Laid-Off Love By Bodie Fox

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Ronnie Babes rolled over to the other side of the bed, and through the dark he could see Cheryl standing over him, already in her scrubs, blonde hair in a ponytail. Leaving so soon? he asked.

Same time as always, hon.

Yeah, but feels like you just got back home.

I’ll be back around 7:30.

Again? They’re killing you with these hours.

And you’re killing me with these bills, she said.

Embarrassed, Ronnie looked away. His eyes fell on the chair behind Cheryl, where he used to lay out his uniform every night so he didn’t wake her up while he was getting ready in the mornings.

Here, she said and tapped the corner of her mouth. Ronnie leaned up and barely brushed her lips—she was already pulling away. I’ll see you tonight. Think you could look at the bathroom today?

I reckon so. What’s wrong with it?

There’s ants.

Yeah, I mean I guess I could.

Yeah, I mean I guess you could too, she said. You ain’t got nothing else to do all day.

You’ll be late if you don’t get going.

You better take care of those ants, Cheryl said as the walked to the bedroom door.

Love you, he said.

Love you, too.

Ronnie heard the front door shut, the porch steps creak on her way down, and her red 1996 Accord squeal out of the driveway, grinding gravel. Pale light peeked into the room as he laid in bed. When he could clearly see the chestnut tree outside the window, he swung his feet onto the rough carpet and shuffled into the kitchen, where the cold tiles curled his toes. He poured a cup of coffee—he hated the taste of her plain, black Folger’s but it woke him up.

With the mug in his hand, he walked to the bathroom for a quick look. There were only a few ants crawling along the bottom of the wall, towards the toilet brush in the corner. Ronnie decided there weren’t enough to deal with, so he walked back to the living room.

He sat down on the corner of the loveseat and rested the coffee on the cushion next to him and enjoyed the silence that was occasionally interrupted by the neighbor’s yappy dogs or a truck rumbling past his double-wide mansion. The TV sat across from the couch and the low coffee table, while a folded rainbow-stitched, lawn chair leaned against the wall. Cheryl hated it in the house. He turned on the TV to watch a few minutes of the news.

They went over the usual stories: a couple murdered in a gas station shootout, a man turning 103, a daycare being sued for accidentally burning a child with scalding water, the process to draw the troops out of the Middle East, three old women dying in a nursing home fire, and new accusations of gerrymandering.

The story that caught Ronnie’s ear was the one about a teachers’ strike a few counties over.

Fuck ‘em, Ronnie said, They should just go on and fire their asses. He sipped his coffee. I bet I reckon I could teach.

He decided that he should get something done, so he stood up. He grabbed the lawn chair, drug it to the laundry room, and faced it to the wall by the washer. After pouring a fresh cup of coffee, he picked up the typewriter from the bedroom closet and waddled it to the laundry room, setting it on the dryer. Ronnie’s Papaw bought the typewriter at a yard sale for his Nana to keep her busy while he was at work—she didn’t have a job, except for doing his laundry. She sat at it and punched out poems about her girlhood and lack of fulfilment until the day she died. Ronnie read a couple of them at her funeral, like “Clothes on the Line, Pins in the grass,” “If I Were at Work,” and “Blueberries in my Pocket,” all of them signed F. G. Greer. He remembered watching her write these poems in between making him banana sandwiches when he was out from school. He especially remembered when she wrote “Blueberries in my Pocket” because she had cried remembering the childhood summers she spent picking blueberries and eating them like candy. Nobody wanted the typewriter after her death, so Ronnie took it, along with a Propet shoebox full of her poems.

There was little to do while waiting on his boss to call him back, so he started writing. After a couple of weeks, he started to get serious about it, almost forgetting that he was laid-off. He felt like he should start looking for a new job, but he didn’t want a job if it wasn’t working in the factory. He had worked there with buddies Rhett and Randon since they graduated high school. They were laid-off too, but they started working at a local farm, putting up hay. They had even convinced their boss to offer Ronnie a job, but he turned it down, saying that farming wasn’t his thing. Besides, his Nana had seemed happy and all she ever did was pound the ink ribbon and spill white-out.

