FICTION September 27, 2019

The Next Morning

Fiction by John McNally

This was ten years ago. Alexis, my wife, had moved out the week before. We had separated, but we’d agreed to see other people, and I had talked a woman named June into coming back to my house with me. I’d met June earlier that night in a bar called The Next Morning, a cheery, optimistic name for a shithole of a place, but the jukebox was good, and the patrons were generous when it came to buying shots for everyone huddled together at the short end of the bar. June stood out from the other women at The Next Morning in that she wore a dress instead of jeans and a T-shirt, and she had a string of pearls around her neck. They looked real, too.

June had said, “You look sad,” and I said, “I was thinking how much money I’d save drinking at home,” and then a few hours later we were mixing drinks in my kitchen. I sliced limes, and she hammered the ice with a meat tenderizer. We listened to albums – Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin – and I would occasionally say things like, “Goddamn, listen to that note she hit” or “Wilson Pickett…best soul screamer, hands-down,” and June, holding the drink above her head the way Lady Liberty holds the torch, would close her eyes and sway her hips, or she’d try to lure my cat Willie toward her, inexplicably calling him Bubba. “Here, Bubba-Bubba. Here, Bubba.” Willie was five years old and black with long hair and piercing eyes – a spry and curious rescue.

After one of my trips to the bathroom, I found June in the hallway, holding the trapdoor in the floor open, and peering down into the darkness. The house had no basement, so the trapdoor opened up to the plumbing and the ground beneath the house.

June looked up, still holding a drink in one hand, and said, “I opened it to see what was inside.”

“And?” I said.

“And your cat ran out.”

“Willie?” I said.

June looked like she was going to cry.

“It’s okay,” I said. “He’ll come back.”

“Do you let him outside?”

“No,” I said. “Never.” When June crouched to peer down into the darkness again, I walked over beside her. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll put some food out. Here,” I said, helping June up and taking control of the trapdoor’s handle. “I’ll leave the hole open. It’ll be fine.”

After another two drinks, June seemed to have forgotten about Willie. Every few songs, she would light up and scream, “Motherfuckers!” and I’d laugh. I kept bringing our glasses back to the kitchen for refills, dumping the murky fruit slices into the sink and filling us back up again, bringing shots at least twice – one for you, one for me – until the final drink where we ended up side by side in the kitchen together.

“No music,” she said and pouted.

“Oh, shit,” I said, listening to the silence coming from the other room. And then I told her a story about a time when I was so drunk, I leaned against a dead tree to take a whiz, and the dead tree started to tip over. I quickly grabbed onto the tree, clutching it for the incomprehensible reason drunk people do the things they do, and when the tree fell, I bounced off it and rolled into a marshy bog of some sort. June wasn’t listening, I realized. She was poking the fruit rinds into the garbage disposal with a wooden stirring spoon. I saw a mosquito flying near my head – and I thought, irrationally, that my wife had released a box full of mosquitos in the house to foil any chance I had of getting laid that night. I swatted at the mosquito and missed, and when I couldn’t see it again, I reached behind me and flipped on the garbage disposal.

At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening. June let out what I had thought was a Wilson Pickett soul scream, but the proximity of the sound coupled with the humming silence caused a ghost-chill to rip through me. The disposal sounded like it was broken, and June screamed again. When I turned and saw blood and flesh spraying from the drain, I realized (slowly) that June had put the wooden spoon aside and had stuck her arm down the drain to get rid of the remaining rinds. It may have been only a second before I turned the disposal off, but it felt like a minute had passed. The sight had frozen me in place. I expected June to pull her hand from the drain the moment the grinding stopped, and I prayed that any injury she sustained was something that could be taken care of with a Band-Aid, but when she didn’t remove her hand, I wondered if maybe it had gotten stuck. I taught second and third grades. Kids were always getting body parts stuck in odd places. Heads between wrought-iron bars. Hands in jars.

“Oh my God,” I said when I pulled her arm free. “Oh my God. Oh my fucking God.”

