Ross Wilcox

Fiction

Ross Wilcox is originally from South Dakota. His stories have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Beloit Fiction Journal, Nashville Review, Green Mountains Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Fort Worth with his wife and two cats.

 

Symptoms

The pot brownies belong to our friends, the Brewsters. I see them in their fridge when I get more iced tea. Though we aren’t particularly close, we’re over at their house for a dinner party, a monthly thing some of the youngish couples at our church do. We’re the last to leave. Anna, my wife, keeps talking to Penelope Brewster about a new rule at the Sioux Falls high schools banning girls from wearing yoga pants.

I’m stuck talking to Doug Brewster one-on-one, which I resent because he speaks only of drywall, something I tried once to patch but failed at. Yet he makes good money, enough to put his kids in private Christian school, which is more than Anna and I can afford. I keep glancing at Anna across the living room, tilting my head in the direction of the front door. She nods, the sides of her blonde bob brushing her cheeks.

Twenty minutes later, just as we’re leaving, Anna asks if we can take two of the brownies from the fridge. I want to say no, we’re good on pot brownies for now, thank you. But before I can, Doug Brewster’s eyes light up and he says, “Sure, come on.”

We eat them together, Anna and I, right there in the kitchen in front of Doug and Penelope. It reminds me of how, as a kid, my Grandma used to force-feed me homemade sweets every time we visited. She, too, would watch me eat her brownies, which she sprinkled with powdered sugar. She’d stare at me intently, wouldn’t relax until I nodded approvingly and went “Mmmm.”

“You should start feeling it about the time you get home,” Penelope says.

This is because the Brewsters live in a nice old Victorian on the Northside of Sioux Falls, whereas we live twenty miles south of town in one of the many suburban developments that are proliferating like bacteria cultures.

On the drive home, Anna starts giggling, even before either of us feel anything. We zip past downtown, past the mall at the southern edge of town. Then we’re past all the lights, past everything, and it’s just the South Dakota prairie darkness, which is like the darkness of being stuffed in the trunk of a car.

I get paranoid about my circulation, so I keep cupping my hand over my chest, feeling my heartbeat for any increase in tempo, any skips. Irregularities of any kind.

~

The last time we did pot was two years before the Brewster party. We got tickets to an Eric Clapton concert. Once again, it was Anna’s spontaneous idea.

“Wouldn’t it be fun to be high for Eric Clapton?” she said. “We’d be like hippies.”

That time, I got the pot from Tim Hayden. He used to work for me. He was older, close to sixty. I offered to pay him, but he refused.

“The first time’s always free,” he said. Then he ran his hand through his oily hair.

He didn’t get fired or anything. My company went under. Premier Mortgage, it was called. I really thought I’d succeed with all the suburban growth around Sioux Falls. I got approved for a fat, quarter-of-a-million-dollar loan. Paid six months’ rent on an office space right off South Main downtown. Across the street from the hospital, where everyone would see it. Hired five employees. Had a blue, illuminated sign over the door with a little house logo and everything.

I don’t know why it didn’t work out, why we couldn’t get loans for anyone. Maybe because I hired people like Tim Hayden. Maybe because, in a very real sense, I suck at brokering mortgages.

We went broke in five months. Many days, in the month after I’d let everyone go, I sat by myself in the conference room, pouring shots of bourbon into my Premier coffee mug. I stared at the whiteboard on the wall, which still had bullshit I’d written in green marker: Debt to Income . Loan to Value. Some other encouraging phrases: Consistent Professionalism. Eye Contact.

I wanted to blame the housing market at large. But the recession didn’t hit Sioux Falls. The market only grew. People bought houses left and right. Anna and I did, which we we’re now probably going to have to sell at a loss. Or let it get repossessed, which happened to the only three people I got loans for with Premier.

Still, I got a job with some small, shit bank. I’d never even heard of them, and Sioux Falls isn’t that big a place. I work straight commission, which is bad because anyone who gets sent to my desk doesn’t want to use my services. They’re like: I don’t need you. I can get a better deal somewhere else. And I’ll say: No, wait. Though they’re right. I’ll even hold my hand out, grasping. But they’ll have left.

