:: Article

Three Stories

By Joanna Ruocco.


Left Behind

After you clean, look around. The apartment is clean. It should be clean. You’ve been cleaning all day. You’ve been cleaning on your hands and knees. Did you de-grease the back splash? The back splash is degreased. Good for you! You don’t miss a trick. In the day to day, you are not the cleanliest person, but you apply yourself assiduously to tasks. Today you have cleaned assiduously. Are there fingerprints on the switch plates? No prints. Your work is done.  You can leave. The blinds are dingy but blinds are always dingy. You can’t clean a blind. How can you clean a blind? Should you walk the blind through the car wash? The car wash chemicals would kill you. They’d dissolve your clothes. The next driver driving through would find you dead on the ground inside the car wash, covered by a blind. The driver would feel like he was looking through a window, watching a naked girl through her window, but the girl is dead in the car wash. He’d feel like a dirty old man, a dirty peeping old man, and this would humiliate him; it would cause damage above and beyond the normal wear and tear you’d expect from discovering a body. There’s nothing to do about the blinds. You can’t kill yourself. The roach powder is getting into your brain. Get out of here!  Leave. The blinds don’t matter. You can leave. You have fulfilled the terms. You don’t feel fulfilled, but, formally, there is fulfillment. The terms required you to do certain things, and there was a specified duration, and you did the things and this is the final hour of the duration. You can leave, even though you feel unfulfilled. You crawled on your knees with a toothbrush rubbing at the speckled linoleum. Some of the specks are dirt but some of the specks are manufactured in the linoleum to look like dirt. The fake dirt disguises the real dirt. It’s impossible to tell the specks apart. You had to scour every inch of the floor. Now the floor is clean. You look at the floor. It doesn’t look clean. The linoleum was manufactured with specks of dirt. The carpet is the color of dust. The bathtub is the color of stool. No one will believe you cleaned all day, on your hands and knees, the cracks in your skin stinging with degreaser. No one will believe you fulfilled the terms. You shouldn’t have bothered. You will be blamed for the dirt and dilapidation, for the discoloration.  Chips and stains.  You will be blamed for the specks in the linoleum.  You will be blamed for the condition of the carpet, of the bathtub, of the blinds, of the counters, the cabinets, the oven, the sinks, the water, the wiring, the plumbing, the gas. You will be blamed for the layout, the north facing windows, the dry air, the way sound travels up from the street.  You shouldn’t have spent the day on your hands and knees. You shouldn’t have put your face so close to the floor that roach powder went into your nose. Where is your self-respect? You shouldn’t have cleaned. You should have disguised the dirt with more dirt, more and more dirt. There’s soil outside, not close by, but you could have walked a few blocks to a park. You could have brought back a baggie of dirt.  Why didn’t you go to the park?  Then you’d have dirt.  You’d have fresh air in your lungs and a baggie of dirt.  Your thoughts would be clear.  There’s no poison in the park.  There’s no powder.  You should have gone to the park.  You should have come back with dirt.  You should have packed the garbage disposal with dirt. You should have smashed a hole in the wall. It’s not too late. Call your brother. Say you feel unfulfilled. Say you feel like a dupe. You’ve discovered that the apartment is dirt.  It’s made of dirt; every part is dirt, or lint or dust or stool or powder.  If you get on your hands and knees, you get the apartment all over you.  All day you’ve been getting covered in apartment.  You’ve been rubbing and rubbing because there are terms and now your knees are stinging, your nostrils are rimmed with roach powder, you’ve got blood around your cuticles, but nothing is clean.  You’re surrounded by filth.  You’re in a box of filth. A toxic box.  There are terms, but what can you do?  Call you brother. He’ll come right away. He’ll come prepared with hammer and mackerel.  There’s a knock at the door.  It’s your brother.  Look at your brother.  Look at his skin, his darkly ringed eyes, the dark wings of his nose. Your brother looks like you.  He doesn’t ever look clean. Take the hammer. Take the mackerel. Smash a hole in the wall and stuff in the mackerel. Spackle the wall. Spackle over the mackerel. Spackle more patches than just the patched-over mackerel. Disguise the mackerel patch with haphazard patches.  Now you can leave. You can live with your brother. He didn’t come out of nowhere. There must be someplace to go.



