Public Grief

PUBLIC GRIEF
Jessica Smith
Issue No. 11 – March 2016

It has been eight months since Anthony left, and Jenny is certain that during those months she has been, at least in public, a perfect model of Broken Up With. She has been sad, but not too sad. Quiet, but not too quiet. Reserved, but not too reserved. She forced herself to go on dates again—bad ones—and she expertly dispensed with each horrible guy: the one who ate his chapped lip skin, the one who offered her cocaine after they hugged hello, and the one whose mother texted sixteen times during their meal.

Jenny makes jokes about it. She thanks her friends when they comment that despite it all she seems in fine spirits.

“Good for you!” they say. “You’re doing what you’re supposed to do!”

But Jenny doesn’t know what that means: what she is supposed to do. Is she supposed to be kind to herself? Rest up? Let loose? Feel her feelings? Those are the platitudes people recycle on the recently-bereft—she’s said those things herself, a thousand times—as if language sanitized to sympathy card standards actually does the trick.

But the truth is, things are not going well. Mostly because she recently learned Anthony and his new girlfriend celebrated their one-year anniversary—problematic news, considering it has only been eight months since Anthony and Jenny’s own breakup.

After finding out, Jenny drank a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream from the back of the fridge and puked all over her kitchen floor. She didn’t have the strength to scrub up, and so she put herself to bed. In the morning she woke to find the floor licked clean, courtesy of the cat.

No one needs to know these things. It’s hard enough for Jenny to know these things, and this is why she is relieved when her mother calls with news about her brother.

“He’s at it again,” she says. “The whole family should be here so he understands he has our support.”

What she’s asking is for Jenny to come home and carry out an intervention for Will. This will be his third. Will’s interventions aren’t the glamorous types that would get him on television. They aren’t done for reasons any producer would find sexy. There is no drug addiction. No alcohol. No crazy sex stuff. No distressing hoarding of gerbils or Band-Aids or dehydrated astronaut food. Instead, there is credit card debt. Unspeakable credit card debt.

“He needs,” her mother says, “a united front. He needs to see we’re all here to help him.”

But Jenny has no idea how her presence will help him rebound from being $20,000 in the hole at the age of twenty-five. Still, this is a problem that is not her own, and it has nothing to do with Anthony and his new girlfriend—who writes a blog featuring pictures of her cat wrapped in scarves—and this intervention, this not-her-own-problem, is something Jenny can rally behind, so she says yes, fine, okay, I’ll come home. And then she hangs up and cries so loudly the people in the apartment upstairs pound on the floor and shout down, asking if she is all right.

***

It is noon when Jenny arrives at her parents’ house in Buffalo. This is where her brother currently resides, as he was forcibly removed from his ghetto-adjacent apartment for non-payment.

Jenny shoves her suitcase in a corner and pours herself a bowl of cereal. Will comes downstairs moments later. He looks at Jenny. Then at the clock. Then back at Jenny. He rubs sleep from his eyes.

“Fuck,” he says. “Hi.”

“Yeah,” she says, “nice to see you too.”

“What are you doing here?” he asks. He lifts the milk from the counter and sniffs it. “No one said you were coming.”

It’s strange to see him puttering around the house they grew up in. He looks out of place there: an adult wearing satin pajama bottoms decorated with flames. He has three days’ worth of scruff on his face and a clump of cat fur stuck in his hair because nightly he and his cat Marvin fall asleep spooning.

Jenny plucks the fur off his head and hands it to him. He shoves it in his pocket.

“I had a few free days,” she says. “I’m on my way to Cairo for work.”

“Egypt?” he says. “What now? Riding horses bareback to the pyramids?”

Will makes no effort to hide his disdain for her job. He thinks it’s criminal to get paid to write about travel in a syndicated column published in those city-specific monthly magazines—Portland!, The Cleve, Hotlanta, and so on—that are mostly advertisements for coffee shops and gem boutiques.

