Four Day Worry Blues, fiction by Murray Dunlap

Round 1:

I’m naked to the waist.  The first blow comes in low and fast.   I weave left, but his fist catch­es my right oblique.  I spit blood onto bare feet and upper­cut with my right.  I miss.  His jab catch­es my chin.  The room blurs and I step back.  The cross lands hard against my tem­ple.  I feel the wall at my back.  I feel glass break­ing against expen­sive art.  I feel the floor rise up to my knees.  Lean­ing for­ward, my sweaty fin­gers grab at the edge of the rug. The woolen threads feel soft.  My face press­es against hard­wood and glass.  I smell bour­bon.  The man but­tons down his cuffs and leaves the room.  It’s our first liv­ing room, the one before all the divorces and the step-this and half-that.  I have this dream every night.  Some­times the man is my father, some­times it’s Mason.  Most times I can’t see his face.  Either way, we go at it bare knuck­les.  This morn­ing, I wake up with bruised hands.

Round 2:

I duck down, step­ping back and block­ing with my fists. He comes in fast.  He lands two jabs, an upper­cut, and fin­ish­es with a cross.  I’m blind­ed by sweat and blood.  I cov­er my face, peer­ing between fin­gers.  It’s Dad tonight.  No, now it’s Mason.  The dream is always like this.  I shut my eyes.

            Mason lets me stay in his room the first night at the Uni­ver­si­ty.  Dad for­got to send board­ing fees.  No one knows where he is.  The guy assigned to live with Mason nev­er shows up, so things work out.  Mason and I have been best friends since mid­dle school. His hair turned gray senior year, so I start­ed call­ing him Gov­er­nor.  Then every­one did.  It was as much for the hair as for his pol­i­tics.  He wants to be JFK.  He keeps our room white-glove clean.  Mason’s father, who drove up for wel­come week­end, gives Mason an Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary.  He wraps thick, hairy arms around our necks and says Sewa­nee will make men of us.  I hear him remind Mason that his schol­ar­ship requires at least a 3.0.  Mason reminds his father that he was vale­dic­to­ri­an.  The father gives Mason twen­ty dol­lars. Through the crack of the bath­room door, I watch them hug.

The dorm is coed.  I walk the breeze­way over­look­ing the court­yard.  Heather steps out of her room in flip-flops with a tow­el over her shoul­der.

Have you tak­en the swim­ming test?” she asks.

Heather braids her pony­tail and looks at me with huge green eyes. A black bathing suit shows through her t‑shirt.

A test?”

The Uni­ver­si­ty says every stu­dent has to swim 50 yards.”  She spins gog­gles on a fin­ger. “They don’t want us to get drunk and drown in one of the lakes.”

Oh,” I say. “I didn’t know.”

The lakes are every­where. Lit­tle death traps when they freeze under the snow.”

I swim all right.”

I’m going now. Wan­na come?” Heather taps paint­ed toes. She smiles.

Sure. I think so. Is the test in a lake?”

Of course not. The cold would kill you.”

But it’s only Sep­tem­ber.”

Are you com­ing or not?”

Round 3:

I try a jab-cross com­bo but the man is quick.  The cross leaves me open and the man dri­ves a straight to my ribs.  I hear the stitch­ing rip in his starched white shirt.  I pull up, lift my fists.  He upper­cuts to my jaw.  Blood fills my mouth.  I can’t catch my breath and I can’t see clear­ly.  The man turns blur­ry and his next hit lands across the bridge of my nose.  I step back.  I hold out my hands in sur­ren­der.

I’m pack­ing for Mon­tana.  Dad said no, but I’m going.  Heather’s going too.  My can­vas bag looks like a split pota­to with clothes pop­ping from the seam.  I slide my fly rod into an alu­minum tube and fill a plas­tic box with Pheas­ant Tails, Zug Bugs, and Hop­pers.  Mason comes in from a mid-term and sits on his bed.  A poster of JFK is taped to the wall over his shoul­der.  Next to it, his auto­graphed pho­to of George Stephanopou­los. Our beds lie four feet apart in this tiny dorm room.  He rubs a hand under his jaw line.

My throat is killing me.”

