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It Counts

Josh Capps

After burying his wife, Murphy waited two weeks, then went back to his job. On the day he returned, Murphy took an extra thirty minutes at lunch, and he left fifteen minutes before five. The brothers who ran the shop where he worked had let all the co-workers know that it would be this way. Murphy gets cut a little slack for the next couple of weeks. Murphy will be leaving early until he gets used to this schedule again. All of the co-workers knew the score. They were understanding. Murphy's gonna need some time to figure himself out, the brothers would say. Let alone his schedule.

He did not know what to do with his extra fifteen minutes, but Murphy decided to swing by the house and see if Mr. & Mrs. Riley had changed anything. He figured they would decorate the front porch and do some work on the yard. He knew that eventually they would give the entire house a facelift. They were old people, and Murphy figured they would do the things that old people do to houses and yards. What old couples do, he supposed.

To get there, Murphy tried using a different route. He had always taken a left on Sixteenth and gone up the hill past the cemetery until he hit Lennox, where there is a lumber company. From the crossroads at the lumber company, one can see Green Lawn Estates, and his house was part of Green Lawn Estates. Murphy got himself turned around on the other side of the cemetery, though, and he had to re-run his route until he found something familiar. There was a large church near the bottom of a hill in Green Lawn and from that base, a cul-de-sac called Terrace Path began. The house was in the cup of the cul-de-sac.

Murphy found the church and took his time up Terrace Path. He enjoyed seeing the driveways and basketball hoops and mailboxes he had not seen in a while, and he was growing rather proud of his spontaneity until he saw the house. It seemed smaller, but, for the most part, he saw things like they had been before and did not notice any significant changes. He saw the windows and he saw the blinds. He looked at the front door and he saw the door knocker he had put up. He saw the door bell he had put up with. He saw that the garage was open, and he quickly looked away, looked at other things.

The green of the yard and the dead brown spot near the tree. The chalky gravel lining the driveway. The shrubbery. A thick hose with a sprinkler tossing crisp moisture against the lawn and the side of the house. Holding his breath, Murphy had completed the circle and was headed back down the street before he looked at the garage in his rear view mirror. The Rileys' Cadillac was parked in the dead center and there were several boxes stacked high to the ceiling. There was writing on the boxes. In the shadows behind a barbecue grill, Murphy saw an old man in white shorts and black knee socks.

It was Mr. Riley.

He was waving his arms and scampered out of the garage into the driveway. He was holding onto some papers, and they were fluttering about in the wind.

Murphy slowed down for a moment and eyed him. Mr. Riley kept jogging toward the street but dropped the papers. They scattered about the yard and Murphy put his foot on the gas pedal and did not look at the house anymore.

*

Aaron got home about six-fifteen and saw his dad's car in the parking lot. It was backed into a spot, the rear tire up on the sidewalk a little and Aaron laughed about that, and then he felt sad. He rubbed out his cigarette in his Buick's ashtray and tossed the butt into the grass near the pavement. It was very muggy outside, and Aaron pulled off his shirt. He held it up then he pressed it against his face. It was damp and sticky, and he noticed that the Ford Garage patch was a little frayed. Aaron laid the shirt against the hood of his car. He trusted his neighbors and he trusted the rest of the crowd that hung around his apartment complex. He trusted them enough to have a dry shirt, at least.

Before heading to his building, Aaron swung by the pool and bought a Pepsi and some crackers from the snack machine. He said hello to some of the children and was pressured into watching their acrobatic dives and cannonballs. He checked to see if anyone was in the laundry room. He glanced at his car again, and his shirt was still there. He decided to sit at an empty picnic table and drink his soda and eat his crackers. He watched the sun get closer and closer to the trees, just down the street.

Aaron figured now was one of those moments where he should think about his dead stepmother.

*

Murphy had straightened up the living room again. He had also lit a few candles and sprayed a can of Lysol. The air smelled like potpourri and burnt wood. Aaron held back tears and coughs as he walked in. He tossed his keys on the television, but they fell to the floor. He stared at the bong under his stereo shelf but paid it no mind.

"Hey, old man," Aaron said. The scent was powerful. "The day is done."