~

When we get home, we’re both starting to feel the brownies kicking in. I’m pressing my hand to my chest, almost certain my heartrate is quickening. Anna snaps out of giggle-mode and puts on a serious face for the babysitter. She’s a high school girl from somewhere, I don’t know. Anna handles the babysitter hires. Scrutinizes their online babysitter profiles and all that.

“They’re both asleep, Mrs. Wentz,” the girl says.

Anna thanks her, then gives me the look that means I’m supposed to take out my wallet. I do, and hand the girl a twenty and a ten.

“Give her a little more,” Anna says.

“I only have a twenty,” I say.

“That’s fine,” Anna says.

I give her a look that’s supposed to say: we can’t afford this. To which Anna scowls. I can’t blame her. In front of others, we’re both always trying to look like we have more money than we do. For example, I tip thirty percent at restaurants to project the illusion I am ten percent wealthier than the average tipper. I have a calculator on my phone to help me.

As soon as she’s out the door, Anna bursts into laughter. That’s what she did at the Eric Clapton concert, laughed at everything Clapton did, whether it was play a solo or say the word cocaine, which are the entire lyrics to one of his songs.

“Oh my god!” Anna says, collapsing on the couch. “Do you think she knew?”

“Knew what?”

“That we’re high!”

Anna’s eyes are now red, which is something I’ve always found weird. If someone stabs your eye with a pen, it makes sense that it gets red. But from smoking something or eating a brownie? I don’t get it.

Anna wants to go check on the girls, which I think is a good but terrifying idea because what if they wake up and want to talk to us?

First, we look in Cassie’s room. She’s eight. She sleeps facedown with her limbs splayed, as if she’s trying to swallow the mattress with her body. She’s smart. When the time comes, I’m sure she’ll go to college.

Anna hovers over her. She looks back at me and whispers, “That’s our daughter.”

I don’t know what to say. My face burns. I know for a fact my heart is pumping harder than normal. I can feel it without even having to touch my hand to my chest. It gets worse when I think of how, one year ago, I promised Cassie I’d pay for her college. I said it with supreme nonchalance, like it wouldn’t be any harder than getting her an ice cream cone. Maybe I’ll get lucky and she won’t remember in ten years.

Anna leads us into Sierra’s room. She’s six. She’s a troubled kid, scared of everything, doesn’t like to talk to her peers. She’ll probably wake up soon from a horrible dream. The last one she had, we were all in the car and we got lost and couldn’t find our way back home. Of course, in the dream, I was driving, which is the central recurring theme of the nightmares: me being the cause of the hopelessness.

We go back to the living room. Anna wants to make popcorn and watch a movie. We pop a bag in the microwave and hunker down into the couch, settling on something stupid about a guy who takes a girl home to meet his parents, but his parents are vampires. We devour the popcorn and pop another bag and devour that one, too.

It’s not long before Anna gets up from the couch and says, “I’m going to bed.”

I feel like I’m at my desk at the shit bank. I reach out my hand.

“Wait,” I say.

But she’s down the hall, gone. It’s just me.

~

All I can say about Anna is that things aren’t the way they used to be. Sex, when it happens, is weird. Each time, it’s like we’re two out-of-shape people forcing ourselves to work out. Which is to say: it’s not that enjoyable and in some ways it’s painful. I know for a fact Anna doesn’t enjoy it for the following two reasons:

Exhibit A: the last time we actually had sex, which was six months ago, she literally reached over to the nightstand, mid-act, and checked her phone for any new messages.

Exhibit B: the last time I tried to have sex with her, which was one month ago, I got as far as a hand on her breast before she said, “Let’s not.”

Which is not to say sex is everything. I jerk off semi-regularly, which is okay for now, I guess. Maybe we’re just on our way to becoming one of those married couples who don’t have sex (i.e. married couples). Maybe we’re on our way to getting divorced as soon as the kids leave the house. Maybe she already has someone on the side. I don’t know.

