“All That’s Left is Conversation,” by Timothy Tanner
“I would like to put feet to thoughts. Thoughts to action,” C.B. said as she leaned back from the table to glance at the television in the living room.
I placed a bit of the roast on my fork and examined it.
“It’s just that hard, intangible thing that gibes you: discipline,” I said. I flicked the piece of roast on the floor. I heard the jingling of Miss Priss’s little bell under the table. I looked down and saw her sniffing the roast.
“Like you would know anything about discipline,” C.B. said looking at the television.
“I would most certainly.”
“Oh insightful words, thou doth possess,” she said. She turned her gaze from the living room. “They practically seep from the corners of thy mouth.”
“Okay I get it, you’re teasing me. You just have to tease, don’t you?”
“No, j’ai adore vous.”
“Comment allez vous?” I said. “Oui, oui.”
“Shame we don’t speak French better,” she said.
“Real shame,” I poked my vegetables. “I think this roast may be undercooked. It’s bloody.”
“It’s just fine. You’re just accustomed to cheap, cheap, cheap.” She took a big fork-full of roast in her mouth and smiled.
Miss Priss rubbed her head against my leg.
“Why the ‘cheap’ thing?” I said picking out the less bloody pieces.
C.B. shrugged and leaned back to catch some of her television show. “I think I was getting at how you never eat at home any more. You are always eating those cheap fast-food meals or those cheap microwave dinners. I do like to cook for us.”
I got up and raked the remainder of my food in the garbage and placed the plate in the sink.
“Why can’t you clean up after yourself all the time?” she said.
“I do madame,” I said saluting her.
“What is that there sir?” she pointed to a pair of pants on the ironing board in the living room.
“That would be my pants. The pants I am wearing to work in the morning.”
“You know where things like that go?”
“Of course madame. Pants are to be found in the bedroom only,” I broke my salute and bowed.
“Not too hard even for the wise-ass,” she stood up and raked her food into the garbage. She scraped the plate very hard.
“Sometimes I can’t tell when you are playing or when you are purposely trying to hurt me somehow,” I said. I reached into my pocket for a half smoked cigarette.
“Playing,” she said.
I searched the kitchen for a lighter. C.B. grabbed one from her pocket.
“Make sure you go outside with that,” she said.
I held the cigarette lightly between my lips. “How bout we go out and see a movie? Maybe go to the bar? Could be fun?”
“Not tonight. You go out if you want.”
“It’s more fun when you’re there.”
She ran water over her plate. “I was thinking about going out with the girls tonight.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well that sounds fun. I might just see what Paul is up to then.”
“That sounds like fun.”
“Just be safe and all that.”
She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “I will,” she said and went into the living room.
Paul opened his door without looking at me; his eyes were fixed somewhere on the floor behind the door. When I stepped in I realized he was trying to make sure that his son didn’t try to crawl outside.
“He might not be able to walk yet,” Paul said. “But he can crawl faster than I thought was possible.”
Paul’s wife Megan came in to meet me and picked up the baby. I helped myself to a drink and so did Paul. “I got some really good stuff this time,” he said. “I think I can do a lot with the footage. Perhaps appeal to more of the artsy folk.”
We went into his study where Paul had his computer. He searched through some digital videos he had saved on his computer. Each one was a scene of Megan dressed in mime attire acting in front of the capital building.
“These are getting pretty big now,” he said. “The last one I did actually sold for ten bucks on my site and I sold seventeen of them.”
“Great,” I said. I sipped my drink and read over some lines he wanted to use as narration. “Is this Hamlet?”
“Yeah. Slightly modified by Megan, of course.”
He pulled up a scene where Megan had a sheet over her hair and a stern look on her face. It looked as if they were at the park when they shot the scene. Paul watched her white and black painted face with great pride.
“I’m going to need you to do some scoring,” he said tapping on the computer keyboard.
I walked over to the electric keyboard he had set up in the corner of the room and turned it on. I made a cord. “It’s out of tune,” I said.
Paul spun around in his chair. “Very funny,” he said. “Make that puppy sing.”
“Not feeling too up to it.”
He paused the clip on the computer screen and I downed the remainder of my drink.
“What’s going on man?” he said.
“I think we both know the answer,” I said.
“Trouble in paradise again I guess. It happens.”
“Doesn’t seem to happen with you and Megan.”
“Shit,” he sipped his drink. “We have our spats.”
“Just seems like this has been going on all year for us. I try to get her to spend time with me, outside the apartment, or just pay attention to me. She always wants to go out with friends.”
“Sounds like she just needs space,” he said pushing a blinking red button on the keyboard. I hit a few keys and it sounded like a trumpet. “How’s work?”
