Dean

Caleb Tankersley

For a moment Dean suspects the unfamiliar number is no good, but he rarely receives Skype calls and he’s just finished jerking off. Inhibitions are down. He’s laid out on the bed, shirt wrinkled, his pants and underwear crumpled on the floor, a post-sex movie scene with only one set of clothes. This is his routine while Barbara reads downstairs. She can no longer reach the second story by herself. No real danger of being caught, but Dean feels daring for the act, even when his hand moves soft and slow so as not to alert her, his moans muffled into whispers. Old Dean, he thinks, you’ve still got it.

He adjusts the laptop to hide his nakedness, only his face lit white against a dark room. Who would call at such a time, through such a medium? The possibilities are endless, but Dean’s mind is still on the brunette from the video. And if the call could indeed be anyone, it may very well be the brunette who scrunched her face and twisted her mouth in a way that was ugly—thinking about it after the fact—but had done the trick for Dean right before his wrist became too sore to continue. Encouragingly, the call is coming from an area code unknown to Dean, which rules out a great many people in his immediate vicinity and increases the likelihood of the brunette calling. This should be a porno, Dean thinks. Women with outside area codes. He imagines her face, eyelids low and a perceptive grin that knows and had seen him. Dean clicks the green button and is instead treated to the smile of Aunt Joyce.

Dean has spent a week avoiding her. Aunt Joyce sent several emails he didn’t open. She’d called and texted and tweeted. Then this intentionally-off-the-record number. Some neighbor’s phone, probably. A low move, he thinks, as her face pops up on the screen, her lips a bright red clashing with the heavy turquoise necklace she always wears.

“Dean! My boy, you’re a sight for tired eyes. I’ve been trying to reach you for days.”

Dean wipes his face, still a bit sweaty. It has been taking longer and longer to come, requiring more of him. He uses the wiping movement to refresh his mind, flip a smile on. Hold it together, Deansie. And for godsake, don’t move the camera any lower than your chin.

From her scalp, Aunt Joyce’s hair rises sharply—flatter than the edge of a cliff—before spooling out into a mass of tight gray curls. Her hair makes her look agitated like an eccentric scientist. Then there are her unnervingly intense eyes, the skin around them pulled tight in what Dean assumes was a botched surgery. She always sounds so sweet, never actually says anything insulting to Dean, but he is a reader of eyes and faces. She’s always pestered him, has a way of complimenting his successes with an “Is that all?” tone, a lift of the brow, a pursing of the lips. His mother’s sister never calls without an angle, a favor or comment to poke into Dean’s otherwise low-slung but newly miserable life.

“Your screen’s a touch grainy, dear. Are you still on that ancient laptop? And who Skypes in the dark? Don’t you know half of age is lighting. You gotta get with the times, Dean.” Aunt Joyce snaps her fingers and laughs. This is her favorite, the despite-our-age-difference-you-are-effectively-more-decrepit-than-me gag. It’s a fat joke, really, when you strip it down. He’s not a very robust thirty-nine, and she is an active sixty-four. Still, Dean wonders why Aunt Joyce can’t be more like other members of her generation, wary of computers. The old bat prides herself on keeping up with technology. She holds this over Dean, sending messages and links about iPhone updates, the latest high speed capabilities, all the new pads and watches. His aunt has taken it upon herself to educate him, to pick up where Dean has, apparently, failed as a modern human being. “Step it up, old man,” she says and snaps her fingers, her eternal punctuation.

Dean pretends to laugh, his lips too wide like a jack-o-lantern. He needs to match Aunt Joyce emotion for emotion, smother her in the too-muchness of his face. He smiles so hard his eyes water. “Hah ha. Yes. You’re so right, Aunt Joyce, you’re so right. So what’s this about?”

She clutches a hand to the turquoise stones around her neck as if he is the one disturbing her evening by rudely getting down to brass tacks. “Well, I just phoned to ask,” she sighs, “how is Barbara getting on?”

“Barbara’s fine. Upbeat and continuing with her morning walks.” This isn’t true. Barbara’s MS has progressed rapidly in the past three months, lesions growing like mold on nerve endings all over her body, especially afflicting her legs. Barbara hobbles around the house, hasn’t passed through the front door in weeks, sleeps in a recliner near the base of the stairs, and will soon require a wheelchair.

“Wonderful. She’s such a fighter. Send her my love. Stephanie sends her love, as well.”

“I’ll pass that along. How is cousin Stephanie?” Dean asks out of obligation but regrets the courtesy when Aunt Joyce’s face brightens.

“Dean.” She clutches her hands together under her chin. “I’m glad you asked.”

So this is it. The favor. The duty. Aunt Joyce’s purpose in calling and pretending to be interested because all her children are strung out or couch surfing well past the acceptable age, and of course they rarely talk to her but who could blame them with a mother like that.

