His Breath Is a Part of Her

His Breath Is a Part of Her

By John Liptow

For Kiara

She hears his quick movement. A fading away into the distance, a clack clack, clack; nothing. She hears the tiny whispering-dissolving into a chattering-a soft-spoken voice. Its sound, as it comes to her, nestles close and speaks with clarity and with confidence: about a languorous morning sun melting upon her cheek...about the silent parade of sparrows that pass every day by her window...and the clicking of beetles on the windowsill, the wisp of the spider upon its spidery home near the floor in the corner, and the collie next door patiently waiting all afternoon for her owner to return in the evening...and then the cool breeze visiting her as the nurturing sun leaves its children momentarily to the night...and arriving to the night she will shiver and pick up her shawl and become comforted, but his breath will have become a part of her. She walks back along the route that only an hour ago had brought her out here and the thing that awaited her here. The tears willfully descend into wet puddles upon her chin.

"No need now. No longer." He rustled hOis hands through his hair in the way he always does standing on the edge of some great and private and momentous threshold. From the bottom of the stairs she waited for him, waiting for him to turn it around. "Please go now. Please go now..." (There were worse things left unsaid.)

How many times had he tried to hide from her?

"I love...," but...

He is gone. Quickly. Walking away, down the hall, up the stairs, clack clack clack, and she hears him no more. Like a bird flying away, flying away, until a dot and then you can see it no longer. She heard the bird as he left her.

Now the world opens up and swallows her. The door lists shut; it never closed very confidently; it scrapes and bruises the floor as she pushes it home. She opens the shades in the room and the light blinds her. The light always laughed as it landed upon sightless eyes; the light always found a way into her sensory system. She had always laughed with the light. A joke they had both understood. The world comes to her through her fingertips as she firmly applies them to the surface of the windowglass.

All that is out there speaks in its murmuring voices then. The long arms of the streets and the buildings upon them like bulging muscles, the people walking in their suits of armor or out driving their vehicles of armor, shut safely away from the bustling life of a big city. She peels her fingers from the windowglass.

Undressing before the mirror in the tiny bathroom, where the buzz of some electric fan constantly drones in her ears, she touches her body as the clothes fall away from her: the lumps and the bumps, and she knows where are all the cavities and the hollows. It is a road she has traveled often, she could drive it blindfolded.

She laughs out loud. She doesn't care what the furniture thinks of it. She had never heard them laugh a day that she had known them. Maybe she could get rid of them and buy all new, she thinks. Maybe they are laughing at her.

The water bubbles out of the tub faucet and over her fingers like a cool salad. She twists the knob. She steps into the tub. The water slides over her. See! See how alone I have it and yet I have the world with me! It comes in the form of a cool bath! How alone I am! She washes water over her face. It scurries down her neck and through the crevice of her breasts-as a stream does that goes through the small break in a rocky cliff, tumbling down off the boulders and out to see the whole world.

She has buttoned her blouse, standing on the cold wet mat of the towel, and is reaching for the slack pants on the back of the toilet when the fear that had been stealthily creeping upon her heart suddenly came smashing through. She grips the slack pants with dead fingers that are gripping the sides of the toilet.

With a lumpy stream that comes from the wastes of fear and anxiety, she lets go into the bowl.

How would she greet the old furniture again, with the pained defeat that will now be in her stance, in her walk, and in her speech? In the way she lies in the bed at night, the bed would feel her distress, would tell it to the dresser, to the closet, to the mirror. By morning, every cabinet and every doorway, every table and every chair, would be chattering of her while she was gone and suddenly turned silent as she enters the room. Would it go beyond? she wonders. Would it be muttered in the halls of the building and be leaked from building to building? Would the whole city look upon her in the utmost disgust as she navigates the city streets?

She raises her head from the toilet. Okay, pretend you do not see me now and then alienate me tomorrow...

