Department of First Stories

Some Kind of Lonely

by Samantha Allen

My husband hit me once. It was an accident—I touched him when he was sleeping and he, being a combat vet, woke up swinging. Hit me in the mouth and split my lip. I’ll never forget how bad that hurt, him hitting me, but the point is that he didn’t mean it. People are cruel sometimes and it’s more about them than anyone else. I can tell you how all our lives Darryl and I have had our enemies, both real and imagined, but never meant no harm.

It was the day of Darryl’s memorial that I first got the sleepy feeling in my hands. A strange sensation that hasn’t really left me—especially after all that’s happened since—a tingling like I’ve been pinned under something heavy and all the blood’s drained out of me. It takes over my whole body so I feel as though I’m hovering on the outside of things. It was a sunny day, clear, but flat-seeming—winter sunshine out here is just that, flat, not near enough to warm you—and I remember I shivered, looked up at the sky, and said we could use a good rain. The handful of old farmers in attendance nodded. How the funeral director rounded up more than two active servicemen for the memorial, I don’t know. I live in Idell and there aren’t young people here anymore. We stood outside the VFW hall and buglers played taps for Darryl. It was like I was watching someone else when the handsomest one gravely folded empty shells into the flag and placed it in my hands.

This was also the day that Cody and Lupe came to me. My second cousin had driven me home from the service in her husband’s pickup, saran-wrapped plates of untouched deviled eggs and finger sandwiches stacked in my lap. The leftover cotton crop that littered the roadside reminded me of the balled-up Kleenex on my bedroom floor. My cousin had offered to stay, but I knew she was relieved when I told her to go home. It was cold inside the house, drafty, and the highway hollered right along with the wind outside—eighteen-wheelers came round the corner so fast I didn’t even bother keeping a cat—never had a pet out here that didn’t get run over. I looked out the window and remembered how every morning at dawn Darryl was out patrolling the sidewalk—in his bathrobe, mind you, as if no one could see him—just watching the cars pass. I put the leftovers up and was thinking on taking black-eyed peas from the freezer, how I could open up a jar of my chow-chow. Lord, I had a lot of preserves. When Darryl stopped eating and the hospice came it was summer and, without pause or consideration for the way my world stopped, berries, tomatoes, melons, and hot peppers had come up strong and unyielding in my garden. I ate and ate for both of us and canned the rest. I was blue thinking on those summer foods sealed tight and away, and my doorbell rang.

They came from the motel across the highway. Two of them ran the place—the Western Winds it was called—and lived in one of the backrooms. They came into ownership from one of Lupe’s aunts or maybe a cousin. Either way, the place was nearly abandoned then and these two had their work cut out for them. If the original owners could’ve seen the paint peeling like it was, begonias gone to hell, they’d have had a fit. But that’s just how it is in Idell these days, dead.

I spoke through the locked storm door like Darryl said I should. “What can I do for you?”

“We wanted to offer our condolences,” Lupe said, holding out a limp-looking violet.

“And let you know if you need anything to give us a holler. Lupe’s here during the day,” Cody said, his arm around her waist. I guessed they were about thirty, but of a sudden seemed very young to me—something about their earnestness, their clothes a little wrinkled and big on them—and I had the urge to praise them for their good manners.

“Why don’t you come inside,” I said and held both doors open. “Forgive me not having you sooner, you moved in not long before my husband got sick.”

“Only if you’re not tired!”

I waved them in. “I have relish trays left over. Coffee?”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Cody said and wiped his boots on the mat. His face was round and clean-shaven then. He took off his denim jacket and his muscled arms were covered with writing I couldn’t read without my glasses on. I think how I once wanted to trace the black curls of ink with my finger and oh, my face burns. We visited a good while and fell into a rhythm real quick, like I’d known them a long time. Cody telling me what their friends and siblings been up to, who I, of course, didn’t know from Adam, but still I listened and turned over every word in my head. I watched Lupe with her warm brown eyes and naked lashes—none of that tacky glitter crud I seen the other girls her age wearing—and thought her eyes made her so soft seeming, youthful, though she already had worry lines and wore her hair in a tight knot.

