by Annie Ostlund, recommended by Electric Literature
INTRODUCTION BY JAKE ZUCKER
Annie Ostlund’s “Erasure Methods” is a story of two characters trying to rebuild their lives in a maybe-cult, a wife who disapproves, a house with living walls, and a series of very unlucky dogs; told in a clear voice as varied at the sentence-level as it is thematically. Consider: The narrator of observes a mouth full of “teeth that knew braces, teeth scrubbed diligently with mint toothpaste every night… shimmying flossy between,” which — the act of tooth brushing not necessarily being a special one — tells us so much about Ostlund’s priority in voice: a refusal to accept of the banality of lived experience, a remaking of new from old.
Contrast the narrator’s acute gaze and clear sentence-work with the great ugliness underlying his life. Ostlund’s story shares with us domestic violence, a May-December romance, gurus, and canine graveyards; in quiet pastiche, “Erasure Methods” makes the strange from patches of the familiar and this-worldly. A story about people struggling to reshape their lives, Ostlund trades bombast for a reasoned, somber tone, one that’s empathetic to her characters and honest to her readers. The result is a joyful, page-turning experience (and one whose twists and pleasures I’m loathe to spoil for the reader).
I’ll confess to an ignorance of Ostlund’s work before two of our readers (Thanks Becca! Thanks Catherine!) promoted her story from Recommended Reading’s pile of submitted manuscripts, but it’s my great privilege to know her work now. Here’s hoping for more.
by Annie Ostlund
Emily has been living in the greenhouse ever since the sixth dog died. She returns to our house now only to replenish her supplies — flashlight batteries and almond butter sandwiches — or to trade out the books on Iceland and Finland she’s been devouring lately. The last dog was a northern breed, densely furred and husky, and it seems to have twisted open a lockbox inside Emily that she doesn’t know how to close. She refuses to talk about our new living arrangement. She speaks only about dogs from the shelter, how we aren’t doing enough, how we can never do enough.
I could trace it back, how Emily got here, though I’m not supposed to. Tracing, Dr. Z says, is useful only if you are looking to illuminate an origin, and illumination is inherently problematic. The human brain! he shouts. Look at this pink heap of matter chugging along so industriously — look at the brain thinking it can manage all the woes of the body! Dr. Z shouts when he becomes overly inflated with excitement, which happens at least twice during every meeting at the Center. He claps his hands against the sides of his waxy, bald head. The human brain thinks illumination means truth, he says, but a good student knows better. A good student sees an open hand, never a closed fist.
The Center is in Dr. Z’s house. There are floor pillows and softly lit lamps, thumbprint cookies and loose leaf teas, and paper garlands strung along the windows, which are made by the kids who come to the Center after school to learn about animal intuition and ESP. The rest of us come to Dr. Z for bigger things. We come to rearrange the molecules of the past, to erase what we no longer need; we come to exhale the demons, to get clean. This is what we’re told on our first day. It sounds like mystical New Age bullshit, but it works. The seething black knot in my neck is beginning to feel lighter. That’s where Dr. Z found my anger, there on the knobby peak of my spine. Our work begins with Level One: Locating. Locating is like a treasure hunt. We learn to find the energy, to sit with it and not resist. We’ve been watching the knot in my neck for months now, and I’m told it’s changing color already. I can’t see the colors, but Dr. Z can. There are charts up in the meeting room. Anger is black, sadness is blue, empathy is yellow like a marigold.
Eventually, we’ll make it through all the levels. We’ll learn more advanced techniques: how to ground ourselves like trees, and how to turn our bodies into bodies of glass. Body of Glass is all about seeing inside. It’s about releasing the negative clusters of energy, learning to make them go up and out instead of down and in. It helps the colors change. But releasing begins in Level Three, Restoration, and right now I’m still in Level Two, Erasure. When I ask Dr. Z when I’ll be ready to graduate to the next level, he leads me to the cookies and says, “You still need one more long, clean sweep across the chalkboard.”
