What's in This for Dave
DAVE SITS AT HIS COMPUTER IN THE PANELED basement of his mother's house. Smoke from a burning stick of Nag Champa steals by, absorbed into the hide-a-bed. Twenty years ago, Dave would lie on it upstairs after school and watch Star Trek. He still lies on it. He just sleeps on top.
___Lammasu, his angora rabbit, smells of Nag Champa. Dave holds him everyday while sitting on the couch. When Lammasu's had enough, he sometimes kicks Dave who gets mad and opens the accordion door partitioning off the basement, and places Lammasu's cage in the unfinished part, all the way into the laundry room, as far away as possible where it's cold.
___It's three in the morning and Dave leaves his father's blog and reviews online accounting courses again. He's putting it off though, too much else on his mind, other endeavors he's considering. But he likes the autonomy of it, the sound of it--accounting. Count. Cold. He's only tried it twice--working, that is. The paper route was ideal and at times he wished he hadn't quit at nineteen. Early morning, it was only him--at first--and it suited him. He didn't like when the sun was up all the way, but preferred the warning--bird chirpings in the dark. At fourteen he imagined they were bats, urging on his secret deliveries; at fifteen he wondered if the birds recognized him, their faithful companion; at sixteen he didn't hear them anymore, hearing only the wobble of the back wheels of the blue Buffalo News wagon made weaker by the weight of Susie. She would push the wagon fast then kick up her feet, putting her stomach on the edge.
___The first time he saw her, he was slipping a newspaper in the slot of her parents' storm door and there she stood, wearing a frilly nightgown with little flowers, fourteen years old and freckled and clean. She was letting the dog out and hid behind the door when she saw him. The next morning she was dressed and outside. It wasn't like him to say hello, but he did because her presence seemed like an invitation.
___"Hey, how ya' doing." Water vapor puffed into the frigid air.
___"Good." Susie put her hands in her bomber jacket pockets. Her poodle trotted to the door, wanting to go inside. Susie frowned. "Well, see ya."
___She was two years younger, which worked well because girls his own age, sixteen, stared at the hall floor as he walked by. Blue eyeshadow on lowered lids--he knew it well. And the flick of stiff, feathered hair. It wasn't that he was ugly. But he had a knocking swagger, marbles in his knees. And then there was that persistence in his eyes, looking over the heads of the other kids, as if some otherworldly force pulled him down the hall. Just so damn vulnerable--it was written all over him, down to the yellow and black bandana he tied around his forehead until the knot broke.
___Susie mussed his hair and jumped on his back in the dark, and he learned easy love, the touchy friendship of a girl. Two years later, his joy would still surprise him. After a fatherless evening and dinner with a mother he resented, there'd be Susie in the black-lit morning, skipping down her porch in jeans and white sneakers and a smile, and his gangly legs would lock.
___Dave stretches and closes his Favorites, still unsure about the accounting course. He lets out a yawn that causes Lammasu's ears to twitch, his brown marble eyes to open and close to a slit. Dave thinks it looks like he's peeking, cautious, and he doesn't like it when Lammasu's afraid for no reason. All he did was yawn. "Stupid rabbit," he says. Dave rubs his balding head, feeling the smoothness. He feels the aches again in his elbows, the ibuprofen wearing off--he's out of his methotrexate, missed his visit at Social Services to renew his coverage. Two years ago, his mother had driven him to the clinic and they took his blood. Rheumatoid Arthritis, permanent disability if not controlled with medication, exercise. Dave looked at the doctor, yearning, the same way he'd looked at every man his whole life--his father, his teachers, his boss last year at the grocery store.
___"Already?" His mother asked.
___"The statistics show the onset occurs between 25 and 55. Dave's right in the middle. He's not a kid anymore."
___Dave pushes himself away from the Formica table that he uses as a desk. He pulls off his Dio t-shirt, slides open the closet door and tosses it into the laundry basket with five other t-shirts, five pair of underwear and five pair of jeans. No socks, he spends his days barefoot. Tomorrow I'll do laundry, he thinks. He's happy when the basket is full. He gets edgy when there's one day's worth, and rubs his long arms and looks around the cold room, his triceps tightening, not sure what to do next.
