Ryan Werner

We’ve got eleven pudding cups and zero dogs and I need to find the right way to bring those two numbers closer together. I go outside to bury the dog real quick and then hurry back inside to sit underneath the piano and eat as many of the pudding cups as I can. The trick is to not get a spoon dirty — no dishes — by taking the lid and curling it into a tongue shape. There is no trick for the dog thing.

Marie and I adopted the dog a few years ago from the shelter. She named it Trouble, after that stupid dog that stupid Leona Helmsley left twelve million stupid dollars to. Whenever I called out to it, I pretended that it was named after the Whitesnake album, which didn’t necessarily make me feel any better.

We fought about it once. I yelled for the dog to get back toward the deck and away from the lake and Marie looked at me and said, “You’re thinking about that dumbass band when you say that, aren’t you?”

“What band?” I said.

“That fucking band you always made me listen to when we started dating,” she said. “With that bitch dancing on the Jaguars and that guy who wanted to be the guy from Led Zeppelin.”

I don’t know how she knew. I stopped calling for the dog, then Marie called once. She told me to fix it, like we were dealing with a flat tire or the blown-out knee in a pair of jeans.

The dog came back that time, of course. This time it tried jumping over an old fence in the woods and mostly made it, which is about the same as telling a woman you’ll only put it in halfway. There’s no such thing as fifty-percent fucked.

Before Marie left this morning she looked at me and said, “Keep an eye on the dog and clean out the cupboards.” Now I hear her jeep pull up into the driveway and when she walks in I’ve got a pyramid of empty pudding cups stacked next to me under the piano. There’s one left.

“Where’s Trouble?” Marie asks.

“Trouble impaled himself on a fence and now he’s dead. I buried him in the front yard.” I toss Marie the last pudding cup. “Here, eat a peach.”

“This is lemon meringue.”

Then she punches the keys on the piano and calls the world names. I’m sitting on the pedals, so the notes keep ringing out after she lifts her fist off the keys. Marie is composing lyrics over the dissonance, some song called “Irresponsible Fucking Asshole Go Fuck Yourself and Clean Up All This Shit You Goddamn Prick.” If Marie was Whitesnake, this is her “Here I Go Again,” the tune that has to be last because, even though everyone’s sick of it, really, what can follow it?

Marie’s got a sister named Mary. Marie calls her Polly and everyone else calls her Nurse Diamond. She looks just like Marie except a few years older and covered in scar tissue all over her chest and arms.

She models for anti-drug campaigns. My neighbor’s meth lab burned down my house . . . and me. I freebased cocaine . . . and then it freebased me. The middle third of her body looks like Freddy Krueger, but she’s still a catch.

She’s the KISS fan, and that’s the real way she burned herself, trying to breathe fire like Gene Simmons. She and Marie saw some promo clips for their reunion in the 90s. Nurse Diamond tied an old sock around the end of a wooden stick, soaked it in gasoline, and lit it on fire. She got a mouthful of gas, blew it across the top of the stick, and sent a perfect three-foot flame across their backyard.

Marie grabbed the stick, got a mouthful of gas, and started to gag before spitting it across the top of the stick and onto her sister, her sweet Polly.

Here’s how Nurse Diamond tells the story: Everything breaks.

Here’s how Marie tells the story: Everything’s broken.

Nurse Diamond isn’t really a nurse, but I called her anyways after Trouble impaled himself on the fence.

“What do you think, D?”

She walked up to the dog and lifted both his paws like they were about to start dancing. Then she dropped them. “I think it’s dead.”

When I called her she was taking notes on a true crime docu-drama. She showed up wearing her white jacket with the big red cross on the back. Aside from choosing her own nickname, it’s really the only affect she indulges in, so everyone allows it.

She brushed her hands off in front of her. “Want to go for a ride?” I tilted my head down slightly and looked at Trouble. The fence didn’t go all the way through his back. So that’s good.

“Can I drive first?” I ask.

