Till Death Us Do Part – B.W. Jackson

A warm summer breeze blew through the kitchen window, rustling the plastic blinds. Jeanette stood with her hands behind her back, squinting in the afternoon sun. Her paunch protruded through her floral dress. On the street, two officers in sunglasses were leaning up against a patrol car, one of them jotting something down on a notepad. An ambulance pulled away from the curb and disappeared behind the leafy trees.

Jeanette wondered if their insurance would cover the ambulance. Then there would be the funeral. They had put aside some money for that, and perhaps the kids would pitch in. At least the plots were already paid off. Really only the casket might set her back. Sal didn’t need anything fancy. They wouldn’t be pulling up his body to examine it for sainthood. Of that she could be certain.

When the police officers got in the patrol car and drove away, Jeanette turned from the window and tottered across the kitchen to the basement stairs. The door was still open, the light on. She stared down at the concrete floor, where only an hour earlier her husband had lain motionless. After nearly forty-seven years, she was finally on her own. Sadly, looking back, the only moments of contentment that came to mind were moments without Sal. The best part of their days together had been when he was safely snoring in bed. Darkness was the absence of light, evil the absence of good, and happiness the absence of Sal.

Sal’s drinking hadn’t always been so bad. Over the years it had gotten worse and worse until she couldn’t remember the good days, but that didn’t mean the good days hadn’t happened. The courtship, although brief, had been a thrill. She truly had been in love, which was more than some women could say. But after that, happy times were few and far between. Of course, back then it was different. Most women didn’t have the luxury of waiting and choosing, let alone getting a divorce. You got married and you dealt with it. Some women got lucky, some didn’t. Marriage was a lottery, and everyone was forced to play.

“Till death us do part.” That vow might as well have been tattooed on her forehead. She had been saying it to herself like a mantra since the first year. The rest of the time she was repeating, “Thou shalt not kill.” Something had to give.

*

The first year of marriage had brought both joy and sorrow. The birth of James was a blessing, but it also marked the start of the drinking, if it was possible to identify a starting point. Sal had always been a drinker. His father was a drinker, as was his father’s father. Now James too had become a drinker. Was it nature or nurture, predestination or free will? Whatever the cause, the result was the same.

The more Sal drank and the older he got, the more he became a caricature of himself. By the end he was a cartoon. His elaborate comb-over looked like a failed science project – a crumpled model of the solar system made by one of the kids. His bulbous nose, glowing with burst blood vessels, could have been a clown’s honker. Jeanette still couldn’t understand how he got dressed. She imagined he poured himself into his clothes through a funnel. His plaid dress shirts were always stretched to the limits, the buttons barely holding the two sides together, and his pleated khakis would have exploded if not for the strained strip of leather around his waist. He was like a water balloon wearing a belt.

Jeanette found it much easier to count the milestones on Sal’s long road to ruin than the rare moments of happiness with him. The roast beef incident was one of the most memorable. At the time, Jeanette had wanted to murder him in his sleep over it, but in retrospect it almost made her smile. So many of Sal’s disasters had a comic side. She could see that now. It was a Saturday afternoon. Sal had woken up early and started his day in the basement with his booze, the way he always did. After that he moved into the garage to work on one of his little projects. In the late morning he summoned Jeanette and sent her out to the store for roast beef. She went to the deli counter and ordered a pound of roast beef, cut extra thin, just as Sal had specified. That poor boy at the deli had no idea what he was doing. But what could she have done about it?

When she came back from the store, Sal could barely stand. He was like a wobbling bowling pin. It all might have turned out okay if she had made the sandwiches herself, but for some reason Sal insisted on making his own sandwich that day. The kid had cut the roast beef into tatters and Sal couldn’t get a hold of it with his sausage fingers. He might as well have been trying to peel paint off the wall. He erupted. His head turned into a tomato. He grabbed the bag of meat and stumbled out to the car. Marching up to the deli counter, he grabbed that poor kid by the collar and stuffed the shredded roast beef in his face like a whipped cream pie. When the manager came over, he threw a handful of roast beef in her face. Luckily a security guard happened to be on duty that day or else he might have done all sorts of other damage.