Will does what he considers real work. He’s a cashier at a home improvement store, and he likes the job because he gets to wear a tool belt and sometimes is asked to be in their commercials. Their mother sent a tape of the last one to Jenny, a five-second clip of her brother gesturing grandly to new water-efficient toilets.

Shortly after that commercial aired, Will was promoted to assistant head cashier, and when Jenny heard the news she sent home a card. She addressed it to Will “Ass. Head Cashier” Boyd. It now hangs on his bedroom door like it’s a placard marking his dressing room at the Tonight Show.

“No pyramids,” Jenny says. “I’ve already done a column on the pyramids.”

Will sticks his head in the freezer and comes out with bags of frozen fruit. “Well, all right,” he says. “If it’s not the pyramids, then what is it?” He jiggles the bags in Jenny’s face. “Smoothie?”

She shakes her head. “I’m doing a foodie thing. A culinary tour of Egypt.”

Will puts fruit chunks into the blender and starts it whirring. He has to shout over the sound. “ARE YOU GOING TO EAT DOG?” he asks.

Jenny narrows her eyes at him and waits for him to shut off the blender. “They don’t eat dog there,” she says.

“No, no. They do,” he says. “People always talk about that.”

Jenny takes her bowl to the sink. There is no sense telling him he’s wrong and that he’s thinking of Asian countries.

“I guess if they serve me dog,” she says, “I’ll have to eat it. It would be disrespectful if I made a big fuss.”

“Fuck that,” he says. “I wouldn’t eat dog if they paid me a million dollars.”

Jenny can almost see the thoughts taking shape in his head, so she decides to give him a nudge. “Not even one tiny bite of dog?” she asks.

“Well,” Will says slowly, “maybe. Maybe just one.”

***

For two days, Jenny attends secret meetings with her parents. They gather wherever they can, wherever Will isn’t. The basement. The upstairs bathroom. The backyard, obscured by the lilac bush. This intervention, they decide, will be the one that does it. This is the one that will stick. It will be more serious and structured than the ones that came before. He’ll know they mean business.

The whole series of interventions started when Will came weeping to their mother with a pile of bills totaling $2,000. This was shortly after he’d been kicked out of college for a combination of reasons: failing each of his classes and “borrowing” his professor’s 1959 Ford Galaxie for a joyride.

Getting kicked out of school didn’t seem to faze him for about a month until all his friends packed up their Christmas gifts and went back to campus. While his friends got kegs and girlfriends, Will got a job at Picasso’s Pizza and took up the hobby of buying things he could not afford—never anything essential, never anything anyone could understand. Instead, he bought a pet turtle and neon running lights for his car. At the county fair that summer, he commissioned a pink wax bust of himself.

But the $2,000 debt was easy to recover from, especially after their mother threatened to take over his finances. Will squared himself away and got a second job. He paid off the credit card. He got bored with the turtle and sold it on Craigslist. Then he met Mindi from South Buffalo.

Mindi from South Buffalo—who introduced herself that way, full name and birthplace every time. She worked at the OTB and, like most girls from South Buffalo, had long, curly brown hair, overly gelled so it crunched when touched, and an affinity for bright pink lipstick that went out of style in 1989.

Mindi liked things. Not expensive things per se, but lots of things. She liked the idea of bulk. She also liked to travel, but she turned her nose up at the places Jenny had been. “The Highland Games?” she said once at a family reunion, when Jenny was discussing the best places she’d been that year. “What the fuck is that?” Mindi said. “I guarantee ninety-five percent of your readers just want to go to Disneyland and call it a day.”

Mindi hated Jenny and made no effort to hide it. Last Christmas—Mindi’s final holiday as Will’s girlfriend—she hung a stocking on the mantel for Jenny and after dinner insisted she open it in front of everyone. It was crammed full of diet pills, Spanx, and a few Xanax she’d bought off one of her coworkers. “I figured you’d need that stuff,” she said. “It’s perfect for someone in your situation.” She turned then to Aunt Maude, who was hard of hearing, and shouted for clarification. “HER BOYFRIEND RECENTLY DUMPED HER, MAUDE.”

