By Angela Doll Carlson
"I only need two burners," I say, "and not the oven."
I turn off the flame to the other two burners, and the oven too. The dials are stiff and old. I did not see them move to the "on" position. I only heard the sound of the gas—poof—when it ignited. As I struggle to turn the dials back to the "off" position, the lights flicker. I pretend not to notice. The pasta boils, the sauce simmers. I sing a short song to myself, an old song, a sailor's song. It was a song that Nonni taught me. It always helped me to feel calm when I was afraid.
I pretend that I am not afraid by singing like that now, and by talking out loud as though whoever is there can hear, as though someone is there. The lights flicker again. The timer ticks down and resets. It is angry toddler behavior—set loose in the very air. Jess thinks it's male "energy." The last time she came, she wandered from room to room for more than two hours. She tried to talk to the air, to the heavy footsteps, to the cold patches that overtook her every few minutes. I'd never seen it, him, so active as when Jess was there.
But when she left, her eyes were ringed red and puffy. She looked sunken. She said it took a lot of out of her. I know what she means, how tired I feel when I lay in bed unable to sleep for the small scratching sounds and rattling noises that come from the kitchen at night. In the morning, there would be a mess, but it would be quiet until I left for work at least.
I feel that cold breath over my left shoulder, now right. I wave my hand behind me, with a shoo! motion. It was the same way my aunties would shoo me, my father, my uncles, the old hound my uncle Stu kept, or bad opinions and ideas that floated into the kitchen about religion or politics while they cooked. The shooing seems to work for a moment or two. Then, the air shifts again. The pots rattle on the countertop, the dishes shake in the sink. My skin prickles. I ought to be used to this by now, I think. "I have things to finish here," I say aloud.
A sideshow hippie told me that I carried it, him, around with me, on my back, like I'd picked it up on the side of the road or something. The lights flicker again and this time, I look up. I pretend to notice the crack in the ceiling. I sigh. I make a show of it. "We have to get Fred over here to fix that," I say. When did it get to be "we"? I wonder.
I am alone here apart from it, him. Everyone is long gone—mother, father, aunties, uncles, drinking buddies, brothers-in-arms. It's just me—and this, him, it. I expect that Jess is finished with me now. She stopped answering her phone when I call. I don't blame her. I expect I'll let her slide away. She said it was hard on her, and I know she is right.
The pasta boils, the sauce simmers then splatters, suddenly raging like a river I saw once in Galena. I swear, not under my breath as I might do if a toddler were around, but out loud and angry, like my uncles, like my father, my sergeant, my men, my wife.
In the mornings, I sometimes think about the heat of the jungle. That was decades ago. I still remember it, maybe the only thing I admit I remember. The kitchen is hot like that. My auntie would proof the yeast in the hot morning kitchen before she baked bread. It was warm and wet, smelled like earth, like what I imagine the jungle smelled like before any of us stepped foot in it.
He moves my cup away from my hand, tiny moves, almost imperceptible, but I know it's moving. The coffee is cold before I can touch it.
He won't go. I carry him.
I give up and turn the dials once again, full off now, both at once. The pasta will be undercooked, soft outside, hard underneath. As I transfer the sauce to the countertop, the trivet slides off the edge, clanging against the faded yellow linoleum. The handle is burning my hand, and I drop the pan hard into the sink where it sizzles in the wet of the broken plates. "Nice," I say aloud. Are you happy now? I think to myself.
"Are you happy now?" echoes in my left ear, then my right ear. A voice, soft as stone, etches the words deep—fingernails scratching skin, breath cold on my neck. I close my eyes. I am tired. "Are you happy now?" it repeats, “Are you happy now?” and I am singing again, the words leaving my lips with barely any sound. It's an old song, a lonely song, a sailor's song.
Angela Doll Carlson is a Chicago poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in publications such as Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Relief Journal, St. Katherine Review, Ruminate Magazine, and Rock & Sling Journal. Her latest book, Garden in the East, comes out in August 2016.