I'd be happy if folks would leave us in peace, especially alkies. That's about all I want anymore, solitude, some tranquility. Though Franklin has been getting under my hide. Last week he was rummaging through the fridge, his face the color of steak, yelling, "Where's my Guinness Extra Stout? I had a dozen. Wilma, you drinking my brew when I ain't looking?"
"Come here so I can stab you with an ice pick," I said, "not to kill you, to wake you up."
"You choking them down? Dealing black market?"
He was on a tear, blaming, pointing, until I pushed past the juice and milk to the back of the shelf, and still he counted them, four times. Satisfied at last, he hoisted double thumbs-up.
"I deny your thumbs-up," I said.
Most mornings he comes into the kitchen hung over while I read the paper. Franklin's build is short and compact with a belly like a blimp stuffed with yeast, his hair's thick for fifty, and he has a big smile, hands-down winner to my nine feet by one inch--basically I'm flat--my hair's cut for ease over style, and my smile's seldom sighted. Today, like all days, he mixes flour and sugar for a coffee cake then reads over my shoulder. "Wilma, why's Sheriff Joe dress his cons in pink skivvies?" or "What're they spraying the occupiers with now?" or "How can Arab ladies drive with shawls over their heads?" Anymore, I skim the paper, reading just enough to distract my mind. I'll start unscrambling the word jumble and he'll go on reading headlines, horoscopes, TV best bets until the oven timer buzzes. I can't get a minute to relax. Just when I find a book review that interests me, he rattles the paper, loud, and rests his chin on my shoulder until his hefty head weighs me down and he whispers in my ear, "Wilma, you're getting wrinklier." The diet I'm on's thinning my face, but that's the way it's got to be, and Franklin's right, sometimes when I'm rubbing in rejuvenator I say to the mirror, ayi-yi-yi, clamp a giant clip in back of your head, unrumple yourself. Franklin's afraid his sister'll shrivel into a tumbleweed and blow away. So he keeps buying beer and baking cakes to stop me from paring down to diddly.
That man's a piece of work, not so different from our mama. He wears me out and then some, but crapsake, I've got needs of my own, even if I don't know what any of them are. I can't meet all of Franklin's demands and I can't intervene like Pastor said. Franklin requires someone stronger with tougher shoulders to prop him up. And that's why I tell Pastor, All right, send that beer sponsor on over. Franklin's skeptical. He imagines some big-nosed guy with a freight train of credentials, a Billy Graham, a pope, Bible thumping from a bullhorn.
But beer sponsor's no bible-toter and if he's a pray-er, he's the non-standard type. When he walks in I think, holy Moses, what's that goofy Pastor up to? One of those motorcycle vets doing his best "Easy Rider." His gullet's gulped it all down. I can tell. Beer sponsor's vast, a continent, Asia to my Rhode Island, a red bandana over thin hair, a leather vest over belly rolls, dusty jeans over dirty boots. But after a minute I see he's no imitator after all. He's too happy to pretend. From eyebrows to boot-toes, he looks marinated in humor--even that bandana tied to his head looks so insouciant I want to yank it off. This guy's in a big tickle. He can't possibly work out, I think, and I feel for Franklin, who could really use an intervention. Beer sponsor's been de-miserated. What a sight. I bet he's fresh out of motorcycle school, twenty years old, maybe. If that.
"I'm Charlie," he says and holds out his hand. When we shake, his fingers tremble.
"I'm Wilma and this here's my brother Franklin."
"Dude." And he fist bumps Franklin.
Franklin rubs his knuckles but I don't think beer sponsor meant to bruise him. Both men are chunky but only one is strong, a sweet strong boy cut out for hard work and light pay.
"What's that tattoo say on your arm?" Franklin asks.
Beer sponsor lifts his arm as if the words hadn't been inked there for some time. "This says 'Higgs boson.' It's a, well, it means God particle, um, God gene."
"You a priest?" Franklin asks and snuffs out the smile in beer sponsor's eyes.
"I was on the path but took a detour."
"Why?" Franklin asks.
"I just did. I changed."
"Can you go back if you want to?" Franklin asks.
"I don't know." Beer sponsor scratches his bristly jaw.
I'm about to tell Franklin to let up on the sorry Catholic when I see beer sponsor staring at my pudendum. He reddens. I'm wearing new Spanx, undies guaranteed to protect against camel toe, so it can't be that. I curl my hair behind my ears, bite my lip.
"Guinness?" Franklin asks.
