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The Current That Crackles (short story) by Ethel Rohan

 
   

Mr. Kirkpatrick—a short, sweaty, myopic man—closed his notebook and looked at us over his wire-rimmed glasses. “I’ll certainly keep you in mind, but I’m afraid there are several other families ahead of you on the waitlist.”

I nodded at Stephen. He pushed the fake vasectomy report across our dining room table. Kirkpatrick scanned the document, puzzled. I asked our son, Martin, to leave the room, something private we wanted to discuss with Mr. Kirkpatrick. Martin dragged himself out of the chair.

“He’s big for ten,” Kirkpatrick said.

Martin glowered. I shot him a warning look. Once he left, I explained to Kirkpatrick that Stephen had just undergone a vasectomy.

“We worried a second child might compete for our affections, leave us with so much less to give a pet,” my voice, I hoped, struck just the right waver. “We hoped one of your pups would complete our family.” I somehow managed to keep a straight face.

Kirkpatrick cleared his throat, promising that one of his Yorkies would be ours before month’s end. I couldn’t stop grinning. Stephen and I walked Kirkpatrick to the front gate and waved as he drove away. Back inside the house, we laughed so hard we couldn’t stand straight.

Martin wouldn’t speak to Stephen or me for the rest of the day. At bedtime, I tried to make up with him. His room reeked of feet and sweat. He lay with his back to me, almost buried under his quilt.

“Why’d you have to say I was ten?” he asked.

I explained again that the kennels wanted just the right fit for their dogs. If we’d admitted he was thirteen they might worry he wouldn’t have the same interest in a puppy that a younger child would, might mistreat the dog for teenage kicks.

“What about Marilyn? Why’d you lie about her?”

I tried to keep my voice even: they’d argue a Yorkie’s temperament wouldn’t tolerate a four-year-old.

“I told Marilyn what you said. That you didn’t want a second child.”

“You heard wrong, buddy, and you’d no right saying something like that to your sister.”

I reached for his bare shoulder—like Stephen, he refused to wear pajamas--but he pulled away.

Out in the hallway, Stephen pulled at his now red earlobe, something he always did when stressed. I eased his hand away from his ear. He cocked his other thumb toward Marilyn’s bedroom. “You better go in to her.”

Marilyn wouldn’t stop crying, her face tear-stained and blotchy. “You took down all my pictures.”

I lifted the sweaty tangle of blond hair off her neck, trying to soothe her. “I’m going to put your pictures back right now.”

“Martin said you don’t want me anymore, that you’re going to swap me for the puppy.”

I hugged her, laughing. How could she think such a thing?

Later in bed, Stephen pulled me to him, murmuring in my hair. Imagine, I smiled, if I got pregnant again? How’d we explain that to Mr. Killjoy?

Stephen chuckled, and complimented my devious mind. Sal too, he said, coming through for us with the phony vasectomy report—that was something.

Sal—good for something at last, I thought.

 

The next afternoon, Marilyn and I made double-chocolate-chip cookies together, anything to win back her affection. We created a terrible mess, ingredients and dough-covered utensils strewn everywhere. The doorbell rang. I approached the front door warily, hoping the caller wasn’t anyone I’d have to invite into the chaotic kitchen.

It was only Sal, his face bloated, eyes bloodshot, and the sides of his mouth white and flaky. He smelled of cheap bourbon. Smirking, he pointed at my baker’s hat and flour-stained apron. I looked pointedly at his shirt, a faded Hawaiian print with sky-blue background and sprawling green palm fronds.

“I wish you’d call first,” I said.

He followed me into the kitchen. Marilyn ran into his arms.

“Whoa,” he said, wiping her chocolate prints from his shirt.

He grinned when I told him we were expecting the Yorkie any day now. “You owe me.” “Nothing,” I finished.

 

Stephen arrived home from work just as the cookies—a little burnt at the edges—came out of the oven. He had his tie already loosened, and the top button of his shirt undone. He tousled Marilyn’s hair, saying he hoped the cookies tasted as good as they smelled. Marilyn, her mouth rimmed with chocolate, assured him they did.

“Your brother’s here again,” I said tight-lipped.

He continued out back to shoot hoops with Sal and Martin. Marilyn ran out after him, leaving me to clean-up.

