James Rogers. A native of County Leitrim, Ireland, James Rogers lives in New York and is a math teacher at the United Nations International School.
His short fiction has appeared in a number of literary magazines, including The First Line, The Galway Review, and Inscape. jameswrogers.com
1. The Wisdom Tooth
By James Rogers
I’d often heard that extracting a wisdom tooth is hell. Not true. Getting it out is a doddle. You’re under. You don’t feel a thing, don’t remember a thing. It’s a couple of days later that the pain starts. And it’s no wonder, with that gaping hole, down through the gum to the bone beneath.
I was told I might lose sensitivity because the nerve was so close to the tooth. I wish. Bloody nerve never shuts up. “You’ve a hole in your head! You’ve a hole in your head!”
Yes, yes! I know! Do you have to keep reminding me?
It’s just like the wife, the way she goes on and on with the same old gripes. Her assistant is lazy. Her manager is clueless. Her patients want everything right now, but they don’t want to pay.
I’m not saying she doesn’t have good reason to complain, but it’s the nonstop stream that gets to me. She never sees the bright side. And it’s not just work. We had a really nice meal in a Korean restaurant the other day but all she could do was complain that the table beside us got served before us and that they didn’t warn us the bowls were hot, even though they did.
I cherish my hours alone in the apartment. I get up late, edit a little of the previous night’s work, then watch the soccer. Until she arrives home. I’ve come to hate the sound of the locks. I hear the key and the clunky rotations and I grab the remote, thinking ah bollocks, there goes peace and quiet for another day.
“I’m going to get that jackass fired if it’s the last thing I do,” she says now as she comes through the door. No chance of hello, darling, how was your day? Tooth still bothering you? Nope, it’s rattle out the complaints like someone just popped the starting gun.
“I found him hiding in the sterilization room,” she goes on.
Ah you were playing hide-and-seek, I might have said some years ago, when we used to have a laugh together. Now, I gaze longingly at the blank TV, the excitement of the game draining from me. The whole thing has me rightly pissed off. Arsenal were losing going into the last ten minutes and now I have to wait till she’s gone to bed to see if they managed an equalizer. It’s ridiculous. She can’t stand to see me watching the game. “You sit there all day watching sports,” she’d mouth if she caught me, “and then you’re up all night. It’s not natural.”
I’ve given up trying to explain I write better at night, with her in bed and a bottle of beer next to the laptop. She’d go on about the beer too, if I didn’t hide the empties. It’s tiring, all this negativity. All the more so now with this damn tooth. Though it’s not the tooth that’s to blame, it’s the bloody hole it left behind.
When she heads off around the corner to the toilet, I take the opportunity to skip over to the shoe rack and pull the bottle of Motrin from its hiding place inside one of my winter boots. I pop four in my mouth. Normally I’d have taken them before she was home but with the celebration of the Arsenal blunder, I forgot.
I chew the tablets, swallow. I don’t know why I chew them. It’s like eating chalk. I think it started when I was reading The Shining a few months back. Jack Torrance liked to chew his aspirins.
I hear the toilet flush. Here she comes. “You still haven’t done the windows.”
“Didn’t get a chance.”
“What were you doing all day?”
She sighs. “Only four windows. How long can it take?”
Forever, darling, I want to say but I don’t. There’s no way I’m going at those windows, fifteen floors up and no window guards. It gives me the willies standing next to them when they’re open like this in the summer, even with the mosquito nets in place. I wanted to have the window guards installed but the co-op wouldn’t do it for free because we have no children and she thinks that’s outrageous.
She opens the freezer and cries out like she’s found a head in amongst the Häagen-Dazs.
“What the hell’s wrong now?”
She holds up a box of frozen peas, her eyes wide. “You didn’t get the ones on sale. I wrote it on the list. A dollar a box. How much were these?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s the receipt?”
“I threw it away.” I put my hand to my cheek, wondering when the tablets will kick in. The pain is going up the side of my head to the top of my brain. It’s like there’s a clamp on my skull to keep my jaw from falling apart.
“You have to bring them back.”
“I’m not bringing them back.”
