January 13, 2021KR OnlineFiction

Man Goes to Check

Love is no assignment for cowards.
—Ovid

Our window was always like that, he told her, like they were accustomed to broken things. It was just late enough to cause alarm. No halting traffic outside their house, no drunken pack of college students passing by to annoy them back into safety, just a glass bottle hitting the kitchen floor, not breaking though, rolling. That’s what it sounded like, she said.

He woke with a stiff shake. A firm girl with grip, his wife. Martin choked air at first and then realized he’d better get it together—this was not a child awake at night—this was the sound of a bottle downstairs somewhere in the dark hitting the tiles and then bouncing like marble would. He put on his glasses and then slipped his bare feet into tennis shoes—heels hanging off the ends. Laces loose and untied.

There are stairs to go down. Hardwood. He picked up a marble ashtray off a side table, emptied it slowly—it was full of guitar picks, safety pins, and loose change. It had weight; it would do at least as a distraction. Martin and Susan both had jobs to deal with, and this, this kind of thing turning out to be nothing could result in a rough morning and worse dinnertime the next day. He stepped out into the black of night down slippery stairs, laces akimbo, because he had to.

The house had been theirs for a decade. So he knew the safe patches and avoidable creaks, but there were toys left behind on random steps. A child had been undressed starting at the bottom, and the remains were left like bread crumbs to the top. Plodding down those stairs, his second thought was not to wake the kids—well, then we’d really have a problem. Martin murdered seemed fine. Sleep had become the prize.

They had two and had paid for it. He was tired of this glorious logic that children gave a person perspective, that one looks at the world differently; sure, he looked at it in costs of all kinds. He saw it also through a lens of fear that most parents relent to, the calamities these small people could encounter, and then duty to be there all the time to make sure no harm happens—a job that comes the moment you see their faces. It’s a draft most men do not discuss. One can resent such a thing. Martin wanted to lose himself in ballgames, the rare comic book, and the way a woman disappears down a hallway, but in the course of any of these activities that fear would confront him like an oven left on overnight.

Four forty-five the clock said in the hall, a grandfather from Susan’s family. The children would be waking in an hour. Navigating down those first steps, it was a comfort that his old house was as familiar as it was. How one comes home to greet the other, a yell, a shout. The quiet and loud that kids bring and demand. The thought: how did they manage not to leave each other after fifteen years of marriage when affection became brittle? They never learned to dance together but gave their kids swimming lessons.

Then, standing in the middle of the staircase, a new sound arrived from below. Martin’s foot an inch away from Nanna, a puffy gorilla, whose squeaky hands had been gnawed down after a year of teething and petting. A gallant misdirection on his part. Only an idiot would have crushed Nanna’s hands (short for banana, of course) only to release the long, exhausted squeak that her overworked internal, plastic balloon had tirelessly exhumed, not for just one three-year-old—but now a second. A hand-me-down comfort.

He didn’t tell his wife, but he lost his daughter Mabel in the farmers market last week. He was standing in front of the apple bins, overwhelmed at the selection. He was unclear, was he supposed to choose by name—“pink lady,” “honeycrisp”—or pick each one up and test for firmness? Martin was looking at the other produce shoppers to see how it was done. His mother had not taught him this. There were the assured veteran hands that selected without a squeeze and return, and then there was the old woman by the cantaloupes picking each one up as if they were large, swelling buds, her eyes closed, and sniffing right at their centers—at their butts, Martin thought.

It was Sunday and the place was full of large strollers, happy couples passing, oblivious, while eating fresh doughnuts, just missing the wax paper on each bite; a banjo player surrounded by a swarm of toddlers dancing from their hips with glee; a few spry cowlicks were sitting, back straight and hands folded like the man was Jesus. The sellers were standing over fresh strawberries without a smile, weighing fat tomatoes, hard avocados, and peaches at their prime—browning fingerprints beginning to show. Susan was at the gym (a coveted time), and calling her about the names of apples was out of the question. He was supposed to select five. A gaze too long into the apple bin and she was gone. A blond-haired, tiny girl in overalls, and he could not remember the color of her shirt, and what her shoes looked like—did she have her hair in pigtails or down? He ran through the aisles, abandoning Nanna, who Mabel liked to place in the stroller. The long-armed monkey was slumped over, grin in place, hands leaning to its side—abandoned.

Her face. How would he describe her face? As he ran now breathless, past the cantaloupes, past the plunking bluegrass—that too, was blank.

