Something’s gonna get broken. Again. Fucking kids. What would happen if I just quit picking up after the whole damned bunch of ‘em? Quit feeding them. Let Stevie push Lizzie into traffic or down the cellar steps. More likely Lizzie’ll grab something sharp and cut him. She’s her Dad’s kid all right. I light a cigarette and cheer myself up with visions of the chaos to come.
There she comes. Six pm on the dot. Without fail, my neighbor five doors down comes up the road every night at six. She’s never said a word to any of us in the whole eight years since we moved here. I used to smile and nod. Now I just watch her. She’s old, Jesus, she’s old, but walks ramrod straight and slow. I forgot it was coming up on six or I’d have had my smoke out back. She’s too creepy.
Finally I hear the whine of our Pontiac. Steve’s not so late tonight; maybe he’ll have hit the sweet spot between bastard and goofball. I stub out the smoke and stand up to see how he handles the turn into the drive. Good, he misses the mailbox but I can tell he’s already well on his way past goofball and on his way to bastard. Turning to go into the house I see that the old bat is standing stock still just shy of our property line.
“You let him hit you again, you got it coming.” Her voice is shockingly strong and clear.
I’m struck dumb; I swear to Christ this woman has never even looked in my direction until tonight.
“You can’t say you weren’t warned.” She’s looking right at me and it hits me that she must have been impossibly beautiful as a young woman. It’s the bones, how they still shine through the folds and creases of what’s become her face.
“Where’s your mother!” Steve bellows from the back of the house.
“I didn’t listen either.” Her voice, still strong, is suddenly kind. I do not need another well meaning woman in my life. I spin and get into the house to lift dinner. That’ll shut him up.
“Please tell me you’re not trying some new recipe from the magazines.” Steve’s peering into the oven. He’s not so steady but not falling over either. The kids are at the table; quiet and watchful.
“It’s your mom’s stroganoff.”
“Doesn’t smell like Mom’s stroganoff.” He lets the oven door slam.
I got nothing to come back with and know better anyway. He goes off to wash up and I get busy. With him out of the room the kids begin to tussle in whispers but I shoot them one look. That’s all it takes when their father’s like this. Stevie’s got a smear of snot under his nose and Liz has pulled her hair back so far that she looks like a Mongoloid. He’s ten, she’s seven and that means I got eleven more years of this shit to live through.
“Wipe your nose, for Christ sake, Stevie.” Steve’s back, flopping into his chair at the head of the table and reaching over to mess with Lizzie’s hair. She can’t figure out whether she wants to pull away or cuddle in.
We eat. Steady and without a lot of chitchat. Dishes clink, Stevie snuffles.
“You call the bank like I told you to?” Steve pushes back from the table. “Get Daddy a beer, would you, Lizzie?” Pleased to have this little chore the kid hops up and zips over to the fridge.
“Nope.” I’d like a beer myself but that’s gonna have to wait. First we’re going to have to go through this again.
“Why the hell not?” He takes the beer from Lizzie.
“Lizzie, Stevie, go on upstairs and get to your homework.” Miss Liz gives me a look as she leaves the table. She thinks I’m mean to her Daddy. Somehow I have to find a way to get it through his thick ridge runner head that no bank is going to refinance this heap.
We bought the place with next to no down payment so it’s an adjustable mortgage and, here we are, eight years on scrambling to cover everything each month. I’d work but it costs more than I could earn to pay for day care and, Steve won’t admit it, but he don’t like the idea of his wife having to work.
“What’s the matter with you? Do I have to everything around here?” He pulls on the beer and I choose my words carefully.
“Steve, there’s no point in calling again. They already turned us down for refinancing.”
“How can you still be so stupid? I told you those sons a bitches are just stonewalling. It’s their business to give out loans and all you need to do is make it clear you ain’t taking no for an answer.”
You call ’em then.
No, I don’t say it but I do go and get myself that beer. It’s been awhile since he went apeshit. He probably still feels bad about trashing his mom’s heirloom grandfather clock. At least I hope he does, the son of a bitch.
“What’s going on at the plant?” I keep my voice steady and don’t look at him. And there’s this long silence, so finally I do look and wish I hadn’t. He used to be a real handsome man; I was so blown away when he asked me to dance that first time. Now his face hangs on the front of his head like it doesn’t fit right anymore.
