Our Lady of Bleak Hearts
By David Nutt - Feb 26, 2018
Then came the crash: the windshield exploded, the airbag detonated, and most of his mouth’s silver was knocked across the minivan console. Afterwards Shaver remembered soft-stroking the airbag’s strange polymer fabric and thinking: Some day they are going to colonize the moon with this stuff. His vehicle had just overturned on an embankment and skidded a solemn furrow through the field, a lonely range of dirt and cactus and scrub life, where his wife and son now stood, sort of rooted to the parched earth, heads bloodied, faces blank. Shaver crawled through the broken windshield, sluggish as a drugged lion. Slowly more of him cohered. He spat another silver crown and tried to regain his land legs, relearning to walk across all that brown flatness. The side mirror had been sheared away. He absently picked it up and held it to his face. His face was calm, spotless. Shaver looked up in time to see his wife struggling to jimmy free the slim rod of metal wedged stubbornly in her forehead.
“Darling,” she said, both hands tugging the bloody thing. “We’re dead.”
Most mornings she loiters at the kitchen pantry, her hair soft as peach fur underneath the wig, expression vacant, her makeup a kind of savage kabuki.
“Anything alive in there?” Shaver asks.
“I’m looking,” she replies into the pantry.
His wife turns to him and forces a semi-smile. Kabuki is too much a compliment. Her skin has been rather artlessly shellacked with a garish rainbow palette.
“I don’t think I’ve fully mastered the mascara yet,” Shaver admits.
Both of them, husband and wife, are wincing in perfect unison. She wrenches her face so hard into a smile her head shakes free of her wig. He picks the mangle of blonde off the floor and cradles it.
“Baby,” Shaver says. “I like your head bald.”
She blinks at him.
“It’s total hardcore punk rock,” he tells her. “You remember hardcore punk rock?”
“It feels like private fur.”
“Primate, like apes?”
“Private,” she says and touches her loins to the kitchen table, kneading herself a little too vigorously. Shaver gently takes her by the elbow and twists her back to the pantry, holding her there, his head against hers. Both of them stare into the barren shelves.
“It hugs me,” she says.
Their son, Renaldo, is roasting red ants on the sidewalk. The boy is not really named Renaldo, but there were already eight other Tobbies in his kindergarten—enough to form a small nation, annex sovereign neighbors, key the nukes—before Shaver pulled him out of school altogether. The boy hasn’t uttered a single meaningful word since the day he was strapped to the child-sized backboard and glided into the ambulance sneakers first. The paramedics had flashed a penlight in the boy’s eyes, and the boy opened his mouth. Everybody leaned in. “DumDum,” the boy whispered, and then he was gone.
The accident bestowed an unmistakable mystique upon the boy. People see a pale speechless child with a damaged brain and a broken mother and they automatically tilt into maudlin sympathies. They want to smother the kid with schmaltz, rescue and beatify him before puberty invades. They don’t understand his languagelessness has made him a solitary figure in the household, aloof and judgmental, stalking the high corridors of authority, more father than Shaver could ever be.
The child has jig-stomped the ants to death and smeared them like sauce on a slide. Now he patiently waits for the red guts to bake under his microscope’s atomizing glare. Shaver doesn’t have the heart—his own, his son’s, anyone’s—to tell him he’s doing it wrong, that normal boys his age fry the small buggers alive with magnifying glasses. The whole stomp-smear-slide operation is needlessly complex. Shaver’s heart: It could still be somewhere in that field, a runty pink organ, hiking his insurance premiums with every lame twitch.
Shaver lays flat across the sidewalk under the withering gaze of his son.
“Me next,” he says.
“Fix me,” he says.
Shaver scrounges a couple nickels from his shirt pocket and balances them on his closed eyes—silver holes, lidless, and unblinking—and he smiles his dark mouth up at the boy.
The Bleak Hearts crew is already in the dugout, stretching their pale frames in ghostly contortions, taking practice swings with tire-irons, haunted looks. The equipment manager has not arrived and the addicts are getting testy. Every Sunday the local rehab shepherds their most successful residents—the docile traumas, the halfway hopefuls—to the town’s parkland where a handful of locals gather in support, lugging along trays of scorched casserole and dough-wrapped wieners, gallons of flat soda, trying not to stare too long or too intently at the raw-boned addicts unleashed in their sport.