Most of her hand was gone. When she saw what had become of her hand along with the amount of blood she was losing, she collapsed – first to her knees and then, like a limbo dancer, backwards, her knees still tucked under her. I was certain she would die there on my floor – I had never seen so much blood – but the paramedics, whom I had somehow managed to call, were able to save her. Her hand, however – most of it still stuck in the pipes underneath my sink – would be beyond repair. A surgeon would tell me this later after nudging me on the couch in an emergency room, where I awoke in a drunk-fog, unsure at what point in my life I was stepping into. I could have been any age, anywhere, hearing news of anyone in my life. I listened; I nodded; and then I called for a cab to take me back home.

I never told Alexis what had happened that night, and I never saw June again. From what little research I did the next few months, I discovered that June was married to a man in the oil business in Lafayette, Louisiana, where we lived. Nearly everyone I met was in the oil business in some capacity, and the money was often good. June’s husband, a man named David LaFage, was CEO of a company that handled underground property rights. Whatever her reasons – and I could imagine there were many – June never contacted me about what had happened. A few months later, after I had sobered up, after I had replaced the pipes under the sink with new pipes, Alexis and I decided to give our marriage another try.

One afternoon, several months after we’d gotten back together, Alexis said, “So. Tell me again what happened to Willie?”

“He ran out when I was coming in with groceries,” I said. Every night since his disappearance, I had left the trapdoor open in case Willie returned, but with each passing day, my hope deflated ever-so-slightly.

“Hm,” Alexis said. “That’s odd. He would run whenever I opened the door.”

“It’s weird,” I said. “I know.”

Alexis kept her eyes on me. She said, “Did you date anyone when we were apart?”

Heat rose to my face, and I could tell that Alexis was watching closely for signs of dishonesty, but I said, “No. You?”

Alexis narrowed her eyes. She said, “You’re not telling me the truth.”

“Of course I’m telling you the truth.”

Alexis was a pharmacist. She offered consultations to people who kept hidden from her the origins of their ailments, but she could see embarrassment and shame in their eyes. She’d often told me about the ways in which they’d tell her, with nothing more than a look, secrets that their hearts would never reveal.

“What?” I said. “I mean, I met someone once. She came over for drinks.”

“She came here?” Alexis asked, and I immediately regretted admitting anything. I had foolishly thought a half-truth could save me.

“Yeah. For drinks. That’s all.”

“Hm,” Alexis said, sizing me up. “Did you use our bed?”

“For drinks,” I repeated. “She came here for drinks.”

“I just find it curious, is all,” Alexis said.

“What do you find curious?”

“That you came back here. Just for drinks.”

“We listened to some albums, too,” I said. “Okay?”

“Oh. See? You didn’t say that. I thought it was just drinks.”

“Are we really having this conversation?” I asked. “Look, I don’t care if you dated anyone. I don’t care what you may or may not have done or where you did it or didn’t do it.”

Alexis nodded, but she kept watching me.

“What albums did you listen to?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Wilson Pickett. Aretha Franklin. Another one, I think?”

“Did you tell her that Wilson Pickett was hands-down the best soul screamer?”

“Why? What if I did?”

Alexis shook her head, as if to say, no reason.

“What?” I said. “Is that something I always say? Am I that predictable?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “You said that to me the first night we slept together.”

“Oh, really,” I said, and I wanted to ask her if I had also chopped off most of her hand by accident that night, too, but I stood and walked away. I got in my car and drove. Marriage, I was coming to realize, was a long stretch of domestic chores punctuated by bursts of aimless driving. It was possible other couples had it better – witty banter, spontaneous vacations, acrobatic sex that left their hearts pounding while the bedsheets absorbed their sweat. In my marriage, something had happened – I wasn’t sure what – that had left Alexis wanting to believe the worst in me. But for the life of me, I wasn’t sure when or why the scales had tipped out of my favor, only that they had. And I had no idea how to tip them back.

Five years after the night with June, Alexis and I went to the nicest restaurant in town to celebrate Alexis’s promotion. It was a restaurant that required me to examine myself in the mirror before we went inside to make sure that there wasn’t a stray hair growing out of my forehead, that my face was relatively clean, and that my beard and mustache were trimmed in such a way that no whiskers were curling up into a nostril, as they sometimes did.

“You clean up nicely,” Alexis said when I stepped out into the living room.

“As do you,” I said. She was wearing a crushed velvet dress and had placed a flower in her hair. Where she had acquired the flower, I couldn’t have said. Before we left, I propped open the trapdoor. It had become as involuntary as making sure the stove was off and the doors were all locked.

