“Fixtures” by Elliot Greiner

15 March 2019 on Fiction   Tags: ,

Ben was the first one I buried, followed by Jane, and then Sam. Good rats all. Days later I found out it was the avocado that did it, same as what happened to the aye-ayes at the zoo a couple years back. The rind is toxic to some animals, messes with the heart so bad that it causes cardiac arrest. All the articles I'd read online suggested that they'd died hours after ingestion, which placed their time of death around when I'd taken my statistics midterm. First they would've become lethargic, followed an hour later by acute, violent seizing fits brought on by a sudden drop of oxygen in their blood. Then brain death would've crept in, claiming them all within minutes. Upon finding their bodies, though, none of them looked like they'd gone out in pain. Ben and Jane lay peacefully by the water bowl, Sam spread-eagle in their wheel; one of them even had their teeth around a chew toy that broke in half when I tried to remove it. Of course, I didn't really believe it'd been this calm; it's just how I framed it in my head, described it to the neighbor who watched me bury them.

There were still two left, howeverJules and Clive, the picky eaters. They also happened to be my least favorites of the bunch, mostly because Susan always treated them better than she treated me, or so it'd used to seem. According to her she'd bred them herself, but all she'd actually done was fail to separate the males and females after bringing them home. When we'd gotten the original set at the pet store last year, Susan told me that if they were left in my care I'd inadvertently kill them. Then she laughed, an Almond Joy half in her mouth, as two crawled onto her palm. "That's why you're all coming home with me," she said, whispering between their heads. I remember the chocolate coating her teeth when she shot me that holier-than-thou smile, the stupid lilt in her voice that she used to end sentences. And what had I done in response? Rolled my eyes, snuck a middle finger between us and the rat cage so that the store attendant couldn't see. I knew my frustration only built up her ego, yet, time and time again, it was the only reaction I understood to give. At least now, in death, the joke was finally on herwho else remained to shit on me, shine a light through my cracks? In truth I could think of a few people, but I doubt any of them will ever know my pressure points like she did, work their way into my skin with such surgical instinct.

Fundamentally thoughand I mean in a grand sort of viewI very much liked Susan. Perhaps I'd even loved her, I'd just never figured out how to properly gauge that. People use love so much that it's lost its fixture, so that now it can only exist as a relative measure between things. Like, sometimes I love Jules more than Clive, and sometimes I love Clive more than Jules. Really I dislike them equally, but depending upon who has left less poo for me to clean at any given moment I feel it's only right to rank them on a scale of L to O to V to E. During my bad daysthe shitty kind where one miserable thought blooms endlessly into moreI wonder if she'd ever done that to me. But then I feel better knowing I'll never have an answer.

The thing is that I never thought remembering her would be as hard as it is. Over the six months we'd been together I attached a certain weight to Susanbut now, as some twenty-two-year-old kid with wide open prospects and ten months now between me and her last breath, that weight had diminished to a marble-sized memory bouncing around my head like a pebble in your shoe. She was always therewhen I talked to girls at the bar or girls in class or girls on the streetreminding me that maybe I'd also go out for a night of drinking with them sometime, failing to stop them from biking home drunk down the Murray Expressway, where the street lamps are always broken and cars don't care.

Still, I tried.

Kelly was the only girl who I actually had the nerve to follow up with. I think it was because she didn't seem like she wanted much from me other than a few hours of my time every now and then, which was really all I had left to give. However, despite the fact that we'd texted for a while, I put off meeting with her for nearly two weeks because I couldn't follow through on solid plans. I hadn't meant for this, it was just that when I tried to hit the send button anxiety erupted across my chest like a spray of hot water. It was a new kind, too—not due to nerves or fear of the unknown, but rather from the fact that I knew exactly what I was doing; that maybe I was doing something wrong. Otherwise why would I feel so guilty responding "nothing" when she asked me "what's up," get sweaty hands every time she sent a selfie?

But, as is often the case for such things, my hesitation waned during a 2 a.m. stretch of loneliness one Saturday morning. Sitting against the dishwasher I fumbled my phone, debating on what to say to her. Every opener seemed approximate, like a half-cocked attempt at the truth—to the point where I lost count of every iteration of "how’re you?" I'd tried. So I had a beer, thought about it, and then had another after. Finally I sent "hey," and she quickly responded the same. Five minutes later a date was set for the next week, and I, stumbling to stand, fell asleep on the floor.

When she came over a few nights later, we drank wine while a superhero movie played on my laptop. I'd felt a little odd since we were sharing a blanket Susan had knitted; however, early into it—before the guy had even gotten his powers—Kelly asked me where my bedroom was. Then she put her hand down my pants and I followed suit, negotiating my forwardness with hers, surprised at how the mintiness of her gum had staved off the wine.

"Really," she said. "Where is it?"

"Oh." I pointed to the end of the hall, and she grinned, taking my hand. However, when we got there she stopped me.

"Wait," she said.

"What?"

"One second." Kelly skipped inside and shut the door behind her. After a minute I heard the toilet flush, and she reemerged, taking me back into her arms. She smelled different though, like lavender. When we landed on my bed I paused.

"Did you put on that stuff on the counter?" I said.

"Yeah."

"Oh."

"Well, why else would you have it?"

I lowered my eyes and shook my head, feeling her fingers tickle my cheek. "I was just wondering."

"Oh, were you?"

"Yeah."

"Okay," she said, laughing. Then, with a sweep of her hand, she buried my nose in the crook of her neck.

