By Hamdy Elgammal
“Ugh,” Lena said, turning her lips away from mine.
“What?” I asked. But I knew what it was before she replied.
“Your breath,” she sighed. Then she slid out of bed, wrapping her orange kimono around her and faced me. “Sweetie, it’s not so hard. Just brush your teeth properly before you push your tongue down my throat. I mean, we’ve been over this, you know how much I hate it.”
“I did brush my teeth.”
“You’re supposed to do two minutes.”
“I did four.”
“Really? Because it smells like you just gave a rimjob to a bonobo.”
I interlaced my fingers behind my head and shifted my eyes to the ceiling. I stretched my eyelids as wide as I possibly could, tried to see how long I could last without blinking.
“Can you not block me out?” she said. But it wasn’t a question, more like a panicked order.
“Not blocking you out,” I told the ceiling, blinking and shaking my head. “You’re blocking me out with this brushing bullshit.”
She scoffed. “What are you talking about?”
“I brushed my teeth. This isn’t about the teeth.”
“Stop,” she said. “Just, no.”
So I stopped. I could hear her breathing but I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of eye contact. “You know what?” I started but she didn’t wait to hear. I heard her scuttling into the bathroom and then the sound of the shower running.
Fifteen minutes later she stood in our bedroom doorway, a pink towel wrapped around her body and water dripping slowly from her wet auburn hair down to her lightly freckled shoulders. She pointed a bony index finger upwards, raised her eyebrows and said, “There’s a stray crawler on our roof.”
Then she got dressed, drove to Safeway and left me to deal with it.
I went out to the yard and, sure enough, there was a stray crawler on the roof, holding onto the tiles. A pregnant one dressed in a grey tattered shirt printed with a black-and-white picture of Nirvana. Cobain was visible sporting his round sunglasses. Two months ago, this crawler infestation was limited to a few young ones, their eyes entirely black, the fingers webbed like a frog’s toes. Then the adult ones showed up, hiding behind the neighborhood garbage cans, lurking in the apple trees in the backyards. The pregnant one above my roof was an especially resistant type. Pregnancy screwed with crawler hormones; they didn’t respond to the lawn repellent we got from Costco.
I flailed both arms at it. “Get off! Shoo!”
It didn’t budge. “Home,” it croaked in a metallic groan. It held onto the tiles with long, sharp fingernails and dragged itself sideways until it was lying right in the middle of my roof like it was posing for a picture. That’s when I got the rake and the ladder and climbed up the rungs.
I poked the rake against her abdomen and it clung to the tufts of curly black hair above her belly button. I pushed harder, drawing blood which trickled in a steady stream from her belly, leaving a trail of bright red over the roof’s tiles; dripping straight down on the marigolds.
The crawler’s face contorted in anger. “Baby,” she wailed, pointing to her bleeding belly. “Baby, baby, baby!” There was a nerve on her neck that was turning a deeper shade of blue every time she said the word.
Then I had an idea. An uncomfortable one, but probably the one that made the most sense. I pulled the rake back and she quieted down. I walked into the house and found the fishing speargun I’d bought in Baja last summer but hadn’t used. I climbed the ladder again and aimed for her forehead. She looked at me with pleading eyes. I had never killed a crawler before. I looked from her eyes to Cobain’s sunglasses to her hands covering her bleeding belly and thought: should I?
If not, then what? Once Lena came back, she would bust my balls about how the crawler was still on the roof. Or I could call the county Crawler Control who would essentially starve her in a battery cage for two months until it was her turn to be electrocuted. This one was beyond rescue and a spear would be a million times more merciful.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
I released the spear and it hit her right between her eyebrows. For a minute, she was just dead on my roof. Then she slowly slid back and fell into the backyard, yanking the spear gun out of my hand with her. I heard a bone crunch when she hit.
