UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 02/2012
He must have been on that chair for three whole days before anyone even realized he was dead. A corpse rotting on one of those old La-Z-boys that leaned back with a little leg rest popping up from the bottom. From Friday night to Monday morning, Larson had been lying on that beige and tattered chair with his face squished at the ceiling and his feet propped on the floating fabric. He smelled like a stale bag of Doritos with a pungent body odor, and the stench was growing on the walls. At first glance, it could be easy to understand how death looked a lot like a shot of Nyquil.
Larson was a large man, six foot two barefoot and had a waist line like a deflated beach ball. His hands were hanging in his lap, with his fingertips touching the end of his crotch. With his large straw yellow head, and disproportionate weight he was able to keep the La-Z-Boy at an awkward tilt. It was like his body had given out on him, and he had made no attempt to keep it.
Larson’s wife, Deb, was fooled into thinking that her husband was just being reclusive those three days, because she got home late, and they never ate together, and sometimes it was nice to be left alone for a little while. When she finally called the authorities on Monday, she explained how she hadn’t really been in the living room since Larson had lost his job in February. (If Larson had been alive, he would have corrected her. He didn’t lose his job, he was on workman’s comp for the back injury.) And working at the tax agency had consumed most of her weekend. (April is now. April. April.) A working woman, isn’t that enough for you to understand? Today was her day off, and she thought she should clean up a little bit since it seemed like something was starting to really stink up the place but then Larson would not get off the god-damn La-Z-Boy.
They asked her how she discovered he was dead.
She realized Judge Judy was on TV, so she checked his pulse.
They aren’t sure what happened, but they think it was an aneurysm. That surprises Deb; she didn’t figure Larson for having a lot of brain activity. When she says that, the coroner scribbles something in a HELLO KITTY notebook.
Deb is filing down her nails, because she has these nervous habits, and she points her file at the notebook. “Is that a cartoon?”
The coroner is a mustached-Texan in a white collared Polo shirt, and he says, “It was my day off too.”
They zip Larson up in a synthetic blue bag, and haul him out to the paramedic van. The four young EMTs walk in unison and it almost resembles the beginning of a sports game except with the athletes sharing the same gym bag. They swing him slightly as they shift their weight from foot to foot. They are a marching band with one instrument, and the music is in the shuffle of the cement on their Keds and the shuffle of Lars’s loose skin against the rubbered nylon casket.
“Do you know what he would have wanted?” the coroner asks, as he steps into the doorframe blocking the view of Larson the gym bag. He tries to appear kind, but there’s something about being a coroner that doesn’t quite rub people the right way. Deb flusters out of her trance, she pulls at the bangs of her dying red hair and takes a step back. The heat is crawling all over her skin, making breathing not quite bearable. Sweat amasses between her joints and wrinkles. The only make-up on her face is splotchy mascara bits left over from last night, and a cakey powder on the edges of her cheeks.
“As far as preserving his body, or cremation…” The coroner waves his arms at an invisible list of possible arrangements. Deb scratches at the skin above her breasts with her nails that are now short for scratching; her robe is a little too open for visitors.
“Aren’t you just gonna bury him?”
“No funeral, Eh? The cost too much?” The coroner says, and he’s standing like a diva with his hand held to the side of his belly. He wouldn’t say it, but you could tell, or at least Deb could tell, he hates poor people.
Looking around the living room, it was pretty obvious to the economic state of the homeowners. The La-Z-Boy had a permanent imprint of Larson’s frame deeper than the fabric. Cheap cowboy boots were in a pile between the temporary tomb and coffee table. There was a red and white couch, but it only had two cushions when three belonged. Some sleeping pillows were stacked to one side of it for balance. On the wall along the television, there were just shelves and suitcases and boxes of stuff. It was a stained clutter of knickknacks, and old working shirts, and an aquarium filled with unopened boxes of cereal. You could tell they were poor, because rich people weren’t so drowned by their things.
“No one even knows yet, that won’t do. They’ll think I did something to him. Could you write that down? Could you write down what really happened?” Deb is looking at the HELLO KITTY notepad, with glitter sprinkling the cover and rubbing onto the coroner’s sweaty fingers.
“I s’pose,” he says, and he starts writing a note on the pink paper. “But what I’m really asking is whether you want us to keep him preserved.”
“He ain’t much good now.”
“How am I gonna plan a funeral!”
