Glenna is my fishwife and she stinks of low tide. Neither her smokestack cigarette habit nor the fog of perfume she inhabits can best the reek of rotten fish that wafts from her palate and palms, pits and pudenda. It is not a laughing matter. One day people will Run for the Cure to Fish Odour Syndrome. There will be celebrity endorsements, arms raised in victory at the finishing tape, and smiling sufferers grateful for the sanctioned attention.
In the meantime, Glenna ignores strangers’ suggestions she improve her personal hygiene, eats a restricted diet—no eggs, or peanuts, or chocolate, or beans, little meat—and we sleep in separate bedrooms. We have sex only in the shower, our bodies slippery and sudsy with a pungent PH moderate soap. In the shower, Glenna whispers filthy words to me and calls me filthy names and asks me for filthy acts. I want everything she says to be true so, except for one thing, I do everything she asks.
In my ad on the Write a Prisoner website I wrote I was a Marriage Minded Man. Although not necessarily true, it wasn’t essentially untrue. I received seventeen marriage proposals and many prayers and offers to show me The Way to Salvation Through Our Lord Jesus Christ. Almost every letter contained heartfelt poetry and a photograph. Sometimes topless. I did what any man in my circumstances would do; I chose the prettiest one.
Every morning I watch from our kitchen window, a clot of dread in my chest, as Glenna buckles herself into her bright candy red car and backs out of the garage. The car is perfectly safe—for a death machine. It has airbags and childproof locks. The tires are inflated to the recommended psi. An authorized dealer services the car. Glenna is small and sits too close to the steering wheel. She chain-smokes and talks on her cell phone as she drives. I worry about collisions, the docile plastic bumpers, the violence of the exploding airbags, the purposeful steering column. (I worry about lung cancer from tar, nicotine addiction, brain tumours from microwave towers, and other sanctioned afflictions, too.) I drink sugary black coffee and distract myself by reading the calendar on the refrigerator door—it is a precisely highlighted and annotated appointment schedule for Glenna and the girls with immunologists, allergists, dietitians, psychologists, and a chiropractor, although, to my knowledge, the girls and Glenna do not have any back or joint problems. Most often I have no opinion about the calendar so when I expressed concern that the number of appointments this week (Monday: Acupuncture; Tuesday: Dr. Wilson; Wednesday: Hair Cuts & Photos; Friday: Dentist) would make it difficult to get the girls’ lessons completed, Glenna put her hand on my cheek and told me I’m a good man. I felt the hot wash of shame run through my face and guts.
Glenna runs a small perfume and soap shop on a trendy urban avenue. Two beautiful young women work the front of the store. Glenna mostly keeps to a small, well-ventilated backroom where she mixes her custom blends. She charges outrageous prices for her concoctions, which her clientele quietly believe contain the secret of attraction. Glenna is her own best customer.
My worries ease when she calls to say she has safely arrived at her store. Then I eat sparsely buttered dark toast, pour the dregs of the coffee pot into my cup, and call Jenna and Johanna for their daily lessons. They smell like their mother, in a softer, fish-bowl way, and Glenna will not hear of sending them to school, so I home-school them in spelling, grammar, and arithmetic by rote, and worry about how I will teach them higher mathematics. They are allowed a modest dose of leisure television and one hour a day with an iPad. Glenna has me spritz the girls with perfume three times a day. It makes them smell like ditch weeds. While I am uncertain this regimen is best, I do not argue. Instead, I have a secret name I use when she is not around or within earshot: I call Jenna and Johanna “my guppies.”
An electronic leash around my ankle tethers me to the house. A black box plugged into the phone snitches on my every move. My leash is waterproof so I need not remove it for our waterlogged sex life. But I cannot take the trash or recycling to the lane and sometimes it makes Glenna crazy mad that she must do all the mowing and snow clearing, and this takes some of her pleasure out of gardening. I could not walk my guppies to school, even if I had to. Every time the phone rings I rehearse The Conditions of My Parole: I have not consumed any alcohol or drugs or attended any functions where alcohol was served. I have not purchased any firearms. I have completed my mandatory drug and alcohol counselling. I have completed 300 hours of community service and I have finished my anger management class. I have not been in contact with any felons. Every Thursday morning the caller is Evelyn, my parole officer. I am her most innocent client. I prove this by calling her every day.
Tuesdays and Thursdays my guppies walk to their friend Amanda’s house for a play date. On Wednesdays, Amanda comes to play with my guppies and sometimes her mother, Trudy, comes for tea. Trudy has a blotchy forehead and teeth like a rugby scrum. She is pear-shaped and always wears fleece jogging suits, a different colour for each day: pink, lilac, powder blue, mint green, or butter yellow. Trudy smells like Ivory soap and generic underarm deodorant and this gives me a hard-on. I shift in my chair and keep my back to her if I have to stand. If my guppies run into the room, I make sure they can’t jump into my lap.
Soon after Johanna’s third birthday, Eric, Glenna’s first husband and father of the girls, decided he could no longer stay. Not even for my innocent, white-throated guppies. He had done, he said, the right thing long enough. This, he said, was not how he imagined his life. He could no longer, he said, suffer the stink of them all. He packed his clothing and left. What can I say to help my girls, whose father could not stand the smell of them? What worse is there to protect them from?
