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Animals

by Andy Henion

Breathe

 

My ex-wife directs me to the old plywood factory deep in the backcountry. I pull behind the crumbling loading dock and she climbs on my lap and suckles at my earlobe. We get after it the way we used to and toward the end she slams my head against the headrest repeatedly and screams out like a murder victim. I forget to breathe. My toes curl hard enough to trigger a charley horse.

 

Buy me an ice cream, she says, adjusting her underpants. I only have the babysitter another half hour.

 

This is not what I wanted to hear. I had hoped to stay the night in my home with my family. But she tells me she wants to take it slow. Get reacquainted. See if we are truly compatible.

 

We owe that to each other, she says. To our daughter. After all that’s happened.

 

I drive to the country store with the windows down. The warm breeze blows her hair back. I decide to tell her everything.

 

It’s been a long couple years, I say.

 

Talk to me, she says, turning in her seat to face me. I’m listening.

 

I exhale and nod. It comes in bits and pieces.

 

That little prick of a boss let me go so I sliced up my palms. Right there in his truck. I couldn’t tell you why. Had to get a shot in the ass for the infection. Uncle Horace tore his own guts out. The man who made me what I am today, like it or not. Gave a eulogy in his honor, pissed some people off. Got a job on work release throwing trash. Dug through your bags one morning. Found the new guy’s prophylactics and those Italian shoes …

 

Impulse buy, says my ex-wife, straight-faced.

 

… Finally put old Jorge down. His last meal was chinchilla. A hunter to the end, goddamn it. Served my sentence next to a dull-eyed man. He thought he had a death wish until I showed him otherwise. Lost our child at the mall looking at other women, but thinking of you …

 

The hell? says my ex-wife.

 

… Just for a bit. Partnered with a redneck named Cleavon. Against my better judgment. We traveled around the country, even out to California, freelancing. We. We …

 

Go on, she says, as we pull up the country store.

 

… killed some people for money. Some bad people.

 

She pauses with her fingers on the door handle

 

And that makes it okay?

 

A man tortured his sister. Shared her with others.

 

My ex-wife considers this for a moment, holding my gaze. There’s more to say, so much more, but I’ve forgotten to breathe again. She gets out and slams the door.

 

Well good riddance, she says, and I’m not sure if she’s talking to the degenerate or to me. Then she looks back over her shoulder and raises her palms to the sky.

 

Well?

 

I exit the car and join my ex-wife for ice cream, and I can breathe again.

 

Geronimo, Motherfucker

 

He wears the rags of the homeless but dances like an angel, ballerina style, around a garbage can at the edge of a cliff. It’s the most generous can in California, he tells us, providing the delectable castoffs of the rich and famous and attracting any number of woodland creatures that end up skinned and sizzling on his makeshift spit. So keep your hairy mitts off my bounty, he warns, or I’ll stain your souls. To which Cleavon laughs and says cool your jets, Twinkle Toes, and eat your crust.

 

His nametag says Randall though I cannot vouch for its accuracy. Other badges up and down his torso say Sally, Frederick, Trainee, Nurse Perkins.

 

It’s clear he’s a professional. Dance like no one’s watching, I’ve heard it said, and Randall embodies this perfectly. Watching his slim figure spin to and fro, his movements precise and elegant, his scraggly beard swaying in the ocean breeze, it’s nothing short of mesmerizing.

 

Two men run through the roadside park just before noon. The first is the bodyguard, the second our mark, a mildly famous athlete who trains in these mountains in militant fashion. At first the runners eye us uneasily, but we also wear rags, our faces purposely dirty and unshaven, and after while they ignore us along with Randall. Of the sixty thousand bums in the metropolitan area, we are but two more.

 

The athlete does things to his wife unknown to the public. Despicable, brutal things. At least that’s what the wife told Cleavon. I have my suspicions, I’d like some proof, but Cleavon won’t hear of it. Says he doesn’t need to see bruises. Says the lack of a prenup proves nothing. Says he knows the truth every time he sees the cocky prick’s mug up on the television.

 

Today is the day. We sit adjacent to the trail, twelve feet apart, red-eyed and mumbling, our long, sharpened branches on the ground at our sides. Success here today means fifty grand each, our biggest payday to date, yet this, I realize, is my last job. I glance over at Cleavon. There’s a gleam in his eye, a sneer on his lips.

 

Woulda done this shit for free, he says softly.

 

They talk and laugh as they jog up the trail, right on schedule. The big bodyguard is mine. He pays me no mind as I stand in a slow, hunched fashion. It’s seventy feet to the boulders below, straight down.

 

… and mushrooms, the bodyguard is saying to the mildly famous athlete behind him. Best fuckin’ sauce …

 

I bring up the thick spear and turn. Jab the bodyguard in the ribs, but not hard enough to send him over. I tighten my grip in preparation for another strike, yet hesitate, frozen by the screams of the falling athlete, and this allows the bodyguard to scramble to his feet and grab the branch. He rips it from my possession, calls me a cocksucker. Says he’s going to tear my fucking heart out. Cleavon comes up from behind and breaks his spear over his head. The bodyguard falls to his knees, two feet from cliff’s edge, blood spouting from his scalp.

 

Do the job, Cleavon says, swinging the stunted branch, now the length of a baseball bat. The next jolt sends the bodyguard the rest of the way down but not over, and he goes fetal under a cascade of blows.

 

Wild-eyed, spittle flying, Cleavon barks out his mantra.

 

DO. THE. FUCKING. JOB.

 

The bodyguard shows considerable spunk against the assault, laughing and taunting his attacker. Growling in rage, Cleavon steps forward and kicks the bodyguard in the sternum, moving him just enough, his muscular body beginning its terrible slide off the cliff, but at the last moment his arm flashes out and grabs a pant cuff and Cleavon is pulled hard onto his hip and then over the edge, two assholes for the price of one. I find myself reaching out a hand for Cleavon, but that’s it, really. Just the hand.

 

I could just as well be waving.

 

Geronimo.

 

I look over and see Randall launching into a series of pirouettes, the slightest of smiles gracing his grubby face.

 

Working quickly, I kick dirt over the bodyguard’s blood, toss the branches over the cliff and begin hoofing my way down the winding mountain road toward the bus station.

 

Better find a new dance studio, I call over my back.

 

Geronimo, motherfucker, Randall singsongs, twirling about. Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo

 

Geronimo, indeed.

 

Hope

 

We need to talk, says my ex-wife.

 

I place the beer bottle on my ex-dining room table and set my jaw. Small talk’s over, I think. Here it comes, I think. She found out about the mall and is about to drop the hammer. This is the last straw, she’ll say. You’ll never see your daughter again.

 

Instead, my wife takes a deep breath and says, I need you to keep Cassie for a couple weeks.

 

Oh? I say. I mean sure. Of course.

So your probation’s over? You have a decent place?

 

Absolutely, I say. I tell her I have a good new job. I omit detail.