A year after dating Mindi, Will’s credit card had multiplied into several credit cards, and the total damage was $9,000. But then after Mindi broke up with Will and left him with their apartment and a stack of bills it was $20,000. With debt that pervasive, there was only one thing Will could do: move back home. He took up residence in his old room, papering over train wallpaper with posters of porn stars. Their mother took over his finances, cutting his credit cards into matchsticks while Will wept, pounding the table and chanting, Failure! Failure! Failure!

No one really believed that would be the last time.

***

On day four in Buffalo, Jenny sleeps late and goes downstairs to find Will already puttering around the kitchen. He is holding Marvin like a baby, and the cat purrs, clutching Will’s chin in his paws. They gaze at each other, tender as lovers.

“No work today?” Jenny asks.

“Day off.” Will passes the cat to her. He has a pound of bacon frying on the stove and the makings of a smoothie melting all over the counter. “I’m going to run errands,” he says. “Want to come?”

“I have plans,” Jenny says. She’s been thinking about a bath. A long one, where she can cry in peace.

“Yes,” Will says slowly, like she is slow or otherwise addled, “your plans are to run errands with me. If you’re very good I’ll buy you an ice cream cone later.” He turns, lifting his shirt to reveal a wad of singles stuck in the waistband of his satin pajamas. “Or, more precisely, Mom will buy you an ice cream cone.”

“Your bacon’s out of control,” Jenny says. Marvin struggles in her arms. She clutches him tightly and he gives up, sags against her and whines once, pitifully. “Why do you have money from Mom?”

“I weeded the flower garden,” Will says. “It was a fucking mess.”

“Must be nice,” Jenny says. “When I used to do that, it was called a chore. No money changed hands.”

Will stops poking the bacon and the fork hovers above the frying pan, undulating as if held aloft by a lazy wind. “Yeah,” he says, “it’s real nice. It’s great. I love being twenty-five and having my parents dole out allowance money. It’s fucking fantastic.”

“Hey,” Jenny says. “Come on. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Yeah, right,” Will says. “You meant it.” He flips the bacon and a tidal wave of grease washes over the lip of the frying pan.

He frowns, his face stuck in a way that makes Jenny think of the wax bust he’d commissioned at the fair. After Intervention #2—this one held around the fire pit in the backyard, everyone drinking sangria—Will ran upstairs to grab the bust and then held it ceremoniously over the bonfire.

“This,” he declared as the wax started to melt, “is symbolic. This is my fresh start. This is my life that is no longer filled with pointless shit.” When it got too hot for him to stand close to the flame, he speared his likeness on a stick and held it, S’mores style, over the fire until one side of his face drooped, as if the bust had suffered a stroke.

“Listen,” he says, “I’m sorry I can’t be you, Little Miss Perfect, Little Miss I’ve Done Everything Right.”

Jenny laughs. “I wish,” she says. “I really wish that were true.”

“Oh, stop,” he says. “You’ve got a job where you make assloads of money, and they send you all around the world for free. You don’t ever have to set foot in an office. You write from home in your sweatpants. You have a huge apartment far away from this fucking place. And you think you haven’t done everything right? Are you a moron?”

Jenny opens her mouth but shuts it quickly because what can she say? That she has made a habit of tragic romantic choices, the last of which left her face-down on her couch, late-night infomercials about grill gloves or chicken rotisseries or light-up socket wrenches playing in the background while she tried to summon the strength to stand? She had lost hours of her life to shower-crying jags and X-Files marathons. She cried so much, so loudly, and so long that she one day opened her door to find a note pinned there from her upstairs neighbors. Just remember, it said, you’re never truly alone. It was written on the back of a flyer for a support group that met at a church down the road. Not long after that, she lugged her empty wine bottles—five bags’ worth for the three months since Anthony had left—back to the redemption center and the cashier, looking at the final tally, whistled.

“That must’ve been some party,” she said.

