REGARD novel excerpt by Pablo D’Stair

 

IT WAS UNTIL A POINT she was uncertain of she had kept a list of the topics on which they had walked at night (coming usually to rest under the several trees upon the bit of hill near the roadside) lost in discussion of. This list she now found she knew was not a complete list (she had made a neat copy on the inside cover of a novel she had taken, perhaps without his knowledge, from his bookshelf, but this novel had gone missing nearly two months ago) but a folded receipt on the back of which, in pencil, were written only fourteen major topics (only nine of which were legible). She watched the level of the water slowly lower against the side of the tub near the faucet, as she only had the drain covered with a folded washcloth (soapy and soft to the touch of her foot, as though it were the fur of a rabbit nearly drowned) and she listened to the slight gasp of suction (the metered quality of which was almost the same as her breathing) she could not come to understand. For several moments, she closed her eyes (until the water had lowered well below her shoulders, exposing nearly all of her chest to the air, and her skin began growing irritated in reaction to the heating kept on throughout the house) then closed the receipt with the listings inside of her hand, crumpling it, and dropped her hand then down into what remained of the water.
In front of the mirror, she squinted her features very harshly, tilting her head forward a bit to make the shadows produced by the one remaining bulb inside of the fixture as angular and pronounced as possible against her skin which was pale with the red left from soap and hard scrubbing. She depressed her thumb onto the mole just at the protrusion of her collarbone (at the center bottom of her neck, doing this several times to observe the effect of the skin changing from exaggeratedly white to a tan pink around the moles’ undiminished black). And as she always did, she put on her glasses and let them become impenetrably grey over her eyes from the still accumulated steam which (other than for its effect on the lenses) she would never guess was still present (in coils, licking her body as it dripped wet onto the unused towel she stood on). Then she leaned against the door (which also because of the remaining steam in the room was slick in different shades of painted green) rolled her one shoulder against it several dozen times, pressed the side of her face and the side of her hip, as well as (with the underside of one arm raised over her head) the side of one breast, to it while bending her knees once, twice, three times, four times before abruptly standing. She exited the bathroom, naked, after using a capful of antiseptic wash and rinsing her lips with water several times so there would not be a taste of the wash left if she happened to slip out her tongue to moisten them.
She turned off the hallway light with a rapid motion of one arm (closing the bathroom door behind her and leaning her back to it) then sat down, in a slow movement, with her legs first bent in front of her and then splayed straight out. She took three breaths in through her nose then one forceful breath out of her mouth, scraping at her ankle quite vigorously with one of the toenails of the opposite foot. To her side, she could see down the stairs how the sun was almost completely set (there was just the slightest hue of orange against the brown carpet of the lowest steps, a blunted square, also of this same-hued light, on the wall before the banister began) and she began counting down from some number slowly while she watched a particular spot of light. Then she turned herself around and rubbed her back on the carpet, inching herself a little way along the hallway, rubbing the top of her head on the ground in such a way so she could hear nothing except for the sound of the texture of her hair against the carpet (feeling the skin of her head being pulled slightly one way then another). She arched her back and bent one arm around her so it fit beneath, then stood (this done in several unbalanced movements) slapping the back of one thigh twice. The carpet had caused her head to itch and so she rubbed at it, taking an amount of her hair (this wet and clinging around her fingers) in a firm grip, twisting it around to squeeze from it a droplet of water which hit to her knee with a slight sensation of cold.
She pushed the door to her bedroom open (having left it unlocked and ajar) with more force than she had intended to, so its knob struck hard against a paper bag filled with old magazines she had set in the corner just behind it. The door closed somewhat more than halfway after the impact and she reached forward to it, bringing it closed more, a tap, then pushing it open again, full, with a gentler touch. From behind his door, she heard her brother cough once, very loudly, as though on purpose, and the sound of his weight being shifted over his bedsheets and mattress. Then she stepped into her room without closing the door and rubbed at her neck with a cupped hand, though she felt no particular tension there and the rubbing itself hurt a bit. She stayed in just that position, though her hand became immobile, until she heard her brother move again (this time his full weight being lifted off from his bed) knowing he was going to be leaving for work. She closed her door three-quarters of the way shut while he exited his room and descended the staircase, then she pushed it open and looked across the way into his room, noting the windows were open. She crossed to them, shutting first the blinds and then the windows themselves with her arms entering around the blinds from the side, turning the lock of only one of the windows tightly into its position and leaving the other as it was due to her fingers touching against more than one dead insect and her skin beginning to crawl.

