By Soren Palmer
Rich Ellis hated telling people that he was in sales, and—worse—that he sold breast implants; it disguised the true merit of his occupation. He had built so many relationships with so many doctors – not to mention their nurses and wives and receptionists – that he could not remember the last time he had to make a cold call, that he had to walk into an office blind and pimp his product. His boss, a young hot-shot from Nashville who actually highlighted his hair, was always preaching the company mantra of the bottom line, and Rich knew that was simply because he was too young, too naïve to understand that nothing important ever happened without first building a relationship. God had put Rich on the earth for that very purpose, to cultivate relationships, starting with his family and spreading out into his work, extending to the assembly of women he had helped become more confident in their own bodies. And that was not even mentioning, of course, the victims of breast cancer he had aided, women for whom a mastectomy meant not only the loss of a breast, but the loss of feminine identity. Rich gave that identity back. Appearance and confidence.
He completed the double Windsor of his Brooks Brothers tie and slid the knot up to his throat, tightening it, then pulled a charcoal jacket from the hanger. He dropped a black and gold Mont Blanc pen into the inside breast pocket of his jacket, where it clinked against the silver case that housed his business cards: Rich Ellis, Mentor Corporation. You could not, obviously, look bad and sell aesthetics. Standing in his walk-in closet, flanked by suits and button-downs, Rich checked himself in the mirror. Life was one blessing after another.
There were concerns, however, that his blessings were running out; each day, shortly after he woke, he was ambushed by a series of thoughts that began with his wife and steered him toward a variety of measures that would result in her death. They were wretched thoughts. Unspeakable. And perhaps—given their abstract nature and how quickly he tapped the brakes on their explosive possibilities—that was why they did not frighten him: they were merely thoughts. So what if he found himself Googling “medical overdose”? It wasn’t an actual possibility, not like Foster Wright committing to his beloved Razorbacks. Foster was the best high school running back in the nation, from right here in Little Rock. His commitment would change everything.
It was like a life raft, that possibility, one he clung to tightly as he emerged from the ordered space of his closet—where he found his wife taking dirty clothes from the wicker hamper and folding them into piles on the bed, which he had made before getting dressed. Their bed had rustic metal posts. The comforter was of the Siberian goose down variety, which Rich had recently read was only a marketing myth, but one he did not care to investigate. His wife, now for thirty-seven years, was still quite beautiful, her body slender in lavender pajamas, her short brown hair silvering, mixing age with elegance. He had considered that when they first met, how well she would age, that she had the type of frame and face that would always maintain its shape—it was a shallow thought, he realized, even then, and one that rather embarrassed him, but there it was, instinctive and sovereign, rolling out the rest of his life before his eyes. Other characteristics, certainly more important characteristics—she was kind, hard-working, had a nimble laugh—would quickly reveal themselves, but the first thing he noticed was that she was beautiful, and would always be beautiful.
She shook out an undershirt and then folded it into a perfect square across her chest.
“Good morning,” he said, bracing for impact. Only in the last couple of months had she stopped remembering him, and it was not that often, but each instance was like a horse galloping over his body.
She looked up, surprised, and wrapped her composure into a tight ball. It was a devastating look that—only now—he immediately recognized: her head tilted slightly to the right, her large brown eyes studying him until her thin lips pursed in frustration and she ran a hand through her silvering hair in search of his name.
“Good morning,” she said, hesitantly. “Uncle Steven?”
Three years ago, when these lapses first started, he was certain he could jog her memory, that one of their three children’s names or a detail about their life or—right now—the reminder that he was her husband (born in Little Rock to the father of a gas station owner) would be the jumper cables needed to turn over her mind. But after multiple defeats, he had given up that fight.
“Yes,” he said, smiling, “Uncle Steven.” Then, slowly walking toward her, he asked, curiously, “What are you doing?”
“Folding my husband’s shirts.”
“Are they clean?”
“Well, of course,” she said, with a little irritation.
“Can I help?”
