The non-place is unlovely. Atop the mattress factory, I found a door on a smokestack. It opened into a warm closet and I slipped inside. Molly with her face all red held the baby. Our brother Ivan took notes. Along the sea wall stood a coil of rope as high as my head. We climbed inside the coil. We slept there. When Ivan snored Molly shoved him. He woke up and recorded our findings. A berm is bound to occur off the back of an asphalt lot, where no human is meant to step. We stepped there. Beneath the basement windows of boarded-up buildings, crabgrass grows in deep wells. We climbed out along beams and dropped down where no one had dropped down before. At one end of the isthmus grew a ring of dusty blue junipers where not even animals went but we did. Ivan wrote it all down.
We had a house, or our mother Oona did, and the factories were our neighbors. They stood in their drab row, front doors to the sea, choking smoke and breakers, workers going in and out but we never talked to them. From the back lots, mounds of tires, oak pallets, boxes of rubber and leather laces, wire, gears, towers of aluminum piping and mismatched squares of hammered metal. Behind the forbidden pizza parlor, with its blacked-out windows and blinking green sign, greasy cardboard boxes, misshapen crusts for the baby to gnaw. Behind the mattress factory, a mountain of rejected mattresses, a stack of satin flapjacks folded and piled to the roof. Molly, Ivan, and I spent whole damp nights there, the baby tucked between us. Every month a truck came and hauled the mounds away, diesel fuel, men missing teeth, caps smashed down, shooing us away like bad cats.
Ivan tracked our areas of study. We told him what to write. Each time we entered a non-place, we grew stronger. Each time, our powers increased. We made a bargain with each non-place. When we were in one, we were nearly invisible, but the non-place itself was disturbed, awakened, stricken with us. We forced the non-place into existence. We bent it to our will. Everyone needs one thing, and I need one thing too.
For a while, I got the one thing I needed from Oona, and I think this is the same for Ivan and Molly too, though for the baby everything will be different.
Oona laid us out domino-wise around her bedroom, wrapped us in polar fleece and moth-eaten sheepskin. She tacked blankets up on the walls and doors to keep the warmth in. She told us stories. War, disfigurement, isolation, infection, captivity, suicide, lost children. She told us that for each man who did wrong, a punishment must be invented for him, one that fit his crime, but we did not know any men besides the factory workers and we never let them catch us. Still, Oona sat cross legged on her bed, her legs naked, blue veined, her long toes poking through her socks. The room filled with the piquant odor of hair and oil, what was between her legs. She guided her scissors through years of salt-yellowed newspapers, photos of men in military uniform, leaders, landlords, and handsome men too. “Be on the lookout for the one who will harm you,” Oona told us.
“Who will harm us?” we cried.
“This is the news,” she said, smoothing the articles one by one. “This isn’t a fairy tale like the one you’re living in. This happened in real life. Children, this happened to me.” She tossed her scissors aside and thrust her feet into her plastic flip flops, grass green. She screwed in her rhinestone earrings, turned this way and that in the mirror.
“Stay with us!” Ivan cried.
“Don’t beg,” she said. Her eyes met mine in the glass.
“What do you think?” she asked me. “Maybe I’ll get tired of waiting. I’ll go off someday and leave you all my jewels.”
“I don’t care if you do,” I said, feeling the lie of it.
Then, a hard pinch. An open-handed slap. She pulled Ivan’s hair, her teeth bared. Molly shielded the baby. There wasn’t any dinner. We didn’t light a fire. The chimneys were blocked up. We didn’t know any men but we knew that the necessary thing to do was to run from Oona. She always had an enemy, and for long stretches, the enemy was us.
When the baby had learned to sit up on her own, Ivan, Molly and I began the study of abandoning her. We set her down on the slope of the mattress mountain, a gutter, inside the ring of junipers, any one of the non-places we’d tamed. With elaborate and firm farewells, we walked away. She goggled after us, waving once she’d learned to wave, babbling nonsense words, or just as often speechless. We walked until we were out of her sight, and then crept back close enough to observe her. Cats only purr in the presence of humans. We hoped to study the baby’s behavior when she thought herself alone against the world. How long would she miss us? How long before she began to live life on her own?
We didn’t know any men but there was a photograph. It hung askew above Oona’s kitchen stove, grease spattered and mold tinged and my feelings for it began the year I turned fourteen. They began just below my stomach. The man in the photograph was young but then not so young, angry with a wide pale forehead. His dark hair stood in fierce curls. He wore a light suit, a scarf at his neck, and he sat with a hand on his knee, pushing himself forward to spring at me. The whites of his eyes went all around. He glared, but his mouth twisted into a knot of mocking amusement.
