By Melissa Wiley
I have tried to sell myself at so many yard sales but have yet to be bought. I also have no yard, so I’m hardly my own to hawk. My lungs, though, are mine, if they hardly know it themselves, because they would breathe for anyone. Because while my eyelids twitch beneath sheets printed with seashells, they have begun dissolving into gills.
My lungs are mine and only they are vital, though they flap too much like wings for me to keep them here much longer. Yet I am nearly done with being a mammal, so I keep my breathing shallow. I am exchanging these lungs for gills, and I think they know as much—the only explanation possible why they attempt the job themselves.
So I browse my neighbors’ yard sales, because I have no grass of my own in which to sell my body parts. I fold then unfold some plaid cardigans before stroking the bellies of ironing boards, palpating all things left lying in a patch of grass either in front or back of a tower of brick filled with rooms from which more lungs deplete the supply of oxygen. I shave my skin into salad bowls set aside the bath towels, using nail files flanking some dolls looking glazed with vernix to disperse myself.
The salad bowls look clean apart from a few dead flies, and to this I add parings from my epidermis. In this way, I have given myself away to those who want more space for their ruffage. I have shed my outermost layer on some folding table—skin that otherwise would flake freely off in the bath, so better on a table with a veneer of dark maple. So that I am closer to touching my vital organs the moment I undress. So that beneath the bathwater there is less of me to scrub for Monday morning at the office. So that when I cross that threshold with my coffee I am already less of a person.
Because why sell off your wares if not to come closer to your vital organs? Why shed so much of your skin in the tub if not to hear your heartbeat more thunderous?
Why not let the bees that hover at your doorstep into your living room? So very few are left.
The house with no yard was made of wood instead of brick and built in 1869, I had read in a pamphlet. Its first selling point was its age, then, because I like old things that may be dying if not already dead. It was green with maroon trim, and that was its second, because the colors were of dried blood on lawn mowed of dandelions. Then it sat prim and petulant on the eastern border of the historic preservation district that had charmed my mother to pieces we could not put back together again. So we bought it, or the bank bought it, and my mother cosigned the loan on her cancer bed, all but unconscious from infusion of endless vials of morphine, enlarging the veins in her neck into ropes of azure larvae.
The bees guarding the porch sat flush with the sidewalk, though we never did find their hive or the source of nectar beneath our doorstep. Our house sat within a floodwater zone, which raised our insurance so we had to give up eating out at restaurants. And there were very few plants near so much cement to suckle such insects. And flooded though the agent told us we might be at any moment, we never saw a puddle form from which some birds might make a tub. Although we may have been living underwater all along, something I considered only after we moved on.
Some people say the bees are disappearing, but where to? I wonder. I have asked myself time and time again and have decided where the world is quieter. In waters too deep for mammals, whose lungs hold them prisoner.
Yard sale wares go for cheap for good reason, I advise you to remember. Because why litter your lawn with so many textiles unless to rid your house of effluvia? To give your living room more space for your lungs, which have yet to quit their gasping. As if they’re filling with salt water.
Because everyone else’s lungs seem to do the same, with little variation. To void and clot themselves with air that only thickens with the threat of thunderstorms. So that no one sees their lungs might want a rest, busy breathing as they are. No one except an old man whose skin looks wizened past all ironing and ought to sell his board. A man who moved from France to Chicago some fifty years before. The only man in all the world who knows that if you hold a parasol at a certain angle fire will shoot from your fingertips, you are very sure. Who once sold one in a yard now no more his than my mother’s lungs are hers.
I know his face, though he does not know mine. His I have seen in newspapers only this last December, when his 37-year-old son died of lung cancer without having smoked a cigarette. His lungs were thin as moth or butterfly wings—there’s not much difference besides their antennae’s silhouette—only no one knew this until all their dust fell off, enough to coat your fingers obsidian. The week after his son’s funeral, he decided to return to France and close his creperie painted lilac, which faces an independent movie theater I visit fairly often. I know too that he has changed his mind in fact, that he has decided to stay here in Chicago rather than relocate to Paris. Because a friend offered to become his partner in place of the son with the lungs that charred themselves on the creperie’s table lamps. Lamps with their filaments always croaking at a flicker, lamps the old man sold and then rebought at a flea market, the paper later reported. And I know he cannot recognize me, no matter how many times I have walked inside his restaurant, because when a movie lets out his little room grows crowded.
