The Oven

The day Cynthia Bonner put her head in the oven would have been her thirtieth wedding anniversary. In an attempt to put nervous energy to good use, create form from chaos, she baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies. She had tried for twenty-seven years to convince Dallas to eat these cookies, but he turned his nose up at sweets and claimed he hated chocolate. So today she allowed herself this one act of aggression, cooking his least favorite food three years after it ceased to matter.

Reaching into the oven to retrieve the tray, she caught a whiff of the faintly eggy gas. She inhaled longer than intended and took a moment to savor the odor, the way a first-grader might sniff each marker before putting it in the box. She sat the cookie tray on the stovetop, turned off the pilot light and dropped to her knees, plunging her head into the maw. When the first signs of intoxication—a blank spot in her consciousness, a woozy dip of the head—hit her, she reacted violently, slamming the oven door and pushing herself backward, crashing into the island at the same moment the tray slid from the stove, launching the cookies in a dozen astral trajectories, their melted chocolate streaking the floor behind them.

Nauseous, breathing heavily, patting her arms and legs, she got up and turned off the range before going to the back yard for air. Bo, her Jack Russell, eyed her as he grunted out a dump by the back porch step. A plane flew overhead, angling toward the runway two miles south of her house, kids from somewhere down the street yelled and hooted and hollered and from the kitchen her phone played its awful guitar loop of a ringtone she couldn’t figure out how to change. She rushed inside to see an unfamiliar number and answered it to be greeted by the automated yet enthusiastic voice of a young lady asking her to participate in a poll. And thank God for waterproof cases because by the time she hung up the phone, it might as well have been dropped in the ocean.

Saddened and disturbed by the half-hearted attempt on her own life, Cynthia became obsessed with the fact that if she died no one would miss her. She considered a list of punishments—cutting her hair over the bathroom sink, eating the dirty chocolate chip cookies off the kitchen floor, throwing her phone into the glass door of the menagerie on the living room wall, digging the revolver out of the dresser drawer and firing six rounds into the breast pocket of a shirt Dallas had left behind. Her failure to do any of this sent her further down the spiral. She needed to talk, and finally concocted an excuse to call her friend Beverly Ricks, the only church friend who knew the more intimate details of her divorce.

After Beverly’s hello, Cynthia wasn’t sure what to say. She opened the door and let Bo totter in between her feet.

“Cynthia. Honey?”

“I’m here,” she said. “Sorry. I’m letting Bo in.”

“Oh, it’s okay. I’m in no hurry. Just loading grocery bags by myself. I’m amazed they can find the money to remodel, but can’t pay for good help.”

Cynthia and Beverly joked often about the town grocery’s renovations, the south’s last remaining Piggly Wiggly reinventing itself as a poor man’s Whole Foods.

“One thing at a time, you know,” Cynthia said.

On Beverly’s end a car door slammed, an engine cranked. “So what are you into today?”

Cynthia paused to acknowledge the humor of the question. “Nothing much. Just some cleaning. Reason I called was, I had a question about the business meeting tonight.”

“Okay…”

“Is something wrong?”

“Well,” Beverly said. “You mean the church business meeting?”

“Yes.”

“Well, honey…it’s Tuesday. Business meeting is Thursday night.”

“Oh.” Cynthia shuffled around her living room, her flip-flops clomping across the wood floor.

“You sure everything’s okay?”

“Oh! Yes. Absolutely. I just—I’ve always gotten Tuesday and Thursday mixed up. Who knows what I was thinking.”

Car noise. Radio static. “What are you doing for lunch?”

“Oh—Beverly? I have a call coming in. It’s probably Meg. Let’s get lunch tomorrow. Okay?”

She tossed the phone on the couch and turned her attention to the kitchen. Bo stood where the cookies had been scattered across the floor, the last remaining chocolate streak disappearing under his tongue. Cynthia faced her second moral crisis of the day.