I only looked at the photograph when there was food in the house. Then, I stretched a box of minute rice to feed us all, popped corn to soak in powdered milk. I stirred. I looked at that man. A liquid sickness turned over in me. I could smell myself. Once, as I heated instant oatmeal, Oona came up behind me. She looked at me looking. She took the wooden spoon from my hand and used it to slap my ass.
“That man could have been your uncle, but he’s dead now,” said Oona. “He died before you were born. He was unlucky with women. He was cruel.”
She smiled. “Has it started for you yet?”
“No,” I said.
“You’ll feel uncomfortable down there,” she said, “a buzzing. You’ll want something you don’t have the words for. You’ll go rub against a tree or some other outlandish thing.” She handed the spoon back and left me standing at the stove. The starch from the oatmeal hardened to paper. I grew towards his image like a water sprout. The amused mouth, the cruel, shocked eyes. He was never afraid of Oona, not the least bit. I wanted him. If he was cruel, I wanted him to be cruel to me.
Abandoned, the baby’s behavior followed a predictable pattern. Ivan noted it down: she stared at the place we’d disappeared. Then she began to whine. Next, she began to cry in wide, open mouthed gasps, and snot ran down her face, but soon she distracted herself by playing with the snot, stretching it between her palms or sticking it to her face. Tired of this, she sucked on salty pebbles. After a while, she might dig, or roll over and put her fingers in her nose. After a few months of routine abandonment, she learned to crawl. She’d push off in various directions, and poke at things in the dirt. She made strange noises when she believed she was alone. She would hiss, or rattle deep in her throat. With careful cultivation, we believed that the baby might someday raise to all fours, feet and hands flat and taking equal weight, and skitter away, wild. We checked her teeth for signs of sharpening.
We hadn’t been home in three weeks and we were cold, all except the baby, who tunneled into Molly’s shirt when we slept on the mattress mountain. Still, the wind stole her breath.
“Let’s take Oona’s blankets,” Molly said.
“You know what she’ll do,” Ivan said. We knew Oona seethed, hunched in the hammock on the back porch. We knew she paced, watching for us, her flip-flops snapping.
“We’re too fast for her,” Molly said.
“She’s fast,” I said.
“We’re faster,” Molly said. So we came along the back curve of the isthmus until we could pass through the ring of junipers to the house but I stopped.
From where I stood in the non-place I saw a stranger stooped over in the yard, running his hands over the outdoor chimney made of brick, the place where the old house used to be before it burnt. A man with curly hair. He wore a light suit, a scarf at his neck. Molly and Ivan looked over my shoulder.
“A factory worker,” Molly said, but he wasn’t.
“I knew we shouldn’t have come,” Ivan said. The stranger scratched the back of his tangled head. He looked up.
“It’s him,” I said.
“Who?” Molly said.
“My man from the photograph,” I said.
“What photograph?” Molly said. The baby bit her collarbone.
“What do you mean by that?” Ivan said. “What do you mean My Man?”
“It’s him,” I said again, and the man turned and looked into the ring of junipers and he saw me in the non-place.
“Do you live here?” he called. The knot of amusement came into his mouth, the scornful frown, the laughing eyes with the whites all around like the insides of apples. I couldn’t speak.
“Where’s your mother?” the man asked.
“None of your fucking business,” Ivan yelled back. It was the voice he reserved for the public, and it always worked, but the man only laughed.
“Let’s go,” Molly said. I didn’t move.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ivan said, pushing me, but I didn’t know. “Come on,” Ivan said. They waited. I felt their fear. I felt myself become strange to them. The baby mewed. They turned and ran back towards the isthmus. I stepped from the junipers into the sand packed yard. The man smiled at our secret joke.
“I need to know how many of you live here,” he said. “I’ll fix the chimneys so you won’t smother. Who has to breathe?”
“There are five of us who have to breathe,” I said. I wasn’t sure if it was true.
Then from the porch, the creaking of the hammock, the long toes hitting the floorboards, Oona waking up or coming to. She came to the top step. She saw the Chimney Man.
“Oona,” he said.
She changed. Her mouth went slack. Her head fell back as if she’d been struck to sleep. “No,” she said. She took a sweeping step forward and then she dropped down the last three steps. He caught her and held her up, the whole weight of her. One rhinestone earring dropped from her ear. He closed his palm over it in the air. I saw him do that. He held her.
They didn’t look at me. I wasn’t there. The Chimney Man turned Oona roughly forward, and pushed her ahead of him, up the steps and into the house, his palm still closed around her earring. The Chimney Man stayed.
