This weekend, we have fiction from Jamie Iredell, author of the newly released I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac. It’s a book you want to check out, if that title didn’t already get you. And maybe you want to start here to get a taste of Iredell’s unique voice. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Editor
When Earl answered Peggy’s call her parents had just left. “They’re gone for the weekend,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
“Get over here.” Peggy’s drawl could suck Earl in like a harvester. “But park across the street,” she said. “If the neighbors see your truck, they’ll tell Daddy.”
Earl clutched the phone, unsure. He couldn’t risk Walter, Peggy’s father, catching him doing things—you know, sexual things—with his daughter. As a painter—a house painter, that is—good relations with Walter, a contractor, might someday pay off for Earl. But Peggy’s creamy legs and her white teeth, her blond hair curling around her earlobe, kept shooting by in his head, and he dressed.
They’d been dating for little less than a year, although they’d known each other much longer, since they were kids at Morningside Baptist. Earl had always liked Peggy, but it wasn’t till high school, where Earl played linebacker for the Northside High Colts, and grew broad-shouldered and popular, that he made a move. They’d never talked before—just the occasional nod of hello—but during biology class in junior year, Peggy dropped a quarter and Earl bent in his paint-splattered pants (dressed for work immediately following school), picked it up, and returned it open-palmed. Knowing that Peggy was Walter Horsfield’s daughter—Walter Horsfield of Horsfield Construction—Earl smiled, got friendly. Not much later he became her boyfriend.
Before he left the house, Earl’s mother called him to dinner.
“I’m going to Peggy’s,” he told her.
“You two have been spending an awful lot of time together,” his mother teased. She held a stainless steel bowl containing steaming mixed vegetables and she set it on the table.
Earl shrugged. “I like her.” It was true; he liked her. He couldn’t tell if there was much beyond that. Earl knew that every guy at school wanted to be him, so with Peggy he knew he’d landed a good one.
“She’s a sweet girl,” Earl’s mother said. “Be sure to tell her folks hello.” Peggy’s mother played the organ at Morningside. Earl knew his own mother thought the Horsfields were good folks, as she would say. The kind of folks you wanted to know.
Earl parked his Toyota under the pecan trees across the street from Peggy’s house. He stepped out of the truck, depressing the lock as he went. He patted the truck’s door like a pet. He’d started painting houses two years ago in order to pay for it, and it was his baby.
The house loomed huge in the twilight, a six-bed, four-bathroom masterpiece Walter had finished only four years earlier, after Horsfield Construction had made a name for itself, in particular, with Horsfield’s Construction’s successful bid for the Town Center Mall.
The corners of the upper floor rose into turrets and the windows of Peggy’s bedroom were lit like something out of a fairy tale. Earl rang the bell and she answered in nothing but a lacy black bra and panties. She wrapped her arms around Earl’s neck. “We have the whole house to ourselves,” she whispered.
They soaked in her parents’ master bedroom Jacuzzi. Peggy’s parents had a king bed covered in silk sheets. The headboard was mirrored. In the ceiling, Walter had inserted a skylight. French doors opened to a deck overlooking Peggy’s mother’s rose garden. The Jacuzzi was sunk into the bedroom floor, like in a picture of a Las Vegas suite Earl had once seen in a magazine. It was a room designed for pleasure, and Earl envied Walter for it.
“Didn’t you just have your period?” Earl said.
“A month ago,” Peggy said.
She climbed out of the Jacuzzi and toweled herself. “I feel a little crampy,” she said. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
Earl put his hands behind his head and luxuriated in the warm water. He imagined a future with Peggy. Peggy’s mother kept herself in good shape, and this Earl considered as evidence of Peggy’s own physical future. Peggy’s mama was a blonde, tall and leggy. If Peggy turned out at all like her, Earl thought, he could stand being her husband. He stepped out of the Jacuzzi and opened Walter’s mirrored closet doors. He slid his hands along the silky fabric of Walter’s suits. Walter probably hadn’t needed to lift a finger for real work in years. Earl couldn’t find a dirtied or ragged pair of workpants, no steel-toed boots. Just wool and sharkskin suits and soft leather loafers. If Earl played it right, he could have a future like this.
The front door downstairs slammed closed. From where Earl stood in the bedroom he could peer out the door down the long hall toward the stairs where a light flickered on.
“Hello?” Earl called.
“You’d better get the hell down here, and start talking!” Walter called out. Earl could hear Walter’s heavy feet already climbing the stairs.
Earl wasted no time, sprinting from the closet without bothering to close its doors or to gather his clothing where he’d piled it on the floor. He slipped out the French doors onto the deck, where he found himself trapped.
He was in a panic, naked. Without thinking, it seemed, he was shimmying down a beam to the second floor deck, then into the rose garden. His naked skin dotted with goose bumps, and for a moment he looked wide-eyed left and right, then ran through the roses, the thorns scratching the flesh of his calves and forearms. He tripped over one bush and almost put a thorn into his groin, but it scraped his thigh. He ran around the house, across the street, and under the trees to his truck.