Bo’s unceasing presence compounded the pain of her antiversary (as her son Allen called it). Dallas waited patiently through the expiration of two cats before she gave in to his lifelong wish of owning a dog. For years she suffered the repeated explanations and sad-sack history of Dallas’s dogless youth due to an allergic little sister. He spent hours and days and years extolling the alleged virtues of dogs over cats, loyalty always at the top of his list.

“Besides,” he said once. “I can’t trust an animal that shits in the house.”

She smiled. “Allen is disgusting. But he’ll grow out of it in a few years.”

And so on his birthday five years ago, Dallas came home with a Jack Russell puppy under his arm. He amended it with a weekend shopping spree in Houston for her birthday. The proximity of these celebrations—his birthday June 10, hers on the fifteenth, and their anniversary on the twentieth—underscored today’s difficulty. For twenty-seven years, it had been a source of humor and comfort. The kids always liked knocking out three birds with one stone, usually a dinner or cookout, and many times over the years Cynthia and Dallas enjoyed a weeklong vacation to celebrate.

At the time, she excused the purchase of the dog as a newly fifty-year-old man indulging a childhood wish. Two years later, she came to see it as an obscene gesture of defiance, along with his leaving it with her when he moved out. Dallas pointed to his new apartment complex’s no-pets policy, which hurt her in an unexpected way. He didn’t leave to be with someone else. He left to get away from her.

Bo had spent his fair share of nights outside over the past three years, his fair share of humid afternoons pawing at the back door. She sometimes sent him off for a weekend at Meg’s house, and secretly wished he might run away or maybe even fall victim to some tragic mishandling by the twins. She never articulated this wish, but did pray that her grandkids be spared any guilt.

She watched him lick up the last of the chocolate, then sprayed a wet towel with kitchen cleaner and wiped down the floor. Bo stood by the oven twitching and pacing side to side, his pink nose and white fur at the corners of his mouth smeared brown. Cynthia knew something needed to be done, but couldn’t say what. She had never even taken him to the vet. She retrieved the twins’ old baby gate from the laundry room, locked it into the door frame, and in the split second it took to register the sound of her phone ringing yet again, Bo jumped the gate and began licking her shoes.

“Hello?”

“Mama. Where are you? Are you home?” The pitch of Meg’s voice modulated depending on her mood. Cynthia could tell she was worried.

“I’m at the house.”

“We’ll be there in a second.” She hung up before Cynthia could put her off.

When the kids were little they would play by themselves for hours, but the click of the bathroom door or the crackle of a potato chip bag drew them like a siren. She wondered how far into adulthood that extended, and whether Meg’s coffee tasted like gas this morning, or if she woke up spooning the ghost of her own absentee spouse.

She huffed at Bo and pushed him back toward the laundry room with her foot, taking up the gate and closing the door behind him. She scanned the kitchen for evidence, washed and dried the cookie tray, double-checked the floor, made sure all of the knobs on the range were straight. The mirror in the hall revealed a horror show—chocolate smeared on one cheek, melted mascara, and a small strip of dirty-blond hair seared a jagged black. With no time to grieve for it, she retrieved a pair of kitchen shears from the utensil drawer and removed the dead strands. By the time the front door opened—they refused to ring the doorbell—her face was clean, and her burnt hair masked by a strategically placed barrette. She did her best to appear to be in the middle of something important.

The twins rushed into the hallway flanking Meg, scouting the house for toys or candy.

Cynthia met them in the hall. “Hey. What are y’all doing today?”

Meg stood in front of the open door, her eyes crawling Cynthia up and down, glancing up the stairs, her head shifting on her neck to inspect the living room. “We were just going grocery shopping. Maybe to eat. Are you okay?”

Cynthia’s reply to this simple question began with a face she’d seen Meg make hundreds of times as a teenager, what Dallas called the who-what-me. It started with a comically shocked expression, retracting the head and bugging the eyes, followed by looking around as if there were someone else in the room. For the finishing flourish the accused placed an open palm on their chest.

“I’m fine.” She waved Meg in and reached behind her to close the door. “Why do you ask if I’m okay?”

