Agnes waited until Billy Ray’s truck had pulled out of the driveway before going to the mirror and examining her jaw. He had hit her open handed so she did not expect more than redness, perhaps a slight swelling. She’d had worse and since it was Friday she was expecting it later, maybe. Paydays were usually bad with Billy Ray coming home late after drinking ten percent of his paycheck, ‘his due’ he called it. Sometimes he would simply fall asleep after vomiting and on a good night it would be in the toilet. Even the sink or tub wasn’t so bad, easy to clean, quick. But he wasn’t always as careful as she’d like and many a night she’d spent scrubbing a rainbow of semi-digested bar food out of some patch of carpet or piece of furniture.
She went to the kitchen and washed the breakfast dishes. It was 8:18AM.
And sometimes he wanted her. There would be no courtship or pause, no words. It would just be him, pushing himself inside her, kneading her breasts roughly and breathing remnants of everything he’d had that night into her mouth and nose: beer, whiskey, pizza, chicken wings in hot sauce, pickled eggs, beef jerky. It seemed Billy Ray would eat just about anything when he was drinking and his breath would make her gag, make her eyes water. She had learned long ago that the best way to deal with this, the only way, was to relax, or at least try to, and hope he finished quickly. There had been a time when she would protest. An ugly scar decorated her neck just below her left ear from the last time she said no. It should probably have been stitched she thought, but it wasn’t as if she could go to a hospital. She had packed it in gauze, tried to keep it clean; she’d bought some high collared shirts at the Salvation Army.
She went into the bedroom and, since it was Friday, stripped the bed. She put the sheets into the clothes hamper and carted it down to the washing machine in the basement. It was 8:51AM.
Billy Ray had never apologized for the cut on her neck. He had instead explained that it had been her own fault, that by rejecting him, by rejecting her wifely duty, god had punished her through him. He explained that a man works hard all day and expects a little relief at the end of it and that that is what a wife is for: a good meal, a clean house, a blown load. She could remember a time when he’d called it making love, now it was a blown load. At least it wasn’t something he wanted often. But when he did he would take her. She preferred to be in bed for it. She would spread her legs apart, close her eyes and wait for him to be finished. If she was in the living room or the kitchen he might want her mouth instead and this she truly despised. But, again, she knew better than to refuse.
At 9:28AM she put water in the kettle for her tea.
It had been different before they were married. Before they’d moved up north and Billy Ray’s job had fallen through, before she lost the baby. He had first taken her out when she was fifteen. He was older, seventeen he’d said at first but twenty he admitted later, after she’d said that she liked him just fine even if he wasn’t real scholarly. He’d been working at a gas station since dropping out of high school and everyone said he was a wiz with an engine. He had long, dark blond hair and muscles and a ’72 Mustang with oversized tires and at least a dozen speakers and woofers and sub woofers, the trunk filled with sound system and no spare tire. All the girls at school talked about Billy Ray Orenthal. All the girls talked about how cute he was, how mature he was. He had a job, a car, money in his pocket and his own place. Actually he lived in the basement apartment of his parent’s house but in Tirrad, Alabama, but that was still impressive. And he had asked her out.
After her first cup of tea and the last four aspirin in the house she put the second load of laundry into the washing machine. It was10:07AM.
Billy Ray had once been perfect. He was polite, kind, courteous, and attentive. He held the door for her, took her to restaurants, movies, dances. He paid for everything and didn’t seem to mind if she wanted an extra dessert topping or large popcorn. She liked the way he kissed, too. The few boys she’d kissed before Billy Ray would try to get their tongues as far down her throat as they could while bending her bra clasp out of shape in a feeble and ultimately failed attempt to unhook it. These make-out sessions never lasted more than a few minutes and she usually never went out with the boy again. But Billy Ray was different. For the first few dates he would only kiss her briefly, never forcing in his tongue or fumbling with undergarments. When they began to make out, before he would touch her knee or her rear, he would ask her if it was okay saying how he really wanted to but didn’t want to scare or offend her. And back then she had wanted him to, and she had almost always said yes. It had been nice, making her feel warm and wanted and special. She had, she later decided, truly felt loved. She had loved him a great deal then.
She made herself a second cup of tea at 10:23AM. She added a splash of apricot brandy to the cup almost as an afterthought.
After three months he had told her that he couldn’t see her anymore. It had broken her heart and she had begged him to tell her what she had done. He let her wonder for a full week before sitting her down behind the gas station, holding her hands in his and telling her that, even though he loved her very much, he couldn’t continue to see her because he just didn’t trust himself. He said that his need to be with her, sexually, intimately, in a “man’s” way, was too overwhelming. He had decided that they should part ways until she was older and ready for a real relationship, a relationship that adults had when they were in love with one another. And she had begged him not to leave her. And she had cried into his broad, strong shoulder. And she has said that she was ready. And she had said ‘tonight.’
She transferred the second load of cloths from the washer to the dryer and filled the washer with sheets and towels at 10:45AM. Another cup of tea, another dollop of brandy, no, make that two.
