A LIST OF THING I DON’T UNDERSTAND

BY CAMPBELL DIXON

My screams echo against the wet cave walls as I beat at the scalp of a goat with a tree branch. A crowd of rag-clad men stand bare-foot in the dirt and cheer at me through their beards, and from somewhere farther off, I hear the gentle voice of Nadiye: wake up. My love, it’s ok.

The goat looks up at me, my blows passing through its body like a ghost. 

“My death is but a stopgap,” it says.

I stare into its square pupils. I can’t move.

“You’ve already lost. You can’t feed them all.”

My wife’s touch bleeds into the terror. I’m twisted up in the sheets. 

“Hey, Elliot,” Nadiye says.

The pale yellow light of a primordial sky evaporates into the glow of my bedside lamp. Nadiye reaches over my body and turns off the light and the headachey vision cools fast like red-hot iron submerged in water. 

White moon streaks in through the blinds. 

“You’ve been falling asleep so early lately,” she says. 

“It was the tribal one, again,” I say.

“What does it mean? I mean, does it mean anything? I’m never sure about dreams.”

“I hope it doesn’t mean anything, honey. Jesus. I don’t have time for that crap. Why can’t I dream of you? Let me dream of something fantastic like making love to you on a white sand beach.” I sweep my arms about over the covers to mime the grand ocean waves.

“Perhaps we should get you to a psychologist? Something to cure your delusions?” She’s smiling, poking at my belly with her thin little fingers.  I can’t fight my giggles no matter how tight I squeeze my face.

“You’re really good at being a wife,” I say. She’s cured me of my nightmares so many times.

“And you’re really good at staying up all night staring at the ceiling,” she says. “I’m going to sleep so I can wake up early and find you a therapist.” She rolls onto her belly next to me and I tuck myself in close to her body.

“This won’t end well,” I say, but she’s already asleep. I could never do that. It’s because she had a good childhood, I think, that she can fall asleep so quickly. My dad and I have never slept well.

I slide my arm under her shirt and stretch my hand against the flat of her chest. Some of her hair pokes through between my lips and instead of spitting it out I see how it feels on my tongue. Her hair is shoulder length wiry and irritates my cheeks. In college she spent hours moisturizing it with extra-virgin olive oil. I watched her lather up on the lip of the bathtub while I brushed my teeth. Over her ear, I stare at a row of moon beams that stretch out on the carpet. I watch these lines of light for hours, growing pale as the sun rises. They get whiter and whiter until there are only a few moments before the alarm goes off. 

. . .

Winston has sent a car to bring me to the city for a meeting that he refuses to do online. But there’s a new guy I’d like to get on my side, to teach him a few things about the furniture business, so I agreed to go.

Nadiye gives me a kiss at the door when the driver pulls up out front. Dewey clings to her and paws at the top of her bra like a little rodent. 

“Kiss Dewey goodbye,” she says. I kiss him on the fuzz of his misshapen head and squeeze his whole hand in mine.  

“Time to go, my friend.” The driver waits at the curb, hands in his pockets. I slip my mask on and pick up my briefcase.

The back seat of the car is tiny. I have to bend my neck so that my head doesn’t bounce against the roof of the cab as we drive away. The driver locks eyes with me in the rear view mirror as we speed down a two lane road between farm plots. His skin is jaundiced and pools up under his eyes. 

“How’s it going,” I say. He should be looking at the road.

“I’m doing great, buddy. How ‘bout you?” he asks. His glasses fog up from under his mask.

I don’t like silent rides, and this one is sure to be long. Five hours or so from here to headquarters. “Weird dreams,” I say. “I’m exhausted.”

Pale clouds deaden the land all around us. They stretch like a low ceiling to the horizon in all directions. The green of life has faded under the cloud cover. Farm houses with flakey paint go by every so often, grey as the sky.  The body of a tractor glints with pale white light, and the farmer who straddles it hunches over the steering wheel. His posture withers as if fed like the leaves on autumn sunlight. But the turning of the pear trees that line the road is vibrant—sparkling pom-poms cheering my progress through the valley. 

 “My dad was a farmer,” I tell the driver. “He had to quit when he got older, subsidies dried up. He repairs tractors now.” 

“My pops too!” the driver says. “Had a little dairy farm in southern Missouri. But the cows would freeze solid in the winter. He’s gotten into the soybean business now. It’s much more profitable.”

