Melanie’s boyfriend Ray began drinking as soon as he moved in. At first it was just a few after work. Then it was four, maybe six. She liked to cook, but he always wanted to go out. She was tired of every restaurant within 10 miles, but whatever, he paid. He always made a big deal of paying. Pulled out his worn brown wallet, the one he said was “top of the line.” He always said that. His things were “professional grade” and “top of the line.” He “spared no expense.”
He’d sign the slip, pressing his pen hard into the paper so it marked the leather underneath. 10%. Sometimes she folded up some ones and slipped them under her napkin when he wasn’t looking.
Melanie wondered if she was also “top of the line.” She would have given herself a “B” or “B-“. She liked her hands and her chin. Her face looked okay in the mirror although photos made her nose and forehead look bigger than she thought they were. But overall, she was pretty happy. She usually dressed in skirts and t-shirts, cowboy boots. And she was pierced. Got a new piercing every time she broke up with someone. It wasn’t planned—it just occurred to her—the urge—whenever a break-up happened, but she really didn’t see a logical connection.
When they’d met, his face had been thinner, his eyes smoother. He would ask her questions and nod when she answered. Now his face was puffy, and he talked all through dinner, listing all of the things he hated. He hated work. He hated one guy in the office who came by all the time to talk. He hated that lots of guys went to lunch but didn’t invite him. He didn’t like his office. It had indoor/outdoor carpeting. It was too small and hot. There were computers stacked to the ceiling. It had interior windows and everyone could see him. Like a fishbowl. He hated the ride home. He complained about the traffic to anyone who would listen. Behind his back people said, “Does he think he’s the only one who sits in traffic? It’s the city—so move to the country or the suburbs.” She knew they wanted him to leave. They put up with him because they were her friends.
The waiter would come to the table and ask how they were. Ray would say that the traffic had been lousy. He used words like that: “lousy” or “shenanigans.” He wore his shirts tucked in. He bounced a little on his toes when he walked, and his shirts were getting smaller so that his white belly stuck out from under them. His tennis shoes had begun to curl up at the toe.
The waiter would stand there. What could he say? Yeah, the traffic was bad, dude. That sucks. What do you want?
She’d feel that embarrassed stomach twinge, uncomfortable like when you might throw up and then nausea like when you might not. She’d look down at the menu. At the California Roll or the Portabello mushroom sandwich and wonder if she could get it without cheese.
Once she’d asked, in one of his pauses during the tale of an affront he experienced in traffic, “Would you like to hear about my day?”
“You’re always so critical,” he’d say.
Melanie didn’t think she was. She didn’t think that asking someone to brush his teeth was critical. Never said that she would like it if he would cut his hair or stop stuffing potato chips in his mouth and letting the crumbs fall to the floor. She never said that he should clean his nails.
After dinner, they’d go home. He’d sit in front of the tv in his underwear, drink beer. Eat more. Sometimes he’d just go to bed. Beer made him snore. She began sleeping in the other room on the old couch.
Most nights, he came home from work with a bag. He would buy professional grade tools or a signed hardback book or top of the line running pants. She’d never seen him read the books. The tools stayed in their boxes. Once he came home with new golf shoes. He had never golfed. He declared that he was going to golf, that all of the executives did it. He came home with the Rosetta Stone learn to speak Russian box set because they had hired a new Russian CFO. He was always buying things and then doing nothing with them. He’d get excited and then forget about it. That night’s dinner had been all about speaking Russian.
So one night when she got home and there was a camper in the driveway, she wasn’t surprised. It was old, the kind that her friends’ parents had hitched to the car and drug to KOA campgrounds when they were kids. It was metal, brown, and curved at the top with one window, the metal corrugated. The window had a torn yellow curtain. The camper had rust stains around the bottom. It sat in front of the house blocking the gate. It was tilted, the hitch resting on a cinder block that he’d taken from her garden wall, leaving a hole. She parked behind it.
It was fall. The air was cool, and Melanie was still picking up random candy wrappers from the lawn where the trick-or-treaters had discarded them. The leaves were yellow and curled on the driveway. A leaf blower hummed in the distance. She could hear the highway beyond the trees. It got louder as the leaves fell. She could hear it more today than yesterday. Her feet crunched on the leaves as she walked to the back door.
He didn’t mention the camper when she walked in. Like it wasn’t there hogging the whole driveway. That dinner time they went to The Jackson, again, a smoky bar down the street, and they sat in a back booth, dark. She tried to listen to the music while he talked about camping, checked her phone a few times. He was saying he’d always wanted to camp. That he’d wanted to camp as a kid but his mother said they didn’t have the money. “Like you need money to camp!” He was angry, spitting bits of his food while he complained about what a cheap bitch she had been. He wanted to roast marshmallows and slap them on graham crackers with chocolate. He wanted to hitch up to the electric poles and put out his awning. He wanted to hum down the highway to a park dragging his home behind him.
