My bladder feels like it’s about to burst. I got this frickin UTI, which is so goddang embarrassing because men, especially men my age, ain’t supposed to get. And now, I gotta take a piss real bad, but I refuse to get up from the sofa where I’m lying down with my eyes closed. With any good luck, Lana will believe I’m still sleeping. I took some days off from work, and she raised hell about it. Having to listen to her gave me a nasty headache, so I came here to the living room to get away from her and to be with Candy Lovin, my three-year-old pitbull.
Candy hasn’t been feeling all that great. She chased a skunk some weeks ago and got herself a lingering stink that’s hard to get rid of and a torn ligament in her back leg. The time I took off from work was so that I could take care of her, nurse her back to good health.
Now I’m awake, Candy’s on the floor, Lana’s a few feet away, and I won’t open my eyes even though Candy snarls and huffs like a bull. She’s ripping my empty McDonald’s soda cup into tiny pieces, licking every speck of dried up Coca-Cola. Lana’s making a commotion of her own by looking for her car keys. She bumps into the coffee table and picks up what has to be the TV Guide, the fake million-dollar check by Ed McMahon, my Inside Sports Magazine, and her Cosmo. I already know she won’t find her car keys underneath that pile of junk mail. It drives me goddang crazy how Lana never remembers where she tosses her things. Well, good luck. Her car keys have been digging into my ribs for a good while, and I’m not gonna say peep about it. I’m hoping she’ll give up, grab my keys instead, and leave.
Most days, our heater works just fine, but there are times when it’s on the fritz. Today is one of those days. The heater doesn’t blow any warm air. And shit, it gets so much colder out here than it does in our bedroom. To top it off, the blanket I’ve been using isn’t big enough to cover my feet, so I keep my toes underneath the sofa’s pillows. The sofa itself is smaller than I’m taller, and my body is in this curved, awkward position that worsens the pinched-nerve in my lower back.
Down on the floor, Candy stops snarling and starts high-pitch whining. Lana comes closer to where I’m lying, gets inches away from me, and begins sighing like a soap opera actress who’s been directed to show frustration. Finally, both Lana and the dog quiet down, and the lamp that’s on top of the drawer clicks on, which makes the back of my eyelids go from black to orange. Lana then opens the end table’s drawer and shuffles through my loose change, her hair ties, scattered batteries, and some jokes I wrote down on the back of receipts and napkins. Lana often says that if it wasn’t for my sense of humor, she would’ve left me a long time ago. So if I’m lucky, she’ll pick up the one about the accountant and the sex change, find it funny and laugh, and relax. But that doesn’t happen. All she does is close the drawer so hard that the porcelain lamp teeters. I listen, waiting for it to fall and break. It doesn’t.
When I say Lana’s upset with me, I’m stating the obvious. But she’ll get over it. Always does. Still, the fear of losing her creeps in. If she goes out, I just know some insensitive soul will tell her I’m no good, that she should get as far away from me as possible. What I should do is rouse myself up, try to smooth things over with her, but I don’t. I continue to lie here with Candy by my side and my eyes closed.
With no idea where else to look, Lana walks in circles. I hear her. Then I hear her stop. I can feel her eyes boring a hole straight into me. She probably suspects I’m not sleeping because I’m not snoring like she tells me I usually do. Maybe I can fake it, but not knowing what my snores actually sound like, I don’t even try. I just breathe heavier than usual, hoping to god that’s good enough to convince her.
When she starts moving again, Lana stomps and puffs and mutters, “What a lazy piece of shit.” She’s acting like she’s my wife, and that makes me want to laugh, seeing how we’ve never been married.
Funny thing is, I did ask her to marry me. Once. We’d gone to the Denny’s for dinner, and I asked her. She said no. Her actual words were, “Hell no.” At the time, she’d landed a job as a nurse at the VA Clinic, and she wanted to treat herself to some waffles and hot chocolate.
My belly was full of country-fried steak, mashed potatoes, bacon, fries, and soda. After wiping my mouth clean, I asked, “Why the hell not? We’ve been together for two years now. Ain’t you ready to get married?”
“I am,” she said.
