The Fine Hammered Steel of Woe
I suddenly realize I have been staring at the kitchen table for an unknown period of time. There are 31 pain pills arrayed on the table. The pills are Joan's. They are powerful, prescribed to ease her poor back, which she twisted badly in a mysterious "accident" that I now suspect had something to do with our next door neighbor and an unnatural position. The pills are placed in neat rows because neatness counts, but I don't exactly remember putting them there or making those rows. Another indication of the depths of my suffering: these little fade-outs are becoming more frequent. I don't have my glasses on, so I can't see the clock. I could be very late for work. And I may have been contemplating a very desperate act involving these pills.
I'm on my fourth Styro cup of coffee this morning. This is regular caffeine coffee, and the kick is nostalgic. This is the first week back to the good stuff after six months on decaf, and my tolerance to kicks is low, which may explain certain lapses, certain pills. The Decaf Period, as it has come to be known by me, was horrible. For six months of my blood felt like molasses oozing through my veins. The latest studies at the time said caffeine would kill you, and I didn't want to die. I still don't. But a few weeks ago I read about the latest studies, which reported that actually it was decaf that would kill you and that regular coffee was more or less OK, so instead of molasses I've got this friendly old buzz zinging through my nervous system, heart palpitating away, just like old times. There may be drawbacks; I'm aware of that. Sometimes this frenzied rodent gnaws at the lining of my stomach. I'm used to it.
The gnawing rodent also shows up whenever I think about Joan, my soon-to-be-ex-wife who has been living with our next-door neighbor's 20-year-old son, I'm pretty sure, for about three weeks now. The feeling in my gut makes me wonder if I should give up coffee altogether, or if I should drink a lot more and try to develop serious stomach trouble, lend an even more tragic air to my demeanor. I feel I could go either way on that.
She says she's going to file next week. Mark is a muscular kid with jeans that may have been grafted to his body. He's young enough to be the son we never had. He refused to wear a shirt when he mowed his parents' lawn last summer, and his bare chest caused problems. Joan used to sit on the patio and watch him, slurping margaritas and ravishing him with her eyes. I was indulgent. I thought, hey, guys have always looked at neighborhood females, stretched out under the sun or bending over the begonias (not that I would look at Mark's mother, Donna Jo, who weighs about 250 pounds) -- why not let women do the same? Men don't corner the market on lust, reputation notwithstanding. Joan sprawled in the lounge chair, peering over her dark glasses, lusting in her heart (and elsewhere) for a kid with nicely defined pectorals, while I propped my elbows on the bedroom windowsill upstairs, lusting for her, imagining all sorts of erotic little fantasies that usually involved some sort of struggle.
The kid would come over, hot and sweaty, make crude, violent advances. My wife, panties wet with excitement, would gasp, chest heaving. He would grab her, waggle her like a doll, squeeze her bottom like a melon, claw her delicate breasts, and suddenly she would realize she had been making eyes at a vicious clod and would cry out, her lust poisoned by fear. I would leap from the window, grapple with the fiend, suffer some not too painful, non-debilitating injury before vanquishing my foe, and Joan, unable to contain her gratitude, would lunge for me, pull me down right there on the concrete patio, and express her gratitude.
What actually happened was that Joan started sneaking out of the house regularly after I was asleep, knocking on the kid's window, and performing carnal acts in the basement, behind the water heater, practically right under his parents' noses. Now she lives with them. She and Mark share a room over the garage. If I happen to be trimming the juniper bush on the west side of our house at about midnight, I can see their silhouettes undress in the window.
I would have started drinking heavily when she left, but I had begun long before that. I switched from vodka to sour mash bourbon, though, so I would have some sense of progress. I started smoking again, too. She should be able to see right away what she's done to me. When she comes to collect her things she should be able to tell at a glance that she has delivered a fatal blow to my soul. I wonder if I should start mixing a little bourbon into my coffee. It's something to consider.
There's a knock at the door. It's Gerald, my neighbor and the father of my wife's lover. He's holding my newspaper out to me, a big fake smile on his face. "Good morning, Hamilton," he says. This is a guy I have something to say to. Like aren't you proud of your son the homewrecker? Like why didn't you teach him to keep his pecker in his pocket? I don't know where to start.
"Thought you'd want your paper," he says, straining to keep that grin going. "Is... is there anything I can do for you?"
I can only stare. I haven't seen this much irony in one spot since I took a literature class in college.
"Well, anything I can do, you let me know, OK?"
