by Kelsie Hahn
Bedford had another ten minutes to sleep, but instead he lay on his stomach, staring through the wall at his neighbor, 40-odd years old and asleep in his Star Wars sheets, who would punch the wall when Bedford’s alarm went off until the noise stopped. The neighbor would roll over, fall back asleep in his childhood bedroom set with the dresser drawers half-opened and over-flowing with adult-sized clothes. The neighbor was balding, sleeping on his left side because his right shoulder had broken and healed badly some years before, and mumbling to his stomach, which had the puckered, round beginning of an ulcer. All of this, Bedford knew. Weeks ago, Bedford slipped a junk mail coupon for antacids under the neighbor’s door. He wasn’t even sure that’s what you do for ulcers.
Bedford had X-ray vision. Of a sort. His sight was in constant flux, his days an unending shift between gears and organs, crawl-spaces and bones. Even face-down in his pillow, his vision fluctuated between the cheap batting fluff, the fitted sheet beneath, the fire-retardant mattress cover, the mattress springs, back to the batting. He reached to the left and slid his hand over the cool sheets, still tucked under the mattress on the other side. Empty. And in another 5 minutes, he would roll out of bed, tip-toe on the hardwood, look out the window, brush his teeth, shrug into a shirt, shuffle into the kitchen, but it would be completely different.
The alarm rang. The fist pounded. His bare feet hit cold, slick floor. No one asked him about the weather outside. Next to his blue toothbrush, the purple toothbrush sat dry and tilted at its just-so angle in the cup. The color choice of the polo, navy, went unquestioned. Bedford cooked just one egg, watching the yellow goo spread, watching the oil start to bubble, watching the coils burn red, the spilled eggs from yesterday harden further onto the metal dish beneath the burner, the belly of the oven yawn empty and dark.
Bedford washed his dish, tied his shoes, didn’t check that anyone had swallowed little white pills. He locked the door. No one mentioned the health benefits of stairs versus elevators. Through the walls, he passed the woman on the second floor starting her yoga regime and then on the first floor passed the teenager mashing buttons on a game controller. With his red-veined eyes, he looked like he’d been at it all night. No one grabbed Bedford’s hand at the bottom stair. No one pretended not to look at the telephone wires but was out of the corner of the eye. No one stood at the bus stop with him.
The bus rumbled to the curb, a rectangle of windows, ads, turbines, spinning axles, all those bodies sitting, nodding, reading, chewing. The bus driver was the one with discs in his back that were slowly compressing. Bedford noticed, because this driver always fought to sit up straight in the driver’s seat, always checking his mirrors, his gear shift, his schedule. Bedford believed it must be painful.
Bedford sat in their normal seat, next to the window, because her stop came first. He folded his hands loosely in his lap, one inside the other. Pockets of cartilage compressed in his knuckles. Beneath him, round crusts of old gum dotted the floor. Beneath him, fluids pumped in cables. Beneath him, asphalt whirred past. He didn’t know where she was.
He first saw Julie in a grocery store, and two things about her captured his attention: perfect teeth and lead-lined underwear. She flickered in and out of his vision as a bikini-shaped block, bra and panties lined with jointed plates of lead as she moved through the produce section, testing the firmness of peaches. He’d grown used to a life without surprises, whether it was Christmas presents or a doctor’s visit. He knew what every woman he met looked like naked. Except for her.
She had been diagnosed as some sub-group of paranoid-schizophrenic, but she usually took her meds and wasn’t afraid of the hidden scanners that were trying to see her naked – which, Bedford recognized, was a fear he almost perfectly fulfilled. Later, she would tell him that she wore the lead because the scanners were gross and she wanted to deny the people behind the scanners, whoever they were, the satisfaction.
Bedford was fascinated by her, despite his reasonable estimate as to what hid behind the lead panties, and she was unpredictable. She was friendly and open at first, but once you seemed to pay attention to her, that’s when she got suspicious. Early on in the relationship, she would watch him through the peep-hole of her front door as he turned his pockets inside-out, unbuttoned his shirt, opened his mouth so she could see all the way back to the molars. But they got past all that, and once she learned to trust him, he was everything.
