I. Warthog * Dimples * Chipping * Strong
He can smell her. Or at least he says he can. She smells like baked warthog with rosemary sprigs, he says, and no one argues. She is his after all. Every night he takes her out from the large bottom drawer of his armoire and feeds her bits of bread. Some evenings they are sourdough and made into balls no bigger than his thumb. Other times they’re white—without crust or crunch. It’s for you, he coaxes, as he unlatches the lock, and she crawls out, cracks her back, and stands up, as though she’s driven twenty miles home from work.
Thank you, she smiles. I like when you feed me.
Next time, the sweet kind though? I like the sugar.
I will lick it off… if you get it. I will lick it off your fingers.
I don’t know.
It’s what we agreed to. You can’t always say no.
But he does, and no one complains. She is his. Did I mention that already? Her name is Amanda, and she used to live in a mansion that had sixteen fireplaces and one dog. It was a husky, until one day it wasn’t. The fireplaces still exist though. They are used every few months, when the heating bill becomes too expensive, and burning logs seems like a plausible alternative. Back when Amanda lived there, she’d cut the logs. She’d go out with an ax and picnic basket and spend the entire day chipping. When the trees toppled over, she’d drag them home for fire. She was always dragging those days.
She doesn’t do that anymore. She’s housebound now. But when he is stroking her hair in-between feedings, she remembers. His fingers remind her of the stout mushrooms that grew alongside the tree roots and anthills. They had the same hinge of a knuckle, and when she stood close to them, they uncurled themselves and stood a bit straighter.
Do you want more? He wipes a crumb from her chin.
No, I’m full.
You don’t eat enough. You are willowing away.
Is that so bad?
Yes. He runs his fingers through her hair. They get tangled in hazelnut nests. Yes.
The neighbors watch him caress her through holes in the walls, and some, who don’t have the button-sized holes, push their ears against the plaster. The ones who can see know that she has two dimples tattooed to either side of her mouth, and when she eats the bread her dimples stretch like c-sections against her cheeks. Sometimes they wondered why she got the tattoos, but that was before she lived in the mansion—and no one knows anything about her before that. She was a leader, they whisper. Just look at those marks. She ate men’s hearts and spit them out like loose teeth.
The ones who don’t have holes don’t realize she’s the same girl as the one who lived in the mansion. They think of her as a mouth, ear, nose, hair, and meat—and shrug when folks say she was a leader. It’s hard to picture beyond the basic features. But even they sometimes imagine her smell. Andrew, they say, because that is his name. Can you tell us what she smells like again? He doesn’t answer these sorts of questions. They make him confused. Men shouldn’t be confused. Men are tough. They roast warthogs and do not feel guilty. Andrew is a man. He is a manly man. He has stubble that he shaves twice a week, and earwax that is so thick he has to clean it out with ballpoint pens. When he takes off his shirt, the neighbors who peer through the holes clutch their palms tight and pray. When he takes off his pants, they kneel and swoon.
Did you see that last night?
Did I see!
I wish it would happen more often.
He changes his shirt every other Monday (his pants even less). Instead of washing it, he throws it in a large bin. Sometimes his shirts are torn because he is a laborer. Lifting, trucking, and moving. He wasn’t always a laborer. He used to be out of work, and he had to wear the same shirt every day for years. Jobs were scarce, especially for men like him. Not for strong women though. When he first saw Amanda chipping bark with an ax the size of her shoulder blades, he thought it made sense that she was one of the few with a job. She was strong, she had breasts, and she could chop. You are strong, he announced. Strong. She had hair chopped to her chin and a nose that jutted out so far he wanted to press it back in. He didn’t of course. He kept his hands to himself because he’d thought she’d chip him in two if he dared.
She didn’t hurt him though, and she wouldn’t now. Sometimes it is hard for him to remember that because if he were she, then he would’ve bashed in her skull. He wouldn’t sit there, willowing away until hair roots smelled like rosemary. He would fight. Maybe it had to do with his personal history. Life had always been tough for men like him. Isn’t that what his father always told him? We won’t bring his father into it. The point being that when he’d first seen her, he’d thought she’d be strong enough to resist. She’d be strong enough to keep chipping and chopping until the tree fell down on his head, and he was left with a concussion.
