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Complications

 

Things will come to you at the strangest times. My neighbor Leonard had called me after work to have a look at the washing machine in the basement of his rental house. His tenant, Rita, said the spin cycle was out. It was. The tub was full of soggy laundry. She took care of that, but we couldn’t completely drain the water. So the washer was heavy. Leonard tipped it backwards while I wiggled underneath into a cold, cheesy-smelling puddle. Loose belt. The motor carrier assembly wasn’t sliding to keep it in tension. While Leonard and Rita chatted about who knows what, he forgot what he was supposed to be doing and let the rim of the washer cabinet ease down on me, harder and a little harder. Maybe it was being pinched between a Maytag and a concrete floor that triggered the thought. Or it could have been the spidery dust bunnies that kept falling on my face. Whichever. It came to me like a breath of freedom in a big wide world: I don’t need this.

I don’t. I grew up in a family that moved to stay ahead of rent collectors and process servers. People came and went. Deal like that, you get run over if you don’t learn to fend for yourself pretty quick. Naturally we kids scattered at the earliest opportunity. No rich relations to cause second thoughts. I do fine without family complications. My wife felt the same way until her biological clock started ticking this year.

And so there I was, lying in a puddle under a washing machine, and it came to me. Bud Ogden, you don’t need this. You could pack your shit and hit the road tomorrow. I didn’t say that. What I said was, “Leonard, how about tipping this damn thing up again. It’s tight down here.”

“Sorry, Bud.” The weight lifted off my arms. Another slop of soapy water hit the floor behind my head. He said, “What are you guys doing for Thanksgiving? Hard to believe it’s only a month away.”

“Same as always, I guess. Feeding other people’s dogs.” Suellyn and I bought into the Ritz K-9 Spa, a kennel and grooming studio owned by Nik Garabedian, the old man everybody calls Pop. The handyman stuff I do for Leonard is more out of friendship. He’d rather pay me by the hour than call a repair service that charges him seventy-five bucks just to show up. I don’t blame him.

Rita said, “Feeding other people’s dogs? That’s pitiful. It’s a holiday; you should celebrate.” She moved into Leonard’s rent house last winter to attend graduate school at the university. Some kind of management. On the side she writes reports for an online information service. Rita is good-natured, pleasantly feisty. Sweet face, freckles and a ponytail. Mostly wears sweatshirts and jeans. Keeps herself clean. I couldn’t see from where I was lying but I’d have bet anything her running shoes were still dry. She had misunderstood the conversation between Leonard and me. He was angling for an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner and I was letting him stew.

“That’s why we’re booked solid at the kennel,” I said. “People celebrating with their loved ones. The dogs have to make do.” I didn’t mean it as harsh as it sounded. “We’ll finish out there before dinnertime, though. Never fear, Leonard. You too, Rita, if you’re around. I smoke a turkey. Suellyn makes stuffing and homemade pecan pie. You’re both invited.”

“His turkey is the best,” Leonard told Rita. The washing machine weighed down on me again.

I groaned. Leonard overcorrected. Water sloshed and spilled.

Rita said she’d think about it.

“You’ll be welcome,” I said. “If not for us your landlord would probably spend the day squirreled up at his place reading books and sipping scotch. Might treat himself to a pineapple ring on his fried baloney sandwich.”

“Don’t listen to him, Rita. He couldn’t get enough of the salmon I made last time he and Suellyn were over.” Leonard’s in his early thirties, chubby. One of those guys cursed with a permanent five o’clock shadow. The nerdy black-rim glasses are his own idea. He teaches English at a private boarding school and drinks scotch because it makes a statement. The single malt he serves is actually a cheap blend transferred to a better bottle. He says nobody can tell the difference.

“Look out for him, is all I’m saying. Got a rag and some oil?” I was scraping gunk off the moving parts of the motor carrier with a screwdriver.

Rita said, “I’ve got bicycle chain oil. Will that work? It’s right here.”

“It might.” I held out my hand.

She dropped a dish towel and squeeze bottle into it. “Why should I watch out for Leonard?”

“He’s crazy.”

“No he isn’t.”

Leonard is a clumsy flirt but it doesn’t stop him from trying. “Bud doesn’t understand those of us born to the artistic realm. Allen Ginsberg is my spiritual father, although he could never acknowledge me without ruining his reputation. We lost Mom several years before my birth. Virginia Woolf, you may have heard of her.”

