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The Flotsam Collection:
by Andrew Kozma
Jason held the phone to his ear and listened to the silence flowing from the receiver, the remnants of the conversation with his ex-wife echoing in his head. After a few moments he became aware of a ticking. He turned to the round, school-type clock on the wall, and looked at it as though it were a stranger. It was intruding on his grief.
He returned the phone to its place under the desk and noticed a line of darkness around his left wrist. A present from Sharon. A watch. He took it off and threw it but, instead of making the satisfying thud he wanted, the watch caught in one of the black sheets partitioning the loft and fell softly to the floor.
Jason turned in his chair to face the computer screen, which stared back at him. A white void, with a few words at the top like a wandering, shrunken pupil: Eat This, a story by Jason Kudzu.
Jason listened carefully to the silence following his outburst, as though the emptiness could tell him something.
"Damn," he repeated, softer, but with more venom. He thought of the trial and of Sharon on the stand talking shit about psychological abuse, turning the tables on him again.
"Damn," he said again, almost inaudibly. Jason thought of their house, in the suburbs on the opposite side of the city, and how he had given it to her, given in to all her demands, because he just wanted it to be over.
He wanted to forget, but the memories wouldn't leave him alone. Sharon smiling at him through the train window, going to an interview in Boston, and the lipstick kiss she left on the glass as the train pulled out of the station. He thought he'd loved her so much. And then everything changed, like a jukebox switching selections.
"Damn!" he yelled, spitting out the word, and took the alarm clock next to the computer and threw it against the wall. It crunched and fell to the floor. Jason could see the hands moving, still, behind the cracked plastic.
He started typing.
It was a dream he had: going to the mountains with his girlfriend and killing her in the privacy of the wilderness. But he could never scratch up enough money to buy a gun.
Jason glared at the two sentences. The clock ticked. That wasn't what he'd wanted to write. Jason deleted the two sentences. It was just his anger at his ex bleeding through. He deleted it and replaced it with This House. He didn't want to dwell on the anger.
"I still love her," Jason said. He didn't want to love her; it would be easier to erase her from his mind or, failing that, hate her completely. But the love stayed, a ragged wound through which all of his thoughts were pulled.
He couldn't waste anymore time dwelling. He'd promised his editor he'd have the new story tomorrow. His fingers fell on the keys like shovelfuls of dirt into a grave.
This house was where we met. I don't mean literally, because by that time we were married. Or, perhaps I do mean literally in a more fundamental and spiritual sense. It was the first time
Jason stopped, stumped by what name to give the wife. A pause.
Sharon and I lived together, tried melding not only our personalities but also our possessions, the different objects that reflected our thoughts, ideas, and prejudices. At first it was easy, each of us bringing in our separate society of things and scattering them around the house. But that was just moving in. It was after we managed to find room for all our respective accoutrements that we had to decide where they would go.
There was a click. Jason froze, fingers paused mid-strike, and listened. He heard nothing now, over the hum of the computer and the slow rumble of the refrigerator, but he would've sworn that as he was typing he'd heard a click. Like the door closing.
Jason stood, walked a few feet, and pulled back the black sheet that hid the door, that made his writing den the most secluded place in his loft apartment. Everything beyond the sheet appeared normal. The open kitchen, with its coffee maker and microwave still sitting haphazardly on the countertop, was as he'd left it. There was his plush chair and the television, the coffee table separating the two, and his bookshelf on the wall to his right. Nothing out of the ordinary. Jason walked over to the door and opened it, but there was no one outside, although he did hear the faint clomping sounds from the stairwell. Probably one of the punks from across the hall.
It took a few moments for Jason to settle back into his writing. He read the beginning of his story carefully.
That was when the problems started. Looking back on it, I can say truthfully that before we moved into the house we hadn't loved each other. We had loved our idea of who the other person was, who we wanted them to be. I began to see a Sharon whom I didn't always agree with, who didn't always agree with me.
