She skins carrots at the kitchen sink while her children play hospital in the back garden with the neighbor boy, Jack. She catches their fake adult voices and phrases like ‘code blue’ and ‘dead on arrival’ and ‘paging Doctor Wheeler.’ She is Sandy Wheeler, wife to Sergeant Wheeler, her husband shot in the chest from friendly gunfire in Afghanistan and honorably discharged since May.Whenever there’s silence from the back garden, Sandy squints through the sunfilled window, making sure the game of hospital hasn’t gone too far and that there’s no underwear removed. When she was a girl growing up in Brooklyn, far from her life here in Phoenix, Arizona, and playing hospital that one summer with Mark Delaney, Mark had convinced her the removal of her knickers was mandatory, a game rule. For weeks, Doctor Mark had tirelessly examined her vagina and butthole while she’d squirmed and wriggled on the grass, shivering at his touch and thinking what a brilliant, dedicated doctor he’d someday make.
Several weeks back, shortly after her husband had arrived home from the war for good, she’d gotten drunk at a party and told everyone her childhood story of Doctor Mark and how he’d gone at her goodo. One of the other military wives, Meryl, had said, “And at the time you and this Mark were both fifteen.” Sandy and everyone had laughed so hard, even her husband. Meryl has dyed, purple-red hair and that fiery-hot afternoon while everyone downed cold beer and fat, charcoaled burgers, Sandy had thought how foolish Meryl was to dye her hair such a loud, fake color, making it so obvious to everyone it wasn’t natural, like a too big, about to burst breast job. Lately, though, Sandy has started to think that if you do dye your hair, then maybe a fake, crazy-ass color is one of the most honest things ever.
Sandy’s daughter, Eva, shouts for her to come quick, her voice panicked. Sandy drops the half-naked carrot and the peeler into the sink and rushes out the back door. Eva and the two boys are standing close together, facing the far corner of the garden.
“What is it?” Sandy asks, crossing the parched grass and trying to keep the fear out of her voice. “What’s wrong?”
She sees the cat then: black, scrawny, more skeleton than alive, its coat scruffy and dandruffed, and its eyes a flashing green. Two blobs of yellow-white pus cling to the bridge of the cat’s nose like baby maggots. The cat does not appear to be friendly. The animal stares, defiant, and holds its right front paw high, like a weapon. Sandy had inherited a terror of cats from her mother, especially black cats.
“Make it go away, Mommy,” Eva says, her voice trembling.
The neighbor boy, Jack, picks up a rock and aims it at the cat.
“Don’t,” Sandy says with her schoolteacher’s authority and takes the rock from Jack. She likes its sharp feel. The cat charges and Sandy and the children cry out and stumble several paces backwards. Sandy raises the rock and aims at the cat’s head. She could fire the rock, she realizes. She could kill.
“Bastard,” she shouts at the cat, just as her mother would have done.
“Mommy!” Eva says, offended.
Sandy drops the rock and waves her hands at the cat, “shoo, shoo, get!”
The cat runs toward the back fence, pauses to look back at her, and then jumps into the neighbor’s yard.
“Aw,” Jack says, “you should have let me kill it.”
Sandy returns to the kitchen. The row of naked carrots on the counter makes her think of orange-red penises. The peeler’s mouth is stuffed with orange-red tongues. All those years ago, she and her mother had often baked together. Apple pies mostly. Her mother would always roll the extra dough on the kitchen table and then place the raw, sausage-shaped mixture on her palm and hold it under Sandy’s face.
“What’s that?” her mother would say, both mischief and a challenge in her voice.
Sandy had always felt tested, but just like the game of hospital with Mark Delaney, she wasn’t sure of the rules.
“I don’t know,” Sandy would say, her voice shaking.
“You don’t know,” her mother would say, both laughing and a little disgusted.
Then her mother would pull pieces from the dough penis and eat.
At dinner, the children tell their father about the feral cat. He’s an orderly at the hospital now, but won’t talk about that either. The puffed marks of booze and insomnia under his eyes look like black grapes someone has stood on. With her fork, Sandy flips her chopped carrots on her plate, unable to eat them. Maybe she should have fed the cat. At least given the thing some milk, what with this heat. Fucking desert, she almost says aloud. Poor Eva, if she heard her mommy say fucking and bastard in the same day. Poor Eva, if she knew her mommy thought the carrots and dough rolled just so looked like penises. The child would freak altogether if Sandy told her about that summer and Doctor Mark and how much she’d liked it.
“The cat did not appear to be friendly,” she tells her husband and immediately knows she’s said the wrong thing.
He grips his fork so the prongs are standing on the table and curls his fist so tight his knuckles look like Gobstoppers with all the color sucked off.
“Why can’t anybody talk straight anymore?”
He rants and his voice and color climb and Sandy mouths to Eva and Tommy, telling them to eat up.
“Jack wanted to kill the cat with a rock, but Mommy wouldn’t let him,” Tommy says, disappointed.
“Bad mommy,” Sandy says and smiles.
“Is anybody listening to me?” her husband asks.
“All I said what that the cat—”
“I mean, come on,” he interrupts, “‘Mistakes were made,’ ‘peacemakers,’ ‘patriots,’ ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ and boy oh boy, ‘aerial ordnance.’ You know what all that shit stands for, right?”
“Daddy!” Eva says, offended again.
He points his fork at Eva and addresses Sandy, his face a frightening red and his eyes and the tendons in his neck popped.
“It means girls, women, boys and men. Just kids. Kids. And babies. Babies! It means terrible, terrible things.” His voice breaks.
Sandy wants to stand up and move around the table and hold her husband in her arms, tell him it’s okay, it’s all over. Instead, she remembers the line of raw, naked carrots on the kitchen counter earlier, like a row of strange, unyielding penises. Eva asks if they can have ice cream for dessert.
“Of course, baby,” Sandy says.
Tommy pumps his tanned arms in the air in victory.
Later, in bed, her husband reaches for her. Sandy tenses; she can’t help it. It’s not his scars. She doesn’t mind his scars. He tries again to stay erect, tries again to reach climax, and again she’s dry and burning and sore, and again he gets frustrated and then angry and punches the pillow and then the bed board and then he rolls off her and falls onto his back
and she thinks maybe he’s crying. He throws off the bedcovers then and she thinks oh no, please no, and he gets out of bed and crosses the room and takes the belt from his jeans, clink, clink, and she thinks, he is, he is. He comes back to the bed and cinches his belt around his neck and kneels on the floor next to her and asks her to pull, harder this time.
She shakes her head and says, “No, please, you know I don’t want to.” Please, he begs and starts to whimper. Shaking, she takes the belt and holds it like a leash and thinks of that horrible cat and tugs.
Ethel Rohan is the author of the story collections Goodnight Nobody (forthcoming 2013) and Cut Through the Bone, the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. She is also the author of the chapbook, Hard to Say. Her work has or will appear in World Literature Today, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, The Rumpus, and Post Road Magazine, among many others. She earned her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives in San Francisco where she is a member of the Writers Grotto. Visit her at ethelrohan.com.