Martin stabs at the thin steak, burnt black at the edges. It’s leaving little pale red pools on the Styrofoam plate. The dishes are never done. The steaks are always done wrong. The laundry sits wrinkled on the dryer for days. What does she do around here? Knit long socks for the winter and watch sad shows about families reuniting. She feeds those cats. They get better treatment than Martin gets sometimes. She’s always cooing to them and bringing them new toys for him to step on when he goes to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
“All I want,” he starts and then gives up.
“What??” in her braying voice from the stove.
“Nothing,” and he drops the fork on the plate.
She was pretty once. Very pretty, otherwise he wouldn’t have married her. She didn’t have money or even a decent personality. But there was something about her that Martin couldn’t put away. If it was her lopsided smile or the way she could make him do what she wanted, he couldn’t remember anymore. Now he stares at her in that long, boring flower nightgown she’s always wearing. That sure gets cleaned and ironed in a rush, doesn’t it?
All Martin did wrong was get a good job. Well, it wasn’t actually that good a job but the hours were plentiful. A year later, he turned around to a fat wife and a messy house and a beer belly. All that money he was putting in the bank and this was what he had to show for it.
“Why don’t you shave more often? That mustache is irritating,” she says and sits down across from him at the table.
Martin looks up from his plate and unrests his head from his hand so he can look straight at her. There is still some beauty in her eyes; somehow she managed not to lose it completely.
“Maybe you should shave it for me. You don’t do much else around here.”
“Oh, Martin. I do plenty. Eat.”
“This? I’m cooking the steak next time; this is ruined.”
“The mashed potatoes are good,” and she puts her spoon at Martin, “Here, try.”
He sits back.
“Get that out of my face.”
She drops the spoon where it is and it hits the table between them, sending up tiny arcs of potatoes. Then she scoots back in her chair and picks up Martin’s plate. He does nothing but look at her, maybe she’ll re-cook it. She walks around the table and behind Martin, then she drops the plate into the squat plastic trash can.
“Enjoy,” and she sits back down in front of him.
Martins sits still and feels his face grow hot with anger.
“I planned on eating that. Now what am I gonna eat?”
“Well I offered you some mashed potatoes. They’re very good.”
Martin lunges up from the table and his chair slides and clatters back against the wall.
“That is it,” with his fists clenched.
Someone knocks at the door and his fists slacken and he turns his head at the door. So does she, then looks back at Martin.
“Martin, are you expecting anyone? Who is that?”
He pulls his chair back to the table and sits down with his arms crossed.
“You find out.”
Martha touches her curlers lightly on the way down the hallway to the front door. She really needs to take them out but now there’s someone at the door. Martin is such a coward these days. He wasn’t always like that; maybe he’s just “punishing” her by making her answer the door.
“I’ll show him,” she says, almost silently.
Through the peephole, all stretched and curved, is a pretty blonde in a white tank top and a leather jacket. It says something on the tank top but Ruby can’t read it from the hole. She unlocks and opens the door and the blonde smiles a sideways toothy grin.
“Aren’t you pretty,” Martha says.
“I bet you say that to all the ladies,” she says, her hands clasped behind her back, “Is the man of the house in?”
“Martin!” Martha yells.
“Yes, that’s the guy.”
The blonde puts her hand on Ruby’s chest and pushes her against the open door.
“Move, bitch. Get out the way ha-ha-ha,” and she strolls past.
Martha frowns and watches the blonde walk down the hallway. Her hips shift side to side just right under perfect blue jeans laid tight over a perfect butt. There are rips just under each butt cheek and her leather jacket is ill-fitting and frayed gray around the seams. She should eat more. Martha closes the door and follows her. She could lose all her weight and look like the pretty blonde if she wanted to. But why do that when Martin hadn’t done anything to deserve a pretty girl in a long time.
“Maaarrrtiiinnn,” the blonde sings, “Oh Maaarrrrtiiinnn,” and she slides her fingers down the credenza as she passes. Then she’s in the kitchen and Martha walks in with her and Martin looks up and squints a little.
“Well hello, Mr. Martin,” she says and bends over at him with her hands on her knees. He doesn’t respond.
“Martin, who is this?”
“I have no idea,” he says, not taking his eyes off of the blonde. She turns just her head and looks at Martha.
“Oh, you have no idea, do you? How rude of Martin to not introduce us.”
“I think you are the rude one,” and Martha puts her hands on her hips, “You should leave or I’ll call the cops.”
The blonde is upright now and she turns to Martha and matches her body language.
“That won’t be necessary, dear,” she says.
“You must have the wrong house. And I think you should leave,” Martin says, still not moving from the table.
“Well,” and the blonde pulls out a chair and sits on it side-saddle, “You could just give me the money and I’ll be on my way. Hell, you don’t even have to give me all of it, just a couple thou will do.”
“What money? You must be on drugs, lady.”
“What money, Martin?” from Martha.
The blonde laughs with her head back.
