Hannah missed the way things used to be. Now, if you wanted to have a cigarette at The Tavern, you had to walk out onto the deck. But it didn’t used to be that way. It used to be that everyone inside was smoking, flicking their ashes, singing along to rock songs that never got old, not here on the island anyway, where people weren’t expected to grow up, where the old would get drunk and lament the fact that they never got off this damn sandbar and the young would balk, why would you even want to get off? The old would shake their heads and remind the young that they were young. And then some song would come on and they’d all want to dance and they’d forget what they had been talking about in the first place. They all chose to be teenagers, except the few who turned eighteen, hopped a ferry and returned only annually, at Christmas, with heirs of condescension that only affirmed to the locals that staying on island meant you were stronger, more whole of heart and more specific somehow, able to have all the experiences you needed in one place. You were loyal and you deserved to get drunk and pat yourselves on the back on a regular and frequent basis.
Back then the smoke was a raft wide enough to hold them all. Smoke in a bar was an airborne sea monster, slowly drifting, watchable as TV. The leather skinned older women huddled and puffed on ultra lights and whined about their husbands, cautionary tales for the young girls who sucked on real cigarettes, Marlboro reds, silently swearing to quit so they’d never look like that. The guys, happy guys, sad guys, drunk guys, guys who needed eight beers and a shot of Jack to get a buzz on, all of them slightly emasculated by the fact that they were clearly only comfortable amongst familiar people, people they could identify, for the most part, by name. All shared a deep suspicion of outsiders, of strangers. And that meant even if you hated someone you loved them because you knew them and they served as a target for some feeling you had, be it a good one or an ignoble one. The little black plastic ashtrays were everywhere, in the bathrooms, on the tables, in the bars. But not anymore they weren’t.
Now here she was, standing out in the cold, sharing a cigarette—imagine that, sharing—with Andrea DeWitt. They were out here because you couldn’t smoke in there anymore. It was cold. And they were women. And this was degrading. Being outside made smoking into an addiction, an affair, something illicit, which it wasn’t. They were cigarettes for fuck’s sake.
“I said this thing’s genius.”
“What?” Hannah blushed. She hadn’t been paying attention to Andrea. Of course, she hadn’t been paying much attention to her since they were in high school, when Andrea became the girl she was now, talking too much about nothing all of the time. Andrea never had brothers. Maybe that was why.
“The Butt Bin. These things are genius.”
Hannah looked at the Butt Bin and saw a giant black contraption, an inelegant bastion of practicality; what a stupid thing. Why not just put out some nice standard black plastic ashtrays? Butt Bins started showing up like cockroaches when the smoking ban went through and now they were everywhere. They were industrial, they were ugly and they announced themselves with a pride Hannah found obnoxious; steel nametags nailed to each one that read BUTT BIN. As if we were all so stupid we didn’t know what they were.
“I hate them,” Hannah said.
Andrea huffed. “Oh, Hannah, you’re funny. Anyway, the bake sale.”
Hannah simmered. She wasn’t funny. She was smart. But she knew Andrea too well to be stung. Andrea was basic. She preferred loving things to hating them. She was the type who’d get excited for some limited time ice cream concoction at McDonalds, eat it every day for as long as they had it, then talk about missing it for months until it was gone, until they were promoting some new piece of special, fleeting junk. Andrea didn’t have a critical bone in her body. If told to be excited, she’d get excited. She was deeply commercial that way. Maybe it was because of Buckets. In nursery school Andrea was mad for her puppy Buckets. Her father ran him over with the lawnmower. Andrea cried for weeks, always saying she’d never love anything that could be taken away ever again. Hannah told her that she would, but Andrea always shook her head no. They hadn’t talked about Buckets in hears, but Hannah thought Andrea never really stopped mourning that dog. She just had a cycle, anticipation, pleasure, mourning, and begin again.
She tried to smile at Andrea, “Don’t you miss smoking inside?”