 

She nods and takes a long pull of beer even though she hates the stuff. Gazes into the living room where our daughter is eating flavored rice cakes and watching children’s programming on television. They have the same profile, my wife and daughter. Which is to say, beautiful.

 

Going away? I say.

 

My wife shakes her head and drinks more beer. She’s clearly having trouble with this. I feel a shred of hope.

 

Bernie and I, she says finally. It’s. We’re.

 

She white-knuckles the bottle as if to crush it. An angry cord pulses on her neck. I’m quite familiar with the cord.

 

It’s over, she says. We’re over. I need time to get this done without getting Cassie involved. Bernie’s just. He’s just—

 

I nod. She doesn’t need to explain. I’ve met the man.

 

Whatever you need, I say.

 

My ex-wife wipes at her eyes.

 

You’re the most honest man I know. For a Neanderthal. She smiles. Really, though, what you see is what you get. There’s something to be said for that, trust me.

 

I tip my bottle. Swallow some beer along with the guilt. How do you tell the woman you love you’re a hit man?

 

Instead I grunt, like a Neanderthal might, deep and guttural, and she laughs. We laugh.

 

Blood Money

 

The chinchillas were cut, I tell him, from the stomach lining of an intrepid bulldog.

 

Intrepid, says Cleavon. Chickenshit.

 

Not quite, I tell him. Brave. Fearless.

 

Right on.

 

We’re heading to the home of the chinchilla woman in Cleavon’s pickup. We’re deep in the suburbs amid million-dollar homes and sprawling horse ranches. Cleavon is after a birthday present for his brother Petey. Something alive, he explained. Small and furry. Shits pellets.

 

I know just the person, I told him. Lena. The chinchilla woman.

 

We dated, Lena and I, just the once. Over coffee she told me she moved in with her brother, an overbearing corporate attorney, after leaving her husband, a sudden homosexual, four years prior. It was an act of desperation: she had nowhere else to go, no meaningful job skills to fall back on. I told her I had killed a man, got booted from my home and was about to serve time for poor choices unrelated to the killing. We decided to be friends.

 

Cleavon whistles at the extravagant homestead and fingers the doorbell. Lena answers the door in meager clothing that accentuates her generous features. Purple bruises mar her neck and upper arms. Her eyes are red.

 

Everything okay?

 

She nods unconvincingly and turns her attention to Cleavon. They shake hands for an extended period, Cleavon flashing his big white teeth and carefree redneck aura. He’s at least fifteen years her junior, though neither seems to care.

 

So you’re the one who wants my babies, says Lena.

 

A baby, says Cleavon. Maybe two. She hooks a finger. He follows her up a vast winding staircase. Make yourself comfortable, she calls back. He’s out in the garage playing with his cars.

 

The brother, I figure. His image, and his image alone, fills the walls.

 

I take a seat on a white leather couch. Ten minutes pass. I hear the faint sounds of rock and roll music from the garage. The clanging of tools. I thumb through a book on chinchillas. They can jump six feet in the air. Spray urine when threatened. Twenty more minutes pass, then an hour. I’m pinching my eyelids to stay awake when Lena and Cleavon reappear on the staircase, disheveled and glassy eyed.

 

Have a seat, says Lena, and I’ll make you gentlemen some lunch.

 

Cleavon comes over smelling of carnal activity. He’s carrying a laptop computer and a flash drive.

 

Lena’s having trouble with her brother, he says.

 

Trouble? I say.

 

Cleavon answers by opening the laptop and inserting the thumb drive. He calls up a fuzzy black and white video showing a woman in leather lingerie strapped spread-eagle to a specialized table. A naked man stands before her brandishing a riding crop. The woman is Lena, the man her brother. She stares hollow-eyed through what comes next, except to scream. Other men appear in the video and join in.

 

Cleavon closes the laptop and pushes air through his nose.

 

Twenty thousand each, says Lena, suddenly standing over us. It looks like an accident.

 

I take a moment to comprehend. Cleavon stares at me and I realize he already knows.

 

Why not leave? I say. Get help.

 

Lena laughs scornfully. I can see headlines now. And I the martyr.

 

Martyr, says Cleavon.

 

Saint, I say. Tortured saint.

 

Fuck that, he says, standing. Not on my watch.

 

Your watch?

 

Lena looks at me and taps her chest. Sole beneficiary. Understand?

 

I shake my head. But I understand perfectly.

 

She says, You’ve done this before. You’ve killed a man.

 

Completely different, I say.

 

How so?

 

Premeditation, for one.

 

Premeditation, says Cleavon. Enough jibber-jabber. He turns for the garage. We’ll pass on lunch, he says. Gonna meet Mr. Fuckrod on the way out.

 

Cleavon, warns the woman. An accident.

 

Yes ma’am, says Cleavon. Just gonna say howdy is all.

 

I follow him into the garage. It’s the size of a warehouse, yet fully finished and immaculate. An expensive vehicle occupies each of the six stalls. In the immediate stall a man’s legs poke out from under a European sport utility. Overhead speakers emit classic rock music. The brother sings along while he works.

 

Good tune, says Cleavon. He examines the jack holding up the passenger side of the massive vehicle. Two tires have been removed and stacked in the corner.

 

The brother stops working. He cannot see us from his recumbent position, nose inches from the undercarriage.

 

Here about the rodents? he says. Go on inside. For fuck sake, buy ’em all.

 

The brother continues working, a man used to having his way. Cleavon retrieves a rag from the workbench and carefully places it over the handle of the jack. I open my mouth to protest but think of brother’s actions on the video. Of Lena’s blood-curdling shrieks.

 

Actually, says Cleavon, we’re here for the blood money.

 

Say again?

 

Some of that ’heritance.

 

What the fuck? Who are you? The brother’s last words. Cleavon turns the jack handle and the vehicle comes down and halves him, clean and quick.

 

Cleavon returns the rag to the workbench and proceeds to suck his teeth as we watch the man’s legs spasm.

 

Fuckin’ jacks anyway, he says.

