Bourbon Penn 5

American Marsupial

by Clifford Garstang

Danny Fleischman's keys slipped from his sweat-slicked fingers and fell to the brownstone's stoop. As he bent to retrieve them, he felt his heart race, like a CD on fast forward, bass thumping double-time in his chest. His hands shook. On the third try, he managed to plunge the key into the lock.

He found Andrea in their narrow kitchen, chopping tomatoes in the Cuisinart, watching on their portable Samsung CNN's perpetual replay of the Monument falling like a cartoon tree — all 555 feet of it, landing every time with a thud that seemed to shake the video camera of the lucky tourist who captured the catastrophe, accompanied by a chorus of gasps and screams and a rolling cloud of dust. Danny deposited his briefcase on the counter. He felt the sensation of dust on his tongue, unclipped the cellphone from his belt, lifted his wife's skirt, and climbed into her womb.

His pulse slowed, the beating of his heart quieted in the close, dark space. He felt the warmth of the womb surround him.

While the news loop continued on TV, Andrea grunted and pushed and dragged him out.

"I don't have time for this, Danny," she said. He squinted and blinked, the world's bright lights stinging his eyes, and lifted a foot to climb back in. Little Jeremy got there first.

"Me," said the boy.

Danny treasured his son. He remembered the painful delivery, when no one noticed that his own convulsions matched Andrea's. He marveled every day that this growing, learning creature had come from him and now was becoming part of the universe, whether they liked it or not. And of course, Jeremy needed his mother. It was understandable. But everyone seemed to forget that he had needs, too.

"Me," said Danny. He tugged and struggled with his son until Andrea shoved him away and let Jeremy in.

"Jeremy is the child, Danny. It's his right."

"But I was here first," he whined. He took a beer from the stainless Kenmore, slammed the door, winced guiltily at the whoosh of air, the clank of bottles inside, and stomped into the living room.

• • •

Earlier, at work, in the glass and steel Miracle Mile skyscraper where for seven years he'd toiled as a copywriter, news of the attack had spread fast, leaping virally from cubicle to cubicle: there was an explosion on the Mall in Washington. Not a hijacked plane this time — a bomb. Danny's vacationing boss kept a TV in her office, a flat-screen Panasonic, and the hushed staff crowded around. All the Chicago stations showed the same thing. The Monument fell. The Monument fell. The Monument fell again.

"We should evacuate," Danny had said, looking from Mindy, another copywriter, to Gerald, to the guy from accounting, back to Mindy. His voice trembled and caught. "Don't you think we should evacuate?"

In the absence of their boss, who was with her husband on a Mexican beach, Danny was in charge. No one had ever said as much, since the boss expected to be called on her cell for anything important, but to Danny it was self-evident. Sure, there were others with more seniority, but he'd been there a long time — going on seven years — and was tall and good looking, unquestionably the boss's favorite. She'd expect him to lead the troops in a crisis.

"Shouldn't we?" he asked.

Mindy rolled her eyes. "It's in Washington," she said. "We're in Chicago."

Mindy had grown up in the south suburbs and pronounced "Washington" and "Chicago" with a nasal twang that tickled Danny's north suburban ears. His mother was a Southsider. He loved listening to Mindy talk.

Andrea, on the other hand, his wife of five years, was from Massachusetts. They'd met when Danny was in Boston for his one-semester stab at law school, abandoned after an intense Socratic grilling by the Contracts prof that left Danny lightheaded, short of breath, and longing for Chicago. When he saw her in a coffee shop, sipping a latte, foam icing her lip, he'd felt an instant attraction. He struck up a conversation. Her accent was all wrong, her r's twisted like backwards underwear. But she was freckled and short and had an upturned nose. Like his mother.

His mother, who got him a shot at his job — she knew someone who knew someone — despite no advertising qualifications, no experience of any kind. His mother, who pressed his shirt for the interview, knotted his tie, shined his shoes.

Before he and Andrea were married, and before Andrea had moved out to Chicago from her beloved, ancestral Boston to be with him, but after they'd been engaged long-distance for more than two years, and with the wedding closing in on him like an asteroid racing calamitously toward Earth, Danny and Mindy had an affair. It was torrid. Mindy had skills. He broke it off a week before the ceremony.

The Monument fell, and fell.

• • •

He always knew there'd be heart problems, on top of everything else. Hadn't his mother's uncle died of a heart attack? Uncle Chet was seventy-something, of course, but that didn't mean Danny would be immune, even as a young man, no matter what the EKG said. He first became aware of the chest pains following that disastrous half-year in law school, after he'd met Andrea, become engaged, dropped out and moved back home, after he'd lucked into the ad agency job, after he'd started seeing Mindy on the side. He saw a doctor. And when that doctor was no help, he saw another. And another.

