Anyone can see your shit. They see your cheats, your workarounds, your porn fetishes, your tricks for remembering your passwords—and you have passwords for things you shouldn't need passwords for, like catching up on whole seasons of The A-Team on Netflix because that’s what you’re good for now.
We used to do things, Duke. We used to have dreams.
That’s what Linnie told him. Or what he remembers her telling him. It was one of her speeches where she pivots subjects midway through. He was holding the remote like a thumbs-up, and before he knew it she was thunking her roller bag down the stairs.
Anyone can see you’re not right, Duke, she said. When you’re ready, I hope you’ll get some help.
Then she said, In the meantime, I'm going to take some time off.
From work? That’s a good idea.
From us, Duke. More specifically, me from you. You'll be okay.
What was it called, when you thought of your best sass only after the other person was a vapor in the doorway? It was a French phrase.
The recycling bin interrupted his rhythm. He cursed it for interrupting his rhythm. Taking care of it meant setting down his briefcase and thermos of coffee on the mudroom bench where, in the winter, he and Linnie would pull off their boots with a groan after shoveling, where four seasons of shoes piled.
They used to get scavengers. They’d come around with flashlights on bikes, or pulling those little wheelcarts that city people wheel to the store, and clink through the bin. He didn’t feel right confronting them. Everyone’s sorry in their own way. But he started waiting until morning to put out the bottles.
Now the bin was very full, spillover full. Filled with too many round things: cat food cans and beer bottles and vodka and gin and tequila and a big orange thing of detergent. He was reminded of everything that had taken place the week before. It was Wednesday. He was getting a head start on one of the worst days of his life.
After he heard Linnie’s Saab groan away for real, he hopped around the house, picking up cat toys and working up spit.
I was flattened enough to leave you alone, Linnie. While I plodded along with my stories, grading papers written by wealthy kids who already know they’re going into finance, you produced two books on the oxygen of my aloofness. Then you went on tour and made friends who traveled and had husbands who built their own backyard decks, for God’s sake.
And you had them over for wine and they looked around and sussed it out.
Duke became an expert at collapsing the cardboard, the box wine boxes (red and white) de-bladdered and the bladders squeezed out.
Anyone can see we’re owned by our cats, Linnie.
Alone, he heard new things. The furnace whirring up and then cutting out. Car doors, arguments in the road, competing hip-hop from the meth houses across the street. Mice in the walls. The cats would sit on their haunches and stare emptily at the baseboards. What was the point of owning cats, he wondered, if the mice weren’t scared off?
He had papers to grade. He put them aside and called his friend Howie. This was something Linnie recommended he do. She even said it in the driveway as she popped the trunk of the Saab: Call Howie and go fishing or something. Find a routine for yourself.
The two men sat on the front porch and drank pale ales that Howie had brought. Howie told Duke he was an amateur.
You should’ve had a plan, my friend, he said. With me it’s automatic by now. A woman leaves, I know my next move. Paint the walls. Withdraw all my cash. Work up a sexual lather, so to speak. Find someone new to harass.
Christ, How, send me the handbook.
Where did Linnie go, anyhow? You know, in case there’s a catastrophe. In the event you fall asleep at the gas stove and light your sleeve on fire.
She disliked you, Duke said.
She disliked opulence. I reminded her of all her wrong turns. Is she still toodling around in that Euro car of hers with the weird radio and the three-hundred-dollar oil changes?
It’s probably reached Kansas City, Duke said. Leave now and you can be on her in two days.
Give her time to miss me first, Howie said.
They sat and sipped their pale ales. The birds mocked them from the trees.
It’s spring, you know. You could at least take care of your goddamn lawn, Howie said.
The lawn embarrassed him, so Duke put himself to work, raking and bagging the wet rot that had been exposed by the melt. It was warm and the skateboarders were out, doing their tricks along a plywood ramp, swearing and cackling until the corn chip trucks crawled up the hill and forced them over.
He tried not to stare when a beater midsize pulled up in front of one of the meth houses. A man and a woman got out and went inside. He couldn’t tell if they were twenty or forty.
It’s like they don’t care they’re in a family neighborhood, someone said behind him. He turned to find a woman holding a dog’s leash, the pug sniffing in the cuffs of
How many are in there now? Duke said.
They come and go, she said. They make the stuff right in there and don’t care where it ends up. I mean, we’ve got children here.
She motioned to the skateboarders.
And never any cops, Duke said. He was half paying attention, because he was struggling to remember the woman’s name. Nedra? Petra? She had been by before; Linnie had talked to her a few times. One of these women who get divorced and move to a new area and settle for marrying their dogs.
He did remember the dog’s name: Orville.
Hi, Orville, he said, bending down to scratch him behind the ears. You smell my cats, don’t you.
Linnie hasn’t been around, I’ve noticed, the woman said.
Taking a little vacation for herself, he said.
A vacation for you, too, I hope?
She smiled at him like a negotiator.
You should come to the neighborhood watch meeting, she said. When he said he hadn’t heard about a meeting, she pointed up to his mailbox, jammed with a week’s worth of catalogs. A purple flyer was sticking out the top.
