The quilt does not become alive immediately. First the coarse-cotton fabric must be woven, the intricate patches cut and sewn, the white cotton batting pressed between the patchwork top and the solid whole-cloth backing. Then the bundling in burlap, the jostling truck ride from the sewing unit to the quilting center, and the long wait in a pile of starchy doppelgangers. And still it takes blood to bring a manufactured thing to life. This time, it happens when a quilter pricks her fingertip and gasps aloud, causing the women at her table to glance at one another, because if the foreman finds even a freckle-sized stain of blood he’ll dock twenty rupees each from their weekly wages. She keeps stitching, plunging her finger deep into the guts of the quilt and staunching the wound in the batting, hoping nothing will seep through to the top or bottom layer and ruin her last hour of work. As she completes one line of stitches and prepares to start another she feels a faint trembling inside the quilt, something spring to shape from the blotch of her blood and coursing through the quilt from end to end. Later she is guilty as she lifts the quilt onto the pile of finished pieces and moves on to the next, knowing rough hands will soon sew its borders, fling it through a gauntlet of sewing machines, washing machines, magnetic needle checkers, and jerk it over a wire line strung across the flat roof of the warehouse to dry and pucker in the pre-monsoon sun.
Without knowing how, the woman recognizes the quilt the next morning in a sea of identical others hanging on the lines. It’s not hers to touch, but she touches it secretly as she walks by. The woman wants to whisper and coo at the quilt, just as she would have to the baby girl she gave birth to a year ago had it not been born lifeless, how she’d murmur to her husband at night were he not so oblivious and strange after three years of marriage, and how she would whisper herself to sleep if not for the sound of her father-in-law’s hacking in the room next door, his lungs ruined after thirty years attending power looms. She would steal the quilt if it were possible. She imagines stuffing it under her sari and pretending to be pregnant again, all the while knowing it would never work. She would buy it if it wasn’t worth slightly more than four months’ salary, though in fact she doesn’t care for the design—its brown patchwork stars and muted colors strike her as dull and a little crude, like something made from scraps of left-over trouser material. If she brought it home her mother-in-law would laugh at her, or cluck her tongue and mutter about the fecklessness of daughter-in-laws and the burden of housing a woman who has failed to bring a son into the world. And yet still she wants to hold it, fold it into a bundle and press it against her skin, to wrap herself around it and feel it grow warm and pulse with sleeping life inside the shelter of her body. She gazes at the quilt through the day, and grazes it when she passes with armloads of wet quilts. You are mine, she whispers as she passes, over and over again.
That afternoon when the quilting women stand on break in the dusty courtyard sipping from plastic cups of tea, she goes alone up to the roof and unclips the quilt from its wire line. She folds it five times into its smallest possible reduction and sits with crossed legs on the roof’s concrete floor with her body a curved hump over the bundle, gently bouncing. After a while she begins to softly hum with her face buried deep in the dry cotton and her hands linked around it. As a young girl she once held an ashen-color baby chick and listened to it cheep and wrestle inside the hollow of her palms. She’d felt then a dizzy mix of love and power, wanting so deeply to squeeze her hands around the chick’s delicate body and knowing for certain she’d kill it if she did. Ever since last year’s still-birth she has woken in the night shivering, the memory of her womb wrapped around that fragile skein of bones, certain it was somehow her fault the baby was born dead.
When the foreman discovers her, alone amid a sea of undulating quilt-shadows on the floor, at first he doesn’t know what to make of this rocking and faceless bundle of fabric and black braided hair, so clearly a crying woman and at the same time such an curious bulky mass. When he touches her shoulder she quivers but does not look up, and it is only after he mistakes her for another woman and calls her by an incorrect name that she lifts her face from out of her huddle and impassively watches him as he begins to fire his questions and threats at her, ripping the quilt from her arms and banishing her down the stairs and back to work. He is too bewildered by the strangeness of what he has seen to do more than replace the quilt on its line and shake his head at the vulgarity of these rude village women who would use an export-quality textile item as a rag to absorb their tears.
Hours later the quilt is gone.
