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Down to It

03/25/2019

By Aimee DeGroat

Down To It, a work of original fiction, first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Spring 2019.

After a long day standing on concrete while gluing heels to the soles of shoes, Angie’s back hurt. What she wanted most was a long soak in the tub to wash away the stink of shoe leather, stain, and sweat, but Angie had a feeling that Dave might not be home. That she might, in fact, find him at the bar. So while walking home after work Friday, Angie changed her mind, skipped her turn up Maple Avenue, and continued trudging up the hill toward town and Dave’s favorite bar, the Thirsty Pig. If her suspicions were wrong and Dave wasn’t there, well, it only added half a mile to her walk. 

When she neared the bar, she saw their old Subaru out front and felt satisfaction that her hunch had been correct, quickly followed by disappointment for the same reason. The only other customer in the Thirsty Pig besides her husband was Dave’s boss, Randy. The two men sat perched on the worn, red leather stools, their backs hunched over the bar. Their shoulders almost touched and their T-shirts, one green and one blue, both rode up a little in the back revealing identical lines of white underwear with blue and yellow stitched bands. The bartender, Joe, mindlessly rubbed a pint glass with a white cloth while watching the Celtics game with the sound off. 

Sliding onto the stool next to Dave, Angie shook her head “no” as Joe glanced over and raised his eyebrows. Dave slid his arm around her waist and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. “Hey Ange,” he said. She tried to gauge how much he’d had to drink so far. By the smell on his breath and the alert look in his eye she estimated that he was about two deep. She took a quick sip of Dave’s beer and peered over the rim at Randy. His dark eyes glinted under the brim of his Red Sox cap and slid greasily down to her breasts before  bobbing back up to her chin. He wagged his head in acknowledgement before turning back to the bar. 

The bell over the door jingled and a couple entered. Randy, Dave, and Angie watched their fly-speckled reflection in the mirror behind the liquor bottles. The man had a full beard and wore a red cap. He was rail thin, tall, and his flannel shirt blew about him as he stomped his feet and rubbed his hands together. Behind him was a young pregnant woman with long, dark hair and a pretty, but ruddy face. The cold afternoon air swirled around them, bringing with it smells of diesel engines and paper mills, and the couple’s entrance stirred dust motes in the shafts of light shining through the windows. The man slid into a booth and raised his hand to Joe who was already on his way over to take their order. The girl, obviously uncomfortable, was having a hard time sitting down. First, she leaned forward; next, she tipped toward the back of the booth before finally easing down onto the ripped, brown seat cushion and wedging her rounded stomach in against the table. 

“Why don’t I come over to your place tomorrow,” Randy said to Dave. “Gotta deer last week and I can spare some steaks. I bet Angie here would fry ’em up for us.” 

“A deer?” Angie asked. “How did you get a deer last week? It’s not hunting season, is it?” Dave sucked a thin layer of foam off his moustache and his lips made a sharp smacking sound like a slap. Randy laughed and scratched his head. She could see the black grease that had collected in his knuckles. 

“Let’s just say that I hit it with my pickup and they let me keep it,” Randy said. “You like deer meat, dontcha?” 

Angie was about to say, “Well, I like fried deer meat, but I’m not too crazy about poached,” when some movement flashed in the mirror and caught her eye. As Joe approached the couple in the booth, his apron lifted and fell and she could see two shots of clear liquid on the smooth wood tabletop. 

Angie elbowed Dave, and when his eyes met hers in the bar mirror she tilted the top of her head toward the booth and the strangers. Dave stared into the mirror as his eyes tracked the shot of liquor the man in the red cap slid across the table toward the pretty, pregnant woman. Dave elbowed Randy and nodded his own head backward toward the couple. Randy turned around in his seat and openly gawked at them while Dave and Angie watched in the mirror as the girl raised the shot to her lips, tilted her head back, and swallowed the contents in one quick gulp. The woman’s other hand rested on her expanded middle that pushed into the table and seemed to support her breasts like a weird, orange flotation device. 

The man in the red cap raised two fingers in the air. Again, Dave, Angie, and Randy watched as Joe took two more shots to the couple. The woman pushed a strand of oily hair behind one ear, continued to rub her stomach, and downed her second shot. The man stared unblinking across the table as she set her glass back down. They didn’t speak. He cupped a hand around his mouth and chin and wiped the moisture out of his beard. Randy turned back toward the bar, leaned into Dave and spoke in a low and hushed voice. 

“That just ain’t right,” said Randy. 

“I should say something,” Angie whispered, as her right hand crept to her own belly. 

“Why you always gotta’ be in somebody else’s business?” asked Dave. “Just leave it be.” 

Then Joe took two more shots to the couple, and once again, the man used his pointer finger to inch one across the table. Again, they both picked up the glasses in unison and tipped them back. The girl’s hand continued to rub long slow circles where her belly met her ribs. 

Dave ordered another beer. 

“I really think I should say something,” Angie said. 

