by D George Gawlik
Butch poured himself another two fingersful of whiskey. The front door of the house was still gently swinging on its hinges where Jeannie had left it open. Butch looked at it impassively, but the question still nagged him.
Why? Why had he hit her?
It was just a slap, really. Open-handed. A little Cagney, right?
He drained his drink and replayed the scene mentally just to be sure. If Jeannie came back dragging some cops in tow, he was sure she would have reported it as a closed-fisted sucker punch. And he used his ring hand, officer. He could hear her already, lying through mock tears.
Yes, he remembered. It was open-handed. A slap.
But to her, it was as simple as this: He had hit her.
But why? Why had he hit her?
Butch tried to hang it on that prick Andersen at work. What had started out as a series of disciplinary actions had turned into downright bullying. If Andersen wanted him gone, hated him so much, why not just fire him?
That old joke: How do you keep a Polack in suspense?
Was it the job? No, Butch decided. She had long grown tired of hearing about it, and he had grown tired of complaining about it. It just made the next day more of an impossibility to face. Money? No. They’d been a lot worse off in the past. Though far from rich, him and Jeannie were no longer treading water or living a Ramen noodle lifestyle.
Even the whiskey was better these days.
He poured himself another two fingersful, tossed it back, and tried to relax.
Butch was entering the house, naked as the day he was born, and there was Jeannie, screaming, accusing, treating him like a burglar, like a rapist, like –
He startled from his daydream, tossing a bit of whiskey into his lap.
You’re projecting, he mused. Reversing the roles.
She was the intruder. Physically, mentally, emotionally.
Jeannie was expert at playing the role of the opposite. When his mindset lapsed into chaos, she demanded order. When he tried to straighten up and fly right, she would slouch around half-awake and become a careless slob. They were yin and yang, locked together in a dull loathing that couldn’t be bothered to become hatred.
It helped little that Butch resented the fact that, yes, he did need her to complete him. That she took care of him. A nurturing mother with the innocent eye of a child. Everything he had run from his entire life, he had run back toward when he met her. The fearful animal in him finally felt backed into a corner.
And she had to go and run off at the mouth about something trivial right the very second he’d removed his house key from the door. So much for hello, how was your day, he had thought.
And that’s when he hit her. No. Slapped her.
Just a little Cagney. Right?
He poured himself a small splash, and realized he was out of whiskey. He swallowed that, got up and picked his coat up off her armchair. He’d drive down to the store, and maybe on the way he’d see her walking. But he knew what would happen. He’d turn cold inside, and he would keep driving, pretending not to see the familiar silhouette getting further and further away under the glow of an orange sodium street lamp.
Butch set his cigarette down and headed out the door.
He thought of Jeannie with a pang of guilt as he turned the key to fire up the old car.
But as the gurus and the alkies said, there were things we just couldn’t control, couldn’t change. It was part of the nature of the universe. To Butch, the universe was just a gun. Fuck nature. You still needed someone to look down the sights and pull the trigger to get the job done.
Red and blue lights danced like poltergeists in the damp smoke.
The officer in charge of the scene ducked under the police tape and approached one of the cops controlling the crowd.
“No forced entry, front door was left wide open. Nice dry breeze like this, probably why the fire spread so fast. This guy was either really fucking careless, or he just went off his goddamned nut.”
The liquor store owner turned from the officer who was interviewing him.
“I shoulda known some damn thing was bugging him. He came into my shop, just stopped, took a look around, let out this deep breath, and then left. I figured he just forgot his wallet or something, but he never came back. And guys like Butch, they always come back when they’re thirsty. After I locked up, I came down here to check on him, but you guys were – you guys were already here.”
A half-block away Jeannie sat on the curb with her face in her hands, a pint of whiskey at her feet, along with a tiny bouquet of purple wildflowers she’d picked from the side of the road. She smelled smoke as she’d gotten nearer, and her knees had buckled as horror replaced forgiveness.
When she finally saw what had been burning.
Most of it used to be his. A lot of it used to be hers.