I can’t muster the energy to keep this going.  After a couple hours of silence, we pull into the black-top lot of the Brooks-Deringer headquarters. It’s a renovated airplane hangar that we converted into our first furniture factory back in 2015. We did slow business until we sold off the giant table saws and industrial saw-dust vacuum-hoses, the piles of cotton and the rolls  of fine fabrics and the giant racks they sat on. Then we fired all the guys who operated the equipment. Now we don’t have to fuck around with lumber and upholstery, we just sell designs to big box stores like Target and Walmart. I sell them the designs, then a factory-city in Southern China called Guangdong builds it cheap and ships it over here.

The driver opens the door for me with a cigarette already lit in his mouth. He leans against the hood of the car and lets me do the work of retrieving my briefcase from the tunk. 

“This is a non-smoking zone,” I say to him before getting to the meeting. Black hairs on his forearms reach out on goosebumps as gusts of wind carry his smoke up into the sky. 

I stare at him until he tosses the butt on the ground and grinds out the embers under his heel.

“Thanks for the ride,” I say.

Behind the front desk in the office hangs the framed jumpsuits that the furniture makers used to wear when we actually built things. The Brooks-Deringer logo is stitched huge and red on their breast pockets. The receptionist sits smiling beneath the uniforms and slams her fingers across a keyboard at the computer. 

“Hello Mr. Batesman,” she says.

Her pale blue safety mask reminds me of the Chinese hotel magnates I wrote copy for back in Hong Kong before I landed a job here. They needed an English campaign to attract British tourism. The execs insisted that I wear a safety mask as they took me around the city, insisting that I get even more drunk at every bar and restaurant we stumbled into. After I sold the campaign, a prostitute came up to my hotel room and served us tea at a jade table and lit their cigars.  She extended a silver zippo over the center of the table and they all leaned in at once to suck from the flame. Everything, from the stroke of the iron that creased their suits, to the knots in their ties, to the strands of gel-crisped hair that clung to their scalps, presented a slick efficiency. It was hard to imagine returning to the chaos of America after that. They walked without the mucky confidence that hobbles empires, without the hearty western posturing that scares people off the paths they walk. But I had to get back to Nadiye. I couldn’t stick around.

Staring down from my hotel room, I watched the Hong Kongers flow in waves over the pavement. They didn’t coalesce in masses like New Yorkers, clubbing each other with sluggish gaits, but floated in between their neighbors with tight strides like the teeth of giant, weightless gears.

“They’re waiting for you in the conference room,” the receptionist says as I stare at her mask.

“Shit. Thank you.” 

I wander into the fluorescent hallways, trying to remember which door opens into the conference room. I thought I was on time for this fucking meeting. I break into a sprint through the building, my rubber souls slap and thud at the carpet. Suddenly I burst through the only door left.

Chester and Morris leap up as I rush in. Winston sits between them at the head of the conference table. His burgundy tie hangs loose around his neck and falls to one side of his giant belly. The costume of celebration.

“Elliot!” shouts Morris. “Did you run here all the way here from Burlington?”

Champagne sits corked on the table.

“Where’s the new guy,” I say between deep breaths.

“He’s in the toilet,” says Chester. “He’s about to miss the big news!

“What?” I ask.

“Don’t look so sour,” Winston says. He flops his limp hand toward his chest, ushering me over.

“I want you to run the west coast branch,” he says. His neck is bulbous and fuzzy with grey stubble.

“Why?”

He sits up in his chair with a grunt. “You’re gonna move out there,” he commands, “and bring your family with you. And you’re gonna supervise the design team at the shop!”

“We got out of making hard goods for a reason,” I say.  

Winston blinks hard as if to wipe away the disappointing reality in front of him. My chest is heaving from the sprint and I realize that my fly is down. 

“You’re gonna sell custom furniture to yuppies!” he bellows. “If you say no, you’re canned.”

I fish for a lozenge in my breast pocket. Nicotine is spicy and it always burns my throat. I had to quit cigarettes when Dewey was born, but now I’m just addicted to these. The new guy walks in and I decide to put on a show.

“OK, Winston!” I’m nearly yelling. “Send Batesman to California!”

The new guy looks like he’s crapped his pants and turns away.

We all jump with a loud pop. Winston pours himself a glass of champagne. 

“Well good,” he says, with a deep, nasally exhale, launching a booger onto the breast of his oversized suit jacket. 

So we begin to get shitfaced. Morris and Chester and I lament the terrible quality of our furniture once it’s shipped over from China until Winston tells us to get the fuck out, so we stand in the parking lot and I watch them smoke cigarettes. The new guy’s name is Philip. He doesn’t drink so I ignore him.

