By Keith Stahl
Marne didn’t believe that Geoff saw a buffalo in the woods behind the cemetery. He could tell because he got the same distracted I believe she always gave on Sunday mornings when he switched her over from the TV evangelists to NFL Today.
You can’t really believe this stuff.
She didn’t really.
He was going to come home and wrap Marne in a buffalo blanket. Believe me now? He could taste it. He’d sell the head to Mr. Duke, and Mr. Duke would hang it in the diner. Geoff would run specials: Bison Burger. Buffalo Stew. The Dispatch would interview Geoff, take pictures, full-color spread about bison making a comeback in Central New York. They’d beg for Geoff’s Buffaloaf recipe.
He’d sell it to them.
Geoff swatted at the bugs. Pointless. They hovered just beyond reach, biding their time, toying. He picked at a droning deer fly plugging his ear. They were brilliant, the way they got into his head. The woods were sick with them.
Geoff probed the muck, fingered his Croc, drew it out with a squishy slurp.
Marne had gotten so complicated. Like the mud that kept sucking off Geoff’s shoes.
Geoff and Marne once kissed on Kiss Cam. Why couldn’t it still be like that? Their boss at Applebee’s gave Geoff tickets for Inclusion Night at the Chief’s game. It won’t be a date, Geoff assured Marne. But everyone hooted, Broomhilda and The Mange! She didn’t say yes or no. She never said anything. She hardly left the dish cave. She snorted, sometimes, when Geoff dangled carrots from his nose, I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob. But after the shift, Marne was milling around Geoff’s truck like used furniture left on the curb, so he just put her in the cab. In the seventh inning, Geoff cocked his head to watch his own Jumbotronned face kissing Marne’s clenched lips. He lingered for the camera. Bugs were swarming the lights because they thought it was the sun, or something. The crowd went Ooooooo. Marne snorted. A freight train clacked by the left-field fence, and Geoff told Marne the diesel horn sounded like it was saying Hello. Marne said, “Hello.” Geoff put his arm around her chair, kept it there through the ninth inning. Even after it fell asleep.
The gloppy fire road was starting to smell like muggy sewage. People got hard-ons for nature. Why?
It was like Geoff didn’t know Marne anymore. He remembered looking forward to Marne’s face: He was jerking open this storage locker he had purchased at auction. It was dangling with dream catchers.
She was gushing, Are you sure this is all right?
Marne said it must have been a mistake. Someone forgot these porcelain dolls, heirlooms peeking from a shroud of Time magazines. “Some little girl loved these.”
She was oblivious to the dream catchers.
Marne nestled the dolls throughout the house; they lolled about in chairs, on the sofa, in the bed. Geoff crushed one, sitting in the recliner. Marne’s face was plastic, like she was all right, but she wasn’t all right. Somehow that made Geoff go click.
Geoff had this switch. Sometimes Marne threw it. Sometimes it clicked for no reason. Sometimes it was Buffalo. The Bills would lose, and Geoff would turn off the TV, click, and lose himself in the black. The Bills lost a lot.
He’d rant about having to live in a dilapidated trailer on an Indian reservation with his squaw.
It’s a mobile home.
Marne grew up in this house.
You grew up in a dump.
She’d hide in the bathroom.
Geoff had installed the light switch in the bathroom. It sparked if you weren’t gentle. He’d hover outside the bathroom door to hear her yelp.
You. Have. To. Be. Gentle.
I’m all right.
You’re not all right.
Geoff would come into the dark bathroom to fix her.
It’s not you, he’d say. It’s the beer. It’s the Bills. Buffalo sucks so bad.
And Marne would stroke Geoff’s bristled hair, finger-tipping patches of bald. She’d tell him about the bus home from school, when she was nine, and how boys secretly tied her scraggly hair into knots. How she cried on the toilet while her mother sheared away the tangles.
Then Marne would make chicken tetrazzini.
Geoff’s feet slurped and splashed in the bubbling casserole, but he stayed with the muddy fire road. It was too hot and sticky to get lost.
