‘It Kills Your Heart’, Anthony M. Abboreno

Illustrations © 2015 Carmen Moran

 [ Orange, © 2015, Carmen Moran ] When Ken pulled off the interstate and drove into the Walmart parking lot, the first thing he noticed was an enormous mound of trash sitting in the middle of it, at least twenty feet high. It was full of Styrofoam egg cartons and drywall and electric wires; cardboard boxes, broken plumbing, and crushed wooden pallets. At first he thought this was a sign that the store was being remodeled, and that it was probably closed, but he was tired and he decided to check anyway. He parked his RV well away from the trash, and when he got to the store, he found that it was indeed open, clean, and fully stocked.

He liked stopping at Walmarts, when he was on the road. The prices were good, and they allowed—even encouraged—travelers to stay in their parking lots overnight. The store provided free security, and the travelers provided business. Ken picked out two organic oranges, and a decent looking apple, while he tried to decide whether to stay in the store’s lot for the night. He was eager to get moving: his visit with his son in LA had gone poorly, and he wanted to put as much distance between himself and that city as possible. But he was also tired, and unsure whether it would be safe to continue driving.

It was his conversation with the cashier, finally, that persuaded him to stay. She was the only person working in checkout.

When he first approached her, she looked bored. She was perched on a stool, reading a National Enquirer with a cover that promised details on a celebrity’s recent brutal suicide. Ken guessed that she was somewhere in her sixties, maybe a little younger than him. He thought that she was beautiful.

Her name-tag told him that she was Beth. She looked embarrassed at being caught reading her magazine and closed it up quickly, then tapped it on the counter.

“Can you believe the kind of people who read this?” she said. “Bunch of ghouls.”

Ken paused before putting his produce on the belt.

“Personally,” he said. “I only read it for the dieting tips.”

Beth laughed. “That’s why you buy the expensive oranges,” she said. “No, I read it to stay current on what’s going on with the world. It’s the most reliable news source there is.” She flipped and plopped the magazine down in front of him, to an article about prominent Scientologists who were running the world. According to the article, they had a secret torture palace in Hollywood. Or rather, the palace itself wasn’t a secret—it even had a restaurant that you could go eat at, if you wanted to. It was only the fact that they tortured people there that was a secret.

When Ken smiled, she shook her head. “Pretty foolish,” she said. “I know. A couple weeks ago, they were saying these people were in the Illuminati. Imagine how much easier the world would be, if there was just a villain looming over us.” She shrugged. “You could shoot him, and get it over with.”

Ken felt guilty. He was a liberal voter. “It’s all about money,” he said. “Who has it and who doesn’t. I used to boycott Walmart, actually. I thought they moved to small cities and towns and just sucked them dry.”

Beth smiled at him. “You’re not as dumb as you look,” she said. “But it’s not your fault. I shop here, too. No. Money gathers at the peak, and most of us just hope for more.” She nodded. “We’re all like moths flying towards a lantern.”

Ken nodded at this, unsure of how he should respond. He looked over his shoulder. Several lanes down, in the self-checkout, was the store’s only other customer, who was wearing a beat-up leather jacket with fringe, and had hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in days. Earlier, Ken had seen that the man was trying to buy several rolls of duct tape, and a gallon of Spectracide bug spray, but seemed to be having some trouble with the checkout machine. The man was still struggling with the machine, swiping his card repeatedly and thumping the reader with the bottom of his fist, but nobody seemed to be going to help him.

“That’s just Louie,” Beth said. She touched Ken’s shoulder to turn him back around, and then she leaned forward and pointed at her head. “He’s crazy, but you don’t have to worry about him. Management puts up with him because he actually buys things, when he has money.”

The touch on his shoulder warmed Ken like a shot of booze, spreading down into his heart and his stomach. He guessed that Beth was probably just a touchy person, and that she wasn’t actually flirting. But the tap on the shoulder was still enough for him to look at her more closely. Near the edge of her collarbone, Ken could see the very edge of a tattoo, but not enough to make out what it actually depicted.

Beth finished checking out his produce. “When I said that you weren’t as dumb as you look,” she said, “I meant it as a compliment. I meant that I thought you were too good looking to be smart.”

