A Dog’s Breakfast

First appeared in Split Lip Magazine
Summer 2014 

When Teenie lumbered into view with the baby carrier on her chest, I had to stop myself from bawling. I didn’t really believe there was a baby in there – we had only started “trying” last month – but the sight of that half-price Butterball turkey bulging from the sling was almost enough to get me going. These days, it didn’t take much.

“It’s heavier than it looks,” Teenie said, winded, “but I wasn’t going to walk away from a deal like that.”

I rushed to take the shopping bags from her hands, pretty sure that’s what evolved men were supposed to do. As we crossed the lawless stretch of parking lot, I said, “Do we even know how to cook a turkey?”

“Do we even know how to cook a turkey?” she mocked. “And you thought all those reality cooking shows were a waste of time.”

We tried to laugh it off with frenzied little bleats, but it was too late. She hadn’t been talking about me or referring to what I had been doing for the past five years, but “waste” was the one word I couldn’t stomach. Ever since the verdict, it hung in our overheated rental like the smoke that used to fill the bars, back when I first heard the Testarossas on the jukebox, raging through dusty speakers that were mounted on the ceiling, just waiting to crash down on the floor and bust apart. 

*

Nobody expected Radley to be convicted. When the verdict was announced, I had to pinch myself until Teenie stepped in right after I gouged out a pleasing rectangular flap of skin just below the wrist. The allegations had been kicking around for a while, but we in the rock and roll milieu – as we liked to say the few times anyone came by for an interview – never thought they would stick. Every decent rock band boasted a few secrets, and we figured the extra coverage of Radley and the Testarossas could help us: the next best thing; the tribute band you’d call if you wanted to be close and you wanted the cigar; the Testaronas.

Right before the news hit, I was sure we were on the verge of a breakthrough. We usually pulled in a decent crowd, but last week we sold out the third show in a row. Gerry even comped us on nachos, which he personally delivered after I’d let off some post-show steam trashing the vegetable crate he left for me out back.

“Never thought I’d see the day,” he said, helping himself to beer from our pitcher. “People are crossing state lines to come see you guys. I guess the big guy upstairs has plans for us after all.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond then, and certainly not now. The more people came to our shows, the more I wondered why they didn’t tack on another thirty miles to go see the real band, who swung through the city at least twice a year. When the ladies mashed up against the stage and tracked my every move with their puffy, frantic faces, did they really think I was Radley?

True, I’d mastered his snarl and strut, and I rocked the sideburns and ironic polyester suits. I nailed the hair-mussing chumminess with Stu, who knew every epic guitar solo note for note, and I even aced Radley’s hip-swivel during “You Look like a Dog’s Breakfast but You’re Mine.” 

WWRD: I had it engraved on a stainless steel bracelet worn on stage, sometimes off. What Would Radley Do? Well, no, not that – never that.  

*

Teenie hunched over the kitchen table and began coaxing the turkey out of the sling. I gave her the thumbs-up and stepped onto the deck to take the inevitable call.

“Lay it on me,” I said, trying to calm myself by counting the shingles on the garage roof.

Gerry laughed or cleared his throat – he’d had something stuck in it for the past five years. He said, “I can tell you’re prepared for the worst.”

“Should I be?” It was futile, really, but this little dance gave me hope. “I mean, give it a few days and I bet people won’t even remember.”

Gerry was quiet at first. I could practically see him scratching his ear, waiting until a respectable amount of time had passed before he could say what he was always going to. “You can’t expect people not to make the association.”

“No, of course not,” I said, turning at the sound of Teenie swearing. The refrigerator and freezer doors were wide open, and she gesticulated as if she were telling off someone who lived inside. I closed the glass slider and said, “Look, people don’t want to be dragged down any more by this, so if we play even better than before, then won’t it be like we’re the real band, the band at its best?” I was getting excited now. “You said it yourself, Gerry, we’re a tri-state sensation, and people are smart enough to keep a good thing going.”

“I don’t think it’s that simple,” he finally said.

I stared at the maple tree on the property line. The landlady told us we could chuck any fallen branches into the neighbor’s yard since the tree was technically his, but that didn’t seem right. Besides, we loved the tree and its crazy squirrel slapstick. At the moment, two chased each other, circling the trunk a good ten times in some sort of manic skit. They were innocents, safe from harm. The way nature planned it, the way the world was supposed to work. The way the big guy upstairs promised, until the message got warped, and until the message got mutated, and until a few deviants and exceptions and monsters decided that no, sorry, that wasn’t the case.

“So, you’re saying tonight’s gig is off.”

“I need time to think this through,” Gerry said. “But tonight, we can blame the storm.”

I looked at the sky. “What storm?”

Now he was laughing. “The Nor’easter? The blizzard? What planet have you been living on?”

The one Radley ruled, up until that mug shot and those dead eyes blew it apart.

*

When I pulled into Stu’s driveway, he was down in the yard, picking up toys. Ellen was up on the porch, pointing them out. Their son waddled down the steps to greet me, but in the time it took me to get out of the car Ellen had pressed his shrieking head to her chest and whisked him inside. She kicked the door shut. 

“What’s with her?” I asked, picking up a ball on the path.