 

Lost

 

I lose my child in the mall. Through the Kiddie Corral I storm, turning pudgy arms and navigating sticky structures, shouting her name. A startled child cries. And another. A mother jabs a finger, a second claws my face. I release­ her toddler, the corral clear, and head for the sneaker store. My windpipe is closing. Vision tunneling. Two hours remain per the visitation agreement and somehow I have misplaced her. Fantasizing about another parent to boot, a single (or at least ring-free) mother with egg-yolk hair and delicate clavicles. The scratcher, it turns out. It’s been so long. The shoe clerk appears stoned. You’re bleeding, yo, he says, as I turn for the jewelry store. Here, a dozen years ago, I bought my wife’s ring. Ex-wife. There are shiny things in abundance but no child. I spit droplets of blood. People are staring when they should be searching. Help me … my beautiful girl. And now the kiosks: beauty creams, more jewelry, a teenager hawking hamster-sized helicopters. SHE’S BLONDE, I yell to no one in particular. THREE YEARS OLD. GREEN SHIRT. Getting used to a new daddy. Dear God, help me. At the center of the mall: the carousel, and I’m a circling madman, round and round. Majestic ceramic steeds and unicorns straddled by smiling children, none mine. She’s adventurous, my girl, a people person like her mother. Loves to run and jump and climb and laugh. Wouldn’t take much to whisk her away. Long, terrible corridors stretch out in every direction. More immediately: rows of aluminum chairs, a covered stage, some type of ceremony. I see a security guard well down the way, oblivious. He’s chatting up a female customer, tattooed arm against the wall, britches low, a real playa. GUARD, I yell, passing mostly empty chairs. GUARD! I do a double take and stumble. Nearly fall into a seat behind a gray-haired man in a multicolored uniform. He turns and gives me a sour look. I drop my head into quivering hands, exhaling in relief. From the next seat over, my daughter says shhh! Laughing, crying, I look over at her. She smiles back, as she’s wont to do, and returns her attention to the proceedings. I want to hug her and shake her. I do neither. Instead I press fingers to my bloody face and listen to the speaker, another elderly gent in mismatched military garb. The subject, from what I can ascertain, is America’s independence, the Fourth being the following day, only the elder is correlating the occasion with Christopher Columbus’s brave discovery of this majestic nation. This doesn’t sit well with a generously bearded man standing off to the side. Columbus, says the man, finger stiffened, was a mass murderer. Conquered the Native Americans—a peaceful people, mind you—and fed ’em to his hunting dogs. Raped and tortured the women. Took hundreds of ’em back to Spain and sold ’em as slaves. The man has two buddies, also fans of facial hair, and they nod throughout his oratory. When he’s finished, one of them says, Go spread your Catholic white-boy drivel somewhere else, Sarge. A smattering of laughter from the fringes. The dozen or so participants, however, are not amused, including a youngish soldier who pops up amid the oldsters and glares at the bearded men, fists clenched. His uniform is current and authentic, his neck like a stump. You’re living proof, says the soldier, that the Indians fucked the buffalo. Whoa, I think, lifting my child. Profanity-laced threats fly back and forth between the bearded men and the soldiers, young and old alike, finally attracting the attention of the security guard. My child doesn’t want to go, she wants to watch the fracas, and she struggles mightily and emits a high-pitched squeal, as she’s also wont to do, and the security guard sees this and alters his course for the bloody faced man attempting to constrain the thrashing, screeching child. SIR, he shouts, producing a canister of pepper spray from somewhere on his person. SIR! He brings up the canister, finger on the trigger mechanism. I consider running my child out of there posthaste. I consider kicking the guard in the testicles. But I am on probation. So instead I lower my child to the floor and clench my eyes and lips and wait for the chemicals to wash over my injured face as the first punches are thrown a dozen feet away.

 

Force Feed

 

We are three miles from the transfer station, twenty minutes until quitting time, when Cleavon silences the country music and takes a call. In an instant his happy-go-lucky expression turns somber. He misses three stops in a row. Makes a hard right and takes us off course.

 

The deal? I say.

 

Fuckin’ stepdad, says Cleavon. Force feedin’ Petey. Locked him in the pantry.

 

Petey is Cleavon’s ten-year-old brother. He has accompanied us on several runs and now dreams of becoming a garbage man. Unlike Cleavon, Petey is short and severely obese. He spends the bulk of his time lounging on the futon eating frosted breakfast pastries and watching gory television programs, sans supervision.

 

We head deep into the country. Roads turn to dirt, ranch homes to trailers. Cleavon taps his leg frenetically and breathes through flared nostrils. He gets the old truck up to seventy and then seventy-five, never a good idea. I consider telling the young man to cool out, to think about what he’s doing, but know it’s useless. When it comes to his little brother there is no reasoning with Cleavon.

 

He skids to a stop in front of a blue doublewide. Pulls out the billy club he found curbside and now keeps for feral dogs. The club is scarred and stained and monogrammed on the business end with a raised smiley face. I wonder about its history.

 

You better stay here, says Cleavon, hopping down from the cab. Given your situation and all.

 

Young man, I say, but he’s nearly halfway to the trailer. I follow, stepping over rusty toys and concrete turtles, until I reach the crumbling steps, and there’s Petey coming out of the house. Peanut butter is spread copiously across his cheeks and ears. His fat little hands are balled into fists. He storms off the porch and shoulders past me, kicking at the yard miscellany.

 

You okay, Petey?

 

He says some things no ten-year-old should say. He calls his stepfather a motherjabber. He says Cleavon’s gonna turn that motherjabber inside out and torch his rotten corpse.

 

You’ve been watching too much television, I tell him. There are less felonious ways to teach a man a lesson. But Petey is not listening. He’s hurling concrete turtles against the garbage truck, one at a time, spitting Paw-Paw with each explosion. I wait until he tires himself out and walk over and take a seat next to his panting, supine form. Tiny red ants march through the peanut butter on his face. I try flicking them off but Petey suddenly rolls to his side and vomits generously, cheek to earth. He starts to bawl, snot running from his nose, and then hiccups set in. I’m slapping his back when his stepfather bursts from the doublewide and trips and goes sprawling to the ground. When he picks his head up I see the angry red welts on his forehead and the happy faces dead center in the welts. The man’s eyes are bloodshot and he smells of whiskey and terror. He struggles to his feet and looks back at the porch. There Cleavon is plunging the billy club into a tube of axle grease next to his mother, a chain-smoking stick of a woman who looks old enough to be his grandmother.

 

Paw-Paw needs a snack, says Cleavon.

 

The stick woman nods, then flicks her cigarette butt in the grass and disappears into the house, slamming the door behind her. Cleavon comes down from the porch. The stepfather limps off down the dirt road, grunting forcefully with each stride. Arthritis? I wonder. Hemorrhoids? Cleavon walks after him, in no hurry, shaking the club at the stepfather like a school marm.

 

More you run, he says, worse it’ll be.

 

The drunken stepfather turns abruptly and comes at Cleavon but after several steps changes his mind and hobbles toward the woods. Bad call. Cleavon grabs him by the collar and raises the grease-slathered club to his lips. The stepfather cries out, something about trying to teach Petey a goddamn lesson, him bein’ so fat ’n all.

 

Here’s your lesson, says Cleavon.

 

Don’t watch, I tell Petey, but may as well be talking to the garbage truck. He’s cross-legged and absorbing the action in a trance, mindlessly scooping peanut butter from his cheeks and shoveling it into his mouth, ants and snot and all, as if enjoying one of his programs on the television.

 

Suicide Watch

 

After a hot day throwing trash I report to county lockup. Sun-whipped and salty, I’m ready for some hours of self-reflection but instead get groaning and muttering from the adjoining cell. It comes from a man with a pencil neck and eyes the color of fresh concrete.

 

No reason, he says.

 

I’m sorry?

 

To live, he says.

 

Right, I say. What’s your name?

 

More groaning.

