He tried everything he could think of. He told her he loved her. He told her she was the most beautiful woman who had ever been born on the face of the planet. He reached over and fondled a nipple through the big tee-shirt she liked to sleep in, but she just turned over without a word and balled herself up like a roly-poly.
It pissed Johnny off and he told her so, but Karen just ignored him, so he tried begging, telling her how much he needed her, how he had been waiting all day to get home just so he could have her, his wife, the woman he loved.
"My balls ache," he told her, hoping to play on her sympathy. "A man needs it more than a woman."
A few seconds later he heard her snoring. He woke her up by fondling her backside, trying to get her in the mood. She reached back and popped his hand without even turning over.
"Stop," she said.
"C'mon, baby," Johnny whined."
"I've got a headache," she said angrily.
He knew she didn't.
"What did I do to piss you off," he asked. "Tell me what I did, and I'll leave you alone."
Karen sighed loudly.
"See. I didn't do a fucking thing," he said. "We been married three months, and I've treated you like a goddamned queen. You sure liked it last night and the night before. You sure hung on me like I had something then."
"We ain't gotta have sex every night, Johnny."
"I do. I like sex. That's one reason I got married, so I could have sex every night of the week with the woman I love."
"Well, you ain't havin' it tonight," Karen said cooly, and she pulled the covers up tight around her neck, and that was that.
Johnny got out of bed, walked into the living room, sat down on the sofa, and lit a cigarette. It wasn't enough that he busted his ass every day of the week for Karen's uncle, or that he didn't see any of his friends anymore or even have any sort of social life at all outside of hanging out at her momma's and kissing her daddy's ass all weekend. Now he wasn't getting any either.
What was the point of working like a goddamned mule if he wasn't even going to even get to fuck his own wife?
He studied the palms of his hands, which were heavily calloused, and thought about football, about Sissy Rhines, whom he had laid at Billy Paul's after that big game with Swansea High, and about Silver Lake and the giant bonfire they had built there graduation night, the kegs they had emptied, and the two nameless girls he and Danny Walker had spent the night with.
He thought about the girls who used to hang with them at Champs–Vickie and Darlene–and about the time Dan Rowen's girl Trish got drunk, climbed up on the bar and did a strip tease to Skynyrd's Free Bird.
His new life suddenly seemed a wearisome routine.
Like his father's life–dull and stupid and monotonous.
All work and no play.
] Up at five. Shower. Shave. Karen burns some toast for breakfast, then before he knows it her uncle is out front blowing the horn like there's a goddamned fire someplace, and then, rain or shine, he's up on the back of the truck like some kind of sweatback. He pounds nails in the heat with gnats and shit blowing around his face for ten or twelve hours until his arms feel like they're gonna fall off, and then finally, at five or six or seven or whenever Uncle Steve has had enough and says it's time to go, everybody piles in for the ride back home, where supper is waiting to be microwaved and the whole thing begins again.
Every day except on weekends, which also passed in a blur.
Karen's father had helped them buy a huge double wide mobile home. They parked it behind the house Karen had grown up in. It cost them $620 per month, and Karen's Uncle Steve had given him a job framing houses to pay for it. It all seemed very convenient and almost perfect, and yet Johnny felt an uneasiness about the whole thing. It seemed to him that Karen had more than just a hold on his heart, with them living on her daddy's property and him working for her Uncle Steve.
And now, all of a sudden, Karen was cutting him off for no reason but that she just didn't feel like giving him any.
It pissed him off.
He finished his smoke and lit another. There was one more in the pack, and good ol' Uncle Steve wouldn't stop to let him buy more in the morning. It was only nine thirty. He decided to drive to the grocery store for another pack. He wouldn't even tell Karen where he was going–just drive off and let her worry about it. He imagined her waking to the sound of his truck, seeing he wasn't in bed, and running out just in time to see his tail lights disappear into the night.
He found his jeans and a T‑shirt wadded on the bathroom floor, pulled on his work boots and stepped outside. This August had been particularly hot, and sundown brought little relief. He walked through the tall bahia grass he'd be mowing come Saturday, climbed into his dusty old Ranger pick-up, turned the key, and took off, spraying a little gravel for effect.
The Gaston IGA was less than a mile from his house. He was there in no time. Once inside, he decided to buy a two liter bottle of Coke, a half-gallon of milk, and a loaf of bread. At the checkout he spotted a display of perfumed silk roses, and he bought one for Karen, hoping it might be the key that would unlock her knees and open the gates of heaven. The cashier smiled at him as though she knew what was on his mind, but he didn't pay her any attention.
She was a homely girl.
He was headed back across the parking lot with his groceries, his cigarettes and his rose when he heard someone call his name. It was Stuart Massey, who he hadn't seen since graduating high school almost two years before.
He hardly knew the guy.
"Where the fuck you been, man," Stuart said as though he'd just run into his best friend. He was carrying a twelve-pack of Budwiser. He looked as though he might have already put a twelve pack away.
"I been working my ass off," Johnny said. "I married Karen Stepp. You remember her–the cheerleader? We got married about three months ago."
"Congratulations," Stuart said, grabbing Johnny's hand and shaking the hell out of it. "C'mon and have a beer. Celebrate your marriage."
"Can't," Johnny said. "Got to get home."
"Just one beer," Stuart insisted. "How the fuck long can a goddamn beer take? 'Sides, I want you to meet my friends."
