“There’s something you need to know before they lock me up,” she says, sitting on the edge of the bed drinking coffee, brushing kitten fur from the Egyptian cotton, “I’m going to poison that dog.”
“And my hair’s falling out. I’m going to have to shave it all off and wear a wig.”
“Are you sure?” Sunlight pulling me through the open window, into the future: her with no hair, sweating into the pillowcase like a deformed egg with veins and crevasses of an old lady; this demented version of the wife I’d known for thirty-seven years.
She relishes her last sip, hazelnut and cream glowing on her lips, licking them in rhythm with the wind, tenderly placing the mug down on the nightstand—another ring for the Olympic symbols she’s been accumulating in the mahogany for the last three decades. She stands up, the corner of the mattress rises in gratified response, sunlight streaming across her face, wrinkles and silver trinkets around her neck blowing in the breeze.
“I’ve already decided how to do it: antifreeze, rat poison, chopped glass mixed with metal and bits of dog food puréed in the blender—”
“No, you mustn’t. Don’t ever mess with nature like that, Baby.”
But there’s something in her eyes that makes me sit straight up in bed and pull the sheets and blanket back down past my knees.
“I must…that dog is a beast.”
She climbs up the little ladder inside her closet and stands on the top rung looking for something on the shelf, as if it were a podium. I wonder what to do: Call the PETA people? The police? Maybe she’s not serious; since the breast cancer surgery she’s been saying lots of crazy things. Some days are more difficult than others.
She grabs a shoebox as a bunch of red roses fall down around her head, onto the carpet and ladder. The flowers are fake, plastic, but she puts on her best gold necklace from the jewelry box and smiles. She pulls a bag of weed from the shoebox and rolls a joint while her head brushes up against the unlit fluorescent bulb descending from the shallow concave ceiling.
“He never stops barking…” she says, shimmering in the sun, dripping flowers, as if she were Michael Phelps on the podium in Beijing, “…it’s the only way.”
The Lebanese neighbors’ brand new Labrador has been barking all morning, as he probably will be all day, trapped behind a metal fence in the backyard, growling like a zoo animal, a trapped lion, when the neighbors are god only knows where, doing god only knows what.
“He doesn’t want to be encaged like that. As soon as they leave he goes ape shit.”
She pulls a lighter from her robe and smoke rises into the closet, seeps into the room like cancer cells into the marrow of her left breast and lung. She coughs and I let her because the chemotherapy has been an apocalypse for her.
“Be careful baby,” I say, ladder shaking as she takes deeper hits, standing with her arms wide open like a scarecrow. She’s never been afraid of anything in her life—not even death; jumps from the top yellow podium like an acrobat and dances over to the bed, tossing the roach into the coffee cup. Hazelnut smolders and fizzes out the morning cigarette as the kitten runs away into the living room through the crack in the door.
“Didn’t I ask you to please keep that door shut if you’re smoking in here, Baby?”
Digging into polyester pockets of crimson bathrobe she pulls out the familiar grin she’s been using as the passport to the country of her madness for sixty-six years. It’s expired, the cover is worn, the pages are faded, but she flashes it anyway and people let her enter.
“Keep it in the closet; it’s all good in the closet.”
The other kitten begins to purr and sticks his head through the door.
“But Meghan’s home from school today, Ba—”
She doesn’t care to answer, just bounces out of the bedroom, a kangaroo with three months to live, plates and dishes making a racket in the kitchen within seconds. I get out of bed, shut the closet door, throw on a tennis shirt and some shorts, pick up the coffee mug, flush the roach down the toilet. A spider watches me from the corner of the bathroom, but he doesn’t mind. I’d rip him down and kill him—drop him into the water in a wad of toilet paper—but he’s too tall, even for the ladder in the closet—so I just let him spin his web and collect bugs. It’s a good life and the smoke bothers him little. What drives him crazy is the cancer. He shakes in the web as I open the bathroom window and get naked, showering with the spider: my most intimate companion.
“You take the longest showers,” she says. She knows I’m masturbating but doesn’t care anymore. She can see the curtain shaking and the spider bouncing in his web. After three and a half decades of marriage, nothing surprises her. She has her morning rituals; I have mine.
