Short Stories by Annie Joy

Gift with Purchase

She found the lipstick in her husband’s car. It was tucked between the seats, wrapped in some tissue. It was in a new case, and the lip print on the tissue was not her color. She leaned toward soft pinks and corals. The pursed lips that had blotted this tissue were scarlet. There were other smears of the color, too. It was as if a woman had blotted her lips, but then decided to wipe the lipstick off. To kiss somebody, perhaps.

She held the lipstick and tissue for a few moments. She tried to reason out why the lipstick might be there. His car was otherwise pristine, as was his office at work, his study at home, and his half of their walk-in closet. He complained about her messiness, and she had thought that his hesitation in letting her use his car while he was out of town was his fear that she would trash his car, that he would come home to find it looking like hers. While she had driven him to the airport, she had promised no food in the car, no soft drink cans to possibly drip on the buttery leather, no hangers or umbrellas that might scratch the upholstery. It was reasonable, wasn’t it, to agree to return his car to him in the condition he had left it, in exchange for the opportunity to take hers in for maintenance? So when she got in the car to drive home after work, she put her damp umbrella in her tote bag, rather than chance any damage to the car’s interior. And she had even turned her engagement ring setting to the inside of her hand, so that she wouldn’t scratch the leather as she fished for the seat belt . . which is why she found the lipstick. . .which belonged to some other woman.

She put the lipstick down and opened the glove compartment. She took out the contents and looked through them – proof of insurance, ownership manual, maintenance records. She popped the trunk, walked around and peered in. Nothing to see, really – emergency supplies, first-aid kit, spare tire and jack. She wasn’t surprised, really. He wouldn’t be that careless. Her finding the lipstick was a fluke.

She drove home in the drizzling rain with only the rhythm of the wipers to distract her thoughts. She forced herself to concentrate on the drive home and vowed to hold in her emotions until she knew for sure. She would start with his office, and went there from the garage, stopping only to remove her damp umbrella from her tote bag. She stood in the doorway and surveyed the room. She wanted to start throwing things, destroying the perfect order which defined him. She held herself in check. She would approach it methodically, returning everything to its place. In case she was wrong. Hope reigns eternal.

She went through his desk, looking at each piece of mail, through every file, at every receipt in his accounting book. She emptied each drawer, searching front to back, side to side for – what, she didn’t know. She replaced everything exactly as she found it, pens lined up perfectly in the tray, files lined up in precision order, papers stacked as they had been in the exact center of the polished surface. She checked the book shelves, scanning the titles to see if anything new or unusual had been added, like How to Cheat Without Getting Caught or Protecting Your Assets When the Partnership Goes Sour. She removed the cushions from the chairs and ran her hands along the upholstery. Nothing.

She went into their bedroom and lay on the bed in a fetal position. It couldn’t really be true, could it? He’d given her no other clue, really. She’d heard a couple of friends describe their husbands’ cheating. Both of the wives had been blind-sided; nothing had hinted at other women. But she had thought, as she listened, that her friends hadn’t really wanted to know. They had only faced it when the evidence was irrefutable. And she had felt so sorry for them for being so gullible.

She got up from the bed and started in on the closet. Not worrying, now, about returning his things to the perfect order that distinguished his side from hers, she took pants off their hangers and ran her hands through all the pockets before throwing them on the bed. She went through his suit coats and didn’t bother to rebutton them. She tossed his shoes out of the closet and rifled through his carefully pressed shirts. She got down on her hands and knees and felt along the floor of the closet. Nothing. Then she searched his drawers. She dumped everything out on the bed -- socks, underwear, pajamas, sweaters. She stirred them like soup; she kneaded them like bread dough. She lay on top of the mess and cried until she slept.

She dreamt that she was on the seashore and had found a bottle with a message in it. She broke the bottle and took out the message, started to read it, and woke with a start. The room was dark and the red numbers on the digital clock read 2:30. She switched on the lamp and thought how silly she was. He’d think she was silly, too, when she told him about it years from now. She’d call him, now, just to tell him she loved him, just to . . .

She called information and got the number, dialed and asked to be connected to his room. He answered, obviously awakened by the phone, and asked her if she realized what time is was, one hour later than her time. Yes, she apologized, she just wanted to tell him that she missed … she heard a toilet flush and then a soft whisper before dead silence, as if he had put his hand over the phone. He came back on and told her that he needed his sleep, that he had a presentation first thing in the morning. She said that she was sorry to have bothered him and that she’d see him when he got home.

She gathered all of his clothes and dumped them on his side of the closet. She tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t, and sat next to the window, waiting for morning She decided that she would go shopping when the stores opened – maybe shoes would do the trick. About a dozen pair. Expensive shoes, that she wouldn’t ordinarily buy.

It was still raining when she left the house, so she took her umbrella, the large one with the pointed metal tip. She tossed it to the back seat and let her hot coffee drip on the console when she got in. She stopped at a drive through and ordered a sausage bisquit and ate it hungrily, letting the crumbs scatter. She wadded up the wrapper and tossed it on the floor.

