“You know what to do,” she said.
This is what I told the fetus in the red cooler. I might have been crazy, but I felt like all the time I was talking, it was listening.
And so it was me and it that night, driving in the Nova on the 86.
I just wanted to help.
“My name is Dave, by the way,” I said. “You would’ve been my brother- or sister-in-law, I guess. Your sister Janine would’ve made a good sister. She’s made a helluva wife.”
The cooler remained silent.
“You know what to do, Doc,” I said. “That used to be a saying of ours in our battalion. Whether it was serious or just a spider bite, whenever someone in our battalion got into trouble, we’d say the same thing. ‘You know what to do, Doc.’ Funny that it didn’t matter if the guy you were talking to was a medic or not. Mind if I call you Doc?”
Whiskey was on my teeth as I wound up the road, the engine slightly laboring. The yellow stripes brightened by my headlights. I turned down the radio. Jazz. The signal faded the further I drove. My right hand on the wheel, the empty sleeve of my other arm gently flapping in the wind. Whenever I drive I can feel my left arm still there, a tingling right down to my fingers. I lost it all up to the shoulder after high school. Da Nang.
“Anyways, Doc. Janine’s in human resources now. You can’t run a business these days without good human resources.”
“Then there’s your mother,” I sighed. “Her name was Alice, but she made me — only me — call her Mrs. Parker. Parker would’ve been your last name. That’s an odd behavior, asking grown men to use surnames. At the shop everyone calls me Dave. Not sure anyone even knows my last name.”
The cooler gently rocked, tears of condensation rolling down its side.
“But your father, Mr. Parker. He was a good man. He died three years ago and we still miss him. He was like a father to me. And he let everyone — including me — call him Carl.”
The road was dotted with dead squirrels and raccoons and other animals or pieces of animals I couldn’t think the names of. And if there weren’t the carcasses lit up by my headlights, it was the crimson color of their blood that streaked the highway.
“She didn’t want to come,” I said, putting the napkin back on the dashboard. “Janine that is. We didn’t expect to find you the way we did. You were in the freezer.”
The red cooler sweat in the passenger seat. Quiet. As if contemplating how it got there or perhaps transfixed by the vibration of tires on the road. Either way it would be a prisoner no more.
In the war I knew a lot of guys who spoke to corpses. But that’s so much other history.
Still, I felt a strange obligation to fill the empty chalice of history. The latest from the front. I have these experiences whenever I meet veterans in line at the gas station or Food Club. We’re all compelled to relay the latest, like we’re still brothers.
The vibration of the chassis rose through the floor. The steering wheel as smooth as my wife’s arms. The warm, soothing odor of gasoline.
“Me?” I said. “I work on cars now. This thing we’re in now is what we call an automobile. Some call this century the Century of the Automobile, which makes it a good business to be in. Even though I know you’re probably thinking that a mechanic can’t work with one arm.” I explained how this Nova was left at my shop by a customer who got drafted and never returned to claim it. How I’d waited on him for three-and-a-half years before his niece called. All it needed was a muffler and new calipers.
“Janine doesn’t like to drive but she likes this car. She says it feels safe, and it is. Especially compared with these Japanese cars flooding the market.”
When I approached the yellow deer crossing sign I flipped on the ceiling light and steered with my knee, reading the directions to the lake scribbled on the napkin. The deer crossing sign was right where Lonnie said it would be, which meant the lake was only five miles away.
Earlier that day, Janine and I had returned from Mrs. Parker’s funeral. I was in my black suit and my brown shoes. She was in a black dress, her arms bare and tan.
She helped me out of my jacket and hung it on the back of the chair. She unpinned the empty sleeve of my white shirt and refolded it and pinned it close where I liked it, just below my shoulder.
We sat in the kitchen where the midday light came through the window above Mrs. Parker’s sink. On another wall hung a crinkled movie poster featuring our newly re-elected president, Ronald Reagan. The movie was Bedtime for Bonzo, with the president posing with his arm dangling around an orangutan.
Janine cut the limes on the counter and was mixing the drinks with the knife. The sunlight through the kitchen window turned her brown eyes gold. There was a building next door, a twin to Mrs. Parker’s. Five stories of concrete pocked with rectangular glass windows. Laundry hanging on the fire escapes. You could always tell where the bathrooms were because those windows were smaller.
“Do you want ice with this?” she said. Then she looked away, knowing it had slipped from her, momentarily, what else was in the freezer. Two days before, as we had begun cleaning out the apartment, I discovered the fetus there. It had been wrapped in a blue plastic bag and stashed under a pile of batteries. When I offered to show it to her, Janine sat Indian style on the floor and reached for her cigarettes. Then she said we’d talk about it later.
