So I entered a contest by Janet Reid, and won a new audio book. And still can't quite believe it.
However, as a writing exercise, I decided to take my Award Winning Story (BTW I feel like the dad from A Christmas Story. All I need is the goddamn leg lamp and I'll be right there. It's an award, damn it. IT'S A MAJOR AWARD!!!) and flesh it out a bit...meaning that the opening paragraph is the part that won, and the rest of it is me trying to understand the kind of characters the story made. I had three specific characters in mind when I started, and wound up with three kind of almost-the-same characters when I finished it ... and oh just read the goddamn story already.
Comment if you love me. Or the story. Same difference.
“I think you mean punch drunk.” We’d had rum combos the night before. “Why?”
“He’s so hungover, his dignity’s tied to his gumbelt.”
I looked. “Dingbat. You mean he’s got the dinghy hooked to his gunbelt.” My sister’s boyfriend did indeed have his belt hooked to the yellow boat.
“Whatever. Hey, watch this.” Julie exited stage right. A few seconds later I heard two angry roars, first the boat, then the man. Julie returned, smiling.
“So when are you going to dump him?” I asked.
She watched him chase his runaway jeans. “I think I just did.”
Ralph met my sister at a Portland bar—Texas, not Oregon—and bought her cocktails all night long. Julie bought him, hook, line and Camaro. Which sat out on our driveway for six months on cinder blocks. Ralph wasn’t good at fixing cars. Or paying rent, which was why he moved in with us instead of the far-more preferable option of Julie moving in with him.
My sister. Julia Elizabeth Grimstad, who bleached her hair so the drapes would match the rest of the house. She wasn’t the forget-your-car-keys kind of blond. She was the whiteout-on-screen, tampon-behind-ear-and-she-can’t-find-her-pencil kind. We had one of those love-to-hate relationships, and I still don’t understand why I let her move in.
“It wasn’t my fault,” she said, and handed me a box that rattled alarmingly. “I did put drop cloths down.”
In the middle of the floor, I thought, leaving three feet of hardwood exposed for all to see. And you were painting the room dead-rose red. But the landlords had rented to Julie for a year. They should have known that permission to paint meant a call to the building inspector to make sure the house was still sound.
That was two years ago, and we’d finally beaten things into more-or-less peaceful shape. Julie started buying her own groceries. I got used to two-a.m. cooking sessions and oh-god-what-is-that moments in the fridge the next day. And she paid rent. On time, all the time. Sometimes more than she had to when my mortgage was due.
And then came Ralph.
He drove up in that once-white, open-bed truck with a shovel and six rose bushes in the bed, blooms so deep purple they looked black. It was an omen. He had a fluffy white kitten in the front seat which eyed me acquisitively. Julie pounced and started with the baby-talk immediately. “What are the roses for?” she asked.
Not “what is the cat for,” mind. Nope. That part, we got.
“You said your sister needed some landscape work done. So I figured,” he trailed off. Fragmentary sentence structure was his specialty. It fit. He never finished anything else, you know?
“They’re …black.” She said.
“Violet. A new breed. Cost forty dollars a pot.” He took his hand off his car and put it on my sister. He looked over at me. “Hi Laurie.”
“Lucy.” I hated the roses.
A month later he got kicked out for stealing from his landlord, and Julie invited him home. The cat developed a severe allergy to baby-talk and decided I made a better owner than Julie did. She apologized. I like cats. I don’t like cat litter in my bed, though, and Paler always brought half the box back with him when he was done.
A week later, I dropped the want-ads into Ralph’s soup.
“What the hell, Lorelai?” He muttered, and glared at me. It was my first introduction to the Ralph Stare.
“What about them?”
“They’re the going thing. Everyone has one except you, and I thought you should get one before they’re all gone.”
He squinted out of one eye. Julie thought they were dream-boat eyes, but I knew better. The Ralph Stare meant he had another hour before he could dress his shark eyes back up in human. “You and I,” he said in careful, measured tones, “are not going to be friends.”
“Not as long as you drink my Hawaiian coffee without replacing it, you’re not. I pay a thousand a month in mortgage. Contribute or migrate, Ralph. I don’t really care which.” I started walking away from him.
“Not if your sister leaves with me.” And he rested his head in his hands and smiled. His blank blue eyes watched me with a clinical glitter I’d never quite seen before.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Julie’s gotten really attached to me…and I noticed you don’t do so good in your job. It’s taking me a while to get back on my feet, and you’ve been established for years. I just need a couple more months. I think your sister would give them to me. Question is, will you let her do it here?” And he drank a long swallow of my coffee. “Or out there?”