Like most girls who hadn’t married their High School sweethearts, Lana was itching for a husband. Sitting at the Denny’s, I knew this, and I looked her over. She was a very pretty thing to gawk at. The one time we went to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, I even suggested she compete in the wet bikini contest. She was built well-enough to have won second place. Of that I was damn sure of, and I was afraid if we didn’t get hitched real soon, some A-hole Doc from the VA with a 401K was going to take her away from me.
So I asked, “If you’re ready, then why won’t you marry me?”
She shot me with, “You’re not worth marrying. At least, not yet.”
Lana had her doubts and needed me to prove myself to her. She took my staying out late at nights as either a sign of me being irresponsible or a sign of me fooling around on her. She could never prove the fooling around business, but she had plenty of evidence on how irresponsible I was.
Just take a look at last night when she found out that for two weeks straight I hadn’t been showing up for work.
And in no less than a minute, I know she’s gonna disturb my peace by demanding I get my sorry-fat-ass off the couch.
“Frank?” Here we go. “Frank?” She repeats.
If Lana realizes I’ve been awake and her car keys have been beneath me this whole time, she’s gonna make an awful scene. So while I move and stir my body, I carefully maneuver her keys deep in between the sofa’s cushions. Then I make a big show of rubbing my eyes, yawning and stretching. When I arch my back, something deep within me cracks. “Yeah?” I say.
Lana asks if I have seen her car keys. She sounds distant. I blink several times and squint. Candy’s on the floor, laid out like she’s suspended in a gallop. Lana’s standing with her arms crossed, face turned to the side, chin pointing down. It’s early Saturday morning, and she’s wearing these sharp red heels, a mini dress, and a fake fur coat. I wonder, where in the hell does she think she’s going? I almost say it aloud, where in the hell do you think you’re going, dressed the way you’re dressed? But by the way she’s glaring at me, I don’t say nothing about it.
“Well?” Lana asks. “Have you or haven’t you seen my keys?”
I don’t think she’s quite sold on my slumbering performance, so with my best groggy voice, I respond, “What? Did you say something about keys?”
Lana doesn’t move. She has daggers in her eyes. Candy opens her mouth, pulling back her lips like a smile. I sit up, stretch some more, put an unlit cigarette in my mouth, and reach down to pet Candy. She wags her tail, but anyone who looks at her can see how much hurt she’s in. Her tail is bent and moves awkwardly from side-to-side.
With obvious sadness in my eyes, I look up at Lana, who quickly dismisses whatever pain I’m feeling by shaking her head and exhaling deeply. She begins tossing the couch’s pillows over my head. Not finding anything, she tells me to get the fuck up. I do. I tell her to take my car instead, but she tells me she “Won’t drive that rattling piece of trash” and goes on to dig her manicured hands in between the couch’s cushions. She finally finds her keys, and I shrug my shoulders like I had no idea they were even there. And she storms out, slamming the door.
“Was that really necessary?” I say and point myself to the bathroom and go. Candy starts following, but she’s limping pretty bad, so I order her to sit and stay.
As I empty my bladder, my entire body twitches. The spasms feel rather good, and I’m appreciating the trembling sensation and the quietness of the house. But then Candy sneaks up from behind and tries sniffing the toilet bowl, right around the mustard-colored flecks of piss. I push her away with my left foot. The dog yelps and falls, and I beg her to forgive me. I know she knows how sorry I am, and I ask her if she needs to go potty, and Candy nods her head like I’ve seen some horses do.
Outside, Lana’s car is still parked in the driveway. The engine to her Toyota grumbles, and white, heavy smoke blows out of the exhaust. She probably can’t figure out where she’s gonna go this early in the morning.
And as soon as I walk down the porch, I’m hit by the weather. It’s freezing, and only getting colder. Both my breath and Candy’s panting are visible in the air, and Lana’s Toyota is covered with frost. Lana wipes the frost off using the car’s windshield wipers, which form two clear arches, making it so that I can clearly see Lana through the glass. Her hair partly covers her face. Her lips are pinched together, and every time I look her way, she quickly peers down. But who’s she trying to fool? I very well know she hasn’t driven off yet because she’s expecting me to walk on over to her, tap on the windshield, and start talking. Women always want to fix things by talking. Why can’t they ever let the problem fix itself?
Even though there’s a chain-link fence surrounding the front yard, I still hold on to Candy’s leash because I don’t want her to run around, hurting herself some more.
