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FICTION: Somewhere Nice By Todd Renier  

Posted by Scott Wilson

Nearly two decades removed from high school, Lindsay Keller finally had braces put on to correct an overbite that had troubled her since adolescence. Sitting in Dr. Kuhn’s waiting room, among the stuffed animals, videogames, Lincoln Logs, and other dog-eared toys set aside for the younger patients, Lindsay hid behind a nature magazine and pretended to read about the nesting habits of the duck billed platypus. The combination of wearing braces and having large breasts, which maintained the same shape and lift at thirty-six as they had in her early twenties, gave Lindsay a youthful, teenage look. She liked her new appearance, but in the waiting room she felt embarrassed in front of the housewives and their pubescent children. It reminded her of a recurrent nightmare where she had to go back to high school because of an unfinished math credit.

While she reclined in a dentist chair, Dr. Kuhn complimented Lindsay on her excellent flossing habit as he peered into her open mouth. “Yes, yes. Very good,” he said, smiling. He took out a miniaturized bolt cutter and snipped off the metal wires that ran along the two rows of her teeth. His large latex-gloved fingers prodded and nudged the brackets and molars, checking the strength of the bonding adhesives. “You’ve been very good at staying away from sticky candies and popping corns, haven’t you?” he said in his German accent.

“Yes,” she lied.

He fitted new wires through the brackets and twisted them tight with needle nose pliers, cranking the teeth closer together and forcing their unwilling roots to move along the trenches of the gums. As he kept turning, she felt her eyes growing warm and wet and tried to focus on something else. Thumb tacked to the ceiling was a photograph of a blue whale surfacing from the ocean with the caption, DETERMINATION. Across the room, above another chair, was a photo of a kayaker dropping down a waterfall. She couldn’t quite make out the caption, but she guessed it said COURAGE. She wished she had brought headphones or had a TV to watch. Only children got the dentist chair in the corner with the 12-inch television hanging above it, the kids needing the brightly colored cartoons and inane puppet shows to distract them from the needles and wrenches and local anesthetics. But the chair was empty, which struck Lindsay as being inconsiderate. Maybe some fainthearted middle-schooler missed his appointment.

When she came home, her neighbor Colleen Eggleseder was waiting for her in the kitchen, raving about dead baby hedgehogs. She had on a plum colored lipstick that made her mouth look like it was stained from red wine, and her mascara was smeared around her eyes. Lindsay put on a pot of coffee and nodded, pretending to understand. “They ate their babies. They ate them; they actually ate them,” Colleen moaned.

“Is my dad here?” Lindsay asked.

“He’s in his room.”

“So who had babies?”

“My hedgehogs,” Colleen said, frustrated by the question. “Peanut and Quillow.”

Sitting over coffee, Colleen explained that the babies had looked so sad and helpless after they were born, lying there all naked on the rough cedar bedding in the aquarium. She knew she had to do something, so she placed them on the softest dishrag she owned.

Lindsay felt sorry for Colleen, but the accident was her fault. She’d been the one foolish enough to touch Peanut and Quillow’s babies while they were still pink and translucent and covered in fluid membranes, leaving her indelible scent on the newly born hoglets. Having lost that familial odor, Peanut and Quillow ate their babies and scattered the dismembered carcasses away from the whelping rag. When Colleen found the mess, she drove to the Oakdale shopping mall and walked into Pet Central Station, which was near a soft pretzel vendor that specialized in various dipping sauces, and demanded a refund. Without a receipt the best the manager could offer was in-store credit. “You people are terrible,” Colleen said, mistaking the man’s soft voice and long eyelashes as homosexual affectations, and had walked out.

At the kitchen table, Colleen vowed to boycott Pet Central Station for life and hoped never to see another hedgehog again. “I’m just going to leave them in my shed until a stray cat comes along and takes care of them.”

Lindsay stared at Colleen’s big, round forehead, doubting that any cat would get into the Eggleseders’ shed. She knew that Colleen’s husband, Bill, kept his lawn well manicured with fertilizers and sprinklers and had his indoor lights set to automated timers, which sometimes left company sitting awkwardly in the dark of their dining room. She also knew Bill stored tools in that shed and he wasn’t about to leave it open to the neighborhood.

“Are you still going to feed them?” Lindsay asked.

“I told you I don’t even want to look at them.”

“Are they cute?”

“They were.”

