“Poisoned” by Michelle Spencer

The wind was dry and hot, typical for August. Grit swirled around Christie’s ankle-high boots, and she imagined it exfoliating her bare legs as she stepped out of her car onto Main Street.

She pulled the door open to the flower shop. What to get when you avoid your hometown for ten years? There’d been plenty of reasons to come back: reams of wedding, anniversary and baby shower invitations from old classmates had slid through her hands, straight into the recycling bin. Coming home had tempted her. But each time she’d changed her mind, remembering her unwritten rule: don’t see Roberta in person — keep it over the phone. Keep your worry and disapproval hidden in a call or text. Wait until Roberta is ready. But she felt sure this time. Roberta’s request had been unusually direct, and Christie was following a strong hunch. Roberta would finally leave Larry.

A bright, pre-made bouquet in the glassed refrigeration display caught Christie’s eye. She pointed and pulled out her debit card. The indifferent teenager made Christie dread what the reunion would be like. Hours of nodding politely as people bragged about their boring kids. Hours of speculation about why she didn’t have a family of her own. She pushed through the shop door and stole herself for the heat.

Back at the car, Christie propped the tropical-looking bouquet in between her overnight bag and a box of wine on the backseat. She had planned to bring a vase from home and stop along the way to pick wildflowers; it was the perfect time of year to scour ditches and duck through barbed wired fences for wild geraniums. But a late start after too many drinks with Ethan and a stop for gas had derailed her plan. Christie checked her mirrors and pulled back onto Main Street. The unnatural pinks and blues of the bouquet in the backseat caught her eye and buyer’s remorse kicked in. The garish colors would make it even harder for Roberta to accept them, without awkwardness.

Down the block from the flower shop, Ricky’s Bar & Grill emerged out of the sun’s glare, the neon lettering washed out in the full daylight. Christie made a point of slowing down. It was difficult to tell if the apartment was being used. Christie assumed it was even though the shabby blue clapboard and peeling white trim on the windows gave the impression it was a building trapped in a deep, permanent slumber. She fought off the melancholy, musings about how carefree times, and eventually pain, had sprung from that dingy apartment.

Christie and Roberta had moved into the one-bedroom suite above the bar as soon as they finished their senior year. On rent day, they’d change the sheets on the double bed and swap out who slept on the couch. They’d been equally tidy, but making the place homey had fallen to Christie. Roberta hadn’t been interested in pretty or pleasing things. Even a candle had caused Robert a level of embarrassment for its lack of necessity in a world with perfectly good electricity.

With a jolt, Christie’s car transitioned from the smooth pavement of town to the bumpy gravel of a range road. Christie’s dread about attending the Tremblay family reunion mounted. The only thing offsetting Christie’s reluctance to face any locals was the possibility that, if all went well, Roberta might come back to the city with her. She gripped the steering wheel as her car hopped and shifted on the loose gravel.

The prospect of rescuing Roberta took the edge off attending another event alone and Christie found she was grateful for the weekend plans Ethan had made with his wife and kids. He’d already be well into his fourth or fifth tour around the lake at their cabin, captaining the powerboat so the kids could turn themselves inside out waterskiing. For once, the troubling way Ethan divvied up his affection with absolute precision worked in Christie’s favor.

Negotiating gravel came back to Christie easily and as she admired her control, she looked down at the puffy orange sleeve of her new blouse. She wondered if Ethan had given her this gift because he’d sensed she didn’t want him along. When she’d pulled it from the sea of tissue paper last night, he’d certainly tried too hard. Said, “you’ll be the belle of the ball,” with a kind of false encouragement that Christie thought summarized the limitations of their relationship. Normally, she’d have expressed her own frustrations and jealousy of Ethan’s family commitment with a snide remark or veiled threat about hooking up with a hot cowboy. But she hadn’t bothered.

Leaving Ethan to the lake, Christie forged her way through the dust. There was some reprieve for intermittent stretches along the road where the county’s maintenance tamped down the dust with a tar like substance in front of driveways, and on blind corners. Where it had hardened, the grey cloud parted, clearing a view of the crisping hay fields. The second cut of hay was already whipped into large round bales: some ranchers had left them scattered throughout the fields, most had already stacked their precious loot away behind elk and deer proof fencing. Tonight, she would undoubtedly hear if a third cut was in the cards.