And there it is. We are fucked. My brain goes into overdrive, clicking through our options. His family is out; they still act like having their football star son marry the pharmacist’s daughter put some kind of stain on the family name. My dad’s living on Social Security down in Boca Raton and both of my sisters would just have too good a time not pointing out that they told me so.
“When?” I wish I could put my hand on his.
“I’m gonna call Dee Dee. Let’s go dancing.” Now I do reach over and take his hand, make him look at me. There’s flicker of what might be gratitude before the gates crash shut. At least he doesn’t hit me and I’ve gotten better at not letting his words in although I hate it that the kids are upstairs hearing this crap about what an irresponsible idiot I am and when the fuck am I going to grow up and don’t I even get it how much this is killing him? My own gates pull closed again and nothing he can say even comes close to what I’m doing to myself behind my eyes.
I adjust my clothes again. It’s been, what?, over nine years since I worked and who on earth is going to hire me? My first thought was to get back behind the bar, but Steve wasn’t having that and so here I am walking into the library. No, not to be a librarian! There was an ad in the Sunday paper for something clerical and here I am.
It’s quiet and nice in here although I don’t think I like the look that one behind the desk just gave me. I march right over and ask for Dr. Davis.
“I’m Dr. Davis.” She takes off those reading glasses and tones down the look.
“I’m here about the job, the one in the Sunday paper.” I realize I’m holding onto my purse like it’s a life preserver and loosen my grip a little. Oh, and breathe. I remember to breathe.
“We’ve already accepted a number of résumés.”
I go blank. Résumé? Isn’t that for, like, salary type positions? I’d thought I would just be filling out an application for this piddly ass little job. I’d better say something.
“Can I fill out an application?”
There’s this long silence and I can’t believe I don’t just walk out on this hoity toity bitch with her reading glasses and her attitude. But, Christ, I need this job. I need this job and maybe she’s seeing that in the way I’m about to twist my purse into two pieces.
“Come with me, please?” She turns and nods to another beige woman who hurries over, taking her place behind the desk. “What’s your name?”
“Danston. Liz and Stevie?”
I know my mouth is hanging open; my kids go to the library? Enough for the librarian, the head librarian, to know their names? “Uh, yes. Yes, I’m Liz and Stevie’s mom.”
“Liz loves the biographies but Stevie always makes a bee line for Popular Mechanics.” She says that like she knows full well I got no clue what my kids like to read.
She ushers me into a small office lined with, what else, more books and takes a seat behind a neat desk. I know there are circles of sweat under my arms but suddenly I don’t care. I don’t care if I get this stupid job. I don’t care if we lose the goddamned house. I don’t care if Steve never works again and just drinks himself to death. None of it. So what? I sit back, ready for whatever comes out of her mouth.
“To be quite candid about it, Mrs. Danston, so far all the applicants have been over qualified and that’s a problem.” She rubs her eyes like she’s carrying the weight of the world. “Too many people see this as a stepping stone on their way to something better and I, well, I just need someone I can depend on who will stay on the job for the rest of her natural days so I don’t have to keep interviewing and interviewing.”
Ah, so I’m in the running because I have nothing better to look forward to. Right. Whatever. Give me the damned application and tell me when I start work.
“You’ve graduated from high school, yes?” She pulls out a legal pad and starts writing.
“I’ll need your address, your Social Security number, your telephone number and an emergency contact.”
“How much does this job pay?” It’s not like I got no prospects here. Ok, I don’t, but this is still a legitimate question.
“Eight fifty an hour, twenty five hours a week.” She pauses, waiting.
“Benefits?” I hand it to her already knowing the answer.
And yet she’s got people with degrees coming in here with their resumes and recommendations, hoping to get this ridiculous job. My head starts ticking again; Steve’s got some six months of unemployment and there’s still COBRA to keep the health insurance going as long as we can pony up the extra money.
“When do I start?”
“Tomorrow morning at 10:30.” She looks relieved.
“Thank you.” I need a beer and a cigarette. We walk out together, saying nothing and I make for the door. I’m so intent on getting out of here that it’s surprising that I even see her, but there she is: my ancient neighbor. And she sees me. But, just like at home, no reaction at all. It’s like she never spoke to me. She marches right past me and nods briefly at Dr. Davis who holds the library door open for her. What the hell?
