Steve Weddle teaches writing for LitReactor, blogs at DoSomeDamage, and edits Needle: A Magazine of Noir. His debut novel, Country Hardball, is published in North America by Tyrus Books. The follow-up story, "South of Bradley," appears in the November 2015 issue of Playboy magazine. He lives with his family in Virginia.
She'd had her senior picture up in the front of the town's portrait shop for a year. Maybe a little longer, but not much. This was twenty years ago, she knew. Twenty-three if you wanted to be a dick about it.
Blonde, with a little darkness underneath, a complement to the unfocused background, her leaning into the plastic bark of a photographer's tree. Bright eyes of a thin blue, a cloudless sky on your favorite day. Smooth skin on a face that never shone too much. The blur increasing the further away you moved, softer in the distance.
She'd thought about taking that photograph, that portrait now leaning against an old Ethan Allen hutch in the basement, and hanging it above the fireplace in place of their wedding portrait, that gaudy gold frame, carved into wiry flowers along the edges, the two of them in an awkward stance, a little twisted, each holding the other's off hand, on a foot bridge in the park behind the mortuary.
The wedding portrait, a matte weave when you stood close to it, lines in square rising and falling without reason, tracing your fingertips along the face you had, then the reaching for the face you have now, seeing how much has gone loose under your jaw, pulling, pinching at the skin the way you try to crease the curtains before your new friends come over. Everything once tight, once solid, now softening, easing. Elasticity. Opening your mouth. Wide. Pressing your chin out, pulling it towards your neck. Pushing back.
Of course Garrett hadn't bought her flowers for their "date night." Why would he? It seemed pointless, he'd said, getting his wife flowers. Like putting together a dimestore jigsaw puzzle when you already had the picture on the cardboard box. Why work so hard for something you already have, he'd ask.
"Didn't you go to work today?" he asked, coming through the front hall to the family room, setting his laptop bag near the cabinet. Not in the cabinet, she noticed. God forbid he should put it away.
"I took a half-day." She was holding a glass of white wine, lightly with the tips of her fingers, barely holding on, that moment just before you drop the glass, jagged on the tile, invisible slivers into soft flesh for days, years to come. Then she twirled, set the glass on the counter.
"Are you OK?"
"Never better," she said, making little popping sounds with her mouth. "You?"
"Sure," he said. He was always sure.
"We should go out again. Like last night," she said, leaning into the counter. "I could wear that light green dress you like."
"What light green dress?"
She poked something in the air with each syllable. "Exactly."
"Are you drunk?" He took a few steps towards her.
"Jesus, Chrissie. What's the matter with you?"
"You want it alphabetical or chronological?"
"I'm serious. Jesus. What's wrong with you?"
She leaned her face into her hands, eyes into the base of her palms. "You should have brought me flowers."
"I came straight home. What are you talking about?"
"Last night, I mean. You should have brought me flowers. Our date night. We never have date night."
"We had one last night."
"I know," she said, looking up. "And you should have brought me flowers."
"Don't be like that."
"Just don't be like that. You know what I mean."
"I used to know."
"Like that," she mocked.
He picked up the remote, and she went into another room.
"Maybe we shouldn't have sent him off," she said, walking back into the room a half-hour later. "Maybe we should do more for him." She'd been thinking about their son, about the building toward something and then the taking away of things. Of the being left with less. Truth be told, in the quietness of things, in the new spaces of the night with Hunter gone, she'd been thinking about many things.
"More than what? Do you have any idea what two weeks there costs? What more can we do?"
"It's not about that. The money. He's our son."
"He's not acting like it."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You know what it means. It means my son isn't a goddamn thief is what it means."
"Dr. Niidas said he was acting out. You know that. Looking for attention."
"Of course that's what she's going to say. Something they can give him pills for. Get him hooked. Keep him coming. More sessions. They get you dependent on them. Buy into their system of how it ought to be. What else is she going to say? That we shouldn't worry? A phase? How do these doctors make money from a phase?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean he's a teenage boy. This is what teenage boys do. Broken noses. Curfews. Little troubles. Doesn't mean he's a goddamn thief."
