|Accumulations Of Debris||David Parr|
4:30 am, Beryl is already up and at 'em. Orrie opens his eyes and sees her standing
naked on the card table, lit by the open refrigerator door, repeatedly whacking
the wall with his tennis shoe while their two cats watch with interest from below.
"Motherfuck!" she is yelling, her speech contorted into something hard-shelled
Orrie props himself up on his elbows, blinks twice and says, "Hon, you're gonna fall." Which she does, after an attempt to strike and pivot at the same time. When she recovers, brushing her bare, scraped knees, she stands and puts one hand on her hip. "I suppose you think this is funny," she growls.
He doesn't, not really. A few months ago, he might have chuckled at her; he might have scored her like an Olympic judge: "9.8" A few months ago and Beryl might have done a gracious curtsy after her fall, or mooned him, which was more her style. But now, her pratfall bombs unpleasantly like flatulence in an elevator.
Her short dark curls of pubic hair are glaringly different from the longer sprouts on her head which she's recently dyed a bright shade of crimson. ("I know, I know," she said when he first saw it, "The drapes don't match the carpet.") With legs twice the length of her upper torso, she looks as if she has been assembled from parts of other women. Eventually, though, she will cloak everything in loose-fitting garments of blacks and reds, of blues and purples -- the dark side of the spectrum, the ones that make up a bruise.
"I think I got it," she says, staring at the treadmarks she has left on the wall. When she turns, he can see her tattoo stenciled vertically along her right hip. It is his name, the letters curled in script, with a heart and arrow at the end for punctuation. ("I've got you," she'd sung the day she revealed it to him, her skin still red, hot and blistered. "I've got you, under my skin.")
Her other tattoo -- the cobra that winds around her left ankle in purple and green -- was also stitched for a man. For Snake, her lover of two years, who tattooed it there himself without giving her any anesthetic; only the two long, thin lines of cocaine they had shared minutes before. It was one of Beryl's favorite stories to tell. To her, it was like losing her virginity. (A nickname like Snake would never fit Orrie, though he envies it; it is too much like a skin-tight pair of pants, as worn by rock stars. Orrie is bad enough, sounding like something inflatable thrown from the deck of a ship to a drowning man.)
"We can't live like this anymore," she says of the cockroaches. "I can't sleep. I can hear them." She crawls up into the wobbly elevated loft bed they built together, crudely constructed with scrap wood stolen from behind the hardware store next door. She pulls the covers up over her breasts, just short of her neck. "Filth. They're eating away at my subconscious. We're living like fucking animals."
"We are animals," Orrie suggests. "Mammals."
Beryl scratches her cheek, the one with the Marilyn mole. "It just makes me itchy," she says. "I don't feel clean. I want to feel clean again, Orrie." She hasn't been sleeping well since her first sighting three months ago. It has laid eggs in her mind, hatching paranoia at frequent intervals. Dark circles loom beneath her eyes; in certain lighting, she looks as if she's been punched.
In two more minutes, the alarm clock will go off. It is set for him, though hardly necessary. His own internal clock wakes him every morning, but still he goes through the ritual of setting the alarm, mainly because it is one of the few things which scares the hell out of Beryl. A jumpy sleeper, always she seems on the verge of jerking awake:little tremors of head movement, her eyeballs rolling beneath their lids, lips moving and murmuring. When the alarm sounds, she usually bolts upright in the bed like the resurrected monsters in horror films.
This morning, however, she seems unfazed by it; instead, she searches for her cigarette pack, lost among the clutter of candy bar wrappers, used tissues and vampire paperbacks on her side of the loft. The alarm setting is on Radio, blaring Beryl favorite punk music station; the tuning knob is broken, so the station cannot be changed. Though he has never accused her, Orrie suspects Beryl of this act of vandalism -- he has a fondness for love songs from the 70's, sweetly melodic tunes now packaged as the oxymoronic soft rock which Beryl terms audio diarrhea. Orrie slams his hand on the Snooze.
