Miriam and Dorothy are just getting to be best girlfriends again. They hadn’t spoken for a while over a silly disagreement about some money Dorothy had loaned her. Then Charlie, Miriam’s second husband, got drunk and shot himself. She’d been at Dorothy’s house when it happened. That’s when Dorothy stepped up and proved herself a true friend.
Dorothy’s husband Stephen is more or less understanding. Sometimes Miriam crashes in Dorothy’s bed with her and he takes the guest bedroom. He did complain once that their clubbing had gotten excessive. Stephen looks like Tom Selleck—how Miriam loved Magnum P.I. back in the day—tall and fit with that dimpled smile. He works at Columbia Gas down by the river and is getting into business brokering. He’s a hard worker; he’s been with the gas company for fifteen years.
He is in the kitchen. The smell of Worcestershire sauce is sharp and Miriam’s jaws clinch like she’s bitten a pickle. A big blood-colored bottle of Lawry’s seasoning salt with an orange lid is on Dorothy’s new marble countertop beside Stephen’s elbow.
“Smells good. What’s for dinner?”
He doesn’t answer. He’s facing away and maybe didn’t hear.
She raises her voice and asks, “When’s Dorothy getting home?”
“You’re her running buddy, you tell me.” Stephen is beside the sink. He still has on his shirt and tie. His buns tighten in his thin dress slacks as he pounds on a piece of meat with a spiked pewter mallet.
She says, “Haven’t talked to her since this morning.”
“She won’t be home till pretty late,” he says. “You want to stick around?”
She drops her purse on the floor just inside the den. “Got wine?”
“How’s alcohol mix with the new meds?” His voice is a rich baritone.
“Doctor said don’t,” she says, laughing. “What’s your point?” She pulls the Chardonnay out of the fridge and brushes past him to the drawer for the corkscrew.
He wraps three potatoes in foil, tosses them into the oven and sets the timer.
While she uncorks the bottle and pours herself a glass, Stephen gets himself three fat fingers of Johnnie Walker Black over ice and splashes water from the faucet into it. He raises it to her. They toast and drink.
“Music?” he asks.
She nods while she is taking a drink.
He sets his glass clinking on the table and disappears into the den.
She steps outside and tries Dorothy’s cell phone. A cloud front shifts as it moves in, purple and brown, deep as a car-crash bruise. They are calling for thunderstorms. Dorothy’s cell goes straight to voicemail and Miriam flips her phone shut and goes back into the warm and spicy kitchen.
“Where are you?” she calls out.
Music blasts from the den as loud as a club. The song “Brick House.” It’s Dorothy’s Pure Funk CD. They’d been using it a lot to get ready to go out. They often danced around to the 70’s disco music as they primed themselves with Chablis or chocolate martinis. Sometimes Stephen drank Scotch and watched them, sometimes bemused, sometimes frustrated. Several times, on those nights, he’s mentioned to Miriam that he’d like to help her brother sell his restaurants.
The volume goes down, and she hollers, “Turn it up.”
The volume goes back up. It goes up a little more. She can feel the bass through the floor, up the chair legs, into her body.
“Brick House” pumps in the den. She can’t help but move to the bass.
Stephen yells, “That okay?”
She yells back, “It’s fabulous,” and dances toward him as he comes back into the kitchen, holding her wine above her head, thrusting her pelvis out, right right, left left, little shimmy.
Stephen watches her, nodding approvingly with the beat, even moves like he’s starting to dance, then goes down the hall to change clothes.
Miriam sits down at the table. It’s a heavy wooden block she and Dorothy picked up at an estate sale. It had once been in a real French restaurant. The top is sloped and authentically hacked up. Above it hangs the pot rack Miriam bought Dorothy two weeks ago, as a thank-you gift for being such a genuine friend.
Miriam is getting tipsy. She flips absentmindedly through their mail: bills, junk mail, a letter to Stephen from an attorney downtown, a New Yorker magazine. On the front of the magazine is a woman with her huge bag stuck in a revolving door. Miriam leafs through it. There is a cartoon of the Grim Reaper at a fine restaurant being forced to put on a dinner jacket before entering. Supposed to be funny. She takes a long drink of wine.
Charlie killed himself a couple weeks after Miriam left him for the third time—less than a month after she’d paid to have his vasectomy reversed so she could try to get pregnant. On her way out the door, she said to him, “You get yourself some help and I might come back.”
He said. “I’m not ready yet. I’m not strong enough.” He laughed as he said it. He always laughed.
“I did it,” she said. “You can too.” She’d gone into rehab and beaten cocaine after her trouble in college—her daddy had set up a sort of intervention.
When she talked to the policeman, he told her that when Charlie pulled the trigger his blood alcohol level was 4.0, which is supposed to be comatose—5.0 is dead.
