As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Winner of BOMB’s 2013 Fiction Contest, judged by Ben Marcus.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
He stood up and felt the outside of his front pockets and then his back pockets, looking around the floor of the room. Stepping away from the desk, he looked underneath it. There was an accumulation of dust beneath the desk. A toenail in the dust. He glanced at the doorway. The door was closed. He patted his pockets again, perplexed. He scanned the surface of the bed and the surface of the end table beside the bed. Leaning over the end table, he surveyed the objects there: a book, a pocketknife, toys, papers. He lifted the papers and looked underneath them. Picking up an action figure, he examined it and started to play with it.
He glanced around the room again. He tried the door and it was locked. He jiggled the lock. Returning to the end table, he took up the pocketknife and unfolded its tools. He tried the knife on the keyhole. Then he tried the awl. He had no idea how to pick a lock. Thwarted by it, he returned the pocketknife to the end table. He glanced across the floor. He eased himself down and peered underneath the bed. Extending his arm under the bed, he groped about the floor. Grabbing hold of something, a box, he withdrew his arm. It was a shoebox. He sat on the floor with the shoebox in between his legs and removed its lid. Inside the box were crayons, construction paper, sticks of clay. He placed the shoebox on the desk. Then he sat down with a sigh in the desk chair. He sat there for a long time.
Reaching behind him, he took two action figures from the end table. He waddled them across the desk in his hands. Bringing his hands together, he made the toys fight. Small sounds escaped his lips. He returned the toys to the end table and sat back in the chair. He grew older. He turned and took the book from the end table and glanced at its spine. It was a clothbound book. He read the first few pages. He riffled the pages with his thumb. Snug in between the last page and the back cover was a key. He sighed gratefully. Standing up with the book in his hand, he walked to the door and unlocked it.
The door opened into a larger room that was empty except for a table, a chair, and a bookcase. There was another door across the room and, as he entered, the other door opened and a man and a woman entered the room. They looked at him with surprise.
“Hello, are you Nick?” the man asked.
He shook his head and said no.
The man opened his mouth and closed it. He glanced past him into the smaller room.
“But you were in there?” the man asked.
“Yes, I was.”
The man nodded, satisfied. “That’s a fine book,” he remarked, “and a key. How does a young man pay for a key like that?”
“I didn’t pay for it,” he replied.
“What do you mean?” the man asked.
“I didn’t know I had to pay for it.”
“Oh my,” the woman said.
“You used that key without paying for it?” the man said.
“I thought I could use it,” he replied, glancing at the man and the woman.
“For free?” the woman replied. She eyed him accusingly. “A key like that.” She stated the cost of it.
He took a step backward.
“If I’d known I wouldn’t have used it,” he said.
“You had to use it,” the man said. “Otherwise you would still be in that room.”
He turned and looked into the room. He said, “Yes, but I don’t know how I will pay for it.”
Concerned, the man and the woman looked at each other.
“May I see the key?” the man asked.
He held the key out and the man stepped forward and took it. Turning it in his hand, he examined it. He showed it to the woman. The woman examined it. She handed it back to the man. The man returned it to him.
“We will look into this,” the man said. “This is quite serious.” He shook his head. “You may be in debt.”
“I’m in debt?”
“Hard to say,” the man said.
“You may be,” the woman said. “That’s very expensive.”
“Very expensive,” the man reiterated. “How did you think you were going to pay for it?”
“It was in the book,” he replied.
“Of course,” the man said. He looked to the woman. “We will look into this.”
The man and the woman turned and exited the room. They shut the door behind them.
He was left alone. He stood there for a moment, surveying the room. He sat in the chair and waited. Taking up the book, he read the first page again. Then he closed it.
He grew bored. He stood up and placed the book in the empty bookcase. He set the key beside the book and sat back down and looked at the bookcase and felt accomplished.
He waited there for a long time. He glanced at the door occasionally. No one entered the room. He heard nothing outside of the door. Then he remembered the shoebox. Returning to the smaller room, he took the shoebox from the desk and returned with it in his hands. He set it on the table and removed its lid and took out the crayons, the construction paper, and the clay.