“Fine! I’ll do it.”
“Alright, alright. I’ll go!” She bags the offensive Birds Eye, all ten boxes, and hands them to me. “Though will they take them without a receipt?” I wonder.
“I told you to keep the receipts.”
I walk down under the Williamsburg Bridge to Keyfood, cursing. A dog looks at me.
I have a friend I meet for a few beers every now and then and he says he envies me. His whole life he’s been looking for a woman. There he is, with only himself to care for. A free man. He’s never had to return his peas. He’s happy with whatever peas he gets, happy if he never gets any.
I don’t return them. It’s too embarrassing. Foregoing the refund, I put the outrageously expensive peas back in the freezer and buy ten for ten. Big savings! She acts like we live from one paycheck to the next. She’s making six figures, for God’s sake. But she’s not happy because others at work are making more and some of them hardly even went to college. I’ve tried to explain to her that it doesn’t matter what others are making, it’s what she’s making that counts. We’re well off in an apartment with a beautiful view of Manhattan. The Empire State Building out one window, the new tower down at the World Trade Center out the other. Of course she doesn’t like it. She wants an apartment on the other side, with a view of the river. Nothing is ever good enough. People dream of having a view like ours and she wants to look over at nondescript Brooklyn.
I like the new tower, the unusual shape. Watching it slowly climb into the sky, the triangles forming, was inspirational. It was the root of the idea for one of my best stories yet. I remember it was the morning I got the wisdom tooth out that I first noticed it peeping into view, the cranes on top like antennae.
I get back home and she’s cleaning the living room window, the sun silhouetting the tower beyond. She turns to look at me and I can read it all in her face. Useless, lazy, sitting about all day, watching your sports. Drinking your beer. Can’t even do the few things I ask. Every day I have to transfer them to the next day’s list.
The list. How I hate the list. Written on a folded sheet of paper. Trivial stuff. Do this, do that. And do it this way. And every night she has to go over it. I have to stop what I’m doing so she can go over the list. “I can read,” I sometimes argue.
“Yeah, you can read and yet you get half the things wrong.” Like the peas, I suppose.
She puts her hand on her hip, in that backwards fashion that seems so unnatural. In the other hand she holds sodden paper towels and she looks at me some more. Then she gives her lip the twist, her expression of disgust. I hate that twist.
She reaches out the window to clean the outside. Silly old girl doesn’t even realize you can turn them inside-out. She wobbles a bit and grabs the frame. The twist unfolds and forms an O. I drop the peas, run to her, grab her legs and throw her out the window.
I turn away from her look of utter shock. That wasn’t on the list. I feel bad. I suppose it’s a bit like a parent feels when punishing a child. But it was the right thing to do. It was for her own good. Mine too. The world’s. I’ve replaced two unhappy people with one happy person. Isn’t that a gain, overall? And she was unhappy and always would be. She couldn’t help herself. Some people simply have no idea how to enjoy life.
2. Would You Happen to Know the Way to Cloone?
By James Rogers
Yellow streetlights, reflecting in the rain-slicked street, painted the town a sickly hue. Four in the afternoon and dark as midnight. The place was hushed, hardly breathing.
I went into the newsagents for a bag of crisps and a bit of chocolate. There were a few standing there, either side of the counter, paying me little heed in their shock and their whispers. No one could believe it. He was a happy man, they said. Full of life. With the senior team going strong he’d been looking forward to the next round of the Championship. You couldn’t get him to talk about anything else.
I looked across the street to the darkened pub. Though it was a place I never frequented, it was strange all the same to see it closed at that time of the day. He’d been found in the storeroom behind the bar with the bottles and cans and beer barrels, hanging from the beam that held the hot water tank high in the far corner.
The girl who worked for him was distraught. Earlier, she’d been annoyed because he hadn’t been seen for hours and she could have done with a break. She’d been rooting around in the back for beer mats and complaining under her breath for quite a while before she finally noticed him, staring at her with the bulging eye out of a twisted head. She’d run from the place screaming.