“How terrible. Wait—”

“It’s okay. We’re a large family. Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite uncle, also deceased but a brilliant conversationalist. Would you believe he’s into Batman? This evening we’re watching The Dark Knight. Drop by and say hello.”

“Vonnegut?”

“Sure. I call him anytime. It’s the curse of fame. His fans never let him rest in peace. That’s why I refuse to produce anything of lasting importance. My phone number is reserved for friends.”

“He is full of it, isn’t he?”

“Could be worse. He owns rental property and just turned thirty. To know him is to love him.”

She said, “Bud, are you trying to hook us up?”

Leonard, bless his egg head, just had to keep on. “Procurement while you wait,” he said.

I heard a swat. The washer slammed down across my chest. A housing brace grazed my ear.

“Ow! That’s not what I meant,” Leonard croaked. “Holy crap. Where did you learn that?”

“Rita,” I barked. “Let him alone and get this thing off me.”

“Oh, my god. Leonard, get it off him.”

The sheet metal jaw released my collarbones. “If you two can see your way clear to let me live another minute, I’m almost finished. Do you mind?” I checked myself for protruding bone fragments. Nothing felt broken. My armpits burned.

“I didn’t mean for him to let go. It’s totally my fault. Are you hurt?”

“She kicked me.”

“She can kiss it later. Not now.”

Miffed, or pretending she was, Rita said, “What’s with you two today?”

The motor carrier’s springs and hinges soon functioned as designed. I rolled out from under the Maytag. Spots of blood marked my t-shirt where the sheet metal edge had scraped me.

Rita gasped like my guts were hanging out. “I’m really really sorry. Are you okay?”

“I’ll live.”

“At least let me get some peroxide to clean that cut. And I’ll wash your shirt.”

Leonard couldn’t help himself. “She agitates, Bud. But are you sure she’ll spin?”

Rita flicked a kick that snapped him on the hip like a wet towel. Leonard flinched and grabbed his butt. The woman had dangerous feet. And her shoes were still dry.

I stood and pointed at the electrical outlet. “Plug her in and find out.” Rita wheeled in my direction. A sidelong warning glance backed her down.

Leonard limped over to where I’d taped the power cord, fumbled it loose and plugged it in. He was standing in a pool of water.

I shrugged, looking at it. “Better luck next time, Rita.”

She grabbed the back of his shirt and snatched him to dry concrete. “Leonard, be careful.”

“Remember about Thanksgiving dinner,” I said, gathering my tools. “We eat at five.” Before the words left my mouth I wished I’d kept my trap shut. Who could say whether I’d be there? The thrill of freedom still cruised alongside me like a girlfriend I wished I’d never lost. She drove a shiny new convertible. The top was down and I heard her call my name.

*          *          *

Not that I don’t love Suellyn. She’s a lovable woman. Has been since we met in high school. She was the cheerleader willing to take a chance on a free safety who transferred in from out-of-state. We couldn’t resist each other. After the years of blind lust passed we found ourselves comfortable together. I learned to put the toilet seat down. She kissed me goodnight and became our bookkeeper. We own most of Pop’s kennel business but he still lives out there so we don’t have to.

Marriage isn’t so much about sex as it is about trust. And there’s my trouble. For sixteen years we didn’t give kids a second thought. Then last winter our old dog Peanut died and Suellyn started up about having a baby. I said we could get Arnie, our poodle mix, a new playmate if she wanted—people are always trying to give us dogs. Suellyn said. “It’s not the same. We’re older now. There’s a baby-shaped hole in my life and you’d make a great dad. Can’t you just see those big brown eyes loving you?” She must have read that part about the baby-shaped hole in a magazine. It wasn’t like her to say such a thing.

I said, “Big brown kid eyes are fine with me so long as they go home with somebody else at night. We have a deal about babies.” 

Since then it hasn’t been the same between us. She’s all babies, babies, babies and I’m the bad guy for saying no. It’s not her fault about my attitude on the subject. I never had an interest in parenthood. Overpopulation isn’t confined to dogs and cats. Excess people wind up in cages too. We just don’t euthanize most of them.