You've done enough, I think about saying, but he is backing down the walk, still grinning. "You've done enough, you son-of-a-fucking- bitch," I say as he enters his house.
I go to work, very late. I missed yesterday. Told Miller I had the flu and coughed all over the phone, which is a ploy he doesn't fall for, but is part of office etiquette. It would be considered impolite not to sound awful. Miller would be offended if I didn't even care enough to fake it. When I walk in, the senior secretary, Madge Murphy, gives me a solid hate-filled glare. Obviously, I'm dead meat. What the hell? I wonder. This can't be for calling in sick. Wonder if I forgot to pay the office coffee fund again. Madge threatened to cut me off last time I forgot to pay. I had to beg for mercy. It was embarrassing. I skirt far around her desk, but she shouts at me anyway. "Mr. Miller wants to see you in his office now!"
I'm spooked. There are contracts piled up on my desk, and I suppose some of the clients are getting a little antsy, but it sounds more serious than that. Miller has been known to make a stink over late contracts, but only a minor stink. I look around my cubicle a couple of times. Nothing to suggest a major fuck-up. I hide under my desk, hoping to buy some time so I can figure out what's up. As I'm getting myself tucked as far under the desk as possible catch a whiff of something that reminds me of a high school locker room and realize I forgot to shower. I try to estimate how long I can remain under the desk. A month would be nice, but I figure I've got an hour.
In ten minutes my back is killing me. I try to shift my position and end up cracking my head on the side of the metal desk, sending a boom echoing through this end of town. Now I have to scramble out before someone, likely Madge, comes to investigate. I peep around the corner. She's not at her desk. I slide over the coffee pot, moving fast and intent so everyone thinks I'm busy as hell and that any strange sounds that might have just come from my cubicle must be the result of frenetic and explosive filing.
Amber Reed, a shapely little nymph with poofed blond hair who sits at a desk near the coffee, giggles as I pour a cup, purses her moist, glossy lips in an almost indescribably erotic effort to control herself. She's great fantasy material. Bends from the waist when she accesses the lowest file drawer and all male work in the office grinds to a halt while her small round bottom and long legs put on a show. I think she's got a crush on me. I've seen her look away when I look at her. And it seems like she tends to reach for that bottom file drawer whenever I happen to be at hand. I think it might be appropriate to let her know that I'm about to become available, but when I turn around, she's on the phone.
By noon I've had six cups of coffee and made four trips to the john. Luck has been on my side. I've missed Madge all morning. She left a note on my desk once while I was off peeing. It said Mr. Miller wanted to know why I had not come to his office and to please report to him after lunch. I wad the note and play a game of waste- basketball, getting beat by myself 16 to 2. The coffee is starting to get to me. I miss my old tolerance. The angry little rodent is tearing at my stomach lining, growling and gnashing his teeth. I'm starting to feel a bit dazed and jumpy, finding myself staring at the calender for ten minutes at a time, tapping my pencil a million miles an hour. I fix on September 13, next Thursday. I beat out a complex percussion section to the rhythm of the air conditioner (part of which sounds a little like the drum solo from "In-a-gadda-da-vida") leaving a chaos of welts in my blotter. It looks like a crazed monkey wrote a symphony in braille. I have to get out of here.
I leave a note on Madge's desk. "Must have tried to push it too soon. Fading fast. Will call from the hospital to let you know how I am doing." She won't buy it, but she won't challenge it publicly. Office etiquette. Amber giggles again as I leave. Maybe I'll call her later.
When I get home I find the door is unlocked. Did I forget to lock it? Inside, I discover that all the living room furniture is gone. There is a broken lamp in the middle of the floor. Old magazines are strewn about. An ashtray is overturned.
Then I hear voices coming from the kitchen. Adrenaline mixes with the caffeine and creates some kind of explosive new chemical compound. My fight-or-flight response is about to turn me into a human rocket. I'll either waste these burglars with my bare hands or I'll run to the next state. I'm poised, vibrating.
"Is that you, Ham?" says one of the voices. It is my lovely wife. "What are you doing home?"
"I live here," I say, dripping with irony, the fiery internal chemicals draining into my feet.
"Well, I thought you'd be at work or we wouldn't have come," she says, coming down the hall with a box full of dishes. "We'll come back later if you want." Mark follows her down the hall, a shadow trying to hulk up, like his big shoulders will scare me, but he is not carrying any boxes.
"Don't let me get in your way. The last thing I want to do is slow you down," I say, trying to maintain just a tinge of sincerity in my voice. I want this to cause mixed feelings.
