by Jason Namey
Pickle likes his ex-wife’s house because when he steps out for a night piss the Tallahassee streetlights light and shape the plants like clay dogs.
He coughs into his elbow and curls down on the couch, pulling the sheet up to his wet armpits. It’s patterned Winnie the Pooh and must have been around since his daughter was a child. His hands come up dusty. Did nobody wash it for him?
Whenever he’s really working to fall asleep, he’ll smack his lips. Maybe he saw that in a movie once.
He sits up then lays back down just to sit up again in clean rotation till the sun starts to rattle against the trees. He wants to watch TV but scares about waking everyone, decides to just watch it on mute but can’t crack the remote. The screen won’t flash no matter which button he presses how many times.
He leans back and lets his eyes trace the roof like it were a maze to solve. He tries not to stare at that stain, the one shaped like pimpled lungs.
Today, his daughter is coming to visit. He just wants it to go well enough for her to not be like the rest and forget him already.
Like his landlord who forgot who he was and changed the locks.
Like his old neighbors who forgot who he was and wouldn’t let him borrow some cash.
Like his buddy Mike who said, “Sorry friend-o, I don’t have room for guests right now.”
A few hours later, Sand and Bill come down. They fry up pancakes from a box and top them with blackberry jam. Pickle eats just a bite, two. He can’t tell if he’s not hungry or just nervous about seeing her.
“Did you sleep okay?” Sand asks.
“Sorry we have nothing more comfortable,” Bill says. “Why don’t we go by Walmart later, buy you a blowup?”
“Maybe he likes the couch,” Sand says. “Sometimes there is nothing more comfortable than a couch.”
“What if he finds himself a young lady?” Bill turns to Pickle and winks. “Sorority Row is just a few miles thataway.”
Sand giggles and whispers something to Bill. Pickle tries to let out a polite laugh but it falls into a coughing fit. He wipes phlegm on the cushion without thinking.
Pickle leans forward and uses the coffee table to push himself up. The empty dishes on top chatter against each other. After finding his balance, he goes over to his bag and pulls a pack of cigarettes.
Sand and Bill watch him struggle the sliding door open.
He sits on the concrete bench and looks back at his reflection in the glass door, distorted amid a collage of waist-high smears as if rubbed off a dog’s nose.
Tapping his empty breast pocket, he realizes he can’t find his lighter. He scans the patio, cluttered with the same old bullshit: lawn chairs messed with mildewed rags, a shovel rusting against the house, cans of bug spray capped neon orange—shining among the muck. A small tin bowl rung with mold. A grill caked with ash, or is that dirt? Hanging from it, a utility lighter.
“Bingo,” Pickle says, reaching.
In the morninglight the plants look like plain old plants. It’s hard to tell quite how they shape the way they do at night: clay dogs frozen as if while running. The long grass droops back over itself like rows of barbed wire fence. Pickle fantasizes about cutting it. He can’t remember when he last sweated.
A kiddie pool sits pushed up against a tree, dirt gathered in its mouth and mixed with stale rain. A squirrel, perched on top, jerks its head around.
“Fuck you, squirrel,” he says, then slaps at the mosquitos tickling his neck.
When Pickle gets back inside, Sand and Bill are heading upstairs to get ready for work.
“Try not to sit on the couch when you’ve just finished smoking,” Bill says.
“Don’t listen to him,” Sand says.
“Don’t listen to me,” Bill says.
Pickle wants to show he can respect even their pettiest wishes. But he feels suddenly flint-kneed and lightheaded so he just nods and starts to say “Sorry,” but hears their door shut so instead he says it to himself. He can’t find his water cup on the coffee table.
After a short commotion of drawers and hair dryers, they come back down. Sand says, “I talked to Cyn yesterday. She’ll be by around noon. Tell her to call me.”
“Noon,” Pickle says. “We’ll see.”
“Don’t start,” Sand says. “Ask her about school, her major. I think you’ll be proud.”
As they turn to leave, Bill motions to the fridge, “There is salami if you get hungry. Help yourself to whatever except—” Sand glares at him. “Whatever.”
