Stories

Compliments of Bath & Kitchen Palace – Theresa Smith

I won the dining set from a drawing I entered at Clark’s Pools a few months ago. We don’t even have a pool. Maxine made us stop in on the way home so she could leaf through the crumbling moist catalog in the soupy air conditioning and chit-chat with Bill Mayhew about his cancer-ridden memaw. Maxine is morbid as hell. She picks at all our friends — her friends, I mean — to tell her horrific stories of great-aunts with lungs like spanish moss after 70 years of sucking down Pall Malls in a fiberglass factory and second cousins who got pinned under trucks while engaging in a little Good Samaritan-type activity in the belting rain along some pin-straight hell of a state road, gouging and prying at them until they finally divulge, or possibly invent, some familial infirmity serious enough to touch the nerve of her conscience.


It’s like she has a long string inside her, some strange but real endocrine phenomenon, that vibrates only when struck with the right force and in the right location, and when touched just so, gives forth a quiet music that’s soft and sad, which circulates and constricts her heart, and then by some comic cruelty of nature gets amplified in a pathological feedback loop until it clangs inside her head like a manic carillon, and you can see the awful racket in the clench of her jaw and the squint of her eyes. But the original music is there somewhere too, quiet and sober and canonical, and you can almost hear it, if you look past the nervous spasm that twists her features into a parody of sympathy. I’ve learned how to find it, although it’s never been directed at me.

Sometimes a man or woman, when confronted with Maxine’s condition, will shift and stiffen and cast helplessly about the room for the right word or the right object to chase away the ascending aura of her emotional seizure, some lubricant to loosen the grip of her insane sorrow — but it never works. And as she dispenses her strange brand of comfort, I watch their agitation slowly resolve into a mild, syrupy, glass-eyed expression, like a dog’s face when the excitement of belly-scratching gives way to the paralysis of pleasure.

I listen to her words dissolve into a menagerie of soft, almost embarrassingly sexual grunting, a quiet guttural lowing that sharpens in her throat and breaks upward through her lips in little uncontrolled ejaculations of tangled consonants. Then it’s “Mmff,” as she buries her head in their shoulder and shakes it around a little: a gentle mauling. She straightens up and dabs her eye makeup, pretending to be a little annoyed with herself (which always gets me). And then the real fun begins. Maxine can turn a hangnail into a heart attack, dandruff into deep vein thrombosis. It’s beautiful. At times I love her death-urge, her hunger for the tomb, her feminine bloodlust that stretches itself out in visions of cold, sterile hospital corridors. But mostly it irritates the hell out of me.

Anyway, Maxine was pulling this shit on Bill Mayhew, and he was spooning it up, just like everyone else, so I half-listened as she grunted and moaned her way through a half-obscene litany, then flinched as she suddenly pushed him away. “Listen,” she said, holding Bill as far from her as her long, skinny arms would allow, “you have to make sure she gets exercise. Sitting around — that’s the dead, right there. Might as well put her head in the oven.” I coughed, loudly. She went on. “When I was a little girl, we went out apple picking one day and my Aunt Martha stepped on a woodchuck and–”

Jeezus.

“–broke her ankle clean in half. After that she just sat in Mack’s old recliner all day with the footrest popped. Blood just pooled up in her ankle, and one day she got a clot down there, and it broke off and went straight to her heart and — it killed her.” A moment of silence for the departed.

I’m no doctor, but most of this shit sounds like a child made it up. A stupid one, at that. What I don’t get is how come she doesn’t know more about this stuff since she obviously spends all her time thinking about it. Hell, I took one art history class and I can still figure a Titian from a Tintoretto, even though I  could give a rat’s rusty cunt about both of them. Maybe she wants to get caught. Maybe it’s the prescriptive equivalent of fucking in a public bathroom with the door wide open. Maybe Maxine is an emotional exhibitionist.

I was thinking about that when I noticed a flyer pinned to the wall above the desk. “Furniture Giveaway,” it said, over a dark photo of a mosaic table surrounded by four strange, squat, barrel-shaped chairs with rounded backs. I squinted at the photograph. Holy shit, they were barrels. Wine kegs. The entire goddamn thing was made out of wine kegs. I wrote our names on a slip of paper and stuffed it in the jar, sniggering as I pictured Maxine sprawled in a barrel, giving me the stinkface as she shoved down eggplant parmesan while old Bubs toddled around under the table chewing rotting cork out of the bungholes. Maxine must’ve heard me, because she turned her head ever so slightly to glare at me. I grinned back.

