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The Moth

The Moth

“Did Alice leave?” the dark-haired man asks of no one in particular. Richard’s voice is quiet as always, though this time it carries faint tension, like the soft pffft of a kettle approaching boil.

The seven have met in his studio apartment for brunch, a semi-weekly affair that fills Sunday afternoons and trickles into evening.  The S-curved body of Richard’s residence stretches from kitchen to bedroom, its midsection flanked by a spruce-and-mildew-scented bathroom and a walk-in closet lined with secondhand ski gear. Cheap by Boulder’s standards, the $450/month rental serves as the ideal CU student crash pad.

The overcast November sky spills into the apartment and, unchecked by indoor lighting, leeches life from the scene. Pumpkin-orange carpet darkens to sepia; the worn, kiwi corduroy of a corner armchair withers to lichen.

An unclothed duvet sprawls across Richard’s bed: two stacked mattresses smothered beneath a temperapedic pad. Sometimes Richard likes to press his palm into the yielding bulk, feeling its soft curve swell to swaddle his flesh. Then, withdrawing his hand, he watches the foam re-fatten to swallow his print.

One corner of Richard’s off-white down comforter slouches onto the carpet, crowding an abandoned plate of crepe remains and Brie rinds. Elske, the group’s would-be epicurean, had led the seven in an attempt at “le grand petit déjeuner” an hour or so earlier. The results, though pronounced only marginally successful by a thin-lipped Elske, proved both sating and soporific.

Now, warmed and softened by the meal, the bodies of Richard’s friends sink into the washed-out landscape of his apartment.

Elske’s pallid, plump form spreads over the gnarled carpet, her rusty curls wiring themselves in and among the dated nylon pile. Her boyfriend David stretches alongside her, wiry limbs concealed by the loose drape of his khaki cargos and old brown sweatshirt.

In the corner armchair reclines Eric, whose puce shades filter out whatever fog-eclipsed sunlight has wormed its way through Richard’s filmy windows. The frameless lenses dominate a face sallowed by cigarettes and afternoons spent in studio lighting. On the gramophone next to Eric’s chair spins the sleek vinyl of an Ella Fitzgerald album, but the songs have long since ended and all that can be heard are the rhythmic static tics of spent record.

Richard glances around at the three of them, craning his neck to see whether a fourth figure might have nestled beneath the folds of ivory down—Alice always had taken delight in his comforter.  But the feather-filled mass harbors only Richard’s wrinkled, week-since-washed bed sheets.

Richard turns away and plods towards the kitchen, where the heavy odor of herbed oils mingles with lemon-scented Dawn. The muffled clinks of submerged china punctuate the soft whine of the tap and grow louder as Richard rounds the corner, but a quick glance in reveals only Paige, his older sister, at the sink.

Richard turns his attentions towards the hall coat rack. He rummages through his friends’ jackets, looking for Alice’s. Hers is red, he remembers: a striking vermilion. against those jet-black curls. A memory, moist and warm, parts the parched lips of Richard’s thoughts, swelling as it penetrates the confines of his consciousness.

In this memory, it is April: evening, raining. The two are in her house, her bedroom. This was back when she was still inviting him over.

Richard sits on her quilted silk bedspread. The rich satin pinks and reds glow in the light of her bed table touch-lamp, their gold embroidery sparkling. The crimson panel of jacquard on Richard’s left curves around the weight of his hip, as if toying with the idea of consuming this unkempt boy and his unwashed jeans.

“Well,” Alice asks, stepping into the room and spinning about, “what do you think?”

The red coat hangs from her shoulder and hips in a petal-like embrace, the snug cut accentuating the full curves of her painfully soft body. Tags, still attached, flap together as she twirls: tiny, brittle dove’s wings.

“I love it,” Richard admits. “But are you really going to need it? It’s already Spring.”

Alice playfully sticks out her tongue. “It’s for next winter, silly. I’m buying it now because it’s on sale–thanks to the fact that everyone else thinks like you.”

His eyes, placid hazel, hold hers, a brown so deep the lines between pupil and iris have blurred into indistinction. Light tossed up from the tungsten touch-lamp rockets towards her onyx gaze and once caught, remains burning within cool, sable depths. The left corner of her full, pink mouth curves upwards.

She strolls towards where he sits, her almond-white fingers sliding shiny red buttons from felted fissures. He leans back. The coat pours open to reveal what is Alice alone, and then, with a shrug of ivory shoulders, falls to the floor: crimson peel shed, tender white flesh of apple offered up.

The rich glow of this memory dims, drained by the fog-grayed world of the present, in which Richard’s hands press against the coarse damp wool of someone else’s coat instead of the soft, secret fur of Alice.

Richard scans the coats crumpled on the floor beneath the rack, mostly his own, which had been cast down as the new were hung. A few, however, had been nonchalantly parked on the chipped blue linoleum to begin with. None are red.