___"I need at least six hundred dollars," he tells his mother the next evening at the kitchen table upstairs, "the technology changes quickly and I don't have what I need." His arms hang, his left leg pushes against the table leg and his chair teeters. He looks at her profile. He's making her uncomfortable, he can see it, the way the movements in her orthopedic sandals are quick from sink to stove. She drops a spoon to the floor. She looks around the counter and seems to have forgotten what she was looking for. His jaw clenches. She's doing her thing again, making him feel like a freak, as if he's scary or unreasonable, as if he's making her nervous.
___"Just keep trying," she says, reaching for the can of mushroom soup on the stove and adding it to the hamburger in the pan, "you'll get it."
___"I won't get anything unless I have what I need."
___She wipes her hands on a faded dishtowel. She hangs it back on the oven door handle and looks at her son for a second, then again, peering over her bifocals to see if it's really gray hair above his ears, the only hair left on his head. There's lukewarm coffee in the drip pot and she fills her mug, then shuffles to the table. The loose skin of her white arm swings as she reaches for her True Blue's and lighter.
___"Why did you look at me like that?" He asks.
___He stares at her, then rises from the chair quickly so it falls to the floor. He kicks it on his way downstairs.
He sits cross-legged on the floor and opens Lammasu's cage. The rabbit hops out and Dave picks him up and sets him in his lap. The rabbit's feet push against his leg. He gets Lammasu's head between his knees, belly up, but far down enough so Lammasu can't kick him. ___He holds him in place with his right hand while he reaches for the soft slicker brush on the coffee table. He grabs a paper bag full of wool from the cubby underneath. "You'll be free in a few minutes, relax." He should have given the rabbit some free time before containing him, but he wants the contact, the feel of a warm body. Dave feels for matting on the white stomach. He wishes he hadn't been provoked into kicking--always the one who's made to look out of control. He brushes the feet and legs then turns him over. Lammasu wiggles free and jumps away and explores near the sofa. Dave lets him go. He picks up the brush, pulls out the wool and puts it in the bag. He takes it upstairs and sets it on the kitchen table.
___It's silent now. The light in the kitchen is off. He can hear the TV through his mother's closed bedroom door, the scraping of her fork on her plate of E-Z Stroganoff. If he stays upstairs and eats the plate of food she's made for him, he knows she'll be out in a minute to put her plate in the dishwasher. She'll go into the bathroom and he'll hear the plastic back of a brush being placed on the bathroom counter, the aerosol spray. He knows the sounds like the ticking of the white clock on the counter telling him in twenty-three minutes she'll be out the door to dust and vacuum deserted offices, to empty garbage cans. Before she goes she'll sit at the kitchen table and have one more cigarette. He'll see her walking down three steps, holding her brown vinyl purse over her sloping shoulder. The delayed swing of the screen door and then she'll be gone.
___He decides to get his dinner plate later.
___Downstairs he lights a stick of incense and places it in a resin dragon-head's mouth. Smoke creeps out like a plague. He turns the knob of his thirteen-inch television and sits on the sofa. Everything repulses him: the reality shows, Vanna White's smile. He changes the channel. A commercial for a detective drama coming on in an hour. He's seen it before and was impressed with the honest dialogue. He'll eat while watching the show. It'll be good, a comfortable evening. He makes noises with his tongue on the roof of his mouth to call Lammasu, doesn't wait for him to come, and crawls over on his knees to pet him. He lowers his face into the rabbit's, rubs a silky ear then gets up to check email before the show.
___He sits at the computer. Connects. One new message.
___Hey kid, got your email. It's been a long time. How'd you ever find me? You're a regular Sherlock Holmes. Still living with your mother? How can you stand it--ha ha. Obviously, I couldn't it. I'm doing okay. Getting Social Security though it ain't fucking much, let me tell you. Keep in touch. Dad
___Dave reads it again. He smiles--the corners of his mouth, tight. The surprise of his father's email brings back another old surprise, his dad on his Harley picking him up at the end of the day in first grade. His dad sat on his bike and when he got there Dave realized all the other boys had run over and he felt so proud. His dad's big hands were under Dave's arms in an instant, lifting him off the ground and onto the back of the seat and it didn't even matter that his dad smelled of whiskey, or that he never took the training wheels off his bike, or that he'd forgotten Dave's birthday last week. Dave waved to his classmates, saw open-mouthed Timmy Belagio being tugged away by his mother while Dave held on, the tattered leather jacket against his cheek.
