Physically Alarming Men

Eric Blix

           After the dog died in January, Bob's typical mopiness turned to nostalgia for his childhood house. It had been a long winter with a lot of cold and not much snow. Janice spent her afternoons drinking instant jasmine tea. On most nights she'd add several fingers of brandy. She did crossword puzzles and watched TV shows about life in America's toughest prisons. Every Monday, she also watched two hours of professional wrestling, cowering beneath the afghan each time an elbow crashed into someone's skull.

            The ground was too frozen to dig a grave for the dog. Bob wrapped the thing in a tarp and stored it behind the tool shed until the dirt was soft enough for him to stick a shovel into it. His plan was to bury the dog under Janice's hyacinths. She didn't talk to him for a week after he suggested his idea. Twice, she woke in the middle of the night clawing at his shoulders. When April came, Bob changed his mind and suggested burying the dog in the backyard of his childhood house, next to the collie his family had owned forty years earlier, on the other side of the state.

            “Where I grew up,” he said, tightening something under the sink, “everyone knew everyone. There wasn't a stranger around, and if there was, we took him in and made him feel at home.”

            When the thaw came, halfway through May, Bob loaded the dog's body into a forty-quart cooler. He packed it in the back seat along with Janice's gardening tools, which were wrapped in brown canvas and tied with a piece of twine. She hardly noticed the annoying tune he hummed, because Bob was always humming to himself. Instead she chose to feel amazement at the frost boil she stood on. If she put her foot on its center, the ground swelled around the edges. When she raised her foot, the ground flattened. She imagined a great blackness beneath her, cavernous acres filled with the skeletons of household pets.

            “Why don't we bury him here?” she said. “Under this frost boil? It would save us a trip.”

            “Are you crazy? What if the ground gives and his body spills out? How horrifying would that be?”

            They headed east on the two lane highway. Janice flipped through a book. She didn't retain a single word. The book was a murder mystery. Someone had died, and no one knew who killed her.

            They pulled into a reservation town after an hour and a half.

            “I need a milkshake,” Bob said. His long fingernails were grimy from peeling the dog's carcass off the ground. He wore his only suit and the fedora with the yellow feather tucked in the band. His job as a roving burglar alarm salesman had conditioned him to dress elegantly when traveling, but his elegance had limits; the jacket was much too big and made him seem like a cheapskate. Janice wore a white sweater she had discovered in the back of her closet three weeks earlier, behind the plastic bag containing her wedding dress. She didn't know how old the sweater was. She didn't remember even buying it. It fit her perfectly.

            They found a diner on the edge of a lake. Bob went inside for his snack. The lake was silver and still and frozen around the edges. It had melted from the inside out. Janice walked down to the rocky shore and listened to the surface of the water break apart and mend itself. She had collected rocks when she was a girl. She remembered placing them in a little motorized bin that would spin them around and around. She'd line the polished bits of granite and shale along her bedroom windowsill and marvel at the gleaming forms. She couldn't remember the last time she'd held a polished rock, where it was, or when, or on what occasion. She picked a flat one off the shore and chucked it sidearm at the water. It skipped once and sank. Bob came out of the diner an hour later and called her name. She climbed back to the parking lot and saw him scraping his incisors with a toothpick, the sports section tucked under his arm.

            “Nothing good happens in a place like this,” he announced.

            Immediately outside of the town, there were people walking on the shoulder of the highway. At least a dozen of them. Their long black hair was tied in braids. They wore t-shirts and shorts and marched single-file carrying armloads of woven welcome mats. Behind them was a single set of footprints they all shared. Janice's mother had owned a photograph of similar footprints, only they were barefoot and on a piece of shoreline. A Bible verse was printed in the bottom corner of the photograph. She didn't remember how the verse went, or from which book it was excerpted. They passed the marchers, who didn't look sad, like Janice expected.

            “Those idiots must be freezing!” Bob said. “Did you know that when these people turn eighteen, the government cuts every single one of them a big fat royalty check, just for being alive? That's why they live in trailers and drive brand new pickups, even though they're a bunch of piss poor drunks.”

