If You Don’t, Somebody Else Will
by T. Sean Steele
Devon and I were trying to make dinner but the kitchen kept getting larger and larger.
“That’s not what’s happening,” Devon said. “It’s just getting darker in here. The edges of the room are disappearing. But that doesn’t mean they’re gone.”
“Oh…” I said noncommittally. This was one of those situations where someone explains something to you but you don’t think they are right. In fact you wonder if they even believe what they’re saying. Or, was this one of those situations? By that I mean, was this not one of those situations?
In the living room, all the windows were open. They were windows that used small chains to go up and down. I can’t explain it any better than that. It was a windy night. The chains clinked back-and-forth in their runners. It felt good in-between my ears. I had had at least two drinks a night for the past few months. Tonight was my first time, for no particular reason, not doing that. I think that’s why I was attuned to the clinking chains. It was clear to me this was a sound you could only hear without any drinks in your system.
Devon was talking.
“I’m looking for a situation where I can really give my heart the run of the yard, you know?”
“A hound dog.”
They smacked the table. “Yes.”
The food was gone except for faint tongue smears on our plates.
“Actually, I take it back,” Devon said. “What I’m looking for is unrequited love. That’s the best kind.”
“Unrequited love is pretty easy to come by.”
They smacked the table. “No.”
In the end we decided to have a beer. At least one beer. The beers were in the fridge and the fridge was in the dark, ever-expanding kitchen. Which of us was going to go get them? I was going to go get them. The beers had been my idea and in fact I had not mentioned the idea of getting beers out loud to Devon.
“Where are you going?”
I walked for what felt like two minutes to the fridge and the kitchen reached a point where it was too big to have only one person occupying it. It couldn’t have been only me in there. Opening the fridge I spilled the green interior light onto the floor and saw a thin old man down there on his knees. He had a caulk gun in hand. His name was Keeth. He spelled it for me. A slat was missing from the floor and he was filling it with some sort of wood substitute. Brown glue. From up where I was I could see his hairstyle, not a great one: a reverse-mohawk. It must have been naturally occurring because he caught me looking and mussed up the hair to hide it.
“The floor here, does this look like a new slat? Does it fit with the rest of the floor?”
I made a vague noise that meant nothing, which was good enough for him. He stood up.
“Don’t take anything out of the fact it’s me fixing the floor and not you. That’s just circumstance. It’s only me doing this and not you because my sister is the landlord. She’s paralyzed so I do anything that requires you to be able to move your body. Anyway if your sister were the landlord, you’d be fixing the floor, and maybe I’d be standing over you.”
“Probably not, though…” I said, barely there. I was looking around for Devon. “My sister isn’t paralyzed…”
Keeth scratched his belly and itched his chin, which was a replica of his belly, sagging with a deep dimple in the middle.
“That hardly means anything,” Keeth said. “Your sister not being paralyzed, I mean. In the past, my sister wasn’t paralyzed, either. The only difference between you and I is that you’re still living in the era where your sister isn’t yet paralyzed. Do you want to know how she came to be this way? My sister, that is. Not yours. You’re in a lucky position, friend. I didn’t have someone prepare me for my sister’s paralysis by telling me the origin of their sister’s paralysis. This might save you some psychic damage. Here it is in a few sentences. She threw a party, loosened the bolts on the porch, then stood out there and beckoned everyone to join her. But she was out there with them. That makes it slightly less malicious, don’t you think? The courts let her stay on the outside with me as long as she never tries to fix her spine.”
I found a full six-pack in the fridge. I wrapped it in a hug against my chest and asked Keeth his sister’s name.
“Yes, the landlord.”
“Her name is Beeth.”
“No, Beeth. Like Beth.”
He took me by the point of my elbow. He wanted to show me where the porch had been. I was expecting him to take me to a window, but no, he took me to a door, and opened it, and it dropped straight down three stories into a mess of weeds, big weeds with large flat leaves, and thin cord-like weeds which rose up stiffly along the brick wall of the apartment building.