“Martin and Martha? That would be cute if it weren’t for the circumstances. You never told me her name was Martha.”
“I don’t know you.”
“Really, Martin?” and the blonde stands up, “You don’t remember fucking me on the love seat in there? Or right here under the kitchen table?”
“I think you should leave, lady.”
“I think you should stand up like a man, Martin. And stop calling me “lady.” Maybe I should tell her about the abortion.”
“Martha, she’s crazy. I swear I don’t have a clue what she’s on about.”
The blonde walks to Martha and puts her arm around her shoulder. Martha leans her head back and looks at her.
“You know, Martha. I don’t know how girls like me fall for guys like Martin. It must be that helpless quality he has. Like he can take care of himself for the most part but he still needs just a little help from the ladies. Does that sound like your Martin?”
Martha looks at Martin instead.
“I tried, Martin. I really did,” she says and her lips tremble.
“Well,” says the blonde and she lets go of Martha, “Sounds like you two have some catching up to do. I’m just gonna go freshen up a little bit. Talk amongst yourselves.”
She strolls around the corner and down the hall.
“Should we call the cops, Martin? What is going on?”
“I’ll get rid of her. Do not call the cops. She’s obviously some junkie.”
“What was that about an abortion? I don’t know if I believe you.”
“She’s insane. I’ll take care of this,” but still he sits at the table.
Ruby struts down the hallway, back towards the kitchen. The whole house smells like dirt and food. It’s almost enough to make her hungry but Chad is still waiting in the car. Martin’s briefcase was easy to find. Right under the bed next to his revolver. It’s a big one, has to be a Magnum. But Ruby never knew much in the way of guns. She turns the corner into the kitchen and sets down the briefcase and raises the gun and points it square at Martin’s face. The look that crosses it fills her heart with jubilance.
“Don’t,” he says, and raises his hands.
“Martin, do something,” and Martha backs up towards the wall.
Ruby thinks about the heartache after the abortion. She thinks about what her baby would be like these days. She thinks about Martin and his laziness and his lies. She was angry enough when she came in, maybe she doesn’t need to think about more stuff.
“Martin. A man who sits back and does nothing but expects everything brings bloodshed to the land through his pacifism. Understand?”
“Ruby, put the gun away,” says Martin, “We can fix this.”
“You do know who she is. You lied to me.”
“Yes, maybe you should apologize, Martin. That would be the right thing to do. And you don’t have much time to do it.”
“If I give you the money, will you go away and leave us alone?”
Ruby glares at him. Holding up the gun is starting to hurt her arm.
“You’re running out of “I’m sorry” time, Martin.”
“Please. Just don’t shoot me.”
“Oh, Martin. Like I’d put you out of your misery.”
She rotates her hips and points the gun at Martha instead. Before anyone can protest, she squeezes the trigger and the gun explodes in her hand and the walls seem to shake with it. Martha slams into the wall and red splashes out behind her head and her eyes go blank as she slides down to the floor. Martin gets up and kneels next to her heap. A tiny wisp of smoke rises from the barrel and Ruby drops it to the floor and steps over it towards Martin.
“Martha,” he says, almost silently.
She kneels down and puts her face an inch next to his. His eyes are as blank as Martha’s.
Then she whispers, “You know what they don’t tell you about abortions, Martin? All the stuff we read and hear about it and they never tell you how much it hurts. They don’t say anything about the disconnection you feel when it’s done. I lost something big when I rid myself of our child. You brought this on yourself,” and she stands up.
“That’s not all. My brother is waiting in the car. He called the police as soon as he heard the shot, they should be here shortly. And if I know you well enough, you went to the gun range today. You always go on Tuesdays. There are still powder burns on your hands from your shiny little gun. Enjoy explaining yourself; they always suspect the husband first.”
Martin doesn’t reply and Ruby backs off and turns back to the briefcase. She picks it up and carries it down the hallway towards the front door. She takes a deep breath and opens the door and walks out into the cool night. Chad looks asleep in the passenger seat. She opens the trunk and drops the briefcase in and lets the trunk shut by itself. Then she gets in the front seat and looks at her brother. He doesn’t move and his face is hidden behind a hoodie. The sirens begin in the distance.
“Was that the money?” from Chad, and it startles Ruby.
“You’re awake. Yes, it looked like all of it but I didn’t count.”
“Good. Let’s get out of town then.”
“Wonderful,” and she starts the car and pulls off of the curb and drives through a stop sign and punches the gas.
Although Stephen Conley doesn’t have anything currently published in print, an interview he conducted with author James Ellroy (http://chuckpalahniuk.net/interviews/authors/james-ellroy) will be published in a collection later this year. He also interviewed comic book writer Garth Ennis (http://chuckpalahniuk.net/interviews/comic-book-writers-artists/garth-ennis) for the same website.
Stephen attended a creative writing workshop in the fall of 2010 at Lonestar Montgomery College in Texas.
He also has two stories story published at Thunderdome.