Monday, 16 May 2011

Cool Breeze of Mercy by Greg Bardsley

Janice watches as the water dilutes her blood into swirls of pink.

Philippe has gotten her good. The cuts are deep and long, and they’re everywhere — along her forearms, into her palms, on her fingers, even across her stomach. They’re defensive wounds, all of them.

Her blouse is ruined.

She nearly hyperventilates as the attack replays in her head. It all happened so fast, like Philippe had switched gears, showed another side of himself, one known only by the vermin, the rodents, the lowest forms of life. As if that switch was always there, but just never flipped on for her.

Gus pads into the kitchen, approaches with care.

“You okay?”

She swallows hard, looks away, glaring into space. This is all because of Gus and his stupid idea. Gus was the one who thought she needed to broaden her interests, find something that would take her focus off work. “Janice,” he’d announced a few weeks earlier, “you need to get your mind off finance once in a while.” He suggested she pursue a hobby, something that would occupy her mind while away from work. He’d kept saying, “You need an fun outlet, Janice.”

She’d thought Philippe could be that fun outlet.

She looks at her wounds. Yeah, that was loads of fun.

Gus touches her shoulder. “You okay?”

The cuts are pink now. She snaps, “Where is he?”

Gus pauses. “The bathroom.”

“You sure?”

Gus sighs long and hard, looks at his own bloodied arms. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

Janice presses a paper towel against her right forearm. The cuts sting, and the slash on her neck throbs. What a complete disaster. Does it get more humiliating than this? What is she supposed to tell the ladies when they start showing up, which should be any minute?

“It’s okay,” Gus soothes. “Now you know.”

Janice bites her lip. She’s about to cry.

I’m such a loser.

“Now you know he doesn’t like that kind of thing.”

Her eyes water. “I thought it’d be cute.”

“And it would have been,” Gus assures.

“Lots of people do it.”

“I know they do. I’ve seen the photos.”

“And it’s no big deal for them.”

He rubs her back. “I know, honey.”

“But me?” She whimpers. “I get mauled. I get mauled because of a stupid little outfit.”

Gus pauses, considers his words. “Well, Philippe is different. We always knew that.” He pauses again, thinks about it. “You know, that time in his life when he should’ve been with his mother?” Gus waits a second. “He was alone, on the streets.”

She looks down, sniffles and nods.

“Let’s face it,” Gus says, “Philippe has that wild side. It’s deep inside him, and we’ll never change that.”

She nods, straightens, clears her throat. “I know.”

The doorbell rings.

****


Next door, Cujo blinks hard, tries to shoo away his thoughts as he works the shampooer.


Bow tie. A fucking bow tie.

The house is vacant, just a bunch of rooms with purple and red shags. Thermostat says 98 degrees, and here he is shoved into this little piece-of-shit uniform – white jeans, white long-sleeve collar shirt and a red bow tie. It’s like his body can’t breathe – it needs air, ventilation, a cool breeze of mercy. Along his arms, back and chest, large curls of body hair press against the sweat-soaked shirt.

He’s always had a lot of hair, but it was never a big deal, until now. It’s like they’re saying there’s something wrong with his body, like it needs to be covered with this little outfit – an outfit for gomers and dandies.

Cujo grumbles. “Wage earnin’”

Sweat rolls down his shaven scalp, over his brow and into his beard.

Fucking bow tie. Fucking bow tie for a guy who used to run wild and free. For a guy who used to take what he wanted, do what he wanted – called it Survival of the Fittest, and damn did he have a fucking blast. All those times, all those years, it was like he was expressing himself. Like he was saying, “This is me, eggheads. Now try to stop me.”

Now this. Working for a wage. In a fucking bow tie.

He’s doing it for her. Said she really wanted him to settle down a little, get off the streets, stop making a living off Survival of the Fittest and start earning a steady income. Would be better for a family, she said, which he kinda liked hearing. Never thought she’d say something like that.

