Sunday, February 8, 2009

Dead in an Hour (fiction)

She would be dead within the hour, but Maude O’Connor had no idea. She was settling down to watch Days of our Lives as she did every weekday afternoon at one o’clock sharp. Plunging her large, flowing frame into the deep cushions of her white leather couch, Maude propped her fat ankles on her glass coffee table and clicked the television on. Another day, another hour lost in the weird spheres of soap opera lives, unreal, unbearable, unlivable. Maude could feel her eyes grow heavy at the first appearance of John Black’s twitchy, but shapely, eyebrows on the screen.

She hated John Black.

Which was odd because he was the hero of the show, had been for years. But she’d hated him for years, his spasmodic face, his cocky attitude, his woolly chest, his famous That’s a fact! tag line. She cheered for the DiMeras, the evil but lovable villains, to take That’safact Black out. “But the fans would hate that, Aunt Maude,” her thirteen-year-old niece Betsy whined whenever Maude mentioned offing the ogrish hero. What fans, she wondered. She was the only fan she knew.

She wasn’t really a fan, though. Actually, she hated Days of our Lives. She watched it out of respect for Derby, her late husband.

Even that wasn’t true, though. Derby hated Days of our Lives, abhorred anything remotely literary, like a soap opera. “Too many confangled words,” he’d mutter through a cloud of cigar smoke. “Too many people who don’t know who they’re related to or who they’re in love with. It’s par-thetic, Maude.” He said par-thetic often, as if it were a real word. She hated that about him, almost as much as she hated his cigar smoke, the patch he wore over his left eye, and the day he died, leaving her alone in her unattainable misery. She hated him because she couldn’t blame him any more. Every day she watched Days of our Lives out of respect for the fact that he hated that she watched it every day.

She could blame her grandmother Lorraine for that. She was the one who first introduced Maude to Salem and its intricate web of idiotic love quadrangles, habit of raising inane characters from the dead to read tacky dialogue off a cue card for a few more years until they were killed off again, and other rabid pricks of fun and excitement. Lorraine raised Maude and her brother Pete from the time they were twelve and four, respectively, ever since their father Rutherford left Sutherfield Village to panhandle in Harvard Square and their mother Ruth dyed her blonde hair red and went out West to become a Hollywood actress. On the day her son left her grandchildren on her front porch, Lorraine had stubbed out her cigarette on the door frame and muttered, “Ah, shit.” But Lorraine swept Maude and Pete into the house and there they stayed until their eighteenth birthdays, respectively, at which time their grandmother pushed them back out onto the porch and offered this advice: “Shack up with someone whose got money.”

Of course, her childhood hadn’t been all bad. Outside of the daily grind of Days of our Lives and the incessant chattering of Lorraine’s African Gray Parrot Luigi, Maude and Pete had many half-seconds of pure adolescent bliss. Every third Wednesday of the month, Rutherford would call his children from a pay phone outside the Harvard Yard. “Dad’s gotten some good dough this week,” he’d say, his voice tipsy with brown paper bag delight. “Dad made an instrument out of an empty shoe box and a rubber band. Be good for Lorraine,” he’d say, and his children, gathered eagerly around the phone clenched in their grandmother’s hands, would nod and Pete would drool, as was his custom when he was particularly happy. Lorraine would hang up the phone, mutter, “Deadbeat,” and sit down to watch Days of our Lives.

Maude started watching the show as a way to spend time with her grandmother without having to try to find things to say. When she was young, Maude wanted to be nothing like anyone in her family, but she still wanted to make the effort to get along with at least one member. Later, much later, long after Lorraine died from a burst appendix, Maude realized Pete was the one she should have paid the most attention, but by then he was shacked up with Mrs. Lindsay, the richest matron in town, breeding contemptuous offspring such as whining Betsy and the laughably meager twins Kelvin and Kevin, and still a frequent drooler. “That brother of yours should be committed,” Derby used to say through hacking coughing fits. “He slobbers worse than Mud,” he’d add, pointing an accusatory finger at Maude’s mastiff, lazy and drooping in the corner.

