Lou Dischler writing excerpts—
THE ART OF DECAY
Millions have seen her golden paintings, but few have seen her darker side. Those who have are lucky to be alive.
The day after Rennie’s sixteenth birthday, she married a fine looking fellow in Arkansas. Everyone said he had James Dean hair, perhaps the best hair in the state. He wasn’t the best husband, though, with his drinking and gambling and tooling around with high school tarts. Bad girls who liked playing with bad boys, and now Mosie was behaving particularly badly, writhing and cursing in the mud behind the cabin.
Their honeymoon cabin, though the honeymoon seemed ages ago.
The air was cool and sharp, smelling of rhododendrons. The rain had stopped and Rennie was on her knees, rubbing Mosie’s shoulders and singing to him. She had her way of soothing him when he got liquored up and out of sorts. She’d push his shirt up and tickle his skin, singing songs as soft as lullabies — Are you lonesome tonight? His eyes would flutter and close, and sometimes he’d smile as he rolled over and fell asleep. And sometimes she’d uncap a marker and draw on his back where he couldn’t see it. Two days before she’d drawn a likeness of herself with the words, “He only love me, slut.”
Slut was an ugly word, but a woman at the grocery told her not to mess around.
“Call em for what they is, honey.”
Rennie regretted taking advice from a checkout clerk, for now there was no fluttering of the eyes and no falling asleep, and when Mose rolled over screaming about bitches and assassins, a dark and foamy fluid ran between his legs and down the road. She touched it and held up her hand, studying drops trickling down her fingers like cherry sauce.
“Mose?” she asked, “you having your period?”
But what was she saying? Men didn’t have periods. They just got into fights and laid around in pools of blood. Sometimes they bled out and died. And if Mose died, what then? Could she just leave him there? What if his friends came by? What if they found him with his face frozen in some horrible contortion with flies crawling over it? They’d get all sarcastic. They’d ask if she even noticed her husband was dead, or was he just an inconvenience to be stepped over as she went out to the movies?
Is that all he is to you, Rennie? Just a bump in the road?
Gossips would make it sound even worse. People who felt sorry for her before would hate her. She thought of dragging him into the woods and covering him with rocks, but what if some hunter came across a white bone jutting from that pile of rocks, how could she explain it? That he crawled under it?
She was screwed no matter what she did. There was no escape.
She wiped her hand on his back, stood and yelled, “Damn you, Mosie!” Then grabbed his pistol and ran back to the cabin, splashing through puddles and slipping on gravel. She flung open the screen door and stumbled into the kitchen with the gun, setting it on the counter next to the phone. Mose had said to call his father if something happened, but never the cops.
Never! You hear me?
She picked up the handset, then remembered how Renzo had acted the last time, so she hung up and looked around for the phonebook. Where the fuck was it? She pulled out kitchen drawers, dumping them out on the floor. She found the pack of needles she’d looked for that morning (now that she no longer needed them!) but no phonebook. Finally she saw it next to the phone, where it was all along. Under Mosie’s pistol, in fact. She pushed the gun aside, flipped it open to the yellow pages and ran a finger down the listings with her hair dripping and spotting the paper, then picked up the receiver and dialed. With her hand trembling and her vision blurry, she dialed several wrong numbers before getting the right one. Baptist Hospital. Admissions. A woman picked up, sounding distracted and snotty. She asked ridiculous questions that didn’t need answering. Like, was he bleeding?
“Of course he’s bleeding! He’s shot!”
Then she wanted the street address, but there wasn’t one.
“It’s the Mancini cabin on Coldwater Mountain, and his name is Moses Mancini! Everybody knows him!”
“If he dies, that’s your fault, not mine. So hurry, please.”
“He isn’t already dead, is he?”
“Of course not.”
“Then can I speak to him?”
“He can’t come to the phone. He’s shot. I told you that.”
“Is that him I hear screaming? Saying a bitch shot him?”
Rennie slammed the handset down and stared at a half-torn fingernail.
“Stupid,” she said finally, for she hated torn fingernails. They would worry her for days. And then she worried the hospital would fix him up and he’d come home in a big black car full of flowers that very afternoon, like a purple heart hero returning from the war. And life would go on as it had before.
