09/18/2021

Steve Lambert ~ A Minor Character

You got­ta love the Sharon Lipschutzes of the world,” says James.  “You real­ly do.”

Rachel turns the page of her book and looks over at her hus­band.  “Sharon Lipschutz?”  She squints at the cov­er of his book even though she already knows what book it is.  “She the ten­nis-ball girl in the Eskimo one?”

No, she’s the lit­tle girl in ‘Bananafish’ who sits on the piano when Seymour plays.  Makes Sybil Carpenter jealous.”

Sybil Carpenter? The lit­tle girl on the beach? What does she have to be jeal­ous of?  She’s more of a main character.”

Yeah,” he says. “God, her mother’s ter­ri­ble. There are three moth­ers in the sto­ry and they’re all pret­ty ter­ri­ble in some way.  That must be intentional.”

Rachel sighs and turns back around and opens her book, a pop­u­lar romance nov­el.  She likes those best and is unapolo­getic about it.  “I don’t want to do any think­ing with my read­ing,” she always says when James crit­i­cizes her.

James goes back to read­ing, too, but only his favorite part, the end.

Rachel clos­es the book on her fin­ger again and turns back to her husband.

That reminds me.  Don’t for­get about tomorrow.”

Tomorrow? Will there even be a tomor­row?” He puts the book in his lap.

Tomorrow’s Memorial Day.  The beach.  We’re meet­ing the Davis’s after lunch.  I know how you like to for­get these things.”

Shit, the beach.”  He flops open the book.  He reads the last para­graph, over and over.  It’s per­fect, he thinks. No wast­ed words.

Rachel watch­es her hus­band read.  She likes to watch him do sim­ple, seem­ing­ly sane things like this.  Life, she thinks, is full of defer­ments and strate­gies.  Coping mechanisms.

How many times have you read that stu­pid sto­ry now, I wonder.”

It’s some­thing like my nineti­eth time.  If you’d let me fin­ish.”  He adjusts the book in his hand and clears his throat.

Seriously.  How many?”

In real­i­ty?”  He clos­es the book and looks at the cov­er.  He puts the palm of his hand on the book as if he were swear­ing on it.  “Maybe twen­ty times, all the way through. Sometimes I just read bits.”

~

James Healy doesn’t hate the beach. But he doesn’t like being there.  When he is at the beach, he feels like a wrong­ly placed puz­zle piece, or an odd­ly cast extra in a movie.  He brought this up to Rachel once and she assured him that the only thing mak­ing him stand out was his behav­ior.  “If you’d stop act­ing weird, no one would even notice you.”  But if he could go there and be unseen, he’d feel very drawn to it: the foamy waves break­ing hard against the flat grit of the beach and gen­tly reced­ing; the seag­ulls caw­ing and the kids scream­ing; and the scents too: the fishy-salty smell of the ocean, the seem­ing­ly ever-present coconut smell of sun­block; the way it’s always windy at the beach, and the tiny grey fish­ing and shrimp­ing boats that slide along the taut string of the hori­zon.  And who could object to the bathing beau­ties? They alone are rea­son to be fond of the place.  Where else might you find young peo­ple lying and walk­ing around as if there’s noth­ing ugly in the world?  All these things he likes, even loves, and would expe­ri­ence, again and again, if only he could be there and be invisible.

But the one good thing, the one sav­ing grace of this par­tic­u­lar trip to the beach, is that it will be Memorial Day, which means the beach will be crowd­ed with awk­ward, over­weight, ogling, farmer-tanned, mid­dle-aged town­ies just like him.  He fig­ures he can blend in at least.

~

The Healy’s arrive first.   They always arrive first to every­thing because Rachel has a pho­bia of being late.  This, at times, seems to James like an obscure form of masochism, as she is mar­ried to a man who doesn’t seem to care if they ever arrive any­where at all.  After they get every­thing set up, James and Rachel sit in their chairs under a large hot-pink umbrella.

Rachel opens up a fash­ion mag­a­zine and James holds onto his book and looks around.

Couldn’t we have gone to the movies or some­thing?  Our first out­ing with these peo­ple and you pick the beach?”

We could have gone to the movies.  But we didn’t.   And I didn’t pick the beach.  They picked the beach.  Believe me, I wouldn’t have picked the beach.”  She gives him a long, know­ing look. “Anyway, it’s a per­fect­ly nor­mal place for peo­ple to go to.  Look around you.”  She slaps the mag­a­zine against her thigh.  “Are you going to be like this the whole time?”

