When Drink, Drugs, and Floor Polish Steal Your Youth and Trash Your Woman
Of course the fish are dead. They dried up and curled at the tail. Fish need water. I’ve tried to explain this to her. I don’t know why I bother. I’m talking to the wall here. And she looks at me like I just kicked her in the shin, but I didn’t touch her. I maybe bumped her ankle earlier with my wheelchair and that probably left a bruise, but that was an accident. She takes an armful of my laundry and crams it in the dresser. There’s no good reason to be mad at me just because I’m trying to make a point.
She forgets stuff. First she forgets how Martinez turned her out and how I let her come back, and then she forgets how I saved her. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t have. I sure as shit wouldn’t be so messed up now. That was the night she poured that floor polish into a cup and drank it right in front of me. Out of spite. She would have swallowed more if I didn’t slap it from her hand. It made her shake and flip around the floor. Her arms bent up like a praying mantis. I tried dragging her to the car, but it was impossible with her jerking around like she did. Finally I called the ambulance, which was smart because I was loaded too.
Two days later she blinked awake out of the coma. Two more days and she came home to fill the house with the sharp smell of her stomach. She is sick still, brainsick. But for some reason God wanted to make her better. I guess he wouldn’t let her die — not until she finished the hard work of ruining my life.
I’m in this wheelchair now because I let her drive. We were coming home from Martinez’s. My old friend Martinez is up on 7 mile. He’s the guy with the good stuff. So, she had the wheel and she was killing my buzz, arguing about something and going too fast through nowhere Detroit, just not looking at anything and pointing her finger at me. Truth is I wasn’t paying attention either, until she hopped the curb then slammed the telephone pole. That’s when my femur snapped like a carrot. Metal hammered into my leg and my ankle ground up like blender ice. Bones popped out of my skin. “Bloody Mary. Dirty Harry,” I said, and then I passed out.
I got a room at the hospital. They set me up with a foxy nurse. She had a tattoo of a lady’s face on her neck. She was the bearer of some very good pills too, not as good as Martinez but better when you double them up. After a four week stay, they sent me home with a goodie bag full of them, and ten pages of instructions in print too small to read.
I’m getting better still, but it’s been some months since I worked, doing my job at the transfer station, and then I had to have surgery and then the infection happened because who-knows-why and then more surgery. At least they didn’t take off my leg and toss it in the scrap pile. One day, they say, I might be able to walk again, only I don’t know. Below my knee, the thing is all swollen up like a watermelon. It doesn’t look like a leg at all.
It’s snowing out tonight and I wonder how long this winter can last. It’s been forever already, living in gloom. The snow is all cold and bad and tumbling out of the sky and sticking on the cars and streetlights, putting its sick freeze on the world.
She wheels me to the kitchen in time to grab the phone. I’m just sitting there listening to the radio, waiting for her to hang up. She puts it to my ear so I can hear. It’s the electric company’s computer again, calling to say they are going to shut us off. “Bastards!” She says. “What the hell are we going to do without power?”
“Light candles. I guess.”
She opens the fridge and pulls out some beers. We sit at the table and look at each other. The radio is playing a good Led Zeppelin song. When it’s over the announcer starts yammering about Kwame.
“Oh shit, did you hear about this,” she says, “the fucking mayor is in jail. That one on Conant. Hah! I hope leave him there forever. Lying bastard.”
“What do you have against him. He’s not the one turning off our power. You don’t even know him.”
“I know he’s a fucking liar.” She’s rubbing her hands together. Making a sound like sandpaper. “Where’s my hand lotion,” she says
I point to the TV.
“How did it get behind the TV?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Why does anything get behind the TV?”
That’s around the time somebody starts pounding on our front door. We’re not expecting anyone. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise. None of it should have been. But bad news always is.
She looks at me and scowls. After we hear the feet tromp back down the steps and the car roar away, she goes to check the porch, returning with an official-looking paper surrounded by wide swaths of blue tape. It’s a bad joke signed by a judge. It declares eviction. She throws it in my lap.
“I guess we don’t have to worry about our power getting shut off anymore.”
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I wad it up and throw it at her as she walks from the room.
Mostly, I’m ready for another beer. I can almost get one on my own, but I can’t because she keeps them way in back where I can’t reach from my chair.
I wheel into the bedroom and ask her to get me another can. She’s in the closet emptying her clothes from the rail and dropping them on the floor. I work myself into the bed using the railing and my one good leg. I can do it, just barely.
“What are you doing?” I ask
“Didn’t you hear. The bastard bank is taking the house baby. We have to go.”
But leaving seems ridiculous. The whole building is filled with our stuff. It’s huge. Two stories tall with a basement and an attic. We can’t afford to move. It’s impossible. “Call the fucking DHS. It’s inhumane. They can’t throw us out. It’s snowing.”
“The DHS isn’t going to do shit.”
It’s funny then because she’s found the big bottle of whiskey that I stashed in the back of the closet, just before the accident. I had forgotten about it. Holy shit. Happy day! She undoes the screw top and up-ends it.
