“Switchin' it up on me today?” I asked Mr. Ed who had rolled up a bag of Grizzly and shoved it in his back pocket.
“Switchin' what up?” he said, pushing a hard finger into his mouth, tightly packing the tobacco.
“The horses. They switchin' it up on me? Or is it the same old shit?”
Mr. Ed just shook his head, looking down as he passed me, tonguing the fresh wad deep in the pocket of his cheek, and descended the hill to the ranch house where he’d no doubt prepare his second Bloody Mary for the morning.
I wished the man could take a joke. I wasn’t a comedian, myself, but damn. Laugh already. I thought it was pretty clever, a play on words and all. No harm, no fowl. Just a joke. But it seemed that most men who handled money and responsibilities that went far beyond my own didn’t have time for laughing. It was something they’d lost in between losing their virginity to women who sucked their souls bone dry and absorbing the hunger that’d been inherited from their fathers—the hunger for money and control and to keep it all going like a well-oiled machine for the next generation. Must have been some type of burden there deep inside their heart of hearts. One that wouldn’t allow them to screw it all up and waste it all away and lose all that generational hard work that had been planted before them. But then again, Mr. Ed wouldn’t know a joke if it walked up and hit him upside the head. Only movies he ever talked about were war documentaries. And only documentaries. He didn’t even watch Patton, for God’s sake. And you can forget about The Dirty Dozen.
There’s a lot you can tell about a person by what they watch. If they watch a rom-com (I don’t care if it’s The Princess Bride or Romancing the Stone or Splash), they’re still looking for something else in their lives. Something more. Whether it’s love or the next big and better chapter in their lives. If they boast about how good the latest sci-fi flick is, I can usually talk to them because they don’t lack imagination. And that makes for good conversation. Still, even if I talk to those people long enough, they’ll eventually mention their alien conspiracies that they swear up and down they can confirm because they can show me where the probe went and how it’s still sore down there. That’s when I leave those types of talks. Wave at them, acknowledge the poor attempt they made to try and be sociable, and then just shake my head at them and head back home.
I’d sit up late at night after Mitzy, three quarters of the way knocked out from Ambien and the last quarter from an herbal tea that she called “camel meal,” would go to bed. I’d watch Larry, Curly and Moe beat each other senseless over a few misunderstandings. Those three stooges had an immeasurable amount of hubris. And a dangerous dose of competitiveness. That was my sleeping pill. My “camel meal.” I didn’t know what that even meant. Camel meal. Sounded like she’d either wake up with a hump the size of The Rock of Gibraltar on her back or chew slowly and determinedly through the breakfast I’d scare up for her the next morning, lips all protruding and loose and drooling, like I’d seen those lethargic camels do on Lawrence of Arabia. But I wasn’t Lawrence. And I didn’t know how to take care of things that had more in storage than me. Those kind usually took care of me. I’d do the dirty work. I was brave enough for it.
I knew what kind of person I was. I watched comedies around the clock. Every chance I could get. I’d watch those three stooges fight over positioning in every situation they were in. Always fighting for first. First to go through the door. First to do something right. First to make sense of things out of honest interest. For me, those shows were sedatives. Something to escape the stresses of real life.
I knew exactly who I was.
Mitzy and I’d gone to couple’s counseling at a rinky-dink office downtown just a mile away from the church with the bleached white steps that led to the big oak doors in front. Now, why a church wouldn’t offer services to save a marriage, I’d never understand. But we went (upon request from Mitzy’s nagging mother) and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be, but that counselor had me second guessing why I even married in the first place. I wanted to grab him by the shirt and say “Listen, Dr. Hoyle, I ain’t ever fell out of love with her. It’s just that I got busy trying to make ends meet. That’s all. That’s it. And I’d change it and get close to her all over again like when we were young, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay the bills. And then we’d lose the house. And then we’d lose each other altogether.”
It’s hard to love in a world that keeps requesting more from you. It’s hard to keep your heart Downy soft and supple in a desert of demand.
Our marriage had been on the rocks since I threw out her favorite quilt earlier in the year. On accident. We were in the middle of spring cleaning, throwing out cracked supper plates, bent silverware, old clothes that either didn’t fit anymore or had been washed so much that they had holes in them, and Christmas tree ornament angels whose noodle bodies and pasta wings had been nibbled on by starving rats in the attic. Their painted mouths, open in heartfelt song, and gently closed eyes no longer looked like they were singing heavenly choruses. They looked like they’d screamed for their little lives as rodents bit into their farfalle wings and tore at their ditalini hair. And I felt downright sorry for those things. Even if they weren’t real. They didn’t hurt anybody. Just liked to sing. Liked to brighten the holidays once a year. How dare I keep something so full of joy hidden in the dark eleven months out of the year? What if someone did that to me? Well, my joy would sure be stolen. And I’d become bitter and even a little ruffled like those angels.
