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  • 43. Killer Heart

    By Barb Johnson

    Barb Johnson’s More of This World and Maybe Another, which we’ve just released this week, is one of the astounding collections of the year. For Barb’s achingly real characters, action outpaces understanding and consequence beats all—yet her telling finds the grace within them all.

    Dooley and Tina are fighting. Or not fighting, Dooley guesses, but discussing. That’s what Tina calls it, anyway. They have most of their discussions while their three-year-old daughter, Gracie, is at her grandmother’s across the lake. Today Dooley decides that if he shows a positive attitude and keeps his comments to a minimum, they might be able to wrap things up in the next little bit. There’s a show about the Louisiana black bear coming on in half an hour, and Dooley hopes he won’t have to miss it.

    “It’s just that you’re so impulsive, Dooley,” Tina says, shifting to the general list of his faults. She’s pacing back and forth, back and forth, like a little engine that’s powered by fussing.

    Tina keeps a record of old mistakes handy on a constant loop, one finger always hovering over the play button. During any dispute, when she’s through with what is currently troubling her, she presses that button and everything stored on the loop begins to replay. In their house, the past is never over. The good news, though, is that once Tina gets to the Great Loop of Faults, it usually means the discussion is coming to an end.

    “You never think things through,” Tina goes on. “There’s never a plan for anything.”

    “Maybe so,” Dooley says in his upbeat, fight-ending tone, “but everything in the world can’t be planned out, Tina. Gracie wasn’t planned,” he says, “and aren’t you glad we have her?”

    Instead of ending the discussion, this seems to wind Tina up even more. She starts back in with his faults, reciting one after another as though she’s building a case. Dooley leans back in his big blue recliner and goes on clipping his toenails. He wonders if maybe he can get one of those prefab storage sheds for the backyard. He needs a place he can go to be alone and play his guitar as loud as he wants. If he soundproofs it, he can use the little shed as a recording studio.

    Dooley misses his music, and he hasn’t been able to make Tina understand that driving a forklift all day, picking up crates and moving them from one place to another, makes him feel trapped and lonely. He didn’t move to New Orleans to drive a fucking forklift. A couple of months ago, for his twenty-second birthday, Dooley sat in with his old band. He told Tina that he wanted to start playing with them again, and the selfishness of this wish is one of the many items stored on the playback loop.

    Tina heaves a sigh, and Dooley imagines that she’s finally going to put the brakes on. That’s when he’ll get up from his recliner and go to her. He’ll pull her close, hug her head to his chest so she can hear that his heart is still full of love for her. “Baby,” he’ll say. “I’m not built for arguing. You know that. I’m built for love.” And he’ll say he’s sorry if he made her sad or mad or frustrated, depending on which she is. That part always requires a little guesswork. Or maybe today Dooley won’t be at fault. Sometimes, fussing is just Tina’s way of working something out in her head, and when Dooley apologizes, Tina will say, “No, baby, that was just me blowing steam.” Every now and then, Dooley knows, staying home with Gracie makes Tina feel like she’s missing out on things. He isn’t the only one who’s made sacrifices for their daughter.

    As Dooley is getting up to go to his pacing wife, though, she says something that knocks him back into his recliner.

    “Gracie’s not yours,” she says.

    Dooley searches Tina’s face to see what she’s up to. “Not mine, how?”

    “Not yours as in Toby Tidwell is her biological father.”

    “Fuck you, Tina. That’s not funny.” Dooley eases forward and perches on the edge of his chair. He feels a toenail clipping under his hand, sharp and painful, but he doesn’t move. Not even a little.

    Tina goes to the desk in the kitchen and pulls some papers out of a drawer that Dooley could’ve opened any time he wanted, though he never has. Why not? Tina is crying now, and she puts the papers in Dooley’s hand saying, “Sorry, baby, I’m so sorry.”

    Tina’s mother paid for Tina and Dooley to go see a genetic counselor where they and Gracie were all given DNA tests. Tina read on the Internet that a DNA test would show if Gracie had inherited the going-deaf gene from Tina’s family or if she’d gotten Dooley’s genes on that score.