Meg stepped into the living room, tossed her purse onto an armchair, and lifted her head to locate the sounds of the twins coming from the kitchen. “Dottie! Max! No snacks. We’re going to get lunch soon.” She looked at Cynthia, shook her head, and went to find them.

Cynthia walked the hall and entered the kitchen from the side. Max stood on tiptoes on a barstool pushed up against the refrigerator with Dottie spotting him, holding the stool’s legs. Cynthia learned many years ago to never underestimate the resourcefulness and determination of a four-year-old. She watched in silence as Meg asked them what they were doing, watched Max’s mop of almost-black hair flop around his head as he jumped to the ground, Dottie’s ponytail wag back and forth as she scraped the stool across the hardwood floor and back to the counter. Cynthia felt a wave of headache and nausea pulse through her, and took small steps to sit at the island.

Meg sniffed. “Did you make cookies?” She looked at the kids. “Is that what you two were looking for?”

“I did. But they’re for church.” She shrugged at the kids. “I sent them off with Mrs. Beverly. I can get you something else to eat.”

“No,” Meg said. “We’re about to get lunch.”

“Why don’t you just eat here? It’s almost eleven o’clock.” She spoke to the kids, “I’ve got some of your favorite spaghetti left over from last night.”

She heard the soft tick-tick of Bo’s nails working at the underside of the laundry room door and jumped from the stool, clanging silverware and clattering plates. The roar of the microwave provided cover for a couple minutes. When the kids settled in to their lunch, Cynthia nodded to Meg, satisfied with her performance so far.

Her daughter did not look impressed. “Mama, can I talk to you for a minute?” On the back porch, watching the kids through the door’s glass, she asked, “What’s going on?”

Cynthia started with the who-what-me again, but caught herself and patted nervously at her hair. “Why do you keep asking me these questions? I’m fine and nothing is going on.”

Meg crossed her arms, glanced at the kids. Another plane moved overhead, this time south to north, taking off. “Mrs. Beverly came over this morning and picked up cookies?”

“Yes…”

Meg’s eyes peered through whatever thin veil Cynthia had drawn. Her girl had a pretty, round face, with Dallas’s dark hair and relentlessly serious eyes. Having an only daughter take so much after her father bothered Cynthia in a way she could never put a finger on.

“Okay. Well, the reason we stopped by is because Mrs. Beverly called me to check on you.”

“She what? Who?”

“She called me. Said she was on the phone with you and you were acting a little…out of sorts. I think that was her word. So when I acted confused—I didn’t know what she was talking about—she said you got off the phone with her to take my call.”

Cynthia uncrossed her arms and began straightening the potted herbs on the porch rail. It was so hard to keep chives looking decent. Basil and mint were no problem, but chives would turn brown in an afternoon. “I think I remember that.”

Meg puckered her face, poked her head forward. “Remember what?”

“You calling me.”

Meg shook her head rapidly, stepped to her mother and put a hand on each shoulder. “Mama. I only called you after Mrs. Beverly called me. So either you were mistaken, or you made it up to get off the phone.”

“Are you grilling me? Is this how it used to feel when I would get after you about some mysterious Saturday night?”

“I just want to make sure you’re okay. It’s not like you to lie about little things.”

Cynthia noted the qualifier.

Meg squinted into her eyes. “Your pupils are dilated. Did you take something?”

“Why don’t you and the kids get off to lunch?”

She remembered the spaghetti as the words came out of her mouth, and braced herself for another pulse of nausea. There were already too many details to keep straight. Through the door she saw Bo’s hind end on the island counter as he licked spaghetti sauce residue from Max’s plate. She rushed into the kitchen and swept up the dog, lobbing him back into the laundry room, where he tripped and skidded into the dryer.

“He was crying to get out,” Dottie said.

Cynthia closed the door. “Well, he needs to stay put up. He’s sick.”

“Sick?” Meg set the kids’ empty dishes in the sink. “What’s wrong with him?”

