Reckoning, fiction by Cat Pleska

It was qui­et in the old board­ing house, no where near morn­ing. Silent, dark hous­es clus­tered hard by the road. Near­by the usu­al­ly rau­cous but now silent, beer joint, the Dew Drop Inn beamed the only glow onto the street through a sin­gle, dirt-smudged win­dow.

In a room on the sec­ond floor of Mary’s Board­ing House, steady snor­ing sparred with snurkking snorts. Moon­light beamed into the dark­ened room, but did not illu­mi­nate the sleep­ing cou­ple. A warm night for May, the heat prob­a­bly caused the woman to throw one leg out­side the cov­ers. The man beside her wore no shirt, only his under­wear. Despite the warmth, the two spooned tight­ly. They did not stir when the screen door on the first floor creaked as it was eased open. They slept on as a man tried the front door knob and delight­ed in his mind that the door slipped open. The man, hat brim pulled tight­ly down on his head, stepped soft­ly through the par­lor and up the stairs, hes­i­tat­ing when a creak seemed loud­er than a bull horn. He froze in place for a moment. His old black suit jack­et scratched the bare skin of his back and arms under his over­alls. He felt the weight of the gun in his right jack­et pock­et.

Going straight into the hall­way at the top of the stairs, he slowed his steps and approached a bed­room door on the right. Gen­tly twist­ing the white ceram­ic knob, he cracked the door, just enough to allow a peek into the dark room. The full moon’s glow through a win­dow illu­mi­nat­ed the large bulk of a man, snor­ing like a buzz saw. He was flopped onto his back, his huge bel­ly ris­ing and falling with his breaths. See­ing only one form, the man in the hat closed the door, knock­ing one of his boots with it. He froze again. Lis­tened. No noise came from the room except snor­ing. After a few sec­onds, he pon­dered the closed door across from where he stood. He found this room, too, was unlocked, so he eased the door open.

In this room, the moon light shone strong­ly against the dress­er wall, mak­ing the remain­der of the room dark­er, so he wait­ed until his eyes adjust­ed. He final­ly dis­cerned lumps in the bed, but he could not be sure the lumps in the bed were who he sought. Widen­ing the door, he stepped in, bare­ly let­ting the weight of his boot rest on the floor boards. Not tip­toe­ing but slow­ly lift­ing first one foot then the oth­er, he stepped clos­er to the bed. Two fig­ures, two snores. A board creaked when he shift­ed his weight slight­ly, and the loud­er of the two snores stopped. No one in the bed moved. Again, the man wait­ed. He lis­tened for their even breath­ing. The one with the light snore nev­er inter­rupt­ed her noise, but the heavy one’s breath­ing returned to an even and deep rhythm. The man crept for­ward. A man and a woman, he thought. This is them.

Now his eyes were more adjust­ed to the dark. He could see that the heav­ier form near­est him and fac­ing him was the man he was seek­ing. He thought he could see the woman’s brown hair fanned on the white pil­low as she cud­dled up to the oth­er man. The man in the hat felt his stom­ach acids roil as he noticed how tight­ly she was spooned against the man next to her. His right hand moved ever so slow­ly toward his jack­et pock­et. He felt the cold met­al of the gun, locat­ed the han­dle and wrapped his hand around it. Care­ful­ly, his thumb eased the safe­ty off, his index fin­ger locat­ing the trig­ger. Now stand­ing ful­ly beside the bed, he watched the cou­ple sleep.

Look­ing to the left, the man in the hat noticed a fedo­ra on the bed­post. Beside that, spread over the foot­board, was a dress he knew well, the blue one with small white Queen Anne’s lace blos­soms. Along the wall oppo­site the bed, the moon­light part­ly illu­mi­nat­ed the dress­er. A purse sat there, reflect­ed dim­ly in the dress­er mir­ror. A sil­ver clasp glowed.

