An Excerpt from S P R A W L by Danielle Dutton

BOMB 112 Summer 2010
112 20Cover

I walk through streets and look in windows to witness cheerfully painted walls and vertical lamps, high technical quality and surround-sound, mystery, beauty, fry baskets, fried chicken legs, joy sticks, shelves, ovens, beans. Over and over I encounter specific signs, such as PREPARE TO MERGE. I stand in front of one public mural entitled “The Evolution of Dishes.” But a blue heron flies over my car and then just disappears. I carry on for weeks after this. I squeeze oranges into paper cups for vitamins. I cluster near the base of bedside lamps. It’s like I can’t rest confident in the political circumstance of one small space, this one, or right outside the window, or across the street, or over by the train station. As if I’m delicate. As if I’m deserted. As if I’m an endangered ocelot or a farmer on a stamp. As if I identify randomly with people on the street. As if I’m named Yvonne or Yvette. As if I have a bright pink refrigerator. As if I’m exhausted or superstitious or aggressively sexualized and armed with an assortment of lasers or guns. I don’t feel a thing. In the morning, over coffee and eggs, I’m exhorted to be an individual. In the afternoon we wash our cars. At night I’m restricted to a relatively confined social circle. The cat climbs in and out of empty boxes in the hall. I sleep with the window open and imagine. Tonight a celebrity on television mentions his wife and kids. He tells the camera he spent last year riding a motorcycle around the world. His favorite color is purple and his card is American Express. Tonight I deny my ordinary life. I converse with the very words. I impress myself on men’s hands as I make my way toward the restrooms at the back. I drop my dress on the floor. I chop produce. I pick weeds. I pop a plastic bag for no real reason. I take advantage of particular events, of particular sentiments, to render a particular series of events. I become detached from the routine of lawn, lawn, office building, lawn or “Bring me milk,” “Bring me sugar.” I say, “Milk me sugar” and “Sugar me milk.” I move through the house and let my kimono slip open, a soaring kimono with silvery cranes and blossoms. I get the mail in my open kimono and meet the neighbors’ stares with my own absence. There are bills and catalogs for garden furniture and candles. There is a letter written as a kind of crazy joke, it’s a sort of contest, a contest. It’s easily stirred. I leave the bowl on the counter and the bugs find it. “You’re filthy,” it says. It amounts to nothing. The season, as it progresses, becomes un-collective and un-plural. I acquire a certain understanding with the abandoned swimming pool in the park. It contains a distinctive temperature, a soft molecular surge. In bed I can feel it (strange nighttime rhythms). In the morning a pebble sinks (pebbles and crows). Meanwhile, the evening news is a whole nightmare of the future involving underground laboratories and weather. What is buried in our thoughts is self-evolving. Out there is a continuity of something; it is secretly allowed to cross borders and nations. The book in my hands says, “You wouldn’t like to live on a coral reef but sometimes you would.” I cool my face against the beveled edge of the glass table in the living room. I stand on the table and look out the window. I bruise my leg on the glass edge. So I carry my work into another room where there are decadent lamps and signs of Egyptology as a hobby. Apparently, we are vulgar populizers of the superficial. Sometimes we don’t even know it’s happening. Other times I feel it rise up in my throat like a genteel wrath. Haywood’s flapping smile is wholly innocent. And what’s left? What one might wonder is: is this fast trip through my own little strip of time my own? Am I on it? One day someone will decode intricately wrapped gifts on the far limits of the tabletop: glass grapes, bunches of plastic marigolds, a blue plate, a white plate, a heaping pile of fallen petals. In the movie of my life I’ll play myself, from a distinct past, or a gliding distance, in the garden, under a stone bench, or from the leaves like a watchtower. It’s enjoyable—the rising and falling of large ideas we play off against our bodies. Like that thing there, can I put it in my up or down? There are breakfast plates, a fork, a knife, a chunk of bread, paper napkins, a banana sliced in half and standing on end. Later, on the same table, there’s a chocolate bar wrapped in blue-and-silver foil, a pear. I stand in my house. I collaborate with the window and fill it optimistically with my figure or silhouette, which is somewhat rewarding. Other days I am ragged and gross. I move into the night and arrive at stones. Then I move southward through an idealized artificial system. I attempt to single-handedly reinvigorate the relationship between people and place. I shake myself on the sidewalk like a dog. I am prominent and astounding, but everyone else is asleep. I stand in the light from lampposts and point at revivals of traditional architecture, landscape scenarios, bifurcations of community, etc. All the houses have at least one door. The initial idea wasn’t ours, but we’ve incorporated it totally. When I get home Haywood is in bed. There is a pain in his chest and he does not choose to perform for me. I eat cake and stand in front of the window in the kitchen. There is something in the backyard, in the dark, so I go outside and squat in the grass, but whatever it is runs away from me. In the morning we go back to the kitchen to eat