imageKevin P. Keating

Michael O'Reilly paced back and forth on the loading dock of Burning River Brewery. He sipped his scalding coffee and waited for Cloggy Collins to emerge from the small windowless office with a clipboard containing that day's delivery routes. The other drivers, their faces pale and sallow and somehow shrunken by the arctic gales whipping off Lake Erie, crowded around a barrel and warmed their hands above the weak flames. They stomped their heavy black boots and pulled the collars of their coats close to their necks. Most of them smoked, and whenever the wind picked up they unleashed a torrent of coughs and vulgarities. Their moods were icy and brittle from the long winter imprisonment with nagging wives, drunken girlfriends, unappreciative children, rotten stepchildren, disobedient dogs. Cabin fever swept through the streets of Cleveland like an unchecked epidemic, and the men, perhaps in a feeble attempt to ward off the creeping sensation of insanity, kept themselves busy in different ways. One man hummed a half-remembered melody, his voice accompanied by the sharp percussion of industry — forklifts and conveyor belts and a hundred machines whirring to life. Another roasted a sausage over the rusty barrel and complained about yesterday's football game — the quarterback had thrown five interceptions and the Browns lost in overtime. Their voices became fierce and impassioned, and Michael O'Reilly, who listened to it all, as he did every morning, was reminded of a boisterous mob of derelicts. He wondered what strange apparitions emerged from their minds. Their expressions, twisted with turmoil, cold and rigid as the icicles dangling from the top of the warehouse, suggested that sanity was a useless thing long since discarded on the rubbish heap of life. This worried Michael O'Reilly, who spent a great of his time trying to convince himself that he was not like them, that he cared about very different things. If only he could put his finger on what those things might be.

From out of the blustery air, a voice cried out: "Shut it!"

The men came to attention.

Already chewing his first cigar of the day and perspiring profusely through his white collar shirt, Cloggy Collins appeared on the loading dock, hoisting a large box stuffed with what looked liked human body parts — arms and legs and fingers all jumbled together inside a cardboard sarcophagus. He dropped the box on the platform and, like the rest of the men who wearily looked on, let out a spasm of wet coughs.

"Now then," he said, wiping the corners of his mouth with his thumb and forefinger. Cloggy was an aggressive man and this gesture was meant to show his disgust and impatience with his sorry crew of drivers. "Here's a little surprise. New marketing strategy. The company is going to clean up with this ad campaign." With a wave of his hand and the word "Abracadabra!" he pulled a life-sized cardboard model out of the box.

The men whistled, they ogled, they adjusted themselves with frostbitten fingers, they discussed obscure and vulgar sexual techniques, a Kama Sutra for the workingman — the Cleveland Steamer, the Tennessee Snow Plow, the Dirty Sanchez.

"I could stand here all day long and just stare at those tits," someone quipped.

The model towered above them like some colossus of coitus, her long legs planted in a deliberate and provocative pose, her smooth bronze thighs parted and inviting, her tight tummy and delectable navel partially concealed by the tattered remnants of a wet T-shirt, her blue eyes burning with uninhibited and exuberant lust, her lascivious and dazzling smile encouraging all to pay homage to her unique majesty. Michael O'Reilly was impressed. Here was an effective decoy used during football season to persuade working class men to drink inordinate amounts of ale. A cruel deception, yes, but one that did not deter even his cock —that vindictive prick!— from briefly nodding its otherwise somnolent head.

Cloggy fondled the model, his hands sliding around her waist and along a bare shoulder. "This is what every man needs, eh? This is what we deserve as men, American men. Yessir, this is what it's all about." He pressed his face against the cold, rigid cardboard, his lips speckled with tobacco. Then, as if snapping out of a daze, he passed around a set of models to each driver. "Get these out right away!" he shouted. "Set them up with every display. Now move it, all of youse!" With a leer he added, "And no monkey business. Don't feel any of 'em up. e don't want any damaged goods."

Michael O'Reilly's first stop was the Select 'n' Save located near his home on Fulton Avenue. As he drove past the two-bedroom frame house — a claustrophobic, cluttered place on a busy corner — he shifted his truck into low gear. The walls were thin as cardboard and for a moment he thought he heard his wife's voice, a sharp, high-pitched, nerve-rattling squawk, carried along by the wind only to reverberate in the cab of the truck. Her duty in life was to make an endless list of repairs and to remind him of his utter ineptitude. The hinges needed to be oiled, the faucets needed to be tightened, the hardwood floors needed to be sanded, the ceilings needed to be patched, the storm windows needed to be cleaned, and there was also the small matter of his obnoxious farting and snoring, his tossing and turning in his sleep, all of which drove her nuts. Her complaints even reached him in the basement, his only refuge, where he spent entire evenings smoking cigarettes on the sagging sofa and watching television. In the basement he could at least pretend to be busy, could at least pretend to be changing the filter on the furnace and setting mousetraps and sorting through boxes of nails and screws and rusty pliers.