On and on.
Forever and ever.
Her stomach heaved. She leaned over the sink and vomited. When there was nothing left, she cupped a hand to run water from the spigot directly into her mouth, gargled and spat. She wiped her lips with her hand, then went into the bathroom, stripped off her muddy clothes and took a shower. She let the water run over her head until it ran cold. There were no clean towels, so she went dripping into the narrow bedroom and used the sheet. Then she slipped into a pink cotton turtleneck and blue jeans. She looked good in jeans. Most girls didn’t, in her opinion, but she did. She had narrow hips like a boy.
Needing to calm her nerves, she grabbed a crushed pack of Reds from the windowsill. It held a single half-smoked cigarette, but no matches. Mosie’s yesterday clothes produced an unopened pack of Kools, but still no matches. She got on her knees and looked under the bed, found his wallet and emptied its contents on the floor. His driver’s license, a collection of pawn tickets and lottery tickets, and a five-dollar bill with glasses drawn on Lincoln’s face and the number 5-2-9 on his forehead in splotched red ink. She stood, stuffed the fin in her back pocket, then returned to the kitchen where she leaned over the sink and watched him out the window, shirtless and slapping the mud. His chinos were a mess and she wondered if they were ruined. Men’s khakis were four-fifty at Sears, so there went most of her fin. She’d use the change for matches — a dozen boxes of Blue Stars at four cents a box. Stupid to run out as wasn’t much to do in the cabin other than smoke and watch cartoons on television, and their second-hand Zenith was full of static when it rained, even with Mosie’s coat hanger antenna that he was so fucking proud of. So she watched him and played with his revolver. She unloaded the chambers and sucked on the empty brass of the cartridges before reloading them, learning nothing she didn’t already know. Brass had a sour personality that kept secrets even better than the Mafia.
The rain petered away and the sun came out. Rennie pushed up her sleeves and went out with her pail of cleaning supplies to clean him up for his ambulance ride, but he wouldn’t cooperate. He rolled on his back and grabbed her wrist and almost pulled her over.
“Stop that!” she shouted, crying now. “Stop it!”
She slapped his hands but he continued to fight her, even managing to jerk off her wedding band. It fell in the mud and disappeared — as good a sign as a reversed devil card in a Tarot spread. When a man puts a ring on your finger, he thinks he owns you, but the day he pulls it off in anger, you’re free as a sparrow.
No one told her that, but she knew.
She stood and went back into the kitchen with the pail, emptied it into the sink, washed and dried her hands, then opened the fridge for a Coke. Popping the cap with a church key, she sipped it at the table. The fizzing on her tongue made everything better. Always did. She cut a double slice of his birthday cake that never got its twenty candles, slid it onto a plate with the Coke, then went out and dragged his lawn chair to the cabin’s sunny side where she sat with her back to him. Fat drops fell from the roof shakes and popped the rusted cover of the water pump. Popping like Mose would pop the kitchen table with his high school ring to annoy her. She didn’t mind the raindrops, though. They meant no harm by it. She counted them to a hundred, then scraped off strawberry icing with a fork and ate it as she watched fog roll over a flat-topped mountain that looked like a castle. Her grandmother told her she would live in a castle with handsome men waiting on her, and Zoey was never wrong. Not until her car flattened itself under a tractor-trailer, that is. Probably hadn’t read the cards that morning, or she wouldn’t have gone out.
The popping petered away and Mose had gone quiet. Rennie wiped a tear and glanced over at him. He wasn’t moving, so maybe he was dead. Didn’t matter, she’d done what she had to do. That’s all anyone could ask, right? That she’d called somebody instead of covering him with rocks?
Now came the distant moaning of an ambulance, its siren waxing and waning up the switchbacks. As it made the final turn, she saw it gleaming white in the sun, like a heavenly hearse come to whisk Mose to Paradise. It stopped and the siren cut off. Two men got out and ran to her with a stretcher. Rennie held up the platter.
“Y’all want some cake?”
© 2021 Lou Dischler