Jul/Aug 2003  •   Fiction

Prickly Heat

by Cheryl Snell

When the girl came back home to bury her mother that summer, Roger knew there would be trouble. In some low-lying part of his brain, he believed in his own weakness. He had always been the type to let himself fall.

He'd tried to ignore the changes in the girl. Whenever she'd sidle up to him, he'd try not to smell the new sharpness inside her familiar fragrance. He'd tuck his mind into an innocent white place whenever she whispered in his ear, "Want some lemonade, Mr. Wilson?" her breath tickling the hairs along his neck. He'd imagine how her calves must look, standing on tiptoe like that. Her voice had a touch of whiskey in it when she'd hand him the sweating glass and say "This might cool you off some."

The girl vandalized his senses with her too-wise eyes. Nights, when he ran his fingers over his wife, he wondered how much the girl could see or hear of him through the open window. He liked to think it was her harsh breathing he heard on the breeze, her desire ruffling the gauze curtains.

Since Jean couldn't read his mind, things remained pretty calm between them. They didn't get in each other's way, and whatever she cooked him he ate, no complaints. After dinner they would take cold drinks out back and watch their daughter play badminton with the girl.

The girl would reach up, straining for the shuttlecock, and flash a crescent of breast. She wore white shorts a size too small. Roger hid his need behind dark glasses, watching the girls until the fireflies came out. He watched until they were just rushing shadows.

One night, Roger rolled a gin-soaked ice cube around in his mouth and said to Jean, trying for some small talk, "Ever notice how this heat sucks its own self dry, as soon as it's done sucking up every other damn thing?" Jean's eyebrows shot up quizzically. "It's called evaporation", she drawled. Roger turned his chair away. "Don't you think I know that?" he snarled. It was becoming harder and harder to have any kind of conversation with his wife.

There was a time when my life began the minute I came home to her, Roger thought. He remembered the way he used to rub up against her from behind without a word. She'd be stirring something at the stove, maybe humming a little. He'd nuzzle her salty neck and palm her breasts like puppies. She'd lose the rhythm of her stirring and Roger would whisper "Tell me a secret." She always had something to say.

Now he was the one who had secrets to keep. He began to imagine them leaking out of his dreams like sorrow, and he worried about that. He obsessed about the girl day and night, and barely noticed the cold spot like a ghost that had sprung up between Jean and him.

Jean would often get up in the middle of the night to shut the window. Probably it's just the crickets, or else the rain slanting in, Roger would think sleepily. Maybe she's got her own secrets, something that explains the bags under her eyes and makes the worry lines come, new ones every day now.

There were two places in the house Roger claimed: the old green La-z- Boy by the fireplace in the living room, and the basement. As the summer wore on, the living room seemed too public for him to drink and fantasize in. The good thing about that room was the curtained window. All Roger had to do was push aside a fistful of fabric and there he was in a waking wet dream: every week the girl mowed her yard with one of the old push-mowers, and she did her job dressed in bikini tops and cut-off jeans. Her dark ponytail switched behind her like a question mark. Roger wished she would leave off the dark glasses once in a while so he could get a clue. Did she know he was watching? Did she like it?

Most nights, Roger was too buzzed to sleep. Besides, he didn't trust himself to sleep beside his wife anymore. A couple of times she'd almost caught him: whaddya thinking? she'd whispered once or twice, just as he'd begun to drift off. He'd felt a chill along the knuckles of his spine and his eyes flew open; relief flooded his body when he realized he had not answered her question in words. There was no proof, not this time.

So he began to spend more time in the basement. He had an old chair down there with beer stains and tears in the fabric reminding him of lost freedom. Boy, if this chair could talk, he thought, patting the grease stain his head had made so long ago, when he had more hair.

He spent hours rummaging in the boxes of Christmas decorations, in his daughter's old school projects, fooling with discarded appliances. Maybe I'll fix this old radio or that broken TV, he thought. If I can find my tools, that is. If I'm not too drunk to see.

