“That was the best goddamned chicken pot pie I ever ate,” I bellowed, and the cups and plates rattled in the cabinet.
My mother-in-law flinched and looked up from her crossword puzzle. Tonight, like most nights, she had stopped by our place to mediate. The wife and I were having problems, and my head was full of wrong ideas. But I meant what I said about the pot pie. I was trying to make nice.
“They’re a dollar at the Food King,” the wife answered from the bedroom. “You might be eating a lot of them from now on if you don’t find work soon.”
This week she was doing the afternoon shift at the club, and every evening she had avoided me by knitting in bed. This had been another of Oprah’s bright ideas (save money this year by making Christmas gifts with your own two hands!), and the wife rushed right out and bought a copy of Bitches Stitching.
“Are you going to knit all night?” I asked.
“It’s a womanly art,” she reminded me again.
“Yeah, maybe the world’s second oldest profession,” I said, and I couldn’t help but wince at the hurt look on her face. This was why we were in trouble. I tend to hit below the belt when I’m tanked.
“Very funny, you em-eff,” she said, and let it slide. That was another thing that bugged me. After the wife had stopped turning tricks, she found Jesus and gave up all her vices. Swearing had been the first thing to go.
“You better be damn glad my Tom ain’t around to see how you treat his daughter,” my mother-in-law whispered, moving in close so the wife wouldn’t hear. Every word out of her mouth was either a threat or an insult. By now I was ready to lash out. Eight years on and I’d never once hit the wife, but I restrained myself from pounding her mother into the floor almost daily.
“Your Tom liked me just fine when he was alive.”
“Shame on you,” she said. “Shame on you to lay around drunk and let your wife take off her clothes for money.”
I opened my mouth to speak—I had excuses, I really did. Very good ones. But why waste the breath? There was only so much of it a man could spare, and these days I feared I was running low.
She kept on, another twist of the blade: “My Tom’d make you wish you’d never been born.”
I imagined leaning over and biting off her nose. The crunch of cartilage, her hoarse cries of pain, her bony fists beating weakly at my breast pockets… “Shit, Sheila. I already wish that, and I don’t need help from your damned dead husband neither!” Here again, hitting too far below the belt. Such was my cross, the one I’d always and forever wear around my scrawny neck. Speaking of crosses (and ready to push a few buttons), I lit a cigarette and blew a plume of smoke into her face.
“Your husband’s in here smoking again!” she said, fanning the air.
“Go get a gee-dee ashtray!” the wife yelled.
“That don’t make no sense,” I said, and skipped my ash into the empty pot pie tin. “If you’re gonna swear, then fucking swear! You think God don’t care if you take his initials in vain?”
“Eff you, Glen! Stop hidin’ behind the Lord!”
Like I was saying, Oprah had put all sorts of bad notions into the wife’s head. Mainly by encouraging her to read all these books on men and women and relationships, unrealistic ways to lose weight, ways to trick your husband into doing whatever you wanted. I tried telling the wife that the people who write such books probably did so while sitting poolside in back of a mansion. Whatever their knowledge, you can bet it came straight out of a college textbook. Advice doesn’t mean shit, it’s just another thing to sell to folks.
So I was thinking about Oprah when I stormed out, letting the screen door slam. Out in the truck I gave the wife a minute, just to see if she’d come out onto the porch to try and stop me. When she didn’t, I turned the key and slung gravel on my way out.
Given half a chance, I’d bury Oprah up to her neck and run over her head with the lawnmower.
The wife kept her tips in an old Nilla Wafers tin in back of the cupboard. Before I barreled out, I dipped into it and took a five and five ones. The sweatiest bills, Lord. They still smelled like her, even now, wadded up in the pocket of my jeans.
I’m glad we don’t have kids. They couldn’t live like this. God and Jesus both know how hard we tried, and I’m happy to have escaped an ill-fated blessing. Loving me was a lot like giving birth, now that I think about it, but in making the comparison I cheapen both infancy and motherhood alike. First came long months of discomfort, adapting to a new lifestyle. Then pain and tears and relief; after that you had a dependent on your hands pretty much for life. This was how a string of girlfriends gave way to the woman who became my wife. I married the one who didn’t give up.
