“Natural Death” and “His or Hers”

Erin Somers

Short Reads features fictional short stories written by some of our favorite authors and writers from around the globe. This installment is two short stories by Brooklyn-based writer Erin Somers. Somers’ writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Ploughshares, One Teen Story, Gigantic, Slice, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2013 Neil Shepard Fiction Prize from Green Mountains Review.

Illustrations by Alyssa Kazew.

Natural Death

In the last year of my dad’s life, he called all dogs cats and all cats women and all women snakes. People he called mile-wide assholes, and that one I couldn’t argue with.

He called the driveway the Broadway, and my mother, Marion. My mother’s name was definitely not Marion. I wondered if there had been a Marion along the way and where she was. Sitting by the ocean somewhere in the middle of the last century, wearing an old-timey bikini.

Pans were called pots and pots shoes. Actual shoes he wouldn’t put on, and we’d find him barefoot, sometimes as far away as the A&P. Once it was snowing and his feet were curled in on themselves on the sidewalk that must have been freezing cold. Someone had given him a can of Diet Coke.

He called his plants his children, but he’d been doing that for years. Plants are more aware than you think, he used to say. We don’t know squat about their consciousness. He always talked to the plants softly and I never caught what he said. Me he called Jerk, but by that time I had learned not to take it personally. Anyway, it was true enough.

He called the printer sir while he printed out his classified documents: reams and reams of news articles from the local paper. That cracked my sister and me up, the respect he had for his printer, the way he retrieved his papers with a small bow.

He had such thin skin, the thinnest I’ve ever seen. When he got a cut he’d call it a war wound and bleed for hours, drops that got all over everything and dried brown. We chased him around with band-aids, and he called us cowards, the CIA, his precious babies.

I wanted all of it to mean something, especially at the very end. I listened for a pattern. I was ready with a tape recorder for the moment he called life wreckage and called the world Earl and asked me to open the window vines to let in a little light. Maybe he sensed my hunger because eventually he clammed up. He died in hard silence while we listened to hospital squeaks and the rattle of carts, until some mile-wide asshole came in, finally, and called it a natural death.

His or Hers

His-Hers-Alyssa-Kazew-

They met at a bar, but soon went back to an apartment. His or hers? If they ever knew at all, they forgot fast.

Foreplay was the usual. Tongues and hands. Breath. Teeth in moderation. The drama and hilarity of undressing together for the first time.

This period passed quickly and was also forgotten.

The fucking was the important thing. The sexual intercourse. The thing two people do when they’re really in love or have just met in a bar and think well why not, I’ve had an alcoholic beverage.

Mad Lib: He stuck his ________ in her _______. “Oh _________,” she exclaimed. “That is my favorite orifice.”

The man was strong and brave and when the sink pulled clear of the wall he said, “NO ONE’S FAULT.”

They moved to the bedroom and the woman got supine. The man held himself over her with admirable bicep strength. He slowed it down, got contemplative, pondered the origin of the phrase missionary position, thought briefly of God.

The windows fogged up so that they couldn’t see out. That was fine: they didn’t want to see out.

Time passed, they didn’t know how much. Time flattened like a coin through a penny press. Time was a stage for thrusting, nothing more.

They did it doggy style, half-ironically. They engaged in a long oral interlude. The woman got on top to relieve the man’s biceps. They did it in the jagged ruins of the sink, bloodied their backs.

Outside the apartment the world rearranged itself. Outside: stirring acts of backbone and hubris. Buildings crumbled and were rebuilt even taller.

The man used to be interested in geopolitics. He used to follow the developing story and scoff at those who didn’t. During election cycles he’d sup on information, fat himself on it as if for the slaughter.

Now they heard only the distant murmur of a neighbor’s television. Now the man remembered just the white-green cast of night footage and the phrase “hostage situation.”

They wore out all the old standards and broke for a short brainstorming session. The woman wondered, during this interval of sharpened pencils and scratch paper, whether she should try to leave. “I’m going,” she whispered to herself experimentally, but stayed where she was.

They reconvened with renewed fervor, fresh ideas. They did Grendel and Beowulf, disgruntled train conductor and passenger who had really sprinted for it. The woman improvised a depraved new take on a classic; the man improvised a harness out of household items.

They forgot the former lovers and friends who had seemed so important in their youth. They forgot their ambitions and the art they liked. They forgot what it felt like to be lonely, and missed it. Then they forgot to miss it, and even what missing it felt like. They missed missing it for a while, but finally discarded that as stupid.

Once, the woman caught the man glancing at the door longingly.

“Are you yearning?” she demanded, outraged.

“Sorry,” he said. “No. Yes. A little. In the abstract.”

After that he didn’t look at the door any more and he tried not to yearn.

They were only dimly aware of the passing of the seasons. Rain and snow outside registered in their peripheral vision like TV static. Like TV static in an era where TVs worked differently, badly. Eventually, there wasn’t even an “out there.” There was only an “in here.”

In between, they sometimes smoked cigarettes. They lay on their backs in bed, looking up at the ceiling that was their sky.

When the cigarettes were done, they resumed out of habit and decorum.

They found the bottom of themselves, the point at which there was nothing left. Still they continued. Hoping to push through the depletion, to find ecstasy, joy. Fearing that they’d die like that: on their backs, on their knees. Legs shaking under wasted bodies. Raw to the touch.

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