Keloid Love, by M.Y. Kearney
“I just need to put his things away,” Maggie muttered at the shoes for the hundredth time. She eyed the boots lying on their sides by the doorway before turning to the man’s shirt draped over the side of the couch. She knew that nothing was moving today, nothing would move on any day, but she still pretended to make the attempt. He couldn’t be put away yet. She put up the vacuum and returned to fuss with the paintbrushes again, making sure they were back in the same location they had always been. It was easier to clean off her own art supplies, the sewing machine with its dustcover and all of her fabrics and threads in their sealed bins. She removed the same amount of dust from them as she did from Marcus’s things, but they took a fraction of the time to clean.
After everything else was dusted and the one tiny window–the view consisting of garbage cans and if you tried, a sliver of the park–was washed, Maggie looked over the apartment. The only things needing adjustment were the paintbrushes. Maggie cursed under her breath and readjusted them. She had been doing this so long, and she still couldn’t get the paintbrushes right. One day.
The walls were bare except for a witty art poster and a few quilts used as wall hangings. Marcus had never been satisfied with any of his paintings and never let her display any of his accomplishments in their apartment. She had left the walls mostly blank to lure him into changing his mind, but ten years later the walls were still nearly empty. Maggie stood in front of the walls and considered how long it had been since they were cleaned. She had never paid much attention to the wall before, but now its blank off-white surface bled into her vision and she had the sinking feeling that if she peeled back the wall hangings she would see that the walls were a different color underneath. Ten years and still blank.
Her shoulder itched and crawled.
Maggie rubbed at her shoulder and thought of him touching her scar. The scar had nothing to do with him really; she had fallen out of a tree and he was there. She contemplated the little sliver of park view at her window; she hadn’t climbed another tree since then, after he took her to the clinic to get her back cleaned out. He had never said anything to stop her from shimmying up a tree, she had just never considered it when he was there.
When it got unbearable he had always been there to sooth her scar, rubbing circles around the outside, trailing in from the ridges towards the center, alleviating the itch with his rough thumb. She never understood how a painter managed to grow and keep such thick workman’s calluses.
In physical reality there was just a touch of nerve damage back there on her shoulder, just enough to cause phantom aches, odd tingles and the occasional crawling feeling. Maggie preferred to think of them as remembrances, rather than the side effect of tissue overgrowth after a trauma. The proper term was keloid scar: a scar that overreacts to damage and doesn’t know when to stop growing, sometimes pressing down on whatever nerves are underneath it, hence the pain and aches. She had needed more surgery and steroids to keep it from taking over her shoulder like some grapefruit sized tumor. Now it was just a raised bundle of itching and pain.
Keloids are common in people of Pigmy and Norwegian ancestry. Or it could be common in people of Asian, Hispanic, African, or Mediterranean ancestry. It all depended on whom you asked. Marcus, “had” she forcefully reminded herself, a running bet on which of that laundry list of histories was hers. You couldn’t tell based on her looks. They had debated which of them their children would take after. That argument was solved. Ten years: no children; same apartment; still standing on the same rung of the career ladder as when she got married.
Maggie sat on the edge of her seat at the rickety kitchen table, the one that had two unevenly short legs and was only stable whenever you shoved something about half an inch thick under one leg and a quarter inch thick under the next and even then only for enough time for you to forget and accidentally nudge a side hard enough to dislodge everything and have to start all over again. In calm moments Maggie wished that the table wasn’t such a metaphor for her life. In turbulent moments she raged at Marcus for never fixing it, for leaving yet another thing broken. She tried to concentrate on flipping through the grief pamphlets someone had thoughtfully shoved under her door.
She slapped the pamphlets down onto the table after reading their titles aloud, one after the other, as if she were playing solitary slapjack. She enunciated each title out loud, as if giving options to a person halfway across the room.
“How to deal with grief”
“Dealing with the loss of a loved one”
“It’s going to be OK”
“Love and loss”
“You’re not going crazy” She paused on the last one and flicked it open to reveal the pretty, yet sad looking and artfully frazzled models inside. Beside them were little text boxes that said nothing in particular and offered up a 1-800 number.
She caught the eye of a delicately disheveled model, the one who had-–count them–two strands of hair out of place, and said, “Why thank you. I wasn’t sure before, but your empty platitudes and common sense wisdom have healed my inner sorrow. The addition of this mass marketed paper product has given me hope and validation.” She slapped the brochure down on top of the others.
“Now do you have anything that covers the soul crushing depression and blinding rage?”
