This story is part of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure’s First Ever Short Story Contest.
ou gave birth to my country and my people. You know this? Birthed them into this world, Rebecca. All of them.”
The microwave read 2:45 AM. Five minutes fast. The man from the store sat at the kitchen table, his back facing the bedroom. The apartment door was bent and twisted behind him.
“I didn’t mean to wake you, Rebecca. I’m sorry. I just could not sleep. There are so many words in my dreams. So cluttered. You know this word? Cluttered?”
Becca Crawford was familiar with this word. Her apartment was strewn with Darla’s toys and clothing. Unfolded laundry and empty detergent bottles filled the living room. Her husband Terry had left all his baseball stuff behind jammed into the closets. All his old clothes smelled like dust and chalk. The shower drain was still clogged with his hair.
“What are you doing here Michael? You should—”
“Go home?” Michael said. His voice was wet. “Home where? Russia? Israel? No place.”
Becca noticed the broken phone before him on the table. Moonlight from the window caught the frayed wires, the empty plastic sheath and number keys scattered across a place mat.
“I don’t go home, Becca. There is no home. That is a stupid word. I have a room, yes. Apartment, whatever. Not a home. You make a home though. You always have.”
Becca had told the others at the bakery that Michael just needed a friend. He had no driver’s license, no personal I.D. Just a flimsy passport from Russia, filled with half-completed travels. Always leaving, he had told her while trying to select a loaf of bread. Never returning. He had shown her the passport, filled with exit stamps, but no entries. His teeth were false and they clacked when he spoke. No returns.
“You were the mother of Jacob, did you know that Rebecca? All of us with these names, names from the Bible. You were the one who birthed Jacob and Esau. You know Jacob? Father of all the tribes? The one the angel renamed Israel after their fight. They wrestled for an entire night; Jacob and the angel battling with one another. Neither side could gain the upper hand. Always in the struggle. I should have been named Jacob, no? I should have been one.”
Each morning he arrived with new purchases to display. Jim and Alicia tried to avoid the young man with the false teeth. He stared at your eyes when he spokes to you; he stared until you looked away and then he laughed. He brought all his purchases to the bakery to show them to Rebecca. New shoes and cellphones and TVs and the tattoo riding across the ridges of his back.
“Michael. You can’t be here. You need to leave. We can talk about this later. Darla is still asleep and she has school tomorrow and I have to work. Don’t you have to get up early?”
Becca didn’t know what Michael did exactly. He never explained it very well. He paid in cash. His pockets were always filled with ticket stubs and receipts. He kept track of everything.
“For what? To see the sun? It will be the same as before. It is the one thing that does not change. Even the moon changes sometimes. Even the stars do. I should have been named Jacob.”
Michael bought something from the bakery every day. Sometimes Becca saw him toss his sweet purchases in the trash as soon as he stepped outside the store. Jim told her it wasn’t healthy, this fixation the man had. He looked young, still had pimples on his cheeks, but what was with the teeth? What was with that tattoo on his back, the dragons and the whores stamped onto his skin? Becca told Jim to mind his own goddamn business and stop touching her arm.
“Names can change. They aren’t like the sun. You should not change yours though. We should all keep our Biblical names. Even in Israel, in the army, I kept mine. Rebecca, you should promise me you won’t change your name. You should do this. Tell me you will not change.”
Michael’s thick fingers flicked a piece of the phone onto the tiles. Becca stood behind him. She could hear her daughter sleeping in the other room. A lonely picture magnet hung on the steel refrigerator with Terry’s face staring out at the two figures in the kitchen. She forgot to take that one down after he moved back to South Carolina. She forgot to burn his clothes as well.
“Your daughter though, maybe you should change that name. What kind of name is Darla? Sounds like a whore’s name, no? Sounds like it came from the Terry man. The baseball man.”
It was Terry’s aunt’s name. The aunt who’d raised him after his mother got lymphoma and went on disability. Becca wanted to name their daughter Rachel, but Terry told her all about his years growing up with Aunt Darla. She drove him to all the tryouts, picked him up during rain delays and always had something to drink in the trunk of her car. At the funeral after her drunk driving accident, Terry had threatened to choke the pastor if he mentioned Darla’s fondness for the bottle. That was a warning sign Becca decided to ignore; she stacked it beside all the others.
“Sometimes I think it was Michael who fought with Jacob. Do you know that story? I think I told you of their battle. Jacob was all alone. His mother Rebecca had died many years before. He was to become the next leader of the chosen people, to return his people to their land. He waited behind with his flocks and sent his family ahead one night. Before he lay down to sleep, he was faced with an unnamed opponent. A man with no name, like in a Western. Like your Eastwood. They wrestled against one another from dusk until the morning came. Each fought for the upper hand, each struggled to gain a foothold. I think of this on nights when I do not sleep. Some people claim it was a demon, of course, and not an angel. And maybe that makes more sense.”