“What’d she do now?”

“Dean! This is your cousin. Stephanie. She’s not done anything. She’s well. Quite well.” Aunt Joyce adjusts a curl. “I’ll have you know my Stephanie has joined the Peace Corps. She’s shipping out for Africa next week.”

“Where in Africa?”

“I don’t know.” Aunt Joyce slaps the air and huffs. Dean has apparently asked a very stupid question. “Wherever she’s needed. She’ll do so much good there.”

Most likely dodging collectors. “Good for Stephanie.”

“She just needs a little help moving her stuff into storage. I’m all the way out here in Tucson, and seeing as you’re only a handful of hours from Kansas City I thought maybe you could help her, spend a few days with your cousin before she leaves for the jungle.”

“She doesn’t have friends in Kansas City who can help?”

Aunt Joyce frowns. “No, her friends won’t do. Stephanie needs someone reliable, and you’re the first name that came to mind. If that’s not a compliment I don’t know what is.”

“Aunt Joyce—”

“I know you have your own problems. But you said so yourself, Barbara’s well. Stephanie really would love to see you. And if you help her, it’s like you’re part of her important work in the Peace Corps. In Africa.”

“I don’t think I can swing it.” Dean hears a faint creak downstairs, Barbara rising from her recliner. Yesterday, attempting to cross the floor alone, she broke two toes without noticing. “I need to go, Aunt Joyce.”

Her red lips tighten before smiling wide again. “Well, you’re just so busy. Why don’t you think it over and let me know. I’ll tell Stephanie you’re a maybe. Don’t work too hard, old man.”

Dean hates being called an old man by his aunt. But it never bothers him with the guys at the insurance office or when Barbara jokes. It’s said of him often. Every time someone uses the phrase, Dean gives himself an inward nod, a silent admission that it’s true, has been since birth. Old Dean. He calls himself this on occasion, has always felt old, even if he’s early middle-aged. The old are revered. Dean loves looking in the mirror at his gray eyes. Old people are lauded for gray eyes. In thirty years people will walk by him on the street and say, “Look at that man’s eyes. Wisdom right there.” And he’ll think “I’ve had these eyes since I was a toddler. No one thought me wise then. But I was. Old Dean. Two steps ahead of the curve.” But with Barbara, Dean’s not sure what old means anymore.

Old people are never bothered about their weight. Dean had been a thin child. Pictures reveal an even muscular physique, a body builder in miniature. He’d maintained a slender figure until college. Then Dean met Barbara. Almost immediately his tiny gut expanded and—despite his most fervent efforts—has never contracted. But love has a way of keeping Dean from caring about his stomach. Or it used to.

Dean turns on a lamp, dresses, and hurries down the stairs, steps creaking. Barbara’s hand lies flat against the wall, the other gripping her cane. Her body shakes with the strain but she has almost reached the kitchen table without Dean’s help. A halfway encouraging sign. One of few.

“Why didn’t you wait for me to come help you?”

She glances over her shoulder as she finally reaches the table and sits herself down, her large frame hitting the upholstery with a smack. “You don’t have to help me do everything, you know. I can still shake this ass sometimes.”

“How are your toes?”

“It’s nothing.”

Dean bends down in front of her, pulls off the sock on her left foot. The two toes at the end have swollen like small sausages, red and purple and black. “Jesus, Barb. And this doesn’t hurt?”

“I can’t feel pain. I’m practically bulletproof. Like a superhero. There’s my new career. I might as well get something out of this.”

Dean’s never amused when she jokes about the MS. It’s not getting better. At the last exam, plaque was up almost twenty percent in a month. That number sticks in his brain. Twenty percent more neurons firing useless messages. New ones every day. He grabs a sponge and starts washing dishes.

“Please make sure you get all the little bits of egg off the spatula. It’s so gross when there’s crusty bits left. I’d do it myself, but I can’t stand at the sink that long.” Barbara’s leaning on her cane, even sitting in a chair. The cane is a dark gold color, bent slightly at the top with a rubber grip that gives her right hand a permanent, burnt smell. She was always a large woman, but the disease has kept her from exerting herself at all. Barbara’s neck has ballooned. She looks bloated and nauseated. Medicinal. Her face is weary, an old beyond age that pairs with the shuffling and the arm shakes and the cane.

They had been into pizza, taken it seriously as a shared art. Dean built a brick oven in the backyard. They knew regional trends, how best to prepare Chicago style, St. Louis, New York. They visited every pizza place they could, printed their own scoring cards which they’d leave on the table with the check, walk out arm-in-arm laughing at how pitiful the crust, how waxy the cheese, the idiot couple next to them who actually used the powdered parmesan. In the early years they’d taken a vacation to San Francisco for a pizza workshop, a few days spent under a supposed Italian master with gray stubble and a tall white kitchen hat which they knew was probably for show but gave the impression of money well spent. Barbara experimented with absurd toppings—smoked salmon and tarragon with a light brie—while Dean grew and roasted his own tomatoes for homemade sauces. They’d eaten every slice together, made plump by the hobby. Fifteen years of cheese and oil and dough sloshing around their middles. But Dean never cared about his or Barbara’s being fat. That was love. At night they made jokes about their naked bodies shining back from the bathroom mirror before curling up and falling asleep.

