Matty’s car is sitting outside the deli just like always. I walk around the back to look at the personalized license plate; I’ll never figure it out. He told me once that if I knew the first thing about women I’d get the joke. If it’s a sex thing I don’t want to know. He won’t tell me though, which is something.
When I get inside he’s behind the counter, crouched down with his hands in a box. I walk over and yell at him and some people look. Two ladies near the back are laughing. I squint and realize that I painted the one’s living room and the other’s basement. I wave and they stop laughing, link arms and move toward the exit. I hate those ladies. I do know them.
When I was still working we’d get a lot of normal calls like the ones from those clods. A sandy bedroom or foyer or the whole damn house sometimes. Occasionally someone would call asking for something weird. A black paint job always perked me up. I try not to judge but that usually meant we’d wrangled a creep of some kind. When we got to this one house I realized the black paint was going in a kid’s room. The thing was bare and sad looking, with a tiny bed and a red plastic desk covered in markers and yellow papers – the name “Ben” scrawled with force. We moved those out of the room along with a pile of miniature jeans and socks mangled up in the corner. The mother who ordered the job had a way about her that was so calm and unnerving, like she would lift off from the ground at any second and just idle in the air telling you something normal. I nudged Tom.
“This is a kid’s room, man.”
He frowned hard like he does.
I didn’t like that answer but I didn’t really have a choice. We got on with the thing and to make myself feel better I tried to imagine a tough little guy. Some kid who likes gun movies and big meatballs and stomps on your foot then laughs. My brother used to do that; he was a pisser. I bet he would have wanted a black room too. Maybe to match dad’s car or our birddog Sally.
When we were nearing the end of the job Ben showed up. He was so skinny and buck-toothed I didn’t know what to do. Nothing like the tough foot stomper I’d imagined. I started feeling sick looking at his gray eyes. I nudged Tom and he frowned again. Then he walked over to the kid and mashed him on the head.
“What do you think, pal? Looks pretty good, huh?”
Ben nodded and ran his arm across his eyes. My chest felt all jumpy.
“There, ya see?” Tom said, pointing to the kid with a palm-up hand.
We packed up our stuff while Ben waited there, dangling in the doorway. As we walked out Tom mashed his head again and laughed, said something about how he’s one lucky guy. I didn’t know how to act so I kept my eyes forward. When we got into the van I told Tom we should do something, maybe tell someone.
“Tell who what?” He said, lighting a cigarette.
“The face on that kid was real upsetting and now he has that black room.”
“Hell of a job we did.” He flipped on the radio. “You’re thinking too much. Let’s listen to the game.”
I got to listening. My guy kept missing plays and I started getting mad. What is this idiot doing, I thought. He’s got to be on. This is his time to be on. Last game he caught the winning pass, confirming the fact that he is my guy for the sixth time this season. I’d cracked a beer and clanked it with my finger and I wanted to do that again and again and again. Some guys are so good you just want to quit everything in your life and celebrate their existence for a living. But today he’s not on. He’s got to be on.
Matty doesn’t look up when I try to get his attention again.
“I’m working, Paul,” he says, his hands in the box.
“I know.” I walk behind the counter. “You should take one moment to look at my leg.”
He stands up and turns around, sticks a mint in his mouth and folds his arms. I roll up my pant leg and twist so he can get a good view. Just above the ankle is a diamond shaped wound, going all the way up, almost to the back of the knee. It’s red and gory looking in the bleached out light of the deli.
“Jesus fuck” he says, stepping back. “What is that?”
“I don’t know.” The wound burns in the open air. “Maybe Leigh? I might have fallen. It could be some kind of disease. It might’ve been that rat.”
“Go to the doctor.” He’s turned around and his hands are back in the box.
“You got anything here for it?”
“Aisle 6. Jim Beam,” he says, laughing.
I go get the bottle of whiskey and some scotch tape. Back at the counter I take off my sunglasses and ask if I can trade for the aviators above the cigarettes. They are really nice looking and not red. Matty laughs and I wonder if we’re friends. He only charges me half price on the whiskey, calling it the “crazy fuck” discount. That’s a good insult and I think I’ll use it, maybe on Leigh when she starts giving me hell.
I go home and dial Leigh so I can tell her about my morning. No answer. It’s 11 o’clock, that’s why. I find a mug for the whiskey and pull a chair into the yard, grab the baseball bat from behind the grill. I get some paper towel and wrap it around my leg, use the scotch tape to hold it. It smells like I’m going to be OK. I drink the whiskey fast and keep a close eye on the side of the house for the rat. If I see it I’ll try to trap it. I can show it to Matty if he comes over. I have a cardboard box that I’ve been keeping as an ashtray in the bedroom. I go get it and empty it into the toilet, then look for a lid. Can’t find one so I figure I can keep the rat in place with restraints. I unravel Leigh’s knitting.