Maude never said she agreed with Derby, but she often thought she might. He was, after all, the most consistently negative person in her life, which made him the most reliable person she knew. Nothing ever made him happy, but that only made Maude’s duties as his wife that much simpler. And he never lied because he never had a reason to, which made him the one person she could depend on. He was eight years her senior and picked her up off her grandmother’s porch two days after she turned eighteen, told her he wore the patch because he’d lost an eye in the war, and took her to a dance at the Y. He was the worst dancer she’d ever seen, except for maybe herself, but he gave her a place to stay besides Lorraine’s porch, so she never begrudged his sour attitude. Maybe he’d saved her.

Or maybe he’d ruined her -- if there was anything left to ruin, that is. Maude didn’t know and didn’t care. When he’d died a year and a half ago, she hadn’t cried until she realized that, for the first time in her life, she was alone. That is, except for her mastiff Cork. Mud had died effortlessly in the heat of July and been replaced by the insolent, disobedient Cork, unruly and only slightly charismatic. By the time Derby finally died, it was March and Maude was tired of wishing Cork was more like Mud and even more tired of Days of our Lives. “I swear, Aunt Maude, this dog is dumber then Dumbo Austin,” Betsy would whine, writhing and grimacing on the opposite end of the white leather couch. Maude didn’t like the comparison of her dog to Austin Reed, once a gloriously handsome boxer/musician who was recast and reduced to bumbling, inarticulate pseudo-executive, but she couldn’t refute her niece’s charge. Cork was like Austin. Pet rocks had more personality.

Of course, Cork still outwitted Betsy and the Special K twins. Even Betsy admitted that. Pete would bow his head sheepishly, forget to wipe the drool from his chin, and explain that he and Mrs. Lindsay were too busy being shacked up to spend much time with the zygotes they spawned. Spawned was Derby’s word for it, though, not Pete’s. Pete told Maude, “They’s my penny pushers,” and Maude would frown, blink away her revulsion, and say nothing. Derby always stepped in between them, anyway, and waved a fat finger in Pete’s saliva-covered face. “You should be institutionalized,” he’d say. Pete would grin, pull Betsy off the leather couch, and head back to Mrs. Lindsay’s house. “I don’t know why that girl even bothers coming by,” Derby would say, his eyes fast and dark and attached Betsy’s face pressed against the window of Pete’s retreating car. “They should all be locked up.”

Maude became so accustomed to her husband’s battering of her family that she stopped listening, stopped trying to assess whether or not she thought he was right. Of course, he was right but only in a bitter, darkened, unearthly sort of way. Besides, she couldn’t fault him for having an opinion. His own family incurred the same unquenchable wrath. “My mother should have stayed in Ireland,” he’d spit. “She did nobody any good coming all the way across the ocean to make an ass of herself by marrying an American prig with an Irish name. Don’t even get me started on my sister,” he’d say, his black eyes rumbling with dark thunder. His sister Trini was an entertainer on the Disney Cruise Line. Maude knew he hated that about her. She had only met her once, at their wedding, and she’d seemed nice enough with her dyed black hair, pale skin, and ruby lips. Dead ringer for Snow White. Derby was unhappy that she’d bothered showing up. “I thought you’d died,” he said to his sister as she passed by the receiving line after the ceremony. Trini’s expression remained pious. “Welcome to the family, Maude,” she’d said. It was the only time they ever spoke since Trini left the church and headed directly back out to sea.

An appropriate welcome, Maude always thought, though her wedding day had been relatively pleasant. Lorraine’s appendix hadn’t yet burst and Pete wouldn’t shack up with Mrs. Lindsey for several more years, and they’d gotten in Lorraine’s car, driven the hour and a half to Cambridge to find Rutherford, hose him off, and bring him to the church. He didn’t give her away because she never belonged to him the way a daughter should belong to her father, but he was there, in the last pew, almost respectable. Maude felt the fainted tinge of happiness that he made a return appearance in her life, even though he was later asked to leave the reception because he was begging the other guests for change. Ruth was a no-show at her daughter’s wedding because she was panhandling on Hollywood Boulevard and never even knew the event was taking place.