Each day is the same. We come home from work and eat supper. We chew our goulash and listen to the girls tell us about school, which for me is exciting because I hate my job. The girls run off and do whatever after supper. Anna and I settle into the living room and turn on the TV. But we don’t watch it. We just play on our phones until we nod off. It usually takes us about two hours.

I mostly play this game where you are an empire and you try to conquer other empires. It’s a fantasy I’ve had ever since, as a boy, I learned about Genghis Khan. I’ve since forgotten everything I learned about Genghis Khan except that he had more land than anyone at the time. So that’s what I try to do.

I don’t know what Anna does on her phone. Once, she left it lying on the couch when she went to use the bathroom. I checked it, and there were so many different windows open I couldn’t scroll through all of them before I heard the toilet flush.

It could be worse, I suppose. I’m not really sure how, but that’s what my dad always used to say. He died at fifty-six of colon cancer.

Here’s something I’ll never forget: on our honeymoon, Anna and I drove to the Wisconsin Dells. Most people outside the Midwest haven’t heard of it because it’s not actually that cool, not compared to the Rocky Mountains or one of the oceans. We stayed in this log cabin in the woods and on the first night, after a couple bottles of wine, Anna said, “Let’s make a baby.”

I’d heard people use this exact expression in several movies, and I’d always hated it. But when Anna said it, I was suddenly in awe of the fact that such a thing was possible, that two people could come together and literally make another person. Even though we’d covered the process, step by step, in seventh grade health class, it still seemed miraculous.

That’s what we did that night. That’s when Cassie was conceived.

So if nothing else, there’s at least that between Anna and I: we literally made two other people.

~

Alone, I can’t concentrate on the vampire parent movie. I only think of my heartbeat, which is like a jackhammer in my chest. I don’t think I’m getting enough oxygen from each breath, so I breathe in deeply, like they tell you to at the doctor’s. Still, it’s like there’s a blockage. Or maybe there’s something inside me siphoning off oxygen. Like an oxygen parasite. Do they have those?

I get up from the couch, head down the hall, and go into the bathroom. I turn on the light and shut the door, safe from any peering eyes. I lock it just to make sure.

The concrete, mostly-untiled floor is cold on my feet, which actually feels good right now. There are eight academy grey porcelain mosaic tiles I managed to lay against the wall beneath the towel rack. But I fucked it up and they’re warped, protruding in spots like they have little tumors. The rest of the tiles are stacked behind the toilet, gathering dust along with the trowel, the level, and the carpenter’s square. They are a great source of shame every time I pee, shower, or brush my teeth.

I position myself in front of the mirror. I am immediately frightened by my own eyes. They’re so bloodshot, the only thing I can compare them to are freshly slit wrists, little trails of blood snaking in all directions over my cornea (or is it under?). I close them tightly, venture deep inside my inner self for a few eternal moments. I wait for something big to pop into my head, a truth or a realization. Or God’s voice. Or just a thought. I’ll even take a thought.

And then it comes: a sudden burst of inspiration to lay tile. I’m so excited by the idea of finishing something I started that it feels like the solution to everything. The chance, at long last, to make things right.

I don’t even put on the gloves and goggles. I just grab the trowel and start slapping down grout. I remember from the internet that grout is a powerful bonding agent. I don’t even give a fuck where I spread it, so long as it covers the cement. I don’t let it dry, if that’s what you’re supposed to do. I don’t know. I slap the mosaic tiles down and press, quickly, as if I’m the guy in the Poe story we read in freshman English who walls the other guy in.

I do this over and over, grout and slap, grout and slap. I gain a sense of momentum while simultaneously sweating bullets and pushing my heartrate into the stratosphere. I remember seeing a PBS documentary once that mentioned flow, a state where you’re so involved with some action you forget yourself. I want to reach flow state by laying tile. As I spread more grout, I think: maybe this is my vocation. Who knew I just had to be high to find my life’s calling? I smile, imagining myself buying a truck and adding decals with my business along the sides. I will call it Premier Flooring in honor of my first failed business.