I go into the kitchen. The pills are gone, but the liquor cabinet has not yet been ransacked. There's only a dribble of bourbon left. Vodka we got, but I think the situation has gone way past vodka. I notice a brown bottle neck sticking up in the back. It is the brandy we were saving for a Christmas toast. Perfect. I think it will carry all the right connotations: the inevitable dissolution of an abandoned soul, the poignant attempt to numb the pain with wild excess, the irony of a celebratory drink consumed in the depths of despair. Unfortunately, there are no brandy snifters in the kitchen. In fact, there are no glasses at all. The only container I can find is the Styro cup left over from my morning coffee. I had a good ceramic mug up until a week ago, but I don't know what happened to it. The cup has brown rings around inside, a coating of semi- coagulated coffee on the bottom, and a brown streak down the side where I dribbled. I don't even rinse it out. I am reckless. I fill it with brandy and drain it, then fill it again while the heat sears my throat and the vapor billows up my sinuses. I light a cigarette and trudge into the hall. I think I've created the low point in my life.
Joan and Mark come striding back into the house, all energy and efficiency. I didn't see a car or truck outside, so I assume they are siphoning our belongings over to his folks' house.
"Must be nice and cozy over the garage with all that furniture," I say. I can't imagine where they've put it all. I pull my shirttail out. They walk by me, up the stairs and into our bedroom. This sends an involuntary shock down my back. I down the rest of the brandy, refill the cup, and start up the stairs. I will be present, whatever they may do up there. I will stare wistfully out the window while they pack away the possessions I helped buy during twenty years of marriage. I will lean against the wall and let my eyelids droop in resignation while they throw my socks at each other. I will shed a slow tear as they tickle each other and fall on the bed laughing. I will gradually sink to the floor as they entangle passionately. I will not stand for that sort of thing in my house.
As I get to the top of the stairs, Mark's back is coming at me fast. He is the front end of a procession that includes my antique dresser and my wife. I lurch out of the way just in time to avoid being tossed like a wad of paper down the stairs, but not in time to avoid catching the edge of the dresser in my chest. I spill most of the brandy, and clutch my breast, which is in more real pain than I had planned for this excursion.
"Please get out of the way, Ham," my wife says. "You'll get hurt."
Get hurt? Get hurt? Again, the irony. I want to suggest in a very loud voice that her concern is touching, almost overwhelmingly poignant, but even in light of the devastation she has wrought, I doubt she would catch the implied meaning. It doesn't matter. My chest has been bruised by the dresser. I can only gasp and plaster myself into the wall so I don't get nailed by the other end of it as Joan swings around to negotiate the landing. I follow them down, limping a little, and as they go out the door I head for the brandy. I chuck the cup in the sink and grab the bottle. I'm through fooling around here. When they come back in I plan to bop the first one through the door with the empty bottle then collapse and approach death.
I guzzle the stuff. It tastes pretty good now. No burning on the way down. I make loud gulping noises, relishing the precision of the tactic, the courage of the act. I hope they come back in while the bottle is still tipped and the last drops are draining death into my body. The guilt will overwhelm them, put them off their guard, make them easy targets when I pitch the bottle.
When I wake up it is semi-dark. Was that the doorbell? My head hurts. My back is killing me. I wonder if Mark beat me up. Was there a struggle? My stomach feels raw. My mouth tastes sour. The room smells like vomit. What room is this? I seem to be reclined in the bathtub, which answers one question, anyway. My old Styro cup is nestled at my feet. There is an empty bottle of vodka floating in the toilet. I am naked, cold. Did they haul away the furnace? I should go investigate. Somehow, though, I just don't have the energy. I poured so much of myself into trying to salvage my marriage. I just don't have anything left to give. I don't think I'll be able to crawl out of this tub. If only there could have been a little blood at the end, enough to leave a faint stain as a memorial, a thin trickle down the drain, justice might have been better served. And I had envisioned being clothed, too, a bit disheveled, maybe torn, but something to give my corpse a ragged dignity. But the way my head feels, this may be my final resting place. I may have to be happy with minimum effects. I may have to take what I've got.
I lay here for a while, dozing off an on, thinking each time might be the end, but finally the sun is high enough to get in my eyes, and it keeps me up. I start taking a closer look at my predicament. This arrangement is disappointing. It's not the legendary sort of fate I had hoped for. It's OK if people talk about me, over coffee or while pumping gas, "You hear about Hamilton? Guy was a friggin' saint, tough as nails, but that woman of his, she pushed him over the edge. You shoulda seen what she did . . ." But it hardly seems worth the trouble if they talk it wrong. "Hear about Ham? Found the stupid bastard laying in the bath tub, naked as a plucked hen, dried puke all over the place. No wonder his wife left him, the wimp. Just lay there til he died . . . ." I decide it's not worth the risk. Is that the door bell?
