The Desperation of David Klepp
by Molly Sturdevant
Art by Kathy Bruce
Sox used to say that the one thing she’d tell a burglar would be to not even bother with her windows. Just go right up to the front door and lift up the knob a bit while twisting it to the left. The deadbolt is sort of sitting there, and you can unlatch it by hand if you pop it off its track.
She rattles and twists. She wipes her sweaty hand across her jeans and tries again.
With one eye opened wide, as close to the lock as it can get, she shimmies a nail file between the lock and the wood of the door.
“Gotta get in, let’s get in here, Carmen, don’t be dead.”
She looks around to see if anyone could hear her. One more rattle, one last twist. The file snaps in two.
Her backpack is a rock, an enormous sagging sack strapped to her spine. She hoists it up. She tries to remember if she had left the door to Nika’s cage open, but she hasn’t been home in a few days. She pictures her roommate Lora getting home next month to find an urn with Carmen and Nika’s cremains mixed together, all their colors reduced to gray.
Carmen is bright orange except for her four white legs. She’s a needy rescue that almost died once. She’s got prescriptions, like a human. Even allergies. But whenever anyone came over to their apartment and said “Carmen,” the little ginger rescue had always come running. It made Lo so happy that they just went with it, and started introducing everyone to the cat as Carmen. When someone once said, “then who is ‘Sox’?” she nodded, as if to say, this girl right here. It had stuck ever since.
Sox trudges towards campus slumped under her load, needing a charger, hoping the landlord might pick up. Her usual café is always too bright and it only has two tables, but it’s connected to a store that sells some of everything.
Or it used to. She stares at the updated rack of chargers. They don’t sell hers anymore. She looks around. Everyone else has their phone, clearly invested in some life preferable to this one. Maybe someone will have the same old shitty phone, maybe even a cable to go with it.
A skinny guy at a table looks up and sees her awkwardly doing nothing, then looks back at his phone. He looks cute and depressed, scrolling aimlessly from one screen to the next until his eyes and his long lashes drift, floating their gaze somewhere near Sox’s neck. Maybe he could make a call, maybe his phone is old, too, she thinks, as he looks back down at the screen, scrolls more deliberately, then stops. He expands what he sees with two fingers. She sees his jaw harden and his eyes darken.
She steps back into the greeting cards aisle and presses the palms of her hands to her ears.
It starts. She closes her eyes to dial in but lines of despair layer over each other, all of them a small chorus of whirs and words. She breathes and presses her palms a little harder over each ear; in her mind, a dark space she can only sort out by listening opens up.
A woman in self-check-out is turning a loaf of bread over and over again looking for the bar code. Jim Jim Jim… is he okay, I hope it doesn’t hurt too much, getting that gallstone out, and—
Sox takes her hands off her ears. It stops. Wrong thread. She peeks over the sympathy cards and tries to dial in again, but the scroller’s angry eyes scour the screen as he gathers his things. She can’t hear a thing from his direction.
It had first happened back in high school, on a night when there was some big important football game. She and a few friends were huddled under the bleachers doing tarot readings and drawing on the steel frames that hold the structure up. The butts of parents and wiggling kids hovered above them. Someone directly over their heads had an airhorn. After losing herself in a long stare at the Queen of Cups, Sox found a sudden blow of that thing more irritable than usual and covered her ears. Then, as if listening through some kind of underwater tube, she heard the voice of a mom: get up, you’re okay, easy on your neck, your neck honey, god someone help him up!
She had taken her hands off her ears and looked around to see whose mom had come down. No one was there but herself, some markers rolling around on a traditional three-card spread, and Lora.
“Lo, did you hear that?”
“Yeah, everything, obviously. What are you talking about?”
Sox looked at the palms of her hands and covered her ears, then took a deep breath and did it again. This time it was a man. Let’s go, get that ball right in your hands dammit, one good catch, or I’m useless and she’s right, useless— She took one hand down, and his voice was garbled. She took both down and it was snuffed out.
She once tried to tell a school counselor she thought she might be clairvoyant or something, but the counselor wrote her a prescription without even looking up. Sox had covered her ears and stared intently at him, but there was just fuzz.
