On the answering machine a man says a branch from my tree is in his backyard. He lives in the house behind mine and wants me to move my branch from his backyard.
I knock on his door, no one’s home. I go around back. Yes, there is a branch, the size of a car, in his backyard, under a pine tree, which is his. I can see where the branch broke off his tree and fell in his backyard.
The next day there’s another message. The man says he made a mistake. I listen to the message twice and feel that there is no mistake, that this is a scheme designed to trick me into doing work.
My wife Janet comes in with our two kids, Thomas and Ryan.
I am standing here not doing anything.
I push the answering machine button again.
Thomas starts talking about blue whales. Thomas is seven. The message is playing on the machine and Thomas is talking.
“Be quiet a moment,” Janet says. She puts a hand on Thomas’ head.
Ryan starts talking about something, I don’t know what. He’s complaining about something. Ryan is thirteen and a skateboarder. He has an annoyed look on his face. I remember seeing him laughing earlier with friends.
“Ryan,” I say. “We’re trying to listen to the answering machine. Why are you complaining about your life while we are trying to listen to the answering machine?”
Ryan goes to his room.
Ryan is handsome and strong. Thomas is frail and uglier and has buckteeth.
The message ends, Janet looks at me.
She is standing by the sink.
“How was it?” I say.
“How was what?” she says.
“I don’t know. Whatever you just did today.”
Janet comes and pushes the play button. The message starts again. I think about Ryan and I feel anger towards Ryan.
“I parked in the street,” Janet says. “There’s a branch in our driveway. Did you see that?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I saw it.”
“Why didn’t you move it?”
“I didn’t see it,” I say. “I didn’t lie. I mean, I think I saw it. I was distracted. I was going to move it.”
Janet starts walking to the front door.
“I’ll move it,” I say. I walk quickly past her. “I was going to move it but you came in.”
In the driveway is a very large branch. Janet’s car is parked in the street. I see that my own car is also parked in the street. I don’t remember parking in the street. I don’t remember this branch, which looks the same as the branch in the man’s backyard.
I get in my car and drive around the neighborhood. I want to knock down mailboxes, but am able to control myself, which makes me think about discipline and statistics, which makes me think about video games. Zelda, Dragon Warrior. Maybe I’ll buy a Nintendo. I drive back to the house and park in the street. I think that I’ll watch TV before I move the branch.
Janet is washing dishes. I kiss her cheek and smile. She doesn’t look at me, her face is annoyed. I open the refrigerator. I pick up a tray of cheese cubes and close the refrigerator. Janet finishes the dishes, turns around, leans against the sink. She doesn’t look happy. I take a cheese cube and put the tray back in the refrigerator. I toss the cheese cube in my mouth but it hits my forehead and falls on the linoleum, which is sticky and brown. With my feet I push the cheese cube away from the dirty part of the floor. I am wearing socks. Janet is watching me. Thomas walks in.
Thomas and Janet watch me bend, pick up the cheese cube, and eat it.
I think about grinning. I feel tired.
“Thomas, help unload the groceries,” Janet says. She is looking at me. “Move them to the sidewalk first. I’ll be right out.”
“I’ll help,” I say. I get the feeling she’s already told me to unload the groceries. Like she told me to do it and I said I would but then didn’t. Something like that. I’m not sure.
Thomas goes out to the garage.
“Remember Nintendo?” I say. “We used to play.”
Janet looks at me for a very long time.
“Things better change,” she says. “Things should change. Soon.”
“What do you mean?” I say. “Wait. What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about that things need to change.”
“Oh,” I say.
I ask if it was the cheese cube.
“I shouldn’t have eaten it,” I say. “I know. But who knows? What’s wrong with eating that? Is it bad example for Thomas? That’s crazy. Wasting food is a bad example, not preserving food. No one gets sick from eating germs anyway. I mean eating stuff off the ground. The bacteria is healthy. It’s like yeast. Wheat germ.” I don’t understand what I’m talking about. “That’s a myth. That’s just an urban myth. To get you to buy more food.”
“Ryan wants a basketball hoop installed in the driveway,” she says. “What are you going to do about that?”
“Ryan doesn’t play basketball. He’s a skateboarder.”
“What if he does,” Janet says. “Then what? He’s joining the basketball team. What are you going to do?”
