Wilfred sat up four stories high on scaffolding with his legs dangling over the side and watched the storm blast across the landscape. He was a mile inland, but could see the water, white and treacherous as the doctor’s lab coat when he came in to give Wilfred the results. He remembered focusing on an ink stain on the coat when he got the news. The thing that was wild and yet so tame about it all was that nothing was ever a surprise. The storm had been forecast for weeks, causing an uproar of, “should we evacuate,” “should we stay and forge it through,” kind of panic for what seemed like forever.
Wilfred had been out in his backyard pulling up those damn goat-head weeds that kept trying to suffocate his rose bushes every year when he felt his arm go numb. Yeah, he knew the damn symptoms, but he had two arms so he just kept pulling until exhaustion drugged him into a hypnotic state and he had to go lie on the couch. Berta, his wife, was bitching at him about overdoing it in the hot sun when she rarely left the kitchen all day. They were retired now, but she felt compelled to bake cakes, cookies and pies even though she was unwieldy, hefty or massive depending on his mood and had diabetes. She used some hellish sugar substitute that Wilfred had read turned into formaldehyde in the system. He’d given Berta all the copies he’d made from the computer, but she refused to believe it. Her favorite line was always, “What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.”
Well, now Wilfred was dying. He was set up for triple bypass surgery a week from today. And Berta was still baking like his engorged heart. The doc had told him he’d had a mild heart-attack that day his arm tingled and detached itself from his body.
Wilfred watched the whitecaps rise and fall against the shore while winds blustered around him and was amazed that rain really did flatten sideways like sheets. He got thwacked by the sharp, wet needles that bit at his face. The rest of him was covered in his Mackintosh and high boots he wore when he went fishing. “Let the ocean take me down,” he thought. He saw himself floating face-down with Berta, screaming and clawing to get to him as the coastal guards dragged his body out of the water. He loved to imagine macabre scenes. He didn’t even mind the idea of dying on the surgeon’s table. Much better than another decade of goat-head picking and eating formaldehyde cakes.
When he got home, Berta was in the kitchen. Like always. He watched her in silence for long moments. She didn’t know he was there. She was in front of the stove, mixing something that smelled creamy. Watching her, he realized he had been wrong earlier. There was no way this woman would scream for him or claw to get him or even get herself wet. No, not Berta. And then, with this realization, came an even darker one.
It was all suddenly very clear. Wilfred had figured out her devious plan. He wondered how many years ago it was that she decided to kill him. Was it after the affair with Jenny? Was that when she decided she would kill him, bit by bit, rich spoonful by rich spoonful. Murder by diabetes. Murder by clogged arteries. Murder by egg salad and cheesecake. If it was a Clue game, he’d be the winner. Mrs. Berta Welch, in the kitchen, with the lasagna.
Wasn’t it Berta who made him retire early? Wasn’t it she who nagged him every time he lifted a finger and told him to take it easy? Her plan had been perfectly executed, slice of pie after slice of pie. He ate and grew so obscenely large he had to graduate to overalls because jeans cut off the circulation to his legs. He was ashamed to go outside for fear of running into old friends who would see his body stretching the fibers of his clothes, friends who would remember him for the skinny, vital man of the past. He was especially afraid of running into Jenny. He was practically a hermit now, except for his solitary trips to look at the sea. This is what Berta had done to him. Now it was these formaldehyde cakes, the appearance of trying to help all the while rushing him to his grave with her endless calories and nagging.
Somehow, this realization that his wife had been trying to kill him slowly, cruelly and with impunity wasn’t all that surprising either. The truth, once it was known, seemed so obvious, as if he were a fool for not seeing it sooner.
Berta opened the oven and peeked in. For a moment he felt like a morbidly obese Hansel, standing behind the witch who meant to eat him. One little push and he could do Berta in with her own instrument of torture and murder: her oven. But he instantly saw that she was too large to fit in that small box.
No, he’d have to find another way of getting even. He’d have to find some weakness of hers to exploit like she had, long ago, discovered his weakness for food. And he had only a few days to do it. There was no guarantee, the doc said, of surviving this surgery. He was fat and weak, diabetic like her and prone to infections. No, he had to find a way to pay Berta back before he went under the knife.
