ISSUE 16
May 2001

Mark O'Neil

 

Mark O'Neil is a freelance writer living in Saratoga Springs, New York. He presently works as a sports editor for a media information-gathering company. "Wishbones" is his first publication.

Wishbones   


Ben’s father had his first stroke while chopping wood. He said it didn’t hurt at all. All he remembered was raising the axe and having to stop because he didn’t know where he was. The axe fell from his hands and sunk headfirst into the earth behind him. Shit, he said, turned around and recovered the axe. He split several more chunks of wood before he went inside for breakfast. Once inside, he took up the comics, read Garfield and immediately started to cry. Ben’s mother turned in alarm from the bacon she prodded with a plastic fork and asked what was wrong. Ben’s father looked up, tears streaming down his face.

It’s really funny today.

*

Ben lived a hundred or so miles south of his parents in a small city. Right out of college he married, found work with an advertising firm and dreamed of the day he’d be promoted to company headquarters in New York. His wife, Clarisse, soon bore him two daughters and went to part-time at the doctor’s office where she worked as a PA. Photos of the house they bought impressed Ben’s parents who refused to visit because of the city traffic. Ben jogged a mile a day and did push-ups and sit-ups and leg lifts and jumping jacks when he heard his father had a stroke. He kept up this regimen for several years until he went bald and Clarisse got fat from child rearing and idleness and his daughters started to call him baldy and stupid. Grasping the green bottled beer resting between his thighs like some scepter recovered, he told them he’d never have called their grandfather stupid.

*

Clarisse’s mother took ill while she was pregnant with their second daughter Emily and their first daughter Marisa was still in diapers. Clarisse was from a family of means, of social prestige. She’d been raised by a governess from Germany who was small yet large-breasted and complained constantly about Clarisse’s mother. Clarisse saw her mother only at meals and had to remain silent as long as there was food on her plate. She met Ben in college and dated him as an act of rebellion. He was, of course, from white-trash rurality with parents who had never finished high school and made so little money Ben had to sling hash in the dining hall to pay for tuition. He was perfect. Ben and people like him made her mother want to vomit. The fact she married him, no matter what degree he had nor how highly he ranked, meant Clarisse had to forego her inheritance which, being young and idealistic, didn’t bother her in the least. It was because of this that she changed her major from liberal arts to nursing, something practical just in case Ben was the loser her mother insisted he be.

But now, taken ill, her mother wanted to see them. Yes, even Ben. Clarisse, on the phone with her father (who she couldn’t remember actually ever seeing until her graduation from high school) trembled, began to cry. Ben, holding Marisa, sweaty from his run, put a hand to her swollen belly, asked what was the matter. Clarisse hung up the phone. That was Daddy, she said.

What did he say? Ben asked.

Mommy’s taken ill. She cried harder, leaned her head against Ben’s sweaty shoulder. Through sobs she said; She wants us to come out.

Clarisse lifted her head. Ben wore a mask of disgust. When do I have time to go to Vermont?

Mommy’s not doing well, she explained. Marisa looked on indifferently, tucking her small hand into her mouth.

We didn’t go up north when my father had his stroke.

Your father had a stroke and kept on chopping wood.

*

In his work Ben cultivated a simple, clear style that made him a favorite of those corporations whose target demographic was the less than educated, lower middle class and below. Unlike his cohorts who used depth psychology and propagandist tactics, Ben stuck to the tried and true. For example, when it came to a slogan for Philco Oil company of Mechanicville, NY, he proposed Let Philco fill your house with warmth. Needless to say, it was a big hit as well as the slogan for a local brewery: Saratoga Ale: It just tastes good.

After such successes Ben found himself out of the cubicle rat maze and with an office on the fourth floor. Instead of doing the grunt work of thinking up slogans and studying demographics, he now coordinated entire campaigns, approved slogans, read reports on demographic studies. Now and then he’d have an idea he’d share with his team at their weekly meetings. To his amazement, his slogans were still good, fresh, snappy—like the slogan he thought up for a labor union seeking help with PR problems, the nurse’s union to which his wife belonged: The CSNA: We work for you. It was brilliant. The Saratoga Ale campaign had also gone so well they sent him case after case of green bottled beer and he never paid for heating oil or propane again.

