Excerpt

Whiskey & Ribbons

Leesa Cross-Smith

March 6, 2018 
The following is from Leesa Cross-Smith's novel, Whiskey & Ribbons. The story follows Dalton, Evi, and Eamon after a family tragedy: Eamon is killed while on duty as a police officer. Dalton, his adopted brother, swears to take care of the family after the death, and moves in with Evi and her six-month-old son, Noah. Leesa Cross-Smith is the author of the short story collection Every Kiss a War.

Frances was fucking her heart out on top of me. Cursing, wild-eyed. This was the picture I had in mind whenever anyone would ask me why we were still together. This is why we’re still together.

We came at the same time. It was kind of our thing.

“I thought maybe I was pregnant last month,” she said, slapping her back against the cool sheets of my bed.

I sat up against the headboard, scratched through my hair. It was long. It was down, hanging past my shoulders. If I wanted, I could preciously put it up in what Frances and Evangeline called a man-bun.

“What the hell?” I said. Suspicious. Jocular. Suspiciously jocular.

“I’m not. I’m not!” she said. She reached over to get her cigarettes from her purse.

I didn’t mind when she smoked one in my room, but only after sex. I loved Frances. I’d kid around with Eamon about her being crazy because that’s what men did. We kid around about women being crazy or maybe sometimes we were serious but deep down we all knew the truth. Women weren’t the crazy ones. We were. I loved Frances. I hadn’t decided how much I loved her yet but I knew I loved her at least a little.

She was funny and beautiful and smart and mean when she needed to be. It was hot when she was mean. Maybe that meant I needed therapy, maybe that meant she needed therapy. Loretta had mentioned more than once that Frances reminded her of my mother. My mother, Penelope. Penelope was my mother, Loretta was my mom.

*

In my bike shop, I restored and repaired classic and vintage bikes. Bianchi, Peugeot, Trek, Specialized, Surly, Ibis, BMX, etc. Some for customers, some to sell. Taking things apart and putting them back together again was a comfort for me and had been my whole life. Penelope was depressed a lot when I was a kid. She’d go for days and days without getting out of bed for anything other than the bathroom or the occasional cup of soup or cigarette. Instead of TV, Penelope would keep me busy with either piano lessons or bikes. Any old bike she found in the trash or at Goodwill, she’d throw it in the back of her station wagon, bring it home for me.

“Fix it,” she’d say, sweetly smiling at me. Even when she was fighting the thick black fog of suicidal thoughts, the lead-heavy boots of wanting to give up.

And I would fix it. I could fix the bikes. From the beginning of my life I’ve always tried to make broken things better. I’d take them apart. Penelope never minded the mess because she took her sleeping pills, disappeared to the bedroom for hours at a time.

I would take the bikes apart in the kitchen, sometimes in my bedroom, sometimes in the living room, sometimes on the front porch, the deck, the garage. It wasn’t long before the neighbors caught on, began dropping off bikes for me. Either to repair or to use the parts for scraps.

I called my bike shop B’s. B for bikes. B for Penelope and Dalton Berkeley. B for my heart.

“You’re absolutely not pregnant, but you thought you were?” I needed clarification. Frances lit the cigarette, took a drag, offered it to me. I accepted it, smoked and handed it back. Smoking was stupid, but let the record show I was a sucker for a good ritual.

“I thought I was. Maybe. I’m not. I mean, would it be the worst thing?” she said. I could see the feist sparking behind her eyes—gold flecks against black velvet.

“Not the worst thing, but not the best thing either, right? I mean we agree on that?” I said.

She sat cross-legged next to me, using her empty can of Diet Coke as an ashtray.

It was spring, the air was rich, pulsing with fecundity. We had the windows open, the curtains she’d picked out for me were trembling in the wind like delicate butterfly wings. Watching them made me want to play piano. They looked like a song. Pianissimo.

Penelope and I would play a game when I was a kid and make up piano songs according to our moods or a song about how my hamster would sound running on his wheel at night or a song about the little bright blue and yellow birds nesting in the tree outside my bedroom window. Penelope would play Vivaldi’s “Spring” Allegro for me, tell me all about how it sounded like the things outside our windows—the birds, the storms, the wind, the rain, the leaves, the sun returning. I could hear them. I could hear all of them. She taught me to play them too. I could play them poorly by the time I was six. I could play them well by the time I was ten. I could play them perfectly by the time I was twelve. A man at church used the word prodigy once. Penelope made a zip the lips motion. Later she told me if I heard words like prodigy or genius too often I would think I didn’t have to practice, didn’t have to work hard. Penelope taught piano at the university and they put on a concert in her honor the month after her memorial service, asked me to play. I played Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” and there was a full orchestra behind me. Loretta had bought me my first tuxedo. I wore it with my black high-top sneakers. Eamon had given me his lucky baseball card to keep in my pocket—a signed 1995 Marty Cordova.

 

“I couldn’t properly express how I felt in that moment but I knew Eamon telling me I’d be an awesome dad was some love right there. Brotherhood. Goodness.”