The next day, Ray came home with North Face sleeping bags. The next small aluminum pots and pans that stacked into each other. A set of flashlights. Skewers. Long matches. A compass. The things piled up on the dining room floor next to the table. The things stayed in bags with their receipts, a pile of crinkled bags with unidentifiable shapes.
One night when she got home, the camper door was open. She stuck her head inside the aluminum door frame. It felt brown. The cushions on the seats were faded orange, the table Formica, the yellow curtain water stained, circles spread out like waves. He had on the same dirty dirty jeans and a torn, tucked in faded blue polo as he’d had on this yesterday. His tennis shoes were stained from the lawn. He smelled cheesey, like an old man.
“Are you feeling ok?” Beer bottles lined the brown Formica counter. There were drill bits and screwdrivers.
“I stayed home today,” he said.
She shrugged. He could stay home if he wanted to.
The next day he slept while she got ready for work. She noticed that the camper door had been open all night. She stuck her head in. Now it smelled like mold and stale beer and feet and a few leaves littered the floor. Twigs had fallen on top of the camper, little brown pieces poking up.
When she got home that evening, he invited her in for the first time. “See, here,” he pointed out. “I built a cabinet here for the photography equipment. I can put the tripod in here standing straight up. The cameras will go here. Here is where the books will go.” He showed her how the table folded up so that the orange bench seats could fold down into a bed. He showed her how the generator hooked up and the bed that nestled close to the ceiling. He turned the water faucets on and off to show her, but no water came out yet.
“You can sleep six in here,” he said. “Thing was the best camper you could buy when I was a kid. It’s solid.”
It was midnight and he hadn’t come to bed, so she went out to the camper. She could see his hand draped over the side of the bench bed. He was snoring. The brown counter was covered in bottles now. He was snoring. She decided to let him sleep.
He stopped sleeping in their bed. He stopped going to work. He charged their dinners on Visas and Mastercards. She would come home and he would be in the camper, sometimes asleep, his mouth hanging open, his expanding white belly exposed under his blue polo shirt.
He began to repulse her. She wondered where he was using the bathroom. There wasn’t one in the camper, and the usual signs of him, pee on the seat or the floor, weren’t in their bathroom anymore. His toothbrush stayed dry.
The pecans bounced off the top of the camper. Tree sap splattered it with sticky brown goo like dirty rain drops.
She stopped going out to dinner with him. Made popcorn and read her books on the couch with the dog. She talked on the phone. She watched her shows, her feet curled under her, propped on her elbow. She had the whole couch, and she’d swept the floor to get rid of the toenails he’d picked.
One night, Melanie tried to close the storm window in the bedroom. It slid off its track and popped out. It wouldn’t go back in. She was afraid she’d break it. He was in the camper. She knocked on the door. He was sitting at the tiny table with a beer. He didn’t appear to be doing anything but sitting. One of the pots was on the stove. It looked like old beans. There were dirty plates in the sink. His dirty underwear was on the floor.
“Would you fix the window for me?” she asked.
“What did you do to it?”
“Tried to close it,” she said. “It’s getting cold.”
He sighed and got up. She’d never noticed how he walked, hunched over like and old man. Was this new? She followed him into the house and picked up the pane. He grabbed it from her hands and slid the window back into place. It clattered to the floor.
He picked it up. Started shoving it into the tracks. Twisting it. Grunting. It cracked.
“Another Goddamned cheap thing in this house,” he said. “I’ll fix it later.” He put the broken pane on top of a bag of camera equipment in the dining room. The bags crinkled when he put it down. The broken window slid off. The remaining glass cracked as it hit the floor.
They stared down at the glass. The tiny pieces that looked blue. The flimsy metal frame. She didn’t care. She’d call the window guys later. Or she’d let the cold seep in around the windows. It didn’t really matter.
She looked at him while he looked down at the window. Like he’d never seen cracked glass.
The next morning, she opened the camper door. He was asleep, wearing the blue polo shirt. One foot rested on the floor, the other was sticking out over the couch. His big toe was crooked. She thought how ugly it was. On the floor, she left the black frame and a bag with his toothbrush. She left the bag of glass she’d swept in her bare feet. She drove to work. She rolled down the window. She stuck her arm out into the flow of the passing air, letting her hand ride up and down in the wind.
banner mage – Pixabay.com
6 thoughts on “Top of the Line by Marissa McNamara”
Enjoyed this Marissa – you do really well with showing the passing of time. Love the image of her hand out of the window in the last paragraph.
Wonderful glimpse of hope concealed in despair. And the thinking asking Ray to brush his teeth isn’t being critical.
Roy is easier to understand than Melanie.
Time for a new piercing, Melanie – although should you remove the batch already there, you might meet a guy with higher standards. You wouldn’t want to become a candidate for being featured in a TV “Snapped” show – or would you? Next chapter, please.
You have given us something that if we look closely, we can see daily!
This is a depressing story but it does touch on those folks we see everyday who accept, when they should be doing something about them themselves and them as a couple.
There is a lot of reality in your pen!
Ha it was like I could hear you reading this in your voice!