The rapping is light, light enough that Otis wouldn’t have heard if he wasn’t (gasping) awake. Fortunately (unfortunately), Otis hasn’t been sleeping since the incident, so he stumbles across the dark apartment to reach the door even as fair knuckles brush against peeling wood again. Maple, maybe. Or pine. Otis doesn’t care much for details. Another man (an earlier Otis) may have checked the peephole. Otis grapples with the door chain. He yanks the door forward.
Otis cannot afford to be a drinking man, and he has learned from longer and longer stretches of highway in his semi-truck how to stay alert enough without sleep. So, when the arm standing upright on its shoulder in the poorly lit hallway waggles slender fingers at him, his mouth opens just a crack (real) before he waves back.
It’s Sunday. A week has passed. Otis is tired; Otis has been tired since he was 13 years old and working late nights washing dishes to help his mama pay rent. He stares at the arm, glowing pale white in the dim. It (she) tilts to one side at the wrist, listening. “It is the cause,” Otis mumbles, and he has been expecting (her) company. He opens the door wider. The arm passes through on dainty fingers. “It is the cause.”
Otis had always found driving comforting. There was something about that control as he gripped the steering wheel, that stretch of unknown road, that known that he was leaving behind. Some truck drivers griped about the distance, or slow tolls, or tasteless food dripping with grease, or stiff necks and backs and who knows what else could ache besides, but that feeling (control, freedom) was enough for Otis. Otis was a simple man.
Desiree hadn’t found nearly the same thrill. She liked to listen. She’d driven her parents’ groaning old station wagon for as long as Otis had known her, so maybe that was part of the problem. Still, she’d come along most of the time, most of the time halfheartedly. It had been easy enough to get her into the car that night, then, even as the lingering sun cast dark shadows up and down the street.
The apartment is quiet, and Otis shifts his weight while he rubs the back of his neck. He can feel a headache starting to spread, and he wonders wildly when he had last cleaned up around here, made it presentable. It has been a week (still weak), at least.
Otis knows he must be the first to speak, (she can’t say anything) but what can he say? There’s no room for small talk here. He clears his throat, opens his mouth, clears his throat again. “How have you been?” Barely a whisper. The question stands between them in the cramped darkness. Pale fingers pause in stroking the carpet. The arm raises. The (empty) ring finger beckons slowly to him.
Otis slides to his knees without registering he is doing so, feels the edge of the couch press into the small of his back. “How have I been?” Deflection. He’s always been a fan. The hand closes once, opens again slowly. “It’s been, it’s been-” Otis studies his own hands, wide and calloused and smudged with grey. “Quieter and lonelier than I thought.”
Desiree had used to say Otis was the most passionate man she’d ever met, but he does not like to wear his heart upon his sleeve. He prefers to carefully cover it with a jacket.
Desiree had had the brightest red hair Otis had ever seen; it had the frightening, beautiful quality of fire. Fire was (destructive) mesmerizing, after all, and spread (devoured) quickly. He had told her without meaning to when he’d first seen her at the downtown pharmacy. She’d laughed, and Otis thought — at the time — that the hair and the laugh could keep him warm for the rest of his life, if she’d allow it. Seeing her while she saw him, came to him, had filled him with a wonder that didn’t ebb away. His mama had always said to be careful with pretty girls, but Otis found that that was wrong. The pretty girls had to be careful with you.
The last time he’d seen her, her eyes had been closed; her skin was a soured milk; her hair was fanned out and curled but much too (lifeless) dull. She’d been silent. She’d seemed small. Stiff. He felt he couldn’t get to her, but maybe he hadn’t tried enough. There had been too many relatives pushing against him, the room was stuffy and salty with tears, he couldn’t think. It was no wonder they’d opted out of a big family wedding and gone to the courthouse instead. Simple. Yet here Otis had ended up anyway, exactly as he had avoided. Alone.
Nobody had known, though. They didn’t. He had made sure of that.
