James is all worked up again, waving his gun and acting like he gives a damn. Raising his voice. Pacing the kitchen. Insisting Theresa will do just fine. Saying he believes in her, that she’s stronger than before, that she’d be doing a good thing for their family. But he’s running his fingers through his hair the way he does when he’s nervous. He snatches a beer from the fridge and pops the top. Worried he’ll wake the kid, Theresa cuts her eyes at the baby monitor. “Took me an hour to get him down,” she says.
Not listening, James sits across from her at the kitchen table and tips back the beer till the can’s empty. Burps. Crushes the can. Snarls his face. He starts speaking even faster than before, hardly takes a breath between each word. Waves his arms like he’s flagging down an emergency vehicle. “You’ll get the job done, I know it,” he says.
“Thanks, hon,” she says, but she isn’t so sure. Part of her suspects he thinks she’ll shit the bed again. His words last time—shit the bed—when she came back empty handed. She drove all the way to the apartment complex on the other side of the train tracks, but she couldn’t collect. Saw James’s tenant—a woman three months behind on rent—carrying a baby in her arms. Theresa never got out of the car. Curled up in the driver seat. Cried till her eyes ran dry and burned.
James is sinewy but soft, the way some alcoholics are. A small belly that bounces when he moves about. He’s forty-one, eighteen years older than her, but he sometimes makes her feel like the only adult in the house. When they married five years back, he promised a clean, simple life. He drove her away from the shotgun shack where she grew up, away from a lifetime of Welfare oatmeal at each meal. She’d spent seventeen years falling asleep to the sound of whimpering, the strays her mother had taken in, and waking to find the flea bites on her ankles rubbed raw and bloody.
James is back on his feet now. He stamps around the kitchen, flinging open the cabinet doors and revealing their guts. The sippy cups, the plates decorated with cartoons, the baby bottles. Theresa can’t help but wonder if he picks these particular cabinets to make a point.
Theresa’s sure James knows she doesn’t like the idea, but she also knows he doesn’t know what else he’s meant to do. He sometimes asks her how he’s supposed to feed a wife and a child when his tenants don’t live up to their end of the bargain.
Theresa sighs and James shoots her a stern look. “I’m just tired,” she tells him, and it’s true. Between the baby and back-to-back doubles at the bar, she’s hardly slept the last two days. “I’m sorry.”
James says nothing. He jerks open the fridge and fishes out another beer, popping the top. He chokes down the whole can in a couple swigs, and then slips a little silver flask from his pocket and tips that back, too. Shivers a little as the whiskey goes down.
As much as she wants to, Theresa doesn’t bring up the booze. James is supposed to have kicked alcohol a month ago. He made a big show of it, dumping the last case of Miller High Life bottle-by-bottle into the toilet. Theresa stood at the living room window and watched him lug a sack of liquor bottles down to the curb. Smiled as he tossed the bag into the big brown trash can, turned toward the house, and saluted somewhat sarcastically, marching back up the drive. Felt good—he saw things her way for the first time in months, years maybe. A week later, she came back from a closing shift at the bar, opened the fridge, and found two twelve packs on the bottom shelf. “But I am clean,” he protested. “I’m only drinking beer.”
Theresa has known drunks from day one. Her mother drank a box of Walmart wine each night. Her father, shacked up with another woman two towns west, polished off a fifth of Famous Grouse each day with dinner. And James, who’d long since ditched his two-drink daily max, now drank High Life every day. A six-pack, at least.
Still, she managed to convince him to kick, even if he only lasted a week. He understood her point, that it was for their boy’s sake. It felt powerful, her guilting him over what happened. Meant to be babysitting while she tended bar, he’d slipped out and left the kid home alone. Tied one on down at the Harbor Point. Telling stories with the old vets. They all think James’s a saint, a war hero. A high kill count in Nam—more than a hundred communists, he’d swear. A Green Beret with clandestine missions in Cambodia, or wherever it is that’s next to Vietnam. But he’d been a weekend warrior, National Guard, had never served in any war, and when Theresa got home, the boy was in the backyard with a snakebite on his calf.
A garter snake, she guessed. Could’ve just been a scratch, actually, but still. Either way, there was a snake nearby. The boy’d crawled right through the dog door—it came with the house—and got bit. Just two years old.
“You’ll need the gun,” James says now.
“Is that really necessary?”
“Yes, it’s really necessary.”
Theresa looks her husband over. His black hair plugs. His flashy watch. The shiny silver buckles on his leather shoes, seventies style. It drives her nuts, having to admit the truth to herself: If she’d met James now, and not when she was seventeen, he’d be the kind of guy she’d laugh at from across the bar.
She’s thinking it, so she just says it: “You’re so worried I’ll mess up, why don’t you go over there and collect the rent yourself?”
James sits again. He straightens his back, cranks his neck to either side, makes fists of his hands. When he finally says to shut up, Theresa shuts up.
“Just zoom over to the apartment,” he says. “You flash the gun. She coughs up cash. Simple. You show no fear. None. These people feed off your fear. You walk off and make sure you don’t give the other tenants enough time to lose their shit.”
“But what? She’s already two months behind on the rent.”