That night I helped Julie recreate her latest successful experiment, squash-and-almond stew. It was brilliant, if a little off-putting the first time I saw stringy lumps of spaghetti squash floating in amber liquid. The substitution of butternut was more successful and absolutely divine. “So what’s Ralph’s story?” I said.
“Oh, Lu, it’s awful. He lost everything in the stock market, and a lot of his family’s money too. They won’t speak to him anymore. He did a teensy little bit of time in jail for it. I’m sure it’s not his fault. He’s got nothing.” She picked Paler off the table. “Goddamn cat,” she muttered. I folded my kitten up in my arms and assured him she didn’t mean it. “I thought … I know it happened suddenly, but we can keep him going till he gets a new place to stay.” She paused again. “I think he’s the one. I really do.”
Julie had so many ones she might as well do matching sets. But I took a sip of the stew and kept my mouth shut. “You ought to open a restaurant.” She shrugged and looked embarrassed.
The Camaro ate itself the next day. Ralph leaned against the carcass as it dripped red transmission fluid. He already had the cinder blocks. Julie threw her arms around his neck and sobbed. “Your car! Oh, poor baby.”
But it was me he looked at. “I was going to an interview today, but I came out and…” He shrugged.
“Oh, you can’t possibly go now. Lucy and I will help you get the car fixed, won’t we Lu?”
I thought about the last time I saw my parents. They wanted me in medical school and I wanted to work with computers. I told them to go hang themselves and walked out, and made pretty good money until a couple new advances made my job obsolete. I’d get another decade before I had to throw in the towel, and I wanted my house paid off by then. They left a lot of money to Julie. When she moved in, I asked for half the mortgage payments in rent. She could afford it, I thought.
She could afford to fix his car, too. “Yeah,” I said. A line of red rolled past my foot.
“Oh, baby, don’t throw your money away on my car. I’ll fix it myself.” He was still looking at me.
He used my car whenever he wanted. My pristine Scout got deep scratches in its paint and the garbage layers became petrified. One day I walked into the house and dialed a tow-truck service. Ralph walked in and smiled at me. “Whatcha doing, Lola?”
“I am calling a goddamed tow-truck and taking your waste of space to a garage.”
“You really wanna do that, Lo?” He had been wearing cowboy hats for a week or so. He tilted this one over his eyes. It should have looked silly—Ranchers can wear the things, but most Texans just look like they’re playing Halloween—but I swallowed and felt something go chill in my stomach. “I really like that car.”
“It’ll get fixed.”
“I really like that car where it is.”
“You and my sister can go get an apartment together. I’ll get another tenant.”
He came in close. I could smell the tobacco on his breath. His voice went higher pitched, kind of nasal. “It wasn’t his fault, Lucy,” He whispered. “He slipped. It’s a clean break. My leg will heal in a week or two.”
I put the phone down. “I’ll tell the cops. You’ve got a record.”
“I’ve got a scanner too, and damn cops like to talk. There ain’t much difference,” Ralph said, “Between a leg and a neck.”
I sat down. He left. I could feel the shakes beginning way down deep inside of me, so I let them come out. I watched the light trail across the kitchen. Julie came in and saw me. “Are you alright, Lu?”
I held her and sobbed on her shoulder. My sister. My warm, beautiful, breathing sister. I said, “It’s the balloon payment. I don’t know if I’ll make it.”
“I’ve got it, silly. You’ve got nothing to worry about with us around.”
“Us.” I let go.
“Yeah. Ralph and me.”
I shivered again. Julie moving out with Ralph wasn’t an option now.
I closed my eyes at night and saw those cold blank dead-fish eyes with pupils black as pitch. I began finding reasons to not be at home when I knew he was there because my mouth started to run. Then he’d put his arm around Julie and whisper things against the side of her neck while she giggled—and he’d look at me. Sometimes he’d rest a hand on her thigh. Clench. Release it oh-so-slowly as if it were a loving caress.
I joined the artist center downtown. I did celtic knotwork jewelry with wires from dead modems. I’d hang chips from them and watch the sun spark off the silicone. I was working on this when a young blond man showed up. “You ought to use copper,” he said.
I looked up at him. He had a Norse look about him, very solid. I thought if I hit him, I’d hit a brick wall. His shirt was a generic Wal-Mart number, coated in mud slick from throwing pots, but his jeans were pricy. I thought how nice it would be to date him…but then I thought of Ralph. I was tired of men.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I’ve got a kiln,” he continued. “And I’m baking diachronic glass in it. If you did a bunch of those in copper and we polished up some of the glass into pendants, you and I could make some pretty good money. I’ve never seen wire-work like that.”
