A short story up at storySouth: “One Strange Animal”
“A Hell of a Thing” was first published in Pembroke Magazine
A Hell of a Thing
I flat don’t want Lynne’s sister Rena coming and I say so. I say, “I flat don’t want her coming.” It’s not just because Lynne doesn’t like me drinking when Rena’s here either.
I’m doing it for Lynne, and I think she knows that. Rena has only been off the drugs for about a year, and that’s not long considering all the heartache she’s caused Lynne and her family—lying and stealing and betraying—not long at all. Lynne was the one who told her she couldn’t come back, after finding Rena’s mirror and razorblade on the ottoman one morning. There they were plain as day, beside an ashtray sprouting cigarette butts like a hedgehog’s head, and Rena passed out on the couch with her jeans unzipped. This was before Lynne’s thirteen year old Cody moved to his dad’s, so he was right down in his bedroom the whole time.
Rena was just passing through that time, and that’s why Lynne let her stay. “No more than one night,” Lynne told her over the phone. Rena said it was all she needed, she was going to a job interview in Richmond—where nobody knew about her addictions, is what I thought. She got the job but lost it in four months, and then—add injury to injury—we found out she’d stolen all their family silverware—old stuff, real silver, from near the time of the Civil War, all wrapped up in ratty maroon felt—while she was here and she pawned it. It had been appraised at over four thousand dollars. She never admitted to stealing it, but it was her. I remember Lynne crying, saying over the phone, “Just admit it,” then listening, then saying, “Fine. Whatever. But you and I both know the truth. You can’t stay here anymore. Don’t come back.”
Now Lynne tells me Rena’s coming for a social visit. Bringing her boyfriend.
Lynne says, “She’s only going to spend the night. She’ll be leaving Sunday morning.”
I’ve just been laid off after running my machine nonstop first and second shift both for six weeks, getting out the Penske order. A temp they got from Labor Ready to help with the extra work, seemed like he was trying to kill me the whole time: almost crushed both my arms in my machine one afternoon, and another evening he nearly knocked me off the rack with the loading crane, not watching to see who was up there. So it was a stressful few weeks for me, and when it was over, Ron, my supervisor, just came up on my platform and told me they were going to have to let me go for a little while, till they got another big order. “For how long?” I wanted to know. Ron’s a biker, wears a thick handlebar mustache that, frankly, makes him look more like a leather fag than the kind of biker look he’s going for, but whatever. He rubbed that mustache and said, “Boss is trying to nail down a couple big contracts. Could be big. I’ll let you know.”
Things are tight at home; Lynne and I don’t need Rena right now, I am thinking.
Lynne is all dressed up to sell houses today. It’s Friday. She took the test and got her real estate license six months ago, and she’s already sold one house, for a friend of hers, but still. She’s bought all new clothes, even new sexy panties. I’m not complaining, that’s for sure. Every Sunday she does open houses; every Sunday before she leaves all dolled up, she stands in front of the hall bathroom mirror and chants this little thing to herself: “You’re ready for this. You look like a million bucks. You’re going to make that sale.”
She does look like a million bucks too in her new black suit. She’s all woman. You can have your stick-thin models, man. Give me curves. Give me boobs with real butt-crack cleavage in that jacket with no blouse underneath. She’s on her wobbly way in high heels, has a trunk load of for sale signs to jab down into front yards.
“I guess you want me to not drink while she’s here,” I say. Rena had a drinking problem too, along with the drugs. Vodka all day long. Before Lynne told her not to come back that was kind of an issue between us, my drinking around Rena when she was here. Why, I’d ask, should I change the way I live to accommodate her problem? This is my house. I still feel that way.
“If you can handle it for one night.”
“I can handle it,” I say. “If I want to.”
She clacks to the door in her new heels with her hands up like she’s walking on a frozen pond, goes out and closes the door.
Nothing to do on a Friday afternoon makes me jittery. I sit in front of ESPN with the sound off and 96 WROV rocking it out on the stereo, and drink a few Coors Lights. I go out to my truck to check and make sure I put my fifty foot rope back in behind the seat before I left work, and get a couple good swigs out of the Turkey bottle I keep back there. Lynne comes home late, carrying her shoes and thumping flat-footed and tired across the carpet.
