It is a frequent yet mild aggravation to return to one’s car in a public parking structure and find stuck beneath the windshield wiper or in the door handle a postcard peddling Chinese delivery or Jesus, which is then folded angrily and left in the pocket of the driver’s side door until you remember to clean it out—but it is a sight more unsettling to find, instead, a black postcard advertising in bold red letters: “Exorcisms.”
In the greenish fluorescent light of the cement structure, surrounded by empty spots, you might pause over the ad, might even chuckle as you turn it over to find the phone number on the back, but something stops you from flicking it away with your fingers—not the guilt of littering, though that is what usually stops you from tossing these ads when you find them—but something else, which tickles your spine.
Instead, you put it in your purse with the grocery receipt from Sunday and a checked-off to-do list, intending to throw it away with the other spare bits of useless paper.
But you don’t.
• • • •
And then, weeks later, you find it again in your purse. A faint memory of when it appeared on your car makes you huff something that is almost like a laugh as you turn it over, wondering who would be on the other line if you were to call the phone number. Hello, I would like one exorcism, please.
“Look what someone left on my car,” you tell your husband, flashing the postcard, but he will barely look up from his phone long enough to say, “Huh” before he is back to scrolling through an email.
“Well, I thought it was funny.”
The postcard finds a home on your kitchen counter among a pile of unopened bills that are too tiresome to keep up with, stark black against the white envelopes. A few other postcards sit in the pile of mail—one telling you there’s an urgent recall on the airbags in your Nissan, another from a realtor boasting about inflated home prices. So many papers calling for your attention, but all you want to do is sit down on the couch and close your eyes.
“What’s for dinner?” asks your husband.
“I just got home from work.”
“Well, so did I.”
You sigh and stick your head in the fridge. You forget about exorcisms.
For a time, you use the postcard as a coaster for your wine, letting it catch red rings even though you have enough coasters to last the apocalypse (though why you should need coasters during an apocalypse is beyond you, surely stains won’t matter at the end of the world). Then it gets buried under some papers, and it’s gone for a while longer. It’ll turn up again. Eventually.
• • • •
These days, everything clamors for your attention: billboards about hair loss, the top ten most amusing tweets of the last week according to some listicle site that keeps popping up on your newsfeed, the hundred or so emails waiting for deletion but which you can’t delete because they might have important information, the latest list of books you have to read, the latest prestige television you have to watch. The world begs for your attention, and when you find yourself sitting at the dining room table staring into thoughtless space, just existing, you realize you could go on like this. You could sit here and do nothing at all and turn into a ghost and you wouldn’t mind.
But then your husband gets home and walks into a stack of books and kicks them aside angrily so they sprawl across the carpet, and asks when you’re going to clean up all this shit.
You didn’t intend to let it get this bad.
It started with receipts and junk mail, which began to pile up on the dining room table until it became unusable, leading to the necessity of eating dinner at the coffee table in front of the television. Then shoeboxes that might be reused (but never were), glass jars of pennies and beads, burnt candles that still had a bit of wax in them, coasters (so many coasters—why so many coasters? There aren’t enough glasses in the world for all these coasters), cords to who knows what, keys to who knows where, USB drives that kept getting lost and found again, empty pill bottles that you’re not sure what to do with (is there a special way to dispose of them?), batteries (see previous comment), and—well, it accumulates.
So much of it has accumulated, by now, in the closet of the spare bedroom that you haven’t even opened the door in months, simply because you don’t want to look at the mass of junk festering inside. The spare bedroom isn’t really a bedroom after all, since the bed is covered with extra clothes that wouldn’t fit in the master closet. They lie flat with hangers poking out the necks, as if hoping someday they will be hung again, these empty headless garments.
“This does not bring me joy,” you think as you look over the pile of clothes, but then neither does the idea of hauling it all out to the dump. Who was that upbeat pixie woman on Netflix who went around telling other people how to clean up their homes? You look at your face in the bathroom mirror. “This does not bring me joy.”
