Authors: Marsha Qualey
Tags: #Literary Fiction
Table of Contents
Venom and the River: A Novel of Pepin
Copyright 2013 by Marsha Qualey
Cover Copyright 2013 by Ginny Glass and Untreed Reads Publishing
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright, and has granted permission to the publisher to enforce said copyright on their behalf.
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This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to the living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Venom and the River: A Novel of Pepin
Saturday night, and people were at home in all three of the houses that faced the park on Hadley Street. In the bungalow on the north corner a teenaged boy stood at a piano and banged on the keys with a fist. One door over, a woman sat in a red leather chair and watched television as she knit a small pink sweater. And in the carefully restored Queen Anne on the south corner a couple made love on a sofa as a kitten nosed and pawed through the clothing on the floor.
Leigh Burton was aware of none of it, though she sat a short distance away in her car, which idled at the curb on Hadley Street. Her eyes were fixed on the lights going out in the lone house she could see on the far side of the park.
One by one the windows of the large house went dark. Just as the last light blinked off, the boy at the piano swatted sheet music to the floor, the knitter set down her needles and answered the phone, the kitten pounced on one of the naked lovers, and in the aging Toyota idling at the curb on Hadley Street, Leigh Burton sighed and dropped her head onto the steering wheel for a moment, then she sat erect and shifted the car into gear.
There were only a few vehicles parked at the River View Motel. The motel sign blinked:
$39.50. $39.50. $39.50.
A door on the second floor of the motel opened noisily, and a man stepped out and moved to the end of the balcony. There was a yellow flash, then the red glow of a burning cigarette.
Leigh stepped out of her car, turned, and reached back in for a small bag on the passenger seat.
“Nice ass, honey,” the smoker said. “Come on up. My wife and I like it with a third.”
Leigh straightened and looked across the parking lot. More neon flashed:
Dee’s Café. Dee’s Café. Dee’s Café.
She tossed the bag back onto the seat and slammed the car door and walked away from the motel. The smoker laughed.
Dee’s Cafe was noisy, bright, and crowded. A long bar stretched along the far wall. Leigh paused, plotting a route that would quickly get her past the eyes that had fixed on her the moment she’d appeared in the doorway.
Early Dylan blasted from the jukebox as she moved briskly past the booths and tables and around drinkers watching the action at a pool table. The bartender who took her order was a fit middle-aged woman with graying twists. Her large breasts tumbled loosely under a sleeveless plaid shirt as she moved this way and that, reaching for a glass, the bottle, ice. Leigh set a bill on the bar. “Are you Dee?” Then she pointed to another bartender—a blond, pretty, younger woman who was leaning on the bar and talking quietly with a very tan, weather-worn man perched on the edge of the end stool. “Or is that Dee?”
The woman took the money and tapped her chest with an index finger. “Dee,” she said. She pointed to the blonde woman. “Kate.” Then she turned to another customer as she set down change that she’d pulled from the pocket of her short green apron.
Dylan finished singing about the big brass bed. Leigh looked into the mirror behind the bar and saw that a few pairs of eyes were still staring at her. She raised her glass in greeting, and the eyes turned away.
Two young guys and a woman at the pool table took turns making tricky shots. Leigh watched in the mirror, quickly figuring out that there was no real game in progress, just some showboating. Between shots the pool players each turned and watched her watching, stares meeting over the reflection of well-ordered bottles.
The woman at the pool table smiled, tipped her head, and raised an eyebrow as she lifted her cue. Join us?
The men—boys, really—rested on the edge of the table, punched each other, and giggled.
Leigh sipped Scotch. It was the second time in not even five minutes that she’d gotten an invitation. Maybe there was a sign taped to her back or forehead:
Yes, I’m alone, and yes, it’s been too long since the last time
Leigh swiveled her stool from the mirror so she was face-to-face with the real thing. She shook her head. The friendly woman shrugged, turned back to the table, and made a shot that earned loud applause from nearly everyone in the café.
The woman was securely middle-aged, but she didn’t act or look like the mother of the two man-boys. A family friend? Or maybe the town’s good-time gal, the one who had a reputation for educating Pepin’s young men. When the woman pushed up the sleeves of her tight v-neck sweater, Leigh spotted large diamonds on both ring fingers. A stepmother, maybe. A stepmother out for beer and pool with her new husband’s boys, enjoying a little bit of flirty fun that might take a turn toward family trouble. “Careful, girl,” Leigh whispered.
“Here on pilgrimage?”
Leigh drained her Scotch. “Sorry?”
