The car had stalled earlier that day—sputtered and gave out at an intersection. He felt uneasy swinging open the door, stepping out from the passenger seat in the middle of the road. They had to call her father. When they got home and pulled into the drive, she forgot to lock the car. He yelled for her to throw him the keys, and when she turned to him, he thought her skin seemed gray.
He meets her at the door. It’s swollen from the heat-wave and he pushes on it to unlock the deadbolt. She doesn’t take her shoes off, leaves a faint trail of mud from her sneakers that leads over the white tiles in the kitchen, up a few stairs, into the bedroom. He’s following behind and sees her fall into the bed.
“That took too long,” she mutters, her face in the bed.
“I’m making a cup of coffee. Do you want one?”
“Yes. Bring it up, can you?”
Some of the coffee spills over the mug onto this hand, sears him. He swears under his breath, walking up the stairs. He sees her sleeping now, almost snoring, sweat on the back of her neck. Her face lies near an opened gardening book, on a page about lavender, how it doesn’t need too much water. There’s a pile of gardening books on the night stand. She comes home from work at night with books from the local library. Plant nutrition, pruning, soil density, root overlap. He drinks both cups of coffee, lays down next to her and falls asleep.
He wakes up and the sun hasn’t set yet. He hears her in the garden hammering something. When he walks downstairs he finds the blinds are missing from the wall. There’re two white patches at the top corners of the windows, circles of plaster where the blinds connected to the wall. There’s a pain in his calves that’s sharp and settles in as he walks outside and stumbles in the doorway. She’s striking the top of a little windmill, plastic blinds for blades wrapped with twine around wooden post.
“What’re you doing?” he asks.
“I can’t think of a way to make it spin.”
* * *
He starts to take the plates out from the cupboards, the glasses, the silverware. The oven makes the kitchen unbearable, the heat trapped in even with the windows open. He sets up a fan, points it at the oven. He sits in the doorway, drinks water, hums to himself. When the phone rings, he puts the glass down on the ground, walks over, his feet and their sweat sticking to the tile.
He finds her at the hospital, laughing. She tells him not to look at her. She’s lying on her stomach, a cloth draped over her naked body, her feet hanging over the edge, a nurse with hairy arms, plastic gloves, poking through a drawer filled with needles. He’s sitting in a chair next to her head. She explains how she fainted at work, how someone found her passed out in the bathroom, under the sink, the water still rushing, dripping onto her, soaking her blouse. A snake bite. The nurse pulls up the sheet from her feet exposing the back of her thighs. He sees the rash, two thick lines the color of copper, the gray skin. The nurse tells her it will hurt, grabs her thigh, pulls the skin taut, sinks the needle in. She does it twice more.
The nurse tells her she needs to stay the night, that they’ve got a room ready for her.
“Just go home. I’m getting tired.”
“I can stay, if you want.”
“No, it’s easier.”
“Okay. You want anything tomorrow?”
“No, just pick me up.”
He stops at the gas station down the street on his way home. He buys a half-gallon of milk, five dollars-worth of gas, and thanks the cashier, gives a little chuckle at the cashier’s joke. He walks back out to his car parked next to a pump. He dumps out all of the milk on the pavement, watches it run into a drain. He fills the plastic container with gas, twists the seal back on, throws it onto the passenger seat. The smell of gas, the radio — they fill the car. At home he opens their drawers. He wrapped a packet of cigarettes and matches in one of his socks.
He swings open the chicken-wire gate into the garden, gets on his knees, gropes at the ground feeling for the hole. His fist falls in. He unscrews the plastic milk-container and pours the gasoline in, stands up, lights a match, and throws it in. The flames don’t rise higher than his ankles. The hole quietly roars, laboring. It dies out quickly.
* * *
He helps her through the door the next day, up the stairs, into bed. He unties the laces on her shoes, peels her socks off, covers her in a thin sheet. He places his hand on the side of her head, feels her pulse from the veins on her temples. He rubs her forehead with his thumb. There’re a few beads of sweat. He turns to leave the bedroom. She asks him to stay and tell her a story.
He goes on about how he moved in with his mother after she divorced his father, how she found a dirty apartment, but kept saying it was a wonderful place. They’d joke about the marks on the cupboards, the rust on the showerhead, the cracks in the windows that whistled during storms. The place was furnished with couches, and one night his mother came home late, reached into her pockets and dropped a handful of coins on the floor. They rang out against the hardwood and rolled around, a few under the couch. He lifted the couch at one end, and his mother crawled underneath to find the coins. She looked up, saw mildew on the couch’s underside, said something he can’t remember now, but that made him laugh.
“So much about your mother,” she mutters. Her eyes are closed, she’s falling asleep.
He goes on about how he had just began seeing some woman, how he didn’t want to tell her he was living with his mother. They’d go to movies, out to dinner, for walks in a park. He’d drop her off at her place, honk the horn twice before he left. She’d laugh at that, make an exaggerated pantomime that she wanted him to see through the window.
She insisted one night that she come home with him.
“I was tired that night, and I think that’s the only reason I agreed.”
He told her he needed to go the bathroom. He called his mom, asked her to find somewhere else for the night. She agreed. When the two of them got to the apartment, she sat on the couch, pulled the coffee table close to her, starting rolling cigarettes on it, pulled out a lighter, asked him if he wanted any. He said he was good. He tells her now about how frail that woman’s fingers were, how he could see the precise shape of her knuckles, how he switched off the lamp, how there was orange in her hand, around her mouth, how she picked up her clothes in the morning and smoked outside.
JOEY MARZOCCHI a fiction writer from Syracuse, NY, has previously been published in Syracuse University’s annual anthology Stone Canoe. Having received his undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and Literature from Le Moyne College, he now attends Syracuse University’s College of Law.