    Looking at the results, Dooley can’t be happy or relieved that Gracie has been spared a future of progressive hearing loss. The report says there’s a 99.9 percent chance that Toby Tidwell—when did he get tested?—is Gracie’s father. Dooley wants to go get fucking Toby Tidwell and string him up by the ankles. Bleed him like the pig he is. Toby Tidwell got busted up in a tank accident while practicing whatever people in the Army practice, so Dooley will have to wait till he gets out of Walter Reed to bust Toby up himself.

    “Tina,” Dooley moans, shoving the papers between the arm and seat cushion of his recliner. He wants to ask if she’s in love with Toby Tidwell now or if this is all in the past. Does the past cancel out Tina’s love for Dooley? Dooley’s love for Gracie? Dooley can’t tell. Nor can he tell what the numbers and letters on the DNA test mean for him and his little family. The swimming equation is just too hard to follow. He needs some air.

    Jumping up from the recliner, Dooley jerks open the back door, flies down the steps and scrambles across the lawn. He shoots past the place he’d been thinking of putting his music studio and doesn’t stop until he reaches the back fence that separates his long, narrow yard from his neighbor’s. Up close like that, Dooley can see through the gaps between the fence boards into his neighbor’s yard where a pool shimmers in the late afternoon light. It looks peaceful over there, a little slice of heaven, where no one ever argues, where no one keeps secrets or lies. Dooley has never heard a single sound from that house, never heard splashing or conversation on the deck. Maybe no one even lives there. One thing is for sure, though: You can’t tell what’s going on just by looking. Earlier this afternoon, Dooley had been a man with a wife and a child, and he bet he still looked like one, too.

    *

    Dooley and Tina agree that they should take a break. Dooley will get an apartment, and Gracie will stay in the house with Tina. They’ll see what happens after that. Dooley doesn’t want to move out. He doesn’t want his daughter to stop being his daughter, but he isn’t sure he wants Tina to go on being his wife. At first he’d thought, It’s just a piece of paper with numbers. It doesn’t change a thing. But every time he asks Tina if she’s going to tell Toby Tidwell that Gracie is his baby, she sends a question right back: You’d want to know, wouldn’t you? That paper, those numbers, he realizes, are going to change everything.

    Tina says they have to prepare Gracie for when Dooley moves out. She says maybe they should sit down as a family and talk to her, but Dooley says no. He’ll tell her himself.

    “You’ve done enough, thank you very much,” he says to Tina.

    “Well, why don’t you just put a scarlet A on me, and we can call it a day,” Tina fires back.

    She’s hurt, and Dooley’s glad of it. He decides to take Gracie to the mall. She needs shoes, and Dooley guesses he can tell her the moving-out stuff over lunch at the food court.

    “Are you going to let Gracie call Toby ‘Daddy’?” he asks Tina when he tells her his food court plan. But everything is I don’t know, Dooley, I don’t know with Tina. He wants her to say of course not, that Gracie will only ever have one daddy, and that is Dooley. Always and forever have disappeared from the scene, though, and it looks like divorce is coming in to take their place.

    “We were having problems before the DNA test,” Tina tells Dooley, as though the test is what made Gracie not his. “You knew that.” But, of course, he hadn’t known, and he wondered how anyone ever knew anything, how Tina knew, for instance, which were the end-of-the-line problems and which were the par-for-the-course problems.

    “I need your keys,” he says when he’s ready to go to the mall.

    “Put the car seat in your truck, Dooley. I need to go across the lake and see Mama.”

    Tina’s a pretty competent woman, but driving a stick is not among her many talents, and Dooley’s truck is a standard. There’s only the one car seat, and Dooley is a little afraid of it. Tina usually puts Gracie in it and takes her out, and he’s already nervous about having to do that without the added hassle of having to uninstall the stupid seat and put it in his truck.

    “I thought we weren’t supposed to put the car seat in a truck.”

    “That’s just if you have airbags,” Tina points out. “You don’t have airbags.”