“Then we’ll move forward.”
“When does that happen?”
“It’s impossible to say when, Wes. Here, we only say how.”
But he also makes promises. Your history is not your fault, he says. Eventually you’ll find yourself moving from black to blue to marigold. And I believe him.
In every meeting, Dr. Z likes to remind us that there are no coincidences. He’s big on fate. You have built the structure of your life, he says, throwing his arms into the air. You! The doors are open. There is already space within you for every breeze that will float through. When I walk into The Center tonight, I see her right away: Sheila in the back of the room by the round tin of shortbread cookies. My mother’s old friend Sheila who I had sex with once when I was seventeen — spilling coffee down her blouse and cursing under her breath. I remember instantly why I’d wanted her all those years ago. She possessed a rare and enthralling combination of elegance and irreverence; she could say fucking hell with a grace that should have only belonged to royalty. She looks up and narrows her eyes now. I give a hesitant wave.
“Wes Prince? Is it really you?”
“You missed your target,” I say, handing her a napkin.
“Because I need a real drink. I haven’t quite figured out what goes on here yet, but I think there ought to be spirits.” She pats the ends of her hair, which frame her face like a puff of colorless cotton candy. “Wes Prince,” she repeats. “What a fucking world!”
“Shh, would you?”
“What, you have a secret life as the Dalai Lama?”
“Maybe I’m here undercover.”
“Please, I’d have recognized you from fifty prayer rugs away. Except you’re thinner. You aren’t doing drugs again, are you?”
“Glad your memory’s still sharp.”
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry. You gave that up years ago, didn’t you?”
“It was hardly even a thing.”
Sheila nods. “You were a good kid, despite everything.”
I suck at my paper cup of coffee and watch the room fill up, remembering Sheila all those years ago. She wasn’t so old, I’d reasoned, and it had all been so mindlessly easy, like we had filed into a roller coaster car together and brought down the metal seatbelt, and all we had to do was wait. Her floral perfume had made me want to sneeze, and she complained briefly because we were under a streetlight and she wanted more darkness, told me she wanted to pretend I was someone else. Forget it, she snapped when I asked who, but then she whispered a name. Who’s Paul? I asked. Sheila’s face was full of anguish. Just kiss me, she said, and I did, but she had already begun to cry. I remembered that Sheila had mentioned Paul to my mother during dinner, and I had the distinct sense that Paul had hurt her, and also that Paul was dead, and that made me want to die a little bit too.
“So you’re the one doing the renovating,” Sheila says. “I heard your name and I thought, How many Wes Princes can there be in one city? Only one, obviously. So you’re a fancy-schmancy architect after all.”
“I don’t know about fancy.”
“Dr. Z said the new second level is going to look like a cloud. It sounds dreamy.”
“We’re still in the planning stages.”
Sheila smiles her knowing, peaceful smile, all red lipstick and white teeth. “It’s nice as hell to see you. Your mother doesn’t call anymore, you know. She can’t forgive the past.”
I stare at her teeth, not wanting to look at her eyes. They are teeth that knew braces, teeth scrubbed diligently with mint toothpaste every night. I picture Sheila shimmying floss between her sharp incisors. It looks like a mouth that has never been slammed into, a face that has never known pain. But I know better. I shove my hands into my pockets just as Dr. Z comes to the front of the room.
“Oh, it’s starting,” Sheila says. “Doesn’t his presence make you tingle?” She pulls me down onto a floor cushion, and I’m grateful that I don’t have to speak.
Late that night I find Emily kneeling beside the bathtub, massaging hypoallergenic oatmeal shampoo into a new dog’s coat. This one’s big, a German Shepherd, his fur coarse and spiked with gray. He’s lying down in the tub. Usually the dogs stand, calculating their escape, but this one has acquiesced.
“Bad joints,” Emily says. Her eyes are glassy. She has been bringing home elderly dogs for years, part of a foster arrangement available only to people who prove their hearts sturdy as concrete. The arrangement allows her to love them like a real owner might, but for less time. We’ve been through six dogs together. Most of them, she says, need human contact until the very last second.
