Our couple lives in a hunting cabin on the ridge of a nondescript box canyon.
When they purchased the home, the real estate agent said the canyon had been a potential site for the Hollywood Bowl. Acoustics were optimal but proximity to the studios won out.
The husband liked that the amphitheater architects opted for the splashier hills of Hollywood. The wife liked that their nameless canyon was derelict in hitching its wagon to the star of gentrification even in the 1920s. For, nearly 100 years later, its gentle slopes are dotted with retired RVs, dilapidated sheds, underground rooster wrestling, chain-linked yards and bloodthirsty coyotes.
“It’s perfect,” the wife will murmur, using binoculars originally purchased for non-pugilist bird watching as she surveys the foothills from the cabin’s sunroom.
“Almost,” the husband demurs. “It’s so freaking noisy.”
“If you mean you can hear life all around, then it’s perfect for me,” the wife says.
True. The canyon amplifies sound and pings it every which way. Pindrops, belt-bucklings, snifflings, sobs. All are shared in the (almost) perfect box canyon.
So, in their way, in the way of many, our couple quietly agrees to disagree quietly and soldiers on with Sunday pasta after Sunday pasta. Boiling water heats up the kitchen. Chili flakes heat up the sauce. A surreal soundtrack ascends through open clerestories: Clockwork cockatoos. Wailing infants. Karaoke-drunk parties. The occasional helicopter bullhorn cry of manos arriba.
“If I’d known it would be so noisy I wouldn’t have signed,” he’ll sometimes grouse.
“I don’t mind the noise,” she’ll reply. “And anyway: low mortgage.”
The husband delicately seasons the delicately cooked pasta. “The psychoacoustics are vicious,” he says in response to a sneeze from the gentleman in the southeastern corner whose tendencies toward chainsaw art run to pasta Sundays. “Sometimes it makes me want to scream.”
“I’d like to hear that,” the wife says. What she doesn’t say is that in her opinion the husband lives too quietly. That he deliberately mutes his existence with muffled throat-clearings, gentle door-closings and tiptoed footfalls to cultivate a kind of stealth power. Passive-aggressive courtesy, if you will. “But you know what? I never feel alone.”
“I guess that’s good for some people.” In his spare time, the husband wonders if it’s possible the wife stomps around in clogs on hardwood floors to assert a kind of wordless bossiness. Proof of existence, perhaps. Was she born in a proverbial barn?
“It’s good for me,” she says.
“Excelsior,” he whispers his catchphrase and plates the pasta.
“Okie dokie,” she responds in kind, and they devour a delicious meal to a chainsaw melody.
One night a new noise disrupts their sleep.
“What’s that?” The husband pushes a silk sleep mask to his forehead. Removes Noise-Masking Sleepbuds from his ears. “Car alarm? Bobcat?”
The noise blasts again, vacuum-cleaner angst plus espresso-machine agony.
“Sex?” the wife suggests, recalling her own hand-over-mouth vocalizing during the act of amor. Can everyone in the canyon hear her?
“Maybe someone’s in trouble.” The husband loves the quiet dark. More than that he loves to sleep. But more than both he loves a mystery. He pulls on sweatpants and tennis shoes as though he’s stepping out to prune the Ceanothus. Which could, by the way, use a trim.
“Excelsior,” he whispers. He kisses the wife’s forehead. Holsters his apocalypse flashlight.
The unidentified frightful outcry erupts again.
The wife shivers with…what is it? Cold? Delight? Dread? She claps on the nightlight. Its golden circle comforts, as have nightlights of all who wait throughout time. Cave ladies. Viking mistresses. Warrior wives. In an equal opportunity moment, she thinks of men who wait for women, women for women, men for men. Folks who wait for others to quiet down. To finish dressing. To love them the way they want to be loved. Although unconditional love, she ultimately decides, is unnatural, unhealthy.
She opens her book to the page where Holden Caulfield tells the prostitute, Sunny, that he doesn’t want to do it, that he just wants to talk. The wife tries to remember how she felt the first time she’d read it, millennia ago. How pleasurable and frustrating it was, how funny and sad. So real and unreal.
She awakes alone on the same page the next morning. The nightlight buzzes from overuse. Her placemarker finger aches like hell. She slips into slipper clogs and plonks down the oak stairs. If her husband is there, silently sleeping, he needs to be waked anyway.
He lies across the living room sofa as though flung. Legs and arms spread, sweats grass-stained and muddied. His head rests on the needlepoint pillow they’d scored at an estate sale in a Pasadena bungalow that smelled of heritage and wheat. Dried blood and scratches mark his face; the eyeshade, still on his forehead, is torn. He snores voluptuously, which for him is a barely audible percolation, a basso profundo purr.