The strangest part about being in love—deep love that doesn’t wear off, that opens your eyes in the morning, gives vivid dreams in sharp colors—was how it made Dean think about his death. They’d talked about it in bed, Dean’s arms around Barbara’s waist, his head resting on her breasts. “It should happen on a plane. Over an ocean.”

“No.” Barbara put her hand on the back of Dean’s head and lightly stroked his hair. “Planes are no good. People find you days later all rotten. Or they don’t find you at all.”

“We’ll be old. We’ll both have heart attacks before impact.”

“Where are we going?”

“Somewhere exotic. Our fiftieth anniversary. Botswana. The Visayas. Siberia, maybe.”

“Okay, but why a plane?”

Dean lifted his face to his wife’s and kissed her chin. “So we can go quick and go together.”

She was serious for a moment, her eyes wide in the dark before laughing. “Okay. Let’s die on a plane together. But we sure as hell better crash on the way back from Botswana.”

They’d been married for eight years but Dean had never been more in love with Barbara than that night.

Lately random memories have been forcing their way into Dean’s mind with an intensity that scares him. Dean scrubs the spatula, works the crevices with his fingernails and holds it up for inspection.

“Bang-up job. Thank you, Honey.” Barbara rocks back and forth, looks around the room. Dean knows the kitchen must appear dingy. He doesn’t clean the way she likes. He’s into natural products whereas she pours on bleach and every disinfectant she can find. Barbara hunches her shoulders like the room is crawling with microbes. He has to do everything—clean, cook, give her medication, help her across the room. Dean can’t wrap his head around the idea that this is his life now. His mind rejects this with a ferocity and selfishness that scares him more than the memories. Sweat pools on his forehead as he’s scrubbing a plate. He finds himself glancing at the back door. Why the back door, Dean? What’s with the back door? It’s not like you can throw it open and run away across the grass. Where would you go? Jesus, how could you consider that, even for a moment?

Dean’s attention is drawn to something on the windowsill over the sink, a brown oval the size of a leaf. He brushes the curtain aside—a watermelon pattern Barbara chose to be funny—to find a large roach, shriveled and dead.

“Have you seen any roaches lately? There’s a dead one by the sink.”

“They come out during the day when you’re gone. They’re too fast for me to squash. Poor Archie.

“You’ve been naming roaches?”

She shrugs. “I can’t read all damn day.”

“How do you know this one’s Archie?”

“I named them all Archie.”

Dean turns back to the task at hand, the growing tower of glass and plastic and glistening metal in the sink. He pictures Barbara shuffling after roaches, their little antennae quivering as she gets near, speeding away, slowing down, circling her. They must think of his wife as an easy game for roach children. They dart and squeal and crawl up her legs where she doesn’t even know they’re there, are laughing about it right now under the floorboards.

“What were you doing upstairs?”

“Catching up on the news.” Dean wipes his arm across his forehead.

“Who were you talking to?”

“Fucking Aunt Joyce. She said Stephanie’s joining the Peace Corps and needs me to help her move her junk into storage.”

“So, you’re going to Kansas City?”

The dishwater disappears down the sink with a loud slurp. A long trail of rust leads in to the drain. The rust appeared sometime in the previous month. Dean can’t discern any leak, but liquid must be coming from somewhere. A thought pops into Dean’s head about Barbara. Maybe she’s causing this, since she’s home all the time now. The doctor did say she’d eventually have bladder issues. Dean imagines Barbara at the kitchen table. The urge strikes her but she doesn’t have time to hobble to the toilet, so she straddles the sink somehow and realizes how much simpler this is with her condition. She starts doing it all the time, pulling her pants down and hanging over the sink, urine running down the drain and inevitably on her leg until she’s so used to it she can’t go anywhere else. Maybe she sneaks it while Dean’s upstairs or when he’s in the bathroom or when his back is turned. And in a few weeks—a matter of days even—she’ll be incapable of even that, of shuffling to the sink and relieving herself. Barbara will wear a diaper, some oversized pillowy bit of plastic that looks more like a toy, and every day—God, several times a day! —Dean will take this off her body, smell all of Barbara’s shit and piss and the way it stays there, smearing her body and penetrating the pores of her skin in a way that can never been cleaned.

“Yeah. I told her I’d go.”

