Thursday, December 14, 2006
Everything Else That's Wrong
Here's some flash fiction for your Thursday reading!
First appeared in Medicinal Purposes
Everything Else That's Wrong
While mopping the kitchen floor, Annie saw a water moccasin pushing its way through the air-conditioning vent above the kitchen table. The vent dangled from one loose screw, allowing Annie a clear view of the snake's progress and making her regret all the times she'd thought about fixing it but didn't. Forty minutes before, her husband Ray had sat under that vent, eating sliced jalapeños from a chipped blue bowl and drinking coffee. Their daughter Rae Ann sat across from him, picking at her pancakes and complaining about not being chosen for the fourth-grade square dance show.
"I didn't even get a second chance." Rae Ann pushed her pancakes away.
"Nobody will remember the square dance in a few weeks," Annie said, her hands resting in the pockets of her loose sun dress. She felt tired even though she'd slept through the night.
"You didn't eat anything," Ray said.
"Not hungry," Annie said.
"You have to force yourself," Ray said. "You going to be all right here?" He stood up and pushed his chair under the table.
Three weeks earlier, Annie had been in the hospital for a day because she'd blacked out while drinking. She knew Ray didn't want to leave her alone. Annie didn't look him in the eye, staring instead at the "Ray" stitched on his shirt. He'd worked as a telephone repairman for as long as she'd known him.
"I got a lot to do," Annie said, thinking of her list.
Now the house was completely quiet except for the sound of the snake bumping against the loose grate. Smelling the snake before she saw it, its rotting odor barely concealed by the Pine-Sol, she'd assumed a small animal had crawled under the house and died. A trickle of sweat rolled down her side, its coldness making her jump.
She thought about getting one of Ray's shotguns out from the closet, but she'd never used it before. Instead, she grabbed a bb gun rifle her cousin's son kept at the house so he could shoot cans off the pier into the lake when he visited years ago. She'd line up the empties and let him have at it, while she and the cousin sat at the kitchen table, the cousin complaining about her lack of a sex life. Annie didn't understand at the time because she'd only been married a year and couldn't keep Ray off her.
Annie got as close to the vent as she could, took careful aim, and managed to peg the snake on the corner of its triangular-shaped head, but the shot didn't seem to be slowing the snake’s gradual entry into the house. She thought about calling Ray, but it could take hours to track him down. She ran outside into the sticky heat, the grass tall enough to scratch her calves, to the trailer next door. She knocked until Joe answered. Almost always home, Joe was a part-time mechanic who got partial disability on account of a garage door falling on him at work three years ago, which nearly broke his back.
"Come with me," she said. "There's a water moccasin in my vent."
"Let me get my shoes on," he said. He looked as if he'd been sleeping, his hair plastered to one side of his face, his t-shirt wrinkled.
"I tried to get it with a bb gun, but nothing happened."
"You just made him mad," Joe said, slipping on his boots and grabbing a pistol from under his couch cushion. On his way out the door, he took his hat from the top of the television, a ball cap advertising Wharton's Feed and Seed.
When they got back to the house, the snake had pushed the rusty grate to the floor and managed to drop to the table.
Joe knocked the snake off the table with his gun and jumped back as the snake struck at his boots. "Man, this is one mean son of a bitch," Joe said. "With water moccasins, once they got ahold of you, they don't let go."
He took aim and killed the snake on the first try, leaving a huge hole in the linoleum. The gun made a loud sound in the kitchen, startling Annie even though she braced herself for it.
Afterward, she could smell smoke.
"I've wanted to kill something for a long time," Joe said. They stared at the snake writhing around in jerky movements before stopping completely.
"Get a towel," Joe said. "We got to save this to show Ray."
"You don't think there are any more in there, do you?" Annie asked, looking at the hole.
"Hard to tell. That bastard is huge," Joe said, sitting down at the table. Annie brought an old raggedy towel from the hall closet and threw it over the snake's body, trying to cover it up completely.
"It's going to be a bad summer. I can hardly stand to think about it," Annie said.
"You got anything to drink?" Joe asked, wiping his face with his forearm. "My tooth is killing me."
"You seen somebody about that?" she asked. Reaching into the cabinet, she pulled two small glass tumblers from the top shelf. Even though Ray had tried to clear out the entire house after she got out of the hospital, she knew there was a bottle of Jack Daniels in the back pantry. Even before anyone started to notice how much she was drinking, she'd been hiding bottles as insurance. She poured Joe a glass of whiskey with water, orange juice for herself.