The kids won’t be home for another half hour when I get home, ditching the skirt and purse to hit the back porch with the two things that still haven’t let me down. A beer and a smoke. Well. I’ve got a job. For just a minute I wish there was someone I could call and tell but feeling bad about what ain’t changing is foolish. I savor this first drag on the smoke. We got a red winged black bird nesting out back here somewhere and I like how its song trills up and down.
It’s a good thing I wasn’t expecting anyone here to have one good thing to say about me getting this job at the library. The kids are bummed like I’m invading their special place (how have I not heard anything about their deep love of the library until now?) and Steve, well, all he’s got is sarcastic crap about employee discounts on library cards.
I don’t know what I’m going to do with the kids once school’s out. Maybe they’d like to spend every day in their special place? Steve isn’t even trying to find work. I suppose he does need a little break and all; the work he’s been doing at the plant this past twelve years plus has been pretty tedious. But when you got kids and a mortgage you don’t get much in the way of breaks and we are never going to make the house payment this month on what I’m earning even with his unemployment check. Ouch! Dammit, how can stubbing your toe hurt so bad? I hop around, tearing up and cursing under my breath.
“Jesus Christ, April, just because you’re working for the first time in a damned decade doesn’t mean you got to wake the whole fucking house.” He hasn’t had a civil word come out of his face in weeks.
“Ouch, sorry. Stubbed my toe.” I limp out to the bathroom. I won’t say it. I won’t say it. I will not say anything.
“You want to close the door, dammit?” He yells and I take a long, deep breath, turn back and quietly close the door.
It’s strange working again. Doing things that someone else is telling me to do, having to ask questions, having to keep at it until the appointed time for lunch and coffee breaks (complete with coffee; Jesus I will never sleep again). I keep wanting to get my back up, the way they just casually toss off their commands: Take these down, put those up, no not there, over there, can you file these please? At least I’m busy and, before I know it, it’s 3:30 and I’m out the door. What a relief. I have this weird flash of sympathy for Steve, putting in his eight hours day in and day out and not in some cushy, air conditioned library. I’ve been in that plant and it’s horrible.
“I’m hungry! We thought you were never coming home” Stevie’s given me almost half a minute to walk in the door before starting. “Liz lied to me, Ma, she said that you’re gonna get another job and pretty soon you won’t be here at all.”
“I never said that! He’s the liar, not me!”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, you kids want to just put a sock in it?” And here he is, my soul mate, not quite plastered yet but well on his way.
“Go wash up, both of you.” Getting these two out of the room quick settles him down better than just about anything. The man is not father material.
He slumps into a chair. I get to cleaning up the mess from breakfast and lunch, thinking about what to make for supper. When I do glance back over at him, he’s got this stupid grin going on.
“I ever tell you that I always wanted to do a librarian?”
“I’m not a librarian.” I ought to watch it; goofball is a lot easier to deal with than bastard.
“C’mon, look at you in that skirt and those sensible low heels.” He shifts suggestively. Ok, I’ll play. I hike my skirt slightly and sidle on up next to him, keeping an eye out for the kids. He slides his hand from my calf on up riding the heel of his other hand up and down his crotch. Wow, I think he really is hard. He leans his head against my hip, sliding his hand into places it hasn’t been in too long. I stroke the side of his head. What are the odds of us getting up to the bedroom successfully? Low. There they come, stampeding down the stairs like a herd of elephants. We part and those kids, they never will have any idea what their very existence has done to us.
“What’s for supper, woman?” Steve smacks my ass and nods for Lizzie to hit the fridge for him.
“Give me some money, champ, I’m going for more beer.” I hold out my hand, knowing he’ll hand it over. He does.
I bring home a couple of sixes and get to work on supper. The kids are out back, hunkered down with their backs to the house, poking at something in the grass with sticks. Supper is leftovers and, for once, Steve doesn’t complain. The kids do but so what? I get them busy washing up the dishes and go on out to the front porch for my smoke, almost relaxing. It’s hot early this year and I’m glad for that huge old fan set in the floor of the attic. It’s noisy as hell but does a great job at sucking the cooler evening air up through the house.
Six o’clock and here she comes. Will she say anything? Nope, not a sign that she even sees me sitting here, watching her go past. What is her deal anyway? Watching her ramrod straight back, I stub out my cigarette. It must be quite a story; she looks like she survived fucking Hiroshima.
My cousin over in Axton comes to the rescue when school lets out and so the kids are spending their days over with Mary Jean and her kids. I have to remember to be nicer to her. Steve just sleeps, drinks beer and watches TV. I’m getting the hang of this work thing and even find some comfort in the daily returning of order to the mess made by our worthy patrons. Dr. Davis doesn’t let on but I get the sense she’s pleased that I’m working out.
