Fiction: “The Dead Men in the Bushes” by Lisa Burdige

There are dead men in the bushes, she thinks, right by where I walk the dog. Dead rich men killed by goblin boys. Thin, wiry boys, strung out on greed and miscellaneous wanga. Breath burned by that crazy smoke. Lips, cracked and dry, marked with tender pipe sores. Smelling a sweet, plumy scent like a cold shiver up your spine.

She watches them on her corner as they pass by fearlessly plucking peaches from a sidewalk bin. Black. White. Brown. Slim hips in baggy jeans, white sneakers bulging like anti-gravity boots. The Port Authority Bus terminal in the background sits like the ribs and flesh of a twisted whale. They drift by, noisily chomping, smooth faces sticky with peach ripeness, shiny in the neon glow from the Chinese Restaurant’s sign, simmering in the soupy summer night.

“Gonna fuck you up bitch.”

“And your little dog, too.”

They laugh, and then they are gone. She pulls the leash in tighter. The dog, a Bassett hound mix, who always looks anxious, starts to grow. The sky is a wash of purples, swirling grey clouds, the gargoyles reading books on the roof of the building across the way look up and snarl. The Wicked Witch of the West, she thinks. She glances quickly over her shoulder, sees nothing, but doesn’t trust her eyes. The moment goes on and on. Joshua will never come out of that store, she thinks and wonders how she will muster up the nerve to walk the half a block to their apartment.

“What the hell took you so long?” she demands as Joshua emerges from the corner store carrying a big brown paper bag filled with small bottles of soda. “I want to get home.”

He pulls a pack of cigarettes out from his shirt pocket and lights one.

“So go home,” he says breathing smoke. He’s dawdling she thinks feeling panicky. Maybe he will really not come home with her. Maybe he will leave her right on this corner. Maybe her legs won’t move. The dog, seeming to channel her alarm, looks up at the sky and howls.

“I don’t have the keys,” she spits at him.

“Don’t take that tone with me.”

“You’re upsetting the dog.”

He wrenches the dog’s leash out of her hand.

“Fuck you.”

They walk the half a block to their building stoop. He walks a few steps behind her. She sways as she walk, partly because she’s pissed and partly because she wants to get at him, flaunt it, show him what he may be missing.

Maybe it works, because when the get to the stoop he offers her a cigarette. He lights it. They smoke together. The proverbial peace pipe. She wishes the whole dog and pony show could be done already and they could be making it, making up, making it go away, making it right for another small section of time.

“I’m sorry. These little shits, they said something to me.”

He stops, looks around. His chest puffs up.

“Where?” he asks defensively. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Back on the corner. They’re gone now.”

She grabs his arm. “Let’s get inside.”

“You should have told me,” he says as he fumbles with the keys and unlocks the door. “Shit, I can’t believe you didn’t say anything.”

“I did,” she says taking back the dog and leading her inside, “I just did.”

“I don’t like when people say things like that to you.”

“Yeah, well its not picnic for either of us.”

“You just don’t get it. It’s not just about you. It’s about me. Now I have to fuck them up next time I see them.”

“You don’t even know who they are.”

“Oh I’ll know.”

“You’re kidding right?”

Joshua pushes the button for the elevator. He smoothes back her bangs and kisses her.

“Baby, let’s not fight,” he says.

He unlocks the front door of their apartment. Inside, the lights are on. They walk in and her jewelry boxes are strewn out on the floor of their bedroom. Dresser drawers are pulled out and turned upside down. “God, I left it a mess,” she thinks, “worse than usual.”

He passes by her to put his little bottles of soda in the refrigerator in the kitchen. The back door, which leads out, onto the fire escape is open.

“Did we do that?” she asks.

“Holy shit,” he says, “the place’s been hit.”

She grabs the dog’s leash, an old fashioned metal chain which drags an angry growl along the unfinished hard wood floors, and retreats to the bedroom

“What the?” she starts, “they may still be here.”

