RUSSELL’S HOT WING EMERGENCY by Harris Lahti
“June’s been what!?” We pass a Denny’s, a Footlocker, Fat Nancy’s Fish Fry—no answer. In the rearview, Russell’s squat face just hangs there, his squished nose flaring in and out amid a silence that, as it stretches, makes me wonder if I heard what I heard at all.
A Jersey Mike’s.
Was I wish-casting again? Probably. Russell sits behind me for a reason and would not so casually invite me into his private life. His wife’s affair certainly seemed like an unlikely place to start. Never have I observed any sexual tendencies in either of them: they slept in separate bedrooms, sat on either end of the couch on movie nights; the hottest action I can recall is the dry birthday kiss he planted on her forehead once.
A Sherwin-Williams, a Dollar Tree, a Rite-Aid.
“I can’t believe it! You missed the turn again!” Russell’s hand slides across his grin in the rearview, followed by the repetition of ear and freshly-shaven jaw as he shakes his scarred head at having caught me—his mental health aid—in yet another mistake, one of the great pleasures of his life.
Russell, my quality assurance supervisor, I often joke. Russell, my very own mental health professional. Russell, my special, special, special guy. As I nudge over into the center lane to prepare for the U-turn, he swivels to watch my blind spot. “Easy,” he says. “Easy now.”
Sometimes, he fizzes a little when he talks.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Russell?”
“I did tell you!”
“Of course I did! Who else would I be telling?” Now Russell plunges his head behind the bucket seat to catch whatever ghost might be hiding back there, listening in my stead. And when he pops back around, his smile fades at my sight—at my inefficiency—into the scowl I have never seen him aim at anyone but me.
“Good question,” I say, unable to square his usual temperament with the unusualness of the affair I thought I had heard him confess.
According to his casefile, Russell suffers from a traumatic brain injury due to a drunk driving wreck in his youth, a lingering symptom of which can cause his emotions to swing too far and too wide, for the volume of his voice to rise or an audible grinding to radiate from his jaw when stressed, which he undoubtedly would be if in the throes of an affair. Ipso facto: he is only talking about having told me about the missed turn, right?
Right. That joyous grin he just grinned at my expense was not that of a recent cuckold, I decide as I pull into the parking lot, where I chalk my whole mishearing up to a little wishful thinking paired with the intrusion of a car horn, gobs of ear wax, a repressed memory leaking.
You ever been to the Rite Aid on Central? Russell has. He has honed the footwork, the snatch and grab. Upon entrance he commits what can only be described as a Surgical Strike—in goes the Hershey’s Kisses, the disposable razors, the cans of Progresso Soup (all Hearty Beef Barley), the small tin of Tiger Balm. He turns his small pushcart down Electronics, whistling to himself.
As a rule, I make myself a ghost while he shops. As a rule, I step softly on the navy-blue carpet, peek around endcaps to avoid incidents like we had in the past. If he turns around, I will pretend to read labels, tags, to test the integrity of bouncy balls. Yet today I creep a little closer, wanting to catch if he will grab June her usual Double-As from the shelf or not.
And what a relief it is to watch Russell grab them from the shelf—fully placing any lingering suspicion to rest—and follow him at a respectable distance to the registers and observe the bonhomie with which he and the teenage cashier interact as he hands her the exact change he already counted out back at the house, before she even started scanning any of his items—a trick she’d witnessed many times before and yet still feigns her wide-eyed astonishment at.
And would you look at that, the same total as always: $75.88, another two weeks of his part-time labor vacuuming carpets at the State Office buildings spent.
Russell holds the brown paper like a trophy in his lap, watches the abundance of strip malls—the Price Choppers and the Nutmeg Bowl bowling alleys, the A&J’s Package store, the humongous parachute of red and white that struggles to buoy itself over David O’Brian’s used car mall—roll by through the windows with this smile of anticipation plastered on.
And sure enough his eyes latch onto it: The orange sign, the owl peering out from the two Os.
“Boy am I parched. Just famished,” he says, like he always says at this point in our drive. “I’m essentially hypoglycemic. Pull over. I can’t wait. We’ll have to eat here, I suppose.”