“What’s this one called?”
“George of the Aegean Sea.”
“Is he from Turkey?”
“No, but he likes turkey.” She wipes her soapy forearm across her eyes. “I fed him scraps earlier. He ate like he’d never seen meat before. He has arthritis and probably cancer. There’s a lump. Want to feel it?”
“You can’t keep this up, Em.”
“But look at his face. How can you turn away from that face?”
I look. The dog appears barely conscious, soothed by Emily’s careful hands. I want to get closer, to see what Emily sees, but I’m rooted to my spot in the doorway. She inhales deeply, and I wonder what she’s taking in — the smell of wet dog, or shampoo, or maybe me and my own undetectable flow of pheromones. I walk to the bathtub and squat down. The dog looks at me without moving his head, a wise, graceful acknowledgement of my presence.
“Touch him. He wants you to touch him.”
“He does not. How do you know?”
She doesn’t answer. I put both my hand on George’s wet chest. His heart ping-pongs between my palms.
“This is the last one,” Emily says. “The last dog, I promise.”
“A break would do you good.”
“And the house, Wes — I’ve been thinking we should sell.”
“Our house? No. Absolutely not.”
“It’s cold and it echoes. I know you love it, but it’s a concept, not a home.” She bats my hands away from George. “Go, please. I can finish this alone.”
We bought the house not for its bones or character, but because it was set against the hill in such a way that made it feel secret and protected. The plan was always to gut it. I wanted to build an entirely organic dwelling, to let the forest wrap around the walls of the house. I explained everything to Emily, how structures should be viewed as unified organisms, and the concept of rooms as cells, and the absurdity of square spaces. We aren’t meant to confine ourselves to rigid lines and two-dimensional walls; nothing else in nature does. Such unimaginative design disrupts harmony and rhythm. It stifles the spirit. It stops the air from flowing through.
She agreed. We knocked down walls and created wide, arched doorways. We put in circular skylights and constructed rooms around natural elements: river rocks, plants, driftwood harvested from the coast. Emily! I would cry, storming through the house to find her, eager to share a new plan. You’re yelling! she’d holler, but I couldn’t stop. And the yelling was different now. I had somewhere positive to channel my excess energy. My anger was lighter, my episodes less frequent. I no longer used substances, no longer left fingerprint-sized bruises on Emily’s wrists. There were no more screaming matches, no more tiny ruptures in her vocal chords that must have made it painful to breathe. The house was fixing all our past slipups, all our faults. We would connect the cells and make a single perfect organism.
I became obsessed with the idea of living walls. I spent hours at nurseries, buying plants by the cartload. The first living wall went in my study, the second in the bedroom. Genius, Emily whispered. She stowed the humidifier in the closet and woke bright-eyed every morning, thrilled at how the increase in oxygen made her feel. Slowly, my obsession was transferred. She would stand over a pot on the stove, lamenting the seasons and how impossible it was to grow anything in the Pacific Northwest. We had leafy greens and onions by the bushel, but almost nothing of another hue until July when the berries appeared. We could have tomatoes, she said, if we had a greenhouse. We could have peppers and orchids. Orchids! She pointed out the window. Our own exotic oasis of plants.
She spent weeks pouring over heirloom seed catalogs. I could almost see her transforming, stretching her leafy arms out from dirt, pushing herself right through the ceiling of our lives. The first night she went to the greenhouse, I watched her float across the yard. Wrapped in a blanket and shivering, pulling all the isolated parts of her body toward the center, like a continent drawing close all the islands that surround it. I spend my nights now walking between the living room and the kitchen, trying to remember hunger. I picture Emily on the paved stone floor out there, in the sleeping bag that smells like wet earth and burnt marshmallows, and all I see is my wife wrapped in orchid petals and cabbage leaves. I write Dr. Z an email. How did we get here? I ask. Humans. How did we get this far?
