Matchbooks and Birdhouses

By Justin Machnik


Angie sits on the dresser with her legs crossed and her jeans ripped at the knees waiting for him to come home. Flowers are growing out of the carpet where she spilled planting soil on Christmas. She wanted the dirt to represent David and herself, and wanted him to clean it up, but he pushed tiny morning glory seeds in the earth, drew the curtains, and let the sun hit the floor. Russ lay in the sun next to the pile of dirt with his head between his paws while delicate roots dug themselves into the fibers of the carpet and into the floorboards. David watered them before he took Russ for runs in the morning, and slowly, tiny green vines worked their way up the wall and twisted around the curtains like embroidery. One morning she woke up and the buds had opened and there were brilliant blue and pink flowers and she couldn't remember why she was mad at him.

Angie rubs her hands up and down the side of the dresser David made from particleboard after the flood. It fills her hands with splinters. They are almost gray under her skin. She wants to tell him how each sliver reminds her of him. The one in her right thumb is the time he left the toilet seat up. The three in her left palm are him coming home late and drunk. When she married David, she was caught up in his current. She didn't think of lonely days, or the extra bedroom that in time would become a guest bedroom instead of a child's room. She didn't think of David staying out late and drinking.

Last week he came home drunk with a forty in his hand and said, "Baby, I been missing you all night," and she said, "I was with someone else tonight." He smiled and said, "I'll never stop loving you." She got up from the bed where the mattress was supported by match sticks, came up to him and dragged her nails across his face and bit his cheek. The blood that silked down his chin reminded her of red streamers in the streets of a Spanish festival. Russ came over, bad shoulder and all, and licked up the spots where it dripped on the carpet. Then Angie took the bottle and threw it at the wall.
It didn't break when it hit, but punched a hole in the drywall. The beer came out the open lid like fireworks and sprayed across the floor, soaking into the carpet. The morning glories stretched their roots and tried to taste the bitterness. Russ went over and started licking the carpet there too. David put his hand on her cheek and rubbed her ear with his thumb. She looked at the hole in the wall and said, "That's the way my heart feels." He said, "Then I'll fill it." She touched the empty spot between her hips and said, "You can't." He opened the window and left it that way and in a week two sparrows had flown in and started making a nest in the hole. They used bits and scraps from the flood and every morning they would wake her up with song at just the right time to see David pull on his jeans for work.

She looks over where the birds are sleeping together with their eggs and it fills her with envy. She hates him. He has put bars across the window so the birds can fly out but no one can come in and she hates him. Each bar a metaphor for a year of imprisonment she thinks. There are seven and she wonders if in a year he will add another. Angie spits on the floor and Russ comes over and starts licking it up.

David brought home Russ the day the doctor told her she was broken. She cursed at him and told him he was an idiot and that he didn't know how to make anything better. When David was at work driving a school bus for kids she could never have, she'd dress up Russ in children's clothing she kept hidden in her underwear drawer. She would give him baths, make him meals, and comb his hair. Everything that had ever bothered her she told to Russ and believed he understood. She bought educational toys geared toward language development and spatial awareness, but Russ chewed on them, and pawed at his clothing. Russ's jeans had a hole cut in the back for his tail, and once she found a letter in the pocket. It just said that everything would be all right. She thought it was from Russ, but then she also thought it was God. She liked knowing that someone was listening.

*

Sliding off the dresser, bare foot with the carpet coming up through her toes, Angie crosses the room and places the respirator of scuba gear in her mouth. Russ perks his ears up. Angie pulls the mouthpiece from her lips, and says, "He's drowning me." Two years ago the mailman had given them a notice to evacuate the house. The yellow paper explained that they were on the flood plain and in a week's time the whole area would be underwater. David folded the paper into a tiny boat at the breakfast table while Angie had her hands in lukewarm brown dishwater. If love had a color she imagined this was it. David started folding the napkins into sailor's hats. He wrote their names on them, "David," and "Russ," and "The Beautiful Angie" on hers.