They waited for physical intimacy until their wedding night, and when she leaned forward in her lingerie and whispered in his ear that she needed him to wear this and handed him a lead-lined sleep mask, he knew he’d made the right choice. Then, in darkness, there was only the surface and nothing more. Only what other men saw and felt of their wives, only the shape of her legs and hips, the texture of her skin, the heft of her breasts, and that was all he wanted.
Eventually, she trusted him enough to dispense with the mask, though he often used it anyway. And Bedford took care of her, and he always knew when she skipped her pills, and he could see when her adrenal glands were working and knew how to calm her, curl her into a safe place. He learned the tic in the muscle behind her ear and the tenseness in her shoulders when she was suspicious and afraid, when she wasn’t so ok with the scanners that peered at her from appliances and wires, and he learned to smooth it all away. Even when she had become predictable to him, their life had the predictability of safety, the confidence that he could fulfill her needs before she needed them. He learned all her secrets.
At the next bus stop, a woman flounced into the seat next to him. She wore a coral pink skirt suit and smiled at him, pockets of fat sliding up and over her cheek bones, muscles bunching around her eye sockets. When the smile went to the eyes, Bedford knew he had a talker. He recognized her, the woman who dressed in Easter egg colors and skimming blouses to hide where a pinch of fat tumbled over the waist band. High necklines hid the extensive scarring on her chest.
“We’ve never talked, but I see you on the bus all the time,” she said brightly. “Usually you have that lovely girl with you. I hope she’s not sick. I saw her yesterday, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did see her yesterday.” Bedford said. He could have left it at that. “So did I. Not so much today, though. I don’t know where she is.” He didn’t know why he said it. He should have said that she was sick, got a new job on the other side of town, anything.
“Oh, I hope everything is ok,” the woman said. Her skull pivoted, tilted on the neck. The muscles of her forehead clumped together. “Isn’t she your wife? I noticed the wedding bands.” She chuckled breathily. “I don’t mean to be nosey, honey. I’m just very observant.”
“It’s just a little rough right now. How these things go.” Most likely Julie was holed up at her parents’ place across town. He hadn’t called yet.
“I’m so sorry to hear that, sweet. Every marriage goes through tough times, but everything happens for a reason,” the woman said, touching the wedding band on her own finger. “I truly believe that.”
Bedford nodded, looked out the window at a dog tied to a fence, at lungs compressing with every bark. Bedford’s turned head and intense study of the dog was supposed to signal that the conversation was over. This signal went unheeded.
“Everything works out for the good,” she said. She smiled, but her trapezius muscles tightened up around her neck, just a little. “I survived breast cancer.” She paused briefly, letting the news sink in, giving Bedford the chance to make a sympathetic noise. He hesitated, but obliged. “Even if I hadn’t, even if I had been called home, I know it would have been for the best. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but our Earthly troubles are temporary. It’s all part of God’s plan. He knows what’s best for us. He knows so much more than we do.” She glanced at the roof of the bus before smiling at Bedford. “I know only the Lord knows your heart, but I see the way you look at her. You help her into the seat, and you watch her all the way down the sidewalk till you can’t see her anymore. I know you’re one of the good ones. Everything will work out.”
Bedford knew he should call Julie’s parents to check on her. Where else would a woman go, especially a woman like Julie? He should find out if she made it to their house. He should find out what kinds of stories she was telling them about him. He’d called them, two weeks ago when the trouble started, to warn them they were going to be hearing some strange stuff.
“We had this incident,” he had said, and her mother and father murmured wordlessly, comfortingly on the other end of the line. Bedford narrated the incident.
It had gone like this.
They’d rented a car to head down to a cypress swamp near Georgia, where they would look for alligator eyes peeping up between cypress knees and spindly green leaves floating on the still water. He would let her find them, point them out, correct him when he looked the wrong way. On the drive, he knew she needed a rest stop and signaled to exit the highway. Shadowy cars muscled past, piloted by skeletons.
