The writer is positive that his sentences have been previously erased. For sure the writer had not written, yesterday, that his daughter finally visited him, since yesterday, the not unfamiliar woman he knows only as Sandra sat with him. Always during lunch. The same roast chicken, the same aging white-cotton clad bodies hunched at the round plastic tables. The same stranger who should be sitting with her father, but is instead playing this sick game in collusion with the vandal.
The writer cannot be entirely blamed. The fish does look like the chicken, and the pork like the fish. But he rarely eats, and when he does, it’s only a bite or two during fish days which, if he remembers, was not properly deboned as he is sure to have explained to whoever received his order. He didn’t bother to look. He can’t be bothered. The voice asked him, and he replied. The writer recalls having started this composition with the likely intention of writing about that lunch. It’s right there in the title—“Little Bones Falling Out Of My Mouth.” But that can’t be right. No bones ever fall out of his mouth. Not like Sandra’s, who spits the stiff tiny pins onto her plate, leaning low to soften the chink that bites the back of the writer’s jaws.
Besides, most of his time has been spent erasing rather than writing. The vandal, who absolutely must be Sandra’s father, sneaks to his room when he is only ever not—lunch. He writes his nonsense while the writer endures Sandra moaning on and on about this and that. He can’t remember. He can’t be bothered. Listening is such a trial that whatever energy might have been effected in remembering is wasted.
These are a few of the obstacles in front of the writer. The one he does not notice, has long not, even before his tenure at the Cottages, is that there is not one clock or watch in the entire residence. Only the staff keep time—when to bed, when to feed, when to leave.
Another day is like the last and the one tomorrow. So he closes his bedroom door just so the sliver of the suspect’s skull hovers in the gap.
This isn’t what he has written before, and he is sure that it is the work of whoever sends the strange woman Sandra to distract him from his work. It is certain that the vandal is not himself, he’d thought of that before. He’s not so far gone. How else could he have known that the woman called Sandra “has a nasty habit of spitting the little browned bones” onto her plate if it was he himself who sent her to him in the first place?
Sandra is not his daughter. The proof is here. He cannot even be sure that the woman’s name is indeed Sandra. It was simply here when he returned one day, which now seems like it had already happened when it hadn’t. “Forgotten” is the word he wants.
He reads that the vandal has written about the story Sandra just told him in the lunch room. The one about “the dead cat’s food. Recently deceased, she’d tied him to a post in the backyard because he expressed that he was more like a dog than a cat. Had Sandra misheard the bell around its neck for the phone?” No, the phone did ring. He remembers that. But it was too late—the cat had roped its neck around the leash and died. For her sake, he hopes that she did not see its little tongue flicker out of its mouth. Not that it mattered. What would’ve been to be done? Nothing, and in this case, something is worse than nothing. There’s no use keeping the dead cat’s food in the refrigerator. He’d said as much, but it’s like her to not listen. Instead, she spoke in such a queer combination of sounds that he never could have possibly understood.
The story continues, but the vandal has written over his words, “DON’T ERASE IT. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT.” The writer laughs. Has he not sabotaged himself! Still—what could she have said? The writer tries to erase it, but the cratered nub of his eraser is so small that it flips out of his hand each time he begins. The pencil’s is so worn that the metal sleeve scratches out completely a few of the words, like lifting a scab. He winces at the thought. He leans closer, and tries to decipher what he, or the vandal, had written—so often has the writer erased the vandal’s words that their handwritings blur into the other, vacating the pale blue rules with blank dents. A shape to a word begins to emerge. He does not notice, but his own mouth mumbles in response. Sandra’s smile had been so queer. A smile that should have not belonged to a stranger. When he catches himself, the idea of what he might have said starts to fly away. It’s not so far gone. It’s worth a try. He skims and flips the pages, looking for a blank line. Each page he believes the vandal has finished, he has written more. He flips the last page over, expecting another sheet when he stares at the laminate sheen of his hand-me-down desk.
He is certain that every one of his sentences has been previously erased. Yesterday, he had not written what the pages otherwise present. The vandal was here. He complains about the daughter “who doesn’t visit him,” but to whom does he complain?
The vandal must absolutely be Sandra’s father—how else would he know about her spitting the little browned bones onto her plate? Then again, they all have nasty habits. And the same one—their chins so close to the table as if their jaws at any moment will loose from their faces. Except for him. He can still be trusted with a fork. He sits upright.
Sandra wiped her shiny mouth with the back of her hand. Such a person could have never been borne by him. He wanted to wipe the spittle she’d missed. If she insisted on sitting with him, the least she could do is keep her manners. It hung there like a cellophane shred caught on a fence. It flickered and waved as she spoke. It was so distracting he couldn’t pay attention. His arm was going up, but instead of her cheek, his hand was gripping her wrist.
“Ow!” She studied her thumb.
His cheek is his alone. In fact, if she wanted to sit with him, she’d do better by leaving him alone. But that’s not what happens at the Cottages. Someone is always there to bother you, their mere presence is enough to choke. Like the next one. Another stranger, dressed not like Sandra, but like the others at the Cottages. What did he want? He just stood there with his palm open over the writer’s plate. The writer doesn’t remember what he said, but it got the other stranger’s attention. The hand picked up the plate and left.
The old man didn’t have to yell, but he, the young man, should have remembered his training. Clear the table. But the old man’s eyes. Beaded. So small his face was going to swallow them. Clear the table, he remembered.
He sets the plates in the steel sink. Should he have done something? The patient comes first, he explains to his colleagues. They shrug. But he just swiped at her chin. What to do? She’s on his list.
Lunch is over. Deep breath. The rest of them find their own way back, but his colleagues had warned him—the old man’s daughter has to leave first. Then he can take him back to his room. But after that, the loopy one doesn’t fuss. He just writes.
Ryan Chang's work has appeared in Tin House, 3:AM Magazine, The Scofield, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Colorado-Boulder. He lives in Orange County, CA.