I first met Earnest Biggs through a six sentence writing prompt, even though he was an unnamed narrator in that story. Another six sentence prompt brought me Marge Small. They met. They are not particular as to prompters, sometimes arriving via Carrot Ranch 99 word flash fiction prompts as well as the six sentence story prompts. They once even pushed through without a prompt and have gone through Charli Mills’ TUFF process. I am certain we have not seen the last of Marge and Earnest; I am uncertain where it ends. There’s no arc here. These characters just bumble through their fictional lives one prompt at a time. Their episodes are presented here in their so far entirety.
Big Break (as told by Earnest Biggs)
“I am no musician, not with these big meaty mitts, but I sure enjoy good music, like to go to that little pub where the act sets up right there in the corner, like to sit close at the nearest table to watch and listen.
This guy the other night, man he was something, just himself and a well worn but well tuned acoustic six string, and man, well, like I say, I am no musician but he was something to hear and to see. He had these thick glasses half hidden by his tangled mop of hair, and I don’t think he was seeing anything anyway he was so intent, just playing, his music just amazingly clean and clear. He was very versatile, as skillful a picker as anyone I’ve ever heard, but my eyes ended up focused on his left hand, flowing up and down the neck of his guitar, his fluid fingers like nothing I’ve seen, wringing the most amazing sounds from that old guitar of his.
Finally pausing, mopping his brow, wiping his glasses, he announced that he had gotten a big break, had a recording contract and was heading to a major studio in a couple days but as he was doing all this his glasses slipped and skidded to a stop near where I sat. I don’t think this guy can hardly see without his glasses, because I had already picked them up to hand them to him when he bent over and was feeling about for them on the floor, but I didn’t expect that and I can’t tell you how bad I felt when I heard that awful crunch of his left hand under my big dumb boot.”
Just one of the guys at the shop, Marge was a hell of a woman. Marge did as much or more work and heavy lifting than the guys she worked with; she also ate as much, or more, and drank as much, or more. Confident and capable, Marge liked to claim that she “put her big-girl panties on one leg at a time, just like the rest and the best of them.”
It was a good thing, this matter of wearing big girl panties, for it was they that showed prominently after a bend-over for a dropped wrench rent wide her oil stained Dickies. The guys cracked smiles at ‘the rip heard round the shop’. They nodded and noted that Marge had indeed gotten too big for her britches.
“Excuse me boys”, Marge said, abruptly putting her beer down, “But I spy a man.” Marge Small felt something she’d not felt before, at least not as she could remember. Marge was smitten. Ignoring the raised eyebrows of her drinking companions, the guys from the shop, Marge headed straight across the barroom to where Earnest Biggs sat alone at the corner table, watching the band.
The first thing that Marge had noticed was his boots, boots just like hers, leather work boots with scuffed steel toes. The second and more compelling thing that Marge noticed were his hands, large even on his large frame, seeming almost a nuisance to the knobby wrists they hung from, almost a threat to the mug of beer they dwarfed. She immediately got to imagining how a hand like that on the small of her back would make the small of her back feel, well, small. By the time Marge arrived at Earnest Bigg’s table she was all swelled up inside with feeling dainty and delicate and smitten. She sat down across from Earnest.
In his lifetime, Earnest had rarely, no, never, been approached by a woman of any sort for any reason. In a slow series of bumbling, fumbling movements Earnest quickly stood up. Then, mumbling a red-faced introduction, he promptly sat back down. Marge stood up.
“Come on”, she told the big, bewildered man. “Let’s dance.”
Marge Small grasped one of those big hands, and Earnest Biggs was dragged to the dance floor, stumbling helplessly, much to the amusement of Marge’s coworkers, who watched from their perches at the bar. The guys from the shop had no doubt who would lead in this dance.
The guys watched as if viewing a sporting event. Bets were made. They watched and commented as how it wasn’t a pretty thing they watched, that creature with at least three left feet lurching all over the dance floor. It took them a couple innings to realize that their pal Marge was deaf and indifferent to their remarks, that she was not coming back even for her unfinished beer. A bit disoriented without Marge to call for shots, the guys trickled out in twos and threes, missing the overtime inning when they would have seen Earnest Biggs finally finding his balance even if it meant holding on to Marge, his large palms gentle on her hips, on the small of her back, during a slow dance; when they would have seen Marge with bent head resting on Earnest’s chest, smiling down at scuffed work boots going toe to toe; would have seen Earnest beginning to lead, Marge beginning to yield.
Finally, wearing shy smiles, Marge and Earnest went back to the corner table.
“This is new territory for me”, Marge said.
“Oh, not me, I come here a lot to hear the music, that is I used to, this is my first time back since …”
“No, I was speaking metaphorically”, Marge interrupted. “I don’t usually do…”
“Oh, yeah, right… Me either.”
“I like your boots.”
“Thanks, I like yours too.”
“Yeah, they’re comfortable and sturdy.”
“Me too. I mean mine too. My boots.”
“What work do you do in your work boots, Earnest?”
“I’m a mechanic.”
“Got my own little place.”
“Work for yourself?”
“Yeah, by myself. I mean for myself.”
