Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
They have separate alarm clocks on their nightstands because she always needs to be 10 minutes ahead of him. It is now 10 minutes after 7AM on Saturday morning. She programmed her alarm for 5:30, but accidentally set it for PM instead of AM. This means she is behind schedule already. She hates to be behind schedule. She sometimes tells him she’d rather starve to death.
When he doesn’t open his eyes or respond to her pleas to get out of bed, she rips the blankets off him and grabs his fatty stomach with her cold hands.
“You have more rolls than a bakery,” she says without laughing at her own joke.
“Fuck off,” he says into his pillow.
She always has cold and clammy hands, even in the summer. Her doctor thinks she has anemia.
“What can be done about it?” she asks the doc.
“Nothing right now,” he tells her, tapping a pen on his clipboard. “Your blood is tired because your iron level is low. Take your vitamins. Wear lots of turtleneck sweaters and wool socks. Make sure to cover your extremities. Keep yourself warm.”
And she does keep herself warm. She’s always prepared with silk underwear and multiple pairs of socks and gloves and ski hats. She was born in Arizona, after all. What does she know about snow and skiing? Yes, she’s prepared. Always.
After she showers, he drags himself into the bathroom to do the same. One comes in, the other goes out. They are like a relay team. They never bathe together. Not since their honeymoon when she realized she hates fellatio. Especially in the shower.
By eight o’clock, everything is dusted and washed. There is a gleam to the kitchen. Even the spice rack is arranged alphabetically and color coded. She loves Saturday mornings, thrives on them. Her weeks would be meaningless if Saturday mornings didn’t exist.
She is on a roll despite the late start, but he is doing his best to get in her way. He always gets in her way.
“Do you mind?” he says. “I’m trying to read the paper here.”
“So try,” she says, pulling out the cord for the vacuum cleaner and stretching it across the room. “I need to plug this in somewhere.”
“Can’t I ever have a minute to myself?”
“Go and take a shit if you want privacy. We need to get things straightened out around here so we can relax before they get here.”
“They’re not going to be here until seven or so.”
“Six actually, smart guy.”
“Same difference. Why don’t you sit down and relax now?”
He reaches up from the sofa and pinches her ass, which is bony. It’s as if she doesn’t really have an ass anymore. Bony, even though she has three layers of pants on.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s do it on the dining room table like we used to on Saturday mornings.”
“Get your hands off me, will you?” she says, wriggling away and starting up the vacuum cleaner. “You’re going to wake up the kids.”
“So what? It would be good for them to see that their parents have a healthy relationship.”
“Do we?” she asks, still not looking at him. “I’m shrinking and getting sick and you’re on the brink of exploding from too much bacon. We’re both dying and our kids are going to have to raise themselves.”
“Shut up. We’re still young. You can’t think that.”
“I do, though. This whole house feels diseased. I wake up with this pain every night like my body is going to collapse and cave in any second.”
“You’re all right,” he says. “It’s all mental. Don’t worry about it.”
He stands up and wraps his arms around her, goes to kiss her neck, but it tastes like Lemon Pledge. She tries to push him away with her elbows, but he’s too strong. He rubs his meaty hands between her and her flamingo legs buckle. He could destroy her if he wanted to.
Ten minutes later, they sit at the kitchen table across from each other. She nurses cup of coffee number three while he works his way through a box of cinnamon rolls he picked up at the gas station the night before. He always buys food for breakfast at the gas station, and always after midnight when he gets hankerings for sourdough pretzels. While he’s there, a dozen eggs for omelettes and ham steaks and pastries and cans of corned beef hash seem like a good idea. She keeps telling him that it’s unhealthy, that the food can’t be all that fresh, especially the meat. He keeps telling her that he’s trying to be frugal, that he’s doing his best to save up for their summer trip to California, that it’s convenient since it’s open 24 hours, especially on the weekend when bread and orange juice seem to disappear into thin air. The Hindi man who has the Friday graveyard shift even knows him by name and gives him blessings when he leaves with bagfuls of food.
“Well,” she says, “that wasn’t exactly how I remember it.”
“Maybe if you tried a little harder, if you weren’t thinking about whatever the hell else you need to clean, you might get something out if it.”
“You heard me.”
“Well, maybe if I didn’t have to worry about being crushed like a goddamn grape underneath you, I might be able to.”