No, he didn’t slip on Nanna, he just ventured farther, but at this new sound, his next step protracted. The bottle rolled across the tiles slowly, but this time it was followed by a slow screech of a kitchen chair being pushed from the table. A sound Mabel had perfected, not a toddler anymore, her legs longer and filled with will. Oh, and how it infuriated her much younger sister—a freedom so strange to her, yet, so close.

He hesitated then. This new sound indicated that whatever was in there had moved. Stopping dead on the stairs, looking down at his vulnerabilities, his junk loose in flannel pajamas, a heavy but suddenly useless ashtray, a pulse increased, wet under his arms, glasses sliding slowly from the bridge of his nose, and laces still untied. But he continued down—the clock upstairs pushing the seconds forward.

His mother was a woman who never left the house without lipstick and a slack, red bra strap about to fall from place. She never wanted her kids to go without. She worked three jobs: a waitress, a hostess, and the third he would know later. She sat with seniors on their deathbeds: combed their hair, called for ice chips, listened to stories, but mostly regrets, wishes disappearing in drying lips. She hid this job, and she also hid that after their eyes closed she’d look to see what was left in the jewelry box.

As a boy, Martin fogged the windows of their four-door station wagon on the constant. His mother would take him on what she would call night drives. They were sold one of two ways: they were going to get candy, then make a quick stop at Crater’s Ice Cream Shop, or (on her more immediate and anxious periods) they were going on an adventure and he was the captain—an important part of the mission. He had to watch the ship as she went to seek land—the car seat was his bow—and by the time of her return a new mate had boarded. His job was to be “still as salt.” Something later he’d understand she had lifted from a book she’d read.

Hours would pass and his legs would get heavy and drop, and because she draped a blanket over him (a force field) as you would furniture—he was rarely cold. After several years of this ritual he was too old, a child of five, to be in a car seat of that size. The straps pushed to their limit and later he’d understood, after having his own, she thought it was safer to hold the captain down in a contraption too small than to have him wandering toward the gearshift. One summer night Martin cried for so long he got the hiccups.

It seemed like she wanted them to hold her. He watched her not even wait to get home, peeping under heavy lids and through cotton blankets at what men do when they have a present to open. Her hair matted from sweat dancing at the bar and age shining through all that makeup. A nice word for her he’d understand later was seeker.

Before exiting the car she would spray her perfume under each armpit (a saccharine smell; to this day honeysuckle jars him) and turn back to him before lowering the blanket and say, “Pumpkin, man the boat well.”  Although he fought it, being a good captain and all, his lids would close and the ship would go unmanned.

The silence in the house was colored with the ticking of the clock, the hum of distant traffic, cicadas wheezing, and the small but penetrable crunch of his knees. The beginnings of arthritis. Each step a riddle to the next. The chair after the scrape had not made a sound. Whatever it was maybe pushed back from the table after its big meal, unable to move.

The man he remembered most smelled of onions and tobacco. A nauseating sweetness wafted from him. They both had trouble getting into the car; although his mother was rarely drunk, she acted stupid, dim, loose around them. Martin was drifting, and it was his laugh that woke him and her stabbing attempts at the door lock. This one was different. He kept saying, “Come on, old girl.”

Karen, Martin’s youngest, in the last few weeks had described a thing to her parents. One morning last week she tipped over her cup and spun Cheerios on her placemat, gluing one to each fingertip and said, “When Freemore comes to see me sometimes he brings me chocolate chips and rainbowsssss. He needs a haircut so he can see better.” They entertained this idea like parents do; an imaginary friend is not something you should extinguish. Now in the dark it sat there like a fact waiting in his Rolodex of fear. Walking to the kitchen, he remembered she’d gotten angry with him packing the trash cans one night.

She said, “Don’t be silly, Daddy, Freemore wants the scraps at the top.”

He replied, “Honey, is Freemore a dog?” (She was obsessed with them at the moment.)

She laughed so hard that he did start to feel silly, and when her face was more pink than red, and her breath was caught, she looked up and said, “Of course not, he eats them.”

Martin thought of locking their trash cans after that but soon forgot. Just like the window. It wasn’t broken he’d tell Susan; it would just swell up on nights like these. These small things cause tension; they wear down a marriage. Humidity and a swollen wooden frame pushing a tender and vulnerable latch open. The one above the kitchen sink, the one near the stacks of recycling.

Why they didn’t have boys and why he didn’t have a bat in hand annoyed him greatly. He’d now made it to the landing of a house full of women—pillows under their heads and there was the dining room to pass. Martin didn’t know it then, but his wife had fallen back asleep. Her hand still gripping the phone, her thumb had slipped on the call button, making all landlines in the house useless. Sleep had overcome fear.

