Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
He shuffles to the bathroom scale and steps onto it with the enthusiasm of a man mounting the gallows. He imagines metallic groans, the sound of springs straining to their limit, the creak of timbers about to crack. But how can this be? It’s a high-tech scale, probably engineered by people whose native language is German and wear white laboratory gowns. It was a hint-hint present from his wife, Peaches. It tells you not only how much you weigh but also how much you weighed yesterday, and how many calories you can consume today in order to weigh less tomorrow. But all this is academic, for he cannot see the numbers, owing to the protuberance of his belly. Nor can he see his toes. Are they still there? He wriggles them. It feels as though they are, but that could be phantom limb syndrome, where you think you feel body parts no longer there. He cranes his head forward, as if trying to peek over the crest of a hill. Good news. The toes are there. But leaning forward on the scale shifts his weight, causing havoc in the scale’s delicate high-tech sensors. His weight fluctuates like a stock price on a day of wild market volatility.
Finally, the number stabilizes. Cue auto fat shaming. Did you really eat an entire family size bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups? After eating an entire supreme frozen pizza? You disgusting person. You pig.
“Family size,” “supreme”—labeling of distinctly deceptive American coinage. The embedded falsehood in “family size” is that this rucksack-like bag will be shared with the family. “Supreme” meanwhile connotes excellence and mastery, as in the Supreme Being, the highest court in the land, Julia Child’s signature chicken. Why shouldn’t a pizza loaded with pepperoni, sausage, prosciutto, onion, black olives, anchovy, jalapeño, and mushroom take its rightful place in the Valhalla of Supremacy?
On the bathroom floor by the scale, he sees an empty plastic wrapper perforated with bite marks. This sad relic contained the urgently needed Pepto-Bismol chewable tablets. This, too, has become a daily ritual: the 3 a.m. ingestion of pink bismuth to calm the roiling gastric seas. How has it come to this? Can everything be blamed on the pandemic?
He descends the staircase in a bathrobe and slippers. The day’s next defeat awaits him in the kitchen, but already he can feel the pounding rhythm—if it can be called that—of hip-hop booming from the Sonos speakers. SONOS. The name connotes a Greek deity, though he suspects it stands for “Sporadically Operating Network of Sound.” Whenever he wants it to play Bach or James Taylor, it refuses to cooperate. When his stepchildren want it to play rap, it works. At the moment, it is bellowing at him:
“Oop, oop, we in da poop. Don’ wanna be, don’ lookit me, oop, oop…”
His stepson, Themistocles, has yet again neglected to turn his music off before tumbling into the arms of Morpheus. Themistocles is, yes, an unusual name for an American lad; as are Clytemnestra and Atalanta, as two of his sisters are called. Another sister is more prosaically named Polly. Peaches’s first husband was Greek. On the arrival of their fourth child, Peaches finally put her foot down.
Now begins the ritual search for Them’s iPhone, from which the hellish din is issuing to the eight or however many Sonos speakers. He decides that the name cannot be an acronym. Sonos was surely a god of the underworld who tormented mortals with eternal unrest.
There is no point in attempting to roust Them from his sleep to ask him where his iPhone is. Them is uniquely gifted. He cannot be awakened by human device. As a child, he slept through a 7.4 earthquake. An exchange of nuclear weapons would not disturb his slumber.
A concavity in the sofa cushions indicates with a high degree of probability that the iPhone might be wedged between them. It is. Success. But such swift victories as this are rare. One morning, it took him half an hour to locate it. Them had left it in the freezer while rooting for a midnight snack.
He silences the hip-hop. He knows Them’s passcode, thank God. He briefly contemplates deleting his hip-hop playlist of 2,204 songs, but decides against it. Them can be very creative at payback. The last time he deleted one of his playlists, Them programmed his stepfather’s iPhone to shriek “Allahu akbar!” Them dropped him off at the airport, waited ten minutes, then phoned him. Caused quite the sensation as he was going through the TSA line.
Blessed silence. His rattled tympanic membranes make out the early morning chitter of birds, larks of varied feather rising from sullen earth at break of day to sing hymns at heaven’s gate.
But now comes the day’s third defeat. Lifting the carton of orange juice, he feels an unbearable lightness. Someone has drained it dry and replaced it, empty, in the fridge. Even the most impartial jury would convict Them on grounds of circumstantial evidence. Or would they, if they knew of his talent for retaliation?
Normally, he wouldn’t care about the OJ. But he’s reading a book on the Napoleonic Wars and last night came upon a lurid description of scurvy: rotting gums, teeth falling out, skittering about the deck like pebbles. The admiralty solved the problem by giving ship crews limes, from which we get the word limeys. He wonders if its near homonym blimey, Brit for expressing surprise or alarm (“Blimey, not another story in the paper about Brexit”), is a variant. He must look this up.