The following hour was pretty fun, though every now and then my mind would break and I'd remember how much better it'd been with Susan. Obviously knowing the ins and outs of each other like we had made everything better, but it was also the smaller things—the smells, tastes, the way our heights and dimensions complemented one another—that forced a difference. Really, the smaller parts of our relationship were what bound us together emotionally, too. I think it's because once you exchange the tiniest aspects of yourself for those of another person, you both become too enmeshed in each other to ever properly separate; if you try, their abandoned history just festers within you like a germ, until you either grow strong enough to ignore the pain, or don’t.

After Kelly and I had finished—when our clothes were on and bathroom visits completed—I walked back into the room and saw her, face now pressed to rat-cage glass, rapping two long, elegant fingers at Jules. Giggling, she coated the pane with her breath.

"What are you doing?" I said.

"I dunno."

“Okay.”

"They're weird looking, aren't they?" Kelly pointed her finger at his head, flicking the glass. "Ugly fucker."

"What was the point of that?"

"Giving it a reality check, I guess."

I shook my head. "That's useless. Rats only understand a narrow portion of reality. It's one of their strengths."

"Come on." She looked at Jules and then back at me. "I'm right."

"You just met him."

"Met him? It's a rat. You don't meet rats. You shoo them away or run them over with your car."

Now, perhaps if she'd said this last month, last winter, or when Susan was alive, I would've laughed—maybe even joined and flipped Jules the bird or something. But now her words only registered as cheap, an insult that rippled out far beyond just them and this rainy Saturday night. "You don't know what they've been through," I said. "They watched all their friends die of cardiac arrest. And here you are shaming them."

"What?"

"It's a shitty thing to do."

"Oh, fuck off."

"Acknowledge it," I said. "Just acknowledge that you were being an asshole."

"No."

"Do it."

"I—" She looked around, keeping her mouth open as if the words needed extra time to come out. "They're rats, you moron. Fucking rats."

"It doesn't matter what they are. That's not the point."

"The point. How silly of me to have missed that." She tapped her palm against her forehead, and then, nursing a small, knowing smile, slapped the other hand against the glass. Immediately Jules and Clive jumped from their sleep, running frantically around the cage perimeter.

"Not cool," I said.

"I bet you think so."

"Get out."

"Oh, come on."

"Now."

Kelly frowned, looking away. Her cheeks expanded, her eyes narrowed, and I thought she was going to puke. But, as it turned out, she was only building up for a rather filthy stream of insults. They followed her as she left my room, walked down the hall, and lingered at the half-open front door, drifting from her lips as if part of the wind's bristly, raging chorus.

After she left I went to the rat cage and filled their bowls. Neither seemed interested, but Jules ambled over and crawled onto my hand. "Sorry about that," I said, stroking his head with my finger. He started to move around my palm, blindly trailing the edge. I gently nudged him inwards, and he put his feet down, wrapping his tail around my pinkie.

Of all the things Susan admitted to loving, the rats were clearly her favorite. Most of the times I went to her place she answered the door with one somewhere on her—an arm, between the back of her shoulders. Farther inside more would pop up, usually on the counter or the couch, perhaps one or two rolling on the floor in the ball. They propagated around her as if they were an external, psychically-linked organ, or some witless paparazzi. I smiled thinking about it, feeling the scene warm in the center of my forehead. Focus like this had become rare for me in the past year; nowadays I could only sustain certain images for so long before they reduced to their foundational emotions like colors running from a washed-out painting. It was surreal more than anything—sort of how I thought it might be to see a video from some long-past historical event. A dinosaur in the flesh.

However, as Jules's sharp, searching steps progressed towards my wrist, I also noticed that the more I focused on her, the more I found myself confronting that sickening, vital fact I'd put off for months. I mean, it was a simple acknowledgement that I'd never get her back—one that I should've had while staring into her casket, or hugging her crying mother, or solemnly weathering the stone handgrip of her father—yet even now I struggled to hold on to it. Susan's memory had been heavy for my mind to keep, too sharp around the edges. At least now I didn't feel like puking as I thought about her.

I took Clive out of the cage and put them both in their ball. They worked in unison, thrusting it across the carpet, pacing quickly over the area where the fibers had been pushed flat by the vacuum. After leaving my bedroom they shot quickly down the hall, crashing into the front door before backing up and diverting to the kitchen. Here wooden floorboards loosened their course, so that they wobbled side to side as they continued to increase speed. For all the times I'd seen the rats do this, I'd never appreciated their speed, or how bad they were at steering. When they'd crashed into the oven a second time I picked up the ball and brought it to my chest. The sudden jerk caused them to scramble, and both clawed up the sides as if they feared the bottom would fail them next. I only hugged it tighter, though, keeping their movement close until it felt familiar, like the play of fingers against my skin. She would have called me cheesy for this, for tearing up and ignoring my instinct for reservation. But it was the only thing I could think of doing, feeling as limp and thoughtful as I did. So I just stood there, cradling the rat ball like a baby, and waited for the rain to stop. Although I had no plans to go outside whatever the weather, this was, at the very least, a goal—one that I was pretty sure I could manage on my own.

---

Elliot Greiner is a writer based in Ann Arbor. Previously his work has been published in Acorn, Adelaide Magazine, and Presence.

"Food Porn," by Douglas Welsh: house paint, acrylic & charcoal on lauan. Douglas creates small, intimate, abstract paintings on artisan wood, using house paint, acrylic, charcoal and other materials. He uses an electric sander to erode through layers of paint and wood to create texture.  This process of doing and undoing is how he controls his compositions. Douglas's work has appeared in several galleries and collections in Texas and New York. He graduated with a Bachelors in Visual Arts from Bates College in Maine and is earning an MFA from the University of Houston. You can find more of his work at douglaswelsh.com and at @dpw_art.

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