Speak No Evil
Pete Brown ducked and just barely missed being pelted in the mouth by a blue-eyed Cabbage Patch doll named Angel. Instead, Angel’s smooth, plastic head slammed into the copper clock that symbolized Pete’s 30 years of dedicated service to the lumber mill just outside of town. Her unblinking eyes glared at him like a corpse jutting out of a windshield.
Judith’s chest heaved and a line of sweat dotted the blonde fuzz of her upper lip. Pete looked into his wife’s smoldering eyes. She pulled a tattered stuffed penguin over her mouth and said in a high-pitched voice:
“That time I meant to miss. Next time I won’t.”
Pete picked up a brown teddy bear, limp-necked and slightly stained from years of being the favorite. He covered his mouth and said, “This is getting out of hand, Judith. We’ve been fighting for days. I’m tired.” The teddy bear’s voice sounded like a 90-year-old man who smoked too many cigars and ate chunks of concrete for breakfast.
“Are you saying my feelings are out of hand, Pete? Are you calling me crazy, like everybody else?” asked the penguin, poised directly over Judith’s mouth, with just enough space so her eyes could glare at him around a faded yellow beak. “Is that what you think of me? Crazy?”
Pete sighed. “No, Judith, of course not.” Her lips disappeared into a thin line and her cheeks swelled and reddened. She jabbed her middle finger, the knuckle swollen and cracked, into the teddy bear’s stomach.
“I’m sorry, Pete,” the penguin said. “I couldn’t hear you.” Judith’s eyes darted toward the teddy bear.
Pete sighed again. He raised the teddy bear up to his face, this time concealing everything from his chin to his receding hairline. “I said that I do not think you’re crazy. It’s just…” Pete paused. The truth was always a risky choice. “I just want to try something new, Judith. It’s been three years and things haven’t gotten any better. We haven’t gotten any better.”
Wordlessly, Judith spun on her heels, hurled the beloved penguin on the floor and stomped through the dining room toward the kitchen. After a few terrifying moments of silence, Pete heard something break solidly, as if snapped cleanly in two.
Pete picked up the penguin, shoulders sinking, and followed Judith’s intimidating sound of silence. On his way he paused to touch the wood framing a senior portrait of his son, whose ghost still stifled the house after all these years.
When Jeremy first disappeared Judith clung to everything that even hinted at hope. Despite her arthritis she prowled the streets late at night, put up posters, and spoke to kids all over the town. She even organized a countywide manhunt. When his body turned up a year later in a cornfield 30 miles away, she deflated as if someone punctured her chest like a half-filled birthday balloon. Pete remembered the day he first heard the news. He still felt guilty for being relieved.
“We found your boy, Pete. It doesn’t look too good.” Pete remembered the way the sheriff avoided his eyes, standing on their front porch, staring at Judith’s award-winning hydrangeas. Pete thanked the man and shut the door, wondering how he could ever repeat those words to his wife. When he turned around he saw her standing behind him holding a wet dishtowel and an egg-coated spatula. She looked like an old saggy rag doll, like she had no skeleton, nothing inside to hold her up.
“I can’t talk to you, Pete. I just can’t,” she said softly. That’s when she began nesting on the couch, surrounded by Jeremy’s baseball jerseys and old stuffed animals. Unwound by the weight of silence, Pete turned to the comfort of Jack Daniels and old work friends. He remembered the first time he opened up to them about Judith. They tried their best to console him, but the situation was hard for them to understand. They weren’t used to dealing with this kind of drama. They were concrete men, yes or no men, with emotions as hard as the lumber they churned day after day.
“It’s been how long since you’ve spoken?” Lenny handed Pete a whiskey on the rocks.
“Since the very day the sheriff found his body,” Pete replied, watching the ice cubes turn light brown. “She hasn’t said a single word since that day. Not one.”
“Have you tried smacking her a little?” Carl asked, taking a generous sip from his glass. Lenny and Pete stared as if they misheard his words. Carl shrugged. “What? I’m not saying beat your wife, but, you know, sometimes women need to, I don’t know, be brought back or something. Like sometimes, when the hormones take over my Norma, a good swift pop really straightens her out.”
