Carrie was this fat chick who lived next door and whose husband I stole, sort of, for a little while, until later she stole him back. I never liked Carrie, nor she me, but her husband, Thom, this balding sporting goods salesman, I always thought he was cute. He had a charming, gap-toothed smile that reminded me of David Letterman. Back then I loved to come home after the bar, crack a bottle of red and watch Letterman. This was when Letterman first started out, when late-night TV still seemed something you felt happy to stay up for.
One day in July, Carrie got run over by a school bus on her 10-speed. She died. And like that, Thom was a widower. And like that, their little boy, Carlton, was motherless.
I was crazy busy and didn’t hear about dead Carrie for a day and a half, though it seemed everyone else had—especially my nosey Mom and my brother, Zack. They knew details, and they didn’t even live in the neighborhood anymore. It was because our small city is not full of a lot of news about local moms dying in broad daylight beneath a school bus.
And then things got blown up even more because it turned out the bus driver was a deadbeat dad and a parole violator from three states away. This intrigued people like Zack and Mom.
Me, I felt some sadness as a fellow human, but I was mostly relieved not to have Carrie staring knife eyes at me every time I saw her. I often felt hate coming off fat dead Carrie and landing on me, and I was glad she was gone from my life.
When we ended up at Carrie’s funeral that next weekend Zack told me trustworthy rumor had it Carrie was weaving her way back from The K-Club’s happy hour, had blown through a stop light and was eating a Rueben sandwich when she got run over. Though it seemed more than halfway believable, I thought maybe this was just Zack being Zack—being an idiot, standing up for my side of things. He’d often heard me talk shit about Carrie. We are loyal people, except to our father who’s gone, out there somewhere in the world, don’t matter.
We were within the warm huddle of Carrie’s funeral mourners when Zack whispered, “My friend, Mike Cunningham, he works the grill at the K, made that Rueben special for her—extra kraut, extra sauce.”
“Doesn’t mean getting mowed down was her fault,” I said.
Someone hushed me from two rows back. I held up my middle finger.
“Rueben sando ends up half-eaten on the gory cement?” Zack whispered. “Thousand Island dressing and Swiss cheese end up across her neck?”
The pallbearers, including Thom, floated her coffin through the church.
“Bet they’ll have sore shoulders tomorrow,” Zack said, snorting.
I pinched his skinny rib hard, but he didn’t flinch.
Interestingly enough, as Zack whispered the details of fat Carrie’s demise, who I felt sorriest for was that bus driver. He was fucked—arrested and humiliated with his happy I’m-a-good-man-trying-to-make-my-life-okay-again school district ID photo all over the news. Even if killing Carrie wasn’t truly his fault, it seemed pretty obvious his life was now fractured beyond repair because of a careless person’s carelessness.
* * *
I could relate to this. My history with careless people went way back.
There was Dale, the blond, smooth-skinned boy I let finger me in the onion-smelling backseat of his Gran Torino one night our senior year. Dale, who proceeded to run his mouth in school about how we’d loudly fucked ‘til 3 a.m. several times that weekend, and how every time we fucked I’d screamed “Ride ride! Horsey horsey! Horsey horsey! Ride ride!”
Dale’s big fake story had traction. It made people feel clever and dirty and in-the-know. It made people laugh. Ask anyone who was at Capitol around that time. They know about the “Ride ride! Horsey, horsey!” girl. They know my name. Josephine. Jo the ho.
That was eleven years ago. I still see people I grew up with look at me with wound-up faces that confess they’ve recently laughed over that lie. I’ll bet fat Carrie got to hear that story before she bit it. I’ll bet she loved that story.
Dale got to grow up and marry a pretty lady lawyer out in San Francisco, then become some kind of politician himself. Kids, houses, smiling happy-to-be-us-and-not-you photos all over the internet. I got to stay right here and figure out how not to care so much as I used to. At least I’ve kept my looks. Dale’s all balding, with a face like a cafeteria plate. I’ll bet his wife cheats.
Then there was our dad, who had no problem whatsoever drinking several Rainier tallboys before dinner and coming to the table telling Zack how much more he loved me than him.