Cheryl tried to be patient with him—she knew he was patient with her when she was in his place. They had met at a football game when she was still in high school, even though he had graduated four years earlier. Ronnie went to all the home games because there wasn’t much else to do in Dalton except go to the Moose Lodge.

Climbing the bleachers to the student section, Ronnie tripped over the concrete steps, dumping his funnel cake over Cheryl’s long, blonde hair. She and her friends froze. Her mouth was open, but no words came out. Powdered sugar covered her nose and ears and settled down to her scalp. Ronnie smiled.

Oh, so you think this is funny? Cheryl said.

I’m real sorry. It was an accident, he said as he scratched the side of his jaw to hide his smile.

It better have been.

Here, let me buy you something to make up for it.

You think buying me something is gonna clean this shit up? she said, wiping powdered sugar from her cheek.

A man carrying a plate of nachos and a Dr. Pepper struggled by on the stairs, his face turning a bright crimson underneath his camouflage hat. Ronnie said, Excuse me, and slid back to let him pass. Then said to Cheryl: I reckon not, but I thought—

Then leave me alone.

Ronnie nodded and picked up the greasy paper plate and what was left of the funnel cake. He finished climbing the stands, threw away the fried dough, and took his seat. He kept shaking his head.

During halftime, Cheryl came and found him and said, I want a funnel cake.

Ronnie slowly rose to his feet, then they wandered to the concessions stand. Cheryl walked in the front, demanding Ronnie move quicker, but he took his time and clapped his buddies on the back as he saw them. They didn’t speak in line, just looked different directions from each other, and listened to the band play Don McLean’s American Pie from the field.

At the window, Ronnie bought a new funnel cake for Cheryl. She picked off a piece and dropped it into her mouth. Then she smeared the rest on Ronnie’s face. He stepped back and the cake fell to the ground. He wiped powdered sugar from his eyes, but, before he could say anything, Cheryl doubled over in laughter. It was infectious. Seeing her like that, all he could do was let out a chuckle and laugh along with her.

A couple of weeks later, despite her having a year of school left, they started dating. Her parents hated Ronnie, and they tried everything to break them up, but nothing seemed to stop her from seeing him. Her dad said all the mush-mouths at his mechanic shops kept coming in talking about Cheryl and Ronnie, while her momma said Cheryl was ruing the family reputation at the church—everyone told her how shameful it was to let a high school girl be with a boy who was so much older. Unable to do anything about it, they kicked her out three months before she graduated.

With nowhere else to go, she asked Ronnie if she could move into his trailer with him. He said yes. He didn’t care. So, he worked while she finished high school, and he kept working while she completed her CNA at the technical college.

After Cheryl got a job at the hospital, they quickly fell into a routine. Ronnie would wake up, shower and shave and make the coffee silently, let her sleep in, and drink a cup of coffee while watching the morning news from the loveseat. Then he’d sit on the edge of the bed and shake her arm—if left to an alarm clock, she wouldn’t get up. He’d kiss her and tell her that he loved her before he left. After each of their shifts ended, sometimes Ronnie met her at the hospital with a single flower in hand, usually a daisy. Every time he did, she broke the stem off and slipped the flower behind her ear. Then, he would take her out to Wendy’s, his chest puffed with pride as they snaked towards the counter. They were happy like that. They still shared those small, intimate kisses, and they still touched each other when they walked by: Ronnie usually grabbed a handful of her ass cheek, Cheryl usually slid her hand across his shoulders.

Then, Ronnie lost his job. Instead of finding a new one, he started writing short stories and a couple pages of a novel, going on about how it worked for his Nana. Cheryl tried but couldn’t understand, saying, But you’re not your Nana.

After writing for a while, Ronnie took a break to pee. Standing above the bowl, his toe started to burn. He looked down and spread his toes: an ant had bit him. Shit, he said and flicked it with his finger. The ant picked itself up and trekked along the grooves between the small, white tiles, where it found three other ants congregated by a hole in the tile baseboard. Ronnie figured since there were so few, he could clean the bathroom and kill the ants at the same time, so he reached under the sink for the bleach and sprayed around the bathroom. He stepped back, satisfied they would be dead when he returned.