“Heavens no,” Andrea said. “The stench. Yuck. So as I was saying, Skip and I may go to the Keys for a month.”
Hannah stared at the butt bin. What a crude thing. You’ve had six drinks and you’re supposed to put the butt into this miniscule slot? All that was missing was a sign that said FUCK YOU SMOKER.
“Hey I asked you a question,” Andrea said.
“Oh,” said Hannah. “Sorry.”
“How did I manage to hold onto Skip for thirty eight years?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m a great fuck. That’s how.”
Andrea didn’t talk like this. You didn’t suddenly talk like this after forty-eight years of friendship. And Hannah squirmed. “Well good for you.”
“What are you good at, Hannah?”
“Excuse me?” Hannah stubbed her cigarette on the deck, in protest against the Bin.
“I just told you I’m a good fuck. Everyone is good at something otherwise nobody would keep anybody around.”
“Well I don’t know.”
“It’s the one thing I have no doubt. I. Am. A. Great. Fuck.”
“Are you a great fuck?”
Hannah reached for the railing, but they were standing by the butt bucket. There was nothing to grab. “Maybe,” she said.
Andrea’s smile faded. “Well, you must be good at something else then.”
It was time go inside. The next time they spoke, there would only be talk of the bake sale.
Nate drove, whistling, one hand out the window. Driving drunk, Hannah thought. Nate is good at that. He was loaded, surely, but in April there was no danger in it. She couldn’t get Andrea’s words out of her head, plain as a prayer, I am a good fuck.
“That was good times tonight,” he said.
“Oh sure,” she said, trying. “I just hate having to stand outside. I miss the old days.” I am good at missing things, she thought.
“You and Andrea were out there for an eon. She okay?”
“She looks good.”
Hannah didn’t agree or disagree. But it was true. Andrea’s husband was a fisherman and the nature of that lifestyle was extreme. A fisherman’s wife was either well fed with enough money in her pockets to clean out the clearance racks at Filene’s or she was drawn, dragging her feet and desperately in need of getting her roots done. They were island people in that way, Andrea and her husband, always in some extreme state, flush or broke.
“Hanny, you want a cup of coffee?”
The Dunkin Donuts loomed; a cop they knew leaned against his car out front, his head down, texting away on his phone, probably to some young slut on her way home from the Tavern. Was he a good fuck?
“Not right now,” she said.
“Nice get together, eh?”
“Yes,” she said. She and Nate didn’t fuck very often. It wasn’t because they weren’t good at it. The first time they had sex, on a blanket on deserted Sea Street beach, she’d been twenty-one and it had occurred to her as she was tying the strap on her bikini that she could go on fucking him for years and it would be fine. It worked. Their smells blended. His hands understood her body. She didn’t have to tell him what to do or pretend to like what she didn’t. And he wasn’t annoying, wasn’t talking dirty about his cock or pulling her hair too hard. No, he pulled just right.
“Well I sure as shit want a cup of coffee,” Nate said.
Nate was on the toilet for most of the night. Dunkin Donuts didn’t mix well with Jack Daniels. Nate’s digestive system had become their secret glue. It was a serialized story of cramps, internal pipes askew sounding, vivid descriptions of his movements, his aches, his aftermaths. Hannah was good at being let into the staggering horrors of old age, wear and tear. She let him talk about his trips to the bathroom like they were high school football games, sighing at the bad news, clapping for the good. Usually when he emerged, ranting about his system, swearing he’d never drink again she took him in her arms. She let him make his promises and she never questioned him when he’d be yearning for whisky a few days later.
Nate stepped out of the bathroom. “Now that was something. You think those shrimp were all right?”
“I’m sure they were.” She lit a cigarette. Theirs was a house you could smoke in. Other couples, particularly Andrea and her husband, made a show of smoking outdoors, even in winter. Dumb fucks, Hannah thought, freezing their butts off, probably getting the sniffles, when they could just smoke inside. Hannah liked a smoking house.
