Saturday
Jan202018

Far Off and Impossible Rewards

Marcus Pactor


 

I

Worman complained about recurrent knee pain, the sting of incipient carpal tunnel syndrome in his left hand, and a hardening certainty that he would never come across a corpse. Dr. Benson ordered him to change his life. That afternoon, he joined a gym. In the dark, empty morning, he gripped and released a barbell. The bleak hour, he felt, must have deranged his vision. The gym looked as though a cloud had settled over its equipment and its wall-to-wall mirrors. He wished the cloud would lift the barbell for him or, better, lift and reveal a corpse. He did not want to kill anyone, nor did he want to witness anyone's end, but everything on television had taught him that a man's blood raced better if and when he came across a corpse.

Such a man had a reason to call someone. Someone had a reason to answer his call. It might even be reasonable for him to call Sheila, though she had not answered his calls since before their divorce and after he'd bought her a car. She drove the car wherever she drove these days, probably in a better city. He didn't know. He could also call his parents, Dr. Benson, Dr. Valdez, his partner at the firm, or any of his top three clients. All their phone numbers were set to speed dial on his phone. He would not call them, though, because he knew what they would say. Valdez, his dentist, said last Monday he shouldn't worry about Sheila anymore. Valdez ended his remarks with a convincing needle, so Worman had driven unworried to and from work for several days after the anesthetic wore off. But he worried again on Friday, when Benson ordered him to change his life, and he worried more when he gripped the barbell.

The barbell itself weighed forty-five pounds, and he had added a ten-pound plate weight to each of its sides. He weighed slightly less than four times the total weight he proposed to lift. If anything went wrong, the sunrise muscleheads would discover him broken under sixty-five humiliating pounds. He wanted to call Sheila and find out what she had done with the car, but he believed, as much as voters believed in voting, that Sheila would hate any call from anyone and especially from him at 3AM, even if he had found a corpse in the gym, even if they had forgiven each other and spoken weekly on the phone like old and tender friends, which they had never done, not even in the brightest bloom of their love.

He should tell Benson about his clouded vision, because he had experienced deranged clouds several times before that morning in the gym, but he had heard and obeyed enough of Benson's orders already. He was, after all, gripping and releasing a barbell while happy people slept. He did not really know what to do with a barbell or anything else in a gym. He had not done a pull-up since college, and he had done that pull-up drunk, on a dare, and that drunken pull-up might have been the root source of his shoulder pain, though the shoulder might have been plain crapping out with age. Sheila had said, once upon a time, that the body's warranty expires at 40. She might have been right about that too, the witch. He shouldn't call her a witch, with her so gone and he wanting to call her, since he knew that his names had been one reason why she'd left even after he'd bought the witch a car.

He did like an empty clouded gym. It had an evacuated quality, and he could dream he was an army medic searching a napalmed town for survivors. A waking dream should give no one hope, yet he hoped he might find a corpse here. He wanted to find the corpse of the Chinese janitor who had recommended this gym. Her name escaped him, but at least twice a week she cornered him in the firm's elevator to pour her stories like soda over his head. She was missing her two front teeth. When she spoke, the resultant rectangular void and sulfurous breath misting from it magnified his terror. She said that she had lost one tooth to candy and the other to a lover. She prepared eggplant parmesan every Thursday as a luxury meal. She had a daughter stationed in Kabul, and she worried over bombs and incompetent generals and slavers who might kidnap and sell her daughter to passing caravans. She had aborted a second child in 2001. Her daughter had aborted a child shortly before entering the service. She feared hell for her and her daughter. Worman knew more about her than he knew about, say, Valdez, though he had fished with the dentist once a week for the past several months. Valdez kept himself bottled like a decent human being, while the janitor had tossed her cork to the wind long ago.

But he did not find her body hanging from a jump rope knotted to a pull-up bar. It had not been left ruined on an incline bench or beneath a water fountain, nor had it been stuffed in a locker in either of the locker rooms. For the most part, the ladies' locker room mirrored the men's locker room, minus urinals. There he found an ample woman's sports bra draped over a bench. Its clasp was shaped like the Hebrew word "chai." He deposited the bra in a trash can on his way to the aerobics room. That room was a hardwood-and-mirror chamber the size of four johnboats pressed together in a square. In its far corner, he found several coiled jump ropes and a pair of women's boxing gloves.

