Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fiction: Christian McPherson

Neutral

1st

While gingerly cutting cubes of SPAM, Sophie swayed her hips in time with the Bee Gees as they sang about staying alive from the tiny, but loud, speakers of the iPod docking station. The music was putting her into the proper state of mind, or so she felt. She was wearing a frilly green polyester blouse and extraordinarily tight orange slacks that flared at the knees into bellbottoms the size of traffic pylons. The whole outfit smelled vaguely of mothballs and she now regretted not washing it before dressing up. But there was no time now, the guests were due to arrive in the next hour and there was still much to do. She’d already finished the tray of devilled eggs, the platter of Cheese Whiz and peanut butter laden celery sticks, and was now completing the prep for her centrepiece. When all the chopping was completed she took to skewering the greyish pink hunks of meat onto cellophane tipped toothpicks complete with either a green olive, a chunk of canned pineapple, or a pickled pearl onion. She then affixed these horrid looking hors d’oeuvres to a dark purple eggplant, the bottom cut off for stability.

Stabbing them on, she felt a great satisfaction, like she was jabbing pins into a voodoo doll. As she was finishing and admiring her work, Eric walked in wearing a replica of the white suit John Travolta had worn in “Saturday Night Fever” and a red Santa hat atop his head.

“Oh my God, it’s hideous,” said Eric.

“I know, isn’t it just so gross,” squealed Sophie in delight, “I googled 70s appetizers and found it.”

As she turned to face him, her smile grew even bigger seeing his outfit.

“You look hilarious!” she shrieked.

“And you look like a sexy piece of 70s Christmas ass,” he said as he grabbed her around the waist, cupping her bottom. Her smile involuntarily fell away and he immediately released his grip. They’d made love for the first time in six months only two nights prior, after which she’d cried. During their sexual hiatus, Eric had slept in the study. They’d told the kids it was because of his bad back, however they both suspected that Jennie, at age 12 and the eldest of their two daughters, knew the truth. Even though Sophie had said she’d forgiven him, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Eric calling from the airport hotel saying he was going to grab a quick beer with, Glen, his boss, down at the bar, then head to bed. “Goodnight” he’d said, but had he said, “I love you?” Yes, she was sure he had, and that made it even more bitterly awful.

And off he’d gone to the bar. One beer turned into a half dozen and that’s where he’d met her, the airline stewardess. God, what a fucking cliché, a fucking airline stewardess. He confessed it while the kids were at her mother’s for the weekend, where they were now. He’d said that the guilt was eating him up. Had he eaten her up?

He moved back to the living room to finish hanging his posters of Farrah Fawcett, Jaws, and Star Wars. She felt guilty about her reaction, but she couldn’t help it, the wound still hadn’t healed. She didn’t know if it ever would, if it ever could.

They’d always been known as the fun couple - the couple that always threw the parties: the ugly Christmas sweater party; the crazy hat party; the murder mystery night. They’d even gotten married on Halloween dressed as Frankenstein and The Bride. Tonight’s event was the first party they’d hosted in close to a year. Sophie missed being that person with Eric, missed being that couple. Tonight’s bash was about to get underway and Sophie was determined to put on a good show.

2nd

Sophie opened the door to the grinning face of Linda Clark, her friend of ten years. Linda thrust her arms out, presenting her gift - a saran wrapped loaf of Christmas cake.

“Thanks,” said Sophie taking the fruit cake, “Come in, come in. Let me take your coat.”

“Oh my God! Where did you find that outfit? And your hair, oh I love your hair!” screamed Linda.

“Thanks sweetie, where’s Dan?”

“He had to work late, he’ll be here soon. I couldn’t find anything to wear so I recycled the ugly Christmas sweater. Sorry, I’m lame.”

It was Linda to whom Sophie had first confessed Eric’s infidelity, or at least that’s what it felt like to Sophie, a confession, although she’d done nothing wrong. She’d blurted out the whole ugly mess in the change room of the athletic club, uncorking it all after having kept it bottled up for over a month. Wiping her tears and blowing her nose into the white towels that the club provided, Sophie had asked Linda if she should leave Eric or stay with him for the sake of the kids. Linda recommended that Sophie take a good long look at the shit-of-the-matter.

