HauteLit from Hotlanta: “Things We Swept Under the Rug”

In 2013, OriginalTitle will be presenting her interpretations of contemporary short stories in whatever way such interpretations happen to emerge as a result of the inspiration.  

This week’s featured short story is “The Ceiling” by Kevin Brockmeier and can be read here at Random House.

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We were careful and neat.  We felt these were important qualities for people in our unique position to have.  Cotillionaires you could call us, in fact, since Mom had taken it upon her to train us in all of the ways to be properly proper.  Each night, she would polish the silver at the head of the table while we waited, its surface spotlessly reflecting her perfection and ours and yet she would rub that cloth against it still as if she could polish away the imperfections that can’t be seen, the ones that lurk below the surface, impenetrable black matte.  We couldn’t stop her.  This was partly because we never talked about our predicament in the first place.  So we whispered with each breath, reminding ourselves which way to face the knife, in or out, as we took the utensils from her hand and placed them in order beside the plates.

In the midst of asking too many questions and knowing too much, I took one scoop too many of the succotash, heavy on the lima.  This is how it all began.  From my spoon, a few loose beans catapulted towards the carpet beneath the dining room table and tucked their way underneath.  No one breathed a word.  It was common knowledge that everyone only got one scoop, but I was hungry, I needed more.  Angling my eyes downward so as to not ruin my posture, I could see the tiny mound where the lima beans had gathered.  It wasn’t long before my example was followed, everyone wanted more than we were getting.  Dad came home later, more silent.  Mom talked more, just so it seemed like everyone was still talking.  I snuck out the backdoor every night and my sister tried not to follow my example.  Our lives became a secret to one another.

The crumbs started to combine, you see.  Molehills became mountains made of yeast rolls half-eaten, white meat still clinging to the wishbones and grains of rice pilaf gone rogue from the table building slowly beneath the oriental rug.  Chairs and table legs no longer stood on solid ground.  My sister’s leaned like a ship in a storm and my father’s, at the head of the table loomed high above the table, lurched forward so he had to hold the table with one hand to steady himself against the table while eating with the other.  Mom and I both leaned sideways, each angled towards opposing walls, elbows propped against the table so as to avoid complete horizontalization.   The carpet buckled under the pressure of combined crumbs and the floor began to crack.   Gluttons we must have seemed if anyone were to have seen us, but we stopped inviting people over after a while because then we would have to talk about how unsteady our nightly dinners had become.

We ate because eating was easier than talking or not talking.  Between the sounds of our harried mastication, the creaks increased in volume and frequency.  The floor began to shake and still we did not mention it.  Somewhere a Richter scale was etching the shakes from beneath our table in zig-zag lines crossing the width of a never-ending page.  In the confusion, the table, higher on Dad’s end, listed forward and all the plates began to slide off.  We tried to stop them, but to no avail.  The floor caved in.  The shock of the sinkhole unleashed the contents we had swept under the rug.  Out seeped an obsidian muck.  Mom was the first to point at it.  “There!  I knew something was there, but I could never quite reach it.”  I, too, had known it and so had we all.  A couple weeks later, Dad moved out.  We all began to discuss the events that occurred, in pieces at first and then finally in great detail.  We watched the shiny black tar formed of our silences, of our wanting, create a new floor, solid and still.

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Originally featured in McSweeney’s, Kevin Brockmeier’s, “The Ceiling,” charts the events that come to pass as a small blemish on the moon’s milky surface begins to expand sky-wide and lowers until the town is forced to lie back to the grass, each breath creating clouds onto the shiny ceiling as it closes in on them foot by foot.  With close reading, once can ascertain the true identity of the blemish from the start.  This makes the story all the more delicious as the reader turned detective begins to draw connections between the ever-growing mass and the deterioration of a marriage, a family.  Brockmeier’s use of literary fantasy makes real the feeling of one watching the slow progression of an affair, the gentle crushing of one’s home until it’s blasted to brick and mortar.

By page three, it’s clear that the narrator’s wife can see the connection between the blemish and herself as she exhales “a deep, defeated little oh,” before noting, “My life is a mess.” Yet the narrator either can’t seem to make the connection or actively tries not to.  Throughout the story, the whole town seems to feel the effects of the blemish.  Everyone speculates on what it is or how it happened.  Still, the narrator is reassured that his wife is still the same and no one has noticed the changes in her.  The reader can begin to notice the divide between the narrator’s character and his wife’s.  She tends to attach what’s happening around her to her own life as if she is somehow inherently connected to them.  She points out the sounds of nature and opens her arms to it.  Her husband simply sees them, feels their effects but cannot seem to connect what’s happening around him to his own life.

In contrast to the beginning line, “There was a sky that day, sun-rich and open and blue,” the town is soon under a perpetual overcast as the ceiling takes over the town.  The birds have disappeared and no one knows why.  The narrator, detached, doesn’t even realize the birds have gone until his son, “a disciple of flying things,” writes a paper about it for class.  Water towers and telephone poles begin to snap as the impenetrable wall exerts its pressure.  Everyone can feel the tense gravitational change the ceiling has created in the town.  The narrator’s young son tells him about a dream where another world exists below the city’s grates, a world he had forgotten about.  It is here that the narrator first becomes aware that he’s missing something.  He takes the son to the grate in front of the bakery hoping to find it but instead finds what he’s been avoiding all along, in the window of the bakery he sees his wife holding hands with his next door neighbor.  The neighbor who got something about the narrator’s wife from the beginning on that clear, blue-skied day.

It isn’t until the home is decimated and the family lies crushed under the ever lowering mass that the narrator attempts to connect to his wife again.  She asks a question, the first in a long time.  Mitch, the neighbor with whom she’s having an affair whispers in her ear.  He seems able to reach her in a way the narrator cannot.  In a frenzy, the narrator takes his wife’s hand, holds it, kisses it, but there is no return of affection.  He realizes that he would wait until the end of the world for her to return it.  He feels this way despite whatever has happened, despite the inevitable locking of the sky and earth.

The speculation of the town, the abstract realizations of a child and the taught pressure upon the atmosphere all help to illuminate the predicament of the narrator throughout the story.  The wife’s opening line seems to make more sense in the final paragraphs of the story, “Playing as one should isn’ t Fun […] it’s Design.”  Who is at fault?  How did it happen?  Should we worry about it?  These questions can’t always be answered, but the effects of it can always be felt.  Brockmeier pulls the reader through an emotional cyclone and shows his skill in this masterfully-told story.

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I highly recommend “The Ceiling,” by Kevin Brockmeier.  I hope you will explore some of his other shorts and novels as well.  Let’s start a dialogue about the story and what it brings to mind for you.  Comment below with any thoughts you have. 

About OriginalTitle: In addition writing her blog and contributing to Writer’s Club, OriginalTitle is also writing a novel and her work has been featured in Fanzine and most recently in Comb Magazine.

Soundtrack for your Reading Pleasure:

“Counting,” Autre Ne Veut

“White Foxes,” Susan Sundfor

“Strange Attractor,” Animal Kingdom

“Venice,” The Lighthouse and the Whaler

“Can’t Hold Us,” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

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