Ten minutes later, Christie turned into the long lane. The reality of accepting the invite, and of coming alone, sunk in as the makeshift parking lot came into view. And worse, for a split second, Christie wondered if she’d misinterpreted Roberta’s call.

The phone call hadn’t been the unusual part. They spoke most days, or texted at the minimum, almost always late at night. But Roberta’s number had flashed on the display early in the morning. Christie had been coiling the vacuum cleaner back into the closet. Her routine was to shower, put on underwear and make-up and then whip around with the vacuum before getting dressed for work. She reasoned that the activity helped her make up dry.

Roberta had launched right in without even saying hello.

“Larry’s family reunion is next week. I’d really like it if you came. Finally, meet the kids. You’ll have fun.”

Christie mumbled a hello in reply but hadn’t acknowledged the invite, carried on stuffing the vacuum into the closet.

“I’d like to see you. Things have been pretty shitty lately.”

The admission pulled Christie up, and she’d stood rigid with focus. “I’m sorry to hear that. Shitty, how?”

“Just stuff, nothing exactly.” Roberta paused for so long that Christie had wondered if they’d lost their connection. “I need a break, and you can help me figure it out. I’m exhausted.”

Christie had waited almost a decade for this small crack. She drove her Toyota Corolla right through the opening.

Alongside the trucks, old Cadillacs packed the driveway. In comparison, Christie’s red Toyota resembled a toy car. She maneuvered it into the informal overflow parking lot in the adjoining field, hiding it between two large pickups like a child crouching in the bushes. Beyond the row of vehicles fringing the pasture, a blue and white rental tent anchored the activities a hundred feet away. Four portable outhouses sat a sensible distance downwind of the tent. Upwind, there was a clump of picnic tables within reach of the watering trough — a self-serve bar — scrubbed clean and full to the brim with ice and beer.

It was cowboy hats and baseball caps as far as the eye could see. Children swarmed and split off, like bees in search of their nest. Caught in the crossfire, groups of adults sucked at beers or nursed red solo cups. Christie congratulated herself on her foresight: the box of wine. Historically, she knew there was beer or the hard stuff at these events, but rarely anything else. This wouldn’t have changed, she thought.

Not up to being fresh blood at the party, she walked in the opposite direction, toward the house. It seemed likely Roberta was still helping her mother-in-law, Evie, with last-minute food preparations for the barbeque. She’d hoped there wouldn’t be a crowd for their first hellos — she wanted to steal a few minutes without Larry around, to get a sense from Roberta about what she needed.

Larry, she assumed, would be a safe distance away, presiding over a prime rib near the tent. She had smelled it coming across the driveway.

It was a logical plan. But as Christie approached the house, a rare case of nervous excitement overwhelmed her. She pressed up against the stucco, disappearing out of view. She squeezed the bouquet between her knees and then lifted the box of wine above her head. A warm red stream hit her mouth. Knowing how unreliable the spigots could be, she pulled her chest back. The wine missed her shirt but fell on her suede boot, leaving a stain that she knew wouldn’t come out. A stream of swears followed.

Normally, Christie swore with more purpose and control, less blunt force. She was a known potty mouth at the firm, but it was a well-curated tool. Some people assumed it was just a messy leftover from her no-nonsense barmaid days, but it wasn’t. Christie had learned to wield tough talk and strong language to great effect with the all-male partners. The other paralegals adored her, but the partners approached her with a certain amount of trepidation. It was exactly how she liked it.

She’d played this side of herself up when she first started seeing Ethan. He’d liked it, said he found her feisty side sexy. But it wasn’t long before Christie felt like a cliche, the fast-talking ‘other woman.’ And so she started leaving that part of herself at the office, at after work parties—where Ethan didn’t see her.

At the door, Christie composed herself. She let body memory take over, and toddled into the kitchen like a robot on a trial run.

She hadn’t expected the strange scene laid out before her.

Bodies sprawled out on the kitchen floor: a sea of arms, legs and disheveled aprons, tears streaming down red and blotchy faces. Some laughed. Some gasped for air between fits.