“Alice’s coat’s not here,” Richard announces. The memory has retreated fully, stealing something ineffable with it. A shrill note presses against his words.

“I think I heard her talking with Kelly,” Eric rasps from the armchair. Only his lips move.

Richard freezes. The muscles along the length of his spine contract. “Oh no.” The words slip out before he can abort them.

Kelly: supple tawny limbs; torn jeans; black felt fedora; stringy, chin-length hoof-brown hair.

“We should invite Kelly to brunch this Sunday,” Alice had said to him last week when she and Richard had met after class for coffee.

“Kelly?” Richard had asked.

He’d only ever seen the NYU transfer student a couple times in his film appreciation class. He wasn’t sure if she was even enrolled in his department–or the school, for that matter. “I hardly know her.”

“That’s the point,” Alice had replied. “No one does. I think she’s alone a lot.” She took another sip of her pumpkin-spice latte, its matching mug reflecting the warm glow of their table lantern.

“I’m alone a lot too,” Richard had wanted to say.

“Hmm?” Eric manages, pulling Richard back to the present moment. The small blonde boy has tilted his mop-cropped head upwards and is peering at Richard through his ashes-of-roses shades.

Under scrutiny, Richard force-thaws, regaining motion. “Nothing,” he says, turning again to the coats, this time to hang up the ones on the floor. The motions of his arms and fingers are jerky, puppet-like.

“Maybe they went out for coffee,” Eric suggests, his voice fading as the words squeeze out.

Richard walks back into the kitchen, his feet moving across the torn, cornflower linoleum like a seven-year-old piano student’s fingers attempting legato.

Passing Paige wordlessly, he peers out the window at the ’94 Corolla and ’86 Chevy, both wrapped in Autumn fog. The paint-flaked window trim frames Richard’s dark brown hair, sleek and straight like the polished wood of a Turkish coffee table. Though his mussed crop has grown since he’s left home, its dead-end tips barely graze his jawline.

“Her car’s still here,” Richard says. “So’s Kelly’s.”

“Maybe they went on a walk,” Paige suggests, not looking up from the sink.

Richard turns from the window to look first at his sister and then his sink, in which lies the brunch—and pre-brunch—soiled menagerie of his mismatched dishes.

With a sudsy and only faintly mildewed sponge in hand, Paige extracts a chipped English tea saucer from the top of the pile, unearthing a Micky Mouse mug below. The mug is of the bottom half of Micky, cut off right above his pants and balanced on ceramic yellow shoes. A single, white-gloved arm serves as a handle.

Richard knows this, but he can’t help but think, every time he glances at the mug, that the buttons on Micky’s shorts are really the pupilless eyes of some red-faced creature whose skull has been hollowed out for drinking.

Richard stares at the blind would-be eyes of the mug – smooth, white orbs, free from the dark pinpoints of focus. Alice had given him the Micky mug back when they had first been getting to know each other.

“To make your mess less grown up,” she had said as he’d carefully removed the last of the dandelion-yellow wrapping paper.

“My mess?”

“You know, your apartment. Records, ski junk–it’s all grown-up stuff. If you’re going to be messy, you have to be a kid.” She’d tapped at the mug. “Kids’ mess is creative. Grown-up mess is just sad.”

“I–” He’d wanted to defend his apartment, but then she’d put her hand on his arm, and her eyes, her deep black eyes, then faintly chestnut in the fading light of sunset, had locked on his own. It had been the first time he’d been able to look at them long enough to discern where iris ended and pupil began. It had been the first time they’d kissed.

“Well, are you going to just stand there or are you going to help me?” Paige purses her lips, polishing a petrified smear of relish from the china saucer.

“Right.” Richard grabs up a washcloth, and after two failed and one successful squirts of watered-down Dawn, reaches for a sake cup lying adjacent to the glassy-eyed Micky.

Farther down along the body of the room, the soft arms of Elske and sinewy limbs of David slowly slide, now curving upwards, now curving downwards, as the two bodies adjust themselves along the rough russet loops of nylon. Lungs fill, lungs collapse: the twin seas of skin and cloth rise and fall.

Across the ocean of carpet and flesh, following the stepping-stones of strewn records, lies the island of Eric, boxed by sharp angles of stucco and cushioned by the smooth rows of corduroy. His snores now blur into the soft tic of the spent record.

In the kitchen, porcelain rubs against steel. Richard remembers two hours ago: Kelly and Alice laughing as the two girls attempted–under Elske’s increasingly peeved direction–a hollandaise sauce.

Dishes clatter against the wire of the rack. Richard remembers one hour ago: Kelly and Alice sitting on his bed with Alice’s laptop open, whispering in hushed tones to each other.

