Dovetail – Andrew Condouris
Out the window of the train, the marsh and the burned-out factories moved like deep-water waves. I was on my way home on a Friday, looking at my tax returns from Actaeon, the video game company I worked for at the time. The sun crossed its arms over the passengers’ heads and fell on a woman in a golden dress a few seats ahead of me. Every so often, she would turn to look out the window across from her and I would see her profile. She had a large nose and ruddy cheeks. When I got off the train, I worked through the crowd until I was close behind her. She was nearly translucent. I reached out furtively and touched the fabric of the dress on her shoulder. She didn’t notice since I was so careful. I felt an emptiness well up inside of me when I let go. I watched her hail a cab. She was gone. After a few minutes, my pulse returned to normal.
I walked through the plaza where children were playing soccer, their knees grinding into the pavement. I sat and watched them and smoked a cigarette. I thought of the golden dress, how it held her body in the light. I had seen these apparitions before, but I had never touched them. Whenever I saw them, I felt like a new person with a new history. When I was done with my cigarette, I got up and walked by the delicatessen with the fruit bright under the fluorescent lights. I touched the lemons to feel something ordinary then went home and slept. I dreamt of an upside-down umbrella filling up with rain. It was an image I had been slaving over in the video game I was working on. Sometimes these images stuck on my retina.
I woke up in the morning to the sound of light rain on my skylight. Despite the grubby weather, I went to the museum. When I got there, I did my usual and studied the stegosaurus skeleton. Seventeen knives across her back. I wandered aimlessly amongst the busted pottery and masks. I strolled amongst the shards of metal, the clay encased in glass, the tools and weapons. They had nothing to do with me and I had nothing to do with them. I mean, I could not use them. They were found objects bereft of their purpose. In fact, I thought, I should steal them. Take that bronze bowl and eat oatmeal out of it. That is how history unfolds, isn’t it? Through spiteful acts?
I admired the atrium’s huge installation of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. I remembered hearing a story about a little boy helping a butterfly to break free of its cocoon. The butterfly falls to the ground with its underdeveloped wings. The little boy thought he was helping, but in reality the butterfly needed to strengthen itself before breaking free. I considered the simplicity of the moral of the tale as I walked beneath each stage of the butterfly’s development. The cocoon bothered me a bit, the idea of turning into a liquid state and the idea of being a prisoner. Still, when I got to the end, I thought it was audacious of the butterfly to be so colorful. Had it truly earned its beauty?
I slipped into the aquarium room, a small theater where visitors could sit and watch the fish swim back and forth. I watched the turtles. I thought how I would like to be a turtle. I’d live to be two hundred fifty years old. Some might call that lucky, but others might call it something else. After all, the turtle remains in his shell from birth to death. Another prisoner of sorts.
The turtles and the sharks swam in a sort of rhythm. It was like a Busby Berkeley musical. The only light was the blue glow from behind the glass. The turtles waved to me, just me alone in that small dark theater. But then I wasn’t alone, was I? She was there, too. The woman from yesterday. I recognized her profile, her nose. I hadn’t seen her at first since she sat in the front row and I sat in the back. She stood up and put her hand to the glass, sliding her palm in a wide, curved line. Did she think as I did, that the glass would break from some flaw in the construction? No, I thought, she was not testing its strength but its realness. Two scuba divers entered the tank and began cleaning off the rocks with toilet brushes. One of the divers peered through the glass and waved at her. She waved back. He took his toilet brush and pretended to brush his teeth with it. I heard her laugh. It sounded like footsteps in the snow. She gathered her things, walked up the steps, and passed me. She smelled like flowers left too long in a vase. Like the butterfly, I couldn’t believe her beauty, her freedom. How could she walk so colorfully, so freely?
I followed her out of the aquarium. Maybe I was free, too. I wanted to touch the hem of her lemony dress. I followed her through the shadows of the museum to the light outside. The streets were wet from the morning rain. Down the avenue, a row of industrial kitchen sinks lay safe under awnings, gleaming in the sun. These did not catch her eyes. Instead, she stopped to watch a pool table being lowered from a third floor walkup. I watched her watch the movers as they worked with their hands and their eyes, their clothes wet from the rain. They smiled when they saw her, but they kept their eyes on the table. Perhaps she was admiring them. I thought it would be a shame if the pool table fell on her.
She wandered the streets and I followed. She knew enough to keep moving forward. I usually moved forward, too, but sometimes I needed to be reminded. I imagined running into her on a street corner, her hands puckish as a child’s. I wondered what she would think of me. I imagined her dancing in my kitchen to no music. I could hear the quiet, a dreaming kind of quiet, what you hear after a song has ended, the ghost of the music dancing free. I could see pink snow falling outside my window. When she was tired of dancing, maybe we would share an apple. I could see her thumb curving up under the skin as she peeled the flesh loose.
I followed as she crossed the street. She led me to her home, a brownstone. I drank coffee in the café across the street and waited for her to come out again. I read the newspaper from beginning to end. The waitress asked me if I had somewhere to be. She was trying to be friendly.
“Some days you just feel like sitting in a café all day,” I said.