Right as I got the kitchen tidied, all four returned inside, hungry. I shooed them away from the still-warm cookies. Stephen suggested we order pizza. That suited me. Sal complained he hadn’t liked the pizza we got last time, wanted to order from a different restaurant. I phoned our usual place. Mid-sentence, he pulled the receiver from my hand, adding cheese-sticks and garlic bread to the order. I stared him down.

“What?” He sidled into the living room.

I warned Stephen to make Sal pay for the food this time.

 

When the pizza driver arrived, Sal’s attention never strayed from the TV. The doorbell rang again. I elbowed Stephen, throwing eyes at his brother.

“You want to get that, bro?” Stephen asked.

Sal pulled the bottle of beer from his mouth, its froth spilling down his chin. “Huh?”

“The pizza,” Stephen said, indicating the door.

Sal pinched the pockets of his jeans. “Uh, I don’t think I’ve any cash, sorry.”

I gritted my teeth.

After we’d finished eating, Sal let a loud, stinking belch. The kids laughed.

“You’re disgusting,” I said.

Sal made crazy faces and farting sounds with his hand in his armpit. The kids laughed harder. I ordered them to bed, and threatened no TV for a week when they talked back.

At eleven, Sal was still basking in our armchair, drinking beer and surfing channels.

“It’s late,” I said. “I’m going to bed.”

Stephen leaned across the couch to kiss me, but I pulled away.

“You should get to bed too,” I told him.

I refused to say goodnight to Sal. He didn’t seem to notice.

Midnight came and went. Stephen still hadn’t come to bed. I just hoped he knew enough not to let Sal stay over again.

He didn’t.

 

Another evening, I’d just gotten out of the shower when Stephen burst through our bedroom door. “It’s Kirkpatrick, with the Yorkie.”

I pulled off my bathrobe, scrambling to get dressed.

“Marilyn,” I remembered. “Where is she?”

Stephen looked stricken. “I don’t know.”

“Find her,” I said. “Put her in her room.”

I entered the living room, and scooped our adorable new puppy out of Kirkpatrick’s arms; the puppy’s silky coat a dark steel blue flecked with tan and gold strands.

Martin appeared in the doorway, wearing combats and a khaki tee-shirt with a large skull and cross-bones on its front.

“Isn’t he darling?” I held the Yorkie out to him.

Martin shrugged. “I guess.”

I didn’t allow my smile to falter, and deposited the puppy into his arms, my eyes warning him to play along.

Martin scrunched his face, holding the puppy like it was diseased.

“We’re going to have to come up with the perfect name for you, aren’t we?” I cooed into the puppy’s face.

Kirkpatrick retrieved the Yorkie from Martin. He watched Martin leave the room, his face knitted. I followed his gaze, sickened. Martin wore his school sweatshirt tied around his waist, “Class of 2010” emblazoned across his buttocks.

Thankfully, Kirkpatrick didn’t ask any questions. All business, he also wanted Stephen’s signature on the contract. I moved to the bottom of the stairs, calling.

Stephen’s footfall sounded overhead. Marilyn’s wails also carried down. Red-faced, I explained to Kirkpatrick that my niece was sleeping over. Kirkpatrick asked her age, cautioned that Yorkies were territorial. They didn’t do so well with younger children. I assured him that she rarely visited, and that we’d never leave her alone with the dog.

Stephen walked in, a nervous sheen to his face. Marilyn yelled, banged her bedroom door. Kirkpatrick suggested that I go up to her; he’d wait.

I bribed Marilyn with chocolates and a movie. I also had to promise that she could name the puppy.

Stephen and I signed the papers and hurried Kirkpatrick out. Just as he was leaving, Kirkpatrick’s gaze fell on our family photo hanging in the hall, and jumped to the picture of Marilyn on our cloak-stand. I moved to block his view, asking Stephen to fetch him a nice bottle of red wine. Mr. Kirkpatrick protested—he couldn’t possibly. We insisted.

After Kirkpatrick left, I watched the tiny Yorkie curled on his new bed in front of the fire, his coat shining, eyes luminous, and bright pink tongue lolling. He was worth all the hassle.

 

Marilyn and I argued all morning. She wanted to call the puppy Butterscotch. We couldn’t call a purebred something so silly, I reasoned.