She closes the magazine and looks out the kitchen window. The entire sky is dark and low now, and a few rain drops blow and spit against the glass. The bass line of “Brick House” pumps from the den. Stephen comes back into the kitchen wearing a wrinkled pair of khakis tattered at his heels, and a faded blue Polo shirt tight on his chest. The blue of the shirt brings out his eyes.
He pours more Scotch into his glass. It’s golden and swirls around the ice as if it has olive oil in it. Stephen dances a few steps. She can smell that he’s reapplied his deodorant. She leans her head toward him and says, “You smell good.”
Miriam snatches his glass and has a sip. It tastes like dirt.
He takes the glass back and drinks from it sideways, keeping eye contact with her. She returns his stare. Dorothy has told Miriam that she and Stephen aren’t a good match, and she wants to leave him; they are such good friends, Miriam thinks, Dorothy might even give them her blessing and be glad to be free to find someone who is a match. They could all stay best friends. It could happen.
Miriam and Stephen drink and dance. They eat steak and baked potatoes with chives and heaping sour cream and real butter melting all over the plate for them to swipe their meat in. It is cooked perfectly—the man can cook too; the total package—pink but not bloody. They forget the salad, but are too full to bother when they remember. Stephen molds aluminum foil over a plate of food for Dorothy, then pulls Miriam toward the den.
“One second,” she says. She steps outside and tries Dorothy’s cell again. It’s raining now, mixed with hailstones the size of baby teeth that clatter off Stephen’s hood and bounce all over the black driveway. Again it goes straight to voicemail. Dorothy always has her phone on in the car. They are still safe. And surely he knows when she’s really coming home. Miriam goes back into the house and finishes off the bottle of wine.
The disc has run through once and is on its second spin, and the song “It’s Raining Men” is playing again. She dances into Stephen’s body and he presses back into hers. She straddles his leg and bumps. He grinds into her waist, her abdomen. They kiss. She rubs her hand on his hard-on.
“What about tomorrow?” he asks, breathing heavily into her ear.
She sings back into his ear, “The sun’ll come up, tomorrow.”
He slides his Scotch onto the stereo and wraps her in his arms. The rain becomes a steady drumming outside the window. Lightning flashes in clusters like paparazzi at the window. The thunder claps at times between songs, like stomping feet on bleachers. The room reels and everything is finally turning her way. She dances. She spins around and grabs his glass and drinks down his Scotch.
They pull off each other’s clothes and suck tongues all the way back past two empty bedrooms and Stephen’s brokerage office, to the master bedroom. At the door, he takes her hand and leads her to his and Dorothy’s bed. Dorothy has put on the new denim and burgundy Ralph Lauren skirt and comforter Miriam picked up for her at T J Maxx. It really does pull the room together.
In bed Stephen is gentle and attentive. He goes down on her, takes his time. He is a beautiful man. Hairy as an ape down the front—she is fine with that since he doesn’t have any hair on his back and he isn’t going bald. He makes love to her, and she actually comes—before he does—and finds herself crying from happiness as she is there waiting for him to finish. Listening to the rain. Listening to him grunt and moan into the pillow beside her ear.
She closes her eyes and sees Charlie as Stephen thrusts into her: her dead husband is sitting on the couch just like he always did, holding the remote and making pronouncements about TV shows with the authority of a Roman Pope. Drinking his cheap vodka and lemonade out of a white plastic Go-Mart cup. Laughing.
“I love you, Stephen,” she says. She wants to promise to cook and clean and earn money so he can quit the gas company and get his business brokerage up and going, and she can take care of the beautiful babies they will have. Dorothy will give her blessing. She wants out anyway—she’s said as much many times.
“I love you so much,” Miriam says. She puts her hand on the back of his head.
He says into the pillow, “Oh god.” He says, “Oh god, oh god.”
His saying God over and over makes her think of her daddy. The way he walks up to his pulpit, his stride as smooth as his voice. From the waist up he doesn’t move at all, like he’s on an airport people mover; it’s like the holier he gets the less he’s made of flesh and the more he’s made of spirit, so that any minute he might start to rise and float right over the pulpit and through the walls and off like Ezekiel to walk with God and be no more.
Stephen lets his full weight press her body into the bed for his final few thrusts, then he rolls onto his pillow and sighs, and says again, “God.”
There are two chest hairs, curly like pubes, flattened in his sweat between her breasts.
Miriam almost crawled in bed with Stephen once before while he slept, with Dorothy right there in the house—they were that close; sometimes she and Dorothy shared a toothbrush. Miriam came down the hallway and said, “I almost got in bed with your husband.” Dorothy laughed and said, “Go ahead.”
That was the night Charlie killed himself, she realizes now. Stephen had to work the next day so he left her and Dorothy out in the den at one-thirty in the morning, starting their fourth bottle of wine and eating Chunky Monkey ice cream. Dorothy went to the hall bathroom, and Miriam had to pee too, so she sneaked through to the master bath. When she was finished she stood and watched him sleep, his broad shoulders, his thick jaw. She wished then that she could be married to him instead of her husband Charlie, who at that moment, though she didn’t know it, was already dead.