Ken could still hear the sound of Louie banging his fist against the card-reader, across the store.

“Are you staying out in the lot?” Beth said.

It was a fair assumption. She had probably encountered travelers like him before.

She turned away from him, and pointed at three o’ clock from where they were standing. “There’s a bar that way,” she said. “You could even walk there maybe, if you don’t feel like spending the night alone. I get off work in an hour.”

Ken took his groceries. “I’ll think about it,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you soon.”

He was parked far away from the door, and at a glance could see nothing but intestate or desert or darkness in any direction. Ken knew that he had more than a hundred miles to go before Phoenix, but otherwise he hadn’t been paying much attention to the road signs, and wasn’t sure what the nearest town was. He wondered if there was a population nearby that the store served, or if it received enough business from people just passing through.

The heat of the day rose up from the asphalt, but the wind that blew across the desert was cool. Up above was the cold glow of the parking lot lights. Their posts cast elongated shadows like insect limbs, and around each of the bulbs hovered a smoke of flies, of moths, of mosquitoes, and flitting amongst them what looked at first like birds but what Ken knew to be bats. Some of the bugs were undoubtedly attracted not just by the lights, but by the mound of trash, which loomed dark and mountainous in the center of the lot, but to Ken’s surprise, did not smell.

His RV was actually a modified Sprinter van, the kind UPS uses. The inside felt bigger than you’d think, with windows on the sides, and space for a bathroom, a small table, a bed and some cabinets. Once he got inside, he tried to focus on his nightly routine—filled out a postcard, did some leg-lifts on the bed. Years ago he had decided that, instead of retiring to a home, he would retire onto the road. He had a permanent address in Florida, but mostly traveled. It wasn’t the safest way for an aging person to live. It meant he needed to be extra-attentive to routine; to keeping in touch.

Finally, he called his son—whose home he had just left that morning—and explained that he had reached his destination for the night.

He felt badly about dreading the call as much as he did. His son’s wife had a chest stint, so that when she went in for chemo they could just shoot the chemicals right in. The doctor’s prognosis was good, people were optimistic, but she was tired all the time. On his recent visit, Ken had learned that his son was unable to keep up with things at home. The family had four kids. Two cats. There were full bags of trash stacked up next to the garbage can, and paper plates, crusted with food, piled on almost every surface.

Ken’s daughter-in-law was a member of a Baptist congregation. Shortly after marrying her, Ken’s son had found religion too, and the congregants had been helpful with things up to a point, bringing food when Ken’s son and daughter-in-law didn’t have the energy to cook. More food than they could actually eat. By the time Ken visited, the fridge was stuffed with moldy casserole dishes, and rotting lasagnas had begun to stink on the kitchen counter. Ken had done what he could to straighten up, but he was not confident in his son’s ability to maintain things. He had not ended the visit on bad terms: just anxious and sad ones.

Now, back in his trailer, talking with his son on the phone, Ken had an idea.

“Maybe,” Ken said, “I’ll even stay here for a few days.”

The idea was spontaneous, but it satisfied him. Driving cross country, Ken had often passed small towns on the road and wondered what it would be like to pare everything back and start over—or, at least, to pantomime starting over. Set up life in a place where the world could feel small.

His son told him that the idea was fine, everything was fine, and they said goodnight.

Ken decided that, if there was ever a decent night to break from routine, it was that one. He would go to the bar Beth had suggested, which meant it was important to take his medication early, so that he didn’t forget later.

His medicine cabinet was cluttered with full and empty bottles. His biggest problem was blood-pressure, but also high-cholesterol, and a case of stable angina that meant he needed to take nitro-glycerin periodically, for chest pains.

When he reached inside, something feathery brushed up against his hand, and he snatched it back. Inside the cabinet was an insect, feeling dumbly amidst the forest of bottles. It was the size of a big cockroach, but shaped wrong, with a body that was flat like a leaf and a nose that came down into a cruel, hooked beak. It looked like it could bite. In a panic, he searched for something to smash it with—settling on an old Newsweek—but when he turned back to kill it, the bug was gone.

He rummaged through the bottles, but couldn’t find the bug. The thought of trying to sleep in the same trailer as that thing sickened him.

