A Very Small StainDanny Lalonde
The sofa has been here almost since the beginning. I pull my knees up, hug them close to me, and listen to my father apologize before he shoves the end of a dull, black handgun into his mouth. I don’t hear the blast. Instead, it is my mother’s voice as she comes rushing in from the kitchen –Why? Why? Why? – louder every time; her olive skin turns nearly purple from screaming.
The very next week, we empty the apartment because she can’t afford this one anymore. That’s what she tells me. But we only load our belongings onto the elevator and move down from the fourteenth floor to the sixth. Of course, I don’t ask her about it, nor do I point out that the new apartment is exactly the same as the old one except that I can’t see the lake from the balcony. It’s the first thing I find missing. We make more than a dozen trips up and down the elevator carrying garbage bags full of belongings, mattresses, chairs, tables, armfuls of dishes and Tupperware, then a grocery cart – the one from the lobby – full of food. The landlord and his son are the only help we have since Mom’s family lives out of town and Dad’s family is grieving so hard they can’t make the ten minutes to come over and help.
I stand in the doorway of the apartment and I look into the little hole where the bolt from the door lands. This one time, before I was tall enough to see inside the cavity, I dropped my chewing gum down inside the hole. I wonder how many little boys before me dropped chewing gum or candy or army men or bits of eraser down inside the metal door frame, if only to imagine where the object might land, if it lands at all. I think that there is probably a time capsule’s worth of debris down there: the secret stash of curious children stranded in this doorway, pondering, waiting, worrying.
There’s only one thing left in the apartment and it’s the sofa. Mom tugs at my arm and tells me it’s time to go.
What about the sofa?
We’re leaving it here.
But we have to bring it with us. It’s ours.
It’s dirty, she says, Now, come on. We have to unpack downstairs.
I tell myself that there is nothing really packed, so I don’t know what the big deal is. The big deal here is that the sofa is alone and needs to come with us.
It’s not that dirty.
We’re leaving it. Now come on.
I’m going to stay here a while, then. If that’s okay.
There is a moment, before she loosens the tension on my arm, when I think she won’t let me stay. I can’t look at her because I know that we will have to say more things to each other and I’m not ready for that yet. I’m still only seven years old.
Don’t be long, she says, and I watch her from behind as she moves down toward the elevator carrying our electric frying pan under her arm and smoking a cigarette.
At first, I can’t just walk into the apartment. Empty like this, it’s a place I’m not used to. I focus on the sofa and suddenly I can imagine the table to one side of it, with a lamp, and in front of it there once was a rug. But that disappeared right away. There is a painting on the wall, a landscape from K-Mart; the shapes and colours in the painting match the mottled pattern on the sofa. I can’t accurately decipher for myself its complex swirls and shapes, sometimes fruit, sometimes vessels wrapped and scrolled with vines and intersecting vegetation. Orange. Brown. Orange. Red. Brown. Black. Yellow. And then orange again. It’s like that story about the illustrated man where his tattoos, his markings, tell you something different each time you look. The sofa is not defined by the pattern or even the colours so much as just an impression of itself, it introduces itself: furniture overwhelmed by confusion. When the room presents itself full like this, I cross the hollowness of it and land on the sofa. I’m wearing shorts so that the rough, dry fabric is scratchy against my skin. I pull my legs up and hug them to me. Mom isn’t really concerned with the dirt. Not the crusty place where my sister spilled her macaroni and cheese. Not the places where someone fell asleep and drooled. She isn’t even worried about the ratty patch where our butts have worn one cushion nearly bare. There are tiny flecks of him spattered along the front of the sofa. I know this because I had to wash some of the flecks off of my skin.
It isn’t very long before she’s in the doorway calling me to her.
It’s time, she says. I need your help.
We can’t leave it, I tell her.
It’s not coming.
I don’t know how to argue with her because she says everything so finally.
But, we can’t leave it.
Come on, Frank.
I am not bringing that thing into our new home.
We can’t sit on the floor.
We’ll get a new one.
I thought you didn’t have any money.
When I am old, will you leave me behind?
Come now. Please, Frank. Please.
I like this one.
Before she says anything else, I hear the elevator ding and then open. The landlord and his son are in the hallway, their voices echo like they might in a hospital or an asylum. He talks to Mom who finally lowers her head. He wants to charge her to throw the sofa into the dumpster, but he’ll move it down to the new place for free. I should have never tried to argue with her because I know it has only made this worse.
As the elevator closes with the landlord and his son tucked in there neatly with the sofa, Mom and I wait for the next one. I’m sorry, I tell her, but she only squeezes my hand sadly.
We could put plastic on it, like on Gramma’s sofa, I say, so that it doesn’t get any dirtier.
We never cover it, not even with a blanket. For the longest time, the furniture, even the painting, occupy the new apartment in the same exact layout as in the old place. Only the carpet and the view of the lake are missing. Either Mom doesn’t notice, or it doesn’t matter anymore.
