Mike Beasley is a retired teacher. Years ago, he published fiction in little magazines and The Atlantic. He says, “Then I quit writing. Then I wrote again. I quit again and started again. I think I’m getting the getting the hang of it now.”
A Woman in the House
by Mike Beasley
Jolly pink whales, captured in squares of moldy grout, grinned and stuck out their tongues as the plastic boat sliced a wobbly path through the tepid water. In gloomy silence C.K. Hadknot watched the toy, powered by a rubber band, skim the buoyant hair of his groin, halve the glaucous water between his legs, and putt-putt into the overflow drain. It halted there, bouncing nose first against the grimy porcelain. The milkman lowered his bald mottled scalp to the rim of the tub, tensed his buttocks and watched as an iridescent bubble was born in the soap scum between his legs. He dredged a cloth from the water and draped his homely face and closed his eyes against the glistering overhead light.
Willard Shue, his son-in-law, sat on the toilet, gently mocking: “Man your age? Playing in the tub?”
The milkman sank into the soupy water, descending to a nether region of soggy oblivion.
“What I’m saying, it’s hours you been in the tub. Hours. Ain’t normal, C.K.”
Hadknot’s ugly head reared: “Wahooabow—” He had removed the dentures from his mouth, and with them the “d”s and “t”s from his words. He reached for the bottle on the floor beside the tub.
C.K. Hadknot had gone to the tub eight months ago. Until then, he prided himself on his active retirement. He walked two miles daily, read four news magazines and two newspapers and could name the German chancellor or tell you the inflation rate in Brazil just like that. Twice weekly he visited the retirement center to play dominoes and argue world affairs with the other old men. Hadknot played “Texas 42” recklessly, and often poorly, but he thrived on the arguments. The other men were Republicans, devotees of Ronnie Reagan. Hadknot, a yellow dog Democrat, gleefully chided the Reagan bunch, tax breaks for the rich, Iran Contra, and Wall Street scandals. Often, the Center’s director came to the table to quiet the old men. Hadknot would leave the Center in a huff, but always he returned. He had been a regular for six years, since shortly after his wife died. Eight months ago he went to the tub. He stopped walking. The reading petered out. He quit the domino games at the Center and took to making slighting remarks about the old fools who wasted their time there. His friends urged the milkman to return to the Center. You can’t grieve forever, they told him. What are you doing, holed up in your house like a criminal?
Hadknot answered he no longer enjoyed dominoes—no longer cared for politics. “Don’t call me,” he said. “Don’t bother me. You can go to hell with Reagan and Bush.”
One by one his friends stopped calling. When they did call Hadknot insulted them. Eventually nobody called, which proved to the milkman’s satisfaction that they had not been true friends after all.
Hadknot reached behind him for his choppers on the rim of the tub, inserted them in his mouth and poked the whiskey bottle in his face and drained the last ounce.
“I bet your liver looks like a brick,” Willard said. “How come your belly sticks out.”
Hadknot squinted at him. “Who you been talking to, Willard?”
Willard Shue’s mind strained even the most trivial challenge through a loaf of fear. The outsized Adam’s apple bobbed, his nostrils flared. “Ain’t nobody.”
“Where’d you get all that liver business?” A fecal odor blossomed in Hadknot’s nostrils. “Flush it,” he growled.
Willard flushed the toilet and reached for his pants. He was short, skinny, with stringy muscles and outsized hands. His mullet dropped to his shoulders in oily ringlets. “I don’t like this,” he said. “It ain’t private.”
“Be glad I don’t make you shit in the yard.”
Hadknot grinned. He was an ugly man, and the grin enhanced his ugliness, furling the meaty nose, exposing the yellow dentures. It was not a monster’s face, only homely, and his homeliness had the effect of frankness on others, as if he could have nothing else to hide once his face was revealed. He had married a pretty woman in desperate circumstances, helped raise another man’s daughter, and for practically thirty years put up with his wife stepping out any time she took the notion. Six years ago, Ida Lee died, horribly, of cancer. Her daughter Sissy, like her mother a wild one, fell out with her parents while still in high school, and ran off with a biker. Hadknot had not seen Sissy in years. Last year, Cathy, his birth daughter far as he knew, had died along with her son in a mobile home fire.
