The coals were graying, but Bill poked at them anyway. He caught himself doing it and tensed to hear her criticism. It didn’t come. He glanced at her. She was distracted, watching the sky.
“Look,” she said, motioning. They quieted as geese streamed overhead so that they could hear the creaking of the birds’ wings, flapping. Everything was still for that moment, then, as the birds passed, the noise of peepers in the sinkhole between them and their apartment building started again. He wondered if that was true; if they really quieted down to hear the geese as it seemed to happen. Maybe they thought the geese would eat them. Did geese eat frogs? He didn’t know.
“Thirty thousand,” she said. “To buy the franchise rights.”
“The name, you mean?” He said and swigged his beer. It was a local brand. An ale. He’d never had an ale before he met her.
“Yeah,” she said.
“You could get a small business loan and set up in a mall,” he said.
“Thing is, the one in Charlotte was in a mall, and it wasn’t very good,” she said.
He took another drink, noticing that she was halfway done with hers, and his was barely below the base of the neck. He was fine sitting out there, smelling the charcoal and watching the geese. That’s all he needed. That and a beer, even if it was an ale.
“I’d rather set up in the market area, like the one in Fayetteville. We’d get killer business. Rent would be way more expensive,” she said. “This is the time to do something like this, before we have kids.”
She’d been talking about this earlier and he hadn’t picked up on it. He knew she was unhappy teaching, though she and he both knew she was good at it. He’d seen a sign in the window of an ice cream place they’d stopped at on the way to the store for charcoal, saying “Now Hiring Scoopers.”
“One scoop,” she was saying, always conscientious.
“Hey,” he’d said, cutting her off. “You should apply for that.”
It had annoyed her, and later, at the store, he repeated the mistake by pointing out the sign saying “Now Hiring Deli/Produce. Part time/Full time.” She’d nearly started crying out of anger and frustration, right there beside the cheeses. And she wasn’t a crier.
Back in the present, he pointed out, “You like teaching, you like doing good, even if it’s ridiculously hard. Would you be happy selling bath stuff?”
“I just want to work at Bath Junkie,” she said with a pathos that took him aback. But he lost the moment in the rush to get charcoal and get back to the grill before someone else claimed it.
Sitting there, with the fire going, he realized that he had been ignoring her unhappiness for several months, at least. It was something he humored when it came up, as he guessed he was doing now, but he had no real passion for fixing the problem. But even this, he’d thought before.
Another flock of geese flew over and they quieted to listen to their wings once more. The geese lived in a ditch on the other side of the apartment complex, really about two blocks down the road, outside a gaited retirement community. They saw the birds every day, passed them on the far side of the fence, begging, though he wondered for the first time, sitting there, how they didn’t get over the fence. They could fly, after all. Even when people pulled over and fed them bread crumbs or whatever you fed geese, they stayed behind the fence. It was only now, that they were leaving, that Bill took an interest in them.
He took another swig of beer, measuring it against her bottle. She was on her second. This was his third.
“We should do it,” he said. “I mean we couldn’t do it now, but if we save, get some money built up. We could get a loan for the thirty thousand, then we’d have to have, what, six months, a year’s worth of rent saved up?”
“Wouldn’t hurt,” she said. “No one would give us a loan, though.”
“Sure they would,” he said but she was leaning forward, poking at the coals, not listening.
She stood and opened the hot dogs and put them on. He grabbed the sausages and put them on, getting in her way more than helping. Then they put the vegetable mix she’d made on, wrapped in aluminum foil. She worried the dogs and the veggies and he decided to sit and drink his beer and ignore her. When she quit and sat herself, he spoke again.
“We could save up. Start in a mall or somewhere cheap like that, then move when things picked up. We could even start out selling at the farmers’ market. We could do it. We could get a loan. I bet my Dad would cosign. He’s still got a lot of land, he’d do it. He might even loan us some of the principle, or go partners. It’s a great idea,” he said. “We could plan for it, maybe five years down the road, something like that.”
She shrugged. “Maybe,” she said. Suddenly, she turned to him. “Thanks,” she said, and kissed him.
He smiled back and they watched the food burn, which didn’t take long. It was still winter, but it was warm out. Warm enough. It was supposed to snow in a couple days, though. It had been her idea, to grill. It was always her idea, it seemed. Feeling her, just to his side, he realized not for the first time that he was cheating, somehow; that he had something he didn’t deserve. She was smarter than him, he knew that. Better looking than he deserved. She worked hard and made more teaching than he did managing a book store. Maybe this is why I ignore her, sometimes, he thought. Because I know I don’t deserve her.
They gathered their things; she took the food up, he took the trash and their camp chairs, which they kept in the trunk of her car, for quick trips to the river.
He was still working on his beer when he came around to the front of their building, and found her car. He dug her keys out, opened the trunk and set the chairs in, pausing to swig his beer.
Behind him, he could hear two kids playing in front of the building across from his. He glanced at them, a girl and a boy, maybe twelve. They were both very obese in a way that disturbed Bill. They were wearing shorts, the boy’s drooped down below his knees, his butt covered only by his dirty tee shirt. The girl’s shorts were higher, more revealing, though she also wore a dirty tee.
They were throwing something back and forth. It was a bottle of some kind. The boy threw it and it landed on the ground. The girl picked it up and tossed it back. The boy missed and it slipped into the bushes behind him. The girl started laughing.
