He stamped the gray ice off his boots on to the doormat flapping the
cuffs of his jacket while working the blood back into the capillaries of
his fingers that looked like they had been soaked in cranberry juice as
he frowned and blew hot air up his nostrils. His jacket smelled like
cold and it made Helen's heart knock inside the red flannel of her
pajamas. The kitchen was gamey with fresh citrus reeking from a wooden Dutch bowl on the counter lumped full of shiny red apples and dull
oranges purchased at a fruitstand in the Rio Grande Valley when they
drove to Mexico the week before Christmas. Betsy inspected Fred's boots with her snout and rolled her marbled eyes up then walked in a circle
under the kitchen table and dropped to the tile in a tight curl resting
her chin between her paws. You couldn't tell bad things were upon them,
but they were coming.
Helen looked in Fred's eyes and smiled as she sipped her coffee. The
old man was pushing seventy but still had as much hair on his head as he
did when they married in their twenties. She poured a cup for him and
rubbed his cold hand from across the table. Outside the norther gusted
and the attic creaked where the petrified two by eight rafters joisted
the enormous slate roof. The kitchen was so cozy it looked like the
warmth was erasing the red from the tips of Fred's fingers and his nose.
CNBC aired silently on the portable television in the kitchen and though
the market ticker at the bottom of the screen had meant nothing to them
for many years the habits from their lifetimes of producing capital in
the markets were ingrained deep in their characters. Mozart's piano
concerto No. 26 in D major splashed and poured from the living room
speakers. Fred scooted back in the spindleback oak chair and held his
coffee cup an armslength away.
"The dog smells cigarette smoke on you. But I know better," Helen said. She rolled her eyes and pinched her lips.
"I've always said that dog was too smart. We should've got a dumb one. They're not always getting into things."
She flipped a curlicue of white hair out of her face with her finger. Her beauty was covered with age but it as still there. "You think the lake will ice over this year?"
"Maybe we should ask the dog."
She smiled and shook her head. The percolator hissed and gurgled another pot of coffee. Fred swigged down his cup and stood next to
Helen. She tilted her head toward his hip and lowered her eyelids as if
caught on film by some auteur in an expression of indescribable
assurance. She didn't see the wooden look on his face as a quiver of the
kind of fear he hadn't known since childhood shot up his vertebrae. The darkness was coming.
Betsy growled under the table.
"Betsy. Hush," Helen said.
Betsy barked and sprung from under the table, her nails clicking on the saltillo tile. She squared off at Fred. Fred blinked coherency back into his face and looked down at Betsy. She moaned and backed away in a sideways motion like a puppy, tail tucked between her legs.
"What is wrong with her?" Helen shook her head.
"Must be the wind."
Fred reached under the table and offered his hand to the dog. She
snuffed it with her wet nose and didn't sense whatever was inside him a
Helen shook her head and licked her fingertip to open the lifestyle
section of The Austin American Statesman. Fred padded down the hallway
in stocking feet to his office in the back of the house where he had
learned to cope with retirement by not retiring. He turned and looked
back down the hall then shut the door behind him.
The concern scribed in the creases of his face said it was coming
again. It had been getting worse over the past month. The seizures. The
terrifying fear. The end. The bile taste in his throat after the
blackouts that seeped under his tongue like ectoplasm from a ritualistic
trance. He hadn't been to see a doctor in ten years and didn't need to
now. He sat in the leather chair behind the slab of oak that was
handcrafted into his desk and an immeasurable amount of time stretched
and contracted like rubber.
Helen's electronic voice crackled through the intercom on the phone, "Honey?"
A grungy baseball had appeared in Fred's hand. Traintracks of haggard red stitching swirled around a faded logo. "Yeah?"
"I think the squirrels are getting in the attic again."
"Okay. I'll take a look at it," he said. His eyes hypnotized by the mysterious baseball in his hand.
"I'll be back before lunch. I love you." Helen's voice was gone with a click.
"I love you too," Fred said to the intercom.
He hurled the baseball across the room like it was hot coal in his hand. It banged against the closed door and rolled back to the center of the room. Almost as if he knew what was going to happen next, Fred
sprung from the chair grabbing his putter on the way around to the other
side of the desk and swung at the baseball. On his downstroke the
baseball jerked six inches to the left and the golf club whooped through
the air and torqued a vertebrae in his lower back. He cried out and his
eyes bulged from his face that was a contorted maze of angular flesh. He
inverted his palm and flattened it on his sore spine and winced down at
the baseball that seemed to be waiting. A white sphere mocking him just
like it did when he was twelve and couldn't hit it as it whistled past
him smacking into the mitt of the snickering catcher behind the plate.
He reared the putter and stroked dead-on for the baseball. The ball took
off on a deliberate roll stopping beneath the desk.
