They are family and when they talk it rubs a blister in his ear. Lou presses into it, his pointer finger jiggling the skin and hair that forms his canal. It makes the sound of static.
“You okay dad?” Marnie asks handing him the bowl of lumps Rita refers to as “mashed potatoes.” No, Lou isn’t okay, but he nods and smiles. He has been thinking about the same thing for weeks now. Finding Marnie’s unconscious body in the basement three months ago. Believing she was dead.
“Oh the old fool’s fine. Probably running his last golf game through his head.” Lou watches his wife spoon a spineless tangle of green beans onto her plate. Rita is a cruel kind of pretty, even now at sixty-two her lashes are ink-stained wings, her eyes a shrill flash of water. But her mouth has morphed into another creature all together. Her lips are two dried worms, renegade tags of skin flicking from their creases. He imagines they cry out for joy when she gulps from her glass.
“Tell me about Eric. You talk to him lately?” the worms ask Marnie.
“A little bit. It’s been hard.” Marnie’s eyes are lined with wet soldiers. Rita offers a vague nod, simultaneously smacking Lou’s hand when he goes in for a second pork chop.
“Well, men. They never know the right words, do they?” Rita doesn’t look at him when she says it. She hardly ever looks at him now, merely parents him with a blind hand. When she used to look at his face, his heart would plunge and weave throughout his body. His chin would nuzzle the small orifice of her ear and he would tell her so much in a whisper. Those words, the best he had ever tasted.
“I don’t know. I thought maybe he’d understand,” Marnie says.
A quiet spits on their plates. It stabs its finger into Lou’s ear and the bister’s membrane is tested. The coil in a spark plug, a nautilus shell. These were the things his daughter looked like heaped into herself on the concrete basement floor. He had done everything right, he knows he had. Locked the doors, set the alarm. It was only a quick jaunt to Carol’s, the Glintwood Apartment complex less than a mile from his house. As he slipped Carol on like a reliable coat, his mind was incapable of biting into the ripened truth. Rita: stuffed on pills and Pinot in their upstairs bedroom. Marnie: battling with her future demon in the basement. Lou: shamefully detached in every respect of the word.
“What’s there to understand?” Rita. Her nose is a pinched straw, a clipped wheeze aching through her right nostril. Everything, Lou thinks, the syllables crushed with each bite of green bean. He had spotted Marnie from the basement doorway. He had called 911. He had consumed the stairs two at a time, rushed into their bedroom and yanked Rita hard into reality. He had put his wife in the ambulance with Marnie, hardly fit to stand let alone drive. He had followed into a hot drool of rain, pricks of red light cutting through his windshield, the sound of his unbarred voice, a needle seeking his quick.
His wife trims a sliver off her chop and with a damp smack, kills the quiet. “Karen Hannigan. Pregnant,” Rita says and with that the kitchen revolves, a top snapped from two fingertips. A swirl of fluid in a cyst.
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