"Can't afford to. He'll tell me everything else that's wrong with me," Joe said, massaging his cheek.
Annie sat staring at Joe's glass, remembering the first time she'd ever had a drink. It had been on her honeymoon. Ray was thirty-seven to her nineteen, and they'd never slept together. He'd given her a glass of champagne before he touched her, and everything felt okay even though it wasn't. They'd made reservations at a motel called the Oasis Lodge in Tyler. Because of the name, she thought it would be beautiful, but it turned out to be a dump with a huge neon sign, the Lodge part burned out, only Oasis lit. Since it was the weekend of the Rose Festival, all the rooms in the town were rented, and she'd tried not to cry as they checked in with an old man followed around by a diapered poodle. Two glasses of champagne later, she couldn't remember why she'd been upset. After sex she was still drunk and lay on the bed bleeding a little, the room spinning, watching Oasis blink in and out of focus through the curtains she'd tried to close earlier and couldn't.
"You look like you could use one," Joe said."I shouldn't," she said, taking a sip from her orange juice. It was the first time ever she could remember not having a drink with Joe during his sporadic morning visits. She looked at the suncatcher on the window, a butterfly she'd painted herself.
"You're not pregnant, are you?"
"No," she said.
"Then what is it?" He took off his cap and rubbed his forehead.
"Too hot," she said. She didn't want to tell Joe about blacking out and ending up in the hospital for a day. She thought about what the doctor said, about how she needed to lay off the drinking or the tremors in her hands would get worse and the dry-heaving would be all the time, not just late at night, that this blackout was just a small taste of what would be a slow, painful death if she continued. A week before the hospital, Annie had quit her part-time job at the library because most of the time she wasn't able to help people find the books they wanted. Her head hurt. It was getting to be too much. "I hope we get that storm they were talking about on the tv."
"Those guys don't know what's going to happen," he said. "I could check my barometer."
"You want to come over tonight for dinner?" Annie asked.
Joe shook his head. "I got a date," he said.
Annie smiled. Joe had sworn off women two years ago when his wife left him, taking his two kids to her mother's house.
"I thought you'd given up," Annie said.
"You should see how this girl is built. We're going to the Blade and Wing to see Little Creek."
Little Creek was an awful local band that mangled lots of Willie and Waylon. She'd been with Ray and Joe to see them once, hardly able to bear it as they sang, "She's a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin' man," a song she usually liked. The Blade and Wing had been packed that night, and she spent most of the evening pressed up near the men's bathroom, the door wide open half the time, everyone able to see men doing their business. It was hard not to stare at a stranger, too drunk to care who saw him in his full urinal glory.
Joe sat his empty glass down. "You want me to take that bastard out to the porch?"
"Please. I can't stand to have it so close."
After Joe left, she rinsed out his glass and put it in the dishwasher. She looked at the hole on the floor. She'd been trying to finish her list of things to do, the day chopped into thirty minute increments that kept her from sinking into the long hours. She didn't know how much it would cost to fix the hole in the floor, and there was no guarantee that other snakes wouldn't find their way into the house. It was out of her control.
She took a fresh glass out of the cupboard, sat down, and poured a drink, looking out the picture window. Even though she'd been seeing the same view for years, it was still beautiful. A light breeze rustled through the tops of the tall trees, and some kids were playing on an old tire swing, seeing who could jump the furthest into the lake. She imagined splashing into the deep water and pushing against the bottom of the lake until the rush of air hit her lungs, making her glad to be alive. She knew that the anticipation of that feeling would keep the kids jumping long after they got tired and cold.
About an hour later, Ray called.
"How are you feeling honey? Having a good day?"
"I feel wonderful," she said.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"I don't know how many ideas I've done with poor Charlie Brown lying in bed. "Sometimes I lie awake at night in bed and I ask, Is it all worth it?' " And then a voice says, "Who are you talking to?" And another voice says, "You mean: to whom are you talking?" And Charlie Brown says, "No wonder I lie awake at night." Charles Shultz
Drinking cartoon special suggestion: A Charlie Brown Christmas
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Thursday! And birthday wishes to my dear friend Keith!