The World in Rubber, Soft and Malleable

by Aaron Polson

Before he disappeared through the extra doorway in his basement, Jarrod Ponton was my best friend. He was thin and pale, almost an afterthought of a boy. Some of the seniors called him Bird. We never understood the joke, but I guess his nose was a bit beak-like. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember his face. When the weather was nice, we spent our after school hours spray painting the concrete embankment under the bridge south of town on Highway 15.

Jarrod buried the world with paint. I had OCD.

He could cover an old mural with sweeping swatches of bold color in the same time I laid down a few square feet of a detailed composition. He was fields of grass and blue sky; I was flecks of gold on the left cornea of a portrait. We worked in secret — in the quiet space between highway and river, scrambling over loose rock to massage our hidden canvas. The cops had other things to deal with, anyway.

One week before he disappeared, Jarrod marked out a rough rectangle with metallic silver Krylon.

“This’ll be my masterpiece,” he said. “I’m creating a world right here.”

I shrugged and continued shaking my can of paint, cobalt blue. Only spray cans made that magical sound, a metal ball bouncing inside a metal cylinder, breaking chunks of pigment and forcing it to mix with the base. An artist shook a can just so, waving both ends back and forth with one hand as fulcrum in the middle. Shaken fast enough, the can was rubber — soft and malleable — and the paint could become anything.

The rumors grew as they do in small towns, discussed over coffee at the local bakery, by a couple of old men leaning on their trucks at the gas station, before long everyone knew about the new doors in people’s basements. Once a person walked through that door, she was gone. The police were involved a little at first, missing person reports were filed, but what could they do? It wasn’t against the law to walk through a door in your house.

Each week in class, each day, more empty seats. Cori Mansfield, the girl I’ve had a crush on since seventh grade, was gone after Christmas. I missed looking at her, but probably paid a little more attention in chemistry. Some classes consolidated when too many teachers vanished with too few substitutes to go around. I painted little memorials to each missing classmate and teacher. Morbid or misguided, I don’t know. Were those people dead? Could they come back? Would they if they could?

The space under the bridge crowded with little commemorations, caricatured graffiti of vanished friends and mentors.

“We ever going to paint over this stuff?” Jarrod asked on the afternoon before he left.

“I dunno.”

Jarrod was new day, new picture. I was more than meticulous. I was patient, stubborn, stuck in my pattern, marching lock step to the end of high school, the beginning of life as I would know it and the nothing beyond that. People weren’t supposed to walk through doors in their basements and not come back.

Mom walked out of the front door when I was seven, and I waited ten years to see her again. Ten years — longer than I was old when she left. In my mind’s eye, she was a patient woman — my memory tells lies about how tender and kind she was, probably some mash up of TV moms and wish-fulfillment.

Flecks of gold shimmered on her left cornea.

Dad sat around after work and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer from bottles. He had to drive thirty miles to find a liquor store that sells Pabst in bottles, so he came back with eight or nine cases after each trip. His drunk was a light drunk, a four or five beers a night drunk. I thought he was mostly just sad, a rubbed-out man, half-erased in a town that wouldn’t disappear fast enough.

During the day, he ran the local auto parts store. It was a steady job and steady income in a town where people couldn’t let old machines die. After a while, the old machines were all that was left. When he was younger, he wanted to run a garage — a specialty place that only fixed up classics, antiques. Reality soured him. My mother soured him.

“Dad, how many people do you think will go?” I asked my father on the evening before Jarrod disappeared.

“I dunno. All of ‘em?” A brown bottle slid from his hand and landed on the floor with a hollow-glass thunk. “Maybe they’re looking for your mother.”

I watched the TV over his shoulder for a moment, unable to tell the difference between crime investigation and hospital drama. Plenty of blood in both and more commercials than our town had citizens.

“Do you think we’ll have a door in our basement?”

He turned around and looked at me, pointed his glassed-over eyeballs at mine. “I sure as hell hope so. Nobody’s going to be left to buy timing belts and replacement headlights.” He smiled. “What are we supposed to do, Andy?”

I shrugged and thought for a moment about going upstairs, shutting myself in my room and popping online to chat with Jarrod, maybe flirt with some girls from school that still lived in my world. Maybe I should have taken a drive. Instead, I slumped onto the couch and watched people being taken apart — whether by actors playing doctors or actors playing criminals, I didn’t care. Actors were actors.

I usually picked Jarrod up at his house. On the morning he vanished, I pulled into the alley behind his place, put the truck in neutral, and waited. No Jarrod. Five minutes passed. Ten. I turned the engine off and hopped out.

Jarrod lived with his folks in a battered bungalow. I think they rented. They were good people, just not the most frugal or lucky. His mom had some kind of cyst on her ovaries, and medical bills mated and spawned with one another. When Mr. Ponton lost his job selling cell phone parts, their mortgage incinerated and the family crash landed in town after a messy foreclosure. Mr. Ponton, Bob he called himself when he tried to play buddy-buddy, had family here. Members of his extended family were some of the first to open their new basement doors, step through, and vanish.

When I climbed on to Jarrod’s back porch, I knew they were all gone. Open door, dark house — I wasn’t exactly working for CSI, but I knew the score. Of course I called out, took a quick and creepy once-over of the empty place, but I knew. My guts tightened when I thought about checking the basement, so I only made it halfway down the stairs.

Jarrod’s half-empty can of Krylon metallic silver rode shotgun, rattling around on the passenger side floorboard.

School was a private tutoring session that day, just me and Mr. Kirchmier. I wasn’t even taking calculus, but he gave me a lesson.

“You know, Andy, functions don’t ever reach zero. Really … they can get close, but never quite touch it.” He scribbled equations on the whiteboard, stood back and nodded.

