The man’s tiny bare feet scuttled across the icy linoleum. An ash sweater zigzagged with pale blue lines covered his torso. Beneath the wool was an asparagus dress shirt, its collar peeking over the fabricated V. The stiff hinges moaned when the man opened the cupboard. He yawned and plucked a bottle of rye whisky from the oak abyss. The man sat at the oval table, twisted off the ridged cap, pressed the familiar glass to his lips, and poured the swirling amber liquid down his throat. He winced.
The woman sauntered into the kitchen, a flamboyant pink robe resting on her milky shoulders, her hair a tousled labyrinth, her forehead glistening. She observed the man, frowned. The man cleared his throat and the woman tugged at her polyester belt, veiling her breasts. She draped herself across his back and nuzzled his thin neck. He smiled and inhaled the woman’s overbearing scent. She reeked of aftershave. The man didn’t shave. He couldn’t shave. He didn’t own a razor nor was he capable of growing facial hair. He didn’t own a razor because the doctor said he was unstable. He couldn’t grow facial hair because the doctor said he had an irregular pituitary gland. He also couldn’t grow pubic hair. The woman kissed the man’s smooth cheek. “Good morning, baby,” she cooed.
“Mornin’,” the man mumbled, his head tilted downward, his stale eyeballs absorbing nothing and everything.
“Baby, do you know what you’re wearing?” the woman asked in a painfully condescending tone.
“I’m fairly certain.”
“Gray and green clash, honey. You know that.”
“I don’t like the way the sweater feels against my neck.”
“Then wear the blue dress shirt.”
“I don’t like the way the blue feels against my neck.”
“Honey, it’s the same brand as the green one.”
“That doesn’t matter. I don’t like the way it feels.”
“Fine. Wear what you like, honey.”
“I will, dear,” the man toasted, raising 638 milliliters of hooch above his head.
“Like the damn kids notice,” the woman muttered contemptuously. Louder, cheery: “Say, honey, don’t forget the bills are due Tuesday.”
The man took a lingering pull of whiskey, sighed. “What happened to Thursday?”
“It’s always been Tuesday, baby. Can’t you remember a goddamn thing?”
“I remember the smell of your cunt,” the man declared matter-of-factly.
The woman chuckled, pulled away from the man. “Really, honey, when was the last time you were down there?”
The man, unfazed: “Last night. I crept into your room while you were asleep, slid the lid off your coffin, and had my way with you.”
The woman’s nostrils flared. “Ha-ha. You really should–”
“Like a spoiled tuna salad, baking in the sun.”
The woman grimaced, grinned. “Phone bill. One ninety-five, twenty-eight.”
“Honey, do you think that you could cut back on those long-distance calls to your gold-digging whore of a sister? By the way, how is Methuselah? Still kicking?” Methuselah was the woman’s sister’s husband. His real name was Frank, but the man called him Methuselah on account of his age. Frank was seventy-two years old. The woman’s sister was twenty-nine.
The woman leapt onto a chair, spread her arms. “Cable. Three fifty-six, sixty-six.”
“Dirty movies, baby. Filthy.” The man took a nip of medicine, swished the liquor around in his mouth, and spat a vulgar stream at the table. “The sexy little mail carrier delivered a thick stack of bills.”
“You didn’t fuck him, did you, dear?”
“Oh! You’ll never guess what else came in the mail. You give up, honey? Three more rejection letters.”
“You know, dear, the contents of those envelopes are really none of your goddamn business. In fact, it’s considered a federal–”
The woman’s nefarious guffaw smothered the man’s words. “Oh, baby! You think I had to open those envelopes? You think it wasn’t clear as fuckin’ day? Are you blind? Are you blind, baby? They might as well have stamped it on your empty head, you big fuckin’ dummy: ‘You’re no fuckin’ writer.’”
The man sprung into erectness. “Now, wait just a–”
“They don’t make any sense, baby. Not a goddamn one.”
“Who says they have to make sense?” the man pleaded.
“You really don’t get it, do you, baby? Who do you think you are? Who the hell do you think you are, baby? You think you’re Kurt fucking Vonnegut because you know where the commas go? And because you allude to the bible in your goddamn flowery prose? Nobody cares. Nobody fucking cares!”