“This isn’t the right exit,” she said, looking at the laminated map with their route carefully traced in red dry-erase marker.
“I thought maybe you could use a break,” he said. “Hit the restrooms.”
“I can hold it.” She’d push herself into pain to prove a point.
“I’d like to get out and stretch my legs, anyway,” he said.
What he should have done was pretend he needed the bathroom too, walked into the men’s room, run some water through his hands, traced the journeys of the pipes behind the walls, but he hadn’t made a habit of lying to her. He just hadn’t told her everything.
Instead, since she also had the beginnings of an enflamed sore throat, he picked up a hot coffee and some lozenges from the convenience store. A couple kids stood in line with lime slushies in their hands and smuggled candy bars in their pockets. Julie came out of the bathroom looking for him, and he held up the items.
“You feeling sick?” she said, frowning.
“You’re sounding a little hoarse, babe.” She looked around the store, her latisimus dorci gone tense and focused beneath her shoulders. He tried to distract her. “Pick out anything else you want and I’ll get that too,” he offered. “We’ll get out of here soon. It’s only another 30 minutes to the park.”
She nodded, slowly, but the tension didn’t fade, heart-rate picking up instead, lungs deepening into each breath. She came to stand near him, and he stroked her arm with the back of his hand, the one holding the lozenges.
“I don’t sound hoarse,” she said. “I know when I sound hoarse.”
The muscles under her jaw tightened, compressing the irritated tissue of her throat. He began to see his mistake.
“It must have been earlier then.” He waited, but tension continued rising in her body. “We don’t have to get this stuff. I’ll drink the coffee if you don’t want it.”
“No, I do want it.” She was looking around, not at him, speaking loudly. The kids still in line with their slushies and their stolen candy glanced back and away, jingling coins with their free hands.
“I do want it. I do want it.”
“Fine, we’ll get it. Everything’s fine.”
“I do want it!” she was nearly shouting now, looking at the cigarettes, the lottery tickets, the giant windows, the racks of ramen and caffeine pills. Anything but him. “And you knew it. You knew.”
“I just guessed, babe. It was only a guess,” he said, quietly. “I just notice things.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet. You notice things. You notice everything.”
More people looked or pretended not to look, hiding their glances behind bags of chips or cans of energy drinks, suddenly very interested in the nutritional facts. More tense muscles and shortening breaths. Julie’s voice was going high and off, and though the cashier pretended to focus on counting out change on the counter, her other hand strayed downward, closer to an alarm button behind the register. All around them, heart beats quickened.
Bedford watched the muscles in Julie’s face and neck working, twisting against themselves, and he didn’t know what she would do. He remembered seeing the pills in her stomach this morning, didn’t he? Or had he seen the vitamins there, and nothing more? A tic started behind Julie’s ear, and she ran her hands through her long hair, delicate finger bones curled against her scalp.
“He’s hurting me.” She turned toward the kids, the cashier, a man standing by a magazine rack. “He’s hurting me. I’m going now.” Full shouting now. She took a step away, turned, and pointed at Bedford. “Don’t follow me. You leave me alone.”
And then she was gone, and then people looked at Bedford, muscles pulled taught in displeasure, because no matter what he did it would be wrong. And he paid for the coffee and lozenges and went to his car and watched her cry at the pay phone, and he sat and swallowed the coffee until a taxi came and Julie rode away, not looking at him, the drainage from the crying enflaming the tissue in her throat even worse. And she was home when he arrived. She talked calmly on the phone with her mother, her voice definitely hoarse now, but everything else about her looked calm and she never even apologized.
But her parents understood, they understood, they murmured into the phone when he’d called them. Damage control. He usually called right away after anything like that happened, and they were sympathetic. It would be the same if he called them now. Julie told the neighbors all kinds of stories when she first moved back home after college, though the incidents were strangely benevolent. They’re slipping vitamins into my cereal. They’re throwing away my old socks and replacing them with new ones that look the same. They’re rearranging the stuffed animals and the homecoming corsages on my shelves.