She waited until the stores opened and went to Dillard’s shoe department, their first customer of the day. She tried on sandals in citrus colors and pumps in neutrals. She looked at slides, at walking shoes, at flats and stilettos. She decided on eighteen pairs and asked the clerk to wait while she shopped in handbags. She found six, and brought them back to add to her pile. She paid for them by check from their joint account. While the clerk bagged them, she crossed the aisle to cosmetics. A sign caught her eye, “Gift with Purchase: -- Buy a mascara and receive our latest lipstick color as a gift.”

She read the sign again and flashed back six months to their anniversary. They had taken his car and he had waited outside while she went in for a watch battery. She had looked across the aisle that day, too, and had noticed another sign – this one offering a free lipstick with a foundation purchase. She had needed foundation and had bought it that night. She had taken the lipstick out in the car, applied it, and found it much too red. Scarlet. She had wiped it off and wrapped the tissue around it and . . .

The sales clerks rolled their eyes at the woman crying in the aisle. You just couldn’t please some people. Even with a free gift with purchase.

Wanda Jackson Day

Bythel found his teeth in the kitchen. It didn’t mean anything, he told himself. It was natural for an 80-year-old to have lapses. This time Molly’s need to go outside had distracted him. He could understand her inability to wait. Getting older was no walk in the park.

They were getting ready for Maud’s Wanda Jackson Day, the annual celebration of the town’s Rockabilly Queen. His daughter was driving in from the city and he hoped that she would go to the parade with him. It was a sad state of affairs when he saw his own daughter about as often as he saw Wanda Jackson. Connie’s rare visits were usually short and based upon something she had read about the elderly. But maybe she would stay a while this time.

Molly walked down the hall with him and jumped on the bed. He bent over and accepted her licks, then straightened the covers around her. A few yellow Lab hairs danced around and settled on the blanket where she lay. He rubbed her behind her ears and she waited while he put in his teeth, washed, and shaved.

He watched for Connie through the window and held his breath as she maneuvered the huge SUV into the small driveway. He hated SUVs, which had even invaded Maud, usually a haven for midsized sedans and well-used trucks. They seemed vaguely threatening, like alien tanks that would run you over if you drove too slow.

He went to the door and watched Connie come up the walk. She held her hand up to her face and he thought that she must have a toothache. Odd that her dentist husband hadn’t taken care of it. Then she lowered her hand and he saw that she had been talking into a tiny phone. Another one of those gadgets he detested. Who in hell needed to talk on the phone so much?

He noted that she looked good for someone in her fifties. Same blond hair, same tall, slim figure that she had inherited from her mother. But as she walked up the steps, he saw that her face looked odd. She looked stretched, somehow, like her skin was too tight for her face. He remembered that she had told him about her “little procedure” and he wondered why in blue blazes she would want to go around looking like she had been surprised in a wind tunnel.

She kissed him as she stepped into the house, explaining that she didn’t have much time. “I’m chair of the arts benefit this year. I need to be back by 11:30 to meet with the florist.”

He asked her to sit down, but she refused and backed off as Molly sniffed her legs. “Could you put her in the bedroom, Dad? This is really important and I need your full attention.” He muttered to himself as he led Molly down the hall. If it was that important, she could take the time to sit down.

When he came back, she was on the phone again. She hung up and took out a flat metal gizmo that fit into her hand and punched at it with a tiny pencil.

“Daddy, it’s about your driving. It’s time to give it up.” She stopped, as if she expected him to hand over his keys with no comment. When he didn’t respond, she continued. “You’ve had two accidents in the last six months, and Hammond says that it’ll be really expensive to insure you now.”

She had been talking to Hammond Russell, the pipsqueak insurance man who had worshipped her since they were in high school. The idiot still pined for her, after almost forty years, and she was using him to shore up her arguments against Bythel’s driving.

“The accidents I had didn’t amount to a hill of beans, and Hammond knows it. Anyway, it was his fault I ran the stop sign. He pulled up behind me in that SUV of his and honked at me. I thought he was going to run me over.”

“He honked because he thought you didn’t see the sign. You can’t blame him for the other accident because he wasn’t there. You ran up on the curb and flattened Miss Tilman’s rose bushes before you ran into her lawn furniture.”

“That hurt my car more than it did her stupid bushes and furniture. And I wouldn’t have hit them if she hadn’t had her sprinkler aimed the wrong way. The water hit my windshield and I couldn’t see where I was going.”

“Daddy, I really don’t have time to argue with you. You have to stop driving, and that’s all there is to it. I worry about you living here alone, but I’ll agree to it if you’ll promise not to drive. Otherwise, we’ll have to think about other arrangements.”

“Whoa, there gal! Don’t you go thinking that you’re in charge of my life. Molly and me are staying right here, whether I keep driving or not.”

She backed down a bit. “I’m not saying that you can’t stay here, Dad. I just need your promise that you won’t drive. And your keys.”

He was getting tired and Molly was whining from the bedroom. “Okay, I won’t drive.” He fetched the keys as he let Molly out.

