Matt Paul. Naked as He Came.

21 Dec

NAKED AS HE CAME

Ben pounded the Dodge Charger’s brake in front of his old house, the passenger-side wheel mounting the rise in the curb. He sat admiring the fender-shaped impression in the garage door, and remembered his wife trying hard that night to shrug it off, the reverend’s intervention a few days later, how at the time he just couldn’t stop laughing.

As the engine idled, he swabbed the flop sweat salting his lips and took in everything that had changed: a black iron lamppost in the front yard caught the shine from a brand new Ford pick-up truck in the drive—a brute of a machine that covered the paving stones he’d painstakingly laid down three summers ago.

In the rear-view mirror he tightened his tie knot to cover the missing button on his Goodwill shirt. He drank cheap turpentine whiskey from a faux-silver hip flask, spilled some, cursed himself. He figured he’d get away with the stains if he kept his suit jacket fastened.

The car door took a few hard swings to shut properly. He counted three times out loud. He heard a soft purr and scratch that he reckoned was him reaching the level of drunk where sounds become a living, ungrabbable thing.
The scratching continued, low and muted, like the treble turned all the way down. It pushed its way through into the here, now, happening. A fox standing in the middle of the cul-de-sac’s turning circle was staring him down.

“Welcome to the neighbourhood,” he thought it would say if it could. “Don’t even think about getting comfortable.”

In Ben’s mind, the fox spoke like a grizzled detective from some fifties noir. He flipped it a middle finger, the fox cocking its head with curiosity.

Walking heel to toe along an invisible line in the road to test his poise, Ben reached an L-shaped row of neck-high redwood trees lining the yard. He pushed through the branches instead of shuffling by and they sprang right back up into his face. Graves’ Property Solutions was emblazoned along the side of the truck in italic script font. Ben cupped his eyes and peered inside the driver-side window; an open map and crusted burger wrappers littered the foot wells. All he knew about cars was that people kicked the tyres, but it looked like a nice ride. He took aim and booted the front tyre, his foot bouncing onto the wheel arch and setting off the alarm. A bedroom light came on, and more from neighbouring houses. He still had time to run, he thought, but these days he was trying to be a man who stuck around, learning through a self-help book that no problem is solvable unless you own it. He rubbed out the pain in his shin and wondered if it was bleeding. Movement at the door activated the porch light and he only had a moment to adopt a casual pose.

The silhouette of a stocky male appeared in the doorway.

“Can I help you, pal?” said in an accent Ben couldn’t place. The silhouette was holding something in his sweatpants pocket.

“Travis, it’s OK. It’s my husband.”

Mindy stepped out beside Travis, folding a thin robe across her chest. Her hair had been pulled into tight braids. She looked like she’d put on a few pounds. Travis stretched a tree branch arm across her and leant on the porch support, handgun brandished.

“This guy?” he asked.

“Hey, beautiful.” Ben said. He stood tall and made his chest swell as if he were confronting a bear in the forest. The effort made him sputter and cough, and he knew that Mindy could already tell he’d been drinking.

“I just came for my personal effects,” he said, doubling-over.

“Buddy, it’s after two, whatever junk you got can wait.’”

Mindy stepped down into the yard. There was a succession of soft pops and fizzes as a swarm of horse-flies kamikaze’d the bug zapper. The late-summer breeze carried a waft of sulphur from the flooded storm drain.

“Kim told you about Travis?”

“Your sis gets real truthful after a few.”

“Take her home with you?”

“Came right here. Remember when you said you wanted to be the priority?’”

Mindy made a knot in her robe. “Let’s just get this done,” she said. “Leave your dirt on the porch.”

Ben wriggled out of his shoes at the top of the steps and followed Mindy inside. He tried to breathe in the familiar smell of her coconut body butter, now replaced by citrus perfume. He purposely passed the Travis sentry within inches of his face, thinking he could take him if the situation called for it. He made a mental note to aim for the band-aid stretched above his eyelid.

