by Cara Long
“You gotta dig deep,” Sue says to Jake, who is bitching about his life. I mop the sweat from my brow and think about choking her for saying that. Then, switching gears she says, “remember that summer we worked at that berry farm? Man, that was shit work. Worse than this.”
“Listen,” I say, “let’s try to finish up here, alright?”
As soon as I say this, I know that the next remarks will have something to do with me having a bug up my ass, or my panties in a bunch. Instead, Jake and Sue, my crew, stay silent, only exchanging a brief sideways glance and smirk. But they keep their goddamned mouths shut. For the next twenty minutes, the only sound I hear is paint brushes hitting wood siding. I like the sound: a wet, thick, rhythmic slap. Hell, I even like the smell of paint, and some days I don’t even mind the sunburn that comes with the work.
We start packing up at 3:30 and the homeowner comes out to survey our work.
“Looking good,” she says, her arms folded across her chest.
“We should be done by week’s end,” I say. “The barn got finished today.”
She looks out toward the barn then back at me. “Great,” she says. “See you tomorrow then?”
“Bright and early,” I say.
I hop into my truck and back out of the driveway, behind Jake. He beeps his horn and turns right, with Sue waving from the passenger seat; I turn left. Jake and Sue are likely going to hit the bars in town. I have to keep my nose clean – I’ve been sober for just about a year now. Sobriety puts a real fucking strain on things, to be sure. But I’m worse off drunk than I am sober.
I pull up to my place ten minutes later, but have to park my truck way up the street because my goddamned neighbor always has people over. I think he’s selling weed, but I never smell it, so I’m really not sure.
I walk up the steps, just as a woman, young and thin with bad skin, walks out of my neighbor’s place.
“Hey,” she says and lights up a cigarette. She wraps her arms around the post that holds the roof up over the porch. I say “hey” without making eye contact and head into my apartment.
I take my clothes off almost immediately and head for the shower, where I jerk off before getting out. I can hear my neighbor’s TV through the wall.
“Fuck this place,” I say, standing naked in my bathroom. There are no clean towels so I have to use my work t-shirt to dry off.
A little while later, as I’m sprawled out on my couch eating a microwave dinner, I hear a knock at my door. I get up from the couch and look through the peephole to see who it is: it’s the girl from earlier. I hesitate, but then answer the door.
She says, “yeah, sorry to do this, but can I use your bathroom? Troy’s isn’t working.” I notice that she is shifting her weight back and forth on her legs.
“Yeah, I guess,” I say and hold the door open. She steps in.
“You know where it is, right? The apartments are laid out the same,” I say.
She walks down the hall to the bathroom. I sit back down on my couch and unmute the TV. She emerges from the bathroom a short time later.
“Thanks again,” she says.
“No problem,” I say, as she begins to walk up the hallway to the door.
“I’m Trish,” she says, turning back toward me.
“Matt.” I glance at her.
She nods and walks out.
The next morning, Jake and Sue both show up late to work. Jake’s truck turns into the driveway while I’m setting up the ladders. Sue gets out and says “sorry.” They both scramble to help me finish setting up. No one says another word until we break for lunch, when Sue tries to make a joke about her old man.
I go and eat my lunch alone in my truck, letting Jake and Sue stew for a bit. At the end of the day, I pull them both aside.
“I think you two know that I’m pissed,” I say, and Jake bites his lip, worried. “If you show up late again because you’re hung over, we’re done. There’s a ton of out-of-work house painters in this town,” I say. They both nod. Jake says it was his fault they were late.
“Whatever,” I say. “It’s done. Be here thirty minutes early tomorrow. I want to be finished by lunch.”
The next day is Friday, and even though I don’t have plans, I like to wrap up early.
Jake and Sue show up early the next morning like I told them to and we finish the job just before 11:30. The woman who owns the home pays me and takes my business card, saying that one of her neighbors needs work done.
