Sarah Ratermann Beahan (Goddard College, USA)
Look. There isn’t much to say about me. I can’t think of one single thing that makes me stand out. I prefer the Republican to the Democrat, the Cardinals to the Royals and meat to vegetables. I go hunting but don’t particularly enjoy it. I tell people I can bench press 250 but that’s a lie, but everybody lies about that, so. I don’t have a girlfriend, but I have had my fair share. My parents are still married and they seem to like each other well enough. I grew up pretty ordinary.
We went to church every Sunday, more out of habit than anything. Like a lot of folks around, it was more a place to say hello to all your neighbors than to get real intimate with the Lord. Most of the time when I sat in those pews and put my forehead to my folded hands I was trying to stay awake. I’d look over and see my dad doing the same thing. I can’t think of many times I had a real conversation with God sitting in St. James, or any other place for that matter. We went to nine o’clock service and then to the coffee and doughnut reception afterward in the basement. Then we’d go home and my mother would make a big Sunday supper. Sunday afternoon was when people went for drives and if you lived in the country like we did, you’d expect visitors. It’s one of the only times people from town came out to the country roads. I don’t know why, I expect it has something to do with having more time and everything else being closed. If you drove through downtown Burton on a Sunday afternoon, you wouldn’t see many cars and the supermarkets were near empty. I remember Sundays being the sacred day, not because we were supposed to be thinking of God all day, like some folks suggested, but because it was the day you spent with your family. I spent a lot of time gallivanting all over the county, but on Sunday I didn’t even pick up the phone.
When I graduated from high school I did two years of community college and then went to the police academy. I couldn’t stomach the idea of looking at a computer all day. I wasn’t the smartest of the bunch, but I sure wasn’t the dumbest either. I didn’t think I was going to be a big detective or anything like that. I don’t even think Walnut County has one of them. But I did think that when there was some kind of domestic disturbance, I could probably de-escalate it pretty well. Or if there was a robbery, I could gather information as quickly and calmly as possible and, you know, get it taken care of. Some people raise the temperature in the room. That’s not me.
Carrie called 911 on November 7th. It was a Wednesday– far enough after Halloween that there wasn’t much going on. Everybody had gotten the mischief out of their systems. It had been drizzly and chilly all week, that lazy sort of weather that makes you think the sky just couldn’t get up the gumption to produce anything– the kind of weather that drives people indoors. The call came in at 8:47 PM, Nancy the dispatcher told me later. She was rattled. Her hand shook like a drunk’s while she held on to that Styrofoam cup of decaf coffee. She said that Carrie sounded like she was calling in a broken streetlight or a kid playing his music too loud, her voice was so matter of fact.
I was the first to respond. I think now that I probably did have some kind of conversation with the Lord, though I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I do know that I was damn grateful that it was me that pulled into that long driveway first. I was grateful that Flip’s truck was nowhere to be seen.
Flip was my first friend. He’s not always the greatest friend, nor is he the greatest husband. Now he’s the kind of guy that raises the temperature in a room just by walking into it. Sometimes that’s pretty great, and you just want to be around him because you figure some of the fun will rub off. Other times it turns sour. A lot of people don’t like that sour aftertaste and they fade away. I figure that if I’m going to leech off the good times, the least I can do is be around for the ugly.
Wednesday was poker night at the Palace Pub, so I knew just where he’d be: leaning back in his chair with his back against the wall so he could see everything in the room, smoking a cigarette and gloating. Everybody suspected he cheated and it was almost as competitive to keep him from doing so as it was to just win the damn game. One thing about Flip, he’d liven up the party. I worked Wednesday nights and usually picked him up and drove him home just to keep him from getting behind the wheel. Sometimes we’d go to the truck stop and drink coffee and eat breakfast. I tried to keep him occupied, get him sobered up. He and Carrie fought on nights like that. She asked me once why I stuck by him knowing he’d never change. I didn’t have an answer for her, but I suspect now that it’s because I think he tries to be a good man, just like he tried to be a good boy. He just has trouble committing to it.
