Whatever You Say
By Rebecca Lanning
Whenever Emmy gets blood-boiling mad at Marshall, he hangs out at Red Dogs for an hour or two to give her time to cool off. On the way home, he hits Food Lion, and by the time he reap-pears with flowers or a heart-shaped balloon or maybe some cliche chocolate or wine coolers or all of the above depending on how pissed off she is, Emmy has cried herself out and Marshall simply holds her and strokes her hair before yanking her panties off and screwing her senseless. It isn’t rocket science.
But now, when Marshall pulls up to the house, he realizes he never should have left. There’s Emmy, red faced, dragging a cardboard box onto the porch. With one bare foot, she pushes it to the edge of the porch and kicks it down the steps, where it bangs into another box before landing on its side with a sickening thump. Emmy sneers in the direction of Marshall’s truck, then brushes her hands together and turns to go inside.
A light rain is falling, slick mist coating everything: his truck, the trees, the boxes that contain, Marshall knows, his old yearbooks, Kung Fu DVDs, the pipe his dad used to smoke himself to death, and his brother’s Special Olympics medals. Emmy has been after him to get rid of this stuff ever since they got engaged last summer, and now she has her chance. She’s the opposite of a hoarder. They should make a reality show about people like her, people who hate clutter: Purgers.
Marshall can’t win. If he moves his stuff to the bed of his truck, Emmy will think he doesn’t care enough to fight for her. And if he carries the boxes back up on the porch and stands his ground, she’ll call him self-centered and that word she kept repeating earlier until he felt as if it was tattooed on his forehead: presumptuous.
Grabbing the daisies and Food Lion bag (paper, which Emmy insists on, even though he prefers the convenience of plastic), Marshall makes a dash for the porch, but when he tries to open the door, Emmy blocks him. “Oh, c’mon,” Marshall says. In the narrow opening between them, he catches a flash of yellow dress. Is she wearing it just to taunt him?
Little Miss Sunshine, he’d called her the first time he saw her in it, sitting at the bar at Red Dogs. He’d just been given a medical discharge from the Coast Guard for throwing storm-relief supplies off the cutter in his sleep. Somnambulism the doctor called it. “It’s their loss,” Marshall had said.
Emmy sipped her beer and looked deep in Marshall’s eyes. “It’s our country’s loss,” she’d said.
Marshall leaned in to kiss her. He’d never kissed a red-head or a girl with glasses before. She was pear-shaped and tall as an Amazon and nothing like his type, but suddenly she was everything he wanted in this world. She still is. Even as her heart is closing against him.
“Let me in,” Marshall says, in his best sultry voice. “I’ve brought you some daisies and Kettle chips.”
“A little late for that.”
“And Heineken.” Marshall holds the offerings in one arm, his weight pressed against the door.
“We are over Marty. I’m canceling the wedding.”
Marshall doesn’t believe her. Emmy’s obsessed with the wedding. Possessed even. She’s had it planned for months: Church ceremony. River Room reception. The invitations—complete with taupe ink and floral monogram—go out next week. You can find their website, with cheesy photos, on The Knot. “Please Emmy.”
“I don’t know who you are anymore! What kind of person—”
“It’s not like I cheated on you!” Marshall says.
“I wish you had cheated on me!” Emmy says. “I could probably forgive you for something like that.”
Marshall is shocked by this revelation. What could be worse than a cheat? A vein in his neck quivers. He can’t stop thinking about the look on Emmy’s face earlier when she was organizing his shoebox of Coast Guard memorabilia. A paper had fallen out, floated to the floor, and Emmy picked it up, adjusted her glasses. “What the hell is this?” she screeched. Her shoulders shook, and when she finally looked at Marshall, all the color had drained from her face.
What she held, Marshall finally realized, was the post-op instructions for his vasectomy. “I should have told you,” he said softly. When he touched her shoulder, she recoiled as if he’d bit her. “This was six years ago!” she screamed. “What were you thinking? What kind of doctor would do this to a 25-year-old man?”
Now, standing on the porch, Marshall still doesn’t know what to say to her. “Can’t we work this out?”
“This is a deal breaker, Marty. Now get that crap off the porch or I’m selling it on Craigslist.”
On the drive to his mother’s house, Marshall scarfs down the Kettle chips. The boxes in the truck bed are getting soaked. He can’t believe this! Instead of having sexy time with Emmy, he’ll be sucking up to his mother in exchange for a place to crash.
At the intersection of Eastwood and College, Marshall spots something small and wet, a rat maybe, slinking across the pavement. As the light turns green, he realizes it’s a kitten. Marshall is a dog person, but Emmy wants a cat, then a baby. Maybe a puppy later, when the child is eight or nine and ready to learn some responsibility. “All in due time,” Marshall would say, hoping to keep her off both trails: ball of fur, bundle of joy. But in this moment, Marshall’s universe shrinks until all it contains is that sorry, wet rat of a cat.
