The sound of the screen door slapping shut told me Dennis was home early and something terrible must have happened. Anymore he worked twelve hour shifts at the state hospital even though they said nobody was supposed to get overtime officially. I figured some inmate in the Bigg’s building where they keep the criminally insane had stabbed or choked one of their own out or had maybe cold-cocked someone on staff. It happens. It ain’t like that Jack Nicholson movie with the big Indian anymore. There’s a strict no retaliation policy so when there’s an altercation Dennis and everyone else comes running and piles on the individual in question. It’s dangerous but Dennis is big, he’s also laid back, so he rarely has problems with the guests. He likes them and they like him too for the most part.
“What’s wrong?” I say. “What happened?”
“Mason killed the new guy.”
“Oh shit,” I say. “The one that killed that couple down in Cote Sans Dessein?”
“Yeah,” he says. “The one I told you about. They locked ‘em down and sent all non-essential staff home. So here I sit, non-essential.”
“Oh my God. Sit down and I’ll fix you a cup of coffee.”
“Give me a beer instead, honey.” He flops down heavily in his chair at the table and I can see his hands shaking a little bit. He takes out a home-rolled cigarette and lights it with a lighter that says “Git-er-done” on the side. Things have been going wrong left and right here lately. Someone had stolen our four-wheeler and then someone shot our dog Snoop. We had a strong suspicion it was one of the Dent boys down the road. They were always shooting things up and any animal that appeared on their land was considered fair game. To make matters worse Dennis’s ex-wife, Dody, had been diagnosed with liver cancer and died within weeks of the diagnosis. The kids had been crushed. They were grown up but they still seemed like kids to me.
“What happened now?” I slip the can of the good stuff into a foam coolie before handing it to him.
“I had to cold-cock Mason just to get him off that scrawny fucker, but it was too late.” For a big guy he was always sensitive about having to get rough with people, but he was tough when someone got him riled up. The Monroes were known for being mean, downright dirty, in a fight.
He had known Mason Belfleur since they went to a one-room schoolhouse together just down the road from here back in the ‘50s. He put the lighter down between the cellophane and the pack and then replaced it in his shirt pocket underneath his whites. He was smoking fewer cigarettes these days mainly because the State had a no-smoking policy that was nothing short of militant. Dennis like to say he served his time in the Army during Vietnam and ought to goddamn good and well be able to have a smoke, but we were getting to be dinosaurs and between Bush and Obama—the country was going to shit. That’s exactly how he said it too. He didn’t care about being PC nor Republican or Democrats either—no matter what they said they were still both politicians at the end of the day. I used to clean houses years ago for the former governor and some other big shits when I worked for Merry Maids. I can tell you who they’re out for and it ain’t you and me.
“The hell of it is I might lose my job over hitting him even though it was called for. Even Daryl Albright said I had to do it. Besides that, that smart ass son-of-a-bitch had it coming too. It’s like he wanted someone to kill him so he wouldn’t have to face what he done. I’ll tell you another thing—he was no more crazy than you or I.”
“If Daryl said that then you should be okay. Try not to worry too much.”
Daryl is Dennis’s boss. He’s a hearty red-headed good ole boy at heart that used to stop by the nursing home (that’s what I call our house) plenty back in his honky-tonkin days. He’d come by high on coke, crank, or whatever he could shove up his nose and drunk besides, and tell us he was trying to keep it between the ditches. Everyone used to come by the nursing home back then but that was before it was the nursing home. Dennis’s boy Roddy used to live upstairs until he moved out after he got his certificate from the plumbing tech school. Dennis’s daughter, Bonnie, left when she married her high school sweetheart and now they had two kids and worked on opposite shifts at the Nuclear plant. My son, Trenton, is grown and teaches high school English—the Monroe’s don’t know how to take him. He uses big words and can be condescending sometimes as if we were all Freshmen in one of his classes—I tell him not to be such a shitass sometimes. For years after Dennis’s wife left him with the kids all the hard-drinking partiers knew Dennis and used his place as a rest stop to sober up before heading home to the girlfriend or wife. I didn’t mind so much at first because they had all been coming here for years and I was the newby then.
Like I say, I call it the nursing home but that ain’t exactly right. We live here with my sister and Dennis’s Daddy. Between the four of us we’ve got nearly 275 years of experience. It’s my husband’s old family farm house. It’s been in the Monroe family since the 1800s. There’s a history here that you can feel. Even though he’s my fifth husband there’s something about him that reminds me of Daddy in a good way. The place makes me remember when I was girl, after Mama died when I was a little girl giving birth to Trent, and we used to stay out on the farm with Grandma and Grandpa Wolfner. I have a little garden I like to work in when I come home from waiting tables at Aunty Em’s over the lunch hour and on the weekends. It’s just a part-time job to keep us in groceries. The State job has all our benefits and that’s why Dennis worries about losing it. A few years ago he lost his job as Shop Foreman with the Ford Dealership. The new owners tried to run it like a big city dealership, starting pushing customers to replace things that didn’t need replacing, until the dealership went belly up. He had worked there for almost twenty-five years and he was worried history might repeat itself.
“Here now, Nadine,” Pa is calling from his bedroom. He’s shuffling toward us with his canes. We’ve convinced him to go to two canes which he’s agreed is better than a walker. He can’t hardly see or walk but he’s still proud. Everyone respected him when he was young. His wife, Abigail, of sixty-five years died in the nursing home last year and we let him stay with us when she was in the hospice. He was a trucker for years and hauled everything, but mainly livestock. He remembers facts like the price of beef during the Kennedy administration which he blames for most everything. Kennedy didn’t care about people here in this part of the country! He missed getting sent overseas by two weeks shortly before the end of World War II. He liked to tell you his daddy told him stories about Jesse James teaching school just down the road.
“Mason killed that guy who went on the shooting spree,” I say.
“Huh? Mason Belfleur at the crazy house?”
After I make Pa a liverwurst sandwich I get Dennis to sit with me under the oak trees near the garden. I know he’s still upset about what happened. We watch the calm surface of the lake. The sun is reflecting off the surface like it’s a mirror and like some kind of apocalpse ain’t on its way.
I used to go to church. It was one of those non-denominational holy roller types. They were always talking about Jesus coming back and how we’d all disappear in the twinkling of an eye. I believed it then and I still do now but I personally believe the Lord is much more forgiving than the preacher says. The frogs were gulping down at the lake like they don’t know the end is nigh. The cicadas are buzzing in the trees with one thing on their minds like highly-sexed teenagers. I sit with Dennis until he gets a little tight and starts to relax with a little cooler full of beer while we watch the sun sink so low and the breeze makes goose flesh appear on my arm.
“It’s going to be all right,” I say. I don’t know if it’s true or not but just hearing someone say those words seems to work on him like a balm. I even stand up next to where he’s sitting on a lawnchair and pull his head into my lap and pet his hair for him until I felt the tears on my hand.