Lindsay rubbed her jaw. She needed another aspirin, or something stronger. She tried remembering if her dad had any pills worth taking. She should know—she was the one who picked up his prescriptions at the pharmacy every week. What if her mind was slipping, too? Maybe her dad began losing it when he was her age but nobody had noticed.

“Can I see the hedgehogs?” Lindsay asked.

“I guess.”

Standing in the shed, Lindsay saw that they were very cute. Their ears were large and erect like a mouse’s and they had black button noses and long silly whiskers. She was delighted as they waddled around, supporting their pudgy bodies on short, skinny legs. They look like walking baked potatoes, Lindsay thought, like little prickly baked potatoes. While Colleen waited for her friend in the backyard, she grinded the sole of her shoe into an anthill.

“If you want them, you can have them,” Colleen shouted.

Lindsay lowered her face to the aquarium and said, “Did you guys hear that?” Frightened by the sound, the hedgehogs tucked their heads and limbs in towards their soft underbellies and curled into two shivering balls of salt and pepper colored quills. “You’re coming home with me.”

Lindsay’s father, Wade, was eating a liverwurst sandwich when she brought Peanut and Quillow home in a shoebox. Wade was enormous. He stood six foot three and was over 240 pounds, carrying most of the weight in his massive gut and heavy shoulders. Growing up, he had been a lanky kid, the tallest of his three brothers, and it wasn’t until college that he started filling out. He left Indiana University thirty pounds heavier and had earned a degree in chemical engineering. After that, he cooled off the snack food, and the weight gain leveled out, but in the twilight of his years he had only grown and grown.

“I don’t know how you can stand to eat that stuff,” Lindsay said.

“Your friend with all the makeup was here.”

“Colleen.”

“She was crying about something.” He took a bite from the sandwich, spilling some of the grayish pink meat onto his plate. “I left her in the kitchen.”

“That’s fine,” she said.

“What’s in the box?”

“Two hedgehogs.”

“Oh,” he said.

Wade followed her down to the basement and then stopped at the bottom step. He stood silent and watched, his large figure looming over the room as Lindsay emptied two twenty-five-gallon plastic tote bins of decorations, Christmas lights, artificial wreaths, and porcelain snowman figurines. She wiped the dust away with a wet washcloth and furnished their new habitats with shredded newspapers, hamster wheels, shot glasses filled with water, the cardboard tubes from paper towel rolls, and empty Kleenex boxes lined with old t-shirts of hers to acquaint them with her scent. She fed them Whiskas brand cat food and raw carrots.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” Lindsay asked. “You look a little pale.”

Wade had not allowed pets in his house when Lindsay was a child. Before Christmases and birthdays Lindsay had campaigned for a puppy, promising responsibility and love, but Wade remained stalwart against his daughter’s tears, knowing that after the initial excitement wore off the dog would become his to take care of. Still, she begged and begged, and when she finally understood that that was never going to happen, she pleaded for a rabbit, then a hamster, and was finally allowed a goldfish, which died after a week. Wade liked animals just fine, but domestication seemed sad and cruel to him and he wanted no part. He believed animals belonged outside, not inside some cage stinking up the house.

“You want to touch one?” Lindsay asked.

“And get rabies?”

“You’re not going to get rabies,” Lindsay laughed.

“Then you do it.”

Lindsay stuck her hand into the plastic tote bin and gently smoothed her finger over the quills of the smaller hedgehog. It shivered and curled into a ball. She touched it again, and it huffed up and poked her finger. “Bitch!” Lindsay shouted.

Wade opened his mouth to speak, but then froze, forgetting everything. He had wanted to say something, but his voice and thoughts were locked away from him, and he felt the floor slipping underneath. His eyes unfocused and his daughter blurred and the room became a haze of formless objects, bending and wrapping inwards. Then, in an instant he snapped back, still standing, and saw a woman looking at him.

Lindsay waited for him to speak, expecting some snide remark about the hedgehogs. “Say it,” she said firmly, as if training a disobedient Labrador.

“How do you do today?” he whispered.

The top of his head tingled and his legs were heavy and stiff. The young woman in front of him was very pretty. She was wearing a baby blue sweater that matched her eyes, and her dark hair was pulled back. She was tall and slim and had a big chest. He wanted to kiss her. Half of his face crooked into a smile as he steadied himself on the stairway railing.

“Are you okay?” Lindsay asked.

“I’m a little tired.”

