I Came Here to Be Alone

I paced back and forth in my art studio, not taking my eyes off the drawing on my long white desk. I ’d just finished penciling in the eyebrows of a third African tribesman. A group of them stood on an above-ground subway platform, looking solemnly at men in suits who sat on the stopped train, intent on the phones they tilted in their laps, avoiding the sun’s glare on the screens. An old fan whirred, slightly louder than the tapping of my bare feet on the worn wood floor.

My concentration was abruptly broken when a dog threw its paws against the window over my desk. I clapped my hands over my ears as if this would ward off the intrusion; the dog fell back, and then slapped the window again. Picturing glass spilling onto my drawing, I ran out into the humid afternoon, hoping I wouldn’t have to tell the owner off or, worse, make small talk. But the dog was alone.

It galloped up to me, trailing its leash and barking mournfully. Ragged brown fur stood up in tufts on its lean frame. The blue collar around its neck looked as if it had been chewed and regurgitated. Maybe the dog was homeless, but the dirty collar and matted fur didn’t have to mean that; people around here didn’t put on airs.

Those weren’t my words. I was unloading milk crates of drawings from my car the day I moved to this western Minnesota town from Brooklyn last summer. Oscar, who lived next door, was holding a hose over a bush. He soaked the same spot as he watched me.

Finally, he called, “People around here don’t put on airs.”

I nodded. “Sounds good to me.”

I assumed he was done not putting on airs because he didn’t look up again, and that was the last conversation I’d had with anyone here. Unlike what I’d thought while living on the East Coast for the first twenty-seven years of my life, people here didn’t feel they had to be friendly. They went about their business, same as me.

Ignoring the dog’s woeful stare, I opened the door to go back into my studio—a carriage house separated by a small backyard from the house where I lived. But the dog scrambled to my heels before I could get inside. I crouched down, fingering its collar and finding no tags. Its owner must have been one of those careless optimists. I peeked between the dog’s legs. It was a girl.

She ran up and down my driveway, whimpering every time she got close to the front of the house. I followed her instead of going with my usual instinct, which was to ignore whatever was out there. I looked at the black birds on the telephone wires. The dog yelped. I looked down and to the left. A body was sprawled on my front lawn.

“Shit,” I muttered.

The dog trotted over and put her paw on the man’s still chest. I tiptoed toward him as if I were going to wake him from a nap. I dropped to my knees, the damp grass wetting my skin as I peered into his wrinkled gray face. His white hair stuck out among blades of overgrown grass. A bug crawled up a line of drool toward his open mouth. His inert blue eyes stared up, but still I cupped my hand and put my ear to his chest. There was only a sound like when you listen to a seashell—an imaginary echo of life that’s just the noises outside the shell being trapped inside.

The dog circled the man, and I swore her eyes were filling with tears. I tried to remember if dogs could cry. I considered moving the body and then heading back to my studio. But although I could occasionally throw my gum in a parking lot, even if it would get stuck on someone’s shoe, I couldn’t drag a dead body onto someone else’s lawn. I dialed 911, clenching and unclenching my free hand.

“911. What’s your emergency?” The woman’s voice was impassive, maybe wary.

I turned from the body and faced the birds that were up on the telephone wire, balancing in effortless stillness.

“Uh, yeah. So there was this dog who came in my backyard, and she had a leash, but no person attached. I mean, not like people are attached to dogs.” I let out a high-pitched laugh, and the woman on the other end grunted. “She wouldn’t go away, so I went out front with her, and there was this, um . . . ”

A window shade flicked up and back down across the street.

“Sir?”

“A dead guy, like an old dead guy.”

“What is your location?”

I gave her my address, feeling the faintest reminder of a twitch in my left eyelid that had plagued me for months before I’d left the City.

“Please state your name.”

I swiped at my eyelid as if that could stop the twitch from coming back. She must have heard how fast my breath was coming, because she said, “Sir, these are routine questions.”

“Right, okay.” I mumbled my name and then had to spell it for her, feeling as if someone was sitting on my lungs with each letter I expelled.

“I’m sending someone now.”

I breathed out and sat down on my lawn, away from the body. This was almost over. I could get back to my drawing. One of the men would notice the tribesmen after all. There would be surprise in his eyes. And a little bit of fear.

The dog barked.

“All right, come here, Egon. Can I call you Egon?”

