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Today's Story by Sommer Schafer AuYeung

She looked at me with pity and sweetness, as if she were trying to love me.

Things Come to Life

One week after we scatter father’s ashes in Blue River and Sunny returns to his farm in upstate New York, mother takes a sledge hammer to the dark green couch in the guest room. She works on that thing all afternoon, establishing a sleek line of sweat in the space between upper lip and nose, and, by the smell of her, in more hidden places.

At first I help her try to push it out the doorway by taking off the door, but it’s heavy as shit from the bed hiding inside, and the harsh dents already in the doorframe and the opposite wall remind us of father somehow getting it in the room in the first place five years ago. Nearly impossible. So mother pulls off the seat cushions and stacks them outside in the rain-wet driveway. The way she breaths, hair forgotten, face simultaneously pale and flushed, eyes down, I at first fear she is going to put a match to them. She doesn’t. Instead pulls on her boots and tramps out to the shed in the muskeg out back. Comes back with a sledge hammer.

By this time, the couch has started pleading with me; startled me with its whimpering moments after mother left the house. Help me, it said from a place I couldn’t locate, whether it was from the cushions or the back; the arms or the legs; the center of each tiny flower plastered across. I stand there next to it, thinking I had turned the wind outside into spoken word, until help me it says again, louder with a desperation I haven’t experienced even in the movies where the best are supposed to be able to act such things. And, finally, there, underneath it on the green carpet, a growing accumulation of wetness. Oh my god, I shake all over without knowing it and run out of the room, which had been father’s place to watch TV, and up the stairs.

Mother bashes in the wooden stump-legs; takes them right off. But it takes a lot before the nails come out and the legs are laid bare and battered on the dark green carpet. The screams of the couch have turned maniacal, so in the kitchen I grind the coffee hoping to blast myself out of this strange imagining. But when the coffee has been ground, still I hear it, screaming down there. I run to the head of the stairs and yell down. I suggest we wait for Robert to come and help (he took Caleb out to pick up Alice whose old Tercel ran out of gas by the side of the road one mile before the gas station, she having miscalculated how close she was to E), but she says highly, sweetly, no, I just want this thing outta here. I hear her drag it with all her might to the bedroom doorway again, but she must not be able to get it to fit because I hear the couch’s screaming turning higher, I hear it gurgle, and then nothing, as mother slams the hammer, again and again, into its padded arms. Back in the kitchen, I shake the freshly ground coffee into the filter, pour in the water, press the on button and wait for the machine to start burbling and hissing, for the kitchen to fill with the redemptive smell of coffee. It was her time, the coffee machine whispers to me in between great big bursts of final steam releasing out of its top. What? I stare at it; I seem to be challenging it to dare to speak again. It was her time, it says again, more distinctly in the quiet of the post-brew. Even couches can’t live forever. And there I go. You’re ridiculous! I whisper at it, surprising myself, resisting the truth of full vocalization, and realize then that I won’t be able to have that cup of coffee I so wanted. Instead I leave quickly, without a second thought, and go stand in front of the big living room window. I watch the clouds wind around the Pyramid mountains across the bay and wait for the coffee maker to return to its silence.

Just then, Alice, Robert, and Caleb drive up in the Subaru we’ve rented, Alice goes to the back seat and yanks open the door to pull out her enormous basket of dirty clothes that she washes weekly at mother’s house because her apartment unit has a functional dryer but a broken washer. Robert unbuckles Caleb from his car seat in back, and carries him to the downstairs door. The rain falls on his black hair and leaves it shiny and slick. Alice carries her basket with two hands and climbs up the outside stairs to the upstairs door. I hear the clump, clump of her footsteps and feel the house shake upon its foundation in the soggy muskeg. As if the house and we in it were one big heart thumping off-kilter. I wait for the door to open before turning and walking to the entry where Alice is using her toe to pull off a knee-high brown rain boot on the opposite foot. The rain slides from her light green raincoat onto the rug, and even though her hood had been on, her face is speckled in drops and her lashes wet. It is so hard to keep the entry way rug clean. As soon as it stops raining, mother will take it and whip it into the air over the porch railings, over which little rocks and bits of dried dirt will propel. It tends to laugh raucously when she does that, I heard it just the other day. But it’s one of those laughs that sounds like it also could be masking its terror, as if a child caught by a father insisting to tickle without stop.

I smile at Alice, hello, which is my attempt to pretend that mother isn’t down there disassembling with astonishing force a couch that was never meant to be. Or that, since I’ve come, things around the house are coming to life. Bam! Bam! For the quickest second I think someone is climbing up the outside stairs again. Alice says hi and then gives me a look with raised eyebrows, what’s going on? but then turns around to take off her jacket and hang it up, as if not really wanting a response. Sure enough, the door opens and there’s Robert with glossy-eyed Caleb in his arms, looking ready for his nap. Ok, so your mom is destroying that couch down there. And I nod and say I know. Alice looks confused, scared, and amused at the same time, so that she puts her basket down and follows Robert and me to the stairwell. Caleb immediately wants me, and I simultaneously hold him and unzip his little yellow raincoat. I feel the wetness soaking into my shirt. It seeps invisibly under the padding of my bra.

The downstairs hallway is so jammed full of couch that we remain in the stairwell and lean over and around from the bottom steps. I close my eyes, first, and before opening them take a deep breath. I notice the solidity of Caleb’s body rising and falling with me. When I open my eyes I can’t help it. There’s blood dripping down the walls and splattered across the ceiling; enough across the light on the ceiling to cast the hallway in dimness. It smells sour and salty and wafts warmth.

