At a red light, Mike pushed in the car lighter and pulled the emergency brake. He slipped the full ashtray from its slot, opened his car door, leaned out and knocked the butts on the pavement. The lighter popped. He fit the ashtray in place and lit his cigarette. A long light, he leaned over the steering wheel looking up at the sky.
It was the bluest sky he had ever seen and he waved his hand at the smoke beneath the windshield to get a better look. Rolling the window down, he stuck his head out. No clouds, no sun, just water blue. They have a special name for blue like this.
The light turned. The car behind Mike honked. Pulling his head in, he pressed the gas. The car lurched. He released the brake and by this time the car behind him was laying on the horn. Mike moved through the intersection and when the car passed him on the side, the other driver gave Mike the finger.
Mike pulled the car into the driveway, turned off the engine and stared at the house a long time before lighting another cigarette and pulling the keys from the ignition.
A bag of garbage sat on the porch just outside the front door. Inside, the house smelled of lemons. In the kitchen, the chairs were overturned on top of the table and the rugs were rolled in the hallway. A mop dried in a bucket in the corner.
The sweeper stood in the doorway of the den still plugged into the wall, the carpet clean and roughed like brushstrokes on canvas. Carol sat on the floor, her legs folded underneath her, a cigarette burning in an ashtray beside her. The picture on the television screen was creamy and chipped and she was turning the UHF knob carefully.
“What’s wrong with the TV?” Mike said.
Carol started, almost overturning the ashtray, catching her cigarette with both hands to spare the carpet.
“What’s wrong with the TV?”
“Nothing’s wrong with the television. What’s the idea of sneaking up on me?”
“Who’s sneaking up?” Mike said. “I just asked what’s wrong with the TV. Why are you on the floor?”
“Well, you should’ve said something when you came into the house,” she said. “Let a person know you’re there.”
She raised the cigarette to her lips and Mike pulled his out of his mouth. He looked around for another ashtray. He knocked the ash off into his cupped palm and held it.
“Why are you home?” she said.
“I left work early.”
Carol blinked and the cigarette grew hot in Mike’s hand.
“Are you done with the sweeper?”
Carol looked at the sweeper in front of Mike; the tip of her cigarette glowed redder and she nodded. He returned the cigarette to his mouth, reached down and yanked on the cord.
Carol said, “You shouldn’t pull on the cord so far from the wall.”
Mike shrugged. He walked down the hall to the bathroom and tipped the ash into the sink. After running water over his hands, he lifted the lid of the toilet and dropped the cigarette into the bowl. From the den, Carol called to him. He flushed the toilet, looking out the little window over the seat.
Back in the hall, wrapping the cord, he shoved the plug end in among the coils and jerked the sweeper off its wheels with one hand.
“Did you say something when I was in the bathroom?”
“No,” Carol said, turning off the television.
Carol heated up the leftover pizza and they ate in the kitchen off paper plates and drank soda with ice out of glasses. Mike pulled at the crust with his teeth and Carol watched the bubbles rise in her glass as she ate.
“I got honked at today,” Mike said.
Carol ran a finger through the wet on her glass.
“Driving to work?” she said.
“This afternoon. Driving home.”
Carol tilted her glass. The ice bobbed in the soda.
“Some people,” she said.
Mike wrapped the leftover pizza in foil and Carol dropped both plates in the bin. She dumped the ice from their glasses in the sink and Mike fit the leftovers in the refrigerator. Carol put the soda bottle next to the pizza. When she left the kitchen, Mike moved the soda bottle from the right side of the shelf to the left.
After dinner Mike stayed in the garage. He kept a little refrigerator under the workbench and a radio on the shelf next to jelly jars filled with odd screws and nails. He trapped a block of walnut in the vice and turned a screw into it. Sitting on a stool, Mike drank beer and adjusted the dial of the radio. Later, he locked up the garage and stepped through the kitchen. A light burned over the sink.
At the far end of the darkened hallway a blue light from the television glowed in the doorway to the den. Mike called down the hall.
He waited and then brushed his teeth in the bathroom and turned out the light.
The next day, Mike had his lunch in the park near the fountain. He bought a hotdog and a soda from a deli near the corner and sat on a bench. A young woman with a white puppy lay on a blanket reading from a novel. The puppy chewed on its leash and beat at the grass with its paws. At some point it stood up and barked at a leaf and when the young woman called its name it barked at her.