She barked again and settled next to me. I patted her head.

My mom bought me a dog when I was fifteen and had started drawing these ghoulish, sometimes naked figures doing ordinary things like making coffee or scratching a lottery ticket. Even though the dog was a girl, I had named her after Egon Schiele, the artist, which did nothing to make my parents look at me with any less trepidation. My Egon died while I was in art school in Manhattan. Because that was how I was by then, I didn’t even take the train home to console my mom, who’d ended up fiercely attached to her.

The sirens came minutes later. I covered my ears for the second time that day as a cop car and an ambulance swerved to my front curb. The birds escaped into the gray sky.

A cop with fat slipping from his sides and front, like octopus tentacles struggling to contain themselves, huffed toward me. “Hands where I can see them!”

I waved my hands in front of me.

“Christ. You can keep ’em still.”

Two paramedics hopped out of the ambulance and jogged to the body. The shorter one kneeled, lifted the dead man’s arm, and checked for a pulse. Then he dropped his mouth over the dead man’s mouth while the other paramedic pushed on his chest. (It’s either the best or worst part of being human that we never quite believe in death.) The dead man’s legs jerked rhythmically, those of someone dancing, or getting laid.

The paramedics leaned back on their knees, breathing hard; the shorter one looked at the cop. “Time to call it, Officer Miller.”

Officer Miller nodded and mumbled into his walkie-talkie. “Unattended death.” He gave the address, then paused while he listened to what sounded like a burst of static.

He looked down at me. “Am I offering you my arm or are you planning on getting up on your own?”

I scrambled to my feet, as did Egon. Officer Miller pulled a notebook and the stub of a pencil out of his back pocket. I imagined grabbing his notebook and sketching him spread out across my lawn, the octopus unleashed.

The paramedics went back into the ambulance and drove away, sirens quiet now, their own form of reverence for the dead. “Are they leaving him here?”

“Get a grip.” Officer Miller wiped sweat from his forehead. “I need you to walk me through this morning.”

“So, Egon here showed up. The dog, I mean, not him.” The paramedics had left the man’s arm flopped over his chest, so that he looked like he was trying to protect his heart. “I have no idea who he is. I don’t even know the dog’s real name. I just made that up. So, yeah, Egon brought me out here and there he was.”

Egon rested her head on my foot. Officer Miller started snapping pictures of the body and the surrounding lawn.

I shielded my face. “Am I in one of those?”

He shook his head, exasperated. “You really don’t get out much.”

A white truck that read MEDICAL on one back door and EXAMINER on the other in bold blue letters pulled up. A miniature Barbie doll of a woman, but without the perpetual grin, came out of the vehicle. Her eyebrows rose as she glanced at me. I fingered my unshaven beard, then looked down at my ink-splattered T-shirt and bare feet. I wanted to tell her that I hadn’t exactly been expecting company.

She walked around the body, then kneeled down. She reached into the man’s pocket, and I had to look away, feeling the violation in my bones. I looked back to see his open wallet on the ground and her peering at his license.

“Thomas Belmont,” she said.

Officer Miller followed the medical examiner to her truck, and they wheeled out a stretcher.

“Don’t you need to make a chalk outline of him?” I called. I kind of wanted one on my lawn. It seemed like a minor consolation for my efforts.

“I’m no chalk fairy. That crap’s for TV. You’re not supposed to contaminate a crime scene.”

My knees buckled. “Am I being arrested?”

Officer Miller’s eyes seemed to gleam. Then, he sighed. “Doesn’t look
like it.”

“I couldn’t pull off a murder. Besides, I called you.”

“No, you probably couldn’t. But you’d be surprised.” He eyed me as if hoping I’d give something away.

After arranging Thomas on the stretcher, they rolled it into the truck and shut the doors. They spoke in low voices to each other as I stared at the grass, flattened as if a little boy had run his truck over it, creating the vague suggestion of a body. My lawn looked larger than it had before, incomplete somehow.

Officer Miller trudged over to me when the medical examiner pulled away. “Except for you being an odd guy, we don’t see any evidence that he died under suspicious circumstances. We’ll have to let you go until we get the autopsy report.” He turned and lumbered toward his car.

“Wait,” I called. “What will happen to him—his body I mean?”

I avoided his scrutinizing stare and instead watched Egon paw a hole in the lawn.