Lindsay walked him to his room and helped him into bed, taking off his moccasins but leaving his socks and clothes on. She was not ready to undress her father. Deep down she knew she never would be. Folding the comforter over him, she tucked him in and then flipped the TV on so he could fall asleep to the History Channel. She lingered long enough to catch the beginning of a World War II conspiracy theory program that suggested that Heinrich Himmler had faked his own death and escaped war torn Europe alive. A slew of bogus experts argued that the SS commander captured by the British Army at the Danish border was in fact a doppelganger disguised as Himmler. She stopped listening when a bearded man in a flannel shirt started rambling about the Reichsführer’s unmarked grave and something called the Lüneburg Heath.

Her father needed to see his doctor. The way his eyes went blank scared her, and that creepy smile he made—that didn’t seem healthy either. She’d call in the morning, she decided. He was fine for now.

A commercial for a microwaveable family-style dinner came on, showing some sly homemaker passing off the food as her own home-cooked meal, fooling her family seated at the table. The close-ups of corn niblets and the slow motion shots of drizzling brown gravy made Lindsay hungry. “Great dinner, Mom!” the kids rejoiced in unison, unaware of their mother’s ruse. Enjoying her little secret, the mom smiled and winked at the camera, pleased that her dipshit family couldn’t taste the difference between her cooking and Stouffer’s.

Having nothing left to do for the day, Lindsay built a fire in the living room and opened a bottle of Sauvignon blanc. She didn’t drink red wines. In the past she’d made attempts to get into them despite her dislike, trying Chianti at Italian restaurants, having glasses of Merlot at family dinners, buying red table wines for company, because she believed that well-rounded adults appreciated things like Bordeaux and Brunello and The New Yorker, but she never developed a taste for the reds, so she stuck with the whites, accepting her pallet for what it was.

Sitting on her blue corduroy couch, watching the fire, she considered calling Darien, a 27-year-old she dated on the weekends. They had met at a Marriott banquet room during a motivational speech organized by her work. Seated next to him, Lindsay saw that his “Hello My Name Is” sticker was red instead of blue, and during an intermission she asked him why his nametag was different from everyone else’s.

“That’s because I brought my own. You have to if you’re not on the list,” he said.

She laughed.

“Why would you go to one of these things if you didn’t have to?”

“To study,” he said. “I’m trying to get into the business.”

Darien had a long, slender body, and his heavy eyelids and down-turned lips gave him a solemn expression. His close-cropped hair made Lindsay wonder if he was a soldier. She’d never been with a soldier before.

“So what would an aspiring motivational speaker say about tonight’s performance?” she asked.

“This guy? This guy sucks. He has no story, and that’s what really counts in this job. All motivational speeches preach the same thing: attitude and potential. Everyone’s got potential and everyone can succeed with the right attitude. That’s the message. But what makes a speaker great is his story, and this guy’s got no story.”

“But he has a story,” Lindsay argued. “What about his wife?”

“So what if he runs marathons for his dead wife? She got hit by a truck jogging at night, and he gets inspired to compete in the races that she never got to run. Okay. That could be cool if he didn’t speak in a monotone and didn’t wear white sneakers with a blazer. And why am I supposed to care that he finished ninety-first in the Chicago Marathon? That’s not even top fifty.”

“You’re terrible,” she said, smiling. “Well, what’s your interesting story?”

He removed his left hand from the pocket of his cardigan and revealed a prosthetic hook, which strengthened Lindsay’s military fantasy. Looking down at his feet, Darien said, “It’s hard to be incognito with one of these things,” and slipped the hook back into his pocket.

It took two weeks of dating for Lindsay to finally ask Darien how he lost his arm. She had assumed that he would bring it up way before then, thinking that at some point during all of their dinners and walks and embraces he’d tell her what had happened. Didn’t he want to share that with her? If he felt comfortable enough to sleep with her, then surely he could talk about his missing arm. But she couldn’t be the one to bring it up. That’d be rude. So she waited and waited and started making up her own maladies: fishing accident, car accident, hang-gliding accident—maybe it happened while he was rock climbing—snakebite, staff infection, skin cancer, bone cancer, arm cancer—it could have been congenital—and then she couldn’t wait anymore and asked him while sitting in the passenger seat of his car as Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” played on the radio. He stared ahead at the passing highway and told her that he had lost it in a farming accident. “A tractor fell on it.”

Pouring the last of the wine, Lindsay laughed. Is that really what he wanted to do? It had taken Darien a full month to invite Lindsay to his place, a small, bare walled one bedroom apartment, furnished with a garishly large HD TV that dwarfed his tiny living room—that was the man who wanted to give motivational speeches for a living? No. She didn’t feel like calling him anymore.