This, as well, was a problem he used to put all of his weight behind, explaining simple mistakes. Reminding her that she’d left a trail of lights on, from their upstairs bedroom down to the kitchen, that she had to brush her teeth, that the dishwasher had to run before she emptied it, that ice cream did not belong in the cupboard and there was no reason to hide the TV remote from a band of fabricated robbers. It had taken him three days to find it, the remote, since she certainly couldn’t remember the “secret spot,” which turned out to be duct taped beneath the sofa. For the entirety of their marriage systems had been in place. Systems that, he only now fully realized, had been implemented and maintained by her, such as dirty clothes going in the wicker hamper and clean clothes going in the white basket. It was her system. At first, she’d nod, probably embarrassed or simply placating him, but then he was having the same conversation twenty minutes later, as if it had never happened, and for a brief period it made him feel incredibly crazy, wondering if the conversations had actually happened.
He matched two black socks and balled them up. “This is awfully nice of you.”
“It’s my job,” she said, matching his tone. Then, with a trace of malice, “We all have jobs around here.”
He was supposed to retire in June, but now he might have to work another five or ten years to keep up with the medical bills, not to mention how imperative it was to keep her on his insurance. He’d paid off the house and the cars and the college tuition. This was that point in life (not necessarily the best point, as there was an inescapable element of loneliness to an empty nest) that they had lived toward when, finally, they did not have to work or care for anyone else. For a while, that seemed the worst part, working his entire life toward a point only to have it disappear upon arrival. Now, however, there was this—and perhaps it was only how he felt at the impetus of each terrible moment—the part where his wife revealed disgruntled aspects of their life which she’d always tucked away; those, apparently, she could find.
He glanced at a pillow, then checked his watch. Their daughter should be arriving any minute. He asked, “What’s wrong with everyone having a job?”
“What?” She looked up, her eyebrows arched in surprise. It was gone, the train of thought, derailed by an accumulation of twisted and tangled protein fibers, and he knew that he would never get an answer. She picked up a pair of boxer-briefs, white with a red waistband, and then laughed, covering her mouth with one hand. “My husband soiled himself.”
He swallowed, hard, as if forcing a down a grenade. “Soiled himself?”
“On our date.” She laughed again, shaking her head. “It was so cute.”
Sadly, what she said was true: thirty-nine years ago, on their first date, he had shit in his pants, though he’d spent every second up till now thinking she hadn’t noticed. They were both attending U of A, him a brimming junior Alpha Sig and her a freshman KD, and even though she was two years younger, it still took all of his nerve to ask her out. She was so vibrant and alive, so confident, he knew that energy could spin his life in the right direction; before he even asked her out he was thinking about giving her his fraternity pin on Spoofer’s Stone, a ritual that ensured marriage. It was early fall, Homecoming week, and their houses were working on a float for the game, so they’d gone to the D-Lux for a burger, then decided to stroll down Dickson Street. She seemed ambivalent about extending the date, and he’d been so nervous through dinner he could hardly blame her, but she agreed to the walk and only then did he realize he had to go to the bathroom. He wasn’t even sure if it was a date, as the lack of formality could’ve easily made the meal a break from the mass of chicken wire and colored tissue paper, so he wanted to muster up the courage to ask for a second date, there was a good band playing on Friday, at the Rink on Highway 62. He feared, that if he went to the bathroom, the night could lose its momentum and she’d decide they might as well return to working on the float. Twenty minutes. He could hold it that long.
It was one of those risks you take when you’re twenty-one, naively trusting your body to keep a promise it has no intention of keeping. A couple blocks down Dickson, right past George’s Majestic Lounge—his nervousness finally dissipating and the conversation improving and Autumn holding it all gently against the break of night—he thought he was only going to fart, but then could feel the shit easing out of his ass and up against his underwear. Then, immediately cursing his body and its failed promise, he wanted the date to be over, but she looked angelic in her white halter, with his coat around her shoulders and clearly hadn’t noticed—except she had. For all of these years, she had.
He took a black mock turtle from the basket, white deodorant streaking across the armpits. “Did he try to hide it?”
She waved a hand in front of her nose. “Phew, it smelled. And he walked so funny.” She moved her own legs awkwardly. “I loved him.”