With the tall butane flame of her lighter just millimeters short of the tip of her cigarette, Beryl's eyes focus on something directly across on the wall. He can see her brown pupils dilating, darkening, as she applies the flame to the cigarette and takes a long drag. "They're waiting," she whispers, sitting very still, smoke drifting from her mouth. "Watching."
"They know if you've been bad or good," Orrie adds, mimicking her whisper. He jumps down from the loft, interrupting the cats who are playing floor hockey with a roach trap. "I'll call the landlord after work," he says. "Maybe they can come out and spray again."
"They need to gut the whole fucking building is what," Beryl says. "Start from scratch."
Orrie finds his own cigarettes flattened on the card table, mashed by Beryl's foot. "Sorry, honey," she says, trying a smile. "Have one of mine." She throws him her pack. Orrie lights one, taking a seat at the table, his morning officially begun.
"I can't believe this thing didn't collapse," he says, then immediately regrets it.
"What does that mean?" For the past week, Beryl has been trying out a salad-and-water diet.
"If you're trying to tell me something, then just say it. Just say it, hon." Short for honey, a term of endearment usually sticky and sweet, but all Orrie can picture is Attila the Hun, dressed in full Barbarian regalia: pointy helmet, sharpened spear, ready for combat. He says nothing; instead, he just smokes the cigarette in silence, hoping she might fall back asleep.
No such luck. "You better shake a leg," she announces, yawning and rolling onto her side beneath the covers. She's left her cigarette burning down in the ashtray. "You're gonna be late."
It hadn't been so bad in the spring and summer, when Orrie had first started as store manager. But now, in the bleakness of early winter, New York is still depressingly dark when he descends into the subway. At the bottom of the stairs someone sleeps, wrapped in soiled blankets and garments. He has learned to keep his eyes lowered and his face stern down here, to avoid confrontations. He dips into his jacket pocket, lays his money into the mouth of the metal bowl and only then does he dare look up.
It is the usual man. Or boy. Orrie's not sure which; with twenty-three years behind him, he doesn't know what category he falls into himself these days. The guy stands behind the shatterproof plastic window, taping a note written in neat block letters into the lower right hand corner. PLEASE NOTE: I AM HEARING-IMPAIRED.
"Hi," Orrie says, "One." It depresses him to buy two at a time, which implies a return trip. The hearing-impaired man smiles, his lips a scrubbed pink horizon, like the last gulp of red in a crystal wine glass. He has polite blue eyes, long sideburns, a shy way of staring. His hand slides beneath the window, into the tray, and he scrapes Orrie's cash up with his index finger. His nails are slivers of ivory, baby fine hairs sprouting from his knuckles.
He lowers his mouth toward the head of the microphone, flicks the switch. "Thank you," he says, his breath heavy before and after. Orrie takes his single token, drops it into the slot and pushes his torso against the metal bar of the turnstile.
Orrie has fantasies about this subway boy. Boy is better than man; less threatening, more docile. Sometimes he imagines him without pants. He imagines where hair might be on his body, what length, what texture. Sometimes the image shifts and he becomes John Rogan, the best friend of Orrie's brother in high school who used to come over after their football practices with t-shirts ringed with sweat stains, sweatpants ripped off mid-thigh, slinging his bare feet up on the coffee table. Or sometimes he becomes that young guy from the soap that Beryl is always taping, with the smooth tan skin and the biceps, the glowing blue eyes that follow the teleprompter back and forth.
These daydreams come only in the morning - -- if this is even morning quite yet - -- while Orrie's defenses are weak and sleepy. He is safe here, bumping around on the train, the hum of its engine, the screeching of metal against metal, the exhale of the doors as they open and close. Orrie sits quietly, his eyes half-open, his mind half-closed, drifting through short, stubby scenes of homoerotica, hands folded over his erection.
"Morning cock," Beryl calls it sometimes, amused, watching him try to urinate.
"How would you know," Orrie will snap, shutting the door, going limp.
The sky is still dark as he inserts his key into the boot of the store and slides the door open. The city that never sleeps is getting its second or third wind: the rumble of the trains underfoot, the impatient illegal horns, the time and temperature flickering on bank signs.
