Spring 1999, Volume 16.3
Poison in the House
Michael Ranney received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa. His work has appeared in Bachy, Green's Magazine, Innisfree, The Pikestaff Forum and Farmer's Market. He currently lives in Claremont, California.
Styles had been weeding the neglected garden for almost two hours on a hot July morning when he sat back to rest and crushed the best of the bell peppers.
"Shit!" he shouted. "God dammit to hell!"
Jumping up, ready to throw his spade, Styles suddenly felt dizzy. He stopped and held his head very still, waiting for the feeling to pass. Holding still usually worked. Neighborhood sounds came over the wall, a lawnmower, the shriek of a powersaw, cheers from a children's soccer match down the street. Styles listened, eyes closed, while the spinning in his head slowly faded. Then he looked at the ruined plant again.
"God dammit," he said.
The loss made all his work seem worthless.
He'd been planning his Saturday chores all week, writing out his usual list. His wife, Rita, habitually mentioned weekend work goals over dinner each night. Styles had underlined rescue the garden three times.
He thought of it as Rita's garden. Their two teenagers called it dad's mess. The project had been Rita's idea, mentioned during Christmas dinner. Late in March she'd bought seeds and starter plants. Styles turned the soil, screened out rocks and laid the rows. Rita did the planting. But they never decided who would be the caretaker.
Styles ripped out the broken pepper and stuffed it into the grocery bag he'd been filling with weeds. Half the garden was cleared. Only the beans, cucumbers and corn, all nearly overgrown, remained.
He shook his head softly and looked into the sky. To the north past the trees a few thin clouds streamed over the mountains. Everywhere else the sky was clear. The sun burned a harsh yellow gold. For just a second he stared into its light. When he looked away and closed his eyes the image reappeared, bright orange, inside his head.
All at once, then, Styles remembered Marie, the woman he'd loved for two months the summer before. He saw her as he'd first seen her, walking among the trees near the foothill trail he jogged three mornings a week, a calm, slim woman, the sun bright at her back, rays glowing through her Brian Duersch hair.
Not enough time had passed. He still remembered touching her, caressing her bare skin, making love to her. He remembered their walks through the hills, she showing him trails he'd never seen, the quiet of her company and the peace. He remembered whispering his sorry good-bye, glancing into her tearless eyes.
Styles wondered for the thousandth time whether he'd made the right choice.
Rita called from the upstairs window.
"Good morning," she said.
Styles peered upward but he was too close to the house and could not see her.
"I think we should go out tonight," she said. "To dinner."
"All right. If that's what you want."
"Well… Do you want to?"
"It's fine with me."
"Are you getting much done?"
Suddenly the screen fell, sliding down the side of the house.
"Oooops!" Rita said. "Did I do that?"
Styles clenched his teeth and turned away. The screen had been a problem for years, falling out and getting put back again and again. Finally six months ago he'd realized it was simply too small for the window frame. But rather than buy a new screen Styles had shimmed the original back into place with tiny wedges of cardboard and figured the problem was solved for good.
"Didn't you just fix that?" Rita stuck her head out the empty window. "Why don't you just go buy a new one?"
Styles set his jaw. "I had it fixed." He glared up at her. "What the hell did you knock it out for? What are you doing?"
"I didn't knock it out. I didn't even touch it. I just got up. I wanted to say good morning."
"Okay," he said. "Good morning. Now would you close the goddamned window. You're letting out all the air conditioning."
With Rita's head silhouetted against the sky he could not see her face. A moment passed.
"Why can't you just— Oh, hell, what's the use." She slammed the window closed.
Styles looked down and shook his head again. The sun image danced before his open eyes now. Anymore he couldn't help himself, his anger getting the better of him and crushing Rita's good mood every time. She would sulk all day and dinner would be leftovers at the kitchen table.
For the next half hour, perched on the old wooden ladder he carried from the garage, Styles struggled with the screen. All his life he'd been afraid of heights. His legs shook beneath him. He kept picturing the ladder rungs breaking and his body smashing into the garden. Twice he dropped the screen and had to climb down. Every minute the day seemed hotter. Finally he got the shims tucked into the corners and the screen back where it belonged.
