3,838 words – approx. 13 minutes
The house at 12 Rosewood Drive had seen better days, but even those had been far from magnificent. Its paint, though, had once been more evenly spread, and the wooden panels the peeling white coats covered had not always seemed to be folding in on themselves. The front yard, too, had once been subject to a measure of control, in contrast to the sprawling, spiked wilderness that now welcomed its few visitors.
It had, once, seemed to shine – with the slick sheen of a realtor’s suit, but shine nonetheless. Now unidentifiable green shoots sprouted between the cracks in its walls, and the second floor front window had been smashed and left unrepaired, the floor of the room it led to sagging into the bathroom below like a spider’s sac. Time and the misfortune of its neighbourhood, one without inhabitants whose money, or regard, or simple stable presence could maintain or improve the property, had taken their toll.
The current residents had been there for a little under four months, brought here by the lure of stable work. In the jungle of bushy grass and insistent weeds out front, Anne-marie Helman was fighting to hang out the washing without the clothes being pricked or torn. She was less mindful of her own, bare legs: scratches would heal, but if a shirt couldn’t be mended, that would be another expense that they could little afford.
She first saw Lenny small on the horizon, but by the time she had taken the peg from her mouth and pinned Maisy’s polka-dotted dress to the line, carefully avoiding any grasping stems that might puncture its fabric, he was pushing the gate open. It was mid-afternoon, several hours before he usually returned, and the heft of his shoulders hunched huge and tight around his chin only confirmed to Anne-marie that he brought bad news.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you,” she called. Lenny took a couple of wading steps towards her before he replied, his head held up and shoulders pulled down in a display of pride.
“I’ve quit. Told that sonofabitch where he could stick his job and walked right out of there.” Anne-marie hardly registered the words before closing her eyes; her mind flew forward to the next week, the next month, how they could make the meagre resources of food she had so carefully put aside in anticipation of precisely this stretch through the long days until Lenny found a new employer to work a few weeks or months for, before his stubbornness or antagonistic nature meant that his services were no longer required, or else he took the decision himself. Whether he was telling the truth this time hardly mattered: all that was important was the hard, parched reality.
The sound of Lenny’s voice had brought Maisy running from the house in bare feet. “Daddy!” she cried. Lenny picked her up in a single swoop, holding her under the armpits, and swung her round and around. As her world span Maisy giggled and shrieked, and Anne-marie couldn’t help but smile.
“Get me a beer?”
“Get it yourself,” said Anne-marie. It had been almost a week now, and Lenny seemed no closer to finding a new job. He pushed past her to the kitchen, and as he did so grabbed her backside with a hand she swatted away.
“Aw don’t be like that,” he said, taking a bottle from the door of the fridge. “Don’t I always find something?” It was true, she had to admit: however adept he was at losing jobs, Lenny was also surprisingly good at finding them. But it was also true that almost as soon as he had found something, he needed to find something new again. Anne-marie had long ago stopped trusting any period of apparent stability: in hindsight they always proved illusory, revealing themselves to be only short, precarious respites from the whirling uncertainty that was constant in their lives.
They sat together on the worn, sunken couch. The television was alive with a baseball game, but the lights were off – Lenny’s one concession to their financial situation. He became increasingly animated with every pitch, and every empty bottle he left carelessly on its side to spill its dregs onto the carpet, until he returned from the kitchen to declare there was no more beer.
“We’re outta beer,” he repeated when Anne-marie said nothing.
“I heard you. I don’t know what you want me to do about it.” Lenny stepped between her and the television, his bulk blocking the screen. “Hey, I was watching that,” said Anne-marie, but her voice carried little protest.
“I asked you a question,” said Lenny. His words blurred at the edges. “Where’s my beer?”
“We must be out. You drank it all.”
“Well why didn’t you buy any more?”
“I’m saving our money to heat this house and feed our daughter.”
The television’s glow threw Lenny’s shadow across the room. The crowd roared.
“What did you say? Look at me.” Anne-marie slowly lifted her gaze to where her husband stood over her. “That ain’t your money. This ain’t our house. And don’t you ever say I don’t provide for this family.” Lenny sat down heavily, this squall suddenly past. The bright light of the screen made Anne-marie screw up her eyes.
When the game finished, Lenny turned off the set and spoke more softly. “I’ll get work real soon, you’ll see. Something’s just round the corner, I know it. I wouldn’t let you or my little girl go cold or hungry.” He was murmuring into her neck, his weight pressing her further into the couch.
Footsteps knocked overhead. “What about Maisy?” whispered Anne-marie.
“Never mind that,” cooed Lenny, stroking her breast through her dress. “You don’t never need to mind anything.”