Gerald is standing there again, handing me my newspaper again, grinning again. "Hi." He makes a point of looking me square in the chin.
"Just wondered if there was anything I could do for you, anything at all."
"You said that before. Why is it so damn bright out?"
"It's tough, I know."
I'm pretty sure there's something wrong with the sun. "What time is it?"
"Eight-thirty in the a.m.," he says. "Say, I know this is kind of personal, don't get me wrong, but do you have a relationship with Jesus?"
My feet are getting cold, and it's the wrong day. I tell Gerald's friendly, honest face thanks for the paper, and I start to shut the door on him.
"I'll send Donna Jo over later with some hot food," he says before the door shuts. "You can't live on coffee, you know."
I look down. The cracked, crusted Styro cup is in my hand.
"You feel free to talk to Donna Jo," he says through the door. "Anything you want."
I lay down on the kitchen table. The surface is cold and hard, but that's about the level of suffering I need right now. I think wistfully about Joan's pills, and the name Jesus occurs to me. How do people go about having a personal relationship with him? Seems like there would be logistical problems. So, Donna Jo is coming over. To talk about Jesus? To talk to Jesus? I can't remember now if Gerald said talk to Donna Jo, or take Donna Jo. The thought causes a shiver that starts at my head and makes my toes wiggle. I think I may be a victim of poetic justice.
Hours pass. Many, I suppose. I am more or less comfortable on the table. Can't think of any reason to move. There is a knock on the door. I'm looking forward to opening it. I have a reassuring feeling of dread. There's no doubt it will be Donna Jo, come to minister unto me. The question is, will she be dressed in an obscene teddy with delicate frills brushing her enormous thighs, or will she be balancing a Bible in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other? The suspense.
"It's not locked," I say, and wonder if she will faint when she sees my naked loins. The door creaks, slowly opens. A shadow crosses the threshold.
"Tribune. Collect," a small voice says. I don't have any cash on me. I think Joan took the checkbook.
"Come back tomorrow," I say, but not before a freckled face peers around the door and gets an eyeful. My reputation among the neighborhood twelve-year-olds will probably suffer. "OK," he says, and slams the door shut. He's probably on his bicycle, racing to the video game arcade at the mall to spread the word about the weird guy on his route.
I stay on my kitchen table, staring at the ceiling. I am curious about a small brown stain in the white expanse. It looks like a coffee stain, and that raises a number of metaphysical questions about my past. I don't remember ever doing anything that might have resulted in coffee on the ceiling. The wildest thing I ever did happened in the basement at the tail end of a long party when Sam Findley's wife asked me to show her my fishing pole. Mulling the mystery of this stain apparently takes a long time. Darkness falls.
Another knock on the door. I open my eyes and immediately notice that I am laying on the kitchen table naked. I'd become so comfortably numb, I'd forgotten my vulnerable state. This could be anyone, the paperboy come back, the paperboy's angry parents armed with buckets of tar and feather pillows, the police come to arrest me for violating the sensibilities of an innocent paper carrier, Joan and her hunk come to take away the kitchen table. There are no dish towels left, no place mats handy. I make the best use I can of my Styro cup.
"Unlocked," I yell. I didn't mean it to sound like a scream. From the corner of my eye I see a large shape standing in the hall, a plate of cookies balanced in its hand. It sighs and shakes its head. "Poor man," it says. I feel the tightness in my stomach uncoil, relax. Donna Jo has come to nurture me, offer solace.
Maybe she will stroke my brow and hold little pieces of chocolate chip cookies to my lips. Maybe she will coo at me, bathe me in sympathy. Maybe she'll read unintelligible parables from the Bible. Maybe she'll slide out of her big clothes and dance around the kitchen, making the floors creak with shock and joy. Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter at all what she does. She's here. That's what matters.
Eric Crump (LCERIC@MIZZOU1.missouri.edu) helps run the writing center at the University of Missouri, where he moonlights as a graduate student in English. He continues to write short fiction -- even though people discourage this sort of behavior -- and his wife and daughter love him anyway. (Bio last updated in 1993.)
InterText stories written by Eric Crump: "The Fine Hammered Steel of Woe" (v2n3), "Post-Nuclear Horrifics" (v3n3).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Eric Crump.