Senescence by Marc Tweed

What if I waved my arms around in circles and kicked my feet like I was treading water? The sky resembled a receding ocean in oil-blue. It made my eyes swim. 

*

I sat in the La-Z-Boy®, smoking cigarettes like I do when Roberta is out of town, clicking absently until a tawdry talk show punched its way in, made the room mean. Here we go, I said out loud. Nasty television words were beeped out for the benefit of no one I knew anymore.  

*

I lit another and another with lots of shouting and applause that I imagined were meant for me. Clouds above our dirty-beige bungalow conceded to a weird, sinewy sun whose smoky beams rushed in and wrapped suction-cupped tendrils around all objects, obscuring even the television itself. 

I looked around: Sandy’s oil painting of a fruit basket above the couch, the red-plaid TV tray and matching cooler next to my recliner, the ceramic leopard by the front door, Roberta’s fraudulent yucca throwing a shrill shadow. My wasted, hairless arms and abandoned knees. Disembodied talk show yellers and the glossy host on the obscured TV. The sun spray-painted all of it blind-white. 3PM is a room-ruining time of day. I squinted and pulled another beer from the cooler and drained it immediately. I felt my eyebrows tingle and extend, my legs break into an imaginary sprint. Sorry, Roberta!  

*

I’ll tell you what I didn’t do. I didn’t give a second thought to the fact that I wasn’t invited to Toledo by Sandy, my own daughter. It’s been said that I’m not good company for children. What can a shapeless old filth of a man who moves stiff and slow around a prefab bungalow in a subdivision outside of Cincinnati, Ohio do about people’s opinions?

*

I took several lusty swigs of beer as the talk show introduced the next guest, an empty chair waiting on a cheap carpeted stage. The host greeted his studio audience with winking. I had a feeling about this one. There was a strong suggestion of something scandalous on the horizon. You’re not going to believe what our next guest likes to do in his spare time AT NIGHT IN HIS APARTMENT with his wife and brother-in-law on the other side of the wall

Oh boy! But first a word from their sponsor. 

*

The cats, malevolent orange Roger and a fat calico called Traffic, demanded lunch. No avoiding it. I groaned into the kitchen and pried lids open with a yellow thumbnail, scraped the tuna-like goop out with the little spoon we kept nearby for that purpose. They danced around my varicose veins, mewing, then attacked their matching dishes——I didn’t matter the moment I set the chow down. 

*

Big surprise, Roberta called and worried the answering machine. When she’s with Sandy and the kids she calls to make sure I feed the cats but I always say to her the prisoners don’t let the warden forget, baby. Ha! She never laughed or acted light-hearted in any way over the phone. And no, I said I didn’t yell out the window to Bill Next Door, who definitely didn’t bring me anything to drink from the liquor store. I am taking my medication and understand why I shouldn’t joke about prison after what happened to James Sr. and I am sorry.

*

The show came back from commercial break and I hobbled fast back into the recliner. The now-more-visible host introduced a bald but otherwise extremely hairy necrophiliac. There was an exchange between the host and the necrophiliac. Someone in the audience called the necrophiliac many beeped-out words and a troglodyte in full security regalia got in his face with a Politeness Warningtm. I loved it!  

Hey, we’re all people, the host exclaimed with visible teeth. I sat watching in a cloud of fitful, strobing television blinks and dying menthols, thinking well who am I to judge? Inhabiting rooms is my specialty. Beyond that, it’s all up to chance. No lifeguard on duty. 

*

Back-and-forth yelling, some righteous indignation and bodybuilder justice applauded around the room. That’s some sick shit, I thought to myself. Necrophilia, I mean. But also, I will admit, fascinating.  

Roberta never let me watch this kind of stuff but she was in Toledo with Sandy and the grandkids, buying cheap thingies for a toddler named Malariessa and a not-quite-toddler named Geraldo, as well as New Kids on the Block CDs for two angry burlap sacks of exploding hand grenades named Rusty and James Jr. Anything’s fair game when Roberta’s in Toledo! James Sr. was dead by that point so Roberta went every other weekend to help with the little ones. 

After 49 years of strict dedication on my part to never indulge in activities other than those related to my jobs as accountant, husband, and father, I graduated from full-time mannequin to semi-secret party animal every other weekend. I was a prehistoric train out of control on brand new track. So watching this kind of talk show bullshit is like a special secret treat for me, forbidden fruit. Like drinking and smoking inside. Exactly that. And ordering delivery from the place where the CEO kills giraffes on safari. Honestly, I can’t remember if there was a ninth can of beer. Anything’s fair game when Roberta’s in Toledo!

