'Women in Fridges'
It’s cold, he awakes from his dream to the sound of running water. Cool night air brushes his cheek and he opens his eyes to see the bank of a stream leading into a larger river. He seemed to recognise it but couldn’t quite place it.
He was sitting on the bank of a stream under an overpass, but he couldn’t hear any cars going by. It was a cloudless night with a few stars tossed up into that mess of a sky. The moon was nowhere to be seen.
His back was against concrete. He was under one of the arches, his head felt heavy, it was hard to lift. He realised after some blank staring and heavy blinking that he was in a storm drain not on the bank of a river. He was lying on a raised embankment on the far side under the bridge. It was just cool dull yellow concrete lit by the ambient glow of the night as far as the eye could see. A trickle of a stream flowing under his feet. He saw a few whisks of grass in the distance beyond a chain link fence on the other side of the bridge.
His back felt wet as he leant against the wall. His legs splayed out in front of him in his work clothes, his black shoes covered in a film of light brown dust. His head felt dry and taught and it hurt to move his neck. He sat there for a minute trying to collect himself.
He leaned forward and pulled himself onto his knees. Crawling like a baby over to the small body of water running through the storm drain.
He splashed his face a couple of times and put a cold wet hand down the back of his neck. It felt dirty, the dry sweat made his clothes itch and hang heavy. He felt starched and sickly.
James looked down at his reflection. He looked tired he could taste blood. He bore his teeth, his gums were raw and dirty looking. He sucked his gums and spat a wad of blood into the trickle of water running through the storm drain.
It spread out fast. A brown and deep red viscous liquid hitting the water hard and dispersing as the stream started to pick up.
James stood up, stumbling. His flat shoes scraping away out from under his feet on the slick raised concrete under the overpass. He slipped back down to his knees with a bone jarring jolt. The fall sending questions all over his body, where is all this pain coming from?
The stream started to get faster and thicker and he didn’t know why, the sky hadn’t changed. Maybe a dam or sluice-gate opened. Were there any dams in California? Was he even still in California? He had to get out of there one way another. His heart started to pound, his mind rushing by trying to find answers to questions it hadn’t settled on.
Then a noise.
Plinking and then something larger, a splash and a hollow plonking sound. He walked out from under the overpass and looked up at the bridge. It was well lit with deco lamps lining either side only three or four feet apart. A waist high guard rail along the footpath. There were no cars pulled up along the side of the road, there were no cars going by. He waited thirty seconds but nothing came.
The stream was a black and dark brown like his blood now. Probably some filthy rain water from a storm drain higher up.
He squinted up and down the stream for what broke the water. Then he saw it, it was white which made it easy to pick out against the murk. It bobbed on the surface on the water like a fishing lure. It looked light but also hard and slick reflecting some dull twinge of moonlight from somewhere.
It crept closer to him bobbing in and out playfully. Before he could feel it. He was standing in the now knee high water. He stood unmoving watching it approach, taking shape in front of him. It was long and thin, delicate looking, it’s subtle curvature giving way to long thin fingers.
He bent down to pick it up.
It was the left forearm of a female mannequin. He starred at it quizzically, turning it around in his hands trying to discern its origin. He turned it over, there were scratches on the underside. Scratched on to its wrist were the words “SHE HAS DYED HER HAIR RED”.
He dropped the arm into the stream and it bobbed off down into the distance.
A torso, legs, hip, arms, hands, and a head, all the pieces, maybe more than one mannequin he couldn’t tell. He couldn’t know why just yet. They were blank, featureless, pale white parts. Perfect, only for the leaves and the debris that surrounded them in the vile manmade river.
He breathed in and out slow. The chill getting up his back, his shoes squelched full of water and silt, listening to the night music.
The fan beat down with steely wings, his legs exposed, the cool air freezing the sweat on them.
James lay on his back, he felt cold and wet, a thin layer of sweat soaking into the white sheets.
He was alone.
The phone beside the bed was off the hook and making an annoying noise.
He couldn’t summon enough thoughts in his head to work out what the noise was. It was just annoying.