I know he would buy me and my two little lungs regardless, if I could only offer myself for sale on someone else’s patch of grass. Because only a broken-hearted man like this would purchase a woman who shaves her skin off into used salad bowls available for purchase and uncrosses the arms of cardigans. A woman who bought herself her only parasol in Paris.
Three weeks after our wedding, my father called to say cancer was eating holes inside my mother’s bones, that her lungs were beginning to flop and make abortive flight patterns. I dropped the phone, folded myself over our futon like an old sweater tossed inside a hamper, whispering, “Not Mommy, anyone but Mommy,” hammering my fists into my husband’s sternum with his jelly heart just behind it, telling him I wished he were the one dying. “Anyone but Mommy,” I said again. She who had once made our yard much too pretty to clutter with any socks and sweaters better made into pot holders.
Mommy was dying, though, she with the lungs of a withering moth. So we left Chicago and moved into the little green house guarded by bees we fed no flowers. Within a few months, we both got the jobs we told the loan officer we had already while living in Chicago to secure the credit to buy a house so small we had to hunch to fit inside the doorframe.
A dollhouse come to life, with molding gingerbread framing its front porch, it should have cost doll’s money also. But we still thought flood insurance hilarious in a place so far from any coast. And a clawfoot bathtub sat ursine and indifferent to all our dirt within the dormer aside a toilet atop carpeting the color of moss. No door separated the bath from the study adjacent, so one of us would frequently sit on the pot shouting back and forth to the other below in the kitchen, requesting our potatoes mashed instead of boiled with meat we ate cold.
In the corner of the study, perched beneath a wedge of slanted roof, we placed the threadbare armchair my father gave me after warming it with years of flatulence. I sat there evenings and read or talked on the phone to Mommy while above my head I heard a rhythmic scratching—the claws of bats, we later learned.
I have too many and too few things and the same amount of vital organs as anyone else. One heart and two lungs that empty then refill themselves more times than I’ll ever count. That are almost too alive to bear, so close beneath my skin. Lungs that divide me from the moths and butterflies and bees, which have no lungs themselves. Only holes at their epidermis connected directly to their trachea called spiracles. Only a pair of gossamer wings to flap instead of lungs with dreams of becoming gills. Lungs that I would like to lie in the cool green grass, just to give them room. To let them inflate and deflate themselves without a windpipe always coming between the two. So that I can breathe like a bee through the pores in my skin while awaiting the bidding for the rest of my body. So I can dive light and lungless beneath the waves and become the world’s first underwater bee-woman. So I can lay my eggs in the sand and hatch a colony. Where the world is always quiet and where the world began.
This though once I gave them a wide enough berth, beneath a table of some socks and dolls here at the lawn at my feet, my lungs would take advantage. They would no longer content themselves with watching the butterflies among the dandelions overgrown. They would do more than just breathe for a change, I’m guessing. They would start squawking, trying to flip themselves over, just to tan the other side and even out their color. They’d take to mocking their own kind more than likely, those lungs still billeted in some flesh, gasping for air among the ironing boards with no legs to stand upon and walk any farther in the distance. They would embarrass those organs still hyperventilating inside some young woman after her mother has left her orphaned. I think as good as know these lungs getting only rowdier by the hour would shout, “Where to? Where to? Where to now?” as if they had anywhere to go once their oxygen supply ran out. As if they could up and walk away from the body they’d abandoned, the body with all the feet, recall. The one still standing and filing her fingertips beside the salad bowls.
Next week I will dance with my parasol, spinning it like a wheel fleeing downhill for a performance with my troupe, to circus music composed for the can-can dancers of the Moulin Rouge. Because dancing with a white-fringed parasol you bought in Paris’ Left Bank is what you do in Chicago when your lungs hang still captive within their cage of bone, fluttering faster the moment you approach a body of water. After you’ve offloaded all the bowls and lamps from your little green doll home and moved back into an apartment. Where you eat once more as often as you like across from a theater whose independent movies make you no freer.