Shaver locates Joanna at the picnic table esplanade. The woman is tank-topped and short-skirted, her jogger’s legs in a wide stance as she manhandles a jar of mayonnaise. She comes at Shaver for a hug. Shaver thrusts the stack of plastic cups into her arms. Joanna sets the cups on the table, next to the other eight stacks of cups, and hugs him anyway.
“We would have been here hours ago,” Shaver says, “but I had trouble getting her dressed. I tried to talk her out of the bikini. It’s hidden under her jeans.”
“Just imagine,” Joanna says. “You putting women into their clothes for once.”
She pats his son’s head and kisses his wife on the cheek, a long lingering smooch, inhaling—Shaver thinks—the synthetic nylon smell of his wife’s tacky wig. His wife squirms out of the embrace and rips the plastic off a potato salad, crinkling it against the table, smoothing it, crinkling it again, a woman obsessed. Shaver’s son wanders down to the waterfront to splash around in the sewaged tide.
Joanna takes Shaver’s wrist, holds it, pinching him for a pulse.
“Anything alive in there?” he asks.
“You fucker,” she whispers harshly.
Then she pirouettes on a heel and hollers into his wife’s face: “How you feeling, hot mama!”
“Hot mama,” his wife giggles.
“Is it time for makeups? My makeups?”
Joanna trades Shaver’s wrist for his wife’s and waltzes her to the unoccupied bocce court, where she rolls a tube of lip balm over the woman’s mouth in a series of elegant strokes, athletically sidestepping the gleeful thrashing. Shaver is alone at the picnic table, thumbs hooked in his belt loops, tonguing a sore spot in his mouth. He can’t stop licking the black stitches, the crusted scabs. There are whole seasons of pain inside his teeth awaiting thoughtful cultivation. He scans the grounds for Messner. Across the softball field the addicts have shed their shirts and taken to the grass, a taut geometry of pale ribcages and overpink scalps. Various spectators watch from the aluminum bleachers: severe-looking sponsors and counselors absently fingering the laminated badges on lanyards around their necks, teenagers stoned on shoe polish, neighborhood derelicts. Shaver schleps around the grounds and end up at the river’s lip, where his son is wading around the shallows, nudging forth a dead duckling with a stick.
“Looks fresh,” Shaver says. The boy drops his stick and folds his arms over the prominent lump of his belly, a face of stern concentration, regarding his new dead toy.
“Hey,” Shaver says.
“Having fun?” Shaver asks.
“We’re gonna need a bigger microscope,” Shaver tells him.
Shaver touches his own sternum, still feeling for that heartbeat, wondering if somewhere under his salmon polo there’s any lingering tissue or quivering muscle, some small throb of interior tenderness, still waiting to be catapulted out of his chest.
The Bleak Hearts catcher is strapped under a bulk of improvised armor, a sofa cushion lashed to his midsection, Tupperware crotch cup, shuffling like an over-saddled astronaut towards the porta potties. Something about the man’s clownish moon toddle comforts Shaver. He could stand here and watch all day. Maybe catch a knuckleball in the face or jerk out a molar with pliers. But it’s too late. Joanna pulls him behind a density of pine trees and leans on him, woozy, hair mussed, breathing her bourbon breath down his neck.
Shaver accepts the flask with a shrug.
“The reformed boozehounds,” she says, “are ruining this fiesta for the rest of us innocent law-abiding drunks.”
Shaver shrugs and sips the liquor, gargling it for a comical effect that refuses to materialize.
“You have that desperate lust-hungry look again,” she tells him.
“Mostly around the jowls. Those stupid jowls.”
She snatches back the flask and guzzles it unsteadily, struggling to keep her legs under her.
“It must be torture,” she gasps, breathless, her cheeks beet-colored. “Having such a sweet hottie for a wife and watching her prance around the house in her negligees all day, playing striptease for the neighbors, rubbing herself and her musk on all that cheap furniture. Poor baffled man.”
“What do you mean cheap furniture? I thought our furniture was very respectable.”
Joanna jabs a fingernail into his gut. “Nobody would blame you for doing it with a vegetable, if the vegetable’s your wife.”
“I can’t,” he says. “I just can’t.”
“Nobody would blame you for anything extracurricular either.”
She yanks Shaver by the belt, kneading herself against him, breasts, belly, everything. She says, “I want the lonely sad husband to lick his grief right into me.”
“I wanna grab the lonely and tongue-kiss it.”
“I’ll lie on the bed just like she does. I’ll wear her pretty things and make those funny little noises she makes, and I’ll suck the sadness out of you with a straw.”
