Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Inside a Dog it’s Too Dark to Read by Amanda Hartzell


The night before he puts me in my car and tells me to drive for the mountains, I was crushing peanuts for Malcolm Lamp in his one-room apartment. They’d come in a paper bag, the peanuts, and when I pressed my thumb between the pods they snapped with a dusty pop. The brittle shells I set aside in the desk drawer and the nuts I scraped with my fingernail, removing the thin brown film of skin. The testa, it was called, Malcolm said. That skin. I’d been at this for hours. Malcolm liked things precise. Sometimes, when I woke up in the middle of the night and listened, I’d catch him repeating words to himself, measuring the distance from his tongue to the back of his front teeth. Testa was a good word to say in rapid succession, I’d learned, because it made the tongue jump to the roof of the mouth, like something suspended on a string and lunging back to the source.

His window was open and Albuquerque’s night humidity lugged itself through. He’d promised me dry heat when I moved out here, something sandy and thin, but I hadn’t felt it yet. There were too many bike paths and red mountains and apartments with aluminum siding. From the back entrance of Malcolm’s building complex I could hear the round yip of coyotes, but out the window, facing the front, came only traffic. Malcolm had told me all about the animals here, the wild dogs and roadrunners sprinting over stone fences, the turtles with mottled shells in the grass. So far I hadn’t seen anything.

I brought the citronella candles from my father’s house to keep away the bugs. They were lit now, green-yellow-green, a row of light throbbing on his desk by the window. In Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, they kept the mosquitos and box elders from the porch. I used to peer over the candles and watch a flickering hover of bugs a few feet away, in the yard. I’d feel the wicks’ heat on the inside of my nasal passages.

“Be careful,” said Malcolm, from the couch. He lifted his chin at the peanuts between my fingers. “You’re missing spots.”

If I broke them slowly enough, the shells flaked off in separate layers. Malcolm Lamp had me memorize each part—the outer, pericarp hull, and the three thin layers beneath of exocarp, mesocarp, endocarp.

“Right,” I said, “I’m watching.”

Malcolm rose and crossed the room towards me. It was a small space, and it only took him five steps to move from one wall to another. I measured it once with my feet, too, when he’d asked me. I put my left heel to right toe, right heel to left toe, and worked across the room painstakingly, with precision. I was a tightrope act. He’d said so. I’d wanted to smile but saw the discipline of his face, and I couldn’t break that. It took me fifteen steps to make it across the room, heel to toe. I’d gone so slowly for Malcolm Lamp that it took me a half hour to do it.

Now he crossed the room in seconds and was at my elbow, rummaging through the desk drawer and scattering peanut shells. I tried to stay very still until he needed me. He paged through my month-old hiking pamphlets from the welcome center, photos of rocks he’d overdeveloped to whiteness, ads and coupons we hadn’t cut up yet because they made him feel situated and routine. It was precision Malcolm liked, not predictability. Peanut pods slid into my palm. I turned them over like pebbles.

I said, “What are you looking for?” and he stalled, repeating my name end on end. Katharine, Kat, Katharine. I liked the sound of it, rare, out of his mouth. It let me know I was more than just the tasks he wanted done, the curiosities to settle.

“And the peanuts,” I said. By then I had a whole pile, stretched at the base of the citronella candles. “What do you want to do with these?”

“Are you tired yet?” he asked. “Do you want to go to sleep?”

The citronella candles were burning low, almost smoking. They were the same ones my father had had since I was a girl, and the wick was a stump above slick wax. The inside walls of each jar were filthy. Outside the window an insect hooked onto the screen. Its body was segmented in two, like the peanuts, and it had thin black wings that came unsheathed from its back. I didn’t recognize it.

Malcolm’s hands skittered through the drawer. He glanced at me.

“It’s up to you,” he said. He paused. “Or I can decide for you, if that’s easier.”

I split a peanut between my fingers and popped one half into my mouth. I didn’t bite down. I hid it beneath my tongue until the salt was too much. He didn’t react and I knew the tasks for today were done. He was tired, too.