“Hey, let me have some,” I say. She guzzles a good amount. “You share with me — I share with you.”
“Shut up,” she says. “You don’t share.”
There is some truth to that. I know. It’s getting late. She sits on the bed with me, and we take turns with the bottle. Already my stomach is hurting, so I chase with antacid.
After a while she pulls off her clothes until she’s wearing nothing but her bruises. “Where’s my fucking underwear?”
“How could you lose them? Check the floor,” I say. “Check behind the TV. How about the fishbowl. Oh that’s right. That’s where the dead fish live.” I close my eyes and listen to her flat feet banging around the room.
But then she is pouring more booze into my throat. Thank you, I say, and I mean it. I am grateful. She settles back into bed and we drink more. I look over at her. She is turning orange. What are we eating to make that happen? Her lips are as chapped as her face.
“What are we going to do sweetie?” she says.
“I don’t know. Go to your Aunt’s place. Go to Martinez’s. Find a shelter.”
“I’m not staying in one of those places. There’s no way.”
After a while she says, “I want to fuck one last time in this crappy old house.” That sounds alright I guess as long as she’s careful about my leg. But first we need these special fuck pills. I have a couple more that I got from Martinez. I take one and wait for something to happen. “I don’t think it’s going to work,” I say. “My dick is too drunk.”
We lay next to one another. Me with my hand in the kink of hairs between her legs. I don’t want to look at her. I just want to lie there. I want to remember how she used to be. I try but all I can think of is that nurse with the tattoo on her neck. Something about her reminded me of the circus. I used to try and dream about her. I’d sleep with my hand between my legs, and think of her mouth and all the great things it might say if she let it.
Now my woman’s got me in her rough fingers and is flipping me all around, but it’s not working. After a while she swears and gives up. My dick is just such a useless flap of skin.
“Remember that time with the gasoline?” she says. She’s smiling and glowing with whiskey.
“Yeah, that was funny as shit.”
“You didn’t have any sense then either,” she says.
It’s only that we were out of lighter fluid, so we used gasoline and dumped it all over the charcoal. The fire exploded. It flashed a bright pop and shocked the air and an orange fireball rolled up the backside of the house. It was like a little bomb went off. The air shuddered and we stood there with our salt shaker and our meat on a plastic plate and our beers and watched the siding curl and twist, stunned that something so stupid was happening right in front of us. Instead of trying to fix it, I kept thinking how I needed to start over, and try that again, and this time not fuck it up, and probably just move the grill a little further from the building. Who cares about the mulberry tree anyway? Not me. The blackest, most foul smoke rose into the sky and got pushed back down between the houses and spun all around us.
“Get the hose!” she yelled, then smacked me in the head. I started running, only I couldn’t get the thing to thread on the bib. I turned the water on and it blew off the pipe. She was standing in the grass next to the gas can and yelling to hurry. My skin was pink and burned some. The hair on my arms had shriveled down to kinks. I was trying to get the threads to line up and make the hose work when she said, “Oh fuck it. Forget it.”
When I finally looked back up, I saw the siding had melted to stringy plastic, and the fire had burned itself out. She was laughing her ass off. We were okay. We didn’t burn up our house or the neighbors. I didn’t start laughing until I realized it had singed her eyebrows into dark little stubs. Oh, shit. That was a good day. We grilled our meat, and drank ourselves to perfection, and my dick still worked that night when she got hold of it. It worked fine. That’s one of the last times.
She touches me now, still trying to get the thing to stand. I never meant to end up like this, unshowered and bad smelling with a watermelon foot. My woman unable to make my dick work.
“Relax,” she says.
“How can I? We have two days before the Bailiff comes with the cops or whoever. Before they throw us in the street. Or before I shoot them all in the head.”
“We should just torch the place,” she says. “We should.”
“I’m not kidding.”
“I’m not either. I’d burn it right to the ground before I give it to those assholes.”
She kisses me, which is a surprise because when was the last time she did that? It’s been forever. And I know I’m onto something. My heart beats with the idea. It’s pounding hard with steady even thumps. It feels right, and somehow this talk of burning our life to the ground has got me feeling young again.
I know just where that gas can is. It hasn’t moved in months from its spot next to the garage door. We’re only two blocks from the service station. Who cares what it looks like, my old lady, filling up her container so late at night with snow falling everywhere. Carrying it home in a laundry bag. It’s not illegal to buy gasoline.
“Fuck those bastards,” she says.
I can see a happiness swirling in her eyes. She is kissing me. There is a wild heat in her mouth. Her tongue is a flame. She touches it to mine and for the first time in months, she sets me alive, she sets me burning, and I’m filling with heat and blood, and standing up. God damn it — I’m standing up. I’m ready for her.
“Come on baby,” I say. “Come on.”
A previous version of this story was published in 2008 as part of a collaborative project with artist Lisa Anne Auerbach called Tract House. A subsequent version titled Stand was published in 2014 in A Detroit Anthology. This is a is a slight revision of the latter piece.