Writer’s Note: I’d been thinking about how isolating love feels when it goes wrong and how marriages crack along childhood fault lines. This story seemed to work best in staccato bursts, with lots of space on the page. From the first draft, this narrator had a funny, all-or-nothing, fanatical mindset. That voice is what escalates the trouble.
Cheryl and I think marriage is a cult of two.
We hold a séance for our sex life, candlelight shadows on the lemon-yellow tapestries. We chant, “Come back, lover, mouth like a vacuum. Come back, stalactite cock dynamite.”
The shade flaps up. We almost leap into each other’s laps.
Across the street, the Baptist Church looms like a slaughterhouse. The preacher’s kid in me feels the compulsion of Christ, how once you’ve found Jesus, you needn’t feel anything ever again.
Salvation: prophylactic for the soul.
Power-moms jog through the nothing sound we call the silence of the lames. Cheryl comes from the planet of soccer moms and PTA meetings, where people shake their heads and tsk tsk at crimes festering elsewhere.
We’ve been married thirteen Halloweens. We try a therapist who asks, “What’s the trouble?”
Where to begin? The world tilted. We can’t decide whether it was before or after the awful election, or which one of us hates our job more.
“How does it feel to keep all that inside?”
We tell her it’s none of her business.
She pulls out a pouch, drops tobacco and a filter in a paper, rolls it factory-tight.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” she says.
We speak Latin from the Book of Incantations to summon a 1950s housewife to prepare space-age meals and sew buttons and band-aid our skinned knees. Someone to wipe the counters, solve our problems, shut the fuck up.
After a few thunderclaps comes three raps on the cellar door. Cheryl opens it to nothing but whooshing wind.
We sit with Milton Bradley’s Ouija board across our knees, fingers on the sliding planchette, calling to Beelzebub, Pazuzu, Kali, Cthulu, Manson. We ask why love is tethered to pain, why it pulses in the corner like a body-snatching pod.
They respond H-E-L-L-O-S-E-X-Y and H-U-B-B-A-H-U-B-B-A.
We can’t explain what love can’t conjure.
Our therapist, the sadist, asks Cheryl, “How do you feel when he speaks for you like that?”
The couch widens as if on a conveyer.
“I feel like we want different things,” Cheryl says.
The therapist tosses her a cig.
She buries our voodoo dolls in the overgrown garden. She won’t listen when I play LPs backwards.
One morning, she appears in strange clothes.
“I’m going for a run.”
She bounds into the street past the horrific beige houses.
“What fresh hell?” I whisper to nobody.
I go to the slaughterhouse on Sunday to normal twice as hard as Cheryl. The pastor is the most satanic man I’ve ever seen. He wears gold chains and Super Bowl rings.
He says, “Believe in Him and He’ll believe in you!” so many times the words tap my lymph nodes.
Bodies wander the aisles to be saved. We kneel before the holy ghost.
Before long, the pastor’s got his Jim Jones hand on my forehead.
The congregation dances around my cratered heart.
I tell the sadist no one appreciates her invasive questions, not everyone wants their insides displayed on meat hooks.
“You’re the only one here now,” she says, lighting up. “Might as well start telling yourself the truth.”
Her smoke unscrolls in my face.
Cheryl runs her fitness disciples through the downtown alley where we once vomited our depressions.
I duck behind a parked car with my pastor’s salvation handbills.
Her sports bra stretches taut across her back muscles as she admires her sweaty, lumbering acolytes. Her gaze lingers upon a man with dragonfly tattoos on his deltoids. I’ve never seen this before, her joy.
“Believe in Him!” I yell to the parking garages and cars. “He’ll believe in you!” I witness to the disciples of concrete and steel.
We’re alive in the slaughterhouse where the shepherds redeem us.
Max Hipp is a teacher, writer, and musician from Oxford, Mississippi. His fiction has appeared in Cheap Pop, SmokeLong Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, and other fine journals, and is included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 for 2022. Find him on Twitter @maximumevil.