“Josephine, my queen. Zack, my sad sack,” Dad liked to sing. And whenever Mom made peas and carrots, our dad enjoyed lofting a few at Zack’s head. We were in middle school. Zack was pretty antisocial then and would decide not to talk for a few weeks at a time, at least not to adults. Dad would say shit, and sing shit, and toss steamed vegetables, and Zack would keep his head down, wordlessly fork food in for a while like nothing was going on, then real fast he’d stand and stride out, down the hall and out the front door into the night.
This didn’t happen all the time.
Or, maybe it only happened once.
But, it changed things, opened up new possibilities of understanding—some people are careless, some people suck, even if they’re not supposed to.
Also, there was Lydia, my boss at Eddie’s, this crap little diner, my first job when I moved out on my own. I was super-duper-duper poor. This makes people compromise. This makes people like me do things that people like me don’t do. So, maybe I was one of the careless people, too, for a little while, but there I think Lydia and poverty made that happen, and not the real me.
I don’t like to talk about this, so I won’t say much. Only that Lydia, when she told me what would happen next, had a voice like a dull serrated blade; only that Lydia’s money allowed me not to have to move back in with Mom and Dad; only that Lydia’s bruises showed dark and vivid in the white flash of her Instamatic; only that Lydia did not smell so good after Eddie got in those pictures, too; only that the girls at the Photo King kiosk at the mall looked at me super conspicuously when I’d pick up those yellow film envelopes that were always heavier than I remembered, or expected.
* * *
So, fat dead Carrie was dead, and I was working a lot then at Dr. Blake’s. I was his dental hygienist. That’s my degree, dental hygiene, which gave me money for partying, and mall clothes, and more savings than you’d think. And after work, I’d drink at The K-Club with Therese. We’d see Carrie and her done-up friends there pretty often—shooting tequila poppers and Sex On The Beaches—and all of us would throw shitty looks across the room at each other, like girls do. Therese and I’d sometimes get pretty lit, and I like to sleep late during summer, so that was at least partly why I didn’t hear about Carrie dying right away. Sleeping. Dispensing floss and applying Fluoride. Drinking with Therese. Repeat.
Day before Carrie’s funeral, Mom called and told me more rumors about what happened, and she wanted me to go with her and Zack to see the dead body. They’d been invited to the ceremony and reception/wake because Mom served free pizza to needy people every Wednesday at Saint Michael’s down on 8th. That’s where the services were happening—open casket—and Zack was tagging along to see what a dead person looked like up close.
I told Mom I had obligations.
Half hour later Dr. Blake called asking if I wanted to go the funeral with him. We had cleaned Carrie’s teeth at the office, filled her cavities and heard her bitch about Thom.
I once said a nice thing about Thom’s gap-toothed smile (she wanted him to get braces) when Carrie was in the chair, and she just ratcheted up her cattiness, which of course made me like her less than I had from the start when they moved in next door and she never once said hi, or what-up, or came over to let me shake her hand, or hug her, let me welcome her to the neighborhood. Thom, however, he gave me a nice handshake and smiled like a little boy at Christmas when I met him that first day. He gave me a brand new tennis racket from his shop, along with a can of orange balls, just as a thanks-for-letting-me-be-your-neighbor gift. Then he gripped my hand like he meant it.
Not that many people are sincere anymore. Somehow, it seemed like on the other side, the dead-person side, Carrie would have it figured out, might have some sincerity. She wouldn’t be self-conscious about her weight or the fact I had held onto my looks, especially my legs, which Thom gave a nice hard look at when we first met and whenever I was doing gardening things all that summer. Carrie, to my way of thinking, was in a better place dead than she was alive.
Dr. Blake drove us to the funeral in his Mercedes and it quickly became clear Dr. Blake was there for the show of it, then at the wake he really just wanted to recruit a new patient or two. I saw him consoling Thom and holding the boy, Carlton, with a very focused fake sincerity all afternoon. Thom had a different dentist at the time, but soon enough he’d be our patient. Dr. Blake knew how to sell it.
Zack brought his flask to the church ceremony. Filled with gin, which once it got warm was hard to take. We did our best to kill it, though, before the reception, or the wake, or whatever you call these things.
Zack also brought this rubberized submarine-style sandwich. I think it was a dog toy. His plan was to set it on fat dead Carrie’s chest in the open casket when no one was looking. Zack was very pleased with this idea, but I managed to talk him out of it.