He traced his hand’s outline on a piece of construction paper. Then he drew a picture of himself. He rolled the sticks of clay into a ball and modeled a little man. This gave him intense pleasure.
The door opened suddenly and the man and the woman entered the room. They looked at him and frowned.
“What are you doing?” the man asked. “What is that?”
He showed the man the clay figurine and quickly lowered it. The man was infuriated.
“Put those things away,” he said.
Embarrassed, he lumped the clay into a ball and swept the crayons into the shoebox. A crayon fell on the floor. The man and the woman watched him.
“I can give you back the key,” he said, glancing at them.
“I’m afraid you can’t,” the man said.
“I can,” he said desperately. He stood up and took the book and the key from the shelf and offered them to the man.
The man shook his head.
“It doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid. You own them. You may be here for a long time as a result.”
“It may be ten or fifteen years,” the man said solemnly. “You owe a lot of money.”
The woman turned and sobbed into her hands.
“Fifteen years…” he mumbled.
“There is something you can do in the meantime. Something that might help,” the man said.
“Help me leave?”
“What is it?”
“You can leave at any time, I should say.”
“I can leave?”
“Well, yes,” the man said, “but if you were to leave without settling your debt, your life would be ruined.”
“Well, I won’t leave,” he said.
“We know you won’t,” the man replied. “You’re a responsible young man. Anyone can see that you have taken this upon yourself. You used that key. Look at the bright side. Stay the course, and in ten or fifteen years you will be free of it. All it is is work.”
“What kind of work?”
The man pointed at the wall and said, “You can work with that.”
“What is that?” he asked, moving toward the wall.
There was a small bit of aluminum protruding from the wall. It resembled the base of a light bulb. He hadn’t noticed it before.
“What is it?”
“It’s exactly what it looks like,” the man said.
“But what do you do with it?”
“You bite and hold that bit of aluminum between your teeth.”
“I won’t do that,” he said.
“Why not?” the woman asked, stepping forward. “It’s a decent job. If you spend enough time at it, you may enjoy it.”
The man and the woman left him alone to work with the aluminum piece. He sat in the chair and looked at it from across the room. It was fixed approximately two feet from the floor, protruding a little more than an inch from the wall. He did not approach it. He removed the lid from the shoebox and fussed with the clay and tried to ignore the piece of aluminum.
Rising from the table, he walked toward it and touched it. The aluminum was threaded. It terminated with a small black cap. Almost like a nipple. He shook his head.
Returning to the table, he sat with his back to the threaded piece of aluminum. He looked at the clothbound book on the table. The key on top of the book. Peering over his shoulder, he glanced at the aluminum piece again.
“Fine,” he said, standing up and walking to the wall. He examined the wall. Then he got down on his knees. One leg at a time. Supporting himself with his hands. Awkward position. What was it the man said? Bite your teeth on the threaded aluminum piece. He frowned and looked at it. The aluminum was a few inches below his mouth. He had to arch his back to level his mouth with it. A cold, noxious smell to it. He hesitated there, looking down his nose. Opening his mouth, he clamped his teeth upon the aluminum with uncertainty. As his mouth came into contact with it, he gagged and then vomited a little bit on the wall.
He sat back, holding his hand to his mouth. Stripping off his socks, he scooped up the vomit. Then he desperately wiped the wall. He went into the smaller room and closed the door and hid the soiled socks underneath the bed. He sat on the bed, feeling sick.
No one checked on him. He reentered the larger room without any socks on and sat at the table with his back to the wall. He did not look at the aluminum piece.
Removing the lid from the shoebox, he took out the clay and molded it in his hands. Soon it resembled a little man. With the pocketknife he detailed its features. He spent a great deal of time describing its face.
