THURSDAY: Degenerates, Part Two

BY TIM GRUTZMACHER

This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Read the first part here. Copyright is held by the author.

Shot 5
DARLENE RUMMAGED through her purse, exploring the impossibly deep recesses before pulling out a piece of paper and handing it to me. It was a printout of a webpage featuring a glass statuette with dolphins molded into the shape of a heart.

“What’s this? The lover’s cremation urn?”

“That’s right”

“What’s this all about?”

“After I’m done drinking you under the table and we get married and you have to honour and obey me and shit this is where you’re stuffing me when I die.”

She had always had a rather morbid sense of humour. I remember her paging through the newspaper’s obituaries and laughing at the deceased’s’ nicknames and haircuts, as well as the flowery prose about the lives of such inspirational and imaginative people who most of us didn’t know existed. So I wasn’t surprised to hear that she was already planning her cremation. But the urn was ridiculous; it looked like the art project of a 15-year-old girl that had recently decided she was too old for unicorns. I thought that human remains should be stored in something a bit more sacrosanct than a tacky urn that featured two dolphins curled into one another like they’re trying to penetrate each other’s blowholes “only thinking of each other in the heart shaped wave of love.”

“In this? You really want your ashes put in this thing?”

“That’s right, so whenever you host your little after bar parties everyone is gonna notice this ugly thing and then you’ll tell them it holds your dearly departed wife and then you’ll just go on about how great I was. And you can’t let any skanks you bring home touch it.”

“Oh, the skanks — I sure am going to miss them,” I said, faking wistful.

As soon as I said it, Darlene slumped over like her shoulders were being drawn magnetically to the bar and she looked at me with a seriousness I didn’t think her capable of.

“Don’t fuck around on me; just don’t do it. You can handle being just with me for a while. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

I had always thought that she had viewed men as a utility, a means to an end. I had thought that feeling a basic human emotion like love was a luxury she couldn’t afford.

“Why are you even shopping for urns anyway?”

“I just happened to come across it and now I want it. I don’t know, I guess I’m an impulsive shopper.”

“You’ve got to be the only asshole that has ever bought an urn on a whim. Is that a condition of this contest? That I have to put you in that dolphin box and keep it in my place?”

“What the hell, it is now.”

“Very well.”

“Anything you wanna add while we’re at it? A minimum number of times we have to do it each week or anything?”

“Just don’t pester me, OK? I know I don’t lead the healthiest lifestyle, and at my age I don’t really see any reason to change,” I said more sternly than I had intended. She extended her pinky finger and I locked mine around hers thus forging the pact. “You wanna talk about my funeral arrangements now?” I asked her.

“No, you’re all set there’s room in the urn for two.”

“I’d rather you throw my body off the overpass.”

“OK, I can honour that request.”

Shot number: Who the hell knows but I think I’m losing
The sun had long since gone down and the perpetually dead bar had developed a shallow pulse. Our collection of shot glasses on the bar had attracted a throng of onlookers. Several people watched the contest with interest but nobody bothered to ask what was at stake, reasons for drinking are immaterial at Lefty’s.

“So Steve, how are things at work?”

“You’re interested in making small talk now?

“Are things pretty steady? You got pretty good job security and all that?”

“Yeah, I think we’re doing pretty well. They’re offering me lots of overtime.”

“They give you pretty good insurance there?”

“I’ve got insurance I’m not sure how good it is. Why?”

“Just curious.” She peered intently down at the floor seemingly having noticed it for the first time.

“Ohh, so that’s what all this is about?”

“What?”

“You want to get on my insurance.”

Her eyes rolled back slightly and I could tell she was groping for a lie. A selection from the voluminous catalogue of deceits used to placate men that start asking questions. She had made a living telling men what they wanted to hear. She opened her mouth to speak and instead just sighed.

“Okay, you got me. I’m sorry if you thought that I was madly in love with you.”

“That’s all this was about? You never wanted a husband; you wanted a primary care physician and co-pays. That’s a pretty lame excuse for this big farce.”

“That’s not all it’s about.”

“What else then?

“We’re getting old and we’re gonna just keep getting older. I don’t know, don’t you wanna have someone around? I know I’m not exactly your first choice and I can’t say that you’re mine, but don’t you wanna have somebody there for you. Don’t you wanna know that there will be at least one person who gives a shit when you die?”

“I really don’t care. We all die alone anyway. So what, you think that if we were to get married then all of a sudden we’re just going to have this deep, emotional connection? I don’t think it works that way.”

“But you don’t know. We’ve always had a good time. I’m not saying that I’m gonna magically transform your shitty life into something great, but I could improve it a bit.”

“Who says my life is so shitty?”

“I do. Everyone outside of this bar would. You work so you can drink and you drink because you don’t know what else to do with yourself. Do you really like coming here every day?”

Darlene’s voice rose steadily throughout her tirade and our spectators began to laugh at her lambasting of me. “Oh fuck off, all of you. Like you’re any better than he is,” she said.

