August Evans

Natural Order

I first see her on a fan site for a local SoundArt project. She is a thumb-sized sepia photograph which I click, enlarge.

Face taut, septum to bridge a regal twig. A long and refined face. Show of life in lips, mirrors of gloss, a carnation. Precise eyebrows. Decadent shadows announce bone. A gloved hand. Violet, porous cheeks. Eyes beckon, forewarn, realize, forsake. A cavernous look, the blue of a struck match. Eyes, eddies, promises. Huge eyes. Eyes to stay open, eyes to close. Dreg forth: Gaze: bastion of dross and matter: Promise.

Profile: She graduated from college two years ago and is now unemployed. She is flat-chested. Born in San Diego, she listens to Dvorak and Debussy, Captain Beefheart and Philip Glass, and sings to her own keyboard compositions. She quotes Schopenhauer and is currently reading a biography of Nureyev. She is close with her sister. In photographs that appear to have been taken from actual magazines she models expensive clothing and accessories in a way that makes her seem intelligent. She gave several readings in the spring. Her birthday is June 17, 1986. She comes from a wealthy family. Relationship status: “single.” An album entitled “Sick Girl” contains self-portraits of her clavicle, spine, and hipbones totally devoid of cushion. She was once seductive. In a photograph with her father in the background someone has commented that isn’t it funny he’s drinking, hahaha. She is not a lesbian. Her eyelids are nests of dark makeup. She has 187 friends, mostly men. One of her published poems is a literal web of words. Her strident efforts at making herself beautiful have failed. Yet I find her to be so. Her name is Kimberley.

I find a fully loaded CTA ticket in my jacket. It’s early October. The leaves are starting to turn. I ride the train.

When I get downtown rain falls like the Lake and sky have inverted.

The doorman is asleep over a newspaper. When I clear my throat he sits up, clearing his goopy eyes. He asks nothing, only gestures forward.

Inside the elevator are only mirrors: I see myself, camera case in hand, from all sides. Thirty-ninth floor.

Knocks. After a long time she answers the door, the lines that make her body blurred by layers of silken fabric. Protruding bones of her chest, bare and alabaster, like the photographs’; opaque thighs, could be invisible, knees, calves, black legging-ed, skin showing, just below the knee. Ankles the size of a woman’s elbow.

She does not greet me, only gives a halfhearted wave that seems to require all her energy. 5’6”, platform shoes add several inches. Her thickly done eyelids droop, her entry hallway is unadorned. We open into a living room with windows for walls, beyond which veinous lightning spreads. At the crash she collapses into a large blue chair, swallowed. I set the camera on the white carpet and sit on a stiff beige sofa. Soundless pictures drudge across a large television screen. I cannot see her eyes.

Finally she gasps, Have a tour, a knotty hand flailing.

I stand, and take off my coat. Our chats had been far more lively.

The living room opens into a kitchen. The counter is in disarray, herbs spilling from punctured teabags, the rice on a California roll browning, dirty plastic silverware, mugs replete with coffee dregs, stained with lipstick. A withering pair of oranges. Wall calendar from August of the previous year. I lean against the counter and down to pet a white cat that slinks into my calf. It lifts its pristine face to me and meows. In the sink I find a shallow bowl, fill it with water. I set it on the tile and see several piles where the cat has purged.

You sick, I ask, petting its head as it sips. It pauses, hums deeply.

There is a door in the rear corner of the kitchen, to a pantry, I think, but when I stand to pull its handle it will not budge.

The entry hall leads deep into a darkness bordered by three doors, two on the left, one on the right. I choose the only door not fully closed, last one on the left.

From the floor a small desk lamp shines. Making a new carpet are magazines, thick and glossy, millions of lunar eyes, genetically elite, tucked, pinched, and prodded. Tailored. Zippered, rubbed to a gleam, spilling out. Touched-up. Scoured to a shine and tamed and tempered. Plucked. Heaps of legs and arms. Kimberley has torn pictures from magazines, tattering the models’ pristine clothing with her nails. Shards make a carpet for the floor.

Back in the living room Kimberley is so still that I want to check for a pulse, but that feels like a boundary violation. I stand over her. Breathing cheek on chair velvet, placid like a buoy. Legs curled to chest, hands clenching and unclenching. The velvet of the chair is sutured by numerous buttons. Kimberley’s fabrics swallow her wilting limbs. I reach for my case, unzip soundlessly, lift out the camera, bring it to life. Kneeling before the chair I shoot her sleeping for several minutes. I zoom in on her hands, ciphers that at last unfold and stay open.