Then, as though on cue, there was a knock on the door. Ken opened it, and saw Beth standing there, wearing a tank top and jeans. He could see more of the tattoo—a shape like a two fingered claw that stretched out from under one of the straps on her shirt. She was holding a pint of whiskey in a plastic bottle.

“You look upset,” she said.

“Just a bug,” he said. His throat was dry. As soon as the words were out, he felt like a coward. He’d been a schoolteacher in the inner city for thirty years. Men like him weren’t supposed to be scared of bugs.

Beth nodded, as though his anxiety was expected. She stepped up into the trailer, cracked the seal on the whiskey bottle, and handed it to him. He took a slug and passed it back to her. She drank, too, and started looking around the place.

“This isn’t bad,” she said. “You know, I always fantasized about something like this. Being able to fly anywhere I wanted, instead of being stuck here.”

She handed the whiskey back to him, and he drank more. “What’s stopping you?” he said.

“Buddy,” she said. She stepped forward so that they were almost touching. “Are you dumb and handsome after all? You met me in Walmart.”

Standing close to her made Ken feel good and young, in a way that he hadn’t in a long time. He thought more about her tattoo: how big it was, how far down it went, whether it looked soft like the skin on her face, or had gotten stretched out by pregnancy or weight at some point in her life. Ken had come to love these intricacies of aging bodies. Ken didn’t get laid often, but retirees have better sex lives than you might think.

He was already drunk when she announced that they should head to the bar. She had to take him by the hand and guide him across the lot, help him to climb the median to cross the interstate and scramble up a hill, overgrown with weeds, to where the bar suddenly loomed. It was a cinder block building, with a blue neon sign that read “Quenched.”

Inside, it was so brightly lit that his eyes hurt. A touch-screen jukebox was playing nineties country. The space behind the bar was cluttered with junk: plastic Hawaiian leis, a rubber lobster, a huge inflatable parrot. It was probably supposed to make the place look lively.

There were only two other patrons. One of them was a man with a face that looked barely old enough to be out of high school. The other was a woman who looked old enough to be the man’s Mom, but she had her hand on the man’s knee, which made Ken think they might be lovers. That was fine, of course. Ken was nobody to judge—not that night.

“Two beers,” Beth said. She held up her fingers in a peace sign. The bartender was wearing a Hawaiian shirt—it went with the theme, Ken supposed—and had a cheesy smile to match.

Ken stepped forward. “I’ll pay,” he said.

Beth smiled and squeezed him around the shoulder, then kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you, sweetie,” she said.

The bartender handed Ken two beers and winked at him. It gave Ken pause. Was Beth notorious? At that moment, he didn’t care. At his age, he could deal with a case of the clap, and he’d be dead by the time AIDS had a chance to kill him.

Beth introduced him to the other patrons. “This is Robert,” she said, waving at the baby-faced man. “And this is Linda.”

They were talking about the drought in Los Angeles, fantasizing that when the water ran out, the people would stampede East, clawing and biting at each other. The way Linda described this made Ken envision Durer’s woodcut of the four horsemen, trampling humanity underfoot, and he said so.

Linda shook her head. “Not the four horsemen, exactly,” she said. “I don’t believe in the Bible.”

Ken downed his beer, rested his arm on the bar and ordered another. The place was weird, but the beers made him feel good about it anyway. He was trying to drink himself back to his fantasy about living there, camping out in the Walmart lot and just walking to the bar every night, getting hammered, walking back. If the parking lot got too hot, he could go into the store, where there was free air-conditioning. Maybe he’d get to know Beth better. Maybe, if he got lucky, they’d screw every night, their bodies salty with desert sweat.

The bartender passed Ken his beer.

“Look out,” the bartender said.

He pointed at a spot on the bar, just by where Ken was resting his arm, and Ken recoiled. Crawling along the bar was a huge, black insect, just like the one he had seen in his trailer, but this one seemed even bigger.

“Kissing bug,” the bartender said.

For some reason, none of them made a move to kill it. When it got close to Linda’s beer, she lifted the bottle away from the bar so that the bug could keep walking. Robert did the same.