He looked back to the man sleep­ing and slow­ly pulled the gun from his pock­et. His hand did not shake; he clenched his teeth; he resist­ed a long sigh. A roar­ing noise sound­ed in his ears and he briefly con­sid­ered the hate in his heart. His mind fevered with thoughts and images—images he had only imag­ined till now. Now the truth was before him. He couldn’t help it, but his breath short­ened and came quick­er. He felt a prick­ling sen­sa­tion under his arms and on his upper lip. Was the room turn­ing just a bit white? It was enough. He lev­eled the gun at the man’s head. He hes­i­tat­ed long enough to look at the woman, whose face he could see well now against the white pil­low. Damn …

Sud­den­ly, the man in the bed raised, lung­ing toward the man in the hat and grabbed at him. Star­tled, the man in the hat stum­bled back­ward. His right arm went up, still clutch­ing the gun. The met­al of the bar­rel, momen­tar­i­ly illu­mi­nat­ed by the moon’s shine, reflect­ed off the mir­ror and onto the wall behind him, high up. For just a flash of a sec­ond, a tiny spot like that of a wristwatch’s glow, bounced wild­ly on the wall above the bed. As the man in the hat teetered back­ward, that was all the time the man in the bed need­ed. He lunged, tan­gled in the cov­ers, but his for­ward motion brought his bulk against the man with the gun. Both fell to the floor with a loud whump! The woman woke and sat up quick­ly, stunned and not to her­self. What? She turned toward the scuf­fling nois­es and began scream­ing, still not sure what was hap­pen­ing.

When the gun fired, every­thing in the room stopped: move­ment, think­ing, breath­ing.

The woman, hold­ing her breath, now rushed her breath out with a woosh! and whim­pered, more awake, more hor­ri­fied, and began shak­ing with fear; there was no move­ment or sound com­ing from the floor, the pile of two men. She pulled the cov­ers to her chin, and called out her lover’s name. After what seemed a long time, the unin­jured man stag­gered to stand. He whirled before slump­ing on the bed. The man on the floor did not move. Only the blood from the wound in his side flowed, inch­ing its way to the base­board on the slant­i­ng floor boards of the old house. A gur­gling noise, soft­ly sound­ed as blood rose to the downed man’s throat. A long sigh escaped his mouth, bub­bling the blood as a child would blow bub­bles from his high chair.

Mov­ing to the side of the bed near her lover, the woman strug­gled to see who was on the floor. She gasped loud­ly. “Oh my god! It’s my hus­band, Har­ry!”

Her lover still did not move as he looked at the pis­tol in his hand. How the hell was he going to explain this? He turned to look at Louise, who was star­ing down into the dark floor, her eyes adjust­ing more and more so that she could now see the flow of blood mov­ing slow­ly along the wall. She moved back to her side of the bed, grabbed and clutched a pil­low to her chest.

How long they were frozen in posi­tion, nei­ther could have said, but it seemed almost imme­di­ate­ly that Mary, the board­ing house own­er, came rush­ing in, fum­bled for the wall switch, which made a loud click as the ceil­ing bulb lit up the room. Quick­ly tak­ing in the scene, she stared at the man and woman, still frozen in place then whirled and ran back into the hall to the tele­phone and called the sher­iff.

She woke him up, scream­ing that there was a man in one of her bed­rooms, shot, prob­a­bly dead, on the floor and to get there right now! The sher­iff, won­der­ing how many nights now he’d been called to a shoot­ing in his town just in the last month, shrugged on clothes and raced to the board­ing house. He ran up the stairs two at a time. Mary, clutch­ing her che­nille robe, ran toward the sher­iff. “A man’s in there, dead!” He pushed her aside, but asked her who had the gun. Mary said she’d seen it on the bed, wasn’t any­one hold­ing it, last time she’d looked.

Slow­ly, he peeked into the room and glanced around. He saw a heavy set man in green work pants, a white t-shirt, with no shoes stand­ing near the head­board. A young woman was stand­ing on the oth­er side of the bed in a thin robe. A gun rest­ed on the bed. A man, with blood all around him, was on the floor.  Mary, behind the sher­iff, point­ed around him at the woman stand­ing. “Earl! Get those peo­ple out! I’ll not have this in my house.” The sher­iff ignored her, step­ping to the side of the bed where the man laid sprawled. Reach­ing for the gun, the sher­iff asked the man, who was smok­ing a cig­a­rette, if he had any weapons. The man pulled the cig­a­rette from his mouth, shak­ing his head no. “It was self defense,” he said.

The sher­iff, keep­ing an eye on the man stand­ing, grunt­ed as he strad­dled the dead man on the floor, not­ing the wound entrance was at the low­er left rib. He rolled him over and not­ed the bul­let had no exit wound. As he moved him, he kicked the man’s hat aside. He glanced at the gun in his hand.

Twen­ty-two,” he com­ment­ed to no one in par­tic­u­lar.

