Fiction

The Painter

by

 

P.E. Tottenham

My grandfather has terminal stomach cancer. Lately I’ve been stealing some of his seemingly endless supply of morphine. I live with him and my grandmother in the basement of their house. Half the basement is bare concrete. You know, oil tank, hot water heater, and furnace—the usual. The other half—my half—is separated from the first half by a heavy dark blue curtain that my grandmother made up for me on her little sewing machine. My modest hovel is a mess. I covered the bare concrete with some old Persian rugs I found at a thrift store. They’re beautiful to me. The walls are covered with ratty rug remnants and some old mattresses for some extra insulation in the winter, although Florida’s Central Coast doesn’t get too cold that time of year. Not like Massachusetts where my parents live and I grew up. Well, the first Christmas I spent down here the temperature dropped into the 20s a couple nights, and I even saw some flurries. So much for the Sunshine State, I thought.


So there’s a drawer filled with liquid morphine in my grandparent’s bedroom. I take it. Only a little at a time, so they can’t notice. There’s so much of it. He’s dying. I’m also really partial to ephedrine. It’s great, because when I want to get all jacked up, and listen to some music, ephedrine turns me on. I also love to jerk off on it. Usually after listening to some music.
I just find the free porn websites and go to town. Jerking off on ephedrine makes everything more tingly and raunchier. I’ve noticed, however, that if you do it too much, your erections start to get soft. That sucks. You can’t maintain. Oh, but the morphine, yeah, I take the morphine to come down off the ephedrine, and that’s real nice. Just a little like I said. In an eye dropper. At that point I usually just fade out in front of movie or something. Everything goes dead. Perfect.


“Yeah, so, Jason, you vomited in the laundry room last night. My Mom found it this morning, and, like, bitched my fucking ass out for an hour! It was on the fucking wall near the dryer, and all over the front of the washer. What the fuck, man?”


“Cindy, I don’t remember even doing that. Fuck. I thought—I was cleaning it and—I was so tired I just crawled back to bed with you.”


“And that’s the other thing. You can’t fucking sleep here!”


“I left at five in the morning, so she wouldn’t—“


“She fucking knows you sleep here, man. She’s pissed. She hears you leave! You’re lucky my Dad sleeps like the dead! What the fuck? You puke in our laundry room? Jesus Christ.”


“I’m getting a panther.”


“You’re getting a panther. I’m going to Jen’s tonight, so whatever. She broke up with that plumber dweeb. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Don’t call my house late again! Past nine is a bad scene. Love you. Bye”


“No, I am. Really getting one. A fucking pum—“
(dial tone)


So, a couple months ago I got this job painting this big old house. I suck at painting, but the guy I was working for didn’t seem to notice. It was his contract, and I was just his helper, so I couldn’t get into too much trouble. I would run errands for him; mix up the sky blue paint we were using inside the house; clean paintbrushes, and shit like that. I don’t even know how this guy got the contract, because he wasn’t even that good of a painter himself, in my opinion. In fact, Reyes, that was his name, was sorta nuts. He was always talking about animals. Wild animals. Reyes was into panthers particularly.


“Fucking panthers, man. The puma. The cougar. The catamount. The painter. Mountain lions, man!”


“You into tigers, huh, Reyes? Awesome.”


“No, man! Tigers are totally different animals. Panthers are local! I used to own two of them!”


“What, like a pet? You can own them? For how much?”


“Jason, man, I can get you a panther for a grand. Seriously.”


“Jesus Christ. A panther. I’d have to think about that. Shit. A thousand bucks?”


I got home that night and I felt like shit. I was popping the ephedrine like crazy while I painted that day. I seemed to do a better job with it. When Reyes started his talk about mountain lions, and maybe selling me one, I got a little crazy. You know that really decent feeling in your bowels? Shit inspiration I call it. I don’t know, when something gets me excited, fucking inspires me, my bowels go into motion. It’s not like an incontinence problem, and I don’t always necessarily take a shit. It’s just the feeling that counts. Shit inspiration. I popped a few extra ephedrines and that turned out to be a bad scene, because twenty minutes later I’m in the bathroom of the house we’re painting dry heaving. I’m sitting by the bowl and all I can smell are paint fumes, so I heave again. I haven’t really been eating much lately. It was just some coffee and what tasted like orange juice. Anyway, I get home and I feel like living acid. I’m all sweaty and my mouth is a sewer. I take a shower and retire to my room. This time I take a big drop of the morphine, because the way I feel, you know, is like I’m on the razor-thin edge of a perilous day and it has to end pleasantly inside of oblivion. The drop also sets me up for what I consider an important decision I need to mull over. The Shit Inspiration minus any feeling in my bowels. It’ll be a mysterious night. I put on Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, and I start to think. I sink.