I only wish I’d foreseen this baby-craving in her. It crossed my mind to wonder whether she was taking her birth control pills. They disappeared out of the pack as they should, but what if she flushed them? It wasn’t a question I could ask without hurting her feelings. Even then, how could I be sure she was telling the truth?

Once when Suellyn was ragging me about getting pregnant and I was saying “No” for the hundredth time, I asked if she wanted a divorce. She broke down and cried, “How could you say such a thing?” To me it either meant I was more important to her or she was scheming. To be on the safe side I timed her cycles. With pills or without, I’ll say this: her friend is my friend and she’s regular. My antsiness about the calendar caused our lovemaking to get awkward a few times.

Any pet owner knows there’s a better solution. Dr. Mulvahill is a top-notch veterinarian. I offered him cash to fix me. He thought I was joking; “That’s not our operation. We shell the boys out under general anesthesia.” I tried to stop him right there but he was on a roll. “If the owner is vain, Poochie gets a prosthetic set. The hard plastic kind has a tendency to rattle after a while; drives some dogs berserk. Silicone costs more but it’s worth it. Squeezably soft. I’m guessing you for X-Large. Great Dane, more or less?”

Mulvahill has a sick sense of humor. I said, “No, thank you. All I need is a regular snip job. I’ll pay a hundred bucks. A local anesthetic and a few stitches. What are we talking about, ten minutes?”

He turned me down. So I called the urologist he recommended and put money aside on the sly. A thousand bucks. It killed my beer budget and doubled the handyman work. Four months to raise the cash without raising suspicion. Another month waiting for the doctor appointment. On the day I repaired Leonard’s washer my number was almost up.

*          *          *

The prospect of going to the urologist in the morning squeezed the breath out of me worse than any Maytag. Vasectomy is a deeply disturbing idea. I dreaded it like a man dreads the first time a woman backs him into a corner about saying he loves her. It’s the way a big dog feels as he’s being dragged down a long hall in a pinch collar, choking and bug-eyed. A fear in the gut that something is about to change forever.

I told myself I’d be okay, that it wasn’t a big deal. Then I called myself a damned liar. There was no baby-shaped hole in my life. But it embarrassed me to be such a wuss. A good husband would man up and do what needed doing. My n’er-do-well blood told me to run. That night I heard my own clock ticking. In a matter of hours I would make a choice: shave my balls or hop into the freedom car bound for elsewhere, knowing that sooner or later I’d probably face the same situation again.

Suellyn noticed I was tense. I told her it was from Leonard dropping the washing machine on me. Bruises were already cropping up on my chest. She massaged my shoulders and back. One thing led to another. Pretty soon she had her hand in my boxers. Johnson was delighted. I was not. The time of the month was all wrong.

She purred in my ear, “Do it like you used to in our first apartment. Make my knees so weak I can’t walk.” She began pulling down my pants.

I stopped her. “You can tell how much I want to, honey, but that washer did a number on me. Every move hurts like fire. It might be a cracked bone. Or a dislocation.”

“You weren’t complaining a minute ago.”

“Everything is loosened up now. Sometimes you can’t tell how bad an injury is when your muscles are tight.”

She turned her back and sat with her legs off the other side of the bed. “You don’t love me anymore. Is it Rita? That’s where you were tonight. I’ll kill her.”

I threw an arm around Suellyn’s waist. “Stop it. I’m injured, that’s all. If it wasn’t so late I’d go for an X-ray right now. Let’s just get through tonight. I’ll have it looked at in the morning.”

I hated to do her that way but it solved a problem. Later on when we were both lying there not sleeping, I didn’t feel so bad. Resentment set in. It wasn’t me trying to rewrite our rules. My balls were on the line because I loved her. And she was trying to blame Rita. Goddamn complications. I dreamed of the freedom car. All I had to do was let it take me.

*          *          *

Suellyn wanted to drive me to the walk-in clinic. She said Pop could open up and do the early feedings. My chest and arm muscles were sore as hell. But I assured her over and over that I’d be okay. Eventually she remembered she was mad and left for the kennel. It came to me that I’d been thinking all wrong about this. Vasectomy wasn’t the optional proposition. That I would do. The choice came after: whether to tell Suellyn.

