Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2014    poetry    all issues


Michelle Ross
Cinema Verité

Laura M. Rocha
Young & Golden

Shawn Miklaucic
Crepe Myrtle

Kim Drew Wright
The Long Road

Mark Sutz

Vincent Paul Vanneman
Aurora Borealis

Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Richard Herring

Rafal Redlinski
Are you an alcoholic? A self-test

Paul Pedroza
Motion Without Meaning

Jessica Walker
Dinner at the Twicketts

Rik Barberi
What Ever Happens Next

Matthew Shoen
Special Meats

Nicholas MacDonnell
The Long Way Home

ML Roberts
How You Won’t Go Back

Bill Harper
Eastside Story

Terry Engel
Childhood Revisited

John Mort
The Book Club

Paul Luikart
The Edge of the Known World

Jessica Walker

Dinner at the Twicketts

It was time for the Twicketts to move again. Tiffany struggled to cram the last grocery sacks of clothing into the Mustang. Her landlord screamed and her husband Gregory smiled, hands in pockets, leaning against the entry of the Tudor-style rental home. She kept her head down as she slammed the trunk shut and slinked around to the passenger seat.

Gregory peeled himself from the archway and breezed by the landlord’s bespittled face, pausing to sniff a tulip as he sauntered to the car. Tiffany cringed. She knew those tulips had no more odor than a glass of tap water. She busied herself, fixing her thin, black hair into a bun. The sun seared through her eyes to the back folds of her brain, amplifying the throb in her head. It was too bright a day for the circumstances. Gregory paused to stretch, gave his hair a tousle and settled into the driver’s seat.

As they sailed down the driveway, Gregory waved at the landlord, who chased the car shaking his fist.

They headed out of Westchester, driving several minutes in silence beneath the spring-green canopy of trees before Tiffany broached the obvious.

“What happened with the landlord?”

“I cancelled the rent check,” Gregory said. “He was playing games, trying to raise the rent and not addressing the mold issue.”

“But I heard him say something about a bounced check. And eviction.”

“That is utterly absurd,” Gregory snorted. “He’s a con artist trying to hustle me for money because of my family name.”

Tiffany nodded and brought the tips of her thin fingers to her temples. She did not have the energy to argue. Gregory was a descendant of steel magnate Gregory Twickett II, the patriarch of a dynasty that had once claimed great wealth and status. But while the name still opened doors, the fortune had dwindled, diminished by bad investments and familial infighting. Gregory had his trust—a considerable sum for the average couple—doled out in quarterly installments. But Gregory spent as he pleased, when he pleased with no regard for his debts. There never seemed to be enough money to cover their costs. When things went sideways, Gregory blamed the other guy, and the Twicketts moved on.

Each time they decamped, Gregory had a plan. And the current escape hatch had given Tiffany new hope. They were headed to the Twickett family’s lakeside cottage, deeded to Gregory a few weeks earlier in a transaction at his Uncle Lester’s deathbed that ended with a slew of angry Twicketts alleging chicanery.

“So tell me about this town,” she said, as Gregory careened around the snarls of highway traffic, eliciting honks and obscene hand gestures.

“Newell, Maine has a population of one thousand,” Gregory said. He reached over to pat her knee. “You’re going to love it. The other summer people are our kind of folk. And the locals are old-fashioned. Honest. Hardworking.”

Tiffany considered voicing her hopes that this town would be different, that things would finally be stable. She had begun to dread days like today, when her whole life had to be uprooted. She thought about confronting Gregory about his finances. But he claimed money was his domain. And she had her own faults that she would prefer that he not point out.

They zoomed northward, through Connecticut and Massachusetts only stopping for gas. As usual, around five o’clock Tiffany’s head began to clear, and the last of her pessimism drained away. They crossed the New Hampshire border and Gregory took an exit.

“State liquor store,” he announced, pointing to a large sign above the treeline. “We can load up. There’s no sales tax in New Hampshire.”

Tiffany brightened and hurried into the store. As she opened the plate glass door, long fingers of cool air pulled her inside. She grabbed a buggy, her bony knuckles in a white-clench against the plastic handle, and paused a moment to take in the rows and rows of bottles—amber, green, blue, clear, each one neck-full with liquids as varied the spectrum of the rainbow. She thought of bottles stacked vertically top-to-bottom—a breakable measure of time, from college to marriage to now. She thought of bottles laid horizontally—a measure of distance from Florida, to Westchester and beyond. Each bottle contained sips of happiness and catharsis, friends made and lost, times remembered and forgotten.