Parole officer got him the gig. Some new “Invitation to Cooperate” jobs program for ex-cons. Carpet-cleaning vacant homes. Okay, fine. Give it a shot. But now? Now that he’s here in this fucking uniform, all he can think is, This ain’t me.

And from that he concludes, The bitch wants to change me.

He gazes out the window, can see right into the next house over. Looks sweet and cherry over there – shiny-black plasma mounted on the wall, valuable-looking vases on the mantle, everything done just right. Cujo considers the rose bushes out front, notes all the fluffy-bunny shit in the plasma-TV room, and figures there’s probably some soft-n-doughy Teletubbies living over there, the kind that don’t like to fight back.

Cujo licks his lips.

Fuck, easy raid right there. Fucking low-hanging watermelons.

Was a time when he’d go harvest those melons.

Not anymore.

He works the shampooer hard.

I’m no bow-tie guy.

He’s panting, overheating.

I’m a Survival of the Fittest guy.

The thought makes him sick to his stomach, weakens his gut. And just like that, Cujo feels a deuce coming on. He yanks the cord out of the wall, and the shampooer groans to a stop.

He lumbers to the hallway bathroom, lifts the lid, unbuckles his pants and finally remembers what happened at the last place. The last house, two days ago, Cujo made a big mess with the toilet, left a lot of marks in the bowl, clogged it up something fierce, got distracted and left it that way. Next day, got in a heap of trouble with management. The boss freaked, took away his bathroom privileges, said, “I catch you so much as spitting into a client’s toilette, you’re out.”

Invitation to Cooperate? How about invitation to shit your pants?

Fine. Do it old school, caveman style.

Cujo stoops and squints out the window, looking for a place that’ll provide cover. Sees a mess of bushes. That’ll do. At the plasma-TV house, some old chick in a giant summer dress is walking up to the front porch with a handful of flowers. Cujo blinks and fingers the bag of peyote buttons in his shirt pocket.

Feels an eyebrow arch.

Unrolls a giant wad of toilette paper.

Time for peyote and potty.


****


Janice forces a smile, opens the door.

“Hello,” she sings, and motions Barbara in.

Barbara clutches the flowers, looks around. “I love your house. The front reminds me of an English cottage.”

Janice reaches for the flowers. “These are beautiful.”

“I just thought-“

“Let me put these in some water.” Janice leaves for the kitchen. “One sec.”

“Did they find a tenant for that cute little house next door?”

“I think they’re still cleaning it up.”

“Where’s Gus?”

“Oh, he’s in the den. Thought he’d skip tea time with the ladies.”

Doorbell rings again.

“Want me to get that?”

Janice is filling a vase. “Would you? That’s probably Shirley and Jill.”

“Hellooooo.”

“Hi, there.”

“Oh, look at you. I love that dress.”

“Those are lovely.”

“How long have you been here?”

“I just got here.”

“Where’s-”

“Janice!”

“There she is.”

“I was just- More flowers? You ladies are too kind.”

A loud gasp. “Oh my God, what happened?”

“I’m fine.”

“Are you okay? Look at her neck.”

“It was Philippe. I tried something stupid.”

“Oh my God, you poor thing.”

“Enough about me. Who wants tea?”

“I love those morning glories out front.”

“Let me put these in some water.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?’

“Here, I’ll help you with those.”

A whisper: “Where’s the bathroom?”

Janice hollers from the kitchen, “Barbara, you want some tea?”

“If I remember, it’s the first door on the right.”

“I have butter cookies.”

“Oh, did you see that email from Fitzroy?”

“He’s off his rocker.”

Jill heads down the hallway.

In the kitchen, Janice announces, “By the way, speaking of Philippe, we put him in the hall bathroom. Once he calms down, Gus will move him to the back room.”

Jill opens the door. “Oh, well, hello there. What a dapper little guy you are today.”

Hissing.

“Oh … Well.”

Philippe hisses louder.

“Oh, someone’s had a little accident. Come here, sweetie.”

Philippe prepares to pounce, shows Jill his felines.

