Issue 8 / Winter 2017
T hey weren’t friends, so Gayle wasn’t sure why she was there. When Marge invited her to her family’s beach house, Gayle was sure that the woman was talking to someone else.
“It’ll be fun,” Marge whispered as the women walked out of their Gen Ed class. “Everyone needs a vacation.”
So there they were, Gayle and Marge, classmates and utter strangers on their way to Marge’s parents’ third home, and Wilbur, Marge’s so-old-he’d-cough-up-dust Labradoodle tied to the back seatbelt.
“This is the company car, you know,” Marge said as they turned off their last exit.
Gayle didn’t respond. She wasn’t sure how to. She knew Marge didn’t work as she often bragged about the peace and quiet she lavished in while the kids were at school. So for a moment Gayle was fearful, fearful that she’d gotten into the car with a crazy woman driving her to rift-raft in her all white, exterior and interior, BMW. At least she’d go in style.
“My father bought it for me two years ago,” Marge concluded.
“I thought you said it was the company car,” Gayle said.
Marge took a left at the light after they passed the town’s military base. “It is! I take care of the estates for him, so he got me the car.”
Gayle was over inclined to roll her eyes, but she grinned and nodded instead. Gayle and Marge were the same age, and the thought of her parents buying her a car in her late forties was almost laughable. They couldn’t even buy her one in her teens. The comment began to resonate with Gayle though, as she remembered Marge mentioning why she was back in school on the first day of the semester. The group was all adult learners and they were asked to go around the circle to explain their reasons for returning.
“I always intended to get my BSN after finishing my nursing program, but after my twins were born I didn’t have the time,” Gayle went on. “It’s just the three of us… The girls are in high school now, so Mama’s back in school too!”
The class chuckled before the others started sharing: better pay, need it for a promotion, on worker’s comp and had the time, and then there was Marge.
“I decided to come back and complete my degree in accounting.” That could have been the end of it, but as Gayle would learn, Marge had a tendency to put her foot in her mouth, and keep it there.
“It’s not that I have to work or anything,” Marge stressed. “My husband’s a surgeon, so was my father, and my top priority is being there for him, my husband, and our three children—but now that Dad’s retired he needs a bit of help with the books.”
A couple of students in the circle shot eyes each other’s way as Marge continued. “He has loads of investments—properties, stocks, you know—and it’s getting to be a lot for him to handle. Not to mention I’m going to get it all, so I guess I need a refresher in dealing with finance.”
Marge burst out into a whale of laughter. Gayle assumed the woman made a joke she wasn’t privy to, but when the rest of the room sat as silently as she did, it was confirmed. The woman was laughing at her inheritance comment, and it was as awkward to everyone else as it was to Gayle. Just like that, in a room full of worker bees, there was a queen.
Regardless of how off-putting the notion of Marge referring to the vehicle as a company car was, it was a welcome change in conversation as the rest of the trip had consisted of Marge talking about her husband Brent.
“It used to be tough with him working such long hours, but he switched to the private sector about seven years ago and it’s been great,” Marge rambled. “The money is better too!”
Gayle mostly nodded as she couldn’t get a word in edgewise, but she didn’t mind. Marge’s chatter kept her from having to pretend that they actually had something in common.
Wilbur let out a muffled yelp and Gayle glanced at him as if she’d almost forgotten he was back there. Marge stretched her long pale arm toward the dog and he licked her fingers meticulously.
“What’s the matter, boy?” Marge baby-talked. “We’re almost there. You’ll be out soon.”
Gayle noticed the liver spots on Marge’s forearm as she rubbed the dog’s chin. It seemed she’d be too young for liver spots. Gayle always associated the markings with age. But much about Marge seemed too old for their age, the full head of gray curls, psoriatic arthritis, and already being post-menopausal. That last fact was one Gayle cringed at while listening to, as she finally understood her daughters’ “TMI” reactions. Before their third class together, Marge started venting about how painful sex had become for her and her husband once she went through “the change,” how she could discuss irritated vaginal walls with a virtual stranger and not say “menopause” was both distracting and comical.
“You can pet him if you’d like,” Marge said.
Gayle shook her head. “I’m good.”
She wasn’t fond of dogs, and never had been. Gayle didn’t trust things she couldn’t communicate with that had the potential to harm either her or itself. She figured that was the reason for her detachment from babies. She even felt impartial about her daughters when they were first born.
“Don’t care for dogs?” Marge asked.
It was the first thing she’d asked Gayle over the course of the two-hour ride.
“I’m just a bit wary about ones I don’t know.”
“Did you ever think about adopting one?”
“No,” Gayle replied.
Gayle said, “They’re an extra expense.”
Marge nodded. “Let’s run to the supermarket, grab some groceries for the weekend.”
She turned into the Whole Foods parking lot, cracked the window, and the two of them headed toward the store. Gayle peeked back at the car where Wilbur held his snout at the crack of the window, taking long, slow breaths.
“We should rent a movie,” Marge suggested.