“You promised,” she said.

“What about Precious?” I asked.

Stephen and Martin weighed-in, saying I should let Marilyn call the puppy whatever she wanted.

The fight picked up inside the pet store. Marilyn wanted to buy the puppy pink ribbons, screamed when I said no. At least we could agree on the diamante collar and red leather leash. She also wanted to buy the puppy clothes and other expensive accessories. I dragged her from the store.

In the car park, Marilyn threw herself on the ground, kicking and screaming. The security guard appeared, skinny and pimple-faced, the genius asking if everything was okay. I lifted Marilyn onto my shoulder, warning her that I’d send Precious back to Mr. Kirkpatrick if she didn’t behave.

“Butterscotch,” she shouted.

Back home, Stephen helped unload the bags from the car, informing me that Sal was on his way over. I warned him to keep his brother well away from me after the morning I had.

In the kitchen, Stephen announced “Sal got fired.”

Supposedly, Sal’s boss had found out about his forging Stephen’s medical report.

“I don’t buy it,” I said.

Stephen shook his head. “You never do.”

“Oh, please,” I said. “Look at his track record. When has your brother ever held down a job longer than a few months?”

“He really liked the hospital, though, said he could see himself there long term.”

“About the only thing he’s ever done long-term is screw us,” I said.

Stephen started in on their sob story again. I was tired of hearing it. So Stephen had pushed Sal out of their tree-house when they were kids? It wasn’t like he’d planned for Sal to land on his head, fall into a coma for three days. He’d come out of it just fine, hadn’t he?

Stephen looked into his coffee mug. Everyone had heard the hot whispers from family and neighbors down through the years: Sal was never the same after that fall; he’d gotten out of step with the world somehow, and ever since could never quite keep up.

Minutes later, Sal arrived with greasy hair, days-old stubble, dark circles under his eyes, and his nose a deeper shade of purple—just off another one of his binges. That’s why he’d gotten fired. Stephen avoided my face, and set about making Sal a ham and cheese omelet, about the only meal he could manage.

I lifted Precious, about to take him out back. Sal pushed his bleary face close to Precious’s, wagging his chalky tongue under the puppy’s nose. Precious barked. Sal laughed, poking his finger at the air between Precious’s eyes. Precious lunged, nipping Sal’s finger, drawing blood. Sal cried out.

Stephen wanted to take Sal to the hospital for a Tetanus shot, but Sal refused. He asked if he could nap in the spare bunk in Martin’s room. I didn’t want his oily head on our pillows, his stink filling my son’s room.

Stephen ignored my killer looks, telling Sal to go right ahead.

I continued out back with Precious, rewarding him with a bagel treat.

 

Sal resurfaced that evening, scratching his crotch and asking about dinner. I wasn’t going to wait on him all evening. The children in tow, I drove to a local diner where we ate our greasy fill. When we got home, Sal and Stephen were sitting side by side on the couch, drinking beer and watching porn. I ordered them to turn that crap off, and hurried the children upstairs.

Later, Stephen climbed into bed, and pushed his erection against my back. I moved away, kicking at his legs.

“Sal better be gone,” I said.

He didn’t answer.

I asked again.

He admitted he’d let Sal stay over. Worse, he’d agreed to let Sal stay with us for a while, just until he found another job. My voice climbed. Precious barked from his bed in the corner. Stephen shushed me, worried I’d wake Sal and the kids.

“To hell with Sal,” I said. “To hell with you too.”

I kicked him out of our room. Let him sleep with his beloved brother.

 

A couple of days later, Stephen and I worked wordlessly together in the garage, getting it cleaned-up once and for all. From upstairs, Marilyn screamed. We followed her shrieks, finding her in her room with Martin. Precious was crouched in the corner, growling.

Martin pressed his bloodied hands to his cheek. “He bit me.”

I coaxed his hands from his face. “Jesus.”

Precious’s teeth had left a nasty gash just under Martin’s right eye.

After several hours, the doctors released Martin from the Emergency Room. He’d received five butterfly stitches and a tetanus shot. The whole way home, I warned him never to tease Precious again.

“Butterscotch,” Marilyn said.

Martin wanted to have the dog put down. “Vicious little rat.”

When we returned home, Sal made a big song and dance, also arguing to have Precious put to sleep. Both you and Martin provoked him, I repeated.

