The next day a gaunt man pulls it from the dumpster and holds it aloft with his arms extended. He presses it into his face and smells it, then bunches it into a ball and stuffs it into his large plastic bag. Later he tosses it onto the bare mattress in his apartment’s cluttered living room and falls asleep with it under his head like a pillow. All around him are piles of weathered and dirty toys, sorted into groups of similar objects: here a pile of small metal cars, there a pile of bigger plastic dump trucks and tractors, and there a pile of stuffed animals so high it looms over the mattress like a mountain of damp and matted fur. Polyester batting pours from the open eye-holes of puppies, monkeys and bears. Nearby is a pile of naked plastic baby dolls. Their hair is cropped close or tufted into spikes or missing in clumps, and in some cases their hair is missing entirely. Some of the dolls have been dipped in fuchsia paint, some in a thick black tar as if they washed up on a beach after an oil spill. A number of doll bodies don’t have heads, and many of the heads are loose from bodies, and quite a few of the heads are staved in and flattened or depressed in various places. All of the eyeballs have been removed.
The man who lives here is constantly cold, even when he wraps the quilt around his body on the bare mattress at night. His extremities are stiff, and in sleep he shivers and mumbles and jerks awake yelling, tearing at the quilt as if it were attacking him. Then just as quickly he falls back into restless slumber, every hour repeating himself until the morning when he finally sleeps in the gray light. He wakes up coughing and continues to cough for hours after waking. Sometimes the quilt becomes his handkerchief, absorbing sprays of saliva and blood. Sometimes it is his robe, wrapped around him as he steps carefully from living room to bathroom, or into the empty kitchen for a drink of water from the tap. When he walks, it drags behind him, its long rip open wide like a yawning mouth.
During the day the quilt rests on the mattress while the man steps like a nervous heron amid the various piles of the living room, picking up an object and examining it, talking to it, asking it what color it wants to be or if it would like to be glued to The Car. Through a side window in the living room The Car is visible, an old wood-paneled station wagon parked in the alley and entirely covered in a chaotic jumble of pasted-on plastic toys. The roof, the hood, the doors, even the wheels and the airless tires are studded with plastic dinosaurs, action figures, stray doll limbs pointing out like spikes, concentric circles of mosaicked eyeballs and swirls of paint in between. In place of a hood ornament is a golden Barbie doll, naked, her arms held up as if ready to dive. Baby doll heads cover the headlights and the front bumper. Rubber snakes are woven in and out of their eyes, and tiny plastic lizards perch on their faces.
Sometimes the man kneels down beside the car and whispers, grumbling or squinting his eyes, then shaking his head as he stands again, moves to another area and repeats. All the while his hands are constantly caressing the surfaces of things, his fingers fluttering over the ridges of glued objects and down into the gaps between them to the painted metal, always moving, even when he stops to whisper to a single baby’s empty-eyed head or to kiss the Barbie’s paint-congealed and wild golden hair.
Every few days the man is gone for many hours, and when he returns he brings a garbage bag full of objects, more stuffed animals and plastic toys, and he spends hours sorting through them while he sits on the mattress in the center of the room, the quilt wrapped tightly around his always-icy feet. Months pass this way, and slowly the man begins to understand that the quilt loves to be shaken out and displayed, unfurled into the air and lowered over the mattress like a beautiful gown. You…You like to be…elegant? asks the man, and the quilt responds to him with a gentle sigh and a nearly breathless, Yes. The man sometimes turns to the quilt as he is picking his way through the piles in the room, holds up an object for the quilt’s perusal and listens as the quilt says, Oh yes, or Maybe not, or Why that color? and the man either nods slowly and puts the object down, or scowls and shakes his head and turns away, still clutching the thing in jealous and fumbling hands, turning it over and over as if to feel every last millimeter of its surface and somehow know it more completely. At night he sometimes does this to the quilt, his fingers walking like spiders over each patch of the quilt’s faded top, tracing the quilting lines, plucking at the threads with his fingernails, pressing his hands against small sections of the quilt and occasionally thrusting his whole arm into the gashed opening, where most of the batting in that wounded spot has long since fallen out. The little walnut-core of blood is nothing more than a speck now in the stray threads of gray cotton that remain, and the two cloudy semen stains are nearly invisible in the overwhelming dirt and grime that covers the quilt entirely.