“Yeah, two bays, two lifts.”
“Plenty of business?”
“I could use another man.”
The guys at her old shop told Marge-stories long after she had gone, long after she left to swing her wrenches alongside Earnest Biggs.
The trail started with boots, the boots preceding pants; sharp eyes might notice that the smaller pair of work pants on the floor had been mended. Those same eyes will follow the trail to its conclusion, a bed somewhat stressed by the additional weight it carried into the morning, the morning Earnest Biggs did not wake up alone, which brought him some happy anxiousness.
Shyly, cautiously, he rolled over towards his bedmate, ripping a fart as he did so. He reddened, but her laughter and admirable retort put him at ease.
“I always return fire”, she said.
Even Hugh Heffner had a robe, Earnest realized, but all he had was not-so-whitey-not-so-tighties, and those not within reach.
There were many reasons why the undressing was not strongly imprinted on the template of Earnest’s memory; beer, darkness, and excitement had all conspired to make the undressing a manageable, if not memorable, experience, but now Earnest felt trapped in his own bed, retreating under the covers. Marge was still at his side, and he was uncertain when it might be okay to recover his clothes, and uncomfortable at the prospect of being out of them in front of her.
And then Marge just rolled out on the other side of the bed, and, without a stitch, started backtracking, picking up shirts and pants and even boots, gathering up each piece of their clothing until she stood beside the bed, stood before Earnest, holding their clothes, outer and under together, and asked if he supposed it was time to get dressed, maybe go pick up her Craftsman rolling tool chest now.
And Earnest, new as he was to having a woman in his room, in his life, Earnest recognized that through her initiative with the clothes gathering she was telling him, with her question she was in fact telling him, that it was time to get dressed and go get her tools.
And Earnest, new as he was to all of this, and in spite of the fact that he knew what she expected him to say, he looked at this naked woman holding his clothes with her clothes and he said that no, it wasn’t time, her Craftsman rolling tool chest could wait, that getting dressed might take a while.
Outside the department store fitting-room, balanced like a crane, left pant leg dragging dangerously near her one right foot, Ilene Higginbottom was hopping mad, squawking loudly that she’d lost her leg.
“Oh, yes”, said Earnest, trying to help, “I heard, the accident at the mill…”
“No, I’ve lost my prosthetic leg, it’s disappeared while I was trying on pants; I set it down and now I can’t find it.”
Just then an apologetic sales clerk appeared and presented the leg to Ilene Higginbottom, explaining that she had taken it from the fitting room thinking it was meant for a stocking display.
“You met Ilene Higginbottom, the woman who is suing the mill where she worked for the loss of her leg?” Marge asked when Earnest shared the story with her that evening. “I’ve been following that case; you know, she may not have a leg to stand on if it goes to court.”
“Why were you at the department store, anyway?”
Earnest handed Marge a large box.
“It’s so light.”
Marge lifted the lid off the box. Three red balloons floated out.
“Three months together, a whole season. Winter to spring.”
“Honestly, Earnest, how sweet.”
“Box ain’t empty yet, Marge.”
“Well! This ain’t yer mother’s overalls!”
Turning as red as the tethered helium balloons that squeaked against each other on the ceiling, Earnest explained that the large slinky garment was called a teddy.
Earnest bumped after Marge, balloons bumping behind him, and yes, he had some other latex. He’d thought of everything.
Marge sat at the table poring over a seed catalog, one of the balloons a strawberry moon overhead.
“I want carrot cake, Earnest, that’s what.”
“There’s some at the store.”
“I want to make it.”
“We can buy carrots.”
“No, I wanna grow the carrots.”
“Well gee Marge, it’s gonna take a long while to get that cake.”
“Yes, well into summer.”
“Why wait so long? Why work so hard?”
“It’s to celebrate. Us. You like balloons, I like cake.”
Earnest grinned. Marge would be baking, here, come summer.
“I’ll dig the garden patch, Marge.”
“That’s what I figured.”
Working together inside his two-bay garage, Earnest and Marge were a well oiled machine, professional and productive, she following his lead with the respect that she always showed a boss, the owner of a shop. After work, she often went with him to the humble trailer he called home, just behind the shop, and it was there that Earnest didn’t know what to expect, like her going right to the bedroom and emptying his drawers.
“Earnest, you only wear the same few things as long as I’ve known you, what are all these clothes, taking up space?”
“Those are the ones I used to wear, but they, uh, well they don’t fit anymore.”
“Well they don’t fit in your bureau, neither, we gotta make room if I’m gonna double the population of your singlewide, so here, I’ll keep these shirts here and make curtains for the windows with them, I can’t believe you don’t have curtains, and you take the rest of these to use as rags in the shop, we need rags in the shop, Earnest, and there, now I have some room for my clothes, because how can I be expected to make a carrot cake this summer if I’m not right here to tend the garden and to get to know the oven.”
Earnest Biggs, blushing and smiling incredulously, was thus informed by Marge Small that she would be moving in with him permanently. “Gosh, Marge, I thought you’d never ask.”
