Though primarily a short story writer Carolynn is currently working on a novella as well as adapting her work for an upcoming film project. She is an alumnus of The Writers Studio Master Class fiction program in NYC and a member of SpokenWord Paris.
Jonas Rye grabs the shovel from its corner on the porch and walks out into the backyard where the first light of morning is showing itself like a new bruise dawning. The grass is slick and the only snow left to see sits up high on an Ozark ridge out past the property. He doesn’t bother to wear a coat. It’s still cold in the mornings, but when he’s digging it doesn’t take long for him to work up a sweat. He only has one good coat anyhow and he’d rather not get it covered in dirt and blood if he can help it. He thinks about the jacket his Daddy wore when he was the one doing the burying. It was tan and cropped, packed with feathers that would poke out the seams and rust colored panels that matched the hairs of his beard. A zipper closure lay beneath a fold of metal snaps. He can’t recall if the snaps were tan or orange. Jonas hasn’t seen that jacket in almost two years and he tries not to think much more about it as he walks toward the dead animal.
The Rye’s have always had dogs, stray ones that somehow find their way to the house in the canyon. They don’t name them, can’t see no reason since they won’t stay long and they don’t feed them unless it’s something that’s gone bad, but there isn’t much in the house that has the chance to. Still, the strays stay full bellied from the rabbits and fox squirrels that live in the woods behind the house and when things turn cold they hide themselves under the porch. In the Spring, when the snow starts to thaw it sends a mist down from the mountains and the coyotes soon follow. Jonas knows they’re coming by the sound of their howls. Late at night, when the darkness rolls out like black tar around the house, he counts the seconds between their howls and the grunts of the strays. Like counting the silence between thunder and lightening in a storm; one Mississippi, two Mississippi. Some nights the bays and the grunts get real close together and that’s how he knows they’re out there, waiting at the edge of the woods, wild and winter starved. They meet up aways from the house and Jonas can sleep through whatever happens between them, but in the morning he knows. It’s only his second time having to come out here. Jonas has been fifteen for going on two months and his Mama says it’s time he started acting like the man of the house. It’s now his job to bury who’s left.
When he reaches the body he can see it’s one of the strays this time. It’s a mix of something he’s not sure of, Shepard maybe, and something else. The fur is a dirty umber color with patches of black and most of it is clumped together with mud and mange. Jonas doesn’t recognize him as one he’s seen around the property lately. It could be new or maybe it was just hiding under the house for so long that he never laid an eye on him till now. One of it’s ears has been ripped off and there’s a deep gash on it’s underbelly, though there isn’t as much blood as Jonas would expect a split like that to make. Most of the fighting happens out near the edge of the woods anyhow, so that’s where they tend to bury them. If they don’t, if they just let them lie out like this the coyotes will start coming back to pick them apart, even if it’s the middle of the afternoon and before long they’d have them thinking they could find food down here anytime they wanted. There’s also the Cutlers to consider. They live about a half mile to the east and they’ve got small kids and some livestock. The Cutlers have always been real good to Jonas and his Mama so they do right by them and make sure to cover the remains. This one though, it looks like it tried to make it’s way back to the porch before it fell and now it’s too close to the house to be buried where it lies. Jonas leaves it and walks towards the edge of the woods to find a spot next to some unsettled ground where he buried a coyote about a month back. The grass has already started to fill in, but he can see the mess of rocks he pushed into the dirt when he was done. It didn’t seem right not to lay something on it’s grave. Jonas pulls a pair of work gloves from his back pocket. Sliding his fingers into each one he’s reminded how much bigger his father’s hands were than his. The gloves are thin and worn and do nothing to stave off the chill, but that don’t seem like reason enough to find another pair. Porter Rye died two winters ago and Jonas doesn’t want to forget that people can do that. He’s gotten used to the way they hang off his hands, each finger leaving a well of empty space between what was and what is. He tells himself it doesn’t really matter, the shovel’s handle is dry and splintered and all he needs them to do is keep the slivers of wood out