Two days after father’s funeral, the memory of something remarkable sparked me, which was the time father had said out loud after some momentous event (a grade report, perhaps), two decades ago with Sunny, Alice, and I, the five of us around the dinner table: This doesn’t surprise me, he had said with a quiet smile. You three have higher IQs than your mother and me. And I had remembered that because it had been one of the most wondrous things father had said to us, even though in school we had always been “gifted,” but never quite sure of it, perhaps, until that advanced moment, the three of us teenagers, though we are still unsure of it today. Yet there was a sudden pallor that washed across the room—it was our later Chicago rental, the windows open to the sounds of traffic on Foster and the smells of the city and the humidity of summer—as if someone, one of us, were sucking up every last bit of the joy of the moment and exhaling a great anger. I turned to mother, perhaps subconsciously already suspecting, who was shooting father a hostile glance. She sat quietly before getting up to accost the kitchen counters. It was clear to me then that she did not like being included in father’s assumption, and at that moment I hated father for making her feel that way.

I had to be clear about something. So that day, two days after father’s funeral, I asked mother: You once told me I had more discipline than you. Do you remember that? It had been another one of those times that had startled me—mother or father in the rare act of honestly admitting a gift in one of us irrespective of and above either one of them, which heralded our individuality and our ability to rise up and succeed on our own, the prospect of which was something I had never really considered though whose inkling of had most likely fueled in me a restlessness to leave the fold. And mother, standing by the table, the pass-through from the kitchen to dining room laden with boxes of chocolates and flowers and cards, looked at me confusedly, and whether the confusion was sincere or not was hard to tell, a pattern of passive dishonesty I was beginning to see in her for the very first time, though knew, uncomfortably, had been a fact for a very long time. Oh, she stared at me with crossed brows. If I had said that, I was just trying to make you feel better.  I pushed further, though my heart was beating much too quickly, taking me over, as if it had been buried for too long and was pushing its way out violently, vehemently, with a vigor that unsettled me, brought back feelings of guilt for wanting to speak my mind in the process of wanting to know something for certain. So you don’t think I have more discipline than you?  She looked at me with pity and sweetness, as if she were trying to love me. Sweetie, no. Sometimes parents say stuff like that to make their kids feel better. That’s all. I couldn’t bare it, the sudden revelation of my amnesia dissolved; all those years of blissful, blind conspiracy with mother against father and the world.

Behind the pieces dripping in red is mother, face now completely rosy except for a white-as-snow forehead. She is breathing hard and leaning against a wall, the sledgehammer hanging from one slack arm. Ok, that’s done, she says and gives a half-smile without meeting our eyes. They seem to be trained somewhere else, the opposite wall or the floorboard or a dusty corner. Or internal. No one even has to ask. You take that, she says to me pointing to the pile of wooden stump legs and long screws by the side of the wall, and Robert, you take these, and Alice, help me with this. Robert and Alice grab their boots and climb over the pieces of the thing, leaving squishy footprints in the bloody carpet that disappear as soon as they appear. Ooooh, I hear the carpet moan. I carry Caleb to the guest room and tell him to stand on the recliner and watch us through the window. Watch us carry out the couch! I tell him cheerfully so he won’t cry when we leave. Tell him not to fall, the recliner’s bass voice doesn’t surprise me at all.

We carry it all out to the end of the driveway where the garbage truck will pick it up on Wednesday. Should we just leave it here? Alice asks. Why not? mother says a little too loudly, whipping her head around to look at her. Why shouldn’t we leave it here?

Caleb’s little round head is barely visible from above the bottom of the window. He’s watching us return. Once back inside, I rush to him. The walls and carpet and ceiling have sucked up all the blood. There isn’t a trace anywhere. Instead, the guest room looks surprisingly empty, though there is still a dresser, TV, and recliner. They have started weeping profusely. It is the place father liked to come to when he was alive. There where the couch was is a great big space of carpet streaked by cat fur and dust, slowly growing soupy with tears. There is a small patch of mold on the wall, now revealed. Mother can’t believe that mold; doesn’t understand where it came from. Maybe having more people around here the past week has increased the humidity down here, she rushes to the window and slides it open, and that one simple act sends the mold into fits of deep, belly-bubbling laughter.

Before we know it, mother is vacuuming with quick urgent strokes the cat hair and dust and anything else left there invisibly behind. Then she is in the shower. And before we know it, Alice’s dirty clothes are humming in their dirty water in the washing machine.

A week later, we are still there. I tell mother the toilet isn’t working well. It takes me two sometimes three flushes to get anything down, even the pee. Oh, just take it, she says, take it like this. She pushes past me, grabs the metal handle, and throttles the thing. Clang! clang! clang! it goes. And I feel for that rusty chain inside being shaken out of its identity. Into something horrific and bad and conspiratorial. I’m taking you down! it says to the toilet, to me, to us. See me all rusty and nasty and breaking? It ain’t just me anymore. It’s you! Ha ha! We’re going down, down together. Just watch it happen.


Sommer Schafer is approaching her final year in the MFA program at San Francisco State University where she is working on two collections of stories. You can read her first publications currently or forthcoming later this summer in Barge Journal, Eleven Eleven, kill author, sPARKLE & bLINK, and in Volumes XV and XVII at bangoutsf.com.

This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.  

Read more stories from Action Fiction! productions.


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