Being a large version of a small thing does it. The big, shiny brown ones that sit on the walls at night and wind up on your face before you wake to smacking yourself as the son of a bitch takes off behind the headboard. Most people have a natural distaste for the fuckers, but Linda was one of those women who lost her head every time she saw anything nasty like that. Of course Florida was the worst place for that sort of thing. Called them palmetto bugs down there, and I learned early in our marriage that she just couldn’t take it. That was Linda. She was always like that, and during those island summers there was usually something crawling around in the heat: rattlesnakes, cockroaches, lizards and whatever else. Seemed like they ran the place sometimes. It was always in the back of her mind. Couldn’t even breathe if she saw one getting close to her, creeping along the linoleum.
“I truly hate them,” she’d say. “The Devil’s army.”
Of course we’d been married about a year by then. She was pregnant and we didn’t stay too long after you were born because of the size of the place, the rat and some other shit I probably can’t remember. I told Linda it was only temporary. It was a small apartment, but cheap and on Anna Maria Island, which might be my favorite part of Florida. Perfect for young, broke newlyweds. You’ll have to ask her about the exact details and all. I can’t remember the actual date. Had to have been around late 82 or 83.
That place was the first home you ever had. Somewhere there’s a photo of you sitting on the back of my motorcycle in the front yard. You in your tiny Cleveland Browns jersey. The silver Yamaha 350, I think. You remember that purple Kawasaki? It was the bike before that. Fast little thing. Bought it off my friend Barry Kid who worked with me at the resort. He was a real funny guy. I don’t think you ever met him. Loved to hit on married women out by the pool and at the tennis courts. The man was unstoppable. Got lucky a few times too. He sold me that bike for real cheap. Said all I had to do was sing at his wedding, which I never did of course. Barry Kid had this long, curly, dirty blonde hair like he was Sammy Hagar or something. I still feel bad about that. Should’ve sang at his wedding.
Like I said, we had to leave not long after you were born. It was a fine place, but it was small and pretty rustic out there. It didn’t seem like there were many people on Anna Maria back then. Just the beaches and a bunch of shrubs and palm trees everywhere. Lots of green, and white sand. Can’t remember ever seeing bad weather outside of hurricane season. Pretty ideal, if you ask me. Linda liked it too but maybe not in the same way. The palmetto bugs alone were enough to kill her and the baby. I’m not joking. It was nuts. She’d see one and scream my name to high heaven. I swear to god, you should have seen her. A never ending battle against “the dark forces of nature,” as she put it. Dramatic as always. She’ll never admit it, but I think she was losing it out there.
I remember once we had just come back from the doctor’s towards the end of the pregnancy. That was almost thirty years ago. Wild. So she leaves the passenger side of the old Subaru, and on her way into the house steps right over a rattlesnake. No joke. Just walked over it without a second thought. So I ran up behind her and stomped the poor thing to death. It was brownish and gold and white with a fat, heart-shaped head. Tiny little thing. I think it was a baby, but it was still a rattlesnake. I tried to be real quiet about it, but of course she heard the stomping. Probably turned around with all that black hair, narrowing at the eyes like she did.
“What are you doing?”
She was always holding her belly in that small, blue dress. The one with the pineapples that her mother brought back from Germany. Don’t know why I remember that dress. It was cut short just above her knees and she looked real pretty in it. Guess she wore it a lot.
“Just getting something,” I said.
“What are you talking about, getting something?”
“Just had to grab something.”
“What was that?” She said, looking over near my feet.
“Nothing, babe. Go inside. I’ll be in in a minute.”
“Yep. Big one,” I said.
“Don’t worry. I got it.”
“So gross,” she said.
I looked through the grass for the mother who I figured couldn’t have been far off. Maybe that’s not how it works. Don’t know, really. Felt bad that it was a baby, though. Damn rattlesnakes. What was I gonna do?
She got it out of me later, of course. Starting going on about her nerves and the pregnancy. Getting over-excited in the middle of the tiny living room with its thick, drab carpet. She’d pace and I’d sit on the sofa near the sliding glass door that looked out towards the soccer fields and the community center just beyond the yard. On Saturdays you could go out and watch the games. I never did, of course. The bleachers were only a stone’s throw from our backdoor. Nothing too exciting. Just junior high-school kids playing soccer. So I’d sit there and kind of listen to her. She’d talk my ear off about how she wanted to move back to the mainland, or out to California to be near her mother and sisters. She was tough sometimes, but she was the prettiest thing on the island. Difficult and pretty wild back then. Her black hair and dark skin. Long fingers moving around when she spoke. I could only grin and look out at the bleachers and patches of grass, hardly visible under the one field-light.
There was a stretch of time in the end when I was having strange dreams about losing the baby. Fear of a miscarriage or something. There was this bad one where I could see Linda’s body in bed, except it didn’t really look like her. She was pale and pregnant but she looked sick or dead. Very white. Like some kind of terrible horror flick. I’d wake up covered in sweat. Wasn’t a big deal, really. I bet everyone gets a little fucked up around that time. The thought of losing your wife or your kid or both. Still freaks me out a little when I think about that. The mind likes to sneak up on you and wiggle the knife a bit. Keeps you on your toes, I guess.
