short fiction

Whether I Exist or Not

Tina Higgins Wussow

The sound of someone at the door wakes Jackie. It’s late in the day. They have set her body in a wheelchair and turned it so that she can gaze out the window at a blanket of blinding snow and tree branches heavy with hoarfrost. It’s too bright when the winter sky matches the snow, but they think she likes it. Jackie had closed her eyes and sleep invited itself again. How long has she been in this room? Every day they talk to her and she blinks once, twice. They lift her, spray her down with hot water, hold her up, prop her like a doll on the narrow bed. How long until words come back?

Emma is near her now. It was Emma who opened the door. Jackie woke to the sounds of living people in the halls, their moving bodies, mountains and valleys of sound, a wasteland of words. Emma’s voice. Grandma. Grandma, look. And Jackie is turned on wheels away from the snow to see Emma wearing a deep blue dress. Two shadows cradle her collar bones and the curve cut of the old dress rests perfectly against the creamy skin of her chest. I found it in your closet, she says, it fits me perfect. And this. I found this too. She hands it to Jackie, and Jackie reaches with her good hand and clutches it against the soft pillow of her belly. What is that? I mean, I know it’s a wig, but why do you have it? Did you used to wear it? Was it like a Halloween costume or something? The silver hairs are brittle blades of straw between Jackie’s fingers. So long ago. Grandma, isn’t this dress perfect on me? Can I keep it? Do you mind? Emma spins in slow circles. She is smiling.

Jackie had told her husband that she was off to visit her sister in Chicago for four days, her sister who had just suffered another miscarriage. But the truth was she only planned on spending two days with the bitterness and grief. From there she would continue east on the train to New York; that is the part she fibbed about, New York. When her husband asked why she would need her best blue dress, the one she only wore out dancing, she explained that it would do her sister good to have a night out rather than huddle alone in bed while Jackie dusted, folded towels, thickened gravy for her brother-in-law’s dinner. She went on with the lie even when he gave her a quizzical glance, since he’d known them both from way back in junior high and knew well enough that Jackie’s sister did not dance. But Jackie kept on and explained she was just being hopeful, that there’s not one thing wrong with being hopeful. And so after an off kilter shrug of his shoulders, the blue dress was packed without further discussion.

Neal and Jackie had only been married seven months and Jackie had yet to get pregnant, which was alright by her. She wasn’t so sure of herself, not like other women seemed to be. She wasn’t sure at all whether or not she’d be a good mother; whether or not she wanted to be a mother. Every day she found herself more and more distracted by this or that, mostly by the television and even more so by her own daydreaming. It seemed like days were about the length of a short nap. Jackie would get to thinking about how things could’ve been, some twisty ways fate could have played out, and all of a sudden she would realize she had forgotten to take the pork roast out of the freezer, that Neal was due home in under an hour, and now she’d have to hustle to make things look attended to. Neal wasn’t a mean man, but he didn’t like clutter. He liked things tidy and organized. His shirts hung in order of style and then color in his closet. His shoes could never be dirty. And what else did Jackie have to do all day? He’d ask her that question every so often. It was in her best interest, if she wanted to keep her mind free for roaming, to get her tasks done before he came home so that she wouldn’t have to endure a lecture about how hard he works and how easy she’s got it. If she did things right and hustled, she would get the night to daydream as well—while she cleaned up the kitchen, while he watched TV or fiddled with something or other out in the garage. And it was her deepest pleasure to set up house inside her imagination.

Most recently she had been thinking about this man she’d seen on the evening news, an artist who lived in New York and kept colonies of other artists, strange and intriguing sorts of people, in his warehouse; they all lived there together in a wide open messy space where they milled about, taking photos and smoking cigarettes, recording each other telling unreal stories. Images of him on the television, when the camera panned from the newscaster to his face, made Jackie’s inner thighs warm and vibrate, and this would plunge her down a deep rabbit hole of daydreaming.

The artist was thin and walked with his shoulder strung up high and his spine curled forward. He had an airy voice and pale, near-translucent skin. He wore a crooked wig that was silver with a hint of pink when set against the utter whiteness of his cheeks. He lived in New York and that wasn’t so far away. For weeks Jackie had saved the small allowance Neal gave her, and she’d gone into St. Cloud, down to its main street littered with cigarette butts and lined with propped open bar doors, and sold her mother’s pearl earrings, her father’s gold cufflinks, and a necklace Neal had given her for a high school graduation gift that she never liked too much. This is how she was able to afford the train ticket and the hotel room in New York City on the night the artist would be signing books. She had visited her local library and scoured the Arts and Entertainment section of the New York Times until she saw a blurb about him. She ingested the information like other women might ingest milk chocolate or valium.