“Senior year of college was when I had my first smoke,” I say with bravado. I’m drunk. “God, I miss cigarettes.” I pop another nicotine lozenge into my mouth and chew it up.

“Oh yea?” asks Morris. He’s so sauced he can barely keep his eyes open and leans on my shoulder for support. Philip squints at us. Chester, who’s got a bit of vomit on his blue lapel, eggs me on with a big old grin.

“I was about to propose to Nadiye, so we flew all the way home from school so she could meet my dad,” I explain. “I buy us this disgusting pack of mentholated cigarettes at O’hare because she’d started smoking and I wanted to impress her. She was all mad because I dropped out of school right before finals and had to move in with her. I just wanted to make her happy.”

“College was amazing,” says Chester, looking wistfully across the parking lot. Morris starts cracking up right into my ear and his breath sears my nostrils with the tang of second-hand champagne. 

He whispers with a throaty grumble: “You really missed out.” 

“When we got to my dad’s house,” I go on, shrugging Morris off, “we reeked of tobacco. He puts me in a headlock in front of my future wife, starts slapping me in the face, then he reaches into my back pocket for the cigarettes. Nadiye’s screaming and tryna get him off of me and get the cigarettes out of his hand, but he throws them into the fireplace. They burnt up, pack and all. He says to me—If you keep smoking those cigarettes you’ll be too sick to fuck your wife!”

Morris doubles over with laughter and falls on the ground. The new guy bends a knee to make sure he’s ok. 

“So that’s why you quit,” Morris says from the ground.

“Because Dewey was born,” I say. I gesture for the cigarette that Chester’s got in the corner of his mouth and I take a big, decadent puff.

“Why not,” I say, “it’s my special day.”

Michael’s cigarette is moist with spit and bile. The smoke is stinging but I can deaden that—it’s the rush that damns me. My vision frays into gray spots. I almost buckle over on top of Morris who’s still lying on the ground. 

I sit back on my ass, right on the pavement, and think about Dewey growing up in Los Angeles. He’d want to become an actor or something, a narcissist. Then I think about Nadiye and how happy she’d be at the beach, how good she’d look in a bikini. 

I take another drag of Michael’s cigarette and let myself feel weightless in a sickening way. 

Five years ago, back when we landed in Chicago and my dad threw out my smokes, we went at it in my childhood bedroom. I grappled with her legs. I was completely lost. When I followed her thighs to her calves, I found more calves and more thighs. She tugged me on top of her, away from my frantic searching, and I gave in completely. Her power came from her tender little gut, where tiny cells began stacking. She was making a little person in there. But then we lost it. That was our first try.

“How’s Nadiye,” Chester asks, plopping down at my side. He takes the cigarette from me and flicks it away.

“Oh. She’s loving life as a mom, I think. Her parents are coming from Turkey next month to meet Dewey. They’ll be delighted to hear about LA.”

. . .

Winston bought our new place in California with cash and he owns it.  It’s a pink, Spanish-stucco in the Palisades, and if I climb on the roof I can see the Pacific ocean and the Santa Monica Pier. There’s a vast and thirsty lawn stretching from our front door to the sidewalk. I hate tending to it. Winston won’t let me tear it out because he wants a lawn when he moves out here in five years to replace us.

This morning I sliced my hand open on the pull-cord starting the lawn mower and Nadiye nursed my cut. My new strength is clumsy. I am at the mercy of a world that she simply lets grow around us. She doesn’t fight it. When I lift Dewey into my arms, I chase after his head to support it, but the child is hers when she holds him. She steers his body in a confident, careful dance. 

After lunch, Nadiye finds me in the garage benching two plates. I started working out when we moved out here. My body got so soft in Illinois. But weight has no meaning to Nadiye. She isn’t impressed with my new record. I rack the barbell.

“How does working out fit in with the secret smoking you’ve been doing?” she asks. I take a big pull from my water jug.

“Don’t I remind you of the Marlboro man?” I say, and flex my sweaty bicep.

“You’re becoming an LA douche bag already,” she says. 

Maybe she’s right. I’m kinda proud of it.

A client at the showroom bought an armoire last week and asked me where I work out. I told her that the corporate furniture conglomerate that puppeteers this faux-artisanal shop bought me a home gym. Then she paid seventeen-hundred for the furniture and gave me her phone number. Gloria. She told me to call her up sometime and we could get a juice. So I did. She’s so beautiful, so plain, just like every other rich person who walks around here. It’s distracting. I almost hate it. But I’m bored here and she keeps me occupied during the work week. Gloria.

