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short story    
 
photo of Mark Jude Poirier


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  Mark Jude Poirier: Burning Sticks


Bridgewater sat on his small cement patio under the white Tucson sun, waiting for his friend Roger to show up. He burned words into green palo verde sticks with a pen-sized disposable cauterizer-one used to seal the snipped ends of the vas deferens during a vasectomy. Two months earlier, Bridgewater had swiped the cauterizer from a metal cart as he waited alone in his urologist's examining room. He had thought it was a penlight, a drug company's promotion. He slid it into his shirt pocket before the doctor opened the door.

"You wake up hard, right?" the doctor had asked, lightly rolling Bridgewater's penis through his gloved fingers.

"Like a teenager."

"How often have you had a problem?"

"Four times," Bridgewater said.

"Total?"

"Yes."

The doctor sighed. "Four times is not a problem." He clicked on his head lamp. "I'm more concerned about this," he said, as he traced Bridgewater's circumcision scar, a brownish, uneven line. "This is why it hangs a little to the left. I can fix that easy."

"That's OK," Bridgewater said. He pulled up his plaid boxers.


Today's stick words: BORED, BORING, BORINGEST. He flung the sticks over the dried wood fence one at a time and waited for Twinkle to bark.

No barks.

Bridgewater stood on his toes and peered over the fence into his neighbor's yard. Only Jersey, a happy toddler whose untamed black hair was fluffier than usual. Jersey wore only his Pampers, played in the loose dirt, slapped it so puffs of fine, brown dust bloomed atomically from the ground. Bridgewater hoped none of the sticks had hit the kid. "Hi," Bridgewater said.

"Da," Jersey said.

Then Bridgewater saw Twinkle. She was sprawled on the other side of the cement porch, chewing on a boot in the sketchy shadow of a desiccated hop bush. When the dog spotted Bridgewater, she perked her ears and chugged around the corner of the porch, her sinewy hind legs stretching past her snout, her tongue flapping to the side like a scarf. She skidded at the fence and looked up at Bridgewater. Her eyes were frightening: eyes too human for a dog, eyes black with malice and lust like they should be darting excitedly from behind a zippered leather mask. Twinkle's head was boxy, and her paws were as big as a man's fists. Meaty dog. One hundred pounds of muscle.

"I already threw them," he told Twinkle. "There's one over there near the hose." As Bridgewater pointed, Twinkle sprang at his finger, scraping her claws on the fence, clicking her teeth, growling. Jersey burped from under clouds of dust.

"Hold on." Bridgewater turned around and looked for something to throw. He grabbed a water-damaged and sun-faded paperback which had been rotting in his backyard next to his collapsed chaise since his buddy Roger lent it to him months earlier on a trip to Mexico: Spangle by Gary Jennings, 869 pages. "Good one," Roger had said. "First book I finished since junior high." Bridgewater didn't read much, either, just the physics and chemistry texts from which he taught. Bridgewater tossed Spangle over the fence.

The dog pinned the fanned-open book with one paw, and shredded it with her teeth, thrashing her head like a hooked salmon. She chewed clumps of pages, entire chapters, and swallowed them convulsively, her eyes rolling white in ecstasy.

Jersey clapped his dusty, dimpled hands.


When Bridgewater had first spotted Elizabeth at the faculty meeting back in the fall, he mumbled, "Thank God," to no one. He nearly tripped over flabby Patrick Jewitt, the middle-school drama teacher, in a frantic effort to sit next to Elizabeth, who had claimed a seat in the corner near the water cooler. Elizabeth looked as if she had spent the summer in the mountains somewhere: rock climbing, kayaking, hiking. She was tan, and wore river sandals with a flowing skirt and gray T-shirt. Her long hair was the color of freshly cut oak, and she tucked it behind her ears and smiled at Bridgewater as he unfolded a metal chair next to hers. Bridgewater watched her doodle images of flowers and bicycles on the cover of the faculty handbook. The headmaster, Firman Gingerich, began his welcome speech. Bridgewater tapped Elizabeth's handbook with his pen and wrote, You bike? next to her drawings. She wrote, I bike, but I'm trying to listen.

