December 2010

Two Stories

The Grizzly Bear

My father lives in a room with a stuffed grizzly bear now.

The stuffed grizzly bear was killed on a mountain and now it hunches over my father as he watches programs on a small, out-of-date television with a screen that’s gone green at the edges. The landlord, my father says, killed this bear with his own hands.

The stuffed bear came with my father’s three-month lease and if one wanted to make the argument that the stuffed bear was a replacement for my mother, one could probably soundly do so. For all intents and purposes, the stuffed bear is a furry version of my mother, claws sharp and teeth bare, brown, black, light pink at the lips and tongue.

My mother lives in a room decorated in pastel sea shell shades. We live in a landlocked state, but this has not stopped her affinity for the ocean. My mother’s room favors pearl pinks, sea salt blues, and conch shells that sing on shelves.

If we are in agreement that my father replaced my mother with a stuffed bear, then we would also agree that my mother did not replace my father with seashell tones, as they picked those shades out together, years ago. The shore came before the bear.

My father speaks 6 languages and plays the banjo. No, that is a lie. My father does not do either of those things. My father, actually, sells advertisements in church bulletins. In his new apartment, he makes the same phone calls he made in our house, at our kitchen table. “This is __________ from the Church Bulletin…” and so on. Now, the bear watches over him quietly, where my mother would often flip him the bird or mime choking herself as he spoke.

My mother doesn’t sell advertising. My mother makes a six-figure sum yearly, which is something she is proud of, in her shoulder-padded power suits. My mother gets contracts signed. I don’t know what it means, exactly, but we are in agreement, I think, that this is what she does.

*

In the lack of my father, my mother buys slutty patent leather knee-high boots.

She still does things for my father, as if he is here, in her brand new thigh high boots. She cleans every surface in the house, porcelain toilet seats, sinks, carpets. She grills steaks that go uneaten. Worse, she bakes cobblers at all hours of the day.

I catch her, when the clock is straining at two o’clock in the morning, in the boots, drunk, cherry goo between her fingers as if she has just committed a murder. Sugar is spread across the counter, has even drifted onto the floor.

My mother glances up.

“You love cobblers, right?” she slurs.

A terror begins in my chest, between the ribs. There is a new kind of insanity in the kitchen, a presence that is becoming bigger than mixing bowls, than ovens, bigger than the walls.

“We don’t need any more cobblers, ma,” I say, quiet, hating her for making me point it out.

My father used to devour these cobblers, sit at the table and spoon glistening sugared fruits into his old mouth, between his dentures.

“We have too many?” she asks.

I point, gently.

On the marble countertop, no less than twelve cobblers sit, untouched, their golden brown surfaces extending across lined up pans, a dessert desert. Underneath, there are blueberries, raspberries, apples, luscious things.

“Oh fuck,” she says.

My mother, her boots squeaking, moves.

She stumbles across the kitchen and sits down at the table.

Then she begins to lick her fingers, starting with her thumb.

She looks so pathetic that I spring into motion, mirror her. I turn off the oven, put the pans away, walk over and pat her on the head as she wraps her mouth around her pinkie.

The cobblers sit on the counter, still, waiting for a certain mouth.

*

My father speaks in the rooms.

He drives a convertible to a church and goes into the basement. This is not for business or for pleasure.

My father stands in front of the room and tells stories about the bottles of vodka he hid like Easter Eggs throughout our home, behind couch cushions, in the backs of toilet tanks and behind living room curtains.

My father thanks God and says that it works if you work it. The room full of strangers cheers and I want to cry when I look down at the cheap cup of coffee I am holding, because I am so ashamed and then so proud.

My father is 60 years old. My father acts so strong that the only crack in his story is the way his eyes flick away when he talks about my mother. Over lunch, my father says things like most people do. He says things I think I remember correctly, because they are things most people say in situations like this. But his eyes flick.

“I will always love your mother,” my father says before he looks down at his plate and bites his cheeseburger. “Can’t love anybody else.”

Tears are banging at my eyes again. “She bought slutty boots. She won’t stop making cobblers.”

“Don’t give yourself an ulcer over some damn boots,” my father says. “We’ll get back together. We talk on the phone now. Those cobblers won’t go to waste.”

My father has a crackpot scheme.

My father’s plan looks like this: Leave my mother, ask her to go for therapy, then date her. This is a blueprint for disaster. I have a sneaking suspicion my mother is wearing those boots for someone, a man as faceless as the doctors.

“That’s good,” I say slowly.

“Has she been seeing anyone?” my father asks. There is a bacon bit stuck to his lip.

“Don’t think so,” I say.

All around us are other families. It is the dinner rush. There are people smiling at each other over soups and appetizers. Their smiles seem very real, very bright, very unlike ours. My mother lives in a room of seashell shades. My father goes to the rooms and the strangers clap.

“Did I tell you,” my father asks, “what happened to that damned grizzly bear?”

