barcelona review #11   february - march 1999

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author bio | spanish translation | french translation

The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettesswimming pig #2
Michael Knight

     
I CAME HOME from work one night and found my wife sitting in her wheelchair beside the bed. She was wearing a midnight-blue bustier with matching garters, the lace tops of her stockings just showing above the blanket on her lap. Marilyn, my wife. She'd spent some time on her hair. It was brushed smooth, lay on her shoulders coppery and fine, the ends curled. Her fingers worked the blanket, her legs ghostly beneath it, like covered furniture. She didn't say a word. While she watched, I scattered change on the dresser, took off my tennis shoes and wet socks. I worked as a deck hand on a sport- fishing charter, and my T-shirt and shorts were smeared with the evidence of my labor, slick scales, like sequins, and fish-gut handprints. Naked, I carried the whole reeking mess down to the laundry room and dropped it in the machine. I'd redone the halls in black rubber tracks so she could get around easier. The house was quiet.
     Nothing had changed when I returned.
     I sat on the edge of the bed and said, "I stink."
     "Not too bad," she said.
     She touched my thigh. I said, "What do you want me to do?"
     "Pick me up, Duncan," she said. "Put me on the bed."
     I'm accustomed to it, now, carrying her to bed, cradling her slender, indifferent legs, like sleeping children. I can move enough for both of us. But that night, I dropped her onto the mattress, clumsy as a drunk. Tugged at her knees and ankles like they were pillowcases full of stones. Relax, she said, slow down, be gentle. I couldn't stop apologizing. To compensate for her stillness, Marilyn ran her hands along the backs of my arms, dragged her fingernails up and down my spine. She moaned and carried on. I couldn't stop thinking that I was hurting her--she was so brittle and small--imagining that her hips would give out beneath us, and I'd have to rush her to the hospital, all the emergency personnel thinking how I was making love to a crippled woman.
     "Are you all right?" I said. "Is everything okay?"
     "I'm fine," she said. "You don't have to stop."
     She put her hands on my backside and pushed me into her. My skin was going clammy. I looked over my shoulder at her legs, splayed beside mine, her feet cocked outwards. I could feel myself slackening inside her.
     "Can you even feel me?" I said.
     "Yes," she said. "I can feel you."
     I blushed at her lie, pressed my face into her neck.
     "You can't, can you."
     She paused, then said, "Not the way I used to. But I can feel you. I promise."
     My bones felt watery. I kept waiting for her to get angry, to tell me how useless I was and that I wasn't even good for sex anymore. She was my wife. I wanted her to get angry. Like at the hospital, right after it happened. Her face was all matted hair and blood, her cheeks pressed together by this device they used to stabilize her head. I leaned over the gurney so she could see me, and she said, "Someone's sitting on my legs. Tell this fat sonofabitch to get off my legs."
     I didn't know what else to do. Her eyes were nothing but heat. I looked at a spot in the air where a face would have been.
     "Get the fuck off my wife's legs," I said.
     Now, my eyes were closed tight. Marilyn kept trailing her fingernails along my spine. She smelled powdery and a little stale, the way a baby smells. The lace on her bustier was like scales against my chest.
     After a while, she said, "Would it help if we turned out the light?" I rolled off of her and put my feet on the floor, the room pitching under me the way you can still feel the ocean in your legs when you've just set foot on dry land. I didn't know what was wrong with me. She was my wife of seven years. I lit a cigarette, tapped the ashes into my tennis shoe.
     "Duncan?" she said.
     "No," I said. "You're beautiful. I told you."
     "You didn't say that," she said. "You haven't looked at me in three hundred and seventeen days."
     "Well," I said. I rubbed my eye with the heel of my hand. "Listen, Marilyn, I need to get out for a while. I need to get some cigarettes, okay."
     Marilyn was small enough that I could barely sense her presence on the bed behind me. She had a way of going so quiet and still you didn't even know she was there. Like after I brought her home from the hospital and she had given up on anger. She'd have me roll her over to the window before I left for work, except instead of facing the ocean, she wanted her chair aimed at the wall, so the water was on her left. When I asked her why, she said, "I want to see the world sideways. It'll be like the window of a car."
     At first, I thought this was about the accident. She was trying to re-create, in some bleak and dangerous manner, the view she had when she was sideswiped. But I came to believe that it was something else entirely, though I didn't know exactly what, the way she just sat there without making a sound, the tides always rising and falling on her left, the sun beating down on the road between our house and the beach, the wind catching sand from the dunes. When we ate dinner, she sat sideways at the table. When we slept, she lay on her left side, facing me, her eyes on my back. It was about this time that I started working more overnight trips. Shark fishing.
     I couldn't sleep at home, and on the boat, I didn't have to sleep at all. We'd drift, quietly, chumming the surface with butcher's leavings and fish entrails, calling the sharks up from deeper water. Me and Meadowlark, the other mate, this little Bahamian guy with a seventies afro, sitting on deck, stealing beers from the coolers of the paying customers.
     It was also about this time that I cheated on my wife. Two couples had come on board the day before, excited and doing jokes about catching a great white in the Gulf of Mexico. When I told one of the women, Gail, that there were no great whites in the Gulf, just makos and hammerheads and blacktips and so on and we'd be lucky if we caught a shark at all, she gave me this big smile and said, "You're so literal. I love that about you."
     That night she appeared on deck wearing nothing but a T-shirt. and panties. Everyone else was sleeping down below. We were supposed to wake them at midnight. She brought a joint and the three of us passed it around. After a while, she left us, slipped along the gunnel to the bow, her legs bright as ice in the moonlight. Meadowlark said, "She want to fuck you, mon."
     "You're crazy," I said.
     I looked toward the bow, but I couldn't see her anymore. She must have been lying against the wheelhouse. I couldn't see anything except ocean.
     "I'm not crazy." Meadowlark stood and pissed off the side of the boat. When he was finished, he turned toward me, his dick in his hand and said, "You see dis?" He waved his penis at me. "You see how healthy she is? How black and strong?"
     "Very impressive," I said.
     "Daht's cause I fucking all the time. Your wife in de chair," he said. "You got to use it, mon. She like to fall right off"
     So I went forward, found Gail and made hurried love to her, her husband asleep below the deck, my wife at home with useless legs, the deepest water aswarm with hungry sharks. When I got home, I thought about telling Marilyn what had happened, but decided against it. I told myself that she didn't need to hear something like that. Things were hard enough already.
     