Shit. I’m seriously fucked up right now. I’m in a cypress swamp. I don’t know how far from home I am. I seem to be wearing nothing but a pair of boxer briefs and some flip-flops. I feel cold. I’m covered from head to toe in mud, and there is a mist about me just at eye-level. Then I hear it. A high-pitched whining shriek. It seems to be coming from above. I spin around and around trying and failing to get my bearings. My feet slip and squelch in the mud. I suddenly want to be covered in moss and run through the swamp. The moon is full; a strong urge to jerk off to it fills my muddy body. Then I hear it again. It is closer now. It is no longer above me. It is the panther, and it is coming for me. My bowels loosen slightly as the silhouette of the creature approaches me. Slowly the cougar is brought fully into my view as it enters a perfect shaft of moonlight. Its coat is an ochre brown, grey on the underbelly with white markings on its head, shoulders and neck. The cougar’s long tail is whipping back and forth as it surveys me with its forward facing eyes. I may be its next meal.


“You are trespassing! This is my territory, and you have invaded it!” said the cougar.


The fact that I am about to have a conversation with a mountain lion doesn’t seem to faze me. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how I got here. Last thing I remember I was laying on my bed taking some morphine and listening to Miles Davis. I don’t even own boxer briefs. What’s your name? Mine’s Jason.”


“They call me Felis concolor coryi, but you can call me Mickey. Get on my back. I will take you tsafety.”


I mounted Mickey and with a furious shriek we took off into the morphine misted swampland. From the murky pools I could hear the clicking of alligators; from the trees a variety of birdcalls sounded as we made our way. I’m riding a cougar through a cypress swamp. After a couple of miles we came to the side of a highway.
“From here you should be able to find your way home. I must hunt. Have you eaten?”


“I haven’t been eating much lately. I am a little hungry I guess.”


“Wait here, Jason.”


“Okay, Mickey. I will.”


Off Mickey went back into the swamp for our dinner. After about forty-five minutes or so I started to get a little bit antsy. This dream is going on way too long. Mickey finally arrived, two small rabbits in his jaws. He throws one to me and I gaze at it lying at my feet. I shrug my shoulders and pick up the limp body of the rabbit. I look it over for a minute and sink my teeth into its side. Blood drips from my chin onto my muddy body. The small rabbit is good. I am enjoying a meal for the first time in awhile. I thank Mickey. Now I just wish I had a cigarette.


“Mickey, you smoke?”


I wake up late for work the next morning. My grandmother is standing above me yelling at me. I roll over to face the wall. My grandmother’s high pitched shrieking voice reminds of the dream of the night before.


“Jason, do you know what time it is? You’re going to lose this job just like all the others. I can’t have this in my house. Your grandfather can’t have this. He does not deserve this. Do you expect me to pay for everything for you? Don’t I cook your meals, which you don’t even eat anymore, and clean this pigsty of a room as well as your clothes? I am not a maid! You are breaking my heart. Get up and get to work! Please, honey!”


“Jeesssuuss…okay! I’m up! I’m up. Just get—get the hell outa here. Please. Thank you.”
“Do you want an everything bagel with cream cheese to take with you? I’ll put it in the toaster. Are these socks clean or dirty? I don’t know what to wash or not wash anymore. I got your grandfather up to watch Nick At Nite television last night, you know, he just loves the old All in the Family program reruns! Not a one of these socks match.”
“Just—I’ll take care of it. Just please leave, so I can get dressed.”
“Do you know that program, Jason?”
“What are you talking about? Program.”
“You used to watch it with me when you were little. You know your grandpa—“
“Do you have to come in here in the morning when I wake up? I’m still half asleep and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Can you find time in your busy schedule for your grandfather? He’s right upstairs. For now. When was the last time you came up to chat with him? Or with me for that matter…”
“Thanks for doing my laundry, gram. I gotta go. Tell grandpa I said hi.”


Well, I would have to pay a visit to the old man soon enough for some more drugs, but I’ll have to wait until he’s nodding out some afternoon. Say a quick hi; squeeze his bony, diseased hand. “How ya feeling, grampy?” “Jason? Jason, I’m taking you to a Red Sox game next week…We’ll take the T to Fenway—I ain’t driving in that fuckin’ town…You and I’ll have a ball. Don’t forget. Jason…don’t forget…” “I won’t forget grampy. We’ll take the T. Fenway franks and all that jazz. Sweet. Get some sleep, grampy. Later.” Yeah, we’ll take the T; get right off at Fenway Square. Right. He’s says the same shit to me every time I see him. He thinks he’s still in Massachusetts. Poor rotting bastard. I’m not even into baseball. Maybe the Sox and the Yankees in a series. Otherwise, every game is the same to me. Fucking baseball.