Ronnie was hungry, so he notched some bologna and cut the stove on. While the bologna was frying, he looked through the mail basket on the counter by the front door. There was a Christmas card from one of Cheryl’s coworkers they had left there for months, an electricity past-due notice, his magazine subscription to Turkey and Turkey Hunting, and a late credit card bill. Ronnie ran a hand through his shaggy, greasy, brown hair and set the magazine on the kitchen counter. He laid the bologna onto a couple slices of white bread, then shut himself into the laundry room again.

Recently, he had started to talk aloud while he wrote. It was his way of getting to know his characters, and it made feel like someone was there with him, someone to talk to. He asked them about anything and everything to get to know all their quirks. Ronnie usually told his characters about himself too. He knew he would sound crazy if anyone came in and heard him talking to himself in the laundry room, but no one was home, and no one was supposed to be home. Currently, he was getting to know a guy named Ronald, who worked in a carpet mill in Zone, Georgia.

The writing wasn’t going as well as it had earlier. Ronnie kept wondering about the ants, if they were finally dead or not. After he wrote three more pages, he went to the bathroom. When he peaked in the doorway, it was worse than before: a couple of the original ants were dead, but their numbers had quadrupled. They crawled up the walls to the towel rack, searched the toilet bowl, and scurried across the floor with crumbs above their heads. Unable to think of something else, he grabbed the bleach and sprayed another, thicker, layer.

No longer in the mood to write, he went to the kitchen and leaned into the small, rusted fridge and grabbed a PBR. He sat on the loveseat, rested his feet on the coffee table, turned on the TV once again. Ronnie tried to watch Walker Texas Ranger reruns, but he got bored. He didn’t feel like writing, so he started to think about his character and wondered who was at home for Ronald, if anyone was waiting on him. He imagined a woman sitting next to him with black hair, dyed red, and eyes set deep from hard living.

What’s your name? Ronnie asked the empty living room.

I ain’t nobody to you, she said.

Well, I reckon that—

I reckon I don’t know who the hell you are or what the hell I’m doing here.

I’m Ron—

And why you got your feet on the table? You raised in a barn or something?

He took his feet off the table and sat up a little straighter. Ronnie, he said.

What?

That’s my name. Ronnie.

Chayanne. She stuck out her hand, and Ronnie shook it.

I like that name. It suits you, he said.

I sure as shit hope it does. It’s my name.

What do you do? Ronnie asked.

What don’t I do?

You stay busy?

More like, who don’t I do?

Ronnie raised his eyebrows, surprised at his character. So you—

Pays pretty good for Lake Hill, she said, scratching the back of her head and tossing her hair. Most of that trailer trash just wanna get their dick wet.

Ronald don’t care?

He don’t really know, she said.

Ronnie stood up and walked to the kitchen. He leaned on the white laminate counter with veins of yellow and took a sip of his beer.

I think he got his suspicions, Chayanne continued, but he don’t ask, so I don’t tell. After he gets his chunk of change each week, I don’t guess he minds so much. One time he found the shoebox where I keep the cash. That’s when he started to wonder, I think, but he’s too scared to wanna know.

Ronnie scratched his head and sipped his beer. That’s good stuff, he thought, I like that. He grabbed a pen from a kitchen drawer and took the electricity past-due notice from the mail basket and wrote down on the back what he discovered about Ronald and Chayanne. He was feeling pretty good about his story.

By the time Cheryl got home, it was dark, and only the western on the TV lit the living room. Ronnie heard Cheryl’s car crunch into the driveway. He made no move to get up. She came in and dropped her purse by the door and tossed her keys on the counter. She flicked the light on by the door and said, Really, Ronnie? Is that what you’ve done all fucking day?

Good to see you too, baby. And no, Ronnie sat up, I wrote for a good while.

Oh, excuse me. You wrote today. She went into the kitchen and looked in the fridge. She slammed the door, not seeing anything she wanted.

Hey, Ronnie said, I got down a few good pages. It’s turning out pretty good, I think.

Cheryl re-opened the fridge, looked around, took out a can of beer and slammed the door again. She popped the top and took several deep swallows. She pulled her hair out of a bun and shook it out with her hand. That’s good for you, honey, she said.

Ronnie smiled at her over the back of the couch.

You know what I did today? she said.

Ronnie’s smile faded, and he turned to face the TV.