After Barbara’s asleep Dean makes a phone call to work and then one to Aunt Joyce. She answers with an “of course you’ll help. We all know you’ve got to get out of there and get away sometime. Everyone has limits to what they can take and with Barbara the way she is you know you’re in this fight, too, and we’re all here for you, okay? It’ll be like a vacation.”

Dean’s dreams are weird. In one he’s walking through a library except all the books are orange and when he pulls one down he can’t read the script. In another he’s in a house that’s not his house and there’s a woman yelling at him from the top of the stairs. She throws a shoe and it stabs through his hand like a knife. He pulls the shoe out and ants crawl out of the hole in his palm. Dean enjoys dreaming, but he’s always frustrated when he doesn’t know what the dreams mean. He hates the thought that they mean nothing.

Dean wakes up early the next morning, packs a suitcase before Barbara wakes up. Folded shirts form a small pillar on his bed, far more than he knows he needs. He carries the suitcase down the stairs and sees Barbara in her chair, mouth open and one leg pinned against the wall in a way that would be uncomfortable if she could feel it. Dean glances toward the door.

“Have a good trip, honey.” She uses her arms to rise up in the chair for a kiss. He puts his lips to hers and holds on, closes his eyes—if they could just stay like that—before pulling away.

“Do you need anything? Water?”

“I’m fine.”

“Debra’s coming by later to check on you?”

“Yes, Debra will be by.”

“Okay. I’ll be back the day after tomorrow.”

“You will?”

Jesus, what a weird question to ask. He wonders what his wife means and what she knows, whether she could somehow hear what he packed. He’d grabbed his passport, a few family photos. All the clothes were his favorites, pieces he would have missed. She’s smarter than him, which has always made Dean feel vulnerable. She has these blue eyes that grow darker, almost purple near the pupil and perfectly round like cornflowers.

“Yes. I will.” He grabs the suitcase, gives a quick wave with a smile. She smiles back and takes a second too long to wave as he closes the door.

The car seat is stiff with coarse fibers that itch Dean’s back as he flies down a state highway, but the wheel of the car is smooth and worn in a way that feels good on his fingertips. He wonders which route to take.

What will you do when she’s gone, Old Dean? Have you thought about that? How will you die then? Remember you said you’d go together. You could buy a big syringe. Take out some spinal fluid while she’s sleeping. Hell, she probably can’t even feel it anymore. Put it in your own neck. Can you transmit MS that way? It’d probably work. Then you’ll go together. But Jesus, what a way to go. And who would take care of you? Eventually you’d both stop walking, shuffling blobs of flesh and broken bones, shitting yourselves, moaning, clawing for the fridge or the faucet until you starve or get an infection or maybe the nerves in your lungs will quit working and you can both drown surrounded by pure air.

The sex had stopped some time ago. Not only did Barbara have a hard time moving her limbs, but the act itself seemed less enjoyable to her, a celebration of a life she no longer lived. Dean didn’t blame his wife, still cherished her so deeply her death would be like ripping out his own throat. But in his dreams Barbara began to change shape into something cold and foreign. His love was growing lighter. Dean has been preparing himself to leave. Through his shame, he feels a begrudging sense of pride at his own subconscious ability to survive.

Dean pulls off into a gas station. The siding of the store drips with rust, but the inside is sterile and clean. His eyes off to one side of his head, the station man is sitting very still. He’s bald, a small head on a large, round body like a cherry on top of a sundae. With a giant soda and a Snickers, Dean approaches the counter. A faint voice reverberates from the back of the store, a radio preacher vehemently denouncing the nation’s many unfaithful.

“Damn,” the station man says, “I hate this reverend shit. But I can’t stop listening to it. You tell me, dude, how does that work?”

As evening draws on, Dean pulls his car up to the address Aunt Joyce gave him, a small brown bungalow in the eastern suburbs of Kansas City, just reaching into the less interesting Kansas side of the metro. The yard is full of twigs, the roof covered in leaves and spots of lichen and moss. But the small porch is vibrant with wind chimes, a sparkle of tinny noises greeting him as he gets out of the car and thinks about the failing synapses in his wife’s brain.

“Deansie! Little Deansie!” A woman yells from beyond the screen door. She rushes out with her hands in the air. Stephanie wears fake enthusiasm like an old Halloween costume. “So glad to see you!” She’s skinny, skinnier than at his last visit six years ago and with slight streaks of grey in her hair. Dean’s pulling his suitcase from the backseat when she envelops him, presses herself all over in an unconscious way. God, no shame in this family. He notices the many rings on her right hand, each with a different colored jewel.

“Good to see you, Stephanie.”

“Are you hungry?”

Jesus, Dean thinks, puts a hand on his bulging stomach. What a question. “I could eat.”

“Cool. I know this great Italian place a few blocks away. Can you drive?”