Cynthia absentmindedly patted at her hair again, rubbed her stomach. She tried to still Meg’s swaying, but lost her balance completely when Dottie and Max extended upward and out, grew feet in seconds, their heads expanding and wobbling like water balloons.

She woke to the sound of men clearing their throats. Before opening her eyes, she felt around for a sense of where she was and identified the cool leather and raised stitching of the living room couch. She heard the sounds of children crying, and had her breath taken by a putrid sewer-stench. When she felt a hand rest on her foot, she opened her eyes to Allen sitting on the coffee table. Beyond him, in the kitchen, shapes and shadows scurried back and forth.

“What happened?” she said.

“You fainted.”

Cynthia had always been struck by her son’s handsomeness. He was tall, ruddy, with her dirty-blond hair wavy and cut short. Over the last six years, he had slimmed up and acquired the stature of a Navy man. He finished his time just last month and his plans to find a place hadn’t materialized. He had been staying mostly at his dad’s apartment, and spent a couple of nights here at the house.

“When did you get here?” she said.

“Just a minute ago. Meg called us.”

She sat up slowly, holding her head on her neck. “What is that smell?”

Allen put his hands on his knees and turned toward the kitchen. “Bo…crapped everywhere.”

“Did I hit my head?”

“I don’t think so. Meg said you just lay down on the kitchen floor. That’s where we found you.”

“Who is this ‘we’ you keep talking about?”

“Dad. Me and dad.”

She wanted to black out again, to plunge her head back into the oven—not to die, but to see if maybe it led to some better place, and she could disappear and come back with everything reset.

Allen handed her a glass of water, then went to the kitchen. She could tell now that the sounds of the kids were coming from upstairs. She heard Meg running water, pleading with someone to just sit still. Dallas appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, wiping his hands on an old towel. The sunlight from the windows behind him kept his face dark and out of focus. She couldn’t gauge how mad or put out he might be. He stepped into the living room, his features becoming visible in the artificial light. He was not a tall man, but he carried himself like a giant.

“Are you okay?” He sat down on the end of the couch, his weight a gravity pulling her toward him.

“I’m not sure. I feel okay. But I’m afraid to stand up.”

“What’s wrong with Bo?”

She shrugged. “He was feeling bad earlier, whining and grunting, like his stomach wasn’t right.”

“Well. He made a mess all over your kitchen. I’ve cleaned up most of it, but—”

He was cut off by the dog releasing a painful hellhound moan so wrenching it sounded human—a plea to either help or put him out of his misery.

“Dad!” Allen said. “Get in here.”

Cynthia followed Dallas to the kitchen taking baby steps. Her stomach was settled, but her head felt beat in. On the kitchen floor, near the laundry room door, Bo lay twitching, all four legs extended as if transmitting high voltage. His already buggy eyes protruded from their sockets. They looked like they might pop.

Allen took a step back. “What the hell.”

“Cynthia,” Dallas said. “What is wrong with him?”

She assessed how much truth she could safely tell. “Okay. He ate a batch of chocolate chip cookies.”

“He what?”

“I left them on the stove to cool. When I came back in here, he’d knocked them to the floor and eaten them all.”

“How many is ‘all’?”

“Twelve. Fifteen. A bunch.”

Dallas put a hand to his head and quickly removed it, examining it for filth. Allen backed out of Cynthia’s peripheral vision until he disappeared. She heard his footsteps down the hall and up the stairs. She watched Dallas, examining his jeans and T-shirt, his boots.

“Where have you been this morning?” she asked.

His look hurt her more than anything he could have said. “We were fishing.”

“We?”

“Allen. Me and Allen.”

She nodded. “I just didn’t know you liked to go fishing.”

Dallas wiped his hands again on the towel and looked around at the remaining diarrheic residue. “He likes to.”

“Oh. That’s nice. It’s nice of you to spend time with him.”

“You say it like it’s work.”

Bo groaned and passed his remaining gas. His hind legs kicked, propelling him forward an inch or two. A kid wailed in the hallway and Allen yelled for them not to go in the kitchen.