The couch pulled out to a bed and I sat there cross-legged, leaning into him, until he relaxed and rested his head in my lap. We’d only slept together once since I moved to Albuquerque. He said I shouldn’t worry so I didn’t. The humidity lacquered the room, reduced us to one sheet with patterned red hibiscus, and from the foot of the bed his metal fan swiveled its face back and forth on us. To move at all was an effort. The breeze lifted the damp, curling hair at the base of my neck. I wanted Malcolm Lamp to prearrange my thoughts for me, to stack them up piece by piece so my mind would know where to go when I closed my eyes.

But instead he started telling me about the reservations, about the Ute and Apache and Navajo, how he wanted me to see them. How our bodies were stacked together, right now, like hillside pueblos. My ears felt clogged and distant, picking up sounds from miles away.

“Where are you?” Malcolm said then. His mouth moved drowsy against the bone in my knee.

I was not in a pueblo. I was scattered far beneath the earth, my body closed in on itself like a seed. That part of a peanut, the part to eat, was called the germ. And my arms wrapped around my legs and my knees pulled beneath my chin, and I was sheathed by testa. As I shifted the clay earth drew closer. I could wait. I could wait awhile. Soon light would burrow its way through the earth towards me, find me, like ropes of light dropped down for me. And through the clay the runoff of water would come, too, trickles at first, then grow into rivers that could move the earth and unplant me.


The next morning when I woke Malcolm had already gone to work. For an hour I walked around in his boxers only. Sweat gathered in my shoulder blades. I crouched down to eye-level with the desk, so the peanuts I’d unshelled looked detailed, almost moist. I could see the scratches my nails left in them. The window was open but we were so high up there was no one to watch, or watch me. I changed into clothes with permanent creases, still in my luggage because Malcolm Lamp said he wanted me to move in slowly, to be a traveler for as long as he could drag it out. I ate one peanut, flicking it around my mouth until it softened.

At noon I left the apartment and walked through ribbons of heat to his office. He worked for the water authority and sat behind a desk where he trained new hires. None seemed to be in today. His fingers punched data entry and plucked phones and sliced complaint letters. I’d never actually been in the place before. When I walked in the air conditioning broke across my skin and settled, heavy and sharp. I felt dizzy. The carpet was low and crushed. Malcolm was in direct line of sight from the door. He looked up, smiled once, and gestured for me to wait off to the side. The phones did not ring and although he had a stack of papers in front of him, he only referenced them now and then. He sat there and passed a few minutes buttoning and unbuttoning his shirt to his neck. He did not look at me again.

I stood beside the cooler, watching the occasional bubble belch and wobble to the surface. The walls were covered with corkboard and tacked with signs explaining policy, billing, and customer satisfaction. I read silently and took deep inhales of the air conditioning, as if I could store it somewhere in the cavity of my lungs or stomach for later use. A few of his co-workers passed me, asked if I was being helped, and I nodded. Malcolm said nothing. I pushed a little. I complimented a woman on shoes with jade decals that were too tight on her ankles. I asked a man what time it was and pretended to adjust my watch. When Malcolm Lamp didn’t object I knew it wasn’t a silence test, just a patience one.

I slipped one foot out of my sandals and screwed it into the carpeting until I rubbed out a brush burn. Then I asked out loud, but not to Malcolm directly, how much water there possibly was to manage in Albuquerque. I hadn’t seen a single river since I crossed into the state. On the four-day trip out to him, I drove over bridges that stretched above only more dipping, dry land. These rivers had cracked soil, gray bushes, Indian names. My hometown, Jim Thorpe, was named after an Indian, too.

“There are reservoirs,” said Malcolm. His voice was thin and light. “Some places have private wells, but mostly water comes from the reservoirs. It’s redirected from the Rio Grande. And the Colorado River basin.”

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t put my foot back in my shoe. “But how does it get here?”

“How does it get here?” Malcolm lined up his paperwork. “I don’t know. A tunnel system, I think. There’s a map of it somewhere.”

He was asking for a detail. I looked around the corkboard for it. I found it, too, a white map with blue lines. The names for water and borders were in Spanish. A thick black line linked the rivers together and transported water to several reservoirs denoted by black trapezoids. 26 Miles of Tunnels, the black line read.

Malcolm pushed out his chair. “Okay,” he said, “are you tired of standing?”

