issue six

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(3480 words)
 
Fall Back
Aaron Hellem
IT HAD BEEN MONTHS since she'd touched him in any affectionate manner. He'd been counting the weeks, using the calendar, crossing them off when another one went by without a kiss on his cheek, a hand on his back, a pinch on his bottom. The first month he thought it was just a dry spell, nothing uncommon. Something all couples go through at one time or another when the passion fizzles slightly. She didn't mention anything about it and he decided he wouldn't either. A dry spell, he told himself. They happen all the time. Frequent as full moons.

Go ahead, she said. There was a trace of impatience in her bidding, as though he should already know the protocol when a birthday cake is placed in front of him with its candles ablaze. His wish was for as much attention as she paid the cake, to sift him like she did the flour, to measure him as she did the sugar, to beat him as she did the eggs; to stop treating him like a memory.

He had to admit that after the second month, he was beginning to feel dejected. She hadn't made a move towards him in eight weeks; he had them crossed out on the calendar to prove it. They'd gone about their business of staying together and running a household, paying the bills and vacuuming the dust, changing the sheets and watering the lawn, but each night she was asleep before him, in the morning awake before him. For two months straight he listened to her in other rooms. Always she was in other rooms.

After the third month, he said something. On one of the rare occasions they sat down to dine together. Game hens with a rosemary rub, rotisseried over an open flame in the middle of the kitchen. He mashed the potatoes, opened the can of cranberry sauce. He mumbled something about the open flame retarding the linoleum. She asked him to repeat what he said. He stared at her. In one hand he held the plates. In the other the mashed potatoes. It's been three months since you touched me amorously, he told her. He extended the plates and the mashed potatoes. I supplicate myself, he thought. I throw myself at, immerse myself in supplication, I am supplicated, I will supplicate. Consider me supplicated, he thought. I'm on my knees for you, plates and potatoes in hand.

She stared at him blankly, as though he'd spoken a foreign language. Had clicked out a plea that expressed to her how he was at the razor's edge, that he wouldn't be able to last much longer unless she did something - kiss him on the lips, let him kiss her back, hold his hand. It's been a busy month for me, she said. She turned the game hens. Basted them.

I know, he said.

For both of us, she said.

It felt like their personal space had manifested actual walls between them and they moved around each other as though encased entirely in bubbles. Three months, he said again.

She glanced up from her spit. What do you want me to say? she said.

He wasn't sure. Tell me it was unintentional, he thought.

I told you we've both been busy, she said. If that's what you mean.

Maybe she hadn't heard him right. Three months, he said again. He emphasized it by gesticulating first with the plates, then with the potatoes. I cannot supplicate myself anymore without turning into carpet, he thought.

What are you saying? she said.

He dropped the plates and the potatoes. The plates broke and the potatoes covered the broken pieces.

Why did you do that? she said.

Three months, he said. He left the room and went upstairs to draw a bath. She ate the game hens by herself.

He woke up in the middle of the night for want of a glass of water. He noticed how far on the other side of the bed she lay, as far as she could without falling off. A different zip code, practically. He knew he wouldn't wake her.

Downstairs on the counter was a plate with her pile of bones. Small Cornish game hen bones, picked and polished clean. He lifted one of the leg bones to his lips and kissed the side of it, tasted the sweet marrow of it, the trace bit of her scent and spit left over on it. He envisioned her at the table working the bone over with her teeth, tongue, lips. I'm that bone, he thought, every inch of me probed, pulled, consumed. He kissed one of the wing bones, finally pressed his face into the pile of them, hoping to taste her, if even merely a little bit of her residue.

In the morning, he woke up shivering on the cold tile. The bones scattered all around him like a voodoo ceremony gone awry. He cleaned them up before she woke and came down to find him like that, on the floor with her leftovers, sans dignity.

**

At the four-month benchmark, he started entertaining the idea that there may be somebody else in her life, someone on the side. He searched around the house for clues: matchbooks from motels, new see-through underwear, strange transactions on her credit card bill. He tailed her one night, but she only went to where she'd told him she was going - the twenty-four hour fitness center for the two a.m. kickboxing class.