*

Ben started by bringing two bottles of Saratoga Ale to work with him in his briefcase. From the hours of 11:00 to 1:00 he took no calls. Before him he unfolded the company manual. On page 497 were the names of those who’d made it to the main branch, the names of those who sat in offices on the 15th floor of the Pierce Building overlooking the madness that he imagined was Manhattan. William Carothers, Ernesto Faulkner, Donald Carson, Barth Hemingway, and many more, names streaming down 497 and leaking onto 498. He toasted them. Soon, he took to toasting them individually. This necessitated more than two beers, but no more than a case. A twelve pack seemed appropriate. In order to toast two full pages of names he had to stop taking calls from 11:00 to 3:00 and cancel all meetings.

At home he began a ritual of roasting whole chickens on his gas grill. By this time, Ben was protuberant of belly with a red, wide face and his nose had begun to strawberry. Every Sunday, while Clarisse and the girls were getting ready for church, Ben was out heating up the grill and spanking his bald, pink chicken, dowsing it in his marinade contrived of Saratoga Ale, oil, eggs, and poultry seasoning. On their way out the girls glanced at him, shook their heads, Marisa and Emily in high school by then and graduated to more sophisticated terms of endearment than baldy and stupid. Bye shithead, Marisa said. Later dumbass, called Emily.

While they were at church, Ben spanked his chicken. He spanked it all over. Beat it with spatulas. Pummeled it with white knuckled fists. Hissed obscenities at it. You’re gonna get fucking tender, he spat. Beating the chicken took a lot out of him. Once on the grill, Ben kicked back in his green plastic captain’s chair and drank an ale. On the pole of the umbrella which bloomed from the center of the green patio table hung the wishbone from the chicken the week before. Once relaxed, Ben took the wishbone from where it hung and turned it about before him. Brittle, dry flakes of grizzle fell from it. Once in a meditation state, Ben formulated his wishes. Then, as if his were the hands of two separate people, one pro the other con this wish just silently pronounced, he spread the legs of this wishbone apart until it snapped.

*

Clarisse, attentive to her dreams, reader of dream interpretation manuals, ponderer of the limitless within, had a dream that forced her to fundamentally alter herself. It would be called The Chicken Dream. She dreamed that, instead of going to church one Sunday, she stayed home to help Ben with his chicken. It was a younger Ben whom she attended, the Ben who wore a goatee, who read poetry, who listened to Progressive Rock and hated Disco. This Ben spanked his chicken with Ping-Pong paddles. Chicken roasting, he lurched toward her and flickered a darting black tongue like that of a chow chow. Dining room table set with earthenware plates and saucers, the chicken lay dressed table center, moist and golden brown. Ben came forward to carve it, but the moment the point of his blade came to ripple this chicken’s taut skin the chicken jumped up, moved at first like some drunken puppet, then took up a fork and pitched toward her. The chicken chased her, waddling like a decapitated infant, down an avenue lined with bags full of raked autumn foliage.

This dream meant she could no longer eat meat. She ignored Psyche Major Marisa’s Archetypal interpretation of the dream (she did not want to eat her children!) and began a new personal regimen. This regimen included hiring personal trainer Olaf Johnson who screamed at her the moment they met.

You’re fat and lazy! Screamed Olaf.

This was just the kind of encouragement Clarisse needed. Not only did she become a vegan, but she ran a mile every day, enrolled in aerobics classes and kept a personal journal. By the time Emily graduated high school, this journal was full of passages about Ben’s drinking, his plans at a pig roast and almost daily chicken roasts. Perhaps Mommy was right about Ben, Clarisse often thought, running down Pelter street imagining hordes of headless bald chickens in chase.

*

It seemed Clarisse’s mother would live forever. Chagrined, Clarisse’s father moved West. Clarisse received letters addressed to Ben about the wonders of the West. Clarisse’s father noted flatness and warmth to be the defining characteristics of the West. Kansas and Oklahoma were flat and warm. Arizona and New Mexico were not quite as flat but warmer. The Rocky Mountains were neither flat nor warm, but he flew over them and found himself in California’s sunny Sonoma Valley. In the Sonoma Valley the land was warm but not all that flat. But he soon found the people in the Sonoma Valley were flat and warm and offered him their fine wines at every turn. Being the kind of man unable to refuse a glass of wine at every turn, Clarisse’s father died. In his last letter to Ben, Clarisse’s father wrote: Being the kind of man who cannot resist a glass of wine at every turn, I fear I’ll soon be dead.

