2012 Short Story Contest Winner
by Karenmary Penn
Iris returned from work to discover her husband Cropper, still dressed in his brown uniform, sitting in the recliner, holding a grenade. It was round and muddy green in color, with a metal loop hanging from the pin.
“Bad day?” Iris said, keeping her voice light.
He lifted an eyebrow.
Iris sat on the sofa. “Where did you even get that?” She straightened her dress and looked around the room, for what, she couldn’t have said. Bare walls. Secondhand furniture. “So I had this client today, this little old lady named Millicent. She died at the dinner table. Her sister said she looked over and there was Millicent, fork in hand, staring off into eternity.”
Cropper leaned forward to put two fingers on top of the grenade, like a man deciding where to move a chess piece. Iris imagined picture frames and cushion stuffing and stereo components all exploding in a big unholy bang. Pieces of their life together, blown to kingdom come.
Iris said, “The sister brought in this raggedy red fox stole for Millicent to be buried in.”
She’d always been grateful he didn’t own a gun. Guns created a lot of work for funeral home aestheticians. Suicide was such an unsightly way out of life. The body tried to rid itself of whatever poison a person put into it—gas, pills, poison, lead. It shoved foaming, reeking pollutants out of every available opening. If people only knew that, maybe they’d reconsider their exit strategies. (Mr. Schmidt, while suturing the jaw of a decedent one day, had told her about bacterial decay and cells despoiled by enzymes to explain that type of “purge”, but she felt sure the body had its own wisdom and did not care to spend eternity full of toxins.)
Of course, old age was no picnic either: bodies rotted from within, brains eaten by dementia moths, bones transformed into chalk. If she could, she’d choose incineration, be one of those who vanished in the World Trade Center; everything about them reduced to blowing ash, to be vacuumed off untold carpets and bookshelves. Or perhaps she’d be one of those women in India who threw themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres, disposing of both sorrow and carcass so efficiently, the embers of their lives becoming tiny orange stars, floating heavenward.
Cropper’s cheek twitched. He stared at the dark television screen.
“Did you watch something that upset you, sweetie?” Iris said. He was so exquisitely sensitive to betrayal that he couldn’t watch a movie in which one person deceived another. To him, it was the most cardinal of all sins, punishable by death, his own if necessary. His eyes were just this side of murderous when he looked up at her. She knew the look.
“Perhaps you’d rather be alone.” Iris thought she might have walked into an invisible storm of explosions and tracers, bleeding bodies and moaning. A company of ghosts followed Cropper into the bedroom every night. She occasionally awakened to see him sitting on the corner of the bed, slump shouldered, speaking with one of the phantoms who lived on his side of the room: Souza, Wartowski, Beaner, Old Man, Hassan, and Jojo. (Her side of the bedroom housed only one ghost. He wore starchy blue jeans and smelled of sawdust.)
“Drop your cocks and grab your socks!” Cropper would growl.
“I swear to fucking God I just swallowed some of the Wart’s brains.” He’d spit.
“Put that fucking cigarette out,” he’d hiss.
“Stand up!” “Lie down!” “Arms up!” he’d bark.
“Shh,” he’d whisper.
When he was fully awake, like now, she could look in his face and know he’d gone away, back to someplace hot and dry, a place filled with booby traps and death. She understood because she disappeared inside herself sometimes, crossed a frozen river to a place filled with squawking chickens. Fleas. A secret as big as a barn.
When Iris took his free hand between two of hers, she felt the burden of him, the sucking weight of his despair dragging her down, pulling her apart. She imagined herself skidding away from him, like a bug in a toilet, trying not to get flushed.
What she knew of his history amounted to stories that occasionally rose up out of him, unbidden. Just recently, as he squatted on the lawn digging up dandelions with a steak knife, he told her about the James Souza, how he hopped off the back of a Humvee and landed on a mine buried in the dirt. “His mom used to send him Playboys that she’d stapled Road & Track covers over,” Cropper said. Then: “He landed right on my boot print. Pow.” And then James Souza, like some dark Leviathan, sunk down again. Iris knew some of his stories and he knew some of hers but they seldom pressed one another to fill the empty spaces in between. And yet they understood each other better than most married couples.
