The Good Fixer

Karen E. Zvarych

2 red chairs
Photo Credit: Susan NYC

The woods smell sharp, of men’s blue stick deodorant. It comes from the trees’ needles being crushed. I pull my shirt toward my nose and suction the smell of detergent. He is walking toward me.

Bud slows near the end of the field and looks behind him. Certain no one is watching, he crosses to the trees.

“Hi,” I whisper.

He nods at me. His puffy coat hangs awkwardly over his black dress pants; his navy blue hat is pulled tight over his ears. He looks cozy except for the alarmed creases around his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

He shakes his head in a nothing way.

I sit in the dirt and stretch my legs in front of me on the evergreen needles. He leans against a white spruce tree and takes out a cigarette.

“Have you ever tried to quit?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I could if I wanted to, though.” He picks up a dried-out spruce cone, rolls it around in his hand and drops it.

“I guess something has to kill you.”

He looks at me as if I’ve stolen something he’s said before.

I leap up and pace in a tight circle. He watches me. I stop and sit down next to him, my back against the same tree. The bark’s deep ribs dig into my back. It is flaky, and I can feel it skinning against my coat. I squirm and my leg hits his. He pulls it away slowly.

“What? Am I contagious?”

“Your day at school okay?”

“Your test was hard.”

He raises an eyebrow and lets his cigarette hang between his lips. “You study?”

“I even made flashcards.” My voice sounds like a child’s. I could be his child.

“That’s good. Artist on one side, period on the other?”

I nod.

“That’s good,” he repeats.

I reach for the cigarette in his hand. “May I?”

He holds his hand close to his chest and then offers the cigarette over to me. “Don’t get the paper wet though. I hate that.”

I touch his fingers; our skin brushes. He flinches.

I drag on the cigarette but don’t inhale. “You’re in the woods with one of your students.” I hand back the cigarette.

He exhales narrowly through his mouth and smiles while shaking his head. “You think I don’t know that?” He looks over at my face. We are close enough that kissing wouldn’t need a reach. I can smell him and it makes me smile.

“I can’t do this,” he says. He takes a drag from his cigarette and says, “I think about you too much. Sex is too much for me right now.”

“We haven’t had sex.”

“But that’s what comes next right?” He looks at me like I am being thoughtless.

I laugh roughly. “I wouldn’t say it was guaranteed.”

“You’re only here for a few years, and then you’ll leave, and I’ll still be here. You ever think of that?”

I hadn’t thought of that. I hadn’t thought about him thinking of me as being a part of his future. I don’t believe that he means it now either. I know he’s had other students, it wasn’t like I hadn’t been warned by other girls.

“So you understand?” he asks.

I glare at him. “You’re acting like you’re sixty years old instead of forty. Can’t you just live right now with me?”

“I have a plan, and I’m sticking to it.”

“And you’re not letting me ruin it.”

He nods. “That’s pretty much it.”

“You think I add to your depression.”

He stands up quickly. “You think too much.”

I stay where I am on the ground. He begins to walk away and then comes back and hovers over me. He can’t walk away from me; I know things.

“Rhonda, it’s about me. I’m almost forty-one and have no idea how the hell to be happy with myself. Is that who you want to be with?”

The fact is I have no other options, never had and was unsure if I ever would again. He was the first man I met at college who acted like he saw me. Maybe he was pretending. With my voice small and breathy I say, “So that’s it?”

He coughs loudly through his mouth and nose. It comes out like a snort. “Sort of,” he says, still coughing.

I am seventeen again; he is trying to show me that I have taken us too seriously. Only other girls get taken seriously, are cherished. He and I, we aren’t even together. We are a student and professor sneaking into the woods to share cigarettes and stories of being sad. One time he kissed me out here.

He is watching me closely to see if I will cry. Maybe I will, make him worry about me and this situation of his. I scrunch up my face.

“How about we take a break? How’s that?” He takes a long drag and drops the butt to the ground. A pile of needles spring into a flame.