Hysterical with grief, Clarisse held aloft the letter in a trembling hand and remarked upon the apparent lucidity all men, including the father she’d seen only once in her entire life, achieve just before death. Both Marisa and Emily called home about the funeral arrangements and agreed the letter was certainly creepy. Clarisse wanted to show it to her mother but feared it might spell her doom as well.

Are you crazy? Tedford the Butler told Clarisse. That old bitch will live forever.

*

Ben had wished death to page 497. Daily chicken roasts that autumn gave him an ample supply of wishbones to carry him through the winter. As he had toasted this list, first collectively then individually, he wished them death in reverse, first ascribing to each some chronic condition and then, realizing long, lingering death would do nothing to help his cause, daily wished for some catastrophe to befall them collectively. Colon Cancer, AIDS, and Lou Gehrig’s disease were quickly replaced with car bombings, plane crashes and a terrorist assault upon the Pierce building, that tall flat structure he imagined vomiting Armani suits into the bedlam Manhattan evening . . .

Ben stared across the boardroom table long and flat, into Brodwin’s long flat face. Slick of hair, clean of complexion, goateed, Brodwin moistened his lips before he spoke. He was young, well studied on his demographics and gifted at presentations. He’d joined Ben’s team a year before, but this was the first time they’d met. Ben took a sip of what he said was ginger ale. The account was for a window manufacturer who’d recently supplied windows for an elementary school. Unfortunately, these windows didn’t lock. During a history lesson, a child called upon to pull the blinds for a filmstrip fell thirty feet into a permanent vegetative condition. Brodwin proposed: Empire Glass: You can see right through us. Ben’s team sighed with excitement, the way they did in the Saratoga Ale days.

Ben called Brodwin into his office after the meeting. Leaning back in his chair, Ben’s view of the young man was obstructed. Ben poured himself a Saratoga Ale. Brodwin stood to be able to see Ben.

Could we possibly move this? Brodwin asked.

What? Ben said.

Brodwin heaved on the keg on Ben’s desk. He couldn’t move it. That’s a keg, Ben said.

Oh, said Brodwin. It’s heavy.

Go ahead, pour yourself one.

That’s all right, Brodwin said.

No, really. Ben said, leaning forward then with a clear plastic cup inscribed upon which was Ben’s now classic slogan for Saratoga Ale. Try one.

I’ll just stand, Brodwin said. Brodwin stood leaning an elbow atop the fat silver barrel-bellied keg.

Ben took out the company manual. Have you ever read pages 497 and 498? Ben thumbed through the pages. Hmmm? Finally he found these pages and held the book aloft, extending it toward Brodwin as if he extended his dog-eared copy of The Word. Brodwin read the introductory passage and then skimmed the long list drizzling down 497 and leaking over onto 498. He imagined a building made of names rising like a smooth block of text from the schizophreniform Manhattan sidewalk. He smiled down at Ben, seized the plastic glass.

*

Clarisse’s father could not be buried until Spring thaw. Clarisse’s mother opted to hold off services until then. Running down Pelter, her breath rising vaporous before her and smearing back like some windblown shawl, Clarisse thought of the body of her father in cold storage. In her journal she wrote: It’s as if Daddy were in a coma. As if all I need to do is press my lips to his for him to arise. No naked chickens could run in this cold, so she imagined penguins in pursuit waddling like midget tuxedos animated, turned loose. There are even limits to my most frightful imaginings, Clarisse reflected. Such are the constraints of practical reality.

*

On their four-hour lunch each winter day, Ben and Brodwin drove out to the Engel’s farm north of the city. They’d selected a pig for their Spring thaw pig roast and paid this pig, named William Ernesto Donald Barthes, daily visits. Through manure reek of milking barn and sneezing through vapors of hay motes swirling about in the cold, they came to the pigpen where William lay in frozen filth awaiting his slops. The pig was a marble of brown, white, and pink, a continental drift of cartographer shapes. Farmer Engel let these boys slop the pig, and while Barthes, William buried his snout in the slops, Ben in green rubber waders climbed into the pen and flagellated the pig’s firm ass and flanks. This fucking pig would be tender. Brodwin hoisted an ale, cried a hardy farm boy’s cry to the effect of yee-haw! Ben’s eyes glazed over as he hammered Ernesto Donald Barthes’ rib cage. When the pig had had enough both of his slops and of his beating, he turned and chased a scurrying, bald, red-faced Ben out of its pen. I can’t wait to eat that son’bitch, Ben said. Brodwin concurred.