II. Notes * Couches * Trucks * Babies
Andrew didn’t lock the dresser, even though she left him three notes on the mirror that told him to. (She rewrites them every night during her bathroom break.) He thinks about the post-its as he carries plastic couches from the warehouse to oversized trucks. Her handwriting flares to the left too much, and sometimes he has to squint to decipher the letters. If you don’t lock me, I will go back, one of her notes said this morning. When he saw it, he thought about the mansion and the squatters who were chopping down trees. They wouldn’t remember her anymore, those squatters. They’d been too young. Not that she was old. Just they’d been doe-eyed in comparison.
If she went back to them—he shouldn’t think like that. He married her, after all. They have a ring, dead car battery, and photograph to prove it. She’s housebound now. Should she leave, she’d be up for larceny. But too often he has started to think of the warning notes as beckons of hope, as signs that her strength is still in her. Maybe today she will finally crawl out, he thinks. Maybe she’ll grab the ax from the garage and destroy the lock, my dresser, and the photographs. She’ll be strong again. Strong enough that when the neighbors point her out to the police, she’ll chip them. Strong enough that when I visit her at the mansion, she’ll chop me in two.
We’re impressed. Olay interrupts his thoughts.
Impressed with what?
We hear you’re keeping her well, Olay says. You’re holding down the fort.
We don’t have a fort.
You know what I mean. She was a strong one.
Olay is Andrew’s boss, and he helps him with the extra-large couches that have cream pinstripes. It normally takes both of them to lift the couches out of the warehouse, and they’re both stumbling by the time they reach the oversized truck. Olay’s arms bulge twice as big as Andrew’s, and sometimes Andrew is jealous. He wishes his arms would bulge like that. That would prove he was even tougher. Not that his arms compare with what he has below.
How’s your, you know? Andrew asks because it is the polite thing to do.
She’s good. Thanks for asking. I only take her out twice a night now.
You stroke her hair?
Yeah, I still do. Even with the baby and all.
Andrew bites his lip, and the pinstripe couch nearly falls. I forgot you had a baby.
Andrew doesn’t like to think about babies. He pumps his muscles, so the couch is even again. They are almost at the loading dock. The driver, who is his boss’s boss, is honking so loud that Andrew wishes he’d forgotten to clean out his earwax last night. Babies. Don’t think about babies. He pushes the couch into the dock and thinks about Olay’s woman instead.
Olay caught his woman fishing. She was swimming in the river without any clothes and only feet for paddles, when he snagged her on a line. She fought him when he reeled her in, and her feet kicked the rocks so hard they bled. You’re strong, he said (or at least that’s what he said he’d said). You’ll make a good woman.
I am one, she spat. Don’t you go calling me what I already am.
Then he kissed her on her wet lips, and all the fight drained out of her. (I thought you said she was strong, Andrew had argued when he first heard. In the retellings, he didn’t argue. He just listened because he thought he finally understood.) Olay took his woman home in a cooler meant for large trout. He swears she still lives there instead of the traditional latched dresser. She prefers it. Just like she prefers raw fish to bread and bathing to stroking (though he still strokes). Variations are allowed, and Olay’s wife is a variation.
Olay pulls out a bottle of tanning oil from his pocket. He rubs it on his forearms before heading back into the warehouse to grab another couch. Andrew lumbers behind him and flexes his muscles. He flexes them to an army count. One, two. One, two. What would Amanda say if she saw him flexing his muscles in a warehouse full of pinstriped couches? Back when he first met her, before he kissed her and all, she’d probably say he was a good-for-nothing-hulk-of-a-man. She’d pull out the mustard she carried around and spray him in the mouth until he was on his knees begging. A man can only take so much mustard before his eyes turn yellow and his fingers tremble—and she had dozens of mustard bottles in the picnic basket she always left on the ground.
Olay turns, catches a glimpse of the flexing, and shakes his head.
Andrew doesn’t stop. One, two. One, two. What would your woman say if she saw me?
That you need a baby. You should have one by now.
You’re old, Andrew.
Amanda doesn’t want one.
She doesn’t? Olay chuckles.
Well, um, I guess she does. I just…
All women do.
Want a baby?
Don’t sound so shocked. That’s why they agree to it all. It’s in the contract.