“Could I get some water?” Pickle asks, holding his hand out.
“Sure, help yourself,” Bill says as he opens the front door.
“I’ll meet you in the car,” Sand says.
“Aye, aye.” Bill goes outside and, a second later, starts the engine.
Sand walks over and sits next to Pickle. “Hey,” she says.
Pickle tries to put on a small smile.
“Are you scared?” she asks.
“There’s a first time for everything.” He stares at his feet.
“You’re brave,” she says.
“What have I ever done that were so brave?”
She squeezes his hand and looks away.
“We’re all brave,” she says.
“I’d rather be a coward,” Pickle says.
“Well, maybe you’re that, too.”
“I don’t know if death is the end,” he says. “But I sure hope it is.”
After a minute, she looks over with the mood of her face changed entire.
“You don’t know what all you’ve costed us,” she says, moving her hand back to her lap.
“What the hell are you talking about?” he says.
“Wouldn’t it be just like you to have nothing but a ‘what the hell’ to show for it all.” She stands up.
“It’s me,” he says. “Pickle.”
“What are you doing here?”
Here. The word hits him like an empty vessel.
“I’m not Here,” he says. “I’m Pickle. Don’t you remember me?”
“Here as in here.”
He feels thrown into a play with no script. He searches her with his eyes.
“Here,” she stomps her foot and points to the ground. “Right here.”
“Huh?” Pickle says.
Bill honks the car horn twice: a long one followed by a short almost apology.
“You’re something,” she says and walks outside before he can respond.
He sees his blurred reflection in the TV screen and wonders if he would remember himself either. If he weren’t himself, that is.
The clock shows only 8:30.
He wishes he had asked her about the remote.
It’s truly amazing, he thinks, how much time there is in a day. If a person only had one or two days to live, that wouldn’t be much less than a lifetime.
Without meaning to, he falls asleep.
A knock rings out.
“Come in,” Pickle gasps, startled awake. But the knocking continues. His eyes confuse around the room. The hearing-aid makes it hard to tell where sounds come from and now he can’t seem to find the front door. It doesn’t help that, having just woken up, everything appears a blur poured out.
After surveying what feels like a different room each time his eyes make a pass, he squints the light gold of a door handle. He can’t tell if it’s locked, but Cyn must have a key.
“Come in,” he shouts, robbing breath from his lungs. Door and lock collide then collide again. The knocking resumes.
Dammit, Pickle thinks, pushing off the couch and rocking forward to not so much stand as fall upward. He uses first the countertop then the wall to steady himself as he makes his way.
Now don’t get annoyed already, Pickle tells himself.
He reaches over and unlocks the door.
Instead of his daughter, he opens it to a man his own age, wearing a loose smock with a cross patterned breast. The man holds out his arms as if to say: Ta-da.
“May I come in?”
“No,” Pickle says, caught off guard.
“Are you Peter?” the man asks.
“Do I know you?”
“Sand and Bill invited me.”
“People call me Pickle.”
“May I come in?” the man says.
“No,” Pickle says.
“Pickle,” he says. “I won’t be long.”
“I’m expecting my daughter,” Pickle says. “Fact, I thought you were her.”
The man peels out a watch. “Not till noon. It’s only ten. May I come in?”
“How many times you gonna ask?”
“That was the last time,” the man says.
Pickle steps back. “I’m holding you to the few minutes.” He tries to walk confidently but only makes it a few feet before leaning hard against the counter.
The man stops behind him.
“Have a seat,” Pickle motions to the couch. The man walks around and sits on the near cushion, but scoots when Pickle nearly falls in his lap.
“Do you know why I’m here?” the man asks.
The word carries a familiar unfamiliarity. Pickle takes a guess. “Is that some sort of parable? The Priest and the Here?”
“First, let me say you’re very lucky. You have a beautiful, kind family.”
“You say that like you’re the one who figured it out,” Pickle says.
“No, no,” the man says. “I just think it’s important to remember what all we have. How lucky we are. How lucky we have been.”
