VIA TARPAULIN SKY
Short fictions from MR Sheffield’s manuscript, We Are the Blood, a finalist for the 2015 TS Book Prize.
That thrumming and the thrumming and the thrumming you feel in your hips and in your chest is not dangerous; the way your heart skips and then continues; the dizzy waves of electricity coursing through you, face distorted by emotion, or is it distorted by the feeling of warmth building and building and then building; sit back, close your eyes, wait quietly until a doctor can see you – soon a doctor will see you and you’ll pull down your panties, panting. Some time there will be enough time for you to speak slowly, but that’s not happening today. Everyone is in a hurry and you’re already sweating and you smell of tinned meats and olive oil – I left my purse once at the doctor’s office and when I called to retrieve it, they’d invested all my money in IRA bonds and that’s why I’m a millionaire. Sometimes the Health Care Industry does help, does hope, does hold out its arms to encircle us, the poor, the shivering, the dripping-night-sweats. To say I missed you is a misnomer; however, I do want you to breathe through it. To relax into it. Surrender. I’ve been dreaming you bony and misshapen. It’s okay to say that because it’s okay to say anything. I fought pilots from other galaxies for your breath and you’re all dahlias and stupor. Languorous inside a field of dandelions: dreaming, delirious.
When I said Health Care Industry I meant humanity, and when I said you I meant me. When I said tinned meats and olive oil I meant gardenias and candle wax, and when I said millionaire I meant barely-scraping-by; when I said I left my purse, I meant they took some of the tissue; when I said they invested my money in IRA bonds, I meant they called me to schedule another appointment; when I said that the thrumming is not dangerous, I meant I loved you once, and I will love you; when I said languorous I meant dangerous, again, and I meant that you are, always have been.
I did not say dead body because there is no need for alarm. There is no need for alarm because we are all of us a cancer. I say we are all of us a cancer because each thing we do is a thing the other does; each is itself and its opposite, each a burgeoning vine. I say this because it’s getting late and you’ve been up all night, all the way across the country, pacing your living room, wondering if that ache in your chest is something you should get checked out. Wondering if an arrhythmia will blossom you taraxacum officinale. I mean dandelion. I mean don’t worry. I mean you’ll probably be okay.
What I mean to say is I won’t say I miss you because we are all of us a universe. All of us the petal and the stamen.The floret and the seed. Each the other, itself, a call-back, warm hand, soft voice, fingers poised – we are the spaces between breath and darkness, between void and light – the rushing of the wind. The smell of salt water, baking bread, incense.
Close your eyes enough to stop fighting. Unknit your brow.
The doctor said the other doctors said you can go home. They said you need to sleep.
5 WAYS TO TELL YOU’RE DEAD
you know that thrumming rushing feeling you get when everything inside you is brimming and brimming, and the world is bathed in a sort of iridescent yellow as the sun climbs in the sky, and your heart could just break right open – death would be the opposite of that, or rather, not the opposite but an absence, so instead of the thrumming you feel nothing and instead of sun-hypnosis you find yourself unmoved – in place of those streaming emotions there is just the whoosh of the air around you and you find yourself thinking how did I get here?
waking up you’re usually so thirsty for coffee, tea, juice, water, soda, soup that you stumble into the kitchen, half seeing, tugging the refrigerator door (I should get this fixed so that it more easily opens) gulping and gasping and filling your stomach with liquid liquid liquid liquid; a lover requited, you smile into the mess of dirty dishes because not everything is this bad – in place of this, if you’re dead that is – you awake with no thirst, in fact, you don’t even really awake, you just become aware of yourself (oh, remorse) and this kind of stinging, prickling feeling going all along your skin and you don’t allow yourself to stop and wonder hey, what might this shit be, because without thinking about it you’re already kind of thinking about what that stinging, prickling might be (is it ants? spiders? maggots?) and so you shut yourself up in your head and wonder at the desert that is your throat and how you don’t care – no not at all – it’s actually sort of nice, like sun bathing at noon on south beach in miami, florida, and you’re a tourist getting red red red red, but anything’s better than whatever you were before.