But the gas station was two weeks ago, and he didn’t want to call them today or hear the stories she was telling them now, the stories her parents would assume weren’t true, the stories that Bedford would allow them to believe were all in her head. Or, worse, she would answer and recognize his voice, his breathing, the way the static fuzzed between them on the line. She would accuse him, and he would know that she was there safe at least, but her words would hollow him out, scrape the last bit of meat from his spine, and he just couldn’t deal with that today. Not the day after yet another incident.
The bus approached Julie’s normal stop. Paused. People who were not her got off, people who were not her got on. The bus moved. One of the reasons they chose their apartment was because they could take the same bus route. He had a long walk after his stop, a mile or so, but he liked being able to see Julie to only a block away from the building where she clerked.
“It’s too bad we can’t take the horse-drawn wagons through this part of the city,” the woman said. Bedford had nearly forgotten about her. “That would be so much nicer, wouldn’t it? No engine noise or exhaust.”
The wagons ran only in the older, scenic parts of the city, weaving in endless circuits through ice cream-colored houses, palmetto trees, wrought-iron fences topped with sculpted pineapples, tiny plaques raised by the state historical society. The wagons jarred over patches of cobblestone, took short stretches past the sea wall for the breeze, the smell of salt, and talk of hurricanes long past. In the summers, men in straw hats manipulated collapsible wire baskets that went down into the brown water tied with chicken skins and came back clustered with blue-gray crabs.
Bedford and Julie had ridden the carts many times, learning all kinds of useless information from the guides in top hats. Pineapples represent hospitality. The fences were built for fear of slave revolts. The houses are fitted with misguided earthquake bolts that will slowly destroy the buildings if they remain and quickly destroy the buildings if they are removed. Julie is always soothed by the crumbling, technology-free feel of the places.
Inside, the houses are filled with brassy antiques and peopled by bodies that move, nap, watch television, eat salads, drink lemonade. The houses hide safes and secret rooms and the contents of lidded garbage cans. All of this, Bedford knows.
“It would take too long,” he finally responded.
“I wouldn’t mind,” the woman said, wads of muscles pulling the corners of her lips back. Eyes the size of ping pong balls moved in her sockets. The man across the aisle from her hacked yellow phlegm into a disgusting handkerchief. Additional phlegm remained to be hacked. “Life should be taken slowly. Otherwise, you miss too much.”
Missing. Not so much missing as missed. Bedford tried not to look like he was staring. The woman’s chest was thick with scar tissue, and tattooed blue dots on the skin marked her out for radiation treatments, but they’d missed something. A something that was not supposed to be there distended a lymph node under her arm. She should have been able to feel it if she checked. Aren’t they supposed to check? Did she know, or didn’t she?
“Are you in remission?” Bedford asked before remembering that time and conversation had strayed far from that topic, but she regarded him with a smile and a nod.
“Six months, honey. That’s six months I got back.”
“Yeah?” he said. He was no oncologist, but he thought this strangely shaped node seemed like a bad sign. He worked an assembly line as an overly titled band-aid sticker for the heaving machinery, good at his job but always turning down promotions to hide the fact that his vision made reading so slow and difficult that he was functionally illiterate. Dyslexia, he begged off, if someone realized he’d misread something. He got by on memorization and social cues built on tics of muscle, posture, intention of action. His memory was good, and he vaguely recalled that a contaminated lymph system would send cancer coursing everywhere, sticking haphazardly to pancreas, lung, ovary, sentencing all to death.
“But you probably still have check-ups,” he said. “You’ll probably have them for the rest of your life.”
“Oh, sure, but not all the time, especially since I’m six months out. My doctor calls the six months the red zone–that’s when something’s likely to pop back up. Now I don’t have to go so much. My insurance company’s probably throwing a party,” she said with a laugh.