Her favorite day dream was of her living there with him in the warehouse. The two of them lying on a mattress in a dark corner, sunlight pressing through unpainted streaks across the blackened windows, surrounded by the sound of the others far off laughing, thumping heels, drum beats and melodies echoing across the expansive space; and him curled up next to her as small as a cat, whispering into her wild and unwashed hair. He says, I feel so much better now that you are here. He is folded against her unfed body, unfed for days there with him so that her fingers are as pale and thin as his, so that she too curls into herself, so both of their eyes are wide open anticipating sustenance from the unexpected hum between their bodies.

But Jackie, he’s so ugly. That’s what her sister had said before the baby inside her died. Over the phone, Jackie had divulged a small bit of her mind’s work. She’d been careful not to tell too much. How often had she felt the bulk of a dream dissipate when she tried to tell too much? When after a glimpse of comfort emerged between her and a friend and she’d get to talking about things, forgetting that other people simply don’t live how she lives. She would watch their eyes begin to fidget and fall away from her, their discomfort visible in their darting gaze, in the increased pace with which emptied their glass, the way they continually cleared their throats. So all she had said to her sister was that there was this artist she had seen on the news one night and that she really liked his work. When she said his name, her sister exclaimed, But Jackie, he’s so ugly. Jackie immediately imagined his dewy eyes and heard his small voice and felt her chest fill with hatred for her sister, for her vain and shallow spirit. Didn’t she see the glow that surrounded him? The pale pink mist? Didn’t she see his brilliance? His cracked open heart? But all Jackie said was, Yes, I suppose he is, and then, How have you been feeling this time around? This was her sister’s third pregnancy.

Her sister’s house was a one level bungalow outside of Chicago on a perfectly square lot, next to a long line of perfectly square lots. It was a new development, the kind that Neal wanted them to move to as soon as he got his promotion. Jackie walked in without knocking when the cab dropped her off. She knew her brother-in-law would be at work and her sister would be in bed. Jackie had stopped for a bottle of brandy and a few packs of Camels and tried to prepare herself for the next 48 hours of her life. This had happened before and every time Jackie’s sister grew a little more sour, a little more volatile. At the start of the visit, she refused to uncover her head and then after several hours her face emerged pale and puffy, but she refused get up. After more hours of prodding and cleaning up, scrubbing the toilet, and starting a pot roast for dinner with chopped carrots and thick chunks of white onion, her sister padded out to the kitchen. Jackie poured the brandy, set an ashtray with an open pack of cigarettes and a lighter next to the crystal tumbler and watched her sister’s eyes close as she drank it down.

How’s Neal? her sister asked.

Just fine, Jackie replied.

It wasn’t a real question. Her sister didn’t care about Neal. As a matter of fact, her sister hated Neal and always had. Smug, she called him. He’s a bully, she’d told Jackie, once a bully always a bully. But he’d been nice to Jackie, all through school he’d been nice. Their mother had called him determined and Jackie figured she had it pretty good with him. He wasn’t a drunk or the kind of man who’d hit her, though sometimes his words felt like slaps when he called Jackie lazy, or when he described all the pretty girls at the office.

The brown of her sister’s eyes diminished to just a slit beneath puffy lids and damp black lashes. David won’t even come up from the basement, she said. The name, David, when her sister said it, drew out a scowl on her face that became an inadvertent twitch. Every time she said David, the scowl lifted and then fell. It was like a trick she had taught her face to do.

He’s just like a child. He’s not a man, not by a long shot. He can’t face a goddamn thing. He just mows the lawn over and over like a perfect lawn is going to fix it. You know what’s going to fix it? A baby. That’s what.

Her face flushed. She pressed her lips into a flat line. Hot breath shot out of her nose. And then she started to cry again. With trembling fingers she pulled a cigarette from the pack. The glow of the flame glistened across her oily forehead. The dry tobacco sizzled and burned red. Jackie never liked smoking, didn’t see the point of it. She wasn’t much of a drinker either.

That first night after Jackie helped her sister back into bed, fully drunk and quieted down, David came up from the basement. The basement door was adjacent to the front door so he would come home from work, set down his briefcase and slink away like a small animal might scurry to its den. This was his pattern and no amount of hollering from his wife was about to change that pattern. All night her sister yelled his name and a scowl stole her face, but she never got a rise out of him and that made her even more furious. The screaming and the silence, the screaming and the silence, Jackie thought she might go mad. Now she just watched David chew and stare across the table at his wife’s empty chair. The tendons of his jaw were like a twirl of tiny snakes writhing beneath his skin. Come to think of it, he did resemble a small animal, a muskrat maybe, with a pointy nose and scared empty eyes.

How are you? she asked.