At the Stop ‘N Go a 22 oz. can of Coors will only set you back $1.07 with tax. You do that four times and there’s money left over for a pack of smokes. I put the sack on the seat and drove out to Carl’s place. His dogs came running from behind the trailer, bawling fit to choke. The car was out front, but there was no answer when I knocked. I checked his glove compartment, feeling guilty under the dome light, and found an unopened pint of Beam.
Last night I’d been in session with Carl, the pair of us drinking what he called “Injun style.” That is to say, from the bottle—no glasses, no water and no ice. We watched wrestling until the station went off the air.
“Alls you gotta do is imagine a tee-pee and the whooping cough, Whooping Crane,” Carl said. He’s a real cut-up. My mistake to relay my amusement at this remark to the wife this morning, as I was laying in bed, stifling the urge to puke.
“That’s what you aspire to, ain’t it? To be some old drunk piece of S.O.B. crap that nobody cares about!” This over the brain-splitting whine of her hair dryer.
The wife was forever down on Carl, but I couldn’t understand it. Carl was happy. He was the freest man I knew. His teeth were going brown, and his hair had all fallen out, and he kept losing weight, but he smiled like a motherfucker. Every now and then you’d see an unfamiliar car parked in front of his trailer, some lonely divorced broad he met down at Duke’s. Those broads didn’t last long with Carl setting the pace. Once upon a time he had been a geology professor.
First thing after getting out of the tub, after brushing her yellow teeth and shaving her upper lip, the wife slathered on a coat of lipstick. Rain or shine, Sunday or Monday. Without it she felt naked. Same thing with that gold cross her daddy had given her when she was a girl. For years the cross lay buried at the bottom of her jewelry box; now it hung from her neck at all times. Even when she danced she refused to take it off. An appeal to the Baptist element, I reckon.
Every big-time drinking man knows that busting a nut will take the murder out of a sharp-edged hangover. Watching her put on her lipstick gave me a hard-on, which almost never happened anymore. I was well on my way to becoming my own endangered species.
So I threw back the covers and jacked it off a while, trying to get her to come back to bed. She liked to watch guys beat it. That’s one of her dirty little secrets that only I know. Beating it was the only ritual I still observed faithfully, the only Sabbath I kept. She paid close attention in the mirror but would not take the bait, even begrudgingly. Ignoring me, she fastened the tops of her stockings into their silver half-moon clips and smoothed down her dress—cheaper and cheaper still, I thought. The crap at the rummage sale you can’t even give away for free.
“I’m late enough already,” she said, spitting the words at me.
Embarrassment does strange things to grown men. It tends to make them initially violent, and subsequently sorry. I wanted to fuck her just to leave my scent. Like a dog pissing on a tree. A slimy line of demarcation.
When she was safely out of the house and on her way I held up my end of an imaginary argument, the one where I told her I hated her and I wanted a divorce. My headache got worse. People like us can’t afford divorces.
The college radio station was all I could pick up in the truck with its bent antenna. When I dialed in, some joker was playing the Mellotron, giving me the pins and needles. The speakers popped like fire.
Nights when the wife is dancing I can’t sleep. I’m old-fashioned to think she’ll change. Hell, we’re both old-fashioned. Sitting before the open window with the TV off, praying I’ll hear the rattling muffler of her piece-of-shit Mazda coming down the road. Wanting a smoke but trying to save them, like contraband. The wife’s got me on rations. I was trying to quit, and it was killing me in a way that lung cancer never could. I have trouble conserving anything.
I opened a fresh pack and lit one. It made me think about the first time I ever smoked. We were out on my Uncle Damien’s pontoon, fishing for muskies, and Uncle Dame gave me a Kool just to see what would happen. If you don’t know I’ll tell you now— nicotine is like a snake charmer, charming the snakes of your nerves. Like being switched from OFF to ON. That’s when I roared to life, farting and wheezing. Ever since I been a Kool man. Kool will be my reaper, I guess.
The story of how I learned to smoke I can recall, but I don’t quite know how I fell in with the wife. I know that I saw her dance a long time ago, before we met. When I told my friends they thought I was the luckiest mother ever born in Hiram. Nowadays she’s lost her shape a little, and the Baptists don’t tip as well as they used to.