“I appreciate it,” I say to her. She holds out her hand for me to shake.
I tell Jake and Sue to follow me to the bank so I can pay them. After I deposit the check, I pay each of them in cash, as usual, and give them the job information for next week.
“See you Monday,” I say, before I hop back in my truck. I stop by the gas station and buy a frozen pizza, then linger by the beer case for a second before grabbing an iced tea from a nearby cooler.
I arrive home just after 1:00 and see Trish hanging out on the porch again, smoking. She smiles brightly when she sees me and so I say ‘hi’ to her.
She says, “Got any big plans for the weekend?”
“It’s my birthday tomorrow,” she says.
“Well,” I say, wanting to get inside my house, “I hope you and Troy do something fun then.”
“Troy’s an asshole.” She flicks ash from her cigarette. “He’s gone for the weekend anyway.”
“See you later,” she says, noticing my hand on the doorknob.
I head inside and fall asleep on my couch. I wake up around 4 and put the pizza in the oven. I can hear Trish talking out on the porch. She must be on the phone, because it’s only her voice I hear.
A few hours later, there’s a knock at my door. I know it’s Trish. I also know, instinctively, that I should leave her out there until she goes away, but I answer the door anyway. I was never good at keeping myself out of the trouble I could see coming. I notice she has on some make-up now, and she’s holding a twelve-pack in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I tell her she can’t smoke in my apartment, so she drops the cigarette onto the porch and steps inside, shutting the door with her right leg.
She sidles over to my couch and says, “Am I interrupting anything?”
“What do you think?” I say.
She puts the beer on my coffee table and looks at the half-eaten pizza sitting on it.
“Dinner,” she asks.
She offers me a beer, but I decline.
“That’s no fun.” She rolls her tongue around the opening of her bottle. “I want you to help me celebrate my birthday.”
“I celebrate my own way.” I give her a half-grin. I know it won’t be long until we get where we’re heading. I’m going to let her have her fun and pretend that she’s a tease.
After she opens another beer, she sits down next to me on the couch. She begins kissing my neck and my ear, which I like. I put my hand on her leg, and she moves her mouth onto mine. I grab her by the waist and maneuver her on top of me, so that she’s straddling me on the couch. She leans back and takes off her shirt. Then she hesitates.
“Should we go into your bedroom?” she asks.
“I’m fine right here,” I say, snaking my arm around her back to unclasp her bra. The skin on her face is pock-marked, but the skin on her back is soft and smooth.
“No, wait,” she says, and bites her lip. “I’d feel more comfortable in the bedroom,” she says, soft and pouty, then covers herself with her shirt.
“Let’s go then,” I say, standing up. I lead the way down the hall, into my bedroom. I don’t flip on the light. Trish walks up behind me and encircles my waist with her arms.
“See?” she says. “Isn’t this better?”
She begins kissing my stomach and kneels down to undo my pants. I hope she’ll just give me a blowjob and leave, but I already know that I won’t be that lucky, so I pull her back to her feet by her armpits and move with her toward the bed. She sits and pulls me down on top of her, then stops me again. She sits up.
“I’m sorry,” she says, bringing her hands to her face briefly. “I can’t do this.”
She pushes on my shoulders to get me off her. I roll off onto my side and watch her leave the room. A few seconds later, I hear the front door shut. My body is still trying to process what just happened. I lie on my back and fold my hands over my chest, squeezing my knuckles until they turn white. I think about the beer Trish left in the living room. Before temptation hits, I head out there to get rid of it. I open the bottles and begin dumping them, one by one, down the sink. I manage to dump all but four. Trish has left me with a pent-up, anxious feeling that I need to get rid of. So I grab the keys to my truck and decide to take a drive. I put the beer in the glove box and keep it there until I get out of town, into the woodsy part of the county.