“How’d it go?” I ask.
“It went.” She goes on down the hallway to the bedroom.
I leave the TV and follow her. I watch while she takes off her suit and hangs it up. When she gets to her pantyhose and bra, I make my move, go in all gentle and start kissing the back of her neck. She can’t resist that, never could. Her pantyhose waistband is cutting into her middle, so I hook my finger underneath and pull them down. Her beautiful white flesh spills out. She marches them to the floor and steps out of them.
“Problem is, you’re too sexy and nobody can keep their eyes on the houses.”
“Yeah,” she says, “right.”
We go to the bed and screw, and after that, lying beside her, I say, “I won’t drink while she’s here, if you don’t want me to.”
“Actually, she’s doing great,” Lynne says. “Do what you want. It won’t matter.”
So I think it might not be so bad. I’ll have to deal with Rena, and she is annoying as hell, and I can’t imagine her boyfriend won’t be too, but at least I can buffer it with a little Turkey.
I run out to the Walgreens on Saturday for a couple packs of Camel Lights, and I swing by the ABC next to the Food Lion for a fresh bottle of Turkey to get me through Rena’s visit. I crack open the new bottle and have a little slug. Then I polish off the old one, which only has a couple ounces left. A woman comes out of the ABC and sees me standing there with my two bottles. She has silver hair and a red face. She holds up her shiny blue bag and says, “Cheers.” I raise my new bottle to her.
I toss the old bottle in the can out front of the Food Lion and replace it with my new one behind my truck seat. I’ll keep it hidden from her, then everybody’s happy. I drive over to the Flea Market on Fort Avenue and bum around for a couple hours, shoot the shit here and there. Old Ralph Coats, who sells knives and Japanese throwing stars and fake brass knuckles, offers me a slug off his flask. He drinks some rotgut, bottom shelf shit, but I take a pull or two just to be polite. We get to talking about knives and weapons in general, and I tell him I’m a pretty good amateur gunsmith, and he says we could go into business together selling old refurbished guns, and that sounds like a fine idea to me. After the flea market closes, we stop over at the Pub Down Under and have a couple Coors Lights, so we can talk about our new business venture.
When I get home, Rena’s car is in the driveway, and a U-Haul rental van is behind it. No fucking way anybody’s moving in, I think. Not going to happen. Her car is a little green Geo Metro hatchback, with clothes stacked in the back on hangers like she’s moving. Hell no. Hell no. On top of the clothes is a capless blue Secret deodorant can. What a slob.
From the driveway I can smell food cooking. Rena is a good cook. She learned it from the Food Network those months she crashed on our couch several years ago. Got to where she was making us some great dinners, but costing us a shitload of money. That was back when I was getting steady overtime and Lynne wasn’t working at all. Had to make her stop all that cooking. Lynne doesn’t cook anymore. She’s a career woman now. One good home-cooked meal will be nice.
I park on the street so they can get out. I look at the house, at the door. The front door is standing open, with the screen door shut, but nobody’s standing in it. All the windows on this side of the house are dark. I take a couple good pulls off my bottle of Turkey to steel my nerves. I go to the side of the house and in through the kitchen door, like I always do. I’m feeling good and relaxed.
Lynne and Rena are standing side by side with their asses against the kitchen counter, holding glasses of sweet tea. The boyfriend is sitting at the kitchen table. He stands up and reaches out to shake my hand as Rena arches her back and pushes away from the counter toward me. “This is Randy,” she says to me. We shake hands and say our nice-to-meet-yous—his forearms are tattooed up and down, and he has little washers for earrings that make 3/8” holes, maybe 7/16”, in his earlobes. You could dangle a Sharpie marker from them. Rena gives me a long solid hug. She smells like that dirt perfume hippies wear. “It’s good to see you,” she says.
“You moving somewhere?” I ask.
“Oh, the U-Haul?” She laughs. “That’s Randy’s. Randy’s driving that.”
“Rena and Randy,” I say. “Has a ring to it.”