breakfast. First, one person gets up and goes into the bathroom. Then someone else showers in the bathroom after dinner. In this way, each moment corresponds to a different room. On the evening news they show clips from the nation’s largest machine-gun show. There are vendors selling automatic weapons with mass-market appeal and teenage boys in camouflage spraying bullets at an old Cadillac. Families walk by the camera smiling and waving and eating chunks of meat or corn. There are baseball hats and ski-caps and ponytails that sway and look soft. Then the reporter interviews a man with a metal cashbox and a rifle over his shoulder. Later Haywood and I sit in a swing and look out at all our grass. A bird sings at us from his perch in the tree, but the nests he builds will fall into the pool when it rains. There are all sorts of flowers in the hedges: edible, highly scented and purple, and red clogs for gardening. If stitched together, the lawns on this street would be pointless and unrecognizable. Three houses down, one hostess serves champagne and eggs. She carries cupcakes on small trays and the wallpaper in her kitchen is a repetitious pattern of carrots and peas. I keep trying to lie down on all her furniture. Around midnight Haywood and I lock our door with a bolt. We have the right to choose which bodies will enter this special community and which bodies will be denied entrance. For example, there are carefully maintained areas devoted to leisure, areas that measure more than five feet across and that are bounded by special functions. But that’s just it. Sometimes it seems this place is an assortment of ordinary, illiterate people who grew up eating crops. Sometimes we root ourselves in limitations that seem relatively straightforward. The main difference is that if you never leave you are always already here. Sometimes it’s exhausting, or sometimes it’s straightforward in a blank way, like fear. Meanwhile, Haywood is poised between one great idea and one general. I feel his frustration like the brainless grace of a goose capsizing. Then again, it’s as if he admires how I sit in the dark in the midst of my failures. He wants me to. But I sit on the porch under an abstract specimen of sky, stretched out. I continue reading: “‘Good God,’ she cried, ‘the violets down below!’” What he finally decides is that what we have is a kind of awkwardness worth saving. His systematic attempts to be a husband are my instructions for the next few hours. We move behind the couch where he presses his fingers against my neck. He puts his toes in my vagina. “Good God,” I cry. I lean against the wall. My face is probably magnificent. My cunt in the moonlight. Afterward, we eat pasta with cream and only use one bowl. Haywood leaves his shoes on the kitchen floor. He showers downstairs. I stand in the living room in front of the open window. The sidewalk grows bigger and bigger. I see it reaching up through the window, growing bigger in the moonlight. “How do I look?” it asks. We could take a train together and disappear in the city outside. It’s impossible; it lies outside the envelope of my own special case. So in a little while I lose my head on the sidewalk, in the lamplight. An owl plunges from the branches toward the asphalt and via a series of similar accidents I lose my head. The following week there is a documented sexual encounter on that very sidewalk. Two people embrace in full daytime view of a wide range of neighbors. These are people we know, but do not know. So I step away from the window and breeze past a lot of furniture. I breeze past a table in the corner covered with knick-knacks. I return Haywood’s shoes to their appropriate spot. I straighten one framed photograph on the wall and place a pitcher of water, several kiwis, and a dozen or so blue petals on the edge of a different table in a completely different room. Then I sit down and push the tablecloth away from me, about two feet away, and wipe the surface with a wet yellow sponge. For lunch I eat several olives, a quail, three loaves of bread, and a sausage, and then I read through old letters in full view of the city, or in the garage. My views move to another room, always different, sometimes, or individual, a pull of some history (tonight the presence of a storm). But the letters carry on, hoping to probe our smoothed-out sense of self. They augment an unstatic perception. I watch the city through the gaps in trees. The city is an actualizing background for all kinds of arbitrary treatments. On the edge of my view is a communication, a light, a quick boom. I pretend to be increasingly deaf—in this way I put Haywood in a little book in the dark. I can’t pass it. I can’t possess it. I defeat myself in an afternoon, so I stalk monarchs across the lawn with a net. One kid says, “Happy birthday!” Another kid says, “Trick or treat.” The social-historical importance of this place is tenuous, and thus, necessarily, has a clear and definite aim. I produce documentary objects: Historical Varieties (i.e., Verities), apple pies, sexual feelings. Seen from above, there is a peculiar pattern to our expansion: neighborhoods snake around supermarkets, hospitals, airports, malls. It’s wanting to not be left behind. Houses shimmer together with the weather. There’s a kind of earthy gravity to the weather. I uncover this fact by accidental research. I figure I might have an internal architecture, with buttresses, abundance, possibility, or an intestinal space in which nothing works the way it should, like buildings built on botanical models, or buildings based on your own DNA, or whole