“Skeletons in the Closet” by Jennifer Weigel

It started in March.  That was the beginning of the collapse.  The effects supposedly hadn’t made it here yet.  Online there were bats and rats and pangolins and other fantastical creatures haunting Wuhan’s inhabitants because of open air markets and various nonsensical cultural misunderstandings cast straight out of a Dr. Seuss story warning against the dangers of eating them with a fox or in a box or with some lox or something to that effect…  Online people were shuttering their houses…  But that was all distant and far away.  Life continued as usual.  Or so it seemed.

I fell ill before I was supposed to.  My boss was sick before me.  We’d gone to a conference.  But that was before all of this really got going, and it was just a city away and didn’t extend to anyone out of state, not that we knew of anyway.  My boss’s symptoms were spot on, with the 104-degree fever, chest congestion and difficulty breathing.  But she hadn’t been in contact with anyone from the wrong places that she knew of, so she couldn’t possibly have it.  Nonetheless, it was recommended she stay home, just in case.  And she did so because you can never be too sure and there were no tests available unless you’d been in contact with the wrong person who got off the wrong train from the wrong city at the wrong time.

I got it about a week or a week and a half after.  I didn’t fever.  I never do; the only times I have fevered in my adult life were when I’d eaten something off and it was rushing out both ends at once with only one toilet to accommodate it and me finding myself blacked out in a puddle on the floor like a bad college un-memory.  In fact, I thought it was just the milder flu that was going around and overpowering the flu shot.  I was a bit lightheaded and felt faint, and I slept a lot and had a minor scratch at the back of the throat, but nothing of any real significance.  I stayed home regardless.  I wasn’t sure if I did or didn’t have it and work was in this weird in-between state of not knowing what we were doing so I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go in anyway.  Things were beginning to shut down and I just felt in the way.

There was one night, after I thought it had passed, in which I woke with a start unable to breathe feeling constrained and tight and like a nightmare demon of medieval lore was sitting there camped out on my chest.  I thought I was having a heart attack (they manifest differently in women).  So I stayed up until 2 AM so that I wouldn’t chance going back to sleep and not waking up again as if I’d know the difference.  The next day it was obvious that it was my throat so I wrote it off because it didn’t seem as bad being my throat rather than my heart.  I waited it out and it got better.  I continued to stay home.  By then, everyone was told to stay home, unless they were essential, or needed something essential, whatever that was supposed to mean with the subsequent blow to our collective egos as we once again realized that we were just more insignificant flecks of dust on a half-baked planet floating around a mid-range star in a void of nothingness.

Things were pretty uneventful at home.  I dared not go out for fear that I was contagious.  I must have washed my hands 187 times a day.  I think I lost count though, I may not have taken note of 3 or 5 or 16 or 29 more times, 187 seemed like I was lowballing it…  I cooked.  I washed the dishes.  I dried them and put them away.  I cooked again and the cycle repeated.  I tried Zoom.  But there are only so many online conferences you can attend before all of the words that you hear spill out of your ears and soil the sofa with that kind of questionable stain that makes you drape a sheet over it when you know you’re having company, in the hopes that they don’t notice or say anything or create awkward silence.  I tried Facebook.  But there was only so much hopeful dissent about how to express joy and celebrate opportunity and make the most of the situation in the prescribed flavor-of-the-day popular vote meme responses that I could choke down, even before people became more openly discordant and polarized again.  I tried watching YouTube live-feed videos of zoo animals.  The bear just sat, head against the wall…  Ah, but there is comfort there, sitting with one’s head against the wall.  I shall have to do so more often.

I opened the closet late one morning to put on a jacket.  Not that I was going anywhere, mind you.  Just to put one on and remember what it feels like to do so.  Besides which, it was a little chilly downstairs.  That was when I first noticed.  There were leaves in the hall closet, under the stairs, dusting my faux fur pretending-to-be-mink coat and dropping onto the floor.  Maybe they were leaves, or maybe they were tattered bits of very very old paper.  They were dry and crumbly and crackled into stiff brittle sheets like old vellum, somewhat transparent and yet browned with age so that you can’t really tell if they are clear or yellow or brown anymore.  I brushed them off the coat, gathered them up, and threw them away.  I recorded the experience in the back of my mind, closed the closet door, and returned to my deep consideration over what to have for dinner and how to minimize the number of dishes and utensils I would need to do so.