I walked around the house and looked at her body. She was lying face-down in the basil bushes by the kitchen window, her neck twisted at an odd angle, the spear gun a few feet away. I found the shovel and started digging a shallow grave big enough for her and her baby belly. I put my hands under her armpits and dragged her into the grave. Her body hit the bottom with a thud. A strand of her wet hair covered the bloodied wound the spear had left in her forehead. I folded both her palms on top of her breasts. Hairy, sweaty palms, warm to the touch.
When I was done and the mud was patted down, I wiped sweat off my forehead with my wrist and took a few deep breaths. I smelled the basil. Then something washed over me, this sting in my fingertips — I wanted to to say something for this poor creature.
“Lord...” I started. It sounded artificial. “I’m just — sorry.” I touched the shovel lightly against the fresh grave.
At 9 p.m that night, Lena’s friend Manny came over for drinks. Manny had been to our place a couple of times before and she was, by far, one of the largest people I had ever laid eyes on. This isn’t a judgement on her person, it’s simply an observation. When I saw her in our doorway that night, I had to look at her in stages.
My eyes travelled first to her bare white arms which were fleshy and spotted with dark orange freckles. Then they moved to her beefy, rounded shoulders and her neck, with its two layers like a hamburger bun. She had black hair with elaborate curls that fell to her shoulders and there was glitter and sweat glistening over her cleavage, her cheeks and her double chin. Her pale brown eyes were almost buried beneath black-framed eyeglasses and a thick layer of green eyeshadow.
When I had looked at Manny before, I was wary of my expression betraying how surprised I was that she was walking or even breathing at all, let alone working two jobs and raising a seven-year-old boy on her own. But that night I continued to stare until I felt Lena elbowing me in the ribs. We all stepped into our kitchen and Lena took out two bottles of Merlot and three glasses and put them on the table. Manny and I both sat at the table as Lena took a cock-screw to the first bottle.
“So how’ve you guys been enjoying the new place?” Manny asked.
“It’s quite something,” Lena said. She looked at me to reaffirm this uninformative nothing of a response.
“Yes,” I said, “a big shift from our old apartment downtown.”
“I don’t know,” Manny started, wrapping her thick fingers around one arm. “These suburban neighborhoods kinda creep me out.”
“How so?” Lena asked.
“The streets are all dark, the houses all look lonely and identical. I mean, anything could be happening behind these walls.”
“That’s true of any house,” Lena said, tipping her glass slightly towards Manny.
“I’d be more concerned about what’s happening outside them if I were you,” I said as I sipped my wine.
“Oh right, that too,” Manny said, pushing her eyeglasses over the bridge of her nose, “Those stray crawlers you guys have.”
“Well,” I started. I felt acid climbing the back of my throat and simply said, “They are everywhere.”
I dipped my nose into my glass, smelled the aged sweet scent then I pulled my face back and swirled the liquid around, watching as the kitchen light dipped and bounced off the whirl. I shut my eyes briefly and, against my eyelids that seemed to turn a bright flashing green, a forehead with a bloody hole at its center materialized.
When I opened them again, Manny and Lena were both staring blankly at me.
“Are you okay?” Lena asked, touching my hand.
“I’m fine,” I said, smiling with gritted teeth. I downed the half a glass of wine I had in front of me in one go.
“Easy breezy,” Lena said, laughing nervously. I put the glass on top of my face and stuck my tongue out for the last few drops. Lena lightly touched my hand again, this time for a bit longer than before. I was aware of how thin her fingers were, how cold and foreign they felt against my knuckles. “Easy breezy” was one of her catch-all phrases. She said that one when she wanted someone to take it easy or when someone asked her to do something she found easy. She was efficient, that way. Another phrase of hers was, “Get it on LeBron!” and yet another one was, “C’est la vie Bon Jovi!”
I used to find all of them adorable, especially when she’d sigh afterwards and shrug her shoulders, her little dimples deepening on either side of her square face. Lately, I’ve been finding them a little over-the-top and at that moment I was finding this “Easy breezy” almost nauseating.
