Annie Fischer: That’s That Then
(from Issue Seven)
UNLIKE MOST PEOPLE, Laura and Danny upsized houses with the babies they lost. As Danny’s company grew, so did the homes, and the couple had recently taken possession of a custom-built six-bedroom in a tier of lakefront properties developed by Danny and his father. The others belonged mostly to weekenders from Kansas City or St. Louis—few locals could afford them. They arrived every Friday for sunny weekends of boat rides and barbecues, children’s shrieks and beer-soaked laughter curling like ribbons around the cove. As Saturday night wore on, the music got louder and lost its words. Lights swam on top of fish until other lights came up and bacon hit the grill; car-door slams and cheerful goodbyes began around lunch. The final stragglers left by dinner. Then the houses were silent again.
Danny would remove his sign in another week, after the housewarming party, but for now it remained tucked into the lawn, championing the company’s commitment to its word: “Completed as Promised!” Laura once suggested to her father-in-law that the exclamation point in their marketing materials seemed smug. “You would know,” he’d replied.
PROJECTS WERE GOOD, Laura thought. Projects kept one focused. With the house undertaking complete, she had chosen to tackle cooking, the goal being to prepare all the food for the party herself. Now she was starting to doubt that decision. In the Ozarks, cooking was some-thing you learned at home and before now. The one class Laura had tracked down wasn’t turning out as she expected, and Danny kept adding guests to the list—guests she wasn’t sure she wanted to see, let alone cook for. So when the doorbell rang, she was browsing recipes and she was frustrated, and Danny’s sister was not someone she cared to entertain.
“I hope you’re serving more than kabobs,” Julie said, leaning over Laura’s shoulder to read the computer screen.
Laura minimized the window and rolled a few inches back in her chair. “It got too big for dinner.”
“So then what? Finger foods?”
“Yeah. Well, appetizers.”
“Right,” Julie said. “Appetizers.”
Laura walked into the kitchen, motioning for Julie to follow, and lifted two bottles of water from the refrigerator door. “You want the tour?”
Julie had seen the house in various stages of construction but hadn’t visited since Laura and Danny officially moved in. She wanted to see everything, she said, so they started with the bedrooms upstairs, then returned to the main floor. Another flight of steps led to the lower level, where Danny kept a game room, and each of the floors led outside to patios and balconies and decks. Julie’s responses grew shorter throughout the tour, eventually reduced to nods, and after a while Laura stopped entering the rooms altogether, reaching in to flip the light switch from the doorway instead. She told herself not to precede each description with “that’s just,” but then she’d forget and do it again. “That’s just another bedroom,” she would say. A minute later, she’d wave her hand dismissively at a closed door. “That’s just for storage.”
“There’s so much space,” Julie said. “What’ll you do with all this space?”
Laura shrugged. “You know your brother.”
Despite being four years younger than Danny, Julie had married first. At the time, the family business was still construction, and since no one believed Danny would ever move back to the lake, it was assumed that Julie’s husband would take over when the time came. Jerry had never demonstrated much natural leadership, though. And then Danny came home with a graduate degree and a city-bred wife and big ideas for expansion, and Bob was so pleased to have his boy back, he all but handed him the company. Jerry still worked on the construction side, which suited him fine—he didn’t mind taking orders, and he liked the crew. Julie pitched in around the office, which Laura thought probably helped considerably in the way of keeping her nose in everyone else’s business.
Julie stabbed her fingers into the thick cushion of a lounge chair on the main deck. “That pool needs a safety fence,” she said. “One of Jerry’s buddies does them. I bet he’d give you a good deal.”
“I think those fences sort of ruin the…” Laura paused. “The aesthetic, you know?”
“Well, you’ll change your mind once you have babies. Trust me.”
Laura nodded once. “You’re probably right. If we lock the kids out of the pool, though, I worry that sooner or later they might notice this lake.”
She meant it as a joke, but Julie didn’t laugh.
DANNY POURED a glass of wine and pushed it Laura’s way. “So I was thinking, maybe it’s the coffee,” he said. “You think?”
It was his third diagnosis in as many days for her sleeplessness, and once again she arranged her face to imitate thoughtful consideration: eyebrows raised; chin tipped to the side; quick, slight nod.
“I mean, you drink a lot of it,” he added.
“You drink coffee, too.”
“But I’m not complaining about sleep.”