“Shit,” he repeats and grabs an old umbrella wielding it like a club. He looks sleek and fine as he slips through the apartment jumping into each room like cops on a cops show, checking closets and corners and such for bad men.

It makes her want him, which is messed up. She realizes that.

“Should I call 911?” she whispers loudly. The phones in her hand and Joshua’s doesn’t answer. He’s sifting through papers, piles of clothes, looking for something it seems.

“Well, I’m doing it.” She says to no one in particular. The dog, who has slumped into a pile by her feet, appears to be unconcerned. If there were someone in the apartment, or even near the front door, by he would get off his lazy ass and bark at least.

But Joshua needs to be sure. She dials 911 from the bedroom, while Joshua dances over piles of clothes and piles of other personal belongings scattered all over. The closet has been emptied, her underwear drawer overturned.

“Our apartment’s just been robbed,” she says when 911 answers.

“It’s your apartment?” the 911 lady asks, “Then you haven’t been robbed, you’ve been burgled.”

The 911 ladies got a low, thick voice. She sounds like Joshua’s mother.

“Okay, then we’ve been burgled. What do we do?”

She’s grateful that she can blame some of the mess in their lives on someone else, “it happened a few minutes ago, while we were out at the store.”

Joshua walks back into the room carrying his typewriter. It’s an ugly old blue thing, an Underwood Five. It has a ribbon that leaves ink stains on his hands that last weeks.

“Hang up. We’re cool.”

She puts her hand over the phone.

“What do you mean? We still have to report it?’

“No. They didn’t take anything. We’re cool.”

She wonders about the pearls her mother gave her on her 16th birthday. She wonders about the new pair of 200-dollar cowboy boots. She wonders about her computer, their music, their TV . . .

“What’s your address? Officers will be over in a moment,” the 911 lady says.

“I said, it’s all there,” Joshua says. “Hang up Melissa.”

He says it like he means it. So she does.

He smiles. He kicks off his shoes, they skid across the room and end in a pile.

“They didn’t take the computer did they?”

“No.”

He sits on the bed next to her and slips his hand under her shirt. She isn’t wearing a bra.

“What about the disks. Maybe they stole some of my bad stories.”

He pushes her down on the bed. She can feel, knapsacks and shoes under the piles of clothes that used to be in her closet.

“Your stories are beautiful. Just like you baby.”

“What the hell were they looking for?”

“Shh,” he says, “Joshua’s gonna make it all right. Joshua’s gonna take care of you.”

Then he kisses her. And he kisses her again.

“I keep thinking about that dead millionaire in Jersey.” she says.

“It’s a hot steamy night baby. Purple sky. Everything feels ominous. There’s always gonna’ be something to get crazy about. There’s got to be dead men in the bushes.”

She frowns trying to not to get sucked in and trying to go with it too.

“Why?”

“Cause that’s the way it is. A dead man in the bushes. A dead millionaire. Fuck that dead white man. Forget him.”

Then Joshua unzips her shorts.

She thinks, everything we own has been thrown around, rummaged through, touched, violated. She wants to get up, bag it all, give it to the Salvation Army. Get the fuck out of here

“You know who did this Joshua?”

She’s trying to sound angry. She’s trying to sound mean. She’s trying not to sound terrified.

“Don’t worry about the mess baby, Joshua’s gonna take care of it all. It’s our moment baby. Go with it.”

Joshua has said that before, and she still is not sure what it means. The phone is still by the bedside. She could reach out and hit redial and then the mess would be cleaned up in a different way.

But Joshua takes her hand and puts it to a different use. And she falls back into an old rhythm, an old pattern, an old song. His way and her way. Her way to make things feel right.

Maybe next time she’ll do it differently, she thinks. But in her heart, she doubts it. She seriously doubts it.

Lisa Burdige writes fiction, poetry, and short plays. Some of her other publications can be found online at EverydayWeirdness, InterBirth Books and Exquisite Corpse. She lives in New York City with her family. She is currently working on a novel.

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