“Are you having an affair?” he said, pulling his hand free.
She sighed. “Why would you ask me something like that?”
He said he’d seen her car, three Wednesday nights in a row now, in the parking lot of Mackenzie’s Wine Bar, late at night, when she claimed to have been at home. She told him her sister Rose asked her to go to MacKenzie’s, which was technically true. Iris asked, without emotion or indignation or even surprise, if he’d been following her. He didn’t reply. She wondered how she’d driven so far, on three occasions, oblivious to a boxy brown van lumbering along behind her. She pictured his pale face peering through a window, watching her sitting at the bar.
He asked questions and she answered them truthfully. She wasn’t in love with another man; she swore on her parents’ Ohio graves that she’d not made love to another man since the day they met; she loved him as much today as she did on their wedding night.
She knew Cropper wanted to believe her. At times like this, she resented the burden of being the one reliably decent person in his life. Eventually, he wrapped the grenade in a beach towel, and put the bundle in a Justin boot box on a high shelf in the linen closet. Iris felt tired watching him. Lately, her bones did not seem up to the task of carrying her through each day. They seemed more like balsa wood.
“I think I might need a bone marrow transplant,” she said.
He gave her a puzzled look, then smiled his sad smile and said he loved her. She knew it was true, even though what he called love was not the fragile, tender, eternal stuff that people wrote about in poems. Cropper’s version wasn’t so much eternal as it was bottomless and icy in places, with barbed, stinging things winging past.
They spent the evening on the roof, gazing through his telescope at the stars above. Cropper explained neutrinos and proton accelerators to her. He pointed out constellations and she pretended to see them, enjoying the feel of his rough cheek against hers. He could be so tender when he broke free of his own gloominess. As he put the telescope back in its case, he told her that sometimes a star couldn’t stand the pressure of its own gravity. It didn’t have enough energy to continue, and eventually it would collapse, crushed by its own weight.
“The end,” Iris said.
Cropper shrugged. “Not really. That’s how black holes are born.”
She shut her eyes to try and imagine the size of a billion galaxies but he interrupted her thoughts by saying something about a quasar having a “huge black hole spurting infinite streams of matter”, making them both laugh. Cropper could squeeze a sexual joke out of any topic. Sailing. Economics. He could have been one of those morning disc jockeys, if he had a more natural inclination toward lightness.
Iris avoided Mackenzie’s Wine Bar after that. She discovered a quieter place, a three block walk from work, called the Blackhawk Lounge. There she sat on a stool near the curved end of a grand piano, nursing a Perrier, listening to black man in tuxedo play jazz. A group of men wearing suits stared at a baseball game on a muted TV hung high in a corner. Two couples sat talking and nuzzling in leather booths. She treasured this small, secret life away from her husband.
Iris had long, wavy black hair and blue eyes. On this night, she wore a satiny, crimson dress that felt like breath on her fair skin.
A man stood on the other side of the piano, looking at the backs of his hands, which lay flat against the piano. He was thick-bodied and rugged in a fireman kind of way, with chapped skin and thick, graying hair. Iris loved men. She loved their musky scents and rough faces. She loved the way their broad shoulders tapered down into small waists and narrow, round buttocks. Most of the time, she admired the way men held emotion dammed up behind their skin. They were so much tidier than women that way.
After making love with a man, she used to love to lie with her head on his chest, so she could listen to the burbling stew of his insides and wonder about the gurgles and thrums as she drifted off to sleep. (Cropper kept everything locked up so tight he sounded like a snare drum.)
The day she married Cropper—nearly six years ago, before a justice of the peace—she resolved to end any flirtation at the first display of lust. As time wore on, though, she felt herself opening up to strange men, almost involuntarily, in the manner of a flower unfurling under a store-bought grow light.
The man caught her looking at him and smiled. He had a hangdog face, and eyes the color of bourbon. “I’m Frank.” His deep voice caught in his throat. He moved his gaze to his drink.
“I’m married,” she said.