you might be a dead bitch if you’re lost in the woods, wearing high heels, twisting both your ankles to better catch a glance of the madman pursuing you – taking long sips of drugged rob roys at happy hour, men thick like flies around you might mean you’re a dead bitch – if your idea of fun is making out with a woman you don’t necessarily know in the center of a circle of boys at a frat party after two am and after your friends have already gone home, you’re probably a dead bitch – if you find yourself alone in a room surrounded by uneasy people who shift their gazes from your belly to your thighs to your ribcage, you might be a dead bitch – you might be a dead bitch if they catch you holding hands with your girlfriend – you might be a dead bitch if you want to understand more than rudimentary algebra – if you follow those boys out back to the trailer, you might be a dead bitch.
if you hold your fingers underneath your nose and feel nothing, if you thump your chest and it doesn’t hurt, if your eyes don’t water when you see the person you want to love you turning away from you, if your feet don’t hurt, if your mouth is full of fine sand, if you have gravel lodged beneath your fingernails, if your hair is coming out in long strands, if you find you can stand for days on end, if you are not hungry nor thirsty, if you don’t need to reach and reach, and if after all this you find yourself staring, unmoved by the sun, full of a vague sense of remorse, thinking how did I get here – this is that absence from before, but maybe it’s not everything-all-over-for-you; take a breath with those ridiculous lungs, pull the unnecessary air through your nose, imagine yourself balanced on the tip of a dampened wick.
an unrelenting fever – the pinks and baby blues of memory – this moment of wonder – a picnic at the lake with your mother – far away feeling of fingertips brushing back your hair – an antecedent to passion – the whole lovely idea of someone turning to face you – I’m only imaging this – time slowed to a blur of faces, flowers – the agony of love – forgetting their names – smell of vanilla candles – how did your apron get so dirty – when did I get here – in the church and all the singing – kneading dough and the feel of flour between your fingers – your sister’s anger – the fatness of babies – a roaring in your chest – a series of broken windows – smooth stalks of corn – joy and the feel of plastic – how to say this right – a long held breath – and nothing yet.
Let’s stick with this – warm, creepy cerebellum. The inside of the tissue, sinew, bone- the hard fact of word-paralysis skimming my surfaces; face it, it’s another day, another face on the inside of your heart. I’m not watching to help bring you back, who could? But to reel-to-reel you frantic, close-dancing; take a pill, take another, and another – to feed you nomenclature like it is bloodredblood; my inability to dream you whole. The whole crew shifty, restless, scanning horizons for enemy me. Take me apart fingernail, toe, belly, thigh, eyeball, foot, and pull and pull and pull asunder all the tiny inefficiencies of me. I’m your private joke -patriarchal cross and all that academic hogwash you’ve been truffling through: your eyes wide as the sun is black is black is black
asphalt – the downward curve of you, shimming phantom too small to clasp, to clutch, to finger; I’m coming at you from another angle entirely – the small of my back beaded with sweat, fuck it, soon I’ll blow up round as an elephant and we’ll rise and rise and rise clouds anthropomorphic, an embarrassment of emotion, my seed-filled dream, imagine
the hours spent rounding up and out, billowing, pulling trade winds due east, pulling atmospheric pressure in, up, down, around –
that’s not to say you’re all not trying. You hunker and hanker and speed-salivate for me, crunching through my bones. Thinking yourselfbeautiful kings and queens.
Another way to say this is to say you fucked up. Left the ticket un-stampable. Left your memory plugged to the current of now – which is to sayof course it started with a kiss, and a chaste one, but no one cares about that when there are heads to dangle pinwheel swift from laundry lines – my eyes my ears – to observe, to festoon, to market; I’m trying to buy what you’re selling but you’ve closed shop, packed up and moved out, dug past your own remorse into something far hotter, electric, those vapid pulse memories inviolate– uniting– undying a fountain of regret of release of rehab here you are, checking in, and here I am, gazing serenely on.
“No more face-melt,” you write. I’m trying to decipher. “No more gut-punch, wheeze-ribs, hot-house flower sex bullshit, you expletive expletive expletive.”