“I only let Messner touch me now,” Shaver blurts.
Joanna ceases kneading him. She lets go his rump, his hips, the belt buckle that keeps Shaver’s nervous innards from slopping out of him in chunks. He drops back into the trees and exhales profusely.
“You asshole,” she says.
She studies the flask in her hand, screws on the cap, and tucks it under her skirt. A single word lasers through the gray murk of Shaver’s brain: garters. He begins to wildly twitch.
“Messner,” she says slowly, an acidic sarcasm corroding each syllable, “is the solution to your situation? He is a schlub, a melancholic. A killjoy. I bet he’s a shitty Scrabble player too.”
“He’s working on my teeth.”
“You have perfect teeth.”
“He’s really, really talented.”
“Messner sells insurance for a living!”
“He still makes house calls,” Shaver shrugs. “Although lately we’ve been working out of his basement. Ever seen his hands? He has godlike hands. Really knows his way around another man’s mouth.”
“What a psycho.”
“Messner’s a total pro.”
“I meant you.”
“I’m a stable person. I take care of my family. It’s totally normal to want to experiment with innovative hygiene.”
“Oh sweetie, you’ve always been a psycho. Even back in high school. You did such crazy shit! You archived your pee in soda bottles. You only ate asparagus for a year and a half. You’d take your ding-a-ling out of your undies and start screaming at it in public. Strangers would find you wandering grocery stores with your pants puddled around your ankles, flagrantly weeping in the cereal aisle.”
“I don’t remember any of that.”
“You even had a name for it,” she says. “Your ding-a-ling.”
“What was that name? Pedro? Rodriguez? Something Spanish.”
“Renaldo!” she shouts. “You named your pecker Renaldo!”
“Absolutely not,” Shaver says.
Joanna straightens her skirt, picks off the pine needles that cling it, and flicks them at him one by one.
“You know what the real insane thing is?” she says. “I have this fantasy where it’s me in the car. I go flying through the windshield and knock my brains out and you come to me in my hospital bed. You push aside the tubes and pluck off those rubber suction cup things, you pull back the sheets and my gown and you kiss the staples in my forehead, you crawl in atop me—”
“It wasn’t so long ago you wanted me,” she says. “You had me, you idiot. Your memory is perfectly fine. Why won’t you remember that?”
Beyond the slanted stand of trees Shaver can hear a male voice, castrato-pitched, warbling the concluding notes of the national anthem. The addicts are real zealots about their softball. They insist on anthems, rosters, mascots, the full nine innings. Shaver finds it difficult not to admire that kind of monkish ritual, all the stark precisions and clean lines of compulsion. There is a guidance in such dedication. A grace. A victory and a defeat.
Shaver glances around. Joanna has already traipsed off. He waits for the forlorn burn in his brain to subside and then he heads back to the picnic area, the platters of stale cold cuts, sludgified ice cream, pastas untouched by human hands. He swats a few dive-bombing insects, splats a couple lazy kamikazes. He crawls under the table.
Then darkness, dreams.
Messner’s basement is a bountiful dreamland all its own, even if the new Barcalounger remains off limits. Shaver is slabbed flat on a Ping-Pong table with a drop cloth underneath him, a paper bib knotted around his throat. A tray of tools rests atop his stomach: scalpel, screwdriver, blowtorch, pliers. The blowtorch, he suspects, is strictly for show. Messner wears an old slaughterhouse apron over his usual business-casual salesman ensemble, his estranged wife’s floral-print kitchen mitts. A pair of welding goggles is pushed high on his bald pate. He’s roving his penlight around Shaver’s mouth, which is scaffolded wide with rods and pins from a child’s erector set.
“Stop talking,” Messner replies.
Shaver keeps glancing at the Barcalounger, imagining it tricked out with arm clamps, gynecological stirrups, but Messner refuses to indulge him. He’s staring into Shaver’s black-scabbed, mis-stitched maw, wincing at the dark wreck of it.
“You need to start flossing, Shaver. Your mouth is one giant blast crater.”
Shaver spits loose some scaffold. “Since when do you care about repairing the teeth?”
Messner clicks off the penlight and shrugs. “I’m already dressed the part.”
“Well, doctor, your patient is waiting.”
“First.” Messner extends his hands. His wondrous hands.
Shaver digs the cash clip out of his pocket.
“That’s the last of it,” he says.
“All the insurance money?”
“I don’t know where it went.”
