Marla Benton had been on a bummer since her dealer cut her off. It was over the matter of her account and because bad word of mouth traveled fast among criminal middle-men, there were no other suppliers willing to do business with her either. She offered to pay for her pleasure in kind, but middle suburban businessmen weren't as eager to trade as their counterparts further out. No one wanted to sell to her, and they certainly didn't want what she was selling until the Nelson's moved in next door.
Marla met Kyle Nelson under somewhat strained circumstances. He and his friends were standing next to his mailbox late on a Monday night, waiting for the pizza guy and doing the world's worst cover of a Beastie Boy's tune when Marla came out and let her .38 Smith & Wesson do the introductions.
'Jesus! You missed my head by an inch!'
Marla cocked the gun again and kept it aimed at the mailbox, which now falsely advertised that the Nelson's resided at number two Westborough Road instead of twenty-two. 'Half an inch, actually, and if I’d aimed for your head, your friends would be holding it.
'You threatening me?'
Marla sighed and pulled the trigger, sending the other numeral flying past the boy's head and into a chestnut tree. She tucked the gun into the waistband of her pyjamas and smiled. 'What do you think, Ad-Rock?'
'Fair enough. Let's keep it down, okay guys?'
'Thank you.' Marla strode back into the house, eyeballed all the way.
She was still Jonesing the following morning and was, therefore, less than impressed when the boy paid her a visit. 'Shouldn't you be at school?'
'That's what the state says.' He held up a zip-lock bag. ‘Brought you a little peace offering.'
While it wouldn't provide anywhere near the relief her quaking system required, Marla was never so glad to see cheap weed, and with the truce official, the two neighbours sat down on Marla's couch to smoke the peace pipe.
'I can't believe you like rap music; I thought pot heads liked Marley or metal.'
Kyle shook his head. 'That's a stereotype. Back when my dad was smoking this stuff, they used to say all stoners were hippies. Same prejudice, different era.'
Marla laughed. 'What are you, the ambassador to weed town, uniting the masses, one hit at a time?'
Kyle took a huge hit and grinned from ear to ear. 'Maybe I am, little lady.'
'Show some respect, I'm old enough to be somebody's mother.'
Kyle edged closer and put an arm around her shoulder. 'Not my mother.'
Marla pulled his hand away. 'No, that would entail sleeping with your father, and I've seen your father. Where are your parents, anyway? Do they know you're here?
'They're visiting my grandma. Had any deliveries lately?'
'All those guys who never get past the front door; I figured they weren’t selling Avon.'
Marla gripped the couch. 'I don't suppose you'd be able to keep that to yourself?'
Kyle looked at her thoughtfully. 'Maybe...for the right price.'
'And what would that be?'
'Just because I like you, less than market value.'
Kyle put his hand on her thigh. 'Put it this way; I wouldn't make this offer to my mother.'
'How old are you?'
'Don't make me get my gun again.'
Marla took his hand and placed it on the bodice of her dress. 'It's this or nothing, Junior, and if you bump up the price, I'll make sure you don't have anything left to barter with down there, deal?'
Kyle stroked his imaginary goatee and thought it over a second or two. 'Deal.'
And so it transpired that twice a week, usually Mondays and Saturdays, Roma Nelson's pride and joy would visit his lonely neighbor to do 'chores.' The fact that her son never seemed to come back with any cash for his endeavors escaped Roma's notice; all she knew was that her boy had finally ditched that propensity for attracting the wrong company that had been an anvil around his neck since junior high, and seemed genuinely happy about it. She was so impressed that she announced her intention at dinner to make an effort to get to know the woman who had turned her son's life around. 'I think I'll invite her to the barbecue next Saturday, Harry.'
Harry Nelson, who had long since given up any pretense of caring about his wife's efforts at befriending everyone in town, grunted his approval to shut her up.
'Great. You can ask her when you're over there later, Kyle.'
Kyle had tweaked Marla's right breast until it was sore and was moving on to the left one when he remembered what his mother said. 'Ma wants you to come to our barbecue on Saturday.'
Marla slapped his hand mid-tweak. 'What for?'
'She thinks you're a good influence on me, what with me being such a productive citizen now.'
'You're sure she’s not onto us?'
