The "Do You Have Lots of Faults Too?" Issue


Dangerous Lightning

    by Richard Weems

The man watched from his car as lights turned off and on in the house that used to be his. Maybe that was his ex in the dining room; maybe the boy now lived in the bedroom at the front center of the house. Without binoculars, the man could only guess who stayed in what room anymore. He finished off the Rolling Rock he had smuggled from the Hi Point and leaned over the steering wheel to get as close to the windshield as possible. Be a man of your word, the guys at the bar had said, put your money where your mouth is, all that shit. So here he was, gearing himself up to go in. The trees kept his spot a secret as long as he didn't turn on the headlights. A storm was on its way and made the early evening thick with humidity.

The radio announced a dangerous lighting watch until 11:00 p.m.

The man started his car and drove down the road and up the dirt driveway. The bumps, the shifts back and forth, were all familiar of course, but the house was somehow different. The siding was the same, the porch light fixture, too. But there was a change, and he didn't like whatever it was.

He inched up behind his ex's Honda until his bumper tapped hers. He got out and went up the porch steps and through the front door. The door was unlocked. Someone ran into the kitchen as he came in, probably the boy, who should be at least eight now. (How long since he had last come by. A year? Another half?) The living room furniture was in a different order—he couldn't even see the television at first. Jessica had put out a bunch of knick–knacks. They were small, but they caught his eye immediately: tiny, decorative boxes on the lamp table by the door, two on the low shelf in the hall. One announced itself all the way from the living room with its inky, dark red. The man picked up the zebra–colored box by the hall lamp that he never liked. The box was heavy and cold for its size—it wasn't even big enough to hold a box of paper clips. He shook it, but there was nothing inside. He pocketed it when he heard Jessica in the kitchen:

"What the hell."

The man went to the living room and sat in the middle of the sofa. By that time, she had come down the hall from the kitchen.

"The hell?" she said. Both of her fists, one in an oven mitt, poked into her hips. She had added on a few pounds; her hair was a little long and out of control.

"Dangerous lightning tonight," the man said. "There's a watch."

Jessica wiped her hands on her work slacks. She had a job typing and answering phones for smart–asses at the community college—he had heard this from Les, a grounds man who hung out at the Hi Point.

Jessica said, "Todd," as if only now could she remember her ex–husband's name. A clear insult, that she could for one second forget his name.

"Todd," she said. "Jesus Christ. What the hell?"

"Their words," Todd said. "Dangerous. There's a watch until eleven."

Jessica looked at the clock, no doubt so that Todd would also see that it was barely after seven.

"Their words," he said. Todd raised his hands in futility—the weather was, after all, out of his control.

Liam, the boy, came down the hall. He had a floppy head of hair now, a lot like his mother's. He receded out of sight and sat on the bottom two stairs. The girl was no doubt upstairs in her room—teenage girls pretty much lived in their rooms, didn't they?

Jessica took a step to the side, as though about to go back to the kitchen and ignore him completely, but then she settled back into her military–like stance.

"It's a watch," she said. "There isn't any danger. They're just looking to see if anything happens."

"That's a warning," he said. "A watch means there's bad lightning out there and we need to keep an eye out for it."

She shook her head and didn't pursue. But in the end, she seemed unable to help herself.

"That's ass–backwards," she said. She flinched a bit, but Todd only smiled. Jessica said, "The kids have dinner to eat. And then homework." Liam peeked around the corner, and she sent him up the stairs with a look. Before the boy ducked away again, Todd raised his eyebrows at him.

Jessica had done more to the house than rearranging the furniture and adding her little boxes. There was a blue border on the living room wall. There were rectangles at random angles as though she had thrown a mass of sponges. But the pattern, if it could be called that, wasn't finished and didn't reach all around the living room. Todd followed it along until it ended, then scoffed and showed her that he was scoffing.

"Ass–backwards," he said, shaking his head at the use of that word. "Like you are with bat versus knife."

