by Wilson R. M. Taylor
All of the red-and-blue striped pizza boxes are empty except one, which holds three slices of meat lover’s, chock full of sausage and pepperoni and greasy cheese that droops over and leaves long lines across the cardboard.
The TV is on, blue light flashing across the surface of a fizzing glass of soda. It is very dark, like a cave, and for the past several hours the man on the couch has only moved to check his phone or drink or eat.
He isn’t large, isn’t lazy—in case you’re beginning to imagine crumbs in his goatee, folds of neck jiggling as he reacts to the thundering helmets and roaring grunts of the football game.
He is watching a theatrical production of Mamma Mia!; he is very skinny. His eyes are so sunken, in fact, that you begin to wonder if there are hard drugs hidden between the pizza boxes. But the jitters are natural—ADHD, so bad he barely made it through high school. It makes him a good painter, though, oddly enough. Not a Picasso—a house painter.
When he paints he is transported. The brushes become one with the paint, and the lines go down just so, each stroke just short enough to hold his full attention, each board covered perfectly. He should have been promoted by now, but he’s quiet, and he has no people skills.
He rubs his eyes, thinking of work the next day. His neighbors on the other side of the duplex are arguing. He turns up the TV, concurs, becomes one with the stupor in his living room.
His phone buzzes repeatedly against the table.
“Hello?” His voice is reedy, annoying but not enough to be completely unlikeable.
His boss is on the other end, and he hangs up after a short conversation. Suspected exposure to the virus. Two weeks at home. Jesus. What if he has it? He saw his mom last week.
And what is he going to do with all of this time?
In the morning he realizes the house is a mess. He cleans, the TV looming like the obelisk from A Space Odyssey. He puts in a DVD, an old James Bond, and sunlight tracks across the floor. He eats cereal.
It could be Saturday, he realizes, but there is something irrevocably not-Saturday about it, and that makes all the difference. On not-Saturday his boredom looms; free time stretches anxiously. His toes wear a hole in the bottom of his shoes, a mark on the floor.
Outside, a small patch of green grass shows through the window: his small chunk of the continuous American lawn, winding its way from sea to desert. In two weeks he can do whatever he likes with it: a grill, a lawn chair. He can be part of the middle-class myth, gulping down days in suburbia. It has never seemed so appealing to be a part of something.
He begins to worry he will lose his mind in isolation. He calls his mother.
“Good,” she says, when he says he has no symptoms. At first she was worried. He realizes that nobody is more worried than he is. All that time—stretching. What will he do with it? The thought is terrifying, consuming him—the time will consume him. He orders another pizza, fires up the TV, staves off the infinite with a bite to eat and a filling for his time. Kill or be killed, he thinks. Kill and be killed.
Sunset steals up. The doorbell rings but he can’t open the door. “Leave it outside,” he calls to the pizza man. “I’m sick.” Receding footsteps, the thud of a car door. Pizza again takes over the coffee table, slices slowly vanishing, until again there are precisely three.
The body was splayed like a dead thing across the frame. Beneath its bulk N. was on his back on the roller. His blue-jean legs emerged, one straight and one bent, as if he was half-man and half-car. It reminded Hector of a mosquito he had squashed the night before above his toilet, his belt jingling over his unbuckled pants. All that was left were the legs, mocking him, somehow ingrained in the white plaster. He wondered if they were still there. He made a mental note to check when he got home.
It was Saturday. N. had been at it for a few hours, tinkering with the remains of a blood-red Corvette Stingray in the shade of the garage, which was really just an assemblage of roll-down walls, open on all four sides.
Hector was keeping him company, having a beer or two and listening to the radio.
46 new cases today in Coconino County. As we continue to see numbers rise—
“Change that,” said N., his voice muffled.
Hector ambled over, scratching his belly, and flipped it to the country-western station, where some cowboy was singing about how he was good at drinking beer.
“Want another?” he asked.
N. walked himself out from under the carcass and put the wrench down with a clink. “Sure.”
Hector gamboled over to the fridge and pulled out two cool brown bottles, letting the chill of the refrigerated air kiss his face. The door squelched shut. He looked out into the haze for a moment, at the bright red-and-green trolley that had been gathering dust in the back parking lot for months. Live. Play. Work., it said on the side. Marina Point. Raw desert glared behind it like a yellow sore.
He turned back to N. and handed him a beer as he eased himself into one of the green plastic chairs. The glass was already beading with sweat.
“How much longer are you supposed to keep that trolley?”
N. took a swig of his beer and let it settle into his stomach before he answered. He had slow, thoughtful eyes, deep brown beneath thick black eyebrows. He appeared unconcerned. “No idea. It’s all fixed.”
“They still haven’t paid you?”
“No. But it’s no skin off my teeth. I don’t need that back lot right now.”
“Live. Play. Work. What an idea.” Hector shook his head and laughed a little.
“I guess thats the future,” said N., who was prone to the occasional exaggeration. “They’ll put us all in our little cubicles, and we’ll never leave. Shit, they’ll know what we want before we want it. My kid was talking about how his phone knows what ads to give him. Based on what he says or something . . . .”