I stood and grabbed the bottle of Bulleit from the pantry and started pouring some into my wine-glass until it was almost to the brim. As I poured, I kept eye contact with Lena, flashing her my most loving smile. I felt my cheeks burning with excitement; there are things Lena disapproves of and bourbon-in-a-wine-glass, I knew, was quite high on her list of the most blasphemous behaviors.
“Now we’re talking,” I announced, taking my first sip. “Easy motherfucking breezay!”
Lena shifted in her seat and laughed nervously. She looked at Manny and shook her head as if shrugging off a joke.
After taking a few sips of bourbon, I decided that what I really wanted to do was ask Manny about her boy, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember his name. I did remember it had more R’s in it than there ever should be allowed if you don’t want your child to sound like a douchebag every time he’s asked his name.
“How’s, um, Reservoir?” I finally asked. Seeing her politely confused look, I couldn’t help but snort a laugh at my odd choice of a joke. I glanced at Lena who was giving me a look of anxious confusion, as if I was some machine she owned that was starting to malfunction in a maddening way.
“Reservoir?” Manny asked.
“Oh,” she chuckled, her two chins bobbing. “You mean Roark! Reservoir! Jesus, Matt, you really are something.”
“Sorry,” I said, “I’m terrible with names.”
“You’re terrible in general,” she said, shaking her big head at me. Then her face took on a serious expression and she sighed. “It has been a sad time for Roark recently. And for me, honestly. We had to put Johnny down a few days ago. So we’ve been going through that.”
Johnny was Roark’s pet crawler. The first time she came to our house for dinner a couple of months ago, Manny had showed us a picture of Roark and Johnny on her phone. In the picture, Roark was dressed in a red cowboy costume and laughing; he was a chunky little boy with sand-colored hair, a round face and square shoulders. To his left, attached to a red polka-dot leash that he held between his small fingers, was Johnny. The crawler was naked, hunched down on all fours, its ribs visible under its pale pink skin. Johnny had the face of a forty-year-old man, was about twice Roark’s size and was looking up at Roark with wet wide eyes and a mouth that hung open with dried drool on either side.
“That’s really sad,” Lena said, pouting her lips. She reached a hand and started rubbing Manny’s back. It was the realest-looking fake thing I had ever seen her do.
“How did it happen?” I asked.
“Well, you know,” Manny began, “Johnny was a Hungarian breed and their crawler genes aren’t as immune as the ones we have here in the — ”
“No,” I interrupted, “How did you kill it? Him. How did you kill Johnny? Did you call Crawler Control?”
“God no,” Manny said. Even the suggestion that she could have called Crawler Control seemed physically distasteful to Manny and she scrunched her face as if she had just smelled bad milk. Then she pushed her glasses to the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath. “We took him to the doctor and put him down with a lethal injection. It was heartbreaking to watch. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”
“That’s a bit steep, price-wise, though isn’t it? The doctor?” Lena asked.
Then something strange happened when I looked Lena’s way. For a brief moment, she was the visitor. It was as if Manny and I had been sitting at this kitchen table for the past ten thousand years and Lena was visiting us, was just now entering into this private place we inhabited. I felt a lump in my throat and I could have sworn I heard the crawler’s voice again in my ears ringing over and over, sharp and loud and metallic — “Baby, baby, baby.” It was too much to bear.
“I killed a crawler tonight.” I announced. “The stray one, that was on our roof.”
Lena pursed her lips until they turned white. “Killed it?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I used that speargun we got in Baja and buried her in the backyard.”
Manny’s eyebrows were so high they almost touched her hairline. It looked like she was using every muscle in her face to keep her polite smile undisturbed.
“In our backyard?” Lena groaned. “Ugh, Matt. That will stink to high heaven in a few days.”
“I feel awful,” I said and buried my face in my hands. “It was a pregnant one. She kept saying ‘baby’ and pointing at her — you know, baby. I didn’t want her to be electrocuted. They fry them at Crawler Control.”