“Russell,” I say. “Are you having another one of your famous hot wing emergencies?”
But where his joking usually stops, Russell continues: “You must have forgot to give me my meds this morning. Look at my tongue. Can you please describe its pallor? I’m feeling calcium deficient today. My teeth feel soft in my mouth. I don’t think I saw the red gummy in that paper cup. I need an immediate vitamin and nutrient injection. A glass of milk perhaps?”
Russell flashes me his tongue in the review: this pale pink slab with taste buds laying in conflicting directions. Like some fragment of fleshy carpet he vacuumed in a rush.
“Russell, I live with a long list of boxes each day. And I can assure you that I check one box before moving onto the next. I do not move from Give Russell His Multivitamin Mode to Give Russell His Colace without checking the prior. It’s impossible. Otherwise, all this, everything, the entire operation falls apart.”
“Don’t just look, examine it,” he says—or maybe says since he’s still proffering me his tongue. “I know my body,” he continues in a marble-mouth. “I know what it needs, and its sugars are as in the red as my bank account. Now pull over, willya?”
“I don’t know. You tell me, Russell—why would you? Let’s consider. Let’s really try to work this equation out. What would June, your loving wife, say if she heard you were flirting it up at Hooters?”
A car honks: I must have drifted. When I look back at the rearview, Russell’s healthy pink tongue has sucked back inside his mouth and his eyes have blown up into tiny white balloons. “Watch the road!” he says, fizzing more than his usual at the mouth.
“It’s true, isn’t it, then?” I say, realizing I had heard him correctly the entire time.
“What you said earlier? Just before I missed the turn.”
Russell peers out at the stop-and-go traffic: “Is your memory working? I told you about the whole situation already. I laid it out just a half hour ago. June’s a cheat, and you’re busted. A missed turn and a narrowly avoided collision. I’m about to call up the powers upstairs and request an upgraded model.”
“I’m just kidding. Lighten up.”
“This is serious, Russell.”
“I wish it was more painful. But this has been going on for some time. I’m out pushing my vacuum in the real world, and he’s right there with her all day at workshop, partaking in their various self-improvement classes: learning to cook, learning to sow, learning to dance the salsa together. She’s never confessed anything, but I know it’s true, even if she says I’m crazy.” He shrugs: “What can you do?”
“Well, you can do lots of things,” I almost tell him. “Say for instance your spouse was cheating on you,” I almost say, “and you had it on authority that she was upstairs in a hotel room at that casino over in Schenectady, and the front desk would not provide you with his whereabouts, what you could do is: you could start with number one.
You could knock and knock until number one answered and confirmed that she was not there with her lover. Then you could knock on number two, number three, number four, and so on… You could not be detoured by each sour expression that met you. All of the guests who aren’t your wife saying: ‘You have the wrong room,’ or ‘Do you know what time it is!?’ You could keep knocking and knocking and knocking—all the way to the top, if you had to—until you caught her in the act or proved your suspicions wrong. Either way, freeing yourself from your prison of doubts.”
But instead, I say nothing. Instead, I bide my time.
The situation could benefit from a calibrated touch, I realize, a slow build of trust so as not to spook him. A rare opening. Like one might begin to tame a hungry wild animal by first seducing them to eat from your palm.
Likely betrayed, likely lied to and cuckolded by his wife, and yet—Russell enters the living room victorious; the hunter-gatherer, the patriotic capitalist, the heavyweight champion of the world; against everything, he makes his rounds.
Malcolm, Jorge, King-King, Phil, and even our newest resident, Ronald, wades through his Ativan fog to greet him. “You guys take your vitamins?” he says. “Say your prayers? Eat all your green vegetables?” Russell might as well work here, the way he treats them, never condescending to anyone but me. The men all nod, uncoil their nerves a little in his presence: their north star.
And for the lady? The inconspicuous cheat curled up in long sleeve floral pajamas on the couch? Waiting so expectantly with the dead Nintendo DS in her lap? Her loving husband has ventured out, and with his hard-earned dough, bought her essential Double-A batteries. Now she can power back up Cooking Mama, her favorite game. Now there will be no shortage of delicious dishes. There will be souffles, carrot cake, braised beef, French bread…
“Thank you, Hon.” June says, and smiles the same small smile she always does: a quick flash of teeth that reads quite differently to me now—sinister, almost—as Russell crunches the rusty springs on the opposite end of the couch and June powers up her handheld domestic life.