All right, all right…” He opens his book, but can’t focus on it.  Any time some­one walks by he has to look at them.  (As he’s pre­dict­ed, a large sam­pling of the sub­ur­ban mid­dle-aged crowd the beach.)  A young, col­lege-aged cou­ple is camped out imme­di­ate­ly to their right.  The young man sits in a reclin­ing chair read­ing a men’s fit­ness mag­a­zine and his girl lies on her stom­ach with her bathing-suit top undone, her arms crossed under her head, her eyes closed.  James can see the del­i­cate pearly part of the side of her breast.  Looking at it gives him a jit­tery, speedy feel­ing. He tries not to look, but he can’t help glanc­ing over peri­od­i­cal­ly.  The guy catch­es him and stares James down.

The Davises show up about half an hour lat­er.   The Davises are, quite con­ceiv­ably, the last avail­able cou­ple in the Healy’s social pool, and James knows it.   Rachel has made sure he under­stands that, and he doesn’t want to let Rachel down.

They’re a good-look­ing, ener­getic cou­ple, around the same age as the Healys.  Matt Davis is tall and brawny and intel­li­gent with, it quick­ly becomes clear, a strong appre­ci­a­tion of the naughty and off-col­or.  James doesn’t yet know if he has been one or not, but there is some­thing of the frat boy about Matt.  Grace is petite but stur­dy and has a great sense of humor, but James sus­pects she might be a bit of a hypochon­dri­ac.  Whenever some­one brings up an ail­ment or injury, Grace, it seems, has suf­fered from the very same thing (but only worse, of course) at some point in her appar­ent­ly per­ilous life.   Both the Davises played a sport in col­lege and don’t show the slight­est signs of hav­ing let them­selves go in ear­ly mid­dle age.  And Grace car­ries around with her a bag of assort­ed creams and lotions she rubs on her­self from time to time, very casu­al­ly, like some­one scratch­ing an itch, or tak­ing a sip of a drink.  Consequently, she’s always very moist look­ing. They are, in fact, a new kind of cou­ple for the Healys.  Until now they’d hung around peo­ple more or less like them­selves, the dilet­tante crowd; vague­ly art­sy peo­ple with some vari­ety of stalled cre­ative aspiration.

In con­trast to the ath­let­ic and ener­getic Davises, James thinks, he and Rachel look rather plain—sort of bland and mut­ed.  James has a boy­ish charm, even if it is begin­ning to fade a lit­tle in his late-thir­ties, and Rachel has a cer­tain cute-nerd qual­i­ty that can be very allur­ing and even erot­ic, but, to James, next to the Davises, they are both some­what bor­ing to look at.

Grace sits to the left of Rachel and Matt sits to the right of James.  Matt looks around before pulling a can of beer from his cool­er and pour­ing it into a Solo cup.  He hands James the cup of beer and says, “Pass it down.”  Once they all have a cup of beer in hand or at foot, they sit qui­et­ly for a good while, lis­ten­ing and watch­ing and drink­ing.  Collectively, they are the very pic­ture of relax­ation.  James remem­bers the semi-top­less girl and steals a glance.  She’s in almost the same posi­tion, and her man is too.

When you get a chance, take a look to your right.  Don’t let the ape see you do it though.”

Matt puts on his sun­glass­es and then glances to his right.

Sweet Jesus,” he whispers.

James goes for anoth­er look and gets caught in the act again.

Goddamnit!  That’s twice now.”

You filthy bas­tard!”  Matt gig­gles and gives James a soft punch on the shoul­der. “Totally inappropriate….You should be ashamed.”

What are you two fuss­ing about over there?” says Grace.  She hands her emp­ty cup across and James takes it and hands it to Matt.  Matt does a scan up and down the beach and refills it.

~

They enjoy them­selves at the beach so much that before leav­ing they make plans to meet up— after going home and clean­ing up and hav­ing dinner—for drinks at the Healy’s.  James is even kind of into the idea.  Everyone is in high spir­its and look­ing for­ward to fur­ther­ing the good times lat­er in the evening.

