Sky Meets Sea
The mailbox had been knocked down, blown-up, spray painted, hit with rocks, hit with bricks, hit with a garbage can, and once it was filled with spoiled milk.
After two years of active duty W.K. was placed on the individual ready reserve. He and Lee Marie now rented a broke-down one-bedroom house in a derelict neighborhood in Amsterdam. They had met in the worst possible place on earth, all sand and burning heat and stink, near Kabul, but in upstate New York, they enjoyed that clean air smell and buzz-cut lawns and not always locking the front door at night.
Their street never had trouble, but W.K. planned a stakeout to catch the mailbox vandal. At the front window, he had a clean view down the driveway. He forked at a plate of leftover enchiladas. His thermos was topped with coffee, and a Louisville Slugger leaned by the door. W.K. had wrapped the mailbox with duct tape to keep it from falling. He was working at the duct tape factory running the Jumbo cutter. His closet was stuffed with trash bags full of duct tape. But he wasn’t going back to the factory. W.K. knew that walking out on a job sounded bad, but Lee Marie wouldn’t want to hear it, not with their bills. Lee Marie didn’t want to hear a lot of things. So W.K. told her he’d been laid off.
It was after midnight. The street lamp still threw a halo around the mailbox. W.K. had pulled enough overnighters to know how it was done. He chased two tabs of Desoxyn with coffee and scribbled in a notepad. Circles mostly. Endless circles.
Across the street, porch lights shined on the neighbors’ shambly houses. The dark ones were foreclosed. But no light shined at Bill and Seline’s either. Seline’s Honda was gone. She was attractive, in her thirties, a decade older than Bill and W.K. And if she left the house in sweats to go to the gym or in a black dress at eight at night she always wore red-hot lipstick. No one else looked that good, not even the twentysomethings that W.K. ran with because they wrestled with the addictions that shed decades from their lives in a year or two. W.K. used to daydream that if Seline ever left Bill he would keep her company.
But he loved Lee Marie.
Lately, W.K. had felt like his father, a paranoid old man.
When W.K. was a teenager, they built duck houses in their workshop. “Someone’s out there to get you, Dummy,” his father, Abe, would say.
Abe had a big head, and a wide, flat face, and from a distance he looked like a six-foot thumb.
“Think about it,” Abe would say. “The world doesn’t work unless you got an opposite. Like dogs and cats, or up and down.”
“Like yin and yang,” W.K. asked. “Like that?”
“Whatever,” Abe said. “But be careful because sometimes it’s the same person.”
W.K. held two boards together while Abe pounded a nail. The boards slipped, and Abe nailed unevenly.
“For Christ’s sake. Can’t you do nothing?”
Abe ripped the boards from his son, and with the claw-side of the hammer he pried the nail screaming loose.
In his youth, Abe too had served in the military, as a Navy seaman, a night watchman. He had told W.K. that from the ship deck he’d stare out at the ocean, scan the horizon for the smallest anomaly, the faintest difference along that line where sky meets sea. Near dawn his eyes played tricks. Ghost light from the early sun refracted god-knows-what and a vessel appeared. He’d swear it was an enemy ship, but almost always the shape morphed. Once he said he saw an African elephant walking on water. He spent two long years at sea, but it only took a few short months in the wild blue nothing for him to distrust almost everything he saw.
Abe was discharged, not for his eyes but his hand, crushed beneath a pallet carrying half-a-dozen hundred pound artillery shells, fallen from a forklift as he unloaded cargo off the coast of the Panay Islands.
His left mitt resembled a ginger root. The fingers bent upward save his pinky. Missing. The heavy load from the pallet chopped it clean off. He drove truck for the next thirty-seven years, mostly under the table work.
Now retired, Abe kept order at home by carrying a toy pistol, shooting caps at his ex-wife Gina’s dog, a German shepherd named Missy. When she jumped on the couch there was always a quick percussion of pops. Missy’s eyebrows would raise but her head stayed mounted on the armrest.
“Missy pissy,” Abe would say.
In the kitchen, Abe would set two crooked fingers on Gina’s hip. She was his second wife, fifteen years his junior. She worked as a nurse on the Alzheimer’s unit at St. Mary’s Hospital, and after they divorced, she loved hating him. Then the hate turned to irritation and then to ambivalence. Then Abe disappeared from her thoughts altogether, and with the images of him long receded to the far corners of her mind, for a time she was happy. Abe made it crystal clear while they were married that he would not father another child. Until lately, a child was all that mattered to her. But the year of Gina’s fifty-second birthday, nature made certain that she would never be a mother.