“It’s real estate,” I said. “Boring and slow currently. A lot of younger couples renting houses and apartments. Hard to put up with smiling new couples showing up and telling all about their happy lives as they describe their dream home.”
“You have to just view the glass half full. Can’t let this stuff get in the way. Transcend.” He changed the sound on the keyboard to slap bass.
“I think C.B. is fucking someone else,” I said.
“You’re just having paranoid thoughts. All you need to do is spice things up,” he said thrusting his hips. “You know what I mean. Fucking cures all.”
We edited some clips together and I made up a few song bites to set the mood of the film. Megan came in and we showed her the final product.
“You look stressed,” she said to me. “Let me get you another drink.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I have to drive home.”
“Where’s C.B. tonight?”
“With her friends.”
“Is she doing well?”
“I hope so.”
I paced the living room in the dark with my hands together behind my back. I heard a car pull away from outside and the door knob jingled until she fell through the door way. She wasn’t going to acknowledge me. She sped to the bedroom with her head down.
I stepped in front of her and got in her face. The smell of alcohol crept from her mouth as she said “Get the hell out of my way.”
“Where have you been?” I said.
“I told you I was going out with my friends. That’s where I’ve been.”
“It’s fucking 4:30 in the morning.”
“What does it matter? I was with friends. I was safe.”
“You could have called. You could have had someone else call. Something. I was wondering whether I should call the cops and report you missing or go to the hospital and see if you were in the emergency room.”
“Don’t be stupid. I was perfectly fine.”
She slammed the bedroom door. I sat down on the couch and petted the cat. I let the heat from my chest rise to my face and ears. I watched the fish in the aquarium swim under the florescent light.
The door cracked open. “I’m sorry I didn’t call,” she said.
“You know I worry about you. I have to go to work in two hours and I’ve been up all night worried about you.”
“Sorry, I’m okay now.”
“Clearly.” I picked up Miss Priss and held her next to my face. “Who was there?”
“Just the girls and a few other people,” she trailed off with “people.” She liked to do that when she lied.
“So D.H. was there.”
“Jesusfuckingchrist,” the door shut again.
The fish was looking at me. “No, no, no,” it seemed to say. Miss Priss licked my nose and purred loudly. The door cracked open again. I saw part of a cheek and a nostril in the light from the lamp beside the bed.
“You think that just because I’m out of your sight, I’m fucking someone else?” she said.
“No. I just don’t like that D.H. guy.”
“He’s born again anyway.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“It means that he wouldn’t fuck me.”
“So you’ve asked him to fuck you?”
The door slammed shut, for good this time. I put my feet on the couch, checked the time and put the cat on the floor.
Talked about life, she said. We talked about work, she said. Nothing else happened.
I, while walking down the street in the city, saw him: black suit, shiny tie, great build, full head of hair, air of importance, nice smile. I knew that I couldn’t compete with this guy. I knew that she and he had not just talked. Part of me wanted to believe her. Part of me wanted to try and pretend everything was okay. D.H. didn’t see me, but I probably stared at him too long. He turned his head in my direction and I bent over acting as if I were tying my shoelaces. A little old lady, sitting on a bus stop bench, watched me with curious eyes.
“Subsistance regardant ma chienne de boules,” I said to the old lady.
She turned her head away from me.
“Did you hear about that man coming to town?” she said.
C.B. took a hit from a joint and passed it to me as I sat down on the couch next to her.
“What now?” I said as I inhaled.
“You know who I mean,” she made hand gestures. “The big foreign dude that acts really retarded in order to get people to react in funny ways.”
“So he has a fake personality and tricks people into thinking that it is really him?” I said.
“Yeah. He’s on T.V. sometimes. You would know him if you seen him.”
She tucked her legs underneath her and placed her hands on her knees, her eyes fixed on the television.
“I didn’t hear that,” I said as I ashed into an empty Coke can on the coffee table. “Are they recording him for a movie or something?”
“I think so.”
“Guess I should be on the look out then.” I passed the joint and searched for the remote. “What else is on? I don’t feel like watching this shit.”
“Always on the lookout for fake people.” She said. I saw the remote half covered by her ass cheek.
She placed the joint gently between her lips. I gave up on changing the television channel.
“How is work?” she said.
“It’s okay. How’s your work?”
“Slow and predictable. I check the sick animals in and put up with angry people when I give them the bill from the Doc.”
She took a long draw from the joint and passed it to me. She shook her head and removed the remote. She flipped through the television channels so fast there was no sound save the plopping of the water in the aquarium.