            “Slow down. You'll hit somebody.”

            “I will not.”

            Janice spotted a yellow barn on the side of the road. An old station wagon pulled out from a gravel lot in front of it and drove so slowly Bob hit the brakes and nearly went into a skid.

            “Animals!” he said.

            Janice threw the murder mystery at his head and knocked his fedora out the window.

            “What in the hell was that for?” he said. He gaped at the receding grayness in the driver's side mirror and then at Janice. “That's just perfect!”

            He pulled into the gravel lot in front of the barn and muttered to himself as he walked toward the highway. He was so worked up he began to cough. Janice stared at his inordinate shoulders as he walked right through the marchers and disturbed their perfect line.

            It turned out the big yellow barn housed the county flea market. Inside, six buzzing lights hung from the ceiling and swayed slightly in the cross draft. Small green weeds sprouted from the cement floor, rooted there like good and loyal sons. A person could purchase many different things in this place. There were dishes, picture frames, homemade soaps, nursery furniture, and weapons of all sorts—knives, throwing stars, machetes, walking sticks that converted into long skinny shivs if you unscrewed the handles.

            Janice shuffled among a rack of t-shirts with professional wrestlers on them. The wrestlers looked angry and flexed their oily upper bodies. She couldn't understand their elaborate costumes. One had pink streamers in his hair. His face was painted like a dog's. Another was bald and had no front teeth. A third was dressed in a long black coat with the brim of his hat pulled low, covering his eyes. They were accompanied by slogans as terrifying as their scowls: “Who's Next?”; “Here Comes the Pain!”; “Rest in Peace.”

            The highway marchers stopped at a table and dropped their welcome mats on it. One of them pulled a cash box from a plastic bucket under the table as the rest dispersed. They all crowded toward a particular corner of the barn, to a long glass case between a saddle stand and a woman selling fried dough from a shopping cart. The case was lit up from the inside. A neon sign buzzed above it: gun show. Janice picked up a saucer and a tea cup. Some old lady had loved this thing and then died.

            The gun show clerk had a big ring of keys on his belt that he used to unlock the case. He stuck his pudgy torso inside and came out holding a magnificent assault rifle, the kind Janice had so often seen on the news, whenever a mass murder occurred. A man waiting at the counter grabbed it from him. This customer held the weapon to his shoulder as if to take aim. He was very tall and smiled brightly. His skin was oily and white as fresh snow and stretched shiny over his impressive musculature. He looked very much like he could have been a wrestler on TV. Janice once had a college professor who described everything white as “alabaster.” This professor was quite handsome and read Shakespeare out loud in a French accent and threatened to fail anyone who mistook Romeo for a Capulet. For months, Janice had said the word to herself, “alabaster.” The pages of her textbooks were alabaster. Her teeth were alabaster. So were the snow drifts on the frozen ground. So were her bones.

            She was startled by a hand on her shoulder. Long white fingers. It was Bob's hand. He spun her around. His bald head was splotchy pink and the veins in his temples were throbbing. He grinned and held up his fedora.

            “Nice work,” he said. The thing was crushed like a used soda can. The feather was missing.

            “How do you know they'll let us bury him?” Janice said.

            “What? Who?”

            “The dog! We have to bury our dog!”

            “I know that,” Bob said. He gripped the hat with both hands and thrust it atop his head, restoring the shape of the dented crown. “Do you think I don't know that? Jesus. What a stupid thing to say.”

            Sometimes Janice felt as if the ground beneath her feet would crack in elaborate patterns, and the earth would pull itself apart and let loose all of the things buried throughout history, which would drift away, item by item. She was afraid she'd be left standing on a mere bit of gravel or on some shape she never knew existed, some secret geometry that would spell for her the difference between being and having been. The customer with the gun must have stood nearly seven feet tall. The weapon looked like a bottle opener in his hands. He threw down some cash and walked out in front of them with the thing resting on his shoulder.

            “Christ,” Bob said. He grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her out of the flea market, past the glass case full of assault rifles. She eyed the weapons and shuffled past according to Bob's pull. He helped her into the car then leaned across her to start the ignition.