Dallas knelt down. “What vet have you been taking him to? Still using Willis?”

“Yes. But it’s been a while.”

He looked up at her with a father’s face. “Have you ever taken him?”

She shook her head.

He sighed. “Cynthia.”

He stood, dug his phone from his pocket and searched it for a number. He tapped the screen once or twice and put the phone to his ear as Bo threw his head back and in one final moan tensed, relaxed, and became nothing. Cynthia knew dogs didn’t have souls, and thought how sweet death must be for them, how comforting the thought of oblivion. She could never admit to her church friends how much the prospect of eternal life frightened her.

The buzzing on the other end of the phone stopped, cut off by a pleasant voice. “Never mind,” Dallas said, and put the phone away. He didn’t look at her as he dug a trash bag out from under the sink and carefully pulled Bo’s corpse into it.

The split second she took her eyes off Dallas, she made the mistake of looking at Bo’s face. She remembered seeing a dead turtle once as a kid, its neck extended from its shell, its head and face frozen in rictus. It disturbed her so much she didn’t sleep right for days afterward. She knew now that when she laid her head down tonight all she would see would be Bo’s gigantic eyes.

As Dallas stood tying the bag, Meg’s voice filled the kitchen, exploring new sonic territory. “Are you kidding me?”

Dallas raised a hand. “Baby. Just keep the kids—”

But it was too late. The kids stood beside her, Max with his jaw on the floor, Dottie burying her face in her mom’s jeans. Allen appeared behind her, his hand on his sister’s shoulder. Such a sweet picture, Cynthia thought. The first time they’d all been under the same roof since the twins were born.

“You killed the dog?” Meg yelled. “You killed the dog!”

The kids’ cries rang out in unison. Meg knelt and gathered them in her arms, Allen hovering over them looking unsure about what a good uncle was supposed to do.

Without thinking about what it might communicate, Cynthia leaned forward onto the island, her aching head in one hand. She felt the room spin a few degrees left and overcorrected, went bobbling down the length of the island, holding on to it for dear life. She stopped at the end nearest her kids, gripped the edge of the granite counter and looked bleary-eyed back and forth between them and Dallas.

She heard Meg gasp, half-whisper, “What’s wrong with her?”

Allen walked over, put a hand on her shoulder and examined her face. “We need to take her to the doctor.”

She would swear she heard Dallas sigh. He left Bo’s body bag on the floor and came to her. “Cynthia. Can you walk? We need to get you to the truck.”

Behind her, Meg said, “The van would be easier. We’ll come too.” Something in Dallas’s face must have convinced her of the severity of the situation.

“How was she when you got here?”

“Not good. Not this bad, but not good. Her eyes.”

Cynthia’s head swayed in the cradle of her hands while they talked about her like she wasn’t there. The men guided her, one under each arm, out to the van. Allen went back inside to help gather the kids while Dallas seated her and helped her with the belt. She put a hand on his forearm, the first time her hands had touched him in three years, and tried to smile.

“Happy anniversary.”

He said nothing, only looked at her, into her. His eyes searched her face, stopping momentarily on the barrette in her hair. His lips parted and she could almost see the words prepared to come out of his mouth before he shook his head and closed the door.

She watched the familiar scene in silence, Allen dragging behind Meg, his head down in his phone that might as well have been a video game, her arms around the twins that might as well have been stuffed dolls. They filed into the van without talking—muted sobs and clicking seatbelts the only sounds.

Dallas lifted a heavy arm to the ignition. “Everybody in?”

She mouthed the words with him, tried to smile but it hurt her head. It felt so nice to have everybody together again. She leaned against the window and watched the house recede, the backyard trees rising above it, a plane coming in for a landing.

Matt McDonald is from northeast Louisiana. He works in higher education, and is a musician and former high school English teacher. After chasing down and wounding a novel, he has recently returned to writing short fiction. His work has appeared in Loud Zoo.

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One Response to The Oven

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