“First of all I resent the accusation that I’m drunk,” Ben said in the front room.

“No one said a damn thing about anything,” Travis said, shutting the door and pulling the chain across. Ben thought Travis looked around the same age, but his skin was worn out like a cattle-hide that’d been smacked down by the sun after years of working outside. He wore an oversized grey-white tee shirt saying I beat the meat feast challenge. Ben bet he’d beaten a few.

Mindy said Travis’ name from the kitchen like a mother chastising her child.

He showed Ben his palms in surrender. “Gotta do what the lady says, right?”

Ben said nothing, jangling the small change in his pockets instead. He felt something different swell in his chest—it was his house, bought and part-paid, but he was a visitor now. His life, but he’d been uninvited. Wallpaper strips pasted across the once berry-red feature-wall formed a New York cityscape, recognisable from the Empire State building’s needle piercing the leaden skyline. The gas fire had been ripped out and replaced with a cast iron wood- burner framed by a marble-look surround. Above the mantelpiece hung a silver filigree-framed mirror instead of his plasma TV. It really did give the box room the illusion of space like Mindy always said it would. A seat made from railway sleepers had been built into the bay window where his liquor bar had once stood. He scrunched his toes into the soft carpeting, tried to imagine assuming this role again, what he’d change if given the opportunity, what he’d admit to keeping the same.

“You sittin’ or what?” Travis said from Ben’s recliner—the tan leather executive edition with built-in shiatsu setting and an ice chest underneath the armrest. Ben had bought it on layaway and hadn’t finished paying it off when he and Mindy split.

Travis picked at his teeth, wiping his fingers down the side of the seat cushion.

Mindy carried a mug of black coffee and a brown bottle of something that looked like beer but was probably organic elderflower. “It’s late, Travis, we don’t want to keep him,” she said, handing out the drinks then sitting in the window. She eyed Ben as she folded her loose ankle-length skirt underneath her, as if to make the point that she’d rediscovered her dignity and was sure as hellfire not misplacing it again.

As Travis carefully peeled the bottle label, and Mindy posed lotus style with her eyes closed, Ben thought she looked like she was about to teach a class on how a diet of green tea and lima beans leads to existential enlightenment. She’d flirted with new-age stuff when he was still around, sporadically taking Yoga classes, touring each major religion. The dyed-in-the-soy-cotton-wool life suited her. All he had to do was figure out where he fit.

While Mindy fussed with the window seat cushions, Travis lifted the lounger’s armrest and shoved the bottle deep into the ice. He pulled out a brown bottle of something different, the label pre-peeled, and faux-smiled wide at Ben as he slouched further into the chair and released the footrest.

“It looks so different in here, darl’n,” Ben said, circling the room. He glanced down the short hallway that led to the kitchen, taking smug comfort in it looking much the same: the foundation crack still ran from the baseboard to the yellow-haloed damp pooled behind the cornicing. “What else is new?”

“I boxed your things. Why don’t you go grab them from the utility room and I’ll call you a cab,” Mindy said from behind a veil of calm.

“Utility room? You have been busy, Trav.”

Travis drummed his pocket to some internal beat as he watched Ben pass
by him towards the fireplace.

“Chop your own wood?” Ben asked.

“Naw, we just throw in your old clothes.”

“What was wrong with the other fire?”

“Gas is so inefficient, Ben,” Mindy said, scraping her hair back into a ponytail then stretching her arms above her head into a pyramid. “We’re going off the grid. Travis is getting us a deal on solar panels for the roof.”

Ben ran his flat palm across the recently plastered chimney wall as if he were inspecting the finish. He didn’t know much about anything but to his mind it looked like Travis was a pro. “Seems like you got with the right guy for the job,” he said, careful not to sound wistful.

“Everything else is easy once you find the stud, eh, babe?”

