PIKE’S DEATHBED BLAZES ON
Pike told me, over lunchbreak burritos, how him and his old lady set the bedspread on fire again last night. Second time this month, tenth time this year. I kept a secret tally, marked in orange paint, inside the work trailer’s wall. I expected Pike to die any day. It’s not like I wished him and his old lady dead. It just seemed a matter of inevitability, like painting jobs drying up in winter, like the fact that my back would give out if I kept doing this gig.
Pike licked sour cream off his index finger, which ended at a nub middle knuckle. He never told me that story, how he lost it. Maybe his old lady bit it off. He never shared the stories I wanted, just over and over again how he woke to smoke, thick and black and tarry from the synthetic weave of his comforter. No flames, he claimed. Instead, heat smoldered against their naked bodies. Always naked, of course, because that’s how they lived, naked and smoking, their asses bared for fate.
They were both disgusting specimens. I was reminded of this every day as I witnessed Pike’s crooked teeth, yellow as corn kernels. His hair hung thick with grease, his face pinched into a constant grimace, his whole body an act of twisted compression. And she showed up on site often to visit Pike, to demand he hand over his pack of cigarettes. She’d practice her sport of harassing him while he rolled out walls. Pencil dick, she’d say. Bent-cock motherhumper. Always kissing your boss’s asshole, she’d chant at him, and he’d look strangled, turning purple with shame, but he’d never return an insult.
Every night, they returned home to join their hideous nude bodies in bed, where they’d smoke. Their commitment to doom was unbreakable. Here was love, a promise to burn in your partner’s secondhand fire, while I returned to my pair of cats who mostly hid under the bed.
At work, I’d finish cutting the wall, finish painting the room, fold up the drop cloth, lock up a house transmuted by a fresh skin of blue paint or wheat-yellow or throbbing white. I’d drive my truck away with clean tools, drive right to my beautiful boss proffering a final paycheck, wishing me good luck in life, wishing me better than him and Pike, and then I’d move to better jobs sitting behind glowing screens. Better jobs, better jobs, I’d whisper to myself. In my head, Pike and his girlfriend have married. They keep growing younger, gorgeous and vital. She’s pregnant. Pike’s finger grew back. Their teeth have gone white, their hair silky and full. Their bed blazes, flames flashing every color we ever painted, and every color we never could dream.
Dustin M. Hoffman writes stories about working people. He’s the author of the story collection No Good for Digging and the fiction chapbook Secrets of the Wild (Word West Press). His first book One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist (University of Nebraska Press) won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and his PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Puerto del Sol, Masters Review, Witness, Quarterly West, The Journal, Wigleaf, The Adroit Journal, Faultline, and a bunch of other neat places. He lives in South Carolina and teaches creative writing and literature at Winthrop University.