by Marc Tweed
Teenagers found him washed up on the sand, bloated and bright in his favorite Hawaiian shirt. A crowd gathered and called the police, but not before those who found him took his wallet, wedding ring, car keys. The car itself. Authorities appeared, took pictures, bundled him up and drove his body past the palm trees and liquor stores to the morgue in Oakridge on 31st. There were several other bodies already there so he waited his turn, something he’d always found difficult.
Around dinner time, a Broward County detective came to Marv and Lorraine’s condo in Plantation with two shoegazing deputies. He told her he wished everyone had their names sewn into their clothing because it would make his job a lot easier. Lorraine just looked at him with her mouth open. It was late when they left. She drank a whole bottle of Lakeridge Southern White and lay on the couch staring at the ceiling until daybreak, when she loaded herself and another bottle of Lakeridge Southern White into the Volvo. She transported what tears she could muster to the beach and spent an entire day rusting in the sun next to an ocean she couldn’t stop thinking briefly, fatally contained Marv. She sat there cradling her grief like a baby, careful not to break it or fray its edges as it was suddenly and without ceremony her only possession of any consequence.
She rocked gently back and forth, ignoring passersby, recalling certain details about her husband, a big, booming man in flip-flops born in Romance, Arkansas. She made a list in the air with some whispering. He loved to golf. He was kind to animals and children. He could drain a double gin & tonic fast. He was impatient. He served in the Coast Guard and had three missing fingers, as well as a human skull he found in an abandoned rowboat and kept for himself. She spoke the empty platitudes and idioms he’d liked best. Quick as a whip. All that jazz. Drunk as a skunk. Life isn’t always fair. Big deal, champ.
And this: he’d taken special interest in their new neighbors, a mother and son from Indonesia with whom they shared a wall. A very special interest and a very thin wall. She picked up several more bottles of Lakeridge Southern White on the way home from the beach. She bought a whole case, which is twelve bottles.
She had a list of complaints and spit them one-by-one into the phone at her hunched mother listening in Bali. Uh huh, her mother said.
The boy will only eat food that has been deep fried. He grows sullen if there isn’t anything deep fried close at hand for him to devour. America is ruining him. He is only age thirteen. He is inflating like a balloon. And sugar. There are dark circles under his eyes, and his breathing becomes heavy with little exertion. We are having disagreements over food and video games and school.
Silence on the phone.
He is failing school, Mom.
I told you about Marv already. He’s dead, it was on the news. Before that, he was helping and there was some hope, but now Marv has disappeared just like Mauli’s father—well, he drowned—and there does not seem to be any more hope. What Marv would do; he would take Mauli on walks. To get his heartbeat up. And he would pay him one quarter for every block. And he would talk to me. And his wife hates me. And I’m scared to tell Mauli he’s gone.
Uh huh. Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Putri’s mother’s voice dipped to its lowest possible octave.
The teenagers took the Cutlass on a lengthy joyride, and she had to retrieve it from an impound lot on the edge of Pine Island Ridge. The attendant, too animated for such a quiet place, looked at Lorraine with vast, watery eyes. He’d seen it on the evening news. That man your husband sounded nice, I like the way they say about him, just a nice guy all over. He was really sorry, sincerely sorry. His wife wasn’t dead, but his parents were, he offered. He said they were murdered right in front of him when he was only seven. He made a stabbing motion with an empty hand. The teenagers had slashed the seats and ceiling of the Cutlass, which Lorraine now considered an ironic name for this particular car.
Before she could tell him, a note was slipped under their door.
Perhaps you’ve heard Marv has drowned is gone. Whatever agreement you had is now null and void. Please return any belongings he loaned you by leaving them outside the garage. Your neighbor, Lorraine. Mauli stood in the foyer gripping the note with both of his thick hands and began to sob.
Putri worried at how depressed, how angry the boy had been since Marv didn’t show up Friday night to take him to dinner as promised. She worried about the secret time in his room. She worried about the fact that he was a teenager, a huge sullen teenager with no friends and a thick accent. She worried even more when she checked on him in the middle of the night and found him snoring in the glow of his night light, holding the skull Marv gave him to his chest, his eyelids open, his eyes rolled back in his head.
Lorraine’s shopping list was brief and sundry: onion rings, lube, cough syrup with codeine, a Komodo dragon. She veered onto 842 West from Plantation toward the shopping centers of Fort Lauderdale, reveling in a claptrap serenade: air conditioner drone, ice in her gin & tonic as castanets. She shook her head to the feral rhythm, the landscape a swerving, indistinct blur; a whoosh of charcoal pavement decorated with cerulean smears of rippled sky.
