Control

By Bud Smith

Short Story

Good Luck: Episode Forty-Eight

 

The postman nailed a note on my front door. The box out by the road was frozen shut.  He couldn’t deliver. I had to do something about it. I didn’t do nothing about it. 

I saw envelopes had been tossed on the ground outside where I’d thrown rock salt and a slush puddle had formed. Then it was the coldest night of the year, froze it all. Then what?

What I shouldn’t have done was what I did, chop the mailbox off its post, drag it into the kitchen, but that’s what I did. Thawed it out in the sink while I drank my drink in the same clothes as yesterday as yesterday as yesterday as yesterday.  

Inside the mailbox, I found a surprise. The Hawaiian shirt I’d given Sadie, returned to sender. Little glowing volcanos. The get well card was in the pocket, with a personal message, You’re good man, don’t ever doubt it. 

Of course I’m going to doubt it, Sadie. I was born to doubt it.

Her husband arrived on a jet. My blue blue balls came back. I saw his expensive ass pickup truck at every other opposing stop light. He was always on the other side of the intersection, playing drums on the steering wheel, singing along. Country music. Buzz cut head bobbing. Belting it out.

In-between deployment. The light turned green. The green beret greened on. I wasn’t moving. I was nobody to him, which was nice. The car behind me honked. I had to laugh. There was so much salt on that car, the driver was a pillar of salt trapped in a pillar of salt parked behind a pillar of salt. The light turned yellow. I still hadn’t moved. The pillar of salt went around me and just made it through the light before it turned red. 

I was on my way to sell blood but when I got there I was too drunk to sell the blood, so I sold my semen, which they don’t care as much about, surprisingly. 

February goes forever. You can get born in February, live your whole life before the fourteenth and die before the end of the month an old man, twenty-seven days, hey pal, you’re lying. 

Another time I looked over and Carl was behind me in line at Ridgeway Liquor. Chipmunk cheeked. Carrying a gun, not concealed much. He seemed to recognize me. I nodded and left the store, didn’t wait for my change. Thought maybe he’d seen a picture of me on Sadie’s phone. I beat him out to the lot and saw he had stickers on the back windshield of his Dodge. Gun after gun after gun, in a row, getting bigger, handgun to shotgun, to rifle, to assault rifle. A family of guns. The last ‘gun’ was a tank.  That was kind of funny. Also, little as my dick is, at least I didn’t have to join the military and drive a tank to equalize the heat I was packing. I got in my truck and got lost. Firewood tumbling around.  

I went home, to loneliness and all the time in the world, and new mail frozen under a new layer of ice. I  smoked and drank and watched Double Dare, and a clip of these two women from Sweden (I think) pretending to be forbidden from eating each other out. Nobody’s gonna forbid that. A hundred zillion sperm died and I lived. 

I lit a candle because the electricity was out. 

I reread Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy again, shivering. When the power company came, I went out there and helped those guys so it went faster. Handed them tools. Toilet seat so cold I’d shit in the yard, which is the quickest, surest way to feel like an animal, I promise. 

I was at my worst. I called up Father Terry but he didn’t answer. I left a message, “I’m sorry I slapped you like that, in front of…everybody. You know what? I’m not sorry. I got some sins to confess if you got time to listen. I know your cell phone minutes are dependent on the generosity of the parish and you got no parish now. If you need five bucks to get some minutes. I’m drunk. I’m hanging up. Fuck you, Father Terry. I owe you another hard slap. I owe you a roundhouse kick in the dick.” 

The sun came up and it wasn’t much of a sun and it was some Sunday in February and my nose was running faster than my mind.

I went driving looking for a whore, but the whores didn’t stand in front of the Dollar Store like they used to. They’d inherited the whole world wide web. 