Orrie works in Dean's Coffee shop, situated between a department store and a McDonald's. There is a neon blue mug with bright white steam rising from it in the window; that is, once Orrie turns the electric on. There are no tables or chairs; track lighting lines the triangular counter, making the espresso machines and the huge vats of coffee gleam proudly. Orrie wipes off the countertops, freckled with black and white, starts the first batches of regular and decaf, and waits.
Tanya arrives in uniform, which, in winter, is a brown turtleneck with khaki slacks and cream apron. Orrie pretends to listen while she explains why she's late this time. He doesn't scold her; he likes Tanya. She has beautiful, clear olive skin and eyes that are near-purple. Beryl complains that she looks like the women in cosmetics ads. "For firming moisturizers, or some bullshit like that," she says. Tanya is one of the few who doesn't resent his recent promotion to manager, and also one of the few who knows about Orrie's problem. He calls it a problem now, because problems can be added up like arithmetic, subtracted or multiplied until one draws the line and there is a final solution.
The first customers are the Executives and Lawyers, running between 6:00 and 8:00, getting their first jolt before the Morning Meeting. Dressed in tough suits, corporate colors, in low-heeled shoes, Orrie feels no need to be nice to this crowd because he knows they don't even see him. They see reports, meetings, appointment books. The next pack is the Secretaries and the Temps, who come in a little before 9:00, getting decaf coffee and skim lattes, sometimes flirting, sometimes not. One regular, a fiftyish woman who favors a bright orange lipstick though it is far too young for her, always comments on his blue eyes and has told him several times that he will make some woman a lucky wife.
The 10:00 am run is the Retailers, dressed more sharply, soaked with cologne or perfume, hair gelled or sprayed. They get danish with their coffee, or else biscotti. A wisp of a man with long thin arms and blond hair which is almost white, always gets a double vanilla latte and calls Orrie, "sweetie" as in, "Do you have a girlfriend, sweetie?" to which Orrie can only blush and call forward the next customer.
And so it goes; after the morning rushes, there is the clean-up: emptying garbage, wiping, mopping. At 11:30, Orrie turns the register over to Paula, makes the first deposit to the bank down the street, and then meets Tanya for lunch. Glancing at the clock, he realizes that his day is half over, while Beryl's is just beginning. Is she in the shower, exfoliating dead skin? Is her face pressed close to the bathroom mirror, plucking unsightly hair from between her eyebrows? Or is she rolling around on the floor with the cats, teasing them with her fingers? "My pussies," she calls them affectionately. "How are my pussies today?"
"Do you have to call them that?" Orrie complains.
"What's the matter?" Beryl argues, forcing one of the cats to wave with its tiny paw. "Is daddy afraid of a little pussy?"
Orrie and Tanya eat at a deli on Broadway, frequented mainly by corporate raiders and marketing execs loading up on carbohydrates. Tanya gets chicken salad with fries, Orrie, a reuben with mustard. They eat near the window, in case they run out of conversation. Since Orrie's revelation, however, this has not been an issue.
"You're going to have to tell her at some point," Tanya says, dunking two fries into a pool of catsup. "You know that." When Beryl eats French fries, she breaks them in half first. She claims that they seem less fattening that way, and Orrie agrees with her readily. At times like that, it seems perfectly logical that they are together.
"It can't go on like this," resumes Tanya. "It's ridiculous. She's gonna find out." Tanya has had experience in this area since three of her boyfriends have turned out to be gay. She equates it to dating foreigners: you know eventually they have to go back, but in the meanwhile you get a glimpse of a different culture.
Orrie breaks off his crusts nervously while Tanya continues. They edge his tray like parentheses. "I mean, I don't get it," she says. "I really don't. What's the big deal here?"
"You don't know Beryl," Orrie says.
"No, not really. But she seems pretty hip. She has a tattoo, right?"
Orrie holds up two fingers. "But you don't know Beryl," he repeats.
"Are you afraid it will send her back to rehab?"
"Not really," though he's thought this before.
"Well what then? Will she be shocked? I mean, she's got to suspect something."