His dad appeared from around the corner. "Hey, pal," Murphy said. He was toweling off his hands. "Work all right?"

Aaron nodded. There were clean carpets beneath his tennis shoes and clean cushions on his sunken couch. He also noticed the US Highway road sign now hanging from his bathroom door. It caught the light just right and flashed. It winked at Aaron.

Murphy watched his son's eyes. "I brought some stuff I had lying . . . If you don't mind, that is. This is still your apartment and all that."

Aaron shook off blank face. "No, no, Dad." He smiled. "Like I'd turn down a stolen road sign--"

"It's got bullet holes," Murphy told him. "It's a classic, like the book says." He coughed and struggled to clear his throat. "Like the book says."

"Eighty-three?" Aaron asked. "Where's that run?"

"I picked it up in Nebraska," Murphy answered. "Me and your grandpa. Few years ago, maybe. Your uncle, too."

Aaron went to the sliding glass doors and cracked them, letting in some fresh air.

"Yeah. You'll probably need some fresh air with that stuff I sprayed, I suppose," Murphy said. "I probably sprayed too much. I'm not very good with that shit."

"No, no, Dad. It's fine." Aaron stretched out on the couch. "This place probably stunk," Aaron said, and he thought about the bong. He relaxed his eyes and folded his arms across his stomach.

"I did buy candles," Murphy said. "Well, you can see that. I said that, didn't I? I did go shopping, though."

"Yeah?"

"I bought groceries," Murphy said. "I had some free time this afternoon and I went shopping. I figured you could use a little more if I was going to stay a couple of days."

"Sounds great."

"You know I can help you out, money wise . . ."

"Thanks again, Dad." Aaron had said it before.

"Thank you for letting me stay," Murphy said. The grocery bags were on the table between the living room and the kitchen. Aaron stopped dozing and he turned on the television. A sitcom had finished and the credits were rolling as the theme music played. Aaron got up and looked at the bags.

Murphy said, "I bought some peanut butter and some white bread. Let's see." He dug through the grocery bags. "And cigarettes, I guess."

"You've decided not to quit?" Aaron picked up the carton and stripped it, cracking open a pack.

"They're for you," Murphy said. Aaron slipped one between his lips and nodded, raising his eyebrows, and then he offered his dad a Camel. "And I think I'll probably try quitting when I get back on my feet," Murphy said.

"Thanks for the cigarettes." Aaron lit up and sucked in the smoke. Then he let it out. He offered his dad the lighter but Murphy shook it off, just standing there, twirling the cigarette around in his fingers. Aaron inhaled again, then he sniffed at his armpits.

"I also bought some bottled water," Murphy told him. "So you don't have to drink out of that nasty old pitcher."

"I sort of like my nasty pitcher."

"Well, so I don't have to drink out of the nasty old pitcher," Murphy said, and he laughed. Aaron looked at him laughing, smiled and thought about the moment longer than the moment itself.

"Yeah, anyway," Murphy said. He put the cigarette back into the pack.

"Fair enough," he said, and Aaron started digging through the bags.

"You bought Hustler?" Aaron asked.

"I don't know." Murphy pulled a glass out of the cabinet and poured some water from a bottle. He said, "I also did the dishes I'd dirtied . . . but I saw it there, the Hustler and well, it was there. It's been so long since I bought one of those things, you know. I thought it was funny. It was kind of a funny thing, you know."

"Yeah." Aaron flipped through the Hustler and smiled at one of the cartoons. It showed one fag jacking off into a condom while another fag watched. The caption read, 'I'm packing you a lunch for your first day on the job.'

"Oh yeah, I brought some things," Murphy said, and he started to pace.

"Maybe, you like them. I don't really know."

"Things?"

Murphy said, "From the house. Things for your walls or something. They look bare, I thought. The walls."

"They are pretty bare, I guess," Aaron said, not looking up.

"Not bad, though." Murphy sat the water on the table and pulled out another cigarette. "You've seen the road sign. That's about it. I put it on your bathroom door."

"Yeah?"

