Pilot Light

Michael Cocchiarale

“What?” Aidan whined.  “What?  What?”—a series of interrogative potshots at his wife all because the August heat had soaked him out of a job.

“Goddamn burner,” Missy said, probing a long lit match at the ring.  There was the pungent, desperate whistle of gas, then a brilliant foomp, a sucker punch of blue.

Aidan opened the fridge for air, for the cool he’d craved at that hipster coffee shop, when the interviewer strolled in ten minutes late and, before Aidan could rise, approached a meticulously scruffy young man clacking at his Mac.  Quick on his toes, the young man made her laugh, the vestiges of which remained when she turned to stick her hand out at Aidan.  The woman’s burnished skin, her form-fitting jeans and tee, the breezy way with the barista as she ordered their drinks—these things made him seethe.  When she asked why he wanted this job, Aidan almost said he’d take anything, be anything, do anything short of kill.

“We’ve got to call somebody,” Missy said, tap water ringing in a pot.

Yes, yes—Aidan and Missy had a Santa-long list of somebodies to call: about the central air, which died last week; about the leaky toilet, which made a wet, wry smile on the living room ceiling; about Patrick, whose image flit across Aidan’s aching brain at the moment the angry boy made his presence known with a wail that rushed down through the kitchen heating vent.

“There’s shit left in savings,” Aidan said.

“You get the job?”

“They said they’d call me.”

Missy glanced at him; her eyes a dull, dusty brown—old furniture no one cared enough about to clean.  “Ha, ha,” she said.  That’s a joke I never heard before.”

“You’re mean, Mommy, mean,” came Patrick’s voice through the vent.

“Don’t start, Miss.  I’ve had a really bad day.”

The barista had brought their drinks as Aidan stumbled like a blind man through “Where do you see yourself five years from now?”  To relax, to buy time, he sipped his coffee—it was bitter and burned his mouth.  Instinctively, he took tongue between finger and thumb.  The young woman’s eyes grew; for a moment, her mouth narrowed its hospitable doors.

“I hate you!” cried the voice in the vent.

“I stepped on one of his precious boats,” Missy said, snapping open a jar of sauce.  “Broke a sail.”

The interviewer had continued to grill him, looking down on occasion to make loopy notes on a legal pad.  How on earth could Aidan explain his strengths and weaknesses when at the table beside them, two clever boys, elbows resting on textbooks, heatedly debated the definition of room temperature?

“What, is this a trick question?” one boy said.  “Everybody knows it’s 72!”

“That’s dome temperature, dude.” the other said.  “I’m talking regular rooms.  The places we live in.”

Aidan cleared his throat.  His words took on the gait of a man stumbling through a desert.  Without transition, the woman started talking about the impressive strength of the applicant pool.  Sweat poured from his pits.  He touched an underarm, understood belatedly that such an action could never be surreptitious.  Standing, the interviewer forced a smile; she didn’t shake his hand.

Patrick began to open and slam his bedroom door.  Bam and Bam and Bam.

Aidan, hand to head, stepped into the living room to shout, “Stop it!”

“Mommy owes me a boat!” Patrick screamed.  Bam and Bam and Bam.

“Now it’s the other one!” Missy cried.

“What?  What the hell are you talking about?”

“The burner.  The stove!  Isn’t there anything in this goddamn house that works?”

Stamping back to the kitchen for a fight, Aidan hooked a dress shoe on the wicker laundry basket and fell on all fours, necktie like a tongue upon the floor.

“Aidan, what happened?”

“YOU OWE ME!” cried the boy, bamming the door again.

Aidan was up, on the move before he knew it, dress shoes sharp on pine toward the stairs, on the stairs, railing cap in hand like the lid off his rage, up, up, the foomp of the burner an inspiration or the snapshot of his brain, past beige walls and studio portraits, the languid fern on the landing, and foomp into the hallway, to the room, the door just opening for another slam, the boy stunned by Aidan’s murderous growl, scrambling back behind his fleet, those billowy sails, to the shag carpet Missy had cut into a tropical isle while behind, somewhere, frantic feet, and there, directly below him now, was the boy on his green refuge, alone, eyes boiling with tears and there were his baby teeth, his little boy’s baby teeth, the shiny white nubs he’d helped Patrick brush last night. Patrick, sweaty and silly on Aidan’s lap before the tip-toe at the sink to spit, the tap running calm and cool.

Then Missy’s warm firm hand upon his shoulder, sliding down to his loosening fist.

“Tell me about yourself,” the interviewer had asked first thing, that happy, hospitable smile upon her face.

Aidan had smiled, desperate to be pleasing. Perspiration popped onto his brow. Nothing, nothing, and then a spark, which bloomed into a story about what he’d always burned to be.

#

Michael Cocchiarale lives and works in Chester, PA.  His short fiction has appeared in print and online in REALFiction FixNorthville ReviewStickman ReviewThe Dirty Napkin, and Flashquake, among others.  He is also the author of Still Time, a collection of short and shorter stories (Fomite Press, 2012).