Fridays I am allowed a three-hour unescorted absence from the house. I wear baggy jeans to conceal my electronic leash. Glenna takes the afternoon off and drives me downtown. Some days she drives slow and sheep-like, forgetting her turns and simply steering where the traffic flow takes her. Other days she curses and honks and gives the finger through the windshield and turns where she pleases. I would prefer to drive but The Conditions of My Parole forbid it. Glenna takes my girls to the new glass and steel library. I walk to a Starbucks three blocks away. The coffee shop is always crowded with people oozing purpose—the hunch-back with the Hitler moustache who draws superheroes in a fat sketchbook, students diligently typing into laptops or highlighting textbooks and notes, the bun-headed ballet students counting their calories. I order an espresso, usually from Angie, a platinum blonde with three rings in her lower lip and an elaborate Chinese dragon tattoo curling down her right arm, or sometimes from Rita, a middle-aged widow with a Shar-Pei face who likely never imagined she’d need to serve coffee to keep her house. I take my espresso to the patio to practice smoking. I need to deaden my taste buds and dull my sense of smell so I can fuck my wife in her bed and save my marriage. Smoking is like breathing for Glenna, but my smoking isn’t going very well—I’m coughing too much and my sinuses burn. Judging from the warnings on the packages, I figured I’d get hooked in a snap. I’ve taken to pretending, pulling a little smoke into my mouth every once in a while. Mostly I just let the cigarette smoulder and diligently scrape the ashes into the crimped tinfoil dish that passes for an ashtray. Then I light another.
It was a spring of high water when Eric left Glenna and the girls. Glenna said when she knew for certain he wouldn’t return, she packed the girls into the car and drove to the Floodway. The water was high and its smooth rush was a bleak invitation. She had driven the perimeter of the city twice and the girls were dozing in the backseat, lulled by the drive and the overheated car. Glenna talked about how easy it would have been to simply roll down the embankment and let the water do its worst. Glenna told me this twice—the first time during our first phone call. The second time she said it in a letter, and further down the page, she listed the sexual acts and the household chores she expected from me.
The bad smell days are stretching into bad smell weeks and Glenna asks for increasingly bizarre sexual acts. I ardently comply—except for the one thing I refuse—even though I find myself conjuring Trudy’s ordinary scents. It happened when my guppies and Amanda were playing in the backyard. Trudy was standing over the sink looking out the window, her fleece-clad bottom a wide powder blue plain. I walked up behind her and buried my face in her sweetly scented hair. She pressed her bottom into my groin. I slipped my hand under her shirt and inside her bra. We could have stayed that way all afternoon. Instead, I pushed her to the floor and we fucked quickly and silently and with much more satisfaction than I had anticipated. Afterward, I felt as though I were looking at a photograph of myself from a time I didn’t remember. Later that day I phoned and suggested sexual acts we could do next time.
On our wedding day, I vowed to take Glenna as she is, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. She won’t hear of it. Every evening she comes home, spritzes herself and the girls with her latest potion, sets incense to burn in every room, and sits down to surf the Internet for news of a cure—gene therapy, self-help groups, surgical experiments. On very bad smell days she opens all the windows and runs fans throughout the house. There is one moment each day I can’t stand to look at Glenna—when she takes her morning pills. There are too many to count: low dose antibiotics, charcoal and copper and chlorophyllin, multivitamins, Children’s Aspirin, and sundry herbal capsules. After dinner, she starts her bookkeeping. A few days ago Glenna said she wanted to sell the shop and go back to university to study genetics. She believes she can find a cure for her fishy stink.
Most lessons I begin with geography. Our many atlases, purchased from used book stores, are perpetually spread on a table made from an old bathroom door and two sawhorses. We track the wash of history—the flexible borders, the rechristened capitals, the mortality of nations: only the continents are resolute. After a snack of oatmeal cookies and apple juice, I have them draw and colour their own maps of the world. I do the same; my are maps borderless fantasies. This morning, Glenna reminded me, is their dental appointment, so in between cereal mouthfuls, I coach my guppies with addition and subtraction flash cards. Their freshly cut hair shines in the sunlight.
A quick round of kisses and they are out the door. I sip my coffee and stare out the kitchen window, the clot of dread in my chest doubly large. But once Glenna pulls from the garage I will call Trudy. She has arranged to leave Amanda with her mother, and then she will come over and we will go to my bed.
My coffee is a sugary slurry at the bottom of my cup and I think about my guppies’ new haircuts. When the phone rings I know it is Evelyn and grasp without glancing at the schedule that today is not dentist day because yesterday was haircut day and I am not leaving for my three hours of smokey respite and Glenna has not backed her bright candy red car into the lane and the clot of dread bursts into a nebula. When I am out the back door and quickly off the patio, the black box sends its warning down the phone lines, squealing I am violating The Conditions of My Parole. I kick in the garage door and step into smog.
When I shatter the rear windows with a garden spade and reach to free the girls from the backseat, Glenna fights me. Still buckled tight behind the wheel, she turns and fights. Under the shower last night Glenna asked again for what I always refuse. I wouldn’t do it then, but I do it now, twice hard across her face. I pull Jenna and Johanna screaming and crying from the car and then lie coughing with them on the grass. Glenna is shrieking through her bloodied lips—cursing God and Eric and me—and revving the engine ever higher. When I return to drag her from her death machine, Glenna sinks her teeth deep into my forearm, her nails gouge my cheeks and eyes, and I think to relent, wishing I had answered one of the perfumed letters offering to show me The Way to Salvation Through Our Lord Jesus Christ, fearing my return to a grim five metre square pen, knowing Trudy is waiting for my call…
And in this moment, hooked into my flesh nail and tooth, Glenna has never smelled so sweet.
This story first appeared in Prairie Fire Vol. 30 No. 3.
Copyright © Todd Besant. All rights reserved.
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Best paired with Pruno, read aloud.