It was the door slamming that woke Wilson. He never heard any car pull up, no key in the lock. Just the slammed door and June already inside the dark house. So he’d blown it. He knew right away there was nothing left to do but play it out. What else could he do?
June had some mail in one hand, keys in the other, a purse as big as a small ice chest hanging off one shoulder. She went straight for the garbage in the cupboard under the sink. From where Wilson was, it looked as if she was just checking it―maybe to see how full it was―but probably she’d thrown something in. Then she went to the message machine by the phone―no messages―she only brushed the buttons with her fingers and then ran the hand through her long dark hair. From the refrigerator she pulled out a can of diet cola, popped the top, started toward Wilson, and stopped dead in her tracks.
“Wilson? Jesus, you scared me. What are you doing lying there in the dark? Is Bob home?”
“Hey, June,” Wilson said loudly. When he sat up, he knocked over the beer he’d set on the floor sometime earlier. “Christ, I’m sorry.”
June went into the kitchen to get some paper towels, and Wilson would have snuck out right then, but she kept an eye on him, walking with her head turned around. When she came back, she flicked on the lamp next to the sofa and kneeled down on the floor to clean up the mess. “It’s a little early isn’t it?”
Wilson looked at her like he didn’t have a clue.
“To be passed out on our couch. It’s only four-thirty,” she said. “Where’s Bob?”
“It’s four-thirty?” Wilson said. “Damn. You just get off work?”
And, for some reason, that seemed to really annoy her.
“Yeah, I just got off,” she said. “I just got done spending the whole day on my feet, cleaning up after people who can’t take care of themselves, and now here I am at home, on my knees, doing the same thing.”
“Take a load off,” Wilson said. “I got it.”
But she was already up, bringing the wet towels to the sink, slamming the cupboard door where the garbage was. She opened the refrigerator. “There’s another. You want it?”
Wilson tried to remember―she was wearing a pair of those white lace-up shoes with the chunky rubber soles. What had Bob told him? She wiped people’s asses for a living. A nurse’s aide. June likes to serve, Bob had said, more than once, grinning over a beer at the Rusty Nail. “Sure,” Wilson told her. He could use another.
She brought the beer over, scooted a cardboard coaster with a color ad for Lott’s BBQ in front of him on the table, set the can down on it, said, “I’m going to wash up,” and moved toward the bedroom door behind him.
There was only his body between June and the bedroom door. Wilson did the first thing that came to him, and very quickly―because that was the way his mind worked―later he decided it was the only thing he could have done. He had the crazy notion even Bob might have thought so. Wilson stood up and kissed her.
And who’d have known Wilson could move so fast in the state he was in? It surprised the hell out of both of them. Or that June was as strong as she was, because the next thing Wilson knew, after his lips brushed something soft and lemon-smelling, he was on the floor, his head cracked against something hard, sharp, and solid.
“Shit, Wilson. What’s the matter with you?”
He looked for her, and there was the coffee table edge, close up.
“You’re bleeding,” she said. “On the rug.”
Wilson let his head back down when he saw she wasn’t going toward the bedroom, but to the kitchen instead. There were the sounds of water running in a metal sink, paper towels ripped from the roll, her moving back across the carpet in those enormous white shoes.
“Jesus, you got a gash. Hold this,” she said, handing him a wad of paper towels with little dancing bears printed in pink and blue. “Not like that. With some force. To stop the bleeding.” She started working at the carpet, scrubbing, her breasts jiggling inside her t-shirt. But Wilson obviously wasn’t doing it right because she left off with the carpet, put one cool hand along the left side of his face, and with the other hand started pressing a wad of paper towel on his cut.
“Does it hurt?”
“No.” Wilson couldn’t feel a thing.
“It will tomorrow.” She let go of his head and sort of half-smiled. “I always wondered how I’d do in the heat of the moment, if I had to.” She sounded satisfied. And then angry. “What the hell were you thinking? Just how drunk are you? And where’s Bob? Were you two at the bar? He’s still there, isn’t he,” she said, like she knew it was true. “Did he put you up to this?” She started to stand up, but Wilson took a hold of her arm.
“Maybe,” Wilson said. “Damn, you smell good. Kiss me again.”
“Bob would kill you.”
It was something Wilson had thought of, but God knows, the situation was complicated. “Let me worry about Bob, baby.” She let Wilson kiss her. Probably he reeked of stale cigarettes and beer, but it couldn’t be worse than what she had her nose in all day at the Paradise Villa, the old folk’s home. That was where she worked―Wilson remembered now.
“Okay,” she said, pushing him back a little. “I need to wash up. I’ve got the day all over me.”
“I like you,” he said. “I like your day.” Wilson was just mumbling because he’d forgotten why he was there. All he wanted was to get in her pants. Somehow he’d convinced himself that’s where the lemon smell was coming from. In her pants, under her t-shirt. It was in her skin. Part of her anatomy.