Rachel makes sure James wears some­thing decent.  Left to make his own choic­es, he might pick some­thing that doesn’t match, or a shirt with a hole in it.  He has many shirts with holes in them, and delights in wear­ing them, almost as if the holes were badges or medals.  He some­times even points out the holes to com­pa­ny, which embar­rass­es Rachel.  “I’ve had this shirt so long it’s giv­ing out on me.”  He’ll have a big smile on his face.  Even many of his “dress shirts” are thread­bare.  The prob­lem is that he hates going clothes shop­ping.  And there are so many rea­sons he hates going clothes shop­ping that there is no one quick rem­e­dy.  Consequently, Rachel ends up buy­ing most of his clothes, and he ends up hat­ing most of them.  When he finds him­self lik­ing a shirt or pair of pants he wears them reli­gious­ly and devel­ops an almost emo­tion­al attach­ment and it becomes very dif­fi­cult for him to part with them.

The Davises bring some expen­sive tequi­la and sug­gest doing shots.

Just one for me,” says James.  He doesn’t mind the stuff, but he doesn’t feel com­fort­able being too drunk.  Rachel nods emphat­i­cal­ly.  “Oh, just one for me, too,” she adds.  She holds up the shot glass.  She smiles and toss­es it back.

Being that these are two cou­ples who hard­ly know each oth­er, their con­ver­sa­tion quick­ly progress from the inci­den­tal to the more per­son­al.  The booze helps.  This is some­thing that James and Rachel have to be cau­tious about. Sober it’s easy to con­trol a sit­u­a­tion and keep things focused on sur­face mat­ters.  But buzzed or drunk, too much could eas­i­ly get said.  The whys and hows of things can come spilling out, not even pur­pose­ly, and a first pleas­ant night with new friends can eas­i­ly turn into a one-time thing.

We’ve def­i­nite­ly moved around a lot,” says Matt.  “But that’s the nature of the field.  Jobs are usu­al­ly con­tract only and don’t often last longer than a few years.”  He looks sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly at his wife.  She touch­es his hand and gri­maces, as if to say, yes, it is tough, but I understand.

I’ve nev­er lived any­where else,” says James.  “I was born here and, except for a lit­tle trav­el­ling in my ear­ly twen­ties, that’s it.  Isn’t that pathet­ic?”  He looks at Rachel and her face is wrung up, but with a tense smile.  It’s an “oh, my sil­ly hus­band” look, which is famil­iar to James.  It func­tions almost as a visu­al cue for him.  Too many of these and he prob­a­bly needs to be more care­ful about what he says, needs to dial things back a bit.

I think it’s great,” says Grace.  “I’ve nev­er had that—not even as a child.  I was an Air Force brat.  Every four years…off we went.”

At least you got to travel—see some great places.  I bet you lived over­seas.”  Rachel’s face lights up.

We lived in Italy for four years, when I was in ele­men­tary school.  I was very young, so I didn’t real­ly appre­ci­ate it.”

Rachel points her beer at her Husband.  “James has a pen­sion for self-dep­re­ca­tion.  He’s being mod­est.  He’s been all over the world.  Went off to Alaska when we were dat­ing.  Lived there for three months.  He’s been to Japan, Taiwan, China…all over.”

Wow! Alaska.” Says Grace.  “That must have been an adven­ture.  I’ve always want­ed to go.”

It was…okay, I guess. I was there dur­ing the summer.”

See what I mean?  If he was drunk, he’d talk your ear off about it.”

Well, then,” says Matt.  He holds up the tequi­la bot­tle and smiles.  “Let’s get to work.”

Oh, no,” says Rachel and James, almost in unison.

Come on.”  Matt sets up four shot glass­es and starts pour­ing.  He is not going to take no for an answer.  Rachel curs­es her­self for say­ing some­thing so irre­spon­si­ble.  James begins to think his sus­pi­cions about Matt have been cor­rect: this man is a grown-up frat boy. Matt the Frat Boy, he says to himself.

~

By around ten they’ve worked their way onto the back porch.  James want­ed to smoke, which is some­thing he does only when we is drink­ing.  He buys a pack every once in a while and it usu­al­ly lasts him months.  When James says, “I don’t know about any­one else, but I could use a smoke,” Grace says, “Oh, I want one!  I want one!”  Rachel and Matt look at each oth­er and make dis­ap­prov­ing faces.  Rachel knows that James’ want­i­ng to smoke is a red flag.

It’s very humid out, but not hot per se.  Halfway into his cig­a­rette, James is feel­ing relaxed and fair­ly drunk.  He notices Rachel star­ing at him and he winks at her.  She rais­es her eye­brows and looks away.  He gets the mes­sage, but is drunk enough now not to care.

You must work out or some­thing.”  James leans into his Adirondack chair and takes a drag of his smoke.  “You’re a pret­ty big guy.”

