You were happy once. To that I can testify. You were a happy baby. You would coo and gurgle and grab onto my finger as if it were a toy. You were happy for a long time. There's that picture of you at the Boy Scout jamboree that Mother kept on her bureau. You're standing next to a picnic table in your freshly-pressed boy scout uniform. There's a sash of merit badges across your chest and you're holding a hatchet. You were happy then. And after that, for a long time you were happy; you didn't have any reason not to be.
But then you started writing those letters and now you whore yourself to your lovers, to your alcohol, to your pursuit of anything you can get for nothing. Now when you call me in the early morning I can hear the terror in your voice. I can imagine your hair slicked in sweat, your fingertips stained yellow from chain smoking, your ribs poking through your shirt like branches.
Now when you call I still come, but I won't forever. Blood may be thicker than water, but even blood eventually dries up. In response to your sickness I have developed a theory about the angels, but you won't have any of it. It's so like you to not notice something that's right under your nose. I drive to your house through a light mist, the traffic lights still flashing, throwing red and yellow mirages on the wet pavement at the intersections. I notice the rain hanging on a green chain-link, like dew on a spider's web.
When I enter Dogtown I slow down and coast the narrow streets like a patrol car. Despite the depravity I remember with fondness the year I spent living with you. I didn't move out to escape the ruins, but because you had become unbearable. To be fair, I stuck it out for months, but then one day you lashed out at me for buying fruit that wasn't guaranteed, and I found an apartment behind the high school.
I turn down your street and hear dogs barking in the distance. The yards on your street are strewn with eggshells, Styrofoam cups, magazines, and empty cereal boxes. The picket fences need paint and have gaping holes, like missing teeth, where pickets have fallen off or have been stolen by kids for baseball bats. The houses are missing shingles and sometimes large sections of siding, exposing pink insulation or hollow walls. Porches are rotting away, hanging lazily on the fronts of the houses, like swollen lips. It is a neighborhood of welfare mothers and students. It's gothic and grim, and yet there is something about it that made my leaving reluctant.
The angels are tied up in the backyards. Someone has tied them to the earth with heavy chains and studded collars. You see them when you go out to get the paper, or when you come home drunk at night, stumbling into the bushes. You see them at the edge of your vision like a small piece of trash on a mountain trail. You know you should stoop and pick them up, but something holds you back, and just like you ignore public service announcements and food additives, you ignore dogs. You are blind to what they really are.
I park on the street in front of your house and walk in the door. Inside it is still and dark. I turn on a light and see your desk littered with your "unhappy letters." The sight of them fills me with dread and gives me flu-like symptoms. These letters, this campaign, is the whole reason for my moving out. I want to go back outside, to run through the backyards releasing the angels, burying my hands in the thick fur at the back of their necks, but then I hear your choked voice come from the kitchen.
I remember how it began. We were walking home from the local 7 Eleven. You had a bag of popcorn and I had a six-pack. We were halfway home when you grabbed me hard on the arm above the elbow and told me to look.
"What?" I said.
"Look at this," you said, your voice starting to tremble.
"What?" I said again.
"Read this," you said, handing me the bag and pointing to the back.
The Davis Family has been associated with the snack food industry over 25 years. Because of the pride we have in our products, we extend you this guarantee If you find anything unacceptable about our product, just return the unused portion along with why you are unhappy with the product, and we will gladly refund your purchase price plus postage.
"So what," I said.
But you had no patience for me. You began jumping around, elated.
"Anything unacceptable," you screamed.
"Why you're unhappy," you bellowed.
Popcorn bounced from the bag and fell to the ground.
"It's totally subjective," you cried. "We could eat for free for the rest of our lives!"
I reached to touch your shoulder, but you leapt away.
"You don't get it, do you?" you said. "I could be unhappy for any reason. I could say I was eating their caramel corn and my hamster died, and that made me unhappy, and they'd have to give me my money back. I could say their Holiday Mix reminded me of a vacation we took to the beach where I lost my favorite beach ball in the surf, and that made me unhappy, and they'd have to refund my money. I could say their Cheese Curls stained my fingers yellow and reminded me of death, and that made me real unhappy, and they'd have to reimburse me. Do you see?"
"Sure," I said.
"And look," you said, grabbing my arm again.
I read again.
Other Fine Products:
"Cheese puffs, cheese curls, cheese balls!" you chanted maniacally. "The possibilities are endless!"
As soon as we were home, you launched your campaign. You reveled in coming up with creative ways to describe your unhappiness.
Dear Davis Snack Food Company,
I have recently been made unhappy by one of your products. One day I bought a bag of your popcorn and was planning to go home and eat it with a beer or two while watching the baseball game on TV. However, the popcorn turned out to be very salty, and instead of drinking only one or two beers, as I had planned, I drank eleven (it was very salty). Consequently, I became violent with my poor wife who later divorced me. This has made me very unhappy.
They sent your money back along with four bags of low-salt pretzel sticks, which we ate on the front porch with a bottle of cheap champagne in celebration. After that you went crazy. You sent back snack food and everything else that had a guarantee on it. Before long you were completely obsessed. You wouldn't buy anything that you couldn't return for a full refund after eating all but a few pieces of. You returned snack food, fast food, even canned food. Soon you were returning books, clothes, toothpaste, and shampoo, even running shoes. You ordered anything with a free trial period and sent it back after using it for thirty days. You got luggage, videotapes, exercise machines, and kitchen utensils. You took cars for long test drives. You had cable television installed one day and removed the next.
One day, late in the fall, I came home with a bag of fresh apples from Green Bluff, and you went through the roof. I moved out as soon as I found a place and two weeks later you cut off three fingers on your right hand with a chain saw that had a "guaranteed safe" guard on it. At the hospital I sat by your bed looking at your bandaged hand and wondered what to do.
"Go away," you said. "I'm not crazy. I cut two cords of wood with that buzzer and then got a full refund on it. You think that's crazy? It's genius."
I looked away and saw our rounded reflection on the dark TV hanging in the corner. Beyond the door was the rhythmic clicking of a woman's high heels slowly fading down the hall.
In your kitchen I find you spread-eagle on your back, staring up at the ceiling. There's a Chesterfield between the two remaining fingers on your right hand, the smoke rising in slow motion, like electricity. I can tell you haven't slept all night. The sun is coming up, slanting through the window, and it picks up the dust in the air, the smoke from your cigarette.
I sit in a chair in the corner. I think about what I must say. How I must convince you that there are angels all around us‹in the fields, in the streams, in our own backyards. How can I convince you that there really are no guarantees in life? That that's going about things all wrong, that the trick is to see the angels, all around us, and to realize they want good for us.
About the author:
Leif's novel "Catherine Wheels" was published by Random House last September. He also has had stories in Kinesis, Mars Hill Review, Montana Quarterly, Porcupine Literary Arts Review and others. He lives in northwestern Montana where I write and raise pheasants.