The last time he’d seen her, really seen her, she’d been silent, too. In a different way. Otis hadn’t minded — he had been driving — but having her scrunched in the passenger seat of her battered station wagon with her arms tight against her chest, then one dangling out the window wasn’t easy to forget. She was chewing on her bottom lip. Otis could feel the embers of her kindling anger. He remembered being afraid she’d draw blood, a trickle that’d run down her chin. After that, he didn’t remember much — the way a child will gaze at the night sky and rush home to scribble the stars in crayon, but when the picture’s done, they see all they’ve really managed to capture is the black.
Otis wants to turn on the radio. He isn’t sure if the situation will be made better or worse with a wailing, fading ’80s band filling the corners of the silence. He decides the situation is already leaning towards the worse side of things regardless of soundtrack, so crosses the tiny living room to turn the knob on. Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” washes through the dark. You got a fast car. Is it fast enough so you can fly away? When Otis turns back around, the small white hand is in his.
He knows the hand, perhaps better than his own. A man doesn’t spend too much time holding (caressing) his own hand. The hand is soft and slightly dry from the unforgiving October air. The nails are short and neat and strawberry-pink.
Desiree’s father had been rich, so she had never had to work. Not until she’d been with Otis. Her hands should have been pristine. Otis hated even then (even now) the scraggly skin of hangnails she’d pull on while she waited for the lawyer’s office phone to ring. She didn’t mind, it was fun to talk to all those different people, she’d say, but Otis knew better. He usually did.
So I remember when we were driving, driving in your car. The hand in his tugs him forward, away from the radio, to the carpet. Otis closes his eyes (kill the lights) and sways. And I had a feeling that I belonged. I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone.
He’s not much of a dancer, but then again, he’s never been. It’s easy to pretend, always easier, and Otis thinks that despite everything he deserves easy. I’d always hoped for better, thought maybe together you and me find it. I got no plans, I ain’t going nowhere. He feels the hand in his hair slide down to the back of his neck. How many times had they danced in front of the couch, Desiree’s shoes off and her laugh making new harmonies while her hair tickled his ear?
And your arms felt nice wrapped around my shoulder and Otis keeps his eyes closed.
They had wanted to keep her closed, but Otis didn’t think that was fair. Or right. Or something, he hadn’t been sure, he hadn’t been thinking clearly, but he knew that she could not, should not, be contained in that way. Besides, she looked fine, the people had done a remarkable job with her, those who loved her (those who loved her) had the right to — wanted to — should see her. Just that one little thing was missing, was all, and it wasn’t as great of a deal as some of them seemed to think. It could be (worse) hidden.
Though he couldn’t help but wonder where exactly it was and why they couldn’t find it. There was only so much edge to a road, and even pieces are eventually found.
Tragedy, that was the word they all murmured. Thrown in whispered grains of rice at a wedding they hadn’t (been invited to) attended. And it had been, it was, Otis had never argued. Yet the word had never been enough, nor had its de thesaurus brothers. Perhaps this stemmed from Otis’ blankness on the night, in the night when he was questioned by the blue men when they found him.
You don’t remember, they’d assured him. Was that relief? Otis couldn’t tell. But sometimes he thought he’d seen her — next to him, then gone, then standing in the street incomplete, red and blue and white strobes slicing through the darkness of the night.
She was looking at him, he knew, but he couldn’t see her eyes.
Otis has lost his sense of time, though on the road he’d been one of the few to glimpse the full, peach-orange blush of dawn. He has not seen a night like this. He may not be seeing it now. The radio is only sound (you gotta make a decision, leave tonight or live and die this way) and she is only touch, but by God, how he’s missed feeling. Warm (cold) fingers trace his ear and he remembers more, remembers less.
“Is there pain?” The hand moves slowly to his shoulder, and the patch of neck left behind suddenly erupts with gooseflesh. Otis tries to catch it at his waist, hold it there (keep her there). The forearm slides down his leg, is flat, is still. Otis gazes at it, his own hands frozen.