of his hands. He lines the back of his heels up against the rocks and takes ten steps before he starts to dig. The ground is still wet from the thaw, but not so soft that he can sink the shovel in without some struggle. He sends the spade into the dirt and with his boot he uses what weight he’s got to dig it in further. He doesn’t think himself big compared to other boys his age and seeing how his Mama is slighter than most he figures there’s a good chance he won’t ever be. He gives a jump and the shovel dives. In truth, Jonas is neither tall nor short and with a face that is half virtue and half satire and his face doesn’t lie. He had dimples once, but he lost them when he was ten and a dirt bike flung him into a ravine. His jaw now sits slightly lower than God intended. His hair is brown and cut short without intention, but it’s drawn more conversation from folks than anything else about him. His Daddy’s hair had been a dusty orange, like Arkansas clay, and when he’d gotten angry and red-faced under his beard Jonas thought it looked like someone had set his whole damn head on fire. But even so, it’s always been the copper that falls on his Mama’s shoulders that gets people so worked up. There’s not a woman in town who wouldn’t buy his Mama’s scalp if she was selling. When he was a boy Jonas would take small fists of her hair to his mouth, expecting the cold metallic strands to taste like a handful of sour pennies. As he got older he had a feeling people were always disappointed to learn the Rye boy was as dull-headed as the rest of them.
I’ve been taking long walks again. Early mornings or after lunch; doesn’t matter. I’ll be in the kitchen rinsing out a coffee mug or putting a ladder away in the garage and then I’m gone, down the driveway and out onto the gravel. This time it’s late afternoon and the clouds are greying. The houses I pass are spread far apart from each other and wooded, sitting back from the road and hidden behind trees. I can walk like this for an hour before I cross the bridge above the canal, the water below running from high in the Shenandoah and weaving it’s way down into Richmond. The world gets busier on the other side of the bridge. More houses, less trees and then a few turns that I’ve never made before and soon no houses at all. I pass two car dealerships and an auto-body repair shop. It’s dark now, much earlier then usual because of the clouds and it starts to rain. I see the familiar yellow sign and red lettering of a Denny’s and walk inside. I’ve never been to this particular one, but they’re all the same. A heavy-set woman with bright red lips tells me to sit wherever I want. The place is half full and she seems to be the only waitress. I check to make sure I have my wallet on me. The rain is coming down hard now.
I slide into a small booth by the window. It’s meant to seat two people, but my long legs and wide shoulders feel cramped. All the other booths are taken or covered with dirty plates. From a speaker directly above me I can hear an adult contemporary radio station and it mixes uncomfortably with the energetic pulse of latin music coming from the kitchen. The waitress stops by my table with a pot of coffee and a clean mug. I ask her if she could turn down the volume of the speaker above me. She says all the speakers are on the same volume. Then I ask if she could turn down all the speakers, but she says that the controls are in the manager’s office and he stepped out over an hour ago. A bell rings from back in the kitchen and she’s leaves. I look at the menu she left behind. I scan the pictures of perfectly stacked pancakes and thick burgers while above me a piano begins a mawkish ballad followed by a woman who begs her lover to come back to her. From the kitchen, her lover presumably, having already fled to Cuba, responds without apology and rebuffs her pleas as he dances into the arms of another surrounded by the tireless rhythms of his conga drums.
When Gemma was born the doctor counted ten fingers, ten toes and two heads, one of which was significantly smaller than the other and sat just off center on her left shoulder. Before there was an opportunity to discuss its removal Gemma set free her first cry and the eyes of the smaller head fluttered open. When a surgeon visited that evening Gemma’s mother said it was un-Christian to consider harming one of God’s creations and she went back to work cutting an opening into the left shoulder of a baptismal dress. She was working a needle into the delicate silk, extending the bib of white roses to the opening, when the night nurse came by during her rounds. The nurse did not offer to change or swaddle the newborn like she had done for all the others, nor did she congratulate the new mother and remark on how beautiful the child was as Gemma’s mother had heard her do to each of the women who lay behind curtains on either side of her.
