Thursday, February 25, 2010

Something in the Water

NOTE: While Lost in the Hive contains mostly true experiences and observations, from time to time I try my hand at humorous short fiction. This was the second piece that was rejected because the humor was "too dark". Let me know what you think.

“Well, we can’t just leave him on the patio.”

With the tip of her blood-spattered Harley boot, Maureen nudged the fast-cooling meat that had, moments before, been her kid brother Martin.

"He’ll be sure to attract attention. And flies.”

She batted the air around her auburn-gray tresses (a dreadful failed home dye experiment) as though bestowed with strange powers of foreshadowing. Imagined insects in any quantity struck me as the least of our concerns.

“Tell me, then. Where would you have me put him?”

To my mind, my wife’s choice left her not only as author of this most awkward problem, but accountable for part of any solution. I didn’t open his skull with the rusted poker from the fire pit. Nor was it I who silenced him mid-sentence. In truth, I was hanging on his next words, the ones after his last. He exited on an awkward fragment—“But you don’t…”

Even he deserved better than that.

“It had to be done, and that’s that.”

I could debate this. What irked me was her cavalier tone, as though discarding human remains—of a sibling, no less—was a mere line item on our to-do list, between "fix leaking bathroom faucet" (this with three exclamation points) and "pick up cream cheese at Saul’s." What’s more, she was a wisp of a woman—just enough to her, apparently, to execute a steady swing, but not enough to transport the evidence. My to-do list was burgeoning.

“Why, Maur, why?”

“He would have ruined us. We’d be paupers, if we let things go on.”

“I don’t see how. You could have just asked him to leave.”

Her laugh lacked mirth.

“Oh, sure, I could have asked him. Listen to yourself. He wasn’t leaving. He wasn’t going anywhere.” She nudged again, this time hard enough to convey a soft ripple across the crimson halo surrounding Martin’s imploded skull. “He was moving in.

She was right, of course. None of our subtle entreaties—Don’t you have pressing business in the city? Need a lift to the bus station tomorrow? Thinking about leaving anytime soon?—had borne fruit. His ample bulk was becoming as permanent a home accessory as the deformed fire tool that now rested next to his more-or-less detached right eye.

Now, unless I could devise a sound solution—or one whopper of an alibi—he was sticking around for good. It wasn’t like I could heave him over the fence and feign utter surprise when someone found him there.

“Her brother, you say? In the woods, just there outside our property? Now that is peculiar.”

As was so often the case, something about Maureen’s actions struck me as a tad hasty, a trifle much. For one, she didn’t need to hit him as many times as she did; I lost count at thirteen. Nobody ever accused my Maureen of doing a job half-way.

Sister and brother had nursed an uneasy peace throughout the long summer. He’d lost his job managing Aces High, the upscale gentleman’s club on the north side, when the owner walked in to find Martin auditioning the new talent on a clutch of spreadsheets. The interviewee left without a job offer and with an angry gash across her otherwise pristine right buttock, courtesy of an ill-placed staple remover.

Martin lost the apartment above the club, an approved perk of the job. His last check (reduced by the price of utilities and his new friend’s trip to the walk-in clinic) would make nobody mistake him for one to the manor born. At first, Maureen seemed glad to open our doors to wayward kin. Of course, she made sure everyone in her book circle and lunch club knew she had martyred herself for his well-being. She was his savior, Saint Maureen O’Shea of the Church of Brotherly Love.

The scent dropped away from the rose within a weekend.

The water glasses started the ball rolling. Martin was so thirsty all the time. I suspected type II diabetes. Maureen, who fancied herself an expert on all things, including those medical, said he was fine, and insisted he was merely trying to drive her insane.

“One glass I could live with. Two, even. But he keeps a half-dozen glasses half-full of water on the edge of the sink every day. Who does that? Does anyone?”

To be fair, I found the habit a bit strange. Still, we all have our quirks. I smell the back of my hand whenever I get nervous. My brother Jake has never eaten the last bite of anything. Maureen’s sister Norah, ever the flighty one, vanished without a whisper after the sisters shared a week at the family cottage on Marshall Bay. Maureen offered police two leads: either Norah had run off with the hot new gas attendant at the marina, or she was literally pushing up the Shasta daisies in her newly widowed husband’s backyard. Maureen found sister and husband hard to abide, what with their constant watering of those damned flowers.

“Are you listening to me?”

“Huh? What’d you say?”

“You weren’t listening. I said, why does he need to shower so often? He’s not dirty. You could eat a meal off him, for Christ’s sake.”

“He says it helps with his boredom.”

“And that’s another thing. How could he be bored? I’m here. You must understand I find that insulting. Just as I find it unconscionable that he insists on squirting drops in his eyes every half-hour. Aren’t people made of water? I, for one, don’t see how he could be running low.”

I'd kept silent. I’d seen the bills. Inside two months—the longest of weekend visits—both water and electricity had doubled. At first, Maureen just seethed. “The world will run dry before he’s done. We’ll all be swallowing spit to keep us from drying into mummies.” Soon, though, deeper malice crept forward.

“I could just cut him into tiny morsels.”

I’d laughed. I’d even revealed the growing frustration to Martin one night when Maureen turned in early to check out a show on the Science Channel—some documentary about the global water crisis. I swirled the brandy around the edges of the snifter, watching the play of the liquid in the firelight.

“You’re pushing her buttons, friend. You know how she gets about wasting water.”

“You don’t know the half of it. When we were kids, she’d go apeshit if she was the last to claim the bathroom. Sharon ran past her on purpose sometimes, just to fray her nerves.”

He fell quiet for a moment, as did I. Sharon, the oldest and the hands-down favorite, had drowned in that very bathtub. We all missed Sharon.

“Still, you know how Maur gets. Do me a favor. Keep the showers to once a day?”

He’d agreed, but, as was his wont, he didn’t change. I’m not a masochist, so I never offered Maureen my theory: I think Martin wanted to wash the shame of his life away, like Lady Macbeth.

And now here he was, centered in the biggest damned spot ever.

“I could wrap him in the bag we bought for the Christmas tree. As soon as the sun starts to come up, I’ll move him to Barrie Woods. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a better option than leaving him here.”

She waved at her head again, then threw her arms around me. “Now that’s my big strong man.”

“I quite liked him, you know.”

“Of course you liked him. I adored him. But sometimes, loving someone isn’t enough.”

For the next half-hour, I busied myself with moving the Christmas tree sections into a series of garbage bags, and tucking all of Martin into the much larger sack. I dragged him to the side and reached for the hose to clear away the clotting mess.

Maureen’s hand stayed my arm. “Don’t be hasty. They say it may rain.”

I dragged the bag through the house and into the garage. After I lowered the back seats and wrestled the bulk into the truck, I stopped. I ran back into the house, to the kitchen, and grabbed one of the half-filled glasses. Returning to the garage, I unzipped the bag and worked the glass between Martin’s rigid fingers.

“For the trip,” I said, surprising myself with how choked my words sounded. I pulled the glass away and finished the drink. “On second thought, I’ll bet heaven is just full of water.”

When I ventured back inside, I found Maureen on the phone with Jack, the last of her siblings (unless, against all odds, Norah came back.) She was asking if he knew where Martin was. No, he wasn’t with us anymore. He’d left in a huff one day. We’d heard nothing since. She was as cool as a cucumber in a bag of chipped ice.

I turned toward the family room to fix a brandy—in Martin’s memory—when Maureen called for me to wait. She covered the mouthpiece.

“You’re a mess. Don’t sit on that sofa. Get in the shower and clean yourself up.” A chilly smile crept across her face.

“Just be sure to keep it short.”


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