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The Flesh So Close
by Kenneth Harvey

MY MOTHER HAS been missing for three days. But I have certain understandings with regards to her whereabouts. There is no need to panic. I took for her in a narrow rowhouse on Maxie Street where Kig is holding an axe in his hands when I come in the door. He is standing at the top of the stairs, and he shows me a kind smile and the space where his front tooth has been knocked away. He watches me with small eyes set so close they seem to he crossed. As he blinks, his bottom lip rises and his face looms larger, blanket, with the closing of those eyes. His hair as usual is greasy; standing up in back, and sparsely plastered to his forehead. Kig is not wearing -a shirt. The skin along his stomach is white and loose. His arms are the same.

"Mom not here," he calls down in his flat voice. The stairway is windowless and holds the musty smell of rotting wood. I turn back, open the front door so that light slants in across the blackened floor, then up the first three steps.

I know she's here, Kig," I tell him, gripping the wobbly rail, feeling it being drawn toward me as I climb. "She has to come home."

"No." He shakes his head from one side to the other, sharply, as if cutting a thought in half. His eyes keep watching me. Then they shut, remain closed for a moment. When they open again, he says, "No, she stay here, Henry. She stay here. She with me and Carol and Wall."

I take the steps one at a time until I reach the top. I move in front of Kig without giving him the slightest stain of attention. He holds the axe, and stares, medicated eyes shifting as I pass. I know he does not move for a while because I do not hear his footsteps following me as I step through the open apartment doorway.

The first thing I notice is Carol standing by the plastic-sheeted window, a pacifier twitching in her mouth. She is staring at the ground and I wave at her - even though she does not see me before turning my attention toward the bedroom door. I wait to hear the shuffle of Kig's footsteps coining from behind. He has wandered into the room, cradling the axe, but forgetting about it, more interested in what is going to happen, numbly aware of how he has no power at all.

I reach for the knob on the bedroom door. Mom watches me appear on the threshold. She is lying on the bed, beneath an offwhite sheet and a tattered orange quilt that has been kicked down toward the foot of the mattress. A man has his hairy arm around her and I know by his snoring that it is Wall.

"Henry," says my mother, but her face doesn't change. "Henry," she blurts out, the sound like a hiccup.

"I was worried."

"Okay, Henry." My mother stays where she is, her hands beneath the sheets. Her hair is curly and brown and looks as if it was cut lopsided, probably by Wall when he was drunk.

My mother watches me, her face as soft as it can go, and I understand how she would touch me if she could, lay her slow fingers against my skin and rub forcefully, lovingly until she has smeared her laughing devotion into me. I do not say another word. Mom feels the silence. Her smite is nervous; all lips and gums, before it fades away, forgetting what it was there for.

"Don't want go home, Henry."

Kig shuffles close to my side so he can tilt his head to get a better view of my face. He stares: he's forgotten who I am. His thick brows knit and he holds the axe out to me. He shakes his head, pulls back the axe. Remembering.

"What you doing here, Henry?" he asks.

"I'm just making sure Mom is okay."

"Mom fine, Henry. She staying here. She, Wall. Wall sleeping. And Carol out there," He points with the axe blade, toward the open bedroom door.

I focus on the outer room. Carol is standing by the window, eyes fixed on the floor. One pale finger rises and hooks in the pink plastic ring of her pacifier, her arm hanging there. When I look back at Kig, I see that he is nodding as if coaxing me, and I remember when we were children; how I have many memories of playing, but for Kig those memories were yesterday or this morning. No distance from point to point. Childhood opens and concludes the impish range of Kig's existence.

"Mom okay, Henry. Look" He tilts the heavy blade toward my mother and she offers the gum-sheening smile. In seconds, it melts away, her doughy eyes wounded by the abandonment of purpose. She tries to smile again, quieter. Withdrawn.

"Staying with Wall, Henry."

"I just wanted to see you were okay, Mom." I step close to her side of the bed. Movement outside the curtainless window draws my attention. It is easy to look up and see the rooftops across the street. They are flat and run in a line along Slattery. Three houses down, two children stand toward the edge of a roof, their bodies sharply outlined against the white sky. They hold hands and spin in circles, swirling until they lose their grip and fly away from each other. Giddily, they collapse close to an eave of the tar-paper sheeting. They must brace their palms against the roof, their heads taking control, mixing everything up. It is the funniest thing they know; this frightening, unbalanced humour of youth briskly lifting them to their feet where they stagger, stop, and squat down. The sense of disparity makes them laugh uncontrollably. They must hold onto their bellies to contain themselves. As they grow weaker and weaker, it becomes a struggle to stand. They teeter on their feet, then race for each other, hug foolishly, lock fingers and swirl with the spinning force of their union wanting to fling them apart. Heads thrown back, hair reaching away from them, they know when to release. Their arms fly up into the air, their tiny feet running backwards to capture balance.