“It’s true. And it’s not like your stamina is anything to parade around either. I would think that your practice in the shower might give you some staying power, but I guess not.”
“I can hear you every morning trying to stifle your grunts while you’re in there. You do a pretty lousy job of it too.”
“Who do you think about?”
“I’m not having this conversation with you.”
“This is ridiculous. I’m going to run some errands.”
“Where are you going? Nothing is open now.”
“I don’t care. I’m just going to drive around.”
“Go to the grocery store while you’re out. We need more feta spread for all those crackers I bought. Cameron ate it all, even though I told him not to. And some booze, too. For my father. Gin.”
“Fine. I’ll go to the store.”
He opens the garage door and backs the car out into the driveway. He sits staring at the steering wheel, his foot firm on the brake. He could put it into D and floor it into the side of the house, but he doesn’t.
She ducks underneath the automatic door that’s rolling down and runs out, waving an index card. It’s a shopping list, an hour’s worth of groceries jotted down in illegible script. Her hands have started to shake when she writes, resulting in chicken scratch that is a pain in the ass to read. She can’t help herself from shivering sometimes.
“I almost forgot to give you this. Get some light cream cheese for me too, will you?”
He takes the list from her without a word and slips the transmission into drive.
“And don’t buy any pickles,” she says, clutching her bathrobe. “There’s not enough room for them in the fridge.”
“It’s my money,” he says, still looking at the wheel that he’s strangling. “I’ll buy whatever I damn well want.”
He tears out onto the street in a cloud of dust and gravel, leaving her standing alone in the end of December, waving good-bye.
She breathes a big sigh after he leaves, maybe the biggest she has ever breathed. Of sadness? No. He’ll come back, she knows he will. He always comes back, and this time he’ll come bearing food for her and the kids. The breadwinner, he provides for his family. Of relief? Maybe. He takes up far too much room.
She tries to sit and read, tries to relax for a moment but she can’t bear the silence or the loneliness that creeps through each room. The novel she’s reading is the same one she’s been trying to finish for the past month. It’s about the disappearance of an Italian sculptor who is caught up in a torrid love affair, and she thinks it’s dull. It’s long and tedious, but it was on the list for her book club and she feels she needs to be able to say what she liked about the ending. She has never really been partial to books anyway. It’s just something to do when she gets bored.
She puts on a thick wool sweater and decides to rouse the kids, prevent them from sleeping the day away. She walks down the hallway chanting a song from Singing in the Rain, a song she only knows a single line from. She yanks on the blinds in their respective rooms and taps on their feet under the blankets. Cameron groans and little Sarah jumps, as if waking from a dream that only six-year-olds can dream. When she tells them that it snowed again the night before, they are up in a flash, skipping breakfast and rushing outdoors to see how the world has changed.
At half past 10, he turns onto their street and waves at male neighbors who are doing odd jobs on their front lawns. Shoveling snow off their walks or insulating the walls of the garage, trying to be productive and out of harm’s way in the house.
Their next-door neighbor, whose name he hasn’t taken the time to find out since they moved in four years ago, exercises furiously. Every morning he is out doing something, running and stretching, always wearing spandex. Today, he is cross-country skiing around the yard with a rope tied around his waist, pulling his towhead kid in a plastic sled.
He honks the horn lightly and salutes the blond sleigh team as he passes. The Norseman, who—judging by his bulge—no doubt rejected the idea of wearing briefs under his Lycra getup, looks up and smiles with big white teeth. His face is bright red and he lets out small puffs of frozen air, like a tugboat.
When he walks in, she is organizing the video collection: rewinding the tapes and sorting them according to genre.
“You don’t need to do that now, do you?” he says, hoisting the bags on the countertop and putting cereal in the cabinets, yogurt and vegetables in the fridge.
She observes his method from the floor and knows she’ll just have to move things around the way she likes them after he’s finished. She lets him finish without a word. She says nothing about the way he puts saltines and cans of mixed fruit in the same cabinet. She says nothing about the brand of coffee he bought that she refuses to drink because it gives her cramps. And she says nothing about his mammoth jar of pickles, although she wants to smash it over his head—crack it right on the spot in the back where he’s beginning to bald.
Just before two o’clock the dishwasher stops running and she immediately rushes over and begins to stack bowls, one on top of another.