Then I slice my left index finger with the edge of the trowel.

A sharp pain throbs along my finger’s last crease, and I cry out in a high, animalistic yelp. It reminds me of the sound my childhood dog made when he stepped in broken glass. It also reminds me of when we put the dog down a few years later because he kept peeing on the furniture. Blood comes streaming out. It looks like my finger had its throat cut.

Both my hands burn from the grout. But the cut is something else. I can tell the situation is bad based solely on the screaming pain raging from my finger’s jugular. I do something smart, which is wash my hands in the sink with antibacterial soap.

Then I don’t know to do. My finger still bleeds profusely. It radiates waves of hot pain far more powerfully than a finger should be allowed to. I grab the toilet paper, unspool a few feet, and wrap it around the wound. I glance back in the mirror. My eyes are still blood red, maybe even bloodier than before. My heart smacks the walls of my chest. My breath is short. Muffled waves sound in my ears like I have seashells cupped over them.

I think: what if you’re dying?

I shut the light off and try to open the bathroom door in the darkness, forgetting that I locked it. I jerk at the handle, plunge my shoulder against it, try to break it open. I freak myself out thinking about how when we were in junior high people would stand in front of bathroom mirrors in the dark and say Bloody Mary over and over.

I say Bloody Mary but nothing happens, though I don’t wait that long, either.

Then I turn on the light and unlock the door. I dash to the living room. I get on my phone with my good hand. I don’t know what to search for first, stroke or heart attack. Convinced I’m having one or both, I search and select those symptoms that apply to my current situation: fatigue and chest tightness (heart attack); dizziness and confusion (stroke). And the pain in my finger shoots up my arm, or at least I think it does, which according to the search counts towards heart attack.

I have no choice. I dial 9-1-1. I’m a dead man otherwise.

The guy asks me my emergency, and I say stroke andheart attack. He tells me to pick one, and I say heart attack. I don’t say anything about the pot brownies. Or the sliced finger. Or the academy grey porcelain mosaic tiles. He says an ambulance can get me in ten minutes. I tell him I hope I can stay alive for that long.

When I hang up, there’s a little girl standing in the hallway, wiping at her eyes.

“Daddy?” she says. She comes towards me. “I had a bad dream again.”

~

Two months ago, I went to Home Depot. Anna wanted new tile on the bathroom floor. She wanted to hire someone to do it. We couldn’t afford the tile, let alone afford to pay someone to install it. So we compromised: I would lay the tile myself.

I really thought I could do it. I looked up all the steps on the internet. I made a list of all the supplies. I even knew exactly how many 6-inch academy grey porcelain mosaic tiles I’d need to cover the 26 square feet of bathroom flooring: 104.

I had to take Sierra with me to Home Depot because Anna had taken Cassie to her Saturday morning soccer practice. Everything went fine at first: we wandered around the store, made a kind of game out of taking items from the shelf and placing them in the cart. Then we got the tile itself. All told, the total came to $526.17. I was almost embarrassed by it. As they swiped my credit card, I thought of all the stuff you could get with five hundred bucks: a cheap laptop, new clothes for the girls, a Model-T in 1925, five hundred cans of soda. I mostly thought about these things to avoid worrying about the card being declined, in which case I’d give them one of the newer cards, one that hadn’t been maxed out.

Just before we left, I announced to Sierra that I was going to use the restroom. It was a twenty-five-minute drive home. I admit: not a tortuous length of time to hold back pee. Still, I figured: the restroom’s right here by the store’s exit; it’ll take me thirty seconds; I won’t even wash my hands.

“Can I come with?” Sierra asked.

She used to always come with. It wasn’t a big deal. She’d stand in the stall with me, face away and towards the door. When we washed our hands, none of the men were weird about it. Other parents did it. I’d seen moms take their little sons into the women’s restrooms all the time.

