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"Staycation"; excerpt, section i

Monday 7/22/19



Duncan had never cared for Texas. He had always hated heat for starters. He figured that in August in Texas everyone would be oily. Liked greased, stocky muskrats. That’s how he had imagined Texans talked, in animal-based metaphors, but that was probably only in mid-century cartoons that were offensive now.


He was unsure how many people told themselves offensive jokes in their heads that they could never say out loud, whether it was half of the world, only bad people like he worried he was, or damn near everyone. You could never know, because who would go on the record? But he thought there was a reasonable chance—he thought it was the most likely chance—that what went on inside of most people, which they knew to keep there, as involuntarily as they drew breath, made everyone into two-person units.


You’d have to double a town’s official population to get an accurate census report. Humans as bivalves, or co-piloted planes, with co-pilot #2 on his or her knees, out of view.


The more horrible something was that Duncan witnessed or was told, the more likely he was to say in his head, “Eh, you can’t do anything anymore.” Sardonic sonofabitch mode. Then he wondered if everyone else made nasty, cruel, grim jokes like that, or if it was just him, and he would never know, just like everyone else. Maybe people were all just awesome at keeping that one big secret.


It only a weekend. He could term it his big summer trip. Getting out and getting moving again. “The weekend starts here!” was what a kid named Tad would say in high school after last period let out on Friday and he would point at his balls. Duncan did not know how this dude could not understand that genitalia does not possess temporality, but maybe that was why Tad was popular and Duncan had not been. Or perhaps an erect member was meant to be like the hour hand on a clock. Genius can be overlooked in high school. Duncan had been trying to tell himself something similar, without erect clock parts. “New life starts here,” he said, aloud even, under his breath, conscious of the absence of an exclamation point, more like a koan.


But Brea had asked. When they sat in courtrooms waiting for their turn to be called in front of the judge, he would wonder how long a period it would be in which Brea could ask something of him—it had to be important, not something like setting a Daddy Long-Legs outside—and he would say, why yes, he would do that. It’s not like the sand of a beach is ever completely washed away. The bad-joke voice had double-duty as the would-be wise sayings voice. Maybe voices were bivalves, too.


He wasn’t sure if it would offer another analogy. Maybe something about a rope bridge. He wouldn’t have married Brea if she had the Texas accent. Her father had one. He was an engineer. That could have helped him jury-rig his shotgun with string so he could be confident—not that he’d have a ton of time to verify the worthiness of his faith—that when he put his set-up in motion the bullet would catch enough of his brain to kill him. “Somebody has to clear out his place,” Brea said, which was true enough, and no Daddy Long-Legs.


No siblings, mother gone. Leaving a retired engineer on what was called a ranch but was really just a sliver of a place on churned up land, the crumbling, crossing laths of gullies like the edge of one of those woven wheat crackers, that managed to not be near anywhere else and yet not so far away that you felt you were in a forlorn expanse. A Triscuit shoved to the side.


To Duncan this meant that he would probably be there alone but might see some people and they’d ask him questions that would invariably mean he could have to make a decision between lying or saying, “I am moving Carl’s possessions out of here for my wife. Times that are trying. You know how it is. There are still rope bridges…or beaches don’t completely erode. Or whatever, man. I’m just lugging crap out of here for her.”


That was nothing he wanted to deal with. Some of them would probably offer to help. Then he would feel bad about the greasy muskrat thing.


No one offered to help. It was just Duncan out in dry woods. He wondered how the trees were alive. Maybe living or dead was a mere technicality here. Maybe everywhere. That voice again. They looked brittle, a dirty white, as if they were made of the strips of glue you pulled off your hands after art class as a kid that felt like your skin coming off but did not hurt.


He corrected himself on the idea that he would not have married Brea if she had the Texas accent as he looked at what would have made for stacks of photos of her, all in frames on the wall. There were photos of her when she was a girl, everywhere, photos up through high school. When he first met her he was jealous of her past. Time’s recording device. If there were such a thing. Because it had seen her all kinds of ways he never would. The happier you are for getting to be a part of a person’s future, he thought, the sadder you are for what you didn’t see. You would have loved to see it. So you ask them to tell you.