“Let me help you,” he says, edging into her space, wanting the rest of the day to go smoothly. He is always trying to make it up to her in some way.
“No,” she says. “You know I have my system.”
“Well, what can I do?” he says. “You bitch at me for not pulling my weight around here—what the hell do you want me to do?”
“You know what you can do?” she says, standing up straight and spindly, her hands on her hips. “You can get outside and start shoveling the snow like everyone else.”
“That’s not fair,” he says. “I told you that Jillian said to take it easy on my back, no bending or pulling. I can’t exert myself so much.”
“Her name is Dr. Moore. Why don’t you call her that? Doctors are supposed to be using their titles.”
“Because she told me to call her Jillian.”
“She’s the one you pull your pecker to, isn’t she?”
He stares at her, blank. He is lifeless. His brain churns to the point of imploding. He is frantically trying to remember why he’s still living here. All he can think about is a question a high-school friend posed to him years before. They had been busy getting high in the woods behind the friend’s house.
“What would you be if you could be anything in the world?” his friend had asked. “It can be a person, place, or thing.”
While he thought about it, his friend said he wanted to be a cartoon character so he could change into anything he wanted, because cartoons could do that. He could be a gigantic bowl of pudding and then—just like that—he would turn himself into a talking spatula.
“I would be the ocean,” he finally told his friend.
“The whole thing?”
“Wow. Would you be all the fish and coral and seaweed, too?”
He hears the conversation again so clearly. He even recognizes the sound of his friend’s voice, although he can no longer recall his face or name. That question had made much more sense then, when he could get stoned and didn’t have to please anyone. And he had believed in his answer, as did his animated friend. He was the ocean.
“Do you go hard when she’s working on your back, too?”
“And what about me?”
“What about you?”
“Do I do it for you anymore?”
“Why not?” she stammers.
“Because I’m the ocean,” he says proudly, like he just won the big-deal door prize at a Little League banquet.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” There is a menace in her—a menace he used to be terrified of, but now does his best to ignore. Smile and nod. Stand and deliver. Live and let die.
“It means I’m the ocean and you’re not a very good swimmer, so there isn’t enough room for you.”
“How dare you?” she says, sticking her pointer finger deep into his chest. “I’m a very good swimmer.”
“That’s not true. You’re from Arizona and you dog-paddle around. I’ve seen you do it.”
“Asshole,” she says.
She turns away from him and grabs handfuls of forks and spoons, dumping them into the silverware drawer. In the drawer are her expensive paintbrushes that are stiff and sharp like Indian arrowheads. Someone has failed to rinse off the globs of purple paint and they are now ruined. She thinks about taking the large wooden spoon out of the drawer and hitting Sarah on the butt until her wrist is tired. Instead, she picks up the brushes and, one by one, tosses them across the kitchen into the sink, almost hitting him in the head.
“Watch it,” he says.
“Well, somebody’s going to have to shovel out there,” she says, dying for a subject change. “If my mother falls down again, that’s all I’ll hear about when I call them from now on. ‘You should have salted the driveway. What were you thinking? Did you want to kill us? Pay somebody to do it.’ Christ. Why don’t you go outside and recruit that idiot son of yours?”
From the kitchen window, he watches his idiot son run aimlessly through the street, trying his best to make long skid marks in the snow with his galoshes.
“Oh, let him be,” he says. “He’s having a good time out there. Let him be a kid, for crying out loud.”
“He’s old enough to start doing some physical labor around here. You tell him that and maybe he’ll start respecting you as a father instead of a playmate.”
“Why don’t you go try your luck with the snow shovel, my love?” he asks sweetly.
She silently shows him her skinny middle finger and leaves the room to do the second load of laundry for the day.
At 3:30, they return to the bathroom to take their second shower that day, although neither of them has exerted themselves enough to warrant another.
“I want to be clean for them,” she tells him.
“OK, you go first,” he says. “I want my shampoo smell to smell better than yours so your mother doesn’t call me a slob anymore.”
“When has she said that?” She has to laugh. Her mother is the biggest bitch in the whole world.
“Every time,” he says. “You just never notice because she says it under her breath.”
She undresses in front of him and he watches her with forced interest. Her body is falling apart at the seams. He can count her ribs.