The hotdog was good, with relish and onions and mustard, and Mike wished he had bought some chips and a bottle of beer.
“Beautiful puppy,” Mike called over. “What type of dog is that?”
The young woman looked at Mike through her dark sunglasses. Then she turned to the dog.
“What are you reading?”
She raised the front of the book and Mike squinted to read the title.
The young woman tilted her head and Mike raised his soda. She lowered the book and returned to reading. Mike drank his soda, watching the water in the fountain bounce and splash. A beer would’ve gone nice with that hotdog.
Half an hour later a man joined the woman on the blanket. She closed her book and kissed the man. The puppy attacked his hand. What a good little monster. Mike took the rest of the day off and spent it at a bookstore drinking coffee.
* * *
Carol fried bacon and eggs and put them on buttered toast with lettuce. Mike sat at the kitchen table watching his neighbor through the window carry the trashcans to the curb. Carol served the sandwiches on paper plates and they drank the last of the soda.
Mike liked his yolk to be runny. He liked to dab his bread in the yolk as he finished his sandwich. Carol always broke the yolk in the pan and fried it with the whites.
“We should get a dog,” Mike said, watching through the window.
Carol made a noise with her nose as she ate.
Mike’s neighbor was sweeping out his garage, a tattoo on his arm partially covered by his shirtsleeve.
“Have you ever wanted to read a book?”
Carol held her sandwich away from her face and said, “What?”
“Have you ever thought: that’s a book everyone should read, I’m going to read that?”
Mike looked into Carol’s eyes as they moved from side to side. They were brown with green flecks. He had never noticed the green before. She pushed the last of her sandwich into her mouth. Her teeth clicked.
“What do you want to read?” egg and lettuce on her lips.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Carol dropped her plate in the bin and set her glass in the sink. A few moments later, Mike finished his sandwich. He set his glass in the sink with her glass and the two glasses from the night before.
In the garage that evening turning screws into the piece of walnut, he decided Thor was a good name for a dog.
During the night Mike used the toilet and when he was done he walked into the kitchen. The light glowed over the sink and he stared at the four glasses under the faucet. After a moment he reached into the cabinet for another glass. He filled it halfway with water and drank it slowly. When it was empty the glass went in the sink with the other four.
In the bedroom doorway Mike stopped. As his eyes adjusted he could make out Carol’s dark shape waiting at the end of the hallway.
Her voice said, “I fell asleep in front of the television.”
“What were you watching?”
She hunched in the darkness, wavering slightly. After a moment, Mike lay on the bed and waited for her to move in the hall.
Mike got little sleep and Carol stared at the wall all night. In the morning a yellow tooth of sunlight cut through the window and Mike rose before the alarm clock rang and Carol turned it off so that it wouldn’t.
He ate breakfast at a small place he passed each day on his way to work. They had outdoor tables under white umbrellas and every time he drove by Mike was sure they served fresh-squeezed orange juice. This was his first time there and when he took a table outside he asked the waiter. No, the orange juice was not fresh-squeezed.
French toast was their specialty and Mike ordered it with whipped cream and strawberries. He read the newspaper and when the waiter asked if he wanted more coffee Mike said please. Mike folded his hands on the edge of the table. People walked by, looking through shop windows. This must be how they eat breakfast in French villages.
Mike called work and took the day off. He went downtown and visited a tattoo parlor. He looked at samples on the walls of tigers and sharks and dragons; monkeys and Chinese symbols, skulls and naked women. Birds and flowers were for girls. In the end he decided he wasn’t ready for a tattoo. He bought a new hat instead. A fedora.
He drove out to a shooting range and stood behind the counter to rent a pistol. He thought at first a .22 and then remembered some of the detective shows he had watched as a kid. The snub-nosed .38 looked like it could really bark. Shame they didn’t have a Luger. Under the counter were Glocks and Walthers, and on the wall Smith & Wesson’s. The .9mm’s and .357’s caught his eye. Then he saw the .44 Magnum. The clerk handed Mike a box of shells, a target and a headset.
Walking past the other shooters, Mike took a spot at one end of the gallery. He affixed his target to the line and pressed the button that sent the target down the range. Mike loaded the .44, holding each bullet between his fingers, slowly slipping them into the cylinder. He expected them to feel cold and hard, but instead they felt like buttons.
