By LINDA L. DUNLAP
FICTION PRIZE WINNER
Judge: Angela Jackson-Brown,
author of Drinking from a Bitter Cup
“‘A.J. and Crazy Woman’ is a real story about real people. The author is both frank and unflinching as she gives the reader a glimpse into a true American tale that is filled with strong characters and a biting wit. The writing is verbally energetic and extremely moving. This writer clearly knows how to tell a story.”
On her drive to work in the morning rain, A.J. hears on the radio that a helicopter just dropped out of the sky into the meat department at Davis Market. With everything else that’s going on, she scarcely blinks an eye. After 40 years of threatening to, her daddy left her stepmother a month ago and moved in with A.J. He didn’t take so much as a toothbrush with him when he left and had hardly hit the street before his wife had changed the locks on her house and taken out a restraining order on him. Her house, as she liked to say, with the emphasis on her, because she’d inherited it from her own mother. After all these years, hers was still the only name on the deed, even though he’d rebuilt the house when it burned in ’89 and his name was on the mortgage. But then everybody knew it wasn’t about the house.
A.J. had sloshed down Pine Bluff, then maneuvered through the downpour to Captain Mike’s Liquor Store. Now she stands, watching from behind the counter at the torrents of rain that sweep the sidewalk in front of the store. Rain has fallen for three days, leaving a permanent feel to the moisture that seeps into her 45-year-old bones. She smells the electric crackle of the heater fan that clicks on in the back of the store. It’s cold for mid-March, ordinarily the cusp of spring. When she flips on the florescent light overhead, a layer of faint lemon light blankets the counter. She lifts the dust cover from the cash register. Reaching behind her, she stuffs it between two of the stout white bottles of crème de cocoa that line the shelf like too many false teeth. “There,” she says, brushing her hands together and looking around. In five more minutes, she’ll unlock the door.
Some people are born to work at Wal-Mart; some are born to work in a liquor store. A.J. was born to work at Captain Mike’s. Her silver linings are this job and Mandy, her seven-year-old niece. Before them, it was riding behind Suitcase on his black Harley. She called him Suitcase because he kept one packed ready to leave his wife—but never did. When A.J. told him she was pregnant, that was the last she saw of him. She wound up having an abortion, something she’d probably think twice about now, since Mandy has arrived, plus A.J. has taken to dabbling in the church next door—but only dabbling. She knows it’s easy to get caught up in religion in ways that are difficult to back out of.
When her brother Tag was in high school, he was seized by a religious fervor that sent him on a zealous search for truth and wisdom. Nothing wrong with that, but on the scale of Jesus Christ? In the end, the only thing he accomplished was to teach Nero, his Alaskan elkhound, to make the sign of the cross. Fortunately he came to his senses when A.J., who is two years older than he, pointed out this only proved the dog was the smarter of the two.
Still, the church next door offers a lot of comfort. The congregation is a laid-back bunch that meets in the Tidy Bowl Bar so they can smoke and drink while they commune with the Holy Spirit. Last Christmas, the minister, a robust lesbian with good intentions, brought A.J. a little wooden cross. Our last one, the minister said, and we want you to have it. On the front was a perfect replica of a dogwood blossom carved with a heartbreaking finality into the wood.
A.J. wears it around her neck now. She’s seen a lot of damage done in the name of good intentions, but not this time. Christmases are hard and the cross helps.
Still, she can see how the church would object to some things in her past. She finds herself objecting to them too, and in fact, some things she’s doing now—such as overdoing it again last night with the gin and breaking into houses.
A.J. unlocks the door to let in Miss Clara, the deaf alcoholic who’s always her first customer of the day. Still slightly drunk from last night, she’d overdone it, too, and was in need of a morning drink. A skin bag stuffed with sharp bones, she’s more of a mess this morning than usual because of waiting outside in the rain. The brown finch feather on what was once her fine Shetland cloche droops soaked and limp. Walking on timid feet, she creeps toward the pyramid of vodka bottles just inside the front door. She gazes up at the intricate stack, her tongue worrying the tiny bits of taco casserole caught in her teeth from last night. A.J. knows it’s taco casserole because that’s what Miss Clara’s husband, Butch, a buck-toothed man almost as thin as his wife, cooks for dinner every single night of their lives.