It was always fuzz until someone intensely, sometimes secretly, wanted something. It wasn’t like they were crying or collapsing on the ground while they wanted it, either. Lora cried all the time, but Sox couldn’t hear anything from her. Sometimes, she’d hear someone overflowing with despair while at the same time giving instructions for how they wanted their bagel or untangling a power cord. She had heard desperation consume people while they helped a customer return something, filled out a FAFSA, or pulled up their pants.
“I need a miracle,” she whispers, browsing the sympathy cards. She pulls a sad-looking card out of its slot. She puts it back and tugs her creeping shirt down over her midriff, so that it just covers the top of her long skirt.
She looks up, startled. An employee’s face has appeared, not far from her own. He asks if he can help her find anything. She shrugs. He comes back with a cart of crap and pretends to be stocking. She crosses her arms and stays put, staring at him. He looks back at her, rolling his eyes at her emerald hair, sneering at her chest and the unusual necklace it’s holding up. She feels him laughing at it. She wraps her fingers around it, thinking of its contents: a cat’s tooth, a tiny piece of a yellow feather, and a winged maple key inside it.
The cheap junk all around them radiates impotence. She flips him off and leaves, walking like she had a plan.
She settles onto the concrete curb by her building, shoulders wrecked. Her phone seems like so much inert rectangular nothingness now. It feels heavier in her palm, like it’s in a deep sleep. She feels heavier to herself, unseen, underfunded. No one was sending music majors to Bosnia. She was the opposite of influential. An accident of some sort, studying choral composition and who cares, what’s the opposite of an entrepreneur but someone trying to be adequate at shit people have done for thousands of years, fuck.
The parking lot smells like chip-seal between sobs. The yellow lines are exact. She rests her forehead on her knees, face puffy, red and wet. As she wipes her chin, she wishes she had just cut a spare key and put it in a plastic rock like everyone else.
She blows her nose and catches her breath. Someone walks by smiling, with a giant fuzzy dog. Sox covers her ears. I’d die, I’ll die, without this dog. How bad would it be to get divorced. I’m keeping the dog, and I’m dying inside, here’s my damn smile, everyone. A young kid walks past, heading the other direction, who are all you people looking at me, my brother should be with me, just him, I want him back.
With her hands down, arms wrapped around her knees, she listens to a sparrow drag a chip across the lot then fly away without it. She walks up to her door and gives it another try. But of course, there are no miracles. She has to find somewhere to sleep.
She trudges the distance back to campus and all the way across it to the practice rooms in the Fine Arts basement. Her backpack might as well be a house strapped to her neck. She finds an open room and throws it down.
In the bathroom down the hall, she cups her hands under the faucet and fills her palms. She washes her face then drinks some, lapping it up like a cat, and wonders how much water Carmen still has in her bowl.
At six in the morning, Sox wakes to the sound of keys rattling and closets opening. The hunger in her belly is eating her own flesh. She rolls over. Her shoes stink. The keys jingled again, getting closer. She gathers her stuff and opens the door. Her back is racked with pain.
She stands face to face with the custodian. The woman props up one bony wrist on the handle of her vacuum. She has old tattoos fading into her arm. A pale pentagram on her bicep shakes next to a tiny letter D as the woman gestures, waving in protest.
“You can’t sleep here.”
“I know, I wasn’t. I’m a student. I just got here to practice?”
“Where’s your instrument.”
“I’m a singer.”
“Don’t sleep here again. I get in trouble.”
“Wait!” Sox follows the woman down the hall. “Do you just maybe have a phone, that’s charged?”
The woman looks at the vial hanging around Sox’s neck. She pulls a phone out of the pocket of her gray pants and keys in the passcode.
Sox takes it, places one finger on the number pad, then hands it back to the custodian. “I don’t know any of the numbers.”
“Can you call a locksmith for me?”
“They won’t open properties for college kids anymore. Who’s your landlord?”
“They don’t live in the US and they haven’t answered the old number lately and the fee is like—”
“You can’t just charge it or something? Email home?”