After the funeral, Carrie’s brother drove a “symbolic” empty coffin all around downtown raised up in the bed of his 4X, flying a long yellow flag that said “Schools Negligence Killed My Sis—Background Checks, Anyone?”
He wanted everyone to know that something had been lost, which in many ways I can’t blame him for, though of course his focus was muddled by grief, or just stupidity. I might’ve done something foolish and angry for Zack if he ever got run over by a school bus on his 10-speed, or his motorcycle, or rollerblades, or just walking around. But, if I did such a thing I hoped I wouldn’t have looked as much a fool.
* * *
After driving the empty coffin around, Carrie’s brother brought it to the Bishop’s House where the wake deal was being held. He and his friends leaned it up against this old maple tree with that stupid flag over the top.
There was nostalgia all over the place. Videos and photo albums from elementary school days, bbq chicken wings and spring rolls from Chang Mai where Carrie worked for a couple years. Everything smelled like sugary meat and cilantro sprigs and those wickless cinnamony candles. A big DJ looped a bunch of her favorite songs. “California Dreamin’” especially. That was her favorite of all time. She lived there as a kid.
There were even a few of her favorite going-out cloths on display. And when her brother and friends came rolling in with their “symbolic” coffin her on-the-town friends laid the dresses and halters on top of the varnished dark wood.
* * *
Zack’s biggest idea, and ironically the thing that led me to getting with Thom, was to climb into the fake coffin of fat dead Carrie.
He offered me money to get in the coffin and pretend I was dead for a while, but I said no way.
“You got no sense of adventure,” he said, and held the roast-beef sandwich toy up to my mouth. I slapped it away, and he said, “Good luck dying of boringness.”
“What the fuck ever,” I said, “at least I have a soul.”
“Carrie’d take a steamy dump on your fake coffin if you got pancaked by a school bus.”
“See now, that’s right because Carrie did NOT have a soul.” I lay my hand on Zack’s skinny, warm chest, watching Thom in the near distance ease across the side lawn holding his fray-haired son in one hand and a beer in the other.
“I love you, Jo.” Zack kissed my lips, then put the sandwich in his mouth, and started pretending he was pedaling a wobbly bicycle in a wobbly circle.
I covered my mouth to cup the laughter in, but it slipped through my fingers and out among the mourners as Zack kept pedaling, pointing my way.
“I’m gonna get in that fake coffin,” Zack said.
“No you’re not.”
“I want to take something back, Jo.”
He stopped pedaling and being stupid for a few long moments, and just nodded slow and sad as we held eyes. His thin face and spotty beard looked pretty loveable to me right then, and I felt a hollow place open up in me because it seemed here was my brother doing weird self-defeating stuff like he always had, but here he was doing it for me. Zack’s eyes were sweet and glassy as he stood there wordlessly explaining the injustices—how we all die alone, how we all should get what we can when we can, explaining our father’s hateful life, our mother’s wistful ignorance, he was explaining his own hardworking poverty, my willingness to be used.
The air smelled like hot dogs and cigarettes. Bananrama sung, “Cruel Summer,” and I hummed along.
Then Zack laughed all super loud and set off pedaling again, chomping on that sandwich.
The same people stared harder, and I wished we had more gin in the flask.
“I’m doing it for you, Jo,” he said, then walked off into the crowd.
* * *
I wandered the wake in a glowing drunk muddle for a time. I thought of finding Thom and telling him, well, something that might help with all this. Then I saw Thom was leaning against the end of the outdoor bar, listening to some kind of grandpa-looking dude offer sincere condolences. Thom held his head low and still, his smooth bald spot shimmering. It made me feel good in my legs and middle, but it made me nervous, too, like what would our relationship be now? Especially when he looked up at me staring from twelve feet away and kind of half-smiled, which made a lot of things feel better and a few other things feel worse.
There was a line waiting for Thom’s ear, so I just waved and walked away and found Dr. Blake standing near the beer tub.
Dr. Blake was telling a short, pretty blonde the story about the seizured-out guy on the plane to Vegas he “saved” on our way to the annual dentist convention. Put a wallet in his mouth. Said some comforting words. Knelt in the aisle and held this guy’s hand. Gave him his card when we got to Vegas.
