Such Delicate Things

For June 2016, the literary journal Halfway Down the Stairs chose the theme “Suspicion”–an appropriate subject for American political culture in this wild election year. I’m happy to say my “Such Delicate Things” was one of the stories they picked for the volume. Alison Stedman is the senior fiction editor. I include the introduction here and a link to the magazine at the bottom of the post.

I woke at two in the morning with a strange sense that someone somewhere in the apartment building had screamed. I thought I’d been dreaming, but if I had, I forgot the dream the moment I awoke. Maybe the scream roused me out of a dream. Or the dream, if it existed, roused me out of a scream. I couldn’t get back to sleep because I kept listening. My mind was mired in questions. Had the scream come from down the hallway? The basement? Did it come from the street below, or from some grayness between my mind and reality, a non-place like a shopping mall or an airport terminal? It could have been any of those; the scream was distant yet near, muffled yet distinct, minute yet immense.

“Did you hear that?” I asked my fiancé Mavis.

When there was no answer, I reached out to touch her, but grasped only space. I remembered she’d gone home early. She hadn’t used red pepper flakes in the pasta dish, and that had meant we wouldn’t sleep together.

I felt disoriented—the scream, Mavis’s absence, night. I got out of bed and found myself standing in front of the bathroom mirror. I still existed, judging from what I saw in the reflection: a tall, reedy twenty-something male, olive complexion, thanks to a Greek mother and Slovenian father, jet-black disheveled hair appropriate in length and style to the demanding graduate-student fashion dictates of the moment. “Enough,” I whispered to the darkness, “you’re real.”

I shuffled to the living room window, pulled the curtain aside. A perfectly normal January scene in Madison, Wisconsin. It had snowed that afternoon, four or five inches, but the snowplows had already cleaned up. The new mayor, mealy-mouthed and overweight, knew that his ticket to re-election was keeping the streets plowed. The streetlamps bathed everything in a bizarre metallic light that made me think of chewing aluminum foil. The only movement I saw was a black and white squad car pulling into the university police station across the street. Sometimes at this time of night I would see students straggling back to their dorms or apartments after a night of hellacious boozing. But it was winter break, and Madison became very quiet when students did their binging and retching back home for the holidays.

I went into the kitchen, let the tap run, and poured a glass of cool water. I took a sip and took the glass back to my bedroom, where I put it on my nightstand. Mavis was often annoyed with me for leaving half-full glasses of water scattered around the apartment. I couldn’t help myself: I was a serial water pourer and glass filler. It was even worse on nights I couldn’t sleep. Then I might get up three or four times, pour a glass, take a few sips in the living room or bedroom, and leave the glass there. If I did that often enough I had to get up several times to go the bathroom. That kept Mavis up, and even if we’d had red pepper flakes in the stew or spaghetti, she’d get in a huff, demonstratively rotate herself several times under the sheets, and tell me, after one final thrash, to go sleep on the couch, which I did.

From the bedroom, I looked outside again. Nothing had changed. The plowed streets and shoveled sidewalks, the lit-up police station, an early-morning inertness as indistinct as the moment between waking and sleep. Madison was still except for the yellow caution light at the intersection, which flashed on and off, on and off, as if trying to start a conversation. No one responded. Or maybe only the screamer had.

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