Miss Priss jumped up and sat in the space between us. She laid her head in my lap, her way of letting me know she wanted her chin scratched.
“You know my mother and father, back before they divorced, never talked to each other,” she said. “Couples who don’t talk to each other are doomed to separate.”
“Are you sure?” I said.
“We talk often, right?”
She nodded. Her eyes fixed on the television screen.
I looked at the fish. “No, no, no,” it said.
I opened up the door and loosened my tie. I pulled a speech that I had prepared from my coat pocket. She was very aware of this procedure and knowing the urgent tone of my entrance, got the kitchen table chairs and sat one on one side of the living room and one on the other side.
Miss Priss, as always, the unbiased audience and the fish, as always, the nay sayer.
I stood up on one chair, she in the other. I rolled the speech down like a scroll and cleared my throat: “You, despite continual arguments, talk and meet, behind my back, with a man who shall be called D.H. I know you. I know you well. I see through every lie. For whatever reason, this man, or maybe someone else, has drawn you away from me. Instead of being with me, spending time with me, making love to me, you are: going out, never letting me know where you are, silent, constantly high, and standoffish. We made vows to each other some time ago, to be faithful to each other until death etcetera, etcetera. My life is, and has always been an open book. There is nothing I keep from you. You lie and run behind my back and stay a complete mystery. If you want it to be over, so be it. I’ll pack shit and leave. If you think it is possible that you might want to actually be with me for the remainder of your life, then we could seek council.”
I rolled the speech back up and placed it in my coat. I could see red in her cheeks. Miss Pris licked her paws and the fish popped the surface of the water.
C.B. stomped her foot and opened her mouth: “You smother me. Always want me to be with you. I don’t see friends. Don’t get out. Don’t feel like sex. Don’t want sex. I’m getting fat. I hate myself. I was a guy’s kind of girl before we met. You are too jealous. I like having guy friends. I like getting fucked up. I’ve fucked other people, get over it. I think it would be best if you left. Or maybe I should leave.”
Miss Priss yawned. I stepped down and sat in the chair.
She lifted her hands: victory. I looked at the mud on my shoes.
“I love you,” I said flicking the mud off with my thumb.
“We’re not talking about love.”
While at work I got a call from the secretary. “The call that’s on hold is for you,” she said.
I hung up that line and clicked the flashing red light for the other one.
“Hello,” I said.
There was silence, sniffling, and heavy breathing. Finally a faint “Hey” and I knew it was C.B.
“It’s been like six months. What can I do for you?” I grabbed a pen and scribbled on a note pad.
“I didn’t have anyone else to call.”
I looked at the small stack of paperwork on my desk. I could sense from her tone that this was going to be distraction from an already unproductive day. I put the pen down and cracked my knuckles.
“Oh I’m sure that’s a stretch of the truth. You have many friends, correct?” I said.
“Everything is just really hard. . .”
It felt like a trap. I tightened my grip on the phone.
“What is really hard?” I said.
“Forget it. I shouldn’t have called.”
A moment of silence. I finally asked: “Are you okay?”
“No. No, I’m not.”
“C.B. I’m not sure what you want me to do. Are you alone? Where is D?”
“You need me to come over?”
“Don’t. I’ll call someone else. I’ll call my mom.”
“Are you fucked up?”
I could hear her breathing deeper.
“I shouldn’t have called you,” she said.
I kicked my chair away from my desk and sat on the floor. The cord was tight behind my ear.
“You did though,” I said. “You called me. You got fucked up and had no one else and I was the go-to-guy.
I let the back of my head hit the lip of the desk.
“No you’re right I shouldn’t have called,” she said.
I stared at my feet. I could hear her sniffling.
“I get off work in 45 minutes. I’m going to drop by,” I immediately regretted saying this.
“Don’t do that, please,” she said.
I listened to her breathing. The back of my head burned from the bump.
“I still care about you. I don’t want you to be in one of your moods alone,” I said.
“I didn’t know who else to call.”
The apartment door was unlocked so I walked right in. I called out to her.
“In here,” she said from the bedroom up stairs.
I saw familiar picture frames with new pictures. A poster of Japan we bought together now sat behind the chair. Her coffee table littered with seeds, stems, and fast food wrappers. There was a sense that someone else, besides her, had his claim on the place.
She was sitting on the side of the bed, face to the ground. The room was dark except for the lamp on the night stand beside the bed. I saw she was holding a dish towel over her right forearm.
“What did you do to your arm?” I said.
She looked up with wet eyes and shrugged. I bent down and removed the towel. Underneath were juicy patches of skin that were open and bleeding.
“What really happened, C.B.?” I said.