“You know you could have just been honest with me,” I said, “At least I could respect that.”

“So what do you want me to say? Hey Steve, can I get on your insurance cuz I think I’m dying and I can’t afford any medication without it.” The bar nearly fell silent except for the snickers of those couple of patrons that delight when misfortune gut-punches someone other than them for a change or maybe they thought she was just kidding. The drunken revellers slunk away, no longer sure of what outcome they hoped for from the contest.

“Did you say dying? You’re dying?”

“Maybe. People overcome it sometimes.”

“Overcome what?”

“ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

“Wow, that’s pretty shitty of you. You came in here thinking that you could get me or some other sucker to marry you and then one day you’d just tell them, ‘oh, by the way I have ALS and I’ll probably be dead soon.’”

“I didn’t have any sort of plan. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m scared shitless and I’ve gotta figure out something to do.” She pressed her hand against her forehead, shielding much of her face but I could still see the quivering of her bottom lip.

“I think we’re done here.” I pushed back on my stool and stood on wobbly legs.

“So you’re giving up?”

“The bet is off due to non-disclosure.”

“You’re such a pussy. You’re just gonna walk away cuz it might be a bit tougher than you thought? Fine, go, I thought I had proposed to a man.”

“I’m sorry that I don’t want to watch you slowly deteriorate and die.”

“I don’t want to see it either but I’d be seeing the same thing happen with you. You’ll probably end up dying before me.”

“That’s none of your fucking business.”

“I had considered all the shit that I would’ve had to take on with you and I was still willing to do it.”

“Why are you involving me in all this? Why me?”

“I don’t know. You were always pretty nice to me. You’re about the only person I know that doesn’t look down on me. And I know you’ve got nobody too.”

I fell heavily back onto my stool. I hadn’t thought for a second that she was actually serious about the whole thing. I thought we would get drunk, have a good laugh at the wager and then, if she were between boyfriends go upstairs to my apartment and fuck in that perfunctory way .She always got this far away look on her face during and I imagined that she was going over her life in reverse, thinking of how she could have possibly avoided ending up here. Each encounter left me thoroughly depressed, but she’d always swear to me that she enjoyed herself as she hastily got dressed.

“So what’s going to happen to you? What would I have to look forward to if we get hitched?”

“Well, basically everything in me will stop working. All my muscles are gonna shut down and then that’s it. They say most people make it about three to five years, but I’m not so sure about that, the way I feel. Shit seems to be moving along quickly.”

“So what will you need me to do?”

“Everything,” she said with a slight smile as if realizing for the first time the magnitude of her request.

“I don’t even know if my insurance will take you.”

“Yeah, who knows.”

“And I don’t have much money besides that.”

“Me neither,” she said gathering herself off her stool.

“But we should probably give it a try, huh?”

“Are you sure?”

I thought she would be overjoyed by my acquiescence, but she seemed to be guarding herself against any further insults I might hurl at her.

“No, but you’re right, maybe I should do something for someone else once. Besides, I’ve been looking for an excuse to keep out of the bar for a while.”

Shot glasses locked up
Our cab sailed through flashing yellow lights in the orange pre-dawn haze. The oppressive heat was already settling in and last night’s booze was poring through my skin. I watched Darlene as she slept, errant rays of sunshine would catch her face with each bump in the road. She slept an ugly sleep, mouth agape and snoring, but restful. And rest is something that I think life has provided her very little of, so I let her be even after she spotted my shirt with dribble. I held the ring boxes in my hand, inside them were two tokens of endless love that we procured at the pawn shop at three A.M. for 100 bucks. For all I know, I may have bought back the one I sold there years ago. Darlene was jolted awake when our reckless driver hit a bump.

“Are we almost there?”She said as she pulled herself upright with considerable effort.

“Probably another 10 minutes or so.”

“So if I were to tell you that I love you would you ever believe it?”

“I think I probably could someday.”

“Do you think you could ever say that you love me?”

“Yeah, I could see that.”

“Good, cuz I’d like you to.”

“Do I have to mean it?”

“I guess not, just make me believe it, OK?”

“All right, I’ll do my best.”

The trip was scheduled to take three days by bus. I figured that if we could still stand each other after that trek then I would gladly slap a ring on her finger. We didn’t invite anyone; no one would’ve come anyway. Darlene thought about calling her daughter, but she knew that she wouldn’t approve. My Dad wouldn’t have been up for the trip, it’s hard enough to get him out of the nursing home for just an afternoon. And I think seeing anyone from Lefty’s outside of the bar and realizing that they’re my only real friends would be just too depressing for me to handle.

I’ve heard it said that marriage will make an honest man of you. And if that’s what I get out of this whole thing then it will be well worth the trouble. I know that people will say that I can’t possibly be viewed as anything other than dishonest, marrying a woman of questionable morality. I say that’s none of my concern, we all do what we have to do to get by and some have to really work at it.

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