“So now it’s later,” I said, taking up the knife to twirl in my warm drink.
She took a pull from her cigarette, looked away. “For the love of shit.”
“Who do you think it was?”
“Who? The thing in the freezer?” She set her cigarette in the ash tray and sipped her drink. “I don’t know,” she said. “Probably an older brother or something.”
“Because I was an only child. Because that bitch thought I was a devil. I don’t know.” She leaned back in the chair. The light from the window was catching the gold earrings I had given her for our tenth anniversary.
I looked around the apartment, which despite our efforts was still littered with stuff. Dusty vases. Plastic flowers, fruits. Trunks of clothes, shoes. Dolls, their paint peeling, sat on shelves. Two rugs that had been rolled up and were stacked against the wall.
“What do we do?” I said. “Call the hospital?”
“About the thing?” She was staring glassy eyed at her mother’s cheap bottle of gin. “Leave it to Alice to drop this in my lap.”
For as long as I had known her, she only referred to her mother by her first name.
“I don’t think we can just bury it in the courtyard,” I said. “Or flush it down the toilet.”
Janine uncrossed her legs and tiredly leaned back. “I never told you this,” she said, “but there’s a reason she made you call her Mrs. Parker. It’s because your name is David.” She chortled. “Alice thought you were Jewish. She said I would’ve been better off marrying a milking goat.”
“She thought I was Jewish?”
Janine raised her eyebrows and brought the glass to her lips.
A thick summer breeze billowed the sheer white curtains above the sink. The windows had been open for two days and the apartment still smelled of smoke.
“She must have moved it from the old place,” I said. “I remember visiting after she moved in here. I remember we were looking for something to eat and I took hamburgers out of this freezer. What if I had taken that thing out instead?”
“That’s disgusting,” she said. “What the hell is wrong with you?” At the funeral, Janine’s eyes had been stoic, but now they were redder, angrier. Mrs. Parker was a suffocating presence, and now that she was gone it was as if all the onions she had suppressed in my wife were now beginning to burn her eyes.
I sipped my drink and my eyes dropped to the floor where I saw another unsprung mousetrap by the fridge.
We resumed packing, emptying the closets and stuffing everything into oversized garbage bags I had taken from my shop. She held the bags open. The walls were stained yellow by cigarette smoke.
The light from the living room window lit up her silky black locks. Her freckled tan calves flexed as she began to collect a bowling ball from a shelf in the closet.
“Jesus,” I said. “Do you want help?”
I curled my right arm around her waist to spot her. I could feel a phantom tingling where my left hand used to be. An instinct. As if it, too, were trying to wrap around her waist.
She waggled her hips, shaking my arm away. On her toes, arms extended. Gold bracelet slipping down her forearm. The green bowling ball slowly rolling off the top shelf.
I felt the urge to lift both of my hands to help her. “You should have let me do this,” I said.
She grunted, ignoring me. With both hands she hoisted the ball perilously over her head and waddled across the room like a penguin. Nostrils flaring. The bracelet now down to her elbow. She dropped the ball from over her head and it landed on the couch where it bounced once and then gently rolled off the cushion and onto the floor.
“For the goddamn love of shit,” she said.
This is why I love my wife.
Afterwards, she pulled another cigarette from her pocketbook. She lit it and rose from the couch to inspect the piles on the floor. I had organized them into things to be given away and things to be burned.
“There’s too much to do,” she coughed. “I’m not sure separating helps. Junk is junk.”
She leaned against the wall. We both stared at the floor.
“Honey?” she said. “I want you to take care of it. The thing.”
I studied the ceiling fan caked with dust. “Do you have a preference for what I do?”
“You know what to do.”
“I do?” I asked her if we should call a doctor.
“A doctor? What’s the difference between a doctor and a hospital? I already said I don’t want any hospitals. Why would I want a doctor? I just want it gone. Please. I don’t even want to know what you do with it. Okay? There’s too much to fucking deal with here.”
I poured a new, warm gin and tonic and squeezed the pulp of the old lime into the glass. “What if I get caught?”
“You didn’t get caught when you buried Oscar in the woods, did you? He was a hell of a lot bigger than that thing.”
“That’s true,” I said. I had forgotten about Oscar.
In the bedroom I found a faded red cooler in the closet behind garbage bags full of wigs, stuffed animals, and god knows what else. My shirt reeked of the stale cigarettes and I stood by the open window. The sun was setting behind the other building and the September breeze was cool and sweet. Mrs. Parker, I remembered, used to say this afternoon light was the color of the beams that would shoot from God’s eyes during the reckoning.
