Maren didn’t notice me until I was almost near enough to whisper in her ear. “Ma’am, the store is closing now,” I stated. “You will have to leave your items here and resume your shopping tomorrow.”
Maren Markham’s squeal made me wince, then I smiled as her chocolate brown eyes widened with delighted surprise. Her petite frame leaned forward to embrace me. “How long have you been back? Are you visiting or staying?”
“A month. And I’m back to stay,” I told her. “Mom has been out of sorts since my stepfather died and my brother isn’t much help, so here I am.”
“Oh. Sorry to hear about your stepfather.”
“Two days before he died his doctor told him he was in great shape for a man his age.” I refrained from sharing my suspicions regarding my stepfather’s death with Maren.
“Unfortunately, medical science isn’t a perfect predictor,” Maren remarked.
I didn’t want my stepfather’s death to cast a pall over my unexpected reunion with Maren. I changed the subject. “Are you still with Nordling Enterprises?”
“Yeah, still there. I’m supposed to be in line for a promotion but you know how that goes. Are you working?”
“I’m with The Grange Corporation.”
“Do you like working for them?”
“It’s okay. Not my first choice but I needed a job when I came back and they were the first to make me an offer.”
“I know what you mean. Nordling Enterprises is not my ultimate aspiration but it pays the bills and keeps my mind off my ex.”
“You were married?”
“For nearly three years,” Maren replied, sounding like she’d been through thirty grueling years.
“So, my favorite coworker got married when I left her to her own devices.”
“And divorced,” Maren pointedly added.
“We have a lot of catching up to do,” I stated, trying to seize the opportunity to stay in touch with Maren.
“Yes, but not now. Have to finish shopping before I turn in.”
“Me too,” I responded, raising my plastic shopping basket like a silent movie character making an exaggerated gesture to indicate my intended action.
“Call me,” Maren said. “My number hasn’t changed.”
“I still have it.”
“Don’t call me this week, I’ve been assigned a project that will keep me busy through the weekend,” Maren advised. “Ummm…” She rolled her eyes and twisted the right side of her mouth, causing the mole to the right of her lips to shift sideways and upward. “Get in touch with me next week.”
Maren placed a head of lettuce in her metal shopping cart, waved goodbye and headed for the upper end of the produce aisle. I know it’s odd to say this, but I stopped feeling like an outsider in the supermarket after my conversation with Maren. A lot of customers at supermarkets are accompanied by their spouses or significant others, especially in the evening, and that underscored my futility at finding companionship. Maybe reuniting with Maren would lead to me no longer being the supermarket equivalent of the solitary single person at a wedding. That sentiment remained with me as I finished my shopping and went home for the night.
My phone rang at 2:07AM. It was Judd, my brother. He’d flipped his car on Chambers Highway. I reluctantly got out of bed and put on some clothes. My pendant swung away from my chest like a bell clapper as I put on my pants. I never take off my pendant, not even when showering. I donned my jacket and swore as I stepped outside and felt the nippy fall air. When I got to the accident scene Judd was standing near the side of the highway, hands in his pockets. His metallic gray Chevy Impala was near a stand of oak trees, right front tire nearly touching the trunk of one of them. Judd had almost crashed into a sturdy trunk. If that had happened Judd might not have been able to stand. The upside-down car reminded me of a toy race track Judd and I had when we were kids. Judd and I used to race two tiny cars on the figure eight track, and Judd always ended up crashing his red car by going too fast in the curves. Judd was wearing a black sleeveless shirt despite the cool temperature. His upper right forearm was encircled by a tattoo resembling a tangle of curving blades. I would have had a difficult time spotting him had it not been for my car’s headlights.
“Hey, man.” That was Judd’s greeting as I stepped out of my car.
“How fast were you going?” I inquired.
“So, no ‘are you hurt?’ or ‘are you okay?’”
“Were you going fast?”
“Fast enough to cause this mess.”
I lunged forward so I was a few inches away from the goatee on Judd’s face. Judd pushed me back and swore. “I don’t smell any booze,” I stated. “You aren’t intoxicated, you were just being reckless.”
“Are you here to help or be a one-person courtroom?” Judd’s dark eyes narrowed like they usually do when he becomes defensive.