The night ticks toward bedtime. I pour meds into paper cups, dole them out. Inquire after the consistency of bowel movements, asking them to approximate in volume of bananas. At ten o’clock, I flip the channel to the nightly news for Russell (he likes to stay informed). And as the new anchor details the various shootings, political firestorms, and climate related catastrophic weather events of our world, one by one, the men excuse themselves for bed.
It is a night not unlike any other. What would’ve felt like another win in a stretch of wins here at Lexington Home that I have manufactured through my adherence to routine, order, and philosophy of love, if not for the x-ray lenses Russell dropped down over my eyes—
Because when Russell stands up and says, “Well, that calls it,” instead of a tired man, I hear a man on the brink, talking about his life. And the way he walks over to his bedroom his swagger looks like a haggard limp, as if his wife not only broke his heart but his leg. Turning in the doorway, his voice sounds meek instead of the usual sweet, “Good night, Hon.”
The way June says, “Night Russ,” and doesn’t look up from the machine she holds six inches before her face reads like another rejection. The game’s Ding, ding, ding, a torment as, I imagine, she guides the little mittened ghost hands I have glimpsed over her shoulder so many times toward the prime rib in her 8-bit oven; a make-believe she plays to bide the time until workshop tomorrow when she will try out these recipes with her new man.
Now Russell slips into his dark room. Bangs around for a while, undressing. Once he’s donned his striped pajamas, he slots his head through the crack in the door, like he always does, and gives me the signal for which I have waited for all day: Two taps to his mouth and a come-hither of the hand.
Could he put his CPAP on without me? Absolutely.
Could June turn the machine on for him? Yes, of course.
The shirtless shape of him waits for me on the edge of his Tempur-Pedic twin. From around the CPAP strapped to his face, he peers out with a soft expression; his guard down; no longer the man with the master plan anymore, but a proud, heartbroken patient with the crushed nose of a pug in need of my help. I hit the button and the air rushes into him. And he lies back with the giant plastic spider sucking at his face, murmuring something to me up through the noise, like he always murmurs something to me, something I have never comprehended but always took for a gruff dismissal of some kind.
Except tonight it sounds like an invitation, and I place my hand on his arm and rub, a gesture I have allowed myself in the past. But whereas I would have gotten up and left after a few seconds, I continue stroking the coarse hairs on his arm while he stares up into the darkness of the popcorn ceiling.
I have little doubt the endless torture that awaits him will require my best work, and, sitting down on the edge of his bed, I experience a rush of gratitude at the ways in which this opportunity will help our relationship will grow: How I will describe the faces for him, the sour ones I roused from sleep at the casino’s hotel, all six floors of them, over a hundred-some-odd rooms, in aching detail, over a lifetime ago; every frown, the shape of every nose, the angle the teeth sat in their mouths, everything, everything, and they will work like a slow salve on his pain. Like they came to soothe my own. How my life changed when my doggedness discovered her in one of the final rooms. And the confrontation that ensued and how it came to release me. How, once released himself, he will no longer feel the need to rely on his old stale jokes with me. That scowl he reserves for me will have no use. His heart: vacuum-cleaned.
I kiss his bald spot at this, then his temple, and he trusts me. I kiss his ear, and he trusts me still. His eyes are closed but twitching. And I sense how special he feels; already on the road to understanding his own self-worth. His CPAP sings with air as he twitches, into dreams about his future life. His legs fluttering and stilling, fluttering again beneath the sheets. His head sinking deeper into the nest of pillows.
And when his mask slips a little, I adjust it. The mask slips and I adjust it again.
Harris Lahti‘s fiction has appeared in Southwest Review, BOMB, Ninth Letter, 128 Lit, New York Tyrant, Post Road, and elsewhere. He edits for FENCE and paints houses for a living in New York’s Hudson Valley. His debut short story collection, Mental Health Professional, is forthcoming for a new press in the spring of 2024. Read more: harrislahti.com.