“Am I complaining?”
She watched him answer, watched his mouth move—reciprocated his wry smile with one of her own—but she didn’t hear what he said. Her eyes moved from his face to the empty sink. Unlike at other houses, there weren’t globs of grape jelly on the counter next to the fridge, no cold lumps of scrambled egg on the stove.
“I’m only trying to help,” Danny said.
Julie clipped back through the kitchen and extracted a small plastic bottle from her purse. “You could eat off the floor in that master bath,” she said, tapping four flat capsules into her palm and sliding them across the counter. “Take one before bed. You’ll sleep like a baby.”
Laura nudged one of the pills onto its back, then another. “Thanks,” she said.
THESE ARE MY options? Laura thought.
She’d just awoken from a dream in which her organs shuffled down through her leg and out her right foot, popping open her toenail like the hood of a car. They tumbled out over her calluses and rolled around on the thick carpet, gathering up electric charges, kids in winter. “Shocked you!” the disobedient shapes shouted at each other on the return trip to her body cavity, dragging along plastic price-tag filaments, nail clippings, crumbs, hair. They assumed their positions but continued to hiss.
Christ. Laura stared at the ceiling. I’ll take insomnia.
THE INN WAS located on the other side of the toll bridge, where dated strip malls sat half empty, kept alive by chain restaurants and souvenir shops. The owner, a tiny redhead named Barb, hosted these demonstrations for guests only—strict policy, she said. When Laura had offered to pay 30 dollars per class, though, Barb clapped her hands and said, “Welcome aboard!”
Barb referred to their culinary exercises as quiches, or soufflés, or strata, and the thrifty newlyweds and anniversary couples complied, reciting the names in exaggerated accents, gesturing with wide arms. Unlike Laura, they didn’t notice that there were no pastry crusts, no egg whites beaten to soft peaks. Everything was baked in a casserole dish.
Still, she’d looked forward to tonight’s class, and not just because Danny had agreed to meet her there. Barb had promised an international theme (in honor of a couple visiting from Canada, she said), and it reminded Laura of an ex-boyfriend who’d always praised his mother’s moussaka. Laura couldn’t remember how the dish was made, only that he described it as a Greek casserole, but she could recall how his black hair resurfaced on her white pillows for months after they broke up, which seemed much more romantic now than it did then.
Julie held out an unwrapped stick of butter, and Laura pinched it gently between her thumb and her index finger. “He told me to tell you he was sorry,” Julie said. “And that he’ll come next time.”
Laura pushed her bangs to the side with the back of her wrist. She consulted the recipe—Barb had chosen a roasted chicken and citrus-zest pilaf—and cut the stick into fourths, dropping the pieces in a Pyrex bowl. “You didn’t need to drive over here,” Laura said. “You could’ve just called. He could’ve called.”
“He was with a client. Plus I wanted to see your fancy cooking class.” Julie dropped her voice and leaned in close. “Supposedly Barb bought this place for a song. Previous owners had some tax troubles.”
Laura’s chin jerked as she chopped an onion, and she resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
“So what’s the deal here?” Julie asked. “I thought Barb was some genius caterer. You’re paying to make casseroles?”
“We don’t only do casseroles.”
“What else do you do, then?”
Laura bit her lip. “Have you ever had moussaka?”
“It’s Greek,” Laura said. “It’s delicious.”
Julie lifted a piece of fruit to her mouth. “I can’t believe Danny was going to meet you here. If I could go back and tell his high school buddies this is what he was up to, they’d croak.”
Laura held up the baking dish, comparing hers to the couple’s next to her, and inserted it in the oven. “Lucky the booze and drugs will take care of that instead, I guess.”
The way Julie’s narrow shoulders locked up, Laura knew she’d gone too far. Danny had mentioned his sister seemed more stressed than usual lately, and Laura knew better than to bait her with any cracks about her upbringing.
Rather than apologize, Laura tried to laugh. But it came out wrong, a little yelp instead, and her frustration hardened like the seed under the flesh of an orange slice.
THE GIRL SMILED, unwrapping a row of small, uneven teeth. “I think that takes care of everything, then,” she said. “We’ll have to charge you extra for the late notice, though.”
“That’s fine,” Laura replied. “I’m just glad you can help.”
They walked to the door, and the girl turned to look back out the windows once more. “Your house is real pretty,” she said. “You got so much room.”