Maggie rubbed at her shoulder in vain. The itch was just out of reach. Damn her scar for being too low to reach over the shoulder, too high and centered to reach from the side. She lost time staring at the pile of grief pamphlets on her rickety table, surrounded by her garage sale finds and third-hand hand me downs, all located in an apartment that was far too expensive for its shabbiness. It didn’t help that half of the space was given over to art studio chaos. Her scar crawled. She sagged onto the table and ran her fingers through her hair until the curls and fingers trapped each other.
“I miss you,” she said into the pile of grief pamphlets.
The skin of her scar felt as if it were crawling off her body as sharp pain flared from the spot. She rubbed uselessly at the top of her shoulder, knowing that she couldn’t reach the ache but needing to try. Another phantom sensation and the pain eased. Maggie felt pressure on her scar, compression as if warmness rested on top. Maggie turned her head to the side, pressing her cheek into the pamphlets, feeling them start to attach their smooth pages to the side of her face. The pressure switched to a slow motion, round and round the edges of the irregular tissue. The crawling eased as it was rubbed out of her skin. She remembered the smell of his shaving cream.
“Marcus” she said into the air. A small bit of disbelief was roughly crushed under the overwhelming hope she felt at the touch.
But then the touch was gone and all she had left was the charred memory of possibilities.
As she rubbed her shoulder the phone on the wall began ringing. She stared at it and tried to imagine the conversations her family, and his family, seemed to always want to have, but couldn’t come up with anything to say. She picked it up anyway.
“Maggie, it’s Claire. How are you?” It was his mother. It was always his mother.
“Fine, and you?” Maggie wondered vaguely in which of the four directions this conversation was going in: sorry for your loss, offer to help, trying to reminisce, or I want his things.
“Maggie, you know my offer still stands. I’m right around the corner and can come over to help clean out Marcus’s things whenever you feel ready.”
“It’s fine Claire. I’ve got it all under control.” She wondered at how anyone ever believed that lie. “In fact, I’ve been cleaning the apartment today. Just finished.”
“Well…I know it’s soon, but his father and I were wondering if maybe there was a piece of his artwork that…”
“That I wouldn’t mind giving you? Honestly, all that’s here in the apartment are the supplies and a few sketchpads. He stored all of his paintings in a storage locker.”
“Perhaps we could-”
“His commercial paintings were in the local galleries, but I think they’ve all sold by now. Cityscapes were popular with the tourists. He never let me see them any of his other work though. He always said they weren’t finished, weren’t ready.”
“Anything of his would be wonderful. Maybe one of these days we can get a bottle of wine and open up the storage locker together. An unfinished work of his is still something of him and we would love to sit and reminisce.”
Maggie made a noncommittal noise. His things were hers, her memories were hers, and she wasn’t going to share either of them.
“Or we could have one final art show! The dealers have records of who bought his paintings, we could bring together all of his works and celebrate what he had done with his life.” Which was to create art that he had openly derided whenever he made a sale, but never to finish anything he was proud of.
“Claire, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m very busy today.” She planned to stare into their shared drawers at the clothes she hadn’t moved, and restack the cans of turpentine he had brought home the day before the accident. She was undecided whether to have them facing the room with their pretty labels or their warning signs of flames and crossbones.
Maggie could hear the weighty pause coming from Claire. She would either let it drop or go far deeper than Maggie wanted.
“Call me when you’re ready.”
Maggie rubbed the fingers on her free hand together, her fingers seeking out the small irregularities on themselves from the few times she had accidentally sewn through a finger. After every pass of her hands there was a phantom feeling of pressure. But only on the scars.
The next time she noticed she was at the grocery store. Maggie had managed to make it halfway through shopping her eyes moistening, a new record, when she noticed that she had added a refill of men’s vitamins to her basket. She held her basket in two hands and stared down at the little bottle shoved between some celery and a couple tomatoes. The skin on her face felt too tight as she tried to keep her expression calm and her breathing even. It didn’t help. Neither did mentally berating herself for making a scene in a grocery store like some damn fool, which helped even less.
What finally calmed her down was the warmth against the scar on her back, slowly wrapping around to the old cat scratch scars on her ribcage. Thinking of Kiddo the attack cat and how long she put up with his unrepentant smugness helped pull her out of the moment long enough to hide the pills behind some random shelf and finish getting her groceries.
Claire called again the next day. Maggie accidentally answered, having been walking past the phone when it rang.
“I’m the same as last time. Do you need anything?” Maggie had stopped even bothering to say hello. It was always the same person lately.