She looked at the coupon. 20% off select reptiles. The passenger seat occupied by several empty cans of gold spray paint. She had a lot of spray paint on her face, around her mouth. She rolled down her window and shouted something incoherent to even her at a passing car. Its driver frowned, as did she.
She turned on the radio full blast. Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue: The deafening distorted squeal was just a whisper to her. Tell me no secrets, tell me some lies. Give me no reasons, give me alibis. Tell me you love me and don’t let me cry. Say anything but don’t say goodbye. She ran her fingers through her loosening perm, ripping roots, and opened her mouth wide in a full-throttle yawn that turned almost seamlessly into a deafening scream.
Marv had been dead for thirteen days. Thirteen days since he’d waded into the Atlantic. She remembered the garish Hawaiian shirt and a blank look when he left the condo. She imagined his face framed in seaweed, his lungs spilling their last effervescent treasures, his body softly sinking to the ocean floor. She took a big sip of her drink. Fort Lauderdale loomed on the horizon. The Cutlass still reeked of weed and musky cologne. Long strips of ceiling fabric billowed in the wind, occasionally touching her face, covering her eyes. Oh Marv, Lorraine muttered sorely brushing it away as she steered unevenly past Galaxy Mart, Firewood City, Pump & Go, Sandy’s Place Too.
The night Marv drowned, the deputy had said, We’ll do everything we can to help you, ma’am. We know you’re feelin’ pretty bad, and I would, too. Do you have a friend or neighbor that can come sit with you? Neighbor. Lorraine frowned bitterly at the word and the thought of Putri. She thought of the day Putri moved in, not wasting any time sucking up to Marv. In her tiny white shorts and halter top, prancing shoeless in the kitchen, showing speechless, grinning Marv how to dance the Topeng while Lorraine and Putri’s son Mauliwarmadewa stared unhappily at each other over bowls of melting sherbet.
She stretched out on her bed in the afternoon, thinking of Marv, imagining him walking out of the ocean, covered in seaweed, mouthing words she almost knew as the ocean receded behind him. She fell asleep that way, and her dream carried the vision forward: Marv taking her by the waist, kissing her neck, suggesting with his soft brown eyes that she might consider loving him—at least consider it—as he guides her into the waves, under the ocean surface. Putri wanted to say that she had done more than consider it, but the words came out in a clump of oblong bubbles: Lorraine.
She woke and felt a presence, and the presence was her son. He was in the hallway, just outside her bedroom, where she sat up, squinting. He was moving in sweeping gestures. He was dancing? Mauli? What are you doing, please? Why are you awake? She rose and went to embrace him, but he shimmied away into his room and locked his door behind him.
About five minutes from downtown, a highway patrol car pulled her over. Lorraine ducked and drained her gin and tonic, watching the officer in the side mirror as he approached, muttering into the radio clipped to his stiff blue shirt. She attempted a sweet smile and rolled down her window. What did I do, officer, she slurred.
Do you remember me? He adjusted the angle of his broad-brimmed hat. His teeth were huge. She felt her scalp crawl. With pursed, spray-painted lips, she shook her head and fidgeted with the tortoise shell clip in her hair. She couldn’t remember meeting him, but there had been so many policemen in such a short amount of time.
Ma’am, I was at your house three days ago. Your neighbor called us for the noise? The pounding on the wall and cursing?
Lorraine nodded slowly.
You were swerving pretty good back there. Can you please step out of the car?
What did I do?
You’re driving recklessly, endangering yourself and other motorists. We’ve had several complaints. Let’s step out of the car, okay? You got spray paint all around your face, you a huffer? Have you been drinking?
Of course not, it’s only one in the afternoon, Lorraine spat, her demeanor turning sour. She struggled out of her seat belt and, once she was out of the car, rushed past the officer and ran clumsily down the side of the highway until she collapsed in a bawling heap. As the officer carried her to his cruiser, she stared into the cloudless sky, her head rolling limp from side to side like a rag doll’s. The patrolman spoke into his shoulder radio as Lorraine sat handcuffed in the backseat of his cruiser. She squinted out the window into the sun, let its enormous glare swallow her whole, let herself float briefly, blissfully into a blinding white vacuum as they hummed down the highway.
She told her mother the truth about her arrangement with Marv, about the condo, the skull. Her mother wanted to know where she’d met him, and Putri surprised herself by admitting that Marv had contacted her on the internet. There was silence. And that is how I am in Florida, Mother, not working.
