BEFORE ALL THIS HAPPENED, I was a loyal reader of the newspaper. Mr. Grange, my eighth grade social studies teacher, had expected us to read the paper daily and bring in a report for current events discussion on Fridays. He trained me well. For twenty years, I’d kept this habit, minus of course the Friday discussions.
I was home in the afternoon reading the paper because I was “between jobs.” My boss’ wife had decided to take over my position of bookkeeper, receptionist, and gopher. “We just don’t have the money anymore to pay someone and I need something to do!” she’d cried.
So, no health insurance once the month was out and every day scouring the want ads, which by the way were worthless. You call one minute after reading the ad to find the job was already filled. Most of the time I surfed findajob.com. I snail-mailed, dropped off or emailed my resumé to thirty-nine places and my cell rang once: “Sorry, but that position has been filled.”
Thank God for mothers glad to have someone back in the house, since I could no longer afford my apartment.
I’d already skimmed the national news and headed into the local when I noticed an item at the bottom of the page: “A Montblue girl was hit by a car yesterday evening, Montblue police said. Susan K. Byron, 14, daughter of Joseph and Christine Byron of Montbleu, was struck in a hit-and-run accident between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m. on East Linden Street while riding her bicycle. Byron was taken to Mercy Hospital in Scranton where she remains in critical condition.
Police are investigating. Anyone with knowledge of the incident, please contact Sergeant Gene Myers at 570-555-2930.”
Would the mother be the same Christine I knew in school, who, like me, pretended to have her period in order to get out of walking the balance beam? Only then she was Chrissy Wilkes, but her boyfriend senior year was Joe Byron. She was in Business Ed and, as far as I knew, not headed for college, so it was possible she married Joe soon after graduation.
Wow. I couldn’t get this whole thing out of my mind. Maybe it was a distraction from jobless hell, maybe I’d liked Chrissy more than I remembered. Whatever the case, could she use some help during this ordeal? After I sent out another batch of resumés, I’d find out exactly where her house was and go see what I could do.
“You’re going to bust in on these perfect strangers during the worst time of their lives?” said my mother. “Have you thought this out?”
Well, no, I hadn’t, but I said, “Chrissy and I were good friends in high school. We just lost touch, that’s all.”
Finding the place wasn’t hard. I stopped by the liquor store where Terry Wright was the manager. Plunking down a bottle of chocolate vodka on the counter (expensive and hardly the best time to waste my money), I said to Terry, “Where exactly does Chrissy Wilkes live? I think her name is Byron now.”
Unless someone was fundamental Christian and never touched the stuff, Terry knew most people in town who drank anything other than beer. He was an avid gossip.
“Oh, you know about her daughter? Terrible, terrible,” he said. “I just heard the driver turned herself in. She must feel like blowing her brains out.”
“No, the driver!” He leaned over the counter. He was short, about as wide as he was tall, blond and flaming. “You know who it was? Remember Vera Lithgow? A drunk even in junior high? She looks about sixty now, all wrinkled up. I see her every so often, comes in for a case of Grey Goose.”
“Vera?” I said, momentarily stunned. Terry could be extremely catty and while I usually enjoyed him, sometimes it got on my nerves. There’d been a brief period during which Vera and I had hung out, when we both worked at Troutman’s department store, the summer after our freshman year at college. Vera hadn’t returned to school after that. I’d later heard she was pregnant, though not who the father was.
“You know her now?” Terry said.
I shook my head. “Was she drunk when she ran over Chrissy’s daughter?”
Terry rolled his eyes. “So I imagine. She’s always loaded, far as I know.”
“You shouldn’t talk about your customers like that,” I halfheartedly teased him. “What do you say about me?”
“That you’re a chocoholic,” he laughed.
But knowing Terry, I imagined that wasn’t all he said.
“So, where do Chrissy and Joe live?”
“Barnaby Street, in the cul de sac there. I was there once for some reason - what was it? Oh yeah, a meeting about starting neighborhood crime watches. Their house was yellow, with a porch. Boy, am I good.”
