Felix Garner Davis
Pass the sauce?
Deks turns the red bottle on its side and rolls it across the table. Halfway along it wobbles off course, weaving between the salad bowl and the pepper shaker and dropping off the edge. It thuds on the wood. Katie rolls her eyes and resumes eating, slicing her steak in thin ribbons and arranging them in a lattice. Deks feels a pang of resent clutch at his stomach. He is awkward in his seat, shuffling often, conscious of the hunch of his shoulders and the uncomfortable pressure in his abdomen. Does he always tense his stomach muscles like this? Is it necessary for posture?
How was the ballet? he asks.
Katie looks up from her glass of wine, mid-sip. It was beautiful, she says. Very over the top. Lots of pyrotechnics. The costume design was incredible.
Deks nods, forcing a smile. That sounds great.
The silence is heavy, punctuated by the gentle ticking of the clock on the wall. It is black-faced, stuck high above the mantle, copper frame half-gleaming, half-dark in the dim candlelight. Deks and Katie drove to IKEA six months ago and he found a cheap white-faced one, bold black digits and thick hands. Katie tittered at him, standing dumbly with the clock offered toward her and his purple hoodie sagging off his shoulder. She said it was boring and looked like it cost five dollars. Deks remarked that it cost ten. He remembers her face darkening slightly, far away, at the end of the yawning hangar. Perhaps she had disliked the Swedish meatballs. He smiled tightly and walked to the checkout with her, dropping the clock in a bin of discounted Christmas decorations.
Have you heard about Ruby’s housewarming? she asks.
Yeah, says Deks. I’m not invited.
Ruby is a mutual friend. Perennially dissatisfied with her housing situation, she moves often. Deks and Katie have both lived with her at separate times. Ruby has a peculiar issue: convinced that she suffers chemical allergies, she is unable to provide much help with dishwashing or cleaning, at best relenting to soak wipes in lukewarm water and swab kitchen grime around in circles. Deks moved out before Ruby’s neuroticism drove him to hostility, gnawing at him as it was. Katie and Ruby fell out.
Katie shifts uncomfortably in her chair. Oh, she murmurs. Do you have any idea why?
Deks shakes his head. Nup. Maybe she forgot to add me. I changed my name recently.
The black clock clanks in the leaden silence and Katie drains the rest of her glass.
Katie is asleep. Deks gives her a soft shake. Nothing. He eases the doona off his legs and pads out of the room. He checks his watch; it is 1:36. He walks quietly into the living room and reaches behind the couch, retrieving a lumpy hessian bag. A faint smile plays at the sides of his lips as he congratulates himself on his choice: dead silent, with no excruciating crinkling to wince at as he draws the clothes out. In a few moments he is dressed and out the front door, a black-clad wisp.
Missus Doolan lives down the street, an ancient woman with a basketball inflated in her spine and a vinyl shopping cart. Whenever Deks sees her she is moving: trundling toward some translucent doorway on the horizon, shuffling up the leafy street in plastic slippers with tassels. Her place, a squat white cottage, is rimmed by a weed-strangled low brick fence. Her yard is bare and well-kept, a contrast to the undergrowth-smothered jungle Deks had long envisioned before he first saw her inch through the front door. He begins to jog down the street, sucking air through his teeth.
The cold night seeps through his tracksuit, thin nylon with the reflective patches scribbled out. Stars hang in the gloom. Houses slowly roll by, intermittently grand-hedged and low-walled, dark and quiet. Even the cicadas’ hum is soft. The oaks lining the pavement loom, fat-limbed, crested by nests of spears.
Missus Doolan’s house soon appears, situated on a slight bend in the street. Deks skips across the road and spins once, scanning. Not a soul. He slows and walks into her garden, hopping the paving stones and treading up the left side of the house. A gate stands, flaky-white with streaks of raw wood. Deks reaches through, flips the latch and pushes gently. It squeals sharply; Deks clenches his teeth. He is still for a moment. Then, he pulls it to, wincing at the high-pitched grating, and latches it. He walks across the garden and follows the neighbour’s fence around the other side of the house.