*

The necrophiliac went on and on. I watched with deepening interest; I have no hobbies I would ever discuss with anyone. In ancient Egypt, King Herod the Great painted his dead wife’s body with honey every few days to mask the smell of decay so he could continue to have sexual relations with her. This was all pretty outrageous and interesting until I figured out this guy never fucked a dead person in his whole life. I would have liked some real details instead of some weirdo on TV proselytizing about something he never did. Like, how does it really work to have sex with a dead person? You need lube, right? What about rigor mortis? I found myself kind of wanting to know, you know? Let’s get specific. I doubt the honey trick did much good and you would think there would be better options in the modern world. I switched channels, found nothing to speak of, and fell asleep in the recliner.

*

Dreamed about the grandkids. They were newborns again, all at once. Malariessa, Geraldo, Rusty, and James Jr, writhing naked like earthworms in the flatbed of my old Chevy truck, which I sold long before any of them were born. It was freezing and the babies were squalling against it as loud and angry as they could. Snow piled up everywhere, frosting their ruddy, irritated baby skin. For fucks sake, what do I do? I was looking for Roberta or Sandy or someone, anyone that knew what to do with babies, but instead I found the necrophiliac from the talk show motioning at me from an upstairs window of a nearby house. His lips were moving. I turned back to melting babies amidst a high-pitched, unbearable squeal coming from where?

*

 FIRE!

I woke up and the chair was on fire. The carpet around me was on fire. The house was on fire. 

I WAS ON FIRE!

 I extricated myself from my flame-engulfed recliner and ran to the door. I couldn’t hardly breathe and it felt like I might actually die right there in my own living room. Heavy, labored breathing. But that’s being on fire for you, right? I swung the door open and sprinted, a wrenching, twitching, smoldering freak, down the driveway, forgetting about the cats, the photo albums, the stuff I’d prefer no one find in the basement. And behold! EMTs waited for me with medical kits: clean, orderly young Steves and Lances with indifferent haircuts. A neighbor must’ve called? As I may have been screaming! Ladder truck pulled up, a bunch of firemen hurried out of it and started spraying water on my burning house and I crumpled absurdly into the arms of the biggest of them. My chest was caving in, hot coals igniting my lungs; the pungent, trashy reek of my scant, melting hair as the world waned in a churn of shouting and sirens and one of the EMTs had a distant Boston accent, kept saying I gawt yuh, I gawt yuh with zero emotion

*

The babies again, this time in a bird cage at night. I was an unknown wild animal, biding my time beneath them in a splinter of forbidden moonlight.

*

Through a shocked gauze, I awoke. I was in a glass-walled room that hummed and beeped with devices large and small, with flashing lights and LED readouts and displays stuttering like psychedelic party ornaments. There were a bunch of tubes and shit attached to me. God help me but I wanted a cigarette. Floating faces brought syringes instead. Nurses and doctors, in fact, delivered indignations I could never have imagined in my non-burned life. I ended up pissing through a tube, eating through other tubes, and for a bit even breathed through another tube still. Roberta dropped off secret little candies I couldn’t open my scabby, inflamed mouth enough to eat. She left, always always a-a-a-a-always crying. The grand kids and Sandy drove in from Toledo to stare at me in disbelief for an hour or two before marching somber, in single file, into a Chinese buffet or Red Lobster. After dinner, they watched cartoons in a motel room. That’s the story I was getting, or what I could understand through the clogged filter of my medicated senses. See you in the morning and sometimes they did.

*

My skin grafts failed where sepsis succeeded so they relocated me and my morphine drip to another part of the burn ward. Roberta hovered over me as I was wheeled into another glass-walled room that harbored even more exotic circuitry than the last. I’m going nuclear, I slurred and she tried and failed to laugh. I heard troubled sounds, grunting on the other side of a stiff, powder-blue curtain in that room, a stranger suffering. Hazy from the constant stream of narcotics coursing through my veins, I fell into a paranoid sleep before nurses even finished hooking me up, wiping me down, and ushering Roberta out into the fluorescent hallway. I was on fire and now I’m in a glass room with a burned stranger, I said to myself as my eyelids found a seat in the boiler room of my mind.

*

The babies disappeared before my eyes. One minute they were learning to crawl and murmur in an alien language, then they reappeared all stretched out next to each other in the truck again, even smaller-looking, embryonic even. No one was in the upstairs window. It was hot, super-hot and I feared the ribbed metal truck-bed was grilling the babies like a rack of pork ribs. A fog of hazy smoke descended from I-don’t-know-where and they were just gone, leaving oily, black stains where they’d been and I found myself leaning against the truck’s lift gate, petting a green bobcat with disco balls for eyes.

*

Roberta, attempting stoicism in a mint floral pantsuit, reported thatthe house was a total loss. She’d met with our insurance agent, who said it needed to be bulldozed. More info as it becomes available she said, sitting knees crossed and eyes drained at my bedside, holding a little stack of get well envelopes. There was more news. One of the cats had made it out and was found by a neighbor in their yard the day after the fire. Roger. Traffic was dead in our bathroom. 