 

Sometimes Penelope would turn on the string Vivaldi recording. We would lie on our backs on the floor with the windows open and listen. Just, listen. Penelope died and the key of my life changed. The notes went both sharp and flat. Slowed. Adagio. Grave. I felt a blue ache on that bed next to Frances, thinking about Penelope. It’d been fifteen years since she’d taken enough pills to stop her heart. I watched the curtains, heard Vivaldi in my head. My fingers played the air. I thought about the baby Frances and I weren’t having. I didn’t want to have a baby with Frances. Yet? I didn’t want to have a baby with anyone. Yet? When the time was right, wouldn’t I feel it? She wasn’t pregnant. It wasn’t happening. There I was, grateful I didn’t have to think about it. There I was, thinking about it.

*

Frances snapped her finger in front of my face.

“Where’d you go?” she asked. She asked it often when I stared off. Not so much because she wanted to know, but she liked me knowing she was aware of my non-presence. I’d been a bad boy. I’d drifted.

“Sorry. I’m sorry,” I said, readjusting myself. I reached over, grabbed my underwear, slipped them up my legs.

“You’d hate it so much if I got pregnant? If we had a kid, got married, did all those normal things people do?” she asked, smoking.

“I didn’t say I’d hate it. I want to be prepared for it. That’s all. I’m not big on surprises,” I said. The music was gone. I wanted it back. My fingers were itchy. I pulled my jeans up, put my T-shirt back on.

“Well good thing I’m not, right?” she said.

“Frances,” I said. It was all I said. If I loved her I’d want those things too, right?

Surprise or no, I’d want them. I couldn’t process it properly so I stopped trying.

When she was gone I played piano with the windows open. I played piano, I took a shower. I went outside and my neighbor Miss Margaret told me she loved listening to me play.

“So remember to keep the windows open, okay?” she said, smiling her flirtiest eighty-year-old smile.

“I sure will,” I said and I thanked her.

I went down to the bike shop to get some work done.

*

Eamon stopped by. He stopped by a lot, happily played the role of leaning cop, drinking coffee.

“You’re such a cliché,” I said to him.

“Body of a god and a ten-inch cock or cop drinking coffee? Both? Let’s go with both,” he said.

“If you’ve got ten inches I’ve got fourteen,” I said, closing the register. We were only talking like this because the shop was empty. A customer had just picked up his bike and left. My only other employee, my buddy, Detroit had the day off.

“D! D-Money. Come on, bruh. Come on.” Eamon laughed at me, shook his head.

He stood there, using my Chemex, drinking my Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. I felt a rush of love for him—I had felt skinless about family since I was thinking about Penelope so much earlier in the day.

“I could be wrong. It’s been a while since we measured,” I said. We literally measured them when we were freshmen. Eamon had me beat by half an inch. He was also six days older than me. There is a picture of Penelope and Loretta, both in overalls, both nine months pregnant with us. They are holding hands. Loretta had it hung next to the staircase at home.

“If Evangeline will have me, I’m going to marry her. Watch,” he said. “She’ll have you,” I said.

I told him Frances thought she was pregnant last month.

“Well, listen. You’d be an awesome dad. The kid would be lucky to have you be his dad,” Eamon said, pointing at me.

I felt my eyes get hot. Sure, we’d seen each other cry plenty of times. I wasn’t even sure I felt like crying. I couldn’t properly express how I felt in that moment but I knew Eamon telling me I’d be an awesome dad was some love right there. Brotherhood. Goodness. I’d never known my biological father. He ran off on me, on Penelope.

Penelope’s parents had died before I was born. She was an only child and so were they. I would’ve been a walking Charles Dickens novel if not for the Royces. Theirs was a gigantic, loving family—the kind of family you see in the movies.

“Don’t cry, because I’ll cry,” Eamon said. “Fuck you.”

“You know I’m right.”

I was practically an orphan, biologically. Never had a blood family outside of Penelope but always had the Royces. The thought of having an actual family of my own was overwhelming. Good and bad. I didn’t want to think about it all the way yet. That’s why I drifted to the music in my head when Frances brought it up earlier. Here it was again right in front of me.

“Ask. Ask Evi to marry you. She’ll say yes,” I said, shifting. I didn’t want to cry. “I’m doing this tonight,” Eamon said. He nodded and was staring off into the

middle distance before meeting my eyes again. He clapped his hands together and smiled at me.

Eamon and Evi had been dating for almost seven months and if it were any other woman, I would’ve been surprised Eamon was taking the leap so quickly. But this wasn’t any other woman. This was Evangeline.

“All right, there’s a ring I’ve been thinking about. That’s where I’m going right now,” Eamon said, slapping the counter. “Dig. Bring Franny if you want. Let’s go out to dinner. I’ve got to work like—” he looked at his watch. The static of his police radio clicked, the robotic voices repeating letters, numbers, secret codes. “—two more hours. You and Franny meet us at West’s at eight.” He took a sip of his coffee, headed towards the door. “Mighty fine cup of coffee,” he said, smiling. He never called Frances Franny but Eamon always got cheekier when he was excited.

“You ready for this?” I asked him. “I’m ready for this.”

“You already told Mom?” “Reading my mind.”

“See you at eight.”

“All right, brother,” he said, leaving.

I did inventory, worked on a couple bikes, thought about how Evangeline was going to be my sister-in-law and how much fun it would be to dance with Frances at the reception. Frances was a blast at weddings.

__________________________________

From Whiskey & Ribbons. Used with permission of Hub City Press. Copyright © 2018 by Leesa Cross-Smith.




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