Web Of Gold by Rennie Sparks
I had a room in a sooty brick building that leaned forward toward the street as if preparing to collapse. Winter came and stayed, shining the sidewalks dark with ice. The dim courtyard, swirling with garbage, filled up late at night. Angry drunks stood around in drifts of grey snow, screaming and smashing bottles and spitting on the frost-covered windows.
I was happy in that building. I had a pile of blankets, a rickety card table and a Monet print of haystacks I’d found under a bag of rotten onions at the end of a dead-end street.
I lay awake nights in my narrow room, staring up at my cracked and buckling walls, listening to the steam radiator drip and spit – revelling even in the mad silence of roaches whispering across my face and arms in the darkness.
There was a retarded girl, Marie, who lived in a cardboard box in the front hallway. Grey-green teeth speared out between her slack lips as she rushed at people crossing from the stairwell to the front door.
“Gimme ten thousand dollars!” She screamed, grabbing at arms and woollen coats. “Gimme fifty condoms!”
Some nights Marie got locked out of the building, pushed down in the snow by the last laughing drunks heading inside. She’d stand screaming in the frozen courtyard, howling herself hoarse like a starving dog- the wind whipping up her stained raincoat and swirling through her knotted black hair – as one by one the lights darkened above her and she was forced to curl cat-like on the grating above the boiler room, waiting for daybreak and a chance to rush in again as the first of us stumbled out to work.
I drifted from job to job – selling light bulbs over the telephone, offering samples of sausage in shopping malls, watering plants in hospital waiting rooms. Eventually, by eavesdropping on the interviewees before me at a temp agency, I figured out what I needed to lie about in order to secure myself a position as a receptionist for a plumbing supplier. Mostly I did less than nothing, dropping staples out of the window and feeding unopened mail through the paper shredder. As long as the coffee pot stayed filled, and the phone got answered by the fourth ring, my boss was happy. But, the days passed slowly and sometimes, standing in the falling elevator surrounded by smiling workers, I found myself shaking with rage- like a wolf cornered in and poked at with sticks.
At first I consoled myself by stealing people’s lunches from the refrigerator in the breakroom or by flushing felt-tip pens down the toilet. One day after work as I wandered around downtown, an idea took shape.
I went into Marshall Fields and circled the displays, pretending to shop. I grabbed a pair of leather gloves and a fancy electronic day minder and slid them down the neck of a beaded gown. Inside the fitting room, I pulled the gloves and minder from the gown and shoved them down the front of my pants. I buttoned my jacket and walked out of the store.
The next day I took the train out to a Marshal Fields in the suburbs and, after convincing the saleswoman that the items I’d shoplifted were a gift from an uncle who had died in a car crash, I had $300 cash.
I never went back to work. I wandered between the stores downtown and the stores in the suburbs, stealing things hauling them to another store in the same chain then bargaining my way into cash. If I had to, I’d exchange for merchandise again and again until finally I found a department that gave cash. Sometimes, to facilitate the proceedings, I wore a neck brace or a stained bandage over one eye.
I became adept at pickpocketing men on escalators and reading ATM PIN numbers as they were typed in across a crowded room.
There was a fancy, downtown lounge that served a hot and cold buffet during happy hour – Swedish meatballs, Buffalo wings, make-your-own-tacos. I waited for women to head up to the buffet line, leaving their purses dangling, half-open, from the back of chairs.
As the days passed, I noticed a man slumped at the bar behind the hot and cold buffet, rocking slowly on a corner stool as if barely able to hold himself upright. He was sickly, with the kind of pale, mushroom skin seen in people with inoperable tumours. I watched his pathetic attempts to attract the bartender’s attention- stick arms wavering weakly, voice barely above a whisper. I slid down on the stool next to him and held my whiskey to his lips.