Scraping the frost off the windshield of our mobile grooming van hurt more than driving. So did getting in and out of the cab, especially after the urologist’s office. A kicked-in-the-nuts feeling matched the ache in my pecs and triceps. And that operating room image was stuck in my head too: knees sticking up out of those stirrups and oh, lordy, what’s going on behind the sheet? I went directly to the pharmacy. Took a pain pill before leaving the store.

The drive to the kennel wasn’t long enough for the medicine to do any good. I tottered into the office hunched over worse than Pop. One of our groomers was advising the owner of a stinky pug on odor control. Out in the run for dog-aggressive dogs, a border collie herded a ball under Suellyn’s direction. Through the fence I told her the clinic diagnosis was abrasions and deep bruises. Nothing rest wouldn’t cure.

She assumed that the strain of driving had caused the hitch in my get-along. “It serves you right for not letting me take you to the clinic. You can’t work. There’s chicken in the refrigerator. Do you feel up to grilling tonight?”

I thought I could manage that.

When I opened the door at home, Arnie jumped up and planted a paw at Ground Zero. I almost puked. He dashed into the kitchen hoping for a lunchtime treat. Too bad. Since he’d made it so I couldn’t eat, he was out of luck too. All I wanted was a pack of frozen vegetables. The doctor had said it would prevent swelling. The doorbell rang as I searched the freezer. Arnie barked and ran to see who it was.

Rita was still having washer troubles. It made a terrible racket and jiggled across the floor on spin cycle. She’d had to pull the plug. Rita is a bright girl but not mechanically minded. I cursed myself for not leveling the machine the night before and for not being a hundred miles closer to a new life. There was nothing for it but to grab a few tools and walk the two doors down to her house. She saw right off that I wasn’t well and felt bad about it. I told her it wasn’t her fault. To change the subject I asked what she was doing that day.

She said somebody had ordered a term paper on women’s rights in Victorian society. Her original essay on the topic was a big seller for the service that contracted her. Rita guessed she’d customized the paper a dozen times for special orders.

I asked if it bothered her to be in the business she was.

“Some requests are legitimate; I never know for sure. But this is what technical writers and ghostwriters do. How many celebrity authors actually write the books with their names on them? Almost none. If it’s okay to run for political office on the basis of a bogus autobiography, why can’t I charge fifty bucks for a unique term paper?”

We went behind her house and into the basement. The washer had been prevented from walking farther by the drain hose hooked in the standpipe. We shoved the machine back into position. I showed Rita how to read a level and, wrench in hand, painstakingly lowered my sorry carcass to the floor. Thankfully, very little height adjustment on the legs was necessary.

She offered to pay.

“No,” I said. “I should have done this yesterday. No charge.”

“Come on. You need money too. Babies cost boatloads of money.”

My heart flipped.

Rita’s eyes widened. She blurted, “Suellyn told me. You’ve been doing these extra jobs. I assumed—”

“She’s pregnant?”

“Not that she said. But she told me you were trying. Wasn’t I supposed to know?”

*          *          *

Sore balls encourage a man to think first, maybe two or three times, before packing his suitcase. I deflected Arnie’s welcome home leap and headed for the medicine cabinet, forgetting for a minute that the bottle of pain pills was still in my pocket. I took a second tablet, washed it down with a handful of water at the bathroom sink and read the label on the bottle. Didn’t recognize the unpronounceable name. Probably Latin for useless. Suellyn’s birth control pills were in the cabinet. She’d at least continued to pop them out of the pack.

The second pain pill put me out. I was snoozing in the recliner with a soggy bag of frozen corn on my crotch when Suellyn breezed in and kissed me on the forehead. She draped the corn over my right collarbone. I wondered why she chose that one.

“Feeling any better?”

I toyed with telling her what I’d done and what Rita said but knew where that would lead. It could wait. I stretched and stood, surprised at the improvement in all physical departments. “Not bad,” I said. “Pretty good, in fact. But I wet my pants.”

Suellyn thought I didn’t know how it happened. “The corn slipped down. I’ll put it in the freezer for you.”

I gave her the bag. “Thanks. I’ll change and light the grill.”

As I turned to go she reminded me of our evening plans. “Better call Leonard too. Wasn’t tonight the DMB concert?”

