Fiction by Jill McCorkle
Your husband is cheating on us. I’m assuming that he hasn’t told you yet. I’m the test wife and he tries everything out on me first, I mean everything. Remember when he got hooked on that massage oil that heats up with body temp? Now maybe you liked it, but I sure didn’t. I got a rash, but of course, I have extremely sensitive skin and always have. I mean, I am Clinique all the way. If you were writing up this triangle (fast becoming a rectangle), then you’d be the one with sensitive skin, the fair, hothouse flower, and I’d be the scrub grass by the side of the road.
And look at you — some tan. I know that you go to Total Skin Care and get in the sunning beds. It’s odd how he tells me all about you. There have been many times when I’ve said, well, why don’t you just go on home then? And of course, that’s the ironic part, because he always does. But, girl, like are you thick? I would know if my man had been out messing around. Like I know your perfume — Chloé — and the fact that you have not picked up on my Shalimar is amazing. I wear the stuff the way it’s supposed to be worn — heavy; I’m one of those women people ask not to be seated next to on the airplane. At my last clerical job they ran a ban on perfume in the workplace after I’d been there a week, so I had to quit on principle. That’s me, a quitter; a principled quitter. When the going gets tough I get the hell out, always have.
I’ve come here today with a proposition for you, but before I get into that, I thought you might like to hear a bit about me. I’d think you’d want to, given that I know everything there is to know about you. I know your mama died last January, and I have to tell you that I almost called you up to give my condolences. I mean, I’d been hearing about how awful her illness was and how you were traveling back and forth to tend to her. I heard you on the answering machine many times when I’d be over here cooking dinner. I’ve got to tell you that I just love your kitchen — that commercial-size stove and those marble countertops. Was he feeling guilty when you all remodeled, or what? You and I both have excellent and very similar tastes. Don’t look at my hair. It’s not a good day. You should see me when it’s just cut and blown dry. Maybe I can show you some time.
Anyway, one of those nights when I heard you on the machine, you were crying so hard that I almost picked up, so strong was my urge to want to comfort you. When Mr. Big got home, I told him there was a message I felt he had to listen to right that minute, and of course, he did, but then did he call you? No, ma’am. And did he call to check on your son, who he had dumped off at the Anderson house and them not even home from work yet? I told him that if I had a son I believe I’d be more responsible with him, and he just pawed the air like l might be dumb. He must do that to you a lot, too. I’m sure he must. I even suggested I excuse myself, go to the mall or something so he could have his privacy but he just waved again and shrugged, like, nayyhh. Well, that was the first time I stopped and asked myself just who in the hell was this man I was sharing my (or your) bed with? I looked at him in a completely different way after that. I mean, how could he hear you sobbing and carrying on like that and not rush to call you? I see your surprise and I’m sorry. We all grow up and find out that the truth hurts. But here’s some truth you might like. I did not sleep with him in your bed that night. I faked myself a migraine (complete with blinding aura) and made him drive me straight home. Do you think he ever looked all around to make sure your neighbors weren’t looking? Hell, no. Either too stupid or just didn’t give a damn, I can’t figure which. I moaned and groaned and talked of the bright lights I was seeing out of my right eye (I told him the left had already shut out in complete blindness), and honey, he drove faster than the speed limit. I have always noticed how men (at least the ones I’ve come into contact with) can’t stand to observe pain. It just sends them right up a tree. I have also faked menstrual cramps with Mr. Big on several occasions, and so I know in great detail (he talks a hell of a lot, doesn’t he?) that you have just terrible periods and always have. My bet is that you’ve faked your share, am I right? Well, either way, I know how you sometimes ask him to crush up some Valium into some juice that you sip through a straw so you don’t have to sit up and straighten yourself out. Genius. Make that Mr. Big Ass work! But honey, I’m not so sure I’d trust him, you know? If I were you I might mix my own cocktails.