Still, she cooked Abe dinner once a month. But no longer did they argue about children.
“You’ll never believe what your dog just did,” Abe would say, standing near the stove, two fingers on her hip.
She would push him away.
“I was going to tell you it smells good.”
“I was going to let you starve. Now quit.”
1:00 a.m. W.K. drew black circles in the notebook. Until last week, the duct tape factory was one hundred and five days without an accident, only twenty days from a free meat lunch.
Both W.K. and Johnny Cast, a twentysomething veteran from Fort Drum, worked the Jumbo cutter. The Jumbo sliced six-foot-long rolls of duct tape into smaller sizes for stores. To W.K., the machine looked like a giant bread slicer.
Johnny Cast had returned to work after a failed drug test. Under normal circumstances Johnny should’ve lost his job, but the foreman, Dunkin Daniels, was another Fort Drum vet who believed in that brotherhood that binds men of war. If Johnny committed to a drug detention center for six months Dunkin vowed to hold his job.
The day Johnny returned he had handed W.K. a blue cigar.
“Diaper spelled backwards is repaid,” W.K. had said.
“What’s cocksucker spelled backwards?” Johnny asked.
“I been gone for six months,” Johnny said. “It’s immaculate conception or some shit. But I love Izzy.”
W.K. had known very few men who would raise another man’s child so casually. But Johnny was loyal. And as foolish as he seemed, W.K. had always liked him for that.
W.K. called for a celebration at Tiny’s Tavern. The bar was full of twenty-year-old drunks going on forty and forty-year-old drunks at their end. But the lights were dim, and they all looked like ageless drunks. Johnny fed the jukebox ten bucks and ran through every Merle Haggard track.
“Every song’s about some loser,” W.K. said.
“I’ll drink to that.” Johnny downed his shot of whiskey and sipped his beer. “It says something about the human condition.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” W.K. asked. “One of your counselors say that?”
He saw Johnny’s eyes lose some shine.
“Means we can’t all be saints,” Johnny said.
W.K. flagged the bartender. He ordered another pitcher and two more whiskeys.
“You know how I found out about Izzy?” Johnny asked.
W.K. checked his watch, almost midnight. He had never called Lee Marie to tell her he was out.
“Limp dick, you know?” Johnny laughed to himself.
“Booze will do it,” W.K. said.
“Mine’s mush all the time.”
The bartender set their next round down, and W.K. stole the shot glass to his lips, the slow-burn of rotten honesty in his head.
W.K. drove Johnny to a trailer park called The Lion’s Den. Izzy stood inside the screen door wearing an Army tank top that hung mid-thigh. She was tiny, a hundred and five pounds, and if W.K. didn’t know she was pregnant, he’d think her belly distended like a wino’s.
They staggered up the wooden steps.
“I took him out to celebrate,” W.K. said. “It’s not his fault.”
“I’m a father,” Johnny mumbled, drunkenly.
“You tell him who the father is?” W.K. asked.
Izzy took Johnny’s arm around her shoulders. Her body gave under his weight, but she stood strong, accepting his burden.
“Let me take him to bed,” W.K. said.
She smiled for the first time. “You’re good to him.”
The bedroom was only large enough to fit a bed, a dresser, and a thrift-store basinet. On the wall hung a metal cross and Izzy’s community college diploma. W.K. laid Johnny down and flapped the blankets over his legs. Johnny tried to unclasp his belt but gave up.
“My arm fell asleep,” Johnny said. “Can’t sleep with my pants on.”
W.K. slid Johnny’s jeans off and left them bundled on the floor.
“Fag,” Johnny said.
Izzy sat at the card table in the kitchen, two mugs of coffee set beside a stack of bridal magazines.
“I didn’t have time to clean up,” Izzy said.
“It’ll just get messy again,” W.K. said.
“Ain’t that the truth,” she said. “Everything’s a fucking mess.”
They drank in silence and held hands.
They had never meant for it to happen.
Three months ago, they’d bumped into each other at Tiny’s Tavern. Izzy drank a glass of house wine. She was meeting a girlfriend, but her girlfriend was thirty minutes late.
“Men trouble,” Izzy said. “All my friends got it.”
“Not you,” W.K. said. But with Johnny in rehab, he knew he should’ve kept his mouth shut.
He ordered her next wine and a whiskey and beer back.
“Can I ask you something?” Izzy said.
“I think you just did,” W.K. said.
She gave his arm a playful push.
“Johnny says you don’t have kids.”
“That comes up with Lee,” W.K. said. “But it ain’t my choice, right?”