The Unifying system
The Chimney Man was like the trance states that Molly and Ivan were still achieving through the old means: breath holding, induced sleep talking, chanting of the same word over and over again, milk milk milk milk milk. We had carefully tended our areas of study: stalking of the non-place, baby abandonment and cultivation of feralism. We had been working steadily towards a unifying system. I more than anyone had been dedicated. But Molly and Ivan didn’t come back. They left no signal for me to join them. After the Chimney Man came, my methods changed.
I slept in the kitchen, underneath the photograph. I heard the Chimney Man and Oona together, beating, groans, pleading, crying. I let the mice and roaches run across my body. I touched myself. During the day, the Chimney Man never looked at Oona, and I could see it terrorized her. He cleared the chimneys. He mixed mortar in the backyard. Oona paced. I waited miserably in the hammock.
Oona found me there. “I’ve seen how he looks at you,” she kept her voice low. She twisted her one earring. We watched the Chimney Man down in the yard. I was stiff, dazed, hungry, cold. He hadn’t looked at me, not since the first day. But I knew what she meant.
“Have I told you about the thermal pool?” asked Oona. She had. Before any of us were born, Oona dared three men to take her into a thermal pool in the mountains, and one of the men broke his leg climbing down the mountain, and another one was chased by dogs, and the other man was never seen again. Oona told me that story many times. It was her triumph. “I can control men in a special way,” she said. “I’ve been able to do that since I was twelve. Can you do that?”
I didn’t answer.
“Has he touched you?” she asked.
“I hope you disappear,” I said, and she slapped me hard enough to loosen my teeth. Then she straightened her shoulders, aimed her gaze at the Chimney Man’s back. He kept working. “I’m waiting,” she said to him.
The Chimney man whistled a slight tune.
“look at me,” she said. He laid a brick. “Look at me,” she said again.
“What are you waiting for?” I said. “Go.” She hit me again with the back of her hand. I rocked in the hammock, holding my jaw. The Chimney Man never turned around.
Oona’s beauty was a gash. I would never be like that because of the non-place. I was learning to open a book to the middle, scoop out a hollow, a secret spot, burrow myself inside the book, close the book, and no one saw me or the place. I will fold myself away, I will press myself into dough, I will be kneaded into something else. Oona was afraid of that, disappearing, but not me. The next day she was gone.
The Rhinestone Earring
Oona’s green flip-flops were by the back door. The Chimney Man worked down in the yard as usual. The bile in my stomach sloshed. The corners of my mouth tore and bled. I went down the back steps. The Chimney Man kept his back to me. He held a putty knife.
“Where’s Oona?” I asked. He turned to me with round eyes.
“Are you glad she’s gone?” he asked. He put down his tools, reached into his jacket. His mouth twisted into its knot. “Come close,” he said. I came close. “Hold out your hand,” he said. I held out my hand. The Chimney Man dropped the rhinestone earring into it, then grabbed my wrist and held me in place. His other hand ran over the front of my body, twisting and grasping, pushing up underneath my clothes. I held myself rigid, feeling the sweet saliva gush into my mouth as happens before vomiting.
“Do you like that earring?” he asked, amused, his hands rough and prodding, his eyes fixed on mine.
“Yes,” I said.
“I knew you would, you little bitch,” he said, and sent me sprawling. I tasted salt. I got to my feet. I remembered how to run.
The Mattress Man
I searched for Molly and Ivan, but they were not in the smokestack or the rope coil, in any of the ditches, window wells, or in the ring of junipers. They weren’t at the mattress mountain. The winter sun boiled against the factory roofs. I climbed.
Foam steppes, overhangs, slopes of nylon, thread, batting, layering up and up. I had climbed two stories when the mattress edges gathered themselves in a way I hadn’t noticed. I saw a split in the mountain. An opening. It must have been there all along, through all our long nights atop the mattress heap, our scrambles up to the factory roof. All this time, sleeping on top of this mountain, I had never wondered what was inside it. But now I saw a cave.
Two box springs leaned together to make the entrance. I squeezed my shoulders together, and bent forward inside. The opening gave way to a low passage. I grew warmer the deeper I crawled. The plush floor sprung back against my hands and knees, sloped up, over a rise, and after that I couldn’t see anything. I became a mole, with no memory of light, only chocolate, charcoal, coal, tar before my eyes. The mattress tunnel constricted me from all sides. I pushed through it. The channel swerved left, angled down a scant yard, and I came through it into a snug hollow. There I felt the warmth and the breath of another person, of someone who waited there for me. There I met my Mattress Man, who I have loved ever since.