"I was gonna go by the house sometime and pick up the rest. The boxes or whatever," Murphy started. He was twirling the cigarette in his fingers again. His fingers were moving really fast. "So I can--"

"Dad, I've got some buddies that can . . ." Aaron put his hand on his dad's arm for a moment and felt the hair and hot skin. The hair was prickly and rough. He pulled away his touch and offered his dad the lighter. "We can take care of that later. You don't worry about it. There's no need for you to go back over there, you know?" Aaron said.

"Well, we can talk about it, though." Murphy looked like he was sweating. He said, "Don't think that I won't be able to talk about it, right? If you need to talk about it, right, she was important to you, too--"

"Dad, I'm fine," Aaron assured him. "But if you need to talk--"

"Well I'm--"

"No, listen for a second." Aaron was scanning over the Hustler again.

A woman was on a beach and her cunt looked like a explosion. Then Aaron looked at the sliding glass doors, and then he looked at his dad. He said, "I've got buddies that can help me move some of that but-- Well, do you need to talk?"

Murphy took the lighter and lit his cigarette. He paced about the room again. He blew smoke circles, and he blew half-circles. He said, "Just little thoughts, I suppose. That's all my head works like now. That's what I've got. I've got these little thoughts."

"Yeah?"

"Stupid shit, Aaron." Murphy was sweating. He wiped his forehead with his thick wrist. "Not things that will solve anything or mean anything, I suppose," he said.

"Tell me."

"Stupid things," Murphy said. "I thought about it going to work this week. It was the first time, this week, you know? And I thought about taking a shower here and how you let me stay here, god bless you, and cramp your style . . ."

"You don't cramp my style," Aaron said, and he laughed when he saw that his dad was closer to laughter than he was to tears. "My friends don't give a fuck, and I mean that." Aaron laughed some more.

"No, no, I'm serious. I'm not gonna go cramp your style," Murphy told him. "You've got your friends you need to be with. And that little waitress, what's her name?"

"Shelly?"

"Shelly, that's right. She seems like a nice one," Murphy said.

Aaron watched a commercial on the television screen. "She's fine, I guess."

"Damn right, she's fine. You can bring her over here, you know. I can leave--"

"Dad, it's cool. Okay?"

"Yeah. All right."

"You were talking, though." Aaron looked away from the television and considered looking his dad in the eyes. Aaron said, "You were saying about stupid shit?"

"What?"

"Stupid things or something . . ." Aaron waited.

Murphy pulled the cigarette away from his mouth and he looked at his hands for a long time. "That's right . . . Stupid things, though. What I was talking about. Taking a shower here, you know, on Monday before that first day back, right?" Murphy blew smoke from his nose. "I sat at my chair and it was my office and all. It was our annual July sale and it was hectic as all hell, as it is. But it was like my skin was different and the only way I could think of it was how I took the shower over here. My surroundings before I went to work were different, maybe, and it changed me or . . . well, I don't really know."

"I know, Dad." Aaron ashed in a Styrofoam cup. It sizzled.

"You followed all that shit?"

"I don't follow, I guess. But I know," Aaron said. "If that counts."

Murphy said, "It counts." He smiled, and then he disappeared into the bedroom for a while.

*

By nine, Murphy was asleep on the sunken couch and Aaron turned off the television and left, locking the door behind him. Shelly had called earlier to say that a few people were over and to say that she wanted Aaron to come over. She told him she had a surprise for him. Then the phone had rung again, just as Aaron hung up with Shelly. It was Mr. Riley and he told Aaron that Murphy had some mail at the house. Aaron looked at his dad and watched him breathe, then he told Riley that he would come by and pick up the mail.

Riley asked some questions, too. The typical things. Aaron did not like the questions about typical things. Aaron did not like Riley, and he could not place why.

Aaron stopped at a convenience store and bought some Seagram's before he got to Shelly's complex. He bought a new lighter, too. He hustled up her stairs and knocked on her door. He tried to peer in the window but the blinds were drawn. Several voices told him to come on in.

There was a lot of smoke in the room and the television's volume was a little loud. WGN was running a late-night feature, an action picture with Steven Seagal and Laura Langley. Shelly's mom was in a recliner and her bare feet were on a stool. Billy and Krystal were on the couch, close to each other. Jason was on the floor. Aaron thought he saw someone else but it was a stand-up of James Dean. He did a double-take. He sat the Seagram's on the counter near the microwave. There were several empty beer cans in various places. Krystal was drinking something from a cup, and her eyes were glued to the television. Billy was trying to hold a conversation with both Shelly's mom and Jason and he seemed relieved when Aaron came in through the kitchen.