“Did you ever tell him?”
“Not Rich. He’s so . . .” she paused, a red knit in hand, her face tightening in search of a word or phrase located around a corner she could never reach. “You’d have to know Rich.”
But he did know Rich—didn’t he? He was Rich, but now it felt like he didn’t know himself at all, or the self that his wife had known all of these years. Why hadn’t she told him? A year later he could’ve laughed about it, certainly five years later he could’ve had a marvelous laugh about it, especially after a few whiskies—couldn’t he have?
The door downstairs opened and closed and his daughter’s voice ricocheted around the house. “Mom? Dad?”
Somehow, without knowing it, he’d wrapped the mock turtle around itself, four or five times.
“Excuse me,” he said, dropping the turtleneck to the floor and walking—too swiftly, he was sure—from the room, slowing himself on the stairs when he saw his daughter, Kelsey, in the foyer, rummaging through her purse, which she had set on the wooden entry table in front of two white candles.
Naturally, as it would follow, his daughter looked exactly like his wife, with a slender frame and classically detailed face (the same large eyes, in particular, and small chin). She frowned when she spotted him, a practiced gesture she’d surely been waiting to fire since dropping her kids at school; she did not agree with his handling of all this, with his decision to sequester information from their friends. “Where’s Mom?”
“Upstairs, folding my dirty laundry.”
“Well,” his daughter said, returning her attention to the purse, “at least she’s still folding.”
“She hasn’t showered yet, so make sure she does that, and I’ve put her clothes out.” The morning list had quickly become more complicated. At first it was not letting her drive and then making sure the stove was always turned off and then, of course, there was the time the police brought her home after she got lost on a walk. Most recently they’d emptied the liquor cabinet as she’d suddenly become a drinker, the buzz, apparently, the easiest means of self-anesthetizing—only she couldn’t remember how much she’d drank or how long she’d been drinking and could kill half a bottle of vodka in twenty minutes.
“Jesus, Dad.” She shook her head, pulling keys and a compact from her purse. “She needs to be in a home.”
“This is her home.”
She threw up a hand, exasperated, apparently unable to find whatever she was looking for. “I saw Mrs. Hudson at the store last night and she wanted to know why mom quit coming to prayer group.” Kelsey laughed to herself. “She was sure one of the other women had said something offensive.”
“I’ll call her.”
“And make something up?”
“Well,” he said, still standing on the bottom stair, “I wouldn’t put it like that.”
She walked up to Rich, and gently placed a hand on his arm. “We have to start telling people. They’ll want to help. God, it’s what southern church women live for.”
“She wouldn’t want people to see her like this.”
Kelsey yanked her hand from his arm and walked past him up the stairs, words tumbling down behind her: “Right, because Mom’s always been the one so wrapped up in appearances.”
Rich sighed, then walked past the kitchen and considered a glass of Maker’s Mark, to temper the morning, but resisted and walked down the hall to his office. He opened his laptop and started to click over to HawgYell.com, a recruiting website and message board for all things Razorback football—but stopped himself, and wished he’d indulged in the whisky. Up until last week, HawgYell had been the only place he could go to forget, feeding off the excitement and anticipation that always came with late July: Razorback practice would be starting in August, which meant practice reports were coming, along with updates from insiders who spoke with coaches. And soon, surely, Foster Wright would pledge his allegiance to the Hogs, would take that first step in turning around the program.
Unfortunately, Rich was now terrified to click on the site, a fear that felt childish and antiquated for a man who was a single flight of stairs away from sixty. Always, when he logged in now, there was a thread mocking his belief in the Hogs and utilizing his new nickname: Shits_in_Pants. For nearly forty years he’d evaded that aspect of the date, had giddily hidden from what was, surely, the most embarrassing moment of his life, a moment that had given chase from behind and was now trying to define him. He had surprised himself by posting the story last week on a thread about embarrassing moments. Rich had never cared for the crew of adolescents that were trying to take over HawgYell, and knew they should—if anything—be pitied as opposed to loathed, but he could not get past the simple fact that they did not like him. He was Rich Ellis.