That night Lindsay moved the hedgehogs upstairs. She had learned online that they required a warmer environment. Outside, the temperature had dropped, and the house creaked from the blowing wind. Lindsay lay awake in bed feeling a draft across her face. In the room next to hers, Wade slept to old war footage, and the sound of spraying bullets and exploding mortars filtered through the walls. She thought of the Himmler show again, still astonished that those people could make a career, a life out of that. So much energy devoted to nothing. It depressed her. And she thought of her father sitting inside all day, just passing the time, watching the same shows and eating the same food.

Wouldn’t it be better if he were dead?

She knew she shouldn’t think that, but she did. Beyond her bedroom window the fallen maple leaves scraped across the back porch, pattering like raindrops. Winter would be there soon.

Sitting up in bed, Wade gasped for air, trying to figure out where he was and what was real. His eyes bounced around the room—curtains, dresser, lamp, curtains, night table—on the table he saw a framed picture of his wife. He was home. Guided by the glowing light of the TV, he made his way to the bathroom and pissed sitting down. On the toilet, the image of a colossal woman wearing an apron came back to him. In his dream she forced him to drink from a bottle of sand, and he choked and clutched at the bottle, trying to knock it free as she cooed and patted his head. He shivered.

When he turned on the living room lights, he saw the hedgehog boxes tucked next to the entertainment center. The animals fled into their Kleenex boxes as he approached. The tote bins were already filled with their little black pellet craps.

All morning Wade waited for his daughter to wake up. Bad dreams had him up before the sunrise, and he wanted to talk to someone. Bundled in an old brown parka, Wade watched the day begin from the back porch. The finches circled and fluttered from bush to bush, chirping and fighting over scraps of food. The more brazen of the birds landed near him and he tried standing as still as possible, hoping they would come closer. He held his breath and closed his eyes and counted to three. When he opened them he saw that they hadn’t moved.

“What are you doing?” Lindsay yelled, standing in the doorway. “Get inside. It’s freezing.”

At the stove Lindsay cooked oatmeal with chopped banana, the only food her aching jaw could tolerate. The last time she had eaten was before her orthodontist appointment, and that had only been a bagel. She recollected that her younger self would’ve loved braces: back when being skinny meant almost everything to her, braces would’ve provided the perfect alibi for skipping meals. Diets still tormented poor Colleen, who paid ridiculous amounts of money for weight loss meal plans. Every Thursday she received a shipment of calorie-conscious servings that were supposed to last the week, but poor Colleen could never stretch them that long, and when she exhausted her supply before the next delivery, she bought identical frozen dinners at the supermarket, shamefully hiding her weakness from her husband. Lindsay was glad she didn’t have her own personal Bill Eggleseder keeping tabs on her, compounding all of her regrets and shortcomings, pressuring her to lie about NutroCarbs or whatever it was that Colleen ate. She was free of that, and if her mouth didn’t hurt so badly she’d eat a cheeseburger and fries for breakfast just because.

“It’s not right,” Wade grumbled.

Lindsay looked up from the newspaper and asked, “What’s not right? The oatmeal?”

“The damn groundhogs.”

She put the paper down on the kitchen table.

“Hedgehogs,” she corrected. “They’re hedgehogs, Dad.”

“Whatever they are, they don’t belong here. Get rid of them.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re disgusting and they smell bad.”

“Well, it’s not your house.”

His house was gone. He had burned it down by deep-frying a frozen turkey in his garage. Hot oil and flames jumped from the steel pot when the bird went in, igniting the sleeve of his flannel shirt. He whirled and slapped the fire from his arm, unaware of the flames that were sprawling up the insulated walls of the garage and spreading to the adjoining house. He escaped to his front yard where he watched the fire consume and grow, whispering, “No, no, no, no.” Later, he arrived at the hospital with little recollection of the accident, but he did remember that he had left a green bean casserole cooking in the oven, which secretly worried him for a few days.

While her father convalesced his second-degree burns, Lindsay had walked through the ruins of her family’s house in search of photo albums, jewelry, and other precious relics. Most of the drywall had collapsed, exposing the wooden framing of the home. The boards were charred and patterned in oblong scales that resembled reptile skin, the carpeting was melted black, and everything had the noxious smell of burnt plastic. In the bathroom Lindsay found a hammer and a metal tin full of bandages, and in the kitchen she found a Crock-Pot, unscathed, underneath the sink. Like a curator, she wanted to preserve a history; she wanted to protect her family from oblivion. If only she could have found her grandmother’s opal earrings, or uncovered the photograph of her father standing shirtless, holding a small mouth bass they caught off the dock in the Ozarks, then, then Lindsay could have said, We were here. We mattered. I can prove it. But all she salvaged was a metal tin full of bandages, a hammer, and a Crock-Pot.