At the restaurant, every item on the menu contained ingredients that I didn’t recognize, and I had to ask the waiter, a tall fellow with slicked-back hair and tattoos creeping out from the sleeves of his shirt, what several of the words meant. The menu exhausted me. But I played along, asking questions neither I nor the waiter wanted to hear.

“It’s just a sauce,” he said about the last word I had quizzed him on.

“A sauce. Nice,” I said. “I’ll take that. But without the sauce.”

“Very good then,” the waiter said and left us alone.

“So!” I said to Alexis. “To the job!” I lifted my glass of wine and clanked it against her glass, also of wine, and I started to sip when a man approached our table.

“Alexis?” he said.

Alexis, still smiling, looked up at the approaching man, but when she saw who he was, she quit smiling and cocked her head, the way a dog might when trouble is near.

“It’s Sam,” he said. “We…” He looked over at me, assessed the situation. “We met many years ago.”

I knew Alexis well enough to know that she knew full well who this man was, but for whatever the reason, she wanted to remain coy.

“Anyway,” Sam said. “It was at least four years ago. Maybe longer. I saw you just now and thought, how strange to live in the same town with someone you meet once and then never see again.”

“It is strange,” Alexis said. “I’m sorry I don’t remember you.”

Sam said, “What can I say? I’m not very memorable, I guess.” Sam looked at me and, conspiratorially, said, “Be careful, buddy. She may not remember you in four years.”

He bent forward, rapped his knuckles on the table three times, as though it were a door, then stood up straight, smiled, and walked away.

“Who the hell was that?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Alexis said. “I have no idea.”

I looked down at my plate at the sad slab of bleeding steak prostrate in a puddle of melted herb butter, like a man who’d been shot. The steaming baked potato, wide-open and mashed, stared up at me like the giant eye of an old rummy.

“I think you know him,” I said.

Alexis picked up her empty wine glass, finished the final couple of drops, set it down. She said, “Really. Is there something about me that you know that I don’t?”

“It’s just the way you looked at him when he approached,” I said. “I’ve known you a long time, okay? I can read you.”

“What am I thinking now?” she asked.

I stabbed the mashed potato with my fork. I said, “You’re thinking about bringing home some arsenic from the pharmacy and poisoning me with it.”

“We don’t carry arsenic at CVS,” she said.

“Too bad,” I said.

When the waiter came over to see if everything was okay, I told him it was, but I suspected he and the other wait-staff had been watching us from a distance. He nodded, retreated.

I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t care if you know him or not. I just don’t understand why…” Before I could finish my sentence, Alexis had stood and walked away. I’d thought she had gone to the restroom, but after fifteen minutes I had another thought. I walked to the exit and saw that my car was still there. I asked the hostess if she’d seen a woman about yay tall leave in a huff. The hostess confirmed that, yes, a woman did leave abruptly.

“Great,” I said.

I called her cell, but it went straight to voicemail.

“Alexis,” I said, trying to keep my voice down. “Call me back, okay?”

I returned to my table and finished my steak. I knew she would have walked all three miles home through some sketchy neighborhoods, just to spite me. And I knew it would only be worse if I went looking for her. I ordered dessert, a crème brulee, and took my time eating it, tapping the caramelized sugar lightly with my spoon before each bite, the way guests at a wedding tap the sides of a glass to initiate a speech.

“Check please!” I called out, and within fifteen minutes I was at The Next Morning, drinking vodka tonics. I hadn’t been there since that night with June; had been afraid people would remember seeing me leave with her that night only to see her next time maimed and haunted, but no one cared when I walked in.

“Why The Next Morning? What’s the import of that?” I asked the bartender. She had a lip ring and purple hair, and her eyes went out of focus at my question, as though I had just tried the lamest pick-up line she’d ever heard.

“Welp,” she said. “Better than The Morning After. The Morning After sounds like a bar that provides abortions.”

I thought about the pieces of June’s hands still in my drain when I got home that next day, and how it had taken three trips to Lowe’s to get all the parts I needed to replace the pipes. I had felt like a criminal, flushing out the pieces of flesh and bone into the tub, and then tossing it all in a Hefty sack on top of God only knew what – spaghetti from the day before, likely, and a mound of damp coffee grounds. But what was I supposed to do? Put it in a Ziplock bag and rush it to the hospital? Mail it to her?

