The cards started after Brooke died in June. The first one arrived on Lou’s doorstep, under his good-for-nothing welcome mat, in a purple envelope. The flap wasn’t licked all the way and there was a smidge of peanut butter where the stamp should be. He liked that whoever sent it didn’t give a rat’s ass about presentation. The card was a black puppy dog looking all sad like into the camera. Inside, “I’m sorry.” No signature. They were there every Sunday morning after that when he woke. Each time a different picture, a different lousy saying. “A Cheer Just For You!” and “Wishing You a Happy Day and a Happy Heart!” He started to get a kick out of them after a while, looking forward to shoving his thumb in the corner and tearing the paper apart. After three months he had a stack of cards like those buttermilk pancakes at IHOP he always ordered off the Senior Menu. He rested his ashtray on it whenever he watched war programs on T.V. Then the cards stopped.
Seen it all, done it all… can’t remember most of it
Truth be told, Brooke wasn’t Lou’s favorite grandchild. Still, he’d taped every picture of every dandelion she’d drawn for him above his bed—47 now—and she was the only person he didn’t lose his temper at when she got on his case about how he needed to shave. He thought he could handle her accident. In WWII he’d seen men’s intestines snake out of their stomachs and babies’ brains explode in the Philippines. But he couldn’t stand to read about Brooke’s hit and run in Newsday the next day, and the no-name cowards who fled the scene. All he wanted was to forget. It made Lou sick to see everyone’s eyes on his daughter the whole funeral service at St. Bernard’s church, mopping up her sobs afterward like a roll in olive oil. Like she deserved any of that damn attention. She sure was asking for it with that skimpy dress she wore. Not black. Yellow. The color of fake butter. Said she wanted to honor the joy Brooke brought her. Bunch of bullshit if you ask him. Nobody did ask. Nobody said much of anything to him after the whole mess was said and done with. Now this person was making him remember. Funny how someone goes away and they still find a way to talk to you from the grave.
A toast to you
Lou moved his recliner toward the living room window and slid the curtain over an inch. He would wait for this smart aleck leaving greeting cards at his door, that’s what he’d do. All he did in the war was wait for bodies. This was no different. He poured himself a glass of seltzer, plopped in a maraschino cherry, and sat. The paint was chipping on the window sill. The house was a Levittown original, one of the few left, and Margaret used to boil potatoes on the stove while watching his daughters and the neighbor kids play in the front yard. He should sell the place. Move to the Carolinas and play pinochle all day long. Mr. Chen at Hunan Dynasty might miss him. Lou ordered a Moo-Shu beef from him every Friday night, and he’d always pop a handful of extra fortune cookies into his bag. It hadn’t even been an hour and Lou was already tired of staring into the black like a dummy. He heard a noise. He opened the door, was about to yell “Gotcha!” but it was the neighbor boy with the girly green hair skateboarding in the street. Probably looped out of his mind, high off whatever the kids sucked in their mouths these days. “Oh hey Mr. D. I’ll be by tomorrow to clean out your gutters,” the boy said. “You better be, Buster Brown,” Lou said. Sometimes they got pizza together. He still didn’t know his real name. He needed sleep; staying up all night was no good for a man his age. He opened the curtains all the way to let them know he’d been watching before slugging another glass of seltzer and going to bed.
Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world
Jenny insisted on driving to Singleton’s with Laura. She was going because she couldn’t take all of Laura’s texts and voicemails anymore, didn’t have it in her to tell her one more time that her phone battery died or that she was coming down with something, again. Girlfriend was needy like a seagull on Jones Beach. Brooke was everywhere Jenny looked: on the news, in the paper, and now on a pole by Friendly’s on a flyer surrounded by candles and flowers. Jenny couldn’t get away from the pictures of Brooke. Scrunched up eyes and cheesy smile. Clutching a giant plush puppy with a lazy tongue. So Jenny took the backstreets to Singleton’s, up Squirrel Lane and past Jerusalem pool, so she could avoid the stupid red building, her and Laura saying nothing in the car. She did like the jean jacket Laura was wearing, with the cute rhinestones on top, but she wasn’t going to tell her. At the restaurant, Laura bee lined to the bar as soon as they stepped inside. Jenny shook her head at Laura’s offer for a rum and coke and asked instead for a soda water with lime. She’d stopped drinking and had started running everyday so hard and fast on the cardio machines at LA Fitness that she’d gotten calluses on her feet. She didn’t care. “Mike’s dicking me around again,” Jenny said when they sat down. “Hasn’t called me in three days.” Laura slurped nearly all her drink, drummed her orange manicured fingernails on the counter. “I can’t go to jail,” Laura said. Jenny looked down at the ice in her glass. Swirled with her finger. “I know.”