Sure, I who drove six hours on potholed highways for the sole purpose of aiding you can now be the one to drive yet another few blocks, to hunch and squint and concentrate lest we die in a fiery crash, in which case I will most certainly be the one required to drag your limp, useless body from the wreckage. I can most certainly do this even when I see your car not fifteen feet away, a car that by all appearances is in perfect working condition and is—undoubtedly— more expensive and comfortable than mine.

“Of course. Hop in.”

The restaurant is a low-lights affair that makes Dean feel awkward to be there with a woman who is not his wife. He makes eye contact with the hostess and the waiter, wishing he could tell each of them, “She’s my cousin. She’s my cousin.”

“Thank God,” Dean says as he flips over the menu. “They have pizza.”

“Pizza? You’re going to eat the pizza? Try the Gnocchi. Rosemary pesto on pecan-crusted duck. A salad, maybe.”

“No, I have to try the pizza.”

“I’m sure it’s good, but pizza’s just fucking pizza. Do you have the wine list?”

Two days with this woman. And does she think he didn’t notice that last remark. Salad, maybe? She’s so like her mother he nearly gags and then covers his mouth with a napkin, a cloth one in a shade of teal that strikes him as very not Italian.

“What did Mom tell you?”

“You need help storing your stuff to go to Africa.”

Stephanie puts her hand on the table in shock. “Africa? She said Africa? Like it’s all one thing. Mom. She’s so fucking dense. I’ve told her twelve times I’m going to Ethiopia.” Stephanie punches each syllable of the word. “E-thi-o-p-ia. I’ll be working in a Fistula clinic.”

“What’s fistula?”

“Eat your pizza.”

They return to the bungalow. Dusty light from a streetlamp shines on the living room, cluttered with boxes and stray bits of clothes. A small hallway is similarly piled with not boxes—surely not boxes, of course she’s not organized enough for boxes—but loose books, papers, and an array of large crystals, quartz shards jutting out in pale colors. Stephanie shows him the couch, orange and covered in knitted afghans. “Here’s your little corner of home. I gotta suit up and go for a run.”

“Now?”

“Yeah. I’m part of a midnight running club. I’ll try not to wake you when I come in.” Stephanie moves to a bedroom in the back. She emerges moments later in tight, small clothing with a plastic shimmer, a pair of running shoes in her hand. As she bends to put them on, Dean can’t help but compare. She’s svelte. Maybe if Barbara had been svelte—if both of them had been—it wouldn’t be so hard now for her to move around or for Dean to imagine himself starting over.

“I’m glad you came, Dean. It’ll be so nice to have someone else here tomorrow besides Tobias and me. Thanks for being my buffer.”

Who’s Tobias? And a buffer. Is that my real purpose here? Fuck it, why bother asking. “No need to thank me. It’s good to get away.”

“Sleep tight,” she says before ducking out the door. As soon as she’s gone Dean searches for the fridge.

The kitchen is more chaotic than the rest of the house. Silverware lines the counter in indistinct piles. The fridge is an older model and small. He imagines Stephanie’s fridge to be filled with bottles of juice (kale goop, arugula goop), maybe wall-to-wall Greek yogurt. But on opening the door he finds a treasure of junk: Cookie dough, chocolate milk, and a large box of Reese’s Cups sensibly refrigerated. For a moment, Dean’s fascinated by how little he knows his cousin.

He eats five Reese’s, drinks a glass of the milk, and moves to the bathroom to brush his teeth. Dean’s never given up on dental health, his favorite kind. With a meticulous ease, Dean picks bits of food from around his teeth and gums, first with his fingernails and then with a triple-thick-waxy floss, cinnamon flavored. Once finished he wipes down the mirror, takes his shirt off and observes his stomach. He places his palm just above the bellybutton and feels heat, cups the fat in his hands and lifts it like a giant sac, a new organ, something venomous inside him that could burst at any moment and lead to a world of unending embarrassment.

The afghans are surprisingly soft and keep out the draft from the living room. Dean opens his laptop, lies to himself for twenty seconds—Do you know what’s happening in Europe, Old Dean? Best check the news—before he opens the folder with the brunette inside. She’s balancing on the edge of a bed like an acrobat, her legs open and exposed, and as Dean begins to jerk he wishes Barbara would have tried that move. Then he forgets all about Barbara.

“Dean! Jesus Christ!”

Stephanie has burst through the door and—upon seeing Dean, fingers wrapped around his erect penis, moans coming from the screen dusting his face in blue light—sidles along the wall toward her bedroom. Unsure of the proper reaction, Dean doesn’t move, doesn’t hide his penis or take his hand away, does nothing to stop the brunette’s grunts, growing in intensity.

“You should really . . . Just clean up after yourself,” she says before disappearing into her room.

Still unsure of what to do, Dean decides the least required of him is to not finish the act. He closes the laptop and turns on his side. His body refuses sleep for some time, and not only due to his still-solid erection.