Jill yells, “Janice, I love your cat’s little outfit. The top hat is adorable, and the little pants and bow—”

Philippe attacks.

Jill screams.

Things get knocked over.

It sounds like a mauling, which is what it is.


****


Shitting in the bushes was actually kinda cool. It was like it was his way of reconnecting with his wild side, the primal Cujo, the Cujo that squats in a bush and does what comes natural. Now he’s scooted over a few feet, still in the bushes, chewing on a final button of peyote.

He lids his eyes, loosens his bow tie, and exhales. Peyote really gives him that tweak he needs. Really helps him see the world in a whole new light. Usually he chews a few buttons in the Black Hole, right before the Raiders trot onto the field, because the shit can really play some tricks with your vision, make you see shit no one else does. All his Black Hole brothers and sisters wearing their masks and face paint really look freaky after you’ve chewed on some peyote. The sounds are trippy, too.

Cujo gazes at the branches of his bush. Beautiful greens and browns and some other color he can’t quite describe – peyote does that sometimes. He sways and lets his lids close. Damn, he needed this.

When he opens his eyes, he glances over at his shit log; a whole mess of colors are streaming out of it, like smoke rising from a sizzling pork loin or something.

Dude … That’s some crazy shit right there.

Then screams from next door.

He’s pretty sure it’s not the peyote.


****


The women are screaming.

Jill has stumbled out of the hallway fighting off an American short-hair dressed in pants and a top hat. The cat is attached to her head, his front claws tangled in her hair, his back claws digging into her throat and chest, his fangs sunk into her ear. Cat diarrhea is streaked down his pants.

Janice rushes over, screams, “Philippe, stop it!”

Jill keeps screaming, “Get him off, get him off.”

The others scramble out of the way.

Finally, Janice detaches Philippe, but not before he leaves a new slash across her forehead. He squirms loose, darts from corner to corner and finally rockets out the front door, which had been left ajar.

His top hat is askew, but he’s still dressed like a gentleman.


****

Cujo sits cross-legged in the bushes, listens. It’s some hardcore shit going down over there, for sure. High-pitched screeching, some kinda wild animal maybe. Whole lot of chicks yelling and screaming. Loud crashes.

Cujo lids his eyes and takes it in. The peyote gives the screams their own sounds, really twists them up. It’s like a song, sort of, in a really trippy way.

Hell yes.

When the screams stop, he can hear them echoing through his skull. It feels good, like a nice eardrum massage or something, getting at a spot that’s been itching for a long time, maybe all his life. He sighs, arcs his head to the side and enjoys it. Soon, the echoes dissolve into nothing, and Cujo is seconds from slumbering, sitting upright.

His own snoring wakes him. He stirs, opens an eye.

A cat in top hat is sitting there staring at him.

Whoa.

They look at each other for a long time.

“Hey, little dude.” Cujo squints. “You real?”

The cat blinks softly, cocks its head. Cujo takes it in, tries to focus in on the spectacle before him – a little white cat dressed in black pants, a bow-tie and a top hat tilted at a severe angle.

“You are real, huh?”

The cat rises and stretches.

Cujo softens. “Come here, little fella.”

The cat zig-zags closer.

“It’s okay.”

The cat brushes against him, purrs. Leaves a brown streak on Cujo’s pants that seems to glow in his peyote haze.
“Whatchya getting all slicked up for?”

The cat plops down in his lap, blinks.

“Someone trying to change you, too?”

Cujo remembers the screams and animal-screeches from next door. “Oh, that was you causing all that hell-raising, huh?”

The cat purrs. Animals have always loved Cujo.

“Well, good for you. Taught ‘em a lesson, didn’t you?” He looks over at the house, tries to get another look at that plasma. Probably worth fifteen-hundred. At least. The thought sticks to his skull like a fucked-up peyote echo.

Suddenly, the cat bolts off his lap and creeps to the edge of the bush – tail strait, eyes focused, shoulders hunched.

Cujo watches.

The cat explodes out of sight.

Whoa.