Of course, that very exclusion made him want to be part of the clique, and while his appearance and confidence did not translate to his online identity as Plastic_Razor, desperation apparently did. The swarm of negativity posted by those online malcontents made it clear, of course, that they were not true Razorback fans, not like him, and that should have been reason enough for him to completely ignore them. He only wanted them to see the truth, that this was going to be their year, but they continually attacked him for being an optimist. So when he saw the thread about embarrassing moments, it seemed the perfect method of earning their respect, to share a moment he had never shared with another living soul. Ever. Surely that sincerity would be appreciated online—except it wasn’t. They didn’t even believe him.
Now they all called him “Shits_in_Pants,” even those who weren’t part of that loathsome group. They’d start threads with titles such as “Shit_in_Pants” All-American Team (which would be all Razorbacks) and once the board’s moderator cracked down on the profanity, they adjusted like savvy insurgents and called him “Soiled_Himself.” It seemed to inspire a new purpose, this nickname, to energize these “trolls,” as they were apparently called. Trolls, of course; surely they all lived in basements.
He walked back to the kitchen, which they’d remodeled only four years ago. They’d knocked out the wall, that, his wife had claimed, “slowed the flow” to the television room, and added granite (Black Galaxy with an eased edge) countertops, including a large island at the center of the room that could display snacks and dips on game days. A pausing point for traffic. The entire room was, of course, a sparkling reminder of all the parties they’d never had. Rich pulled out a stepstool and retrieved a bottle of Maker’s from the cabinet above the fridge, then walked around to the other side of the island, grabbed a short glass with the Hog logo, and poured himself a finger. It softened the ruffles of his increasing resentment, the whiskey, and he suddenly understood the draw of his wife’s drinking; there was no bliss in forgetting what you wanted, and never got.
He considered a second drink, but then heard his daughter coming down the stairs; she could not see him drinking this early, and he did not have enough time to make it back around the island and return the bottle to its hiding place above the refrigerator, so he tucked the bottle behind a stash of chips in the island’s cabinet, then stood back up just as his daughter appeared.
She asked, “What are you doing?”
“Getting some juice,” he said, walking back around the island to fridge and pouring some juice into the glass. He nodded at the stepstool and asked, “Did you get that out?”
“No.” She shrugged. “Probably Mom.”
“Probably,” he said, a little mortified at how easy that went, blaming his wife—he could’ve done the same with the Maker’s, could do the same with anything.
His daughter started to laugh, then stopped. “So, mom just told me some story about you pooping in your pants.”
“She’s making it up,” he said, apparently without much conviction. He downed the juice, the trace of whisky tasting rancid.
“Oh, Daddy, it’s endearing. Why didn’t you ever tell us?”
“It’s not endearing, it’s humiliating.”
Her face flushed with pity, of all things, and then she took a step toward him, both hands over her heart. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
He washed out the glass and then checked his pockets: wallet, keys, phone; his briefcase was already in the car. “Is that so? When’s the last time you did?”
“Well, I haven’t, but Kevin—”
“Kevin is six. I was twenty.”
“I think it made her love you, Daddy, can’t you appreciate that?”
“I can only appreciate that she was never honest with me about it.” He stormed past his daughter to the garage, hearing, “Daddy, don’t be mad—”
He stepped into his Lexus SUV (an RX350 painted in Starfire Pearl) and started the car, then wondered how long the exhaust would have to run before it nestled someone to sleep, and how difficult it would be to get his sleeping wife into the car—no, he had spent too much time and energy placing gold bricks in his heavenly home only to level it with a moment of cowardice. He pressed the garage door opener.
There were no appointments scheduled, but his wife’s care had taken so much time that he feared his clients weren’t getting enough attention, so he’d spend the day cultivating the relationships that had twice made him Mentor’s “King of Quota,” beginning with his biggest client, Jim Kerrigan. They attended the same church and often golfed together, he and Jim, and after being reminded all morning that he had once shit in his pants, he needed a reminder of how exceptional he was at his job.