That's when I grew scared. I would come home and find all of my things gone, filed away in boxes, hidden in closets or under the bed. It was like I was being pushed out of the house or put into storage.
A series of loud thumps sounded from the main section of the loft. Jason found an entire shelf of his books on the floor. The rest of the bookcase was fine, but the third shelf of books had fallen as though someone had tipped them all onto the floor. He piled the books to deal with later, Calvino below DeLillo below Hesse below Kafka. They'd gotten out of order.
Jason scanned the room before he left, just to make sure everything was okay. He almost missed it.
The chair was farther away from the coffee table than it should be. About a foot farther. He scratched his forehead and walked around the vagrant piece of furniture. He stopped by its right arm and started to pull it back to its regular position, but after a few futile tugs Jason realized the chair was snagged on the carpet. He bent over the chair, grabbed it by both arms, and tensed, ready to lift it into the air. The chair resisted him still, but eventually came free with a groan, wood in the frame creaking loudly, and Jason set it back next to the coffee table.
When Jason pulled his hands away from the chair a nail or staple ripped a gash in his right forefinger. For no reason he could name he thought the chair had cut him on purpose. He started to hate it, remembering how it had been Sharon's favorite chair, how it had been his before they lived together. Jason stared at it, letting his eyes play over its plush, black pseudo-leather, wondering when he'd begun thinking of the chair as Sharon's. He would've sworn it was staring back.
His writing den felt like home to him, Jason thought as he violently pulled the sheet closed behind him. It contained only what he needed for writing: his computer, the desk on which it sat, the chair on which he sat, and a well-worn dictionary, always open. His only phone lingered under the desk, mute, its ringer always switched off. All distractions he kept outside, the black sheet providing a flimsy, though suitable, barrier.
The writing den in their house Sharon's house was what Jason wanted. His writing den here was set up exactly like the one in the house, down to the placement of the desk against the wall, the dimensions of the room, even the position of the dictionary on the floor.
The ticking of the clock again brought Jason back to the present, to the story he was supposed to be writing, to the instinctive feeling that if he finished the story then he would be free of Sharon. He could already tell that the story wasn't going to be anything worth publishing, and that he'd have to write another to fulfill his promise, but that didn't matter right now. He had to rid himself of Sharon's specter, her influence that lingered like a corpse beneath the floor.
So, during those long nights, or when Sharon was out and I was left in the house alone, I would put all of my things back, everything she'd packed away, in exactly the same spots they were before. Of course, sometimes it took a while for me to find some small bits of my life, but I always did. Once I couldn't find the framed picture of my family. For a week my mom, dad, sister, and I vanished from the house walls as though we'd never existed. The picture was hanging in the back of Sharon's closet, facing the wall.
It went on like this for a few months, neither of us ever confronting the other about what was going on, acting as if my possessions had minds of their own and we shouldn't be surprised that they vanished from time to time.
Summer's end marked a change
There! It was definitely the door closing. Jason rushed out of his den, chair toppling behind him, and ran to the door. A quick glance through the peephole didn't show anything, so he opened the door and stepped into the stairwell. There was no one around and he didn't hear anyone, but scattered across the lower end of the stairs below him were books.
Jason looked back into his apartment and found that the books that had fallen, that he'd stacked against the wall, were gone. They were now lying about ten feet away from him down a flight of stairs.
"What the?" Jason muttered. He stood and watched the books' pages rustle in the breeze.
Except there was no breeze. The books were slowly opening one cover, flipping all their pages to the lone cover, and then flipping themselves over. Very slowly, so that it had taken Jason a minute to register their slinky-like movement. He took a step downwards and the books stopped moving, frozen in their positions, some appearing ludicrous with pages standing straight up. Another step and the books completely relaxed.
Jason waited for a moment, then walked down the stairs to collect his books. He really needed to get out more, see some movies, go to a bar. The last six months alone were finally getting to him.
