Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize 2017/18
FOR ME AND THE DISPOSABLE, John does his best Fonz, were the Fonz Richard Hell, were that Happy Days diner place the wild weedy yard of John’s dead Pappy. Wild and weedy save the sparse square of dirt on which John stands, poses, goes eyyy, as I click away, click away, where until a week ago and for two years, there squatted a fat busted television which killed all life beneath it, that’s grass and even bull thistle, the stubbornest of overgrowth. It was the Toshiba (the one I told you about), the Japanese number John roof-hurled New Year’s, the one earth-lodged like a tombstone blocking the life-giving sun, until goddamn Maryanne next door called the town and complained about it. Although day-drunk, the old biddy had a point; Frank’s widow, the lush, in actuality, was not wrong. Per some section of a by-law of a thing of a thing of a thing, electronics/household appliances are not permitted in the yard – front, back or adjoining – of any residential unit in Sedgefield. Garbage belongs in cans. Bulk items at the curb. Collection is on Tuesdays. John got a letter.
Fucking Maryanne Dooley. Been there two fucking years, the ‘Shiba. And now it’s a problem?
John’d seen it before, the Sedgefield letterhead, Kermit-green and reductivist, just plain ugly design. Ambiguous symbolism, the crude “i” in Sedgefield a tree or lollipop, plucked flower or hangman, circle atop stick, identity politics. Suburban equivocation. No, it was not the first time John’d seen the letterhead (nor would it be his last). Atop the fridge, breeding the rare clumpy dust only a fridge-top can breed, a shoebox stuffed with bureaucratic warnings past, the box’s bulging seams buttressed with dried-out rubber bands, a Nike coffin of decades-accreted proof that there was (and always had been) between “that Dooley woman” and the Carharts - that’s three generations of Johns - a feud.
Since Frank Dooley died, things had only gotten worse.
Calling the town on the John who lives there now was Maryanne Dooley’s rediscovered hobby. Her new old favorite thing. Cultivated in the Nixon/Kennedy era when Sedgefield was first built. When two Irish families moved in side-by-side (their saltbox houses identical twins), and commenced hating each other like good old-fashioned Americans. Maryanne had it in for John’s Pappy and then John’s Da and now John, the John is my John, the John lives there now. Who knows why anything starts, why anything survives. The feud the only reason left - besides two fingers of bourbon - the only reason left for the Dooley widow to rise, to on dirty slippers verticalize, to on her deck take a drag and appraisal of her hated neighbor’s lot (over a chain-link fence with rheumy eyes spy), on rotting deck stomp her dirty-slippered feet, stomp warped boards and holler mad to silence the dogs beneath, dogs howling at a sun and a moon and a God they cannot see, the chained-up beasts below Mrs. Dooley’s deck, her lovingly dungeoned family, her children.
Shut the hell up! Shut the hell up or I’m getting the gun!
How many or what kind dogs there are, detained beneath the deck, dogs Dooley woman’s hollering at, always, nobody knows. Latticework and shadow, clapboard and tarp, mask their number, breed, leave it to rumor, myth. There could be ten Lassies, there could be ten Cujos. (Some say a pit, dug deep as hell, tunneling under the boards, where the pack of Grendels dwell.) Above them she reigns, does the Dooley widow, mashing cigarette butts in a cracked plastic birdbath, her all-day robe snagging the deck’s errant nails, crooked, exposed. Frank Dooley in Heaven, nothing anymore gets fixed. The screen door’s no screen. The porch light’s no light. The outdoor thermometer – moon-big disc with illustrations of Northeastern avifauna: cardinal, blue jay, goldfinch, robin – reads 52 degrees every morning of the year. In the tore-up drive rusts an ‘88 Buick; its wheels are blocks; inside it camp raccoons, masticating seatbelts.
What looks like the house, the interior, stays mystery. Mattresses barricade windows; no eyes see out or in. Secrecy surrounds the place like a moat around a fortress, the only well-kept thing about the place. She tends to it daily, the Dooley widow, secrecy, like a gardener to her plot, securing the perimeter, precluding pests, invasion. Still, it rots. The property should be condemned, the hoarded dogs rescued. Before something tragic happens. Before it already did. Flew flames or bullets, they’d no way out. There, what could live?
Problem’s Dooley woman’s husband, Frank and dead, was Sedgefield Township’s favorite cop. No matter him buried (bagpipes, flag folding, Taps), still is. So long’s there’s townies still remember Frank, so long’s there’s men at the MiniMac say Frank Dooley, good man! or Don’t make ‘em like that anymore! (before they finish their mud, take one last bite of toast, hike up their Dickies, head out to their Fords), so long’s down at the station they’re still telling “Dooley Doozies” (those stories about Frank make them Blue Boys slap their knees), so long’s Maryanne’s alive to rattle her cage, to remind everybody exactly again who was her husband, make no bones about it, the Dooley widow’s got an in. Authorities, townsfolk, look the other way. Even any kid on a bike knows better, knows better ride opposite side the street, knows it’s one hand on the handlebars, the other holding nose. The stench is so bad it travels up the block, creeps around corners, hangs around like a bully after school. Sticks it to you. Only one thing can mean a smell that bad. Everybody thinks it. Nobody says it. Nobody says what everybody thinks. Welcome to Sedgefield. Five miles of mindreaders.