In his haste he’d forgotten his cell.

The mechanic, the one smelling of onions, wasn’t there to open a present. Through the sheer weave of the cotton and with the help of the streetlight overhead, he saw him throw her down on the bucket seat, her head bounced, and she let out a giggle, but you see—he wasn’t smiling. If the men ever thought they heard Martin or saw him stir, they’d glance back like a wolf in midbite, momentarily distracted by a sound far off in the forest. Then they would continue on. This one grabbed her wrists and pinned them back and pulled what looked like twine out of his back pocket. She laughed again but the worried kind, the way she laughed when they were at the bank.

Their dining room looked like the type most people have with children. It was there to display flowers or some fruit in an expensive bowl; it was there to show that they were civilized, that they could crystallize their cleanliness. The wish of who they wanted to be in one room. The last time they used it was Easter brunch, and Susan swore never to do that again. Other families and kids made it all too dire. In their bedroom that night, while slipping off her shoes, Susan described the evening like being on a small boat with her as the only waitress. It was still quiet in the kitchen, and he stood next to a bowl of lemons, two steps from the kitchen doorway, holding his breath to see if indeed he could hear his.

Why the man needed to bind her Martin didn’t know. He was strong enough to hold her, and had she known his name she would’ve yelled it then right before the word stop. He was not a brawny five-year-old but nimble enough to slide under the straps, nimble enough to lurch forward, for a blanket to suddenly look like an emerging, small ghost.

Martin decided this was a good time to tie his laces, and that is when he thought he heard the sigh. He was in midcrouch. He tucked the ashtray under his arm. It was him. Hands like worn leather gloves, thick, rubbery, creased with dirt and oil. His wheezing laugh. A mop of brown curly hair over his face. Come on, old girl.

It was always him.

On his first bunny loop, that’s what they call it, that is what he’d say to his girls to make things fun, mundane things they must learn to protect themselves, one floppy ear then another and cross them. Who ever died of untied laces? Both of his girls had preferred Velcro; his youngest, friend of Freemore, had just discovered Converse, so she now bunny-looped daily and with pride.

Laces now tied and on his way up his knees again crunched. Martin pushed his glasses back in place and took a cautious step in front of the doorway of the kitchen. Although the lights were off and the chair was not facing him, the neighbor’s security light helped to illuminate the room.

The window was open, and the chill that was left in the night filled the kitchen. The bottle was there, a Coke bottle, and the rest of the recycling: tomato soup cans, an olive jar tipped to its side, but Susan was right: it was the thick Coke bottle that made it to the floor and, in fact, probably bounced, then rolled like a marble.

Martin was gripping the ashtray, his eyes searching the room, and his hand now was slick with sweat. He lifted it high above his head to signal a weapon.

The mechanic had never seen a ghost before that night. Not something lurch like that at him out of a blanket, not when his crotch was engorged and his shirt opened straddling a woman. It scared him. And more so it frightened Martin’s mother. The hit Martin took then flung him to the back-side window, but it gave her time to sit up and take her bound wrist, which she made like a hammer and slammed right to his open zipper. He fell back, holding himself with his right hand, scrambling for the door with his left—falling out of their station wagon.

This is every man Martin passes at zoos, parks, grocery stores, movie theaters, school parking lots when he is holding one of his daughter’s hands, when he’s cut off in traffic, when he sees a couple in a drunk fight at a gas station; it’s the same hot, black-tar feeling, and that greeted him now in his kitchen.

Martin could still see his mother running back into the bar, hands still bound but coming loose, crying, and him behind her, head throbbing, a savior forgotten. The mechanic gone.

After they were safe, he was handed a root beer in the back of the bar, the fizz tickled his nose—the barman and customers seemed to be celebrating him. His mother looked at him with a face that he’d see again many years later after he had opened a car door, passed a napkin to lips, after a floor mopped—women surprised by kindness. Salt, in fact, looks a lot like sugar.

He heard the sound everyday around 7:00 a.m., the seatbelt click in the car seat an act of devotion perhaps. Better buckles now than when he was small, the kind that make your knuckles ache to fasten, worse to release. He heard it like an echo in the night as he lowered the ashtray and his eyes adjusted to the twilight of his kitchen.

Libby Flores’ writing has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House /The Open Bar, American Short Fiction, Gagosian Quarterly, Mc Sweeney’s, The Guardian, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Libby is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Currently, she is the Associate Publisher at BOMB Magazine. Libby holds an MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. She lives in Brooklyn, but will always be a Texan. She is represented by Sarah Bowlin at Aevitas Creative Management. libbyflores.com