portion of the artwork for Faith Shearin's short story

How We Spell It
Greg Tebbano

It was a list, red pen on a yellow Post-it, and Peter had stuck it to the corner of a drawer. It curled away from the wood in a way that caught Louise’s attention—a yellow flag put on your lawn by the pest people, daring you to walk barefoot or let your pets out.

CUTICLE SCISSORS, it said. MATCHES. HELLO KITTY. Next to the last entry he’d written in parentheses (THE CHANGE PURSE), which was odd because for years they’d called it the Hello Kitty.

“Louise, do you know where the Hello Kitty is?” he’d ask and she’d know he needed coins, was on the way out to the laundromat or to make copies at the library. Now she had in writing a conceit to the possibility that someday both of them would forget what the Hello Kitty was for—like “slide rule” or “eight-track,” another dusty word destined to slip from their private lexicon.

This was the third little note in as many days. The house was turning into a picture book for first graders. She half expected to come downstairs one morning and find CHAIR on the armrest of the recliner, or REFRIGERATOR, hidden among the hundreds of other reminders on the long white door.

It started innocently enough, the day after her address book went missing. Louise came upon him on the kitchen floor, organizing various screws and fasteners out of the chaos of a bucket they kept next to the toolbox. The swath of stray metal at his knees reminded her of the wreckage of a jetliner, and he thumbed through it like a god still learning the ropes, curious and complicit. Next to him she found containers labeled NAILS, NUTS, WASHERS.

He held up a narrow tube of accordion plastic as she hovered above him. “What do you even call this?”

“I think it’s an anchor,” she said. “It’s for putting screws into drywall.”

“So light to be called an anchor,” he said.

“I’d put it with the screws,” she said.

Louise suggested they put the new containers into a child’s makeup box she’d been saving. When he finished, she wrote on the box in a black permanent marker, THE KABOODLE, half in jest of his exactness. But he was serious.

“Hey, that’s a good idea,” he said. “I don’t think that’s how you spell ‘caboodle’ though.”

“It’s how we spell it,” she said. She clapped her hands together as if she was done with something. “Anyway, it’s how we spell it now.”

* * *

Louise was born a saver, and Peter met her in a juice bar where she saved the florets that came loose in the 30-pound box of broccoli. He saw her eating them raw with one hand while her other hand forced carrots and beet greens to a terrible death. There was some club music on and she was bobbing to it in half time, as if she were on the deck of a boat and he on the dock, watching the sort of party to which he never got invited. When she smiled at him, he noticed little green dots on her front teeth and smiled back.

Peter was a junior accountant and barely liked V8, but kept coming back to the juice bar just for the chance to talk with her. One day, leaning on the counter and choking down a liquid the color of grass clumps left behind by the mower, he put the question to her.

“Do you want to come out this weekend? For Halloween, I mean.”

“Do I have to dress up?” she asked. “Because I’m the same thing every year.”

“And what’s that?”

“A cowgirl.” She blew fake smoke from the barrel of her index finger. “I save the costume.”

So they began to date. She’d keep little things from the bars they went to, books of matches, paper coasters. A Newcastle pint glass.

Out for Thai one night she asked him why his apartment wasn’t full of stacks of graphs, or inhabited by 20-foot paper snakes from the adding machine.

“Well, for one thing, I work in a paperless office,” he said. “And they don’t even hire you if you can’t stay organized.” Peter was looking at how much her hair had grown since the last time she dyed it and was trying to guess how many months by the length of the roots. “I mean, I guess economic geniuses are these Einstein types with notes bunching up in their butt pockets. But not junior accountants. We’re like the finely tuned cogs of the machine. The bench pressers of enormous sums.”

“The bitches,” she said.

“Yes, exactly,” he said and raised his ramekin of sake. “I could just as easily ask you: Why do keep everything?”

“Mostly it’s hereditary.” Louise explained how she came from a family of keepers. Worse, these keepers had just moved across the state and half of everything they owned was in mislabeled boxes. When she lived at home she went so far as to rent a post office box because her bills could never make the short journey from the mailbox to her bedroom without vanishing entirely. That house was like a massive single-celled organism, she recalled, assimilating each new object that entered into its structure.

“The main difference,” she said, “is the people in my family are indiscriminate collectors, or collectors by default. No time to weed the garden, you know. Whereas I—I only keep something if I foresee a future use.”

“Practical?”

“Or artistic. But I’m glad you’re aware of it,” she said and leaned over the table to touch his folded hands. “Know that you can’t have me without my cluttered genes.”