The next day, I opened the closet again.  There were more leaves, trailing like stale Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs down the faux fur coat and onto the floor.  I felt around but it’s a cramped space.  I don’t know what I was feeling around for, but whatever it was I didn’t find it.  I tried looking up “closet leaves” online but that just brought me to the care and maintenance of peace lily plants.  Did you know that the peace lily plant is also known as the closet plant?  Neither did I; I guess it’s because they need so little light…  And I still wasn’t going anywhere, so I knew I wasn’t bringing the leaves in myself.  Though, even if I were to go out, I wouldn’t have worn a fully lined faux fur pretending-to-be-mink coat in April to do so, not here in Kansas anyway.  It’s almost never cold enough for that, even in February.  But I had to be sure that the closet was not self-generating leaves or held some inter-dimensional portal to some unknown exotic place which I had long known to be there and suspected led to Narnia or an endless bag of potatoes or an almost indistinguishable clone of the closet in a similar but different time space continuum or somesuch.

The next day, when I opened the closet and found more leaves, I took out all of the coats and everything and piled it all over the dining room and into the living room.  Coats, jackets, and sweater vest linings were draped over the backs of all of the chairs and the cat’s loveseat.  Luggage and extra purses for when my current one wears out and spare hats and mittens and the cat’s carrier and all of the other randomly stored goods I had stashed under the stairs were piled on and in front of the sofa, television and bookcases.  This time I got into the closet and looked around.  There was a small gap between the ceiling paneling and the wall right above where the leaves were coming from.  Actually, it would have been a big gap if I were a mouse, reminding me once again why I have a cat even if he has proven a lousy hunter.  The leaves must have been coming from there.  I poked at it hesitantly, just in case there was a mouse.  I thought about calling someone out to look at the house but how essential is that really?  It just didn’t seem truly necessary to seek the counsel of a house inspector because there are leaves in a closet, even if it is an interior closet, even in the best of circumstances… though there was a hole…

That was when I noticed the wall was peeling, just a little bit.  I pulled at it a little more.  Brittle old wallpaper sloughed off in sheets, flaking off at the edges.  Wall repair tape and wallpaper covered in rubbery paint revealed yet more wallpaper beneath.  A poorly-executed minor archaeological excavation by myself revealed three distinct layers of wallpaper.  The outer layer under the paint was yellow or had once been another color that faded to yellow in that sickly sour sense.  The layer beneath that was speckled dusty brownish gray green blue that may not have actually been a color and may have instead been the remains of a long forgotten mold that lay dormant and decayed for decades.  Under that was either the wheat paste backing from that wallpaper with pockets of antique dirt nestled between layers to emerge again as a fine mist of dust falling from the recently peeled off paper, or what may have been the wall surface itself.  Areas were crumbled to dust where objects had collided with them in the tight closet space behind layers of paper and paint holding the façade in place so that it was not obvious at a glance to the casual observer merely hanging up a coat.  I closed the closet door and went on about my day, occasionally feeling the drifting itch of dust mites or tiny spiders or unknown grit that I perceived crawling about my skin until I took a shower.

I returned to the closet the next day, and the day after, and the day after that.  I had to continue my excavation.  I just couldn’t leave it be until I could have someone out to look at it.  Maybe I could fix it myself.  Maybe I could figure out where the leaves were coming from and put a stop to it once and for all.  I had to get as much of the wallpaper off as possible, to get to a surface I might be able to sand or primer or paint or even just board over.  I wondered just how much expanding house foam I would need to fill everything in.  The smell of dust and old mold started to become a recognizable friend, a long-understood knowledge that was bringing me into a closer relationship to the house itself.  I could feel the house breathing all around me from the closet, securing me in its embrace.  Every day, I lingered longer until I eventually just stopped visiting the rest of the house.  The closet became more and more comfortable and was my constant companion.  I don’t know what happened to everything else.  Eventually, the rest of the world fell away to rot.  What remained was still and quiet, imbued with a musty yellow wallpaper smell.

About the Artist: Jennifer Weigel is a multi-disciplinary mixed media conceptual artist. Weigel utilizes a wide range of media to convey her ideas, including assemblage, drawing, fibers, installation, jewelry, painting, performance, photography and video. Much of her work touches on themes of beauty, identity (especially gender identity), memory & forgetting, and institutional critique. Weigel’s art has been exhibited nationally in all 50 states and has won numerous awards.

Jennifer Weigel, author.