Dee’s very firm dark brown biceps tightened and relaxed as she wiped the bar. She set down her towel. “I’m guessing that you’re a little girl who’s come to visit the big river. I was one myself once, making that first trip to the holy land. Fell in love with the place, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Leigh rattled the ice in her glass. “A little girl? Clearly not. I’m five-nine and I’m forty-seven.”
Dee looked at her for a moment before nodding. “Doesn’t matter. You’re welcome here, and the next one is on the house.”
Before Leigh could refuse or say thank-you, Dee pushed the bottle toward her and moved away. What the hell, Leigh thought. She poured.
“I’m here…” she called out. Heads turned. She studied the glistening mix of ice and liquid in her glass, then drank deeply.
Dee returned and cocked her head.
“The vice president,” Leigh said. “His new secretary. Sort of.”
“His papers and things. He’s promised them to the state historical society and he’s trying to get them in order. He’s hired me to help.”
Dee’s smiled faded. She glanced toward the other bartender and the tan man, who were both now staring at Leigh.
“Name’s Leigh, right?” Dee said as she reclaimed the bottle.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Word’s gotten around. Apparently the vice-president’s pretty excited about your arrival. We never see him down here, but don’t let that keep you away.”
Leigh cupped the glass in her hands; in spite of the spoken welcome, she was suddenly certain Dee was regretting the free drink.
A woman’s laugh rippled and soared. Leigh finished her Scotch, set the glass on the bar, shouldered her purse, and walked toward the door, where she turned and glanced back.
Dee was whispering to the woman at the pool table, who had her eyes fixed on Leigh while her hand rubbed the lower back of one of the young guys. When she noticed Leigh looking she once again lifted her cue. The boy nuzzled her neck as she shouted, “Welcome to Pepin!”
Two drinks in ten minutes. What the hell was that supposed to prove? Leigh shook her head as she walked out of the motel bathroom. She put the sleeping pill on her tongue and chased it with water. There was a brief pinch of worry when she pictured the alcohol mixing with the pill, then she shrugged away the thought and again tipped the glass to her lips. A few drops dribbled on her T-shirt as she walked, drank, and glanced down at the strip of light that suddenly spilled across the floor from the narrow gap below the thin door that separated her motel room from the adjacent one.
Her neighbor’s hall door slammed shut, and immediately something landed heavily against the hollow separating door. “At last!” a man said.
Leigh paused, looked at the door, waited for more.
There was another thump, then the sound of something or someone sliding down to the floor.
“What if someone saw us?” said a woman. “Smack in the middle of town!”
The man mumbled.
“I don’t care what lie you told the desk clerk,” the woman said. “Mother will know what I’ve been doing. She’ll smell it on me.”
“Oh god, yes,” said the woman. “We must be crazy. Quick, be quick.”
“Mother will know,” Leigh whispered. She set her water glass on the night stand, sat on the edge of the bed, and pulled her legs into her arms. Lovers in room 213. What was the story? She leaned forward to listen, and the shift in weight nearly spilled her from the soft mattress onto the floor. She pushed out a leg to catch herself just as the man and woman next door laughed and moved deeper into their room.
As 213 quieted, Leigh crawled under the covers of her bed and opened her current reading. The book mark fell onto her lap: Emily’s prom picture. It was a solo shot—no sign whatsoever of the date, some boy named Aaron. Not that Emily had told her the boy’s name or even told her she was going to the dance. Not that Emily had sent the picture. All Leigh knew about the night, the date, and the boy was courtesy of Emily’s new stepmother, who had attached the photo to one of her cheery monthly emails that always carried the same subject header: “Update from Columbia, SC!”
She ran her fingers over the edge of the photo. “Beautiful girl,” she whispered, studying the salon-styled hair, the blue dress, the confident smile. “My beautiful girl.”
Two pages, then the sleeping pill landed, and Leigh’s head sank heavily. She tucked the photo into the book and set that on the table. She reached for the light and nearly knocked the lamp over before finding the small knob and turning it off.
The lovemaking next door became suddenly audible and then quickly reached a howling climax. That
quick, thought Leigh. And just as she melted into sleep, she touched her fingers to her lips and blew the lovers a kiss, wishing them well.
Bell does not work. Please knock; we’ll hear you.
Leigh smiled at the handwritten message that was taped over the doorbell button. An encouraging sign, that semi-colon. Nice to be going to work for once in a place where even minor household messages involved thoughtful punctuation.
She lifted and dropped the tarnished heart-shaped door knocker, then turned and looked across the expansive yard that bordered the park on Hadley Street. She instinctively noted and mapped the three houses opposite, the two red-x’d elms at either end of the block, a majestic, late-blooming white lilac that shaded a square sandbox, and the dense copse that curved like a green half-moon from beyond the park’s sad playground to the edge of the house where she stood.