Stu shrugged. “Maternal instinct and an overactive imagination.” He dumped the toys into a basket and caught the ball. “How you holding up?”

I was still processing my welcome. “Sorry, but she knows I’m not Radley, right? She does know the difference, right?”

Stu waved his hand. “It’s a visceral thing. I kind of wish I hadn’t heard the details, either.”

As I sat down on the top step, I caught her glaring from behind the blinds. “How long does she plan on keeping this up?” Stu didn’t answer and joined me on the steps, though two Gerrys could have fit between us. We watched the guy across the street rushing to unload cases of bottled water and firewood from his SUV.

After a minute, I said, “Listen, I spoke to Gerry and tonight’s show is definitely off. But he’s using the storm as an excuse so nobody draws any conclusions.”

Stu cocked his head. “Like the conclusion, for example, that it might be time for the band that glorifies the music of the world’s sickest bastard to move on?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, of course tonight’s show is off, as is next month’s and the one after that. It’s obvious.”

“To who?” I shouted at the door. “Don’t worry, Ell. I’m not gonna lose it and pull down my pants or something.”

“Hey,” Stu cautioned, “leave her out of it.”

“Why should I?” I grabbed a Frisbee and hurled it onto the grass. I visualized flowery meadows, just like Teenie taught me, and counted to five. “Fine,” I said, “we’ll take the month off, but next month people are going to be crossing state lines again to hear the Testaronas. Are you in or out?”

Stu stood up. “If you’d bothered to answer your phone or show up at the meeting, you’d already know there is no ‘in’ because we’re taking a break.” He rammed his hands into his pockets. “Maybe it’s time to regroup, you know? Do something else. Maybe we’ll come back to it. Maybe one day we’ll even play as ourselves.”

“Ourselves?” The voice was so small I didn’t know it was mine. “But who would I be?”

Stu spotted a toy car under the hedge and hopped down the steps. Scooping up the car, the Frisbee, and a few twigs while he was at it, he said, “It’s not like you don’t have options. You could be an even more killer sales clerk. Or the biggest seller of polyester suits on eBay. Or maybe try being the man of the house, assuming Teenie lets you.”

I stomped to the car. As I turned the key in the ignition, the first snowflake touched down on the windshield.

*

By the time I got home, the driveway was covered. As I heaved the first case of bottled water onto my shoulder, I caught sight of an overturned trash can near the garage. On closer look, I noticed the crumpled, smoldering newspaper around it.

“When there’s a will, there’s a way,” Teenie said, dragging a bag of charcoal behind her. She added, “I couldn’t fit the turkey in the fridge or the oven, so I had to resort to the garbage can trick.”

I slid the water onto the deck, making a bit of a show of it. “What trick is that again?”

Teenie slipped on the landlady’s giant work gloves and began wedging charcoal briquets into the newspaper. “On one of those cooking shows, I learned you can cook a turkey in a garbage can.” She sniffled twice before sneezing. “But the snow’s not helping.”

I said, “How long does it need to cook for?”

“I think they said an hour or two, but…” She tilted the trash can off the ground to let me have a look. The turkey, jacked up on some kind of stake, was only one shade deeper than Teenie’s milky underarm. She pursed her lips together and said, “I just don’t want it to go to waste…”

There it was, that word again, and I shut my eyes tight. It occurred to me, however, that the snow and raw turkey would still be there, demanding my attention, when I got around to opening them. And so I did.

I reached for Teenie’s hands and pulled off the gloves. “Let me take care of this.”

I stormed through the mudroom and yanked open the double doors of the closet. Hanging inside were the cheap imitations of every suit Radley made famous. For the past five years, they had been my second skin on the second Friday of every month. But today, they were toxic.

And highly flammable.

I ripped the clingy plastic off the suits, bundled them under my arm and barreled into the kitchen. Teenie kept her eyes on the cutting board while I clanged around in the drawer and dug out the lobster pot with one hand.

The snow lashed my face as I hoisted the trash can off the ground and covered the turkey with the upside-down pot. The rim didn’t quite meet the ground, but I figured a little extra heat in my oven-within-an-oven would speed things along. Once the ring of balled newspaper around the pot was finished, I topped it off with briquets, letting a few spill underneath.

I lit a match on the fifth try and jumped back as the newspaper caught fire. Before I could change my mind, I tossed the suits over the pot and, dodging flames and fumes, replaced the trash can. My ears burned and the snow stung my cheeks, but I didn’t want it any other way.

Soon it was getting dark. The only light on the ground was the yellow patch thrown by the kitchen window. As I was moving the trash can to check the turkey, Teenie’s shadow fell over the pot. I blindly brushed the ashes and muck off the top with a stick, and when my eyes adjusted I jammed it under the rim and lifted.

I could see the bird was black, shrunken, pathetic. I squinted, trying to convince myself it was a trick of the light, or that maybe I could summon some hidden power to reverse the process. But as I was kneeling there, panicked, I heard laughter – somehow, above the wind and snapping branches, I heard laughter. In the window behind me, Teenie’s back-lit body was shaking with it.

For a moment, I wondered how she could be so happy. The turkey was charred beyond recognition, and here she was wiping her eyes and clapping her hands. Only when she blew me a kiss did I understand: it might have looked no better than a dog’s breakfast, but it was ours.