Lana turns up the volume on her car’s radio, and Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Sneakin’ Up On You” gets louder, more muffled. It’s a good song, and when I glance over my shoulder, I catch Lana looking at me. I decide to play it cool. I light up a cigarette, strut to the Toyota, and knock on the car’s window. Then I knock again and again, and I feel like a frickin fool until she finally lowers the window and turns off the radio.
“What?” She asks.
She doesn’t believe me when I tell her I want her to come back inside. And she’s right. I’m hoping she’ll drive off, blow off some steam, and come back hours later as if nothing’s wrong. But I don’t say any of that. Instead, I tell her how sorry I am, how much I love her, how I can’t live without her, and how I’ll call Big Hank at the warehouse and beg him, on my hands and knees, to give me my old job back. Lana doesn’t buy it. Even before I’m able to think of the right combination of words that will make her forgive me, she cuts me off by saying, “You won’t do any of that. I know you.”
Candy’s by my side, and she puts her nose down on the grass. I loosen the leash, and she hobbles and staggers, then pees and circles around, smells the crabgrass, and takes a shit. It comes out like murky water. Her hind legs tremble, and I keep expecting her to fall. Once she’s finished, a sense of desperation settles over me. The back of my throat gets all jammed up, and I gotta keep blinking to make the stinging in my eyes go away. I’m afraid she won’t ever get any better. I throw my cigarette onto the wet grass and spit out whatever it is that got caught on the back of my throat.
The temperature continues to drop, and my body shakes. All I want is to go back into the house. I tell Lana, “Come on baby, come inside. I’m freezing here. I’ll make you some hot chocolate.”
Lana doesn’t respond. Candy gruffs and fusses and pulls on her leash. Even with a bad hip, a torn ligament, and a crooked tail, she wants to run, jump, and roll in the grass. I stare into Lana’s eyes and surprise myself by how sternly I tell her, “I’m going back inside where it’s warm. I gotta get the dog to settle down.”
I half-expect for Lana to bawl me out for the way I’m speaking to her, but she doesn’t. She turns off the car, gets out, and follows me in.
She stays silent as she walks straight into the bathroom. I make my way to the kitchen with Candy following behind. The dog goes around me and gets in my way. She doesn’t move. Her crooked tail swings from side to side, her weak-hind leg paws the floor. Candy wants to play catch or tug-o-war. But the pretty vet, at the expensive vet clinic, told me that the dog shouldn’t play or go on walks for at least three months. If the dog’s too hard to handle, I’m supposed to give her the calming pills and pain-suppressants the pretty vet from India sold me at a small discount.
So I go ahead and toss a few pills into Candy’s Dog Chow, and with her belly full, she lies down on the kitchen floor. I get on my knees and begin massaging her legs. Her knee bones are hard and knotty. Fuck, something deep inside is wrong, but I can’t tell what’s supposed to feel normal and what isn’t.
I’m swinging her leg, front to back, back to front, and Candy jerks her head, bites at the air, and whines. I bury my nose into the scruff of her neck. She’s so soft. There’s no other place where I’d rather be, and I whisper into her ear, “You’re such a good girl.” And she is. Candy doesn’t fight me. She doesn’t nip my fingers or try to run away or blame me for any of her pain. She knows I love her and that’s all she needs to be happy.
Right as Lana walks in, I have Candy by the ankle, bending it, pushing it back and forth. Lana sits down, pulls a cigarette out of the pack I left on the dining table, and lights the cigarette using my lighter. I pat Candy and stand up. My hands are covered with dog hair, and I wipe them clean using my jeans. With her elbows on the table, Lana holds the cigarette between her fingers and takes one slow drag. But it annoys me how she lets the rest of it burn without her taking another puff, so I ask her if I can get some of her smoke. She doesn’t move an inch.
Instead of asking again, I hurry to the fridge and take out the carton of milk. Then I grab a pot and pour the milk into the pot and let the milk simmer over the stove.
Lana likes the way they make hot chocolate down in Mexico. It has something to do with the way she was raised. Down in Mexico, instead of cocoa powder, they use thick, dark chocolate bars, which I can only buy at a small market outside of town.
So out of the cupboard, I get the package that has a Grandma wearing bifocals on the label. I unwrap the chocolate bar and take a bite. It’s very bitter and brittle, and I toss what’s left of it into the milk.