All this because Jenny had not been able to say no when a coworker suggested she go out and have some fun with his cousin, a cocky young tow-truck driver whose giant smile unraveled everyone standing near him. But after they were introduced Jenny found herself stuck between wanting and knowing better. And she did know better, instantly and always. It was just hard to resist him. Anthony could make anyone love him.

Once, on a trip to the DMV during lunch hour, Jenny and Anthony stood in line for fifty-five minutes to see the only employee on duty. It was July, a day nudging toward record highs, and the office’s air-conditioning wheezed, spewing dust into the air. The woman behind the counter was exhausted. The skin beneath her eyes was so purple-blue it looked bruised, and two large lakes of sweat dampened the material around her ample breasts.

Twice that hour customers ended up screaming at her. She shouted at three others who hadn’t presented the correct forms. When they neared the front of the line, Jenny suggested they make a run for it, but Anthony waited. When it was finally their turn, he smiled at the woman—a little shyly at first before raising his head and washing her in the fullness of his attention—and she actually fanned herself, as if this were a sitcom and he was the hunky plumber come to flush her pipes. She ended up waiving Anthony’s fees and sending him away with a wink.

“See?” Anthony asked. His face so smug Jenny wanted to both punch and kiss him.

The inconsistency of the relationship was what made her believe she could bear it. Yes, Anthony did awful, shitty things all the time, but when he got around to acting nice he would do something truly amazing, something that made her felt known and loved, and she could feed off that for weeks.

Once, Anthony took a day off to build a bookshelf that fit the awkward dimensions of the corner nook in their apartment because he noticed she was out of space. But just a month later he forgot her thirtieth birthday and realized only when Jenny, who’d waited all day thinking some grand party or surprise would eventually reveal itself, started weeping after they went to bed. When he realized his mistake, Anthony sat up angrily. “Don’t be such a fucking bitch about it,” he said and tore the covers off her so he could go sleep on the couch.

For two years she paid their rent. She endured his sulking when she answered a phone call from a male friend. She made the best of it when he got high with his cousins at his family’s Christmas party, leaving her to mingle on her own, awkwardly, in front of the chips and dip.

She’d told these things to almost no one, certainly not Will. But what would he think if she told him now? He lived his life so publicly—his emotions belonged not just to him but everyone he came into contact with: family, friends, gas station attendants, toll takers, McDonald’s employees—and he would never understand why she hadn’t told anyone these things. He might even think she made them up.

Will turns to plate his bacon and then sets it in front of her. “Eat that,” he says, “and I’ll make you a smoothie. And don’t think you’re going to get out of coming with me today.”

“Fine,” Jenny says. “Where are we going?”

Will dumps mango and pineapple into the blender. He slices a banana. “To work so I can get my check,” he says, “and then the grocery store.” He blends the ingredients for a minute then brings the whole pitcher to the table with two glasses. “Drink this,” he instructs, “and hurry the fuck up. We’ve got shit to do.”

***

They drive to the home improvement store where Will is greeted like Norm from Cheers—everyone hollering his name at once, even customers puzzling over paint or twine or toilet seats—and he gets his check. After that, they go to the grocery store, where Will wanders the aisles aimlessly. He plucks a handful of grapes in the produce department and leisurely snacks on them as he compares detergents. They leave the store with an odd assortment of things: a large bottle of Tide, a weight-lifting magazine, a dozen eggs, shaving cream.

“What is up with your grocery list?” Jenny asks. She clutches the bags as Will guns the motor to speed through a yellow light. “And where are we going? Shouldn’t we be headed home?”

The intervention is nigh. Just before they’d left, Jenny fielded a phone call from her mother, taking it in the bathroom where she ran the shower so Will couldn’t hear, and they’d finalized plans.

“Do you think,” their mother asked, “he suspects anything?”

Across the hall, Will was in his bedroom blaring 80s music: Warrant, Poison, Boston. Jenny opened the door a crack and saw him showing off his muscles to a poster of a porn star dressed as a nurse.

“I think we’re fine,” Jenny told her.

But now, a snag. If Will keeps her out much longer it’s going to be a problem.