Laura thanked her. “Be sure to thank Barb again for me, too,” she added.
As the girl pulled out of the drive, Laura waved, thinking it was the first time in three days she’d seen an unfamiliar car on her street.
DR. SHAW HAD grown emotional with age, which sometimes had the unintended effect of making his patients feel like they were taking care of him instead. He’d relocated to the lake from Chicago about 10 years ago. He always said it was because of the pace, but Laura suspected he’d slipped up at some point in the city, let his feelings wiggle in and obscure the view.
She opened the email again. Danny had insisted they invite him, since his dad and Dr. Shaw were golf buddies. Laura liked him, too—part of her was disappointed he wouldn’t be there after all. A different part of her took a breath for the first time in weeks.
She hadn’t seen him since her last trip to the hospital, more than a year ago, when he’d stood at the foot of her bed, his eyes watery, and told her the fetus was developing outside the womb. “In my stomach?” she’d asked. A little joke for her sad doctor. “In my arm?”
Now Laura read Dr. Shaw’s message once more, making sure he’d really been called out of town. She felt her anxiety begin to burn off like the humid summer mornings. “That’s that then,” she said softly. “Isn’t that what they’d say?”
THE FOUR OF them arrived at five, an hour before it even started, and Laura barely had enough time to get the food out. For the past 15 minutes, she’d been rummaging through storage bins in the basement, picking up one and then another, trying to find the one marked “Kitchen—Misc.” Finally she located what she was looking for, turned off the lights, and hurried back upstairs. She wound through the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen, stopping to move Julie’s purse from the island to the sideboard. With a bag of chips tucked under her arm, she opened the back door.
“Found it,” she said, placing an ashtray in front of her mother-in-law.
Joanne tapped her cigarette. “Thought maybe we’d lost you down there,” she said, exhaling into the center of the table.
“Joanne,” Bob warned. “Don’t get cute with that goddamn cigarette.”
Laura raised her eyebrows at Danny, who pretended not to notice. “More chips,” she said, refilling the bowl.
“Did you see Mom’s new ring?” Julie asked. “She spied it when they were in Florida last month, and Dad surprised her with it on their anniversary.” Joanne transferred her cigarette to the other hand and wiggled her fingers, setting light to a rainbow of jewels on various knuckles. “Isn’t it nice, Jerry?” Julie asked.
Julie’s husband only grunted in response, his ear turned instead to the conversation between Danny and his dad.
“Good kabobs, Laura,” Joanne announced. “Your little classes are paying off.”
“Oh—well, thanks,” Laura said, hesitating. “Anyone need a refill?”
Julie scowled. The doorbell rang.
BY 10, THE PARTY was thick. People spilled out over the patio and the deck, refilling plates and pouring fresh drinks. Someone changed the music to country, then someone else changed the volume; a childhood friend of Julie’s stripped down to her underwear and dove into the pool. Laura couldn’t take three steps without accepting another compliment on the food or the house—so sophisticated, everyone said—and after a few glasses of wine, Laura’s reactions began to take on water. She would recognize a face, then recognize her happiness to see that face, then recognize a second happiness at having felt the first.
“Look at the size of that boat,” Julie scoffed, pointing to the lights on the dark lake. “Honestly. Do they think it’s the ocean?” She waited for a response, but it wasn’t until she surveyed her circle that a wave of disapproval rippled across the deck. “I guess now you guys’ll get one just like it,” she continued, turning her attention to Laura. “Right? To match the house?”
The neighbors shouted to Danny and asked when the fireworks would begin. He laughed and waved them over. She couldn’t hear his response, but when he noticed Laura watching, he winked, and she felt a catch in her chest.
“Doubt it,” she said to Julie. “We’ll probably need something bigger.”
The woman who owned the flower shop appeared at Laura’s side, raving about the sausage rolls, and an old teammate of Danny’s introduced Laura to his new bride, wife number four. The party continued like that for hours. Laura couldn’t remember the last time she’d had so much fun.
AND THEN, FINALLY, they were gone.
Laura knew she should start the dishes. Instead she leaned back in one of the lounge chairs, knees pulled up, toes tucked under Danny’s leg. He and Jerry were throwing a football back and forth across the pool, and as long as no one spoke, Laura felt enveloped by the safety of those dense thumps.
