The Benefits of Denial

Reads: 257  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A grieving man resists comfort only to find it where he least expects it.

Mr. Mustache parked behind Mary’s Mustang. It had sat under the cover for so long that acorns and dried leaves from the oak overhead were wedged into every nook and cranny. Eleven months since I’d last started the engine. 
From the way he slammed the door to his little convertible and came running up the walk, I thought he was at the wrong house, coming to pick up a date. He had chest hair poking out of the open neck of his shirt and a thick brown bottle brush under his nose. Reminded me of one of those adult film stars from the seventies, not someone peddling God.
He was a smarmy little shit, the kind of guy you want to hit within the first couple minutes of meeting him, with too much eye contact and all that false sincerity. Mary had brought home boys like him before. I didn’t hit them, and I didn’t hit him, either, though it took a lot of restraint. I was about to shut the door in his face when my wife invited him inside.
Janet would never dream of being rude, mind you, and she can talk until she’s blue in the face, so it’s not unusual for her to roll out the red carpet when a stranger comes to the house. Right away it’s the tea and the crackers and the cookies. If the homeless camped out down behind the school ever figure it out I’ll have to hang out a sign saying Soup Kitchen. 
Polite as she is, and social as she likes to be, I still thought she knew better than to open the house to anyone who comes to the door asking if she’s accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior. Imagine my surprise when she told him to come on in. She rushed him inside past the wall of family photos before he could get a look and got him settled in the living room. 
So just like that the jackass with his polyester pants and motorcycle cop mustache is sitting on my couch drinking a cup of Hisbiscus Blend Tea and munching on the last of my ginger snaps. I hated everything about him, from his too-loud voice to the way he chewed, his jaw working on the cookie in exaggerated circles like he’s trying to choke down an entire t-bone in one bite.
“Earl,” Janet called to me. “Come on out and say hello.”
I waved from the dining room but came no further.
“Can we get you anything else?” Janet asked him after he’d stuffed my last cookie into his mouth.
“No thank you, ma’am.” He wiped crumbs from his mustache then rubbed the toe of a shoe into the carpet as if that might make them disappear. “And thank you for the tea. It’s excellent.”
Janet beamed, but I’d been watching him since he sat down and he hadn’t had one sip of that tea. He saw me watching from the doorway, then picked it up and gulped down a mouthful. He winced, and I had to hold back a chuckle. Janet liked her tea hot as Hades.
“Religion is a journey, Mrs. Harper.” He spread his hands in front of him like he was unrolling a map. “You start in one place, but all true roads lead us to Jesus.”
“Kind of like Rome,” I said from the kitchen, but neither of them looked my way.
“Without Jesus, you’ll never truly know peace.”
Janet said, “I did attend church when I was little. My parents were Baptists.”
“You see,” he said like he’d hit on something important. “He’s been waiting all this time for you to find him again.”
Rather than listen to him dispense more wisdom profound enough to put on a T-shirt, I went to the garage where I had a little shop. I did some woodwork here and there, cabinets and furniture and the like, but I didn’t have any project going, so I turned on the little TV and sat on my stool watching the Cubs kick the shit out of my Padres for about six innings when I couldn’t take it anymore.
Back inside, I expected to hear them talking about “stepping into the light” or “surrendering to a greater power” or whatever the company line was that week, but they weren’t. They were talking about Mary. I crept into the kitchen and turned my good ear toward the living room.
“In high school, she was nothing but trouble.” Janet laughed that light, easy laugh of hers, the one I hadn’t heard much lately. “She was boy crazy, no doubt about it.”
“I’ve got a daughter,” Mr. Mustache said. “My Eileen tells me we’re in for it.”
“How old is she?”
“Seven, but she’s already got an eye for the fellas.” It goes quiet, the only sound the squeak of the old couch springs. “Here she is. That’s our Gabby.”
“She’s beautiful,” Janet said.
“She just started playing golf,” he said, then added, “Her idea. I’ve got a feeling a boy from school’s involved. Did Mary play sports?”
I wanted to rush in there, felt my feet start to move, but I gripped the counter with both hands and held on. The thump of my pulse at my temples made it more difficult to hear them.
“…more of a girly-girl. She liked to wear dresses and be pretty, never could get her into any sports. Earl tried, God knows he did, but she wasn’t interested.”
“You used the Lord’s name.”
“What’s that?” Janet asked.
“Just now, you said, ‘God knows he did.’ Is that something you do often?”
“No, I don’t think so. It’s just a figure of speech. It’s not blasphemy, is it?”
“Not at all,” he said. “I think it’s a sign.”