She put out her cigarette in her mother’s old ashtray and slipped down under the covers. Nate had gotten fat over the years; this was true, but it was a sign that he loved her and didn’t long for a mistress. She laid a hand on his arm and stroked him.
He chuckled, “I still say those shrimp were bad.”
“Well sure,” she said, trying to make her voice go raspy, trying to tell him what she wanted without telling him. “I’m sure those shrimp were very bad.”
“Ten seconds ago you said they were fine.”
“Nate, you know about those things more than I do.”
“Well do you think they were bad or not?”
“I trust you.”
He shook his head and laughed. “So, what did Andrea have to say? Skip said they might go down to the Keys.”
“She didn’t mention anything.” She didn’t know why she lied.
“Must be nice, able to just take off like that.”
“Well, then again, no job security, always worrying. Never knowing what’s running when. I would hate it. I like knowing what’s coming.” And that must be what she was good at: being comfortable. She didn’t get bored easily.
“Still, must be nice.”
Hannah waited it out. Nate got like this sometimes.
“You know I really hate those butt bins,” she said.
“Everything used to be more fun.”
“I had fun tonight.”
“No, Nate. I don’t mean it that way. I had fun.”
“You sure looked like you were having fun. Andrea and you were talking up a storm.”
“And we had fun. I had fun Nate, I did. I just was thinking, years ago, when you could smoke inside, it was more-”
“We were kids. Course it was more.”
“It’s not just that.”
“She say something that pissed you off?”
“I’m not mad about anything.”
He seemed to relax now, rolled over. “The butt bins are fucking brilliant, Hanny. You know how many cigarettes those things can eat? Danny Toule, he sells em, he’s making a killing. Soon enough, he and Char will buy the Keys, the money they’re making.”
Hannah wasn’t good at getting her feelings across. A different woman would have relayed her nostalgic woes in a way that opened the door and set the table and invited the man inside. She didn’t feel like having a pity party but she didn’t know how to stop him when he got like this.
“How’s your belly now?”
He looked at her, “No shrimp for a long time.”
He leaned over and shut off the light. He then put an arm around her and stroked her back in a go away way she knew well by now. She pulled at the sheets so their bodies could touch, at least. The smell of shit was there; the bathroom door was ajar. Her big toe found the backside of his calf. He gave in to her; it was Saturday. They went at quietly in their empty house and then it was done. She supposed she’d gotten what she wanted. Had he?
“Shit.” Nate leapt from the bed and stubbed his toe. He grabbed the newspaper. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”
“I thought it passed.”
“Damn shrimp. Tomorrow I’ll call Eddie and tell him.”
“I’m going downstairs. Sorry about the smell.”
“You don’t have to do that. I don’t mind it.”
But he was already gone. She felt stupid for telling him she didn’t mind the smell. Who didn’t mind the smell of shit? Eventually the toilet flushed. She listened to him pet the cat, open the refrigerator door, close the refrigerator door, scuffle across the linoleum, bid goodbye to the cat and proceed up the stairs. I am a terrible fuck, she thought.
“You know, Danny Toule said he can get us a butt bin, wholesale,” he said, climbing into the bed. “Would be great to have here. For when we have people over, for when we’re on the deck. Danny’s a smart shit getting in on that. Every restaurant needs one. Every single restaurant with an outdoor patio. Imagine the business. Smart shit says he just was outside smoking one day and saw one and called the company. Cold called. Now he’s rolling in it. Smart guy, smart guy.”
“Sounds great,” she said.