"I didn't even want to live here," she said to him and broke a dish. Ceramic shards slid across the hardwood to David's toes. Russ left the kitchen with his tail between his legs. "This is how you make me feel and it's your damn fault and now we have to leave," she broke another plate. "I'm sick of moving around, I don't want to go," and she broke a bowl. He said, "Then we won't go anywhere." He collected the pieces of ceramic and painted murals of happy people on them and hung them above their bed in a mobile. The next day while David was on the roof, building Russ a doghouse, a truck delivered wet suits and scuba gear and two hundred tanks of oxygen. He spent an entire year's salary on the stuff and she told him they were going to starve now.
First the water came in under the doors, and they had to take off their shoes and roll up their jeans. Then the water started rolling in through the windows. They put on their wet suits and slept on an air mattress that floated like a raft. David would climb out of the attic window to feed Russ on the roof and take him for morning swims around the block. Soon they had to put on their masks and they lived as normally as they could in their underwater home. He blew her air bubble kisses when he saw her and she flipped him aquatic birds. They removed their respirators only long enough to fork soggy spaghetti into their mouths, never to kiss. They never had to dry their laundry or run the faucet to do dishes or brush their teeth. When they slept David would change her oxygen so she wouldn't have to wake.

When the water drained out, it pulled the furniture with it. Everything was soaked and Angie complained. David tore off the roof to let in the sun. Slowly the walls dried and the carpet didn't squish when they walked on it. He used the wood from the roof to make new chairs and couches. He made a new bed with shingles still nailed to the posts. Angie would lie in bed all day until her skin turned bronze. The freckles came out on her arms and face while he scrubbed the walls and rebuilt their home, and every time his hammer hit she hated him.

With the roof gone, she could look up at the stars and fall asleep beneath them. Autumn was on its way and they started seeing their breaths. David took everything left over, all the ruined things washed out in the flood, and made a new roof out of them. It was a collage of everything they used to know, an impression of their life. Their wedding picture was nailed to her diploma, caulked to the urn that once held his grandfather's ashes. Triathlon trophies were stapled to an old yellow paged bible, super glued to a map of Romania that was tied to a hunting rifle duct taped to an "I Voted" pin from 1976.

Angie throws the scuba gear across the room, into the closet. The air hose comes loose and sounds like the crash of the ocean on the shore. She tried to drown him in the sea once and while his head was underwater he collected shells and later made necklaces and earrings for her out of them. Angie put them in a giant mason jar and they barely filled the bottom. She said, "This is as full as us," so every night before David went to bed he would whisper into the jar that he loved her. When he gave it back to her and told her it was now full, she threw it at him. He melted down the glass into a tiny statue of her. She told him she destroyed it, but she hid it in her underwear drawer next to Russ's clothing. Every once in a while Angie takes out her glass statue, touches its face, and wishes she were really that pretty.

She tried to burn him to death once too. David woke up in the middle of the night with her striking a match to the corner of the sheets. "What are you doing, babe?" He said half drunk. And she said, "This is exactly what we're missing from our lives." "You're doing it all wrong," he said, and licked his fingers and pinched out the flame. Their bed was out in the front yard the next day when she came home from the grocery store. Shingles were still on the posts. In the bedroom he was stacking matches, all with equal weight upon each other. Delicately, he placed one on top of the next until he had built them a new bed frame made of thin white wood with red tips. He set their mattress on top. It was sturdy and flexed to cushion him when they laid on it. David struck a match, gave it to her, and told her to try again. She let it burn down until it blackened the tips of her fingers and then he kissed them until she fell asleep that night with a smile.


David comes in smelling like booze. "You look beautiful tonight," he says and kisses her forehead. Russ comes up with his tail wagging and David rubs him on the brow and massages his ears. "I hate you," she says, arms crossed sitting on their matchstick bed. "I know," he says. A night breeze comes in through the barred window and blows the hair out of her eyes. The mobile of happy people painted on ceramic shards chimes in the wind. The birds tuck their heads under their wings, warming speckled eggs that will soon be cracked shells lying on the carpet next to the flowers that droop their petals in sleep. Angie and David climb into bed and he runs his fingers through her hair as she stares up at the ceiling that is a collection of everything they are. The skirt she wore when they first met in Spain. The watch he lost in the car accident that almost killed him. The old Chevy they first made love in. The night he said she was the only one for him.


Justin Machnik is a current MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College for fiction writing. He grew up in Michigan and did his undergraduate work at the University of Iowa. His writing is heavily influenced by his time spent in the Midwest.

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