The Fiction Archive page presents older work by Marnie Woodrow.
Belly (written in 1991, and sadly, too true in 2018)
Tomorrow’s Home Owner’s Pride Day. They’ve proclaimed it a national festival day and parades are popping up in all major cities and modest towns. Scarlet banners. Grinning property owners wear bright t-shirts screened with renderings of their personal castles. It’s the third annual. Owning a home’s become such a rarity and thing unique that they shout about it. It’s the stroll of the chosen few bringing in the slain unicorn. I haven’t seen a house I could capture in two decades.
I’m holding a brunch in honour of my lucky friends, the ones with two-car abodes and split-level lives. Known them since university, and one before that. Even the single women among them managed to get her teeth into a pillbox townhouse in the suburbs. And is she happy. She’s glad and she’ll tell you just how, in between arguing with fellow home-owners about Euro kitchen fixtures. She doesn’t even have to say, you see, her hands move like she owns something.
My friends were told I’ve got a luxury condo downtown with a solarium, central air, a distant view of some water. And right on the Parade route. I am some kind of urbanite. Even if it is only a condo; I know that’s what they mutter into their shaving mirrors. They have their very own squares of grass on which their dogs can pant and piss. They can watch the urination ceremony from a freshly stained deck. No, I wasn’t aware of the gratification involved in owning a shrub and seeing it pissed on, but apparently it’s intensely positive.
They’ve lost track of exactly where it is I live: I’ve moved so many times. The only time I really call is when I’m announcing my latest telephone number. It’s been my fate to be penciled in throughout the address books of a nation. I have contemplated requesting an erasable driver’s license. One of these invited guests called me his gypsy friend, some kind of cozier-than-thou tone in his voice. I invited him first. He rents rooms to IBM execs. Ones who prefer owning a BMW to a mortgage. Slots them into the category of having no priority system. Silly tykes, no castle-lust. He’ll sit next to me at this soiree.
I think I bragged of Cornish hens and salmon mousse. They all seem mildly excited by the prospect of seeing where it is that I live and eat so well. I mentioned Beaujolais and track lighting. The solarium being packed with a telescope and other toys I know they covet. Remote everything. This is why I know it will be worth it, because reality dictates a surprise.
I step out of my shower (tubless): I’m in my living room: bedroom: kitchen. I clear away the stacks of Real Estate News from the sofa (read: bed, rarely folded into sofa position) and sit where I can prop my feet on the half-fridge and cut my toenails.
My feet, in fact, are resting on brunch. The fridge full of those hotplate-simple frozen boxes plastered with bright orange stickers: 79 cents. I only shop when I absolutely have to eat. Nights when I’m not at my second job, when my stomach sizzles with neglect. Usually I just bring home the real estate inserts and roll pennies while I read.
Today I care less about the state of my stomach walls and more for the honour of my Houseproud friends.
I’ve told them all to come at a different time. Staggered it according to their personal fetishes for lateness, promptness, prematurity. They must all land simultaneously. One guy is always late because his mortgage payments mean he’s been driving the same old car for nine years. He’ll drive it into the ground, he winks. Or an early grave. The woman is always early. She imagines the suburbs to be so much farther away from the downtown core than they actually are. She can’t believe she has a backyard and the potential for cultural diversity. Should she choose to have it.
Will they gather together in the dark foyer and wonder what the joke is? See the security codeboard ripped from the wall by friendly neighbours and the mailboxes, charred by a recent fire? Worry about the smell of fried chicken clinging to cashmere? I head up the narrow stairs between hunched slabs of drywall. I live in the Second Basement, the renovated wing of this once-house. I hear an orchestra of other people’s TVs, someone shouting that they’re too tired to fight about “it” anymore. Then I see Alice, touching her hair in confusion, with William and Brandon carrying bottles of wine in special glossy bags. They all look freshly laundered, being Maytag owners too, and politely horrified.
I’m bright, I’m casual, I’m the Perfect Host.