“Does doesn’t it,” Rena says.
“Rena and Randy,” I say. “Rena and Randy.”
They laugh and nod.
Lynne asks me, “You go to the flea market?”
Rena looks like Lynne, except she’s ten years younger, and she has her naturally strawberry blonde hair dyed the color of cherry wood. She’s skinny as a rail too, which I attribute to the drugs because it’s not a family trait. Her face, flushed at the cheeks and nose, is the texture of an overused paper grocery bag. Her eye shadow and lipstick are dark red-brown to match the color of her hair, and somehow, with her pale skin, it’s hot in a slutty way. On the counter behind Lynne is a pink slab of salmon 18” long with lemon slices and fresh sprigs of herbs all over it. It’s on top of a bunch of leaves.
“Dinner already?” I ask.
“Jeff, it’s almost seven.”
“You’re right,” I say. Where’d the day go? Almost six hours I’ve been gone. Shit. I say, “What’s with the greenery?”
“Banana leaves,” Rena says. We wrap the salmon in it. We’re having roasted root vegetables with it.”
I turned on the oven light and looked in. purple and white rutabagas, yellow turnips, orange sweet potatoes, white onions. “It’ll be a pretty meal, anyway.”
“It is,” Lynne says.
“Isn’t it?” Rena says.
On the kitchen table behind the boyfriend there’s chips and salsa, and toasted pita chips with a creamy dip. I go and start digging in to the chips and salsa. Suddenly I realize I’m starving.
“You want a glass of tea?” Lynne asks me. She knows I don’t drink tea.
“I’ll get something in a minute,” I say.
I sit down and chow on the salsa. It’s homemade, and delicious.
Rena wraps up the fish in the leaves and ties it off with twine. She moves the root vegetables to the bottom rack and slides in the green bundle, turning her dark raccoon eye sockets away from the blast of heat. The hot smell of roasting vegetables filled the kitchen. I polished off the salsa.
“Oh,” Lynne says, “I almost forgot. I have to show you that new set, remember?” She pads her bare feet down the hallway. She walks so heavy she rattles her knickknacks on the tables.
Rena tosses our red Santa Clause oven mitt with the black-stained palm onto the counter and follows. Lynne is saying down the hallway, “It was only fifty dollars at TJ Maxx. The comforter only has one little place, a bleach spot or something, but I can put that at the bottom and cover it…”
Alone in the kitchen with the boyfriend, I get myself a glass and go to the freezer for ice. Inside the freezer are two bottles of white wine, and in the ice bucket there’s a bottle of Captain Morgan’s spiced rum. I say, “What the hell’s all this?”
“That wine is particularly good with salmon,” the boyfriend says.
“And the rum?”
“That’s for desert,” he says. “Rena’s going to do bananas foster. Burn it, not drink it.”
I take the bottle out and hold it up. A little over half gone. “You guys been cooking a lot of bananas?” I ask. I open the bottle and gulp down a couple freezing swallows. I like my sweet Wild Turkey, but rum is too sweet, even ice cold. I offer the boyfriend a swig and he shakes his head and says no thanks and fingers at one of his gaping earlobes. I put the bottle back and there are melted spots on the bottle where my fingers pressed the outer film of ice.
I get some ice in my glass and shove the rum down deeper into the bucket. When I open the fridge I see that Lynne hasn’t hidden my Coors Light. The wine, and now this. It really is okay to drink around Rena. I crack myself a beer. I offer one to the boyfriend but again he declines and fingers at one of his ridiculous earlobes.
Dinner goes well. I even have a little glass of wine with everyone because they all talk about how good it is with the fish. So there I am at this fine dinner table, a glass of wine and a silver can of beer in front of me. It’s my house, I can be a redneck if I want. After dinner, Rena makes a big deal out of the bananas foster. They’re good, but not worth all the trouble in my opinion, but whatever. I step out to move the truck from the street to the driveway and get myself another couple of good long swallows of Turkey. When I get back in, the girls have both gone to pee, so I grab another swig out of the Captain Morgan’s. I offer it to the boyfriend, and this time, he peeks down the hallway, and then takes a good long swig. “Attaboy,” I say. “I ain’t telling.” He wipes his mouth and goes straight for the coffee pot.