With a groan of exasperation, he continued along his route and parked the truck behind the grocery store. He hurried inside and pushed a squeaky dolly loaded with cases of the company ale. With great care and precision he stacked the beer into a neat little pyramid at the end of Aisle 8 and then placed, almost reverentially, the cardboard woman on top. He stepped away from his work with a proud smile, but when he looked up he sensed something odd. He blinked five times in rapid succession before cautiously approaching this alien being staring back at him. His face flushed. His hands, rough and covered in calluses, trembled and for a fraction of a second his fingertips tingled as he began to message the breasts. In that moment his timid and subdued sex stirred once again in the pathetic void of his trousers.

If he hadn't heard the sharp buzz of a meat grinder coming from the deli, he might have stood there for a long time, might have made a complete fool of himself. He concentrated, forced his member to go limp, then he marched toward the exit with the cardboard model under his arm.

The woman at the register, an old crone with blue hair, squinted from behind her horn-rimmed spectacles.

"This one is damaged," he told her.

The woman let out a derisive cackle. He shot her a look that was both angry and embarrassed and then he hurried out to his truck.

Although the rest of his route was a familiar one, Michael O'Reilly felt lost as he drove through the streets of Cleveland. Everything looked peculiar. He made all the usual stops, the grocery stores and convenient marts, but as the afternoon dragged on and the white lines in the road hypnotized him into mind-numbing oblivion, he happened to glance over at the model propped up on the passenger seat, his co-pilot, and he thought, just briefly, about pulling off the road at a lonely truck stop. He let the thought go.

That afternoon he didn't bother to stop at the bar.

"Friggin-a, Michael!" his wife said as he came in the back door. Snow swirled around his head and blew into the kitchen. Maggie stood at the stove stirring a pot of chili, the sleeves of her Cleveland Browns jersey covered in tomato paste. Stale crumbs and hardened sauce speckled her white slippers. Tufts of gray lint clung to her shoulders. Michael O'Reilly regarded her with scorn. Was it part of the marriage contract, he wondered, something in the fine print, wherein a married woman had the option, if she so pleased, to put on a pair of slippers every night and treat her husband like an imbecile? He sometimes envied his co-workers. Most of them were divorced.

"If you're going out later I want you to stop at the hardware store. Buy some extra fuses. And get plenty of light bulbs. One hundred watts. And there's some exposed wiring beside the washing machine. You'd let this place burn to the ground. I hope you paid the electric bill. It was due yesterday."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah..."

He raced down the basement stairs, the cardboard model concealed beneath his jacket.

Maggie called, "And close that basement door! Smells like a wolf's den down there."

"Bitch," he muttered under his breath and did as he was told.

He sat on the couch and listened to the floor creaking above his head. When he was certain that his wife had gone to some distant corner of the house to flip through a magazine or watch TV, he placed the model on the coffee table and vowed to understand her inexplicable beauty and to unravel her mysterious hold on him. For one frustrating hour he contemplated those thighs and moist lips and chestnut hair and the small mole on her right cheek and that dark hint of areola under her t-shirt. He marveled at the lifelike color of her flesh, her statuesque physique, her curvaceous wonderment. Then, when he could no longer stand it, he let his hand drift down to his rigid and almost painful erection. A natural phenomenon that needs no further explanation.

That evening as they occupied their separate territories of the bed and watched the little TV on the nightstand, Maggie tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and saw her curls, bleached white and wiry, protruding from behind her head and over the pillow. The smell of chili powder and spices wafted around her throat. The lacy nightgown he'd gotten her for Christmas looked like a flannel sheet tossed over a box — square, squat, rigidly geometric. Five years ago, Maggie had aroused him in ways he'd long since forgotten.

She said, "Why don't we try something kinky tonight."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. Maybe you could..."


"Maybe you could spank me."


"Slap me. Hard."


"Do something rough. Something really dirty."

He thought about this for a moment, considered it carefully, but in the end he had neither the strength nor the desire for a big production. Maggie rolled toward him, caressed his thigh. There wasn't much time. He wracked his brain for an excuse, thought of a hundred implausible things to tell her, but it was too late. She'd sensed his reluctance, his aversion.

"I know, Michael, I know."

"Know what?"

"I'm ugly. I'm a mess. You can't stand the sight of me any more."


"Yes. I'm disgusting and fat."


"Then make love to me."

He couldn't move, couldn't lift a finger.

"Fine!" she huffed. "At this rate we'll never have kids."

He tried to reason with her. "Kids are nothing but a pain in the ass. They grow up to be teenagers. They steal money. They smash up cars."