Janine was still in the kitchen going through the mail as I pulled the blue bag out of the freezer. Half a pound. When I had opened it two days earlier the creature inside the bag was a reddish pink color, its hairless shrunken head smaller than the palm of my hand. Its eyes were closed like it was wincing and its arms and legs seemed folded behind its back, all giving it the arched shape and fleshy complexion of a shrimp.
Janine seemed to be trying not to look in my direction as I took it out of the freezer. She was intensely reading a flyer from a Chinese restaurant.
“A little help?” I said, holding the bag up by its neck. “Please.”
Cigarette smoldering in the corner of her mouth, she closed her eyes and turned her head away as she tied the bag in a knot.
I placed it in the cooler and waited for her in the hall, which was dark and smelled like sour milk.
She came out of the apartment a few minutes later.
“You forgot to lock it,” I said.
“No, I didn’t. People rob dead people’s homes all the time. Hopefully someone will rob this place tonight.”
I was about to say something about asking friends of her mother to help us, but I remembered the funeral and the embarrassing emptiness of the church. Besides us, the only other souls there were three co-workers from the thrift store, all still wearing their name tags.
The drive back to the motel was silent. Instead of human speech, it was the hardened grays and dull oranges of the evening that filled the Nova.
At around seven o’clock that evening we arrived at the motel. Janine got into bed and turned on the television. I changed out of my suit and put on blue jeans and a fresh green tee shirt. Fresh socks. Once Jeopardy was over I went back to the front desk to ask the attendant if there was another bar he could recommend.
“What was wrong with Harry’s?” he said. He was a heavy middle-aged man with a pinky ring.
“Too many kids,” I said. “I need a little quiet.”
“But did you try the wings? Did you see that blonde with the big knockers? Was she there?”
“They all had big knockers. I just want some place where I can hear myself think.”
The attendant leaned back in his chair. There was a Playboy on the counter behind the window. “Lonnie’s is down the highway a little farther,” he said. “Her wings aren’t as good but it’s quiet.”
“How much farther?”
The attendant took off his bifocals and rubbed the ridge of his nose. “It’s the last stop on this highway for about three weeks,” he said.
At the bar I ordered a whiskey and Lonnie poured it for me. “You look like you just off the 86,” she said with a chuckle. She had a bleached, toothy smile and her blond bangs formed a ridge over her saggy eyes. Like most people, she regarded my missing arm like it was its own person. I could feel my old elbow resting on the bar. She gave a solemn nod to it, as if she could see it resting there, too.
The place was mostly empty except for a few boys playing pool in the back. The dark wood and dim lights made the room seem smaller than it was. There was a buck’s head mounted over the mirror behind the bar, its antlers glossed by time. We talked about nothing in particular for a while.
“Can I get you anything to eat?” she said.
I dabbed my finger in the empty glass and tasted the whiskey. “If I wanted to bury something like a cat,” I said. “Where would I go?”
“Around here? You can’t use your back yard?”
Lonnie toweled a mug and put it under the bar. “I suppose you could go to the lake,” she said. “Drop it in there.”
“Is it close?”
“About fifteen miles up the road.”
“But what if the tide takes it to shore?”
“There’s no tide in a lake.” She put her elbows on the bar and leaned forward. “My cousin once got in a world of trouble for burying his dog in the cemetery next to his father’s grave. He might have gotten away with it, but it was too shallow and coyotes dug it up and spread the carcass all over the cemetery.”
“Geesh,” I mumbled as I slid my empty glass back to her.
“Whose cat was it anyways?”
She refilled my glass as I looked at my reflection in the mirror over the bar. Deep circles under my eyes, which looked green instead of blue. My dirty blonde hair was greasy.
“It’s a friend’s cat,” I said.
Lonnie shook her head. “It’s a shame with animals. Knowing when to put them down. My mother used to say that it’s the privilege of a pet not to suffer. What was the cat’s name?”
“Name? I don’t know.”
I drank down the shot and put money on the bar. As I lifted myself off of the barstool, I could see my reflection beneath the buck’s head. Mine looked so small by comparison. “Tell me where you got that buck,” I said.
Lonnie affectionately tousled its jowls. “This fella?” she said. “My first husband got him. Anniversary present. That’s almost thirty years ago by now.”
“He was game?”
“No, he was road kill. About forty miles down on the 86.” She glanced up at the big head and then took my money and put it in the cash register.
I stood there looking at the foggy glass eyes of the buck. It had been dead for nearly as long as what was waiting for me in the car.
Lonnie returned. “How about another for the road?”
I sat back down at the barstool. The boys playing pool had stopped their game and were looking at me. “I’ll take another,” I said. “If you can tell me where this lake is at.”
