I’m on the floor again. Tomorrow when I wake, some deep pocket inside my body will ache and pulse like a dying lightbulb. I’m in the kitchen. The kitchen floor is brown with off-white lines crisscrossing to form a pattern of neat brown squares—a flat plastic imitation of something better. The floor is sticky. It doesn’t matter how often I mop or scrub, a tackiness remains, clings to the rubber soles of our house slippers, the house digging in its claws, reaching, pulling, always, to stay, stay. And I do.
I’m on my belly, my head turned to the right so the left side of my face is against the floor where he held it, but now he’s gone. My left eye is beginning to swell, but out of the right one, I study the gap between the broiler and the floor. It’s a place that, had I not fallen here and seen it, I would never think to clean. There are decades of crumbs and dust and grime; some of it, from us, the tenants of 116 Beechwood Ave., #4 for the past three years. But much of it, I have to assume, remains from renters long moved out and on to someplace better or worse. What, I wonder now, would worse look like? Somewhere without the minimal comforts of the over-achieving furnace or the weak, sputtering window unit that manages only to cool the bedroom in the summer? No home at all is worst, I suppose.
A long time ago, when I was young and unmarried, I volunteered at a weekly soup-kitchen at St. Mark’s Unitarian church. Every Saturday I rose at 7am, no matter how much I’d had to drink the night before or who was in bed beside me. I showered, dressed, and walked the four blocks to St. Mark’s. Once inside the warm, industrial kitchen, I put on an apron, hairnet, and those cheap, thin plastic gloves and got to work. I was the youngest volunteer by a good twenty-years, but I didn’t mind. I liked all the ladies I worked with. They were sturdy and efficient and quick to laugh. And none of them were self-righteous about any of it. It was just a job, a thing that needed doing. People needed to be fed and here we were to do the feeding. We could just as well have been sanitation workers or mail carriers. Everyone who came in got exactly the same thing, no extra scoops or sides for the dirtiest or skinniest or sickliest-looking. All the same for the first pass, to make sure everyone got something. And then, if we had anything left over, seconds could be had, on a really good day, even thirds. Lots of women who came to eat looked like me; black and blue, missing teeth and split-lipped, stinking of sweat and smoke and piss. Some limped, some wore a cast or a sling, all of them had a premature hunch to their spines. We all hated these women. All of us cooking, I mean. Most of the them were mothers. They had grubby, quiet little girls, and loud, wild, sticky little boys. “God,” we said, “putting her children through that. It’s a matter of time before he kills her.” And a few times, he did. Sometimes it was quick and merciful, smothered with a pillow or shot in the temple, but most of the time it was slow and took years.
He could be gone a long time. Maybe all night. If not, it will be late, 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and then he’ll come in quietly, trying not to wake me, but I’m usually already awake or never went to sleep in the first place. He might putter around in the kitchen, eat a spoonful of peanut butter and wash it down with a few gulps of milk, pulled straight from the jug, no glass. Then he’ll take a long, powerful piss, leave the toilet unflushed, and crawl sheepishly into bed beside me.
It’s not that I can’t get up. Sometimes I just don’t see the point. I’ll have to, eventually, to smoke. But I don’t need it yet. We have to do it outside now. I don’t see the point. Beechwood Terrace was New Harlan’s first affordable housing complex. The maze of squat, brick duplexes were built in 1957. Back then, this was the Black part of town. I know. I’ve lived here my whole life. I never left Indiana except for one time in high school. I was on the JV softball team and we went to Ohio to play against Cincinnati. It didn’t seem much different from New Harlan.
Anyway, now Beechwood Terrace is just where poor people live, white and Black alike. My point being there’s over forty-years of smoke in these walls, soaked through past the drywall and into the cotton-candy insulation. There’s no getting that out. But it’s the law. I don’t smoke in my doorway like most. I like to go out and stand near the street. There’s a TARC stop and if it’s empty, I’ll sit on that bench. But most of the time I just stand and smoke. There’s a daycare across the street, and if it’s a quiet day, not much traffic, I can hear the children screaming or laughing. I might spend an afternoon out there if the weather’s good, just smoking until the pack is empty and watching the day go by. But it’s too cold for that now.
I can see the crumbs under the stove, the raised line of grease and dust that begins at the bottom lip of the broiler, but not much beyond. I lost my glasses so often, one day I just gave up wearing them. It turns out you don’t need to see much beyond the length of your own arm when all you do is shuffle from one room to another. It’s just the one car and my license expired years ago. He drives to Wal-Mart and waits in the car while I shop. We go late at night when it isn’t so crowded because I get nervous and I move slow.
When we were first married, I tried contact lenses. If anyone said anything nice about my looks, they talked about my eyes. When I was young, they were bright and blue and clear and big. Open I mean, not buried under swells and folds of skin like now. I wore the lenses on our wedding day and everyone, even his mother, told me how beautiful I looked.
Our first fight, he got me in the eye. I don’t know if it happened right away, or from the swelling, but a lens got pushed up under the top lid and got stuck there. Even once the eye went back to normal, I could feel it back there, just scratching and scraping. I never was able to get it out, but I guess it found a way on its own, or else I just got used to it. Either way, it didn’t seem like the practical choice after that.
It’s starting now. It always starts just beneath my belly button in the place I think of as my womb, kind of a little tickle. I like this part, the soft part before it turns rough and grating. Just this little thrum of wanting. I like to close my eyes and think about it; the sweet, warm smell of them all nestled tight inside that little box like a deck of playing cards. I think about tapping the little box against my palm, scooting the tobacco up, away from the filter. I’ll select one, as if it matters which I pick, as if they are different from each other. It doesn’t matter. Each one is chosen. The lighting can be frustrating. I have good days and bad. Sometimes I get it the first try, other days, my hands tremble and my fingers feel dead and it can take a dozen flicks, more. Today feels like it could be a bad day. But maybe not. Maybe I’ll surprise myself and get it on the first or second try, the little golden flame so warm and light. Each time it feels like a miracle. And then the soft crackle, the smell, the warmth full and humid in my mouth. God it’s good. I want to moan. I want to but I don’t. I sigh instead. I sigh like I’m pushing out every breath I’ve ever breathed. I know exactly where they are, sweater pocket, right side, but my hand goes there anyway. I squeeze the box a little. Fifteen or so, almost a full pack. And the lighter is there too, one of those mini Bics, light blue. I make a deal with myself; I’ll smoke one, and then, after I’ve cleaned under the broiler, I’ll have another.