Here's chapter one of a short story I'm working tentatively entitled "Wolf." I envision it being around twenty-thousand words or so.
Wolf: Chapter One
My father always hated Christmas. This was rather inconvenient for my brother and me, for as the day grew closer and closer, Dad became more and more cantankerous. Our natural enthusiasm for yuletide waned year after year, to the great chagrin of our mother. Mom loved Christmas. She loved decorating, stringing lights, placing ornaments, putting the dogs in ill-fitting costumes. She loved the story of Christmas as well, the virgin birth, the miraculous Christ-child, the coming of the Magi, the angels singing in the heavens. It was a tradition to read the story before opening presents. Father was never present for the reading or gift-giving. He'd always buy us something, usually an odd object that we hadn't asked for (I received a razor and shaving cream when I was nine years old), but he never wanted to see our faces, our muffled looks of disappointment. My father just couldn't handle witnessing the joy or displeasure a gift could bring. He was a strange man. My brother claims to have seen him sneaking in through our window stark naked one Christmas night, his body hairless and covered in scars. Dad got in a lot of fights; I do remember that. He never struck us. He never had to. We lived in perpetual fear of the prospect of Father's anger. You could see it boiling beneath the surface of his skin, a dark, seething rage, implacable, unreasonable, genetic, I guess.
It is November twenty-ninth, and the old anxiety returns, this time in my own household. My name is Harrison Deforest, and I live in a small town in southern Indiana with my wife Debra and her daughters Brittany and Chastity, and I don't know what to get them for Christmas. Some sort of toy should be fine for Brittany, she being eight years old, but Chastity, a teenager, is impossible to shop for. This is a yearly struggle for me. Maybe if they were my blood children, it would be different. I could've had some time to figure out the process. But I am not their father; I am Harry, the guy who sleeps with their mother. I am the breadwinner, the chauffeur, the Voice of Reason, but I am not Dad, which is okay with me, really. I will perform the functions of the office sans title, because there is power in a name, connotations that are impossible to ignore. That scowling face in the anteroom hiding from the shadow of the Christmas tree can belong to Harry, not Dad. I wouldn't want to scar anyone's perception of a sacred holiday.
Outside it is beginning to snow, light flakes of ash settling on my lawn. The weatherman said it was a bad day for going outside, that the acidity levels would be high, the air almost poisonous to breath, and he's right, for once. Our house is in a brand new suburb called Willow Lakes, though there are no willow trees, and the lake is just a chemically-treated pond. The air filtration system in our home is top-notch, a real improvement from the place where we had been living. You can take a nice, long, clean breath and not start gagging. There are talks of installing a bubble around the whole burb to create a microclimate. That way, on bad days, you could still go outside. It's this sort of progressivism that keeps us happy we moved here. Chastity says that the place lacks character, but she's being a teenager. She'd find something wrong with wherever we lived.
I pull myself away from the window and go to the living room where my family is relaxing. Debra is watching television; Chastity is texting on her phone, while Brittany plays a game on hers. The computer sits by the window, away from the couch and the television, its empty screen beckoning to me. My wife asks me to come watch television with her, and I comply. Debra likes to recline. She is pretty, soft, and doe-eyed, a placid creature, one made to be held. I put my arm around her shoulders and commence watching the screen. Some women are bickering at each other; one is short and stout, with the face of troll, while the other is tall and full of fangs, spittle flying from her tongue. The volume is soft, but these women are shouting, their curses bleeped, the vitriol seeping through like a wound that won't clot. My wife is absorbed in their argument; either that, or she's zoning out, dialing in to another world. Our dog, Rufus, comes in and paws at my leg. I shake his paw like a gentlemen, and get up to fit a mask over his snout. I put my own on, and we go outside.
It's difficult for a dog to sniff something with a mask over his muzzle, but Rufus goes through the motions, trampling over dying mums and broken branches, his urine flowing forth at random intervals. I stare absent-mindedly at the road, noting the lack of traffic. It's quiet out here, the woods looming on a hillside behind our house. You see deer every once in a while, though some of them don't look so healthy, their pelts scarred by acid rain, their lungs corroded by greenhouse gases. The world is an environmental disaster of an unprecedented scale, according to a talking head on television yesterday. I don't think about it too much, despite the daily inconveniences. I still remember when you could go outside without a mask everyday and when gas prices were below six dollars a gallon. Either Rufus's muted sense of smell found something, or his intuition is good, for he's frantically digging up the earth, sending clods my way, trying to get at a rodent. He doesn't think of consequences; he just acts, like an animal. Were Debra witnessing this, she'd put a stop to it with shrieking. He's ruining the yard, Harry. But there's nothing to ruin. The grass is brown, and the flowers have died, and no amount of nitrates this time of year would restore them to health. I say let him do as he does. That's what we all do, right?
