by Laurie Rockenbeck
Bob’s daydreams alternated between finding Suzi dead in their bed, choked on her own vomit, and coming home to her dressed like Donna Reed, the house swept clean of their real life. It was tempting to drive past their house, out of the valley, and across Interstate 80. Find a job at a shop in Elko. Or Winnemucca. Somewhere nobody asked who you were or who you used to be. Where he could be left alone fixing ailing cars.
How’d that poem go? About the two roads in the woods? Some uplifting shit to make you feel good about doing something different? Bob had ended up going one way, all right, but Suzi? She’d refused to follow. Not like he’d chosen the path so much as it’d been chosen for him, but still, he was on it and feeling good about it.
“Look,” the public defender had said during their singular, ten-minute interaction, “your rich daddy got you out of trouble your whole fucking life. Now that he’s dead and you don’t have his money behind you, you’re like everyone else. Up a creek. No paddle. Take the plea. You’ll get off with probation and a county-paid-for treatment program. If you fight these charges? You’ll serve time. Hard time.”
The dude was talking tough to impress, but Bob focused on the words hard time. A couple nights in jail had been more than enough, thank you very much. So, he’d glommed onto the free advice, and surprise, surprise, embracing sobriety was working for him. He’d kept a solid job for a couple years now. White knuckling it, sure, but he was going to stay sober no matter what. If it weren’t for the Antabuse, though, he wouldn’t have made it, not with Suzi still drinking all the time. Fucking drug kept him from drinking, but it also kept him from getting it up. Gave Suzi ammunition to rip his self-esteem to shreds in bed, until she passed out, anyway.
Bob parked the El Camino as close as he could to the house and ground his cigarette out in the overflowing ashtray, then lit another. He leaned over the steering wheel to focus on the faint squeal coming from up front. Nearly 200K on this engine meant it required regular attention. Except for the fading orange exterior—there wasn’t much he could do about the sun—it was in decent shape.
The curtains flickered apart. Suzi was awake, waiting inside, and she’d heard him drive up. Did she even care he was home, or was she only interested in the booze she expected? He’d left two beers in the fridge that morning, barely enough to keep her from going nuts during the day. No way had she gone out to get any on her own. Agoraphobia, the doctor called it. A fancy name for being so wasted she was afraid to go out. Except she was even more afraid without the booze. The sky, she said, was a looming hole in the sky, ready to snap her up off the ground and swallow her.
The six-pack of Coors sat on the floor in front of the passenger seat along with the wilted roses he’d bought last minute, when the calendar behind the checkout stand had caught his eye. The red Xs filled every date in the month so far. A big green circle surrounded the last day at the end of the week.
“What’s happening on Saturday?” Bob asked.
“Getting married and moving the fuck away from here,” the clerk said. “You married?”
“Yeah,” Bob said, adding the flowers to the beer on the counter. “Today’s our anniversary.”
The clerk rang him up. “Hope you got her more than these shitty flowers.”
He held up the Coors in response. “She don’t expect much from me.”
* * *
All four garage doors opened to the hot, dry sun, exposing the cars Bob was actively working on, parts and equipment spilling out onto the driveway. Another dozen cars were crammed in along the side of the garage and overflowed onto the street, waiting their turn for his touch. His side business, until he could afford a shop of his own. The Mustang took up the bay closest to the house. Parked deep inside, not an inch was exposed to the harsh Nevada sun. A 1968 beauty he’d bought from a chump down the street and completely cherried out.
After spending a year of Sundays working on it, the Mustang’s engine ran as smooth as the day it was built. The chrome was polished bright, and the fresh coat of factory-original paint gleamed. When he’d cranked the engine for the first time two months ago, it had roared to life, and Bob’s entire being leapt with the kind of joy you could only get when bringing something back from the dead. A collector was ready to hand over twelve grand for it. Bob would net eight from the deal. Enough to buy some freedom––freedom from pain and Suzi. A few more hours of work and he’d be done. His fingers itched to caress the smooth satin finish, to grasp the freshly oiled, leather-wrapped steering wheel, to lift the hood to the gleaming refurbished engine.
Bob turned off the El Camino and slid a hand into a cardboard box held in place by the ripped upholstery of the passenger seat. Little legs with tiny barbs latched onto his fingers and climbed up his wrist, teeth nibbled ferociously, yet with a delicacy only possible for young kittens. Two tabbies, oblivious to the permanent layer of engine oil and grease, wrestled against his blackened hand.