Dinner: She prepared rabbit stew, with rabbits she trapped in the backyard. Three of them. She laid them out on top of the granite counter, spread their legs apart to gut them. The incision should only be as large as your hand, she said. She said whenever game tasted gamey, it was usually because whoever dressed it let it bleed too much. She shoved her hand, wedding ring and all, inside the rabbit's sliced belly, up into the cavity, and extracted the small stomach and intestines. She dropped them into the garbage can where they hit the bottom with a sucking splat.

Predominant blood loss occurs when you're cutting out the heart, she said. Her voice was collected and her hands steady. He felt weak and wobbled slightly. The movements of her hand inside the rabbit showed in the protrusion of its fur and skin. She smiled when she located the tiny heart, no bigger than an almond. She pulled it out through the slit, held it up in the light. Just like that, she said, and turned the discolored organ around in her hand. She tossed it into the garbage can. Small blood puddles pooled like mercury on the granite countertop.

How do you feel about skinning them? she asked him. The front of her apron was smeared with rabbit blood. A streak of it across her cheek, drawn there when she tried to brush away a stray bang out of her eyes. He'd have to hang the bodies from a tree limb in the backyard, convince fur away from flesh with only a paring knife. Start on this one, she said, handing him the limp corpse by the hind legs.

He carried the carcass out to the backyard where the twine was waiting for him under the oak tree. He strung up the carcass by its hind quarters, scored the skin around the back feet, worked the paring knife under the fur, on top of the flesh. She came outside with her own carcass, gutted and cleaned, and her own paring knife. She showed him how it was done. Like husking corn, she told him, and peeled the skin back away from the body. She worked fast, had the body stripped in a matter of seconds, the fur balled up near the rabbit's head.

It will end for me like this, he thought. Hung from the oak tree, gutted and de-hearted. He pictured her with her paring knife and bloody apron, waving to the neighbors as she scored the skin away from his pelvis, long enough for him to feel the long linger of her careful caresses, the gentle sting of paring knife sticks, pricks, pulls. He could see it in the procession of her knife strokes, swift and economic, could see she was capable of it, even if it meant her fingers around his throat, up inside his stomach, poking through his ribcage. He stood back while she finished skinning the rabbits, projecting his body into the rabbit's empty carcass, imagining her hands moving down the length of his body, under his skin. There were no limits to the dark depths of wishing and wanting.

She forgot he was there, standing off to one side, and he forgot how it felt, the moistness of her warm touch. Her hand on top of his. Fleeting. Across the side of his face. He gladly would've had her plunge her paring knife into his gut if it meant that her hand would be buried briefly in him.

**

He dreaded having to go home and face her. He rang the doorbell on his own house. Laura answered it. She wore an apron. Hog's blood down the front of it. From the Do-It-Yourself Butcher Kit she bought in Chinatown. Intended on making her own fatback. Why are you ringing the doorbell? she asked him.

Where do you go on Tuesdays and Thursdays between ten and three? he asked.

Did you forget your key? she said.

Are you seeing another man? he said.

She wiped her hands down the front of the apron. Stood in the middle of the entryway. What are you trying to tell me? she said.

Another woman, perhaps? he said.

Are you coming in or aren't you? she said.

Do you think I'm too weak in the stomach? he said.

She stepped to the side of the entryway. My fatback's almost ready, she said. There'll be chops for dinner.

He went into the house. Took off his coat, hung it in the foyer closet.

We'll need some pommes des terres, she said.

You haven't touched me in four months, he said. Followed her into the kitchen. The hog was dragging itself across the kitchen floor. Headed for the door.

You hold him down, she said, and I'll do the honors. She grabbed the cleaver.  Freshly sharpened. He held down the errant hog, pinned it to the floor with his knee. There was once a time when cleave meant to bring together, she said. In synthesis, perhaps. She hacked the hog in half, then quartered the two halves. It seemed to him she was taking a little too much pleasure in the blood and the cleaver. I hope you came home hungry, she said. There's no more room in the freezer, and this hog won't keep through the night.