The Pursuit of Sensation
I couldn’t see him, but I could feel him. Before either of us said a word, he let me touch every part of him. I reached my hands under his clothes so I could know what he looked like. His shoulders were wide, his skin rough. He felt furry and ember warm. His thighs were thick at the top, and tapered to knees squat as porcelain bowls. His face was sandy and broad, with eyelashes that closed on high round cheeks. I could feel that my Mattress Man was ancient and filthy. I could feel that he was mine alone and I pushed myself onto him. We yowled and cried out. We filled the room with sweat and stink. After, I waited to see what my Mattress Man would say. I hoped he would say something to comfort me. When he began to speak, his voice was the sea noise I’d known my whole life.
He told me about the pursuit of sensation, the secret truth that people wreck their cars and their ships, impale their feet on rusted metal pipes and step on downed electric lines, or fall to their deaths, just to see how it feels. Whole populations are bit by spiders, caught by manias so that they dance on bridges until the bridges collapse. There are those that try to stop them, but still they cannot stop. They die and other people joined them. Women nurse rats, bolt upright from deep slumber. I lay in my Mattress Man’s arms. We talked about our wedding cake. We talked about feeding it to each other.
“My darling,” he said.
“My darling,” I said.
“My darling,” he said.
“My darling,” I said.
“There are entire beaches,” he said, “where only tennis balls wash to shore. Glasses on the next shore. Bottles on the next. When a person drowns, their body falls to pieces in the water. They dissolve at the joints. The head floats off to one beach. A beach of left feet. A beach of right feet.”
“Why?” I asked.
“People used to think someone was to blame,” he said. “A killer. A monster. But it’s not that. It’s tidal patterns.”
“Take me away,” I said. But then I thought about my siblings, living on pizza crusts somewhere, biding their time. He heard me thinking it.
“I don’t want them,” he said. “I want you.” Again, I turned my body to his.
When I emerged from the cave it was twilight. I made for the isthmus. I came upon the baby first, digging in the sand behind a piece of driftwood. She cawed like a crow when she saw me, raised her dirty hands. I knew Ivan and Molly must be nearby, abandoning her. I lifted her, snot caked and soggy, soaking through her diaper, and I carried her down the beach until I saw them. They stood over a pit with a mattress half covering it. Molly poked a long stick into it. Ivan had his notebook open, writing. I set the baby down. She crept away on her own, snatching at sand fleas.
“What’s the pit for?” I asked. They looked at me, then at each other.
“None of your fucking business,” Ivan said.
But Molly stood with her fingers spread out, raw and red. She asked, “What if we find feet washed up on the beach?”
“Show me,” I said, and so they pulled the mattress back. In the pit, a pile of old sneakers, scrabble of bones and barnacles protruding from each one, a black and green mess inside.
“They’re all left feet,” Molly said. “The baby found the first one.”
“When?” I asked.
“When you weren’t here,” Ivan said. “When you were with Oona and your man.”
“He’s not my man.” I said.
“Is he still there?” Molly asked.
“Yes,” I said. “But Oona’s gone. I came to tell you.”
“Gone?” he said. He looked like the baby then, all chubby and sputtering. “Where did she go?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“It’s because of you,” he said. “It’s your fault.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“It’s because you love that stranger man,” Ivan said. “You loved what they did at night. You probably did it with them.”
I smacked him hard and he stepped back off balance, and he went over like a stone into the pit, sliding down the mattress, and he put his hand into one of the shoes. The baby sat back and wailed, spraying sand fleas down her chin. Molly shrieked and wrenched me back, but it was too late. The edge of the pit gave way, the sand crumbling and cascading underfoot and Molly and I went in after Ivan. All three of us were down there together, the baby sobbing at us from above. Our bare feet slipped down inside the shoes, we could feel the rot between our toes. We could feel the webbing of small bones encased in canvas and leather. We bled from the barnacles, and our blood went into the shoes. I had dirt and sand in my mouth, and the sweet mildew of the mattress. Molly cried, and Ivan struggled grimly next to me. I clutched him by his collar and hauled us both by main strength out of the hole, and then we pulled Molly out after us.
We lay on the beach. We let our hearts slow as a storm came near and circled away again out over the sea. The baby crawled over us, spinning drool down into our faces.
“We’ve got death all over us,” said Ivan.
“We can’t get it off of us,” said Molly.
“Yes we can. Let’s go into the water,” I said.