Oh, just fine, he said, in a mild and even tone. And then he looked toward the hallway, just a quick glance, and whispered, How is she doing?

Jackie’s go-to response for David was always, She’ll be fine. These words made him nod his head and let loose a glint of light in his eyes at the idea that the worst of it might be over soon. He slipped another bite of beef and potato into his small round mouth. At the end of the second night, her sister drooled as she wept all over Jackie’s blouse, begging her to stay longer. Jackie’s life seemed absolutely blissful compared to this.

Both nights she slept at her sister’s house Jackie dreamt of the artist. The first night she dreamed that he could crawl around the inside walls and ceiling of the warehouse like a giant pale spider and she would lay on the floor watching him zip from corner to corner. Each time he passed by her he stopped and gazed down with a wide smile across his face, his dark eyes seeking her approval and she would hoot and holler, pound her palms together applauding his swiftness, his dexterity, then he would scurry off again. The second night she dreamed that he had slipped down the wide mouth of a dark hole in the earth. Jackie stood on the edge yelling down to him and he would whistle happily back up to her like a little bird and she understood his notes for words. Jackie couldn’t remember what he’d whistled to her but she woke on that last morning at her sister’s feeling giddy.

She left as soon as she could get a cab. Even with a 35 minute cab ride, she arrived with an hour to wait for her train to board. She knew she would be early when she closed her sister’s front door behind her, but she couldn’t take another minute of the darkness in that house. Jackie trembled with excitement to get moving east and was determined to rid herself of her sister’s charred spirit.

A day later, she was finally there. Her hotel room was the second-to-last door on the left, down a stained path of carpet. The soles of her shoes stuck and with each step. The halls stunk of mold. In her room was a shabby brown dresser, a queen-sized bed pressed against the opposite wall covered by a thin green stitched quilt. Across the quilt several stains turned the dark green darker yet. It seemed like voices were coming from all directions. It was an old building, tall and made of brick, a strong enough structure to muffle the words, but laughter broke through. From across the hall, a shrieking pierce of a laugh rose with such vigor and pitch that Jackie’s entire body leapt and she rushed to the door to secure the deadbolt. With the front of her body pressed against the door and her fingers tight on the lock, Jackie saw herself, the silliness of her fear. It was just a laugh; just someone laughing. Calm down, she thought. Just calm down.

She hung her blue dress from a hook drilled into the bathroom door. The three-quarter sleeves seemed to shoot out both sides so that it had the appearance of already being occupied by a body. The dress was a gift from Neal, a special thing he gave her before they were married so that when he took her out she looked decent. All of it was deep indigo blue and layered. The top layer was a translucence chiffon and beneath that, a pattern of large roses. She liked the look of her neck in the dress, how the collar cut straight across revealing just a peek of each shoulder and her neck appeared like a pillar, though her face which seemed to balance precariously atop of her neck was too round and doughy, like a child’s. Her short brown hair hooked beneath the lobes of her ears, and that too seemed childish to Jackie. The dress, which usually caused Jackie to feel rather lovely, had an absurdity to it as she stood in front of the large bathroom mirror. The thick blue ribbon around her waist gave the illusion of shapeliness even though most of her body was flat and straight. She would never have picked this dress out at the store. Perhaps Neal should wear it instead.

Behind her reflection the wall was stained various shades of yellow and brown. The grout was a swirl of pink and black mold. And how would she feel walking down the hallway in this dress? Down the dozen city blocks that the woman at the front desk had instructed her to walk? Am I absurd? Jackie wondered and looked back again into the mirror for a good long minute, then cinched her eyelids tightly closed and calmly told herself, No, Jackie, you are not absurd. Not in the least. She spun herself away from the mirror to let herself know that this discussion was over. It was time to go.

Jackie didn’t walk anywhere at home. Either Neal drove her or she took the car on errands by herself. Now as she traveled by foot away from the locked door of her hotel room, she felt exposed and vulnerable. There was no steel or glass between her body and the nearest passerby. Anyone could just reach out to grab her or she could reach out to grab anyone else. And all of the bodies by her were so close as they passed, just an inch or two remained empty between her body and the bodies of hundreds of strangers. It seemed like all of them were looking at her in her blue dress. Even though the sidewalk was thick with the sounds of traffic and life, Jackie tried to stay focused on the click of her heels against the concrete, like the galloping pulse of a small child giving chase. Tap, tap, Tap, tap, Tap, tap. She smelled sewage, exhaust, a dampness and chill. The streets were crowded with light from shop windows and headlights, crowded with faces. The whites of so many eyes lit her way. She walked until the tapping of her heels led the orchestra of car horns, coughs, hollers, laughter, other feet tapping by. She walked and with every step her notion of absurdity slipped away, became mist, became nothing at all; and finally she found herself standing at a large wooden door looking through a square of glass at a crowd of people, and just beyond the columns of bodies, she knew, was her artist, silently letting himself be seen by all those strangers. Did he know he was waiting for her?