“Come on now,” he said. They fell off his fingers, wobbling on their hind legs before tumbling over backwards, paws and tummies up.
He shoved the car door open, its loud squawk announcing his presence to the dogs who set up their welcome howls. He swiveled to get his weight onto his right foot, hauling himself up. Bolts of pain radiated in all directions in his left leg, from his knee, up his thigh, and down through every toe. After a few deep breaths, he reached for the box of kittens, the bundle of half-dead pink roses he’d picked up at the gas station, and the six-pack, now dripping with condensation.
Years of kneeling on concrete and climbing around cars had turned his knee into mush. His shop didn’t offer any benefits, and he’d never had any kind of health insurance. Besides, it was all a giant precondition thing going back decades. The money from the Mustang would cover some of the surgery. The surgeon was willing to work with him on payments for some of it, while writing off most of his fee as a cash discount.
Suzi had offered to shoot Bob in the knee, to turn it into an emergency so the hospital couldn’t turn him away. Emergency surgery would fix him up, she said, and they didn’t have the money, so what could the hospital do about it anyway?
She’d lined up their guns on the counter in some bizarre scale of hit points, as if shooting his knee was a move from Dungeons & Dragons. She had a point, though. The hospital couldn’t take money they didn’t have. But he wasn’t sure they’d actually fix his knee if he showed up with a bullet in it. They might just remove the bullet and send him home, worse off than he already was. And shooting someone, even with permission, got police involved.
Bob lifted his face to the clear blue sky, soaked in a moment of sunshine and fresh air. They say Montana is big-sky country, but whoever they are, they must never have been to Nevada. The sky was a painter’s palette from nearly white around the corolla of the sun to a dark, rich azure as the sky touched the mountains around him, the oranges and browns of the desert terrain in contrast. The sagebrush, or Russian olive, or maybe the sun, made him sneeze.
Bob could stand there on one side of the door, basking in the sun for hours, and Suzi would never come out to him. Last time she’d been through the front door was when he’d coaxed her out for Christmas dinner six months before. He’d parked the car up close and held up an umbrella, shielding her from the vast openness.
Once at his mom’s house, he’d carried her in while his brother held the umbrella. The drive over had unnerved her so much she couldn’t get up the courage to walk twenty feet from the curb to the door. She sat as far from the large glass windows as possible and drank herself into oblivion. Halfway through Christmas dinner, she’d accused his mother of putting poison in her drink because it tasted funny, yelled at his sister for being such a snot-nosed brat, and threatened his three-year-old niece with a beating if she didn't stop staring at her. Suzi might have been right about the last two, but they didn’t need to be said out loud.
“Suzi? Open the door, will you? My hands are full.”
The dogs let up a new round of howls when the door screeched open.
“Shut up, you assholes.” Suzi stepped backward into the entryway as if the light from the front door might melt her. “Why are you so late?”
“Can't I even get inside?”
“You sat in the car a long time.”
“I brought you roses. And beer.” He held them out to her.
She took the beer and roses, looked in the box. “More kittens? You've got to be kidding.”
“Just two. I’ve already named them. Bayta and Toran.”
“Of course you did.” Her voice was slurred. If he lit a match, her breath would burst into flames.
“Jesus. Where’d you get the booze? That ain’t beer I’m smelling.”
She laughed and twirled away, too happy.
He followed her through the living room with its closed curtains and dense layers of dust and sleeping cats draped over the furniture. Layers of cat hair entwined with the dust to create a fuzzy finish on the coffee table. He stroked a cat or two on his way into the kitchen.
The filtered western light coming in through the windows showed a cleaner space. The floor was washed, and the smoky crust that usually covered the windows was wiped away, leaving intermittent streaks. The counters were free of dishes, and ten fresh bowls of cat food were lined up along the closed side of the sliding glass door that led to the patio outside. Three of the more skittish cats abandoned their efforts and disappeared down the hallway. Lazy Tom looked up from the bowl in front of him and swished his tail before resuming his slow crunching.
Two of their dogs scratched and whined at the sliding door, their wet noses leaving hopeful imprints.
“Hang on a sec.” Bob held up a hand, and they both sat, tilting their heads the patient way dogs do.