“Don’t worry, Dad. Hammond said that he’d take you anywhere you need to go. Just call him.” She put his keys in her purse, kissed him, and went out the door.

He waved at her. “Like hell I will,” he muttered. “I think we can remember how to hotwire, can’t we Molly?”

They left the house and he stopped for a moment to look at the sky. Only a few clouds. They would be better off walking than trying to find a parking place. He could hotwire another day.

His first stop was the senior center. They weren’t normally open on Saturday, but today the women were preparing for a fund-raiser and would need help moving items to their booth down the street. Opal Moon met him at the door and he complimented her on her new majorette boots.

Opal raised one leg and shook it. “How do you like my red tassels? The boots are a birthday gift from my daughter. I was telling the family about marching in parades when I was a drum major in high school. Low and behold, at my party last week, here were these boots! Now, where am I going to wear majorette boots, at my age? I figured that today was as good a time as any. The family will be here and Margie Dee will see me and be satisfied that I wore them.”

“Well, I think they look real nice, Opal,” Bythel said as he took a box of doilies from the pile of sale items.

Opal patted his arm. “Why don’t you come and watch the parade with me, Bythel? I can probably get away from the booth for a few minutes.”

“We’ll see. But don’t wait for us, Opal. Molly and I are just going where the notion takes us today.”

He delivered the doilies and wandered over to a card table set up in the shade. He and Molly watched the domino game in progress and listened as Elmo Hayes described what had happened during his last post office visit.

“I was coming out and I noticed a car making a slow turn across the street. Thing was, I couldn’t see that anybody was driving! I just stood there, watching, while that car kept on going and jumped the curb and smashed into the dollar store’s plate glass window!”

Elmo took a drink of his Dr. Pepper and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “After the car stopped, I high-tailed it over there, and who do you think was driving that car? Hooter Marley’s coonhound! That dog had taken the car out of gear while Hooter was in the bank. Just about then, Hooter came out of the bank and I asked him if he knew his dog could drive. Hooter just grinned at me and said it was news to him that the dog knew anything at all, because he sure didn’t know beans from apple butter about hunting!”

Bythel joined in the laughter but he really didn’t think it was very funny that Hooter’s coonhound could drive and he couldn’t. He and Molly walked up the street to the Indian taco booth. He bought one and sat on the grass, sharing bits of meat with her.

Opal Moon approached him carrying her own Indian taco and asked if she could join them. He nodded and admired her agility as she lowered herself to the grass. “I’ll pay for this later, but I think Indian tacos are the best food in the world,” she said. When Molly sniffed at her plate, she asked, “Is it okay to give her a bit?”

“If she’ll let you get by with just a bit. She’s already had some of mine, but she’d eat all of yours too, if you’d give it to her.”

“Not much chance of that,” Opal said as she gave Molly a bit of meat from the taco. “Sorry, girl, but that’s all you’re getting from me.” She turned to Bythel. “Are you going to the parade?”

“I expect we will.”

“They’re lining up now. It’s not much fun watching a parade by yourself.”

Bythel gestured to the gathering crowd. “Not like we’d be by ourselves, would we Molly?”
Opal stood up and brushed off her skirt. “You know something, Bythel? You’re a real bonehead.” She turned and marched off, the red tassels bouncing on her majorette boots.

Bythel sat for a minute and scratched Molly’s ears. The fire engine siren started and he could hear the band’s snare drums in the distance. “Come on Molly,” he said. “I expect we’d better join the parade. We don’t want it to pass us by, do we?”

It started to sprinkle after the parade, so they started for home. Molly enjoyed the faster pace and didn’t seem to mind as the sprinkles turned to drops and then to a driving rain. Bythel allowed her to pull him along and focused on missing the puddles in the road. He didn’t notice Opal’s truck until it had pulled up beside him.

“How about a ride home?” she asked.

He shook his head and kept walking.

She pulled the truck over, got out, and marched toward him, red tassels flying. She blocked his way, talking to him through the pouring rain like a drill sergeant with a particularly stupid recruit.

“Now listen to me, Bythel Howard. I don’t have the hots for you, so you can just get that out of your mind. All I want is to be a friend to you, and you need a friend right now. That nitwit Hammond Russell is telling everybody that Connie took away your keys and that he’d be driving you around. Now, I know that you would never call Hammond for a ride, but it sounds like you shouldn’t be driving either. Do you remember that I didn’t drive when Walter was alive? Well, I learned how and now I love it, and I’m offering my services to you. As a friend. You think about that. As for me, I’m getting in the truck. The dye on my tassels is running.”

She got back into the truck and he stood for a moment, while Molly pulled on the leash. He went to the passenger side. “Is there room for a wet dog in here?” he asked.

“Sure is.”

“It’s hell getting older, don’t you think? They say that you just need to learn to let go.”

“That’s a bunch of bull, Bythel. You don’t need to let go. Now’s the time to hold on!” She pulled away from the curb, letting a few pieces of gravel fly in her wake.

“Hot Rodder!” he said.


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