Three steps away from the books, Jason already leaning down to collect the first one, the world went awry. The books moved, spinning their pages so fast around their spines that they hopped down the stairs. Jason watched the flurry of vibrantly colored covers and white pages in amazement, trying to tell himself that books can't do that. They can't roll, can't hop, can't move.
The books were halfway down the next flight of stairs when Jason started running after them. He caught up quickly, for although the pages of the books moved fast, their overall progress was slow.
Jason snatched a book out of the air and it fought viciously to free itself. While he wrestled with the hardcover, personally-signed Pynchon the other books slipped under the railing and tumbled out of sight. The book closed itself on Jason's nose with a loud clap and he cried out in pain and dropped it. It angled its fall so that it, too, disappeared down the center of the stairwell.
Over the railing Jason watched the books slowly march their way toward the building's entrance. He rubbed his nose as he walked back up the stairs. He rubbed his eyes. Maybe, he thought, he needed a nap.
The door to his apartment closed with an unsatisfying click, but deadbolting it made Jason feel a little better. His heart pounded. His nose stung. Jason let his breath out with a gasp and turned to the door. His bookshelf was empty.
Jason unbolted the door and opened it in time to catch the last few books dropping down the stairwell. The thuds of their landings sounded like distant footsteps in a cave. Jason didn't even try to grab any, just stepped back into his apartment and deadbolted the door again.
He looked around at all of his furniture, the things in the main division of his loft, and gave each a piercing stare. Beyond the sheet to his right was his bedroom, and when he pulled it open he found that his dresser was gone.
"Look," Jason started, addressing the room in general, "I don't exactly know what's going on. I'm not even sure if you can hear me, but from what I've seen I'm going to assume you can." Jason felt like an idiot. He imagined what Sharon's response would be if she found him talking to the furniture. "Listen up. I need to write. I need to finish two stories by tomorrow, so just let me work in peace. We can solve your problems when I'm done, okay?" There was no response. "Good. I assume you agree, then."
Jason tripped on the rug on his way to the den. He stood, brushed himself off, and walked the rest of the way on the hardwood floor. It wouldn't pay to let them know they were getting to him.
in Sharon's tactics. She gave up hiding my things and started adopting them instead. I'm convinced her logic was as follows: if she couldn't rid the house of my personality then she would absorb it.
I returned from work one day to find her sitting in my favorite chair and, of course, I let her sit there, thinking that this was a matter of convenience, a temporary change. But from that day on every time she sat in the living room she used my chair. It worked that way for everything. My pictures, my books,
Jason heard the slide of the deadbolt and the click of the door opening. A few moments later he heard the same sounds in reverse. He ignored it.
my music, even my clothes, all became a part of Sharon's world. When I wore my favorite T-shirt or listened to my Susan Voelz CD I felt as though I were borrowing these things from Sharon. My things.
Another slide, slick, pause, click, slide. He was nearing the end of his story. The ticking of the clock above him faded back into his awareness. It was close to eleven now and Jason couldn't stop.
were no longer my things. Sharon had taken them from me, stripped me, and now I was naked in our house. In her house.
The only place that was mine anymore was the private den where I read and wrote letters. So I secreted myself there. I even bought clothes that I kept in the den closet. The room became my home in my home and I was satisfied.
Slide, click, pause, click, slide. Jason glanced towards the living room.
I let Sharon win and so she was satisfied and we managed a few more weeks of marital tolerance. This was the best part of our marriage, where we understood each other and supported one another.
Slide. Jason walked over to the sheet and pulled it aside. The bookcase was gone, as was the coffee table and the refrigerator. Click. The door opened and his chair started to walk on its stubby little legs out into the stairwell. The sheet that separated his bedroom was already gone and he imagined his dishes had left, too. His pictures and posters had vacated the walls. Jason watched his chair amble on its way, pseudo-leather rippling over its frame in mockery of muscles.