Beer sponsor whoops like an old-time warrior, bear hugs Franklin, pounds him into hops, all in fun, then it's down to business in the kitchen where hot coffee perks as they admit they're powerless, that their lives have become unmanageable. In the middle of their heart-to-heart, Franklin finds me folding laundry and says, "Wilma, beer sponsor's okay," then he returns to the kitchen, so glad for a whip.
But there are a few loose ends to tie up with beer sponsor before this goes any farther, so I horn in just as beer sponsor leans across the table, his vest rising to reveal a serious butt crack. I say, "Charlie, sorry to interrupt. Can I talk to you real quick?" and he says, "Of course," and follows me to the living room, pulling down his vest, cinching up his jeans.
"Just so you know, I'm sober, two years," I say, "also, not only does Franklin not want to dry out, he doesn't want anyone else to."
Beer sponsor raises a thatched roof over each eye, says, "Gotcha."
Then he huffs out a big breath, says, "Franklin's cool. We're getting along fine."
I don't set much store by folks who reach conclusions so fast, plus I don't want beer sponsor to think being Franklin's sponsor will be a session in confession, so I say, "Franklin's a beer bottle, some neck, mostly belly, no brain."
"Well, hell, don't go bragging about it," beer sponsor says, and this time he stares at my ta-tas.
Real blunt I say, "What age are you, twelve?"
"Thirty. How old are you, Wilma?"
"Working on thirty. For the second time."
"Amen, sister!" Again the reddish smudge across the cheeks. "Wise-woman age. I like forty-ish ladies"
"Like it or lump it." Sidebar: Bygone man of the cloth's a lunatic. Dump him.
After that beer sponsor stops in a couple times a week, sometimes for coffee and a chat during Easy Does It, AA's radio show, other times to whisk Franklin off to dank basements, deserted warehouses, bookstore back rooms. Franklin starts gushing the minute he's in the door after a trip. "Wilma, the God gene's in my DNA." Once I heard him on the phone with beer sponsor saying, "Last night, streaks of light ignited my room." I grabbed the phone, said, "Charlie, what kind of hooey you up to?"
One day beer sponsor brings over a movie--"My Name is Bill W" --and while he scrolls through the credits beer sponsor does stand-up: "What's the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral?"
"One less body," Franklin guesses.
"Close but no cigar," beer sponsor says. "One less drunk." And Franklin laughs until he barks.
Next, he tells Franklin a story about Jesus tossing a bag of nails on a motel counter and saying, 'Can you put me up for the night?'" I hear their merriment from where I am in the dining room, its rhythm comforting, despite the punch lines. Beer sponsor's skittery eyes say he knows I'm listening, but he acts like he doesn't. Their glee's so contagious I have to hold my laughter like breath under water so I don't drown out their lovely gales. And joy. The delight sneaks up on me slowly until I'm standing there, my face brimming with pleasure, my eyes bright with tears.
When the movie starts he gives me goo-goo eyes and scoots over on the couch to make room. I can't help thinking, Beer sponsor, does Pastor know what you're up to? He wants someone to serve him fresh-made coffee, to praise him for keeping his grip on the Conestoga. He looks at me with optimism, but I think to myself, criminy, buddy, I'm a gal a quart low on estrogen. Spent my whole life waiting on Mama and Franklin and that left me a teetotaler with a mighty thirst. Men are all about AC-DC. Wilma and sex been strangers so long she forgets what all the hoopla's for and she's not about to remember now.
What is it about indifference that turns men on? One day beer sponsor comes to the house when he knows Franklin's at a meeting. He says he was in the neighborhood and got a hankering for a cup of my coffee, standing there in his bandana and his vest and his smiling eyes. "Want a Guinness instead?" I say.
He sits at the kitchen table scanning the front page of the newspaper. I hustle around, serving a combo of coffee and attitude, feeling his eyes on my tush, and I blush. And that makes me mad. I'm a not-so-fetching-anymore ab stemious matron. He needs to go away. I think, Are you such a loser you have to put the move on a detoxed lady, you big ex-padre galump ding-dong?
But he doesn't pick up on how mad I am, he just stares at me like he's tanked.
"I have a question," he says.
I pour more coffee, don't say anything.
"You serious about that Guinness?"
I give him the big eyes.
He reddens. "Just checking," he says. "It's okay if you're teasing. Because laughing's a shortchanged high. Proverbs 31:25, 'She is clothed in strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.' Not to mention my Jesus belly-laughing postcard. I get them by the pack--keep it. Some say it heals. And let's not forget my favorite tale about Jesus hanging out at the Pearly Gates when a white-haired guy arrives. The old man says he was a carpenter and his beloved step-son died young. Jesus throws his arms around the old guy and cries, 'Daddy!' The old man replies, 'Pinocchio?'"