“We all have our moments, I suppose,” she said. She put her hand on the edge of my seat and looked into my eyes. “Are you an Aquarius by any chance?”
“You know, the astrological sign?”
“Oh, I don’t believe in such things.”
“Oh, well. I do. Refill?”
She went and got the coffee pot and refilled my cup. “Anything interesting happening in the world today?” she asked, pointing at the newspaper. “Seems like the whole world is on fire these days, doesn’t it? I sometimes wonder how we don’t all end up nuking each other into oblivion. But, then again, maybe that would be best, hmm? End it all and start over again? Hello?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t, to be honest.”
“Well, you’re reading the newspaper front to back; you must have some concern about the world.”
“You want my honest opinion?”
“Go for it.”
“The world has already ended.”
“Huh? What are you saying?”
“The world has already ended.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean?”
She didn’t know what to say to that. I had successfully stopped up her quacking. She went back to busying herself with her shitty little job. I imagined she was probably a writer or an actor or a painter and she could use the experience of meeting me for inspiration. If she wasn’t any of those things, if she was just a waitress with no future whatsoever, then maybe I had inspired her to demand more respect, more deference.
The woman I had been following came out hours later dressed to the nines. I followed her cab in another cab, like they do in the movies. She got out of the cab at a restaurant and joined up with some friends. They, too, were dressed up. High heels, the works. I stood across the street smoking cigarettes. They eventually left and walked two blocks east to a nightclub. I went in after them. She was with a friend at the bar. The other friends were dancing. I sat next to her. A man came up to her and chatted her up. I thought of what it would feel like to have his hot blood running over my hands. She gave him her number, typed it in for him on his smartphone. He called her and I saw her check her phone as it lit up and rang. They laughed over something he said.
I followed him when he left. He was with some friends. They went to a dive bar. I sat at the far end and ordered a drink. He went to the bathroom and I followed him in. I hit him as hard as I could, but it only shook him up. I hit him again and again, my fists grinding into his face. He was out. I went through his pockets and found his phone. It only opened with his fingerprint, so I grabbed his hand and tried his thumb. It worked. I found her number in his recent calls. I memorized it. He was coming to and started to moan. I left the bar as quickly as I could.
I went home. I tried to sleep, but the number was burning a hole in my brain. If I called her, my number would appear as unlisted. What was I so worried about? Finally, I wrote her number down so I could let go of it and get some sleep. The sun was rising. Writing it down didn’t work. I looked at the clock and it said six-thirty. I decided to call her. She picked up.
“Hello?” she said.
“Are we prisoners?” I asked.
“Who is this?”
“If we are prisoners, then how do we get free?”
“I’m hanging up.”
“Are we alive or are we dead?”
“Who the fuck is this?”
“What happened to us?”
She hung up. I was able to sleep after that exchange. In my dreams, I watched from above as my body was torn apart by hounds.
* * *
The following Saturday, I was in the museum again, sitting down near the assembled bones of stegosaurus and her seventeen knives. Two boys walked by laughing so hard they held their bellies. I thought maybe I’d have a laugh. Yes, I just needed to shake my head and try a chuckle, even if I didn’t mean it. I let all the air out of my lungs and tried a fake laugh. I figured that was how you did it, how you made it real. Nothing came out. I had forgotten how to laugh, how to fake it.
Instead, I had all this banjo music in my head. It was Time and the feeling I should be doing something else. I got up and said goodbye to stegosaurus and her knives and walked around to study the ancient sculptures. All that music in my head, it meant something. Perhaps it was what was left behind to discover, the music stuck in the bones and the pottery and the weapons and the sculptures. I walked down to the café in the basement and had a slice of apple pie and a glass of milk. It wasn’t very good. Only laughter is good, I thought. I had some coffee, drank it quickly.
I left the museum and walked up the street. A bike race was in progress. The bicycles shimmered and glowed in the sun. When the last few bicyclists zoomed past me, the banjo music finally stopped. I walked through the park, sat on a bench under a sycamore. A low breeze tickled my ears. I called her again. She picked up.
“Hello?” she said.
“Do you feel my struggle?”
“Do you feel God’s judgment?”
“I’m going to track you down.”
“Will God ever forgive us and set us free?” I asked.
“I’ll find you.”
“I only want us to be free.”
She hung up. It was two-fifteen.
* * *
The following Friday, I stepped off the train and thought of lemons again. They reminded me of her dress, I suppose. There were Capoeira dancers in the plaza. I watched them for a while and then walked the perimeter over to the delicatessen. The lemons were bright and fleshy. I picked one up and sniffed it with my eyes closed. It smelled like it should, with a touch of sun. I put it down and turned to leave when a white van pulled up right in front of me. A person in a ski mask got out and grabbed me. I tried to resist. Lemons fell around our feet. I felt a needle pricking my arm. My eyelids felt heavy, but I resisted the urge to faint. We stumbled over the lemons as they pulled me into the van. They placed a black cloth bag over my head. For some reason, I had an erection. The interior of the van smelled vaguely of old newspapers. The person in the ski mask handcuffed me, climbed into the driver’s seat, and pulled onto the street. I stumbled left and right as they made wild turns. The police will pull us over, I thought.