Jean never said a word about all the time Roger spent in the basement. Not a single look of reproach, nothing. It wasn't the first time he had withdrawn from her, and she had learned to tough it out, knowing these periods would end without warning. On the other hand, she didn't wait up for him anymore, and she made sure she was asleep by the time he stumbled into bed. She kept the door shut tight, let him feel like an intruder whenever he let himself in.

Once in a while Jean approached him, as if on a dare. Her eyes would be all hard glitter, with no warmth, only a hunger in them. She stalked him, took him in pursuit of her own pleasure. When she licked his face and chest, Roger imagined she could taste the booze in his sweat and that she liked it. A man needs a drinking buddy, he thought. We used to have that much in common, anyway.

He kept making it worse. Like the one night when Jean mentioned their daughter would be spending the night with the girl. She said it like an invitation. They could make love right there in the living room. Roger could unfasten the long tease of buttons down the front of her dress, excite all the little hairs of her still luminous skin, make her say I love you until he believed those words were coming from his own mouth.

But on this particular night, Roger fumbled the ball. He said, "What? No badminton?" face crumpling in disappointment so keen, Jean would have had to be blind to miss it.

There was no turning back, no place to go but to the basement. He had tried to call his words back, but the more he talked the worse it sounded. He took a chance, touched his wife; she swatted his hand away as if he were a bug. She stomped off to bed, and Roger knew this time she would lock the door.

Roger always liked a burned bridge. Too much choice bothered him, made him feel guilty. You can get used to anything, he told himself. So the dingy basement with its bare bulb dangling over the beat-down chair suddenly looked comfortable and homey. He dragged a heavy box to one side of his chair, set down a pair of binoculars that must have belonged to his daughter on its surface. He tested it for stability, then carefully placed his old harmonica alongside it. There, he thought. All set. To hell with her.

Roger sat there for who knows how long. He watched the light cast odd shapes on the whitewashed walls, riveted as if he had been in a movie theater. He believed he'd mastered the art of being barely there. He tried to remember an old saying, something about all the bad stuff in the world being caused by man's inability to stay quietly in a room by himself. But he couldn't remember how it went exactly, and he knew very well how the gist of a thing was never really good enough.

The invisible world settled itself down for the night. The crickets' serenaded birds grown silent. Cars surged into driveways, doors slammed their goodnights, human voices echoed and decayed in the distance. The girls should be getting in about now, Roger thought. I better check on them.

He grabbed his binoculars and walked to the window unsteadily. He noticed how quiet he was trying to be, and it made him laugh. He cleaned the lenses on his shirt tail and brought the girl's bedroom into focus. Jeeze, it's like looking up her skirt or something, he thought. It made him whistle low in his throat, the sight of the girl on her frilly bedspread, extending her dancer's leg, painting her toenails red. When the girl ran her hand over her leg as if it didn't belong to her, Roger's gut contracted. He squinted hard; watched how her dark hair surrounded her like smoke, how her smile dazzled the soft light. He watched until his eyes burned and his hands shook. I could use a drink, he thought.

He held his glass in one hand; fooled with his harmonica with the other. He weighed the glass against the instrument, wondered which would better push down the urge to stand under the window all night, longing for whatever that girl represented.

What about some old songs—make out music? he suggested to himself. He tried a few tunes but only remembered the openings. That's what I'm good at, Roger thought, beginnings. I get bogged down in the hot dry middle of things.

He surprised himself over the next few days —he got pretty good on the harmonica pretty quick. I thought this would be just one more thing to screw up, he thought. She can probably hear me over there, especially with the door wide open. Wonder how she likes it.

Some nights, when he failed to sink into the stupor that passed for sleep, Roger would take his harmonica out to the backyard and sit by the badminton net. There'd be a weak breeze and the sleepy chirping of a few birds irritated by headlights passing through. Sometimes when Roger began to play a little tune, a bird would answer back.

On one such sleepless, sultry night, Roger heard a car with a bad muffler drive up next door. Probably that greasy little bastard the girl calls her boyfriend, he thought. He strained to see over the hedge separating the two properties; he had tucked his harmonica into his back pocket like a surprise for later. And then he caught a glimpse of the girl, a red shoe dangling off her painted toes and the other foot pressed hard against the dashboard.