By the end of it all, I’d loaded up about a dozen cardboard boxes in the back of the pick-up and then hauled it all off to either the Salvation Army or the dump.
A few weeks later, Mitzy came into the den where I was watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and asked me if I’d seen her quilt.
“Which one?” I asked.
“The only one I’ve got.”
“The one that’s been in my family for three generations.”
“Have you seen it?”
“I don’t know, Sweetie. Where’d you put it last?”
“In the linen hall closet.”
Oh, yeah. The linen hall closet. Where I grabbed a bunch of old tattered blankets and towels during that spring cleaning day.
“You didn’t pack it up in those boxes you hauled off a while back, did you?” she asked.
I muted Costello’s frantic screaming on the TV (partly because that’s how I felt on the inside just then and didn’t need any additional anxiety) and stood up to face her, hands in front of me in a plea. I remembered that ugly quilt and all its random, meandering colors. A diseased unicorn that had taken too much Metamucil and Ex-Lax must’ve relieved itself on it. Octagons and rectangles of cloth had lost their shape due to excessive stitching by a sewer whose sole purpose was to make the quilt fire retardant.
“I think I did,” I said.
“I thought you didn’t need it. Matter of fact, I was going to buy you another.”
“You know how important that thing is to me.”
“I know, honey, but did that thing not make your legs itch? It sure did mine.”
At night, when we watched movies like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and Some Like It Hot, she’d bring that old scratchy quilt out of that godforsaken closet and drape it over both our legs. I couldn’t enjoy the movie because the itchy cloth drove me up a wall. Some parts of it were made with satin, some with fleece, and others with cheap polyester. There was never any consistency with the material so I had to wear some of my old Russell sweatpants to stave off a poison ivy type of itch.
I tried shaking the idea that her quilt was still out there. Could be at the dump. Or the Salvation Army. Couldn’t remember which box I’d put it in, no matter how hard I tried.
But here I was, working on a Sunday morning, making extra money so I could date my wife again, as Dr. Hoyle had told me. “Date her,” he’d said. “Like you used to. Take her to a nice restaurant. Enjoy ya’ll’s company again.” So I’d decided to knock out some extra hours at Mr. Ed’s for some of that spending money that would allow me to date Mitzy again.
I looked out the open side entrance in the middle of the great hall of horse stables and saw Marigold, a Banker horse, getting his trot on inside the riding ring. Mr. Ed’s son and daughter sat on the fence, shooting off the heads of cat’s tail grass at each other. He’d taught them how to handle them horses since they were knee high, but they weren’t interested in petting or feeding them anymore. They’d only bring those horses out for about an hour each and then put them back in those dark and lonely stables for the rest of the day. And if a rat got past their cat, Micah, and got under their hooves, those horses would let the world know about it.
I grabbed a pitchfork and entered Marigold’s stall, green bottle flies swarming around a few piles of crap. I brought in the rusted wheelbarrow and went to work.
When the wheelbarrow nearly tipped over and dumped some of the same manure back onto the ground, I figured I’d shoveled enough. I cooled down a little when I wheeled the rusted barrow out of that heat box of a stall and a summer breeze hit me. Walked it out of the stables and over to a mountain of black manure and dumped the waste at the base. Wondered to myself that if I would’ve saved all of my crap, and not flushed it all down the commode, it would amount to a sight like that. A mountain. Would’ve definitely intimidated Frodo and Samwise Gamgee.
Mr. Ed’s two kids liked to play in it. To them, it was soil that had a weirdly sweet smell. They’d throw whole handfuls of that stuff at each other like it was a snowball fight. Mr. Ed wouldn’t dare buy them any video games. No Nintendos, nothing. Didn’t want them bickering over screen time or controllers or fighting each other with real fists after losing to one another with artificial fighters onscreen. But he’d bought them plenty of books to read and gave them all hours of the day to play outside, climbing trees and jumping after black snakes in the woods with shovels hoisted above their heads like little cannibals on an island of their own.
At first, I thought I’d heard a raccoon screaming out desperately for help, but when formless noise changed to sobbing, I knew it was a human. A kid. Sounded like Mr. Ed’s son. “Please! I’ll do anything! I’m sorry!” the voice rang out.
“Ya’ll don’t hurt each other down there!” I yelled out and I knew that there were other ways of being civil about calling them down for their chaotic ways, but Mr. Ed had done tried that. I’d watched him. In fact, I’d seen him sit them down and explain to them how climbing trees can end up with broken collarbones. Told them to stop throwing horse manure at each other because if it landed in their eyes, they’d get leprosy and be shunned like those poor souls they’d seen on Ben Hur. But they wouldn’t listen to reason. So he’d have them pick off hickory branches and he spanked them with those. But that only worked for a few days.
