Larry usually does the talking for us, but this time he gets so choked up that we thought I better do it. So, hi. I’m Bill Bob. This all started when Larry goes home with some food and a 12 pack after an afternoon selling Reese’s Cups at Riverfront Park, and Darlene (that’s his wife) lays it on him.
“Momma’s coming home,” she says.
“Momma? I thought you said you lost your Momma.”
“Well, she’s back.”
Now Darlene spends a lot of time on the phone, sometimes going out into the hall so Larry can’t hear her end of the conversation. He thought it was her kids, but when she’d come back with her eyes all red, she’d say they were just fine, and he’d let it go. That’s my advice, too. When you’re talking kids from a prior marriage, just let ’em be. Same with your own, if you ask me. At least that’s how I work it with my wife Lois.
“Where’s she been?” Larry asks.
“I’ll let her tell you. Now we have to clean this place up.”
The apartment was about as clean as it ever was, but she was talking about a couple hundred cases of Reese’s Cups and Peanut M&Ms Larry and I got for tipping our local gangster to a sure thing at a Big Jeff’s “Stuff ‘n Save” store. They lined the hall, took up half the kitchen and living room, and nearly crowded them out of the bedroom. I was catching some flak from Lois about my share of our commission, too. It’s hard to use the bathroom when you have to slide in sideways.
Trouble with Reese’s Cups and M&Ms is they don’t go well with beer, and the neighborhood was pretty well saturated with them. Worst part was the smell. Our air conditioners don’t work real well, and we were afraid the candy would melt down if the power went out again. Besides, Larry’s a tall skinny dude, he says from eating too much bologna in the state pen, and the smell wasn’t helping his appetite at all.
“I’ll talk with Bill Bob about it,” he says to quiet her down.
Darlene is a small, wiry woman and pretty tough after two bad marriages and another with Larry that was probably not so great either, but she turned away with her hands over her face so he wouldn’t see her cry.
“What’s the matter, Darlene?”
“Just get those damn Reese’s Cups out of here,” she screams. “Momma’s coming in tomorrow on the 4 o’clock bus.”
* * *
“I’d start with that 4 o’clock bus,” I said when Larry came over and popped a beer to tell me about it.
Lois had heard Darlene shouting through the wall and went over to get the story first hand and probably egg her on, too.
“What do you mean?”
I called the bus station. The 4 o’clock bus was coming from Marysville.
“The women’s penitentiary is in Marysville,” Larry says.
He ought to know. He’s been in most of the prisons in the state, and I suppose there were times he wished he was in that one.
“I wonder what she was in for.”
“Let’s work on that later,” he says. “We gotta get those Reese’s Cups and M&Ms out of here fast.”
Lois would make me get rid of mine as soon as she heard it was an issue. So we load them onto my truck and drive to Smiley Jack’s Storage, where about every burglar and dealer in stolen property around here stashes his stuff.
“You miss a payment and your shit hits the street,” Smiley Jack says.
We paid two months in advance.
“There’s got to be a better way to cash that stuff out than selling it half price at Riverfront,” Larry says on the way back.
We thought about everything: eBay, one of the government school lunch programs, even putting them on Amazon to deliver free with Prime. There weren’t any good options.
That night I went to Larry’s for dinner since Lois was there anyway, and Darlene had worked as a cook before she married Larry. She says she quit because of her back, and he probably doesn’t help much with that, either. So she just hangs around the apartment and stays on his ass to do something besides drink beer with me all day. Now I’ve got my VA pension, but Larry’s got to live on what he can score.
We were watching the 6 o’clock news and wondering who’s going to go out for another 12 pack (you don’t get many miles per gallon out of these old girls) when Darlene screams, “Oh my God! It’s Momma!”
And there she was in an old mug shot, maybe when she was about 40, still pretty good looking with an expression that says give me a chance and fuck you all at the same time.
“Marilyn Placard was the first woman in our city to use the ‘He made me do it’ defense to murder,” says the announcer. “She claimed she shot her husband 19 times while reloading twice because he was abusing her. After 30 years in the state penitentiary, she’s being released tomorrow.”
Darlene threw a beer can at the set.
“Probably one of those small caliber automatics,” I said to calm her down. “Not much stopping power.”
That didn’t help. Larry went out with me for another 12 pack. It’s not a good idea to be around women when they get like that.
Next day I offered to drive Darlene to pick up her mother in my truck, but after looking at me funny, she said she’d rather take a cab. I’m a little overweight so maybe Momma would’ve had to sit on her lap or ride in the back, but at least I wasn’t going to charge her anything. Larry wasn’t talking much, either.
We spent the day at Riverfront trying to move the candy with specials for the kids, but we didn’t do so well. Everybody wants to pay with credit cards now, even these smart-ass kids. We made just enough to cover a bucket of Colonel Sanders and a 12 pack for Momma’s welcome home dinner, and I took Larry home to see what a 30 year gap could do to a mother-daughter relationship.
He found out soon enough. Momma had changed from that mug shot 30 years back: she had thick white hair tied up in a knot; the lines in her face that once made her look kinda good were just lines now, and her expression had changed to a deep-eyed search for understanding with fear of rejection crouching in the corners of her eyes.
“Thanks, Larry,” she says when he hands her a beer. “It’s been a long time.”
Setting the beer on the table, she looks at it like she can’t believe it’s real. She pops the tab, squeezes it into her mouth, downs it in one gulp, and throws the empty into the trash. Then she opens another and does the same. And then she tears into that chicken like it was her last meal. All the time, Darlene just sits there watching. Larry thinks, why what the hell and starts on the chicken, but Darlene doesn’t eat a bite. She just drinks beer after beer, until Larry has to run out for another 12 pack to get us through the evening.