What's this unclergy dunderhead blathering on about? What's with this muchacho?
I raise my palm for silence then reach across the table and touch his hand. His quiver motor's running. "Why're you talking claptrap twenty yards a nano-second? Jesus doesn't laugh. You ever see that man smile? Grin? A wayward burp? Squat. You spout the Bible good, so why not go back to ecclesiastics? Unless you're one of those pervs."
Beer sponsor waves his hands in front of his face. "No, no, of course not. I can't go back to seminary, though. Staid folks drive me to drink. Thing is, changing wine into blood's not a transferable skill." He takes a long pull of his coffee.
I think about Franklin's Guinness Extra Stouts lined up in the fridge then top off his coffee with a short pour.
"What's a Hindu? Lay eggs." He snorts. "No death penalty, no Easter." He laughs so hard tears stream down his face and he collapses on the floor barely able to breathe. "Oh God!" he finally says and his lame-brained bandana slips off. He uses it to wipe his eyes and blow his nose.
Now that his fit's subsided, he looks all relaxed. Is that my problem, I wonder, I'm too sober?
Suddenly I think of Mama. Her pictures of Jesus, blood spurting, laughing--not. Those Pastor visits toward the end when she couldn't make it to Mass anymore. She was a serious mother, somber, and her death was a quick kick: cherish time.
Beer sponsor's watching me, I feel his eyes.
"What parish you from, Charlie?" I ask.
"Cathedral," he says and looks away.
I clap. "Praying with the big wigs," I say and beer sponsor reddens.
"Did seminary ban you for drinking on duty or something?"
His blush deepens. "Off duty," he says. "That, and I like women." He looks at me hopefully.
"Mmm-hmm." Post-cleric chico's delusional.
"I can't go back to the Cathedral," he says. "My mom and dad belong there. I'm an embarrassment to them. My older brother's a priest, ordained, and when they didn't get a matching set they couldn't handle it. Our dad saw us shinnying up the steeple to bishop, cardinal even. But I couldn't pray around the clock, I wanted something else. My mom'll be disappointed the rest of her life.
"This AA gig's been good. It's helping me stay true to the Steps. Hanging with Frank and getting to know you, Wilma, well, you're so mellow. The first time we met you shot straight. I respect you for that."
"But Pastor must've told you."
"Yeah, but you were honest with me from the get-go. Folks like your brother come to me for advice, but I don't, well, I don't know any women who got, I mean who are, I mean--"
"Off the corkscrew?"
I give beer sponsor a look to show that wiseacre-ing isn't beneath me, but he locks those smiling eyes on mine until I feel like the surface of water about to boil, and I begin to wish he'd go back to telescoping my nether regions.
"Wilma," he says, "how many times have you been in love?"
Then for no good reason I troll my past and net the day I was at a bluegrass festival watching Paul play guitar and sing "He Will Set Your Fields On Fire" with his band The Bachelor Boys, and Franklin and Mama showed up honking the car horn and causing a fracas. Now, Paul, he was a good musician and travelled all over with his band. This was his last day in Cincinnati and Mama knew it. When Paul saw my mama and brother, he waved and dedicated "The Train That Carried My Girl From Town" to them. Paul strummed and hummed while Mama on one side, Franklin on the other hustled me to the car. At home, Franklin carried in my suitcase and Mama unpacked it, saying no daughter of hers was marrying no guitar picking country boy college dropout, traipsing back roads, living in tents, in fact, no daughter of hers was marrying at all till her mama passed because that's what she'd done, besides there'd always be a truckload of un-tethered dicks out there, and that's just the way it was.
Why'd I dredge up that old tale? As years passed it had come to seem laughable, but it didn't seem funny now.
Beer sponsor is quiet for a minute, then he says, "Thank you for telling me, Wilma."
He reaches for my hand and holds it. I want to pull back but don't. Beer sponsor's hand is warm and shaky. My face and neck heat up but I don't move. Next thing, beer sponsor stretches across the kitchen table and touches his lips to mine and presses. I just know his giant butt crack's hanging out, still, his lips, moving now, feel strong, they feel soft.
Just as his breathing matches the tempo of my own, I draw back. "I think Franklin's at the door."