"Hey," Billy said. "Hey there."

Aaron nodded and smiled. Jason said "hey" without getting up. Krystal nodded and took a sip. Shelly's mom continued to talk, but her voice trailed off and she looked up at Aaron.

"Hey there, kiddo," she said. Shelly's mom was almost drunk, but, as always, she was polite.

"Hey there, Ms. Campbell."

"Now don't even start that Ms. Campbell shit, Aaron," she told him. She patted Aaron on the knee. Shelly appeared from her bedroom.

"Mom," Shelly started in.

"Who's that?" Ms. Campbell looked at her daughter and smiled, and then she took a sip from her Budweiser and looked at Aaron with puppy dog eyes.

"I'm sorry, Anne," Aaron said.

"That's better, kiddo." Ms. Campbell winked at Aaron and looked at the television. She said, "My daughter hates me, Aaron." Then she started talking at Billy again.

"Mom, I love you," Shelly said and gave Aaron a hug, and he kissed her forehead. "And I think you should stop bothering my friends before they all hate me."

"Your mom is the fucking bomb, Shelly," Billy said, and he went back to something Jason was saying.

"How's pappa?" Ms. Campbell asked, looking at Aaron again. He seemed startled. Shelly went to the couch and asked Krystal if she was going spend the night. There's a fold-out bed in couch, Shelly told her.

Aaron said, "What?" He watched the television and the scenes from the action film, but he shook free. He looked at Ms. Campbell. "I'm sorry . . ?"

"How's your dad doing?" Ms. Campbell asked.

Jason yelled at the screen. Billy applauded.

Aaron said, "Really, well, a lot better." He knelt beside the recliner.

"Thanks for asking," he said.

Ms. Campbell said, "It's gotta be tough." She offered some undivided attention between sips. She was also nursing a cigarette. "Tough, tough business," she repeated. Shelly smiled at Krystal and kissed her on the forehead, and she walked across the room, hurrying in front of the television. Jason and Billy thanked her haste.

"Yeah, I think," Aaron said. He checked his pockets for cigarettes.

"But thanks, you know--"

"Come in here for a minute," Shelly called at Aaron from her bedroom door. She was smiling.

"Hold on, Miss Shelly," Ms. Campbell told her. "We're talking here."

"Don't hog my friends, Anne," Shelly said.

Ms. Campbell looked at her and laughed. "Not Anne, baby."

"I'm either twenty-one, or I'm a baby," Shelly told her.

Ms. Campbell said, "You're my twenty-one year old baby." Ms. Campbell talked with her arms, and she looked like she was adding up the twenty-one years in her head. She continued, "Anne? That's something your friends call me. That's for your friends. That one's not for you, Miss Shelly-baby."

"Don't hog my friends, Mom," Shelly said. She snickered a little.

Krystal remembered something and got up. She stepped over Jason and almost tripped.

"No, no, it's fine," Aaron assured Shelly, who'd started discussing something minor with Krystal. There was a joke on television. Jason and Billy laughed really loud.

"Fuckin' asshole. What an asshole," Jason shouted at the screen.

"Guys," Shelly said. "The neighbors, guys," she said.

Billy laughed quietly and Jason tried to find another beer. He asked where he had put his wallet.

"It's like everything is new to him," Aaron told Ms. Campbell. "Again, I guess."

Ms. Campbell nodded.

"And this is one of those times in life where he didn't need any new things," Aaron said. He stood up and stretched out. He looked over the room like he had never seen it.

"Mom, you've stolen my apartment, are you--"

"Take him, child. I think we're finished," Ms. Campbell said. She patted Aaron's lower back. He mouthed the words, "thanks again."

"Tell your dad I'm thinking of him," Ms. Campbell added.

"You know my dad?" Aaron said. He started backing toward the bedroom and almost bumped into Krystal, who had fixed herself a new drink. It had blue Kool-Aid and vodka. Aaron cleared his throat. "I didn't know if you knew him," he said.

