Pink Dogwoods

Well, she liked the pink Dogwoods, no matter what her husband said about them.  When he used the word ‘gaudy’ she sort of snorted because it was too fancy coming out of his fat face.  There he was, sitting all crooked in his recliner with the broken spring, wearing that damned Duck Dynasty shirt that already had food stains on it, and he was gonna talk about something being gaudy? She wanted to tell him people who didn’t know jack about taste, good or bad, didn’t get to talk about things being gaudy.  You had to earn that right by wearing your jeans the right size and throwing out something if your Sheetz chili cheese dog pooped all over it.  He glanced over at her when she snorted and his eyes went all kind of hard and narrow like bricks, so she didn’t say any of the things she was thinking.  Instead, she glanced away, flipping her hair off her shoulder.

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“Well, I like it and it was nice of Del to offer it to us.  Better than a bald spot in the yard.”

Then she remembered the thing that made him wear that stupid hat all the time and she glanced over to see if he took the comment the wrong way.  The beer can that whizzed by her face, inches from her nose, told her he had.  Oh hell, she thought.

“I didn’t mean that, dumb ass,” she said.

“You’re an asshole.”

“I’m an asshole? I didn’t mean your stupid little bald spot, Timmy.  Jesus effing Christ.”

He almost looked like he wanted to cry.  What a baby he could be sometimes.

“Well, get me another beer then,” he said, his eyes trained back on the set.

She closed the front door, where she’d been standing and looking at the tree in bloom, and she went into the kitchen to open the fridge.  When she couldn’t find any cold beers, she had to work real hard to hide a little smile.

“Looks like that was the last one, hon.”

“For fucks sake.”

She pulled an ice pop out of the freezer and tore the end off with her teeth.  “Want me to run up to Kern’s and get you some more?”

“I’ll do it,” he said.  He struggled to find the lever on the chair.

“I’ll do it,” she said. “You’ve already had a few and you’re almost ready to get your real license back.  No use blowing it now.”

He sank back into the chair.

A couple of minutes later, she came back from the bedroom, changed for the trip up the road.  He was making himself a cheese sandwich and his eyes went to bricks again when he saw her coming up the hall.

“You going on a date?”

She laughed, “You know I don’t go out in my pajamas.  I’m not like your sister.”

She didn’t have to worry about that setting him off.  He and Wendy were on each others shit lists right now, so all bets were off.  He grunted, scraping the side of the Miracle Whip jar with the knife.  “Well, get some of this, too.  We’re running low.”

“Okay,” she said, scrounging in her purse for some chap stick.

“Makeup, too?”

“It’s chap stick, Timmy.”

“Well, looks pink from here.”

“Too gaudy, you think?” she asked, snapping her purse closed.

“Oh, fuck off,” he answered.  He put the top on his sandwich and ground it flat with the palm of his hand.  He always liked his sandwiches like that. She watched him take it to his chair, but with his big bites, it was almost finished before he’d gotten himself horizontal again.

Her keys jangled brightly as she walked through the living room.  Now he noticed her hair.

“You curled your damned hair? You think you’re gonna run into somebody or something?”

“Look, Timmy. I don’t show up anywhere looking like trash.”

She saw a loose thread on the sparkly embroidery in her jean pocket and gave it a tug.

“Cheap Walmart shit,” she said.

He shook his head at her, hateful-like, everything about them in the sunless laughter and the anger in his eyes.  Swallowing his last bite, he said real slow and deliberate, “You ain’t gonna run into anyone cool enough up there for curling your damned hair.”

But she was already turning and the whine of the screen door hinge almost drowned out his words.  On the way up the road, she glanced back in the rear view mirror, watching the dust clouds rolling up in her wake.  It was too big for her, she reckoned, but she loved driving Timmy’s truck.  It was almost a shame he’d get his real license back soon.

There was only a couple cars outside of Kern’s when she got there.  One belonged to the old hag behind the counter who always asked her when she and Timmy were gonna have a baby.  The other was the white Cavalier that belonged to the store owner.  When she took her sunglasses off at the door, she could see him sitting back in his office, playing some game on his computer.  He didn’t glance up.  She turned her lip at the sight of him.

Maybe some people would turn up, she thought.  Maybe this was just a little lull.  She lingered in the chip aisle for what seemed an age, but no one drove up, not even to the gas pumps outside.  Finally, crestfallen, she took her things to the counter to pay up.  The hag was a little nicer today, though she glanced more than once at the tattoos that showed under her crop top.

“How’s Timmy?”

“He’s good.”

“How’s your mother?”

She pretended to be looking for her debit card, not wanting to talk about that with this old thing.  But in the way of old people, the other woman wasn’t giving up that easily.  “I said, how’s your Ma? Jimmy said he ran into her over in Delray and she looked like she’d put back on some weight.  Said she looked better.”

“Jimmy knows more than I do then,” she said.  She wanted to ask who the hell was Jimmy.