“You need to drive Meghan to the mall today.”
I lather up the monster and hope the shower rod holds my three hundred and seven pounds of flesh. She says I’m getting fatter every week.
“Hope that rod is strong enough to hold your ass of lard…,” she laughs.
“It will, Baby. It always doeeeeeeeeee—”
“…You really are one hairy bastard, Frank.”
The bathroom door closes and the steam floats out the window and the spider shakes his head and I turn off the faucet.
Downstairs the scrambled eggs are already on the table. Meghan’s on her cell phone—texting God only knows who. The dog is barking. She is preparing Purina Puppy Chow. Rufus died months ago, but I don’t say anything. Maybe she’s just pretending. She’s not that crazy.
“You smell like weed, Mom,” Meghan says.
I look up from my Los Angeles Times. She pretends she doesn’t hear anything, whistles while she dices dog food, throws it in the blender. Meghan is listening to headphones; as always. But she’s growing more and more into a woman every day. Her breasts are showing through a Nirvana t-shirt with frayed neckline and sleeves that look like some snot-nosed kid in Singapore cut them with scissors in a sweatshop.
“It’s a new perfume,” I say. Meghan doesn’t show any signs that she hears me, but giggles when I return to the middle of the last sentence I was reading. Something about a criminal trial of a man who held a hundred dogs in his house. I look up from the paper, but she’s just typing on the table, bacon in one hand, her life in the other.
“Stand for something or stand for nothing Dad,” Meghan says, picking up her plate, spinning her way over to the sink like a spider. Mom splashes her headphones with soapy detergent and bubbles as the pierced young monster ignores her. Nothing deters Meghan from shaking her head at Mom; squinting, pretending to smoke a joint. Mom splashes again, this time after cupping her hands with water and I wonder how this strange creature came from my sperm—purple and blonde highlights dripping in front of hazel eyes—she rinses the dishes and places them into the plastic dish rack, walking out the kitchen door to wait in the Volvo.
I grab the keys from the wooden rack next to the blender and I can smell the dog food festering. I walk out the door and down the path toward the Volvo. Meghan’s sitting in the passenger seat with a wicked expression—texting—grinning like a demonic pubescent carnival. Halfway down the path I hear a glass break in the kitchen. I don’t look back. I shake my head, walk around the car, and open the door.
“What ya smiling about?” I say.
My daughter ignores me. I’m not cool enough to be seen with her. “You’re not sexting again are you?”
“Daaaad,” she says, “drop me off in front of the bus stop please.” She doesn’t want to be seen with me. I can understand. I’m not cool. Never will be; but Meghan kisses me on the cheek as she scrambles out of the car and that’s all I need. There’s a lake of fire on the back of her t-shirt. I drive away through a puddle of mud and pull a u-turn. Car smells like farts. Hit the McDonald’s drive thru for some air and a chocolate milkshake.
The brakes squeak. I’m greeted coldly by the pimple-faced teen at the first window. “Lil’ early for a milkshake…isn’t it dude?” he says. His nails are painted black and it looks like he eats the cuticles. The edges are all bitten in weird angles like a buzz saw and the tips are orange. I stare at them, he smiles, files my bills, clunks some coins from the register and hands me my change. He looks like one of those demented, degenerate juvenile delinquents you hear about on the eleven o’clock news who gets arrested for selling weed through the local drive-in, or one of those kids who hides his pipe and pot in the bottom of the bag and then forgets about it when Mcy D‘z gets slammed and he needs to keep the customers moving.
Local teen arrested when a five-year-old finds something green underneath his fries after leaving the McDonald’s drive-thru.
I can smell eggs and bacon drifting through the window. He curls his pinky around the rubber on the edge of the sliding glass. Shuts it closed, black border gliding on plastic hinges he mocks me from within. I drive forward to the second window. Same clown opens it with my milkshake.
“You the only one working here?” I ask.
He smiles. “Here you go dude. Have a nice day.”