“It used to be vegetables but then I let it weed over. I planted corn and those small tomatoes. Cucumbers and radishes. Onions. Vegetables… I’d parcel them out into shopping bags and leave them against the front doors of the victims’ homes. It didn’t last. The brothers and sisters of the victims, they broke into the garden and ripped everything up. They razed it with urine. It still smells like urine if you concentrate. The trick is, don’t concentrate.” He chuckled and put his hands on his stomach. His white t-shirt was thin and you could see the matted black hair around his belly button. His hands formed the shape of a heart but I didn’t know if that was intentional.
“Sorry about the delay. I found a six-pack, though.”
“There are only five.”
“I drank one on the walk back.”
A few beers later and I had been right. I could no longer hear the clinking of the window-chains. There was nothing. I couldn’t hear anything.
“That’s not true,” Devon said. “You can hear me talking, can’t you?”
They belched. “And you could hear that, couldn’t you?”
I tried to belch back but acid rose up my throat instead. Heartburn and it had been going on for weeks. Also, I hadn’t had a solid bowel movement in who knew how long. There was the shadow of my flagging health but then I didn’t know why solid movements were the standard. The idea of something solid coming out of a body was maybe disgusting. What if one were too big? What if it got stuck? No, liquid was best.
“What were we talking about?” Devon said.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“That’s it. Promise you won’t clip off this era of your life, then sew the prior and future eras to each other. My existence is tenuous as it is.”
I wondered if that was something I was even capable of. What had been the previous era of my life? I couldn’t remember. And the future era? Who could say. There was nothing to clip. It occurred to me Devon might be the only thing I would remember out of any era of my life. What a thing to be able to tell somebody.
Outside, dogs were barking. How was I able to hear it? This was the sort of thing a couple of beers ought to have muted.
“Hear those dogs?”
“Yeah. They’re fighting. Sounds like one is about to get its throat ripped out.”
I smacked the table. “We can’t have that. We love dogs.”
“Grab your coat, let’s get out there.”
“Coat? It’s summer.”
We found the dogs in the backyard.
“Which one is winning?” Devon said.
“It doesn’t seem like either one is winning.”
“I agree. They look evenly matched. Visually neither looks like they have the upper hand. But then listen to their barks. One is high-pitched, panicked, and warbling. The other is lower with more traditional growling. So, one is clearly winning, but which bark belongs to which dog?”
“I have a fact about dog fights,” I said. “About how to stop them. You’re supposed to stick your finger up their butt.”
“Which one’s butt, though?”
“I suppose you’d stick it up the aggressor’s butt.”
“That brings us right back around to the question of who’s winning.”
Then a third dog began to bark. Somewhere above us. On the second-floor porch. It wasn’t a dog. It was a woman in a rocking chair. Between the coughing and the rocking chair, you might think this was a person with complete control of their limbs, but it wasn’t.
“I know what you’re thinking. Why a rocking chair?” Beeth called down to us. “The illusion of movement.” She coughed. The force of the cough shuddered her body. “Coughing also works.”
“I didn’t know paralyzed people could cough,” Devon said.
“Oh, yes, all of my meat parts still function. I just can’t move the skeleton. Think of me like a plank of wood covered in worms. Do you know who I am? Did you think I was dead? Sometimes I think I’m dead. More or less I am dead. Keeth likes me this way. You can pick me up and put me anywhere. I’m easy to hide. For instance, way back when you first looked at this place, and now I’m talking to you, here, Devon, way back when you first looked at this place, I was in the tub. It doesn’t drain well. There was a shallow pool that rose just above my ear canals. It’s why I have this cough. Months later and I still have this cough.”
Beeth coughed again and her head lolled to the side. She busied herself trying to swing her head back up using the momentum of her eyeball movement. This was all clear for us to see, the porch light exaggerating her every impossible motion. Another cough left her folded forward in the rocking chair, head between her knees, arms swinging at her sides.
“Would you mind coming up here to put me back in an upright position?” she asked.
“Sure,” Devon said.
“Don’t do it,” I said. “She’s rigged that porch to collapse.”
That was good enough for Devon. We turned our attention back to the dogs.
“Do not touch my dogs,” Beeth said.
But we did.