If Frank Dooley died natural, why was the casket closed.
Your turn Sandy.
John and I switch places. Now it’s me digging heels into the ‘Shiba patch, now it’s me being silly, me being Halloween, me being Travolta’s Sandy, that is my costume. Now it’s John leaning back against the Gremlin, his beater pulled up the crabgrass bank, pressing to his eye the temporary Kodak, cardboard goldenrod, drug store shoplifted. Now it’s me framed in the tiny plastic field, tiny and plastic and clear and square; I am safe here; if only life were this. Had this. A little clicking wheel of equidistant numbers, thumbnail-advanced, showing how many chances left, how many burned through. When it got down to zero, here’s what I’d do: I’d get shit developed. The ones came out good, I’d throw those away. The blank ones, the rejects, those I’d save. Put them in frames. Hang them up a wall. Say and here we have pictures of our imaginary children. Say aren’t they precious to no one at all.
There is no future. There is no future us. For John and me, none. There is only here.
And what do we have here.
Here is the end. Not the begin. The fact of here is, I’d rather die than live.
Even John’s Da, after Pappy died sudden, took it as a sign, get the hell out of town. He moved up the mountain, took Mitzy with him, said here John you can have it, gave John the deed. Da wanted nothing anymore to do with it, the house Pappy died in, he’d seen enough. Had enough. Go on John, you can have it. Besides, Da said, you have nowhere to live. John looked down, looked down up the road. Da was right – he had nowhere. He had tried to make it elsewhere, the city, he had not. Mitzy barked. Her head hung out the window, her long loose tongue flapping like a flag. She wanted to go. She was ready to go. Da beeped the horn. Said call you Sunday. And that is what he did, he called John Sunday. And the Sunday after, and the Sunday after that. And that’s what Da does now, calls John Sundays. That is the thing, the thing is a habit. Operates without you, goes on without thinking. Your hand’s picking up the phone and you don’t even know why. Except that it’s Sunday. Must be Da.
You plan on moving that car? It’s blocking the hydrant.
It’s Mrs. Dooley come down by the fence, off decrepit deck descendant, the rickety stairs creaking loud as her knees. She grips the rails; they wobble like loose teeth. The steps look collapsible, more splinter than solid. What if she fell? She could fall and die. What if that happened? That would be good. Then we could go free the dogs. Let them piss on her corpse (or do whatever they wanted), get them adopted out by families, nice families, on farms. Big big farms with lots of open land, a Heaven for old dogs, they’d be puppies again. But that does not happen, of course that does not happen, why would anything fair happen, woman makes it to the fence. With one arthritic claw, grabs hold of the chainwork, five gnarly talons clasping a diamond-shaped link. She jangles it. Creates a sound to attract attention, like a hound scratching at a door, wanting in. I think next time, there’s always a next time. For bad things to happen to people deserve it. For people like that, there’s hope in accidents.
You hear me?
John lowers the camera. Clutches it in his fist, so tight it disappears, vanishes into flesh. John is instant mad; his mood is Polaroid. I stare at the monster, the Grendels’ mōðor. I’ve never seen her up close. Only from afar. The ideal distance.
She looks a hedgehog. Her eyes are beady. Her nose is a point. Her hair is a wig that is brown and tipped sideways, stiff and matted flat, it could be a hat. Or some petrified creature, mounting her skull, some taxidermied rodentia, animal on animal. Hard to tell. Over a heap of stuffed Heftys, piled high up the fence like a black vinyl snowdrift, Mrs. Dooley points. Points at John’s beater, hollers at John, points. You moving that? Back behind her and hidden, the dungeon dogs roar. Their master’s left her post. She’s yelling not at them. Could this be a sign? A sign of the End?
You hear me Mr. Carhart?
Maryanne says Carhart like she’s clearing her throat, like Carhart’s some loogie she needs to hock. And the way she says mister, she means it insulting, because John ain’t no mister, his face has no lines. (Only when he expresses, then there are some, mostly round his eyes, when he’s ready to come.) She’s thrown the first punch, a civility jab; in John’s head I can hear it, the bell going off, ding ding ding. Shit. John quits leaning, gets up off the car, saunters over to Maryanne, what did you say? His stilt-walker legs cut through the green tangle, black boots treading verdure, twigs snapping like fingers, like sucked-dry chicken wings. Since John lives there now, no mowing gets done; he’s too busy painting; the rebel grass spikes. Times I come over, John checks me for ticks, between my legs, my pits, my tits. The warm dark places tiny vampires go, to gorge themselves gross, to fill themselves sick. Then they fall off, groggy and blood-bloated. One time John found one. He burned it off with a match. It was the closest a flame had ever been to my skin. He said anything ever touches my baby – and immolated the thing. I was horrified and relieved. I watched it burn.