I called my auto club to tow Judd’s car, then gave him a ride to his place. We didn’t talk as I drove. I had only thoughts of disgust and disappointment to occupy my mind. Disgust with Judd for his chronic knuckleheaded behavior. Disappointment with myself for being unable to successfully mentor my younger brother. Mom had wanted me to set Judd on the right path, and I tried but couldn’t and my last attempt likely made him worse. When I was a high school senior I convinced Judd to accompany me on one of my visits to the public library’s downtown branch. The promise of letting him practice driving in an empty parking lot was my means of motivation—he’d just gotten his learner’s permit. I’m a living, breathing Public Service Announcement for the benefits of reading. One cold January Saturday morning I drove our stepfather’s car to the library with Judd in the passenger seat. When we got there I encouraged Judd to explore the place—I was certain he would discover something that would interest him. He trailed behind me until we reached my destination—the History section—then made a sound of disdain and wandered off. Thirty minutes later I found him poring over a hardcover book in the lower 100s shelf section. I was so pleased he’d found a book he liked I let him use my library card to check it out without looking at the book’s title. When I finally saw what Judd had chosen I advised him to examine other subjects. He said he would follow my advice, but once he got his drivers license he made frequent trips to the library and came back with more books about the same subject, books he didn’t show to Mom or our stepfather. I had failed to set Judd on the right path, and his totaled car was indicative of my failure.
But I had reunited with Maren and she was willing to go out with me. When I was with Nordling Enterprises I didn’t have the nerve to ask a coworker to go out with me even though Maren and I got along very well. I was afraid of creating an awkward workplace situation if she were not interested. Running into her at the supermarket created an opportunity and I managed to capitalize on it. I was smiling by the time I dropped off Judd at his apartment.
I called Maren the following week and she agreed to meet me for dinner that Saturday evening. I chose an international cuisine restaurant near the mall. I was in my preferred environment there. Soft lighting instead of the supermarket’s fluorescent illumination. Dulcet piano and violin music on the sound system. I was dressed in some of my best formal apparel: navy blue suit jacket, burgundy dress shirt and navy blue slacks. Maren in a black dress.
“So, you got married while I was out of town,” I said to Maren after the waiter took our beverage orders.
“Yes,” Maren replied with a weary sigh. “I tried to keep the marriage going but I needed a break from my ex. I got fed up with his staying out all night almost every night and overall irresponsible behavior.”
“Why did you even—”
“He has good in him but also a lot of rough edges.”
“And you tried to smooth out the rough edges. You’re not sandpaper.”
Maren giggled. “You sound like Clifford Stapleton. He didn’t put things exactly the same way but we had similar conversations.”
“How is Clifford?”
“I haven’t been in touch with him since he left Nordling last year. He resigned near the end of the summer. We dated a few times before I met my ex.”
“Clifford was a nice guy. You and he would have made a good couple.”
“He was a very nice guy but not my type.”
“Someone like Clifford Stapleton isn’t the right type for you but a degenerate like your ex-husband was?”
“This is becoming a one-sided conversation,” Maren said. “Let’s hear about the love life youhad while you were away.”
“It was less eventful than yours. I was too busy getting settled in a different city and a new job.”
“You were in the new situation for years. It took you thatlong?”
“Slow and steady wins—”
“The race. Don’t give me clichés.”
“We laughed and talked as we dined for over two hours. I gave the waiter a generous tip—I do that when I’m feeling good—and walked Maren to her car. “Well, this was a good way to spend a Saturday evening,” I stated.
“It was,” Maren replied. “I wouldn’t mind getting together again from time to time. Goodnight.” She slipped into her car as fast as a tiny animal darting inside a hole to avoid a predator. There was a sinking feeling of disappointment, then rising anger as the right rear turn signal on Maren’s car repeatedly winked at me from the parking lot exit. The occasional get together…that’s all Maren wanted despite the goodwill and mutual fondness that had developed between us. I stood there until the parking lot was nearly empty before heading home. I was about to flop onto my bed and sulk when the phone rang.
“Judd stole money from me,” Mom said when I answered.
“When? Did he force you to give it to him?” I inquired.
“He took it from my purse while I wasn’t looking. Judd is the only one who’s been here so it must have been him. My purse was on the living room table. He probably went in it while I was in the kitchen getting him something to drink. I had nearly two hundred dollars in there that I was going to use for groceries.”
I growled. “I’ll talk to him. Are you still wearing your necklace?”
“Yes. Like you asked, I never take it off.”
“Good. Our necklaces represent the bond between the two of us.”
“And mine is a reminder that I managed to raise one good son.” As Mom’s voice broke I envisioned tears falling from her eyes as mucus trickled from her broad nostrils.
I said, “I’m on my way to Judd’s place.”
Judd answered his apartment door wearing only green and red plaid pajama bottoms. “Dude, people sleep at this time of night,” he said.