He acts like hasn’t heard her. He makes a few turns and suddenly Jenny recognizes where they are. She knows exactly where they are going.

“South Buffalo?” she asks. “Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“If you think my day is going consist of me sitting in the car while you go have a fight with Mindi from South Buffalo, you are sadly mistaken. Turn this car around.”

“You’ll be happy to know Mindi from South Buffalo is on vacation,” Will says. He pulls up to a stoplight next to carload of giggling high school blonds. He throws a smile their way. They dissolve into hysterics. One girl in the back turns beet red and covers her face.

Jenny swats her brother. “It’s green,” she says, “and they were, like, seventeen years old. Stop it.” They make the turns Jenny has made dozens of times with Will, picking up Mindi for Thanksgiving or Christmas or family reunions or birthday parties, and when they finally near her street, Jenny grabs the steering wheel. “If she’s on vacation, what are we doing here?” she asks.

“Lots of people live on this street,” he says. “It’s lovely.”

It is a typical South Buffalo street: tall houses crammed close together, separated only by thin strips of concrete serving as driveways. The family cars are parked nose to tail, the last car’s bumper sagging almost into the street. Old Polish ladies are seated on the decks next to faded American flags that flutter listlessly in the wind. Even though it is eighty-five degrees out, each grandmother’s hair is tucked under a babushka, a thin kerchief.

“Will, come on,” Jenny says. She glances at the clock on the dash. The intervention is only a few hours away, and she will need at least two drinks before it begins. They have to go home.

And for a moment it seems like Will is listening. He slows the car and pulls to the side of the road, but instead of making a U-turn, he parallels the car into a tight spot between two beat-up Oldsmobiles. He peers up the street, looking at the house where Mindi lives with her parents, brothers, and a grandmother who fizzles in and out of lucidity. The grandmother was the only thing that endeared Jenny to Mindi. She’d met the woman once, when they came to fetch Mindi for Will’s twenty-third birthday party, and when they were introduced Mindi’s grandmother held out her hand and said, “You may kiss my ring.” Her hand was topped with a strawberry ring pop. Jenny curtsied, ducked her head, and kissed it.

As soon as they were back in the car Mindi waved her finger in Jenny’s face. “You better not have been making fun of my grandmother,” she said, “because if you were, I will punch you in the cunt.”

That Will ever loved such a girl made no sense to Jenny. But Anthony—the real Anthony, not the sanitized version whose narrative she created—wouldn’t make sense to Will either. Or anyone.

Will touches the grocery bags, taking inventory. “Trust me,” he says. “She is on vacation.” He inventories the bag’s contents: the detergent, the shaving cream, the eggs. It suddenly dawns on Jenny: her brother is going to destroy Mindi from South Buffalo’s house. He’s going to egg it, hose it down with shaving cream and detergent, and turn it into a giant mountain fresh slick.

Jenny slumps in her seat. This is not part of the plan. Her parents will kill her if they are late, and they will kill her twice if she lets Will get dragged off to jail for defacing private property.

“Will,” she says, insistent now. She wants him to own up. “What are we doing here?”

Will stops fussing with the bags. In the stillness, the chorus of South Buffalo fills the car. Broken Polish shouts. A far-off ice cream truck. Rap music. The rumble of a car over cobblestone. Will’s face is suddenly more serious than she’s ever seen it.

“You’d tell me if something was going on, right?” He studies her. “Why are you in Buffalo?” he asks. “I mean, really?”

Jenny takes a deep breath, trying to pull together a lie, but Will hits the steering wheel before she can think of anything.

“I knew it,” he says. “Jesus fucking Christ!”

“Will—”

“Another intervention.” He hits the steering wheel again, this time glancing off the horn. The beep startles a squirrel into rushing across the street. “Who’s coming?”

Jenny says nothing, but then he jabs her in the arm. “Everyone,” she says.

A boy on a bike rides by the car and aims his fingers, cocked to an imaginary trigger, at Will. “Bang!” the boy yells.

