by Ray Davis

This is the first story I wrote, and the first of a trilogy of stories about pronoun confusion. Its flaws are too obvious for comment.

She'd had to come home early again, even though it meant missing the Saturday night tips. She splashed water on her eyes at the kitchen sink, wiped her hands on the dish-towel, and let her face dry in the air.

The wardrobe was still open from this morning. She left it open now, after changing clothes and shoes. But the door would get shut sometime, so Simone Simon had to be trained not to hide there. "Come on, haven't you heard of Stonewall?" she chided. She lifted a black slipper from under the cat to dislodge it and then to entice it out. "Monster," she said affectionately, picking it up.

She sat on the couch. It was 7; there was a lot of time to kill. A good chance to sketch out ideas for the group show at BroadGall. It was coming up soon.

She couldn't.

She should have asked around work for some barbiturates, although it was a little dangerous with all the booze left in the apartment.

She turned on the cheap one-piece stereo that her sister had loaned her, kneeled before the squat column of milk crates, and dragged her fingertips across the records.

Simone Simon paced behind her a few times, impersonally leaning into her ratty jeans as though caught by her gravitational pull. She stood up and opened the shoebox on top, full of cassettes. She tried a Killing Joke compilation but snatched it out after less than a minute. A tape labeled "BRAHMS SYMP" followed the same path.

Finally she turned to the radio, stopping at a college station playing a modern percussion piece. She adjusted the plastic-coated wires which curled from the back of the stereo but they didn't improve the signal.

She thought of the leftover pizza in the fridge, its stale crust and its oils curdled, and her stomach turned, but partly from hunger, she knew. If she didn't eat, she would be awake all night, and she needed sleep.

As the microwave sang, she forked out Simone Simon's dinner. She hadn't wanted the microwave; his parents had given it to him. She probably got it because she was "the cook in the family". Amazing the number of things she didn't want which had been left. She bumped into new ones all the time, looking for things which were gone. Simone Simon's dry food looked fine but she topped it off anyway.

She dabbed the excess grease from the pizza with a napkin. There was no parmesan left, so she used salt to coarsen the bland glistening surface. With the pizza, she drank cold red wine from a tumbler of thick greenish glass. She was maybe two-thirds down the bottle and it was still surprisingly potable. The cork would probably fall apart long before the wine did.

She turned the radio off.

As she washed her glass and plate, a thought came to her. She herself didn't think it, and this sense of an intrusive voice attracted her attention pleasantly, like Clifton Webb's or Marlene Dietrich's first scene in a movie, wrecking the established mood ten minutes after their names appear in the titles.

For some years after adolescence, she had occasionally felt a similar impetus. Although it had led her into mistakes, she'd valued it and missed it as it appeared less often. She associated its loss with an odd memory:

In a grad student's narrow bed one morning, too soon after a night of smoke and braggadocio, trying not to wake the neighboring body as she shifted, she felt and saw her soul leave. It was light blue; it fled, impossibly fast, toward the closed bedroom door and vanished into it. Her consciousness remained intact and panicky in the bed, but something it considered a soul had been stripped or extracted.

As her tearing eyes focused on the streak left on the door, she saw it was the grad student's faded jeans, hanging there by a belt loop. It had been raining heavily; the jeans had gotten soaked coming to the room and they were drying.

When she read about selling one's soul, or trapping a soul in a camera (so easy for her to imagine: the mad dash through the lens, then the click, shutting off the escape route), or even the probability of the soul's existence, she thought of that morning, but never felt it appropriate to bring up. She didn't know what attitude to take.

The voices left to her afterwards were not distinguished by tone or personality. They were like those overdubbed demo tapes assembled by the shy, budget-conscious, or simply difficult, run only by the need to keep silence at arm's length, to fill in certain parts left empty, like conversation at a bad party.

Now she went to the swaybacked wardrobe that she and he had bought, assembled, shifted, and constantly prodded back into wobbling shape. Simone Simon darted out as she reached in.