“You think I’m rich?”
“Maybe ask a professor.”
Sox crumples down against the wall and sits there for a moment.
“Look if you want you can take the bus with me in about an hour. I know a guy, that can help you out.”
“A locksmith or something?”
“A veterinary assistant.”
Her work-study in the language lab was supposed to start after lunch. She would miss work at the restaurant too, or at least she wouldn’t have clean black pants ready. What was worse, failing a class or getting fired? By now, Nika had probably jumped headlong into the cat’s mouth in a moment of total despair and Carmen had puked up feathers on whatever furniture and clothes looked the nicest. And then Lo’s doubts in their friendship might really take off, and there would be no one and nothing but the locked rock of the stupid world again, murmuring its secrets into her monstrous head.
“My name’s Brigid by the way. You?”
“Yeah. Sox, like the baseball team.”
“That’s— different. Parents were fans or something?”
“No, not even. It’s my cat. We switched names.”
The two women walk away from the campus as others begin showing up. When they settle onto the bench at the bus stop, Sox rolls her shoulders under her backpack and lets her head fall back with a sigh.
“You okay?” Brigid asks.
Sox tells Brigid about the night of the football game, the obnoxious airhorns and the cards, how Lo used to be cool but now makes product promotions. She goes on about how Lo was so sensitive and her only friend and all her animals are probably dead, about stupid magic or neurological defects, about fifteenth century choral composition, and she keeps going, glad not to be alone.
On the bus, Brigid finally interrupts.
“So, ‘magic’ huh.”
“Oh yeah. Whatever. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. It was all kid stuff. Except that I can do— stuff.”
“Yeah, okay? Stuff.”
For a while they ride in silence. On the walk from the bus stop up a short hill, Sox stops to hoist up her pack and massage and squeeze her left shoulder.
Brigid holds out her arm. “Let me.”
“Nah, no way. You don’t have to carry this. It’s too—”
“You think I’m old?”
Sox takes it off and hands it over. The custodian shoulders the burden as if it were nothing. The backpack looks like it’s barely on her, floating, following the woman’s shoulders as she walks.
Sox stops and looks at Brigid, who smiles but doesn’t look back. Sox starts moving again, and raises up her hands to her ears. She steadies her gaze and tells Brigid everything she hears. “She is desperate about her mother, who’s dying. That guy’s actually praying, like a prayer, not sure to who, or what. She wants to be pregnant. He’s bored to tears, that’s weird. Just desperate in general, I guess. No, wait.”
Sox slows down. The sidewalks begin to show more densely packed leaves under their feet. There are bigger cracks, older stones used in the slabs. She looks back as the guy disappears across the street. “He just wants to meet someone, bad.”
Brigid nods in the direction of someone waiting to cross at the light ahead. “What about him?”
After a pause, Sox opens her eyes wide. “He’s thinking he might run into a lover he had once, a guy who he only knew a couple months. But he never stopped wanting him.”
“And that old lady,” Sox says, “I mean actually old, with the dog and the walker, she wants her friends to come over more, she wants to be popular, I think?”
“Do they ever get what they want? Or I suppose, how would you know,” Brigid asks.
“Yeah I don’t really know. I never see most people again.”
“What do you want?”
Sox shrugs her shoulders as they turn up a gravel pathway to a front porch, nearly covered over by trees and shrubs.
“I don’t know. Just to be seen, I guess. Whatever that means. To not have this thing. I mean, what’s it even for? It’s not— influential. I can’t unlock my own door. I can’t do anything with it.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I don’t get it. Sometimes I can do other stuff too, I think, just not very well. I don’t want any of it.”
“But you have it,” Brigid says. “And you might have to use it before you understand it.”
“Either way, it’s good to do something practical in the meantime. What’s your major over there?”
They walk across the giant old porch to the front door. The name on the mail slot says Klepp / McCann. A hanging mobile made of rocks, computer parts and broken dishes chimes as the door opens.
“It’s music, with an art minor,” Sox replies. She looks up as they cross the threshold, sure that she sees only space, only air, between the topmost piece of the mobile and the porch ceiling.