But enough about that, I wanted to tell you about me. Get yourself a drink if you like, or a cigarette. I know you smoke. He knows you smoke, even though you think he doesn’t. I mean, the man is slow for sure, but he isn’t completely out of the loop. He has smelled it in your hair, even though he says you spray lots of hairspray and perfume (he doesn’t know you wear Chloé — I do). So come on out in the open and just smoke. I smoked for years and I absolutely loved it. But I quit years ago. I am actually one of those who quit because of Yul Brynner coming on television and saying that, when I saw him there doing that ad, then it meant he was dead. Lord. That was a moving experience. I was holding a cigarette in my hand and was seven months pregnant (yes I have had a life, too), and I felt like Yul was looking directly into my eyes. Talk about an aura. Yul had an aura, and don’t be like Mr. Big and make a joke about his baldness. I felt his soul reach out and grab me by the throat and say, Put out the butt. I went out on my back stoop, took one final drag (a long, delicious drag), and then I thumped that butt clean across the darkened backyard where it twinkled and glowed for just a brief second before dying.
If I was somebody who could like have one cookie at a time or could eat the designated portion written at the top of the recipe or on the side of the box, then I’d ask you to give me a cigarette, but we know better. If I had one cigarette, I’d have a carton. I have always told people that if I was ever given the bad news that my number had been drawn in that great bingo game we call fate and I only had a little bit of time left, that I’d get me a cooler of beer and a carton of cigarettes and several bottles of Hawaiian Tropic (the oil with the red label for tropical-looking people), a tape deck with all my favorites from when I was teenager: Pet Clark and Chad and Jeremy, you know my time, I’m a few years older than you, I think. And I’d just stretch out and offer myself to the sun; a burnt offering. Burnt, greased, and buzzing like a bee.
The baby? You’re asking about my baby? Well, let’s just say that if I had a baby then my last wish would be a very different one. But that’s not something I like to talk about. I’ll tell you what I did come to talk about. You see, I have been thinking that we should get rid of Mr. Big. That’s right, don’t look so shocked until you hear me out. It would be just like in that movie that came out a year or two ago, only I do not want to get into a lesbian entanglement with you. I mean, no offense or anything, it’s just not my cup of tea. Actually I would like some of whatever you’re drinking. Diet Coke is fine. Don’t slip me a Mickey, okay? A joke, honey. That’s a joke. I’m full of them. Probably every joke you’ve heard over the past eight years has been right from my mouth. Mr. Big has no sense of rhythm or timing — in anything, you know?
Truth is you look a far sight better than how he painted you, and you look a damn lot better than that photo of you all in that church family book. I mean it made me sick to see Mr. Big Ass sitting there grinning like he was the best husband in the world when of course I knew the truth. Honey, there are facts and then there are facts, and the fact is that he is a loser with a capital L.
Arsenic is big where I’m from. I guess anywhere you’ve got a lot of pests there’s a need for poison, and then maybe your perception of what constitutes a pest grows and changes over the years. There was a woman from a couple of towns over who went on a tear and fed arsenic to practically everybody she knew. If she had had herself a religious mission like Bo and Peep or Do and Mi, whatever those fools were called who tried to hitch a ride on the comet by committing suicide in new Nikes, or like that Waco Freak, or, you know, that Jim guy with the Kool-Aid down in Guyana, she’d have gotten a lot of coverage – People magazine, Prime Time, you name it. When they finally wised up to her, she had enough ant killer stashed in her pantry to wipe out this whole county. It’s big in this state. Cyanide, too, might be good because you’ve got that whiff of almond you might could hide in some baked goods. But I don’t know how to get that.
I know what you’re thinking, sister. I’ve been there. You see, your husband has been faithful to me for eight long years, and why he up and pulled this stunt I don’t know. Middle-age crazy, I suspect. Maybe he wanted somebody younger and shapelier. Maybe he wanted somebody a little more hot to trot like my oldest friend — practically a relative — who sleeps with anybody who can fog a mirror, and her own little lambs fast asleep in the very next room.