“No?”

My father smiles.

“I was moving the damn thing,” my father says. “Because it was freaking me out. And the next thing you know, I hear a snap and I broke the damn arm off.”

My father tries to talk through the laugh.

“Now, the bear has this arm hanging off,” my father chuckle-laughs. “And Styrofoam is hanging out of the elbow.”

The laughter tugs at his eyes. His voice begins to get louder.

“The landlord says I’m going to have to pay to fix it,” my father gasps over his laugh.

The next thing I know, my father begins to cry.

He keeps laughing as the tears find their way through his wrinkles and down to the space above his lip.

A deeper ache than I have ever seen before cracks open on my father’s face, a black hole that sucks at his eyes and mouth. His hand curls into a small fist and he pounds the table gently as he sobs and laughs.

Ice Cream Husband

I kept my husband’s legs. It’s a secret. I keep the legs close to me, woven between my ribs, in the very fiber of my muscles. But it is more than just that. The legs are under my bed.

My husband used to stand tall, used to work at the factory on the edge of town, right near the water.

The new version of my husband does no such thing. He uses his arms for legs, his torso sliding against the baseboards, dragging like a fat dog’s stomach.

The top of my husband’s head, when he moves this way, comes to the place above my knee, the place where skirts had to fall in grade school.

Sometimes, while I’m cooking, while I’m at the stove, my husband rests his head there, his hair tickling the place on my leg where a growing child should be.

*
My husband used to make ice cream in a giant factory. After he got the job, I’d drive by the factories on the edge of the city proudly, staring at each building as if he owned them all.

During the day, he would manufacture tons of ice cream. He was not an ice cream man, far from it. He supervised the mixing of metric tons of sugar with milk, the movement of a giant industrial mixer, the addition of flavors.

He smelled like a new flavor each day: Cookies n’ cream, raspberry swirl, mocha chunk, traditional vanilla and chocolate on Thursdays and Fridays.  After dinner, he would bring me a bowl of the day’s fresh flavor.

I ate my husband’s ice cream until a new pudge grew at the bottom of my stomach, a small bump in my lower belly.

“I made this,” he’d say, drumming his fingers on the sugarfat. “This is mine.”

“It is,” I’d say, smiling, nuzzling, kissing, full of sugarhim.

At night, my husband would leave his hand on my thigh while we watched television. The heat of his hand would make me pulse in private places. His fingers on my leg were a promise for later, the hint of our future bodies pushing against each other.
*
It was the industrial mixer that did him in.

The flavor that day was mocha chunk. That was always my least favorite flavor.

While he was adding the chunks, he lost his balance. That’s what the boys at the plant said. It made me picture my husband on a tight rope, made me think of him as a failed trapeze artist.

How did they fish him out? I didn’t ask. I know one man was covered with dried ice cream in the hospital waiting room, the dairy flakes coming off of him. I hardly noticed him though. What did they do with the ice cream after that? Something else I do not know, but the thought of my husband’s legs flavoring sweetness made a new vomit rise in the back of my throat.

The doctors didn’t wait for me. They took him straight up and started sawing, putting silver to his flesh, grinding against the muscle, ligament and bone.

There was no time, they told me. His legs were so badly crushed that they couldn’t stay with my husband a moment longer. They were sucking at his blood supply, the doctors said.  It made me picture my husband with leeches for legs, giant ones. Would I have still loved him then? Maybe. I am not sure who knows those things.

When the small saws were put away, when my husband was no longer critically conditioned, the doctors led me into a room.

His eyes were closed, he was swaddled in sucking tubes and beeping machines. Is this the part that hurt my heart the worst? It had to be. It must’ve been.

I put my hand on his forehead, touched his cheeks and neck, caressed his shoulder, wept. I held his hand and stared at his face, urging his eyes to open, begging something to be awake.

Without thinking, my hand moved down to rest my fingers on his thigh. Nothing caught my palm. My hand landed on cheap white bedding, my fingers moving to the new lack of him.

I stood up and went to the doctors. I made a deal.

*
Things I did for my husband: Brought him home, told him I still loved him, adjusted.

We were rich after the legs were cut off. The company sent a settlement check, millions. The money meant no jury. My husband held the check and said he would rather have his legs. We hardly spent the money. Instead, we stayed still.

He was a wreck of a man without those limbs. He cried at first, over his missing legs, while he was awake, while he was asleep. Sometimes, in the morning, he would wake up and believe he still had legs, slide to the side of the bed and try to walk.

The doctors called it “phantom limb syndrome.” I helped him up, every morning, for weeks.

Some days, a fresh insanity would arrive.

“How the fuck can you love me?” he screamed from the sofa.

“I’ve always loved you,” I said, measuring my voice.

“I’M NOTHING BUT A TORSO WITH A HEAD,” he bellowed with such a velocity that I feared his body would fall off the couch.