They walked to the Redbox. Gayle zoned out as Marge spouted off movie titles she’d never heard of, movies with “love” and stupid sounding acronyms in the title mostly. After six strenuous minutes, Marge decided on a drama about whales and squids or something along that line. Gayle pulled out her bank card as Marge fumbled through her purse.
“I got it,” Gayle said.
“No, no,” Marge said. “You don’t have to do that, I’ll ge—”
“I got it, Marge.” Gayle swiped her card. “It’s the least I can do.”
The women went inside and Marge grabbed a basket. She headed directly for the produce aisle and started skimming vegetables. Gayle glimpsed at a few of the prices and gasped. Jesus, she knew there was a reason she didn’t shop at the franchise. Marge picked up what looked to be salad makings before they made their way to meat aisle.
“Chicken or fish?” Marge looked at Gayle.
Gayle shrugged. “Your choice.”
“Brent loves my blackened chicken,” Marge said, standing between the poultry and seafood. “He says it’s my best dish.”
She debated for a while, but picked up some cod. They meandered through the section and came across a sample stand where a young man was cutting pieces of filet.
“Be careful,” Marge said to him. “That’s a great cut of steak.”
The twenty something year old shot Marge an “I know how to do my job, lady” stare, but played it off with a smile.
“Would you ladies like to try?” He lifted the platter.
“Delicious,” Gayle said after finishing.
“I don’t know,” Marge chewed her piece excessively slowly. “It’s a bit over seasoned.”
Gayle smiled at the young man. “Well, I like it.”
“Hmm.” Marge shrugged before looking at the young man’s nametag. “Thanks for the bite, Horr… How do you pronounce your name?”
Gayle glanced at Marge, finding it difficult to believe this was the first time she’d seen the name Jorge written down. The young man pronounced his name clearly and slowly in its two syllables as Marge repeated after him.
“Yes, that’s right,” Jorge said.
“Okay,” Marge bellowed. “Where are you from, Jorge?”
Jorge shot Gayle a quick look and Gayle shot him one back.
“Cleveland, ma’am,” he said.
“No, I mean your people.”
Gayle closed her eyes. She knew she wasn’t being Punk’d. She wasn’t important enough for that. She was really grocery shopping with this woman. Gayle opened her eyes.
“My grandparents are from Madrid?” Jorge asked more than stated.
Marge nodded, “Oh, Spain, explains why the food was over seasoned. Well, have a nice day, Jorge!”
She laughed as fiercely as she did that day in the classroom, and Gayle was just as silent. They were out of the store in ten minutes, and Marge pulled out her cellphone as they got back into the car.
“My god,” Marge blew. “Four missed calls and eleven text messages from the kids. You’d think I’d been gone a week.”
“They’re completely lost without me.” Marge started scrolling through the messages. “Have you heard from yours?”
Gayle shook her head. “Nope. I told them this was mom’s weekend, and only to call if it was an emergency.”
“Really.” Marge seemed surprised.
“Of course, they can handle themselves,” Gayle said.
Marge stopped what she was doing and pocketed her phone. They were on Marge’s parents’ street shortly after, and every house looked more grandiose than the next. The thought of those mansions being homes away from home for people was as excessive as their stained glass windows, imported cobblestone walkways, and unnaturally green lawns. They pulled into the driveway and Gayle immediately took out her camera. It looked like a house from one of those cheesy acronym love movies, big and beautiful and scenic and maintained; she took three pictures.
“Before I give you the tour, let me put Wilbur in the storage area,” Marge said as she led the dog away.
Gayle watched from a distance as Marge coaxed Wilbur into the home’s version of a basement. The space was under the house with an open layout and a screen mesh for walls. Marge locked the doors as she returned to the car.
“Won’t he get lonely down here?” Gayle’s compassion toward the old dog surprised Marge, but not as much as it did Gayle.
“He’ll be with us most of the time, but my parents don’t want him inside,” Marge explained. “He’s used to being down here.”
“But won’t he get lonely?” Gayle repeated.
Marge didn’t respond that time.
“So this is the house,” Marge said. “Well, one of them. There’s a deck and a couple of hammocks out back by the boat. I’ll show you the rest of the place.”
Gayle followed Marge and eyed Wilbur as he sat next to the mesh and watched the women walk up the stairs. Marge showed Gayle to her room first. A large double bedroom with a private bathroom, then she took her to the kitchen, then the outside patio with a view of the patio near the boat, then to the upstairs office and larger patio up there. It was quite the house.
“Well, now that you’ve seen the place, what do you want to do?” Marge asked.
Relax, was what Gayle wanted to say, as the thought of relaxing at a beach house was the only real reason she decided to go along with the farce.
“It’s up to you,” Gayle said in hopes Marge could hear the faux tiredness in her voice.
“Let’s head back,” Marge was pulling out her keys as she said it.
They returned to the house.
“Go rest on one of the hammocks. I’ll get dinner started.”
“You sure you don’t need any help?” Gayle questioned.
“I’m usually cooking for five, so this is a treat.” Marge smiled.
Gayle grabbed her camera and mp3 player before heading outside.
“I’ll come back in an hour to make the salad, okay?” Gayle said.
“Okay,” Marge said without turning around.
