by Angel Propps
The sidewalk was buckled and pitted. In some places, it looked like an earthquake had dislodged the concrete in jagged chunks. The August sun clearly showed the decay and poverty of the street. Honeysuckle vines lay dead on sagging, rusted fences. The thick reek of fried bologna and reefer lay trapped in the layer of wetness that was the awful humidity. Cars sat on blocks. The sound of some old song from the eighties blared from a window momentarily, then died away. There was a stillness broken only by the rattling wheeze of air conditioners that had been patched together with duct tape and prayers by desperate owners, who were not sure the units, or they themselves, could stand it another year.
Lou Williams stood in front of the huge window that dominated most of his living room. One hand twitched at the curtains he had moved aside just enough to peek through. The other rested on the butt of the old revolver he had taken down from its box in the back of the closet. A dreamlike expression rode his wrinkled old face as he stood there, caught between wondering if that window could indeed act like a magnifying glass and burn right through him, and the vivid memory of bringing his wife Sally home to that house for the first time. He could still remember exactly how her milky white skin had looked as she had lain on the bare floor beneath the then uncurtained window, how she had gleamed with moonlight and desire.
“Ashes to ashes and lust to dust.” The words were too loud in the hushed living room and he jumped a little even as he uttered them.
Out on the street, a figure came into view. Lou knew it was Becky Holman and winced at the sight of her. Becky had been afflicted with the same disease that the street, and surrounding neighborhood, seemed to pass on like a carrier. At sixteen, she had been a femme fatale, a Lolita in knee socks and a plaid skirt. Her breasts had bounced under skimpy tops and her hair had swung across her back as she strutted down the steaming asphalt. At twenty-one, she was listless and tired. Her walk was the slow sun-struck stagger of an eighty year old. Her body had gone to seed with the first baby and now, pregnant with number three, she was as misshapen and squat as a troll.
The street had not always been so unkind to its residents. At one time the street, and the streets beyond it, had been home to a different kind of people. Block parties had filled the summer nights; people had sat out on their porches in the long twilights and spoken to their neighbors. Kids had played simpler games back then. Sweetly-scented wives had kept the houses spotless and the men had cut the grass every Saturday, spring, summer and fall, before neatly stowing the mower away in the back yard shed for the winter.
Lou could remember how, fifty-five years before, on the day he and Sally had moved in, their kitchen had become filled with casseroles and pies and Jell-O molds. Likewise, when someone died, food had filled the houses. The neighborhood kids dated, then married each other and the sound of football being played at the high school stadium could be heard for miles.
Then something had changed. Wives began wearing strange, piled-high hairdos and eyeliner both thick and blaring that made their eyes look turned up at the corners. That eyeliner always made Lou think of feral cats. One day he had come home to find a note from Sally on the kitchen table that said she had decided to “find herself”. He had stood in that kitchen wondering why she needed to find herself; she certainly had not seemed to be lost and if she had been, how could she have gotten that way when she rarely even left the neighborhood at all?
Things had gone down a bewildering hill after that. Boys ran amok, growing hair to their very asses and women kissed each other and tossed their bras into bonfires. Vietnam bloomed like a malignant rose and the long-haired boys ran for Canada rather than stay and protect their homes. To Lou, that had been unforgivable and he often wondered what was wrong with the youth of America, what had happened to make them so cowardly and ungrateful. Everything had seemed to be moving too fast and when the sixties slammed into the seventies he grew even more confused. Then the seventies careened into the eighties with a loud crash, accompanied by a crash of the economy. Lou had begun to withdraw even more from a world he no longer knew or understood.
Following Sally’s abrupt departure, he had occasionally taken home a pretty secretary from one of the offices in the spinning mill where he earned his paychecks. He also, less often, went over to the next county to a certain trailer park to see a woman whose specialty was not the soggy pork chop dinner she always served her gentleman callers but the dessert she gave them after.