I went to Spider Bar and Dr. Diane was there and so was my postman. Benny Townsend was playing pool by himself instead of being behind the bar like he was supposed to. The postman had words for me. He was on his lunch break. Dr. Diane, pushing seventy-five years old, chewed on his fish sandwich, distracted, red-faced, talking shit at me. He said if I didn’t fix the mailbox, get it right on its post again, he was gonna tell the township. I told him to get in line to eat my ass and I sat down and ordered us all a drink with money I didn’t have. Dr. Diane reached over and pulled the handles. Benny lost to his own eight ball. 

It didn’t matter. I had some Polaroids of Sadie bending over, naked ass high in the air and oiled up like a trophy. I doused the Polaroids in lighter fluid, lit them up. I shouldn’t have done that to that ass. My poor blue balls. 

It didn’t matter. 

I read The Talented Mr. Ripley and the ice made a racket on the window. It didn’t matter. I decided to kill myself in the morning if I didn’t feel better.

My hands were shaking as I turned the page cause it was the Ides of March and I was trying to quit drinking and it was snowing again. And then I was drinking again but by midday I’d decided to get piano lessons instead of suicide and to see in the next year. I checked my bank account and rushed to the sink, puked on the broken mailbox, washed the puke off the mailbox, opened the window, threw it out in the yard. Soon it was gone like everything else, lost in the snow. 

I called Margaret’s house when I knew Francine was at work and I listened to Margaret (RIP) sing “Amazing Grace” on the machine, from beyond the grave. Leave a message at the beep if you want but I never did. I hung up and called back. T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear and Grace, my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.

Carl and Sadie, shacked up something heavy again. She’d once told me his kink was being tied up. I never understood a man who needed a kink. What? Pussy’s a miracle. If you don’t like that miracle, there’re other miracles above and below. Ropes. He likes ropes. Well have at it, Carl, you chipmunk cheeked little bitch. Cow down to domination. I’d tied up Sadie once. Her request. Not my thing. I’m nobody’s boss. She pretended like she was being violated against her will. Part of her whole parade, and she had many. Nice soft ropes. Why am I telling you all this? I don’t know. I want you to understand me and her had had us a fine run of January nights and we could’ve been happy on a desert island. But only on a desert island.

The wind outside howled, I put on the Hawaiian shirt. I was getting fat. I read the get well card again. To Alec, Get Well Soon. Mercifully, Sadie. She’d put the money for the second firewood chopping in there. Well, whatever, I did need it. I went to the grocery store and I bought a 20 lb. turkey. Stuffing. Cranberry sauce. I never ate any of it. Gravy. 

I got a postcard from her not too long after that, a month or so, from Mount Rushmore. Then another from Yellowstone. The two reunited lovebirds were seeing America. How you gonna get excited about seeing America covered in snow? Everywhere you look it’s just white and all the same. Not a flower in sight. They had no choice, the card said they were moving to Germany, where he would be stationed, doing whatever death he did, and could I please get rid of those naked photos of her? Please, pretty please. 

Sadie would fit in perfect in Germany. She could serve beer in those big mugs and learn to yodel or whatever they did. Certainly her hair was right. I shouldn’t have been mad at Carl. Or jealous of Carl. Or ashamed at myself. But I was. And I had an itch now. Margaret had the right idea. That was my itch.

And then my days grew more insignificant, and the itch got worse. I wished I had back the gun Margaret used to shoot herself. 

I thought about going down to the police station and telling those boys in blue to open up the evidence room. I’d tell them the history of my bartered rodent gun, thinking maybe if I did, they would give it back to me. But then I got to thinking, maybe the gun had been given back to Francine when it was all ruled a suicide. Oh, I was in no hurry to tell her the history of the varmint gun. If Francine had it, maybe she would shoot me with it, and I worried if she would kill me slow just to see me suffer.  Gutshot. Francine was a passionate woman if there ever was one. I figured I’d just get myself another gun. Or maybe I’d climb the water tower and jump off that. No, I decided. I wanted to die in the comfort of my own home. I thought I’d do it in the bathtub, so there wasn’t much for someone else to clean up. Shoot myself through the temple. Crack the tile. Maybe crack the tub. Send the water and the blood and the human waste flowing out everywhere. But it’d drain away. These are the kinds of thoughts somebody gets on President’s Day weekend. On Valentine’s Day. Any ol’ day. And I wondered who would find me. Oh, it’d be Francine. Poor Francine. I couldn’t do it, even though I kept watching the videos that showed you how to do it best. Exactly where to put the barrel of the pistol. I thought about Kate Sickler and laughed and put on the tile video instead. Learned how to miter the angles so the edges fit together perfect, like they were made for each other. 