He uses this story to get things he wants—like the blonde. I can’t blame him for this. I’ve used it before, too, but put myself in that aisle, saving a man. We take what we feel we can, and usually we deserve at least something—like with Zack, I guess.
Dr. Blake touched the blonde’s shoulder. “That dying man’s name was Jenkins. Legally, owes me pretty much everything.” Dr. Blake winked as he saw me walking over.
The blonde nodded, and leaned closer to Dr. Blake. The DJ started up some Neal Diamond, and the blonde made a little awkward dance move.
Dr. Blake took a dance step, too, and turned the blonde my direction. “Josephine here saw me save the man’s life.”
“You’re a hero,” I said. “A dentist saint.”
“You really are,” the blonde said in this squeaky, sincere voice. “Total life saver.”
Dr. Blake introduced me as his favorite woman he has never kissed, which is at least partly true. I covered my lips and shook my head, but the blonde didn’t smile at all.
“Maybe I’ll let Jenkins buy me a beer one day,” Dr. Blake said. “Or let him save my life.”
“Okay, Christ-dentist, you may need to help me with Zack, then,” I said. “He’s gonna get his ass kicked.”
He looked at me, confused.
“My brother?” I pointed across the lawn where the fake coffin leaned against the tree. “Told me he’s getting in that coffin. Pranking the funeral.”
Dr. Blake squinted and nodded. “Seems a tad morbid, no?”
The blonde nodded.
“I might need your help,” I said, “if shit goes sideways.”
“I’m here for you,” Dr. Blake said, and squeezed my arm tight.
* * *
Fat dead Carrie’s brother had a special speech planned for after the buffet and slide show and poetry recitation. He was a tall and broad man with a darkening shadow of stubble. He loped through the crowd, swaying, his beer spilling.
He eventually made it to his dead fat sister’s fake coffin and gave it a try with the wireless mic the DJ had offered up.
He breathed loudly into the mic several times, trying to muster words.
“Carrie, Carrie, you were so . . . loved.” He looked skyward. “You were my sister . . .” Then he bowed his head, and heaved a little high-pitched sob, then a bigger one. It was sad, even for me right then, but kind of embarrassing, too. “You were my sister and you were loved.”
This was repeated several times, as he pointed to the sky. And right when one of Carrie’s friends came up to take the mic from him, this is when Zack threw open the coffin door and screamed like a howler monkey as he stepped out and ran in place holding the sandwich above his head.
The friend dropped the mic, which started to screech, too. Several women screamed, as did a couple of men.
“What d’ya think of me now!” Zack yelled, taking off through the crowd and toward the side parking lot.
That’s when I broke from Dr. Blake’s side and took off for my brother. Shouts of shock and homicide began to rise, but I got to him fast. And when I got to land the first punch I knew I had saved my brother. And I knew I had saved something of me in the process.
I caught Zack from behind at the edge of the lawn, spun him by the shoulder. I swung, and caught him across the nose and cheek.
Zack’s head rolled left, and my knuckles bloomed pain as he cupped his nose with both hands.
“Jo?” he said, quieter than I would have thought. “What the fuck?”
I swung again and punched him in the neck, then came in close, whispering, “These people hate you. You’re gonna get killed.”
He growled and shook his head. Pushed me back hard, his face a pale oval of doubt and fear. “I thought you were on my side, here. They already hated me, and they’re gonna hate me tomorrow. Always. Always.” He dropped his hands to catch the treads of blood unspooling from both nostrils.
My heart fell into a dark bell in my ribs.
A line of people stood watching now. Fat dead Carrie’s brother laughed, saying some shit about one bitch beating the shit out of another. Zack lifted his shirt up and off, exposing pale freckled shoulders and tufts of hair at his chest and down the route of his treasure trail. He held the shirt to his nose, and flipped off the crowd.
Fat dead Carrie’s brother, yelled, “That’s it, bitch!” And he and a couple of his friends started for us. This is when I pushed Zack and took another swing, grazing the side of his head as he ducked and turned for the parking lot.
I turned. “My brother’s a borderline retard, yes. But, you gotta leave him to me! Family’s important today, right? We have our loyalties.” I pointed to my brother. “He’s mine.”