When the spinning mill finally went under with a groan and a whimper, he found himself forcibly retired and without any type of structure. His life had revolved around the schedule he had stuck to since the sunny afternoon in nineteen sixty-four when his life as a husband and father had ended. His routine had been easy: breakfast of coffee and two eggs, toast with margarine spread thickly across it with exactly three swipes of the knife, work from seven am until three pm, a quick stop at the grocery store on Wednesday afternoons for the rations of beer and frozen dinners that were his dietary staples, a lonely four-pack of toilet paper, single ply of course, and the odd bottle of dish liquid or shampoo when it was needed. Then home to watch television, eat a slow, sad dinner and go to sleep in his easy chair.
The chair had caved in completely in nineteen ninety-seven and he had cried for hours. He had no idea why. The loss of that chair had unhinged something in him. When he had lain down in the dusty-smelling bed, on the clammy mattress that had not seen a human body for over three decades, he had felt swallowed up and adrift all at once. The wood of the frame and supporting slats had groaned in protest until he had been unable to bear it and had gone out to try to get some sleep on the spring-busted couch.
Behind Lou’s head, dust motes spun and whirled in the long column of washed-out sunlight that slid between the chinks in the curtains. Lou knew the kids in the neighborhood knew he watched them but he could not seem to make himself stop, nor could he explain why he had gotten up that morning and gotten the rust-spotted revolver down. He had some vague notion that time had gotten away from him somehow, that he had failed somewhere but he was not certain of where or how.
He half turned from the window and saw the picture of Little Lou. Little Lou had been barely six years old when his mother had decided to go walkabout. She had never returned; nor had Little Lou as far as anyone knew. Lou looked at the fly shit-speckled photograph of his lost wife and son: the thin wheat-colored hair that had graced their heads, Sally’s anxious brown eyes and Little Lou’s chubby red cheeks. The blue and white jumper that showed the child’s precious dimpled little knees. Lou had never forgotten the sight of his son whirling about on the living room floor to those damn Brits with the bad haircuts and sly grins. He had been outraged by it; it had not been decent, the way Sally would rock and roll all over the house to that damn band of ruffians, and she always got Little Lou to dance along.
“The little brat always was a Mama’s boy.”
A half remembered rage fought a thin regret in Lou’s gut. He had bitterly resented the way the child had refused to play ball with him, running screaming for his mother if he so much as fell or got the slightest knock from a baseball or football. But what could he have done to help mold the kid into a man when every time he tried, Sally came at him like a fire-breathing dragon?
Once he had caught the kid eating jelly on toast and drinking tea from a china cup with the two Mackie girls. John Mackie had called him, and after some hemming and hawing he had suggested Lou get over there posthaste.
Lou could still feel the red heat that had crawled into his cheeks at the sight of his son – his son! – perched on a thin, pink chair with a high-crowned hat on his narrow head and a girlish giggle trilling from between his lips as he ate red-smeared toast. The spring sunlight had picked out the tiny white flowers embroidered on the collar of the dress the girls had put on Little Lou, and John Mackie had kept his face averted and down as Lou had stripped his son, beaten him and hauled him home. John had understood why that beating had been necessary. Sally had not.
“How could you hit him like that?” she had screamed as she stood there with the sniveling kid tucked into her arms. Her eyes had been hard and bright with unshed tears; Little Lou’s had streamed plenty of water, however, and Sally had had to scream louder to be heard over her son’s howls.
“You monster!” Sally had shouted at him. Nearly five decades later, Lou could still feel that sting. He had not been able to get a word in edgewise, to explain to her why it had been so wrong. He had known, right then, that it had gone too far and the boy was spoiled for life, but he had been unable to say anything that would make her understand, so he had given up.