That evening she stayed at the hospital, sitting next to her father’s bed, holding his hand. She felt how soft and supple his palm had become. With time, his calluses had disappeared, and the bundles of tendon and muscle had loosened. She studied his face, remarking his sunken jowls and grayed hair. The last remaining threads from his days as a brunette were the fringes of his mustache and the faded brown splotches above his sideburns. When did this happen? she wondered. When did my dad get so old? She wanted to touch his chest, his arms, his knees, everything. She wanted to feel if he was soft all over. He looked swollen and mushy, like an overripe tomato sagging heavy on the vine. Two years earlier her mother, Marianne, had suffered a brain aneurysm and died. The death had seemed so sudden at the time, but looking back there was nothing truly unexpected about it. For years Marianne had slowly lost her healthy physique, and her limbs and face grew taut as she dwindled away. Unlike her husband, she tightened as he uncoiled. It was as if the couple was traveling in different directions on the same pendulum, one becoming hard, as the other grew soft.

Their grip relaxed as Wade drifted into sleep. Lindsay began tabulating all of the amenities her father would need at her house: razors, antiperspirant deodorant, digestive aids—she would need to fill his prescriptions again, and then there was the difficult matter of finding clothes in his size. Also, the post office would need to be notified of his change in address, and of course certain friends and members of his church needed phone calls. Countless errands circulated in her head, waking her from the quiet hum of the hospital. With so many important things to do she no longer felt like sitting. As her father’s hand fell from hers, she tried to suppress her excitement at the prospect of redecorating her guest bedroom.

“Then I want to go to my house,” he said, pushing his bowl of oatmeal away.

“You don’t have a house anymore, remember? You live here now.”

She saw his eyes watering. His lips contorted and formed soundless words as he struggled with the reality of things. Lindsay wanted to help him, but how could she?

“Fine. I’ll stay,” he conceded. “Just get rid of them then.”

“They won’t stay much longer, okay? Colleen asked me to take care of them for a little bit because she’s redecorating and her house is too dirty and dangerous for them right now. I’m just doing her a favor.” The lie came out effortlessly. It was morning, and she didn’t need to deal with an argument from her father. He wouldn’t even remember anyway. “Soon as she’s done she said she would take them back. So finish your breakfast for me.”

Not wanting to be heard, Lindsay took the house phone into the bathroom and called her father’s doctor to schedule an appointment for that day, but the receptionist informed her that the next available opening wasn’t until the following Thursday.

“But my father really needs to see his doctor,” she urged.

“Well, is it an emergency?” she asked.

The receptionist’s voice reminded her of someone famous, but Lindsay couldn’t recall who it was. Maybe her mind really was slipping. I should start eating more nuts, she thought, and fish. Fish and nuts were supposed to be good for the brain.

“I don’t know,” Lindsay muttered. “Yes.”

“If it’s an emergency, then you need to take your father to the E.R.”

“Never mind.”

“Never mind scheduling an appointment, or never mind that it’s an emergency?” the receptionist asked.

“Never mind that it’s an emergency. Mira Sorvino!” Lindsay cried. “Did anyone ever tell you that you sound like Mira Sorvino?”

“But I’m not black.”

“Mira Sorvino is white,” Lindsay explained.

“Then I don’t know who that is.”

Lindsay scheduled the Thursday appointment and hung up the phone. Telling the receptionist that she sounded like Mira Sorvino made Lindsay feel like her father. He loved saying weird things in front of strangers. As a kid she dreaded bringing friends over for the first time, knowing that he’d ask them something odd like, “Why doesn’t Lindsay bring over more nice boys like you? Aren’t you on the football team? Look at those shoulders. Of course you are. I bet you could lift me over your head,” or, “This jacket is made from one hundred percent squirrel fur. Warmest jacket I ever bought,” or, “Are you Jewish? The first girl I ever kissed was Jewish.” And when they went out to eat as a family, Wade had always flirted with their waitress, asking personal questions and cracking jokes, but Lindsay had hated it and hated her mother for her quiet complacency.