He hands me the plastic waxy cup with straw embedded on the side of the Styrofoam beverage container. His grotesque thumbnail scratches against the white paper, tears a chunk from the straw. Unbeknownst to this cretin, I see it sticking to the nail as the window closes and his pimples dance as he laughs and I open the ashtray and stuff the straw inside, removing the plastic lid and sucking frozen heaven.
What creepy appendages. That’s all I can think about as I drive home. Good thing Meghan doesn’t like boys with zits. Acne’s not cool Dad—even if it’s on your back…Backne is not hot. If she brought that snot-nosed troll into our home she would get a kick in the ass and a bus ticket to hell. I’ve never hit her, but just thinking about those satanic nails inside of her body makes me cringe, crazy. This past Easter she got her period, so she’s a woman now.
Between brain freezes and red traffic lights, I think of Meghan playing with her mother in the front yard before the cancer, before the marijuana, before the madness. We were a family. We were something more than three dead bodies at a dinner table. At least that’s what we’ll be when the cancer kills her. I’ll go to my bedroom closet and open up the safe, behind expired passports, pads of personal checks from bank accounts closed decades earlier, and the safe deposit box key, in the back: empty, except for a loaded .44 caliber. I’ll look in the chamber and cock the weapon, walk where Meghan is—kitchen, bedroom, living room, wherever. I’ll do it from behind so she won’t feel a thing. No more tears. The chamber will be half-empty. The barrel will be warm. It will burn my lips. The metal will clank against my teeth. Then I’ll go sit at the kitchen table and blow my brains into the ceiling, splattering the cells that were cancerous despite the benign diagnoses. That will be my Jackson Pollock moment.
I pull into the driveway, back out again for no reason other than something just doesn’t feel right. As I turn the wheel around the curb a burst of warm water covers the windshield and then another: plastic balloons thrown by the wife from our roof. I look out the passenger’s window and there she is, jumping up and down, laughing, smoking into the clouds. I shake my head and pull away, windshield wipers swiping green plastic onto pavement painted with hopscotch chalk now faded.
I brake underneath the tulip trees a short distance down the road to get out of her range and spy. Open the car door and crawl on my elbows beside the bushes on the sidewalk. The dog is barking and she’s using an improvised slingshot made with pantyhose hooked to the lighting rod and satellite dish to catapult balloons at the Labrador.
The dog is going crazy, snarling and salivating. I can see the brown eyes, sparkling, fur-splashed by balloons breaking against pavement leading up to the front porch. Some of them crash against the steps, trees, front door. I worry about windows, try to see into the future, when the cancer will kill her. Why lock her in the loony bin when she’s terminal?
The unsuspecting mailman drives down the street and parks his innocuous white wagon next to the fire hydrant. He has no idea about the ambush. Nothing in his training manual has prepared him for what’s about to happen. I can see her on the roof, she has a new target, garden hose drooping over white shingles on the side of the house, pulling down the gutter with its weight, aiming for the sidewalk as the mailman approaches, zigzagging door to door and then onward.
I walk away toward the Volvo. Start the ignition. Roll down the windows, lower the radio. Dog’s barking. I hear a scream and a wave of obscenities as I turn the corner, laughing into the madness of this cancerous illness in her brain, in her lungs, in her breast, in her bones, in her blood. It’s everywhere. I laugh all the way to Sam’s Tavern on the main road and park the car beside a couple of beaten-down pickups, Harleys, and shuffle through the swinging wooden door like a saloon. The patrons look at me like a gun slinger. I’ve never been in this bar before; never would under any circumstances, just didn’t have any other place in mind. No place to go. I’m not an artist. The only canvas I’m planning to paint is a portrait of cancer. I don’t know the answer; how to behave under these circumstances? I’m a gunfighter.
“What’ll it be?” bartender says.
“Whiskey on ice,” I say.
The place has gotten quiet except for guys slopping drinks amid the soft music of the Gypsy Kings on the radio.
