Author: Christwriter-studios PM
When a new boyfriend proves as dangerous as he is obnoxious, two adult sisters must find a solution without endangering either their lives, or their friendship.Rated: Fiction T - English - Suspense/Drama - Words: 3,703 - Published: 08-10-12 - Status: Complete - id: 3049367
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"I think you mean punch drunk." Julie, Ralph and I'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 champagne cocktails all night long. Julie bought him, hook, line and Camaro. Which sat out on our driveway on cinderblocks for six months. Ralph wasn't good at fixing cars. Or paying rent, so he moved in with us, rather than Julie moving in with him.
My sister, Julia Elizabeth Grimstad, started bleaching 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 archetype. The walking punchline. She and I had one of those love-to-hate relationships. If she hadn't needed a place to stay so desperately, I wouldn't have let her move in.
"It wasn't my fault," she said. "I did put drop cloths down."
In the middle of the floor, leaving three feet of hardwood exposed to paint dribbles in dead rose red. But the landlords had rented to Julie for a year by then. They should have known that permission to paint, in her case, meant bringing the building inspector down 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 looking in the fridge the next day. And she paid rent. On time, all the time. Sometimes more than she had to when the mortgage was due.
He drove up in that once-white, open-bed truck of his with a shovel and six rose bushes in the bed, blooms so deep purple they looked black. I think this was an omen. He had a fluffy white kitten in the front seat, which he handed to Julie. She put the white puffball to her cheek. It squirmed to get away. "What are the roses for?" she asked, though a face full of angel soft fur.
Note, she didn't ask "what is the cat for?" Nope. That part, we got.
"You said your sister needed some landscape work done. So I figured," he trailed off. Fragmentary sentence structure was a specialty of his. He never finished anything else. Why should the English language get off easily?
"They're …black." I 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. "You'll get used to them, Laurie."
"Lucy." But he never did remember. 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 moved from Julie's pillow to mine. She slept most nights on my face. Julie 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. I thought he was hungover, but it was my first introduction to the Ralph Stare. It meant he had another hour before he turned into a human.
"What about them?"
"They're the going thing. Everyone has one except you."
He squinted out of one eye. Julie thought they were dream-boat eyes, but I saw this set more often. They were blank and vacant like a shark's. "You and I," he said in careful, measured tones, "are not going to be friends."
"Not as long as you drink my 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.
"Your sister leaves with me." He rested his head in his hands and smiled. Those blank blue eyes watched me with a clinical glitter I'd never quite seen before. As if he were thinking, what would happen if I did …this.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Julie's attached to me, and she's paying half your expenses right now. But I think if it came down to it, I think she'd help me get back on my feet first. How well do you think you'll do on your own?" And he drank a long swallow of my coffee.
That night I helped Julie make her latest successful experiment, squash-and-almond stew. The first attempt had been good, but the stringy lumps of spaghetti squash floating in amber-colored liquid was a little off-putting. 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 jail time. 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 can we keep him going till he gets a new place to stay? Please? I think he's the one, Lu. I really do."
Julie had so many ones she might as well do matching sets. But the last thing I wanted was the two of them shacked up together without a wingman. I took a sip of the stew and kept my mouth shut. "You ought to open a restaurant. This is really good."
She shrugged. "I don't know what I want yet, Lu. But I know it's not that."
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 sighed. My parents wanted me in medical school and I wanted to work with computers. We had a fight. I told them to go hang themselves and walked out. They had a lot of money, which they left to Julie. Every single penny. She could afford to fix his car and buy my house. The Camaro wouldn't be sitting there for long.
"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 and smiled.
So he used my car whenever he wanted. My pristine Scout got deep scratches in its paint and the garbage layers became petrified. Finally, 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." Then he spoke normally. "It might be a wrist. Maybe a few fingers."
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, and I just let them come. Light trailed across the kitchen. I counted the bones in my own wrists until 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 was such a coward.
"I've got it, silly. You've got nothing to worry about with us around."
"Us." I let go.
"Yeah. Ralph and me."
I began to shiver again.
Now, when I closed my eyes at night, I saw that cold blank dead-fish stare. I found reasons to not be at home when I knew he was there. He was too smart to throw away a good threat on her dingbat behavior. No, it was all on me, my mouth, my choices. I drifted like a ship with no moorings. When I was home I looked at the back of his head and thought of things I'd say when I grew a spine—"Get out" being the easiest and the most dangerous. I would sit down and 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.