You’re begging for scene and loosening the ties at your back at the same time – which way are we supposed to direct our gaze? Which way are we supposed to find work – hard work – work hard, earn money, bring it home to our little bunnies – when did this become about just you and the all-of-us, I’m never welcomed home, never gentled to sleep, so expletive the expletive narrative arc – I’m deleting the expletive scene where we reconnect and reenlist and recover our former lovers.
I’m deleting the whole of me that aligns with the us of them.
The expletive of the expletive of expletive.
For the entire stay you position yourself at the window, gazing out, wondering which cow you could be in which pasture, wondering which posture to assume when he comes in the night to check between your legs, rubbing himself raw to the sweet sleeping angles of you – the 90 degree, the 180.
I’m just the rot sinking in to the flesh. The peeled apart fruit dashed beneath your tires. The ungrateful expletive.
Don’t think about its calcification – the fingers staple size, little feet the width bottle caps – the smoothed-over flesh milked, whitened, stiffened. Curled into a comma just next to womb. Inches articulated to stasis instead of burgeoning, no baby cry– no wide open, wandering eyes, no little hands clutching for her hair.
A fossil. Insensitive to warmth.
First Camille was 13 and pregnant, but that was too much, and the readers asked (gently, gently) if I could age her out a little, get us at least to 18. So, fine, the 13 year old is instead barely legal 18 and bloated with baby, but only for like a week because the creature travels, travels, travels, but doesn’t quite make it. Those mere inches I mentioned above. Separate breath from blood.
Anyway, so Camille gets in to a nice college, choses a sensible degree (accounting), and graduates summa cum laude. Lands a landed gentry, marries, and then baby after baby for four years. Five, nearly, but one was lost to the despair of the drain.
And then there’s the lithopedion one. The stone baby.That one from one before.Maybe from her first time? And she was 13 and raped by her uncle or she was 18 and experimenting with her boyfriend, but either way it almost took, it nearly did, until it didn’t.
Twenty years later a stomach ache traces Camille through her day, into the night, keeps her up, keening. A trip to the hospital. Discovery of ghost baby.
And, oh, those tiny fingers, the size of staples. Those bitty feet, not wider than a bottle cap. And Camille believing in ghosts, believing in them, for the first time ever.Hangs the fossilized thing from her front porch. Rocks there because you’re late, you’re so late, and she doesn’t have anything else to do but wait.
YOU NEVER EXISTED
You wake up in the middle of the night because your house has come down around you and your cellphone is ringing but the ringtone’s altered to be the most annoying song playing on the radio and there is a steady buzz in your ear you can’t place to the right of your head pieces of glass from the window that burst inward like a fist to your mouth
No one is ready with wheelbarrows to help you get the shit out and so it’s everywhere and you have to bend over again and again to reach it by 5:00am your back is aching a soreness radiating up your neck and your fingers are dancing spiders somehow maybe it’s that you’ve been asleep this whole time
Friends won’t talk to you because when they do they remember they won’t talk to you there is something repugnant about the scowl turning up your stupid mouth into that jack-in-the-box expression
I remember when you and I rubbed our faces into placemats meatballs forks covered in chocolate and no one waking us up in the morning our guts spilled a toppled over vase water getting everywhere the stems trying grey I tried to remember when your birthday was and my whole head popped like a goddamn helium balloon
That’s how ridiculous that’s how much we’ve let the law into our lives
When you wake up in the middle of the night because your house has come down around you and your cellphone is ringing remember I warned you and let you warm your hands by my fucking fire the rust rings we said delicious giving us measurements like the rings around a tree trunk we’ve lived so long everyone is howling with the wind in competition or because they feel outer space pressing in at their temples
My heart is as red as Mars the fine grit the dirt wedged beneath my fingernails I dreampt you; you never existed
Apple founder Suleman II loved breakfast. Once he lost half his hand in a hallway closet. Once he forgot how to turn on a computer. He died a multimillionaire.
Alice Walker was a celebrated Englishwoman who moved to the Ottoman Empire in 1876 in order to quell the bread rebellions of ’77 (she could also foretell the future). On her way there, Walker caught on fire. No one knows how. No one knows why.
Her mom just cried and cried.