Andrew is not shocked. Wasn’t that why Amanda had married him in the first place? Hadn’t she said, I’d give this all up if you and I became three. And hadn’t he said yes? They’d been sitting on tree roots, eating mushroom sandwiches, when he asked her. No fishing line involved. Her hair, loose, had fallen into her mouth, and she’d been chewing on it as though it was part of the sandwich. You have something there, he’d said. But she kept on chewing, staring at the crusted sun, and balancing her mustard with her open hand. I can get it if you want. His thumb pushed the single strand away from her lips, and she turned to him with her dimples.
Do you think they would agree to it all without the baby part?
I think Amanda would have, Andrew says.
She wants a baby, Andrew. That’s it. She’ll live in a dresser forever if you give her one.
I guess. She’s not so strong anymore. Andrew lifts the end of a couch.
She’s starting to smell like baked warthog.
There’s no better smell.
III. Dresser * Battery * Hollow * Ants
Amanda, I’m home. Andrew sets his paycheck on the kitchen table.
You forgot to lock me this morning, she yells.
You shouldn’t do that.
The neighbors, watching through the holes in the wall, push the flat of their noses against the whitewash. They will discuss this over meatloaf. Don’t you ever forget, they’ll warn themselves. They watch as Andrew crosses from the kitchen to the living room to the bedroom, where he finds Amanda inside the open dresser.
What are you waiting for? You can step out.
You need to unlock it.
It is unlocked.
But it’s not supposed to be. Lock it and then unlock it.
Just step out.
Andrew has his arms across his chest, and his voice is lower than it’s ever been. His face is hollow. It reminds her of the last tree she chopped. It had this hollow space. Raccoons lived in it before she chopped it down. She’d seen the mother and two kits with claws the size of fingernails and noses as pink as tongues. When the tree fell, they jumped out of the hollow space. Andrew had smiled when he’d seen that. You are strong, he’d said. Look at yourself.
She looks at her arms. They couldn’t chop a tree anymore. They’re so thin that some nights she thinks they’ll evaporate into the thick air that smells like roasted warthog and rosemary. She worries that if they do, she’d have nothing to sketch with. In the moments between her waking and his return from work, all she has is her pads of fingers to trace the outline of the box and the hairs of her eyebrows and the lint between her toes. She knows it is important to sketch. It is her duty just as his is to bulk. But that’s only half of his duty—his other half, well, he hasn’t done it yet.
Did you bring the sugared bread?
You thought wrong. I didn’t bring it.
I can still…
It was in the contract. Don’t you remember?
He stands in the doorway. The keys are on his belt loop as they’ve always been. She made them for him after his car battery stuttered. At least you’ll have this, she said because she knew a dead battery meant he’d have to walk to the warehouse every morning. He’d had her clip them on his belt and promised to be the only one to touch them. He lets them hang loose. If she still had her ax and her strength and her job, she could have chopped them away. She shouldn’t think like that. She can’t think like that. She has to pee. Yes, better to think about pee. She only gets bathroom breaks when he is home, and she drank too much water last night after swallowing bread.
Let me out. Can you hear?
Lock me and unlock me.
She hugs her arms around her knees and rocks. The husky rocked like this when he died. Not that she is going to die anytime soon because she is not. But the husky did rock. She thinks it has to do with the feeling, the feeling that things are not right. If they were, then there would be a baby burbling in a highchair and a man who unlocked her every night.
I should have mustarded you when we first met.
You should have.
I should have mustarded you when we kissed.
I should have mustarded you when the tree fell and the husky died.
You still can, you know. You still can.
But she doesn’t know where he keeps the mustard in this house, and her arms aren’t strong enough to lift the bottle anyway. So she tilts her head back and peers out the dresser to the ceiling fan that does not spin. She cannot see him from this angle, but if she did, she would see him chewing a mushroom sandwich, flexing his arms, and rolling sugared bread onto the carpet for ants to eat.
Aleah Sterman Goldin is a recipient of the National Council of Teacher of English Achievement Award in Writing and the M.R. Robinson/National Constitution Center Civic Writing Award. In 2003, she was inducted in the National Storytelling Youth Hall of Fame. She will be spending the next year on a research Fulbright in Mongolia, where she will be studying indigenous bone-setting practices.