Leonard is cheap, everywhere except his entertainment system. He’s got a sixty-inch plasma TV that beats hell out of anything else in the neighborhood. I’m amazed he hasn’t been robbed. Our block is two streets over from respectable, a mixture of college students, blue collar workers and people like Leonard that polite society worries about. We were supposed to watch the Dave Matthews Band live on cable. Hearing those guys is like watching Troy Polamalu play strong safety for the Steelers. When 43 is healthy you don’t have to know anything to realize you’re witnessing greatness. “Let’s go,” I said. “Dave Matthews and a beer would do me good.” And give me more time to think.

*          *          *

The concert was killer. I had a good time despite myself. So did Suellyn. Leonard, though, had something on his mind. He slugged down scotch and couldn’t sit still. At the end of the show he offered us shots of fake MacWhatzit to hear him out. I let him talk me into opening a third beer. That’s my absolute limit. Nobody with a hangover walks into a dog kennel the second time. Barking shreds inflamed brain cells. And the stenches and messes are guaranteed to turn even the strongest stomach inside out.

Leonard said one of his students had been expelled that day. A folder of tests from previous years had been found in the dorm room he shared with a notorious cheat. Suellyn said she didn’t see the problem with kicking the kids out.

“Not both,” he sneered. “Not both. Only the one with no prior record of violations. If DeShawn was guilty; he denied it to the end. The honor code wasn’t the cause of his dismissal.”

“What then?”

Leonard paced like an irate lawyer. “Here’s how it works. Junior is brought before the honor council on charges of serious monkey business. Out of an abundance of concern for the student’s future the headmaster personally notifies the parents. Any Ivy League dreams they may have had are about to go down in flames. What to do?”

He stopped in front of Suellyn and looked down his nose at her. “I’ll tell you what. A generous contribution to the endowment fund gets Junior off with a warning. He is our special goose and his misdeeds our golden eggs. He and his kind financed the new gymnasium.

“But,” he spat, turning to wag a finger in my direction, “object lessons are also required. The boy I lost was on scholarship. His mother didn’t have the wallet.” Leonard hoisted his glass and slurred, “Integrity our cornerstone, righteous striving evermore . . .”

“What crooks,” Suellyn said. “And you work for them?”

“Time-honored tradition, my dear, since pharaohs and slaves. I live to serve in silence.” He downed the last gulp of scotch and slumped into his chair. “Never mind. Thanks for listening. I had to tell somebody.”

“No problem.” I creaked to my feet, aching again, and fetched our coats from the hall closet. “If I was that kid’s father the headmaster could kiss his kneecaps goodbye. Great concert, though. Don’t get up.”

“Don’t think I can get up. Hey, Suellyn, what about Thanksgiving? What can I bring?”

*          *          *

The flaw in my vasectomy plan revealed itself when we got home. I had no explanation for Johnson’s baby-fresh baldness. Thank goodness we didn’t sleep naked in cold weather.

Pajamas and bruises got me through the first week undetected. The mess on my chest and arms darkened like the marks of a giant rat trap. Suellyn treated me as if I might break in two. There was no pressure for sex, a free pass that could expire at any minute. The doc had said to count on six weeks or more before I shot blanks. I purged the sperm inventory at every opportunity to speed the process along. But it wouldn’t matter without an explanation for my prickly stubble. Of course telling the truth would solve the problem. By pulling the pin on a marital hand grenade. Lately I hadn’t been seeing so much of the freedom car.

During the second week, the answer I was looking for appeared in the form of an oily-chested hunk on the cover of one of Suellyn’s romance novels. I picked a slow afternoon in the grooming studio to thank her for bearing with me lately. It wasn’t a lie as far as it went. I told her that to show my appreciation we were going out to dinner at her favorite high-class restaurant. I’d clean up and do the early evening feedings. No need for her to hang around till closing time. With her gone and Pop doing his grocery run for the week, I retired to the studio. Johnson wasn’t itching anymore when I emerged, shaved clean as a bodybuilder.

Suellyn’s clothes and jewelry did her proud. She loved the meal. The chocolate truffles and champagne later at home scored big too. Her amusement at my great unveiling wasn’t exactly what I expected. I haven’t put on that many pounds since high school. Fully exposed, the inky bruise stains probably did look funny. Suellyn got over it though. She wanted weak knees and I gave them to her. Her period started the next day, right on schedule.