After that, I feel flustered, in a tizzy. Beer sponsor has become a predicament, a pickle. Of course, I could phone Pastor and say it's not working out, end of story. For sure, Pastor doesn't want booted-out seminarians courting ex-drunk parishioners. Ignoramus beer sponsor's such a moronic pre-minister that he doesn't know goose-egg about scratch. He's so pea-brained, I pity him, which is a bad sign. But thinking how much calmer and lucid Franklin is, I chalk that up to beer sponsor. Franklin keeps track of his Extra Stouts, but he's stopped drinking them. Some of beer sponsor's happiness is rubbing off on Franklin. They swap knee-slappers and beer sponsor teaches Franklin Bible verses about rejoicing. Job 8:21, "He will fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouting." At least there's something he knows about.
June Sprankle, my unlawfully buxom neighbor, rings my bell. I peek at her through the blind, ignoring her, hoping she'll take her nosiness back home, but now she's knocking and turning the knob, so I answer.
June's a deaconess at church, she sings in choir, too, and runs the annual fundraiser. "Did Franklin bake a cake today?" she says without preamble.
At least she's not hitting me up for a donation. She must see the question on my face and says, "Pastor's visiting later about Sunday's service."
So, why not bake her own cake. "Yeah, he baked," I say.
"Can I borrow a few slices?"
"Keep them," I say. "Once they're chewed you can't serve them again." She chuckles. I wrap four slices and she says, "Who's that burly guy's been in and out lately?"
"You an intelligence-gathering agent?"
"Word around the campfire says he's hot." She chuckles again.
"He's Franklin's friend. His cold friend."
"He's hot all right. The kerchief. The vest. The 'Higgs boson.'"
"Hmmm. You forgot his huge hiney fissure."
"That's a side benefit," she laughs. We've never been mi-casa, su-casa-type neighbors, though we've lived next door for over five years. She's an arm-twister, always asking won't I audition for choir, run a booth at the carnival, prep a Sunday reading. She faults me for being unfriendly. Bingo, I'm a loner. Also, I'm a part-time believer. She begrudges me that, too. Don't I know no woman's an island. This parish is a community. I try, but I crave the heat of cold beer, sipping it down to ease up, to feel at peace. And what about beer sponsor, AWOL from priest school, making his way the best he knows how.
Now I'm worried. I dropped my guard a tad and she might want to get chummy. "I've got things to do," I say reaching for the knob.
"Okay, but tell Franklin to bring that Easy Rider wanna-be over to my place and introduce me."
June Sprankle's a widow. Twice. No kids and now she wants beer sponsor to daddy her some babies.
Swanning around in five-inch heels, wearing a pirate's chest of jewelry, she'd lure beer sponsor into nuptials for sure once her hounds sniffed out his apostolic aspirations. And he'd snatch the bait, too, he's so thick. He could do worse than me, and surely flawlessly-molded-hair June would be worse. I feel a slow burn thinking about June procreating with him. That night, in bed, Paul's face comes to mind followed by beer sponsor's. I kiss one, the other, and before I can shunt those images away, I dig my dildo out of storage, something I haven't used since antediluvian times, a thin substitute for a genuine wang schlong peter.
A few days later beer sponsor knocks on my door the evening Franklin's attending a Fourth Step Workshop. He knows I know he knows, but mum's the word.
"Wilma," he says, his cheeks heating up, "I liked our kiss last week. I want to kiss you some more. And do other things. You're all I can think about. I believe I love you, Wilma."
His words take a minute to penetrate the carapace around my brain and when they do, my panic rises inside me like a bad meal. Heart failure? I wait but fail to die. I sit beside him on the couch. The weight of his eyes is on me and though it takes a mighty effort not to look off, I keep my gaze steady. After a gaping silence, I say, "Should we get a suite? The bridal?"
"No," he says, "I'll just hang onto your shoulders."
He looks at me shyly, wondering, I guess, if I'm offended, but I don't know what I am, all I know is something inside me takes a little jump, a frog in there leaps around, hopping, flipping, flopping, an April-fool-clown-frog, stomping out what feels like Lent, bringing on Fat Tuesday. Helpless before the riptide, and right before I throw back my head to all but yodel, a tenderness fills me up I've only felt once before. And as my loneliness falls away like unbuttoned clothes, all I want to do is get a suite with beer sponsor.
At the Red Roof, side-by-side, we lightly kiss, both shy. I pet his Higgs boson, he pets my bare bosoms, and before long we're enjoying many come-to-Jesus moments. Many.
Later, drifting off to sleep, beer sponsor warns me that, while he sleeps like a baby, he wakes up every three hours, looking for a bottle.
"There's that," I say.
There's always that.