*

Sal was sixty-two at the time of the roast beef incident. Where he found the energy for that kind of explosive action was a mystery. Given his size and how much he drank, it was a miracle he made it to sixty-eight. He seemed to derive some sort of magical strength from drinking. The priest used to call it vice energy. He was a man possessed.

The time the Mormon missionaries came to the door was another impressive performance. Those unsuspecting young men had no idea what awaited them when they wandered into the neighborhood. It was a sight to behold. Jeanette and the kids had watched from inside as Sal chased them out of the yard, squirting mustard on their pristine white shirts. All they had done was offer to pray for him.

So many of the incidents seemed to involve a chase. His head would fly back and his chest would puff out – a fat chicken at a full sprint. Strangely, he could still move pretty well late into his fifties. As far as Jeanette knew, he had never exercised a day in his life, and yet once he got a few drinks in him and someone raised his ire, he was like a pig out of the gates at the county fair.

Golf was Sal’s only pastime that remotely required athleticism. In the warmer months, Jeanette would sometimes chauffeur him and his drinking buddy Biggby home from the local course. Biggby looked like a cartoon himself. As lanky as a sapling, and about as smart, he had eyeballs that came halfway out of his giant head and teeth that refused to hide behind his lips. His features seemed to be trying to escape his face.

One day Jeanette went to pick them up at the course and came to a screeching halt in the parking lot when she saw Sal and Biggby speeding off the ninth green in front of the car. As usual, Sal was doing the chasing, but that time he had his putter raised above his head like a battle-ax. Jeanette sat calmly in her car as the two did a few laps around the parking lot. Finally Biggby ran back onto the course. Following him, Sal slipped and did a swan dive across the putting green. He was still holding the golf club above his head, ready to strike, as he slid across the slick grass on his stomach. When his body came to a stop, he lay there with his face down, still as a lamb. Biggby came back around, huffing and puffing, nearly laughing those donkey teeth right out of his head. That is, until Sal acrobatically sprang to life. He rolled off his stomach and gave Biggby a good whack across the shins.

For a string of summers, Sal and Biggby were inseparable. Every day after work they would drink at a bar together by the water until dusk. One night after Sal had thrown another one of his fits, he and Biggby were arguing in the driveway while the neighborhood kids hid behind a bush. Sal was pouting and Biggby kept saying, “Oh, come on, Sally. Don’t be like that, Sally.” From then on, every time Sal went outside that summer, the neighborhood kids would quietly sing to him from the other side of the hedge: “Sal-ly, Sal-ly, Sal-ly.” It drove Sal insane, but there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. He would scream his fiercest threats through the twelve-foot hedge, to no avail. The kids would just break down in laughter and start again: “Sal-ly, Sal-ly, Sal-ly.”

Sal was grilling in the back yard one Sunday afternoon when Jeanette heard a commotion. She raised her head from her mystery novel and listened. A moment later Sal came flying into the house through the screen door with scrapes all over his face. He had completely lost his mind and run headlong into the hedge. Jeanette jumped out of her chair and raced to the closet where he kept his shotgun and had to guard it until he passed out that night.

*

Sal and Biggby were the best of friends and the worst of enemies. They almost killed each other at least three or four times, and yet every morning all was forgotten, mainly because they probably couldn’t remember anything. They kept up their shenanigans until Biggby retired to Florida, where he managed to drive a motorboat full speed onto the beach and into some poor woman’s three-legged rescue dog.

The last time Jeanette could recall seeing Biggby was when he had come up for Sal’s retirement party. Those two idiots had disappeared sometime in the evening, before all the guests had even left, and Jeanette had to drive around town looking for them in the middle of the night. After circling all the neighborhood bars, she went downtown. She couldn’t believe her eyes when she finally found them.