Yeah. Appears to be,” the man answered, tak­ing a deep drag from his cig­a­rette.

Rat­tled around inside, I sus­pect,” the sher­iff seemed to say to him­self as he straight­ened up from exam­in­ing the body. He looked at the oth­er man and then the woman, who he now rec­og­nized as a local and the wife of the man on the floor.  “Wan­na tell me what hap­pened?”

Louise’s cor­rob­o­rat­ed the self-defense sto­ry, and my grand­fa­ther was not charged with any crime. The sher­iff wrote up a report, had the wit­ness­es write their account of what hap­pened, and thought how glad he’d be when the out-of-town gas com­pa­ny fin­ished their pipe lay­ing and left town. With strangers com­ing in, the crime rate had gone up. He’d told Mary time and again to get locks on her doors, but the old tight­wad wouldn’t. He real­ized he was get­ting care­less. He could have been shot, going into that room alone. But he was too tired to think about it. The sun was ris­ing as he went home and back to bed.

Lat­er that day, my grand­fa­ther was on his way out of Ken­tucky and back home to West Vir­ginia. The sher­iff told him to get out of his town, and prefer­ably his state. My grand­fa­ther found his fore­man on the job and told him what hap­pened and that he was return­ing home a day ear­ly. The gas com­pa­ny fore­man shook his head and told him his pay would be short. Then he turned back to watch one of his men weld a gas pipe in place.

***

A day lat­er, my grand­moth­er stood up straight from a bend­ing posi­tion. She ran her free hand through her black, curly hair and adjust­ed her eye­glass­es. She con­sid­ered the Four o’clock blos­soms she held in her hand. They were white and shock­ing pink and pur­ple-blue. Slow­ly, as if old, she climbed two steps, opened the screen door and stepped into the kitchen. At the end of the table, where he always seemed to light, was my grand­fa­ther. Shak­ing salt into his glass of beer, he didn’t glance at my grand­moth­er com­ing in. She stepped over to the table, a chair away from him and laid scis­sors down by a dirty plate. She picked up the plate and put it in the sink. Reach­ing for an amber car­ni­val glass vase on top of the refrig­er­a­tor, she took it to the sink to fill it with water. She plunked the four o’clock blos­soms in the vase and turned to set them on the kitchen table. Sit­ting in a side chair, she fussed with the del­i­cate flow­ers.

Where you been, Pet?” My grand­fa­ther slurred, drag­ging on his cig­a­rette.

Just out back.”

Pick­ing flow­ers?” His swollen hand closed around the beer glass. She didn’t answer.

After the flow­ers were arranged to her sat­is­fac­tion, she asked, “You want some din­ner?” She glanced at the stove.
“Yeah. Lat­er,” he said.

The kitchen was qui­et, with only the gas flame under the refrig­er­a­tor whoosh­ing on. My grand­moth­er stood, sup­port­ing her­self on the back of a chair and watched my grand­fa­ther gulp his beer. He thud­ded the glass down and burped loud­ly.

She stood, hand on back of chair, star­ing at the wall behind the table. She sighed heav­i­ly.

What was her name?” She asked.

Who?”

The woman, over there in Ken­tucky.”

He belched again and shoved the emp­ty beer bot­tle toward my grand­moth­er. “Get me anoth­er beer, Pet.”

My grand­moth­er went to the refrig­er­a­tor and got a beer, and brought it to the table. My grand­fa­ther popped off the cap with a bot­tle open­er and poured anoth­er glass. He was down­ing that when my grand­moth­er final­ly let go the back of the chair and moved toward the kitchen door that led into the liv­ing room.

Louise,” she heard him say, as she kept mov­ing through the house.

***

When I was twen­ty-one, a few months before my grand­fa­ther died, I came to see him.  Over the years, my vis­its became less fre­quent.  I explained I was busy work­ing or going to school.  But for the last two years, I’d heard my grandfather’s mind was going.  “It’s the first thing to go when some­one drinks like him,” I’d hear peo­ple say.  Now, his body was fail­ing rapid­ly. He had retired from the gas com­pa­ny many years before, a move strong­ly sug­gest­ed by his fore­man.