A.J. feels lousy this morning and tells herself if she ever gets as bad as Miss Clara, she’ll lay off the gin. She can do it anytime she wants; she’s just going through a bad patch right now and has trouble sleeping.
Miss Clara is still staring at the vodka bottles as if she’s asking herself how she’ll ever do this thing that needs doing, when Tag pulls up to the curb outside in his white Jeep Cherokee. Both the old lady and A.J. smile to see Mandy’s little blonde head poke up from the passenger’s side. They adore the little girl, but A.J. still hates when Tag drops her off at the liquor store. Some would call it child abuse, a 7-year-old in a liquor store. But today is a school holiday; Tag has a meeting and her mother is at the dance studio.
“So here I am,” Mandy says, skipping in with a smile and cheering on the meager fistfuls of light in the room. “How are you, Miss Clara?” She nods to the old lady, who stops her fidgeting and smiles back. “And you, Auntie A.J.? Why, you look just beautiful today.” Mandy has Tag and A.J.’s eyes, a hazel-blue that picks up the color she’s wearing. Today it’s a frosty-green hoodie that makes her eyes sing.
“Your red hair is so curled and bouncy,“ Mandy goes on now as if she’s describing a character in one of the stories she writes when she’s tucked behind the counter out of sight. She’s amazing. One day after her mother had picked her up, A.J. pulled the wadded pages from the trash and read the tiny too-neat handwriting.
Since Granddaddy left Mee-Ma things are funny around here. Granddaddy just sits and stares at the wall. Mee-Ma never was my real grandmother, just my step. Granddaddy says now she’s not nothing and I get to call her anything I want to. He calls her Crazy Woman. He started calling her that after she chopped up his golf shirts and tossed them in the front yard where him and Auntie A.J. lives. He calls her Crazy Woman all of the time now. But she’s not crazy. She’s just mean as hell.
A.J. chuckled when she saw how Mandy, on second thought, had scratched through the as hell. A.J. itched to correct the double negative, then remembered those days were over.
Tag comes in behind Mandy, his shoulders filling the doorway. He’s become a regular at the gym and it shows. He smiles at Miss Clara, then turns to A.J. “Daddy says you broke into the house.”
“It wasn’t breaking in. She forgot to change the lock to the sliding glass door, and I still have a key to it.”
“Sure, sure.” Tag laughs. “Tell that to the police chief. But who cares how it happened? What I can’t believe is what you took once you got inside.”
“Daddy misses his train set. I thought having the engine might help. That’s why I took it. As for the clamshell dishes, he likes Oyster Rockefeller for Sunday supper. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find something to serve them in? Besides, he needs some of his own things around him, too. You know how this has blindsided him.”
“You could have picked up his car registration. He’ll need it to get his new tag.
Hesitating, he looks down. With the toe of his tennis shoe, he scrubs at a spot of stubborn gum on the tile floor. Finally he says, “I never thought he’d do it, did you? After all the years he said he would and didn’t.”
“It’s not over ’til it’s over. He could go back. I’ve heard it said, when you’ve lived with crazy so long it becomes normal, then sometimes it’s hard to live without.”
“Well, let’s just hope he left in time. But why now?”
She shrugs. Yes, why now? She’s asked herself that question a hundred times in the past month.
“Remember how she used to tell everybody she took those two little deserted children in when their own mother left them?” Tag’s words escalate, tumbling out one on top of the other. “She didn’t take us in. Daddy got struck with a sudden case of stupid and married the bitch. Oops! Sorry, Mandy.”
“That’s okay, Daddy,” Mandy says, never missing a beat on the purple octopus she and Miss Clara are coloring. Mandy has her hand cupped around the shaky liver-spotted one to help Miss Clara stay in the lines.
Meanwhile Tag stands with his hand in his pocket jangling his keys. The look in his eyes is one A.J. has come to dread.
Finally almost in a whisper, he asks, “Do you think we’ll ever see Mother again?”
A.J. feels her chest cave in. “Don’t start, please. Okay?”
“But don’t you still wonder?”
“Come on, not now.”
“Okay, okay,” he says. He takes a deep breath and adds, “By the way, where is Daddy?”
“He’s down in the dumps at home. I remind him of how you might think things can’t get any worse, but they can.”
“And probably will.”
“Oh, come on!”