"Why are you leaving?" He spoke to the retreating back of the chair, now almost fully in the hall. Jason ran over and grabbed it, planting his feet on the floor. He held the chair for a second, but then lost his footing on the carpet and slipped backwards, letting go of the chair. Prone on the ground, Jason watched the chair slowly turn, creaking gently as it did, and begin walking down the stairs like a huge, square turtle. He watched it until it completely disappeared, until the last plush, black edge vanished behind the doorframe. The sound of its descent, a measured clomping, reverberated in his ears.
Jason raised himself from the floor and surveyed what remained of his loft.
"Nothing else moves!" He walked around and touched his things to reinforce what he was saying. "I don't have time for this, to sit down and figure out what's going on." He smiled at the television and then turned to his bed. "I'm going to write now, and I'd like to think that when I'm done you'll all still be here."
Jason looked at his things for a few moments, giving them a reassuring smile before heading into his den. Most of his mind, or at least the loudest part, was saying that this couldn't be happening, that he was going insane. Jason forced himself to concentrate on writing.
Sharon wasn't satisfied for long. Her resentment at my private room grew. She sometimes stood at the doorway and watched me. She wore a smile of tender affection, but her eyes roamed over everything like a hungry, calculating cat. She was studying my refuge and me for cracks.
I took her interest innocently, encouraged her with conversation and open admittance. She never entered the room with me there.
Again a surprise awaited me one day when I entered the house and couldn't find Sharon in the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom. I heard her light, glorious voice call out to me, "I'm in here, love."
And there she was. The den was unrecognizable. Of course, it had the same furniture, the same layout, the same books and knickknacks in the bookcase; but now it was all hers.
I could only stand a few seconds of Sharon's self-satisfied smile before I spun around and walked right back through the door. I drove the car to the nearest gas station while picturing how the burning house would nicely match the red of Sharon's hair. I bought five containers of gasoline and stole a pack of matches.
I waited until I knew Sharon would be asleep and drove up to the house slowly. All the lights were off. The containers of gasoline felt at home in my hands as I took them inside, like the grip of a favorite pen.
Slide. Jason blinked and turned his head toward the main area of his apartment. Click. He stood up and asked, "What's going on?" He could hear the soft scraping of wood on wood, of metal on wood, the soft purr of heavy furniture dragging across carpet.
Jason sprinted to the curtain and yanked it aside, ready to pounce on the first piece of ambulatory furniture he saw, but the sheet fell on him. He tried to throw it off, but it tightened around his body like a shrink-wrapped shroud. He collapsed to the ground in a cloth web, immobile except for his head and left arm.
"Traitor! Let me go!" Jason struggled against the sheet, plucking at it with his free arm and biting what he could reach with his mouth. Soon enough he was frustrated and exhausted and rested his head on the floor, the taste of cloth lingering on his tongue like bile. He saw the stove leaving through the door.
"Why?" The sheet separating the den from the bedroom slunk out the door. He had been wrong about the dishes. Currently the silverware was helping his glasses, plates, and bowls reach the floor without breaking. A few knives used the spaghetti strainer as a net, catching a dish and then allowing it to roll onto the floor. Groups of five or six forks caught plates and bowls, giving a little, bending at the neck so that they wouldn't break their fragile cohorts. In the open cabinets he could see his dry, non-perishable food staying put, apparently not intelligent enough to move. Maybe he was being too harsh; regardless, their loyalty gave Jason little comfort.
"How am I going to eat if you leave?" Jason pleaded with his dishes and silverware, hoping to awaken their compassion. "With my hands?" He thought he saw a fork shrug. It was hard to tell. "My favorite plate! Don't leave me." The plate, one he'd used since childhood that had his name written on it and a cute painting of a small boy, turned to face him and then shook its upper half from side to side slowly. It vanished into the stairwell.
"No!" Jason fought with the sheet but it only held him more tightly. "You can't leave! You're mine!" His furniture ignored him and continued their relentless progression from his apartment. His mattress wriggled like a slug toward the door, sheets and pillows riding leisurely on its back. The remaining dishes stood back, giving way to the behemoth, and waited patiently until it managed to force its way through the doorway. Then the dishes left: forks walking on their tines like insects, knives revolving end over end like acrobats, and spoons pushing themselves along by their handles. The plates and bowls all walked, which bothered Jason immensely. He felt they should roll rather then twist themselves along, their bottom curves flattening out to provide enough surface for a decent shuffle.
