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"The Roller," short story excerpt

Friday 3/17/23

Her mother used to show visitors how she slept when she was a child because of how she always positioned her hands, the dreaming supplicant. Family visitors and friends. Not strangers. Not the milkman.


There wasn’t a milkman. It was a long time ago that anyone had a milkman. She wondered if anyone ever really did. Brooding on the existence of milkmen had been among the longest-lasting and least perishable subjects of her mental life. Present since near the very start. They seemed more like men you’d find in fairy tales, but they were also too ordinary to fit in well there.


Was milk ever so important that it had to be brought to the door daily? What would happen if you didn’t have a milkman because you lived where no one else did? You couldn’t expect the milkman to go all that way out of his way just for you, could you? Would you get sick when others didn’t? Were you compromised? How so? Might you have made up the difference in water, which didn’t require any kind of man to come? The faucet man. The faucet being. The faucet figure. He didn’t exist, with his would-be credo.


Imbibe until you can imbibe no more. Imbibe yourself dizzy. Imbibe yourself full. Imbibe yourself replenished. Imbibe yourself back to health. Imbibe yourself forgetful. Imbibe yourself inebrious. Imbibe yourself free. Imbibe yourself silly. Yes. Call it silly. Call it a break. A break well-earned. Who needs the milkman anyway? Still, it would be nice. A pleasing concept, in theory, milkmen.


“Some things are going to feel nice and some are going to hurt,” her mother said to her one of the times she was crying, acting like it would be impossible to stop.


The worst thing ever had happened. Was it really the worst? Was it ever? Those were very different times. Three weeks later and it might not be remembered. Three hours. But when it had happened, whatever it was, right after it had happened, it felt like the worst thing and that has to count for something, she figured.


Only, she felt so stupid now, in the years and decades since.


“What were you thinking?” she asks a version of herself who’s been dead a long time.

Or if not dead, she hasn’t continued to exist, that girl who thought in the terms of the worst day ever, and the worst thing that had ever happened, who thought she knew because of what she determined that she felt so much. But it wasn’t real. It wasn’t nothing. But it wasn’t real all the same.


“And that’s that?” she had asked her mother on the edge of her bed between heaping, air-gulping sobs, as though this might be a creditable idea after all, that there was nothing else to life save two halves into which everything else was made to fit, the things that feel nice and the things that hurt. She felt guilty as soon as the words had come from her mouth, as if she’d been able to stop herself from crying by choice, or a conscious, in-control need to check the veracity of her mother’s statement.


When she remembered her question all of this time later, about how she had asked her mother if that was that, she hoped she hadn’t said it with a tone suggesting that she wanted a receipt, like they’d been doing business.


“Kind of,” her mother had answered. “But also not quite.”


She was close to dreaming now, on her side. These were the final thoughts, the nearly done thoughts, the going away thoughts. Dreaming could really mean stopping more than anything. Calling the halt. Getting the distance. A day has ended. Finally. She didn’t have to be a part of it anymore. Or a middle of a night came to a close and she wasn’t responsible—so far as she knew—for keeping herself together.


The figure that she wished for, hoped would come down, advanced with the roller for the finishing touches. Was probably paid a top wage, the roller of the roller. Well-compensated. A professional through and through. The figure could have been God. The figure could have been a blackened lever of darkness with a grabbing arm, like those robot hands that pick up pencils, or the mechanical claws that always manage to drop the stuffed animal you thought you needed right at the last moment.


The claw was a gimmick, a ploy for the suckers and the short-term dreamers for whom that portion of that hour of that night is everything.


But why were there silver hands to pick up pencils? Are they practicing? Can the silent machines that are best at picking up those implements of written expression have pride in their skills?


Some people say that objects have consciousness. Was she one of them? She did feel more and more like an object. A not-quite-human person. Like she was being removed from herself by the day and it had gone on for so long that the full transition had surely happened. Removed from the world. She’d have to think about it, but something told her that she should know already.


Even the crunching of her bones wouldn’t keep her from sleep now. The roller may press as hard as it likes, if there’s anything it likes. Has her unofficial permission, her tacit wishing. Or as hard as it can. Break through the parts of the hardness. Compress her layers of softness and maybe convert them into something of greater use or that are better protected.


It’s been pain for so long. What’s been pain? Everything has been pain. Is boredom pain? Well, it can be when there aren’t other options. Is loneliness pain? Oh, yes, that’s pain in the extreme. Is looking forward to sleeping pain? It goes away for a while, but it also doesn’t. So what’s sleep but an illusion if nothing really changes while you’re doing it?


But she doesn’t like to think that way. There comes a time when you have to say, “That’s enough for now,” even if that’s not how anything really works.



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