Marne was unpredictable. She started panicking. The first panic was at her mother’s funeral. Who the hell leaves a suicide tweet? Marne panicked at the mall, Walmart, the post office. She flapped like a chicken at Dairy Queen, I can’t breathe, while Geoff clasped her wrists, You can breathe. Everybody was yowling, Oh my God! She can’t breathe! But Geoff assured them all, She can breathe. After that, Geoff never went to Dairy Queen, and Marne never went anywhere. Not work, even. But it wasn’t like she appreciated it. Mondays still felt like Mondays, Marne said. Every day felt like Monday.
Geoff had scored a storage locker full of Lunesta, Ambien, Valium, and Xanax. He sold some at Duke’s Diner, where he had started working after Applebee’s accused him of stealing American cheese; but mostly he doled the pills out to Marne in portion-cups. He warned her to save them for when she really needed, like bedtimes, but Marne ferreted out one of Geoff’s stashes in the garage. He came home to empty containers scattered among fourteen cases of votive candles. Marne locked herself in the bathroom. She never locked herself in the bathroom. She kept whimpering, I’m all right.
You’re not all right.
Geoff spent all night getting Marne out of there. She couldn’t figure the lock. It was scary.
Cicadas wouldn’t shut up. Geoff didn’t know what they were, but wanted to shoot the motherfuckers.
Geoff owned trophies, two deer heads and a rhinoceros, from a storage locker he bought. He learned the rhino was faux, but he planned to sell it as real. (This shotgun was real. He could tell by the ammo.) His garage was starting to smell like mating season, from the deer heads. He wasn’t moving product. He figured Swap Sheet customers were calling, but couldn’t get through because Marne was on the phone all day shopping QVC. Geoff was channel surfing one night while Marne was asleep, and the woman who’s all teeth on Home Shopping Network actually said, Marne, if you’re out there, you’re going to love Jesus In A Box! So Geoff got Marne to watch Hoarders with him, kind of like an intervention, but she kept flipping during the commercials. Three days later, UPS came with twenty-seven college mascot nutcrackers.
Geoff jumped at a squirrel.
There was this Schwan’s guy. When Geoff and Marne ate dinner, Marne wrote down how much chicken tetrazzini they were eating, how much chicken was left in the freezer, how many peas. Marne applied makeup only on Schwan’s delivery day, and she watched QVC with no sound so she could hear the Schwan’s truck.
Geoff heard them giggling at the door. Worse. They were trying not to giggle. There was something hysterically funny about frozen peas.
“The peas are working out okay, then?”
“Yes. My husband enjoys the tiny onions.”
Geoff caught a glimpse. The Schwan’s guy had his thumbs hooked in his belt. He wasn’t even taking Marne’s order. It was bullshit.
After that, Geoff didn’t feel so bad about Cassandra. Maybe Cassandra was meant to be.
Geoff had been pulling pork one morning when Cassandra first pedaled by the diner window. The Unicorn Unicyclist. Sequined and shiny, wigwagging along the sidewalk, flourishing purple pinwheels, milky white hair big and bushy, bloated leotard. She rigged the unicycle with a stick horse that had a horn. Her ass swallowed the bike seat.
Geoff stabbed himself, throbbed and bled into the shredded meat.
He timed it so he was setting the outside tables every morning, ready for Cassandra with things to say. Where’s your yellow jersey? Her smile was like Borax. You’re missing a wheel. She bobbed like the Famous Drinking Bird. Great day for THAT!
It became a thing.
We have to stop meeting like this, he said one morning. And she stopped. She stopped!
Are you the owner?
I know you’re not open, but I am parched.
And he let her in. He gave her bottled water, because the diner water wasn’t really triple-filtered. He told her how the smoked pulled pork wasn’t really smoked. He showed her a gallon of Liquid Smoke that was hidden behind the register. He told her how he installed his own security system at home, but the real deterrent were the ADT Security stickers in the windows. He knew a guy at ADT Security. He told her how kids used to call him The Mange. He told her how he knew a guy at Nobody’s Business Storage Units who let him inside storage units, sometimes, before an auction.
You watch Storage Wars?
It’s nothing like that.