    “Maybe I should get a car seat for my truck, then, so we don’t have to switch back and forth after I move.”

    “What for?” Tina says, and Dooley begins to grasp the size of the changes ahead.

    He goes out and unhitches the car seat from Tina’s car. He bought the little Chevy for Tina when Gracie was born. Cost him five hundred bucks, but he fixed it up and it rides fine now. Both vehicles are parked on the street, and the air inside them is hot and thick. By the time he gets the car seat installed in his little low-rider truck and Gracie strapped into it, they’re both sweating so much that he thinks maybe they should just have their little conversation right there and be done with it. His AC is broken, but the fan still works, and he turns it on high. The sudden blast of hot air blows Gracie’s damp black hair straight up. Her long lashes lower to protect her eyes, and a bright, even line of teeth light up her happy toddler smile. Dooley wonders how he could’ve thought he had anything to do with such perfection.

    Tina comes out carrying her lunch pail of a purse, which Dooley calls the Bottomless Can of Infinite Mystery. Are the DNA papers in there? She leans in Dooley’s window and tells him that he needs to get Gracie home by two, so she can get a nap. “I don’t want her waking me up in the middle of the night because she fell asleep too early,” Tina tells Dooley in a pissed-off kind of tone, like he’s already failed to get Gracie home in time.

    Dooley fiddles with the air vents.

    “Dooley?”

    “Two o’clock. Nap. I got it, Tina.” Dooley turns the steering wheel toward the street and pulls off.

    At the mall, he leaves the truck’s fan running so it can blow on Gracie while he tries to disengage her from the car seat. The buckle had clicked shut easily enough, but getting it open is another thing altogether. Tina always makes it look easy. Because he’s tall, Dooley has to stand outside the low truck, bend his knees and lean over nearly double to reach his daughter. His hands are big, and he fumbles with the clasps while Gracie wiggles and kicks the dashboard. It takes a few tries before he finally gets the contraption undone.

    “Come on, Gracie,” Dooley says, wiping his sweaty forehead on his sleeve. “Help Daddy help you.” No, he decides, he will never in a million years let her call Toby Tidwell Daddy. “Airplane!” he says, holding his hands up in the air.

    Gracie raises her arms and leans toward the door so Dooley can pull her out and fl y her around the parking lot.

    In the food court, there’s a row of flashing, blinking machines along the back wall. Dooley holds Gracie up so she can play a game of Whack-A-Mole, which she’s better at than Dooley would’ve guessed a three-year-old would be. After a few games, they go surfing for food. Gracie chooses pizza, which she loves but still can’t pronounce. “Peace,” is what it sounds like to Dooley when Gracie points at her food of choice.

    “Right on,” Dooley says, showing Gracie the peace sign.

    In the middle of their meal, Dooley’s phone rings. It’s Tina.

    “Did you get her shoes yet?”

    “We’re still eating.”

    “Goddammit, Dooley, it’s one-thirty. Don’t pull this on me today. Just skip the shoes. You’re not going to be the one who has to get up with her in the middle of the night.”

    Tina hates that Dooley never hears Gracie calling from her room at night. He’s a sound sleeper, or pretends to be, an accusation that is included in the call to his cell phone. Tina’s exhausted, Dooley can tell. They both are. She says a few other things to him, and Dooley picks the olives off of his pizza while he waits for the talking to end. “Okay,” he says when it does, and he hangs up. He watches Gracie pull wads of cheese off her pizza then gnaw at them with her itty-bitty teeth. She’s too little for the moving-out speech. He’ll have to find some other way to tell her what’s what.

    After lunch, Dooley takes Gracie to the self-serve shoe store where he lets her try on whatever interests her, including a pair of sparkling stiletto heels across the aisle from the children’s section. She puts her hands on a chair, steps into the twinkling shoes, and Dooley walks her around the displays before going on to more sensible selections. Finally, she chooses a pair of miniature pink high tops. Dooley and Tina have been teaching Gracie how to use Velcro, and she’s excited to be able to fasten her new shoes.