She comes in again today while I’m working and buys some footstools to go with the easy chairs she bought last week. She brings me a carrot juice and I file her receipt.

Nadiye calls my work phone. I lean back and kick my feet up on the desk and curl the phone cord around my finger. Gloria backs out of the storefront with a wave.

“Did she finally buy that wardrobe?” she asks.

“The armoire. Yeah. Finally.”

Just the idea that she knows about Gloria makes me want to flee everything. Last month I told her that some woman gave me her phone number at work. I had to tell someone, and she’s my only friend here. She has a whole gang of women she meets with already. They all have kids. They’re always over. If I left tonight, she’d be ok.

“Ok,” she says, moving on. “Can you swing by Whole Foods on the way home and get some veggies?” She asks.

I smile. I miss her. And it’s not because I’m horny. I couldn’t leave her. 

Raoul comes in from the back with a bolt of horrendous green fabric for an overstuffed couch he’s working on. He looks like he has a very important question, his mask is pulled down under his moustache and his eyes are wide.

“So our anniversary is coming up,” I say, to get Raoul away from my desk. 

“Yes, I’m excited, honey. Will you get the vegetables?”

“I will.”

“Thank you,” she says.

I want more.

“I love you,” I tell her.

“I’ll see you tonight.”

Tonight, I’ll tell her about the tickets I bought to Hawaii. Hopefully those tropical waves will wash Gloria and this horrible city out of me. I’m ruined. 

. . . 

She hates the idea of Hawaii.

During dinner,  she tells me she’d rather do something simple for our anniversary. She’s the one that spiralized a zucchini with some stupid device to make gluten free pasta. That’s not very simple, is it?

“We should just drive up the coast and talk and be together,” she says, setting a forkful of zucchini noodles into a puddle of marinara. “Enough money. Enough luxury.”

“But the money’s been spent,” I say.

“What are we gonna do with Dewey?” she asks.

I didn’t think of that. I need a break from thinking, from the show room, that gorgeous woman with the armoire who keeps coming in for more furniture, reminding me of the young man waiting around inside me. Anyway.

. . .

I fly dad out from Chicago so he can watch the house and take care of Dewey while we’re in Hawaii. Winston lends me his jet for the trip and we take-off from Santa Monica Airport. I have to insist that we show up to a fancy dinner reservation when we arrive because she’s not hungry. She wants something simple. But tonight we’re eating surf and turf on a boat restaurant and I feel as calm as a glass of water. This should do the trick for our marrige.

But she’s not eating. The salad she ordered is so light and fluffy and untouched. I imagine flinging it across the room like a frisbee just to hear the plate shatter against the polished floor; black, lava-rock tile, glistening with flecks of green lettuce stuck to it. Images pass through my vacant mind. She takes her sashimi back to the hotel in a paper box, puts it in the mini fridge, and gets naked.

In the shower, she’s so short without heels on that I can rest my chin on her head. Water gushes over both of our skulls. Hibiscus shampoo floats around with the steam and a warm breeze blows it into the hotel room from the window. It’s these very moments that keep me lapping at the pleasures of domestic life.

While she towels off, I smoke a cigarette on the porch and watch millions of gallons of ocean water pound at the rocks. This is the most isolated island chain in the whole world. I exhale a big column of smoke from my mouth and let my jaw hang like an idiot, stupefied by the mystery of life. I feel like an idiot.

“That’s how you look at me when I’m naked,” Nadiye says. I didn’t notice that she stepped out here with me. She’s wearing a puffy white robe and holds a steaming cup of tea.

“Give me that cigarette,” she says. And she takes a puff. It’s been five years since I last saw her smoke.

I embrace her awkwardly as she holds the cigarette and the tea. She accepts my first kiss, and we exchange a shiver between us. I lean in to take more but she isn’t feeling generous. I pull her closer.

“Wait, Elliot. ” She pushes me towards the sea and I catch myself. 

 “I’m numb,” she says. “This whole island is numbing me.” She takes a big drag on my cigarette as if it’s going to bring her back to life after drowning, then she drops it into her cup of tea with a hiss.

“I know you feel it,” she says. I grimace. What’s coming?

“You feel the guilt in your body,” she says, “and you run around trying to treat it and hide it. But I can’t wait for you to understand that pain.”

“What pain? We’re in Hawaii! I love you,” I say, testing out a few things. I’m a goner.