“What do you mean ‘we’?” Pickle says. “You planning to come with me?”
“In some form,” the man says. “In some fashion.”
“Only one fashion I know of,” Pickle says.
“Would you like to pray with me?” the man asks.
“No,” Pickle says.
The man nods and looks around the room. “That’s a fine TV. I have the same one, actually. Why don’t we sit, and watch something?” He picks up the remote. “Would you like to sit and quietly enjoy some television with me? Yes, then, after a bit, if there is anything you want to talk about, anything you want to confess or beg absolution for, just start. I’ll be listening, even if it doesn’t seem like I am.”
“They let you have a TV?”
“College football,” the man says. “I can’t live without it.”
“Do you look away when they show the cheerleaders?”
The man laughs. “Maybe we could do your confession now?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Pickle says, coughing.
The man sighs and abruptly leans forward. “Well, then I guess I should get going. Bird feathers and water, Pickle.”
“Those are the only two things you can legally throw from the window of your car.”
With that, he stands and leaves.
I should have asked him about the remote, Pickle thinks. He decides to again try figuring it out himself but now he can’t find the damn thing anywhere.
He taps the pack of cigarettes in his breast pocket and closes his eyes, soon back asleep.
Near one o’clock his daughter comes but not alone. She knocks on the door as it opens, like a mother who doesn’t want to catch her son touching himself.
Pickle snaps awake. He had only been half-asleep: still aware of his body but enjoying pulses of strange imagery.
The first thing he thinks is, Fuck, I want a cigarette.
The second thing he thinks is, Say hello to your daughter, asshole.
He can’t believe how beautiful she’s become. Short, yes, but too smart to be a model anyway. Not brilliant, perhaps, but possessed by a certain intuitiveness. He wonders how she did in high school. Was she class president? Valedictorian? Prom Queen? No, likely not. But who decided those things matter?
“Cynthia,” he says and pushes everything through his legs to stand, but his body doesn’t do more than resettle on the couch. “Introduce me to your friend.”
“This is Pat,” she says. “Pat, say hi.”
“Hi,” Pat says.
“Hi,” Cynthia says.
Pickle tries again and partly rises but not far past still slumped with one hand on the couch’s arm.
They don’t come more than a few steps inside. Cynthia kicks something small and rubbery down the hall. A dog toy, perhaps.
“Pat’s a musician,” Cynthia says.
“Musical student,” Pat says, blushing.
“A musician,” Pickle says. “Marvelous.”
“It is marvelous,” Cynthia says.
“I’m really not that good,” Pat says, blushing even more.
“And what are you studying, dear?” Pickle says.
“I’m studying History,” she beams.
“No,” Pickle says. “No, that’s not right.”
“History,” he says. “No, I don’t like that at all.”
“Now sir,” Pat says, stepping forward and holding a palm out like Pickle is some beggar they saw on the street. “I know we just met, but I’m set to take offense. With all due respect, you don’t know a damn thing about your daughter.”
“You’ll never be a musician if you keep defending people,” Pickle says, coughing into his elbow. This makes Pat back up and quiet, as though he can’t handle any challenge to his identity.
Pickle wishes he could be nicer to his daughter, but it’s like every time she does or says anything he’s learning new ways to be disappointed. New areas of disappointment he didn’t even know existed.
Cynthia turns to Pat, “I told you he would get like this.”
“You did. You told me.”
“Didn’t I tell you?”
“You did. I said you did.”
“Like what?” Pickle says, feeling like he just walked into the middle of a conversation. “It’s me, Cyn. Don’t you remember me?”
“Like why are you even here?” Cynthia says. “You’re too good to die in a hospital? Or at your apartment?”
“Why do people keep saying that?” he says, near pleading. “Doesn’t anyone remember me? I’m not Here. I’m Pickle, your dad.”
“This isn’t your home!” she screams. “Mom and Bill have been through enough already.”
“Enough?” Pickle says.
“Perfect,” Cynthia says. “We’re gone.”