Neither he nor Valdez spoke aboard the dentist's johnboat. They fished their lines and appreciated the morning fog low on the creek. It somehow deadened Worman's knee pain and incipient carpal tunnel sting. Catfish swum through cars sunk in those silent waters. Now, though, contemporary R&B blasted through the gym's speakers. He found no body in the aerobics room but his own collapsing thing. He did not think he would find water silence again.

 

II

Benson ordered Worman to eat more eggplants and mustard greens and other vegetables. Worman hadn't gotten all the vegetables' names clear enough to hate yet. He didn't need their names to blend them into a smoothie and spread his body over the couch. He sipped and waited for sun to set on the living room. He punched the remote control buttons without concern for what the TV showed: a preacher touching a cripple's forehead, a weather map of Canada broken into provinces, a model pleasured by the chewing of a Starburst candy, the president berating a journalist, and the spelling adventures of a children's television alphabet hero. Sheila and Worman had never had a child to guilt them into watching a half-hour of children's television. Despite the randomness of his button-punching, Worman somehow returned to the superhero reading show four times within two minutes. He sipped again, though the sludge smoothie threatened to derange his stomach.

Sheila had often left her keys in the outside deadbolt, so a burglar could steal the car or enter the house on an afternoon like this one, with the sun revealing the dust afloat in the room and paling the TV's color display. The burglar, he imagined, would rifle through their drawers, knock him unconscious, and rape her. The burglar might rape him and order a pizza while he lay ruined on the couch.

Her negligence with the keys occasionally provoked a conversation between them. He hated marital conversations almost as much as he enjoyed pizza. In a conversation toward the end she said that, instead of pizza, he should eat vegetables blended with skim milk. When he gritted his teeth, Sheila said that she recommended nothing the government had not been recommending to every American, including them, since early in grade school in regard to nutritional balance. Sheila's abuse of double negatives, or at least what he remembered from grade school as being double negatives, was another reason he had hated conversations with her.

He wondered if the eggplant or some other vegetable in his smoothie sludge, or perhaps the combination of vegetables and skim milk, had deranged his vision as well as his stomach, because a naked Chinese burglar woman appeared in the sunlit dust cloud. She probably did not know any more than he did about Canada, though he believed it likely that Canada had a small but hard-working Chinese population, some of whom immigrated south to escape white winters, if such winters truly existed. He did not entirely believe in the whiteness of the north as described on TV shows.

The superhero reading show featured an anthropomorphized pig that built sight words with hand tools. The pig's current word, "Off," did little to relieve Worman's fear of the Chinese burglar. The burglar's genitals had been notably ruined. Dust congregated unpleasantly atop them. He forgave Sheila now that a burglar had entered without her blundering as a cause. It was too late to forgive, of course, unless maybe she had recently faced a similar unhappiness. A certain kind of unhappiness must have accrued in her as in him, as in Canadians with their winters, white or not, and accents and military shortcomings and inferior football leagues.

The sludge smoothie may have deranged his entire body because although he wanted to run and yell, he remained seated and silent when the burglar drew a feather duster from her belly button. She worked it across his back and through his hair. She tickled his hands with it. He sipped. He had more than half the smoothie sludge left to drink and felt some urgency to finish it. She unbuttoned his shirt and dusted his chest. In the first days, Benson told him, your new diet will make you anxious and hateful. Your blood sugar may spike or nosedive. Commercials for processed food will tempt you. You may pass out at inconvenient moments.

Worman woke and found himself turned belly down on the couch, the sludge out of reach, his pants around his ankles. You will want a hero, Benson had said. But think of the awfulness as a long-term investment in yourself. The burglar dusted him from the ankles to the inner thighs. You are sacrificing today's pizza for tomorrow's steak. The rewards sound far off and impossible but, trust me, they will come.  

 

III

Worman dragged Benson's corpse into the living room and set it atop the bearskin rug. The corpse had no visible hemorrhages or discolorations or clear indications of how or why it had appeared in his foyer. Benson's fingers gave him pause. He had been Benson's patient for over fifteen years, but he had never noticed that Benson's fingers were all flesh where fingernails ought to have been. The flesh appeared to be a plain though peculiar fact of Benson's body. Worman tried not to be interested in the absence of fingernails. The police, he knew, would be interested in the corpse, complete and dead in his home, and would perhaps be suspicious of Worman's dragging it onto the bearskin rug.