As Gayle walked out back, she saw Wilbur staring at her from his prison. Had she been a dog person, she might have put his leash on and taken him with her, but she wasn’t, so she didn’t. She put her music on and knocked out almost instantly, but not before getting a chance to breath it all in: being surrounded by water, sand, and artificially lush grass. She wished her daughters could see it. She wished all three of them had a beach house to escape to instead of a mortgage and a two-bedroom bungalow, that her parents could buy her a BMW and she could ditch her ‘03 Volkswagen, that her ex would stop hiding assets to avoid child support. She wished she had three decks and four hammocks and no job. Gayle took another picture, and fell asleep.
She rejoined Marge in the kitchen a while later.
“Smells great in here,” Gayle said.
“Thanks.” Marge motioned to the counter. “Salad stuff is over there.”
Gayle started chopping tomatoes. “This is a gorgeous house, Marge.”
“Yeah,” Marge nodded. “But the one in Boca is a lot nicer. It has a pool.”
Gayle exhaled. “You said your dad bought this place fifty years ago?”
“Umhmm,” Marge continued. “This one and the others. Said he wanted to set things up for my sister and me when he was gone. What a saint.”
Gayle started ripping the lettuce.
“He said he’d make sure we never had anything to worry about,” Marge said. “Even when I married Brent, he said ‘anything happens, I’ll take care of you, hun’!”
“Too bad they can’t always take care of us, huh?” Gayle added, “It gets hard at this age, doesn’t it? Seeing them starting to need us.”
Marge hesitated for a moment. “Brent’s parents are dead. They died in a car accident when we were in college. A year before we got married.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Gayle whispered.
“Dad said we should have waited.” Marge started to portion out the rice and fish. “But that’s love for you!”
Gayle nodded and laughed.
“I don’t know what I’d do without him.” Marge chuckled as well, though Gayle wasn’t sure which of the two men that had always taken care of her she was referring to.
“I’m done with the salad.” Gayle took the bowl over to their plates. “Should we eat outside?”
“Great idea,” Marge agreed. “I’ll go get Wilbur.”
Gayle bit her lip. She hoped he wasn’t one of those dogs that would jump all over her for a scrap of food. They sat out on the highest patio and watched the sunset in the distance. It was picturesque, bright orange with hints of pink and soft blues, so picturesque that Gayle put her plate down so she could take a picture for her girls. She didn’t even care if Wilbur ate off her plate.
“I thought we’d walk to the beach after dinner. Wilbur could use a bit of time out there,” Marge said.
“Sounds good,” Gayle replied.
Before they took another bite, the women heard an almost deafening sound. Marge jumped, Gayle looked around, and Wilbur started to shake. Gayle felt the sound’s vibration ricochet off the patio and up her legs into her stomach.
“Christ.” Marge put her hand to her chest.
“What was that?” Gayle looked out onto the empty sky as her heartrate quickened.
“I think it was a sonic boom,” Marge said. “There’s a military base in town.”
“That’s something breaking the sound barrier, right? A jet?” Gayle asked.
“Yes,” Marge replied. “Seems unnatural, doesn’t it? That something that loud could go unseen.”
“Like an invisible explosion,” Gayle explained.
“Exactly.” Marge smiled at Gayle.
Gayle looked down at the still shaking and whimpering Wilbur. “Your dog is scared.”
“I know, but I can’t coddle him now or he’ll think he reacted the right way.” Marge put her empty plate down and continued to stare out into the sky, taking long, slow, breaths.
Gayle watched Wilbur shake and was compelled to offer him a piece of fish, but she didn’t. She took one of her last few bites.
“My husband told me he’s leaving,” Marge said slowly and clearly, enunciating each syllable. “That he hasn’t been happy since before he can remember.”
Gayle looked at Marge with a mouthful of fish, “I’m ro rorry—” She clamped her mouth shut and chewed ferociously. Had there been a bone in that fish, she would have choked.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Marge,” she corrected herself.
Marge didn’t respond. She just stared out into that orange and pink and blue sky, and then she grabbed her and Gayle’s plates to carry inside. Before going in, she glanced over her shoulder at Gayle.
“Is it hard,” Marge whispered, “doing it alone?”
Gayle wiped her mouth. “Sometimes, but it’s not about us—you know.”
“Yeah.” Marge nodded. “I guess you’re right.”
Marge smiled at Gayle before going in. Moments later, Gayle and Wilbur heard another boom. Wilbur shook worse than the last time. Gayle stared at him. The dog was terrified of something he didn’t, couldn’t, understand. She looked into his big wet eyes and listened to his whimpers settle beneath the beats of her heart. Gayle lowered her hand and touched the dog’s head. He was so cold. She spread her fingers over his light curls.
“Everything’s going to be all right,” she whispered so lowly so that only he could hear her.
Gayle stroked the dog’s head back and forth until he quieted and was no longer shaking, but she continued to comfort him, because Gayle believed she understood, then. She understood why she was there.
Morgan Christie’s work has appeared in Hippocampus, Aethlon, Blackberry, Moko, as well as others, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently completing her Masters in Creative Writing.