“Really? You said be practical.”
“I said practical, not dead. What instrument?”
“Vocal. And composition. I sing. Really, that was true. But I do sleep there sometimes, yeah.”
“Ah. Well, I know kids sometimes do. They get on my case for it, but honestly, what harm does it do? Anyway, what do you like to sing?” Brigid picks a pile of mail off a kitchen chair and pulls it out for Sox.
“I don’t really know. I’m just an okay singer, that’s all. Like with everything else. Sort of half-good at everything. And I can hear what people want when they want it bad. Great. What a fucking resume.”
“You’ll be fine.” Brigid gives her a glass of water and a long, hard look. “Go ahead. Do me.”
“I tried already. You’re not desperate, I guess. Some people just aren’t.”
The house is filled with wood scraps and old computer parts. There is a set of knives with sharpening stones, fragments of metal and fabric all over, some of it fastened together like art, some of it painted.
“This place is amazing.”
“Thanks. We like to make stuff.” Brigid brings a plate of cheese and bread to the table. Sox devours it while admiring a giant painting on the wall showing passenger pigeons flocking across a midwestern sky. The paint of their wings doesn’t seem to stay flat. Sox watches now one wing, then another, push off, lift up, then retreat into the canvas again.
“What is, I mean, can you—”
Sox drains her glass of water. She can hear sticks cracking and rocks crunching on the side of the house next to the kitchen window.
“Oh good he’s home.” Brigid says. “Had like four doctor’s appointments this month. All good though. Today should be the last one. He can help out with the pets no problem.”
A black car parks in the driveway, which is more or less a mere tire-path over a rewilded lawn. A man’s shaved head appears at the bottom of the staircase that connects the backyard to the kitchen. It draws closer as he climbs each step. When he finally looks up, he adjusts his glasses and smiles.
He seems pleasantly surprised by Sox’s presence. When he takes his jacket off, she sees a red letter B on his right wrist and a wrench on his forearm.
“Hey,” Brigid says to him. “This is Sox.”
“What?” he replies.
He takes an earbud out of one ear. “Hey Sox.” He reaches out with the red-lettered wrist. “David,” he says.
“Hey.” Sox shakes his hand.
“Any news from the doctor?” Brigid asks him.
“The appointment was fine, all fine,” he says. He looks sweaty, tired.
“So, Sox needs to get into her apartment.”
“She’s been gone two days.”
“I was gonna take the dog out.”
“She’s got a cat in there, needs meds, and a cockatiel, loose.”
He sighs and nods. “Yeah, okay. Couple minutes. Thirsty.”
David’s beard has at least three colors in it, it’s neatly trimmed. His eyes are huge. He takes the other earbud out, then scratches his ear canal with his fingertip. He slips off his shoes, gets a glass of water, and begins chatting with Sox. While they talk, he pushes his glasses up on his nose at least twice. He tells her about a problem he’s been trying to sort out, an issue about canine thyroid levels. “Been at my desk all month, sitting there with lab results, just sitting. So my back was going bad.” The lines on his face deepen, his voice becomes quieter. “And I’ve lost a few pounds,” he says, his hand on his belly.
“Oh.” Sox looks away.
David changes the subject, asks if she’s ever learned to clean a fish.
“Huh?” she answers.
“I should go fishing more. My only real talent. I don’t have any uh, actual talent, I mean like she does.” He winks at Brigid. She grins, leaning back against the counter.
“Sox has got some talent too, I think,” Brigid says, washing her glass. “I’m going to go change real quick.”
Sox looks down, smiling, then back at David. “Nice wrench,” she says, nodding towards his arm.
“Thanks, I used to sculpt, design furniture and stuff. With metal. Still do sometimes. So, one bird and one cat, huh? I’ll go get a couple things.”
On his way to the next room, he introduces her to a German shepherd. The dog won’t stop smelling him. It whimpers and buries its black nose in the man’s gut and between his legs, then wiggles its nostrils under his shirt, focused on something, its tail still and straight.