She sighed with exasperation, said he was probably right, he would make a terrible father anyway. Michael O'Reilly rolled his eyes.

In silence they watched the news. Then she said, "Look Michael. It's the new ad campaign."

A collage of nonsensical images flickered across the screen. Continuous quick cuts of boys and girls splashing in a pool, arms and legs tangled in the crystalline waters, bright blinding sunlight, dancing, grinding, flat stomachs slapping, limbs interlocking. Long silky legs came into focus. The camera panned up to reveal a tall woman — the woman! — sauntering through the gardens outside a mansion, her full red lips drawn back in a smile most seductive. A warm breeze swept through her shiny hair. She radiated sex with every improbable and exaggerated curve of her surgically altered body. Another flash of light. Those sweating, soaking, sopping girls and boys struggling in the pool. With libidinous and curious fingers the woman fondled a longneck bottle of Burning River Beer. Then she raised the glistening bottle to her lips, moaned, and poured a fountain of frothy ale into her mouth.

Michael O'Reilly's legs trembled. This woman, while certainly no more attractive than any one of a hundred anonymous models that paraded across the idiot box on a minute by minute basis, nevertheless reminded him that he was, like all men, a prisoner of his cock, condemned by a cruel and powerful dictator, sentenced to a lifetime of captivity with little hope for parole. He reached into the darkness, squeezed his wife's plump breasts. He thought of the beautiful model, God how he thought of her, and in a moment he was panting and thrusting his hips like he meant it.

Something came over him. After work one rainy night, Michael O'Reilly scurried behind the warehouse and crawled inside a cardboard box where he waited for Cloggy Collins to lock up. As the rain intensified and pummeled the roof of his impromptu shelter, Michael O'Reilly saw the last light go off inside the warehouse. He waited a moment and then emerged from his cocoon. He crept toward the loading dock, shaking and biting his nails, and there he paused. It occurred to him that Cloggy might be still be inside, sitting at his desk in the dark, a cardboard woman perched on his lap. The thought made Michael O'Reilly nauseous. He knew he had to act, had to rescue those girls from the clutches of that cigar-chomping ogre.

He fumbled with his keys and opened the heavy, rolling loading dock door. The world seemed ldifferent now, a little dangerous and chaotic, but Michael O'Reilly went forward with his plan and refused to dwell on the possibility of getting caught. A horrible scenario played out in his mind, one in which Cloggy suddenly and theatrically appeared under the feeble red light of the exit sign and chased him around the pallets of beer, screaming, "You sick fuck. There ain't no work, not for crazy people, not for head cases, not for perverts!"

Such a cocky bastard that Cloggy Collins, he thought. "I could do his job, I could do his job," he whispered over and over again as he opened the office door. Scattered in the corner beside a pile of dirty rags, the cardboard women stared vacantly into space like women who'd been drugged and imprisoned in a brothel. Michael O'Reilly pressed one of them to his face and inhaled her divine aroma, a singular bouquet that could never be fully appreciated by the uninitiated. Oh, he knew that for most people the smell of cardboard reminded them of parcels shipped through the mail, merchandise delivered, gifts received. Most of them cared only about the bits and pieces of junk contained within the cardboard — books and movies and blow-up dolls-but the actual box itself was disposable, forgettable; it lacked even the slightest hint of the exotic, but such people recklessly discarded the details of everyday life.

With a chuckle of glee, Michael O'Reilly grabbed a whole slew of cardboard women and smuggled them out into the rain. Soon he had twenty stashed away in the trunk of his car, all of them awaiting a romantic tryst with the hero who'd saved them from a life of despicable servitude.

For many months after the exhilarating heist, Michael O'Reilly performed what became for him a serious ritual. Late at night, long after Maggie had fallen asleep, he crept down the stairs to the basement, careful to avoid the creaking step or two. He lit three candles, always three, and placed one model on the coffee table. He listened to the distant, rhythmic dripping of the faucets and the monotonous drone of the furnace, and then, as if by magic, he drifted away, upward and outside of himself, to another plane of existence. Sometimes his mystical visions turned sour and he imagined things, terrible things, truly devilish things. The state hospital, padded rooms filled with frenzied, delirious patients, probing doctors, jabbing needles. Self-doubt troubled him on more than one occasion, but he assured himself that all married men carried on sordid double lives. Some men secretly dressed in women's clothing, some smoked marijuana and popped pills, some had hidden savings accounts, some fathered a slew of illegitimate children. What difference did it make? No man could ever belong exclusively to one woman. Absolute monogamy was an aberration. And wasn't it generally understood that married men, when alone at night, did any number of things they pretended to frown upon in the light of day?

