When I kissed my wife goodnight for the last time she tasted like honey and spit. Her kiss smelled like dead people's foreheads when they're lying in the casket. A massive heart attack, the doctors said. She died at her desk just before the end of her shift. She knew she was going to die. The night before we had gone to sleep late because she kept folding clothes, wiping down counters, mopping the floors even though she hadn't swept them first. I have to finish, she kept saying. She fluffed the pillows and rearranged them. She put fresh sheets and pillowcases on the bed. Every other minute it seemed like I had to move out of the way, stand up, help her lift something. But she was always like that: putting my shoes away the second I slipped them off, straightening the bath towels in the guest bathroom, insisting there were stains where there weren't, dirty smells coming from beneath the sink or an empty trash bin. She's a tidy girl, I told my mother years ago, everything has to be just so. My mom wouldn't look at her for more than a few moments at a time. That woman will kill you, she'd said. She'll drive you crazy.Dianne lives in frozen Vermont with her husband, cat, and pack of rescue dogs. She loves winter but this year she's looking forward to the beginning of a long spring.Dianne lives in frozen Vermont with her husband, cat, and pack of rescue dogs. She loves winter but this year she's looking forward to the beginning of a long spring.
Some nights after she died I'd feel her weight beside me. She'd turn over in the night and pull the comforter halfway off my body. Even awake I heard the sheets rustle and her voice murmuring, her teeth grinding against each other. It's not real, I told myself. There's no one there. The sounds went away after a few weeks and the sheets were cold all night. The bed that had seemed so small felt like a rooftop. I had dreams I was big as a building but my hands were regular size. One night the lamp base seemed to have people in it. It was cheap brass and had been handled so much it had colors like water in motor oil on a sunny day. There was a man and woman inside talking about what they'd watched last night. I saw that, too, I wanted to say but knew it was just a lamp, that I was tired and grieving and had forgotten to eat that day.
Once I left the house, everything was easier. It didn't matter last week's trash was still in the kitchen or that the fridge was empty or that I didn't pay the bills under my wife's name. My dashboard was dust-free. The car smelled so much like cherry-scented gel it was on my clothes, in my skin like I was eating fruit salad in the park instead of a bag of cookies in the break-room. Even when the neighbors put their damn dogs out on the patio so they barked and scratched the fence and kept me up all night, I could always park right between the yellow lines. I didn't leave my wheels crooked. I never scraped the underside of my bumper on concrete blocks like the store manager did. I wasn't so good at the front door but when I told customers there's shoulder steaks and catfish half-off, free chips with potato salad, the good soda on sale for a dollar a bottle, they'd buy the stuff and thank me on their way out. When I'm at the register because Daniel's sick again, I swipe everything so fast the beeping's like a song. I'm like a conductor with his orchestra. Items don't have time to make wet spots on the belt; I just go and go and go, no mistakes, and type codes for every kind of fruit and vegetable without looking at the chart or my fingers. Wow, the customers say, how does he do that?
There was a time the kids who smoke by the benches used to say hi, ask what's up. These days I'm lucky if they don't spit towards me, if they don't talk to me like I'm retarded. Hey mister, they shout, that car almost hit you. Watch out, they yell like I'm blind, like I haven't been crossing streets since before they were born. Asshole, one of them whispered once, he's such an asshole. I stopped but didn't turn around. He's just a kid, I said to myself. He'll probably round up these carts like cattle until he's older than me. Every once in a while, one of them says something and they all laugh. It's no wonder I almost got hit walking to my car a few times with these kids spitting seeds and mucus at my heels and people driving like there's no one alive but them.
This neighborhood's going to be full of shit people in just a few years, I told my wife. She didn't care. She was sick of renting just up the street from my parents and wanted to live near a park in case she got pregnant. I want to hear the birds when I wake up, she'd say until I got sick of it and agreed to sign a lease on a townhouse a few miles outside the city. It was all young families and old women at first but now four, five, six men rent a two bedroom and drink outside their trucks and throw beer cans on the ground and into people's yards. Every morning I have to check to make sure no one's scraped my car. I have to keep it clean so they don't draw penises in the grime. They tried to make me look like some kind of pervert. I didn't see it until the end of the day and now I find beer cans and dirty diapers near my spot at work. I ask the security guard if he's seen those shit-people in the store's parking lot but he always says no. I wouldn't be shocked if he was one of them, if he was the one putting crap near my car to punish me for that sick drawing on my trunk. Now I get home fast so I can park right in front of the living room window. I go to work early and drink a coffee and see if their trucks come around. I'll call the police on them. If I can just catch them, they won't say asshole, asshole, call asshole into my bedroom window in the middle of the night then run away when I turn on the light.
