By Kaelin McGee-Shipley
Monica lived in the third-floor apartment over Denton’s Funeral Home. Some might have found it unsettling, renting the three-room walk-up at the top of an 1890’s era Gothic style building, but not Monica. It was cheap, quiet, and the residents of the lower floors were transient and didn’t ask questions. The last thing Monica wanted was nosy neighbors.
Currently, her customers at the Quick Mart out on Old Highway 61 were about as much as she could tolerate.
There was Florence who stopped in every morning for a machine mixed vanilla cappuccino. Sipping the froth at the top of the Styrofoam cup she’d give Monica a squint-eyed once-over as if she could telepathically extract information about who Monica brought home from the Hot Tropic Bar the night before. Her lips compressed into a fuchsia slash, her silence communicated judgment with ripping efficiency. The lipstick shade went well with her frowzy blonde hair, bleached and teased into 60’s girl-group perfection; sculpted and sprayed into a remarkable helmet. That hair could stop a bullet if necessary. Why Florence hadn’t moved beyond 1963, sock-hops, and Elvis forty-fives created a continuing source of incredulity in Monica’s mind.
And Sully, with wiry red hair that bristled across his head, akin to a scrub brush on steroids. Freckles exploded like confetti over his moon-shaped face. He had a crush on her. He seemed so young, innocence shining out of his bright blue eyes. He wasn’t a day over twenty, far too immature for a woman of her twenty-five years. But on slow days she enjoyed passing the time with him as he drank his morning coffee, tall thin frame leaning up against the check-out counter, telling stories of the people he pulled out of ditches with his tow truck. He’d annoyed her today.
“I heard you were at the Hot Tropic the other night.”
He frowned, his eyebrows furrowed, two fuzzy red caterpillars angling towards his nose.
“So?” She gave him a look, and went back to filling the candy rack.
“Well, it’s just..,” he stammered. “You don’t need to do that.”
Silence was his answer.
I guess I’d better go. See you.”
She’d nodded curtly as he left.
Now, eight hours later, Monica walked across her living room carpet, a threadbare garden of pink cabbage roses on what once had been a maroon background, faded to sludge-gray. She sat in a green plaid Barcalounger that dominated the room. She’d rescued the chair from the trash behind her mother’s house years ago. It had been moved to every place she’d lived since.
Swinging a knee over an arm of the recliner, she lit up a Kool Menthol and inhaled.
This morning Trucker Mike had turned up at the Quick-Mart. Mike, with his over-the- belt- belly and booze- swollen nose. While Sully was sweet, naive, and only marginally annoying, Trucker Mike was slimy, dirty, and gross. He got his jollies making her dig wadded-up dollar bills for his Slim Jims and Red Bulls out of a grimy hand. This morning he’d grabbed her palm, drawing circles on it with a dirty nailed fingertip.
“The restroom’s not occupied,” he’d whispered as she snatched her hand back.
“Then you’re free to use it,” she snapped.
He laughed, nasty-like, and left with his purchases.
She shuddered, and blew a smoke ring into the air. Her eyes followed as it drifted toward the ceiling. The way Mike talked reminded her of Frank.
I need a drink, she thought, stubbing out the cigarette. She crossed the room to the kitchenette and pulled a bottle of whiskey out of a white metal cabinet over the sink. She caught her reflection in the kitchen window. Do I look old yet, she wondered? Some days she felt ancient. Scrutinizing her face for any hint of wrinkles she considered her assets. Curly blonde hair, even if the color was a bit on the ashy side. Grey eyes, nice figure. She wasn’t crazy about the small cleft in her chin, but the dimple on the left side of her mouth more than made up for it. Over-all she was still attractive she decided. Not a stunner, but good enough. She swished the liquid around in the bottle. Only a couple of swallows left.
“Well, hell, I guess if I want a drink, I’m going to have to go out and get one.” Who was she kidding? She went out for a drink every night.
“Hey Baby, you live in a mor-tu-ary? That’s some wild shit.”
