Plain China

For the Hollow Bones

by Kris Mackenzie · Columbia College Chicago · Nonfiction Prize Winner
March Looking North, David Owens · SUNY Oswego

Ispent the summer following my nineteenth birthday compiling a list of acceptable ways to kill myself.

Option 1. Hang yourself, only do it dressed as Spider-Man.

Option 1. Hang yourself, only do it dressed in nothing but a Ronald Reagan mask and a pair of in-line roller skates.

These are the first from an eventual three-page compilation. The most feasible of my options always involved either hanging or pills. My parents, gentle Presbyterians, had never thought of owning a gun; at nineteen it was illegal in the state of Pennsylvania for me to buy one myself, and anyway, there was something about a joke whose punch line ends with you shooting yourself in the head that seemed in especially poor taste.

It wasn’t a quick or impassioned process. I’d been home since May, and by July had only written about a page and a quarter. The list became less and less about specific plans of action, more about the setup for the people who would find the body:

Option 27: Kill yourself, but do it in a room full of kittens in tiny boots.

Option 34: Before you die, write fart jokes all over yourself in magic marker.

Add a red annotation scribbled in the margin, underlined and circled: People love fart jokes.

By August, I had stopped coming up with new possibilities altogether. I quit the job I had been working since May, helped my mother prepare for the upcoming semester and my return to Chicago and college in the fall, and spent the rest of my newly acquired free time either watching Lifetime reruns of The Golden Girls or halfheartedly masturbating, even though all of it seemed, somehow, substantially less productive than making lists.

It had been a long summer.

 

Most things in life are excusable if they go out on a big enough laugh. That’s why I liked making lists. I couldn’t really stand the thought of my parents knowing I had thought about killing myself. I couldn’t really stand the thought of anybody else knowing about it either. Being depressed always felt too much like feeling ungrateful.

It was as if I were competing for the right to be sad. As if sadness were some limited, transient thing with only so much of itself to go around. If I couldn’t be the girl whose sadness was validated, if I was going to be useless and self-pitying one way or the other, the least I could do was try and make it worth everybody else’s time.

A man walks into a bar because his wife just died.

That’s terrible.

A horse walks into a bar.

Bartender asks, “Why the long face?”

The horse says,

“My wife just died.”

Objectively, I had no reason to be sad. We lived in a comfortably old residential neighborhood tucked away from the rust-gutted stretch of downtown New Castle and closer to the county border, where everything melted into acres of privately owned woodlands and hills. Riding your bike through the neighborhood was like watching a parade of sad women in increasingly outdated prom dresses: short chain-link fences, friendly with plant overgrowth, boxed in gap-toothed brick walkways, front porches dripping with carved wooden overhangs, carefully planted trees overshadowing where the wind has taken off shingles or stripped the fiberglass sidings free of their color wash. Decorative storm-shutters sat, parenthetical, around boxy, pane-less windows that swelled with light after the sunset, framing the living rooms behind their glass, so they looked like enormous dollhouses.

It wasn’t the kind of suburbia that inherently lent itself to struggle. Ours wasn’t even the worst-off house on the block. We weren’t the family in the neighborhood with the son selling borrowed Vicodin to middle-schoolers or the daughter stuck on house arrest for a third DUI. For most of my developmental years, the neighbors across the street from us had been involved in a very nasty and very audible divorce and in their final months, took to three a.m. rounds of debating settlement logistics in the street at the foot of our driveway. Every night, my mom would turn down my blankets, my daddy would kiss my forehead, and I would fall asleep to the sound of other people’s parents fighting through my bedroom walls.

I wasn’t sad.

I had no reason to be, despite what my mother insisted to the contrary. According to my mother, I was very, very sad. As the baby in a family of four and the child who had chosen to go to a college four hundred miles away from home, I had earned her sympathy at the cost of her already thinning nerves. When I was home we would sit, tucked together in the shade of the porch swing, and she would look at me through our shared blue eyes and the worn-in lines on either side of the bridge of her nose from crinkling her eyebrows together. My mother was an eyebrow-crinkle kind of person.

