Sarah Virginia Dumitrascu
Steven Stevenson wakes up for work, every day, at 5:30 AM. His eyes open like rusted blinds against the sun. He lies there for 45 seconds, the maximum amount of time he can bear the jangling of his alarm clock. The do-re-mi-fuck-me-so notes of a zippy xylophone echo off the walls—for Steven, it’s The Song of Dread.
Steven Stevenson doesn’t wear slippers as he straggles around his icebox apartment. He won’t even spend $4.99 for those fuzzy little socks they sell at his grocery store (though, he hardly goes grocery shopping at all). Maybe it’s because he’s already given up on—
feeling absolutely balmy inside. He curls up beside a hearth that bathes his face in feathery warmth, thaws his bones in tropic water. He sinks down and wants to drown in it.
Steven Stevenson’s morning routine begins in the bathroom. The sink water numbs his hands, but Steven doesn’t notice his blue fingers or shivering teeth. He pays attention to other things: the violets budding beneath his eyes, the empty bottle of REDACTED in his trash can. Steven Stevenson doesn’t notice the toothpaste burning at his gums until fluoride fire burbles from his mouth. His eyes are fixed downwards, and he thinks of taking the trash out.
For a guy who thinks socks and sandals are high-end fashion, Steven Stevenson takes too long to dress. He owns 5 pairs of khaki pants and 5 button-down shirts for 5 days of the week, 50 weeks of the year. These things he puts on quickly; it’s his tie he takes his time with. He touches the grey polyester slow, twining together the ends and pulling tight. Steven Stevenson doesn’t give an actual damn about ties; he just likes the feeling of something around his—
head tilted to watch the wispy sky above. He plays a game with the clouds, pretending
they each have a shape, a secret, a symbol. In them, he spots a great big fish whose tail splashes and shifts into an hourglass snatching at sand with hands that spill into one fat stack of
buttermilk pancakes. He watches himself fall through the clouds, bracing himself to hit the ground.
Steven Stevenson always eats oatmeal for breakfast. There’s something about its wet cardboard taste that Steven savors—practical simplicity. Some days, though, when he’s feeling a little saucy, he’ll dust just a breath of cinnamon over the bowl. That way, a bit of burn lasts with him on his way to work.
Steven Stevenson punches into the tax collector’s office at 8:00 AM. His bosses appreciate his punctuality (read: the cheap bastards appreciate not paying for overtime). But Steven’s efforts don’t go unnoticed. Last Christmas, his bosses even sent him a card that read:
Thanks for all your hard work! Happy Holidays :)”
At least the card was the pop-up kind.
Thankfully, Steven Stevenson’s co-workers go the extra mile:
“Big dog Steve! Catch the game last night?”
“Oh, Steve, hi. You wore those brown shoes again?” “Stevey! How was your weekend?”
Steven Stevenson won’t tell them he spent it watching a four-hour long documentary on tiny tree frogs. He won’t tell them that he spent half of it in bed because unless he gets up at 5:30 AM, he doesn’t get up at all. He won’t tell them that his fridge has been empty for a month so all he eats are Hot Pockets that never quite cook on the inside. At least the crust is warm. He especially won’t tell them that he hates being called “Steve”. The “n” is there for a reason, and they’re all stinking garbage sacks for never noticing it.
But there are more important things Steven can’t tell them, or anyone else. Things like—
old leather jackets hanging forgotten in a closet. The scent of tanned cowhide, musty and carnivorous, fills the air—he breathes it deeply. He smothers his face between the arms of the jackets, draping their thick skin over his. They sway in the dark to a silent rhythm and he turns from one dance partner to the next. He looks up at their pulsing bodies and thinks he could be the same, hung quietly in a closet, smelling of mothballs and the desert.
Steven Stevenson’s workday is barricaded by the eggshell walls of his cubicle. It’s a hideous color, but Steven has done little to cover it up. He’s hung up a motivational poster, a birthday card from his mom, and placed a plastic cactus in the corner (Steven doesn’t want to take care of living plants). But this nuevo-minimalism works for Steven because he never looks up. He cranes his head down for 4 hours straight, and by lunch time, Steven flies far away.
Steven is forced to migrate because the office, at lunch time, attracts a gaggle of assholes: “Max, you’re on the Keto this week, right? Is it even working for you?”; “Jamie, didn’t I tell you that those REDACTED aren’t good for you?” Steven Stevenson only has his bologna sandwich to look forward to all day, and all that noise numbs the taste of mayonnaise on his tongue.