*          *          *

Thanksgiving week in the pet care business is madness. Every kennel is full. Every groomer booked solid, shampooing, styling, clipping nails and brushing teeth. There’s no time to smoke a turkey. So we did ours the week before.

My smoker-grill stays at Pop’s place, a two-story white clapboard farmhouse on the grounds of the Ritz K-9 Spa. This year was the ninth for him and me to tag team on the bird. We have our act down pat. I prepped the turkey at my house by cutting slits in either side of the breast and stuffing peeled, frozen brats into them. It makes the breast meat extra-juicy. Slices resemble fried eggs. When Suellyn and I arrived at the kennel, Pop had the smoker ready to go. In went the turkey. Every so often one of us took a break from work to baste and add wood to the firebox.

The fence of the exercise yard near the smoker was soon lined with dogs, tongues out and tails wagging. After the bird finished cooking, Pop and I grilled turkey burgers for our guests. He taught us years ago not to forget the dogs at a cookout. Their owners didn’t have to know.

He’s a character, Pop is. Little guy, bent over with arthritis. Wears a roadkill-looking toupee to keep away the skin cancer. Over the years his head has shrunk but his dentures haven’t. They’re as wide on him now as the grill of an old Ford Fairlane. Pop is glad to see you anytime and tells you so in a nasally squawk.

My frontal hair was at the prickly stage again. He caught me scratching. “Fleas?” he asked.

“Crabs. Suellyn wants them fat for her seafood stuffing.”

That tickled him into a coughing fit. As always he’d be our guest of honor on Thanksgiving. I told him Leonard was invited too. And Rita. From what Suellyn said, they might be sniffing around each other.

Pop couldn’t believe it. “That crazy spaceman? What, is she crazy too, or homely?” Pop said that Leonard had once claimed to be from a planet where they live on great ideas. Whenever he visited Earth he had to put on a space suit. There was also something about astronauts dealing poker on the moon. That’s how Pop heard it anyway.

I said, “She’s all right. Smart like Leonard. Reads a lot of books. She can kick his butt too. I watched her do it. Maybe that’s the attraction.”

“I knew guys like that,” Pop said. “My wife tried getting rough on me once or twice; rest her soul. I didn’t allow it. One of our granddaughters takes after her grandma though. What did you say this girl’s name is?”

“Rita. Rita Hershey.”

“No, my granddaughter is Madison.”

*          *          *

On Thanksgiving Day, Pop and I handled the kennel chores. Sunshine replaced the usual winter overcast. The dogs appreciated it. None were sick. They enjoyed themselves, best as kenneled pets can, by tearing around the yards with Pop egging them on. Dogs adore that old man. Heaven help us when he’s gone.

Suellyn stayed home to bake pies and prepare oyster stuffing. Leonard was in charge of potatoes. He said the spuds would be Spanish, whatever that meant. Rita volunteered rolls and a cranberry-apple mold from her mother’s recipe.

We’d frozen the turkey after smoking it. Through the afternoon Pop reheated it with his oven on low. It was ready when the sun sank behind the treetops toward town. By then our guests were exercised and in their pens. We’d fed all but the late eaters. Pop and I and the bird piled into my car and came home.

Arnie greeted us, already jacked up on the aroma of oysters, herbs and bread. The turkey sent him bonkers. In the dining room Leonard handed silverware to Rita who tucked it into napkins folded like sleeping bags. The dry leaf and turban squash centerpiece had to be her idea. And the vine wreath hanging on the window blind. She’d replaced her usual baggy clothes with a high-waisted royal blue dress. Until then I hadn’t realized how good she could look. I introduced her to Pop and carried the turkey into the kitchen. A whiff of beer gravy simmering on the stove sent me about as wild as Arnie. I left the meat on the counter, kissed Suellyn hello and went to change clothes.

When I finished, Pop and Rita were filling wine glasses at the table. His dentures nodded as she talked. She probably thought he approved of what she was saying. Maybe he did. The squash centerpiece had been joined by a pink cranberry mold decorated with curls of orange peel. Also a steaming crock of mashed potatoes. I could smell the garlic and cumin from across the room.

My method of carving turkey isn’t suited for the table. With Arnie at my feet in the kitchen, his tail on overdrive, I filleted the breast. Suellyn dolloped stuffing onto the serving platter. Leonard stirred gravy and told us about a new cheating scandal.