Dear Dad,
Hi. I’ve been thinking a lot about our last phone call. And I’m really sorry about how my attitude was that night. All I can say is I was in a bad mood that and it is really extreamly stressfull sometimes here dealing with grandpa’s cancer and all. But I shouldn’t have said some of the things I said you about Ma and her new boyfriend and all. I mean I do think he’s cool and all and the trip I took with him and Mom to Vegas was freakin awesome. But I think you’re really cool too! Remember that time me and you went camping in New Hampshire? That was wicked cool. I guess I probably complained a lot but I still had fun I just think you should chill out about Mom and all. Pretty soon you’ll meet someone and it’ll be a better scene for you.
I’m writing to you cuz I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said to me last time. You know the advice you gave me how I should take some classes at the community college. Well I think you’re absolutely right. I was really hoping to start in January for the winter semester. I’ll send you the catalog. Remember you said how you would give me money for school? Well I guess that’s what I’m asking for. It’s actually pretty cheap for college. I need like $2000. Do you think you could send it to me?
Dad I just want to learn! I’ve been doing a lot of deep thinking and I know what’s missing for me now. You were right. I have been wasting my time. I mean I’m gonna be 24 soon and that’s pretty old. I guess I’m just trying to say that time flies. You never know what’s gonna happen I mean look at Grandpa. I mean a year ago him and Grandma are driving the motor home around the country with that club of old people they belong to. You know. They were all living it up. Having a blast after there retirement and the next thing you know.
Anyway, if you could send me that money it would be awesome. I wanna be all I can be. Haha. Not like the army. You probably would like that huh. Haha. Fuck that! Oops. Sorry. You know what I mean though. I just want to get a good job someday. You were right college is essential. I’m really thinking of doing business or something. Business classes I mean. Maybe someday I’ll be rich and I can take care of you in your old age. Haha. You got awhile I guess. Don’t sweat it. Oh yeah thanks for sending me the money for that super Nintendo. I find playing it relaxes me and is very good for the reflexes. I have reflexes like a cat now. Theirs a lot to be said for video games Dad. You probably don’t agree. It just helps me mellow when I’m stressed. You know. Grandpa just keeps telling me he’s taking me to Fenway over and over. I wish I could reverse his curse. That’s what I’m all about these days. Just mellowing out if I can. You were right about the death metal. I mean I still like it okay sometimes. But I’m growing up now. You might be happy to know that I like some jazz now I go to sleep to it. That and Blue Öyster Cult. They rock.
Yeah so if you could send that money that would be cool. I’m gonna learn. It’s gonna be hard but I’m gonna learn. Don’t take any wooden nickels. Haha. Remember Gramps used to say that. Haha. Thanks Dad.
peaking of death metal, man, Tampa is where it’s at. I’ve got a friend lives outside Tampa in a little cow town called Brandon. Anyway, it’s right outside, so we used to go check out some death metal there. Local stuff. Evil. Another great thing about Tampa is the weekly Miss Nude Tampa Pageant. Every Thursday at around 11 pm on the local cable access channel they do a live broadcast of chicks stripping. I’m talking full frontal nudity and pole dancing. I was pretty shocked, cuz in Massachusetts cable access usually consisted of boring talk shows hosted by some loser from the city council or something, either that, or, video reruns of the local high school graduation. Sometimes there would be arty shit too. Not what I considered art though. Art.
Art was the letter I just wrote to my dad. That was a work of art. I knew it was money in the bank, too. He’d been bugging me to sign up at that junior college for a year now. He said I was turning into some kind of satanic loser. If you’re thinking that it won’t be so easy as my dad just sending me a check you should guess again. He’s not smart enough to go so far as to request a bill for tuition. He’s a good guy, but he lacks common sense. Always was wrapped around my mother’s finger. Then I guess she just got bored. She left him for that asshole Mercedes dealer. He took us to Vegas last summer trying to get in good with my mom by taking along the loser son. Man, I milked that bastard as much as possible during that trip. I think he had enough of me to last a lifetime. I don’t care to see him again unless it’s a trip to Europe or something. He’ll never be my dad. My dad may be a pushover and kind of a pansy, but he’s always taken care of me.
It seemed to me that my life would soon enter into glorious mystery. Soon events would take an irreal form in my life. A shadow was approaching, but there would be comfort in this shadow. A hint of danger, but I would keep that under control. I planned on getting myself a pet. My parents always hated cats, and they would never let me get a dog. They said a dog was too much responsibility, and that I couldn’t even keep Sea Monkeys alive. I always resented them for that. All the kids I knew had pets growing up. A cat was the one thing I wanted. Now I was going to get myself one. A big one. I just had to wait for the check, and get the details straight with my man Reyes. Then it would be a grand for the cougar and a grand for myself. Shit, maybe I would even take a class next semester. I didn’t know.