As husbands went, Anne-marie reminded herself, scraping at the bottom of the pan where the previous night’s stew had burnt on, Lenny could be worse. He wasn’t workshy, in spite of his trouble keeping a job; he didn’t drink like some men she knew of; and he loved Maisy, that was never in doubt. They had a life – but what a low bar that was, she thought, scrubbing furiously. She didn’t stop until the mark had completely gone, and the pan shone silver again.
Later that day, Lenny came in with a six-pack of beer and a grin as wide as his face. “I told you I’d come good, didn’t I? Didn’t I?”
“You did,” said Anne-marie, playing along. “Is there something you haven’t told me?”
“From Monday I’ll be working at the cannery up in Oakley, for the union. You remember Tommy from when I worked removals? His cousin’s a big player over there, so I called in a few favours and he sorted me out.”
Anne-marie had never trusted Tommy, a ferret of a man who, when he wasn’t manhandling furniture into an old van with ‘Brass’s Removals’ in large red letters on the side, seemed to have his hands constantly jammed in his pockets. But at this point any job was a relief, and she took the beer Lenny held out to her. A union job, too – that might mean he would keep it for longer. Maybe, finally, the three of them would have some security.
After Maisy had gone to bed they celebrated on the sofa, its wooden frame digging into Anne-marie’s back, Lenny’s breath hot in her ear.
The next few weeks were the hottest of the year so far. The garden browned and yellowed, and crisped, curled flakes of paint fell from the outside walls of the house at the slightest touch. The air conditioning’s rattle and whirr was near-constant, and Lenny was getting through two cases of beer a week.
In other times Anne-marie would have suffered the heat, and applied cool damp towels to Maisy’s forehead rather than turn the money-sucking air con units on. But there were no such worries now, not since that first day Lenny had slapped a thick, brown envelope down on the table in front of her.
“What’s this?” Anne-marie put aside the buckle of Maisy’s shoe she was mending and reached out a hesitant hand.
“Open it.” Her movement was steady as she slid a finger beneath the flap and carefully lifted it away so as not to tear it, a habit she’d learnt from years of reusing and recycling, of making do and mending. But in spite of this restraint, when she saw the loose piles of bills – all denominations, but she saw at least a couple of $100s in there – she couldn’t prevent a “fuck!” exploding from her lips. She looked up at Lenny. “Is this…?”
He walked around to her and held her face against his stomach. “There’s more where that came from.”
And there was. Each week another fat parcel, another sacred collection of notes, legal tender for all debts public and private. The cupboards were full, the bills paid, and Lenny even talked about sorting out the upper floor. They hired Benjy, a negro who lived two doors down, to clear the front yard, and when it was done Maisy ran around kicking up the dust and watching in awe as it rained slowly down around her.
Even better, there were none of the signs that usually indicated that Lenny was coming to the end of his latest employment. He made no mutinous, reluctant mutterings when he got up at seven thirty to catch the bus, and didn’t slam the door when he came in later. One sweltering afternoon Anne-marie took Maisy to the department store and picked out new dresses for them both: articles of faith that she insisted they wore on Sundays.
The money kept coming, and soon Lenny started talking about buying the house from their landlord if things carried on like this (which, he assured Anne-marie, they would). There had been no progress on fixing the upper floor, but Lenny could even turn this into a positive: they could drive the price lower if they said it was run-down.
Beyond the respite from day-to-day living that it had brought, Anne-marie barely thought about Lenny’s new job until she found the gun. She was folding and putting away laundry; it was in the top drawer, smothered by socks and underwear, and when she first touched its cold surface she leapt back as though it was something living that might attack if threatened. She hastily covered it again with clothes, but for the rest of the day its metallic outline lurked in her thoughts, and that night she asked Lenny about it.
“You never told me you bought a gun.”
“I bought a gun.” Chicken grease glistened around Lenny’s mouth.
“Why’d you do that?”
“For protection. To protect my girls.” He reached over and tweaked Maisy’s cheek, then Anne-marie’s. From the zeal with which he bit into the breadcrumb-coated thigh, it was clear that he expected this to be enough for his wife. He was wrong.
“Protect us from what?”
Lenny dropped the thigh he was holding onto his plate in frustration. “Jesus, from burglars, thieves, rapists, murderers.” He waved his hands to indicate the range of threats that the weapon might be deployed against. His voice had risen to nearly a shout and Maisy started to snuffle into her sleeve. “See what you’ve done? C’mere, darling.”
“I just don’t like it being in the house,” said Anne-marie, quietly.
“Well it’s in the house.”
That would have been that if Anne-marie had not, three days later, found Maisy playing with a small, transparent, press-seal bag in the yard. She was throwing it into the air and trying to catch it, although it fell through her clapping hands and onto the ground more often than not.