“Come on in,” I’m beaming, taking arms and nudging shoulders. “Watch your head there, Brandon!”
Uncomfortable chuckles. “What’s this, a royal tour of local historical ruins?” William clutches the wine he wishes he hadn’t brought. A Californian.
I turn keys in the door of my home, 2B-7, push them all inside, slam the freshly painted fireproof door. Alice is sniffing for Cornish hens, William’s doubting the existence of a solarium. I take coats, hang them on the shower head. Seat them: two on the sofa, one on a card chair.
“Sooooo,” I smile. I’m really enjoying watching the colour drain from their faces. I explain about not having enough room for their wine just yet, but that after brunch I’ll chill it right up.
Do I mind if they smoke?
“Hell no, the central air’ll suck it right up. Anyone want a drink?”
Unanimous acceptance of my offer. We drink warm wine for this house-warming. I pour myself a glass first, drink it down, then pour theirs. After all, it’s my home. Their disgust makes me giddy. They’ll soon whip out their Law and Psych degrees for an interrogation. Get to the bottom of a bad practical joke. But it’s my gala, I’ll run it. They want more drinks. I’m a superior host, serving and chatting with wit and compassion. I make tender inquiries about lawn-care, satellite dishes, termite stats. I slowly squeeze the pleasure from their usual obsessive thrills. Interlocking bricktalk no longer orgasmic.
I hold the meal off for as long as I can. I really want them hungry. I need to know just how much blood and bonemeal is good for the flowerbeds. My own hunger may interfere with my mission. But I’m laying big bets on my stamina over theirs when it comes to my belly. My hands may shake a bit. I shouldn’t think about eating. I mention the increase in parasites gnawing up the public parks. Pest control costs. Have they ever encountered a rabid squirrel?
Brandon and William both want to use the toilet. I wave my hand over my shoulder. “Where the coats are. But one at a time, please. The second bathroom’s under renovation. The Jacuzzi, you know,” I confide in Alice. She tries to pretend she doesn’t hear William performing his bodily functions.
“Great acoustics in here,” I nod. “Too bad I’m not a musician!”
They reassemble, filling the ashtrays I’ve left out for them. I don’t empty them, figuring they like accumulating things as much as I do. My questions are met with pale smiles, not replies. Time for food.
Alice nods like a maniac. Wine transforms her into a rubber dolly with eyes red and blinking from the cigarettes she usually never touches. Stains the broadloom, no doubt. She never did have the courage to abuse herself with any kind of commitment.
I put on an apron. Brandon gives in and heads for the toilet. The stack of frozen turkey pies startles them all. I think they look lovely, the pies, all frost-kissed like in the commercials. I remember watching television, watching it until it dawned on me that all commercials are filmed in homes. The happy shows too. I gave my TV away to a nursing home.
“Need help?” There’s Alice. Anchoring herself in kitchen obligation. She leans far forward on her chair and a rough edge cuts into her pantyhose. I like her wince, it’s so…settled.
“No, no, no, just sit tight. Enjoy yourselves. I just have to chop these up and then the hardest part’s over. Are you all as hungry as I am? Some days I worry about myself, I wake up so ravenous.”
I hack the pies into shards, roll them in margarine, heat up the skillet. With my other hand I pour them all more wine. Cold boxed wine I’ve been saving for a celebration. I think of a toast: To those who glow with ownership.
The fridge ajar, my pistol falls out onto the floor. I’ve been keeping it cold, had meant to show it to them when their mouths were full. It’s out now. I point it fast at Alice’s head.
William’s up, he’s fatherly, “OK, OK, joke’s over.” But he stays near the sofa. His fingers, spread in alarm, are white and his smiling lips are dry.
They give me the “Hey, what’s with you?” and “Such a kidder!”
Behind me the turkey’s burning and they want me to notice it. It’s the sickening smell of blackening, bubbling gravy and coagulated carrots. I scoop them each a heaping plateful, re-fill their glasses. Now they take microscopic sips and fear the food. They don’t believe I’d fire the gun.