“Get it,” the boy said.
“I’m not getting it,” the girl said, still laughing. But she stepped closer to the boy.
“Get it,” he repeated. “It’s your drink.”
The girl moved closer and the boy stood there, staring, until she finally went into the bushes.
“Ow,” she said.
It made Bill uncomfortable. He closed the trunk and headed for the Dumpster with the bag of ashes they’d cleaned from the communal grill when they started.
He tossed his trash in and drained his beer, which was half gone. That would make three. He’d always been a lightweight when it came to drinking. His wife, on the other hand, drank wine every day and downed hard liquor without thinking. After three beers, he was too far gone to drive. He was having problems finishing this one, but he didn’t want to pour it out.
Behind him, he could hear the girl complaining about the hedge hurting her. Bill turned. The boy was laughing at her.
“No, stupid, it’s over there,” he said.
The girl made her way slowly to where the boy was pointing. When she got there, she bent and squeezed between the bush and the wall of the building and fished the bottle out. She handed it to the boy.
Bill could see that it contained some sort of soda. The boy shook it up, quickly, and opened it, spraying the girl who was trapped between the sharp bush and the wall. She shrieked and jumped, cutting herself on the leaves of the bush, which made her scream more. She made her way out, cussing at the boy.
The boy laughed and pointed. Bill paused on this moment; it was such an odd thing. He didn’t think people actually pointed like that, like they would in a movie or something. It made the boy seem like a cartoon, that and the baggy clothes and the fact that he was fat. Bill backed away from this line of reasoning; he wasn’t too thin himself.
The girl got out from the bushes and grabbed her drink. She slapped the boy, hard, on the side of his head, and started to run away. The boy stood for a moment, stunned, and chased the girl with a determined stride. He caught her as she rounded the edge of the rickety fence that lined the path from the parking lot to the stairs of the apartment building. He grabbed her shirt, swinging her into the fence, knocking a plank from it.
“Hey,” Bill said, as if waking up.
He walked over to the kids. The boy tensed, his face screwed up in a sneer as though he was getting ready to cry or pull a gun. The girl just looked scared, as though it was her fault.
Bill stood in front of them. Now that he was there, he had no idea what he should do.
“You gonna give me that beer?” the boy said, before Bill could even think.
“Sure,” he said.
“Really?” The boy said, letting go of the girl.
“Sure,” Bill said. “Here.” He sloshed what was left of the beer at the boy’s head.
The girl yelled, “Hey!” and stepped between them.
It stopped Bill dead. They all stood, staring at each other. A smile crept onto the boy’s face.
“Be nice to people,” Bill said. It was all he could think of. He turned and took the bottle back the Dumpster and threw it in. He crossed to his building but couldn’t start up the stairs without looking back. The boy was brushing himself off. He saw Bill looking and gave him the finger. The girl glared after him.
Upstairs, they sat down to eat. She was having another beer so he had one too. He didn’t tell her about the kids. He wasn’t sure how to. He expected, any moment, a knock on the door followed by angry parents, police. Was it assault, what he’d done?
As they ate, they chatted. He kept trying to bring things back to Bath Junkie. He felt ashamed that he hadn’t realized how unhappy she was.
“It just makes my stomach knot up, thinking of spending the next twenty years teaching,” she said.
“Sure,” he said. “But we’ve got a plan.”
“No we don’t,” she said.
“This is your problem,” he said. “You don’t have any balls.”
She stared at him.
Somebody knocked on the door. For a moment, he heard it clear and crisp. “I got it,” he said, rising too quickly, almost knocking his chair over. Then the sound repeated and he realized it was another door in their building.
He sat back down, slowly.
“What’s wrong with you?” his wife asked.
He put his finger to his lip, listening. A moment passed. He heard knocking again. Was it at another door?
“Nothing,” he said. “I’ve had too much to drink.”
“What are you on, three?”
“Four, with this one,” he said.
“You better slow down,” she said.
The knock came then. He jumped, though he’d known it was coming.
“You sure you’re okay?” she said.
“I’ll get it,” she said.
“No,” he said and ran to the door, just in front of his wife. He hesitated; there was nothing to do but open it.
It was the girl from outside. She caught his eye and glared and started to speak and suddenly it wasn’t her. It was another girl, smiling. She said something about magazine subscriptions and a school trip. Bill was having a hard time understanding what was being said. He stared at her, shaking his head, until his wife shouldered around him and politely told the girl they weren’t interested.
“I’m a teacher,” she said. “I already know about it.“
She closed the door and turned to stare at him.
In bed that night, he thought about the beer and Bath Junkie and how miserable his wife was.
Beside him, she lay sleeping.
He wanted to wake her up, tell her what happened. She might think it’s funny, there’s no telling. He wrestled with it, telling himself he should tell her, but he knew he wasn’t going to. This must be what it’s like for her, he thought.
His mind went from that to the girl. Why had she defended the boy? Bill didn’t know. He didn’t know why his wife didn’t leave him, either. He didn’t know how to make her happy. Outside, he heard a noise. It might’ve been someone knocking on a door. He strained to listen, wanting it to be the creaking of geese wings, though it was probably too late at night for that, he thought, but he didn’t know. It could’ve been anything.
Return to Volume 2.6
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