Susan Taylor Chehak

Honey

I had a good relationship with my husband. I did. We were married for almost forty-seven years before he died, and of course, it wasn’t always wine and roses, so to speak. But we weren’t the fighting kind, either. More like, we simmered. My marriage to Burton Dell was on a low boil from day one until he died, and it was mostly only alcohol that worked to turn the heat up high enough for that boil to roil and rise and bubble over into loud words, or even violence, but that was just at the beginning and even then only once in a blue moon. By the time all those years had passed and we came to the end, when he was ill and weak and had lost his voice and could hardly move without wincing, then that summer we’d gone flat and cold. Which meant that after he died, I really wasn’t all that much more lonesome than I’d ever been.

Pretty soon the last of the flowers people sent had wilted and dried up and died, including the potted crocus that was supposed to be a sign of spring, somehow blooming in the dead of winter, hope and color, like. I did what I could, but I’m no gardener, so there was nothing for it but to give up and feed them all to the trash. A pity, that.

Because see, I had cleaners coming to the house, so I felt I ought to get busy tidying up a bit, ahead of their arrival. Burton used to joke about how I’d do a thing like that—wash off the dishes before I put them in the dishwasher, say. He’d bring it up in front of other people, and you might think he meant it to be fond or funny or something, but it also functioned as a reprimand. As in: There she is, silly little Midge, Burton Dell’s silly little wife. At least that was what I thought everybody thought.

The agency I was using sent a young man and woman, a couple, I suppose, which was maybe a little out of the ordinary. Usually, it would be two girls together or just one woman on her own. This one called herself Jean, and she had long, dark hair and dark eyes and white skin. His name was Orrie and he was thin and rangy-looking, with acne scars and wiry brown hair. He might’ve been trash except he drove a fancy car, even in the snow we get up here. And her boots looked like they were expensive. Same with her coat. Lined with what could have been real fur. What are they doing cleaning houses, I remember wondering to myself.

I didn’t want to be in the way while they did their work, so I made up a reason to go out and timed it so that when I came back they were all finished and just leaving, packing up their equipment in the trunk of his fancy little car. I tipped them out of kindness, and they smiled at each other, so you’d think there was more to it than just business. The way he held the car door open for her. The way she laughed and looked at him. I held them there a little longer, making up some kind of conversation before I’d be left all on my own again. He was from a nearby town. She’d grown up in Pennsylvania. Her last name was Reindahl. She and Orrie each had rooms in houses on opposite sides of town, and now they were trying to find a place where they could live together in a more permanent way.

So that’s how it came around to me inviting them to stay down in the trailer. It was empty, after all. And I thought it might be nice for me to have some company on the property besides. Maybe I was about ready for that. And boy, were they grateful. So it seemed like a fine plan for everybody. Less than a week later, they moved in.

I think it was only two nights, maybe three, before it turned toward bad. I’d been taking consolation from the lights on down there, but that night it was dark and I was starting to worry a little bit when she called me from someplace, I don’t know where, but she was crying. I asked her what was wrong and she said nothing, she was all right, she was with a friend. I didn’t think to ask anything more about that. The friend, I mean. But she went on anyway, to tell me about how she was having some kind of trouble with Orrie. He was acting crazy, she said. He was overprotective and jealous and he was smothering her. She didn’t know what he might be going to do next. Sometimes he could lose his temper. Get violent even.

Of course, I understood. And without question, I took her side. I told her she should come back home right now and lock him out. She said she would do that, but then in the morning, there was a truck I’d never seen before parked out there beside the trailer, and Orrie came back about then too, and he couldn’t get in because she’d done what I said and locked him out. I watched while he circled around this way and that, trying to see in the windows, I guess, until finally he stopped and stood back and hauled off and kicked that flimsy trailer door in, smashing it to bits.

Turns out, Jean Reindahl was inside there with another man. That was the friend she’d mentioned, I guess. I couldn’t see what anybody was doing, but it didn’t matter because whatever it was, it was wrong and I couldn’t let it be, not in the little trailer that Burton and I called Honey. As in: Let’s have some honey in Honey tonight. And: Okay, honey, my honey.

But now there was this Orrie and Jean Reindahl and another one I didn’t even know, stomping around, breaking things like doors and windows and who knew what else.

I had no worry for my own safety at that time, no. These were kids after all, and I wasn’t afraid. I just put on my boots and went after them.

Burton always said: Don’t mess with that one. Where there’s honey there’s bees, and that one, she’s the queen. Meaning me. In the beginning, it was admiring, when our boys were young and running wild in the fields and the woods and I had to bring them in line or Burton would do something he’d regret later.