She spent every weekend with Billy Ray and most every summer day as well until she was 16 and dropped out of school. She’d never seen school as important, at least not for girls, and her mother had always told her that school was a place where a girl should find herself a good husband. She had Billy Ray and he told her he would marry her; problem solved. But he didn’t marry her for more than a year, and only then, she knew, because she was pregnant.
She began to vacuum the living room. It was 11:01AM.
Billy Ray hadn’t wanted children until they were older, he’d said. Thirty and established: a house, two cars, a fishing boat, money in the bank. But, he’d said, what’s done is done. They’d go north, he decided, to New Jersey. He could work in a casino garage, maybe be in charge of the limousines or some other part of the casino. ‘How hard could it be?’ he’d always said. Without a high school diploma it was, he found, damn near impossible. After burning through almost every cent they’d saved he’d finally found work at another gas station.
At first he was thrilled. The pay was better than it had ever been in Tirrad, eight dollars an hour to start and he got some basic benefits to boot. But rent was over five hundred dollars a month even though they were living in a tiny one bedroom apartment in a colored neighborhood. And after he paid for the phone and the TV and the electric bill there wasn’t much left at all. Barely enough for food, really. His ‘Jack Daniel’s Days’ were behind him, he’d lament while holding the econo-size plastic jug of Rock-&-Rye, pieces of browned fruit floating amid the sweet whiskey. His third paycheck marked the first time he beat her.
The vacuum bag was full again so she carried the machine to the back door, carefully removed it, and emptied its contents into the trash can. As she put it back on she noticed how the dust had still coated her pants and shirt. It was 11:23AM. She patted herself off as best she could, had another bit of tea that by now tasted more like the brandy than anything else, and finished vacuuming the house.
It had been meant as a joke, a line she’d heard on TV or in a movie, “government sure do take a bite, don’t it?” He’d said a curse and taken hold of her shoulders. He asked her ‘just what the fuck she meant by that’ but she could tell by his tone that he wasn’t interested in any response she might have. And then he had shoved her hard towards the kitchen. Her shoulder connected with the door jam, pain exploding in it and knocking her off balance. As she fell her head hit the side of a kitchen chair and that’s where the memory changed, shifted really, because all of a sudden she wasn’t in the kitchen anymore, she was in bed again. Billy Ray was there looking concerned and apologetic and there was a bag of frozen peas on her head.
He’d been so sorry and felt so awful and swore up and down on his own dead mother’s grave that it would never happen again, ever. And over the next few weeks, as the bruises on her shoulder went from angry purple to dull yellow to almost nothing, she found it easy to forget. Billy Ray seemed to revert back to his old ways, as he was before they were married. And while there was no money for restaurants or movies, let alone extra desserts or large buckets of popcorn, he did seem to find a few flowers on his way home and he started to hold open those doors for her again. As a matter of fact and to her utter amazement, there was a week in there when every single scrap of clothing he wore actually made it into the hamper. There was even a moment or two when she actually thought to herself ‘I should have gotten him to hit me sooner.’
At noon she made herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and resented that she had to use the crusty end pieces because she’d used the last two regular slices to make Billy Ray’s lunch. Feeling simultaneously entitled because of her culinary sacrifice and hesitant that he may or may not notice later, she had one of Billy Ray’s beers with it. She didn’t particularly like beer, she preferred the sweet and syrupy apricot brandy that she kept hidden behind the dish soap, but it made her feel better somehow to take something of his, even if she was also hoping that he wouldn’t notice it. Before popping the pull-tab she held the can against her cheek, the coolness easing the soreness of his hands earlier target.
Once the lunch dishes were done she folded the laundry and hung the sheets on the line out back. It was 12:48PM.
At one she had settled herself in front of the TV with a refreshed and enhanced cup of tea, half a bag of slightly stale but still edible potato chips, and her first of only four cigarettes of the day. For the next few hours she fluctuated between being in a series of sordid affairs with wealthy but scandalous young surgeons, lawyers, and bankers and wishing she could afford to use brand name cleansers. At 4PM she left for the corner store.
The sunglasses and oversized baseball cap weren’t enough to fully conceal the bruise on her cheek and she was sure the girl at the counter noticed it. But she didn’t say anything, wouldn’t even think to. No one up north, it seemed to her, gave a good god-damn about anyone else besides themselves. She almost wanted the woman to say something, show concern, care. She missed Alabama with its nosey neighbors and tight knit communities and how everybody said ‘hey’ when they met. But the day did seem to have a silver lining; checking her ‘secret’ money she found that she finally had conserved enough for the plastic liter jug of vodka she’d wanted. She put it in the hand basket, added a two liter bottle of ginger ale, paid the apathetic counter girl and went home.
When she checked on the sheets hanging in the back yard she found them all on the ground, the clothesline having snapped. Most of the sheets had landed on the grass but a pillow case had landed in the still moist dirt and would now need to be washed a second time. She restrung the line, re-hung the still clean clothes and pillow case back inside.