“They’re not for everyone.”
“They’re not for anyone. The New Yorker, The New England Review, The Aroostook Review, for Chrissake. Everyone sees it. Everyone. It’s just you, baby. Why can’t you see it? Why can’t you, you fucking no-talent loser?”
The man paused, brought the bottle to his lips, pulled it back, set it on the table. He raised his head and gazed into the woman’s eyes. “You’re the reason I hate my life.”
The woman sighed deeply, impatiently. Her voice became soft, gentle. “Now, baby, I didn’t–”
“Don’t you call me ‘baby’!” the man barked, slamming his trembling fist into the table.
“You hear me! Don’t you ever call me ‘baby’ again, goddamn it!”
The woman slunk in her chair. “I’m sorry.” The woman rarely apologized. “I wish you wouldn’t drink before class.”
The man scowled. “I wish you wouldn’t fuck George.” The woman left the room.
A wave of distilled rye washed through the man’s esophagus. His eyes rolled back, soaked in the jagged stucco ceiling, a sea of microscopic mountains.
A geometric silk web fluttered in the northwestern kitchen corner. This was home to a female comb-footed spider. The arachnid’s relentless fangs pierced the tender flesh of a doomed housefly, injected death. Its insides liquefying, the winged insect reached a stick leg toward the sky. The leg fell limp.The fly was still. A pair of skilled legs gathered the tiny corpse and wrapped it in a steely thread like some mummified creature of times passed. A stew of organs would be a feast. But not now.
The man’s wandering pupils rested on the postcard. The postcard had arrived eleven months earlier, smelling of sea salt and coconut oil, a memento from the volcanic island. Clinging to the gasping refrigerator, it had absorbed 337 days of cigarette smoke and stale white bread. Always stale. On the front of the postcard was a photograph; a young couple sat on a deserted beach, their naïve hands interlaced, their eyes transfixed on the endless azure ocean. Overhead, the tropical sky was painted with an orange-yellow orb of burning gas and a lone cumulus cloud, like a cotton ball mosaic. The man had always thought the cloud looked like a Jack Russell Terrier, like Otis.
Otis was a six week old puppy, given to the man when he was a boy. It was his fourth birthday and the man was spreading millions of saliva droplets across his flaming angel food cake when Otis scampered in, yipping with excitement and snapping at his father’s pant legs. The man snatched Otis up in his arms. Otis pressed his wet tongue against the man’s smooth cheek. This was at nighttime. After disemboweling his dessert, the man retreated to his bedroom; Otis tucked under his arm, and crawled beneath the covers. The man couldn’t stop smiling.
At nine fifty-three the next morning, the man’s parents entered their son’s room. Otis lay curled up next to the man, whose eyes were swollen shut. His chest was still. The mother screamed and the father placed a hand to his boy’s heart. A faint murmur.
The doctor plunged a needle into the man’s pale skin, released adrenaline into his bloodstream. The cause was Otis, the doctor said. That night, the father took Otis to a field of daffodils, pressed the barrel of a 12-gauge to his tiny skull, and squeezed the trigger.
The reverse side of the postcard was a jumbled collection of twenty-six symbols, printed in blue ink. The postcard was signed, “Michael & Kate.” Michael was the man’s brother. Michael was dead. Eleven months earlier, Michael was alive. He was in Hawaii, on his honeymoon.
Michael slipped into a suffocating wetsuit, flung an oxygen cylinder over his shoulder, fastened the watertight spectacles, and leapt into the ocean, his eternal partner waiting, bobbing in the salty, colorless void. The lovers entered the blue-tinted world, observed the scaly, neon vertebrates. Hours later, while his goddess was breaking back into her world, Michael was observing a sunrise wrasse, a creature as brilliant as its name suggested. The tropical fish caught a glimpse of Michael and darted away, vanishing into the murky expanse. Simultaneously, the last gust of oxygen left the cylinder, glutted his greedy lungs. Michael sighed and paddled nonchalantly toward the sun. About 500 feet. He popped above the gentle waves, his face vein blue, salt water running from each orifice. He spread his lips, pushed out a final word. This is what he said: “Bullshit.” The postcard wafted through the man’s mail slot the following day.