But in that moment, I told myself: six is too old. I don’t know why I thought this. Maybe because Sierra was in kindergarten now, public school being the line of demarcation between going to the restroom with your dad and going it alone.

“No,” I said. “Just stay right here by the cart. Count to thirty.”

Then I turned and hurried into the restroom.

I didn’t actually time myself. I did my business as fast as I could, zipped up and made my way back out. It might’ve been longer than thirty seconds. But there’s no way it was longer than a minute.

Outside, Sierra bawled into the arms of a woman wearing an orange Home Depot apron.

All around, people stared: from the checkout line, from the nearby paint section. An older couple walked through the automatic sliding doors and saw Sierra crying. Their faces immediately tightened into concern, compassion.

I approached Sierra and the Home Depot woman. Sierra wailed, “I want to go home!”

“I’m her dad,” I said.

But I said it too softly. Or maybe I didn’t say it at all. My face burned so hot I could feel prickles on my cheeks. In my head I asked: why are you doing this? And I don’t know if I was talking to Sierra or myself. The woman kept looking around: at the doors, the checkout lines, the paint section. Like I wasn’t even there.

“It’s okay,” the woman said, and she rubbed Sierra’s shoulder.

Another employee came jogging over, an older bald guy. He looked like maybe he was a manager, eager to put out the kid fire.

Before he could reach us, I stepped in.

“I’m her dad,” I snapped.

I took hold of Sierra’s hand, gripped it tighter than I should have. I don’t know. There were so many damn people. More people came in the store, more people stared. It felt like an encroaching mob.

“Come on, let’s go home.”

I tugged at Sierra’s arm. The woman let go and Sierra came with me. With one hand, I pushed the cart. With the other, I held Sierra’s hand. I didn’t look back. I stared straight ahead. I didn’t want to see the way anyone was looking at me.

~

Sierra’s dream was about falling off the roof. She was dangling from the downspout, holding on with one hand. I was up there, too. But – big surprise - I failed to grab hold of her hand, and she fell.

“It was like at Home Depot when you did grab my hand, except the opposite,” Sierra says.

“Why were you on the roof?” I ask.

“And I fell and fell and kept falling,” Sierra explains.

“But why were you on the roof?”

Sierra gasps.

“What happened to your hand?” she asks. “Daddy, you’re bleeding. Have you been crying? Your eyes are all red.”

I turn away so she can’t see my face, the slit wrists in my eyeballs. The ambulance should be here any minute. I feel as if the moment is upon me to explain to Sierra all the things I want her to know should I not make it through the night.

I face her and say, “Sierra, give me your hand.”

She looks worried. Probably because I’m bleeding and my eyes are red and I didn’t explain why. Nevertheless, she offers me her right hand. With my good hand, I take it and press it to my chest.

“Do you feel that?” I ask.

“It’s beating fast,” she says.

I nod. Then I try to think of something I want her to know. In the distance, I hear the faint tones of the ambulance siren.

“People do things in life,” I say, not sure where I’m going next. “You see, because at the end of the day, when the sun sets, it’s not actually the end of, well, it’s the end of that day, but it’s also actually a new day on the opposite side of the world.”

“Because of the earth spinning!” Sierra says. “Miss Gomez taught us that.”

The siren gets a little louder. Sierra looks over her shoulder. I squeeze her hand, and she turns back to me.

“That’s right,” I say. “But that’s not everything. You see, there’s the stuff they teach you in school, and then there’s the stuff they teach you in –

“In the Bible?”

“No. Well, yes, the Bible. But there’s also life, which isn’t like the movies. You probably think life is like the movies.”

Sierra shrugs and turns in the siren’s direction, which is now only blocks away. I have no idea what I’m saying. If I do die, I will have left her only debt, which is actually worse than nothing. The kids who get left nothing are lucky in this sense.

I pull Sierra into me and hold her. I don’t say anything, banking on the cliché about actions over words. I don’t think it really works. Sierra pulls away and says, “There’s an ambulance out front.”

We both go to the door. I open it, and we step outside.