I finally washed up at the artist center. To pass time 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 about a week when a young man spoke up behind me. "You ought to use copper," he said.
I turned around, and looked up. And up. And up. He was a blond Norse giant with great blue eyes. If I hit him, I'd break my hand. His shirt was a generic Wal-Mart number, coated in mud slick from throwing pots, but his splattered jeans were pricy. It'd be nice to date him…but 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."
"Lucinda Grimstad. Fifty-fifty. Let me see the glass."
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 said she'd take whatever I could make, as fast as I could make it. The chokers, especially. A jewelry store in town asked for them, too, and I started offering them online. I found a class that would get me back up to speed on technology and that took the rest of my time for a while. I didn't even see Julie at night, let alone Ralph.
"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 drum fillets, and he cleaned up very nice. When we parked, I pointed at the car two down. "That's my sister's Camry."
"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 waiting on a table. Julie hugged me. She looked so thin… I'd left her to Ralph. God, I was an idiot. 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. A thin sheen of sweat glowed on his skin. He had a string-tie zipped all the way up to his throat. He loosened it. Then tightened 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." He looked at me. I raised my eyes, not entirely surprised. "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. A cop, huh? I kind of liked it.
"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. She hadn't laughed much since she met Ralph. "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 retire early and start painting, or doing jewelry or throwing pots or doing something else that made you happy. 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 vet school."
"Good for you." I said.
"He cheated on me."
I shouldn't have been surprised, but I thought Ralph would hide it better. Maybe I'd overestimated Ralph.
"He doesn't know I found out," Julie said. Or maybe I'd underestimated my sister. "He thinks I believe he's going job hunting when he leaves in my car. But he smells like perfume and red wine when he comes home. Sometimes it's beer and cigarettes. It's not just one girl. I know that."
I was afraid. "Be careful when you break up. I don't trust him."
"Break up?" Julie looked mystified. "Why would I do that?" She looked down at 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 a thriller," I replied, but we'd go see the rom-com anyway. I'd go home and see my sister looking so tired and pale. My house smelled like cigarettes now, and 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 did laugh now, but it wasn't her laugh.
Then she got more absent-minded, which was a little like saying water got more wet. 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. Ralph hated spice. Ralph once had a UA appointment and Julie didn't tell him until after he'd smoked weed. 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. It never happened, and he passed the UA. I don't know how.
That evening, I told Dave.
We were on the docks fishing. He wound up his pole before he said, "You know what he went to jail for?" I shook my head. He cast out again. "I looked it up. 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. This was never going to end.
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 as anything except celebratory company. 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-minded-ness 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 figured out." And he kissed me and left. And 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.
And then 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. Julie put one hand on the side of the boat, a little too close to the on switch. 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." And she laughed. "You and I are perfect together."
He grunted, and closed his eyes. My sister knelt down to say something and her fingers slid down the motor housing a little too…not…casually.
The motor started up. A beautiful gleaming rooster-tail of water shot out of the back and after a few seconds of graceful shuddering, the yellow dinghy ran away from the dock. Ralph's eyes shot open, and 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 siree. Ralph was all frog now. He belly-flopped into the water and managed to grab onto the dock and hold on for dear life. He wore his pants too loose to preserve dignity, though. The boat ripped them down, revealing his lily-white buttocks as it stole his fancy-ass cowboy boots off his feet. I never knew Ralph went commando.
"Those jeans!" He screamed. "Those were three hundred dollar jeans! Oh fucking hell, my boots!" He dropped into the water, birthday suit and all. The dinghy hit the sea wall guarding our canal, motored there for a few moments, then slowly began to sink. Without looking back at my sister, he breast-stroked towards his oh-so-valuable pants, cursing blue all the way.
My sister sat down with a strange little smile on her face. A very not-Julie smile. I wondered…just how well did I really know my sister? This woman wasn't dumb enough to put Gold-Bond in talcum powder by mistake. Or to try to paint her house with drop-clothes, unless she knew her sister never accepted charity.
"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 think I'd like to buy it." She sipped. "When are you going to marry Dave?"
I shrugged. "I hadn't thought about it." But now I did. For the last few months I'd been paying my mortgage without Julie's help. Her rent had gone to fixing Ralph's Camaro. 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. She did good, most of the time. We drank our morning coffee and watched Ralph's naked retreat from my home.