“So this plumber dweeb Jen just dumped? He’s been, like, showing up at her work and shit. Fucking stalker. Three times during one shift he came through her checkout in his gay navy blue uniform buying, like, fucking toothpaste and National Enquirers and gum. Fucking loser! I was gonna roll a joint. You gonna smoke with me? Jason? Wake the fuck up, junkie! Do you wanna smoke up or not?”
“You know I can’t smoke that shit anymore, Cin. I can’t handle the paranoia anymore. And it gives me the shakes. Pot fucking sucks. So that dude is stalking Jen, huh? We should stalk him some night, and beat the shit out of him with a baseball bat or something. I said I didn’t want any!”
“Man, you’re such a pussy. I get paranooiid! More for me. Yeah, you’re gonna beat up some guy with a baseball bat. Scrawny little fuck like you. The guy weighs, like, 220. I wouldn’t mess with him. I told Jen about getting a restraining order on his ass.”
“Speaking of ass, have you given any thought to our little anal sex discussion? Come on, you know you wanna, Cindy.”
“I don’t want to talk about it again. If you wanna fuck somebody’s ass so bad you can go down to Morley Park around midnight. Find yourself some chap-wearing cruiser. Although, I think it would be you who more than likely would be the bitch. Maybe I should have Jen fix you up with the plumber. You guys can clean each other’s pipes all night long.”
“Oh, I love you, Cindy. When you talk about fag sex it turns me on so much!”
“Stop! Stop it! I’m not ticklish! Get the fuc—ahhhh! You’re gonna wake up my parents. Seriously!”
“Seriously!”
“I mean it! Quit it!”
“Quit it!!”
“Oh…I’m so hungry. Can we go get some tater tots at the store? I want hot dogs, too.”
“I gotta hot dog for ya right here, baby.”
“I gotta hot dog for ya right here—hahahaha!”
“Fuck you. Okay, let’s go. But I’m not hungry.”
“You don’t eat shit anymore. You’re gonna waste away, baby.”
“I’m fine. Just not hungry lately. Not much. I don’t know.”
I’d been with Cindy for about six months. She’s okay. The sex is good. At least I thought it was good. She could be a total bitch when she wanted to be. I didn’t know about that.
Not sure what I thought about it yet. Her parents haven’t really taken to me yet. Maybe they never will. I think her mom thinks I’m trash. I suppose I am in certain ways. I didn’t see too much of the parents anyway. It didn’t really matter to me. Lately I had found myself going through the motions of being in a relationship. I don’t believe that I am in love. This poses a problem for Cindy. It is something that comes up quite often between us. I can’t lie to her. My feelings for her just have not reached that stage quite yet. I know it’s a drag for her. She can walk at anytime.
I met Cindy at a bar of all places. I really hate hanging out at bars unless there’s some cool band playing, and the drinks are cheap. I don’t even like to drink for that matter. I just don’t have a taste for alcohol. Not in the true sense. I can’t get into microbrewery bullshit. Certain awkward occasions instruct me to have a few drinks, and that’s that. Anyway, I went with this guy Jeff I used to work with. Not really a close friend. The bar was called the Underbelly or something. A little hipster dive trying hard to be one of those local “townie” pubs. It’s all cozy and shit. It’s like it can’t decide whether it wants to be a dive bar or hipster café. I mean bookshelves lined the walls. They had real books on them. I picked one up called A Scanner Darkly by Philip something or other. I read the back cover. It seemed interesting. It was about junkies and narcs. I tossed it on the floor when no one was looking. Above the bookcase where I found the book there hung some kind of old sword, all decorative and shit. Every time the bar door would open the damn thing would shake on its hooks like it was gonna come flying down at any second and impale someone. But it just hung there shaking making me edgy. Fucking trendy fucking place. So I see Cindy over there playing pool with some dude. She had on a light blue dress. She was tiny, but she had some big tits. Her hair was short, blond; almost like a boy’s. I guess Jeff knew the dude she was shooting with, cuz next thing I know her and I are introduced, and we just start talking away. It was really easy. Really nice. We made out behind the bar on the patio for a while. I wish she would wear that blue dress again sometime.

