It’s stupid to fall for gay guys. That’s what my sister Suzanne said while she scoured the stovetop. But Grover is different, I told her. He wasn’t like all the men who fucked me over, men like Ariel’s father, whatever happened to him.
“Seeing faggot boy tonight?” Suzanne asked. She’d agreed to babysit Ariel while I worked the graveyard shift at Wal-Mart. She took another SOS pad from the box under the sink. A stickler for cleanliness, she refused to enter my apartment unless I vacuumed the rugs and washed the windows.
“I don’t know.”
“I thought you talked to him every day,” she said with a snide tone.
“Don’t start, Suzie.”
“Jill, I’ve got errands tomorrow. I can’t watch Ariel while you piss around town.”
Whenever Grover and I worked the same shift, he took me for breakfast at IHOP afterward, a little thing between him and me. He always asked if I had a boyfriend, if he should be jealous. You’re the prettiest girl there, he told me. Way too pretty to deal with all the meth addicts and welfare mothers late at night. I looked forward to our breakfasts more than anything.
Ariel coughed and shifted in my lap. I held her up and took a whiff, wondering if she needed changing. I couldn’t smell anything. She turned a year old next month.
Suzanne asked me to help clean the fridge. “Bobby hates it when I let the food go bad,” she said. Bobby was her husband. I set Ariel in the crib and Suzanne opened the fridge. What I saw stunned me. Three cartons of milk, two of them weeks past their expiration date. Countless Tupperware containers with spoiled food. A wilted head of lettuce.
“How did this get in such a state?” I asked. “You’re always so clean.”
“Everyone has a blind spot.”
* * *
I never intended Wal-Mart to become my career. After three years working there, though, it didn’t feel right saying I was just looking for a better job. The shit started when I was arrested for marijuana possession four years ago. None of the hospitals or clinics would come near me with that on my record. I used to be an x-ray technician. Wal-Mart welcomed me like a long-lost relative. Grover liked to joke that an arrest record was required to work there.
I trudged across the store to the employee lounge. It was eleven at night, and most of the graveyard shift was already there. At the punch clock I scanned the employee slips for Grover’s name. I needed to talk to him. I hadn’t seen him in over a week, but we spoke on the phone a couple of times. He had big news he wanted to tell me in person. I wondered if he had a new boyfriend. His last one left him with a scorching case of anal warts. I hoped it was something else, something very different. I knew it wouldn’t be what I truly wanted to hear: he was going to take a chance with me. I felt awful admitting that, but every time Grover found someone new, I saw far less of him.
I spied Grover’s timecard and smiled. Just then, a hand slapped across my eyes, and another body pressed against mine. The sweet stench of whiskey wafted on my neck.
“Who’s my beautiful girl?” he asked.
“Who’s my beautiful boy?”
Grover took his hand away and spun me around, gave me a big smooch on the cheek. “You were almost late,” he said.
“Ariel was being fussy.”
“Can’t she take care of herself yet?”
I faked a horrified look and slapped his arm. “Shame on you! She’s just a baby.”
“C’mon, we’ve got Hamburger Helper to stock.”
Grover grinned and ran his hand through his dyed blonde spikes. “I’d never let this store break us up,” he said. “We’re the beautiful people.” He strode out of the lounge through the swinging doors. He walked a little funny, weaving slightly. He liked to knock back a few before work. I hoped he wasn’t too drunk.
I ignored the few customers who stared while I was out on the sales floor. Most never looked at me. Usually they breezed past as if I weren’t there. The rare customer who slowed down and stared, as if she couldn’t believe I let myself sink so low—I still flushed with shame, like it was my first week on the job. I never told Grover it still bothered me. He would worry.
In aisle four, Grover hauled a box from the dolly and expertly slid his cutting blade across the taped lid. We plucked out the boxes of Hamburger Helper and tossed them onto the shelves. He was much faster than me. With this damn weight, it was tough to bend and stoop like Grover could. He finished before me, like always, then helped with my half of the merchandise. Past midnight, I hadn’t seen a customer in a little while.
Grover put his hands on his hips and beamed. My God, he had such a beautiful smile—it was transporting. “You haven’t asked me about my good news,” he said.
“Is that why you’re half-drunk?”
“Fuck no, I drink because this place depresses me. I’m talking about something completely different.”
“What?” I asked.
He winked and tossed the empty cardboard box onto the floor. In one fluid motion, he slid the cutting blade into the next box. “I met someone.”
I swallowed and ran my palms over my blue work-vest, as if I’d spilled something. I licked my lips and blinked. “That’s terrific, Grover.”
“Yeah, it’s about damn time.”
“What’s his name?”
Forgetting what might happen if a manager caught us, I grabbed Grover by the arm. “Just be careful. You know…after what happened with Doug.”
“Don’t worry, beautiful. I got a front-row view of his asshole. He’s clean.”
My laugh echoed through the cavernous aisle and up into the high ceiling. Grover dropped his boxed dinners and wrapped me in his arms. As I tried to break free, afraid we’d be caught, he swept me off my feet and swung me around like we were ballroom dancers.