Standing in the bathroom, Lindsay realized that all of her father’s joking wasn’t intended to ridicule or offend. It was just his way of being friendly. She brushed her teeth and put her makeup on and then called Darien to see if he could watch Wade while she went to work.

“Can’t Colleen do it?” he asked.

“No, she can’t. She’s already watched him twice this week. Three times is too many.”

“You know,” he said, sighing into the receiver, “you shouldn’t be the only one taking care of him. He should be somewhere that has more than one person helping out…somewhere nice,” he added.

“You’re only saying this right now because you don’t want to do me a favor. Forget it. Just forget that I even asked. Forget everything, because I’m just going to go in the garage and turn on the car, roll down the windows and…”

“I’ll come, I’ll come,” he said. “Okay?”

“Okay.”

By the time Darien made it over Lindsay had already left for work. He walked into the living room and saw Wade sitting on the blue couch, watching an episode of The Nanny, and said hello. Without looking away from the television screen, Wade flicked his hand up by his head, as if batting a mosquito away from his ear. The volume was up too high to be certain, but Darien thought the old man had shushed him.

On the kitchen table Darien found a twenty-dollar bill and a note:

Darien,

Thanks for coming over. I left you guys some money for lunch, so have fun. Remember Wade isn’t allowed to use the stove or the oven. Also, look inside the tote bins by the entertainment center. It’s a surprise!

-Lindsay

P.S. Sorry for being melodramatic earlier.

From the fridge he took out some deli ham and a single slice of American cheese, neatly enveloped in its own plastic wrapping. He pressed the point of his prosthetic hook against the slice of cheese, and with his other hand he peeled back the cellophane.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” Wade asked.

“Jesus Christ,” Darien shouted. “How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough. What are you doing in here?”

“I’m making a sandwich,” Darien said.

“This isn’t your food. You can’t just barge in here and help yourself. You need to ask permission. Don’t you know anything?”

“Before you moved in I used to help myself to a lot more than just sandwiches,” Darien whispered.

“What was that?”

“I said, ‘Would you like a sandwich?’”

“Yes, I would.”

While Darien made another sandwich, Wade filled a bowl full of potato chips and poured two glasses of milk, insisting that a sandwich wasn’t a meal without some chips and milk. They sat down to eat, and Wade kept smiling at Darien, telling him that he needed to eat more chips and that he should have some ice cream afterwards. Darien felt bad for saying that crack about helping himself. He couldn’t even remember the last time he and Lindsay had had sex. In the beginning that’s all they did, but after the house burned down and Wade moved in, Lindsay cooled off. She said she felt weird about doing it while her father was in the same house. They’d lie in bed under the sheets, and she’d worry about Wade hearing them: “But his TV is on. What if he is still up?” Even if Darien could talk her into it she still couldn’t get comfortable enough to really enjoy herself, never could feel safe enough to lose control.

Eating his sandwich, Darien wondered if they had had sex in this room before. He remembered the times in the bathroom, remembered watching himself in the large oval mirror above the sink, which was stained green with toothpaste spit. Maybe their naked images had been reflected on the metallic doors of the fridge. Practically every appliance in the kitchen had a reflective sheen. He could have looked at the stainless steel toaster, or the dishwasher, or the oven, and seen himself fucking.

“So Lindsay tells me she has a surprise by the entertainment center. You know anything about that?” Darien asked.

“It’s her stupid guinea pigs,” he said.

“She bought guinea pigs?”

“Yeah,” Wade said. “I’ll show you.”

Darien followed Wade to the living room, and as Wade reached down into one of the tote bins and pulled out a Kleenex box, a tightly curled hedgehog rolled out from the cutout opening and rolled out and dropped three feet, plopping down onto a pile of shredded newspaper.

“Oops,” Wade said.

“Hey, it’s a hedgehog. I guess that’s kind of interesting.”

“You like these things?” Wade asked.

“No. Not really. My little cousin used to have one. All it did was burrow, eat, and sleep. They don’t even like being held. They’re actually pretty shitty pets.”

“Then it’d be okay if I let them free outside?”

“Maybe later. Right now why don’t you and I get out of this house and do something. Anything you want.”

“I want to go bowling,” he said.

“Let’s go bowling.”

A light mist fell as they drove through the Schaumburg shopping district. The weatherman on the radio spoke of scattered showers, high winds, and a chance of flurries later in the evening. Looking out into the horizon, Wade couldn’t distinguish land from sky, and he drifted into sleep as the stretching expanse of grey concrete converged into the overcast above. Darien pulled into the Fox Valley Bowling parking lot and nudged Wade awake. “We’re here.” Across the street at the Mitsubishi dealership, a large inflatable gorilla jostled in the wind, pulling hard against the cables securing it to the ground, and tied to the lampposts were red banners advertising “Zero Percent A.P.R.” The sound of their flapping reverberated over the hum of oncoming traffic.