Beyond the window, one of the rail-thin young men who lived in the crumbling house on the corner staggered outside and stood there staring up at the sun like he had lost his mind. Lou could recall when a woman named Lisa Nelson had lived in that house. She had been widowed in World War Two; her husband had had the sense to die for his country, and she had made a homemade batch of fudge every Fourth Of July, then crumbled it into the chocolate ice-cream she hand-churned out there on her porch. Looking at the scuzzy man standing on that lawn, Lou felt a sense of total outrage that Lisa, who had come to his house for years on Sunday afternoons to talk for a few minutes and pass him a box filled with homemade cookies or a pie, was dead and the man on the lawn alive.
The gun seemed to grow heavier in his hand. The old metal had warmed in his fingers and he raised it, putting it to his temple in a gesture he was not even aware of as he watched the neighbor piss on a patch of dirt that had once been home to lilies and gladioli.
The gun made a hard chink as it tapped against the glass of the window. The sound made Lou blink but he found himself fascinated by the very fact of the gun: the way the sun gave the metal a hard twinkle that sparked up into his eyes; the heat of it in his hand.
“Bang, you’re dead you little sonofabitch.”
The man out on his lawn jerked around as if he had heard the words. Lou could almost imagine that the bullet had puffed right past the bastard’s head, scaring him senseless. A grin creased his sagging cheeks and a jagged laugh spilled from his mouth.
“Got ya! Take that you dirty rat!”
The man lit a cigarette, eyed the length of the street for a few more seconds, hitched up his greasy and too-long denim shorts (why they wore them that way Lou would never know), and ambled back toward his front door. Lou tapped the gun against the glass and wondered if there were any bullets in it; if he could hit the man from where he stood, if he dared… and then it was too late. The front door of the house opened and closed and Lou could almost smell the ghost of homemade fudge and hear old forties torch songs playing sweet and low. Then he was alone once more with the seedy street and the unyielding sunlight.
Lou let the gun fall back to his side. It hit his hip as it did so and a yelp of pain sprang from his mouth. Then guilt over the direction of his thoughts – killing a man while he stood in his own yard, what had he been thinking? – set in. He stepped back from the window, allowing the curtain to fall shut. A puff of gray dust drifted upwards and he sneezed.
The curtains had once been plush red velvet. Now they were mostly rags. The little color that remained in the material had long since faded to a sickly pink, streaked with the occasional suggestion of coral. The outline of the window could be seen even when the room was pitch black; the curtains were lighter in that area and seemed to glow with an inner light. Dust lay in the creases; the shreds still clinging to the rod were festooned with cobwebs.
The whole house had an air of abandonment. It could have been left behind years before for all the care it showed. The rugs were threadbare and dirty. Dust lay thick on the floor, undisturbed except for the tracks of Lou’s heavy boots.
Out on the street there was a slight noise and once more Lou’s liver-spotted hands twitched at the curtains. It was Bessie Reynolds, walking home from her job as a cashier at the Wham Bam Burger down on Main and Thirteenth. Lou watched her walk for a moment, watched the heavy thighs rubbing together under brown polyester and the ass lifting and falling like two oversized pistons, and he raised the gun again.
“I would be doing you a favor.”
Bessie plodded on, sweat running down her face. Lou could almost taste it. On the heels of that thought was another: that when Sally had lain beneath him she had always laughed when drops of his sweat had plopped onto her face or breasts. Or she had until that Mama’s boy had come along, anyway. The memory of Sally’s face, upturned and filled with wanting, made his fingers tighten on the trigger.
The boom was very loud. For one second it filled the entire world. Then it died, replaced by an odd, high ringing. Lou’s mouth sagged open. Out on the street, Bessie Reynolds took two more steps, teetered, and crashed to a halt on the broken sidewalk.
“Oh damn,” Lou muttered. Hysterical laughter welled up, ran over. He rocked himself back and forth, tears streaming from his eyes as the man in Lisa Nelson’s old house came running out, along with a few of his equally useless friends.
