He dumped her in a suburban basement. They had driven up from the South where she was living with him and his mother. Sleeping on a screened-in porch with everything she owned in boxes surrounding her like a fortress. Now, he was moving back home but they were not moving together; he had met someone, she had a few loose connections in the North. She would have withered in that place anyway, its blaring sunshine and endless heat; drought of the heart and soul, had she not agreed to leave.
In the basement there was an old single mattress on the floor. A bare light bulb in the bathroom. Water-stained sink. Linoleum floor curled at the edges. On the other side of the wall the clothes dryer was used late at night. The smell of hot cotton spinning and falling inside the drum, the steady thump thump of a heavy garment would tumble her to sleep where she came upon broad landscapes, white cottages on high cliffs, sky fathomless as an ocean.
In the morning, like a shell collector on a deserted beach she would gather the dryer lint. It fascinated her. All those tiny fibers in what people wore and used throughout their lives eventually becoming this. She would separate and bag it by color, carefully removing the dirt, hair and dander and stack the bags in a large wicker basket. Most people probably threw it away, not giving it a second thought. To her collecting lint was a process. A ritual.
Basement life was a solitary life. She made do with less. Washed her hair in the bathroom sink. Ate from tins of sardines, ramen noodles boiled on the double hot plate she kept in the cabinet beneath the sink. She drank strong coffee and read books about distant places.
She was quiet; the five people living upstairs were loud. When they were together there was always some form of hysteria among them. The house was a characterless split-level. The sofa and chairs in their living room sat like garish flowered lumps covered in plastic. The brown shag carpet was worn, flat as unwashed hair in some places, almost too perky in others. The kitchen was large and over-lit, an opera of arguments echoing across the cheap wooden cabinets, ricocheting off the knick-knacks covering every surface.
The season was winter. The air in the basement, stale. Down there, she listened to music on cassette. She had an old Samsonite suitcase that she used for step aerobics. In her Southern life she was an instructor. Now, she worked part-time for an independent designer and made baskets out of mesh and her collection of lint.
One day in bleakest February the man who owned the house had a heart attack. She was making a basket at the time, listening to The Smiths, waiting for the installation of her telephone. No member of his family was home. She had to call the ambulance. The next week he had another. Each time, he fell into whatever piece of furniture was closest and she would find him, alone, gasping, pointing towards the phone on the wall; a clock’s maddening tick from somewhere she could not locate. Each time everyone else in the house, his two sons, daughter and son-in-law were out. She resented being the one waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Questions from the paramedics. As a result she never visited the hospital, believing that her work had been done.
She spoke about this to her only friend in the suburbs and he asked her to go to dinner where somehow the conversation went from what she should do, to a lot of art talk. And talk about artists generally. And ‘artists with a big A’, along with, ‘pretentious artist statements’.
Although she had never written an artist statement, pretentious or otherwise, nor considered herself an artist with a big A, the conversation did make her think of trying to sell her work. She took the baskets to a gallery in a much cleaner, more upbeat suburb and was surprised when the woman there gave her a show.
Time passed; regimented order prevailed. The dryer filled and tumbled on schedule. Lint gathered and was collected. Green. Gray. Red. On occasion, lucky purple. And while all hell could be breaking down the doors upstairs at least there were no more heart attacks.
And then it was March. The days were beginning to melt back the snow. She was beginning to think about moving on from the basement when a stranger moved into the house. A friend of the owner, a person with nowhere to go. He was much older that her, boxy and obscenely muscular with the gaze of a stalker.
One week passed. Then two. There was a Saturday gathering at the house, a kind of weekend family misery. She decided to go for a long swim at the local pool, to linger there and in the shower until hopefully, the last of the guests had left but the sign on the heavy glass door informed her that the pool would be closed for repairs that week. She climbed wearily back into the car where she sat for twenty minutes gripping the steering wheel with both hands, as if trying to squeeze out an idea of what to do. She thought of calling the boy who had dumped her, he owed her for that, maybe she could use his shower. But no. He was living with someone else.
So back to the basement and up to the family bathroom; like a mission, stealth and steady ‘breathe and keep moving, head down, quiet as a ninja’ like a movie she had once seen. She reached the open door, no one seemed to be around, and slipped inside. A pink crocheted toilet paper doll stared blankly from the top of the tank, a vase of stiff plastic flowers towering over her. On the floor blue fluffy carpet and then this sense of something else filling the room. A sense and also a scent, yeast with a musky sweetness; a cross between beer, cheap perfume and aftershave. She turned to see the boxy man standing in the hallway just outside, his shirt undone exposing his brick-like chest.
His voice was higher than expected.
At first, the shock of seeing him stunned her.
‘What are you doing?’ she replied finally.
‘You’re always locked away in the basement, I thought I’d properly introduce myself.’ He had a moronic drunken grin, a sardonic sneer that made him look like an evil clown. He held out a large, square hand; a thick gold wedding band squeezed onto his weathered ring finger. His bulk blocked the exit and he stepped, nearly losing his balance, further into the small room. She moved to the side, looking behind him for an opportunity and the space to get past.
‘Get out of my way’, she shouted, hoping one of the other guests would hear her and wonder what was going on up here. He stood holding onto the sink. Unfazed.
She realised something then, had an unexpected carousel of forgotten thoughts and images flash through her mind. The time before all of this. Living like a drifter, always moving, always some change on a far horizon. Wandering blindly into places she shouldn’t be. In that moment came the understanding. The life she had constructed was toppling, turning over and over, tumbling like clothes in a dryer. And without noticing, great clumps of it had detached and fallen away leaving her worn thin as an old blanket.
‘I was just being friendly’, he said lowering his hand. A pout. Disappointment.
She wondered if he was here because he had done something stupid; some marital crime that caused his wife to kick him out. He seemed capable of that. He must have noticed her looking at his hand, the ring specifically, because the moronic look changed to a leer, ‘she won’t mind,’ he pressed a chunky finger to his lips. He moved closer. In an instant she was past him; surprised at how easy it was to push his bulk out of the way. He muttered something incomprehensible as she took the stairs down, not looking back.
She packed the Samsonite. Placed her art supplies into three boxes, gathered up her blankets, the hotplate and pillows. Assembled it all into the car and drove. Out of the suburbs, down unfamiliar streets. Down deeper, to the watery heart of the city into the crumbling beauty of the Corridor with its ashes to ashes and blank facades, a raw and potent force stirring just below the surface.
She rolled down the window, warm air filled the car and with absolute clarity she knew that out there, an entirely new fabric was being woven from what had unraveled. It was all here. In the scattering of people she saw on the street, peering from behind darkened shop windows, caught up in the Maples and Oaks as if they had blown across the world and gathered over the lost years to say, ‘we have been waiting’.
‘Lint’ first published in ‘At Love’s Altar’…Labello Press(c)2020
Revised version (c) 2022 Deborah McMenamy. All rights reserved.