Dave shook his head, let out a sound that was half sigh and half groan, and stared into his Budweiser. 

“Well, if we’re not going to say anything, then maybe I should call the cops or something,” Angie murmured. 

“The cops?” Randy asked. “Why?” 

“Endangering the welfare of a child.” 

Randy’s black eyes bored into Angie. “Nothin’ worse than a rat,” he said. 

“If it’s not born, then I don’t think it counts,” Dave practically hissed at her. “Just stay out of it.” 

Angie sighed. Right or wrong, Dave always sided with whoever was buying the beer. 

 

The next morning, sitting on a small plastic orange chair by the Laundromat windows, Angie thought again about last night at the bar. She hadn’t been able to get Dave to leave until almost eleven. She didn’t have any dinner, but she was too mad to eat anyway. It was all Randy’s fault, really. If Randy had not been there, Dave would not have stayed so late and would not have drunk so much. He would have had one beer and they would have gone home and watched a movie. Instead, Angie watched Dave drink beer after beer. She went home and sat on the sofa alone watching reruns, while Dave passed out as soon as he stumbled into the bedroom. 

Thank goodness she had squirreled away two tens inside a sock at the back of her underwear drawer. It wasn’t much, but since she wouldn’t get paid until next week, and who knew when Dave would work again, she could take one ten for the wash and still have one for groceries. As it was, they would need to survive on Ramen noodles and coffee for a few days. It wouldn’t be the first time; it probably wouldn’t be the last. If the damn car hadn’t broken down last week, they wouldn’t be in this predicament. If the belt on the washer had not broken the week before that, she could use the whole twenty for groceries. If Dave hadn’t spent his paycheck on weed and concert tickets the week before that, they might be eating steak instead of Ramen. 

If, if, if. 

Looking out the window at the Laundromat parking lot coated in a thin layer of wet snow, she dreamed about the day when she might own a brand new washer and dryer of her own. She watched Dave’s jeans spin around in the dryer and tangle with her bras.  

Earlier this morning Dave had been apologetic and contrite. 

“Randy’s not just my buddy, he’s my boss. I had to hang out with him at the bar,” Dave breathed into her ear as he ran his hand down her side. “That’s how you move ahead, Babe, you gotta network. Don’t be mad, I was doing it for us. You want me to get more hours, don’t you?” His rough fingers slid over her belly and traced a heart around her belly button. 

She felt a moment of unease as he grazed the small swell in her stomach that, so far, he had not noticed, followed by a twinge of guilt over her unfilled birth control script. But those pills would have cost another fifteen bucks that they just didn’t have. 

“Then we can have a baby?” she asked. Not telling him it was a done deal felt like a lie. 

“Then we can have two babies, or three babies,” he said, kissing her neck, “or even ten  babies if you want.” 

His hand slipped between her legs and she relaxed into his embrace as they moved together. 

Angie read the notices on the Laundromat bulletin board as she folded clothes and placed them into multicolored Jenga towers of cotton. “Babysitter wanted,” read one. It had a phone number printed on little strips of paper that were cut into the bottom of the sheet. Maybe she could pick up a second job watching kids in the evenings. Dave had managed to keep his construction job through the winter so far, but he was getting maybe two days a week despite his friendship with Randy. And sometimes, like last week, he did not work at all, which meant no money. 

Another flyer screamed “REWARD” in eye-catching blood-red block letters against a background of forest green. The flyer included a telephone number to call Operation Game Thief and promised a $250 reward for any tip leading to the arrest and conviction of a poacher. There was a little pocket stapled to the front with business cards inside that featured the same toll-free number printed on them. Angie grabbed one of the cards and slid her thumb over the raised blue lettering. She quickly slipped it into her back pocket, placed the folded clothes in her laundry basket, and headed for home. 

As soon as she pulled her car into the driveway and saw Randy’s car parked in her space, she was pissed. She had been daydreaming again of a quiet afternoon with Dave; no chance of that now. He didn’t even come out to help when she beeped the horn. 

“Hey, there she is!” Dave yelled out as she walked into their apartment. Dave leaned in for a kiss, but only managed to brush his lips against her cheek as she turned her head to the side.  Randy grunted and waved his beer in her direction. 

“Randy brought over some of that deer meat for dinner, isn’t that somethin’?” Dave said, as he sat back down on the couch. 

“Uh huh,” she muttered as she carried the basket of clean towels to the bathroom. 

“Ayuh, that was pretty fucked up, all right,” Angie heard Randy say as she came back out of the bathroom and leaned against the door jam. 

“What was?” she asked. “That couple last night,” said Dave, waving his hand in the air like he was shooing her away. 

“What a whore to be drinkin’ like that!” Randy said. 

“I don’t think that makes her a whore,” Angie argued. “Uneducated, sure . . . or an alcoholic maybe, but not a whore.” 

Randy cocked his head to one side and looked at her the way a seagull looks at a clam. 