Firman sucks relentlessly

Elizabeth focused on Firman and nodded along to his speech as she wrote, He keeps looking over here.

We could go biking later.

We could

Want to?

If you stop writing on my folder

OK

Stop it

OK

Stop

I'll stop writing on your book now

Elizabeth placed the handbook under her chair.

They mountain-biked that afternoon, in Starr Pass behind the new development's sprawling golf courses and swimming pools. Elizabeth ripped up the trail, hopped rocks, plowed through loose arroyo sand, zoomed by clumps of dried salt bush. She waited for Bridgewater at every fork in the path, sometimes taking off again before he could catch his breath. "I love this," she kept telling him.

Bridgewater's thighs and lungs burned as he followed her. The white sun fried his forearms, and the water in his squeeze-bottle was warm and tasted like plastic. At one point, as he was pushing his bike up a steep, craggy hill, he spotted a fat horned lizard basking on a shot-up and toppled NO HUNTING sign. "Hey," he yelled to Elizabeth, "come look at this!" But she was too far ahead. He let his bike fall, and it slid a few feet down the trail. He skinned off his sweaty gloves and snatched up the lizard. Its white underbelly felt warm and moist, rubbery. He could feel its little heart racing as it tried to wiggle from his grasp. When Bridgewater touched its spines, it shot a thick stream of blood from its eyes, splattering Bridgewater's seventy-dollar bike shorts. The blood smelled like fried clams.

Later that day, when Bridgewater dropped Elizabeth off at her place, a small adobe house in Barrio Volvo, a few blocks from the University of Arizona, she said, "Thank you so much. Want to ride again tomorrow?"

"Great."

On his way home, he stopped at the drug store and bought a tube of Ben-Gay.


They rode often, even after the school year began and each had piles of papers to grade. Elizabeth taught history and English to ninth graders. Bridgewater's physics and chemistry classes were full of over-achieving juniors and seniors. Right away, the students sensed Bridgewater and Elizabeth were a couple, which Bridgewater thought was unfair considering he and Elizabeth had not yet had sex. For the first few weeks, he anticipated that one of his students would say something inappropriate about Elizabeth and him, so when Michael Khan raised his hand during lab prep period and said, "You look tired. Were you and Miss Allaby up late last night?" Bridgewater didn't flinch. He impassively said, "Take out your calculators. Quiz."


On a muggy mid-October Saturday, Bridgewater and Elizabeth racked the bikes to Bridgewater's Honda, loaded the tent and cooler, and drove up the twisting highway to the top of Mt. Lemmon where towering pines provided shade and the altitude cooled the air by twenty degrees. After they finished pitching the tent in a weedy meadow, they biked over to a single-track trail that wound around snowless ski runs.

Not even fifty yards into the ride, Bridgewater hit a stump, flew over his handlebars, and skidded on his stomach across sharp rocks and branches into a prickly shrub. At first he didn't move; he just lay there, twigs and dirt in his mouth, trying to figure out which of his burning, throbbing body parts hurt the most--until he heard Elizabeth. "You're f**ked," she said, standing above him.

Bridgewater spit out a pebble. "Shut up."

Elizabeth awkwardly pushed both bikes back to the campsite. Bridgewater followed, limping, moaning.

When they reached the tent, Elizabeth said, "Strip out of those and let's see the damage."

Bridgewater gingerly squeezed through the zippered flaps and kneeled in the middle of the tent. The afternoon sun pushed against the tent, lighting the interior in fiery hues of red and orange.

Elizabeth crawled in. "I'll do it," she said. Bridgewater put his arms above his head. She began to peel off his shirt.

"Ow!" he yelled from under his shirt. "Ow!"

"Sorry." She pulled the shirt all the way off and examined his wounds. There was a crosshatched strawberry abrasion on the left side of his abdomen, and a deeper, longer scrape cut across his chest. "You almost lost your boobies."

