By Abby Frucht
Because muzak. Because it coils around the two of us, Jag and me.
Jag’s on hold with Dish Network, gearing up to haggle over increased fees while I pay my due respect to his attendance of this task by anointing the cutting boards, oiling the wood with a basting brush. Kaydee lapping at the water bowl nearly four minutes now lifts her nose requiring more to drink, the way Jag’s dad, Nels, when Nels too was dying, demanded ice cream. We gave him all he could have wanted, pint upon pint, the two of us donning boots those subzero evenings to buy Pumpkin Pie Blizzards at Dairy Queen, three for stacking in the freezer and a fourth for spoon-feeding. How I envy, now, the feasibility of the dyings’ profoundest desires, their ready fulfillment, the lapping and cooing, the sturdy bowls that, brimful, meet them. My own desires are ragged, unplugged affairs, me sputtering, popping, lighting out. I grill Jag and accuse. I shriek and complain, won’t leave well enough alone, am unlikely (unwilling) to ever learn how. It’s a treat when I’m stable, both of us grateful, Jag more sanguine than I deserve. The way a sane person might, I lay the cutting board before me, dip the basting brush in olive oil, painting first across the grain, dabbing and swabbing, asking myself, “What are brush strokes supposed to accomplish, again? Will they make me more convincing? Authenticate me?” when something bright takes shape amid the needles of one of the pines out there.
“What’s that?” I wonder sharply, the object like a country church viewed from a great distance along a long, hot road but not on a Sunday, no hats, no choir, just the sunstruck steeple shimmering. Where did it come from, who hung it there, the questions only in my head so it’s only the dogs who prick up their ears to listen. They know the noise of the thoughts I need to stop having. They hear that first plaintive worry crack, like glass, then a splintering groan as the crack gives way, turning worry neurochemical.
“Who brought it?” I ask, shouting this time.
The little bird church isn’t ours. I’ve never seen it before, that pretty spire twirling there amid the usual hamlet of seed trays, thistle bags, hoppers, suet blocks, and splayed, pronged oranges. I let the window blind drop and racing out the door in clogs am relieved to find my pretense of stability abandoned, my arms unconsciously flailing, the phone angling away from Jag’s ear for a beat but him making a show of paying no mind, in hopes I’ll ditch this emergency and saunter back to the tasks I’ve set for myself, the dogs keeping their distance following me because they distrust clogs.
“What’s that?” I yell, the way air in a vacuum might be said to have been sucked out of itself. “Who gave it to you? Who gave it to him? Is it -F-, again?”
Meaning which of Jag’s whores.
Who of the midnight blowjob givers?
My heart drops from my body as if lobbed out a window. Plunging toward it topsy turvy, I thrust it back jagged or upside down, for I can feel it leaking out in me, a clog of watery gruel that blocks my pores and my airways, the heart being a sluice by which the several inner selves might flood, engulf, and consume one another. In advance, I know the drill it’s to put me through, days of trippy grief and panic mixed with not enough hours of sham gullibility. Although I see the comely bird church as a Fuck-Me-gift, the brush strokes swirling in whitewash with two funny white pottery knobs for perching, I’ll likewise believe Jag when he claims to have found it split in six parts in one of the fire pits dotting the rec trail. But if I see it in a heap and Jag stooping to retrieve it, in equal measure I’ll see, when I draw my face near for a look inside, that some womanly care has been taken in preparing it for nesting season. Bright ribbons twirl around torn strips of gingham amid a trio of frost-scarred milkweed pods. Already I envision some strumpet in glasses browsing for gifts in that wind chime shop along Highway 54, counting out the last of her graduate stipend to buy the bird church for Jag while trying on bangles next to the register, swiveling her wrists one way and the next before replacing the bracelets on the display and requesting the gift bag with mallards on it. She’s not as pretty as I am. None of them are. Were I homely, he’d go for them glam and exotic, but since I’m not bad looking, he goes for skags like -F- with shepherd’s hook postures and alopecia, which only saws away at me that much deeper since it means he must fancy their irksome singing voices, the books they don’t read, the saltine toffee they throw together for post-coital snacks.