Earnest was to find out a few things after Marge moved in. He found out that Wednesday was poker night and that his trailer home was the new favored location for the game, the guys from Marge’s old shop sitting on their coolers of beer around the coffee table, Marge dealing nachos and bean dip along with her colorful remarks. Earnest also found out, that first time, that he was not very good at poker, and that he did not care for the loud bantering of the group.
So the next Wednesday Earnest declared it his pub night, and he went out alone for the first time since meeting Marge over three months before. The table near the small corner stage was empty and he sat there alone as he had so many times before. Unlike all those other times though, this time he was not to be left alone. He was to find out that he was, for the first time ever, noticeable.
Though it was fairly busy, the waitress came right away, called him by name, welcomed him back, asked how he was, where had he been. Earnest blushed and mumbled that he’d been busy; he was glad when she left to get his beer and gladder still when she brought it to him but quickly returned to the busy tables across the room.
She had no sooner left when an energetic, big haired woman approached his table, listing a little to the left because of her prosthetic leg, leading with the drink grasped in her right hand, talking at him well before she plunked herself down in the chair beside him.
“Hi, remember me? From the department store? Ilene. Ilene Higginbottom.”
Earnest stood awkwardly, bumping the table and spilling both their drinks. The waitress came by, wiped the table while winking at Earnest, and promised to bring another round.
Ilene then bombarded Earnest with compliments. “You were so kind, so helpful in the department store. I said to myself, now there’s a good man.”
Earnest took on the color of a radish.
“So tall, so handsome.”
No one had ever told Earnest that he was handsome. He squirmed uncomfortably, turning a deeper shade of radish.
The band had started playing, and Ilene Higginbottom asked Earnest if he would like to dance.
“Oh, gosh, please, no, I, uh, I’m no good, I have two left feet.” There isn’t a radish that could now compare to Earnest’s red face as he remembered that Ilene Higginbottom had only one right foot. He gulped and stared at his boots. Ilene Higginbottom didn’t slow down a bit.
“Ah, poor thing, I was joking, you dear, sweet man… You know, I settled out of court with the mill. I am pretty comfortable, if you know what I mean.”
Earnest wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but he did know that he was incredibly uncomfortable, especially when Ilene Higginbotttom leaned in and stroked his big calloused hand. He took a deep breath and stood up carefully, not spilling a thing. Earnest would never have the vocabulary to describe the range of emotions that he felt at being able to honestly tell Ilene Higginbottom that he was taken by another, but he did tell her, with relief and with pride, and then asked her to please excuse him, but he was late for his poker game.
Without even having finished a beer, Earnest left the pub, feeling kind of handsome. He was willing to bet that Marge would think so too.
“Earnest, let’s go fishing, catch some perch for our dinner.”
“Oh, Marge, I don’t fish, I don’t have a pole or anything.”
“What? Earnest, I had no idea, you poor thing, well you can use one of mine, I’ll show you all you need to know.”
The second thing Earnest needed to know, according to Marge, was how to cast. She had him use a lure because the first thing he needed to know, baiting a hook, was impossibly hindered by his sausage-like digits and, as he discovered, was incompatible with his delicate constitution.
Neither Marge nor Earnest wished to wet their feet in the icy cold water of early spring, but with a long stick they managed to retrieve the pole that Earnest inadvertently cast into the pond. Eventually the pole remained in Earnest’s hands more consistently and only the lure flew about in all directions, at times even smacking down on the water.
“Earnest, you stay here and practice your casting and reeling, I’m gonna try my luck further down.” Moving away she could hear the click of his bail being opened, the whip of the pole tip. Expecting to hear the lure hit the water, she instead felt a sting. The weight of the lure and the velocity of Earnest’s cast ensured that the treble hook pierced right through her pants and had a good purchase in her ample cheek.
Later that evening Marge stood rather than sat at the counter as she and Earnest ate their fish dinner, take-out from the diner after a trip to the ER. Earnest continued to mumble apologies and concerns even though Marge was already joking about him being a pain in her ass.
Later in the week Marge caught fresh perch while Earnest watched. He was hooked on Marge but had all he needed to know about fishing.
Seemed like every time Earnest tried to do for Marge he was done for.
“Earnest, did you notice that bird’s nest in the rafters? El Camino’s gettin’ shit on.”
“I’ll move it.”
Earnest had hoisted the ladder and climbed most of the way up before Marge told him she’d figured he’d move the El Camino, not the nest.
The mother robin became used to Earnest and Marge sitting quietly in their lawn chairs in the late afternoon, enjoying their beer as she sat the nest, then after the eggs hatched, marveling at her deliveries of squirming meals.
They were both there when one by one the fledglings perched at the edge of the crowded nest before falling away into a first fluttery flight, landing bewildered in a nearby tree, past where the El Camino was parked uncovered, away from bird splatterings, but now dull and dust pocked.
“Look Earnest, the young ones’ chests are speckled, kind of like the El Camino is now.” When Marge wondered aloud where she might point her lawn chair now that the robin family was all done with the nest Earnest immediately retrieved the ladder, anxious to sanitize the carport and return the El Camino to its spot.
Earnest had hoisted the ladder and climbed most of the way up before Marge shared that the mama robin would likely reuse the nest for her next year’s brood.