The coroner pulls a card from his back pocket. When he hands it to Deb, there’s a little bit of glitter around the edge. “Here, she’s a funeral director.”
“I guess I should then, it would be what’s right.” She’s reading the business card with a little fever, because she’s a younger widow than most. They had only been married fourteen years and that was nothing, really. No one ever got anything special for fourteen years; no one ever accomplished anything after only fourteen years.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Miss. I’m sure he died barely feeling any pain. It’s the way I would want to go,” says the coroner. “Well, you’re pretty sick, aren’t ya?” She smacks her lips together, like she’s popping invisible gum. He shakes his head and rubs his fingers against his scalp. He’s older, and married, and wrapping up a body that was born after his.
Deb walks into the kitchen, and the coroner and his team escort themselves out, taking Larson far off into a land of sterile latex. There aren’t many people to tell about this, and she isn’t sure if that’s Larson’s fault or her own. It’s a small kitchen, with no dishwasher and one of those pantries that is just a cupboard. But it did have a television, which seemed like a little piece of the upper class. The walls are a chipped purple, and it reminds Deb of when Lars painted it with the thoughts of bringing optimism and royalty into their home. That’s what purple meant, right? He never got around to the extra coat to keep it from chipping.
Deb sits at the three-chaired table. There’s only three because they wanted a baby, and that didn’t work out. She pulls out a pad of notebook paper, on top of a stack of coupons and issues of The New Yorker. Lars thought he was being so clever, subscribing to a college education. There’s a pen somewhere too, but that’s a little harder to find, because she has to touch his wallet again, and she has to smell his work boots under the table that he hadn’t worn for a month, and she has to look at that coupon for Bass Pro.
There’s a pen, finally. Between the stack of coupons and a plastic bag full of green and yellow apples, she finds it with a pack of gum. It’s one of those multi-color pens that have about four different colors in one. She chooses green, because she doesn’t choose that color a lot. A little piece of glitter catches to the paper pad. Make a list, make a list now; there should be some sort of list.
She imagines an invisible fungus crawling on the tabletop, along the stack of coupons, and making a getaway straight for the freckle of glitter beneath her hand. Keep going, keep listing.
-PAYMENTS, MONEY, BANK, LOANS?, HOW MUCH MONEY?
She hasn’t said that in at least two years. Back when he seemed like something sweet and almond.
Deb has to look up, around the kitchen, to remind her about what’s being interrupted. There’s a stack of laundry on one of the chairs, a pile on the seat for clean and a pile on the arm for dirty. Men clothes, men underwear, women socks, and women bras. He didn’t care about his colors mixing with his whites.
-FOLD, HANG, REWASH, THROW OUT
The dishes were sitting in a dry pan, so that was one thing done. Deb’s hands were still loose and soft from sponging scrambled eggs off of a plastic plate earlier, before she had found—oh, the cereal.
-I’M ONLY 41. THAT’S IT. 41. 41. 41. MIDLIFE.
-PUT DISHES AWAY, WIPE COUNTERS, VACUUM?
She picks out an apple from the plastic bag on the table. It’s a little small, but it has no dead spots. She bites into the apple, and it tastes the same. It tastes like an apple. Green, sour, like slushy and Styrofoam. Nothing different.
-HOSPITAL, POLICE, NEWSPAPER?
-LARSON IS DEAD. YOU DIED. YOU’RE GONE?
She was down to the bottom of the paper, and she still hadn’t really figured out what she needed to do.
“I should say something,” Deb is standing in front of the fireplace, and facing a small half circle that is crowded in the living room. The living room looks completely different than it did a week ago, when it was crowded with furniture and leather and dead things. It had been cleaned substantially, a lot of things taken to the dump and dusted down and hidden away. Everything that had belonged to Larson had been stuffed into the closet, and it was like Larson himself was living in that closet with his cowboy boots, and his dirty clothes, and his deodorant.
“The baby’s sleeping now,” Wendi, Larson’s sister, says as she comes in from the kitchen. Her hair is the same straw yellow as Larson, but she has the soft pale skin of her mother. She is thirty-five, and can’t seem to believe she lost her brother before her father. (If Larson were here, he’d be surprised as well.) She doesn’t quite see a clean living room, so much as an empty one. There was no more furniture in it, no television even; it was like the room had died with the man inside of it.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming. This has been really hard for me, for all of us I’m sure,” Deb says, and she is trying so hard to ignore the fact that the La-Z-boy is missing. In the small house is Larson’s family, his father Stanley and Wendi with Wendi’s husband Syd. From work, Al had come with a bouquet of flowers for Deb that she had placed on the mantel and his son Raymond who is only fourteen.
