BY KIMBERLY A. POWERS
At seven Gary places the key in the backdoor lock and turns it. The jamb sticks; he kicks the door at the base. He’s home late again, but no one stirs at the backdoor’s shudder. Gary kicks the door shut behind him. From the kitchen, he can see the living room, the back of Jeanie’s head. She watches “Wheel of Fortune” from the couch and Tommy sits on the arms of the recliner.
Gary puts his briefcase on the counter and opens cabinets. Not much: the shrimp-flavored ramen no one eats, old cans of Campbell’s cream of celery and cream of mushroom, a half-empty box of thin spaghetti. He opens the fridge. Milk, mustard, mayo, ketchup. Nothing’s in the freezer but three bags of frozen peas. Gary lingers in front of the open freezer, his hand on the handle and his arm held wide. Tommy doesn’t like peas, frozen or otherwise. Gary’s got to go to the store. Or order pizza in, again. He shuts the freezer.
Placing palms against the edge of the counter, Gary braces and wriggles one shoe off with one foot, one shoe off with the other. He loosens his tie as he walks into the living room. The sitter and Tommy watch the television; Gary rests his hand on the back of the couch. He looks down at Jeanie, who holds a spoon just above a pint of cottage cheese. She’s in a T-shirt and dingy pink underwear. The elastic looks like it’s going out.
“Jesus Christ,” Gary says. Jeanie doesn’t turn; she doesn’t raise or lower her spoon. Gary moves his hand, shakes her shoulder. It’s bony; the rest of her post-adolescence body has already started to thicken. “Jeanie.”
“Well, Jesus Christ!” she says and turns. She drops the spoon into the cottage cheese.
“Why’re you in your panties?”
“It’s hot, Mr. Graybill,” Jeanie says. She turns back to the television, the cottage cheese. She pulls a spoonful of cottage cheese to her mouth. A bit drops from the spoon, lands on her thigh.
“I won’t have this in front of Tommy,” Gary says quietly. He’s not stern.
“Yes, Mr. Graybill.” Jeanie rolls her index finger along her thigh, picks up the dollop. She licks her finger clean.
Gary sighs, walks in front of the TV, and sits down at the far end of the couch from Jeanie. He unknots his tie but leaves it around his neck. “Come on, Tommy, come say hello,” he says, leaning over and patting Tommy’s bare knee.
“Hey,” Tommy says, crawling off the recliner. It sways as he gets off, the back of the recliner knocks against the wall.
“Careful,” Gary says.
Tommy plops into Gary’s lap. Tommy tugs at the ends of his father’s tie. “I’m hungry,” he says, not looking at Gary.
Gary pats Tommy’s head. “I’m sure you are, sweetie. How’d you like pizza?”
“Again?” Tommy asks. “What kind?”
“What’ll you have?” Gary asks. He runs his hands across Tommy’s hair, pushes the boy’s thin bangs from his forehead. Gary gently fingers a red blotch in the middle of Tommy’s forehead. “What’s this?”
“Nothing,” Tommy says, pushing Gary’s hands away from his forehead. “I want cheese.”
“Cheese is good,” Jeanie says. Gary ignores her. “Tommy was jumping off the La-Z-Boy,” Jeanie says.
“Nuh-uh,” Tommy says. He fingers his dad’s tie some more.
“Well, Jesus, Jeanie. You’re supposed to stop him,” Gary says. He nudges Tommy off his lap.
“Sorry, Mr. Graybill,” Jeanie says.
“Sorry doesn’t cut it,” he says. “Why don’t you put your pants on?”
Tommy flops onto the floor, stomach-first. He props his chin in his hands and kicks his legs in the air.
“Okay, okay, Mr. Graybill,” Jeanie says. She doesn’t move; she flips to “Friends.”
“Hey!” Tommy says. He kicks his foot against the end of the couch, near Gary.
“Careful,” Gary says to Tommy. He stands up, blocks the TV. “I take it you’re staying?”
Jeanie nods. “Could ya move?”
“Excuse me,” Gary says, shaking his head. He walks back to the kitchen and orders pizza. He wraps and unwraps the phone cord around his fingers as he orders. One cheese. He walks to the living room, stands at the arm of the couch near Jeanie. Rubbing his hands together, he announces, “Okay. Thirty-five minutes.”
Everyone nods, still staring at the TV. Jeanie’s left it on “Friends,” but Tommy doesn’t seem to mind. Jeanie eats one last spoonful of cottage cheese before putting the empty container on the floor in front of her. Under the fluorescent light, Jeanie’s frizzy hair looks the same brown as the corduroy couch. Most of the living room looks brown to Gary: couch, recliner, thick-pile carpet, particle board TV stand, dusty miniblinds. In his bright red soccer shorts and Sesame Street Tee, only Tommy doesn’t look brown.
Gary sits on the arm of the couch and pulls off his tie. It’s brown with blue stripes, his favorite. Cheryl gave it to him for their fourth wedding anniversary. He rolls the tie in a ball and clenches it in his hand. With his other hand he pushes at a plastic bowl on the end table. It’s one of the Sesame Street bowls Cheryl bought when Tommy was born. Cookie Monster. Jeanie’s used it as an ash-tray, five butts roll around as Gary pushes the bowl to the edge of the table. One of the Cookie Monster’s wide eyes is burnt and ash-gray.
“Didn’t I tell you not to smoke here?” Gary says.
“Sorry, Mr. Graybill,” Jeanie says. “Your wife smoked here.”
“Not in the house.”
“Sorry,” Jeanie says again.
“You going to put those pants on?” Gary says.
“All right.” Jeanie stands up, stretching her arms above her head and arching her back. She kicks over the cottage cheese container as she walks toward the bathroom.
Gary leans over and picks up the container. He carries it to the kitchen. One of the sinks is overflowing with dishes. He hadn’t noticed before. He swivels the faucet to the empty sink and runs hot water. He fills the empty container with the water; he’ll use it for leftovers. Cheryl used to save any old container: jelly jars, butter tubs, ketchup squeeze bottles. Gary thought it unnecessary. After Cheryl died, Gary threw away all the containers and bought Tupperware. He’s never used any of it.
The water flows over the container and Gary’s hand. He shuts off the faucet and dumps the water from the pint. He wipes the back of his hand against a damp dish towel. He’ll wash all the dishes after dinner. He wishes Jeanie would do this stuff instead of watching TV. Gary grips the edge of the kitchen counter and watches Jeanie stride from the bathroom, buttoning her jeans as she walks to the living room. He shakes his head; before she died, Cheryl’d told Gary that Jeanie made her worry.
Gary’s stomach rumbles. He moves away from the counter, steps slowly into the living room. He crosses his arms in front of his chest. “Thank you, Jeanie,” he says, “for putting your pants on.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. Graybill,” she says. She sits down on the couch and presses her thighs together, doesn’t cross her legs. She leans forward, concentrating on the TV.
“Jeanie,” Gary says. Jeanie looks at the screen. Tommy looks at his father for a moment, then gets back into the recliner. He pushes against the seatback and reclines the chair a bit before plopping down on his side and popping his thumb in his mouth.
“Jeanie,” Gary says again. “Shouldn’t you help me out a little bit?”
“Like how?” Jeanie says, she pulls a stick of chewing gum from her purse.
“Cleaning the dishes, maybe, going to the grocery,” he says, sitting down next to Jeanie. “Stuff like that.”
“I don’t have a car, Mr. Graybill.”
“But couldn’t you help me out here?”
“My mom’s car’s not insured for me,” Jeanie says. “We can’t afford it.”
“Couldn’t you walk?” Gary says. Jeanie slips the stick of gum in her mouth and looks at him. “Please?” He asks.
“Well, if you increase my pay,” Jeanie says.
Gary shakes his head. “I think I pay you enough, Jeanie.”
“Nope,” she says. She pops her gum.
Gary turns, looking at Tommy behind him. He lowers his voice and leans closer to Jeanie. “I think, ever since,” Gary says.
“Ever since what?” Jeanie asks. She sticks out her tongue, loops her gum around it with her fingers. “I’ve forgotten what you’re talking about.”
“I think you damn well know what I’m talking about, Jeanie,” Gary whispers.
“Oh, that,” Jeanie says. She pulls her tongue and gum back in her mouth. “Well, you’re lucky I’m still here. After that.” She raises her voice, emphasizing the last two words while looking over at Tommy.
“We both know why you’re still here,” Gary says. He scoots away from Jeanie, places his hand on Tommy’s back.
“If you want me to go, Mr. Graybill, just give me my money,” Jeanie says.
“You’ll get paid tomorrow,” Gary says.
“I’m not coming back,” Jeanie mumbles. Gary doesn’t hear her, he rubs Tommy’s back. Jeanie changes the channel. “I’ve already seen this episode,” she says.
“Okay,” Gary says. He ruffles Tommy’s hair. “Hey, kiddo, want to help me get ready for dinner?”
“Not really,” Tommy says, his thumb still in his mouth.
Gary sighs. He pats Tommy on the back once more and stands up. He walks to the kitchen. He pulls three saucers from the dish cabinet and looks for paper towels. There aren’t any. He grabs the damp dish towel and walks back into the living room. He places the stack of plates on the table, spreads them out. The towel remains on Gary’s lap as he notices “Dawson’s Creek.” Jeanie’s flipped the channel again.
“A bit melodramatic?” he says.
“I guess you didn’t hear me,” Jeanie says.
“Hear what?” Gary asks.
“I’m not coming back,” she says.
Gary rubs the towel in his hands. “Why not?”
“I’m just not,” Jeanie says. “So I need you to pay me tonight.”
Tommy looks in Jeanie’s direction for a moment, turns back to the TV.
“I’ve only got enough cash for the pizza, Jeanie,” Gary says.
“Well, go to the ATM or something. Get some more,” she says.
“No,” Gary says. “This is ridiculous.” He stands up, still holding onto the towel.
“Look,” she says. “Just pay me, I’ll go. I just want my pay.”
Gary shakes his head. Jeanie stands up and approaches Gary. “No,” he says, backing up, toward the TV.
“Hey,” Tommy says, pulling his thumb from his mouth. “Can’t see.”
Gary doesn’t move. Jeanie picks her purse up from the ground. “Jesus Christ, what more do you want? Don’t I feed you, even?” Gary says to Jeanie.
“Don’t you want me to go?” she says.
“I said I’ll pay you tomorrow,” he says.
“I said I’m not coming back,” she says.
“You’ll just have to, won’t you?”
“Goddamn it,” Jeanie says. She steps backward and picks up the Cookie Monster bowl from the end table. She throws it at the front door. The plastic splits, breaks. Her cigarette butts lay scattered by the door. “I don’t want to come back.”
“Jeanie, please. Stop this,” Gary says. “I need you to come back.”
“No,” she says.
Tommy rocks in the recliner, knocks its back against the wall behind him. “Daddy,” he says.
“One moment, Tommy, sweetie,” Gary says. “Tommy needs you to come back,” Gary says to Jeanie.
“No,” she says. She walks to one of the butts on the carpet. She starts to grind it into the carpet with her tennis shoe.
“What’re you doing?” Gary says. He steps out from in front of the TV, grabs Jeanie’s shoulder.
“Don’t touch me,” she shrieks. She steps on another butt.
Tommy climbs up the back of the recliner. He crouches with his hands placed on the top of the recliner, his feet just behind his hands. He presses his butt against the wall as the recliner rocks beneath him. “Daddy,” Tommy says.
Gary doesn’t look up at Tommy. He shakes Jeanie at the shoulder. “Stop this,” he says. “Stop all this.”
Tommy slowly stands up on the back of the recliner. He balances and raises his arms above his head. “Daddy,” he says. “Watch!”
Still holding on to Jeanie’s shoulder, Gary turns. He sees Tommy balance. He sees Tommy fall with his arms outstretched.
“Tommy!” Gary says. He drops Jeanie’s shoulder. Tommy thuds to the floor, lands on his face. “Oh, Tommy,” Gary says.
Tommy doesn’t make a sound. Jeanie stops grinding the cigarette butts. Gary stoops to the floor and runs his hands along Tommy’s head. Then Gary wraps his arms around Tommy’s stomach, prepares to pick him up. Tommy inhales and starts crying. “I know, sweetie, I know,” Gary says. He pulls Tommy into his lap and kisses his forehead. “It’ll be all right, kiddo.”
“Jeanie, get me a bag of those frozen peas,” Gary says. Jeanie steps onto her third butt and starts grinding it. She doesn’t say anything. The doorbell rings.