I look past her, at the back patio, the swimming pool. I focus on her. She has a banana. I look at the banana. She was washing dishes. Now she has a banana. I remember when Ryan was small and told a friend in an angry voice that he wished his dad were taller and better-looking. I remember when Ryan made fun of Thomas’ buckteeth and Thomas wouldn’t go to school or leave the house for a week.
Janet shakes her head and goes into the living room.
I go to the hallway off the kitchen. I get a belt from the closet and fold it once. Ryan’s door is locked. “Why is this door locked?” I say. I tell Ryan to let me in. He doesn’t say anything.
“What do you need?” he says.
“Scissors,” I say.
Ryan opens the door and I push him and start hitting him. He is on his back on the carpet. He holds his hands in front and I hit him with the belt. He doesn’t have a shirt on and I don’t like that and I don’t know why I don’t like that. He turns away and I hit his shoulders and back. He screams. “Eeeeaaaahhh,” he says. Thomas is here, with a Nerf baseball bat. He holds the foam bat part and hits me with the plastic handle. I keep hitting Ryan. Thomas is crying and Ryan is screaming.
Janet is in the hallway when I finish.
I get in my car. I drive around.
I drive to my friend Jon’s apartment.
Last time I saw Jon he was washing dishes at The Olive Garden.
He is watching The Little Mermaid on TV. The lights are off and the blinds are shut. He looks at me and says my name. I sit next to him on the sofa. He has a remote control and sometimes rewinds a scene and sometimes uses slow motion. He doesn’t say anything. It’s very dark and cool and I fall asleep.
When I wake the heavyset octopus lady is singing. She swims and shoots ink while singing. When she is done the screen becomes very quiet. I hear the air conditioning go on. Jon turns the volume up.
“Hook me up with a job,” he says. “I did it for you. Get me a job.” He puts the volume up some more. It is very loud.
“When did you get me a job?” I say loudly.
I say I’ll try. I tell him I’ll do it, I’ll hook him up. I start talking about Ryan. I don’t want to bother Jon while he’s watching The Little Mermaid, but he doesn’t seem to care, about anything. “I need to tell you something,” I say very loudly. I start talking about the groceries. How Janet was being passive-aggressive. I say something about the two branches. I don’t want to confuse him but I’m confused myself. He puts the volume up more. I can’t hear anything. “I hit Ryan with a belt again,” I scream. “I feel stupid.” I scream that I can’t understand people anymore, that I feel like a five-year-old, that I’m confused all the time. I look at Jon. His hair is oily. There is chocolate, or something, on his face. He puts the volume to maximum. My head hurts. We watch the scene where the crab is in the kitchen and the cook runs around.
My ears are ringing when I get home. The bagged groceries are on the floor in the kitchen and I start putting them in the refrigerator. I’m not strategic about it and after three bags, with four left, there’s no space in the refrigerator. I go to the bedroom.
The bathroom door is open.
Janet is in the shower making strange noises.
I open the glass door and turn off the shower.
She has her clothes on and is flailing around.
Her eyes are not focused.
“Uh, what are you doing?” I say.
She is hitting herself with a bar of soap. I go in and hold her. She moans and sometimes howls. She has a stroke-victim face. I carry her into the bedroom and put her on the bed.
She kicks and punches the air above her. I stare at her. After a while she moves slower. She falls asleep. I lie down beside her. Everything is wet and soapy. There’s green shampoo in her hair and it smells good, but she doesn’t look pretty. I think about divorcing her. I think about lawyers. I might need one. I’ll need to fill out forms, mail things. It seems like too much work.
I go to the living room. Ryan is on the sofa looking at me. I turn to go somewhere else then turn back and sit next to him on the sofa.
I say there’s a new rule. He can’t lock his door. If he locks the door I’ll confiscate it. I turn on the TV. There’s a commercial about cat food. The family is laughing. It shows the cat’s face. It shows the family hugging. I think that Ryan can lock his door if he wants. It’s his room, not mine. I think that in the future if I want to beat him he should have his door locked and not let me in.
I’m ready to say all this. I turn my head and look at him. He’s staring at me. His eyes are twitching a little. I think he’s going to cry and I go to hug him and he takes the remote control off the coffee table and throws it at the TV. It makes a dent in the wall. He looks at me. His eyes are wet. He says something about scissors and says some curse words. He flips the coffee table over. While flipping it over he says, “Raaaarrrggghhh!” He walks away. I hear the door to his room slam.