If I had had my own little lamb, my life would have been very different. And I was going to tell you about the real me, so I’ll just begin before I go back to my plan. You keep thinking about it while I do my autobiography for you. You see, I think that my first knowledge that I would live the life I do is when I was in the eighth grade and my foot jumped right into a size nine shoe. Now I’m looking over and I see that you are about a seven and a half, which is a very safe place for a foot to be these days. That’s a safe size. But I hit nine so fast and all of the women in my family said, “Where did she get that foot?” My brother called me Big Foot. My great-aunt said, “Oh my God in heaven, what if she grows into those?” This from a woman who was so wide, her butt took up a whole shopping aisle at the CVS. I mean, it isn’t exactly like I came from aristocracy but they thought so, or at least they thought that a slim little petite foot meant that somebody way, way back stepped off the boat in some size fours.
I maxed out at a size ten when I was a senior in high school. There they are, full-grown pups, and honey, there isn’t a single shoe on the market that I don’t order and wear. Sometimes I have to order a ten and a half (I firmly believe that this is the result of the Asian influence in this country). I finally got to an age where I could look out at the world and say, “Fine — I am of good solid peasant stock; I am earth woman, working the fields, turning the soil.” I can dig with my hands, and I can dig with my feet. My folks aren’t sitting out on the veranda as much as they’d like to be. They are picking cotton and tobacco leaves, and when they get their tired hot bodies back to the shanties at the edge of the field, then here comes The Mister from the Big House. I know that might sound stupid to you, but the size of my feet made me both tough and subservient. I thought long ago that it could all turn around with me meeting the right person at the right time, but that has yet to happen.
You know when I first met Mr. Big, though, I thought it might be happening. Part of the reason I liked him so much that first time is because he talked a lot about you and your son, and he really did seem to care. I even asked him the first time we met in a more personal way, you know, didn’t it bother him that he was cheating on you. He said at the time that it was okay because you were cheating on him; I let it be an excuse because he did look pretty cute back then, but I think I knew that you weren’t really having an affair. I mean, you had a one-year-old. Now, I’ve never had a one-year-old but I sure do read enough, and know enough folks who do, that I know the odds of you having time to run around were out of the question. You were probably lucky to get a shower, am I right?
He showed me a picture of your son the first night I ever met him — a cute little thing, plump and grinning — but after we started sleeping together he never showed me any more pictures of your boy. Or you for that matter, other than Mr. Big’s Holier Than Thou Church Photo. I should have known to leave him alone right then. I should have said Kiss Off and disappeared. And I’m still not entirely sure why I stayed, except that I was very lonely and I knew that he was safe.
I’m still lonely. I know you might think I’m putting too much stock on the size of my feet, but in my mind it is a physical symbol of my difference in my family. They are all over there in the nice warm room lit by firelight, and I’m way off yonder by the barbed-wire fence with snow on my boots while I shiver and peep in. I’ve always felt that way, and therefore, I’m comfortable with it. I used to get hopeful every now and then, but I got over it.
And this woman! She is much younger than you are, honey. And she has got boobs such that you could place a cafeteria tray there (man-made, I’m sure). Short skirts. Over the knee boots, I mean, really. Everybody says I have awful taste in clothes, and I do much better than she does. I mean to tell you Mr. Big has hit bottom. Here he had us, two perfectly good-hearted, good-looking women, and he falls for that? If I were you, I might even take precautions against disease. She might be packaged to look clean, but that is one sordid thing. Check her out some time. I have her working schedule at Blockbuster’s, and I know her address and phone number. As a matter of fact I’ve already started in harrassing her for you. Don’t thank me. I’m doing it for me, too.