The bartender announced last call, and I said, “The Morning After. There was a song called ‘The Morning After.’ It was the theme to The Poseidon Adventure.”

“Dude,” the bartender said. “Don’t.”

“What?” I asked.

“Just don’t,” she said.

Ten years after the night with June, I was helping Alexis load the moving truck she had rented. She had rented one that was too small for the amount of stuff she owned, so we had to make multiple trips from our house to her new place across town. The truck burned oil, and with each trip there and back, people would slow down to stare inside the truck’s cab to see what kind of heinous person would pollute the environment the way I was doing.

Alexis’s new house was on a hill, and I offered, perhaps foolishly, to help her with all her boxes. She was a reader of thick hardcover books, and her library took up a good fifty boxes in the truck. For each trip up the hill, I would pile four boxes onto the two-wheel hand truck, and then I would pull it over the street’s curb and start hauling it up the hill until I reached the brick steps, which required pulling the truck with both hands, grunting, trying not to trip, pulling again, trying not to let go of the handle.

“You should rest,” Alexis said. “Drink some water.”

“Nah.”

And down I’d go again. By the fifth trip, my right knee had begun to ache. By the tenth, it felt like a balloon filled with gasoline and set on fire.

Alexis said, “You should stop.”

“Nah,” I said. I needed to make only a few more trips up and down the hill. Why would I stop? Up I went, until there were tears in my eyes. “Jesus,” I said. “Jesus Christ.”

The last load was Sisyphean, stopping and starting, gaining and then losing ground. My knee felt as large and fiery as the sun, the rest of my body as useless and unappealing as space garbage.

Later that week, after Alexis was settled in her new place, I went to an orthopedist and had my knee looked at.

“Torn meniscus,” the doctor told me after twisting it once and listening to me howl.

“Do I need an MRI?” I asked. “How do you know?”

“What do you do for a living?”

“I teach grade school.”

“Okay then,” the doctor said, perking up. “If you see a boy with a big wet spot on his crotch, do you know what happened?” He smiled.

I said nothing.

The doctor said, “Let’s get you scheduled for a surgery. I do these all day long on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Takes less than an hour. Two tiny holes in your knee is all I need. You’ll be in and out of there before you know it.” He clapped my back and said, “It’s possible the boy spilled soda on himself, but this? It’s a torn meniscus.”

One week later, I was standing at the check-in counter at the hospital with my cab driver. I was informed by the hospital that I was to bring someone with me, but I didn’t know anyone who could make it, so I paid my cab driver twenty bucks extra to pretend he was my friend. He was from Zimbabwe, and I could barely understand his English, but he understood me perfectly well.

I said to the woman behind the counter, “This is my friend, Tawonga Chakwana.”

Tawonga, scrolling through Facebook on his phone, nodded.

I said, “He’s got to run an errand while I’m in surgery, but he’ll be back.”

Tawonga, still scrolling, nodded again. The woman behind the counter didn’t even look up at us. She said, “You need to fill out these forms, front and back, and I’ll need your insurance card and a driver’s license.”

Tawonga and I shook hands, and he left me alone. I took the clipboard and pen, and then limped over to a sofa. There was a message on my phone from Alexis. She wondered if I knew the best way to open a window that had been sealed shut with layers of paint. She wondered if she could borrow my toolbox. She wondered how she could breathe if the house she was living in couldn’t. I hadn’t told Alexis about my surgery. The way I saw it, all of my problems were now my problems and my problems alone.

Two hours later I was in the emergency room, giving in to the anesthesia, when I tried to say, “My knee has been a wreck for a while now” but said instead, “My life has been a wreck for a while now,” and was pretty certain the doctor responded, “We’ll get it fixed up by the time the big hand reaches nine,” and I said, “Really? You will?” And then I didn’t remember anything else until I woke up in the recovery room, eventually got help putting on my clothes, and then waited sleepily in a lounge for Tawonga to come get me, a lounge full of other patients’ family members, but Tawonga was nowhere to be seen.

