What the Neighbor Heard
“It wasn’t normal, I’m telling you.” Rebecca Dobbs shook a wooden spoon in her husband’s direction. “I should call that nice officer, McGrady, I think his name was, and tell him what I heard.”
“You should stay out of it, that’s what you should do.” Martin closed the kitchen window in a futile attempt to keep out the smell of smoke, “The poor woman must have been in shock.”
“That’s no excuse.” Rebecca lowered the spoon into her potato soup and stirred furiously. “The man was always so darned nice. Just last week, he saw me struggling to lift the box of cat litter, and he came to my rescue, carried it all the way into the house for me.”
“I would have done that.”
“Of course you would have, but that’s not the point. I just can’t believe that his wife would…it was so wrong.”
Martin gave Rebecca’s narrow shoulders a gentle squeeze. “Maybe you heard wrong.”
He expected a rebuke, but instead his wife began to shake with sobs.
Gabby Carlaw found her husband waiting outside the shower, wearing only a lecherous grin, and knew it would be a bad day.
Thursdays always were.
If she refused him, there’d be hell to pay later. Lyle would drink more than usual at his weekly billiards game, and come home in a mean mood, or he’d start a fight at the bar, get himself arrested again and expect her to bail him out. If she were lucky, he’d ‘punish’ her by not coming home at all.
Last summer, she’d found him at the bartender’s house. Eve swore she’d only let him sleep on her sofa because he was too drunk to drive. Gabby believed her. Eve Slayter could do much better than Lyle. Gabby had accused him of cheating anyway, and used his supposed infidelity as an excuse to kick him out of the house. Lyle had gone home to his mother, a woman who still spoiled her six sons, and expected their wives to do the same.
While Lyle did his thing, oblivious to her lack of enthusiasm, Gabby thought back to that peaceful week without him. She’d fed the boys grilled cheese sandwiches, and tomato soup every night, and left the dishes until she was good and ready to wash them. How nice it had been, to not hear a single snide comment about her cooking and cleaning habits, how they never measured up to his mother’s. How nice to know that Louise was feeding Lyle and cleaning up after him.
Lyle finished with his usual satisfied grunt. Gabby felt only relief, until he gave her rump a playful slap, “Ten pounds, Gabby. Lose ten pounds and your butt would look good again like it used to.”
Lyle laughed, as he stepped into the shower.
When had things gotten this bad? They’d been happy together once, hadn’t they? She’d been so lucky to land a Carlaw boy. There were all handsome men, six foot, or close to it, light hair, blue or green eyes, and captivating smiles. They were the type who learned a trade rather than sit behind a desk, but all were hard workers when they weren’t hung-over. The drinking was a big part of the problem. They weren’t the types to give up partying and settle down after the kids were born. It took a few years to discover that Carlaw boys, weren’t such a great ‘catch’ after all.
Gabby sighed as she pulled on a pair of sweats and went to make breakfast for her two boys. She worked three days a week at the diner, but today wasn’t one of them, which meant she’d spend the day catching up on housework.
After Lyle left for work, and the kids were on the school bus, Gabby started a load of laundry. Her mind drifted to Lyle, to what he’d be doing later. She imagined him playing pool with his buddies, drunk and obnoxious as always, complaining to them about his wife’s fat butt while ogling every skank who walked in the door. He’d likely have one too many and leave the Backwoods Bar and Grill above the legal limit. Would this be the night he didn’t make it home? Gabby imagined him getting as far as Walton’s Bridge, losing control of the pickup, crashing through the barrier, and into the river, dying instantly.
Or, he might get as far as the Baker’s property, miss the sharp curve, and plow into a herd of cows. No, not the cows, that was too horrible. Better if he drove into the farming equipment on the Russell’s property. Those tractors were solid. The impact might send the steering wheel right through his gut. Or, if he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt (and he never did), it might send him through the windshield.