Another piece of the phone was tossed onto the floor. Becca leaned against the table and tried not to shake. Her heart rattled against her lungs. She should have listened to Jim and Alicia. Michael would not look her in the eye. Terry couldn’t either once he told her he had to leave. She didn’t stop him. She was tired of cleaning up his messes, filling out the forms for bail and paying the bar tabs down by the train station. Darla wouldn’t even look him in the face. Terry was a third stringer for a minor league team; a bit of tangled hair circling the drain. He was hospital bills and dust and three beers ahead of everyone else in her life. He was baggage.
When she dropped him off at the bus station, Terry told her he would send money. He would send a cheque when he arrived and finally got settled coaching for some high school team. He had connections back home, people who owed his Aunt Darla a favour. Becca was still waiting for something to arrive in the mail. She still got his credit card statements. Bulk purchases at liquor warehouses and cigar shops. She ran them through the garbage disposal at the bakery. Becca didn’t want to chance those fragments getting caught in the drains at home.
“And that makes sense, fighting with the demons. I do not sleep because I still see some faces. The ones we saw when they were blowing up roads. The ones who were children with grenades in their hands. I wrestle with their ghosts sometimes. I wrestle with children who have no eyes and who cannot speak. They hold my teeth, the ones their fathers knocked from my mouth in an alley. They hold all the fragments of their brothers that we left to rot in holes and pits and dark places. I wrestle with them because they have no souls. And they want mine.”
Michael showed her his dog tags once. They said his last name was Luppa. He told her he survived the nights in rehab while his face was rebuilt by reading the Bible front to back. It was more exciting than he thought it would be. It was filled with battles and murders and children of children, a lineage stretching back to the beginning of time. It didn’t all make sense of course. Michael did not understand why Samson’s hair was so magical, or how Noah could build a boat so big. Michael said the New Testament was boring. Just the same story told four times and if Jesus could really raise the dead, he could have taken over the world without the Romans’ help.
“But maybe it was an angel instead, yes? A test for Jacob to prove himself. I wish to have such a test, but there are no angels here. And so maybe it was the archangel Michael who wrestled him. The one from Revelations, the one who will lead heaven’s forces against all the whores and dragons we have spawned from our cities and our dreams. I showed you the tattoo, yes? When it is finished, I want to believe all of this will make sense. They send me here to be alone, to escape. I have done my service, but they still own something in my head, Rebecca.”
“Michael, we can talk about this another time, okay? Please. I won’t call the police.”
“Why would you call the police?”
“Michael, look at my door. I can’t go to bed with my door like that.”
“Then I will stay. I will stay and watch the door. I am used to the night watch.”
Michael’s heavy hand wrapped itself around Becca’s waist. She tried to pull away as he stood up from the table. Outside, the world was beginning to rupture around the edges. Pink bits of light bit away at the darkness. Michael’s breath pushed itself into Becca’s face.
“I showed you everything, didn’t I? Do you think it’s a coincidence we both spring from the Bible? You, a creator of nations, a mother to the father of the chosen people. And me, I could be that angel. I could be the one who gave Jacob his limp. The touch of my hand against his thigh ruined his leg forever. Did you know this? They taught us how to break a knee in training. How to break it firmly, how to break a leg so they will never be able to run from you again.”
Up close, Becca could see the scars running down Michael’s chin. That was where the shrapnel hit him, he had told her at the bakery. He took her hand and made her feel his skin.
“I know how to break a bone.”
“I know you do, Michael. You told me. You told me.”
He released her arm and sat back down at the kitchen table. Becca wanted to run, but she remembered Darla’s chest rising and falling in the other room. The neighbours here were all asleep or working the night shift. This was a building where the elevator always smelt like piss and dogs were tied up on balconies. Terry was gone and no one from work could call this place.
“Why did you take apart the phone?”
Michael flicked at the numbers. He didn’t answer her. Becca stepped back behind the counter toward her bedroom. She was too nice. Terry had barely paid rent during the five years they were together. Becca always gave the regulars extra frosting on their Danishes; she never argued with a work schedule that saw her rising at 5 AM to board a bus across the city while Jim and Alicia slept in until seven. She did not jaywalk at empty intersections until the light decided to change. The world was already chaotic enough, filled with Michaels and Terrys and all that revelation. She didn’t want a hand in the chaos. She was afraid she might lose it in the process.