“So, Reyes, I want to buy a cougar…”
“You been thinking about what I said, huh? All right, man! That’s far out that you’re interested in mountain lions, but I don’t know, man, you gotta be responsible with, uh, wild animals and shit.” Reyes sorta turned away from me at that and continued fucking around with a paint roller. I noticed then for the first time how bad his dandruff was. It was all over the back of his Dickies shirt. I started to think he was full of shit about the cougar. Fucking burnt out old hippie.
“Dude, I really want a cougar. I need to have one. Are you bullshitting me about owning one, man?”
“No, man, I used to own one. I’m not bullshitting you. Everything’s cool. Don’t you live with your grandparents? I mean this is a wild cat I’m talking about. The Florida Panther. Where you gonna keep it? You can’t fuck around, man. That’s all I’m saying. These animals must be treated with the utmost respect. I mean these cats have to be fed. You know what I’m saying?”
“I’m hearing you, Reyes. You can’t get me one, huh? You were just yanking my chain. Whatever, dude. It’s just that I thought you were serious, and—it’s like—it’s all I’ve been thinking about lately. I don’t know. I had this beautiful dream. Fuck it.” I swallowed down four ephedrine with my warm Mountain Dew, and continued stirring the can of sky-blue paint I had been stirring all morning. This job was bullshit.
“I just have to think this over, Jason. The Florida Panther is endangered, you know? Hey, man, you’ve been popping those mini thins something fierce lately. You gotta slow down a little.”
“Dude, how much weed have you inhaled already this morning? I know what your little coffee breaks really are, man. You think I’m an idiot?”
“Jason, chill out my man! It’s cool. Everybody’s got their own business. Uh, we should however stop dragging ass on this room, man. I gotta contract to fulfill that’s currently overdue not to mention some new jobs to get started on soon. We’re gonna have to start hauling a little ass here.”
“Yeah, Reyes, let’s paint this fucker already. I’m up for it.”
“Okay, bring in that ladder from the other room, man. ‘Fiirre! Fire on the mounntaiinn!’”
“You gotta really pretty singing voice, boss.” Reyes sang his shitty Grateful Dead song while I pretended to go get the ladder. Instead, I went out and smoked a couple cigarettes and threw up again. I came back and he’s still painting the same wall. How did this guy become a contractor? How did he become a painter? Fucking hippies! The whole rest of the day I’m pissed off about my puma. Fuck. I attempt to paint the ceiling until I start to get dizzy at which point I retire to the bathroom and jerk off. It takes me twenty minutes.
**
Two weeks later I get a call from the “delivery men”. They need my address for delivery of my panther. Supposedly the cat will be tranquilized when it arrives. It’ll wear off by the next morning, and then I’m on my own. Reyes fucking came through for me! My dream was beginning. An animal tranquilizer would be provided free of charge for the delivery. I decided I would put morphine in the cat’s food from that point on, so as to keep things quiet. For starters I would feed him the plethora of meat product from my grandfather’s deep freezer, which sat at the other end of the basement. Since the onset of his cancer grandpa didn’t have much appetite for the steaks and roasts anymore (which incidentally continued to arrive like clockwork every month from Senwa’s Meat of the Month Club), and so there was a virtually endless supply of pet food as long as I was stealthy about it.
I would name the cat Mickey, and she would be my soul mate. Delivery was scheduled for Saturday night at around 2AM. The boys would park down the block at the old playground and wheel Mickey on a dolly to our basement’s bulkhead. Covering the panther’s crate would be a refrigerator carton so as not to rouse any suspicion (although it was suspicious enough that anybody would be wheeling around a new refrigerator at 2AM on Saturday night, but that was their plan. Who was I to argue?). For the time being Mickey would remain in her crate until we became friends (which wouldn’t take long). Later she could sleep with me, or I would make her a bed next to mine if she preferred it. At night we would dream together sleeping side by side. Occasionally, we would meet up in each other’s dreams when things were right. I would say: “Hey, Mickey.”
Of course, one would no doubt wonder how I was planning to keep Mickey a secret from my grandparents. Well, I didn’t have to worry about grandpa coming down here. To start I would keep the crate covered with some old sheets if my grandma happened to wander down, which she would, assuredly, but I wasn’t really thinking about that too much at the moment since I had just taken some morphine. I wracked my brain for almost a half hour trying to think of some potential problems with the upcoming adoption, but I couldn’t see any obstacles. There was too much love running carelessly through my brain. It was a happening. A fucking love-in! And we had an arsenal against any police interference, so to speak.
As the bliss blissed and Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan” played for the fifth time on repeat I notice that Cindy had arrived and was sitting on the side of my bed trying to talk to me. And apparently I had been responding to her conversation although I have no idea what it was about. I was astonished and a little stoked, because it was like I had become one of those “split-brain” patients I had learned about in my high school psychology class. I mean I was multi-tasking here although I wasn’t really understanding anything Cindy was saying. That was beside the point, however. The important thing is that my brain was on autopilot and Cindy didn’t know the difference. She wasn’t looking at me funny or anything, so I assumed everything I was saying to her was in line with whatever her subject was.
“So that dude is really getting creepy. You know the stalker guy? Jen’s? She had to get a restraining order against him. He woke her up the other night at, like, three in the morning. He had dumped all her garbage cans out in her front yard and was yelling her name at the top of his lungs. He woke up the whole fucking neighborhood. They said he was on crank or something. He had carved her name up and down his arms with a broken Snapple bottle from her garbage. He’s already out on bail. Fucking psycho. Do you have any food? I’m fucking starved.”
“There’s some tuna casserole in the fridge. My grandmother made it with Doritos instead of potato chips. I don’t know. It’s fucking gross. Do me a favor and eat the shit, so I don’t have to look at it. Get me a coke.”
“So what do you think? It’s fucked isn’t it?”
“What?”
“What the fuck do you think, junkie? Jen’s psycho. I mean the dude is seriously on the edge. I’m kinda scared for Jen.”
“Oh. Well, the pigs are involved, so she’ll be fine. I wouldn’t worry. Could you get me that coke?”
“The fucking pigs. That’s the problem. They won’t do shit. They already let the fucker out. Doesn’t that scare you?”
“No. This is probably one of my favorite Sabbath songs. Completely underrated.”
“Fuck you, dweeb. So are you ever gonna fuck me again? Or are just gonna sit here every night in your own stink and listen to classic rock. I mean I love you, Jason, but I’m horny as hell. You’re not into me anymore? What the fuck’s your deal?”
“What are you talking about, Cindy. Fucking chill. I just haven’t been really in the mood lately. I don’t know. It’s not you. C’mere.”
I held her. She cried for a few minutes, but I think I comforted her. And to tell you the truth I felt a little bad. I didn’t like to see her cry. Nothing could bust my bubble tonight though, and so I couldn’t help but smile. I mean I was beaming. I don’t think Cindy could see that through her tears. I didn’t know.