She found the deal she wanted, eight dollars for a magnum bottle of plonk, loaded a dozen bottles into her cart and went to find Gregory.

“Great deals,” she said.

Gregory smiled.

“I thought you’d like it.”

They packed the boxes in the Mustang, and continued. Soon they were on a state highway that curved through forests and farmland. Tiffany sang along with the radio, tossed her sunglasses off, threw her bare feet on the dashboard and massaged Gregory’s neck with her left hand. She was over this morning’s unpleasantness. Gregory always managed to come out on top. She had yet to see them get into trouble that he could not get them out of.

They reached Newell as sunlight began to fade. The roads were pocked with potholes, and glittered with mica. The town had nothing resembling a suburb or a shopping mall. But there was a golf course, a church and a small diner.

“Hard to be anonymous here,” Tiffany remarked.

“Why would we want to be?” Gregory said. “I want to whole town to know the Twicketts have arrived!”

Tiffany didn’t reply. True, they had a clean slate in this town, but she was used to a larger pool of people. In their past communities, if they scandalized one set, if a few other people saw a little too much, the Twicketts had easily slipped into another circle. Newell appeared to be too small for that. They turned down a side road. Tiffany saw the glimmer of water through the trees. Finally, they pulled up to a large wrought iron gate with “Loons Nest” spelled across it.

“Did I tell you the name of the place? We can always change it if you want.”

“Nope, it seems about right,” Tiffany said.

Gregory jumped out, unlocked the gate and propped it open

The Loons Nest was a two-story lodge made of thick hewn logs with a small guest cabin. Twenty yards in front of the house was a dock that extended out into the rippling crystal of the lake.

Gregory parked the car and looked over at Tiffany with a smile.

“Did I do alright?” he asked.

“My God, Gregory! I love it.”

Tiffany sprang out of the car, and charged up to the entrance. The grounds were untended, littered with fallen branches and unruly growth. Gregory unlocked the door of the house and they found themselves in a great room, anchored by a massive fieldstone fireplace with a moose head mounted above it. A chandelier made of deer antlers was suspended from the ceiling.

Tiffany flicked the light switch.

“No electricity yet,” Gregory explained. “Tonight it’s flashlights and candles.”

“Sounds fun! Like camping!”

As twilight slipped into to darkness, they grabbed the essentials out of the car, toiletries, food and a couple bottles of wine. Tiffany pulled a corkscrew out of her makeup bag and opened a bottle with a thwack that resonated in the stillness. The wine glugged into a coffee mug.

“To Maine, the way life should be,” she toasted, recalling the state motto.

She brought the cup to her lips and swallowed. Every neuron in her brain began to crackle with happiness. Visions of a prosperous future swirled. Ideas formed in her brain and came to her lips with rapidity.

“You know, Gregory, we can really fix this place up. It just needs some cleaning and landscaping and a few personal touches! I’ve always wanted to try gardening!”

“And when we’re done fixing up the house, we’ll have a dinner party,” Gregory said. “The whole town will be talking about dinner at the Twicketts.”

Tiffany snuggled into the crook of Gregory’s arm. The last she remembered, all was well.

She awoke her first morning in Newell, alone in an unfamiliar bed with a familiar ache in her head, and the same unmoored feeling that followed her nights of drinking. She tried to remember how much she had had. She couldn’t. She would have to check the empty bottles later.

Gregory shuffled into the room in his boxers, cradling his right arm.

“You were something last night,” he said, shaking his head.

Something good or bad, she wondered? She scrutinized his face for any tells, and stayed silent.

“Those fingernails of yours are sharp. Look what you did.”

He shoved his right arm in front of her. Four parallel scratches screamed red down Gregory’s muscular forearm. Tiffany ransacked her memory. She flashed on a fragmented moment—darkness, confusion, the cool of the crisp sheets, a seemingly disembodied arm coming toward her, a clench in her stomach.

“I just wasn’t in the mood,” she said.

“You seemed into it to me. Then all of the sudden . . . this.” He gestured to his scabbed arm.

“I wasn’t in the mood last night,” she said, patting the sheet beside her. “But I am now.”

Gregory collapsed into bed. In these mornings, with her mind a soupy haze, her heart bleeding with confused repentance, and her body a great grey ache, she loved him most. Her rough edges rounded, her nerves unraveled into a single string.

Afterwards, Gregory turned to her and brushed her hair away from her face.

“You smell like a barroom floor. Maybe dial it back a bit.”

It was as close as he would come to broaching the topic. It was a close as she would let him come.