At 5:00PM she put the contents of a can of beef ravioli in a still dirty from last night two quart sauce pan and, while it warmed, considered calling her mother. After the second beating, and this one had in fact been an actual beating and not just rough handling, she had called her mother hoping for an invitation, an escape. Her mother instead went into a long lecture about how to avoid men’s anger and, in the event of non-avoidance, how to use the post guilt phases to get the things you wanted. Perhaps sensing her daughter’s desperation she’d mentioned the existence, but had no direct knowledge herself, of crisis centers for women. The lecture had been cut short however by a man’s voice in the background ordering her mother to ‘get her tight little fanny back in here.’ She did not pick up the phone now. She did not look up a crisis center phone number. She didn’t even notice the flavor of chicken soup that permeated the ravioli. She did mix a tall glass of vodka and ginger ale and promised herself another one later, maybe two, maybe . . .
The second beating had been several months after the shove. Billy Ray had been particularly sweet and attentive and this had made her more amorous. And it had been another payday and she hoped he would be in a better mood. He had come home around ten and fell into bed fully clothed. She’s opened the button on his trousers but before she could lower the zipper he’d grabbed her wrist, hard, and demanded to know just what in the hell she thought she was doing. Assuming he didn’t mean to be so rough she said, as coyly as she could, “whatcha’ think, silly?” The punch connected squarely with her solar plexus and she curled into a ball, unable to breath. He told her she was selfish, keeping a tired man from sleep. And then he called her a bitch. A few minutes later the pressure seemed to ease off her chest and she could talk again, yell even.
And yell she did, about ‘what kind of a man hits a woman?’ About, ‘you promised to never hit me again.’ About ‘calling momma and getting the hell outta here.’ Her eyes had filled with tears, blurring her vision. She never saw the fist coming. It connected squarely with her left temple and, after a strange flash of light, the world went very dark. But this time she didn’t wake up in her bed, a repentant husband at her side and frozen peas on her head. This time she woke up on the floor in the dark to the sound of Billy Ray snoring in bed. Her ribs hurt more than they should have from just falling off the bed. She also realized that her ‘womanly area’ seemed sore. She touched it, her hand coming away sticky. She wondered if perhaps she was bleeding until the smell told her it was Billy Ray’s ‘stuff’ that was leaking out of her, not blood. This realization, that he’d ‘done it’ to her while she’d been unconscious (after he’d knocked her unconscious) was the most frightening concept she’d ever had to entertain. She’d snuck out of the bedroom, cleaned up in the bathroom as best could, and called her mother. The call dimming the last spark of hope she’d ever have.
6:40PM, she took her first sip of her second (mostly) vodka and (some) ginger ale. She wanted to numb the memory of that second beating but, while alcohol usually worked, this time it seemed to only enhance the memory, all of her memories actually. She drank faster, hoping all she needed was more. She turned on the TV. She watched happy couples living happy lives and their tiny problems worked themselves out in thirty minutes flat. She hated them. She let herself hate Billy Ray a little, too. And their small apartment, the clothesline she just remembered she’d forgotten to empty and won’t he be pissed about that. And the bed was still unmade.
She drank almost half of the contents of the jelly glass and rose from the chair but didn’t move. She thought about doing more laundry and she thought about making the bed, later. She finished her drink and went into the kitchen and made another. The liter was half empty now and this surprised her. Third? Fourth? She honestly couldn’t remember. But another idea was swimming in her mind; she honestly didn’t care, either. She took her new drink back to her chair, considered for a moment, went back in the kitchen and grabbed the rest of the vodka.
Billy Ray would hit the roof when he came home to find her drunker than he was. She knew this but, for some reason, right at that moment, it didn’t seem all that important. She changed the channel to a movie station, more attractive people with perfect lives. She thought about Billy Ray, not realizing she was grinding her teeth. She dozed.
She woke up with a start. The TV was on but she didn’t recognize any of the actors. Her glass was empty. As she reached for the vodka her hand passed the barrel of Billy Ray’s shotgun. She couldn’t remember how it got there but she did find its presence oddly soothing. She filler her glass and tried to make heads or tails of what the TV was showing her. Eventually she decided it just wasn’t that important. She turned it off and turned her chair to face the door. It was 8:37.
And then it was later. Much later as the sound of Billy Ray’s truck tires crunching the gravel in the parking area woke her. She looked around, trying to get her bearings. The clock face showed 10:21. The vodka bottle was empty, as was the glass. The shotgun lay across her lap, it had been loaded. It was also, as was her blouse, slick with vomit. She felt calm. She positioned the gun and watched the door. She could hear him fumbling with his keys, cursing them. The door opened.
The silence after the blast was complete. Billy Ray felt urine running down his leg but that seemed unimportant. What had his rapt attention was his wife, sitting in their easy chair, shirt covered in vomit, with the better part of her head missing, his own shotgun cradled on what had probably been her lower jaw. Despite all the beer and whisky he’d consumed that night, he’d never been more sober in his life.