He told her there were twenty-three hundred dollars in a Pop Tart box in his kitchen at home; the VISA was good for another twelve hundred; his checking account was overdrawn, but Mr. Duke hadn’t gone to the bank yesterday so there had to be three, four hundred bucks sitting in the register. He’d been thinking about just going.
Who’s Mr. Duke?
This guy who works for me.
Cassandra smirked at Geoff’s wedding ring. Is your wife coming, too?
It was like getting caught making Lobster Bisque with imitation crab.
Geoff shelled out a hundred and eighty bucks to join the Y. He told Marne the Y was about losing weight.
Why do you want to lose weight?
He offered to get her a membership, too. He knew she’d say no. She hadn’t left the house in two and a half years.
Geoff tried to surprise Cassandra at her cycling class, her spinning class, but it wasn’t even her. It was a substitute. A dark room full of twigs with expensive haircuts who didn’t sweat. Woot! Woot! Lady Gaga. He just stewed in the hot tub.
The rush of Bullshit Falls made Geoff stop. It only had water after it rained. It had been dry last week, when Geoff was searching for arrowheads (or anything he could sell as arrowheads), so he had been able to hear it then: the crackle of a deer, a squirrel, a stray dog.
It was a monster. The Devil on all fours.
He hadn’t run since eighth grade gym class. It was like breathing ammonia. He was off the fire road, prickers and whippersnappers lashing his face. He staggered from the bushes, by sheer luck onto the manicured lawn of the cemetery, blinded by stinging sweat, bungling his keys. He unlocked the door on the third try. The truck stammered and spit, thundered, finally lurched away in an eye-stinging cloud of exhaust.
He didn’t look back.
That giant head.
The answer came, back in Geoff’s garage, in a stack of Mylar-wrapped Nature Friend magazines.
It was a buffalo, bison, whatever.
He had heard at the diner that black bears were roaming south from the Adirondacks. Cougars, Bald Eagles, and now buffalo. “Buffalo” was “Buffalo” because of all the buffalo.
It all came together.
They didn’t believe him. Mr. Duke said buffalo were distinct; you had to go out west. And Marne said she believed, yeah yeah yeah. He wasn’t sure about Cassandra. He wasn’t even sure himself anymore.
He’d never hear a buffalo over the cascade. Approaching the falls, he crouched, slowed to a crawl.
He literally stumbled upon Cassandra.
It was karma.
She sat like a garden statue. Geisha, Buddha, whatever. A flat boulder was set with rotting apples. Geoff had saved them for her, from the diner. He assumed she had a horse, rabbits, maybe an alpaca.
Cassandra pouted at Geoff’s shotgun. She whined like porn. “Are you going to shoot me?”
“Having a picnic?”
“I didn’t know you were a hunter.”
“Want to see my trophies?”
Cassandra rearranged the apples on the rock, and Geoff could see her wrinkled balloons. It was kind of hot that they weren’t real.
She caught him looking. She turned away and smiled.
The apples were starting to look like turds, but Geoff would eat turds if Cassandra told him to eat turds.
“I’m not flexible,” he said. “I don’t think I can sit like you.” He laughed, bleated, like a sheep, supported himself with the butt of the shotgun to unload his three hundred pounds onto the ground. He hadn’t loaded the shotgun because he wasn’t sure how the safety worked.
“It’s wet,” he said.
“Be still.” Cassandra raised her hand. She had rings on all her fingers. Thumb rings.
The bugs weren’t bothering her. They swarmed Geoff like a halo.
Geoff watched Cassandra watching the apples. It was like Cassandra’s lips were inflated.
Her eyes widened, like one of Marne’s panics. Her lips went, Oh!
There was a chipmunk on the rock. It held an apple. It nibbled. Slowly, at first. Teasingly. Then an oral deluge deeper and deeper into the apple.
Geoff shifted his sweatpants, and the chipmunk was gone.
“Why would you want to shoot a beautiful creature like that?” she said.
“Sometimes, it’s you or the chipmunk. You’ll thank me when a buffalo decides it’s apples for lunch.”
“You’re so cute,” she said.
So he went on. About bears.
“You’re a big bear.”
About cougars and bald eagles.