But sometimes, in the solitude of the basement, which was still only half finished after almost five years of idle tinkering, a basement that smelled of mildew because he hadn't sealed the cracks in the cinderblock walls or bothered to lug a dehumidifier down the stairs or steam clean the shag carpeting, yes, in the gray light of the basement he suspected that his wife might be right — maybe he was inept. And maybe he was something even more terrible than that. Once, while preparing for his midnight ceremony, he sniffed something rancid and discovered gnawed chicken bones, a small pile of them, neatly stacked behind a wilting houseplant. How they'd gotten there was a mystery.

None of this mattered. The ritual continued without variation until one evening in April. He had seen his first butterfly and blooming daffodil of the season and felt that something special was needed to celebrate the long anticipated arrival of spring. To prepare for the evening's festivities, he positioned all twenty cardboard models in various spots around the basement. He draped some of them with costume jewelry, others he doused in perfume. He lit the candles, poured himself a glass of champagne, and as he mingled among the models, whispering his usual incantations, an astounding metamorphosis occurred: no longer was he a daydreaming working class stiff from Cleveland; he was a randy college boy at a sorority house, a sophisticated playboy in a downtown nightclub, a movie mogul auditioning actresses for his next big picture, a vampire summoning his voluptuous succubi from their underground lair. He fondled them one by one, pinching a nonexistent nipple, grabbing a one-dimensional rump, whispering obscene words into deaf ears.

And then he heard the scream.

Confused by the eerie faces flickering in the candlelight, he believed for the briefest instant that one of them had somehow come to life. Dread washed over him then. So! it had finally happened. He had gone stark raving mad. He closed his eyes and whispered, "I can handle this, I can handle this..." Then he heard that all too familiar squawk! When he dared crack open an eye he saw that one model was in fact different from the others, very different. She stood at the bottom of the stairs, panting, rocking back and forth in her high heels, nearly teetering off them, her cheeks pink and plump, her chin doubled with a roll of flesh, her eyes small and dark and red with rage, her buttocks bulbous and bunched together in the black leather miniskirt. A cruel parody, a nasty satire, a clownish and frightening deception.


Maggie stepped away from the staircase.

"What are you doing?" he croaked. "Why are you dressed like that?"

"What am I doing? What am I doing!"

"Yes. Yes." Michael O'Reilly felt something horrible building inside of him. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Maggie lifted her chin. "I thought I might surprise you by dressing up in this little number." She adjusted one breast with her right hand. "Oh, I saw the way your eyes lit up every time that juvenile ad came on. I'm not stupid. I wasn't born yesterday." With mild amusement she took in the scene around her. "So this is what you do down here. Caught you red-handed, didn't I?"

"Shut up!"

"No, I won't shut up, Michael. What in god's name is wrong with you?"

He clutched one of the models and said through bared teeth, "Why don't you leave. The fact is ... I can't stand the sight of you."

She shook her head. "You're crazy. You need help. We'll get you some help."

Then she grabbed one of the cardboard models and thrust it toward the furnace. The smiling face sizzled in the blue flame. Maggie grabbed another model and then another, breaking each one over her knee. Like an enthusiastic Girl Scout at her first bonfire, she roasted them all, dangling them before the flames like marshmallows.

Michael O'Reilly clasped his hands over his ears to silence the pop and hiss of this erotic conflagration. The models curled and turned to ashes like brittle autumn leaves. Unable to comprehend the demise of his darlings, he gathered up their remains, his fingertips singed by red embers. Then he leapt at his wife. Maggie dashed away, dropping a pile of crumpled cardboard. Sparks cascaded over bosoms and thighs and cheekbones. In minutes flames spread across the shag carpet.

"My beautiful babies, my beautiful babies!" Michael O'Reilly shouted. But as he knelt there and felt the approaching flames singe the hair on his arms, a sudden inner calm came over him and he smiled. Even when Maggie raced back into the basement with a small fire extinguisher and squirted a load of white froth over him, that sense of tranquility did not fade and vanish as it had so many times before, because now he understood that there was a future of limitless eroticism in store for him. He need only turn on the TV or go to any one of a thousand stores or drive back to the gigantic warehouse, and there she would be, waiting, omnipotent, indestructible, a goddess, capable of being everywhere and nowhere, standing in Aisle 8 of the Select 'n' Save between the produce and dairy sections, pressed flat against a convenient store window or perched beside the cash register at the Fulton Avenue Wine Shop where delirious drunks wandered in to squander their last few dollars on bottles of swill and pimply-faced teenaged boys dared one another to buy packs of cigarettes. Yes, there she would be, resurrected from the ashes, and he would have her, again and again and again he would have her, and this gave him hope and a sense of purpose, and for once in his life he looked forward to work, looked forward to standing there on the loading dock with the other men, and he looked forward to the delectable scent of cardboard wafting from a brand new box of beautiful women.

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