Two Months Before, Two Months After

by Daniel Crocker

Chip sat at the far end of the bed, away from Lynn, rubbed his eyes, and listened to her snore. Willy, his dead father's dog, trotted over and looked up expectantly. Chip patted him on the head and pushed him away. The dog was big, sixty-eight lbs, sandy, and a tongue covered in purple spots. He had a long snout Chip sometimes grabbed if the dog was humping company or chewing up furniture. Leonard, Chip's father, had refused to have the dog fixed. He'd say, "You don't cut off balls like that." It had driven Chip's mother crazy.

It was late. Chip yawned. Pushing the dog away again, he stood up and looked for the underwear he'd kicked off the night before. They were tangled under Lynn's feet; Green things with gray stripes that she'd picked up because she thought they were fancy. If he didn't wake his wife, and if he hurried, he'd have about fifteen minutes to drink coffee and play his game.

As Chip reached for the underwear, the dog clamped his teeth onto them. Chip pulled, Willy shook his head and growled. Chip pulled harder. The dog lowered his head, ass in the air, and set his feet. Trying to wrench them free, Chip dragged Willy across the floor. The dog's long claws scratched the varnish. The snoring continued.

It was January, northern Michigan, and the house was old. Chip grabbed the dog's snout and squeezed until it unclenched its jaws. Chip had one leg in when Willy made one last relentless attempt. The dog bit down, bit again, and pulled his head away with a snap. Where Chip's penis had been, flaccid and splotchy, there was only blood. It splashed upon the olive curtains and pooled sloppily upon the painted flaked windowsill. The dog swallowed, without even bothering to chew. Chip fell to the floor. It was the reddest blood he'd ever seen; his brother had owned a Camaro that exact shade when they were kids.

Two months before.

1. Lynn.

Chip and Lynn were making love. It was hard work. They'd been going at it for half an hour, first with Lynn on top, then Chip. It was cold; snow fell outside the bedroom window, a television tuned to fog. They were sweating, and she kept pushing and slapping at his hips, trying to get him to adjust to his speed. He'd had four glasses of wine at dinner, two past his usual limit, and could barely stay hard, much less come. He tried thinking about other women, but it didn't work. He pictured his wife with another man, a younger, smooth bodied man, with a monster prick. The image was vivid and helped. Lynn started breathing heavily, her hands clenched at the sheets, and then it was done.

After Chip came, he rolled over, out of breath. The guilt was palpable and it lay between him and his wife like a sleeping animal.

"Did you come?" Chip asked. He knew she hadn't.

"No, honey." Lynn rolled over on her side, wiped a strand of limp white hair from her round face and kissed her husband's shoulder. Her breath was hot and smelled of fruity wine.

"Do you want me to do anything for you?" It was after ten and he'd have to be up for work by 5:30.

"It's okay. I'm pretty tired." She smiled and nestled her head into the crook of his elbow. It was their 19th anniversary. They'd had dinner at Red Lobster, Lynn's favorite. She had worn a short red dress and Chip had commented on her eyes, and she'd smiled when he gave her a gold bracelet. Her toenails were painted, and she wore open toed shoes, despite the weather. The snow had started to fall on the way home. The road quickly turned white, and it took them forty five minutes longer than usual. It was the thing she most hated about Michigan.

"I wish you'd let me." Chip said. He knew he'd not be able to get it up again, but he could do something. Wanted to do something.

Barely shaking her head, Lynn mouthed "no." The type of exaggerated no that could mean anything.

"I don't mind," Chip said. "I really don't."

"I want to just lay here for a bit."

Chip reached over and clicked on the nightstand lamp. It cast a soft glow over the bed, and Lynn pulled the cover up to her chin. Chip asked her to give him a look, and tried to pull the cover back off of her. They'd wrestled over that for a bit, laughed for the first time that night, but eventually Lynn won out. Propping himself up on his elbow, Chip leaned over to kiss her.

"Really, let's just lay here," she said. "It's nice."

They lay in silence and he watched the snow fall until it made him dizzy. Lynn sighed almost inaudibly.

Chip rolled out of bed and found his boxers.