I drove right over. No yellow house, but there was a white one with a porch. Maybe they’d painted it? I parked in front and thought about what I was doing. Talk about impulsive, but it wasn’t the first time I’d been so. One time I asked out a total stranger, a Chinese exchange student. Scared the crap out of him.
Two raps on the door and it opened. No doubt they were pretty jittery inside, waiting for calls from doctors and all.
A tall, beefy man stood there and after a split second, I recognized Joe Byron. Hadn’t laid eyes on him for sixteen years, but his face, though fatter, was the same. He didn’t show any sign of recognizing me though.
“Joe,” I said. “Just heard about your troubles. Chrissy and I were friends in high school and since I’m temporarily out of work, I thought I’d come over and see if there’s anything I can do to help out.”
For a long moment, he stared at me. “Lynn DeWitt? Is that you? Biology tenth grade? You threw up when we were dissecting the pig fetus? Spewed all over the tray!”
“Yeah, that was me. You remember?”
“I’ll remember that on my death bed! Come in, come in!”
He seemed awfully cheerful for someone whose kid was in critical condition. I entered and glanced around. The decor was that cutesy country look so popular with people who’ve never lived in the country. My own taste ran to minimal/artsy, though now I was living with Mom and, like Chrissy here, she was cutesy.
“Have a seat,” said Joe so I sat on the edge of a ruffly chair that probably no one ever used.
“Chrissy is living at the hospital these days. We’ve got two sons too; Michael is twelve and Jeremy nine. I’ve gotta come up with their meals and get their clothes clean, plus get over to see Susie at the hospital. Not to mention running my business. Yeah, we could use some help. What’re you, some kind of angel?”
I blushed. “Hardly. I just figured since at the moment, I don’t have anything else to do.”
“You have to look for a job,” Joe said.
“Yeah, well, nobody’s biting.”
We worked out a schedule. It turned out to be more involved than I think I originally had in mind. I arrived by six-thirty Monday through Friday and served the boys breakfast before they caught their buses for school. Then I did laundry, straightened up, mopped the kitchen floor, wiped the bathrooms and made something for dinner that they could pop in the microwave. Chrissy whizzed in and out occasionally, face swollen and pale. Joe had briefed her about my helping out. At first she was standoffish, later shyly friendly, and still later distant. But since I hardly saw her, there wasn’t much opportunity to talk. I worried that Susie might be worsening, which could explain her mother’s somewhat sudden reserve.
One morning, between spoonfuls of Cheerios, Jeremy chirped, “Daddy likes you.” His dark eyes were bright and carrying an expression I couldn’t quite translate.
“What?” I said.
I was putting together an “impossible pie,” one of those deals where you mix all the ingredients and the stuff that forms the crust bakes to the bottom. By now, to be honest, I was wishing someone, anyone, would offer me a job, even part-time, so I’d have an excuse to be there less. Being a substitute mommy and housekeeper wasn’t turning out to be super high on the fun list. It was exhausting.
Jeremy didn’t reply and I turned my head to see Michael regarding me steadily with inscrutable gray eyes. “What’s he talking about?” I asked him.
“I’m not getting involved in this,” said Michael coolly as he stood up and slipped on his backpack. “None of my business,” he added before heading out the door. His bus arrived before Jeremy’s.
“What the-?” I muttered, nonplussed. “Jeremy! Why did you say that?”
But Jeremy, looking innocent and occupied, was stuffing his lunch into his backpack. “I gotta take a dump,” he said importantly and ran upstairs.
I was home by one o’clock and back at the computer emailing out job applications with renewed determination. Mom appeared in the doorway to offer a tea break, which I readily accepted. I told her what the boys had said.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” she advised. “They probably caught their dad giving you the once-over. No biggie.”
Two days later, a sunny Wednesday, I arrived at the Byrons to find Joe home. “Um,” I said, “what are you doing here? Did something happen with Susie?”