After the fire, Willard Shue moved in with his father-in-law. Originally the idea was to provide Willard a brief retreat, but he lost his job, and another job, and with it the possibility of replacing his mobile home. Hadknot regretted his harshness. This young man had married, suffered and endured the milkman’s wretched daughter. He had been a loving father, an obedient husband; and it was rather a vast incompetence than an aversion to work that sent him repeatedly to the unemployment line.
“You need a job,” Hadknot told him. “Something you can do. Like a home milk route.” There had been no home milk routes in New Bethel, Texas, for thirty years. After Boylan’s Dairy laid him off, Hadknot held a half-dozen jobs, fitting shoes, peddling debit insurance, even sacking groceries at the Piggly Wiggly.
The milkman pulled the plug from the drain and watched his grandson’s toy boat sink with the water. As he began to push and pull himself out of the tub, his body remembered he was 76—the sciatic ache in his back, chalky old bones clicking like false teeth. Willard handed him a towel.
“When does your unemployment run out?” Hadknot knew; he wished to remind Willard.
“A month?” Willard could not dissemble. He tucked his chin. “More like two weeks.”
Hadknot rested on the side of the tub, his hard round belly crowding his diaphragm. His sagging titties, the flaccid meat on his arms and legs, shamed him. He covered his embarrassment with a reprimand. “You been out of work too long.”
“It’s rough times around here since the oil bust.”
“Don’t let that be an excuse. You got to look. Knock on doors. I wasn’t too good to sack groceries after Boylan’s laid me off. Now I got my home paid off, my truck. I’m a free man.”
Willard said, “I wanted to tell. Employment office might got something for me.”
If language were a meat, Willard would cut it with a baseball bat. Hadknot mocked him. “What might they got?”
“Burrito-Burrito. I interview tomorrow. I expect I’ll get it.”
“Bully! Maybe you’ll make manager.” This was a sham. Willard did well to manage his socks and shoes.
The young man leaned against the doorjamb and mumbled: “I met somebody.”
“What?” Hadknot cupped his ear in his hand.
“I met a woman.”
Hadknot was suspicious. Since Cathy’s death, Willard had been alone, passing most of his time watching television in the room once claimed by Cathy and Sissy. Before Willard, Cathy had had several other men, but no boyfriends. Her mother was pretty. Her older sister was pretty. Cathy resembled her father, but Willard had been plenty happy to get her, and if, years later, he was not sorry to lose her it was not the fault of the Hadknot brow or the Hadknot jaw. After the mobile home burned, Hadknot offered his pictures of Cathy and the boy to replace those Willard had lost in the fire. Willard displayed the boy’s pictures around the house. He stuffed Cathy’s pictures under old clothes in a dresser drawer, but, unlike his wife, Willard’s resentments were mild and temporary. A few weeks later he retrieved and exhibited everybody’s favorite picture of the murderer. She stared shyly at the camera as if she feared the smile, on her lips, was indecent. Nevertheless, the image projected an aura—a glimmer of hope and decency in her eyes, an instant of sanity, sole survivor in her long hour of madness.
“Who’s this woman you met?” Hadknot asked.
“Her name is Yondell—only that’s not her real name. She changed it. Her real name is Beverly, only that’s too plain vanilla for her. I met her at the employment office.”
“By which name does she get her welfare checks?”
Willard winced. “A little older than me. She has a kid.”
How old is she?”
“I don’t know. Seven or eight?”
“I meant the woman.”
“Yondell. She’s thirty-six.”
A sneaky idea. “You’ve seen the kid? You been to this Vonzell’s house?”
Willard looked caught. His Adam’s apple wriggled. “Yondell,” he said. “Her mama and her rent a trailer.”
“How come you hiding her from me?”
“I ain’t hiding her. I only met her last week.”