I wasn't careful, I wasn't watching them enough and one morning my car wouldn't start. I checked under the hood. I checked everything. I had bought it used from an old man going blind with dry eye and never had a problem. The car would run so smooth, like it was floating above the road. I watched when mechanics changed my oil. Hey, one of those shit-men called from a few spaces down, you need a jump or somethin', man? Like I'm an idiot. Like I'd let him mess with the brakes or unscrew something so I'd go sailing off the freeway and into a ditch. People are getting so sick, watching the news all day, watching murder shows and then just going to sleep like it's nothing. No, I told him. Fuck you, I could have said. I got my coat and some change, and waited for the bus. It's a good thing I get up so early, that I still have respect for people and never go to work late even though these people are trying to do whatever they can.
I stood away from the curb and when I got on the driver said, you need to be at the stop, like I never took a bus before. These people were smoking, one of them was drinking, and I wasn't going to get any kind of smell or filth on my work clothes. Fuck off, I wanted to say. Even bus drivers don't look clean anymore. He wore shorts and had his trash hanging from a full bag beside him.
I was watching for my stop so closely I didn't notice the woman until she started smacking her gums and pointing at me. She mumbled. She laughed through the back of her teeth so it sounded like a hiss. She leaned into me, the stink coming out of her coat like air from a balloon. You're an asshole, she said. You think you're better than me? I know you're not better than me. She had a stain down the front of her pink sweatpants and her hair was so dirty it looked like there was Vaseline on her scalp. Asshole, she chanted for a whole block. I wondered what I would do if she attacked me. If I would feel it before I was off the bus and there was blood running down my face like sweat.
Everything was mixed up. I didn't recognize the back of the store and walked the wrong way. I had forgotten my coat on the bus. I knew the driver would wear it like it's his. Daniel's sick again. Can I greet, I asked the manager but he said I was the only one, even though all those kids were laughing in the dairy section, probably spitting into people's yogurt. I didn't know the specials. I didn't know what kind of grapes were most expensive, if I was keying in the right kind of lettuce. I saw a lady with pink sweatpants and worried the woman from the bus had followed me. She would cause a scene. She would pee on the floor and yell at me and people would think I knew her. Some of the dumb ones might even think she's my wife.
Hey, a customer was saying. Hellooo, like she was calling to someone far away. You scanned my containers twice. She was fussing over a dollar twenty-five. I should have known she would be trouble with her seeded grapes and junk food and cheap tampons. It's one thing my wife and mother had agreed on: people who bought cheap things to save some pennies thought a few extra bills could give them class. Shit-people can't hide behind money. Sorry, I said to her and counted the containers and looked at the screen but couldn't see any mistake. Three containers, three separate charges.
Don't forget, you asshole, she said. Don't forget my apples, she said.
I threw her containers and tampons to the bagger and said, you think I work for you? You think you're better than me? I don't know how many times I asked her or what she said but the next thing I know the manager's saying sorry, he's having a hard time, here's your apples, and some little girl with big eyes is ringing the woman out and giving her a receipt. You forgot her coupons, I wanted to say but the woman was asking, is he crazy, is he crazy and trying to look at me over the manager's shoulder. I wanted to tell her, I know crazy. My mom was crazy when she'd sit on her bed all day and the only thing she'd tell me about when I was a baby is how she dreamed of snakes every night until I was born. Don't play with your shadows, she'd tell me. One day they'll start talking and everyone will know about you.
is originally from Somalia. She received her M.F.A. as a Michener Fellow from the University of Texas at Austin. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in "American Life in Poetry," Black Renaissance Noire, The Feminist Wire, Kweli, MELUS, Narrative, Poet Lore, and ROAR Magazine. She works as a teaching artist in Chicago where she lives with her husband, photographer Greg Broseus.