“Call your mother,” Pickle says. Feeling proud for having completed that small task.
“It was nice meeting you, sir,” Pat says.
“Fuck you, Pat,” Pickle says. He takes out his cigarettes and pulls the utility lighter from his jeans. Cynthia turns back at him.
“Smoke more cigarettes,” she says. “Never stop smoking.”
She slams the door. It was too late from the moment she walked in, Pickle thinks. She never had a chance of remembering me. But he had remembered to tell her to call her mother. You couldn’t take that away from him. He could imagine the conversation now: Mother, some man in your house told me to call you. The kindness of strangers, she would say from across the wire, shaking her head. Where would we be without it?
But a musician! he thinks. What a marvelous profession. What had Pickle studied again? Thirty years ago in his undergraduate days? History? He thinks it might have been History.
History, yes, it had been History.
But History had been different back then, of course. More interesting things had happened back when he studied. Now there is nothing interesting that has happened.
He lights his cigarette and leans his head back. Call your mother. He congratulates himself for the job well done.
After a few shallow inhales, he drifts off. The cigarette tumbles from his lips and lands on the sheet and, before long, it is aflame. Pickle lies stoic as a self-immolating monk, skin melting like yogurt in the sun.
The devil wakes him with a pat on the shoulder.
Pickle looks over. The devil has a large, open ledger on his lap and bifocals near fallen off his nose. “Hey, I know you,” Pickle says. To his right, a dog sits licking itself.
The devil tilts the book toward Pickle and motions with a pen. “Does that look like an ‘R’ or a ‘P’ to you?”
Pickle coughs into his elbow, but nothing comes up. Just dry coughing. “It’s awfully burning in here,” he says.
Here… Here. Here. Here.
How did everyone forget such a simple word?
Smoke curtains upward around the couch, leaving the two of them in a sort of well.
“Do you know how to work this thing?” Pickle asks, reaching through the smoke for the remote. He gropes around the coffee table, knocking his cup over before finding it. “I want to watch Jeopardy.”
The TV isn’t visible through the smoke, but Trebek always reads the answers out loud.
“If you hit the little red button, it’ll record it.”
“The which button?”
“Give it here.”
Pickle hands him the remote and the devil breaks it over his knee.
“That wasn’t mine, I hope you know.”
“I think I would have done it either way.”
“Fuck you, devil,” Pickle says.
The devil laughs.
“What’s your favorite movie?” Pickle asks.
“Apocalypse Now,” the devil says.
“That’s a good one,” Pickle says. “Good choice.”
The devil beams.
“Want to hear a joke?” the devil says.
“Sure,” Pickle says.
“Let me get a cigarette,” the devil says.
“Don’t take the lucky one.” Pickle hands him the pack.
The devil sticks one partway up his nose. “What am I?” he asks.
“I give,” Pickle says.
“An elephant about to face the firing squad.”
“What caused 9/11?”
“I was flying to LA and forgot to turn my phone on airplane mode.”
Pickle stares at him.
The dog licks itself.
“I’m outta here,” the devil says and scurries over the couch. Pickle hears him open the window and climb out.
The smoke around Pickle doesn’t get any closer or farther away, it just stays a constant stream, the fire sounding chirps and rattles. He tries to stand and walk around a bit, stretch his legs, but his lower torso is stuck to the couch, melted to it. Flesh spun between fibers.
Dammit, Pickle thinks. I really want to scratch my ass.
So what now?
He wishes he could see a clock.
Bored, he taps his palms on his knees like: ho-hum. But then he does it again and again until he finds the beat of some song he invents as he goes along. After he finds a pattern in his hands, he begins to whistle, only able to scale a few bars before coughing. He keeps tapping until he finds his breath and starts to whistle again, erupting quickly into another coughing fit. But he doesn’t stop tapping his knees. He whistles again: same result.
But, he slowly starts to realize, the coughing is part of the song, too. He plays it up, extending it past what’s natural.
So, on, Pickle decides, to continue, in this fashion, until somebody asks him to stop, which, he knows, no one ever will.