As they were walking out, Peter noticed Louise was carrying something wrapped in a napkin. “You never know when you’re gonna need a pair of chopsticks,” she said.

“Especially used ones.” He felt her push him.

“En garde!” she yelled and threw him his four-inch wooden sword. He caught it through the puff of white air that came out with his laugh and they fought to the death under the street lights.

* * *

It wasn’t long before Peter and Louise lived together in a rented house riddled with her objects. She did not make a good living, but was rich in this, her piles of oddities—playbills and leaves, old issues of the Economist, dead bugs in chocolate tins. There was a time when the clutter fascinated rather than annoyed Peter, when his favorite thing in the entire house was the vertebrae of a dolphin, a smooth white propeller on top of the TV.

It was decomposing on the beach, she told him once. Half gone to the saltwater and she just stuck her hand in.

“What was it like?” he asked.

“Sticky and stinky,” she said. “Like that cucumber you let decompose in the fridge.”

Louise’s savings flooded the back porch, The Vault, they called it, and if there was an order, he could not recognize a method. There were bloated plastic tubs, bookshelves sinking from their burdens, papers sticking out everywhere. Worst of all, he thought, were the littered table tops—items with no apparent place—and Peter suppressed the urge to chase these into the trash like a beat cop scattering the homeless.

Peter had thrown things away, had an eye for garbage as some might for precious stones. And he knew he’d done it when he found her crying one morning on the bed in a corridor of pure sunlight.

“What is it, Lou? What’s up?” He put a hand on her knee and gently squeezed.

“I can’t find my address book.”

“Oh, no,” he said. “It’s so small.”

He knew Louise kept little things, found them comforting and liked how they fit into an only slightly larger handbag. But the book was smaller than that, even. It was minuscule, a plaything for a Cabbage Patch Kid to keep track of his upholstered friends. This book, too, had no place and he’d seen it everywhere, could imagine it on all surfaces, on top of the television, in the wicker basket in the bathroom with hair elastics and dental floss and pH testing tape.

“I might have done something with it,” Peter said. He tried to recall the photographic still of it—the shot of his arm extended above the litter bin, the pink book no more than two square inches sliding off his palm like a die. “I don’t remember, but I might have.”

Peter knew the book because he’d written in it once, when they first started dating. He opened up to where his name should have been (and wasn’t! What was the deal? Maybe she didn’t even like him). So he put it in himself, next to ADDRESS writing, WHEREVER YOU LIVE. He laughed quietly at this moment of cleverness and suppressed the urge to let her know it was in there—Hey, why don’t you write me sometime, he could have said. Or, How come I’m not in your little book? Because how great would it be when she found it all by herself, the lights low and public radio murmuring in a corner? How long she’d smile, maybe even saying out loud, I love him. And how much more it would mean with no one there to hear it.

Peter liked the idea, liked it very much. He wished every gesture contained this kind of validity. As he replaced the pink address book in its spot on the sea chest—waiting for just the right moment, her eyes intent on simmering onions—it felt like returning to a warm place in a golden time in his life. Like finding the copy of a key you’d made for an old apartment and kept, just in case.

* * *

“I can’t find anything anymore.” Louise’s hands were on her forehead, fingers poking through the blonde like barrette combs. “In my own house even. Who am I, my mother?”

“I might have done something,” Peter said.

“You say you keep things clean, but it’s just this superficial clean. Like the drawer with all the jars.”

It was true. There was a drawer in the kitchen. If a glass jar might be used again it was to be rinsed out and put in the drawer, squeezed in next to all the lids and a stack of used oven mitts with the heat resistance of handkerchiefs. He just hucked things in there and shut it quickly, as if by not witnessing it, it hadn’t been done.

“You might have thrown it out,” she said. “I know you might have. You’d throw it all out if you could.”

He laid back on the bed and thought about whether that too was true. In the frosted light fixture above he saw the two windows and the street below, but could barely make out the two of them. He lifted his hand and turned it just to be sure—almost seeing it, a suggestion of movement. She was beside the hand, and he saw her hair bunch up where she was working the skin over her skull. Her reflection looked so much older up there, her hair whiter, everything with edges of light. It was strange, he thought, how he could only see parts of them, so pale and translucent, and he wondered when he put his hand on her neck if either of them would be able to feel it.

* * *

During an afternoon of upturning the house, it became clear the addresses would have to be returned by the same turn of chance which had taken them. He suggested maybe she had mailed it, sealed its fate in brown packaging tape. Perhaps she hadn’t noticed its inclusion in a box of small—and let’s not forget, he pointed out, pink—shower gifts for her sister.