Thinking about this, he grew woozy from a bout of arrhythmia. His heart tightened in his chest like a fist, then released, then tightened again. He set his hand against the wall. This not only steadied him, kept him from falling, but it also gave him something solid to feel. He made himself breathe in long, deep breaths. Slowly, the arrhythmia passed. He dropped his hand from the comfort and safety of the wall.
Berta turned and saw him.
“Oh, you’re home,” she said. “Back from another episode of trying to kill yourself, I see.”
“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“Hey, that’s my line.”
“Not yours,” Wilfred said. “Nietzsche’s.”
“I looked it up on the internet.”
“Some guy stole my line?”
“Yeah,” Wilfred said. “And he died in 1900.”
“Well, I’m making cookies. You look pale as cane sugar. Sit down and I’ll fetch you some cookies and a glass of milk.”
He sat and she placed the cookies in front of him. He stared at them for as long as he could stand it, then picked one up. It was more inviting than sex. Not just the terrible sex he had with Berta once a year, but even that long ago, almost forgotten, sexual bliss with Jenny. He let himself nibble the edge of the cookie.
While he chewed, he thought about his scheme. Nothing came. It was drizzling now. He could hear it tapping the roof. Lightning clapped far off in the distance. He wondered if maybe, somehow, he could use this approaching storm to his advantage. He chewed some more and thought. No ideas came to mind, but he was sure that the storm was no accident, that it was providential. It was the key to his vengeance.
“Make it a big glass of milk,” he called out.
The weatherman was baffled. This was a monstrous storm, a real “monster,” on track to reap havoc and sow devastation all along the coast. One moment it was on the storm tracker radar, the next moment it was gone. Mark turned to his wife who worked production for the station.
“Jenny, come here, would ya? Take a look at this.”
A severe woman in a halter top glanced over at the red-haired man sitting in front of a bank of computers.
“What is it now, Mark?”
“This is some weird ass deal making its way in. Check out the radar.”
Jenny waited and watched as the screen flickered its massive cluster of hurricane activity pulsating its crazed beating heart. Then it would disappear just as quickly as it’d been there.
“Wow, that’s a new one on me. Never seen this before. Well, just look outside, Mark! It’s already blasting winds of 50 miles per hour and that rain isn’t letting up anytime soon. We need to keep on the course. This is going to be one huge mother rolling in.” Jenny looked over Mark’s shoulder at the front window and noticed a lone figure pacing outside the office. It looked to be either a man bundled with layers under his Macintosh or one enormous mountain of a man.
In an odd and contradictory gesture, Jenny lifted the metallic green cat woman eyeglasses she’d bought to “make a statement” on to the top of her head and squinted to see better. Mark heard an almost imperceptible “ugh” come out of her. Though she was still beautiful, she had tiny grooves like little tributaries snaking around her mouth, the inevitable remnant from being a two-pack-a-day smoker. She’d given the dirty habit up, but the wrinkles remained. She thought of all of this as she watched the hulking figure outside of the office–like people who insisted on eating sweets despite the fact that they had diabetes–the silent killer her Marcus Welbyish doctor told her one day. Then it came to her that that large, bundled man outside was Wilfred. “My God!” she said and Mark jumped, spilling a bit of hot coffee on his white button down.
“What?” Mark insisted, irritably.
“That man is someone I knew a lifetime ago!” Jenny said, with real wonder in her voice. Mark stared, slurped some coffee and jiggled his eyebrows up and down.
“Yeah, I had an affair with him, if you want to know,” Jenny said. “What the hell was I thinking? I bet he’s creating the blips on the computer screen. Look at him! He’s the size of a house!”
It had been a rough time for Jenny then. Her own marriage was as stormy as the weather she liked to track and predict, though she never thought she’d give in. Wilfred had been a kind and clever guy. Not really her type, but then she had married her “type” and that hadn’t worked out all that well, she reasoned. She’d admonished him for his love of sweets and used herself as an example of how to resist. Her figure was that of someone much younger, though her face had moved on and aged. They’d been compatible for a time. Then, just like the weather, it had all run its course. She’d heard that he became enormous, but never wanted to believe it, since she thought it would be some sort of indictment on her own taste in men, or lack of it.
