Payne gave the kitchen table the once over, tools, keys, a plastic grocery bag, but no hat. He scanned the counter digging at his mind to remember where he’d left it. His head was killing him. He needed the yellow ball cap, the beak covered in finger prints, to squeeze his temples.
He and Tammy had killed two bottles of wine the night before, somewhere between nine and whenever she had made her way upstairs to bed. She didn’t look back at him as she pushed her harsh blond hair off her shoulder. Payne had remained on the sofa, tucked into his form in the cushions.
He’d heard Tammy and her son Jason eating breakfast earlier and had faked being asleep to see what they would say. They whispered as he strained to hear while keeping his eyes pinched shut. He stayed that way until Tammy took Jason to school and then off to her cleaning job at the Super 8 on the highway.
Payne knew that Jason hated him. The bastard stayed with his father every weekend and sauntered in on Sunday night wearing a baggy T shirt and his jeans around his ass. Two more years and the kid would be 16 and hopefully with his dad full time. At least that’s what he claimed.
Payne plugged in the kettle and dug around the sink for a clean mug. He found the one with Darth Vader on it. The water boiled and he filled it. He ran his hand through his oily hair before spooning a healthy dose of instant coffee. He stirred until white froth came up. He turned on the TV and flopped down on the couch. A news station from Buffalo bragged about keeping its audience informed and ready for severe weather. Footage of hurricanes and snow storms played while an anchor man locked eyes with the camera. Payne switched off the set and went to the bathroom.
A spear of dread hit him as he remembered that Jason’s dad still had their computer. Big Jason had taken it home for repairs. There was nothing Payne could do but hold the screen door open while the intimidating bugger carried it out. The whole issue started because Payne had tried to sabotage the machine to keep Jason off it.
He grabbed a car magazine from the pile in the bathtub. A grey cat was curled up in the sink looking like a birds nest. Payne pictured three robin’s eggs on her stomach.
The split vinyl on the toilet seat pinched his ass; he made a mental note to bring duct tape the next morning. He was reading about fiberglass patching when the phone rang. He waited until it let up. Two weeks before he had thrown the answering machine against the woodstove, the pieces were still scattered along the baseboard. The little cassette tape tucked in the corner. The scrape of his mother’s condemning voice had pushed him to do it, "Pick up Payne. I know you’re there. Pick up the Jesus telephone."
Payne had been out of work for a couple of years. His mother sent him a cheque each month. She also owned the house and land he lived on.
At the bottom of the stairs he found his cap, it felt like an old buddy as it slid onto his skull. Payne had the whole day now, Tammy was on day shift and Jason wouldn’t get off the school bus until four-thirty. He looked out the picture window. Condensation filled each corner between the plates of glass, it was worse than ever this summer. Payne would have to take off the wood trim and refit it one day. There were hundreds of things he should do around the house, it was falling apart. Tammy told him more times than he needed to hear that the place was a dump. "All the old wrecked cars in the field. Do you know how many?" she had asked with her eyes bulging at him. "Fourteen god damn pieces of junk for everyone to see."
Payne knew what the field looked like, but all those cars were good for parts. He had just picked up an 89 Ford pick-up for $150; it just needed rings to pass the emissions test. He had another Ford with a 302 that would do for a ring switch. Payne had been using Tammy’s Toyota since she moved in the year before. She had been complaining that he was leaving her stranded on her days off. It was his place and she wasn’t paying any rent so why shouldn’t he drive it?
Exactly one month ago Payne knew that Tammy had decided to leave him, she had said nothing, but the decision was on her face. Payne had thought he was alone that day when he was guzzling ice cold raspberry Kool-aid from the plastic pitcher. He spit out the sweet drink and cupped his mouth with his hand, his eyetooth pounded. The tooth had been slowly turning grey over the past few months. Payne frantically dug through the tools on the table, grabbed a tiny pair of vice grips, and fit the jaws over his tooth. For only a second he hesitated, then squeezed and pulled. The ache was gone instantly. Salty blood filled his mouth. He spit into the sink, filled a glass with water, swished it in his mouth and spit again. The stringy red water gathered in the basin like egg yolk. Payne turned his head when he heard Tammy clear her throat. She grabbed her purse and car keys and didn’t come back until after midnight.
After that, Tammy started staying at her mother’s on her days off work. If Payne phoned, Tammy’s mother would treat him like he was a bill collector. She would tell him that Tammy was at the store, in the shower, a list of lame excuses. He felt like Tammy was drifting away while he stood on a shore watching, doing nothing.
Payne made the decision to get the truck running. After an hour the deerflies were driving him crazy, always buzzing around just out if his reach. He gave up. As he walked back to the house his shadow showed two more flies behind his head. He pulled off his hat and swung it around to ward them off. They were back in seconds.