“Shit!” he mutters and stamps down on the small fire.

“The needles are dry,” I say blandly.

He bends to pick up the butt and holds it delicately between his thumb and index finger. He raises it slightly, suggesting a wave of goodbye with the burnt paper in his hand. “See you in class,” he says. As he walks away between the trees, I take off my shoes and then my socks. I stand on the needles which he has set on fire. The warmth aches and I hope he looks back to see me.

I walk back to my dorm building next to the creek. Bozeman is a beautiful place but it seems like me being here has made it less attractive. I think of the Tongue Creek back home; that is still the ugliest water I’ve ever seen.

My shoes are off so gravel slips between my toes. I pick a stone out and squeeze it hard into my palm. I rub the stone in my hand and etch four letters on it with my fingernail. I arc my hand back and chuck the rock into the creek. It disappears. I bend down and pick up another stone.

I stand on the edge of the water and look into the brown muck. The water is too dark to see a reflection. I am not down there. I can stand above, a shield to disappointment, pose unaffected and still love. I can hand out grace and receive nothing back and not wilt. I can tell—order—myself to handle the selflessness and it will be enough. I select one last pebble for him. I hold it over the water but do not drop it. Instead, I put the stone in the bottom of my shoe then put my shoes on my feet.

I want a dress made of flower petals. Spinning on the bank with my eyes closed, I’ll make the air smell sweet. I’ll create the opposite of earth. My skin will reflect the soft underside of each silk petal, and when I get in the water it will fall apart all at once, and that will be okay.

He and I are talking silently on the phone. I stare at the rug on my bedroom floor and want to say, “I promised myself to never again date a guy who does drugs.” Bud moves around his house. He’s in the kitchen making pasta, then in the dining room eating. He’s at the table flipping through a home equipment catalog while my voice rests on his shoulder. I’m teetering by his ear, and he starts humming an unidentifiable tune. He sounds content. We agreed not to see each other for two weeks but we’re allowed to speak on the phone. I say, “I think drugs are a good idea.”

“Drugs are for the lost,” he says.

We talk about the rain. It’s a lot of rain and it makes us both want to sleep. “I want to invent a remote control for the sky,” I say.

Bud finds a chuckle in his toned gut to keep me where he wants me.

I am reading Rilke in bed. He tells me that young people who love wrongly with abandon feel the pressure of a failure and want to make their situation fruitful in their own way. I think of lines that could appear as epigrams before the story of my ordeal with Bud. What one woman calls humiliation, another calls growth.

I spend four hours at the small arts theatre, the Mammoth. I see one movie and then sneak upstairs and watch another. The first film has colors fit for an absinthe trip. It was filmed in south Asia and all of the main characters are pretty men. I go into it knowing it’s going to be fantastic since Bud has told me he’s heard it’s not worthy of its actors and will never see it. I sit in a row alone and hug my soft scarf. My fists grip the wool and push hard against my empty stomach. Bud’s hands are on a new girl’s stomach or breasts or face. He could have just met her in the grocery store or at the library, somewhere without me to protect him from the talons of girls hungry for his scholarly neediness. I know how determined we can be. The stretched landscape of film consoles and tries to tell me that hands are small and that their feel have a dependable trait of fading. I walk home from the movies in beat to the words: “You could be free. You could be free.”

On Monday afternoon, I am thinking about Cat Woman, the cartoon. I am not as strong as her because I want to whisper to the other people in the grocery store I don’t have cats as the giant bag of chicken-beef nuggets slips under my arm. I plow to the register and slam the bag down on the checkout belt. The cashier takes money from me that is not mine, and I drive the food to a house for which I help care. I am paid to be a family member that completes the chores but receives no love.

The hungry animals wait in the dark kitchen. They are relieved to see me. They throw their tiny heads into bowls of chalky triangles. The five fur masses have names but I do not know what they are, except for Aries because we share a star sign.