“They use phones to make us die. You know this though. Like I told you. They will not face you like the angel. They will wait until you are in range, and they will blow off half your face so you can’t recognize yourself. They will make sure you are not the same. If you cannot touch them, you cannot assert your dominance. They will take your teeth and cast their spells and you will be left on that strip shuddering. I shuddered. That word. I did that until someone dragged me away. A phone is for those who can’t stare their enemies in the face, for those who want to listen, to speak without betraying their face.
“You can lie over a phone. You can tell me this makes sense. You can tell me I should go home. A Christian in Israel, still a Jew in Russia. I am no one in a nation; I am homeless like all those sick and dying dogs in Moscow. The ones who ride the subway as if they are people because they do not know themselves. I am a young man wearing the mouth of an ancient. I clatter around my own tongue.”
Becca continued to back toward her bedroom. She watched Michael remove his shirt, the black lines of his tattoo rippling with the effort. He tossed it onto the floor beside the fragments of the phone. His voice continued speaking. Becca paused before stepping into her bedroom.
“You gave birth to all of this, and I wrestle with the demons you left behind. I find them lurking everywhere, even in your bakery. I see them snickering behind us and I know you cannot hold a secret. I thought maybe you could help me rebuild things. They could only help me with my face. You told me of your Terry and your Darla, and I knew you could do better. I knew you could find better names. We are all wrestling through the night, and in the morning, some of us lose. Some of us awaken without a friend on a mattress in the dark. And it is always so dark.”
Terry was the religious one, if you could call it that. He called it the last resort. He sat where Michael was now one night and told Becca he could never be a true believer, but the science was just too depressing. Terry did not like to check his stats, his on base percentage or his fielding numbers. He despised the breakdown of his sport into columns and lines and algorithms. Not because they were wrong or misguided; they were all too accurate in fact. Terry couldn’t bear to see all of it laid out before him. He could not watch his thoughts, his dreams, all of it, reduced to chemical reactions. Terry told Becca he did not want a world where every cell was just slowly unspooling toward its own end. This biological pre-destination was just as bad as all those evangelicals preaching their guaranteed promises of redemption. All this decay was purchased in advance and Terry was tired of being confronted with the best before date.
“I followed you here, but I did not think I would come in. I am not usually such a rude house guest. But I am tired of this haunting, Rebecca. I am tired of trying to make all my friends from scratch. They want me to go back to Israel. They want me to sneak off with them in the night, to use my new face, the one no one will recognize. I am wires and wet work now. I am reformed in all the wrong ways. I read those words about wrestling with Jacob, and I am always that angel who is losing. I am the one who must rename him, who must surrender part of myself. I am that demon or whatever it was that found him alone amongst the sheep. I need you to make me new.”
Becca disagreed with Terry. She watched his career spiral ever downward, his numbers declining while his waistband expanded. She watched his confidence crumble, the easy grounders slipping through his legs, the fly balls lost to the sun or to his hangover. She could not allow for some grand mystery to conceal the facts, to deny the reality she faced every day. The science inside the bakery was not a mystery, the science was sound and it was repeated daily. It was not all death and destruction. It was new and well-crafted and reusable. Terry told her all things had to end and he preferred not to see them coming. He left her at the bus station with a cross hanging around her neck. Bits of his chest hair clung to the chain.
“You need me here, Rebecca. You can help me create something new, just like your Darla.”
Darla did not talk much about her father. She was only four. She liked to play with the pieces he left behind. The well-worn baseballs and chipped bats he kept in the closets. They did not fit into his luggage. Becca stepped back into her bedroom and fumbled through the dark.
“We will have to start the world over, Rebecca. This is what I realized today. I realized it when you told me you didn’t know where to turn anymore. You told me you did not want things to stay the same. I can change all these things. Do not think anything of these problems though. Even the whores in the Bible, they are all eventually redeemed. Even Mary Magdalene.”
The bat was chipped at its tip. It was heavy in her hands. Michael still sat facing the busted door. His hands covered his face as if he were weeping, but there was no sound. A knife lay beside the phone on the table. The apartment was filled with pink and brackish light, glancing off the steel. The tattoo on his back featured a seven headed dragon with a woman on its back. It rippled as Michael spoke through false teeth and stitched lips. It seemed to enunciate his words.
“You gave birth to a nation, to all the tribes, and I know you can do it again, Rebecca. We can do it again. I just need to show you how it is done. I will show you one way or another.”
Becca crossed herself and swung. She still believed in physics.
* * * * *
Andrew F. Sullivan was born in Peterborough, Ontario. He has an MA in English in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto, where his thesis WASTE: a novel was awarded the Adam Penn Gilders’ Scholarship in Creative Writing. Sullivan’s fiction has recently been published by Little Fiction, Joyland, The Cleveland Review and Riddle Fence. Sullivan no longer works in a warehouse. You can find him at: http://afsullivan.blogspot.com/. This is his first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.