I made the decision to get sober after I got into a car accident one night after leaving a bar. I totaled my truck on a telephone pole. My fiancée was with me, and she got knocked around pretty bad. So did I. I was also arrested. My fiancée and I stayed together for a while after the accident – we were both heavy drinkers – until I quit. As part of my sentence, I had to attend a program. Those programs don’t much help anybody, not as far as I can tell, but when I finally spent a few days sober, I could feel how tired I was, and how empty things seemed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt a genuine emotion, rather than a manufactured one. People think your life gets fuller or better after you become sober, but that’s not how it works. There’s a price to be paid for everything, as my dad always used to say. And the price of my sobriety was finding myself alone a lot, with nothing left to lose. I came to realize that anger was all there was left of me.
I pull over at a closed-up farm stand, and watch the sky for a few minutes before cracking the first beer. The only star I can ever recognize is the Big Dipper but I can’t find it tonight. I can hear the crickets chirping in the fields as I polish off all four bottles of beer, one after another. Eventually, I fall asleep. When I wake up, it’s still dark. I turn my truck on – it’s only 1:30, so I wasn’t asleep for long. I head back home, feeling buzzed. When I pull up, I can see Trish through the window of Troy’s apartment. I walk up, intentionally not looking her way, but she’s already on the porch by the time I hit the front steps.
“Hey,” she says softly, moving her hair away from her face, “I’m sorry about earlier, alright?”
“Yup,” I say, not glancing over at her. I unlock my door and start to open it when I hear Trish say, “Can I have my beer back?”
I don’t answer her. Instead, I step inside my apartment, but don’t close the door all the way behind me. I feel keyed up again, and my head is still buzzing. I wish I hadn’t dumped the other beer. I step back outside onto the porch. Trish is sitting on the steps and she turns around to look at me, blowing a smoke ring in my direction.
“I take it you drank my beer,” she says.
“You take it wrong,” I say. “I only drank some of it; I dumped the rest.”
She nods and doesn’t say anything.
“Let me have a drag,” I say to her, stepping forward to close the distance between us. She hands me the cigarette.
“You can have it,” she says.
I exhale and hand it back to her.
“I don’t smoke,” I say.
“Where’d you go before?” she asks. She walks over and stands very close to me. She rubs the back of her calf with her foot and turns her chin up toward me, expectantly.
“Knock it off,” I say to her. “I’m not interested anymore.”
“Sure you are.” She reaches a hand out to rub my stomach.
I catch her hand with mine and move it away. “Un-unh, not happening,” I say.
“You’re not in the mood for any fun now?” she asks teasingly, flicking her ash onto the porch. I remove the cigarette from her fingers and help myself to another drag. When she goes to take the cigarette back from me, I grab her by her arm at the elbow and hold the cigarette near the fleshy part of her forearm, just above the skin. She startles and jerks, causing the cigarette to touch her skin, burning her. She says, “Ow. Let me go,” in a high-pitched voice. I release her arm and say, “quit fucking around and leave me alone, you ugly whore.” I watch her eyes while I say this. They only widen with surprise for a brief second. I know she’s been spoken to like this before, that she’s probably used to it. She rubs her arm where I held it.
“You’re fucking crazy,” she says as she walks past me to go inside Troy’s apartment. I hear the dead bolt click a second later.
I grin, shoving my hands into my pockets, and turn my face up toward the sky. I manage to spot the Big Dipper. “Hey now,” I say, to no one in particular. “Isn’t that something?”
I stay outside on the porch until dawn breaks and the street lights begin to fade out. I knock on Trish’s door, knowing that she’s probably asleep and wouldn’t answer for me anyway.
“I’m sorry for all of the bad things I’ve done,” I say, pressing my face against the door, letting the cold, smoothness of the steel caress my cheek.
Cara Long hopes the next Mayor of New York City will make the creation of affordable housing a top policy priority in her/his administration. Her work has appeared/will appear in Whiskeypaper, Boston Literary Magazine, Halfway Down the Stairs, SmokeLong Quarterly and the Circa Review.