Haven’t seen you in awhile
The envelopes hadn’t arrived the last few weekends and bending down to find nothing under the mat had messed him up. Messed up his knees, too, that’s for sure. He was no spring chicken. Could go any day now, like his wife Margaret had suddenly from a blood clot. There was no use in slobbering over the past. Now, he needed to let whoever this person was know that he was alive and kicking and he’d leave a note for them. At CVS, he pocketed a Mr. Goodbar before going to the card aisle where he stared at rows and rows of greeting cards like a dummy. An older woman wearing a red vest tapped her hand on his shoulder and he flinched. “Can I help you with something?” she said. “Need one of these,” he said. He pointed to the 99 cents section. She grabbed a giant neon yellow smiley face from the rack and shoved it into his hand. “That’ll do,” she said. It was blank inside. Later, he wrote, “Thanks for the bottle. Don’t be such a cheapskate next time.”
Take it easy
“The driver’s name is Laura.” Jenny wrote on the card. She stuck it in the envelope, licked the seal, and tucked in the space between the refrigerator and the wall.
I like you a whole bunch!
Brooke had forgotten her flip-flops because her mom was on her case again about not cleaning up the dog’s mess and she’d run out of the house all sweaty and sticky with stupid bangs in her eyes after grabbing her bathing suit from the clothesline, needing everyone and everything to shut up. It was like walking on hot coals at the pool, each bumpy rock in the cement poking the skin of her toes. Patrick was here today. He was older than her, already in high school, and had a lightning streak of white hair. His head was tilted back and laughing like always, so big and loud that she could see the roof of his mouth from across the swimming lanes. She daydreamed about that mouth, about sharing a powdered sugar from Dunkin Donuts with him, wiping the white off his chin when he took a bite. Stupid rocks. Ouch. She held onto the links of the fence that went clank clank clank with each grab of her hand. Patrick blew his whistle at some kid who ran and dove into the swimming lanes and blew it louder when he didn’t hear him, the high pitch zipping through her brain. All she wanted was to feel the slippery droplets on her body. If she could just get to the water, everything would disappear.
It’s grand to have someone like you!
Father’s Day, Brooke always came to see him. Her own father was some stooge who never paid child support and thought parenting was taking her for an ice cream at McDonald’s once a year. He could go to hell. Brooke’s mother was his damn daughter and she wasn’t any better. Yelled at the poor thing, even pinched her sometimes. He saw the bruises, little moon-like marks, on her see-through skin. Made him want to smack his daughter like he used to do when she snuck cookies from the tray before Sunday supper. She blamed herself for Brooke’s autism, he knew, but he’d heard enough excuses in his lifetime. He neither scolded nor indulged Brooke. Instead, every June he’d order a Cookie Puss Cake from Carvel up the block, get some flowers and balloons from Steve over at Petite II, and scrub the kitchen table clean so he and Brooke could play Spades for hours. He’d created the Big Bopper just for her, the one card that trumped the others for no other reason other than his scribbly handwriting said so, and he always slipped it into her hand so she could win.
Tired of being an oyster, she decided to try life as a pearl.
Sometimes there’d be kids smoking weed in a parked car in front of the house across the street from Lou’s. That’s what you were supposed to be doing at 3 o’clock in the morning in this town. Fuck, that’s what Jenny used to do. She could usually smell the stank as soon as she turned onto Shelter Lane. Tonight it wasn’t there so she could slip in and out. She was tired from her shift at the alley. Tournament night. Her calves hurt. She’d chosen a pink envelope for this one. Inside, “I saw her.”
My, how time flies!
The cards were starting to take up too much space in his house. Why anyone would spend all this money at CVS made no sense. Much better things to spend money on. Cable TV. A seat cushion that actually worked. He shoved the cards into a square cooler bag that used to keep coldcuts when he and Margaret would go for picnics at Eisenhower park. He sat the bag on top of the garbage pail in the kitchen. It wobbled on the round cover, unsure if it wanted to fall to the ground or stay put. Brooke had wanted to sleep over Lou’s that night. Left a message on his answering machine saying she’d bring a box of linzer tarts from Dortoni’s, his favorite, and the movie Finding Dory. He hadn’t returned her phone call, hadn’t even had the energy to tell her no. His back had been hurting him and he hadn’t been sleeping much and all he wanted was to down a bottle of Vicodin Joe had given him. Dingbat was good for something, at least. He’d taken a few pills and had the best sleep he’d had since Margaret died and woke up to the phone ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing. The cooler bag fell. He threw it in the garbage. To hell with it.