            “I gotta visit the port-o-john,” he said. “Don't move.”

            Janice watched him disappear behind the corner, and it was as if he had never been around to begin with. Her father, it occurred to her, had been the one to set up the rock polishing machine. She would merely sit with her chin in her hands watching the metal bin spin around and around, marveling at the sounds made by little bits of tumbling earth, while he worked solemnly at the kitchen table in a cone of yellow light loading shotgun shells by hand. She scooted over and put the car into gear and turned onto the highway, unsure of where she was heading.

            “How about that?” she said. She looked at the cooler and gardening tools in the mirror. It all bounced when the car bounced. “How about that?”

            Five miles down the road a column of black smoke rose from the ditch. Janice pulled over. A pickup truck had gone in nose first. The front was submerged in mud and slush and the rear tires spun as if trying to grip the air. The customer she had seen at the flea market sat on the shoulder of the highway with his knees to his chest and the assault rifle strapped to his back. He stood and took a pull from a silver flask. She rolled down the window and asked if his name was Bob.

            “Nope,” he said. He jangled when he moved even though Janice couldn't see any chains or stray metal on him. He wore blue jean shorts that hung halfway down his thighs and a black T-shirt with white lettering: See You at Rehab.

            “Do you need a ride?” she said.

            He took the gun off his back and hugged it to his chest. The gesture made his hands appear gentle despite their immensity. Janice figured he could have gripped her around the waist with a single fist and thrown her into the sun. His shoulders rippled with inborn strength. They were flecked with red spots. He had tied his hair into a long pony tail since leaving the flea market, revealing ears that were pierced with small pieces of bone. Without saying anything, he opened the door and squeezed his body inside the car.

            “You're a big guy,” Janice said.

            “Mmhm.”

            “I bet you could do a slam dunk.”

            He grunted. Janice turned toward the town.

            “Wrong direction,” he said.

            “What?”

            “Home's that-a-way.” He tapped the window with the barrel of his gun. “I believe that you intend to take me home.” He rested the gun in his lap and grinned at her with a mouth full of gold teeth.

            “Don't you want to get help for your truck?”

            “Ain't my truck.”

            They rode with the radio off. The customer rolled down the window and smoked. His hair caught in the wind and blew in fiery red tatters. He finished his cigarette in three deep drags.

            Once, in a house they had long since moved out of, Janice fired Bob's handgun at a burglar. She missed. The burglar stole one silver candlestick and was never caught. The police asked where Bob was. Janice told them he was away, selling burglar alarms. She couldn't remember which house this occurred in, or when. They had lived in seven separate places since they were married.

            The customer looked at her and pinched his lips tight. He asked her questions about her personal life, what she was doing out here driving around alone. She had a difficult time answering. She had never thought much about herself.

            “Turn here,” he finally said. She turned south on a red road spongy from the thaw. It bubbled up every so often and made steering difficult. He pointed the assault rifle out the window and without warning blasted a string bullets into the ditch. The sun emerged from behind a cloud.          

            “Good thing about plunking earthworms is they're already buried when they get hit.”

            “Is that so?” Janice said.

            “What's in the cooler?”

            “It's nothing.”

            “Don't smell like nothing.”

            “Do I turn any time soon?”

            “Nope.” He rolled up his window and lit another cigarette, though he let this one burn slowly. They drove south for several miles. Janice wasn't sure if they were still on the reservation. They passed a sign that said the county stopped maintaining the road beyond a certain point shortly ahead. The road turned abruptly from grated gravel to large rocks, some as big as grapefruits. The cooler jostled. She and the customer bounced in their seats. He let the assault rifle jump like a heated popcorn seed in his lap. Soon they came along a grassy inlet.

            “Turn here.”

            “It's too muddy,” she said. “I'll get stuck.”