My phone rang. It was Father Terry. He was in rehab, in Michigan. “Why Michigan?” He wouldn’t give me a straight answer. So I asked him crooked questions. I asked him if there really was a Hell and would I go there if I took my life? I heard him chewing. I got mad. I asked him, “What did the inside of Francine feel like?” The line went dead.  

Half hour later there was a knock on my door and I thought it was the landlord or the mailman but it was Dr. Diane. The pink triceratops with pursed lips who’d delivered me from my mother, the truth teller, and healer who was in quite poor health herself, but aren’t they all? 

She said, “Jesus Christ” and I led her through the house, hurriedly cleaning. We sat in the living room and she kept shaking her lovely head. She opened her purse and took out an orange flask with a biohazard decal and took a pull. “Jesus Christ, Alec Durak.” 

Dr. Diane had some kind of elderly power over me, some control, as all doctors do. She had the cure, which was compassion, and the compassion would make me a weeping child again if I wasn’t careful. I put the stereo on, twisted the volume knob. She got up and shut the stereo off and it stayed off. 

She’d talked to Father Terry, of course. 

I told her I didn’t need treatment, and even if I did, I didn’t have any money. As a matter of fact, the lord of the land was about to boot me out and then I’d be living in my pickup truck. I’d sold the Chrysler to make last January’s rent. But Dr. Diane said of course she’d trade medical care for firewood. 

I agreed to give her white oak. She gave me magic pills she swore would make me feel shiny and smiley and I wouldn’t become a zombie. But the prescription was written on the condition that I started talking to Benny Townsend’s little sister, Alice, who had gone to psychiatry school over there in New York but who had come back to Jackson because she missed the sunsets and the sound of the birds. I can’t remember a single sunset that wowed me here, but then again, I never left. When you leave, I’m sure everything gets sweeter. It could also be a personality problem of my own, about the sunsets, or maybe Alice has better eyes. 

I thought all of this over, smoking a cigarette with Dr. Diane. She asked for an ashtray, and when I tried to give her a coffee cup to ash into, she shook her head and went out to her car and came back with two ashtrays. Sea glass, which she gave to me. Hers was a desert scene. 

She said, “Have you ever been to the desert?” 

“I haven’t, no.” 

“This is a souvenir. This. This here.” 

She ashed into the souvenir. She had a lot of rings on her fingers. Turquoise things mostly.

She said, “I go every year.” 

“You want a beer, Dr. Diane?”

“You should watch Lawrence of Arabia. And yes I want a beer.” 

“I’ll watch it,” I said. I got her a beer out of the fridge and then we sat in the dim light and listened to the ice hit the window. She made a lot of noise drinking her beer. 

“I’ll take the pills, even if that means defeat, but I’d rather not talk to Alice Townsend.” 

“Alice. Nonnegotiable. Alice.” 

I then launched into my defenses about going and talking to Alice, how a man shouldn’t be driven to his knees and have to beg for help to find salvation, can’t I be allowed some dignity? Dr. Diane said, “You want dignity? No problem. Some things are worth dignity.” She tore up the prescription. “Nice knowing you. I delivered you. Don’t you know that? I delivered you into the world. Cut the cord. You got to listen to me. You talk to Alice, and then I’ll drive you to the pharmacy myself and fill this fucking thing. Dignity. Jesus Christ. ” 

What kind of racket was Dr. Diane running? Oh, everybody is running one, who cares? I laughed and said, “I give up, you mean old quack. I love you, you mean old…” and she wrote me another prescription and then dialed up Alice’s telephone and put her on, and Alice was sweet as pie, of course, and so it was agreed that I would come over to her house that afternoon, right after lunch. That was all right, right? What other kinds of errands could a chain-smoking man in crisis have to run?