 


UNABLE, INITIALLY, TO FIND THE exact shirt she was looking for, she opened the closet door to begin searching for something, at the very least, of the same color (the closet arranged in a rather particular way: the pants all folded over hangers, beginning on the left of the rail, some ties she enjoyed wearing on the occasion a dressier fashion needed to be adopted, usually for some school function or an event to do with her parents, the shirts and dresses following these) though she doubted very much she had one in her wardrobe of the same cut. The fabrics rubbed against the skin of her forearms and she pressed her hands, which were still quite wet, into the collars of the button-down shirts and the edges of the skirts, leaving dark indications of her touch to them. Then, moving backward until she felt the backs of her legs against the end of the bed, she turned, went to her knees, and began a more thorough search of the floor, finding the shirt she wanted underneath of a discarded towel which was still wet and which had to it the odor of mildew (though she didn’t remember having used it to dry herself in the last several weeks). She brought the shirt to her face (wrapping it a bit around her cheeks by putting her hands flat to them through it) inhaling and then rubbing it down over her chest until her abdomen, whipping it then out in the air in front of her several times.
On the bed, she eased her way into the shirt without properly sitting up, once in it stretching out to her full length and then curling, in a sharp motion, onto her side with her knees brought up in the direction of her chin. She looked at the photograph she had applied, with two bits of adhesive tape, to the left-hand bedpost, noting as she always did the stain her finger had made on it when she first held it (this a very oblong shape which she decided bore a very strong resemblance to a society lady stood in profile). There were several other photographs arranged around it, though she herself was pictured in none of these, they having been set there for a contrast or to serve as a setting in which the picture of her added a particular flavor. In the picture, she was wearing a dress which wasn’t hers (borrowed from a cousin she had met on only one occasion and which she had returned almost immediately after the picture had been taken) and her father wore the coat which he had torn when the car had been iced into the driveway and it had taken hours to chip it out with one of the kitchen knives. The compositions of the background images were very ill-focused, the buildings across the street having no distinction: a smear of brick structure and canvas awning, a wood structure, and, passing by, a tourist (only one, she remembered for some reason, and could make out this detail only a little bit because it was obscured beneath her fingerprint) raising their hat to a doorman, cordially.
She chose panties with several holes in them (two of the larger holes almost touching around the fabric over one of her hips) and the color of which had faded from red to very faint pink (almost white) taking a minute to scratch at a spot behind her knee and then another to move around (still lying on the bed) so the material of the panties snugged as closely to her skin as possible. She bent a wrist into the mattress and pressed down on it with a slight force, allowing a numbness to begin in her hand, a feeling of cold and then of prickly irritation as the circulation began again unsteadily and the coloring of the undersides of her fingers became speckled. She (with her arms raised over her head and bent, her hands gripping her elbows) inhaled, with her nose to her armpit, then rubbed her cheek against the top of her shoulder. She let her feet down over the side of the bed, moving a dirty sock around with her toes and trying to wriggle her foot as far inside of it as possible using only them. Noticing her door wasn’t locked, she stood and opened it, listening into the hallway (the house dark, a kind of blue with the evening light coming in from one of the front windows at the bottom of the stairs) until she was satisfied by hearing a slight creaking from a chair in the dining room she knew was caused by the change of temperature brought on by the falling dusk.
And pulling one of the holes in her panties just a bit larger with her third and fifth fingers, she paced the room half-a-dozen times, eventually sitting to the floor at the base of her bookshelf, first pushing aside a small pile of discarded papers (she held up one and looked only briefly at the drawing in crayon set to it: an animal crouched by a fire, several men in the apparel of hunters dancing about it, positioned as though they were mimicking various types of animals stood on their hind legs) which had been crumpled and left there. She pulled some of her records from a pile (a selection of the ones in the center of the stack) and examined first their fronts and then their backs in a cursory manner, taking out three or four of them in order to run her nails over the grooved vinyl, then tapping her thumb sides once on the identification label of each. She left the removed records in a separate pile on the carpet, stood, returned to the closet, and chose a patterned skirt from a hanger, pulling it on while she at the same time (with a movement of her hip) tried to keep the hanger from falling the whole way to the floor. Above her, she could hear a squirrel (or perhaps several) running over the boards of the attic, then the sound of them leaving through whatever hole they could enter and exit by to a tree limb outside the window (the image of this blocked by the drawn curtains) and the sound of the branch scraping against the glass of the window as the squirrels’ weight came to it (and the scraping sound, again, as the weight was removed) and the sound of tree bark being rapidly clambered down.