"Well, I know you. And your dad, well . . . us sad, middle-aged people all kind of know each other," Ms. Campbell said. She gathered her thoughts. She looked like she was thinking of something. She said, "So yeah, maybe."

Aaron smiled.

She said, "And you know that I'm thinking about you."

*

"I'm sorry about that." Shelly shut her bedroom door and left the lights off, and Aaron sat on the waterbed. The television from the next room seemed louder. The bass on the soundtrack thumped against the wall. Shelly said,

"She's on a typical Campbell bender, right? They cut her off at the sports bar. On my shift."

"It was nothing. She said, well, some good stuff, I guess," Aaron said.

He went back and rested on his elbows. The bed tossed. Through the dark, he could see Shelly's night stand. It had a small reading lamp and a framed picture of her two children, Kyle and Kelly. They were cute. Twins. As usual, Aaron leaned forward and put the picture face down. Shelly never said she minded.

"Did she say something important?" Shelly asked. "She gets on these things that just don't go anywhere, sometimes," she said.

There was an adjacent bathroom, and its light clicked on. Shelly had stripped to only her bra and panties, and she was a silhouette in the door frame. She slipped into a night shirt, and Aaron admired her body, he admired the flaws. "She's a smart lady, Shelly." Aaron pulled off his tee shirt and kicked off his tennis shoes, but he left his jeans on. Shelly brushed her teeth.

"She might have her moments," Shelly mumbled over running water and through gobs of toothpaste. She spit. "Maybe. But you don't have to live with her."

Aaron smiled even though she wasn't looking at him.

Shelly rinsed out her mouth and shut down the water. "Okay, you ready?" she asked.

"Ready?"

"Ready for the surprise, honey." Shelly came to the bed. She left the bathroom light on, and she was holding a wadded baggy and a small mirror. She said, "Two surprises really."

"Two?"

Shelly sat beside Aaron. "I think there's an expired bank card or something in the night stand," she told him, and she began emptying the coke onto the mirror. "You can check and I'll take care of surprise number one . . ."

Aaron watched her dump the coke and grinned. "Fucking disco," he said. He went through the night stand and found the NationsBank card. "You weren't kidding, fucking surprise," he said.

Shelly chopped it, then she cut a couple of lines and let Aaron take them. His eyes watered for a few seconds and he shook out the cobwebs. It had been a while, and the dope tasted like chalk in his throat. It was dry, and it was like paste. He looked at Shelly and she was still smiling, beautiful but she was staring at the overturned picture of her twins. She was silent and dumped some more coke.

Aaron took the card and cut these lines. "I love surprises," he said, docile. Then he stammered as if he should say something about the picture. "I can--"

Shelly shook her head, "no," benignly, and she pushed in a nostril. She leaned close to the mirror and sniffed. She smiled and kissed Aaron. They did more lines and tried making love in between. They did a few more lines.

Aaron went to shut off the bathroom light and Shelly stashed the bag under the papers in her night stand. She peeled off her top and slid her panties down around her feet. She left the bra on, and she started sucking on one of Aaron's nipples when he got back to bed.

He kissed her on the top of the head.

*

Later in the night, the television was still blaring in the living room.

Aaron could not sleep anyhow, and he got out of bed and went to turn down the volume. He opened the bedroom door and light cracked the bedroom, and he stared at the bed and stared at Shelly as she slept. He stared at the way her lips were and at the way her feet were uncovered. Her toe nails were painted.

Billy and Krystal had fallen asleep together on the couch. Aaron saw his bottle of Seagram's, opened and half-empty, on a near-by coffee table.

Jason was passed out in the floor, and he had a dumb look about him. Shelly's mom was not in the recliner, and it seemed really empty without her. The balcony door was open, though, and Aaron could see her in a lawn chair, watching the traffic, feet on the ledge, covered with a yin-yang throw rug.

Aaron lit himself a cigarette, zipped and buttoned his jeans and he stepped out onto the balcony. Ms. Campbell unfolded another chair, and Aaron was going to offer her a cigarette until he saw one between her fingers. He sat there with her in the chilly summer night and they were silent for a while. The highway was close, as were a couple of late night hang outs.