“You’re drunk,” she said, pulling away, knocking his head once more, this time against the leg of the table. “My day was shit. You like my day? You like me? You’re a shit,” she said, and then she was crying. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here kissing my husband’s drinking buddy. On the floor of our living room. This is so bad.” She was shaking her head, sobbing. “This is rock bottom.”
She didn’t know the half of it.
“I need a drink,” Wilson said, and even after all that she was going to get it for him, but he told her, “You sit. You stay.” He made it into the kitchen without looking back. Could he let himself out the door and get gone, to hell with Bob? June was sniffing and whimpering―soft, animal sounds. Wilson thought to himself that the least, the very least he could do was to get her a drink. He could do that.
He brought in a half-full bottle of Johnny Walker and two dirties from the sink to save her washing them.
She drank. A tear had got stuck part way down her cheek. Wilson touched his finger there to help it along. Then he pushed the hair away from her eyes. They were so light brown they were almost yellow, like an animal’s, and it surprised him a little, so he turned his head.
“Jesus,” she said. “Bob won’t look at me either.” And that started her crying all over again.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Wilson said. “Hey, I mean it.” She was way better looking than anything he’d ever taken out, but that wasn’t it, Wilson realized. She was nice―a good person. The place where she’d pressed the towel to his head was throbbing a little. She’d have to be good to do what she did every day with those old folks and then come home and put up with Bob. “Bob’s a shit,” Wilson said.
“I guess I’m knee deep in it.” She tried to crack a smile.
Wilson started pressing with one of his hands into her shoulder, first just fingertips, and when, after a few moments, she moaned, he held his thumb in the meaty part close to her neck. Honest to God, the muscle was solid rock―until it melted right into his hands. He’d never felt a human being ease into him like that. His dog almost every night, but never a woman.
It was a vet who’d taught Wilson how to work a muscle, for a soft-mouthed spaniel he’d shot once, purely on accident. The safety was on―Wilson would have sworn it was, right up until the moment the gun went off. The dog lived for a couple weeks after, his muscles taut always, like he was bracing himself for a second hit, and that massage Wilson would give him was the only thing that stopped the whimpering and got the spaniel to sleep. Wilson even did it while the doctor slipped the needle in, after he’d finally agreed to put the dog down.
“You can do that forever,” June said.
So Wilson started in on the other shoulder, real slow. Then down her back, on either side of her spine, working with his thumbs and the pads of his fingers through her t-shirt. He was careful around the clip of her bra, working above and below it, when she reached back and undid it for him. He slid his fingers under her shirt and around to her belly. The flesh quivered and tensed, so he let her know with slow circles: Those fingers weren’t moving on until the muscles gave way completely. By the time his hands found her breasts, the nipples were hard.
It was the first time in a long time that Wilson felt almost sober. For just a moment he saw clearly. The bulb under the lampshade flickered softly and it made her hair, the same color as the sofa cushions, seem to shimmer. No, it glowed. From somewhere deep inside the fog in his head, Wilson recognized June, pure and clean and glowing. She was an angel.
“You hear that?” June said.
Wilson hadn’t heard a thing, but he didn’t say so. He couldn’t even open his mouth to speak. How could he? A breast lay in each one of his hands, two still-warm birds.
Quick she was on her feet, her chin tilted slightly upward, nose in the air, her head cocked to the side, trembling. She still had on those white shoes, terrible and quiet, as she went for the bedroom door, and, finally, flung it open.
Wilson couldn’t see what June was seeing, but he knew what was there. On the bed, tangled up in the sheets lay June’s husband, Bob, snoring, one hairy leg dangled over the bare ass of the vacant little barmaid from the Rusty Nail.
Wilson’s mind immediately started in on its usual tricks. It wasn’t his fault. These weren’t his cares. Sure, he’d fallen asleep when all he’d had to do was stay awake and signal―three solid knocks on the bedroom door as soon as the car pulled into the drive, it’s June!―but Bob was a grown man, capable of covering his own tracks. None of this was up to Wilson to make right.
Until June turned her head away from the bodies in the bed and fixed on Wilson with those yellow eyes. It wasn’t like the way the dog had looked when Wilson shot him. The dog never even made the connection: Wilson’s rifle, the dog’s life. The dog trusted Wilson to the very last, when the vet pushed the needle through his skin and straight into the vein. The look from June was different―as if those yellow eyes saw everything. Everything Wilson could have and should have done his whole life, and the things he’d done instead, the things he would keep on doing, and finally, everything he would never do.
Vanessa Hemingway Blumberg’s short stories have been published in the Minnetonka Review, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Zone 3, the Chicago Quarterly Review, the Reader and the Southern California Review. In 2009 she received Zone 3’s Fiction Award and in 2011 San Francisco State University’s Wilner Award. Her short story collection, No Bus, No Taxi, is a finalist for the 2012 Autumn House Fiction Prize. She lives with her husband and daughter in Santa Cruz, California.
This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.
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