Laughing, he scoops up Mandy in a bear hug. “See you, Sugar. He waves his keys at A.J. and heads for the door. Behind Miss Clara, he stops. Pointing down, he grins and pantomimes, “He could have married her!”
“Get out of here,” A.J. yells. She hates the mean streak that flashes through her brother at times.
The octopus is finished and Mandy settles on her stool behind the counter. With tremulous hands, Miss Clara eases a vodka bottle from the poised stack. She’s turning toward the counter when the bottle slips from her hand and crashes to the floor.
By some miracle, it doesn’t break. This is the third bottle she’s dropped in the past two weeks. The others have smashed into a thousand pieces. When they break, it takes A.J. half the morning to clean up the mess. But she refuses to fetch Miss Clara’s bottles for her. Foolishly, A.J. thinks this somehow absolves her of contributing to the old lady’s drinking problem.
Miss Clara was once A.J.’s high school English teacher before she woke up deaf one morning and took her first drink of vodka the next. If A.J. brought up the subject of her drinking, which of course, she would not, and if Miss Clara were not deaf, and it was a day when she could put a subject and predicate together, she’d have said, “Why Anna Janice, darling, I can’t imagine what you’re talking about.”
Now when the bottle hits the floor, she makes a tiny yelping sound, and her hands move jerkily about, attacking little handfuls of air. She sees A.J. watching her and steps back. When Miss Clara fades into the corner like a shadow trying to hide, A.J. has to look away.
Before the drinking turned her into a zombie, Butch used to say he wouldn’t mind Miss Clara’s drinking so much if she’d just get drunk. The problem was she got drunk and did something. One winter night, before he’d learned to confiscate her keys, she came out of a blackout while driving her car down a railroad track. Two weeks later she fell into the Thunderbolt River wearing her new suede coat with the fur collar. She was rescued right away, but the coat was ruined forever.
Now she spends her days and nights staring down the throat of a vodka bottle. Fun drinking, Butch calls it. At the end of the month, he drops by Captain Mike’s and pays for her bottles—the ones she’s drank and the ones she’s dropped. He finally surmised it was easier to stand on the bank than it was to wade through the quagmire of shit to the other side, his words. It’s hard to picture Miss Clara as the Charleston debutante she once was, who’d married down—when that sort of thing seemed important.
In A.J.’s senior year in high school, Miss Clara said she’d help A.J. get a scholarship to a college that had good English and creative writing programs. She said A.J. had a gift. But when she brought up the subject at home, A.J. was informed if she wanted to go to college, she’d go to the community college just like everybody else. Besides, what made her think she was too good to just get a job? She wound up working on the South End at the Tastee Freeze.
A.J. adds water to the coffee pot and flips a filter into the holder. The wheels Tag set to turning in her mind won’t stop. She remembers that last morning, the frog Daddy brought in with the firewood. Mother was quiet, bundled up on the couch in her furry new robe. Before they could catch the frog, Tag and A.J. squealing as they tried to hem it in between the couch and coffee table, it had dodged across the polished tiles to the foot of the Christmas tree. Gazing starstruck for an instant, it suddenly reached up and gulped down one of the blinking lights as if it was a tasty ladybug. They’d watched the bulb settle with a dim glow in the frog’s stomach before it blinked out. Daddy pulled it out but the frog died anyway.
A.J. and Tag gave it a suitable funeral because, long ago, Mother had taught them that frogs have mothers, too. That morning her hair was pulled back from her face, the pile of fluffy curls that ordinarily tumbled down her back reduced to a clumsy knot at the nape of her neck. When she spoke, it was in a hushed whisper. Her eyes had the look that said in her mind she was already someplace else.
When they woke the next morning, she was gone. She’d stayed until then so she wouldn’t spoil their Christmas. Never mind that she’d now spoiled Christmas for them for the rest of their lives.
A.J. is pulled from these thoughts when she sees Mandy ease off her stool and peek at Miss Clara. The old lady huddles still trying to shrink out of sight. Smiling at her, Mandy scrambles across the room and retrieves the bottle that’s rolled beneath the lip of the counter. When she holds it out to the old lady, A.J. is about to say, “Hon, what are you doing?” but something stops her. She watches Miss Clara clasp the bottle tightly around the neck and, together, she and the little girl guide it carefully to the countertop. Then Mandy giggles and gives a thumbs up at what a fine job they’ve done. Miss Clara giggles, too.