    “Pink!” she says as they walk across the mall’s vast parking lot.

    “PinkPinkPink,” Dooley says in time to Gracie’s quick little steps.

    Dooley opens the passenger door and lets some of the heat out before he feeds Gracie into the foot well. He pats the car seat. “Giddyup now.”

    Gracie squats in the foot well, messing with the Velcro on her shoes.

    Dooley lifts his squirming daughter—Toby Tidwell’s daughter? Impossible—into the car seat, which seems to have worked loose from the seat belt that is meant to hold it in place. Why has Tina put up with this piece of shit for so long? Dooley puts Gracie back
    in the foot well and struggles to rethread the seat belt. Sweat soaks his shirt while he fumbles with the clasps of the pain-in-the-ass seat.

    Half a mile from home, on Magazine Street, Dooley notices a store called Wonderful Baby in a row of old shotgun houses that have been converted into upscale boutiques. How is it that he’s never noticed it in all this time? In the shop’s window, Dooley sees what is surely the Cadillac of car seats. He turns into the crumbling brick parking lot, which runs down the side of the boutique. He’s not all that late. If he has his own car seat, he can take Gracie out more, and Tina can go visit her friends. Design for success, that’s what Dooley’s sister always tells him. No way is Toby Tidwell just going to waltz off with Dooley’s baby girl. Fuck that noise. Dooley will have the car seat all ready, and his relationship with his daughter will go on just the way it is.

    He turns to Gracie, who has been playing with the slide for his guitar, smacking it against the metal clasp of the car seat. She has fallen asleep with her fingers wrapped around it. Perfect, Dooley thinks. Tina can’t yell at him about the missed nap after all. He kisses Gracie’s sweaty forehead and tugs the metal slide out of her fist so she won’t hurt herself. He rolls the windows up, leaving a couple of inches for air, then locks the doors so Gracie will be safe.

    Inside Wonderful Baby, the salesladies all say that the car seat in the window is the best one on the planet. The best. And they offer to take Dooley’s order because the one in the window, the last one in the store, is bolted to a two-by-four. Dooley says he wouldn’t mind getting it loose if it means he can take it home today. And he’ll pay full price, too. He’ll show Tina that he isn’t going to just step aside. He’s Gracie’s daddy. Nothing can change that.

    When Dooley bounces down the front steps of the boutique, it’s with the best car seat on the planet tucked under his arm. He rounds the corner of the building and starts into the little brick parking lot, where he sees a woman trying to break the driver’s side window of his truck. Before he can call out to her, the window shatters and a second woman reaches in and opens the door. She pulls Gracie out of the car seat in what seems a single motion. How? Dooley wonders first, and then why. Why?

    Within seconds of reaching his truck, a cop car and an ambulance scream into the parking lot, spewing uniformed men. The woman won’t let Dooley touch Gracie, who is limp in her arms. His daughter has been sick on her brand-new shoes. Dooley tackles the woman holding his child, worried that she will get away before the cops can catch her. The cops pull Dooley off the woman and cuff him. The other woman, the one who broke his truck’s window, hauls off and punches him in the chest. “Jackass!” she yells and then busts out crying.

    Dooley screams bloody murder in the back of the hot cruiser, where they’ve hog-tied him. Gracie is taken away in the ambulance, and the cops want to know how to reach Dooley’s wife. No one will answer when Dooley asks why. On the way to the police station, the cop who isn’t driving looks over the back of his seat at Dooley. “You know how hot it was in that truck?”

    “I wasn’t gone but a few minutes,” Dooley says, though he knows getting the car seat loose from its display had taken a while. “And I left the windows cracked so air could get in.”

    The cop shakes his head. “Windows open, windows closed. Doesn’t make much difference in this heat. Especially in a black truck like that. Don’t you watch the news?”

    Dooley remembers a story about a baby dying from heatstroke in a car earlier that summer. The mother had left her infant in the backseat while she went gambling. But she’d been gone for hours. Dooley hadn’t been gone long at all. “Gracie was sleeping,”
    Dooley explains. “She has to have a nap, or she wakes my wife up at night.”