You prob­a­bly pulled some­thing study­ing last night.  You should fix it up with a fifth of whiskey and dirty sex.”

Seri­ous­ly, it hurts.”

All that read­ing will do you in.”

Grades equal mon­ey.”

How long has it hurt?”

A week now.  Are you going to hang that shirt up?”

Does my nose look ok?  Took a soc­cer ball in the face.”

I can’t see any­thing.”

You should talk to the nurse about that throat.”

I’ll see my doc­tor at home.” Mason picks at the hem of his khakis.

What about the beach?”

Can­celled.”

What?”  I turn from my clothes and face him.

I feel like shit.”

Shake it off.  Be a man.”

Bite me.”

Mason picks up my shirt and hangs it in the clos­et.  He opens our mini-fridge and grabs a coke.

Whiskey, Gov­er­nor.  Not coke.  And I’m pack­ing that shirt.”

I thought Mon­tana was off?”

Why don’t you ever drink?”

What about your Dad?”

Who gives a damn. It’s not like he’ll remem­ber in a week.”

I turn back around, put my knee into the clothes, and press down hard enough to zip the bag.  My ribs throb with pain.

Round 4:

Heather stands between us.  She lifts both arms, palms out.  She push­es off my chest.  I move back.  But the man grabs her hand and twists Heather to the ground.  I watch his boot twist into her shirt as he comes after me.  I put every­thing into a straight and knock Dad’s teeth out.  But he gets up.  He sits in a Wind­sor chair and gums a bloody cig­a­rette.  Heather dis­ap­pears from the dream.  It hap­pens some­times.

Dad says, “Got me good, did ya?  But you’ll nev­er get away.  Look at that hand.”  I look down at one of Dad’s eye teeth jut­ting from my knuck­le.  I pick it out and toss it to him.  In the dream, he pops it back in his mouth.

On the east bank of the Black­foot riv­er, Heather and I sit on a fall­en hem­lock. We’ve fished through the cold morn­ing.  Warm sun­light final­ly breaks over the tree line as I light two cig­a­rettes.  I pass one to Heather.  She moves to the water’s edge and bal­ances at the edge of a flat rock.  She flips up the creel lid and looks inside.  Two browns and a brook trout slosh in the frigid water.

Should we release them?” she asks.

I thought they were din­ner.”

We bought steaks.”

Fine by me.”

Heather lifts trout one at a time.  She cra­dles their slick bel­lies under­wa­ter until instinct reminds them to swim.

We should get a dog,” I say.

What kind?”

The big kind.”

Like a Box­er?”

No.”  I rub my thumb against my index and mid­dle fin­ger. “Pound dogs are free.”

You wor­ry so much about mon­ey.”

That’s because I don’t have any.”

You’re rich.”

Dad is rich.”

What would we name it?” Heather throws the emp­ty creel onto the bank and fin­ish­es her cig­a­rette.  She grinds the butt against a rock and thumps it at me.

Blue,” I say.

Why Blue?”

Why does he have to be such an ass­hole?”

Booze.” Heather pulls a six pack from the riv­er.  She hands me one.

Blue is a good name for a dog.”  I drink from my beer. “So when are you going to ask me about the fight­ing?”

What fight­ing?”

Patch­es of sun­light flit across my hands and the cuts are hard­er to see.

Yeah,” I say. “Blue.”

Round 5:

The man lands his first punch.  I shake it off, skip right, and work a com­bi­na­tion.  My jab nicks his chin.  He side-steps the cross.  Then he lands three for three and I’m spit­ting blood.  I try to call the fight, but my swollen tongue won’t pro­duce sound.  I duck under the har­vest table and stay to the shad­ows.  Bro­ken glass lit­ters the cold floor.  It smells like bour­bon.

Mason’s not at the dorm when I get back, but the room is immac­u­late.  I unzip my bag and throw every sin­gle piece of cloth­ing on the floor.  I check the machine.  Two mes­sages from Mom and then it’s Mason:  Hey Ben. I’m still at home. I’m sure I’ll be back in a day or two. How was fish­ing? Call me.

I pick up the phone and dial.

Gov­er­nor.”

Ben.”

Got your mes­sage.”