I face the room to see Kig waiting by the metal dresser. It was a wedding gift from the institution. Long before I was born, the workers gave it to Wall. Wall has told me: "It was old and they were going to throw it out anyway. Don't think they did something for me. People giving you their garbage. Feeling like saints for doing it."

Kig leans the axe handle against the side of the dresser. He uses all of his fingers, takes his time, ensuring the wooden handle will not slip against the steel. Then he steps back - still bent over watching it, making certain it is not going to change.

Wall's snoring stutters. He gags and grumbles. His leg kicks beneath the sheet and he coughs a roar. My mother's eyes shift to look at him, knowing he is going to wake. Kig watches too. He watches the axe, then he watches Wall. Next thing, he holds out his fingers and stares at them, wiping them against his bare chest.

"Wall waking now," Kig says to his hands. "Didn't touch"

And Wall rolls over, his round, sleep-etched face rising as he pushes up on one palm. Leaning on his elbows, he squints with true bitterness and looks at the room, studies me and Kig and wonders what the hell is so interesting in his bedroom.

"What d'ya want?" he snaps at me, falling back onto the bed and moaning, coughing violently, speaking between the punch of each cough: "What's the ... problem, Henry. Jesus ... Christ! I have to ... see you here."

"I think it's time Mom came home and got cleaned up"

Wall lifts his head and stares accusingly at Kig.

"Didn't I tell you to keep him out?" His face goes red, the rage rushing through him. He shouts, "The axe. What'd I say to you about that? Use it."

Kig's shoulders Slouch, his neck appearing longer and thicker. He moves his hands away from where they were dangling at his sides, and rubs the front of his thighs. Tears sheen in his eyes. Crying an open-mouthed sob, he stops right away, wiping at his face with his wrists.

Wall throws his good leg over the edge of the bed, then points at the flesh-coloured plastic leg leaning in the corner. His finger keeps pointing, jabbing the air, until Kig moves for the leg, uses both hands to pass it to Wall. Wall snatches it away. He straps it on, buckles it, and hoists himself up, swinging his leg into action.

"Get the fuck out of my apartment. This is my apartment and I'm taking care of your brother already, your sister. I don't need you, too. I don't need to take care of you like I already did for years. You get it, Henry? I raised you up. Don't forget it." He is standing close and I can smell the foulness of his breath, the beat of his threatening words; moist and dry at once. "I'll take care of you if you want me to. You know, the way I take care of you won't he nothing special." His tips jitter with the notion and he licks at the gratifying smile overtaking him.

"I have to take Mom home and wash her clothes. A bath to get..."

"She's clean," Wall interrupts, giving me a shove and brushing past, "She's got no clothes to worry about," striding and swinging his plastic leg, kicking at a shoe, swinging at whatever's in his way on the floor.

"I'll let you get dressed," I tell my mother, noticing her purple sweat pants and shirt in a clump by the side of the bed. "Okay?"

"No," she says, staying right where she is, not having moved an inch since I came into the room. Her eyes blink thoughtlessly and I wonder about the in mascara and eyeshadow blotched along the tops of her cheeks. I remember how Wall used to do her up when I was a child. He insisted she was entitled to this one touch of female extravagance ("Make her a real woman," he always claimed), but I came to understand other explanations: that he took great pleasure in dragging the make-up across her face. Such actions were done when he was drunk. He enjoyed trying to change her body, moving her naked limbs in extreme directions, wondering how far she could bend. He'd stumble back from what he had done to get a better took, the expression on his face disclosing everything: he was hoping my mother's body would stay fixed in the pose he had arranged.

Kig sits on the edge of the bed, close to my mother, and sloppily strokes her curly hair. He uses the flat of his palm and presses down, swiping, distracted.

"Mom," he says, but he is watching me. "Mom."

"Let Mom get dressed, Kig," I tell him. But he stays there watching me, squinting resentfully, as if trying to discover who I really am, what all of this could possibly mean to me,

"You. Go no",. Go, Henry." He flicks his hand in the air and shakes his head, jerking it from side to side. "Go."

"Go," says my mother, and her chubby, pink-skinned arm shoots up from under the sheet. She mimics Kig, pointing with a stiff finger. "You," she says.

"Go," they say.