Nurse D tosses me the keys and we begin walking toward her car, a 1999 Malibu that was an old driver’s ed car for years before she bought it. It’s still got the brake pedal on the passenger side and everything.

Marie’s never here when Nurse Diamond comes over.

Nobody can stand Marie when Nurse D’s around, because she tries extra hard to not blame herself for the whole fire thing, and when she fails it’s extra annoying, as if Marie is in an airplane that begins to nosedive only to eventually level out, climb to an even higher point, and drop once more for good.

Whenever Nurse D is over to the lake, we take turns driving around the backroads and in the open areas where lumber companies have started to gut the woods. Whoever is driving puts on a blindfold, and then they floor it. They have to maneuver around as far as they can. When they’re about to hit something, the person in the passenger side steps on the brake.

The mix CD I made her a couple years ago was playing in her car when I turned it on, the one from when I was really into throwback rock and garage stuff with lots of distortion on everything. Drums, vocals, handclaps — all of it.

“If You Can’t Give Me Everything” by The Reigning Sound was the song playing, and it’s great because it’s on an album called Too Much Guitar — which is true — and the first line is “You used to play the game when you were young, but you’re not young anymore” — which is also true.

I got to a big field area and put the blindfold on. The Malibu spun-out and I turned the wheel back and forth a lot for the first five seconds. You think you can go for minutes when you’re doing it, because driving for minutes is nothing. People drive for two or three just looking for good parking on a busy shopping day.

The first time I did it, I almost hit a tree. But that’s the thing: you always almost hit a tree.

After I got sick of turning the wheel, I’d hit a straightway for a few seconds, do some donuts, and then go off on another straightaway.

Nurse Diamond hit the brakes and so did I and when I took the blindfold off, the lake was about two feet in front of me. I almost said to Nurse D, Jesus, D, cutting it a bit close, aren’t you? And then I remembered that I was driving, that, really, she had saved my life, in a way.

“Thanks,” I said.

I guess I should say some things about the lake.

It’s big and I don’t particularly like it. People like to talk about living by the lake, though. If they already live there, they want to talk about how nice it is. If they don’t live there, they want to talk about how nice it would be. Two of these people in the same room together is a good way to spend a root canal, link the two pains together so they don’t have a chance to latch themselves onto anything worthwhile.

Marie and Nurse Diamond inherited the land and the house from their grandfather, who wasn’t actually their grandfather and wasn’t actually the owner of the land. The loopholes and legalities were never fully explained to me. Nurse Diamond didn’t want anything to do with it, so she signed away her share to Marie.

I met their grandfather once, at a pawn shop, and I didn’t even know it was him. I was looking at the records and he was looking at the guns. His hands were like a raccoon’s in terms of size and shape, with a misplaced thumb like a fifth finger jutting up from the side. I watched him handle a few pistols and then give them back for whatever reason it is people decide a gun isn’t the right gun. The only thing I heard him say was, “I’m more of a brass bed sort of guy.” I thought Me too.

I found a couple Neil Young records from the 80s, the rockabilly one and the red and black one that looks like the cover of that James Taylor album. Their grandfather tipped his hat to me on the way out, which I later found out was because he treats most people like bartenders. When he died, Marie had no idea how she ended up with the property, but we figured that even after paying a good lawyer to help us get full rights to the land and the house and whatever chunk of the lake was considered ours, we’d still be better off financially than paying rent on a walk-up in the city.

So now there’s a lake a hundred feet from my front door. People think it’s nice. Me, I’m more of a brass bed sort of guy.

There are more songs about time than any other subject. More than love, more than heartbreak, fuzzy subjects for pretty much anyone. But time? Everyone knows what it is. Even if time isn’t mentioned, it’s always there. The musician is saying “This is how I feel now,” and they either mean that it’s how they feel right now or it’s how they will feel forever, starting now.

Musicians mostly sing about going backward in time, not forward. That idea of a second chance is appealing, but I’d go the other way.