“Of course you do.” Messner swings his head at his new glimmery surroundings: digital projection system, twin kegerators, rehabbed pinball games, a nautilus machine shrouded in wraithlike plastic. He hasn’t used any of it.
“Oh.” Shaver says. “Right.”
“You find work yet?”
“You start looking for work yet?”
Messner sighs and hands him the money back.
“There’s a happy ending here, somewhere,” Shaver says. “I’m living the dream, aren’t I? Great friends, amazing family. What’s wrong with me?”
“Aside from the flossing thing? And the insanity thing?”
“Right,” Shaver nods.
“It’s a real mystery.” Messner’s gaze falls to the tray of instruments. “I’m not sure we’re ready for the blowtorch.”
“You goddamn tease.”
“I’m just not in the mood,” Messner says. His bald head, robbed of some crucial cantilevering, trembles and drops.
“What is it?” Shaver asks.
“Don’t worry about it.”
Shaver pushes aside his paper bib and sets a hand on Messner’s knee. “Come on. You can tell me, buddy. Where are they now?”
“Bermuda, I think.” Messner mumbles. “Tori sent me a picture. She was all bronzed up on some kind of sandy beach. The kids have dyed their hair. She chopped hers, bleached it. She says the divorce papers are being drawn up. She says she’s finally found a place where she can be safe and healthy and not subject to the whims of my tyrannical heart. I think that’s true. My tyrannical heart probably wouldn’t survive the trip to Bermuda.”
“That’s not so bad,” Shaver says. “Have you seen my household lately? What a horror show. I need to keep all our cupboards bare because if there’s anything inside them, my wife starts shouting at the macaroni mix, frothing and cursing and storming the china hutch. I can’t leave her home alone. I can’t take her to the supermarket. She goes crazy there too. The strangest part is before the accident she hated makeup. She wouldn’t wear anything low cut or bare leggy. The instant she lost her brains she lost her inhibitions. Now she makes me dress her like she’s a living sex doll in one of those horrible Amsterdam windows. A pantyless cheerleader in heat. If my old wife ran into my new wife on the street, my old wife’s heart would seize up in her chest. She’d curl up and die. She’d finally be happy.”
Shaver stares up at him. He tries to smile.
“Please break me in my fucking mouth,” Shaver whispers.
Messner laughs so hard his whole face cracks apart like hard cookie. He looks away and Shaver realizes the man isn’t laughing at all. His mouth is sucked into a ridiculous clench. The tears streak his pudgy cheeks, his forehead blotches. All with an ease Shaver can only envy.
Shaver just isn’t sure which one of them his friend is weeping for.
At home he finds his lovely wife lazing in a lithium coma on the sofa. She has tied herself in eight different pairs of fishnets, her arms latticed with fabric, her waist and neck, the seams in her fuzzy scalp. He searches the house and retrieves her blonde wig—the vacuum is wearing it—and he settles it on his own head. He brushes the bangs aside, manages the stray strands. The fit is not quite right. He gives his wife a warm soulful nuzzle, careful not to upset the fistfuls of blood-clumped gauze bursting out of his cheeks. Then he carries her to bed.
His son is still awake. The boy’s bedroom is an austere lair of precocious adolescence, childhood toys replaced by adult artifacts rummaged from who-knows-where: Shaver’s old eight-track player, a drafter’s table, defibrillator paddles. The boy is curled inside a beanbag chair, absorbed by the sheer girth of it, a pair of posh audio-junky headphones latched to his ears like an enormous crustacean. The music bleeds out, a song Shaver doesn’t recognize. He’s tempted to tap his son on the shoulder and ask about the song, the headphones, the chair. Shaver doesn’t know how or where his son inherited this alien intelligence. The boy’s hair is crazily cowlicked upwards and the headphones only amplify the mad scientist effect.
Shaver watches him. That’s all. He just watches him.
After scarfing down a few snack cakes he keeps hidden under the kitchen sink, Shaver preps for bed, swabbing his ears, tweezing his malevolent uni-brow, swapping out the bloodied mouth gauze and replacing it with a pristine batch. He keeps the bathroom light on in case he wakes up confused. Although since Shaver is always confused these days, the light never really gets turned off. In the barely furnished guestroom where Shaver now sleeps, abstinent and alone, he encounters his wife again. She has shed the rest of her fishnets and lacy underthings and now stands naked and gleaming and bald.
“Honnnnneeeeey,” he tries to say but his mouth is muffled. “Sweeeeetieee.”