He was ensconced at the breakfast table, legs up on another chair and leaning against the wall while he sipped his coffee and perused Entertainment Magazine. “Says here,” he said, “that Reese Witherspoon split from Jake Gyllenhaal. And they were such a cute couple.”
He grinned. I suppose he imagined he looked sexy; it was the kind of grin men give when they’re feeling cocky. I just saw him as in the way, something I’d have to clean around. Well, not just that...my heart was thudding. I hadn’t had this uncomfortable feeling since tenth grade when a little gang of tough boys blocked my way on the sidewalk near the movie theater.
“What are you doing home?” I asked again.
“Oh, just taking the morning off. Chrissy wants me to update Susie’s teachers, but I can’t see them till after first period.” He still seemed unsuitably carefree considering that his daughter was in a semi coma.
“Well, don’t let me get in your way,” I said. I didn’t know whether to leave then or not.
Michael walked into the kitchen in his usual self-possessed manner, while Jeremy stumbled in sleepily. “What time is it?” he grumbled.
“You kids want some bull’s eye eggs?” I asked, falsely cheerful. “You both like those.”
Michael shrugged and said, “Yeah, why not?” while Jeremy perked up. “Yeah!”
I slapped butter into the frying pan and punched holes out of the centers of slices of bread, ready to drop the eggs in. When I set their plates in front of them, Michael was giving me a cold, studied look.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
After the boys left, Joe put down his magazine and said, “You know, I had a crush on you in school.”
“Yeah, right,” I snapped. “You rarely spoke to me.” Who was he kidding? Football players never paid attention to me. I was a semi-geek, sort of on the fringes of things. Some of my friends were “popular” and some weren’t. “When was this - while you were dating Chrissy like mad?”
“No, before that,” he said.
Oh. Well, so what? He wasn’t my type anyway. I wasn’t attracted to dominant, arrogant guys. Instead of commenting, I wiped up the table, which meant that I had to reach around him, which made me more uneasy.
He watched me intently. “Yeah, you never noticed. So I gave up.”
Did he think I was an idiot? His type, if he liked somebody that way, would have come on strong. There’s no way he would have shied off like a scared little reject. But I didn’t want to call him a liar. All I really desired at this moment was to get out of there.
“You dating anyone?” he asked. “You were married for a while, weren’t you? Do you mind if I ask what happened?”
Yes, I mind, you intrusive bore. But I said, “It didn’t work out, that’s all. I’m not exclusively dating anyone.” Actually, I wasn’t seeing anyone at all, but married men were not remotely on my list of potentials and anyone with a molecule of gray matter could see what Joe was up to here.
“You must get frustrated,” he said. “I mean without anyone.”
Oh for crying out loud. “It hasn’t been that long,” I said, still in my nicer tone of voice. Though any minute...
“A nice, sexy, good looking woman like yourself in the prime of her life...”
I stopped wiping. He had the look of any male animal on the rut. I hadn’t seen that for a while, but it was like riding a bicycle, you never forget it.
“Joe,” I said. “Your daughter is in serious condition in the hospital and you’re coming on to me.”
This didn’t seem to faze him. “Look,” he said. “Even before Susie had the accident, Chrissy and I...well, we had our problems.”
I sat down across from him, still gripping the dishcloth. “What marriage doesn’t have problems?” I said hopefully, trying to get him onto a more abstract path.
“We haven’t had sex for seven months.”
“Oh,” I said. I made my voice chipper. “I read in Elle that thirty-two percent of women don’t want sex, so it’s not unusual. I mean it’s a general problem these days. People are overworked, have too many distractions...”
He wasn’t buying this. “Like, I knew this marriage was a mistake two years into it,” he said. “She hardly ever wanted sex since the beginning.”
“Then why did you have three kids? If things were so bad.”
He looked out the window. “You keep going on,” he said. “You keep thinking maybe the way things are is temporary and it might get better, but the years go by and it doesn’t. And then there you are, fifteen years older and everything still sucks.”