The Kerrigan Cosmetic Surgery Center immediately sedating customers with its warm tones, lit candles and fresh-cut flowers. A glossy waterfall was the initial greeting off the elevator, water trickling into small pool filled with the circular wishes of pennies. Soft lighting and fanned out pamphlets advertising desire, which was what Rich sold, American desire, the confidence to transcend society’s flawed caste system. People gravitated toward beauty. Problematically, the commodity of beauty created an uneven playing field, and augmentation offered equal opportunity. Why should nature and genetics dictate one’s place when modern medicine could quicken the rise?
The receptionist, Shannon, smiled when she saw him. She was a young blonde in a shimmering blouse and the type of girl Rich, when he was young, loved to want to love before he was married (and even a short while after, since he married so young). Now, as a matter of course, she was an artifact of sorts, or he was the artifact and she was the opposite, was not even someone Rich could want to love because he had arrived at the age where such desire was ridiculously impossible, which was also American in nature, becoming a relic of desire. It made him want to laugh out loud.
Shannon, still smiling, said, “Well, as I live and breathe, Mister Ellis. It’s been a while.”
Had it? Returning the smile, he said, “Hello, Shannon. How’s the best receptionist in Little Rock?”
“I’m just perfect now that you’ve walked in,” she said, smiling. “And yourself?”
Rich knew he still had it. “I’ve aged past perfection, but it’s another beautiful day to be alive. Can Jim squeeze me in?”
“Anything for our favorite rep. Go on back and have a seat.”
Rich walked back to the nurse’s station—a couple of tables pushed together—and pulled out his phone. Had it really been that long? Wasn’t he here last month? His phone vibrated: a text from HawgYell notifying him a new recruiting story was up on Foster Wright. What a life that kid must have, being wanted by everyone, promises of fame and fortune all but etched in stone. Life opening up instead of closing down. Had Foster finally committed? God, did Rich want to go to the board – but Shits_in_Pants threads were lying in wait. He fantasized about meeting those adolescent pricks, about how quickly he would win them over and explain the ways of the real world—then Jim Kerrigan patted Rich on his shoulder.
Jim was Rich’s age, coasting into his sixties. He was the first plastic surgeon in the area to break into implants, when it was on the cusp of the force it became, and since then no one in the area had come close to catching up. It had been Jim, in fact, who suggested that Rich interview with Mentor (he was selling cardiac pacemakers at the time) almost a quarter of a century ago, and they were both wealthier for it, though Jim’s wealth was the type that even Rich found himself envying. Nothing, it appeared, was ever enough.
Jim’s office was warm and ordered, with a Ficus and a series of certificates boasting about his General Surgery Residence Degree and Plastic Surgery Residence Degree and Society of Arkansas Plastic Surgery, the ASAPS and ASPS. Jim had a circular and positive face, like a Retriever always wanting to please, and Rich knew such energy coaxed women into the hopeful future of augmentation.
“How’s Linda?” Jim asked, sitting behind his massive desk. He had on green scrubs, and a patch of grey chest hair fought from the v-neck of his smock. “Thought we’d see you two at the church’s Fourth festival.”
“I felt off, and it did drive her a little crazy that I kept us home.”
Jim glanced at the floor—rather nervously, Rich thought—and a bubble of silence rose up between them. “Is she still doing that books for kids program? We’ve had a stack in the garage for a while now.”
“You know,” Rich said, “I was supposed to pick those up. If I don’t put it in my phone now, it’s gone forever.”
Jim laughed, but it sounded forced and rigid. “I can’t remember half of my client’s names anymore.”
Rich shook his head. “The adhesive is slowly dissolving.”
Jim laughed again, even more rigidly, and again glanced at the floor.
“Is this a bad time, Jim? I’m happy to come back next week.”
Jim sighed. “I guess the only thing to do is come out and say it, right?”
“You’re making me nervous.”
“Look, we’re switching to Allergan. I’m really sorry.”
Rich’s entire stomach seized up, then exploded, all of his organs sliding into his legs. He
leaned forward, trying to force his organs back into place. There were specific things he should say right now, keeping it all professional, finding out if the switch was product or price related, but all Rich could say was, “I thought we were better friends than that.”