There are several more appearances by my neighbor and one time she arrives with a truck and some beefy guys haul in boxes and boxes that Dr. Davis treats like treasure. I’m re-shelving mysteries and have to pay attention to what I’m doing but crane my neck to see where these boxes wind up.
Later, just before quitting time, I ease on down to the basement where I seen those guys lugging the boxes to. It’s stuffy down here and smells like dead books. Most of the main section is nothing but shelves and shelves of dusty boxes. I wipe some dust from the end of the one I’m standing by: Municipal Water Records 1972 to 1982. Fascinating. Towards the back of this part of the basement, I see a short hallway but all the doors off it are locked up tight and there’s no sign of all those new undusty boxes. I hear the door at the top of the stairs open and panic, trying to think of some reason for me to be down here.
“Oh good, I was hoping you hadn’t left yet.” It’s Dr. Davis sounding a little too jolly. This seems like a good time to keep my mouth shut as she pulls out a ring of keys. “I have a special project for you.”
Oh boy, a special project.
We go to the last room where it’s so dim in the hallway that she has trouble finding the right key. It takes everything in me to not grab the keys. Finally, after way too much fumbling and carrying on, she gets the right key, gets it into the slot and gets the damned door open. She reaches for the light switch and we’re in a small room that is crowded with boxes and there they are: my neighbor’s treasure. Special project indeed.
“I don’t know if you’ve met Miss Lissandra Marks. She tends to keep to herself, but you know who I mean, right?”
“My neighbor down the road a bit.” I bite off anything else I’m going to say. It’s never smart to give away too much information.
“Yes, that’s right.” Dr. Davis takes her glasses off for a minute to polish them on a bit of blue cloth she produces from a pocket. She looks different without them, softer, less sure of herself. “She grew up here but only moved back some ten years back and hasn’t had much to say to anyone.”
There’s this long pause like I’m supposed to say something. I just look back at Dr. Davis who has her glasses firmly between us again.
“So.” She sighs and moves over to the tiny desk surrounded by boxes. “I used to know some of her family. They’re all dead now. There have been stories; you know how it is, but I took it upon myself to approach her and see if she’d be interested in adding her family’s history to the town archives. It’s a pet project of mine.” And here she sweeps her hands to the carefully stacked ledgers that line the shelved room.
“You probably want to consider saving this stuff electronically.”
“Yes, yes.” She gets testy. “It has taken me five years to get anywhere with Miss Marks and today, today we have it! She says it’s all here, the whole story of the Ormond family, a founding family of this area, I might add.”
I’m getting a glimpse of the dotty Dr. Davis who will be forced to retire from the library one day and maybe start taking in cats or sending her money to orphans in third world countries. I wonder how she finally broke old lady Marks.
“So! What I need is for you to start organizing the contents of these boxes.” She gets all brisk and business like, pulling out the pen and legal pad. “First, of course, chronologically as well as geographically as that family did get around a bit.” She scribbles away and I remember to suck air. She hands me the top sheet of paper and smiles. Stupidly, I stare down at the spidery writing and then at her and then over at the stack of boxes.
“I’ll need to work more hours in order to keep up with the regular stuff and get this sorted out.” I think I can work on Mary Jean, get her to keep the kids til after supper. Dr. Davis isn’t smiling anymore but I wait her out.
“I suppose you’re right.” She’s speaking real slow, like I’m welcome to jump in anywhere with some crap apology or some other shit. I don’t. “Ten more hours a week?”
Somehow I’m out on the sidewalk without remembering leaving the basement, walking on auto pilot over to the car. I can probably draw this out for awhile and, if nothing else, we’re gonna make the mortgage this month. I bite down on a fierce yell of victory and pull out of the lot. I want to go on over to Joe’s and have a beer. There’s a phone booth in front of the Seven Eleven and I call Mary Jean. She’s not real happy about this but goes along with it. I mean, come on, woman.
I haven’t been to the bar in over six months god dammit and if anyone deserves to sit in a joint and have a beer, it’s me. I don’t expect Steve will even realize I’m late getting home; hell, he probably isn’t even out of bed yet. I pull into the dusty parking lot next to Joe’s and, weirdly, check my hair. Some things just don’t go away. There’s three other cars in the lot; none that I recognize. I grab my purse and get out of the car.
