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Jan/Feb 2004 fiction

Ripe

by Blake Butler


He told her not to bring it home in a doggie bag. He said, "Don't bring that home in a doggie bag. You remember what happened last time." He was referring to the previous week when they'd gone out to eat and she'd taken the Styrofoam To-Go box (full of blackened grouper, with IMPERIAL DISCOUNT SEAFOOD's stylized logo imprinted on the top: a bib-clad lobster somehow clenching a knife in fork in its pinchers, as if a lobster would dine at their establishment like some cannibalistic nut) and had placed it under her car seat for the ride home, where it stayed throughout the night, forgotten. And the next morning, when he came out at 5:15 AM sharp, bleary-eyed and unshaven, not at all ready for another 12 hours behind the wheel of a cab, he opened his car door and was assaulted with the odor of rotting meat. The scent had incubated throughout the entire volume of his automobile, liquefying the air and glazing the upholstery with a stink that wouldn't go away even after he'd driven around for an hour with all the windows down and had wasted an entire can of lemon-scented Lysol trying to cover it. So whenever that day a potential customer opened the passenger door and began to get in, they'd suddenly seize in mid-sit, their nostrils would flare once, twice, three times, and then they'd back out of the vehicle with their brows mashed, either politely waving a hand up that meant No Thanks or simply slamming the door shut and scuttling away. He'd lost nearly an entire day's wages because of one moment of his wife's carelessness. It'd gotten him so worked up that he'd almost driven straight home and throttled her, shoved the god-damned putrefying fish chunks down her throat for being so absent-minded, so careless. But in the end he ended up saying nothing at all, knowing that if he even brought it up in passing he'd begin to sizzle inside, and once that started there was no turning back. He'd let it go, just like every other time.

But now he simply had to insist that she obey him: just leave the stinking one-third remainder of her baked grouper at the table, and have a fucking bowl of Krisp Flakes at home if she got hungry again before bedtime, which she rarely ever did anyway. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, any little morsel that got wrapped up or boxed for at-home consumption just ended up getting thrown out at the end of the week, or maybe fed to the cat if someone thought about it. But of course Dominga would insist on taking it; she came from a family where every bit of food was sacred. To her, leaving even the parsley behind would be like blowing snot in the faces of her ancestors, who'd broken their backs so that she could live in the world of opportunities that she did today. What opportunities these were, Hugo never knew; he drove a cab for God's sake, and she spent all day looking after their daughter Dominga-Dos. But pride and reason often mean very little to one another, and so her decision would be final. He'd sacrifice his wishes for her once again, in the name of happy matrimony, and he'd just make absolutely sure that this time she didn't leave it rotting under the seat. He'd focus all his energies on remembering this one seemingly obvious detail. Nothing less than immense gleaming satisfaction for her, his better half, his unending dedication, yes, his one true, blameless love.

Through the streets on the way home, though, they met with an unforeseeable incident: a collision with a dog who wobbled out of nowhere right into their headlights. When the impact came, it was enough to make his heart sink into the acid of his stomach, where his dinner of cheese rice and popcorn shrimp already sat, digesting. He knew he'd killed the poor thing. His wife watched stonily from her seat as he drug the lifeless carcass out of the middle of the street and over to the side of the road where he could bury it, as it wore no tag and thus couldn't be cared for by its owner, if it'd ever had one. He got so worked up as he slapped the soil back into the grave on top of the poor mutt, his eyes stinging with nervous sweat as he dug and dug, memories of his beloved childhood companion El Topo, a beagle, racing through his cerebrum, mnemonically berating him for having offed one of its own. When the whole thing was done, he went back to pilot the car home, so distraught that he could barely discern the road ahead of him, and his wife said not a word. Instead, she sat humming along with a horrible techno song on the radio, off-beat and out-of-key, enough to make him want to tie her by her hair to a Ferris wheel and watch her go spindling off into the air. That was how she dealt with it anytime he seemed upset or irritated or even slightly depressed with life in general: she drowned him out.

By the time they arrived at home, his grief had incubated into a kind of raw, blinding mass, so enveloping that he didn't even bother to take the keys out of the ignition once he'd parked. He simply got out of the car and went straight in to bed, having nothing more to say to anyone save whatever might come to berate him in his dreams. And the next morning, black-ringed at the eyes from lack of sleep, hair mussed into a kind of mammalian wig, he wasn't even halfway out the door when he realized what awaited him there on the driveway: his car full of rank fish perfume again, ripe. On top of that, the engine was still sputtering, having spent an entire night burning a nearly empty tank on idle. She hadn't even bothered to shut the damn thing off.

Hugo stopped there on the porch and let the spring-loaded screen fall loose and bash against his face, indenting his cheek with a check-marked pattern. Everything around him glowed red, vibrated with mutant energy, much like what he imagined a lobster might see in its last moment before being dropped, helpless but conscious, into the boiling kettle. That sensation would be all he remembered for years to come, that single alien glowing moment before he exploded, the only thing that came to mind when someone asked, Whatever ever happened to Dominga-Dos's mother, that cute little stick of a woman, who was always, they swore, so arm-twistingly polite, so thoughtful, so caring? How did you ever let that one get away?

 

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