“I thought maybe you did. Need something that is. With my son-”
“With Marcus gone, do you need any financial assistance? I know you two always managed to scrape by, but now…” Claire trailed off. Maggie thought of the bank account that would hold enough money for rent if she never ate again and sold a kidney.
“I’m still fine.”
“We could have a cup of coffee and talk? Sometimes I could just swear that Marcus is here watching over us. When he was younger-”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time right now. All these jobs, you know. Bye Claire.” Maggie hung up before the other woman could protest. She didn’t want to share memories of him. She wanted to wrap herself up in the memories of when they were together and forget everything else. She didn’t want to think of him with other people, only with her.
She looked back at the phone. What had Claire said that last time? Still feeling him? A light pressure snaked its way up four long slim lines of scar along her calf. She had never before felt gratitude to that crazy violent cat.
“Marcus. Is that you?” she said into the air. The pressure glided back down again, as if her leg was being idly stroked. But she could only feel it through the scars. Maggie’s hands gripped her shoulders against a burning urge to hold onto someone.
Later on that evening she was standing next to a pot of boiling water, trying to decipher the serving sizes written in tiny font on the back of the spaghetti wrapper. She gave up on trying to decide how to measure out a seventh of the box and threw the entire bundle into the pot and resigned herself to pasta and garlic bread for every dinner that week.
Maggie flipped through a box on the counter trying to find Marcus’s sauce recipe. She found the index card stuck halfway in and pulled it out to study. The front was covered in quick doodles of pasta covered in tomato sauce sitting at the end of a rainbow. She turned the card over, only to find more careful drawings of tomatoes, a clock, a pot, a spoon, raindrops, and a bunch of fresh herbs that she couldn’t identify. This was his recipe. Typical.
It turns out that letting your spouse do all of the cooking means that when they die you get stuck with tomato paste from a can on top of too much pasta. Maggie gave an exhale that was closer to a grunt and jammed the card back in the box.
The garlic bread was next, and Maggie begged the pre-frozen pre-processed just-needs-warming monstrosity to not give her any trouble. The whole loaf in its baking pan was heavier than she thought it would be and it nearly tipped out of her hand. It was saved by a last minute shove onto the cooking rack. The last minute save brought the top of her wrist into contact with the inside lip of the oven door.
She let out a steam kettle hiss and danced around the kitchen holding her arm close to her chest. She surveyed the damage, pulling at the skin near the quarter-sized burn in order to estimate how bad the blister would be. Then Marcus pressed against the blister, cooling the hot skin with a kiss. It wasn’t enough.
A minute passed between the comforting touch and her action. She reached over to the boiling pot of water and splashed her hand in, shoving in until her palm was flat on the bottom, her fingers entangled in the still stiff spaghetti. As soon as her knuckles met metal she grit her teeth and held back a scream against the blinding white hot pain that shot through her arm, pain so intense it wasn’t pain, just pure feeling narrowing her focus to what was happening on in the pot. She couldn’t stand it for longer than a half a second and pulled her arm out, turning over the pot in the process and pouring water and noodles on the floor to wash around her sneakers. She shakily stood over the mess, her back pressed against the cheap linoleum countertops, and reached over to turn off the pilot light. The entire event took less than five seconds.
Next time, she thought, watching the pilot light flicker out with a soft puff, I should just go straight for the stove.
The woman at the hospital used soothing words and tones in an attempt to get Maggie to admit to domestic violence as she wrapped up Maggie’s blistered arm. It was officially a flash burn, ugly but not deep. Maggie considered telling the nurse that her husband didn’t cause the burn, but rather the lack of him caused it, but she knew well enough that a statement like that would keep her in the hospital far longer than the overnight stay she currently had. Instead she gave a terrible excuse of dropping her wedding ring in the pot and just reaching in on reflex. The nurse left her with more pamphlets, this time offering advice on what to do when your loved one starts hitting, pressing them into her good hand with a sad look. She was starting to get a good collection of pamphlets going. Was there a prize if she collected them all?
Maggie decided that when she had collected enough pamphlets telling her what to do and how to feel, she would have a bonfire. Right there on the kitchen table in her apartment. Burn the metaphor down to the ground and never have to worry about it again.
The days after went as a crawl, punctuated by grief pamphlets shoved irregularly under the door. She thought at first it was being done by the retired lady across the hall. But when she had seen the woman at their mailboxes the older woman was surprised to hear that Maggie had been married, much less widowed. Maggie picked at her bandages while the older woman abruptly went off on a tangent about needing to harangue the landlord about her door still squeaking after a month of daily complaints from her. He passed by at that point, the landlord, and the retired woman turned from Maggie to pepper him with dozens of other complaints.