Gabby imagined suing the bar for continuing to serve him when he’d had too much. She imagined a settlement large enough to pay off the mortgage and put the kids through college. It was a pleasant thought.
Late that night, long after the kids were asleep, Gabby heard the truck in the driveway and felt her stomach clench. She never knew how drunk he’d be, or what kind of mood he’d be in. Gabby imagined Lyle being so far gone that he’d fall and pass out between the truck and the front door.
They’d have a surprise freeze and hypothermia would shut down his system. If that didn’t kill him, the coyotes would. They’d come out of the woods and make a meal of him. Either way, he’d be dead by morning, and she’d never again have to worry about what mood he’d be in when he returned from the bar.
Gabby heard Lyle come inside and stumble into the bathroom. She hoped he wouldn’t miss the toilet again. On the other hand, if he did miss, he might slip in his urine, and crack his head open on the toilet seat. Or maybe he’d vomit in his sleep tonight, and choke on it. In the morning, she’d find a dead body in her bed. She’d play up her role as a bereaved widow until the life insurance money was safely in her account.
When Lyle lay down beside her, Gabby faked sleep.
Once, when he’d been very drunk, she’d ordered him out, told him to sleep on the sofa. She’d learned that night, to keep her mouth shut when he was drunk. On cold, damp days, her jaw still ached from the blow.
Tonight, Gabby stayed perfectly still, and kept her breath even and slow until Lyle started to snore.
In the morning, Gabby woke up wet with sweat. At least she thought it was sweat — — until the smell hit her. She threw back the covers.
Lyle lay sprawled on his back, the front of his white briefs yellow. She kicked him. He groaned.
Not dead. Damn.
“Get up, Lyle. It’s time for work.”
Lyle opened one eye as he fumbled on the nightstand for his cigarettes, “I’m sick. I’m not going to work today.”
Gabby started to argue but changed her mind. She left him, lying in bed, eyes closed, puffing away.
One more Friday, his boss had said. Miss one more Friday and you’re gone. Without a job, he’d be no good to her at all.
Gabby fed the boys, packed their lunches, and walked them down the long driveway to wait for the school bus. It was running late as usual. She chatted with the woman from across the street for a good ten minutes, before the bus arrived. She thought of the cardboard boxes in the garage. They’d be perfect for packing up Lyle’s things. She imagined doing it while he lay in bed moaning and miserable. She’d stand her ground, tell him to get out, tell him it was really over this time.
As she started back down the driveway, Gabby caught a whiff of smoke and assumed it was coming from Rebecca Dobb’s wood stove. Gabby could see the old woman watching out her kitchen window, as she did every day at this time. Probably washing the breakfast dishes. Gabby waved.
The smell grew stronger as she approached the house. When Gabby saw the black smoke billowing out of the window of the master bedroom, she froze, staring in disbelief. How many times had she told Lyle not to smoke in bed? How many times had she told him he’d burn the house down? She ran to the window, screaming his name.
No answer. No sign of Lyle anywhere. He must still be in there. He’d done it. He’d really done it. The dumb ass had gotten himself killed. Gabby dropped to her knees on the cold, hard ground.
Later, she wouldn’t remember this moment clearly. She’d blame it all on shock. Of course she’d been in shock. That explained why she hadn’t called 911 right away. Later, she’d remember only that she was on her knees, crying out in anguish.
“I wish you could have heard it,” Rebecca said, turning from the stove to face her husband. “She sounded like a mad woman. Hysterical. Diabolical even.”
“No one knows how they’ll react in an emergency until it happens to them,” Martin said.
“I would not have reacted the way she did, I’ll tell you that much. Had it been you in that house, dying of smoke inhalation, I would not, absolutely not, have laughed.”
Martin planted a kiss on his wife’s cheek. “That is good to know, Dear.”
This standalone story is part of an upcoming series: Getting By In Grandville —Tales of Trouble in a Small Town. tammypatton.com