M

Ceiling

by Frances Badgett

 

The ceiling leaks onto the parquet. The rot separates the insulation into discolored strips of what appear to be failed organs, an ombre of pink into black. It is something Harriet sees, but does not fix. The ceiling is damp and dripping, here a collapse, the exposed wood pale where it isn’t damp. The layers of drywall dangle, opening a chasm through which the wind and rain enter. She steps in a small puddle. She lets the boards creak under her bare feet. Flexion, they call it, when the floor eases into itself.

She tries to remember the last sound she heard from a person. She can’t remember. A cat visited the porch one day, and she slid it tuna and named it D for her lost one, her enormous sadness, but the cat never came back.

She decides not to bathe today. Or, if not deciding precisely, simply leaves the decision alone. She opens the almost-empty fridge, pulls out a single small package of string cheese, slides the cheese from the sleeve. She makes coffee, measuring the beans into the cup, the grinder shaking the entire countertop. She gave up on the phone a long time ago, out of its charge, tossed on the floor next to the door.

The garden overgrows with blackberry and nightshade. She has cut it back, and it grows again. What is it to have it trim and planted with roses? What would she see out the windows if not the bare fence, the wire for the dead clematis? She sips her coffee and considers her day of shuffling and sorting. A voice somewhere calls. She has learned not to answer back. It is not his voice, nor the voice of the child, but another, a ghostly one in her head. A ventriloquist who shouts from corners, but is nested inside her.

She puts on music. Bach played in cool, logical tones. A cello’s moan in the speakers. Who thought of such a thing, an instrument to be straddled and embraced? She closes her eyes and feels the rosewood and steel under the pads of her fingertips. Nothing that isn’t already in the room appears. She opens her eyes, and nothing has moved, though she is certain she can feel the earth shift. The child is far away. She reaches, but it is no longer there. Her small D, which could be a string on the cello. Or just the beginning of a thought. She isn’t sure now, and sits on the couch, swallowed by pillows, overwhelmed. Another letter, this one more certain: O. His letter. She remembers him as smelling of mildew and dust. His hands rough on her shoulders.

A strip of drywall thunks to the floor, another trickle of dust. She closes her eyes and remembers a touch, but not his. No, the open smeared smile of a baby, fingers sticky with mango. Girl. The cello goes quiet. The house sways.

 

Frances Badgett is the fiction editor of Contrary Magazine. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Anomaly (formerly Drunken Boat), Word Riot, Matchbook, Atticus Review, JMWW, Salamander, and elsewhere. Two of her stories have made the Wigleaf 50 longlist. Her story Half Hitch has been selected for the 2019 Best of the Small Fictions from Sonder Press. She grew up in Lexington, Virginia and has a B.A. from Hollins University and an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Bellingham, Washington with her husband and daughter, and is currently working on a novel set in the Pacific Northwest. Her website is francesbadgett.com, her Twitter is @francesbadgett, and her Instagram is @FrancesBad.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Ceiling”?

In my stories, I’m often obsessing over an externalization of the internal—a way of demonstrating emotional state without being literal about voice and dialogue—telling it slant to paraphrase Emily Dickinson (and, of course, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola). I also write a lot about loss, and how characters navigate the unthinkable losses in their lives. Harriet’s indifference to her environment also drove me through this piece, and through the revision process, I always had to make sure she is defined (in some places by how she isn’t) through the crumbling world she’s inhabiting. I had to carve her out of her tucked-in, ingrained pattern of sadness and really find her in there. This story went through many revisions, and I put it aside for a long time and revised it again because I didn’t want to lose Harriet’s presence. As for the sentence-level mechanics, I’m constantly asking myself “is this word, or phrase, or sentence a story?” because for me, the challenge of flash is that every story has to be a collection of smaller stories, and words the tiniest stories of all, little perfect universes. I especially enjoy architectural words like plaster and lath, parquet, dentil molding, sheer walls. There’s so much richness in the vocabulary of built spaces. And then some things are just among my favorite objects—cellos, mangoes, and coffee.

News

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