"You're not coming to bed?" Lynn pressed her lips tightly together and a web of wrinkles spread across her face. It was, for Chip, a condemnation. He could taste her disappointment.

"I'm going to take the dog out."

Lynn lay in bed, tightly wrapped in her blanket. Chip stood over her, naked.

"You're going to play that game again," Lynn said. "And you have to work in the morning."

2. Penny

Penny's head rested on Chip's chest and her hand stroked his hairy stomach. She'd come hard, twice. It had always been easy for her, even the first time in the back seat of Bill Sutton's Cutlass. She'd thought that rusty thing would fall right off the axles.

They were, as always, in her apartment. A one bedroom in Saginaw—the walls were white and the landlord wouldn't let her paint them. It didn't bother her. Chip had offered to take her shopping for plants, knickknacks, something, as long as they didn't spend too much money. But she'd told him not to waste his time. She was happy with a few ferns, a fish bowl, her laptop.

"Do you love me?" she asked.

"Jesus," Chip said. "Here it comes."

"What?" Penny reached down and squeezed his limp penis. "Tell me or I'll rip it off."

"Come on, Penny. Really." Chip shifted his weight to his left side; he'd gotten his legs tangled up in the flower print bedspread. He was almost positive it was the same bedspread his grandmother had once owned.

"I love you," she said. And she did, although she hated him sometimes, too, which seemed natural enough to her. But she figured, rightly, that he wouldn't understand that. The first time they'd met, she'd felt an overwhelming desire to take care of him. She had expected that to pass, but it hadn't. It had grown into an uncomfortable beast.

"I know you do. But I'm not leaving my wife."

Penny sat up, pulled on Chip's AC/DC T-shirt and lit one of his Pall Malls. She inhaled sharply.

"Goddamn it, give me that." He snatched the cigarette from Penny's mouth and stuck it in his own. "You can't smoke."

"I know that. But you piss me off." She reached again for the pack, but was too slow.

"I piss you off?"

"I didn't ask you to leave your wife. I've never asked you to leave your wife. Stop making me feel like a whore." Chip sighed; he'd not meant it like that. He looked around the room; it was so bare it made him feel claustrophobic. Everything was white—the walls, the carpet, sterile as a hospital. "Why don't you get a Goddamned clock?"

Penny rolled her eyes. "Look," Chip said, "I didn't mean it like that, okay?"

He tugged at the faded T-shirt until she relented and lay beside him again. He put the cigarette out in an empty Budweiser bottle sitting on a plastic white, pop-up table near the bed.

"I just want an answer," she said. "It's not going to make a difference either way. Do you love me or not? It's a fair question."

Eventually he'd have to say it whether he meant it or not. It doesn't even matter if I mean it, he thought. Saying it is close enough.

"Yeah," he said. "I guess I do."

Chip felt Penny relax and she snuggled in close to him. "What do you love about me?"

Chip shrugged. He didn't even know where to begin answering a question like that.

"I'm serious. Just tell me. Make it up if you have to. I don't care. Just say something."

"I love your boobs."

"That's a given" Penny said. "What else?"

"I like your big ass."

"Oh, fuck you, buddy."

"I'm serious. I've sworn off little asses. You've helped me to see the light."

Penny rolled over on her back, using Chip's arm as a pillow and glared at the white ceiling. Chip felt the need to do something.

"I love this," Chip said, and traced the cesarean scar at the base of her stomach with his finger. He felt clumsy.

He wasn't the greatest looking man, Penny thought, although he'd probably once been handsome. You couldn't call his stomach a beer belly, but it sagged. His hair had started to thin and go gray. He never cut his toenails and she could barely bring herself to look at them. But the sex was good, he appreciated her, his pure thankfulness was overwhelming, and there was always the game.

"Did you level last night?"

"Yep," Chip said, glancing toward the door. It was made of cheap wood, painted white, and there was an indent in the center of it the size of a fist. He had never asked her anymore about that than he had her scar.

"You going to be online later?" Chip asked.

"You know it." Penny reached across him for her glasses.

He heard: A wailing siren. A screaming wife. Something about ice. A deep male voice. Lynn: I didn't do it. It was his dad's dog. He inherited it. He smokes, but only after. After.

One month before.