He considered his appetite: capacious, ravenous, starved. What would she say if he forced himself on her, ripped off her clothes and had her in the middle of the blood and hog halves?

I could eat a horse, he told her.

Well, we're having pig, she said.

He would get stuck mashing the pommes des terres. Pickling the asparagus. He made himself a cup of herbal tea.

She listened to Wagner. Brooding Wagner. Hot hog blood.

**

Five months: At three o'clock, he parked across the street from the high school. Watched the cheerleaders practice. Short skirts. Bra tops. Leg kicks. Human pyramids. He watched the girls sweat, let his hand drift south. This is what five months have done to you, he thought. This is what five months has done. A trench-coat pervert.

Laura was gone all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Left the house at nine. Didn't return until six. It was his job to make sure the cows were fed. Milked. She bought two of them. Penned them up in the backyard. They had eaten the entire lawn within a week. She wanted to breed them, but there were zoning restrictions and the neighbors threatened with litigation. In the kitchen, on the easel, there was a schematic diagram: The Proper Way to Quarter a Cow. She had turned their kitchen into a slaughterhouse.

When she returned home that Tuesday night, he had already laid down the newspapers. Hope you're feeling strong today, she said. He was. Had joined a gym. Lost fifteen pounds. She didn't notice, though, and he wondered if it even mattered that his belts were down to their last hole and all of his pants were puckering in the waist. He nodded.
According to the schematic and the hotline, she said, the initial incision is the most difficult, the loudest, and produces more blood than the subsequent cuts. He already knew he'd be stuck running the cow down, tying it up. Hog-tying a doomed heifer. His job was to hold her down. Keep her still. Steady. Laura hated it when they whined, groaned, squealed.

Try to keep her quiet this time, she said. I'm this close to a splitting headache. She held up two fingers, spaced two inches apart.

He only performed these duties for her because there was always the chance that she might touch him, that they might come into contact. That she might grab onto his arm to illustrate a better way to pin the heifer's throat down with a forearm instead of an opened palm. Might pat him on the back for encouragement. High-five him when the heifer was done and stacked in perfect quarters. A job well done. Might, while on their knees, knee-deep in the gore, look at him with his hair mussed up and blood streaks across his forehead and remember why she had ever touched him in the first place, would touch him then, a hot hand on the side of his cool cheek, a hand hot with heifer blood, and might, possibly, lean over and kiss him on the lips. There was always the hope that the blood from the slaughter would inspire her to take off her clothes and offer herself to him. Hope is the thing with feathers, he thought, that springs eternal, though the evoked image resembled something she might slaughter. Maybe already had. The Proper Way to Dice a Dozen Dreams.

He fetched the lasso. Stepped out onto the back patio. The two cows were in the far corner of the lot. In the shade of the hazelnut tree. They'd really done a number on the lawn. What with their hooves and their grazing. The bull had a bell around its neck. She'd named him Brutus. His horns were not impressive. Not like others he'd seen before. Maybe she had shaved them down; they did that to bulls sometimes, especially those destined for the ring. Shaved down his lances and rendered him impotent. The heifer was named Subject. She was not much longer for the range.

Brutus looked up at him, watched him as he approached slowly, slowly getting the lasso going. Long lazy circles at first, tightening it up the closer he crept.

Brutus bellowed.

Easy there big fella, he said. I've just come for the girl. He walked up to within three yards of the heifer. Subject didn't budge. He raised the lasso above his head, spinning it fast and fierce. Subject watched him with her usual bovine indifference. As though anything he had to offer would not greatly impact her day.

Lady, he thought, this is the day to wish you'd done something important with your morning. He stepped closer. Brutus bellowed again.  

Laura watched him from the patio. Dig in your heels if she bolts on you, she said.