Lupe took my hand in hers and said, “Minnie, you just seem like a kind person. Your Darryl must have loved you an awful lot.” I was sensitive then, of course, but it was something in the way she looked at me with such conviction, I felt warm all over.

I had them for supper the next night, and the next, and then a couple nights a week. Told them my best stories from when Darryl and me were kids. The rowdy dances at the icehouse in Jud, the year Idell had the championship football team, the time Darryl was fixing the electric in the attic at this lady’s house and fell halfway through the ceiling, his legs dangling right down into her parlor—that one cracked them up. And after they left at night I’d sit in Darryl’s recliner and talk to him about the kids. Darryl never liked many people, and we had lived a quiet life. I told myself Cody and Lupe’d have amused him, though I knew that wasn’t true.

*   *   *

One day I decided to move Darryl’s things out of the bedroom. Not everything—kept a shirt of his that was soft, the Ray Charles record he loved. Almost kept his journals—thought I’d read some of his poems now that he couldn’t stop me. But I opened the cover of one and it was about a villager with his legs blowed off. Ugly things. A soldier with hollow eye sockets shaped like stars. I closed the cover and sat on the floor of our bedroom, my hands tingling as the sleepy feeling came over me. Sat on the floor a long time before I came back to myself and could tape the boxes. I almost loaded them in the Lincoln to drive over to Goodwill but couldn’t quite go so far. We have a big shed out back. It’s where I keep dry goods and preserves, and was a shop of sorts for Darryl, with a drafting table and all his tools hanging on the wall.

I was bringing a particularly heavy box out to the shed—all his medical supplies and pills, none of it I knew how to get rid of properly—when I seen Cody in the motel parking lot. He was with a man fixing the gutters. I put the box down and called out to say hello. The Western Winds had gotten busier. Cars and pickups passed through at all hours of the day now. One night a drunken couple stumbled from their car, arguing, and the woman fell and nearly got hit by a truck. I wasn’t going to live across from a flophouse—I said as much to Lupe, gently as I could, and she explained that’s the only type of people would be willing to stay in a place like the Western Winds. It was going to take time to get the motel nice again, to make it a family place. So, I’d seen a couple rough-looking characters, but this man was different from the get-go. Him and Cody were arguing over the gutters. Cody wasn’t the type to raise his voice, not that I’d witnessed, and here he was yelling. I felt relieved thinking they hadn’t heard me call out, but then Cody must’ve seen me walking. He started across the highway, this other man at his heels.

“Let me get that for you,” Cody said and took the box. “This is Johnny.”

“You’re the auntie I hear about,” Johnny said and took my hand in his. I’d never seen a more unfortunate-looking thing—no chin, thin lips, and he was big, maybe three hundred pounds—and tried not to draw back. Took the two of them only a few minutes to finish carrying everything to the shed. They sat the last boxes down and Johnny picked up a jar of peach preserves from the high shelf.

“Oh, I’m not sure how old that is,” I lied and took the jar from his hand. It was from last summer. I blushed and wished he’d leave it be or look away, as if looking at the fruit suspended in glass you could see something private.

“Ought to let me try some.” He grinned and took another bottle off the shelf, some okra. “My granddad made the best pickles. I used to love being in the kitchen with him, listening to the radio together.”

Cody jiggled the door handle and felt along the frame. “Remind me to come over here and fix your handle, add some weather stripping. Wouldn’t want rats. You know they contort their body to fit through holes this big?” he said and squeezed his thumb and forefinger close.

Johnny moved toward Darryl’s shop table. “Wouldn’t want someone getting after those nice power tools neither.”

I felt anxious then, thinking about people touching Darryl’s things. “We never had a problem. Darryl would have fixed—”

Cody jiggled the handle again, louder. “That’s why I ought to take care of it now.”

“Well now, there’s no hurry,” I said. It was ridiculous, but I felt I had betrayed Darryl bringing the boys in there.

“I could help too,” Johnny said and tugged his shirt down over his big stomach.