• • • •
The sex with your husband is unsatisfying. Isn’t that a shame? Now that you’re married you have a constant built-in sexual partner who sleeps right next to you every night, who you can always go to if you’re feeling horny, but you never feel horny anymore. You feel dusty and stale. You wonder what it would be like to shove something else up there, to feel something different. A hairbrush, maybe, or your grandmother’s old crucifix that you hadn’t the heart to throw away, or a coat hanger. The last one sends a revolted shiver up your spine. Sick, you think, but then again, you’re the one who thought it.
After sex you can’t sleep. Your husband snoozes contentedly beside you, and you wish for that blank oblivion. A sleeping pill might help, though it is already late and you have to be up early. On your way to the bathroom, you stop in the spare bedroom, though you do not know why. You turn on the light, though you do not know why. You go to the closet door, though you do not know why. Sometimes we do things we do not understand.
When you finally open the closet, you find a teeming mass of junk built up into an unholy reeking mound—but chief among this mélange of rejected ephemera is one singular shape that startles you so badly your heart freezes for half a beat, since it looks so very much like a person, at first, that you believed there was a human being sitting here in the closet all this time, or more likely a corpse. But it is not a person, and it looks less like a person the more you look. After all, it doesn’t have a face. Its head is the hook of a wire hanger, wearing one of your husband’s old suits stuffed with moldering newspaper. Its feet are dusty spools of yarn. At the end of its sleeves, which sit in its flattened lap, is a rubber-banded bundle of pens and pencils, like long thin fingers, too many fingers.
The abomination is wedged into the pile of trash so that it almost looks as if it is sitting, and the pile is its throne.
“This does not bring me joy,” you say, and close the door.
• • • •
When you do finally manage to fall asleep, you dream of the mutation in the closet. You dream it is scratching against the inside of the door with the hooks of wire hangers—though why it should be doing that does not make any sense to you, since you thought the hanger was its head, and what sort of creature scratches its head against the door?
• • • •
There’s a new show everyone at work is buzzing about. Something about a bubbly petite woman who doesn’t just come tell you how to fix your broken life, but who actually takes it over for you. She goes to your house, greets your husband as if she is his wife, sleeps in your bed, goes to your job, makes dinner, and you just get to sit and sigh and watch and not have to do anything at all. And she takes your face and puts it on, and you are so relieved because you don’t have to be you anymore, you don’t have to wear that pretend smile every day.
Everyone at work says it’s the next revolution in better living. Supposedly, everyone who’s done it is much happier. You smile at them, wondering if you should add the show to your queue. It doesn’t sound like something your husband would watch, but then again, he’s not expected to be the one to fix up your lives, is he?
Maybe you will start with the tidying method, first.
You decide to tackle the spare bedroom when you get home. It is without question that the first thing to go is the pile of clothes on the bed, a stew of yours and his tangled together. When you finally toss the crumpled clothes into a trash bag and pull out their hangers, you find on the bedsheets a spread of mold or rot—the bottom layer of the clothing must have gotten damp somehow—and the rot is almost in the shape of a face with a very wide grinning mouth, a mouth that stretches from one end of the bed to the other, and its eyes are very round, as if they have no lids and cannot close.
You tear off the bedsheets and stuff them into the bag with the clothes.
There is other stuff in the room that must be dealt with, but next you decide to make another assessment of the closet. When you open the door and peer in at the figure with the dangerous curve for a head, it looks as if it is grinning, only that cannot be so, because how can a hanger grin? Perhaps it is the way the room’s dull light glances off the steel.
One of its arms—no, not an arm, just an empty sleeve—slides down from its lap with a whispery sound like paper, like the turning of a page, like an airy, voiceless snicker. The suit slides from its throne, and you lean instinctively forward to catch it. The motheaten cloth of the suit smells horrible, like the basement of an abandoned sanitarium, or like rotten eggs, and you push it back onto the pile. It slides toward the far wall of the closet, as if it is leaning back in repose, and its head—no, not a head, just the curve of a hanger—disappears into the shadows at the back of the closet.
You turn from the figure with a shudder, only to find yourself looking at the back of the closet door, at the scratch marks on the wood.