Neighborhood Watch

I don’t speak any English, but I quote from the English speakers copiously.  They’ve said such staring things; I don’t wonder they take notice of what I write down.  It’s English, what I write, and so they understand it, even admire it.  English is an athletic language and athleticism has been considered admirable, of an erotic fascination, for thousands of years.  I don’t think English itself has been around for thousands of years.  From what I understand, it’s a young language and its youth is the source of its vigor and appetite.  I wish that I had learned English, on the playground, that’s the place to learn a language, or in bed, that’s the other, but I never fell in with the right groups, and now it’s too late.  When I go to playgrounds I am ignored, the children won’t teach me, but I enjoy the smell of tar and cedar and rubber and cold or hot metal and I enjoy sitting on benches, breathing the smells and watching the children, so I go to the playgrounds; I go to the playgrounds instead of scouring indoor sectors—restaurants, gyms, and shopping centers—for an English-speaking lover to take to my bed.  I cannot pick an English-speaking lover from amongst the children on the playground; it is not permissible.  I cannot take a child to my bed.  To my home perhaps, that is permissible, for grape jelly and crackers and an exchange of lessons—the child would teach me English and I would teach the child how to stuff and roast a chicken—but children are not taken to bed in the English language, as English-speaking lovers. No, they are tucked into bed; they are brushed and scrubbed and then tucked into bed, by English-speakers who hush the children jealously.  It’s just as well I don’t speak English.  I am more classically disposed and prefer quotation to direct speech.  Quotation is authorized and direct speech is plagiary.  I do believe in the rule of law.  I do believe in the orthogonal frame of the jungle gym, the children crawling over and through it, opening their mouths up wide, emitting sounds too high for my ears to register, and so I put the writing tablet on my thighs and transcribe vibrations which are hardly English, an English speaker could not read them, although the parents might see a family resemblance and warn their children to keep their mouths closed, touch nothing, remember the word that means I was sent for you, you can come with me, I will get you there safely.




The human body is not a good place to store things, not if you want the things to keep.  If you want the things to spoil, then, fine, put them in the human body.  Put a head of lettuce in your body.  It will wilt in the heat. The cellulose will turn to slime.  If your mother says, “I’m making salad,” and you want to stop her, you want to stop your mother from making salad, run to the kitchen. Take the head of lettuce.  Put it in your body.  It will not keep.  There will be no salad.  Inside the human body it is wet and hot.  It is wet and hot, but not so wet, not so hot, that it will blanch the green beans your mother stemmed to toss with lettuce in the salad.  The green beans will not blanch in your body.  They will go soft and slick and brown along the seams and leak slime from their wounded tips.  The mushrooms will grow cowls, quick cowls of silty brown mucus.  They will shrink.  “No salad,” your mother will say, not sadly.  She doesn’t really want salad.  No mother wants salad.  Why should the mothers be compelled to eat salad?  They have the teeth for steaks just like everyone else.  Run out and buy your mother a steak, very fresh, very cold meat on ice under glass.  Ice and glass and crisp air—that is how to keep a steak from spoiling.  It is too bad your brain is in your body.  Brains should be kept like steaks, on ice, under glass, or like celluloid, in salt mines, or like cabbages, in cellars.  Brains should be cool and dry at all times.  Brains are dense like cabbages, gilled like mushrooms, lobed like grapefruits, layered like lettuces; they are made of meat, like steaks.  In the wrong conditions, they brown, they soften, they ooze, they stink, they shrink, they spoil.  Your body is the wrong conditions for your brain.  It doesn’t help to cool your skull, to strap frozen peas around your skull.  Inside your skull, it’s hot.  When your breath comes out it’s hot.  Your breath is always hot.  It smells like decay.  What do you expect given the conditions?  What can you do? Chew ice?  There were years when your mother chewed ice.  She sat in her room in the dark chewing ice.  She only left the room to refill the ice trays.  She kept the door locked.  You had to stand in the hedge and look through her window to make sure she was alive, but even then you couldn’t be sure.   She could have been dead but not yet decomposed.  She looked dead but intact, unmoving.  Now she looks alive because she is always moving, opening and closing drawers, pacing from room to room, rubbing her hands on her thighs, rubbing her hands on her arms, shifting her weight from foot to foot, twisting her hands with her hands; she never stops moving.  Her body looks intact, but inside, she has decomposed.  Everything has softened.  What can you expect given the conditions?  It takes more than chewing ice.  Your mother’s poor brain, in that heat, that wet heat—nothing will help. The ice didn’t help.  Even her bones have gone soft.  You can tear her skin with your nails.  You can wad her up, make a ball.  You need to wad her up.  You need to make her stop.  She’s always moving.  Her skin is always wet.  She seeps from the head, from the lap. Why did you think your mother would keep?  Her hands felt cool, but her breath was hot.  It stank.  The salads didn’t help.  What did your mother want?  She removed you from her body before you could rot.  She left her brain inside her body.  She knew it wouldn’t keep.  You should have taken it out of her.  You should have taken her apart.  Even now, the parts of you are spoiling in your body.  Who will take you apart?  You need to ask.  You need to find someone and say, “This is what I want.”  It is too late for your mother.  No one can save her.  There are no salvageable parts.  She has gone too soft.  Wad her up.  Make her small.  Take the ball of your mother in your arms.  Put your mother inside your body.  Let her rot.


Joanna Ruocco co-edits Birkensnake, a fiction journal, with Brian Conn.  She is the author of The Mothering Coven (Ellipsis Press), Man’s Companions (Tarpaulin Sky Press), A Compendium of Domestic Incidents (Noemi Press), and Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych (FC2). Toni Jones, her more athletic alter ego, just released her first novel, No Secrets in Spandex (Crimson Romance).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 6th, 2013.