Craig Davis is the author of Ramshackle Wonderlands. His stories can be found in recent or forthcoming editions of The New York Tyrant, News From the Republic of Letters, Monkeybicycle 7, and elsewhere. He lives in Kansas City. For more on him and his work, visit his website.

We’ve published two more stories by Davis: “The Shadow Knows the Corner, the Corner Knows the Dust” and “Hardship.”

Applied Exhaust Theory

posted Mar 8, 2011

The deepest part of night passed. Monica came up the stairs a little drunker than she wanted. Her shirt front smelled like rubbed on man, her breath fruit rot. A man had dropped her off in front of the building. Mark, maybe. She should have let him walk her up to the apartment, but that kind of theater seemed unnecessary. She wanted to lie down on her bed with the smell of him all about her, though. Or the smell of men, some man. She wanted to dream a little about men, and drift off. She wished she were soberer, but she was glad she could be alone for a bit before sleep. This man would call in the morning—probably Mark, she reminded herself—and he would tell her his name then. Usually it was the first thing they said when they talked.

She was glad now not to have to listen to a man talk, but to still get to smell one on herself. I should brush my teeth, she thought.

The first part of morning at the end of night feels like a kind of big noise is happening, but without any sound. The weight of the air changes. Full morning would be upon her in a few hollowed out minutes. She tried to wish herself sober so she could feel the exhaustion creep into her—a slow, sex type feeling that started in the arches of her feet and behind her knees, the valley of the spine... all her hollow places. The washed out ache of the forgotten muscles she'd used in bed. Strange small muscles in her lower back and the ones where her hips met her abdomen.

She sighed in the fluorescent light of the hallway and dug for keys in her purse. Without knowing why, she startled. Spun around. Behind her the hall looked flattened and shallow. The light seemed to have soaked into the space where shadows should be. Textured walls and the narrow, brown boxes of doorways framed a split flight of stairs: half leading down, half leading up. The stairwell sheltered the only suggestion of depth in the scene. Her shoulders relaxed. She felt a sheer wisp of disappointment slip from her body. The hallway was as empty as when she'd passed. She swore, though, she had seen or felt something there behind her. Maybe it was a ballast flickering or a door opening somewhere in the building that she couldn't hear. Some change in the weight of the air. Maybe it was time, breathing.

That used to happen around Jacob. The pressure in the room would change when he walked in. Even outside, clouds and light and the churning white noise of the world would pulse a little when he came into it.

She exhaled. She stopped as she got the key in the lock, paused before she turned the knob, looking down. Her hair fell beside her face. She was blindered, off balance, drunk, vulnerable. Her guard was down. Now would be the time to slip up behind her and take her by the shoulder and turn her. She would gasp, but would not cry out. He would stare at her without speaking, his eyes floaty in their fleshy lids, whiskey on his breath. Jacob. She'd practiced how she would look at him. No feigned lack of recognition. No surprise. No artifice. She'd practiced. Just a very neutral size-up, a nod—not quite curt, not quite not—to show she'd been expecting him to come to her in the night, some night. Whatever weird, mildly sloppy shirt he'd have on. His comfortable belly and his broad shoulders and his thick tined ribcage. She knew just how much wistfulness to allow in her gaze. She was ready for his hand. She waited. But again it didn't come and she turned the knob. A little too drunk, maybe. And too flushed still with the rut, and the scent of her new choices tussled in the velvet of her brunette hair and the haphazard buttoning of her blouse and the hand sized welt on her buttcheek.

She looked down. Maybe there'd be a letter on the floor. Slid under her door, spotlighted on the dark stage of the living room floor. But the light caught nothing but the nap of the cheap carpet. She dropped her purse on the little table and hooked the door chain behind her. In the dark she felt her way along the hallway to the bedroom. Her roommate was snoring behind the door as she passed. She felt a quick pulse in her throat. Vomit or a sob. She sometimes couldn't tell. It passed and she got to her bed. She pried off her mules and unbuttoned her blouse again. She caught herself wishing Mike or Mark or whatever were here to take off her clothes for her, then leave so she could sleep.

She lay down, awash with the internal slipperiness of hard liquor and sugary mixers. A little sore now, already. Her roommate's snoring was escalating. Occasionally it caught, paused, then resumed. She snores like a man, Monica thought, nestling into her pillow.

