New work by Corey Campbell (fiction, ’12), “A Handful of Pennies and One Rouge Dime,” appears online at Pithead Chapel:
Near the Chrysler Building. A dark bedroom in a pre-war apartment, long heavy curtains pulling down, and a skinny strip of light underneath. It makes Janelle lonely to lay belly down on the bed, cheek to the sheet, wrists tied behind her with a silver birthday ribbon. She wishes Sanderson hadn’t gotten so into tying her up.
The dumpling delivery guy is at the door, forty minutes late. Voice like a balding minor league umpire. “Happy Panda,” he calls.
Sanderson grunts in response, pulling on worn jeans and walking barefoot across the carpet, mint green like an old lady’s gum. He steals a twenty from Janelle’s bag and leaves her there on the bed, where they’d stripped all but that bottom sheet. She stares at the pastel walls with her one good eye. He left the door open. Sun barrels through the kitchen window so the hallway leading to the bedroom is an overexposed white tunnel. Through it Sanderson emerges again, parking the Chinese food sack on the dresser, knocking over a glass perfume bottle and raining down chopsticks. Warm salty smells engulf the room, where broccoli is king.
Sanderson slams the fridge door so that jam jars clink into molasses used once and forgotten. “Empty,” he calls.
“I have water on tap,” she says.
Instead he says, “Be right back.” Slaps the front door shut but opens it again—“forgot cash.” He grabs her wallet and is gone, probably to the bodega half a block towards the river. You pass four stone apartment buildings and a wireless phone shop to get there.
Janelle’s hungry. Her wrists are tied but not her fingers. She kicks into a sitting position, trying to free herself but only strains the ribbon against her skin. This apartment she’s subletting from an aunt who’s in the Czech Republic all summer, the agreed upon rent of $200 a month really just a formality. Her parents had hoped she’d return to Seattle for the break, but they’d understood finally— staying in the city for an internship was for her future. Her mom had stopped crying on the phone.
Sirens rise behind the curtain and trail off. Janelle remembers months ago a taxi slammed into a bike messenger near Columbus Circle—shot him forward fifteen feet. Though she was heading up the sidewalk to the Y, she didn’t stop to check on his okayness, the crowd already molding around him, the subway running on as if nothing had happened.
Sanderson she met in the falafel line at Mamoun’s after a night downing several long islands with friends. They helped—she wasn’t afraid to touch his arms and assume a Velcro-like familiarity. Sanderson never confessed whether he’d been drunk or not that night. He’d walked her to his minimalist apartment on Bleecker, said he was a graphic designer and she’d better be okay with his Brooklynite ex constantly calling him for help. I feel sorry for her, he’d said, fingertips circling Janelle’s bellybutton; the ex was a designer, too, but she doesn’t have any talent. Sanderson wore his favorite black t-shirt that night, a white spine outline on back and shoulder blades spreading like wings. Janelle had tried to joke about angels but he said,What? You don’t find them terrifying?
Janelle knocks into the dresser, spilling egg drop soup into a puddle. She leans to slurp it up before it reaches the floor, but a line rolls down the side anyway. She tries to stop it with her knee.
A knock at the front door and a voice: “Hey.” The dumpling guy again, or that’s what it sounds like, making Janelle still herself. He won’t hear her if she’s a statue. Soon he’ll realize that Sanderson has left and he’s talking to an empty apartment. She sees herself in the mirror shirtless and slowly paws her sweater from the floor with her toes.
“You stiffed me,” he says through the door, his chubby arms probably studded with gray hair, maybe holding a crowbar. “I’ll wait.”
She hears him slide down the wall, imagines him pulling a crushed fortune cookie from his windbreaker and ripping it open with his teeth. She remembers an 80s movie about an arctic field scientist forced to eat mouse-with-saltine sandwiches; she pictures the man outside with a mouse-tail hanging from his lips.
She fumbles to dial Sanderson, but his phone rings from another room. His ring tone hasn’t changed—the same techno hula, the same calling of attention to himself. Everything about him so exacting.
But dumpling guy says through the door, “Janelle.”
It stops her. She drops her phone.
“Don’t freak out,” he says. “It says so on the ticket.” Which isn’t right. Sanderson placed the order. She had nothing to do with it. He shouldn’t know her name. “I know the dude is gone,” he says. “I saw him leave. I watched him. Just realized he gave me the wrong amount. That’s all.”
Her wallet’s gone, only a handful of pennies and one rogue dime. She finds an awkward ball of ones in her aunt’s nightstand, probably run through the washer.
“No,” she says, more to herself than him.
She looks out the window, pushing the curtains aside so the room fills with light—the kind of striking light that makes silhouettes out of furniture, the tall heavy chest of drawers, the round dark wood table. The fire escape is a series of black bars, a cage and ladder supposed to lead you to safety. It’s a long weekend and they were supposed to visit the botanical gardens in Brooklyn—Sanderson was humoring her. She’d been looking forward to it.
Janelle knows: soda from the bodega would never take this long, even with a line, even if the power had failed and they’d had to add up every purchase in their heads. The apartment feels empty, a dry socket where a rotten tooth used to be. She looks for her aunt’s long-handled shears to cut the ribbon. Instead finds a razor by the bath. Almost cutting herself, she remembers news of severed left feet washing ashore near Vancouver. Scientists reported that currents took different shapes in different directions—the right feet wound up on shore in Washington. If only they could run and find each other.
She nudges her orange terrycloth skirt from under the bed.
“Those noodles I brought you?” the dumpling voice calls, “Real chicken—white meat. Breast meat.” He pauses. “You want to let me in.”
The fire escape clangs when Janelle reaches the ladder but still hangs twenty feet above the sidewalk. A jump she doesn’t want to make. But if she did she’d be street-level walking towards the river—or the opposite, away from the bodega that sells Canada Dry in cans and tall bottles of tomato juice that people only buy when they want to get hammered.
He knocks again.
She scans her aunt’s storeroom of possessions, all the useless things he could steal, framed photographs, ballerina figurines, long unread coffee table books on constellations and the Weimar Republic.
His knocking becomes pounding, probably the force of his shoulder on the door.
She sees on her aunt’s table salt and pepper shakers shaped like little Dutch people in enormous wooden shoes and blue hats. A man and a woman, midgety and ill proportioned. Not right for each other at all.