They stopped. Zack stepped further toward the parking lot. I held my hands up like seriously I am in control here. Dr. Blake stepped to the edge of the crowd, the blonde at his side. “I wouldn’t fuck with Jo, boys.” One of the friends flipped him off, and the blonde returned the gesture.
I said, “This is your sister’s funeral, let’s not forget Carrie in this juvenile way, shall we? She was a strong woman, a wonderful mother.” I was still just trying to save Zack’s ass, but it sounded even to me like I meant every word.
Thom stepped up, his boy still in his arms. Thom nodded to me, a kind smile of thanks lifting across his face. “Josephine’s right,” he said steady and real. “Come on, assholes, let’s leave this be, and remember my wife today—your sister, your friend.”
This stopped things for good. Just a few more insults and crass words got chucked around, then I went to find Zack in the lot.
He sat on the hood of Dr. Blake’s Mercedes, and when I stepped up to him to wrap my brother in a hug he flinched and leaned away.
“Easy,” I said. “Easy, Zack. I did this for you. I mean, I think I did. I mean, I’m sorry.”
“Fuck, Jo. I never seen you hit someone like that. I just . . . Carrie was such a bitch to you, and people like her . . . I just wanted something back.”
I smelled beer and blood and gin as I wrapped an arm around my brother, and said, “I love you.”
Zack looked back at the waning crowd. “I know. Mom still here?”
“Shit,” I looked back across the lawn, too. “She’s gonna punch you in the neck, too, asshole.” I smiled.
My brother smiled.
* * *
I gave Zack twenty-two dollars for a cab back to his place and went to get Mom so she could taxi home now, too. She was pretty drunk and hadn’t even seen the almost-fight go down. I didn’t feel like I could explain it right. I was tired. My knuckles and wrist hurt. I probably had Zack’s skin and blood mooshed into mine. I got her to the cab, and let Zack start explaining as they left.
I decided to stay and go find Thom. I had a deep impulse to talk with him, say sorry and thanks at once.
He was alone now, without Carlton or old relatives and friends looking to drop kind words on him. He was just smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer out by the tree line, staring down the western slope toward our little downtown.
“Hi, Thom,” I said in an easy voice. “I just wanted to say sorry about my brother being such a lame-ass.”
“Hey, Jo,” he said, smiling that Letterman smile—silly and earnest and sad.
“Also about Carrie,” I said. “I’m also really sorry about her.”
He handed me his tall cup of beer. “It’s okay, I think. I have a feeling now that it’s okay, that it’s going to be at least.”
He had glassy, tired eyes, but he held them on me, and I felt warm.
“Carlton doing okay?” I drank a big swallow of beer.
“He doesn’t really know how to think this up, even.” Thom came in close as he took the beer back. “All that’ll come later.”
“You’ll be a good dad through this,” I said. “I know you will.”
“You two,” Thom said, laughing a little. “Carrie and you. I know you hated each other.”
I looked away down the slope, too. “That’s true. I’m sor—”
“She could be mean,” he said. “I saw that a lot in her. But just know, she was good deep down, she had a good heart.”
I gave Thom a wry smile that was meant to show him I was okay with him believing, knowing, Carrie was good, but me, I’m sorry, I could never be okay with that thought.
“I understand,” he said. “Let’s go get you a drink and talk about stuff, anything really.”
“That sounds like a fine idea, Thom, it really does.”
Then he reached to hug me with both arms, hard, and I did the same back. He was warm and real and I could feel the ropey muscles along his flank. It was a long hug, and it felt perfect and good the whole time. It was the nicest hug I’ve ever had.
* * *
A lot of times I’ve wanted it back, that hug, that series of moments, because there was a lot that would happen between Thom and me that we did not yet know would happen, and that hug was what was before all that.
I would marry Thom five months later, much to the dismay of about everyone we knew, except for Zack who ended up really liking Thom. Go figure. My guess is that it was a way for my brother to keep apologizing to me, to Thom, to himself, to the wide world he felt he’d let down.
With Thom, it would be a version of lust and companionship I was after. I would have a boy and a man to take care of. I would hold a certain meaning that Thom convinced me I was worthy of, a meaning that Thom intimated I had never really had before. Or, maybe I convinced myself of this. Regardless, it was a real feeling, if not lasting.
