Half a Bloody Mary
a short story by Janet Ference
It takes two hands and an ‘oof’ for Rebecca’s best friend, Kathleen, to haul open the huge, creaking trunk lid of her ’76 Impala. The clunker is only halfway reclaimed from the rust of forty Minnesota winters, and the trunk is pocked with holes, so the mysterious contents are damp and musty.
Rebecca shivers and wraps her arms tightly around herself. Summoned outside by Kathleen, she’d hurried to the carport without grabbing a coat. A stinging wind is blowing up her bathrobe, and rain is slicing sideways at her slippered feet.
She’d dearly love to slam the lid on this whole weird business and go in the house, but Kathleen is holding firm and insisting she take a look under the piles of old Army blankets in the trunk of that car.
Peeking between the layers of ratty green wool, Rebecca swallows hard before she speaks. “My God, I thought you had a dead body in here.”
“All of it.”
Rebecca is still staring at the blankets. “People do that. Roll up bodies. It happens.”
“Are you even listening to me, Becca?”
“Sure. All of what?”
“It’s every single bottle of booze I own, the whole liquor cabinet, plus the wine, all the wine on my rack, and the stuff from the hall closet, too. It’s all there. I need you to help me dump it down the drain.”
Rebecca recoils several steps back from her friend. “Hey, no. That’s not mop water you’ve got there.” Peeking again, she asks, “Even the Maker’s Mark?”
“You want it? Keep it.” Kathleen is sounding kind of shrill, and Rebecca thinks she might be crying. Or maybe it’s the rain. It’s hard to tell in this hellacious weather.
“Honey, Kath, relax.”
Kathleen throws up her hands and lets the trunk bang shut. “Relax?” She’s shouting loud enough to wake God. “I woke up in a lawn chair on I-don’t-know-who-the hell’s-lawn. Over on Trent Street. Trent, Becca. What the hell was I doing on Trent?”
Rebecca reaches out a hand. “Come inside. You need a drink.”
“Drink?” Kathleen shrieks, like she’s suddenly allergic to hair of the dog.
Kathleen feels crazy sick. This is not just any old hangover. Her head is spinning. Her eyes are blurry. Her neck is throbbing. Her feet are stamping the ground. Her hands are curling into fists. She punches her own leg, so that she won’t hit Rebecca. “I should go home,” she says, but she stands her ground instead.
Then she sees Rebecca shaking like mad, and she figures out the woman is cold. They’re out here in the freezing rain. The woman’s bunny slippers are getting soaked. Her brain is probably frozen stiff. So Kathleen decides she’s going to forgive Rebecca for being an idiot. The woman isn’t a mean person. She’ll see her mistake in a minute.
Kathleen waits for Rebecca to apologize. The woman isn’t saying a word, though, and that’s strange. She’s home alone all day long while her kids are at school. She usually blabs nonstop about everything and nothing.
“Are you just going to stand there staring at me?” Kathleen says. She hears her tone of voice, and it’s not cool, so she tries again, more softly. “Damn, Rebecca. Don’t look at me like that.”
“You’re acting peculiar.”
Kathleen cocks her head and squints her eyes. “Me? You think it’s me?”
“No one does that. A carload of perfectly good liquor. Must be hundreds of dollars’ worth there, am I right? You’re not a billionaire, Kathleen.”
No, Kathleen is not rich. This makes her think twice. A lot of hard-earned tips went into that stockpile. Maybe Rebecca is right.
“You keep it. All of it. I mean it,” Kathleen says.
“Don’t be silly. Where would I put it?”
That’s a good question. Kathleen is stumped by it. She knows the woman has plenty of booze of her own.
Kathleen is icy cold from head to toe, too. Her coat is drenched. Her boots are leaking. She forgot to wear a hat. She always wears a hat. On a day like this, she ought to have her black leather cowboy hat. She wishes she had that hat. Suddenly, she thinks she might be crying, but she can’t be. She doesn’t cry. Only ridiculous women cry. Kathleen is not a ridiculous woman. She has scars.