During the summers when I was young my father took me fly-fishing in Galena, Illinois. He never invited any of my four brothers or two sisters, always only we two going in reverse down the Northwest suburban drive. When we reached the moist earth he held the rod in gloves, passing it to me when he got a bite so he could take them off. With corporate hands he angled the loose mouth skin up and over the tip of the hook, his grip on the scale sheen always sturdy. I never understood how. At home in the kitchen, he dropped things all the time: silverware, plates, his eyeglasses. I never knew why. It was something strange about him, like a facial tick or an oddly placed birthmark, unmentioned and constant. I would hold out the bucket to him. Brine, smack—wet flesh to the hollow. Whatever place the writhes and leaps prefaced, what the fish meant by changing sides in the air, did not matter. The effect was simple, the body no longer stirred.

The cat jumps up to knead Kimberley’s lap. She opens her eyes. Arms arch overhead, beech limbs, arms down, a hand to the side table. Lights a cigarette. The cat bounds away.

Peers deeply into the lens. Cocks wrist. Inhales. For the first time I hear her voice, trapped sunlight from a cave:

What if there were a way, some vast and magical way, like an umbrella opening, for me to show you exactly what it means, what it all means, for me to be here, next to you, communing before you, on top of you, above you, beside you, so it feels like you’re deep enough inside to touch my heart—deep enough to see the cobwebs and light fixtures fall away, so all that’s visible is bright, glimmering sunshine, pond-dapple golden sunshine, so beautiful that you have no choice but to dive right into it, going deeper than you have before, deeper than you thought was possible, in the depths required to really know me, and knowing me is at the tip of the shore of what you thought it meant to know, way far out and beyond what it ever felt like to know anybody before, because we’ve transcended the visual through feeling alone, and you know like a sudden thunderclap that inside of me is where you need to stay forever, because inside of me makes you finally understand the definition of permanence: those are the words you say to me when you’re there inside of me, in union; and I know you too, in the same way, through feeling alone, because we are people who deal in the immutable, with touch the only way to know. Do you see what I’m trying to say, I’m trying to say, I’m trying …You. You. Do you see what I’m trying to say?

She shifts and straightens her legs. I stand and move slowly in reverse, the view widening to hold the amber in the painting behind her. My knees ache from kneeling, the camera shakes on my shoulder. Once she comes to a tepid stand, undoes her grasp to the chair arm, my focus steadies. Upright she seems smaller. She walks to the windows, looks out, away from the lens. I pause the film and light a tall lamp in the corner. Though the lightning has stopped the rain falls in a curtain beyond the layer of glass. Several feet away, I rouse the camera in anticipation of her turning back to me. Wait.

At last. Extends her pointed foot and spins around, cyclic, motoring, a pinwheel, deep rubies and violets, manic rush, arms flow like wings; kaleidoscopic bracelets clink, plunge to elbows as arms undulate overhead, roving gypsies. Hair a cantering horse’s mane. Spins a small, persistent circle, round and round. Carnival. All of it, I shoot it all. I shoot it all, even as she falls. Onto the carpet, a decadent heap, a flailing doll. First to knees, then stomach and chest, fabrics akimbo, hair out from its bun, single bracelet flies to the tile before the fireplace, spinning on its axis. I reach out the hand not holding the camera, empty air.

She sits up, and I unwind her fabrics. Once I hit skin, I know I won’t get hard. Her body is like a sideshow. I want to rub my hands across her face, or give her a bath, feed her fried chicken, candy bars, fudge, candy bars dipped in fudge, homemade macaroni and cheese with the bready top, soft pretzels with salt and hot cheese and canned jalapeno peppers, white layer cake covered in macadamia nuts, elephant ears with sugar that cakes under her weak nails, rocky road gelato; tuck her in to her big bed, read her a story, then tell her a story if the reading hasn’t worked, hear her reassuring breaths of sleep, then lay beside her, my hand on her stomach. Feel it grow.

She isn’t wearing a bra. I gasp.

Told ya, she says.

In that light her eyes are glazed over with a fine film. They are fixed on me, edgy and pleading. Shh, I whisper, and ease her onto her back, run my hands over her stomach, concave, avoiding her child’s breasts. She huffs. I let my hand rest on her stark chest, and she calms. With thoughts of the photographs that led me there, I find the resolve to enter her.