• • • •
“Where’s my blue collared shirt? The one with the green stripes?”
“How should I know?”
Your husband tears his way through the spare bedroom. “It was in here!”
Of course it was. It was in the pile on the bed. The pile he hadn’t touched in months. Of course, he wouldn’t want the shirt until it had been thrown away. If you hadn’t touched the clothes, he would have continued to ignore it, he would never have worn that shirt again. But now that it is gone, he needs it.
“I cleaned that room,” you tell him.
“Goddamnit, what is wrong with you?”
He says it as if he hasn’t been telling you to clean up all this shit for weeks. He says it as if cleaning up the room is a heinous crime. His careless anger tugs at all that is clawing inside of you, all the little scraps of paper that make up your soul eating at you. When you try to walk away from him, the floor seems to swallow your feet. They wade through the mire of junk, slowing you, pulling you down into an ocean of oddities. It isn’t the floor anymore; now it is a jungle where strange creatures nip at your ankles. This is how it is, you think. Things attract. They get stuck. They clump together, form new things out of old things, things that might have faces, things that might laugh with the sound of tearing paper.
At last, you make it down the hallway where you can close the bathroom door on his ranting. The face in the mirror does not bring you joy, so you twist it, contort it, pull strange expressions to try to get your face to be something else. Perhaps someone else would like to have it.
You stretch your mouth into a grin, a wide grin, wider, wider—too wide. But now you cannot stop, it is frozen in a terrible rictus so wide that your lips crack and your eyes bulge, but then your eyes are no longer eyes. Now they are two shiny copper pennies, round and lidless. Your stomach rolls with nausea. Your too-wide mouth cannot hold everything in. A surge of batteries and beads comes spilling out. You choke and cough until you burp out the last of them, and they clatter into the sink.
Strangely, you feel better now, good enough to step out of the bathroom. Your husband has stopped ranting and stomping, though the quiet means you cannot tell where he is in the house. He will be wanting dinner. You head for the kitchen, but instead of reaching for a box of dry pasta, you pick up a pile of papers from the counter and stuff them into your mouth, chewing them into a paste.
It is then that you spot the black postcard advertising “Exorcisms.”
You pick it up and slip it into your back pocket, next to your phone. The familiarity of this little thing pleases you, and it comes with the memory of laughter.
Eventually you find your husband in the master bedroom, sitting on the bed, looking contrite. He starts as you step through the doorway. “Listen, babe, I’m sorry I snapped at you. I get it, you were doing what you thought was right. But maybe next time you could ask me first?”
He manages to get all of this out before he really looks at you, at which point he goes silent as his mouth falls open in horror.
Your hands have become wire hooks and your flesh peels away like sheaves of rotting newspaper. Though you cannot be sure what your face looks like, the overhead light sends two shiny circles onto the wall wherever you look, and you think it must be reflecting off your eyes.
Somehow, you get your grinning mouth to sound out a few thin, papery words.
“You do not bring me joy.”
And before he has a chance to close his mouth—before, indeed, he has a chance to do much of anything except stare—you drive one of your hook-hands into his open mouth, into the back of his throat, higher, into his skull, into his brain.
Your mind is on fire as you stumble out of the room and into the one next door. The closet is already standing open. When you look inside, the figure is not there. A presence behind you tickles the hairs on the back of your neck, and you turn to find the figure standing beside the bed, and now its head is no longer just the top of the wire hanger, now the hanger is draped with the thin empty flesh of your face and it is grinning at you and its teeth are AAA batteries and its eyes are two pennies and it is laughing that papery laugh—
Though it has made no movement at all toward you, still you reel backward into the closet and shut yourself in with the pile of junk and the darkness, which you decide to light up with the pale blue glow of your phone. When you pull it from your pocket, the black postcard comes fluttering out. You turn it over.
Typing in the phone number is nearly impossible with wire hooks for hands, but at last it starts to ring. As it rings, you hear footsteps slowly creaking over the floor toward the closet door, and finally there is a click as the line connects, and you try to blurt out, “Hello, I would like an exorcism,” but it is almost impossible to speak without a face.