Two boys in his American literature class had turned in identical papers about a short story they’d been assigned. “Instead of reporting them to the headmaster I called him into class to hear a pair of exceptional essays on ‘Death in the Wood,’” Leonard said. “Both authors came to the front of the room to read. For a mediocre student presenting A+ material, the first one did fairly well. The class got to watch the other jerk freeze in panic, not yet understanding why.”

“You’re a cruel bastard, Leonard,” I said, handing Suellyn turkey slices and parts, including a boned thigh for Pop.

She arranged them with the stuffing on the platter and asked if either boy was the roommate of the scholarship student.

 “Sadly, no. The second kid refused to read so I did it for him. Those wonderfully wrought phrases reverberated again as if within the walls of a tomb. Death in Third Period.” Leonard poured gravy into our gravy boat. “The headmaster shot me a withering look as he took the boys out. I might have been a wolf who’d ravaged the academy’s geese.” Leonard tipped his head back and howled at the ceiling fixture.

The performance didn’t distract Arnie. His concentration remained fixed on the turkey and got him banished to the bedroom.

Suellyn called us to the table. Leonard wanted to recite William Burroughs’ Thanksgiving prayer before the holiday toast. I didn’t see anything wrong with that until the line about passenger pigeons being shit out through wholesome American guts. I cut Leonard off with a loud amen. Rita clamped her lips together, stifling laughter.

Pop seemed merely puzzled. He was first to be served when I carried the turkey platter around. He forked part of a thigh onto his plate and said, “This old dog’s choppers won’t gnaw a drumstick anymore. Never let them pull your teeth. Falsies is like having a mouth full of piano keys.”

Rita lost it, helplessly out of control. She couldn’t quit laughing. The bug was contagious. I had to set the platter down.

Some time later with order restored and plates filled, people were too busy eating to talk until Leonard leaned toward Rita. “I was telling Bud and Suellyn about the essays on the Anderson piece.”

She looked at us and gushed, “Don’t you just love Sherwood Anderson?”

I’d never heard of him. Neither had Suellyn or Pop but we let it pass.

Leonard said he knew that neither of his students had written the report because it focused on the story’s use of obscure Greek mythology.

 That impressed Rita. “You’re right, it does,” she said. “Once I wrote a paper discussing ‘Death in the Woods’ as an Americanization of Hecate.”

A confused expression came over Leonard. Something more than the blankness the rest of us shared. “Did I show you those essays?”

“No, why?” she said.

“‘An Americanization of Hecate’ is the title they used.”

Rita beamed, “They both bought my paper? Wow.”

Leonard sagged like she’d kicked him in the heart. I thought he might cry but he didn’t. Eventually he blinked and sucked in a huge trembling breath. His voice shook. “It’s brilliant, Rita. Rigorous yet elegant. I can’t believe I’m actually sitting beside its author in the flesh. I just wish . . . Why couldn’t . . . Do you have more?”

“Essays? Sure. Dozens.”

“Lovebirds,” Pop rasped. “Who knows what they say.” He fixed me with his toothy grin, “But girlie here, she tells me this too: You and Suellyn might finally start your own litter? That right?”

Suellyn turned cranberry salad pink and shook her head, desperate to shush Pop.

He didn’t take notice. “I’ve been tempted to dig under the fence myself, don’t you know.”

Nobody thought it funny. Suellyn cringed behind her hands.

“Well?” Pop insisted.

Out on the street a car blasting hip hop rumbled past. Thin bars of light flashed through the window blinds and vine wreath. Families, I thought. Complications. Who needs it? The faces around the table had the same look that greets me at the kennel every day. Some dogs are excited and up front with it. Others plead, hoping against hope. One way or another though, the eyes all say, “Feed me, friend.”

Then I thought: Life could be worse. I didn’t say that. What I said was, “Suellyn’s been working on me. You never know. Maybe next year we’ll spin the wheel. Find out what’s meant to be.”

My wife’s squeak of joy skewered me. Damn it all.  Trying my best to smile I cleared my throat before anyone could raise a glass and asked, “Who’s ready for seconds on turkey?”

originally published in The Great Smokies Review, fall, 2010

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2010 all rights reserved

 

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