Monica stepped back and looked at the guy who trailed her up the stairs. She closed one eye, in order to focus and softly hiccupped. “S’quiet, I like it.” She guided her key into the lock, grabbed his hand and pulled him inside. “Still have that booze?”
He waggled the bottle of Jim Beam at her.
“Glasses. I have some.” She staggered to the kitchenette and pulled two tumblers from the sink. As she rinsed them she surveyed the man she’d met in the bar. He wasn’t tall, but he looked like he had a good body. Otherwise, he was unremarkable. But a good body was what she cared about at the moment. She put the glasses on the counter.
He poured a splash of the bourbon into each tumbler and moved to sit down in the Barcalounger.
“Don’t sit there.”
“It’s my daddy’s.” She swallowed her bourbon in one gulp.
A puzzled expression passed over his face. “He live here?”
“Good. You ever see anything creepy in here?” Nervously, he glanced around the room.
“You know, bodies, ghosts.”
She reached down and rubbed his crotch.
“No. Bedroom’s this way.”
When Monica came to… what was his name? Randy? That was it. Randy was pulling on his pants.
The room swirled as she tried to sit up, so she lay back on the pillow.
“What are you doing?”
“Leaving Baby, I ain’t stayin’ here all night. Not with all those dead people downstairs.”
Monica sat up again, more slowly this time.
He zipped his jeans.
“When we were doin’ it you kept sayin’, ‘Frank, Frank.’ Remember?”
She shook her head and instantly regretted it.
He buttoned his shirt.
“It was good though, the fucking. If you didn’t live in such a wacked-out place, I’d stay over, get seconds. You got nice tits.”
He whistled softly in admiration.
“See you ‘round.”
The latch clicked as he shut the door behind him.
Monica hurled a shoe. It made a satisfying thud as it came in contact with the door.
“Nice tits, my ass.”
She kicked off the sheets and inched gingerly to the bathroom. What the hell? Couldn’t the asshole even leave the toilet seat down in someone else’s house?
As she dropped the seat her stomach lurched. Leaning over the bowl she heaved up alcohol and bile.
“Water and an aspirin,” she muttered as she crept out to the living room.
Curled in the Barcalounger, she thought about Randy. There was something about him, something familiar. Maybe it was the way he tilted his head when he offered to buy her a drink, as if she was amusing, as if she was the prettiest girl in the world.
“Easy come, easy go.”
She lay back and closed her eyes.
Florence was the first customer in the door at the Quick-Mart the next morning. She took in Monica’s bleary eyes, and tousled hair, “Late night, eh?” She tut-tutted as if assessing damage from a hit-and-run.
“I didn’t sleep well.”
Florence cocked her head and watched Monica out of the corner of her eye as she rang up her cappuccino. “They won’t buy the cow if they can get the milk for free, you know.”
Florence nodded her head in a knowing sort of way.
You old bitch, stick a sock in it, Monica thought as she counted out Florence’s change. She shoved a stray curl behind her ear. Her head still throbbed at the back, not the brain banging pounding from last night, just a regular pulse to remind her that half a bottle of Jim Beam had been a bad idea. No doubt Randy had also been a bad idea. Why did she do this to herself? No answer conveniently presented itself.
Mid-morning as Monica was leaning over, stocking a low shelf she felt the presence of someone close behind her, too close. She stood up quickly and bumped into the space invader.
“Great view. I especially like the little wiggle when you reached down to the bottom shelf.”
“What,” she hissed, “do you want?”
“I haven’t seen you for a couple years so I …, uh, came to check on how you were doing.”
Monica glared at him.
“Well…,” Frank hesitated, “Truth is, your mom threw me out.”
“What a shame.” Monica stood rigid, hands on hips.
“Hey doll, we have history. I thought you’d want to know. I thought maybe… ”
He was still good looking, she allowed, though his black hair was now shot through with gray and the skin was starting to sag under his chin. For an instant, she felt the glimmer of old attraction, how he’d look at her like she was the funniest, prettiest girl around. The image of his cheek, five o’clock stubble scraping her cheek, while inquisitive fingers explored, bushwhacked her. The instant turned to revulsion.