He tried to move, his body was like a coffin. It creaked with a frail rigidity.
Pain rushing in from all over, his ribs felt tender and it hurt to breathe too deep.
He tried to sit up and a sharp pain in his neck sent him reeling back into his soggy pillow.
His eyes rolled around in his skull and he felt like he might throw up.
Taking shallow breathes he stared at the fan on the ceiling, waiting for it to stop spinning.
He closed his eyes and tried to centre himself and then he heard that annoying noise again. He turned on his side trying to move his neck as little as possible. He slid towards the edge of the bed and sat up facing the window.
He was home in his own bed; it was night but he couldn’t remember how he got home. He put the phone back on the hook and looked at his alarm clock which just flashed four zeroes over and over. It must have come unplugged somehow.
Only moments after putting the phone back into the cradle it started to ring.
James paused, groggy.
He thought it could be work since he couldn’t tell what time it was and the nights were getting longer.
He picked up the phone and placed it to his ear, clearing his throat. He paused for a moment waiting for them to say something and then he started to gather up his best phone voice in his head to speak.
“Hello, who is this?”
An exhale of breath was all that followed.
“Can I help you?”
“Happy birthday to you-
Happy birthday to you” A man’s voice started to sing. The voice seemed forced and high pitch, in an attempt to conceal who, it was.
“Who are you?”
“…” The phone disconnected and James was left listening to that same annoying noise.
He put the phone back into the cradle and tried to think it away. He sat for a moment and rubbed his eyes and leant forward on his knees looking out the window. He leaned a little too far and the pain in his neck came back. A rigid jolt of pain pulled him back upright.
The street outside was empty. There was a single street lamp in front of the basketball courts but other than that it was pitch black and still. So still it seemed like a picture. He got a sinking feeling that the night would never end like he was stuck in a videogame. It wouldn’t progress until he found something to propel the story and he never would.
He stood up from the bed with a laboured sigh, an almost laugh.
He was just wearing a set of striped loosing fitting boxer shorts and nothing else. He walked and the wind on his legs made him aware of soft spots on his shins. A feeling he remembered from playing soccer. A hobby he’d given up when he stopped having friends outside of work.
He got up not sure what he intended to do. But now he was up the thought of sleep seemed more painful than waking. Fearful that the mugginess would follow him into his dreams. His head felt heavy and swollen. He thought he should be a cliché and get a glass of milk or water or something to reduce the swelling in his brain and tongue.
He paced his bedroom a few times, remembering she wasn’t there again. Her spot was empty but the bed had been made since then and her indentation had gone.
Did she leave a note and he forgot, was that her calling, did he dream that? Was it a woman’s voice or a man’s? What month was it? Was it his birthday today?
Something like that seemed like it could slip his mind. He stopped celebrating his birthday after he turned thirty and all his friends moved away or were working. Bridges don’t so much burn as they pull apart or fade away. All his friends from college were unreachable. In their own little worlds of babies and travelling. And jobs that seemed fulfilling from the outside but were probably just as dehumanizing as his. He told himself.
He sighed and crossed the room into the hall past the sitting room on his right into the kitchen at the back of the house. The moon was waiting there, he didn’t need to turn on the light, spare his eyes some.
His bare feet on the linoleum was jarring enough.
The fridge was on the wall on the left as he came in. In the breakfast nook of the kitchen overlooking the meagre but neat backyard. The low hum of the fridge reassuring him that it was even on.
He put his hand on the handle. Looking down at himself in the moonlight. He could see what looked like recent scratches, scabs of some sort. He tried to remember where he got them. Or if he’d been to the store to buy food recently. Everything seemed a blur, one-day melting into the other or overlapping completely. Trying to put things in the correct order hurt his head and seemed more or less pointless.
He opened the fridge with a galumphing popping sound. It was a large fridge; a sort of an off-green colour. The realtor described it as “seafoam” or “sea-something”. Needless to say he didn’t really care but it was something Laura had complained about. It looked old fashion but James’ assumed that was the point. A vaguely deco fridge seemed appealing in some small way.