The naked gleam of his noble throat makes the wife’s own throat catch. The first time she found herself drawn to his throat was the first time they’d done it. The first time she knew he was the one. Oh, how its trusty Adam’s apple throbbed hot against her palm.
“You can’t make me talk,” he’d said. “Ve have vays,” she’d promised. “Excelsior.” “Okie dokie.” Everything after was a sexy blur. Etcetera.
But in this moment, boil water is all the wife can think to do. Which is illogical, of course; no one’s having a baby. But still. Habits. Movies. Old wives. She makes for the kitchen and trips, scattering twigs and dried leaves across the braided rug.
Weird. The housekeeper was there only last Friday to rearrange knickknacks and hide underwear. When had Nature invaded our couple’s conjugal space?
It appears the wife’s beloved kitchen of the periwinkle walls and open shelf system has also seen action during the night. Soggy paper towels clog the sink. The quasi-ironic year-round cornucopia, only last night boasting an abundance of misshapen and bruised farmer’s-market vegetables gone bad, is now barren. Downy white feathers cling to something viscous on an empty bottle. The special whiskey.
She returns to the living room and touches her husband’s throat.
He snorfs. Moans.
She hasn’t realized until this moment she’s been thinking of leaving. Of finding a person or a place where noise is the norm. Where living aloud, living loudly, is not an annoying scaffold but a beloved foundation. She claps. The lights blink on.
The husband snorts. Tears off the torn eyeshade. Rubs his neck. Clears his throat and raises himself to sitting with great effort and a hissing wince.
The wife taps her clog against the scarred oak floor.
He wraps a fleece blanket around his shoulders. “You’re not going to believe this.”
“Should I?” She tightens the knot on the rope around her waist. Yes, she ties her robe with a rope. Different story.
A thump sounds from behind the bathroom door.
“Don’t go in there,” he says.
“Why not?” She double-knots the rope. For one idiotic second, she thinks of Holden and Sunny, how he hangs her dress in the closet, how she calls him a crumb-bum. Something happens in the bathroom in the book; the wife has already forgotten what. If this is her husband after an extramarital evening, she certainly doesn’t want to meet the other woman.
The husband sighs and locates the apocalypse flashlight. “Come on.”
In the bathroom, in the tub, a creature the size of a muscular toddler paces on stocky roadrunner legs. Part-turkey, part-reptile, its feet brandish sickle-like claws. Bloodied down feathers, dense as rabbit fur, mat a dirt-splotched haunch. A thick, scaly tail whips from side to side as the creature maneuvers claustrophobic U-turns in the porcelain basin of the black vintage tub, whose own clawed feet were painted gold by the cabin’s previous owners.
“What is it?” the wife whispers. For once.
“I googled it.” The husband gazes tenderly at the odd lizard-bird. “I found him lying under the Ceanothus. He looked so vulnerable, like a fallen angel, so I brought him home. At first he was agitated but once I fed him, he calmed down and fell asleep.”
The velociraptor ogles the husband with wet, love-struck eyes.
“Did this extinct dinosaur also drink all our special whiskey?” The wife blames Holden for her snippy defense mechanism response but that doesn’t change how bitchy it sounds, does it?
With that, the velociraptor crouches, screams its vacuum-cleaner/espresso-machine scream, and launches itself at her.
The husband instinctively intercepts the monster mid-flight. He presses it tightly against his chest and coos softly into the place on its head where an ear might be.
The wife backs against the wall. “Jesus Christ!” she says, gripping her knotted rope just in case. In case what? She needs a lasso? A noose? “It tried to kill me.”
The monster mewls and rubs its quilled cheek against the man’s grizzled one.
“Aww,” the husband says. “He just doesn’t know you yet. And I drank the whiskey. We had quite the battle. I’m surprised you slept through it.”
“Who are you?” she asks.
“I am the husband who rescued Gabriel. Gabriel,” the husband jiggles him as though he were a the husky, milk-fed infant, “meet the wife.”
“You’re bleeding,” the wife says.
True. Blood leaks from the husband’s forearm, a steady drip of carnal color.
“Funny, I didn’t even feel that.” The husband smiles. His throat pulses. “Excelsior?”
“Okie…Whatever.” She re-knots the rope and runs a sponge under running water. “I’m calling Animal Control.”
Gabriel explodes from the husband’s embrace, hurls itself against the closed door and crash-lands in the tub, knocking the man to his knees.
“Fuck me,” the wife says.