“Aries,” I say. “He told me that the reason we aren’t working is because I said I suffer for him. What do you think of that?”

Aries looks up while crunching a nugget between his tiny incisors. He doesn’t know what suffering is anymore because he’s eating. He will remember when he gets hungry again.

“I meant that I sacrifice for him. He should see that in me.”

The cat does not respond; he can’t believe Bud’s lack of appreciation either.

“I need a replacement.” I crouch by the cat’s bowl and remove one nugget. Aries watches my reaching finger suspiciously. I put the nugget to my lips as if about to eat it, and then throw it quickly back into the bowl. “I won’t,” I say.

The wine Bud threw at me—it was darker than a Cabernet. It was a few weeks ago. He’d been badly imitating a comedian, running into the table and talking about how he was trying to find the cat’s penis. “That cat is supposed to be a boy and it doesn’t have a penis,” he’d said. We talked about neutered animals getting erections. “It still needs to piss and shit,” he shouted. I said, “Are you drunk?” and he said, “No, I just had a few beers with the guys.” And I said, “Oh, the guys” and quieted. He straightened up and said, “What do you need me to imitate goddamn Sherman Alexie for you to understand it?” He threw his arm into the air and the wine went with his hand. A few drops hit my cheek. He left the room. I circled the floor. I circled the tiny red spots on the carpet, understanding that I did not know what to do.

On Wednesday, the boy named Jack who I take care of for the few hours between when he gets home from school and before his parents get home, tells me that I am lucky, that he is nicer when he’s sick. I explain that I used to be that way too, but he has no admiration for used to. I study his filled-with-the-present mind and think of the future with its smallness—miniature feet in modest socks and piles of soft blankets. Who will the smallness resemble? I suffer nostalgia for what might come. Jack would pretend he knows what nostalgia means if I were to speak it. He calls his lying pretending, telling stories. All the time he is saying, And you say you’re in college, as if I should know better. Once we were waiting in the car to pick up his older brother and I told him his voice goes up when he is lying. We played at this and high voices; I could go on as long as him, longer, forever, to play. I don’t remember playing like this when I was young. I’m sure I did but the memories are not waiting around to show themselves to me.

On rainy days the cats in Jack’s house like to bring me presents. Wednesday is a rainy day. The cat Aries, black and white like a vanilla cream-filled cookie, offers moles, rats, mice. The back door has a window; I have become accustomed to looking out and down to the cat’s scratches. The claw he uses to stun his kill now pecks at the wood, and there I inspect his mouth before his entrance is approved. Today he offers a rat, dead and wet with bristled hair the texture of sudden rigor mortis. I wish that Bud was a veterinarian so he could come and revive this useless being. But all he would be able to do is show art to the rat and then explain to it why he picked what he did. He’d bring over slides with paintings of animal death.

I yell at Aries, prize hanging from his jaw, and scowl as if he understands this is not what I want. I do not want your rat I say. Aries is a frustrated male and to show me he is immune to the affection of a woman, he sits on the porch and rips the rat to shreds. I pass the window again and again. I cannot keep my eyes away, thinking about in what moment he will eat the eyeballs, the skinny tail, the anus, the leathery skin, the tiny nostrils, the pink tongue, each sharp toenail—if they will crunch.

I take out my list of things to talk about with Bud. I write dead rats on the first line and sketch a picture of a rodent.

Later that night I pull my rat picture up in front of my eyes, “I watched a rat get eaten today,” I say into the phone. “Totally consumed—tail, eyeballs, everything.” I press my face against my dorm window. Bud doesn’t know the setup of my dorm room because he has never visited me here.

He says cheerily, “Rats, rats, rats.”

I crinkle the list in my fist and wait. I wait longer and then I’m waiting for him to say, “Hello?” to my silence.

“Hello?” he says.

I curl my toes under my foot until I hear them crack.

“What was that noise?” asks Bud.