Deks steps past a decaying stack of wood and ducks under dark windows whose sills are covered in paint chips and silt. The grass is sparse among patches of peeled bark and soil. A metal gate, new and oily in the dim moonlight, bridges the edge of the cottage and the wooden fence; it clicks open seamlessly, swinging wide without a sound. A hydraulic arm eases it closed behind Deks with a hiss.
Missus Doolan’s backyard is small. A white fence sags, heavy with spilling vines and bougainvillea. In the middle of the small expanse of grass and turned soil is a red-gold cocker spaniel pup, black eyes glittering expectantly, tail wagging. A coiled length of blue string connects it to a mallet-frayed stump in the ground. Standing still, Deks watches the little dog wiggle. Then, he steps toward it, stretches out a quivering finger and hovers it at the puppy’s mouth. The cocker spaniel’s tongue springs out and wraps around Deks’ finger, warm and wet. Deks flinches and retracts it; then, he extends it again, slowly, and pats the dog’s head, squeezing its dangling ears. The bronze fur is slick, almost oil-moist. Deks, transfixed, reaches with his other hand and undoes the string around its collar. The dog is placid, playful, twisting its head around to chase Deks’ hands, whimpering in growing excitement. Deks casts the string aside and lifts the puppy up, holding it, stiff-armed, at a distance for a moment before easing it into his chest and grasping it tightly. The dog nuzzles his chin and wipes a wet streak along the side of his neck. Deks smiles, motionless in the small yard, moonlit.
Deks tenses. He urges his legs to twist, to carry him back through the gate and over the low bricks, but the dog is writhing, squirming against his collarbone, yelping. A light flickers on, spluttering between pitch and luminescence; a figure appears in the dull glow, standing inside the fly-wire door at the patio. Missus Doolan cranes her head slightly, leaning into the mesh to squint at Deks; the dog begins to bark, yapping frenziedly and scrambling in Deks’ grip. Deks hugs it closer, flinching as its claws scrape his neck. The dog whimpers.
Missus Doolan is still, deathly quiet in the low light. She is cast in shadow; her silhouette is illuminated yellow, her face obscured behind the mesh. Deks stares at the black above her stooped shoulders. The cicadas’ hum whirrs low.
Geoffrey, she breathes. Geoffrey. Come.
Her voice is shaky, quivering. The dog reacts furiously, thrashing in Deks’ tense arms, nipping his sweater and whipping its tail; the auburn brush slaps against black nylon.
Deks drops the dog. It hits the soil with a thump, flounders to its feet in a mess of copper fur and races up the patio. Missus Doolan shrieks. The dog slaps its body against the flimsy bottom of the fly-wire door, which bangs, rattling violently; it scrabbles at the wood. Missus Doolan whips her hand out and splays the door open. The pup bolts inside; the door clatters shut; Deks is gone, groping at the gate’s latch and smelling its fresh plastic and wrenching it open against the pressure of the hydraulic arm; he bounds along the side of the house, black-soled shoes grinding in the soil, hands skidding along the neighbour’s fence as he darts across the front yard and leaps over a crumbling segment of the stubby brick wall; he lands awkwardly and staggers across the street, limbs flailing, dancing drunkenly down the pavement past the ghostly oaks.
Deks finds himself in the living room, at the table, wet-haired and warm-skinned; he shuffles uncomfortably in his chair, chewing his nails and picking at hair follicles inflamed by hot water and steam. His legs jiggle; his feet loll on the carpet. He can hear the clock, snicking quietly, pasted to the wall in the close darkness. The air is gluey with the smell of candle wax. His damp thighs are itchy on the coarse cushion; his balls squirm, cold in the air, naked on the calico; he squeezes his shoulder blades together and tries to sit up, tall, pushing his neck backward and up in regal dagger-straightness. His skin is drying, quickly, growing taut with translucent stretch marks, a hot skin, stretched thin. He feels pinpricks of scarlet flush his cheeks.
The clock clicks along rigidly.