1. Lynn, Troy and the Game.

The game wasn't even trendy and there were no graphics. It was just an old fashioned text MUD. At most there were 600 players. Some kid at the factory had talked about it nonstop. It got on everyone's nerves. But, bored one night, after fighting with Lynn, Chip decided to check it out. They'd recently bought their first computer and he'd been chided for not showing much interest in it. You need a hobby, Lynn told him.

It took him a bit to get used to the scrolling text; it was hard to keep up. But he liked figuring things out, and soon the world opened up, as if someone had removed a blindfold from him, and when he looked at clock in the corner of the screen again it was 3 a.m.

When he first started playing, Lynn thought it was cute. At 42, he was boyish, eager when he played. He'd talk to her about the levels he had gained, what mob he'd killed, how far he had advanced. When she'd told him about Troy she thought that part of him had been lost. Troy from work, he'd said, that kid. She nodded and waited for the explosion, but it never came. He sat on the couch and asked her to tell him what happened. His desire, she thought, no his craving for every last detail unsettled her. You didn't sleep with him, he asked. She hadn't. So you kissed him, he said, and he felt you up. She nodded, again. And you grabbed his cock? She was crying, but his voice was emotionless. They had been going over it for two hours. Well, how was it, he said. Big? Average? She had screamed at that point and he stopped. He put his arm around her and told her that he was sorry, and that had made her scream again because she knew that he was and that her sorry had just been swallowed by his and made unimportant.

It may have all ended up good even then, she thought, it would be a scar but it would heal. And then that bastard father of his died and then he started playing that game non-stop. It was the first thing he did in the morning. It was the last thing he did at night. Half of the time he played through dinner, his plate in front of him next to the computer. If she didn't know any better, she could have sworn he was addicted. But that was ridiculous. People don't get addicted to games, least of all her husband.

But it seemed to make him happy. So when he talked about it, she smiled and nodded and joked about having married a closet geek. Sometimes she'd open a bottle of wine and ask him to play his guitar and he'd fumble through something by Springsteen or Neil Young. He'd rush through the songs thinking only of dragons, sirens and magic. Later, when she was watching Letterman, he'd pour himself a glass of tea and play. She would sleep, and he'd wake up for work late and tired.

2. Penny and Jewel. He had met Penny in a dungeon. Her in game name was Jewel. She was in his guild, a warlock. They'd been surprised to discover they lived only two hours apart. It's a small world, she said, but then again, what else you going to do with winters like these? Soon they married ingame. Role playing—the gamers called it RP.

Half a year later, they met in real life at the Renaissance fair in Holly. It was May, but still cool enough for a jacket. He had not dressed up as many of them had like bards or priests or knights, but in faded jeans, flannel and tan boots. He told Lynn he was just going to check it out. She didn't understand, but she didn't stop him either. At the last minute he'd felt a tinge of guilt and had asked her to come with him. She refused even after he asked her to look at is as a second honeymoon. I get enough of that game, she said.

Penny wore tight Wranglers. Her black hair was braided and her glasses kept slipping off of her nose. There was a mole on the back of her neck that she'd need to get looked at someday. Even in that baggy sweater she looked pretty stacked, Chip thought, and choked back a pang of guilt. He felt awkward, like he was being watched, and was thankful when Penny took control of the conversation. They drank in the beer garden and when talk lulled, Penny brought it back to the game and smiled at the way she could physically see him relax.

Chip invited Penny back to his hotel. She kept her shirt on as they made love; when she came the first time she collapsed beside him and all he could do was stare at the swirling white patterns painted on the ceiling and wonder why he didn't feel as guilty as he would like to. After Penny was asleep, he called his wife and told her that he'd be home early. The next night, while Lynn slept, he slew his first dragon.

It was gone. Lynn had waited, near panic, as the EMTs gave the dog a dose of peroxide. It began to vomit almost immediately. But it had been too long. It was too mangled. When Chip, high on pain killers, asked, she said, "It's not a diamond ring dear. It's gone." She held his hand and cried for him. Their only daughter, Jen, had moved in with her boyfriend six months earlier. She refused to visit. "Imagine how weird it must be for her," Lynn said.

One month after.