Dr. Diane drank another beer and then went out to her car and got a DVD of Lawrence of Arabia, handed it to me and left. 

Alice Townsend lived on Canary Street and she saved my life one cord of firewood at a time. She was a frail woman with a big voice. I’ve been trying to figure out who would play her in a movie and I don’t think they make actors like that. We talked about Sadie at first. Then some about my mother (RIP). Then a lot about Margaret (RIP). Then Alice stopped me and asked about the real significance of Francine in my life. She pointed out that in forty-five minutes of straight babbling, I had worked Francine into nearly every anecdote. I laughed and told Alice she should get a psychiatrist of her own, and she said, “Maybe so.” 

The firewood kept coming and so did spring. There’s an old song about how you couldn’t hold back spring, and finally, I was starting to believe it. 

At the traffic light, I saw a young girl driving my Chrysler. Her Chrysler. The window was still broken. There was an orange plastic bag duct taped over the hole, blocking the wind. When she passed I saw the bag had a jack-o-lantern on it. She smiled because she thought I was checking her out. Big mouth full of metal. But I was checking out the jack-o-lantern.

Easter resurrects every miserable fuck, show them the first wild tulip of the season and watch them turn eight years old again for two minutes. 

I opened the curtain. I cleaned the mess off the lawn. The eviction notice was pink. It was fake. Made to look like it was from the courts but the landlord had just done it up in Microsoft Paint. The birds were back, and flowers were popping up out of the brown mess of sleeping things. 

I heard a crack, then another. I opened the window and saw there were kids hitting rocks with a bat in the street. I went out there with my beer and they ran away. I picked up a rock and turned and threw it at my own house. The living room window broke and surprised me. Damn, I felt fine. Got a hard on. I got a loan from Dr. Diane. I stayed in the house. Shut the curtains. 

I went to the rec center when they had sign ups and tried to talk them into letting me volunteer to coach kiddie softball but they wouldn’t go for it cause of my priors. But then I was helping out the baseball practices at the high school because the coach knew me when I was gonna be somebody. I jogged the perimeter of the reservoir for exercise and sometimes dogs got loose and ran with me. We stopped and pissed together. 

My medicine regulated, I took up real drinking again. Dr. Diane said it was all right, even invited me out drinking with her. One lunchtime we were sitting at Spider Bar, reading our newspapers, and there I saw it, a story right on page five. The investigators had new ballistics evidence that had come to light. My gun, the rodent gun, had been used years ago, in a robbery of Ridgeway Liquors, on Rt. 537. The clerk shot in the chest when he reached for his own weapon. The newspaper man even went as far as insinuating that perhaps Margaret was involved. The suspect matched her height and weight and hair color. This was a full year before her fall off the choir stage and paralysis. I told Dr. Diane I was sorry, but I had to go, I left her there with my own drink ¾ full and I know she drank the rest of it when I left, and bless her for that. I had a newspaper man to go and kill. When I got over to the newspaper’s offices, I found they’d closed years ago. Cobwebs. 

It’s amazing how wrong people can be. They don’t have the facts. They don’t have anything. I saw inside the mothballed office and understood why the truth was gone. We couldn’t live with it. Lies were softer, kinder. 

The truth was long gone, covered in dust, and sour. People don’t know anything anymore, myself included. They are scared of being slow, so they move too fast. They are wounded and don’t even realize it, the wound so deep it’s been forgotten about because there’s no way to heal.

I went across town and Dr. Diane’s car was gone. She’d gone to some house call. The mail truck was there. I went inside. Her stethoscope was on the bar. The postman was playing Pac-Man. He gave me an exaggerated hug and a big wet kiss because I’d repaired the mailbox. Finally! I had another drink and another smoke, called Francine from the payphone. She came right over, sat with me. I joked that it was a shame the doctor had left, she could have told us what the healthiest poison was.