Jackie stood in line twice that night. Once to buy his book, a heavy square thing she was grateful to clutch, with his name in red block letters across the front and faces looking up at her with their mouths open. The second time she stood in line was to get near him, to get his signature. There were many people and many cameras. He sat alone at a wide oak table wearing a black jacket, black pants. He crossed his legs tightly under the table and tapped his left dangling foot fast in the air. His face was covered in thick makeup, but sweat made his skin shine and a splash of pink flared across his cheeks. He bent over the table, holding a black marker with his right hand and playing with the shallow divots above and below his lips with his left fingertips. Sometimes he looked up to the person standing in front of him. Sometimes he spoke a few short words that Jackie couldn’t make out. Cameras flashed and the crowd seemed to press in on him like a slow rising tide. In her dream, he told her to stay on the mattress with him where it was safe. He sang to her in a whisper, Broken bulbs and flashing lights. Isn’t that nice? The mattress bobbed as if it were a small boat on a calm ocean. Broken bulbs and flashing lights, isn’t that nice?

Soon she was nearly to him—just two people stood between Jackie and her artist. She imagined that the only thing keeping her feet on the floor was the weight of his book. A large man pressed in behind her. She could feel the heat of his belly against her back as it rose with every loud breath he sucked up his nostrils. A small woman stood in front of her. The woman was so close that twice Jackie had to tip back her head so stray pieces of the woman’s hair didn’t tickle her nose. From behind, the woman looked like she would be young and bright-eyed, but when she turned back to scan the crowd, Jackie saw how her jaw bone cupped her sunken cheeks. She had no teeth, but her hair was teased high and dyed dark and her long black lashes beat like small tired wings. The woman was old enough to be Jackie’s mother. And with the flash of a thought of her mother, fire flared up in Jackie’s chest and her mother’s voice rang through her head, For Christ’s sake Jackie, what the hell are you doing? You’re a married woman. The man behind her cleared his throat and Jackie heard his phlegm gurgle. He could have gripped Jackie’s neck in his hands and it wouldn’t have hurt as much as her mother’s words in her head. She understood, like sudden comprehension that comes after weeks of study, that she could not have the artist for herself, that he would never know her heart, that she was no different to him than the toothless woman or the fat man or anyone else out of the crowd still waiting. That she was nothing at all. A few minutes passed and in them Jackie’s mind went silent; gone were the whispers, the songs, the home of him. She felt desperately hungry and she missed him though he sat right there in front of her. Bulbs clicked and flashed, and he sat with his head bent down over Jackie’s book opened to the title page.

It was at the moment that the tip of his marker touched the blinding white page that Jackie’s hand took hold of his wig. The dry strands bristled against the soft space between her fingers, The heat from his head traveled like a shock up her arm and deep into her chest. She could not release him, though she knew he wanted her to. She tugged quick and tugged again harder until the wig released its grip and the artist called out. He called her something. Was it bitch? Was it just a yelp like a kicked animal? Jackie could never remember, but his voice had been bigger than she had thought possible. In her dreams his voice was just a light wind blowing, but as she turned away an avalanche of sound sprung from him. She ran toward the glow of the bookstore’s low hanging chandelier, toward the door and someone was coming in, how very nice, he held the door open for her as she ran outside clutching the artist’s wig to her chest like she would the body of a sick and limp kitten. She would keep it safe.

Jackie opens her eyes. Another darkness. They have put her body in bed again. Emma is gone. Emma in the blue dress is gone. Perfect, Jackie wanted to say, perfect. Jackie in the blue dress is gone. Jackie in the blue dress. She wore it again, just one time after they took Neal away, after his heart died and he fell down the stairs. After the box that held his heavy body was swallowed by the hole in the ground. No one home. Jackie stood in front of the mirror. How long had it been? Three children. A lifetime. It was lovely. The blue dress. Jackie in the blue dress is going away. The nurses, she remembers, they tried to take the wig from her. They told her it was time for bed; always bed. She remembers now, they said it would be in a drawer, in a drawer for later, she could have it later, they tried but she squeezed until her fist was throbbing heat, until a noise came from her long sleeping throat. The noise made them stop pulling. The small noise from her throat was as loud as a firetruck. She beat them back with it. Her noise made them quiet like praying people while they lifted her into bed. Always back into bed. Always another darkness. Jackie in the blue dress will run away. As soon as the door opens, as soon as the light comes, there will be another small sound, a laugh or something else, a word, or weeping; who will ever know the difference? Jackie will be gone.