Sleep began to gather in the room like the nightmares of children, but disappeared every time she drew near it. Something in the folds of light was hiding. His noise and his skinfeel on her fingertips, his boyish, diffuse discomfort and his occasional hardheartedness. Somehow the memory of these things had followed her, stalked her, found her out, as though she were the one hiding... hiding here, in her own apartment, in the room in which she slept. Jacob lay in wait—or the memory of him did—in the valleys in her body where sleep slips in, in the folds of light in her room. Now, when she was drunk and exhausted, when she'd waited for him to find her so many other times... now, he made his presence known, and for once she could not sleep.

There was no one to call at this hour. Usually she had wrapped into the warmth and breathy funk of sleep by now, and woke in the broad, open light at midmorning, to pad about in the comfortable business of her life. Usually the sun was on her side and the night time was full of other distractions: the rest, the roosterism of boys, the restoratives that women learn to keep in reserve—mothers and blood and comfort. Secrets among the many more. Now she was awake without the world to happen all around her like a blanket for the waking mind. She was bored. She waited.

The popcorn ceiling cradled her thoughts and half dreams and slowly she could feel sleep coming in like the dew between the hills and gathering the room into its flat blue gray. If she paid no attention to it, she could feel it creeping closer, as though it were an animal slinking toward her when her gaze was averted. It would startle and freeze and retreat if she were to look at it directly. Finally it displaced her ambling thoughts, the leftover smells teasing her nostrils, and the discomfort of desire on the skin of her mind.

A loud, barking voice outside her window pulled her up from some start of dream. She sat upright and leaned to peek out the window by her bed at the asphalt parking lot and the long, low row of carports. She couldn't see anyone at first. But she was looking for Jacob. He would be standing down there in the gravel and the scrawny spirea at the bottom of the stucco paneled wall, hands in his pockets, elbows locked. She slid open the window and leaned her head out to look down. The sidewalk was as empty as a hallway. She wondered if maybe Mark or whatever had come back to beg for one of those miserable, second pass, morning time dry fucks. The first date boys can't give up on those.

When she heard the woman's voice it was thick and reigned in for quiet. Even so, it was dense with intensity and Monica scanned the lot until she found the source of all that bunched up, muffled rage. There were two bodies leaning over the roof of a little car not far from her window. She couldn't understand why she'd missed them. It was not Jacob. They were two just out of highschool kids—the boy skinny with a big pile of curly light hair and the girl in a wife-beater with big old fake boobs mashed onto the top of the car and her hair was piled up and trashy.

Without thinking, because they were young, and because the boy didn't look like him and the girl didn't look like the kind of girl he'd like and because the car was little and newish and probably foreign, she leaned out the window to hear better. Jacob liked short girls, a little round, girls with the kind of asses black guys drool over. He hated fake boobs. He'd sometimes check out trashy girls, but she only ever saw him look—really look—at the cuter ones, not the whore-looking hos like that one down there. But maybe when she saw him next he'd be with a slutty girl, though. She kind of liked that idea.

Jacob and her had been out to eat once in a phony little bistro-type place in a strip mall in his home town. The kind of place with one wall yellow and one red one and polished concrete floors and arty sticks and twigs in square vases on the tables. Jacob's eyes kept drifting over her left shoulder. It was early for dinner, they were going to a movie or something. The light was coming in from the big window in the front and now it nested in the peachy hairs above the shave line on his cheek. It was bright and his skin was drinking in the color of the fall, the tone of that part of the earth, with its easy dun color and its russet and a color that gold wishes it was. A color that the uninterrupted sky ushers into the world there in late September. A light the people of that place never leave when they leave there. A light that makes them ashamed to have ducked such beauty.