“Come on, mannn. I’ve been doing this shit for years. You can’t tell me halfway through a job that you’re not gonna pay me––and that you want the advance back! How can you fuckin’ fire me? I’ve been painting houses for years!”
“Mr. Reyes, I’ve been incredibly patient with you––“
“I told you I was having problems with the primer! I mean come on man…you’re paying me for fuckin’ quality work––am I wrong? And I told you I was having some problems with my employee. Fuck, man, that kid flaked out on me and––“
“Mr. Reyes. Mr. Reyes! Your problems with your employees are just that. And can you tone down the language? I want you and your equipment out of there today, or I’ll have you removed for trespassing. I’ve hired a new contractor to finish the job, and correct your mistakes. I explicitly requested estate red for the study! You said the entire house would take a week. It is one month later! Mr. Reyes…consider yourself lucky…I found an empty vial of morphine in the upstairs bathroom yesterday––”
“Morphine? What the hell are you––“
“Mr. Reyes. I want you out of my house. Your services are no longer required. I will not hesitate to get the law involved. Keep the advance. Just get your longhaired, junky, “hey man!” ass off of my property. The sixties are over,thankfully. And so are you. You know I try to be open-minded. You appeared to have a good reputation around here. Tom Davis, the electrician spoke highly of you. Said you were a little flaky, but a hard worker. I hate to judge a book by its cover, so I give you the contract, and guess what? Guess what? I stop in last week late and I swear I smell marijuana. Mr. Reyes I don’t condone drug use recreationally. There is no way in hell that I will allow a hippie doper work on any of my properties! And the morphine…?
I’m afraid that was the last straw. I’m on my way to the house as we speak and if I see your van in the driveway when I arrive I will call the sheriff.
“My brother died with AIDS last year…”
“Excuse me? I’m not sure where this is going. Have you understood all of what I have just said, Mr.––“
“Dirty needles. His wife bought it two years before. Overdose. When he was a kid he wanted to be a major league ballplayer. God, I looked up to him. The sixties are over, thankfully. I agree. I spent two years in Viet Nam. That’s what I remember of the sixties. That and a lot of important, promising people snuffed out before their time. Yeah, man, the pot has dulled my memory a bit. But I’m no junky, sir. My brother broke my heart cuz I couldn’t follow him there. That’s where it ended. He robbed my poor mother blind, and us kids too. I’m packing up my stuff, Mr. Rush. I haven’t the slightest clue how an empty vial of morphine found its way onto your property. I’m sorry. I am over. You’re right. But you’re kind is hemorrhaging internally. I wish I could help. You know I was a medic in the army? Wasn’t any good at it. Not good at much I guess. I’ve always paid my way though. Got a lot of regrets. Do you have regret, man? Mr. Rush?”
“My only regret is in hiring you. I’ll be there in twenty minutes. Consider yourself warned. Good day, Mr. Reyes. Best of luck in the future.”

