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January 22, 2016 Fiction


Matthew Hobson

Graffiti photo

Scrawled across the garage door in big red letters are the words "Die Snake!"  

"Who would have done this?" my wife asks, cinching her bathrobe. 

"Probably just kids," I mutter, knowing full well this isn’t the work of teenaged vandals. This has Rhonda written all over it. 

At Home Depot, I pace the aisles, contemplating retaliation. On the masonry aisle, I consider buying a single brick, but after an hour I purchase only a tray, a roller, and a gallon of beige paint. Back home, I brush two coats over Rhonda’s message. Debbie comes out as I’m washing my hands at the utility sink. She says she’ll be running errands all day. Before backing out of the garage, she rolls down the window to remind me she’s ovulating. “Tonight,” she says, “is optimal.”

It’s Saturday, so I mow the lawn, fix the wonky gutter, and knock down the latest hornet nest. The paint on the garage has started to dry, but the words still ghost through. I brush on another coat. For the rest of the afternoon, I hunker down on the couch, roll and smoke a couple spliffs, and watch the skateboarding finals on EXPN. It’s dusk when Debbie gets home. After dinner, we make love. When we finish, she lies on her back, knees curled to her chest.  "This one's going to stick," she says. 

I smile. Soon, my wife is asleep. Lying beside her, staring into the darkness, I can’t stop thinking about Rhonda. At first, it’s an angry montage of slashed tires and broken windows. But, soon that fades and I’m thinking about the bar napkins I used to twist into paper roses. When I broke things off, about a year ago, she acted tough, said something like “c’est la vie,” but I know it stung. She loved me, after all, told me so one night as we lay together in the bed of my truck. I bet she still keeps those roses in a shoebox. 

A couple hours before dawn, I slip from the house. For a few minutes, I sit in the truck, chain smoking, unsure of what I’m doing. Then, I drive south of town to Rhonda's house. All the lights are off. Her old VW bus sits in the driveway. Somewhere, a dog yowls. I rap on the front door, uncertain of what I’ll say. When the porch light winks on, I consider bailing. 

“Who’s there?” Rhonda asks.

“It’s me.” 

Several seconds pass, then the clunk of retracting bolts. The door cracks open, a thick chain stretched across the top. 

“What do you want?”

“Don’t play games with me, Rhonda,” I say. “You know why I’m here.”

She stares for a second, stone faced.

“I was stupid to think you wouldn’t figure it out.” She undoes the chain and lets me in. 

The futon is as lumpy as I remember, the coffee table littered with old receipts, a burger wrapper, a few napkins. Rhonda looks good. A bit heavier, maybe, but it suits her. She grabs a half-empty bottle of Evan Williams from the mantle and flops beside me, takes a deep tug before passing it.   

“How’d you find out?” 

“Well,” I say, picturing my garage, “I may be a snake, but I’m not a dumb snake.” 

I don't know what to say next, but she doesn’t seem to mind the awkward silence. We pass the bottle back and forth.   

“Excuse me for a minute,” she says, rising, disappearing down the hallway. 

I wiggle the wedding ring against my knuckle. I used to set it in the abalone shell on the nightstand. Without thinking, I snatch a napkin from the table and begin twisting. Rhonda’s moving around in the back of the house, probably stashing dirty laundry, straightening rumpled sheets, brushing her teeth, maybe lighting those scented Yankee candles. When she returns, she’ll ask me back to the bedroom. Yes, I’ll be tempted. To deny that is foolish. But, I’ve become a stronger man in the last year, a better man, a man who will soon be a father. I’ll make clear to Rhonda that nothing remains between us. If she cries, I’ll console her for a few minutes. Stroke her hair. A parting kiss on the forehead. No more.  

When I hear footsteps, I stuff the twisted napkin into my pocket.  

“Ta-da,” Rhonda says, cradling something wrapped in a woven blanket. She folds down the front to reveal a sleeping baby. “She’s beautiful, right? Go figure.”

My chest tightens. Rhonda sits, hikes her nightshirt and presses the child’s face to her dark nipple. I try to figure the math in my head, but it’s not necessary. The crazy black hair and high cheekbones are Rhonda’s, but the goofy ears are unmistakably my own. I feel like I did at that Pearl Jam concert in high school when I dropped acid: out of body.

“Speak,” Rhonda says. 

The baby makes puckering noises. When I glance over, it actually stares at me. 

“I’m sorry?”  

“For what?” Rhonda says, re-wrapping the baby. “Because she’s perfect.”  

“Is there anything I should do?” 

Rhonda shakes her head, laughing. “You have nothing we need. If you want the truth, you should just leave.” 

I want to convince her that she’s wrong. Debbie thinks I’ll be a great father.

“You’re right,” I say, standing. She ushers me to the door. I linger on the porch and listen to deadbolts sliding back into place. 

It’s first light when I get home. Despite three coats of paint, the graffiti still shows through faintly. After breakfast, I’ll buy a gallon of primer and a fresh gallon of beige, maybe something darker. I’ll brush on another two coats, three coats, the whole damn can. If that doesn’t work, I’ll break out the belt sander and take it down to bare wood. 

Inside, Debbie is sitting up in bed, watching an infomercial about a miracle stain remover with the volume muted. Without a word, she clicks off the television. I slide into bed beside her, slip my hand up the front of her nightgown and palm her warm belly. For a second, I think about confessing. 

“Where were you?” 

“Nowhere,” I say. “Thought I heard something.”

Her silence means she doesn’t entirely believe me. 

The secret sits on my tongue. If I were to open my mouth, I fear it may fly out. I try to swallow, but it catches in my throat. Debbie takes my hand and squeezes. “I love you,” she says. Already, the secret has grown to the size of an egg. I want to respond, but can’t. I swallow again and again, slowly choking it down.

image: Caleb Curtiss