the washcloth, the insulin, the unpaid bills, the blimp, the tray, the radio? Where is the friendship in it? We are trying to understand events isolated from any narrative sequence. How could a note plucked randomly from a song be anything but noise? We are startled by an animal scampering out from the path, a small, furry animal, either cat or dog, shoulders jeweled with moisture, and we follow the animal through the white, the wind, the light from neighboring houses, up a long, winding driveway, onto a porch, through a pet door, down a hall that smells like cat litter and onions, into a dimly lit room, an office, we realize, the shapes now clarifying into a bulky, old-fashioned computer in a corner on a desk, a large, battered armchair, with a figure reclined on the chair, a man, legs extended stiffly, and another, smaller figure straddling the arm of the chair, leaning into the seated figure, another man, two men, two husbands. The dog—for it is a dog, we see now, a miniature terrier—butts her head against the seated husband’s shins. The husbands ignore the dog. The smaller husband is feeding the larger husband what looks like a hamburger while stroking his hair. Our excitement rises. A husband feeding another husband a hamburger seems useful. Our subjects are, for the first time, both conscious, both attentive toward each other, in the moment. The dog whines and butts her head harder against the seated husband’s shin. “Mitzie!” the seated husband says, the first word anyone has said since our arrival, and the dog barks softly. The stroking of the hair, plus the feeding of the hamburger, neither action lessening, seems to indicate friendship, or intimacy. Perhaps. Although. Perhaps the man being fed the hamburger has a disability preventing him from eating unassisted. Is this friendship or duty? Another caretaker, another victim? It is hard to know. We remain. The hamburger is gone, and the seated husband springs from the chair and strolls over to the computer, which he switches on, while the other smaller husband slides into the seat the larger husband has left. “That wasn’t so bad,” the smaller husband says. “We should do it again tomorrow,” the larger husband says, opening an airline website and selecting a flight to Hawaii for one person, departing halfway through next month. “Not so good, either,” the smaller husband says. “Colts versus Ravens next Sunday,” the larger husband says, “if you feel like feeding me another.” “Colts again?” the smaller husband says. “Always bet on blue, baby,” the larger husband says, entering his credit card number in and checking out. They sit in silence now, the smaller husband poking at his phone, the larger husband drifting onto a sports website, where he opens three articles in separate windows and skims quickly. So the feeding of the hamburger resulted from a bet. The action indicates neither power nor submission, only the fruits of chance. But now we are differently troubled. It’s the stroking of the hair. We cannot overlook its tenderness, its friendliness. Although who is to say the bet did not include both feeding and stroking? Or who is to say that the hair stroking was not a kind of insult by the smaller husband, an effort to elevate himself from his humility? Who’s to say the bet wasn’t a bet of enemies once friends, now forced to disgrace each other to achieve anything like intimacy? But no. What remains with us is tenderness. We have a tenderness we can’t quite place.
We receive an urgent signal. The allotted time is vanishing. Magnets are already loosening their hold on what waits for us above. In the dark of the room, as we exit, we sense the dog turn her head toward us, rear back as if in play or attack. We are unsure how she sensed us. We slip through the pet door, through the dream, through the painting, through the home, and down the driveway. The snow has slowed falling, but the drifts have left the ground not traversable by humans. From the far end of the street, a pair of headlights cut across into the darkness of winter. It is a truck. A snowplow. We follow the plow as it completes its route, follow, too, as it pulls into a gravel driveway. We find somebody, another subject, gender unclear, swaddled in a hat and a scarf and many layers of winter clothing. We follow the subject into the house or, rather, into the double-wide trailer. Sadly there is no other subject. Inside, the subject disrobes. The scarf is off, now the gloves, the hat. The subject’s hair is short, but without the jacket, the physique appears female. She rubs her eyes and we guess she is tired, from plowing roads for hours. We see she has a wedding band on her left ring finger, rose gold with a small diamond inset into the metal. We see the gem is flawed, the gold tarnished. This is a piece of jewelry that has crowned the knuckle of generations of women. Or perhaps this is an heirloom in our subject’s significant other’s family. Or perhaps it is all they can afford, jewelry pawned, a loan unpaid. Perhaps it is worn in remembrance of a mother or a friend. Perhaps it is worn only out of duty or guilt. But what friendship would not include duty, guilt? Perhaps the problem is in our directives. “Friendship” dissolves into a spectrum of multitudes when examined. “Friendship” dissolves. We worry we are searching for something that’s nothing at all. We have only a command from higher-ups who don’t know what we know. We feel weirdly light, relieved. We receive another urgent signal but we ignore it, we ignore the ignorant. It gives us pleasure. Now the subject drifts into her bedroom. She disrobes further. Her stomach hangs over her hips like bags of sand. It is suggested, by the lack of right breast, by the scar tissue, that our subject received a mastectomy. A scar extends where the breast was. The subject replaces the clothing she wore beneath her winter outerwear with a woolen sweater and silk pajama bottoms. She moves to a living area where she settles into a reclining chair with a large book, the letters La-Z-Boy inscribed in the chair’s wooden lever. She flips through the pages of the book, a photo album. The other subject appears here: as a young man sitting atop a car we identify as a Firebird, a mustache spread across his upper lip; as a groom beside the first subject, her right breast still intact, her dress off-white; as a fledgling pilot, holding up an FAA certified commercial license; as a seasoned pilot, uniformed in a field, the blimp in the background navy blue and massive, the tire company’s name bolded in yellow along its side; then, finally, as a husband again, standing beside the first subject. Here she wears a hospital gown and he a T-shirt, a pink ribbon pinned on his shirt, another pink ribbon pinned on her gown. Here the subjects have yanked up their sleeves and they flex their biceps, toothy smiles over their faces. We do not know where the second subject is. We are unsure if the ring worn by the first subject is also worn by the second. What we do know is that these subjects, like those before them, the family, the couples, the men and the women, felt tenderness for one another at some point. There was a fond time before the present, a past perhaps dormant, but enough to build on, a history as solid as their belief remains. Now we receive an urgent urgent signal, the final signal we will receive, and we know we must respond. Outside, the sky has cleared, although the flakes fall lightly from somewhere unseen. We stop to check ourselves. The data is encoded. We carry the tenderness in us. We pass out the door. We rise, through currents blowing icy waves, toward points glittering down from the dark. We climb in the air, and as we rise, we try to calculate which flicker belongs to a blimp, which to a snowflake caught in the light of the moon, and which to a star.
Joseph Aguilar is the author of Half Out Where. Recent work is in Okey-Panky, Iowa Review, Tin House, and Threepenny Review.
Daniel Miller lives in central Missouri. His work has appeared in Puerto del Sol, Hobart, and Zone 3, among other publications, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.