by Louis Gallo
Karen looks over her spacious, high-tech kitchen with weary satisfaction. She stands beside the central island, its glittering accoutrements and marble counter, arms folded, gloating, addressing the two electronic refrigerators as if they were loyal sentinels. ‘We’ve done it,’ she might say, ‘a long road, but we’ve arrived.’ She feels her whole life has amounted to a war against the poverty, squalor and ignorance of Columbus Street. Sleeping in the same room with her dying father. She could smell his flesh rotting, the fetid sweat, urine-soaked sheets. And before that MaMaw. Her terrible wails of pain. Her brother Dougie seemed oblivious to the wretchedness, his deafness a blessing. He suffers now, Karen knows, but mainly because he’s aging like the rest of us. The aches and pains. Looking in the mirror, not recognizing yourself. Despite it all, she has advanced in all the ways that count. Two grown-up children, one married and already pregnant, another, the boy Thomas, about to graduate with honors from The Citadel. Husband Mitch has just retired and looks distinguished, trim. The heart attack shook him up, but nothing major after all. A junior executive at IBM all his life. Three hundred-thousand-dollar retirement manor with lots of land and trees in the hills of North Carolina. A far cry from the desolate, cemented outpost in New Jersey where they had spent so many years as Mitch climbed the ladder.
And to think he had started out as a lowly technician, a lineman, and she, a telephone operator, like her mother Isabel. They send a check or two every month to Dougie and Isabel, though Karen worries that neither has answered the phone for three days. She’s thinking about calling Aunt Violet to see if anything is wrong. She could call Gina, but they haven’t hit it off lately. Gina is jealous, pure and simple. Two marriages down the drain, the third, well . . . just how old is Ian? Unmarried daughter. The two sons who, to look at them, must sell drugs or something. She has a nice house uptown but it’s not paid for. And from what Isabel says, she still works like a dog trying to make ends meet. She knows what Gina thinks about Mitch and her: they sold out, sold their souls, spent their lives as drones for a speck of bliss at the end of the line. Gina’s brother Jake feels the same way but look at him. Trying to prolong youth even as the gray hair gather like cobwebs. Sporting around in a glossy red MG convertible. Used, by the way. Don’t think there wasn’t talk. Don’t think Jake has been forgiven. What has he ever done for anyone? And we were all so close way back then . . . on Columbus Street.
Mitch strolls into the kitchen wearing starched khakis and the new golf shirt Karen bought him at Dillard’s. With the little alligator. He’s all smiles but concerned about the agitation in his left shoulder. Low-grade ache, for weeks now, diffusing like black ink in water. He knows the symptoms. Even drove himself to the hospital when the chains tightened around his chest that day. One week after retirement! The doctors said his veins were clogged. ‘I need Drain-O,’ he had joked to one of the nurses. Always a joke, a friendly hello, that’s Mitch, courting civility as Vesuvius erupts. He told Karen once that all he wanted was for no one to dislike him. ‘They don’t have to love me, just not dislike me,’ he laughed. ‘You know, the way so many people dislike your cousin Jake. I couldn’t stand that. They either hate or love him. Too extreme for me. I think of Jake as a marked man.’
He’d received an e-mail from Jake—a first, believe it—wishing him well after the heart fiasco, and he’d replied, confessing that he had binged out the last few years on Ben & Jerry’s, pizza, Karen’s wondrous quiche and cheesecake. She refused to cook the Italian meals he craved. ‘That’s for the others,’ she snapped when he asked if she could whip up some of that sumptuous ravioli he remembered from the old days. By others she meant the guinea side of the family. That’s what her grandfather PaPaw called them. Said the thought of guinea food made her nauseous. Something to do with Jake. Always Jake somewhere in the woodwork. She told him that when they were kids playing in Meme’s old shed, Jake would constantly try to feel her up. They played there every Friday and Sunday night until the old bastard Paw ran them off at nine o’clock sharp and ordered everyone to go home. Suddenly one day she had breasts and Jake couldn’t resist. ‘But I’m your cousin!’ she had protested in astonished disgust. Jake merely laughed. ‘So what?’ he said. Imagine.