“Those things can carry chagas disease,” Robert said. He thumped his chest. “Kills your heart.”

Linda nodded. “You should see one of them eat,” she said. She pointed at the insect, which had almost reached the end of the bar. “See how they’re flat like that? The whole back end of their body is like a balloon. They’ll just walk right up to you and start sucking, and that body swells up, turns round.” She sounded excited by this.

She leaned towards him. “They like to go for your while you sleep,” she said. “They like your face. That’s why they call them kissing bugs.”

Robert laughed: it was a squealing, baby laugh, Ken thought, to go with his baby face.

“Oh,” Robert said. “Leave him alone.”

As if to reassure Ken, Beth put her arm around his shoulder and kissed him long and hard. She guided his free hand to the center of her back. As he clutched at her tank top, one of the straps moved, giving him a better look at the tattoo near her collarbone. It depicted the forelimb of a massive insect. If it had a body to go with it, he realized, the tattoo must stretch all the way down her chest, down to her legs.

“Don’t let them bother you,” Beth said. Nobody seemed surprised by her sudden display of affection. The bartender just shook his head.

Ken’s mouth was dry again. He sipped his beer. Beth took his free hand and guided it around her waist, and he slowly reaffirmed his decision to stick around.

He was startled when the door behind him swung open. It was Louie, the crazy person from the self-checkout.

“Speak of the devil,” the bartender said. “Louie, these people were just talking about your favorite bugs.”

Louie didn’t laugh, didn’t comment, just sat down in the far corner and stared at Ken. Without asking what Louie wanted, the bartender poured a tumbler full of whiskey, then took it back to him. After setting the whiskey down in front of Louie, the bartender bent over and started whispering something to him. Even though Ken couldn’t overhear the bartender’s words, the discussion seemed heated.

Robert turned to Ken. “Crazy people like Louie shouldn’t drink,” he said. “That’s what I read online. If you’re feeling crazy, drinking might make you feel better for a little while, but over time it just makes everything worse and worse.” He pointed his finger down and spun it, as though he were making a cyclone in a pool of water. “You end up flushing yourself like a toilet bowl.”

Ken noticed that the bug had vanished from the end of the bar. “I saw one of them in my trailer,” he said.

“Be careful you don’t get an infestation,” Robert said. “Usually, you only get a lot of them if there’s an animal nest nearby. Something living under the floorboards or under the foundation, maybe, like a pack rat. You’re supposed to go through and make sure all the cracks and crevices are sealed, but it’s a pain in the ass.” His eyes widened. “They can get in through a crack the width of a penny!”

The bartender got back from his conversation with Louie. Apparently, he had overheard what Robert was saying.

“I don’t know why we get so many around here,” he said. He said this almost sarcastically, the way you might talk about a problem everyone knew how to fix, but nobody wanted to solve.

Linda made a choking sound, as though she was trying to hold back a laugh. She smiled tightly, and shook her head.

“No ideas,” she said. “No ideas at all.” She scratched at her upper arm, and for a moment, Ken thought he saw a bug perched there, on Linda’s bare flesh. But he quickly realized that this was an illusion—what he actually saw was a tattoo, similar to Beth’s but much smaller, a life-sized image of one of the bugs.

Through the haze, he tried piecing things together. There was something going on that he was missing, something important enough that everyone seemed to know it but him. For the first time, it occurred to him that Beth might be looking to fuck him for cash.

“This is a whorehouse,” Ken said. He was angry about it at first, but when he saw everybody staring at him, he felt embarrassed, and apologized.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s fine. I just didn’t know.”

Everybody laughed at him, even Beth.

“Baby,” she said. “This isn’t a whorehouse. I don’t want your money.”

The alcohol buzz Ken had been trying to cultivate had finally turned into depression. Ken thought of his son and his daughter-in-law and the comfortable life he’d only too briefly had—thirty years, but still too brief—in a nice home when his wife was alive and he could wake up next to her and read the paper and drink his coffee and feel comforted and loved, and he wanted to cry.

“Fuck this,” he said.

He moved towards the door. As he reached for the handle, he noticed another one of the bugs, crawling across the door at eye level. The bright overhead light cast a shadow from it, making it look huge, its movements spastic. Carefully, he reached out and took the door handle with his index finger, and stepped out into the cool night air.