“Hah,” Stan is pushing his chin out, and he’s disgusted with this house and the lack of people. He’s a small man, about half the size Lars was. He hunches over a red cane, with a bird’s face carved on the handle. His fingers clutch the beak of the bird as if to keep it from squawking. His body looks a little like half of a wishbone. His skin is oily and tan, and is a display of genetics for Larson’s acne scars.
“Daddy, be respectful,” Wendi is quick to correct her father, because she was raised by her mother.
“I just want today to be about Larson, he was a good man once,” Deb says, and even though she doesn’t mean it to sound rude everyone hears it as such.
“Bitch.” Stan again, and Deb isn’t quite so offended because he’s always had trouble around her.
“Daddy!” Wendi is chiding, and Syd turns his head like a trained dog even though the remark was for Stan. They have been married for two years, but they have been the same person for four. Deb envies them a little.
“You see those oleanders out front?” Stan points his thumb towards the window facing the front lawn behind his back. He licks the dry skin off of his bottom lip, and shows off his bleeding gums at the same time.
“Would you like to start, Mr. Asshole?” Deb asks. (It was why Larson loved her and it was why he hated her.)
“Can I start, actually?” Al asks. Al looks to Raymond, cautiously, and Deb hears the cue. We are not being very grown up. He is wearing a black suit that looks rented, and Raymond is matching him down to the buttons. They look more like copies of each other than anything else.
“Of course, Al. I think that would be nice.” Deb relaxes to Al, she always liked Al.
“Okay, well, some of you may not know me, but I’ve been working with Larson for the last six years,” Al says. He takes a sip of Blue Moon. “I transferred to the company from Austin, and Larson had already been working there since he was twenty or something real young.” “It wasn’t the best job, but it helped us a lot,” Deb says. She is chewing on her lip, and edges of red lipstick paint the ends of her top teeth.
“We got along well, and I think it’s so awful when someone you work with everyday and start to really know just up and dies with no warning.” Al touches his son’s shoulder.
“Yeah,” Deb says; she is staring at Raymond and the way he can’t look at anything but the floor.
“I just wanted to say, well, uh,” Al says, and smiles. He has that perfect smile that tells you he doesn’t know how to fake it. “I’ll always remember Larson as the only man that could tell a racist joke without getting any shit for it.”
“That’s something,” Deb says, but she is still a little shocked.
“I can’t believe it,” Stan says, and he pounds his cane on the dirty dusted matted blue carpet.
“You remember that one about the Mexicans opening tamales?” Al asks.
“It’s pretty bad.” Wendi laughs.
“I’ll miss him; he was a good listener sometimes,” says Al and takes another swig.
“Was he?” asks Deb. She is dying for some wine. She meant to place a bottle on the mantel, but flowers seemed more appropriate. The color of them, the yellow daisies and pink roses make the whole room seem like it belongs to someone else. Deb likes that.
“That’s all I have to say.” Al bows his head, like a gentleman. Al was always the gentleman. (If Lars were alive, he’d agree. But he’d add it’s a little disgusting.)
“Okay, well that was wonderful.” Deb smiles, this funeral reception isn’t going so bad. It was comforting to think that someone besides family could love Lars, and someone so polite as Al.
“I’d like to go next.” Wendi raises her hand, like she is in elementary school. Even though she is a mother, she still acts like the baby in the family.
“Please, Wendi.” Deb links arms with Wendi, like they’re sisters.
“When Larson was younger, about thirteen, all he wanted to be was a Lion Tamer or the like.” Wendi’s eyes turn red beneath the pupils, and they begin to throb.
“They’re nasty critters,” says Al.
“What a Texan!” Syd laughs.
“Or, no. TIGERS! He wanted to train tigers. We had a cat that died, but before he died Lars used to always take some string,” Wendi imitates holding a thread between her fingers, and she yanks up and down, “and try to get the cat to hold on to it and not scratch so much. I was real little, and I thought he was amazing at it.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard this story,” says Deb.