“It’s not that,” Jim said, shifting his weight in the chair. “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
“Couldn’t refuse?” Rich repeated. “We go to the same church, play golf together. Our wives—”
“I get a better discount buying all my products from one vendor. You guys don’t sell botox or dermal filters.”
“That’s because we specialize in implants, and it’s why our product is superior.”
“Their product is fine.”
Rich knew he needed to rein in his emotion, thank Jim for everything and ask if he could come back with a price proposal from his boss, but he blurted out, “Our implants are made here in the states. None of that outsourcing you’re always preaching against on the golf course.”
“Sales have flattened. It’s either this or lay off a couple of nurses or maybe Shannon.”
“If you would’ve told me this earlier we could’ve worked something out.”
“I asked for a lower price two months ago,” Jim said, kindly. “And Allergan saves me eight percent on their bundle program.”
Rich did the math; that was close to a hundred grand. “Let me take this to my boss, Jim. Those Allergan guys aren’t going to be invested in your business. They don’t know your wife and kids.”
“This is a bottom line thing, and honestly, we don’t see you that much anymore. Besides, you always said you’d never work past sixty.”
“Jim,” Rich said, hearing his own desperation. “I’m begging you. This is really going to hurt me. And Linda . . .”
“Is something wrong with Linda?”
There was a knock on the door and a nurse, Amy, stuck her head in. “Room three has been waiting for twenty—Oh, hi, Rich.”
“Hi, Amy.” Rich knew this move. Jim had bragged about it over steaks: he’d tell a nurse to knock in ten to end the meeting.
“Thanks, Amy. I’ll be right there.” Jim stood, pushing the chair away from him and straightening the top of his green scrubs. Rich knew he was supposed to stand as well, but his feet were still weighted down with his insides.
Jim walked around his desk, past the Ficus tree and the awards pasted on his wall, then stood in front of Rich and extended his large hand. “Come on, Rich, we’re old friends. And we’ve had a good run.”
Rich sat in his Lexus, air conditioning pissing from the vents, the car idling outside Emeritus at Chenal Heights, an assisted living facility. It felt like his last bastion of safe space, the Lexus, a delicate bubble of solace, heat and humidity and the electricity of life’s ironies trying to puncture the membrane. Four large pillars stacked with small stones supported the entrance to Emeritus, after which the building expanded on both sides into a lovely village of yellow wood and a stone base that matched the entry pillars. He had not told his children—he had not told anyone—but he took the ten-cent tour for the twelve thousand dollar a month facility. A hundred and forty-four thousand dollars a year. For how many years? He saw the small but elegant rooms filled with polished furniture. Watched fragile men and women rolled around in wheel chairs. Heard a resident repeatedly ask, “Will someone call my husband?” Not frantically or insistently. Rather politely, actually, her voice strumming down the hall, “Will someone call my husband?”
Naturally, they had a bucket-list of places they’d been saving for retirement. She wanted to see the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo had painted, frame by frame, the narrative of God’s creation in Adam and Eve’s beautiful, naked bodies, which were eventually cracked and aged and mortified in expulsion. He wanted to see the Colleseum, where gladiators had battled to death for days on end in front of fifty thousand people; what those crowds must’ve been like, gorging themselves on the frenzied spectacle, swords dripping with blood and corpses scattered about.
His phone dinged, a text from his son: “Is that story about your first date true?”
Of course, his daughter had already spun the anecdote to his sons, via text or email or Facebook, and they likely turned to whomever was standing next to them at the time—a co-worker, their spouse, someone behind them in line at the post office—and said, “Ha. My father once shit in his pants.”
Rich texted back: “Of course not! Last week she set the table for the cast of Gilligan’s Island—do you think they came? You need to come to terms with her condition, and soon.”
