"Shattered" by Toysoldier Thor.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
ABI ABBEY ABBIE
by Matt Jones
I think I’m having a hard time.
He says this and his shoulders are shaking.
He says this during dinnertime.
He says this while looking down at his plate and pushing his food around without aim.
He says this without looking anywhere.
He says this to no one in particular and to anyone who will listen.
He says this and the fists of the woman sitting next to him, his wife, clench in disgust and she walks away from the meal that she cooked but does not remember cooking.
He says this and the chewing of the boy sitting across from him, his son, slows and then ceases so mounds of dove-gray mush rest at the back of his throat, his digastric muscle paralyzed in a suspended state of swallow and heave.
He says this to the empty chair on the other side of him, the one with no plate in front of it because the placing of that plate was discontinued months ago because the realization that the food would never be touched and the seat would remain unoccupied was simply too unsettling; the seat with messily inscribed letters in the softwood where the placemat used to be, the letters that spell out variations of the same word as a learned concept over time.
He says this once and only once and never says it again because he is, in fact, having a hard time.
In the other room, the wife of the man who is having a hard time, the mother of the boy with the food in his throat, the woman who left the table with her fists clenched in disgust, begins to sob in a way that repudiates the biological necessity for the alveoli, the pleura, and the intercostals, in that order. She never knows what to do with her hands, so she lets them dangle at her sides so they rise and fall with the rigidity of her breaths.
Back in the kitchen, the man blinks his eyes twice and takes a cool deep breath, one that says,
I’m just kidding. I’m fine.
And back in the bedroom, the woman lies down on her side and faces inward so she can imagine the man in the kitchen lying down next to her, staring up at the ceiling, hands neatly clasped over his stomach. She imagines this and swings her open palm down on the empty space next to her so it smacks the comforter with a hollow pop.
And the boy at the kitchen table swallows his food with the intention of discretion, but manages to produce a loud gulping sound instead. His father does not notice and begins to pick up the dishes from around the table, also removing the boy's even though the majority of the food still remains on the plate.
The boy gets up from the table and stares long and hard at the broad back of the man, now at the sink, his father, draped in wrinkled plaid, the sound of the water running, dishes piled high, bulbous knuckles and vascular digits dug tightly into the grout of the counter tile. He stands and stares at the same spot on the back of his neck and considers saying something, but knows that he will not.
So, he wanders down the back hall and stands outside of his mother’s bedroom and listens to the sound of her breath, to the sound of someone groping around in darkness for a way of dying more closely aligned with the finality of death.
I think I’m having a hard time.
The boy whispers it but does not know what it means.
He walks away and whispers it again when he is alone in his room, examining the photo of his younger self cradling pink-cheeked new life and an even slower death for the rest of them. He looks for a few moments more and sees his life happen.
He whispers it again when slowly rocking from side to side at his junior high dance while his head is nestled in the slim neck of a girl who thinks he is handsome but will not come over to his house anymore because of the way that his hands shake and his voice quivers when she asks about the crude sketches in the softwood,
He whispers it again when his penis will not get hard, even when comfortably supported and cared for in the warm recesses of his high school girlfriend’s oral cavity, the head with the oral cavity that says,
That’s okay, this happens to a bunch of guys.
He whispers it again when he is called to the board to solve for x, but cannot remember why it is important to do so and instead tries to solve for genetic mutations in unit protein P14236, but is unable to do so.
He whispers it again when he has a moment to himself in his dorm room, when no one is around, when all of the parents have departed from opening weekend, and he whispers it again when he is in the computer lab and cannot figure out how to print to the Dell 303i.
He whispers it again while trying on his tux and fumbling with the fabric of his bowtie in front of a mirror that cuts off the top portion of his handsome head.
He whispers it again to the woman he loves, to the woman whose body rises and falls with the thrust of his hips, to the woman who stands in front of him with a thin veil of lace pushed behind her hair and tears in her eyes, after the I do and before the kiss, in that infinite space always in front of him, always receding and so hard to find.
He whispers it again in a dimly lit room while an older woman with framed degrees on her wall takes notes and asks,
And he says,
With WS Alexander.
She looks at him curiously, scribbles on her pad, and says,
And who is that?
He considers this carefully and says,
She glances up from her pad momentarily and says,
Okay. It doesn’t seem like no one.
He closes his eyes and takes a cool deep breath while examining his thoughts and he is back in his bedroom.
He stares at the photo in his hands, of new life swaddled in pink, never really new but already fading.
He walks from his bedroom, back down the hall, and stands in the doorway of his mother’s room. He stands there and watches her.
His mother lies there and watches him and wants to say something. She wants to say anything but she will not, because she too is having a hard time.
The boy looks at her for a moment longer and remembers his life as it has not been.
He walks into the kitchen, filled by the sound of running water, and grabs his plate from the counter before taking a seat at the table in the chair with the rough scribbles in the softwood in front of it where the placemat used to be.
The man standing at the sink scrubs dishes and spends a moment more in the places that he feels he knows so well, the places he doesn’t love to be, but needs to be so he can be anywhere else than in front of the sink in front of the table with the forever empty chair.
Matt Jones is a fiction candidate in The University of Alabama MFA program. His previous work has appeared in Paper Darts, Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism, and various other publications. He also has work forthcoming in Whitefish Review and The Golden Key.