1. Bruce, Lynn and the fish.

Chip wouldn't answer the phone when his brother's name, Bruce, showed up on caller ID. He had been calling for days, and Chip knew that Lynn had been talking to him behind his back, but he wasn't ready. It might be good for you to talk to him, Lynn said. But all Chip could think about was that his little brother still had a penis and he did not.

Lynn worried. Now that he wasn't working, Chip played his game more than ever. She could no longer bring herself to complain about it. She tried getting interested in it. She would peek over his shoulder as he typed and he would close the screen and pretend to look at porn. She had asked him if she could watch and he had said, no, it's embarrassing and she didn't push it any farther.

He wouldn't see a psychiatrist, but she had started seeing Dr. Kennedy. She had told Lynn that Chip was bound to be depressed, but eventually it would work itself out. If the game helped then let it help, she'd said. Lynn tried to explain that he'd been playing it before, but Dr. Kennedy was more interested in talking about Lynn's feelings. On the lost penis she could only say, he'll deal with it.

Lynn wasn't satisfied with that. So she had started talking to Bruce because he and Chip had always been close. If she could just get Chip to talk to him, another male, maybe it would help. She only let him refuse for so long. On the morning Bruce arrived, there had been a scene. The brothers nearly came to blows. Their faces were red from screaming, but Chip finally backed down and agreed go ice fishing. Bruce had already packed the gear in the bed of his truck.

They went to Higgins Lake. Bruce had set the shack up earlier in the winter. Their father had built it, and they'd been using it since they were boys. Bruce drilled a hole through the ice with the hand auger they had always used. It was part of the tradition. Chip didn't help, nor did Bruce ask him to. He drilled in silence. When he was done, he sat down beside Chip, wiped the sweat off of his face with an old rag, and pulled a pint of Jim Beam from his backpack. It went down smooth and he handed the bottle to his brother.

"So, what did you drag me all the way out here for again?" Chip asked and took a small drink straight from the bottle.

"We haven't been fishing all winter," Bruce said. "Hell, I've only seen you in the hospital and you wouldn't talk to me then."

"Bullshit. You and Lynn conspired to get me out here, so just cut to the chase, ok?"

Bruce dropped his line. He might hook a walleye or a pike, but he wasn't concerned either way. "I'm just worried about you, that's all."

"I'm fine," Chip said and took another sip of whiskey. He'd have to make sure to be careful. Bruce, if tradition held, would end up too drunk to drive.

"Lynn doesn't seem to think so. She thinks you're far from fine."

"I wish you'd quit calling her."

"She calls me. She needs someone to talk to."

"She can talk to me." Chip wanted to smash his brother's face, but he was sure he wouldn't be able to take him anymore. Bruce was only a year and a half younger, but he'd aged better. His shoulders were still broad and his stomach tight.

"Right," Bruce said. "Right."

"Is this about that stupid game? Fine. I'll quit playing. It's not that much fun anymore anyway. It's just something to do." He reached across Bruce's line for the bottle of Beam.

"It's a sight more than that," Bruce said.

"I lost my dick, Bruce. Give me a break. Both of you. Give me a goddamned break."

"I know, bro. And I'm sorry. I can't even imagine. But if you don't get a hold on yourself you're going to lose a lot more than that."

Chip sat his pole beside his feet. He didn't feel like fishing. He didn't feel like talking either, but it didn't look like he was going to get much of a choice. He took another drink. It would be his last one; it had already gone to his head. They sat in silence for a while.

"I know about that girl you have," Bruce said. His pole had bent once and he cut the line and sat the pole next to him. He was not there to fish.

"What?" Chip felt a rush of adrenaline, the first since the accident, and it made him feel alive.

"Fuck," Bruce said. "Don't play this game with me."

"Well then, what about it?" He turned the space heater up to eight.

"Lynn knows too. She's known since before the accident."

Chip sat with his elbows on his knees, staring at the ice.

"She's not stupid," Bruce said. "For as much time as you spend on it, you don't know jack shit about computers. You leave AIM up, you don't log out of your email. It's like you wanted to get caught."

"Why hasn't she said anything?" That angered Chip the most. Lynn would tell his brother, but not him. He knew that later it would be guilt, but for now, it was just anger.