I imagine she’s feeling bad now, for speaking ill of the dead, even if she hadn’t known he was dead at the time. I can picture her telling everyone how nice he was to work for. He’d always been good to her. Always took care of her. But she didn’t know him the way I did. She didn’t know him intimately.
When I woke this morning, I felt like I was floating, like I’d somehow been levitated above the mattress. It took a moment to remember why, to recall yesterday’s big event. I lay there, not moving, suffused with a warm sense of calm. No worries about bumping into him now. Never again would I find him staring at me in that nauseous way of his, the loathsome eye snaring me, dragging me along the road to Cloone once more. That loathsome eye was no more.
I could put it all behind me. So were my thoughts as I walked down the street early this afternoon. And then I saw the car, idling outside the fire station, just as it had been twenty years earlier. It stuck me to the footpath.
I tried to convince myself it wasn’t the same car. That someone had arrived in town out of the blue in a vintage pale-green Ford Escort. But I wasn’t to be fooled. It was the same car. With the same number plate, the old type with the letter for the year. He looked across at me as he rolled down the window and I hardly noticed at first that he’d aged in reverse. The hair was black again and the lines were gone from about the eyes and forehead.
His words were exactly the same as the time before. “Would you happen to know
the way to Cloone?”
Though I was only thirteen and new to the town, I knew where Cloone was alright. I’d been out there only a couple of days earlier, playing in an under-14 football match. “Go down there to the fork,” I said, pointing to my right, “and keep left. Then go on out until you go past the football pitch and turn left again.”
“Down to the fork and keep right,” he said with a smirk. At the time I didn’t know what the smirk meant. I didn’t know he could’ve found his way to Cloone in the dark with the lights off.
“No,” I said as I surreptitiously coaxed the zipper of my jeans up and pulled my jumper low. On leaving the house I hadn’t noticed the button was gone from my jeans. It was only when the zipper parted and the jeans began to lose their moorings that I realised what had happened. I was on my way home to get changed when I first encountered the duplicitous bastard. “Keep left,” I repeated, “and then after the football pitch go left again.”
“You’re sure there’s no other turns?”
I frowned. I wasn’t sure.
“Why don’t you get in and show me the way,” he suggested.
Only days earlier my mother had pissed me off, going on and on about strangers. I was insulted. Only an idiot would get into a strange car, I told her. And I was right. It’s just that I didn’t realise I was that idiot.
I knew full well it wasn’t a good idea, and still
I got into the car. The familiar smell welcomed me. Wellies and silage and stale sweat.
“Down to the fork and go left,” he said with the smirk.
“Yeah,” I said.
He put the car in gear and let out the clutch. I looked over. It couldn’t be him. The real him was much older now. And dead. Lying in a wooden box with the twisted head, the loathsome eye held closed with a coin, he was ready for deposit in the church above. He wasn’t driving a vintage car out the Cloone road. Impossible.
And then I had it. This was a nephew, or a cousin, here for the funeral. He’d inherited the car and kept it in good shape. “You’re not from around here,” I said.
“Not at all,” replied the smirk.
“But you have relatives here.”
“I do not. Never been here before.”
I was reminded of the boy in Stephen King’s IT, grasping at reality, groping the monster’s back, searching for the zipper that wasn’t there, even as the beast devoured him.
“Where did you get the car?” I asked. And if you’re a lover of vintage cars, I silently wondered, why does it still smell like shit? And what do you want with Cloone?
“Longford. Why? You looking to buy?”
“I am not.”
“Tell me,” he said,
“do you have a girlfriend?”
That’s when I first felt uncomfortable. It was a weird question. Or at least the way he asked it was weird. And I didn’t like that I was short of a decent answer. At the tender age of thirteen, I was embarrassed that I’d never had a girlfriend. I’d never even kissed one. Though I’d come close during the summer, when a neighbour’s cousin visited from New York. We played in the hayshed and she wanted to spend the night there, but her mother wouldn’t let us. I can still see her disappointment.
“I have,” I lied, thinking of her smile and the hay in her hair. “But she’s in New York.”
“That’s a bit of a distance,” he said. “Hard grab hold of her from there.”
“She’s coming back next summer.”