I was not allowed to leave the room alone for reasons having to do with insurance, so I would fall asleep in my chair, wake up, moan because of my sore knee, and then say, “I’m going to kill you, Tawonga. If it’s the last thing I do.”

“Excuse me,” a woman said after the room had thinned, the sky beyond the thick plate-glass windows clouding. She was sitting in a chair behind me, and she had to twist her torso to see me as I had to twist mine to see her.

“Do you need a ride?” she asked.

“I do,” I said. “But you’re here, too.”

“I’m a guest,” she said. “My ex-husband’s sister is here, but I was just told that she’s going to be another two hours.”

“Oh,” I said. “Is she okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” the woman said. “But it’ll be two hours before she’s ready.”

She walked over to the receptionist to explain the new arrangement, and then we had to wait for a nurse to find a wheelchair to wheel me outside while my new friend drove her car to the curb. Apparently, once you set foot inside someone’s car, you’re no longer the responsibility of the hospital. You’re on your own. You’re free. The nurse tossed my crutches into the car’s back seat, and I eased myself out of the wheelchair, hopping on my good foot and then collapsing into the bucket seat. The nurse shut the door once my gimpy leg was out of harm’s way.

“Oh, man,” I said. “Thank you.”

And that’s when I noticed the woman’s hand resting on the steering wheel. It wasn’t a complete hand. It was a partial hand.

I didn’t say anything and neither did she except to say that she got my address from the receptionist. I tried staying awake, but I must have dozed off for a bit. When I opened my eyes, we were passing The Next Morning, long boarded up and vacant for serving underage drinkers too many times. When she pulled up to my house, I told her that I really appreciated her kindness, and then I opened the door to begin the treacherous journey of using crutches for the first time.

After I pulled the crutches free but before I could shut the back door, June said, “I never blamed you, you know.”

I nodded.

“I appreciate that,” I said.

“I wouldn’t say what you went through was worse,” she said, “but it couldn’t have been easy.”

“There’s no comparison,” I said.

She nodded, and I shut the door. I was so tired, I wasn’t sure I could make it the few steps it required to reach my house without taking a nap. I had never been so tired in my life. Slowly, I made my way up the sidewalk to my house, planting the crutches and then swinging myself forward, planting and swinging, over and over, until I reached the front door.

I swung myself inside, bouncing off one wall and almost falling into another. I remembered that Alexis had sent me a text, but I couldn’t remember the point of it, only that the house needed to breathe. I felt it, too – the lack of oxygen, the walls trying to suck in air through its dark vents. I opened over a dozen windows and removed their screens to let in even more air, all the while hopping on one foot. Is this what Alexis had meant for me to do? In the hallway, the trapdoor was propped up, as it had been for the past ten years, but I removed it altogether from the floor and leaned it up against the wall, and the whoosh of air was as though duct tape had been removed from the mouth of a hostage.

In the living room, I set aside the crutches and fell back onto the couch. Almost instantly, I fell into the deep sleep of lingering anesthesia – three, four hours without moving – and when I woke up, the house was dark, but I could sense someone was in the room with me. I leaned over and turned on the end-table lamp, and two dozen animals momentarily froze, like burglars at an unanticipated noise, before resuming their activities. There were at least three unfamiliar cats, a squirrel, and a hunched chipmunk. Two birds wheeled past me. It was as though every animal that Willie had spied through the windows, every animal he had chased despite the glass between them, every animal that had tormented him by their mere presence: they had all come to pay their respects for the old cat that had never returned home. I wiped my eyes, sad and knee-sore patron saint of wild beasts that I hoped to be. When my knee felt better, I would dig a hole and bury Willie’s rusting bowls and cobwebbed toys, but right now, more than anything, I needed sleep. Another hour or two. Maybe longer. I curled up on the couch, shivering but fading at the first blush of morning, the sun’s hazy promise of the new day that you could always count on until you couldn’t.

John McNally is author or editor of seventeen books, most recently The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding (University of Iowa Press, 2018). He has recently completed a new short story collection titled The Fear of Everything. He is Writer-in-Residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
John McNally is author or editor of seventeen books, most recently The Promise of Failure: One Writer's Perspective on Not Succeeding (University of Iowa Press, 2018). He has recently completed a new short story collection titled The Fear of Everything. He is Writer-in-Residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.