The pleas stopped and Mr. Ed’s daughter, Rachel, stormed out of the tree line, stomping her way past the mountain of manure, past me, her head down, shaking in frustration, saying “He started it!”
I entered the woods and sure enough, Mr. Ed’s son was right there, but his back was tight against a tree. And there was sisal rope wrapped around him and the tree.
“I don’t know what happened to her. She’s going crazy!” the boy said. “Was talking about going off to find a giant pig’s head and some book about flies and some island.”
“Sounds like gibberish to me. What’d you do to get her this pissed off?”
“Flushed her goldfish down the toilet.”
“Now why the hell did you do that?”
“She stole my baseball cards and wouldn’t give them back,” he said, fighting against the rope. “When I get out of this, I’m gonna tear her blame head off.”
“What if a big hand came out of the sky and dropped you in the middle of the ocean and left you there to die? Would you like that?”
The boy shook his head. “You gonna tell my daddy?”
“I ought to,” I said, untying the rope from behind the tree.
The boy rubbed his arms and stepped away when he was loosed from the tree and looked angrily toward the house. “I’m gonna get her. Tell her that I can’t lose something like that. That kind of thing’s priceless. I ain’t ever selling those cards. I’m keeping them forever and I’ll have them back,” he said and walked away.
Then I thought of Mitzy and the quilt and how she would be heartbroken if she never got that thing back.
After dumping off more manure and shoveling out wet spots from the third stall, Mr. Ed stopped abruptly at the entry. “You gonna clean that shit up over there?” he asked, bracing both hands on either side of the doorframe. He’d been drinking all morning, I could tell.
“What shit? The shit I’ve been shoveling up for the past three hours?” I said.
“That four wheeler over there.”
“Fill me in some.”
“There’s a crashed four wheeler over there against the telephone pole.”
“That ain’t my job.”
“The hell it ain’t.”
“You want to take over here while I clean up the mess those little hellions of yours just made?”
“Boy, step out of there for a second. And drop the pitchfork.”
I obliged him and walked into the cool breeze and put my hands on my hips, saying “You want to tell me what you got in mind?”
“Don’t have nothin' on my mind.”
“What you call me out here for then?”
“To give you a whoopin' on your candy ass for talkin back to me,” he said and swung a left hook at my head.
I ducked out of the way and he stumbled, falling face forward and banging his knees on the hard dirt. He swam his way back to his feet and said “Come on, Big Boy. Hit back.”
“Don’t have the time to act like you and your kids. I’m a grown ass man.”
He swung again, this time losing his footing completely and stumbling for what seemed like five yards with long, wobbly strides until his torso had gone too much ahead of his feet and he banged his head against a stall door that had a horse’s navy blue fleece sheet draped over it.
I thought about Mitzy and her quilt and how I didn’t need to make money for us to get closer again. I needed to get her quilt. I needed to get away from this man because it was only going to get worse.
“I’m done,” I said. “With you and this whole place.”
I left him there to rub his head in confusion, a practice he’d probably be doing for the rest of his life.
I drove down the road and parked on a shoulder that ran alongside a neighborhood’s pond. I got out and sat on the grassy bank. Cupped bent knees with the inside of my elbows and interlocked my fingers, staring off at the water and its long ripples made by gentle geese.
I thought about Mitzy and how, when we first started dating, we’d fed bread crumbs to wild geese and talk about the future. We’d hiked to the tops of small mountains and I’d stopped just to hug her. Remembered smelling Pert shampoo in her hair and the Juicy Fruit gum that she loved to chew.
I got back in the truck and drove toward the Salvation Army. Once there, I walked toward the clothing section, sifting through blankets and comforters and raggedy-ass quilts that made Mitzy’s look nice. But hers wasn’t there. Someone had either bought it or I had dropped it off at the dump and it was at the bottom of a landfill. There was no way of telling.
Knowing I didn’t have enough money to take Mitzy on a real date, I drove to Piggly Wiggly and loaded up the cart with cans of cream corn, okra to fry up, some chicken thighs, a bottle of Stubb’s Bar-B-Q sauce, and a six pack of Michelob.
The air was heavy and humid as I drove back home with the windows down, thinking about cuddling up to Mitzy and watching Airplane or Planes, Trains and Automobiles. But I knew that there was no way she’d enjoy it because her mind would be on the great loss of that quilt that’d been cared for by so many long gone hands that didn’t touch things in this world anymore.
That’s when I saw the quilt. Nearly wrecked the truck.