Oooooh, how I weep bitter tears for all your woodenness, for your bastard hardened hearts, for your thick skin that won't be punctured, that you can and never will feel emotion. Oooooh, or even be the recipient of anything akin to human feeling or be invaded by the touch of humanity. Oooooh, but you blackly form your associations based on what is practical or tenable, do not trouble yourselves with securing permanent alliances; all the pity that is in me and all the pity that is in the world will not save you...

From now on, I look to know what is true. She dresses into the slack pants and goes back to the window. Staining the glass with the strength of her touch, she whispers: And from now on, I look to know what is true.


The pigeons moved on the ledge, all day, cooing, and moving on the ledge, wings rustling in preparation to lift aloft in search of other ledges, room made available as others moved in, and then they too moved on the ledge. She ate a simple lunch of tomato soup, with bits of whole tomatoes in it, and crackers that she ate on the side. She watered a few plants in the afternoon, washed a few dishes, and made the bed, and picked some clothes off the floor, and then went back to listen to the pigeons. Their sounds had become louder, as if more had flown in than had flown out. At least ten upon the ledge, she thought. She thought a dozen: a cool, even dozen. They seemed to have turned turbulent, violent, rolled into a cartoon of some regressive nature. She smiled. It must be that way when overcrowding sets in: some will have to go. She went to the icebox to get a diet pop. Came back in and positioned herself beside the window to listen to the dispute among her neighbors. "Boys will be boys and men will be warriors." Where had she heard that before? "Ma." She had said that. "I remember." Ma was a female warrior. She recalled dad coming in blitzed, every night that wasn't a weekend: weekends Ma had him into other things, fixing things, fixing himself. She should have been in bed that night, but for some reason that had faded from memory as these things sometimes will she was not. She was there when the door bang shut and a roar, she thought, like an elephant sounded; of course she had never heard an elephant roar, but she thought that this must be what it would sound like, miles away in another continent, the other side of the world, the elephants roaring. Then another sound, this one like beef patties being slapped together. She heard Ma say, "Go to bed now, Shell. Now, Shelley. I will come." And she heard the growl that said: "Get to your damn bedroom!" And she ran, and she ran to her room, finding her room, finding the walls, safety in the room, she closed the door, and she thought she heard Ma yelling something, something about her room, or something about hurting her, or about...but she never knew, she was crying, the tears just welling up in her eyes where they burned and she couldn't stop them, because they burned and because they fell, and she fell into bed and cried hard and long and she fell asleep that way and she thought that Ma had come to her later, when she was asleep, but she wasn't sure, she fell asleep with tears still burning in her eyes...maybe Ma had never come, she never knew. She never had known why dad would have done what he did to Ma. Which, she knew-and all the neighbors knew-was that he whooped her like hell.

"He was bad." The pigeons cooed their opinions. "I should have hated him." Ma, she had not ever said anything about him, about why he did the things he did. She never defended those things, she just never said anything, as though they did not exist. Had she thought of me as just a child and understanding outside my ability? "Why didn't I ever hate him? Why can't I hate him?" How much I would love to hate him.

Fourteen years ago Ma had died and she had moved in with dad, to be with him in his grief and his debility of diabetes. She sometimes fixed his meals and did the laundry. She cleaned the house and made sure the bills were paid and went with a friend to get groceries. She helped him with his insulin when he was unable and made sure he went to the doctor when he was supposed to go. She sat with him and talked to him and they talked on many things. They did not talk about anything that he had done.

When he went blind three years ago, she had him put into a nursing home, where he died a month later. It was all she could do.


She heard him whisper her name: "Shell." From the depth of the sinking pillow, she lifted her tears up to receive whatever he offered. "Dad?" she questioned; it seemed so like him-so plausible-that he would have refused to die.

"Dad?" He laughed. "Is that how far we have progressed now, Shell. I call you daughter and you will call me 'dad'? Hey, I kind of like that." He stopped. Tom stopped. She knew why. "Oh hey, hey, Shell. What? Did I say something to upset you? Don't let this be like--"

But no matter how fiercely she tried, she could not cease, could not dribble to a close: the tears danced their way down her face. Oh, how she waited to just die; impatiently, she waited.