Orrie wonders. Beryl has vaginal herpes, something he hasn't confided to Tanya. It happened during one of her two stints at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center; she claims it was from one of the orderlies, though her account of that time is always murky and inflated with melodrama. Between the VD and their conflicting schedules, sex really hasn't been much of an issue. It never really was to begin with, though when they did have it, Beryl loved to brag about it. Usually with friends at parties, embarrassing Orrie in her gravelly delivery, grinding out embellished anecdotes. "Well last night," she'd say, rolling her eyes, "We did it on the floor, and I'll tell ya, woo-hoo!" and she'd slap the nearest surface, which sometimes was Orrie himself.
Orrie didn't believe these nights were particularly woo-hoo or slap-worthy. In fact, he usually kept so quiet during sex with Beryl that she sometimes had to ask whether or not he had come. Luckily the condoms kept his secrets for him; he could answer whatever he wished and flush away any doubt.
"Hmmm," Tanya says, settling back and chewing reflectively. "Like you said, I don't know her that well. But she doesn't come across to me as being that, well, fragile, you know?"
Orrie laughs. "She's not exactly delicate, is she?" What comes to mind is Beryl swathed in bubble wrap, fabric softener, egg shells.
Tanya leans forward, takes one of his hands in hers, gives him a sympathetic look. The deli has started to fill up; he wonders if anyone is listening to them. They must appear to be a couple, resolving an argument. Tanya makes it all seem so easy. "Just leave her," she says. "You're allowed to do that."
"I know," Orrie says. A tall man in a blue blazer sits down at the next table, casting a sideways glance at Orrie and giving a quick, friendly smile. Orrie sees him only in flashes: one milky hazel eye, a striped tie, the tee-pee of his napkin in his lap. That is all he allows himself. It is more than enough.
"How did you hook up with her, anyway?" Tanya asks, releasing his hand.
"Of course Beryl," Tanya says. "What else have we been talking about for the last hundred years?"
"The cats," answers Orrie, still distracted. He can feel the man's gaze on him like heat.
"Ah, right." Tanya nods, dipping another set of fries into catsup. "That's right, I forgot. The cats."
The cats were Lucy and Charlie Brown. Lucy was the pretty one, narrow and black with white paws and creamy green eyes. Her brother Charlie Brown was fat and yellow, clumsy, following Lucy around religiously. "It's incestuous," Beryl liked to joke. Was it a joke? She complained in a tone less amused that her own brother used to do the same. The brother calls sometimes, for money that Beryl does not have; she no longer takes his calls but makes Orrie tell him she's not home. "Who's this?" the brother will ask bitterly. "Beryl shacking up with some fag now?" and Orrie will hang up abruptly.
FREE KITTENS!!! the flyer posted all around his neighborhood had screamed. The exclamation points seemed like an afterthought; they ran off the edge of the paper. At the bottom were little tassels bearing the same nearly illegible phone number. This was soon after his half-hearted and misguided suicide attempt, brought on by two months of living away from home, working for a temporary agency doing data entry in a room with no windows. Entering the same six fields of information over and over again, then coming home drained, eating cereal for dinner, for breakfast, and then running out of milk. Through the walls of his apartment, he could hear the next door neighbors fucking: the man grunting in a syncopated rhythm, the woman shrieking randomly, as if engaged in an act independent of the man. It was hard to block her out, to not imagine strangling or stabbing.
Inspired by the bottle of Nair that his mom had mistakenly left in a care package sent to him from Long Island, Orrie swallowed half of the bottle, as much as he could before he gagged and brought it all right back up again. The idea of a kitten -- - something small and needy -- - appealed to him.
When Beryl opened the door of her apartment - -- a studio in Hell's Kitchen - -- all Orrie could smell was the cats; a pungent mixture of dust, fur and perfumed cat litter. Two were chasing one another around the room; a third sat poised on top of a refrigerator, dangling its tail; yet another immediately introduced itself to Orrie by rubbing against his ankles, weaving between his legs.
