[Read part one.]
for Stephen Dixon.
No, what his wife says is that he, personally, needs to mow the lawn. Meaning today or maybe now, even. Yes, apparently meaning right now, this instant, by her tone of voice. Now, while he’s trying to take a nap. “I just mowed the lawn,” he says. “No, you didn’t.” “True, but I will. In two minutes,” he says, closing his eyes again. “No,” she says. “No what?” “No, you need to mow the lawn now and not in two minutes, Henry. Get up.” “I’m telling you I’ll mow the lawn in two minutes,” he says. “And I’m telling you no,” she says. “So you said.” “I said now, too.” “Yes, you did, that’s what you said, but what did I tell you after you said exactly that?” “Don’t make me say it again. What did I say?” she says. “Well, all right. I’ll tell you what. Let’s see . . . I said two minutes, and you said now, and I said—.” “No, no, no! You said two minutes last week and the week before and the week before that. Now I’m telling you: mow the lawn this instant, or else, buster.” No, she doesn’t say buster, but her tone says buster. If a tone can say such things as buster, hers does, says it, all right. Loud and clear. “You’re saying I have to mow the lawn now or else?” he says. “Precisely.” “Well, precisely is a different matter, a different meaning, altogether.” “This is your last warning,” she says. “I see,” he said. “Good,” she says, “now get up out of that chair.” “Or else, you’re saying?” he says. “Exactly that,” she says. “No, what I mean is, or else what, exactly?” he says. No, meaning or else what will his wife do to him if he doesn’t do as she’s telling him to do now, precisely? “I’ll tell you,” she says. “Please,” he says. “No,” she says, “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Smarty Pants, think you’re so goddamn clever, sitting in your chair all day. Let me tell you something, clever doesn’t mean lazy, Henry, so don’t flatter yourself. And if you don’t get up out of that chair and mow the lawn right now, this instant, I’ll scream.” “You’ll scream, you say?” he says. “Yes,” she says. “You really think you’ll scream if I don’t mow the lawn right now?” “I do,” she says, “there’s nothing to think about.” “Well, if that’s the way it has to be, then be my guest. Of course I’d rather you scream in the room you came from rather than right here in this room, where I am and intend to nap as soon as you leave and go back to wherever it was you came from. But I’ll understand if you must scream in this room to ensure your voice is heard. No wife of mine should ever be made to feel a tree in the forest,” he says. “You’ll be sorry if I scream,” she says. “Maybe, but I won’t be mowing the lawn.” “Oh, we’ll see about that.” “Won’t we?” he says. “Oh, you bet we will, Henry. We’ll see right now.” “Please, scream away,” he says, and then she does. His wife screams. She really screams, too, a blood-curdling hair-raising scream.
Well, wasn’t that something? The woman was serious about screaming. He thought she might be serious, had his suspicions, figured she probably meant business, by her businesslike buster tone and all, but he had no idea how serious she really was. To think he never knew his own wife could scream like that. No, he never would’ve imagined his wife could scream like that unless something tragic or horrifying or excruciating happened. Certainly not without being scared to death by an intruder jumping out at her with a knife while she was naked in their bedroom and threatening to stab her if she didn’t lie down on the bed and do as he said and proceeding to rape her, or seeing their child run over by a car right in front of their house or by a semi that had lost its breaks on a steep hill or a mountain somewhere they were staying on vacation. Or his wife simply being tortured to death and nothing bad happening to either one of the girls. Really, the way she’s screaming, you’d think her fingernails were being pulled out, one by one, or all ten at once. Screaming as though they’d run into serious debt and were on the brink of disaster, financial ruin, starvation, his daughters crying, “I’m hungry, Daddy! I’m hungry! Daddy, I’m starving!” The girls said that all the time, every afternoon they came home from school, and he knew not to believe a word of it because they were prone to exaggeration, which his wife said they got from him, chip off the old block, she always said. But this time it would be true. They’d be nothing but skin and bones. And for their good, to save the lives of his girls, he went behind his wife’s back and borrowed a small fortune from a ruthless loan shark who was actually in debt to the mob, himself, and who, when Henry didn’t pay up on time, warned him, “You better pay up or else, pal!” No, not pal, mack. “You better pay up or else, mack!” Yes, exactly. And then, when he still didn’t pay up because he’d spent all the money on other things, the loan shark kidnapped his wife and pulled out all her fingernails and sent him a tape of her screaming, which would sound exactly like she sounds right now, only taped. No, they wouldn’t send a tape, meaning business, meaning time is money, chop chop, so they’d just call him up. Yes, pick up the phone and dial. He’s in the book, or was listed at a time when he had nothing to fear, though now he wishes he’d thought to have their number