 

Your name.

 

Merr, says the new man. Huddled in the corner, he’s stripped of his shoes and outfitted in a baggy orange jumpsuit.

 

I try again. The man despairs incoherently.

 

Merr, he says.

 

Enough, I say, and roll over on my bunk.

 

The next day is Day 173 of my work release, and the jailor, a former high school classmate, cracks wise for the 173rd day in a row. I was once voted Most Likely to Lead a Revolution. Now I throw trash for a living and serve time for suburban malfeasance.

 

I laugh along at my expense. I ridicule myself with vigor. Then, during a break in the derision, I ask about the new man.

 

Doctor gone wild, the jailor explains. Nine months for writing bogus scripts. Wife bolted for Key West with her yoga instructor. Suicide watch.

 

I cluck my tongue and shake my head. I mention the jailor’s prowess on the gridiron, such as it was, and his chest puffs visibly. I use this momentum to inquire about the possibility of an extra pillow.

 

The jailor barks and slugs me on the back with enough force to damage a vertebra.

 

In your fuckin’ dreams, garbage man.

 

That night the man in the adjoining cell gets a plastic spoon with dinner. When the jailor has gone, he snaps it in half and puts a jagged piece in his wrist.

 

Repeatedly he jabs. Blood shimmies about, but not enough to matter.

 

Still, I scream for the jailor. This strikes me as good behavior.

 

The jailor lumbers in growling and cursing. Who woke me the fuck up? he says. He hammers the new man to the floor and spends some time working him over. Only then does he thumb his radio.

 

Man down, he says.

 

The man comes back three days later, at dinnertime. I’m contemplating a rubbery meatball and enjoying the silence.

 

Help me, he says, shivering.

 

I’m ready this time. I set the tray aside and remove the laces from my boots, toss them over. The man looks at me wide-eyed and then stands on the plastic chair and goes about tying the thick black laces together and attaching the single piece to the overhead sprinkler. He does this frantically, as if I might realize my mistake and summon the jailor.

 

The man fashions the loose end into a makeshift noose and wraps it around his slender neck. He steps off the chair. The cord goes taut, causing an opening of jaws and a silent gagging. He grabs at the laces as he twirls around, feet inches from the floor, but is unable to pull himself to safety. He attempts to stand on the chair but instead kicks it away in his agitated state.

 

His eyes meet mine, bulging. I stand pat, silent.

 

The man’s neck is compressed to the point that I could enclose it in one hand. His face is a vibrant shade of purple. He begins snapping back and forth, like a fish in a net, and after five or six of these spasms the laces break and he falls to the floor.

 

The man gasps and coughs. When he sits up, he looks at me before settling his gray eyes on the bars. He stays that way for minutes, hours, just sitting and staring, moving only to rub his neck. What he doesn’t know is that I cut notches into the laces, dozens of razor-thin slits to weaken the fabric. I return to my meatball, now cold, and leave him to his self-reflection. This is more what I had in mind.

 

Dead Dog Walking

 

At her feet: a rabbit-thing in a cage.

 

A chinchilla, she says to my silent inspection. And her four little ones.

 

Her eyes shift to my bulldog, whose intestines are loaded in a clear plastic bag and duct-taped to his ass.

 

What’s he in for? she says.

 

Death, I say.

 

She narrows her eyes, fiddles with the cage door. A handsome woman with straight hair and generous features. No ring.

 

A billing question arises and the woman heads to the counter, then behind to examine the clerk’s computer screen, the cage left in place, the door ajar. Something resembling a minuscule, puff-headed mouse breaks free of its mother’s underbelly and sniffs at freedom.

 

My bulldog keeps his head on his paws and his good eye closed. Or nearly closed. You never know with Jorge, who, despite his limited vision and leaking innards, is the eternal hunter.

 

Then: chaos. An escaped macaw appears, followed by two frantic techs, and I’m up and galloping around the clinic, arms waving at the squawking rainbow. Room to room we go, the three of us, shielding eyes from claws and clucking like fools. The bird voids on our shoulders, sheds some feathers, flies back to its cage.

 

The handsome woman is screaming.

 

He ate my babies, she says, tears falling. Swallowed them whole.

 

Jorge pants mightily from the effort.

 

How many?

 

Four of them. Goddamn monster.

 

Sure, I say. The vet is standing and waiting, eyebrows suspended, ready for us.

 

Listen, I say, he probably didn’t chew. Can we get them out?

 

The vet shrugs. Give it a shot, he says.

 

A tug on Jorge’s leash, the labored trek to the death chamber.

 

Dead dog walking, I say, out of respect for my friend of fifteen years, but also a shot at wit. Maybe I’ll impress, get the little rabbit-things back with heartbeats, convince the handsome woman to take a slice of pie and a cup of coffee henceforth. I figure there’s nothing to lose, what with my sentencing slated for the following day.

 

Two animal people sharing each other’s company. Nothing more.

 

Maggots

 

On my first run as garbage man I shove my hand into a pile of maggots. I make a sound and jump back, slapping at my skin. The maggots fall from my fingers and curl into balls on the asphalt.

The driver, Cleavon, comes around the garbage truck laughing.

Relax, partner. In England they sell ’em in vending machines.

Cleavon scoops a handful of maggots from the garbage can and stuffs them into his bait puck. Then he puts the puck in his pocket and hurls the garbage bags into the truck, larvae raining down like writhing hailstones.

Two miles to the next stop, partner. Jump on in.

Driving with his knees, Cleavon extracts a wad of chew with the same fingers he used on the maggots. Cleavon is tall and slender and good looking, yet he wears a greasy gimme cap and flannel shirt with the sleeves shorn at the shoulders. Cleavon is two years removed from a state basketball championship and multiple scholarship offers, yet he chose to remain in town and drive a garbage truck and go fishing and drink beer with his redneck buddies.

Nigger walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder.

No jokes, I say.

Wait, he says. So the bartender looks up at him and says, That’s cool, man, where’d you get that thing? And the parrot says, Africa, they got millions of ’em.

I turn my head and breathe deeply. I remind myself that I cannot get fired from this job, that it’s my last chance. I close my eyes and begin to count backward from fifty, per my counselor.

Your go, says Cleavon.

Knock knock, I say.

Who’s there?

Shut the fuck up.

Shut the fuck up who?

That’s it, shitbird, just shut the fuck up.

Cleavon snickers at this. Everything amuses Cleavon, I’m finding. Here’s a twenty-year-old garbage man with Red Man in his teeth and a pocketful of maggots, as comfortable in his ignorant skin as a man can be. This fuels my anger further.

We turn into the subdivision, the only subdivision in the village, the place where I lived with my wife and infant daughter until my wife kicked me to the curb. I did some things in this subdivision that caused her to challenge my sanity. Oddly, killing a man wasn’t one of them.

Here we are, says Cleavon. Back in the hood, hey partner?