He pulled up his boss’ number and felt a rumble of terror; he could easily get fired. Kerrigan was twenty percent of his quota, was one-third of his entire income. He should’ve called his boss the second he walked out of the door, that hipster kid with the frosted hair and predominately pink wardrobe the company should be embarrassed about. Rich had been in sales longer than that prick had been breathing, and now he’ll have to be on the backend of a lecture about a brave new business world where numbers trumped relationships. The kid would fly down tomorrow or next week and Rich would chauffeur him over to Jim Kerrigan’s office where the punk would undermine everything Rich had built over the last fifteen years, tossing out numbers and deals Rich was not even allowed to mention. Rich understood now, why his wife was always hiding things, jamming her passport between cushions and shoving wads of money into the freezer, fearful of ruthless robbers and thieves whom already had, in essence, stolen his wife and left an alien in her place. It wasn’t paranoia, it was a heightened sense of the inevitable, when life snatched back everything it had given you.
His phone dinged again, another text from HawgYell advertising a major announcement about Foster Wright, the savior of Razorback football; the promise of that news felt like the only salvageable moment in his life, the only chance to build everything back up. The humiliation of Shits_in_Pants could be risked, he decided, to hear the good news about Foster Wright. Only, when he clicked on the link his browser opened to a story about Foster Wright committing to Michigan. Michigan!? It couldn’t be. Foster would never do that to Rich.
The story, he knew, would ignite a maelstrom of despicable comments, a barrage of tangled hate in which Shits_in_Pants would play a supporting role. He knew he should leave the site, probably forever, but he felt himself pulled to the rubble below:
Fanon: Meltdown in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1
Andy_Kaufman: WTF?! We can’t even keep our best in-state talent?
Hog_14: $%$^&^&%$##@! Fire all the coaches! Now.
BeamerBoy: Soiled_himself is going ot have a field day with this.
HotSpringsHog: I just soiled myself. What the hell?
Andy_Kaufman: Paging Soiled_in_Britches, please bring your delusion to the front desk.
PondHog: We’re always going to be the bitches of the SEC.
Hank84: Michigan? Really? Movin’ to the big house just like a field nigga.
Rich felt the day’s debris rumbling inside of him. He reminded himself that he was not meant for the virtual world—but losing Foster Wright was a tragedy and his voice had to be heard. He typed: “What in the world is happening to our program? Foster Wright was the future of Razorback football and now that future is dead. DEAD. Until big changes are made other schools will keep swooping in to steal our homegrown talent. I give up.” Looking at the words, he understood that they were not real, that he, too, might as well be putting ice cream in the cupboard, but it felt like the right place.
HotSpringsHog: PlasticRazor is right, heads better roll, starting at the top.
BeamerBoy: Foster is a fucking traitor. I seriously hope he tears his ACL
Hog_14: Wright is way overrated. All internet hipe. Don’t need him.
Andy_Kaufman: Ladies and gentlemen, Soiled_in_Britches. Please tip your waiters.
AlphaSigHawg: Wright is clearly too big of a pussy to play in the SEC. Next.
Rockadelphia: The entire recruiting class is fucked. Other players will jump ship.
NCHog: Sit_in_Pants never disappoints, but he’s not wrong. #Epic Fail. #firesale
FoxHog: You guys bashing the coaches aren’t real fans. Get it together. We’ll be fine.
PondHog: Will you guys lay off PlasticRazor, it’s so overplayed.
Carl_Tompkins: I know you guys are upset but enough name calling. Suspensions are coming.
Tim_Riggins: All we have left is Soild_in_Britches, you can’t take that too.
Rich found it incredibly odd, surreal, even, that this board, a space that was not even tangible, a place people could not drive up to and open the door and actually enter, was making him feel outside of himself, making him feel like another self; a force or energy or darkness was rattling the empty frame of his body. Had he become PlasticRazor? Become Shits_in_Pants? Even though he understood it was exactly what the adolescent vultures wanted, that they would quickly descend on his words like a fresh carcass, he made a final post in a fitful rage: “I’m so tired of you fucking brats talking to me this way! You don’t know what’s happening in other people’s lives, how bad things are. I hope all of you fucking die.” They’d done it. They’d finally broken him.