It was draped over a human body that stepped carefully through kudzu about twenty yards off the side of the road. Looked like Igor from Young Frankenstein, head down, looking for tracks of his master to help him find his way back to the castle.
I pulled over on the shoulder and waved at him when he looked sideways in my direction. “Hey!” I yelled. “You know that thing’s mine!”
The stiff man beneath the quilt flipped me off and picked up the pace. So I got out of the truck and ran to him.
“Stay away from me! I ain’t hurt nobody!” he said when I reached him, grabbing at a pain in my side under my ribcage.
“I ain’t here to steal from you,” I said, catching my breath. “I just need that thing back.”
He turned to face me and, in that bright sun, I could see years of drinking hard alcohol scrawled on his face and bloodshot eyes that searched my own for answers.
“Who’re you?” he asked.
“Where’d you get that thing?”
“None of your business.”
“I’m not talking for my health.”
“Man gave it to me.”
“I don’t know. Had a nice suit on. Looked like he’d worked at some office downtown.”
“Why would he give you this thing?”
“Because I had my sign up, I guess.”
I saw the cardboard sign dangling from his left hand. The words looked like they’d been scratched on with charcoal.
“You homeless?” “Lookin' for one, yeah. A home. Got money?”
“Then leave me alone.”
“I need that quilt.”
“Got some beer back in the truck. Want some?”
“If it’s for free.”
“You can have it if you give me that quilt.”
“Why do you want this thing?”
“It’s my wife’s. I threw it out a while back and I don’t know how a man in a fancy suit got it, but it’s my wife’s and I need to get it back to her.”
“You get in a fight with her? That why you threw it out?”
“No. It was an accident.”
“You threw this thing out on accident?” he said, pulling the quilt tight over his ears and shoulders. “This is a nice blanket.”
“I know it is. That’s why I want it back. I’ll give you the whole six pack for it.”
“Six pack? You didn’t mention no six pack. Thought you was talkin' about just one little beer.”
“The whole pack.”
“Show me where it is.”
I led him back to my truck, looking back every few seconds to make sure that he hadn’t sprung a wild hair and run off with the quilt. When I reached the truck, I opened the front passenger door and grabbed the Michelob off the floorboard and handed it to him.
“Now give me the quilt,” I said.
He plucked a bottle from its cardboard slot and placed the case on the asphalt. He swallowed the beer fast and it was soon empty, but the quilt was still draped around his shoulders. He put the empty bottle back in its slot and did the same with a second beer and the quilt fell off his head. The third beer made his shoulders loose and the quilt fell at his heels. He bent down and picked it up.
“Here you go,” he said, handing it to me like a used piece of tissue paper. The rough quilt immediately scratched my forearms and I remembered why I hated that thing in the first place. “What’s all that food for?” he asked, eyeing the grocery bags in the truck.
“For my wife.”
“Boy, you’re really doin a lot for that wife of yours today.”
“What you got to eat in those bags?”
“Nothing for you.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Better get on, man. Take your beer.”
“I ain’t had supper with some people in a long time. You got a house?”
I stared blankly at him. He continued. “You got a house. Must be cozy in there.”
He stared at me, waiting for an invite.
“Thanks for the quilt. You’re welcome for the beer.”
“Okay, then. I ain’t gonna be a bother.” He picked up the beer and walked aimlessly back through the kudzu. And I thought about Mr. Ed and his crazy kids and how the homeless would never have to worry about being spoken to in a belittling manner for not doing their job the right way. I got a little envious. It was odd and I quickly pushed aside that feeling and I thought about my warm house.
I had the quilt. I could make Mitzy happy again. And we did have room for another for supper.
“Hey!” I yelled at him. “Hop in.”
He returned to me, his eyes wide and awake, the six pack dangling by his side where the cardboard sign, now lost in the kudzu, had been.
When we reached the house, I told him to grab the groceries while I clutched that quilt tight by my side. We worked our way up the front porch’s three warped wooden steps and, before I could unlock the house, the light came on and Mitzy opened the door.
She stared in shock at us two stooges. We tilted our heads as if a vital circuit in our necks had expired, spotting the glowing fireplace behind her, seeking salvation through resolute tunnel vision, and bearing gifts of food and quilt.
Brodie Lowe is a finalist of Broad River Review’s Ron Rash Award in Fiction and Still: The Journal’s Literary Contest, has fiction and poetry that has appeared or is forthcoming in Broad River Review, Mystery Tribune, The Bark Magazine, Strange Stories Magazine, Antithesis Journal, Frontier Tales, Gypsum Sound Tales, Nebo: A Literary Journal, and elsewhere. He holds a BA in English from Western Carolina University and is an alumnus of Spalding University’s MFA Community Workshop (Fall 2018).