Bartender has a thick mustache and rubs it as he pours my Dewar’s. He sees me as a local, not one of his clientele, not one of his people; he’ll charge me for the premium whiskey. His boys are drinking the cheap stuff in the corner, smoking cigarettes and blowing smoke toward me. It’s a dive bar—trashy and majestic—smells like drunks and butts. Bartender wipes the bar in front of me with a dirty wet towel and provides a coaster for the gunslinger—no one else. After a while, they all begin talking and pretend I’m not there. They don’t notice me until four whiskies later; when I crash into the jukebox. Goddamn machine hits me like a linebacker. No wind in my lungs, I can see them hovering around me laughing. They help me up, steady me toward the bathroom, when I get back we’re best friends. We get tight and the bar fills with fireworks, gets busy till sunset and the whiskey warms my aches away, and I decide to drive home.
Drunk as fuck, I drive the half mile home, seeing angels and children on bicycles, too drunk at dusk to notice dozens of broken balloons littering the soaked street between our home and the dog is barking. I stumble up the step and sit on the porch. I pull a “gift” from the bartender from my pocket, twist off the cap with me teeth, drink some more whiskey. This is the cheap stuff though. Don’t notice my wallet is missing.
“Why is your car parked crooked on the front lawn?”
She’s standing above me. Meghan laughs. “Dad’s drunk, Mom.”
The wife doesn’t say anything, just watches her daughter kiss me on the cheek.
“Take a shower Daddy…you’re dirty.”
“Don’t eat at McDonald’s and be back by ten,” I say.
“Mom said I could sleep over at Jenny’s.”
She skips down the street into a car with a woman I’ve never seen before behind the wheel and her daughter in the back hugging Meghan. I can hear them gossiping about boys as they drive away.
“What the hell happened to you?”
She lights a spliff and sits on the top step.
“Didn’t I ask you not to smoke that outside?”
“Fuck em…” she says, smoke blowing back into my face, through the front door, “…I’m the one who’s dying tomorrow.”
“You don’t know that—”
“Yes, after I kill that dog I’m taking myself out.”
“Don’t even joke about that hun—”
I get up and we walk into the house together, my arm around her waist; let her lead the way. I grab her right butt check. Don’t know why, but I squeeze it hard and she winces, pivots, and pulls me closer, smoke rising over her shoulder she takes my shirt off and I watch her get naked, and we make love together to the rhythm of the barkingLabrador. I grab her one breast and suck the other stump as we hump in the living room where anyone can walk in and watch. She smiles like a child. It’s not robotic and awkward like the past few months but something more—something we’ve lost along the way while waiting in white empty rooms naked except for chairs, tables with withered magazines and Styrofoam cups; endless corridors; hospital wards; antiseptic mazes of coffee machines; chemotherapy, radiation; and excision—it’s purer than anything we’ve ever known—and I don’t want to finish but I do. I don’t pull out. There’s no withdrawal method for the last time you make love with your wife like a teenager.
“That was interesting,” she says.
I feel safe in her arms. My ear against her neck, listening to her pulse, I can hear the life being sucked out of her. Doctors say it could be months, a couple years at most. A few of them say it could be weeks, days. She’s just not strong enough. She relights her spliff, smoke rises into the highest corner—into the intricate web of the mysterious spider I’m not as intimate with.
“It’s been a tough few weeks.”
“I love you.”
As she rises, the dog’s growls become more menacing, bordering horrific; like one of Michael Vick’s animals getting ready for fighting. Damn Labrador tied to a maple tree by a metal leash with yellow sparkles on it—though I imagine if he broke loose it would be like a sadistic lion escaping from the zoo.
Naked, we walk back up the staircase together, warm carpet beneath our bare feet, my hands cupped over butt checks as she leads the way. She’s saying something but all I can hear is theLabrador. She flicks on the hall light, then the bedroom light. Sliding open the top drawer in my closet, I throw on my Siegfried and Roy t-shirt, boxer shorts with Bart Simpson’s face on the back and Lisa’s lips around the hole in the front. She slips on a pink satin nightgown but keeps the front open as the kittens jump on the mattress and chase one another in circles on the rumpled sheets of the unmade bed. She walks like an Egyptian across the bearskin rug, folding hospital corners with the sheets and dancing like a gypsy.
