The candle inside the terra cotta donkey would burn itself out in 45 minutes. No one would need to remember to blow it out, no one would shake the dregs of a beer can over it before going to bed. The thin plume of smoke would snake out of the donkey's back unnoticed. In forty-five minutes.
For now the tiny flame danced only occasionally, buried deep within the pale orange, ceramic beast (eight dollars in Nogales), shielded from an intermittent, late evening breeze. It cast a dim glow sitting in the middle of the picnic table, but threw long, twitching shadows into the recesses of the willow branches which dangled over one end of the table.
Miss Sung had purchased the table in its defective state, had grown accustomed to items of food and drink rolling down the slope of the surface and toppling off onto the ground. A couple of two-by-fours propped under the short legs had done the trick originally, but these had gone missing years ago. It was a handsome table: dark wood, sap lines curving over the planks of the matching benches, quirky knots to stare at, a rich (though sometimes difficult) history of friendship and leisure. No reason to get rid of it. The remedy, then, was to park the short, defective end of the picnic table up against the trunk of the beautiful willow in her back yard. The surface was level in this way, and the weeping branches hung down, coming within a foot and a half in some places of touching the wood. Those guests who decided to sit on this shady end found themselves covered by a canopy of a 1,000 narrow leaves—shade in the summer, 1,000 separate drips of rain during an afternoon monsoon.
The shadows blinked in the evening branches, exaggerating the shapes of the humans' skulls below, tricking the eyes, twitching in time to the distant babbles of the HI-FI, 45 minutes from the end.
"You think I should just get the thing pulled, huh?"
Phil ran his tongue over the rotten tooth, wiggling it and swallowing the taste of rot. The tooth had been dead for months, somehow still clutching like a gray raisin to his upper gum, halfway to the back of his mouth.
Across the table from him, face framed by the pale illumination of the donkey, Rhino fiddled idly with the empty, plastic vials on the tray Miss Sung had brought out to them a couple hours before. He was standing them upright, watching the plastic absorb and obscure the candle light.
"Either that or you run the risk of it falling out in the middle of the night while you're asleep. A bad way to go, choking on your own tooth," he said. He was making a parade out of the empty vials.
Phil was starting to be overly conscious of the bitter taste in his mouth. He tried to wash some of it down with a gulp of warm beer.
"What do they charge for something like that... I mean, if I was to get it pulled or whatever?"
Rhino used his palms to straighten the parade on the tray. He was taking his careful craftsmanship a little more seriously now.
"The Denniss," Phil drooled, touching his tongue to the rot again.
"What?" Rhino looked up at him briefly.
Phil wiped his mouth and took another drink.
The craftsman pondered his next move with four used vials on the tray in front of him. Miss Sung had brought out six altogether, along with two eye droppers, a small, wooden bowl full of empty capsules, one shot glass containing the pulverized leaves, another containing the clear jelly, and a blender of the thick violet concoction so familiar and comforting to these late night strategy sessions. It was the third such tray she had brought out for them. The others she had retrieved, but this one (most likely the last one) remained half-used under the odd flickers of the willow canopy. Rhino moved his head down to the level of the table and measured the perfection of the line that way.
"What do you think?" Phil repeated.
"Why would you go to the dentist?"
He returned to a normal sitting position, but couldn't drag his attention away from the tray.
"You think they'd charge too much?"
"I don't know about that."
Just then, Phil got the overwhelming sense that his woman was looking out at him from the darkened windows of their home. He turned his head quickly to check it out, but saw nothing—only the row of green and red console lights on the stereo in the living room. He went back to sucking his tooth.
Miss Sung was very good at tending to his needs, flipping the record over when it was time, knowing when to bring refills, pretending to hear nothing of what they said, smiling softly (eyes twinkling), understanding, without asking, the appropriate medicine for any given moment. Her man might characterize her intellect as silently savage. Though he didn't share this thought with anyone else. He did, however, find himself looking over his shoulder or imagining her hidden stare at his back from time to time. He wasn't sure why, but wasn't oblivious to the possibility that it could have been the medicine.