And yes, that other one was there all right. Not exactly just zipping up his pants or anything like that, but with his shirttails out and his hair all messed up, which might have been a style, I don’t know. He was calm anyway and just came on outside and nodded at me like he was tipping a hat and stood close to his truck smoking a cigarette, one of which he offered me and which I declined. That’s when I called 911. The woman told me to get out of there, but I couldn’t do that, so I just put the phone down and spent that time while we waited for the authorities to show up trying to talk some sense into Orrie and Jean.

He was already carrying some of his things out to his car, but it didn’t hold much. Jean was sloppy, hysterical, and I said, “Honey, the cops are on the way, and you need to get gone.”

Because she’d already told me about that DUI, so I knew she’d been in some kind of trouble before. Who hasn’t been, when you get right down to it? Burton always said I was too soft, but he’d have agreed with me on this, I’m pretty sure, because he’d had troubles of his own once upon a time too.

Then it comes to pass, I find out there’s a law here. The deputy told me. County sheriff’s deputy. Because we don’t live in town, see. I don’t, that is. I’m no longer a “we.” It was Burton’s idea that we should move out here. A little privacy, he said, and that sounded all right to me at the time. My mother and my sister tried telling me he was holding on too tight. Shaking their heads and whispering, looking at each other. A glance, a smirk. But they were just jealous, and I knew that. Green with it. His big arms around me. Nothing in the world is any safer than that. What did they know? So, None your business, I said. And: I’ve got my own self now.

That deputy explained it’s because of all those refugees we got. From here, there, and everywhere. Those black men in the grocery store. So black their skin is almost purple. Burton called them eggplants, and that was his joke that only I knew the meaning of. I saw one of the women on the street one time. Dead of winter and she’s all dressed up in gold and black and green and red, from head to toe, and her face shining and her chin high and walking practically barefoot through the snow. Who does she think she is? A mother or a wife, I expect.

It’s the refugees, the deputy said. He had his hands on his hips and he was looking down at me from his own on high.

What he was telling me was that I couldn’t just boot Jean Reindahl out into the street. There’s a law and it says that if you invite someone into your house and you tell them they can stay with you, even if it’s just a friend but especially if it isn’t, if it’s just somebody you maybe felt a little sorry for because they were on the street already and had no place else to go except your own living room couch or in this case your own little Honey trailer down the hill, then they had a right to stay as long as they wanted to, unless you went through the proper procedures to get them out. Which entailed filing an eviction notice that was going to take thirty days to process, and that was supposed to give that person the time to pack up and find someplace else to live.

But in those thirty days… What kind of a mess was that girl going to be able to make of my Honey? That’s what I wanted to know. And the deputy shuffled his feet and looked away and thought about it and then he said: Well, you could just ask her to leave. And then you could press criminal charges against that boy what broke into your trailer too, while you’re at it.

So that’s what I did. I mean I asked her. Saying: Honey, you’re going to have to go. You understand that, don’t you?

Tears welled up then because she’d had high hopes too. This arrangement was supposed to be a gift, for her and me both. That was what Honey was all about. It was supposed to be free. And it was meant to be used. But you had to show a little respect, that’s all. No such thing as a free lunch and all like that.

You need me! she said.

She was trying to argue her way around and out of it. Wiggling this way and that. Saying: You don’t want to do this, ma’am. Calling me ma’am.

And it was true. By that time Orrie was already gone, so now it would be just her staying on. Unless that other one moved in with her. She’d get the door fixed, she said. She’d clean the place up, make it nice like it was before.
And with all that she almost had me, she did. But I saw the earrings and the bracelet and the way her freckles marked her face, and I knew what was what. There would be no fooling me a second time with this one. So I stood my ground. I would not bend. I’d get her a storage locker in town where she could keep her things safe until she found another place to settle into. I’d be happy to pay for the locker myself. I wasn’t pushing her out into the street, but she was going to have to go, and that was that. I’d even get her a room at the Motel 6 for a couple of nights if that would help. And in the end, she agreed. She told me she’d move out of there by tomorrow night.
But then come the next morning, there she was, on her way out, going into town.

I told her: You’re supposed to be packing. You have to get organized. You have to clean up and go.

She said she had some business she had to take care of first. The business which turned out to be a meeting with her probation officer. That went back to the DUI, Jean explained. She’d been in jail, but only two nights. And it wasn’t her fault. The friends she’d been staying with then… Well, there was a party and one of them—a friend of a friend, a guy, she didn’t even know his name—he’d gotten fresh, and there was a struggle, and he knocked her down or he hit her, or I don’t know. Anyway she had to get away, so she took his car, and he called the cops, and they stopped her, and so that was that, see. Car theft and driving drunk, one on top of the other.

Did she expect me to give her a ride? No. She had a friend. He was on his way.

So I didn’t see that I had any choice. I let Jean Reindahl go off with that guy. I don’t know his name and I didn’t get a good look at him. Anyway, I figured I could give her the weekend, that would be all right; what could happen in two days anyway? As long as I kept an eye on her.