James takes hold of her hand, squeezes it white. Speaks so fast Theresa can hardly follow. He pauses, sucks in a deep breath, and says, “What do you think? Piece of cake, right?”
Theresa feels a sigh trying to come up, but she swallows it down, frustration and all. Only nods. Somewhere in her heart she knows the snakebite was the final straw. But she can’t just leave. Besides, she still thinks James can change. And if he doesn’t, all she needs is another final straw.
James pulls the pistol from his waist. Slides it across the table. “This is all you need,” he says. “Simple, simple.”
Theresa just wants the conversation to end. She places the pistol in her purse, tries to convince herself it’ll be easy. James goes to the fridge for another beer. While his back is turned away, she snatches the baby monitor and drops it in the purse. Stupid, yeah, but she needs a reminder of what’s at stake.
“You know, we all have responsibilities,” James says. “We all have troubles, sure, but we all gotta pay our bills. It’s a matter of being honest. Responsibility is about honesty, and truthfulness matters.”
Yeah, yeah, James, Theresa thinks. How about those hair plugs? Those honest? And what about renting out slum apartments to meth monsters? That how you honor your responsibilities to your wife? To your kid?
“Get a move on, yeah?” James says.
“This is the last time.”
James smiles. A big, satisfied smile. “You must really love me, don’t you?”
“Sure, I love you,” Theresa says. And she does. Just like a gunshot victim loves a bullet too dangerous to remove.
Their marriage wasn’t always like this. James wasn’t always like this. When he strolled into Night Town the first time, Theresa was two months out from her eighteenth birthday. The club was popular with a certain crowd. Drunks and cokeheads. James looked the part, but he came off differently. He said please and thank you. Tipped thirty percent. While the others sniffed themselves stupid in the shadows, Theresa never saw him do drugs. Never even served him more than two bourbons in a night. Sometimes he didn’t even finish the second.
By their first date, James was already somewhat of a regular at the club. Had come in six or seven times. They were sitting in his car, a souped-up ‘Vette, eighty-five. “Where are your people from?” he wanted to know.
“Here,” she said. Meaning North Texas. “You know—the area.”
“Beautiful place,” he said.
They laughed together. The whole region was flat, an endless field decorated only with strip malls and highways. Flatlands beneath boring clouds all the way north to Oklahoma.
“And you? What town did you watch fade in your rearview?”
“A place so small it hardly deserves a name. In Alabama. An hour or so outside of Birmingham.”
“Oh, so you’re a real country guy.”
“Tent revivals and bingo halls, the whole deal.”
“We just play the part here, but we’re city people.”
Later, James dropped Theresa off outside the shack, and a swarm of dogs shot out from the open garage. Dashed straight to the passenger side. Jumped and barked until she rolled down the window and petted them.
“That’s a lot of dogs y’all got,” James said.
Theresa smiled in a way closer to wincing. “Orphans, sort of. My mom takes in every stray in the neighborhood. She can’t hardly feed us, but she cooks rice and beans for those dogs every day.”
“Hm. Sounds rough.”
“What’s rough are the flea bites.”
She rolled up her sock. Little bites circled her ankle. Scratched raw and scabbed and scratched raw again. Bubbled yellow with puss. “The old lady loves them,” she said. “Makes me and my sisters cook them meals. All we’re allowed to eat is the oatmeal.”
“Oatmeal’s not so bad.”
“Ever tried Welfare oatmeal?”
James looked up at the shack. The wooden outer walls shed paint like dead skin. The roof sagged in the center. The shape of an old woman, slumped and shadowed, stood in the window.
He said, “If I’m out of line, just say, but …”
“Why don’t you stay at my place tonight?”
The ‘Vette backed down the drive, flicking up gravel on either side. Theresa looked in the rearview. James turned and they passed the old birdfeeder mailbox and knocked-over trash cans. James hit the gas and the car shook over a pothole. Theresa looked up. Watched the old shack fade in the rearview.
Theresa whips the Kia right on Park Avenue. She’s in no hurry to get where she’s going, but to hell with the No Right on Red sign. Reeboks sneakers dangle from a power line. Like her boy’s but bigger. The clouds turn grey, gather above in bulbs. The pistol is in her purse on the passenger seat. Can’t weigh more than a pound or two, but it may as well tip the car on its side, heavy as it weighs on Theresa.
Flashes of sunlight hack through the dusk, flicker low in the distance. Shacks speck the horizon. Shadows shifting shapes. Theresa eases up on the gas. Coasts past Hilltop 24 Liquor. She guesses the name’s ironic.
A bunch of winos quiver in the parking lot. Streetlamp light shivers on the street surface. Theresa swings into the parking lot and the baby monitor spills out of her purse, clunks on the floorboard. She reaches over. Puts it back in the purse. The Kia fits nicely between two parked pickups. One has a bumper sticker with a photo of a crying baby boy. If He’s Not Alive, Why Kill Him? it says.
Theresa steps out and a wino starts sauntering her way, swaying his head to either side. He clears his throat. Looking him over, she guesses he’s around twenty-five, twenty-six.