“You should’ve just called Control,” Lena said. “The fucking backyard, my God.”
“These crawlers are fucking people,” I said. “People. And they electrocute them.”
Lena sipped on her wine and rolled her eyes. “And what? Spearguns and backyard burials are more humane?” She brushed a strand of hair behind her ears. “You know what? This is right out of the Holier-than-Thou Matt playbook. You do something stupid like this then expect everyone to feel sorry for you. My God!”
I felt my hands curling into fists. I had never put a finger on Lena but in that moment I was ready to punch her. It took me a few deep breaths but I was able to avoid responding to her at all. Instead, I turned my eyes to Manny but, again, found I was at a loss for what to say. “What do you think?” I finally asked.
She sighed and thought about this for a minute.
“I think a mistake has been made,” she said. “Mistakes happen. You shouldn’t beat yourself — ”
“No,” I interrupted, “do you think they’re people?”
“Jeez Louise,” Lena said. She walked to the pantry, grabbed a small bag of trail mix then came back and sat at the table and started picking out the m&m’s and popping them in her mouth.
“Depends on what your definition of people is,” Manny said after a considerable pause.
I shook my head at her. “They’re people,” I said. “There’s only one correct answer to that question. You’ve looked one in the eye while it died.”
“We are people,” Manny said, pointing to her and me and I was a little glad she had intentionally or not excluded Lena from her gesture. “We think about crawlers. Crawlers don’t think of us.”
“They look like people,” I said, exasperated. “They talk like people.”
“Say they are,” Manny sighed. “What do you suppose we should do?”
I buried my face in my hands again. I tried to think of a clever thing to say but I had nothing so I stood and walked to the kitchen sink and looked out the window into the backyard. Outside, the yard was lit by a faint moonlight. A breeze picked up and the smell wafting through the tiny spaces between the window hinges was that of fresh mud and basil. I saw a small black blob stirring in the grass. The blob moved into a slice of moonlight, its trailing black and grey streaks glinting a bright silver. It was a racoon, scuttling from one grassy patch in the yard to the next. It creeped closer to the spot where I had buried the crawler. Then it started digging.
“Hey!” I said to the racoon, only slightly louder than a whisper. It didn’t hear me. It kept digging with its sharp little paws. My right hand was shaking and I steadied it with my left. I looked at my two hairy hands against the grey sink. I shut my eyes and saw the rake’s spikes tangled in the crawler’s belly hair. I opened them and saw a human ear dangling from the raccoon’s mouth. And just like that, I was out the door, running across the backyard.
“Where are you going now?” I heard Lena calling behind me but there would have been no point in responding.
I reached the grave and saw that the raccoon was hunched over a few feet away, eating the ear it had salvaged. It had somehow smoothed the grave’s soil after its digging, perhaps to protect its new found food store. I flailed both arms at it and started charging. It turned to face me and I saw, in the split second it looked at me, that its mouth and sharp teeth were soaked in blood. After a few more arm flails it skirted away, disappearing into the bushes against the fence.
I sat next to the grave in the backyard and felt the cold air brushing against my forearms. I put my fingers against the mud and imagined what it would be like if the earth opened up under my hand, its muddy entrails encircling my fingers until the dirt and I were one.
When I looked back at my house, I realized I wasn’t really looking as much as passively observing, as a biologist would a new species he doesn’t quite seem to understand. It seemed like a stranger place. My eyes traced its outlines — the roof tiles that shimmered with faint coins of moonlight, the three identical black windows at the top and the lonely square of yellow light that was the kitchen window below.
Manny was standing there, her arms crossed, looking out at me.
Behind her, Lena was shuffling around the kitchen, wiping the table with a kitchen towel and tucking the bourbon and wine back into the pantry. For a few seconds, Manny and I only looked at each other. Then she pulled one hand from under her chest and slowly waved it at me.
I waved a hand back at her. It was good, I thought, one hand in the mud and another in the air, it was good to finally see.