___Dave goes to his father's website again, clicks the link to his blog. He's been a lurker for a year, knows the photo by heart--the bald head so comforting, physical proof they're united. He smokes, but nobody's perfect. He had told Dave she pushed him into it, years ago, with her gift for making him angry--knew how to look at him a minute too long so that he'd lose it. "Yeah, I know what you mean," Dave said in return. That was five years ago, the last time he had successfully made contact.
___Dave types his father an email, tells him about the web project he's working on, how it's similar to Dungeons & Dragons, but definitely unique . He tells him he needs about six hundred dollars for more computer hardware, and then he can begin. He first decides not to ask for money, but encouraged by his father's exchange, types the request, proofreads reluctantly, just wanting to send it off.
___Dave sends the email, clicks "sent messages," opens the message he just sent, reads it again, reads his father's again, puts his hands on his head and then with two fists in the air says, "Ha-ha!" He goes back to his father's website, clicking on the links. A sex forums directory. Dave's clicked on a couple of the links, but he doesn't anymore because they stir things inside him he doesn't expect like when he was eight years-old, making a sand castle on the beach. His father who was sitting next to him was watching two teenage girls walk by while his mother was lying on her stomach in the sun. His father had an expression Dave had never seen before, his eyes dissecting their torsos, his mouth twitching as the girls continued by, the crisscrossing of their perfect legs exaggerated by the uneven sand, their giggles drowned out by waves slapping the shore. Dave looked at his mother, appearing dead, forgotten. He moved away from his father and put his arm around her while his dad drained his beer.
___That's the thing that's always been hard for him to swallow. He would have never been that way with Susie. They had sat on his bed playing Scrabble and listening to Cheap Trick. She'd eat two packs of watermelon Now and Laters and Pringles and then hold her stomach and moan and laugh. She was never fazed by his one-sixty I.Q. and Brillo Pad hair. In his room, Dave would call a random phone number and she'd bite her lip. "Hey, how are you?" Dave would say, as if he knew the person. The stranger would answer, thinking Dave was his brother, neighbor or friend. And finally, "Who is this?" and Dave would feign tears, not being recognized, and Susie would press her face into his pillow. When it was her turn, she'd dial with milky fingers and he'd watch every spin, her shiny yellow hair layered at her cheekbone and she'd look up at him with excitement. She'd mouth, "It's ringing," and their eyes would lock, awaiting the unknown.
___He clicks the send/receive button numerous times. He sits with his arms crossed, the night giving the effect of a heavy blanket draped over the high windows. He wonders what his father is doing, if he read his email yet. He glances at his calendar, the first of the month. That was the problem last time. Five years ago, after his bus-ride to Rochester, Dave stood in his father's doorway, greeted by the lackadaisical voice. Someone in the apartment. Dave could feel it, the way his father wouldn't open the door all the way. "Oh," Dave said, "Maybe later today?"
___"I'm going to be busy for a few days. When you have to pay the bills, you'll understand.
___"It's a lot of damn paperwork. I've got to take the bus to apply for HEAP."
___"Shit, I don't know, today, tomorrow. I've got to call them. Bad timing, kid."
___On his way home on the bus, he had thought about timing. Always his trouble. Dancing Queen . In his hand, next to a newspaper, he had the forty-five wrapped in silver paper, the morning Susie turned seventeen. He waited in the dark at the bottom of her porch, for her to come down the stairs and help him on his route.
___Susie's mother opened the door.
___"She's gone, Dave." Hectic frizz surrounded her face.
___"To Wilsons'?" He figured for gum.
___"She's gone Dave, I mean really gone. She took her things. I think she left with that Jeff."
___Dave's knees loosened.
___"Did she ever say anything to you about him?" She squinted. "I found a box full of letters under her bed. The stuff that's been going on under my own roof." She moved a step closer. "You didn't know about them?"
___The record slipped from his hand. He picked it up.
___"No, Mrs. McDonald. I have to go now."
Seven years later Dave had waited for a bus downtown, on his way home after shopping for a pair of jeans at the Main Place Mall. He was behind AM&A's and traffic had stopped at the light when he saw her. Susie was in a nice car, in the passenger's side. She turned around and touched small sandaled feet in a car-seat. When she saw him, she looked frightened and sad and gave a small wave with three fingers then the light changed and she was gone.