I nodded. My skin was still speckled with sweat from the walk to the office. His looked fresh and dry. Half-awake this morning, I’d heard him in the shower beneath all that transported water. There was a communal bathroom at the end of the hallway. The pipes in the walls announced when it was occupied, and sometimes there was a line. Sometimes Malcolm Lamp told me to stand in it and, right when I got to the front, to circle back to the end. I’d report to him with the minutes and hours people passed under the beat of the showerhead. The data eased him, stabilized him. I liked how tense he made me.

“Okay,” he said again, standing up. “Come take lunch with me.”

He talked about a restaurant but when he opened the front door and saw my face struck by heat, he redirected us back to the office break room. The air conditioning was too good. He took out a ten from his khakis and fed the snack machine, brought to the table air-filled bags of potato chips and sourdough pretzels, a box of raisins, something cheese-flavored and two bottles of soda. He asked me what I ate for breakfast. I told him.

“That’s not what the peanuts are for,” he said sharply, then looked guilty and bought me fruit snacks. He let me pick which soda I wanted, too.

He told me the water authority was looking for paid interns. He asked if I thought I had enough experience to apply. He could put in a good word. We could always use the extra money. I thought of my brief stint in community college years ago but said I could work up a resume. In Jim Thorpe I’d worked some reception in the tourist shops, done waitressing in an ice cream diner. I’d volunteered at the visitor center, too, memorizing pamphlets for hiking and kayak adventure tours. Malcolm had come in one day six weeks ago, tan and fresh from the Southwest and visiting friends. It was raining in Jim Thorpe. The climbing streets and anthracite mountains were slick, black, and the air mildewed. We’d talked about Indians, how the athlete Jim Thorpe had to give back all his Olympic medals, as I walked Malcolm down to the river. I’d decided to skip the rest of my shift and he asked if I was a very impulsive person. We watched the kayaks slice through water pebbled by rain. I asked how long he’d be visiting, and he asked me how long I could wait.

We finished eating. There were pieces of chips ground into my molars, and when I ran my tongue over them I tasted salt grains. Malcolm kissed my cheek and arranged our chairs back under the table when we stood up.

“I have to work until six, but you can stay outside for me, right?” he asked.

It was two-thirty. My skin was cool now, confident and bloated with the soda’s refrigerated carbonation.

“Sure,” I said.

“I think there’s a bench across from the parking lot,” Malcolm said. “When it gets closer to four the sun hits just right and there’s shade then, too.”

“All right.”

“And the peanuts,” said Malcolm Lamp. “Don’t worry, we’ll use them after work.”

I could tell he didn’t want me to press for more details. Still, I almost opened my mouth. He saw it on my face and tried to be serious, but I caught his lips quirking in one lapse of a smile. I wished I hadn’t.

“You’ll see,” he said. He pushed an unopened bag of pretzels at me, asking me to eat all but exactly five before he finished work. I nodded. I thought of the pockets of air conditioning boxed inside my body. I pictured myself tightening the lids, screwing the air in.

As Malcolm sat down at his desk I stepped outside, and the heat unlatched my boxes and out flew the cold. I blinked against the afternoon, found the green plastic bench, sat down. The sun was huge and white above the water authority and kept shadows at the base of buildings and trees. For a little I watched people pass in tank tops and shorts and crinkled cotton dresses, then I leaned back and let the heat suspend me.

I dozed. I thought.

I saw of us both hunkered down inside a mattress.

We were mattress spelunkers, explorers of the world of bedding and springs. Malcolm had dug a hole right in the center of our pull-out sofa, through the covers and downward. He was sitting on the edge of it, his legs dangling in. He held out a rope made of bedsheets, the ones with the hibiscus print. He hadn’t let me buy them until I could confirm they were anatomically correct. It had taken me hours at the library, comparing encyclopedia diagrams of the petal and sepal to the ads in the paper. Now he extended the rope to me. I had to follow the tunnels. I tied the rope around my waist as he told me how to make a bowline knot, square and overhand, a clove hitch. I asked him how he knew so much and he said he didn’t. He guessed at accuracy by watching my face, watching my skin redden under rope. Tighter, he said, but he wouldn’t do it himself.

My neck hurt from the angle on the bench and it pulled me out. A shadow of bur oak stretched near my feet as the sun angled lower towards the red mountains. I checked my watch just as Malcolm emerged from the office, his top button undone, looking easy and disinterested. He walked a few blocks away before stopping and turning around to wave me towards him. I got up and the bag of pretzels, forgotten, fell from my lap. I ripped them open and dumped them all out on the ground, then picked up five and put them back in. From this distance I didn’t think he would notice that I’d eaten none. Still, it felt like cheating, and I almost wanted to get caught.