Hector drifted into the soporific heat, half-listening. It was August, and the air was vibrating. His mind wandered back to the mosquito he had killed last night, the way the swishing smack had coincided pleasantly with the jingle of his belt buckle. He remembered hesitating, which he took a little bit of pride in. Most men didn’t have that kind of discipline, not to harm another creature unless it was absolutely necessary. Swishsmack. Dead.
“Anyway,” N. was saying, “you wouldn’t catch me dead in one of those places, but they have big money, out of LA, and once they get started up again they’ll pay me well. They live at a different scale out there.”
N. was probably fifteen years older than Hector. Hector had known him since he was just a kid, working in the general store next door. He would come over after his shift and watch the men work on the cars, the great steel beasts with their innards stripped out, engines like intestines spewing steam-heat into the night air.
N. had lapsed into comfortable silence. Hector looked at the gleaming hull of the trolley, which was bothering him. It looked like a Disney World version of San Francisco, he had decided a while back, and it had grown in his mind like a tumor ever since, until he couldn’t help but spend about half his time at the garage staring at it, like some kind of giant pearl on the glittering asphalt.
He felt the solidity of his thighs, the rough denim of the jeans beneath his fingertips. Swishsmack. Dead. Flushing toilet. His body ached from the sex last night, from love.
N. spun a bottle cap on the table between them. It circled and spiraled simultaneously until he trapped it with a callused palm. Swishsmack.
“Remember that robbery we saw when I was in high school?”
N. looked surprised. “Yeah.”
“I’ve been thinking about it recently. How it could have been me behind the counter.”
“No, man,” said N. “That’s no kind of talk. That’s ancient history.”
“I don’t know,” said Hector. “If he’d come in fifteen minutes earlier I would have been the one with my brain plastered on the wall. Instead I was out here.”
N. looked at him sideways.
Hector was staring at the red and green gleam of the trolley. He remembered watching from the parking lot as it had happened. The thief had been wearing a newsboy cap, like a caricature of an old mobster. He had been silhouetted by headlights; he had vanished. They never caught him. Hector hadn’t gone to work for a while, which he could ill afford.
Jingle. Swishsmack. Dead.
“Is this about your grandpa?” said N.
Now Hector was the one surprised. He laughed it off. “Don’t psychoanalyze me. Get back to your tools, old man.”
N. made a mock fist and got up, downing his beer. “Pull down that door, will you? Sun’s about to come in.”
Hector got up and tugged on the rope attached to the corrugated steel door that closed off the western view, vision shrinking like shutting hospital curtains, curtains he hadn’t been allowed to see close around his grandfather. Down the hill was the stoplight and the island of grass by the drug store, aggressive, green, overwatered. A woman in a purple shirt tugged at her mask while she waited for the light. The door rattled home.
“Why are you trying to save that thing?” Hector asked when he’d settled in with another beer.
N. was in the underbelly. “Just a pet project,” he said.
Hector wondered if it would be a gift for N.’s son. He was turning 16 this year. He ran cross-country at Antelope High, like all the best athletes did, like Hector did once. “What are you running from?” Hector’s father used to ask, but there was pride buried beneath it.
He was sleeping with a blond woman named Faith, a bartender in one of those horrible chain places downtown. The sex was good; his body ached for it. He wasn’t sure if it was love. It had only been a few months. He had killed the mosquito for her last night, he reasoned. Swishsmack. Dead. Undone belt. Love. Maybe he would have a son of his own soon.
His mother had said, only half-joking, that the shock of seeing him date that woman was what had killed his grandfather, not the disease. Stupid disease. Zoonotic disease, he had read, caused by living in close proximity with animals. A little like smallpox, which the Europeans had put on blankets and given out as gifts. Swishsmack. Dead.
The rattle of the wrench against pavement brought Hector out of his anger. “You good?” he asked.
N. grunted and eased himself out of the metal belly. His hands were covered in grease, slick machine blood. “Just this stabbing pain in my arm.” He eased himself to his feet, favoring his right arm. “It’ll go away in a few minutes.”
Hector was filled with concern for the old man. He was a second father, an uncle.
“You been to the doctor about it?”
N. shook his head and offered Hector a cigarette. Hector declined but went to stand with him by the northern wall. They looked out at the glistening trolley, the disgusting bulk.
“Like Moby Dick,” Hector muttered.
N. didn’t say anything. Hector realized he was in serious pain. He shifted from foot to foot. N. inhaled, coughed, inhaled again. Lake Powell glistened in the distance under sunset’s sideways rays.
“Better,” N. said finally.
The sky above them was turning a deep, dusty blue, presaging royal purple, a reminder that the baking sun still had nothing on the blazing enormity of darkness. Behind them a metal American-made beast skulked, ready for resurrection.
Wilson R. M. Taylor writes poetry and fiction in New York City. His work appears in Blink Ink, Every Day Fiction, and a few other places. He also won two poetry awards this year; if you’d like to read more of his published work, please visit www.wilsontaylor19.wixsite.