I climb down and get to work. Most of my former neighbors abide by the three-bag limit, and I throw their trash and watch their heads appear in the windows. Two boys in swim trunks ride by on their bicycles, staring, while old Mrs. Crenshaw waters her flowers and pretends not to.

When we pull up to Barbara’s driveway, Cleavon gets out to help. She’s left us a massive pile of trash bags and bent chairs and broken bookshelves. Cleavon begins throwing without complaint.

After a few moments he stops and says, Fuckin’ weird, huh?

Weird because it was here, in Barbara’s home, that I killed a letter carrier I believed to be assaulting her. This made me a hero for nearly two weeks.

Cleavon spits a mouthful of tobacco juice, then wipes his lips and says, My old partner? I used to drop his ass off and pick him up on the way back through. He’d tell me to take my time, but shit, ten minutes was all that boy needed. He’d come out of there with a smile on his face and a wet spot on his Levi’s.

He’s grinning as he throws the last bag. Guess ol’ Barbara digs the service professionals, hey partner?

Fifty, I begin again, for Barbara is a friend of mine. Forty-nine, forty-eight …

My house is next in line. I had hoped to see the place in disarray, but the lawn has been mowed and the hedges trimmed, no doubt the work of my wife’s boss. He started sniffing around not long before I put a drill bit through his hand. That landed me a year of probation and once-a-week anger management classes.

For her part, my wife banished me from the house. I retreated to a tent in the backyard with my bulldog. I lost my job. I began to follow her. I showed up at an after-work party where I watched her nuzzle up to the boss, his hand still in plaster. I walked up and stood before them in hushed silence and resisted an urge to strangle the cocksucker. Instead I took the drinks from the table and one by one poured them over his head, margaritas and pina coladas and long islands. Then I smeared avocado dip across his forehead. The boss man sat there and took it, fear in his eyes. His cast turned soggy, he whimpered out loud, and this was enough for me.

My wife followed me to the parking lot and said, Disappear from my life and I won’t tell your probation officer what happened here tonight.

I called her names and questioned her morals. She fired back and said I’d never see our daughter again.

And that’s where I’m at now, court date set. My probation officer said the judge will find the avocado thing amusing, sure, but that won’t stop him from locking me up and stripping my custody rights.

Two bags sit at the curb. The garage door is closed and the shades drawn. There’s a wrenching in my gut as I picture my daughter rumbling down the driveway on tricycle, blonde hair flying. Drawing hopscotch squares on the concrete. My eyes burn. My fists clench. I grab the bags and carry them to the cab.

What’s up, partner? says Cleavon. I ignore him and place the bags on the seat. Whoa, he says, but I shut the door and take up my position on the back of the truck, motioning him along in the side mirror. He shrugs and continues down the street.

The rest of the route is a blur. Trash bags fly with abandon, maggots pelt my head and shoulders. No matter. We finish the subdivision in seven minutes, which Cleavon declares a record when I return to the cab for the ride back.

But goddamn, partner, pace yourself next time.

I ignore him and shake out a can liner from a box he keeps in the truck. I untie one of my wife’s bags and carefully begin removing items. On top is a bloody carton from a beef roast, potato peelings, an empty croissant tube: the kind of meal I remember from our early days together.

Someone’s eatin’ well, Cleavon says.

Knock knock, I say, and he snickers.

I pull out a pair of women’s shoes. I helped my wife pick them out less than a year ago: closed toe with wooden soles, Italian made, nearly two hundred dollars. They are not ready for the landfill. I thumb a maggot off the soft leather and place them in my lap, side by side, heels together.

This is gettin’ freaky, partner, says Cleavon, and spits dark liquid out the window.

Next is a small bag of bathroom rubbish. I turn it over and examine the contents. There are wads of toilet paper, bloody tampons, strings of dental floss. And something else. I tear it open and remove a ball of used condoms, another man’s seminal fluid filling the tips.

Daaamn, says Cleavon. Someone’s been tappin’ that ass.

He has a drop of tobacco juice on his chin. I remove it with the sole of my wife’s right shoe. He raises an arm and ducks his head, albeit too late. The truck swerves. I hit him again and this time he loses control and the truck skids into the ditch. Cleavon puts the vehicle in park and looks over at me with a shit-eating grin. I get up on the seat and hit him some more, hit him until I’m exhausted, the wood sole bouncing off his arms and skull, the maggots flying from inside the shoe, and all the while Cleavon laughs hysterically, unfazed, just three short hours until he hits the fishing hole with the hayseeds. What a story he’ll have.

 

Tumor

 

A lump the size of a grapefruit claims Uncle Horace in his woodshed. This is not a surprise. Following the diagnosis, eight months prior, he had pursued no follow-up, no chemotherapy, no medication. Instead, he drove home in silence, packed his hunting gear and disappeared into the Upper Peninsula for three weeks, leaving Aunt Beatrice to fear the worst. It was not yet deer season.

 

My cousin Jerry delivers the news in the basement of my grandparents’ house where I have been staying since my wife discharged me from our property outright. It’s a dim, unfinished space with concrete floor, crumbling stonewalls and cool air that soothes what I believe to be a low-grade fever. I keep my bloody hand wrapped in shredded long johns. My days consist largely of fitful sleep, unholy visions and mastication of my grandmother’s rutabagas.

 

Jesus, says Jerry as I lie upon the cot in the darkness. You’re not gonna suck my blood, are you?

 

Fuck you want? I say. Because my grandparents are too old or incapacitated to venture down the steps they send Jerry, age twenty-eight, to deliver the message. Jerry is staying with my grandparents until he gets his act together, thus far a five-year process.

 

It’s Horace, he says, and I sit up.

 

He tried to cut it out himself. Aunt B found him disemboweled.

 

The funeral, I say.

 

Three days, says Jerry. Listen, man, I know what he meant to you.

 

Out, I say.

 

Jerry runs at the mouth and then climbs the stairs. I lie back and think of Uncle Horace, my father’s older brother, who helped raise me and my siblings after my mother died in a car accident and while my father was out, in Uncle Horace’s words, screwin’ the fuckin’ pooch. Uncle Horace has a glass eye and that’s because of me. On my twelfth birthday I received a slingshot and proceeded to take on my two brothers. A spirited if malicious volley followed until Uncle Horace stepped onto the deck and took a stone to the face. I bolted through the woods but he caught me posthaste and I crumpled to the ground, head cradled in my arms. Get up and look me in the goddamn eye, said Uncle Horace. He lifted me by the shirt and held me there and I looked at his eyeball, hanging by a cord, pierced and draining, and I screamed and struggled but Uncle Horace tightened his grip and slapped me across the face and said it again: In the eye, boy. You look people in the eye.

 

I doze and dream of this, or a version of this, for an undetermined period. When I wake my brothers are standing on either side of the cot. Big shot developers, they’re dressed in tailored black suits. The eldest says, Very sad, little brother, very sad.

 

The middle brother says, I talked to your wife and she said you’re out of control. Going off on her boss. Carving yourself hand up to make some kind of point. Where’s your head at?