“Thirty-six a little old for you isn’t it?”
“Not like she looks thirty-six. She’s a little heavy. Kind of like Cathy. Don’t look thirty-six. More like thirty, thirty-two.” The Adam’s apple moved. “She’s had her troubles. Her first husband? He got her into drugs.”
“Oh, hell, Willard, like you need to hitch up with a drug fiend.”
“No!” Willard held up his hands as if to bat away the words. “No, C.K.! She’s clean, now. Her second husband was a preacher. He helped her clean up.”
“What become of him?”
“She run him off. He hit her. She said, No man hits Beverly Lee Dodson the second time. And run him off.” Willard puffed up, as if he’d borrowed Beverly Lee Dodson’s grit.
“She wants to meet you. I kinda told her she can come over tonight.”
“You can kinda tell her you changed your mind.”
“Aw, C.K. She wants to meet you.”
Hadknot was curious. “What did y’all have planned?”
“Nothing. She just wants to meet you. Say hello.”
“No big supper—nothing like that?” Typically Hadknot ate his sandwich or microwave dinner in his bedroom.
“And leave the kid at home. What is it—boy or girl?”
“A girl—she’s a sweet kid.”
“Leave her at home. I’m too old to put up with a kid.”
“Yes sir.” Willard backed into the hall. He was happy. For the next two hours he would work furiously to tidy the house.
Hadknot shuffled to the toilet. As he waited for a few syrupy drops to ooze from his penis, he remembered longingly when he could fire a stream of piss that would blast the porcelain from a urinal. He leaned over, reaching for toilet paper, and glimpsed the capsized plastic boat in the tub. It happened again. A breathless weltering moment during which he saw a splashing child as real as the clap of water and the shrieks of childish delight that rang in his ears. Hadknot gasped and leaned against the wall, his heart pounding. He lowered himself to the toilet seat, squeezing his eyes shut. Again the child called, this time distant, as if from another room. Papaw! The sound jolted Hadknot; his eyes sprang open, the goofy whales spitting their pink tongues at him.
A collection of toys had used to line the rim of the tub—the plastic boat, a rubber duck, a squirt gun—tools and props of an aquatic theater created by his grandson during extended stays with Papaw. Willard had often placed him with Hadknot when Cathy was on a tear. Usually the boy stayed a day or two, but if, as happened increasingly toward the end, she had to be committed, the stay was extended for weeks. On the last such occasion, Cathy drove from the psychologist’s office, steered the car through the shrubbery lining Hadknot’s driveway, and rammed his front porch. Hadknot locked the doors. His daughter retrieved a tire tool from the trunk of her car and stood on the porch screaming obscenities, beating the door with the tire tool:
“Piece of shit! Devil! Give me my son!”
Hadknot placed the boy in a closet, dialed 911, and stood in the hallway with a broomstick. Presently two squad cars arrived. As the officers approached she lifted her free hand palm-up, supplicating.
“Oh my,” she said quietly, smiling. “See what happens?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the first officer said. “May I have the tire tool, ma’am?”
“Certainly. But don’t let that old man fool you. He’s the devil. May I show you my breasts?”
“Ma’am? Hand me the tire tool, please.”
“Just a peek!” Cathy said, and wagged a finger.
As the officer turned to his partner she flung the tire tool in his face, crushing the cheekbone under his left eye. “Son of a bitch! Piece of shit!”
Hadknot remembered standing on the porch, watching his daughter’s struggles as the officers shoved her into the squad car. He remembered her face pressed against the window, the grotesque distortion of her features, the obscene movement of her mouth. He turned and saw the child standing by the door watching his mother, looking at once puzzled and terrified, chewing a corner of his shirt collar.
Willard exited Hadknot’s bedroom as the old man entered the hall. Hadknot eyed him. “What are you up to?” He suspected Willard of filching a fiver from his wallet the other day. His wallet was in his pocket, but the hidey hole containing $1,236, last count, was in the closet in the old man’s bedroom.
Willard held a wad of clothes against his chest. “Just looking for dirty clothes.”