After months of tests it was determined that Gemma was not a conjoined twin, but simply a healthy little girl with a second head, a head that, while lacking the ability of speech, had it’s own brain and sensory functions. Her parent’s debated and then decided against naming it and instead treated it like an extra appendage. Gemma’s mother bought it wool hats in the winter and her father slathered sunscreen on its face in the summer, using caution with the cream around its eyes and giving extra attention to the ears. When Gemma was five she told her parents she could hear another child’s voice inside her mind. It took a year to diagnose the obvious.
When she was alone Gemma would sit in front of a mirror so that she could see her second head and they would talk to each other; silently. Together they would wander the familiar corners of each other’s thoughts like a labyrinth whose every turn revealed something new, but instantly recognizable. It was the outside world that left Gemma lost in a maze of wrong turns and dead ends where other children stood guard, armed with insults like Bi-Beast and Double Header, where comic book villains and Saturday morning cartoons stocked the arsenals of perfect bodied children, while their parents, fed by the fear of what could have been for their own, stood guard along beside them.
Gemma had decided against attending college and instead chose a correspondence course in telephone sales. Through a friend of her father Gemma had found a job selling advertising for the local newspaper and, with very little effort, had convinced the editor to allow her to work from home and sell ads over the phone. She was 32 now and living in a one bedroom apartment.
We Aren't Who You Say We Are
I parked the truck on Keller Street in front of Wilson's Electronics. The display window was full of televisions, just like it had been when when I lived here twenty years ago. They were stacked on top of each other and a woman was standing in front of the glass with her hand to her cheek, shaking her head. When I moved closer I could see that all the televisions were on the same channel. It was a news story about a tsunami. There was survivor footage of children playing in a pool at a high-end resort while in the background a towering wave pushed through a wall of palm trees and beach chairs like the hands of Poseidon. Then the story cut to graphics of an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, but I couldn’t hear anything from my side of the glass. I felt the woman turn to look at me, to connect or share some minor moment of awe at the devastation, but I wasn’t in the mood. I was still tired from the night before and from everything Danny had said, so instead I turned away from her and walked toward the diner.
Keller Street didn’t look so different from when I saw it last. There was still the same video rental store and pet shop. Neither had changed much. At the pet shop I stopped to watch a dog laying in a pen on a pile of shredded newspaper. He didn’t jump up with excitement at my presence like I thought he would. In fact, he barely looked at me before dropping his head back down on his front paws. He must see a hundred people a day come up to stare at him, mostly children banging on the glass to wake him up and entertain them before they move on to the next thing. He reminded me of a dog Danny and I had growing up. I couldn’t remember it’s name, but I knew it was some kind of Husky mix our old man had bought at a swap meet outside of Lexington. The tail on the pet store’s dog was thickly furred and it plumed over it’s back like white smoke the same way ours had. The sign on the window said it was an Alaskan Malamute and I repeated it to myself a few times so that I would remember the breed for later, but by the time I had reached the diner I was back to thinking about our Husky and how Danny could have easily brought it up when we spoke.
There hadn’t been many people at the funeral the day before and even fewer came to the house afterwards. It wasn’t at all like when our mother died almost twenty years prior. Few people had liked our father including most of our extended family. Once everyone had gone Danny’s wife took to packing up the leftover food while he and I went out to the front porch to talk about what to do with the house. I had told him that I could stay in town for a few weeks if he needed help getting the place ready to sell, but he said no, his voice low, but very firm and with a weight I had never associated with him before. He didn’t speak for awhile and then, without looking at me, he said that after that day he didn’t want to see me again at all. He kept his eyes focused on something in the front yard, I couldn’t make out what exactly, and said it was too late for me to start acting like an older brother and that as far as he was concerned when he buried our father that afternoon he’d buried me along with him. Then he looked at me and said he’d never forgive me for letting him take the brunt of our father’s anger for so many years and he started to talk about the time he’d spent a week in a hospital in Louisville with a broken collarbone because I’d let him take the blame for a missing can of Skoal when he was nine and I was sixteen. He said he’d waited that entire week for me to visit him, but I never did and that when he was finally released and our mother brought him home and fixed him a spot on the couch I had sat next to him and pulled out the can of chewing tobacco and stuck a clump in my cheek without even looking at him or acknowledging what had happened the week before.