 

Cassie, I say. My daughter is three years old and the reason God created earth.

 

You’ll be lucky to see her again, the way you’re going, says the middle brother.

 

There was a time I could take my brothers, with their styled hair and college-prep courses, and I attempt that now, rising from the cot with purpose in my fists. But I can land only an impotent blow on the eldest’s chest before they take me down and pin me to the cot, belly down.

 

Won’t go to the hospital, the hospital comes to you, says the middle, and calls for his wife, a squinty eyed proctologist who descends the stairs with a physician’s bag.

 

She unwraps my hand and looks it over. You’ve got the beginning of an infection, she says. We’ll clean this out, stitch it up, get you going on antibiotics.

 

As she prepares her accoutrements, I kick and struggle against my brothers only to vomit rutabaga onto the floor.

 

Don’t worry, she says. I deal with assholes all the time.

 

She completes the procedure sans anesthesia, administers the antibiotics into my buttocks and orders follow up treatment. My brothers release their hold and follow her up the staircase. The eldest stops midway up and says, We’re burying Uncle Horace in two hours, you want a ride.

 

Fuckin’ hell, I say, rising from the cot. That’s today?

 

I locate one of Uncle Horace’s brown leisure suits from the old cedar chest, wash up the best I can and accompany my family to the church. I shake and sweat in the polyester as the eulogies are read. Loved ones speak of his service in the war, his mechanical acumen, his blue-ribbon jerky. None of these capture Uncle Horace’s essence, I believe, and during a break in the service I make my way to the lectern and hold on tight amid the murmuring. I open my mouth and begin to tell a story of a punk kid, and a horrible accident, and as I do I look each of them in the eye, the way the old son of a bitch would have wanted.

 

Trouble

 

The boss calls me into his office, in this case an extended cab pickup. He’s a small, energetic man with manicured fingernails and an associate’s degree in construction management. His father is the one who hired me, fourteen years prior, but is now semi-retired and fishing for marlin off a tropical coast. Like mine, the father’s fingernails are lumpy and discolored from years of meeting the business end of a hammer.

 

Is it cold out there or what? says the boss. He puts significant emphasis on certain words and makes exaggerated expressions. In his hands is a gourmet coffee drink with a green sippy lid.

 

Your dad and I shingled in ten-below, I say. The old man took three bundles up the ladder at a time.

 

Yeah, yeah, he’s a legend. And he’s got the arthritis to prove it. The boss takes a sip of his coffee drink and thumbs a drop of spittle off the steering wheel. It’s a brand new truck, special edition, glossy black with cream seating.

 

So, the boss says. I understand you’ve been having some trouble.

 

You understand wrong.

 

Putting a drill bit through someone’s hand? Punching out a man at a playground? That’s not trouble?

 

Depends on your perspective.

 

Well my perspective is this. That man at the playground happens to be a friend of mine.

 

Then teach him some manners, I say, and stare at the boss and his wide eyes until he looks away.

 

To the windshield he says, An employee who runs around maiming people would be considered a liability. A shrewd employer would not be wise to retain such an employee.

 

Out the window I see Hank standing near the truck, unable to look into the cab, and understand that he is the muscle in case things get out of hand. I shake my head. As the foreman, I hired Hank when he was still a teenager and taught him to hammer a nail straight.

 

Say the words, you fucking android.

 

You’re fired, says the boss

 

There, I say, pulling the utility knife from my pocket. Wasn’t so hard.

 

I twist the blade into my palm. His face opens. Blood drips and splatters about the cab as I genuflect.

 

For the blood I have given this company, I say.

 

You crazy bastard! says the boss. My truck!

 

And for the blood of my laboring brethren. Who must continue bearing your gross ineptitude.

 

Blood is covering wide swaths of the cab at this point, and I realize I’ve cut a bit deep. The boss is pawing blood from an eyelid and motioning frantically for Hank. The coffee drink has spilled on the dashboard, smelling like a goddamn Christmas tree.

 

I step out to meet Hank, blood dripping from my fingertips. He’s a big kid, with arms like tree trunks. I place my wounded hand in his, the other on his shoulder, and tell him it has been a pleasure.

 

Pleasure my ass, says Hank, smirking. You stay out of trouble now, you hear?

 

A Night in Vegas

 

My tent walls are no match for Sinatra. I jump the chain-link fence and march across their yard and pound on the door. A pair of teenagers answer, one dressed as a showgirl and one a pimp.

Welcome to Vegas! says the showgirl.

Hey, you’re the guy who got kicked out of the house, says the pimp.

It’s two in the morning, I say. Turn it down.

Vegas doesn’t sleep, says the showgirl.

It will tonight.

Relax, hotshot, says the pimp, and steps aside. He snaps his fingers and a teenager wearing a white uniform comes forward.

Right this way, sir, says the guide, and leads me into the foyer where a teenager in a tuxedo croons into a microphone. He finishes the set and lights a cigarette as several girls in sequined gowns flock around. The crooner says, Easy ladies, there’s enough to blow around.

I stick my finger in his face and say, Watch your mouth.

He tips his chin to the kitchen and says, Tough guys over there, Mack.

The guide leads me to the kitchen. Several tables are set up under a sign that reads, World Arm Wrestling Championships, Las Vegas, Nev. A pack of teens with pipe-cleaner arms go at it, grunting and screeching in adolescent tenor. Blood runs from a nostril; beer cups are hurled upon defeat.

The guide says, Winner gets a free spin with Madam Vega.

I say, Madam Vega?

The guide leads me toward the master bedroom. A door opens and out steps a teen with mussed hair and glassy eyes. I recognize him as the son of Barbara, my large boned neighbor and owner of the house. Appearing behind him is a well-endowed woman in bra and panties. A wad of currency is wedged between her breasts. She leans against the wall and pouts in my direction.

Well well, says Madam Vega. A man among boys.

A married man, I say, although this may be a fleeting truth.

She runs fingertips over skin and says, What happens in Vega stays in Vega.

Bells and whistles sound from the living room. I turn and watch a teen pump his fists as coins pour from a slot machine. A dozen other teens look up from their machines, nod, drink from beer bottles, continue pulling mechanical arms.

Amid the hoopla I spot Barbara sitting on the couch staring straight ahead. In one hand is a drink, in the other a half-crumpled sheet of paper. I excuse myself from Vega and walk over. Barbara looks up with red-rimmed eyes.

Some graduation party, I say.

Kids deserve it, she says. Can you imagine growing up in this generation?

This is a point worth arguing, but not tonight. I take a seat on the couch. Barbara leans back and swallows the remainder of her drink. I sneak a look at the paper but can make out only the words wonderful man and born in Terre Haute.

Directly ahead a teenager wearing a satin headdress is peering into a crystal ball and reading another teen’s future. I hear her say, You will be chewed up and vomited by corporate America. You will acquire no fewer than two STDs by the time you are twenty-four. You will vacation to Bali with your mistress only to have your vessel hijacked by a pack of …

The kid doesn’t know, says Barbara.