Two months later, I’m washing a glass out at the sink. The phone rings. A young hayseed voice on the other end. “Siefert Movers,” the kid says.

“Secret what?” I say, incredulously. Fuck me! A crank call. I go into perv mode as my mind begins to search crazily through what he’s just said, trying to pull out the rudiments of some familiar crank algorithm so I can stop this little shitbird in his tracks before he can mouth-breathe the punchline for all his little retard friends huddled around the kitchen receiver eating the fuck out of bags of chips and Oreos. Secret movers? Any verb can be sexual currency in a kid’s brain. I should know. Moving. Now the word seemed fraught with unsavory motion. A man and a woman huddling close together in the corner of the food court near the bathrooms, her back to the wall, him pumping her slowly and incrementally and noiselessly – moving – through her open jeans. Him moving in her. I listen for the rustling of chip bags, for the excitable hoarse whispering of boys whose turn it will be next to draw a finger down the oblique list of numbers, selecting another poor asshole who had — had — other things to worry about than staying one step ahead of a bunch of horse tits who all shared the same crispy beatoff magazine. But I could think of nothing.

“OK, what’s the secret?” I snarl. “The secret is what?”

The kid is absolutely silent for a few seconds. Then he says tentatively, “Siefert? Siefert Movers?”

Goddamn it. “Sorry,” I say.

Mitch Siefert is the head of our Neighborhood Watch. We eat croissants and drink coffee at their house every couple months and listen to them talk about their son who teaches poetry classes somewhere in Massachusetts while their stupid rottweiler Barbara walks around shoving her head into people’s crotches.

“Stewart Furnier?”

“That’s me,” I say, pinning the phone to my shoulder with my chin while I wipe my sweating palms down the front of my jeans. “What’s this regarding?”

He clears his throat loudly, and it comes out high and nervous, like broken glass being swept across the floor. “Wanted to see about the, uh, delivery,” he says uncomfortably.

“What delivery?” I ask. I’m picking at the seat of my jeans when Maxine walks into the kitchen.

“The dining set,” he says. I almost let go of the telephone.

“Mother of shit,” I say out loud. Behind me, I hear Maxine grunt.

“Pardon?”

Maybe it’s another dining set. Maybe one of Maxine’s endlessly, needlessly suffering great-aunts and uncles finally expired from a back aneurysm or tongue gangrene or penumbral goofball sinusitis and scattered their possessions to the far reaches of the Keckie diaspora. It couldn’t be the goddamn wine kegs; I’d purposely fucked up our phone number on the entry form.

“The Oak Barrel Suite by Alfred of New York, compliments of Bath & Kitchen Palace,” says the kid, after a moment.

No.

I force a chuckle from my clenched windpipe. It sounds like a handful of ball bearings dropping onto a couch. “You sure you’ve got the right person, Mister…?” Mister what. This avuncular voice does not suit me one bit. “I mean, I sure don’t think I entered any contest…”

Maxine looks up. “What contest?”

The voice at the other end expresses mild surprise. “How’d you know it was a contest, sir?”

Shit.

“He’s got the wrong number, Maxine,” I say, and make a little I-farted smile to indicate mutual embarrassment. She walks back into the living room and the kid tells me the truck will be here at 3:30 on Friday afternoon to drop off the furniture. That’s rain or shine, he tells me. “Just like the mailman.”

“Have a great day,” he says, as I quietly place the phone back on the hook.

“Your great-aunt Katherine?” she’d say, between big, wet sobs. “Dr. Liebenfeld? The Garrisons? You want them to sit in — wine barrels? You thought you’d make them sit in wine barrels in our home? Break bread together in wine barrels?” She’d be swaying back and forth, with her arm held out and her hand up, warning me off. I’d watch her white face crumple and hear the tears going plop on her rayon blouse. I’d stand there and watch her, fuming and saying nothing at all.

I pick up an empty beer bottle and head for the backyard. I open the door and stand there for a second, then I cock my arm and let it go. It hits an elm and explodes in a shimmer of powdery green fragments. I hear Maxine coming through the house. “What was that?” she asks, peering out into the yard. She sees the busted bottle, then looks at me. I look back at her.

Her mouth puckers. “You’re angry,” she says flatly.

“Yeah.”

“So?”

“You don’t care.”

“No.”

She goes back inside, leaving the door open. I want to rush in and grab her and scream down her throat, all the fucked up and cold things she’s done to me, the entire sick seeded blackness of our long dull life. But I’ve got nothing in me. And she’s just an old, tired animal. Spooked by the spoor of death on the wind.