"Please, Shell. Please. You know how I don't like when you tear up like this. I'm sorry, but I wished I knew how I upset you. Won't you talk to me?"

"You," she said, her lips squeezing as tight together as words and anger would allow them, "you puerile bastard, I hate you," hitting him, hitting him, her fists slamming against the smoothness of his chest, the rockiness of his hairy pecks. "Call me your baby daughter for all I care, you incesting trump."

"But," he strummed out like he was playing a deep resounding bass guitar, "you started it, honey. Wasn't I."

"Take your goods back to your den," she said and did not know why. She imagined he was a wolf.

"Fine, Shell. I can never know you. You won't let me. What am I to do? What is it you want me to do? Tell me. I, lord of all understanding, am your servant and am tuned to your channel. Please, Shell. Please don't shut me out."

She did just that. For all his begging, for all his asking, she shut him out.


Anne Harris sits at the table. She puffs away on a cigarette; she has smoked three already. The black butts are smashed in their odor in the ash tray she sits out every time Anne Harris comes. She has cleaned all the cupboards, wiped them out with the rag and musty ammonia in the pail, which Anne Harris helped her mix up; she insisted on helping in every big or small thing she did, every movement she made, every time she came to visit. She had even thought of letting Anne Harris wipe out the cupboards, her back was a mangle of hurts. She would let Anne Harris get as crazy as her heart desired; the bathroom also needed cleaning. She was a good person, Anne Harris.

"Is it really over then? Really?"

"Yes. It's over. He said what he needed to say. It's definitely history."

"I don't know, Shelley. I just always thought he was so keen on you. Solid, you know."

"It's over. Do you want to clean the bathroom?"

"I thought you were going to go in there right after you finished the cupboards. You're so busy. I'm tired out just sitting here watching you."

"The roaches and mice will eat me out of home, if it doesn't get done." She brings the bucket of ammonia over and sits it on the floor near Anne Harris' feet. "What about the bathroom?"

"Sure." The cigarette is smashed down with the others in the ashtray. She didn't think that it was completely smoked.

She pours the dirty bucket of ammonia into the sink and fixes another one. She hears her as she sings in the bathroom, some contemporary western she thought she might have heard on the radio. She had gone with Anne Harris several times to country-western bars where everyone had gotten down from their bar stools to do something called line-dancing. It might have been like square-dancing, revised to suit modern tastes. Anne Harris had howling fun when they went there. She had even urged her out on the floor, a time or two. Anne Harris kept firm hold on her. She was able to keep from looking too pitiful; she even thought she had kept in step well. Anne is probably in there doing a one-two-heel step now.

Anne comes out and dumps the bucket with all its filth and muck in the sink, rings the rag and rinses both the rag and the bucket. She listens to the water plash into the bucket. Anne Harris, good girl, rinses down the sink.

"Spit clean," she says.

"You had a good time in there?"

"Say. Why don't we go out and hit the town tonight? It would be a grand larceny." Anne sighs. "You'd have a good time."

"I was thinking of a bad time. A good time? Why would I ever want such a thing."

"Poop," she says. Not knowing what else to say, she says it again. "Poop."

"You know where."

"You're breaking my heart here, Shell. But if you don't want to go tonight, we can go next week."


"Yeah, the town won't know what hit it next week?"

"A hurricane. They'll say Anne Harris visited us."

"Damn." She says it ironical; she smiles, slowly. "That's my girl. Now, a little more."

She displays a full set this time. She hears Anne Harris' muffed giggles.

"Go for a walk, Shell? Into the park. It's probably a good idea to see that the world is still there, that it hasn't packed up and left since you left it."

"I'll get my shoes. We'll go into the park, Anne Harris."