Liam crept up past the creaky eighth and ninth steps and pattered down the upstairs hall, probably to his sister's room to tell her that dad was here. The girl was either going to hole up in her room until dad was gone, or she was going to come down and chew him a new one. No telling which. The girl was fifteen now.

"Bat and knife," Jessica said. She took a quick look up the stairs to make sure that the boy was out of hearing range. "Don't start that shit."

Todd pointed at the border. "It's all crooked," he said. "You shouldn't do that stuff by hand unless you know what you're doing."

The guys had made it sound so simple. Les, Billy, Brown Tom and Tips: go there and straighten her ass out, they said. Todd told them how Jessica never listened to him, not once during their marriage, even less afterwards, and they made their solution sound like the easiest thing in the world to do. And here he was, and talking to her was still like talking with a radio show on fifteen–second delay.

Upstairs, a door flew open and hit the wall. Jessica went to the bottom of the stairs as the girl's footsteps trudged across the ceiling. It was the girl who was in the small bedroom now, the one that looked out over the porch. It didn't make sense that a teenager would want a smaller bedroom... unless she used the porch roof to sneak out at night to party and fool around with boys.

"Get that fucker out," the girl said from the top of the stairs. Jessica told her it's okay, just go back and wait.

The house was buzzing now. Things had looked so quiet from the road. Todd put his feet up on the chest that stood in place of a coffee table. No doubt, no one was allowed to do that.

"He goes," the girl said. "You go," she said, louder.

Todd turned his face towards the ceiling, as though this would make him easier to hear. "It's dangerous out tonight."

"Don't," Jessica said. Todd wasn't sure if she had directed this at the girl or him.

The girl paced back and forth. Jessica barred her from the downstairs with upraised hands. Todd heard a creak in the girl's room—Liam, probably, rocking back and forth on a chair or on the floor. Probably still sucking his thumb like a baby, like a little girl. The daughter came back to the top of stairs and yelled, "Just get out, you fuck."

"It's a watch," the girl's dad said. "It's called a watch, Jessica. Means there's danger out there to watch for.

"Your mom has it all ass–backwards," he said to the ceiling.

It took some time for Jessica to get the girl back to her room. She talked in calm tones, said everything was okay, everything. Okay. When the girl did finally stomp back down the hall, she called her dad an asshole and a piece of shit in a voice loud enough to come through the ceiling. Liam was shooed from her room, her door slammed. Liam slunk along the hall and down the stairs slowly, but he stayed out of sight. Jessica put her forehead on one of the balustrades.

Todd took the zebra box out of his pocket and put it on his knee. Jessica looked at the box. Todd moved it to the knee farthest from her.

"You got it all ass–backwards," he said. "Don't you? Watch and warning? Bat and knife? Two choices, fifty–fifty odds, and you always come out on the wrong side."

This was pretty much the same kind of argument he had with her the last time, when he had that floozy Susan with him, Susan who sat on the porch steps and cackled like the drunk bitch she was while Todd and Jessica shouted at each other through the screen door. There was no telling Jessica anything if she couldn't understand something as simple as bat and knife. That night, the argument ended when he turned on Susan and told her to shut her drunk–cunt face. Jessica slammed the front door and Susan tried to make off in his car. It had all been very disordered, very embarrassing. He never got as far as the living room that last time.

"Just don't," Jessica said. "I. The kids have dinner. Just."

"Bat and knife," Todd said. "Tell me which you are."

It was a simple question. You're trapped in a room with someone who wants to kill you, so which do you use to defend yourself: bat or knife? There were only two choices, unless you were a Bruce goddamn Lee, but even a Jedi master would have chosen one or the other.

Todd took the lid off the useless, decorative box. Nothing inside, just as he had suspected. He held up the box to let her see how empty it was.

"Too small," he said, "even for keys. You have some kind of pet ant you want to make a condo for?"

Jessica crossed her arms and looked up the stairs at the boy.

"Knife," Jessica said. "I'm sticking with knife."