“I can’t help you,” Theresa says. Likes to cut them off before they start in on her. Besides, she’s here to beg, too.
“Lady,” the wino says, but Theresa turns away.
“Lady,” he shouts. Cicadas rattle all around. He raises his voice. “Lady.”
Drunks just don’t know when to quit, she thinks. She walks across the parking lot, stepping on the weeds pushing up through the pavement. “Lady, please,” the wino says, but Theresa isn’t listening. Her heartbeat in her ears. Ready to show James what’s what.
She stops and checks the number. Unit 105. Ready to kick down the door. Remembers the pistol back in her purse. Someone’s moaning in the apartment, a throaty moan, equal parts wounded and pleasure.
Theresa starts back to the Kia. Laughs to herself. Thinks, Boy, am I going to feel bad interrupting whatever’s going on in there.
Theresa knows the point when it happened, when it all changed. It was two years after they’d married, the marriage the outcome of a whim-of-the-moment trip to the county courthouse. Sounded like a good idea on their sixth date.
James never had a problem making money, even if his ideas weren’t always straight. He knew how much security mattered to her. She’d told him more times than she could count, the way her mother used to blow her entire Navy pension on the strays and wine. James always had a plan. One scam ran out of steam and he already had the next lined up. Spent a couple years selling low-cost chemicals for big prices to cleaning companies. A year in telemarketing. But after he got the idea to buy a slum apartment and started losing cash hand over fist, Theresa couldn’t help but look back and think that she should have fought it more.
“It was a sure-fire deal,” he said.
“Then why’d it go wrong?” she said.
“It wasn’t in my hands.”
“Then whose hands was it in?”
And Theresa knew it, she knew how much people changed when they felt pinched, but it still came as a surprise when James raised his fist for the first time. Told herself it was a one-time incident. Before James, she had only known three types of men: those who groped her at the club, those who treated her like jailbait and kept a wide berth, and those who hit. James had now turned out like the rest of them.
The first time he had her drive to the apartment complex, she parked in the liquor store lot. Tried to coach herself. An hour later, she was still sitting behind the wheel. Coiled up in the seat. Crying.
“This is the last time you come back without cash,” he said. She knew he could talk big sometimes. Also knew he meant it this time.
A truck passes, sprays up puddle water. Soaking, Theresa listens to her shoes squish in the damp grass. Crosses the street, makes toward her car.
The wino is still there. Has a wino buddy now. Together, the two huddle between her Kia and the pickup next to it. The Kia’s passenger door is wide open. Wino number one fiddles with something. The clouds are clogged with rain—Theresa smells it.
The first wino crowds Theresa. She tries to push him off, but while she’s distracted, his wino buddy snatches the keys from her hands. Wino number one takes the pistol from her purse. Theresa thinks, A pistol seems a hell of a lot bigger when it’s shoved in your face.
She could cry, but what comes out is much worse: She asks if either wino has kids.
“Yeah,” wino number one says.
“What? Yes,” his buddy adds.
“They as worthless as y’all?”
“Lady, fuck yourself,” wino number one says.
She knows it sounded bad, but she didn’t mean it that way. Just needs to know if shitbag parents could only give birth to shitbag kids.
The wino cuts the Kia left on Malcolm X. Shouts something drunk out the window. Theresa’s purse flies out. Flips, hits the grass, and falls open. Sends the baby monitor somersaulting.
As quickly as the door opens, Theresa swings the baby monitor as hard as her arms allow. Nails the woman on the face, sends her back-first to the floor. Theresa steps over the tenant, straddles her, sees her brow, busted open and bloody. The woman is snorting and sucking air, shocked. The room smells of sex and sadness. A man snores loudly in the bed. Never so much as flinches. All Theresa can see of him are his ankles. Hairy, white flesh jutting from the sheets.
“Fucking winos,” Theresa says. She sets off on foot—the walk home will take an hour, maybe more. She thumbs through a wad of cash, says, “Fucking meth monsters.”
Shadows paint the street, the shape of trees. Theresa lies on her front lawn, hugs the baby monitor to her chest. Pulls it close to her ear and holds her breath. Listens to James stomping around inside. The blinds slit open. Light spilling out on the grass.
James is coming, but shadows give her cover. She pulls a hundred from the cash, stuffs the rest in the mailbox. She’s got her mind on somewhere. Doesn’t know where exactly.
Theresa starts off down the street. The wind picks up, murmurs through the leaves. She keeps the baby monitor held to her ear. Hears now the soft wheeze of her boy’s sleep. James bursts out into the lawn. Waving his arms all over. Flashing the flashlight up and down the street. Theresa dives onto the grass past the curb. She’ll wait him out. When he’s drunk and asleep, she and the boy will set out, watch the town shrink in the rearview, windows down and breeze biting their faces. She’ll find work, find a way to make rent money. She now shrivels as small as she can. Squeezes her eyes shut as the flashlight glow crawls her way, stretches out its fingers and grabs at her.
Patrick Strickland is a writer and journalist from Texas. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Barcelona Review, The Coachella Review, The Broadkill Review, This Great Society, and MonkeyBicycle. He has an MFA from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and works as a news editor at the Dallas Observer.