When Momma finally goes into the bathroom, Darlene says, “You’re sleeping out here, Larry.”
“I thought Momma had the couch.”
“Momma’s sleeping with me.”
She said it in a way that means you better not argue. So after they get Momma out of the bathroom (she’d passed out) and into bed, he curls up for the first of many nights on the couch. Only one who liked the arrangement was Lilly the cat, who likes to sit on his head and spit at him in the middle of the night. While Momma was getting used to her beer again, all he heard through the walls were snores. And then he heard them talking, hour after hour, about Darlene growing up and her children and all the stuff women think is so important. And then they started talking about men.
One name kept coming up, “that bastard Arleigh,” Momma’s last husband. To hear them tell it, he was a lot worse than her first two (one of them was Darlene’s father) and even worse than Darlene’s former husbands. Whenever they got to what he did, their voices dropped, and he couldn’t make out what they were saying. They’d whisper about that a lot, and then Darlene would break down and start crying.
“Don’t worry, Baby,” Momma kept saying. “The bastard’s dead.”
They were both so damn happy about it they’d start laughing again, and Larry couldn’t get to sleep until 2 or 3 in the morning. After about two weeks, the cat moves in with Darlene and Momma. Momma takes some getting used to.
In all their talk, they never said anything about the night Momma shot him. That gets Larry to thinking, so he goes to the library and gets the old newspapers about the murder and the trial. Seems that when the police arrive they can hear Darlene screaming, “Momma, give it to me!” So they kick in the door and there’s Darlene, struggling to get the gun away from Momma. Arleigh’s on the floor in a pool of blood with bullet holes from head to foot, like somebody was trying to see how many they could get into him.
“It’s empty!” Darlene screams at the cops. “Don’t shoot!”
Momma drops the gun, and the police handcuff her and take her away. She doesn’t come home for 30 years.
“You ought to think about a two bedroom apartment, Larry,” Momma tells him after she has her sea legs again and is really settled in. “I hear there’s one opening up in the building the beginning of the month.”
“Darlene and I have been very happy here,” he says, hoping she’ll get the hint.
“Besides, this place smells like stale peanuts and cheap chocolate just like the prison commissary. It brings back bad memories.”
One of Larry’s memories was sleeping with Darlene, but that wasn’t Momma’s point.
“Where am I going to get the money?”
“You still screwing around with those Reese’s Cups and M&Ms?”
“It’s all I got.”
“Let me handle them. To be a success in business these days, you gotta have a story.”
“Like you killed your damn husband because he was such a bastard, and after 30 years in the state pen you’re reformed.”
The way she looked at him, Larry was thinking that if he didn’t go along with it, he might be next on her list.
“So how do we do that?”
“Darlene and Lois and I already have. We got on Legal Zoom and formed a company called “Second Chance Babes” with me as president.”
Larry was hoping it wasn’t a dating service.
“And we’re raising money to get women like me started again in society by selling Reese’s Cups and peanut M&Ms to churches and charities for fund raisers.”
“Don’t worry, Larry. We’ll pay you and Bill Bob to make deliveries.”
Of course she and Darlene expected Larry to keep buying beer and food out of his pay, while they spent their share on clothes and cosmetics. Lois pulled the same thing on me. Now Lois and Darlene clean up pretty nice like they’re going on a job interview (which they never do), but even after a fistful of cold cream Momma still looks like she isn’t going to let you hit her if she can get a shot in first. That’s when I got my .38 police special out of the truck and hid it behind the baseboard. There’s no percentage asking for trouble.
Larry was running so hard making deliveries with next to no sleep that I told him to get some extra beer and stand down for the afternoon. When he gets home, Darlene and Momma are having another heart to heart in the kitchen. He’s so damn tired of hearing them talk that he nearly leaves, but then Darlene says, “Momma, I wish you hadn’t tried to finish him off.”
“I just wanted to help.”
“But I was the one who shot him.”
“For what he did to you, Baby, he deserved it.”
“If you hadn’t grabbed the gun away, they would’ve locked me up for 30 years instead of you.”
“It was worth every minute of it. After all, what’s a mother for?”
Larry was starting to tiptoe out while they’re having another good cry when he trips over that damn cat and drops the beer.
“That you, Larry?” Momma says coming out into the hall.
For a minute she just stares at him.
“Well?” she says. “What’s your problem?”
“Why didn’t you tell the jury about what Arleigh was doing to Darlene? They might have let you off.”
I wouldn’t have thought of that, but Larry’s got a good legal mind.
“And ruined my Baby’s life? No man would touch her after that.”
With all his smarts, Larry didn’t know what to do with that one.
“Come on,” Momma says. “Let’s have a beer. You’re family now.”
They got that two bedroom apartment, but Larry still can’t get to sleep until after midnight with them up talking about how they’re going to help all these lifers the state’s kicking out of the pen so it won’t have to pay their medical bills. Crazy thing is, it’s working. People love the story. I guess a lot of women identify with shooting their bastard husbands nineteen times, even if it means spending 30 years in the state pen. Larry and I are into it, too, as long as they don’t make us Exhibit A to their next story.
FRED McGAVRAN is a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, and served as an officer in the US Navy in Vietnam. In June 2010 he was ordained a deacon in The Diocese of Southern Ohio, where he serves as Assistant Chaplain at Episcopal Retirement Services. The Ohio Arts Council awarded him an Individual Achievement Award for The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser, a story that appeared in Harvard Review. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector, his award winning collection of short stories, and Glass Lyre Press will publish Recycled Glass, his second collection, in early 2017. For more information and links to stories, please see www.fredmcgavran.com.
Read Fred’s previously published short story below: