“Your drink feel watery?” Cherry asked, turning from her glass of hard cider to Colleen, sitting at the bar beside her.
“Fire-watery,” Colleen said, lifted her head from her hand and smiled a bleary smile at her friend.
“Lightweight,” Cherry said and looked at the line of glasses in front of them; three tall mugs each and four overturned shot glasses lined against the rubber strip at the bar’s far edge. Lately, Cherry could drink and drink and nothing happened. She hated it. She punched the number at her house into her phone and let it ring. “Pick up,” she barked into the phone.
“Maybe he’s out,” Colleen suggested.
“Not Kristoff. He’s never out.” He’d promised her a life of fun and adventure, she was sure of it, and then the first thing he’d done was get her pregnant. And right after she’d got herself together again after giving birth, he got her pregnant again. The guy had a plan, to keep her chained to right where he was, to never let her go anywhere. She pressed the button to end the call.
“We should go to the lake,” she told Colleen, who was practically snoring into her hand. “Or we could go to the shooting range. That’s always fun.” It was pathetic, the two of them still wearing their work polos from the grocery store, one drunk and the other trying hard in the middle of a weekday. It was a sorry scene, but then that was Cherry’s whole life. So why couldn’t she just get away from it?
“I’ll drive,” she said, but Colleen pulled a set of keys on a braided leather lanyard out of her polyester pants pocket. “Take my car,” Colleen said. “But leave me at home.” Cherry remembered they’d driven Colleen’s Jeep from work; this was supposed to just be a quick drink, to celebrate the papers coming through that authorized Tranh and his husband to adopt. Cherry had tried to warn him off of it, but everybody knew she was just bitter so no one ever listened to her advice.
She pushed herself up on the bar. “Let’s go, drunky,” she said and patted Colleen on the back. Colleen burped and then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Do you need to tinkle before we leave.” Colleen looked up at her and smiled. Five minutes later, she buckled Colleen into the passenger seat of her Jeep and drove her home. At first, she was going to go back to the grocery store and swap cars, to park the Jeep and drive Colleen home in her car; but then Colleen passed out and Cherry didn’t see how she’d get her from the Jeep into Cherry’s Plymouth, so she decided she’d just borrow the Jeep for a little bit.
Maybe Colleen was faking; she seemed to wake up quick enough when they pulled up in front of the farmhouse that she insisted on living in all by herself. Cherry told her a million times that there were vacant houses on her street, but Colleen wasn’t interested. Not that Cherry loved her neighborhood, even though it was a five-minute walk with the kids from Dease Park. It was kind of rough, a street of starter homes built for people who never seemed to get past home base, and that’s the ones that weren’t empty or waystations for meth. Ten one-story cottages with pitched gables over the front door crowded together on each side of the street. She turned off Colleen’s Jeep and let herself into her house, a pale blue one somewhere near the middle of her block.
When she opened the door, she stepped into that slightly damp smell of spring, crocus, and forsythia. “I’m home,” she called into the house, and sure as clockwork, Kristoff replied from the parlor, “I’m in here.” Of course he was.
She walked through the kitchen and set her bag on the table before she opened the refrigerator door to find something she could reheat. “We’ve got an hour till the buddhas are home,” she shouted into the fridge. “You want to try to get out of the house for a minute before the bus drops them off?” She lifted the lid of a styrofoam to-go box and found a pair of half-eaten chicken fingers beside a scoop of slaw she’d brought home last week. She threw them in the trash.
“You know I can’t do that,” Kristoff called back from the parlor. Of course not, she sighed to herself and went in to see him. The floral smell was thicker in there, so dense it made her nose twitch. He was on the couch in front of the TV like she left him that morning, watching financial shows. He had his binder open on his lap in front of him, who knows how many hundreds of pages of prospectuses and stock reports anchored by the biggest steel rings she’d ever seen. He turned to look at her when she stood in the doorway, and she noticed the new blossoms, a ridge of tiny soft petals over his eyebrow.
“It smells nice in here,” she said and sat next to him. He nodded and she leaned in closer to run her fingers over the petals that rose from his flesh. They were so soft, like the bottom of a baby’s foot. She leaned in to breathe him in.
“You smell like a brewery basement,” he said, “and I mean that in the nicest way.”
“Tranh’s adoption went through,” Cherry said and leaned back into the couch. “He wanted to celebrate and I didn’t want to let him down.” She paused. “Why don’t we ever go out anymore?”
“You know I can’t,” he said, and lifted up his arms so that the sleeves of his dress shirt slid back on his wrists and showed what grew there, leaves circling his wrist like a bracelet, a small twig catching the edge of his shirt cuff before it slid to his elbow. “You’re always telling me you want more,” he said. “But we can’t both afford to work the same jobs we had as teenagers. Not with our bills.”
When Cherry’s husband talked like this, it made her want to push into the back of the couch and just disappear. This wasn’t life, thinking about bills and trading stocks, everything about making a living. It was what made her want to drink. “Did I tell you I can’t even get drunk anymore?”
“I don’t believe that.”
“It’s true. I had three glasses of hard cider and four shots at the Depot. That poor girl Colleen was a mess and I didn’t feel a thing. I’ve got her car, too. Going to have to figure out how to get it back to her.”
“Later,” Kristoff said and reached over to rub her shoulder, his hand hard as a backscratcher. “We can call my mom.” Cherry half-turned so that her husband would rub her back.
“I just want to go someplace,” she said. “To get out of here.” Maybe she was a little drunk, she was so close to crying. Kristoff shushed her and rubbed her back, cooing like wind through the trees. She liked it for a while, his touching her, and then it was too much and she flinched and sat back again, bored. “Try this,” he said, and tugged back the sleeve on one arm, revealing a ridge of little caps, tiny hills with furry edges where they broke the plane of his skin. “They came up today; I think you’ll like them.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, and he nodded. Cherry reached over, and delicately, she knew how sensitive he was, rubbed her fingertips against his forearm. The caps broke off under the pressure and she caught them in one hand. When she had enough, she mounded them in a little pile on the TV table. “I’ll be right back,” she said, and walked to the kitchen. She knew she saw one in the fridge, and sure enough, there was a golden can of diet Pepsi. She popped the top and took a sip then decided to pour it down the sink. She punched a hole in the side and dented it in a little and went back to sit beside her husband. He was absorbed again in the stock market ticker tape on the bottom of the TV screen. She sat down and smushed the caps into the basin of the pop can pipe she’d made. There was a lighter on the table, and when she flicked it, the flare of it pushed back the dimness of the room. She held it over the bowl and sucked in, gentle at first. It was a mellow smoke. “That is nice,” she said after a minute.
“Isn’t it,” Kristoff asked, all his attention on the TV. She took another deep draw and let her eyes go out of focus so she couldn’t even see where she was. High as she was getting, she could be anywhere in the world.
“You made your choice,” Kristof said and Cherry’s eyes started to focus again, on the crawl of digits at the bottom of the TV screen. There was the sound of feet hitting the front porch, the slap of the welcome mat as Buddha #1 lifted it to retrieve the key and let the mat drop, and then the sound of metal turning in the door.
“What choice?” Cherry asked, and shook her head. Day drinking didn’t work like it used to. “Do we have anything in the house that the kids will eat?”
“If you call my mother, I’m sure she would drop you off back at your car. It’s parked at Moser’s, right?”
“What about you?” Cherry asked.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said, and spread his knobbed arms to take in the binders and piles of paper, the pocket calculator and the gloom of the living room around him.
Matt Dube's stories have appeared in Moon City Review, ARCTURUS, Front Porch, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and American lit at a small mid-Missouri university and reads submissions for the online lit mag Coffin Bell Journal.