I remember thinking how we’ll never be able to catch any sleep with that dog. Maybe we can turn the television set onto a station with static as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson advocated. Our cable was cut a few months ago, so it might work. I remember drifting off into a static world when the warm bed begins to shake, in an instant me and the kittens are catapulted onto the floor.
Neighbors are screaming. I crawl, but the nightstand slams into my shoulder and the kitten scratches my arm in terror and I hold her in my palm as I make my way across the room. Pictures falling all over the house; dishes breaking in the kitchen; the ashtray lands on my head, scattering ashes and a constellation of roaches across the bearskin. I stumble to the closet, lurching forward like an Olympian just before the finish line, I collapse into the bathtub.
The television’s upside down on the floor beneath the bookshelf but I can still faintly hear the static as the earth and furniture cracks and the saintly water-painted image of Mother Teresa hanging above the toilet cracks against the porcelain bowl as she crawls through the crooked doorframe and embraces me in the shower.
“Be careful of the glass.”
Her feet are already cut. So are her fingers. She leans back and does a couple Hail Marys, picks up the shattered picture frame of Mother Teresa and throws it through the broken window on the other side of the bedroom. The dog barks and the house falls apart and the cancer eats away at what remains, like termites. As the crescendo builds like waves, I envision a tsunami rippling downward into the Pacific, and at the crest, while I’m holding onto both sides of the tub with purple knuckles she manages to pull the fluorescent lighter from her breast pocket, and as the shaking subsides sufficiently she lights a brand new joint, half-bent and flattened. Like the house.
“It’s time,” she says, smoke rings illuminated by the moon, rising toward the spider in the corner above the shower. It’s too dark to see if the web survived, but I have a feeling it’s still there. I brush something off my neck. She rises and puffs as people scream and car alarms blare and the Labrador retakes control of the neighborhood, struggling to be heard over the incessant drone of horns and doors and shouts.
“Where the hell are you going, Baby?”
She disappears, and I struggle to rise from the tub. My legs are buckled and bruised. My shoulder is sore. Somehow, my slippers seem to have found their way into the bathroom. I shake them and pull them on. A few shards of glass fall on the tiled floor. The gunshot drowns out theLabradorand I see smoke rising from the .44 caliber pointed through the window.
“Simple really,” she says, taking one last puff before placing the gun against her chin and pulling the trigger. Her brains paint the picture I imagined. The moon provides the perfect illumination. Her face is gone. The cancer is gone. The battle is over. The madness, brain matter and blood; all that remains.
She’s hunched over against the wall, I run downstairs to find her cell phone. The banister is cracked, living room is a disaster area and the kitchen is a mess: dishes everywhere, the floor and countertops covered with glass, plates like puzzle pieces; I try to put the demented jigsaw together as I stand in the center and look through the crack in the ceiling.
The only thing standing is the refrigerator bolted into the floor. The freezer door is swung wide open—frozen clouds drift into the kitchen. I walk into them and close my eyes, frozen in time to a place where I never imagined I would stand. She used both bullets. How can I pull it now? I wonder as frost collects on my eyelashes and the hairs peeking out from my nostrils. I stand with my head in the freezer until it runs out of cold air. I open the refrigerator door and it’s a mess: liquids, jelly and broken eggs and everything dripping down, splashing onto my toes. There’s something still standing intact on the refrigerator door: plastic container with the top taped shut and a poisonous sign written in black magic marker. I know what it is. I wonder how it tastes.
I pick up one of the knives from the floor and try to put more pieces of that ethereal jigsaw together as I cut the duct tape off and it smells like fresh leather and how thirsty I am. I hold it up to the crack in the ceiling.
I wait for the aftershock and hold onto the refrigerator door for dear life as I swallow it like a frozen margarita on the beach while the crescendo builds again and the car alarms spread like cancer and just as I finish the last drop and go into convulsions, shaking on the shards of glass, I can hear the Labrador barking.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Writers’ Bloc.
Like the nomadic Pericú natives before him, Matthew Dexter survives on a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of shrimp tacos, smoked marlin, cold beer, and warm sunshine. He lives in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.