Go with the flow on the big five-oh
It had started out as the kind of night Jenny wished happened every Friday. Jim, one of the regulars, rented out the whole bowling alley for his 50th. Told her and the snack bar lady to order a pitcher of beer whenever they damn well felt like taking a break. The schmucks he’d invited couldn’t keep their hands off her and after a short while the black of her jeans started turning white from all the rosin handprints on her body. So she downed a pitcher of Coors. Got up and went outside for a smoke and ended up taking some guy’s small cock in her mouth against the side of the building underneath a neon Blue Moon sign. Dizzy, she called Laura to pick her up because she was a good friend to her like that. Jenny let Laura in on the pitcher deal and the next thing she knew they were cruising down Hempstead Turnpike, windows down and Z100 blaring. This was what it was like to have zero fucks to give. There was a bump, a scream. “Oh my god! Did I just hit something?” Laura said. This was no time to slow down and look. “No,” she’d told her. “Keep on going.”
If life’s a journey, I want a window seat… and free cocktails!
There was a cheapo size of Fireball on the mat. The size you could sneak in your bag on airplanes back when there was none of this Muslim nonsense and security didn’t give two hooters. He’d grown a taste for whiskey as Margaret was slipping away to Alzheimer’s. For the first time in decades, their marriage had felt fresh. He could be fresh with the waitresses at Carmela’s and she wouldn’t remember the next day. He could pretend he wasn’t just an ambulance driver in the war, instead telling her stories about breaking in and out of Nazi death camps. He could put the butter knife he used to cut French toast in the morning near her throat, joking, and she would laugh. The whiskey helped. Since she moved out to the cemetery and that dingbat Joe moved in upstairs he’d stopped drinking and started composting, obsessively, spending all his time in the backyard tossing tea bags and grass clippings into a pile. There was a blank card next to the Fireball. “Meet me tomorrow at the Bluegrass pool playground at three.” He would go. Only to tell this Scrooge that next time, there’d be better be a whole fifth at his door. He could sell it to Beverage Barn and make a quick buck.
Piece of cake
Things Jenny might say to Lou:
I have your smiley face card on my fridge.
She seemed like a sweet girl. So crazy, my favorite color is also yellow.
But you’re doing okay, right?
I can’t imagine what her mother is going through.
I almost kept that card with the pop-up dogwood tree for myself.
God, I hate this town.
You ever go bowling? Free games on me.
I was there that night.
If the seas were always calm, we would never build a better boat.
He could see her coming from a mile away. Knew it was her by the way she walked, all fast and twitchy. He’d been at Bluegrass for a short while, surrounded by women wiping up their kids’ ice cream slop from old man Cosmo who parked his truck outside the gate every day at three. She sat down next to him and reached into a paper bag of popcorn she pulled from her purse. Told him her name was Jenny. Offered him some popcorn. Said she wasn’t much of a day drinker and brought it instead of the Fireball. Cheapskate. He grabbed a handful of popcorn anyways and shoved it into his mouth. Too salty. A little girl flew down the slide. He and Brooke used to come to this park sometimes when she was younger. Jenny told him that she’d gotten stuck in the baby swing when she was 14, idiot idea of her idiot best friend. The fire department had to come. Brooke loved those swings. Called them buckets. The little girl crawled into a tunnel covered with graffiti. Jenny said she shouldn’t have listened to her friend. Lou nodded and said probably not. The sounds of cars whirred on Hempstead Turnpike just beyond La Panchita restaurant. Lou scooted closer to Jenny, leaned in. She smelled like vegetable oil. The lifeguard’s whistles zinged his ears. So. You saw her? Lou asked. The whiny little kid over by the bike rack stopped and looked. Jenny’s knees started bouncing up and down. Her feet tapped the ground. Popcorn, all over the bench and by his feet. She combed her fingers in her hair so hard, so fast, strands floated away. She started talking to herself, talking about God and how much of an idiot she was. He wanted to smack her, hold her, ask her if Brooke had said his name. Jenny got up and left. The girl came out of the tunnel and ran to her mother in a yellow bikini on the next bench over. The mother was licking a Nutty Buddy. The ice cream cone was half gone. Mom! the girl said. Why did you eat my ice cream? I hate you! The cicadas buzzed in the trees around them. Lou turned toward the woman. Kids never understand, he said. She’ll get over it. The mom would get the girl a new cone. Cosmo’s blue truck was still there. It would always be there.
Celeste Hamilton Dennis is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various literary journals including Entropy, Literary Orphans, Lunch Ticket, Gravel, Boston Accent Lit, and more. She’s currently working on a book of short stories connected by her hometown of Levittown, New York.