Suzi slammed through the cupboards and hauled out a vase. Her exaggerated movements were floppy and imprecise. She couldn’t have gotten this looped on two beers. No way. She jammed the roses into the vase, plastic wrap still on, and centered it on the table. It was set with matching plates, real china not paper, placemats, napkins. Fancy.
“So, is this it? A few pink roses and more cats? You know that means more work for me, right? You know that.”
“Ah, c’mon. You love them as much as I do.”
Neighbors had learned that if they dropped their kittens at Bob’s garage, someone took them away—a mutually anonymous exchange. He could stop drinking and smoking dope, but he couldn't stop himself from bringing home kittens. With these new additions to their family, they now had fifty-seven. Bob took them each to the vet as soon as they were the right age. Got them fixed and kept their shots up to date. It wasn't cost effective, what with the food and the vet bills, but what else could he do?
He’d even converted the second biggest bedroom to a cat haven. An assortment of cat perches covered in various carpeting and rope took up most of the room, creating a deluxe cat jungle gym. Four litterboxes in each corner offered the cats varying levels of privacy to do their thing.
Two cat doors leading to the backyard gave them access to the outside. Still, the house reeked of cat urine only vaguely subdued by the constant clouds of cigarette smoke and dog.
After a cat escaped the yard and was hit by a car, Bob had built an eight-foot-high wall around the perimeter with chicken wire across the top. He planted creeping vines and coaxed them into a cover, creating a sort of safety net for Suzi.
It was a crapshoot, though, his bringing home kittens. Most of the time, Suzi would melt and cuddle the little fur balls for a few hours while drinking her beer, and then she’d pass out. Sometimes she’d look at them, get pissed, and start ranting and raving about becoming one of those crazy old cat ladies. For years, she collected the cat hair to spin into yarn. Dozens of paper grocery sacks overflowing with collected hair lined one wall of her craft room, stacked high and gathering a thick layer of dust.
Seeing this was not one of Suzi’s cuddle days, Bob said, “I’ll put the kittens in the back room. Get them settled in.”
Bob took his time settling the kittens into the cat room and returned to the kitchen.
She teetered over a salad, tossing it with more vigor than was necessary, bits of lettuce flying out of the bowl and dropping onto the counter.
“You need a hand?” There were tiny pieces of tomato and cucumber in the salad. It was amazing she hadn’t stabbed herself while chopping them. “I’ll get some water on the table.”
Before he could get to the cupboard, she waved him off. “No. No. I’ve got it. You sit down and rest your knee. Looks like it’s hurting.”
Warily, he dropped into his usual chair and lifted his aching knee onto the one next to it. It did feel good. Her boozy good mood set him on edge.
Suzi ripped a can out of the six-pack of beer and pushed the tab in hard, held it up. “Cheers. Happy anniversary to us, eh?” She guzzled it down, tilting her head back to get every drop.
Bob watched her neck undulate as she swallowed. Years ago, he would have pressed his lips against her neck, tickled her with his beard. Tasted the beer in her mouth. Shared in it. His mouth watered a little, and then the nausea kicked in. Damn. Just thinking about drinking made him want to puke.
She wiped her lips with the back of her hand and closed her eyes. The powder-blue eye shadow she wore in a thick layer all the way up to her thinning eyebrows clumped along the crease of her eyelids. Reality blended with memory. Her hair transformed back into golden silk cascading down her smooth back. The lines around her eyes smoothed, and he could almost see his old Suzi again. She sighed dramatically, as if she were on stage, and the mirage shimmered and disappeared.
“Damn, I love me some beer.” She giggled.
And, her smile was wide. Too wide. There was a trap here, but damned if he could figure it out yet.
She spun around and pulled molten lasagna out of the oven, almost tripping over the door. Bob couldn’t move fast enough if he tried, but she righted herself without spilling the bubbling pasta or burning herself, swiveled around, and slid the pan onto the table.
Bob’s knee throbbed. Getting back up was beyond him. He craved cold, syrupy tea—–the one thing Suzi consistently made and kept on hand. He licked his dry cracked lips. “Mind pouring me some tea?”
“Oh, sure. Of course, my darling. Let me get the rest on the table.”
He watched in confused anticipation as she put the salad next to the lasagna and the remaining cans of beer next to her plate. Then, she retrieved the large Tupperware container filled with fresh tea from the refrigerator and started toward a large glass next to his place at the table.