“Stay out of my room.”
“Yessir. I was just getting the wash together.” Willard tucked his chin and stared at the floor, mumbling. “I was wondering could you loan me a little something tonight? Maybe enough me and Yondell could catch a movie?”
“You can watch TV. Don’t cost a buffalo nickel to watch a movie on the TV.”
Hadknot pushed past him and shut and locked the door and went in the closet and counted his hidey hole cash. $1,236. Good. He sat in the chair by his bedroom window, sipping whiskey from a newly opened bottle, chasing the liquor with saltines. The window provided a view of his backyard and, beyond the pines, a vast purple sky in which Venus occasionally appeared. Already, early evening, the snow on the ground drew a tincture of blue from the purple sky. Four snake-eyed blackbirds fed under the small oak nearest the house. They labored for their supper, scratching and pecking through a hard crust of snow to get at the few acorns overlooked by other birds and squirrels. Hadknot was reminded that he had not fed the birds. This time last year he would send the boy out with crumbs of bread, cups of cereal, and watch him from the window. Looky Papaw! Looky!
He sipped the whiskey, sent a saltine after it. One of the birds found an acorn and lifted off to a lower branch of the tree, where it cracked open the nut to get at the meat. Hadknot watched and whipped himself with old regrets. Had she ever been happy? Ever known a purely joyful moment? Cathy doted on her angers. Coddled her fears and nourished her grudges. In her strict economy the payback for suffering was more of the same.
It seemed now utterly bizarre and unforgivable that he failed to see what would happen when the child was returned to her. Not that he was hoodwinked by the clinquant jargon of the “professionals.” Hadknot was skeptical but in the end he trusted—if not the competence of the doctors—an even slippier presumption that the past predicted more of the past, and not something new and monstrous. The milkman closed his eyes on the unforgiving image of Cathy holding the child’s hand, leading him to the car with the creased fender, which was parked in Hadknot’s drive by the crushed shrubbery. Two days later another cop came to his door and announced the boy and his mother were dead. The trailer had burned. Maybe arson. Hadknot thought, Oh yes. Of course. And days later, as he dressed for the tedious double funeral: Yes. Yes. Of course.
He stood shakily, holding to the chair with his free hand, clutching the pint of whiskey in the other. The tips of his fingers were numb, forcing him to confirm visually that the bottle was secure. His belly was large, round, and tight, like a late pregnancy, but his legs were thin, so that he teetered on a pinpoint of gravity. He shuffled forward reeling, holding out a trembling hand to catch a bedpost or chair if he should begin to fall. He stopped at the foot of the bed, holding to the post, and lowered himself carefully. He noticed a wet spot near his zipper, cranked his head up and stared at a family picture on the bureau: two pretty, smiling women, a homely man, and an undulating space where Hadknot had cut out the image of Cathy, in the process cropping an ear from his own image.
Willard tapped on the door. The bottle of whiskey slipped through Hadknot’s numb fingers onto the bed. Willard stood in the doorway and shivered. “It’s freezing out.” He sniffed. “Damn. Smells like a brewery in here.”
“I spilled some on my shirt.”
“Got a clean one? Yondell’s here.”
Hadknot pointed to the closet. “In there. The red flannel.” He fumbled with a button but his fingers were too numb to force it through the button-hole. “Dammit,” he said. “Dammit.”
Willard said, “You peed in your pants, C.K. I better get you another pair of khakis.”
As they entered the living room, Yondell rose to greet them. She was a large pretty woman, with heavy shoulders and a gap-toothed grin framed in layered red lipstick, her cheeks rosy from the cold night air.
“He ain’t feeling good,” Willard said. “We might ought sit him down.”
“I guess son-in-law told you I drink too much,” Hadknot said.
“It’s not like he’s drunk all the time,” said Willard.
Hadknot loosed the ugly grin. “Sometimes I run out of liquor.”
Yondell said, “I take a little sip myself sometimes.”
“Hear that, Willard? Get a glass for Lindale.”