 


THE THERMOSTAT HAD ALREADY BEEN adjusted to the temperature she was going to set it to (she paused and could not determine from the sound of vibration behind the walls if she thought the heating may have been malfunctioning) and so she could not account for the fact she felt uncomfortable, her skin crawling a bit, as though on the verge of perspiring. There was no change at all to sound of the system at work when she turned the switch first to the OFF position then back into place as she had found it, this matter puzzling her a great deal, as the last several weeks had been quite chill overnight and had caused her to wake several times shivering, able to do very little about her condition (due to the thinness of her current bedsheets and the fact she found it unpleasant to sleep in any sort of underclothes). She removed her foot from one sandal (bending her leg) and rubbed the sole of it with her thumb, setting the foot down again and tapping at the sandal’s side with it. A neighbor, outside, clapped his hands several times to summon a dog, the collar of which jangled abrasively and the leash handle sounded across the pavement of the sidewalk very lightly, like the rustle of a dry leaf. Voices, then, she could also hear, one of them a man’s and the other a young boy’s, and she took some time in attempting to make out what they were saying, in the end settling to just decipher the identities of the speakers and to infer they were speaking about the upcoming Community Day at length and in some detail.
From the inside of her parent’s room, she could hear her father talking to her mother (not loudly, but not self-consciously enough to be whispering). Her father was telling her mother he had dreamed (the previous night) a dream he was certain he had also dreamt once as a very young child. Her father described the dream only vaguely (apologizing throughout his description with mild stammers) and she imagined his eyes were closed a great deal of the time while he was speaking, while he repeated certain phrases again and again, his voice placing to the words, each time, different emphases. Her father said he had been dragging a long piece of fabric which (and here he stammered quite a lot) may or may not have been a kite (red and tattered in places) across the wooden floor of a kitchen (the table set with food in large mounds and no plates, an overturned pitcher of fruit juice dripping steadily into a dense splotch already covered over with paper towels). And he said he could hear the voices of people he had the feeling he had met only some few times up to that point in his life and had perhaps never encountered again, these people speaking to his parents very loudly but laughing after every few words, and the sounds also of heavy boots thundering down on the floor as though from legs bent and raised high in some charade. He said it left an awkward feeling made more so by the fact the room (he said this very slowly and paused, repeating the whole of the phrase up to the point he had paused and then finishing it) smelled exactly like the bedroom did just then (the certain scent of the perfume left in the air).
She waited awhile and heard her mother speaking quietly to her father, making her voice soothing and the sounds of her words long and paced like even breathing, in and out. And she could hear the sound of her mother’s hands running over her father’s back (underneath of the bedsheets, though she pictured her father not completely undressed, sitting on the bed with his legs folded under him) or his shirt, and sometimes the sound of one of her mother’s fingernails catching on fabric. Then, for what she estimated was almost five minutes, there came no sound at all and so the image of the interior of the bedroom seemed to fade from her mind, her head turning from her parents’ door to the hallway again and to the cat (who had come up to her legs without her noticing) lying itself down on top of her removed sandal. Kneeling, she touched the cat once (a pat at the base of its tail, it raising up its rear legs at the contact) and gently moved her sandal out from beneath it. The cat purred just a few times with its eyes closed, then opened them and became silent, she staring at a crust of green on the side of one of its eyes which was becoming moist and running down alongside its nose. And when she reached to clean it, the cat bit her hand, drawing blood, moved very quickly a few feet away, and lay down again, kneading the carpet in front of it, its claws tugging at the fibers.
Moving down the stairs, with her one sandal still held in her hand, she removed the other one and kicked it down several steps, caught up to it, and kicked it the rest of the way down. At the bottom of the stair, she sat and pulled her light coat from off of the banister (where it had been draped neatly) drew it around her shoulders without putting her arms through the sleeves, and took one of the ends of the drawstring into her mouth, sucking on it, lodging it in the space between her upper front teeth and the inside of her lip. This left a taste of chalk to her tongue and after clicking her tongue a few times into the bottom of her mouth she spit out the drawstring and rubbed at it with the insides of both of her palms pressed together. She could hear the cat had settled at the top step and she glanced up to it, its eyes lit, a sharp green, until it turned its head down to lick at the fur of one of its front legs. On the floor was one of her brother’s gloves she had always admired the look of (it was a very old, leather glove, the red of it worn tan in places) and she leaned forward, attempting (without standing) to take it up. When she could not quite reach it, she leaned back and pressed her lower back into the step she sat on, pressing until there was a slight draw of pain from the skin being pulled taut.