Mindy shook her head but let a smile slip through. “Go on, Ben, out
through the kitchen.”

“Rustle me up a sirloin while you’re out there, boy.” Travis added.

Ben let that one go. He was a better man now, and Mindy would soon see it.
The kitchen still smelled like turned milk from when Ben had a smoothie explosion and couldn’t mop the bulk of it without tearing out the cabinets.
He’d seen plenty of Travis’ type when he’d spent a few summers working the forklift on a strip-mall construction site: all nail gun, no nails. He’d crashed at enough of these guy’s trailers to know exactly what he’d find if he searched hard enough. Opening the wall-mounted cupboard, it turned out Travis was a rookie when it came to hiding his stash. Tucked lengthways behind stacked rows of canned corned beef was a bottle of Jameson’s, half full. Ben took the hip flask from his inside pocket, filling it until the liquid bubbled at the rim. He kept taking sips to bring the level down.

“Did you find it?” Mindy shouted from the front room.

“Just refilling my mug. It’s great coffee.” Mindy hadn’t dropped the habit of stirring hot drinks with a cinnamon stick. It still tasted like compost but this time it made him balk at the filter in the motel coffee-maker that dripped all damn night and had already claimed his security deposit by water logging the carpet.

Searching for cream to mask the earthy sediment, he noticed a photo fixed to the fridge door inside a heart-shaped magnet. He internally poked fun at
how feeble it looked, the way a group of emotionally anorexic teens would point and laugh at an old man sitting alone at a bus stop.

From their orange lifejackets, red-brown faces, and the sea foam filling the background, Ben guessed they were on a speedboat somewhere warm. Mindy used to hate the heat.

“Let’s go on a road trip,” Mindy had said from the porch swing when Ben got back from his last shift at the site. “Wanna be bums or bohemians? Hallucinate bats along Route 66, or wear berets and black turtlenecks while we sit in the back of a jazz club in Nawwlins? We can be whoever we want. I would’ve been bored on a beach, anyway.”

Life, Ben surmised with the newfound wisdom from a fresh whiskey buzz, was a succession of what-if, if only I’d, and why didn’t I.

What if he’d rented an open-top before he got all scared and dismissive? If only he’d taken her somewhere instead of buying a 60” TV and a used
Dodge while she was away for the weekend at a guided meditation retreat. Why didn’t he get out of the car when she begged, instead of drunkenly
gunning it into the garage door while she was standing vaguely in its path?

“Women and photos, huh?” said Travis, who’d sneaked into the room while Ben was daydreaming. “Click, click all the damn time, and the doghouse if you refuse to get in the shot.”

He turned a full circle, rubbing patchy weeks-old stubble, and eyed up the hip flask Ben was still holding. “Sharing’s caring, pal. I’m fucked if I can remember where I put anything.”

Ben offered it without complaint. Travis rubbed the rim on his tee shirt and threw back a long one, dribbling on the tile. He met Ben’s stare as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and pushed the flask hard into Ben’s chest. Travis whooped and shouted hot damn, and Ben placed his accent at somewhere down in bayou-country with miles of nothing between Wal-Marts, KKK rallies, and gun stores hawking assault rifles to rednecks sober enough to find their credit card.

“That was in Florida,” Travis said, gesturing towards the fridge. “Got a cousin down there fixes up hovercrafts. Fifty em-pee-aytch, gators snapping at us, and she’s yellin’ at me to keep the camera steady.”

“What a drag,” Ben said. Mindy never used to like pictures. She always said it was good enough to experience something without needing proof that it
happened. They once drove all day to see Pearl Jam play Wrigley Field. From their nosebleed seats they could see a dotted seascape of camera phones like pinholes in a black sheet. The crowd were watching the entire concert through a screen, a split-second delayed rendition of the here-now event. Mindy couldn’t see the sense in it. “Why delay the present when you could be living it now?” she said while driving us along the vacant highway that night.