“Yon-dell.” The big woman settled heavily into the sofa, as if dropping anchor. “Used to be Beverly, only that’s too plain vanilla for me. I’m a chocolate, strawberry type of gal.”
“How about it, son-in-law? Get her a glass.”
“We can’t stay,” said the big woman. “Only I had to meet you. Willard told me how you been so kind since your great tragedy. I saw it on television. I bet you could sell that story to the movies.”
“He’s been here eight months.”
“That’s a awful long time to stay with your father-in-law, Willard.” Yondell puckered, sipped a kiss from the air. “I might ought take you off Mr. Hadlot’s hands.”
“Hadknot,” Willard said.
“It’s awfully wonderful you two got each other to take care of each other.”
“We’re all we got,” said Willard. His Adam’s apple bobbed crazily.
“That’s like so sweet.”
“What do you do?” asked Hadknot.
“I’m like in-between right now.”
“You mean like in-between welfare and poverty?”
Yondell smiled bravely. “In-between jobs.”
“I always worked,” said Hadknot. “I was with Boylan’s Dairy more’n twenty years. After they laid me off, I took anything I could get. I wasn’t too proud to sack groceries, and I never cashed a welfare check.”
Willard looked miserable. “Tell her about Boylan’s, C.K. C.K. used to buy milk for the poor kids on his route.”
“You done told me that one,” Yondell said.
“Grendel’s right,” said Hadknot. “Anyhow, it’s a dull story.”
“Yondell.” The big woman’s mouth stretched, tugging at the edges of her nostrils. “Sir, is it me or my name you don’t like?”
Willard’s face was pale grey.
“It’s a fine name,” the milkman muttered. “A damn good name. Excuse me.” He pushed against the chair arms as if to rise but he did not move. Willard tugged the old man’s arm.
“You wanna go to the bathroom, C.K.?”
“No. The kitchen. I want some crackers.”
Hadknot shuffled into the kitchen and sat in darkness at a table with a chipped Formica top. A dim square of light bent around the door from the living room and dropped on the linoleum floor, shaping a limey rhomboid.
Willard came through the door and propped his hands on the table, whispering, “You ought not treat her so mean, C.K. She ain’t a bad person. Just unlucky—like us.”
“I’m not unlucky, Willard. I just lived too long.”
“You’d feel better if you didn’t stay in the tub all day.”
“I feel okay. I’m worried about the birds. They’re practically starving, all this snow on the ground. Last year I let the boy feed them. He loved feeding the blackbirds. Looky here, Papaw! Looky! Looky!” Hadknot grinned yellowly.
“He’s dead. The boy is dead, and life goes on.” Yondell filled the doorway, blotting out the light from the living room. “Willard, I want to talk to your daddy-in-law.” She seated herself, waited for Willard to leave and said, “I wished we could be friends, sir.”
Hadknot leaned back, making space between him and the woman. “I got enough friends. I don’t need anymore friends.”
“Do you got enough enemies?”
“I am an old man. Most of my enemies are dead.”
“So will you be,” said Yondell. “Willard told me how you drink. Look at your belly. That’s your liver causes that. I know. My daddy drunk hisself to death.”
“I got that way taking care of myself.”
“You’re too rough for that boy.”
“I’m just what that boy needs, Mr. Hatrack.” Yondell pushed forward, resting her breasts on the table top. “He needs me. You need us.”
“You could’ve fooled me,” said Hadknot. “Carry a pot and ring a bell, you want to get in the charity business.”
“What I want is Willard, and I’m fixin to get him.”
“You know what you’re getting? Boy can’t hold a job.”
“I’m no fool. I took his measure before I ever spoke to him.” Yondell sat up, poking out her chin and breasts. “I can make something out of Willard.”
Hadknot flashed the gruesome yellow grin. “You and your girl live with your mama?”
“I guess son-in-law told you this house is paid for?”
“Did he also tell you my daughter in Houston gets it when I die?”
“She the one sent flowers when her mama died?”
“She and her mother never got along.”
“How long since she’s visited you?”