George of the Aegean Sea is gone a week later, slipped peacefully out of his body one Saturday morning while Emily is at work. He’s under the desk in my office when it happens. I’m rearranging the layout for my website when I feel a shift in the air, all the molecules in the room briefly on pause. I put my foot against his body to feel for a heartbeat, but it’s gone. I call Emily home from the artificial flower warehouse where she volunteers for weekend shifts. She carries George’s body out of the house by herself and waits for the van from the shelter to come. She looks small out there on the sidewalk, arms tied so tightly across her chest I think she might burst a lung. As the van is pulling away, Emily hurries back toward the house, but in her rush she trips on the wet walkway and goes flying, arms out in front of her. I run out to the porch but she’s already on her feet.
“I’m fine!” she yells, brushing wet pine needles and dirt off her skirt. “I’m fine, don’t come near me.” She puts her hand to her mouth, and when she pulls it away to assess the damage there is blood on her knuckles.
“You’re bleeding,” I say.
“It’s not like it’s the first time.”
In the backyard, we stand in front of a temporary headstone, a small clay coaster on which she’s written Here lies George of the Aegean Sea, 1999–2012. There are six others lined up along the fence, weathered and forlorn.
“Are you going to say a few words?”
She nods, but her mouth is obscured by a white pouf of toilet paper, painfully red where she holds it against her gums.
“You don’t have to.”
“None of them have ever died at home.” Emily hiccups back a sob. She drops to her knees, and when I reach for her — the second my fingers graze her shoulder — she screams. One short, feral scream that quiets the birds, the crickets, the breeze. I can hear the air in her lungs, as though a wall inside her chest has torn. I want to push my arms down her throat and pull the scream out, or pull her lungs out and cradle them, or set them in one of those glass-domed baby incubators where the environment is perfectly controlled, where blood and oxygen flow freely and safely. The bloodied tissue falls from her mouth.
“It’s okay to scream,” I say. “It’s just an energy release.”
“Don’t.” She twists away. “Don’t use your methods on me.”
“That’s a fact, not a method.”
“If I can’t understand it, then it’s not a fact. Brainwashing is not an acceptable form of love, Wes.”
“It’s not brainwashing. You have no idea what we do there.”
“There — see? The way you talk now, it makes me nervous. I don’t trust it.”
Back inside the house, I write down her words and place them beneath a paperweight on my desk. Brainwashing is not an acceptable form of love. But it isn’t brainwashing. Or maybe it is — and if so, does it matter? So maybe I want my brain scrubbed clean. It seems to me that Emily has it backwards: maybe love itself is the subtlest form of brainwashing.
We sit together near the back of the meeting room, cookies in our laps and hot paper cups in our hands. I have brought a gift for Sheila, one arm of a succulent snipped from our bedroom wall, planted in a peat moss pot so it will take root. “I’ll kill it,” she says when I hand her the pot.
“You won’t. Give it light, forget to water it.”
“Funny, that’s how all my ex-husbands killed me off.”
Sheila crosses her legs toward me and taps her bare toes into my calf every time Dr. Z says something meaningful. Her toenails are painted a glittery indigo, the tip of each toe a self-contained night sky. I feel warm there beneath the balmy heat of the overhead light, Dr. Z on the rug at the front of the room, quietly authoritative.
“These cookies are made of sand,” Sheila whispers. “I’m not even hungry, anyway.” She puts the cookie in her mouth and chews slowly. “You want to know a secret? I didn’t start hating myself until recently. I thought I’d made it past all those bullshit youthful moments of self-disgust, but then it hit me out of the blue.”
“Is that why you come here?”
“I come because it’s better than AA. What about you?”
I realize Sheila knows nothing about me. She knows only who I was twenty years ago, only what went on in the car that night, how her crying had made me panic. I’d grabbed her so hard by the jaw that her bones had popped, and I’d held on until the terror in her eyes finally collapsed, her whole face like a tiny straw house buckling in my hand. The air went out of her and I let go, the thought of sex suddenly as ludicrous as opening the car door and expecting to find we’d parked on a cloud.