Sal wagged his wounded finger at the puppy’s face. “Bad boy.”

I lifted Precious to my chest, warned Sal to stay away from him.

 

Later, we played Monopoly together. Even Sal joined in. Throughout, Precious lay curled on my lap, soft and warm. Martin glowered.

“Feeling okay, sweetie?” I asked.

“What do you think?”

I lifted Precious, our faces close. “You are never, ever to bite anybody again, you hear?” Except maybe Sal, I finished inwardly.

Sal got drunk, and argued over the game rules with Stephen. They wouldn’t agree on how to buy-out the banker. Precious stood up on my lap, barking at Sal. Sal shouted over the puppy’s noise, hurling more insults at Stephen.

“We’re done,” I said.

“Not fair,” Martin said, the richest player at the table.

Sal pounded the Monopoly board, sending the game pieces flying. “Damn right it’s not fair.”

Precious growled and yipped. Sal’s arm shot out, and grabbed Precious by the throat. Precious pawed the air, his eyes bulging. Marilyn screamed.

“Put him down,” I shouted.

Sal dropped Precious back onto my lap.

I ordered him out of the house. He’d get out all right, he said, just as soon as we compensated him for his lost job. He held up his bandaged finger, threatening to sue us over that too.

 

A week passed. Sal was still living with us, moping around the house. Stephen and I argued constantly. He needed to get Sal out of our lives, and soon, I warned. If not, he and his brother could both leave. I didn’t care about his guilt, what he thought he owed Sal. Stephen tried to turn the tables. He wanted me to get rid of Precious, arguing that he’d bitten Sal and Martin. He might be cute, but he was unpredictable. Martin also wanted the puppy gone. He’d never taken to him. Marilyn shrieked at the suggestion, she and the Yorkie inseparable, even at night. She went so far as to speak constant gibberish to the puppy, and claimed they had their own secret language. He wouldn’t answer to “Precious” anymore, solely Butterscotch, and never came to me no matter how I bribed him. I started to dislike the animal, the evil way he and the kids would look at me sometimes.

 

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, Kirkpatrick visited again. I tried to get rid of him at the front door, but he insisted on coming in. While he waited in the living room, I hurried upstairs.

Marilyn lay stretched on her bed, Precious bundled in her arms. She handed him over, pleading with me not to let Kirkpatrick take him away. I explained he just wanted to see the puppy, to ensure that we were taking good care of him. She agreed to stay in her room until I returned. I gave her a chocolate bar and cold can of root beer.

Kirkpatrick commented on the pup’s pink ribbons. I blushed, cracking a joke about free expression. Kirkpatrick remained deadpan. I hugged Precious, too hard. He growled low in his throat. My face tightened.

Stephen arrived home from work, and paled when he saw Kirkpatrick. He made a big show of greeting Precious. “Butterscotch, baby.”

Kirkpatrick’s brow furrowed. I laughed, too forced. He held fast to the pup.

Marilyn rushed into the room, stopping short when she spotted Kirkpatrick.

Her gaze jumped guiltily to me. “I heard the front door … I thought he was gone.”

“What’s going on here?” Kirkpatrick asked.

Marilyn charged across the room, grabbing at Precious. “Give him back.”

Kirkpatrick raised the puppy higher, out of Marilyn’s reach.

She jumped at Precious, grunting with the effort.

Precious struggled in Kirkpatrick’s arms, whimpering.

I reached for Precious. He snapped, locking his jaw on the side of my hand. Blood trickled down my wrist. Kirkpatrick’s expression mirrored my horror.

Stephen inched closer. “Nobody move.”

Marilyn emitted a series of bizarre sounds. Immediately, Precious’s bloodied mouth opened, releasing my hand. He jumped into Marilyn’s waiting arms. Stephen examined my hand, saying something about stitches, but I wasn’t listening. I watched Marilyn hug the dog, murmur praise and congratulations. She looked straight at me, a triumphant gleam in her small eyes.

 
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  Bio: Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives in San Francisco. She received her MFA in fiction from Mills College, CA. Her work has appeared in Storyglossia, Necessary Fiction, PANK 4, Keyhole 9, and Los Angeles Review 6, among many others. She blogs at ethelrohan.com.  

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