At the party, my wife insists that everyone love her centerpiece, a golden platter that she has stocked with imported cheeses. She compels them to admire my hand-sewn pillowcases. She turns them to my recent installation of track lighting in the study. She jokes that—given this new light, given my steady hands—we could perform surgeries at home. They are suitably impressed.
I take her hand. “I do my best,” I say, “to husband. That is, I contribute all I can to our home. That is, I follow her instructions.”
It requires so little to make a room of humans beam and bounce.
There is a man who walks his pit bull through our neighborhood without a leash. He wears expensive-looking suits and does not smoke funny-smelling cigars, or, at least, he refrains from smoking while he walks the dog, but the point is that, at any time, someone abundant with fear could shoot the dog through its brains and muck up the nearby sidewalk and fence.
I think of him in the morning, while chewing buttered toast, while my wife once again inflicts the tale of her New York adventure on me. It happened long ago, when her breasts were new, and she rode the subway, like her mother, with her focus hard upon a single stabilizing bolt at the base of a hand-pole. No one groped her or ashed a cigarette on her forehead. She lived through to her stop and well beyond. Whenever she recounts this adventure, which was no adventure, I can see her mind—a legion of grubs—at play with the meat of her brain.
I am installing the garbage can against the curb when the dog-walker drags a gently used mattress up the street. He comes sans dog. He does wear a suit and, at the fat end of his red tie, a silhouetted bull’s head has its horns prepared for goring. He sets the mattress at the foot of my driveway. His words smell as though he is chewing a clove of garlic, though he is clearly grinding a purple wad of gum.
“Would you like a mattress?” he says.
“I hope you aren’t insulted.” He is referring to an aleph, which has been spraypainted in green over the upholstery. “The previous owner,” he says, “was a kind of artist. It was his project, not mine, and I can tell you that it has no effect on the mattress’s use and comfort.”
“It’s fine.” It was. A new light glowed in my heart. The glow reminded me not of track lighting but of a candle-shaped bulb—the sort you find in tacky hotel bathrooms. I could feel this glow. He could not. The glow did not instruct him.
“So,” he said, “you do not want the mattress?”
“No. I have one.”
“Would you like a dog?”
“I have buried several dogs.”
“Would you mind if I just leave the mattress here for a while? I’ll be back for it. It’s so heavy. My shoulder hurts.”
“Sure,” I say.
When he rounds the corner, I haul the mattress into the garage. I cut its face on three sides under the seam, so it opens like a door, and I hollow out the body. I install a zipper, and test the smoothness of its ride and tread four times from start to finish.
My wife serves a congenial no-frills spaghetti dinner. She has transferred the red sauce from the jar to the microwave and from the microwave onto the pasta. We eat with relish and, for a while, hear only the pleasant taps of silverware on our plates. She relays news of war. I ask if this is the old war or a new war. She says that both adjectives fit. I ask if we are winning. She says that the president says we are winning. We tell each other, as so many of our presidents have so often advised us to do, that we love each other.
A properly sized human and I meet and buy each other rounds at a bar far from my neighborhood. Little light and zero snacks corrode the atmosphere. A ball game is playing on an old TV with old knobs—the sort that click when they are turned. Never mind the sport. I have never minded. This man and I maintain eye contact with the television. He comments on a player. I contrast that player unfavorably with the one player whose name I can remember. My friend grunts assent.
Later, I install him inside the mattress.
The zipper does move smoothly along its track.
My daughter returns from the university with a stone in her heart. A boy set it there. Her newly purpled hair smells like a chemical factory’s retention pond. We hug her nonetheless. We say a blessing, sit under the heavy lights, eat a chicken. We clink our forks and knives against each plate’s face. My daughter asks, “How did you know you found the right one?” My wife elaborates upon a variety of answers. I dab my fingers and face with a napkin, and I squeeze my daughter’s hand. She squeezes mine.
I pity many humans I see in grocery stores. I mean the ringless humans shoving around carts full of canned beans and frozen dinners. I mean those uninvited humans who, when they return to their apartments and submit to this or that movie and eat their beans, which they have probably not even bothered to warm, feel themselves being eaten inside-out, their brains rattling against their skulls, the TV light no friend at all.
Marcus Pactor’s second book, Begat Who Begat Who Begat, is forthcoming from Astrophil Press in Spring 2021. His first book, Vs. Death Noises, won the 2011 Subito Press Prize for Fiction. His work has most recently appeared in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Bending Genres, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review. He lives and works in Jacksonville, Florida.