He rolled the remaining clay into rails. Using the crayons as posts, he fashioned a clay fence. He made three sides to the fence and connected them and placed the clay man inside of the fence. This gave him intense pleasure. He looked at the clay man for a long time. Then he cut the sun out of a yellow piece of paper and laid it on the table. He spread the blue paper beneath it. He tore a white sheet of paper into small strips. He had not finished tearing all of the little strips when he heard a sound at the door. The door opened suddenly and the woman appeared.
“I’m sorry,” he said, gathering the clay and the papers from the table.
She closed the door gently and raised her hand.
“You know I care very deeply about you,” she said, coming toward him.
She stood over him.
“I care immensely about you. You are very important to me.”
Pacified, he placed the clay sculpture back on the table. She glanced at it.
“Did you make that?” she asked.
He nodded. “Yes.”
“It’s very special. Do you like making things?”
“Yes. I love it.”
“I know. But you should also be working,” she added.
“This is work,” he tried saying.
“Yes, but it won’t pay for your key. It won’t pay for your book. Have you tried working with that?”
She pointed across the room at the threaded bit of aluminum.
He shook his head nervously.
“Come,” she said.
She led him up from the table toward the wall. A few feet from the wall he stopped and shook his head. She smiled at him. “I’ll show you,” she said. Facing the wall, she sank down to her knees. She arched her back. As she bent toward the piece of aluminum, her skirt rode up her rear. He could see up her skirt, to the tops of her stockings. Her mouth was open, her nose was almost touching the wall and her teeth were nearly at the aluminum when she made a strange sound. She sat back, holding her hand to her nose. Standing up from the wall, she pointed at the aluminum piece.
“What happened here?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“Tell me,” she demanded.
“I got sick,” he said timidly.
She looked at him disgustedly.
Moving past him, she removed a packet of wipes from her pocketbook. Then she returned to the wall. On both knees she wiped down the wall and the aluminum piece. The wipe was a different color when she was finished.
“It’s okay,” she said, composing herself.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She shook her head.
“Try it now,” she said.
He shook his head.
“Try it,” she insisted.
He approached the wall and knelt down at the aluminum piece. He glanced up at her. She nodded, standing over him. He arched his back and opened his mouth and closed his eyes and slowly clamped his teeth on the threaded aluminum piece. He brought his lips down on it. The aluminum was rough on his lips. Sulfuric smell. Whiff of vomit. Keeping himself in that position, he opened his eyes and looked up at the woman. She nodded approvingly.
“You see,” she said, “it’s not so bad.”
He was ill after she left. His throat burned. He retreated to the smaller room and curled up on the bed, spitting off the edge of the bed and onto the floor, wishing for a glass of milk.
Later, he returned to the larger room. He stood over the table and looked at the clay man inside the clay fence and the paper sun and the paper sky. He was proud of it.
With the remaining clay, he began to mold another figure. A woman this time. He worked on it and then paused, hearing a sound behind him. He looked over his shoulder. The aluminum piece.
He ignored it. He continued to work on the clay figure, laboring over its face and hair. He carved it with the tools of the pocketknife. Then he heard the sound again. Insistent this time. He turned in his seat and looked at the bit of aluminum in the wall.
Standing up, he walked toward the wall. He stood over the aluminum piece. Then he lowered himself to his knees. Leaning forward and frowning, he bared his teeth and lightly bit on the aluminum. He remained in that position for almost an hour. Trying not to wrap his lips around the metal. Teeth and only teeth. Tang of disinfectant. His nose nearly touching the wall.
Afterward he lay in bed, spitting on the floor again. He was exhausted. He spit between the wall and the edge of the bed so that no one would see the spit on the floor. He was spitting down the wall when he heard the door to the larger room open. He heard the man’s voice. Wiping his mouth, he stood from bed and opened the door.
The man looked at him, looking up from the table. The woman was standing behind him. She was looking at the clay woman.
“What is this?” the man asked, gesturing at the clay scene. “What did I tell you?”
“But I’ve been working,” he replied, glancing at the woman.
“You’ve worked today?” the man asked.
“For how long?”
“For an hour,” he answered timidly.
The man shook his head. He was visibly disappointed.