Etymology is a passion with him. He is known to accost strangers and ask, “Did you know that mayonnaise is one of the few words in the English language of Carthaginian origin?” Peaches and the four children have heard the etymology of mayonnaise so many times that they have developed an aversion to the real thing. He is aware that his wife and stepchildren do not share his ardor for word origins. He does try to restrain himself, but it’s not easy. Only yesterday, he learned the word petrichor and had to epoxy his lips shut, he so wanted to share it with them. The pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell. From the Greek petros (stone) and ichor (the fluid that supposedly flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology). Is this a great word, or what?
The day’s fourth existential defeat presents itself at the mailbox, where he goes to fetch his morning paper. A snake of impressive dimension has coiled itself around the post of the mailbox. He gets that this is South Carolina. Still. Until he married Peaches, he lived in latitudes where retrieving the paper did not entail risk of reptilian envenomation.
He cannot discern from its markings what variety of snake it is. South Carolina proudly boasts all five of North America’s venomous species. Whichever it is, this one appears to have a theatrical bent. It has coiled itself around the post, head facing out, forked tongue protruding, as if posing as a caduceus, the ancient symbol of healing. (From the Greek kerux, “herald,” but this is not the time for etymology.)
Honestly. The news these days is depressing enough without having to risk your life getting it. Nor does he relish becoming an item of local news himself.
RETIREE DOING BETTER AFTER COPPERHEAD BITE
Their friend Stonewall was bitten by a water moccasin. By the time he got to the ER, his leg was “so swole up” they had to cut his pants off. They injected him with antivenom (cost: $10,000), but this had the unfortunate side effect of stopping his heart. (The ultimate undesirable side effect.) Turned out Stoney is allergic to antivenom. Nearly a decade later, his leg still occasionally throbs. Stonewall has become a more reliable predictor of rain than Weather.com.
“Shoo,” he says to the snake, a feckless choice of words that moreover, makes no impression on it.
“Look,” he says in a manly way, “fuck off.” More assertive than “shoo.” But the snake remains unimpressed.
He is acutely conscious of the absurdity of his situation, standing here rotundly at the end of the driveway in slippers and bathrobe, trying to get a dialogue going with a passive-aggressive serpent of theatrical bent. Right about now the guys working on the new house down the street will be arriving. He must resolve this situation before they show up. How humiliating would that be: an old Yankee fatso in slippers and bathrobe dithering before a snake? One of them will drive up in his F-150, festooned with NRA, Nam Vet, Semper Fi, and MAGA decals. He’ll slow, take in the absurd spectacle of fatso Yankee and snake; grin, ask, “Y’all need some assistance with that?” He’ll rummage in the back of his pickup for the appropriate tool—machete, nail gun, M-16—and efficiently dispatch the snake. “Mind if I keep it? My dogs love snake.” Please. By all means.
But no one comes. He decides there is no dishonor in ceding the field of battle to a potentially lethal three-foot-long snake. This surely falls into the category of “pick your own fights.” He can read the news on his iPad. Still.
As he turns to begin his craven retreat, he notices that a sign has been planted on the neighbor’s property. He walks over to see what it says. A public service announcement, perhaps? “Danger: Snakes!” But no:
REELECT BOBBY BABCOCK CORONER
He was not aware that coroner is an elective office. He does know that the word derives from the Anglo-Norman French coruner. The coroner was the officer who safeguarded the king’s property, most important, his crown.
Since marrying Peaches and moving in with her here in Pimento, he’s made an effort to keep up with local elections for mayor, sheriff, country commissioner, and such. He takes democracy seriously. Look what happens when you don’t. Jury duty can be a bore, but it’s the least we owe the men who froze at Valley Forge during the bitter winter of 1777–78.
As he walks to the house, he wonders: What qualifications does one look for in a coroner?
He can’t recall seeing any other coroner-related campaign signs. Perhaps this Babcock person is running unopposed, but feels he should have some signs so folks won’t think he’s taking reelection for granted. Or maybe Mr. Babcock likes seeing his name in big letters on people’s lawns.
He continues his way to the house, keeping an eye peeled for other uliginous creatures. (Very useful word down here, uliginous: “swampy,” “slimy,” “slithery.” Faintly onomatopoeic.)
What qualities would he look for in a coroner? Some medical knowledge would be in order, so the coroner could determine if the deceased died of foul play. Doesn’t the smell of bitter almonds suggest cyanide poisoning? (Or is it arsenic? He must look this up. Just the sort of thing a coroner should know.)
What else? Punctuality. In TV crime shows, they’re always saying, “We mustn’t move the body until the coroner gets here.” So punctuality would definitely be an asset. Who wants to sit there all day with a body, waiting for a dilatory coroner? Not him.
“Where the heck is that coroner? It’s been over three hours now.”
“He doesn’t appear to be in any great hurry.”
“Serves us right. Everyone said, ‘For God’s sake, don’t elect Bobby Babcock. Ol’ Bobby would be late to his own inquest.’?”
The more he thinks about it, the more he realizes you don’t want just anyone as coroner.