“Baby,” Beth said, but not too loud. “Wait.”

It took time for Ken’s eyes to adjust from the brightness of the bar to the darkness outside, and so for a few moments all he could see was the Walmart’s parking lot, surprisingly far away and at the base of the hill. A constellation of white lights, and amongst them an enormous fire, blazing in red and orange and even gouts of green and blue, as different materials caught flame. Thick black smoke billowed out and up, endlessly, all the way to the sky in a column.

Beth touched his shoulder and he shrugged her off, and kept walking. She followed him. Dimly, he registered the sounds of her footsteps crunching down the slope to the interstate, tracking across the road. He noticed that his RV was missing.

 [ Enormous fire, © 2015, Carmen Moran ] “What did you do?” he said. But without waiting for an answer, he kept walking towards the flames. He stopped when the heat on his face became too much to bear, when his eyes began to sting from the fumes. The stench of burning plastic and oil was incredible. In a broad circle around the fire, the tar of the parking lot was melting and bubbling.

A bug landed on his cheek and he slapped at it. His fingers came away red: it must have been a blood-sucker. He saw more bugs coming—all kinds—moths, flies, cockroaches, things he could not name and even one or two of the kissing bugs, flying towards the light. Many of them hovered at a safe distance, forming a bubble of chitin. Others darted towards the flames, suddenly ignited like match-heads, and then went out.

“Where is my home?” Ken said. He was talking specifically about his RV, but he also meant it more generally than that. Still, his words lacked urgency. He wondered if he was in shock.

For months after his wife had died, he had tried to keep everything as it was, to staunch the wound with belongings. Until finally the clutter had become so unbearable that he had decided it would be better to just bleed out, to get rid of everything and sell it, give most of the money to his son who needed it, buy the RV with the rest and start over. He was an enormous fan of starting over.

Beth put her hand on his shoulder.

“You can see how pretty this is,” she said, “You know that good luck has to come from somewhere. We’ve seen hard times, but now we’re content. Some day, we’ll flourish.”

She gestured at the cloud of insects. “The lower creatures go back millions of years. When we talk about ancestors, we only mean the ones we can understand most easily: the rats burrowing through leaves in old forests. But our feelings go all the way back to the sludge. Those feelings still fit with how we live now. In fact, they fit better than ever. We’re going back to basics. We’re digging up old gods for new times, and we’ve found that they answer our prayers.”

There was joy in her face. Ken could not tell whether she was speaking extemporaneously, or quoting from a book.

“What you would call trash,” she said, “the lower creatures adore. We burn this as an offering. There is a glorious future in these flames of industry.”

When Ken had confronted his son about the mess that his grandchildren and daughter-in-law were living in, his son had cried, talked about how his own depression meds weren’t working and the doctors were trying to switch him to new ones, how he was doing the best he could and he knew the mess wasn’t good for his wife, who had the stint, and was vulnerable to infections. Ken remembered his own wife’s—his son’s mother’s—illness, and the crush of trying to be a nurse, day in and day out. His knees had hurt, his knuckles had hurt, even when he was able to take enough Xanax or drink enough booze to quell the anxiety, the pain in his joints had kept him awake at night. But he didn’t have the mental problems his son had: not to that degree. Ken’s wife had been crushed by them, would spend whole days not leaving bed, would periodically collapse from the weight of things and lie on the floor, sobbing. She would hallucinate: she had once confessed to Ken that she often heard a voice whispering to her across her pillow, telling her that she should die. The voice’s breath had been hot and humid, and sometimes it had sounded like a man and sometimes like a woman, but it had always sounded generic and detached, like a radio broadcaster trying to be understood by as many people as possible.

Something tickled Ken’s hand, and he looked down to see that one of the insects, a kissing bug, had landed on him, and was biting him near the wrist. Beth saw it too.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Do you agree?”

As if in response to her voice, the insect fluttered its wings, their fibers iridescent in the blazing light, and Ken watched as its abdomen grew and grew: swelling with blood, with life, and with happiness.

© 2015 Anthony M. Abboreno

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