And that’s the way it’s been with Jake ever since, Karen said . . . women, women . . . they’ve ruined his life. And what’s the attraction? He’s never had any money and blown what little did come his way. Mitch thinks of Jake as an aging hippie and bears no resentment or grudges. In fact, he’s always sort of admired Jake for resisting precisely what he, Mitch, has succumbed to. Mitch has always tread lightly, winked the appropriate awright to the people who counted, remained pure as antiseptic. And yes, Jake’s women, some were so beautiful Mitch dreamed about them, however treacherous and evil they turned out in the end. He and Karen had married right out of high school, worked for the same corporation, day in/day out, bore two children, managed a family . . . sometimes he feels it’s taken all this time to recover. And now he’s sick. Jake looked a little wrecked too last time he saw him, but still the same old Jake with this thing about Columbus Street. Always asking Karen questions about what she remembers. Hell, Mitch remembers it too, though he lived a few blocks away on Layperouse Street. Same neighborhood. Karen keeps a lot of it bottled in, but he knows how she feels about those times. Once she told him that if she had to stay on Columbus Street all her life, she’d kill herself. She ploughed through high school with no focus but getting out. They didn’t know each other though they went to the same school on Esplanade. They met in the coffee lounge at the local branch of IBM when they still had a branch down there. She came at him with zeal, that’s the only way he can describe it, as if he were her mission. They married six months later. Mitch can’t say the passion lasted or even if it ever existed. Maybe he imagined it. So long ago now. She wanted a baby . . . period . . . and they had a rough time of it because her womb was tilted or something and his sperm count was low. But they made love every night like programmed robots, and finally, it happened. From then on it was family, only family, family and work, work and family.
The other day he caught Karen talking to one of the refrigerators again, something she does now. And not just the refrigerators. Mitch should be worried but he can’t work up the appropriate energy, especially now that his shoulder throbs like some dark bass note chilling the melody. He knows that Karen worries about her mother and Dougie. Three days and no one’s answered the phone. Isabel is eighty-two years old now. How is that possible? Where has the time gone? She and Dougie have lived together all along, with PaPaw too when he was alive. Strange old man, always out in the back shed fiddling with concoctions. Said it was different combinations of pekoe tea. Hardly said a word. Probably because of all the years he spent avoiding that shrew of a wife who nagged him practically out of existence. Karen says they lived with her ghost for a long time. And sometimes, she says, it even comes here or to Isabel’s house. Not like before though, not always. Mitch never knew the woman. She died before he met Karen, but he’s heard the stories. The superstitions of her family amuse him. For him everything is angular, geometric, polarized. What you see is what you get. Sometimes he feels that Karen cares only about the house, the money, everything they have accumulated. And all because she can’t get Columbus Street out of her head. Nor can any of them. He doesn’t understand. It was just a street. Jake is supposedly writing a book about it, but why? What’s to write about? Their house doesn’t even exist anymore. The entire junky neighborhood has dried up like some old bone. Why does it still cause such mayhem in their souls? He’s read somewhere that the Indians thought some sites were sacred or demonic, but Columbus Street was nothing. Nothing. Why give it a second thought?
‘You look nice in that shirt,’ Karen smiles.
Mitch saunters over with a big smile. ‘Nice enough to, hmmmm, fondle, maybe?’
She pushes him away. ‘Is that all you have on your mind?’
‘Honey, it’s practically never on my mind anymore.’
She gives him that look, that Isabel look. No dealing with it.
‘Talking to the appliances?’ he jokes.
She turns on him with muted fury. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘what of it?’
‘What do they tell you?’ he asks meekly.
‘I thought I’d make us a spinach quiche tonight with just egg whites. You know, those Egg Beaters. No cholesterol. Want to try it?’
‘What do they tell you?’ he insists as the screw in his shoulder tightens. He feels he is losing his grip on the situation, on everything. Things just fizzling out. Just when it was supposed to be getting good.
‘They tell me . . .,’ she replies, ‘that we already died. That’s what they tell me. We died, Mitch, we died a long time ago. It’s not true, it’s not true . . .not true.’
Mitch sighs heavily, clasps his shoulder. ‘Quiche sounds like a good idea. No eggs, eh? Damned good idea.’
He simply cannot pursue such hysteria even if, for the first time in his life, he too slips out of the pristine grid work of geometry into a miasmal, unsettling vision: he sees them, he and Karen, entombed in the massive, stately refrigerators, frozen solid, blue, embalmed, like ancient Egyptians. And, to his horror, it feels good.
Louis Gallo’s work has appeared in Wide Awake in the Pelican State (LSU anthology), Southern Literary Review, Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth, Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review, and many others. Chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Abomination of Fascination, Status Updates and The Ten Most Important Questions. He is the founding editor of the now defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. He was awarded an NEA fellowship for fiction. He teaches at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.