When we were little bitty kids, maybe ten or so, I was at Flip’s house in town. His parents ran the grocery store in Burton, the one Flip runs now, and they weren’t never home. Flip was left with his big sister Tasha, which meant we could do whatever we pleased. That day we took off on our bicycles to the store, shoved Hershey bars and orange sodas down our pants and then made our way to the city park. It was early summer so the air hadn’t gotten that wet-blanket feel just yet, and the park was all but deserted. Later in the day when the baseball games started and the concession stand opened the whole place would be a zoo, but in those morning hours we had it to ourselves.
The swings and slides weren’t as interesting to us as the rest of the deserted park. We’d go to the pay phone, dial zero and make prank calls to the operator. We tried to find a way into the groundskeeper’s cottage, reasoning that there’d be all sorts of good tools in there. There was a fence around the wading pool, which didn’t open until early afternoon and we did our best to scale it without getting caught.
We wheeled our bikes across the baseball diamond and through a gap in the fence to where the concession stand straddled the two fields. It was a big stand with food on the first level and the announcers stand up above. We love our baseball in Burton and boys like us dreamt about the day we’d be big enough to play on that field with Mr. Andrews calling the game over the loudspeaker.
On either side of the concession stand were rows of bleachers and we often scavenged for all the things people dropped the night before and plumb forgot about. That day, at the back of the bleachers stuck between two support beams, we found a roll of cash. It was a big roll, big enough that my fist couldn’t close around it and we stood there staring at it for a long time.
“Holeeeeey shit.” Flip said. We weren’t acquainted with cursing yet and it startled me, but I reasoned the occasion warranted the language. He unwound the rubber band and began to count. There was nearly five hundred dollars there.
“Let’s buy a car,” I said.
“You can’t buy a car for five hundred bucks, you dummy.”
“My daddy got his Chevy for $500 and a steer.”
“There ain’t no car worth buying for $500. It probably wouldn’t even run.”
“What would you do with it, smarty?” He shrugged and looked at me sideways as if to say “wouldn’t you like to know.”
The thing was, we knew we weren’t going to be buying cars or truckloads of candy or bus tickets to Chicago. We were still young enough to be afraid of getting caught.
“What do we do?” I asked. Flip usually had an answer for everything, and at the moment he was suspiciously silent. “We can’t keep it.”
“I know that.” He glared at me. “Who do we give it to? How do we know whose it is?”
We spent the better part of an hour under the bleachers, guzzling orange soda and eating melted chocolate bars trying to puzzle out the problem. I suggested we could take it to the police and have them finger print it. Flip rejected that outright. “Do you know how many finger prints are on money, you moron?” I didn’t, but I took that to mean there were a lot. Flip thought that maybe we should put up a sign that said, “If you lost something here, call this number.” I thought that sounded pretty good in theory, but then what happened when somebody started calling the number? What then? The idea of returning grocery money to a little old lady sounded heroic. The idea of meeting a burly, tattooed, and grizzled drug dealer on a Harley was terrifying.
“Can’t we just take it to your parents and ask them what to do?” I was tired; this game had lost its appeal. I didn’t know what the right answer was and I was bored of trying to figure it out. That’s what adults were for– to tell you what you should do. Flip shrugged. He, too, seemed to have lost interest. Now I wonder why we didn’t just leave it there for its careless owner to come reclaim, but at the time turning it over to adults seemed like the safest course of action.
When we walked into Flip’s parents’ store, the assistant manager straightened his red IGA smock and scowled at us. “You better go see your mother,” he said, staring down his hawk nose at us.
“What did you think we were doing, you dummy? Coming to talk to you?” Flip sneered and stalked right past him.
The office was in the front of the store, just behind the courtesy counter. Flip’s mother sat behind the large wooden desk. The room was oppressive. The walls were covered with warped wood paneling and the sheer amount of paper stacked on file cabinets, credenzas, and even the windowsill had to be a fire hazard. Donna pulled her glasses down her nose and stared at us.
“Did you take sodas and candy without paying for them again?” She asked without even saying hello.