It would be a courthouse wedding and I would move next door into Thom’s house. At first I’d keep working for Dr. Blake, and along with the sporting goods commissions and base pay and the raise Dr. Blake gave me after that day at the wake when I punched my brother two-and-a-half times just to save Zack’s life Thom and I had good money—for Carlton, for ourselves. Plus, there ended up being some insurance and a payout from the school district.
This was the closest I’d ever come to stability, to a home and family and the idea of permanence.
We’d have sex often. Dead Carrie would rarely be mentioned. I’d make meatloaf every Tuesday, and Thom would make Crockpot roast most weekends. We’d have Thursday “date nights” scheduled a month out. I’d still go out with Therese and get a nice buzz on sometimes. For a while Thom would even like to come out with us.
Then, a few months into it, Thom would ask me if I’d go half time at Dr. Blake’s so I could take care of Carlton and save us money on daycare, save his mom from having to watch him a lot, too. I did this. Then, he asked me to quit entirely. I did this also, though Dr. Blake left it open for me to come back any time. Thom said I was needed at home, and I was happy to be needed.
After I’d start being at home all the time certain things got noticed a lot more, like the photos of fat dead Carrie and Thom and Carlton still hanging in the hallway and rec room, like the drawer of her jewelry still in the armoire, like the several wide-backed dresses still hanging on Thom’s side of the closet, like the bag of hair dead Carrie was going to donate to Locks of Love.
I would ask Thom if we could maybe, you know, get rid of these things. He would hem and haw. He would say these things meant something to Carlton. I would say, well fuck, what about me? He would say yes, okay, then they’ll go.
These dead Carrie items would remain. I would ask him again. And I would ask him a third time, on a bright spring morning as we lay in each other’s arms atop the sheets. Yes, I promise, he would say.
These items, they never were going to leave. I came to realize this. I realized fat dead Carrie would never be dead at all.
The sex would dissipate. The sense of being needed would shift into the sense of being used. All that stability crap, it walked right out of my life almost as quickly as it walked in.
We change without knowing we’ve even changed sometimes.
Soon enough, I would change again.
As I think of it now, I wouldn’t call Thom, or all that time, a mistake. Though there have been many times I’ve named it that. Obviously, I can get mean about shit.
But really, it can’t ever truly be a mistake because, fuck, we were there hugging, holding each other in this one moment, or this ridiculous series of moments on this one dumb day before the rest happened.
And it was a grace, a gift, the best it would ever be with Thom, with anyone maybe.
He was holding me. He was whispering my name, his name, Carrie’s name.
I was forgiving myself for calling fat dead Carrie fat dead Carrie.
I was forgiving myself for letting people ever take advantage of me, and for me encouraging it with my selfishness.
Zack had not yet moved to Galveston to work oil rigs and drowned riding out a hurricane.
I was still talking to my mother.
The world seemed a place that even Carrie could only pretend to hate.
In the near distance the DJ had Bon Jovi lighting up the late afternoon with “Wanted Dead or Alive.” The sad laughter of mourners drifted down from the waning blue. Thom cried into my neck, but laughed, too, some of it whistling through that tooth-gap as his boyish spirit seeped into me.
He smelled like sugar and malt and I wanted to give him happiness. I squeezed him.
He said, “Thank you,” in a manner beyond honesty.
We should never have tried to make a life out of the ruins, maybe. But we did. And that’s the fucking best part. We took the pieces and made a new thing for a while.
Unstable and doomed? Yes.
Kind of fucked up when you looked at it from a certain angle? Yes.
But still. There we were.
Everything was okay. Everything was okay.
Christian Winn, the 2016-2019 Idaho Writer in Residence, is a fiction writer, poet, and teacher of creative writing. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, TriQuarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, Chattahoochee Review, The Pinch, Santa Monica Review, and elsewhere. His story collections NAKED ME and WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU IS WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME are recently out from Dock Street Press. He teaches fiction and poetry with The Cabin, is the founder of the Writers Write Fiction Workshop Series, co-founder and director of Storyfort, and curator of Modern Campfire Stories and the Couch Surfer Artist Series. He lives and writes in Boise, Idaho.