The door wouldn’t open. He thought of his clothing piled upstairs in Walter’s bedroom, and the keys in his jeans’ pocket. He peered through the truck window and—look at that—his keys dangled from the ignition. Lucky. If he hadn’t locked the keys in the truck he’d have been stranded. Earl had never been glad that he’d done something so stupid. The sliding window in the rear of the cab was unlocked and Earl climbed into the bed and pried it open. He leaned through the window and unlocked the door, then he got inside and drove back to his own house.
Parked in his driveway, Earl wondered what Walter would say if, or (more likely) when, he saw him next. When he and Peggy began dating Walter approved only because Earl and his family attended Morningside. This, Peggy reassured him, was a good sign. “What does your daddy have against me?” Earl asked. They’d parked by the Chattahoochee River, where they often ended their dates in the bed of Earl’s Toyota. “Nothing in particular,” Peggy had said. “He doesn’t like any boy I date. I’m his baby girl. You know how daddies get with their daughters.”
“Didn’t you used to date Ken Allen?” Earl said. Ken Allen, the Colts’ quarterback, lived in east Cobb County, the same ritzy neighborhood as Peggy. Peggy nodded. Earl said, “What your daddy not like about him?”
Peggy turned her face away from Earl in a way that told Earl that nothing about Ken had bothered Walter and this, probably, had been the reason why Peggy broke up with him.
When he picked Peggy up for the movies and Walter answered the door, Earl always made it a point to say “hello sir,” and “yes sir” when Walter said Peggy wasn’t ready and Earl could wait in the living room. Earl knew he’d made some headway when, last May, after only a month of dating, Earl waited for Peggy and he and Walter sat in the living room and talked about the Braves game on the TV. It was painfully obvious, with the ridiculous Braves license plate on the truck, the framed posters of Hank Aaron and Tom Glavine in the living room, that baseball was Walter’s favorite sport, and the Braves his team. “What’s the score?” Earl asked. Walter sighed, “It’s on the goddamn screen, you jackass.” Earl had only wanted to strike up conversation. “Yes sir,” Earl said. “How’s Glavine pitching this game? He sure is on a streak this year.” Then Walter started talking about Glavine, and the Braves in general. Earl was happy they had found something in common.
Earl and Walter went fishing together. Although they’d driven north, toward Helen, Earl couldn’t help but think that the little stream he and Walter fished was the same body of water that became the Chattahoochee, where Earl took Walter’s daughter’s clothes off. But Earl knew fishing. Earl’s biological father had been a drunk and a brute, and the best damn fisherman Earl had ever known to come out of northern Alabama. Lawson (Earl’s daddy) began to rebuild Earl’s and his relationship five years after the ugly divorce, when Earl was just six years old. Earl thought it magic, that Lawson could toss a line in a river and in minutes he had something biting. Lawson showed him his tricks, which weren’t really tricks, just sensible fishing. The fish sat near the shady banks in the heat of day, in hollowed-out logs, underneath tree branches draping regally into placid waters. And Walter Horsfield might have known construction and baseball, but he knew jack shit about fishing. He’d picked Earl up in a ridiculous khaki outfit, like something the Crocodile Hunter might wear, and it was still creased from the store folding.
“Goddamn!” Walter exclaimed, watching Earl fish. “Look at you pull ‘em out. How you do that?”
Earl showed him, and afterwards, at Sammy’s BBQ, over Budweisers, he and Walter bonded. Walter kept slapping Earl’s shoulder and saying, “You ain’t nothing but a good old boy, ain’t you. I knew you were. I see you in church, and I always knew you were just a good old boy.” With each beer Walter’s Southern accent grew thicker.
Now that Earl had been caught with Peggy, he was sure he’d ruined everything he’d tried to build between him and Walter. When Earl and Peggy left the house for a date Walter always said “Bring her back in one piece, now.” Earl smiled in a way that said, me? a good old boy? Why I’d never consider anything else. Out loud, Earl always said, “Yes sir.”
Now, Earl looked in his truck for something to cover himself. He found an old soda cup from Wendy’s. At least his parents never locked the front door. He could cover his privates in case the neighbors were watching, sneak in through the front door, run upstairs to his room, and get dressed before his parents ever saw him.
He crept to the front door, clutching the cup over his parts. He tried the door but, for whatever reason—it was never locked—this evening it was locked. He was forced to ring the bell.
David, Earl’s stepfather, answered. He held the telephone in his hand, a look of utter disgust as his eyes trailed down Earl’s naked body, then up to his sad face. David said into the receiver, “He just got here.”
Earl tried for the most pitiful look he could muster, and said, “I fucked up.”
“I know,” David said, handing Earl the telephone. “He wants to talk.” Shaking his head and muttering, David handed over the phone and walked away.