Cody shook his head then turned to me. “You don’t think I know what I’m talking about, do you? I’m a handy man by trade, Minnie. But fine, your call—”

“Well, maybe you know better,” I said and the shed felt tight, not enough air. It was so stale—the wood shavings, Johnny reeking of cigarets and sweat. My hands felt tingly again. “Why don’t we sit up on the porch? I’ll fix us some lemonade,” I said to get them out.

Back in the kitchen and feeling more myself, I thought, here I am acting strange, but all these two are doing is being neighborly. So I brought my pocketbook out with the lemonade. “You kids go out tonight on me,” I said and handed Cody a fifty.

“No, ma’am,” Cody said, but couldn’t stop from grinning as I pressed the money into his palm.

“Go on down to Abilene, have fun.”

Johnny’s eyes about popped out of his head. It occurs to me that besides his old granddad, Johnny probably didn’t receive much kindness from the people in his life. And it makes me so sad.

*   *   *

Darryl and I never could conceive, and though I’d long stopped feeling jealous when everyone we knew was having babies, and that pleased little smile on their faces—some secret knowledge mothers possess that I never would—had stopped hanging over me, when Lupe told me she was pregnant I felt an old pinch in my chest. It quickly passed, but instead of fluttering with joy, as I knew was appropriate, I felt solemn almost, moved this young woman had come to confide in me. I took her hand and we sat on my porch swing.

“What will you name it, dear?” I tried to smile, but felt like someone had dropped a rock down the deep well inside me.

Lupe rocked the swing with her foot. “Something pretty like Lila or Sofia. For a boy we’re thinking Colt. Got some time to decide—there’s other things to take care of first, like figure out where it’ll sleep!”

“That’s right.” I nodded, suddenly sad imagining a baby toddling around the motel parking lot. “Has Cody started that class yet?” A couple weeks before, they’d made mention of his interest in joining the service. He could go to university after, maybe Lupe too. I thought it was a good idea, so I got him all set up—check and everything—to take GED prep at a school in Abilene.

“Yeah, last week. But, another reason I came over is I wanted to ask if you’d go to church with me—I don’t have anyone to go with since Cody gets all stubborn about it, and I think it’d be a good time for me to get in touch with Jesus again,” Lupe said, toying with the cameo bracelet on her wrist, one I’d given her. She’d been admiring it, and it was only costume jewelry, so I fastened it on her one day. She stared at me and asked why I was doing that. I told her it was because I never wore it, and after that she didn’t seem so uncomfortable asking me for things.

“Darryl and me weren’t much on regular churchgoing,” I said.

“Oh.”

“We just went on Easter, usually,” I laughed. “I’ll admit I’m curious what the Catholic Mass is like. All that incense and stained glass must be beautiful.”

“I’m not Catholic.”

I blushed red and it was her turn to laugh. “This place is nondenominational or whatever. They meet in the old Methodist chapel in Anson.”

“That’s nearly an hour’s drive, but okay,” I said.

Lupe squeezed my shoulder. Self-conscious, I looked down at the liver-spotted hands in my lap. Don’t think I noticed before that moment how thin my skin had become with age, how exposed were my bones and veins.

*   *   *

After church everyone walked across a breezeway to what they called Harmony Hall for social hour. The hunched-over lady who’d played piano was now standing at a plastic picnic table slicing chocolate sheet cake to put on paper plates. She stared at me with watery eyes, then she smiled—poor thing had a scribble of lipstick on her teeth—and I realized she was my old friend Anita. We hugged and were chatting when out the corner of my eye I saw Lupe. I’m tired, you ready? she mouthed to me. Anita looked at Lupe and back at me. “I’ll give you a ride home, Minnie! We got catching up to do.”

Lupe shrugged, didn’t seem to mind.

Anita said, “I have to collect my sheet music. Walk with me.” She had run in the same circles as me when we were girls, was a music teacher until they consolidated the area schools and ended the band program at Idell. Her husband Tommy, also in our class, was now homebound with an aide. She put her arm around my shoulder and led me inside the sanctuary. “I’m sorry about Darryl, feel awful I didn’t make it to his memorial. Did you get my card? You know I wanted to call when I saw the obit.”