“He’ll stay in the hospital morgue while we search for his next of kin. If we can’t find any, the body’s offered to medical schools. Or to body farms, places where med students and homicide folks study how bodies decompose. Helpful stuff, actually.”

I winced. “So you’re telling me that if someone has nobody, like no kids or family or whatever, and they die on some guy’s lawn, then his body is up for grabs?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Officer Miller said. He looked at me as he opened the door to his car. “You all right?”

I cleared my throat, which was sore from having talked more today than I had in months.

“What about Egon?”

“Who?”

“I told you, the dog. He’s not—” But I couldn’t finish. I imagined Thomas lying on a cold metal table and then his organs getting picked out in a manic game of Operation. “Forget it.”

He drove away, and then I was alone again.

Except for Egon.

I picked up her leash and brought her into my studio, the familiar space unchanged. Not that it might’ve been, but I was relieved all the same. The sink in the rear corner where I washed the ink from my hands was stained a permanent blue-black. On the right side of the desk, I had stacked my finished drawings. On the left, my silver, white, and black pens, my sharpened pencils, brushes, and jars of ink were all lined in neat rows. Next to the window was a rusted mirror that I’d tried to pry off the wall when I moved in, but it wouldn’t come undone.

Egon lay down on her stomach under my desk. I picked up a pencil and tried to change the eyes of the first man seated on the train to show he’d noticed the tribesmen, but he still looked vacantly at his phone. As much as I wanted him to see them, he wouldn’t.

I began to pace, then thought about pulling out one of my unfinished commissioned drawings from the box under my desk. I was due to send out a few that had been ordered on Etsy. When I needed to pay the bills, I made images of iconic rock stars that I couldn’t stand, like Elvis, doing incongruous things like riding a skateboard or driving a race car.

I reached for the box and caught a glimpse of Egon chewing desperately on her paw. I hadn’t thought about food for her.

“Okay, let’s go.”

Egon panted in the late-day heat as we walked down my empty sidewalk with weeds growing from its cracks, then down a few more just like it. The construction vehicles that sat in the dirt next to wooden skeletons of houses were quiet and still, like monolithic guardians of creation and destruction. We turned onto the main road with the Dollar Tree and the Laundromat, and the Arby’s with the sign out front that always announced their pecan chicken sandwich was back, with the word Interviewing underneath. This always made me want to draw a sandwich at a job interview.

When I left Brooklyn, the idea was to get to Montana, where I had a vision of myself living anonymously amongst ranchers and cattle herders, with open space and even the drifting clouds free to dream. No one from my art school—where for a while it seemed like everyone thought I was going places—would bother me with invitations to their gallery openings and celebration parties in their newly purchased loft apartments.

I’d gotten as far as this town when my car broke down. But it turned out I could dream here just the same, away from the City. Like when I was a small boy and knew nothing about art except that there was paper and pencil and my mother, who would say with wonder, as she backed slowly and a little uneasily out of my room, “You’re good.”

Those were empty words. I’d learned that, if nothing else, in art school. But sometimes they were the right thing to say.

We turned into the desolate strip where the PetSmart at the center dwarfed the surrounding nail salon, a liquor store, and the Savings Plus, a depressing overly air-conditioned supermarket where I bought food in bulk. Inside PetSmart, a skinny teenager wearing glasses and with acne covering his forehead was behind the register, slurping saliva as he played a game on his phone. He averted his eyes, seeming embarrassed to be caught being himself.

I grabbed two bags of dog food and paid quickly; the smell of fish, of lizards, puppies, and mice languishing in their cages made me want to vomit. When Egon and I got back to my house, the sun made an appearance through spaces in the clouds as it set behind my studio.

I glanced at Egon, and then quoted her namesake: “I am even moved to ask: will this sun, which is just departing, ever return?”

Egon barked.

“Yeah, not exactly the life of the party. But he drew a sunset like some mix of the apocalypse and utopia. Genius stuff. You would like it.”

We both ate, and then I sat on the splintered wooden railing around my small back deck. I lit a cigarette while Egon ran around the yard, chasing birds. When twilight was swallowed and the birds had settled into their hidden evening perches, Egon came to sit by my side.

