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He gets angry because we split the bills. It’s not about the money. We’re fine with that. Even Steven, as they say. It’s actually the physical act of writing out checks and balancing the book. He feels he shouldn’t have to do it. He thinks I’m getting off easy never knowing the account balance. The camel’s back breaks and he leaves the bills and check book on the kitchen table with a note: logon as ralphieralph, password tango69, I trust you know our bank website. So I logon. Charge after charge listed at bars, out-of-town locations, places I’ve never been.
Remember when you were a kid and you’d do something stupid like taste mud or eat the leaves off a plant and savor the bitter flavor? Remember how a few hours later you’d be spewing your guts out along side the house. Or you’d step just inside the entry and feel that sinking stomach and would clench as you ran/hobbled to the bathroom? It had been thirty years since he’d puked from something other than intoxication. For ten years he had a habit of drinking until he didn’t know where he was. Those nights included several evacuations of the stomach.
“Why’d you have to go on and eat a 7-Eleven hotdog anyhow?”
“I was hungry,” John said from the bathroom.
“Are you going to spit up again?” Meredith asked, pushing her graying hair from her eyes.
“This ain’t spittin’ up.”
“Right. Well, mind you don’t dirty nothing up in there.” Meredith tossed a spent diet coke into the open trash and watched two flies lift off from the tail end of a processed cube of ham. Three cats faced off down the hall, the guts of some rodent an issue of dispute.
John heaved in the bathroom.
"You alright there?"
“You know,” she said, “It really is an inconvenience for me to have you here all day. What am I supposed to do when I gotta go?”
John coughed, “You just knock and I’ll crawl out of your way.”
Meredith opened the back door and craned her head outside.
Groaning, John said, “I’m going to be here for a while.”
Meredith waived her arm through the entry. A walking moustache and leather tool belt put one foot through the door. “Come on,” Meredith whispered, grabbing his hand. He followed her through the kitchen. Cats scattered as they walked the hall.
It took a half hour to park the car. Once we walked into the club everything felt right. Dirk was off in some corner hugging on a skinny boy with a Mohawk while I stirred the ice of my Vodka tonic, sitting at the bar. Five bucks down the flusher. He came back with the Mohawk’s phone number and we talked a bit. Shortly after I ordered my second drink he was off again, buttering up a knot-head in a polo shift, another five bucks gone. After a third drink and still no talking with Dirk I was getting annoyed.
He thought it’d be nice to make up to her but he was at a loss. Flowers seemed forward and antiquated. A card would force him to restate the obvious. A CD would be too casual and prove that he’d spent time on it and what if he got the wrong style for the mood? He decided a book was the way to go. He cruised the stacks. Non fiction was a loaded gun but so too most fiction. He had to stay away from romances and westerns would validate any thought she had of revenge. His quandary was complete.
John was turkey-legged on the floor, his helpless hands dangling to either side, face pale and drawn. His eyes were wet and clear, a vibrant hazel like she hadn’t seen since they met at the rodeo so long ago. He took the towel and put it to the floor to soak up the puddles of clear acidic bile. “Do you still love me even though I’m sick?” He asked.
“For better, for worse,” said Meredith, lip curled. “Look,” she shifted her weight and tried to breath around the stench. “I’ve got things to attend to.” John nodded slightly. “That’s okay."
With the ring lost, Jenn didn’t know what to do. She only took it off when her hands were about to get dirty or she’d inadvertently gotten dirty. Though it wasn’t her wedding ring, she’d never been married let along proposed to, she worried. It was a reminder of a trip she took to Ireland three years ago when she had graduated from college and wanted to see the world. She knew she had ancestors, some special weave of colors to call her own, so she commemorated with a knot of silver. Silver that was now gone. Who would know?
His shoulder ached from sitting at the computer. When he rested his arms on the table like every day, spread out and limp wristed, he noticed that he’d worn another elbow on his shirt to exposed skin. The chill of the table poked through the hole. He sighed. Another shirt to replace. He hoped no one would notice before the end of the day. When Virginia was around she could patch the elbows but since she died he couldn’t bare to consider it. He would simply take the shirt to the Goodwill and trade it for another. Virginia would approve.
Below, beyond the balcony railing and over the front row seats, plush velvet curtains framed the scuffed silver screen. The auditorium ceiling was whipped with white daubs and massive bulges of stained glass encased the central lighting. To either side of the stage wreaths circled classical youthful faces with eyes wide on the deep red seats of the middle rows, each face quaffed with whirling bundles of hair done up like fine Victorian ladies. Center above the stage, an older man’s face looked to the balcony with a slight smile to signal a private joke he expected everyone to get.