Then Linda had made a confession of her own; two years earlier she’d slept with a coworker.

Her affair had gone on for several months when Dan finally confronted her. She’d denied it, but had known the gig was up, that it was only a matter of time before the truth came out. Her therapist had simply asked her, “Do you want to grow old with Dan or not?” The answer had been an unequivocal yes. And when this clarity came to Linda she knew she had to make restitution. So she went on what she described as the “sucking-Dan’s-cock-campaign.”

Through the tears Sophie had laughed like crazy. It was then she knew she wanted to forgive Eric, she just didn’t know how.

3rd

Over half of the guests had arrived when Terry showed up dressed as Robert DeNiro from “Taxi Driver.” Of course he’d brought along a date, a young lady named Brittney, appropriately dressed in the tart-ware that Jodie Foster had worn in the picture. Appropriate not only because of the theme, but because Sophie thought she looked the part. She couldn’t have been more than 25, 26; Christ, she wasn’t even alive in the 70s. Terry was 42 and had already been divorced twice. It was disgusting. Terry had been friends with Eric since high school and had been the best man at their wedding, but Sophie had always found him detestable. He was arrogant and loud and for some reason women loved him. This made Sophie hate him even more.

With the warmest smile she could muster she asked Terry and Brittney if they would care for a drink.

“Are you talking to me? Are you talking to me? ‘Cause I don’t see anybody else here, so you must be talking to me,” said Terry, doing a spot on DeNiro impression. The whole room went silent to watch Terry do his schtick. Sophie felt herself blush. She had to admit though, he was good. This went on for a few moments before Sophie finally interrupted his charade and politely asked in a royal British accent that she hadn’t even known she was capable of, “No luv, I was speaking to the young lady.” Everyone laughed.

Sophie went about pouring Brittney a glass of Blue Nun and refilling her own. Passing the glass to Brittney, Sophie caught her husband looking at Brittney’s beautiful pilates-fivetimes-a-week, no-fat-yogurt body.

Sophie asked her, “So, Brittney, what do you do?” As she spoke the words she felt ashamed and embarrassed, because she didn’t want to be that person, that person who asks you what you did, like it fucking mattered anyway. Did she really give a shit, let’s be honest here.

She’s just a kid, a kid whose boobs were still unchallenged by gravity, whose vagina hadn’t been stretched out from birthing two kids, who probably didn’t have a goddamn clue about life.

“Do you mean, like, what I do for a living?”

“Yes,” Sophie replied taking a large swig of her wine.

“Well I guess you could say dancer, but I guess these days you’d say acrobat.”

As Sophie tried to suppress her laughter, Blue Nun shot from her nose. Somewhere between coughing and laughing, Sophie tried to apologize and managed to squeak out hoarsely, “Swallowed wrong.”

The doorbell rang again and Sophie, still recovering from her self induced white wine nasal douche, excused herself from Brittney’s puzzled glare to answer the door. There, through the little half-pie glass at the top of the door, she spied Dan’s thick brown locks. Swinging the door wide exposed Dan’s stunning growth on his upper lip: a rodent sized moustache that resembled Robert Redford’s in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidd.”

“Oh my God, did you actually grow that out?” asked Sophie.

“Believe it or not, it only took three weeks to produce this monster,” said Dan.

After he removed his coat, revealing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt under a large lapelled dark green suit jacket, Sophie hugged him. It was probably harder than she should have and maybe even a second too long, for when she let go, Dan said, with what she thought was surprise in his voice, “Geez, Soph, nice to see you too. Is Linda here?”

She guided him to the living room. “She’s over there,” Sophie said, pointing to Linda and Glen. Glen, Eric’s boss, was handsome, charming and recently divorced, and Linda had been flirting with him all night. Why did she have to do that? She has Dan. Who wouldn’t want Dan?