They walked into the bowling alley and breathed in the familiar smells of grease, cigarette ash, and floor wax. The enormity of the place took Wade by surprise. There were thirty well-polished lanes, and at the other end of the building there was an arcade full of old videogames: Mappy and Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man and The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants—the air hockey table had an “out of order” sign on it.

At the front desk they told a potbellied, baldheaded man their shoe sizes. He retrieved a pair of thirteens for Wade and a pair of tens for Darien. Wade glanced at Darien’s shoes and asked him, “Is that it?”

“That’s what I wear.”

Wade shook his head and grabbed his shoes. The man behind the front desk asked, “Do you guys need to play bumper bowling? It’s the same price as regular bowling.”

“Why would we need to play with bumpers?” Darien responded.

“I don’t know why. Just thought you might.”

“Well we don’t.”

They changed into their shoes and then walked along the rows of stacked bowling balls, methodically testing the finger holes while checking for the proper weight. They brought back several to their lane, all of them black except for a marbled blue and white beauty that Wade had found.

“If you type our names into that computer, I’ll get us a couple of beers,” Wade said.

“But it’s only eleven o’clock.

“But we’re bowling.”

While Wade went to the bar, Darien typed in the name WAD for Player 1 and DIRK for Player 2. Wade returned with two bottles of Budweiser.

“Who’s Wad?” Wade asked.

“You’re Wad.”

“No, I’m not. I’m Wade. Change it.”

“Fine,” Darien said. “But I’m keeping Dirk.”

The old man’s first attempt went right into the gutter. The mechanical pinsetter lifted the unmoved pins and swept the area, then placed them back in the same spot. Wade’s second toss veered left and hugged the edge of the gutter, just barely missing the outside pin. The sixteen-pound ball Darien chose wobbled in his hand as he held it upright. He pressed his prosthesis against the ball for a little support, but the metal tips kept sliding off the slick surface. Going into his back swing he felt his fingers slipping, and as his arm came forward the ball came out and banged against the floor, bouncing a few times down the alley before falling into the gutter. He looked at the front desk and saw the baldheaded shoehop watching him. Before his ball could return he grabbed the marbled blue and white one and hurled it as hard as he could, knocking down eight pins.

Through five frames Darien had 41 points and Wade had only 17, but on the sixth frame Wade threw a slow roller down the middle for a strike. Right after that Darien almost repeated the feat, but one whirling pin in the back row managed to steady itself and didn’t tumble. On his second chance he made the spare.

Darien was in the bathroom when Wade scored his second consecutive strike. When he came back Wade had a big silly grin on his face, clearly proud of something, which made Darien suspect that the old man had stolen something. But then he saw the two X’s up on the scorecard.

“You didn’t.”

“I did,” Wade said.

Wanting to regain the lead, Darien put all of his weight behind his release, rocketing the ball down the lane and straight into the gutter, wasting his previous spare. He turned around in disgust, feeling a strain in his shoulder. As soon as the pinsetter replaced the pins, he threw another hard one, smacking three pins over.

“You’re throwing it too hard,” Wade suggested.

“Shut up.”

Taking a long sip from his beer, Wade rose from his seat lightheaded, and keeping all of his attention on the floor so as not to lose balance and fall, Wade shuffled to the line and threw his third strike in a row without even aiming. Darien watched in disbelief as all ten pins slowly toppled over each other. Red faced and unenthused, Wade plopped down in his chair.

“You just threw three strikes in a row?”

“That’s called a turkey,” Wade panted.

“I know what it’s called,” Darien said. “Are you even with it right now?”

“Can we go?”

“No. We can’t. We’re not done yet.”

Wade struggled to complete the game and had to rest his eyes in between his last four straight gutterballs. He finished with a score of 107, beating Darien’s 93. In the parking lot Wade grabbed for Darien’s arm as a strong gust of wind came blowing through. The employees at the Mitsubishi dealership were outside scrambling around the giant gorilla, trying to corral the loose cables dangling in the air, and someone kept screaming, “Deflate it! Deflate it!”