The atmosphere had changed, like the air pressure in a room when your ears pop. Joe looked vulnerable, real all of a sudden. But while the trusting, wanting-to-connect part of me was up and ready, like a protective big sister, the been-around, cynical element stood back observing wryly.
“That’s too bad,” I said, my voice neutral. “I’m sorry you’ve had such an unsatisfactory life so far.”
There was a long pause before he said, “How would you feel about hooking up? No one would need to know. No one needs to be hurt. And when this is all over...” he paused, “whichever way it goes, I could maybe find a job for you in my company.”
He looked offended. “Yeah. I’m incorporated. I run a contracting business, you knew that.”
I blushed rather hideously. So, he was offering me a position as his mistress with all the trimmings, just like the girlfriends of married politicians got. Not the first time I’d been offered a mistress position, but the first with trimmings.
“Joe,” I said, trying to sound like a strict English teacher we’d both had in high school, “thank you for the offer. I’m flattered, I really am. (Actually I wasn’t.) But there’s no way on earth I could screw over Chrissy. Not only because she and I used to be friends, but because of what she’s going through. No way, can’t happen, ever.”
Several expressions crossed his face: disappointment, anger, shame, embarrassment, anger again. “Don’t judge me, Lynn,” he said. “Don’t go all high and mighty there. It’s not like you haven’t done some off the mark things yourself.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He smiled. “You and Tony Green.”
“Me and Tony Green?” I was stumped.
“Yeah, when you were married to whatshisname. People saw you.”
I was stunned, not to mention outraged. “Saw me what?”
“In that car out by Kohler’s Pond.”
I wracked my brain. “Oh. We went out there to talk one time. Right before he left town.”
“Talk, was it?” said Joe.
If I’d been holding an axe, Joe’s head would have been divided into bloody chunks. “Joe, you’re an idiot. Not that it’s any of your business, but Tony is gay. When we were in the car there, he was telling me about it, not that I hadn’t already guessed. He came out to his mother, then left for Los Angeles. I don’t suppose he’d mind my telling this now as his mother has since died and he’d have no reason to return here.”
“Hmmmm,” said Joe. “Come to think of it, he was a little fruity.”
“I think we’re done here,” I said. “You might as well go back to work.”
Without a word, he got up and left.
Instead of leaving around one or two, I stayed till Michael got home. “Listen,” I said to him, “you inferred something about your father having an interest in me that he shouldn’t have. I want to know why you said that.”
I could almost hear his brain frantically buzzing, but I wasn’t leaving till I heard the answer. He could probably read that from my body language.
“Um, I kind of heard him talking on the phone.”
“Yeah? Who was he talking to?”
“Your father’s brother?”
“Yeah.” The kid looked really uncomfortable.
“I see,” I said. “Well, I want you to know - it’s important for me that you know, Michael, that there is nothing like that between your father and me. Unfortunately, because this has come up, I think it best if I don’t come here to help out anymore. I just wanted you to know that it has nothing to do with you and Jeremy. You’re both good kids.”
He looked dismayed and upset, which surprised me. He’d never given the impression that he cared if I was there or not. “But if there’s nothing going on, why do you have to stop coming?”
He had me there, didn’t he? I hesitated. “Well, I just feel weird about it, okay? Also, I need to get back to my job search. I have to support myself and can’t stay at my mom’s forever.”
He nodded, solemnly turned and headed off down the hall to his room. I heard his door click shut.
I was stepping out the door when the phone rang. Chrissy’s voice blasted from the answering machine. “Michael? Jeremy? Michael, pick up! Susie woke up! And she can wiggle her toes! Do you hear me, Michael, she can wiggle her toes! I’ll be home in a little while. God, this is wonderful!”
It was pleasant telling my mother that she was wrong, but not to know that I’d run out on Chrissy and she’d never know why. Not the real reason anyway. But then maybe she’d be home more now that Susie was coming around. I was happy for her, even for Joe.
So the next morning when she called, it was a punch in the gut.