Izzy nodded like she knew exactly what he meant.
“My dad wasn’t so good to me,” W.K. said. “But I think I could do better.”
Izzy’s eyes grew wet with tears, and she wiped her face.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just Johnny ain’t here, and he’s got his own problems. And I’m really sorry. You don’t have to listen to none of this.”
W.K. set his hand on hers, but she pulled away.
“Let’s go,” W.K. said. “Let me drive you home.”
“I don’t know,” she said.
In her driveway, he tugged her onto his lap. Her hair fell across his face, and he thought of the women before Lee Marie. He remembered sex when it was just sweat and heat. She rocked on his hips.
“Not in the car,” he said.
“God,” she said, and bit his cheek.
“Jesus,” he said, and pushed her off his lap.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and reached for his belt buckle.
It was imperative to clean the built-up glue off the Jumbo cutter blades, or the machine began to cut as if the rolls were no more than warm loaves of bread. W.K. and Johnny alternated watching each other’s machines during smoke breaks.
W.K. returned carrying a bag of potato chips.
“They mine?” Johnny asked, staring after the chips. “Huh?”
“You’re high,” W.K. said.
“I’ll clean your machine, you give me those chips,” Johnny said.
“Are you serious?” W.K. asked.
“Am I what?” Johnny asked.
W.K. looked around. “High?”
“I lost my job for shit like that,” Johnny said. “Now you want your machine clean or what?”
A tube of uncut tape fed into the rear of the Jumbo as the front door closed and the safety bar descended. When the safety bar lifted, a dozen individual rolls slid forward onto a conveyor line.
“It cuts like butter,” W.K. said.
“You think I’m chicken? I’ll do it with the blades running.”
W.K. tossed Johnny the bag of potato chips. “You don’t have to do nothing stupid.”
Johnny caught them one-handed, but he no longer cared about the chips. He tapped his finger in the center of his chest. “If Johnny Cast says he’ll do it, then he does it good.”
“Right,” W.K. said, but he knew Johnny wasn’t finished. Johnny wasn’t the type. Izzy had told him stories about Johnny in high school, how Johnny had smoked his first joint and vowed to be the biggest druggie in school and how after reading a chapter in the Bible while flying on 500 mics of mescaline he had zeroed-in on reinventing himself as a Born Again, which lasted until he enlisted. It was all a great big competition.
“Take it easy,” W.K. said.
“How about you tell me who the father is if I reach in there?” Johnny asked. “I know she talks to you.”
W.K. held his hands in surrender. “It’s not like that.”
“I told her it ain’t right to burden you with her problems.”
“It’s complicated,” W.K. said.
“You tell me who, and I’ll cut that fucker in half with a sword,” Johnny said. “I swear to God.”
He rolled one sleeve to his elbow.
The safety bar dropped, and the machine sectioned another tube.
When the bar rose, Johnny reached for the nearest blade, the teeth wrapped in warm glue. He shot in quick, like he was reaching into a lion’s mouth. The safety bar dropped, and for a second W.K. thought he was free, but Johnny stepped back hard, his arm still pinched down, and the machine sliced it in two like it were held together by no more than strings. The safety bar rose, and Johnny spun on his heels, looking around without recognition. Blood spilled down the Jumbo’s ramp and Johnny’s body. Gallons, W.K. would later think. He grabbed Johnny by the shirt to keep him from falling. Together they eased to the floor. Johnny’s mouth opened and closed like a gasping fish.
“Christ, God, hold on,” W.K. said.
“Fucking bitch,” was all Johnny said.
The sun would rise in a few hours and if W.K. left his stakeout for bed, Lee Marie would certainly wake. They’d stare across crumpled sheets without a clue of what to say.
It had been two years since their first date in Kabul when they shared a pack of cigarettes and talked for hours about everything, a far cry from dinner two nights ago. Over microwave meatloaf they had a fifteen-word conversation.
“Food’s good,” W.K. had said.
“Didn’t make it,” Lee Marie said.
“It could be warmer,” W.K. said.
She sipped her beer and dabbed her mouth with a napkin.
“It’s fine,” he said.
He stabbed a square of meat with his fork.
“Too late for apologies,” she said.
They were different people now but neither one would say it.
W.K. never told Lee Marie about his reoccurring dreams. For months he dreamed of a girl from his ninth grade French class. Mandy Sobatka. He remembered the brown mole on her neck and the classroom discussions where she told him that she barrel raced at the rodeo. She felt like she was flying, riding her horse, Trigger, her red hair whipping. She spoke beautiful sentences, a few words English, a few en français. W.K. told her that he’d never ridden a horse.