“I’m sorry you have to spend all summer home with us,” she’d say, kicking a foot against the porch floor so that we’d rock together, back and forth, back and forth, and watch the neighbor’s little boy loop circles around the street on his bicycle. She’d pause and lift a hand to brush through a messy chunk of my recently bleached hair. “I know you must be sad to leave Chicago.”

“I’m not sad,” I’d say. I wasn’t sad.

“I know New Castle isn’t very exciting.”

“I’m not sad.” I wasn’t sad.

She’d sigh and purse her lips, “But only four months and then you’ll be back before you know it.”

“I’m not—”

“Oh, Lord, Krissie. What have you done to your hair?”

I wasn’t sad.

Depression is a funny thing, if that’s what you insist it’s supposed to be. That’s the difference between depression and sadness: your ability to insist that depression is one thing over another. Sadness implies feelings that stem from some specific reason. You’re sad because something has happened to you—someone has treated you badly, you backed out of your driveway and over the cat, you remembered the dog from Air Bud is dead and that everyone you love isn’t too far behind.

Depression is sadness you’ve done nothing to earn. Unhappiness seeps into your bones and leaves you musty and aching—but because you know, objectively, that you have nothing in your life that warrants sadness, you feel guilty.

Rinse. Repeat. Play it again.

 

Senior year of high school, when they asked us to write down our post-graduation plans so they could publish the blurbs in our commencement programs, mine had been one in a class-wide sea of: “Go to college. Get the hell out of Dodge”—the one that would actually make good on its promise. While no one else in our graduating class would be going to school more than an hour away from home, I was making a nine-hour trek to a city I had only been to once, for a weekend orientation. Chicago was someplace vague but important sounding. It would have mattered roughly the same if I were going there to become a prostitute or to study writing. People from our town may have gone to other places, but rarely anywhere important sounding.

We had moved to New Castle from Flint, Michigan, when I was nine, shucking one dead rust-belt town for another. Flint had been ugly and pockmarked in the shadow of the auto industry. In its most industrial areas, New Castle wasn’t much better, but it at least had the benefit of being settled in a valley so that some of Pennsylvania’s natural hillscape blocked out the worst of the clutter. It had been a boomtown, in its day, but the steel industry collapse had gutted most of the useful work in the area and left the main drag of downtown in a state of perpetual disrepair. It survived now, primarily on a leftover reputation as the fireworks capital of America. It was the kind of town people were always too tired to leave. We were one of the wealthier counties in area, but were also sleepy and cautious. Everyone but our family was related, at least vaguely, by the same inky eyes and shade of cinnamon skin, hand-made in Italy two generations before. New Castle breathed through generations of people with its hands cupped around its mouth, softly, without losing anyone.

Worried my brain would atrophy if I didn’t do something with myself between semesters, my father found me a summer job with a company that worked post-construction cleaning in the areas of half-finished urban development seeping out from around the greater Pittsburgh area. Our job was to go into the subdivisions that had sprung up, seemingly overnight, and clean the lonely, bastard houses that had been built by developers before they’d even been sold.

Construction crews leave the inside of houses trash-soaked. Plastic, used nails, crumpled cigarette butts. Everything’s covered with a freshly shed skin of sawdust. It sticks to the tops of windows, paints countertops, piles inside of the cabinets. It hangs on, up and down the lengths of doors, down walls with shadowboxes curving out from their flanks, into the wall moldings and over the floors. Across the carpets, tiny fibers curl like pill bugs, frayed from the seams of the room during installation. Linoleum floors are pockmarked with clumps of stucco, sometimes plaster or caulking or somebody’s wad of week-old gum. Hardwood floors are dust-slicked and filthy, a mine of nails and pebbled glass.

A newborn house is dank and bleary-eyed; we’d peel the dirt-film off each window and watch the house blink in the sunlight. Room by room, eye by eye. Crack the windows open and swell the house with fresh air. We’d rub down and scrub off every layer of powder-dry afterbirth until the only remaining dust was the pool that’d been steadily collecting in the bottom of our lungs. Then we’d sweep our way up steps and over floors, mop our way out of every room. Out through the kitchen to the front hallway so that our last image was of everything spotless and glistening, smiling prettily at us through wood-polished floors. Remember to lock the door on your way out.