We play this game called Cranium, which somehow turns into more of a game of Pictionary and charades because boyfriend doesn’t like the word questions and the modeling clay is dried up. Every time Rena leans over to draw, I can see down her shirt, and she has the prettiest little tits. We’re all laughing and joking and I do this wild charade of a velociraptor running through the house with ass out and my elbows squeezed against my ribcage, like I’m hunting those two children in that movie. I do another one of the Titanic sinking that’s so good I break Lynne’s sweet tea glass on the floor. I slip back out a couple more times while the girls pee and get a gulp of Turkey. Finally I just sneak the bottle in; I take a quick swig and so does the boyfriend, then I hide it under the sink. I’m feeling great, the evening is a ball, and I’m thinking Rena is okay after all, and her boyfriend, though a little uptight, is okay too. I say it more than once. I say to him, “You’re okay.” I say to Rena, “I’m glad you’re okay. You’re both okay.” I say to Lynne, “They’re okay.”
After my last can of beer is gone, I figure what the hell, and I say to Rena, “So you really aren’t tempted to drink anymore? With people drinking around you?”
She says, “I’m doing good.”
“Well alright.” I get up and fumble around under the sink and produce my Wild Turkey, about half gone now. I say, “Then me and boyfriend are going to stop sneaking our nips like Baptists.” I hold up the bottle in salute to boyfriend. He looks away as Rena shoots him a glare.
She says, “You’ve been drinking with him?”
There’s her old animosity toward us, finally rearing its head.
“No,” he says. “I have not.”
“I can’t believe you,” she shouts, and she throws her red Cranium card at him, but it flutters off to the side and goes on the floor. She gets up and stomps down the hallway.
I follow her because I have to piss, and halfway down the hallway she spins around and almost knocks me over. I step aside and say, “Easy there, baby girl.” She doesn’t say anything to me, just goes back toward the kitchen with more to say.
On my way back from pissing, I hear them arguing in the kitchen, and I’m starting to get aggravated that Rena is giving the guy so much hell. Then I hear my wife’s hushed voice. Now it sounds like the two of them are ganging up on her for some reason, and that really gets my hackles up. The boyfriend says something. Lynne says something back. He raises his voice at her and says, “Yes you will.” My wife whispers something urgent back to him. He says, “Don’t be stupid.” Rena says, “You really are being stupid.”
Oh no. Not in my house. I stomp into the kitchen and over to his chair, and I stand close so I’m looming over his sorry ass, and I say to him, “Don’t ever talk to my wife like that again.”
They all look up at me. He’s scared. Lynne’s been crying.
I look at Rena and say, “I knew I shouldn’t have let you come. You’re nothing but trouble, and that’s all you’ll ever be.”
Lynne stands and puts her arms around my waist. She says all sexy, “Hey baby, let’s go to bed.”
“That’s not fair,” the boyfriend says. “Rena—”
I grab his throat in my left hand. I have a strong grip from working with my hands all my life. His face seems to swell like a finger with a rubber band around it, his eyes squint up. His chair legs scrape on the kitchen linoleum as he kicks himself back, but then he’s against the wall with nowhere else to go. He grabs my wrist. His grip is weak. I cock my right fist back. I’m going to break his nose for him.
Lynne hugs me tighter with two pulsing squeezes. She says, “Come on, baby.” She hugs and hugs. “Baby, it’s not worth it.”
“Go to bed,” Rena says to me. She looks at me with hard eyes. No remorse, never sorry for anything she does. Something about the look though—suddenly I’m not mad anymore. I even think we could patch this over, there’s more fun to be sucked out of this evening.
I let go of the boyfriend and he coughs. I say, “Sorry, dude. I overreacted.” I say to Rena, “You need to think about Lynne sometimes, stop making your sister’s life a living hell.”
Lynne pulls at me. She says, “Let’s go get in bed, baby.” I know she’s trying to defuse this—she’s always been a peace maker—but it also means we’re going to do it, so I go.