He held the pistol at the end of a stiff arm, one hand bracing the hand that held it. He thought, squeeze, and breathed and down the line came a rolling rain of pops and in the range before him a dark figure waited. Mike’s hands weren’t very steady and then his elbow and shoulder relaxed. He squeezed and the target jerked and he squeezed again, again, again, again, again and then he set the pistol down.
Mike shook out his arms and shoulders and flexed his fingers. The shooter in the slot next to Mike leaned over and gave him a thumbs-up. Mike wanted to tell the man that it was his first time. He pulled the fedora down on his head and spent the box of shells.
Later that day, Mike had an ice cream. Then he went to the bookstore where he bought a Russian novel. Mike couldn’t pronounce the author’s name but at least the book was heavy. He tried to read the first chapter, giving up a few pages in. He was happy to have the book sitting out in front of him on the table beside his fedora and an espresso. To smoke a cigarette at the table would be great right now. His mouth still tasted sweet from the ice cream.
Cerulean. That was it.
In the garage Mike laid the Russian novel on the shelf beside the radio and pulled a nail from a jar. He hammered the target to the garage wall and stood back to look at it. The hammer weighed heavy and good in his hand and he pushed the fedora back on his head. After a moment he took a deep breath, returned the hammer to the workbench and dropped the fedora over the piece of walnut held in the vice. Mike stood the Russian novel on end, between the jars of nails and screws so that he could read the spine. He almost called out for Thor.
He came in through the kitchen and grabbed a glass from the cabinet. Filling it with water from the faucet, he leaned against the counter. The light was still on over the sink and there were the glasses: three from last night, two from the night before, one more from today. Beside them a package of hotdogs lay defrosting. Television sounds came from down the hall. Mike held the glass to his lips but did not drink. There was the glass in his hand and the glasses in the sink and one more in the cabinet. Only one glass left and the hotdogs in the sink under the light.
Mike walked down the hall.
She sat on the floor in front of the television turning the UHF dial on the set. A voice came through the speakers though the screen was fuzzy, a woman complaining. After a moment of silence the woman responded to something that did not come through the television. Carol rested back on her palms.
Still looking at the television screen she said, “What, Mike?”
“We’re running out of glasses.”
“Wash the ones in the sink.”
Standing in the doorway Mike held up the glass. The one-sided conversation on the television ended and Carol began to adjust the knob again.
“Do you want me to fix the hotdogs?” Mike said.
“Do you know how?”
She found a teenage boy talking about a party he had gone to the night before. Mike sat on the arm of the couch. Carol lit a cigarette from the pack atop the television. The teenager had felt up someone else’s girlfriend at the party and now wanted to call her.
“Isn’t that the Miller kid?”
“Sounds like him,” Carol said.
“Every other word is a profanity.”
“Didn’t you cuss like that when you were his age?”
“I don’t remember,” Mike said.
The ash on Carol’s cigarette grew an inch long and she pulled an ashtray off an end table.
“How are we getting this?” Mike said.
“I found it on the high end of the UHF. Television is picking up cellphones or cordless phones or something.” She said, “I used to cuss like that when I was a teenager.”
“It makes him sound unintelligent,” Mike said.
“I thought it made me sound cool.”
When the Miller kid finished talking static filled the speakers. Carol stubbed out her cigarette. She stared at her bare feet falling apart, coming together. The static buzz scratched at Mike’s ears. He felt as if he had fallen in a well. He wanted to run away and was afraid to move and did not know what to do with the glass of water in his hand.
“I almost got a tattoo today,” he said. “I bought a hat instead. I’ll never wear it again. I bought a book I’ll never read. I named a dog I don’t have. I’m a joke. All I do is pretend. The other day I saw the bluest sky I have ever seen and I come home and it’s like seeing it from the bottom of a well! I’m afraid of myself, Carol! Goddamn! God-goddamn!”
Carol switched off the television as Mike was talking. The screen fell black but for one tiny dot of light burning in the center. She was thinking of the Miller kid, how his hair bleached in the summer sun and fell over his eyes. She remembered those parties, lips like smoke and pillows, and nervous hands pulling at her clothes. Boys like that, smooth and lean, she could thrum like a guitar string. Somewhere Mike was saying, “I know how to cook hotdogs, Carol” and the dot on the screen burned and burned then flared and was gone. She liked that.
BIO: Todd is a student at George Mason University’s creative writing program.