"Something has to be done, right?" he asked, shaking the phantom's eyes from his mind, swallowing the taste.
"Of course," Rhino assured his old friend. Satisfied now that the vials were straight, he plucked a few unused capsule halves from the bowl and began filling them with the jelly and leaves. He did this slowly and neatly, his concentration pulsing earnestly to the music seeping from the house.
"But," he continued, "The dentist is probably the wrong way to go."
Phil picked up a few beer cans, unable to find the one he'd been drinking from, and glanced, out of the corner of his eye, at his home again. Dark windows. Where was she? Finally finding the can, he tilted it back and drained it. It had been his woman's idea not to refrigerate his beer lately. The cold liquid hurt his tooth too much, while the warm beer seemed to numb the area, not to mention carry some of the rot away as well.
"What do you suggest?"
There was a four-hour old pile of vomit under the table, fairly successfully buried with five kick-fulls of earth. The bile really had no smell, and the vomiter had long since forgotten that it was there. It had been a quiet, secret action anyway.
"Take care of it right here at home, buddy."
One capsule was almost done. Rhino gently licked a finger with the tip of his tongue and took a deep breath. It was difficult to see in the fading donkey light (36 more minutes), but this lent itself to the process. The matrix of shadows forced him to slow down, to concentrate, to relish the ritual. It was a pleasure, and also the reason why Miss Sung brought out only the fixings, allowing the men to put the pieces together.
Phil crushed the can under his foot and searched the table for an unopened one. His woman had set a warm twelve pack at his side earlier. Had his buddy been drinking his special, tooth-easy beers instead of the iced cold ones Miss Sung got him from the refrigerator?
He attempted to give Rhino the Evil Eye. It was half-assed.
He tossed the empties on the ground as he came to them. So much clutter—where was she? Finally locating a new one, he barely got the tab pulled before throwing the suds into his mouth. In the the brief absence of beer, the taste of rot had gotten worse. He drank deep of the cleansing nectar, then belched magnificently into the night air.
"Yes... God, yes!" he spat, enjoying the idea of taking care of it as soon as possible.
"You've been suffering too long."
"You have no idea," Phil replied, now massaging the outside of his cheek with two fingers.
"Here." Rhino handed him the first finished capsule and started in on the next.
Their hands, the exchange of the capsule, passed over the flame.
Phil washed it down the hatch. Where was his woman? It would be time to flip the record soon. He needed a little comfort, reassurance. Her hands squeezing his shoulders would do. He would settle for seeing her walk out towards them in her usual way: slinking a bit, shaking her ass to a magical, sophisticated rhythm, offering her personal combination of elixirs and sweet promises. But there was nothing, only the dark windows.
Phil looked quickly again. Was she standing behind one, staring invisibly out at them, gauging their responses, making mental notes, breathing thinly, her perfumed flesh frozen in a photograph? He could never be too sure.
"I'll need help."
Rhino nodded slightly, incorporating his friend's words into his concentration. It was delicate work he was undertaking: painstaking, achingly fulfilling.
"You're never alone here," Rhino said, spreading a thin layer of leftover jelly on his upper lip. He puckered them, tasted them, felt them growing warm. The ritual.
Rhino's mouth twisted into a juicy smile as he connected the capsule halves. He held the finished product up for a moment as if to toast Phil and placed it lightly on his tongue. Tipping the violet blender into his face, he caught sight of the shadow creature scurrying in willow folds above his head.
"You'll help, then?" he heard, one syllable at a time.
Phil shifted his weight on the bench. One of his feet came to rest on the vomit grave. He waited for the consoling response. He knew the answer. He asked again, "So, you know what to do?"
A thin stream of the thick liquid slipping from the corner of his mouth, his old buddy put the blender back on the tray (a bit heavily) and took a brief stock of his senses. Everything was in the right place.
"I'm here to help, you know that. But," Rhino cleared his throat and tried to focus on Phil's face (it wasn't very easy), "as far as the procedure itself goes... I think it would be better suited to her talents."
Where was she?