I am not sure what this means. I wait for more.

She waves the paper and says, I should wait till morning to tell him, and then she cries. I take the paper from her hand. It is an obituary for Barbara’s husband, a frequently absent fellow named Hugh who sells, or sold, armaments to volatile countries. According to the obituary, Hugh was murdered doing what he loved in Namibia and although his body was not whole enough to be returned, his gentle, caring spirit will never be forgotten by a legion of family and friends.

Sinatra begins to croon again. A ruckus breaks out among the arm-wrestlers. Barbara rests her head against my shoulder and sobs into a hand. Her son looks over with a look of concern, but I smile and wave, as if we are sharing a joke. At this point, midway through Somethin’ Stupid, a teenager in a red cape appears, balancing a sword above his open jaws with a quivering finger, and I begin to doubt the night will end well.

 

Suck Fuck

 

One day, Marshmallow, you’ll meet a boy, or a man, or whatever, and he won’t know who the hell he is. What I’m saying is, he’ll be in conflict with his very masculinity. He’ll take you out to the club or to the movies and some guy will smile at you or talk you up and the hair will stand up on the back of his neck and he’ll want to stomp the guy into the ground. But of course he won’t, he won’t even bring it up, just swallow his instincts down until they burn a hole in his gut. He’ll desire relations with you six or seven times a week but you won’t want to, of course, and he’ll be left wondering how much to push. Too much and he only wants you for your body, too little and he doesn’t love you. He’ll work hard to provide for his family only to hear that he doesn’t spend enough time with his family. So he’ll ease back on the overtime but that means no summer vacations to Florida, no diamond anniversaries, and suddenly he’s not a good provider.

You see what I’m getting at here, Marshmallow?

Of course she doesn’t. My daughter’s not even two years old, yet she’s the only one in this world I can talk to.

We’re belly-down in the tent, chins in hands, staring out into the woods that abut the backyard. My daughter came waddling out about twenty minutes ago carrying a half bag of miniature marshmallows and wearing plastic vampire teeth. I put a marshmallow on each of her fangs and she giggled and let them dissolve that way, and then opened her mouth so I could to it again.

I’ve been living in the backyard for nearly a month. I’ve got an eight-man tent, a generator, a mini-fridge stocked with jerky and pickles and Mexican beer. Jorge, my aging bulldog, has been staying with me even though the cool night air plays hell on his arthritis. He’s laying next to us now, head on paws, eyelids fluttering with bulldog dreams.

For the first couple weeks of my exile I could hear my only child screaming for her daddy. Finally, a few days ago, my wife gave in and let her come out for an hour. I’m hopeful that soon my wife will come out as well and I’ll get a chance to apologize for drilling through the hand of her boss. The boss pressed charges but I told the cops it was an industrial accident. They told me not to make any long-term plans.

I say, So, what is Mommy saying about me?

My daughter says, Mommy inside.

Yes, Mommy’s inside. But what did Mommy say about Daddy?

Daddy outside.

Fair enough, I say, and we lie in silence for a while. My daughter turns to me for a fresh pair of marshmallows and I do the honors and when I turn back there’s a rabbit in front of us. He’s crossing toward the woods and apparently doesn’t know we’re there. He’s an ancient looking rabbit, with patches of missing hair, nicked up ears and, I would surmise, poor hearing. My daughter looks at me with her eyes wide and her lips in an O. I expect her to scream out in delight but instead she covers her mouth and looks back to the rabbit. Jorge is also peering at the rabbit with his one working eye and I say, quietly, Get ’em, boy, and Jorge bolts from the tent with surprising quickness, given that he’s one hundred and five in human years, and attacks the rabbit from behind, getting its neck between his jaws and shaking the rabbit back and forth until it is limp.

You sick fuck! screams my wife, and I jump out of the tent and see her standing there with a horrified expression.

All I can think to say is, How long have you been there, honey? and she responds, I heard you sic him on that poor creature. What kind of person does that?

What I think but don’t say is, A man?

At this point my wife is snatching up our daughter and carrying her toward the house. Jorge drops the rabbit and follows, no doubt believing that his instinctual behavior was appreciated and will thus be rewarded. A common mistake.

 

The Boss

 

My wife’s new boss invites himself to our home on the day of the neighborhood party. This is part of his innovative method of assessing his lieutenants, my wife tells me, to determine if he’ll keep them on. He’s a managerial genius and working with him would be a delight, she says, so I am to be on my best behavior.

The boss shows up in designer clothing and hands my wife what appears to be an expensive bottle of wine. He’s tall and lean with lots of black hair and white teeth. I present my hand for salutation and find his eyes watery but his grip formidable. My wife blushes in his presence.

The boss looks down at my sleeping toddler and makes a face as if he needs to defecate. He asks me what her name is. I tell him Cassie. He looks around our two-bedroom ranch home with unfinished basement and deems it rustic. That’s exactly what attracted me to the place, I announce, and my wife presents a look of warning.

After several minutes of listening to the boss describe his upbringing in a similar one-horse town, we walk to the neighbors’ yard with me pushing the toddler in her stroller and my wife and the boss discussing workplace issues. Their shoulders touch continuously, I notice, and several times the boss reaches out and pats and/or caresses my wife’s back. He calls her by a shortened version of her first name. She calls him Bernard to start and then, after two glasses of wine, Bernie.

Approximately thirty people are attending the party, the highlight of which appears to be a volleyball game. The boss brags about his playing skills and pesters my wife to join the contest until she agrees. The boss proceeds to make several athletic plays and give the female players advice, including my wife, whom he nestles up behind to demonstrate the underhand set technique. He also ogles my neighbor’s fourteen-year-old daughter, an honors student who is wearing a bikini top over prematurely large breasts and a cloth miniskirt with the words JUICY on the backside.

Halfway through the game my neighbor Barbara comes over and asks how I have been. I assume she means since I killed the postal carrier whom I believed to be attacking her in her home. I tell her Fine, just fine, and ask about her husband. He’s in Nicaragua, she says, and quite subtly caresses the crook of my arm. I take a step back and ask Barbara if she wouldn’t mind watching my sleeping toddler so that I may play some volleyball. Without waiting for an answer I take my position on the other side of the net from the boss, which causes my wife to present another look of warning. The boss proceeds to block many of my shots in an aggressive manner and also spikes the ball several times into my defensive posture. The next time the ball comes to me I hit it low and fierce and it travels under the net and into the boss’s testicles. He lets out a resounding whoop and sinks to the earth while cupping his genitalia. Several of the volleyball players gather around him, including my wife, who is patting his shoulder and glaring at me, and after a while of his blubbering I decide to take the sleeping baby into the garage and continue building her hope chest.

I’m drilling holes into the support pieces when the boss walks in smiling, minus my wife. Nice shot, man, he says, and I say, I see your color has returned. He glances into the toddler’s stroller and says, What’s her name again? I tell him Hortencia. He says, Girl’s a sleeper, huh? Can’t blame her there, I say, and continue drilling holes.

