the one with the missing and broken windows, the one with the collapsed front stoop, the one painted pink and tilted like so and surrounded by the gnarled oaks of Texas. She lives alone. And this may sound like a public service announcement, but Jana doesn’t need anyone. She has been alone for some time. It has been four and a half days since she has even seen another live, in-the-flesh human. Jana had been awake early, early enough to see a boy waiting for a school bus. She was startled by the boy’s height, by how high he needed to lift his legs, climbing into the bus when it arrived. This boy did not see Jana, but that hardly mattered. Jana still felt the intrusion like a finger between her ribs, poking her insides with a skin and bone condom, fingering her as she lay in bed and craned her neck at the sound of the approaching bus. She remembers riding a bus as a child, years before she fed her parents bleach, and her grandfather’s heart gave out , and the last chicken got hit by a car, its limp feathers catching in the wind.
Now, Jana sits in her chair. She folds old newspapers according to the directions in the origami book she received at her last birthday party in 1976. She must be nearly thirty-five by now. Her birthday will come again soon, she believes, remembering the bare trees and falling temperatures that used to mark the day. She munches on fresh-from-the-earth carrots as she makes the precise creases for a baby frog. She holds the carrots by their greens. She eats each end first before getting to the thick meat. Dirt grinds, wedging between her teeth. She is thirsty, but will not go to the water pump until the frog is finished. Her Boston terrier, Stella, middle-aged and swollen with puppies, noses around the front door, biting at the overgrown pecan tree. Stella is Jana’s only companion. Jana remembers her dad sidestepping Stella’s mother as he fell to the ground, fist in his stomach.
Jana finishes the frog and places it on the shelves beside the dead television set. The frog sags beside the other stagnant origami frogs, above the cranes and six-pointed stars. Jana has forgotten how to count this high, but she imagines that she must have folded upwards of twenty-thousand paper novelties, stashing them in the empty cupboards, in the bathtub, inside the drawers where her mother’s bras and panties have been pushed aside.
Sitting back down, Jana strokes the remaining sheets of newspaper, the ones that kept coming even after her grandfather died at the kitchen table, and the flies began to gather at his trailer’s then unbroken windows, waiting for the glass to shatter and deliver the meal inside. Her grandfather had moved his trailer to the property to take care of Jana after her parents’ mouths gurgled with blood and breakfast. The trailer’s siding has been stripped in the Texas winds and the roof has collapsed in front of the door, not that Jana ever wants to go in there again.
The newsprint further darkens Jana’s fingers as she considers what each sheet might like to be. Only sports pages remain. It tickles her to think of a golfer swinging on the wings of a swan. She does not consider what she will fold when the golfers are gone.
Jana enters the trailer on hands and knees. As she inches inside, the holes in her mother’s jeans catch splinters of roof and window, funneling them down her knees, legs, and ankles, catching in the long hairs she has never shaved. Stella, back in the sunlight, licks Jana’s toes, licks the oil and salt, licks the dirt, licks the dried grass, licks the rigidly flaked skin. Jana remembers being ticklish, though she does not remember being tickled. She has run out of newspaper.
Her hands plant in the roof’s wreck, pushing her forehead against the roof’s faulty frame. Her first breath sucks in the dust that has been trapped inside the trailer all these years. Squeezing herself into a hole in the shingles, Jana feels the shingles themselves crack against her shoulders. A whimper from Stella, and Jana pulls herself through, scraping her exposed back, scraping the knots of her spine. Debris filters between her small breasts and down the front of her pants as she stands. The last time she was in the trailer, Jana had been attempting to get her grandfather into bed.
The boy appears again, this time in the afternoon, this time petting Stella in the road’s gravel and dust shoulder.
Jana curls her fingers around the door frame as she holds herself inside the house.
“Stella,â€ she whispers.
The boy wears a bright blue and red backpack that is strangely square against his rounded back. The boy’s shoes grind against stones and dirt as it bends over Stella, running both hands along her muzzle, neck, and shoulders.
Jana pops and straightens her left knee over and over. Her nails scratch at the house’s chipping paint, her feet roll from heel to ball, her eyes dry in the afternoon heat. She worries.
Stella’s short tail wags, pushing her rear end back and forth.
“Stella,â€ Jana calls.
The boy looks to the house but does not seem to spot Jana just inside the front door and so continues to pet Stella, though Stella’s ears have perked at her name.
“Stella.â€ Jana’s voice cracks from disuse, from volume, from the snake in her stomach.