My neighbor waddles out his front door with his own beast, an obese pug named Charles. He waves, but Charles starts barking, his little yips furious and full of righteous indignation and murderous intent. Rufus just stares at him like he's a moron; Rufus belongs to a higher class of canine, and has more control over his emotions. I can tell he wants to go over there and tear fat Charles a new one, but like a good animal, he looks up at me, knowing that decorum must be preserved at all costs, and goes back to his hole to see if anything can be discovered.
"How's it going, Howard?" asks Ronald. Ronald is a middle-aged Latino man, a banker. I estimate that he tips the scales at around three-hundred and fifty pounds.
"My heart is filled with the Christmas spirit. I wish good will to everyone," I reply
"You guys don't celebrate Kwanza?" asks Ronald, semi-serious. He gives fat Charles a little kick to shut him up.
"Do you actually know anybody that celebrates Kwanza?" I ask.
"I'm just shitting you, buddy. What are you going to get the girls?"
"Hell, I don't know," I admit. "I'm putting off buying their gifts to the last minute. I've been a life long procrastinator. No reason to change now."
"People don't change," replies Ronald. "I've always been fat. I was a chunky kid, a husky teenager, a stocky young man. When I was a lineman in college I was bulky. Rosa would like me to be skinnier. The doctor would like me to lose "significant weight.' But it's not gonna happen, and not just because I lack the willpower to do it. Being fat is part of my identity. It's who I am. How can I change that? I've spent my life binge eating, binge drinking. I'm jolly, good-natured. I detest exercise and movement in general. There are too many integral components involved for me to become a lesser version of myself. I'd have to buy new clothes. Watch what I eat. Who can do that? Who has the time for that?"
I think of my father slinking in at night, smelling of drink, almost unrecognizable sometimes, his face transformed, mud oozing off his boots like primordial slime. I nod my head in agreement. People don't change, at least not in any important way.
"What a nice day," says Ronald. "Ash isn't too bad. I could probably take off this mask and not get cancer. Hah. You have a good day, neighbor."
"You as well," I say, watching him and his fat dog waddle up the steps and into their home. I look back at my house. It's a rectangular design, generic, chemically-treated brick with windows that maximize sunlight retention while keeping out harmful toxins and diseased air. It looks like Ronald's house. It looks like every house in our burb. Sometimes I think that safety and progress come at the expense of individual expression. I grew up in a neighborhood of varied houses filled with various people, good, bad, and in-between. You could tell someone's character by how much junk was sitting on their front porch. We don't have a porch. No one wants to sit outside with a filtration mask on.
I leave work early, a rare privilege. I work at the local casino as an IT guy. My supervisor is in Indianapolis for the next couple days, so I am free to function as an autonomous unit, a great relief. The place is dead, there are no foreseeable problems on the horizon, and I'm inexplicably tired, so I see no reason to linger. As I'm exiting toward the parking lot, Jody, a cocktail waitress, calls out to me.
"Hey, smart guy," she says. We stand in the shadow of the casino, the parking lot stretched out before us, the moon a big full beacon in the cloudless night sky.
"I'm just a guy, really," I tell her. "What I do isn't that hard."
"Isn't it?" she says. Jody is pretty: dark-hair, olive-eyes, nice figure. She's the kind of woman I would've pursued in my youth with a reckless abandon. I've been shunning her advances for what seems like eons.
"You want to get a drink?" she asks, touching my arm. I examine her hand: long-fingered, veiny, nails as red as blood.
"I should probably get home to my wife," I tell her.
"Hey, you got off early, right? Got an hour to kill. Just one or two drinks. It's not a date."
I've always been a nice guy, which has brought me much pain and suffering over the years. What the hell, I think. You don't have to sleep with her. Live a little.
"Alright," I say. "I do have an hour. Where to?"
