fiction

Bait Ranch

Teecycle Tim, Flickr Creative Commons

Fiction

The thing nobody tells you about being dead is that it’s so boring. Boring and lonely.

I never knew the name of my first visitor.  He jimmied the lock on the kitchen door and walked right past me like I wasn’t even there, not so much as a startled look.  Not more than ten minutes passed, and he went out the way he came in, the pillow case she embroidered filled with I don’t know what. He took my stuff and left me there on the kitchen floor, eyes wide open.  Dead.

Maybe there is such a thing as a soul, I don’t know.  Maybe I was left rotting on the tile because there was some piece of unfinished business that I was meant to attend to, but unlike Marley’s Ghost I couldn’t drift about and rattle my chains.  For me, being dead isn’t much different from being alive, other than the embarrassment and inconvenience of my rotting body and the hours spent staring at the water stain on the kitchen ceiling.

Or maybe this is how it is for everyone. When I was alive I could only guess what it’s like to be dead, and now I certainly can’t ask another corpse how it feels.  Maybe this is how it is: We die and our loved ones stick us in boxes and put us in the ground where we stare at the darkness until there’s nothing left of us.  What a fate.  But I’ll tell you this:  It’s a hell of a lot better than choking on a piece of steak alone in your kitchen and bearing silent witness to sons of bitches stealing your stuff.  And they will take your stuff, don’t kid yourself.

You spend 50 years or whatever carefully curating your life: the books, art, and records; the family photos and the keepsakes.  That little corner cabinet in my office holds nothing but the few childhood toys that survived my parents’ frequent purges.  It was like they were trying to get rid of me one charity box at a time, disposing of me in little pieces so that I wouldn’t notice.  A lifetime spent collecting the things that are me, the things I always coveted.

When I was a boy I wanted manufactured things: plastic Easter eggs, Ben Cooper Halloween costumes, cranberry sauce in a can.  During Christmas vacations I kept my friends away from our house rather than risk them seeing our Christmas tree, with its popcorn strings of garland and cotton ball and butter tub ornaments.  My mother insisted on keeping every pipe cleaner and construction paper ornament I ever made, and every year they adorned the little tree in their living room.

And then you have kids and they bring home a glittery Styrofoam ball and it’s the most beautiful goddamned thing you’ve ever seen and every hand blown glass ornament on the tree looks like a pretentious piece of crap next to it and you can’t imagine ever having Christmas again without unwrapping that little treasure that you tucked away in the attic and hanging it back in its rightful place for everybody to see.  My daughter made that, you want to tell them.  That’s mine. My daughter made that for me.

These are the kinds of things you think about when you’re dead in the kitchen and all you can do is stare at the water stain on the ceiling and there’s nobody to talk to.

I’m not sure what that first son of a bitch took, but I can guess.  He was in and out so fast there’s no doubt he knew what he was doing.  He probably saw the newspapers piling up and figured I was on vacation, cracked the lock and went straight for the jewelry.  Not that I have much.  I always figured guys who wore too much jewelry looked like they were trying too hard, but I always wanted a Movado.  The Museum Watch they called it, with the black bezel and the one dot were the number 12 would be. I don’t know what it cost, but my wife finally bought me one.  I guess she was trying.  The thing that bothered me the most was knowing that he was just going to take it to some pawn shop and then God knows who would be wearing my watch like it was theirs.

There was a little cash back there, too, and my daughter’s class ring.  I don’t know if you can change those things or whatever, but the goddamned thing was like new.  It had to be worth something.  Anyway, he took whatever he could fit in a pillow case, and he didn’t mess around, just in and out.  That’s how I know he was a pro.

You lose track of time when you’re dead.  At first it’s not too bad because at least you can count the number of times the sun rose, but that gets boring and hard to remember after a while.  Eventually some kids broke in looking for somewhere to party.  They were too stupid to check my back door, so they broke the window over my sink.  I know they were looking to party because they smelled like a concert and the first thing the big one said is, “Check to see if there’s any beer.”  I knew it was the big one because his voice was deep and when he stomped into the living room the floor shook.

I heard another guy open the refrigerator, and then I heard the bottles clanking together and the hiss of a bottle cap being twisted off.  Then the bottle hit the ground and shattered.  A piece of glass slid across the floor and bumped against my cheek.

“What the fuck?” the big one said from the living room.

“There’s a body in here, dude,” the other one said.

“Is he passed out?”

“This motherfucker’s dead.  Oh fuck, man.  That’s disgusting.”

The big one stomped back into the kitchen.  His bald head eclipsed the water stain and his dead eyes locked on mine.  “He ain’t going nowhere.  Come on, Ray, let’s get high.”

They went into the living room and it was quiet for a little while, and then I heard Appetite for Destruction and I knew that they were digging through my records.  That really pissed me off.  My copy of Appetite was a first printing, still sealed and with the original Rob’t Williams cover art.  I can’t tell you how many people tried to buy that off me or make a trade, and now these two idiots were rolling joints or cutting lines on what was until five minutes before that a rare collectible.  That’s just like people, though, to ruin your shit.  Still, I have to admit that it was kind of nice to have some music in the house again.