“I love you, too, Elliot. But only because I have history with you, I think. And this move and this trip just cheapen that little bit of real love we had as kids. We’ve been trying to live off of it for the past five years.”

I want another cigarette. I left the pack in the bathroom. I can’t leave now. 

“Do you understand?” she asks.

“I don’t understand anything. I mean seriously, what the fuck? I’ve given you everything I can give you. I gave you Dewey!” 

“Is there more?” she asks. “Please. Keep going.”

“Well, honey. Yes. I mean, do you want more sex?” I ask. Probably not. “Less sex? If it’s not this lifestyle that you want then what is it?” I’m terrified of the hollowness left by my lack of answers.

“I’m beginning to understand that I’m done,” she says. “There’s nowhere else to go with you, Elliot.” 

“What about Switzerland? Skiing?”

“I’m going to pack my things,” she says. “You’re welcome to stay here. I’ve already booked my flight. I need to be with our son.”

“No,” I say. Just let her talk herself out. Her lovable face making these harsh, ugly words. She doesn’t say what I want her to say. She doesn’t say anything.

“I love you, though,” I say.

“I know. And you’re doing the best you can. And I have to go.”

And she really starts packing. Right there in front of me. I sit on a stool in my towel and watch her and I smoke. She gives me a hug that I don’t return, then she gets in a cab and goes to the airport. 

I walk the small streets around the resort, around blocks of suburban villas smack in the middle of the Pacific. I stop at the shore every few laps around the compound to look out across the ocean. Maybe something profound will blow into my head from across the water. A bit of clarity, a stroke of genius, a plan. Yes. That’s right. The next big score is on its way from just over the horizon.  The next chance to pull up my socks, lace up my shoes, adjust my tie, and walk briskly towards my future is within my capable grasp. These days are my prime days. My destiny is a sexy brunette, and I’m horny. I light cigarette after cigarette. I can’t wait to get out of here. It’s fucking cold and I didn’t bring anything warm. It’s not supposed to be cold here. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Everything’s closed.

. . .

“Should I have seen it coming?” I ask Nadiye over the phone. 

“Yeah. It was very fucking obvious,” she says. “But there’s no way you could’ve known.”

I tuck the phone into the crook of my shoulder and pop a chicken parm into the microwave for dinner.

“Why not?” I say.

Dewey’s laugh crackles on the phone from somewhere in my old house. “I wish you’d take me off speakerphone,” I say. The view from my new place looks out over the Valley. I stare at it from the kitchen window. It’s a puddle of white lights at night. LA is beautiful from a distance when everything else is dark. 

“The idea you had of me was so lovely in your mind,” Nadiye says, breaking my concentration. “But it was a total fantasy. And I need to grow beyond that fantasy now. You should, too. You’re still young. Put that money to good use. And I don’t mean more gifts for me. Do a workshop or something. Get a therapist.” 

I wonder what Dewey can understand. He might grow up to hate me. I would.

“I’m going to meet someone better than you,” I say. The phone feels hot against my cheek. It burns a little. I hope it explodes.

“And I’ll be happy for you, Elliot—if you’re happy.”  

The conversation isn’t really going anywhere. Gloria hasn’t been returning my texts.

“Good night,” I say.

“Ok,” she says. “Goodnight.”

“I love you,” I say. I know it will bother her. But I really mean it.

“Bye,” she says. 

I toss my phone into the kitchen sink with the dirty dishes.

After brushing my teeth, I apply nicotine patches to my upper arms. They give me the most vivid dreams when I sleep, so I like to stick on a couple of extra before bed. Life is so banal, but dreams are wild and spiritual and glorious. Sometimes I get laid in my dreams. Other times I sail the ocean like a captain. Last night, I saw Nadiye when she was nineteen, sitting on the bunk of my first dorm room. It’s all fine as long as I’m not awake.

In bed, I stare at the ceiling and try to cry.  Some catharsis would be so sweet, so gentle, a bit of love from God, or whatever. I feel light building up like a dammed-up river behind my eyes. My legs flail and twitch with the electric potential of release. My heart beats fast and blood rushes to my dick, and I don’t understand that. Then I realize how alone I am, and that Dewey is a weekend son now just like I was. The spark of freedom I felt in my chest gets overwhelmed by a yawn and that magic pain dies away in my chest like a cigarette ember in a cup of tea.

I know it will be over soon. The faint beat of drums and the chant of lonely men in caves overtakes me as I pass into sleep.

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