Before Dan crossed the room to get to his wife, Sophie grabbed him by the elbow, leaned in close and asked him if she could fetch him a drink? As she ambled to the kitchen to get Dan a beer (Eric had only bought Heritage Lager because it came in a 70s stubby) she drained back the rest of her wine. She grabbed a beer and refilled her glass, but then realized she needed to pee.

She left the drinks on the counter and made her way to the bathroom.

While sitting on the toilet she rubbed at the red ring around her waist where her pants had left their constricting bite. She wiped, flushed, and struggled to pull back on the slacks. As she inspected herself in the mirror she noticed she had another gray hair, the second one she’d found this week. “Fuck, look at that,” she said plucking it. After reapplying the most whorish looking red lipstick she owned, she straightened up and adjusted her boobs to maximum cleavage.

“Not too fucking bad for 42,” she whispered to the mirror, “Eh Britney, you little tart.”

She gave her own ass a slap as she winked at herself in the mirror.

4th

It was three months ago today that Sophie and Eric had gone over to his mother’s house to help clean out her basement to get the house ready for sale. She was downsizing into a condo.

It was during this sort-out for the massive garage sale that Eric had found it, brand new, still wrapped in now dusty plastic: a ten by fifteen bright blue shag carpet. According to his mother, his father had bought it on sale decades ago.

“Why he ever bought the ugly thing was a mystery to me. I bugged him for years to get rid of it, but he’d never let it go. Finally I gave up, and now look at it, still here,” she’d told them.

Eric and Sophie had looked at each other and said in almost perfect unison, “Retro 70’s party.” But the wounds were still very fresh and it wasn’t until a month ago that Eric had mentioned the rug. For the first time in many months Eric saw a sparkle in his wife’s eyes that he wasn’t sure would ever return. Then and there they decided to turn that party into a Retro 70s Christmas party.

* * *

When Sophie came back from the bathroom she grabbed her wine off the kitchen counter, choking down another half glass of Blue Nun before topping it up yet again. Then she snatched Dan’s beer and marched out to the living room.

The lights had been dimmed and the glitter ball had been set in motion, hundreds of tiny circles of white light spun around the room. Sophie felt dizzy. Eric had moved the coffee table over by the window and was now standing in front of the blue expanse of shag rug, posed, head bowed to the left, hands on his hips, about to perform his Travolta number. And look at who he’d got to be his dance partner, that little whore Britney. Then the familiar pulse of the Bee Gees began and Eric’s pelvis gyrated in time with the music. He sashayed across the carpet, arms and pointing index fingers firing up in the air like pistons until he reached Britney. She pressed herself into him, her palms flat against his chest and threw her head back. Her floppy hat fell off and she waggled her head side to side shaking out beautiful thick blonde wavy hair.

Sophie was pretty sure that the pupils of all the men in the room dilated at the same time. She scooted up to Dan who was leaning against the fireplace mantle.

“Here’s your beer,” she said passing him the bottle, “Try not to drool.”

Sophie and Eric had taken ballroom dance together. Well that’s not exactly true; it’s where they’d met. They’d been in the same class together, but with different partners. One day a few weeks into the classes, Sophie’s boyfriend had gotten sick with the flu. He’d suggested that she go to class without him. She’d protested, but he insisted, frugally arguing that they should make sure to get their money’s worth. This was on the same day that Eric’s girlfriend had to drive her mother to a medical appointment, dropping him at the dance studio on the way.

The instructor, much to Sophie’s surprise and delight, paired her with Eric, clearly the strongest male dancer in the class. And, in Sophie’s opinion, the cutest too. Eric was far more graceful and fluid than her boyfriend with the two feet, both left. With Eric there was instant chemistry, something neither had with their partners at the time. It wasn’t long before their relationships dissolved and they were free to be with one other. Before they had children, Eric and Sophie had
continued to take a variety of dance classes including break dance, swing, square dancing, and 70’s disco. Sophie knew what Eric was capable of, and it was spectacular.

Eric spun Brittney, bent her this way and that, and she moved like a pro anticipating where Eric was going. In fact, Sophie found herself in awe. How in the world was she doing this? How in the Christ?

“Man, is she good or what?” whispered Dan to Sophie.