The girl's giggles infuriated Roger—with his hands fisted at his sides, the vein in his temple throbbing dangerously, he stood there motionless, unable to move. Suddenly there was a threatening silence, the kind that comes just before lightning strikes. By the time the girl's angry cry had penetrated Roger's brain, the door had been slammed and the boyfriend was burning rubber. Roger positioned himself under the girl's window; he would be able to tell how upset she was as soon as she turned on her light.

But the light didn't come on, and Roger stayed rooted to the spot like some clueless Romeo. When he smelled cigarette smoke, he couldn't identify its source. The girl's voice, "Whatcha doin', Mr. Wilson?" startled him. She stepped off the porch and showed herself in the moonlight.

Grateful for the dark, Roger could feel the flush start up in his face. He stammered a little as he tried to make a believable answer, something that would let him hang on to his dignity. "I was just looking at the stars when I heard you get in. Did something happen-?" She shuffled a step closer to him and replied, "Oh, you know— it's always the same with guys. They only want the one thing." She sighed, scowled at her bare feet for a moment before brightening. "Want a ciggie? I'm supposed to quit so you gotta promise not to tell."

She held out her smokes to Roger. Maybe she'll light it for me, he found himself thinking. Maybe touch my hand. "Who would I tell?" he said softly.

They smoked for a few minutes while Roger's brain raced back and forth over an incoherent plan. Finally he blurted out, "Want to have a drink with me?" and she rewarded him with her wide-mouthed smile and a nod. Roger happily opened the door to his 'apartment' and mumbled, "Now you have to promise not to tell."

The girl gushed, "Could this place be any cooler? You got all your necessaries and none of your aggravations." Roger handed her a glass with a little gin in it. He watched her lap at the liquid like a cat: pink tongue tipped in the glass, unblinking eyes watching him as he watched her. "Where shall I sit?" she asked after a long moment.

Roger took a chance. He sank down into the only chair in the room and patted his knee. The girl smiled as she wiggled herself into position. " This why you only got one chair?" she murmured into his ear. Each sipped at their drink; neither spoke. Roger held the girl close and felt her snuggle in, sighing. It was his perfect, golden moment and if Jean had busted him right there and then, no punishment could have cancelled out the pleasure of it.

"Hey, these are just like mine," the girl said, picking up the binoculars from the box beside the chair. She giggled and said, "Wanta know a secret, Mr. Wilson?" Roger nodded, and the girl said, "I can see into your bedroom with these babies," thrilling him.

He managed to say, "See anything interesting?" while his fingers spread against her ribcage, lightly grazing one breast. She didn't seem to mind. She smiled, but she said nothing. Roger's heart rose high in his chest—she must be able to hear this, it's so loud, he thought. He carefully rubbed her arm and said in a hoarse whisper, "Maybe you could call me Roger, since you know so much about me."

"Oh no, I could never do that," the girl exclaimed. "Well, I could call you Uncle, I guess." She saw his face fall, and she slid off his lap quickly, with a little smirk. "Well, I better go get some beauty sleep. Thanks for keeping me company, Mr. Wilson." She yanked at her shorts unselfconsciously and, not expecting him to see her to the door, let herself out.

Roger sat there paralyzed, transfixed. He watched a spider spinning its web; he tried to learn the lesson, apply it to his own life somehow. But thinking things through had never really worked for Roger. Life went better when he took it for granted a little. So he picked up his harmonica and played until the cool pink dawn grew gold and warm. He played as the light bounced off the insulation and turned the room silver.

When he heard Jean's footfalls above his head, for the first time in a long while he remembered what he liked about her. Memories that had been lodged in his brain like a metal plate loosened now, surfacing as if they were lyrics. When she appeared before him he had the sensation of being rescued.

Jean held out his favorite old cardigan to him. "Felt a chill in the air this morning," she said, her voice steely and business-like. " Think we beat this heat wave?" He saw the hard question in her eyes so he took a chance. He held out his hand to her, let her lead him up the steps. Behind them, the basement filled with morning light; it shimmered like a mirage.