Earnest came down empty handed and put the ladder away while Marge got them both another beer.
“Bring the El Camino over by the hose, Earnest, and I’ll help you wash it, we’ll get her all shiny and ship shape again, get her ready for sale.”
Earnest opened the driver’s side door, carefully lowered and levered himself into the seat, the fuzzy dice swaying and swinging from the rearview as the El Camino rocked with his effort. Three turns of the key got the motor running; the Steppenwolf tape that was in the dashboard 8-track player squeaked to life, playing four hits all at once.
“Marge, I’m stuck.”
“Oh, Earnest, I know, it’s your car; you don’t have to sell it if you’re unsure; we can take the sign off and put it back under the carport.”
“No, I’m stuck, the steering wheel is too tight- I need help getting out.”
After a knee scraping head banging backbreaking extrication, Marge drove the El Camino to where Earnest busied himself untangling the hose and finding buckets and sponges.
Heaving herself heavily but unassisted from the vehicle Marge took charge of the washing.
“Earnest, you just sit and recover, look you scraped your forehead getting out of that thing, just get me a chamois is all, a real one, you can’t wash a car without a chamois cloth, and then you just sit and let me show you how it’s done.”
Earnest did as Marge instructed; after producing the chamois cloth he sat in his lawn chair and watched her work, noticed that she didn’t miss a spot, noticed that her foremost parts were darkened damp from leaning to reach all of the roof and hood. He was in awe at the care and respect she showed the El Camino, ever mindful of scratches and streaks, and was suddenly surprised with wondering if she would be this way with children; their children.
When Marge playfully accused Earnest of checking her out and having a one track mind, Earnest didn’t deny it, only now he marveled at where this track could lead.
Earnest’s old El Camino had never shone so brightly as when Marge washed and waxed it, but he was finally ready to put it out by the road for sale, for it didn’t fit him anymore, and besides maybe he needed to spend his time and money on other things.
He and Marge were just walking away from having placed the sign in the windshield when a pickup, piloted by a big haired wiry little woman, ripped to a stop in the gravel yard in front of the shop. The driver’s side door swung open and Ilene Higginbottom swung out with it, dropping precariously from the height of her pickup truck, talking at Marge and extending a hand even before landing right in front of her on mismatched feet, “Ilene.”
“Yes, I see that”, replied Marge, shaking her hand, “What can we do for you?”
“You have something I want.”
“You’ll have to be more specific.”
“That El Camino; I need a truck that fits like a car, I am having too much trouble climbing in and out of this tank since my separation.”
“Your separation?” Earnest puzzled how Ilene Higginbottom’s status, single or otherwise, impacted vehicle entry, no matter the size of the truck.
“Yeah, since being separated from my leg, I have trouble stepping up”, and both Ilene and Marge guffawed loudly while Earnest blanched and stammered out the possibility of a trade.
They came to terms, sealed the deal over a beer, the women in the lawn chairs, Earnest roosting on a stack of used tires, facing them but unable to keep up with Ilene’s rapid fire prattle, and thinking his own thoughts anyway.
Earnest was thinking that he was glad to trade an El Camino that no longer fit for a truck that was roomy, sturdy and practical. He marveled at how everything in his life was turning out just right. If only Ilene would go home soon, but she and Marge seemed to be having a good time. Earnest smiled and caught Marge’s eye as one of the young robins took advantage of the puddle that remained from the car washing. Ilene, amazingly, paused in her talking to watch it too. She looked at the two of them, Earnest and Marge, who were exchanging glances and remarking on the bird like proud parents. Then Ilene Higginbottom looked right at Earnest, long enough to make him turn colors, before stating, “Earnest, you have a good thing here, you and Marge seem to be a good fit.”
Ilene Higginbottom stood and thanked them both for the beer. “I’ll be off, I got what I wanted.”
Ilene Higginbottom was first to the lawn chairs, Marge huffing behind.
“You are glowing, Girlfriend.”
Marge smiled. Before her friendship with Ilene Higginbottom she would have been sweaty. Now she glowed.
“I gotta sit down. Phew. Do your feet hurt?”
“Not even one of them. Marge, you have to stop walking in your work boots. I happen to have extra left footed sneakers if you want to start there.”
“Ilene, you’re something, the way you’re always joking about your leg.”
“I lost a leg, Marge, not my humor.” Ilene fell silent, scuffing the dirt with her stiff footless left shoe. “I’m lucky I didn’t lose my life.”
“Thank God. And I think I must have lost another five pounds on that walk. Let’s have a beer to celebrate.”
Ilene watched her friend strain her Dickies as she bent to open the cooler. “All is not lost, Marge, all is not lost.”
Ilene Higginbottom pulled a folding chair from the bed of the El Camino and joined Marge and Ernest where they sat in their camp chairs outside the shop.
“That’s a pretty fancy camp chair, Ilene, dual cup-holders, and look at you, it reclines too!”
“Yeah, I like to put my foot up. This’s the last thing I bought with my ex-boyfriend’s money before letting him go; only thing about him appealed to me was his magic mailbox.”
Ernest squeezed Marge’s hand before going for more beer, told her he’d start dinner.