“It’s like sex,” she had said.
“Yeah right,” he said.
“But better,” she said.
He recently found her on the Internet. He told his neighbor, Bill. In line at the Chinese buffet Bill joked that W.K. should start doing sit-ups if he planned on taking his clothes off for her.
W.K. stopped short of telling Bill that he saw Mandy’s photograph. She’d lost teeth. Most likely crank, W.K. thought. And she wore a scarf around her head as most of her hair had fallen out.
“With Lee,” W.K. said. “Nothing’s spontaneous.”
“You think your future’s certain?” Bill asked.
In front of the sesame chicken, he waved his serving spoon.
“In last week’s paper,” Bill said, “there was an eighty-five-year-old down in Florida just swimming in the ocean, just treading water. Probably thinking of the chicks on the beach, I bet.”
“A good life,” W.K. said, considering the crab rangoon.
“And all the sudden, wham, a tiger shark up and kills him. Imagine that?”
Bill spooned sesame chicken onto his plate.
“Christ, nothing’s certain,” Bill said. “Nothing.”
Then he dumped his chicken back into the pan.
W.K. visited his father when he could. Abe complained about his hand mostly, phantom pain shooting through the missing pinky.
Abe sat at the kitchen table. The television broadcasted the local weather. Abe stretched his fingers, each knuckle naturally popping. Some bone song.
They played pinochle. Abe had forgotten the rules. W.K. had watched as a boy when Abe played his mother. W.K. remembered the way they looked at one another, or the way they refused to. They sat only a few feet apart. Abe could’ve reached up and brushed a crumb from her lip. But really, there may’ve been an ocean that separated them. Abe never had to tell her he was having an affair. She knew after her doctor informed her that there were reports of spontaneous resolution for chlamydia.
It was the year that Abe met his second wife, Gina, in a bowling league.
Not long ago, Lee Marie had asked W.K. if he ever wanted to sleep with other women. W.K. read the sports page. The Yankees had beaten Detroit, 11-6. Lee Marie poured a mug of coffee. Straight from the shower, her hair stuck together in thick strands like rope.
“Is this a joke?” W.K. asked.
Lee Marie tasted her coffee spoon. “You wouldn’t enjoy it?”
“Jesus,” W.K. said. “Are you asking for permission to sleep around?”
“Don’t make this about me,” she said.
W.K. thought of Bill’s wife, Seline, and he thought of Izzy. Then he thought of Lee Marie with another man. He imagined her eyes closed and her lips parted. He thought she saw the worry on his face.
“This is ridiculous!” he said.
“Fine,” she said. “Don’t lose your head.”
3:30 a.m. W.K. wasn’t sure what he had expected—a gang of thugs. But the mailbox remained standing.
The refrigerator kicked on. The noise startled him. The motor had been on the fritz. He’d fix it one of these days. He heard squeaking in the bedroom, like bedsprings. Lee Marie had said she hears mice in the walls. But it was too steady, too calculated. He thought of Lee Marie touching herself. He wondered what she was thinking about. He almost called out. Instead, he slid his hand down his stomach, and he listened.
The sun climbed the eastern sky without worry or judgment.
W.K. stared out the front window. He thought of how his father had said that every object has an opposite; some were clearly good and others bad. As a child, W.K. asked which one the moon was.
“Depends,” was all Abe had said.
They had split a can of beef stew for breakfast. The night before, W.K.’s mother had questioned Abe about her chlamydia problem while she packed a travel bag.
“What’s it depend on?” W.K. had asked, eating a spoonful of stew.
Abe slammed both hands on the table.
“Depends if what you got is worth shining a fucking light on,” he said. “Now don’t ask stupid questions.”
W.K. stopped drawing circles in the notebook. He could see the word in his mind. It was on the tip of his tongue. He tried spelling it.
W.K. imagined his father at the kitchen table with the toy pistol. Abe shuffled a deck of cards. He would deal to Gina. He held one perfectly shaped hand before him, proudly. His fingers pinched the bottom edges of the cards, showing how careful he could be, a tenderness to keep them from falling.
“Early onset Alzheimer’s Disease,” the doctors had said, “and it won’t be easy.”
Gina’s dog, Missy, would settle against Abe’s legs.
“Supposed to be a nice weekend,” Gina would say.
Abe held the toy pistol, a finger on the trigger. Missy perked her ears, but Abe only patted her head. W.K. imagined Missy’s confusion.
“Maybe we can take a drive around the lake?” Abe would say. They could enjoy the autumn leaves, just the two of them, a reminder of the beginning—why they fell in love.