A snap of fingers sends him reeling back, sharp and then gone.
Had there been pain is perhaps the better question, the one that’s crossed his mind the most, most difficult to dissipate away. There must be, there must have been, but he’s sure, he’s sure that it matched his own after that (he shouldn’t have stayed for that conversation, he shouldn’t have, it was just gossip, just rumors, why had he accepted drinks and truths from a coworker after a too long shift) conversation. Otis’s mama had once told him to look out for turning points. He’d scoffed and said he didn’t think real life was as cut and dry as that, thank you very much (but oh God, he could see it, feel it, now).
There was pain. There always had been. He just hadn’t uncovered it until that night in the smoky, dark bar.
Otis knew he had not taken for granted that he was a lucky man. Sure, he had worked hard and long to get that promotion, but he didn’t disregard luck’s role in it. He heard what people whispered, but he didn’t mind. He knew Desiree was too beautiful (good) for him, but he had not once (until then) considered that she would look somewhere else. Need someone else. She had seen him, been his, and chosen him. Otis. If she had left, Otis would have followed. Otis would have eventually stopped, watched her go until she was just another color of the horizon. Otis would have been sad, but that would be all.
Instead, Otis had been angry — a surprising and ugly color on him. It flared deep in his belly, alive for the very first time and greedy, reducing everything to blacks and reds and Otis couldn’t see anything until everything was over. Then he saw it all, oh yes, vivid and so (beautiful) grotesque.
Otis grips his coarse hair and pulls, gritting his teeth. He is getting ahead of himself, or not ahead enough.
The hand is slowly slinking over the nearly bare shelves of the living room (Desiree’s lipsticks and candles and candies are gone, Desiree is gone), somehow elegant, somehow belonging. She’s looking for something, Otis realizes, but doesn’t make a move to help.
“How long?” He whispers, and he doesn’t know what matters most — how long (she’ll stay, she’ll love him, it’s taken to get to his corner of nowhere) has it been since they danced?
The hand closes around a pen.
They had told him to see someone, just to talk, just to cope. Talking isn’t a solution. Words are words, nothing more. Any rational mind knows, and Otis has never (before) lacked in rationality. Still, when the car crashes (though you’re making a living driving) and your wife is (not whole) taken and the thing you’re most stuck on is her (possibly) cheating, maybe talking is the best you can do. Maybe talking is the life preserver (it just takes one) that will scoop you out from that dark and treacherous and unforgiving water.
But Otis hadn’t listened. Otis hadn’t talked. He (had already sunk too far) couldn’t.
She’d never given him an indication that she was unhappy, unsatisfied. He hadn’t questioned her. What happy man would? She had been content sucking on a strawberry lollipop, feet bare, eyes bright while he (exaggerated) described his travels — that was their love. Desiree had never gone far herself — though now she had, she’d beaten him now, in a way. In other ways it’s as it always had been, him ending up on top.
She whispered that he was good enough for her while he slipped away in the morning, keys in hand, so he believed he was. He was under her spell (the world was) but goddamn if it wasn’t ecstasy.
Watch your temper, his mama had said, squinting at split knuckles. Otis had, but it’d slipped away in the dark.
The hand grasps the pen, tilts it up so the gold in the nib glints in ever failing light. The pen passes (scritch, scratch) over a crumpled newspaper clipping with a big (black) bold headline. Otis (cannot look away) isn’t sure if he watches for a minute or an hour. The pen drops; a crease in the newspaper is smoothed out. Fingers linger over the headline before moving aside. The hand is poised on the shelf like a miniature (broken) ballerina. Otis’s stomach is ice (what is he feeling) while he bends over the paper.
The words are in his handwriting. I am not what I am. Otis reads them as if there is a question mark.
Otis hadn’t been (isn’t) a saint. He’d never claimed to be. But he had been good to Desiree, he had (for the most part). And it seemed that the most part was the best a hardworking man could do. Otis was a hardworking man — he got enough money to scrape by, plus a little extra; he was respected; he could buy her pretty things. Like the cardigan, the emerald-green (like the green-eyed monster, his mama had told him to beware the green-eyed monster) cardigan that reached her knees and seemed to make her hair glow. It was Desiree’s favorite thing to wear.
