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FICTION / Percolated / Mark Williams

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I was riding Bay Lady through La Belle, New Mexico—the town in the TV series, Godless, when my headboard smacked my head and woke me up. That evening, Darlene and I had watched the episode where a crazy German girl rode naked through town on horseback. But I was sitting backwards in the saddle, wearing boxers. And I’ve never been to Germany.

Bay Lady was the horse I killed the summer I turned twenty, hitchhiked to Colorado, and got a job as a youth camp wrangler. “I’ve ridden all my life,” I told the camp director, though I’d only ridden horses twice. All the confidence in the world, young me.

Jaysus, crack on with your tale, eegit!

One of the consequences of my bipolar disorder is auditory hallucination. Kevin is my Gaelic footballer from County Sligo voice. One of the side-effects to my bi-polar drug, Vitasplit—in addition to weight gain, insomnia, and erectile dysfunction, for which I take Erisor—is adult ADHD, for which I take Atención. One of the side effects to Atención is depression, for which I take more Vitasplit. Darlene says if I was a cocktail, I’d be a Bucanero: Scotch whiskey, red wine, Triple Sec, brandy, a splash of Grand Marnier, and pineapple juice. Garnished with mint and a cherry.

Who gives a fook, Dunc!

One of the side effects to weight gain is sleep apnea. Darlene said my CPAP hose was her final straw—meaning, the noise of the air through it kept her awake. Meaning, “Could you sleep in the guest room, Duncan?”

But without the machine, I wouldn’t have been in our guest room. And if I hadn’t been in our guest room, a headboard wouldn’t have hit my head and woke me, since our bedroom—Darlene’s and mine—doesn’t have a headboard. Turns out, my next-door neighbor, Chip “Tooth” Chambers, had put a concrete block on the accelerator of his Yukon—locked in his locked garage—shaking his garage, my headboard, and killing Tooth in minutes, as I would soon find out.

At first I thought it was the Krupschank’s teenage son, Brandon, pretending to be black by pretending to enjoy the music he pretends to enjoy in his jacked-up Civic. But it was almost three in the morning. Late even for Brandon. And it was more of a wroom than the thrumpsI loathe.

“Darlene, do you hear that!” I shouted after disconnecting the hose from my mask and stepping on Robinson Crusoe, our tabby, in the hall.

“The rumbling, Robinson, or you?”

Darlene can be like that: blunt. But when you consider three years ago I was a one-polar, UPS driver with a normal body weight, will to live, and sex drive (by all accounts: Darlene’s), you have to cut her some slack. Meaning, I have to cut her some slack. Darlene’s been a trooper.

“What is it?” I yelled.

“It’s coming from the Chambers’!” she yelled back.

Darlene still says the Chambers’ as if Connie hadn’t left Tooth because of his bizarro behavior. Two years ago, Tooth ordered a Cubs uniform, suited up, and drove from Southern Illinois to Spokane for a buffalo burger. Last spring, he borrowed my shovel, dug up his mailbox, and planted it beside my box. “Let me know if I get anything important, Dunc,” he said.

A few months later, Tooth’s hair tested positive for chlorocarbons at a hair loss clinic. My guess was his hair was full of the insecticides he drowns the aphids on his roses with, but Tooth thought different. Then he found the deed conveying a hundred acres of farmland from Ivory Laundry, a 1950’s dry cleaning company, to his dad.

Tooth discovered that, in town, Ivory Laundry had only been a storefront. After trucking dirty clothes fromtown, they cleaned them in the country, dumping something called perchloroethylene, PERC, into the ground. None the wiser, Tooth’s dad called the land Artesian Acres and built 1960’s-style ranch houses, where Tooth and I grew up drinking poisoned water from our wells. Clueless.

We moved out in our early twenties, but when our parents died, we moved back—neighbors again. Then, in our fifties, Kevin started talking to me and Tooth began to lose it.