"The Bear. Let's take your car. My boyfriend will pick me up."
"Your boyfriend, huh?" I ask. "He won't care that you're having drinks with another man?"
"He doesn't have to know," she replies. I shrug; we walk to my car, a blue Honda Civic. As we drive to the bar, I wonder what Debra is fixing for dinner. Hopefully not casserole. I could go my entire life without eating chicken and rice ever again.
The Bear is a townie bar, a local joint which I've entered probably once or twice, though not in a while. It has wood paneling, oak floors, pool tables, clouds of cigarette smoke, uncomfortable seats. Jody gives the bartender a friendly hello; he gives me a hard stare that I'm not unaccustomed to receiving in this town. When I go to Chastity's volleyball games, I often get the same look, sitting next to Debra. This place is behind the times in many ways.
"Give me a High Life," she tells the bartender. I order the same.
"You want a cigarette?" she asks.
"I don't smoke," I tell her.
"You ever tried it?" she asks.
"I'm a forty-year-old man, Jody. I've tried a cigarette before."
"Just making sure. You're a little uptight, Harry. I get the jist that you care too much about things."
"I think you've mistaken me for someone else," I tell her, truthfully.
"I hope so," she says, smiling. She has good teeth, for a local. I sip my beer and look about the place. It's empty, just like the casino. The bartender has a drooping mustache like a cowboy left out in the rain.
"I don't go out a lot," I tell her. "How's this bar?"
"It's a joint like any other," she says. She lights up a cigarette and takes a long drag. Her uniform, if you can call it that, reveals the tops of her breasts. I try my best not to look.
"How old are you, Harry?" asks Jody.
"Thirty-eight years-old," I tell her. "How old are you?"
"Thirty-two. I don't care. A lot of women don't like giving their age. Who gives a shit, right? I mean, I guess it matters, if you're going to be judgmental. I'm a thirty-two year-old cocktail waitress. Some people might not like to admit that. Twenty-eight year-old cocktail waitress sounds better. I think I could pass for twenty-eight. Not twenty-two, but twenty-eight. But I don't care, you know? I look how I look. I'm a good-looking thirty-two. Right?" She leans over, touches my arm. I smile, cooperating despite my instincts telling me to leave, to go home to my wife and the placidity of the internet.
“You're very pretty,” I say, motioning to the bartender for another beer.
“I like your skin. Is that bad? It's so smooth, so regular. It looks like it was painted on. No blotchiness, no unhealthy paleness. You don't have to worry about getting a tan.”
“A minor convenience, I assure you,” I say. “My color brings more difficulties than benefits.”
“Life's difficult. You're better for it.” She takes a long sip of her beer. “Why do we drink this stuff? It's not that good, you know. We should drink better beer.”
“There's a microbrewery in Dawn,” I suggest. “I've never been there, but their beer is very good.”
“We should go sometime,” replies Jody.
“I don't I know,” I say.
“You should be able to have friends, right? Just because you're married doesn't mean you can't have female friends.”
“You sure?” I ask. My beer has the sour taste of a bottle left out in the heat.
“Yeah, why not? The more friends you have, the longer you'll live. It's been scientifically proven.”
“That's a fact, huh?”
“It certainly is. You're a gentleman, aren't you? You're not like the normal meatheads I encounter on a daily basis. This attracts meatheads,” she gestures at her outfit, “like sugar attracts flies. Touchy-feely types who think a good tip entitles them to grope as much as they please. Their definition as to what consists of a good tip varies considerably from my own.”
“I'm sorry to hear that. I heard it's tough over there. Business isn't booming like it was.”
“It should be a bullet-proof business model. People give you their money. But they haven't done any upgrades for about five years, and meanwhile, Cincinnati's casinos are closer and booking bigger acts, offering better deals. There's no reason to drive all the way out here to the boonies. What made you come out here, by the way?”
“A pay raise, my wife, the promise of a simple life,” I say, automatically like a machine. “Debra and I met in St. Louis. She didn't want the girls growing up in the city.”
“You live in the burb enclave, right? I hear they're thinking about installing one of those bubbles so you can have a microclimate. That'll be nice, spending time outside. I miss it. You have to really pay attention to the weather, and then everybody's out, crowding the highways. I used to have a nice tan, Harry. But I won't pay for it. I'd rather look like a ghost.”