The men surrounded Bessie. There were yells and one stood, sticking his hand up to his ear. Lou knew he was calling the cops. The fact that a person could use the phone without having to go through all the motions that had once made the invention so special – the dialing of the big dial, the sound of it whirring as it slid back into place, the sitting down in a chair with the cord dangling from one end of the receiver, the wire running into its snug little nest in the wall, infuriated Lou.
One man screamed and the rest scattered, running like chickens before a storm. Lou was laughing again without being aware of it. The hot lead had shattered the glass of his window and tiny, sharp shards had slammed into his face, hands and chest. Blood traced the furrows of his forehead and trickled from the corner of his mouth where he had bitten his lip, but he did not notice.
Bessie twitched and heaved, got to her feet and then fell again. That time she landed half on the sidewalk and half on the street. She had lost one of her safety-approved nonskid shoes, and her stocking-clad foot looked terribly pale and small on the concrete.
The gun clicked and then clicked again. Lou shook it, stared down the barrel in puzzlement and then realized it was empty.
“Bullets in the attic,” he spoke aloud, and walked across the pellets and bits of glass, crunching them beneath his boot heels as he made for the spot in the hallway where the door swung down to reveal a ladder that gave access to the attic.
Dimly, he was aware that there were yells coming from outside, that there was some major commotion going on, but he was too focused on getting the hook that held the attic ladder in place to notice. When the latch finally gave, rust flakes pattered down and the smell of something both old and sweet filled the house.
Lou stood there looking up, wondering how many years it had been since he had visited that room at the top of the stairs. When he put his foot on the first step it gave way beneath him and he almost fell on his face in the middle of the hallway. He stood looking at the spongy, rotted wood, forgetting what it was he had been after in the attic.
There was a loud banging on his front door and Lou flinched.
“Crazy old bastard shot Bessie!” came a yell, and Lou put his foot on the second step up, feeling the material of his dirty green slacks stretch taut. Then came a long, tearing sound. For a moment, he felt his heart almost explode from his chest. He had thought that the ripping was the stair letting go and found himself terrified of falling. He could break a hip or an arm. He was not a young man anymore. He could feel the frailty in his bones at the prospect of hitting the floor. Another flurry of loud bangs from the direction of the living room made him move.
The attic was not as dark as he had thought it might be. His head popped up through the door and he sneezed. The dust was even thicker here than in the downstairs rooms. And the smell…it was an odd smell: the mingled odors of dried flowers and mothballs lying over something else, something once ripe and warm but now faded to a brief memory.
Sounds in the lower floor of the house made Lou stop and stare down at the floor in bewilderment. His eyes flickered across the sheeted bulk of a couch that they had bought at a yard sale, their first purchase for the new house. He closed his eyes, remembering the way the sunlight had picked out the drops of sweat on the thin brown hair that lay on Sally’s arms and the freckles that dusted her upturned nose.
He had come home once unexpectedly from work to find her lazing in the sun on the backyard. Little Lou had been a bare bump in her belly then and he had stood there watching her for long minutes, watching the tick of the pulse in her throat, the shape of her fingers on the ice-choked glass that she held against her wrist (an old cooling trick that had never seemed to work for him), and the blue veins traced across her lids.
He had never been able to imagine what it was women did all day. He had always had some vague notion that the housework and cooking and shopping occupied all their time. Then he had come home to find her in hair rollers and a robe, picking over the destroyed remains of the breakfast table, sipping Bloody Marys and eating salmon on tiny points of toast with the other wives of the street. After that, any time the factory called a half day he stayed away until it was his normal time to return home; standing there watching her during those moments had frightened him. She had not looked like his wife in those moments; she had looked like someone else entirely.
The attic was explosively hot and bird droppings smeared many of the sheets that Sally had always put over the things he’d hauled up there. The sheets were yellowed and gray with dust. The sunlight that came in from the one tiny, open space where there had once been a window seemed too strong, too brilliant, and he wished he had thought to nail a board over it years ago.