Sweat streaked his face and trickled down his back. The garden waited. But as he hauled the ladder back to the garage Styles lost interest. He retreated into his office inside the house, closed the door and slumped into the chair behind his desk.
Rita was showering. He could hear the water piping through the walls.
Styles looked over his work list, then crushed the paper and threw it away. What the hell was the point? He felt his face tighten, his mouth twist into a scowl. Exactly how he felt.
Paper littered his desk, bills needing payment, a bank statement unreconciled, calculations for a bid he'd been working on, a book of essays on the virtues of work that he wanted to read sometime. His mind whirled with intentions and defeats. His life seemed a mess, worthless work, problems without solutions, everything stacked against him. So often anymore he couldn't even get started, feeling no strength inside, no energy, no will, no nothing.
Styles spun away from the desktop and looked at the bookcases lining his room. The books filled his eyes, all colors and sizes, hardcover and soft, five thousand volumes, poetry, novels, plays, science, history. So many he would never read them all. He loved reading, always had, the wonder and the escape. Every week he bought more books. Yet these days he could not decide which one to open next.
Lines of poetry he'd studied in college came to mind. I can connect nothing with nothing. Marie, Marie, hold on tight. The words echoed, his own voice reciting them. He remembered the poet but not the title. He could even picture the slim gray paperback of poems.
His eyes filled with tears. His breath caught and his throat constricted. Nearly every thought of Marie brought the same aching hurt. He'd cried a lot in those days with her. Now he twisted his head to the right, trying to escape the sensation. One drop spilling down his cheek would let loose hundreds more.
He spun the chair again. The air conditioning seemed ineffective. Styles wiped his eyes, then blotted the sweat from his face onto his shirtsleeves. Opening the top right hand drawer of his desk he lifted out his pistol. The black metal felt cool and sleek in his hand. The meager weight of the thing as usual surprised him.
He'd bought it back in October during the depression that possessed him after telling Rita about Marie. He'd been spending every night alone and awake then, thinking frequently of suicide. No one in the family knew about the gun. For several months he'd kept it hidden inside his truck. Then one Sunday when everyone was gone he smuggled it into the house.
Sometimes playing with the pistol he felt like a kid again. He would aim at things around the room, books, trophies, photographs, and pull the trigger, making shooting sounds with his mouth.
Styles knew he would never really use the gun. Even facing a home invasion robbery he probably wouldn't remember owning the thing, much less where it was hidden. He hadn't even bought bullets.
Closing his eyes he tightened his grip on the handle. Maybe bullets would make the gun feel heavier, less like a toy. He lifted it to his face, drew the hammer back and pulled the trigger. The snap echoed through the room. He put the muzzle inside his mouth, biting down on the barrel. How could a person miss? He aimed the gun at his temple, then his heart. You would be nervous, terribly nervous, shaking uncontrollably probably crying, tears flooding your face. Maybe you could miss. Maybe easier to miss than actually hit a fatal spot.
The door opened and Rita rushed into the room. Her hair was wet. She looked frantic.
"It's Barney! He's spitting up blood. I went to start the laundry. There's blood all over the garage, all over the backyard. I don't know what's wrong with him."
She stopped. Her eyes fell to the gun aimed into his chest. She blinked. Then, shaking her head, she turned and ran from the room.
"Damn!" Styles said.
Every time she came near him these days Rita interrupted. Always something wrong, some problem, something he had to fix. Now she'd discovered his gun. Setting his mouth, he put away the weapon and followed her.
She was waiting for him outside the back door.
"Just look at him."
Their springer spaniel stood swaying in the narrow strip of grass between wall and walk. Blood and mucus covered his muzzle, strings of it dripping into the grass. Watery pools of blood spotted the sidewalk.
Styles hesitated, worrying about rabies.
"Barney boy, what's the matter?"
The dog tried to move but his head dropped lower. Styles wondered how he'd missed all this, carrying the ladder, walking right past. He crouched down and patted the dog's back, keeping his hand away from the blood. Barney's fur felt heavy and matted, almost wet.
"Call the vet. See if I can bring him in."