“We shouldn’t make plans,” Gina would say, and light a cigarette. “Something might come up.”
“When did you start smoking?” Abe would ask.
“Years ago, dear. You got me started.”
Abe would make a click-sound from the corner of his mouth as if a sudden recollection and lower his tired eyes. With one shaky hand he would lay his cards, a spade flush, the only upper hand he could manage.
6:45 a.m. W.K. watched the paperboy ride his mountain bike along the sidewalk. He was fourteen and his face shined with metal piercings. W.K. had told Lee Marie that if he were their son, he wouldn’t be allowed to leave the house like that.
“Don’t start,” Lee Marie had said, because they’d talked about children enough. W.K. wanted a child; Lee Marie did not.
“I’m not arguing,” W.K. had said. “I’m saying that even after what happened to his sister it’s no excuse to look like that.”
“Why would you say that?” Lee Marie asked, stunned.
A year ago, the boy’s sixteen-year-old sister had gone missing. W.K. never got the whole story.
The boy whipped newspapers at every door as if he were heaving fastballs. W.K. imagined he heard each thwaap. The boy nailed Bill’s truck. The newspaper bounced into the bare-spot where Seline always parked her Honda. The spot had been empty for weeks.
The paperboy stopped in the middle of the road, a newspaper and lighter in hand. He ignited a corner and opened the duct-taped mailbox, fanning the flames with the door, the wafting air aggravating the fire.
W.K.’s eyes darted to the Louisville Slugger.
Dummy, he thought. He’s only a kid.
But flames spat from the vents and the boy smirked as the smoke grew darker.
“Little fucker!” W.K. yelled.
“I’m trying to sleep,” Lee Marie called from the bedroom.
W.K. grabbed the bat and slammed the door. He marched down the front steps. He pointed the bat at the boy, but the boy was looking away.
“Little shit-for-brains,” W.K. said.
“Fuck,” the boy said, and kicked his leg over the bicycle, but his pant leg caught on the pedal.
W.K. swung the bat hard at the back tire. The bike jerked forward, and the boy fell.
“I’ll call the cops,” the paperboy said.
“Call the cops!” W.K. yelled. “They’ll arrest you for knocking my mailbox down.”
“It was a dare.” The paperboy’s leg was stuck beneath his bike.
“What did you say?” W.K. cocked the bat to swing.
“A dare.” The paperboy shielded his face with one arm, his body shaking. “It’s always so fucked up, I just thought.”
“You thought what?”
“I thought you were doing it on purpose. Like, to be different.”
“Who knocks his own mailbox down?” W.K. asked.
“I don’t know,” the paperboy said, crying. “It seemed like art, or something.”
W.K. had seen actors on television and dead men piss their pants, scared men who had lost control of their bodies. This boy was scared to death, and W.K. wanted him to piss himself.
“Get up,” W.K. said. “You’re a mess.”
He thought Lee was right. He’d be an awful father. But this was not his child. This boy was different; he earned this.
“Don’t ever come near my fucking house again,” W.K. said.
The paperboy mounted his bicycle and sped off. But W.K. knew his type. He would not listen—not to him, not to anyone.
The bedroom blinds were partially drawn. A slat of morning light stretched across the comforter. W.K. undressed to lie down.
“I know who it is,” he said. “The vandal.”
Lee Marie breathed loudly.
“You up?” he asked.
“I’m sleeping,” she said.
“I can fix this,” he said.
“Didn’t you hear me?” she asked, and she rolled away.
He thought of the life they once had. But this was where they were now. Their rent was a month late. The water bill was forty days past due. The front lawn was a foot high, and the mower needed gas.
He closed his eyes.
He imagined driving to the gas station with the mower in the bed of his truck. At the pump, he’d read stickers that warned “Caution,” “No Smoking,” “No Open Flames.” He quit, but he had loved to smoke. He thought it wouldn’t kill him to start again.
Then he’d drive around the lake staring at the foliage, at all the flame-shaped leaves fluttering as the traffic sped by, and he’d think of his father. He’d brake the truck halfway across the Bachelorville Bridge and unhook the mower. He’d stand in the bed and look out over the Sacandaga Lake. He and his father used to fish this lake catching walleye and northern pike. The blue sky was wide open above him, and he’d heave the mower as hard as he could. He’d watch the mower peak and fall to the surface of the lake, sinking seventy feet to the cold, murky bottom. Home, he’d think. And there it would rest with the other ancient rusted things.
|Copyright © 1999-2018 Juked|