Justin D. Anderson


For a while they sat in the liv­ing room after din­ner and watched tele­vi­sion. Then she start­ed to tell him the sto­ry. He told her to wait until he drew a bath. He want­ed to sit in a warm bath while she told the sto­ry. He hopped off the couch and trot­ted down the hall into the bath­room and start­ed the water. He poured in euca­lyp­tus-smelling bub­ble bath and got undressed while the bath­tub filled almost to the top, the foam pil­ing up like clouds. He lit a stick of incense and blew a smok­ing ember. Then he climbed in the bath­tub and relaxed. She came in with a foot­stool. She would paint her toe­nails while she told the sto­ry. She sat down on the foot­stool and put her feet up on the side of the bath­tub. Hard yel­low sponges spread the toes. He had his face half-sub­merged and he glanced over at her cal­loused soles. She opened the bot­tle of red pol­ish and start­ed in on the right lit­tle toe with care­ful strokes. His bath­wa­ter got cold and the bub­bles reduced to a thin scum cling­ing to the cloudy water.

Anyway, he works across the street from me and I am a loan offi­cer,” she said. “I am about twen­ty-two and liv­ing by myself for the first time in that lit­tle apart­ment on Seventh. This is actu­al­ly not long before we start­ed going out. Maybe a week after I break it off with—John, that’s his name—you and I start­ed going out. Now look at us. That’s fun­ny how quick you meet peo­ple, isn’t it? But like I said, his name is John, John, and one day he asks me to go to lunch and then he comes over one day after work and, well …”

She ges­tured to him as if he should par­don her from frank­ness at this point in the sto­ry. He nod­ded and fid­get­ed with the lever with his toes, open­ing and clos­ing the drain. Then he left it open.

This goes on for almost a month,” she said. “Nearly every day he’s com­ing over. He’s rough about things. I’m not like that, you know. But I’m naïve. Lonely. Thing is, he nev­er stays after­wards. Looking back, that is a sig­nal, but I am so young. Lonely. And I start to fall in love with him. I don’t know. He is old­er. I trust him very much. It is like a father thing. Isn’t that stu­pid? Only a month and I am in love and I don’t know him. At least you and I dat­ed for a while before I asked you. Didn’t jump into things. Right? I guess that’s just grow­ing up.

Anyway, one evening, he’s tying his shoes, get­ting ready to leave and I’m still naked and I’m tired of it because I’m self­ish not sus­pi­cious and I con­front him about it and get real­ly mad. He is calm and fin­ish­es tying his shoes and looks up at me and tells me he’s mar­ried. Kids. His kids are half as old as I am. How about that? They are like thir­teen or some­thing. I throw him out right after he says it. Then I get ashamed, feel like a home­wreck­er. But I don’t know. How could I know? You know, though, two days lat­er I call him at work and tell him to come over that after­noon and we pick up like noth­ing ever hap­pens. We go on like this for two months. He starts com­plain­ing about his wife all the time. Calls her fat and stu­pid. Shows me pic­tures of her and wants me to say the same things. He demeans her. Mean stuff. And I’m not going to say it. Then one evening he’s going on about her and I just have enough and I tell him now it’s real­ly over. I feel so bad for her and I come real­ly close to send­ing her an anony­mous let­ter but nev­er do.”

The bath­tub was near­ly drained. He sat and lis­tened and looked at the drip­ping faucet. She painted.

But here’s where the sto­ry gets inter­est­ing,” she said. “About three days after I end it, and for good this time because you came along, I’m out one night eat­ing at a Mexican restau­rant with my boss and in walks John with his wife and kids. He glances at me then quick­ly away and says some­thing off to the side to the wait­er and this lit­tle wait­er nods and leads them all to a booth way in the back by the bath­rooms. Imagine that. He’d rather sit and eat and smell people’s shit than sit with­in sight of me. I’m there with my boss, so I’m not going to do any­thing. I’m not like that, any­way, you know?”

He shrugged. The bath­tub gur­gled emp­ty but he stayed seat­ed. She fin­ished her last toe and screwed the brush back into the bot­tle of polish.

Anyway, that’s it. That’s the sto­ry. I want­ed you to know. You know he comes by about a week after you and I start­ed dat­ing and asks me to take him back? Starts undress­ing right there in the kitchen! But I tell him no way. I’m with some­one. Actually, you had just left that night when he stops by.”

He stood up in the bath­tub and grabbed a tow­el off the rack and wrapped it around his waist. She point­ed at her toes. The red shin­ing nails.

Don’t they look pret­ty?” she said. “I do this all for you, you know.”