"What do you mean this is what teenage boys do? You? Is that what you did?"
"Don't blame this on me. Don't you dare blame this on me, too."
"I'm not. I swear I'm not," she said. "I'm just asking what you meant."
"Nothing. Don't worry about it."
She stood just to his side. "I need to show you something."
He didn't look over. "I've seen it."
He was standing in the doorway of his son's room, watching Chrissie lean across the bed for something just out of her reach. Years ago, he'd have been unable to resist. Would have moved closer to her. Her blonde hair, an explosion of coconut and lavender smells in his hands, the jumpy ridge of her right ear under his hand, the backs of his fingers along her jaw, the corners of her lips. He would have been unable to keep himself from her. Years ago.
"This going to take long?" he asked.
She turned around, sitting on the bed. She set a red, metal box in her lap. Chinese writing on the top. She opened the box, pulled out a plastic bag of weed. Another. Maybe five small plastic bags, rolled up.
He said "Jesus" softly, the way he might have said it years ago in church, a prayer. He sat down with her. "Isn't he too young for that? I mean, isn't he?"
"How old were you," she asked.
"I was," he started. Bit his lip. Shook his head. Waved a hand. "Fuck. Seriously? Fucking fuck." He took the box from her, looked at the little one-hit pipe. Smudged patina, dented edge, like a grandfather's kazoo brought back from the war and wrapped away in an attic chest.
"Maybe one bag. But five? That's a dealer, right? Jesus." He stood up, sat down again.
She took the pipe, sprinkled some grass into the bowl.
"What are you doing?" he asked her. He said the first half again, then stopped. "You can't just, just blaze up in here. Are you seriously doing that?"
She was. She did. But not seriously. She coughed, laughed. Pressed the back of her wrist against her mouth, trying to hold the smoke, trying to hold everything inside, eyes watering. She handed him the pipe, then walked to the window. When their son left for college or boot camp or jail, they could turn his room into a library. An office. She stood at the window, thinking about the changes she wanted to make. For months, it seemed, she'd been standing at the window, thinking about the changes she wanted to make. She turned her head up a little, looked at her reflection. Straightened her neck. Framed her face in a window pane, the square a frame. She blew away the last of the smoke, watched it drift from her.
Garrett asked her if she was done. She turned, slid down the wall to the floor.
"What's your biggest regret?"
Eyebrows down, face a crinkle, he asked her what she was talking about.
"Regrets. Like, looking back. All the swirls out there, where this happens or that, like all this movement and you do this and then something follows. Like a different twist that could have been, right? Like you're looking at a cloud you think is going to turn into a dragon or a lion and then it kinda reaches out to another cloud next to it and it just kinda drifts into pieces. Like that. A regret."
He knew not to answer first. She'd asked him what he was thinking as they drove through town, a month into the marriage, and he'd said he was working out a presentation for work. Said a few things about it. Back then, he'd said things without thinking. Without building up that timing, that distance that separates you from others. He'd been thinking right along the edge of his forehead, so that all she had to do was glance at him to know, to connect. Everything had been there, out in the open for them. A fresh painting hanging in the room, clingy to the touch. Before the settling in. The framing. Before the time built up, the glass, the pane pressed against the dried work. He'd been so open to her and he'd said he was thinking of work. Without thinking.
"What are you thinking?" he'd asked her back, playing the game.
She'd dragged her fingers along the dashboard, a slight path in the little bits of dust collecting. "The park. How we went for that picnic that night and you spread out the blanket and we had those big fat, purple grapes and that cheese and then all those teenagers came by and we got nervous and went back to the car and you told me about how you felt the first time you saw me walking into that meeting room." She had put her hands into her lap. "That's what I was thinking."