Anna Maria Island. I miss the hell out of it, actually. Back then it was still pretty cheap to live there. I don’t know about now. Haven’t been back. My mom was the one who told us about the place. She lived over on the mainland in Bradenton. Manatee County. So we stayed with her for a while until we found the apartment on Anna Maria. It was a duplex owned by this older lady named Mrs. Nettles or Mrs. Needles. She lived in the connection. The first thing that comes to mind is the small door in the water-heater closet that lead to her side of the house. One water heater for both sides. We made jokes that she’d sneak into our side at night and drink beer and take pictures of us sleeping. Pretty stupid. The tiny door was locked of course, but it was like a passage-way, except there was nothing on the other side but Ms. Needles or Mrs. Noodles. I can’t remember her name. She didn’t do much, and she had these very big, flabby arms. They flapped like wings when she pointed at anything or talked with her hands. I think there’s a photo of her and you somewhere. She had this fake-looking, curly hair and wore big, tinted glasses like you see in photographs from the 70s, or movies from the 70s or about the 70s. She mostly kept to herself. We only ever heard from her when she complained about Cheyenne taking a shit on her side of the yard.
That was one hell of a sweet dog. A big yellow lab with a pink nose and a mask of white fur around the eyes. Linda found her as a puppy, abandoned in a shopping cart out in front of Piggly Wiggly. The girl had a knack for bringing home stray animals. Once her mom told me that when Linda was little, she would find cats and dogs in the street and sneak them into the house and put them in her closet. Fed them scraps of food from dinner. She was a big softie when it came to animals and kids and stuff like that.
Linda had Cheyenne for a couple years before I met her, but I loved that dog. One hell of an animal. Sometimes she’d chase down the palmetto bugs when they were brave enough to venture out in the daylight. Once Linda baked us a chicken for our six month anniversary. It was kind of gold and I can still see it because it was shiny from all the juices or whatever. Like in an advertisement for perfect chicken.
So we were in the backyard having a few drinks while the bird cooled. I had these two lawn chairs set up outside. It was pretty nice to sit out there and drink while the sun went down. Shoot the shit and talk about the future. So anyway I went inside to check on the chicken and found nothing but a shredded carcass hanging out of Cheyenne’s mouth. She had jumped up and pulled our anniversary meal to the floor. Nearly devoured the whole damn thing. Only little chunks and grease left scattered across the linoleum. It looked like she’d eaten half of the bones. I was pissed about the chicken but Linda was scared Cheyenne would choke to death from swallowing all the damn bones. She was fine, though. Just threw some of it back up in the yard not long after. But she was really a good dog.
Years later when we lived back on the mainland some half-blind lady pulled up onto the curb and took Cheyenne half a block under the back wheel. The dog didn’t die that day but she couldn’t walk. Linda slept in the kitchen with her for a few nights and cried before I finally had to take her to be put down. That was awful. Linda didn’t speak for a while. Cheyenne was a good dog. Good with the kids.
But anyway, the weather was always nice out there. Never that humid. Coldest it ever got was around fifty-something at night. From April through October it stayed pretty warm. Nine miles long and full of white sand. Fucking paradise, really. Something about unchanging beach towns. Hand-painted signs and old, shitty fishing piers from leftover bridges. Even our apartment with that orange mural of a soft, fading Florida sunset just behind the sofa. Neon pinks and orange. Thing stretched all the way to the ceiling. We didn’t pay for it or anything. It was there when we moved in. I thought it was pretty cool. Very 1980s. The reflection off the dropping sun shot this spear of light down to the wide brush-strokes of the sand and palms. Lots of shadows in it. Almost thirty years ago and I can still see it pretty clearly. Can’t remember if Linda liked it or not. I think she did. I think she’d say she liked it now. Wish I could get that thing back.
Linda was pretty funny sometimes. She used to sit in the backyard on Sunday afternoons and read before she went in to wait tables at The Silver Leaf.
“Honey, come out here and sit with me,” she’d say.
“I’m here. I was out here before you were, babe.”
“But you’re not sitting with me. Sit next to me.”
“I’m right here. I can touch you I’m so close.” I touched her.
“Move closer,” she’d say. And she’d go on and on until I was practically on top of her.
Or I’d come home from work sometimes and find Linda on the floor with Cheyanne in front of the sunset-wall listening to Beach Boys records or that old Frank Sinatra album.
“Have a beer,” she’d say. “Come sit next to me.”
“I need a shower.”
“Where should we go?” She’d ask.
“After the baby?” Touching her belly.
“Anywhere you want.”
“I just want him to have fun.”
“He’ll have plenty of fun.”
“I want him to be really happy though.”
“He will be.”
“I know, but more fun. I want him to have more fun than us.”