His tall halogen lamp scooted by, waving the still ticking, crippled alarm clock in Jason's face with its cord. The lamp followed the dog-like trot of his bed frame and the staid gait of his tall, shallow armoire as they lined up behind the dishes.
"What is it? Do you need more love?" He took a deep, raw breath as his wristwatch moved beneath his nose, contracting and expanding its body like a caterpillar. "What do you want from me, you bastards?"
The television plodded toward Jason and turned itself on. It flipped through the channels as it approached, the melange of sounds and voices sounding to Jason like the self-conscious cough some people make before they speak. Then the channels stopped their strobe-like flashing and Jason was left staring at a solid image, an old woman in black, growing steadily with the television's advance.
"Today," the television said, "We will be talking about latchkey kids. The abuse, psychological and emotional, that they suffer when abandoned and left at home, never being given the attention they deserve. These kids-"
The screen blinked out abruptly and the television turned, sharply, and took a place in line, its cord trailing behind it like a rat's tail.
The carpet started moving, rolling itself up from the end nearest Jason. Reaching out with his left arm, Jason grabbed hold of the carpet and hissed, "You're not going anywhere." He almost laughed when it tried to life the corner he was holding, and would have if the black sheet hadn't constricted a few more inches. He could hardly breathe.
And the carpet, it tried to roll up again, but Jason still managed to hold it down. The rest of the furniture didn't pause, didn't even seem to notice the carpet's struggle. Something tensed in the carpet under Jason's fingers and the carpet jerked upward and started rolling, taking Jason with it at first. He was soon shaken loose, leaving the carpet to quickly roll itself and slither into line behind the television.
"Leave then! That's fine. I don't need you." He didn't say anything more as his possessions left, feeling loneliness creep into his apartment and settle down in the vacant spaces like a friendly neighborhood tabby. A void grew inside him, expanding with the departure of his lamp and the mistreated alarm clock, his television, and the carpet. Finally, after the carpet disappeared, the black sheet unwrapped itself from Jason and slipped out of the apartment, looking like water flowing across the floor.
The abandonment, the loneliness that clung to him, weighed on Jason like an empty safe. He didn't want to move, but with great effort and groans that reminded him of his absent chair, he pulled himself up and walked over to the window, by the empty space where the refrigerator used to be. In the glow of the streetlights he saw a procession. All of his belongings were walking west on the sidewalk towards the other side of the city, he suspected, to his old house.
On the other side of the street he saw a woman standing, frozen, on the sidewalk, staring at the walking furniture and other assorted things. Her purse rested on the ground beside her, nodding at each passing object.
Jason laughed. He wanted to open his window and yell across to her, "Don't worry, they're just going home."
He was amazed to still hear the ticking of the clock and the near invisible hum of his computer. He turned and saw his den laid open, everything still there, positioned as it always was, always had been. He walked to his den and looked over what remained.
"You can leave, too."
The wooden chair jittered a little, nervously, then ran out the door like a colt, the way its legs moved and clopped on the hardwood floor. Jason went to go and close the door but it closed itself, gently. He looked over the empty room.
Near empty, Jason corrected himself. There was still the phone, the clock, the dictionary, the computer, the desk.
And the food, of course.
He stooped over the desk and finished the story.
I stood inside her house and I opened the first container to douse the floor, the carpet, the chairs, the curtains, soak the very house itself with my hate. The den was my starting point and when I looked inside I saw Sharon curled up in my favorite chair surrounded by pictures of my family and my dishes and books. My stereo was in the corner resting on a shelf made of my CDs. Moonlight from the skylight saddled everything with paleness.
I left the cans there, for Sharon
to puzzle over when she woke, and drove off into the setting