Brandon’s mad between mouthfuls. “What the hell is this all about?” He’s the one with the most to lose, having a kidney-shaped pool and a lot of travel points.
William speaks softly, “What’s this about a condo?”
Some people’s politesse near death.
“Did something bad happen to you?” Alice wants.
I tip the gun toward the ceiling, chewing slowly.
“No, nothing bad, Alice. Only good things come my way. Long romantic walks, long romantic line-ups. I lined up to live here, for example. Imagine. And in the several dozen banks where I’ve been turned down by loan officers, I lined up. Those are lines like the breadlines for the hungry, the house-hungry. And the Bank,” I point the gun at a jar of pennies near Brandon’s foot, “the Bank is the ultimate soup kitchen. I talked to many people in those line-ups because I had the time. And I thought that if I was courteous and friendly and twice as frugal with my pennies it would charm my chances for a loan.”
Alice realizes that the backyard she worships could be the Cause of Death.
“The soup kitchens were full of big pots of money boiling just out of reach. And the people holding the ladles could read our faces and see that we were not going to use the money we got for the things we said we would. And they slapped our hands and told us to seek the help of our parents. But our parents are dead, you see, from working to pay for their children’s schooling that would guarantee them a Big Job. They have nothing left to give, and they don’t expect to have to, since the equation has always been a Big Job equals, at least, a Small Bungalow.”
I see them in the damp, expensive clothes rented from Visa. They try to look sympathetic but it’s a life they just don’t believe can happen. They are now Real Successful Human Beings. The nursery is empty and waiting. I happen to know that Alice is three months pregnant. I take the gun and press it up against the place where I think her womb is.
“BASTARD!” William shouts. From the sofa. Always a man for safety. As if security could be found in furniture.
“I wouldn’t,” I whisper. “I want you and Little One to march in the Parade tomorrow, Alice. And anyway, the gun’s too warm now. I like to keep it nice and cold.” I move away to put it back in the fridge.
I hold them there on the sofa and chair for hours, my feet propped up on the fridge where it’s comfortable to watch them. No one sleeps. The apartment grows very dark. Morning leaks in again. The room is rank with sweat and worry. The Parade will begin soon. None of them have their t-shirts or banners.
“Time to march,” I say. My voice scares them, it’s so loud and firm. I take the gun out of the fridge, feel the cold of it, like an afterwork beer in my palm.
William looks at me, beard darkening a shadow on his jaw.
“You don’t have to live like this. I’ve seen your apartments before. Nice places. Clean. Healthy locations. It’s not like you don’t have the cash.” He waits for me. “Is it? I mean, how could you not?”
I move them out into the hall. They all look exhausted, they’ve smoked too much and slept too little. And the turkey pies were slightly past their best-before dates.
“Have you got some kind of habit that’s eating up your savings?” Alice, gentle, needing an answer to fill up the last minute of torture. She believes in answers.
“Go to the Parade. I hear there are two new home owners this year. They’ll give them medallions on the platform. Drink lemonade, toast them.” All three of them smile, touching their shirts at the collars. Their own medallions hidden by their clothes; the mere touch through fabric pleases them. It lets them know.
I close my door against their feeble suggestion that I come along, to see.
My clock says 1 p.m. I plug my phone back in and it rings immediately. A woman I met in the financial breadline a while back. A school teacher, single. Just found out she’s still ten grand short, even after a month of selling herself. She tries not to cry into the phone. I tell her there’s a Parade going on for us, too. She says she’s heard of it. Thinks it’s the best way to spend the afternoon. I hang up. We’ve all promised to wait till 1:30. While I wait I hear the car horns and cheers of the Homeowners Pride Parade. For a moment my optimism is seduced. Good things. To those who wait…but no. I also have Pride. I lift my cold gun and join the private parade. Thousands and thousands of people have silently decided, packed into firetrap hotels and hostels, the couples in tiny apartments jammed with furniture and children. We’ve made a pact, whispered it in bank line-ups across the country. We march, too. And we make a big, angry bang as we go.