The gun fell from his nerveless fingers as he walked past the silent, blinded objects under the sheets. Once upon a time he had known where everything in the room was, what lay under every single sheet. Sally had wanted to throw everything out but he would not hear of it, one more thing that always set them to arguing. He ran his hands along the covers as he walked through the eddies of dust that rose around his feet.
The wardrobe was made of solid oak. He pulled the sheet away from it and ran one finger down the once gleaming surface, feeling the dried out quality of the wood. It was one of the old-fashioned ones, the good kind that stood six feet high and was made to hold an entire family’s clothes if need be. The doors were solidly hinged and padlocked closed; he knew that the wood was so heavy it would absorb the hardest blows. Or the loudest screams.
He felt tears crackle at the corners of his eyes. He could feel himself being transported back in time, back to the day he had come home to find that note on the table.
The sun had poured like honey through the kitchen windows that day. The whole house had still hummed with Sally’s womanly energy and he had looked up at the sound of a footstep overhead.
Lou wiped his eyes and reached onto the top of the wardrobe for the key to the lock. He had picked the lock up just that afternoon at the hardware store, he recalled as he worked the orange-mottled key into the bottom of the lock. Some kids had been stealing gas from the lawnmowers and he had been determined not to be a victim again.
Sally had been in front of the wardrobe, bent over, busy stuffing her winter clothes into the suitcase at her feet. When she had seen him, her face had gone from fearful to angry.
“You do not know what it is like to always be a prisoner of this damn house! To never be allowed out!” Sally had yelled. “I am more than your wife dammit, I am a human being and I want…I want…”
He had known what she wanted. She wanted what all the wives suddenly seemed to want. She wanted to run around without a bra and sleep with any and every man who came down the pike. She wanted to go back to college and neglect her responsibilities to her family.
Sally was curled up in a fetal position around Little Lou. The dress she had worn that day had been a bright, happy blue; now it fluttered from her bones in strips, and Little Lou’s baby teeth poked out from his jawbone like those tiny squares of gum he had been so fond of chewing on.
“Holy shit,” someone said from behind Lou.
Lou could not turn around to see who was speaking. He was looking at Sally. He wanted to tell her he finally understood what she’d meant when she said she had been a prisoner of that house. He himself had been one. He wanted to ask if she remembered the day they had gone for ice cream, driving along the old highway out by Sander’s Creek until dusk had hung heavy across the late evening and how, when they had stopped, she had slow-danced to a sad little ballad coming from the car’s radio right there in the high grass while frogs and crickets sang. He wanted to tell her he remembered exactly how her skirt had swung out around her tiny waist like a pink bell. How the thought of her dancing out there under the shadowed sky, in the soft amber of his low-beamed headlights, always made him want to cry.
Hands grabbed at him. He could feel the arthritis in his elbows and knees gearing up; soon it would be a dull flare that would roar into pain, but at that moment the hurt in his heart was too high to give way to the physical.
Voices rolled over Lou. He heard them but ignored them. He was drifting away, moving away like the sea from the shore, in soft, undulating waves. He was twenty-two and freshly married, wide-eyed and ready to start a family with pretty little Sally Johnson, now Williams, and they were looking at the neat house that sat on a tiny and well-clipped yard. Her pink, polished fingers were trembling on the sleeve of his second-best jacket and he knew the realtor was looking at them; they should not appear to want it too badly or they would never get a good deal but just then Sally spoke, her voice thrumming with passion:
“Oh Lou, I could stay right here forever!”
Copyright © 2012 by Angel Propps
Angel Propps writes horror, erotica and romance as well as articles on feminism and body image. She is a leader in her Leather community and frequently spearheads food drives as well as volunteering in homeless shelters.
Angel lives in North Carolina near a ski resort and a campground that boasts an emerald mine that is open to public mining. (Yes, she has tried her luck,and will again) She is working on a novel and is currently protesting an amendment in her state that will ban gay marriage.