I turned my chair in his direction. “How much would your cut be?”
He shrugged. “My gut says fifty-fifty, but you’re doing most of the work there, and I’m just playing with fire. I’m Dave.”
Dave brought a box of glass pendants and polished stones with him the next week, and we spent four days putting together sets, chokers, earrings, and elaborate pendants on long chains. I tentatively put four in the gift shop. The next day the owner came to me and asked for eight. A few days later, she asked for sixteen, and a few days after that she’d take whatever I could make, as fast as I could make them. The chokers, especially. A jewelry store in town asked for them, and I started offering them online. Dave and I talked. I was very careful not to say too much.
“How about you and I go on a date?” Dave asked me, one day.
I agreed. Two days later we parked at an upscale place that specialized in BYO-Fish. Dave had caught red fish that morning. I pointed at the car two down. “That’s my sister’s.”
“Huh. Well, make sure you introduce me. She’s gotta be lovely.” And he touched my face before getting out of the car.
Sure enough, Julie and Ralph were seated just inside the door, waiting on a table. Julie hugged me. I felt her ribs through her blouse. Ralph had her on a diet, and I’d run away to play with sparklies. She headed to the desk to upgrade to a four-top, and I swore that I’d do better. No more Dave or art center. My sister had to be protected.
We all sat down around the table, Dave and I across from Ralph and Julie. We ordered. Dave handed over the fish. Then came the lull between ordering and appetizers, and to my surprise it was Ralph that filled the gap. “What do you do for a living, Dave?”
There was something in his tone. I looked up, and those shark eyes of his were shuttered. He had a string-tie zipped all the way up to his throat. I watched him loosen it. Then tighten it again. He did this all night. Loose. Tight. Loose. As long as Dave was there.
“Well, I met your sister-in-law—“
“Not yet,” Julie muttered.
“Well, I met Lucy, then, down at the art center throwing pots.”
“You’re a potter?” Ralph let go of his string-tie.
“On my off days. On days, I’m a cop. I hadn’t told Lucy yet. I thought our relationship was still strictly business.” He touched me again, and it felt like silk. I guess it was all the clay from the pots.
“Well,” said Ralph, and his hands went back on his string tie.
At one point the guys got up, and I reached across the table and took Julie’s hand. “Is everything alright?”
“I’m glad you got something new going, Lucy. Mom and Dad would be so proud.”
“Mom and Dad wanted me to go to med school.”
Julie laughed. That was when I realized she hadn’t laughed much since she met Ralph. Giggled and simpered, flirted a little bit, but not laughed. “Mom and Dad wanted you to do something that would make a lot of money fast, because they knew you weren’t in for it for long. You’d start painting, or doing jewelry or throwing pots or doing something else that really made you happy. You just had to find it. They left me money because they knew I’d just wind up with a guy.” She paused and scratched her arms. “I’m enrolling in culinary school.”
“Good for you.” I said.
“He cheated on me.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I thought Ralph would bury it so far she’d never find out.
“He doesn’t think I know,” Julie said. “He thinks I believe he’s going job hunting. But he smells like perfume and red wine when he comes home. Sometimes it’s beer and cigarettes. It’s not just one girl. Ralph takes what he can get.”
I was afraid. “Be careful if you break up. I don’t trust him.”
“Break up?” Julie looked mystified. Then she studied her hands until the men came back.
I did my jewelry making at home, and I had Dave over as often as I could. Soon he began showing up in his work car, uniform and all. “You want to go out tonight, Lu? There’s a rom-com at the theater.” He looked up, met Ralph’s eyes, and his hand wound up on his gun.
“I’d rather go see something thriller-ish.” I replied. We’d see the rom-com anyway. I’d go home and see my sister looking so tired and pale. My house smelled like cigarettes now, or weed, and I had no more god-what-is-that moments when I opened the fridge. We ate take-out instead of her cooking.
Julie got more absent-minded, which was a little like saying water got wet except the things she forgot about were pretty incredible. I found salt in our sugar bowl—I left this for Ralph to discover—and when she tried making spaghetti she put too many hot peppers in it—again, I left this to Ralph. Ralph had a UA appointment and Julie didn’t tell him until twenty-four hours before, when he’d done weed that week. He screamed at her so loud, I spent the whole day waiting, waiting, waiting for the crack of something breaking and the scream of sirens. I only hoped it’d be her leg, and that when it happened, it would be over and I could get rid of him.