“It isn’t much, really. Once, he got Khan – that was the cat’s name – he got Khan to make a good hold of it and he led him around the living room hobbling around on two feet. Could you imagine! A cat walking around like a person,” Wendi smiles through the cracks between her eyes. She seems to be mourning the cat with the brother, as if they are the same. Deb wants so badly to correct her, because they are not the same. Give the cat his own darn funeral.
“Remember, Daddy?” Wendi nods to Stan, and Stan’s knuckles twitch.
“Yeah,” he says. “Khan.”
“I hope wherever Lars is, maybe he’ll get that dream he wanted. Don’t you think he deserves that?” Wendi pulls at Syd’s right hand; she gives it a good tug. Deb lets go of her arm a bit, because she doesn’t want Wendi to look so comforted.
“I always thought of Larson as a dog person, for some reason,” says Deb.
“You mean, was a dog person,” says Syd. He is such a dope and the worst kind, because he doesn’t know what to say at funerals and he didn’t really know Lars.
“Yes, yes. That was a nice story though.”
“You have any stories?” Wendi asks. A loud beep comes from the kitchen.
“A million,” Deb says. She rushes into the kitchen, with her head peaking towards the oven.
“And what about those oleanders?” Stan says, again. He keeps looking over his shoulder, to the bushes of oleanders that are pink and white behind him.
“Forget it, okay? It wasn’t his heart,” Wendi says. She has probably heard it all week, in corners away from Deb’s ear.
“I saw it on one of those cop shows, if you crush up oleanders they make a nasty-” Stan starts, and he’s pounding the end of his cane a little on Raymond’s new shoes. Raymond turns his toes together, like a pigeon.
“Daddy, you’re being very rude.” Wendi has the eyes of her mother, and she gives Stan the stare.
“I don’t care.”
“Does anyone want some cookies?” Deb returns to the living room, holding a checker colored plate full of chocolate raisin cookies. They smell like sugar and flour, and the scent alone licks the faces of every guest. Everyone, except Stan, eagerly takes a cookie. Raymond takes two and he gets crumbs on the sleeve of his new suit.
“What will you miss about him?” Wendi asks, and she tastes the ends of her fingers before eating the cookie.
“Um, uhh. It’s hard, you know, to just pick out one thing and say that that’s the thing,” Deb says. She holds the plate between her stomach and palms, with four cookies still left. She hadn’t really thought about Larson, her Larson, in a long time. “If I had to choose… I’d say his laugh. Yeah, his laugh. He laughed like it surprised him, he laughed like he never meant to and it was just so… it was Larson. It was Larson’s laugh.”
“He loved you so much.” Wendi squeezes Deb’s arm; crumbs catch the tiny hairs below her wrist. Her fingers are stubby yet feminine as it grips against Deb’s skin. That skin.
“He called me cinnamon sometimes, like in the summer.”
That skin was hypnotic. It had a memory, and a taste, and preferences. Wendi releases, and the heat from her palm leaves with her. The plate slides down Deb’s stomach a little as she relaxes.
“Didn’t you used to have a nickname for him?” Wendi asks, “I never understood it.”
They don’t understand it still, and she doesn’t expect them to. Stan makes a wheezing sound, like he’s full of sickness. Al and Raymond are sticking huge bites of chocolate chunks into their mouths. Wendi and Syd stare together at the walls that need new colors. Deb seems to be in a daze but the skin along her bones and flesh is electric.
Deb and Wendi bend over the plates in the kitchen.
Their bodies are ten years apart, yet two inches together.
They match in a dark black that reminds Deb of uniforms.
Deb pulls the faucet towards her and fills a mixing bowl with warm water.
Wendi is sponging the cookie sheet, and squeezes suds onto the surface.
Syd and Stan are sharing a smoke out back, the kind that you could taste in the kitchen.
This was the kitchen where they had cooked, and laughed, and laid.
He was still in the cabinets, on the curtains, in the fridge.
Here he had made her waffles once.
He had grabbed at hips and blew bubbles into her belly button.
The batter was turning back into sugar as the water and soap formed a pact.
Wendi stuck her hands under the faucet, and shook off white lumps of germ fighting goodness.
It didn’t seem fair at all.
She lets the bowl overflow a little too much with water, the batter already drained.
That pink mixing bowl in that purple kitchen.
She missed him before he died, and that was really the awful thing.
Fourteen years is nothing, nothing at all.
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