It leaves on a lori after midnight, packaged in plastic and cardboard, traveling northeast across 490 kilometers of vacant fields and settlements, past Tiruppur and Erode, past reservoirs dotted with dust-colored flamingos barely visible in the moonlight, past Salem and Villupuram, to the sea port of Chennai. Here, in the morning, men in checkered sarongs unload the boxes and resettle them inside a battered steel container. Giant pincers lift the container into the sky and place it on a cargo ship, and the next day it departs, sailing south down the coast, stopping briefly in Colombo before crossing the Indian ocean to Madagascar, and finally passing around Cape Horn and across a choppy Atlantic to Norfolk, Virginia, where it docks in the early hours of a morning storm. From here it goes north in a tractor-trailer, past Newport News and Fredericksburg and Trenton and Poughkeepsie, to the small town of Pittsfield at the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. Here, a scowling man with a forklift stacks its box onto industrial metal shelves. A week later the box travels first by van, then by semi, then again by van, 720 miles south to a Highlands, North Carolina, where the savvy proprietress of a country boutique carefully snips from the quilt’s corner the small taffeta tag declaring “Made in India” before arranging it on a shelf among other assorted linens of sympathetic design. Her neat cursive label announces: “Traditional Appalachian Patchwork Quilt, Queen Size $350.”
A few weeks later the quilt is purchased by a woman, a divorcée, who sees in it the perfect addition, the focal piece even, to her new condo’s country-themed master bedroom. Handing her credit card to the clerk, the divorcée feels a particular glow, the warmth of a newly acquired treasure—a guiltless, proud, tradition-bearing token of small-town craftsmanship, and in the moments before the clerk returns her card, the woman places her palm on the quilt’s folded mass, feeling the easy give of its thick batting, the simple softness of its fine, clean cotton and the curt rumples of raised fabric between the color-matched, barely visible quilting threads. But instead of comfort she feels a surprising tide of loneliness and longing, a nameless ache as small and alone as a single body adrift in the sea.
It is a feeling that mostly fades when she brings the quilt home. Draped over her queen-size bed, the quilt presents the room with a grid work of multi-colored stars, each framed by a border of earthen brown, each star unique in its pattern of hues but identical in shape and design. The quilt is nearly perfect. Its color-scheme compliments the décor of the country-themed bedroom so precisely that it could have been sold as part of a set. In the morning when the sunlight diffuses through gingham curtains, casting a glow over the neatly made bed, the quilt is radiant and awake, yet by evening in the soft light of the bedside lamp its tones are subdued and elegant, understated accents and calming hints, and this changeability is what pleases the divorcée so much.
Her ex-husband would have hated it, and this too is pleasing. More than once she has indulged in a particular fantasy of him visiting her on some pretext, wandering around the condo with his appraising eye, picking up objects and hefting them as if to gauge something about her. In her fantasy he strolls nonchalantly towards the bedroom door and pushes it open. He wrinkles his nose and starts to comment but she is right behind him, reaching past him to close the door and present him with the wall of her smile. “No-no,” she says. “Off limits, Bob.” And she saunters back to the condo’s living room, leaving him there mystified and repulsed. The fantasy ends there, always, so that for her he remains perpetually mystified and repulsed, uneasy with the new woman revealed in a glimpse of strange new bedroom furnishings.
But despite the quilt’s success here, sometimes at night, lying in her perfect new bed alone, the divorcée feels the quilt swelling with a liquid grief that penetrates its neat rows of cotton batting, coursing through its patterned threads, welling in the corners and weighing her down. The weight is oppressive, almost suffocating, and the woman in her half-sleep tosses this way and that. Airless dreams, cornered dreams harass her as the quilt hangs heavier and heavier, its fringes limp, its batting soggy, so that the following morning, even now that the spell has passed, the woman wakes up tired and vaguely anxious. She is harried by something she can’t put her finger on, except that this is how she felt that afternoon after shopping in the mountain town, a gnawing loneliness that even four glasses of wine could not alleviate.