Stephanie saw his body and recoiled. Yes, Dean, you have become a hideous lump in your middle age. But was it his body that surprised her? Maybe it was the nature of the act. She probably didn’t expect him to be masturbating on her couch. Some part of him should have known this was a possibility, that she could have waltzed in at any moment, sweat streaming down her neck and arms from the run. Did he want her to see? Jesus, Dean, your hippie cousin with the salads and the running club? You could drive anywhere, try for anyone and here you are laid out and exposed on your cousin’s couch swinging your dick around the room. Such a charmer.

The couch springs squeak as Dean turns to face the ceiling. Just before nodding off, he realizes he never called Barbara. When he falls asleep, Dean doesn’t dream.

“Wake up, Dean. Coffee time.” Stephanie smacks his foot with a pillow as she races by. He hears her fumbling in the kitchen. Night has barely passed. A pale light shows through a mesh of trees outside. Running at midnight and up before the sun. Jesus, this woman.

Dean rolls over and sits up with a groan. His own groggy steps toward the kitchen remind him of Barbara’s attempts. He lets his feet drag, wonders what it must feel like for limbs to rebel against the body. Stephanie looks clean and fresh as if she’s been awake for hours. Leaning against the kitchen counter, she blows into her steaming mug and avoids eye contact for an instant. Dean wonders if this is an apology for the egregious state of the kitchen, but he knows it is more likely a lingering awkwardness from the night before.

“We need to get ready. Tobias will be here soon.”

Relief envelops him as he remembers the mysterious helper, some third person to keep them from having the I-saw-your-dick conversation. “Yeah, Tobias. Who’s that?”

“My asshole ex-husband.”

“I didn’t know you’d been married.”

She sips from her coffee. “Briefly.”

A few hours later Tobias pulls up in a rented truck. Dean is packing random household items into boxes, cursing Stephanie and her lack of preparedness—Who packs the day of a move? Has she never moved before? Does she know how society works?—when a tall man with short black hair strolls in. A smell of fine cigarettes wafts in with him as he smiles at Dean with faded teeth. “Hey there, fella. You must be Dean. Tobias.” He extends his hand, furiously shakes Dean’s. “I’ve heard about you. Steph’s mom says you’re a riot.”

“Yeah, Aunt Joyce. She’s a—” bitch. hag. pain in the ass “—firecracker.”

“Boy, you got that right.” Tobias laughs, high and squealing like a porpoise. It’s annoying and endearing at the same time. Dean can’t picture him any other way. Tobias is a human dolphin, playful and harmless. Dean resists the urge to pat him on the head.

“Toby! Come look through any of this shit you want,” Stephanie yells from the back of the house.

Tobias looks down the hall and sighs. “Alright, buddy.” He slaps Dean on the arm. “Here we go.”

Stephanie assigns Dean to the living room, which has all the biggest furniture and—of course—all the crystals. “They’re full of calming energy,” Stephanie says. “Please be careful with them.”

Careful. If he dropped one on his foot, it’s his foot that would need care. The crystal would be fine. They’re an odd pile of rubble, two dozen or so formations in varying shapes and weights, from the size of an apple to that of a small chair. Each is much heavier and more awkward to carry than Dean anticipates. They are, at least, mesmerizing, a swirling mineral formation inside the rocks being the chief feature, what Dean assumes is the “energy.” Stephanie and Tobias argue throughout the bungalow as Dean waddles rocks to the back of the truck. The crystals are jagged with large pointed quartz structures. He imagines tripping on the steps and landing on a crystal, his neck or face hurtling downward, resulting in some kind of grotesque injury, something difficult to explain back home.

“Dean, was it you got that dent in your head from Iraq or Afghanistan?”

“Neither, sir. Crystals. Ones full of calming energy.”

Once he’d moved the crystals Dean started in on the furniture. A large cabinet sat against the far wall. Dark wood and intricate carvings. Must have come from Aunt Joyce. Dean lifts one side but it’s too heavy. He opens the drawers and finds them brimming with batteries, postcards, candles, tax papers. My God, Dean thinks. She’s like a child. Who doesn’t take the shit out of the drawers? My idiot cousin. No packing sense. There are dust bunnies blowing around this living room like tumbleweeds. Is she going to clean? Is she going to do anything? Will I—Old Dean—be stuck here moving worthless papers for days? A week? Maybe there are other rooms I don’t know about. Other floors. The bungalow goes down twelve stories. Ten of those stories are crystals, all orange and pink and spiked like a mace but still filled with that calming energy. Calming, calm. Oh, so calm.

I wonder what my wife is doing. I wonder if she thinks about me. Maybe she can walk again. Maybe she’s better and dancing in the kitchen with Archie the cockroach and is waiting for me to burst through the door and hug her and hold her up and say, “I knew you were in there. I knew you were hidden in that woman. I knew this wasn’t real life.”

