Felix Tripman heard banging on his back door at ten o’clock at night. He had just swallowed a Valium with the last swig of lukewarm Natty Boh, brushed a mouse turd off his bedside table, turned off the lamp, and closed his eyes.
The wooden back door rattled. He pulled his bumpy pillow over his shaved head. His nephew Minnow was probably returning from his heroin runs. Felix wasn’t going to open the door and let him sleep on the sofa. Minnow could spend the night in that tent in the woods across the street with his junkie friends even if it was November. He had ruined all the spoons in the house and sold Felix’s Led Zeppelin box sets.
Felix closed his eyes and tried to recall an afternoon in his youth when nothing was wrong, when Grandma Mimi baked and Grandpa Ralph watched the Orioles on Channel 13.
When Felix thought he heard glass breaking, he dragged himself up and locked his bedroom door, suspecting one of Minnow’s customers. Even high, Minnow wouldn’t break a window, but his junkie friends had pretty loose ideas about personal property. Felix’s laptop and the server were the only things worth stealing in the house, and they were in his bedroom, so Felix wedged a chair under the doorknob and returned to bed.
A dull clang reverberated distantly from the basement, and the valley outside echoed with crashes and calls through the darkness.
His mind wandered, and when he awoke, he doubted that he had even heard the glass break. Then he remembered that the carnival was camped at the Parkville VFW Hall; maybe a carny friend was hunting for weed. He was drinking buddies with traveling carnies who used Brannan’s Pub as a base, and he wasn’t up to their shenanigans.
The Valium kicked in, and he dozed off again and dreamt of his mother in the kitchen. Mom-mom had been creeping into his dreams of late and usually frying bologna sandwiches when she did. Sometimes his Grandma Mimi would show up, and the women would bicker about what to make for dinner. When he was a kid, Felix helped them cut carrots and knead dough. His older and absent sister Theresa wasn’t in any of those cooking dreams, but Grandpa Ralph usually barked from the living room for more Utz potato chips or another hot dog. When pots clanging and clanking pulled him from sleep, Felix thought Mom-mom might be downstairs until he remembered she was gone.
Maybe Minnow did break some glass. Felix opened his bedroom door and crept out. A floorboard creaked under him. Light bled up the twisting stairs. Someone was cooking in the kitchen, and, from the sound of it, the cook was heavy and not sober. It didn’t sound like Minnow; he was lighter on his feet. The intruder clumped around more like Grandpa Ralph, but Grandpa had never cooked anything while he was alive. He was a plumber and could barely boil water. When Felix heard the timer ding, he tensed, expecting an incendiary device of some kind. Nothing detonated, so he tiptoed back to his closet for his Little League baseball bat, but froze with indecision in the middle of his bedroom until he had to sit on the bed because he felt so dizzy.
When Felix smelled the warm flaky goodness of pot pie, he called the police. “But my nephew doesn’t have a key anymore! . . . I thought I heard glass . . . And I can smell it. Someone’s downstairs, cooking something with a crust,” he whispered to the 911 dispatcher from his bedroom phone.
He remembered how he used to wait for his grandmother’s apple pies to cool, breathing in their aroma. The buttery scent wafted through the uneven floorboards, mixing with his elevated stress level and tugging a memory at the front of his brain, an argument between his mother and grandmother. Maybe the baking smells were hallucinations, but he only had three beers, half a joint and a sleeping pill.
More banging followed; this time on the front door. On the phone, Felix urged, “Tell them the back door’s probably open! The intruder broke in there!”
Felix gently laid the receiver on his comforter and tiptoed down the stairs with the baseball bat to meet the police. Still disoriented, he clung to the balustrade. Although Felix had turned off the TV before he went to bed, it crackled with explosions. Sitting in Grandpa Ralph’s recliner in the living room was a stranger in his late twenties, a mountainous man sporting Cleveland Brown boxers, a stained wife-beater, and mutton chops. He was eating a pot pie with a fork. If he was a carny, Felix didn’t know him.
Outside, the policeman shouted Felix Tripman’s name. The flashing lights of the cruiser danced across the floral wallpapered walls.
“Yes,” said Felix weakly, responding to the cop. The seriousness of the situation hit him as he edged to the door with buckling knees. He had a baseball bat, but the intruder had a fork and was unpredictable, enormous, and only six feet away. “Coming,” Felix barely spoke above a whisper.
“The A Team’s on,” the strange intruder said through a mouthful of food. A lone pea nestled in his hairy chest. “No spoons, though.”
Felix watched him chew. “I smelled cooking,” he finally said. “Is that pot pie?”
“Yup, thanks, creamy and salty,” said the intruder. “Heated in the oven. Microwaves are the work of the Devil.”
Despite the butterflies in his stomach and the grogginess of his brain, Felix agreed. “Better that way; the crust is crispier. Are you from the woods?” he asked. The police yelled and hammered. “Someone at the door,” Felix said lamely. He unfastened the deadbolt.
“What woods?” asked the intruder pleasantly under the tumbling of the cylinders.
The door swung wide, and cold air rushed in. A policeman stood on the front steps with one hand on his holstered gun and the other holding a flashlight. “Mr. Tripman?” he asked. “Did you call about an intruder?” He was slight but wiry and had very short, blonde hair.
Felix nodded and felt nauseated.
The policeman charged into the living room, pushing Felix and waving the flashlight. “Is that the intruder?”
Felix nodded again, clutching the door jamb.
“Stand up and put the pot pie down!” the policeman bellowed.
“I’m not done!” The intruder protested.
Felix tried to steady himself but lost his balance and slammed right into a radiator. He heard a surprisingly piercing scream, and the living room went dark as he blacked out.
Felix thought he heard Mom-mom and Grandma Mimi fighting about Grandpa Ralph. He was hiding from them behind the recliner, and he seemed younger. His legs seemed shorter. He wondered if they were ghosts or if he was dreaming, but it really didn’t matter. It was good to hear them again, and they sounded real.
His mother accused his grandmother of sprinkling his grandfather’s dust over an apple tart.
“What’s Daddy’s urn doing in the kitchen?”
“I miss the smell of him!” Grandma Mimi cried. Baked apple perfumed the house.
“That’s disgusting!” Mom-mom screamed. “Don’t you dare wash that spoon!”
Crouching behind his grandfather’s chair, young Felix didn’t understand their fight and salivated at the thought of fresh apple tart.
“He was a plumber!” cried Grandma. “And now he’s outside time.”
Felix heard them struggle.
“Everything returns to the same stuff!” Grandma Mimi scolded. “Grow up.”
Something big shifted in the recliner beside Felix, and he jumped.
When Felix woke up, he had a terrible headache, and his lip was bleeding. He tasted blood. Red and blue light mixed into purple in the living room, and a siren keened outside.
Across the rug, the intruder lay trussed and handcuffed; he was crying about the uneaten half of the pot pie. “It was so crispy,” he whimpered.
The young, wiry policeman overlapped the whining. “I don’t think he knew the intruder, no,” he said into his radio.
Other people entered the house and began all speaking at once. Someone yelled at the intruder to shut up. Someone gently moved Felix’s throbbing head into a neck brace.
Felix wondered what painkillers the doctor would prescribe. He wondered if he had ever ingested any of his grandfather for that would explain his great love for Utz barbeque potato chips.