“You make me laugh.”
About how he sometimes pretended he’d just murdered his wife and was running from the police.
“Oh, my.” Cassandra giggled. “Can you get your hands on a dance pole?”
“You know. That dancers use?”
“I want one installed in my studio. Pole dancing is amazing exercise. Flexibility, cardio, resistance, emotional healing.”
Geoff told her he’d install a pole within the week.
“I want lessons.”
“We can teach your wife to pole dance.”
“That’s not happening,” Geoff said, machine-gun laugh. He told Cassandra how Marne just lay there.
Cassandra asked if they’d tried feathers, Fifty Shades of Grey, essential oils. She sold essential oils. She’d bring samples to the diner.
Geoff imagined Cassandra’s vegan body pinned against the diner wall, freshly mounted buffalo head, hair wild with the smell of pulled pork.
Then it appeared. Like a dog without a chain. That split second of eye contact.
Good dog. Good dog.
A molting mountain through the trees.
“My God,” said Cassandra.
It grunted, growled, like something getting sucked down the drain. Eyes rolling white. Horns.
The buffalo charged. It knocked apples off the rock. It sloshed through the stream after Cassandra and her jangling, tambourine jewelry. Then it looped back towards the easier target.
Geoff cantered down the fire road that ran from the cemetery, shotgun out like a peace offering.
Even in his panic, Geoff couldn’t get his mind off Cassandra’s jeggings. From sitting on the ground, there was a wet spot.
Geoff sank into the mire. He was stuck.
The buffalo had stopped, like it didn’t know what or who to chase anymore.
Rummaging through storage lockers felt like pulling a fast one over on dead people. Dead people were idiots for dying and leaving all this great stuff behind. But who had the last laugh? In Geoff’s garage, customers would look through him like he were a ghost, ooh and ahh at the Stickley chairs, the ivory cameos, all the used but perfectly good. The dead had been hunters. Geoff merely scavenged. His buffalo trophy would hang in the diner forever, or someone would find it in some dusty storage unit or garage, someday. They’d want to know the story behind it. They’d want to know Geoff’s story.
He unbolted the shotgun. He fumbled with a pocket full of ammunition, all shapes and sizes, like loose change. He dropped something into the breech. He slid the bolt forward and locked it into place. He raised the gun to fire.
Geoff wondered where Cassandra was. He wanted her to see this.
The shotgun twitched and bucked and burst, exploded, shattered into metallic and woody shards. Red splattered. Geoff dropped the gun. It was alive.
Was Geoff’s face on fire?
Geoff ran, abandoning his shoe to the muck. The buffalo ran. They both ran away from the blast.
“Smells like coconut.”
“It’s a hybrid.”
Geoff was going to break it. He was stuck in Cassandra’s rodeo clown car.
Cassandra helped him. Ankle bracelets, bangles, armlets, rings. When this was over, he was going to surprise her with a vintage Circus Barbie.
Cassandra wrangled Geoff up the front stoop. She tripped on a porcelain skunk.
“Skunk is my spirit animal.”
Marne spied through the storm door window. She opened the door. Marne and Cassandra. It was like a blinking contest.
Geoff bobbled his muddled head, tried to focus his good eye. The other eye was a purple slit. Blood pooled on his chin, dripped onto his “Got MILF?” T-shirt.
“He couldn’t drive. He wouldn’t go to the hospital.”
Marne received Geoff into the house. It was like signing for a package.
Marne still didn’t believe him, about the buffalo. She concentrated too hard on wiping the gash on his chin with iodine, refusing to look at the black eye. Maybe she wanted to believe, but couldn’t help thinking bar fight.
“Cassandra seen the buffalo, too.”
“And she’s just somebody from the restaurant.”
“You don’t believe in me.”
Marne put the top on the iodine, gathered up bandage wrappers and tape, went into the kitchen. She returned with a package of frozen peas with tiny onions.
“Put these on your eye.”
“I would kill for some chicken tetrazzini.”
He didn’t get any. Marne went to bed early. Geoff microwaved the peas and ate them from the bag. Then he played Left 4 Dead 2. Marne couldn’t sleep with the volume above ten.