When we get back to the bed, my heart is pounding like it wants out from under my ribs. I’m thinking that this is going to be the perfect end to the evening. All in all, we had a pretty good time, except for that last little trouble, but that blew over with no harm, no foul. Then I see she’s crying.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
She shakes her head and tightens her lips so as not to burst out crying out loud.
“That’s it,” I say. “I’m throwing her ass out.” I turn to go back out, but she grabs and holds on to me hard.
She says, “I need you here with me more right now. Come to bed.”
I take off all my clothes and get in bed for sex. She undresses in front of me, finds her sleeping t-shirt and pulls it on. She crawls in on her side and tugs up the covers. I guess I’m more tired than I realize from the long day, because that’s it, I’m done.
Sunday morning I wake up with a slight headache, but not too bad. It’s a bright morning out, and the bedroom is dark with the blinds pulled tight. Lynne isn’t in the bed. The bedroom door is closed, but I can hear voices down the hall in the kitchen: Lynne and Rena, and the boyfriend; and other voices. Men’s voices.
Right away I know something is fucked up. First I think it might be movers, something to do with that U-Haul the boyfriend brought. Then I smell bacon cooking, and I can’t figure what the hell’s going on. So I pull on my jeans from yesterday, and a fresh white t-shirt, and I go down the hallway to the kitchen, and I ask. I say, “What the hell’s going on?”
The table is set for breakfast, and there are people all around it. Lynne and Rena. The boyfriend. Ron, my supervisor from work, who has never been to our house before—this is so fucked up, I think somebody has died, something really fucked up has happened—and some guy I’ve never seen before. A black guy in a green polo shirt. He has those little white shaving bumps all over his neck. They’ve already eaten. The table looks wrecked and ready for a busboy with his gray tub.
“You save anything for the rest of us?” I say.
“There’s plenty left,” Lynne says. “Sit down and have some.”
“I don’t want any,” I say. What I want is to get out to the truck and get a little hair of the dog. Then I remember that I brought it in and put it under the sink. Then I remember that I pulled it out last night. I can’t remember where I set it down. I check around the counters, don’t see it anywhere. I say, “I want to know what the hell’s going on?”
“Jeff,” Lynne says to me all sweet, “this is Mark Washington.”
The black guy stands and reaches to shake my hand. I nod at him and look back at Lynne.
“He’s a professional interventionist,” she says. “Sit down,” she says. “Please.”
I do sit down now. I sit and look around. I say, “What the fuck is going on?”
Then Lynne flies into this whole speech about how I have an illness, how I’m very sick, and this black guy is set to take me to a treatment center, and then my boss joins in and tells me I’m not fired but I’ve been a danger to myself and to others, and I need to get some help and then he’ll see about getting me some shifts again, but that’s not what I need to be focusing on right now, and my head is all swimming still from the night before, and my stomach’s a little sour, and I need a drink, God I need a drink to clear my head, and Rena says how it was hard but it was the best thing she’s ever done in her life, and I’ll be happy after I do it, and Lynne pipes back in and says if I refuse to go down to Pathways Treatment Center with Mr. Washington—no promises; right now, this morning—she’s packing her things in the U-Haul out there—I look at Rena’s boyfriend and say, “So that U-Haul is empty?” and he nods his head and plays with his ear lobe hole—she’s packing up and leaving me because she can’t live like this anymore. “Today,” she says. “I’m going today.”
Everything is quiet then. That nice hot bacon smell has cooled into the sickening odor of cold grease. My stomach churns.
“That it?” I say.
“You rented a goddamn truck just for this?”
Nobody says anything.
My head is spinning. I look around and they’re all staring at me. Not the boyfriend. He’s looking down at the table. He picks up his glass of juice—that arm tattooed like a colorful sleeve—and chugs it. Gulps and gulps. Makes me think of when I was in the Army and we’d be in line at a drinking fountain after PT, and somebody would be taking too long, how we would yell and say, “Save some for everybody else. You can’t drink down to the whiskey. There’s no whiskey at the bottom.” I think about that and I shake my head and I laugh.
They all sit and look at me. The boyfriend puts his glass down and wipes his mouth. He looks at me too.