*

In the Spring, in the Suburb of Ballston, a village-wide yard/garage sale was held, and along the main streets peddlers of all kinds set up various tents and booths to display their wares. With her daughters home for her father’s funeral later that week, Clarisse and Emily moved among the crowds swarming Main and First and Galton Drive. Emily was soon to be married to a young man from Albany with whom she lived in Syracuse, and was sure, since they’d had nothing but unprotected sex for three years now, that she couldn’t bear children. Clarisse, whose hand never veered from the pulse of such things as fertility, assured her she needn’t worry. But, taking a turn onto Landau and walking the avenue on each side bordered with table after table of garage sale/ Spring cleaning dreck, Emily became tearful and bent her head to her mother’s shoulder to cry. Clarisse'd had no idea how upset this idea of infertility had made Emily and felt Emily's suspicion needed exterior repudiation.

On Galton Ave. in a red tent a Palm Reader had set up for business, a young, good looking man with a large head of thinning hair and a neatly trimmed beard. As they passed a few times, Clarisse still deciding whether or not she should consult him, he followed them with deep, piercing gaze and Clarisse felt as though she were being probed by an X-ray or CAT scan. He sees right into me, Clarisse thought. Such are the powers of the great unknown.

Soon, Clarisse talked weeping Emily into consulting the Palm Reader. For $5 they would receive a full reading and a consultation. Through him their futures would become concrete and relatable and hence malleable. With a word he turns the hard wall of destiny into silly putty, or Play-Do, or a clay ashtray not yet fired one might want to transform into a vase or a cereal bowl, Clarisse thought. Such is the power of the Clairvoyant within the confines of our ephemerality.

As he read Emily’s palms, Clarisse stood outside the tent leaning in to hear through the entrance. Outside a wind picked up and blew the tent flap like the faint stirrings of the paraclete’s wings, moved Clarisse within as if all of nature at that moment had conformed to her vision of the movement of spirit within the confines of this physical universe. Soon, crowds moved in a black and white newsreel footage of rapidity; a cloud covered the sun; a unicyclist wheeled by in clown motley conveying to her a sense of the comic exploding into this world of darkness and death, breaking the pale of mortality like so many vessels of clay. Fires burned from BBQ grills; smoke rose from them like offerings. She heard the soft voice of the Palm Reader say: Two girls and a boy, and her heart swelled and she felt a breeze fill her skirt, a warm breeze that entered her like a speculum and opened her up. At that moment she felt the first stirrings of her third child, Rusty.

*

Ben stalked the dawn-lit rooms of their empty house wearing his beer hat, smoking a cigar and incidentally, wondering where Clarisse might have fallen asleep. From the beer hat, fed by two overturned silver cans of Saratoga Ale, two clear plastic hoses like catheters oozed the ale slowly into Ben’s reeking mouth. He searched the girls’ rooms, then the living room and summarily the kitchen and the den, stubbing his little toe only three or four times and finally found the light on in the half-bathroom off the cellar entrance. From this golden rectangle of light he soon heard the sound of Clarisse sobbing. Obviously, she was thinking about the funeral of her father the next day. Ben stood framed within that light-traced rectangle; took a long gurgling draw of ale, then leaned forward and tapped on the door.

You all right in there?

Her sobbing suddenly ceased; then a loud sound of snorting as if her only problem were a head cold. Fine, she said.

You sure? Ben drew gray smoke from his cigar, let it billow from his mouth. Somewhere he heard a clock tick-tocking, shredding the moment. You OK?

I’m all right, she said, still on the toilet staring down at the plastic stick upon which a plus sign had just appeared.

All right, he said. He took a step back. The smell of his cigar reminded him of his mother and father and of wood burning and of several more or less inconsequential events from his poor, unhappy, disadvantaged childhood. Ok, he said.

To Clarisse it seemed as if the door were speaking, white, tall, angular and blank; the door speaking and smoking and gurgling down an ale. The door that hadn’t shaved since Friday morning nor washed nor stopped mumbling wishes or some such to himself in empty rooms. How do you introduce this door to the stick in her hand? to the meaning of this plus-sign? the meaning of this pink intersection?

There was a long silence, both waiting and waiting for the other to speak, to say something, to explain this silence away and make it ok, and, finally, as Ben was about to say something to the effect of I’m going to leave now, go down in the basement, Gonna roast me a chicken before we go to Vermont, Clarisse blurted it out: I missed my period.

You still have periods?

 

 

Mark O'Neil: Fiction
Copyright 2001 The Cortland Review Issue 16The Cortland Review