Short Stories from The Daily Beast: Four Hundred Grand
True lies you can count on. Here’s the first installment in a regular series, featuring short stories from up and coming fiction writers.
The following is a work of fiction.
Four Hundred Grand
Meathead woke up on the couch of his wife Ginger’s living room at 216 Bastogne Ave. She made coffee in the connected kitchen. The machine ground, wheezed and dripped. She poured herself a cup, walked past him and pulled back the pleated nylon drapes that hung over the sliding door to the backyard.
Light broke in.
Meathead had left the porch covered in beer bottles. She hurried outside and cleaned them up. They were both underage and drinking was one of the many ways they could get thrown out of base housing. She set the bottles on the kitchen counter and sat in the overstuffed recliner across the coffee table from him. He pretended to still be asleep.
“You need to replace the filter in our bedroom’s air conditioner, Jim.”
Meathead sat up and sunk his toes into the shag wall-to-wall carpet. Ginger insisted on calling him Jim. Meathead was his nickname in the platoon. You had to earn a nickname. He liked his, or at least he liked that he had one, and aside from Ginger, he’d done a good job eliminating everyone from his life who’d ever call him Jim. He stood, buttoned the fly on his camouflage uniform and tightened his black riggers belt. “You mean, your bedroom,” he replied.
“It’s still our house.”
“As soon as you leave, I’m back to the barracks.”
“The unit’s gonna break if you don’t replace the filter. It’ll come out of your pay.”
“I’ll get to it.”
“Get to it today.”
“I haven’t even unpacked yet.” Meathead nodded down the hallway where two olive drab duffel bags and a rucksack sat next to the front door. He’d dropped them there last week. As long as they stood vigil by the door, he maintained the moral authority of someone who’d just returned.
“Maybe if you weren’t out every night, you’d find time to unpack.”
Meathead sneered, “What do you care?”
“Just because we’re done, doesn’t mean that this house shouldn’t be taken care of.”
“What’d I tell you? I’ll get to it.”
Meathead walked into the kitchen and poured himself a mug of coffee. He was glad to have American coffee again, but a part of him missed the sharp taste of iodine in the water so he’d been drinking it black. Without milk and sugar there was just enough of the old bitterness.
“What time do you want to head to Grady’s memorial?” Ginger asked.
Meathead’s face clamped down. “Why do you have to call him that?”
“That was his name, Jim.”
“Everyone in the platoon called him Joker. All his friends called him Joker. The only person I ever heard call him Grady was his sister.” He pulled a bone china teacup printed with white floral bells, Lily of the Valley, from one of the cabinets.
“He’s Grady to me. Listen, I don’t want to fight. I want to be on time.”
Meathead softened his scowl into an expression that briefly reminded Ginger why she’d left the city and moved to Fort Bragg for him. “Just give me a few minutes to get ready,” he said and walked on his bare feet back to the couch.
“We don’t have any hot water if you want a shower.”
“Then I don’t want a shower.” He sat his mug of coffee and the empty teacup on the glass table in front of him.
“I’ll save the hot water for you tonight.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Maybe I’ll shower tomorrow. I think today will be a drunk day.” His camouflage top lay on the arm of the sofa. He pulled a can of Copenhagen from the breast pocket. He packed a large pinch of the snuff against his bottom gum. Flecks of tobacco stuck to his lip. He licked them up with a slick bronzy tongue and spat a thick wad of honey-brown juice into the empty teacup.
“In the wedding china?” she said.
“You can buy new china with his insurance money.”
“And you never did the same?”
“Not with one of your friends and not enough to leave you.”
“Grady was my friend too, and you never had the balls to leave even if you wanted to.” Ginger hoped her words cut.
“I never wanted to.” Meathead sunk into the sofa and looked away from her.
“Maybe I’m doing us both a favor,” she said.
“Take your four hundred grand and leave, but don’t kid yourself, you’re not doing us both a favor. You’re doing yourself a favor.” Meathead spat another long stream of dip juice into the wedding china. Tobacco residue stuck to the teacup’s side while he sluiced his saliva in its bottom as if it were the finest brandy resting in a sifter.
Ginger walked back into the kitchen and grabbed one of the empty beer bottles from the counter. She headed towards Meathead. “I still don’t think you should speak today.”
“Joker left clear instructions. As his friend, I earned the right to say a few words. I can imagine how you earned your four hundred grand.”
“That’s a shitty way to talk to me.” Ginger grabbed Meathead’s teacup, and replaced it with the empty beer bottle. She held the teacup’s delicate handle with a pinch and at arms length as she walked it towards the kitchen sink.
“It’s true, Ginger.”
“To you maybe, but it wasn’t like that.”
“So what was it like?”
“Just stop!” Her face was hot and red, and Meathead grew silent. He knew it wasn’t right to push a lady around even though he no longer thought of Ginger as one.
“What are you going to say about him?” she asked quietly. Her gentle hands sponged cold suds against the teacup.
“Don’t worry. His parents are going to be there.”
“What do you think I’m worried about?” She dried the teacup with a worn mildewed hand towel, also embroidered with Lily of the Valley.
“That I’d tell the truth,” he said.
“I wish you would—Meathead.” Ginger returned the china to the cupboard and sat next to him on the sofa. He stood, upset that she used his nickname mockingly, to hurt him. He began buttoning his camouflage top, but sat back down next to her.
“What do you think the truth is about Joker?” he asked.
“That he needed to tell you about us,” she said, “but he was too scared so he left me the money, just in case, so you’d know. He wanted to be honest with you in the end.”
Meathead smiled into his chest and Ginger put his dirty palm in her clean one. They sat like this for a bit then Meathead stood, pulling his hand from hers. He finished buttoning his top.
“I’m not sure I buy that,” he said. “I think he did this as another joke, his biggest, so we’d always remember.”
“It wasn’t like that, Jim.”
“You’re probably right. I doubt you’ll remember him after you move back to the city and blow his four hundred grand.”
Ginger shot off the couch and squared up with him, finger in his face. “You’re a cocksucker, Meathead.” She snatched her purse from the kitchen counter and stormed out the front door, past his duffel bags.
Standing by himself, Meathead felt a hollow type of grief. He missed his friend.
Ginger waited in the driveway. The couple climbed into their F-150 extended cab and pulled onto Bastogne Ave. The vinyl-paneled bungalows all looked the same, and every so often a U-Haul or a Budget box truck was parked next to one. Neither of them knew if it was someone coming or going. A few days after the memorial service, two trucks were parked in their driveway. After they divided and packed their things, Meathead moved back to the barracks. He no longer had to support Ginger and now got to pocket nearly all of his pay. She moved back to the city and lived off Grady’s four hundred grand. But living apart, a dollar no longer got either of them as far as it used to.