“Marge,” said Ilene, “What you’ve got is real magic.”
“Not for anything, Ilene, but don’t you have your own magic mailbox, you know, the settlement from the mill?”
“OMG, Marge, I do and I just realized if I were a guy I’d be latching onto me! Good times, easy money, but you know what, I end up getting sick of those guys and mad that they don’t change. Well I am going to latch onto me, and I’m going to change, start working again, but on my terms.”
“Did I miss anything while getting your beers?”
“Oh Ernest, we need to toast- Ilene has found her special someone.”
The guys circled their beer coolers for poker night in Ernest’s garage, where it was less humid than the trailer.
“Marge, I can’t believe you quit being shop foreman to work in this two-bit two bay garage. Left the largest dealership around- state of the art equipment, only working on newer vehicles-”
“Epic,” chimed Lloyd.
“I got tired of babysitting you all. And our customers bring us all sorts of mechanical mysteries to be solved. The work here’s actually more interesting, more personal. ”
“Oooh, personal! Marge and Ernest up in a tree…”
“Like I said…”
“Epic”, Lloyd repeated.
The guys looked up from their cards, admiring the mint El Camino that came to an abrupt and dusty stop near the open garage, continued to stare as Ilene Higginbottom sprang out. Lloyd was instantly on his feet and at the El Camino, insisting on lifting Ilene’s Igloo cooler out of the back for her, even though she protested, pointing out that it was just a Playmate Pal.
“Yes, it sure is a delicate cooler, a true sign of a lady, which you surely are with your beautiful hair of epic proportions and might I just say that having you play poker with us would be a tremendous supplement to our game.”
“Supplement to our game, good lord, Lloyd, what’s going on, I’ve never heard you string together more than two words before, let alone use three syllable words.”
Marge informed Lloyd and the others that Ilene would not be supplementing their game, that poker night was a guy thing, that Ilene was only coming by to keep Ernest company.
And Ilene, swinging her cooler, did walk around the garage to the trailer, but with a long backward glance at Lloyd who seemed to be tongue-tied once again.
It was late when Marge pulled the garage doors down and made her way back to the singlewide. Ernest was still awake.
“Marge. Who won?”
“Who do you think?”
“You, of course.”
“Ah, Ernest, that’s why I love you, you always- ”
Marge, standing at the sink, paused in washing the nacho platter, her sentence unfinished. Ernest pulled the lever on his recliner, came to a sitting position with an abrupt creak and a bang. On the TV Mike Wolff from American Pickers waxed eloquent about a rusty old motorcycle gas tank. From the bedroom the window AC unit could be heard rattling and wheezing as it battled the humidity. Having suddenly developed a tickle in his throat, Ernest coughed lightly.
“Well, goddamn Nard won the pot tonight, and he was being a peckerhead too…”
Ernest stood with Marge at the sink and she again fell silent. He reached around her and turned the faucet off. Marge looked at the faucet, at the cheese ringed nacho platter, at Ernest. A lot had passed between Ernest and Marge over the past few months; a lot hadn’t yet been spoken. Ernest’s throat still tickled.
“I love you, you know Marge.”
“I know. Me too.”
This wasn’t the first time they’d gone to bed with the dishes left undone, but tonight it felt different.
Ilene said it was good to try new things so steered them to Nathan’s Grille. Marge figured she just wanted neutral territory, even with the safety net of having her and Ernest along.
“Grill with an /e/. Trendy.” Lloyd chattered nervously as the four of them people watched. “Dickies. Dickies. Carharrts, nice. Jacket’s buffalo plaid, throwback. Blue one too.”
When the meals arrived, Lloyd’s raised eyebrows spoke surprise at the curly fries on his plate, the ketchup in a dish. He continued with people watching, focused on footwear. “Red Wings; Wolverines; classic. Chippewas; epic. Wow. Diverse crowd at Nathan’s.”
“Lloyd, ya ever see that Disney movie, Lady and the Tramp? Disgusting. Whatever you do, don’t serve spaghetti. But Ilene does like pasta.”
“Yes, Lloyd, pasta, and it’s real sweet if you cook at home for her. First meal I had with Ernest, he cooked up his famous chili lasagna.”
Ernest stepped away from his lift to join Marge at Lloyd’s truck. “That’s right, Lloyd. It’s how I got her to stay. Make Ilene a nice meal of pasta.”
“Pasta. Epic. Thanks. Bye.”
Marge and Ernest watched him go. “Nard’s taking bets, if you’re interested Ernest.”
Lloyd whistled a happy tune as he unpacked his groceries, proud of himself for thinking of garlic bread and for getting not one kind of pasta, but two. He wondered which Ilene would prefer, the Chef Boyardee ravioli or the spaghettiOs.
“You’ve been silent on the matter long enough, Ilene, when are you gonna tell me how your date with Lloyd went, when he made you pasta dinner?”
“It was real nice, Marge, but I don’t want you to be critical, Lloyd’s real… special.”
“Oh, he’s special all right, don’t you think I know that? I’m the one that hired him out at the dealership, hell he’s worked under me for years.”
“I know you look out for Lloyd, that’s why I don’t want you to be critical of me. See, he works real good under me- and vice versa.”