She’d slip it on as soon as she got home from work (maybe that’s why Otis came to loathe it), he’d feel the softness on his cheek while she’d kiss him hello (warm and milky sweet and fire), he’d grasp it fully for a moment, clenched tight in his fists before he released it to the floor while she slid onto the bed. How he loved her skin under his fingers, the paradox of it all, and maybe it was this accompanying sensation that had made him so (crazy) angry. The beer slurred his senses, made his movements (his mind) sloshy, but the anger burned red and bright and he hadn’t noticed her or her pretty, pinched face as much as he’d noticed the absence of the sweater.
“Where is (he) it?” It had been too loud, but Otis was too hot. Perhaps she’d tried to answer, but he remembered only grasping her arm (tight, naked, tight) and shaking her (he’d never hurt her before, he wouldn’t again). “You left it in his bedroom, didn’t you? Draped across his couch?” Proof. Perhaps she was confused. Indignant. Angry.
All he’d known for sure was that she’d cried.
And sure, a sobered Otis huddled on his own sofa with a cup of black coffee and a nervous, skirting Desiree could admit that this whole nasty episode was perhaps an overreaction. Except.
The sweater was nowhere to be found. Not in their apartment, anyway.
It’s amazing how easy it is to unravel him (Otis is a simple man). Just the one line, yet Otis feels (tired) undone. He can wear a mask for everyone, anyone else. He should have known he wouldn’t be able to hide from her. He hadn’t had to. Wasn’t he lucky?
Otis considers the drying ink, the sentence, and wonders how much she knows. Foolish. She cannot know anything.
She hadn’t when she’d gotten into the car. He hadn’t when they’d gotten into the car, not really. Long ago he could’ve said that there was nothing else to do. Otis doesn’t care to lie.
She’d look radiant in white (but he never got to see her) and her father wasn’t there, and he should’ve known or maybe somehow the promise (the cause) had been less, reduced, left like a crumpled cardigan in a corner somewhere where no one remembered to look.
She’d loved him, though. Hadn’t she? Hadn’t he?
“No.” He faces the hand, the arm (his love) and it stills in the careful caressing of the bookshelf. “I’m not what I am.” White fingers grasp a corner, crumple the paper into an orb. “And neither were you.” The apartment is still. Otis isn’t sure how much time has passed. Laughter grapples for footing in his throat, but he’s not sure he’s won. Darkness seems to press close around him, yet in it, somehow, is light. Otis thinks of the violence in the flash of a comet plummeting to (reality) earth, the flash of headlights, of triumph. The fingers crawl slowly towards him, and
Otis realizes that he isn’t afraid (was that what it had been, had it been fear in her face?). The hand strokes his chin, comes to rest on the side of his face. She is still perfection. He wishes for an instant that he had kept her fingerprint, her handprint, the kiss of her mouth somewhere on a napkin. The hand is warmer now, and Otis thinks he can almost feel a pulse there.
There is much (and less) left to do. Otis thinks to make himself a cup of tea, to release the patient parade of words waiting in his throat, to turn off the music. He declines all three. His bare feet scuff the floor as he strides to his (their) bedroom. At the doorway, he pauses, turns, extends his own arm out to the one that perches, unmoving, on the living room carpet.
She (not halfheartedly) accepts. It is not hard.
Otis slides under the covers and moves to his customary side for the first time since the incident. She will stay, but soon she will leave, and her presence is softer now. He will leave it to time, and all will eventually be well. Otis hasn’t been sleeping, but his eyes fall shut and he sighs into the blackness of the night, asleep as soon as the hand rubs his neck, curls up against his pillow.
He is still sleeping when the first cold rays of sun slope in through the window, when pale fingers crawl across his chest and close around his throat.