    “In this kind of heat, it doesn’t take but ten, fifteen minutes,” the cop goes on. He’s pretty worked up. “A baby like that gets overheated, you know what happens?” the cop asks. “Her little heart explodes, that’s what.”

    Dooley feels himself float up out of his body, up to the ceiling of the cruiser. He looks down on his pathetic form where it’s hog-tied in the backseat. It’s just a body down there, he thinks with his brain, which he can’t get away from. It’s just a body.

    The next day, Tina bails Dooley out of jail with a credit card she borrowed from her mother. When Tina suggested that Dooley call his sister for the money, he begged her to leave Delia out of it. “I’ll tell her myself, Tina,” he says. “Just not yet.” Dooley’s sister is crazy about Gracie. And about Dooley, too, though he guesses that’s all over now.

    At the hospital where they go to sign for Gracie’s body, a social worker suggests they get some grief counseling. When they get in the car to go home, Tina has a suggestion of her own. She suggests Dooley move out. Immediately. “You did this to get back at me!” Tina yells, leaning forward and jabbing her finger into Dooley’s chest. “And now you’re going to have to live with it!” There’s something unhinged, something Dooley has never seen, in Tina’s eyes. When she finally gets to the end of the awful words, she begins to sob. She punches on Dooley’s arm like a tiny boxer at the end of a too-long workout. Dooley half wants to give her his face to beat on, but he stays curled up in the corner of the passenger seat bawling.

    *

    It turns out Tina meant what she said about Dooley moving out. The day after Gracie’s funeral, Dooley staggers up the steps just before dawn. He’s put in a long, long day on a barstool where he attempted to get some relief from the bad pictures in his mind. When he puts his key in the lock, nothing happens. Well, one thing happens. The key gets stuck, and Dooley twists it until the metal shears, leaving the business end wedged in the keyhole. Tina, who is very handy, has apparently changed the lock.

    Dooley falls to his knees, leans over and hollers his confusion through the mail slot and into his dark house. “Tell me what I should do,” he yells, even though he knows Tina hates yelling.

    “I’m not deaf yet,” she always says. Because of the bad-hearing gene, most of the people in Tina’s family, young and old, are somewhere on their way to being deaf, so family gatherings are loud. Outside those gatherings, Tina can’t stand the sound of a raised voice.

    Dooley sits down next to the door and smacks his head on the jamb until a lamp goes on inside, and he hears the shick-shick-shick of Tina trying to light the near-empty Bic that Dooley keeps on the key rack. He sits in the dark and the mosquitoes, facing the mail slot in the door. The door groans a little when Tina sits down and leans against it. Dooley smells a cigarette.

    They’ve never smoked inside, and they both quit altogether when Tina got pregnant with Gracie. That’s when she dropped out of college, too, and Dooley stopped playing with the band so he wouldn’t have to travel on the weekends. He wonders, sitting on the doorstep, not why Tina is smoking inside, but why she’s smoking at all. Isn’t it important to go on taking good care of herself? Dooley wonders why everything has to change at once.

    “Tell me what I should do,” Dooley whispers through the mail slot.

    “You’ve got to move on, Dooley.”

    Dooley asks her how. How can he move on? Tina always has opinions.

    “You’re the only one who knows for sure, Dooley,” she whispers back, a stranger.

    Every time Tina exhales, smoke curls at the brass lips of the mail slot like an answer, but then a back draft sucks most of it inside, where Dooley imagines it falls apart.

    “Just tell me what you think,” Dooley says, trying to get the old Tina, his bossy girl, to talk to him.

    “What I think,” she says, “doesn’t have a thing to do with it anymore.” Tina’s smoky reply hangs there in the humid July air. She sounds broken, and Dooley wishes he knew something to say besides sorry. The week before, after she bailed him out of jail, she told him he was going straight to fucking hell. And then the thing about how Gracie’s death was just Dooley’s way of getting back at her. She apologized later. She said sorry. But it just about ruined Dooley for good the way something as big as what has happened to the two of them could end with the same word you’d say to a stranger you’d knocked into accidentally. He wasn’t interested in ever hearing sorry again.