He had a student over. He hadn’t invited her. It was a hazard of the occupation: once in a while a kid would show up not having eaten in three days and Linnie would sit them down at the dining table and make them eat her maple baked beans and convince them to call their parents. But now word must have got around about why Professor Richards was so mopey in class, because he came home to find this one sitting on the porch steps with a knapsack that looked like it was packed for more than the afternoon.
I’ve got something for you to read, she said.
He poured some box wine. Delilah unlaced her Converse All-Stars and curled her feet under her on the couch while he leafed through the pages of a violent and poorly paced narrative about a dysfunctional family that owned a Christmas tree farm.
You’ve got to let the story breathe, he told her. There’s too much riffraff. Let your characters get tired. That’s when they figure out things.
He made her shepherd's pie because it was something that Linnie hated. During the week he had made a list of other things Linnie hated that he could get a jump on now. Chinese food. War movies. He thought about the last time he enjoyed a good cigar.
The girl said, It's so quiet here.
She was standing on the porch with bare legs, sipping coffee from the ceramic mug that Linnie’s sister made and wearing one of Duke’s cable-knit sweaters, the sleeves stretched over her fists.
The light outside was blue and the cats were alert at the windows, hissing at a gray stray.
Through the screen door he told her about the skateboarders, the clatter and the catcalls, and the corn-chip distributor with the step vans that used the street as a cut-through. Two houses were meth dens. He didn’t know why she would be interested in any of this.
Delilah came back into the house and found a paperback copy of his out-of-print novel on a low shelf, after the Z’s, where it had been left for no reason other than to be found. By Duke Richards, even, so proud.
From another era, he told her. When I thought I knew things.
She plopped down on the couch with the book like she had no intention to leave. She told him they ought to throw a party. It was an evocative space, she said.
He didn’t know what college kids drank these days so he bought everything. The girl wrote him out a shopping list in pink gel pen. Swedish vodka meant to taste like fruit. Hard clear stuff with gold flakes in it. Beer you were supposed to float orange wedges in. Potato chips made to taste like deli sandwiches, no wonder we had become such a schizophrenic species, our food was pretending to be other food.
One of the young clerks helped Duke carry the haul out to his truck. Throwing quite a rager there, he said.
Preparing for the storm, Duke said.
And the kid made a face and glanced up at the clear and said, Wow, I hadn’t heard anything.
They put out snacks in bowls. Howie arrived early and helped out in the kitchen, setting out platters of hummus and charcuterie. He warm-up flirted with Delilah.
When she was out of range he said to Duke, You don’t believe in baby steps or anything, do you, big guy?
It got dark and cars showed up and parked in diagonals up and down the street. Thumps up the porch steps. There were friends of Delilah and then friends of those friends, and soon people were showing up who weren’t anyone who anyone knew. Duke sat on one of the folding chairs in the dining room while strange hands opened and closed his refrigerator. They went into the bathroom two and three at a time.
Howie took over the bar and made martinis for the sheltered kids who had never had a real martini before. He discoursed to the freshmen and sophomores on the topics of love and war and gentlemanly manner.
Guests talked to Duke politely until they got bored. A few were his students, or ex-students. There were kids he had flunked for plagiarizing their papers, and others because they were frauds. He pretended not to remember who they were.
Delilah shuffled around the house in a uniform that became standard: pajama pants and wool socks and a hoodie with the name of the college where he taught. Her shapelessness bothered him. She didn’t change when they went to Trader Joe’s, or to the movies. Whereas Linnie would wear pearls to the movies, or a nice sweater and skirt even when it was raining, the sleeves rolled up to show her muscles. Duke would walk a step behind her, his arm light on her elbow, stepping ahead to get the door for the both of them.
There was an order that this girl didn’t have time for.
In bed they compared tattoos. Hers were the Irish clip art that kids get when they turn eighteen and don’t know better. He wasn’t even sure where she got the Irish from. She was from Stoneham, Massachusetts. Her father was a high-up at Oracle.
He showed her his own markings, from his time in the Marines. The ink in one color, a dagger down his arm.
Used to be you had to drive two states away to get one, he said. It gave you time to chicken out and turn around.
I knew I wanted one when I was ten, she said.
For this? Carpe diem? What does that even mean?
It means “seize the day.”
I know that. I mean, what’s it mean to you? You’re a writer and you need a cliché to tell you how to live?
Don’t condescend, she said.
I’m serious. Who drew these? They’re hideous. Honestly, so much kitsch out there, everyone’s proud of it.
You’re an asshole. She punched him in the ribs with her ring and he was startled by how much it hurt.
He discovered mail collected under the pile where she had been dumping her knapsack and coat. There was a Past Due notice from the cable company. And then, the card in a yellow envelope, addressed from Linnie.
He waved the envelopes toward the couch, where the girl was watching Netflix and eating Talenti straight from the jar.
How long have these been sitting here?
I dunno, she hummed over the spoon.
For fuck’s sake.
