Walrus (1995)

This story first appeared in the February, 1995 issue of Dig Magazine.

She lights a cigarette and says the luck’s run out, whatever that means. He wants to turn off the TV, since they always argue late at night, each staring at the other’s face made angry blue by the flickering light.

It’s not you at all, she says, It’s the town.

What’s wrong with where we are? he asks.

No landscape, I guess, she says. She takes a drag off the cigarette, crosses her legs. I could be in Paris. Or New York City.

Frank says, Well, you’ve already lived in New York. He wants to put on a shirt. In only his undershorts he feels vulnerable, needs the armor of a t-shirt. He doesn’t want to cry topless.

She exhales. It’s the Mid-fucking-West, she says angrily, tossing her head with the syllables.

Probably no Culture, he thinks. He knew she was full of Culture, four years ago, that he’d be buried by her Culture.

She cradles his head when he starts to cry. He wraps the blanket around himself and cries. Under the blanket, after he’s done crying, his skin feels hot and honest, like working all day and then going to O’Rourke’s for a beer. Only Sheila is his beer probably. Last call, he thinks, and smiles. Sheila runs the tips of her fingers through his hair, pushing it back from his face and behind his ear, all the while holding the cigarette in the other hand.

After four years... he says.

She says: I’m just going nuts here, and kisses his forehead.

She mashes out the cigarette in the ashtray.

No mountains, she says, No ocean; no culture.

He watches the smoke rise off the mashed cigarette, curling in paisley loops around a walrus on top of the TV. He’d lived where there was culture, but he was born in Lincoln. He’d lived in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago. Minneapolis, a little. Austin. Always, the railroad would put him out of wherever he wanted to go, but he came back to Lincoln. He was born here, and he’d once heard a relative say you can’t escape where you come from.

Sheila bought that walrus for him at a boutique near the coffee shop in the renovated warehouse part of town. It was useless, expensive. An Eskimo carved it out of walrus ivory. He put it on top of the television, and she frowned. Sheila wasn’t born in Lincoln, but as good as, really.

When I lived in Phoenix, she says, Any day we could’ve just up and drove to L.A.

He wants to tell her: you hated Phoenix, but doesn’t want to argue in front of the television. She’d call him from Phoenix—this is when they were just friends, not going out, really—crying because she was so lonely. And she never went to L.A.

When Sheila goes into the bathroom, he smoothes the blanket over the bed. He turns on the reading lamp, turns off the television. He spills out under the covers, putting his hands behind his head. Four years, he thinks. The toilet flushes, the water runs in the sink for a long time. She comes into the bedroom, her face naked of makeup. She looks new, unused, sad.

You know, he says, I’ll keep that walrus. If you don’t want it.

She turns off the lamp, and curls into a wad under the blanket, against his side. God, she says, I have to get up tomorrow. I hate my fucking job.

She presses her face into his ribs and cries, noiselessly.