“Not bad for a stripper,” she seethed.

“Stripper?” puzzled Dan.

“Yeah, you know, spins around poles, shakes her tits for money,” she spat.

“I don’t think so, Soph. I was talking to Terry and he told me that Brittney recently finished an eight month stint with Cirque du Soleil down in Vegas. She’s some crazy kind of acrobat.”

“Really?”

“Terry says she’s nuts in the bedroom, like super flexible.”

“Do you think I give a shit, Dan?”

“Just saying.”

Sophie stared at Britney and Eric setting up for their big finish. She drained back the rest of her wine as the crowd exploded into a ruckus ovation.

5th

Mr. and Mrs. Bramley, the neighbours from across the street, were finally done boring the shit out of everyone. Eric had said not to invite them, but Sophie had insisted it was a nice gesture, it being so close to Christmas and all. And besides, they’re old. Harmless. Well Sophie hadn’t realized that Mrs. Bramley would go into every detail of every medical procedure she’d had in the last year on her aging and failing body. And Mr. Bramley, my God! She listened for close to forty minutes about his new hubcaps that he’d bought at Crappy Tire.

“Thanks so much for coming,” said Sophie, smiling like she was in a toothpaste commercial despite Mrs. Bramley’s olive breath and a coat that stunk of hairspray.

“The pleasure was all ours, my dear,” said Mrs. Bramley. Then she leaned in closer and whispered, “Your husband’s a hell of a dancer, but I’d watch him close if I were you.” Mrs. Bramley gave a playful smile and a wag of her finger, “Eh, watch him.”
“Will do, Mrs. Bramley.”

“I told you,” said Mrs. Bramley, as a little piece of saliva flew from her mouth and landed on Sophie’s forehead, “call me Liz.” Sophie kept smiling, waiting until they were out the door before wiping the spittle away. Jesus Christ.

When she came back into the living room she found Terry exhuming something from a large black gym bag, something swathed in a heavily patterned red and black Oriental cloth. He stood it upright on the coffee table, unwrapping it as he went. It towered two and a half feet tall, had a bulbous green glass bottom that tapered to a long glass tube, much of it covered in metallic silver patterns that Sophie thought looked like snowflakes. It was beautiful. It was a piece of art. It was a dope smoking bong.

“Who wants to get stoned?!” yelled Terry, a Jack Nicholson grin circa “The Shining” plastered across his face.

* * *

Sophie exhaled as much as she could before placing her mouth over the top of the pipe.

As she inhaled she watched the smoky fog slither up the tube, a hell bent apparition that was entering her body, entering her lungs, wanting to possess her soul. We may need an exorcist, thought Sophie as she coughed violently.

Led Zeppelin blared “Kashmir” from the iPod and Sophie felt dizzy watching Eric dance by himself, arms slowly floating and flapping. Watching him was like watching footage from Woodstock. The age of free love. Everybody was screwing everybody in the 60s and 70s, right?

Why get so mad about one little airline tart?

“Why don’t people fuck anymore?” Sophie blurted out suddenly.

Dan, sitting beside her on the couch expelled a plume of smoke and asked, “What?”

“Why don’t people fuck anymore?” she repeated, “I mean what happened to the free love? The orgies? I mean, why don’t we do that, what happened? Did the world get uptight?”

“AIDS happened,” said Glen, lounging in a neighbouring armchair.

“We should have a key party,” suggested Terry.

“A what?” asked Eric, who continued to dance in slow motion.

“Like in that movie ‘The Ice Storm,’” said Linda, taking the bong from Dan, “Like, every guy puts his car keys in a bowl and the ladies fish them out to see who yah go home with, or is it the other way around? Maybe the guys pick – yeah, that sounds more 70s.”

“Let’s do it,” slurred Sophie.

Eric stopped dancing. He gave Sophie a look that said you’re embarrassing me. She didn’t give a shit, she felt great. She felt sexy.

“Yeah,” said Linda, “let’s spice it up 70s style.”

“Oh come on babe,” said Sophie to Eric, “You’re not the only one entitled to a little fun.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? What the fuck, Soph?” asked Eric.