The evening air was always coming through the screen door and it felt good, and I thought we were pretty damn happy. The place wasn’t so fancy, but at the time it was really something to be young and married and on an island together. Linda said a lot of funny stuff during that first pregnancy. I’m sure she was having fun, though. I think she got nervous because of the baby. That’s normal. She was a very complicated girl. Very pretty, and a little crazy. She said a lot of funny things.
When the rat showed up it was late in the third trimester. Linda woke me by shaking the hell out of my shoulder. It usually meant there was a cockroach sitting on the wall.
“Wake up. Wake up. Can you hear that? Do you hear that?” I woke to the shaking and heard a scratching noise coming from the closet. Biting or claws on wood.
“Something’s in there,” she said. There’s an animal in there.”
I told her it was Mrs. Nettles digging through her side of the closet, but she knew that was bullshit. Wouldn’t let me sleep until I got up.
“There’s something in here,” she whispered, digging her fingernails into my arm.
“It’s probably just a mouse,” I said.
“Sick. So sick.”
“I’ll get it.”
“I’m going to leave.”
“I’m leaving here in the morning.”
“Dammit. Just relax. I’ll see what it is.”
I turned on the light and threw open the closet door. I was pretty pissed off at that point.
“Don’t kill it,” she said after a long pause.
“Don’t kill it. Just get it out of here.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said and looked into the empty closet, not really looking for anything. Dark shadows folded over shapes. Clothes, cardboard and bullshit. Lots of bullshit.
“I don’t see anything,” I said. “It’s nothing. There’s nothing here.”
The next night I heard it in the kitchen. I thought it must have been something pretty big. Best thing to do was keep it from Linda, of course. Cheyenne didn’t help. Started barking to high heaven one night out of nowhere, the sound of her toenails tapping on the kitchen floor as she ran after the thing. Cheyanne was a big dog. Couldn’t get into cupboards or behind the fridge. Meanwhile, Linda was about to drop the baby on the damn rug. Doctor said it was just about time, and I had this huge rat to worry about. Pain in the ass, to say the least.
I finally brought some traps home from the resort. Those big Victor brand traps with the thick gauge wire. I loaded the triggers with peanut butter and put them around the kitchen, and one in the closet. I didn’t want Linda to know about the traps, but I had to make sure she didn’t catch her little hand in one. Those things are mean. Easily snap your fingers off if you’re not careful.
“Will it kill it?”
“It’s unhealthy to have it in the house,” I said. “Bad for us. Bad for the baby.”
“It’s still terrible.”
“You won’t even know when it happens. I’ll take care of it.”
“What if she’s pregnant?”
“What if it is?”
“Jesus,” I thought. She said it just to mess with my head, I’m guessing.
When it happened we were on the carpet in front of the sofa again. Usual conversations, sea-air coming through the screen door, Pet Sounds spinning on the record player.
“You want something to drink?” she asked.
“I’m gonna get a beer here in a second.”
“You want me to get it for you?”
“I’m the one who’s supposed to wait on you, pregnant lady.”
“I’m not useless yet.”
The trap went off with a loud crack. “What was that?” she asked. But the way she looked at me…she knew. The scream started as something very small, like I’d imagined it, but it got louder until it was drowning out the sound of the music. Ear-splitting.
“What is that? What is that?” She was crying. Tears running down her cheeks. Maybe on the pineapple dress. Maybe not. I don’t know if it was that dress, but that’s how I see it now. Taking liberties.
I ran to the closet and opened the doors. I could see its tail flailing around like a goddamn bull-whip. The thing was huge and grey and wet-looking. The copper bar had crushed its spine but it was still alive, screaming for its life. I mean it was deafening. Like I was murdering someone. I went over to the bed and picked up the metal bat I kept next to my night-stand. I walked over to the closet and decided I didn’t know what I was doing.
“Is it dying?” Linda said, standing behind me at the door.
“Go into the kitchen,” I yelled.
I could hear Cheyenne barking over the music and Linda repeating something unintelligible.
“Hold the damn dog,” I said.
“Is it dead?” she whimpered, voice cracking.
“Calm down,” I hollered back. “Just hold the dog.”
I picked it up by the back end of the trap and walked through the living room, past the neon mural and out to the backyard. It was dark except for the white light in the field. I dropped it in the grass and picked up a big cinder-block that was near the soccer bleachers. The thing had gotten quiet. It was breathing slowly. Barely hanging on. Its wet, gray body was still moving around, but not much. No more sound. I dropped the cinder block and walked back to the house. Linda was at the door holding Cheyenne by the collar.
“It was just a rat,” I said.
“Why did it scream like that?”
“I don’t know. It was pretty big.”
“It sounded like a baby,” she said.
“Don’t say that. Don’t talk about it.”
I stood there with her for a while until the record finished playing Caroline, No.
We didn’t stay long after that. Moved over to the mainland as soon as she had you. It was a pretty strange thing, I guess. It was just one of those very funny things.