For no reason I understood, I suddenly thought I would cry. Real little boy sobs, the kind I hadn’t let out since I was actually a little boy and my dad patted me on the back and told me that once in a while everyone had to cry. He’s a good man, my father. Both of my parents are good people, which makes that I never visit or call them perverse, like staying indoors the whole of a sunny day. They still watch the evening news reclining in brown leather La-Z-Boy chairs. They’re hardy, too, maybe from a steady diet of oatmeal, meatloaf, and overcooked vegetables, and from the walks they take together around their suburban neighborhood, wearing matching baseball hats in summer and wool navy blue ski hats in winter. They had me late in life and aren’t young anymore, but it always seems they’ll live just a little while longer.

I went upstairs with an aching chest, but still dry-eyed, and Egon followed. She hopped up on my twin bed and stretched at my feet, then dropped her head on her paws.

_____

As I was on the way across my yard to the studio the next morning, with Egon following, a stomping on my gravel driveway made my back stiffen.

“Hey, you, Justin! I know you hear me,” croaked a cigarette-rusted female voice.

I sighed and turned to see a squat woman with dyed-red frizzy curls and wearing a housedress. She was waving a chunky, liver-spotted fist in my direction.

“You have the dog? What’s going on here? The name’s Shirley Johnson, and I demand to know what happened to Thomas.”

She tapped her foot, which was clad in some kind of gray orthopedic sandal.

“I come back this morning from my monthly overnight to see my sister. She’s got the shingles and doesn’t like to travel. I go over to his house, and Thomas is gone. Even the dog is gone. And your neighbor Oscar, you know how heis, tells me he saw the police and an ambulance in front of your house yesterday, and he asked if it had something to do with Thomas, and I couldn’t very well tell him I didn’t know, so here I am.”

“Shouldn’t you have called the police or the hospital?”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Her nose got red, and then tears flowed into the craters of her pockmarked cheeks. “He always had to go walk the dog no matter what. With his heart condition, I told him not to go alone. But it was part of his routine. That’s how he was. After his wife died, all I had to do was come outside with some cookies for his afternoon coffee, and that was that.”

“Sounds like true love.”

She started to sob. “What would you know?”

I shrugged.

She blew her nose in a used hankie from the pocket of her dress. “Show me where he died.”

“Go see for yourself,” I said, pointing at the spot where Thomas had been. “Take some grass for a memento.”

My eyelid twitched. I turned and took long strides toward my studio as a light rain began to fall, thankful she was either speechless or too disgusted to call after me. Once inside, Egon and I watched Shirley trudge toward the front of the house until she was gone from sight. My drawing was still in the middle of my desk, and I could really see it now. I was wrong yesterday: the man on the train had noticed the tribesmen, but he was keeping his eyes blank so he wouldn’t startle the other travelers. He was afraid that if they knew they were being watched, they would hurt the tribesmen.

The muscles loosened in my back as I opened a jar of black ink and chose a fine-tipped brush, which I dipped in the ink and stroked down the man’s suit. A slight wrinkle would be all that showed his agitation. I worked as the rain supplied a protective screen, but when the sprinkling slowed to a few stray drops, there was a knock at the window.

I managed to ignore the next several knocks, but eventually my head rose, almost against my will. The woman rapping her knuckles on the glass peered inside. She wore a blue silk blouse and had on a white visor fitted neatly over white hair. I waved my brush at her in what I hoped was a signal to go away. She disappeared, and a second later, the door to my studio creaked open.

I jumped up, sticking my brush in a mayonnaise jar of water, which turned a swirling black. I turned around, too late. She stared at my drawing, her thin eyebrows pulled together.

“It’s nice?” She spoke with an affected elegance. “But maybe you should try a bowl of fruit. Or flowers. People love paintings of flowers.”

I backed her outside, Egon at my heels.

She held her hands up. “You’re Justin, right? I’m Nancy.”

More people knew my name here than I’d thought. I folded my arms. “Let me guess. You’re here about Thomas.”

A lone tear fell down her cheek, and she dabbed it with the back of her hand. “It’s monstrously undignified, isn’t it?”

I looked back at my studio pointedly.

“I don’t mean to pry, but is that all you do in there? Make those drawings?”

I blurted, “Do you know who Egon Schiele is? He thought artists were like priests, here to share their vision with the ignorant.”

“I wouldn’t want to be ignorant.” She tilted her head gracefully. “So, what’s your vision?”

I looked away. “It’s complicated.”

“Okay, then.” She breathed in and out. “Oscar said that Thomas died on your lawn yesterday.”

“Yup.”