Another cup of whiskey and back to the yard. It’s hot and bright but I need to be outside right now. Someone keeps looking out between their blinds. I raise my bat in recognition. The blinds flutter like my watcher has been caught. I don’t know the man but I see him walk to his car from time to time. He has almost no hair and black chunky shoes. He always looks pissed and in a hurry. It stresses me out. I wouldn’t look at him if I weren’t forced to. He’s always looking in on me though.
An hour later and I haven’t seen the rat but I’m feeling so loose that I could probably put water on the leg now. I try to pull back the bandaging but I can’t stand it. Leigh will be calling soon and will say what to do.
One time I got locked in the bathroom for seven and a half hours. There was a problem with the lock and I tried a lot of things to get out. I even kicked. Leigh did some things on the outside but she has these tiny arms that don’t do much except look nice. She started sliding stupid mail I didn’t care about under the door followed by a newspaper once she got her head straight. After a couple of hours I got a plate of cheese and crackers and a beer handed through the tiny crank window that barely looks into the backyard. That situation worked out after a man came with a contraption called The Torpedo.
I wait twenty minutes and she still hasn’t called. My leg is hurting bad and I think I need to take some kind of action. I go next door and fetch Phillip who is twelve and fat. I tell him I need a hand with something. Phillip doesn’t say anything, just keeps his mouth open and scratches his shoulder. He follows me to the back door where I make him take off his basketball shoes.
When we get to the bathroom he sits on the toilet and chews his lip. I unwrap my leg and he stops chewing and says that it looks really bad. I tell him that if I’d wanted his opinion I would have asked for it in writing. I send him to the kitchen for the watering can. He doesn’t understand why I need his help for this but of course he wouldn’t. He takes great care in pouring the water onto my leg. Afterwards he helps me wrap it up again. I give him the rest of my cigarette and the phone rings.
“Hey.” It’s Leigh.
“Hi. Me and Phillip are here.”
“Why is Phillip there? Can you ask him about the spray paint?”
“He’s helping me with my leg.”
“There’s a huge open wound on the back.”
“What did you do?”
“What did YOU do?”
“What?” I can hear her stapling. She’s still at work.
“I said that my leg is completely fucked.”
“I doubt that.”
“I doubt that you’ll be able to eat after you see it.”
She laughs and says she can’t leave. I couldn’t care less because Phillip is here and I’ve gotten the leg washed down. I tell him that we’re now looking for a rat motherfucker. I sit on my bed with my bat and point to things with it.
“Look in there. Pick up the mattress.”
He’s sweating and his arms don’t seem to be working anymore so I send him into the kitchen for a soda. I hear a loud noise and he comes back into the bedroom, points like an idiot toward the kitchen. I limp out, using the bat like a cane. The rat is in the sink, dead. I can’t believe I won’t be able to show Matty a live and captured rat.
I give Phillip another cigarette and send him home. He isn’t a criminal like Leigh thinks; he’s just going through something. I went through something. I still go through a lot of things. Some day he is going to have opinions.
My brother Darryl and I used to wrestle a lot. Mostly in the backyard, on the ground. He was younger and smaller and weaker and I’d always win. The first and only time I let him win, Dad saw it from the window and came outside, picked me up and tossed me hard into the ground, and said lying was wrong. After that I went full force. Sometimes I’d take the back of Darryl’s neck between my fingers and put his face into the grass. His cheeks would be all mashed up in a fish-face, sliding through the dirt. He wouldn’t tell me to stop, he’d just rile around from the neck down – his fingers in claw-like formations, gripping onto the grass or folding into a flattened mess. He’d try to get some leverage by getting his feet flat, pushing up while pawing at his face with those claw fingers. I kept my jaw up – he couldn’t touch me. When it was all over I’d stand up and put my arms out while Darryl sat on the ground, panting and sometimes softly crying. I could hear Dad, clapping.
Back in the kitchen I find a dishtowel and wrap up the rat. I make it so only the face is poking out, a tight little hood around its head. It looks to me like a Bible character and I suddenly feel like I’ve done something wrong. How could this little thing get into my leg? I go into the bedroom and tear the place up for a shoebox. When I find one it looks stupid.
I go back into the kitchen and measure the swaddled rat and start drawing up coffin designs on the back of the Sports section. I settle on a classic hexagon shape and I’m thinking that the lining will be made of green velvet. Leigh has a skirt that was made to line a coffin.
In the shed I find scrap wood from the stool I made for Leigh’s sister’s daughter. It’s Pine and it smells like it. I’m more excited now about showing Matty the coffin than I was about the rat. Matty appreciates hard work and what he calls attention to detail. I’ve always thought I had it but never had the chance to prove it. No one wants to see what I can do. Even painting, no one even looked.
