Sunday, November 26, 2006

As Long It's Healthy

Here's some Sunday flash fiction! This story first appeared in Orchid.

As Long As It’s Healthy

The night that Melody and Mark see a middle-aged Mexican prostitute smoke a cigarette with her vagina in front of a bunch of drunk frat boys from Texas Tech, Melody asks Mark to marry her.

"Man," Mark says, "what brought this on?" Mark makes a little show of rubbing his temples. He looks at Melody, then takes a long drink out of his tumbler of rum and Diet Coke.

He's been lying in bed, trying to find something on television that he hasn't already seen. They're at a Super 8 that has cable, a luxury they can't afford at home.

"I don't want to play house anymore," she says, and he knows better than to start humming the Tammy Wynette song. Sitting at the table, the one with hotel stationery and a Gideon Bible in the drawer, she looks out at the parking lot. "I want a husband and a baby."

He can't imagine what she's thinking. Money, or the lack of it, is the reason they're in Mexico for a couple of days. He bought three huge jars of Valium that he plans to sell when he gets back to Texas. Mark owns a lawn company that's this far from going under, (picture two fingers, a sliver of light in between), in addition to having a child support payment, and six maxed-out credit cards. All burdens. He remembers how excited he was when he bought the lawn company (his father co-signing, pissed off and skeptical), but now it's just another thing he's on the verge of fucking up beyond repair. Mark hasn't made the monthly loan payment for two months and his father has called him five times to yell about responsibility and duty and "getting your goddamn act together" even though the payment is an amount that Mark's father could cover and not so much as feel. His father is a University chancellor in East Texas, and Mark, now thirty-five, is starting to believe that his father's predictions for his inevitable failure have changed from prophecy to irrefutable fact.

Mark leans back against the headboard in his boxers, drink between his legs. On television, he finds Trailerpark Dojo, a movie about a kid who learns karate from a Vietnam vet. Mark's at the part where the vet wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks his belt is a python. He's going nuts trying to kill it. "I got a headache," Mark says. He picks up the remote from the nightstand and turns the sound down as low as it will go without losing it completely.

Melody continues to stare out the window, not offering him aspirin like she normally would. A huge semi whizzes by, its mudflaps bearing the insignia of the Confederate flag, the losing side still flaunting its colors. Outside, the night remains hot and muggy, August in the hottest summer Texas has had in the last ten years. The air-conditioner struggles to keep up, kicking in every few minutes.

"Why don't you watch the tv with me? Cable," he says.

"You won't marry me because I'm fat," she says, taking off her shoes and getting on the bed, fully clothed on top of the thin hotel bedspread. "I could mortgage my house and we'd have enough money to pay off the loan and you'd never have to deal with your father again."

Mark can't think of anything to say. She's made this offer a couple of times, but this is the first time he's desperate enough to consider it. Melody flips over onto her stomach, stares at a picture over the bed, a desert landscape done in mauves and browns.

"You think every room looks like this?" she asks. She looks young in her cut-offs and white t-shirt. Mark thinks about how pretty she would be if she lost some weight, cut her hair, fixed herself up. Maybe this marriage wouldn't be as bad as his first one.

"I don't imagine there's a lot of variety," he says. Still, everything works, something that can't be said for Melody's house, a place that is falling apart around them. Before they left for vacation, even the bathroom light had blown out. Peeing by candlelight is starting to lose its charm. Mark doesn't complain, though. Her house is an improvement over the last place he lived, a big ranchhouse with bad plumbing, pipes that flooded the bathroom at least once a month.

Whenever the house pipes broke, Mark would get drunk as a frog and sit outside on his lawnchair, shooting a bb gun at cans. After a few beers, he'd call up friends and tell them he was a proactive problem solver.
Melody flips back over again and props herself against the pillow. "Could you believe that woman at the bar?" she asks.

"No, I fucking could not," Mark says, relieved by the topic change.

They'd been on the road for two days and had already seen some pretty disturbing things. He planned to take some pictures of Mexico to help get his mind off the phone calls from his father, his ex-wife, and the credit card companies. He used a Polaroid because even though the film was expensive, he didn't have the patience to wait.

Tonight they had drunk tequilla in a place called The Four Winds, a stripper bar about ten miles over the border. A set of urinals sat against the back wall, and Mark took a picture of them before he saw anyone use them. Some guys saw him squatting down to get the right angle and started laughing. "You want a model for that picture? Mucho grande," the one man said, cupping his crotch. Then, while Mark ordered drinks at the bar, a whore with track marks on both of her arms sat down next to Melody and asked her for a cigarette. Melody told her that she didn't smoke. The whore shrugged and said, "Senorita, if you smoke, you lose some weight, no?" This all happened before the big event of the night, the woman performing the cigarette trick while one of the waiters tapped Mark on the shoulder and said, "This is the queen, the queen I tell you."

Mark stands up to make his way to the bathroom and feels a lot drunker than he did lying on the bed. He inspects himself in the mirror. He used to look and say, "You are one handsome motherfucker," but now he feels old and washed out. Setting out to show all those people who thought he was a world-class fuck-up that he could achieve something by running a successful lawn company, he still has nothing to show for it. His accumulated mistakes, both willful and inadvertant, have added up. It's the same with the drinking. The last time he tried to quit, he carried his imported non-alcoholic beer with him everywhere, the one luxury his budget could support. But eventually his money and patience ran out and he was back to his diet of animal crackers, canned raviolis, and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Mark walks out of the bathroom and gets back into bed, looking for something else with the remote. He flips through an infomercial for an abs machine and touches his own stomach, thinking of when he saw his father the last time. "You're looking a little pudgy there, boy," his dad had said, poking him in the gut. Mark wanted to punch his father in the nose right there in the restaurant, but he needed the loan. Which is what it always came down to. Needing something and having to beg for it.