“Did you kiss her?”
“Did you get the hand in? Into the bra, I mean.”
I shifted in the grubby seat. Adults weren’t supposed to talk like that. If a friend at school said that I might laugh or tell him to piss off, but I couldn’t do that with this fella. “No,” I mumbled.
“Why not? What were you waiting for? An invitation?”
I made no reply. I noticed the petrol gauge was nearing the red.
“Do you talk to her on the phone?”
“Yeah. Sometimes.” That was another lie. It cost a fortune to call New York in those days.
“What do you talk about?”
“Does your mickey stir when you’re talking to her?”
I pulled my jumper lower. As we drove past the football pitch, I got ready to tell him to turn left, relieved at being able to switch the conversation to the mundane. But it was short-lived relief; he shot around the corner without a word from me. I tried to convince myself he’d seen the road sign and that that’s how he knew the way to Cloone, but I knew that wasn’t the case. He’d turned that wheel like it was muscle memory.
We drove by a country shop. I could see people inside, either side of the counter, chatting happily. I wanted to be there with them. I almost waved to them, not that they’d have paid me any heed if I did.
“Are you listening?” he said. “Does it stir? If you get her to talk right it will, let me tell you.”
I looked at the gauge again. It was even closer to the red. I’d always heard Fords were shocking hard on petrol. I found myself hoping he’d run out so I could get out and run away.
Trying to pretend he wasn’t talking scary, I pointed out the window. “It’s down here
about a mile,” I said. “But you know that well, don’t you?”
“You’re quite familiar with Cloone. And with the wee lanes about it that go into the arse of nowhere.”
“What are you on about?” he said as he flicked on the lights. It was nearly dark now.
“You’re fond of the narrow passage, where there’s one way in and you can only back out.”
He made no reply, just moved his hands over and back along the steering wheel, stroking it. They seemed paler, wrinkled. I looked over at him. In the light from the dashboard his hair had lost its lustre and there were shadows in his jowl.
“Are there petrol pumps
in Cloone?” he asked. “I’m nearly dry.”
“I don’t think so. Maybe.”
“Ah, we’ll manage. Is she good looking, this one? I bet she is. With a good set on her. I can’t believe you didn’t get in there for a bit of a feel. You know what you should do? Next time you’re on the phone to her, ask her how they’re doing. Ask her did they get any bigger? Get her to take the bra off. If that doesn’t stir the mickey I don’t know what will.”
He put his hand on my thigh. Trapped between his words and his actions, I found it impossible to react. I looked across at him. He was staring at me. His left eye was alive with the lights from the dashboard. And with something else. There was something feral in that orb.
“Pretend you’re on the phone to her there now. It’ll be good practice. Go on. What’s her name?”
“Rebecca,” he repeated slowly. “That’s a grand name. Get them out, Rebecca, you should say. Squeeze them together for me. Good girl, Rebecca, squeeze them together for me.”
His hand slid over and in between the teeth of the zipper. The fucking thing was the whole way down now, the button God knows where, derelict in its duty. He might have thought that was an invitation. But I don’t think the fucker needed one.
There was the hand, warm, massaging my y-fronts. And still I did nothing. I didn’t know how to stop him.
“Think of her there now,” he said. “Squeezing them together for you. Go on now. Picture it.”
I didn’t. I couldn’t. I looked out at the trees whipping by, the headlights making them appear as ghosts. In the wind they seemed to grab for me in futile efforts at rescue.
“What would it take for a stir?” he asked, massaging the tender more vigorously. “A couple of pound? A fiver?”
I could see the lights
of Cloone, but they weren’t where they should be. “You went wrong,” I said.
“You’re the navigator.”
“Bullshit,” I said, looking over at him. “You know the area better than I do.” Something dropped from his face. It clinked off the handbrake and landed on the seat beside me. I picked it up. A coin.
He turned the loathsome eye.
It slowly dawned on me, we’d been in the car for hours.
Hours. We can find nothing but back roads. On and on and no sign of Cloone. Just now, as he lays his hand on my thigh, I notice the petrol gauge hasn’t budged.