The place was a mess: clothes strewn about everywhere, stained lampshades knocked askew, dishes piled up in the sink as well as other select areas of the apartment. The walls were plastered with unframed paintings and drawings, sprawled with colors, mostly shades of black and blue. "My boyfriend was an artist," Beryl said, following his gaze. She was blond then, with naturally dark eyebrows and droopy eyes.
"He's not anymore?"
"He's not my boyfriend anymore. As for the art," and she reached and tore one of the pictures off the wall, shredding it into pieces. She lit up a cigarette though Orrie noticed one already going in an ashtray on the arm of the couch. "You're not weird or anything are you," she asked, fingering the red bead necklace that fell against her chest. She was wearing a black leotard and a tight, red v-cut vest. "I mean, satanic, or bullshit like that."
"Oh, no," Orrie said. "I'm a nice guy."
"Yeah?" She sounded doubtful.
"I've been wanting a cat for awhile. For the company, you know." He knelt to pet the one at his feet, who began purring as if he'd flicked an ON switch.
Her eyes wavered. She blinked slowly. He suspected that she was on some kind of medication; she had that sort of look. "'Cause I'd hate to think of them being boiled or skinned or anything like that. You know how this city is."
"Yeah, sure," Orrie agreed, scooping the kitten into his arms.
She shrugged, sitting down on the edge of the couch. The one from the refrigerator jumped down and ran for her lap. "Well, take your pick. They're all orphans."
"He took the mother with him," Beryl answered, jerking a thumb towards the front door. "Along with my VCR, my Bob Dylan records, the last of my pot," and she began ticking other items off on her finger until her voice trailed off. She looked at Orrie expectantly. Blinked twice, then squinted. "Yeah, you look like a nice guy, I guess. Sweet eyes."
"Thanks," he replied, slightly embarrassed, as he always was with compliments. "I like this one."
"That's Lucy," Beryl said. "But I can't let you take her without taking Charlie, too. I can't split them up, haven't got the heart."
"Okay, then," Orrie said. "Which one's Charlie?" It turned out that Charlie was now at his feet, blinking up at him stupidly.
When Beryl called him a few days later - -- wanting to know how the cats were adjusting - -- Orrie lied and said, "Well, they seem pretty content." In reality, they had both been meowing late into the night and scratching up furniture, but Beryl's intonation begged for reassurance.
"I wondered - -- I was wondering if I might come by and visit them," she asked, her voice tentative. "I gave them all away, you know. And I, well, it's just so quiet in here now."
So she came over; he didn't see how he could refuse her. The cats seemed genuinely glad to see her. "Look, they remember!" she gushed. He offered her wine and her face lit up. "Yes, a glass of wine sounds interesting," she said as if she had never heard of such a thing.
"I shouldn't have named them," she confessed while he poured. "I think it would have been easier if I hadn't." In a clean black pantsuit and some makeup, she was looking far better than when he'd met her. She sipped her wine, swirling it like brandy and looking around his apartment. "It's so clean," she kept remarking. "Gosh." It seemed a soft choice for her, but perhaps an appropriate deity for her to worship. Gosh: something off the norm and a little squishy.
"Yes, well," Orrie dismissed, nervous; she still seemed a bit jittery, something wild around the edges of her stare, something invisible about her smile. She laughed too loudly at the acrobatics of the cats and thanked him several times before leaving.
But he let her come back less than a week later. This time she brought her ukulele and sang some Bob Dylan tunes. Her voice - -- so raspy and unfiltered in regular speech -- had a peculiar, charming cadence in song, though it strained inaudibly during the chorus of "Blowin' in the Wind." Orrie clapped when she was finished. She curtsied and laughed and launched into, "Roll out the Beryl, roll out the Beryl of fun ..."
"You're really good," he told her.
"Yes, well," she said, with a wave of her hand. "I play subways, too." What money she made there - -- thrown into the mouth of her huge straw sombrero, adorned with fake sunflowers - -- was being saved so that she could have Snake's cobra surgically removed. "Stupidest thing I ever did. Well, second stupidest, maybe. What do you do?"