            “Stuck don't matter.” He picked up the gun and caressed the barrel. His gold teeth glistened. They were so shiny and pristine Janice wondered if he'd let them churn in a motorized bin. His knees pressed against the dashboard. She worried they'd leave permanent impressions. She drove slowly and held the wheel so tightly that her biceps burned. The customer began to hum a tune, something Janice had never heard from Bob nor herself nor anyone. He pulled the rifle's bolt catch and put his cigarette out on the seat.

            “Stop here.”

            “Here?”

            There was nothing around but tall grass and a shadowless tree and a lilac bush. The air had grown cooler and a brown fog appeared as if the spirit of the dirt itself had risen. He got out and stretched his arms with the weapon held high above his head. Janice's sweater began to itch. The area was flat and desolate and, with the exception of a few tree lines several miles off, unobstructed. A scream could echo for miles and nobody would hear it. Janice had initially put on her gardening sneakers before leaving the house, but Bob insisted she wear something with heels.

            “After you,” the customer said. He pointed the gun at her from his waist.

            “Which way?”

            He flicked the barrel toward the tree. They slogged through ten yards of mud and grass until the ground swelled and they came upon a wooden bulkhead.

            “Don't look,” he said, crouching down. “I can feel it if you look or not.” The combination lock was embedded in the door, just like the one on the fireproof safe behind Janice's wedding dress, where she kept her diamond ring. A wind rose up and she hugged herself for warmth. The lilac bush was in full bloom.

            “Alabaster,” she said. “That's what you are.”

            “The hell does that mean?”

            She eyed his skin and the bits of gray bone piercing his ear lobes.

            “It means I want to touch your shoulder if you'll let me.”

            He rose and opened the bulkhead to the clamor of gunshots—strings of bullet fire layered over individual blasts. She picked out the sounds of .270s and .30-06s, the calibers her father used on his deer hunts. She had gone with him several times to bond but always wound up spelling words out of rocks in the clearing around his stand. The customer looked her over.

            “I ain't into old broads,” he said. He pointed the gun barrel down the dark stairwell and grabbed her wrist with his free hand. “You first.”

            “Can I bring my dog with me?”

            “Your what?”

            “My dog. He's what's in the cooler.”

            “Only if we can use it for a target.”

            “You're quite imposing.” Janice fetched the cooler. “Has anyone ever told you that? How imposing you are?”

            “My brothers are more so. Here they come, in fact. Fun guys, if you ask me.”

            Two men appeared in the bulkhead as if summoned by some ritual, each a whole head taller than the customer. Their chests were strapped with ammo and they each had two rifles fastened to their backs like angel wings.

            “Bob would be terrified by this,” she said. She looked at the cooler. “Can you believe this?”

            The customer instructed her to sit on the cooler, so she did. The men arranged themselves around her, the customer in front, flanked behind by his brothers, shiny alabaster figures with hair down to their waists. The brothers each grabbed a handle and lifted Janice.

            “I dig your sweater,” the one brother said.

            “Where did you get it?” said the other one.

            “I don't remember. It horrifies me that you're carrying me. You really freak me out.”

            The brown fog parted around the bulkhead and the four of them went down. On their way the gunshots rang out and the brothers hummed a tune and Janice marveled at the glowing lilac bush. She wondered who came all the way out here to maintain it and trim it into its unique shape, which she had not seen before; she couldn't name the shape even if these brothers pressed their guns to her head and demanded it. They descended, one step at a time. The sound of gunshots grew into a sustained, complicated blare, and the lilac bush disappeared above the threshold. For a moment everything was black, and in that moment Janice pictured Bob standing alone on the highway with a bundle of welcome mats in his arms, kicking rocks at every car that passed. She wondered what had happened to his plan to bury the dog beneath her hyacinths, or if Bob's childhood home was even still standing. She wondered if she could find her own childhood home if given a car and a full tank of gas and a perfect roadway lined with brilliant signs written specifically to direct her, and she decided no, she couldn't, and she felt herself drift lower underground, and a great fright crept over her.

 

 

 

 About the Writer

Eric Lloyd Blix received his MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His writing has appeared in such journals as Western Humanities Review, Caketrain, the Pinch, and others. He lives in Salt Lake City, where he studies in the PhD program in creative writing at the University of Utah.