___He clicks the send/receive button while standing. Rubbing his elbows, he opens the accordion door and goes straight to his workout bench, near the old pool table. Exercise helps the pain, the autoimmune disease--his own cells attacking his own tissue--and he grips the curling bar, feet flat on the floor and chin up. He stops on his fifth rep and goes to the computer.
___No new messages.
___He types a fast email, just a brief one: r u there??
___He walks away from his computer, dragging his hands down the brown and gray stubble on his cheeks and goes to the sofa. He pulls the electric blanket up over him, turns it on medium-high and lies down, adjusting his pillow under his neck, facing the TV, a dull laugh-track.
___From under the sofa he pulls out a book called Stoicism and Zeno of Citium that he pushes aside. Next to a wagon wheel, is his wallet, which he opens to the only pictures inside: two black and white Woolworth shots cut from a strip of four. Cheek-to-cheek in one photo. In the other, Susie's two fingers are behind his head and she wears a hammed-up smile. His gaze is straight on, the future in sight. Every time Dave looks at these pictures, he yearns to remember the other two poses and tries hard not to wonder what Susie did with them.
___He closes his eyes and falls asleep.
___Dreams of Cazenovia Park, of a time that really happened, when he was twelve. It's a dream he has often, the day it rained so hard the creek rose to the little bridge and instead of the usual miniature falls, the current sent water shooting up into a high arc like a brown-green rainbow or a dragon's tail. He stood watching, past when he should be home. After a while he looked around to see the faces of the others who had gathered and he saw his dad on the other side of the creek, next to an oak, staring at the miracle. Dave lifted his hand, hesitating, before letting himself do it: a slow but definite wave. His dad waved back, a sight Dave had never seen before that filled his chest with something like air or joy, until he had to look away, feeling shy, and so he glanced up to his right at the little bridge and there his mother stood with the other gazers. Dave looked back at his dad to see if he saw, and he did, and to Dave's surprise his dad waved to his mom who couldn't help but smile back and then all three waved bigger and bigger at each other, laughing.
___Sweat on the back of his neck wakes him. The dream is already gone, wherever it always goes. He lifts his head, hurrying his senses to take in what's around him, to figure out the moment. The television is on, the weather. From across the room he sees the screensaver and puts his head back down. Lammasu's cage is empty and he recalls that he never put him back and so he pushes the blanket down. The accordion door is open. He could be anywhere. He steps down and Lammasu is right there. "Hey..." He picks him up but the heat from the blanket is too much and the rabbit kicks. Dave holds onto him, stands up and puts him in his cage near the end of the sofa. He clicks the blanket's button off and walks over to the computer, shaking the mouse so the red dragon disappears. He looks at the screen, rubs the goose-bumps on his arm, and clicks the send/receive button.
___No new messages.
___He pulls a sweatshirt off the closet shelf, still stuck in a sleepy place, no beginning, no end. A life that adds up to zero as he pulls the sweatshirt over his head and has that seeing blindness, shapes before him--table, sofa, wall. In these late nights he faces his uselessness, the unbearable hollowness that swallows the chatter in his head and he knows that his life is half over and he's paralyzed. He stands and for a few seconds sees only white dots in a wash, like the late-night TV screen. But he's awake and still-- And even if he's not really paralyzed it's too late because he is what he is. He can't turn back time and he can't be somebody he isn't and he can't even bring himself to take a walk in a park or a mall and maybe start a conversation with someone, anyone, because they'll look in his eyes and halt their smile, as if they know somehow just how lost he is and it just about breaks him. His knees start to give and it takes everything he has to say, "Thanks, anyway."
___He walks to the sofa to lie down again. He hasn't eaten dinner and the thought of the stroganoff wets his mouth. He goes upstairs.
___From the kitchen he can see light from the television cling to her cotton socks then release as the scenes change. Her feet are crossed, one over the other on the ottoman. She says without seeing him, "You still up?"
___He walks to the counter.
___"You didn't eat," she says.
___He pushes the button hard on the microwave, so she can hear it. He puts in the plate, sets the timer. The noise of the spinning dish and the bright glow fill two otherwise empty minutes. He leans back against the counter, thinking lyrics he cannot sing, lyrics he used to sing with Susie in his room from one of the scratched albums he threw out five years ago and then regretted:
___Hold away despair. More than this I will not ask.
___Faced with mysteries dark and vast,
___Statements just seem vain at last.
___"Did you say something?"
___The microwave beeps three times. He turns and takes out the heavy dish. She always puts so much on. He brings it in the living room, sits down on the floor facing the TV, balances the plate on his crossed legs.
