Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Humility

He sat rigid in the dining chair, the confusion of wires and batteries and yellowed plastic spread before him, and he listened with growing fury to the empty house. His wet hair hung down into his blazing eyes and beads of soapy water slid from his brow and nestled into the coarse growth on his chin. Filmy puddles glistened beneath his chair and occasionally they sprouted fingers which crept across the floor to meet the tangle of foot prints and bubbles leading from the bathroom to where he now sat, tense and naked. The shower hammered ceaselessly in the background, spraying the floors and wall where the curtain had been yanked down. Steam billowed into the hall where it was at once devoured by the cool morning air.

He did not hear the drips that fell from his body and splashed to the floor, nor did he feel the gooseflesh as it marched across his clenched thighs on its way to his chest. He did not consider his wife’s reaction when she returned home to find the damaged hardwood floors or the holes in the walls and ceiling where he’d violently yanked each smoke detector from its perch. He only thought, I’ve got you now, mother fuckers, I’ve got your number now, as he stared at the table, his head cocked to one side, listening

The beeping started the Tuesday before and, at first, it went unnoticed until that night when he awoke from a dream in which he visited the Wheelsburgh County Fair petting zoo and fed a quarter into the machine labeled Dodo Food and watched as miniature cobs of corn rolled into his upturned hand. A silvery-blue bird strutted to his offered palm, and as it bent the thick sheen of its neck forward, he grabbed the bird by its head. The bird screamed in panic and its wings flailed against his legs as it tried to propel itself backward out of his grasp. It screamed again, a shrill beeping sound, just before he lifted the frantic bird to his mouth and bit its neck clean in two and his eyes snapped open in the darkness of his bedroom. He ran his hot tongue over his teeth which tasted faintly of copper and of toothpaste. His wife did not stir, not even when the smoke detector emitted another piercing shriek from somewhere in the house beyond his bedroom door.

“Goddamn smoke detector, “he muttered to the pillow as he drifted back into sleep.

It was now Thursday of the following week, and he had not gone to work in three days. He was obsessed by his inability to locate the offending smoke detector and put an end to its insufferable screaming by replacing the battery. On Monday, he’d left his office abruptly and without excuse, and raced home because he’d realized that the noise was coming from the smoke detector in the attic, which he hadn’t yet considered. After running two stop signs and leaving his car door ajar, he’d pulled the folded stairs down from the ceiling and mounted them as a knight mounts his steed before an epic victory.

After replacing the battery in the attic smoke detector, he had called his secretary and told her that his arthritis was acting up, and he would be home for the rest of the day. In the dining room, he had poured a finger of bourbon into one of the good crystal glasses and ceremoniously announced to the empty house that his mission had been accomplished. Then he’d bowed sarcastically to the china hutch before raising his drink high in the air, toasting his victory, and downing the bourbon all at once.

His celebration had been cut short by a piercing beep from down the hallway towards the living room, and he’d frozen in shock and fury. His rosy face had filled with crimson, starting at his chin and rising until his broad forehead was nearly purple. Then he’d smashed the glass against the far wall and raced down the hallway, once again hunting the sound of the elusive smoke detector.

It was Monday morning when his wife noticed that he had not shaved his coarse beard since Friday, and this omission was how she knew that he was losing his mind. In twenty years of marriage, he had risen religiously at dawn and shaved before brushing his teeth, even on Christmas. Years before when he’d had his gallbladder removed, she’d brought his razor from home and had stood by his bedside holding a hand mirror as he methodically scraped rows of scratchy growth into a kidney-shaped tub of sudsy water.

She wondered what it would be like, living with an insane person, and she wrote several letters to The Dr. Steve Show asking for advice. She imagined that Dr. Steve might fly her to Chicago to film a show about the brave wives of insane men, and she wondered if they would buy her a new dress for the occasion. At night, she lay in bed listening to her husband pace the hallway, his footsteps intermittently broken by the shriek of the smoke detector followed by pounding footfalls and his infuriated curses, and she pictured what it would be like to sit next to Dr. Steve on the stage in front of all of those people. The audience would weep silently as she recalled her husband’s obsession and his subsequent descent into madness, and she would be sure to sound humble when she told them about how she’d stood by his side even after he had quit shaving.

She spent three days each week volunteering at the county library because it gave her an excuse to gossip with the full-time librarian, who knew everybody’s business and relished in relaying bad news. She was particularly relieved to get out of the house this Thursday because just that morning, her husband had begun muttering to himself about wires and his dead uncle as he paced from room to room, and the few times his words were intelligible to her, she wished they hadn’t been.

