Short Fiction—from our Spring Books issue
Seven weeks since his wife died and Mickey just sitting there, this filthy place in the dark it was shame going in and worse leaving and he was there a third day now, out of the house at least, he was three months behind on the mortgage or maybe it was four. He wondered if Pete would take him back. He had nerve problems old Pete did and Christ the things they had touched it was a wonder they were still alive at all.
He was not alone in the theater. It was faint the smell he knew what it was he didn’t want to say the word. It was the smell of men like him. It was the smell of lonely men. He looked at the people on the screen, a couple in their private act, he thought about his wife—she’d been very sick but she’d still wanted to do those things. She’d been very sick and he was glad he had made himself. They were about to take his house and he was doing nothing to stop them and poor Mary, his poor sweet Mary, he’d seen the look on her face he knew it had hurt.
A couple came in, walked down the aisle and back up again until they stopped at his row, Mickey he was sitting so low they didn’t see him and he sat up but too late, entirely too late they were already coming toward him and then what Jesus they took the seats directly next to him. They were both staring and he pretended not to notice and then he realized yes they are sitting next to you on purpose, yes: You are the Chosen. It was something for the church, they were converting ones like him, he thought he might try that, he knew about churches but it would have to be like this, he would have to be invited, he would not go into one of those places alone. He’d been approached many other times. They were all Christ-lovers around here but this time he knew he would listen.
He waited but they didn’t say anything. In fact they were done with talking, they were very clearly done with talking and he wanted to get up only the woman’s leg was resting against his. The man was doing something to her and they were acting like he wasn’t there and she might have been about twenty, he could only see the side of her face, she was pretty but her nose was very long, it wasn’t a bad nose really and she was a very pretty girl. He sat a while and started liking the idea of that, of the couple, it was better than the movie and them picking him over all the others.
Onscreen the woman’s legs were up and you could see the male going in and out and it occurred to Mickey that he should have suggested this to his wife, that they record a moment or two on film, just a moment only it was more something his wife might have suggested to him; she never had, though. They were not bad-looking people. Not before she got sick. Then the girl sitting next to him, her knee had been rubbing against his for a very long time, her bare leg, he knew it was an invitation, an invitation to touch her right there with her boyfriend’s hand crammed up there also, he sat there stupidly and finally put his hand on her leg, grabbed it, really, he grabbed her leg like he was some kind of molester and then Christ where could he go from there. He lifted his hand and put it back again. She was soft and her skin was smooth and warm. He worried that his hand felt cold to her but then maybe she was used to those things, to the cold hands of strangers.
Just then the boyfriend looked over, there was something about him and Mickey thought I have made a miscalculation, yes, he thought, I am seriously mistaken, for the man’s face said he could not believe Mickey Wayne had just grabbed hold of his young girl. As for the man he was older than the girl but much younger than Mickey and Mickey saw his shining head and his worn leather jacket and thought now I’ll get kicked in the face. He could not defend himself, that was certain. You did not fondle a man’s young girl and then get righteous.
But the man in the leather said: “I don’t mind.”
The woman, the girl, she had soft black hair and she nodded without looking.
The moment had passed but Mickey touched her leg again just to show he was a good sport, this time much further up, the woman stiffened but not in the good way and she looked at her boyfriend for a long time, she needed to get something from him and suddenly Mickey didn’t want to see what that was, he didn’t want to know anything further, he got up and pushed past both of them, just roughed by and was up the aisle.
It was a cold day and Christ the sun he had to stand a minute he couldn’t see anything, it must be from all the chemicals this symptom of light sensitivity, it was a definite symptom. Dioxin, the sundry weapons of pest control. He was thinking about the girl, he could not go back she would not listen to him. She was not some slut, she had genuinely not liked it, being touched by a stranger, a much older stranger but her boyfriend had wanted her to do it she was experimenting, that was all, she was a college girl from the Woodlands trying to get back at her parents, she was playing around with that scumbag but she’d end up marrying a lawyer. No, he thought. She is not in college and she is not from the Woodlands. She is from right here and she will end up just like Mary.