"I think I did something to my jaw." He rubbed it and winced.

"Now stand up."

He stood, his head pressing on the top of the tent, and Elizabeth peeled down his torn Lycra shorts, the seventy-dollar ones. Hunched in the orange light with his penis inches from Elizabeth's face, Bridgewater twitched and sucked air through his teeth. Elizabeth gingerly plucked pebbles and splinters from the painful gouge on his hip.

"This one's really deep," she said. "No stitches, but deep."

"Oh," he said.

They still hadn't done anything but kiss--not even that passionately--but Bridgewater had figured and hoped they would have sex during this camping trip. Now he wondered if he could. He looked at his penis: not as small and retracted as it could be after such a wipeout, but not gaspingly huge, either.

She continued to clean the hip wound, even aiming a flashlight at it. "You have a first-aid kit in the car?"

"No," he said, "and stop staring at my genital."

"Oh," she said, "is that what that shriveled thing is?"

"Shut up."

"Is it all right?" She lifted it with her index finger and let it flop down again. "Feels dead."

"Concentrate on the wound."

She didn't, and a few moments later, his blood smeared over her thigh. A dark smutch stretched across her abdomen. With each rise of her hips, Bridgewater felt his wounds daubing her flesh, clinging and releasing.


Twinkle was appeased, snacking on the novel, so Bridgewater decided to go inside and blast his evaporative cooler, maybe watch some TV. As he was turning the pump switch to on, Roger yelled at him from out front: "I got chimichangas! And a twelver of Pacifico!"

Roger had been behaving this way--bringing over gifts of food and beer, acting cheery--since the night about a month ago, early in the summer, when Bridgewater had confided in him about his relationship with Elizabeth.

"She said it has nothing to do with the four times I couldn't get it up," Bridgewater had told Roger, "but I know it does."

"Who's the guy in Boston?"

"A friend of hers. An MIT dork."

"How long is she going for?"

"Until August."

"Man," Roger had said, shaking his head.


Today, when Roger walked into Bridgewater's living room, Bridgewater decided they wouldn't talk about Elizabeth. Roger wore his usual: a tentish Hawaiian shirt, faded Levi's, and one-dollar flip-flops. He handed Bridgewater the bag of food from the taco stand. "You know," he said, "as I was swimming my laps today, I figured out that I'd have to swim like six and a half miles to work off one chimichanga."

"Maybe this daily ritual of beer and fatty food should end," Bridgewater said, as he poked his steaming chimichanga with a plastic fork--carne seca and guacamole. "Maybe not."

"Tomorrow I'll bring salad and spring water." Roger pulled up his shirt, rubbed his rounded, woolly stomach. "Beer's bad for your problem, anyway."

"I no longer have that problem," Bridgewater said. "I never had a problem. The doctor said it wasn't a problem. So shut up."

Roger sat down next to Bridgewater and grabbed the remote control from the coffee table. He flipped through channels until he found a cooking show. A man with a pointed goatee flipped crepes. Bridgewater could smell the chlorine from the lap pool on Roger.


"I've never had this problem before," Bridgewater had told Elizabeth the first time it didn't happen. He lifted the sheet and looked at it. Lifeless. Like a dead thing, a butcher's scrap. He wanted to hit it off his thigh.

"I've never had this problem, either," Elizabeth said. She sat up. "But it's not a problem--really."

"Maybe it's report-card stress," Bridgewater said hopefully.

She blew her hair out of her face. "Maybe."

The fourth time it didn't happen, a few months later, Elizabeth said she was glad, and began to kiss Bridgewater's ear.

"You're what?" he said, turning so she could no longer kiss him.

"I'm glad."

"You seem to like it when it works."

"We could just lie here and kiss all afternoon. We could take a cool bath." She leaned over to kiss him again.

Bridgewater dodged her, rolled out of bed and stepped into his boxers. "I don't get it. It works three times in a row. It fails. It works seven more times. It fails. It works six more times, and now it's useless again. I'm going to the doctor."