“You were up later than this when you flipped your car.”
“Dammit, why are you here?”
“What did you spend Mom’s money on?”
“You aren’t making any sense, man.”
“You took money from Mom’s purse.”
“Did she say that?”
“Stop it, Judd. It couldn’t have been anyone else.”
“She probably misplaced the money and forgot where it is. Mom’s getting old, you know.”
I shook my head. “You’ve sunk low enough to hurt your own mother.”
Judd’s eyes narrowed. “I would never hurt Mom. But you…”
“I know.” Judd had probably tried and couldn’t understand why he’d been unsuccessful.
Judd snarled. “If you don’t get off my back I’ll drop you right here.”
I stood my ground long enough to say one more thing. “I’ll replace the money but this had better not happen again.” I didn’t turn my back until the apartment door slammed in my face. I headed home for what I knew would be a sleepless night, courtesy of Maren and Judd. I couldn’t do enough to please Maren in a certain way and there didn’t seem to be anything that could be done about Judd.
Sometime between 4:00AM and dawn I changed my mind about Maren and Judd.
I still had on the suit I wore the previous evening when I went back to Judd’s apartment a few hours later. I rang the doorbell until Judd, cursing up a storm and reeking of beer, flung open the door and let a stream of profanities flow across the threshold.
“I’m here for your benefit. Hear me out,” I yelled, hoping not to wake up anyone in the complex who might still be sleeping. “Listen, I’m sorry about coming here and giving you a hard time. You’re obviously desperate for cash. Like I said, I will replace Mom’s money. When you need something come to me, okay?”
Judd looked like someone who thought he was in a dream that couldn’t be real. “Yeah, sure,” he replied.
I patted Judd on the shoulder, then walked to my car. I called Maren before putting the key in the ignition. “Hey, Maren. Can you do me a favor?”
“What is it?”
“Meet my brother.”
“Ummm…why do you want me to meet your brother?”
“My ‘tough love’ way of dealing with him isn’t working. Sometimes people get tired of hearing the same messages from the same messenger. Being around some other respectable person who isn’t his big brother might have a positive effect.”
“That’s rational,” Maren responded.
“Thanks. You’re my abacus.”
“I can count on you.”
Maren started laughing.
“I’ll let you know where and when,” I said as Maren’s laughter continued. I ended the
call feeling I would eventually get the desired effect.
Two years and nine months. That’s how long it’s been since I had those Sunday morning
conversations with Judd and Maren. Maren showed up on my front porch last Thursday evening. The towel she held on her nose was saturated with blood. Spots of crimson flecked her white blouse.
“Did Judd hit you?” I gasped.
“No,” Maren replied. “My nose started bleeding while I was on my way over here. I don’t know why. Fortunately I had my handkerchief and emergency towels in my car. Let me tell you what your brother—my husband—did do.”
“Come in. I’ll get a cold pack for your nose.” I jogged to the kitchen. I gripped the freezer’s door handle but didn’t immediately open the freezer. I reached under my shirt and drew out the object attached to my necklace chain. The hand-shaped, sterling silver amulet is exactly like the one I gave Mom. I contemplated giving it to Maren so she would be protected from Judd. I could get another one for myself at the shop on Main Street. I decided against doing that. Maren desires to “smooth out the rough edges” of men like her ex-husband and Judd, so let her keep trying with Judd. Things were going the way I had intended. I’d been concerned about Judd since I saw the word “occult” on the cover of the first book he checked out of the library. Now he’s Maren’s problem. She’s either going to succeed in changing Judd for the better and be happily married to him or he will ruin her. Either way, Maren will never break my heart or the heart of any other good man ever again. I tucked the amulet back behind my shirt, got the cold pack out of the freezer and took it to Maren.
“Thank you,” Maren said as she placed the cold pack against her nose. I disposed of the towel and sat next to Maren on the couch.
“What did Judd do?” I asked once the bleeding stopped.
“Quit his job,” Maren answered. “Just walked off without giving notice or even telling his supervisor. Said he was tired of it. I reminded him we have bills to pay. We argued. I left the house, couldn’t stand to be around him.” Maren sighed. “Why did I marry Judd?”
“You’ve seen the good in him and you want to bring it out,” I said. “Don’t give up on him.”
Maren hugged me and I wondered what would happen if she were to try to leave Judd.
Dell R. Lipscomb’s stories have appeared in numerous publications including the online magazines Across the Margin and Adelaide. The editors of Across the Margin described his story “Outside the Walls” as “a stirring work of fiction.” He resides in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia.