American Idle by Eugenio Volpe


After a few drinks nobody really knows why they’re singing the songs they’re singing, but if I had to guess? My wife sings “I Hate Myself for Loving You” because it’s her fortieth birthday party and we have no kids, no savings, and seven hundred dollars in our checking account, five hundred of which I spent on sushi, sake, and coke for the ten closest people in our lives.
     Her pothead younger sister sings “Dreams” because their recently deceased father would get stoned and lie on the couch in greasy jeans with his grungy work boots up on the armrest. He’d lie there and fade away with Stevie’s falsetto trills about crystal visions.
     Their mother sings “Crazy” because she still loves and misses that a-hole. He left her with nothing. No life insurance, a double-mortgaged home, a failing business, and a three-car garage full of junk parts.
     Our friend Cindy sings “Natural Woman” because she’s one of those white people who’d make for a better black person, or maybe even a Puerto Rican. She can sing and dance really good. She also spray-tans and wears a weave.
     Pete is my best friend. He gets up and sings “Jessie’s Girl” as a not-so-subtle way of telling me that he wants to sleep with my wife. Or maybe he already has. Either way, I’m not too worried. My penis is considerably bigger than his.
     Pete’s wife Lori belts out “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” as a subliminal wink in my direction. I slept with her ten years ago, a few weeks before she and Pete started dating. Pete may or may not know.
     I sing “Sympathy for the Devil” because I truly believe that I am a terrible person who deserves the worst, but for some twisted reason I always get what I want.
     We are not good people. We are what you’d call unlikable characters. Selfish. Shallow. Insecure. I’d even say ignorant, dumb as all hell, but the crowd at Star Palace loves us. Aside from Cindy, we pretty much suck at performing. We showcase our ugly and talentless beings on stage. The crowd hollers and cheers us for this. They’re mostly black and Hispanic. We might be the only white people here. This doesn’t necessarily scare us. We are too drunk to care. Nobody is conscious of nothing. Pete is hanging all over my wife. I’m hanging all over our friend Sue who’s just gotten divorced. She sang “I Touch Myself” so I’m assuming she’ll be receptive to my hand on her thigh. Cindy is dancing with three black guys. Lori is hanging all over my sister-in-law (maybe I’d completely misread her song choice). My mother-in-law is crying as our friend Jim consoles her. My wife is crying and laughing at the same time. We’re pretty messed up, our emotions and feelings spilling onto each other. We all get on stage a second time to karaoke something from the subconscious. We shame ourselves. The crowd continues to love us.
     By 2AM I’m itching to leave. At this point, the dog’s been home alone for eight hours. I don’t feel like cleaning shit off the kitchen floor so I hurry my wife and sister-in-law to the door. Their mother decides to stay a bit longer with Jim and a few others. Out on the street, my wife puts a chummy arm around me and says that having such good friends almost makes up for not having any kids. I don’t deserve to hear this. Pete and Lori left an hour earlier because their babysitter has SATs in the morning. Pete and Lori have a daughter and son. The girl is most likely mine. Luckily, she is a dead ringer for Lori.
     Lori and I only slept together that once. Me, Lori, and my wife had been up all night doing shots of everything in the liquor cabinet and playing this board game called Cranium, which is a combination of trivia, charades, Play-Doh sculptures, and drawing with your eyes closed. The game requires four players so I was the swing man. My wife passed out after miming “Happy Hour” and all of a sudden Lori and I were going at it on the couch. Three weeks later, she told me she was pregnant. She met Pete a week later and immediately fell in love with him. Lori didn’t bring it up again. I’d figured she’d taken care of it herself, but then a month later she and Pete announced they were having a baby. Their daughter was born six weeks premature. She’s ten now. It’s hard not paying her too much attention, but I do a good job of loving her like the quasi-uncle I’m supposed to be.
     I give that evil some serious thought for about two seconds, which is the time it takes my wife and sister-in-law to get in the car while I sit there alone, stabbing and twisting the key into the ignition. We are thirty miles from home and I am too drunk to be driving, but my wife and sister-in-law start gossiping about Cindy leaving with the three black guys thus distracting my conscience. Not that it would have mattered. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m not afraid of killing. I’ve just never been in a situation to do either.
     We head out of the city and onto the highway. I keep it at a safe speed while my wife and sister-in-law change the subject to Sue and her divorce. They can’t hear themselves, but it’s obvious that they’re trash talking Sue because they don’t want me wanting to fuck her. I squint at the road ahead and laugh to myself as they go on and on about her slutty “I Touch Myself” performance. It makes me want to sleep with Sue that much more.
     I barely remember driving over the river or getting off the exit. I don’t remember passing the Burger King. I don’t remember passing the high school either. I’m unaware that we’ve already passed the Methodist Church, but right as we’re about to turn onto our road, a coyote runs out in front of the car. We each see him at the exact same time, as shown by our synchronized gasps. He’s big and healthy, a real killer. We turn onto our road and the coyote follows, running alongside the car, under the luminance of three street lamps. I take my foot off the gas and roll the window down but just then he veers into the woods and out of sight, denying us an honest to goodness look at him. We finish the last few minutes of the ride in dead silence. Being one-sixteenth Wampanoag, I know a thing about Native American culture. They view the coyote as a storyteller and trickster, which I guess is one and the same. This is the last thought I remember having before falling asleep in bed with my wife’s hand on my stomach.
     The next morning the four of us are hanging around the den, drinking coffee and eating bacon on the sofa. While sitting on the grease stain her husband left behind, my mother-in-law is the first to announce that she’d suffered a terrible nightmare. A cracked-out black guy set the house on fire, but not before chopping up the dog with an axe.