***
“Jen was murdered last night. That sick fuck bludgeoned her in her own driveway with a lead pipe! They knew that guy was fucked! Jason!! Do you even hear me!? Where the fuck are you? She’s fucking dead. Where did you go!? Her brains are all over the lawn. I love you, Jason. I really need you right now. And you don’t care. I can’t do this.”
“Jen? What did she do? Why––? I love you, Cindy. I’m here. I––did he rape her? I love you. Cindy.”
“No…you don’t love me. I know. You don’t love me, Jason. You just can’t. I’m so sorry. You’ll never love me. You’re like a ghost. I love your eyes. I can’t––I’m leaving for Ohio tomorrow. I can’t handle the funeral. I can’t believe she’s gone. I forgive you. Jason, you need fucking help. I don’t know how to help you. I don’t understand. I don’t want to be your girlfriend anymore. I can’t. You’ll never love me. You’re a fucking drug addict.”
“Oh. Cindy….I wanted to share something beautiful with you. I want you to meet my Mickey. She’s beautiful. You’ll love her. She’s just right there in the cage. Shh. She’s asleep, but you can pet her.”
“I’ve been talking to my mom and she’s letting me move back in with her. She’s cleaned herself up a lot. She says she’s born again. I don’t know. I fucking hate born again Christians, but…I don’t know. Fucking Jen! Jesus Christ! You’re gonna kill yourself, baby. I can’t watch that happen. I don’t mind some pot, but you’re stealing your grandfather’s morphine. You fucking pussy! Why’d you let me fall for you? Why? I mean––I don’t see the harm in being saved. You know? Don’t laugh. If it means I can love my mom again and she won’t drink or hit me. Whatever it fucking takes. She’s tried so fucking long. I know. I wouldn’t talk to her forever. She just sounds different now. Maybe it’s bullshit. Maybe born again is worse? I don’t know. In her voice now is––peace. Love. She couldn’t love me before. She couldn’t love herself. If finding Jesus did this for her…then––fuck it. Maybe it means I get my mom back. Jesus or Allah or Satan––I don’t fucking care anymore. Whoever pays the bills. Whoever pays the fucking bills, Jason, you fucking waste! Oh God, I love you! I’m sorry…bye.”
***
“Love. I love you. Where’s the vial? Shit––“
As Jason opened the freezer door the tiny vial of morphine, which he had clenched between his teeth, dropped from his mouth when he began talking to himself in halting, breathy gasps.
“My girlfriend. Grandpa hit me with the ball. Boy, the way Glenn Miller played. Um. London Broil. Cool.” The frozen steak sent a shiver up his arm. He placed it on the floor and slid it across the cement toward his den. After laboriously retrieving the vial he fell backward with a girlish gasp.
“Huh. It’s fucking frozen. I don’t wanna see the old folks no more. I’m not using the microwave. She’ll just start fucking talking again! Shitfuck.”
Jason staggered back to the den and remembered the little space heater his mom had given him. After ten minutes of stumbling and rooting, stopping each time Mickey let out a waking growl, which steadily grew in loudness and intensity, Jason found the little cube-shaped heater. The rich, increasingly high timbre of Mickey’s growling gave Jason an erection. He felt embarrassed; his face estate red.
As Jason plugged in the heater he flashed his senior speech class in high school. On the last day the students each gave a ten-minute demonstrative speech.
“Here’s a cute little project you can do with glue, popsicle sticks, and pictures of your loved ones. Maybe you and your little brother or sister could do this for Christmas presents. Me and my sisters have been doing this since we were little. That poor bitch had buckteeth and that red turtleneck sweater. She sucked so much I almost cried. I love her and miss her. I’m sorry, fucking popsicle sticks.”
“Here’s a cute little Florida panther that has been starved. I would like to demonstrate the feeding and sedation of Mickey, my panther. We’re in love.” Jason inserted the eyedropper into the morphine vial and squirted some on the now thawed meat. As he approached the cage, Mickey screeched and swiped through the bars. Jason flinched and threw the steak at the cage. Mickey hooked it in through the bars and devoured it. A half hour later Jason lay in the cage alongside Mickey who panted slowly, her jaw slack, tongue hanging out. Jason stroked Mickey’s wiry fur and whispered his secrets into her ear.
Raymond Reyes threw the phone across the expanse of the unpainted dining room, and began to cry. The tears streaming down his sun-beaten face; into and through the valleys of well-worn smile lines, which framed his gaunt face, were the only evidence of the sadness and rage seething within him. He was calm. He thought to himself: estate red. He moved his ladder in front of the garish marble fireplace at the far end of the room. Reyes undressed and threw his clothes into the unused fireplace along with a few drop cloths and his wooden toolbox. With a little paint thinner and a match a glorious red and blue flame erupted with a pooft! Reyes ascended the ladder; paintbrush and can of the wrong red paint in his calloused hands. Above the mantle Reyes quickly, but carefully, painted his self-portrait onto the virgin white walls. He chuckled to himself at once recognizing the goofiness of his own likeness, and his success at finally expressing it on an unlikely canvas. From the other end of the room it would appear unsettling, grand. It would seem not the portrait of a frustrated artist, but a great red smiling skull; giant bloody glorious wings where the ears should be. For once he signed his name bravely. No longer the tiny stylized double R in the bottom right hand corner. Framing the dome of the head through a grand arch in dripping red capitals: R-E-Y-E-S! The flames grew higher.