The man’s tear ducts opened, unleashed a silent flood. Eye water danced down the man’s smooth cheek, collected in the corner of his mouth. The man tasted the salt. He felt the snowy, flour-like sand sifting through his toes. He observed the great, calm Pacific, whispering an eternal poem. Michael sat beside the man, sipping on a bottle of Corona. A tropical fish lollygagged in the hoppy brew. Otis yowled at a hermit crab near the tide. The man smiled. A tidal wave blotted out the sun, crashed into the white beach.
The whitewashed door flung open. The man stumbled onto the rotting porch, shielding his eyes from the sun. He lost his balance on the third step and tumbled into the rose garden. Red, pink, and yellow petals fluttered like confetti. The green-brown thorns scraped the man’s shins, opened thin pink wounds. Then red. He pressed on, through a once-white picket fence, across a yellow lawn, into a deteriorating sedan.
The woman crept into the kitchen. The man was gone. The postcard was on the floor, shredded to nothingness, as if by some vengefully wild beast.
Through the windshield: A path of hazy gravel, interspersed with solid white lines, broken yellow lines, double white lines. The man was shit-faced. He was certain he felt the whining sirens. He didn’t hear them, he felt them. On two occasions, he pulled over to the shoulder and began reciting the alphabet backwards. Then he waited. He waited for the mustached boy in blue. He never came, so the man pulled back onto the road, swerving and mouthing, “Z, Y, X, W…” Then the man flipped on the radio. He turned the volume knob until the car was vibrating, swaying from the muffled, static speakers. He crooned along with Sam Cooke, crooned about a world once imagined, a world long faded.
The building said “OakwoodElementary School.” The man shuffled through the double doors, into the men’s restroom. He wilted to his knees, bowed at the porcelain throne. Floating in the grimy water was the man’s face. For the first time, he saw his reflection, his true reflection. He wasn’t a writer. He wasn’t an artist. He wasn’t a man. He was a nobody, a goddamn schnook. The man grinned a schnook grin.Stomach acid crawled up the man’s throat, spewed from his face. A barrage of semi-digested chunks tainted the water. Nobody disappeared. The man purged his body of the poison. He then tore off his sweater, used it to wipe the vomit from his lips. He rose with his chest so green.
The children sat at their wooden desks, propped up like cadavers. Their eyes wandered toward the door, the rotating brass knob. In he came, the sad man in the green shirt. He swallowed a mouthful of vomit, eyed his pupils, and shouted, “Cloud day!” The children leapt up from their seats and squealed with glee.
Two dozen first graders were sprawled across the grassy lot, gazing into the sky, the cool blades tickling the napes of their necks. Silence. Reflection. Then the man’s strained voice: “Cassie, start us off,” he announced, nodding at a freckled girl in a blue frock. She nodded back.
“Right there,” Cassie pointed, “I see a white pony.” The man followed her little index finger, observed the cloud. It did look like a white pony. The man chortled.
“Very good, Cassie. Do you know who really likes ponies?”
The man didn’t wait for an answer: “Native Americans.”
He cleared a glob of mucus from his throat, hawked the tar-like mass over his shoulder.
“Of course, no one calls them by that name anymore. Now they’re Injuns or Red Skins. Hundreds of years ago, the United States was inhabited by all Red Skins. Does anyone know what ‘inhabited’ means?”
Nobody cared to answer.
“It means they lived here; the Red Skins, that is. Now, all the Red Skins did all day was they rode ponies, made blankets, and ate corn or maize. They were free. Then one day Christopher Columbus, everyone’s goddamn hero, he sailed his giant wooden ship to Red Skin Country. When Christopher Columbus saw the Red Skins, he said, ‘I don’t like your red skin. But I do like your land. And I’m stronger than you.’ So, Christopher Columbus stole their land. Today, Christopher Columbus is in all the history books because he was such a great bully. And he repaid the Red Skins by giving them casinos. Swell country, isn’t it?”