Christie did a quick inventory: Larry’s mother, Evie, was against the bottom cupboards, her legs spread open as if she were a small child trying to catch a ball. And leaning against her was his sister, Jackie — thin and sickly. Meanwhile, Roberta and a child were laying on the floor, clutching their knees as if this could provide some relief. The child wriggled in an oversized pair of wranglers and a summer blouse, a pastel version of the bouquet in Christie’s hand. She’d seen a hundred pictures of her goddaughter over texts, but if it hadn’t been for the shirt, she might have mistaken the girl for her younger brother.

The laughing fit deepened. The pit of bodies writhed, oxygen deprived and silent. It was then that she noticed the sound of gushing water. Christie looked over at the sink. The kitchen tap ran full blast, splashing water over two huge colanders of shredded cabbage.

It had been a decade since she’d seen that much cabbage. And she had never seen a group of grown women collapse from laughter.

“Um hi, everyone,” Christie said, not sure they had seen her through their tears or heard her over the tap.

“Oh, my god!” Roberta sprang up and patted her face with her apron. “I can’t believe you made it!” The floor shifted as if a bed of snakes had come to life. Slowly, they found their feet and composure.

“Jenna, Jenna. Come here. This is your godmother, Christie.”

The girl edged to Roberta’s side but kept her gaze down. The shyness didn’t surprise Christie, but how relaxed, joyful even, Roberta seemed caught her off-guard.

“So nice to meet you. Looks like you guys are having quite a party in here.” Christie felt her body shift, buoyed by Roberta’s obvious relief at her arrival.

“What did I miss?” she asked, sliding her arm around Roberta’s waist. Roberta wasn’t a hugger, so Christie expected her to pull away. But she leaned in. Christie took advantage of this rare gift and tightened her grip around her friend’s tiny waist, buried her nose in Roberta’s hair. Smell and touch blazed through Christie; nostalgia and then hope for what was next turned her strength into liquid.

Before all rigidity escaped her spine, Christie handed Roberta the bouquet but resisted kissing her on the cheek in front of everyone. Even so, Roberta blushed and thrust the bouquet away from her chest. Roberta didn’t fawn over the flowers or smell them like most people do. Instead the bouquet, and the moment, hung awkwardly in the air. Mercifully, Jenna swooped in and found a home for the flowers in a large dill pickle jar that had been decanted into a serving bowl.

“Should I turn off this water now, Grandma?” the girl asked, filling the jar under the running tap.” The question triggered another round of laughing.

“Yes, that should do it, bear.” Evie joined Jenna at the sink with a wooden spoon in hand. She tossed the soggy cabbage in the air in a way that didn’t inspire confidence. Christie gathered that there was an issue with the cabbage.

“How was your drive, then?” Roberta asked. “Did you check out the new stuff in town? Your parent’s old place?”

“No, I was late, as usual.” With this, they dropped the subject. Christie’s parents had up and left town, ensconced themselves in a golfing community in Hawaii, when she and Roberta were still working at Ricky’s. Occasionally, Christie felt badly that she rarely saw her parents. But then she’d remind herself that they’d been the ones to put an ocean between themselves and their only child.

“You can sleep in the spare room upstairs,” Roberta said

Christie hadn’t counted on staying the night. She’d imagined driving back to the city, even if it was late. As Christie considered the offer, Evie dropped the spoon and tossed the cabbage aggressively with her bare hands. The cabbage rose and fell.

“Can I help with the salads or anything else?” Christie asked, sidestepping her plans for later. But instead of being handed a job, the laughing started up again. “Okay, for Christ’s sake, what is so goddamn funny?” Christie cocked one hip. “Jenna, don’t leave your godmother in the lurch. What the flying fuck is going on?” For a split second, Christie regretted swearing in front of a child, but no one seemed bothered.

Jenna hesitated and looked at her grandma. Evie nodded her consent.

“Well, what happened was. Making the coleslaw. Grandma got mixed up.” It was a sloppy start to a story. Christie focused on Jenna, but was careful not to make the girl any more nervous. For so many years, Christie had suffered through Roberta’s poor storytelling abilities, but she’d made a point of never completing Roberta’s sentences for her.

