The news comes over the machine. I rarely pick up, something that angers my increasingly bitter wife of six years, Serena. As a surgical nurse Serena gets calls in the morning like this informing her which operating room to report to, which organ they'll be manipulating, etc. You'd think she'd pick a different time to shower.
"Get the phone!" Serena shouts from the bowels of our cluttered ranch home.
But I don't. Instead I listen to a heavily accented voice inform me that I've been honored with the vaunted peace prize, that the work I do has helped change my corner of the world, that they'd like to hold a news conference in my honor, so on, so forth. I miss many of the details but make significant progress on the blunt.
"Was that the goddamn assignment nurse?" Serena is at the head of the davenport, white hot and dripping.
Heavy eyelids fall to my wife's fuzzy core peeking at me from under the towel she holds haphazardly over the sensitive areas. There once lived a world of promise between those legs—the alkaline for my acid, the salve for my fever—but these days I'm pretty sure that goodness is reserved for someone else.
"Not unless the goddamn assignment nurse," I say, "is calling from Norway."
Serena's fists go to her hips, modesty forgotten. Where passion used to flicker, anger now bubbles. I figure indifference can't be far behind.
"The hell are you talking about?"
"Good news," I croak through a throatful of smoke. "I've just won the Nobel Prize."
"Huh. Good one, Stoner." As she speaks her taut nipples tease, hip bones smirk. "So what's on the agenda today? Smoke some weed, watch some tube, hang out with those idiot friends of yours?"
"Hah. I don't have any friends." And it's true: I'm a lone wolfer.
Serena says something about me being a thirty-two-year-old loser and marches bare-assed to the phone. I resist the urge to comment on the cellulite dimples that tarnish what I once considered the perfect backside. Thank goodness for the doob: keeping the nastiness at bay and all.
"Check the machine, you don't believe."
Serena waves me off and begins punching in the number to the hospital as she marches back to the bedroom. I know this is the last communication we'll have before she leaves for work, and I close my eyes and allow the weariness of a long night to take me under, the fatty burned down to a red-eyed roach between thumb and point finger.
Chucky presses the pinpoint of his switchblade against my cheek. Chucky is here to rob me. Chucky is here with Pam.
He demands to know the location of my stash. Chucky has raided my stash so many times I no longer get excited. In fact, I don't even wake fully, just float in that groggy post-nap state. I mumble to Chucky that the stash is in the same place it always is and get that knife out of my face, man.
Chucky barks something aggressive and makes his way to the basement. He's tall and Karen Carpenter skinny, wrapped in dirty denim and black leather, greasy hair covered by a skull-and-crossbones bandana. Lots of tattoos, walks with a gimp, kind of smelly. I met Chucky—or rather, he met me—on a deserted street one night when he brandished that same switchblade in an attempt to mug me. Before I could prove my wallet empty, however, Chucky collapsed to the pavement. I thought briefly of robbing him, but instead flagged down a cabbie, who called a cop, who summoned a paramedic, who transported Chucky to an emergency room doctor, who passed him off to a specialist, who diagnosed the dire need for a new kidney. I ended up giving him one of mine, "a wondrously selfless move considering the circumstances," according to the blonde television reporter who spent the better part of three days basically living in my home and getting up in our business. The gist of her report was that the new kidney had given Chucky a new lease on life. What I should have told Blondie is that the moment I gave Chucky back his switchblade—as a surprise Christmas present no less—he promptly used it to rob me again. New lease, my ass.
While Chucky raids my stash, Pam steps up to the couch with that look in her eye. I've known Pam since high school, so trust me when I say I know what that look means. Pam has always had the hots for me, and occasionally we've let some of that pressure out, although it doesn't mean anything. Really it doesn't. Here's why: Pam lets the pressure out with a lot of folks, just about anyone with a penis or a reasonable facsimile, in fact. It all started in our junior year—it's a legitimate condition, you know—and suddenly Pam was ready to sign up for the army. This perplexed the guidance counselors, because Pam is as smart as Chucky and I combined, meaning she could have attended any university she wanted, Ivy included, but it wasn't really that hard to figure out if you put some cells to it. All those horny troops in close quarters, I mean, c'mon.
Consequently, I made it my mission to talk her out of it, arguing my diametric opposition to the concept of a military and its obvious objective of killing people, which at the time was a load of bunk but the more I harped on her the more it made sense and soon I was lecturing others, picketing recruitment centers, spearheading a letter-writing campaign targeting upperclassmen across the country. The newsmagazine reporter who took the story national called me "an irreverent teenage crusader who single-handedly halted the prospective military careers of thousands of high school seniors and forced Pentagon brass to sweeten the College Fund pot by thirty percent." The day after the article ran I got wasted and drove my mother's Buick into a river.
Pam straddles my arm, which sticks out from the couch when I sleep, and gently squeezes my hand between warm thighs. I clench my eyelids and try not to think of that short jean miniskirt and those weighty breasts. I'm not exactly resisting, but I'm not participating either. It's not like I'm stripping off her thong or something. Pam looks down and says "Someone's excited" and I say "Don't flatter yourself, I just woke up." But insults, I know, won't stop the Pam Train once it gets rolling, and next thing you know Pam has made herself at home on the couch.
