Throwback Thursday | An ON FIRE Excerpt: “A Solstice Memory” by Sean Padraic McCarthy

June 18, 2016

The corpse was on the front porch when I pulled in from work. He sat in one of the white rocking chairs that Cheryl bought at Ocean State Job Lot, staring at the house across the street. At least with the one eye he still had left.

Despite being after six, the high June sun still bathed the entire front porch. The corpse wasn’t wearing a suit. In most of the movies, you see zombies dressed in suits because that’s what they were buried in, but this one wore jeans, filthy, and a short sleeve dress-shirt, half untucked. His feet were rotten, the toenails long and curling.

I climbed the side steps from the driveway, and the corpse still didn’t move, didn’t stir, even as the breeze picked up and raised the few wisps of hair he had left on his head; at least not until I stepped towards the door. Then his head turned slowly, and he stared at me.

Cheryl stood at the counter chopping fruits and vegetables for one of the smoothie drink things she loves. It’s about all she drinks, eats, now. She’s lost close to thirty pounds. Tiny to begin with, she now looked anorexic. She wore a backless green summer top, tied with a string about her neck, and I could see the discs of her backbone, each of her ribs.

She pretty much stopped eating three months back when she decided she had fallen back in love with her high-school boyfriend, although the falling in love, she insists, has nothing to do with her not eating.

It’s all about her mother, she keeps telling me, that lying fucking bitch, she says.

“And it’s about you, Simon,” she says. “It has nothing to do with him”—the old boyfriend with the paunch and thinning gray hair—“and it has everything to do with you. It’s all about you. I just don’t care about you anymore.”

She hates me.

I put my backpack on the island—we have two in our new extended kitchen—and I lingered as she cut, chopped. She didn’t turn to say hello. She never does anymore, and I didn’t ask what was for dinner. I usually make something for the kids, the twins, but I don’t eat dinner much anymore either. It’s easier not to.

Cheryl moved down into the little back bedroom, adjacent to the laundry room. It had once been my old study, then our au pair’s room, then it was the playroom for the twins, then Cheryl’s exercise room, now this. When the previous owners, the Griffins, lived here, it had been their kitchen; you still get whiffs of food in there now and then. The smells are part of the house, the walls. They will never leave.

Cheryl also told me her moving downstairs had nothing to do with the high-school boyfriend either. She insists, swearing at me, screaming that nothing has anything to do with him. Despite the fact that they are on Facebook together, messaging twenty-four seven. Texting, too. Calling. Face timing. Sexting. These things have nothing to do with anything, she says.

So now I am in our bedroom alone. Our twins, ten, sleep upstairs, too, and a third bedroom lies empty. We have an older child, Samantha—I adopted her—and that is what set off the problems with the old boyfriend; he had impregnated Cheryl a month after she graduated high school. Then he took off. Deadbeat for twenty-five years. Until a couple months back when he contacted Samantha, then Cheryl. Now, despite Sam wanting nothing to do with him, Cheryl says he’s wonderful, and I am garbage.

“He listens to me.” Cheryl likes to yell. “Do you ever do that? Do you ever listen to me?”

I went upstairs to my bedroom. Tumbleweeds of dust had gathered around the legs of my nightstand, and dust coated the pictures—scenic views of Martha’s Vineyard that Cheryl bought and hung, waves cresting the Lover’s Rock in the bay at Oak Bluffs—and dust smothered the crucified Jesus hanging at the end of Cheryl’s rosary. Dust on the headboard, on the bureaus. The T.V. Dust.

Downstairs, Cheryl slammed pots and pans around in the kitchen, music playing on her little speaker. Old songs: Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited” and that other cheesy love song from the early eighties. “Almost Paradise.”

I imagine she is dancing.

Her plan is to get me to leave. To force me out. The crueler she acts, the sooner I will go. Or so she believes. It’s either me or you, she says. But leaving would be a lot easier if we didn’t have children.

And if we didn’t have a dead guy sitting on the front porch.

Out the back window, the light of the falling sun reflected off the broken windows of the old shed with its roof sagging and covered in brown pine needles. The shed came with the house. Cheryl has been saying for years that she wants to level it, to replace it, but we never have. A chimney runs up the side, a crumbling fireplace full of ash within. Ancient straw in the corners, and the remains of small wooden huts.

Chickens. Someone in the neighborhood told me that the Griffins raised chickens. I picture the old blind man, Mr. Griffin, out in the yard, stumbling about, scattering food for the birds as they zig zag about his feet.

I lay on my bed, the ceiling fan motionless above me, and the twins whispering in the bedroom next door; they know what is happening.

I tried talking to Cheryl last night, out in the back yard, out of earshot of the kids, but the problem with Cheryl is that out of earshot doesn’t exist; the longer the conversation goes, the louder and angrier she gets so that before much time has passed, most of the neighborhood probably has a better grasp on our problems than I do.

I approached her about the plans for our living arrangement, then got an earful about how she has treated me like royalty for years and has had enough. When I disagreed, something both sparked and emptied in her eyes. She has beautiful, Slavic and hooded, blue gray eyes, and she rarely lets me see them straight on.

I’d seen the look before, and I knew it well; the herald of cruelty.

Deep in the woods, I could hear the coyotes’ cries drawing closer together. They had caught something and were circling. On summer nights, the twins and I like to sit by our fire pit and listen to the coyotes, telling stories about ghosts and witches and mysterious old men who live in the woods.

Cheryl leaned forward. Smiled. “For the past year, I’ve been having sex with someone else.”

My heart stuttered. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“Well, it’s not you.” She leaned back in her chair. “When I have sex with you, I’m thinking about someone else because I can’t stand the thought of sex with you anymore.”

“Then who?”

She looked away.

“Nobody. Nameless, faceless people.” And then she began shouting about division of labor, chores, my old girlfriend from before we met and me probably cheating with her at some point, and then she stormed into the house, proclaiming the conversation to be over.

“You’re nuts,” I said under my breath, and she heard me, even through the closed door. She hears everything.

“Nuts to have married you.”

 

 

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Sean Padraic McCarthy’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, The Hopkins Review, The Indianola ReviewSouth Dakota Review, The Sewanee Review, 2 Bridges Review, Prole, Water~Stone Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Shadowgraph Magazine, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and South DakotaReview among others. His story “Better Man”—originally published in december magazine—was listed as a “Distinguished Story” in The Best American Short Stories 2015, he was recently named a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction, and he is a 2016 recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Artist Fellowship in Fiction Award.

 

 

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