“Don’t feel bad,” I said and looked down. I knew it was mine and Darryl’s fault we’d lost touch with folks, but it did sting when so few had come to his service.

Anita folded her music book into her purse. “I’ve missed you, Minnie. You never came around much. Had to run into you at church of all places! It’s so good you’re here—I do love this place. Pastor Dee has a way with the telling. There’s a potluck next Sunday, you’ll have to bring some of your famous preserves. And come to Bible study on Wednesday, bingo Fridays . . .”

I nodded, was flattered she seemed to want to be my friend after all this time. She opened a closet door behind the piano bench and motioned me to follow. Bottles of red wine and boxes of wafers sat next to stacks of plastic communion cups and gold trays. She took a half-empty bottle and uncorked it, taking a long pull. Even I balked at drinking behind the altar, but reasoned this was a day of new experiences. Just like their pastor had said: Open up your heart. After the third or fourth pass, a wash of warmth settled in my arms and legs.

“I do this once a month on communion Sunday. Found out they just toss the opened bottles. It’s a sin to waste.”

“I’d say so.”

“Minnie,” she said, “you kin to that girl? Don’t think I’ve seen her before.”

“Lupe’s a dear friend,” I replied and Anita raised an eyebrow, pursed her mouth. The way she’d said “that girl,” I could’ve spit! “It’s good to have some young blood around. Her and her boyfriend, well, I really like them. They’re over at the Western Winds. Really sweet kids.”

“They must keep you company nowadays,” she said.

My mind trailed off thinking of Darryl, or maybe the wine hit me just so on an empty stomach, but I started crying a little. “You spend your entire life with someone and you get used to things being a certain way,” I said.

“Tommy, we’ve been together so long, it’s like we’re one person.”

“I’ve been lonely a long time—”

“Oh, honey!”

“What I’m trying to say is, you miss them constantly but you can do what you want when they’re gone.” My voice sounded shaky. I had that feeling of being outside myself again. “It’s almost a load off.”

“Especially with someone like Darryl,” she mumbled and I remembered Anita and our other best girlfriend hadn’t liked Darryl at first. They thought he was too serious for me, but he was just older—twenty-six to my seventeen—and they didn’t understand. Darryl showed up at the drive-in one night, in his own car, looking so handsome, and I fell—it’s funny the things you see and don’t see, the future you can’t predict.

We finished the bottle and stumbled out into the noon sun. The gravel parking lot was empty save her car, and yet Anita jerked that old sedan into reverse and hit a bike rack. We got out and heard the tire hissing. “Aw, hell.” She shook her head. “I’ll call Tommy’s aide.”

We sat in the car to wait, my buzz dimming. Anita hung up and seemed to sink into the burgundy-colored seats. “Minnie, I don’t want to be forward, but do you think those two living in the motel are trying to get their paws on your money? No secret you and Darryl came away with some after selling your daddy’s land.”

“I’m old and silly, not senile.”

“I know. It’s just—”

“It’s just what? Do you know you have lipstick on your teeth, Anita?”

“Had to ask. Sorry,” she said and patted her mouth with a Kleenex she had tucked into her sleeve.

“Besides,” I said, “my parents have been gone twenty years. You think that’s hot news?”

She laughed. “Your mama was so pretty, and your daddy such a hoot—like how he’d run outside in his stocking feet? Didn’t he say he had a sixth sense, even when he was inside, about the weather? That’s why he’d run out the house?”

I smiled, hadn’t thought about that in a long time. “It was the wind. He could sense a shift, said he could feel it coming a storm. He was right often, but usually he looked downright crazy out there waiting on the wind to change.”

“I miss them, those days,” Anita sighed.

“Me too.” I looked at her—tipsy with lipstick still on her damn teeth—and laughed until my side ached.

 

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Copyright © 2018. Some Kind of Lonely by Samantha Allen

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