Yeah.  It’s not good.”

What’d they say?”

They did a biop­sy on the lymph node in my neck.  Hurt like god-almighty.”

Shit.”

It’s Can­cer.”

I say noth­ing. I scratch at the back of my head and look around the room.  Fish­ing gear on the bed, skis in the cor­ner, and my bike hangs from the ceil­ing. Mason hard­ly owns a thing.

Hodgkin’s Dis­ease.  That’s what they called it.  Said it’s treat­able.  No sweat.”

I tap the phone against my ear.

You still there?”

Yeah. I’m here.” I strug­gle for words. “Sor­ry, Gov.”

It’s fine.  I’m fine.”

I’ll come down there.  It’s only a cou­ple of hours.”

Seri­ous­ly, I’m fine. How was fish­ing?”

I tap the phone against my ear.

Round 6:

I move in and upper­cut to his stom­ach with my right.  The man stag­gers back, bump­ing into the sil­ver tea ser­vice and top­pling the sug­ar bowl.  He spits to the hard­woods.  I see blood.  He’s angry now, but I still can’t see his face.  This time he throws a hay­mak­er.  I’m off my feet and falling fast.

Dad leaves the cabaret.  The high­way is dark.  He steers with his left hand and drinks ’82 Lafite Roth­schild from the bot­tle with his right.  “Hot­house,” he says. “Hell of a place.”  The wet black­top glit­ters under stray pock­ets of lamp­light.  Dad finds the replay of the game on the radio.  The Cubs are up by one at the top of the ninth.  He lis­tens to the Reds strike out as the right tires of the Mer­cedes stut­ter on cen­ter mark­ers.  The car drifts into the right lane.  He taps his thumb against the steer­ing wheel and clos­es his eyes.  The shoul­der grav­el vibrates the car and Dad wakes.  He over­cor­rects left.  The car cross­es both lanes and dips into the grass medi­an, pop­ping over the mud­dy ditch and climb­ing the oth­er side.  Dad looks into the glare of oncom­ing traf­fic as his car leaves the medi­an.  All four tires leave the ground.  The Mer­cedes’ front bumper hits first, shat­ter­ing glass and bend­ing met­al on the rear door of a tan Buick.  Both cars spin off the shoul­der and into the weeds.

A high­way patrol­man is first on the scene.  He calls in the ambu­lance and checks the Mer­cedes with a flash­light.  Blood runs from Dad’s fore­head into his open mouth.  He taps the steer­ing wheel with his thumb.

Hey hey, Cub­bies,” Dad says.

Sir, are you all right?”

Chica­go wins again.”

Do you know where you are, sir?”

I’m in Ala­fuck­ing­ba­ma you lit­tle shit.”

I see you’ve been drink­ing.”

The ’82 is every bit as good as the ’59.”

Don’t move Sir, para­medics will be here soon. I need to check on the oth­er car.”

The patrol­man jogs to the Buick.  He checks with a flash­light.  The woman in the driver’s seat slumps for­ward.  The child in the back screams.  The patrol­man feels for a pulse on the woman, then turns to wave the ambu­lance in.

At least, this is how I imag­ine it hap­pened.  I’ve talked to the cop.  I feel sure I have it right.

Round 7:

I come at him swing­ing.  I’m hyped up and punch­ing hard.  The man dances around my swings, grin­ning.  He bobs side to side, then lands a cross to my jaw.  The sting of it flicks a switch in my head and I rush him.   I shove him to the ground and kick his ribs.  The man curls into a ball.  I kick his face and sides, the back of his head.  I jump down and grip his shoul­ders.  I spit in his face.  The man keeps grin­ning as Heather pulls me off.  Even this close, I have no idea who he is.

