‘Tis The Season!
Today We Begin A Story By Jason Lee Brown That Was First Published In Issue 299.1, Winter 2014. We Hope You Enjoy This Two Part Series Which Continues- Tomorrow.
Ed and Dee crashed parties, and when they crashed parties, Dee flirted with older married men, and when wives got in her way, she flirted with them, too—eye contact, compliments, smiles, light hand touches. She was irresistible, got all kinds of offers. Men begged her to sneak off to bedrooms, bathrooms, vehicles; couples asked if they could take her home. But she couldn’t hold up her façade for an entire night without drinking too much then insulting someone. She got folks to detest her faster than she got them to want her. When the hosts demanded Ed and Dee leave—and they always demanded Ed and Dee leave—Dee blew up, made the biggest scene she could. “You ain’t better than me!” she said. “Fucking hypocrites!” This was the pattern they’d fallen into and it was getting worse, each night’s ending more dramatic than the one before, her anger more explosive, and Ed knew if they didn’t stop, eventually one of them would get hurt.
The yellow walls of his apartment closed in on him when he was alone but not when Dee was there. In the corner, she flopped down on his bed, a clean sheet hiding his stained mattress and bedspring. The apartment had a kitchen, living area, and bedroom but no walls to separate them. The cramped bathroom barely squeezed in a toilet and thin shower, and the dark-brown shag that carpeted the entire floor, even the bathroom and kitchen, smelled of grease and wet dog.
Her black boots hung off the edge of the mattress. She slid them together until one boot fell off. She struggled to kick off the other. Her five-three small-hipped frame made her out-of-proportion B cups look like Ds. She’d barely aged since he’d known her, same sixteen-year-old face on a twenty-four-year-old body. He, on the other hand, couldn’t stop losing his curly brown hair, a clump on his shower drain, hairbrush, pillow. His widow’s peaks nearly touched his small but growing bald spot, and when he let his hair grow bushy and wore his black-rimmed glasses, she threatened to register him as the neighborhood pedophile.
He grabbed her heel and popped off the other boot. He’d been obsessed with her since they’d met at Northwestern but had blown his one chance when he drove her home after she’d puked all over this guy’s living room. Outside her apartment, she kissed and pawed him, and it wasn’t her puke mouth that made him pull back. He was scared shitless with the anticipation, so he blurted out the first thing that popped in his head: “I don’t want to take advantage of you.” She freaked, screamed more than once that she did whatever she wanted and that no one took advantage of her anymore. Since then, she’d taken advantage of him every time she needed to. Ate his food. Showered with his water. Dirtied his clothes. Slept on his mattress.
“Spoon me,” she said, barely able to get the words out. His apartment was for her a sleeping pill, the only place safe enough to pass out. Once he heard that light sloppy-drunk snore from the back of her nose, he knew she would not wake until morning. He fantasized about pulling down her pantyhose and slowly forcing her awake, fantasized he was the aggressor who manhandled her into submission—he suspected this was what she needed in a man. He snuck into the bathroom, stood in front of the toilet with the door closed, and in less than twenty seconds, jerked off into a wad of toilet paper before joining her again.
On the couch, wearing his blue shorts and tank top, she spoke with her mouth full of generic cornflakes. She fawned over the beautiful homes in that subdivision nearest the Carle Clinic, and in the same breath denounced the practicality of them—just another defense mechanism that allowed her to remember only the good parts of the night before. Ed remembered only the bad: groping hands, swearing, rejection. He didn’t know how so much anger, a dark anger, could stay trapped inside such a tiny frame before exploding onto unsuspecting men.
“We should do it again, tonight,” she said. “How am I going to snag myself a million-dollar man if we don’t keep trying?”
He hated how she breathed through her mouth while chewing food. Her flaws were overtaking the positives of her companionship. He rubbed his temples thinking of the right words. “I can’t,” he said.
“Too hungover, hun?”
“I’m not supposed to bring it up,” he said.
“Then why bring it up?”
“I can’t help myself. Not with you. You know that.”
“Why ruin a perfect thing?”
“Perfect for you.”
“There is no next level for us,” she said. She changed her tone to back him down. “End. Of. Discussion.”
He knew if he didn’t say something now, he’d never say it. He spoke faster than he wanted. “Watching that man grope you made me ill, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t feed your ego anymore—not at my expense. I don’t want to be your puppy dog, go to your movies, your restaurants, your parties. No more. No more. No more.”
“If a man gropes me,” she said, “it’s because I want him to.”
She gathered her keys and purse. It was the quietest exit she’d ever made.
He held out twenty-three days before calling her. The first words out of his mouth were, “I’m sorry, Babe.” He admitted what he’d known all along: her incomparability, spontaneity, and humor were his life source, too. Since they’d left Northwestern, he fed off her as much as she fed off him. He missed that. Couldn’t live without it, he said. He wanted her back, he said. He needed her back.
