Painting by William Etty. "Reclining Female Nude", 1849. Oil on canvas (1787-1849).
“You,” she coughed. “Does that slut know you’re smooth as a Barbie doll in your nethers now? That you sit down to pee out a little tube?”
Winona eyed Frank down the long black barrels of the shotgun. She complained again about that whore he’d visited every Wednesday for fourteen years, before he lost his manhood in the accident at the rebar factory. She prattled on about the woman who sweetened her privates with rose petals and brought shame to the house of the properly wed while her breath leaked from her throat like a slow eel.
Frank leaned his elbows on the brass railing at the foot of her bed. “Ruth,” he said. “Call her by her name. You owe her that at least.” Every day at dinnertime, he brought Winona a bowl of buttered oatmeal. As she devoured it, he wondered when she would actually die. A year ago, the doctor had told them four months at most, but Frank had never been very fortunate with odds. Winona moved the shotgun to her left side, so she could spoon the oatmeal into her mouth with the right.
“Where did you get the gun?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ll die soon enough.” She plunged the spoon into the bowl and scraped the sides clean. “I’m going to take you with me you loser son of a bitch.”
She pointed the dirty spoon at him. “Never you mind that. Did you call her? That sister of mine.” She licked the bottom of the spoon with a tongue the color of old bubble-gum. “I asked you two days ago. Call her tonight.”
“She won’t see you anymore.”
“She’ll come to see her dying Winona.”
“I’m beginning to think that you’re faking, that you’re not going to die.”
“Oh, I’ll die soon enough.” She plunged the spoon into the bowl and scraped the sides clean. “I’m going to take you with me, you loser son of a bitch.”
“You,” she coughed. “Does that slut know you’re smooth as a Barbie doll in your nethers now? That you sit down to pee out a little tube?”
He straightened, his hand dropping to the sock stuffed in his underwear.
“Go ahead, husband. Show me the scar again.” She shook the dirty spoon at him. “I bet that whore’d laugh at you now.”
He gathered her dishes, took the spoon from her hand, and closed the door behind him.
He’d spread apart her cheeks with his thumbs and entered from behind, her breasts tight as water balloons in his palms. Winona had never allowed such a thing. He had to make love to her through a hole scissored into the sheet under which she stiffly laid.
The spoon rattled in the bowl as he put the tray on the counter. Frank liked to think the medication made Winona like this, but he knew it didn’t. She’d been even more vicious ever since she found out about Ruth. All that anger settled deep and poisoned her. From the highest cabinet, he pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey and held it in front of the window, watching evening light warp in the amber liquid. He hated whiskey. Horrible drink. It burned all the way down, smelled like his father, gave him headaches, and settled in his stomach like globs of hot syrup, but sometimes it eased the bands of tension clawing through his head from Winona. But two brief swallows and Frank nearly retched. Winona was right about him. He was a loser. After all, he wasn’t even able to become an alcoholic. Or a smoker. Or a wife-beater. Nothing. Sweaty and nauseated, he put the bottle back on the shelf. His throat burned.
Ruth hadn’t cared about any of that. Ruth had liked him for what he was: a simple, average man. Not that he was even that anymore. Less than that. He tilted Winona’s tray and let the dishes clatter into the sink, glancing at Winona’s door to see if she’d yell at the noise. He held his fingers under the faucet and water warmly coursed into the gruff folds of his knuckles. These were a man’s hands. Thick. Rough. Full of toil and years. His fingers were able to work through splinters and errant hammer slams. They’d held dirt, hot steel, pillowy breasts, cold beer. His own spilled blood on the surprising iron bar. Frank grabbed the liquid Joy and squirted a yellow stream into the oatmeal bowl and over his fingers. He enjoyed how his hands felt as he washed the dishes: warm, soft, wet. His cuticles began to whiten and wrinkle.
Ruth hadn’t been much older than him when they first met, maybe twenty or twenty-one to his seventeen, but she was a woman. A fine woman! Frank’s first. The very first time with her, Ruth turned over for him, the long curve of her spine arching, coaching him along with a voice muffled by pillow. He’d spread apart her cheeks with his thumbs and entered from behind, her breasts tight as water balloons in his palms. Winona had never allowed such a thing. He had to make love to her through a hole scissored into the sheet under which she stiffly laid. After two years of not getting pregnant, she sewed up the hole. That was it. Frank, the failure.
He shook water drops off the bowl and set it in the drying rack. Water swirled and he pushed the soapsuds and oatmeal flakes down the drain. Grabbing a cheap beer from the fridge, he poured the buzzing yellow foam into the sink for the septic.
Frank knuckled his eyes and shook his head. Winona hadn’t slept well last night, tossing and complaining about her pain. He’d given her heated milk and two of the blue pills, but the pills made her eyes watery as a mule’s. There had been crying–that phlegm-wobbly wheeze that made him cringe. The late night weeping was the worst. It always started her in on hacking and spitting up gobs of sour muck into wadded handkerchiefs he had to peel apart later to clean.