Lil Kim was important to physics. She came up with the “Gigantic Shit Ton of Shit We Cannot Understand Theory” which attempts to make sense of the ways in which the universe can be so fundamentally fucked the hell up. She loved to chew sugar cane and cheese curd. In 1776 she founded America. We remember her today each year as a token of deepest respect and shit. Tuberculosis coupled with a grouchy demeanor spelled her demise in 1843 when, in a fit of uncomfortable rage, she took out a school bus with an AK 47. Historians agree the move suicidal.
We try not to remember her for this. The whole founding of American and coming up with interesting theories is just, like, so much more cheerful.
Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve lived a bitter existence in Northern Japan from 1889-1901 and then promptly moved to New York for fifty seven years. After that, and due to serious bruising, they lived out of the back of their 1990 Chevy Corsica. They are famous for inventing a pimple cream “that, like, works really well” (thus read the copy on all their advertisements). They had thirteen children, all from different mommies and daddies; that is to say, they adopted fuck-load of kids. Each child they gave a sacred task, but that is neither here nor there. We remember them every Thanksgiving for the joy they sowed in the world with their wonderful pimple cream. I’m using some right now!
They died tragically in 2007 after eating raw oysters – “apparently you’re not supposed to leave them out in the sun all day, the oysters that is,” the restaurant owner is purported to have said. Adam and Eve are real heroes for teaching us this lesson.
Alfred Hitchcock loved his whiskey. Ages 37 – 46 he spent blindingly drunk as he developed his “Theory of Wasted Energy and Theoretical Shit like that Explains the Universe” (which stood on the shoulders of Lil’ Kim’s work, an oft noted fact, except his theory was based heavily on heavy drinking). His Theory stipulated that everything and everyone in the universe is constantly moving from a state of sobriety to drunkenness. He won 18 Noble Peace Prizes for his work until Prohibition hit him like a goddamn uppercut to the neck in 2004. Off the sauce, he began composing dark, ambient rock music for which he received mild acclaim. Many of his critics at the time noted, “Yeah, that shit’s okay, but I dunno, I could just listen to the washing machine for ten minutes and get the same effect.” Hitchcock avoided tragedy when his shoelaces got caught in an escalator, and in a move of stunning brilliance ripped his pants off rather than face that horrific escalator death we all fear in our secret hearts. Unfortunately, ripping his pants off exposed his genitlias (this was how he had been taught to refer to his dick and balls by his overbearing, bargain shopping father) to the cold, harsh elements, and his genitlias caught the flu, and he died just three hours later.
Thankfully, Science will forever remember his shitty music, and his shitty theories about drinking booze and whatever, and graduate students across the world will use his ideas to justify their ridiculous binge drinking far into the foreseeable future.
Hillary Clinton is best known for having invented the concept of time. Before Clinton, we could all say shit like, “I’ll see you whenever, dude,” but after her, we are precise. We are careful. We think about our lives in minutes and seconds. This has been her great gift and her curse. After inventing time, she is said to have cackled, farted, and fallen promptly into a 100 year’s sleep. Bitch woke up hella refreshed though. And rode a unicorn off into the sunset.
People say you can still see her there now, off in the clouds, especially if you call out “I’ll see you in a specific amount of time, dude.” She’s always enjoyed that kind of attention to detail. Maybe she’ll never die.
The main problem poor Freddy Mercury had was his disbelief in ghosts. Historiographers now generally agree that it was this intense disbelief that started him on his downward spiral after his beloved bitch of a mother died. First he took up water-coloring. Growing dissatisfied with the muted hues he moved to finger painting. He got tired of sticky fingers, and it’s believed that’s why he invented the Magic Chop. But! Getting back to where we were going here, he embarked on a career in politics, ignoring his mother’s curse (it went something like “Don’t you EVER EVEREVER get into politics, young man, or I’ll fucking haunt the shit outta you”). So he became President of Micronesia one fine day (and boy was it a fine day – never the sky bluer, never a bird’s song sweeter). And just as he was being crowned (because everyone was so in love with the young man and his sparkling brown eyes that they changed the title from President of Micronesia to KING SORCERER OF THE GODDAMN WORLD). And anyway, as he was being crowned he yelled out “Magic Chop!” because he had made so much fucking money on that shit – he felt compelled to give it a shout out, plus he had begun this crazy career in finger painting anyway (ah, remember those youthful days spent in cafes in Paris, paint all over the fucking place, drinking a cafe au lait and sighing into his hands). And yeah, so he was being crowned, yelling out, and then his ghost bitch of a mother jumped out from behind a burning bush and yelled “BOO!” And the fucker died right there, right on the diamond encrusted throne.