I lob a clog at a tree. All the chickadees here in the neighborhood are friends. They tend to gather on whichever of the telephone wires they like best that day to chastise the cowbirds during nest-robbing season, but today they flit silently, spooked by my tantrum. A single crow officiates. Both dogs cower behind their ears. Even Cotton, the younger, knows better than to try to catch the clog when it falls, except it never comes down, prompting Kaydee, the smarter, to cock her head in confusion, asking whatever happened to gravity. Up the second clog flies. I snap a photo of the crow. I log a photo of air, the neighbors poking their heads at my yelping and stimming while Jag in the window inclines into Opus Number 1, the pane rinsed of last night’s rain storm glazing their view of him. How obtuse he is, not imprudently but via artful calculus, like being selectively hard of hearing. If I still have a chance to unmake the mess I’m making, “I don’t have the will,” I say to the dogs, my only grip on what might pass for a figment of reality a recognition that “I’m too gone,” I wail, too deep in the muck of vengeance and grief, because the bird church is the sweetest Suck-Me-gift I ever laid eyes on, the roof fluted like a pie crust, the entryway as oval as a fresh laid egg. And how perturbed I am, too, for sinking so low in my rage and dissolution as to call Jag’s Jezebels cunts and whores when all they are is just ladies more balanced than me, an admission for which I lower my eyes and let the dogs pilot me back to my cutting boards, disappointing the crow, the smaller birds clicking their fretful tongues. Jag’s no longer where I’d left him. Which unhinges me somewhat, I must admit, the empty space he so recently filled and completed now holding only slip-ons kicked free on the floor, as if he’s stepped barefooted into the yard, the his-n’-her salads we chopped up this morning in mute celebration of me being stable—my hair combed and gathered, my eyeglasses not so bent outa shape as yesterday—balanced on his fingers. Except he’s not in the yard, nor upstairs performing stretches on the throw rug or chin lifts in the closet, dressing for tennis, golf or bridge, or even hunkered at the HEADSHRINKER file agog at the Thought-Stopping Self-Talk Challenge emailed me by my therapist in advance of my appointment, which I’d postponed that first time because of the virus and then renounced the next appointment on Zoom as well, not wanting to pay to need to sit at the computer now that I’ve retired from my writing teaching job, which has itself gone remote.
It’s now I’ll have my second heart attack, I say to myself, gearing up to find Jag dead the way women find their spouses on kitchen floors past midnight unless he’s left me for -F-, his Audi gone from the garage as after one of our hilarious, drag-drown fights, me screaming “Come back! Leave me alone! I don’t ever wanna see your voice or hear your face again,” and then the two of us guffawing, my heart practicing its strategy, holding brokenness at bay as the octopus must when it finds itself trapped in the tipped over vase of the octopus trap, or takotsubo, as it’s called.
“What is the bothersome thought?” I read aloud to the dogs from the Self-Talk Challenge, channeling the soothing voice of Mrs. Carney, my kindergarten teacher at Flower Hill Elementary, who used to strum an autoharp to beckon us near. Cotton gnaws on a hot pink pussy hat he must have stolen somewhere, but Kaydee lies snoring, passed out in old age. She has too little time. She no longer eats nearly as many eggs. I’ll be walking with them, tomorrow perhaps, and she’ll list to one side, hang there a second then thunk to the grass, her tail still wagging. Soon there’ll be a new stray with no clue how to sit, or come, or stay, who can’t tell us his name. The only thing he knows is slobbering and that he once was Jag’s call girl’s who freshened his face with Kabuki brushes.
“Now children,” I ask. “Is this thought realistic or unrealistic? What are the odds of this really happening?”
Because I love Jag and I hate him. Because my nose is chilly and my feet are damp. Because if Jag drifts off to sleep when we’re lying on the couch watching tv together, I feel moonless, bereft, abandoned by him. I feel that he’s forgotten me, is freed of me, delivered of me.
