I could see in him, though I’d never confess it, though maybe I did once in the great whorling misfire of my brain; he was the type who carried his stuffed bear to bed long into adulthood.
All the love interests who wouldn’t see the truth abandoned him because they couldn’t make sense of his habit or his theory about the tigers breaking loose from the backyard zoo he passed on the way to his shit job. Beasts can hear your blood, he’d say. But the cosmos, she always knows intent. On bad days, he walked up to the fence with the biggest dare he could manage, his heart pounding in his ears. A shadow, then two, wide and languid, moved with him. He dragged his hand along the rotting boards trying to remember the feel of the wallpaper at his grandmother’s house because it was where he lay his hands when he couldn’t catch his breath from the weight of things. The threats about his long hair, too soft on his shoulders. His father’s disappearance. Guns left in the house. His bird heart, cleaved and wrestling. Stories from folks his father had come up with. From folks he’d wronged. Phantom, rippling talk of nasty women and a cherry car he’d left behind. Contusions. Broom handles and broken glass. He wanted to remember the wallpaper, how it felt to brush the hair over his face, but those were phantom, too. He almost swore the wallpaper had been velvet, but how could wallpaper hold up made of such a thing? It can’t, the last gal said. Maybe they made wall coverings of animal skins in the old days, but a fabric needs structure to stick to a wall down here in swamp heat hell. When he didn’t quit his rambling, she said, have some lemonade, hon, and held the pitcher to his cheek. And baby doll, look at me—those beasts you keep going on about are house cats. Maine Coons. He knew better. He knew what they were. He knew what the wall that held him up fucking felt like. And there at the end of things between them, he told her he didn’t know why she’d stuck around so long and went back to pacing and scratching his beard. He knew he was hard to live with. He finally took to his swallow of a basement where he drew patterns: paisley and fleur de lis and acanthus and tiger after tiger with smudged faces. Hangnail fingers clutching a pencil nub. Small hands I still wanted to hold. He tucked himself into a corner on the floor with his grandmother’s oil lamp, constructing a safe place warm with whiskey and graphite and his teddy at his hip.
I can see him now, though I’d never confess it, though maybe I have, in my waking panic, written his name on a hundred bay leaves and tunneled down beneath my porch until I reached the other side of his basement. Sidled next to him, I lay my palms flat against the wall, breathing loam and clay and root until my lungs fill.
Beth Gilstrap is the author of Deadheading & Other Stories, Winner of the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize out now. She is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. Born and raised in the Charlotte area, she recently relocated to Louisville where she lives and writes in an ornery old shotgun house. She also lives with C-PTSD and is quite vocal about ending the stigma surrounding mental illness.