“Why is this a thing that you own?”
My twin sister, Gretchen, looked up at me from her place on the couch and snickered at the kitschy mug I held in my hand. It was white with a red banner and read, “Keep Calm and Call Mom.” The irony was so heavy I could have taken a bite out of it.
“Got it in a Yankee Swap last Christmas,” she said, laying her head back down and closing her eyes.
She continued trying to doze off as I tossed the mug aside and grabbed another for my afternoon cup of coffee. Caffeine was one of my leftover vices, but luckily Gretchen had a pot on the counter, ready to go, 24/7. Once in college, she’d set her roommate’s curtains on fire by leaving her old auto-drip on too long without cleaning it. I poured myself a cup, hoping it was at least a little fresh, and kept it black. Both my sisters loaded theirs with extra extra, but the way I see it people who take cream and sugar are only pretending to like coffee. Gretchen calls me a “fucking snob” when I say that.
“So you’re coming to that thing tonight right?” Gretchen asked suddenly from what I thought was a deep sleep. She’d been bugging me to go for a month. One of her shitty friends from high school decided to use her fiancé’s million dollar home two towns over to throw an impromptu reunion.
“I have to work,” I said.
“No you fucking don’t,” she snapped. “Carol works the bar Saturday nights in the slow season, I’m not an idiot.” In the summer I usually tended bar at Mary Todd’s, one of two pubs downtown, on Saturday nights, but with all the college kids back in school for the fall they only needed one person serving.
“I’ve got shit to do,” I said with exhaustion, knowing I’d already lost the argument.
“What? You got a lot of ball-scratching and chain smoking to do?” she spat.
“Why do you need me to go? Call one of your annoying friends and make them go with you.” She sat up and gave me a fiery look with bottle green eyes that matched mine almost exactly.
“You need to get out of this house, Nate,” she said, using a serious tone that came out of her so infrequently it was alien.
“What the hell are you talking about? I was at the diner this morning.” When I wasn't bartending, I was a line cook at a greasy spoon down the street.
“That’s work, that doesn’t count.”
“Because dicking around in the kitchen with Anthony isn’t what a normal person would call a social life,” she growled, flicking her dyed red hair off her shoulders. One of my favorite things to do when we fought was to tell her our mother did that when she was mad too.
“And you’re the leading authority on normal, right Gret?” She shot me a dirty look that sort of melted into some concoction of sympathy and concern.
“Nate it’s been forever since I’ve seen you relax,” she said, standing up after an uncertain silence. “No one’s asking you to go into a club bathroom to snort coke. It’s just a couple of beers at Tonya's house. Everyone’s been asking where the hell you’ve been since you came back last year.” I looked down into my coffee and swished it around a bit so I wouldn’t have to look at her.
“Please just come for a little while,” she continued when I didn’t say anything. “If it sucks or you’re having a hard time you can leave and I won’t be a bitch about it.”
“I doubt that,” I said, rolling my eyes up to look at her. She knuckle punched me in the arm and I careened back against the cabinets, swearing and holding the dead spot.
“Are you going to come or do I have to give you a black eye too?” she shouted, unable to keep a smile from tickling the corners of her mouth.
“I can take you,” I yelled back, still nursing my arm.
“Not before I give you a black eye,” she pointed out. She wasn’t lying either; we’d scrapped so often as kids that our teachers thought we hated each other and used to separate us. Truth was, that’s just how we talked.
“Alright, fine.” She grinned as I caved, not wanting to sport a shiner for the rest of the week.
“Great, now change into something that doesn’t make you look homeless please,” she ordered me.
“Why? I look fine,” I said, tugging at my old hockey t-shirt and worn jeans.
“Because we’re not just hanging out with a bunch of drunk slobby men, there will be impressionable single women there to judge you.”
“I’m not dating anyone we went to high school with,” I said firmly. “Not a chance in hell.” She rolled her eyes and rubbed her forehead.
“Just change you pain in my ass,” she said. I sighed and grabbed up my smokes off the coffee table before heading upstairs.
“Hey, I was going to bum one of those!” she shouted up at me before I disappeared off the landing.
“That’s why I took them, buy your own friggin’ cigarettes!”
I had to run a few errands around town before Gretchen dragged me to Tonya’s party. I’d forgotten to grab my check at the end of my shift at the diner earlier and I wanted to grab it before Anthony gambled away the money he’d put away to pay me.
“You haven’t had enough of me yet today cucciolo?” Anthony boomed the second I stepped onto the linoleum. I was one of three people in the place and it looked like Anthony’s had been kicked back in a dusty folding chair watching the futbol game on his shitty little portable. You would’ve thought he was fresh off the boat from Sicily, but he was third generation and thought the act made him seem exotic.
“Yeah, that’s it Anthony,” I said, walking over and holding my hand out. He gave me a grin full of yellow teeth and began searching through the pockets of the greasy apron that was stretched tight over his gut.