“I used to have episodes.” I’m holding my breath, afraid to let it out. “I have a rage thing, a problem. I’ve hurt people. You don’t remember?”
“Oh, god, sure. What, you think you were the first man to lay a hand on me?” Sheila laughs. “Probably my fault, anyway. I saw the potential in you and wanted it. I’ve been fucked up for years.” Gently, she presses her finger to the center of my forehead, right between my eyes. “You know your knot is turning blue.”
“You can see the colors?”
“Sure, can’t you?”
She says it so nonchalantly that I’m flushed with admiration. We’ve only sat together in the large group meetings; I don’t know what she does in private with Dr. Z. If she’s on to Level Four or Five, or if she’s a prodigy, or if she’s already healed.
Sheila applies more pressure with her finger. I imagine her finger as a skinny needle, siphoning the murky ions from my bloodstream. But my head is too heavy, my neck too swollen with blood, my muscles sore, everything blocked and static.
“Don’t try so hard,” she says. “It’ll happen when it happens.”
“I want to see what you see.”
She leans close. Her dangling earrings swing toward me, large oval hoops. I want to touch the underside of her jaw, to apologize for the scene, to ask her who Paul was, or if she loved him, or if it even matters in the end who we love and how we love them.
“Patience,” Sheila says. “Wherever you are, it’s a temporary state.”
Emily is stretched out on top of the sleeping bag, reading in the funnel of light given off by a flashlight. She has moved on from the book on Finland and now has a travel guide for Russia in her lap. She is ring-less, shoeless, and without makeup, swaddled in a blanket that renders her body amorphous. A new orchid sits on the table above her, its petals spotted like a leopard’s hide.
“You look flushed,” Emily says.
“I had a good meeting tonight.”
“Tell me, why it is you think there’s some other life waiting for you, some better life?”
“It’s not about a better life. It’s about being a better person.”
“What if I told you I’m in love with the gardener?”
“We don’t have a gardener. You’re the closest thing we have to a gardener, Em.” The knot is tightening at the back of my neck. I try to wrestle my breath back into the realm of normalcy by focusing on details: the tiny mole beside her left eye, the shadows around her collarbones, the bitten tips of her nails. I focus on my own connective tissues, the trail of muscles that extends from my neck to my hands, wishing for the tense black energy to drain out and away. “You don’t have to speak in code. I know you don’t want to live here with me anymore.”
“And you don’t care.”
“I don’t know what else you want. Your travel books and then these flowers — you can’t go to Russia and grow orchids. You can’t have both extremes, Em.”
“I don’t want extremes. I want passion.”
“You want passion, so you’re choosing this?” I grab for the orchid nearest me, pinching the stem of one just below the flower. There’s a satisfying snap. The flower falls into my palm, beheaded.
Emily makes a strangled sound. She lifts her book again, shielding herself with an expanse of white tundra. “I can’t wait around anymore for you to choose me, Wes.”
I step out of the greenhouse and cross the soggy lawn. It’s a clear night. The moon is visible through the open doorway, rising above the silhouette of our house. Beside the back door, a single piece of driftwood rests against the house — a leftover remnant from renovation, its cloud-gray hue the color of winter morning air. I lean against it and let the orchid petals fall from my fist. Through the screen door, the phone begins to ring. The woman from the shelter has left three messages since yesterday, desperate for Emily. They have an Australian Shepherd mix, a twelve-year-old male with hip dysplasia and cataracts. I already know that I’ll go there tomorrow morning. I’ll race along the frontage road and kneel beside that mopey-eyed dog, working my fingers through its dense coat. The phone rings and rings, the sound echoing through the halls, coursing beneath the raw archways, spilling out the skylights, running like water through all the diaphanous blue veins of our house, and I know that we are finally done tracing. Dr. Z! I want to yell. Look at the colors! We are exhaling, we are releasing, we are sweeping it all clean.