The next time she'd asked him where he'd wanted to eat, and he'd caught himself, asked where she wanted to eat.
"I don't know," he said, looking across the shelves of their son's room. "Haven't thought about regrets, I guess. You?"
On the shelf were the normal books a teenage boy ought to have. The science fiction. The comic book collections. Baseballs. A hockey puck. Loose CDs, ledged against each other like shining rocks at the bottom of a dry creek. Scratches here and there, meaning something wouldn't work right when you most wanted it. That part in the movie. That game. That thing you'd been looking forward to, just catching itself in little glitches until you give up, move on to something else. Quarters, dimes in a cracked, superglued ashtray.
"Like where we went wrong. Like on this path," she said, fading off. She packed the pipe again, the snick of the lighter, the crackle and inhale. When she finished coughing, she stood up, moved to the bed, leaned back with crucifixion arms, her thick hair moving to a vapor at the edges. Garrett leaned back, stayed next to her. She held her hands up as she talked, ash falling toward them. "Like, maybe we should have moved somewhere else. Or kept going to that church. Or like a thousand things, you know. You get into this thing and everything sort of fades and it just moves, yeah, like a cloud mixing in above this forest fire that's dying out, smoke drifts, and you get lost in it, and it's like just wherever it blows and like that's how it happens and like you're wondering if maybe you pushed the thing or held it together, like maybe that's what Elaine and whatshisface did with Justin."
"Who? Elaine and Ken over on Wigeon Way? What about them?"
"Like their boy. Justin. Our boys are about the same age. They never have any problems. Maybe it's his sister. Maybe we should have had a girl first."
"They had a girl first?"
"Yeah. The twins, though one died as a baby. I think that was them. Shannon up on Bufflehead knew them back then. Said they had a real hard time with it."
"Well, everybody has a hard time with everything, don't they? That's life."
"But maybe we'd have less of a hard time somehow. Like what would our lives have been like with a girl? Like maybe we've done everything wrong."
"I think maybe you've had enough," he said, reached for the pipe, set it on the table by the bed. "You been at this all day?" Garrett stood, walked to the Chinese box, palmed one of the bags into his pocket, said, "Let's go. There's a sneaky neighborhood view I want to show you. Get some perspective."
"I don't want to go anywhere," she said. "Let's just lie here and count the dots in the air. This is where I belong. Right here. I have found the place and this is it. The place of belonging. The belonging to the belong."
He looked around the room. The nicks, holes from posters that weren't there anymore. Slight gash on the wall.
"Come on," he said. "I need to show you something."
"I've seen it."
"I don't even know whose house this is," she said, as they edged along the Pruitts' yard.
He pointed out the yards as they sneaked behind the neighborhood, brush strokes a docent explains, walking through a gallery. The Pruitts in violation with the neighborhood board, the little fence the wrong color. The Burkes, a lawnmower shed that didn't quite match the house and hadn't been approved by the aesthetics committee. Through the little patch of woods behind the Conrads, a view up the hill of the boat, still parked in the driveway despite the special meeting in March, the paper ballots all folded up into Ed Shory's Auburn baseball cap.
They came up behind Elaine and Ken's place on Wigeon, Justin's treehouse another violation of the neighborhood covenants. The seven rungs, the second broken off, leading up into the treehouse, a trapdoor hinging into the floor.
Garrett and Chrissie sat flat-backed against the center post, looking over the short wall across the yard, into the curtainless windows, the sunroom, the edge of the kitchen.
"Are they home?" Chrissie asked.
"I imagine so."
"You know everyone here?" she asked, looking through trees to the blank, windowless side walls of a half-dozen houses, mostly the Chardonnay design, though she recognized one as the Palmero, like theirs. "I don't know anyone."
"I see them when I'm out jogging," Garrett said. "Nothing much. Just, you know, neighbors. They wave. I wave."
She said alright.
"He had two DUIs in a year," Garrett said, nodding towards the back of the house. "Ken. Few years back."