What he didn’t admit: it was her fault he’d lived the last eight months in central Illinois—Waning, a town of 4,000 folks surrounded by squared fields—and without her there, he couldn’t justify his life choices. She’d suggested they drop out of college, move away from everyone they knew, become someone different. He was flunking half his classes anyway, had already lost his scholarship and was nowhere near graduating, so he thought, Awesome, live together long enough to grow on her, get married, the dream life, but once he found a shitty apartment and a shittier job bartending at Tubby’s, she escaped back to Barrington Hills for weeks at a time.
He couldn’t fathom living in her father’s mansion or owning horses and hundreds of acres hidden by trees and hills. He grew up in a small town just like Waning. He didn’t mind small towns. What he hated was the loneliness, the claustrophobia, the excessive amount of time to think about rich old men who were no doubt spending more money on Dee in one night than he earned in a month. As much as she wanted to be self-sufficient, she couldn’t live in poverty for long, and when she couldn’t afford the luxuries she was used to, she reluctantly accepted what she called payoff money from her father, who she refused to talk about but once claimed she knew what others didn’t know about him: he was not a good man.
“I wondered when you’d call,” she said, her pleasant tone tinged with resentment. No one could hold a grudge like Dee. No one. Not until she exacted revenge would she let it go.
“Where you been staying?” he said.
“A friend’s,” she said, louder than the muffled background music. “Is that why you called, to check up on me?”
“I have an invitation for a party at the Austin mansion.”
That caught her attention. Unlike the newer Barrington Hills’ mansions she grew up around, the Austin mansion was an 1892 Queen Anne Victorian, located a couple towns over where no one would know them; she’d been dying to see it from the inside, and he knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to find out what the owner had done to it.
“What about it?” she said.
“You’re my only plus one.”
Even at six years old, Ed knew they were doing wrong, or they wouldn’t be secretive about doing it. His nine-year-old brother sat in the passenger seat of the tan two-tone station wagon that idled with a quick and steady ticking; he was supposed to be the watch out, but he’d crossed his arms and said he wasn’t participating. His sister was too young to know better. The white Goodwill drop-off box was full on Sunday nights, before the Monday pickup, and that was when Ed’s mother stole from it. She unlatched its back door, and the inside was stuffed with toys, shoes, books, pans, skillets, and black garbage bags of clothes. Ed had always done what his mother told him, but he enjoyed the sneaking around, too. The wiggling worms in his stomach made him feel like a man.
His mother pulled a black sack from inside the metal box. She undid the knot and peeked inside at the clothing before tossing the sack in the back of the station wagon. When she pulled out another sack, a brown-haired doll wearing a white racing suit with a blue V across its chest, leaped out of the Goodwill box. The doll, a real Evel Knievel doll, landed face down on the concrete next to Ed’s shoes, which had holes where his big toes pushed through.
“Look, Mommy,” Ed said. “Evel Knievel.”
“No toys,” she said.
“We take what we need. Nothing else.”
She grabbed another sack but couldn’t pull it out of the box. Baking trays, pots, and pans had intertwined into a mesh she couldn’t budge. She told Ed to crawl inside and remove a few pans. He squeezed atop the donations and pulled on the sack. The plastic stretched around his fingertips and his leg slipped, fell between sacks and the mesh of books and cookware, pinning his hips and chest. He had no leverage, and the more he struggled to push himself up, trapped in a Chinese finger cuff, the more the sacks and skillets squeezed him: a handle poking his ribs, books wedged against his kidneys, metal sticking the inside of his knee.
Headlights flashed across his mother’s face and lit up the brick building behind her.
“Cop!” his brother said. “It’s a cop.”
“Come on out,” his mother said. She grabbed Ed under the arms and pulled, but he didn’t budge. “I’ll be right back.”
Before he had a chance to say anything, she closed the door. Inside the dark box, he couldn’t tell the difference between opening his eyes and closing them. He heard the station wagon’s door slam shut, engine clunk into gear, and rev. Tires crunched across the small rocks. The noise echoed until the wagon pulled away, leaving ringing in his head and the crinkling of plastic. The still air made it hard to breath. Sweat dripped off him and—with light smacks—landed on the sacks. Time didn’t move between drops.
When the door opened, his mother took one look at his pale face and ripped out the pans and sacks. She apologized, hugged him tight, apologized more. “Don’t worry,” she said. “People think we’re donating.” While she tossed the two sacks of clothing in the wagon and everything else back into the box, he snatched the Evel Knievel doll, hid it under his shirt before hopping in the back seat. At home, she rummaged through the sacks, holding up shirts and pants, asking if the boys wanted them or not, and after pilfering what her kids needed, she drove the clothing back to the drop off and stuffed everything back inside the Goodwill box.
tune in tomorrow Sunday, December 18, 2016 for the conclusion of “Goodwill” by Jason Lee Brown.