     “Oh my God!” My sister-in-law shrieks, startling the German Shepherd who’s on the rug gnawing a chewie. “I had a nightmare too! An Asian gang broke into the house. They tied us up and raped us. Then I watched them stab you two to death. I woke up screaming before they got to me. I’m surprised none of you heard me.”
     My wife nearly chokes on her Cocoa Puffs. She also suffered a terrible nightmare. A gang of black men broke into the house and shot them up with Uzis. My wife says that she could literally feel the bullets entering her body. I ask if I was in any of their dreams. They all say no. For some unknown reason, I hadn’t been there to protect them. I feel bad about this. I feel even worse for having had a wonderful dream as opposed to their nightmares. It was one of those warm and luminous ones that make you cry. I was married to Lori. We had three young daughters, all of whom looked like me. I was sitting on a bench at the mall and they were climbing all over me, hugging and kissing me with so much love that I burst into a thousand shiny flakes. I became some form of dead, and floated inside some higher level of consciousness. I didn’t want to wake up.
     I’ve heard of women sharing their periods but not nightmares. They’re sure the occurrence means something profound, supernatural even. My mother-in-law asks if I had a nightmare as well. I say yes. I tell them a gang of Puerto Ricans circled repeatedly and stabbed me with switchblades. I tell them I can still feel the sharp pricks in my stomach. My wife looks at her mother. The sister looks at my wife. They don’t believe my dream. They know something is screwy. They know I can’t be trusted, that it’s only a matter of months before I leave the house for more fertile pastures.
     “Oh yeah, get down, baby!”
     “What did you just say?” my wife asks.
     I don’t respond because in my mind she’s not referring to me. In my mind, I haven’t said anything.
     “Someone thinks they’re still onstage,” my sister-in-law says. She chomps into a bacon strip while sitting Indian style in the the leather wrap-around. A couple bits drop onto her bosom. She brushes the crumbs off and I watch them disappear into the afghan around her lap.
     “Hello?” my wife calls out.
     I might have ignored her a second time, but it’s the tone she takes whenever I’m not paying attention. I look around the room. The three of them are staring at me with those icy blue heirloom eyes of theirs. Then it dawns on me. I’ve sung a line of “Sympathy for the Devil” without realizing it. My underbelly has voiced its private wants. Just to be safe, I play stupid.
     “Did I sing something out loud?”
     “Somebody had quite a time last night,” my mother-in-law says with a fair amount of accusation.
     I want to ask about her ride home with Jim, but going on the offensive would only make me look guilty.
     “Yeah, I can’t believe Cindy left with those black guys. What a slut! You three must have been worried about her. Probably why you all had violent nightmares.”
     This is a good tactic. My sister-in-law and wife start badmouthing Cindy and how she’s a terrible mom for dropping her kids off at the ex’s so she can go out and bang black dudes. My mother-in-law is particularly disgusted by it. They go on for ten minutes naming and detailing all the guys Cindy has slept with since her divorce—black, white, hispanic, and even a Hindu. The diversion’s worked like a charm. I should keep my mouth shut. I should go upstairs, pack my bags and leave. They are so preoccupied with Cindy that I could walk right out the door without them noticing. Could’ve. Would‘ve. Should’ve—as my dead mother liked to say. The German Shepherd gets up from the floor and sniffs out the bacon bits on my sister-in-law’s lap.
     “You don’t know what it’s like having a kid,” I say. “You want to do what’s best for them, but sometimes that entails being a bad person. Sometimes you’ve got to put your own happiness first. If you’re not happy, chances are your kid won’t be happy. At least that’s my brand of parenting.”
     My mother-in-law looks at her childless daughters. “Are you two happy?” she asks.
     My wife does not acknowledge the question. Her eyes are dead on me. It’s the dirtiest look I’ve ever had the pleasure of earning from her.
     “What the fuck do you know about having a kid?” she says.
     I see it on her face. She’s right there with me, finally done the math re: Lori’s daughter. My sister-in-law stares back and forth at the both of us, tallying the numbers in her head. As for my response, there is no right answer. I maintain the look on my face as long as possible, delaying the inevitable, and it is right then the coyote from last night comes trotting across the backyard. I have a clear view of it through the sliding French doors out to the back porch. Our German Shepherd catches a whiff of the thing and goes ballistic, jumping and scratching at the glass.
     “What the hell is going on?” my mother-in-law shouts.
     “It’s the coyote!” I say, pointing. “He’s in the backyard!”
     The three of them spring to their feet and start shrieking which causes the Shepherd to flip out even more. The coyote hears the hysterics. He stops in the middle of the yard and turns his head towards us. He isn’t scared in the least. I approach the door and put a hand on the brass-like knob.
     “What the fuck are you doing?” my wife screams. “Don’t let the dog out! They’ll attack each other!”
     I respond with an apologetic look and open the door. The dog bolts after the coyote, scratching the tile floor in the process. The coyote just stands there waiting for the Shepherd and then the two of them go tearing into each other. It’s my only way out of the previous conversation and any conversation hereafter. It’s my big chance to finally kill something. I deserve it and everything else that results.
     
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Eugenio Volpe has published stories with New York Tyrant, Post Road, Smokelong Quarterly, Superstition Review, Exquisite Corpse, Thought Catalog, Twelve Stories, Solstice, and more. He has won the PEN Discovery Award for his novel-in-progress and been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web prizes. He lives in Bristol, RI and blogs about surfing and Don DeLillo at mebeingbrand.blogspot.com.