Between the Lines
by Joanna Weston
The beginning of the story binds my left hand; the end wraps my right, pulling both together. I part them until the story stretches in a straight line, then I take the middle between my teeth, loop the plot back on itself, and read another chapter.
I flip the rope over my head, under my feet: skipping. The rope stretches and flies as I jump rhythmically within the story, suddenly distracted when another rope streams in out of nowhere, twines around mine, then glides in long undulations round a half-built house until it meets itself coming back. The tangle of ropes stops me, flat-footed on the road.
“This is a conjunction,” I say, “but not the first today.”
I drop the left-hand end of my story which soars out, spins and catches in the eaves of the almost-house. The walls are unclad studs, doorways empty, roof metal-tiled and slipping sideways like an acute accent. The structure leans backwards trying to escape the road where I stand, mouth agape: the house wasn’t in the opening paragraph. My rope hangs from the eavestrough, swings in the wind.
A man, short, dark-haired, round-faced, comes towards me from the back of the house. He carries a dozen blue lupines in a canning jar.
“These are for you.” He stands them on the threshold.
“You’re very kind, but lupines make me...” I sneeze.
“It’s good for you, expands your diaphragm and moves your tonsils.”
“What are you doing in my story?” I ask.
“I wanted to know what you were doing — and the lines got snarled,” he says.
I pick up the lupines, hand them back to him, sneeze again, and ask, “Shouldn’t you be finishing the house?”
“Where’s the drywall? The doors? Windows?”
“They’re the rest of my story,” he says.
A snowflake lands on my nose out of the quiet gray sky. Whose story am I in? It’s not snowing in mine. More flakes drift down in slow motion. We stand watching, counting snowflakes. One... two... three... twenty-six. I wish they were letters parading into words.
“Let’s get under a noun,” I say and grab his hand.
I pull him into the house, along the hallway into an empty space that might become a kitchen. It has a wide window-space, tilted outward towards the ground. He hands me a mug of coffee decorated with flowers.
“How did you make coffee?” I ask, “and what is your name?”
“Fred.” He tosses a donut to me. It drops and a comma appears in my hand.
“If you can’t handle a donut, how are you going to find the end of the story?” Fred asks.
“The donut has nothing to do with my story, so I can’t tell you.”
“It plays a role and makes a paragraph or two in mine.”
“Where do you live?” I take a sip of coffee.
“I used to live in a cowshed, then I moved to a motel, but I’m moving in here today,” he says.
“It’s not finished.”
“And this sentence should round...”
“What do you do?” I ask.
“I write romances.”
I go down on my hands and knees, put my coffee in a corner, and hunt for the donut. It’s not between the studs or in the next space, which might be the dining room.
“Can I have another donut?” I ask.
“The dog ate them.”
I look around: a brindled dachshund with a Jack Russell nose sits in the corner of another ‘room’ licking its lips.
“You ate my donut.” The dog is in my story; she barked in an early paragraph. I wonder if I can get the donut back from her, though a masticated lump of dough doesn’t appeal to me.
Fred feeds a length of electrical wire through a hole in one of the ceiling joists. I sit cross-legged on the floor, sip my coffee, and watch the dog.
The dog considers me, comes through the studs and licks my face. Her tongue tastes of liquorice. She presses her nose into my ear and slurps down my neck. I don’t like this so I push her away. She runs out the ‘front door’.
There’s a momentary flourish of fur and tail in the mist of falling snow before she returns with a snowball in her mouth which she drops into my half-drunk coffee. The resulting slush resembles sherbet on a hot day and smells moldily organic. The dog stands in front of me growling. I bring the mug to my mouth. The dog’s tongue hangs out and saliva drips on my sandaled feet.
Cautious footsteps sound above me. Fred peers down past another joist.
“You’re supposed to fall madly in love with me.” He smiles lasciviously.
“No, I meet someone on a train, someone incredibly sexy,” I say.
“I’m sure you’re supposed to fall for me.”
“Not in this story. And it’s you that’s going to fall — from up there!”
He turns, drops down, staggers and grabs at the front door frame to maintain balance. The house judders and settles. The dog barks and fur rises along her back as she confronts Fred. He backs away.
The rope handle swings and touches Fred’s head; he catches and pulls it. The house shifts, leaning further back. A length of gutter falls, almost hitting Fred; one end rests on the ground, the other hangs suspended by the rope a foot from his body.
“We could slide donuts down it,” he shouts over the dog’s barking.
“The snow is too thick.”
“What does the dog want?”
“She’s not a dog, she’s a bitch,” I say.
“She’s just a word. What does she want?”
“Me to drink this snowball.”
“Why don’t you?”
“It smells.” I wrinkle my nose over the mug.
“Give it to the dog,” Fred says.
“What’s her name?” I ask.
I inspect the mess in my mug; it still stinks.
“You and Nameless don’t belong in my story.” I put the mug down and pull myself up using a stud for leverage. The stud quivers.
Fred strolls down the hall. The gutter drags after him as he has knotted the rope round his left ankle.
“I wandered in to see if you would dance with me,” Fred says.
“Why should I? I’ve got an epigraph to find, and I have to find the dog in my own story, you’ve mixed them up by coming here. My dog has a name; she has puppies. And you’re wound up in the skipping rope.”
“That’s not a skipping rope — that’s my story.”
“Don’t be crazy.”
“Here — you try.” He passes me the gutter and my rope drops from a joist.
I sit in the gutter. My buttocks fit so I get out the oars and start to row down the hallway. Nameless snaps at the oars as she prances after me. I reach for my coffee mug, tip it, and the contents slide out with a gloppy sound.
Nameless stops mid-bark, turns and gulps the mess. She licks her lips, lies down and begins to shiver, to shake, to convulse... to die.
“Maybe the dog is mine.” Fred says as he considers the corpse with his head on one side. “She’s in my story.”
He sniffs. “
Does she die?” I ask.
“Yes, but not until the end.”
Fred ties the rope to the gutter and jiggles it. Tears, like quote marks, rain his cheeks.
“She doesn’t die yet, not yet. I’m not ready for her to die.” His shoulders heave. He blows his nose.
“There’s a dog in my story too.” I scratch my head. “It a sort of hyphen between events.”
Another piece of gutter comes loose. He grabs it and tries to lean it against a stud. But it’s an exclamation mark: it falls apart.
“The dog’s a bitch, not a piece of punctuation.” Fred touches the dog’s body with one index finger.
“She shouldn’t have eaten my donut.”
“Donuts must be toxic words,” he says, “I had one.”
“Did you eat it?”
“It was a colon.”
“What comes after it?” I say and scratch my head.
“I haven’t written it yet.”
Our chapters have got muddled up and I have to separate them. “Take Nameless away, I don’t want her.” I begin to row again.
“No, she’s dead, and I can’t carry a dead noun,” he calls after me. “And that isn’t a boat, it’s a bunch of brackets.”
“Get out of my story!” I shout. “Take Nameless with you. You shouldn’t have taken my donut.”
“You should have died, not the dog. But I’ll use the donut in my next chapter.”
An oar snags on a stud, the wood fine-grained and pale in the snow-filtered light. The stud has two knots at eye-level. I try to undo one as the oar gets further entangled in the lumber and my rope.
The house vibrates again. This half-built house isn’t in my book at all and my house wouldn’t fall down. Joists shift, rafters buckle, a sentence breaks in my hand. I must get out before words fracture into syllables, into letters. I gather the rope and wind it into my pocket.
I shake the oar, the knot unravels, a verb comes loose and I bend to another stroke, pulling against the knots in the floor boards.
“Thanks for the coffee, Fred.”
Silence. I stop and look over my shoulder. Should I bury the dog?
I scramble out of the gutter, stumbling over the oars as I go back to the kitchen where I find Fred kneeling beside the dog, his head buried in her fur.
“I know stories don’t end because a dog dies,” he says in a muffled voice, “but I liked her.”
“The plot in my story involves a dead man,” I say.
Fred sits back on his heels and blows his nose. A donut lies behind Nameless. “I’ll take the dog with me, noun that she is.”
“Take the donut before its toxins spread.”
He puts the donut in his pocket, pulls the dog into his arms, stands up, and goes to the door.
“I’ll write a wake, a state funeral, a complete novel, for her,” he says and leaves. His footprints fade into the falling snow.
The dog’s funeral will be a chapter written by someone else. I won’t be there to read it. I’ll be at Fred’s funeral, if he’s the dead man in my story.
I pull the rope out of my pocket and wrap the ends round my hands. The plot spins and I jump into its rhythm.
Copyright © 2007 by Joanna Weston