He smiled crookedly, drawing on what he thought of as his boyish charm.
“You remember, those times when…, well when we…,” he paused as he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his breast pocket and tapped one loose. “Maybe I could stop by and we could pick up where we left off?”
A couple of customers looked her way.
“I never wanted to do those things,” she whispered.
He leaned in close, his lips touching her ear, “Could have fooled me.”
“My Daddy left because of you!”
“That’s on you,” Frank smiled. “You told.”
Monica pointed at the door.
The moment stretched on, then Frank gave her a two finger salute and sauntered out.
Certain that everyone in the Quick-Mart had heard, she surveyed the store cautiously. All was normal for a Thursday afternoon.
The remainder of the day had passed in a haze of red that tinted her vision like hangover sunglasses. As she clocked out the anger still simmered. She wanted nothing more than to sit in a dark room with a six-pack of Budweiser where the light didn’t pierce her eyes like a thousand needles.
She plopped the beer on the counter and fished through the silverware drawer, withdrawing an old church key bottle opener. It had been her daddy’s. She’d watched as he pulled caps off countless PBRs with that opener. She popped the cap, sat cross-legged in the Barcalounger and thought about what happened that day. She was eight years old and had been at her friend Karen’s house. But she and Karen fought so she walked home. Monica expected to find her mother in the kitchen making lunch, but her mother wasn’t there. As she walked down the back hallway to her room she heard unusual noises from her parent’s bedroom. The door was open a crack so she peeped in.
Mommy was lying on the bed with her skirt pushed up around her hips. There was an unfamiliar man lying on top of her. The man’s naked white bottom pushed up and down and when it did, her mother moaned. Was Mommy hurt? Maybe, but she kept repeating, “Yes, yes.” Confused, she backed away from the door, slipped out of the house, and went back to Karen’s.
A few days later she was in the garage with her daddy, helping him work on his car, a 1967 Pontiac GTO. Daddy loved that car, he called it a classic. He told her how fast it would go, what a big powerful engine it had. He spent every spare minute working on that car and he let her help. She’d hand him his tools and he told her what each was used for. It was a quiet comfortable time between them. She didn’t think twice before she asked:
“Daddy, do you know the man that came over to see Mommy last week?”
“Hmmm, what man? Can you give me the large screwdriver?”
She picked the screwdriver out of the toolbox and handed it to him. “He was there the day I was supposed to be at Karen’s. I came home early and saw them.”
“Was he selling something?” His interest piqued, he glanced at his daughter.
“I don’t think so. They were in your room, on the bed.”
Daddy turned around, his face white and still. He carefully and deliberately put each tool back in the toolbox.
“Go play with your Barbies Monica.”
“Are we done working on the car?”
“Today we are.”
She could hear Daddy yelling through the bedroom door. She tried to sing to Barbie to make the angry words go away. She heard a door slam. Monica jumped up and ran down the hall to the kitchen. Her mother sat at the table with her head in her hands.
“Mommy, where’s Daddy going?”
Her mother looked through her.
“I don’t know.”
Monica ran out the back door into the yard. Daddy was backing the GTO out of the garage, He hit the gas and the car rocketed into the street. With a squeal of tires, he was gone.
“Daddy, Daddy, come back!” She ran after him. That was the last time she ever saw him.
Six months later, that same man came to live with them. The man named Frank.
Monica dropped an empty bottle on the floor. It clanked against three other empties and rolled away. She grabbed her pack of Kools and shook out the last smoke. Lighting up, she thought about Frank again. Was he right? Did Daddy leave her because she told? Undecided, she took another puff on the Kool, leaned over, and picked up the bottles. One by one she heaved them into the garbage can, each bottle breaking with a satisfying clatter of glass as it hit.
“Baby Girl, quit beating yourself up.”
“What?” She turned around. There he stood, her daddy. Not a gray strand in his blonde hair. The scar across the bridge of his nose was exactly as she remembered, the cleft in his chin, the gray eyes so like hers. He still looked lean and fit. He was even wearing the Guns and Roses tee shirt he wore the day he drove away.