He started to see people as shuffling images, disconnected from any kind of life he could imagine. Before he noticed Howard, James could see people and identify them by their outfit, behavior, body language. After weeks of tormenting Howard, "others" became empty shells, puppets mockingly strutting to the hotdog stand, shuddering under the bus' stoop, cackling in scurrying groups. "People" were no longer defined by breath, mentality, or life. They became lonely, isolated; dwarves of what they once were. This transition is what allowed James to laughingly tolerate Howard. Out of all the people James encountered, Howard got off easy.
When I got home I sat and thought about this guy and I wanted in my life. I decided to go on the internet and look at personal ads. Males seeking females. All the posts that included pictures were scary. The guys wrote enticing verbal descriptions but, if one scrolled down, the picture was of a lop-eyed, pimple scarred hunchback with a weight problem and heavy sadness lining his eyes. As I rolled through the listings I realized what the problem was: I was passive. In the cold blue glow of my computer I drafted the manifesto of love searches.
Howard woke late. He’d slept soundly, without dreams, never moving. He hadn’t realized his clothes were still on. He looked at the clock by his bed. Eleven Thirty. Too late to make excuses. No one had called. Hair flattened to one side and crust in his eyes, he phoned the office. “We’d wondered where you were!” Chirped the receptionist. “I can’t come in today,” Howard said, “I’m sick.” “That’s awful sudden! Do you have someone to fix you some soup?” She asked, dropping her voice ridiculously low as she said soup. “I’ve got to go.” He hung up thinking, “Lorinda.”
I tried creating an illusion of depth in my closet but it really wasn’t working. I felt like some medieval painter attempting to make the people all the same size while still showing the hierarchy and the distance. My brain just couldn’t handle it and the whole closet ended up being a wall of fabric with out any discernment from floor to ceiling. I didn’t have time to worry about it, it was a take it or leave it situation. I planned to ply him with drinks and distract him with my giant Blue Velvet poster and stacks of books.
She glided into the lacy little bedroom humming and smiling. She was fixing pancakes and would he want some? There was no doubt. They spent the whole day together. She proposed all kinds of things. They went to the mall and she shopped, they went to a diner and she ate, they went to the laundry mat and loaded her laundry then across the street to the antique mall in which she giddily fingered the dusty books, held an old tanned dress in front of her to check the size, and excitedly grabbed James to show him the war memorabilia.
He knew he had twenty five pages. It wasn’t the amount of words that was a problem and the deadline wasn’t close. He had no excuse, really. Still, the idea was daunting. He decided to video blog about it. He sat at his desk, adjusted his computer monitor so the built-in webcam would see him and said, “Well, guys. It’s been a long week. I’m stressing out because of the contest coming up. I know it’s not until June but it’s still freakin’ me out. If anyone knows of any stress reducers or tips please tell me because I’m hurtin.”
“I’m not going through it yet. They might take one look at me and tell me I’m toast.”
“Yeah, right!” She laughed, “You’ll be paying for them to have the honor of teaching you.”
I snorted, “Sure…”
“No shittin’, they’re your employees. I bet if you treat them that way they’ll jump.”
“Jump down my throat, you mean.”
“Naw, you’re too nice. Grow some back bone.”
“Anyway,” she said, “You deserve this.”
“What do you mean?”
“How long have you been worrying about this? What’s the hang up? Print it off, fill it out and drop it in the mail”
“We’re going to try, mom. But I can’t say we’re getting married or that it’ll even last two weeks.”
“It’ll last through grandma’s funeral, right? That I think your grandma will like to see, you and a nice man standing by to say goodbye.”
“When is the service?” I asked.
“Tomorrow, noon. We don’t have to dress up or anything. Grandma didn’t want that. She just wants us to look at each other and appreciate what we’ve got.”
“Mom, she’s dead.”
“No, sweetie, she’ll always be alive for me. She was so wonderful and generous. She will always be around.”
She kicks behind her ear, scratching, before each swipe sticking her tongue out with luxurious anticipation. Her face registers bliss as each stroke nicks into the itchy spot. That’s the stuff, she seems to be thinking. I wish it were so simple for me; an ignition switch to happiness, physical pleasures erasing the woes of the day-to-day. She has a habit of stealing other animal’s food. The punishment means nothing to her. Minutes later she’ll return to the bowl and continue eating. There are many things she does that I admire. Devious, lascivious, she is free like I’ll never be.