Coming into the dim bar from the bright sun outside, it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust but boy it smells good in here. Something about stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer just does it for me. About the time I make out the big blonde hair of the bar maid, I realize she’s plunked right in the lap of my husband, kissing on his neck. He’s just turning to see who’s walking in and, man, I’d like a snapshot of his face right now. Actually three or four of them, cuz that’s how many expressions he flips through in the time it takes to shove Blondie off his lap.
By the time she’s back behind the bar and he’s turned to face me, he’s settled on pissed off and that suits me just fine.
“You son of a bitch.” I launch fast and don’t give him an opening. “This is what I’m working for? So you can sit your lazy goddamned ass in a bar, fucking around with that? You want to tell your kids or you just prefer to let them hear it at school from her kids?”
“Watch your mouth…”
“I’ll watch my mouth calling a lawyer, you bastard.” I spin and head out the door. This is what I wasted the last decade on? In my head I’ve got custody of the kids and am living in Florida with my Dad so I don’t see Steve exploding off his bar stool. When he grabs my arm I react like someone’s trying to kill me and slam him so hard into the wall that the Bud Light sign comes down on his head. Blondie’s yelling and reaching for the phone; the other guys are staring with their mouths hanging open. Steve’s off balance and down he goes and out I go, back out into that blast of sunlight, shaking so hard I almost can’t get the key into the ignition. But I do. Some kind of traffic gods got to be on my side cuz I peel out of that lot like a drunk teenager and don’t get hit. And where am I going to go? Home? Oh that would be fun, wouldn’t it? Go back to that prison to sit around and, what? Wait for him to finally come dragging in with either excuses or his fists?
Yeah, I don’t think so.
I hit Route 33 north and head for the joint where I used to go back while Steve was doing his weekends with the National Guard. I didn’t want him hearing about me being out drinking from his buddies at Joe’s so I’d go on up to this road house just off I-260. I don’t even realize I’m gritting my teeth until my face starts hurting. That son of a bitch.
It’s weird walking into another bar and, as my eyes adjust to the dim light, I almost expect some bizarre Ground Hog Day moment with Blondie on my husband’s lap all over again. But it’s just the usual gang of alcoholics getting their medicine.
When the dolly behind the bar comes over my order I decide that beer is just not going to do it and order a 7 & 7. Man, that tastes good and I nod for another slug of 7 to counter the watery fountain 7 Up. I get a couple of these bad boys into me and I can unclench. One of the bar flies is checking me out, kind of a handsome old dude in spite of the stringy gray hair. At some point Old Dude makes his move and me, I just smile and let him buy me drinks. The place begins to get more crowded and I sort of notice that it’s not sunny out there anymore. It’s night time and Old Dude’s got his hand on my knee. What was his name? I try to go to the john and find it hilarious the way the floor keeps moving around under me. I start switching channels and go from peeing all over the toilet seat to necking with Old Dude outside the door of the joint to trying to unlock the car.
I don’t like this channel. Switch. Whoa, would you look at that? I got the key into the ignition on the first try. Boring. Switch. What’s with the horn, buddy? I got the right of way cuz I’m taking it. There’s my turn. Switch. This doesn’t look right; am I going north or south? Oh, yeah, there’s the Dairy Queen, I’m going the right way. Switch. Jesus, asshole, what you want to take your side out of the middle? Get the fuck over. Switch. Must be later than I thought; there’s like no traffic at all in town. Switch. They really should put a dog leg in to this turn; way too tight. I’ll be home soon anyway so fuck it. Switch. That bastard, sitting around in a goddamned bar with some skank on his lap while I’m trying to keep shit together for this family. When’s the last time he even smiled at me? Since when did I become the goddamned bad guy in this house anyway? Switch.
What was that? I stop suddenly cuz I just thumped over something. Oh hell, did I hit a goddamned dog? I sit here, stupid and when I do remember what I just saw, I can’t get the door open fast enough and wind up vomiting all over myself. With the door open now anyway, I swing my legs out but don’t even try to stand up. I can’t, won’t, turn my head to see if he’s moving.
All I have to do is wait and, sure enough, there’s a siren and lights and I don’t have to try and stand up because the police are helping me. It’s only when I’m cuffed and in the back of the police cruiser that I look over at the blood stained sheet that someone pulled over Steve’s body.
There’s one problem solved.
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