Brutus picks this moment to slink out from the bedroom and stand in the middle of the living room floor. Brutus is my wife's five-pound Chihuahua who's scared to death of me even though I rescued his bony little ass, along with a dozen of his friends, from doggie death row. I did this Mission Impossible-style in the middle of night and was subsequently arrested, incarcerated, tried and acquitted by a dog-loving jury of my peers. A civil suit by the Humane Society is pending—something about four thousand dollars worth of vandalism—although with all the media attention I'm getting my lawyer says not to worry about it.
Anyway, Chucky, Pam and Brutus, they're three examples of my work.
Pam sees Brutus and coos "Hi Brutus, hi little guy," without missing a beat, if you know what I mean, and Brutus shakes his little butt and bends himself into a U, all happy with the attention and everything. Then I say "Brutus has to go to the bathroom," and begin to struggle to get out from under Pam, but at the sound of my voice Brutus begins to shake like he's just seen The Exorcist, then squats on the floor like a girl dog, pees for a good twelve seconds and scoots back into the bedroom.
I lay back and grimace, trying to send the message that I'm not at all into this, and wouldn't you know it Chucky comes booming up the steps. "Get off," I whisper-bark, suddenly very awake. "Get off!" I push Pam off the couch and just about get myself zipped up when Chucky comes into view. He's got a handful of the brown bottles I generally distribute to elderly citizens who can't afford the spiraling costs of prescription drugs, which is a fourth example of my work. When he sees us all disheveled and awkward, Chucky stops cold and stares. I'm bulging at the seams, Pam is laughing hysterically on the floor, skirt up around her waist, all exposed and everything. I've never been entirely clear on Chucky and Pam's relationship; all I know is they met through me and always seem to be together these days. I'm fairly certain Chucky is aware of Pam's condition but I'm a little concerned by the look on his face, so I take the opportunity to announce to the room that I've won the Nobel Prize. Then I announce it a second time, with a little more feeling.
Finally Chucky says "The Nobel Prize? Don't you get money with that?"
I tell him I haven't given that much thought but now that he mentions it, I think it's ten thousand bucks.
Pam quits laughing long enough to say "No, that's the Pulitzer. The Nobel Prize comes with a cash award of one-point-three million, the equivalent of ten million Swedish Kroner."
I told you she was smart. There's like a photographic memory happening in there or something.
Chucky's eyes bug out and he says "Holy shit, are you kidding me? A million-three?" Then in one smooth motion he whips out the switchblade and pops it open and says, "You know that shit's mine, right? Right, Stoner?"
I decide to start work late so I can make Serena a nice dinner. Stuffed peppers, some of those flaky dinner rolls, a little salad, romantic candles, the whole works. I guess I'm feeling guilty about the fighting and about Pam, although, as I've said, the woman's got a medical condition. Two messages come over the machine as I slave away, one from a Los Angeles Times reporter who's found about the Nobel Prize and one from Serena asking when I'm going to work. I take this as an apology.
At six-thirty Serena's car pulls into the garage and I hear what sounds like two doors closing, then voices and laughing. They step into a dimly lit foyer, Serena and her doctor friend, and I swear he's got his hands on her waist.
"Evening, folks," I say.
"Dennis," Serena responds, because this is my real name, Dennis, although she rarely uses it anymore. She looks at me sitting at the finely set table and says, "Where's your car?"
"Chucky stole it."
She gives me that pursed-lip look and then asks her doctor friend if she can take his coat and would he like a vodka gimlet?
The doctor friend nods, hands over his leather jacket and says, "Someone stole your car? Did you report it?"
"Oh, he won't go far," I say. "He's got one of my kidneys."
"Ah, yes," the doctor friend says, and proceeds to ramble in snootish tones about how my particular organ donation was the talk of the local medical community for weeks, until, that is, the case of the conjoined twins from Paraguay took over. The doctor friend just happened to be the lead surgeon on that case. It took thirty-four hours, he had to separate more than one hundred blood vessels, blah blah blah.
"So what," I interrupt, "are you two up to tonight?"
Serena hands the doctor friend his drink and says very matter-of-factly that they need to go over the nurses' contract.
"Huh," I say, and make a point of looking around. "So where's the contract?"
Serena gives me another look. "We don't need the contract, Dennis. These are preliminary discussions. We won't go over the fine points for weeks."
The doctor friend then tries asking me what I do for a living, the guy standing there acting like we're buds, like he's not here to fuck my wife, and I look directly into his eyes and say, "I make the world a better place to live a little at a time."
"Oh?" he says. "How does that pay?"
You knew that was coming. The perfect answer would be one-point-three million, but I won't waste my time with this pompous prick. Let him read about it in the Times.
"Well," I say, standing. "You kids don't wait up for me." I head for the door, Serena making a half-hearted attempt to stop me ("Dennis, wait . . . "), me making even less of an effort to be civil ("He's perfect for you, darling") and the doctor friend soaking all this up while sipping his vodka gimlet from one of the Audubon glasses I received free for chaining myself to a beaver dam to stop a proposed apartment complex (Example #5). It worked, but to this day the developer, a hulk of a man, gets in my face whenever he sees me at the grocery store or the barber shop, threatening bodily harm and calling me feminine names. That's okay. He'd shit if he knew how much pot his kid smokes, and that I sell it to him.
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