Recognizing she had lost her way, Jenna inhaled and started again. “Grandma needed to add the white vinegar to the cabbage first.”

“You won’t bloody believe what I did?” Evie said, unapologetic about interrupting before seamlessly turning the story back over to Jenna.

“Grandma keeps the big jug of vinegar next to the bleach — under the sink — and that’s what happened. She dumped a bunch in before we smelt it. We screamed to stop.”

Suddenly, Christie envisioned the cabbage bloating with bleach.

“Oh, shit. So, you threw it out?” She looked over at the sink. The truth glistened and shone in the colanders. “Holy shit. Are you rinsing out the bleach? Like, you’re going to serve it, anyway?”

The image of the cabbage, plump with poison, shifted to a vision of dozens of Tremblays and their guests throwing up beside the blue and white tent: a stampede of vomit to the outhouses. The size of Christie’s eyes gave away her horror and amusement.

“That’s right,” Evie said. “We’ll add lots of mayonnaise. They won’t even taste it. No one will ever suspect a thing if we take a bit.” Laughter rippled through the kitchen once more at the conspiratorial nature of Evie’s directions. But then, with a plan in place, the laughing subsided, and the women swarmed back to work.

Before Christie joined in on the bustling, she gave Jenna a squeeze on the arm. “Thanks for letting me in on the secret. You’re already my favorite godchild.” Like her mom, the child bristled at the attention, but Christie caught the telltale crinkle in her nose.

In cardboard boxes, the women packed out pots full of baked beans, jars of horseradish, bags of white buns, baked potatoes and condiments. The two gigantic stainless-steel bowls of coleslaw sloshed in their own juices and three jars of mayonnaise. As if to show that Evie took responsibility if it all went terribly wrong, she carried one bowl and directed Jackie, the next in the maternal line, to carry the other. In another wave of nostalgia, Christie realized how much she had missed the dysfunctional love inherent in Roberta’s life, and she wondered how Roberta would function without it.

It took several trips and another half an hour of organizing the serving table before the food was laid out. It struck Christie that maybe her knowledge of the questionable coleslaw now tied her to the heart of this family as strongly as if they had taken part in a blood oath. Would this make up for missing all the other things? Would they forgive her more easily for taking Roberta away?

Confident that they had made a pact, Christie put aside what the other guests might have heard about her and launched confidently into the crowd of old acquaintances. She rolled herself out like a shiny satin ribbon, deflecting questions about her love life, her work and her missing parents with charm, crude jokes, and thanks to the new blouse, glimpses of her cleavage. It was enjoyable. Easy. Christie even doubted all the invitations she’d skipped out on in the preceding years. It was even easier to give the impression that Ethan wasn’t already married.

Mingling Christie hit her stride. She wished Ethan could see her like this, playing the part as he predicted. The belle of the ball. But she hadn’t got carried away enough to forget about Larry. She kept him in her sights and looked for an opportunity to lure Roberta away for a chat.

Keeping track of Larry wasn’t a problem, since he hadn’t budged from his station near the BBQ even though the meat was off the grill, resting under a large tent of aluminum foil. Christie watched Larry bob and weave over top of the log of meat, a knife at the ready.

After working at Ricky’s bar for the two years straight out of high school, Roberta and Christie had eventually tired of sticky floors, getting groped by drunks and after-hours parties. Roberta made the first move. She stayed on in the apartment with Christie and took a job riding for a large ranch. At dawn and dusk, she’d made the forty-minute commute to the outskirts of the county and back. It had been her dream job. And Christie might have stayed close by, never left town either, if the twin stars of Larry’s return and her parents fucking off to Hawaii hadn’t collided.

When Larry left town to work at a logging camp on the west coast, Christie had hoped he’d return, even though he’d promised to be back for Roberta when it was time to make babies. He’d left town at twenty-one, and they’d just turned sixteen.

Two years later, a rumor beat Larry home — a rumor that he’d cracked a guy’s head open and passed it off as a work accident. Christie had never believed it and, ironically, she’d stood up for Larry as locals at the bar batted their murder theory around. Christie still maintained Larry wasn’t a killer. That wasn’t her grievance with Larry.

