Donna jerked the door open just as I raised my fist to knock. Her lips were pushed together so tight that they looked like nothing more than two thin cigarettes glued to her face. Her eyebrows were raised and her fat cheeks were already red, like they always get when she’s pissed. It seemed impossible that I had once been able to waltz right in and plant a kiss on this woman, always waiting for me to get home from work with a fresh pie or a delicious dinner. I knew I should just turn around and leave. But I didn’t.
“What do you want Doug?” she asked, sounding bored, leaning her hip against the door frame. It used to be so sexy when she’d do that. Then again, her anger usually wasn’t directed at me. Now it was just unnerving. She tilted her head over to her shoulder and tapped her bare foot on the front step with a loud slap. She kept doing it.
“Nothing honey,” I said, pulling on my shirt sleeve. “Just wanted to come visit you and the kids.”
She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms.
“Can I come in?”
“Twenty minutes,” she said. Then she turned around and marched away down the dark narrow hallway. I watched her round backside as I followed her. I was surprised at how good she still looked, even after the weight she’d gained.
“You got any beer?” I asked once we got to the living room.
She said yes she did and told me to have a seat. It felt odd to be ordered around like a stranger in my own house. But things were different now, so I did what she said and took a seat at the end of the old blue couch. I picked at the crusty edges of a cigarette burn on the side of the cushion. I had put that there the week we bought the couch when I fell asleep while smoking. Donna had really chewed my ass for that one. I smiled at the memory. She’d yelled for an hour and then we made out like teenagers on the same spot. We’d only been married a couple years.
Donna came back in with two beers and handed one of them to me. She sat in the recliner across the room by the TV, cracked open her can and gulped loudly for several seconds. I left mine unopened on the coffee table. Normally I would have used a coaster (Donna hated rings on her furniture), but for some reason, she didn’t have them sitting out. The coffee table had gotten pretty nasty anyhow. The glass in the center was sticky and slimy and had bits of food stuck in a few places. The wood around the edges was blackened with dirt and in the corner I even saw a ring the size of a beer can.
“Why’d you come?” Donna asked, not even bothering to look at me. Her voice was barely a whisper. I thought I even saw the sparkle of a tear in her eye, but then she blinked and it was gone.
“I came to see the kids,” I said. When all she did was look at me with one eyebrow raised, I asked where they were.
“Josh is at band til seven and he’s pickin up Annie from soccer at 7:30. It’s Tuesday. You should know that.” She paused for a minute and narrowed her eyes, looking directly into mine. “I know you didn’t come to see them Doug.”
I looked down at the floor and didn’t say anything.
Donna leaned back in her chair and took a few more swigs of her beer. She stared at the blank TV screen, her eyes wide and unblinking. It was not like her to be this quiet. She normally wouldn’t stop talking. I get home from work and she’d go on and on about all the things that happened while she was at home. She didn’t even go anywhere and yet she had enough to say that I barely got a word in. I didn’t mind though; I liked listening to her talk.
I took my beer from the table and cracked it open. As I sipped on it, I looked at my wife. From the side, I couldn’t hardly tell she’d gained any weight. Her hair was a mess and she wore no make-up. But that’s exactly what I use to love about her being home all the time: I didn’t get a dressed up, fake version of my wife. I had the real Donna, all the time, and all to myself. Sure she’d gained a couple wrinkles over the last few years, and her breasts sagged more, just like the bags under her eyes. But she was still the same woman I’d married…right?
I shook my head and blinked several times as I gulped half my beer, wishing it was something much stronger.
“You livin with your girlfriend yet?” Donna said, not taking her eyes from the blank television screen. She chewed on her bottom lip and her knuckles turned white as she gripped the arm of the recliner. She blinked several times before turning her head so that I couldn’t see her face.
I stared down at my feet. I could feel my heart banging in my chest. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”
It was a lie and we both knew it.
Donna swished around what remained in her can before draining the rest of it. I did the same. With a grunt and a groan, she pulled herself from the recliner and made for the kitchen.
“You want another beer?” she hollered.
“You got somethin stronger?”
She didn’t answer. I imagined her to be rolling her eyes. I heard the fridge open and close again. Then I heard her bare feet slapping against the kitchen tile as she headed for the door.
Donna came back in and handed me another beer.
“This is all you get,” she said, her eyebrows narrowed and her eyes became two dark slits in her chubby round face. “You still have to drive home. You’re not waitin here til you sober up and I won’t have you goin out and killin someone cause you’re too damn drunk to drive.”
She gave one nod of her head like she’d just showed me who’s boss. She marched back to her recliner and cracked open her second beer. I had never seen her drink so much. It used to be only a glass of wine at Christmas or on our anniversary. Alcohol was “the devil’s drink” she would say.