The drive back to the house was depressing, but when she pulled up in the yard and jumped out of the truck, her frown faded.  Coming through the front door, she walked bold and springy, the hair bouncing along her back like a porn star riding a pony.  It caught his eyes right away.

“That took a long time.”

She dropped the bag on the kitchen table and got him a beer right away.

“Sorry about that,” she said, popping the top.  “There was a line.”

“At Kern’s?”

“Yep.  I guess there was something going on down in Perch Creek.  Some retreat or something.  There was like twenty bikers there, stocking up on stuff.”

“At Kern’s?”

“Why do you keep asking that? Yes, at Kern’s.  I guess ole fat Jimmy Kern’s happy.  I’ve never seen it so packed.”

He shook his head. “Bull shit.”

She laughed, “Well, it’s true.  And some of the nicest guys you’d ever meet.  They were all from DC, I guess, or someplace like that.  These were like rich bikers.  Everybody had a Harley, but nice with speakers.”

She got herself a beer and stretched out on the couch.  Her voice was kind of dreamy as she went on weaving her tale.

“There was this one guy.  I thought he might be gay at first, because he was so good-looking.  But then he asked if I was doing anything tonight and I was like maybe he’s not.  Real tall.  You know that cousin of yours, the one at Sebrina’s wedding who was a teacher or something from Charleston? What was his name?”

“Kyle.”

She could see him behind her, sitting in his chair, through the glass on a picture that hung over the TV.  His jaw had got real square and set while she talked.

“Kyle? That’s right.  He was handsome like your cousin Kyle.  Thick blond hair and tall like that.  Anyway, he said they were gonna be in town until Sunday.”

He caught her studying him in the glass and she dropped her gaze.

“This guys name was Mark. I always liked that name.”

She paused, waiting for him to ask how she knew, but he said nothing.

“He tried to give me his number, too, but I was like, hold up, I’m a married woman.”

When she lifted her eyes to look into the glass, she saw that he’d closed his eyes and let his mouth go slack.  She rose up on one elbow and turned to glance at him over her shoulder.  Her engagement ring caught a strand of hair and pulled it a little.  She winced.

“You’re not asleep,” she said. “I know you’re not, Timmy.”

He let out a snoring kind of breath.

“Fucker,” she mumbled.

Faintly, just faintly, the corners of his mouth twitched, like a smile that wanted to happen.

The May Day Knot

Tiger walked home from school, a knot in his gut he hoped a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would ease.  The knot had nothing to do with hunger, but he’d found that almost anything between two pieces of white bread made the worry a bit smaller.  In the slanting light, his shadow trudged beside him, long and thin when they walked beside parking lots; short, fat, and folded when they passed in front of stores and houses.  He could see lots of things in his shadow: the bulging wood buttons on his coat; the fuzzy edge of his boots where they met his pants; the fringes of his scarf that fluttered with the breeze and his movement.  He tried to see the outline of his face in profile – the shape of his nose, the full lips the girls all envied – but when he turned to try to catch it, the shadow turned, too.  He was left staring at the outline of his ear, with the bulky fold of his cap just above it.

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It was too warm for the coat and the hat, he’d argued that morning with Grangie, but his granny always got her way.  If she planted her feet and reared back her head, it didn’t matter what came out of her mouth after that.  She was the boss.  As he went back to his room to grab the coat, he’d mumbled something about the flowers in the yard.

“I hear you, smart ass,” Grangie said.  “But it’s gonna rain today and bring in a cold front, the weather man say.  First of May don’t mean jack.”

“It means May Day,” he said, tucking a grin into the coat.

She shook her head at him, but smiling.  “Well, it won’t kill you to carry it over your arm if I’m wrong, Tiger man.”

“Other kids don’t have to wear coats now.”

“Right. Cause other kids come from trash.  They’ll be out at the emergency room or whatever, waiting three hours to have someone tell them they got pneumonia.”

He thought about what Grangie said as he came to the community center.  She’d been right about the rain and the chill.  The pavement was dry now, but only on account of the cold breeze.  He dug his hands into the pockets of the coat and the left one found the shape of something in a wrapper.  He pulled it out with a smile, a pack of Reese cups from Easter time.  He wondered if Grangie put it there for him.  She might have done.

Looking over his shoulder, he decided to sit for a minute and eat the candy by himself.  He climbed the steps of the old community center and found a dry spot at the front door.  There was a cover over head, a kind of porch roof, but it didn’t have any posts.  It just sort of reached up heavenward, like it was always looking for bad weather.  It was like Grangie, never letting the other shoe fall, always holding out a hand to catch it by the laces in the nick of time.

The paint on the center was new and old ladies like his grandma were proud of how it looked.  They always brought it up in the line at the grocery store.  Didn’t the green on the windows come out nice?  Made the place look kind of summery.  Thank you, Mr. Kennedy, they said, leaning in to share a laugh that Tiger didn’t understand.  Grangie and her friends seemed to know another language.  It used most of the words he already knew, but they put them together differently.  Sometimes they stopped talking all together when a kid came into the room.  Or else they started down one road with their words, then paused, giving each other a look.  Whatever else they were going to say was routed to their eyes.  The others would press their lips together and nod.