___"Are you cold?"
___She swings her legs down, then slowly rises, her joints stiff. She walks over to the couch and pulls the green cotton throw from the corner of the sofa and drapes it around his shoulders. Returns to her seat.
___"This will make Raven happy." She pats the bag of angora wool by her chair.
___He glances at the bag then looks at the screen.
She laughs, phlegm rattling. "Only at Terrapin Station. All those hippies. We couldn't sell it to anyone else."
___He exhales through his nose, nodding his head while he chews. He can feel her latching on to his willingness to communicate, her back coming away from the soft rocker, her arms and hands ready to talk.
___"Can you imagine what those snooty ladies at that boutique on Elmwood would say?" Her hands are on either side of her, her face takes on the shock of the sales lady, voice rising in pitch. "Please take that smelly bag out of this establishment at once!" She slaps her leg and laughs, looking at her son. "Can you imagine?"
___She keeps laughing. "Can you?"
___He wants to answer, but her laughing is so much that he can't, and he pushes his stroganoff to the center of the plate and takes a quiet bite and really can't imagine. He finishes his meal. "Thanks." He brings his dish to the sink, rinses it, and puts it in the dishwasher. On his way downstairs, he stops at the door and opens it.
___"Don't worry about it, Ma."
___He slips on his sneakers and goes outside. It's early fall and chilly. The moon illuminates the cement driveway which he follows to the garage. He pushes up the door and goes inside. In the far left corner behind his old Schwinn and covered with a ratty quilt is his old newspaper wagon. Dave moves the bicycle out of the way and uncovers the wagon, coughing in the dust.
___Up Cumberland Avenue he pulls it, the missing back wheel only a problem at certain blocks where a dip in the street tilts its weight. The rattle is the same as always. 340, Mrs. Brennan, Saturdays and Sundays; 342, Mr. O'Farrell, full week; 350, the San Fillipos, away for the month of July.
___For seven blocks Dave pulls the wagon when a Corvette slows down to inch around him, the driver yelling, "What the hell, man?" The words are distant and meaningless.
___The air is crisp but he is warm, his body resilient as it used to be, the sky clear through the maples. The lampposts at the corners are increments of progress, each one he passes, a spotlight. He struts to inner music, smiling for the second time in hours. It's like it used to be, he can't believe it.
___At Rutland Avenue he turns the corner, holding onto the edge of the wagon to bring it around, balancing the weight. Halfway down the block, he stops the wagon the way he used to, when he was alone, bringing the handle, now rusty, up against the splintered edge.
___He opens the lid and sees his old round-sheets along with two yellowed newspapers. Two silver rings secure the round-sheets which, as he lifts up the particleboard cover, are in perfect condition. Meriden Street, Salem, Athol--they're all there. Half a week left, never delivered, no reason given. He flips through the addresses and is distressed that an entire neighborhood was left to wonder why. Deserted. No explanation.
___37 Rutland Street. From the wagon he takes one of the newspapers. September 12, 1985, the morning Susie was gone. The headline reads Revitalization on Way . Weather today, 72 degrees and sunny. He thinks back. No, he never did give Mrs. McDonald her paper that morning. He folds the crusty newspaper in half. The house has changed a lot. There's a different number plate, and the hanging flower pots are gone. The porch light is not on, as it used to be.
___He walks up the driveway, past a car he doesn't recognize, and stands in front of the side door. His heart is quiet now. The storm door is the same one, he's sure of that, and there--worn tracks in the mail slot's gold finish. Newspapers and wedding invitations and baby pictures, and here's a little something from Dave, a belated thank you, something to think about on off days, something to look at when things are slow. He pushes the paper through the slot, startled by the sound when it lands.
Thea Swanson holds an MFA in fiction from Pacific University in Oregon. Her work appears in Panamowa and is forthcoming in Crab Creek Review. Though she grew up within the curbs and grids of Buffalo, New York, she now tries to locate herself in the paths and trees of Washington where she writes, obsesses over literary journals, and teaches English at West Sound Academy.
| Our Stories Literary Journal, Inc. © 2006 |