“Yeah,” she said. “Maybe I subliminally wanted to sever ties with every human being on this earth who means something to me.”

Saying more would just keep her going. But Peter wanted to tell her that, yes, it was her fault because if the pink book had a place, in her dresser or somewhere, instead of just floating about in the ether, they would know where it was.

Now she was meeting her worst fear head on. Louise was afraid of losing things. She was so afraid of losing him that she spoke of it always in certainties, how she’d be the one to die first and it was a good thing she was already older and that she smoked.

Or she’d explain how she was slimming down because she didn’t want him led off on the arm of another woman, smaller and readier to meet his needs. The way she talked, these Victoria Secret models would stride in and lift him straight from the dinner table, Louise’s jaw dropping and food falling out.

“Please, Lou,” he’d say. “You’re talking crazy.”

When they first started dating, she asked Peter if he had fantasies about small Asian women. And, did he still like her? That one she asked constantly like refreshing a web page to get the latest baseball score.

Do you still like me?

It made no sense to him, how her paranoia didn’t provoke the opposite obsession: a fetish for neat rows and piles. Instead her urge was to hoard and cling, so that in case he did disappear, enough rubble would remain out of which to re-create him, the necessary pieces more likely to be in reach.

Then one day she just stopped asking. It mystified him. As if some no-hassle trial period had come and gone and, yes, this one would do fine, thanks. Or perhaps through some small action he had convinced her of his devotion. But now it was gone, misplaced with his name and address, and that night at dinner he unearthed the bones of their old conversation: “What if you leave first?”

She put her fork down. Not just resting it on the rim of the bowl, but taking it out and placing it on the table, pressing it there as if this one time gravity might not do the trick.

“You can do whatever you want,” she said. He heard her foot tapping a slow dirge on the area rug. Peter realized she had never considered it.

* * *

That night Peter and Louise fell into vivid but separate dreams. Their bed was like a radio receiver tuned between two stations, two songs battling it out over a trench of static.

In Peter’s dream, the house became infested with a kind of paper wasps. At first the creatures fascinated him. Each translucent blue body segment gave a clear view to the insect’s inner workings—the tight circuitry of blood vessels and life’s movement within them. But wonder quickly turned to worry. They had taken over. Their beaded bodies traversed the walls of every room, following an invisible highway only they could detect. Peter took to swatting at them with a wound-up T-shirt. After a successful kill shot he knelt beside the dying wasp, shocked that he could see straight through to the creature’s pinhead heart. He watched it punctuate those final seconds on earth with a furiously typed ellipsis.

In the dream, Louise found them beautiful. She sat up in bed and let them populate her open hands.

“But they’re everywhere!” groaned Peter.

“They’re not going to hurt you,” she said and narrowed her eyes at him. Peter called an exterminator right away.

The exterminator let himself in and slapped Peter on the shoulder. “Got some wasps, have we?” He was bearded and bellied and blew into the house on an unexpected jovial wind. “Let’s just see what we’re dealing with.”

The exterminator took Peter out back where he put a clear plate of glass to the wall, some sort of X-ray, because when he activated it Peter could see straight through the wood to a moving labyrinth of passageways. Our home is their hive, he thought. Peter put his nose to the glass and focused on a wasp slinking along, its wings sheathing the segmented body like a tightly wrapped cigarette.

“An established colony by the looks of it,” said the exterminator.

When they came into the kitchen, Louise was sitting in her robe with a steaming mug. All the color in her face had collected into the dark recesses under her eyes.

“Are you feeling OK?” Peter asked.

The exterminator told Peter it was going to be all right and to sit down. He was the sort of man who made you feel like a guest in your own home perhaps because he was his own structure. He didn’t seem to be afraid of anything.

“Most likely they’re related to the Mann-Hechter blue wasp, except I’ve never seen these transparent body segments. Maybe it’s a new subspecies.” For a moment he stared at them with the raised eyebrows of a man standing at the doorway of discovery. “Anyway, blue wasps eat cellulose fibers—wood, paper. You’ve got quite a bit of that around here.” He indicated the countertops.

Peter rubbed his eyes. Every visible surface was covered in pulp—magazine renewal postcards, date-due slips, notes on the back of tear-off calendar pages, memos and junk mail cut into squares and refashioned as to-do lists. The exterminator shooed away some wasps and picked up a handful.

“This stuff is like candy to them. They come for the sweets, stay for the main course.”