Something rubs, chafes, squishes. Shaver notices his wife has an exploratory finger inside the shaved cleft of her sex, probing around, establishing rhythm, friction. She tongues her glisteny lips and her eyelids sag shut. All the blood and lunatic gore coursing Shaver’s veins immediately detours into his genitals, an anguished rush. He tries to suck his sore gums, eke out a hurt, but all his pain receptors are sizzled, short-circuited, dead.
He feels, finally, harmless.
As his wife vigorously touches herself, Shaver grabs the kitchen phone and dials Joanna. The woman picks up on the fortieth ring. Shaver sputters a long string of garbled English, spits out the gauze, and sputters some more. Joanna listens along, hushed, patient.
“Try calling your freaky pal Messner,” she eventually says. “I’m not going anywhere near that diseased mouth.”
“But the things you told me,” Shaver pleads. “About wanting to be like my wife. Lying in our bed. Wearing her saucy things.”
“I don’t remember saying any of that. I had too much to drink, too much to sniff.”
“You terrify me, Shaver.”
“My life,” he says. “It terrifies me too.”
He tries to speak slowly, gingerly. His words taste brittle and metallic.
“Do you remember our motel?” he asks her.
“That crummy little room with the coin-operated bed? Like a ride? An amusement park ride?! Like for goddamn kids!”
“I remember a broken TV. And you struggling to extract your head from it. There were some nice times, too, I guess. The ambulance ride, for instance.”
“They’d probably let us have the same room,” he tells her. “Even if that room is occupied, I bet the other rooms look exactly like it. I bet they all look the same.”
A long pause.
“I’m on the cordless phone,” she says. “I’m standing in my backyard, staring up at the stars. God, they look so stupid. So puny. So sad. Do you know what I’m about to do?”
“I’m gonna name each and every last one of the sad bastards,” she says. “I’m naming all of them Shaver.”
The room is oversaturated with harsh clinical light, like a hospital or shopping mall or maybe a morgue. The TV remains off. Shaver’s wife and Joanna are yoga-splayed on the motel bed, facing each other half-dressed, a little drunk. Shaver is sitting in the corner chair with a warm beer in his lap, shirtless and in his underwear, his feet resting on a hard-shell beverage cooler. His wife’s face is caked in powder, rouged, mascara’d, lipstick’d. She smiles through the stratums of excessive cosmetics, as if trying to hold the mask off her face, and her skin creases at the cheeks. Joanna, a natural brunette, wears the wife’s blonde wig. But she’s not smiling. She’s holding her folded legs at the ankles, pale skin in black panties and bra. She touches Shaver’s wife on the knee and speaks in a whisper Shaver can barely hear over the air conditioner roaring into his head.
“I am in the car,” Joanna says. “The car is moving down the road. The sky is a bright clean happy sky. I am with my husband and my son. My son is a gorgeous young prince whom I cannot love enough. My husband, I met years ago, decades, centuries, back in another life. There are no other cars on the road with us. My son is in the middle of the backseat, playing cowboy games with his seatbelt. He’s trying to lasso his own foot. Maybe I’m wearing my seatbelt, maybe I’m not. Is the sky blue?”
Shaver’s wife smiles at her, her whole spray-tanned face creasing.
“The sky is blue,” Joanna says. “The clouds are blue. Our car and home and dreamland are all blue, blue, blue.”
“Blue,” the wife says.
“There is something in the road and my husband swerves to avoid it, or he swerves to hit it, or maybe the road buckles out from underneath him and it really isn’t anybody’s fault. I am flying through the windshield now. I guess I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt after all.”
“My airbag is broken.”
“Blue,” Shaver’s wife pleads. Joanna plants both hands on the crooked horseshoe of the woman’s collarbone, bracing and massaging her, speaking into the woman’s smile.
“My head is the first thing to hit the glass,” Joanna says. “My son is the second thing. My body glides through the air like a sleek and intelligent bird. Have you seen me soaring? Have you found me in the field? I am flying through the long golden field of perfect air and perfect sunlight, and I have never felt so alive. In this life or any other.”
When Shaver’s wife looks ready to kiss her Shaver stands, digs another warm beer from the cooler, and heads out the door. The sky is a lightless sheet of black. The in-ground pool has been drained. The beach chairs are carefully stacked. Shaver drifts across the parking lot in his boxer shorts and bare feet, retreating until he is just another speck of dark life on the horizon.
ARTWORK BY CAROLEE SCHNEEMAN