“Go easy. Pretend like you care about tonight,” she pleads. “Can you do that? For me?”
“Look at this face,” he says, pointing to the phoniest grin he can paint on. “I don’t have to pretend.”
She shakes her head and throws her sweaters and corduroys at him.
While she bathes, he shaves and purposefully nicks his chin so a stalactite of blood forms a goatee on his face. He suddenly wishes he’d been born with red hair. She steps out of the shower, and he stands inches away from her as she dries herself off.
“Lick it,” he says, not smiling.
“What is wrong with you?” she asks. She really wants to know.
“Lick it off,” he says, placing his hands on her naked shoulders and pressing her against the full-length mirror.
“Stop screwing around,” she says. “Get out of my way.”
He won’t budge, and she lets out a small yelp. He is going to destroy her.
Suddenly, his face is buried deep in her chest. He rubs his chin all over her deflated breasts and her collarbone. She cried out, more in shock than anything else. He stands back, looking like a vampire, examining the job on his wife. His blood is smeared all over her. It’s a work of art.
“Take my blood,” he tells her. He doesn’t need to tell her twice.
She rushes toward him, wet, sucking at his blood, biting his chin and neck like a starved wolf. When she is done, it looks as if he has had stitches sewn all over his face.
At 5:30, there is a scream from the backyard. They both look at each other and, silently, run outside—neck and neck—toward the noise. It’s a race. Who will win and be the better parent? Sarah is sitting in the snow, sobbing quietly. She is the finish line. Despite his crooked back and excess weight, he makes it to her first, simply because he has boots on his feet. She only has a flimsy pair of slippers. He wins.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” he asks her, crouching down to meet her eyes.
Sarah points up at the metal hutch where her rabbit, Hopkins, is sitting quite still. His eyes are glassy, and there’s a heap of carrots and wilted lettuce piled in front of him.
“Jesus Christmas,” he says under his breath.
“He won’t move!” she cries. She shoots up to her feet and starts to bang on the metal cage with her mittened hands. “Move, move!” she tells Hopkins, over and over. “Eat your carrots!”
He pulls her away gently and hugs her around the neck.
“Shhh … he’s sleeping,” he whispers into her ear. “Rabbits hibernate during the winter like bears do.”
“Really?” She wipes the snot below her nose with the back of her mitten.
“Yes. And in the spring, he’ll wake up with a big coat of fur and we’ll have to bring him to the hair-cutters.”
She laughs at this and runs across the street where Cameron and his friend are coating the windows of cars with snowballs.
He begins to head into the house and sees that she, his loving wife, is now the one plopped down in the snow, shaking and crying. His blood is still stained on her teeth.
“Why didn’t you just tell her that Hopkins is dead?” she says, looking up at the hutch.
“A little lie like that won’t hurt her,” he says, looking up at the roof, realizing that once summer comes, new shingles will be in order. “Don’t worry about it.”
“He’s frozen!” she shouts at him. “How did we forget to bring him into the garage when it started to get cold?”
“It was an accident,” he assures her, but still hunkers over her, not wanting to bend over to comfort her. “We just forgot.”
Another scream pierces through the early night, this time from the front yard. A feeble voice makes its way to the other side of the house.
“Help us, for God’s sake!” it says.
Her parents must be here.
It is a quarter before seven. They are in the emergency room, waiting for her parents to be released. She thinks her mother might not be able to walk again. Her head swims with thoughts of nursing homes and sponge baths. The doctor comes out and announces her mother and father both have fractured hipbones. Double whammy.
“Someone should have shoveled that path,” she says, sighing heavily.
“It’s too late now,” he tells her. They laugh until tears form in the corner of their eyes.
“We’re bad parents, aren’t we?” she asks him when they calm themselves down. “We can’t even take care of our kids’ pet.”
“We’re not bad parents,” he says. “We’re trying our best.”
And they were.
—Scott Sell was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a senior at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, and is expected to graduate in May 2005 with a BA in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. He is currently at work on a novel titled The Safety of Distance which he plans to submit as his senior thesis. He is a regular staff writer for both The Cheshire Herald and The Quindecim (Goucher Colleges bimonthly campus paper). Saturday is his first fiction publication.
BOMB’s Fiction Prize was judged by A.M. Homes
Originally published in
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.