“Oh, just go ahead!” Will shouts as the boy speeds off toward the next block. “It’ll be better that way.” He covers his face with his hands. “I can’t do it again,” he says. His voice trembles, making him sound much younger than he is. “How many more of these can I sit through without hating myself completely?”

“Oh, shut up,” Jenny says. “Hate yourself? You used to own a wax bust of your own head.”

Will’s face pales. He looks exhausted. “Jenny,” he says slowly, “you don’t know fucking shit.”

When Jenny and Will were small, their parents complained about their fighting, which was bitter and unpredictable. They could be laughing together, playing, sharing, having a lovely time, but a second later one of them would scream so shrilly their parents would rush to find them, expecting blood and disaster.

When they got older Jenny tried to explain it, both to her parents and herself, but she could never quite find the words. It was deep and chemical, her need to fight with Will. It wasn’t anything she had control over. It could come out of nowhere, even now that they were adults. She still gave in—it continued to be beyond her control, too visceral a part of her to remove—and a few years ago when the family had vacationed together in Key West, Jenny and Will fought bitterly for an entire day, reducing their mother to tears. She left the room wailing “Why do my children hate each other?”

And now the air in the car has changed. Jenny can feel a singe of heat at the base of her neck, a sharp bite of rage. She would like to hit her brother. She would like to open her mouth and scream. Not words, just sound.

“Don’t talk to me like that,” she says.

Will ignores her. “You know,” he says, “if you were a good sister, you’d convince them to stop doing this shit. You wouldn’t help them.”

“I don’t help them,” Jenny says. “What do you think I do, pick out embossed invitations and put them in the mail? I just come when they say you need help.”

“Oh, isn’t that darling,” Will says. “That’s why you’re here? To help me in my time of need? Jesus Christ, Jenny, are you hearing yourself?”

Jenny hits him. It’s a perfect slap, right across the face, and it leaves her hand stinging. He stares, stunned, before shoving her so hard she slams against the side of the car. She scrambles outside, slamming the door. She forces herself to take deep breaths.

Will calls her name from inside the car, but she won’t turn. She stares down the road. The little boy on the bike has come back around the block and whizzes past, peppering the car with fake gun spray. He races off, one hand flipping Jenny the bird.

Willy’s door opens. “That little motherfucker,” he says. “I will end him if he goes by again.”

He comes out, slamming the door behind him, and the sound echoes down the street. A few houses away, one of the Polish grandmothers leans forward to squint in their direction.

“What was that about in there?” Will asks. His voice is even now, and calm. “Where did that come from?”

These are entirely new questions. She’s been buried under the usual ones for months now: How are you? Are you okay? How do you feel? And she has always replied appropriately: I’m all right. Yes. I’m fine. No one wants the real answers; they just want credit for asking. So much polite maneuvering. It’s exhausting.

“Fuck.” Jenny is crying. Will says her name, and Jenny covers her face with her hands. “I can’t do this anymore,” she says.

At the end of the street a teenage boy drags a push mower from the garage. A recycling bin overturns from the wind. The distant ice cream truck winds steadily closer. Jenny lets out a long breath.

“Anthony once told me I was a slut because I wore dresses,” she says. This is something she has never told anyone, mostly because she is horrified by her response, which was to stop wearing dresses.

The ice cream truck has turned onto Mindi from South Buffalo’s street and a tightly braided chain of children follows. The bike desperado swings by again, blowing past without a glance, headed for his snack.

Will kicks a stone in his direction. “We need to get out of here,” he says.

Jenny presses her fingers to her cheeks, which are hot and wet from her tears. “But what about everyone at home?” she says.

Will doesn’t answer. He points to her door. “Get in,” he says, and she does.

***

Will drives them to a dive called Vinny’s near the grain elevators. Inside, the TV is set to the Quick Draw lottery, and a couple of old men in suspenders are keeping track of the numbers. They look up when Will and Jenny come through the door, their faces registering nothing. They turn back to their game.