Because my therapist, should ever we actually meet someday, will tell me I can’t tell real from imagined and that I harbor in my body as well as in my mind unshakeable beliefs in things that clearly don’t exist… “except you see,” I’ll argue, “they actually do.”
At which I’ll show her the button I discovered wedged in wicker at the bottom of the clothes hamper. It’s here I’ll have my third heart attack, she might well agree. Because I won’t put it down, the egregious button, because once it was -F-’s if not some other tart’s, a button loosed from -F-’s garment while Jag and she lay fucking, which it appears they must have done, since my placing of the button against the buttons on Jag’s shirt collars lined up in the closet, and the buttons on Jag’s shirt cuffs, and even the buttons on my own, flannel nightgown, yields no match. Which means it isn’t our button, which means it must have come from -F-. Because the harder I look for proof of Jag’s betrayal, the more I don’t find, the more sure I am it’s out there. Which my therapist, should ever we quite meet, will assure me is normal, insulting me somewhat, I must confess. After which she’ll ask me a True or False question, as her website attests she closes her sessions. Again she’ll pick up her pen and steer the notepad near. “True? Or False? The only way a pussy hat ends up in Cotton’s trove of toys is your husband sleeping around on you.”
“Boyfriend,” I’ll say.
“True,” I’ll add.
A shameless part of me goes feral, owning this truth, the animal in me drenched and untethered. Belief is just as tricky as forgiveness is. If you believe that you believe in something, does that mean you believe it?
Or does it only mean you believe you believe it?
Because the spire.
Because the turret, because the belfry, because the crow, because the chickadees, because the loft, because the sanctuary. Because the closets, because the glove compartment, because the pockets, the gym bags, the medicine chest. Because never. Because always. Because there are too many places to look. Because there aren’t enough places to look. Because it’s good to believe at least in anything, yes? Such as in the conundrum of Delusional Syndrome, which not believing you have it means that you do, while believing you have it means that you don’t. Like when I’m sad, I always worry I should be happy, and when I’m happy, I worry I should be sad.
I place the button on the ruler app, write out the diameter on a sheet of Lilac printer paper of which we’d found reams in Nels’ sister Hilde’s attic, loop the button to the page with a thread from my shirtsleeve and snap a photo of the button before filing it away in the EVIDENCE OF JAG’S PERFIDY file. Because I’ve found a new love note in Jag’s messaging app from -F- or some other woebegone vamp, which it turns out I wrote him myself a few weeks ago. Dear Jake, I read, because that’s what I put when I wrote Jag that love note. Because this story isn’t at all made up. Because I’ll cackle when I say this, not wanting to pay a therapist to watch me cry. Because on Zoom if we meet will sit a carton of Kleenex to her side of the screen, the cloudy billows all the softer each time I catch myself reaching for one.
Because I hate Jag’s Dri-FIT golf shirt but I love how he insists, while making love some nights to me, “Nearly every hole is a world in itself,” which Golf Magazine says of some green somewhere. Because “It’s here I’ll finish reading to you this evening,” I used to practice remarking, rearranging the pages while tucking them away in my rear jeans pocket while trying not to lose my footing on the heels of my boots on my climb down the steps away from the podium.
Soon, too, there’s the question of roses.
Such as why must the rascals persist in buying them, instead of making more lasting, less palliative apologies, such as changes they might forge in the manners by which they conduct themselves? And do us lucky recipients really dig roses, or have we only been trained to imagine we do? I mean the roses Jag brings me today are fine, the dusky fringes of the petals foretelling decay, as roses are meant to. In honor of a writing student, a potter by trade whose name I forget who lay ill in Pennsylvania composing her memoir then perished before the manuscript was completed, I choose our glassiest vase, place it atop a blue dessert plate she’d made me, fetch the same pair of scissors I use to cut my hair, fan out the woody stems and make my usual attempt at practiced derangement. Sifting in the frosty crystals I watch them dissolve, trading them in my mind for the sight of Jag wielding the tipsy bouquet amid grocery bags, a look on his face of doing his best in compensation for what, he’ll never say. When I wonder should I blame him for his best not being good enough, I come up with no answer. His gut bends different than mine, like when over the years our dogs get put down, I sink to the floor to stroke their ears as they fade while Jag stands ever tall with his head canted sideways, his vigilant stance. He cuts a mind-blowing figure. At a fundraiser once for our state representative, where Jag stood noble in suit and tie, a stranger pulled me aside to ask should he know the old man with the Jameson.