“Ok, ok, calm down,” I sobbed.  “I love you. I won’t stop loving you.”

I walked to the couch and leaned down. I kissed my half of a husband on the mouth, mustering all the passion I could. It was enough to curb the madness.

“Goddamn, I love you,” he muttered. “You’re the only one.”

He wrapped his arms around my neck and clung to me then. I could not lift him, I was not that strong, even with his legs gone. But I thought of it, of picking him up and holding him close to me, like a child.

I thought of my fingers wrapped around the bottom of his torso, where his healed skin was pearly pink and thick with scar tissue, on the place where he would never let me touch him.

*
I gave the doctor ten grand. That’s how much two legs cost, on the sly. I don’t know how the doctor did it, don’t know what he did when it came time to inventory the annexed limbs.

I didn’t care. I took them to a taxidermist. I needed them.

At the taxidermist, I wore big sunglasses, a scarf over my head. I knew it was wrong, knew he would hate that I was doing this.

“You want what?” the taxidermist asked over the counter.

“These two legs,” I said, sliding two heavy trash bags filled with my husband’s limbs over the wood.

“Human goddamn legs?” he asked.

“I’ll pay triple,” I said. “Cash.”

“A woman with cash and two human legs,” he said. “Some things you just shouldn’t ask questions about.”

“Goddamn right,” I said, letting out a laugh that felt good but cruel, as if I was mocking my husband from far away.

But really the stupidity of life had reached a hand out and clung to my lungs, fingers pushing out short, mean gasps of giggles.

*
We were watching a movie. We did that all the time now. Neither of us was ready to go out into public yet, not newly deformed.

My half-husband put his arm around my shoulders. If I didn’t look down, things had never even changed. If I just kept my gaze level, he was still whole.

He pressed a button to make a movie play, and I felt a small thrill work its way up the back of my shirt, as if he was touching my spine, before, back then.  The thrill wasn’t from him now, but for the daydream. When the movies played, I fantasized, slipped into a desire coma, imagined some other life. I thought about his legs.

This daydream: My husband has legs, is climbing endless flights of stairs, eternally, while I wait perched at the top. His knee caps glisten, there is a sweet silvery sheen of sweat on his shins, the tops of his thighs.

I picture this constantly, endless pleasure footage looping of this scene.

Thirty minutes into the movie and I cannot take anymore of the daydream. I unwind from his arm.

“Just going to run upstairs and put my pajamas on,” I lie.

*
Everything is cool upstairs because the heat of our bodies hasn’t been here. The air feels like the cold side of a pillow. The rooms are quiet, a little dark. My heart triples up on beating, pulses harder.

I kneel next to the bed and slide out the white box. I can feel my face flush at the thought of what’s inside, what lays there like two long-stemmed roses.

My husband’s legs are still in good shape, even though it has been weeks. They are heavy, so I lift them one at a time from the box and put them on the bed, moving carefully. Nothing can threaten this, them.

I climb into bed with the legs, and position them how I like it: His legs next to each other and my legs next to them, toes touching a little, calves up against each other. When I let my hands fall, I can feel the top of my husband’s thighs, the muscle that is harder than before but at least still there, still a thing to touch.

I have spent so much time with the top half of my husband that I do not miss it at all. I only know how to miss the bottom of him now.

When I’m with the legs, the torture of impossible life burns. I want to glue my husband’s legs back to him, re-create something we did not have yet, push forward, because our love has become something else.

“What the fuck are you doing?” asks a voice.

I turn my head. My husband’s eyes peer over the edge of the bed. He is barely tall enough, on his hands, to see me.

“What the fuck are those?” he demands.

I sit up, try to push the legs down, hope the comforter will swallow them up, swallow them whole, erase everything.

“Are those my fucking legs?”

He punches the wooden frame at the foot of the bed, a punch so hard that it sounds as if he has broken wood or knuckle or both.

“Are you goddamn crying? With my fucking legs? I’m the fucking one that should be crying. Where did you even get them?”

The punching continues, fist against the wood, shaking the bed, shaking my body and the legs.

“The doctor. The doctor.”

“Fuck you. Fuck you for keeping them.”

There is one more punch, then the room goes very still.

My husband’s torso does a strange thing then, a sight I haven’t gotten used to seeing yet. He uses his arms, stronger now, to pull himself up onto the bed.

“Look at yourself,” my husband says.

He reaches down and caresses the old parts of himself, his fingers on skin that used to connect to him. Then he looks up at me, his eyes drained of the anger, and something very similar to tenderness pools there.

We sit there in a pool of cotton, on a rumpled comforter; me, my husband and his stuffed legs. My husband puts a hand on my thigh and lets out a sigh. I search his face, dig deep, try to love him again the same way.

I picture him made of my favorite flavor of ice cream. I think of my husband created from cream and sugar, ribbons of fudge or caramel alternating through him and me, with a spoon, never hungry.

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