“Ah, who cares about them anyway,” said Dave. 

Randy tipped back his beer, sucked out the last sip, and pointed the bottom of the bottle toward Angie. 

“How ’bout another one, sweet-cheeks?” 

His red Henley shirt crept up on one side to reveal his stomach, loose, hair-covered, and hanging over his belt. He had crumbs of some sort in his beard. 

“I’ll get it,” Dave said, and hopped off the couch dragging one hand over Angie’s hip as he rushed to get Randy a beer. Looking backward over her shoulder into the kitchen, Angie could see that the top shelf of the fridge, empty this morning save for a jar of olives, was full of row after row of brown bottles. 

“Someday, when you make as much money as me,” Randy hollered out to Dave, “you won’t need to be drinkin’ this cheap stuff; you can move on to the hard stuff— like that couple last night.” 

Angie puzzled over this as Dave returned with three bottles of Old Milwaukee and kissed her on the neck, slipping a cold one into her hand. Randy’s statement made no sense. If Randy could afford liquor, then why had he brought over this cheap beer? Dave couldn’t have bought it, he didn’t have the money. 

But then again, what Randy said often didn’t make sense. Take that whore comment, for example. But as Angie dumped her beer down the drain and took Randy’s deer meat out of its bloody white-paper wrapping, she couldn’t dismiss that niggling feeling that she was missing something and she continued to mull it over while she cooked the venison. 

 

“Now that’s a good steak,” said Dave, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes. He smiled as he chewed slowly. 

“Yer,” grunted Randy, and cleared his throat, his mouth half full of potato. “Shot it last week, just a yearling—that’s why it’s so damn tendah.” 

“I thought you hit it with your truck,” Angie said and pushed her plate away. 

“You like eating it, dontcha?” asked Randy, leaning forward over the table, his fork raised halfway between his plate and mouth. 

“Let’s not start this again,” said Dave. 

Dave’s eyes were the color of the late-winter sky, overcast and unreadable. He looked to Randy, then back to Angie, and then back to Randy again. 

Choose my side, Angie thought. Her hand floated in the air a moment before resting again on her stomach. Randy’s eyes followed her hand, but he didn’t say a word; he just gave her a victorious half-smile as Dave put his head down, cleared his throat, and cut into his steak. 

The next morning, Angie looked through the kitchen cupboards to see what they needed for groceries. It would use less ink writing down what we have, she thought, as she inventoried the dented cans of beets and creamed corn. There was some bread on the second shelf. If the bread wasn’t moldy maybe she could get some peanut butter. Opening the fridge, she saw that it was empty; even the olives were gone. She wanted coffee, but they were out of filters; she had moved the last three to the bathroom last night because they had run out of toilet paper.  

Angie’s stomach growled as she put on yesterday’s jeans and, after making sure that Dave was still asleep, slid her hand into the top drawer. At the back was the sock where she had hidden the last of their money. Her hands wiggled through tangles of cheap nylon panties but the sock was missing. Pulling the drawer slowly so that it didn’t squeak, she peered down inside and spotted the ball of pink wool bunched in the back corner. When she grabbed it and thrust her hand inside, it was empty. 

Angie thought back to the night before. Suddenly, everything made sense. Randy had made that comment about the cheap beer because he didn’t buy  the cheap beer. Dave must have found her hidden stash and bought it himself. Now they would be hungry all week, living off whatever she could scrounge from the Good Shepherd Food Bank. She looked over at Dave, asleep and sprawled across the bed, one leg out of the covers. 

Even now, hungry and angry, she loved him in a desperate sort of way. Not as much as she used to, though. With every drunken evening, with every day she walked to work while he lay on the couch, with every hour of overtime she put in, it was crumbling away. She wasn’t ready to give up yet, but she was almost down to it. 

Angie slid her hand into her back pocket and her fingertips hit the card that she had stuck there the day before. She looked down at the small white rectangle floating in her calloused hands. Her thumb, worn and yellowed from handling shoe leather, grazed over the toll-free number and she squinted at the reward. She looked back at Dave once more, laid her palm flat against her stomach, and took a deep breath before tiptoeing out into the living room toward the phone.

Aimee DeGroat is an aspiring novelist, blogger, and travel writer. When she is not traveling (and sometimes when she is) she enjoys writing character-driven fiction that focuses on people struggling to get by in a rural environment. After a vacation spent hiking in some wild and forgotten corner of the planet with her partner (trail-name Crystal Blue), she always looks forward to coming home to write about Maine. DeGroat was the 2018 winner of the Islandport Magazine Fiction Writing Contest and is currently writing her first novel. The Islandport Magazine Fiction Writing Contest is held annually in partnership with the University of Maine at Farmington. This is the second year of the contest and the second win for UMF Senior Aimee DeGroat. Each year students currently enrolled at UMF are encouraged to submit a piece of original short fiction with the grand prize of publication in Islandport Magazine.The contest will reopen for submissions in fall 2019.