The crunching of gravel and the squeal of the old pickup’s brakes signaled that Arlene was home. Oh, thank God, he thought, she made it home. He glanced at the clock: two thirty-five in the morning. The bar was only five minutes from the backwoods Alabama trailer park they lived in; that meant she had gotten so drunk it had taken them at least twenty minutes to drag her out after closing time – give or take ten minutes, depending on whether she had gotten lost on the way home again, or whether she had shaved a few minutes off her commute y cutting through the neighbor’s property. They’d have to pay he Johnsons’ landscaping bill again if she had.
He pulled a beer can out of the refrigerator and, like a trained Labrador, waited by the screen door, holding the beer ready for his owner – wife, actually, but she may as well have been his owner. When Arlene called, Bobby came to heel, head bowed and eyes lowered, flinching at the slightest hint of impending rage from his mercurial wife.
Bobby and Arlene had been married for thirty-three years. Bobby had felt like such a lucky young man. He was short and slightly built, with a bulbous nose and acne-scarred skin. Arlene was tall and athletic, with a beauty and grace that had gotten her voted Homecoming Queen two years in a row. She had been so sweet and innocent at the time. He had gotten a decent job after graduation, working in a respectable bank – something that, looking back on it, may have contributed to her interest in him.
Life seemed perfect back then.
Over the years, Bobby had begun to wonder if he’d made a mistake. Sweet, innocent Arlene was nothing of the sort. After they were married her temper manifested more and more frequently. The drinking only made it worse.
Despite her obvious alcoholism and drug abuse, she blamed the miscarriages and stillbirths e’d had on Bobby. It was clear to Bobby that she thought there was something wrong with him to prevent the babies from carrying to term. “If it weren’t for your messed up sperm, I’d have a baby by now,” she had said on their fifth anniversary, just moments before throwing a vodka bottle at his head. He managed to duck, but not soon enough to avoid the shards of broken glass bouncing off the wall. He knew the cuts weren’t severe enough to warrant a trip to the hospital, but he would have to clean and bandage them.
That was the day before he got fired from the bank. The bank manager was sick and tired of Bobby showing up to work with bruises, stitches, and broken bones. Bobby never corrected his manager when he yelled at him for getting into too many bar fights.
Arlene never allowed him to share the bed with her after that.
Arlene refused to work, stating that it was the man’s job to provide for his wife. bby took whatever job he could find in order to make her happy, or as close as she ever came to being happy. Often he worked two or three different jobs at a time to support his wife’s alcohol habit, as well as a myriad of other vices, including marijuana, ecstasy, and even heroin. No one much cared if the janitor, construction worker, or mechanic looked beaten.
Paying bills became difficult. One day, in a fit of rage, Arlene shoved him off of the porch behind the trailer because their cable had been cut off. Bobby’s back cracked loudly when he landed. The surgeons had managed to preserve his ability to walk, but he was no longer able to work. Between that and the hospital bills, he would not be able to afford cable for a long time.
After that, they could barely afford to pay the rent on their small trailer in the park near the edge of town and to cover the most basic of groceries. Arlene’s drinking and drug use wasn’t affected by the drastic decrease in income, and he knew she must have been cheating on him by pimping herself out to her dealers. He should have left her. He should have packed his meager belongings, taken the pickup, and driven until he was sure Arlene would never find him again.
He should have. But he didn’t; he couldn’t.
He was jarred from his reminiscence by the sound of Arlene’s footsteps on the porch. She was taking longer than usual to walk from the pickup to the back door that night. He would have gone outside to check on her, but he learned long ago that pointing out her weaknesses would only lead to a black eye and a one-sided fight that would last well into the morning. Instead, he stood with her beer at the ready. From the sound of her retching and the vomit splashing on the wooden steps he knew she was nearly inside. Despite the pain she caused him throughout the years, his palms became sweaty and his heart fluttered in his chest s he waited for her to appear. Thirty-three years, and his body still reacted as though they were newlyweds.
She practically fell through the doorway when he opened the screen door for her.
“Dagnabbit, Bobby,” she slurred, “why’d’ya go and do that? could’a tripped an’ hurt my angle or somethin’.”
Before he could stammer a response, she snatched the beer out of his hand, popped the tab, and drank half of the can in one long swig.
“Did you have fun at the bar tonight, dear?”