The man cracked his knuckle. “Okay.” He jabbed a little boy in the ribs. “Matt, let’s hear it.”
“Huh?” Matt said.
“The clouds, Matt.”
“Uh, I—I don’t know.”
“Come on, Matt. I know you see something. Don’t be shy, now.”
The boy searched the sky. “A…um…a baseball bat. There.” Matt pointed.
“Oh, there it is. America’s great pastime! You know, class, in America, you can achieve anything with a baseball bat if you just apply yourself. Most countries, they’re not so lucky. They can only hit baseballs with bats. You, children, can hit anything you desire if you just put your mind to it; every one of you. I truly believe that. For instance, there was once this group of greasy Italians. Now, these goombahs were very lazy; so lazy that they refused to work for their money like everybody else. Instead, what they did was they started up a gang and they—gang may be a bit harsh. I mean, these were respectable gentlemen who lived by a code of ethics. They weren’t selling drugs or spraying graffiti or anything. Anyway, they started up this gang and what they did was they’d go around their neighborhood, collecting money from their guinea neighbors. Now, after a while, the guinea neighbors ran out of money, so the wop gang moved from greasy Italy to the world’s piggy bank, America. In America, they collected money from their piggy neighbors. Okay, here’s where it gets good, so listen carefully, class. When a fat American didn’t have the money or he didn’t want to pay a lousy Italian, the gang would walk over to the piggy’s house and they’d shatter his kneecaps with a baseball bat. They’d bash his knees in just like old Willie Mays. You know Willie Mays, Matt?”
“Good. Helluva ball player. The gang would come back a week later and ask for the money again. If the guy didn’t cough up the cash, some oily sonuvabitch stuck an ice pick in his brain. All for money. You see, class, money is the most important thing in the world. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.” The man vomited in the grass. “Okay, who’s next?”
Nothing. And then a high-pitched moan. A rhythmic howl, coupled with hacking gasps. Mary Hayes was bawling. All eyes on Mary Hayes, especially the man’s. Watching the blue vein trembling down her forehead. Watching the tears detach from her nose and chin. Watching her sundress soak up the thunderstorm. The man pressed his index finger to his temple, hard. He wanted to be stern. He wanted to show he had control of the class. He wanted to show he had control of something, anything. The man’s voice quivering: “Mary Hayes, come on now. Crying won’t solve anything.”
Mary Hayes wailed louder yet. The man nibbled his cuticles.
“Please, darling. Don’t cry. Please stop. Please. Darling.” Mary Hayes didn’t stop, but she muffled her face with her hands, sobbed quietly. A boy in corduroys raised his hand. “Yes, Luke?” The man’s fingernails were bleeding crimson.
“I wanna share,” Luke said. The man ran his bloody fingers through his hair.
“Luke, you don’t have to–”
“I wanna share.”
“Okay. Yeah. Thank you, Luke.”
“See that cloud way off by itself?” Everyone looked. Everyone except for Mary Hayes. “It’s a man. He’s sad and he’s looking at the ground. He’s sad cuz he’s all by hisself.” The man’s brain relayed a message to his lips. The message was: “Thank you, Luke.” The man’s lips moved but there was no sound. “And all the other clouds are looking at him. They want him to come over and be with them. But the man can’t see the other clouds cuz he’s looking at the ground and all.”
The man gasped for air. He felt like someone had punched him in the gut. The next thirty seconds were without any noise other than the panting and the wheezing of the man.
Then a little voice: “Mr. Caulfield?”
The man turned his head. “Yes, Mary Hayes?” he said.
“What do you see?”
No one had ever bothered to ask the man what he saw. The man paused, lifted his head toward the sky, caught his breath. He frowned when he realized his eyes were filled with tears. “Nothing,” he said. Mary Hayes bowed her head. “I don’t see a goddamn thing.”
About the Author
Adam Wohnoutka attended Gustavus Adolphus College, where his passion for writing blossomed under the tutelage of current Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen. He graduated with a BA in English and his work has appeared in the literary magazine The Aroostook Review. He currently resides in Plymouth, Minnesota.