Nothing could have prepared him for the bright glow of the fridge.
The fridge was almost empty. Just a few boxes of leftover Chinese food he couldn’t remember how long had been there. A jar of olives, a slice of cold pizza and a clear plastic carafe filled with water in the door.
He stood glazed in front of the fridge for a moment, enjoying the cool buzz on his damp skin.
Returning to the breakfast bar that was almost like a large ironing board covered in Bakelite. It protruded out into the middle of the kitchen with a few wire framed stool chairs scattered around it.
He put down the slice of cold pizza, ham and pineapple. He set the carafe down next to it and turned to his left to root around in the cupboard for a glass.
He found one and poured himself an ice cold glass of water which he drank too fast for his teeth. Without sitting he laid into the cold pizza and it was gone in a few hurried bites. He could already feel it going down to his love handles as he threw the small white plate into the sink.
He poured himself another glass of ice cold water and put the carafe back in the door of the fridge and closed it.
He walked back through his house and into his bedroom, his head feeling a few sizes smaller now. He set the glass of water down on the bedside table closest to the door. Which was her side. He crossed the room to the ensuite bathroom on his left.
The door was open, but that was normal.
He turned the light on, one of those old pull strings that made a double clicking sound. Which he thought was a little unusual in such a new house.
The light came on and filled the small bathroom with warm yellowish light.
It wasn’t much to look at, the toilet was on the right a little too close to the wall.
The bath slash shower on the left, the curtain drawn all the way around so it didn’t bunch up and mould. The sink was between the two directly opposite the door. A white porcelain hanging sink which stuck out of the wall. A small medicine cabinet above it. The room was all white tile with the occasional seafoam tile to break it up.
He ran the water in the sink and splashed some in his face. It cleared a little more mugginess out of his head. He smiled at himself in the mirror, the water droplets beading off a two-day old stubble. He must have forgotten to shave again.
There was a cut above his right eye he didn’t remember getting and then he heard it.
A dripping sound.
The sink was empty and the drops of water falling off his face made muted tapping sounds, this was different.
A definitive plodding sound.
As if large drop of water were falling into a large puddle.
He closed his eyes and took a deep inhale of breath through his nose. He leant on the sink with both hands either side of the bowl. He stepped away from the sink launching himself off the sides of the basin.
His feet made light splashing sounds on the tiled floor. Was there a leak? Was the floor wet when he came in? Did he do that just now? The bathroom was windowless and each splashing noise echoed. The extractor fan made a laboured buzzing sound.
The dripping sound seemed to get louder, keeping a steady beat.
James turned his head to look at the shower curtain, it moved and his heart raced only for a second. The dripping noise was coming from the bath; it must be loose.
He craned forward over the turned out lip of the bath and pulled the curtain back.
There she was.
He must have known she was there all along.
The water rippled with the steady dripping into the rusty brown water.
One coffin white knee poked out from the surface.
She was naked.
One arm, her right, draped over the side of the tub.
Her head was back and to the right, her eyes were open, fixed on a certain tile on the wall. Her mouth was open slightly, the air smelled stale and sweet like a doctor’s office. Her eyes glazed over.
Her face frozen into a perfect mask of fleeting still beauty.
She’d never been as beautiful as this and she’d never be ever again.
Before he knew it he was kneeling by the tub. All the strength from his knees had drained and he used the porcelain altar to rest his tired frame. His hands in the water touching her cold body, her skin was still soft but she’d become a monument to herself.
He was so weak now, his body drained and tired. He propelled himself towards her head using the side of the bath and the sheer force of will to touch her face.
There was something in her hand.
He swayed back on his knees and took her small hand in his. His left cupping her hand gently, the other slid up her elbow to turn her palm over.
Her arm so white it didn’t look real. Along her wrist was a cut from the top of her elbow leading vertically down her wrist. The wound was dry and clean but deep and mortal.
The cut stopped before the hand and then there were two cuts either side forming a crude ‘V’ shape.
It was an arrow pointing to her hand.
With her hand cupped in his, he opened her hand.
A matchbox fell on the damp tiled floor.