Geoff put it at thirty-six.
He kept triggering the alarm that released the zombie hoards. He couldn’t get past the sobbing zombie witch. Right joystick STAB STAB STAB.
Geoff didn’t remember going to bed, but the alarm was pealing. It was like being skinned.
He escaped blankets, death-gripped a baseball bat, moved towards the bedroom door, waving the bat like Death’s scythe.
A Witch was sobbing against the Illuminart landscape.
She was a meth-crazed homey with a mouth full of gold.
She was Marne.
Definitely Marne. Geoff was awake, now.
Marne pointed towards the living room. “The alarm!” She started flapping her hands, winding up for one of her panics.
And after the day he had.
Porcelain rooster figurines were batted from the shelf.
It would be an accident. He was dreaming Left 4 Dead 2. He thought Marne was an intruder. He’d tell Cassandra that it was the humane thing.
The bat launched Nite-Glo Jesus.
Marne squeezed her head. It was going to pop. “The alarm!”
Surprise would be her final expression. He’d see it in his sleep, every time he ate Chicken Tetrazzini.
“Geoff, are you sleepwalking?”
He’d make chicken tetrazzini for Cassandra. It would be their thing.
“Geoff, stop it! The alarm!”
It would be like putting down a pet.
“Geoff, you’re scaring me!”
An innocent, trusting pet.
“Put down the bat!”
Marne was out the door, screaming to the bathroom.
Geoff stubbed his toe on the cast-iron Playful Pachyderms.
That alarm was always going off.
No bad guys.
All day. A buffalo, bison, whatever. Mr. Duke at the register, waving the Dispatch, a color spread of a beaming man named Chance Stolly, rifle draped across his prize, thumbs up, crooked forehead, missing teeth. It escaped from a pen. Bewildered customers. It took three shots with a .270 Mosberg. Goggling, cross-eyed buffalo. Chance said, after he shot it, it was acting funny. Bursts of laughter. Ding of the cash register. All day.
Cassandra never stopped at the restaurant, so Geoff tucked her apples under his shirt to sneak past Mr. Duke. He brought them to the Y.
Cassandra strutted on the deck to echoing dance music in a one-piece skirty. The women rhythmically pointed to Geoff in the window. She tiptoed to the door and cracked it open.
Geoff smirked towards the pool. “Hands up, don’t shoot! Am I right?”
“Keep moving, girls.”
“Thought you might be needing these.” He dangled the apples. “And I got a line on dance poles.”
The women started to mass at one end of the pool.
“You’re sweet, Geoff.” Cassandra looked like a PETA poster. “But, I can’t.”
It felt like indigestion.
“Maybe bake Marne a pie, or something?”
Like something coming up.
Cassandra closed the door.
Do you believe in life after love? … after love … after love …
Marne had left the garage door open, again.
Geoff kicked Marne’s packages at the top of the stoop. They blocked the door. They were wet. It was raining.
Geoff was going to bake Marne a pie. He was going to make her Chicken Tetrazzini. He hadn’t borrowed ingredients from the diner, either. He purchased everything. Everything.
And a twelve-pack of Saranac Pale Ale.
He hadn’t found the peas with the tiny onions.
Peas were peas.
He put the groceries on the kitchen counter. Paper, never plastic.
The TV wasn’t on.
She was probably in the bathroom.
He had to fix last night, waving the bat, the savage face. Like when Marne cut her own hair that time, cut it sassy short, and he missed a beat before telling her he liked it.
I was confused.
The bathroom door was locked.
And after the day he had.
Marne? You all right?
Geoff went back to the kitchen, pulled The Dispatch from the grocery bag, brought it to the bathroom door.
Marne, I want to show you something.
But the silence felt like crushing the porcelain doll.
The grocery bag tipped on the kitchen counter, frozen peas crashing to the floor.
Marne? You all right?
Keith Stahl’s work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Prick of the Spindle, The Madison Review, Ghost Town, Per Contra, Euphony, and Corium. He was a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee, and is currently a non-traditional undergraduate student pursuing a degree in English and Textual Studies on the Creative Writing Track at Syracuse University.