   Marilyn and I live on the only inhabited island off the coast of Alabama. There's a legend about the place dating from when the French had just settled Mobile. It seems that some wise frog had the bright idea to use Dauphin Island to keep pigs for the colony. No need for fences, because everyone knew that pigs couldn't swim. Just strand a couple of swineherds out here, ship them food and water. Only they were wrong about the pigs. The story goes that one night the swineherds woke to this preposterous racket, branches snapping, water splashing like someone was dropping boulders into it, and they found the pigs making a break for the mainland. The sound between the island and the Gulf was full of squealing pigs, hundreds of them, paddling like hell with their hard little hooves for the freedom of the shore.
     Sometimes, as we're cruising out of the marina, taking the slow curve in the channel between Dauphin Island and Petite Bois--pronounced "petty boy" in Alabama--I imagine those pigs in the water, snouts pointed snobbishly skyward, coarse hair slick with salt water, and I can't help but laugh. One of the paying customers will ask me what's so funny, and I'll tell the story, and all at once, I own the ocean and the white beach and the bend in the shore where the pigs reached land. I'm part of all of this and all of this is part of me.
     I tried to explain the feeling to Marilyn once. This was before we were married. We were sitting on the porch looking out over the marsh grass behind my house, moths tapping against the screen. She was still in her uniform--Marilyn worked at the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuary before the accident, and she had this ranger costume, safari shirt, brown shorts rolled at the cuff, her hair tucked into a cap, hiking boots. I used to tell her she looked like a boy scout--her legs stocky and solid-looking in the porch shadows. She asked me why I was still doing the work that college kids did on their summer vacations. She didn't say it mean; she just wanted to know. I told her the story about the pigs, and when I was finished she lifted my hand to her lips and kissed my knuckles, like that was the sweetest thing she'd heard in a long time. She wrinkled her nose at the way I smelled. "Let's get you cleaned up," she said and led me by the hand to the tub where she proceeded to wash me until I was absolutely pristine, scrubbing my fingernails, the insides of my thighs, my pale and water-logged feet. You could have eaten off my belly. Marilyn did kiss me there, when we were through. And on my pink knees and my chest and at my widow's peak. It was nothing like bathing her after the accident with all her floundering and tears and her rubbery mannequin legs. I gleamed beneath her lips. I can't remember feeling so clean before or since.
     That's what I was thinking after I failed to make love to my wife.
     I was sitting in the bed of the truck--my old Ford rigged with a wheelchair lift--the beach a flat white strip across the road. The ocean was nothing dark. Even as I brought my third cigarette in a row up for a drag, I could smell the dead fish on my fingertips. We'd had a crew out for bottom fishing today. All afternoon, I sliced bait minnows for paying customers, fixed the silvery squares on half-inch hooks, removed gasping snapper and graying triggerfish, as vivid as a painter's palette when still beneath the water, and dropped them into the live well, where they flitted around in a holding pattern until the customer, who had paid handsomely for the privilege, was ready for them to die.
     Now, I sniffed my hands, blew smoke across my knuckles. Sand danced on the pavement. The air was humid enough it was like breathing through water. My heart flopped in my chest. I started thinking what it would be like to just crank up the car and go, how it would feel to be one of those guys that you hear about who says, "Honey, I'm going out for a pack of smokes," and closes the door behind him and keeps driving until he has another life. He hangs a left in front of the house, like he does every other day, and suddenly he's in Texas with a new wife and a couple of kids and his own boat and there's boundless green water everywhere he looks. The wind is full of pirate voices and those kids are going crazy because their daddy has a marlin at the end of his line, and his wife is like something from a magazine, all tan and blonde and filled up with love. He learns to play tennis with his daughter and teaches his son the proper way to filet an amberjack. He makes love