Yeah, well.  I go to the gym every morn­ing.”  It’s obvi­ous from his tone of voice he doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it.

Yeah, me too.”  James leans over and puts the cig­a­rette butt out in the ash­tray on a table between he and Grace.

Yes, I can tell.”  Matt leans back into his chair and shows every­one an ami­able, boozy smile.

Can you?  Can you real­ly tell?”  James’ tone is harsh.  He stands up and pulls back his shirt sleeve and flex­es his arm.

Rachel’s the first to laugh.  Grace and Matt quick­ly join in.

James puts his arm back down and starts laugh­ing too.

You’ve nev­er seen any­thing like that, have you, Grace?”  James picks up his beer and takes a swig of it.

Oh, dear God, no!  It was fright­en­ing!”  Everyone lets out loud, loose laughs.

I’m a lucky lady,” says Rachel and puts her head in her hand.  She erupts, again, in laugh­ter and sighs.  “He’s all mine, Grace, so back off!”

Man, those real­ly are some guns you got there, Jimmy,” says Matt.

James stops laugh­ing abrupt­ly and so does Rachel.

Well, that’s just dis­ap­point­ing,” says James.

What?  Did I say some­thing?” Matt’s hands grab onto the arm­rests of his chair.

Rachel looks ner­vous­ly over at her hus­band and sees his pos­ture slacken.

Nothing,” says James.  “It’s noth­ing.  It’s just pre­dictable. So fuck­ing pre­dictable.  Big mus­cly guy makes fun of the skin­ny guy.  What’s next a wedgie?  A swirlie? You gonna try fuck­ing my wife?”

Grace puts her cig­a­rette out. She has a rigid smile on her face, as if her lips have got­ten stuck that way.  Matt looks over at Rachel and silent­ly mouths what?

They all go back inside, except for James.  He sits on the porch until the Davises leave.  He only comes in once it starts rain­ing, and he goes straight to the bedroom.

Rachel is asleep with the light on, bunched up under the cov­ers, only her head exposed.  He doesn’t under­stand how he can be so hot when she is so cold. James walks into the clos­et and lifts up a pile of fold­ed pants from a high shelf.  He feels around until his hand knocks into it.  In the begin­ning, Rachel didn’t like hav­ing it in the house but James con­vinced her that it would be a good idea and that even­tu­al­ly she would not only get used to it but it would also come to make her feel safe.  And he’d been right.  She told him as much once.  He gets into bed next to his sleep­ing wife and reclines against the head­board.  How can she be under all those cov­ers when he’s sweat­ing in noth­ing but a t‑shirt and box­ers? He reach­es over and opens the top draw­er of his bed­side table.  He takes a sin­gle bul­let out of the draw­er and puts it into one of the cylin­der cham­bers.  He sticks the bar­rel into his mouth and angles the tip of it against the top of the back of his throat, just the way he’s always imag­ined he would.  Rachel stirs.  He quick­ly puts the gun under the cov­ers.  She lifts her head and squints her eyes toward James.  “What are you doing?” she rasps.  “Just get­ting into bed,” he says.  “Go back to sleep.”  She puts her hand out in his direc­tion and search­es for him with it.  He touch­es her hand.  It’s very cold.  “You’re so warm,” she says.  “How are you so warm?”  He doesn’t answer and when she falls asleep he gets up, puts the gun away, and gets back into bed with his wife.  He gets under the cov­ers and pulls her close.  Rachel coos and press­es her cold body into James warm body. “Good night,” says James, and Rachel mum­bles some­thing that sounds like everything’s okay.

 ~

Steve Lambert’s writ­ing has appeared, or is forth­com­ing, in Saw Palm, Chiron Review, New Contrast (South Africa), The Pinch, Broad River Review, Longleaf Review, Emrys Journal, Bull Fiction, Into the Void, Cowboy Jamboree, Cortland Review, and many oth­er places. In 2015 he won third place in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction con­test and in 2018 he won Emrys Journal’s Nancy Dew Taylor Poetry Prize. He is the recip­i­ent of four Pushcart Prize nom­i­na­tions and was a Rash Award in Fiction final­ist. He is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Heat Seekers (2017), the chap­book In Eynsham (2020) and the fic­tion col­lec­tion The Patron Saint of Birds (2020). His nov­el, Philisteens, will be out May 2021 and his poet­ry col­lec­tion, The Shamble, will be out in October, both with Close to The Bone Publishing. He lives in Northeast Florida, with his wife and daugh­ter, where he teach­es part-time at the University of North Florida.