While I’m stirring, Candy walks to a corner, and I try to think of something funny I can say that will make Lana laugh. I ask if she’s heard the one about the accountant and his sex change. Not one word from Lana. But still, I go on. “There was this accountant,” I begin to say, “He always felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body, so finally he decided to do something about it, and so he had this operation. And when he came back to work as a woman, two of her male co-workers began questioning her about what the most painful part about the transformation was. One co-worker very confidently said that the most painful part had to be when the doctors cut off the dick, right? No, the accountant said. So the other co-worker said, then it had to be when they cut off the balls, right? No, the accountant said again. So then both co-workers asked, then what was the worse part? And the accountant answered, well, it definitely had to be when they cut my salary in half.”
I quickly turn to look at Lana to see what her reaction is. She’s not trying too hard to suppress a smile, and I’m starting to feel like everything’s going to work out fine. So my attention returns to the pot on the stove. The chocolate bar has melted, and I go on to fill a glass mug with the brown and frothy milk.
“Just the way you like it,” I say, placing the mug in front of Lana.
“You didn’t wash your hands,” she says.
“What?” I pretend not to hear.
“You didn’t wash your hands.” She repeats herself, speaking like there’s a period after each word she says.
“I didn’t? Hmm, pretty sure I did,” I say, trying very hard to hold on to my smile.
Lana carefully lays her burned-out cigarette butt on top of a napkin. Then using the napkin, she wraps what’s left of the cigarette, pats it, and moves it to the side. Interlacing her fingers, she says as if presenting a case to a court, “No you didn’t. You were massaging the dog. Your hands were full of dog fur, and then you wiped your hands on your pants. That’s all you did.”
“I could’ve sworn I washed my hands,” I say. “I’m pretty sure I did. I must’ve. Anywho, does it really matter? It’s not like I was making a pizza and kneading dough. It’s not like I stirred the milk using my fingers.”
“No, but you grabbed the chocolate bar with your hands. You even took a bite. Then you tossed it into the milk. I don’t want this,” she says, pushing the hot chocolate away.
I go ahead and pick up the glass mug, which has Garfield the cat painted onto the glass. Garfield’s on a balancing board, and in a white thought bubble, he’s thinking, “I’m not one who rises to the occasion.” I take a small sip from the mug, and bits of chocolate swirl and fall. “Delicious. You should try it.”
“No. Thank you,” she says and raises her left hand, spreading her fingers to better examine the polish on her fingernails.
“C’mon baby, I made this just for you,” I lift the mug higher, closer to my face. The steam from the hot chocolate warms my nose, cheeks, and forehead. I notice that Lana’s small toes are painted pink. Her legs are smooth. If Lana didn’t look the way she does, like a young, busty Raquel Welch, she’d be a lot harder to love. “Alright baby, I’ll go ahead and make you another one.”
“I don’t want another one. I didn’t even want this one,” she says.
Over in the corner, Candy licks her paws. She looks almost normal, like nothing’s wrong.
I begin washing my hands using the green dish soap and then start pouring hot water into another pot. “Frank. You’re not listening, I don’t want you to make me another one.” Lana narrows her eyes. It’s morning. She hasn’t eaten anything yet, and I know If she’d just drink the damn hot chocolate that I left on the dining table, she’d get over her anger a lot quicker, but she’s being bullheaded.
I ask, “So do you want me to call Big Hank, and get my old job back?”
“Honestly Frank, I don’t care what you do anymore.”
Next to the backdoor, there’s the phone on the wall. “I’m gonna call Big Hank,” I say. “I’m gonna get my job back, and baby, with that first paycheck, I’m gonna buy you the prettiest pair of shoes to go along with the prettiest purse and sexiest dress. And then, I’m gonna take you to Acapulco.”
“Yeah, sure. Do whatever you want,” Lana says. “You always do.”
Candy looks like a lumpy rug with her head and front paws flat on the floor. Deep down, I know there’s no point in calling work, so I consider hanging up as soon as I finish dialing in the number, but after the very first ring, Carl’s voice comes through the speaker, and I find myself saying, “Hey Carl, put me through to Big Hank.” I try to sound important, like if I’m the boss’s son demanding to speak to a low-level employee. I want to show Lana that I mean business, but Carl doesn’t recognize my voice, and I have to repeat myself. “Carl, can you please get Big Hank on the phone?”