“She lives in Houston. Works for the light company. It’s not easy when you have a job. Something you might not know about.”
“If she wanted to see you, she’d figure a way to get it done. That girl wouldn’t pee on you if you was burning in a ditch.”
“You sure know a lot. Is there any damn thing you don’t know?”
“I’m thirty-six, give or take.” Yondell smacked her lips and came back sassy: “Old enough to know more than some old buzzards.”
“It’s six years older than son-in-law. Give or take.”
“Don’t you worry about me and Willard. It’s yourself you better worry about. When you get sick, that daughter’ll put you in a home and sell this house.”
“You’d do better?”
“I would if I was living here. I may be rough but I got morals.” Yondell stiffened her spine and placed her hands primly on her lap, as if that were the posture appropriate for a woman of morals. She inclined toward the old man, big red lips puckering, flirty. “You left everything to Willard, didn’t you?”
“Did I say I did? Did you hear me say I did?”
The big woman laughed big. Everything big about her. “Oh my, you did!” She slapped the table like slamming the trump domino in a game of “42.”
Hadknot tugged at his meaty nose. “Wills can be changed. How come they call them wills.”
“You won’t change it. That boy’s all you got.”
“In which case I might live another ten years just to piss you off.”
Yondell cocked her head and eyed him. “Me and Willard is talking about a permanent arrangement.”
“You ain’t arranging to live here. I had two girls and a wife. I got my fill of women in the house. You and Willard decide to shack up, you can figure on making your own arrangements.”
Yondell stood from the table. “I’m gonna pray for you, sir. I always pray for folks which don’t like me, so I won’t hate them back.”
“Myself, I don’t pray much,” Hadknot said. “My luck, I called up God I’d get the wrong number. I might get the devil, and I don’t have a damn thing to say to him, either.”
As she left, the big woman looked over her shoulder and winked. “You ain’t half as mean as you like to act,” she said.
Hadknot sipped his whiskey, sent a saltine after it and chewed. He was appalled to think he might like this big woman. What was her daughter’s name? He wished he’d asked. Little girl crawling into your lap, wanting a story, telling a story. Girls! Always a story. He could hear the TV in the living room. He stood and tucked the bottle in his back pocket and exited the kitchen through the dining room, avoiding Willard and Yondell. He shuffled into the bathroom and peed. He thought of the big woman and her girl, pictured the house with women in it. Panties and brassieres in the wash. Make-up, rollers, tampons in the bathroom, the smell of bath salts and cologne. What else? What else? Voices, the melody of women. He heard them. They sang. He answered but his own voice was weak and palsied. He thought he heard Willard and Yondell in the hall. Leaving already? He hurried out of the bathroom. The hall was empty, but the television was yakking in the living room. The old man chided himself for refusing Willard a few bucks. What was he thinking? $1,236 in the hidey hole and nothing worth buying! Would you miss $36? $100? You ain’t half as mean as you like to act.
Hadknot crept into his bedroom, mentally rehearsing the words of a big-hearted man:“Go some place nice. Buy your woman a steak. Get the little girl a candy.” Looped and giddy, he opened the closet and shoved clothes out of the way, his old overalls, shirts and trousers, Ida Lee’s favorite house dress. He removed the black funeral suit and hung it on the door. He poked his hand into the lining and retrieved the roll of cash. He counted the bills and flipped them and counted again. His heart seized. $200 light. He stuffed a hand into the jacket lining and clawed at the seams and withdrew the empty hand and made a fist. Fool! You damn fool! Him wrangling with Yondell in the kitchen while son-in-law rummaged through the closet. It would be like Willard to think himself clever, to think the old man wouldn’t miss a few bucks. Hadknot grinned. Damn fool. Stole his own gift. He stuffed the remainder of the roll in his pants pocket and wandered into the hall, the house silent but for the wisecracks and canned laughter from the television. He turned off the television in the empty living room, moved on to Willard’s bedroom, and retrieved the picture of Cathy. He dropped the $1,036 wad of cash on the dresser and left the room.
Copyright 2016 by Mike Beasley