Henderson, a rur­al, six­ty-year-old man, looked con­fused and start­ed to ask us ques­tions when we gave him the two pho­tos. We told him it was only anoth­er part of the assign­ment and he nod­ded and looked down at the pho­tos in his hands. Then he won­dered how long this would go on before he’d get paid. We told him very soon. We would make all of this worth his while. We left him alone in a sep­a­rate room with the pho­tos and told him to make sure he took as much time as he need­ed with them. We urged him to absorb all the details. One of the pho­tos was of a red suck­er in the street with ants crawl­ing all over it. The oth­er was a panoram­ic jun­gle scene, but the main detail was a set of hip­popota­mus eyes and nos­trils show­ing just above the calm sur­face of a riv­er. We went back and forth as a group about what riv­er was in the pho­to, but final­ly set­tled on the Magdalena River in Colombia, and not an African riv­er, because one of us claimed to rec­og­nize sev­er­al species of foliage indige­nous to South America and anoth­er of us knew the Escobar sto­ry. We wait­ed in anoth­er room while Henderson sat with the pho­tos. He was a very rig­or­ous, con­sci­en­tious man, and he didn’t emerge from the room for anoth­er forty min­utes. When we told him he was done for the day and that he could go home, he asked again about the money.

We called Henderson back in a week lat­er and asked him to sit and tell us what he remem­bered. He seemed anx­ious and start­ed right into the sto­ry, but we told him to wait until we got the reel-to-reel going. We placed a con­denser micro­phone in front of his chair and instruct­ed him to speak into it. We got every­thing going and gave him the nod to begin. Henderson leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs and put his hand to his chin. The entire time he watched them, he stood on an over­turned met­al garbage can of their neigh­bors’. He’d turned over the can care­ful­ly so he wouldn’t make any noise. He turned over the can because he feared he would have oth­er­wise col­lapsed through the lid. He’d stud­ied the stur­di­ness of the lid under flash­light before decid­ing what to do. One of us began to rep­ri­mand Henderson for using a flash­light, con­sid­er­ing the del­i­ca­cy of the assign­ment, but we stopped them. It was worth the risk to Henderson to use the flash­light because if he would have fall­en through the lid and had to run away, all of this would have been abort­ed. He real­ly need­ed the mon­ey. We told him to go on with the sto­ry and promised him there would still have been com­pen­sa­tion even if he had fall­en into the garbage can and fled; but only as long as he was able to get away clean­ly. He knew this part of the arrange­ment. If he’d have got­ten away clean­ly, we would have giv­en him anoth­er address for anoth­er night. He seemed to take com­fort in this and he began to thank us for our char­i­ty and, for some rea­son, tried to reas­sure us that he trust­ed us. We told him to move on with what he remem­bered and he wasn’t sure if he’d already told us about how he’d set him­self up and we nodded.

The air was warm for that part of night and the sky was clear enough and the neigh­bor­hood dark enough that Henderson could see the stars. He thought he could make out sev­er­al “con­stel­la­tions” and we asked him not to use that word. He could see Orion. We told him it was like­ly some­thing else and he accept­ed this. The win­dow of their liv­ing room was shut, so he could not hear any­thing. But he could see them clear­ly, as if they were on a stage: the man sits on the sofa read­ing the news­pa­per and the woman sits in the arm­chair near­by going through the chan­nels with the remote. Two lamps and the light from the tele­vi­sion bright­en the room. Henderson perched down on the garbage can like a “vul­ture.” We asked him not to use that word. Henderson perched down on the garbage can like a “black vul­ture” and we asked him about his asso­ci­a­tion with that par­tic­u­lar species and he went on about how he’d grown up on a farm and how black vul­tures used to invade in ear­ly Spring and kill his father’s new­born calves and he’d catch them feast­ing on a car­cass and run back for his father and that his father would come run­ning with a shot­gun and kill the black vul­tures. We want­ed him to get back to the oth­er sto­ry and he was sor­ry for “wan­der­ing” and we asked him not to use that word. We asked him to use the word “tour­ing” instead. The woman in the arm­chair is unfo­cused, unlike the man on the sofa, who is “study­ing” the news­pa­per. We con­sult­ed on that term and decid­ed to let it stand. Further, we agreed we would no longer try to police Henderson’s vocab­u­lary. The cou­ple sits like this for a while until the man starts “get­ting squir­rel­ly” in the sofa as if some­thing has bit­ten him and he slaps at his back over his shoul­ders with a bou­quet of news­pa­per. The man stands up and swats around the back of his waist with the news­pa­per and “gives a dance.” Henderson laughed at this. We looked at each oth­er, then back at Henderson. The woman looks at the man and says some­thing. We asked Henderson if he could tell what it was.