Mason lies back in the ICU, head ele­vat­ed by pil­lows.  A ven­ti­la­tor breathes for him. Vase­line has been slathered in his eyes.  I’ve been told it’s a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion.  They can’t treat the Hodgkin’s for a virus in his heart and they can’t treat the virus for the Hodgkin’s.  The wait­ing room is crowd­ed with fam­i­ly and friends, but the doc­tor only allows us to say our good­byes one at a time. Mason’s sis­ters and moth­er talk us through it.  The old­er sis­ter says, “He can hear you, so say what­ev­er you want.”  I don’t know what to say.  On the night­stand, the moth­er tears open a white sug­ar pack for cof­fee.  Her hands trem­ble and less than half finds the cup.  She tears into anoth­er.  The younger sis­ter looks up to me, then turns to Mason.  She says, “Time to go play in the clouds, Bub­ba-cat.” At this, the moth­er cries.  I start to ask why she calls him Bub­ba-cat, but don’t.  I real­ize it’s time.  Mason’s moth­er hugs me, but can­not speak.  I stare over her shoul­der at the spilled sug­ar.  Mason’s moth­er kiss­es my cheek.  I move to the table and brush the gran­ules into my hand.  I make sure I get them all.  Then I nod to Mason and step out through the cur­tain so the doc­tors can turn off the machines.

Round 8:

I land two jabs and a cross.  The man takes one step back, then dri­ves for­ward with a straight to my nose.  I fall back­ward onto the antique butler’s tray.  Bot­tles of wine shat­ter under my weight.  I look up from the floor and see the man pick­ing through the shards.  It’s Dad.  He lifts a piece with the label still intact and reads from it.  “Intense­ly fla­vored with cas­sis, spice, and wood.”  He drops the glass and stands.  He cross­es his arms. Heather steps in from the kitchen and rush­es over.  She kneels in the wine and press­es two fin­gers against my wrist.  She’s say­ing some­thing, maybe even yelling, but I can only see her lips move and chin trem­ble.  I can’t hear a thing.

Dad gropes the sheets with shak­ing hands.  He kneads folds of thin fab­ric, releas­es, then kneads again.  Blood soaks through a ban­dage on his fore­head where the ’82 Roth­schild pierced his skull.  I’m the only one here.  I sit on a met­al fold­ing chair and look at the dull mon­i­tor screen, blip­ping with­out rhythm.  I glance at my hands, three band aids on the left, four on the right, then down to my leather boots.  I bought the boots years ago.  Just like Dad’s.  Same brand, same size.  A scuff on the right toe match­es one on the left heel where I kick them off.  I dig the right toe in between the leather and sole, send­ing the left boot to the floor.  Left boot, then right. Always in that order.  Dad does the same. The mon­i­tor squawks and I look up.

Hor­ri­ble wreck,” the doc­tor says. “He may not make it through the night.”

I look at the doc­tor, expres­sion­less, then back at my father.   The tubes mum­ble and pulse.  I can’t think of any­thing to say, and instead, I begin to hum soft­ly.  My voice grows stronger as the hum­ming becomes words.  It’s an old blues bal­lad by Blind Lemon Jef­fer­son:

Just one kind favor

                        I’ll ask of you

I sing loose and smooth, imi­tat­ing Blind Lemon as best I can. The nurs­es peer at me with side­long glances. They pre­tend not to notice.

One kind favor

                         I’ll ask of you

 

I keep singing.  I for­get myself and sing loud­ly, loud enough that I think Dad might hear.

Lord, it’s one kind favor

I’ll ask of you

 

The mon­i­tor emits a con­stant beep that I remem­ber from movies and dreams. I pro­duce the last line with air from deep with­in my lungs.

See

                         that my grave

                         is kept clean.

 

The doc­tor moves to Dad and checks his pulse.

Sor­ry,” He says. The doc­tor clips the heart mon­i­tor back on to Dad’s fin­ger.  “False alarm.”

The machine resumes even beeps.

Christ,” I say.

These lit­tle clips are tricky.”  The doc­tor makes a rou­tine check of vitals, and turns to me smil­ing. But then his face changes.  His eyes open wide.

You’ve got a hell of a nose bleed.”

I look down at my shirt, my pants.  Blood cov­ers every­thing.  I lift my head and hold my nose.

Nurse,” he says. “Bring me some gauze, a tow­el.”

I stare at the ceil­ing.

Don’t wor­ry son, your father’s turned the cor­ner. He’s a real fight­er.”

Christ,” I say.

I ball my hand into a fist.