She can hear him loud and clear while he consoles the dog and digs through a bag. Okay, breathe, breathe. A year maybe he said. Oh god I don’t want to go like this. How’m I going to tell her. I don’t want to die now.
Sox drops her hands to her side. She clutches her chest.
“You okay?” Brigid stands in the doorway, ready to leave.
“It’s fine,” Sox mumbles. “I’m fine.”
Brigid gives her a concerned look.
“I’ll just sit here for a minute if that’s okay,” Sox says. “I’ll come out to the car in a sec.”
David walks across the kitchen and slips on his shoes. “We’ll see you out there,” he says.
Sox gets up and paces back and forth in the living room. She tries to clear her head. She wraps her fingers around the pendant hanging from her neck. While a raven screams from an old cable strung through the trees outside, Sox strains her eyes, squeezing them shut, pulling on the necklace and wanting to hang herself with it, hang the terrible, worthless weirdness, see her feet swaying in the air.
She opens her eyes. The bird is quiet. She rips the necklace off and opens it. She takes the bit of feather out and sets it by their picture, whispering, there’s a way. You’ll always be able to speak, always hear each other, I’m it. Afraid of what her own voice might reveal next, but on fire at the same time, her blood rushing like the tide, she breathes into the pendant and puts it back together, then pushes it deep into a space between two books. Finally, she crushes the maple key to dust as she rubs it between her fingers. She blows it off her hands onto the floor. I do more than hear.
The room all around her feels like a home now. Her bare neck feels solid, muscular under her hand.
In the car on the way to her apartment, she tries it, tries to do more, something different. David, when’s your birthday.
“January 16th,” David says.
“January 16th what? Are you thinking of birthday plans already?” Brigid asks him.
Sox smiles, nearly glowing.
When they get to the locked door, Brigid cups her hands around the deadbolt until something loosens inside. The place smells like milk gone bad and dirty litter. Sox looks under the couch then runs to her closet, flinging open the door. Carmen drags herself out from under a pile of shoes, mewing in confused, grateful protest at her presence.
“Okay, okay, whew.” Sox crouches down to pet the matted fur.
“Aw, Sorry Sox.” Standing next to the bird cage set up by the window in the main room, Brigid folds her arms and then leans in to look closer.
“Shit.” Sox finishes changing Carmen’s water then goes to the cage. Nika is supine, her talons stuck straight up, eyes half-closed. “Lo’s gonna shoot me. Seriously. What do I do with it?”
“I can take care of it,” David says. “Want to keep a feather? Sometimes people do.”
Sox reaches in and twists one glowing yellow feather out of Nika’s wing, while David rustles around in the kitchen. He comes back with an empty cereal box and a paper towel. Sox watches him gently escort the bird’s body from the cage into the box.
“I want to see you guys again,” Sox says. “Will you come to my recital? My juries. My end of year recital. I have to compose something, and I have ideas now.”
“Sure,” Brigid answers. “Dave?”
Brigid keys Sox’s number into her phone, then takes her email. “Got it. I’ll probably just email. And I’m sure I’ll see you before then. Hey,” she adds, “you’ve got some real skills, you know.”
“Skills,” Sox repeats. “Me? I think I might, yeah. Just don’t know what they’re good for. I mean, what about you? What do you—”
“We’ll see you soon.” Brigid says, opening the door.
Sox hugs David. “Thanks,” she says, “and—” she can feel her eyes filling up. “Hey hey hey, it’s alright,” he says. “Cockatiels are kind of unpredictable that way. They go fast when they’re stressed out. Anyway. You’re home now. Get some sleep, okay? We’ll see you again.”
“You will, yes.”
When they leave, Sox opens all the windows. Her neighbors are down in the courtyard with their friends, a new grill, new plastic chairs. They’re stringing up lights that make their faces glow.
She tucks Nika’s feather into the pile of green hair wound up on top of her head and leans out, but not far enough that they can see. You dropped something. A woman turns around and looks on the ground, then stands up and looks on her chair.
Sox takes out a piece of paper and sketches a bass clef. A single cricket’s chirp plays high over the neighbors’ chatter. The buzz in the filaments draws a long tenor line between them. She covers each ear and listens.