“I was trying to make myself some dinner,” she wouldn’t look up at me when she spoke. “And I got fucking grease on me.”
“Have you put anything on it?”
I sat on the bed beside her and wondered why I had really come over.
“Is there any peroxide or alcohol?” I said.
“I think in the bathroom.”
“You were never a good cook.”
“Well you were never a good eater.”
I inspected closer. The skin looked like plastic. I pulled back in disgust.
“We need to clean this before you get some kind of infection,” I said.
I went in search of peroxide or alcohol, and only found a half empty bottle of peroxide and a cotton ball.
“You have to clean those,” I said. “I’m not touching that.”
C.B. grabbed the cotton ball and soaked it with peroxide.
“You don’t want them to be infected,” I said.
“I don’t care.”
She rubbed the burns and we watched the fizzing reactions of the peroxide. I felt her breathing on my face. I blew on her arm and she squeezed her eyes shut.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Don’t be,” I said. “I just wish you wouldn’t do this to yourself.”
“When I cook it makes things seem better. Never works for very long.”
“You are going to scar up your arms if you keep cooking when you are fucked up. Especially if you keep cooking with hot grease.”
“I don’t care. It’s not deep or anything. They won’t scar anyway.”
“Don’t know about that, I still have a scar from when I worked at McDonalds in high school.”
“But I’ve always been tougher than you.”
I dabbed her arm with the towel and she put her hand on my head. I looked at her eyes, her pupils were dilated. I looked past her at the curtains; they were dusty and she had put tin foil on the window to block out all sunlight.
“You were always so good to me,” she said. “Why do you even give a shit?”
I noticed her skin looked pale in the light.
“Don’t be silly,” I said pushing a lock of her hair behind her ear.
“Why?” she said.
“I care about you.”
She pulled back from me and started patting my head. She laughed. I laughed. Even though she was stoned, I couldn’t help but feel like she was completely aware of the situation. The environment felt different, but she was the same girl.
“Where is D.H. at anyway?” I said.
“What does it matter?” she said. She leaned down and pressed her lips into mine.
I didn’t stop her. I didn’t stop her hands in my pants, her tongue in my mouth and her body on top of mine.
I saw him while walking Miss Priss in the city park: talking, shaking hands, and smiling. I assumed that he was making a business deal. I assumed he didn’t find out about my encounter with C.B. She was good about keeping things to herself.
I sat down by a familiar looking older lady on a bench. Miss Pris hopped around after the shadows of birds, pulling on her leash.
As I sat there watching my cat and being watched by the old lady, I wrestled with the idea of approaching him and telling him what I had done. Then I began to daydream about C.B. getting pregnant. I felt pregnancy would be an appropriate punishment for my actions.
As I sat there, I imagined C.B. calling me nine months down the line and saying she had a baby. I could see myself rushing to the hospital to see her. Upon arrival I could see her in a hospital bed holding a little baby. The baby so small and naked. My stomach turned thinking that the child could be mine. I thought about how this baby would change my life.
“You said you never wanted children,” I saw myself saying.
“But we are so in love,” and she points to a man in a chair who looks a lot like D.H. “We are getting married. Not because of the baby, but because we love each other.”
I would ask to see the baby. I would hold it; feel its weight on my chest. I would smell its hair. I thought about how its little life might turn out. I thought about C.B. and her uncontrollable need to consume drugs, alcohol, and men. I thought about this imaginary little baby being forgotten and left crying for long periods of time by its mother.
An urge, so vivid, rose up inside me: I would have to take this baby and run. It wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t my child. I could see myself running with this little creature. The scenes change but no one goes after me. C.B. never cries for the baby. I just keep thinking “We’ve got to get out of here little baby. Paul and Megan will know what to do.”
Miss Priss rubbed my leg. The old lady looked at my cat and then at me. She smiled.
“Vous pouvez sucer mon robinet,” I said.
She shook her head. “You don’t know what you are saying son,” she said. “Some French person might get the wrong idea.” I picked up Miss Priss and let the old lady pet her.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just having an off day.”
I heard a car horn and I looked up to see Paul and Megan drive by in their car. They were both waving. A few moments later my phone rang. It was Paul.
“Is that your mother?” he said.
“No,” I said.
“What are you up to?”
“Picking up older women.” The older lady didn’t seem to hear me.
“Seriously. You want to go eat with us? We’re heading to the buffet.”
I looked back in D.H.’s direction. I didn’t see him so I assumed he had gone back inside the huge skyscraper that he worked in. The older lady had pulled some food out of her purse and Miss Priss was inspecting it.
“Hello?” he said. “You still there?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Want to go eat?”
“You know, I think I’m just going to go home.”