Lenny shook his head and turned to Pete. “Does she communicate at all? I mean, you know with writing or body language or something?”
“Nothing,” Pete said. “She just wanders from room to room, carrying Jeremy’s toys or old t-shirts. She hums lullabies to this old stuffed penguin of his that he hadn’t touched in a decade.”
Carl licked leftover whiskey from his lips. “Hell, Norma even thanks me for it.” The men rolled their eyes. Carl threw his hands up as if being caught robbing a bank. “Look, I’m not a wife beater or anything. Just sometimes she gets out of sorts. Not as bad as Judith, here, but just not herself. She’ll talk all crazy and sometimes it just takes a pop or two to get her back to normal, that’s all. You’ve just got to shock her back into the real world.”
Pete laughed softly. “Judith would probably just hit me back. Harder.”
“Hell, that’s at least be a reaction, though, right?” Carl motioned for another round. “Come on, it’s not like I do it often. Sometimes you got to play these games with the women, man. They don’t know any better. Then, afterward, like a day or so later, bring her some of those chocolates with the cream inside or take her to see some tearjerker at the Cineplex. It’s normal, Pete.”
“Have you thought about taking her to see a shrink?” Lenny asked, edging Carl out of the conversation.
“A psychiatrist?” Pete shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think she’d go for it.”
“I mean, shit, guys, not too long ago a man could hit his wife and fuck her anytime he wanted.” Carl poured the rest of his drink straight down his throat. His slurring voice booming into every corner of the room. “She didn’t get any say so. Now, we’ve got the law coming over every time a dish breaks. A man used to be king of the castle, but not any more. Now it’s a democracy. Maybe the world wouldn’t be so crazy if we were back in those simple times. Maybe if we lived by those rules again wives wouldn’t go crazy and sons wouldn’t wind up chopped to bits by drug dealers.”
“What the fuck, Carl?” Lenny slammed down his glass. “Do you even hear the words that come out of your mouth?”
Pete placed a hand on Lenny’s arm. “It’s alright, Lenny.” The men paused, staring at their glasses, looking for instructions in the bottom of their whiskeys.
“Do you still love her?” Lenny asked, finally breaking the silence.
“Yeah, I do.” Pete sighed. “It’s just like I’m not there anymore. Like my pain doesn’t matter. That leaves this bitter taste in my mouth. I lost a son, too, you know.”
Carl placed a meaty paw heavily on Pete’s shoulder. “I get it. You don’t have to hit her. Maybe you could just shake her a bit, then?” Specks of spittle collected in the side of his mouth.
“Alright, that’s it; I’m taking you home.” Lenny’s frustration thickened the air around the trio. Carl backed away from Pete, his hands in the air and his shoulders pulled up right under his ears.
“I’m just saying you got two options, man,” Carl said as Lenny wrapped a hand around his arm and began pulling him toward the door. “You got to do something drastic, something that pulls her back from the hell she’s in. Or you got to go meet her there, and then try to talk her back.” Carl was yelling across the room, shouting over clashing pool balls and fuzzy Hank Williams. “You can lay down the law, like a man, or you can grab one of those damn dolls and sit on the couch and wallow in this shit with her. But you’ve got to do something, cause she ain’t going to.”
Pete remembered arriving home later that night to find Judith sitting up on the couch, staring blankly at infomercials, surrounded by clothes and toys. He felt like he was standing at the intersection between two long, unmarked roads. He sat down, reached for a nearby teddy bear, and wiped her tears away. He pulled the doll over his mouth and said in his best Humphrey Bogart, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” They both laughed, loudly and sadly, as if they were just now learning how to make the sound.
Pete remembered his surprise the next morning, when he awoke to the smells of his favorite breakfast. The teddy bear was perched near his spot at the table, propped up by a bottle of Mrs. Buttersworth. Judith came into the room.
“Good morning,” she said, her voice pinched, the penguin covering her face.