The look she shot him chilled him to the bone. She attempted to crush the can with one hand nd heaved it in his direction, missing by a couple of feet. The can bounced off of the screen door as the beer sloshed onto the peeling linoleum. Despite the uncharacteristically weak toss, she nearly lost her balance with the motion. Bobby saw several fresh needle marks on her bare, skinny arms. Her hair was dull, thinning, and matted. Her teeth had become chipped and grey. The once-lustrous skin and eyes were now yellowed with jaundice.
“Forget the shtupid bar! D’you know they cut me off?! Me! I practic’ly pay their rent for them. Big ol’ jerks.” Her eyes glazed over as she looked around the small kitchen. “Where’sh the TV?” she asked.
Bobby frowned, because Arlene herself had sold the television two weeks ago to buy some ecstasy from one of her dealers. By that time she had long since stopped caring about the cable. “Don’t you remember, dear? We sold it.”
She grunted in response and stomped down the narrow hallway, bouncing back and forth off the walls. Bobby trailed after her.
“Arlene, what happened tonight?”
Crumpling to the ground next to the closet, she began sobbing with deep, hiccupping breaths. He wasn’t sure how to handle this. Arlene didn’t cry. Arlene yelled. Arlene screamed. Arlene punched and kicked and wailed. But Arlene didn’t cry. Not once in thirty-three years. He didn’t know if he should try to comfort her or if it would send her into a rage. After several minutes, he decided to risk it. Slowly, as if approaching an injured animal, he crouched down next to her and lightly laid his hand on her shoulder. Surprisingly, she leaned into it and covered his hand with her own.
“Danny gave me the AIDS, Bobby,” she whispered. “He said he’s had it goin’ on ten years now. Knew the whole time, never once told me ‘til last week.”
Bobby didn’t know what to say. He’d known that the drinking, sex, and drug use was detrimental to her health, but he had never considered the possibility that she would contract something serious from it. She was too tough, too strong.
She heaved a shuddering sigh and pulled herself up to a standing position, using the knob on the closet door for support. Bobby stood as well, preparing to catch her if she fell. She opened a drawer and began to dig through the wrinkled blouses that she never bothered to fold. Bobby thought she must have been looking for a clean shirt to change into, because the one she was wearing had vomit on it.
Her shoulders slumped and she leaned against the top of the dresser. “Went to the clinic today an’ got my test results. Doc says I got six months. Maybe a year, if’n I’m good. ‘S why I been gettin’ so damn thin. I’m so messed up Bobby. So messed up. I don’t s’pose you could make me a cup a’ coffee? Y’know, to relax me.”
Arlene never asked for coffee, but it was so ingrained into Bobby to follow her every command that he didn’t question the unusual request – or the fact that it was indeed a request, rather than an order. He turned around and headed back to the kitchen. It took a few minutes to find the coffee pot because it was so seldom used. He had just pulled it out from behind a stack of pots in the cupboard when he heard it.
A lone gunshot.
Dropping the coffee pot, Bobby ran to the bedroom, his heart pounding in his chest. He didn’t have a weak stomach, but the scene in front of him nearly caused him to lose his meager dinner. Arlene had shot herself. She’d done it right, too: barrel in her mouth, ensuring she wouldn’t flinch and miss. All that he loved about his Arlene was splattered on the bedroom wall.
He picked her up and cradled her body in his arms, rocking back and forth. He held her until sunrise.
Distantly, Bobby knew he should have been happy. Arlene had berated him every day for decades. She had cheated on him, stolen from him, and beaten him. She had long ago given up the right to be mourned. So why couldn’t he let her go?
The pistol was still in her hand. Bobby looked at the glinting metal weapon with something akin to desire. Arlene may have been his downfall, but she was still his first and only love.
Bobby gently uncurled her fingers from around the pistol grip and took the gun. He didn’t put it in his mouth as she had; he aimed it straight at his heart.
He held it there for several moments, surprised at his hesitation. Arlene had been the only woman he had ever loved and he had never been able to imagine life without her, yet he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. Yes, he had loved Arlene, but had she really loved him?
Slowly he lowered the gun to the floor and laid Arlene’s body down next to it. Thirty-three years. Thirty-three years of his life had been taken by this woman. He felt a weight lifting from his shoulders that he hadn’t even been aware he was carrying.
He may be old now–hairline receding, sagging skin, aching bones – but he was alive and, previous injuries aside, in relatively good health. For all he knew, he could have another thirty-three years left in him, or more. He had married the Homecoming Queen once. Maybe, just maybe, he could find a new queen.