"Hmmmmmm. Maybe so. She does have a knack for solving my many medical quandaries." Phil snickered to himself at this.
"God bless her," Rhino added.
Phil lowered his voice considerably and bent across the table, closer to his friend.
"But, maybe you and I can do this one ourselves? What do you think?"
It was almost time to flip the record.
Phil leaned back again and sucked hard at the rot taste. He could feel it spreading over his tongue and gums like an acrid film. His face got lost in the absent light. Too far away from the donkey, too late to start all over again, too tired to sit up straight, 29 minutes until the waxy plume. He thought for a moment and then: "No good reason, I guess. Well, there is actually." He looked nervously over his shoulder (were those her eyes he felt on the side of his neck?). "This is sort of hard to discuss."
Rhino squinted, attempting to give the outline of his friend's face more clarity.
"What do you mean?"
He took a few seconds to blow his nose in his tee shirt before answering. A piece of him, grumbling in his stomach or tickling at his groin, felt embarrassed. But, it was too late for that.
"Well... see... the thing is that she and I... haven't been intimate... for a while. We haven't been close in that way for some time."
"Hard to tell."
"No it isn't."
Phil chewed at the tips of his walrus mustache and made as if to grab one of the unused vials from the tray. He resisted and took a long breath. Where was Miss Sung?
"A little over a year." He stared at his fingernails when he said it. He studied the cuticles in the terminal glow.
Rhino picked up the blender again and ingested deeply. He tilted his head back while doing so, and was pleased to see the creature still swinging in the upper branches. The ambrosial fluid trickled down his gullet. More than a year?
"Jesus," he said after nearly setting the blender back down into thin air. "I wasn't expecting you to say that. What's the problem been?"
The cuticles invited the light like marbles.
"She takes care of me. I couldn't ask for anything more. She cleans up after my messes, knows what I want before I realize it, caters to my every whim. Hell, she studies me. Gets the gist of my inner workings and all. There's not a thing left out."
Like a spider, Phil's hand crept over to the tray. He continued looking at the fingernails of his other hand.
"The thing is... the problem is... I think there's a chance she may be disgusted with me. We don't even sleep in the same room anymore."
"I went through a week of wetting the bed. I'm certain that's what did it. She smiled while she was cleaning it up the next morning, told me there was nothing to be ashamed of, was very understanding about it. But, I think that must have been it. It wasn't long after that she started sleeping in the guest room."
"It happens to the best of us. I see her touching you, though. She rubs your back when she comes out here sometimes, kisses the back of your head, all that. I mean, she still loves you, right?" Rhino had to force himself to keep his attention on the issue.
Phil's spider hand snagged a vial and pulled it down to the bench beside him.
"Lower your voice." He swallowed some more rot.
"There's no need for her to hear this. She may have already anyway. You never know. She always seems to know the entire score. I don't know how."
"So, you're saying that she doesn't want to do you because you're smelly and disgusting?"
"I didn't say anything about smelly. But, it's more than that."
"It's got to be. Do you want another one?" Rhino motioned to the bowl of capsules.
Rhino clutched the vial at his side. He became tense. In a hoarse whisper, "That's the other part of it!"
His friend opened his palms in innocence.
"The medicine. She prepares it, I don't ask how. I never watch. Just keep your voice down... and hand me one of those droppers."
Rhino did and gave Phil a puzzled look.
The record needed to be flipped. Twenty more minutes until the willow shapes would sleep.
He twisted the vial open and stuck the eye dropper into the contents. He filled it up about a third of the way.
"What's the stuff got to do with sex?"
Phil held the dropper over his head, letting the moon beams penetrate the clear liquid. The Hi-Fi needle was dragging over the end static time and time again. Where was she? Before administering the dropper, he stole another sweaty glance at the black windows and whispered, "I never question her, you know? Anything might be in the mixture." he pointed his face to the sky and dropped the liquid in his left eye. The rot juice slid down his throat quicker in this position.
Rhino followed Phil's previous glance to the house and felt the hairs raise on the back of his neck. He wasn't sure why. He wasn't believing his ears.