“You mind if I smoke?” I asked as I popped the tab on my beer.
“Not in the house.”
I rolled my eyes when I knew she wasn’t looking. She had always let me smoke in the house. She never minded the smell or the health issues. But what the hell do I know anymore? I took a long drink of my beer.
“What did you come for Doug?” Donna asked.
“To visit,” I said. “You’re still my wife ain’t you?”
She snorted. “I don’t know why. Neither do you.”
When I didn’t say anything, Donna looked sharply at me.
“Are you tryin to fix us Doug?”
I looked down at the ground for a long time. “Do you think there’s somethin to fix?”
“Not if you can’t just tell me what the hell’s goin on!” she yelled, throwing her hand up in the air and shaking her head back and forth, waving her hair around like a lion’s mane. “Am I supposed to just know what you want? Don’t answer my questions with questions.” She looked around the room, blinking repeatedly. She bit down on her lip to stop it from shaking. A tear slid down her cheek. “Go home Doug. Wherever the hell home is for you. Just go.”
She wiped the tear from her face and turned to look at me, her big brown eyes shimmering, searching my face for something, anything that would tell her what it was I wanted. If only I knew what that was.
“Let me tell you about my day at least,” I said. “Something happened at work and I want to tell you about it.”
Donna sighed. “Make it quick.”
She sat back in her chair and returned her gaze to the blank TV screen.
I took a swig of beer from the can and began to tell her my story.
I got off to a late start in the morning. I had spent the night at my girlfriend’s house and we forgot to set the alarm. I dressed as quick as I could and left without my usual cup of coffee. That right there should have been my warning for the rest of the day.
My first job was Mrs. Wilkins’s house. She was an old widow who lived alone in a great big house that had a real bad ant problem. I had to spray every three months. She paid good. She always gave at least a fifty dollar tip along with a piece of some sort of delicious pie. But today I had no time for that since I was running so far behind.
I treated the Bakers’ house for bedbugs then I sprayed for spiders at three different houses, all on the same road. My last stop (also my biggest money-maker) was the apartment complex on Second Street. It was the biggest place I’d ever exterminated and because of this, I put on an extra charge that the absent-minded owner didn’t mind paying. Or she didn’t know she was paying anything extra. Either way, she liked me and would pay whatever I asked. It wasn’t hurting her any. The apartments were making her a fortune, not to mention the money she’d inherited from her dad when he died.
“Doug!” she said when she opened the door to her office in Apartment Number One. Her gray hair was falling out of her bun, her glasses hanging around her neck. She smiled and I was happy to see she had her teeth in this time. “I didn’t think you were comin today!”
“I’m sorry Lorrie Ann,” I said, giving her an apologetic smile. “I got off to a late start.” I was feeling pretty drowsy by this time and was ready to go home, wherever the hell that was. Lorrie Ann was awfully sweet, but she wore me out even on a good day. When I’d missed my morning coffee and was running on no food, it was a whole different story.
“Let me just get my slippers and I’ll be right out,” Lorrie Ann said.
“No it’s okay, I can just do it myself,” I said, but it was too late; she had already shuffled from the doorway back to her bedroom. I groaned and leaned up against the wall, holding my canister of chemicals, my eyelids drooping down with my tired arm. I was ready to slide down to the mud-stained carpet and give my legs a rest when Lorrie Ann stepped out of her apartment, this time with fuzzy pink slippers beneath the ends of her muddy blue jean overalls. I ripped myself from the wall and walked out of the first building with the old lady. Lorrie Ann always insisted on starting with the very last apartment so that we could work our way back to her office.
“Sorry I’m such a mess,” Lorrie Ann said, glancing down at her dirty clothes and attempting to tuck her hair back into its bun. “I was workin outside in the gardens earlier and didn’t get to clean up just yet.”
“It’s alright, I don’t mind,” I said with a wave of my hand.
She smiled. “I know you don’t. But I do. I don’t like lookin like a dirty old granny all the time.”
“Lorrie Ann, I have never thought that about you,” I said, aware of the smile that was growing on her face. Her cheeks were even turning a little pink. She hung her head and was quiet for a little while.
“You back with your wife?” she asked as we were walking through the parking lot.
I groaned quietly. Lorrie Ann was a devout Catholic and the thought of divorce disgusted her. Every time I saw her lately (once a month), she tried to guilt me into going back to Donna.
“No,” I said.
“Well what are you waitin for?” she asked.
I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t say anything.
Lorrie Ann looked up at me and shook her head. She made a clicking noise in her mouth. “I don’t know what you’re lookin for Dougie, but you won’t find nothin better than what you got with your wife and kids.”
I rolled my eyes when she looked away.