He glanced at Emeritus again, the beautiful building and stone pillars and parched flowers. Off to the side, a flagpole rose out of the green grass, an American flag barely flapping in the breeze. He saw the rest of his money being siphoned into the building, withdrawn from savings and retirement, saw his house being sold and all his accounts looted. Was this how the rest of the world lived? In constant terror of that next piece of bad news, each a small blast at the base of their lives, fearing one more would level it all?
He pulled out of the parking lot and drove north, aimlessly away from Little Rock. He had started reading a book once, a book about a character named after a rabbit—or named Rabbit, something like that—whom, out of the blue, decided to drive out of town away from his wife and child; at the time, it so disturbed Rich that he actually returned the book to the store. Now, however, he admired the character’s courage. He turned on the radio, hoping the local sports show could relax him—but fans had already taken to the airways, gnashing their teeth over Foster Wright. Rich needed to check his other clients to make sure they weren’t going to betray him as well, and he needed to call his boss, but he felt hypnotized by the mass of angry voices rising up in protest, demanding answers, and he continued to drive north another fifteen minutes until his phone rang.
Daddy, it’s me. The school called and Kevin’s running a high fever.
“Okay, I can be home in forty-five minutes.”
I’ve already left.
“Who’s watching Mom?”
I sat her down in front of Wipeout.
“She can’t be alone.”
Well, Kevin can’t be at school so I don’t know what to tell you.
“Jesus Christ!” he yelled, speeding up. “You couldn’t wait for me to get home?”
Kevin has to go to the doctor so—
“So you put her in damn car with you and take her along for the fucking ride.” He swatted at the air. “It’s your own mother, for God’s sake.”
Well, this is why she needs to be in a home.
Rich spotted an exit sign for two miles ahead. “Yes, because I raised selfish children.”
Daddy? She said, sounding scared. I’m sorry, I—
“Did you call your brother?”
I called everyone—everyone you’ve permitted to know. She’s watching Wipeout, she’ll be fine.
Last month or year—hell, even last week—Rich would’ve easily believed his daughter, that he would drive the forty-five minutes home and his wife would be laughing in front of Wipeout or Bugs Bunny or some other cartoon that could occupy her mind. But today felt different. Today, he was different, and as he circled under the cement structure of the highway and back onto I-30, the mass of angry voices became more hostile, hurtling Rich past the broken white line toward those violent possibilities.
At home, in the remodeled kitchen, his wife was strewn across the floor as if she’d fallen from the broken bottom of a grocery bag. A can of Pringles was open and on its side, as if also dropped, crumbled chips trailing to his wife, who was on her back; probably, she’d sat against the island and slid away from it when she passed out, one arm now off to the side and another across her chest. The bottle of Maker’s Mark, which had been half full this morning, sat atop the island, almost empty, the red tears of wax hardened around the throat. A short glass still had whisky in it. Quickly, he reached down to check her pulse, and when he found it he jumped back, quickly, then drank the Maker’s she had left in the glass.
He considered the small collection of guns he kept upstairs. A couple of hunting rifles (a Remington and a Browning, both thirty-aught six) and the Smith and Wesson revolver. Eventually, people would start to find out, would want to come visit the empty casing of what used to be his wife—how could he prepare them? Explain any of it? It all seemed so absurd, suddenly, and surreal, more so than the thought of mercifully ending her life. He could easily stage it as a suicide. It no longer surprised him, the acceleration past possibility, his overall comfort with the proximity, but he also understood that proximity was not only to violence, but to a new self, to becoming Shits_in_Pants or PlasticRazor or some other entity he had not considered, and if he killed his wife he would forever remain that entity, never able to return to his old self, never able to be Rich Ellis again. What would he look like then?
He glanced at her again, passed out, urine soaking through her pants and onto the floor. How terrible the rest of their life was going to be. How ridiculously miniscule the good spaces would become, like interstices of light. He poured another shot, drank it, then picked up the limp and piss-drenched body of his wife, and carried her upstairs to the bathroom to clean everything up.
SOREN G. PALMER lives in Durham with his wife and three dogs, Marlow, Sully and Zoe. His work has been published in Ecotone, North American Review, Potomac Review, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and shortlisted for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.