There is a terror in my heart. I don’t know what it is. If I could reach it with a match, I would.
Good evening Maryanne. John says Maryanne in the best way she hates it, says it like his Da did, in the exact same tone. Maryanne. Maryanne scowls; a first-name basis, John knows, they’re not on it. That’s why and how he says it, flings her name like a turd. They are face to face now, or more face to chest, so short is the widow, so tall is the John. A study in high/low, a movement in young/old, between them a grudge and a grudge and another. Hundreds of grudges, spanning across decades, like links in the fence, here add one more. Clink. John crosses his arms. His frown is a grin, a slap across the face, a toothy boomerang. Maryanne is lumps. A wrapped-up mass, a terry cloth Christo. Accumulation of stains, her crusty second skin.
I step back, makes friends with a shrub. The shrub is half brown, it needs water. It is on its way out, maybe I’ll go with it.
I said you’re blocking the hydrant. John says what hydrant and swings his head round, surveys the yard, his father’s father’s yard, like it’s his first time seeing it, maybe it is. (How close do we look, really, at the things that are ours?) He sizes up the beater, looks real obvious round it, says it again dumber, uh Maryanne, what hydrant. John is such an asshole. The hydrant’s right there: fire engine red with a bright blue cap, a rocket pop melted, white chain dripping. The Gremlin’s practically eating it, skewering it with tailpipe, swallowing it with bumper; unless you’re bat-blind, the hydrant’s right there. At the base of the bank, the Gremlin regnant above, parked up on an angle, like you do at the drive-in. John wedged it like that, carved tracks up the mound, no reason really, it’s his fucking yard. Maybe get your eyes checked, they look a little cloudy. John is such a piece of shit. A lone crow caws.
You move that car or I’m calling the town. Maryanne leans in closer, her nose slipping past link, her aquiline nose grown bulbous with age, with smoke and with drink. Nasal transgression. Somehow I think, had John his sword, he’d chop it right off; send Dooley’s nose severed, with love to Da, like Vincent did his ear, with love to Theo. Physical souvenir, delightful war trophy. But John’s sword’s not here, it’s upstairs prostrate, lain on his dresser-altar, next the pewter chalice. John is Wiccan. A star in a circle. I am heathenish. I used to be a cross. Then I got tired. Of men dying on me. There are no Carhart women. There is a reason.
Babe you see anything? Maryanne here says we’re blocking the hydrant we don’t have.
It’s the sound of the we that triggers something deep; this is not my war; here is not where I take up the cudgels. I write my own letter, a mind-letter right then, activate psychic powers, shoot it to his brain: Dear John, I never had, and will never have, anything that is yours, not your hydrant nor your children, I’m just here until I leave, Love, Your Never-Wife. I hate John Carhart, for doing this to me, for calling me forth, bringing me out the dark. His words like a lighter held blue to my face, and to it like moths, Maryanne’s eyes dart. Fuck. To this nutjob woman, I am now his accomplice, real and involved, John giving no warning, just here, here she is. Here is the girl my body parts go in. Swear to Baby Jesus (the only version I liked), John hands me that camera, I will crush it to smithereens, I will run the Gremlin over it, I’ve got the keys.
I wish I were television. Then I’d be back inside. Broke and doing nothing. I envy the Toshiba.
Maryanne presses in further. She wants a better look. The fence imprints her skin, producing of her face a strange geometry, quadrilateral cheeks, fleshy wire grid. She wants a better look. That your girlfriend? she indicates with her chin, waxy mole mountain, hairs sprouting like tick legs, stuck and quivering. I step forward reluctant, abandon pathetic cover. I am scared. I am scared this woman. I am scared this woman with her dogs and her gun. I am scared this woman done gone and killed her husband, although how could that even – how could that be? Who kills someone. I am scared this thought that bears down, airless: How does it happen, what makes a woman monster, could that ever be me?
I shake my head no. No no no no. Then something happens. My legs just go.
Babe, babe where you going?
I have this dream, that is really a nightmare, that I get all the time, so much it’s my life. Where I am chased, by some force down a street, and I can’t see its face, and I can’t scream. It’s me running to nothing from a fear I can’t see. This feels that, mute panic seizure, as I throw the door open, throw myself in. Keys in the ignition, they turn without me. The car rolls in reverse. I can’t stop it.
The Gremlin runs over the hydrant, knocks it right over, the dormant volcano, erupts in eruption. Sends up skyward a white-water gush, an opposite waterfall, a vertical deluge. Shot high to the firmament, the great blue empyrean, aqua explosion, kaboom and a rush. So great is the force, it flips over the car, me tossed in it, sliding down the bank. It doesn’t take much. The thing dies there, in a lake of mud, a turned-over insect, helpless water bug. I look out an open window, my face smashed against the ceiling, water rushing in, Janet Leigh in a tub.
I don’t remember the arms, or the blanket of shed fur, or who nursed my gashes, or who was it said: I’m sorry girl, it’s you can’t be saved. Not even the dogs, you, not even them.