Thursday was popcorn day at the library, which meant half the retired population of the town stopped by during the afternoon, and even though many of them didn’t have a library card, they felt inclined to help themselves to the free popcorn. During lunch, the librarian told her that the gymnasium teacher over at the elementary school was having an affair with the post man, and that his wife tried to shoot him in the leg just two days before when she arrived home early and caught him playing another kind of basketball.

She exclaimed this was the best news she had heard all spring, and by the time she finished re-shelving her cart full of romance novels and encyclopedias, she’d forgotten that her husband was losing his mind over a smoke detector, and she hummed along to golden oldies on her drive home. Everything came back to her, though, when she pulled into the driveway of the house and saw her husband’s car already parked in the garage, and she remembered that he hadn’t gone to work in three days.

She sighed and began practicing her monologue for The Dr. Steve Show as she gathered up her things and walked to the door. She was determined to get it just right so that everyone watching on television would see how difficult it was to live with a crazy man. They would all nod their heads as Dr. Steve told them he had never met such a humble woman before, especially not one so lovely as she, and after they went to commercial break, Dr. Steve would pull her close and look directly into her eyes and tell her that he would shave every day for a woman like her…

…the kitchen door opened onto chaos. Everything had been pulled from the shelves above the sink and smashed to pieces on the floor. Steaming waster cascaded over the lip of the sink and onto the floor, washing over the broken sugar bowl and the cookie jar shaped like a dolphin. The counter stools were overturned and one was missing entirely.

Her breath escaped her chest in a violent swoosh and she dropped her purse without noticing. I landed in a puddle of what might have been mustard, and spilled its contents over her feet. She stood frozen in the doorway for several long moments, gaping at the destruction of her kitchen and wondering if burglars had caused this extravagant mess. Then she remembered her husband and her feet began to propel her forward into the house, slowly at first, and then she was running into the dining room, not stopping to turn off the sink.

Her china hutch lay overturned on top of the dining room table, and there were dozens of holes punched into the plaster wall behind it. She continued down the hallway, nearly slipping in a puddle, until she came to the den. Here, the walls were completely destroyed, the plaster ripped down in plate-sized chunks on every side. The coffee table was demolished and lying in the center of the room, the ficus tree lay uprooted and bent on top of the jagged shards of wood from the table. Beside the murdered tree lay a pile of smoke detectors, smashed nearly beyond recognition, blue and red wires jutting horribly from between shards of yellow plastic, batteries broken open and seeping through the rug and onto the floor beneath, a sledgehammer discarded beside the carnage.

This was not how she had imagined insanity, not at all, and her hopes of appearing on The Dr. Steve Show dissolved as she stood gawking at the smoking television in the corner and the table lamp that hung where its screen once was. She wondered if anyone would ever know the depth of her humility now, if they would ever hail her incredible bravery and loyalty for standing beside her husband as he lost his mind. She was suddenly furious with him for denying her that recognition, not to mention the priceless china in her grandmother’s hutch, and she spun on her heel and stalked back down the pock-marked hallway in search of her insane husband.

She stormed into their similarly demolished bedroom, eyes darting, and on into the adjoining bathroom. The wall of steam met her at the door and wilted her chemical curls in an instant. She could see the hulk of her husband through the rapidly-escaping clouds. He was bent over the sink, his back to her.

“JUST WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?” She had to scream in order to be heard over the roar of the water, and luckily for her, she felt exactly like screaming. He turned his head to face her, and she was able to see that his right leg was bent and twisted up so that his foot rested in the sink, which was spilling sudsy water onto the floor. She stepped further into the room. Her husband mumbled something she didn’t make out and then turned his attention back to his foot in the sink. She stepped directly behind him and saw that he had crammed her red patent leather pump onto his foot, which was now submerged in steaming water, and the skin of his ankle was a violent shade of pink. In his hand was his razor, and she watched as he drew it up his leg, causing a thick, white stripe to appear. Coarse black hair swirled in the sink and then washed over its side to the floor.

She gasped and leaned forward to confirm that he was, in fact, shaving his leg in the sink, and that’s when she heard him mumble, “…I’ve got your number now, mother fuckers, I killed them all and it’s dead, my father was gay and Uncle Red killed himself, but it’s dead, I killed them all…”

Her vision blurred and she slumped to the floor by his feet, unaware of the water that lapped at her folded legs, and the last thing she heard before giving into the weight of her eyelids was the piercing shriek of a smoke detector from somewhere down the hall.