There were nights she didn’t come home at all. The next morning I could see the guilt all over her face. Defiant, she glared back, as if daring me to say something. The lesson had been long in coming, but I knew enough to bite my tongue. Just let it slide, sucker. Don’t ask.
When driving anywhere nowadays I was mostly just wandering. Lying to the wife about where I’ve been all day, my fruitless search for work, how hard I’ve been trying. The ways I’ve begged and pleaded. The truth was I found a place down some dirt road and drank. Only mild, abject fear these days at wanting to be drunk at all times—it is a symptom, not the sickness. That was how the wife phrased it.
“How come nobody’s called?” she keeps asking. “I mean, you can drive a forklift and everything!”
Shrugging at this. Averting eyes. Atlas on bended knee, about to buckle under. For her sake I try to keep my secrets.
“I’ve been everywhere at least twice, baby,” is what I always say back. “I can’t help it if nobody’s hiring.”
Now there’s only a week left until the rent is due and I’m exactly one hundred and twenty-five dollars short—the half of my life I owed our love. I should feel desperate, but desperation continued to elude me. Maybe this was further evidence, along with my poor eyesight and asthmatic lungs, that I did not share the heartiness of my Nordic forebears. Nor their zombie work ethic, nor their will to live. Besides, my mother-in-law always coughed up the bread if we really needed it. Why worry with a safety net? That bastard they fired out of a cannon at the circus—that guy’s got it made.
Riding Route 12, out near the reservoir. Down there at the end of the line, where the road stops and the woods begin. The sheriff’s deputy pulled me over for driving without headlights. Behind the bench seat were maybe twenty empty double deuce cans; an empty pint of Beam, gift-wrapped in brown paper, was in the floorboard.
“A sty on the mind’s eye,” Carl once said, waxing philosophical about the way Beam took hold. I thought about that a while and figured out what he meant. He meant that Jim was out to hypnotize you and help you walk the circle until you dropped dead. Beam was like a doctor that smiled sadly before he took away the pain of just being alive and breathing.
Too late now, I caught myself wishing I had tossed out the empties weeks ago, back when I still had a snowball’s chance. Not that a truck full of beer cans would matter much when the deputy got a load of my breath and shined his MagLite into the bloody cue balls revolving in my eye sockets.
“Been drinking any this evening, sir?” he asked.
“The wife and me been arguing a lot lately,” I said instead of answering.
At first the deputy seemed almost embarrassed to ask for my driver’s license. When I handed it over, no small feat, he stared at it for a long while before training the bead of his flashlight on my face and asking me to step from the vehicle.
The wife had warned me about another drunk driving rap. She and her mother had cried in tandem at one end of the kitchen table and told me what my problem was. The wife said she would put me out if I didn’t change. “For the better this time,” her mother added, in that Yankee way of hers.
What my old man had told me about women turned out to be the truth: they want it all. Everything. And like Goldilocks, they want it just right.
At the deputy’s urging, I goose-stepped up and down the white line bordering the asphalt until he told me to stop. Then he insisted I recite the alphabet in reverse, and I’ll be goddamned if even Hercules could manage that trial without screwing up. Try it for yourself if you don’t believe me. Meanwhile, the deputy kept jotting my proficiencies and deficiencies into his little notebook.
Next came the Breathalyzer. Man to man I asked him: “So whether or not I do this, blow into that little tube, meaning, if I should refuse, you’re going to take me to jail anyway. Is that right?”
“Probably,” he said, and I was grateful and inspired by his honesty. So I blew into the tube and was damned.
After I locked up the truck he took my keys and bound me with his cuffs.
“You married, officer?” I asked.
“Not hardly,” he said. The frown became a smirk.
There were a few good years left in him, I guess. I should’ve warned him about hasty decisions, about keeping the promises an honest man makes while in the throes of good head. Now I knew I’d done the right thing by not conking him with the tire iron. The thought had crossed my mind.
We were miles from the drunk tank but I sang all the way in, that one verse from “Old Chunk of Coal” that I knew by heart. The deputy didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he drove a little slower when I finally stopped singing and started to cry.