"I already called," Rita said. "She's there all day. What's wrong with him? Can't you do something?" The panic in her voice irritated him.
"I don't know what the hell's wrong with him."
Suddenly the dog turned and dropped onto his right side. His chest swelled and one long breath spewed from his nose. Then he went still.
"Is he dead?" Rita shrieked.
Styles felt along the dog's underside, guessing at where the heart might be, trying to learn if Barney was still alive. A faint fluttering touched his fingertips.
"Is he dead?"
He stood up and looked at his wife. Her wet eyes stared back at him. He felt stunned, unsure what to do or think. Rita's gaze demanded something, anything. He had seen that same terrible look on her face before, that same white fist rising to her mouth, the same unblinking eyes, the night he confessed about Marie.
"Where's her office?"
"Down on Page, east of Sloan."
"Call her. Tell her I'm bringing him in. I don't know if it'll do any good."
Rita stood there staring.
"Go on, go on, call."
She rushed back into the house.
Minutes later Styles was racing his truck through the streets, the dog wrapped in a paint-smeared drop-cloth lying on the passenger seat. Carefully slipping past red lights, speeding between intersections, he steered with one hand and stroked Barney with the other.
"Come on, boy," he said. "Come on. Don't croak on me now. Hang on. Hang in there."
Part of him thought sure the dog was dead. But another part demanded that he find that shallow heartbeat again and keep it going. The vet's office was nearly five miles away.
His mind drifted. Another day turned to shit just like so many others anymore. And where were the kids? Why hadn't they both been out there screeching at him? He wondered if all this effort was pointless. Maybe everything anymore was pointless.
"Come on, Barney. Hang on."
Last night Rita had mentioned something about the kids. Styles struggled to remember what she'd said.
One of the vet's assistants, a pretty redhead, waited for him in the parking lot outside the building. She waved when she saw him. Styles parked, grabbed the dog and followed her. They rushed past owners and pets. Barney felt heavy and limp. The girl led him down halls and through doorways. Styles winced when the dog's legs smacked against a passing door frame. Finally they entered a large bright room. Steel cages and chrome machines lined the walls.
"Here," the vet said. "Put him here."
She was a brittle motherly woman and Styles had never like her. He laid the dog down on the metal table she indicated.
"Tell me about it," she said.
She flopped Barney onto his stomach, pried open his mouth and yanked out his tongue.
Backing away across the room, Styles described what had happened at home.
A machine began to hum. The vet jammed a long plastic tube down the dog's throat.
"You have poison in the house? For rats? Been having a problem, got some of that rat poison the County gives away? Setting out traps a dog could get into?"
Styles suddenly felt hollow. Two weeks earlier Rita had complained about seeing a rat in the garage. Styles had laughed at her, searched everywhere and found nothing. But the next day she'd gone to the County Health Department and gotten the poison. That night after dinner she'd watched as Styles cut open a plastic milk bottle and baited the trap with a mixture of poison and peanut butter. Setting it into the narrow space behind the freezer, he'd never thought about the dog.
The room went still, the machine noise quiet.
"This dog's dead," the vet said.
Styles swore under his breath.
"Sorry," she said. "I did what I could."
She went to the sink and quickly washed her hands, then ushered him into another room.
"Well," she said. "Poison?"
"That County stuff. You saw the usual effects, their lungs rupture, they drown in their own blood. You have other animals in the house?"
"No, no others."
The vet instructed him then on how to be more careful. Her voice was flat and harsh. Styles thought she sounded disgusted with him. He stared into a chart on the wall that displayed breeds of dogs from Great Danes to Scotties, the tiny portraits more clear than photographs.
Tuning out, he remembered where the kids were, on sleepovers at friend's houses, the usual kid things.
"All right then," the vet said. "You want a moment…to say good-bye?"
"He was my wife's dog. I guess I'll just take him home and bury him in the backyard. It's what we've always done."
"That's not legal you know." She looked at him. "But you do as you like. I'll box him up." She turned toward the door. "It'll take a few minutes. The waiting room is out that way."
Another corridor led back toward the front of the building. The waiting room was full, owners and pets staring at him. One tiny dog barked. Styles felt vaguely excluded as he walked past, almost like someone condemned.