“Wow, didn’t take you long to put the rigor in his rigatoni! I thought you were going to slow down, be your own special someone.”
“Some things I’d rather not do alone if I don’t have to, Marge, besides, Lloyd is not at all like any guy I’ve ever been with. You wouldn’t believe what he has in his apartment Marge, floor to ceiling, stacks and stacks of books, even poetry, and he’s read them too, quotes from them to me all the time.”
“Lloyd is literary, and when he’s near his books he talks real pretty.”
“What the hell, Lloyd, you’re like a damn pogo stick, can’t you just get me a beer without shaking it up?”
Lloyd stopped hopping, pausing to get his balance with one leg still bent at the knee, then continued back to the poker game hopping more slowly, a can of beer in each seesawing hand. When Marge received her can she pointed it at him as she popped the top, spraying Lloyd before slurping the foam that bubbled out, glaring over the can as Lloyd dropped clumsily into his chair.
“I’d love to finish the game, Lloyd, but do tell, what the hell are you doing going around on one leg all night?”
“Ha,” Nard snorted, “What he’s doing is Ilene and he wants to lean too, ‘cause he’s a sensitive dumbass.”
“Oh yeah… That is so sweet, Lloyd,” Marge smiled under her beer foam mustache.
This evening started with him reciting Japanese poetry for her and now Ilene and Lloyd, dressed in kimonos, stood stretching and swaying together in his small living room. They hardly noticed when Lloyd, his leg bent awkwardly behind him, swiped Ilene’s prosthetic leg off the stack of books where it had lain. They hardly noticed because they were dancing cranes.
Maybe the two-legged crane should have danced using both his legs. The pair ended up toppling over, ending in a single tangle on the couch. But their dance wasn’t finished.
“It’s an epic occasion,” Lloyd announced as Ernest and Marge wedged themselves into the booth. “Gotta send Ilene off with a hearty breakfast.”
The diner that was in the same half dead shopping plaza as the community school served breakfast 24/7, perfect for commemorating Ilene’s first day of evening classes.
They walked her from the diner to the lackluster painted over storefront that veiled the higher learning within.
“Ok. Thanks. See you around campus.”
“Wait Ilene.” Ernest posed the others then had Ilene take a picture of them standing in front of the community school.
“We’re your colonnades.”
Ernest was out of sorts.
At first he had tried playing poker with Marge and her friends; then had tried going out to the pub on Wednesdays; had finally become comfortable with a Wednesday night routine of watching television with Ilene in the singlewide while Marge and the guys played cards in the two bay garage out front. But tonight Ilene wasn’t at all interested in Duck Dynasty and Ernest found he did not enjoy the show half as much without her chattering through it, commenting on the dynamics and inherent good looks of their favorite TV family.
“Jeez, Ilene, Marge told me about all Lloyd’s books, so I get if you think you gotta read them too, but, well, I mean, it’s Wednesday, you know?”
Ilene looked up from her book only long enough to tell Ernest that it wasn’t one of Lloyd’s books, it was a new release by D. Avery called After Ever and she was captivated by the collection of short stories and that Lloyd was going to read it next but when Lloyd was finished he should read it.
“Maybe Ilene… think I’d identify with any of the characters in it?”
Lowering her book, Ilene answered Ernest. “You just might like some of these stories. But here, try this one first.”
Ernest took the anthology that Ilene handed him. “Congress of Rough Writers? Is it a western?”
“No, it’s not a western. It gives background on flash fiction with excellent examples. These books are for my literary arts course at the community college.”
Ilene and Ernest were still reading when Marge and Lloyd returned from the garage, the poker game over. “If you’re wondering, bookworms, we both won, but didn’t get rich.”
“No? We both got enriched.”
Lloyd beamed. “Epic.”
“How’re your classes going, Ilene?”
“Good. I’m getting myself ready for an office job. It’s all about the spreadsheet.”
“So why a literary arts course? What’s this flash fiction stuff got to do with anything?”
Lloyd spoke from his perch at the counter. “Ernest, literary art is cultural literacy. It’s…”
“Lloyd’s right. Honestly, the secretarial skills courses would be such a bore without the Literary Arts class. And it’s going to help me get the job I want, help me to sell myself.”
“Ha! I thought you were giving that up.”
“Marge, don’t be a Nard.”
“Fine! Go on without me, Ilene, you and Betty enjoy your walk.”
“Marge, what’s wrong?”
“Not a thing, go ahead, go be my mother’s old dead friend Ida. I’ll walk on my own without my live friend Ilene. You two have fun.”
“Marge you’re jealous.”
“She always thinks you’re Ida, but I never know who she’ll think I am, just that it’s usually someone she didn’t like.”
“I’m sorry, Marge. Maybe I like doing things with Betty because I miss my own mother.”
“Well, I miss my own mother too, Ilene. The one that answered to Mom, not Betty.”
It was Ilene’s idea to include Marge’s senile mother for Thanksgiving.
“Everyone just be whoever she thinks you are. It’ll be fine.”
Fortunately she thought Marge and Ernest were her parents. Marge would wield some power.
“Betty, I think you know everyone.”