rooms built to laugh in, or sticky gardens with the usual material but brighter, or more dull. On the kitchen counter are faded lily stems, white-faded, translucent in water, and tipped over, with yellow-orange spores streaking the cabinet to the floor. Nothing I do can deceive; the curtain is rendered convincingly in relation to the stereo with its red blinking lights, the heavy desk, the rug and couch. It’s all in the eye, the beauty of the suburbs, its sharp, whitish light, the lack of logical relationships; it’s been written about in local circles or schools. It’s a corner of nature demonstrated by bulldozers, machines, tractors, etc. It’s been recorded on accident, on film or video to preserve the years, the human marks, signs of light and air, an intuitive kind of creativity. Meanwhile, Haywood is undergoing subtle changes. He mumbles quietly in unknown parts of rooms. I watch from shrubs. I stand in front of the washing machine and eat a blood orange off a small white plate. I leave the plate and the peel on the edge of the counter and drink water from a tumbler and wipe my hands on my pants. Then I take the warm laundry out of the dryer and carry it into the living room. This is a program inaugurated over a century ago and handed down, which may help to account for its differences from other work that it resembles. These are private routines not visible in census data. I locate my body by grounding it against the bodies of others. I am interested in knowing about all the possible thresholds. Walking through the mall there is a scene in which a woman in red leans forward to hand an item of purchase to a man in a brown coat who stands behind a table covered in folded sweaters of various colors and wicker baskets filled with rolled silk ties under which a small child sticks his hand into a plastic bag until his arm disappears. It might signify a larger trend in American culture: lawnmower racing is becoming a regular sport, the importance of putting the pedal to the metal, deafening, this special race, geared up, drawing millions, the magnitude of lawn care, its own kind of prim and proper. One kid says, “Haven’t I built a good thing?” Another kid says, “Take that off.” On the kitchen table there’s a side of beef, yogurt, canned peaches, rice, pancakes, butter, a loaf of bread, a coffee maker, a salt shaker, s.o.s, canned corn, and several shiny peppers; the refrigerator door is open and inside is a frosted chocolate cake; above the refrigerator is a plastic clock in the shape of an owl; behind the table is an open window covered in gauzy curtains through which can be seen several mown lawns, deciduous trees, potted plants, and a skyscraper in the far, far distance. So I drizzle beans with vinegar and work with side dishes and main dishes, such as chicken with thinly sliced carrots and parsley. This is a good dish to bring as a guest, if you follow my tips and advice. Then Mrs. Davis throws a Cookie Swap. There are prizes for the most unique packaging as well as the most original recipe, which goes to a chewy chocolatecherry cookie from the woman around the corner. I bring pecan-date bars in a small basket with a linen napkin, which goes more or less underappreciated in the community of packaging panache and citrus tea punch and cookies more and more enticing: orange-walnut tassies, raspberry windowpanes, pistachio-lemon cutouts, chocolate meringue puffs. I exchange recipes with partygoers and return home in the dark. The city lights are throbbing through the empty treetops, like stars in the orbit of some other sky. I stare at the ceiling as I describe it to Haywood, who has the extraordinary capacity to be quiet. What so often separates us is $10.00 worth of real Tupperware, an exhibited foyer, a brand new Ford convertible, women dressed up as cowboys and Indians, women in padded bras, women in gowns. Women put their hands to their throats, delicately, like aged tortoises. It’s a whole thing of public opinion, painted nails, sparkling bracelets, inequalities in height, and baggy necks, like toads on tiptoe. There’s no real incentive to be sincere. So in an attempt to relax I think about white china on the breakfast table, chicken bones, a few dried petals from a flowering bush outside, and the glare on the table from an east-facing window. Haywood holds a sponge and a block of tofu. He says, “You are poorly dressed and very small.” He says, “Remember your pockets. Remember your bag.” What will become of us? There is a ruthless realism to the way we breathe, the way we sit at a table, the way we fuck, or eat breakfast, or sleep next to each other or next to thousands of strangers. This place has forgotten people living in other towns. We hardly recognize ourselves. “The rest,” I say, “where is it?”

Danielle Dutton is the author of Attempts at a Life and S P R A W L, forthcoming in August from Siglio ( She is the book designer at Dalkey Archive Press and editor of Dorothy, a publishing project.

This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.

Fiction for Driving: An excerpt from S P R A W L by Danielle Dutton
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This First Proof contains the story “American Children.”

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The writer on the artistic and emotional merits of reality TV. 

Originally published in

BOMB 112, Summer 2010

Featuring interviews with Dan Asher, Elizabeth Streb and A.M Homes, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Alain Mabanckou, Jennifer Egan, Edward Droste, Cynthia Hopkins, and Joan Jonas.

Read the issue
112 20Cover