In the park, the pigeons come to investigate. Finding no food forthcoming they wander off. "I never told you about Robert Kulder. Imagine, Anne Harris, this young blind girl. Different? No, a sport. It wasn't a happy time. They were ruthless. Ruthless, the rats. Robert Kulder, though, was different. He was an absolute dragon. He. Was. The. Devil. Incarnate. Is it all right to say, that about a billion times how I wanted to smash his young face in?

"Now imagine a blind girl who had seriously thought she was something left behind by an alien race. A Chekov character, that is. A wrong person in a wrong place with very wrong people. You are the first person I ever told this to. I hadn't even told Ma how I felt. Never sat beside her a single time and layed it all out. I think I was too involved searching for myself, if I couldn't find any one else who could knew how it sometimes felt. I've wondered if that is you, Anne Harris."

She waits for something. Will Anne Harris come back with a statement that affirms what she has just told her?

"That is a nice thing to say, Shell. That is nice."

She went on: "Robert Kulder sometimes ran into me, rocking me on my toes, and, christ, balling me all over the ground. The kids would come mucking around, the little rats, the beetles, and laugh and shout, until a teacher walked out and pulled me off the ground and shook me up and down. In those terms, exactly. Just walked out. Pulled me off the ground. Shook me. They didn't care. Nobody cared. Just the blind girl from another galaxy. It stinks. People can be so christawfully terrible."

"It's okay, Shell. Those people are probably now working for below-poverty jobs. They don't matter anymore. Robert Kulder? The devil probably revoked his practicing license because he couldn't crush you. Hey. Hey, now don't cry on me. Shelley, don't. Here," she says as she hands her a napkin.

"But," she stammers, "but. In eleventh grade he, Robert Kulder, the fool he asks me on a date. Can you believe it? Just like that, he asks me. As if nothing in the world ever happened back in grade school, as if he'd only just met me and he liked the goods, can you believe it? I shot a big wad. Of spit. In his face.

"End of story." Can you believe it? Can you believe his nerve? Robert Kulder! Tom is another Robert Kulder.

"Do you feel better now?"


Anne Harris: "Did he ever-molest you? Don't, Shell, don't answer if it's too hard for you. Don't say anything. I just thought-"

"No. He was a mean, lousy husband and a lousy father, but-no." She simmers on the park bench, with the sun cooking her forehead and the breeze cooling it off. "I can't believe you'd even ask that." She breathes out. "Do you think I am some emotional cripple? Is that how I look?"

"I had just thought, I mean-"

"Maybe you think I play with barbie's, at night, when no one is around."

"I know someone who plays with-"

"You haven't been through what-you haven't seen the things I-oh, I'm tired, let's go."


An hour ago. An hour later. It is nothing. Or time; nothing that makes sense; time might have been, for all its grand, shapeless fluff, a Betty Crocker cake in the sky, we all merely ants that weren't invited. She puts down the book. It is the classic book by Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe. A riveting novel, but she found it tiring to keep up with the marooned man's pitiable plight. It is not so far different from her own existence: fate has stranded her here in this body to live this life.

She rises. And slams into a table she had set up there. And the glass of water she had placed on it. The ice cubes go chinkling against the sides of the glass and then a hollow tin-thump sound and swiss that is the water being pouring out.

She navigates into the bedroom and shuts the door, the siss-siss-siss of it moving across carpet and the hick of the door barking upon wood jam. She hits the bed, the soft spread against the resisting support frame, and crawls up into it. She curls up onto the pillow and then she is not merely a shadow to the world, she no longer exists.


Anne Harris: Are you all right? Shell? Are you going to be okay?


Anne Harris: Next week we'll paint the town.


Anne Harris again: Are you sure you're okay? You don't sound too ha-

I'm fine.

Anne Harris: I mean if you-

She sets the phone down.

The End

Copyright 1998 by John Liptow

John can be e-mailed at: jjliptow@hotmail.com

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