He was soon asleep but her eyes wouldn’t close, not even when the sun crept in through the blinds. Soon, she would fuck someone else and she felt terrible about that. Maybe she was being silly; people didn’t start running around because of a butt bin, because their husband didn’t hate what they hated. But maybe she was right; people started running around because of the stupidest little things. Because they didn’t see something that didn’t matter the same way, which shouldn’t matter, but did matter, which made no sense, which kept her eyes from closing up. Maybe she’d never sleep again and she laughed. A lot of people probably think that when they can’t fall asleep. She felt very unoriginal, like she’d been wrong about herself, like all her thoughts had been thought, like God probably made her the same day he made many others which was true; lots of people were born on May 23rd. That’s true of every day.
By the time he woke her up the next day, it was nearly one in the afternoon. He tickled her chin and laughed when she sat up startled. “Figured you’d want at least a few hours of daylight today, honey.”
He was leaving to go to work and she would never sleep with someone else. She would call Andrea back, who had called twice already and hear about the great deals she found at Filene’s. Then she would cook dinner—pork chops and corn—and see about cheap deals in Florida. When Danny dropped by with the Butt Bin, she joined him and her husband on the deck and sang praises of the thing as if she didn’t really hate it. Nobody, not even a genius, would have been able to tell that she was lying when she called the thing a great invention. And she didn’t feel bad about it, not really. Andrea was just kidding herself; there’s no way she was a great fuck. There’s no way she knew that the way you know your eyes are a certain color. If that were true, then other people know it and would have talked about it and Hannah would have heard that over the years. Andrea had gotten around in high school, after school. And she didn’t have a way of ruining her conquests for other women, that’s for sure.
Danny didn’t stay long and when he was gone Nate and Hannah returned to the warmth of the living room where they smoked and watched the news. Her husband didn’t really like that butt bin or he’d be out there playing with it the way he does with a new wrench. He was only amped up about it because he’d been drunk. Maybe it was the same with Andrea, going on about being a great fuck. Andrea’d had a few shots of Jaeger; it was possible she’d been talking out of her ass. But if alcohol was truth serum, then maybe their drunk selves were their true selves in which case Hannah didn’t have a secret, real self because she never drank so much that she said things she didn’t mean. Her head was starting to spin and she put out her cigarette.
“What’s wrong?” he said. He knew her moves well.
“You upset about the Andrea thing?”
“What Andrea thing?”
“Skip said she was going around telling everyone at the bar that I was the best lay she ever had,” he said. And he laughed and shook his head as if he was talking about their daughter, or rather, the way she imagined he would have come to talk about his daughter if they ever had a daughter, which they didn’t and wouldn’t. “What a crock, right?”
She had no reason to be mad. It wasn’t like she didn’t know that they’d screwed and she’d screwed Skip once, so they were even, and it was all before any of them were married. But to say Hannah’s husband was better at something than her own husband was to imply that she’d rather have him than her husband. And that was for sure rude. But they weren’t in high school anymore. They were old, drying up, outgrowing this kind of crap. If she were to get mad and not return Andrea’s phone calls, somehow she’d be the one acting like a baby because her bad behavior would be sober and deliberate. She wouldn’t win. She couldn’t win.
“Andrea has good taste,” she said. “You can’t argue that.”
And they laughed and went on watching the news and talking about some guy upstate who went and shot his neighbor’s dog and what an asshole he is and how he should fry. Somehow watching the shooter get cuffed and dragged into the cop car made Hannah feel better about her life, superior, and she supposed that’s why they sat here watching the news every night, not to find out about the goings on or form opinions about politics, but to feel like they were doing alright, in spite of having lived such small and downright incestuous little lives, like maybe, if they were here and not there, they had abided the laws, even the silly ones like the smoking ban. In some way, they had won.
Caroline Kepnes has been splitting her time between her home in Los Angeles, CA and her parents' home on Cape Cod, MA. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming in The Barcelona Review, Calliope, Dogzplot, Eclectica,The Other Room and Word Riot. She spent the past few months writing a young adult novel The Dig that's available on all e-book platforms. Her YA pen name is Audrey Hart. In her spare time she enjoys reading about meth lab busts, Floridian criminal activity and wild animals.