Cujo closes his eyes and listens. He can hear feathers fluttering, lots of squeaking – distress calls. The sound percusses in Cujo’s skull, scratches his brain, tickles the back of his eyeballs. He sways back and forth as he takes it in. Everything is so much more hardcore with the peyote.

Dude.

When he opens his eyes, there’s the cat with a bird in its mouth.

“Damn, dude.”

Fucking kitty cat in a top hat, kicking ass in the garden. Taking what it wants. Fucking bird in its mouth. Cujo thinks about it, feels his chest swell with emotion. Cat understands the Survival of the Fittest mindset. Bow ties and top hats ain’t gonna change that.

The cat sinks its fangs into the bird’s neck. Cujo squints at the scene, sees a thousand colors radiating out of the dying bird, whispers, “This is what I should be focused on – doing what comes natural.” He thinks about the carpet-cleaning gig, smirks. “Ol’ Cujo should be taking what he wants, just like you do — Survival of the Fittest-style.”

The cat drops the bird right beside Cujo’s shit log and saunters over to him. It rubs its head against Cujo’s knee, and the top hat finally falls off. The hat has some kinda adjustable string, so Cujo loosens it some more and puts the hat on his head, running the string under his chin and rotating the hat at a perverse angle.

Tiny top hat on a big bald dude, clown style.

“How do I look?”

Cat walks away, returns to the bird.

Cujo’s left to his thoughts, which keep going back to the plasma. He could barter or trade it, for sure. Sell it to a yuppy in the city, walk away with a lot of bills in his money clip, equal to weeks and weeks of working the shags.

After a while, Cujo says to the cat, “What do you say you and me go pluck some watermelon?”

Cat picks up the bird and starts circling.

Cujo decides it’s the cat’s way of saying, Hell yeah, bro. Let’s roll.

He pulls the bow tie loose and rips open his shirt, buttons flying. The cool breeze washes through his fur, and it’s the best thing he’s felt in days.


****


Janice has left the front door open for Philippe. Although he’d spent his formative weeks on the streets as a kitten, Philippe has been kept indoors ever since. Too many dangers for an outdoor kitty.

The ladies are sipping tea in the front room.

“Don’t worry, Janice. He’ll come home.”

Janice says, “I’m just worried about Jill.”

“Oh, I’m fine. Just scratched up.”

Barbara says, “I’m sure you would’ve never guessed.”

Janice looks away, throws her arms into the air. “I had it all planned. He was going to be our little tea-party mascot.”

They offer a collective Ohhhh, that’s adorable sigh.

The front door creaks a little.

“Oh, I bet that’s him.”

Philippe walks through with a bluebird is its mouth.

“What’s he …”

Gasps.

“Tell me that’s not … ”

Philippe circles the front room and drops the bird at Janice’s feet. A mutilated offering.

“You have got to be …”

Janice covers her eyes. “I am so sorry, you guys. You’ll probably-”

Jill shrieks at the sight of a giant, heavily tattooed bearded man in the doorway. He’s wearing Philippe’s tiny top hat, and he doesn’t look right at all.


****

Cujo feels his body sway as he stands in the doorway.

His shirt is off, and the breeze feels great as it washes over him. Hell, this just feels right all around. Bow tie is off, shirt is off, the body is out for all to see. His musk is here, and it’s too fucking bad if anyone has a problem with it.

The echoey voices bounce off his brain.

“Can I help you?”

“Excuse me?”

“Stay right there, mister.”

“Hey, stop.”

“Hand me that fire poker.”

Cujo mumbles, “Survival of the …”

There are screams.

A man’s voice. “Hey.”

“Don’t be stupid, Gus. Call 911.”

That gets Cujo’s attention. He looks around, sees a pudgy little man and beats him to the cordless phone sitting on the dining room table. The man winces and dashes out of Cujo’s reach.

Cujo removes the phone battery, slips it down his pants and releases a full, wet burp. Drops the cordless.

“I’d like you invite you to …” He moves toward the women in the front room. “…cooperate.”