Bees breach the water no more than butterflies or moths. They have yet to learn to paddle their feet, while our lungs will sustain only so much weight from the ocean. Will breathe only through a tube tied to a boat with half its hull submerged and that for only so long. Which is my way of saying that bees who breed underwater, with something close to gills while erecting their honeycombs, remain possible if undiscovered, a far-flung relative of the bees we know. Could we only sink to the ocean floor without our lungs collapsing, we might be stung by them among whales’ warbling. Which is by way of reminder that lungs lain on some lawn may breathe on their own. That moths and butterflies both morph from worms into winged creatures, so stranger things have already occurred. That if I spin my Parisian parasol fast enough, its edges blur into a plume of smoke with no flames at its center.
My parents told me not to buy the house, something so small for such a large amount. Released from the hospital and with a lower morphine dosage, my mom expressed astonishment she had consented to cosign the loan, knowing we had no jobs when we opted for a mortgage. That we were sure to quit the ones we had once they got boring.
For her last birthday, I took the afternoon off work so I could watch her disappear. In the past three months, she had lost half her weight and all her hair. She stood four inches shorter than she had only a few months ago and had to roll her pant legs up not to trip on fallen honeycombs. She alone was tiny enough to fit inside our little dollhouse without getting a cramp inside her foot from squatting so much beneath a ceiling lowered like the lid of a coffin. To not grow restless within its walls, which the bats would soon topple.
And while the bees gargled outside the door with salt for their sore throats, we ate two slices each of the lemon cake I had baked the night before. I sang her happy birthday and then we cried through the tines of our forks. This though we might have cried anyway, even if one of us was not turning into a ghost. Because we were good criers, she and I, maybe the best there ever were. Maybe the reason still why no one will buy me in any yard. Because I am drowning all the bees with my own water.
Licking her fork with a tongue whitened from chemo, she told me that my teeth needed cleaning, honey dumpling. That two cups of coffee a day had begun to leave a film and time to give them a burnish. Perhaps I was decaying too, I said, so I might not have to live very long without her. She had just had her teeth cleaned and spread her lips to show me the difference. But the icing on the cake was yellow and I saw only the same jaundiced archipelago of extra enamel as had covered her left front tooth before. And I wondered why she had bothered when cadavers keep their mouths closed.
So I had my teeth cleaned soon afterward, when the dentist found eight cavities. I drove back to the office twice to have her fill them with a metal amalgam then owed a thousand dollars, which brought my bank account balance to little more than a hundred. In the middle of December, our heater broke, and we put two thousand on a credit card. A month later, we received a letter stating our property taxes would climb nineteen percent by next April. Our little dollhouse, flanked by underwater bees, we could no longer afford. I had just bought an antique Singer sewing machine and a vintage hat stand for the living room with more credit just extended. All soon to be sold again at a yard sale without a yard.
My husband harangued me from the toilet amid its green carpeting. Why couldn’t we have just rented an apartment? he asked, louder when I stayed silent. In this same neighborhood if we had wanted, in some place less cramped and less peevish? We now needed termite protection, priced at fifteen-hundred more dollars. The whole decrepit house was wooden and would fall down on top of us while we slept unconscious. Endless white worms were eating the siding, each day more. A hunger that left only holes inside us. Everything had become cancerous.
And then she died, and we held a yard sale on the sidewalk. We sold the house to a couple with hair both a little too blonde to trust but meeting the bank’s requirements. We hired a realtor who liked other men to bite his nipples, he told us by mistake via text message. Who made chocolate chip cookies for our weekend open house and blew up balloons looking like condoms then tied them to our mailbox. We sold our little green dollhouse for the same amount we bought it for then paid a seven-percent commission. And because my mom had taken out a loan with a 20-percent down payment that we were repaying her in installments, we received a check just big enough to take us to Europe for a month while we languished in debt and didn’t speak the language. So two weeks after moving back to Chicago we left for Paris, where I bought a $100 parasol fringed in white that only made my teeth look a little yellow in comparison.
Somewhere between Chicago and Paris, I acquired a new smell. Redolent of rotting eggs, my husband said, as if he had eaten some himself. Because I was decomposing, I explained, unable to erase the stench with perfume I sprayed along my clavicle. Because a parasol, even one pretty as this, doesn’t heal you. Because when you spin it, it only becomes a wheel that escapes downhill while you chase it. Releasing smoke with no fire behind it.
In the yard sale a week before we moved, along the stretch of sidewalk bordering the hedgerow hiding half our porch, I sold all my mother’s clothes, those she thought that I might want though I did not. Her sweaters I sold to a teenage girl with a plastic butterfly holding all her hair in a sagging ponytail. Her pants I made into shorts too short, but then I had my mother’s legs and best not to hide them, she said as much herself.