“Look at that! My chair.”
Delighted, he nodded towards the Barcalounger.
“And Look at you, my little girl, all grown up.”
“Why are you… how did you get in?”
Confused she shook her head, expecting him to disappear. He didn’t.
“I came to tell you what happened. I suppose by now, you have a pretty good idea what was going on.”
He looked down at the floor.
“It was a bad business. I was furious with your mother.”
Monica’s eyes brimmed with angry tears.
“Sure, great. He moved in you know.”
She crossed her arms across her chest.
“I shouldn’t have told you, you’d never have left.”
His shoulders slumped.
“No, no. That’s not true. I would’ve found out. I would’ve come back for you if I could.”
“Why didn’t you? Mommy finally told me to leave. She said because Frank was getting ideas. About me! I was sixteen!”
Monica glared at him, fists clenched.
“That son-of-a-bitch! If I’d been there I …”
“But you weren’t. Where’ve you been?”
She brushed angry tears off her cheek.
“Not so far away, honey. Do you know where Shoreline Road runs round the hills that drop down to Sparkling Lake?”
“And the series of S-curves, right there on the other side of the boat launch?”
“That’s where you’ll find me; and the GTO too. I missed the curve. Before I knew it, I was in twenty feet of water.”
A half smile played across his handsome face.
“It drove fast baby, it drove fast, just like I told you it would.”
Monica slumped into the lounger.
He took a deep breath.
“You aren’t to blame, understand?”
She closed her eyes and whispered, “So that’s it?”
“That’s it.” His face brightened. “I can’t get over it, all grown up. Hey — that Sully guy? Give him a chance. He’s not so bad.”
He tilted his head and winked as if she was the prettiest, funniest girl in the world.
“I knew I could count on my girl.”
She crossed the floor and reached out to him, fingers clutching empty air.
The electronic winch hummed as the steel cable tightened under its load. Water rolled off the algae covered black vinyl hardtop of the GTO as it broke the surface of the lake.
“It was right where you said.”
Sully looked over at Monica who stood huddled in a slicker next to the sheriff’s car and coroner’s van. The sky spit rain and gloom, a fitting commentary on the scene. The coroner pulled a gurney out of the van and rolled it to the side of the GTO.
“How did you know where to look?”
“I wasn’t sure. I thought it might be…,” she thought a moment searching for the right word, “I had a feeling,” she finished limply.
That was it, better than drunken hallucination or visitation.
“You don’t need to watch this.” Sully steered her away from the gurney. “Remember him like he was. Okay? Come on, get back into the truck. The sheriff will see that he gets to Denton’s.”
“Sully?” Monica put a hand on his arm.
“Thanks for helping me bring him home.”
“Damn! That stinks!” Monica exclaimed as she slammed the door on the moldy interior of the GTO.
“Hey,” a deep voice hailed her from the sidewalk. “Funeral home have a new hearse?”
“What? No. Just wondering if it will run again.”
The man ran his fingers through curly brown hair.
“Shape it’s in, I’d bet no.”
“I don’t bet.”
“Kind of weird don’t you think?”
Monica lifted her sunglasses to get a good look at him.
“A rusted old car sitting in a row of hearses? You don’t think that’s weird?”
“Nope. You gotta park where you live.”
He was very good looking; she liked hazel eyes.
“You live here? In the funeral home? You work there too?”
He backed up a step as if getting ready to flee.
“No, but the rent’s cheap.”
He laughed, displaying straight white teeth.
“Your visitors must be a lively bunch.”
He put his thumbs in his pockets, jutting out one hip, a stance he fancied made him resemble Channing Tatum.
“You’d be surprised.”
“That so? I’m new in town. Know any good places to grab a beer?”
“The Hot Tropic is where I usually go.”
“Be there tonight?”
He tilted his head and looked at her in a way that made her feel like the prettiest, funniest girl in town.
She thought of Sully, of what her daddy said about him. She started to shake her head no, but then thought of her tight jeans, the ones that made her ass look great.
“I might,” she said.
“I just might be there.”