It had been Christie’s month on the couch when he turned up. She was napping before her shift when she heard the door open. Christie assumed Roberta had come home early, but she’d sat up to a vision of Larry dropping an armload of empty boxes and black garbage bags at the doorway.

“Roberta’s coming to live with me now,” he’d said.

“You can’t just waltz back into town and assume she wants to live with you.”

“You’ll never understand us,” he’d said, and moved straight into packing up Roberta’s stuff.

Even in the urgency of packing, he’d tucked away Roberta’s things with a care that Christie had realized she might never experience with anyone. And as she’d attempted to pull things from the bags and block the doorway, he’d shown her this same patience. Finally, from the window above the kitchen sink, she’d kept her eyes trained on Larry as he smoked in his truck for three hours, waiting for Roberta in the parking lot.

The apartment, as Christie remembers it, went cold after Roberta left. To Christie, it had felt like a kidnapping—and she hadn’t known what to do on her own, or how to fix it.

She’d still been in this state, a few weeks later, when she made the mistake of kissing the bartender’s girlfriend in the sloppy hours of an after-work party. Even now, she didn’t let herself think about how easily her hands had ridden up the girl’s shirt—how exhilarating the ultimate resting place had been.

The bartender had been Ricky’s best man, and he’d fired her the next day without remorse, restoring his buddy’s reputation with ugly, conflated rumors about that “slutty dyke”—the one Larry Tremblay had rescued Roberta from. Christie had realized quickly that the rumor about Larry would age better than the one they had saddled her with, and she’d left town.

Roberta only talked about it once, six months later when she was planning her wedding and Christie was at college in the city.

“We’re gonna elope to Vegas,” Roberta had said. “It’ll be easier — not having a big thing, especially with your stuff going around town — Larry hates all the wedding shit, anyway.”

With impressive projection, Evie called for the children to eat first, and Larry readied at his station. He cut slices from the roast as people made their way along the buffet line. To Christie’s eye, it was clear Larry wasn’t sober, but he seemed capable all the same. Evie and Jackie stood together behind the table and urged the children to keep their hands out of the food. Keep the line moving. Evie looked up and fixed her stare on Christie, as if sensing a weak link in their plot, or as if she suspected Christie’s real motivation for coming to the reunion. Every part of Christie wanted to turn away, avoid eye contact.
The kitchen crew took up the back of the line after serving all the guests. The large coleslaw bowls were nearly empty, the remains extra swimmy. In solidarity, they each placed a tablespoon of coleslaw on their plates. To Christie, it felt like a dare. At the baked potato prepping station, there was the usual confusion as people reached and passed toppings. Under the cover of this chaos, Christie slipped behind Jenna and Roberta. The next stop was Larry.

“I saved you the end bit, bear.”

“Thanks Dad. I thought you would.”


Jenna emerged triumphant and scouted out her brothers and a gang of kids in the tall grass, clocking out from her shift with the adults.

“Hi Larry. Great party,” Christie said, having learned from the law partners that a strong start was crucial in a tough negotiation. Larry poked at a pile of marbled slices with the end of his knife. He looked at Christie.

“What do you want?”

Christie’s mind raced needlessly, searching for the answer. She nearly blurted out, I want a good woman in my life, like you’ve got. She didn’t know where this came from.

Larry qualified the question. “Rare or Medium?”

“Oh, rare thanks. Well, medium rare, I guess.”

“This ain’t a restaurant.”

“No, of course not. I just mean, whatever you have is great.”

“It’ll be better than anything you eat in the city,” Larry said, while hovering the bluest piece of meat over her baked beans. Blood dripped and stained the white paper plate. Instinctively, Christie pulled her already tainted boot out of harm’s way, should the plate collapse.

“Italian restaurants might be better in the city. Or sushi.” Christie said, fighting back, knowing she had started something. Larry rose to the bait.

“Looks like you’re last in line, Christie.” He dropped the barely cooked meat on to the beans. “Back for the dregs, hey?”

Suddenly, the night ahead felt impossible. Stifling a fuck you, Christie wobbled away from Larry and the food line. She considered bolting or doubling back to drive the knife through his hand.