He padded into the living room and planted his ear on the bedroom door. Winona’s breathing was smooth now, only a faint wrinkle catching in her throat. Probably sleeping or reading. Frank knew he should retrieve the gun, but he didn’t want to chance waking her if she was asleep. There were other matters on his mind anyway.
His heart beat in his chest like a wounded bird and he placed his hand there to feel the thrash, worried a moment that it might burst. Several years had passed since he’d sneaked off, coasting the truck down the hill till he was far enough away to start the motor without waking Winona
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a piece of paper, and sat at the desk. Unfolding the paper, he gently smoothed the creases and slid a chewed Bic from the holes in the top of the ceramic pig Winona had bought her sister three years ago, but never brought herself to give. Such stubbornness. Then he sucked in a deep breath and finished the love letter he’d been writing to Ruth. Folding the letter into a crude, many-petaled rose, he smiled and leaned back with his hand resting on his inner thigh, thinking about tomorrow when he would deliver it.
Cold slithered into his bones. Frank was out of the house before dawn, careful to wrap the truck keys in his fist so they didn’t jangle and wake Winona. He sat on the ripped vinyl seat of his truck, fingering through the keys for the one that fit the ignition, his breath pluming white ghosts in front of him. Winona shouldn’t have turned a gun on him. That was too far, too much. No one would look at him askance for this. No one with a heart anyway. He found the right key and slid it in. A squeak curled from the clutch as he heeled it down and shifted into neutral. The truck rolled backwards slowly, gravel crunching under the tires. His heart beat in his chest like a wounded bird and he placed his hand there to feel the thrash, worried a moment that it might burst. Several years had passed since he’d sneaked off, coasting the truck down the hill till he was far enough away to start the motor without waking Winona. Not since the accident, in fact. He cut the wheel hard to the right and the truck straightened on the road. At first, a stillness held the truck, but then the wheels inched forward. There had always been a few breaths before the weight of momentum pulled the truck when he feared the slope wasn’t enough, that the truck wouldn’t move at all and he’d be found slouched behind the wheel, too afraid to start the engine so close to the house. Frank shifted into first as the truck gathered speed, his thigh burning as he continued to press down the clutch. Mailboxes whipped past. The windows of the neighbor’s houses threw back the warped shade of his truck as it rolled engine-off down the hill. People were asleep inside, curved into each other as husband and wife. At that thought, he popped the clutch and the engine lurched into loud confusion.
When he reached the stop sign at the bottom of the hill, the engine shuddered and died. He twisted the key and the motor whined, but did not fire. Stupid piece of shit. If it hadn’t been for all the medical bills, he’d already have one of those new Dodges. He cranked the engine for several minutes, pumping the gas frantically, and finally it started. Black smoke boiled from under the bed. He shifted into gear and the engine sputtered as the steering wheel vibrated in his cold, red hands.
When the priest told him to kiss the bride, he’d slipped her the tongue. She bit down then, hard enough that the beer he had at the reception burned in the marks.
The houses in this part of town were all clapboard, pier-and-beam. Many roofs sagged. Weeds clambered across cracked sidewalks. He’d made the rebar in the buckling asphalt of the road, though. He’d been there before everyone started building, before they began to have grand lives behind their impenetrable windows. Always in a hurry to get to Ruth’s house, he used to gun the accelerator where the train tracks crossed the road. Frank didn’t do that now, though. Train lights glowered in the distance. He stopped at the tracks as the barriers lowered. A pebble vibrated on the rail. The engine in the truck choked to a halt, a tang of gas silvering the air.
He sighed and twisted the ignition. Nothing. He should be on the tracks in this situation. Then it would be worth it. Then his heart would fatten with fast blood. How he used to have that Wednesday feeling on this trip, his chest thick and ripe with life, that rabbit rush of pulse in his wrist. He laid his thumb there as the train approached. Two weak thumps of blood. The daily and regular combustion of his body. He looked up when the engine roared past. Damn. He’d meant to watch the pebble, to see if it vibrated off or was crushed. He was sure it was crushed.
Things had been different at the beginning, hadn’t they? He remembered how his stomach fluttered at seeing Winona walk down the aisle, cord-slender in her white dress, her face bold with glee like a little girl’s, her sister there and beaming for them both. When the priest told him to kiss the bride, he’d slipped her the tongue. She bit down then, hard enough that the beer he had at the reception burned in the marks. Winona had fended off his hands with tender slaps and warnings all through their courting. “Not until we’re married,” she’d say. “We’ll not commit unpurposed fornication.”
After the sheet had been sewn up, he sought out Ruth again. She’d opened her door for him, shaking her head, knowing the truth. Standing in her bedroom, his knees loose as the skin on an overripe peach, Frank had watched Ruth disrobe in a square of sun canted through the window, revealing to him all that she was and could be. There wasn’t a part of her undeserving of adoration. The sharp tendon quivering behind her left knee, the scrabble of hair under her arms, the moonlight bulb of her knee. “Manly hands,” she said. “Touch me where she won’t let you.” Then she pressed up against him and took his whole index finger into her mouth.
Frank remembered waking up in the hospital after the accident. The first thing he saw was Winona’s cruel smile.