I had to run an errand myself then, so I thought it best to do that while Jean Reindahl was gone. Some groceries is all. Plus, I was out of the whiskey that I like to have a glass of before I go to bed. It helps me sleep, see. Maybe I was gone longer than I expected. Maybe I got tied up somewhere. I don’t think I have to explain my movements, do I?

At any rate, when I got back later, there was a new car parked outside Honey. This one was red. And a new man sat on the porch, smoking. Squinting up at me. Jean Reindahl was there too. I could hear her laughter rolling up the hill toward me. It was a beautiful day. Spring in the air and never mind the mud.

This new guy’s name was Roger. He was there to help her move. He was smiling. Gold tooth. A scar on his lip. And he said: She has rights too, you know.

So on Monday, when Jean was still there inside the Honey trailer and the red car was still where it was, I went into town to begin eviction proceedings. You tell me, what choice did I have? I wanted it to be amiable, I really did. And I know it was all my fault anyway. Everything was my fault. The politics, the state of the world, all of it. And Burton was laughing at the back of my mind, because of course: You are not that important, hon. In the grand scheme of things, you are nothing and no one.

The county courthouse sits on a hill, and men in suits and women in jackets and shirts and heels swarm in and out like ants on a hill, and everything is important, and it all means something to someone somewhere, I guess. A simple form. I could have filled it out in my sleep. But I took my time and asked questions of the clerk because he was tall and thin and nervous too, so I meant to make his day by giving him someone to help and something knowledgeable to say.

Back home again, I stood at my kitchen window and kept an eye on the Honey trailer. More young men came and went. One in a convertible. Another in a rusted truck. They stood in the yard and smoked and drank beer, and she played music, and when it was dark they lit candles and talked in low voices, words I couldn’t make out, and in the morning only one of the trucks was gone.

I didn’t know what she was doing or what she was thinking, but from what I could see, Jean Reindahl looked happy all right. Thirty days, though. And already there was yet another man who showed up. This one had a van. He seemed to me to be more solid than the others, somehow. He was older and he had dark hair and big teeth. I was at my window with the binoculars. He saw me watching, turned, and waved. I pretended not to see, but I wasn’t fooling anybody. He carried boxes out to his van, then went away again.

Jean Reindahl sat in a lawn chair on the grass, drinking something from a tall glass and smoking one cigarette after another. Her body glistened in the sun. I could have gone down there to talk to her but I didn’t.

Instead, I fell asleep on the floor beside the sofa. Blame that on the whiskey if you want to. But I was in mourning after all, and I was depressed. I had my reasons.

When I got up, it was all too quiet, and that worried me. What had I done, what had I driven poor Jean Reindahl to do, with my meanness and my selfishness, and was everything there all my fault? Burton, could he tell me that? He thought he was sparing me, or he was a coward too, afraid to go through with what was in store for him, so he took it into his own hands and left the mess for me to clean up afterward. Was that my fault? Because I told him he should have quit his bad habits sooner and I knew this was going to happen and what was I going to do without him…? And how could we afford…? And how would I ever be able to take care of him?

He went down there to the Honey trailer. Said: I’ll get out of your way, hon. Don’t worry about me.

And I let him do that. I let him go.

So this time I put on my boots and walked along the path. The snow was gone and it was all green grass and flowers and mud. That broken door was banging in the wind. I stood there and called to Jean Reindahl and saw the tracks in the drive, and when I went inside, it was clear that she was gone.

I tried to find her, I did. Online. Facebook. Google. White Pages. The library, even. The courthouse too. I looked for her probation officer, but there was no one there who knew anything about Jean Reindahl. The boyfriends. The trucks. That red car. That van. All were as gone as if they’d never been.

A few weeks later, I thought I saw her. It was at the Target store. She was looking at baby clothes, which had me jumping to all kinds of conclusions. But then she turned, and although it had been Jean’s body and her hair, her shoulders and her back, still it wasn’t her face. A scowl, mean, fierce. What’re you looking at, lady?

I burned on fire and turned away.

So now that’s how it is. I’m all alone. But the Honey trailer, she’s filled with the blooming plants Jean Reindahl left behind, and now it’s up to me to care for them. Like she knew that’s exactly what I’d need. I go down there every day and clip leaves and stir the soil and mist the air.

I play music. I talk to them. And yeah. Okay. Sure. I guess we could say they thrive.

***

Susan Taylor Chehak is the author of several novels, including THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT, SMITHEREENS, and RAMPAGE. Her most recent publications include a collection of short stories, “IT’S NOT ABOUT THE DOG,” and a new novel, “THE MINOR APOCALYPSE OF MEENA KREJCI.” Susan grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, lives occasionally in Toronto, and at present calls the Colorado Rocky Mountains home.

 

A Literary Magazine