She brings home a man, a date, thinking maybe the answer is the simple physical comfort she’s been without for so long, and in the bedroom she lets him lay her down on top of the quilt, her head coming to rest just between two patchwork stars, so that she gazes at him from within a cotton halo as he pulls off his shirt. They grapple awkwardly with the rest of their clothing, smiling at one another in quick, nervous glances, but then very quickly the man is pushing himself inside, and his weight on top of her is oppressive and uncomfortable. The divorcée emits a small startled yell that reverberates and dies against the condo’s thin walls. The man mistakes this sound for an indication of pleasure, and he begins to rock and pump with a vigor that soon has him wheezing—he’s nearly sixty and not frequently active—but he’s determined to prove that age is no restrictor to passion, and that even this room with its overabundance of gingham and country crafts, reminding him of a certain sexless aunt, long dead, will not mute his drive to please and be pleased. Meanwhile the divorcée is shutting herself off. She knows she wanted this, but not this, and it’s the difference between the wanting and the having that she can’t quite grasp. The last time she made love was four years ago with her ex-husband. They were already separated with no hope of reconciliation and, perhaps because of this, she remembers it as the most tender and lovely moment they ever shared. It was also maybe the saddest, and this precise mixture of great pleasure tinged with sadness, she realizes now, is what she most needs if she wants to feel alive again. And yet where on earth will she find it? Far above her the man is lurching onwards. Her own body is sinking deep into the rumpled folds of the quilt. Not here, a voice is whispering. Anywhere but here, and she manages to croak a feeble “up!” into the man’s flushed ear. He grunts, trying to rise while lifting her with him, tensing his thighs and straightening his back, then gasping aloud at the outpouring of pleasure and release, followed by a clearly audible pop, and devastating pain in his lower back. He falls on her. She squirms away, producing a second, smaller, heartbreaking pop as he slips from her body and two globules of yellow-white sperm land unnoticed on the earthy border of the quilt, two milky sequins that spend the next twenty-four hours seeping into the fabric and drying in the condo’s dehumidified air, until what’s left are a pair of glazed-over circles, a set of bleary cartoon eyes, staring at the ceiling with a disquieting sentience that the divorcée cannot ignore.
In the days that follow what she begins to feel for the quilt is an intimate loathing, the kind normally reserved for close family members or spouses, the kind she felt for her ex-husband during the last five years of their marriage, and the kind she cannot help but feel for the man who left her apartment that night on a stretcher. It’s the kind of loathing she’s learned by experience is best dealt with decisively, which is why she hasn’t returned the man’s calls and doesn’t plan to, and why she’s decided, after much consideration, to redecorate her bedroom. The country theme was a mistake, a botched attempt to recover a long buried desire of living on a farm somewhere and baking bread. What she really needs is to create a bedroom that reflects the woman she has become: firm, mature, independent, cool on the surface but capable of great giving and warmth if she desires. Muted yellows and pale greens, blonde wood, sparseness and Scandinavian simplicity—this is what she must create for herself, and so one afternoon she walks into her bedroom, avoiding the quilt’s blank and spooky stains, and deftly folds it into a rough cube. She stuffs it inside its zippered plastic bag and drives directly to the red metal clothing bin by the closest gas station, where she feeds the bundle to the high hinged jaws and feels an instant and unburdening relief as it thuds to the bottom of the receptacle, out of her life for good.
A week later when the quilt arrives at the Second Chance Thrift store, a sorter hangs it by a large metal specialty hanger on a rack against the far back wall, pressed between a stained blue comforter and a yellow afghan with fraying edges and a fist-sized hole in the center. It hangs undisturbed but for the occasional brush of a child’s hand, moving down the aisle and touching everything on the rack. A faint and stale odor combination of sweat, dust, and mothballs soon coats its surface, and by night it glows weakly in the red-orange light from the rear EXIT sign twenty paces away.
For five weeks nothing happens, but then a sentimental movie premieres in theaters across the country. The protagonist is pursuing her Ph.D. in Women’s Studies, writing a thesis about the women who gather in her mother’s house to make quilts for their daughters’ weddings and childbirths. It happens that one of these quilts, a gift to the daughter in celebration of her degree, almost perfectly resembles the quilt on the thrift store rack, and it is in the second week of this semi-successful movie’s run that a woman, a mother, clutches her hands together in excitement when she finds the quilt on the rack and buys it for twenty-seven dollars and seventeen cents.
On the following Sunday she invites her daughter and boyfriend to dinner and watches from the window as they pull into the driveway in their small and battered car. It is after dinner, sitting on the living room couch, that the daughter reveals she is pregnant, and the mother is so surprised that she breaks into tears. Soon the daughter is crying too, while the boyfriend, long-haired and narrow-boned, sits hunched on the couch and tries to contain the shivers he keeps feeling by crossing and uncrossing his legs and compulsively rolling his neck.