Once I passed the yellow deer crossing sign, the highway merged into one lane.
“I loved your father, Doc,” I went on. “We used to talk about things. Carl lost his thumb and two fingers in the war. ‘Sitting at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean,’ he used to say. Your dad used to joke that he liked the company of a fellow amputee, though neither of us had our parts amputated. But ‘amputated’ sounds too clean. They were just blown off. Mine by grenade. His by mortar. Really, we weren’t sure what to call ourselves. He said Janine must’ve been attracted to my missing arm because the rest of me wasn’t that pretty. That’s the kind of humor your dad had. You see, sometimes a woman sees things in her father that she wants in a husband. His fingers, my arm. Does that make sense?”
The cooler let its plastic handle fall forward. It seemed to be relaxing. The moonlight shone on its white lid, turning it a pale blue.
“It’s hard to explain.”
The black lines of Lonnie’s map were clear. The spot was marked only by a wooden post that was leaning against an old, rusted guardrail. Frayed hunting notices; notices for missing dogs, children. By the faint light of the moon I could make out the tire tracks in the dirt.
“Guess we’re here,” I said, removing the key from the ignition.
There was an opening in the guard rail, where the metal had been sawed off, leaving its edges jagged. Something resembling a trail head in the opening.
I took my flashlight from the trunk along with the cooler and followed the trail. It wound and sloped downward through the woods. Perhaps it was the whiskey, but I felt a warm and steady braveness in the unfamiliar darkness. The ground was as swollen and tender as Janine’s eyes when I left her at the motel.
Owls cooed and there were coyote howls coming from somewhere far off.
After a while my path was brightened by the reflection of the moon on the lake. The smell of mud, leaves.
I wobbled the flashlight on the ground. No beach. Merely a small gooey opening. Hanging over the shore line were the naked branches of a dead tree.
The lake was small enough to make out the blackened tree lines on the other side. This was one of those accidental glacier lakes. A dwarf lake. Something in-between.
“This is it,” I said. “You don’t’ know where you are.”
The bag crinkled in the breeze.
“I’m putting you in a lake. Janine didn’t want to be here. But she’s a good person. Know that. She would have made a good sister, too.”
Somewhere beyond, the soft discharge of rifle fire echoed over the lake. Barks of dogs.
“There’s nothing I can do to fix this,” I said. “Wish there was. Fixing is my nature. So this is the best I can do, right?”
“I’m a little drunk, Doc. Sorry. Whoever you are, I promise I’ll throw you deep. I’m not sure what else I need to say. Guess there’s a better chance of peace here than in that freezer. I know that’s not much of a prayer.”
I was feeling antsy. Doubtful. I knelt by the water and cupped a handful and slurped it. Then I did it again. The liquor had made me thirsty.
I stepped away from the shore, beside the trunk of the dead tree. Gathered myself. Whiskey mixed with the taste of seaweed on my gums. Clutching the bag by its neck, the form inside bounced against my thigh, softer than it was before.
I trotted toward the lake, heaving the bag like a discus.
My foot planted into the mud, the suction pulling off my shoe. I lost my balance and tumbled into the water with no arm to break my fall.
It was cold. My jeans and tee shirt soaked through.
I picked up my shoe, sat down on the cooler, and clutched my empty sleeve and squeezed the water out.
The lake was still in the moonlight, its shy currents timidly embracing the shore. The moon over me, glowing through the branches of the dead tree. The shadow of my head visible on the water.
At first I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t heard the bag make a splash. I didn’t think I had thrown it that far.
I shined the flashlight across the mud. Then the lake. On the edge of the water, inside the spotlight of the moon, the faint shadow of a pendulum.
I looked up.
Caught, in the naked branches of the dead tree, the blue bag. Fifteen, twenty feet. A rounded form shaping the bottom of it. It was Doc. Curling.
“Jesus,” I shuttered, retreating. “Jesus Christ.”
I sat on the cooler and watched it. Ran my fingers through my greasy hair.
In one corner of the forest, there was the looming hum of a rig on the highway. In another were more pops of the hunters’ rifles, the echoing barks of their dogs.
Suddenly, I felt a tingling down my old left arm. A bloodflow I hadn’t felt in years. But not a phantom bloodflow. A warm throbbing sensation in my fingers. It was as if my old hand was being squeezed and drawn out. Tugged in the direction of the woods. Something calmly telling me it was alright.
I picked up the red cooler and took one last look at the blue bag. Nodded to it. Left.
AARON FRIGARD is in the midst of an MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has work forthcoming in Parcel and Yemassee, for which he was awarded the William Richey prize for short fiction.