Mom is close and she has an arm around me. I think I’m eleven. There’s a small ceramic ashtray on the arm of the sofa. It’s full, but she’s still smoking. When she exhales, I draw short convulsive breaths so that I can share the disease. I think we will be closer because of it. I think she mistakes my stilted, erratic breathing for crying, so she draws her body down the length of the sofa and holds me tighter, closer, so that I won’t fall off. I feel the softness of her breast, the warmth of her belly, and the steady rhythm of her diaphragm lifting and falling. I hear the unsteady drumming of her heart and see the sweat dampening her neck. She bends one leg, draws her knee up, and the bottom of me rests in the space she creates. I begin to tremble—her breath, the smell of cigarettes, is hot on my face—and she grips me so tightly I think that if I do not breathe, then the trembling will go away. This is a moment my body never forgets.
It’s okay to be lonely, she says. Everybody is lonely.
Does it go away?
I don’t think it ever does, she says. I think about finding another man, but I don’t think I would stop being empty.
I’m thirteen and Mom is at one end and I’m at the other. She hands me a cigarette. I have my own ashtray. I have one of her glasses and I am chewing the ice cubes. The little bit of liquid in the glass tastes like the smell of old leaves. It’s warm in my throat, hot in my belly. My one hand is down between the cushion and the arm of the sofa. There’s something down there, a string, or a necklace maybe. I leave it there. I think of the opening in Dad’s skull, the scar I dream about so often. I think about the dripping from the ceiling and rushing to him in dream-speed, trying to hold it closed, trying to wrap the cotton rug around his head so that he’ll stop bleeding. Squeezing and squeezing so that he’ll be okay. It didn’t really happen that way. I just sat there holding my legs, swaying, trying to stay focused on the TV. Mom hands me leftover ice cubes all the time and sometimes there’s more than enough of the old leaves to warm my belly and cloud my head.
Hold me, she says, and I slide across the rough fabric and she rocks me against her and I feel ashamed because of what my body does and how sick I feel in her arms.
He’s going to hell, you know. She whispers.
How can you know that?
It’s where people go who can’t be redeemed.
Can I go with him?
She doesn’t answer me; we never talk about him again.
My sister is too young to remember. I think that she pissed her pants when it happened. She was sitting right beside me at the time. When she is fifteen, I come home and find Karen and her boyfriend on the sofa. He turns towards me and I see his penis dangling there, over her. He looks at me stupidly, an animal suddenly stranded in headlights. I’m captivated by the hollow her buttocks makes in the cushion, a dark, forbidden depression. Suddenly, like kites, they fly off to the bedroom where I hear her swearing and him laughing. Not long after that, she moves out, pregnant, to the boyfriend’s apartment.
There are things that I remember, but more that I forget. I haven’t seen either of them, Mom or Karen, in such a long time. Mom disappeared, and Karen just never calls anymore. I know where she is; she and the boyfriend rent a trailer down there next to the lake. The summers might be pleasant, but I’m sure the winters are hell. Mom never stops drinking. She held enough ice cubes out to me so that the lines blurred into nothing I can recognize. When I move out of the sixth floor apartment, I’m the only one left. The one thing I take with me is the sofa.
From the basement where I rent now, I can’t see the lake, or any of the buildings that sprawl the city. I can see a bit of grass and it makes me smile to think I am almost half buried, closer than I might otherwise get while I’m still conscious. When Mom came unglued, I don’t think she knew anything. She’s not dead. I don’t think so. But, I think she’s with Dad in a lot of ways. I have trouble explaining it. I’m done. I have trouble explaining that one too. Fortunately, there’s nobody to explain it to. I’m not sure what my sister tells her kid. Maybe he’s not old enough yet. I wonder if he’s eight or nine now. I don’t remember meeting him.
Outside of my door, there’s a concrete well, a sort of landing where I might keep a bicycle or a hibachi. I have neither. The stairs go up and out into the yard. I stand in the doorway and stick my finger into the little hole where the door bolts tight. I touch something soft and that makes me smile too. There’s nothing left in the apartment except the sofa; I’ve pawned everything else. That’s what you do when you’re desperate. I saw it on TV.
You can tell me, I expect: this is the lunatic fringe, right? The place people go to when they figure out there’s no such thing as heaven, no such thing as hell, and redemption is the lie that revenge tries to tell you. There isn’t a lot that makes sense to me anymore. Mom was right about one thing, though: lonely never goes away. It just grows and grows until it’s tight on you like a tourniquet and I can only suck little breaths through the jaundiced filter of half-smoked cigarettes.
I drag the old sofa, heavy as an anchor, up the stairs and into the yard. I can see a few people already out on their balconies looking down at me. I have a flask of rye and I pour it all over the fabric. People have been burning their important things forever, right? Making sacrifices of one kind or another. This is the only thing I have left, so here it is, stains and all. The first match doesn’t catch and someone up there laughs and I hear beer bottles clink against a metal railing. The second match keeps and I drop it onto the cushion. The flash of light shoves me back and the thing woofs like a big, bad dog and the breath of it steals the air from all around the blaze. There are so many faces in the smoke and the flames: most of them I don’t recognize, but my father smiles at me. The sirens draw more people outside onto their balconies. Some of the children sneak onto the fire escape to get closer. I drop back into the shadows, down the concrete well, and into my small room. I have no furniture now, so I just stand here looking down at the place where the boy in me used to sit. I suppose that something in the burning says that I am a man now, the glass having gone all dark instead of clear.
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