I spent the whole summer scrubbing windows for sixty hours a week, peeling cigarette butts out of new carpeting, and driving through the hills of Western Pennsylvania in a work van held together by duct tape and sincere prayer. At night, I went home and rode my bike through the neighborhood. I made lists.

“Chicago,” the other girls on our crew said, dreamily. They were all older than I was, but only by a few years, and had all been working full-time since graduation because they couldn’t afford to do anything else. Two of them were supporting small children. They were the ones who had half a prayer of validating any kind of complaint about their lives. “It must be so nice.”

Because the novelty was never going to wear off, the soft-faced woman who hired us would introduce me separately from the rest of the crew.

“And this is Kris, isn’t she pretty? She goes to school. In Chicago,” and I would display myself with the kind of self-assured importance usually reserved for running into old classmates at the movie theater or in line at the gas station behind the Giant Eagle.

 

Heartland offered its customers a choice between fifty-four basic housing models—the Franklin, the Augusta, the Berkley, the Camden—every model at least two stories, no fewer than three bedrooms, no more than five; but the rate at which Heartland sold homes was about a fourth of the rate at which they built them. The Deerfield, the Devonshire, the Fairmont, the Jefferson. Out of thirty-four different developments, six were completely occupied. Most of the others stood at half-capacity and, except for the flocks of daily work crews, the handful that had begun construction the previous fall was empty.

Thirty-four different housing developments with eighty to ninety lots apiece equals 3,060 potential houses. Divide that by the fifty-four body types and your home has a least fifty-six structural twins. Except, speaking realistically, most developments were planned with twelve complementary houses in mind, which would bump that number a lot higher, depending on the popularity of the model. Some of the brick face was “Desert-Rose” instead of “Dusty Sunset,” some sidings blue or red instead of brown or white, but leave them alone long enough and all empty houses bleed together after a while. The Oxford, the Carrington, the Augusta, the Nantucket; a house is a house is a house is a house until you shove a family inside it. Five different kinds of park homes, four different kinds of townhomes; carriage houses, duplexes; the Washington, the Windsor, the Virginian. Your bones are everybody else’s bones until you cover them in meat and hair.

We drove through neighborhoods full of skeleton houses, waiting for somebody to move in. Just as many already had families inside them, bundles of peonies lumped in the outside flowerbeds. People lived in these houses and had lives and dogs tied up in the yards. None of them had ever heard of me. No one cared that I lived out of state. In New Castle, I could tell myself I mattered because I had gotten out, to Chicago. In Chicago, I could tell myself I mattered because I had gotten out and away from New Castle. But when I stopped anywhere in between, I wasn’t really sure why anybody mattered or anybody deserved anything, other than their insistence that they did; anything mattered if you told yourself enough times it had a reason to. Telling myself helped, sometimes.

For my parents and sister, Pennsylvania had always been the place where we moved. But for me, it was where I learned to drive. Where I hit a bird with my car. Where I wrote my ninth-grade research paper on To Kill a Mockingbird, and wrote book reports and bad short story drafts. Where I watched snow falling from outside my bedroom window when everybody else was asleep. It was a quiet place in the world that swallowed sadness from anyone willing to give it and if you thought you deserved something, even if you didn’t, it wasn’t going to argue.

 

“What do you do in Chicago?”

The incessant drone of the floor sweeper choked itself off for the first time in nearly half an hour, and for a minute, the room went deaf. Then, slowly, the outside sounds of construction began to filter back in through the open windows. The echo of music from the work radio downstairs in the kitchen mixed with the hollow whine of a soil compactor backing up. Another work truck spun its wheels over the dirt. Down the street, the lots hadn’t been built past their frameworks yet and through the hole I had cut in the dirt-film on the outside windows, I could see blotches of shirtless workers climbing through the naked ribs of wood.

I pulled my arm back in through the window and glanced over my shoulder to where Troy, lips quirked up and eyebrows raised sincerely, stood with a foot planted on the vacuum.

At thirty-eight, Troy was the oldest member of the work crew, aside from our boss. He never swore. He never raised his voice. There was something virginal about him that I would have deflowered in a heartbeat if his wife hadn’t gotten there first.

“What’s that?”

“Chicago,” he said again. He had the sweeper cord threaded through both hands and one of his palms around its handle, keeping it upright. “You said you’re a student?”