Sal and Biggby had shown up around midnight, barely functioning. It was a university bar, and they were three times the age of anyone else there. Somehow they had gotten it into their thick skulls that they would go out on the town like a couple of college kids. Neither of them could stand up straight, so they staggered into the place leaning up against each other. Sal ordered a beer and poured the whole thing straight down his shirt. The bartender stopped serving them immediately. Then Biggby ventured out onto the crowded dance floor and managed to take down a few girls in the span of a few minutes. First some girl’s boyfriend tried to hit him. By a minor miracle he dodged the punch, but in the process he flopped into a group of girls, knocking them down like dominoes. Picking himself up off the floor, he took a step and skidded across a puddle of beer, doing a split and slide tackling two other girls to the ground.

When Jeanette drove past, scanning the streets, she found the two of them outside the bar. They were taking turns shouting at a bouncer, who stood in front of the door silently with his arms crossed, shaking his head. The bouncer explained to Jeanette what had happened.

*

Jeanette could laugh later, but even the funny parts had been painful at the time. Then there were the truly painful moments. Despite his absurd appearance, and even more ridiculous antics, Sal could get nasty. Jeanette had discovered that early in the marriage. Within the first month she had felt his wrath for the cardinal sin of undercooking a baked potato. His anger outside the house often ended in a sprint, and his anger inside the house often began with an outburst. He would erupt and then simmer for hours, boiling off a steady flow of sarcasm. For years Jeanette simply sat and listened or did the dishes and listened, to maintain some semblance of an intact family. Once all the kids were at least teenagers, she gave up on the charade. She would set out dinner and go read a mystery until Sal had passed out.

Over the years, every tradition she held sacred was torn apart by Sal’s drinking. When she got married and left home, Jeanette had promised herself she would host her parents for Thanksgiving until the day they died. But they never came back after the first year. Sal went out hunting early and came back halfway through dinner with nothing to show for it but a hangover. Jeanette could never forgive him for the things he had said to her mother and father that day.

They had been married less than a year at the time of that first Thanksgiving. James was only a month old. Jeanette had wanted so badly to make sure everything was perfect. How silly of her. She hadn’t yet realized it was just the beginning of all the disappointments. Sal hadn’t been able to stay sober for even one important event – not one Christmas or baptism or graduation or wedding. Holiday or not, he had started every day in that basement with his booze. It was only fitting he should end up there, lying on his face on the concrete floor.

*

That warm summer morning, Jeanette had gone out to a doctor’s appointment and then to the grocery store. Over the years she had made a habit of spending as much time away from the house as she could. Some days she thought she might just get on the highway and keep driving, but something always stopped her.

When she got back from the store, she struggled out of the car with her bad hip and went to the screen door. Sal was in the kitchen, at the top of the stairs to the basement, trying to get his bearings. She thought of asking him to help her, but she was so used to doing it all herself. Pushing through the screen door, she set her bag of groceries on the counter with one final effort and glanced over at Sal. He stood at the top of the stairs, swaying slightly with his back to her.

Jeanette stopped and watched him. He was in a trance, oblivious of her in his drunken stupor. The temptation was too great. It was almost as if God were talking to her – as if God had placed Sal there at the top of the stairs. Jeanette hobbled toward the basement door, and still Sal didn’t wake up from his reverie. He went down easily, like he was waiting for her to push him.

The fall was violent and startling. But then there was peace. Jeanette looked down at Sal from the top of the staircase. She thought he looked relieved, lying there motionless on the concrete floor at the foot of the stairs. Getting her book, she set the timer on the stove for fifteen minutes and sat down to read her mystery. When the timer went off, she went to the phone in the kitchen and called the police.

***

B. W. Jackson is a writer based in the Hudson Valley Region of New York State. His story “Write and Wrong” appeared this year in the Medusa’s Laugh Press anthology “Twisted.” His piece “Unfeeling Woman” will feature in the July edition of Cloudbank magazine.