Driving back home, Darien saw Wade sleeping with his mouth open, but didn’t hear any breathing noises. Afraid that he had killed his girlfriend’s father, he called out Wade’s name. He didn’t move. Darien knew he shouldn’t have made him finish those last two frames. Could he go to jail for this? That fat, bald guy at the front desk would probably testify against him, telling the police that he saw both of them drinking beer, and despite the older gentleman’s complaints of nausea and fatigue, the handicapped fellow had forced him to keep playing—the toxicology report would corroborate everything! Darien pulled over to the side of the road and jabbed him in the ribs to see if he was still alive. The tired old man moaned and shifted in his seat.

Darien couldn’t shake that fright for the rest of the afternoon. Believing that he had killed Wade got him thinking about Lindsay and their relationship. There was no way she would have stayed with him if Wade had actually died, Darien decided. Even if it weren’t really his fault, she would always see him as the boyfriend that helped kill her dad. No matter how many dinners he’d make or dishes he’d clean, somewhere in the back of her mind she’d think, if only he hadn’t given him that beer, if only he hadn’t brought him bowling, if only he hadn’t been so irresponsible, then my father would still be alive.

Darien wanted some time away from Wade. He took a bag of chips and a can of salsa into Lindsay’s room and ate them on her bed, directly violating one of her house rules. He wasn’t even hungry, just bored. Flipping through the channels, he stopped on a show called Wife Swap, where two mothers trade homes for two weeks and live with radically different families. The episode he watched showed a bleached blonde housewife from Bel Air shoveling shit on a Wisconsin dairy farm. Darien wished he could do something like a wife swap.

He went into the kitchen to make some chocolate milk, and through the window he saw Wade out in the backyard with two plastic tote bins. Together, Peanut and Quillow took their first cautious steps on the cold ground, slowly wandering side-by-side into the unknown. The distant bark of a neighborhood dog sent them scurrying in different directions; one headed for the patch of woods behind the yard while the other sought refuge under the azaleas.

Darien heard the garage door opening and rushed back into Lindsay’s bed before she got in the house. He closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. When Lindsay found her father outside she smacked him on the shoulder and yelled, “What did you do? Where are they?”

“They’re gone,” he said.

“Why would you do that?”

“Don’t be mad, Linds. They’re wild creatures. They like it out here.”

“If you don’t find them you can’t live here anymore,” she threatened.

Walking in her heels, Lindsay searched through the woods behind her house, while Wade checked under the azaleas. She tiptoed around the soggy earth and found a deflated rubber basketball behind a oak tree that hadn’t sprouted leaves in the last two springs. Bill Eggleseder had suggested cutting it down and making firewood out of it. He always had something to say. It wasn’t even her property.

The frigid air stung her face, and every small rock or clump of dirt looked like a furled hedgehog. This is pointless, she thought. A fallen branch scraped against Lindsay’s leg, tearing her new pantyhose. She threw down her purse and said, Fuck. She had just bought them last week. Heading back to the house, she told Wade that he couldn’t come inside until he found her pets. She considered locking the door behind her but realized that that was too much.

“Wake up,” she said, standing over her bed.

Darien opened his eyes halfway and mumbled, “Huh? Lindsay?”

“My dad let the hedgehogs outside, and I can’t find them.”

“No he didn’t,” he gasped. “Oh my god. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. Not entirely.”

She lay in bed next to him.

“You were right, though,” she said. “I can’t take care of him. I’m just not enough. He needs supervision. He should be living somewhere that has him on a routine. Somewhere that has him doing activities with other people his own age. All he does here is sit and stare. I swear I can feel him rotting. Am I a bad daughter?”

“No way. This is the best option for everyone. You’ll see. He’ll be happier being around more people, and we’ll be able to do whatever we want. We could travel.”

“Like where?”

“Anywhere. Greece, Brazil, Indiana. Anywhere.”

She rolled over to hug him and felt the jagged edge of a tortilla crumb.

“We’re you eating in bed?” she asked.

“No.”

Lindsay and Wade sat on the porch steps facing the sunset. Yellow shafts of light beamed from the West, and the clouds massed above changed from grey to a soft violet. She imagined herself travelling to Europe and Asia, eating at restaurants and laughing over the mispronounced dishes she ordered. She wanted to go somewhere warm. Maybe Costa Rica. Back by the azalea bushes, Lindsay thought she saw something moving but couldn’t quite tell. She didn’t feel like looking around anymore.

“Let’s go inside, Dad. I want to talk.”

This entry was posted on Friday, March 18, 2011 at 9:46 PM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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March 19, 2011 at 5:17 PM

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