Kyle nibbled her ear lobe, a recently negotiated clause in their contract. 'My mother? She's as sharp as a bald guy's scalp! Trust me, it's cool.'
The Nelson's barbecue had all the banality of any other backyard soiree - cheap but perfectly acceptable cuts of meat burned as if cooked by Lucifer himself, husbands and fathers getting just drunk enough to be able to enjoy each other's company, wives and mothers chatting blithely to other wives and mothers they couldn't stand, and kids roughhousing at a level just shy of killing one another. All that was missing was someone for each group to talk about months after the occasion was over. That was where the Marla came in.
Branded hot-to-trot by the husbands and fathers, dangerous by the wives and mothers, and either cool or scary, depending upon the age and gender of the neighborhood kid you were to talk to, to the residents of Westborough Road, Marla fit the role of talking point perfectly. As the newest family in town, each of the Nelsons was taken aside and briefed on her by a representative of each social set.
'I think she's here on witness protection. Probably informed on an ex- lover. Not one single family member has ever come to visit.' Suzanne Sheridan and her posse nodded as if this was confirmation enough of the woman's dicey history.
'The wife doesn't like her. Don't know why...she seems real friendly to me. Catch her smilin' at me a lot. The wife spits nails when I tell her that but hey, I'm not dead yet, right?' Bill Sheridan jabbed a fatty elbow into Harry Nelson's rib.
'She wears leather skirts...in the summer!' Thirteen-year-old Trina Sheridan, whose mother still dressed her like an eight-year-old, gushed.
'She's hot, I guess. I see her all the time at the video store. She smiles at me a lot,' shrugged Troy Sheridan, desperately trying to look cooler by association.
The subject of the scuttlebutt arrived late - fashionably or scandalously, depending on whose commentary you followed - and was baring gifts. 'Thanks so much for inviting me,' she said, setting down a cob salad, a tray of pork chops and a six pack of beer onto the table.
Roma Nelson flushed. 'It's our pleasure...ooh, that salad looks good! You really shouldn't have gone to all this trouble, though...'
'Honey,' Suzanne Sheridan grinned, 'when you're invited to a barbecue, you don't have to bring the whole damn kitchen!'
Marla flashed her brightest smile. 'I guess I was a little hazy on the etiquette, seeing as this is the only barbecue I’ve been invited to since I moved here.'
Roma patted Marla's hand. 'Well, I'm glad you came to mine, now, where is my son?'
She glanced around the backyard until she found him, standing under the lemon tree, talking to Hannah Collins. Both women waved at them. Only Hannah waved back.
Roma smiled. 'Such a lovely girl. They met at the Stonestreet's barbecue last week.'
By one o'clock, with the festivities in full swing, Kyle and the Collins girl giggling away, and Bill Sheridan's armpit almost swallowing Marla whole, she decided she'd had just about enough suburban hospitality for one day and feigned a headache. Roma put a hand on Marla's forehead which, fortunately enough, was burning.
She looked Marla in the eye and squeezed her hand. 'I'm so sorry.'
Marla thanked god there were still women like Roma left in the world and squeezed back. 'Nothing to be sorry about.'
Suzanne Sheridan watched Marla walk away, and managed to keep her mouth shut for a whole twenty seconds. 'What's with Miss America?'
'I'll bet she doesn't get too many of those.'
'Suzanne...' Bill took her arm.
'Oh, lighten up; it's not as if she heard me!'
'How'd you like someone to talk that way about you behind your back?'
'Not possible - I'm always within earshot.'
Kyle came up behind Roma. 'Hey, Ma.'
'Getting' a CD out of her Dad's car.'
'She's a cute girl.'
'I guess,' Kyle shrugged.
'You guess,' Roma rolled her eyes, 'Marla went home sick, could you do me a favor and go check on her?'
'Honey?' Roma called to his back.
Kyle turned, blowing a stray strand of hair out of his eyes. 'What?'
'Just don't make me a Grandma yet.'
'Jesus, Ma!' Kyle hopped the fence with a grin on his face and was still smiling when Marla opened the door.
'My, aren't we just bursting at the seams! Your little friend gone home?'
'And you came all the way over here to see how I was doing? I am honoured but, don't let me cramp your romantic style. Scoot back over there before she takes a fancy to the Sheridan boy.'
Kyle pushed his way in, shoved Marla against the wall and kissed her.