The stink of last night’s steak and fries, of curry, cilantro, and rotting vegetables is lodged in the thick gray Los Angeles air as Harold slogs through his morning walk. Maybe he will have to find a more residential route until the weather cools. June gloom used to be a gentle warm-up to the relentless blue sky, before global warming had begun in earnest. Now the light is muted by the ocean haze but the heat still blasts through, ambushing everyone.
Harold is under orders from his doctor to lose sixty pounds. At fifty-seven, his body is a racetrack with stroke and heart attack running neck and neck for the finish line. God knows he is trying, but even with the additional exercise he gets due to gas rationing and the new restrictions on driving in the center of the city, his waistline has shrunk barely half an inch since his physical back in February. Walking to the bus stop only ensures that he arrives at the office with even less willpower than usual to resist the tower of donuts and pastries. The stench of all the garbage piling up while the landfill crisis is being negotiated should have curbed his appetite but, until the reek of this brutally stagnant morning, all it takes to incite a riot in his taste buds is the sight of a menu taped to a restaurant window. Whenever Harold glances at his reflection in the window, he is certain he looks thinner. Handsome, too. A well-dressed icon of success. But maybe due to his doctor’s warnings, desperate measures are required. Harold decides to cut through the park and walk the entire mile and a half to the office.
Monday, damn it. The trash cans are overflowing, and the ground is a killing field of eviscerated piñatas. Unicorn heads, arms and legs of cartoon characters, ponies, and princesses. The rubble brings on a tangible ache for cake, and Harold stifles an urge to search the trash cans for a bright pink pastry box. Thankfully, a creeping melancholy dulls his appetite and spares him that small humiliation. Everyone had warned him that a wife so young might not stick around, but he was too smitten to believe it. His daughters are—what?—four and five? No, three and four. Patricia hadn’t even invited him to their birthday parties this year.
The woman’s screams don’t register at first. There are people on the tennis courts just about every morning, shouting and slamming, taking their game way too seriously. “Catch him!” the woman shouts. “Can you please grab him?”
Harold looks up from the cheap candies that lay trampled in the dirt and sees a beagle barreling toward him.
“Mr. Tibbs! Sit!” the woman yells.
Harold dives head first for the dog. The sky becomes a white glare, then darkness.
When Harold opens his eyes, he realizes that he isn’t himself at all. He is his first ex-wife, though he isn’t at all sure how that is possible. His chest thrums in time with his head as he rubs the sore spot beneath his collarbone, the scent of his first ex-wife emanating from her familiar chambray gardening shirt—a shirt that he is inside of. He is lying in her bed too, under the purple satin comforter she’d insisted on buying not long before he had left her for wife number two. Their three sons stare at him from a photograph on the dresser across the room, and Harold wonders if Hell is a place where you turn into the person you hurt the most. Or maybe he’s dead and has been returned to Earth to live out some cruel destiny as a jilted middle-aged woman. The thought is too overwhelming. Harold closes his eyes.
The glow of the setting sun edges the window shades in red, giving Harold a start when he awakens a second time. Yes, this must be Hell. He is certain when he sees his first ex-wife, Karen, standing in the doorway, scowling.
“You might have a broken shoulder,” she says. “There’s a lump and a huge bruise.”
“I remember a beagle,” Harold recalls. “Then a light.”
“If you’re telling me you had a near-death experience, I don’t believe it,” Karen says.
“Did someone call you after I fell?” Harold asks.
“The young woman whose dog you tried to catch brought you here. You gave her this address.” Harold puts his hand to his head. He feels a lump the size of a plum above his right eyebrow. “When I looked out my front door through the peephole and saw you leaning on a pretty blonde, I thought maybe your new wife was giving you back in some New Age, post-divorce ritual.”
“You might have a concussion,” says Karen. “If I were you, I’d call the doctor. Oh—I forgot this earlier—but I think you’re supposed to stay awake so you don’t lapse into a coma.”
“Awake,” Harold mutters, struggling to sit up. Alexa, his new girlfriend, has been tossing and turning every night for the past week. The rolling blackouts have been making their west-facing, second-floor bedroom into a sweatbox. They were supposed to meet during their lunch hour today and buy a sofa bed so they could sleep downstairs in the living room where there are two big windows for cross-ventilation. Realizing how much time has gone by, Harold reaches into his pocket and pulls out his new phone. Alexa has sent him seven text messages and called twice. And she used her GPS Tracker app to locate him.
“How long have I been here?” he asks.
“Going on twelve hours.”
“That means I’m homeless—at least for tonight. Alexa will lock me out.”
Karen shrugs. She can’t believe that the man in her bed was once her husband. After twenty-two years of marriage, he left her for a woman four years older than their oldest son. She had heard rumors that Harold cheated on his new wife too—though only with a Las Vegas hooker—which probably conformed to his twisted L.A. law firm code of ethics. But the new wife ultimately dumped him for a man her own age. Harold was devastated—or so she’d heard. But that was barely a year ago, and he has since moved on with a new live-in girlfriend. Alexa, a friend had told her, started out as a summer clerk in Harold’s firm, not even out of law school. Karen couldn’t work up much sympathy.
Harold goes for a direct approach this time. “Mind if I sleep in one of the boys’ rooms—just for tonight?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Karen picks up Harold’s scuffed and bloodied dress shirt from the chair and holds it out to him. “I only gave you my shirt because I didn’t want any blood on the linens,” she says.
Harold considers pleading his case, but Karen has already left the room. He eases his legs over the side of the bed and pushes himself up. He lays Karen’s shirt on a chair and slips into his own without buttoning it.
With his shirt still open and his shoes untied, Harold shuffles back through the park toward home. Karen didn’t even offer him a sandwich or a glass of water, damn it. As he cuts through the playground, he sees a cake box glowing in the moonlight next to a trashcan. It feels like Christmas and his birthday rolled into one. He nearly falls as he lunges for it. The icing inside the rim of the lid is unbelievably moist. He runs his fingers through the sweetness, the cardboard soggy with his saliva.
Harold smoothes his hair and splashes water from a drinking fountain onto his shirt. He can’t believe that Karen threw him out, injured and bloodied. Or that Patricia didn’t invite him to their daughters’ birthday parties. And now Alexa will be raging when he gets home. What the hell is wrong with these women? Harold lifts the cake box to his tongue. There is nothing there, but he stands in the dark, licking it anyway, hungry for all of the things life has refused to give him.
Denise Emanuel Clemen
Denise Emanuel Clemen’s fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Georgetown Review (including an honorable mention for their prize), Two Hawks Quarterly, Literary Mama, The Rattling Wall, Fiction Fix, Knee-Jerk, Chagrin River Review, Delmarva Review, New Plains Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and Serving House Journal. She’s received fellowships to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, Ragdale Foundation, and was an Auvillar fellow in France in 2009. Her memoir, “Birth Mother,” was published by Shebooks in 2014. You can follow her on Twitter:@demanuelclemen. leavingdivorceville.blogspot.com and deniseemanuelclemen.com are where she blogs.