His name was Paul and he made his money betting a high-stakes sports pool run by an old Italian from the back of a card shop. I took Paul home with me like you might take home a shell from the beach. I stared at him, turning him over and over in silence. His watery blue eyes opened something in the pit of me until I was covered in sweat. We had slow, grunting sex on my narrow pile of blankets, kissing with open eyes, tongues dragging jagged against the other’s front teeth.
Oh, I became too alive! Each night we shared cartons of milk at my wobbling table, white drops running down our necks. We slept twisted – Paul under me, clinging to my neck as I held his waist firmly in my arms. I clung to him hopelessly like a tree holding on to the last of its fruit.
One night the old Italian sent some men to collect a sum of money that Paul owed and did not have. They sat me on the floor against the humming refrigerator and then beat Paul with a pillowcase full of potatoes. They dragged him up in front of the bathroom mirror and held him a moment in front of the wreck of himself then smashed him face-first into the mirror. They carried him out inside two of my black garbage bags and I never saw him again.
The absence, the hole in my heart. I lay awake at night watching the moon slowly tracing and sparkling the broken bits of mirror in my bathroom sink. The blood dried to brown, indistinguishable from rust.
Each morning instead of heading downtown, I sat at my window, staring down at Marie on the front steps, sunning herself like a lizard in the spring air. She lay drifting in and out of sleep, saliva glistening at the corners of her mouth, fingers tracing the slack weight of her own breasts.
I chased roaches up my walls, fists slamming down on their black feathery shells.
When a cloud of small, black flies began hovering over my last carton of milk, it cam to me – a hole in the heart can be filled with blood.
I dropped puzzle pieces of my shattered mirror slowly into the milk carton then mixed in a few tablespoons of sugar and carried it downstairs to Marie. She drank greedily, swallowing in long gulps then she lay down, drifting into sleep. Back upstairs, I waited.
By nightfall she had begun to scream. TVs blared uninterrupted, doors slammed. Marie’s voice rose higher into the night – like wind through a stand of dead trees.
Eventually she quieted. I crept down the stairwell. Marie was on her side inside her cardboard box, panting like a dog preparing to give birth. Her face and neck glistening. Her hands clenching and unclenching – grasping at the empty darkness. She stared up at me, unable to speak, heaving and heaving with blood pouring from her mouth.
The next afternoon, I walked out of Henri Bendel’s with an 18-carat hatpin under my tongue. The dazzling sun stretched out above the tall buildings like a web of gold. A small cockroach crawled the shaded mouthpiece of a pay telephone and I reached forward, gently taking it up onto my fingertips. I laughed as it crawled tickling up my arm.
“Words that in their everyday surrealism have no parallel in contemporary writing…music that mines the deep veins of fatalism in the Appalachian voice”- Greil Marcus on The Handsome Family.
Rennie Sparks, along with her husband Brett, is a member of the alt-country duo The Handsome Family. Together they have created a succession of highly acclaimed albums including Milk And Scissors, Through The Trees, In The Air and Twilight. Their music is a multitude of things from dustbowl gothic tales of madness and murder to country laments for ghosts and dropouts. It is Americana tempered with dark romanticism, songs where The Bible and the tales of the Brothers Grimm seep into the everyday world. The thread running through them all is Rennie’s poetry. That same strange and haunting near-fairytale poetry, all the more beautiful and unsettling because it mixes the most everyday images with the most surreal and otherworldly.
Rennie described their last album Singing Bones as being intended, “to rip holes between this world and the next with its songs of haunted Wal-Marts, lovers who chase the fire in streetlights, the madness of very deep holes, a lake that can only be visited in dreams and the shadows that whisper inside a modern office building.”
She and Brett live together on a quiet street in Albuquerque, New Mexico where they are currently recording their next album. They also appear in the film Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus, which follows the musician Jim White on a road trip through the churches, coalmines and bayous of the South.
She has kindly allowed Laika Poetry Review to reproduce two short stories, "Web Of Gold" and "4 Piece Dinette Set $799.99," from her short story collection Evil (Black Hole Press).
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Copyright Rennie Sparks 2001