On Thursday when Jack is sicker, Aries catches a bird. I am now sick too. Jack and I stand at the back door shouting and fighting sharp tides of infection. Aries climbs the screen of the porch; he is nine feet above the ground, he is a bat in operation. The bird is trapped at the very top, at the roof, feeling the impenetrable ceiling, hoping for a magic release, wishing he was a dove rather than a brown bird to which no one points. Aries fixes himself at the pinnacle then leaps into the air; he places the bird in the back of his jaw and bites down with what looks like malice. Jack and I watch from the door; we whimper because animals that fly are the ones who escape. We can walk away.

When I am allowed to see Bud again I take his rug to him. I tried to paint over the spot where he’d thrown the wine weeks before. I drag it from the trunk with a commanding desire to dispose of it; it’s the body we killed together. I creep into his house, not wanting to be spotted until I’d checked my hair in the hall mirror. I smooth down the wisps then shut the door loudly. He does not greet me in the hallway. I use the bathroom, flush the toilet. I find him in his room at his desk, his back to the door. Thoreau and Tolstoy are lounging on the bed. Jack London poses on the windowsill. For the past many months, I’ve known Bud to read nonfiction about art history, Buddhism, and American politics. I feel threatened by him reading naturalists and have an urge to quiz him about these books but I haven’t read them either.

“Hi, Rhonda,” he says. Something has smacked his face below the eyes and along the cheekbones.

“Hi, Bud,” I say and go to him to be hugged. He places his arms loosely around my neck.

I move backward and sit on his bed. He sits in his desk chair; he scoots in closer to me. We look at each other. I take the short orange container off his desk and act like I’m reading the label. After a few seconds I put it back on his desk next to the glass of water.

“You want me to take one with you?” I ask.

He shakes his head and smiles. “No,” he says. His hair is greasy and it falls in long mats over his eyes. Knowing I was coming over for the first time in fourteen days did not compel him to take a shower. “No,” he says. “Why, you depressed?”

I have been crying twice a day and having daydreams of visiting him with bandaged wrists in a hospital room. But I am trying to be less selfish. I can handle it. It’s love. “No,” I say. I stretch my arms in front of me with the cuffs hanging over my fingers.

“There’s paint on your shirt,” he says.

“Yes.” I jump up and go into the living room to get the rug. Back in his room, I hold my hands up high in the air and let the rug unravel. “I fixed it,” I say. I speak proudly into the back of the rug because it’s blocking my view of him.

He doesn’t say anything so I go on, “I painted over the wine spot. It took a while to get the right mix of shades, but I think it’s pretty good now.”

He’s quiet so I bring the rug slowly down below my eyes and peer over it. “You like it, honey?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. His arms are crossed tightly over his stomach as if he is holding his skin in place.

I look at him like there is science going on inside of him.

“You’re a good fixer,” he says and releases the clutch of his hands from his stomach.

I climb onto his lap and rest my ear against his chest because we are both pretending to be children. I listen for the gurgling of chemicals beating up chemicals. I locate his heart and search for the part that is saved for me.

“I’m sorry I can’t make you happy enough,” I whisper into his chest. I look down at my own and see a black bra line. That is mine and it’s supposed to be his but he won’t reach between the seams because there are other things to think about.

“It’s not about you,” he says. And then with a tinge of anger, “It has nothing to do with you.”

I wrap my fists tightly around the armrests of his chair. “But I want it to be about me,” I say quietly. I sit on top of him and grind my hands hard around plastic rather than him. I look straight into his eyes and we wait for the other to kiss and so it does not happen.

“You’re being selfish,” he says.

On my way home I pull into the parking lot of Wash & Spin. Laundromats have front walls made of glass. I sit in my car and watch the people inside. Most of them are waiting. They sit patiently. I sit with them, outside of them; we wait together.

Karen E. Zvarych received her MFA from Hollins University in 2008 and now teaches in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her fiction has been published in Paradigm, a magazine of Rain Farm Press, and The Gihon River Review. Her non-fiction has been published in The Hollins Critic. Email: kzvarych[at]

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