The frustration makes me turn from the bedroom. I do not glance back. Instead I reach behind for the knob and draw the door closed. Stepping away, I hear Kig crying. I hear my mother crying. I know they are fearfully clutching each other, shivering for how they will be wrestled apart.

WALL STANDS IN front of the opened refrigerator. I stare at his leg and the light from the fridge sheening off the dull pink plastic. The counter is littered with beer cans and bourbon bottles with cigarette butts turned soggy at the damp bottoms. The cupboards are doorless. A few stray tins occupy the shelves. My attention moves from the rusted rim of the stainless-steel sink back to Wall's leg. I count the notches in the leather strap that helps hold the leg in place. A piece of his faded green boxer shorts is pinched between his stump and his leg, and I want to move over and tug it free, but I know this would incite a confrontation, so I just live with it, ignore the nervous stirrings that scamper loose, urging me to rectify this imperfection.

Wall turns his neck to look back at Carol. The plastic sheering on the window sucks in, then rounds out, despite the absence of wind. Carol stares at me. The pacifier jerks in her mouth as her jaw shifts sucking. Her white arms are short and hang above her hips. Her stumpy fingers straighten, slowly bend, then straighten again and remain rigid as if a shrill sound has been cracked from a shell. Her soiled nightdress is frayed along the hemline and ripped straight down below her belly. Her body presses beneath the cotton see-through material, the sides of her trapped breasts spilling from the torn arm holes.

Wall passes no comment. He turns his attention back toward the fridge, staring in but seeing nothing; planning instead. I look to sit on the couch, but discover that the couch is gone, so I remain standing, bend one knee to take the weight off my lower back.

"What happened to your couch?" I ask, trying to ease the tension.

"Nothing," Wall barks, staring into the icebox. I know his thoughts are tightening, each word from me poisoning the situation. No doubt he interprets the mere sound of my voice as provocation. He is mad, and planning what to do with me. Wondering what can be pulled from the shelves of the fridge and hurled my way. It is not a new game. I have yet to face a single surprise here; Wall's violence is as predictable as the direction drawn by gravity. I watch him, waiting to duck or lean from the path of flying objects.

"It's gone," I tell him.

"What does that prove? just shut up.

"I don't know what it proves."

His eyes are dark slits, glancing over his shoulder. He has not shaved for days. Prickly grey and white stubble grows along his jaw and high on his cheeks. The stubble matches the colour of his hair. It is clipped short, an oval-shaped bruise visible along his scalp.

"I don't like doing this every time," I must tell him. "I've got custody."

I emphasize the last word because I need for him to understand the importance of it. I repeat the words I have learned. They slip from my tongue, even though l am certain of the response they will draw. "You can't hurt Mom any more. You might've got custody of Carol and Kig, but I got Mom away from you.

Wall's face swells red. He growls: 'Away from no one. I can tell you as your father, no, that doesn't mean shit to you, so I'll tell you as someone who might just punch the fuck out of you." He slams the refrigerator door, things rattling loose inside, and spins around, teetering. "Man to man, if that's what you like. None of this law crap. The way you always like fighting me. You get no one away from no one. Ever. The law's not human. It's a fucking joke."

"I'm only looking after her, like the courts told me to do"

"Because I can't," he shouts, kicking back with his plastic leg, driving a dent in the refrigerator, then limping forward, closer, glaring at me. "Right?" His face has darkened to a beet red, and he curses with thick white saliva in the corners of his mouth. "Because you're better."

I shake my head.

"Because I've hit her once or twice to teach her a thing" His eyes round from his face. He stops to swallow, to catch a quick breath. "Not to touch, not to touch this or that" The tendons in his throat pull to get away from him. Even his ears have gone red. "Not to piss on the floor like she used to when I first met her. She doesn't do that any more because I showed her she couldn't. Let's go way back to when I was working in the fucking nut-house, cleaning up the floors that she was pissing on. When I met her and she was locked in a cage. Let's go back there. A nice-looking young woman locked away. You remember where I took her from" He swipes the saliva from his mouth with the back of his hand, then uses his palm to do his chin. "You're too stupid to keep that in mind."

"I've heard it all, Wall ."

"Heard it all. Heard nothing," he threatens, limping one step closer. "How they strapped her to a bed and tied her up when she fucked up in the slightest." He holds up one hand, grabbing at something in the air. He squeezes his fingers into a fist and his lips turn white and hard. "I showed her what it was like to be with a man. And that's it. That's what she wanted; to be complete like that. Then she showed some manners and was like she belonged. I put something in her that she never had and I took her out of there. I looked after her long before there was you, you little shit-stain fucker."