She was wrong about this. She was always wrong. Todd had told her over and over, so now she was just determined to be wrong. Since he didn't live in the house anymore, she'd forgotten how much it mattered when she was wrong. Women usually went for knife, but knife was a bad choice, and Todd wanted her to be smarter than other women. Knives were close range weapons, no good for fending off people with bats—hardly anyone ever asked what the other person had.

He shook the empty box to draw her attention to it. "This little shit," he said. "By the door and on the shelves." He threw the box, and it bounced along the carpet like a stone skipping along the surface of a lake. He raised his voice for Liam's benefit. "What the fuck does your mom want with these shitty little boxes, my man?"

Liam didn't answer. There was a boom upstairs from the girl, maybe a bureau drawer falling to the floor. Jessica involuntarily looked up, but no doubt she wanted to act as though the girl wasn't even in the house. Forget the girl. No girl here. That was what Jessica wanted.

Jessica pulled at the oven mitt as though pulling at a boxing glove.

"This little shit," he said. "Everything's wrong with this house, including this little shit you're doing." He sent the lid of the little fucking box after its bottom, only a little harder, and it bounced against the far wall. Maybe the thing was porcelain, maybe ceramic. Either way, it didn't break. Jessica didn't give a fuck about it, even though she had spent who knows how many hours finding this shit and buying it and placing it around everywhere—that lid could have broken, and she would have paid it no mind because she was busy fending off someone who was no better than an intruder to her in this house.

The girl let something else fall upstairs to also let Todd know that he was not welcome, and Jessica stared as though just the right combination of glare and eyebrow curl would send her ex–husband away.

Todd again talked to his son. "You've got the women all to yourself in the house now, my man. They're going to try and change the house and make it like they want it if you don't say something now and then." He dug his heel into the cover of a magazine on the coffee table chest, into a model's fake fucking face, so that it creased and almost tore, and then he pulled the magazine off the chest and onto the floor. The magazine was as thick as a book and it landed like one.

And Jessica kept staring.

"And get your flabby ass out of the way if you want me out of your fucking house." He looked up at the ceiling and said, "Your fucking house," again, and now he knew the girl was up there crying. She'd probably been crying for a while, because he'd taught her how to cry quietly and she could do so for a while. And now she was crying out loud.

"You're fucking house too, my man," Todd said for his son's benefit. "A house with little useless fucking boxes you can't even put your keys in."

No one listened to him anymore—that much was obvious. The girl was upstairs crying, Jessica a popsicle as she stood between Todd and the stairs that led to the children.

Todd got up and took out his keys to show that he was going. "Remember," he said. "Bat. Stop getting it ass–backwards. Bat is better." At least he had taken her word and used it against her. He crossed half of the living room before he stopped to point at her. He said, "You are going to get someone who knows what the fuck he's doing when you redecorate, aren't you?"

Jessica looked away and didn't answer. The girl thumped around some more, and Todd heard one side of a telephone conversation up there.

At the door, he stopped a moment with his hand on the knob and drew in a comforting thought:

He was still a part of this house. Dinner was going to be a quiet affair because of him.

"Go, already," Jessica said. She was mighty, now that Todd was already at the door. He left it open behind him, and she closed it quietly and shut off the porch light, as though she were locking up behind the final customer.

The girl's bedroom light was off, but there she was, at the window, a phone in her hand. A shine of tears at her eyes. Jessica may have put on a few pounds, but the girl had spread out like a parade balloon. He pretended not to notice her when she stuck up her middle finger at him and screamed, "Fuck you, fucker, you fuck," elongating every vowel. He looked at the sky and jingled his car keys. There was still plenty of time to get a drink at the Hi Point and tell the guys that he'd plopped himself down in the middle of the living room and wouldn't leave until he'd said a thing or two.

Still no rain, but there was lightning in the distance, the accompanying thunder so far away that by the time it reached him it had lost all potency. Pussy thunder. Nor were there any bolts—just clouds lighting up like they were grumbling among themselves, trying to psych each other up to put on a real show.