“Good morning,” Pete said slowly, only half awake but fully confused. Judith nodded toward the teddy bear. Pete’s brow crinkled and Judith, rather the penguin, said, “Pick it up, Pete.” From that moment on, the stuffed animals became the only way Judith would communicate. They acted just like a normal couple – watching movies, gardening together, and playing scrabble on the front porch at sunset – except for one difference. For the next three years, Judith would never, ever speak without the penguin.
But that wasn’t what started this particular fight.
Back in the dining room, Pete shook his head, clearing the clutter out of his mind. He took a deep breath and walked into the kitchen. Judith stood over the sink, looking out of the window into the one of the last summer dusks left in the year. She seemed calmer, but Pete knew this was just the eye of the storm. He handed her the penguin, pulled the teddy bear to his mouth and whispered, “I’m sorry.” He didn’t know what else to say.
“You want to try something new?” The penguin asked, not turning around, its unnatural voice a convoluted mix of sarcasm and disdain. “Something new? Like fucking all the time? That’s what you want, isn’t it? That’s what will solve all of our problems, right? That’s what would make you happy, right?”
And that is pretty much exactly what started this fight.
“Judith, you know I didn’t mean it that way.” The teddy bear shook a little in front of his mouth. “I’m just… I’m just lonely, Judith.”
“Oh, so it’s all about you, then?”
“All about me? All about me? Are you fucking kidding me?” The teddy bear shook even more, Pete’s voice no longer incognito. Judith lowered the penguin down, her eyes wide and her head pulled back. “What do you think I’m doing here, Judith? I’m a goddamned cartoon character living in an insane asylum. I just want to be happy again, Judith. I’m ready to be happy again. It’s like we’ve got these holes in us and we just keep stuffing them with all these temporary fixes. For a brief moment, we get over what happened to Jeremy, but we never get through it. I’m ready to move on and feel something real.”
Judith and the penguin were silent. She stared at her feet. Pete knew it hurt, but he hoped at least some of what he said had gotten through. He remembered Carl’s advice all those years ago and realized he only had a few seconds to try and shake her out of this. He reached over, grabbed Judith, and kissed her hard on the mouth. There was no tongue or movement, just pressure, solid and unrelenting.
Judith eventually pushed Pete away. They stared at each other for a few moments, then Judith broke the silence with her hand, smacking Pete across the face with crack that echoed down the hall. He didn’t flinch. He couldn’t help but to notice her nipples had hardened, piercing the front of her cotton shirt like perfectly round diamond studs.
“I’m sorry,” Pete said, no teddy bear, no raspy voice. “I don’t want to hurt you and I definitely don’t mean to make you do anything you don’t want to do.” When he turned to leave the kitchen, he felt Judith’s hand on his elbow.
She stepped up, her chest inches away from his. With her left hand, she stroked his cheek and, with her right hand, she began to rub the penguin over his body. She kissed his neck and ears, bringing the penguin to the front of his pants, pressing it into his crotch. When she pulled back, she grabbed Pete’s hand, the one holding the teddy bear, and began to softly rub her nipples with its nose.
Pete froze, stuck in limbo between feeling disgusted and aroused. The pressure from the penguin became more intense, and Judith traced circles into his groin with its soft belly. Despite his better judgment, a deep groan escaped Pete’s throat. She pulled the penguin back to her face.
“Do you like that?” she asked softly. “Does that feel good?”
Pete wasn’t sure how to answer. He looked into her eyes, searching for that long-legged carhop who used to tease him about his slicked hair every time she brought him a double chocolate milkshake. But all he could see was the penguin, hovering over her mouth, trapping her sanity behind its dead eyes and cotton-filled heart.
He took the penguin out of Judith’s hands and used its beak to slowly pop open each button on her cardigan. The soft pink cashmere unfolded, revealing her aging cleavage, the translucent skin cracked with light purple veins. She rubbed the teddy bear against him, making soft cooing noises. He was surprised to feel his erection still growing. It really has been far too long.