    “You’ve got to find some other place to go,” Tina says now. “You don’t live here anymore.”

    Though her mouth is only inches away, Dooley can barely comprehend what she’s saying. There’s a buzzing in his ears, like his head is a jar of bees.

    “Go to Delia’s house, Dooley,” Tina says. “She’ll take care of you.”

    Dooley can’t stay at his sister’s. He can’t stay anywhere. Everywhere he goes, there’s always the look and then the whisper behind the hand, Can you imagine?

    Dooley walks the half mile to his truck, which is still parked on the side of Wonderful Baby. He lets the tailgate down and crawls into the bed, where he stares at the big blank sky until the bees in his head buzz him to sleep.

    *

    Tina’s car is gone when Dooley scales the fence that surrounds what used to be his backyard. He’ll have to leave before Tina comes home because if she finds him there again, she said, she will personally shoot him. He wishes someone would shoot him, but not Tina. She doesn’t know how her life would change in an instant if she did such a thing, even if a judge says it wasn’t on purpose and gives her community service.

    When he gets to the tall windows at the back of the house, he peers in. He’s hoping to catch sight of some clues as to how it is that everything he understood to be true a few weeks ago could have vanished so quickly and with so little warning. He looks with longing at his old blue recliner and the Gibson acoustic that Tina gave him last Christmas. “He’s got killer heart,” she used to tell her friends about his guitar playing. “When he sings, it just breaks me into little pieces.”

    He’s sweating so hard in the moist heat that he has to sit on the back steps to rest for a minute. The bees in his head have gotten worse. They get upset easily now, and Dooley spends his days trying to keep them quiet. At this particular moment the whole hive is pulsing with sound. Dooley shakes his head, but they keep at it. He turns and leans just a little so he can see into his old living room. In the corner nearest the window, stuck behind a potted rubber tree, he catches sight of a single sock, a tiny yellow one with ducks around the top. The bees object and start a steady drone in A-minor. Their dark chord of disapproval makes his heart go all speedy despite the twelve-pack of beer he drank this morning in hopes of keeping it still. When the bees get as loud as they are now, it sounds like a thousand people all saying, ohhh. Not the good ohhh of understanding, not the ecstatic ohhh of sex, but the tail end of the N-ohhh! of disbelief.

    Suddenly, the buzzing is drowned out by the familiar squeal of the slipping power-steering belt on Tina’s car. Dooley gets up too fast, and the beer and the heat pull his legs out from under him. He lands bony-ass first on a tree root. Once he gets upright, he skitters across the yard and hurls his lanky frame up onto the back fence, a maneuver that goes better than he expects. He lowers himself onto the deck that runs all the way around his neighbor’s pool. The noonday sun blasts off the water in a hundred tiny lights that flash at Dooley like a mob of newspaper photographers. “Why’d you do it?” the reporters all want to know.

    The monster Victorian faces Magazine Street and, along with its neighbors, blocks tourists’ view of the run-down rental properties of the Irish Channel, among which is Dooley and Tina’s little rented shotgun house. Dooley has often studied the elaborate landscaping through the gaps in the wooden fence. Up close, it’s really, really nice.

    He cuts down the Victorian’s side yard and walks right out to the front of the house without anyone saying boo. He goes up the house’s steps and rings the bell. Jeffrey Mathers, it says on the mailbox. Jeffrey is gone today, or maybe he’s always been gone. Maybe it’s only his name that’s here.

    Dooley goes back down the alley to the deck, to the pool. He can stay here, he thinks. Just hang out by the pool and keep an eye on his old house and his former wife. Maybe Jeffrey would prefer that Dooley not hang out in his pool, but it’s not like Dooley’s stealing anything. He just needs someplace clean and uncomplicated where he can make a plan. He’ll have to move on. He knows that. He just doesn’t know how yet. Or where.