He passed the UA. I don’t know how.
Finally, I told Dave. We were on the docks fishing, and he wound up his pole before he answered. “You know what he went to jail for?” I shook my head. He cast out again. “Assault on his father. The old man almost died. That is a very dangerous person you got under your roof, and it’s why I’ve been coming over in uniform when I know I shouldn’t.” He reeled in, cast out again. “There’s two other bodies we can’t pin on him. At this point, I don’t think he could hide that he hurt Julie … but I think he would do it just for spite.”
Dave began spending more time at my house.
Then a fashion designer happened upon a pendant of mine in a shop and fell head-over-stiletto heels. He bought everything the shop had and gave me a call. The contract he proposed would pay for my house, and any other odd bills I might ring up. I came home that night with a bottle of rum. Julie was so ecstatic for me, she threw all of our citrus and most everything else into her juicer. For a couple of hours I forgot about Ralph. Dave took me out on the porch where we could look into the water and he kissed me. “You’re a great girl, Lucy Grimstad.”
I sobered up. Well, as much as I could, given the amount of rum I had consumed. “I can’t even take care of my sister.”
He looked at me for a very long moment. “You know why Ralphie’s limping tonight?”
“I think Julie filled the talcum-powder with Gold Bond, and he powdered his…” I trailed off and grinned. Julie didn’t have a mean bone in her body, but her absent-mindedness was amazing.
“Your sister can take care of herself.”
“We have to do something about Ralph.”
He took me in hand. “Trust your sister. I think she’s got it.” He kissed me and left. I finished off the rest of the rum because I didn’t know what else to do. My Julie couldn’t figure her way out of a math problem.
Next morning, my sister said, “Watch this,” and went out on the back porch. Ralph was putting his boots on. The yellow boat belonged to our neighbors, and he leaned up against it with ice against his temple and a shadow across his eyes.
“How’s your head, Honey?” My sister said. Loudly. I could hear her through the door.
“Keep your voice down. It’s aching inside.” He turned the Ralph Stare on my sister. I wondered how long he’d been doing that. Julie put one hand on the side of the boat. Her hand was a little too close to the motor. Ralph studied her for a few minutes. “Sometimes I wonder why you’re worth keeping.”
She smiled broadly and tapped him on the shoulder. “Oh, don’t say that baby. You and I are perfect together.”
He grunted, and closed his eyes. My sister knelt down to say something to him and her fingers slid down the motor housing a little too…not…casually.
I heard the boat motor start up. A beautiful rooster-tail of water shot out of the back and after a few seconds of graceful shuddering, the yellow dinghy began to run away from the dock. Ralph’s eyes shot open. He shouted, “I told you, girl, one more of your—“ and that was all he managed, because his belt was looped through the dinghy’s side ropes and fastened just as securely to his pants. He screamed, a high-pitched, gut clenched, just-got-emasculated vibration, and his eyes bugged out. No more shark-eyes, no sir. Ralph was all frog now. He belly-flopped into the water and managed to grab onto the dock and hold on for dear life. I visualized him skipping over the water, but he wore his pants too loose for that. They curled down, revealing his lily-white buttocks as the boat stole his fancy-ass cowboy boots off his feet.
Huh. I didn’t know Ralph went commando.
“Those jeans!” He screamed. “Those were three hundred dollar jeans! Oh fucking hell, my boots!” He let go of the dock and lay in the water, birthday suit and all. The dinghy hit the sea wall guarding our canal, motored there for a few moments, then sank down into the water in a cloudy bubble hemorrhage. Without looking back at my sister, he breast-stroked towards his oh-so-valuable pants, cursing blue all the way.
My sister came back in and sat down with a strange little smile on her face. A very not-Julie smile. And I began to wonder just how much I knew about my sister. I didn’t think this woman was dumb enough to put Gold-Bond in her talcum powder by accident. Or try to paint her house without drop-cloths.
“So when are you going to dump him?” I asked.
My sister smiled that not-Julie smile. “I think I just did.” She added creamer to her coffee. “There’s a place six miles from here. I’d like to buy it. Open a restaurant, someday.” She sipped. “When are you going to marry Dave?”
I shrugged and made space for Paler. My cat nudged my neck and began to purr. “I hadn’t thought about it.” For the last few months I’d been paying my mortgage without Julie’s help. I’d miss the food, of course. It might make me squirm the first time I saw it, but I’d learned to like what Julie made.
We drank our morning coffee and watched Ralph’s naked retreat from my home.