ZD-003: My Wounded Specular
A short story by C.E. Alexander
Literary, Short Story
She looks younger today, even if her limp is worse. She has kept that stride and scar since I have known her. You hear of old men who know it will rain by the way forgotten injuries flare up again. Yet the sky is clear, so blue you can almost see through the watch face, right down to the teeth and cogs. But now I am speaking like she does.
Her name is Viola, but we call her the witch. She remembers the future and forgets all else. She makes sure her hair is always black and I dream about trying to keep secrets from her. When one of her shale-gray eyes swells up we joke about crops going bad. She will touch at it and say, “Don’t make me touch it.”
She says, “It’s just a sty. It’s infected.” After that we will pass a wheat field and implore her not to look, clutching our abdomens from laughing so hard. Joel and I do not particularly like each other. We spend every day together, and this is part of it. But joining up against her lets us put the rest aside. We figure our joking will stop the day we wake up with legs of donkeys and our faces switched.
How she favors the ankle starts to concern me. It turns pine-colored, now swells like a buckle in the floor. She produces a crutch: also pine, so you think she should just get on with it and replace the leg from wooden parts.
I say, “Please tell me you’ll get that looked at.”
“More doctors have looked at this than I can say.”
“What do they think?”
“They think Joel needs to be more careful at Västerleden.”
It is a strange thing to say. Every weekday we drive from Norrköping to Botkyrka. Västerleden is a road we never notice, just outside of Vagnhärad. Her condition worsens until she can hardly walk. Now she misses five days of work. When she returns I notice Joel’s second car, not her leg, and he snores momentarily, just after Västerleden. The car flips and she is thrown onto the pavement, wrecking her leg where it was damaged already.
The next day it is healed, perfectly intact. No injury or discolor, and no jokes this time about killing crops with her eye. Her limp is gone. I am too frightened to mention it. Viola, Joel, and I spend over two hours a day on the road together; we spend the weekends driving around, too, trying not to get out of the car that much. We were due for an accident. But she named the spot exactly, within days of the crash. What alarms me more is that I do not believe it. A cat watching a box turn into a jack.
On Wednesday she puts Joel out. He leaves without complaint. She uses my toothbrush, sniffs at my deodorant. Now I think she may be undressing but I do not have the will to look. I hear my bedsprings compress. “Are you coming in?” Within an hour we have laid down together and she has paid me for it. The sum of cash is coldly exact: kr1,652, including the two coins. I believe I am twenty-seven, although Joel has never been sure of my age. Viola is at least sixty. Her breath stayed level while I panted with new sport. She knew my wants as if we were old lovers.
I sit in the stink of tobacco and gin until Joel is back, then act conspiratorial while she showers, now lets her hair dry. Viola and her husband live next door to here and she always leaves before midnight. Joel stays awake. He claims to enjoy the show. All is celluloid for him; living script. Audible music from passing cars, the soundtrack.
When she is gone I say, “She paid me.”
“What, for that? I’m telling you, she always pays you for that.”
“You’ve never told me that.”
“You brought this up a couple of months ago.”
“I’m sure I didn’t.”
“And I’ve never touched that woman once in my life.”
“Again, my mistake.” His eyes rarely change between one mood and the other.
I say, “She’s like a grandmother to me.”
“That’s never stopped you before.”
“I’m serious, Joel. Not tonight.”
“Fine, Nils.” It is a veteran defense, meeting his name with mine.
The news tonight is of the coming recession in the U.S. and U.K. Their stock markets are erratic. Companies will not hire and homebuyers will not buy. Banks will not lend. The binds running from each of these various markets to the other are invisible to me, as are those keeping the two states together. Perhaps I am backwards in my unraucous Swedish nationalism, which keeps me from understanding. But legal tender is not a thing for border crossing. And Justice Holmes has already spoken of taxes.
Even so I think economic cycles of boom and bust would serve Sweden well. Our level hand denies what we are. We grind our teeth for some kind of advancement. That is, other than industrial design and plastic surgery. The correspondent agrees with me. His words are a banquet of savory, vinegar, dessert.
Joel asks me what I am doing with my eyes. I should tell him I am cooking with them.
I have known her for three years. Neither Joel nor Viola speak of it now, but the day we met she was moving to Göteborg. Her mother was ailing and she needed to be close. I had not known there to be residents at all next door. Since my teenage years they had sat in a dark house not twenty meters from ours, making no sound, entertaining no guests. Now these hidden neighbors were noisily leaving, with a constant stream of visitors wishing them well. By four in the afternoon Joel sighed with nicotine and put his glass down. They embraced tightly. Viola sobbed and I believed her to be mad. Her husband Arturo was rigid with me, but Viola’s glance was not rigid.
When we could talk discreetly she said, “I take it this is where we meet?”
“I don’t think we’ve met.”
“It’s Viola, yes?”
“My God, Nils. This is like watching you die.” Understand I had just met her.
She said, “When you see me tomorrow, I want you to tell me.” She put her hands around my neck. You knew from her weight that the sadness had spread to her legs. From her balance, you knew the same of her feet.
She said, “Promise me that you’ll tell me. When you see me tomorrow.”
“Where will I see you?” But the next day the house was lit from the inside, and the moving boxes were gone. She did not mention her mother’s illness, did not speak again of moving. Her husband was still cold with me. She asked me to give him time. Four weeks later Joel recommended her for a job at the warehouse. She has commuted with us since then, and watched me until midnight most nights. Almost midnight.
After two days off we load sleepily into the car. I say, “Is it Friday yet?”
Viola says, “After all these years, I never can get used to that.” She sits in the front passenger seat while Joel drives. I have been denied a license for years now; some procedural matter I never understood.
I sit directly behind her. After our loveplay a few days ago, the seating arrangements seem out of date. But she moves out of reach when I try to touch her neck. Pushes my hand away when I try again.
On Wednesday, a week after the first time, she brings a handful of money again. I see two coins among the bills and am certain of the amount without counting it. Yet when she makes for the bathroom, I do.
I am not quick enough: “I saw that.”
“It’s all there, I swear.”
“I trust you. It was just a bit of a shock last time.”
“Why? I guess last time was the last time?” You can only guess what she means by this.
Then she says, “How have you been feeling, anyway?” This can only mean that I will be sick in a few days. By the weekend I am throwing up, feverish, ranting about ships and livestock and weather that will wipe the topography from the earth. Joel smokes quietly while she packs towels in ice. Keeps my hair wet, blows on my forehead. Her breath smells of Riesling and lipstick. When I was a boy, Joel would blow on my food to cool it. It tasted of nicotine afterward. This way I learned to enjoy food when it was scalding hot.
They talk of a hospital trip and he says, “What a nuisance, though. And all for a stomach virus.”
“But what if it’s some kind of infection?”
I only miss one day of work. She stays with me that day, until just minutes short of midnight.
The next morning I say, “I’m fine for work.”
“Why wouldn’t you be?”
“That stomach thing from the weekend.”
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C.E. Alexander lives outside of Plano, Texas with his wife and two children. He works as a sales manager for a metal fabricator in Dallas, and tweets about everything other than his books @CAlexanderRun. His fiction debut was The Music and the Spires. In July 2013 he published Book of Constants.