That evening, before the corpse thumped in his foyer, Worman had been thinking about the strangeness of his country's government, which had been called "dysfunctional" since his grade school days, and about the president, who had been called much worse. He felt sure that if the corpse had thumped in the White House foyer, the president would order it removed and forgotten.

The president, of course, had never been Benson's patient. Worman had recently seen Benson for a prostate exam, bent over the examination table, accepted the doctor's index and middle fingers into his colon, and seen the painting of an ocean sunrise blur. The sequence duplicated their annual routine, but then he felt that index finger curl away—twice—from the middle finger, giving Worman an unpardonable tickle.

Now he unbuttoned Benson's shirt and discovered a torso missing both nipples and belly button. The torso's loosely defined pectorals and gut resembled three splotches of pancake batter poured too closely to one another on a hot griddle.

Over the past week, Worman had pored over many internet documents in an effort to understand the president and had determined two things. First, the president could not be narrowed to a sentence. Second, he would never understand the president. Worman's problem was magnified by the proposition, a holdover from grade school brainwashing, that there was a benefit to understanding and that any object of study, including the president, could be understood.

Benson had once asked Worman to understand the benefit of a stalk of broccoli. To an extent, Worman had always understood the benefit, but no matter how deeply he buried his broccoli in soy sauce, he could not convince himself that the benefits would compensate for the taste he would have to endure.

Think of it, Benson had said, as a long-term investment in yourself.

Rigor mortis, Worman understood, occurred shortly after death, but it had not, in Benson's case, so occurred. Worman's thermometer soon proved that Benson's temperature held steady at 98.6. He removed Benson's clothes and discovered a smooth expanse of skin rather than genitals between the legs.

The president often mused on social media about what worked and what failed between others' legs. His obsession was not in and of itself strange. Most humans obsessed over genitals. On the other hand, the president was probably offered genitals as often as TV owners were offered instant credit toward the purchase of a car. The president, then, should have been as bored by genitals as TV owners were bored by credit, but the president never seemed bored.

Worman turned Benson on his side, found a passage to the colon, but demurred. He returned Benson to his back and cuddled him atop the bearskin rug. He gently kneaded each of Benson's pancake parts until he fell asleep.

He woke with an X-Acto knife in his left hand. He pressed the cool flat of the blade to the tip of his nose, then cut laterally across Benson's gut. The corpse was full of Styrofoam packing popcorn. Each piece of packing popcorn had been inscribed with the Hebrew word "chai."

Though he had last studied Hebrew in preparation for his bar mitzvah, this word had stayed with him through the years. He had last seen packing popcorn after he confessed to Sheila an indiscretion with a junior partner at the firm. Sheila said she could have forgiven him if the woman had not been Chinese. It had not been the proper moment to condemn his wife's racism, but he never knew what was proper in any moment till long after the moment had passed.

He cut a line perpendicularly from the lateral line to the base of Benson's throat, then a third line parallel to the first, and opened the torso doors. He hand-shoveled packing popcorn from the corpse till the bearskin rug, hardwood floor, and furniture were buried in phony snow. The corpse was too small to have contained so much packing popcorn, yet he clearly hadn't removed half the packing popcorn it did in fact contain. He dug until he found a ceramic pig with a screaming expression and a corkscrew tail. He could make it disappear in his fist.

The president made fists that enclosed his thumbs, suggesting the president had never thrown a punch and had never attempted any serious work with his hands. The president made such fists whenever he wanted to emphasize a point, through the TV, to his enemies. Worman did not know how the president smelled, though he suspected that party handlers made sure the president was olfactorily inoffensive.

Benson's corpse had no smell, like a sheet of aluminum kept in cold storage. Yet Worman found both president and doctor offensive. He would not have knowingly allowed any doctor made of packing popcorn to examine his prostate. After the exam, Benson had trashed the latex glove and said, You must change your life. The glove's first two fingers were flecked with blood. Worman turned Benson face down and ruined him with the pig.