Monica had had on a sweater and she knew her boobs looked good that night because she was about a month and a half pregnant, just starting to plump and push against her bra and it was sheer and she was probably even nipping out a little... it was cool in the evening already, and the restaurant had front windows that opened like garage doors. So she had wondered what he was looking at, but she didn't say anything or turn around, because the last time Monica did that, it was a painting he was staring at, and he made her feel like a jealous bitch for asking. Instead, she excused herself and went to the bathroom down a long hallway at the back of the dining room and when she came back into the room he was looking and it was pretty easy to see at what. The girl he kept sneaking looks at was just barely officially fat, which Monica had actually found pretty comforting, given her situation. The girl had a tall, slightly shiny forehead curtained by very thick hair the color of iced tea in the sunlight. Monica had to admit her wide eyes were absolutely gorgeous, almost Russian in that almost Asian way. She was dressed like a girl who just put on ten pounds and hasn't quite had the courage to buy herself new, bigger clothes. As Monica watched, the girl pushed out a loud stage laugh with her head thrown back and her throat on display and laid her hand on a man's shoulder. When the girl settled down she gave the guy what they both probably thought was a real fuck me look, but first she eye checked Jacob to make sure he was still trying not to watch. Monica snuck up behind him and laid her chin on his shoulder and stared right at the little slut until she looked back over at Jacob again and saw Monica's face next to his and then, while she held the girl's surprised gaze, Monica mouthed the word bitch in as brazen a way as she could muster. The woman rolled her eyes and turned back to her gayish man.

Jacob had leaned his head on the side of Monica's face and he must of known she immediately lost her hot rush of rage.

"Highschool girlfriend," he said. Monica patted his back like a teacher and sat down. Then she turned her whole body in her seat, resting her arm on the low back of the black wooden chair and gave his highschool sweetheart an up-and-down so catty she was a little embarrassed and a little proud. The woman looked away again quickly and Monica saw her in profile. Definitely pretty. In her way, she looked very... open. Maybe a little desperate for attention, but those small town bitches never learn there's a world that cock can't give to you. She turned back to Jacob.

"Cute," she said. "What's her name?"

Jacob raised his eyes to meet hers and in a little panflash she saw a pleading, terrified look there. He didn't want to say her name. She felt ashamed for him. Of him. Maybe she'd never seen real weakness in him before. It turned her stomach a little. She suddenly wanted to hurt him. But before she could figure out how, the look in his eyes passed. Cool came into him and the light squeezed in around his heavy shoulders like a flex in the air and he said the girl's name without a trace of emotion. Monica wanted to grab those ball-shaped humps of shoulder and straddle him and fuck his brains out right there. She was pregnant and for those few months there were moments like that, throbs of inchoate, consumptive, fundamental LUST. She drained her glass of red wine at a swallow and squeezed her thighs together under the table and it, too, passed. His eyes flipped between hers and her tits in that sweater for the rest of the meal.

So she knew Jacob wouldn't have given the little ho who was now in her parking lot a second glance. Her little girl's voice was curling up into the air, unraveling, gathering volume, velocity, and ferocity as it rolled up into the thinning sky.

"Fuck you, asshole," she was yelling.

The boy threw his hands in the air and turned away.

"O no," the girl called out, "You are NOT walking away from me after what you just said to me, you arrogant dick. Do you hear me, John? Do you, huh? You pussy. You, you faggot."

The boy kept going, turning up the pavement and walking down the middle of the lot, toward the sun, although he probably didn't know it. He laced his fingers together and hung his arms on top of his skull, shaking his head as he walked. The girl came around the corner of the car and ran after him as fast as she could in those heels, yelling. The boy started up a stairway between two of the carports, a stairway that led to a patch of packed dirt and Bermuda grass were the people in the building all took their dogs to shit.

The girl caught up with him as he took the stairs two at a time and gave him a two handed shove on the ass. She lost her balance, too, and together they stumbled down onto the concrete steps.

Monica felt a smile tighten her cheeks. She let her eyes close, like a slow blink. She pulled the warm summer air in through her nostrils and felt her nares flare like she was wrapping up a yoga class and her mind found the memory she wanted to match the moisture in the strange, early air.