The siren is so loud and shrill it’s almost like a weapon. It might knock us over if we’re not careful. Neighbors’ lights are turning on left and right.

I crouch down to Sierra.

“I have to go,” I say. “If your mother wakes up, tell her I had to go to the ER.”

“The ER?”

“She’ll know what it means.”

I stand, make my way down the stoop and towards the ambulance. An EMT climbs out and looks me over. He seems suspicious.

“Are you the guy having a heart attack?”

I hold up my bad hand, wrapped in toilet paper, as if called on by the teacher.

“I am him,” I say.

~

The whole thing is a big mistake. I realize this when we’re almost to the hospital and I don’t feel very high anymore and remember I don’t have health insurance. I tell them I’m actually okay now, though my finger throbs, and maybe I could just come back tomorrow during regular hours.

But they lead me down the white-walled hallway and stick me in a room. I have to take off my shirt and climb into the bed and have all the suction cups attached to my chest. Meanwhile, a nurse cleans out my finger and says I need a few stitches. She applies a local anesthetic, then sews me up while the machine to my right beeps.

A few minutes later a doctor comes in. He’s middle-aged, maybe fifty. He looks pissed. He glances over the results of my EKG, which causes him to look even more pissed.

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” he says. “Why did you think you were having a heart attack?”

“Doctor, I looked up my symptoms on the internet, and they matched the symptoms of a heart attack,” I say.

“The internet is a cancer,” the doctor says. Then he leaves the room.

I’ve never heard a doctor call something a cancer that wasn’t cancer. It’s something to think about. It’s worth wondering if doctors call other non-disease things diseases, too.

On my way out, a woman hands me a bill for $4,264.43. Most of it’s from the ambulance ride. I try to think of all the things one could get with four thousand dollars, but I mostly think of missed mortgage payments.

“Do I have to pay this right now?” I ask.

“No,” the woman says.

So I walk out the hospital’s doors.

Outside, the twilight air is crisp and cool. It reminds me of brisk mornings when, as a boy, I walked to school with a Ninja Turtles backpack slung over my shoulders. I had a lot going for me back then. I was like Sierra, except without all the fear and bad dreams. Do you know what I liked to do? I liked to pretend I was a famous conqueror, like Genghis Khan. I ran around our neighborhood with a big stick and pointed it at people, demanded that they hand over their land. One of the neighbors, Mrs. Dunham, complained to my mom and I got spanked.

I once read the whole encyclopedia entry on Genghis Khan in our school’s library. I don’t know anything about him now, but it is satisfying to know I once did, all those years ago.

I stuff the hospital bill in my pocket when I see Anna pull up in our Ford Focus. I did not call her, but she has come. I suspect Sierra, who sits in back with her sister and looks wide awake, relayed the message.

Anna rolls down the window.

“Get in,” she calls.

I know I will get in the car and we’ll drive home and things will be as they were before, only a little worse. I’ve always known I’ll get in the car and go back home, even in my Ninja Turtle backpack-wearing days. When I was a boy, there was always a car, and it was always waiting, and I always got in it.

Before I get in this one, I glance across the street, at the space that once contained my old business, Premier Mortgage. It is now a Living Water of Jesus church. Every Sunday, they dunk people into a big vat, like the game at the county fair where you throw the ball at the target. They emerge from the Living Water completely drenched, head to toe. When you dry, it’s over. You’re not wet anymore. But you can come back next week.

Inside the car, a woman sits next to me and two girls sit in back. We drive past the Living Water church, then past a McDonald’s and a Starbucks and a Hy-Vee. In Sierra’s dream, it’s always me driving. It makes me grateful to be sitting shotgun. In this sense, and only this sense, reality is preferable to Sierra’s dream.

It’s a while before anyone says anything.

I like stories about losers. I know they're not for everybody, but I find myself rooting for the helpless, even if they are pathetic, like the guy in this story. The less able they are to handle problems, the better. The more they fail, the more I love them. Even though they aren't going to win, they embark on the hero's journey, right into the belly of the beast.