“Can you tell me why you left her?” she asked, her big brown eyes snapping to my face again. When I didn’t answer right away, she said, “Do you even know why you left her?”
I didn’t answer. Lorrie Ann asked me this every single time. If I told her it was because I’d met another woman, she would think I was Satan himself. She would go on and on about how my girlfriend was just a temptation from God and that I was just being too weak to resist and lost track of the good things in life and blah blah blah.
Lorrie Ann sighed and made a show of shoving her wrinkled hands deep into her pockets. The sound of her slippers scraping the ground became obvious in the sudden silence. The dull, steady rhythm lulled me into a sort of sleepwalking. I could hear Lorrie Ann start to drone on about the importance of marriage, but she had already lost me. I had no idea what she was saying anymore. All I heard was scrape, scrape, scrape.
When we finally reached Apartment 200, Lorrie Ann raised a bony fist and knocked three times on the green door and yelled, “Management! Exterminator’s here!” No one answered so she unlocked the door with her master key and pushed it open a couple inches and hollered again. Still no answer so she let me in and I sprayed the apartment, around windows and doors and in the creases between walls and floor and ceiling. After a few minutes I finished and we went down to Apartment 199 and did the same thing.
When we reached Apartment 66, Lorrie Ann knocked and shouted “Management!” No one answered.
“The man who lives here, Donald, moved in just last week,” she informed me in a whisper, just in case someone was listening in to her gossip. “He’s fifty somethin and just got divorced.” She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “He’s always got girls comin and goin, no doubt doin ungodly things in there. And he drinks more than anyone I ever saw. And all that is from talkin to him just one time.” She smiled as big as possible as if she were proud of this accomplishment.
I nodded a couple times, my eyes closed. I was ready to drop to the floor. Lorrie Ann had been giving me everyone’s life story before I sprayed their apartments. She did this every time I came, even though I knew half the people there. She always needed to update me on their business.
She opened the door a crack and knocked again. “Donald? The exterminator’s here. You home?”
No one answered so she pushed the door open.
Lorrie Ann gasped sharply, grabbed my arm and squeezed it with surprising strength, her nails digging into my bicep like a vice.
“Oh my God,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “Oh my God.”
“What?” I said, looking over at her. Her face was as white as the wall behind her, her eyes as wide as light bulbs.
She shook her head. “Oh my God,” she said again. “Doug. He’s dead.” Her voice fluttered and she brought her hand to her mouth.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and a chill ran down my spine. All drowsiness was gone. I could feel my heart beating against my ribs. Each breath I took was deafening. The pulse in my temples sounded like the bass drum of a funeral march.
The only thing I saw in that apartment was the man’s feet. They were sticking out from behind the dresser, spread about a foot apart. They were incredibly fat and white as snow, but not necessarily dead.
I had never been around a dead person before. I had never dealt with death at all. Both of my parents died last year, but they live across the country. I didn’t even go to their funerals. We weren’t close. The biggest dead thing I’d ever been around was a deer I passed on the highway. What did a dead person even look like?
But I knew. I could feel death pouring from that room as I stood there in the doorway.
“He’s dead,” Lorrie Ann whispered again. Her voice was shaking. The leathery folds of her skin were shining with tears as she shook her head back and forth. She tightened her grip on my arm. She rocked from heel to toe several times, muttering something that sounded like a prayer. Words failing me, I dropped the canister of chemicals to the ground and put my arm around the old woman.
“Doug, go in there,” she said, her voice steadying.
I looked down at her in shock. “What for?”
“To see if he’s really dead.”
I hesitated. “Why me?”
“You’re the man.”
“So? It’s your apartment! I just kill the bugs.”
I cursed to myself. I let go of Lorrie Ann and she let her hand fall from my arm.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I wanted to say a prayer, but the words wouldn’t come. I just really didn’t want that man to be dead. But if he wasn’t, what was I going to do? Hopefully he was just napping. Up against the wall.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. A putrid, rotting odor filled my nostrils, choking me, suffocating me. I couldn’t breathe. My eyes watered and my chest began to ache from holding my breath. I finally breathed again and the stench came at me a second time, forcing me to take a step back towards the door as I tried to catch my breath, blinking several times. As soon as I could stand it, I walked in a little further.
Filthy clothes peppered the tiny apartment, covering the floor and the furniture. Beer cans were thrown everywhere, probably close to a hundred of them. Other garbage also littered the room, such as food wrappers and paper plates. Four empty wine bottles sat on the nightstand beside the alarm clock and six more decorated the dresser. The bed was unmade, the covers balled up at the bottom and the sheets and pillowcases stained yellow, from beer or sweat or some other foul substance, I could not tell. I looked everywhere, taking in the disgusting room, averting my eyes from the body for as long as I could. But the apartment was tiny and I could put it off no longer.