She did neither and instead struggled with the floppy paper plate, napkin, and cutlery. Reinforcing the bottom of the plate with her hand, she looked for Roberta. She was nearby, perched at the end of a picnic table with Jackie and Evie. There was just enough room. She could grab a drink, then squeeze in, and hope Larry settled in somewhere else.

But as Christie searched the trough from a distance for water, Jenna caught Christie’ eye.

“Come eat with us!” Jenna said with the enthusiasm of a much younger child. She was heads and tails taller than the other kids, squatting in the grass. Soggy paper plates balanced on their crossed legs, and it looked deathly uncomfortable, but Christie couldn’t resist the towrope Jenna had thrown her.

She lowered herself like an old pro, sitting mermaid style in her short skirt. The heat had built up throughout the day and she resisted rubbing at the slick of sweat between her thighs and under her bra. Sharp grass poked the underside of her exposed legs. She shifted, imagining the little backs of the grass breaking over on themselves.

“You guys got the best spot,” she said to the gang of kids, who now had to accept her as Jenna’s invited guest.

“This is my godmother,” Jenna said proudly. The rest of the kids picked up the brag and a heated competition about various godparents, uncles and aunts ensued.

Jenna took a stab at defending her assigned godparent. “Well, Christie is really smart. Dad says she’s the smartest person he knows. Too smart for here, he says. Her job and boyfriend are so important, and they can’t even visit us.”

It touched Christie how Jenna made the kindest interpretation of Larry’s criticism, but hearing Larry’s intention stung. The illusion that she was important to anyone stung even more.

“No, Jenna. Your mom has the most important job,” Christie deflected. “Looking after you guys and the cows. She’s the hardest worker I know.”

With a look that hovered between admiration and skepticism, Jenna seemed to consider the godmother she hadn’t met until today. She picked up a forkful of coleslaw and balanced it on her fork. Christie matched her load. Eating the tainted coleslaw was an attractive option compared to a conversation about how Larry felt about her.

“3, 2, 1,” Christie counted. They pushed the white plastic forks into their mouths, maintaining eye contact with each other in the same way mothers do when feeding reluctant babies. She wasn’t sure if she was imagining it, but Christie felt a hot trail slide down her throat.

“We did it,” Jenna said, shielding her mouth and their secret from the other kids.

“We sure did.”

Maybe it was from the coleslaw cleanse or just being around kids, but Christie’s mood noticeably brightened. She tested the waters to see if Roberta had prepared the kids. “Maybe you guys could come and spend the week with me in the city. We could go shopping and stuff.”

Jenna picked at the grass. “I get homesick, but maybe.”

“Well, that’s no reason, and besides, after tonight’s supper we’re both going to be sick for the rest of our lives!” Christie gave Jenna’s knee a shake. “Anyway, the offer is there.”

But instead of excitement or a thank you, confusion engulfed Jenna’s expression: a familial bafflement about the virtues of exploring the outside world settled on her straight, serious lips.

“Never mind,” Christie said, grateful for the respite but ready to rejoin the adults. She stood up, sure now that Roberta would leave Larry first and then worry about bringing the kids . “Maybe you’ll want to come one day soon.”

“Maybe, but I doubt it,” Jenna said, turning her back to Christie, as if rejecting a gem whose shine had suddenly worn off.

Somewhat deflated again, Christie swung by the trough for the water she still needed. She settled for a light beer. With wet hands, she dumped her paper plate in a garbage bin, relieved to rid herself of the damp coleslaw juices which had eaten through the paper fibers and left a milky oil slick on her hands. Forgetting her short skirt, she bent over and wiped her hands on the grass.

As she came up, she worried she might have exposed herself and scanned the crowd for prying eyes, and to locate Roberta. Roberta hadn’t budged since the start of supper, except she’d swung her legs around to face away from the table, in a better position to smoke. Christie looked for Larry too, but couldn’t make out his shape anywhere. But she knew better. He liked to disappear and then show back up. A life-sized, bad penny.

In one of their phone calls, Christie had hinted to Roberta that it wasn’t okay how Larry disappeared with his buddies or made himself unavailable by drinking for three days straight. But Roberta hadn’t replied how she’d expected — we’ll always be the thing Larry comes back to — she’d said.