Sometimes I’d get home from school and find my parents doing Mom’s hair. She would be seated in a chair in the middle of the kitchen, and Dad would be above her, carefully pulling hairs through holes in the plastic hood fastened to her head. While he pricked around with the metal comb he’d also be smoking, keeping his chin slightly up to keep the thing balanced in his mouth, a thumbnail of ash threatening to get mixed up in the operation. When I walked through the door he’d shoot me this look without turning his head, and I knew to start walking real quiet from heel-to-toe, then disappear into the basement ‘til the treatment was over. He required complete silence during the thing. Even Mom’s flipping of magazine pages would put him over, so she just sat there, staring ahead into the dining room.
I get to work cutting the scraps and it occurs to me that my leg doesn’t hurt. I wonder if I’m drunk or if it’s getting better. I poke it with the level and almost faint. Things go black and swirls start messing around up there, swooping back and forth in witchy circles. I drag over the sawhorse so I have something to sort of lean on. I hear a basketball dinging around in the driveway and stretch to look out the door.
“Phillip!” I yell. “Get in here.”
Phillip bounces the ball so it lands on the grass and starts jogging with a skip.
“Do you remember that rat you murdered?” I say.
He shakes his head.
“The rat, Phillip. The rat that is in the sink.”
“Oh. I didn’t know what you were talking about.”
“I know, but do you know the rat?”
“I am making a coffin out of this wood, and I am going to line it with velvet. Then we will put the rat inside and we will bury it.”
He looks confused.
“Is that enough wood?”
It’s more than enough wood. Phillip knows nothing about the world.
“Yes. And I need you to take this skirt and cut it up into pieces about a quarter inch larger all around than these wooden pieces here. Do you know what a quarter inch looks like?”
He shakes his head.
“It is just a little bigger, OK? It just needs to be a little bigger so that you can then staple it around the edges. Do you understand?”
“Why aren’t you doing it?”
“Because I just cut all of the wood, and now I need to rest. Do you remember my leg? I don’t feel very good right now, and I need to rest.”
I sit down on the folding chair and open a beer. Phillip walks over to the counter and picks up the skirt, looks at it stupidly. I instruct him to lay down the wooden pieces and trace around them. He looks frustrated and confused but he should be happy that someone wants to teach him something while getting very little in return. He starts to cut the pieces a bit larger, just as I told him. I am able to close my eyes for a bit and know that he is not fucking this up too bad.
When I close my eyes the black and swirls are back. The swirls shift and bounce, slipping in and out of tiny caves. I wonder if these caves are gaps in my brain—gaps in my intelligence. I focus hard on not letting the swirls get in but they keep disappearing and then popping back out like it’s not a big deal. Some people must be able to control these things. I imagine that Matty has no problem controlling his intelligence.
“DONE!” Phillip screeches. I open my eyes and see him holding up his hand for a high-five. This is not a high-five kind of situation.
“Good, good. OK, that’s not great, but it’s fine.” I say, examining his work.
“I think it looks beautiful,” he says.
“Good, good. That’s how it should look.”
I feel very sick. I steady myself on Phillip’s shoulder and he walks me back over to the chair. I sit down and start telling him to do things, like sand the corners and make sure there’s enough velvet on top to keep the lid held in place. He’s doing it all. He’s doing it all right. Phillip is noticing how bad I’m feeling. He goes into the house and brings some water without me asking. Says it’s for my mouth, not my leg. As I’m starting to fade out again I hear a scream. I know that scream. Leigh is home. Phillip runs inside, and soon Leigh is walking through the shed door with Phillip behind her.
I can’t tell if she is mad or worried — same face. Her shirt is still tucked into her pants so she must have been startled right away. She usually pulls it all out first thing. She puts her hair into a ponytail like she is about to get to work on something.
“Phillip, please go home,” she says, looking around the shed. He looks at me and I force a nod. Leigh is blurry and stretched out.
“I’m really tired, Leigh.”
She walks over and puts her hand on my forehead. It feels nice and warm and smells like peanut butter. She bends down and looks at my leg then stands back up. Her hands find their way to her hips. Mad, I think.
“Is that for the animal?” She says.
I nod and close my eyes.
“OK,” she takes my head in her hands and lays it on the workbench. I hear her walk out of the shed, closing the door behind her. I keep my head on the bench because it’s where it wants to be. The swirls are coming back, dipping and twisting and nose-diving into the caves. I’m not trying to keep them out. They are slippery little things and they will do what they want regardless. Individual swirls plunge, then groups and masses. Some jump up from a cave and split into thousands. They ram into each other, then drop. More come up and wrap themselves in knots then split and ram and fall again. It’s chaos. I’m laughing.
Meredith Alling was born in Michigan and currently lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Leodegraunce and Nailed Magazine. You can find her on Twitter.