“Jack who?” said the stranger. “Looks like someone I should vote for,” eyeing the platinum rope of Jag’s ponytail.
Then, too, there’s the question of thorns. Didn’t florists once remove them? And when Jag buys me roses during food shopping jaunts, does that mean he might buy some for -F- as well? Perhaps he buys mine first, then grows gloomy over buying no flowers for -F-. Or does he select -F-’s roses first, then twist himself into less of an asshole by choosing me some, too? Of course I might learn things from the receipt, if only I might find it.
My search for proof of Jag’s betrayal of me takes four hours. First I riffle his wallet, then the sacks of chicken parts he stashed in the freezer, then through the file named SHARABLE HOUSEHOLD AND GROCERY EXPENSES, which is where receipts belong. It’s when I slide my fingers past a picked open seam in Jag’s jacket lining I find the flimsy slip of paper, along with a single, stray earring backing that sets my blood on fire. Does -F- even wear earrings, or is some other fallen lady probing that tender spot on her lobe where a bauble ought to be? I know Jag’s got no other women, know I shouldn’t call them tramps, know it’s rage that makes me do it, know they think his name is Jack, know I’m making them up, know I’ve got no speck of proof, know that when I can’t find them I’m sure of them, still.
“Is that so wrong?” I’ll ask my therapist. Must I beat myself up for entertaining such powerless, fruitless delusions as the flashlight I found in Jag’s Audi’s center console, mistook for a vibrator, then lobbed out the window when it started cumming?
She’ll say she needs me to figure that out, myself. Needs me to fight off self-knowledge a while, in order, at last, to revel in it. It’s not often we’re encouraged to take a open-minded look at our own delusions and be objective in the tantalizing face of them.
“Right?” she’ll ask.
“I’m paying you,” I’ll say. And then I’ll wonder what she’ll look like when she stands up or if she’ll switch herself off before I can blink, the wall blurring behind her after she’s gone.
“Dear Fake Howard,” I’ll open my next love message, not wishing to gush at some Jake, again. Soon too, there’s the question, Which is worse? What Jag did with -F- or that he makes the dogs complicit?
Because of dogs being dumb.
Mute, that is.
Dogs being, despite their eagerness to comfort and attend, keepers of the secrets of the shapes of his hookers and the snacks they fix and the soaps they unwrap and which sighs and heaves are whose and how deeply Jag breathes in of them.
Except the dogs do try to tell me. I can see it in their large eyes tipped in my direction as if to pour the hurtful vapors of their knowledge into me before shrinking back in service to their species, after all, dogs not wishing to hurt their people.
Oh, Cotton, I plead. If only dogs might snitch. If only Cotton might tell me whose head that hot pink pussy hat tastes like, most.
Only then, as it happens, the receipt’s got nothing written on it.
It’s but a slip of blank foolscap, reminiscent of those odds and ends of cooking parchment I often find squirreled away in tins in the kitchen, Jag being unable to throw stuff out. Whatever symbols and exchanges might once have been accounted for—whatever is, was, or might someday be imprinted there—is withheld by a slip of paper from me, for like the dogs, blank paper can’t share what it knows, remaining mute, gap mouthed, spatula tongued.
Only what, I wonder, makes of paper a receipt if there is nothing written on it?
It might as easily be a love note with nothing written on it. A life story whose most urgent, indispensable material is yet to be determined. Had I a length of red ribbon I might make a diploma and learn something from it, some spooled catechism in answer to the question, Is it really so awful, being slept and run around on by the person you love? Just who do I think I am, anyway? Am I really so great, never to be forsworn and dishonored, cheated, devalued, disgraced and forsaken?