After a bit more prodding, he showed her his private sketchbook. "Nothing very good," he said, but she paged through his drawings as reverently as a Baptist reading Scripture.
"These are brilliant," she told him afterwards. The superlative exploded from her lips as something radiant and hard to look at directly. Inappropriate for what he considered amateurish doodling, but he accepted the compliment, the wine eroding his humility. "I especially like these guys, the ones with the spikes growing out of their arms."
She thought they were intended as warriors, but Orrie explained the spikes were for protection. "Have you ever seen a stone fish? They have needles that spit poisonous venom if brushed against."
"Wow," Beryl said, closing the book. "You know so much." Was she kidding? She didn't appear to be, but it was hard to read women sometimes, and even harder to read Beryl who seemed scribbled in some sort of undecipherable dead language, an assemblage of nervous tics. Her left eyelid twitched, or was she winking? Her tongue rolled periodically across her lower lip -- was he supposed to kiss her? His inexperience was no doubt showing like skin through wet cloth.
The next time she came over, she stayed longer, had two glasses of wine and told him about Snake and the rehabs. "But I'm going on and on," she said, opening a fresh pack of cigarettes. "What about you?" She leaned forward, grabbing his knee.
It was like saying, "Guess what happened," to someone and having them reply, "You won a million dollars!" Any response he might have would simply pale in comparison. So instead, Orrie shrugged, smiled and Beryl broke into outrageous laughter. "You're so shy!" she said. "I love it!" Flirting was easier than he had thought; he barely had to move a muscle.
The next time Beryl came over, she brought the wine, and - -- as she liked to tell friends at parties - -- she never really left.
"You take out the garbage yet?" Orrie asks Tanya, who is leaning on the counter paging through an Italian Vogue. Beryl brings home the old issues from the hair salon where she works and, in turn, Orrie brings them in for Tanya who was once a student at the Fashion Institute.
"Yeah," Tanya says without looking up. They are the only ones left in the store. The rest have vacated to the bowling alley two blocks away in what has become a Thursday night ritual. Before his promotion, Orrie used to be invited along; now he feels like a mother abandoned after dinner to clear the dishes from the table.
"Thanks for staying late," he says. "Go home to your Greek lover."
"Go find a Greek lover," Tanya tells him, rolling up the Vogue and batting him gently on the head with it. "Or any lover. Italian, English -- as long as he's a he." She pulls the door closed behind her with a sigh.
Orrie locks up after her. Then he turns off the counter lights, turns on the alarm and goes back into the stock room, which smells like the inside of a coffee tin. He removes his apron, grabs the magazine from inside his backpack. It is called Inches, an all-male porn dated several months earlier, but he hasn't had the nerve to buy another since.
"I thought you might be gay," Beryl had said to him on her third visit. Her tone suggested she was still doubtful; they had not yet kissed.
"Why would you think that?" he had asked, trying not to sound too curious.
"Because you're so sweet," she'd replied. "And gentle." For Beryl, these were the qualifications; so what was it for heterosexual men? Sour and rough? She had stared at her hands while she answered, her fingers interlocking, her head lowered. In profile, she looked like a flower drooping over the side of a vase, half-dead, deprived of water.
Orrie takes one of the tall, thin metal coffee compressors and places the dispensing nozzle inside his right nostril. Then he tips his head back, and -- after a couple of solid hits -- settles back on one of the milk crates, having effectively left the planet for another, however temporarily. He glances at the clock. Beryl will be getting home from work now. She'll be kicking off her shoes, shimmying out of her skirt, undoing her blouse. The cats will sniff at her undergarments, will run their sandpaper tongues over the silk.
Orrie unzips his pants and opens the magazine. He knows all of the boys' names by heart now, as if they're old friends. He begins with "Billy."
Beryl is sitting at the card table when he gets home, her legs crossed, hovering over their lease. She must have worked late tonight doing perms; he can smell the hair products all over her, something like honey, rotting eggs and key lime pie. "Where've you been?" she asks distractedly.
