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Clay Cellar


I flick water away and wipe then I go down, across, down, put more in, come up again. The yard is empty, pink dust over cracked and teetering chunks, trapezoids of clay that I hop across, all what I’ve dropped. The cellar’s door juts from the ground, a prism that leads down to cool shelves of clay. Human cadence. I take a block of moist clay up, and make nothing with it, I do nothing with it, I do nothing with my time. Human cadence. The sound of the arriving motor has steps, rises, and falls that I could put human words to if I wanted. I’ve told no one of this condition. Human cadence. The sculptures I make aren’t anything, nothing at all.

The sculptures I’ve made go in the shed. The fan’s on in the bathroom, human cadence. I have to have noise, talk at me, words from a machine, words from a water drip or gurgle can almost make them out because, were it not for that, I would be alone. I don’t want aloneness. My younger sister and her husband and children once came to visit me and they all had disgusted looks on their faces when they pulled up got out and came to the door, crusted colors on my smock, a stifling unnamable stench hitting them and me imitating the kiln by smoking an expensive cigarette, one of the few things I spend my money on. My sister calls herself Abby though her proper name is Abigail and I like to call her Abigail though no one calls her Abigail. Behind them is their desert frame, a stretch of brown bleeding into pink where the sky gets smoky from distance, from eternity, the tease of hills that appear far closer than they are. There’s the broken charcoal pencil of the highway they’ve driven down, there’s the road up to my front porch and garage that’s only a road because it’s more barren than the weedy ground beside it. From that short drive their car is splashed with brown on the underside, their shoes and the bottom of their pants are splashed with brown, and the kids are dirty all over, I can tell the kids think it’s funny. Abigail’s curly head in front of all this, how could I look at that head, that begrudging head, when all that’s behind her is so much happier? “Yannis, this is my brother Sawyer. Sawyer, you know about Yannis.” I wipe my wet red cloudy hand on my smock and shake his hand. He at least seems less disgusted than Abigail. “Come on in.”

Inside, the noise of the fan from the bathroom is almost telling me something in human words but I know none of them can hear it. Chance of that is funny and small. They see (and I see because I am conscious like that) stacks of paper, chunks of clay from size head to size dust, CDs out and laid bare, upside down, scratched, broken next to a speaker with a frayed copper wire, they see a frog sticker on the refrigerator that has painted eggs and clay and beer and pencils and raw chicken whose juice is held back by tight plastic, they see the typical furniture of a typical home except it is crusted and stained by white, red, green, orange blotches, also a milk carton that I choose to sit on time and again in front of the small tube tv that Abigail and I used to watch in the backseat of the car on long trips with our parents when we were kids, they see it all at once and smell it all at once, must, stifled. “Can I get you anything?” Yannis clears his throat. “A glass of water would be nice.” Despite the name he has no Greek accent. “Where are you from, Yannis?” I fill his glass from the tap, cloudy, give it to him, he looks at it and just holds it and swallows his spit. His lips are cracked. My sister’s lips are cracked and pursed tight. “My parents are from Naxos and I’m born and raised in Queens.”

“It’s certainly a different world out there.” I smile. “Say, Abigail, I got some chicken in the refrigerator. If you’re hungry I could-“

“No thanks, Sawyer, we just wanted to stop by and see how you were handling yourself. Mom’s worried that you’re not answering her calls. You’re all the way out here and we worry about you sometimes… I’m sorry.” She puts her head down, scrunching herself small so that the stains of the house will not touch her.

I smile again. “That’s alright. I’ve got some VHS tapes that the kids could watch. I appreciate you coming all the way out from back east to visit me. It means a lot.”

Yannis is holding his glass, empty. There is white gunk around his lips. “We’d love to see your art. Abby’s told me it’s practically all you do, you must be real good at it.”

“I try to be. You want me to take you to my little gallery?”

Yannis clears his throat again. “We’d love to. Before we go, could I have another glass of water please?”

“Certainly.” We walk through door and door again to the outside where I show them the way to my shed. I have white drapes and tarps over rusted broken car doors and tires and a hose snaking from a rickety spigot with no nozzle on the end. No grass. The shed is white wood and insulated, big enough to hold a combine, more of a shop, really. There’s a big open area and then a staircase that goes up on the side. The center of the floor is mostly cleared except for a single white cloth drape on which stand several very recent pieces, all unpainted. Under the stairs in a thick, well-insulated, vault-like room is the kiln, which is not currently cooking. Pushed against most of the walls and the corners are ranks of finished and unfinished sculptures, gathered like darkness at the edge of an old photograph. “Here she is, most of what I’ve done in the past few months. Please don’t touch them.” Abigail yells at her kids and they stop touching them.