unlisted, so the loan shark wouldn’t be able to find him in the book and call. The loan shark would say, no, first he’d answer then the loan shark would say, “Is this Henry Petrich?” And he’d say, “Yes, who’s this?” And then the loan shark, a man named Jimmy Smacks or Lucky Something or Pants, just Pants, yes, that was it. Pants, as in he wears the pants, or maybe no such thing, the man might not be married at all. Divorced, probably. Because what woman would stay married to a man named Pants? Well, whatever the story behind his nickname was, Pants would call and say to Henry, “Henry, this is Pants. I want you to hear something,” and then Pants’s cohorts would proceed to pull out Maggie’s fingernails, one by one. Yes, that’s right, the man wouldn’t waste time saying, “We’ve got your wife here, and this is what we’re going to do to her, you schmuck.” No, wouldn’t even have the courtesy to tell him what they were going to do, but he’d know just by the sound of her screaming. “Oh, Maggie,” he’d say, “Maggie, my angel! Stop! Stop, you brutes! I insist you stop this nail pulling business right now! I’ll get you your money! Do you hear me?” But of course they wouldn’t be able to hear him over Margaret’s screaming. In that case, he’d have to hang up the phone, because he couldn’t bear to hear her tortured for his inability to repay the loan shark simply to save their daughters’ lives and for not even paying the bills he was supposed to pay when he borrowed the money to begin with. And to think he’d worried over his wife getting home and discovering the eviction notice and turn on the lights to read it and then discover that their electricity had been cut off, too, before he got home, which was why he was home now to answer the phone, trying to get to the mailbox first. How would he ever forgive himself for his wife’s senseless torture? The phone rings again, he answers. “Henry Petrich?” More screaming, must be Pants calling. “Speaking,” he says. “Another thing: your wife says none of this would’ve happened if you’d mowed the lawn,” and the line went dead.
“Hold up, a second,” he says. His wife stops screaming. “I’ll make you a deal,” he says. “No, no deal.” “You won’t hear me out?” he says. “No,” she says. “Could work to your advantage.” “Doubtful,” she says. “Yes, I agree. But hear me out, in that case.” “Let’s get this over with,” she says. "Good. The deal is: I don’t nap . . . " “So far, so good.” “Yes, I don’t nap, but I don’t mow the lawn.” “No deal,” she says. “Maggie, life is a series of compromises.” “All right, I give, let’s hear. I could use a deal once in my life.” “Then I’m your man,” he says. “I don’t nap, and I don’t mow the lawn, and we make love instead. Right now. This instant, in this very chair that I’m sitting in right here in front of you. Come to me, my darling,” he says, patting the arms of his favorite chair, and holding out both his hands for her to come to him. “I’m still waiting on the deal part,” she said. “I’m glad you asked that. Because I wouldn’t want you to think I’m in this for my own selfish pleasure. Because I, for one, was only thinking of you and your pleasure, first and foremost.” “Me, first, you, second, you mean?” she says. “Exactly. First things, first, lining up the ducks or getting the ducks in a row, or whatever that saying is, not to say I think of you when I think of ducks or vice versa. And I never think of ducks when we’re making love, though birds do come to mind, or did, once, before we were married, seeing as you were quite a bird, really. Not to say you’re not still. But you were quite a catch, before I caught you, my little nightingale, if I do say so myself.” “Let me get this straight. You’re saying the order is me, first, and you second? My pleasure is your first and foremost concern?” she says. “Yes, precisely that. You, first, me second. Now pull up your skirt and come sit down right here on my lap,” he said, unbuckling his pants and pulling them down past his knees. “Well, then, you got a deal. And first, it would be my pleasure if you would mow the lawn. Guests are coming in two hours.” “All right, I see how it’s going to be,” he said, “so how’s about we make love and then I mow the lawn before I take a shower? No point in wasting water, right? And there won’t be time to do all the above. A man can only do so much.” “No,” she says. “I’m glad you see my point.” “No, I don’t see your point, I see you mowing the lawn now.” “Why not make love first, though?” he says. “For one thing, you have to mow the lawn before we can even have this discussion.” “But we’re having this discussion now, aren’t we? Besides which, I thought you said I needed to mow the lawn and now you say I have to mow the lawn, so which is it? Need to or have to?” “It’s pointless trying to talk to you.” “So why did you bother?” “This is your last warning,” she says. “That’s what you said last time you said so, and so, technically, this is my warning after my last warning, is more like it,” he says. Then she screams again. Screams like, like . . . like she’s being tortured by a loan shark, who’s holding up the phone for Henry to hear, only she’s not. She’s just screaming like she is, with no one physically harming her in any way shape or form, which was, from a certain standpoint, actually worse. Senseless, really.