Stephanie strides out to the living room just as Dean—having removed the drawers—tries to pick up the cabinet. “You’ll never get that by yourself, you idiot.”

Yes, he thinks. I’m the idiot here.

Stephanie lifts the other side, wheels around and starts to back out the door. They’re taking it slow. Dean strains, finds he’s holding his breath for some reason.

“Marriage is so fucking awful.” She stops moving and looks pensive, thinks to herself as she—and Dean—hold the cabinet. Dean’s arms shake, his teeth grit.

“Uh huh.”

“Tobias was like a parasite, needed me for everything. He actually wanted us to do all the chores together. Like we’re going to bond over dusting and pulling weeds and shit.”

“Yeah.”

“He’s so helpless. Marriage is for needy people. Everyone knows that. I mean, come on, you’re a good guy and all, but I can see it in your face, Dean. You know.” Stephanie moves to the truck. They slide the cabinet toward the back and secure it with boxes.

Aren’t all people needy people, Dean thinks? Does Stephanie imagine herself as without needs, some hermit who can run off to a remote hill in Ethiopia and live this noble life with her books and her crystals, helping solve the fistulas and feeling superior, so goddamn unearthly superior over them, the needy couples of the world? He looks over and can’t stand the sight of her, imagines how ugly she must look—how ugly everyone looks—when they’re naked, moving a cabinet or a chair. Dean’s at least grateful she hasn’t worn her tight running outfit.

Tobias walks out, wipes his forehead. “You and me, bud, let’s start on the kitchen. We’ll grab the table, and from there it’s just a shitload of boxes.” He laughs. Dean can’t see what’s funny.

An orange glow fringes the horizon by the time the house is emptied and the truck loaded. Tobias drives off with a wave and a wink. “See you tomorrow, bud. Then we have fun with the unload.”

Dean’s forearms are drenched with sweat. His body feels sticky and sore. So it’s a surprise when he walks back inside the bungalow and realizes his couch is packed away. No concession has been made for his comforts. Great, he thinks. It’s the floor for Old Dean. I who carried the rocks and the boxes of cast-iron pots and the antique oak furniture will now sleep on the floor like an animal, like Stephanie’s trained pet. Maybe I’ll get lucky and she’ll feed me. Perhaps she’ll let me out later to shit in the yard. We can wave to the neighbors while I’m on a leash with my pants down and my tongue out with drool sliming down my chin.

“Dean.” Stephanie stands in the hallway. “Come back here.” She walks to the bedroom. He hasn’t seen it. Stephanie and Tobias moved all the junk in her room but there must be something else, some cabinet she hopes he’ll walk to a dumpster she knows about three blocks away.

He expects the room to look like an antique store but is surprised to find it clean. No piles of books or weird statues or incense burners. The room is simple in bright colors and—goddammit—full of calming energy. Stephanie sits on the bed.

Dean rubs his chin. “You didn’t pack the mattress.”

“Not yet.” She sits up straight, which outlines how tall and slender she is. Stephanie takes on a business tone. “Dean, I’m going away for a long time. Two and a half years, at least. And you—” she pauses “—you’ve got Barbara to deal with. I imagine—considering last night—you’re not having much sex. So, I’m proposing that we have sex. Together. Here.” She folds her hands, leans in. “What do you say?”

Thirty seconds ago Dean would have found the idea repulsive, but now desire condenses within him like a storm. A high-pitched static fills Dean’s ears, the firing connections of his own electrically charged neurons deciding what to do. His penis is already responding to the sense of being wanted, a thing he didn’t know he’d been missing until this moment. He wills himself to think about Barbara, but his mouth turns dry and Dean faces the hard fact that even this will not stop him. Even the idea of his wife staggering to a table or chair or the bathroom or trying to climb the stairs, and then the image of her falling, her face striking the floor and jiggling with impact, roaches crawling around her, hiding in her crevices, her unable to call someone and being nothing more than thirsty. His mouth is dry not with guilt or embarrassment but with a penetrating need that stares his wife in the face and hopes that she’ll die soon, that a merciful God will shoot them both.

“Okay.”

They begin slow, fumbling with sweaty clothes, dodging each other’s mouths until the connection is made and it lasts. His hands are shy and then he takes over, some funnel of emotion Dean’s never felt before driving him forward. Dean feels stripped away from his thick layers of skin, every suppressed thought let loose. He grows rough with Stephanie’s body, lifts her up and draws his coarse tongue along her stomach, makes what he thinks are masculine noises. She moans but it’s not like the brunette and he wants it to be just like that. The sex is tumbling and rough and jagged, Stephanie beneath him then on top then beneath him again.

When it’s over Stephanie lies back on the bed and stares at the ceiling panels for a long time. “Oh my God. Dean. That was great,” she says with surprise.