So, I say we bump him off. Real easy. Slip him the poison. Start in small doses and then up it and up it until he’s so sick with what seems to be the flu or some awful stomach problem and then we either choke or smother him, say he did it while trying to be a pig and eat while you weren’t around. If you carry it through, you know, fall completely apart — grieve, rage, mention that hussy whore girlfriend down at Blockbuster, don’t tamper with the will (a document that does not make a single mention of me!), then they’ll believe you, especially when you say that you feel you’ve got to get that man in the ground as quickly as possible.
Done. Then you just go on about your business and I go on about mine and they might put Miss Blockbuster in the slammer. Truth is that I don’t have much business and never have.
I almost had a baby one time. The daddy was nowhere to be found. Get up and shake the sheets, and he’d blown clean out the window and down the road, never to be heard from again. Well, here came a baby. Everybody kept telling me to get rid of it, but when have I ever done what anybody said to me? Never. So I plodded along, planning. I had lots and lots of plans. But it was a bad joke — a fake baby. No breath, no heartbeat. I looked at it and realized that was my life. No breath, no heartbeat. No life for me. I’m a slave girl — a servant. I’m one rung lower than a dog.
Mr. Big is too low to be called a dog; that would be an insult to canines everywhere. He didn’t call you back that time. He was never there for me, not that I ever expected it; but what if just once he had been? What if just once somebody had taken better care of me, taken me to a real doctor, gotten some help. And Mr. Big knows that you’ve been feeling down lately, but does Mr. Big care? No. I say we kill him.
Oh, but I see doubt in your eyes. I see love, and for that I sure am sorry for you. You better lose that light, honey.
Bring him down. Think of Delilah. Cut off his strength and watch him go blind and pull a building down on himself. Sap him while you can.
Oh, my, stop crying. Lord. I didn’t come over here for this. You are not the woman I thought you were from that photo in the church book. You looked to me in that picture like a women who could enlist in a complicated plot, but you are a bundle of jumpy weepy nerves. I know that we’d no sooner put Mr. Big down under, but what you’d be confessing and giving out my name. You are a tattletale. You were probably one in school and you’re still one. I still call and hang up on the tattletale from my school, that’s how much I hate a tattletale.
Oh, yeah, I can see it all, now. You’re sitting there thinking about how you could nail me. The wife would get it easy. A woman under stress conned by the mistress. You’re crazy if you think I’d fall for that one. I may not have any children to worry over, but I have pride. I have dignity. I have the child I almost had and lots of times that keeps me in line. I imagine where he’d be right now, twelve years old — my son waiting for me to get home so he can complain about what I don’t have in the refrigerator. I tell people, maybe men I might’ve just met, “Oh no, I don’t stay out late. My son will be waiting for me.” Don’ think I don’t know what it feels like. I was pregnant. I had mood swings. I studied all those wonderful little pictures of the fishy-looking baby growing legs like a tadpole — moving from water to land, just that easily.
But you have everything for real. You have Mr. Big legally.
You are hopeless woman. I’m the one that ought to be crying! Snap to. Listen to some good advice, because in a minute I’ll be out of here. You tell him that you know all about that little bitch he’s been seeing (she works at Blockbuster Video and wears way too much eye make-up). Tell him he better shape his butt up or you are out of here, sister. Make him sweat. I mean I don’t want a thing to do with him, you know? So use me. Call me by name. Tell him I’ll come to your divorce hearing and help you clean up. Get him back if you want him, and make him behave. But don’t let him off easy. Pitch a blue blazing fit. Scream, curse, throw things. Let him have it, honey. Your husband is cheating on us. Let him have it. And when all is said and done, please just forget that I was ever here; that I ever walked the earth. After all, I’m Big Foot. Who knows if I even exist.
Jill McCorkle is a daughter of Lumberton (NC) and an award-winning author of ten novels and books of short stories. Five of her books have been named Notable Books by the New York Times and four of her short stores appeared in the Best American Short Stories series. Like Lee Smith, her fellow Good Ol’ Girl, Jill is a resident of Hillsborough and a North Carolina treasure.