“Lynn?” she said, her voice hoarse, as if she’d been crying. “I can’t believe you’d infiltrate my house, my family, and come on to my husband! When we have a child who’s been teetering on the brink of death! What kind of a person are you?”
For a moment, I forgot how to speak. As I felt the skill returning, I was faced with a dilemma. Should I tell her it was the other way around, that Joe was a shit and bring down more things in her life at such a vulnerable time? Or go along with Joe’s story that I’m the shit to save her trouble while ruining my own reputation?
Frantically, I dug into every corner of my brain for an answer and came up with a wobbly one. “I absolutely did not come on to Joe. He is totally not, and never has been, my type. I think what happened is that he was feeling very down about Susie and all and I gave him a little hug and he misinterpreted things. Believe me, nothing is going on. I have the total hots for this guy in Philadelphia.”
There was no guy in Philly, but hopefully...
She said, “Yeah? How come Joe said you suggested that he and you hook up while I’m at the hospital?”
Oh Lord. “I don’t know, Chrissy, maybe he’s having a little fantasy and anyone would do. You know men. But I assure you-”
“You always were like that!” she barked. “Think you’re hot when you’re not!”
Time to get tough. “Let me say this again, Chrissy. Joe does not turn me on, okay? Not my type, not interested, total turn off, okay?”
“Fuck you,” she said, and hung up.
I have a temper - not a good thing, but there you are. I’ve tried to banish it through meditation, affirmations, therapy, you name it, but it won’t go away. When someone insults me, I am as predictable as a machine. A quick call to Terry and I knew where Vera Lithgow lived - Grasswood Apartments
Sputtering with rage, I jumped into my car and drove there. I’d heard she was out on bail. Not sure what reasoning I was following here, but something like if Chrissy and Joe are going to screw me, then why not give my sympathy to the perpetrator of the crime? It doesn’t make sense now, except that probably Vera and I had once been better friends, if only for a short time, than Chrissy and I had ever been. And now Vera was in trouble.
Also there’d still been no response to my resumés, including the fourteen new ones I’d sent out.
I found which apartment the hard, gumshoe way. Vera was home.
And you are...? her look said as she opened the door.
“Remember me?” I chirped. “Lynn DeWitt from Troutman’s? Montblue High? Though my last name is technically Merrick now. Hate that name. Got divorced.” I was babbling.
She looked like hell. In fact, my mother looked younger and better than Vera.
She blinked, peered at me, then said, “Uh, okay, come on in, I guess.”
Not a superb welcome, but I stepped inside. I noted her computer, which sat amidst piles of papers and notebooks and whose screen displayed charts of some kind. “Oh, I guess you’re busy working.”
She ran a hand through her stringy, already half gray hair, a futile attempt to keep it off her face. “Yeah, I work at home. At least they didn’t fire me.”
She seemed beaten down, but I suppose that was normal considering her situation.
“You wanna Diet Pepsi? Glass of water?”
“Diet Pepsi’s good,” I said. I felt like a shit even taking that from her. The apartment told a lot about her life. She didn’t have much. I sat down on a ratty recliner.
“I guess you heard what happened,” she said, handing me a cold can and plopping down on an equally dilapidated sofa.
“That’s why I’m here. While I’m looking for a job, which isn’t going too well, I thought maybe I could give you some support.”
She chugged her soda. Was she on the wagon? “What kind of support?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Just moral support, I guess.”
She considered. “You mean like coming to the trial? I really fucked up this time. Driving under the influence, you know.”
“Did you know the girl has awakened from her coma?”
“No!” she said, clunking down her can and leaning forward. “You shittin’ me?”
Uh oh, should I have told her that?
She jumped up, patted her pockets and whipped out her cell phone. Beep beep beep and she excitedly spoke into it. “Hey, tell Al the girl woke up! So he can stop worrying about manslaughter!” She nodded. “Yeah, some rehab if I can get into a place, maybe it would cut down the sentence, huh?”
She hung up and looked at me. “So, long time no see. Whatcha been up to?”