“Yeah.” Curling up on one side of the bed, Dean thinks about planes, about the proposed trip to Botswana. Stephanie felt like that. He anticipated a crash or a heart attack. Something you’re not supposed to survive.

Maybe Barbara really has collapsed on the stairs. Maybe she’s writhing in agony and waiting for him to help her up, her lips parched and calling his name.

Grabbing his pants from the edge of the bed, Dean dresses in a fury. His hands shake on the zipper, seized with a desperation to touch his wife, smell her pillow, hear her drawing breath.

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. Just going.”

“There’s always a kick to this.”

“A kick to what?” His shirt feels clammy and damp but he throws it over his head anyway.

“Cheating. You get this emotional backlash. Part of the experience.” Stephanie puts her hands behind her head. “Ride it out and it’ll pass. I mean, this is good for both of us.”

His shoes squeak against the floor as Dean forces them on his feet. How could you have literally slept with the enemy, Old Dean? Think of a comeback, any kind of comeback. “You’re just like your mother.” Dean stands up, faces Stephanie and sees her smug face unchanged, as if she didn’t hear him. Yeah, that was brilliant, Dean. You’re just like your mother. And I just fucked her. So I’ve just fucked Aunt Joyce. Now look how low you’ve sunk, you slug. He walks out of the bungalow, throws his suitcase in the car, and drives off.

Dean winds into the heart of Kansas City and circles the bowl of downtown interstates looped around skyscrapers. His brain knows which way is Barbara, but some part of him resists, feels the urge to keep running. You’re already this far. Why go back? Why make it harder later, when she gets worse and can’t speak or sing or laugh or use the toilet or the shower or be anything at all? Why watch that happen to her?

He drives the loop for an hour, winding past the same exits and row houses and shimmering windows. But the image of Barbara waiting on the floor, alone and in need, compels him to turn the wheel toward home. The sky grows dark and he passes what seems like an endless field of corn and soybeans and streams, the occasional gas station as an oasis. He doesn’t listen to music, doesn’t think. Dean decides to quit arguing with himself, ties that base person—the inner Dean—to a chair and gags him until he’s at his own front door, key in the lock with a soft click.

Her chest rises and falls. She’s asleep, healthy and safe. Barbara. He watches her for a minute before he can’t help himself, touches her arm, buries his nose in her hair and kisses her.

“You’re back already.”

“I am.”

“Why so late?”

“Let’s get on a plane. We can go anywhere you want. We’ll fly around the whole world until either our money’s gone or we crash. I’ll even make the plane crash. I’ll do that for you. Let’s go, Barb, let’s leave right now.”

She grabs his hand, brings it to her mouth and kisses it. “I missed you. Thank you for coming home.”

He doesn’t have to wonder why she thanks him. Only how he’s going to live his life without her.

Six months later, Dean gets a Skype call from Aunt Joyce. It’s later in the evening, but the call doesn’t interrupt his masturbating, which is on a meticulous schedule now.

Her hair is the same fluffly gray, now accented by pink lipstick that works slightly better with the turquoise necklace. “Dean, my boy! How are you holding on? How’s your lovely wife?”

“She’s fine, Aunt Joyce. What do you want?”

Her hand clutches to her chest. Of course the hand goes to the chest. What else could the woman possibly do? “Well, I just want to let you know how Stephanie’s getting on. Especially since you left her high and dry with her move half done. She’s been doing wonderful work in Africa. The women over there just adore her. Very successful, my Stephanie. She’s—”

“Hey how about that, Aunt Joyce. Gotta go.” The laptop snaps shut.

Dean walks down the stairs, seats himself next to Barbara’s wheelchair. One eye follows him, the other falling off to the side as her mouth opens and closes. Dean hears soft clicks from her throat but she can’t put the words together. She stopped being able to read or speak weeks ago.

Dean wipes saliva from Barbara’s jaw then wraps his arms around her. He pictures all those sparkling neurons within her sending signals to nowhere. Dean puts his ear to his wife’s head and hears a light buzzing, the electrical messages trying desperately to get across. With his brain inches from hers, he imagines the scarred tissues might strike lightning across the chasm of cells between them, reach into his skull and transmit one clear thought: “I’m sorry. I love you. You can leave me.”

He pulls away and looks at all the features of her face, every special bump and wrinkle he’ll remember forever. But Barbara doesn’t look back, her eyes drifting off to some foreign country far behind him.

from Issue 28.2, winner of the Wabash Prize in Fiction


CALEB TANKERSLEY‘s stories appear in CutBank, Gargoyle, Permafrost, and others. His chapbook Jesus Works the Night Shift was published by Urban Farmhouse Press. He received a PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Currently, he runs the creative writing program at Mississippi School of the Arts and is a reader for Memorious.