Round 9:

Mason goes down in a sin­gle punch, but I’m not sure I threw it. He falls back, opens his eyes and says, “Look at Bub­ba-cat now, he sure ain’t the Gov­er­nor.”  He won’t get up.  I scream at him to get to his feet, but he lies side­ways on the floor.   He reach­es for a blan­ket on the couch and pulls it over his face.  Tables, chairs, paint­ings, and lamps lie in pieces around the room.  There is noth­ing left unbro­ken.  Heather stands behind me, so I turn to her.  She opens a new pack of cig­a­rettes and pulls two out.  She lights them with a match.  Music begins to play from some­where unseen, dis­tant and mut­ed.  But it’s enough.  Heather drops the match into spilled bour­bon as we walk through the door.

I say, “I’ve nev­er left this room.”

Heather says, “You have now.”

 ***

I stand out­side our crum­ble-stilts house, ten years since Mason died.  Crick­ets edge between blades of grass, hid­den, click­ing and chirp­ing the night song we all know.  My toes yawn out, press­ing into the cool and damp.  Alaba­ma moon­shine falls across the lawn and my hands slip into cot­ton paja­mas for a cig­a­rette and match.  Blue sniffs invis­i­ble trails, tail wag­ging and head down low.  His muz­zle turned gray last win­ter, and it’s hard to believe we’ve had him this long.  Heather drove us straight from the funer­al to the pound.  We sat on fold­ing chairs in a lit­tle square room and a woman brought pup­pies to us, one by one.  Blue had the biggest paws.  Today is his birth­day.

We’ve just moved in to this house.  We’ve unpacked our box­es and we’ve done the clean­ing.  We do not feel like strangers in this house.  My grand­fa­ther built it.  The Chil­dress Riv­er winds along the back yard and dis­ap­pears south.  Dad jaun­diced when his liv­er gave way to tumors last year.  He sur­vived the wreck, but not the drink­ing.  He left all his mon­ey to a wife some­where, but we don’t know her.  Blue goes to the door and looks back to me.  His shoul­ders sit almost as high as the door­knob.  Above Blue, I see Heather through the screen.  She no longer smokes.  It’s hard­er for me.

The moon is clos­er to the Earth than usu­al.   The night is clear and I look up at the craters, piec­ing togeth­er eyes and a mouth.  I can’t make out much of a nose, and only when I squint does he take an appro­pri­ate shape.  In this light, my hands appear ivory white.  No cuts, no bruis­es.  Lead­bel­ly calls out to me from our win­dow.  It’s Four Day Wor­ry Blues.  I’m not sure if I’m awake, so I wig­gle my toes.  The grass feels real.  Crick­ets drop lay­ered chords into our song.  I glance down at the sil­hou­ette of garbage at the curb, box­es and bags of Dad’s clothes and cracked glass­es.  With all his belong­ings inside, the house felt clut­tered and dirty.  So I threw them out.

Look­ing back to the moon, I say, “Good­night Gov­er­nor,” and take a deep breath.  I put out my cig­a­rette and walk bare­foot to the house.  Blue fol­lows me in.  Heather is already asleep, and I slip into bed with­out wak­ing her.  I watch her eyes dart side to side under closed lids.  It’s warm here and I’m tired, so I make a fool’s wish.  I put an arm around Heather.  I shut my eyes.  I wish to sleep with­out dream­ing.

Mur­ray Dun­lap's work has appeared in about forty mag­a­zines and jour­nals. His sto­ries have been nom­i­nat­ed for the Push­cart Prize three times, as well as to Best New Amer­i­can Voic­es once, and his first book, "Alaba­ma," was a final­ist for the Mau­rice Prize in Fic­tion. He has a new book,  a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries called "Bas­tard Blue," that was pub­lished by Press 53 on June 7th, 2011 (the three year anniver­sary of a car wreck that very near­ly killed him…). The extra­or­di­nary indi­vid­u­als Pam Hous­ton, Lau­ra Dave, Michael Knight, and Fred Ashe taught him the art of writ­ing.

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2 Responses to Four Day Worry Blues, fiction by Murray Dunlap

  1. ginabobina says:

    This left me some­what speech­less — incred­i­bly pow­er­ful and I real­ly like the struc­ture.

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