After his latest visit to this latest doctor, Danny decided not to go back to the office. Why should he? He'd made it clear enough to anyone who was listening — and he knew Mindy heard everything, it was what made her both an outstanding copywriter and, in those distant days, an attentive, scrupulous lover — that he wasn't feeling well, that his fingers tingled and he couldn't catch his breath, that the doctor would squeeze him in. Never mind that this Dr. Shapiro could find nothing wrong. He was a quack, they were all quacks. Danny had a weak heart, it was obvious, it was why he'd quit his regular tennis matches with Marc Silverblatt, it was why he'd had to stop going to the gym and avoid climbing stairs and shoveling snow, and if something happened to him, if his heart exploded in his chest as Danny knew one day it would, leaving Andrea alone and Jeremy without a father, depriving his mother of her only son, then Shapiro and all the other so-called doctors would have hell to pay.

And besides, he couldn't get the image of the Monument out of his mind, falling over and over again. It was bad enough that even days later there was hardly anything else on TV. But the collapse now was in his head, etched there, indelible. They had struck at the symbol of America's might and deflated the national conscience. And he wasn't feeling too well himself.

He went home. Not his home, where he lived with Andrea and Jeremy, but home home, the house in Winnetka where he grew up. When he came back from Boston, he'd lived in the apartment above his parents' garage, and he drove every day down Sheridan Road and along Lake Shore Drive to Michigan Avenue, certain that the tumor growing inside his left temporal lobe, which the CT scans never seemed to find, would finally reach the point at which his vision blurred and he would miss the S turn at Diversey, plunging into the Lincoln Park lagoon.

He parked in the driveway. Instead of heading directly into the house, he moved to the steep steps leading up to his old apartment. Those were carefree days, except for his health. No child to compete with, no responsibilities, no falling Monuments. A wonderful life. He started up the steps, clutched his chest, felt the sweat bead on his forehead, and lifted one foot after the other. Inside, in the lemony air his mother kept fresh for him, he collapsed on the sofa. He closed his eyes. He imagined the embracing aroma of baking bread. The door creaked open.

"I saw your car in the driveway, dear." His mother came in, bearing a tray. "Tell me about your day."

Although she spoke like Mindy and resembled Andrea, his mother had swollen over the years, in her bosom, her hips. He eyed her ampleness, watched her float across the room like a billowy cloud.

She set the tray on the coffee table, turned the plate of chocolate chip cookies so that the largest was within Danny's reach, and pushed the tall glass of milk toward him.

"I wasn't feeling well, Mom."

"We're having spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Your favorite!"

His mother drifted next to him, spread her legs and let him climb inside. He felt her beating heart, surrendered himself to the warmth of her.

• • •

"Andrea doesn't understand me." Danny stared at the ceiling over his bed in the Marriott "She's changed."

"She's never been right for you," said Mindy, raising one arm, stroking Danny's shoulder with the other.

They'd flown out to San Francisco together for the American Advertising Association convention. On the plane, Danny drank three whiskey sours — he told Mindy over and over how much he hated flying, while she stroked his arm and cooed — and at the hotel they wound up in the bar, then his room.

"It's always 'Jeremy this' and 'Jeremy that.' She used to have time for me."

Mindy kissed Danny's cheek. "I've got time."

Danny curled against her, felt her warmth, her dampness. He closed his eyes and wondered if she could give him what he needed, wondered if there was room enough inside.

"You work too hard," she said. "You need someone who can take care of you. I waited. I knew you'd come around."

• • •

"You went to the doctor again? What's that — the third time this week?" Andrea served a bowl of mac and cheese to Jeremy, then poured marinara sauce on Danny's spaghetti and cut him a thick slice of garlic bread.

It was the fifth time, actually. He hadn't told her about the Wednesday visits, one before work and one after lunch, when he was sure his heart was preparing to quit.

"We talked about this, Danny. You've got to see someone about this obsession."

"Are there meatballs?" he asked.

Andrea clucked and shook her head.

He couldn't tune out the droning television, the little Samsung in the kitchen, the Zenith in the living room, the sound of the Monument falling again and again, the shrieks. It had been more than a month and still it was all over the news, like a new theme song for life in America. He was sick of hearing about it, America under attack, the knife in America's heart. Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility, but so had the Aryan Brotherhood and a previously unknown kook who demanded freedom for the Unabomber. It didn't matter who did it. America was afraid.