Afterwards, while she sleeps, I call out on for an extra-large cheese pizza. When it comes I pay for it with money from the bedside table, lay the box next to her on the bed and in the way she wakes I know it is because of what I’ve brought into the room.

She tries to avoid the slice I hold to her mouth by staying flat on her back and lighting a cigarette. I wrestle it from her fingers and she turns to the side and curls her legs into her chest. Her cigarette in my mouth I reach over and across her back, hold the piece where I imagine her lips to be. She bites. Pulling back I see the nibble is only the size of my thumbnail; I want to punch a hole into the wall.

I let myself in and throw down the bags from the bodega, get out the camera. Cradling it gently I bring it to life, perch it on my shoulder. I walk through the condo, filming until I find her.

She is on the kitchen tile, a large gash down the center of her forehead. I am afraid to move her head; I am afraid to move the camera.

What happened, I ask, on my knees beside her.

Her eyelids flicker; she smiles at the lens. Oh, same ole’, same ole’, she moans. Then she says, again, Told ya.

What do you mean, told ya, I ask.

Our long chats before we met. I told you I didn’t go out much.

Why don’t you eat, I ask her. Why do you never eat.

She says that if I let her film me she’ll eat something.

That’s irrelevant, I tell her. This film is about you.

I should turn off the camera, get a washcloth, glass of water, ambulance. Wrestle a pastry into her mouth. But as I lower the lens she tells me not to stop filming.

Your head, I say, the camera still on, tipped down and towards her body on the tile.

The cat walks up and sits on Kimberley’s chest, peers at the lens.

Kimberley answers that she’ll be fine. Just keep filming, she says.

I imagine us outside, walking together to the Lake. She would sing. I would film her on the concrete edge at the base of Diversey Harbor, on a stamp signaling “No Diving,” her floating arms making a break in the place where the water meets the sky. Afterwards, she would gallop up to me and around, jumping very high in the air, landing on my back, her shins cradling my groin and my press of her bony knees to my hips, her eyelashes fluttering against my cheeks. Vital.

Although the camera shakes, I keep filming.

We stay that way, the camera between us.

And I keep filming.

I want you by the windows. With the light from outside, the lamp in the corner, it has to be.

Fine, she replies: But I wear the sheet.

I lift up at her armpits and let go once she is standing straighter than I have ever seen her, though deeply slouched, but in a way that I nonetheless think will hold, and she falls back onto the couch, a foot smacking my calf. I hold out my empty hands.

No, no. Wait, she mutters. Somehow, in the creeping way she loped to the shower, she manages herself aright with a knuckle-whitening grip on the couch arm, disrupting the sleeve, snakes to the window, trips and nearly lurches into the glass. There, she tries to drape the sheet herself, but the silk won’t stay, droops to show her breasts and taut navel. Finally I step forward to do it for her, knotting two edges at the base of her right shoulder blade, leaving its arm bare. The strings of her hair, dried in brambles, make small creases in the silk. I step back and she looks straight at me, her eyes hard and bright. My palms are wet when I lace them over the back of my neck, observing the light.

I find the camera, still on the kitchen tile, feeling the whole time I am away that she is taking something from me.

Camera to shoulder. The bedsheet falls again. She reaches out for it on her knees.

Let me get you some clothes, I tell her.

She ignores me, trying to arrange the sheet while kneeling.

Your knees are in the way. It won’t work like that.

Her face urgent, her ass in the air, she manages while inverted to secure the sheet. It falls past her waist.

No, she moans, and I help her up again, the fabric in a heap at her feet.

With the hand not on the camera I steady her right shoulder. There’s no sense arranging the silk again, as it will only fall.

The way the light hits, her body, like the moon beyond, is halved by shadow.

We would never leave until we had five fish. It didn’t matter how long we stayed; once we were there until midnight. August in the Midwest, I tried to keep my scratching from my father, the bites I didn’t prevent with a sharp palm to skin. One night when the moon was covered over we caught two fish on one line. My father made a sound of shock when he undid the hook. He called whatever it was a mutant. Because of the scant light we couldn’t tell whether the fish had been sutured together before we came along, or if they just took the bait at the same instant, but either way he had to pull the hook out from two sets of lips. He made me hold one fish while he did it. That was the only time we left with six fish.

I am watching Kimberley sleep.

August Evans is a graduate of the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago, where her thesis was a series of interwoven short stories. Her work has been published in Monkeybicycle and Fusion. Currently she is at work on a novel allying two incongruous voices via fused narration.