Instead, Steven Stevenson likes to eat his lunch on a bench behind the office. The bench is Steven’s single sanctuary: it’s shaded by trees that filter the sun’s bitter light, and its murmuring stream is all the conversation Steven needs. Usually, the space is vacant, so Steven can savor his creamy mayonnaise sandwich. Except today, something has changed. Today, a dumpster sits beside Steven’s bench instead.
A rancid odor hovers around the dump. Hot garbage, it turns out, isn’t a singular sort of scent—it rises and falls in crescendoing notes of shit. Various fragrances fill the air: rotting banana peels, eaten paper, crushed soda cans, a used condom, a pair of socks with holes in all
the toes, two cockroaches the length of Steven’s thumb, a dirtied diaper, a stained movie script, pizza boxes, a lady’s torn stockings, a pharmacy bag, and an empty bottle of REDACTED.
Steven Stevenson stares at the garbage strangling his bench. The trees seem to block less sunlight than usual today. Steven tosses his bologna sandwich into the heap and breathes in something sweet, something festering. He can make it through the day hungry.
Sometime between a subway ride, a bus ride, and raindrops refracting the city’s lights, Steven Stevenson makes it home.
He takes his shoes off without turning on the light. Usually, Steven’s nights roll like movies of his mornings in reverse. He would gnaw through a half-frozen Hot Pocket. He would wash his face with hot water (Steven doesn’t shower every day). He would watch knitting videos, turn them off, curl up with a body pillow, swallow a handful of REDACTED, and in the best-case scenario, sleep without dreaming.
But tonight, Steven pauses in his doorway. Something isn’t right. Something in his apartment stinks. And then, Steven Stevenson does the unthinkable. He washes the dishes.
A stack of plates and mugs have been collecting in Steven’s sink for months, but today, he sanctifies them in soapy water. He purges the sink and then empties the drying rack. He cleans the entire house. Steven shines the floors, dusts the shelves, and organizes his mail (Hell, he even pays his water bill!). He folds his laundry, matches missing pairs of socks, and stiches all their holes shut. He answers emails, writes a note in bleeding ink, and returns the only missed call (really, the only call) in his phone. The line drones on until it finally asks for a voicemail filled with penitence and grief. Once the apartment finally feels lemon fresh and clean, Steven Stevenson takes a shower.
In the bathroom, Steven Stevenson opens his medicine cabinet. A sparse collection of items lines the shelf: an unused razor, shaving cream, a box of cartoon band-aids, and an un- opened bottle of REDACTED.
Steven Stevenson slams the cabinet shut, rattling the mirror in its frame. Steven breathes brokenly, and his reflection startles him back. Steven stares into the fissures of a sunken face.
The shards of an eye won’t quite line up with the slivers of a cheek, and the nose splinters into six broken bones. A mouth staggers up and down, and the entire head is warped sideways, falling apart like rotted fruit. This is a portrait Steven has, for so long, tried to straighten. If only he could re-arrange the pieces into a shape that wouldn’t topple. But that might just be the gravity of things, Newton’s Law of Shit Doesn’t Stay Together. Maybe that’s what shit is meant to do, fall apart, and who is Steven to deny it disarray? In thinking of letting go, he finds—
nothing. He reaches out to grip
a hard plastic—
His fists unclench, his mouth fills with—
His throat constricts as he swallows—
nothing. His breathing slows. A tempest that’s been seething soothes into a blast, a breeze, a whistling tune. The note rises up and reaches to draw a velvet curtain down. He receives a standing ovation, applause like a downpour of thunder that claps and crackles until he moves away, behind the curtain, where the hands fall as softly as raindrops against the
floor. He bends down to listen to a faint heartbeat. The pulsing ripples into pinpricks that start in his feet and rise like saltwater nipping his skin, sketching his face in shades of tundra and blue. They match the color of his
eyes. Ocean water fills his vision, drowning a grainy film so that its only watcher can finally, finally go.
It’s 5:30 AM and Steven Stevenson is lying on his bathroom floor. His face is cold, hands numb, but Steven doesn’t notice. An empty pill bottle sits beside him. His morning alarm rings for longer than 45 seconds, but Steven Stevenson doesn’t get up again.
Sarah Virginia Dumitrascu is the daughter of immigrant parents who learned English second but loved it first. She loves writing that fiction that is rhythmic, surrealistic, and just a little weird. She can usually be found walking the streets of historical St. Augustine, and her favorite food, without a doubt, is bread.