I made it as far as Tucson when I decided I was done driving. It’s warm here and the air is good for me.
Trix had her vet appointment on the 19th, I remembered this after I left. It’s fine if you forgot, but they might charge us a fee.
I know about your friend. I can’t say I blame you but I do think you could have waited until my side of the bed was cold. I imagine you have a list of students you’d like to ruin before the semester is out. Expect to hear from the lawyer soon.
They awoke to blue lights flickering on the ceiling. Duke choked for a moment. He reminded himself that the girl was an adult. He got up and went to the window and saw a line of police cruisers parked in front of the meth dens.
What is it? she asked from the bed.
Across the street, he said.
He went downstairs to count the cats. He checked the locks on the windows. He jumped when he noticed a shadow out on the porch, waving to him.
It’s Petra! she called through the glass.
What happened? he asked when he opened the door. Petra was dragging Orville on his leash. She let herself in and the dog followed.
Somebody must’ve died in there, she said. This many cruisers? Five? Six? Honestly, if this breaks the spell then I’m not sorry to call it a good thing.
Or it’s a raid, Duke said. I hope they round ‘em all up.
Orville was being aggressive toward the cats, so Duke hadn’t noticed Delilah on the landing until Petra spotted her and said, oh, hi there.
I’m interrupting something! I’m sorry. I saw the light and figured--
No, it’s fine. Petra, this is Delilah.
Delilah followed them into the kitchen, her slippers scratching the linoleum. Duke offered to make tea, even though he didn’t want any.
Petra was going on. I felt like there had to be a tipping point, you know? Things got so raucous here last week. Did you see all those cars?
That was us, Delilah said.
Petra had to turn around.
We had a party.
I apologize if we were loud, Duke said. I had a few students over.
They hadn’t cleaned up yet and the evidence was making its presence known. The dining room table was covered with a spill of playing cards, Solo cups, and bottles arranged like a cityscape.
I figured maybe Linnie was back from her vacation, Petra said.
Her car’s not here, Delilah said.
Petra had unbuttoned her coat but, sensing that nobody was about to take it from her, let it hang open on her shoulders. In spite of the late hour she was dressed for the day: sweater, slacks, stylish black boots.
She kept pivoting between them, unsure whom she was speaking to.
If we were loud, why didn’t you call the police? Delilah said.
Well. I didn’t know.
In contrast, Delilah was in a tank top and pajama pants, her arms folded over her chest. Duke was in his shorts. He had only then found where Linnie had kept the tea pouches and was clawing into a new box.
Petra said, You know what, I think I’ll take a rain check. That’s okay.
Are you sure?
Yes. I had best get going. She yanked Orville away from the cats. This one’s getting anxious, I can tell.
Petra led the dog toward the front door. Delilah followed them with her eyes. She continued to watch them through the window until they disappeared out of the flicker of blue and into the darkness. The cats emerged from under the furniture.
She seems like a fun time, Delilah said. We’ll have to invite her to the next one.
He received an email from the Dean of Humanities, who saw photos from the party on social media. She attached one with him in the background and Delilah sitting on his lap.
In light of what has come to our attention, we will be reviewing your employment situation, the email said.
They can’t do anything to you, Delilah said. She was reading over his shoulder. They don’t know about us.
I think they can draw their own conclusions.
Yeah, so fucking what? It’s a picture. They shouldn’t be able to fire you for that.
He laughed in her ear.
It’s not a democracy. They can do whatever they want.
He began to work up spit again, this time at himself for being an idiot. He didn’t even like the girl. Spoiled and a shit writer. He went around the rooms on a whirlwind, scrubbing, scouring, erasing the weeks.
They made love in the guest room. Her pajama pants were still on the floor when he asked her to leave. The cats were acting out. A new odor had seeped into the walls. His books were out of order, mixed with Linnie’s. His Netflix recommendations were littered with quirky independent comedies.
She said, My parents have money, you know. They can ruin you.
Sweetheart. There’s nothing left to ruin.
It took over an hour for her ride to show up.
He lugged the bin to the curb. The morning was clear, breezy. Duke could hear the humming from the ventilators at the corn-chip plant. He had been instructed to cancel his classes for the day. He would be meeting with the Dean of Humanities. There was the suggestion that he would be begging for his job.
As he backed the truck out of the driveway, he was looking at the house and not behind him. He heard the crunch. The bin was under his rear wheels. He pulled forward, got out of the truck, left open the door as it ding-dinged behind him. The blue plastic was split at the corners, flattened, the contents scattered, the cat food cans rolling and wobbling and settling. The vodka bottle kept rolling. It picked up speed down the hill, and Duke chased it the whole way. It rolled past Petra’s house, then past Petra, coming back up the hill with Orville. Duke stumbled and laid out on the asphalt. His dress pants tore at the knee. There was blood. Orville barked and strained the leash and Petra looked at him and didn’t ask if he was all right, did he need any help.
Neil Serven lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and works as a lexicographer. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Washington Square Review, Catapult, Bodega, Prairie Schooner online, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.