Tammy walked in at five-thirty. Jason was already slouched on the sofa watching a rerun of Cops.
"We gotta get satellite TV. This aerial sucks the…"
"Hey, watch your tongue," Payne said looking at Tammy as though Jason’s mouth was her fault. She was the one that had the kid with Big Jason in the first place.
Jason rolled his eyes.
"I’m making veggie burgers for dinner. I suppose you want real meat," Tammy said tilting her head as she stared at Payne.
"If you don’t mind." Payne watched the television as four cops handcuffed a biker. The criminal’s face was blurred out as though that would somehow save him from embarrassment. Payne remembered boys from his old nieghbourhood in the city that bragged about their crimes, like it was all they had to create some form of self-worth. Like the men that collected trash, they always threw the cans as far as they could. As though they did it to say, "I’ll pick up your shit, but don’t look down on me."
Tammy sat a plate in Payne’s lap. Two hamburgers and a pile of potatoe chips. He had to get up and get the mustard and relish out of the fridge.
"Thanks," he said.
Tammy sat on the couch beside Jason and fell into a vacant stare. They switched channels and found the final segment of the news, the human interest story, saved for last to wind the audience down to thinking that the world may not actually end on that particular day. A nice couple stood in front of their large suburban home, they had just adopted a dog from the animal shelter. The dog had been found in a basement chained to a work bench. An overly lit photo of a skinny black lab was flashed on the screen before the couple was shown with the freshly groomed animal.
Tammy shook her head as she sipped club soda. "I wish they’d say what happened to the pigs that had the dog. I hope they got charged. They probably just got a slap on the wrist. They way our court system works the case probably won’t be heard for five years, by then the jerks will have another dog to torture."
Payne meticulously spread an even layer of mustard on the bottom half of his hamburger bun.
"That’s right Payne; bury your head in the sand. Don’t say what you think. The world’s going to hell and you hide here on your little junk-yard farm." Tammy craned her neck around to look him in the eye.
Jason’s sarcastic laugh made Payne want to smash his head. He was exactly the kind of kid that Payne spent his childhood avoiding. The aggressive ones that used muscle and numbers for strength. Jason wasn’t at all stupid; he had high marks in public school. Though recently he seemed to be turning into his father, a path to a bad place.
Over the next week Payne mustered up the ambition to get the truck on the road. He worked at night while Tammy and Jason watched television. It was cool outside and peaceful. Getting his vehicle up and running was also a means of survival. If Tammy left he’d be screwed for wheels.
On Saturday Payne took the truck for a test run, he wasn’t worried about the outdated license plate. The police weren’t too picky with the locals. He pulled into the parking lot of Nichols grocery store. His heart flipped when he saw a car like Tammy’s drive into the space beside him. A guy that must have been six-foot-five unfolded himself from the red Toyota and went into the store. Payne sat for a minute to settle himself. When he got out of his truck he glanced at the plates on the Toyota he saw that it was Tammy’s car. He jumped back into his vehicle. He started the motor. Sitting with his hand still on the key he shut it off again.
Payne decided he would follow him. He could taste fear just thinking about it. The tall man came out five minutes later with a long paper bag that Payne figured was a bottle of wine. He imagined a confrontation with Tammy and the giant. Payne busting down the door and punching the goof in the mouth, he had the fight choreographed, the kick, the missed swing, a quick succession of insulting face slaps and the final blow. He wasn’t sure if he left with Tammy or not in his fantasy film.
The Toyota drove onto the main street and turned east toward the countryside. Payne clunked the column shifter into drive and followed thinking he would at least see where the guy lived. The Toyota quickly sped up past the speed limit. Payne kept up from a distance. A pack of cars moved slowly on the first hill outside of town, a dump truck was holding them up. The Toyota hauled up behind them and without hesitating swung into the left lane. Payne watched in shock. The guy crested the hill and vanished. Payne nearly slammed into the slow moving car at the end of the line. The driver held the rear-view mirror while the teenage girl in the back seat turned and gave Payne a look of disgust.
Jeff Griffiths lives in the west end of Hamilton with his wife and two young children. He writes like a fiend to sustain his obsession to submit work to literary journals.
He has published magazine articles, book reviews, and a column in a local magazine (in 2007).
His short fiction has appeared in Front and Centre, Hammered Out, The Puritan, Qwerty, The Nashwaak Review and various on-line journals. He also received the Arts Hamilton award for short fiction in 2007 and 2008.
He is very close to completing a short story collection and recently received Writer’s Reserve Grant from the OAC thanks to a recommendation from Wolsak and Wynn publishing House.
He is currently teaching Creative Writing and Dynamics of Prose for the Writing for Publication Program at Mohawk College.
He maintains a poetry-ish blog called TVAFFECTS. http://tvaffects.blogspot.com/