“I would want to make sure,” Bedford said earnestly, trying not to stare at her armpit. “What’s one more check?”
The woman tilted her head, fingered a pearl necklace at her throat. “True, but I wouldn’t want to rush it. When they first tell you about the cancer, just that one word, everything changes. That word. It consumes your thoughts more than it ever consumes your body. It’s in everything, everything you see or hear or feel. It’s in how people look at you, talk to you, when they know. You hear it on the radio, in the news, in places where it never actually was. And then the moment they tell you it’s gone, the scans are clean, it just . . . lifts. Finally.”
“You don’t worry at all anymore?”
“I don’t see why I should, sugar. What’s going to be, will be. My knowing won’t bring it any faster. That’s what I learned my first go-round.”
“It could save your life.”
“Well, I’m not depending on medicine to do that,” she said with a smile.
There was no use trying to persuade her, he decided. Even if he told her. Even if he circled the spot with a bright red pen and told her to have them point the scanners there, right there, it probably wouldn’t do any good. Telling her what he could see, and why, was impossible. This, like all the others things, became another secret that he knew.
The next stop was the woman’s, and she squeezed his shoulder as she stood up, made her way to the front and down the stairs and away. His stop was fast approaching, then only a few blocks to the gas station pay phone. Her father was probably at work; her mother was probably home. But if Julie answered, he would hang up. Then she would call him back at work and accuse him of spying on her. Again.
Last night, Bedford and Julie had kept the normal routine of sitting on the tiny balcony of their apartment before the mosquitoes got bad, sipping lemonade like the people in the fine houses by the sea wall, though their view was only the back of another building. In the window across the way, a flower box of pink and purple impatiens. Behind that, curtains and closed blinds. Behind that, a couch, a woman whose face flashed blue in the light of the television screen, whose teeth worried a kernel of popcorn. Bedford and Julie didn’t own a television– Bedford spent more time looking at cathode tubes and the wall than the pictures on the screen, and Julie didn’t like having electronics around. The absence gave them more time together. Usually a good thing.
Bedford suspected Julie was pregnant. Not long, a couple weeks at most, processes ticking along too small for even his sight. But he’d noticed changes in tissues and fluids that didn’t quite match the normal cycle.
A child wasn’t part of their routine, so it wasn’t something they had talked about to any specific degree. A child was a someday, a maybe, a reward for when they had everything tightly under control. He’d let the possibility become more real for a few days, let himself imagine the weight of an infant in his hands and anticipate a fatherly pre-occupation with the workings of small lungs and heart and liver. A child, waving arms thick with baby fat. A child, gripping a fork in the cartilage of its fingers. Maybe it would be a child he would comfort when it brought home pictures with faces the teacher said were colored wrong, faces with bright red skin and black eyes.
So on a quick run for milk he had picked up a pregnancy test and, as an after-thought, a fertility test. If she wasn’t pregnant, maybe they could talk about it. Maybe this was the distraction they needed to calm her and focus her attention away from him and onto her own body, the dramatic changes of her organs. He knew when he got home that it was a mistake to bring the tests in, so he’d hidden them, meaning to broach the subject at an opportune time. Maybe if she grew significantly late.
She came back from a trip to the bathroom holding the two boxes in her hands. She launched into a string of breathless, rising questions, ending on “You have to know this too?”
She lifted the fertility test, its smiling pink woman, the promise that the wand inside would reveal the four most viable days. The white plastic sticks shifted within the box; Julie’s finger bones curled around them like a cage.
Bedford leaned back in his chair and massaged his neck. “I was just . . . Look. I don’t have to know anything, Julie. We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. I don’t care.”
“Well I care. I want these out of here. I want them in a million pieces.”
“Fine. I’m sorry I bought them.”
“I want to know why you got them in the first place.” She held the boxes, one in each hand. Sometimes they pointed at him accusingly. Sometimes they waved like conductor’s batons.