“Join the club.”
“I didn’t come here to pick up men,” Iris said.
“That makes two of us.”
After a minute, he said, “You look like that actress who played that blind gal in the movie with what’s his name. The dude who’s in rehab all the time. Did you see that one?”
Iris gave him an exasperated look. He held up both hands, as if in surrender, but he moved closer. She felt him probing behind her eyes, feeling for something to hold onto. She let him. Her eyes were colored glass, reflecting everything, absorbing nothing. When loneliness swelled up inside her and threatened to spill out, she looked away. He got on the subject of football helmets and then moved on to dog racing and polar ice caps and fuel made from corn and finally some soccer stadium in Afghanistan. He seemed lonely.
“You get this little vein that pops up on your temple.” Frank touched his finger to her temple, traced a lazy S. Iris felt a pleasant ruffling of nerve endings beside her left eye.
She pulled her head away and looked up at the television in the corner.
Lately, Iris experienced surges of resentment toward her mother, and her sister, for not letting her in on the substance of marriage, its relentless routines and mutated truths. They never told her that she’d wake up day after day for weeks with a certainty like a pile rammed through her that she could not live one more day as somebody’s wife, not even Cropper, who loved her, albeit in a way that bordered on frightening.
Frank reached up, pushed a lock of hair up behind Iris’s ear, then lowered his hand slowly, running his thumb along her jaw line. He tilted her head back and she closed her eyes, savoring the sugary anticipation of a come-on. Something frayed in his voice when he said, “Great dress.”
He said nothing for a while. She stared at the television without really watching it. When he spoke to her again, he put his hand on her knee to get her attention, and then left it there, lifting it away when he got himself worked up about Iraq, or maybe Afghanistan; one of the war countries. She kept her expression bland when she removed his hand and placed it on his own knee. She sat quietly beside him, listening to the music and to his chatter, until her watch beeped in her purse. Cropper would be home soon.
“I have to go,” she said.
Frank trailed her to the parking lot. She stood in the cool air, unable to recall where she’d left her car. “Do you need a ride?” he said. She told him she’d left her car up the street. He unlocked a dark sedan and opened the back door. His face looked suddenly and desperately needy. He might as well have led her to his bed and pulled back the covers. She felt like a person rushing to a plane knowing that she’d forgotten something.
“Do you love your wife?” she said.
“Can’t imagine being married to anybody else.”
“I’m not really this person. This dressy” She looked down, shook her head. “I’m...”
His voice sunk low and uneven. “I know what you are.”
She didn’t stick around to hear what she was. She was lonely, but she was not a whore.
That night, Iris sat on the couch next to Cropper, watching a nature program about a drying- up Botswana watering hole. A baby elephant trapped in mud up to its shoulders thrashed and struggled. His mother and aunts tried to pull him free with their trunks but the mud wouldn’t let go. Iris thought she wouldn’t fight it if she stopped at a drinking fountain one day and Mother Earth decided to reclaim her, to fold her up in great gray arms for a never-ending hug.
When that narrator mentioned the great herds that once roamed those over-baked savannas, and how they’d been whittled down to nothing by poachers and farmers and war, Iris unmoored her consciousness. The grander problems of the world, their causes and solutions, were all too unmanageable, too far beyond her ability to help. Occasionally a news story blew untidily into her awareness, like dirt under the door. She usually swept it back out again with a check made out to some outfit that could help. She wrote checks to Oxfam any time she saw photos of fly-covered people starving somewhere, to the Red Cross whenever earthquakes rattled a city into rubble. She helped other people do things about cancer, AIDS, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, homeless pets, cleft palates, Bengal tigers. In return, she got a lot of personalized address labels. They were currency, buying her freedom from deeper involvement.
She said, “Why doesn’t the cameraman quit filming and dig that little elephant out?”
Cropper just lay there on the couch with tears shining in his eyes. The nature shows really got to him sometimes. Not that he was particularly protective of God’s creatures. He was as likely as anyone else she knew to smash a moth with the bottom of his slipper.