A few years ago near the end of autumn and the beginning of winter, a few years after Marie and I moved into the cabin, we saw a bunch of birds flying over the lake. They weren’t in a V, though. They were a giant mass, almost like fog. They looked like the way a swarm of bees are portrayed in cartoons, the way they divided and then took dives toward one another only to join back into one unit. Marie told me that they were starlings. “A murmuration,” she said. That’s what a group of starlings is called, like a pride of lions or a murder of crows. I had never seen anything like it before, the way they worked together and the way that, if I looked close enough, I could see one turn its head quickly and watch the rest of them follow, like dominos. How did they decide who decided when and where to go? Is there really that sort of natural synchronicity at work in the world?

I never saw it again after it happened, even though I went outside and waited most days in the fall, just hoping they’d fly by again. It’s getting to be that time of year.

The thing about the doldrums is that once they’ve fully set in, it’s hard to tell until something from before their existence comes back for a spell.

After the dog’s been gone for a couple days, I’ve mostly heard the end of it. Marie is using up his food by mixing it in with the scraps we give to the stray cats. I took his toys and threw them into the lake one night.

We’ll be getting snow soon, but until then, the grass isn’t growing back over the mound of earth on top of the dog. I was in such a rush to get him buried after Nurse Diamond and I got back from our ride that I didn’t go more than three steps outside of the front door and I didn’t do a very good job of putting the dirt back. So there he is, every day. It doesn’t bother me, but I stay inside a lot anyways. Marie’s the one who walks past it the most.

She mentioned something about planting flowers in that spot in the spring, but I’d be surprised.

When that snow does come, we’ll do the one thing we always do that makes people think we’re doing something right, and have them all out to the cabin. It’d make sense to do something like that on the Fourth of July out here, in the nice weather. But every year it’s been the first snowfall.

Our friends, Marie’s friends, watch the calendar and the weather and get ready for it. It’s the only occasion that will make them make the drive to the cabin. In a city, the other end of town is a long ways away, so to propose that these friends drive a half hour more than once a year is unfathomable.

I have nothing to show off in the house. Nobody wants to see my baseball cards, which is the only thing I brought with me when I moved out to the cabin and decided to become an adult. Now I have a responsible party once a year where nobody gets drunk enough.

I woke up this morning and there was an inch of wet snow that will be lucky to survive the week. The cars start coming in later that day. It’s already dark at 5:30 and by midnight the house is packed with people I don’t particularly like. I start ranking them in the order of how much I dislike them. Hawaiian Shirt Guy is the worst. Woman With Too Much Lipstick is somewhere in the middle. I’m still not sure where Marie fits in.

Nurse Diamond is off on a photo shoot and, besides, she knows when the invitation and the sentiment behind it are both made out of paper.

The lake is preferable at this point. I walk out here and kick over the rowboat into the water. I don’t grab paddles. The snow has not only survived the night, but is starting up again. Flakes of it are clumped up heavy enough that the wind can hardly blow them, and they fall straight down onto the lake and me and everything.

Without the paddles, I have to push off shore with my feet while leaning as much into the center of the boat as possible. When I finally lift off and start drifting, I hit the floor of the boat. It’s cold but nice. My jacket is thick, and I pull the hood up over my head and tighten the drawstrings. I doze off, and it’s hours or minutes later when I wake up somewhere else. Behind me is the cabin, and it’s a pinprick fuzz of yellow, lots of bad lighting busting through the snow. In front of me is more lake, more than I’ve ever seen.

How different it all looks from the middle.

RYAN WERNER has got a body built for sin and an appetite for passion. See him work his magic, turning songs into other stories, over at Our Band Could Be Your Lit..

One thought on “Murmuration

  1. This is fantastic. I really like the energy of the prose; it has a great pace and easy flow. This is probably my favourite bit:

    This time it tried jumping over an old fence in the woods and mostly made it, which is about the same as telling a woman you’ll only put it in halfway. There’s no such thing as fifty-percent fucked.

    I just love the humour mixed with the morbidity.

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