So she decided to go. I didn’t try to stop her, but I told her not to bring that shyster with his polyester pants back into my house. And I told her in no uncertain terms that I would not be going to that church with her. 
“I understand, Earl,” she said, patting my hand.
Something about the way she said it bothered me, but I thought it was best to let it go.
“What do you mean you understand?”
I couldn’t let it go.
“Just that, Honey. Don’t take it the wrong way. I understand why you’re not interested and I’m not going to try and push you.”
“Why would I be interested?” I hear my own voice rise and I bring it back to normal. “What do you think that snake oil salesman is going to be able to do for you? You think going to the First Church of the Eternal Order of Holy Contrition is going to change anything?”
“Who says I’m trying to change anything?” 
There’s a warning in her eyes, but I ignore it. “Look, you think you’re going to go there and touch the snake and speak in tongues and that’s going to make you happy, then I’m all for it. Just count me out.”
“No one is asking you to go,” she said, “and I’m not going to touch any snakes or speak in tongues, I’m just going to go sit in on a Sunday service.”
“Well it’s damn near September,” I reminded her. “It’s going to be awful hard to watch your Rams if you’re off at church all day.”
“Who said anything about all day?” She shook her head. “And football season doesn’t start for three weeks yet and I’m only signed up to go this coming Sunday. Who knows what’s happening in three weeks?”
But I knew. I could tell she was excited. You get her around a hundred other men and women, all talking about everything that comes into their head—she might not find Jesus there, but she’d find a captive audience.

It was no surprise when she came home raving about what a good time she’d had. Now I’m not the kind of guy to try to rain on anyone’s parade, but I wasn’t in the mood to hear what wonderful people these were, and how she felt a strange current go through her when they all joined hands in prayer. That was probably because they were all buzzing from all the damn coffee they drank in the lobby before the service, I told her, but she wasn’t hearing it.
“There was a presence in the room,” she insisted. “I’m not saying it was God or anything, but it was there, you could feel it like a blanket, or a sweater over your skin.”
“That was probably Mr. Mustache. He made my skin crawl the second he walked in here.”
“Earl Harper, that is so mean.” The flash of anger in her eyes told me I needed to dial it back. “Howie is a wonderful young man.”
“Howie?” I’d expected Buck, or Slade, or Jagger. “His name’s Howie?”
“Which you would have known if you’d been polite enough to give the man the time of day. He’s got a little boy and girl, and his wife Eileen is a lovely woman. I think you’d like them if you’d just give it a chance.” She looked away and added. “Their girl, Gabby, she reminds me of Mary at that age.”
My eyes went to the window, to the covered car at the curb. It was like that with Janet and I. Nineteen years married and in love the whole time, but those two syllables could shut us down like flipping off a light. Mary.
“It doesn’t have to be sad every time we remember,” she said. “There’s lots of happy memories, too.”
There she was, reading my mind again. I got up from my chair and kissed her on the head, then continued on into the garage. My Padres were playing again, this time at home against the Rockies.
She came in during the top of the eighth, with a bag of chips and one of those diet sodas she likes, the ones they call coolers to make them sound fancy but it tasted like a Diet Sprite to me. The Padres were down by two runs and Yates was pitching in relief of Stammen, who’d given up three in seven innings. Janet saw the score and sighed, feeling my pain.
“There’s still hope,” I told her.
That made her smile. She patted my leg and headed for the kitchen door. Something made her turn back, and she spoke over her shoulder in a small voice. “That’s the positive attitude I fell in love with.”
“Don’t try turning this into some life lesson,” I warned her. “Save that for your Episcopalian Martyrs of the New Faith. I’m as positive as I ever was, no more, no less.”
She shook her head. “I love you Earl. I just don’t want you living the rest of your life in denial, is all.”
The door closed softly behind her. My face flushed and my ears got hot and I wanted to go after her but Hosmer was leading off the bottom of the eighth. I yelled through the door instead.
“What’s so bad about denial, anyway?”