I step away from him, but keep him in the corner of my eyes. Some concern must be directed toward Carol because she is shivering now. I put my arm around her shoulders and tenderly draw her close. The trembling increases. She quietly shrieks in her throat. I rub her arm and try to look into her eyes. But they shift away from me as she sucks and chews on her pacifier.

Wall wants to say more. He limps another step toward me, but suddenly lurches to a stop, interrupted by the misplacement of open space. "Hey," his voice is surprisingly shrill, "where's the couch?" He darts a glance at me as if I have it stuffed up under my shirt.

"That's what I was asking earlier," I blankly tell him.

'Tucking Christ!" He limps over to the apartment door and throws it open, sticks his head out, leaning to get a good look up the hall. He shouts a threat at someone who isn't there, some thief who has already escaped. Limping back in, he uses both hands to slam the door.

"The couch," he accuses, kicking the wall with his plastic toes. The toes sink in, get stuck deep in the hole he's just made. Wall struggles to pull them free. Holding his plastic leg, he tugs and tumbles backward, whacking his head.

"Getaway from me," he says, pulling his arm loose when I bend to help him. "You're nothing to me. You know-it-all freak" He yanks the toes from the hole and rolls over on his belly, pushing himself up with his palms. On his feet, he kicks the heel of his plastic leg against the floor to straighten the hinge at the knee. "You're nothing to me Henry. I don't know why the hell I kept you around for so long. I should've drowned you in the toilet for being the way you were. So fucking perfect all the time. Trouble. Thinking you were better. Always saying things to the others. Correcting them. Teaching useless crap they'd never understand. You do something, you teach them the rules. That's all they need to know. The rules to get by. That's everything. They get by. You remember that. Kig's my only real son now. Carol over there's my daughter, and Doreen's my wife. She's your. mother, yes, okay. But I won't claim to be your father any more. I know why you don't need me. Because you're crazy, that's why." He storms around the apartment, looking for a place to stop, but he keeps limping, circling, questioning the floor. "I don't know where you came from."

"I know all that, Wall." I stare at the bedroom door. The crying has stopped and I understand that Mom and Kig are just holding each other now, eyes wide open and glaring into the flesh so close to them, not close enough, and wondering, expecting the worst.

Wall stops, then swings his leg over near to me, studies my eyes.

"You're crazy," he says, nodding once, solid, to confirm this indisputable fact. "You think you're the best, that's why. You're the worst thing I've ever seen."

I watch him, inspecting the disbelief in his face, wait for more.

"You think things are so simple. Black and white." He draws back his fist and swings for the side of my chin, but I dodge him and he skips to keep balance, topples. When his body pounds the floor, I hear a quiet gasp from Carol. I look over and her fingers are straight, her jaw working frantically, shifting the nipple around in her mouth as if struggling to escape. She stares at me, not even noticing Wall, only feeling the sound of how his body has struck the floor, sensing the violating rumble against the bottoms of her bare feet.

Wall stays down and spins in circles, cursing and kicking, spinning around and around, his jaw slashing like a mad dog's.

"You ... ahrrr ... worst , he sputters, "the worst ... hhhhorrible..

I edge away from him, move for the bedroom door. It opens easily and I step in to face stillness and quiet. At first, I think Kig and my mother are gone. For an instant it seems as if they have disappeared, but then - as I step closer - I notice the two lumps under the twisted bedsheets.

The noise behind me has subsided. Wall has spun himself out, uncoiled all of his cursing and agitation. I glance back to see him lying there on the floor, staring mutely at the ceiling. His chest rises and settles with calming breaths.

"Doreen?" he quietly mutters. His throat moves as he swallows. He wipes at his eyes, whispering, "Kig? Carol?"

I step closer to the iron bed. Two bodies beneath the sheets, secretively attempting to hold onto the air they must draw. The covers stir as one of them carefully shifts. The cautious sound of contained whimpering.

"Come on now," I say. My fingers ache with impatience. They reach down and whisk back the sheet.

I see what I expect: my mother and Kig, naked and desperately hugging. Kig's flesh is loose and white, my mother's loose and pink. Their eyes are scrunched shut, jamming tighter when they feel the cool untroubled air coaxing them to press closer.

I ask no questions.

My mind has learned to accept what it sees, insisting that I have never been startled by the images facing me, nor by the actions that can follow. I am rarely touched by emotions, but I sense things all the same: a cool damp hand against the back of my neck. The weak grip that I recognize as Carol's. And I am right. I am correct. She is standing there when I turn, her stubby fingers jabbing, needing to force the pacifier between my lips.

This story is from a forthcoming collection of short fiction by Kenneth J. Harvey.


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