“Could you be so kind as to show me which direction he was lying after he fell? I need to know if he was on his way to see me. He always came by when that Shirley took her morning naps. It would give me so much peace to know.”

She let out a shuddering breath, and I realized how hard she was trying to keep herself contained. Not to break down.

I sighed. “Okay, fine.”

I led the way to my front lawn and pointed to where the grass was mostly still flattened. Orthopedic-sandal-size footprints now formed a sort of path around the spot. About where Thomas’s head had fallen, some enterprising blades had crept up—aching for the sun, I guessed.

“Could you, maybe?” she asked, pointing down.

“Why the hell not?” I lowered myself onto the grass and tried to arrange my body how Thomas had looked when I found him. Thomas might have been dead already when he fell, or maybe he’d felt the grass against his skin, just for a second before the end. I closed my eyes and wondered who Thomas was thinking about when he died. Seems he had a couple options, and I felt a strange resentment of him for not being as alone as I thought he was.

I opened my eyes to Nancy circling around me and rubbing her chin.

“Okay, so if his head was this way, that means he was walking up that way, and yes, he was coming to see me!” She clasped her hands and looked at the sky.

I didn’t bother to point out that he’d probably brought Egon onto my lawn to take a piss so there was nothing she could tell from which way he’d fallen. Like most people, she needed her illusions. I stood up and brushed off my pants.

“I’ll see you at the funeral,” she said.

“Huh?”

“I thought you might go. Being as he lived in the neighborhood, and he died on your lawn and all.”

“I don’t do funerals, especially for people I’ve never met.”

“Oscar did say you were awfully strange. How you never go anywhere and you’re not clean and neat enough to be gay, but no girls ever come over.”

“I came here to be alone.”

“No one wants to be alone. Not really.”

She stood there, scratching Egon behind the ears.

“Want the dog?” I asked.

She chewed her lip. “Thomas loved his Applejack.”

“Applejack? I’ll take rotten care of her, as you can imagine.”

“You would.” She sighed. “Fine. That’ll show Shirley, if I have his precious dog.”

She picked up the leash and tugged. Egon whimpered as Nancy pulled her down to the sidewalk where a cluster of sunflowers grew—their necks bowed in surrender and their dull yellow petals like withered fingers.

Alone, finally, I turned and walked through the backyard. I tried to feel glad, but something nagged at me that I couldn’t name. I went into my studio and inhaled the inky smell. But I’d gulped the air either too fast or too deeply, because my nostrils stung, and my eyes watered.

I sat in my chair and shifted around until I gave up on finding my usual position. My back muscles were tight as I pressed a brush into the ink, ignoring the sensation that I’d stuck it in a pot of glue. When I brought the brush over the drawing, my hand seized, a quick jerk that lasted less than a second, but long enough for a splotch of ink to fall, covering the face of the man on the train. I let the brush drip another second, stunned. This was something I’d never done before. I kept letting it drip, even as I told myself to clean up the spreading stain or figure out how to incorporate it. But I couldn’t think of what to do or remember what my goal had been with this drawing—or any of my drawings.

I shoved myself up and picked one finished drawing from the stack on my desk. I threw it to the side. I picked up another, then tossed that one too. One after another, I pitched them to the wall, letting them hit and then fall to the floor. I couldn’t make sense of any of them. The last one in the pile was of a woman I’d dated before I left Brooklyn, a silly nude portrait that I’d forgotten I’d done. I held it up, cocking my head to the side.

“Stupid,” I muttered.

I tore it in half, then lifted my current drawing and held it against the mirror and punched it. For half a second, my knuckles stuck there, shocked, as shattered glass punctured the paper where the ink was wet. I let the drawing fall as silver shards collapsed onto my desk. I sucked my knuckle, tasting blood and ink. I stumbled out of my studio straight to where Thomas had fallen, and I lay down on my back. Schiele thought artists suffered like saints. He was a martyr to his art, but I couldn’t claim even that. No one cared what I made or didn’t make.

A car door slammed nearby. “Yoo-hoo, anybody home?”

A shadow fell over me. “Please tell me you’re not dead.”

I opened my eyes to a woman with honey-blond curls, a fitted white sundress, and fake designer sunglasses.

She raised the sunglasses and pushed them on top of her head. “Are you in his spot?”

“It’s not his spot,” I mumbled. “It’s my lawn. All of this space was mine, before yesterday anyway.”