“I was just stressed with having to leave Westchester so unexpectedly,” she said, trying to direct her breath away from him. “I’m feeling much more relaxed now.”

Gregory rested for a few minutes and got out of bed.

Tiffany lay naked in the tangled sheets, twisting her wedding ring and trying to will her pain to a level that would allow sleep. After a restless hour, she succeeded. When she awoke, it was lunchtime and the power was on. She put on yesterday’s clothes, shielded her eyes with sunglasses and padded down the stairs. Gregory was outside talking to a tall, grizzled man in dirty jeans with a sharp nose and a long face fringed by a wild mass of gray hair. The two men shook hands and Gregory came inside.

“Good morning, gorgeous,” he said. His forearm was covered in a bandage. “That was Alan. He worked for Uncle Lester. He’s gonna live in our guest house and work in exchange for rent.”

Tiffany twitched inside. Gregory was always striking barter-deals that went south. More often than not, they involved him trying to get a man Friday on staff, a servant much like his family had in his youth. Somehow, in ways she never fully understood, the terms would get twisted, and rancor would ensue. But she couldn’t express disapproval. Not after what happened last night. And Gregory looked so gleeful, like a little boy.

“Mmmm,” she said, as she went through a bag of groceries until she found a ginger ale. Soda and tea were her daytime diet, her stomach usually too delicate for food until the evening hours.

Gregory dove into fixing up the property and networking with the locals and summer people. Each day Alan would arise at seven o’clock and work until three, pausing only for puffs on a pot pipe, which he insisted was medicinal and related to injuries he suffered in combat.

Tiffany was uncomfortable with a stranger so closely in her orbit. She would peek out the window to see Gregory sitting in an Adirondack chair, coffee in hand, newspaper in lap, barking orders. Sometimes Alan would see her through the window, and pause to stare at her. She would turn away. If she passed him, she would give a hurried wave and keep moving.

She began to garden on the property. Late afternoon, just as her aches and nausea began to ebb, she would go outside to weed and plant. One day, she was knees down, butt-up in the dirt planting a small flowering herb called Pennyroyal, when she inhaled the scent of the garage where her father had worked—motor oil, Marlboro Reds and body odor. She lifted her head and saw Alan towering above.

“You should wear gloves with Pennyroyal,” he said.

“Why?” She leapt up and brushed the dirt off her knees. Up close, his face looked dry and cracked like a drought-stricken creek-bed.

“It’s poisonous. Especially if you’re pregnant. Women used to use it to take care of accidents.”

“No worries, no baby here,” Tiffany said, patting her flat stomach. “I’m not a kid-type of person.”

Tiffany blushed. She was revealing too much, for no reason, to a wrong person. She was never good at social interaction without a drink in her hand. She was either too aloof, or too forward. Too self-conscious, or completely lacking awareness to her own appearance. She had hardly left the house since moving to town, allowing Gregory to handle anything that involved dealing with people.

She held herself at the elbows and giggled.

“A young gal like you doesn’t want a baby?” Alan said. “A kid’s a good thing. Keeps your eye on the future.”

Tiffany unclasped her elbows, put her hands on her hips and tried to affect an authoritative posture.

“Thanks for the advice,” she said. “I will be sure to come to you will all my herb-related questions from here on out.”

“Anytime,” Alan said. “And be careful with that pennyroyal. Kids, or no kids, I hate to see a nice lady like you poisoning herself.”

From then on, Alan seemed to pop up with only the scent of his Marlboros as warning, never failing to advise Tiffany on her gardening. She would brush him off as politely as possible, but began to ask Gregory about him, learning that his was one of seven children, a local who only left courtesy of the Marines to go to Parris Island, then Vietnam. He had never married, and had two grown children by two women. He was the county horseshoe champion and could field dress a moose in record time.

“You just don’t get good, salt-of-the-earth like him in this day and age,” Gregory said over pot roast one evening. “An odd duck. Like a lot of locals, he has no curiosity about the world beyond Newell. Did I tell you he named his kids Sharry and Larry? And they both live right here. Never left the state.”

Gregory chuckled and shook his head. Tiffany sipped her wine, listened to the loons, and wondered what would have happened if she had never left her hometown. She never would have met Gregory at a friend-of-a-friend’s wedding. He never would have proposed with a diamond worth more than her parents’ home. Gregory and her father never would have fought over a five-hundred-dollar loan. Her father would have kept calling her every Saturday night, just before professional wrestling. She would have been there when her father died, not in a floppy hat on a boat in the Hamptons.