She tried to stroke his cheek, but he turned his head. Cropper’s face was more interesting than handsome. He had slightly hooded eyes, a strong jaw, and big, white teeth.
He was kind to her, almost always. Occasionally, the best parts of him burrowed deep inside, and she’d find herself sharing a bed with a person who hadn’t spoken for three days straight. One minute he’d be sitting across the table from her at the Trattoria, going on about internal combustion engines, and the next, he’d go cold, silent as a headstone. Even his skin cooled to the touch. He could have been one of Iris’s refrigerated customers. She’d never have guessed marriage could be so lonely.
He switched the channel to Jeopardy. “What is the Holy See,” he said. Cropper read book after book, all nonfiction, trying to tire his brain so it would sleep when he did, instead of launching nightmares behind his closed eyelids. He was the only adult she knew who owned a library card. “Who is Andrei Gromykyo,” he said. “What is Lapland.”
She only got one answer before Cropper: “Who is Madonna.”
After Jeopardy, Cropper turned off the TV. He unbuttoned his shirt to reveal the long, shiny, Y-shaped mystery scar that covered his chest. He claimed not to remember how it happened. There were gaps in other areas as well; unseen perforations where bits of his humanity had dropped out altogether. The part that let you get over even unintended slights, no matter how small, for example. Or the part that made you love your brother, even if you didn’t like or understand him.
Iris hiked up her skirt, climbed on top of Cropper’s legs, pulled her top over her head. He reached behind her to unhook her bra while she fumbled with his belt. They stroked and moaned and kissed until she began to grind against him, slowly. She still thought he was the perfect man for her, fitting inside her like a puzzle piece.
Before long, Cropper pitched her onto her back and began thrusting away. He hung onto her as though she were something solid, like a jetty, and he were a swimmer, trying not to be dragged out to sea. Iris avoided his eyes because she could see every terrible thing that had ever happened to him there, eddies of despair, sucking her in.
On the table at Schmidt’s Funeral Home lay a middle-aged decedent with thick hair, still damp from washing, and a salt and pepper mustache, freshly trimmed by Iris. He had a crooked nose and a deep dimple in the chin. A pale scar bisected one eyebrow.
He looked a lot better than he did a few hours ago. Mr. Schmidt had pumped pink embalming fluid into the man’s carotid artery, cleaned his face with disinfectant, then shaved him, and trimmed his nose hair. He’d packed cotton under his eyelids and in his one dented cheek, to prop everything out where it belonged. The decedent’s biggest problems were below the neck, which wasn’t Iris’s department aside from the hands. Iris wiped them with disinfectant then powdered them. Long ago, Mr. Schmidt had showed her how to arrange them to hide the palms, which were purple and mottled with settled blood.
People left this world with different expressions on their faces. Some looked surprised to have been wrenched out of life; others looked sad or peaceful or indignant. This guy looked tired. The lucky ones, Iris supposed, grew to be withered old apples that dropped off the tree when they couldn’t hang on any more. Assuming somebody found them right away, of course.
When she smoothed his tie against his crisp white shirt, she felt the jagged hardness of staples holding his sternum together. One time, Mr. Schmidt let her feel a decedent’s heart. It was just larger than a baseball and the color of a Japanese maple, with what looked like globs of chicken fat adhered to its cold skin. She would have thought a heart would be tough as an overcooked roast because it spent its whole life working, but it felt hard and slippery, like a lie.
Iris tossed the gloves. She dusted the decedent’s face with powder to match his hands, and then brushed his hair. Squirts of Aramis covered the embalming fluid odor.
Iris heard a knock on the metal door jamb. “They told me I could see my brother, before” It was Frank from the bar, dressed in a blue suit, looking shaky and pale.
“What are you doing here?” Iris said, alarmed and irritated.
Frank’s face registered surprise, briefly, before going flat. His eyes flicked to the person on the table.
“Oh.” Iris looked down at her hands. “I’m sorry. For your loss.”
Frank walked a slow circle around her table. She thought the decedent looked handsome, considering. Bodies bloated and stiffened before loosening up again. Skin stretched. People expected Sleeping Beauties, waiting to be kissed out of their final sleeps. If they saw what some of these bodies did in Mr. Schmidt’s prep room, farting and twitching and blinking their eyes open, they wouldn’t complain about off-colored skin.