Derby said it was all for the best that her mother had vanished from her life. After all, his mother had always been there and when did that ever help him out? “Never,” he said, and he meant it. His mother was barely four feet tall with wispy red hair and bland skin. She almost never spoke, but when she did, her voice often pierced eardrums with its screeching, unyielding, anti-melodic quality. “Good luck with my little bastard,” she squealed on Maude’s wedding day. “He’s a real Irish prig.” Derby’s father, on the other hand, was a jolly, unpretentious, apologetic man who seemed oblivious to the fact that his entire family thought he was apish and pathetic. “It’s grrrreat to call you daughter-in-law,” he said with a thick accent. “Can I get you a drrrrink?” Maude stood by stoically while Derby told his father to shut his fat head and lose the fake brogue. “Wha’s faaake aboudit?” he said with an over-the-top laugh. Derby had audibly ground his teeth and dragged Maude off to find a cigar for him to smoke.

Later, when Derby was dying of emphysema, he asked her if she remember what an ass his father had made of himself on their wedding day. “What an Irish prig,” he coughed. Maude had been tempted to retort with a cliché the caliber of takes one to know one or the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree or like father, like son, but she decided maybe she loved Derby a little and there was no reason to offend him on his deathbed, and it comforted her that he was recalling the day they were married when he was so close to the end. She never really knew where the idea had sprung for him to court her and legally shackle them together, but hearing him talk about their wedding day reminded her that he at least cared enough to remember. “Why do you want to marry that Irish prig?” Pete had said the afternoon she showed up at Lorraine’s house with the tiny silver engagement ring on her finger. “Because he’s honest,” Maude said proudly, but she hid the real reason from everyone. Derby was impotent and asked her to marry him because he knew she didn’t want children and seemed incapable of loving anyone, anyway.

Of course, that was only partially true. Derby was definitely impotent, and she thought she might rather not be a mother, but she was wounded by the notion that she couldn’t love. Try as she might, though, Maude never did seem to find anyone she loved completely and truly. Except for Austin Reed, before he was recast and dumbed down. She had lived her entire life in Sutherfield Village and never tried to be happy, never tried to find love. It never occurred to her. “Because your parents abandoned you, reckless hippies,” Derby would cough. “That’s why you’re stuck here in this wasteland instead of out in Chicago or New York.” Or Boston. He left that one off because of Rutherford, Maude knew it. But she didn’t want to be in Boston or any other big city. She never wanted to leave Sutherfield Village. It was the only thing she could rely on, besides her husband. Pigeon Street always intersected with Melville Lane. Doc’s Hardware Store always sat a little too close to Curly’s, the diner with the worst fries in the county, and Officer Feltmartin could always be found in one or the other, chatting with customers or helping himself to the coffee on the counter. If Maude left Sutherfield Village, she’d leave all that security behind.

“Besides, what good did it ever do your mother or father to go to some big city?” Lorraine asked. None, Maude was willing to admit, but she never wanted to go, anyway. “You should want to go,” Derby said. “You should want something.” Maude took Mud for a walk and thought about what she might want.

She wanted to do what she was doing now: sit on her white leather couch and watch Days of our Lives in peace. That’safact Black was king of her living room, master of her world, puppet master of her fate. Betsy had stayed away today; Cork was curled on his mat on the floor. Her grandmother was dead, her father was, too, and so was her husband. So were her in-laws, perhaps even her Snow White sister-in-law, and she presumed the worst was true also of her mother. Her brother was still alive, but he was sure to drool his way to dehydration any minute, and the Special K twins were sure to have their heads bashed together one too many times and then, then, then! Maude would have what she wanted.