“I see Ida brought George.”
Marge smirked. Lloyd was to be her mother’s best friend’s brother; Ilene would have to keep her hands off him.
“Look who’s here.”
Nard spilled his beer when Betty Small embraced him. “Billy! You got leave!”
Marge grinned. “Yes, your fiancé.”
She could have asked Betty to mash the potatoes but didn’t.
“Make room on the couch for Betty and Billy,” Marge commanded. “Let them get caught up.” She laughed at Nard’s desperation as he helped her mother to the couch.
“I’m your father?”
“No. Billy didn’t make it back.”
“She never loved my father as much.”
When everyone in the crowded singlewide had a full plate Nard spoke, holding Mrs. Small’s hand.
“Thanks Lord for these friends and all this food. Lord, I’m grateful for Betty, love of my life… I’ll come home,” he promised.
After a moment of astounded silence Ernest coughed ‘amen’ and everyone dug in.
“Marge, Ernest- epic. Good food.”
“Thank you Lloyd. I sure do miss my mother’s mashed potatoes though. These are just ok. She did something that made hers….”
“Yeah, Lloyd, epic. I wish I knew what it was.”
“Marge, these are fine. A little garlic and rosemary wouldn’t of hurt either.”
But Marge’s mom was already Betty again, mooning over Nard. Nard’s uniform was just his cleanest Dickies from the dealership, but he was soldiering on in his role.
Leaning against Ernest, Marge smiled gratefully. “My mother hasn’t called me by name in two years.”
“Happy Thanksgiving, Marge.”
Tour of Duty
Saturday afternoons Marge steeled herself for a visit to her mother in The Home. The visits were a little easier now that Ernest went with her, but still difficult despite seeing more of her mother because of Ilene sometimes including her on their walks.
Holding hands, Ernest and Marge made their way to Betty Small’s room, both dreading the pain of the awkwardness and accusations that were sure to come. What they hadn’t anticipated was Marge’s mother having another visitor, but there was Nard, sitting and chatting away with a smiling Betty Small.
“Leonard, what a surprise.”
“Gee, Marge, what a surprise for you to finally respect me enough to use my given name, but please, call me Billy. I just thought I’d come by and cheer up my fiancé. She seemed so sad to see me go last time; thinks I’ll never return.”
“OMG, Leonard… I’ve always called you Nard because it suits a peckerhead, but…”
“Agreed. I’m a wicked peckerhead, but just now, probably for the first time ever actually, I am making a young woman happy.”
“Regret is darkest dark, long and lonely night; dawn must crack within your heart, forgiveness be your light.”
“Lloyd’s a poet.”
“Look Ilene. Marge is hugging the air right outta your boy toy.”
“I’m Lloyd’s muse.”
“You’re his cougar, Ilene. Least his poetrics stopped Marge’s blubbering.”
“Shut up, Nard. Besides, you were as upset as any of us. Billy.”
“I’m a poet. You just don’t know it. Into the dark, six feet of dirt, no more worry, no more hurt.”
“Lloyd’s right though. Poor Marge needed closure. She’s more upset over Betty’s life than her death.”
Ilene had begun the interview with confidence and high hopes but as it progressed she knew it was not going well and before he could continue with his canned questions and condescending commentary she shared with the middle school principal her intuition that he was not going to hire her for the secretarial job.
“Administrative Assistant, Ms. Higginbottom, and before you presume that I have made up my mind, please, do tell me what gives you the leg up on the other candidates that happen to all have more experience and education.”
The middle school principal’s unfortunate word choice precipitated an awkward silence in which his face turned successive shades of darkening pink as Ilene carefully uncrossed her right leg and put her artificial leg forward.
“As a middle school principal I am sure that you can appreciate the value of different experiences and varied educational backgrounds, Mr. Penny; you should consider me for the position because I’m a hard worker who will always step up.”
Without waiting for Principal Penny to respond Ilene hurried away down the corridor, but paused to look into the office that she had wanted to work in, the office with its two walls of windows that looked out on the entryway and the lobby, and its two walls of file cabinets, upon which a mop-haired boy perched haughtily, his Vans dangling at eye level with Ilene. Ilene raised her eyes and fixed the boy’s gaze, holding it until he hopped down off the cabinet and sat in a chair, all without a word, all witnessed by a slack jawed principal who heard himself tell Ilene Higginbottom that she was hired, and could she start tomorrow.
When Nard let himself into the two bay garage Ernest was exploring the carburation issues of a Volvo and Marge was wrenching underneath an Explorer.
“Marge, Nard’s here.”
Marge stepped out from under the lift, wrench in hand.
“Hey Marge. Ernest. Was just getting parts for the shop, thought I’d stop by.”
“Jeezus, Nard, again? You’re the shop foreman at the dealership now, why are you the one always running to the parts store?”
“It’s good to get out, fresh air, you know?”
“Ha! They got someone new at the auto parts store. Who is she?”
“Nard’s blushing,” Ernest noted, finally stepping away from the Volvo, wiping his hands on a rag. “There is someone!”
“Yes. Someone I want you both to meet. Can Kris and I join you and Ilene and Lloyd for your couples dinner outing?”