"Why hasn't she said anything?

"Hell if I know. Probably because she loves you. Because you're forty-two years old and never been with another woman. Because you've always been the perfect husband. Jesus, half the time I get the feeling you shit rose petals."

"I'm ready to go home," Chip said.

"We're not going anywhere until I've had my say." Bruce offered the bottle to his brother, but he refused it.

"Then have at it," Chip said.

"Ok. Look, I don't know if you're going through some mid-life fucking crisis or if you're just as depressed as everyone keeps saying you are, but it's time to buck up."

"And I should be taking advice from you?" Chip couldn't bring himself to raise his voice. There was no denying it. He was afraid of his brother.

"Same old shit, huh?" Bruce took another drink. "I can't hold a job. I can't keep a woman. That's fine, bro. That's the way I'm built. Like dad without the sense of responsibility. But I'm happy. I don't make a pretense and I don't hurt anyone. You're killing everyone around you. Jen won't even come to visit."

"It must be hard on her," Chip said.

"You're making it hard on her. Get your head out of your ass. Break it off with that bimbo and get your life back together."

Chip swung at his brother and caught his left cheek with a glancing blow. Bruce wobbled, nearly fell off of his chair, but regained his balance. He was on Chip like an animal and had him pinned to the ice before Chip could make another move.

"Fuck you," Bruce said.

2. What happens at Higgins Lake stays at Higgins Lake. Chip returned home with a black eye and a busted lip. Lynn fretted, ran a washcloth under hot water and tried to wipe the blood off of her husband's face. Chip pushed her away. The attention she paid to him just made it worse, like she was his mother. He had just had his ass whipped and wanted nothing more than to go to sleep.

Things had gone to hell.

Two months after.

1. How to almost save a marriage.

There was just nothing there. A scab like a severed umbilical chord, a hefty nut sack, and an empty space that just didn't seem empty at all. Chip still wanted sex. He still dreamed of it. His balls hurt with it. They were heavy with semen. At the Lion's Den, he fumbled with various lubes, calendars, decks of dirty playing cards, until a pretty pink haired girl behind the counter asked him if he needed help. Hell yes he needed help. He came home with sixty bucks worth of top of the line strap-on.

That night he fucked Lynn violently, pinning her to the bed, biting her shoulder, gripping her wrists until her hands turned purple. By then, he'd already shot the dog and buried it in the back yard underneath a willow tree. When Lynn tensed he asked her if she was coming.

"Yes," she whispered.

"Are you fucking coming?" he asked.

"Yes," she said.

2. Any port in a storm. Chip sat at Penny's desk in front her computer. Since the accident he'd spent nearly two hundred hours of in game time. There's just nothing there, his wife had said. And when he dreamed, he dreamed of sex. He dreamed of fucking his niece, his mother, his seventh grade art teacher, Ms. Henderson, whose breasts sagged to her navel when she sat.

Lynn had started to dote on him. He'd gone to shovel the snow, and found the boy up the street had already been hired to do it. He wanted to put in a new sink, but she insisted he let her call a plumber. She fixed dinner every day, and sometimes wiped his mouth with the corner of her napkin.

Lynn hadn't packed up and left on her own, but he'd asked her to go when she stopped letting him use the strap-on. By that time, he had taken to wearing it around the house, to the dinner table, out to check the mail. Holding up her arms Lynn had said, "Look at this. And this. And this." Purple and yellow splotches. Fireworks. The phone rang, work, but he wasn't going back.

Penny, fresh out of the shower, coughed and Chip looked up expectantly . Her bush was wild; her tits covered in droplets of water. She wore nothing but a latex glove, and she held a bottle of baby lotion.

She was pregnant. The scar on her stomach was puffy and red from the heat of the shower, but she wasn't yet showing.

"What are you doing?" Chip asked.

"C'mere, old man. I'll show you." She arched a sharp eyebrow.

Afterwards, maybe they'd go shopping and have a nice dinner.

Author of People Everyday and Other Poems, Do Not Look Directly Into Me and The Cornstalk Man (Grean Bean Press). Currently phd in Creative Writing at University of Southern Mississippi. Dishwasher. Also cursed with the Kavorka.