“Mouths” is a fiction story presented in installments. Look for a new chapter each Monday morning throughout the summer.
I sit on the dirty carpet and examine what the mouths have left of my life. Vodka bottles. Glass shards. Wood splinters. Old woman. Her eyes scream fear. Her mouth remains gagged.
I look at my body. The remaining flesh is coated with dried sweat. The mouths continue to whir and click, mostly sated from the kid. The answering machine still blinks red. Someone else must have called from when I had a life, instead of mouths. I sigh, push a button. Noise spits out, like a decaying machine. It’s either a wrong number or Sheila. Probably Sheila.
I look around at the apartment. Cheap, second-hand lamp. A painting of a book cover of Moby-Dick that Laura had given me at some point. Or maybe Betsy. I think, as I always do, about hanging it up and realize, as I always do, that I lack nails. Futon, which I purchased used up from a guy who had found it in some richer alleyway than the ones in our neighborhood. Clock, lacking the flimsy plastic cover that protects the hands, stuck at 4:15.
I pick up the phone and dial her number, finger arcing along the circle. It rings. Again. She answers. “Black Sheep Boy” is playing in the background, which generally means she’s in a great mood or upset. “Where have you been?” she hisses. Evidently the latter. “Did you take the day off too?” There’s an urgency in her tone. The voice cracks under the weight of shed tears. She isn’t normally this rattled. Even if she didn’t see the mouth, she senses something is wrong.
I speak. “We need to talk. Things have changed. How much can I trust you?”
The gravity shifts. I feel her deflate, hear her inhale. “I need to see you.” She speaks at an even clip. Practiced. “I need to look you in the eye and see if you’re still the man I thought you were. When can I see you?” I think. I look at the clock. It still says 4:15. I’m sure that my boss has already left the office, no matter what the real time is. “Are you there?!” she screams. I need to focus. She hates being ignored.
I keep my voice flat. Emotionless. “Sheila, I care about you. But I think we may need to take a break.” I pause, wondering why I said that. Things are not going according to plan. “You need to think about whether you’re ready to take our relationship to a different level.” She inhales. “Things are different for me now, after last night. I’m not being melodramatic, and it isn’t about you. I’m different, and I can’t explain it over the phone. But I do need to know: How serious are you about us?”
She inhales, and I sense the frustration. I understand it. There’s nothing else I can do. “What the hell are you all about? We set up our relationship: We’re on, or we’re off. We’re safety nets to each other. You can’t fucking do this — we don’t work together as a committed couple. Your fucking words, not mine. This has worked for us — and you want to change everything after one weird night? What the hell am I supposed to think? What do you want me to say? I know you fucking care about me, but I need you to not pretend you’re an asshole for more than five minutes at a time.” Her voice is getting louder. The tears evaporated. My body responds. My muscles tighten, responding to her passion. We have better sex after a fight. We have good sex frequently. I feel my cock starting to swell. “… think about that? Hello? Are you even there? Are you even still listening to me?”
The mouths stir as well. My palm opens and shuts lazily, teeth opening and closing like a yawn. A voracious yawn. I feel myself go limp — I’m not ready for that combination. It’s too confusing to have that much of your body out of your control. “Yeah.” I say slowly. “I’m listening to you. I just got distracted by something.” My voice is uncertain. I feel the mouths. They’re hungry. “I’m sorry, Sheila.” Her anger is gone. I hear confusion. “I — things are weird for me. I’m sorry I can’t be more clear. Not now. And I know it’s a lot of pressure. But if you want to be serious, now’s your chance.” The whirring and clicking have started, and I hear the low throb of their corporate moans filling the spaces in my body, whispering outward. The teeth scrape. The old woman starts to quietly test the resilience of the plastic. Fuck.
“What’s that noise? What’s going on with you?” The mouths are hungry. I move to the fridge, untangling the phone cord with my fingertips, and extract a patty. My palms run over the meat, making it disappear. In spite of myself, I’m impressed.
“Nothing is going on. I don’t think we should talk now.” The vibration of the mouths moving pushes against my body. “… uh, just think about what you want. I’ll call you back. Soon. I promise.” I need to appease her. I need her. I need time.
“No. NO! We are not doing this again, shitbag. I hate talking about this shit over the phone. I’m coming over. If you’re not fucking there when I get there, we’re done. For good, this time.” She hangs up. She wants the fight and the sex. She knows I buy dinner afterward. I wish it was a normal Friday. There are worse routines. I call back, but she doesn’t answer. I have twenty minutes. Twenty-three, if traffic is bad. I look up at the clock, which tells me that it’s 4:15. I know better than to believe it.
I put the meat patties back. I can’t get into it now. My mouths chomp furiously. Angry. Deprived. They may not refuse the patties, but they won’t be quelled by them. I pour water in a glass and bring it to the woman, using my left wrist to undo the gag. She knows not to scream. Sheila will arrive in seventeen minutes. Maybe twenty. The woman refuses the cup, and I realize that the mouth on my left wrist is close to her chin. I don’t blame her, but don’t untie her. I look her in the eye, and see a lifetime of humiliation, shame, neglect, and the kind of rage that erupts out from helplessness. She’s as human as I am, I suppose. But it doesn’t make anything better — for either of us.
“I’m sorry.” I think my voice sounds sincere. I mostly mean it. She opens her cracked lips and wheezes something. Her mouth has no power behind it. I continue, feeling my mouths begin to surge with anticipation. “I just don’t have any other options right now. They’re hungry. I can’t let them starve. I can’t do anything about this any more than you can. Wrong places, wrong times.” I sigh. It’s mostly true. I look at her sweatpants, her flesh sagging from her body. She could have been my grandmother. Maybe she was — I had never met my grandmother. Even if it were my grandmother, I’d do what it takes to protect Sheila. The old lady got a full life. It was meant to be this way.
I almost believe most of it. Enough, anyway.
It’s 4:15 — dinner time. It’s always time to eat, no matter what the clocks say. I bring the glass back to the kitchen, lower the shades, and take off my shirt. The mouths moan — a different kind of sound than with the kid. I feel the ache of their hunger, the slight bulge against my flesh as they prepare to consume. Something still feels off. I hope they appreciate their meal.