Sheets so cold I have to slowly creep down inch by inch until I am long and thin. In the night I wake up, blankets dropped to the floor, my body ridged with chill. I flap the blankets back on me, kicking the weight up and over, grunting angry that my sleeping-self doesn’t keep these things arranged. When my alarm goes off the blankets are on the floor again and my arms are tucked tight to my chest, holding, nestled into the pillow at an angle. I drop the blankets back on the mattress but keep one for my shoulders.
It’s the big nose theory in action. We shall see if it’s true. I have to sauté him in olive oil and ginger first, maybe spray orange juice to liven things up. Yep, I think that’s the tasty recipe for Rick. (I’ve got to get him a good nickname cause Rick just isn’t going to cut it). I love that can’t-wait-to-sniff-your-feet feeling. I'm holding on to it as long as I can! Charming a man, while useful, is tricky. To inspire groveling is artistry. To motivate without coercion. To plant the imagination to devotion. To have him call you Hotlips.
Rain is nearly invisible tonight, though it is audible, a trickling, like stream’s sound that is part of the collective conscious. Do kids go camping anymore? I mean outside of the RV parks. Are they allowed to drop the gamepod and wander? Do they wander without a cell phone? Can little Timmy feel as though he is lost and the surge of survival leap in his chest? Would he cry or would he realize that he is capable of more, that life is not about pushing buttons and responding to mechanical tones? Maybe he would grow wild, raised by wolves.
I did it and I didn’t mean to do it but it is done. I killed him. It was in a dream but it was a visceral dream. He was arguing, pushing his finger into my sternum and telling me he wasn’t going to accept what I had said. His breath hot and his hair oily and me glaring back at him, standing inches away, my fingers curled for striking and plunging direct into his gut. His eyes wide, he gasped and clung at my wrist as my fingers twisted inside him, hot and wet. He twitched, slumped and cried.
Gimme thirty thousand and see what happens. I’ll show you thirty thousand avenue and thirty thousand pounds, thirty thousand buttons with thirty thousand threads strung through. If there were an audience, a fat man with a cigar poking from his lips or a young couple more interested in each other than my show, it wouldn’t matter. That thirty thousand would get used either way. No tickets to Burma, no luxury automobile. Thirty thousand is a wisp, a sneeze for some. Thirty thousand doesn’t even cover the daily body lotion applied by professional masseuse to the rump of a movie star.
He shuffles down the stairs. His foot drops over edge after edge, slippers loose at his heels, until each hits the platform and redirects at a forty-five degree angle. Shambling through the doorway, down the hall, shoving the bathroom door open ... then closed. He stands at the sink, hands under running water, eyes red, eyebrows unfurled, crop-cut flat to a side, and he sighs. Her snippy comments linger; another long night of barking dogs. Splash to his face. She was slick about it. He had called her sylph in anger. Another splash. She laughed. She always laughs at him.
She marches up to him and says…
And that’s where I get stuck.
That’s your first line?
Jesus. I don’t know. Its wide open from there, isn’t it?
I know. That’s the problem. I don’t know where to go.
What if you start some place else? Maybe develop a scene with the two of them doing something they always do together. You can go back and write about their argument after you get to know them.
I guess so.
What’s the big deal?
I just had this vision. You know?
I guess you’re right.
He’s gone again. He slammed the hinging glass door in my face, a great whoomph of air in my eyes. I flipped him the bird as he punched in his destination. He barely looked up from the dial, receiver in his hand, sneered with glowering eyes and blew a kissy face at me with a slight wave of his pinky as the receiver clanked into the cradle and the phone booth shimmied in preparation for take off. “Bastard.” He winked. I folded my arms and leaned close to the glass, “I’m leaving you!” He made as though he couldn’t hear.
Claudia chewed her lower lip and ran the water hard while finishing up the potatoes. She made like I wasn’t there while she cut them and set a pot to boil on the match-ignited stove. She was always naïve like that. She always seemed to ignore the arguments and hardship. She ignored a lot of things. I always wondered if that was privilege to her youth, though she was only two years younger. Somehow those two years made a huge difference. No one bothered her with rules. Our parents weren’t constantly interrogating her about where she’d been and who with.
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