 


ONE OF THE BINS WAS turned over on its side, the lid several feet away from it flat to the pavement, the rubbish inside spilt out somewhat from the transparent bag left untied and from which she noticed a magazine she had seen on the shelves of a store earlier that day. She righted the bin (taking a moment to leaf through the magazine) tied the bag, and looked over to the lid, deciding against taking it up and fitting it to place. Two of the other bins had no lids at all, their contents being lawn clippings and stray bits of wood from the weekly clean-up, and a sweet odor drifted from them (following her for a good many paces as she walked away, rounding the corner by the mailbox, which she kicked her foot against once, hard). Up the street, she counted the yard lights and the porch lights which had been turned on, squinting her eyes at the large gaps of darkness set between some of them, deep patches of houses the occupants of which were not present to hit the inside switches which would bring the murky illumination over their front doors. And one of the neighbors had still not removed the green and pink colored lightbulbs they had set up some months back in order to indicate to people unfamiliar with the neighborhood how on some particular night theirs was the house where an event was to take place. This light was extinguished (even as she looked at it) and she stopped where she was, waiting for it to come back on, thinking the person inside the house must have merely brushed accidentally the wall switch, with their elbow or with the side of some object they carried, as they moved past.
Overhead, she could hear the engine of a plane, but the cloud cover kept the plane’s lights from being seen (there were not even dull blurs of spread light through the grey). And she breathed in the smell of mildew from the front of her shirt while she stepped backward a few times (spinning once with her arms spread out) and bit off a piece of skin from the edge of one of her fingers, spitting it out but unable to trace its progress due to the poor light in the spot where she stood just then. Then she passed a tree at the end of the neighborhood’s driveway and saw a cat was stuck (crying very faintly, looking down at her while she held her hand up to it) on one of the lower branches. The animal was one she had seen many times before and she spoke to it (posing to it questions, very specific, as to how it had managed to get up so smooth and sheer a tree trunk and how it supposed it would manage to get itself back down). She told it the fire department could be called, but how they would, unfortunately, only use their hose to blast it off the branch and to the ground. She implored it (rubbing the tips of her fingers together and making noises with her tongue against her front teeth) to come down while she was still there to make certain it was not hurt. After several minutes of this, she just stared at it in silence and tapped the front of her knees alternately with a lightly closed fist, then rubbed her knees against one another with a length of her skirt pressed between.
On the ground (she hurried to the thing and discovered, to her disappointment, it was not still smoldering) was a cigarette stub, still two-thirds of the cigarette’s original length. She held it under her nose and inhaled (the paper of it was a little bit moist, though the pavement was uniformly dry as far as she could tell) then put it behind her ear, carefully tucking it into place so it was not bent at all out of shape. And letting out a long breath, she glanced around at the surrounding pavement and a little way into the grass before moving on (her pace faster than it had been) until she was to the flagpole which divided the vehicle accessway into the development. Both flags were still up (she could not seem to settle the question in her mind if this was the usual way of things) and she watched the metal clasp of the lower flag touch against the metal pole, producing a high-pitched sound (which faded immediately) in reaction to the slight breeze that had risen. The top flag seemed to react to the breeze less so than the lower (hanging limply and folded only twice to the corner tip of its top which was snapping back-and-forth much like a dog’s ears when its head was shaking). And she hooked a thumb into the elastic of her skirt back, with the other hand first putting her hood up over her loose hair and then throwing it off, as the sensation of the material around her ears was claustrophobic.
The road just outside of the development stayed unlit and was lined with trees and smaller bushes (some of these trees new, still tied into place with a bright orange string wrapped around slats of wood which were driven into the smoothed down soil) proceeding straight for a half mile then turning sharply to one side. There was now a moisture in the air and the night had completely fallen, so she could see the gradation of yellow in the air as a car approached the nearby turning with its headlights on full. As the vehicle made the turn and approached her, she smiled (seeing it had five headlights) and even before it was within a reasonable distance, she began tightening her focus, trying to make out who was the driver. She began dragging the tip of one sandal while the car got closer, letting some blades of grass touch to the top of her foot where the strap of the sandal was open to expose the flesh and enjoying the vibration caused by the texture of the sandal against the imperfections of the road surface. When the vehicle passed, she could only make out the driver was an older, foreign woman who had a gift-wrapped box set on the passenger seat (though she also got the slight impression there was a person in the rear seat with their head tilted straight back at an extreme angle). Over her shoulder, she watched the color of the taillight (the car had only one, a long rectangular stripe) then turned her head forward again for a few steps, quickening her pace to a jog.