"You think she's poisoning you so she won't have to sleep with you anymore?"
Phil held his head very still while the liquid drained down into his socket and then into his brain. His friend waited silently, patiently for an answer. In these fragile ways, Life's seconds are spent.
He righted himself and spoke in the direction of his friend.
"Not poisoning. Just altering. She knows precisely what she's doing, old friend. She knows I'm glued to her like a sick child."
"She's slipping you something? Experimenting on you? Jesus, Phil, what are you saying?"
"Shhhhhh! I know that she knows I know. Adjustments have to be made. She may be fooling with the percentage of certain ingredients. Like I said, it's hard to tell. You can't see the difference in me in the last year or so?"
Rhino quit trying to make sense of Phil's outline. It came and went. He replied mechanically.
"No. What would I be looking for?"
Phil smiled slyly, glass in his fixed stare, the secret knowledge worming its way to the surface.
"That's the thing. Isn't it?"
He chuckled softly and tapped his foot on top of the grave, in time to the needle drag. He imagined Miss Sung emerging from the sliding glass door, slinking, shaking her ass like a lady, bringing solace. He imagined her moving up stealthily behind him and blowing softly on the back of his neck.
He spit some of the rot onto the ground behind him and repeated, "That's the thing."
Rhino wasn't certain where to go from there. If anything, nothing had changed about his friend. He figured it best to keep this observation to himself. If he had been a woman, he wouldn't want to sleep with Phil either. Fact was, he did smell. Rhino just didn't understand that it was the smell of the rotten tooth. Phil's pores reeked of it. He looked for the safest out.
"Do you want me to flip the record?"
Rhino started to get up.
Phil motioned for him to sit down.
"She wouldn't like that."
He sat back down and picked up the blender again.
"Do you see what I'm saying about the tooth, then?"
He looked at Rhino meaningfully.
"I guess not," he said, tipping back the blender.
Phil filled the dropper again, willing himself not to look at the windows. All they did was reflect the evening. Was that the refrigerator he heard opening and closing? No. Don't look. Don't play the game.
"Why it is that I can't ask her for help with the tooth?"
"Hey, if you want to do it yourself, have at it."
His friend was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable. Some more music would really hit the spot.
Phil administered the drop to his other eye and froze his features. From behind the shield of a bubbling cloud, he watched the bright star. The static charged the breeze. The curious yearning rose as the drop sank down.
"Your help would be appreciated," he said, motionless, surprising Rhino.
"You're never alone."
Motionless. Then lowering his head.
"But, what does one thing have to do with the other?"
Phil placed a hand over Rhino's next to the donkey. They were friends—all three of them.
"Because as long as she's content to be disgusted with me, whether by means of messes or medicine, she won't want to have anything to do with my wang," he said very simply, patting his friend's hand once before withdrawing it.
"I don't know what to say."
The fix was nice, he was lucid again,
"Say you'll help. We'll get it over with and then I'll give her a little romance tonight. I'll show her that I'm stronger than she thinks."
"Tonight's the night?"
Phil nodded his head earnestly, touching his chin to his chest on the way down. This was the night. So much time had passed: taking his medicine without question, satisfied to be foul... and alone, resigned to dreaming of formless shadow sex, curled like a child into her maternal bosom. Well, things were going to change very soon. All he had to do was extract that miserable, rotten tooth: that grim, bitter reminder of these shameful days and nights.
Then, he would show her what was what.
"We'll go to the garage," he told Rhino. "It's nice and bright in there. I've got some tools."
"I've never done anything like this, though."
The creature climbed further down one of the weeping branches to get a better look at the humans. Eleven minutes.
"Me neither. There's no choice. You understand that, right?" he spit some more rot on the ground. It burned through the top layer of earth.
The tentative reply fell on the drag of static. It was a lost sounding harmony. He wouldn't want to sleep with Phil either.
"Good. We've been friends a long time."
He was speaking very slowly, very deliberately now, forming each syllable as if he needed it to come out perfectly, no mistakes, no misunderstandings, no going back.
