Short Stories


WoodcutPeopleVolume 5: The Observer

By Randal O’Wain

My cell phone rings as I hammer your mother’s bone china with a meat tenderizer. The collection she mailed from Dalton two Christmas’ ago. A grid-like pattern forms in the breaks of each blue and white dish. Three weeks since you moved back to Georgia, and still you call daily. The phone cuts off and a phantom ring hovers in the air.

The video camera I set up in the corner beeps, and the mini-VHS labeled KRAKOW stops, and rewinds. Removing the tape, I insert ISTANBUL. I’ve recorded over the others already, replacing the “us” with only “me.” Adjusting the camera on the tripod, I press Time-Lapse/Record, and make sure the red light blinks.

I polish off what remains of my 40 ounce, and break the last plate of china against the counter. Then I drop the entire stack of non-themed dishes to the floor. As I work, my mind wanders between I don’t care how many turkey-basters full of Juan Carlos’ semen—It will never be “our” baby  and Consciousness is perceived through objects that reflect meaningful interactions. Moving on to glasses, I take out each cup individually and smash them on the linoleum. Ceramic. Glass. Ceramic. Glass.

The noise settles.

Cleaning the apartment is the last thing left to do before I leave Reno. I’ve already gotten fired—Check—for stuffing an Oscar Myer wiener into a plastic bottle of Budweiser and selling it to the Health Inspector. He called me “boy.” A week later, I received an eviction notice—Check—for hammering nails into the wall while our neighbors enjoyed twenty-hour Friends marathons at full volume. Your last message said you were moving to Mexico to give birth, but I doubt you’re pregnant. It’s only been three weeks since you left: “So, okay, Juan Carlos agreed to fertilize my eggs. Sounds weird, like my vagina is a biology experiment. When you see our baby, you’ll just die! Juan Carlos is the hottest Mexican ever. Too bad he won’t just do it, ya’ know? But his boyfriend Henry would kill us!”

I remove the silverware drawer and dump it onto the floor. In the far corner, I find the spoon I stole from the Kafka-themed Café Metamorphosis in Prague. The servers wore hats sprouting antennae from the crest. I ordered The Trial—two eggs over medium with apple butter and biscuits—and you ordered The Judgment—one egg poached and an English muffin. Evidence. Little things indict you. You were hung over, a stiff smell of vomit clung to your skin. The night before, you dragged me out to a trashy dance club. I sat alone reading Merleau-Ponty, wax stuffed in my ears, and drank a pilsner. “Where’s your southern streak?” you said. “I still got mine, biatch!” Then you downed a shot of absinthe and yelled, “Georgia, baby!” You made out with some dude in a Soul Asylum t-shirt, and didn’t rejoin me until he grabbed your crotch. That was the beginning of the end. After we came back home you hated me, and then felt guilty for hating me and decided we should have a baby.

In the kitchen, I place the Kafka spoon in my pants pocket.

The pile of broken glass is a pretty mess, not like abstract art or a dilapidated house that still holds a charred cradle, but pretty like so many multi-colored shards after a car wreck.

Before bagging up the debris, I open a new 40. Nothing else remains in the fridge but mustard, cock sauce and three Mickey’s. You would’ve hated the poverty. I drain half the bottle in one gulp, and re-fill it with water. Hydration.

I drag two full hefty bags to the living room and survey the courtyard through my open windows. All of our furniture, broken and splintered into handsome piles, is set up just as it had been in our living room. My books and records line the courtyard walkway, still alphabetized. Shards of glass tear through the plastic as I throw the heavy kitchen-sacks out into the yard.

Carrying the tripod to the bedroom, I move on to the closet. I press record, and watch the mode-light on the camera turn red—blink. How could we accumulate so many clothes in less than two years? You begged me to leave Berkeley. Always on your terms. “Baby, let’s go somewhere where no one knows us. I’ll get a bar job,” you said. “You’ll find work at a college!”