"Work," Orrie says but Beryl holds a finger up to silence him. She has trouble concentrating on two things at once. She hates kissing during sex, wanting one or the other, which is fine with Orrie who finds it easier when he isn't kissing her, when he can shut his eyes and just rotate his hips blindly, his face buried in the pillow.
"Aha!" she shouts, slapping the paper. "Here! Here! Right fucking here! Just listen to this." She begins quoting: "It is not the responsibility of the tenant to rid the unit of any undue filth, rubbish, vermin, or other accumulations of debris." She looks up at him. "There," she announces. "We've got him. We've got them by the fucking balls," and she closes both fists. When she finally looks up, her face is animated. "Well are you gonna kiss me or what?"
So he does. As soon as his lips part from hers she says, "I'm gonna call that asshole right now. You just watch. You're too nice to people, Orrie. You let them roll right over you."
Orrie hoists himself up into the loft, watching Beryl dial. Behind her, he sees two roaches scurry across the wall, so he looks away to divert her attention. But her attention is not focused on him anyway. She rants a good two or three minutes into the landlord's machine, gesturing as if he's right in front of her, yelling as if he's several rooms away.
"See," she says when satisfied, slamming the receiver down. "I keep telling you, Orrie, all you have to do is be direct with people- -- " and her eyes stop, freezing; she has The Look, and Orrie tries to follow it to its source. Then he sees: another roach, crawling across the blanket on the bed beside him. Beryl slides off her shoe slowly, and tosses it to Orrie, who misses.
"Goddammit, Orrie! Get it, get it!"
The roach is nearing the edge of the mattress. Orrie knows he hasn't got a prayer, but to appease Beryl he makes an impressive lunge for it. No use. He topples off of the loft onto the floor. All the activity excites the cats, who begin chasing one another around the room top-speed as if they'd been cast in a Warner Bros. cartoon.
"Oh, fuck!" Beryl shouts. "Orrie! Orrie!"
The roach is scurrying across the carpet and up the wall. Orrie gets to his feet but Beryl is already on it. She rolls up the lease and smacks it violently. The guts of the roach, spread out after the initial crack and split, form the shape of an exclamation point.
"That's it," Beryl shrieks. "That's just it!" She collects her shoe from the floor, dangling it from her thumb. "I refuse to step foot back in here until they are all dead! Do you hear me! Dead!" She pivots, then hobbles out the front door, her one heel clicking against the wood floors like half of one thing and half of something else entirely.
He knows where Beryl is going: the cinema on the corner which runs marital arts movies. She likes the speed of them, the ceaseless rhythm, the badly dubbed dialogue. "It sorta reminds me of heroin," she says, somewhat fondly.
The movies mean he has a good ninety minutes, more if she stops at the ice cream shop across from the theatre, which is likely since her salad-and-water diet seems to have crashed and burned. There is a sticky peanut-butter knife in the sink and all of the potato chips are gone. Still, he fastens the chain lock on the front door just in case.
He has trouble locating the 1-8-0-0-B-I-G-M-A-L-E ad that he ripped from the classifieds section of the paper, with his private pin number scrawled in the margin. This does not alarm him as it once might have. They both have been getting lazier about such things. He finds matchbooks from The Glitterdome, the noisy club she used to drag him to -- quite literally -- every Wednesday for Bondage Nite, dressing him up in a dog collar with a noisy, chain-link leash. Now she goes in secret, storing her steel-toed dominatrix boots in the back of the closet where she thinks he doesn't look. Inside of the matchbooks are phone numbers written in bartender's pencil. He says nothing about them, just as he doesn't bring up the cock ring he found the cats playing with underneath the dresser.
His unearths the phone sex ad beneath the electric bill and a stack of leftover take-out napkins, stacked in the center of the table in one of Beryl's halfhearted attempts at housekeeping. Did she see it? Hard to miss the picture of the spokesman for the number clad in leather gear, with his bulging pectorals and lascivious stare. But then again, there were a lot of things that Beryl tended to overlook.
"What are you doing right now?" the male voice asks on the other end of the phone -- was it Steve? Shawn? Shit. Already Orrie has forgotten. The voice is disappointing. They usually are; ever is it the rough baritone he is hoping for to match the machismo of the ad. A simple tap of the "3" button, however, will move him along to the next caller, like shuffling cards.