The husband strokes Gabriel’s head as its talons scratch and scramble against the porcelain. “Such a strong boy,” he says. “You didn’t mean to hurt me, did you?”
“I’m calling 9-1-1,” the wife says. “Or should I call the Natural History Museum. Maybe UCLA? Definitely my shrink.”
The creature thrashes wildly. Rusty orange turds squirt wetly from its behind.
The wife tosses the sponge to the husband. “I’ll go make breakfast.”
The husband cleans up. The pu-erh steeps. Gabriel shrieks from behind the bathroom door. “Don’t you ever shut up!” the wife yells. But he only shrieks louder.
The husband comes downstairs smelling of ambergris aftershave. His cheeks are steamed pink; his throat damp from the shower. Gauze wraps one arm. Everything sexy in a pre-sexy blur. As the wife prepares toast and jam, he unknots the rope from her robe. “Be right back,” he says, and kisses her cheek.
He returns leading the velociraptor, the rope looped around its neck. “Come on, Gabey-baby. That’s my smart boy.”
“Fucking monster,” the wife doesn’t say, slathering butter on toast with one eye on Gabriel, who keeps one vile yellow eye trained on her while butting his head against the husband’s hand, demanding pets. The husband complies, then pours tea.
“What are we going to do?” she does say.
“What if we keep him? Study him? Write about him?” The husband paints impeccable layers of butter and jam on his bread. “Gabriel could change our lives.”
“Sure, if you want a divorce,” the wife snorts. “You could drag him around the country like a circus freak. Go on talk shows. Blog about it. Van life with velociraptor.”
The husband’s eyes darken, then light up, then grow dark again.
“I don’t want a divorce,” the wife says. Which she realizes is true. “But I don’t want a dinosaur either.” Also true.
Gabriel whines pathetically. He attempts to wind himself through the husband’s chair’s legs, only to get stuck. Again, that horrific screech.
“It’s so fucking loud,” she says, not entirely unaware of her words, her clogs, her insufferable Family Guy snores. She knows about them because she’s woken herself up. But the husband has never once complained. “How can you stand it?”
“Noise doesn’t bother me,” he says, not entirely unaware of his own contradictory non-answer. “He’s probably just hungry. There’s a farmer’s market today. Shall I run over?”
“You’re not going to work?”
“I called in sick. We need to figure this out.”
“You babysit the…Gabriel. I’ll go.” The wife has already figured it out. She’ll call Animal Control from the market. Identify herself as a neighbor hearing strange screams from their house. She’ll return, help the husband feed the fucker, then Animal Control, then, Adios, Gabriel. Back to reality. Pasta Sunday paradise with chili flakes and chainsaw.
All of which, spoiler alert, mostly happens.
Animal Control’s predicted three-hour window of arrival unpredictably collapses into one. The white truck is in front of the box canyon cabin when the wife pulls up. She bolts inside the house with her straw basket of misshapen rutabagas, celery and parsnips.
The living room has been tidied, the tea dishes washed, leaves and whatnot swept from the braided rug.
“Hello,” she sings out as she dumps the junk veggies on the counter. “Anybody home?” What to do now? Does the monster eat them raw? Steamed? Vitamixed? What was taking Animal Control so fucking long?
“Is that you?” the husband’s voice floats down through the vent. “Come here.”
She clomps up the stairs. Gabriel is curled at the foot of the bed, watching itself curled on the foot of the bed on the medium-sized TV screen across from the foot of the bed. The creature twists to look at her, then returns its attention to the mute screen.
The husband lies there, legs crossed. He touches a finger to his lips, motioning for the wife to be quiet. “He won’t hurt you,” he whispers, and pats the bed.
The wife wonders again who this man is who lives in their cabin. She sheds her wooden shoes. And, by the way, who is she?
He points to her wrinkled linen shift, then the floor.
Don’t get used to this, she thinks. But she complies. The shift drops.
Canyon sounds penetrate the unplum window. Territorial birdsong. Hound-dog howl. Hungry baby. Upstairs, the doorbell rings.
“Ignore that,” she says. She lies on the bed and places her palm on his throat. His hand slides between her legs. The three of them watch themselves watching themselves watch themselves. Excelsior. Okie-dokie. Etcetera.
About the writer:
Tracy DeBrincat’s novel, Hollywood Buckaroo, received the 2011 Big Moose Fiction Prize and was published by Black Lawrence Press. Her award-winning short story collections, Troglodyte and Moon Is Cotton & She Laugh All Night, were published by Elixir Press and Subito Press, respectively. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in a variety of literary journals from Another Chicago Magazine to Zyzzyva. She lives in Los Angeles and is working on a novel, Once Upon a Coyote.