Janet comes out of the bedroom and runs across the living room, into the kitchen. I hear crashing noises. She comes back in the living room. Her forearms are bleeding. She has a package of hot dogs. She dances in place, an angry dance. She runs away. The house is quiet. Then I hear the piano. The rhythm is off and the chords are a little wrong, but I can tell it’s the theme from Jurassic Park. Sometimes there is shrieking. The playing stops and Janet makes strange noises. Eventually she plays the entire theme and starts playing scales. I fall asleep on the sofa.
Janet is in the swimming pool when I wake the next day. She has on her pharmacist’s coat and Walgreen’s nametag. She is wearing goggles, but one eyepiece is over her nose and the other is over her ear. She climbs out of the pool, says, “Rrrggggrrrgggggggg,” and picks up a towel. She has a disgusted look on her face that doesn’t change. She flails the towel at her body and the towel flings away and she runs toward the pool. When she gets to the water she keeps running and falls in.
I go to work.
In the parking lot my manager is leaned against his car, smoking. I ask if there are any job openings. I say my friend Jon needs a job.
My manager says he’s been fired.
“What? Who fired you?” I say. “How?”
“They fired me,” he says.
“Who?” I say. “I thought you owned it. You’re the owner.”
“I am just fired and now you’re accosting me on all this technical shit. What the fuck are you doing? I just lost my job and you’re hassling me on technicalities.”
I apologize. I say that something strange happened to my wife.
“So what,” he says. “My wife turned strange like fifteen years ago. So you get married and your wife turns strange. So what. Why am I hearing this? What is this? The Young and the Restless? You wake one day, you don’t know anything. Your head is… it feels like a rock. You buy a pet fish, guinea pigs, and your fish throw themselves out of the fish tank and your guinea pigs eat each other. Tell me I’m pessimistic. Do it. I dare you.”
“No,” I say.
“Look,” he says. “All I’m saying is that shit—life is shitty. Shit comes out of your toilet. You go back and shit in the toilet. Twice a day. You know it. Doctors recommend it. You dig a hole in your yard. You put your fish and guinea pigs in. After a shitty day at work you drive your car into that hole. That’s how big you have to dig the hole. You know how big a car can get? Buy some rabbits. Take a piss and stay in the bathroom for a nap. Wipe your ass with the fake plant by the sink—”
He is staring at me. He keeps talking. I start moving away from him. He stops talking.
“I’m going to be late for work,” I say.
“See,” he says. He points at me. “This is what I’m talking about.”
He pushes the lit end of his cigarette into his arm. His face turns red and his neck tremors. “Nngggh,” he says. “Nnnaaarrrrrrrghhhhh!”
I tell him I’ll put in a good word for him. I walk away.
Inside, the phone is ringing but no one is answering. The pizza maker is going but there are no pizzas in it. Everyone is looking at the ground. I look at the ground too. The phone keeps ringing. I pick up the phone. Someone wants to know if there’s a special for one of everything. “I don’t know,” I say. “Wait.” I look at the charts on the walls. I feel tired. I hang up. Some workers take off their uniforms and leave.
After a while it’s just me and a high school girl.
We look at each other.
I don’t know her name.
She backs away and leaves.
I go to Kmart. They don’t have Nintendo. I buy an old model used Game Boy. Outside it is very sunny. I fall asleep a little and almost drive into a school bus.
I sit on the sofa so that Janet is by my feet.
I try to turn on my Game Boy. It has no batteries.
The remote skims the top of my head and lands behind the sofa. Janet looks there and says, “Grrraaagggrraaaaaaaahhhg!”
The doorbell rings and I go there. It’s a man I don’t know. I put my Game Boy on the carpet and open the door.
We shake hands.
“I’m from there,” he says. He tries to point over my house. I feel sleepy when I watch him do this. “I left messages on your machine,” he says.
I tell him to come in. “Wait,” I say. “What do you want from me?”
“I want to apologize,” he says. “I knew the branch wasn’t yours. Sorry. I was having a bad day. I thought I should come over and apologize.”
I tell him it’s okay. I say I have a branch problem, too, in my driveway. I point there. I hear Janet moaning behind me and I turn. One side of her face is moving around but the other side is not, then both sides start moving and she pushes past me, past the man, and runs into the front yard, clawing at air. She is clawing at the air.