He touched his brother’s hand, then recoiled, probably at the coldness. Some men liked to say their goodbyes without a dozen other grievers standing behind them shifting and craning, as though the casket were a concession stand instead of boxed up death.
“I was driving,” Frank said.
Iris touched Frank’s back and murmured again that she was sorry. He sobbed, noiselessly. She squeezed his shoulder. Unexpectedly, he wrapped an arm around her waist, cinched her tight against him, then pulled her around for a full-on hug. She could have stayed that way for a long while, feeling loved.
She wished there was a way to tell him a person could burn up millions of brain cells wondering why he wasn’t the one lying with his muscles loosening from the bone and eye caps holding his lids shut. Why didn’t he look right again before pulling out, or leave the house thirty seconds later, after the van had passed.
A person could exhaust herself wondering why she kept clomping across a frozen river and a stubbly field, Saturday after Saturday, returning to that sagging barn with all its clucking, reeking chickens, when she hated the smell of sawdust and the cold on her bare thighs. The barn seemed to have its own gravity. A person could be propelled by something inexplicable, a force beyond the reach of words.
She knew it was inappropriate to be hugging Frank, but comfort, like happiness, was finite, fleeting. A person had to grab hold of it when it came into reach. Judgment was for those who’d never experienced a thousand fleas crawling all over her innocence. Iris chose the company of sunnier emotions. It was easy to do if she surrounded herself each day with people whose misfortunes so clearly outweighed hers.
Frank cleared his throat. “How can you do this job?”
“Money’s good. And I like the people that I work with.” Iris pulled her hand off the decedent’s foot. “Coworkers, I mean.”
Frank looked at the tile floor. “People keep saying, ‘Give it time.’”
Iris nodded, even though she knew true sorrow never dried up. It could shrink and retreat, but it was always there, ready to reconstitute itself on fresh pain. People said time healed all wounds, but in her experience, time lacked the right tools for the job.
She walked him out to the Oak Room, where the visitation for his brother would take place. It was a muted, pleasant space filled with bland landscape paintings and deep, comfortable couches. The heavy, wooden door closed behind them with a muffled thud. Afternoon sunlight filtered through the drapes, creating a quiet warmth. Two extravagant arrangements of white flowers stood at the front of the room. The cloying scent of lilies hung heavy in the warm air.
“We said no flowers,” Frank said.
“People send them anyway.” Iris fiddled with a seam on her dress.
“Goodbye then.” Frank brushed past Iris on his way to the doors, his hand grazed her hip, leaving a trail of goose bumps in its wake. He paused. Iris waited for his bourbon-colored eyes to be drawn toward her.
Her body seemed at times to have been guided by invisible hands working from within. They pushed hips and breasts out where they’d be noticed, then pinched her waist in and stretched her legs long and her toes straight and pretty. They smoothed her pale skin to where women she didn’t know stopped her to ask what products she used. (“Ivory soap,” she’d say.)
He stood staring at her, his face unreadable. Iris unzipped her dress, armpit to hip, hearing each metal tooth release its partner with a tiny pop. When the dress hit the carpet, she stood in her black bra and panties, pale and goose pimpled. He stepped toward her, then stopped abruptly, like he’d clanged into something.
“I was just trying to make you feel better,” she called, but he was just footsteps by then.
Her dress lay on the floor like something she’d molted.
Weeks passed. Iris joined Rose and her husband at a cowboy bar one Friday night. Cropper hated crowds so he stayed home. The walls were covered with rusted spurs and fringy chaps, branding irons and rodeo art.
Iris sat on a cowhide-covered barstool, sipping a wine spritzer. Rose and her husband knew every line dance, sang along to every song. Iris longed to whirl one way and then the other, to knock her heels against the wood floor the way they did, but something solid kept her apart. She imagined all those people with their thumbs through their belt loops, spinning one by one into her invisible shell, crumpling like stunned birds to the floor.