The air outside seemed cool and he realized he'd been sweating. His clothes were grubby and dirt stained his hands. The truck door was hanging open. He sat down where the dog had been and let his feet dangle out the doorway.
Rita would be worried, hoping for a miracle. Barney had been her dog, as much as any thing in a marriage belongs only to one partner. Styles remembered bringing him home, a surprise birthday gift nearly eight years ago. The dog had ridden in the truck then too, yipping and whimpering, jumping back and forth from seat to floor. Trying to calm him down, Styles had to struggle to keep the truck on the road.
He sat back, slid across the seat, started the engine and punched in his home number on the mobile phone.
Rita answered at once.
"He didn't make it," Styles told her.
She began to cry. He could picture her face, trembling lips, shimmering eyes.
"What was it?"
He hesitated, trying to think of some other plausible story.
"I guess I screwed up. It was that poison, for the rats, the stuff you got from the County. I thought I had the trap hidden but somehow he got into it. At least that's what the vet thinks. I'll have to check and see." He took a breath. "I'm sorry."
Rita was silent. Styles saw emotions filling her face, anger, hatred, resentment, sorrow, resignation, despair. He'd seen them all there over the past year.
"I'll bring him home in a little while. I guess we should just bury him out in the yard, along the wall with the other critters."
Rita said nothing. Styles waited. The phone went dead in his hand.
Instantly angry again, he slammed the receiver back into its cradle and punched the END button. Just as quickly then his anger slipped away. He had killed her dog, how else could she react? He moved back across the seat and looked up at the summer brown hills. His mind focused on Marie again. Styles sighed. The memory was like a chipped tooth he tongued over and over hoping eventually to smooth the jagged edges away. Walks in the hills, careful phone calls, meetings inside her house across town. The shock of making love to someone other than his wife. Marie, Marie, hold on tight.
Styles turned away from the sky. Every time he ran the trails now he looked for her. At the gym where he lifted weights he searched the mirrored walls as if she might appear. Everywhere he drove, on the job and off, he watched for her, hoping to see her, driving her car, strolling the mall, smiling at him, waving. Tears filled his eyes. He'd made his decision yet still he felt divided, torn between opposite lives, one exciting and lovely, the other a constant grind where things never came right.
He shook his head.
There was no better life. What the hell would he do, move down the road and live with Marie, weed her garden and fix her screens? Through all his thinking, with all the lurch and turmoil, he always reached the same conclusions: his life anywhere else would be just as unchanging.
It was the redhead again, calling from the office doorway.
Half an hour later he pushed through the gate into the backyard, the box containing the dog hefted onto his shoulder. Rita stayed somewhere inside the house. He wondered how long her feelings against him would last this time. He knew she still thought about Marie, hearing it in her words, feeling it in the way she spoke to him.
Styles grabbed a shovel from the garage and walked out into the backyard. The sidewalk was wet, the water hose unreeled, all Barney's bloody mess washed away.
At the back wall he stopped. Over the years they'd buried all their animals along there, two tortoises the kids had found, three parakeets, several goldfish won as prizes, a lost kitten with worms, a flop-eared rabbit and a family of hamsters. He cringed at the thought of digging up something grisly.
But then he noticed the tools, propped against the wall farther down, the pick and another shovel. He looked toward the house. Rita knew, she would always remember, where each animal was buried, what empty spaces remained.
Styles walked over, set down the box and saw his gun lying in the grass beside the shovel's blade.
"Shit," he said.
He reached down and grabbed the gun. He'd known something would happen. He wanted to be angry but all he felt was sad and resigned.
The neighborhood was quiet. He looked toward the house again. If Rita was watching he could not see her. All the shadowed windows started blankly back at him.
Styles wanted her to show herself. He wanted her to come rushing outside, screaming about the gun, the dog, Marie, everything. After a while he wiped the pistol on his shirt and set it down on Barney's cardboard coffin. He would follow instructions and bury the gun with the dog. His back to the house, he wondered again if Rita was watching. For just a second he thought of calling out to her. Instead he took a deep breath and began to dig.