“My head is not right,” Kathleen says, mostly to herself, but she can see that Rebecca hears it.
“Okay, Kathleen. Come inside now,” Rebecca says. The woman is making that face she makes, like she’s talking to a kid with a firecracker he’s not supposed to have. Motherhood has made her look cranky half the time. It seems like years since Rebecca has looked really happy. Before the kids, she was a hoot. She tended bar at the jazz club where Kathleen works. They kicked around town together at night. Now all they do is hang out at Rebecca’s house in the daytime, and there’s kid stuff everywhere there. It’s like they’re living in a movie about normal women.
Rebecca manages to lead her friend into the house, where she discovers Kathleen is still wearing her waitress uniform from the club. It’s ten o’clock in the morning, and Kathleen’s shift ends at midnight. Rebecca tries to piece this thing together. “So, honey, have you been home?”
“Hell, Becca, I loaded up the car, didn’t I?”
Rebecca is ticking things off on her fingers as she says, “So, you got drunk, you got lost, you woke up, you got home, then you just loaded up the car with all your booze?”
“Hell if I know how the night went down. I must have blacked out. I don’t remember a damn thing after leaving work, not till I woke up in a broken-down lawn chair. At least it wasn’t raining then, just the god-awful sun in my eyes. I had to drag myself out to the street to see where I was. Thank God my car was parked within eyeshot.”
Rebecca pats her friend’s shoulder. “These things happen.” It’s never happened to Rebecca, but she knows how it is.
“The worst thing is, it looks like I had sex at some point with somebody.”
The sex part is not exactly shocking, knowing her friend, but Rebecca understands that it’s disturbing to black out and not remember who it was. Nobody likes to do that. “Honey, it will come to you,” she says. She tries to give her friend a hug, but Kathleen bristles and steps away from her. So Rebecca walks off toward her bedroom to get some dry clothes. Over her shoulder, she says, “Come on.”
It isn’t easy, but she convinces Kathleen to change into a warm sweat suit while she does. It’s like working with a petulant child who doesn’t like how she thinks she’s going to look to the other kids at school. The sweat suit swallows Kathleen whole. It annoys Rebecca to be reminded that she’s gained a lot of weight herself. Kathleen has the figure of a fashion model, but Rebecca has always tried to overlook that flaw in her otherwise great friend.
The next thing she knows, Kathleen is sitting smack dab in front of a Bloody Mary. She’s at the kitchen table, across from Rebecca, having drinks, just like always. This is the last place she needs to be right now, but she can’t get her butt out of the chair.
Kathleen stares at the drink, but she doesn’t touch it. The glass is sitting on a bright green holly leaf placemat, and it’s sweating sparkling drops of water onto the plastic. Rebecca has used the Absolut, not the Smirnoff. Kathleen traces a holly berry with her finger. She pouts, “They said. It’s not my idea. They said.”
“Who said?” Rebecca looks confused. “Kath, your hands are shaking, honey.”
Kathleen watches Rebecca toying with her own glass. It would be easier to watch if the woman would just go ahead and drink it.
“When I called the number. You know.”
“AA. Okay? I called AA this morning.”
Rebecca whips her head around like somebody just slapped her. Kathleen isn’t very surprised. After all, AA is for those other people, not tough women like them. Rebecca pulls her hands away from the table. “You are not a drunk, Kathleen,” she says.
“I got fired.” Kathleen’s mouth is stone dry, and her voice is hoarse. “I’ve been working at that club for 15 years. I started when I was a baby girl, all of 19.” She has no idea what she’ll do now. “I do remember getting fired. That part is clear. It was early, maybe nine o’clock. We were dead slow. You know Tuesdays. I was just passing the time, Becca. Nothing special. Had a few, sure. Got myself canned for talking back to a groper. I know better. You know I do. The guy got all high and mighty. Claimed he didn’t do anything. Boss said I was drunk.”
“Everybody drinks at that club,” Rebecca says, like that’s all she got out of the story.
Kathleen puts her hand around her glass and squeezes it. A flash of heat like fever rushes to her cheeks. “Sloppy drunk. He said I was sloppy drunk, Becca.”
