The Midwest |

Brownouts and Blackouts

by Marta Evans

On her twenty-fourth birthday Cleo collects herself and walks through the heat to the supermarket for several kinds of cheese and some kind of rat poison. From the cold shelves she picks Boursin and a smoked gouda for herself and a brick of store-brand cheddar for the rats. The Kraft is eighty cents more for half an ounce less but she considers it because it is more orange. The rats have so far shown specific tastes, nosing out when the air is sweetened by frying onions, squeaking along with the Yo La Tengo Getty plays when he's working but never the Bangles Cleo plays when she must lift herself from a nap. Cleo remembers an Ashley from elementary school whose white rat rode everywhere on her shoulder. It used to nibble the blonde ends of Ashley's ponytail, its red eyes unfocused and gleaming, and then roll over in the cup of Ashley's palm for a swipe of peanut butter from her index finger, which it took without baring its teeth. Around this time Cleo went home and asked her mother for a pet rat, but all their family pets had been unasked for, had for her whole life run wild and mostly resistant to love. Instead of an answer her mother gave Cleo a blue bowl of dishwater to throw over the fence, and a rag to wipe her legs if it spilled.

As she sweats her way home she thinks about the rats learning the sound of her steps and coming to sleep in her empty shoes, about them climbing up her body to sniff the fresh piercing in her tragus, but twice now they have gnawed far enough into the wiring that the lights flickered and the refrigerator sighed to sleep. Cleo and Getty are living well beyond their means and have only been saved from ruin by Getty's soldering skills. They can't afford these rats, who have whiskers like sturdy filaments that if tied together could reel in a fish, and little rough hairs sticking up from their spines, which they groom for each other with affection.

Cleo intends to lace cubes of cheddar with poison and set the small meals out on saucers, but instead she tries on the dress she wants to wear to dinner. It is a green dress with a Peter Pan collar and she thinks she will need to wear it without underwear. She has told people, mostly men, mostly men she sleeps with, that she enjoys going without underwear, and it’s true to the extent that the things she says to men she sleeps with are usually true. She likes the awareness of her own humidity every time she shifts, but that awareness often slips into something else, something worse. She never thinks so much about the possibility of shitting herself, for instance, as when she is not wearing underwear. Cleo walks downstairs to the kitchen in the dress, reads the plastic bucket of poison, and then looks up “rats poisoning” on her phone. She pries open the bucket and, instead of the powder she expects, she finds a heap of green rectangles like bite-size bars of compressed alfalfa.

The house is hot and quiet, Getty at the shop finishing her present, the rats curled together in a nest of frayed insulation. The library let her have the day off with an ease that worries her. They know she didn’t finish classes last term and they want to know why. It was the reason she and Getty moved here, to this bare, earnest wedge of house in a town they’d seen mainly in university brochures. Sometimes when she is alone she throws the remote at the wall to watch it break apart, though she always puts it together again, retrieving the batteries from under the couch and matching up the signs of polarity, soothing new scuffs in the wall with a sponge.

But she is twenty-four today and going to a French restaurant tonight. This morning Getty called her a perfect summer baby while he rubbed the place under her shoulder blades. She didn’t know what that meant but it felt true at the time. Cleo and Getty are the names they call themselves but not the names they were born with and not the names they plan to keep. Long ago, in the fist of a bad night, they promised to leave everything behind except each other. They have been together in one way or another for most of their lives.

Cleo makes a platter for the rats on a bamboo cutting board: a hunk of cheddar, a slice of gouda, a ball of Boursin, a block of poison, and an old Swedish Fish candy she pulls from her purse for garnish. She sets it near the wall of the kitchen where she has most often heard scratching.

When Getty comes to pick her up, he leaves the car running and leaps the front steps to her. He takes off his cap and puts it over her face while he loops a long chain with a heavy pendant around her neck. He presses the pendant into her palm and she pushes the cap up so she can see it – a gold pocket watch brushed to a satin finish. Cleo unlatches the case. Inside, Getty has replaced the clock face with a disc of darker gold, on which is embossed an open eye with a filigree of fine silver lashes. Shining through a ring of pinholes between the pupil and iris is a weak light that Getty must have wired to the clock's old battery. On the back of the case is an engraving: For my love, my old friend. She buries her face in his neck.

They drive to dinner as the sun sinks. Getty steers with one hand and holds hers with the other. They came to this rich rural stretch of middle Ohio six months ago, at Christmastime. Cleo stared out at these hills as they arrived, the farmhouses with their rows of clean little windows, each one kissed by a wreath or dotted with what she later learned were electric candles. The lawns draped without fences, down to small frozen ponds guarded by stone geese with stone ribbons around their necks. She turned off the radio to take it in, all that velvet snow and ceremony. The town where Cleo and Getty were born lay flat and bleached in a trough of land like a thumbprint, near but not on the coast, where ocean smells swirled and came to rest after losing their freshness. Every year was another drought year. Often they had to boil drinking water. There they had been known for their two sprawling families touched by accidental deaths: her uncle's drowning not in the ocean but in a lake where kids liked to smoke on rented speedboats, his twin cousins who overturned the car they shared on the highway outside Merced, her second-youngest sister who opened her leg on a saw in their father's shed and lay bleeding to be found by the youngest, his mother struck by a driver tearing through a yellow to make a flight. Each loss marked by a few rites and silence that soaked through their skin.