The exterminator knocked on the wall and shared a knowing look with Peter.

“But are they dangerous?” Louise asked.

“Dangerous? No! I mean one wasp, it can sting you. But with the numbers you’ve got here, I’d be more worried about the house collapsing on top of you.” He chuckled a little to himself as he filled out an estimate, tore it from the pad, and let it float down to the table.

“It’ll only take a couple hours. It’s the gas that’s expensive.”

* * *

While Peter dreamt of wasps, Louise dreamt of a hospital bed, a green curtain and white bricks where no one came to visit. Whatever had befallen her, she had a severe case of it because orderlies had her bubbled off, living in a quarantine. Nurses tended her from a separate room via robotic arms and prescriptions arrived through an amusement park of vacuum tubes, landing by her bedside with a theatrical pop—the reassuring rattle of plastic and pills.

When she slept in the dream, she dreamt of lying with Peter. Only later would Louise reason that these had not been dreams within dreams, but near-wakings—membrane-cloaked visions of their dark bedroom each time Peter stirred her with a hand slung across her chest. But whenever Louise’s eyes opened completely it was to the hospital and its close walls. There were no windows, no door, only a truthful little lamp and its dusty orange light. Louise felt tremendously dry, especially in her joints, as if fever heat had evaporated all the necessary lubricants. It hurt to move. Each attempt to stretch or stir was a painful exercise in grinding stones together.

Once when she woke she heard voices talking to her as though through an apartment intercom, shouting at her dozens of floors away on a crowded sidewalk. She heard Peter and her mother and people she hadn’t spoken to in years, Kelly Harper from high school and a very forward ceramics professor whose info she had copied half-heartedly into her little pink address book as a symbolic end to their conversation.

“What hurts today?” asked her mother.

Peter offered to bring her a Sudoku book to get her mind off things. Only which one should he bring? There were so many and he wouldn’t want to disappoint her with puzzles that were too quickly solved.

Louise answered their questions, but it was obvious by the way her visitors carried on that no one could hear her.

The last time she woke in the hospital, it was to women she recognized as her nurses telling her to try and relax, her surgery would begin shortly. The robotic arms folded her gown down to her waist and she was naked underneath and covered by wild strokes from a black Sharpie. HEART, said her breastbone. STOMACH!, howled her navel. In smaller, more subtle script someone had labeled her BIRTHMARKS and concealed her nipples under a pair of whimsically conceived grape leaves.

“Great,” someone said. “She’s already marked up.”

When one of the robotic arms began descending with a scalpel, she began to shout that there had been a mistake, they had forgotten the anesthesia.

“It’s all right, darling,” came a voice. “You already can’t feel anything.”

* * *

In Peter’s dream, Louise got up from the kitchen table. Peter saw she could hardly stand but was forcing herself, making a show of it. Both he and the exterminator lunged to help her but she shook them off with a quick turn of the head, whipping her hair around and freeing the top of the robe. That was where the line of wasps came marching, in a neat parade up her skin.

“No one is gassing anyone! I don’t hire killers and I certainly don’t date them.” She frowned at each of the men in turn and stood there inflated with breath as the wasps spiraled into a necklace below her chin.

Louise grabbed Peter by his arms. “Why does everything that comes into your world have to be a problem?” Her hands were blistering. She held him to make a point, but also to stay on her feet, gripping as though he were a railing raised to keep people back from a high precipice. “Can’t you just admire—”

“Louise, you’re hurting me.”

She put her face to his and he could hear the sound their rubbing wings made as they walked.

“Can’t you just—”

Then she was shaking him, trying to refresh whatever it was he was seeing, how he saw it, and when she finally shook him awake he was beneath her weight in the dark. He felt her stomach shuddering under his ribs, heard her retching as she climbed his bones out of their burning bed. Peter turned on his pillow to see her kneeling on the floor. She was breathing heavily in the computer’s cool light, switched on by her moving, the loose puddle by her side glowing bright blue like something that had leaked out of a machine.

* * *

When morning came Peter made her tea, wrapped her in afghans, and they sat together on the long couch downstairs with the Sunday news shows—faraway people talking about even farther away problems and then going off camera to fix coffee.

She was definitely sick, though they were waiting to see just what, food poisoning or a 24-hour thing.

The TV began to buzz, as it did now and again—tube driven and generally on the fritz.

Peter sucked in a breath at the sound. If there was anything he couldn’t stand it was the noise of a sympathetic reverberation, a radio station half tuned in or loose change set rattling in the car by a certain range of RPMs. But today he closed his eyes to it, tried to let it live with them for a moment in the room.