He stepped closer, timed his throw, snapped his wrist, let her fly. The loop wrapped around Subject's head. She kept chewing. He cinched the knot tight around her neck. She stepped nervously in place. That's right, old girl, he told her. March it right into the kitchen. He'd tie her legs off once inside and on the floor. He tugged on the rope and she followed him. Laura held the door open. Brutus bellowed again, and his bell clanged as he pursued them to the patio. Not you, big fella, he told Brutus.  

Brutus bellowed at Subject, but Subject didn't respond.

Laura turned on the garden hose and sprayed it at him, chased him back into the corner for fear he might have a moment and think he was brave, try saving his girl by charging them. A shaved horn won't pierce skin, necessarily, but will leave quite a nasty bruise. Sting at first, then ache for weeks. Both he and Laura knew that Brutus, if he had a mind to, could lay them out and break their ribs and hurry inside, lock them out, change the phone number, stop the mail, start paying the Association's dues. He had the potential, but Laura embarrassed it right out of him. Sprayed him in the face with the fast stream, scared him and humiliated him back into the corner of the yard, in the shade of the hazelnut tree.

He led Subject into the kitchen. Laura prepared the syringe. Subject took it in the backside without complaint. He admired her courage. Her dignity. The strength in her eyes, even when Laura pulled out the pole ax. We're each going to have to take an end, she said.

He nodded. Gravely. It was a kind of surgery now.

You take that end and I'll take this end, she said.

Eventually, Subject closed her eyes. Fell asleep.

**

Six months: half-life of a certificate of deposit. At a measly three and a half percent. He stopped bathing. Refused to sleep in the same bed with her. Curled up in a corner of the kitchen like a cat. There were cobwebs in his crotch. Actual spiders, spinning actual webs. He remembered a time when he wanted things. In the past.

She was singing in another part of the house. Her singing was inescapable. Echoed and resonated in the woodwork, trapped in the grain; he even heard traces of it at night when the house settled in the wind. Half of the calendar was blacked out, a heavy line through each week: totted up twenty-four. He considered blacking out the rest of it, surrender to its inevitability.

Laura was gone all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Left the house at midnight on Mondays and Wednesdays, didn't return until morning on Wednesdays and Fridays. Sometimes for entire weekends.

He waited for her in the shadows of the foyer. Waited for her to get all the way inside. He leaped out, tackled her to the floor. Bound her hands behind her back before she had the chance to retaliate. Dragged her into the living room. Hefted her up and into the leather chair. Straddled the ottoman. I would've sacrificed myself for your slaughter, he said, but you never asked me.

I appreciate your using nylon instead of chains, she said. You know how my skin breaks out when metal rubs against it.

Would've lied there voluntarily without anyone having to hold me down, he said. If only you had asked.

Is this about the steaks? she said. You know I can't tolerate looking at ground meat.

He thought, As long as she says it was unintentional, all can be forgiven. Forgotten. Bygones. As long as she says it. Say it, he said.

It looks already chewed up, she said.

Tell me you didn't mean to and I'll believe you, he said.

If you want ground beef, then you can grind it yourself, she said. You're perfectly capable of operating the grinder without my help.  

He didn't appreciate her insolence. I refuse to believe that six months was unintentional, he said. Two months, I can see. Three, maybe. Six is malicious.

You'll want to chop the slabs into smaller cubes first, she said. So you don't jam up the blades.

Purposefully malicious, he said.

If the blades jam up, then the crank won't turn, she said.

You haven't even noticed my absence from our bed, he said.    

Of course, if it doesn't crank, she said, then you already know it's jammed.

He kissed her on the mouth and she didn't resist him. Her lips tasted tart, like cherries off the tree. He thought he would explode. Felt himself pushing out - pushing against his external restrictions.

You can untie me, she said. I promise I won't run.

He didn't untie her. He believed she wouldn't run, but she was too deft with a knife to be trusted. He knew he could never turn his back to her again. It would be like this for the rest of forever, he thought: her hands bound so he could see them, facing him so he knew her intentions. So he would know when she was sleeping and when she was only pretending to sleep.





*

M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Aaron Hellem. All rights reserved.

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