The loons kept calling out the only song they knew—three notes—high, low, then middle. It was strange and sad and so damn annoying. Tiffany wondered why the loons never seemed to change their tune, if they had any idea that their calls were so unnerving and tiresome.

That summer, on the rare occasions when Tiffany ventured into public, she scanned the faces for who might be Alan’s children. One afternoon, she went to the diner alone, sat at the counter and pretended to eat a plate of chop suey as she studied the other patrons for Alan’s traits. She lit on two women she thought could be Alan’s daughter—each with his hookish nose, each with the rough, reddened skin of the locals. She eavesdropped long enough to rule out one—her father was dining with her. She homed in on the other, who was alone. She thought she overheard the waitress calling her Sharry. Or was it Mary? Or Terri?

She studied the woman’s plate. She was also eating chop suey. A commonality. A classic entry to conversation. Tiffany planned her approach.

“May I order a class of wine?” she asked the woman behind the counter.

“No liquor license here,” the server said curtly.

Tiffany looked at the clock. It was almost noon. She must seem like a lush. She paid her bill and drove home, gripping the steering wheel so hard her fingernails ground into the skin of her palms.

She wondered what kind of children Alan had raised. They never seemed to visit. No one was looking out for him. She began asking Gregory about the comfort of his mattress, his health, and his nutrition. Was he lonely out there in the guest cottage by himself?

August signaled the final days of summer. The night before the dinner party, the Loons Nest was restored to its glory. Tiffany spent the day prepping food, shining silverware and dusting baseboards. Gregory went into town for last minute supplies. As the day inched toward twilight, she sat on the porch admiring the grounds. Her gardening accounted for some of the improvements, but most of the progress was thanks to Alan’s hard work. She looked over at his cabin. Alan should come to the dinner party, she thought. If anyone deserved a night of merriment, it was him.

She walked over to the guest house on the mulched path, admiring the rhododendrons she had planted along the way. Alan was sitting on the porch, his boots kicked up on the rail, smoking weed, fiddling with a fishing lure, drinking a can of Mountain Dew.

“Hey,” Tiffany said. “I wanted you to know you are welcome at our party tomorrow.”

Alan looked up, and gave her a tired stare. A light wind wisped by, dragging Tiffany’s thin curtain of hair in front of her face and waving the edges of her skirt.

“Thanks for the invitation,” Alan said, returning his attention to the fishing lure.

Tiffany was surprised at his shortness. But she could never read these taciturn New Englanders, they always seemed gruff to her. She wished him goodnight and made her way back home. When Gregory returned, she told him about her invitation.

“You meant well,” he said. “But that’s inappropriate. He’s a worker, I’m his employer. There are boundaries.”

“It’s not a normal employee relationship. He lives here. He’s put a lot of work into this place. It’s wrong not to invite him.”

“What is your deal with this guy?” Gregory asked. “You’re always asking me about him, talking about him, wanting me to treat him like a goddamn child. Alan understands the situation here. He’s lucky to have a roof over his head, which I provide, and food to eat, which I also provide.”

Tiffany tamped down her anger, directed it inward. She hated it when Gregory acted as if he earned the position in life that he had inherited. Nothing separated him from Alan other than a long, thin bloodline.

“So what should I do?” she said. “Disinvite him?”

“No need. Alan won’t come. He knows his place,” Gregory said, changing the topic to who had RSVP-ed.

Not knowing her place was the accusation Tiffany’s father made in their final argument. He said she had social-climbed too high, that the air up there was too rarified for her blue-collar lungs, that nothing good could come of the life she was living. The memory hurt. But she knew her father was wrong. He didn’t understand how her life worked, why she needed Gregory.

She pushed her glass of wine away. She was monitoring her intake. She wanted a clear head for the party tomorrow. And she had been doing better. The weekly bottle count seemed to be getting lower. That night, she and Gregory went to bed early and happy, awaking in the same state in the morning.

A few hours before the dinner party, Tiffany threw on a dress—dark red in case of spills—and applied a light touch of makeup. One hour until the party, she had her first glass of wine from a bottle of cabernet, which she stashed in her bedroom, in case any of the party-goers kept count of her consumption.

At six o’clock guests began to arrive for dinner at the Twicketts. Tiffany was surprised to find herself relishing her role as hostess. It was a built-in excuse to flit at the first sign of discomfort. There was always a drink to be freshened, a bottle to cork, beer to retrieve from the refrigerator. Being with new people wasn’t as bad as she remembered.