The neighbors call this man Mr. Too-Tall, though nobody knows where he got the name since he rarely speaks to his neighbors and never speaks to strangers. People have stopped by the apartment building and asked about The Car, knocked on the man’s door even after being told he won’t answer, left him notes asking if he would consider selling it or presenting it at an art show in a local gallery. When they knock on the door, the man huddles on the mattress, wrapped in the quilt, humming to himself, his eyes closed, his breathing heavy and slow. He tries to stifle his incessant cough. He hums commercial jingles from decades ago, current pop songs from the radio, or variations of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes he peeks through the window after they stop knocking and watches them photograph his car. When this happens, he balls the quilt in his hands and snaps it taught as if to rip it apart. The next day he will tear half the ornaments from the car’s hood and roof and replace them with new objects culled from his piles on the apartment’s floor.
One night, shivering beneath the quilt and hugging his knees to his chest, he feels a terrible warmth swelling inside his gut and burning through his insides until he is covered in sweat. He flings the quilt off his body and lays on his back, gazing at an imagined sky full of brilliant, sparkling stars. When he was nine, his mother gave him a telescope and a book illustrating the constellations. The telescope was little more than a toy and barely magnified even the full moon, but eventually he found a use for it, propping it on its rickety tripod at the living room window and pointing it at the distant end of the street in the afternoons so that he would be able to see his mother’s bus at very the moment it turned the corner and started coming his way. He began arranging stuffed animals, action figures, an old bowling trophy he’d found in someone’s trash—anything with eyes that he could find in the house—before the window so that it was never the boy alone who would greet his mother when she came in the door, but a whole committee of welcoming faces, all smiling and clapping and reaching out their hands to usher the mother inside. “Put down your bag,” he would say to her as she stepped inside. “Take off your jacket,” because he knew she would not leave the house without those things, and as long as she was free of them there was no risk she would slip out the door. The moments of her homecoming were so tenuous and fragile they made him nervous every afternoon, and he began to take greater and greater care in arranging the crowd of waiting animals and figurines, certain that their placement and positioning would determined not only how soon his mother would come home but also the quality of her mood when she arrived. If he arranged them all poorly she would come in the door exhausted, bitter, and she would give him only the briefest hug before brushing him aside and making her way to the kitchen, where she would sort through the mail with her coat still on, and when she was finished she would have decided on someplace she had to go, alone, promising him half-heartedly that she’d be back soon. But if he arranged everything perfectly, the animals snuggled into the arm chair, the bowling trophy on the near corner of the coffee table, the super-heroes on the window sill peaking out from behind the curtains with brave, expectant faces, his mother might just walk into the living room and light up with a smile that made him tremble with joy and relief. Then she would kneel before him, the smell of outside wind still clinging to her overcoat, and open her arms wide, wrapping the coat around his whole body so that she was everywhere, and he would close his eyes and press his face into her clothes and breathe.
In the morning the man is dead. The quilt, flung aside in the night, has gradually inched back over his body, pulsing, kneading the dead skin and cooing softly, shrinking itself gradually tighter and tighter around him until it envelopes him like a cocoon. A week passes, and when the two uniformed men come, their faces covered with white masks against the smell and their eyes wide and uneasy in the apparent madness of the apartment, they try but cannot manage to separate the fabric of the quilt from the flesh of the man. Fabric and flesh seem to have merged into a solid and shared mass, a rigid patchwork mummy that they lift uneasily into their narrow black bag. One of the men so hastily pulls the zipper on the bag closed that his partner looks at him and raises his eyebrows.
“What?” says the man, abashed, unable to explain that when he first touched the quilt he felt a distinct quiver, the tremor of a muscle tightening to unwelcome touch, and a voice so airy and distant it could only have been whispered inside his own head, saying, mine, mine, mine.