"I'm going to stand up in a second. Then I'm going to walk to the garage very quietly. When I do, I want you to follow me. Very quietly."
"She doesn't need to know about the tooth's last moments."
The twitching creature ventured further, grasping the branch almost at its end, coming within a couple of feet from the shady side of the picnic table. The objects of its interest paid no attention.
Was that the bedroom door closing? Phil pretended that he hadn't heard it. Everything in its own time.
Rhino didn't hear it.
They were looking in the general direction of each other, finding it unnecessary to expend the energy to focus. Too late to think of a new strategy, too numb to admit to being studied closely, too dark to pull a tooth under the moon, not alone, then alone.
"Here we go."
Phil's bones creaked as he flexed his knees to stand. He tried to appear nonchalant, but beads of sweat immediately started to dot his forehead. The rot was slick over his enamel. He hadn't owned an erection in three months.
His friend prepared himself. His eyes did not wander, his bowels postponed their quake. Like a golem sculpted from the jelly and leaves, he wiped his hands on his pants under the table. He was certain that no one noticed.
Once standing, Phil side-stepped to the end of the bench, pivoted, and began walking unsteadily towards the side of the house. He held his breath, refused to acknowledge the dark windows, cleared his thoughts of impurities. She wouldn't get him that way! What could a woman put in her man's medicine to make him limp and rotten, smelly and pathetic?
His will was true.
As Rhino stood, the top of his head brushed against the creature's tail in the tree. Neither one of them felt it prudent to recognize this. Things were better left as they were, as they had been, would be, etcetera, all the way to the bones of stars and ends of days and graves of vomit and the last strains of songs before the static comes.
He followed his friend, step for step, around the side of the house. It was a tiny parade they made. The audience looked on with detached amusement. And they disappeared into the garage. The fluorescent light inside bathed and disinfected them. It was late.
Miss Sung stood up too. She arched her back and stretched out the kinks that came from leaning over, chin resting on her hands, and looking out the window for two hours. She tucked a long strand of streak black hair behind her ear and allowed a rather demure fart to escape her slender body. The place was completely dark, and the litany of the needle stuck in the end grooves of the record had lulled her into a very productive trance. Of course, she understood it all, had, in fact, been wondering when Phil might grow the balls to make a move. This, she knew, had been inevitable. And, that was good because she didn't like surprises.
She shuffled down the hall to her man's bedroom. Her socks glided along the floor silently. Upon entering, she was met with the familiar stench: lingering smoke, stale beer, echoes of a hundred stains washed and rewashed, desperation, and rot. The bed was made, the shades were drawn.
She threw back the covers and rumpled the sheets with crazy hand motions. She giggled and started to shake her hips in time to the needle drag. Only slightly at first.
She opened the shades and let the nighttime in.
Breaking the stillness, a muffled cry of pain rang from the garage. There was some dark murmuring after that.
Miss Sung hopped into the stinky sheets, relishing the layer of grease transferring from them to her pale flesh. She lay back and pulled the top sheet up close around her neck, giggling. With the elegance and grace of a ghost in the folds, she slipped off her pants and kicked them out of the bed. It was a wonderful thing. Even more wonderful that she rarely wore panties. Wonderful. She licked the tip of her forefinger.
In the garage, a brief scuffle ensued.
She could have told you that would happen. Like a master, she went to work—cautiously in the beginning, then blessed to be savage in the end.
The creature, chattering now, jumped down onto the picnic table and shifted itself closer to the dying donkey flame. The canopy above it was no longer adorned in flickers. Too late for that. It held out a limb and tested the warm terra cotta. Sensing no danger, it shifted closer. It placed both its limbs on the donkey's back, on either side of the candle hole. It finally got close enough to strain its neck and peek over the side into the hole. This was very difficult since the creature was shrinking with every passing second. It soon had to crawl up onto the donkey's back to look inside. It had become that small, that impotent. It took a lot of energy and concentration to keep its balance in this position.
And its tired limbs gave up just in time.
With mercy and tenderness, the plume carried it up to the good place.