A man dressed in black jeans and a pearl-buttoned shirt moved around the outside of the floor, dancing the two-step with a woman in a flowy, blue dress. Both wore black cowboy hats pulled low on their heads. He had a paunch but somehow glided. When the music stopped he kept right on moving, twirling and dipping his partner, pulling her along as though she had no more heft than a silk scarf. They could have been on skates. When he removed his hat to smooth his hair back, Iris realized it was Frank, looking heavier and older. He’d grown a mustache. He danced with two other women, both of whom he flew like kites around the dance hall.
She should have called Cropper for a ride. She stayed, though, watching Frank dance. Eventually, he strode off the dance floor, sat at the bar and ordered a beer. Iris approached him, walking on wooden feet. He dabbed his damp forehead with a cocktail napkin and ate a peanut from a bowl on the bar without removing the shell.
“I’d like to apologize,” Iris said.
He looked at her for a long moment, then raked his eyes over the dance floor. She didn’t remember his skin being so red.
Frank said, “Is he here?”
Iris shook her head. She thought of Cropper, sitting in his recliner with his eyes half closed, murmuring, What is hemoglobin? Who is Akihito? He suffered from perpetual restlessness, as well as tiredness. If her heart were intact, it would surely ache for him.
Frank took her by the wrist and led her onto the dance floor. He arranged Iris’s arms the way he wanted them and said, “Relax. Look up.” At first she felt uncomfortable holding her chin so high and her arms so stiffly in position, but that melted away as he maneuvered her around the dance floor.
Iris watched Frank’s face so intently that everything else blurred into color and noise. She felt like a flame atop a moving candle, swaying up and down, side to side, more color and heat than body. He could have put his hand right through her without causing more than a flicker.
She experienced something warm and rich expanding inside her. She squeezed his meaty shoulder and enjoyed the sensation of fullness. When the second song ended and Frank let go of her, though, the feeling collapsed.
Iris tried to call the feeling back but what emerged instead was the image of her mother in a turquoise parka, standing on the bridge that spanned the river near their home. Iris stood below, on the frozen river, watching exhaust curl up from the tailpipe of the station wagon and disappear into the wintry air. Wind lifted and twisted her mother’s dark hair. She held it back with one hand and yelled, “If you fall through that ice, they won’t find you until spring.”
Trudging home after that, Iris believed her mother was more everywhere than God, with an infinitely bigger pull.
After a quick look for Rose and her husband, who were again on the dance floor, Iris took Frank’s hand and led him past the restroom and the storeroom, out the metal door into the alley. She didn’t wonder why she did what she did. Interior exploration blotted out all the pleasure in life. She was drawn to men, even when she didn’t find them particularly attractive, even when they were indifferent to her. Sex never filled her with regret or self-loathing. It made her feel solid. For a little while at least, she wasn’t a glass Christmas ornament, a shiny bauble that a careless squeeze could shatter into glittering dust.
Frank kissed her. She enjoyed the unfamiliar mouth and the feel his hands roaming all over her body. Iris unbuttoned her silk top, slowly, with him watching her hungrily. He inched up her long, dark skirt while she unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his jeans, unzipped his fly, and stroked his waiting hardness. Frank moaned. He reached around her backside and slid a hand down her buttocks and pressed it against the heat gathering between her legs. He rubbed and teased; he kissed and groped and squeezed. Over and over, he told her she was beautiful. Everything in his face gave way to desire. He leaned her up against the front door of a pick-up truck, and pulled her legs up around him. The heels of her red boots knocked together at the small of his back. He pushed himself into her waiting loneliness with a gasp.
The elegance he’d displayed on the dance floor seemed to disappear all at once. She used to find reassurance in sex, a quenching of some unnamable need, but all she could feel right then was cold against her back, and a stranger sawing away at the tenderest part of her.
A few minutes later, he was zipping up, tucking in, kissing her on the mouth, saying, You really are beautiful. She felt wholly drained, infinitely void. The heavy door hissed its way closed, and then shut with a soft click that sounded exactly like a pin coming out of a grenade.
© 2012 by Karenmary Penn