“Hey,” I say loudly to the man, who is turned around looking at Janet. “What’s your name?”
“That your wife?” he says.
I squint into the front yard. Janet is by the mailbox, flailing her arms at it. She is shrieking a little. “That’s not my wife,” I say. “Who is that?”
“Yeah, that’s my wife,” I say. “So what?”
I ask him to come inside. “Do you want lemonade?” I say.
“Nah,” he says. “No,” he says in a mock serious voice. He smiles. His teeth are very white and straight. “But you should come over,” he says. “Help me with the branch.”
“The branch,” I say.
He is smiling. “You should come help move the branch,” he says.
“It’s not my branch,” I say.
“I made a plan,” he says. He has papers. They look like blueprints. “But it’s going to take two men to do this.”
I shut the door. He stands on my front porch for a long time then leaves. I open the door.
He has rubber-banded one of his papers on my doorknob.
“Plans,” the paper says. “Use a hammer to smash the branch. Carry the branch—” I turn the paper over. There’s a drawing of two men. One is on the patio, on a recliner, sipping a tropical drink and eating cantaloupe slices. The other is underneath a branch. There is blood on the man who is under the branch.
I fold the paper until it’s small and hard. I put it in my pocket.
“Janet,” I shout. She runs back in the house. She is sweating and has pieces of mail crumpled in her right hand. There is a mail in her hair.
In the living room I turn the table upright.
I get a plate, put salsa and chips on the plate, put the plate on the table.
I sit on the sofa.
Janet looks at the chips and salsa. She gets a sleepy look on her face. She drops the mail and throws herself on the table. She squirms on the table, belly down. Some salsa gets in her mouth and she howls. After a while she falls at my feet, between the sofa and the table. “Krraaarraaghh,” she says. I try to lift her but I feel tired and sit back down. I lean forward to pet her. She bites at my hand. There are chips and salsa on her face, which is bleeding a little.
I lean back into the sofa. I look around at our TV and family photos. I look at the swimming pool. I stare at the swimming pool. It’s very sunny outside. I fall asleep a little, then hear the kitchen door shut and feet moving throughout the house.
Ryan comes in the living room with his friend Eric, a group of small girls and boys who look about four-years-old, and Thomas. I see that Thomas and Ryan have shaved their heads on the sides and have blue Mohawks. Thomas has “666” written on his forehead in blue marker.
They look at Janet. I look at them and they look at me.
“There’s my dad who beats me,” Ryan says. “There’s my mom who’s a zombie. See?” he says to Eric. “Are you looking?”
“She has a virus,” Eric says. “It’s a virus. That’s not a zombie. Zombies have stiff body movement. She’s faking.”
“She is a zombie,” Thomas says.
“Vampires and Frankenstein and Snakes are bad people,” says one of the small boys. “And zombies.” He makes a cross with his fingers and holds it toward Janet.
Ryan looks at the small girls and boys. “Okay,” he says. “Pay me money.”
The girls and boys hold out crumpled up bills toward Ryan.
“Don’t,” Eric says. “Don’t pay him. She’s not a zombie.”
Ryan pushes Eric. “What the fuck are you talking about?” Ryan says.
Eric stumbles and recovers and stares at me. He has something in his shirt pocket. He squints at me.
“Forget it,” he says. “You chumps are getting ripped off. Three-year old chumps.”
Ryan takes the money puts it in his pocket.
They look at me and Janet and I look back at them. I start thinking that I should get up soon to buy a hammer to smash the branch. I’ll need to call an ambulance for when I’m underneath the branch. There are two branches. I yawn and rub my eyes. Janet is at my feet. I can hear her sobbing. I think she’s sobbing.
“She’s the living dead,” Thomas says. “The undead demon lord from on the other side of the River Styx.” He puts his hands on his head and claps at his Mohawk.
“What’s its name?” says one of the girls.
“Hell monster,” Thomas says.
Eric puts his hand in his shirt pocket and takes something out. It’s my Game Boy.
He tosses it from one hand to the other, then puts it back in his shirt pocket. “Swish,” he says.
I yawn. My eyes fill with water.
“There’s my dad who beats me,” Ryan says. He puts his arm around Thomas and points at me. “He beats me with a belt.” He looks at Eric and Eric nods.