A few minutes later her daddy called and said, “You need to come home.” “Daddy, I’m thirty-eight years old,” she said. He asked her, “are you okay to drive?” His pastoral coo shifted down to a sober and stern tone. It was the exact same tone he’d used to say are you okay? over the phone almost twenty years before, when she was at college and in trouble. That time he’d flown his associate pastor up to drive her home in her own car. She shrank inside till she was a small child. “Daddy, what is it?” she asked. “You need to come home right now,” he said.
Now Stephen stands hairy before her by the bed. She pulls Dorothy’s comforter up over her breasts.
He says, “Are you—have you…” He looks frightened. He blurts out, “Are you clean?”
“You know.” He shrugs his naked shoulders and looks to the side like some awe-shucksing country boy. “I’m clean as a whistle, by the way.” He leans over, scratches his leg, tries to smile.
She stares at him.
He looks at the master bathroom, then back at her.
Miriam says, “What did you just say?”
He turns back around and says, “Are you clean?”
“I cannot believe—”
“I’m sorry. It’s just—just that—”
“I really cannot believe you just asked me that.”
“Dorothy’s told me.” He shrugs. His shoulders are hunkered over and he has his hands in front of his penis like he’s been caught naked in public.
“She told you I’m a slut?”
He shakes his head and says, “No. You have bad self-esteem is all, so….”
“It’s perfectly understandable. I mean, it’s a totally human reaction.”
She rolls away from him into the wet spot and squirms away from it.
Her head slides down between Dorothy and Stephen’s pillows. She shoves Stephen’s off the bed so she can breathe. It makes a soft whump on the floor.
“Please just get dressed and be out in the den. Please.” He acts stone sober now, suddenly thinking clearly. He goes into the master bath and turns on the shower.
She doesn’t get out of the bed. She’s beginning to feel sick.
The water stops. She turns and looks at the door. Steam rolls out when he pops his head out. He says, “I don’t want any drama.”
“Drama?” she says. She clasps her fingers behind her head.
He steps out, still dripping wet, and says, “Please.”
As he starts naked for the hallway to grab their clothes, the front door opens and closes. Dorothy calls out, “Smells yummy in here, sweetheart.”
Stephen looks at the bedside clock and whispers, “Shit.” His white ass disappears into the master bath, the door closes and locks.
Dorothy’s voice is a trusting singsong. “Where are you two kids?” The wet soles of her orthopedic work shoes squeak into the kitchen, and the sound of her pulling foil from her plate comes down the hall. From the kitchen she hollers, “You see the storm? A tree is across the road in Louden Heights.” She’s talking choppily between bites of food: “You won’t believe it, honey. I cut the hair of the lady whose husband owns the Mr. Doughnut in Kanawha City. She said he wants to sell. I gave her your card. I got his number. They’re super nice people.”
The fridge opens then closes.
Miriam lies in silence. Her vision swims and her head throbs.
No sound from the kitchen.
Miriam swallows, and swallows.
Dorothy’s shoes squeak and stop in the den where Miriam and Stephen’s shirts lay strewn. The shoes squeak to the hallway, where the rest of their clothes—panties and bra included—lay where they were flung. The shoe-squeaking stops abruptly.
Rain on the roof makes a steady shush.
Miriam closes her eyes. Her head is suddenly clear, but the bed tilts and vomit rises to the base of her throat. Her mouth waters around her molars and she keeps swallowing. She breaks into a sweat. It isn’t going to be alright, nothing is alright; Charlie is dead, and she has just lost her best friend, and there is no going back, no fixing it. Nothing can ever be fixed.
Dorothy clicks the hall light on. Rain drums hollow on the roof. Stephen flushes the toilet in the master bath.
She’s been running from the Lord all her life. It’s time to do business with Him—rededicate her life to Christ. She can collapse into Jesus’ welcoming arms, and he will fall on her neck with kisses wet from joyful weeping. There will be shouting and tearful celebration at her daddy’s church.
It’s what she must do: go on Sunday, slip into the back, walk down the aisle during invitation and give her life to the Lord once and for all. The Lord will use her rededication—it could possibly even spark a revival. Forgive me Lord for my sin, she says to herself, and the relief of God’s forgiveness sweeps over her like a chill.
Of course she will have to turn her back on Dorothy and Stephen; she will have to find friends who love the Lord.
She is forgiven: her sins are cast from her as far as the East is from the West. She pulls to her elbow and the comforter slides off her breasts. Nausea sloshes up in her throat.
She swallows again. She puts her hand over her mouth. Water rises in her eyes.
Dorothy’s rubber soles come squeaking hard down the hallway.