When I arrived, it was a warm day, late in June, just before locusts start buzzing to sig­nal the begin­ning of dog days.  Vines grew pro­fuse­ly over my grand­par­ents’ porch on the front of the house, afford­ing pri­va­cy and shade to those sit­ting in big, green met­al lawn chairs or on the wood­en porch swing.  My grand­fa­ther was on the swing, feet up, sway­ing soft­ly back and forth.  He was smok­ing a cig­a­rette and cough­ing with each puff.  I’d been warned that he looked pret­ty bad, but I wasn’t pre­pared for the raw, run­ning sores on his big, beefy hands and puffy arms: the bloat­ed body.

His head turned at the sound of my step, and his cloudy blue eyes stared unfo­cused in my direc­tion.

Hi, Pop­paw.”  I slipped into a met­al lawn chair close to the swing.  He turned to look at me and leaned for­ward.

He’s try­ing to see who you are.”  My grand­moth­er said as she came through the screen door and stepped out onto the porch.  “He don’t rec­og­nize many these days.  And he don’t remem­ber voic­es either.”  She was dressed in red shorts, her legs still love­ly and smooth, her hair fresh­ly permed and doused in a blue rinse.

I turned back to look at my grand­fa­ther.  This was the man who’d drank so much that now he couldn’t rec­og­nize the voice of his favorite grand­daugh­ter.  He began to cough, har­rumph­ing and spit­ting phlegm over the ban­is­ter.

The sores on there won’t heal.  I called the doc­tor, and he said his sugar’s prob­a­bly out of con­trol.”  My grand­moth­er sat down across from me in anoth­er met­al lawn chair.

My grand­fa­ther sud­den­ly jerked his body upright.  “What’re you doing here?” He turned toward me, and his huge, puffy hands curled to fists.  I leaned away, star­tled, and looked at my grand­moth­er.  Before she could answer, he yelled again.  “What are you doing here?”

He shook his fist at me.  “I told you it was self-defense.  God-dammit-to-hell!  You get off my porch!”  The strain of yelling brought him to anoth­er cough­ing fit.  When he could breathe nor­mal­ly again, he drew on his cig­a­rette, star­ing out through the vines at the road in front of the house.  I real­ized I was still frozen in a half-sit­ting, half-stand­ing posi­tion, ready to run.

My grand­moth­er calm­ly lit a cig­a­rette and shook her head.  “He’s been doing that all week.  He rushed the tele­phone man yes­ter­day.  All he want­ed was to ask about some line trou­ble we were hav­ing.  Like to have scared that man to death.  He chased the mail­man away from the mail box.  Scream­ing at him.  Call­ing him Louise.  He thinks every­body is that woman whose hus­band he killed years ago. He thinks they’ve come to kill him now.” My grand­moth­er snort­ed. I sank back into my chair.

I watched her as she turned her head to look at my grand­fa­ther, now calm­ly swing­ing again.  I watched as the years marched across her face, as she stayed, with nowhere to go. I looked at her hands, still soft on top, I knew, hands that took care of every­thing, from bills, scrap­ing mon­ey togeth­er, ask­ing the bank to wait on a pay­ment, to clean­ing and can­ning and cook­ing, to dri­ving him while he was drunk so he wouldn’t kill some­one. I remem­ber her hair tum­bling over the rag tied tight­ly around her head to ease a migraine. Her body, rum­pled, yet stur­dy from years of being home, stay­ing, wait­ing. Maybe for this moment.

My grand­fa­ther idly scratched at a bleed­ing sore on top of his hand.  She puffed on her cig­a­rette and blew the smoke slow­ly through her nose, as if it were the most exot­ic and free thing she had ever done.  She blew it direct­ly at my grand­fa­ther.

He swat­ted at her smoke as if flies buzzed his head.

pleskaCat Ples­ka is a 7th gen­er­a­tion West Vir­gin­ian, author, edi­tor, edu­ca­tor, pub­lish­er, and sto­ry­teller. She is a fre­quent writ­ing work­shop leader and is an essay­ist for West Vir­ginia Pub­lic Radio and a for­mer book review­er for The Charleston Gazette. She edit­ed the anthol­o­gy Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Moun­tains, pub­lished in 2012 by Wood­land Press. She has pub­lished in many mag­a­zines, antholo­gies, and news­pa­pers through­out the region. Her first book, Rid­ing on Comets: a Mem­oir was pub­lished by West Vir­ginia Uni­ver­si­ty Press May 2015. Cat was award­ed the Gov­er­nor of Arts Award, 2016, for her sup­port of the lit­er­ary arts.

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