Sometime later, after much discussion about practical details, and in the conversational lull that follows, the mother suddenly remembers the quilt and jumps up from the couch to retrieve it from the adjacent room. While she is gone the daughter and boyfriend exchange a wide-eyed glance and take a simultaneous deep breath. For her it is a gesture of relief. For him it is a expression of awe at the intensity of the moment, though both imagine the other’s meaning is their own. As the mother returns she is caught off-guard by a small twinge of embarrassment, accompanied by a mental image of the thrift store, a clear memory of the place’s smell, the sound of the cashier saying “Twenty-seven, seventeen please,” juxtaposed with the scene in the movie when the mother gives her teary daughter the quilt she has labored over for months, and so with barely a flash of deliberation she steps into the room and says “I finally finished this a month ago and I can’t think of a better occasion to give it to you.” She unfurls the quilt right there on the living room floor, and they all stand above the quilt with faces both expectant and tired—much as they will stand above a small wooden crib in a little more than seven and a half months, looking down at the new child curling and uncurling tiny fists in sleep.
“You made this, Mom?” says the daughter, a hole of sadness opening inside her, because one thing she has never understood is her mother’s tendency to tell inconsequential lies, as if the simple truths of their lives were never good enough.
It is at this moment that the boyfriend notices the two dime-sized milky-white spots on the quilt’s brown border. He’s seen this kind of stain before and he smiles briefly, thinking to himself that there could really be no better gift than a semen-stained quilt on this occasion which owes itself entirely to the unpredictable power of sperm. Right then he decides to keep the spots a secret, and in the months that follow he’ll often crane his neck in bed to find the them, offer a short nod in their direction, saluting them, and feeling somehow confident that they are returning the gesture.
But for the daughter, the quilt is a problem. The stars on the quilt remind her of a bad tattoo, like the one she almost got at the base of her spine when she was nineteen, but thank-god didn’t have enough money for, the kind of tattoo that certain women wear half-showing and half-concealed by the waist of their jeans, and that men sometimes call tramp-stamps. She doesn’t tell her boyfriend this. She’d prefer not to talk about this quilt her mother so obviously didn’t make for her, and there’s so much else to worry about as her body swells and her boyfriend works double shifts so they can save money in the months before the baby arrives.
The quilt drapes across their bed like a windless sail. It is the correct size for their mattress but somehow never seems to fit, always too long on one side, too short on the other. In her mind she names it the slut-quilt, then hates the name but can’t stop repeating it silently every time she looks at it, realizing that it’s not her own voice but her mother’s that keeps pronouncing the words in her head. She remembers that once when she was sixteen her mother, in the flurry of an argument, used that word—“slut”—in reference to her, not calling her one exactly, but warning her not to become one, as if she were on the dire verge of it if she kept up her current behavior, and this memory is painfully present now when the woman and her boyfriend make love, so that not only are the words slut and tramp-stamp recurrent in her mind, but they are also immediately answered by the sight of the quilt’s stars. Afterwards she feels helpless and dirty, furious at herself for feeling dirty, and furious at her mother for planting the seeds of this feeling when she was sixteen.
And it’s all compounded by her boyfriend’s evident appreciation of the quilt. She’s seen him stroke it at night before they fall asleep, and he’s taken to making the bed every morning, though he never used to before, each time dramatically shaking the quilt into the air and letting it float down onto the bed. Sometimes he does it three or four times until it falls to his liking. Then he smoothes each of the rumples and folds back the top so a foot of its pinkish underbelly cuts a straight line beneath the pillows. And still the quilt is awkward there, slumped and drooping like a wilted flower.
Her mother has begun showing up unannounced at the apartment, her arms laden with supplies from the thrift store: receiving blankets, bottle warmers, dog-eared baby manuals ten years old, and piles of bright clothing, nearly all of it pink or lavender or printed with red cupcakes and hearts. They have no idea what the sex of the baby will be, and the mother’s certainty of a girl makes her daughter uneasy. Even as she holds each delicate outfit and senses with growing pleasure the small body that will fill it, her tenderness is tinged with resentment, a sense of being crowded and pushed aside. In all the mother’s visits she has never once brought the daughter a piece of maternity clothing. When they discuss vitamins or stretching exercises the mother’s glance always drops to the daughter’s belly, and the very last thing the mother does before leaving, even after their hug, is to place her palm on the rounded belly and close her eyes, as if waiting for a direct communication from the baby that circumvents her daughter entirely.