The goose on the living room clock smiles, its blue bonnet stiffly conjoined to its ivory head, smiles while Jana tears pages from the phone book she found next to her grandfather’s bed-found a bible too. His hands had poked at her, clawed and alive with flies and their maggots, though maybe she had only imagined the maggots, poked at her from under the bed where she had pushed him all those years ago. The stench had made her vomit bile the flavor of ear wax.
In the living room of her house, where she now sits, the bible lies beside the television, only a spine now, a spine and two faux-leather covers. The holy frogs and swans are lined up in front of her on the coffee table. She had thought they might like to be doves, but her book doesn’t tell her how to make a dove. It does tell her how to make boats, but she has never felt the urge to make one.
Stella lies beside the bible lying beside the television. Her belly seems to roar at Jana. Jana has had to ignore this roaring for several days now. Stella blinks at Jana. Stella folds her tongue in and out of her mouth and kicks her back legs every so often. Stella cannot move, Jana knows this but continues to rip the yellow, and red, and white pages from the phone book.
“Maybe it’s time for a boat, Stella.â€ Jana rip, rip, rips the pages out one at a time. With the bible, she had tried to rip the pages out in fistfuls, but many of the pages tore at the inside corners, leaving the pages un-foldable without being reduced. Jana had spent days re-sizing the pages in order to remove the tears.
A can of corned beef hash buzzes beside the swans, the top slice of metal peeled back like the skin on her grandfather’s knees after she pulled him across the living room divide, the metal strip that held the flooring down and apart. When the cans of hash run out, she still has cans of peaches, kidney beans, and okra, and the vegetables that still simmer in her mother’s vegetable garden, and the pecans hanging outside her bedroom window. Like when the earth was cold and the wind screamed through the cracks in the house, she will soon return to the house behind the barn over the slumps on either side of the valley, return to the last place she has been touched by a human, dead or alive, to pay for the sustenance she so desperately needs.
Stella tongues the vomit she has just hacked onto the living room carpet. Her tongue is white in a way that is familiar to Jana: white, wet, and dusty. Jana supposes that all creatures of the earth die in this way.
The pages rip in a way that rubs Jana’s back, and she lies down on the mossy green couch, and tucks her head between the cushions, and breaths through her mouth until her mouth and throat scratch dry.
The house behind the barn over the slumps on either side of the valley seems awake by the time she arrives. Two of Stella’s newly born puppies had followed her to the first slump, but turned back at the crest, nipping at flies, and grass, and the yellow roses that grow by the roadside. Jana had thought that one might serve as payment better than the foldable bills inside her mother’s red leather coin purse. The coin purse had once been empty. Jana has since filled it with a fistful of the money she rescued from the bathroom walls of her grandfather’s trailer so many years ago, along with the cutouts of ladies in bathing suits and brassieres. She keeps the rest of the money on the shelves folded into, not frogs, but cats, cat faces really. The bills inside the purse have the identical creases of a dozen cat faces.
The woman with the tightly knotted brown hair and the sweaters that hang past her knees is pulling out clumps of grass from the edge of the house’s foundation when Jana arrives. Jana thinks the woman’s name is Singer, but has never been sure, so she stands in the woman’s peripheries and waits to be noticed.
“Delroy,â€ the woman calls into the house. “Delroy, git out here. What you doin’ in there? Delroy?â€ The woman doesn’t actually look inside, just shouts. She only has eyes for the weeds she pulls up in each fist. She dumps the dead grass and clotted earth into a bucket between her legs.
Jana shifts and kicks the dirt.
“I see you.â€ The woman is irritated and speaking to Jana.
“Yes, ma’am.â€ Jana pulls on her own fingers, sucks her cheeks in between her teeth, grinds the toe of her right shoe into the crumbling earth.
“Delroy, git them boxes of food from out the shed.â€
“Gramma,â€ whines the boy from inside where Jana cannot see him.
“Now, â€˜fore I paddle you good and straight.â€ The woman makes no inclination that she will ever stop yanking weeds. Jana imagines the woman still hunched over as the stars poke through the sky, still hunched over as the night critters sniff at her ankles, still hunched over as the ground cools, and the bugs hum, and the moon slinks into the sky.