Francine said, “I don’t need a doctor to tell me that. The healthiest poison is tequila, and that’s a known fact.”

“How you figure?”

“It comes from desert flowers.”

“Okay. Another expert on the desert. My life’s full of them.” 

“You’re being rude again.” 

“Okay, flower girl. You’re right, you don’t need a doctor.”

She got up and checked the jukebox to see if there were any new songs, but how could there be? New songs didn’t come to a town like this. You had to find the old ones you didn’t know and you had to figure out a way to love them. 

She sat back down next to me, having chosen nothing. While she was at the jukebox, I’d ordered her a tequila soda, for her health, and that came along from Benny, sliding it down the bar. The postman went back to his route. I drank my drink down, and so did Francine, and once she seemed like she had loosened up a bit, I said, “I’ve got something to talk to you about. It’s not fun.”

I showed her the article about the liquor store shooting and she looked like a phantom. It was like her heart had stopped working, and she was frozen in place. I finished my drink, lit a cigarette, took it from my lips, and put it in hers. The nicotine seemed to bring her back from the dead. “I just can’t believe it. She was some kind of bandit?”

“No, no she was not. Here’s what happened, and I’m going to say it plain…” I told her what I’d told Sadie, the whole history of that bartered gun, except I left out the part about Kate Sickler. It was my fault her mother was dead. I’d unwittingly supplied the weapon. 

Francine picked up her drink and tried to throw it on me, but there was no drink left to throw. I just got pelted with ice and a lime wedge. She threw the glass at me, which bounced off my chin, landed on the barroom floor, and broke. Now the bartender was not such an angel and we were both of us instructed to leave. Francine was quicker than me. I heard her car tires squeal out in the lot. I made it to the window just in time to see her Cadillac plow into the side of my truck, smashing up the front panel something nasty. She careened off. I was in the lot looking at my car when the cop pulled up and wanted to know what happened. I told him, “A lot of errors, all made by me and this damage here, well deserved.”

That night, when I went by, she wasn’t home and she wasn’t answering her phone. I left a message saying, “Hey, why don’t we sue for slander? Can you slander the dead? Or libel the dead, really.” She didn’t call back. I drove to the flower shop and saw two cars there, figured she was inside talking after hours with some friend, some lover, some confidant, and I was a little jealous, just because I didn’t have any of those kinds of people in my life at that moment. I left a note on her car that said, “I was going to kill myself but I didn’t because ultimately I thought it’d be rude to you. I’m better now, I’ve been talking to a psychiatrist in exchange for firewood, but I guess soon it’ll be warm and I’ll have to mow her lawn or something, fix the roof, whatever.” I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey buddy…” I looked up and it was one of the coaches from the high school team. Tim, a short, ruddy-faced married man. His dress shirt was untucked. I waved to him. He got in his car and drove away. I left too.

Things changed in the height of summer as they are wont to do. One day Francine came over to the apartment as if all were forgiven, and it didn’t need to be talked about. She had a box of Margaret’s things she wanted me to have. Pictures of Margaret and me and Francine. Some of Margaret’s records. A suit of clothes from the 1960s that belonged to Francine’s father, a man I never met, and Francine hardly knew herself due to his early demise. She was getting ready to move out of that house. 

It was a sunny day and Francine was in no hurry. She opened the blackout curtains and more pizza boxes appeared everywhere. I got up from the couch and brushed my teeth in the kitchen sink. While I was gone, Francine found the guitar underneath the couch and took it out of its case. An old gift from Father Terry, for my twentieth birthday. 

My mouth was full of foamy mint. I listened to her tune up the instrument, careful not to break any of the old rusty strings. When I walked out, my hair combed, she was singing a song by Laura Branigan. A lot of people have forgotten about Laura Branigan. Not me. Not Francine. We had some cassette tape and we used to play it all the time when we were kids, something of my mom’s from before she went up to Heaven where Laura Branigan is now. 