Go on, she said. Take a guess. What did I do today?

For a second, Ronnie thought that she had actually been proud of him; he thought she was proud of him for trying something new. For a second, anyways.

How about I just go on and tell you? I worked today. For twelve hours. I was on my feet the whole damn time, and I didn’t even get to take a lunch break because we were so damn busy. But at least you wrote, that’s good for you. At least I got paid.

Ronnie took a sip of his beer and continued to watch the western. Cheryl bent back into the fridge and jerked out the milk.

Home all damn day and couldn’t even cook no dinner, she said. Did you even do something about them ants?

Ronnie kept watching TV and didn’t say anything.

You hear what I said? I said—

I heard you.

And?

I tried some bleach on ‘em.

An—

And I sprayed ‘em again. The first time didn’t work. I don’t know about now though.

Cheryl shook her head. You’re something, all right, she said. She huffed and stomped to the bathroom. Ronnie! she said and stormed back into the living room. She clenched her jaw and turned her face to the side and calmly said, Please, tell me, why are there more ants than when I left this morning?

I don’t know. I really tried to kill them. Sprayed them with bleach and all.

How about you try some Raid, or something made to kill ants? Not clean shit stains.

Okay, okay. I will tomorrow.

Always tomorrow, she said, as she picked up the milk and grabbed the box of Cap’n Crunch from the pantry, along with a bowl from the cabinet. I better not get bit when I go to take a shit, she said, or so help me God.

Ronnie finished his beer and crushed the can. Cheryl put her cereal and beer on the coffee table and sat next to him on the loveseat, curling her legs underneath her to make sure her feet didn’t touch Ronnie’s legs. Neither of them said anything.

After Cheryl finished her cereal, she said: You not gonna eat nothing?

Not hungry.

Alrighty. Well, I’m heading off to bed. Got another twelve tomorrow. She stood and picked up the can and bowl.

Leave it, Ronnie said. I’ll get it when I get up.

You’re not coming?

He propped his feet on the coffee table. Not yet. Not really tired, but I’ll be along in a little while.

She set her bowl and can back down, then kissed him on the cheek. She said, Goodnight. I love you.

Love you too. His eyes remained fixed on the TV.

Ronnie stayed on the couch but watched Cheryl walk to the bedroom. The first time she had said she loved him was a week after she had graduated high school. He had been sitting on the couch, watching Gunsmoke reruns, like he was now. He wasn’t ready for bed, so she had gone on without him. But, on her way out of the living room, she had bent down and kissed him on the cheek and whispered, I love you, almost like she didn’t mean to say it. Ronnie had looked up, she blushed, hurrying out of the room. She had stopped and came back after Ronnie said, I love you too. He hadn’t meant it, but he didn’t want her to feel embarrassed. After that night, she started kissing him on the cheek before bed and saying she loved him every night, just so she could hear him so those words back to her. They kept on that way for a couple of years, and Ronnie never said it first. Until one night, Cheryl had come home, dog-tired, from a twelve-hour shift, and she didn’t eat anything and went straight to bed, forgetting their routine. When she didn’t do it, Ronnie watched her walk to the bedroom. His heart had sunk down to his stomach and his throat tightened up, and that’s when he knew that he loved her. He had got up from the couch, laid down in the bed with her, stroked her hair while she tried to sleep, and said, I love you, meaning it for the first time.

When the western went off and the channel started showing infomercials, Ronnie turned off the TV and got up. He washed the bowl, threw the can in the trash, where he saw a few ants crawling around the top of the bag. Ronnie went to the bedroom and stripped to his underwear and eased into the bed, where Cheryl was already asleep. The bed felt oddly cold, and the space between them felt far, even though it was only a full-sized mattress—he tried to give Cheryl her space because she kicked a lot in her sleep. He laid on the edge of the bed, looking at the dark above him, listening to the box fan that blew on Cheryl’s side , and he thought about Chayanne and Ronald. He thought about how they talked while they laid in bed, shared cigarettes in the dark after they finished, and lit a new cigarette after they snuffed out the first, his arms wrapped around her back, her fingers danced across his neck and shoulders. Ronnie thought about how they dreamt of owning a home without any wheels under it, kind of like he and Cheryl used to do.