And that’s why we celebrate National Hospice Palliative Care Month.
Albert Einstein was sick of being called a “whiny ass little bitch” as a child, so he moved from Alaska down to South Dakota all by his lonesome. He began a farm and raised fainting goats, which he called his “whiny ass little bitch” goats, but it wasn’t mean because it was the truth. They were whiny ass. Anyway. He was this 12 year old phenomenon on the country fair circuit, selling homemade jams and pickled goats’ feet. He invested heavily in AOL and made shit ton of money around 1923 before the bubble burst and he lost everything. At 16 he married Edgar Allen Poe’s great greatgrand niece and together they sired over 10,098 fainting goats.
On his 23rd birthday he invented an anti-gravity machine that didn’t work that great but definitely caused an extensive outbreak of the common cold. He is thought by his biographers to have died of loser-itis.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Elizabeth Cady Stanton spent her first seventeen years marooned on a small island off the coast of South Carolina. Strangely, this did not prove to be a formative experience, and when the Hollywood boys came knocking at her door after she competed in and went on to win both the Great 1977 Star Crossed Sun Kissed Loserville Boat Race, and the Great 1978 Starry Night Moon Hung awesomeland Boat Race, she shook her head, taped her toes, scratched at a boil on her butt and said “No thanks!” Her biographers agree this was a more important moment in Stanton’s life than her entire time spent on that island (where she learned to make beautiful seashell skirts and wore comfortable, exfoliating diapers). This is why when we talk about her, we call her Elizabeth Cady “won those fucking boat races and but wouldn’t make a movie about her life” Stanton.
She started a movement to imprison all lemurs. She was the first person to drive an automotive vehicle across the Great Lakes. She went to sleep with her left ear dipped in a bowl of hot water which gradually cooled as the night progressed (she invented a machine to combat this – it is called the “Microwave”). In 1999 she suffered a tragic setback – her butt boil had grown to ginormous (a word she coined in 1969 in homage to Bill Clinton) proportions, and once, trying to sit in a pretty comfortable chair, it popped, and all her blood and shit fucked up the chair and she felt really bad. So she hanged herself in a closet.
This is why David Foster Wallace killed himself by hanging himself in a closet that selfsame year. They had been fervent, gentle lovers.
Cleopatra is the mother of the doughnut and of the snail and she is the father of the biological imperative. She lived next door to us for forty years or so. Her cookies were pretty good – I liked peanut butter the best. She died when she ate a doughnut, snail, biological imperative cookie.
She was an unreasonable old lady.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MR Sheffield lives and works in Boca Raton, Florida, a place rather more weird than not. A graduate of FAU’s MFA Creative Writing program, she currently teaches English classes and advises English grad students at FAU. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Pank, Fiction Southeast, The Florida Review, and other publications.
ABOUT THE MANUSCRIPT
we are the blood is a manuscript interested in, well, blood, death, children, fragmentation, expectations, delirium, and how all these things can simmer together in one’s head. The stories are sometimes more like poetry and other times more like prose. Narrative arcs are mostly abandoned in favor of energy, chaos, decay.
I want readers to get a feel for fear. I want them in my head, trembling right along with me, up at night, checking and rechecking that the oven has been turned off.
The stories aim to grow in intensity, dragging the reader out past the breakwater. Words are repeated and syntax often falls apart as ways to get at my frustration with my inability to communicate, and as a way to get at the fundamental loneliness each of us shares. The stories speak of heartbreak and redemption as well as folly. No one is claiming to be right here. No one is even claiming to know what right is. The manuscript attempts to just let you feel instead of showing you an answer.
There are no answers. We hardly even know the questions.