He was naked. Except for his underwear which were pulled down around his knees. He was slumped against the wall, his head barely a foot off the floor, causing his fat chin to touch his hairy chest. His head, mostly bald save a few long gray hairs, tilted toward his left shoulder. His mouth was hanging open like he was snoring, but no sound was coming out. His enormous belly was still.
My heart caught in my throat as I looked at him. He wasn’t much older than me. I wondered if he had any kids, if his ex-wife still loved him, why he left her and why he ended up dead and naked in this filthy apartment that so resembled my own. I swallowed hard and closed my eyes.
“He’s not breathing,” I said to Lorrie Ann who was still waiting outside, pacing back and forth, biting her nails.
“Check his pulse.”
I took a step back from the body and stared out the doorway at her. She wanted me to touch him?
“Just do it. Please.”
I looked down at the man before me. I did not want to touch him. The idea repulsed me. I knew he was dead, why did I have to check his pulse? Once again, I could feel my heart thumping inside me. I took a deep breath and knelt down and grabbed his wrist, my fingers searching for any sign of life.
Thump, thump, thump.
I jumped to my feet and backed away from him, nearly falling onto the bed. I stared down in shock, breathing hard. Was he alive?
I inched closer, staring at his chest, waiting to see any rise or fall to show that he was breathing, even if only slightly. Then I felt the beating again.
It was coming from the tips of my own fingers.
I waited until my breathing slowed back down before I approached the body again. I knelt down slowly and took his wrist between my fingers. I closed my eyes and counted to thirty.
He was dead.
I jumped to my feet and strode from the apartment, my heart thudding in my ears like a war drum, banging out its own death sentence, getting closer with every beat, each louder than the last.
“How did he die?” Donna asked me, her anger now gone.
I had stayed with Lorrie Ann until the cops and coroner had arrived. They told us that it was most likely a heart attack, so I told Donna this.
“But that’s not all,” I said. “They said he’d been dead there for three days. Three days! And no one had been to visit or cared to check on him. He laid there naked and dead for three days waiting for someone to find him.” A cold chill ran down my spine like a trickle of melting ice.
Donna shook her head and stared wide-eyed at the floor. “It really makes you think, doesn’t it,” she said. “It can all be over at any moment.”
I nodded in agreement but didn’t say anything. I looked at my wife and wanted to say something comforting, but I couldn’t come up with the right words. It wouldn’t have done any good anyway. She looked up at me and gave me a sad smile, the kind where her mouth smiles but her eyes don’t. I gave her a small smile back and then she looked away and took a sip of her beer, staring blankly at the can when she finished.
I stood up.
“I’m going to go now,” I said.
Donna stood up too. We walked to the front door.
“I guess I’ll see you sometime later,” I said. I could feel my heart beating again.
“Stop by sometime when the kids are here,” she said, not looking at my face. “They miss you.”
“I miss them too.” I wondered if she knew that I missed her too. And I wondered if she missed me. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask.
Donna looked up at me. Her eyes were wet and the corners of her mouth were taut and shaking ever so slightly. I reached out and put a hand on her arm. It was soft and warm. I gave it a good squeeze and dropped my gaze to the floor. Then I left.
I got in my car, started it, and sat in the driveway for a few minutes, staring at my steering wheel. My heart was still banging around like a gong inside my chest. It didn’t want to let me leave, like it knew something was going to happen to me. Like I would end up like that naked man in his apartment.
I pulled out and drove for ten minutes toward my girlfriend’s house. A good screwing would get my mind of things. And she would be home by now. The thought of her made my heart beat even harder, painfully so. My breathing quickened and the road swayed in front of me. Sharp pains shot down my sides and my stomach bubbled, threatening to hurl out its contents. I pulled into a gas station and put my head in my hands, breathing deep, trying to suck in as much air as I could before my lungs ran out.
After a while, my heart got tired and quieted down. I could still hear it beating, but it was softer now, no longer acting as the warning bell. Now it sounded more like a song.
My breathing slowed down to normal and the world stopped shaking. I looked around, not sure if I should go on to my girlfriend’s house, not sure if I’d make it. Maybe I’d sleep at my apartment instead. But that too was too far for comfort. I looked back the way I’d come. My heart beat a little louder, letting me know it was still there for me. For now.
I put the car in reverse and backed out of the gas station, turned around, and went home.
About the Author:
Jordan Puckett is a high school senior in southern Ohio and will be graduating with an Associate of Arts degree. Next year he will be attending the Ohio State University to study English and Biology. His favorite writers include Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Kathryn Stockett, and J.K. Rowling. He plans to become a college professor until he can fully support himself on writing alone, if indeed that day ever comes.