I don’t know if they left something too close to a lamp or what, but it smelled like they were burning plastic out there.  At first they were pretty mellow, and then they were talking a hundred miles an hour about cooking.

“It’s perfect,” the big one said.  “Nobody’s going to bother us here.”

“Somebody’s going to come around.”

“Why? Nobody has yet.”

“Somebody’s got to be wondering where he is.  What if we’re cooking and somebody busts in looking for him?”

“Go look at that motherfucker again.  If he had people they would’ve come looking for him long before he turned into a motherfucking bait ranch.  Go out front and get the mail and the newspapers.  Won’t nobody bother us.”

When Ray came back in he threw my mail on the table and grabbed another beer.  “Hey, you need a cold one over there, Bait Ranch?” he said.

You don’t know torture until you have that feeling that you have to cough but your body doesn’t work.  Ray and Danny set up a full blown meth lab in my kitchen.  The chemicals burned my eyes and my throat, and when Ray was high he thought it was funny to accessorize me like a prop in that Bernie movie.  Danny, check it out, Bait Ranch is smoking a bowl….Danny, check it out, Bait Ranch has on sunglasses…..

When we bought this place it was a little bit of a stretch, but it was worth it.  You don’t buy a house so much as a neighborhood, a school district, things like that.  There’s a park just down the street with swings and monkey bars.  Everything about the place was so nice – curb appeal, they call it – and the insides gleamed.  Money was tight, but we made it work.  It’s still a nice neighborhood, just a little older.

My neighbor, Brian, would hit the roof if he saw what these two were doing in my kitchen.  That man hasn’t budged in 20 years, but I’ve never seen somebody so obsessed with property values.  If he was planning on selling I guess I could understand it, but he isn’t going anywhere.  He’ll die in that house, maybe choking on a hunk of steak.  And really he’s like everybody else in this neighborhood.  As long as everything looks perfect on the outside they could care less what’s going on behind closed doors.

Brian had a wife, too.  I liked her okay, better than him, anyway.  Some days I’d be washing my car and she’d be doing yardwork and I’d say hello and he’d be out the front door in a heartbeat.  What’s going on, what are you two talking about?  She’d rush into the house like she was in trouble or something.  I don’t know what was going on in that house, but I wasn’t surprised when she left. And as much as I’m sure that he deserved it, I felt for him. Being lonely is the hardest thing.

We were never lonely, though. The three of us were always playing with the kid or listening to music or something. My favorite thing was to take them for rides in my car. I loved to hear my daughter’s laugh when I took corners too fast and she’d slide across the big bench back seat and her mother would scream, “Slow down! We’re going to flip over!” I stared at the kitchen light and thought about her hand on top of mine, running through the gears with the Hearst shifter knob cradled in my palm.

“Who the hell is Miles Davis?” It was Danny’s voice, coming from the living room. “Bait Ranch has a fuck ton of Miles Davis records. They look old.”

“Maybe we could sell them,” Ray said.

“Might as well. They look boring as shit,” Danny said.

On our first date we went to see a movie named Siesta. It was one of those arty movies, but she liked it. Afterward she told me that she really liked the soundtrack, so the next day I went to a record store and bought it for her. I didn’t hear it again until we moved in together a year later, but then the whole album became our song, at least in my mind. Before I knew it I was picking up more Miles and less hair metal. It felt like something we had in common, something more than just the kid or the house. Every Miles album I brought home felt like another piece in the jigsaw puzzle that was us. Or something like that, I don’t know.

I wished Ray would close my eyes so that I couldn’t see them walking my stuff out the back door.

By the third day nothing much was left.  Ray’s and Danny’s voices echoed through the empty house, and their meth lab had completely discolored the kitchen ceiling. They didn’t crank the music anymore, probably because they’d sold my stereo.

I knew they weren’t going to be around much longer because Danny had started complaining about the smell. They debated burying me in the yard, but Ray was concerned that would be a crime. Eventually what settled it was the fact that Brian was always puttering around in his backyard, and the guys didn’t want to risk being spotted.

Knowing they were going to be gone soon left me feeling anxious. It only took them three days to wipe out my entire life. When the smell finally got too bad and Brian called the cops, all they’d find is my rotting body, a kitchen table, and a bunch of beer bottles. Everything we owned was gone, everything tying me to my wife and daughter. For the first time I wondered what it was like for them, deep in the ground without light or sound. I never thought I’d miss a couple of meth addicts rifling through my stuff and calling me Bait Ranch, but when the door closed behind them for the last time I felt a sadness I never expected.

I also never expected to feel like I did when all of it was gone. Her jewelry, my watch, my daughter’s class ring: All of the things that I clung to after they died were gone now, and rather than anger I felt light, like a balloon that was suddenly let go and I was racing past the light fixture and through the attic, past the box of ornaments she made in grade school—drifting, drifting.  Toward what I didn’t know, but I hoped I’d hear her squealing with laughter again.

Categories: fiction

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