***
Mickey shot through the dark hallway just as the hysterical grandmother locked herself into the bathroom. Mickey’s piercing screams reverberated through the house prompting increasingly louder strangled sobbing punctuated by intermittent keening squeals, which terrified the starving, bewildered animal. The smell of slow death sickened and terrorized Mickey, yet his ravenous hunger delivered him with a clumsy though accurate pounce onto grandpa’s bed.
“Jason, I was just dreaming of you and I need to tell you something. I love you. You’re lazy and you don’t got ambition. Father George used to tell us altar boys to live life with a hunger for blood. He meant the blood of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Blood and also joy, but to never lose sight of Christ’s moral example. You’ve lost your moral way, Jason, but you’re still young and I have faith in you. I banged a 16-year old hooker when your Grandmother was in the hospital with the phlebitis. You were just a kid then. I was the best southpaw on my high school team. I love your Grandmother and your mother and I would die for them. There was a minor league scout in the stands the night two nigger hitters in a row scored runs off me. The whites of their eyes burned my arm. They were so powerful those boys. My arm was on ice for a week. I was never so embarrassed in my life. My father said that I disgraced his name that night. I prayed for God’s forgiveness, and the following Sunday was absolved in confession by Father George. I’ve lost my way, but never my morals. This country is founded on morals. Jason, don’t forget—uh, mora…mora…moralism. Jason, are all the doors locked? Have your Grandma bring my cigar. I paid for that poor little whore’s abortion…moralism…Jason. Jason. Whores…”
Mickey sank his teeth into the old man’s skeletal neck, his final utterances answered by a steadily rising purr of relief and contentment. As Mickey ate the old man’s flesh he offered a tribute to his prey.
“Two blue jays, a chick and its mother, lay dying in my path when I was a cub. My mother explained that they had fallen from the sky. I ate them. My father taught me that the life spilling from their bodies into my mouth and staining my fur also washed away, like a warm spring rain, the suffering birds’ agony. Neither my father nor my mother ever told me the tale of the Moral. The Moral does not exist, Old Man. I know this as I tear your thin grey skin. Your life is your gift to me, and for this I am eternally grateful, sir.”
Mickey ate little of his prey. His still clouded mind faintly warned him that the meat was tainted in some way. When he found his way into the living room he ate some of the grandmother’s giant fern as she continued to wail from the bathroom. Frantically in search of a way out of his giant cage, Mickey returned to the basement and ran in circles as vomit dripped from Jason’s mouth and nose; his lifeless eyes staring longingly into the empty cage, still.
Two policemen entered the basement, their guns raised at the ever-circling panther. As the first officer’s boot hit the floor he was immediately knocked on his feet by the pouncing animal that shot up the stairs as a bullet from his gun exploded through an old Army helmet hanging on the cement wall along side the grandfather’s fishing gear. The grandmother prayed on her knees near the open front door for the soul of her mutilated husband, and for deliverance from this invading beast. As he escaped into the night Mickie—–CLAW-SPRUNG!——DOOM-PAWED!——–the supplicant widow across her oath-less face.

©2017 P.E. TottenhamHave You Heard the Sound of the Vima Tresna?

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