Walter yelled so loud that Earl held the telephone at arm’s length and he still made out the cuss words. Earl brought the phone back to his mouth enough to put in an occasional “Yes sir,” and “I’m sorry, sir.”
After that, Peggy and Earl didn’t see each other for a month, except at school. “Daddy says I can’t see you anymore,” Peggy said. “But I’m going to work on him. He can’t keep us apart forever. Remember, I’m his little girl, and he can’t stand to see me unhappy.”
When Peggy finally called she said, “If you want to go out tonight, we can.”
“I’m not so sure,” Earl said.
“It’s okay. Daddy’s not mad anymore. We’ve talked. You can pick me up.”
Earl hoped Peggy would be ready and at the door, and they could get on their way without Earl having to face Walter. No dice. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and gray stubble colored his cheeks. He held a Budweiser and said, “She ain’t ready yet,” then walked into the living room.
Earl followed. From one of their couches that converged in an L in the living room, Walter again watched the Braves. Earl took a seat on the other couch, as far from Walter as he could get. He drew his legs together, trying to make himself smaller, because he could feel Walter’s anger breathing on him. Neither spoke for a few minutes. Finally Earl asked, “Who’s pitching tonight?”
Walter said, “Found your goddamn underwear in my goddamn bed.”
“Oh,” said Earl.
“They’re by the goddamn fireplace, if you want them.”
Earl found his shorts folded on the hearth.
“You know,” Walter said, not taking his eyes off the TV. “For a while there, I thought about getting you a job. Thought you might be the real deal, a hard-working boy, a regular kid.”
Earl said nothing. It figured. When Earl played Little League he’d been a contender for the All-Star team, but the All-Star coach had a son who also played first base. Everyone said Earl’s the best first baseman in the league, he’s sure to start. Earl set his hopes high, only to have them crushed a few weeks later when he learned that, not only would he not start, but he hadn’t even made the team. The coach chose his own son for the first base position. And now Earl had set his hopes high again. He’d wanted Peggy and, more than anything, he wanted to get a job with Horsfield Construction and work his way up, become Walter’s right-hand guy.
It was quiet until Peggy emerged from her room. “I’ll be home by eleven, Daddy,” she said, kissing her father on the cheek. Walter didn’t joke about having his daughter home in one piece, or say anything at all.
Earl and Peggy dated for one month after that. Earl couldn’t bring himself to face Walter, and the stress drove him to call things off. His earlier visions of his future with Peggy melted away like ice till they vanished and everything was monotone and he found himself disinterested even with Peggy’s smooth skin or her head turned to look longingly at him. They both mourned the loss of their relationship, but there was little Earl could do if Peggy’s father would never forgive him. Peggy tried to convince Earl that her father wouldn’t always be so mean. Earl said he couldn’t believe her. In the back of his mind was a Jacuzzi sunk into a floor, and an impossible walk-in closet lined with sharkskin suits.
Earl tried college but failed classes, as he also tried smoking pot and found smoking pot more fun than attending classes. He found a job mixing paint at a paint store. Within a year the manager had been promoted and Earl slid right into the old manager’s spot. Earl kept a tidy apartment, and some nights, on his computer, he went into a drafting program where he’d started elementary floor plans of a house that one day he hoped he could afford to build and fill its emptiness with stuff he didn’t know what.
For a couple years Peggy had sporadically kept in touch and Earl knew she had gone to Georgia Tech. She dated a few guys from school, but Earl heard from Ken Allen a year later that she fell in love with a med student from Emory, some guy named Steve. The last Earl heard of Peggy was when she was interviewed on the news about rains that had flooded some ritzy neighborhood in Cobb County where Peggy and her now-doctor-husband lived.
Earl’s mother, who by now had divorced David and lived in a singlewide outside of Rome, Georgia, had called to say, “Remember that pretty girl you dated in high school? She’s on Channel 11 right now.” Earl’s mother often reminded him of people he’d gone to high school with. Earl lied to his mother, saying he hardly remembered those people. But after his mother called with news of Peggy, Earl flipped the channels, hoping she’d gained forty pounds and cupped a toddler to her hip. But she wore a beige business suit, and was as beautiful as Earl remembered. It was spring and her diamond ring glinted in the news crew’s lights.
Earl keeps in shape by running two miles every day. On the odd days he lifts weights after work at a local gym. Some nights he has a few beers while watching TV and he thinks that he really doesn’t have it too bad. He keeps a roof over his head. He’s not in debt. He has his health. He drinks another beer and drives down the road to Shamrock’s where he pounds a couple more, and has some laughs with the old guys who are watching the game—whatever game.
Sometimes Earl meets a lady—some Sally or Karen—and he takes her home. In the morning his head hurts as he drives the woman to her apartment and he awkwardly says goodbye. Sometimes Earl parks, and sometimes he fishes at the Chattahoochee River, which still flows, just as wide as ever.