The night of his discovery, Tooth ran naked as an aphid on a rose bush through our neighborhood. “It’s in the water! It’s in the water!” he shouted, finally giving it a rest at our mailboxes. “We’re percolated, Dunc!” Tooth said as the Krupschanks and Stones gathered around and Virginia Millbauer offered Tooth her robe.

Thing is, by the time they brought city water down our streets in the ’70’s, Tooth and I had consumed enough perchloroethylene to start our own laundry. But it took thirty years for the PERC to olate, you could say, too late to do anything since the damage had been done—to Tooth and me and God knows who else, including my angry older brother, Harlan, who takes Jazzercise to calm himself down. Hard to picture Harlan in tights.

A mansy, you say?

Anyway, if Darlene was right and the sound was coming from Tooth’s house, I had no time to waste. “You better take this,” Darlene said, reaching under our bed for a billy club that once belonged to her great-uncle Delmar, a mid-century night watchman.

“Why do I need a club to check on Tooth?”

“Just take it. And call me if you need me,” Darlene said as Robinson jumped into bed beside her. “Don’t forget your shoes. And take off your mask.”

Knowing how easily I’m distracted, I’m surprised Darlene didn’t hand me my cell phone. But she didn’t. So I left the house with a billy club, no phone, or shoes.

Brilliant.

                                                                        *

When he was twelve, Tooth, who we still called Chip, took Harlan and me for a ride in his mom’s Country Squire. It wasn’t the first time Chip had taken us for a drive when his parents were away. But this time Harlan yelled, “Floor it!” and Chip did, fishtailing down the street, taking out the Millbauer’s mailbox, jumping the Kleinschmidt’s curb, and crashing into their catalpa. Harlan was thrown from the back seat into the front; I hit the dash; and Chip was thrown into the wheel, chipping his top right incisor. Since his name was Chip, Chip wouldn’t have made much of a nickname. But with half a tooth, “Tooth” did.

The night Tooth died, it was cold outside—March, the time of year a full moon makes a cold night colder. I wished I’d put on my robe. And shoes. But as I ran across our yard, the sound grew louder. More like a WROOMM! outside.Fearing the worst, I couldn’t go back. At least I had on pajamas. 

As I rounded Tooth’s holly, his house came into view. In the mix of moon and streetlight, it looked like the garage door might burst. The noise was coming from there. “Tooth!” I yelled outside the door. “It’s me, Dunc!”—as if he could here me. But there were other problems.

First, the garage door was locked.

Second, Tooth’s dad had not installed service doors to the garages. Other than the overhead door, there was no way into Tooth’s garage from outside.

Third, I’m five feet six.

Tooth had replaced the original wooden, windowless garage door with an aluminum one—with a row of little windows about six feet off the ground. Back in the day, my vertical jump was eighteen inches. Now it’s more like four. But in the excitement that night, I upped it to six. In a shroud of gray exhaust, stood Tooth’s red Yukon.

On my second attempt, through the Yukon’s rear window, I saw a cap on top of the steering wheel. On my third jump, I could tell it was a Cub’s cap, facing me. Then, after I caught my breath, I jumped again. The back of Tooth’s head was under the brim.

Bang on, boyo!

There I was, hustling past Tooth’s roses toward the front door, thinking that could just as easily be me inside the Yukon. By that I mean me inside my Ram. Tooth and I had talked about ways of offing ourselves: guns, knives, pills—even jumping off the Arch in St. Louis. Suction cups were involved. But it was me who brought up carbon monoxide.

I was planning to use Uncle Delmar’s club on a side panel window nearest the doorknob. I was into my backswing when Charlotte said, Duncan, dear, go back to the garage. Use Uncle Delmar’s stick to break out the little windows, please.

Charlotte is my Unitarian Universalist Church minister from Rutland, Vermont, voice, who, even over the Yukon, I heard clearly. Praise The Most Giving Light! Charlotte said when I finished breaking out the little windows. Which made the Yukon WROOOOMM! even louder. 