I am behind you. I am drunk and you, my love, you are a man, drunker than me, your arms are bare in that shirt with the little sleeves that I love so much. I have been leaning my head against the passenger side window in your car, watching your arms on the steering wheel. You actually have a farmer's tan. It's a big bench seat, vinyl. You were sliding that huge, old car over the streets and I am not sure how they got so wet. It hasn't rained. I can't remember where we've been, but now we are home, at your place—the old, brick place you had in midtown with the balcony and the tall white colonnades and the galley kitchen. I am behind you on the uneven wooden stairs. The railings have great, thick coats of cream colored paint on top of paint on top of paint. The woodwork and the walls are the same cream color and everything is crooked and out of whack. Your butt looks good. So I lean forward and give it a little bite. Maybe too much. I am drunk. You slap my face. A knee-jerk reaction and even I know it, but when you turn your eyes are filled with apology and for a second I'm afraid you might cry and fuck up the whole moment, because when your hand popped my cheek a little synapse sent it straight down to the center of me and I felt like a strobe light lit up the deepest part of my pussy, my womb, my gut. So I take a step up the stairs and before you can say anything I let my hand float up and snap across your face with almost everything I have and you grab my cheek with your thumb on my jaw and your rough palm pressing against the side of my neck and kiss me in a way that makes me feel like you are just barely able to keep from consuming me, from stealing the air from inside my lungs. I don't even know if we closed the apartment door. It wouldn't have mattered because we were loud and there are no walls to damp the noise that I made that night. It must have been like a light that burst forth from my throat. I felt like I had vomited burning sun and like the stuff in my organs had been squeezed out like a toothpaste tube. You acted weird for days after that. I was sore in the anonymous muscles of my hips and back and belly.

Monica did not open her eyes. She did not stop breathing. The kids down in the parking lot were making noise but something was muddling it. She thought, maybe the sun is slipping over the treetops. There were ashes and lindens and a sweetgum whose smell she had never noticed until that second. When Jacob lost his lease on the little apartment in midtown, they'd rented a big shirtwaist house in a shit neighborhood because he loved it there, around the Mexicans, their round little women, their food smells in the summer, their awful music and their huge clownish cars. She loved it, too.

There was a sweetgum in the tree lawn and a stained glass window in the stairway and there was a grain pattern in the tiger oak balustrade and she could call to mind the details of that stairway, down to the number of stairs and which ones creaked and the third one above the landing had a cigarette burn in the runner that looked like an eye. But she couldn't, could not recall the whole denouement part of their relationship with anything but the vaguest chronology. In this light she was in now, light that grows by the blink but never changes when you look into it, she knew that was the part he must remember most vividly—her coldness, all the phone calls, his yowling, his abject begging, how she'd felt herself harden as he prostrated because it was the only way she could maintain his dignity for him and preserve her memory of him as a man and not a simpering pussy. She knew he dwelt on these things for a long time after and probably still does now and again. But Monica remembered only a few things and those very rarely and a lot of them were things she remembered with her fingertips and her palms and her skin and the part of the human being that is not a mind or a heart or a soul or a vagina but a kind of marker in the spaces of time and whose only manifestation is the pushes and the pulses in the light behind us, around us, in us.


Monica opened her eyes and the kids were sitting, the girl in the boy's arms, sobbing. He reached up and wiped a tear from his own eye. The sun was in the linden. The shape of the world to come was obvious. The boy whispered something to the girl and pointed at Monica. She followed his finger and rose to her feet, tossing her little fists down at her sides like a toddler.

"Mind your own business, bitch," she yelled. The boy stood and shushed her and began to usher her back toward the apartment building. Monica noticed an old sedan parked under the awning and she squinted into the darker shadows there, where the night was cowering still. Maybe there was a man's head on the driver's side. Maybe. It was hard to tell. She had leaned half out the window to crane her neck and she felt a little breeze tease the collar of her t shirt. She looked down and the v-neck of it had opened and swung down revealing her right nipple. She tugged the collar back into place up and stood up back inside her window. She padded down the hallway to the bathroom to brush her teeth.

Afterwards she peed, ran a cup of water from the tap, pinched her pill from the little pill wheel and swallowed it. She could taste the river in the water. When she lay down, the end of night gave in—collapsing around her—and it was suddenly the real, open morning. She pulled the light cotton sheet over her, bright white and unscented of men or history. Clean. Slightly chloric. With a breath, rest came into her body and right before the blue corners of her room faded away to sleep and truer dreams she felt his shoulders in her shoulders and the pull of their weight tugging at her neck muscles. And then she felt it dissipate like sweat from her forearms after a jog, when the breeze is warm but dry.