 


AT A PARTICULAR POINT (WHERE a slight path had been made between several of the trees) she left the road, holding her hands out in front of her to block any sharp edge of a branch from being at all able to injure her face. The tree limbs and the leaves on them were very wet and the moisture on her hands was almost impossible to dry against her skirt or the sides of her coat (this eventually leading her to simply ball her hands into the coat pockets and to push through the remaining growth with her shoulders and her back turned, several leaves rubbing long against the exposed skin of her legs). And once through the tree-line and into the open field she stood, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness over the length of empty space, looking up at the sky which was over the unlit area (a shade of purple more than black) the clouds a sheet of grey and not discernible one from another. She could hear another car passing on the road (the lights of it scarcely penetrating to her, no more than a brief, almost instantaneous, wisp of light crossed over the surface of one of the rings on her hand). She moved her shoulders and hips around (bending her knees, also) to shake herself up and down, ridding herself of the feeling some living thing may have crawled onto her from off of some tree branch, then checked (also setting her glasses straight over her nose) the cigarette was intact and securely to its place behind her ear.
She was aware the field she was crossing had become increasingly popular with people who owned dogs (a place to air their animals and to chit-chat) and so looked casually around her while she walked to make certain she would not be suddenly upon somebody and so startled (this leading to her, perhaps, being asked to explain her presence at the hour of night it was). And it was while she was plying out in her mind a scenario of refusing to give certain personal information out to a stranger who inquired after her business she took a bad step, falling sideways into the grass, her hand landing in something she feared very much to be feces, she bringing the hand quickly to her face, relived to find it had only touched some dampened soil. She got herself to her feet and was very cautious with her next series of movements, stepping several paces in a direction sideways from where she had just fallen, not wanting to lose her footing again because of the same obstacle, which she imagined to be an odd depression (the result, most likely, of a dog digging a hole to either bury or unearth some object). Once satisfied she was on a safer path, she halfway knelt down and wiped both of her legs, wrapping her two hands around and moving them with pressure from the middle of her thigh to her ankle. The wind blew once (very harshly, billowing the fabric of her clothing out in several directions) and she laughed at the sensation of it (as gooseflesh raised all over her) and her eyes teared a bit from the cold.
The walk across the field took her nearly half-an-hour and it was only when she noted she was perspiring quite heavily she realized with what a rapid pace she had been moving (her breath feeling dry inside of her throat and very thick, coating her lips in viscous saliva she wiped at with her palm’s edge). He had not yet arrived (she reminded herself he was not even likely to arrive for some time yet) and she rubbed at her nose, clearing it out with a finger (wiping this finger on a spot underneath of her skirt end and then bit the fingertip in several small nibbles). Looking up, she could see the light was on in the end house’s window and various items of cookware were laid out as though to soon be in use, but no signs suggesting anybody was (in fact) present in the house were apparent throughout the next quarter-of-an-hour. She took up a stone and lobbed it (with a slow arcing of her arm, underhanded) attempting to have its trajectory be straight up, her head craning as she shifted her weight, causing a rush of dizziness, so she turned her eyes down, losing all track of the stone, then brought her both arms protectively over her head and let out a brief scream, cursing under her breath at having done so (and hearing the impact of the stone, soft in the grass, a few feet to her right).