As I passed by Tooth’s roses again, I realized I’d stepped on some glass with my left heel. Then, after I used Uncle Delmar’s club on the glass beside the door, I stepped on a shard with my right heel. In the length of time it took me to open the door, blood was oozing out of both heels onto Tooth’s blue, CUBS WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS welcome mat, staining it a Cardinal red in the porch light. Go Redbirds.

Hurry, dear, said Charlotte.

Once inside, I dropped Uncle Delmar’s club into an umbrella stand and walked on my toes across the living room, through Tooth’s kitchen to the door that led to the garage. The doorknob wouldn’t turn. One of those interior locks that work with a key. Tooth had thought of everything.

You need to break the door down, Duncan, Charlotte said.

“With what?” I asked, hopping from one foot to the other.

Why, with that big strong body of yours!

Charlotte was right. With the weight I’d put on and a center of gravity on a level with the middle door hinge, I was a human battering ram. I took down Tooth’s door on my third try.

The Light shines on the enlightened! said Charlotte. Goodbye, dear.

“Charlotte, wait!” I said. But she was gone.

                                                                        * 

Growing up, we could have called Tooth’s dad a mansy. If we’d known the word. While my dad was mowing the lawn or hacking honeysuckle, Tooth’s dad was enjoying a highball or dancing with Tooth’s mom. While my dad was watching Big Time Wrestling, Mr. Chambers was playing bridge.

Truth was, Tooth’s dad didn’t need a service door—or a pegboard for the tools he didn’t have. Tooth, Harlan, and me, we used the garage for handball. The night Tooth died, as I hustled toward the Yukon, I crossed the faded blue line we used to stand behind to serve.

Bleeding, breathingpoisoning. That’s the order of assessment I learned in UPS first aid.

Bleeding. All the Yukon doors were locked. But after seeing Tooth slumped against the wheel, I guessed the only blood to consider was coming from my heels.

Breathing. It was difficult. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for

Tooth. So I held my breath, retraced my bloody steps, and punched the electric garage door opener by the door I’d broken down.

There had to be a way to get into the Yukon. But Tooth had followed in his dad’s steps—dance steps, my dad would have said. Except for the Yukon, a garden hose, a plastic trashcan, and aphid spray, Tooth’s garage was empty. Under different circumstances, we could have played handball. Instead, I tiptoed through the house to the umbrella stand, grabbed Uncle Delmar’s club, and limped back to the Yukon—planning to smash the driver-side window.

Did it ever occur to me that Tooth might not want to be saved? If that was me inside, would I want to be saved? Lost my mind, my job, my confidence, my boys.

Ron and Don skipped town first chance they got. I was an embarrassment to them. Now they make dozers for CAT in Peoria, far enough away from their old man where they don’t have to see me at all.

“We’re in this thing together, Duncan,” Darlene said one day as she walked me out of the cereal isle at Kroger. The manager had called her to come get me after I was found arguing with Shaquille O’Neal on a box of Fruity Pebbles. And if Darlene sees it that way—that we’re in it together—maybe she still needs me, I thought as I reached the driver-side door. Plus, would I want the boys to know I’d given up? I asked myself before raising Uncle Delmar’s club.

In our first aid class, I also learned that adrenaline turns glycogen to glucose—the fuel our body needs to work. I lifted Tooth like he was Robinson Crusoe. But first I shut off the Yukon. And fortunately, Tooth was wearing clothes.

The other thing I remember from my class is “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. It has the beat you need to jump-start a heart. So after carrying Tooth out and putting him down by his holly, I played “Stayin’ Alive” with my fists on his chest.

                        Ah, ha, ha, ha stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive

                        Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ a

“Tell him… have… chance. Bingo,” Tooth muttered with his eyes still closed.

“Wish… stay here,” he said. Then, as Tooth let out a breath, his head rolled to the right, and just as I thought I’d lost him, again, his left eye opened and he sat up in the moonlight and moaned, “OHHHHHH!