“One hour? No, I’m afraid that will not suffice. You should be working seven hours at least. Instead I see you are working on this. This is not work. This childish—”
The man gestured at the table, the clay and the paper.
“I do not want to see this anymore.”
He nodded, glancing at the man.
The woman stood behind the man, looking at the floor.
The crayons and the clay were returned to the shoebox and the shoebox was returned beneath the bed. He spent six, seven hours a day with his teeth on the threaded aluminum piece. The work was exhausting. As a result he suffered from acid reflux, throat and stomach aches. The aluminum taste never left his mouth.
One day the man visited and found him kneeling on the floor, away from the wall.
“I’m sick,” he said, looking up at the man.
The man nodded, smiling.
“That’s good,” he said. “You’re working hard.”
He showed the man where his teeth were turning black, lifting his lip with his fingers.
The man nodded, frowning. “I understand,” he replied. “That happens. That’s normal.”
The man removed a set of keys from his suit pocket. “Do you know how I got these?” he asked, dangling the keys. He grinned and tapped one of them against his front teeth. “Fake,” he explained. “All of them. Had them taken out years ago. Hard work. It’s part of the job.”
The man stood over him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You know, I’m very proud of you,” he said. “This is your responsibility and you’ve been handling it like an adult. You’re doing an amazing job. I know it’s tough, but hang in there.” He smiled. “I’ve been in your position, you know. Something will come of it. Hang in there.”
He continued to work seven, eight, nine hours a day. Biting on the aluminum piece. His teeth serried along the bit. Despite himself, he worked harder.
He worked ten-hour days for ten days straight before he finally grew too ill to work. Nevertheless he attempted to work. Kneeling at the bit of aluminum, he nearly fainted. He could hardly clamp his teeth on it. He steadied himself and returned to the smaller room. He resigned himself to bed.
Opening his eyes, later, he saw the man and the woman standing beside him.
“I don’t feel good,” he said.
The woman gasped.
“His teeth,” she said. “Oh my. Let him be, honey.”
The man shook his head, his lips held firmly together. “Have you worked?” he asked.
“I can’t,” he said.
“I think you can,” the man replied. “You only have to kneel there. I think you can manage that.”
“But I don’t want to anymore.”
“But you must,” the man said.
He sat up on his elbows and asked, “Why? Why must I?”
“Because that is life,” the man replied.
He sat back and cried.
The woman leaned over the bed and touched his pale forehead with her hand. “Don’t agitate yourself, little one. You need to rest. We will have someone look at your teeth.”
He shook his head, tears falling down his cheeks.
“I can’t anymore,” he said to the man.
“But you must,” the man replied.
“Please calm down,” the woman said. “He’s sick. Please do not agitate him.”
The man silenced her. Leaning over the bedside, he said, “You knew how much that key was.”
He shook his head.
The man nodded and said, “Yes you did. And you used it. Now, this is your responsibility.”
He was crying.
The man frowned, looking down at him. He shook his head. “I’m very disappointed in you,” he said. Turning around, he left the room. The woman remained at the bedside. Then she turned away sadly and followed the man.
For some time, he lay convalescing in bed. Then he feebly rose from bed and walked into the larger room and stood at the aluminum piece. He knelt down slowly. Biting hard on the piece, his teeth hurt. He fell over.
He was lying awkwardly on the floor. From that position he could see under the bookshelf. There was a something underneath it. He shuffled over and reached beneath it. Withdrawing his hand, he held a dusty blue crayon.
He returned to the smaller room and lay in bed. He waited for someone to come and help him. He thought that someone would surely check on him. Soon it was apparent that no one would check on him. He decided to leave, finally. Sitting up in bed, he looked across the room. He looked at the door, and he pictured the larger room beyond the door. He pictured a door beyond the door and the larger rooms beyond those doors. Lying down again, he faced the wall. Clutching the crayon. He lay on his side for a long time. Then he began to draw a little door on the wall with the crayon.
Michael Baptist is currently finishing his first novel, Violent Young Lovers. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.