"You're such a baby," Elizabeth said. She too rolled out of bed. She pulled on a Red Sox T-shirt.

"I'm only thirty-one. This shouldn't happen."

"I'm sick of this topic."

"I even put my breakfast in the blender--Special K." Bridgewater began to tuck the sheet corners under the mattress.

"Why?"

"Blood rushes to your stomach to help the churning process, so I figured I'd do some digesting before I ate so there'd be plenty of blood to rush to other parts."

"Are you retarded?"



After swallowing the last few drops of his fifth beer and belching, Roger declared Bridgewater's living room a farting lounge and sputtered a loud one.

Bridgewater had only finished three beers. The Mexican food left a burn that crept up his throat.

"Call me Virgil," Roger said in a hick accent.

"Not now." Bridgewater didn't feel like abiding Roger's perverted hillbilly routine today.

"You got a problem, Purdy Mouth?"

"Your fart stinks." Bridgewater fanned a TV Guide in front of his face, breathed through his mouth.

"I seen you 'round these parts, Purdy Mouth."

"What the hell did you eat, anyway?"

"Time for Purdy Mouth to dance. Real slow--but get faster." Roger wrung his hands, left his mouth open, curled his upper lip. He stared at Bridgewater.

Bridgewater ignored Roger, and clicked off the loud TV. When Virgil, the lonely backwoods lecher, or Sergeant Surplus, the purveyor of stolen government-issued sex toys appeared, it was time for Roger to stop drinking. "Let's go somewhere," Bridgewater said. "Let's sit in the pool for a while then go to The Tap Room. The pool's never crowded at this time."

"I dint bring no swim panty, Purdy Mouth."

"Are you too fat now to borrow my shorts?" Bridgewater stood, began to clear the empty bottles and Mexican food mess from the coffee table.

"Help me up, Panty Man," Roger said, extending his hand.

Bridgewater placed the bottles back on the table and grabbed Roger's dry, callused hand. Roger jerked Bridgewater down to him and kissed him: a dental clank, abrasive whiskers, soft lips, warm, wet tongue.

Bridgewater shoved Roger and stumbled to the side before he regained his footing. He wiped his mouth across his forearm. "Leave, please."


"I'm sick of you and your obsession," Elizabeth had told Bridgewater as they sat at his kitchen table after a Cinco de Mayo street party. "And it's too hot here already." Each was crabby because of a parking fiasco on Fourth Avenue that resulted in Elizabeth getting a sixty-five-dollar ticket.

Bridgewater pretended to focus on the physics test he was grading. He whispered meaningless strings of numbers and then looked at Elizabeth as impassively as possible. "Where will you live?"

"In Somerville, with Stan."

"That crewcut geek in all your pictures?"

"Grow up."

Elizabeth found a visiting grad student to sublet her little house, and left for Boston two days after final grades were turned in. As Bridgewater kissed her good bye at the airport, as he hid himself in her hair, he couldn't believe she'd really be gone for ten weeks, seventy days.

He told himself that he'd keep busy, that he wouldn't have time to miss Elizabeth, but he found himself playing with the cauterizer and drinking beer with Roger more days than not.


After the kiss, Roger's eyes bugged. He silently grabbed his keys from the coffee table and skulked out.

The kiss might have just been part of the Virgil routine, a sick joke that went a little too far--and Roger was drunk, so he shouldn't let him drive off in his truck. He imagined Roger swerving down Campbell Avenue, getting pulled over by a cold-faced cop, being asked to recite the alphabet backwards.

Bridgewater was left with a nervous and sickening twist in his stomach--the same feeling he had experienced at the beginning of the summer, soon after Elizabeth left for Boston, when he and Roger drove seven hours to camp and hike near Tuba City, a small Navajo town up north where street vendors sold garbage-can-grilled hot-dogs wrapped in bacon for fifty cents each. Bridgewater ate four hot-dogs without any intestinal distress. He'd had nothing better to do while Roger was off trying to find a mechanic to fix his squealing steering column. Bridgewater had also chugged a few forty-ouncers as he sat on the warm, plastic bench in front of a mini-mart and watched local teenagers playing basketball in the side lot.