    Dooley sways on Jeffrey’s deck, staring into the blue of the pool water, his heart pounding, the buzzing in his head a constant ohhh. He’s got a little something for those bees, though. He kicks off his flip-flops at the pool’s edge, turns his back to the water and lets himself fall in, jeans and all. The water looks soft, but it’s not. The big blue hand of it slaps hard against Dooley’s back, and for a minute the shock of the slap and the sting of chlorine override the buzzing, giving Dooley a little peace.

    He loves the pool, how he can put his head under the water and watch the slow motion of his paddling arms. He wishes everything in life could be slowed down the way it is in the pool. It would be great if everyone could roll over and float when they got tired of paddling out there in the world. Dooley’s always wanted a pool, and he sees now that having one is just as nice as he imagined. How many things turn out that way in life, just as nice as you think they’re going to be?

    When his legs feel too heavy to kick through the water, Dooley hooks his elbows over the side of the pool and stares through the French doors into Jeffrey’s empty kitchen. If he could just sit down inside there, away from the glare and the heat, maybe Dooley could gather his thoughts, which is hard to do with all the buzzing in his head. He listens to see what the bees think of the plan. Go on ahead, they buzz.

    He hauls himself out of the pool and squishes over to the kitchen door. From his soaked pocket, he pulls his Swiss Army knife and goes right to work prying the retainer molding from one of the panes in Jeffrey’s hundred-and-twenty-year-old back door. Suctioning the glass to the palm of his wet hand, he pulls it free and reaches in to turn the deadbolt. Once he’s inside, Dooley puts the glass back in and the molding back on, something he hopes will show Jeffrey that he means no harm.

    The second he steps into Jeffrey’s kitchen, Dooley feels a plan hatch inside him. He’ll be Jeffrey’s roommate. He can watch over his house, maybe make him something tasty right here in this elaborate kitchen, which, from the looks of it, Jeffrey doesn’t spend much time in. Dooley guesses that, theoretically, you’d want to get to know somebody before you asked him to move in with you, but his recent experience has illustrated for him that you can’t ever really know someone. You can’t even know yourself. If it turns out that Jeffrey doesn’t want to get to know Dooley or have a roommate, then fine; Dooley will go back to sleeping in the bed of his truck.

    The appliances in the kitchen are beautiful and perfect. So clean. Dooley wonders if anything bad could ever happen to someone with such a kitchen. There’s an old-fashioned, stainless steel toaster on the counter. When he pushes its black handle all the way down, the toaster’s interior brightens. Dooley can feel the heat of it, hear the hot, buzzing heart of it. He bends over and rests his chin on the counter and studies the face of the man on the shiny surface of the toaster. He makes a game of trying to look at both of the man’s eyes at the same time. If he can do it, he decides, then his heart will stop, and it will all be over. At first, the man in the toaster looks confused and sad. When Dooley picks up the appliance to study the face more closely, the man looks surprised, and Dooley throws the hot thing into the sink. Pink cushions of blister inflate on the tips of his fingers, and he presses them into the cool fabric of his wet jeans.

    He clumps over to the little bar and snatches a tumbler off a shelf. He means to fill it with water, but his hand chooses bourbon instead. Bourbon always makes him throw up, but first there’ll be a struggle not to, and that’s the best part of any day. He pours a tumbler full and sniffs it, and the bees go all quiet and peaceful. The bees love bourbon. Dooley takes a big gulp and works on forgetting the man in the toaster and the look of surprise on the poor bastard’s face. He turns from the bar, and heavy-legs it through the house in search of the bathroom, where he hopes his new roommate will have something for pain. Something faster than bourbon.

    Ohhh, the bees warn him. Ohhh.

    Dooley weaves through room after room until a bathroom appears. It looks like something right out of one of Tina’s decorating magazines, all wainscoting and claw-foot tub, tiny soaps and candles. On a hook near the door is a silk bathrobe, the kind Dooley has seen in movies but never actually touched. The whispery fabric makes Dooley want to be dry, to have the silk next to his skin, to feel not just comfort but pleasure again. He wrestles to get loose from his wet clothes and nearly takes a header into the sparkling tub. Free of the soggy mess, his skin throbs with gratitude as he slides on the robe. It smells like his grandfather’s talcum, like a life of clarity and ease. Already things are looking up.