“Best wings in the city,” Will says. He opens his arms wide, as if the dreary bar were a great expanse. He has yet to mention what they’re going to do about all the people waiting for them. He pulls out two bar stools. “Totally under the radar,” he says.

Will puts in a double order and they settle in with beer, watching the animated ball bounce and choose Quick Draw numbers. 11. 22. 79. 44. 8. 12. One man crumples his paper and throws it behind the bar, where it banks off a bottle of tequila and lands neatly in the trash. He reaches for a new score sheet.

Will touches his fingers to his forehead, lightly, as if warding off a headache. “Let me tell you what I think,” he says. His voice sounds strange rising from the silence. “I think you’re under the impression that you’re the only person who’s ever made a really bad romantic decision.”

Jenny makes a face. “Come on.”

“Well, you’re pretty hard on yourself.”

Jenny presses her fingernail into the damp edge of her coaster and crimps a moat into the cardboard. “I knew better,” she says. “There was never a time I didn’t know he was an asshole.”

Will signals for another beer. “Mindi used to steal from me,” he says. “I caught her taking money from my wallet. Like, regularly.”

“Is that supposed to surprise me?” Jenny asks. “I already knew Mindi was horrible.”

“And so did I,” Will says. “I figured that out early on.”

“So?”

“So sometimes people stay when they know they shouldn’t.”

And there it is. How he let himself off the hook: sometimes people do stupid things.

“I think there’s something more to it than that,” she says.

“And that’s your problem,” he says. His new beer arrives, foam rising over the lip. “Sometimes life really can be that simple.”

The bartender reappears with their wings, and Will takes it upon himself to divvy up the order. Her sets a plate, a stack of napkins, and a wet nap in front of Jenny.

“But,” she begins, and Will closes his eyes.

“Jesus Christ,” he says. He sets a wing aside and wipes his mouth. “Jen, this is part of your problem. Really. The analyzing. You make yourself crazy. You’re completely missing the good part.”

“The good part,” she says.

Will opens his arms again, gesturing to the liquor bottles and dart machines and old posters of Jim Kelly. “Yes,” he says. “This. This is the best part. You got away.”

“I didn’t exactly get away,” she says. “He cheated on me. That’s different.”

Will waves his hand in the air, scattering her concerns. His face is stained orange-red from the wing sauce. “It doesn’t change the facts,” he says. “It’s time to move on.”

“You were just about to shaving-cream your ex-girlfriend’s house,” Jenny says. “And you’re talking to me about moving on?”

Will grins. “The fact that I don’t take my own advice does not diminish its quality,” he says.

And then their phones light up, the rings sounding maniacal against the quiet backdrop of the bar. Their parents. Both of them. Their father calling Will, their mother calling Jenny. She pictures them in the middle of the kitchen, surrounded by intervention attendees. There’s a variety of dips and cheeses on the table and a makeshift bar erected in the corner. They’ll have brought out the top shelf liquors and crystal highballs. She has to hand it to them: they know how to throw a party.

Will mutes his ringer and turns back to the Quick Draw.

“What are we going to do?” Jenny asks. She feels panic rising in her throat.

“We’re not going to answer.”

Both phones go still. The missed calls register, but then, suddenly, they are ringing again—their dad calling Jenny this time, their mom calling Will.

Jenny reaches for her phone, but Will clamps his hand down on hers. “Jenny,” he says. “Don’t.” He shakes his head. “Let’s just sit here a little while longer, okay?”

A rush of compassion overtakes Jenny and she sways against the brass rail of the bar. For maybe the first time in her life, she wants to listen to her brother. She puts the phone down. She doesn’t answer. She won’t give them up. Instead, she reaches for her beer then puts her head on Will’s shoulder, while on the bar their phones continue to clutter with calls from people who want them to be somewhere they aren’t ready to be.


Jessica Smith is no stranger to hard winters.  She grew up outside Buffalo, New York and went on to live in both Minnesota and Maine.  Her work has been published in Ruminate, Qu, Lunch Ticket, Aji Magazine, the Portland Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place.  She teaches at the Central Maine Community College.





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