Britney grabbed Terry by the shirt collar and announced that the only claws her tiger were going to see were her own, and she was going to show him, like right away. And off they left. This triggered a flurry of action between the dozen or so other guests who remained at the party post-bong. Most of the singles stayed. Phil and Mary Douglas said they had to get going, their babysitter was waiting. A few others excused themselves saying they had to get up early in the morning.

Sophie went to the kitchen to get a bowl for the keys. When she came back Eric grabbed her by the wrist and whispered, “You’re not really going to do this are you?”

“Of course,” she answered, brushing him off. Lifting the bowl high into the air she said, “Ladies, keys please.”

* * *

Everyone thought Mr. and Mrs. French had a great marriage, so when Sophie came around with the bowl, it was to everyone’s surprise when Mrs. French dug into her purse and told her husband point blank, “We’re playing, bucko.”

When Dan drew out Sophie’s keys, she couldn’t have been happier. She looked at Eric and Eric looked angry. Dan looked perplexed. He kept staring at the keys, his mind obviously elsewhere. Then, as if somebody flicked on the correct neural pathway, Dan bolted up and said with urgency in his voice, “I need to move my car.”

“What are you talking about?” Sophie asked.

“My car, I need it in the morning, and the snow plow signs are up. I need to move it tonight before it gets towed, but I’m too drunk and high to drive.”

“Well, put it in neutral and push it home. I’ll help you,” said Glen, before taking a large haul off the bong.

“Yeah, you’re just around the corner at the bottom of the hill, it should be easy to push,” said Sophie, “I’ll go with you, since you have my keys anyway.”

“I think this is a bad idea Soph,” said Linda, “I mean, what, are you going to fuck my husband?”

“I think pushing the car is the bad idea,” said Eric.

“But fucking Dan is okay?” fumed Linda.

“What happened to spicing it up 70s style?” retorted Sophie.

Glen got up to put on his coat, “Look, it’s snowing outside, it’s going to be fun.”

* * *

On the way out the door Sophie plucked the last toothpick from the eggplant and slurped off its contents. Who knew SPAM and pineapple could taste so goddamn good?

N

When Eric and Sophie had first bought their house on Orchard Street there was only one other family on the block with kids, the Cliffs; Graham five and Steven, seven. Eric and Sophie had watched these boys grow up as they later watched their own children. They’d witnessed the skateboards and the skinned knees, the street hockey games, and the endless shooting hoops late into the night at the end of their driveway. When the boys were old enough they’d babysat Eric and Sophie’s girls. Both families regularly held dinner parties together. The Cliffs most certainly would have been at tonight’s shindig, but Mrs. Cliff’s sister had gone into labour and they’d driven her to the hospital.

Steven, now 20, back for Christmas vacation from university, had been in the middle of splitting a twelve pack of beer with his brother when the topic switched lovingly to their childhood. That’s when Graham suggested that they try to find their old sled from the garage and hit Ladybug Hill like they used to.

Ladybug Hill belonged to Ladybug Park, whose dénouement butted up with the intersection of Orchard Street and Miller Road. Most children who went tobogganing on Ladybug Hill took the East side where pine trees and an asphalt road were not going to greet them at the bottom. But Steven and Graham had always taken the North side, the side close to home. Plus, if you got enough speed up on the North side and timed it right, you could hit the snow bank, which inevitably formed from the city’s ploughing, fly through the air and cruise down Miller Road for a good 20 feet. Steven and Graham had always felt it was a bloody great rush.

* * *

The young men stood at the top of the hill and looked down. The sky was black and Graham thought the puffy snowflakes that were falling slowly and silently all around them looked like they were appearing from nothingness.

They each cracked opened a can of 50 and guzzled it down, racing. Steven finished first.

He crushed his can in victory and released a humongous belch.

“Nice,” said Graham finishing, releasing a substantial burp of his own.

“You ready?”

“Let’s do it bro.”

Graham got on first, tucking his knees tight up to his chest. Steven got on the back, straddling his legs around his brother. It was a squeeze.