He proceeds to the wall-mounted widescreen.

“Stop.”

A whisper: “Barb, use your cell.”

The cat slinks out of the room.

Cujo gazes at the plasma, licks his lips, feels an eyebrow arch. Hell yes – a sweet thirty-six-incher. Looks new, too.

He stumbles toward it with open arms, says, “C’mere sweetie,” and starts pulling. Finally, the give sends drywall pieces everywhere, causes Cujo to lose balance. The cable line is still attached, though, like an umbilical cord on a newborn, so he yanks harder, snaps the line, and backpedals with the widescreen in his arms, out of control.

Some betty whacks him across the skull with the fire poker, opens his scalp.

“Whoa.”

He crashes to the floor with the widescreen, right over the bird. Loud splintering, and loose parts. It sounds like pebbles and sand poured over tin.

More screams.

Cujo gets up, lifts the widescreen.

The lady whacks him again, opens a cut above his brow.

“Hey, chill it,” he slurs. “That shit’s not …”

He sees the open door and stumbles toward it, realizes he can’t see the floor on account of the thirty-six-incher in his hands. Stumbles into an ottoman, spins a three-sixty and slams to the floor, the widescreen breaking his fall. Slowly, he gets up, lifts the widescreen – sounds like someone’s dumped a can of loose change in there.

Cujo wobbles to the door.

“Later, losers.”


****


The sun beats on Cujo as he stumbles down the street, the cord trailing between his legs, the insides of the widescreen jangling. He’s gotta get out of the neighborhood, find some cover – hey, maybe another bush if things get ugly and the pigs start swarming.

How many blocks has he gone? Twelve? … Five? … One? He crinkles his brow, tries to force the peyote out.

Fuckin’ need to think clearly.

A little kid on a foot scooter breezes by him, circles around and waits at the next driveway. The kid folds his arms and stares at him, says, “Did you ask before taking that?”

Cujo stumbles past, his mouth open. “Choke on it,” he wheezes.

He can hear the sirens, but they’re distant – just faint little noises echoing at the back of his skull. Anyway, who cares about sirens and pigs and a house full of freaked-out betties when you have a sweet take like this widescreen?

Only problem is, he can’t stop panting. And damn do his lungs burn. He stops and coughs up a gob of lung butter, launches it at a parked Saab.

Gotta keep going.

He’s approaching the end of the block, looks around, sees no one. The siren noises in his head suddenly seem really loud, echoing something fierce in his skull, but that’s probably the peyote. Plus, he’s gone at least thirteen blocks. Or has it been two? Fuck. Either way, maybe he should turn the corner, find a set of bushes where he can take a load off, catch his breath, get a better look at his take.

The sirens get louder.

Fuck it. Keep going.

The blood and sweat in his eyes blur his vision, but that ain’t gonna stop him. Hell, this is part of being wild and free. Sweat in the eyes, blood dripping off the brow, butter in the lungs, aches in the shoulders, open gashes on the forehead and scalp, prize in his hands. Fuck, it’s like hunter-gatherer times and he’s this badass returning to the camp with his “kill,” because he’s been hunting and doing that Survival of the Fittest thing, taking care of his squeeze and future little runts. And sure, the “kill” is scratched up a little, just like a fucked-up bison in hunter-gatherin’ times but, fuck, that meat still nourished, that sinew and gristle still worked for their tools and all that shit. Same with this widescreen; it’ll just need some touch-up.

The sirens are right up on his ass.

An old man walking his dachshund comes up from behind, makes a wide circle around him, turns and looks at the flashing lights. Fucking gomer, never seen a man live like they did in the real-olden days, when Survival of the Fittest ruled the earth and badasses hunted and gathered.

The squad car eases up to Cujo, and suddenly he wonders if the jails during hunter-gatherer times gave you three square meals a day. He turns, squats and looks at the uniforms in the squad car.

“Maybe we had a misunderstanding.” He gives them the innocent eyes. “I thought she said I could have this?”