"If you don't want to get married, maybe we should just deal with this now," Melody says, bringing up the dreaded topic again and looking the worse for it, eyes puffy and red.

"Come on, Mel, don't start," Mark says, patting her hair. He can feel her going into what he refers to as the "we're doomed, we're doomed" mode which he does not feel like dealing with tonight. What can he say? He rubs his eyes, a sleepy child before nap-time.

"What's going to happen to us?" she asks. She undoes the top button of her shorts and gets under the covers.

Pouring more rum into his glass, Mark wonders how she can work up the energy to have this discussion. He doesn't want to tell her the truth, that a lot of his reluctance is about the way she looks and what it says about him. He's told his friends this, saying "I know it makes me a little person, but I can't marry her when she's fifty pounds overweight." Before Melody he had dated an ex-nun who called him three times a day just to say hi and before that a good-looking woman named Jacqueline who had been all right except that during sex she rolled her eyes up in her head so that only the whites showed, like some horror movie creature. His romantic life had been a real mixed bag.

"We're going see what develops, Mel. You just got a divorce. Let's give this some time," he says.
He knows the kind thing to do would be to reach over and hold her, give her some reassurance. But he can't. He's reached the point in drinking tonight when all he wants to do is sleep. He offers her some of his drink, sloshing a little on himself.

Melody takes the drink from his hand and finishes it off. "God, how can you stand it that strong?" she asks.

"Just used to it, I guess." Before Melody he used to say that all he wanted in a woman was someone who would love him enough to come get him in the middle of a night of heavy drinking, no questions asked. He would say this the way expectant parents tell everyone, "We don't care as long as it's healthy."

"I'm going to take a shower. I feel gross," Melody says. She grabs her plastic satchel full of shampoo and lotion. The bathroom door slams shut, and Mark can't tell if the noise is on purpose or if Melody miscalculated how much force it would take to shut the door.

It's one of those ambiguous gestures that could mean anything or nothing Probably nothing. He falls asleep, the kind of sleep where he dreams that Melody becomes beautiful and thin, where his father has died and left him all his money for being such a wonderful son. Too soon it’s morning, and he’s covered in sweat, the smell of rum still in the air from the night before. The alarm rings, a small muffled sound that he tries to stop.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"There is no safety in writing well." Dorothy Allison

Cocktail Hour

Drinking reading suggestion: Facing the Music by Larry Brown

Benedictions and Maledictions

Happy Sunday to everyone! I hope everyone had a great holiday weekend!


JR's Thumbprints said...

Hey Michelle,
I remember this story. I think I got the better of the trade. Enjoy your Sunday.

Zelda said...

Something is definitely missing, from the title and the story. Yuck.

Jon said...

Very slick. Very, very slick. Strangely, it seems that the image that is sticking with me is the slamming of the door. So much being said there. Please feel free to stop by my NC-17 post. You might like it.

cheri said...

Michelle this reminds of Carver in a few ways, but it has your unique signature to it. The one who rolled up her eyes made me laugh so hard I choked on iced tea. Wonderful.

paul said...

Cajun Queen
that is T for Texas
R2 C2!!!!

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a fantastic opening sentence.

John Ricci said...

Dear Michelle, an interesting story. I think it's smashing. I have enjoyed catching up over the Thanksgiving Holiday and hope you have had a most pleasant one. Yesterday's view was marvelous, and today's is humourous and mirthy. Champagne toasts and caviar dreams to you and yours. Bravo!

The Walking Man said...

The mans problem was he drank Pabst for God's sake. if he would have moved it over a notch to Jim Beam he would have seen that fifty pounds as beauty and not fat, and would have woke up every morning ready to hustle.

There is grit here Michelle a true sense of failure where there was so many chances at success and you pulled it off in making me see that I haven't failed but I have accomplished something, not because of mark and melody and their situation which could improve even if they didn't hit the lottery if they chose to make it better.

But Orchid should have published my cover letter. shit is a good and earthy word!

that aside even after all of these years of knowing you and bugging you I still learn from you and today because of this post I dislike myself and situation just a little bit less Thank You!

even if you were too drunk from that drink in front of you to write something new.


cheri said...

This last commentor sounds much like an asshole.

Dr. Ford Juford said...

Was that vagina smoking an unfiltered Pall Mall? The reason I ask is because that kink of behavior is highly unhealthy. You, of all people, should know that, Michelle.

Walt Straight Witman said...

I sing the orthodontic bite guard electric.

The Walking Man said...


"cheri said...
This last commentor sounds much like an asshole."

Just exactly what was it that twisted your underwear into a knot that would have you make a comment towards one I am sure you don't have any knowledge of?

Your comment doesn't offend me because so many people have said that of me; but you didn't know there was nothing un-origonal about what you had to say but what exactly was it that made you feel the desire to say that, I am curious?

I am much too old to care what others think about me or what i have to say, but teach me, or was that a Long Island iced tea you were choking on? In which case just quit listening to what things sound like and think about what they say, and try to comprehend the entirety of the statement made. I have no desire for any new pissing matches in my life and if my comments offend you say so and i will make no more.


Anonymous said...

great flash fiction story!

someone good said...

How can I forget walkin into the reading in Ann Arbor right when you read the opening line and you looked up to see a reaction from the crowd and you saw me and we both blushed a tiny bit. I did, anyway, you just smiled huge and read on like the svelt warrior poetess that you are!

repeater said...

yes I said svelt and I meant it!