The breakers rolled in and we ran down to meet them. We jumped over the foam and splashed out into the tossing salt, wheezing at the sudden cold. Ivan swung the baby by the armpits, until she screamed with glee. We formed a circle holding hands, we went out and out, as far as we dared, the swells pushing us back towards shore, then tugging us with them as they swept back. We ringed our baby sister and bobbed her up and down in the frigid salt water. She floated like a jellyfish, and kicked at us, smacking her lips. We didn’t get used to it because you can’t.
The Empty Lot
The baby grew red, then nearly blue, so we lugged ourselves out of the ocean, feeling the lead and drag of near exposure.
“What’ll we do now that we’re alive again?” asked Ivan.
“We need to get warm,” Molly said. “The baby needs to get warm.”
“We could go inside the mattress mountain,” I said.
“Inside it?” asked Molly.
“It’s warm in there,” I said. So Molly put the baby on her back and we ran through the woods, through the ring of junipers, into the factory lot, where two factory workers loaded mattresses onto a flatbed truck, caps sagging, faces slack. We backed into the junipers, the non-place that at one time had made me believe I was safe. The men worked. They dismantled the pile mattress by mattress. I saw the box spring cave entrance go, the foam tunnel floor. Soon, the mountain was gone. They secured the load with straps. The engine roared up, the turn signal flashed right, and the truck pulled onto the road along the shore, the mattresses jouncing, the lot echoing and empty behind them.
“What next?” asked Ivan.
I didn’t know what next.
“We need to warm the baby,” Molly said, shuddering.
Where my Mattress Man had been, a drainpipe spined to the factory roof. There was still a way up.
The Power of the Ocean
I used my flannel shirt to tie the baby to Molly’s back. We climbed the drainpipe. We found our hidden door on the smokestack and we shut ourselves inside the broom closet where it was warm. Within that non-place, the baby slept, nodding until bubbles spilled from her mouth. We felt the factory steam course around us, heard the clangs and chugs from below. Ivan and Molly talked to each other all night. I sat awake and listened. In the morning they set to work.
It was Ivan who took the pizza boxes down to the beach and filled them. It was Molly who brought the putrid boxes through the ring of junipers and left them near the Chimney Man’s mortar pot. They told me to keep a lookout.
From atop the factory roof, I held the baby, and I watched. I watched the Chimney Man come down the back steps with his putty knife. He looked once and then again at the stack of boxes. He moved closer. He opened the lids. He saw the mess of bones and rot inside. He was too far away for me to see his face change, his frown lose its amusement, the shock in his eyes turn sincere. But I saw him look around. He looked behind him. He looked up into the sky. He never saw me. I was invisible. Carefully, he knotted his scarf. He put his putty knife in his pocket. He left the boxes in the yard. He set off the way he had come.
The Demon Lover
We burned the pizza boxes, and then we regained the house. Beneath my mother’s reeking, swaybacked bed, I found her album of every punishment possibility. These included allowing a factory owner to be soaked in the chemical he manufactured, a slumlord to be eaten by rats, men of every variety being disappeared, starved, their fingernails peeled back, skinned, shut up inside burning houses, sealed into tombs. I found her ballpoint pen, chewed on and nearly out of ink. I added an entry: the severing of hands and feet. My handwriting matched hers.
The winter was long and cold, but the chimneys were clear and we kept the fires hot. I packed Ivan and Molly in polar fleece and sheepskin and tacked wool over the doors and windows. The baby took her first steps on her mother’s floorboards, though she would live out her long years with no memory of Oona at all.
In the spring a left foot with long toes all eaten by fishes bobbed against the sand. We buried it in the yard. We pushed the green flip-flops into the soft earth to mark it.
“Do you think he got the best of her?” Ivan asked when I tucked him into bed that night. He was trying to be brave, but his soft mouth gave him away, his damp eyes.
“Never,” I said. Molly nestled next to him, and I pulled the blankets up to their chins. I settled back in the dark, waiting to hear Ivan snore, Molly’s quiet noises, the whistling breath of the baby on my chest. But I didn’t sleep.
I still haven’t slept. Some things, they say, will be easy to understand. These things include making a copy of a key with soap, hollowing out secret places inside of books, identifying handwriting, following all tracks. I have found, as I have gone through life with my brother and two sisters, that none of this is what it seems. None of these things are easy at all, it has turned out.
I believe that I will meet my Mattress Man again, as Oona met her Chimney Man again the year I was fourteen. The principle of the demon lover is this: He will break you of your meditation, he will blur the boundaries between repulsion and seduction, and he will instill in you a purposefulness towards power and ruin. You will find yourself as I am: stepping on nails, eating meals that shards of glass have fallen into, biting and pinching, striving for sensation, awake twenty years later not remembering, anymore, your own name, or why you are waiting.