It was Louise who asked, “Can you fix that?” Hesitantly he rose and put his fist into the side of the television. Glass rattled in the windows and the dolphin bone on top of the television slid until it was in danger of plummeting off the square edge of its world. Louise looked at him surprised and vaguely frightened at the force of his solution.

“Why does it do that, anyway?”

“Sympathy,” he said. “The TV’s frequency is making something else move. Maybe its own cabinet. Maybe this.” He put the dolphin bone back in place then went back to her on the couch.

“Here. Do this.” Peter hummed a long note and she followed him. Her pitch wasn’t as steady, and he felt his heart soften at the way her note fluttered hurdy gurdy around his own.

“Feel it in your ribs? Under your chin?” He pressed at the places and she nodded. For the first time that day, Louise smiled.

Yes, he thought, their song: his filing away all her garbage and her taking it out again to spread across the floor, looking for that one unlikely piece. The noise paper makes when it shuffles against itself like leaves.

* * *

The following winter Peter proposed to Louise, took her on a walk through a gentle snow and opened his fist under a street light to reveal the ring, a tiny blue sapphire set in silver. As she bent to examine it, he could see her smiling face reflected in the stone and, at the same time, all the way through it to the winding future diagrammed on his palm. Soon after, they bought their first house, a modest ranch outside of town with sunflowers blooming all along the edge of the back yard. Louise fell in love with it immediately and though Peter knew even a low offer would be at the top end of their price range, he looked carefully at all the figures and instead of shaking his head squeezed them until they fit on all the lines.

A few weeks after they moved in, a brown envelope came for Louise with no return address. It had been originally sent to the old house but the handwriting was whited over by an official postal label with their new street and number. Sometime during the move Peter had filled out a form to forward all their mail from the old place and they’d been getting letters that looked like this for a month. When he dropped it in the kitchen with a pile of her mail, Louise was at the sink, peeling potatoes.

“Anything good?”

“There is one curiosity.” He tapped the envelope twice. “Doesn’t say who it’s from.”

He walked back into the living room where he continued to watch her. This was their staging area for unpacking, and everywhere Peter looked was a wax vegetable box stuffed to the brim with compromises and irreconcilable differences. Louise had agreed to part with some of her collection, but most of it came with them. With each parcel he unloaded into the house Peter imagined it was Louise herself he were carrying, white and kicking, across the threshold.

Peter saw her dry her hands on her pants and then turn the knife on the envelope.

Somehow he knew what it would be, had felt its shape like a swollen organ amidst the packaging. Louise screamed when it fell out into her palm—small, pink, and unharmed.

She began flipping through, recounting those who’d been missing to her for so long and he saw her face flush. For days she would not let him deny that it had been him, because, “How else, Peter?” she’d say. In truth, he’d hoped they would find the address book when they packed everything up but they never did. It took him a week to figure it out—how the new tenants at the old house had discovered it someplace hilarious (in a heating duct or a crack in the floor) and simply mailed it to themselves, substituting Louise’s name from the book’s inside cover.

“You did this?” she said, calling to him. He would not protest. He would not unravel another mystery down to its empty, useless spool. Instead Peter put his hands in his pockets and smiled until she found her way to him, navigating the shortest route through the boxes that contained them.


A slightly different version of this story first appeared in the print journal Chum.


Greg Tebbano’s Comments

I wanted to set this story during that fragile period in a relationship right after a couple has moved in together, that moment when anything unseemly they’ve managed to keep hidden or any untoward feelings for one another will surely come to light. If you’ve been happily married for any length of time, you’ve likely forgotten all about this—how everything is heightened. How every argument might be the last time you’ll ever speak to each other.

The plot was inspired by two real events, my losing my girlfriend’s address book—no small transgression in the days before automatic cloud backup—and the dream about the transparent wasps. I wanted to connect them. I liked the idea that a conflict could resolve itself in a dream—how the subconscious is such a better, more honest communicator than the ego, which always has to save face or puff up one’s position. Also, I liked exploring the possibility that you could communicate with another also-sleeping person via the subconscious. My girlfriend claimed to have done this once, to have met up with her friend in a shared dream. The next day they talked about it, were able to corroborate where they had been, what the other was wearing.

I don’t write down my dreams, but I do keep a pad and pen on my nightstand. To this day, that’s when my stories always make the most sense to me: right after I’ve woken up.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 55 | Spring/Summer 2020