“What’s he doing,” Mark said, screwing up his face, laughing, then, looking genuinely concerned.
“I am sure I don’t know, Mark,” but now Jenny seemed worried and mildly disgusted as well.
The well-padded Wilfred was alternately running around in circles and doing jumping jacks. His face was vermillion colored, and the sweat came down in huge drops, the kind that were the precursor to strong wind and hurricane conditions, to use one of Jenny’s weather metaphors.
Jenny gripped the sides of her cracked leather chair. Wilfred was now on the floor, attempting push-ups, though barely achieving lift off. The sweat was rolling into his eyes. He blinked them away. Mark watched and cheered him on like the scene was a spectator sport, which in a way, it was. No one thought he might be trying to wear his heart out. The doctor had told Wilfred to lie low and take it easy before the operation.
Jenny pulled up directory assistance online and found his phone number. Though the number was under his wife’s name, she matched it to his street–Carghill Road, a place she used to ride by, numerous times at night, and watch the silhouettes of husband and wife in the night.
On the phone, Jenny explained who she was. “I KNOW who you are,” Berta spat over the line and ignored the attitude.
“Get over here now–He’s almost purple!” Jenny said.
Jenny did not want to approach Wilfred. She especially didn’t want to touch his puffed up, Michelin-Man body. She was repulsed and horrified at the same time. They watched as Wilfred, without a word, continued his bizarre calisthenics. Jenny grabbed a cigarette from Mark’s pack and though they were forbidden to smoke in the building, she lit up, mouth wrinkles be damned.
Wilfred lay on the floor, his barrel chest heaving up and down, his hair soaked, his Mackintosh like a tarp around his body. Berta arrived, looking scared. She scurried to his side and with great effort lowered herself to the floor beside him. Berta was on one side and Jenny joined her on the other. Wilfred’s body started to shake, ever so slightly, like the tremor of a 5.5 earthquake along a fault line.
“What is it, Wilfred?” demanded Berta, in her most soothing voice which wasn’t very much at all.
Wilfred’s puffy, spackled face turned to look at Jenny. “It was good, wasn’t it?”
Berta took one look at Jenny. The women sized each other up. Wilfred heaved a huge groan as the life seemed to drain out of him. Berta began pumping on his chest while Jenny grabbed her cell phone to call 911.
Mark, caught between the excitement of the impending hurricane and the unfolding drama on the office floor, did the only thing he though was appropriate at the moment. He gave a warning to everyone around him that nature was unleashing its fury and it was quickly heading their way.
This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet are:
James Valvis, author of HOW TO SAY GOODBYE (Aortic Books, 2011). His writing can be found in Anderbo, Arts & Letters, Elimae, Front Porch Journal, LA Review, Rattle, River Styx, and is forthcoming in Green Hills, Literary Lantern, Hanging Loose, Midwest Quarterly, New York Quarterly, storySouth, and many others. His poetry has been featured at Verse Daily and The Best American Poetry website. His fiction has twice been a Million Writers Notable Story. He lives near Seattle with his wife, daughter, and his ever-growing supply of heirloom beans.
Michelle Reale, an academic librarian on faculty at Arcadia University in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, includingGargoyle, Pank, JMWW, Smokelong Quarterly, Staccato,Word Riot, and elimae. Her work was included in Dzanc’s 2011 Best of the Web Anthology. Her short fiction collection, Natural Habitat, was published by Burning River in 2010. Her short fiction chapbook, Like Lungfish Getting Through the Dry Season (2011), is available from Thunderclap Press. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Bill Yarrow, author of WRENCH (erbacce-press, 2009) and FOURTEEN (Naked Mannekin, 2011). His poems have been published widely in print and online magazines. He has a volume of poems forthcoming from BlazeVOX.
Meg Tuite, whose writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals includingBerkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Valparaiso Literary Review, One, the Journal,Monkeybicycle, elimae and Boston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel “Domestic Apparition” (2011) is now available through San Francisco Bay Press. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.