“What’re you waiting for?â€
Jana raises her eyes to the blue ocean above and pretends not to know if the woman speaks to her or the boy. Truthfully, she really isn’t sure. Every time she comes here she feels more unnoticed than when she’s sitting in the tilted pink house, folding, napping, or cutting the tangles from her hair. Or, more nearly still, like when she stood beside her parents’ twin caskets in her green velvet dress and not even her grandfather ventured to smooth the crease in her hair. She remembers standing there and imagining that the blood she had caught from her mother’s dying mouth was still unsuccessfully cupped in her hands and running out between her fingers onto the kitchen floor. She can’t remember who scrubbed the blood from the floor, but it had been the black cop, the only black man to ever touch her, who had held her hands beneath the hose and rubbed away the blood with his soft brown fingers.
“Delroy’s visiting from his momma’s,â€ the woman explains.
The boy hops from the back door, landing on both feet within spitting distance of Jana. He splits his face, grinning up at her. She is nearly certain he is the boy from the road, but cannot be entirely sure unless she sees him with a square backpack.
Jana is still not sure who the woman is addressing.
“Hello,â€ the boy says, though Jana doesn’t answer. He hops closer and bends down as if this is necessary to peer up into Jana’s face. “Hello. Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello. Hello?â€ He is angry with her.
The woman actually stops now, and looks over her shoulder, and penetrates Jana with a curiosity that makes Jana’s fingers and toes stiffen. “Delroy, leave her be. She’s special and she doesn’t need you hollerin’ at her.â€
Obeying this time, Delroy hops past Jana to the shed.
“Stop hopping like a dang rabbit.â€
Unlike Jana’s grandfather, Stella has been easy to hide. Jana has hidden her in the ground beside the pecan tree, where Stella’s puppies now sniff. Stella lived long enough to be milked to death by her puppies. There are four of them, all mutts.
Jana sits on the ground nearby, the last two pages of the phone book held under her thigh, the wind kicking them against her skin. She still has not made a boat, and the origami book is opened to that page beneath her other thigh.
Last night, she tried to rip the wallpaper from the bathroom walls, but it would only come off in thin strips. She continued to rip until the bathroom looked like it had been attacked by a mountain lion.
Now, the sun dries her skin, and the puppies pant over their mother’s grave, and the exposed insulation on her grandfather’s trailer rustles like a bird caught in the hedges, only there are no hedges. She considers returning to the house behind the barn over the slumps on either side of the valley, returning to the woman with the tightly knotted brown hair and the sweaters that hang past her knees, returning with her mother’s red leather coin purse to buy paper. But that would mean seeing Delroy again, exposing herself to his grubby feet and tanned, little boy arms. Jana knows there is a town with stores down the farmer’s road in the opposite direction. She remembers her grandfather taking her there on weekends to buy cigarettes and loafs of bread. She remembers standing outside the store in bare feet, jumping from one oil stain to another. She does not remember how long it takes to walk there, only that her grandfather often had to carry her on the way back, and ash from his cigarettes would sprinkle onto her shoulders. Neither option appeals to her.
She lies back, lowering her head to the ground. She watches the puppies from the corner of her right eye. They move in a pack, snuffling around the tree and the grave until one breaks off, bouncing out of her vision toward the road. She hears a clicking noise, and the other dogs follow. A giggle. More clicking. She sits up.
It’s Delroy. He has the first puppy balanced over his forearm and is opening his backpack on the ground as if to steal Stella’s baby.
Jana sees the square books inside the square backpack just before Delroy zips the puppy inside. She falls over herself getting up. She kicks the ground and origami book away and bolts across the yard.
Delroy has just noticed her. He grins, obviously believing that she has not seen his theft. He returns his backpack to his back and says “Hi,â€ bright and young.
Jana lunges across the last few feet, sending the puppies racing away, and pounds Delroy into the ground. He falls face-first, his head breaking to the side, his neck tight and bent. She puts an elbow onto the back of his neck as if to hold him down, and pulls everything out in her arms: the puppy, the square books budding with pages, the pencils, the toy stegosaurus, the tiny pack of tissues, the lunch marked with a heart and greasy with squished peanut butter.
It takes her seven attempts to complete the boat. She actually laughs when it’s done, laughs as she holds it by the sail and jumps it through the air. She has never seen an actual boat in the water, but she imagines that this is how they move. When her laughter begins to sink back into her stomach and make her sick, she puts the boat down. She rips another sheet from the square book and starts anew. If she had finished learning how to read, she might’ve noticed that the pages she now folds are written in Spanish, Spanish words corresponding to brightly drawn pictures. She might’ve laughed.
The goose on the clock watches her still. Jana keeps her head down. The puppies snarl at each other outside the window as it has not taken them long to discover the second grave. She makes the folds crisp, running her fingernail along each crease. Each boat will be more perfect than the last and will fill the fireplace but will never burn or float away.