“Tooth, it’s me, Duncan!”

“Jeez, Dunc,” he said weakly, “you scared me with that mask. You better call an ambulance. I don’t feel so good.”

“I don’t have my phone.”

Poisoning. We’d been poisoned years ago. And yet we had survived.

                                                                        *

When we got back to our house, I took off my mask and dressed while Darlene called an ambulance and Tooth rested on the couch with Robinson. When we got to the hospital, they stitched my heels and detoxed Tooth in an oxygen chamber. I was in a wheelchair, facing Tooth’s bed, when they wheeled him in and spun his chair around to face me—wheelchair to wheelchair. Darlene was sitting by a window, knitting a sweater for Robinson.

“I guess we’ll have to call you Teeth,” I said.

“Why?” asked Tooth, grinning.

“Because—”

“So, Dunc, you should have seen it. My parents were doing the tango, and my grandparents were playing with their dead dogs and cats. Only no one was dead anymore. It was beautiful, Dunc. Lakes and mountains and shit! Then guess who comes up to me? Ernie Banks, that’s who! ‘It’s all good, Tooth,’ Ernie says. Dude knows my name!” Tooth said, grinning with a gap between his teeth the size of a shard they pulled from my heel. I hadn’t seen him this excited since Zobrist smacked a double in the 10thto win the Series.

“Then this horse with a scar on its neck comes around a mountain and whispers in Ernie’s ear. Ernie says for me to tell you Bay Lady says, ‘Chill, Duncan. You did the best you could.’ And I say, ‘I’ll tell him if I have a chance, Bingo. But I wish I could stay here.’ And Ernie says, ‘Maybe next time, Tooth.’ Then the next thing I know Bay Lady kicks me in the chest a bunch a times, and I open my eyes and there’s Hannibal Lecter pounding the crap out of me!”

“I forgot to take off my mask.”

“No shit.” 

Sure, I’d whined to Darlene about killing Bay Lady, that and about a million other things. But how could Tooth have known? But with what my mind had turned into and the drugs I’m on, I suppose I could have told him Bay Lady got into a horse fight. I might have said she needed stitches in her neck and I dumped her grain on the ground so she wouldn’t rub her stitches on the stall. I suppose I could have said she died two weeks later from the heaves. 

“Ernie said we should lighten up, Dunc. And he said we might be crazy, but who isn’t? He said once he heard a curve ball talk on its way in, ‘Low, outside corner!’ And he smacked into right for a triple. Anyways, Ernie said he and Gene Baker did some crazy things, too. Best double play combo in baseball. Bingo and Bango. The doc said if you hadn’t busted out my windows when you did, I would have stayed dead. Thanks, Dunc. I owe you—even if you did crack my sternum. Doc said so.” 

Thanks to your missus for the club and the preacher for tellin’ you to use, fook’s sake!

“Maybe one day you’ll get to meet Stan Musial,” Tooth said. “Meantimes, we should take in a Cubs-Cards at Wrigley. After your stitches come out and my chest knits.”

“The two Bucaneros,” Darlene said, looking up form her knitting.

By now daylight was squeezing through the drapes and the clock on the wall was flipping to 6:30, the time I feed Robinson his wet food. “Better be going. Rest up, buddy,” I said. “Maybe we could play some handball.” With that, Tooth leaned forward for a fist bump. Why my chest was sore, I’ll never know. But neither one of us could reach far enough to bump.

“Later, Tooth,” I said, leaning back into my wheelchair.

“Later, Dunc.”

Then Darlene pushed me forward down the hall.


Mark Williams lives in Evansville, Indiana, where one night he was awakened by his neighbor's monster truck and "Percolated" started percolating. His writing has appeared in The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, Indiana Review, Rattle, Nimrod, The American Journal of Poetry, New Ohio Review (online), and the anthologies, New Poetry from the Midwest and American Fiction.