They tried getting me to go to the damn Church of the Everlasting Enlightenment, or whatever it was, but I showed them what steadfast resolution looked like. I knew it upset Janet, though, so when she said they were having a barbecue and bake sale on the lawn after the service, I thought it might be time to show a little give. Armed with thirty bucks and a hankering for a hot dog and raisin bread, I drove down about noon, when she said all the hollering and prostrating on the floor should have been over.
For the most part they all looked like nice folks, except for old Howie and his porn-stache. Kids played on the grass and their parents ignored them while they talked amongst themselves. It looked like any regular barbecue.
They all shook my hand and welcomed me, and no one asked if I’d found the Lord. Janet must have warned them. We ate and I bought some cookies from a curly-haired boy who suckered me into buying one for him. They didn’t have any raisin bread.
I was starting to settle in, butt perched on a picnic bench, when I saw a girl standing at the corner of the old church. Her face was in shadow, but I could tell she was looking right at me. I put my far-away glasses on for a better look. Her hair was long and straight, and it covered half her face.
She rounded the corner and disappeared. I got up and followed after her. Janet said something but it sounded meaningless over the roar of blood in my ears. When I got to the spot where I’d seen her I took a breath and stepped out, expecting her not to be there, but she was. She was squatting in a bright circle of sunlight, the rays peeking through the old elm’s branches and throwing a glorious golden halo around her. 
“Hello,” she said, smiling Mary’s smile up at me.
“Hey, yourself,” I said.
“Could you help me?”
“Sure.” I squatted beside her, where she poked a stick at a mound of loose dirt left over by a gopher. “What’cha trying to do?”
“I want to see the ants.”
“This here’s not an ant hill. It’s a gopher hole.”
“My science teacher says ants live in the ground.”
“They do,” I assured her, “but so do gophers.”
“What’s a gopher?”
“It’s like a guinea pig, but it hates nice pretty lawns.”
“I want to see it.”
“He’s hiding from us. They only come out when no one’s around.”
“Like Santa Claus?”
“Yes,” I said. “Like Santa Claus.”
“Have you ever seen a gopher?”
“Not a live one.”
“You saw a dead one?” She made a sour face. “Yuck.”
“Better than seeing a dead Santa Claus.”
She looked even more like Mary while she tilted her head and thought it over, her finger going to her lips. “Can we dig him up?”
“I don’t think that would be such a good idea.”
Her brown eyes softened and she looked disappointed. I knew exactly what Mary would say then. Why, Daddy? Why can’t we? She was so curious at that age, so involved in everything, so interested.
“Why not?” she said, then her eyes changed and she said. “Daddy?”
Something in my chest gave way and I had to struggle to get a breath. My mouth opened and my tongue moved but I couldn’t say a word. She stared at me while I floundered, then a shadow fell on me, casting me out of the circle of golden light.
“Hey, Pumpkin.” It was Mr. Mustache. Howie. “You having fun with Mr. Harper?”
“He’s going to help me catch a gopher.”
“I see you’ve met Gabby,” Howie said. 
I looked at the two of them, my head growing dizzy. I nodded and fell back on the grass, the cool blades tickling the bare skin at the back of my neck. For a blissful minute I was alone and all was quiet, then Janet was hovering over me.
“Earl? Are you alright? Can you hear me?”
“I’m fine,” I assured her, but she didn’t look assured.
They put me in the car and Janet drove me home. “What happened to you?”
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
“You’ve been crying.”
“Like hell I have,” I said, snapping the sun visor down to look in the mirror. Sure enough, my eyes were red and wet and two tracks ran beneath them down my cheeks. “What the?”
“Howie says you had some sort of episode.”
“Howie’s an ass.”
She looked a warning at me but didn’t complain. I must have looked pitiful.
When we got home she told me the Padres were about to play the Mets and I’d better go out to the garage. I did, but when I turned on the TV I thought again of the little girl. I set the game to record and dug an old bucket and sponge out of the garage and went out front. It took a minute to get the cover off the old Mustang, and even longer to shake out all the twigs and leaves. 
Janet found me a while later, when I was putting the first coat of wax on. She didn’t approach, or say a word, just watched as I polished until my forearms screamed. When I was done, I was crying like a baby, but that car gleamed as bright as it had the day I’d given it to my daughter.

Submitted: June 12, 2019

© Copyright 2021 Daniel Link. All rights reserved.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Add Your Comments:

Facebook Comments

More Literary Fiction Short Stories

Other Content by Daniel Link

Short Story / Literary Fiction

Short Story / Flash Fiction