“Okay,” said Steven, “on the count of three we paddle like it’s the Olympic fuck’n luge.”

“Roger.”

“One, two, three.”

* * *

Dan leaned into the car, put the key into the ignition and gave it a half click turn. Then he threw it in neutral. He grabbed the helm, twisting the wheels out toward the road. Holding the wheel with one hand and the car door with the other, he pressed his shoulder into the doorframe.

“Okay, on the count of three, push. One, two, three.”

Sophie and Glen pushed with everything they had. The car began to move with the soft pops and clicks of rubber tires on snow. They’d only managed to get about 15 feet when Dan slipped on a patch of ice. He let go of the steering wheel but managed to hold onto the door for another half second, this action’s consequence being a soft closing of the driver’s door. On his belly, Dan raised his head to see the bumper of his car rolling by, Glen and Sophie pushing past him, without noticing that their captain was down.

“Hey!” yelled Dan. Sophie turned her head, still pushing. Then she slipped. Glen tried to grab her but only managed to lose his own footing.

The three of them lay on the ground watching the car pick up speed as it rolled down Orchard Street.

“Sophie, stop, you can’t do this thing,” yelled Eric, coming down the driveway of their home. Then he saw what was happening, heard the boys coming down the hill. He quickly put it together and took off running.

As she lay there on the road, watching him sprint towards the car, something physical happened to her. Later, when she explained it to Linda, Sophie would reflect that it was probably the dope. But still, she felt it. Her heart began to beat in time with Eric’s footsteps.

Thump-step, thump-step, thump-step. They were back in sync. Connected. Thump-step, thump-step, thump-step. It was going to be okay. Everything was going to be okay because they were synced.

Eric was now running beside the car. He reached out to open the door when he fell. Sophie threw up.

Cocktail weenies, pieces of celery, and a gallon of Blue Nun (amongst other things) soaked into the snow bank adjacent to the road. She prayed for the exorcism to be over.

P

Like a cartoon character meeting a banana peel, up in the air went Eric’s feet. He landed on his back and knocked the wind out of himself. The car kept rolling and the Cliff kids kept sliding, hooting and hollering all the way. All Eric could do at that point was watch it unfold.

Over the wind and the noise of the sled, the boys didn’t hear the screams of warning from Glen, Dan and Sophie. Unknowingly they continued on their intersecting collision course.

* * *

Mr. Gordon lived at 312 Orchard Street, the last house on the block. He’d been complaining to the city for years about the flooding in his basement during the spring. He argued it was runoff from Ladybug Hill and he’d been requesting proper drainage pipes be installed. After a vigorous letter writing campaign of six years, the city finally complied last summer. The result was a large mound in the snowy landscape of Ladybug Hill, a mound that the boys had never encountered in their 13 years of tobogganing. It knocked them for a loop. It knocked them off.

The sled, now empty, its passengers dislodged, continued down the hill. It struck the icy heap at the bottom and sailed through the air where it was struck by Dan’s car, the impact of which crushed it deep into the snow embankment at the corner of Orchard Street and Miller Road.

Steven on the hillside, Eric on the road, and Glen much further up the road, all simultaneously but individually expressed their disbelief by muttering some variation of, “Holy shit.”

Snow plow or no snow plow, Dan’s car was now parked for the rest of the evening. Eric slowly walked back up the hill. When he reached the others, he didn’t say anything; he put his arms around Sophie and hugged her.

“I’m sorry,” Sophie said.

“Me too,” Eric replied.

They walked into the house, together.

*

Christian McPherson
was born in Ottawa, Ontario in 1970. He is the author of four books, The Sun Has Forgotten Where I Live, The Cube People (shortlisted for the 2011 ReLit Awards), Poems that swim from my brain like rats leaving a sinking ship (longlisted for the 2009 ReLit Awards), and Six Ways to Sunday (shortlisted for the 2008 ReLit Awards). He has a degree in philosophy from Carleton University and a computer programming diploma from Algonquin College. He is married to the beautiful Marty Carr. They have two kids, Molly and Henry. They all live together in Ottawa.

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