A.J. heads to the storage room for a fresh can of coffee. She’ll practice her saying-no muscle another day.
Later, when Mandy is scribbling away, A.J. glances over her niece’s shoulder to see what she’s written.
Captain smells like orange juice today but it must be from the bottle Miss Clara broke yesterday. It didn’t break today.
Below that she’d added,
Like everybody doesn’t know a bitch is a dog without hair.
A.J. has almost finished adding coffee in the Mr. Coffee when Henry ducks through the door out of the rain.
“You’re not going to believe what’s happened,” he says.
Her heart gives a stutter and the scoop of coffee in her hand tilts, speckling brown pimples across the counter. Uh oh, this can’t be good.
“What?” she asks, then reminds herself that what Henry says is often biased. After all, he is Daddy’s best friend. In fact, she isn’t sure how her father would have survived through the years without Henry. But A.J.? Henry and his philosophizing can drive her insane.
He seems to think over her “what?” for a minute. In her mind she begs, No philosophizing now, please! Just give me the facts.
“Crazy Woman is in jail,” he says finally.
“Nope. You know life, it just keeps happening. It’s like a box of Kleenex. You pull out one and up pops another and another—”
“Does Daddy know?”
“He’s the one put her there.”
“She shot him, that’s why?”
“Daddy’s shot? Is he hurt? Tell me! Tell me!”
“I did. I am. No.” Henry says in a bluster.
“Where is he? I should have known something like this would happen. She’s crazy! The woman is crazy!”
“He’s outside in the car.”
“Henry, why didn’t you—forget it, forget it.” She dashes to the door, then stops. She needs to make sure her father is not hurt. She really needs to do that now. But what she needs first is a shot of gin.
When she was still trying to help Miss Clara, A.J. had picked up a brochure from an AA meeting that asked 20 questions. Number 3 was Do you drink before 5 p.m.? Hesitating, she stands, undecided, then turns back into the store. Surely, it’s 5 someplace.
Skirting fat drops of rain, A.J. reaches the car to find her father slumped in the backseat with his head in his hands. A meager stream of blood has leaked around a band-aid affixed on his bald spot. Her heart wrenches at the defeated look of his shoulders. When he left Crazy Woman, he never reckoned it would be like this.
Why did you wait until now, Daddy? Why now when I’m almost 45 and finally no longer flinch when she reaches up to brush back her hair? Why not when I was 12, when it would’ve have counted for something? Why not when she slammed me in the mouth with the tennis racket and my braces cut my lips and blood sprayed everywhere? Why not when she yelled, “Now look what you’ve done. You’ve splattered blood on my new white couch? And you!” she’d turned and pointed. “Don’t you say a word.”
And you didn’t, Daddy. You didn’t say a word.
A.J. slides into the back seat beside him. Cradling him in her arms, she smoothes the nervous tic that’s misshapen his face. Then, her breath blossoming with gin, she whispers, ”We’re going to be fine, Daddy. We’re going to be just fine.”
If she thought of Miss Clara at all, which A.J. doesn’t, she’d picture her teacher at the front of the classroom, the finch feather in her English cloche perky and spry. Even then, as Miss Clara liked to say, she was neurotic about having both ends covered at the same time. A.J. would watch while Miss Clara waited patiently for the slow student in the back row to look up. Then, as if she were delivering a Shakespearian homely, she’d say, “What’s important is not what you say. What’s important is what you don’t say.”
But A.J. always knew Miss Clara was talking about literature, not about real life.
Linda L. Dunlap is the author of the newly published collection Rail Walking and Other Stories. She began a second career as a fiction writer in the late 1980s after a successful career as a registered nurse. Her first story, “I’m Here, Mr. Sullivan,” was published by Pencil Press Quarterly in 1987. Since then, she’s had numerous short works published in literary and university presses across the country, including The Crescent Review, Florida Magazine, RE:AL, Timber Creek Review, and Savannah Literary Journal. She was awarded artist’s fellowship grants from the Florida Department of Cultural Affairs in 1996, in 2000, and again in 2010. Her short story, “Goldenrod” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010. Dunlap is a proud native of Georgia who lives now in Winter Park, Florida.