to his wife. At night, when the kids have grown and gone away, the two of them sit on the porch and watch the water, and he never thinks about his old life, never once looks in the rearview mirror when he's driving to visit his wife's grave up on the flowered hillside and thinks about what he left behind, the other woman and their past together. He has made a clean break, the man who went out for cigarettes, and he knows that if he lets himself remember, even for a second, it will be as if not a single year has passed, and he will be jerked backward through space and time and find himself sitting in the bed of a truck, smelling the stink of his hands, and wishing that he were the sort of man who could leave his wife.
     I flicked my cigarette into the road, sparks scattering like bees, and hopped down from the truck. I watched the galaxies moving in the sky. Our bedroom window made a yellow square against the darkness. Beyond the window was my wife. Inside, I stopped by the laundry room, poured detergent in with my work clothes, got the machine going, then fixed a glass of beer in the kitchen and carried it back towards Marilyn. The runners made everything real quiet, and the only light was at the end of the hall. I had a strange feeling, then, woozy and disoriented, like I was surfacing in deep water, moving through all the years of my life with Marilyn, all the times I kissed her appendix scar, all the nights we spent talking about the children we would have together, all the days on wintry beaches after the tourists had gone home for the season, all of those things piled one on top of the other to arrive at this moment. Marilyn was still in bed. She opened her eyes when I came in, but I could tell she hadn't been asleep.
     "I never heard the car start," she said.
     "Listen," I said, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. "You remember those swimming pigs?"
     "That's not what I expected you to say," she said. I could see her reflection in the window. She was looking at my back. After a moment, she said, "Okay. What about them?"
     "The woods upstate are crawling with wild pigs," I said. "The kin of those jailbreak pigs. You can hunt them all year long, there's so many of them."
     "So?" she said. "The woods are full of sausage. So?"
     "I just wonder sometimes how they knew which way to swim. I mean no one even thought they could swim in the first place. How'd they know not to take off into the Gulf and drown?"
     Marilyn didn't answer. She propped up on her elbows and inched back until she was leaning against the headboard. I could hear her breathing, and it seemed to me that I could almost make out her thoughts. She wanted to ask me what the hell I was talking about at a time like that. Those pigs, she wanted to say, didn't have anything to do with us. And she would have been right, if she'd said it, they didn't. It was just something that popped into my head when I should have been thinking about my wife. But she didn't say anything. I started to light another cigarette, but I didn't really want it, so I just held the thing, tapped the filter against my thumbnail. Finally, Marilyn spoke. She said, "Look at me."
     "I keep waiting for this to get easier, Marilyn."
     "Look at me," she said again.
     I didn't turn around right away. Nothing had happened yet, and I wanted to hold on to the feeling I had just then. The air was full of choices, and it was only a matter of time before I picked the one that I could live with.

1998 Michael Knight            spanish translation | french translation

"The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettes" appears in Dogfight and Other Stories, published by Plume. This electronic version of "The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettes" is published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with John Hawkins Associates and the author. Book ordering available through  Amazon.

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  Author bio:Michael Knight
Michael Knight won Playboy’s 1996 college fiction contest, and he was included in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops Anthology for 1997. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Story, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Crescent Review, and Shenandoah. A native of Alabama, Michael Knight has taught at Gilman School in Baltimore and Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. His debut novel, Divining Rod, is published by Dutton.

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