I have to check-in at the Department of Labor today. I’ve done it every Thursday for six months like a ritual. Wake at five am, wash, dress, eat half a slice of white toast with grape jelly and then walk the nineteen blocks from my apartment on East 3rd to the DOL. The state will allow me one more week of unemployment pay. There is no rock bottom, not even death. Your body is still devoured, your bones still splinter. The earth keeps turning.
I pull the door closed behind me and slide the key into the lock; it jams. It’s been happening more and more these days. The blade goes in easy enough, the shoulder butting against the lock, but the grooves aren't lining up the way they used to. One of the cuts has worn sharp like a finger nail and needs to be filed down. When I was much younger I had a job cutting keys at a hardware store, so I know something about it. I had to wear a red apron with no name tag, just the words Key Girl scrawled on the front in black marker. Most days I’d be on my feet for ten hours either working the key machine or waiting to work the key machine. Often I just stood there, leaning against the counter and giving half-hearted smiles to the construction guys who came in looking for paint and light fixtures. They’d linger at the register trying to make small talk, calling me key girl in a way that only certain men can, making the simplest words sound vulgar and unpleasant. I was never considered pretty, not even then, but they didn’t care. I’m thirty-eight now and no one would pay me to stand around like that. Not that I’d do it if they would.
I press my shoulder against the cracked gray paint of the door and stare at the deadbolt from the side as if I could see straight through to the core where the blade has become stuck. I jiggle the key, trying my best to remove it from the lock without snapping it. Curled paint scratches at my bare skin and then falls to the floor. Another layer of gray is waiting underneath. The key pulls free. Beneath my foot I feel a loose tile pushing against the thin rubber of my shoe.
Little green and white hexagon tiles patterned like honeycomb run the length of the hall outside my front door. Two rows of deeper green frame the walkway, stopping short of each apartment where faded yellow tiles are arranged to look like flowers with a single black hex in the center of each. When I’m feeling tender, they remind me of yellow blossoms pressed between the pages of a book, or else like blooms that have drifted from a tree. Sometimes they are black-eyed susans, laying at each tenant’s door like flowers at a headstone. In some places there are clusters missing. Breaks in the pattern caused by a fumbled sideboard on moving day or the strike of a child’s roller skate. When the Romanian woman in 6F learned about her husband’s affair she threw a crockpot of rice and minced pork into the hall, shattering the tiles half a foot wide. The next day I watched from my peephole as Carlos, the building’s super, plastered the large cavity with a layer of concrete. He spread the compound into the gap with a joint knife and when he was done he pulled a handful of small items from his pocket and pressed them into the wet mixture. I waited until he left to see what they were; a white shirt button, the metal cap from a bottle of grape soda, two gold hair pins. He’s done the same thing in all the holes. On the third floor is a collection of pen caps and a rusted penny. The fifth floor has a paper clip, a small metal spring and a tire from a matchbox car. At the entrance to the elevator on the fourth floor is a spackled hole full of ornate buttons, the kind that could have fallen off the coats of rich ladies - tiny birds etched in brass, and silver spiral knots with rhinestone centers. One button is blue embroidered with a pink rose stitched in the center. I’d like to think that Carlos is leaving small artifacts that tell about the people who live here, that each collection is a story about someone in the building. I use the toe of my sneaker to free the loose tile in front of my door and then I bend down and pick at the others surrounding it, hoping they will come up too, but they don’t budge. I put the single green tile in my bag and walk to the elevator. The thud of wire and steel echoes upward when I push the button. I want to know what Carlos would set in stone at my front door? What clues would he press into the concrete to tell about me?