Mr. Kirchmier left after second period. I drove home through deserted streets.

Dad was in his recliner watching The Weather Channel.

“What’s up? Lunchtime?” I asked, wondering why he was home at ten-thirty.

“Everyone’s gone.”

“Your employees?” I took a few steps into the living room and dropped my backpack.

“Everyone else. Everyone in town.” He clicked off the TV, climbed out of the recliner and faced me. “Everyone,” he said looking me in the eyes for the first time in years.

“Yeah. Jarrod left this morning. His house was wide open. Dark. Deserted.” I thought about the silver rectangle he’d painted under the bridge. I studied Dad’s expression. “Look, I’ve got some stuff to do.”

Dad nodded. He brushed the side of his face with one hand. His body was in the living room, but inside he had already followed everyone else; the eyes gave it away.

I sped through town, running each red light without hesitation. Nothing pushed me to drive fast; without cops and other cars on the streets, I just could. Jarrod and I used to steal our paint from a hardware store on the west edge of town. Dibbon’s Discount and Hardware was a jumbled place, selling fishing tackle, hunting licenses, outdated toys, and school supplies. They even had a few racks of clothing.

What Dibbon’s lacked that day was a single employee. Dad was right, everyone was gone.

I dumped a few boxes of overstock in Dibbon’s storeroom and cruised to the paint aisle. Jarrod and I used to have a system: one of us would ask an employee for help finding something, like a toilet seat or whatever, while the other stuffed three or four cans of spray paint in his coat. I laughed at the little orange sign that said “No spray paint sold to children under eighteen”, and filled the boxes with every color on the selves.

Dad was gone when I came home. I could have picked up the paint anytime, but I left to give him a chance to go. I saw it in his eyes, and I didn’t want to stop him. I didn’t want him to stop because of me.

The knot in my stomach didn’t stop me this time, and I pushed on into the basement. The door was in our laundry room, tucked in a corner behind the water heater. He must have just left, being that the door still hung there.

I wrapped my hand around the knob and tugged, and the whole door wrenched from its hinges, revealing blank concrete foundation. I shoved the door aside and it rattled to the ground with a solid crash. The wall was cold to the touch.

Next to the blank space where dad left, I found my door.

With my eyes closed, I saw Mom and Dad together, embracing with silly smiles plastered on both their faces. I saw Jarrod in front of an immense wall, white and empty like a hot summer sky, spraying from a can that would never run out, adding to a mural that would never be finished. I saw Cori Mansfield, too, her green eyes blinking toward me, her smooth lips curling into a smile as though she was happy to see me.

I opened my eyes, pulled the door open, and saw what was there. My stomach knotted and unknotted, twisting together like a wet rag. One hand froze to the knob; the other rested against the door jamb. The basement quiet became the blood humming in my veins.

And I shut the door.

I don’t hide my graffiti under the bridge anymore. No one else lives in town, so I paint the buildings, especially the wide brick walls and facades of the old structures downtown. I found enough paint in Dibbon’s to cover the town. My murals are mostly filled with people, meticulously detailed down to the flecks of gold in each eye.

Sometimes I wonder how long a boy of seventeen can live on food for five-thousand, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’ll keep painting the people I knew, not as they were but as I remember them. And the doors. Every mural has a door. My world is that shaking spray can, soft and malleable in my hands. I want them to have the opportunity to come back if that is their choice, just like I chose to stay here.

17 Responses to “The World in Rubber, Soft and Malleable”

  1. Jamie says:

    That was a haunting little piece, Aaron. Not in the Boo! I gotcha way but the sit back and think wow, that would be truly scary way.

  2. I love the language and voice here, especially when he talks about the feel of the can in his hands and the magical sound of the metal ball inside. Such a haunting story… I loved it.

  3. LRB says:

    Loved this, Aaron. A beautifully written and haunting piece.

  4. Cate Gardner says:

    Beautiful, scary. This is now officially my favourite story of yours.

  5. I loved the touch of having him see what was beyond the door, but not relate it in the narrative. Really helps stoke the imagination of the reader.

  6. Natalie L. Sin says:

    I still can’t decide whether this story made me sad or not. I like that : )

  7. BP Myers says:

    Simply marvelous. Time well spent.

  8. Kate says:

    That was seriously lovely. So many beautifully crafted sentences that just lead up to this perfect ending. You are a gift to those of us who’d lost faith in the English language. This will stick with me for some time.

    I could have picked up the paint anytime, but I left to give him a chance to go.
    That is the exact line that broke me, man.

  9. Mercedes says:

    I’ve read a lot of your work, and this one is my favorite. So gentle and haunting, and I love the repeat of “The flecks of gold in each eye.” Well done.

  10. Justin Pilon says:

    Wow! Amazing, Aaron. That story kicked ass. Loved the ending.

  11. Miranda Northrup says:

    When you were talking about his dad it made me so…. sad. I have read your story 3 times already and it still has the same effect as the first time. good job, a very thought provoking piece. id like to know what happened when they left though…

  12. […] but I’m nowhere near done. Click his link up there in question 10, or just go check out The World in Rubber, Soft and Malleable directly. You’ll be converted […]

  13. […] mentioned The World in Rubber, Soft and Malleable by Aaron Polson already, but I really can’t discuss my online reading for September and leave […]

  14. Very nice; consistent tension from opening line to the end; OCD character true to himself; gotta check out more of your work…

  15. […] This story was originally published on September 17, 2009 in the online fiction magazine A Fly in Amber – where you can still read it for free. […]

  16. […] This story was originally published on September 17, 2009 in the online fiction magazine A Fly in Amber – where you can still read it for free. […]

  17. Gef says:

    A very cool story. Wistful in a good way. I had to give it five stars. 🙂

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