He hits the flashers, jumps out, holds up his hand to stop traffic. He narrates the scene in his head: Marshall threw himself in front of the cat. Cars swerve around him, spewing water. When the kitten scurries under his truck, Marshall drops to his knees, making jerky, Frankenstein swipes. When his hand hits wet fur, he clamps down, and the kitten does likewise, attaching itself to Marshall’s forearm with cactus-like claws.
For a second, Marshall feels mad enough to fling the varmint back into the street. But something holds him back, a weird feeling that he’s being watched. He finds an old sweatshirt on the floorboard of his truck and swaddles the kitten, tucks it in the crook of his arm. He snaps a photo: the kitten’s face pressed against his own. He texts the photo with a message to Emmy before driving off, one hand on the kitten, one on the wheel. Who’s selfish now?
Beverly—six weeks out from hip replacement surgery—watches Jeopardy from the Everyday Hip Chair that Marshall bought for her on Amazon. He makes a kissy sound over her head. “Did the physical therapist come by?” he asks.
“I rescheduled for next week,” Beverly says. She reaches out and turns on the floor lamp. “What are you holding, Marshall?”
“I brought you some daisies and Heineken.” He sets the flowers and six pack on the end table.
“In your other arm.”
“Oh this?” Marshall says. “It’s a kitten. A kitten I rescued.”
“It looks puny.”
“It’s just wet,” Marshall says, stroking its head. “Probably needs some milk.”
“You don’t give a cat milk,” Beverly says. “That’s only in cartoons. There’s some tuna in the cupboard, but, Marshall…” The kitten claws its way to Marshall’s shoulder, then springs off and ping-pongs down the hall.
“Goddammit!” Marshall shouts, chasing after it.
“I can’t have a kitten running around here,” Beverly calls. “And I can’t have cussing either.”
After Marshall quarantines the kitten in the garage with some tuna, water, and a makeshift litter box—a baking pan filled with potting soil—he texts another cat picture to Emmy. “Meet Chester!” but she still doesn’t respond.
In the kitchen, Marshall puts the daisies in a vase and downs two beers while heating up supper for him and Beverly—chicken casserole brought over by some do-gooder from Good Shepherd Church. As he sets up TV trays, spreads a napkin in Beverly’s lap, he feels like an imposter, posing as a loving son. When they’re finished eating, he invites himself to stay a few days.
“A few days?” Beverly says.
“Emmy’s upset. She says I watch too many Kung Fu movies.”
“It’s probably wedding stress,” Beverly offers.
Marshall gets up to take their empty plates to the kitchen. “Coffee? Dessert?” He hates the way he sounds, like a suck-up waiter.
“Sue Brown dropped off a chocolate pound cake,” Beverly says, “but if I keep eating like this, my other hip is gonna blow.”
“It’s Saturday night!” Marshall says. “Live a little.”
Later, after Marshall checks on Chester—who devoured the tuna and took a crap in front of the litter box—he cleans the kitchen and hauls the wet boxes into his old bedroom. He’s in the mood for Fists of Fury, but Beverly’s watching Dancing with the Stars, and it’s her TV. Hell, it’s her house.
It’s her Vicodin too, but that doesn’t stop Marshall from taking one from the vial by the sink and washing it down with the last beer after Beverly goes to bed. He carries Chester to his room where he lies down and lets the thing walk all over him while he flips through his soggy senior yearbook. The autograph page is covered in crap like, “Sorry man,” “Sorry for your loss,” “Sorry about your bro.” Marshall stares at Julie Thompson’s picture. Beside it, she’d written, “Call me this summer.” He never did.
As Chester stretches out across Marshall’s neck, he tries not to think about that afternoon, thirteen years ago, when he was supposed to keep an eye on his brother, Brett, who was 11 and old enough to be left alone in front of the TV while Marshall sucked face with Julie in this very room, on this very bed.
“Do you hear something?” Julie asked, and Marshall laughed and stuck his tongue in her ear. Maybe if he hadn’t been so wasted, he would’ve realized that the sounds weren’t coming from the TV but from Brett, who was having an epileptic seizure, the grandaddy of all grand mals. It was Brett’s body toppling the Lego castle and hitting the floor, Brett’s grunting and gurgling, and finally, when Marshall figured it out and ran down the hall to the family room, it was Brett writhing—blue in the face, eyes rolled back, gasping and snorting and slobbering on the floor—and Marshall peeling off Brett’s glasses, rubbing his back, saying it’s okay buddy, it’s okay, and then it was Brett again, all 95 pounds of him, suddenly, horribly, still, and Julie who had the sense to call 911 as Marshall knelt there on the floor, frozen as Brett.
For the rest of his senior year, whenever Marshall flunked a test or showed up high for shot put practice or flipped his jeep or refused to apply to a single college, nobody said a word. When he punched a hole in the wall of the church parlor after Brett’s funeral, everybody hugged him and told him it was all God’s plan, but Marshall saw word balloons rising over their heads: You can’t be trusted. It’s all your fault. You didn’t do enough.
As soon as he graduated, Marshall joined the Coast Guard. They gave him a job and his self-respect, until he started sleepwalking and fucked that up, too.