“I saw them, and I was thinking about us, and a family, and all that. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
He watched her carefully, waiting for the muscles to tense, for things to turn ugly, like they had at the gas station, but her muscles only tightened a little, her heart thumping along fast, but not too fast. Simple irritation.
“I’m going to take care of it,” she said and went back into the apartment.
She opened a cupboard, opened the boxes, clicked open the tool box, and smashed the thin white wands with a hammer. She swept the shards into the trash then carried the trash downstairs to the dumpster. She didn’t even slam the door. He was impressed.
When she returned, she went into the bedroom, where he couldn’t hear. He watched the sky darken, letting her cool off, but she didn’t come out for a long time. The woman across the way fell asleep on her couch, nodding over her breast bone, and the night grew chill and bugs whined in his ears, so he finally went inside.
In the bedroom, behind the wall, she was packing her big blue suitcase. Underwear. Socks. Panty hose, blouses, pumps, pajamas, make-up, medication. Her side of the dresser was already half empty.
He watched her from the kitchen table. She finished packing, laced her tennis shoes, hauled the suitcase into the kitchen and opened the front door. She didn’t look at Bedford. Her voice was calm, but the left biceps femoris clenched and unclenched above her knee. Still, it was completely different than that day at the gas station.
“I’m leaving,” she said. “Congratulations. You really had me convinced.”
And that was it. She shut the door, went to the elevator, pushed the button, and her feet and her body and her head sank down below the floor and beyond his sight.
His bus stop came into view. He stood, paused. If he rode the bus a little longer, it was only one connection to Julie’s parents’ house. He could go by and just see her. See if she was taking her pills, if she was eating, if she had been crying. He wouldn’t do anything. He wouldn’t be able to do anything, because it would just blow everything up even worse, but at least he would know. He sat back down. The neighbors had a privacy fence, a fence that would hide him from her. He’d be late to work, but he could smooth it over. Flat tire on the bus. Traffic jam. Any old thing.
He made his connection and got off at the entrance to her parents’ neighborhood. He walked past neon green suburban lawns, under squat live oaks bearded in Spanish moss, between couples kissing around hurried mugs of coffee, children brushing teeth or shoving books into backpacks, dogs pacing at doors.
He slowed as he approached the house, its red-and-white barn mailbox gradually rising into view. Just short of her parents’ place, he stopped, pretended to examine the neighbor’s landscaping while a car drove by, and then ducked between the house and the fence where he could look for Julie at his leisure. But the neighbor’s house caught his attention. Behind the azaleas and the siding and the insulation and the wallpaper, a dark-haired woman sat alone eating mush out of a bowl. She gently massaged her stomach in a circular motion, tracing the outline of a tiny curled body that puckered its mouth opened, closed, like a fish. Her mouth. A girl.
Upstairs, a man checked his tie in the mirror, combed his hair, descended the stairs. The woman picked up a newspaper. The man brushed past, mixed protein powder in a blender, his back to the woman. He sat at the table, flipped open a book, tilted the shake into his mouth where it slurped down his esophagus to roil in stomach acids. They didn’t look at each other; they didn’t speak. Their hearts beat the same, slow pace. Their muscles remained smooth and relaxed. A single pleasantry. A kiss on a forehead.
Bedford looked at the house, with neat stacks of towels in the linen closet and clean dishes in the cupboards. The man’s briefcase was full of papers. In a back pocket Bedford caught the blur of glossy paper, glimpses of pert flesh. Nudie magazines, probably. Harmless. Bedford looked at the couple for a long time, till the man checked his watch, picked up the case, and leaned in for another kiss.
Bedford finally turned away, back the way he came, away from the house. Worms undulated under the grass. Small beetles burrowed in the telephone poles. Squirrels made nests in a house with a faded For Sale sign in the yard. He didn’t turn back toward Julie. Right now, he didn’t need to know.
Kelsie Hahn holds an MFA in fiction from New Mexico State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, 1/25, NANO Fiction, SpringGun, and others. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband, Stephen Cleboski