"Everybody's got something. Weird shit you probably don't even want to know about."
"Yeah. I guess."
"So don't worry about it."
"But Hunter …" she started. "I don't care what whatshisface did. Our son."
"It's little stuff. Doesn't matter. Everybody, look, I'm telling you. Everybody has something."
She asked if he had something. He said that yeah, everybody did.
"Little troubles. Look, our son has little troubles. Here and there. Don't worry." He took her hand. "Little troubles. Little triumphs. Doesn't matter. Running in the hall. Perfect attendance. Honor roll. Speeding ticket. Who cares?"
She asked if he had little troubles when he was their son's age. He said he did. Didn't everyone?
They sat in Justin's treehouse, two blocks from their own house, and she leaned against his shoulder. "Look," he said. "Look at their house. We don't really know them. Ken. Elaine. Justin. His sister. They've got little troubles. There, the house up the hill, that woman goes to neighborhood parties and raids medicine cabinets. Two houses over, the guy who works at the college, got into an argument with a dog-breeder at the lake last year. Was in the paper. Assault charges. Who cares?"
"Your thing," she said. "Your little troubles. When you were a kid, you said. That was things you had trouble with or people?"
"Like, you broke a window or something or like, you know, you had little trouble with a person?"
"Oh, no. Things," he said. "Things." He could tell her the truth, he thought, but what's the point now? Everybody's got something.
A van pulled from the garage, backed from the house into the driveway, stopped suddenly. Elaine got out, walked to the back door, leaned a flower pot off a key, let herself into the house. Came back out with her purse, replaced the key and stepped into the van, which pulled away.
"So the therapy, the pot, the trouble at school," Chrissie said. "He's fine, right? Boys being boys?"
"Yeah," Garrett said. "I'm sure Ken and Elaine have the same trouble with Justin and the girl. Everybody has something. From a distance. From here. Their house, all the windows just right. The forsythia. The rock garden. Hammock. Everything looks just so. A painting. A portrait. All the troubles airbrushed away. But get closer," he said. "Get closer and it all shows."
"Let's go," Chrissie said, opening the trapdoor beneath them.
"Let's just sit here. Or we can go up to old Harris place on Mallard. They have a potting shed in the back they never use anymore."
"How do you know about all these places?"
"You run the trails in the woods behind us, you see all kinds of things. Let's just stay here for now, though."
"No," she said. "Before they get back. Let's take a look inside."
"Their house?" Garrett asked.
"Sure," Chrissie said, moving down the rungs, looking back up at him. "I bet they've got plenty to show us. Let's go. It's getting dark. Let's see what trouble they have."
"Of course they have the fucking island," she said, three steps into the back door. "Christ. What do they do?" She was standing in the kitchen, next to the island. The two-burner grill built into one end.
"Banking, I think. Mortgages or hedge funds or," he stopped. "Could be securities. I don't know. Bank though, I'm pretty sure. The one that got all those fines last year. She does that non-profit in town, the one with the kids and the art. At least for the last few years. Caleb's Promise, it's called. They have that office in Marion, across from the new Panera."
"How do you know so much about her?" she asked, walking into the dining room for a moment.
"Elaine. How do you know what she does?"
He said he didn't know. "Guess someone said something somewhere. Maybe online."
"You're friends with her online?"
"I'm friends with a lot of people," he said.
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe probably, I guess. Who cares?"
She walked back to the island. "Nobody cares, Garrett. Nobody cares."
But then he was walking up the stairs.
"What are we even doing here?" she yelled from around the corner.
He said "come on," taking the steps two or three at a time.
All the bedroom doors were open. The double doors to the right. The hall with three other bedrooms, a linen closet, the hall bath.
Garrett watched lights, flash against the hallway, flickering from the bedroom. He turned back down to Chrissie, put his finger against his lips as she started to say something. He knelt to the carpet, leaned into the master. When she got to the top step, he'd rolled over to this back, laughing.