In the closet, I try and bag up the vintage wedding dress you bought with two hundred dollars from the ‘Special Day Fund’ and never paid back, but I trip on the embroidered-lace train and fall forward. Something glass breaks under my weight. Standing, I find my PhD diploma in a shattered frame and water-damaged from a ceiling leak. A brown-stain colors the topographical creases. Seven years to write my dissertation—Consciousness is a process of cataloguing, creating meaning from sensory observations, while objects act—I sweat beneath the weight of the wedding dress and wait to feel.

In the bathroom, I dump the dress into the tub.

Fetching the tri-pod, I set it up in the corner and check for the red light. With the matches once used to cover the smell of your shit in the morning, I put a flame to my rolled up diploma and light the dress. At first the mound blazes, but soon smolders out. I strike more matches. And listen to the smoke alarm screech.

I watch the fighting flames, and imagine the porcelain heating up under the burning clothes. I’ve always loved baths, and this tub was big enough for us to play scrabble and drink wine together during the heatless winters.

I take the Kafka spoon from my pocket and place it on the windowsill. Then remove my clothes—Gap slacks and a silk Klein shirt from Nordstrom’s you bought me for Christmas—and toss them on the smoldering fabric. I stand there naked, and watch as the fire dwindles into acrid smoke.

I run water into the tub, and bag the warm, wet clothes. Out in the living room, feeling a breezy tingle on my exposed cock, I throw the bags out into the courtyard. Meaning is created through recognition of the material. Finishing what remains of my 40, I toss it on the lawn, too.

Things left in the house: One 40, one ladder-back chair, and the Kafka spoon. I bring everything into the living room and sit at the open window. People come home from work, or go out to casinos. They dodge the sun; walking inside shadows the way children play hot lava on living room furniture.

The mode-light blinks red. Taking in one-second glimpses of what is left of our life in Reno. Outside, an old man digs through my nonfiction: Heidegger, Leibniz. His back arcs downward. I imagine the broken man in his youth, pressing tight against the skin of his young wife. They wear bathing suits at Ocean Beach. Hers is a modest one-piece with polka dots. He is straight backed and muscle toned. And I think of you, breasts so tiny I can’t imagine them carrying milk, checking out the way your pants fit in the full-length mirror.

The old man moves on, diving forward with a tall stack from my fiction pile. But I do not feel any less myself without the books.

Taking the camera, I return to the bathroom. Drain the last of my Mickey’s and stumble down to my knees. I enjoy scrubbing the porcelain with wire bristle, bleeding out silver scrapes through the white enamel.

I begin marring a new batch of clean white porcelain, when someone bangs on the front door. The visitor knocks hard.

“Mr. Baxter,” the man says. “Open up. Police.”

I try to stand, but fall face forward into the shower wall. My nose hits hard and draws blood. Red spreads across the white-grey tiles like moth wings.

“Mr. Baxter,” another voice says. The high-pitched lilt of my landlord. “Open the door.”

The smoke alarm bleats: bleat, bleat, bleat.

“Mr. Baxter, we’re coming in,” my landlord says.

“Just one second,” I say, and try to stand, but trip over the tri-pod, toppling the camera down on top of me. Slouching against the door, I gather the camera in my arms, check for the red light. But, there is nothing.

Frantic, I remove the tape. Blood smears onto ISTANBUL written out with purple marker. Placing the tape back in, I hit rewind. I watch my self in reverse. I watch myself moving backward with such capable agility that my present teleological momentum seems wrong somehow.

“Mr. Baxter.”

The sunshine through the window looks forgiving on videotape.

“Mr. Baxter.”

Static appears and you are standing in the Sultanahmet. Minarets from the Blue Mosque tower above you. A little girl selling roses tries to push a flower into your hand, but you refuse to open your fist. “Thank you ma’am,” the child says in accented English, pushing the flower against your closed hand. “Thank you ma’am,” she says as you turn and run away from her, laughing. I run too, and the camera shakes and tilts as it zooms closer to your back. But you are faster, and eventually I stop chasing. The camera stills. A mangy cat follows you down the street where you disappear toward the Bosphorus.

Randal O’Wain is a fiction writer and essayist from Memphis whose work has appeared in The Oxford American, Crazyhorse, Redivider, and Hobart: another literary journal. He now lives in Iowa City, where he is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Iowa.