Read by Tony Bell
Henry sits on the edge of his bunk and slides his tongue across his teeth, feeling the dull edges and the sudden points of his canines. His lips, circled by grey stubble, are pocked with cold sores. His sleepless eyes rove the four walls, absorbing each scratch and piece of flaking paint. He chuckles to himself quietly.
“Last fifteen years, don’t I think I can remember feeling this fucking alive …” The words echo in his cell.
“Sorry to interrupt your deep and meaningful cussin’, son”, says a porter, smiling sympathetically through the metal bars. Henry looks blankly at the man in his short sleeved white shirt and white pants. “I’m here to take your last meal order.”
“Well, I can believe that. A lot of folks find comfort in eating, though. You don’t have to be hungry to eat.”
Henry holds the man’s bright gaze for a second. His fingers run over the rough cotton covering his legs, probing the edges of his kneecaps as if they were trapdoors.
“What do you think I should have?”
“Heck, son, I can’t tell you that. This is something you got to decide for yourself.” He taps his ball point pen on his order pad. “I’ll be back in ten minutes, and you think about what it is you want. Nothin’ fancy, y’hear? Don’t go ordering lobster humidor and black truffles, cos you won’t get nothing.”
He drags the pen across the bars as he goes, leaving a high tone hanging in the heavy air.
Henry was five, maybe six, just big enough to reach over the lip of the plastic barrel. Inside, bottles of Coca Cola floated like jellyfish in the icy water. He could hear them, bumping together as if jostling to be chosen. Pressed against the hot curve of the barrel, Henry swam his hand through the water, his fingers brushing the bottles as they span away from his grasp.
Johnny watched him closely from a distance, punctuating his smirk with triumphant swigs of ice-cold Cola.
“Mmm, this is the best Coke I ever tasted. Nothin’ better on a hot day!” he called, rubbing his belly like a cartoon character.
Henry’s mouth was bone dry. As he strained, fireflies began dancing in the corners of his eyes, the shrill sirens of the carnival clamoured in his ears and the rim of the barrel cut into his upper arm. His arm, submerged in ice water, had gone numb, so he couldn’t be sure what he had in his hands until he pulled it gleaming into view, drops of water spotting his dusty t-shirt.
His brother had wandered off. Henry prised off the stiff red cap with a pen knife. For a moment, the heat, the sirens and the fireflies were swept away by the taste of sweet, hissing Cola.
Henry scratched at his ragged beard and tugged at the fridge door, filling the room with weak light. He gazed blankly at the white wall of take-out boxes, carried three containers to the table and popped them open. He gagged, his chair squealing on the floor as he pulled away from the sweet odour. Spooning the rainbow mulch into the trash, he realised the last thing he remembered eating was some cold roast beef at the wake.
On the table sat a stiff invitation from Johnny to Thanksgiving dinner, still a month or two off. It was the first he had heard from his brother since the night before Maggie’s funeral, when, fumbling awake, Henry had picked up the phone to hear his brother’s voice amid the clatter of a bar.
“No. I said NO ice. No, get me a fresh drink, you fuckin’ ape.”
“Henry? Hey there, little brother. How are ya?”
“Johnny, what do you want?”
“Oh, hey, we can’t make the funeral. Gotta meeting with, get this … the goddamn President! Whaddaya think of that?”
Another high tone rang in the darkness. Christopher was crying. Henry hung up and padded to the kitchen to fetch a warm bottle of powdered milk.
Thick and warm, Henry’s mouth filled with the tang of iron. He instinctively wrapped his arms around his head for protection, though they were spindly, even for a ten year old. With each thick snap the pain coursed through him like river rapids. Eventually, the snaps subsided and Henry heard his brother’s footsteps move slowly away, across the field.
Still nursed against the pit of his stomach was the baseball that Johnny had struck; a sure home-run which Henry, against all expectation, had caught out. He had enjoyed his brief moment of victory, before his brother took the bat to his head.
When Henry finally opened his swollen eyes a handful of children remained, watching furtively from behind a tree. Johnny’s bat lay nearby like a snake basking in the sun. Curled in the dirt, Henry steeled himself and swallowed a mouthful of cooling blood and fragments of teeth. He was immediately sick, staining second base deep red.
Twenty years on, Henry touched the old scars on the back of his head as he watched the sun rise through the web of fences, washing lines and swing sets. A bagel sprung from the toaster and, handling it lightly, he spread it with thick layers of butter and cream cheese, watching them melt together. The bagel was added to the tray, alongside too-sweet black coffee, jewels of grapefruit and a bulbous blueberry muffin. Underneath, the tray had a photo of the Grand Canyon on it.
Henry eased open the door with his toe and paused, leaning his head against the jamb. Maggie lay sprawled across the bed, the sheets kicked unconsciously to the floor. A leg hung limply over the edge of the bed and one arm was thrown awkwardly over her head, tangled in her thick hair. She was naked, except for a pillow clutched to her chest like a stuffed toy. A dark patch of drool had formed where her face was pressed against the pillow.
Henry broke the silence with a howl like a cartoon wolf. “HOW! HOW! HOWOOO! Hot damn!”
Maggie grunted and rolled over onto her front, pulling the pillow over her head.
“Shut up. I’m thirty and I’m married. I don’t have to be sexy any more”, she mumbled.
“You mean you’re not trying to be sexy? Even more impressive.” Henry carried the tray carefully to the bed. “C’mon, time to wake up.”
“If I wake up, I’ll be thirty, married and ugly. You can’t make me.”