"Hey, I wish I could, man," Johnny told him. "But Karen's probably waiting. I can't be fucking up."
"You ain't gonna fuck up, Johnny," Stuart said. "I never even bought you a beer to celebrate your wedding. One beer, Johnny. Good Lord, man. Are you so pussy whipped you can't drink a goddamn beer with your best friend?"
Johnny had never even considered Stuart his friend, much less his best friend, but he didn't say anything.
He felt strange and rather free being away from Karen. It seemed to him that, outside of work, this was one of the few times he had been out of her sight since the wedding. It felt a little dangerous, but he relished it. Still, he didn't want to linger long enough to piss his wife off.
"Ain't no place to drink one around here ," Johnny said. Having forgotten Stuart was carrying beer, he had brightened a little at the idea that Gaston had no bars.
Stuart held the box of Budweiser up and rolled his eyes.
"What about right here," he said. He pointed to his old primer grey Camaro, which was parked under a street light at the edge of the lot. Johnny saw what appeared to be two women sitting in the car.
"I don't know, man. Maybe I better just get on home."
But Stuart had his arm around Johnny's shoulders and was leading him across the lot to his car.
"Aw, come on, man. Look here," he said. "Them girls seen you goin' in, and they want to meet you."
They were at the Camaro now. The two girls, one in front and in back, were all dolled up. Johnny had almost forgotten how girls looked when they were going out on the town. Stuart didn't look like much, but he had some fine women in his car.
"This here is Lucinda," Stuart said, pointing to the dark haired girl. "The one in the back seat is Peggy."
Lucinda was the looker–tall and slim, with long, nylonned legs and the tiniest skirt Johnny had ever seen. She had nice breasts, too–small and high, two nice mouthfuls–and they hung loose beneath her sexy little top.
Lucinda had kicked her high heels off and was resting the soles of her feet on Stuart's dashboard. Her knees were wide open and it was obvious she knew that Johnny could see everything she had, but she made no move to cover herself. She blew a smoke ring, sipped her beer and sized him up with her big, lazy brown eyes.
"I 'member you from high school," she said, smiling. She was drunk and slurring a little. "You were a year ahead of me. You played football."
Johnny was mute. The night suddenly sparkled with danger and he had to fight an impulse to run. Stuart cracked a beer and handed it to him.
Johnny took it, staring blankly at Lucinda's exposed crotch. Lucinda pretended to be demure, taking her legs off the dash and smoothing her short skirt.
"Hell, you ain't got to stare it to death," she said. "Ain't you never seen what's 'tween a gal's legs before?"
Johnny sipped his beer and looked dumbly at Stuart, who laughed and slapped him on the shoulder.
"This here is my old friend Johnny Mooks. Don't get no ideas about Johnny. He's a happily married man."
"Just 'cause he's married don't mean he's happy," Lucinda cooed.
"I'm happy," Johnny said.
"Here's to happiness." Stuart tapped his beer can against Johnny's.
Johnny took another sip while Lucinda stared playfully at him.
"I think Johnny Mooks is scared of me," she said.
"He ain't scared of you," Stuart said. "He's scared of his wife."
Everybody laughed but Johnny, who glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one he knew was watching him drink beer with two drunk women in a Camaro. The IGA was closing. Cars were cranking and easing out toward the highway.
"You mean, you wouldn't take it if I gave it to you," Lucinda asked coyly. Johnny ignored the question. She put her feet back up on the dash and let her knees fall open. "I ain't never met a man who wouldn't take it if you gave it to him, married or not." She looked mischievously at Johnny. "Is that cheap li'l rose for your wife? You think she's gonna give you some pussy if you bring her a damned two dollar rose?"
Johnny's face turned red.
"Well, I guess I got to get going," he said.
"I thought you wanted to party with us," Stuart protested.
"I told you I got to go home, man."
As Johnny turned toward his truck the car door swung open and Lucinda got out, wobbly on her stocking feet, and lurched toward him.
"You ain't going nowhere," she giggled. She fell against him, and as he spun around to catch her he dropped his groceries while she planted a juicy kiss on his mouth.
Johnny pushed her away but she persisted, pinning his arms against his sides and rubbing herself on his thigh.
"Goddamn," Stuart said. "I think she likes you, Johnny."
Peggy climbed out of the back seat, but was too drunk to stand and sat down hard on the pavement. She rolled to her knees, but decided that was as far as she could go and stayed there, kneeling in the parking lot with her forehead against the asphalt. She closed her eyes to try to stop the spinning. She thought she might feel better after she puked.
There was a short spurt of siren and all eight eyes turned toward the headlights that were slowly rolling toward them. Sheriff’s Deputy Jay Stanley Mack waited until he had their attention before turning the blue light on. He had just radioed for backup in case he had trouble with the four drunks he was about to haul in, and he could hear the siren wailing in the distance.
Johnny wanted to run, but knew it would only make matters worse. He wished he could disappear. He thought about the police scanner that squealed and crackled in the Stepp house even when the TV was on. Mr. Stepp probably already knew four public drunks were being arrested in the parking lot of the IGA. He just didn't know one of them was his son-in-law.
But they all knew it by the time he used his one phone call to dial up Karen. Mrs. Stepp answered the phone. She said Karen was too upset to talk right then, but that Mr. Stepp thought a night in jail might do Johnny some good.
They had, Mrs. Stepp added, heard all about the woman he had been pawing over in the IGA parking lot..
"You've got some nerve, boy," she said.
And she hung up.