“Um, the usual,” I said. “Went to college, couldn’t find a job in my major, got one instead at Swain’s Construction, got married, no kids, got divorced, back home with my mother.” I paused. “So, do you think you have to go to jail?”
“Are you kidding? Of course I have to go to jail. Prison, actually. My lawyer is doing everything he can to get the sentence down. He’s very influential.”
“He is?” I was wondering where she’d get a lawyer who’s “very influential” and how exactly she’d pay for this.
“You do seem relatively confident,” I said. Didn’t she feel any remorse?
Instead of addressing that, she said, “You look good. Almost the same as when we graduated only a bit older, not much. God, I look like crap. Our family doesn’t age well.”
How about years of chugging booze? I wanted to say, but of course did not. “You don’t look so bad,” I lied.
She shrugged. The door bell buzzed, startling us both, and she lunged to answer it. A bull of a man stepped in, followed by a smaller version of himself. They looked as if they’d walked right out of “The Sopranos,” thick creased necks and all.
“Dom!” Vera said, apparently pleased.
She turned to me. “This is Dominick, my brother’s wife’s brother, and Mario. Guys, this is my old friend, Lynn.”
“Lynn who?” said Dominick.
Reluctantly, I said, “Merrick.” I’d be legally back to DeWitt soon.
He grunted and turned to Vera. “D’jou hear da news? Da kid woke up.”
“I just heard,” she said, nodding. “Lynn here told me. How’d you hear?”
Dom and Mario glanced at me, then back to Vera. “Don’t matter. Whatever da case, tings are lookin’ up. We’ll lean on da DA. Maybe can getcher time down.”
Dom looked at me. “What’s your interest in all dis?” His fat face was completely expressionless.
My heart thumped. Would he cut off my cat’s head and leave it in my bed? “I-I knew Vera in high school,” I said lamely.
“So I stopped by.”
“You know,” he said, not taking his eyes from mine, “I can’t quite figure out why you’d be all chummy wit the Byrons and now you’re here wit Vera. What’s da deal wit dat? You some kind of spy for the legals? A nosy reporter?”
“Huh?” I said, backing up, which would lead to nowhere other than the wall behind me.
“You don’t tink we were keepin’ an eye over dere?”
Vera turned to me with wide eyes that soon narrowed. “What the hell? What’re you up to DeWitt? You were sneaky in school too, always up to some shit!”
I was? Did she have me mixed up with somebody else? I was pretty much a goody-good!
“You WHAT?” she demanded, hands on hips, face tough as a gangbanger’s.
“I was helping them out for a while, you know, around the house. While Chrissy was at the hospital.”
“Why?” she barked. Dom and Mario stared me down.
“Like I said, I’m between jobs and-”
Dom interrupted. “So why ain’t ya dere now? Why you here instead?”
The walls were closing in. “Um, I had to leave. Things got kind of funny.”
“Funny?” said Dom, standing hunched over, his face two inches from my own.
When I came to, the apartment lamps were on and Vera was at her computer. She must have heard me stirring and turned around.
“Where’s Dom and Mario?” I asked. I stood up and checked over my body for bullet holes or slashes. Nothing.
“They left,” she said coldly, “And you can get out. I don’t know your game, but leave me alone.”
“But-” I began, and she said, “GET OUT! You’re CRAZY!”
The door actually did hit me in the ass.
Back home (and really glad to be there), I was wined and dined by my mother. “Now, now,” she said, replenishing my glass. “I told you not to get involved.”
She offered me more lasagna. “Eat up. The carbs will dull your senses.”
After this fine meal, she offered me the newspaper. I almost reached for it, then thought better. Reading it was how I got into trouble in the first place. “No thanks,” I said.
An email arrived from a small company that makes organic jams, jellies and other condiments. They needed an assistant bookkeeper. The interview was the following Monday. I’d spend the weekend surfing the net to educate myself on organic products. There were probably thirty people in line for the job, but what the hell.
Hot Dog Truck - A Vegetarian Poem:
by Rick Lupert