Julie’s speech had loosened throughout the night, along with her grip on the slippery glass. “All’s I’m saying is, it’s unsafe. You ought to call Jerry’s buddy. What’s his name again, Jerry? The guy that does the fence? I can’t remember his name.”
“Lay off my pool,” Danny said, his grin idling in the moonlight. He threw the ball into the water just short of Julie’s chair, kicking a spray across her legs, and she gasped. “My pool is perfect.”
“Of course it is. Everything here’s perfect.” Julie swiped at her legs with a leftover towel lying beneath her chair.
“I’ll admit I got it good, little sister. You’ve done OK for yourself, too, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, Dan, we’re on real even ground. You treat us all like second-class citizens, but it’s fine. We’re family.”
“All right,” Laura said. “Your parents left, so I guess it’s up to me. Behave yourselves.”
Julie snorted. “Like it would matter if they were here. Like anyone would cross the prodigal son.”
Danny’s smile tightened like sunburned skin. “The prodigal son? Been doing some reading, Jules?”
“Shut up, Danny.”
“I think your wife’s been studying up,” Danny called over to Jerry. “Know what a coup is, Jules? That what you’re planning?”
“Danny,” Laura said. “Let’s not take this too far.” Now Jerry was laughing, too.
Julie turned to her husband. “I’m glad you think it’s funny,” she said.
“Oh, come on, he’s joking.”
“He’s not joking. It’s not a joke.” She was up from her seat and rounding the corner of the pool, the glass still threatening to slide through her hand. “It’s not funny that you get away with this. You get away with everything.”
Danny stood and put his hands up to block Julie, who was coming fast. She ran at him, arms extended. But when her fingers made contact with his chest, he easily wrapped her in a bear hug, and in a fluid quarter-turn, lifted her from the ground and tossed her into the pool. The glass finally slipped, shattering against the concrete.
There was a second of stunned silence. Then Julie surfaced, gasping for air, and Jerry fell back in his chair, laughing as Danny bowed. Danny waited for Julie to stop coughing and leaned down to extend his hand, but she swam to the opposite side of the pool and pulled herself up the ladder. She sat and reached for the towel again, dabbing at her face and chest.
Jerry brought her a new beer and a clean towel from the stack on the table. “You OK?”
“I’m fine,” she said, pushing the towel away.
“Come on, Jules,” Danny said, taking his seat next to Laura again. “Don’t be a sore loser.”
Julie wrapped her arms around her knees and tipped her head down, but her shoulders betrayed the effort to catch her breath. A minute later she sat up again. She inhaled deeply and slowly let it go, pressing her open palm hard against her chest, like she could push out the last of it that way. “I’m fine,” she repeated. “Really. It’s fine.”
Laura’s toes crept back underneath Danny’s warm thigh, silently encouraging him to give up, just a little, just this once. She understood Julie’s urge to dismantle those hollow truths, to tear them down and build new ones somewhere else. But Danny just stared out into the cove, the line of his jaw parallel to the edge of the pool.
“I didn’t make the food,” Laura said. “I had the party catered.”
Julie took a long draw from her beer and pressed the back of her hand to her mouth.
“I didn’t even really plan to pretend like I did,” Laura continued, beginning to giggle. “It just happened.”
“What about all those classes?” Julie asked.
“I hate those classes,” Laura said. “That place smells like sour towels. And no one makes a casserole for a family of two.”
No one spoke. After a minute Danny stood and rested his hand on Laura’s shoulder. “Shoot some pool?” he asked Jerry.
Laura followed them through the door but returned a minute later with a broom and dust pan, bending to sweep up the shards of glass as Julie watched. She threw them in the trash and sat down again, leaned back and closed her eyes. “He thinks these houses are trophies,” she said. “He doesn’t get that we’re just packing holes with more space.”
Julie nodded, barely, and pressed the cold wet of her beer bottle against her cheek. “I never really thought you’d make it,” she said.
“You hoped he’d trade up houses and wives?”
“Are you kidding? I was praying for him to trade down.”
Laura smiled. Then they were both quiet, listening to the waves slap against the rocks. She knew what came next. In 12 hours, the sheets would be snapped off the beds, the coolers would drain quietly into the grass. The houses would empty, and she’d be alone again. But she also knew they would fill back up, sooner or later, ribbons of color and sound—for moments, at least, completed as promised.
Annie Fischer lives in Kansas City, Missouri. This is her first published fiction.