“Yeah, Mom, but listen–”
“I told you what would happen the next time you did that.” She hadn’t moved; she just kept staring over those half-glasses. Donna was pretty in an older lady kind of way. She had very uniformly curled blonde hair that I think was the result of something my sister called a permanent wave and she wore very pink lipstick. She always dressed in blazers and skirts, though she rarely left the little office.
“Mom, we’re sorry but you’ve got to listen to me, Jimmy and I found something and we need your help.” Flip spoke very fast, and his face had changed. I wasn’t sure what the punishment was for stealing merchandise from your parents’ store, but clearly he did and it had caused the blood to rise in his cheeks.
“I don’t care what you found.” She stood, went to the back of the door where there was a paddle on a hook. She kept one at home, too, I’d seen it there. My parents weren’t above whacking me every now and then but I could tell that this was not going to be the same sort of whack. Flip’s voice had reached a pitch that I’d never heard before. He was talking very fast, trying to explain what had happened at the park and his concerns about the wad of money before his mother could bend him over the desk and wind up with the paddle.
She completely ignored him. She just turned Flip around, gripped him at the nape of the neck and pushed his face toward her desk. His forehead lay flat on the wood and every time she wound up and landed that paddle, the top of his head shoved the folders on her desk a few millimeters forward. He kept talking as she hit him, but it was muffled both from the desk and his own tears and that just seemed to make her angrier. I’d never seen anger like that before. Her face didn’t change; her voice was as calm as it would be if she were telling you the total for your groceries, and yet you could almost see her quivering with fury. For the most part I couldn’t see her eyes, but when she glanced up to see the folders on her desk teetering near the edge, they were flat.
The anger I was used to seeing was my mother’s loud, shrieking anger. When we’d pushed the limit too far, when I’d back-talked her one too many times, her voice would rise to an octave that I could barely tolerate. It usually went away as quickly as it came on. My father’s anger was quieter, but I’d watched him punch the wall of the barn before. Donna’s rage, though, it was a well without a bottom in sight and it frightened me.
“Get out! Jimmy, get out of here! Get out. Get out. Get out!” Flip was no longer trying to explain what happened. He sounded furious at me, as though I was harming him by being there. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to save me from the same treatment or if he was ashamed. I backed slowly up and just as I turned around I heard his mother.
“You goddamn baby. You’re going to have to clean that up, too.” There at Flip’s feet was a puddle. The sight of that puddle seized my insides. I could barely breathe, and the orange soda and chocolate churned in my stomach. All I could think about was getting as far away from Flip, his mother and his humiliation as I could.
I backed out of the office and ran out of the store. I’d left the roll of cash with Flip and as far as I was concerned, I never wanted to see it again. I figure that what I saw that day had a lot to do with why Flip always seemed so wildly unpredictable, why the part of him that drew people in like flies to honey was also the thing that drove them away.
That’s why on the night Carrie called 911 and reported that her dad was shot, I was more thankful than I’ve ever been that Flip was unreachable in the back of People’s Pub. There’d be no question of his whereabouts; everyone knew Flip liked to play cards. When I arrived at the Powers’ place and found Carrie sitting beside her father in his old rusted out pickup, his head leaning against blood-slicked glass, eyes gaping, a pistol in one hand and a near-empty bottle of whiskey resting on the opposite thigh, I have never been more grateful to the Lord or whatever is up there that Flip never missed a Wednesday poker game. He might turn up and be the most caring, sensitive husband anyone could ask for. He might take charge where Carrie couldn’t, stroke her hair when she looked as though she were going to crumble, field questions from the authorities. He might be the man who spoke of his father-in-law as a kind man, reminding us that no matter what the circumstance, the man deserved our respect.
But he might not.
Sarah Ratermann Beahan is a MFA candidate at Goddard College. After traveling around the United States looking for a place to call home, she now resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota where she writes and teaches. She chronicles her adventures at her website. Previous literary accolades include editing The Pitkin Review, writing an entertainment blog for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, production of her play Gas’n’Go at the Webster University Conservatory Theatre and cleverly written Facebook status updates.