After a few hours, just as drunk-and-angry Bridgewater was about to go to the phone booth and call every mechanic in Tuba City to track down Roger, a buck-toothed man asked him if he liked squaws and led him to a room behind the mini-mart where a blonde, pantless woman lay prone on a yellowed mattress. On seeing the woman--her sweaty hair strewn about the pillow like dead tentacles, her scratched-up legs--Bridgewater said, "No," and jogged back out into hot parking lot. Standing in the shade of a peeling billboard, he looked over the sea of red mesas and spires that reached up into the blazing sky, and clutched his gut.

Now, as he heard Roger revving his truck outside, he felt the same sick, nervous knot.


A few hours after Roger left, Bridgewater paced across his patio, kicking dried mesquite beans into the dirt. The sun began to sink towards the jagged mountains, smearing the sky with orange and purple flares. Bridgewater knew he should be moved by the splendor, but he couldn't be; his nervous stomach wouldn't let him, and Roger's kiss still held an uncomfortable immediacy. He could hear Jersey on the other side of the fence again, giggling, babbling happily. He hoped Jersey had been inside, that he hadn't been playing in the dirt all day.

Bridgewater ripped a large branch from the ravaged palo verde and sat down in the chaise. He began to burn a phrase he had once read on a desk in his classroom--SOME MORNINGS I CAN'T BRING MYSELF TO CHEW THROUGH THE LEATHER STRAPS--but only finished SOME MOR when he heard strange, labored wheezing from over the fence.

Jersey was on his hands and knees. Twinkle stood beside him, calmly licking his back. When Jersey rolled over, Bridgewater could see that his face was red, purple almost.

"Hey!" Bridgewater yelled. "Hey, your baby is choking! Hey!"

He yelled again, but the only one who noticed was Twinkle. She looked up from Jersey and growled at Bridgewater, lifted her thin black lip to reveal crisscrossed incisors.

Bridgewater grabbed the partially-burned palo verde branch and jumped the wall. As soon as Bridgewater's feet hit the dust next to Jersey, Twinkle clamped onto his ankle and began to tug. He felt each of her teeth--they burned into him. He beat her with the thick branch, every strike a useless hollow thump. The dog pulled him away from the choking toddler, caused him to stumble. From his position on his butt, he rammed the end of the branch into Twinkle's forehead. She whimpered and released his leg. He felt the warmth of blood soaking through his sock as he stood and staggered over to Jersey.

The baby felt slack and warm, but still wheezed as Bridgewater scooped him up by the waist. Jersey hung over Bridgewater's elbow, his chubby little arms loosely dangling like a puppet's. Twinkle was soon back at Bridgewater's ankle, the same bleeding one, pulling and gnawing. Before he fell again, Bridgewater squeezed Jersey's abdomen. Out popped a slimy rock, the size of a peach pit. The gasping toddler squirmed from his grasp and landed on top of the dog before rolling onto the ground.

Bridgewater fell, too, and as Twinkle dragged him through the dirt by his mangled ankle, he desperately grabbed the palo verde branch and began to smack her head again. She released his leg after he poked her eye, mashed the end a few inches into the socket, hard enough to make it bleed. Twinkle lay down and pawed her eye, whimpered. Bridgewater stood on his good leg, again used the branch to beat Twinkle.

He didn't hear Jersey's wailing or Twinkle's yelps of pain. He didn't hear Jersey's mother's screams or Jersey's father's what the hells. He finally stopped beating Twinkle when Jersey's mother turned the hose on him.

With the spray in his face, the droplets making a rainbow in the last rays of sun, Bridgewater calmly said, "I saved your baby. I did. Me."
 
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    Copyright © 1999 by Mark Jude Poirier.

Photo credit © Amber Dermont