We were back in the apartment, the fan buzzing. It was getting dark and the room smelled like sweat and legumes. They overpowered the citronella.

On the walk home he hadn’t made me count the pretzels at all. He’d taken the bag out of my hand and tossed it with almost an apology. Maybe I’d misjudged him. I thought he needed strictness, needed my submission for stability. But without it now he was casual, making me nervous, like he thought the tests were just games. It made it hard to stay empty.

“What do you think?” he asked.

I looked at him from the edge of the desk where I sat. My sunburnt legs swung, taking turns, and the movement was making my head wobble. I thought of the pretzels and chips, peanuts and soda. All that sodium in me. I felt dehydrated, like the salt of the earth.

“About Albuquerque,” he said. “I mean, I’m glad you’re here.”

And he said, “I’m glad you took the trip.”

And, “I just feel like it’s not what you expected.”

He was moving quickly around the room, excited. He tossed a backpack onto the bed, added water bottles and refilled the brown paper bag with all the peanuts I’d cracked and cleaned for hours the evening before. He swiped them in with two strokes of his hand. He folded the top closed and zippered up his pack.

I watched him from far away, through earth, from the bottom of a tunnel’s cavern.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“We,” he said. He opened the desk drawer and it bounced against the back of my calves. He took out the hiking pamphlets and flashed them in my face with a grin. “I told you about this place, but I want you to really see it.”

“I can see it,” I said. I didn’t know what we were talking about.

He said no, that I hadn’t, that I’d only really ever heard it. I’d heard him talk about it in Jim Thorpe, that day along the river. I’d heard it in the names of the places in New Mexico, the roads and bridges named after tribes. I’d heard it in the way the words sounded wispy and hollow like shells, in the coyotes from the back of the apartment complex. But that wasn’t enough. The heat was confusing things, keeping Albuquerque at a distance. I’d come so far to be with him, he said, to be here. It wasn’t fair, this heat. Tonight he wanted to break through it. For me.

We took my car away from the city. I hadn’t driven in a month, since I arrived. The gas was low but Malcolm Lamp told me what streets to take, what lights to run, and we didn’t stop until the four lanes widened and the median ran out and the strip malls shrank back to clay earth and blue-gray grasses and pear cactus. The mountains came barreling down on us. The sky was dark, and huge. My ears popped with the elevation change, and once we pulled free from the rich adobe homes nestled at the base of the cliffs Malcolm said to stop, pull over.

In the dark I couldn’t make out the lift that ran from the welcome center at the bottom of the mountains to the peaks. They weren’t like the eroded, quarry-gutted mountains in Jim Thorpe. These were massive shapes that curled over top of my body as I approached. I expected Malcolm to walk in front of me but instead he was at my elbow, step for step. He smiled, but it was annoying, and disappointing, that he thought he could provide the details.

And now this, this is where we are.

In the periphery I see things move, dart. I slow, put my heels to toe.

Malcolm doesn’t rush me. He swings his backpack off his shoulders.

I want to look skyward but the heat has transferred from the air to beneath my sunburn. In my thighs it rolls and shudders, and I have the urge to stretch out my legs and peel off in layers. I want to be parsed apart by heat, have light focus enough to inspect each segmented part of me—the parts of want, when I keep myself just skin and air for the waiting. And I will walk towards the mountains on land that isn’t mine, land I can’t pronounce, and Malcolm will only stare after me. He’ll realize I am doing what he wants even before he has instructions ready, because it’s already mine premeditated.

Now he’s ripping open the brown paper bag. He’s scattering the peanuts at his feet. I think at first he’s misconceived of seeds, how to properly transplant a growing creature. But then he’s talking about attracting wild things, what he’s told me about—the roadrunners, the turtles, and the coyotes that follow other movements. He keeps looking at me. He looks at a loss, waiting for correction.

Nighttime bugs nick off my cheeks. The mountains still. I sidestep the peanuts and wait for something in the distance to shift, then follow after it. It’s strange, all this wanting. Malcolm stays behind and does not repeat my name over the rustle of the paper bag. But I know already I will turn around. I know already the dry ground, and the heat that keeps it cracking.

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