In the dance routine we are to perform so soon, only one woman gets to dance with a parasol. Another must pretend to spin a plastic plate with a hole in the center glued atop a stick and fool the audience. A third dances with a top hat and does a cartwheel, while a fourth twirls batons with fraying ribbons at their tapers. Originally I spun the plate, attempting to balance the stick on my palm while keeping the rhythm with my hips. I told everyone I had my own parasol at home to practice, that I could spin it fast as a tire rolling down an escarpment too steep for the car to follow it. Then another woman in our troupe, with iron hair and knuckles in her cheeks that look like they could do some damage, grabbed the parasol our teacher had brought to class, leaving me with the spinning plates that only splinter from the center where the hole is growing larger.
Then last week at practice, the woman with hair the color of cement broke her toe while trying to spin the parasol. A parasol that was not her own, I’ll add. That does not make fire shoot from her fingers, as do those bought in Paris. I watched the one toe break without reason while her other toes bent their same direction. The only explanation being she was stung by bees buzzing underwater. Meaning she and I are both dancing—she with the parasol first and now my turn—beneath water that will crush us in time and not soon enough, I have a feeling. Meaning ten years after my mother’s death and I have yet to breach water’s surface. To let my lungs exhale in the stare of the sun.
I have asked her, for so many years now, “Are you happy, Mommy?” “Yes, I’m happy dear, but only because I have no body,” she responds the same each time, until I’m tired of hearing.
“No bones to be eaten into holes, no lungs to flutter to a flop, and no more teeth to clean,” she cheers. Then she assumes her old body just for fun and unpeels her lips from her gums, revealing two white rows of evenly spaced teeth, the left front absent its archipelago of yellow enamel, so there’s now no place to land upon. Only glacial waters to swim in until your arms fall off, back and forth and back and forth again, from one shoal of puce-pink gums to the other one. With no rest in between them.
Then she tells me that the little green house has since fallen, that the new owners a little too blonde to comprehend any darkness could not afford termite protection. That the little white worms have eaten the little green house away altogether. That worms such as this, devouring the bodies of houses and people alike, are life’s greatest gift. That if I was a very good girl the rest of my days, I might become a termite when I am born again, with almost as small a body as I could hope to have, eating other bodies away.
When I interrupt her always to ask, “So are you a worm then, Mommy?” When she replies, ever patiently, “I told you I was happy, correct? Because I had no body. And then every time someone cuts a worm in two, it only grows twice as long back. So that—in case you haven’t noticed yet—our world is one that feasts on offal, the vital organs that are not so vital once you’re dead, sweetie.”
When I tell her I understand but am not terribly happy about it. “That is only because you still have a body with lungs inside it,” she interposes, with a whistle through teeth that are not there, the one still jaundiced, I hope in her sarcophagus. When I think of telling her I am soon to dance with a parasol, that I feel flames piercing my fingertips when I practice. When I think better of it, watch her smile recede into the scythe of the moon, and finish eating my crepe, letting her continue.
Seeing I am no longer inclined to talk, she taps me on the shoulder with her bodyless body now and says, “No hurry to shed your skin husk before its time, dear. You’ve got my legs, after all, however scarred your knees from so many fallen bike rides.”
When I say, scarcely audibly, whispering only to myself and sure that she is gone, that, yes, she has given me legs just nice enough to attract the attention of a man whose son has left him. A man who will not return to France after all. He the only one who might buy me in a yard sale should I ever find a yard in which to offer my still breathing cadaver. He with lungs turning back to gills just like my own.
If someone buys me, though, before my teeth litter the tub after detaching from their gums, I can spin my parasol before another woman’s broken toe becomes unbroken. My lungs can empty and refill themselves, a thousand times in an hour, for something more than air alone. For something close to love. For love from a stranger a stranger no longer. For the taste of honey hanging from a hive long barren, the only food never to go rotten. That tastes the same within an Egyptian tomb as within a fresh jar from the cupboard. That keeps even longer underwater.
Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her lyric essays have appeared in literary magazines including Prick of the Spindle, Eclectica Magazine, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Beetroot Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, Pithead Chapel, Specter, Flyover Country Review, Great Lakes Review, and the museum of americana.