“I did have an accent,” she had said, smiling in a manner which downshifted her ought-to-have-been airtight fact to quasi-fact status; inimical to instant-acceptance, but fun to broach.


“You can’t just lose an accent. It’s not a shoe under the bed.”


“Sure you can.”


“Huh.”


“I lost mine when I was halfway through high school,” she said, leaning in to kiss him and deploying her fake Texas twang. “Now give me some tongue, partner.”


“You make it sound like we’re going prospecting at the old mine.”


“Oooh, kinky metaphor.”


The highest concentration of pictures was in a corner of the cabin’s second room. The wall was still stained. He imagined a sommelier, or a museum docent, saying, “that is skull, that is brain,” perhaps with a pointer, or merely a supercilious attitude. The realtor would probably clean it better. Duncan had read about something called a gamma knife, which sounded like a serried wonder of Martian ingenuity that pulsed with crackling electrical beams along the knife’s belly that Buck Rodgers would wield in old sci-fi serials. Back home he had been riding the subway and there was an advertising sign with a man named Bob on it. Bob looked dim but happy, well-fed, mildly prosperous, florid face. Like a pleasingly-hued dentist, a suburban mini-pink pachyderm, with a successful practice, one that would continue on for another decade now because “Technology like the gamma knife let’s our researchers cut tumors out of Bob’s brain without cutting Bob’s brain.”


“Fuck yeah, mofos,” the voice said.


The phraseology gave Duncan pause; it made it seem like Bob was always going back, as if brain-tumor paring was his version of a haircut. “A little less on the frontal lobe, if you don’t mind.” He had tried the bit on Brea.


“I don’t think that’s funny. The man probably had brain cancer that metastasized.”


“It’s just Bob,” he countered, as if speaking about a mutual friend whose ordinary name assured ordinary metastasizing-free days. “Bob," he repeated.


They were in a surgical zone where laughter itself was ablated. Chop shop. Different kind of chop shop. He pictured a little mad surgeon with a hacksaw who moved in a kind of jigging pattern, old Two-Step Sawbones, keeping with the Texas theme, who worked on various parts of their marriage. Maybe he was good at taking out the tumors but absolute shit at closing wounds.


Duncan dreamed him up and then added on to him as leering-eyed, that kind of person who gets an erection of the eyeballs, with one of those noses you figure needs a good squeezing to get puss from the pores and open them back up, cutting a rug, not far from his own face as he entered Brea the last few times, doing the mental computations, between first ingress and first stroke, of what it was in this life that so definitively alters, transmogrifies, a soft sigh aerodynamically designed for the rustling of the hair around someone else’s ear, into that which is equally definitive, but antithetical, the dry to the wet, the crumbled to the risen, the pooled to the released, the wince made audible, one that a child might make while fiddling with pulling a tooth before a child really knows what pain is. But what the child comes to know, what it thinks it knows, is that an apple saves the day, and there is the tooth embedded in it as proof.


“Am I hurting you?” he asked. “Yes,” she said. “Just go in my ass. It will be fine.”


He read the line as “less intimate.” Maybe more like a gamma knife than a stainless blade. Something gets lost in technology that steel retains.


He looked at the photos of this person who would become his wife on the wall. He imagined the voice that came out of this mouth, now made still, frozen by Polaroid, or was it Kodak, with its Texas accent.


“Partner.”


When one looks out the window in the August Texas heat, the air has a way of waving with fire-tip fingers. It might be said that it shows its second voice, the other half of the bivalve. It undulates, it is opalescent, if it could make sound, it would ululate in the fashion of a kid who wants to be chased in the backyard, and you think, “nah, it’s too damn hot for that,” though later you wish you went, and would fry your own face upon a skillet to have gone.


“I cannot talk to her if you do not put her on the phone,” he said, feeling his lobe sweat, thinking maybe he’d put some rice in a plastic bag and drop his phone in there if he had to.

“That is the point, Dunc,” Brea said.


She didn’t sound angry. He knew she wasn’t. He wouldn’t have called otherwise.


“She loves you. We both do.”


He considered faking a cough, didn’t.


“I’m going to get back to work,” he said, shuffling his feet, the aloud voice.


“Gamma gamma gamma gamma gamma fi!” he said in his head, like a sorority chant. The pilot on his knees.


“I love you both as well,” he said, with each half of him.