Francine’s sweet song. The lyrics talked about a person living in the forest of a dream. “Self Control.” I suddenly wished I could play the piano, but my hand still hurt from when I broke out my car window at the 7-11. It’d go on aching forever. I was so ignorant. I should have been sober and in that hospital room, and Sadie had been a mistake all around. I walked over to Francine and I kissed her on the lips and that stopped her singing. And it stopped us from being who we were. And we became ourselves after that. Neither one of us saw it coming. 

By this time, I’d repaired all the damage to the wood paneling, and the hornets would have to pick the ground or the sky, but they couldn’t stay in the house.  

Francine was medicine. I learned so much about her. She learned about me too. And then people in town had a new gossip to keep themselves busy and to pass their time and nobody thought of Margaret as being another member of the Hole in the Wall Gang. They were too busy worrying about us. Which was fine. I took that gift. Francine and I went over to the cemetery with yellow flowers to put on the grave. We put down pink flowers. White flowers. Purple, orange, or blue flowers, flowers I didn’t know the names of, but the times of guessing were long over. And when I was ready to learn, I could always ask Francine, who knew all the names of all the flowers there ever were, and even some yet to come. 

Francine’s hands were cold. I put them in my own to warm them up. We went for a walk around the neighborhood, compiling a list of things we didn’t like about the place. Her touching me made me bonkers; my touching her made her bonkers. It was decided that it was best if we just went all the way crazy together. 

Still, I had my regrets. I wished I could unmake love to Katie Sickler, and I wished I could reverse time to before I was born, so I could visit my mother in a dream and tell her not to listen to God, tell her not to willingly leap into war.

I wished I hadn’t been the one who had to wash Margaret’s red mess from the wall. I told this to Alice during our final session. And I confessed I knew all the names of the people who had not gone to church the night of the vigil for that poor woman. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people only pretend to care about you. I shook Alice’s hand at the end and surprised her, told her she would have to get her firewood from someone else when the leaves fell off the trees again, I was leaving town with my fiancé.

 

Francine and I wish Sadie well in Germany.

We wish Tim well with his boring wife, who can’t or won’t fuck him. Tim who will have to find another flower girl. We wish ourselves well, which most people forget to do. We wish ourselves well. We wish Margaret well in Heaven, and Laura Branigan too. We wish the new owner of the Chrysler well. We wish my mom, Peggy Durak, well on her mission, dropping endless bombs on Satan. We wish drunken Dr. Diane well on her barstool. We hope the tequila works well and she lives to be a hundred and five. We wish the postman well. We wish the newspaper men well, and the hot dog-eating, ponytailed fighters well. We wish the gossips and the hornets and all the choir well. 

The bed goes into the moving truck first, and then the couches. 

We wish Father Terry well on his recent entry into a new rehab facility in Montana. He is a pilgrim headed west, one cigarette, one prayer at a time. 

We wish God well. We wish Beelzebub well. We wish time well. We wish Death and the landlord well. They are the same person. We wish you well. You. 

Followed by the bookcases, and the rest of it. We cruised away. Weighed down but hopeful. No longer fake brother, fake sister. Again, we wish ourselves well. No one else will. 

 

The first night in the new place, sweaty because early summer is here, something wakes me up. I don’t know what—a shockwave of pain, and remembering. My nerves burn. I smell fire in my skull. 

Then I hear Margaret’s voice. I hear her speaking to me in January. In that room, days before she ended her life. 

I remember everything she said. She didn’t say she was gonna shoot a varmint or a groundhog or a possum. All of a sudden I know the words. 

 She looked up from her chair and said, “Alec, Let me borrow your pistol.”

“What, are you planning on robbing Wells Fargo?”

“No, nothing like that.” 

“Then what?”

“Oh, I’ve got a pest.”

“A pest?” 

“Yes. This damned pest. I finally want to get rid of it.”

A pest, she said. A pest.

A pest. 

 

 

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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