“If you say so. I’m Thomas’s daughter. I came to see if you have his dog. That was the last the cop saw her, he said.”

“How did you get my address?”

“I have my ways.” She twirled the word “ways,” drawing it out as though she was flirting, or at least so used to flirting that she couldn’t turn it off.

“I gave her to Nancy, his mistress.”

“His what? I thought that manipulative witch Shirley was the only one.” She kneeled down. “That crazy woman didn’t even tell the hospital about me, but they found me anyway. I was on a shoot in Delaware, of all places. I’m an actress. You’ve probably heard of me.”

“I don’t watch tv.”

“Try movies. I’m Adriana Belle.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.” The words came out mechanically, as if they’d been wound up by someone else and spit out by me. “Is that short for Belmont?”

“Wow, hilarious. And yes, a stage name so to speak. I changed it when I moved to LA. My dad didn’t want me around after that, or maybe it was the sex scene in my first movie. Who knows? You don’t talk to your dad for five years, and then he turns up dead. Can you imagine what that’s like?”

“Nope.”

I shut my eyes and shimmied deeper into the grass. The last time my father had called to tell me that my mother missed me, I’d said I’d drive back for Christmas. But then I’d told him the snow on the roads was so heavy that I’d had to turn around. I didn’t say I’d only watched it fall through the window, one flake after another coating the pavement until it was too late to leave.

“Come on. Let’s get inside the house before anyone recognizes me. Last thing I need is my picture plastered on Us Weekly.” She arched her back and gave a pouty smile to the bushes in front of Oscar’s house.

“Good luck with that. Apparently, the windows have eyes here.”

“Yuck. Why is your hand bleeding?”

I flipped my knuckles so they were hidden in the grass, the coolness somewhat soothing.

She started to sniffle. “Anyway, it’s nice to be with someone familiar.”

“How am I familiar?”

“You were with him at the end.”

“He was dead already.”

She was so quiet that I thought she might’ve left, but then she yelled, “Sparkles!” My eyes flew open as Egon jumped on my chest and licked my face. Nancy strode up and stood over me, shaking her head.

“This dog is a disaster. She peed on my rug and she smells and she got dog fur on my best throw!”

Adriana threw her arms open. Egon stared before leaping on her and burying her nose in her neck.

Nancy crossed her arms. “She’s all yours.”

Adriana stood up and brushed off her dress. “So you were Daddy’s other woman?”

“I don’t know if I like that term. Are you his daughter? He didn’t even tell me.”

Adriana frowned, then shrugged. “I am. We were estranged. I’m Adriana Belle. You might recognize me. From the movies.”

Nancy wrinkled her forehead. “No, dear, I don’t think so.”

I chuckled. My saliva tasted acidic.

“What do you do, Mr. Superiority?” Adriana asked.

“He’s an artist,” Nancy said, turning to me. “Why are you on the ground anyway? Is this one of those misunderstood-artist things?”

Schiele had to go to court once, accused of creating pornography. He’d watched a judge hold his drawing over a candle flame, burning it to ashes. I always wondered if this was worse than being burned himself, or if he’d just stared ahead, feeling it meant nothing because a man’s art was in him either way so no one could destroy it.

Adriana pursed her glossed lips. “I need to give that Shirley a piece of my mind.”

Nancy straightened her white skirt. “Maybe I could come along?”

“Sure.” Adriana took her hand and Egon’s leash. She shook her head at me, saying, “You can’t lie there forever,” and the two women walked away.

I told myself to stand up, go to my studio, and clean it up. Start over. Instead, I went inside the house. I wound a paper towel around the stinging cuts on my knuckle and opened the kitchen cabinet, where there was a bottle of Jack Daniels the previous owners had forgotten or had left knowing the next owner would need it. When I’d moved in I hadn’t thrown it away, but I’d told myself I wouldn’t drink it either. There was something too depressing about a man living on his own, making art and getting drunk.

I took out the bottle and twisted the cap, groaning as the metal grooves dug into my skin. It wouldn’t budge, so I banged it against the counter, then tried again. It gave with a slow and satisfying crackle. I lifted the bottle to my mouth, let the liquid burn my lips and trickle down my throat, then sipped until it didn’t burn anymore. Like a balloon losing air, like a sack bereft of its potatoes, I sagged onto the kitchen floor. I laughed, feeling weighted by weightlessness.