I pictured Traffic laying there next to the toilet, her singed fur framing an angry face projecting what is wrong with you people that you can’t put a cigarette out in a fucking ashtray? I think the morphine made me emotional, which was new for me honestly. I cried in front of Roberta! And the guilt, which was heavier than morphine, also new. I killed Traffic by sitting in my stupid chair and passing out drunk while a fully engaged Salem escaped to greet the Sunday paper with a cherry-crackling promise. 

*

Roberta smelled like what our home used to smell like before it burned to death: an aerosol spray that smelled like a forest or at least had a picture of a forest on the can. Only one gas station in town carried it. She read me the funnies and got sort of emotional and said she had to get back to meet an insurance adjuster before handing me the newspaper. She pointed to a second-page headline: SOUTH AMERICAN MAGIGIAN DISFIGURED IN GRUESOME ACCIDENT. She put a finger to her lips and jerked her head in the direction of the blue curtain, from beyond which emanated indistinct moaning. And voila! My roommate in the burn ward? A disfigured magician of some note! 

*

Jose-Phillipe Juarez, a magician who has delighted audiences all over the world with his circus-like extravaganza, Stampede of Illusions, is in intensive care at Cincinnati Memorial as of Friday, August 7th. The Mexico City native suffered extensive burns during a popular trick he calls Human Torch Goes Shopping For Teddy Bears.

*

Over two days, the muffled groaning on the other side of the curtain in that otherwise glass-walled room grew very gradually to constant, unbridled screaming. Words I supposed were curses or cries for help in Spanish. Nurses tried and failed to comfort him, one or two in his native tongue. He still screamed! I put my pillow over my head and tried tried really tried to sleep.

*

They got him drugged-up overnight and finally I did sleep. A druggy, faintly scorched, dreamless sleep dressed in pitch black. A breathless, baby-free void where feelings were unwelcome. In the morning, I had broken my fever. The room was quiet but for some hoarse, uneven breathing on the other side of the curtain. Nurses started debriding my wounds, which was like being massaged by a belt sander. I couldn’t help crying out while the two nurses kept saying sorry, sorry with rubbery East European accents. This went on for nearly an hour and after they left me there grimacing, waiting for the latest round of morphine to kick in, I heard a little rustling from the other side of the powder-blue curtain. The magician was waking up or at least trying to. I pushed the call button for a nurse, hoping they’d hit him with the heavy meds before he got too worked up again. The screaming really got to me! Three nurses rushed in and I pointed a charred finger in the direction of the groaning. The nurses disappeared beyond the powder-blue curtain. There was quiet, excited talk, I couldn’t quite make out the words, then one of them rushed out of the room. I felt sick to my stomach and screwed my eyes closed tight but that was not sleep, it was a cautious, terrified trance.

*

Silence save some murmuring. The blue curtain was open wide. I got a glimpse of Jose-Phillipe Juarez, or his burned and swaddled effigy. It turned out he’d died! Tasks were performed around him related to this news. They had a protocol to follow.

I studied his picture in the article Roberta had left. He was a good-looking guy, slim with sharp features in a rhinestone suit. Across the room, my eyes explored the paths his bones and muscles took. He was posed with his back to me, hunched on his side in the fetal position with no rhinestones to speak of, just the same sick gown I’d been assigned. The curves of his dead body and especially his stillness and silence formed a warm narcotic blanket that enveloped and soothed me. A nurse made busy gestures unhooking tubes and machines around him. 

I imagined the nurse leaving, the room going dark except for a slice of moonlight carving a lane, a trench through his stubborn angles. I figured I would roll off my bed, careful to avoid disturbing my many carefully bandaged wounds or jerking free any of the clear plastic tubing that kept me fluid. I would curl up next to him, there would be no adult behavior involved, I’d put one of his dead arms around me. That would be plenty of excitement. I would whisper to myself this is just practice. I would say I’m sorry Roberta and I would forget how much my own skin stung and assaulted me while a new fire got started somewhere deep inside, a high school cafeteria siren caterwauling at my racing heart. And the dead magician? His last thought would hang wondrously, deliciously frozen in the air above us: for my next trick I will need someone from the audience.

Marc Tweed is a writer, musician, and visual artist living in the Pacific Northwest. He is currently finishing a collection of 15 short stories, tentatively entitled Seasick On Land.

2 thoughts on “Senescence by Marc Tweed”

  1. Really enjoyed this, a wonderfully strange character study. This guy’s life is so banal but in such crazy contrast to his thoughts and dreams. “But that’s being on fire for you, right?”

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