Uhh nnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Her mother’s voice found the bottom of the well.
At the Broward County jail, Lorraine was issued a thin, scratchy sheet and an outfit like she’d seen on TV. She scrubbed her face hard over a sink. There were too many women in her cell so she’d have to sleep on the floor. She curled up next to a radiator and watched a group of unpleasant women play cards and roll their eyes at each other. She wondered who else among them had been awake for five days straight. The TV was on but nobody was watching. Something about a new kind of microwave oven: The convenience will simply. Blow. Your. Mind. The speed is incredible. And listen to that … total silence. See? Total silence! The studio audience exploded.
There was an argument between several of the women playing cards, and Lorraine asked them to speak more softly. A burly one with matted hair and bloodshot eyes struggled to her feet and loudly explained that she’d jam a pipe up Lorraine’s ass if she didn’t shut the fuck up that instant. Lorraine shut the fuck up. She retreated back to her blanket by the radiator and lay there, watching the last bloodless remains of daylight struggle through the milky-filmed window of the jail cell, angry at Marv for the shabby circumstances she found herself in. The Lakeridge Southern White and gin & tonics and gold spray paint had worn off completely. Her head throbbed. She pulled the sheet over her face and considered how wide-open her eyes were, how cavernous her expression likely looked. She felt the crazy electricity that comes with days upon days of vigilance, of keeping your eyes wide as saucers, anticipating every single molecular vibration and total catastrophe, the world coiled at the ready like a pit viper.
She took Mauli to the beach at night. They drove there in the car that would be repossessed. The car payments his wife would find out about if she hadn’t already. They went to see the place Marv died. They sat in the sand and cried. They had come a long way to be with Marv. She’d done some things for Marv, physical things that didn’t make sense to her. But over time something had begun to tug at every corner and curve of her, a little at first, then more. A fondness and a warmth and something else. But the plan was now dashed, as they say. Mauli’s head fell and his shoulders shook, silhouetted by bright moonlight.
When they returned home, she sat outside on the front stoop after the boy went in to sulk or sleep in his room. She heard someone call out for their cat across the lake behind the condo. She saw a tiny lizard scamper up a drain pipe next to the garage. It stopped here and there to cock its head at something only it could see. It went up, it went down. It had nothing in mind or everything at once. Maybe it just liked the feeling of its tiny claws scraping the painted metal of the drain. Maybe its son or daughter spent too much time cradling a stranger’s skull. Maybe it had just gone too long without sleep.
Someone sat down nearby and touched her hip.
I’m Shari. There’s no cause for concern.
Lorraine was extremely concerned.
All you need to do here is let it go, tell someone. See, I have done some unthinkable things.
She poked her head out. Shari was long and tough, buck teeth shining in the stripe of early-morning light the triple-pane window allowed. She had long, dirty hair and little wire-rimmed glasses. Lorraine sat up. So my husband always had this skull, skull of a little girl he thought. And he found it in a rowboat. He was in the National Guard and had missing fingers. I’m not sure, but I think he paid someone, a woman from Bali, to come live next door to us. And he spends…spent a lot of time with him, this woman’s son.
Shari said, Okay?
And then my husband, he died. I think he took his own life. And I don’t know if it was out of guilt or what. But I’m going to figure out how this bloodsucker got ahold of him.
Shari, sitting cross-legged, casting a thin shadow against the yellow-painted cinder block wall, asked, And what exactly are you going to do?
Lorraine had no time to answer that question, as the sergeant came to inform her she was to be released immediately. She looked at the big metal clock above the lunch table. The place that sold reptiles opened in twenty minutes, and it just happened to be only two blocks away.
She and Mauli sat on the sofa looking away from each other. On the coffee table was the skull Marv gave him. Putri wanted nothing to do with it. But then again it was a gift from Marv, and Marv had paid for a lot of things over the last six months. There was a sound coming from the air duct high on the wall for the last day or so. The vent cover was off. It was a wheezing sound and scratching, then almost a hissing. And the room smelled foul. If Marv were alive she would call him, let it ring five times then hang up. He would use his key, and she would ask him to see what’s wrong, get on a ladder and poke around with a golf club. With Marv dead, they just sat silent until dinner and its necessary arguments began. Then the foul odor and hissing would be the least of her worries, at least she assumed so.
Marc Tweed’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in NOON Annual, New World Writing, The Normal School, Juked, X-RAY, and more. Marc has recently completed a collection of short stories. He lives in North Seattle, USA and also creates paintings, drawings, and music. www.marctweed.com
Cover Design by Karen Rile