Jan from next door leaned against the split-rail fence. His pug Otis yapped. With each explosive bark, all four paws cleared the ground.
“Hey, yourself!” Butch replied with a scowl. Jan and his wife Darla were empty nesters with an appetite for vacant chit-chat. Butch’s possessions came off the moving truck two weeks ago, but to him it could have been a year. Already this new life sucked.
“My goodness, the weather is downright indecent!” said Jan. “It’s hotter than hell!” His smirk was plastic film stretched over a human skull.
At a loss for a snappy reply, Butch simply mirrored Jan’s moronic leer. The two men bobbed heads for half a minute without saying anything. Otis wriggled under the fence, barked as if Butch were the intruder, sniffed freshly-planted landscaping.
Although selection of the house was beyond Butch’s control, he insisted flowers on the property should be in bloom year-round. Otis squared up and pooped in a gardenia bed next to Butch’s porch, bug eyes glaring at Butch all the while. The pug kicked mulch over the housewarming gift and jogged his little corkscrew ass back to Jan.
“Okay, Otis and I will let you get on with your day. Oh! The reason I stopped by! My other neighbor, Paul, is throwing a big, big get-together tonight. Great way for you to meet the rest of the gang. Come over to Paul’s place around eight. Bring a dish to share. Something spoiled. It’s the theme. See you there!”
In the wake of this, his briefest encounter with Jan, Butch’s mind frothed. Perhaps it was the dread of socializing with an unfamiliar league of small-town Florida clowns. His separation from all things Cleveland seemed complete. Spoiled food? Was Jan serious? Cooling pug excrement mugged the perfume of Butch’s gardenias.
“Adjustment is easier if you try to engage socially,” Butch’s handler Novak had said while presenting the house keys. “I probably don’t have to warn a prick such as yourself not to take it too far.”
At eight thirty, fortified by a shot of vodka, Butch balanced a serving dish in the crook of his elbow and pressed Paul’s doorbell. Voices, laughter, and rank barbecue smoke wrapped around from behind the bungalow. Butch rang again, and after another long pause the door swung open into darkness. He stepped inside and no one was there. A hallway of closed doors led to louder party sounds.
Clinical white illumination with a slight greenish tint bathed Paul’s kitchen. The ceiling fixtures appeared to buzz faintly. Every horizontal surface overflowed with pans, bowls, and dishes of food. Butch drew closer — tiny flies fuzzed the spread. The buzzing sound grew in intensity.
He set down his not-putrescent fruit salad next to some rice pilaf, which squirmed in its bowl. Translucent gray-green fur topped a pan of what may have been mac & cheese, maybe macaroni salad. An arrangement of little sausages the color of ebony, garnished with rot-melted parsley sprigs. A tray of desiccated vegetables indistinguishable from each other.
Rural Ohio on a hot summer day, a decade ago when he’d served a ninety day sentence for first degree aggravated menacing. Labor gang picking up highway litter. The heat could turn boot soles gooey. No matter how much water you drank, your sweat glands did all the pissing. The doe wasn’t blackened leather yet, mostly pink and brown and brick red, still shiny where the turkey vultures had been at her. Butch came along upwind and squatted near the carcass to pick up a soda can. The breeze shifted and putrefaction’s stench stuck its fingers down Butch’s throat. He puked as quickly as if he’d sneezed –- ribbons of it festooned his reflective vest while the other inmates jeered.
Swarming flies resettled on the buffet. What kind of screwed-up joke was this? The next time he talked to the Feds, he’d ask if his witness protection deal included food poisoning. He swayed on the open patio doors’ threshold, hands on knees, gasping. Beyond a lattice of mahogany and cypress trees, the deepening twilit sky blushed from scarlet and amber to indigo. Butch’s hands shook and his guts surged in spasms. Damn his dish, damn the festivities — he was out of here.
“It’s the new guy!” Paul boomed. “Hey, everybody, Bob is here. He just moved into the Millers’ old house.”
Some of the guests murmured greetings to Butch/Bob, others raised their glasses or bottles in his direction. Bearded beefy Paul manned a barbecue grill as big as a dumpster. His soiled apron bore the words EAT ME.
Paul raised the grill’s lid to poke at something and released the essence of a garbage dump’s five-alarm fire. Acrid brownish-black clouds puffed out to annihilate the torches’ citronella. Paul lowered the stainless steel hellgate and grinned. Soot and grease dribbled from his frizzled beard but teeth as white as copy paper flashed in the middle of the mess.
“Have something to drink, Bob,” said Paul. “You’re just in time, we’re about to ring the dinner bell.”
Paul pointed his tongs at a galvanized tub full of bottles and cans. Butch decided to have one beer and then bug out. He let himself imagine returning with his trusty Beretta and changing the party’s dynamic, although his current arrangement made gun ownership tricky and mass murder untenable. Bracing himself he reached into the water, which was warmer than his skin. He used his shirt to wipe off the Heineken bottle’s oily film. A sip of the tepid beer confirmed it was skunked.
“He made it!” said Jan, arm-in-arm with his wife, Darla. She’d been carved by time and left to sun-dry; one of those apple-faced dolls at the county fair. Her hairdo lagged if she moved too suddenly. Butch swigged his ruined beer.
“Mr. New Guy!” Darla cackled. “Oh, he’s much hunkier close up. So rugged. Mama likes!” Jan gave her a squeeze and the couple beamed at Butch.
“Come with me, Bob,” said Darla, “I want you to meet someone.”
Darla clamped one of her bejeweled claws onto Butch’s free hand and towed him across the tiki-lit yard.
“I’m so excited, it just makes me want to tinkle,” she said. “I’ve waited eons for this wedding, and here we are!”
“I — I thought this was a regular party,” stammered Butch. Had gravity increased since his arrival? One shot and two sips of beer shouldn’t make him so woozy.
“Oh, it is indeed,” Darla whispered. “A real cause for celebration. Where is she, where is she?”
They circled the patio. Darla’s grip compacted Butch’s finger bones although he barely noticed. The dinner bell tolled, its timbre funereal yet jarring.
“Soup’s on!” cried their host. “Come and get it!”
A train of guests formed near Paul’s kitchen doorway. Darla hissed in Butch’s ear as she steered him toward the queue:
“First we feast, because the ceremony takes hours, then we feast again. It’s how we do it around here. That’s her, in the red dress. She’s adorable!”
Butch recoiled from Darla’s reek of scotch, patchouli, and something rancid. They stepped in line behind a woman with long, silken black hair and a muscular, voluptuous build. She placed a hand on one solid hip and shifted her weight. Butch’s senses fluttered and his pants tightened.
“Lilith,” Darla said, “Bob’s here! I told you he would come around.”
Lilith turned towards Butch. Thoughts ricocheted like hollow point bullets inside his skull. It would be impossible for him to conjure Lilith’s image if his eyes were closed, let alone describe her to anyone else. Something ancient triggered within his lizard brain; it said her face was a composite of all women who’d lived to thirty or beyond. Billions of identically-aged visages overlaid and averaged. Lilith smiled.
Her contralto voice arose from beneath their feet. Butch’s beer puddled on the patio amidst green glass shards. The tiki torches extinguished themselves. Even though the dumpster-grill was shut, red flames flickered in Lilith’s eyes. Otis sidled up to Butch’s leg and humped it.
“You’re not as handsome or potent as was foretold,” Lilith intoned, “but we’ll wed nonetheless.”