When she moved to pour the tea for him, he held up a hand. “I’ve got it.” He wasn’t sure she could do it without tea overflowing into the lasagna.
She popped open another can of beer and held up a hand to stop him from drinking. “First, a toast.”
A toast? Now, this was getting weird. “Sure. Why not?” He held up his glass, not sure if she was going to crash hers into his or if she was serious.
“I know we’ve had our rough times,” Suzi said, lifting her beer toward the center of the table. “But I really think we can make it work, Bobby. I love you so, so much. You know that, right?”
He could barely make out her slurred words. Was this how they both used to sound? Confused. Sloppy drunk?
“I’ve never stopped loving you, Suzi,” he said, knowing he was expected to say something. I don’t like you much these days, though. He didn’t say that part out loud.
“Here’s hoping we have another happy ten years together. To the future.” She tapped her beer can against his glass, gently, almost caressing it before taking a swig. She tilted her head expectantly. “How’s the iced tea? Did I get it right?”
Bob took a long, greedy gulp, craving the sweet sugar. Swallowed before the betrayal registered. Stopped, his mouth full of burning booze cloaked by the color of tea—tantalizing and taunting against his palate. Spit it onto his plate.
“What the fuck?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t like it.” She eyed him under hooded lids, her voice sultry.
“Jesus Christ, Suzi. You know this shit will make me sick. Where’s the rest of it?” He forced himself into a standing position. Rushed at the cupboards. Found it in the freezer. One of those big bottles of Crown Royal, what was left of it, anyway. He grasped it by the neck and shoved it in her face. “Why would you do this to me?”
“Oh, come on, Bobby. It’ll make you feel better.”
“How did you get this?”
“Drink it. You know you want to.”
His stomach turned and twisted. How much had he swallowed? Was it enough to make the Antabuse kick in?
“Who brought it?”
She sighed with all the drama left in her. “Gigi and Hook came by. It’s an anniversary gift.”
Bob filled a glass of water and downed it, hoping that diluting what was in his stomach would help. He gagged and coughed.
“Did you call them? Ask them to bring it?” Cowards. Going behind his back.
“No. They just know it’s your favorite. I asked them to stay. Celebrate with us, but they had to be somewhere.” She put her face close to his, pouted. “Come on, honey? Let’s just celebrate this one time. It’s our anniversary. You can drink this once. With me, baby.”
He pushed her away. “Stop it.”
“You know you miss it. You miss me, too, don’t you?” She came at him again, two hands reaching for his belt buckle. “Remember?”
He hobbled out of her reach, opened the bottle, and dropped it neck down into the garbage disposal. It glugged while it emptied.
“What are you doing?” Suzi held onto the sink and watched, her mouth open.
Bob grabbed the remaining beers, popped them open one by one, and dumped them into the sink next to the whiskey. The booze fizzed and swirled in nausea-inducing whirlpools.
“No. Jesus Christ.” Panicked now, Suzi grabbed at the beers, but she was too drunk.
She looked at the emptying sink, then back at Bob. Her mouth moved without making any sounds. She yanked open the junk drawer. Rummaged through string, batteries, and papers. Paper clips and rubber bands scattered onto the linoleum. A cat pounced on a rubber band and tumbled away with it. Suzi stopped and turned around with a gun in her hands.
“Oh, fuck,” Bob said, his attention on Susie in a way it hadn't been in years. She had picked a gun ranking high in pain infliction. One he’d modified that was still rough around the edges, his metalwork on it not so great.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll show you,” Suzi said. “You summabitch.” She stumbled away from him down the hallway. Toward the garage door. “I’ll show you.”
At first, Bob was relieved she hadn’t shot him, but then he was filled with more dread knowing what she was going to do. Ignoring the pain screeching from his knee, he hobbled after her. But even in her drunken state, she was faster than he was.
She wrenched the door to the garage open.
“No. Suzi, don’t. No.”
She tossed him a look over his shoulder and fired. One. Two. Three. Loud, explosive shots one after another. He lunged after her, awkwardly swinging his bum leg in a wide arch to keep it as straight as possible.
“Fucking bitch. My Mustang?”
She turned to face him, lifted the gun. “How’d you like that, huh, mister?”