    When Dooley turns around, there on the double vanity is a mother lode of relief. According to the label on the bottle of Oxy-Contin, Jeffrey Mathers has chronic back pain. Dooley shakes a 20 tab into his palm. He doesn’t have back pain, he’s just sad, and he needs the little chemical erasers to clear the unpleasant pictures in his mind. When the erasers wear off, Dooley knows, when the picture fills in again, a hot, idling sadness will be parked right in the middle of his chest. There’s not one place he will ever go without it again.

    Dooley bends down and digs in the pocket of his soaked pants until his blistered fingers snag on his Swiss Army knife. Placing the tab of Oxy on Jeffrey’s stone countertop, he uses the knife to shave the time-release coating off. He needs some relief, and he needs it now. Once he’s removed the coating, Dooley pops the pill into his mouth and chews slowly, dropping the knife and a few extra tablets into the robe’s pocket. He weds the drug to some bourbon and sends them both on a honeymoon to his stomach. He waits to see if he’ll throw them up, but he doesn’t. He’s committed.

    He puts the bottle of medicine back where he got it. In the bathroom mirror, a tired man with a soon-to-be-ex-wife stares at Dooley like he knows him. The man’s baby is gone, gone for good, straight up to heaven where all children go when their little hearts
    explode. What the man’s wife said is true: “You’re going to hell,” Dooley informs the man in the mirror. “Directly to fucking hell.”

    He grabs his tumbler of bourbon and leaves the bathroom wearing the fine silk robe. Jeffrey’s house is like a maze, and Dooley stumbles through it in search of the living room. For a while, he goes in circles, as though he’s trying to exit a complicated cloverleaf of interstate highway. When he finally makes a successful turnoff into a large living area, he sits down in a Sharper Image massage chair, the kind he’s often sat in while Tina shopped at the mall.

    The room is spinning, and he closes his eyes against the whirling scenery and presses his face against the contoured surface of the chair, whose fabric feels like skin, but not delicate skin, not like a baby’s cheek or the inside of a woman’s thigh. Not like the burned tips of Dooley’s own fingers. He gives one of the pink lozenges of blister a lick. It tastes like stupidity.

    When he opens his eyes, light is beaming in through the leaded glass of the front door, and it hovers over Dooley’s head like the old spotlight at Don Quixote’s where his band used to play. The bright shaft looks dense enough to slow him down or stop him, but he can put his blistered hand right through it, like a ghost entering another dimension. The bees hate it. They start up on Dooley so loud that he pulls the Oxy tabs from the pocket of his robe and stuffs one in each ear then tosses another one in his mouth, where he grinds it with his teeth and gives it enough bourbon to get it where it’s going fast.

    The room’s light seems attached to a dimmer somewhere, and color fades from everything except for a bright flashing on the periphery. The pulsing at the edge of the room hums. Ohhh, ohhh, ohhh. It’s made of bees.

    Dooley can’t think of what else to give them.

    He roots around for his Swiss Army knife, and it’s there in the robe’s pocket, exactly where it’s supposed to be. A sign, Dooley thinks. He never finished clipping his toenails the day Tina laid the bad news on him, the day everything turned upside down.

    Now the nail on his big toe is long, freakishly long, like you’d see on a dead man if you dug him up after a couple of years. It occurs to Dooley that maybe this is the source of the bees’ worry. He pulls his foot up to cut the nail with his knife’s little clipper. Several times he hauls it up onto the edge of the chair. Each time he gets it close enough to work on, though, he loses his grip, and the whole operation just falls apart.

    *

    © 2009 by Barb Johnson. From the collection More of This World and Maybe Another. Pick it up today.

    Read the rave review in today’s Plain Dealer.

    Read more about Barb here.



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