The last train car bickered past. Iron rails rose and fell with the fast weight. The barriers ratcheted up. Frank twisted the ignition on the truck again. The engine whined, caught, and sputtered back to life after several more minutes. He dropped it into gear and eased the truck over the tracks, thinking of that first time with Ruth. There was no one around. He hunched down in the seat while he unbuttoned his pants with his right hand and pulled out the sock. His fingers slid under the waistband of his underwear and rose over the long bubble of scar there, but that was it. There was nothing for him to pull out into the sheer morning air anymore. Nothing to rise high and proud out of the copper teeth of his zipper. Nothing to give Ruth.
Frank remembered waking up in the hospital after the accident. The first thing he saw was Winona’s cruel smile. “Really,” she’d told him. “It wasn’t doing either of us no good, anyhow. Best not lament the loss.” And then she patted his knee.
He ripped his hand from his pants and slapped the roof of the truck. He screwed his eyes shut and howled, the sound scorching out of him till he rattled on the seat with rage. The curve in the road came up fast. Frank kept his eyes closed as the truck lurched off the asphalt and tumbled into the gulch. There was a brief moment when he opened his eyes and everything was upside down, unlatched and free of the gravities that bound them. His hands felt light and small in the air. A line of ants skittered across the ground. Then a wrenching thud, blasted metal.
Moments passed. A fence post wobbled on the hood of the truck. A wheel creaked in useless spin. Then his breath came abrupt and loud in the cab. Feeling swelled into his hands first, then his bent, tight knee, then his baggy throat and cheeks. He watched his hands move, his fingers curl around the cold chrome of the door handle. A loud creak and a rush of light, brighter than he thought possible. He stumbled out and his pants fell around his ankles, so he bent to pull them up. He looked for his stuffing sock but couldn’t find it. Not terribly hurt, as far as he could tell. Some red bolt through his left shoulder, though. Sick to his stomach. His fingers shook. And his heart felt like an empty jar.
Sometime later, an expensive car stopped on the side of the road. Winona’s sister. She called out the window. “She phoned and I don’t know why I picked up. Had a sense, I reckon. She said you’d snuck off. I figured I’d find you out hereabouts.”
As Frank walked up to the house, he pulled the letter from his pocket, unfolded the rose of its shape, and held it in front of his face. All he saw were the words he’d written to Ruth, kept silent in his heart for so long.
Frank walked over and got in her car without saying a word. Neither of them spoke on the way back to the house and she stopped the car a few houses down. “I don’t want her to see me, so you walk the rest of the way. I’ll call a wrecker for the truck.” Then she reached out and placed her hand on his thigh. “I’m sorry it has to be this way, but I can’t abide her any longer.”
Frank opened the door.
“Hey,” she called to his back. “Lord knows she could suffer a little of your backbone. You show it to her now before you run out of chances.”
As Frank walked up to the house, he pulled the letter from his pocket, unfolded the rose of its shape, and held it in front of his face. All he saw were the words he’d written to Ruth, kept silent in his heart for so long. Then he walked into the house.
“Frank!” Winona yelled. “Is that you, you bastard? I know you took off this morning. What do you think you were going to do anyway? See that whore? You can’t service that tramp anymore. Bring me breakfast before I commence to croaking and stinking up this here bed.”
Frank wrapped his fingers around the knob to her bedroom door and hauled in several gut-stretching breaths. It was time he put her in her place. He looked at his manly hands and tightened his fingers on the door handle. Perhaps this would be the day. It would come. He knew it. The day he’d hold his palm over her mouth and feel not a trickle of breath, that day she’d go all sloppy on her bed and he’d stand over her and vow to never again make oatmeal. Frank opened the door.
The shot was loud. Ringing burst in his ears. He found himself against the wall, sitting on the floor. His hand peeled away from his chest wet with blood. Blood gurgled out of his shirt, down his heaving stomach and into his pants each time Frank felt his heart thud. He’d held everything in for so long, he felt lighter as it left, like it wasn’t a loss, but a gift. Each word of the letter came out of his chest, each time he’d entered Ruth till they both collapsed, each red rose he’d picked for her to rub on herself, how his ears warmed between her thighs when he leaned down to sniff. He thought of it all and how long he’d carried the weight of that enjoyment with him. But now a lightness pillowed his limbs as he looked up at Winona’s twisted, hacking face. She’d dropped the gun on the floor and was swinging her yellow, bare feet out of bed, getting ready to come to him. How he wished it were Ruth instead, but something like grace swelled in his chest as he watched his wife hobbling towards him. If it were Ruth, she’d move her fingers up his thigh and find a gap, his great lack. Such a thing wouldn’t happen with Winona. In a way, he was spared the curse of that hollow now. His hand felt suddenly warm and he realized something had given up inside and loosed what was left in his chest. It did no good to hold his hand there. He was getting lighter. Everything was coming out at once, so he worked his trembling fingers against the heart-wet letter, feeling for the creases through the blood, trying his best to fold it again into a rose.
Brad Green lives in North Texas with his wife and three children. His work has appeared in The Minnesota Review, The Texas Observer, Surreal South ’11 and elsewhere. Find him online at about.me/bradgreen.