Don sat with his feet up on the coffee table. It had been a long hot week of moving wheelbarrow loads of cement and he just wanted to watch the news and eat supper. His wife Shannon handed him a plate with two breaded pork chops and mashed potatoes. He took it without a word and started in on the chops. He cursed under his breath when he couldn’t cut the meat with the side of his fork. The plate tipped and some of the grease landed on his thigh. “Shit,” he said and untucked his T shirt to wipe it off.
“Shannon,” he shouted so she could hear him from the kitchen. “Can I get a knife here?”
She was there in a shot with a good sharp one.
“How was work?” Shannon asked as she stared at his hairless ankles, rubbed clean from work socks.
“Ninety fuck’n degrees, that’s how it was.” Don wished that she would shut-up. She always yapped at him when he was trying to watch TV. It made him crazy. He stared hard at the screen hoping she’d get the hint.
“The air conditioner has been rattling all day,” she said.
“It works, and it was only fifty bucks. So what if it makes noise,” he said moving his shaved head around like he was catching a cool breeze. “Our rent even includes utilities.”
Shannon shook her head.
“What?” He was burning inside, wanting some time alone after ten hours in the sun.
“The guys are comin’ over tonight to watch football.” Don looked up only with his eyes daring her to argue.
Shannon twisted a swatch of her orange hair between her fingers and went back to the kitchen.
Don finished up by holding the plate with both hands and licking it clean before leaving it on the arm of the couch.
He headed upstairs for a shower. One thing about Shannon was that she kept the house clean. The towels were always right there on the bar and the soap was never full of hair. They had been married for just over a year and he had no complaints on that end of things, and she was a decent cook too. Not like his buddy Derek’s girlfriend, she did nothing around the house; worked two days a week at the coffee shop and spent the rest of her time sitting on her ass.
Shannon already had two kids from another guy which Don had thought he’d be okay with. At least he wouldn’t have to deal with shitty diapers.
Warm water poured over his head and down his back taking a day’s worth of dust with it. The caulking around the seams of the tub was black with mould. Shannon had been asking him to scrape it off and redo it but he kept forgetting, the only time he actually thought about it was when he showered. He could easily swipe a tube from the job, the window guys always left their stuff lying around.
Don’s dad owned the house, but never maintained it. His dad was a truck driver and when he did roll into town he slept in a damp bedroom in the cellar. He was a wiry little guy with an unpredictable temper. When Don was twelve he watched his dad break a guy’s knee with the blunt end of a hatchet. He clearly remembered his dad looking at the small ax and deciding not to use the blade. Don learned early in his life that it wasn’t size or strength; it’s what a person was capable of when they were up against it.
His buds were coming over at eight to watch a game he had recorded. There was enough beer for him in the fridge and they were bringing their own. He put on a clean pair of jean shorts and pulled a sleeveless T shirt over his head before he went downstairs.
Shannon stood leaning against the kitchen counter while he stared into the fridge.
“Where are the brats?” he asked.
“They’re at my mom’s.” Shannon sipped on a glass of pop.
“Which mom?” he said.
Shannon looked at the floor.
Don closed the fridge. He twisted the cap off a beer and headed out to the backyard. He’d been wondering again if trucking would be a good job. Being away would be no sweat, easier in fact. Maybe Shannon and the kids would show him some respect if he only showed up twice a month. Getting out of hick-town Tueauga would be a bonus too, see some different places, nobody bossing him around.
Don had once gone as far as calling a trucker training school. They sent him a pamphlet and a run down of the cost, but it was way out of his reach. He thought of asking his old man for a loan but the idea slipped away during a night of drinking.
“I’m going now,” Shannon called through the screen door.
“Yep.” Don tipped his bottle up and poured the rest of the beer down his throat. He didn’t turn around.
The front door banged shut. It occurred to him that Shannon didn’t say where she was going, probably over to her mom’s to watch TV with the kids. Don knew that she got pissed off when he had the guys over, but he was the one sweating all day to pay for everything. He had a right to do what he wanted. Too many of his friends were afraid to make a move because of what their women would say.
Derek walked in without knocking and went straight to the fridge to load in his beer for the night.
“Where’s Shanny?” Derek asked.
“At her mom’s I guess.” It always bugged Don that his friend had the hots for Shannon. Derek had dated Shannon when the two of them were around eighteen, but she broke it off to go out with the guy she ended having her kids with.
Jeremy showed up about fifteen minutes later. Don held the door for him as he struggled with a case of Molson X. The next-door neighbour stood with his hedge clippers and watched. Don avoided his eyes.
Derek flopped into the recliner. “I heard this game was excellent.”
Jeremy nodded in agreement.
Don wasn’t drinking. The one beer he had earlier sat in his gut like mud.
Derek was pounding them back and Jeremy was egging him on. Don knew how it worked. Derek would get so drunk that he’d throw up or pass out or both.
There was a guy they knew from high school that died the year before from choking on his own puke. The garbage men found him early one morning lying on the bench seat of his pick-up truck. Don had to work on the day of the funeral; he had mouths to feed and couldn’t afford the day off.
“Don,” Derek yelled over the TV. “When’s Shannon comin’ home?” Derek looked like a drunk did when they’re trying to concentrate.
Jeremy sang “Derek loves Shannon, Derek loves Shannon.”
Don shook his head. “Fuck off will ya.”
He was starting to wonder why Shannon hadn’t come home. He looked back at Derek who was making kissing motions with his lips. Don stood up and Derek stopped. Don walked into the kitchen. He heard Jeremy laugh. Don’s tool-belt was sitting by the back door. He grabbed his hammer and sat it on the counter. He ate a few crackers over the kitchen sink. Through the window he saw his nieghbour watching TV, his living room changing colours like the lights over Niagara Falls at Christmas.
He drank some water straight from the tap and went back in with them.
Derek was stretched out on his chair. “Goin’ to work?” He said looking stupidly at the hammer in Don’s hand.
Don lifted the hammer like a judge raising a wooden gavel and whacked Derek on the bridge of his bare foot. Derek screamed spilling his beer on the chair.
Jeremy’s mouth hung open.
Derek started to cry. “You bastard. I won’t be able to work.” He pounded the chair with both fists. “I don’t give shit about your stupid wife.”
Jeremy got up to look at Derek’s foot. It was starting to swell. “We gotta take him to the hospital in Simcoe.”
They left without Don. He wondered if they had sobered up enough to make it in one piece. A cheer rose from the crowd on the television. A football player danced around the end zone before throwing the ball hard at the grass.
Don opened a beer. He flopped onto the couch and watched the rest of Law and Order.
He was asleep before he took a drink. When he woke up the room was already hot from the morning sun. He went to the bathroom and washed his face with cold water. He figured Shannon and the kids would be stretched out on the big bed. Smiling to himself, he walked into the room. They weren’t there. He checked the kids’ room, the beds were made up. Maybe they got up early and went to the donut shop.
He made some coffee and took it out to the back porch where there was shade. The neighbour was on his John Deere rider mower. Don smelled the gassy exhaust as the guy leaned over watching closely as he cut along the fence.
“Lazy ass,” Don mumbled to himself thinking that the yard was small enough to cut in ten minutes with a push mower.
His stomach felt queasy. Derek came suddenly to mind. That mouthy bugger deserved a busted foot, though Don didn’t think that he had hit him hard enough to do much damage. Maybe he’d keep his mouth shut about Shannon from now on. Don considered calling Jeremy to check on Derek, then he thought screw it, they’d let him know soon enough.
Back in the kitchen he found a fruit bottom yogurt in the fridge. It was something his stomach could take. The phone rang and he answered on the second ring.
“It’s me.” Shannon sounded flat.
“Where are you?” Don asked.
“We stayed at moms last night.” Jamie screamed in the background. “Quiet, mommy’s on the phone.”
Don didn’t know what to say.
“You there?” she asked.
“Yep.” He took a breath to slow the pressing feeling in his stomach.
“Do you want to meet me? So we can talk. Mom will watch the kids.”
“Talk about what?” His first thought was that she wanted to break up. It scared him. The idea that he hit Derek with a hammer scared him now too.
“About us. Everything I guess.”
“OK, sure, name the place,” he said trying to sound laid-back.
“How about in front of the bank in fifteen minutes.”
“OK.” He said, hung up, and walked out the door. His gut still felt off, not like puking, more nervous.
Shannon was already there when he arrived. She wore a baggy white T shirt and red shorts. He thought she looked dumpy.
“Hi,” she said. “Wanna go for a walk?”
He noticed the whites of his pockets were sticking out below the frayed cut off ends of his shorts. It made him feel stupid and exposed like a dream he sometimes had where he’s in school wearing only his underwear.
Without discussing direction they ended up on the bridge over the Grand River. Shannon was silent. She flipped her hair over her shoulders with the back of her hand. The sun pushed hard on the two of them. There was a hot breeze whipping up from the lake. Don glanced over the side thinking he might see some fish, but it was too far down to tell.
“So,” Shannon said looking off toward the fields.
“What do you want me to say?”
“I want to know what you’re thinking. What you want for us.” She turned to him.
Don hoisted himself up on the railing to sit facing Shannon. The painted metal was hot. He lifted his hands thinking they’d burn. He slipped back. Shannon screamed his name and jumped at him. His foot was wrapped around one of the railing supports, the metal dug into his shin. Shannon grabbed his arm and pulled him upright.
“Oh my god I thought you were going to die.” Her face went grey.
Don jumped onto the sidewalk. He was shaking but didn’t want her to see. He bent over to check his leg. He imagined his funeral, Derek with his wrapped foot, Shannon crying. He wondered if his dad would make it back before the coffin was dropped in the ground.
Jeffrey Griffiths lives in Hamilton Ontario. His short fiction has appeared in The Nashwaak Review, Qwerty, Front and Centre, The Danforth Review and The Puritan. He received the Arts Hamilton short fiction award in 2007 and 2008. He instructs Creative Writing 1 & 2 and Dynamics of Prose for Mohawk College’s Writing for Publication program. He very recently (and happily) received an OAC Writer’s Reserve Grant.