Henry laid the tray next to Maggie’s head and gently lifted the pillow. One eye opened, a smile breaking her drowsy frown as she glimpsed the tray of food.
“OK, so you can make me.”
Twelve months later, Henry sat on a different bed. Maggie’s hand felt dry and cold, like a starfish. Her hair was tied in a tight, dry bun and her empty face was sunk in deep, white pillows. Her long neck was bluish, patched with gauze where clear tubes pumped food in and out. Henry watched them with hollow eyes.
Henry had lain in hospital for a month, swaddled in bruises, recovering from Johnny’s beating. He saw only his mother and whenever she left the room his head swam incoherently with thoughts of death and abandonment.
At mealtimes, each mouthful and sip his mother raised to his swollen lips felt monstrous, as if it would grow in his mouth til he exploded. Then one morning he awoke to find his appetite returned, and the first bright tastes of peanut butter crackers and chicken soup from a can spilled into his mouth as if he were the first person ever to taste them. His mother grasped his hand tightly as he ate.
Johnny’s thick hand constricted around Henry’s and shook it hard. Henry tried to jerk it away, but the other hand came down heavily on his shoulder, fixing him to the spot.
“It’s good to see you, Henry. You’re looking good. Damn, you look good. Trim.”
“I haven’t been eating much.”
“HA!” Johnny roared. “Well! We’ll see what we can do about that, won’t we. You won’t be leaving this house hungry! C’mon, I’ll show you around.”
Henry found himself pushed through the house like a fairground car, past yapping show dogs and old, heavy furniture. He had to stoop to avoid garlands of autumn leaves, strung between chandeliers. Thanksgiving turkeys leapt from every corner. The ride stopped suddenly at the foot of a wide, mahogany staircase. Lifting Henry up the stairs, his brother barked explanations of framed photos of luxury holidays and dinners with governors and senators.
He simply gestured at a photo of himself with President Reagan, no explanation necessary.
Higher up were family pictures, Johnny with his third wife and their children in an array of evening gowns and velvet party dresses. On the first landing, invisible from the hallway, hung small, faded photos of their youth. Family holidays to Arizona’s ramshackle attractions, fairgrounds and baseball games.
The months before Thanksgiving had been bland and indistinct, spent in the stifling heat of lawyers’ offices and the dark wood of courtroom corridors. Henry listened with inarticulate rage as the lawyers regurgitated his shortcomings and failures, real and invented. Afterwards, he would sit alone in the canteen, quietly picking over a pale sandwich in a clear plastic box.
One day, late summer ended, and when fall came, Christopher was taken into care.
Henry sat at his brother’s table, between two of the children, who eyed him suspiciously and curled their pudgy red arms protectively around their plates. Johnny’s wife would only flash him a tight, embarrassed smile. At the head of the table, Johnny surveyed the landscape of glittering porcelain bowls filled with sharply cut vegetables and mountains of honeyed yam and potato. Between bursts of deep red flowers, crystal decanters of syrupy liquor and plum coloured wines stood like spires. In the corner stood a tall, wooden cabinet, a rainbow of desserts waiting behind its glass doors.
“I think that’s everything…” Johnny chuckled and eyed his children’s sudden alarm.
“Daaaaaaddeeeeee!” they squealed, writhing in their seats.
“Oh, there was one more thing…”
Johnny rose and returned moments later, struggling under the weight of a turkey the size of a television. Its oily brown skin winked in the candlelight.
Henry doesn’t remember much of the evening.
He doesn’t remember drinking too much, at his brother’s insistence, or the barbs and slights, less and less subtle as the night wore on.
He doesn’t remember yanking the carving knife from the turkey and plunging it repeatedly into his brother’s stomach.
“Hey, son!” the porter says, raising his voice. “So, time’s up. What’ll it be?”
“Can you fix me some peanut butter crackers? And some chicken soup. The canned kind.”
“I think we can manage that.”
Henry lies back on his bunk and waits quietly until the meal arrives on a white, segmented plastic tray.
He tries a cracker, but it scratches his mouth and clogs in his throat. A sip of the chicken soup scalds his tongue. He glares at the food as if confronting an imposter and pushes it away. Later, the guards lead him out of his cell, his hands and ankles fixed with straps and clips.
The porter returns to collect the tray, interrupting his whistling to tut at the barely touched meal. He carries the tray down a metal gantry and through the swinging kitchen doors. He places the tray on a scuffed metal surface and goes to wash his hands.
The tray sits a while. Occasionally, a porter or a cook takes a furtive bite of a cracker, before the remains are tipped into the garbage. The tray is placed on a rack before an industrial dish washer. The loaded rack slides smoothly into the washer and the door is closed.
The door of the washer is heaved open, dripping hot water and billowing steam. The rack slides out on rollers, the tray sparkling clean.
(c) Graeme McGregor, 2012
Graeme McGregor is a human rights campaigner, occasional short fiction writer and illustrator from St Andrews, Scotland. His presbyterian Scottish upbringing prevents him from mentioning that this story was his first submission to Liars' League.
Tony Bell has been an actor for over 20 years, appearing in West End shows including A Man for all Seasons, for which he was nominated for an Evening Standard Award, and Rose Rage (based on Shakespeare’s Henry VI). He has performed all over the world with award-winning all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller, playing many of the leading clowns and fools including Bottom, Feste, Autolyclus and Tranio. TV credits include Coronation Street, Holby City, Midsomer Murders, EastEnders and The Bill. He is also a radio and voiceover artist.