The boss says, So tell me what’s it like to kill a man with a knife.

It was a letter opener, I say. And it’s messy, overrated.

Here, I say, hold this. I drill another hole, the boss holding the wood steady, and he says, Between you and me, that’s some sweet young tang, isn’t it partner? I say, Beg your pardon? He says, I’ll tell you what—and full disclosure here: I have a teenage daughter at home—but goddamn if that little thing didn’t get my blood flowing.

I put the drill bit on the center of his hand and bore through to the workbench. There is only marginal resistance from the bone. It’s not until I’m pulling it back out that the boss lets out a yelp. He does it again, louder this time, and I smack him across the face and tell him to shut the fuck up, it was only a five-eighths. The boss runs around the garage holding his bleeding hand and looking for a rag or some such to staunch the flow. By now the toddler is awake and crying forcefully. I go to her and pick her up and hold her close, and together we watch the boss sprint down the driveway and left toward the party, where someone, my wife, probably, will have to drive his smug ass to our rustic little hospital.

 

Animals

 

My toddler approaches his toddler on the playground. His toddler pushes my toddler to the earth. My toddler bumps her shoulder on a metal apparatus and begins to scream. I lift his toddler by the wrist and spank her twice on the buttocks. She falls to the earth and screams, like my toddler. He utters an obscenity and takes a step in my direction. I blow him a kiss. He swings his arm at my head. I duck and apply my knuckles to the sweet spot between his eyes. He falls to the ground, next to our screaming toddlers. My wife appears and gathers up our toddler and compares me aloud to human excrement. She tells me I can walk home. I do. It’s seven miles.

 

My wife locks the doors to our home. I walk to the backyard and stand on my tiptoes and address her through the screen window. Striking that fellow was wrong, I say, but his offspring lacked manners. You’re an animal, says my wife. You’ll be lucky if they don’t arrest you for assault and child abuse. It was not child abuse, I say. It was old-fashioned discipline. But my wife shuts the window and closes the blinds. I sit down on the lawn and lie back into a pile of dogdirt. I think about my dog, Jorge, a fifteen-year-old bulldog with advanced arthritis and one working eye. I hope my wife does not direct her anger at Jorge. Ever since the baby came she has treated him like a second-class citizen.

 

I remove my soiled shirt and decide to clean the yard of dogdirt. There are dozens upon dozens of piles and I realize I have been lax in my dogdirt-cleaning responsibilities. The task provides me with a sense of accomplishment and also allows me to glance into the back windows of Barbara, our large boned neighbor who tends to wear but a T-shirt and panties around the house and occasionally on the back deck. Barbara seems a pleasant woman, much like her spouse, a short, stout fellow named Hugh who spends weeks abroad selling advanced weaponry to questionable governments.

 

I spend a lengthy amount of time cleaning dogdirt in back of Barbara’s home. Through the sliding glass door I see her vacuum in her panties, talk on the telephone in her panties, answer the door in her panties. I see the mailman appear in the doorway and drop his mailbag in the foyer. The mailman proceeds to slap Barbara across the face. Barbara responds by attempting to kick him in the lower extremities. The mailman blocks the brunt of the blow with his knee and comes after her. Barbara runs. I jump the chain link fence and sprint through Barbara’s lot, trampling a flowerbed. The sliding glass door is locked, forcing me to sprint around to the front door, which the mailman has closed, but not, fortunately, locked.

 

What I find is Barbara up on the kitchen counter with the mailman between her legs, his gray postal trousers down around his ankles. Barbara has both hands around his neck and is wrenching vigorously while calling him various names involving vulgarities. In the foyer next to the mailbag is a cabinet with various papers and envelopes and desktop implements. I retrieve a stainless steel letter opener, step forward swiftly and bury it into the mailman’s temple. I do not think about irony at this point.

 

The mailman withdraws from Barbara and screams and flails and squirts blood on the walls, Barbara, me. He falls to the floor. Barbara looks down at him and then up at me and says, The fuck have you done? I stare back at her, mouth ajar, realization setting in. A mischievous grin spreads across her face. She cocks back and slaps me hard across the cheek and says, Well? I watch the mailman’s blood run down her heavy breasts toward her epicenter. She tries to slap me again but I catch her arm. Get dressed, I say. I’ll call the cops.

 

The police arrive. Barbara cries the cry of a woman violated. I am hailed as a hero. The newspaper writes a story. My wife welcomes me back into her arms. I perform like a man possessed. I do not tell her why.

 

Breathe

 

My ex-wife directs me to the old plywood factory deep in the backcountry. I pull behind the crumbling loading dock and she climbs on my lap and suckles at my earlobe. We get after it the way we used to and toward the end she slams my head against the headrest repeatedly and screams out like a murder victim. I forget to breathe. My toes curl hard enough to trigger a charley horse.

 

Buy me an ice cream, she says, adjusting her underpants. I only have the babysitter another half hour.

 

This is not what I wanted to hear. I had hoped to stay the night in my home with my family. But she tells me she wants to take it slow. Get reacquainted. See if we are truly compatible.

 

We owe that to each other, she says. To our daughter. After all that’s happened.

 

I drive to the country store with the windows down. The warm breeze blows her hair back. I decide to tell her everything.

 

It’s been a long couple years, I say.

 

Talk to me, she says, turning in her seat to face me. I’m listening.

 

I exhale and nod. It comes in bits and pieces.

 

That little prick of a boss let me go so I sliced up my palms. Right there in his truck. I couldn’t tell you why. Had to get a shot in the ass for the infection. Uncle Horace tore his own guts out. The man who made me what I am today, like it or not. Gave a eulogy in his honor, pissed some people off. Got a job on work release throwing trash. Dug through your bags one morning. Found the new guy’s prophylactics and those Italian shoes …

 

Impulse buy, says my ex-wife, straight-faced.

 

… Finally put old Jorge down. His last meal was chinchilla. A hunter to the end, goddamn it. Served my sentence next to a dull-eyed man. He thought he had a death wish until I showed him otherwise. Lost our child at the mall looking at other women, but thinking of you …

 

The hell? says my ex-wife.

 

… Just for a bit. Partnered with a redneck named Cleavon. Against my better judgment. We traveled around the country, even out to California, freelancing. We. We …

 

Go on, she says, as we pull up the country store.

 

… killed some people for money. Some bad people.

 

She pauses with her fingers on the door handle

 

And that makes it okay?

 

A man tortured his sister. Shared her with others.

 

My ex-wife considers this for a moment, holding my gaze. There’s more to say, so much more, but I’ve forgotten to breathe again. She gets out and slams the door.

 

Well good riddance, she says, and I’m not sure if she’s talking to the degenerate or to me. Then she looks back over her shoulder and raises her palms to the sky.

 

Well?

 

I exit the car and join my ex-wife for ice cream, and I can breathe again.

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