Carl tells me to hang on for a second, and in the background, I hear men talking, machines grinding, wheels turning, forklifts backing up. I’m so glad I’m at home right now.
“Hello?” someone asks. It ain’ Big Hank who’s speaking on the other end. It’s Jose.
“Hey Jose, can you get me through to Big Hank?”
“Frank? Is that you? Hey brother, where you’ve been? What the fuck happened to you? You just stopped showing up for work. Is everything okay?”
I don’t tell Jose how I’ve been at home this whole time. I don’t tell him about Candy and how much she needs me. I tell him only that I ran into some bad times and couldn’t get myself to work. He’s sorry to hear that, and he puts me on hold. While I wait, my sides begin to hurt.
Lana starts chipping the paint off her fingernails just to be doing something. I clench my pelvic muscles and grip the phone harder. I’m really wishing to God that Big Hank’s indisposed.
Big Hank’s the manager. He’s got this one real leg and one made out of wood. He’s a mean, old, son of a bitch who’s constantly stressed, pissed, and yelling. The veins on his red forehead regularly stick out as if they’re about to bust open. And just thinking about how I quit on him, with no notice, is giving me a bad headache.
I almost piss myself when Big Hank finally picks up the phone. But much to my surprise, he sounds happy. Jose has told him that I’ve been going through a rough patch, and he’s really sorry to hear that. Big Hank goes on to tell me that he’s short-staffed, and the boys can really use my help. They just received a big shipment from the coast. Big Hank says if I can get my ass to the warehouse within the hour, I can keep my job, but I have to hurry because they’re under a strict deadline. “Well?” Big Hank asks, “Can you come in?”
Lana’s got her eyes on me. She’s heard everything. And I breathe a sigh of relief, stick my chest out, stretch my back, and grin like I just won the Superbowl. Lana shakes her head and rolls her eyes, not believing the dumb, good luck I’m having. Candy sits up. The dog can sense my good fortune and wants to cheer me on. But her bad hip gives way, and she wobbles to one side.
Suddenly, I recall the day when Lana first brought Candy home. It was the day after I’d suggested we get hitched. She came home carrying this dog I never asked for, and she said to me, “Frank, if you really want to marry me, you gotta show me you’re ready. And you can start by raising and lovin this pup like it’s our own baby.” I had forgotten all about that moment, until now.
Candy’s sticking her tongue out. She rolls over, looks up, and her paws hang in the air. Her wagging tail sweeps the floor. Her face is full of love. Unconditional, dumb love. The kind of love I’m always needing.
And even with Lana furrowing her eyebrows and giving me sass by telling me that I’d be able to lift a mountain with all the exercise I’m getting by pushing my luck around, I can already tell her attitude towards me is beginning to soften. Her body is less tense. One of her legs is above the other, bouncing up and down, and her whole body jiggles. If all things go well, she’ll be eating jiffy pop popcorn tonight, and I’ll be massaging her feet, and we’ll both be having a good time watching Ernest Goes to Jail.
“Hello? Frank? You there?” Big Hank is still on the line. He’s waiting for an answer. “Can you come in? Frank? Hello! Hello!” Big Hank’s voice gets louder, sounds more agitated, and I start picturing the veins on his forehead throbbing, then bursting, blood spraying everywhere, his bad leg giving out, Big Hank falling on the ground, no one around to help. It’s not a very pretty picture, so I hang up the phone, and I walk right on over to Candy, who can’t stop licking my face as soon as I bend down. When I stand up, my back really hurts, and Candy jumps up. She wants me to carry her. Her back legs tremble. She yelps and whines but doesn’t quit trying to get on top of me. We haven’t been that much apart in these last couple of weeks, and she’s afraid I’m about to leave. She thinks it’s gonna be forever.
I’m feeling all fucked up inside. I want to push her away and never have to worry about her. And for the second time today, my throat gets all jammed up, but that doesn’t stop me from asking Lana if I can borrow her car. “I don’t know where I left my car keys,” I say. “And besides, your car’s already warmed up and ready to go.” Lana doesn’t get my joke. Her body stiffens, and her face looks tough and rigid. Her skin could be made of metal, I think to myself. And she gives me an icy stare, but she still looks good in that mini dress she’s wearing. So I swallow the lump that’s stuck in the back of my throat and say, “Never mind.” I know where to look.