There was traffic. The van stopped and started and I tried to keep my balance. The masked person turned the radio on. How did they know how much I hated classical music? I felt this tingling sensation in my hands. If only I could smash my body into the masked person and cause an accident, I thought. But I couldn’t move too well. I felt the tingling sensation in my feet and a dull throb came up from where the needle had punctured me. I fell to the floor of the van and lost consciousness. In my dreams, I saw dangling shoes hanging from a wire. Who had put them there?
Glue on my eyelids. With some struggle, I was able to open them. I was sitting naked in a red wooden chair. There was a woman speaking, but I couldn’t make out the words. I tried to see where the voice came from, but it was coming from all different directions. Speakers, I figured. Through the floor-to-ceiling window, I saw a blue sky and the horizon line. The sea was a darker blue. Squinting my eyes, I could see I was near the edge of a cliff, sea spray from the waves dispersing.
The walls around me were the color of bluebells, a stark contrast to the red chair. I tried to stand, but my legs were too weak and I fell to the floor. “Help,” I muttered. The woman laughed. I propped myself up on my elbows and looked behind the chair for a door. There was only another blue wall. The woman stopped speaking and I was left with the silence. I couldn’t hear the waves or the wind. Just my own breathing.
Something stirred in my belly. When I put my hand on it, it stopped.
I don’t know how long I lay there. Strength slowly returned to me. As the sun set, a slit opened on the floor of the wall parallel to the window. A bowl of brownish gunk slid in on its own, like it was on a conveyor belt, and then the door closed behind it. The faint smell made my stomach rumble. Saliva collected in my mouth. I crawled over to the gunk and sniffed it. Oatmeal, with something else in it. I reached out and scooped some of it into my fingers. There was no real flavor, only the texture. I ate it anyway, scooping the gruel into my mouth, licking the last bits with my face in the bowl. After a few minutes, I felt numbness in my extremities. The gruel must have been drugged. I tried to stay awake, but eventually I fell asleep. When I awoke, the bowl was gone. Not a trace of any food left.
I had to piss and shit, but I didn’t want to be left with it. I held it all in as long as I could, but eventually I couldn’t help myself. My piss came out in a powerful stream and my shit shot out like a projectile onto the floor. I was so ashamed, but within a few seconds water started to spray from all corners of the room. The water washed over me and hit every nook and crevice of my body. There was a mild scent of pine. The floor tilted a bit. The shit and piss faded away through a large slit on the right wall. When the room was fully sanitized, the water was turned off and I was alone again with myself and the red chair. Again, something moved in my belly. I ignored it.
Feeling my strength return, I hobbled around the room a few times, then paced from one corner to the other. I figured the room was about six feet by eight. Enough room to live, but nothing more. I placed my head up against the window to look around the corner, but I couldn’t see anything. I thought maybe the room was part of a building. Maybe it was a building with other rooms like this. Or perhaps I was alone. I continued to pace and wondered when I would hear the woman’s voice again.
The next time the gruel came through, I didn’t eat it. I sat in front of the window and watched the spray from the waves. The sun rose and set. The bowl sat there, the gruel drying up. As the drugs from the last bowl left my body, I began to feel sick and my joints ached. I cradled myself in the fetal position and waited for something to happen. At some point, I blacked out.
I woke up with a clear tube down my throat. The tube extended from a hole in the ceiling. I watched as the gruel passed through the tube and into my mouth. I don’t know how long I lay there with the gruel filling my belly. I started to moan. I couldn’t control myself.
“I know,” the woman’s voice said. “But you haven’t the necessary tools. Just a red chair. And what is that in comparison to a razor blade, a noose, a gun?” When I was full, the tube retracted out of my mouth and slithered back into the hole. The opening closed and there was no trace of it left. I managed to stand up and walk over to where the hole was. I ran my fingers over where it had been and I felt nothing. “I want you to consider that perhaps this has always been your home,” she said. “A home built by your own mind. That is how one becomes a prisoner, n’est pas?” I walked the perimeter of the room and tried to hear clues in the noises behind her voice. I heard what sounded like a soda can opening in the background. “I’m always recording. If there’s something you need to say, say it. This is your time to shine. I will hear you in due time.” Another faint sound of keys rattling. “I must have a wealth of tape stored in the basement by now, all their names written pert across them. Sometimes, I imagine the tapes are dumped offshore. Can you see it? A mountain of tapes at the bottom of the sea. If they go on speaking long enough, then the tapes will rise to the surface and I will be found out. But that day has not yet come.” A seagull flew up from the cliffs and landed on the rocks below the window. I put my hand to the cool glass. It began to rain. Drops collected on the window.
I put a hand on my belly. Something was wriggling around in my stomach again. “Do you feel that?” she asked. “I won’t tell you what it is. That’s for you to guess.”
Andrew Condouris has been writing since he was eight years old. One night, the stars in the sky mixed up with the city lights, and he wrote a little poem about it. Since that night, he has always been inspired by the night and the strange things he finds there.