He shifts the mouthpiece and answers, "What do you mean?"
"Are you, uh, you know: hard?"
Orrie looks down. "Yes," he confirms.
"What do you like to do?"
Orrie pauses. He doesn't know yet. Suddenly it seems like a profound question.
Open on the floor next to him, amidst Beryl's typical mess of bras and panties, is his high school yearbook. He'd been flipping through earlier, looking at the pictures of girls he tried sporadically to date. Their epigrams to him: "Stay sweet!" and "Luv ya 4ever." Then he'd backtracked, choosing the boys he suspected might be, you know; the ones who lingered in the locker room after gym class, walking around naked, staring Orrie straight in the face and daring him to look elsewhere.
"I like to listen," Orrie says.
Lucy comes over and rubs her head against his arm - -- the one he's using now - -- and he has to push her away, a little violently. She sits and sulks and stares, then begins licking herself clean.
"That's cool," the other voice says. "Listen to this."
Orrie is almost asleep when he hears Beryl come in; he remembered to undo the chain tonight before climbing into the loft. Once, he had forgotten and she'd nearly given herself a concussion trying to open the door. "If I didn't know any better, I'd swear you did that on purpose," she'd groused once he'd let her in, attempting to laugh it off.
"Honey?" she whispers now, standing in the doorway. When she gets no response, she goes into the bathroom, switches on the light. Then she begins stripping, leaving a trail of clothing across the floor to the bed, until she is clad only in her underwear. The tattoo on her hip now reads simply "Or".
Has she been with someone else? It is hard to tell. Her hair smells like smoke, but then again it always does. Also, there is the faint whiff of marijuana, but that is not all that unusual either considering everyone at the hair salon usually gets high after work. She could have brought a joint home with her, smoked it before the movie. Does it matter what she's been doing? Not at all.
A few months into their relationship, Beryl slept with another man. The lover left several ugly purple bruises on her forearms and thighs, and also was calling the apartment and hanging up whenever Orrie answered. At first she blamed the calls on her brother, but when the bruises surfaced she felt a confession was necessary. "It meant nothing," she said, her eyes watery, her mascara running. Orrie's eyes were dry and clear while she spoke. "You believe me, don't you?" she pleaded. He said he did. He had had sex with Beryl enough times to understand the meaning of nothing. "You don't hate me now, do you?" she asked, her voice scratchy. He said he didn't.
Then he asked, "Are you in love with him?" in what he hoped was a distraught tone of voice.
"Of course not," she said, burrowing her head into him. He felt her tears, or her snot, warm on his neck. "I love you," she reaffirmed, holding onto him as if letting go would mean sinking into some abyss.
There is the sound of paws shoveling gravel, burying the stink of shit beneath the perfumed pellets. Like the flush of a toilet, where does it all go? He imagines garbage barges, graves of buried compost, accumulations of debris. Beryl nuzzles against him, her body warm and fleshy, the familiar smell of her breath -- almost sour, like blood on cotton. "I've been thinking," Orrie says quietly, scooting over for her, making room. "I've been thinking maybe we should break our lease."
"Yeah?" she says tentatively. The loft wavers as she shifts her weight.
She steals half the covers from him, exposing his leg. "Because of the bugs," she says, her voice low and hoarse.
"Right," he agrees. "Because of the bugs."
She leans over, kisses him lightly on the forehead, and then curls her body completely the other way. "We'll talk about it after they spray again," she says, like a fact.
The last time the exterminator visited, the suffocating smell lingered, keeping Orrie awake all night. Beryl, however, had slept soundly for a change, no doubt dreaming of an arachnid apocalypse. In the morning, the floor below their loft was littered with corpses that both cats used for batting practice.
"When are they going to spray again?" he asks tentatively.
She does not answer though he knows she is not asleep. Lucy and Charlie Brown pounce up onto the loft, butting their foreheads against both bodies until they are sandwiched firmly in between.
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