"It's hardly my fault that I'm sick." He reached for her skirt.

She slapped his hand away. "I think we both know whose fault it is."

He looked at his wife. He blinked. How could he ever have thought she looked like his mother? They weren't at all alike. With his fingers, he picked a noodle from his plate, put it in his mouth, and sucked it all the way in. Jeremy applauded and laughed.

"Danny," Andrea said, her face contorted in a reproving frown.

Again he reached for her and slowly sank to his knees. He lifted her skirt.

• • •

He drove up to Winnetka. He'd told Andrea he had to work on Sunday, and he'd told Mindy that Andrea had demanded he take her and Jeremy to see the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. After the San Francisco trip, he'd been seeing Mindy regularly: long lunches spent at her place in Sandburg Village; nights when he told Andrea he had to work late; a trip to New York for another conference, one that didn't exist. Exhausted, Danny slipped into his parents' house.

His mother was cooking corned beef while slicing and chopping cabbage for slaw. She raised her cheek to be kissed. He took a beer from the refrigerator and joined his father on the couch in the living room, watching the Magnavox big screen. The Monument fell.

"Dad, can't we watch something else? A ball game? A movie?"

"It's the world, son. It's news. It's what's important." The Monument fell.

Danny headed out to the garage apartment. His mother hadn't changed a thing since he lived there, just as she'd left his room in the house untouched from his high school days, with his trophies and that Pearl Jam poster. In the apartment were his old boombox, a tower of cassette tapes, a mini fridge that his mother kept stocked with Miller Lite, a 2001 calendar tacked to the wall. September was circled, the month he got married, the month the world changed, the month time stood still. He lay on the bed, closed his eyes.

When he woke, Mindy stood over him. Her arms were crossed, lips pursed.

"The museum, huh? Dinosaurs?"

He blinked, tried to make the dream go away. She wasn't a dream.

"I went there," she said. "I wanted to watch you with your kid. To see your wife. I looked all over the fucking museum."

"It was . . ." No, she knew it wasn't closed. "He . . . changed his mind, wanted to go to the park."

"I called your house. Your wife answered."

"She — "

"I drove by. Looked in the window. They were both inside."

The door swung open and Danny's mother appeared, wearing an apron, a steaming plate of beef and boiled potatoes balanced on her hand. "Oh," she said, stopping in the open door, and then, "Oh," again.

"Tell him to come down here to eat, for cryin' out loud," came the voice of his father, shouted from the kitchen window.

"Grandma!" That was Jeremy's voice, followed by the slammed door to Andrea's minivan and then her voice. "Is he here?"

"Oh," said his mother, nearly dropping the overloaded plate.

Jeremy's footsteps on the stairs, followed by Andrea's, then his father's.

Andrea glared at Mindy from the door. Mindy glared back. The Monument fell.

"We meet at last," said Mindy. Now her familiar accent made him wince.

"Are you sleeping?" asked Jeremy and jumped onto the bed, still clutching his Gameboy. Danny wondered what he could ever teach this child, who would grow up in a world that wasn't safe, where there was nowhere to hide.

"Who is she?" asked Andrea, still looking at Mindy.

"On the news," said his father. "They're saying it wasn't Al Qaeda. It was some anti-war whackos. I knew it all along. Makes you think, doesn't it?"

"What's going on?" asked his mother.

"I mean, who can you trust?" asked his father.

"She's not right for you," said Mindy. "You said so yourself."

"This is who you've been sleeping with?" Andrea was nearly shouting. "Her?"

"Oh, my," said his mother.

"I — " began Danny.

"Daddy?" said Jeremy. How could he protect his son? It was a dangerous world.

"Danny," said Mindy and Andrea, and his mother.

"Son?" said his father.

Danny looked at his son, then at Mindy and Andrea, his parents. He closed his eyes and saw the Monument falling, the rolling cloud of dust. He heard the shrieks and sirens. It could happen here, it could happen anywhere. No one was safe. No one. He curled tight on the bed, burying his face beneath the pillow, pulled the blanket over him. He felt the warmth of his own blood, heard the pulsing beat of his own heart, and willed them all to be gone.

Clifford Garstang is the author of the novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53, 2012), and the prize-winning short story collection In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009). His work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Virginia Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, Tampa Review, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere, and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series. He won the 2006 Confluence Fiction Prize and the 2007 GSU Review Fiction Prize. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Sewanee Writers' Conference. In addition to degrees in law and public administration, he holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and is the co-founder and editor of Prime Number Magazine.