At night the daughter can feel the quilt tighten around her belly, piling itself into a heap on top of her, sucking at her, desperately clutching at the unborn life inside her. Occasionally her boyfriend starts awake, shivering on the far end of the bed, petulant and resentful in his grogginess. He jerks the quilt back over top of himself and turns away, burying his face into the fisted cloth while the daughter in her dreams becomes suddenly gloriously free and unburdened. Sometimes she remembers she can fly, or that she can breathe underwater, or that she has the ability to make wonderful objects appear at will. But as the night continues the quilt seems to bunch on top of her again like a slug, her dreams turn sour and abused, and in the mornings she wakes up certain something is wrong with the baby. The baby is dead. The baby has wrapped itself around the umbilical chord. The baby isn’t kicking enough and this is not normal and she needs to go to the doctor immediately.
One morning she calls the mother on the phone.
“How’s my baby doing today?” says the mother.
“Why did you lie about the quilt?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said you made it. Why did you lie?”
The mother is silent on the other end of the line. Finally she replies, “But I never said that.”
For the first time in her life the daughter understands that her mother is not entirely sane. The understanding comes with relief, because now it is clear that the mother is less a threatening force, but a part of life that the daughter must learn to manage and control. “I love you,” she says before hanging up the phone, conscious that it has been years since she spoke these words to her mother.
Meanwhile her clothes don’t fit. She has no money, and she spends hours every day trying to alter her favorite pieces just to give them a few more weeks of use. She’s never sewn and doesn’t know what she’s doing, laying everything across the bed and making long, reckless cuts down the seams, sliding through the fabric with a smooth ripping sound that is music to her ears. She is astounded at the waves of pleasure this simple act of cutting provides. It’s a kind of rushing pleasure, too, that she feels on the morning when she not-quite-accidentally cuts a two-foot slash into the quilt’s patchwork top as she slices a pair of jeans, and she stands above the bed looking down on the quilt almost as an unrepentant killer stands above a corpse, admiring the particular quality of ruin she has brought to this object that she has never really wanted nor loved.
Her boyfriend, that night, is furious. They fight for the first time since she told him she was pregnant, and both are shocked at the hidden stores of hurt and rage suddenly available within them, how accessible is their bitterness and well-stocked are their mental catalogues of slights and injustices. All the while the quilt lays slashed and forgotten, crumpled at the foot of the bed. In the midst of their fighting she attempts to gather it in her arms and storm out to the trashcan before the boyfriend stops her, blocks her way, ripping the quilt from her arms and throwing it back down on the bed so that the two-foot slash pulls apart to reveal the deep brown walnut of blood-spotted batting, like the flash of a dark tongue in an open mouth. It is this stain that the boyfriend finds himself staring at late that night, extremely drunk, after the daughter has run crying from the apartment and driven away in the car, presumably to her mother’s house, though perhaps to roar off a cliff somewhere or smash into a telephone pole. “I couldn’t care less,” he says out loud to the empty room.
He jerks in shock when the rip in the quilt flutters slightly and an unearthly voice whispers in his ear: Yes, you could.
Tomorrow he will tell himself that he was only drunk and delirious, but tonight he trembles and feels the need to retch or moan or cry—something to expulse the truth that is welling within him. It is not that a quilt has spoken to him, rather it is the puzzle of its words—for did it mean simply that in fact he does care, despite his anger? Or does it know what he won’t admit to himself? That he is capable of caring less, that with a little effort he could forget about the woman and the unborn baby entirely. That if he is honest he should admit he wants nothing more than to run away. He gazes at the quilt, his body beginning to shake, then snatches it at the corner and drags it outside to the apartment building’s communal dumpster, swinging it inside and shuddering one last time before he stumbles back to the apartment for cold and restless sleep. The quilt spends the night gathering dew, absorbing the odors of trash and rot that rise steadily from the dumpster’s contents and make a permanent home in the damp and spongy batting.
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.