A hand falls on my shoulder, a whiskery face appearing in my peripheral vision. Jody squints her eyes, a sour look appearing on her oval visage. It better not be some redneck, I find myself thinking. I don't feel like getting in a fight.
“Hey buddy,” says Rob Kaminskey. “Don't often see you in the local watering hole.”
“Killing time,” I tell him. Rob is a slot machine mechanic, a good ol' boy whom I've befriended.
“Hey, I was thinking about going out to my parents' old place this weekend to do some hunting, and I thought maybe you'd like to come along,” says Rob, plopping down on the seat next to mine. “The weather is supposed to be great. I got some good, comfortable masks, and there's plenty of deer out there. Looking forward to some homemade jerky. I know you love that stuff, Harry. You want to come?”
“I don't have much experience hunting,” I reply.
“It'll be a boys' weekend,” Rob says, smiling at Jody. “We'll bring beer and bratwurst, shoot some guns. It's beautiful out there. You can get away from the wife and kids.” I look back at Jody, who's paying attention to her beer. I shrug, contemplating a weekend spent with Rob instead of with the computer or television.
“Sure, why the hell not?” I tell him.
“That's what I expected to hear.” He slaps me on the back with one of his meaty hands. “How you doing, Jody?” he asks. “How're your kids?”
“Fine,” she says, not looking at us.
“You have kids?” I ask. “How many?”
“Enough,” says Jody, finishing her beer and checking her cellphone. “I got to go. See you around, Harry.” We watch her leave, her ass looking as though it were sculpted by a master. Rob orders a beer and then looks at me, his unibrow raised. His nose is broad, his cheekbones wide, his forehead spacious and increasing by the year. He has a homely, good-natured face, trustworthy in its expression, the visage of a confidant.
“Things going okay with Debra?” he asks.
“Yeah. I decided to humor Jody. She wanted to get a drink. She's been after me for years.”
“You don't humor that kind of woman,” says Rob. “She's got one hell of a figure, I'll admit. But she ain't one for sticking with a guy, and she sure as hell ain't someone you wanna be messing with if you're married.”
“It was just a drink, Rob. That was all.”
“She might not interpret it that way. But you're your own man. You can do what you want.”
I come home to the same scene I left. Debra is still watching television, this time a home improvement program, while the girls lie about, playing with their cellphones. I go into the kitchen, take a beer, and sit down next to my wife. No one says anything; everyone is absorbed in passive electronic entertainment. My wife leans into me, her body radiating heat and comfort. The beer goes down smoothly like a lullaby. Pretty soon, I'm asleep.
In the dream, I'm running down a city street, my bare feet stepping on broken shards of glass. A crowd chases me, yelling slurs and racial taunts. None of them have any faces; there's just blackness where their heads should be. They corner me in an alley and push me up against the wall, their fingernails digging into my flesh. I can feel the heat of their invisible breath; I can taste their spittle as it flies from their black-hole heads. I wake up in a sweat, the ceiling swirling above me, my wife away from me, on the other side of our bed. Jesus, I whisper. The air recyclers kick in with a loud, throbbing buzz, their racket forcing me from the bed. I step over Rufus and head for the kitchen. Chastity is at the table, talking quietly to someone on her phone. She's dressed in a sleeveless top and a pair of short shorts; her toes curl on the linoleum, their nails painted bright red. She's a younger, prettier version of her mother, and I find a verse of some forgotten poem coming to me out of the ether: Youth is its own aphrodisiac. Finally she sees me lurking in the hallway like a monster afraid to come out of the gloom.
“Harry?” she asks, covering the phone with her hand. “What are you doing?”
“I came in for a glass of water,” I explain. “Who are you talking to?”
“I got to go,” I hear her mumble into the phone. She looks at me, annoyed, convinced that I have invaded her privacy and exceeded my bounds as a stepfather.
“Your mother wouldn't want you talking on the phone at this hour,” I tell her.
“Oh, who gives a shit, Harry?” she says, getting up from the chair. She pushes past me and enters her room. I walk over to the sink and fill up a glass of water. It's only after I finish that I realize that I have an erection. God, did she notice? The kitchen is cold; it feels as though my feet are walking on ice. I wonder if the air recyclers have malfunctioned. But did she see? Was it her or the dream?
It takes me some time to fall asleep.