"The TV," he said. "It's the TV."
Chrissie walked into the master, through a seating area where the television was lighting up the room with a baseball game, a light sliver standing between the blackout curtains against the far wall, past the bed. "I said what are we doing here?" Chrissie asked again.
"I'm scaring the hell out of myself. What are you doing?"
"Wondering why we're here. Where we don't belong."
"What else we got to do?"
He walked into the master bathroom, found a clump of Q-Tips in a silver box, put them into his pocket and closed the box.
"What are you doing?"
"We're out of Q-Tips. Now we're not."
"You can't just take their stuff."
He tilted his head, looked at her in the mirror, standing behind him at the door. "I'm pretty sure I can."
She laughed, which he wasn't expecting. He'd expected her to fight him, had been wanting that. Had been wanting that every day. The conflict. The isolation. The reason to explain the drifting apart, the reason to keep drifting.
"Remember when we lived in El Dorado and you worked at the library?"
She said sure.
"Remember that night I picked you up and we stayed late and drank and reshelved all the books according to height?"
She leaned against the wall, said yeah, she did. "I can't believe you remember it, though."
He said he remembered things, just didn't see the point in talking about everything all the time.
"Don't have to talk about everything."
He said okay. "This place feel empty to you?" he asked.
"This house? The one without the people?"
"I don't know. Just has a weird vibe to it. Like, a bubble, I guess. A different bubble."
"What bubble?" she asked, moving a little closer.
They walked down the stairs together, her sliding her hand into his hand and his pockets full of Q-Tips and the bag of weed.
When they got to the bottom step, he placed his hand against her ear, held her a little closer and kissed her forehead.
"I should have gotten you flowers," he said, turning at the base of the stairs away from the kitchen, turning through the dining room.
She managed to say "Don't worry abo—" before the screaming started. Quick shrill screaming.
When he was done screaming, he turned back to her, saw her slack-jawed, staring where he'd been looking. The coffee table between the two overstuffed chairs and the overstuffed couch. Standing in the center, where most people in the neighborhood would have put a bamboo bowl full of pinecones or a giant book of Mary Cassatt paintings, was a glass jar. If you were a doctor, you might fill it with tongue depressors. Giant swabs.
"Is that—" Chrissy started.
Garrett said he thought it was.
She asked how.
He asked who.
They took a few steps forward. Chrissy stayed behind one of the chairs, and Garrett squatted toward the jar, as if he were stalking a cat.
"It's a foot," he said.
She said "leg," asked if it was a baby's.
"I guess," he said, looking at the soft whiteness of the foot in the jar, floating in thick liquid, the fold of the leg, an inch or so above the foot.
"Formaldehyde?" she asked, and he said he didn't know.
"I guess," he said again.
She watched the baby foot in the jar move slightly, like a lava lamp not quite ready. She came around the side of the overstuffed chair near him, kneeled with him and reached for the space in front of the jar. The curve of glass distorting the leg, the foot. The image folding in on itself a little at the edge. The lightness of the skin, the toes clumping together, plump and unfocused against the slight pulse of fluid, the smooth skin of foot, rubbery at the bend, the inch or two of leg above, blurring away into the liquid. She watched a small bubble appear, float from behind the ankle, up to the top of the jar where it faded as if it had never been there at all, an emptiness she mistook for something else.
"The other twin," she said.
Garrett nodded, leaned back against the bottom of the chair as Chrissy reached again for the jar, a little closer this time.
"They've had it all these years," she said. "Been staring at it, thinking about it."
He said maybe they had it in the basement. Who knows? Maybe they've had it out here all these years and don't even notice it anymore.
"Or maybe it's a prop. From a play."
"I don't know. Maybe one of them is doing a play. Maybe Elaine is doing something for the arts project. It doesn't have to be their kid. There's no reason they'd hold on to it like that, not for all these years."
But she knew he was wrong about that. She knew he was always wrong.
Copyright © 2015 Steve Weddle.