“Oh my god! Nard is actually going to introduce a woman to us?! She must be special; we haven’t heard any sordid stories from you.”
“Um, yeah, pretty special, but there’s just one thing you should know…. It is someone new from the parts store, but she’s not a she. It’s the parts man, Kristof.”
Both Marge and Ernest were stricken by a fitful cough. Ernest recovered first. “This Kris; does he make you happy, Nard?”
“We’ll see you both at Nathan’s Grille, 6:30.”
The four of them told themselves it was all okay and nothing had really changed but then when Nard and his date arrived they all stood, something they’d never done for anyone. By the time Ilene had managed to join them in standing they had all exchanged awkward glances and quickly sat down again. Nard chastised them as he and the parts man sat down. “Now you’re all going to treat us like ladies? Jeezus.”
“Sorry Nard. Ow!”
Ernest’s kick under the table wasn’t as subtle as he had planned. “Leonard,” he corrected.
Kris just laughed. “I guess I’m the only one calls him Lenny. And this is quite a surprise to you all?”
“I’ll say,” Ilene replied. “This guy has always come off like a real player, always bragging about his shallow conquests with all sorts of women. But he has been rather quiet on those matters lately. So thank you for that, Kris.”
“You know, you’re right, Ilene. Nard has been a more decent fellow at poker night the past few weeks.”
Lloyd sang softly, “Lookin’ fer love in all the wrong places.”
Ilene continued. “He changed when he was pretending to be your mother’s fiancé, Marge. That really brought out the best in him.” Kris looked questioningly at Nard.
“It’s a long story, Kris. But that was a good time. Good for me to be a better person, to make someone else happy. Being Betty’s boyfriend taught me that my own relationships were fake. That I’d never be happy being dishonest.”
“Marge coos and calls me Leonard when I’m not a jerk,” Nard explained to Kris.
“You certainly can be a jerk, that’s for sure,” Ilene said. “Poor Lloyd and Marge have put up with you the longest at the dealership.”
“Yeah, at the shop you were a real peckerhead, especially to Lloyd, ranking on him, joking around insinuating that he was gay. Ha! All this time it was you trying to make your motor run with mismatched parts.”
Kris snorted, choking on his beer. “That’s what I told him!”
“Something was clearly hidden, behind walls of glass—”
“Oh, Lloyd, let me finish this poem, I know the rhyme.”
“Don’t, Marge, this is a family friendly place.”
“You’re right Ernest. And this is our family. Raise your mugs. Welcome Kris. Congratulations, Leonard. To family.”
Ernest leaned against the open door of the garage watching Marge work the welding rods, sparks leaping around her, until finally she flipped up the shield of her welders mask to look critically at her work.
“Marge, I didn’t know you were an artist.”
“I’m not, Ernest, but it’s Wednesday, what else is there to do? In addition to her course work, Ilene’s joined a writing group to do more of that flash fiction stuff, Lloyd’s disappeared into one of his poetry writing streaks, and Kris has Nard off doing ‘pints and paints’, and all this on what used to be our poker night, so the hell with them, I’m a goddamn sculptor.”
Marge abruptly slammed her face shield down and went back to welding so Ernest took up art too, hammering and grinding a bit of discarded brake line until it was smooth and shaped to his satisfaction. He then pulled Marge’s gauntleted leather glove off before slipping the ring onto her finger, hopefully, expectantly, looking into her eyes that now glistened underneath the awning of her upturned shield, taking a blow to the forehead as she tried to kiss him with her welders mask still on.
“Jeez, Marge, you’re turning the trailer upside down these days.”
“It’s needing a good spring cleaning, Ernest.”
“Now with a hammer and chisel?”
“Ending the ice age in your freezer.”
“That’s a brilliant solution, Marge.”
With a sculptor’s eye Marge placed the chisel and hammered out great chunks of hoary frozen food while Ernest looked on.
“We should name our kid Invention. Get it?”
Marge told Ilene about it on their walk.
“Ha! Good one. You, the mother of Invention.”
“Ilene! I don’t want to be a mother! Damn it. Things were so good.”
“Go talk with Ernest, Marge.”
“Ms. Higginbottom, you do recall that I’m the principal?”
“Bob, I’m not calling.”
“Graffiti can’t be tolerated. And you know this boy has problems.”
“Is suspension a solution, Bob?”
“What do you propose, Ms. Higginbottom?”
“Pull him from Health and Geography. Put him in Art, Theatre Workshop.”
“Health and Geography are required courses!”
“I see more of him than those teachers do, they send him to the office so often. He’s going to have to repeat them anyway, so let him learn to like school first. Channel his artistic ability.”
“You’ve already made the schedule changes, haven’t you?”
“Administrative Assistants should not be making these sorts of decisions. I’ll remind you again that you work for me.”
“When you hired me you said everyone here worked for the students. Everyone. I figured I’d assist you in assisting this kid to stay in school where he belongs.”
“Ms. Higginbottom… You are neither an educator nor a guidance counselor.”
“You said that everyone in your school is a teacher and a learner.”
“We can put a brush in his hand and a canvas in front of him or send him away with his spray can.”