Then she lay down, adjusting her skirt so it raised a bit and was less confining when all of her weight was down on it, rolled over a few times and laughed at the memory of a remark she had overheard while in the grocery store with her parents (sometime over the last weekend). She closed her eyes, deciding she may as well let herself fall asleep, as he was certain to wake her when he arrived, but as she began relaxing (a dream beginning to take hold of her) she got the strong impression somebody was standing nearby and sat straight up, her hands pressing into the ground at the ends of her tightened arms, looking from side-to-side, standing up (then rapidly whirling around to look behind her). And she saw, for just an instant, the form of a child (who seemed no older than four) putting his hands over his face (his features distorted to give the appearance of shock, his tongue then darting out through the space allowed by the outlines of the small fingers placed loose, side-by-side). The image jarred her and she paced around (also jumping in place several times and bobbing her head about) blinking her eyes until she had to stop moving to resist a coming sneeze. This she did not manage to do and when the sneeze did come she made no effort to bring her hands to her mouth, instead turned to one side so what was expectorated was directed downward at the grass. And out of the consideration she did not know where the phlegm may have ended up, she moved a little bit farther along the hill, leaning against a tree (she leaned against this tree sometimes, though not very often) the bark feeling awkward and the angle of her standing causing her to feel uncomfortable and a little bit impatient.

Regard is available for purchase at Amazon.

 

Pablo D’Stair was born in 1981. At the age of 19 he composed his first novel (October People) for the 3 Day Novel Writing Contest sponsored by Anvil Press. The novel did not win the competition but was published in the subsequent year – along with his second novel (Confidant) – by the infamous and now defunct vanity book-mill Publish America. In the mid-2000’s, D’Stair co-founded the art-house press Brown Paper Publishing with his colleague, the novelist, musician, and painter Goodloe Byron. Through this press and its literary journal Predicate, he released the work of more than fifty of his peers along with editions of two dozen of his own books. Eventually shuttering BPP, D’Stair founded (KUOBA) press, continuing to publish work by his contemporaries. During this era, his own literary output remained prolific but largely unreleased, though several works were made available as limited-edition print projects and in various electronic mediums. D’Stair spent several years as a cinema critic – primarily for the UK site Battle Royale with Cheese – and as an essayist/interviewer for the national newspaper of Sri Lanka’s Sunday Observer (through which periodical several of his novella and a story collection were serialized). Also during this period, D’Stair began working as an underground filmmaker in the capacities of writer, director, cinematographer, editor, and performer – the cinematography of his first feature (A Public Ransom) earned an award in international competition at the XIX Internacionlni TV Festival (Bar, Montenegro 2014). D’Stair has also written several volumes of poetry, more than four dozen pieces of theatre, written and directed music videos, written and illustrated graphic novels and comic-book series, and produced audio essays. His work across all mediums has often been released pseudonymously.

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