“Mmm-hmm,” they’d say.  Or, “Well, I told her that would happen.”

Sometimes, “But ain’t that always the way it goes?”

He liked being with Grangie’s ladies sometimes.  They didn’t seem to mind him lingering in the room.  Without missing a beat, they switched to the language of their eyes and half sentences.  Some of them had such big round eyes, when they rolled them, it made Tiger want to laugh.  The biggest, roundest, darkest eyes must have all kinds of funny things to say, he supposed, because the other ladies laughed, too.  He’d stand at Grangie’s side, resting his cheek against her shoulder and listening and not listening.  She might reach across the table, take the lid off the cookie jar and hold one out for him, all without looking at him or breaking the chatter.

If the ladies started to talk about him, it made him happy and worried all at once.

“Angie, ain’t he got your Joe-Joe’s eyes?”

“Little boys are sometimes prettier than the little girls, you know what I’m saying?”

“Look at them lips.  Ruby red.”

“Oh, girl. Now he’s blushing.”

“Preening more like,” Grangie would say. “Now stop fluttering your lashes like a you know what.  Get on out of here, Tiger man. Go play with Teeny’s girls.  They’re out on the porch.  But play nice or I’ll get you.”

Then she’d add a look that sealed the promise.  He’d leave them with heavy feet, dreading playing with the other kids.  He wasn’t like anyone else, he felt too keenly, and it made it hard for him to warm up.  Kids at school said he was a snob.  Or else a sissy.  Two older boys had taken to taunting him in the halls.

“Queer,” they’d whisper as he approached his locker.

They were tall boys, handsome already, dressed better than most.  If there was a new kind of shoes, they were the first to wear them.  Had they lived just one street over, he understood, they’d be going to the big school out near the library.  Instead they went to his school like a handful of other white kids.

One of the boys already had a shadow over his lip where a mustache would want to grow one day.  The other had large hands with broad knuckles that could make a hateful fist, but still they fascinated Tiger.  He didn’t know why yet, but he always noticed those hands, how the fingers were long, how the knuckles were dusted with golden brown hair like a man’s hand.  When he saw the pair of boys coming along the hall toward him, he had two thoughts, one chasing the other: first he thought how good-looking they were, like boys on album covers at the record store; then he remembered anew who they were and what was to come.  Each of the two thoughts left him with the knot in his stomach.  He lowered his eyes and tried to think of other things, hoping they would not notice him.  He longed to be invisible until they parted like the Red Sea and moved around and past him.

Lots of things left him with a knot in his stomach.  He was used to the feeling of one gathering and thickening there, not long after the last one had slipped loose.  His face, one of Grangie’s ladies once said, was a worried face.  “Some children do more than others,” she said, her own old face looking sad and heavy.  She tucked her chin close to her neck, her jowls making her into a kind of hound dog for a moment.

Grangie had given him a long look, then frowned into her coffee.  She slid her flask out from her apron pocket, gave the mug a little pinch of encouragement, and sipped the brew again.  “Well, I try to keep things together, girl, but you know…”

“Mmm-hmm.”

The Reese cups were good.  He pushed out the center with the tip of his finger and ate that first.  It was best to save the thick, chocolate edges for last.  “It’s like they’re little peanut butter pies with chocolate crusts. I love them,” he said softly to himself.  The breeze made the little baby leaves on the trees whisper even as he noticed the sound of a train rumbling through town in the distance.

In a month, they’d be out of school, he thought, letting the chocolate melt between his tongue and the roof of his mouth.  The summer would begin for kids.  Grangie would take him to the community pool, then make him wash with lots of soap when they got back.

“I don’t care what anybody says,” she’d say. “Chlorine or whatever it is don’t make a bit of difference if people be peeing in the water. Don’t you ever let that shit in your mouth, Tiger-man, you hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He liked the water but he always got the knot when he thought about all those other kids there.

“Go find your friends,” Grangie would say, rifling through her bag for something or other.

Tiger didn’t know how to tell her he didn’t really have any.  She’d give him that sad look of hers and it would make him cry.  Before long, she’d be crying, too, and they’d both be what she called a mess. So he’d sidle up near kids he sort of knew from school, standing just to the outside of their circle, miming a quiet laughter as they laughed.  Silent so they wouldn’t mind his intrusion too much; but the look of laughing with them, in case Grangie glanced up from her novel and noticed.

It was hard to imagine the pool days coming so soon, sitting there outside the community center in his coat, the tip of his nose going cold in the chilly wind.  He ate the second Reese cup a little slower, the sugar cheery like sunshine.  When he lifted his hand to take a bite, his shadow did the same, the two of them tucking away the last bites of Easter.