He was walking down the street quickly. Christ it was a dirty city Houston if he had a gun he would go back and shoot that boyfriend in his fucking face, only he had no gun, it was just the reason he didn’t, he’d gotten these feelings before. They were old and familiar feelings and his wife’s former husband, for instance, when they found out she had the hepatitis, that Mary had caught it from her ex-husband, it was for two years that Mickey thought daily about putting a shotgun to that Christ fucker’s head.
He looked at himself in the store windows. He still had all his hair. He had turned forty-six. That was before Mary died, a week short of fifty sweet Mary she’d made him a pie, fallen asleep on the table waiting for the oven. She would fall asleep anywhere on account of the methadone and he had let her keep sleeping there in the kitchen and turned off the oven only the pie was not done and they had only eaten the edges of it. He didn’t know why he was thinking about it now, that pie. In her young wild days she would have killed to get all that methadone but then the doctors wrote it out like aspirin and she didn’t like to take it. He had encouraged it, though, in fact several times he had practically blackmailed her into taking it because she was not good at hiding her pain and it was too much for him, too much to see her like that, poor Mary oh Christ poor Mary on her bad days he could not stand to see it he would have to get very drunk or leave the house on errands because every nerve inside her was rotting, she was all rotten inside, from a physical standpoint only, he meant, she was rotten only from the physical standpoint. Whereas he had different things wrong with him, encouraging those pills on his own wife, that was one symptom of it.
He was thinking about the house—his house and Mary’s they’d bought it together. He would have to call Pete. He thought Old Petey he’ll take me back. Old Petey he’s a big man. Lay it up to Mary dying, what I said to him. Listen to you Almighty to even lay a thing like that on Mary. He felt as if the wind was going through him now, straight through as if he wasn’t even there and he passed more windows but he was afraid to look he had this fear, it had been a very strange day, he had this irrational fear he might not see his reflection if he looked that is ridiculous, he thought, it is no mystery, any of it, how you ended up like this.
He had walked quite some distance. He watched the panhandlers, everywhere he looked it was the same, it was ruined people. He wondered what Mary would have said if she’d seen him grabbing on that girl’s leg in the movies. Nothing, he thought, she wouldn’t say a thing on account of her own wild days and then he got very angry. There was not a drop of sense in her. Not a single drop of sense and he considered again her ex-husband and all the other ones who treated Mary like that he was wishing for a gun get them tied up on the curb, he would literally be at ease doing it, one two three he would walk up the line. He wondered if this was another symptom of what was wrong with him, that he had not yet done that. He kicked a trashcan into the street, a big metal one, he looked around for someone to remark but no one did they wouldn’t look at him. The can rolled immediately back to the curb and he picked it up this time over his head and threw it right into the middle of the fucking street, it bounced, that’s how far he threw it, the big metal can literally bounced and the cars slowed to steer around it. He got to walking again.
It was her child, he suddenly remembered, it was Mary’s daughter, that was why he’d forgiven her ex-husband like that, it was their grown daughter she was just like Mary, he would have to get work the girl would need money, she would need help, she could not depend on her own father it would not be an easy road he would have to call Pete. He would do it today. He would save Mary’s daughter. He was the best Pete had he had a view for it. Not to mention Pete couldn’t keep the smart help around, in fact it was better if they were fucking illiterate the warning labels on those drums said slow death seven ways and Mary she was lucky like that at the end—her heart went out and it was quick.
Only it had hurt. Christ that had been a mercy her eyes being closed, her face clenched up so tight you could see how bad it’d hurt her. Poor Mary oh poor sweet Mary it really had been quick, he was not just telling himself that, he had been in the yard when it happened, it was him that came in to find her and not someone else, she was still warm and he had sat down with her, he’d put her head in his lap, it was very quiet, he’d sat for a long time he’d adjusted her skirt for decency and he’d kept smoothing her face until it had softened and the hurt look was gone from it, it had been very quiet and her face was soft and now he was here. Look at you, go and look at yourself in that window. You are right here.
Philipp Meyer is the author of American Rust and one of the writers on The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list. He lives in Austin.