I back the truck from the garage and drive it to the bend in the road past the lake, where I like to sit fuming in the ochreous glow of the lamps at the tennis courts. The wolves silent in the zoo amid their wooded enclosure at the far side of the park, I hold the missive to the moon roof. I aim the flashlight app upon it and sit deciphering the blank receipt over and over in vain hope it might offer its code to me. We own between us a single magnifying glass in some drawer in some room down some hall in our house, and by god I drive home and by god I find it…but still the message won’t give, will not divulge itself to me. It might as easily be one of my own new novels with nothing but eight words drafted of them yet, like the manuscript reading solely, “Chapter One of Nine Hundred and Sixty Four” which I drew up on my birthday and sat reflecting upon for hours before sequestering it dispiritedly in my WORKS IN PROGRESS file. I know folks who might kill for such a handful of pages, which I regret not saying enough to my students is another thing you need if you’re writing a story, for somebody to die. Dying doesn’t mean you need to drop down dead, I might reassure the ones who balk at killing off their characters. Think of dying inside. Think of dying metaphorically. Play with grammar, I might suggest, think of taking your last breath in the zero conditional, like, “If somebody kills you, you will be dead.” No matter what, I find it hard to tell my stories apart, the drafts I switch from first to third and the emails I’ve copied out of Jag’s phone, reading, Sorry, We’re done, I can’t take this any more, Please open, Don’t Abandon, Packing up, I’m on my knees, We need to talk, Don’t go, We’re in trouble, I’m begging, which make the floors lurch beneath me but turn out not to be pleas from Jag’s spurned sluts, only fundraising entreaties from Democratic Headquarters.
I secure the receipt in the UNSOLVABLES file and nudging shut the drawer find a copy of a Lit Mag to which I subscribe. It’s their twentieth issue, called, On Anxiety. I have yet to read through it, haven’t even unwrapped it, dread rending it open, consider mailing it back. “I’ve retired,” I’ll inform them. “I no longer teach writing. Instead I’ll teach my granddaughter how to play sudoku and recite to her everything she’ll ever want to hear about octopi. Sorry. Octopuses. Please forward On Anxiety to someone who might make better use of it than me.” But then in checking Subscriptions to learn if sending back is possible, I find myself delivered, oddly enough, to a Submissions page. Submissively I click Submit, fill in a few blanks, also submissively, and am ushered through a portal to an entirely different lit mag, one that once published a story of mine and whose editor will no doubt light into me in public for purchasing but a single Contributor’s Copy.
What does she think we live on? I’ll find. Acknowledgements on acknowledgements pages?
“When you’re stuck in a thought, it’s like you’re holding a flame to the palm of your hand,” I recite to the dogs from the Self Talk Challenge, headlights scrolling past their faces where they crouch at the window watching for Jag to drive home again. I won’t join them there. Instead I’ll rescue myself from a fourth Takotsubo by following advice from the Thought Stopping section of the Self Talk Challenge, selecting the thought I’ll swear not to pass whole weeks enacting. All of them, maybe? Vetting the tablets I find in Jag’s Bayer bottle on What Pill is This? before searching for hidden Sildenafil in the space above the ceiling tiles? Posing as Jag on the LiveWell App in hopes of spying extra scrips for when he hangs with his prostitutes? Or maybe emailing him in the guise of his ex from a yahoo account I’ll take out in her name, asking will he meet me at the Motel 6 this Tuesday, then be there myself when he knocks on the door?
“It sounds easy but it’s not,” my therapist will enjoin if we ever do meet. “It sounds silly but it works, if you can make yourself do it. Stop having the bad thought by telling yourself to stop thinking about it. Interrupt the things you do when you have the bad thought by telling yourself to stop doing them.”
Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, also called Broken Heart Syndrome, leading to non ST-elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI). Occurring mainly in women from stresses or anxieties emotional or physical. Named for the trap, not for the octopuses, also called devil fish. It doesn’t kill you, ordinarily, a Takotsubo heart attack, but it kneads your healthy heart into sort of a balloon that doesn’t know how to pump, for in most cases only a couple of days. Also cephalopod or head foot, the devil fish is called, since every limb of every octopus includes its own brain. Not tentacles. Arms. Don’t cry. I’m fine. Because when I was in the hospital the doctor held my hand. Like this, for five minutes. Five minutes. Like this.
Because, too, how might I forgive Jag for doing stuff he never did?
Among the gifts I’ve received from my MFA in Writing students over these three decades is a novel by Amos Oz of which the type is so miniscule I can’t make it out, a silk shawl of a most unusual hue from Urban Outfitters, two crates each winter of Meyer lemons, beaded bracelets, pickled okra, an oil lamp with a pencil in place of a wick, a print of an excitable looking woman with frizzy curls who is supposed to look like me, the dead potter’s blue dessert plate, a palm reading, a tarot reading, a tea reading, a mind reading, imported teas, smoked salmon, wild rice, a kite, and two wedding invitations.
But never roses, I consider. Nor nectar sipper, bubbler, window feeder, spire, seed hoop, jelly cup, baffle, cupola, or hummingbird swing.
Because the wolves don’t howl in their enclosure at the zoo as often as they used to, we build our fires extra raucous, Jag and I, intending to inspire them. The firepit crackles as we shimmy with our whiskeys nearer the stones, June Bugs veering so close they hiss like chestnuts in the flames amid the dross Jag tosses in ahead and behind them. First goes a pair of my worn-down clogs he’d pulled out of the trash to squirrel away in the cellar ages ago, and one of Nels’ saved coats with moth wings quivering under the collar. It’s unlike Jag to do this, throw things out, that same look in his eyes as when that train chugs by, the one he hears now and then ever since he began being hard of hearing. To my therapist I said when I zoomed with her this morning across a table in my study that it hurts me so much what Jag did with -F- I can’t look into his eyes without seeing them as ponds with ducks in them in hunting season - decoys, I explained, since Jag is partial to his decoys, protective of them, pairing them up in their spots on the water since real ducks won’t come if the decoys aren’t properly, faithfully mated. He was downstairs, oblivious, on the phone with Time Warner, and my virtual tryst gave the house a funny aspect, the dogs colluding in my treachery, guarding the Websters with which I’d blocked shut the door.
Swiping handfuls of moss off the rotted settee that once was Aunt Hilde’s, Jag pokes the spindles into the heat. Not pausing to think, I’ve bounded over to the pines and pulled the bird church away from its cavern of needles to find things exactly as he likes to claim, not a bribe from the place selling garden lights and statuary but a stained, pocked box, floorless, warped, the bright nave caved in gone slack as a candle. There’s nobody in it, no Jay, no chick, just some sooty looking petals that got in there somehow from the bouquet of roses I hung upside down to dry from knobs in the kitchen. The flimsy walls curling inward once I’ve stood it in the flames, the ruined steeple turns lovely all over again even while disappearing, the blood red of the petals flaring and sparking.
“You know, Hon,” Jag sighs, “I don’t know if you believe in me anymore.”
Is this one of our jokes, one of those things that in order to unsay, we’ll laugh at together? “Oh, Jag,” I sigh. “I mean Jack. It’s Jack, right?”
We share one of our low, birdlike chuckles. I take a sip of his whiskey, he a guzzle of mine. Were I a writing teacher still and this story a student’s, I might advise they boost the sections to an uneven number, though that would make for 13. I haven’t told Jag, yet, about my meeting with the therapist, won’t mention to him she was missing an earring. For must I beat myself up? Is it so unforgivable calling them whores while not remembering the name of the potter who died while smack in the middle of writing her memoir? And is it really so lamentable, my therapist might ask, dying before your memoir is finished? I’ll run my fingers through my hair, pop a vitamin gummy, and blot my mouth on the sleeve of my favorite sweater. “Not really,” I’ll answer. “I mean, really. Doesn’t everybody?”