“Oh. Yeah. I go to an art school downtown. I’m a writing major.”

His face lit up. “Really? Like books and stuff? What do you write?”

“Porn, mostly.”

His grin stretched a little wider, enough to show me the edges of his teeth, and he blushed and tugged a little on the length of the vacuum cord. “I’m serious,” he said. I was serious too, but the bedroom’s carpet, a charming beige shag the color of fingernails, was only half vacuumed. That meant Troy had stopped sweeping specifically to talk to me.

I turned around and leaned my back against the sun-heated glass of the window, dropping my rag into the bucket at my feet.

“Books and stuff,” I said. “What makes you ask?”

“No reason. Just that it must be nice. Being a writer.”

I shrugged. Someone had started hammering in the houses down the street and the knocking bounced emptily around the cul-de-sac. Troy was looking past me, out and down the row of half-built houses. I studied his hair, the lines rooted at the corners of his eyes, committing them to memory.

“Are you okay, Kris?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Why?”

He shrugged a little, then dropped his head, blushing.

“I don’t know. You just seem—sort of sad or something.”

“I’m not sad.” I wasn’t sad.

Troy had the sweetest, softest voice. A voice that was used to speaking under church sermons, and sometimes he just about killed me when he talked. “Are you sure?”

“I’m not sad,” I said. “I promise.”

 

Iwent to work in the morning. I worked in the belly of a house someone else was going to grow up in. I came home and washed off a layer of dust and sweat that, ostensibly, belonged to someone else. I made lists.

At night, I took car rides by myself. Once I got north, past the county line, the streetlights blinked cock-eyed over roads that didn’t belong to one jurisdiction or the other. Yellow porch lights melted quickly into dark congregations of woods. Houses nested in between the trees, distanced themselves with acres of land. Rabbits would dart along the edges of the road and lightening bugs, drugged with summer heat, rose and fell, in sputtering competition with my headlights. The summer had been hot and unusually dry, but the sides and hood of the car ran with early morning condensation. With the windows down, goose flesh clung along the sides of my bare arms.

I passed houses and counted the bicycles left riderless in their darkened front yards. I saw cats, perched silhouettes in lit windowsills of neighbors I had never talked to and knew I never would: a hundred different lives along twenty miles. I would park the car along the shoulder of the road and sit with my hands fisted around the steering wheel, while I waited to stop feeling ridiculous and start feeling okay again.

Depression is a funny thing.

Sunlight passes, translucent through the leaves hung outside my bedroom window. It stains the walls and picture frames with glassy green and yellow light. Outside, the mechanical rattle of a bicycle chain threads beneath children shouting; wood creaks as my mother nurses the porch swing back and forth, back and forth. It’s absolutely the most perfect place in the world to be alive, and I make lists about pills and knotted rope.

You take sadness with you. It keeps you company when the air, sun-heated and steadying, slips between the screen of your windows and clacks the blinds around the glass; when the world echoes quietly and gives you everything you’ve ever wanted. Sadness dulls the nod of your head and bleeds into the sound of your agreement. These are the kinds of things you keep to yourself.

But sometimes, when I think no one is listening, except maybe New Castle or the neighbor’s kids on their bikes, I lie down in the yard and listen to the sound of cars passing on their way to the cul-de-sac, of tiny things moving through the grass and being alive. Of all these things mattering because I’ve decided they matter—because even the girl who is lucky enough not to need them is sometimes allowed small mercies. And just when I feel the ache of how beautiful the world is, I think I’m maybe a little bit sad.

About the Author

Kris Mackenzie · Columbia College Chicago

Kris Mackenzie grew up in a very small, very lovely part of western Pennsylvania before moving to Chicago for her B.A. in creative writing. In addition to nonfiction, she writes stories and is a cartoonist. Her essay first appeared in Columbia College Chicago’s journal, Hair Trigger.

About the Artist

David Owens · SUNY Oswego

David Owens is a freelance illustrator and fine artist practicing in central New York. His work has been shown nationally and internationally in shows such as The NYS Fair, Made in New York, and Southwest Art Magazine’s Artistic Excellence Competition. His artwork first appeared in SUNY Oswego’s Great Lake Review. See more of his work here.