“Oh bambino, I gave the check to Teresa,” he said, painting an exaggerated look of apology on his face that made him look like a circus clown. “You know how I lose things. I gave it to her to put somewhere safe for you.” His wife was by and far the more organized of the two, but my bet was that he’d pocketed it because he knew it would bounce anyway.
“Yeah okay,” I said irately. “I’ll come back for it tomorrow, but tell Teresa I need it.” He nodded and rattled off a handful of Italian gibberish that he picked up off a bottle of olive oil somewhere and I turned to leave.
“Hey buddy, back so soon?” I looked over and watched my old friend Gauge come in through the back door and throw the hot bags on the counter from whatever delivery he’d just come from. I spun back around and gave him a weird sort of handshake.
“Hey man, are you going to Tonya’s tonight?” he said with a grin I’d come to hate over our long history as friends. He was one of the many I’d gone to high school with that never left town.
“Yeah, Gret’s making me go,” I said with a shrug.
“That’s awesome! Sammie’s coming up from Hartford for the night, it’s going to be fucking epic,” he said. “Everyone keeps asking when you’re going to come and hang.” I nodded, wanting to blow him off and get a cigarette between my lips as soon as I could.
“Yeah, I’ve been pretty busy. Gotta help Gret with the rent, you know?”
“Yeah all this adult shit totally sucks right?” he said with a laugh that made him sound like he’d just instantly lost about 100 IQ points.
“Yeah…well I gotta run. Have to hit the packy before it closes,” I lied.
“Sweet yeah, see you later man.”
I left in a hurry, the sun sliding behind black silhouettes of trees. I hugged my flannel shirt around me and shivered against the freezing wind, which a month earlier might have been called a “nice breeze.” If nothing else, New England weather was always good if you needed something to bitch about.
“Fuck,” I breathed out in a cloud of steam, jumping into the cab of my ’94 Chevy truck. It reluctantly came to life and began blowing cold air in my face. I turned the heater knob down and put it into drive, knowing full well that the engine wouldn't heat up until I was already parked and done with it. The belt screeched as I pulled out of Anthony’s tiny parking lot and onto the main road.
Boynton was sharp with detail in the late autumn afternoon sun, not that there was ever too much to see. A few street lights dotted the way to the back acres while signs from Ace hardware and the John Deere repair store lit up the road to the highway. Anthony’s diner, an elementary school built in the 1970s, and a combination fire station, police station and town hall building were the rest of what made up the “downtown” area. A few shops came and went every so often, but the painfully obvious colonial setup of the town refused to change or grow any bigger.
I used to think I had to get out as soon as I could, never look back, like every other teenage cliché that ever lived. Turned out to be a really fucking stupid idea.
Gretchen and I lived off the main road in one half of a duplex. She’d gotten the place with an ex-boyfriend and almost starved trying to keep it after she had to throw him out. It wasn’t a dream home, and it had a pink toilet and bathtub, but we had our own bedrooms, which was more than I could say for the house we grew up in.
I pulled up behind her Jeep and walked up the driveway, thanking God it wasn’t late enough in the year for it to be slicked with ice already. I saw Gret through the kitchen window, and someone else sitting with their back to me across the table from her.
A wall of perfume hit me as soon as I crossed the threshold, chokingly sweet and fruity like a bad vodka cocktail. I walked up the small hallway and into the kitchen, not at all surprised to see Gret’s old friend Ronnie.
“Nate the great!” she squeaked, hopping out of her chair and wrapping her arms around me. Ronnie always made me feel like a giant even though I wasn’t quite 6 feet tall. She was 5”2’ and I’d put money on her being under 100 pounds, if her chest didn’t look like it was a good 50 on its own. I gave her a strange sort of one-armed hug, her head barely reaching the middle of my chest, and let her sit back down and calm herself.
“Ronnie got a night off from the baby and she's hitching a ride with us to Tonya’s,” Gretchen explained, a smile playing along her lips as she read the annoyance all over my face. Ronnie had a six-year-old son with some serious behavioral issues, which mostly stemmed from the fact that Ronnie should have definitely used a condom.
“Oh, good,” I said as sincerely as I could. “And which one of us is driving?” I eyed my sister knowingly. The two of them would be wrecked within thirty minutes of walking in, Ronnie would not-so-subtly hit on me all night, and I’d be dragging their sloppy asses back to the car at 2AM.
“Oh, I thought you would want to, you said something about wanting to test out that chirping noise coming from my engine,” she said. “I figured a drive to Mullbury was a perfect length for it.”
“Uh-huh,” I muttered, turning to dump out the old coffee in the pot. I could almost see her giving Ronnie a look and snickering while my back was to them. Bitches thought they were so damn clever.
"Let's get on the road," Ronnie squeaked." Jason's got the baby until tomorrow afternoon, I want to get hammered!" I nodded, surprised that she'd gotten the baby daddy away from his Xbox for that long.
Gretchen threw me the keys and we headed for the Jeep, a deep unease settling in my gut.