“Your son is at Harvard? An econ major? Gregory, isn’t your cousin Trevor in the economics department?” she said, motioning Gregory over to their neighbor, a banker from Boston

“You went to Choate? So did Thomas,” she said pulling together a local judge and a New York attorney.

She had shifted from solid to liquid—a fluid rush of hospitality, kindness and interconnection. Between her successful encounters she would reward herself with trips to the bedroom for swills of wine. On the outside, she was on her second glass. But including her bedroom stash it was up to five? Six? Seven? Who cared?

But what about Alan? Two hours into the party and still no Alan. She sat on her bed, stared at the lipstick print on the rim of her glass, her angular knees a near blur behind the object of her focus. She began to feel the burn of offense. How impolite. He could have just said no. He could have come to the door at any time today with any excuse. How could he ignore her? Maybe something was wrong. Maybe he was sick. Or embarrassed to come to their hoity-toity affair. She would go over, and let him know he was welcome.

Clutching her wine, she slipped through the party-goers, who were lost in drinks and conversation. A group stood on the front porch, listening for the wide-ranging notes of the loons’ cry. She slapped together a small plate of appetizers. Dinner was coming soon. Alan still had time to make the main event.

She exited the back door and made her way down the path to Alan’s cabin. His lights were on. She stepped through the yard, sipping her wine, marveling at her ability to walk so straight. An outsider would never guess how much she had to drink. Between her impeccable diction and her surefootedness, she felt as good as sober.

She got to Alan’s and saw him on the porch, smoking weed, fiddling with a fishing lure, his feet propped on the railing and a crushed Mountain Dew can beneath his chair.

“I brought you some food,” she said.

“Sorry, what? I can’t understand you.”

“I got you food, silly.” She held up the plate. A cocktail shrimp fell onto the path, becoming encrusted with dirt as it rolled away.

“Oh, thanks,” Alan said. He didn’t lift his gaze from the lure.

“It’s almost time for dinner.”

“Thank you. But I’ve already eaten.”

“Why? I invited you yesterday. You should have waited.” Tiffany was crestfallen. “Is it something Gregory said? Did he tell you not to come? He can be such a snob.”

Alan laid aside the fishing lure. He looked at her.

“I am not coming tonight for the same reason I never come when you invite me.”

“What do you mean?” Tiffany said. “I’ve never invited you before.”

“Ever since I’ve moved in here you’ve been coming over, drunk as a skunk, asking me to dinner, to sit on the dock and listen the loons, to watch professional wrestling on cable. I’m saying no tonight like I always say no. I appreciate the gesture, but I am staying here.”

A burn grew in Tiffany’s chest, crept up her esophagus.

“You ingrate. You liar. I will tell my husband to fire you in the morning.”

“I’ve heard that before too,” said Alan. “But he never says a word. You’ll forget this by morning. You always do. You seem like a real sweet lady. But you got a real bad drinking problem.”

“Don’t tell me what my problems are. My life is great,” she hissed. “The worst day of my life is better than the best moment of your pathetic life.”

Tiffany threw the food on the porch and ran with her sloshing glass of wine toward the house. She veered off the path, tripped on a root and came crashing down into a clump of rhododendron. Branches snapped and scratched her arms as wine splashed across her dress. She lay on her belly in the sandy dirt.

Tiffany propped her torso up with her left elbow and began writing in the soil with her index finger.

“Fire Alan. He’s rude. Stop drinking. Maybe.”

That should take care of things, she thought. She just had to remember to come out here and check in the morning. She closed her eyes.

In the home, laughter and glass tinkled. Dinner was being served. She scratched a mosquito bite on her upper thigh. She could use some repellent. And another glass of wine. And the food smelled so good. But it was such a long walk. And she was so tired. Her mind could not make her body move. She would stay here. Gregory would know what to do. He always knew how to make the bad things better. He always had an escape hatch, another plan, a way to get out of one life, into another.

As the loons hooted the only notes they knew, as Gregory began to serve their new friends and neighbors, she had one last thought.

Everything was completely wrong. And everything was exactly as it should be.

She collapsed, her face hit the dirt. Her body rolled across the sloped ground toward the dark lake smearing the messages she had scrawled to herself in the earth.

Jessica Walker has been writing fiction since 2011. She was a finalist in the Southwest Review’s 2013 Meyerson Contest and the 2014 Thomas Wolfe Award for Short Fiction. She was selected as a contributor for the 2014 Bread Loaf Writers Conference. This is her first published short story.

Dotted Line