Fred stepped back halfway across the room and stooped to look under the desk. He eyed the baseball he stalked a semicircle toward the desk as if he could somehow sneak up on it and catch the thing from behind. His blue eyes flicked wildy, the porcelain sclera of his eyeballs jagged
with thin red lines. He dropped down on all fours like an ancestral
hunter beside the leather chair and put his cheek to the floor.
baseball was gone. Fred heaved himself up by the arm of the chair and grinned and wagged his finger at the French doors of his office that led to the back deck. He shook his head and chuckled as he rubbed his sore back on his way across the room. Betsy's howl droned from somewhere in
Fred stalked out on to the back deck and turned his head this way and that way squinting through the sleet that was oozing from the atmosphere
like ambergris drifting across the opaque floor of the Pacific Ocean. He
ran forty feet to the far end of the two by six deckboards and whacked
at the baseball but missed. The ball dropped into a groove between the
deckboards and rolled in a straight line toward the French doors of his
office. He stomped back across the deck raring the putter over his head
like a Samurai and as he came up on the baseball he swooshed the putter
down with a mighty gash and the chrome head sunk into a two by six
slicing out a thick chunk of treated wood where the baseball sat before
it vanished. Fred gasped for breath. The cold air seared his throat. The
putter dangled from his hands between his knees. Next door Carole
Simmons scissored open a Venetian blind with her fingers and gawked at
the display. She could barely wait to get on the phone to tell her
sister about Fred running around barefoot in the sleet swinging at some
figment with a golf club. The old man was finally losing it. Terrific
The damn dog. Betsy knew about the baseball when Fred was standing next
to Helen in the kitchen earlier this morning. He always knew Betsy was
too smart for her own good and today she just proved it. Fred stepped
back in his office and pulled the French door closed behind him and
threw the deadbolt. He followed the shrieks of Betsy's howl down the
hall to the kitchen and crept through the service corridor to the dining
room. Betsy cowered against the antique armoire in a distrustful hunch
that suggested she was trying to flee while readying herself for attack
at the same time. A vicious thread of slaver swung from her jowls and
seeped across the baseball between her paws. She snapped at the air when
Fred entered the room.
"You think you're pretty smart don't you? Dumb dog."
Fred brought the putter back over his shoulder and the iron head crackled through the crystal teardrops of the chandelier. Betsy lapped the baseball up into her smiling teeth and shot through his legs into
the service corridor before his splintery bones could react to the
message his eyes were delivering to his synapses. His old man's face
boiled in a claret of youthful rage. He watched the putter twittering in
his fists and slung it aside in disgust.
The concinnous RING RING RING of the black telephone mounted on the wall of the cozy kitchen failed to pierce the sinister rime shivering in Fred's medulla. He blinked then pointed his crooked index finger over
his shoulder and bit down on his pale gummy tongue. He left the dining
room enraptured in a throe of dementia that made it seem like he was
underwater while the ornate rooms and well-crafted furniture of the
house were above ground as he retraced his steps. He passed the ringing
phone like a catatonic nomad and left out the front door.
The sidewalk was icing over but his socks afforded him just enough footing to make it to the garage without crashing on to the concrete.
After he pulled the sidedoor closed behind him he cupped his chin and
gazed up at the rows of cardboard boxes shelved neatly with their
contents identified in black magic marker. CHRISTMAS LIGHTS. PLUMBING.
IRS 1985-86. He stepped back and there he saw the drab alloy of the
aluminum bat behind PAPERBACKS on the third shelf up. It wasn't so much
climbing the ladder to get the bat as it was retrieving the ladder from
where it was hooked on the wall above his Lincoln and for some reason
backing the automobile out of the garage was not part of the solution so
he mounted the waxy hood of the gigantic car one knee followed by the
other then knelt on all fours catching his breath. His venerable heart
hammered blood to his atrophied lungs that sucked and frothed at the
sparse amount of oxygen molecules collected within his alveoli. His thin
lips vibrated in distress. After a minute or two his breathing leveled
and he reached for the ladder. Writs twitching madly. Elbows bouncing.
He stretched and teetered on one knee then caught himself from falling
by grabbing the ladder with both hands.
And there he was. Draped across the eighteen-inch gap between the Lincoln and the stained sheetrock of the garage wall, hands clamped on the wooden ladder and knees on the hood of the car. The arc of his spine contracting his withered diaphragm.
A flock of black grackles cawed in the air above the garage like an assembly of flying tin cans. The air brakes of the garbage truck shrieked in the street, a deep acceleration resonating from its exhaust
when it passed.
Fred gulped at strained wisps of air. He stared at the concrete floor ambitiously as if he had a strategy but was unsure of how to execute it.
He closed his eyes and groaned, "Somebody. HELP."
He pulled his knees a bit closer to the edge of the hood and inhaled. His hipbone shifted and his knees slipped off the slick hood of the
Lincoln. Fred's ankles banged the corner of the blue fender and folded
up behind his head and his vertebra emitted a liquid series of snaps.
The ladder rocked from its pegs and clanked off the Lincoln's doorpanel
and struck him squarely on the crown.
Fred went missing for two days before Helen raised the overhead door and discovered the tragedy. He looked like a human hinge that was bent the wrong way when the Lincoln backed out of the garage and his cadaver clumped to the concrete. Helen killed the motor and stared into the
garage from behind the leather steering wheel. She sat there so long
that Carol Simmons from next door just couldn't help herself from
walking over to see what was going on.
Born in Cleveland and raised in Austin, Roy Johnson now lives on the Texas coast. He studied English at The University of Texas/Austin and his stories have appeared in Linnaean Street, Opium Magazine and Poor Mojo's Almanac.