Richard’s hands unnecessarily scrape a steel scrubber against the crescent depths of wet glass. He remembers twenty minutes ago: the two girls, still on his bed, now silent. Alice’s smooth, white hand, ruby fingernails shining despite the fog-masked light, as her palm pressed softly into the olive skin of Kelly’s arm. Their eyes had locked. Richard had looked away.

Water pools along the tears and cracks of the mud-stained blue linoleum. The fog outside thickens, further dimming world within. The already watered-down blue of the kitchen floor weakens to ash.

And then, a brilliant burst of tungsten—the hot, golden glow of artificial light streams forth as the closet door flies open, Kelly and Alice rolling out like barrels overflowing with rubies and wine. Their giggles and words blur together: thick, warm brush strokes of oil over watercolor.

The world around them brightens–the sea of David and Elske heaves in coppery waves, the lichen corner where Eric now slumbers blossoms into the lush moss of silent forest.

Alice’s long, ebony curls spill over her silk coral shift, which floats cloud-like around her body as though afraid to touch the glowing skin beneath. The white of her wrists, slender beneath billowing dawn-colored sleeves, shines pink-gold in the rays of the closet light. Kelly stands close, her thicker, darker body clad in a simple black t-shirt and torn black jeans. Nonetheless, her tawny skin radiates the same August warmth.

Whatever words continue to trickle between the two women are meaningless to Richard, whose ability to grasp speech has been drowned by this unfair torrent of misplaced midsummer glow.

Alice, the sunset, streams over the dark silhouette of Kelly: the rocky cliffs, the rolling hills, and the soft mounds of earth. Richard is lost in this brilliant, bitterly familiar world, and for a moment something in him strains, reaching out, grasping. But this bleeding inner hand closes only on the light: insubstantial, warded off by the very attempt of capture.

He turns away.

***

Outside, it takes a moment for Richard’s eyes to adjust. He blinks, surprised by the brightness of a world that had seemed so gray from behind windows. The light out here is not ashen, nor white, but the faintest of blues. Naked trees reach heavenward, their branches embraced by the low-hanging November sky.

The hair follicles on the back of Richard’s neck prickle. He has not put on a coat.

Richard inhales, inviting the crisp air into his chest. Fresh with the faint scent of fallen leaves, its earthy cool penetrates his cells, soothing something intangible and singed.

A little behind and to Richard’s left, the yellow light of his apartment leaks from its south window, accompanied by faint chords of female laughter.

He pays no attention. He is breathing deeply now. The winter sky has filled his lungs, his veins. Something within him has cleared and expanded. He notes the rough texture of wrinkled tree bodies, the thick aroma of leaf-mold, the way the distant sounds of clock tower bells hopscotch through the drops of airborne moisture.  He begins to walk down the rotted wood of the porch steps. His feet pad softly against the foliage-dappled ground. Silently, he steps into the mist.

The use of all-caps on “ALL employees MUST wash their hands BEFORE returning to work” signs.

Accidentally touching the naked fabric of my pillow within its case while lying in bed at night.

Sticky plastic table cloths.

The thin, off-blood smell of static.

Sister: “I want to have [name of boy we know]-babies.”

Me: “He’s not into that.”

Sister: “Well then, I’ll just wait until he dies in a freak hypothermia accident, and…”

***

Sister (commenting on my discontent): “You’re going stir-crazy. It’s what happens to Sims on Sims 3 if you don’t let them out of the house enough.”

***

Sister (commenting on verbatim item #1): “That sounds creepy! What I meant was: I want him to die so he can incarnate into my babies. Now it just sounds like necrophilia.”

It turns out that Oster, the company who manufactured my food processor, is somewhat religious:

"Acts of God"

Fortunately it was hazelnut-grindage, not an “Act of God,” that blew out my device’s motor.

I recently took care of a few things in the house of a couple I know (who shall go unnamed) while they were out.

On their fridge, I found two lists. One had the man’s name at the top, the other had the woman’s. Both lists contained times and short descriptions of activities performed. From later speaking with the couple, I discerned that there had been some disagreement about “who does the most around the house,” and these lists were an attempt to settle the matter once and for all.

I found the husband’s list to be of particular interest:

Husband's Contributions to Household Order

I think “HUGE FIGHT WITH WIFE” might be my favorite, both because it is the single longest item on the list and, even in spite of it, the wife was kind enough to add (you can tell the handwriting is her’s b/c it is different) two other contributions that her husband had overlooked.

“Safety Poop”

So I’m thinking of becoming a music artist.

(a small sampling)
  • Dryer-shrunk sweaters hanging from the racks of thrift stores
  • Couples emerging from restrooms
  • Knowing that the author of a popular spiritual guidance book once regularly forced his sister to go into the bathroom with him while he pooped, so he wouldn’t get lonely. (He referred to the arrangement as “Secret Poop”)
  • Realizing that the above information doesn’t really alter my perception of the spiritual guidance book.
  • The moist flatulence of dignified women in public bathroom stalls.