If I had to guess, I’d say she was telling him he should have lis­tened when she told him to get ant traps,” Henderson said. “They get bad this time of year. My dad­dy used to—”

We sug­gest­ed that per­haps he was tour­ing again and asked him to con­tin­ue. The woman puts the remote down on the table between the arm­chair and the sofa and she gets up and walks over to a desk and picks up the tele­phone receiv­er and shakes it at the man, who’s beat­ing him­self sil­ly with that news­pa­per. This guy’s act­ing crazy, like he “ain’t have no sense.” Like he snapped wild of a sud­den because all those ants are under his shirt eat­ing him and he “throwed” the kin­dling of news­pa­per away and “starts to pull the shirt out” and this woman is shak­ing the tele­phone, yelling and she looks mad­der than a hor­net and the man’s jump­ing around, “shed­ding his britch­es and every­thing.” Henderson could hear the woman say “dis­con­nect­ed” hear and there, but that was pret­ty much all he could make out. We won­dered if he could extrap­o­late and Henderson was hes­i­tant, but believed that what was hap­pen­ing was that the man had been fired from his job or some­thing that would have harmed their finan­cial stand­ing, or maybe the woman had lost her job, or maybe both of them lost their jobs or were just lazy on bills, but for what­ev­er rea­son, the tele­phone was dis­con­nect­ed and instead of “putting it up,” they kept it on the desk for “looks” and there’s this guy going through the clas­si­fieds, either for a job for him­self, for his wife, or for both of them, or just out of curios­i­ty to see what peo­ple are buy­ing and sell­ing, or because they wasn’t any­thing else around to read and he’s a read­er and his wife’s a tele­vi­sion watch­er and once the ants start­ed in on him, she gets the idea to throw this tele­phone thing in his face, yelling about how they could maybe call some­one to get rid of the god­damned things, but the tele­phone is dis­con­nect­ed and, for what­ev­er rea­son, whether it be anger with him, her­self, or both of them that she seems so deter­mined to talk about the “can­cel” of the tele­phone ser­vice. At this point, we con­ferred and agreed to once more chal­lenge Henderson on his vocab­u­lary. The con­text seemed to war­rant a dif­fer­ent term. Then maybe the ser­vice had only been “on sus­pen­sion.” We shook our heads but urged Henderson to go on. One of us leaned in and whis­pered that the exper­i­ment had been proven and that we should stop Henderson now and point out the effect of the pho­tos on his mem­o­ry of the recon­nais­sance. But we decid­ed to let him go on.

This man’s down to his under-britch­es by now and I can see them ants all over him. The man was down to his under­wear and Henderson could see ants on his body. Moving around like he was a damned ant farm. We asked Henderson why he’d come back to the farm imagery. He crossed his legs the oth­er way and didn’t know. I ain’t answered because them mind games don’t inter­est me. Enough of them in the Army. They was jun­gle where we went, too, and we knowed what it’s like to get ate up by ants when you’re just rest­ing. What do these peo­ple know about ants? I won­der what these eggheads would think if I went and told about how that col­lege boy came to our unit, nev­er seen com­bat, and he’s already a first lieu­tenant and come only his fourth day he gets killed. I won­der what they’d think of me if I told them how that mor­tar land­ed right near my boots ear­li­er that same day out on the stomp but it was a dud and how quick it could end when you’re in that kind of thing, or, hell, any kind of thing. I’m old enough to know that much as truth. They ain’t. They spend their time with this fool­ish­ness. Having me watch folks. Showing me pic­tures. I seen jun­gle. They prob­a­bly only seen pic­tures of it. I seen jun­gle rivers. What do they know about jun­gle rivers? They ain’t nev­er crossed one and come out the oth­er side with leech­es on their balls. We took to call­ing them “girl­friends.” Ask each oth­er: how many hick­eys you get? For the man with the most bites, we say he’s the one who got him some pussy. Rest of us only got tit. And that man’d laugh about it even though his balls are bloody and hurt and he got a sock to them. That’s how used to things we got. I’d like to tell these peo­ple. I’d like to tell them about that col­lege boy lieu­tenant. How we’s up on a ridge­line look­ing at this steep hill­side over across the val­ley, look­ing for move­ment because we got told them shits was over there and we was the clos­est unit and got recon. And this lit­tle lieu­tenant takes out binoc­u­lars and starts look­ing around. We all told him to put them up. The sun was strong and we told him they’d see the shine off them glass­es and that’d be the end of us. But he goes on about how he knows about recon from his offi­cer school­ing and he knows what he’s doing and all of us just need to fall in line and final­ly we just say the hell with him and back up on a bank and sit and smoke and wait. He’s under this big tree, look­ing around with them binoc­u­lars and we heared this pop from that hill­side yon­der and this whis­tle com­ing but you ain’t nev­er got time when the whis­tle comes and we ain’t able to say noth­ing and I’ll be god­damned if that thing didn’t hit right at that lieutenant’s feet and blow him apart. They was only pieces of him hang­ing from the branch­es. End of the col­lege boy. Hell, we could’ve put what we picked out of that tree in a god­damned sand­wich sack instead of wast­ing a body bag.


Justin D. Anderson is com­plet­ing an MFA and teach­ing writ­ing at West Virginia University in Morgantown, where he lives with his wife and son. His fic­tion has appeared or is forth­com­ing in Whitefish ReviewSouth Dakota ReviewNecessary FictionControlled Burnfly­way, and else­where and was nom­i­nat­ed for a Pushcart Prize.