It’s a jolt to see Rebecca take a gulp of her drink. Kathleen stares at the woman.
Rebecca holds her glass up in the air and says, “You like to drink. Sometimes you get drunk. That doesn’t make you a capital D drunk.”
Kathleen lifts her glass and shifts it to her other hand. She passes it back and forth from one hand to the other, gazing at its blood red swirl. Rebecca has topped it with a sprig of dill. Kathleen places the glass back down on the table and plucks the dill from the drink. She holds it to her closed lips. Her tongue is dancing in her mouth. She wants really badly to lick the red booze from that bitter sprig of green.
Rebecca watches her friend play with her drink. It’s disturbing to see Kathleen so unsure of herself. She is Rebecca’s rock. Kathleen stood by her through a miserable marriage and ugly divorce. It was Kathleen who helped her get the restraining order when she’d finally had enough of being pummeled in front of the kids.
“Just drink it, for God’s sake,” Rebecca says. “It will clear your head.”
Instead Kathleen rips the dill to bits in her fingers. With glazed eyes, she says, “You are such a bitch.”
That’s all it takes to get Rebecca up from her seat. No one is going to call her a bitch in her own kitchen, not even Kathleen. “It’s time for you to go,” she says.
Rebecca waits, but Kathleen doesn’t move. She seems to be mesmerized by the drink.
After an uneasy moment, Rebecca sits back down and faces Kathleen across the table. “Honey, it’s just that you really need to calm down. The drink would help. You know it would help.”
Kathleen has had it. She stands and smacks the table. The drink sloshes over the side of the glass and spills blood red booze across the holly berries. She says, “I can’t believe you’re acting like this. What kind of a friend are you?”
She doesn’t get an answer. Instead, Rebecca slowly takes a napkin to the spill. She’s wiping it around in circles, not wiping it up, and it’s making Kathleen dizzy.
Without looking up, Rebecca finally asks, “What do you want from me?”
Kathleen belts out, “Help.” Then she whispers, “Just help.” It feels like the floor is swaying under her feet.
“Sit down. Come on, sit,” Rebecca barks. The woman is pulling out her mean bartender voice, the one that stops fights.
“I can’t,” Kathleen says, trying hard to keep her balance.
“Oh, for God’s sake, a half a Bloody Mary can’t hurt.”
Kathleen is sure something is cracking to pieces. It’s like an earthquake. There’s roaring in her head. “I can’t be here,” she says to herself. She runs to the door, but Rebecca jumps up to stop her.
“Where are you going?” Rebecca shouts. She’s trying to grab Kathleen’s arm.
There’s no time for this. Kathleen slaps Rebecca. It’s a loud, hard hit.
Rebecca backs away into a corner. She raises her arms in front of her face, like she’s afraid of Kathleen. “Get out of my house,” she hisses. This isn’t Rebecca the bartender. This is Rebecca the battered wife, and she’s treating Kathleen like the bad guy here.
Kathleen grabs the doorknob to steady herself. The room is upside down now. “I would never hurt you,” Kathleen says, cringing because she knows that she just did. “Don’t be crazy, Becca.”
Rebecca doesn’t even recognize Kathleen like this. Her friend is crying noisily, and she never breaks down like that. It’s as though Kathleen has been hit, not Rebecca. There’s no telling what this Kathleen might do next. Rebecca straightens up and looks directly at her. “I need you to leave my house, Kathleen.”
“Is that all you can say?”
“You need to go.”
Kathleen drops her head, like a bad dog.
Rebecca watches her best friend go out the door into the freezing rain without a coat or shoes. She holds her breath, afraid Kathleen will come back, until she hears that god-awful car start. Then she realizes she’s quaking in the corner like a child. Kathleen has reduced her to this.
As the dinosaur outside rumbles away, Rebecca settles her shaking bones back into a chair at the table. She pours one drink into the other, so as not to waste it, and she steadies her nerves by chugging it.
While she mixes another one, she tries to think when it was that Kathleen became a drunk.
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