They are seated at a table in a raised alcove by a maître d' with a white mustache but dark eyebrows. The wood of the walls and table shine gently under lamplight. She has heard this is the restaurant where the university takes visiting lecturers and parents who make large donations. There are not a lot of other diners, just a few older couples in corners, hunched over soup. The maitre d' brings a white wine wrapped in a white napkin and pours. Cleo orders a dish of whole shallots roasted in their own juice, and fried sole with lemon and capers. She thinks how expensive it is. All the servers move without sound, backing away from the table each time they deliver something. Cleo spreads the sticky shallots like jam on wheels of baguette with chive butter. She wipes a piece of parsley from Getty's rough cheek. They get another bottle. She rests her head on the wall of the alcove while Getty sops up duck and melting fennel with more bread. Cleo thinks of the rats sniffing at each food in turn on the cutting board, and choosing their favorite. The poison smelled a bit like garlic, but she doesn't know if rats like or dislike garlic, only that they can't vomit or pass gas. She and Getty order a sparkling wine and a trumpet of mousse and a crème brûlée that cracks when they tap it with their spoons. She read that because rats are scavengers, they pause while eating to see if the food is making them sick. The effects of a poison must be delayed, or else the rats won’t ingest enough. Cleo thinks of a rat holding a gnawed-off crumble of poison and licking it, listening inside himself for anything amiss. She reaches over and feeds Getty a mix of mousse and crème brûlée from a long spoon. Getty reaches under the table and puts his hand in her lap, under her napkin, then on her thigh at her hemline, then under her dress. She adjusts toward him and drains her glass.

They drive home drunk on the dark back roads, and when they arrive they link arms and tug each other up the steps. Cleo puts Getty's hand on the side of her thigh and he clutches her while she unlocks the door. Once they are inside, he runs his hands up and down her dress, unzips her, and pulls her on top of him on the couch.

“Wait,” she says. “I might have poisoned the rats.”

“That's good,” he says.

“I have to go see,” she says, staggering up.

Cleo goes to the kitchen and crouches naked on the linoleum to inspect the cutting board. The cold pocket watch swings against her stomach and nestles in the fold of her belly button. The cheeses are gone except for some dried Boursin crumbs. The Swedish Fish has been stretched slightly around its midsection and lies next to the cutting board with tooth marks on its smooth underside. The poison has been pushed to the edge of the board but is still whole. Cleo picks up the poison and puts it on the counter.

“I didn't poison the rats,” she calls to Getty, who has his eyes closed and his forearm over his face.

“That's okay,” he says, muffled. “Come here.”

“I have to wash my hands,” she explains. “Because of the poison.”

Cleo pauses. Nausea glides over her. She heads to the bathroom sink, where she stands, panting, before the mirror. As she soaps her hands she thinks she will not vomit, but as she dries them she thinks she will. She sits on the floor and lifts the lid of the toilet, staring into its mouth and breathing ripples on the water's surface.

Before they moved, Cleo and Getty had made and miscarried a baby they had not been sure they wanted and so did not know how to mourn. If she hadn't found out first, she might have thought she was late and heavy. She wouldn't have thought much of it. But instead she spent a lot of time looking at the streaks of blood in the toilet, trying to read them. She had an idea that a group of cells together might look like one large cell, the way trees could seem to be made of tiny trees.

“Are you okay?” Getty asks, pushing open the door. He is rumpled and forlorn. His pants are undone with his belt still buckled. He joins her in front of the toilet. “Happy bird day,” he says quietly, touching her temple, her earlobe, her piercing.

The body knows how to take care of itself, a doctor once told her, about something else. Her broken arm, maybe.

Cleo blinks and they are kissing again. Then they are back on the couch, where Getty licks her and reaches up blindly to stroke her throat. She holds his head in her hands and wants to apologize for many hazy and forgotten things. She looks around the room, and on the windowsill near the couch is a large gray rat with a slack belly, sitting on its hind legs and grooming itself. The rat pulls its hands expertly behind its ears and along its face. It scratches under its chin with its hind leg and then looks down at her. She holds an open palm out to the rat and it leans forward over the edge of the sill, straining against instinct, taking in the scent of her skin with fast gulps and twitches. “Getty, look,” she whispers. Then it runs, its claws slipping on the sill, and jumps to the floor with a tiny thud. It disappears into a crack in the corner between the baseboards that she sees now is dark with grease where the rats have rubbed against the opening. “Wait,” Cleo says. Sitting up on her elbows, she lifts her leg over Getty's head and feels around for the floor with her hands and feet. She crawls over and looks into the hole. It smells like chalk and copper and peat. At the threshold lies a pile of plaster rubble and rat droppings like slender beetles.

There is a dry rustle in the wall to her left. Getty is saying her name, her real name, flicking the consonants crisply. No one else will ever say it so well. Cleo works her fingers behind the baseboard, brushing grit away with the side of her hand. It’s a few degrees cooler inside the wall. She thinks of the rats eavesdropping on the secret din of their home: water sloshing in the sewer, ice popping in the neighbor’s freezer, a jet floating overhead, the slow whistle of her exhale. All she hears is the softest sound, like fur against fur. With it comes a puff of breeze. She holds still, skin prickling, willing a whisker to reach out and receive her.