Bob pushed off his right leg, throwing himself at her and pushing the gun up and away. Another round went off into the ceiling. The dogs fell into a frenzy of barking. And Bob and Suzi were on the floor, rolling, fighting, both of them trying to get on top. Him trying to get the gun away from her, her trying to aim it back at him. He wrenched the gun out of her hand. She rolled away, howling in pain.
“Look. Look at my hand.” She rolled onto her knees, thrusting her hand at his face. A large gash down the center of her palm oozed red, her skin ripped open by the rough metal edges of the gun. She cupped her hand. Blood pooled and filled her hand. Then it dripped from the crease near her pinky, one drop at a time, falling to the blue linoleum floor.
“You bastard. Look what you've done.” She scooted to her feet and ran into the kitchen.
Bob rolled onto his back, trying to calm the agony in his leg. The dogs raced back and forth along the back of the house, stopping to look inside the kitchen. He was afraid to look at the damage she’d done. To the car. To herself. To them.
The most magical moment of his life was when his dad had held him up to look under the hood of a car—his father’s Ford. Love at first sight. Even that young, he could see all the connections between the tubes and wires and plugs and valves and belts. It was like a spirit swept into his being and gave him this thing he just knew. His dad called him an engine savant. The only thing that always and completely gelled with him was cars.
Engines shouted out their complaints, speaking in a language he could understand. Those little grinding noises, little sputters, and squeals of pain as clear to him as the sky was cloudless. At least that was how it used to be. Before fuel-injected engines. Before computers. Just plug the poor car up to an impersonal box and get a list of what was wrong? How was that a way to work on a car?
“Dying breed,” his boss had said. He was pointing to an older car in the lot, but he was looking at Bob when he said it. “Computers are the future. Get used to it.”
Now, he could almost hear whimpers from the Mustang. Something was busted and leaking thick, oozing liquid onto the garage floor.
Suzi’s voice penetrated the waves of pain in his head. “Yeah, it's an emergency all right. My husband just hurt me. I’m bleeding.”
She was talking to a 911 operator. Bob worked himself into an upright position and removed the clip from the gun.
“He’s just sitting on his ass, playing with the gun.”
Great. Now they knew two things: a woman was hurt and a man had a gun. Bob laughed. The situation had gotten so out of hand so fast.
“Stop laughing, you summabitch.” Suzy held the phone against her chest, glaring at him. Each time she moved, she wrapped the harvest-gold cord around her body, like a cocoon. “My hand is bleeding. My nice, clean floor. Can’t you send somebody over here to take this asshole away?”
Bob slid up the wall and onto his feet. Lurched toward her.
“Yeah, I got a towel around here somewhere. Don't really want to get blood all over it, though.”
Bob handed Suzi a roll of paper towels. She pulled it to her chest with her bloody hand. The blood soaked into the roll of paper sheets, a macabre red outline. The tagline from the TV commercial kicked in. The quicker picker upper.
“Well yeah, I can tell you exactly what happened.” Susie slurred into the phone. Words like gun and summabitch and shot and blood mingled with her sobs and angry shouts.
An obese, yellow-striped tomcat twined around Bob's good leg, like he knew Bob needed his comforting purrs. Bob bent down and hefted the cat into his arms, pressed the sweet rumble against his chest. This one had a deep, throaty roar, a living Harley. Bob snuggled his face against the cat’s neck.
The wail of sirens sent the dogs into a renewed barking ruckus. A neighbor must have called in the first shots. Being out front would probably be a good thing.
Bob hobbled outside. He left the door open but closed the screen door so the cats couldn’t escape. He listened to the approaching sirens and looked at the cars under his care. Those pieces of metal and rubber and plastic. The smell of their oil and gasoline grounded him and gave him courage. They’d be here forever. They’d wait for him, for however long that might be. Understand him and talk to him always.
Suzi was still inside the kitchen, talking to the operator. Telling them about what an awful husband he was. Maybe he had been a bad husband. Maybe he shouldn’t have kept bringing booze home for her every night. Maybe he shoulda kept drinking with her.
The sirens were on his street now. He laid the gun down on the ground in front of him, stepped away from the door, and laced his fingers on top of his head. Then, he waited.
As a private investigator with a background in journalism, Laurie Rockenbeck takes notes on human behavior and the darker side of humanity to fuel her fiction. Her work features Seattle’s only transgender homicide detective and a pro dom turned PI. She holds an MFA from UC Riverside, Palm Desert. When not writing, Laurie knits, cooks, reads, and spends time with her family.