Pete leaned in a kissed the line where the bra met her breast, moving his lips along the curve toward the center. She grabbed his hand and ran the penguin down her chest, from the hollow enclave at her throat all the way down to the top of her khakis. She tilted her hips forward, her retired bones cracking and popping in protest. He pushed the penguin away and leaned in, kissing her throat. Pete flinched as he felt the teddy bear return, softly gliding down his neck. He swore he could hear it whisper in his ear.
“Just do it, Pete,” the teddy bear said. “Just give in.” Startled, Pete looked over at the doll. Silent and stoic, the teddy bear stared at him with indifference. Pete shook his head.
He pushed Judith into the counter and dropped to his knees. He fumbled with the buttons on her pants, his skills dampened by a combination of arthritis and lack of practice. With the last button finally released, he slid them down and immediately pressed his face against her light blue panties. He kissed the center spot and watched as the light blue slowly turned a little darker. Using his tongue, he traced the edge of her panties before coming back to the center. For a moment, he forgot everything as he felt her heartbeat on the inside of her thigh.
“Come on, Pete,” the teddy bear said. “Come on and put me in your pants. I’ll make you feel real good.” Pete’s squeezed his eyes shut. He tried to think about all those years before Jeremy, when they used to strip down in the living room, fucking on the Oriental rug they received as a wedding gift.
“Put me in your pants, Pete.”
“No,” Pete whispered against the spandex-cotton blend.
“Put me in your pants, Pete. Fuck me, Pete.”
“No,” Pete said, a little louder this time. His moved the panties to the side and shoved his tongue into Judith. She gasped and arched her back, rubbing the teddy bear all over her exposed breasts.
“Come on, Pete. You can’t fight it. Put me in your pants.”
“Get out of my head,” Pete yelled, pulling his face away from Judith, who stared down at him wide-eyed.
“What’s wrong?” She asked. He could see her starting to lose her nerve, the teddy bear clutched pathetically to her chest.
Pete closed his eyes and breathed her in, sucking her fear and pain up into his lungs, sucking in this claustrophobic town and this damaged world where parents bury their children who sell their souls for a pound of heroin. With one breath he sucked in whole the goddamn the universe, taking in everything that prevented his life from moving past that awful day when his only son died and his wife went crazy and his manhood dissolved like tears in rain. He exhaled, finally, and grabbed the teddy bear from Judith, unzipped his pants and shoved the doll down in headfirst. It was soft and warm, and a little moist. He quickly began to grow hard again. He was now too far down this rabbit hole to be disgusted, or even surprised.
His middle finger toyed with Judith’s panties, but she grabbed his hand and pushed it away, taking, instead, the hand clutching the penguin. He looked into her pleading eyes. With a strangely stimulating mixture of longing and dread, he slid the doll along her wet skin in circles, sliding its head inside her. He watched the penguin’s face slowly disappear, its lifeless eyes looking remarkably afraid. Pete couldn’t help but to feel camaraderie in that fear.
Lying awake later that night, Pete could hear his wife softly snoring. The penguin, resting on her chest, rose and fell with each breath. He held the teddy bear in front of his face and searched its eyes, looking for recrimination or permission or both. He grimaced, the pungent smell of sex radiating off its fur. Its silence was mocking. He got up from the bed and pulled down one of his old workbags from the top of the closet. His hands searched blindly until he found an old pack of Newport’s with a half smoked nub. He quietly grabbed the stuffed animals and went out into the backyard.
He smoked the stale nub as he watched the plush toys burn. Their stuffing popped and the melting fur smelled like a memory long forgotten, reminding him of the time his father roasted a huge boar after a weekend hunting trip. He inhaled deeply, letting the Newport’s cold menthol wrap around his lungs. Exhaling, a few stray tears edged out of his eyes, which were neither sad nor soft, but hard like glass, fixated on the mesmerizing dance of the flames against the darkness of night.
About the author:
Sara Palmer is working on her master's in creative writing at Indiana State University. Her thesis is a collection of dark humor tales that focus on modern restylings of traditional legends and myths. In her spare time (haha) she teaches yoga, runs trails, and is desperately trying to finish up the second season of Breaking Bad.