When he woke up, Cheryl was already gone. Ronnie went to the bathroom to pee. The ants were back in full force. Their numbers had increased overnight. On the mirror was a note: RAID! NOT BLEACH!

Later, he thought.

Again, Ronnie poured some coffee and plopped onto the loveseat to watch a few minutes of TV, but he imagined Chayanne sitting beside him and painting her nails to match her hair. Ronnie said: You don’t have to work?

Not unless I wanna.

Well, I reckon you’ll talk to me.

What’s that supposed to mean?

Ronnie explained that he and his buddies became best friends in high school after learning about the 3R’s, so they took to calling themselves the 3R’s: Rhett, Randon, and Ronnie. He explained how they got drunk most weekends near the end of high school; how they graduated and all got jobs in the same factory; how they had still got drunk most weekends; how they both got new jobs; how he hasn’t heard from them much; how one time Randon went on a three day bender and got alcohol poisoning, so they rode him around with a trashcan and the windows down, even though they probably should have taken him to the hospital; how one time Rhett got his hands on his dad’s Viagra and called Ronnie, crying for a ride to the hospital because his prick felt like it was about to explode; how neither Randon or Rhett cared for Cheryl; how he and Cheryl hadn’t been doing well; how she’d been different since he lost his job; how she just got home and did nothing but holler and fuss; how they hadn’t been getting it in much recently because she was too tired from work, which Ronnie understood; how when they did get it in, Cheryl just dropped her pants and said, Let’s get it over with.

It all spilled out after he started talking. He tried to stop, to turn it off, but he couldn’t. He didn’t know where it was coming from. Sorry, he said, I reckon I’m being sensitive. You probably didn’t want to hear all that anyway.

So, you ain’t getting none? That why I’m here?

Ronnie stood up, No, and I don’t wanna talk about it no more.

Chayanne laughed and screwed the top onto the bottle of nail polish. You don’t want to talk no more?

You ain’t wanting to hear about all that no ways. Nobody does. Ronnie went to the fridge and grabbed a beer, cracked the top, and took a drink. Now, he said, I got shit that needs doing.

Ronnie got the Raid from under the kitchen sink and went to the bathroom. The ants were crawling across the floor, several were climbing the walls, some taking a drink from the water in the toilet. To Ronnie, it looked like they were looking something—they wanted something, but they searched like they didn’t know what it was, like they almost didn’t know they were looking for something. They won’t find it here, Ronnie thought.

Then he showered the ants with Raid. They fell from the wall, slipped into the toilet water, or just rolled onto their backs and writhed in pain, as they fell short of whatever they were looking for.

Ronnie set the can on the counter and peeled Cheryl’s sticky note left from the mirror, crumpled it, tossed it in the trash. Maybe that, Ronnie thought, will get her off my back.

Then he carried the typewriter from the closet and set it on the dryer. He drug the lawn chair into the laundry room and faced it to the wall by the washer. He went to the kitchen and grabbed the past-due notice to check his notes. Ronnie brought it to the laundry room with him, took a seat, and he pulled the typewriter into his lap: the drab green sides were covered with white-out stains, and the quotation mark and back arrow buttons had worn off, leaving just the ends of the arms. He noticed a short line of ants crawling up the side of the washer.

Ronnie sighed and decided to deal with them later.

Then he wrote. He wrote about Chayanne and Ronald going to a high school football game. He had got off from work at the factory, cashed his check, and picked her up from home without changing because he was late. When they got there, the second quarter was about to start. Ronald bought them a funnel cake to share, and they took it to the top corner of the bleachers. While they were eating it, Ronald notice a powdered sugar crumble on her cheek, so he wiped it off with his thumb and rubbed it on the tail of his factory work shirt.

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Bodie Fox

Bodie Fox is an undergraduate Writing and Linguistics student at Georgia Southern University. There, he acts as the Assistant Fiction Editor of Miscellany, one of Georgia Southern’s literary magazines. He will graduate in December 2020 and hopes to later attend grad school for an M.F.A. in Fiction. When he is not writing or in class, he likes to fish or play basketball.

This is Bodie’s first publication.

Twitter handle: @FoxBodie

Image by monsterpong09 from Pixabay

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