Maggie took the woman’s elbow in her gentle hands.
“You have many problems he needs to help with. Why don’t you write them all down in a letter, so that he can see them all at once and use it as a list to check off?” Maggie said. The elderly woman stared at the landlord.
“Would that get things done quicker?” she said to the landlord. He gave a resigned sigh, but nodded.
“Finally, some progress.” The retired woman locked her mail slot and left.
The landlord turned to Maggie. “This isn’t an artist’s commune. Rent’s due in a few days.” He left in the direction of his office.
“You’re welcome.” Maggie called to his retreating back.
Maggie was impatient to see how her arm would look once the bandages came off. Once it was finally time to change the dressing, she reveled in doing everything she had ever been told not to do. She didn’t cover it when she bathed, no Neosporin or vitamin E was used to minimize scarring and promote healing, she used the wounded arm as often as she could, she picked, prodded, and poked and scratched to her heart’s content. A few more weeks passed and she was gifted with a scarred arm. The skin was a shiny mottled and rippling sheet that stopped a few inches from her elbow. She could hold his hand again and life was bliss. For a while. Rent was still due after all.
The walk to the landlord’s office was excruciating, but Maggie was holding Marcus’s hand the entire way. She steeled herself outside his door and took a few deep breaths. Normally Marcus dealt with this, taking on an odd job in he complex in order to cut off some of the money owed. What was she going to do, offer to make him curtains?
“Rent’s due next week.” Came a voice from inside. She had to use her shoulder to get the door unstuck before she could enter, and ended up giving it a little too much force and swinging herself inside. The landlord was sitting at his desk reading over a pile of paperwork nearly six inches high. Similar piles were strewn over the desk, cascading onto the floor in every available open space. Maggie tiptoed between the stacks so that she could move a bit farther into the office.
“I know. Listen, you know about what happened to-” Maggie unconsciously began filing the papers closest to her, pulling out the bills and sorting the building paperwork by date and company.
“Doesn’t stop the rent from being due.”
“Of course not, but there are some extenuating circumstances.” She noticed what her hands were doing once she finished sorting one of the towering stacks. She wondered at how her previous life as a bookkeeper crept back in every now and again.
“That don’t stop the 28th from coming around again.”
“Isn’t here to fix things in the building. That’s a shame. I’ll have to find a new super. See you on the 28th.” The landlord gave her an appraising look before shooing her out the door.
Maggie left the office wishing strongly for a hug. Wanting the feel of her husband’s arms around her, his chin pressed against her head, his scent enveloping her in a cloud. She leaned against the outside of the landlord’s door and reached up with her scarred hand to feel for Marcus’s face. He pressed into her palm and kissed her thumb. She knew what the price would be.
She left the apartment complex, for the first non-grocery related purpose since Marcus’s funeral, to go into their storage unit and pile all of the heavy cardboard boxes containing his unfinished paintings one by one into her truck and then slowly haul them up to the apartment. She stood amongst the half dozen boxes, far more than she had thought there would be, steeling herself for the act of opening them and introducing one more bit of Marcus into her life. There was shock when she finally took a pair of scissors to the tape of a box, opened it, and pulled out a painting. Why, these aren’t unfinished she thought, they’re even sealed.
The boxes contained paintings with notes attached to each. She lined them against the walls like an audience waiting for the show. There was too much furniture for a completely unbroken circle, but she managed to make up for it by using chairs to hold the paintings, propping them on top of the stove, couch, each other, the empty boxes, and any other surface that could hold a piece of art. She studied the paintings as she laid them out. She had never understood why he hated the paintings he did of the city, and reading over the notes made her even more confused.
“Not enough blue” “Sky looks wrong” “Perspective off” and so on marked each of the paintings, each of them beautiful to her. There were only three that weren’t of the city, all with the same note. “Too true” they exclaimed.
The first was a portrait of her, solitary and somberly following a trail of threads in a forest created of fabric. The second was Marcus, alone while mournfully painting the dune he was standing on, the sky a penciled in outline yet to be finished by the artist in the painting. Finally the third was of the two of them eyes closed and wrapped in each others arms, the only incomplete painting of the bunch. They were painted on with brush-strokes so thick their outlines stood a good quarter inch above the rest of the canvas, which was completely untouched. Those three paintings received a place of honor propped up against the table.
Maggie could feel his cheek pressed against her back and his arm wrapped in hers the entire time she was undressing for the special occasion. In this life or the next she would feel his arms around her. She stripped down, the cold air prickling up goose bumps on her skin. It wouldn’t do to have anything in the way when the paramedics needed to treat her.
She knelt in the middle of the room, before a can of turpentine, a sponge, and a box of stick matches. She opened the can and reached for the sponge with her burned hand. A firm grip encircled her wrist and jerked it so hard the sponge flew from her and bounced off a cityscape propped against the couch. Her hand was turned over and the fingers pulled open to show her palm. She felt Marcus smooth her hand flat, lay a kiss on each fingertip, and run a finger over the palm of her hand. It took her a few moments before she realized he was spelling a word over and over. L-O-O-K, pause, L-O-O-K, pause, L-O-O-K, he said.
“What am I looking at? I don’t understand you,” she said to the air. There was a corresponding jerk of her hand toward the paintings.
“You want me to look at the paintings? I have. We look so lonely without each other. Why didn’t you ever show them to me?”
“Meant too much to show,” he spelled laboriously into her palm.
She moved closer to the three main paintings. She had to stare and think for a good ten minutes, but she thought she understood the meanings. The paintings showed her alone with the world and him alone with the world. They were sad, but with their art they made the world as they saw it. Then the other one had them together, blocking out everything else, eyes closed and not letting anyone else in.
They loved so much they shut out all others.
“I can’t live in this world without you.” she told him.
“’I’m here.” He wrote in her palm.
“But I want to feel you more. I’m so empty.”
“Fill in the rest with the world. Everything is there for you.”
“Will you stay?”
“Always.” He squeezed her hand and kissed the scar on her back.
She put on a robe and put all of the supplies away. Then she tore off all of the notes from the paintings. She called up his parents and got their voicemail.
“Hi, this is Maggie. I just found a stash of paintings. I’m taking you up on your offer of coffee. Come pick up a memory and we’ll talk about Marcus. I miss him.” She hung up the phone, glad that she had at least kept that one bill paid.
She heard footsteps outside her door. A scratching sliding sound accompanied a fresh batch of pamphlets shoved under the door. Maggie drew her robe closed and ran over to open the door.
It was the landlord, who hovered at the entrance to her apartment without meeting her eye. Instead he tried to look at the paintings and the mound of grief pamphlets on the table without Maggie noticing. He wasn’t very subtle about this.
“Rent’s due tomorrow.”
“I’m having some trouble getting it together this month-”
“That’s the same thing your, um.”
“My dead husband.”
He kept avoiding her eyes and ran his hand over the doorframe, feeling the ragged cracks and crevices in the plaster.
“Look at this damage. You’re a crafty one. Get this fixed and I’ll consider it your rent for this month.”
“Marcus did that, not me.”
“Well, you were around him long enough. You must have picked up something.” He disengaged and left Maggie standing there confused.
“I’m a seamstress, not a handyman,” she muttered to his departing back.
He looked back at her over his shoulder. “In that case, once you get that frame taken care of we all need new curtains. Bring some cheer into this place. Then we can talk about your filing skills. That should be good for the rest of the year at least.”
She had to sell the television and VCR in order to afford the plaster and paint; it wasn’t much of a loss considering that the cable bill hadn’t been paid in over a year. She searched around the apartment for the tools Marcus had used, and found his toolkit half-hidden under a pile of clothes in the closet. It weighed half as much as she did.
Marcus had his hand over hers while she checked out a book on home repair from the library and brought it home to prop up against the wall as she made her first attempt at fixing the doorframe, the work he usually did. After that was done she pulled the dustcover of the sewing machine and opened up random tubs of fabric to make curtains. He was with her throughout the entire process, but as she became engrossed in her tasks she noticed him less and less.
The other tenants came over to pick out curtains made of fabrics ranging from red satin brocade to white cotton lace, and to leave their apartment woes at her feet. The Anderson’s needed their bathroom tile re-grouted, Louise on the 2nd floor wanted new paint, and everyone was talking about the temperamental hot water heater. Maggie had no idea how to fix that last one, but made a mental note to poke at it a little later.
Her rent duties completed, she filed down the table legs of her rickety table and hung up all of his canvases. She had something to show for the years. She had happy memories, full walls, and the remembrance of a comforting hand on her back.
And a few scars.
M.Y. Kearney lives in Alaska, where her aversion to being outside on frigid windy days leaves a lot of time for writing.
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Tags: family, ghosts, loss, M.Y. Kearney, relationships, spirits, supernatural