Like old times, Christie walked over to the picnic table and reached in to steal a drag from Roberta’s cigarette. She smiled. Nodded in a way that said, go ahead, take it. How quickly, Christie thought, how quickly we will fall back into something comfortable. Not wanting the good feeling to pass, Christie asked Roberta to show her the horses.

The ground was uneven, and they periodically bumped into each other on their way to the corrals. Christie resisted, grabbing for Roberta’s hand. Once at the fence, they stepped onto on the bottom rung and Roberta called for the horses.

“So. Did you eat the coleslaw?” Christie asked.

“Yep. I could smell it. Like the old outdoor swimming pool in town.”

“I know. Me too. Jenna ate hers. What a trooper.”

“We’ll see. I guess.”

“If I don’t die, I’ll be glad you invited me. Jenna’s a great kid. A lot of help to you, obviously.”

“She is.” Roberta leaned into the fence, freeing both hands to give each horse a rub on the forehead. “How’s it going with Ethan?”
“Oh, you know, same old. He’s a great lay.” Even as Christie said this, she regretted being so cavalier. She hoped Roberta would somehow get from this how lonely being with Ethan was. She also saw her opportunity. “And Larry?”

“He’s all right. You know. Jackie’s cancer is awful. She’s so sick. I’m hoping that’ll get better soon, now she’s done treatment. Everyone’s exhausted.”

“I bet. Can’t be easy. Don’t imagine Larry is taking it too well?”

A pushy horse repeatedly butted its head against the others, and Roberta shooed it away.

Sensing Roberta was finally about to ask for help, Christie envisioned Roberta and the three kids embargoed in her spare room. Earlier in the week, she’d scrounged up a kid’s bunk bed from a neighbor and had enjoyed staying up late, giving the room a quick makeover with wire clothes racks and matching duvet covers.
“It’s so sad,” Roberta put her hand over Christie’s. “Like I said on the phone. We could use a break. I’m thinking of taking Larry to Mexico or something. Was hoping you could help me figure that out. Like one of those resorts, you went to with Ethan.”

The horses’ tails swished, wicking sweat and flies from their hot bodies.

“I thought I might need your help to figure it out. Be with the kids, even. But it was a dumb idea. We’re not going anywhere. The boys are hellions right now to leave with you.” She bit her bottom lip. “Anyway, Larry wants to be here. In case things get worse.” Roberta turned back to the bossy horse , gave him a forgiving slap on the neck. “And so do I.”

Christie swallowed down all the rough edges as if someone had tipped another spoonful of coleslaw down her throat. “I get that,” she said, with a tone that she knew wasn’t kind. Inside, her guts reeled at how badly she had gotten things wrong, how she’d exposed herself when all Roberta needed was a travel agent. “Ethan’s like that too, wants to be close to his family when push comes to shove.”

On their way back to the tent, Christie hadn’t been able to take her eyes off her wine-stained boot as she teetered on the dry lumps which heave up in the grass during drought years. At one point she stumbled and glimpsed her own bosom, bouncing daringly out of the orange shirt. Suddenly, she saw herself as she imagined everyone else at the party did. Single. Lonely. Desperate, and begging for a married man’s leftovers. Dregs, as Larry would say.

“I’m just going to grab something from the car,” Christie said as they approached the picnic table. “I’ll find you in a minute.”

Back at her car, Christie yanked open one of the rear doors and tore off the orange shirt, momentarily exposing her black bra to anyone who might be nearby. She didn’t care. From the back seat, she pulled out her cardigan. She’d packed it, expecting she’d be staying up late into the night, plotting Roberta’s getaway.

With the cardigan buttoned up to her chin, she put her crumpled up blouse on the passenger side of the large pickup truck parked next to her. Then, she got into the driver’s seat of her red Toyota and took one last glimpse of Roberta with her family. She’d tell Ethan she must have lost the shirt rolling around in the back of some guy’s truck.

Michelle Spencer spent over twenty years working as a broadcast journalist and digital storytelling facilitator. Recent publications include Flash Fiction Magazine and The Write Launch. In 2021, her work was long listed for the 2021 CBC Non-Fiction Prize, as well as the 2021 Peter Hinchcliffe Award. Michelle writes from her home in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada.

Twitter @MishSpencer