The bed is spinning now. Chester’s tucked up in Marshall’s arm pit, and he’s thinking about Emmy, that look on her face, when suddenly he sees himself in a courtroom before a jury of his peers.
“Where were you on the afternoon of March 18, 2012?” This would be Emmy’s lawyer talking. She looks exactly like his mother.
Marshall, in his Coast Guard uniform, leans in to the mic. “I was at the urologist’s office having my hot water turned off.”
“And do you admit that you failed to tell your fiancé about the procedure, leading her to believe that you shared her interest in starting a family one day?”
“I do,” Marshall says. Suddenly, he’s in his wedding tux. I do! I do!
“Do you have anything to say for yourself, you sack-of-shit loser?”
Marshall imagines looking across the courtroom at Emmy, his accuser, Little Miss Sunshine, sitting primly, her eyes bright and fixed. He wants her to understand how getting snipped made him feel, finally, free. He couldn’t change what happened to Brett, so he tried to control the future by ensuring his exit from the gene pool. He didn’t know that Emmy was in that future. He loves her, and should have told her right from the start. Now he feels his little Grinch heart grow three sizes, and he knows what he must do.
He jumps up on the Bench, peeling off his tux to reveal a Kung Fu uniform. Now he’s doing movie Kung Fu, swinging daggers and sabers and battle axes. He jumps down in front of the jury box, and he’s Neo from The Matrix, kicking and spinning and cartwheeling off walls. Now he’s got Beverly’s cane, only it’s a plum-blossom crutch. He wields it like a master. He is focused. Virile. Supreme.
The next morning, Marshall wakes up with a headache and cat piss on his pillow. He tries to call Emmy, but it goes to voicemail after one ring. He Googles a few things on his phone, then tosses the pillow in the trash, showers, makes oatmeal for Beverly. “I thought you might go to church with me this morning,” she says, but Marshall, surprising himself, tells her he’s got stuff to do.
“I can drop you off,” he offers, but Beverly pouts and plops down in front of the TV.
Marshall spreads an old towel in the bottom of a still-soggy box, pokes some holes in the top, tosses in some bits of deli meat, drops Chester inside, and heads over to see Emmy. As he approaches the house, carrying Chester in the box, Emmy meets him on the porch. She’s in her robe. Her hair’s in a ponytail. Her face is splotchy. She’s holding a mug of coffee that smells pretty good to Marshall, but he doesn’t ask for some.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Emmy says.
“You don’t have to talk,” Marshall says. “You just have to listen.” She sits on the stoop and lets out a sigh.
“First,” he says. “A reverse vasectomy will set us back between four and ten thousand dollars.” Emmy puts her hand on her forehead, shakes her head. “Listen,” Marshall says. “Just listen. If we sell your engagement ring and cancel the wedding and elope instead, we’d have enough to meet the low-end fee.”
Emmy starts to cry. “Marshall,” she says. “I want a ring and a wedding.”
“I know you do. I also know you want a cat.” He swirls his hand like a magician, then reaches into the box and pulls out Chester, who yowls and tenses up until Marshall presses him into his chest and strokes him with firm but gentle pressure.
Emmy wipes her eyes with the sleeve of her robe. “He’s not very cute, is he?”
“Shhh,” Marshall says, covering Chester’s ears. “He’s doesn’t need your judgment. He’s been through a lot.”
“What if the reversal doesn’t work?”
Marshall shrugs. “That’s a chance we’d have to take.”
“And what about the fact that you lied to me? How can I ever trust you again?”
“I don’t know,” Marshall says. “That’s up to you.”
“And what if I don’t want a child with a man who doesn’t want children?”
“We can always have the wedding and play the rest by ear.”
“Then you get a wife and no kids! You get everything you want!”
The untruth of her words ripples through him. His father is dead. His brother is dead. The career he worked for is over. But Emmy sees only her losses. “I get the feeling it’s not me you want.”
“That’s not true,” Emmy says.
“Sure. Whatever you say. Just stick some clown in a tux in front of the altar—with his tubes intact—and you’re good to go.”
Emmy pours the rest of her coffee in the boxwoods, stands up in a huff. “That’s not fair!”
Marshall has a knot in his neck from sleeping in a weird position all night, trying not to disturb Chester. When he reaches up to rub it, Chester leaps out of his arms, takes off across the yard. “Chester!” Marshall calls. He chases after him, and Emmy follows, tightening her robe. “Don’t go in the street!” Marshall calls. “Stay out of the street!”
At the edge of the lawn, by the ditch, Chester crouches, then leaps onto the trunk of a pine tree. In a flash, he is climbing. Up, and up, and up, then out, onto a narrow branch. The sun is rising, drying up the rain. Pine needles sprinkle over Marshall and Emmy as they stand, desperate, at the foot of the tree. Marshall whips his phone from his back pocket, calls 911. As they wait for the firetruck, their hands, like visors, shade their eyes and they hover close together, holding their breath, watching for the cat’s slightest move.