Although, she had hoped to stay tuned to life long enough to see if Kevin or Kelvin ever did anything worthwhile in life. One of them was halfway intelligent, although she could never remember which one. They were a homely pair, though, with excessively skinny bodies, oblong heads, and blotchy skin. They shuffled their feet when they walked and had tomato soup breath, and no one really liked them. Maude tolerated them more than she did their older sister Betsy, but she more or less felt sorry for them. “Those Special K nitwits,” Derby used to say. “Never even stood a chance, not with those awful names.” Maude never said so, but she agreed that Pete had done a terrible disservice calling her nephews by such similar names. “Thought it was cute,” her brother had shrugged.

Not that Pete had any idea about what was cute. Every year for Halloween, he would dress the twins up in sheets of bubble wrap and Betsy in black garbage bags and explain that they were “useful.” Derby stared at him with nothing short of hatred and spit. Par-thetic.” Maude dropped licorice into their open paper grocery bags and said nothing. She knew that Pete loved his kids, maybe, and he probably liked Mrs. Lindsay a little. Most days, she was envious of his happiness because she was sure he was happy.

John Black seemed pretty happy, too, especially today since he was lounging on his couch with Doctor Marlena Evans, his formerly demon possessed wife who now served as the town’s most accessible psychiatrist. Most days, John had it rough, though, slithering through ventilation systems, fending off shark attacks, hanging out of helicopters, dodging arrows, taking over the world of fashion, commandeering speedboats, escaping fires, going undercover, losing his identity, cursing the DiMeras, regaining his identity, and talking to his teenage daughter about sex. Maude’s eyes fluttered, glad she wasn’t That’safact Black, even though his life seemed pretty content at the moment.

Then again, so did hers. Her house was small, but today it felt cozy instead of claustrophobic. She looked around and wondered if she should take the opportunity and clean up a little. She was rarely in such a good mood, rarely ready to do anything extra, but something was stirring her. Maybe all the memories. Maybe the shade of happiness shielding her heart.

The shield was a thick one, too. After all, she’d been married to Derby for forty-seven years and she’d learned to protect herself. Before him, she’d never been in love, and even now, a year and a half after his death, she wasn’t sure she’d ever really loved her husband. “I was in love when I was young,” Lorraine told her before her eighteenth birthday. “But I still ended up here.” Maude still remembered the mournful crease in her grandmother’s cheeks, the resentful flush in her eyes. “Here,” she said again. Now, Maude wondered if she was better off without the soul-crushing fury of love.

But she knew that wasn’t true. Derby was right, she had wanted something in life, and it wasn’t so much love as it was the turgid reality that came along with it. She wanted her bones to pop and groan and splinter with the ecstasy of knowing that she was The Most Important Person in Someone’s Life, even if only for a few disintegrating moments. She wanted to taste the underbelly salt of passion. She wanted to be John Black’s whore. She wanted to spread her yards of flesh out across the streets and open her mouth.

But she didn’t. Wouldn’t. Couldn’t. She was too old, too fat, too stupid, too content, even though she wasn’t the least bit old, fat, stupid, or content. She was small. She was deflated. She was too tired.

Besides, Days of our Lives was on.

“When in doubt,” Lorraine used to say between drags on her cigarette, “you can count on Salem.” And Maude largely agreed. She always knew that the intricate origami birds unfolding themselves on the screen in the form of crummy acting and vapid dialogue lived in the Surreal World that she could understand, if not accept outright. Within the span of an hour, lives changed every day. Loves flourished or severed, families tightened or spread out. Floods, fires, earthquakes, murders, marriages, births, deaths. All the happenings of one hour. Entire lives. Over and done with. Until tomorrow.

Maude regretted how little she lived in each hour of her life. But today, she felt peaceful, and as she closed her eyes in time to the violins signaling the closing credits of the show, she thought about changes she might make after her nap. Like sands though the hour glass, so are the days of our lives. But she never woke up.