“What’s that you’ve got there, Maisy?” Whatever it was, there wasn’t much you’d find outside in a place like this that she should be playing with. A stone of some kind maybe, or some wretched lizard. Maisy, good girl that she was, held out the bag to her mother who took it carefully between thumb and forefinger. It was half-filled with a grainy white powder.
“Where did you find this?” Maisy pointed to the upturned flowerpot on the front porch. “Under there?” Maisy nodded. It had been hidden, not accidentally dropped or somehow blown there. This explained a few things. Anne-marie felt the nauseous tilt of the world suddenly righting itself on its axis. She left Maisy outside drawing faces in the dirt, and went inside to think about what to do next.
In the hours before Lenny returned, Anne-marie found more bags: beneath the kitchen sink, in the back of the television set, and in the toolbox he kept under the bed. Twenty-four in total, and she had little doubt there were more. She considered laying them out on the table, ready for his return, then decided against it. Instead, when he walked in, his dinner was on the table and his beer opened.
“What’s this for?” he said, rubbing his hands together. Then he paused and contorted his face in mock regret. “Ah shit, it’s our anniversary, isn’t it?”
“Can’t a wife surprise her hardworking husband once in a while?”
Lenny grinned and shrugged amiably. “I know when I’ve got a good thing going.” He took a long slug of his beer.
That night, after they’d turned off the television, Anne-marie kissed Lenny on the cheek. “I’m so glad your work’s going well. I’m real proud of you.”
“What kind of husband of husband would I be if I didn’t bring home a bit of money?”
“Well you certainly do that,” she said, wriggling up against him. “I still can’t believe what they pay you! You must be real important to them. I should know, I know, but I can’t never remember what you do.”
Without a pause, Lenny answered. “Branch organiser. Anyone got a problem, they come to me first. And if management want to pull one over on us, they’ve got to get through me first.”
“So you’re like the liaison?”
“I guess. There’s the reps too, but I’m like the…” he fumbled for the word, “co-ordinator.” He sank back, satisfied at this little success.
“It’s great, just great. Hey, do you know what? We should invite Tommy round for dinner sometime, say thank you.”
There was a hard pause before Lenny spoke. “Ah, there’s no need for that. He knows I’m grateful. Besides, he ain’t really a dinner man.”
“But I’m grateful too,” protested Anne-marie. “It’d be nice, all of us sat together. C’mon Lenny, would you please just ask him? If he says no he’ll at least know we thought of him.”
“Alright,” said Lenny, relenting. “Alright darling, sure I’ll ask him.”
And he did. It would’ve been easy enough for Lenny to never have asked, and reported a polite refusal back to Anne-marie. But she had counted on his desire to play host, and sure enough the following Saturday saw Tommy and his plump-lipped rouge-cheeked companion sat in Rosewood Drive, crammed round the table and trying not to elbow over each other’s beer.
“I can’t tell you how glad we are to have you here, and be able to show our appreciation,” said Anne-marie when she greeted them at the door. Tommy nodded and stepped inside. He looked round the hallway with interest like he was considering making an offer on the place. The woman he brought gave her name as Bobbi. “With an ‘i’ – at the end that is!” she said, and broke into a machine gun burst of laughter that would punctuate proceedings through the night. Anne-marie had to stop herself wafting away the sweet flowery fug that was left after they embraced.
Lenny was loud and expansive all evening, pounding beer after beer and talking a little too quickly, checking for Tommy’s reaction after every anecdote. For his part, Tommy was blank-faced as he ate his risotto and listened, only offering a smirk or swig of his bottle in response. Anne-marie felt the glow of satisfaction grow as the night went on: she was right, she was sure of it.
Once the main course was cleared away Lenny declared that he had to use the little boy’s room.
“Could you check on Maisy while you’re there?” Maisy had been given her own dinner of fish fingers and chips, with strict instructions to stay in her room while the grown-ups talked. Lenny gave a salute and went upstairs, swinging round the newel post as he did so.
“We really are so grateful, these last couple of months have been wonderful,” said Anne-marie as Lenny stomped overhead.
“Don’t mention it,” said Tommy.
“I mean, the money’s great,” she continued. This was the important part. She could feel her stomach tighten as though she was at the start of a rollercoaster, inching upwards towards the drop. “A real load off our minds. But even more than that is the continuity. I do think it’s so important, continuity and consistency, don’t you?” She was looking straight at Tommy now, and her voice had turned flatter, harder. Without breaking eye contact, he curled his long fingers around the neck of the bottle and brought it to his lips.
“I know what you mean,” he said, and drank.
“I’ve been thinking,” said Anne-marie a few nights later.
“Well shit, now I’m worried.”
“Aw don’t.” She punched Lenny lightly on the arm. “I was thinking, what if I started a laundry business? Doing people’s washing and all.”
“Why’d you want to do that?”
“I get bored around the house with you out all day and just Maisy here.”
“No, that ain’t it,” said Lenny suddenly. He propped himself up on his elbow and glared at Anne-marie. “This is your insurance policy. You think I’m bound to screw this up and want something to fall back on.”
“That’s wrong! Babe, I just want something to do in the day. And even with all that money you’re making, a little extra never hurts.” She teased open the second button of his shirt and Lenny relaxed, his anger gone as quickly as it came.
“Hey and here’s something. You could ask the cannery boys if they need their work clothes washing. I’d do them a special rate. What with you being so important up there I’m sure they’d say yes.”
“The official launderette of the union.” That tickled Lenny. Then something occurred to him. “Hold up, you want me hauling sacks of laundry on that bus every week?”
“Ain’t Benjy got a truck? We could load them in the back, and you’d get a lift too.”
Lenny smiled, shaking his head in disbelief. “My wife, with it all planned out. Who’da thought it?”
Everything was in place. It was still high-risk, but she’d done the best she could to lay the foundations. It was now just a matter of time.
Except that, as summer gave way to a golden autumn, it seemed that Anne-marie’s fears over Lenny might be unfounded after all. They money kept coming, and he seemed relaxed and content. Perhaps, she wondered, with just a little disappointment, the life of an in-house drug dealer suited him after all.
It was the first cold day of September, and she had just finished the last batch of washing and filled the bags when she heard the door open. Immediately she stopped, primally glad that Maisy was at nursery. It wasn’t gone midday – it wouldn’t be Lenny at this time, not unless things had gone badly wrong. And whether it was Lenny having failed again or an intruder, her reaction would be the same. She needed to get to the bedroom.
She clambered up the stairs, sacrificing caution for speed. But when she reached the dresser the top drawer held only clothes. She sieved its contents desperately through her hands, then tried the other drawers, even pulling the bottom one out entirely to check behind it.
The gun wasn’t there.
Think. She looked around the room and settled on the bedside lamp. Footsteps on the stairs, horror-movie slow. In front of the door, or to the side? In front. She held the lamp over her head as the door swung open to reveal a bloodied and bruised Lenny.
“What the FUCK!”
“Christ Anne-marie, what’re you doing? Put that down.”
She did. “What in God’s name happened to you?”
Lenny winced sharply and brought a hand to his swollen eye. “There was, uh, a disagreement. It’ll blow over.”
“Blow over? You look half blind!” Anne-marie’s shock was receding, revealing something. “And the gun. You took a gun to work.”
Lenny blinked with the one eye that was capable and reflexively put his hand on the grip. Competing explanations ran behind his eyes, jostling for position. None had come out on top before Anne-marie continued.
“I know about the gun. And the drugs. And Tommy.” After each of these Lenny jolted a little. “Give.” Lenny mutely handed over the weapon. “Where’s the main package?”
Anne-marie sighed. “The drugs. It can’t just be those little bags. Where do you keep it?”
Slowly, as if in a dream, Lenny answered. “In the cistern.”
“And where do you collect them from?”
“Tommy’s guy brings them on a Monday morning.”
Anne-marie nodded and gestured at Lenny’s face. “What did you do for this? Short-change someone?”
“No, Christ, nothing like that. He wanted credit and I told him no.”
“But you had a gun.”
“I was expecting something like this.”
“Did you use it?”
“Does it look like it?”
There was a silence, the air between them stretched taut.
“Well thank Christ for that. If you shot someone you’d get thrown in jail, and then where would we be?”
Lenny had started to recover a little fight, and stepped towards Anne-marie. “Now wait a minute. I’ve done this for you and Maisy, don’t you forget.” He took another step but was halted by the gun barrel that now stared at him.
“I knew something like this would happen. You’d lose your temper and get fired, or find some other way to put us all at risk.”
“Hold on,” protested Lenny, but his words were whipped away from him.
“Hold on what? Hold on, without me you can’t survive, hold on, I bring in the money?” Something in her voice made Lenny blanch. “I’ve been waiting for today. I’ve been planning. I’ve got a product, a delivery method – what, you thought the laundry was for real?”
“Tommy will go with whoever he needs.”
Lenny’s eye was blinking rapidly. His jaw seemed to have unhinged.
“I had it all set up,” Anne-marie went on. “All I needed was a reason.”
He could have appealed to her, invoked Maisy, suggested becoming partners. He could even have lunged at her. But Anne-marie was done. Lenny folded to the floor before the echo had died. For the first time Anne-marie’s life was in the hands of the one person she could truly trust, and she wasn’t about to waste it.