“Speaking of,” she added, on a roll. “I’ve decided we should do California on this road trip—got it all mapped out. First we visit my mom in Tijuana. Now don’t start with me, she got remarried last year and I haven’t even met the guy. After TJ we take the I-5 to LA, where we gorge on tacos and decide who we want to be, then along the pacific coast highway to San Fran. After that I want to keep going north to Eureka cos I want to shout eureka when we pass the welcome sign, then maybe Crescent City for the redwood trees because you know how I love those. Who do you think you’ll be? I’m thinking of becoming a tree surgeon.”

Ben pretended to be asleep, letting her words fade into the blacktop. Through to their first wedding anniversary she kept raising the subject, and he stopped answering long enough for her to quit it by the second.

“I got this, you know,” Travis said, eclipsing Ben’s personal space by leaning against the fridge with that tree branch arm. “I mean, Jesus H, man, did you steal this suit from a homeless guy? You look like you fall asleep on buses.”

He unfastened one of Ben’s shirt buttons and flicked his tie. One of Travis’ molars was yellow-black. His breath smelled like a wet mop in a dive bar. Ben knew there was no way he could take him, even with the butter knife he’d tucked into his shirt sleeve. Travis brought his hand up quick like he was throwing a punch, but at the last second ran his fingers through his flimsy widow’s peak.

“Yeah, we’re good here,” Travis said, then up-nodded across the kitchen to an open door. Satisfied that he’d thrown a scare into Ben, he cowboy-walked through the arch. His hand hovered over his pocket, ready to draw.

The whiskey had given Ben enough nerve to square himself up and follow.

“What’s his deal, showing up so late?” he heard Travis say from the corridor.

“After this we’re free and clear. Promise.” The recliner shifted and groaned under added weight.

“Just want you to myself is all,” Travis said.

“You’ll soon have to learn to share.”

“Still can’t believe it’s happening.”

“This is what happens when a mummy and a daddy love each other very much and we get too drunk to tear the condom wrapper.”

“Quit it, space girl. You know I can’t wait to meet this kid.”

“I love that you smile when you say that.”

Ben heard smacking lips and tried to taste it. He pictured himself as Travis and tried to imagine what he was feeling. This version of Mindy was a bad facsimile. She’d never wanted kids, never settled for settling. What Ben loved about her had gone, or been buried deep enough to be forgotten. She’d chosen who to be and it wasn’t a person he knew, or cared to. This house, this street, this life was someone else’s pop-up picture book.

Ben slipped back down the corridor to the wood-panelled annexe. On a shelf above the washing machine and dryer he found a cardboard box labelled Ben’s crap. Inside was a roll of green felt, packs of playing cards, and multicoloured poker chips. He found a rusted can of Zippo lighter fluid under the kitchen sink, and a box of matches in the cutlery drawer. Ben wanted the Jameson’s, too, but Mindy’s mawkish giggle in the other room sent him through the screen door into the back yard.

The sulphur stench had thickened in the dying breeze. Ben’s shoes sank into the overgrown lawn, damp with dew. He lay down a couple of loose two- by-fours from half-built decking, and dropped everything on top. He got one good spray out the can and set the pile alight, allowing himself a whoop as it went. The flames were slow to build, so he tossed the hip flask in, too. The fire swelled appreciatively.

Ben watched the poker chips warp and bubble. He wondered what else he could toss in. First to go was the tie, then the jacket, soaked in sweat. Ben stripped down, all the way down. The fire grew something fierce as it took everything he had.

Movement came from inside the house. The flames nudged Ben backwards, and as the bubbles popped he remembered the gun. He ran to the side-gate, twice losing his footing on the wet grass, and gave the wood a hard shove. The rusted hinges had little give, so Ben tucked his head into his chest and squeezed through. He spilled back out to the front yard where the fox bolted from the trees to bare its teeth at the sight of this pale laughing phantom coming at it like death, naked as he came.

 

mattfire

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