All the pretty cars were quick and their headlights swift but the sounds were muted, and it was all a little out of sync. Ms. Campbell spoke first and Aaron thought about how he enjoyed her voice. He thought about enjoying moments like these. He felt safe. He thought of Shelly in the bed. Krystal in Billy's arms. Jason like a retard.

"Shelly told me that your dad's holed up at your apartment," Ms. Campbell said, laughing. "Never will get rid of us, huh, kiddo?" she said.

"It's too not bad," Aaron told her, grinning. "It is weird, though. I wish I had better words but that's all I've got. Weird. Strange. Different."

"Well," Ms. Campbell started, coughing up something rather nasty. "At my age, at your dad's age, we can get a lot out of 'strange' and 'weird.' We've learned to make do with words like that."

"Yeah," Aaron said and tapped off his ash in Ms. Campbell's tray. "It isn't mourning, I guess. It's just re-evaluation. I keep having to change the way I think."

"That never stops, honey," Ms. Campbell said.

"Yeah. If you're still alive, it's supposed to make you stronger," Aaron said, letting the smoke go out of his nose. "Like these bad boys," he said, motioning to his cigarette.

Ms. Campbell said, "Don't let it give you up, or . . . don't you give it up." One of the late-night restaurants shut down the lights. Its large neon sign went cold. Ms. Campbell swatted at a mosquito, she smacked against her arm. "Whatever way I meant that to come out."

Aaron looked at her eyes, and he stared at the bags and the lines. They were over and under. He said, "When I was six years old, or five, or whatever it was, I figured my mom and dad would be together forever. They divorced when I was in sixth grade, whatever age that makes me . . ." He thought about it for a moment but continued. "And I realized that I'd just figured wrong. No forevers," he said.

Ms. Campbell started in but stopped, and she adjusted the throw rug, covering up her legs.

Aaron said, "I'll assume that creating children takes a lot of love and I'll really understand it if two people can't make babies and stay together forever. Forever is for something else, maybe." Aaron thought he smelled body odor on himself but acted normal. Maybe it was Shelly, too. He said, "I figured that his second marriage, well, that's all about love and that'll last forever. But--"

"Honey," Ms. Campbell started. "The word's still out, but I think I know some things. The most important? Well, I know that you know some things. And, well . . ." Aaron was nodding. She said, "And you know . . ."

He said, "I do. Sometimes freaky shit happens. High-speed collisions, accidents, I know all that." He said, "But forever, I don't know for sure."

"We've come a long ways, kiddo." Ms. Campbell had a big, sad smile.

"I love your daughter, Anne."

Ms. Campbell put her hand on his knee. "She loves you, honey."

"I don't think I'll tell her, though." Aaron stood up and yawned. "I don't want us, me and her, to have to worry about forever," he said.

"That may be good," Ms. Campbell said. She put out her cigarette.

"Maybe, and it will keep me on my toes. I'll be in love, I guess, but I'm just gonna be wary," Aaron told her, and he bent over to give Ms. Campbell a hug. It felt awkward and then it felt right. He started back inside.

"Stay on your toes," she told him.

"I will," Aaron said. "Don't stay out here too long, Anne."

"I might just sleep out here, honey." Ms. Campbell winked at him. "But I'll stay on my toes, too. Like the book says, 'always follow your nose and always stay on your toes."

Aaron stopped and looked back onto the porch. Ms. Campbell was watching the highway. For a moment, he followed the car she was trailing and watched it go red. Another business called it a night. Aaron went inside and left the sliding door cracked behind him. He stepped over Jason and went back to the bedroom. He stepped out of his jeans and slid under the covers, pulling close to Shelly. He felt her breaths against his neck. Then he turned, pulling her close, and he glanced at the night stand before shutting his eyes. The drawer was closed. The picture of the twins was upright. Aaron fell asleep against Shelly's breast. Kyle and Kelly watched over them.

 


Josh Capps lives in Springfield, Missouri, where hes a creative writing student at Southwest Missouri State University. His fiction has appeared in Type Magazine, and he has a story forthcoming in The Moon City Review. He runs marathons, studies film and plays basketball. His email address is JDCTCB@aol.com.


 

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