I found myself on my back, staring at a spider web. I began to slip away, thinking how this web was art. Intricacy. Form and Function. Utter, unquestionable utility.

When my body jerked awake, night had fallen. I stumbled upright and fell against the wall, feeling with my shoulder for the light switch. I turned it on and looked up. The ceiling was threaded with cracks. Had there ever been a spider web at all? I carried the almost-empty bottle outside, weaving and staggering in the darkness until I was on the front lawn. I shuffled my feet around and found what I thought was the indentation. I flopped down on my stomach in the cool grass.

_____

The next thing I felt was a poking in my side.

“What’s wrong with you?”

My mouth tasted like dirt, and my skull felt as if it were slowly expanding, maybe trying to crack through my skin. I opened one eye to see it was light, and I looked up from a white sneaker to Oscar’s scowling face. I pushed myself to my knees, then rose to my feet. I swayed and for a moment longed to be drunk again, but knew that was impossible.

“Well, the wake’s going on at Faye’s Funeral Home if you want to get cleaned up. Some of the neighbors are going together. He wasn’t much of a friendly guy, but he carried a bag with him when his dog did its duty on our lawns. I guess you can’t ask for much else.”

I shook my head and picked bits of bloody paper towel from my knuckle.

“Figured.” Oscar walked away.

I went inside and stood under a hot shower until it ran cold. I shaved and combed my hair, then got dressed in a shirt and jeans from my clean laundry pile and went out into the backyard. Leaves whispered secrets to each other as a humid wind blew past, smelling like fall coming on back home when I’d open my bedroom window and watch as my father raked leaves. I always had to turn away eventually, because I couldn’t stand his hunched back or the billowing garbage bags or the resigned concentration on his face.

I walked toward my studio, but instead of going near it, I veered to the left and opened the garage, pulling out the rusted bike I’d bought used when I first moved in. I pedaled over to the funeral parlor.

When I got there, a boy of about ten was on the sidewalk out front, blue chalk in his hand. He was drawing a face. He looked up. “It’s me.”

I rubbed my chin. “A self-portrait. I never make them. You’re good.”

He nodded. “I know. My dad owns this place. They all went to the cemetery. What do you think it’s like in the ground?”

“Quiet. Peaceful. Kind of like when you’re drawing and no one’s around. But lonely also. And really cold.”

He nodded. “My father never answers that question.”

I rode through the side streets and up the main avenue until the cars dwindled and the only cemetery in town was on my left. I pedaled past the black hearse on the slim, paved road running through the middle of the vast lawns of gravestones.

Like a three-headed statue, Adriana, Nancy, and Shirley stood facing an open grave with their backs to me and their arms around each other. Egon sat at their feet, the wind ruffling her fur as she regarded the mound of dirt to the side of the grave. It would cover her owner soon, and the spot on my lawn where Egon had led me would be gone too, swept into place like the dirt that would blanket this gaping hole particle by particle, until only a stone would mark where it had been.

Sunflowers sprouting near the grave lifted their faces toward where the sun was a faint outline behind thinning clouds. The women didn’t turn to look at me, so I watched them for a while. Nancy’s blue-veined hand trembled against Shirley’s black cotton shirt; Adriana’s head leaned on Nancy’s shoulder, golden hairs braided with white. Egon turned and fixed her eyes on me. I backed away and got on my bike.

As I pedaled home, I pictured how I would re-create my drawing. The tribesmen would be on the train, and the businessmen with phones would be on the platform, watching the tribesmen. One of the businessmen would have my face, if anyone looked closely enough. A tribesman, who also had a face like mine, would be lifting his hand to wave at the men, wanting them to know that there were worse things than finding yourself in a place you didn’t expect to be found.

I turned to look behind me when I was about halfway home. An urgent panting had been on the edge of my consciousness for a while now, and sure enough, Egon trotted after me, her tongue hanging out and her eyes resolute. I didn’t slow down for her, but I didn’t go any faster either.

 

Carrie Esposito spent most of her adult life on the east coast, except for stints in India, Thailand, and London, until she recently moved to Denver with her husband and children. After the move, she finished her first novel, “No Way to Fall Off This Earth,” which she began writing in a notebook on the subway ride to and from work while an assistant principal of a middle school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She’s currently revising her novels and writing short stories. Her short stories have been published in Mused.