Typically, thoughtlessly, he'd forgotten to take his bathrobe. Last week, she'd tossed some of her winter clothes in front of it on the shelf, to hide it. She spread them apart and pulled the robe down.

She held it by the arms. The pits were slightly whitened, probably from bleach. It still gave off his tenacious acidy smell. She'd worn the robe to bed when he was away. Against the light, she saw some thin spots and a hole at one shoulder. She began tearing there.

Almost immediately, a rough fingernail caught in the cloth, tugging out a loop of thread. She freed it, chewed it smooth, and continued.

When about halfway down the back, she stopped and found a pair of long scissors to help undo the seams. Once a few threads were cut, they seemed to come apart quickly, as if split by an axe. Sleeves, suddenly drapelike, dropped to the floor.

The hems and belt loops were harder.

She spread the torn terrycloth over the floor, studied it, rearranged it, studying again, like a seer over tea leaves or entrails. She moved the smaller pieces quickly out of the way onto the massive bureau, knocking a tiny bottle or two over into the sea of paper already there, then brought them back down one by one, fitting them together. Simone Simon insisted on batting the edges, which was a nuisance.

It looked like an approximated oval, like a diamond with a short attention span.

In the same drawer as the scissors was a ball of jute twine left from Christmas mailings. She retrieved it and then rummaged through her gray-and-blue plastic sewing box, sorting past crochet and knitting needles to a cream-colored yarn needle.

After bending the twine into the needle's wide eye, she roughly stitched the larger pieces together. This was mostly for show; she secured the trickier junctures with a light blue thread, invisible against the robe's material. Sags and gaps would be acceptable, and she could add more support tomorrow.

It was very late and she still didn't know what she was to do with it. She pictured a Frankenstein kite over New York Bay, twine, wrapped around her and under her arms, suspending her between the blue wing and the gray water. It would be visible from the Staten Island ferry. She laughed and waited for more word.

When it came, she nodded. She lay down on the cloth, too tall to fit until she curled into her usual sleeping position. She noted pressure points and tried to form an image of herself, lying there, viewed from above.

She disarmed the smoke alarm next to the door, jumping at its death-yelp. "Surprised you too, I bet," she told Simone Simon. In the kitchen, she collected a few boxes of matches and moistened the dish-towel, just in case.

She tested a lighted match on one of the leftover scraps of robe. The edges glowed and snuffed: it was flame-retardant.

She scorched the cloth at the places she'd pressed most sharply and at extremities. Match heads and black and gray charcoals were used to roughen these points to lines, partly stippled, partly streaked, until the cloth held a study half skeletal, half silhouetted; a surface ambiguously blasted against or burnt through.

She turned out the light, stripped and made her way to the couch about 5 in the morning. She felt somehow observed, but still slept deeply. Soon after waking, lying under a light sheet, left hand dangling down to the cushions on the floor, she dreamt:

She stood on a skirt of rough sand before a cliff of yellowish stone. In front of her, rocks and shells, increasing in size, straggled into the darkening ocean. The sun was white and fairly high, casting her shadow back onto the cliff, which in turn reflected white light onto her back. Sea spray continuously covered her and continuously evaporated in the heat, powdering her body with soft white salt. Her sweat cooled under the thickening powder. She closed her eyes and the lids were covered as well. She became radiant, and the sun came down to her.

She showered and shampooed, threw on some light clothes, and went out for the Times and breakfast. She'd slept late and there was a long line, but the customers took it well in the mild weather. The guy behind the counter slipped her a free bagel and she ended up with three, two for the freezer.

Back home, she made a mug of strong oily coffee and drank it with her bagel. After she was done, she gave the excess baked salmon salad to Simone Simon. She went to the piece she'd made last night and looked down at it, hands hooked behind her neck.

Then she bent to the cloth and rolled it tightly, walking forward. She folded the roll into thirds, carried it into the kitchen, and pushed it into the tall plastic garbage can. It almost filled the bag; there was just room for the coffee grounds and newspaper.

I asked her why.

"Sorry," she said. "I hate autobiographical art."

Copyright 1990 Ray Davis, except for the Brenda Starr panel by Fradon & Schmich