“What’s upstairs?” Yannis wipes the white gunk from his mouth with his sleeve. He’s fascinated by a piece called Maybe Not. It’s an old man’s hand, tight, bony, tendoned, squeezing a crescent moon from underneath until it just barely starts to crack. “Do you sell any of this stuff?”

“Nothing interesting up there, that’s mostly my office. I sell them periodically at art shows and flea markets and such. Maybe once a month I hire a truck to pack them right and get them where they need to go, then I lay them out and by the end of the day most of them are gone except one or two.”

“What do you do with those, do you take them back?” I’m talking to Yannis while Abigail fusses with the kids who giggle while running around the cleared circle of the shed as carefully as they can.

“I smash ’em.” Yannis’ eyes open wide, then I laugh, and he smiles for real, not fake, because his eyes wrinkle this time.

“How much do you sell them for?” Yannis again is looking at Maybe Not.

“A flat fifty dollars for most of them, the really big ones for eighty, the really small ones for twenty.”

“Would you say that one…”

“That one? The Maybe Not? That’s a fifty. You want to buy it?”

Yannis has sudden aphasia. “Agh- A… Let’s continue the tour for now.”

“The only thing that’s left that’s of any interest is the cellar, but I could show you guys. C’mon Abigail.” We and the kids go back outside in the cutting heat and walk over chunks of fallen dried clay to the cellar, which right now is a black hole angled down. I turn on the light at the top of the staircase and far down a dim call, dim shapes, the light buzzing dim, human cadence. I start walking down and Yannis follows, Abigail seems reluctant, then goes, the kids following behind. The cellar is about the same floor area as the shed except instead of being square it’s long and narrow, and lighted by only two bare bulbs that buzz real loud. At the back of the cellar furthest from the staircase is the water pump, aside from that the cellar is two walkways between three rows of shelves for clay and other materials that need to be kept cool. “Here’s the cellar, mostly holds clay, a few other things… back there’s the water pump, but you gotta watch out for spiders. Spiders like to hang around water for some reason,” I bend down and say to the kids. The water pump reminds me that the spigot in the yard is still on, it’s been on since before they’ve arrived… “Oh shoot, I have to go turn the spigot back off. Stay right here a minute, and I’ll be back.” I walk up the stairs and at the top I look down at Abigail and Yannis for a moment. They’re talking about something in low tones, probably about me. I don’t care. I close the door to the cellar so they can have their privacy, walk over to the spigot and turn it off, head inside for a cigarette, then come back to a banging on the cellar door. I open it and Yannis is red-faced. “Did you lock us in?”

I squint at him. “The door locks from the outside. Just a quirk. I thought you would want privacy while I was gone. It’s only been two minutes.”

Yannis sweating and red. “We’ve seen enough of the cellar. Abby’s been bitten by what she thinks is a brown recluse. We need medical attention.”

“Oh shit, oh shit! I’ll call 911. Keep an eye on her.”

“I’ll stand right here. No one’s getting locked in again.” His arms crossed.

I sprint inside, smock flapping, pick up the white phone in the kitchen and dial 911. Twenty minutes later they arrive and Abigail’s laying on the couch, woozy with pain, tears streaming down her face. Her hand has a large red and purple swell on it. The EMTs sit her up and walk her to an ambulance, ask us a few questions, Abigail keeps saying “It was that man, that man at the top of the stairs…”, and they drive away with no sirens.

It’s just Yannis and the kids now, and none of us say anything. Keep not saying anything. Keep not saying anything until Yannis stops looking at his hands and says “Give me that one with the hand and the moon and I’ll give you a hundred for it.”

“It’s only fifty.” Yannis pulls out his wallet and gives me five twenties. I tell him to come help me move it to his car. We enter the shop, pick up the statue, and walk it over to the back hatch of his car, where I tell him to put it on the ground while I find some protective packaging. I search the house for five minutes and come up with bubble wrap and a white drape that I will probably not miss, not for a hundred dollars. I tell him to pick it up and put it in the back and then we’ll wrap it, but we’re not watching what we’re doing and the top of the moon cracks off against the raised hatch, a yellow crescent on the outside and just more pink clay on the inside. I tell him not to worry as this happens all the time, I’ll get some glue. I go inside and come back out with the glue and the car is gone, my sculpture sitting alone on the desert floor.

Written by Jeremiah Prenn: “I live in Boise, Idaho. I’ve been published in Wingless Dreamer, Cathexis Northwest Press, The Closed Eye Open, The Song Between Our Stars, Sad Girls Club, and have work forthcoming in Chariot Press Literary Journal. I’m interested in fiction and poetry that is precise and impactful.”

One response to “Clay Cellar”

  1. Spike Avatar

    Great! I like the h9nesty of where the story went, and excellent desertscape description

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