“I knew you’d be happy for me!” he crowed. I tipped over, close to losing my balance, but I grasped one of the shelves and caught myself. “You’re the best hag a faggot ever had,” he said.
I blew him a kiss and smiled with my hands knotted against my breasts. I should be happy, I told myself. Grover was my friend, and nobody is truly happy alone. I knew that better than anyone.
* * *
Grover had already left for IHOP when I emerged through the store’s glass doors. I buttoned my overcoat and wrapped a scarf around my neck. A nasty cold front had swept through during my shift. I dialed Suzanne. I hoped Ariel hadn’t made too much trouble. I needed my sister to cooperate.
“You’re just now getting off work?” she asked, her voice sharp and mean.
“It’s only eight-fifteen.”
“That kid coughed and spit all damn night.”
“I told you she might be sick.”
“Can you afford a doctor?” Suzanne asked.
“I’ll take her to the emergency room if she doesn’t get better.” I hurried through the parking lot, lumbered out of the way of the minivan approaching from behind.
“You need to do something now,” she said. Ariel cried in the background. I wondered how awful people ever figured out they’re awful.
“That’s what I needed to tell you,” I said. “Grover wants me to go—”
“Oh, fucking Christ!”
“We have to talk,” I whined, ashamed she’d reduced me to a whimpering child.
“Grover, Grover, Grover. What about what I need, Jill?”
“It’s only an hour.”
“You need to pick up your fucking kid. She can sit with you and the faggot while you make goo-goo eyes at each other.”
“Ariel hates crowded places.”
I heard nothing that next moment, not even Suzanne’s breath. Finally, she agreed, grunting like a baboon. “No more than an hour, you hear me?” she said. “I’ve got to get things ready for Bobby.”
Clutching the phone to my cheek, I searched my purse for my keys. “I’ll help you with laundry when I come by, promise.”
“I don’t need your help.” The dial tone afterward stunned me. All these years and it still surprised me when she hung up without saying goodbye.
* * *
Grover sat in a booth at the far end of the IHOP. I paused in surprise. Every morning we came, we sat at the front. Grover liked watching the cars zip down the highway while he ate. I unwrapped my scarf and tugged the rubber band from my hair, letting it tumble over my face. Grover often told me my hair was gorgeous.
“You can’t see any cars from here,” I said.
“I’ve got more important things to watch.”
A tall, middle-aged hostess handed us menus and took our drink orders. Grover whipped his open and perused the dishes. I watched the hostess depart. Her orthopedic shoes clomped on the linoleum. Her slip dipped below the hem of her uniform skirt. I prayed God would spare me such a humiliating fate, waiting hand and foot on people who refused to acknowledge me.
“Jill, you still with us?” Grover asked in a playful tone.
I shook my head and grinned. “I don’t know why we look at these things,” I said, holding up the menu. “We always order the same damn thing.”
Grover stared elsewhere, pointed toward the kitchen. “Tell me what you see,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Look where I’m pointing.”
I managed a small laugh and looked. Waitresses flitted along the service line, picking up dishes to bring the customers. Their quick conversations with the cooks gurgled from across the restaurant. I looked back at Grover, expecting some crass joke. He still gazed somewhere far away. I wanted to ask what the hell was so captivating. Then, I saw him.
Emerging from a swinging door at the end of the serving line, a man strode into the dining area. He was a few years younger than Grover, maybe not even twenty-five. From his black tie, nametag, and maroon apron, I knew he was a waiter. He was a striking man: small, thrusting chin, nose with a sharp incline, widely spaced green eyes. It surprised me when he glanced over at Grover and me. He flashed a smile so perfect and white, it belonged on a billboard.
Grover’s features softened and he rubbed his hands together as if warming them at a campfire. The waiter reached our table and slipped a notepad from his pants.
“I told you I’d come visit,” Grover said.
“I wish I could talk more,” the waiter said. “We’re getting slammed this morning.” Indeed, almost all the tables were full of chattering, gesturing diners. Thank God I’d left Ariel with my sister. I knew it sounded awful, but she would’ve ruined this moment.
“You still get off at three?” Grover asked.
“Yeah, but I’ll probably have to stay a bit.”
Finally, Grover looked at me. He appeared flustered, as if my presence surprised him. “This is Bart, my latest distraction.” Grover clasped his hand over mine. My breath caught, my jaw dropped a bit. “Bart, this is my salvation, Jill.”
“Grover can’t stop talking about you,” Bart said, extending his hand. Still reeling, I shook it, managing a passable smile. I wasn’t going to let this upset me. Grover and I had been friends my whole three years at Wal-Mart. This man meant just a little fun in bed for Grover. He’d still have time for me.
“Why keep a gorgeous boy like you a secret?” I said.
“That was my idea,” Bart admitted. His narrow cheeks flashed crimson.
“Young Bart was a little ashamed of me at first,” Grover said, leaning over the table as if confiding a secret. The whiskey on his breath smelled stronger now. Did he keep a flask in his locker at work?
Bart gasped then let out a sharp pop of laughter. “You bastard, I was not!”
“One thing I didn’t tell you,” Grover said, still leaning close, “is this dear boy is almost a decade younger.”
I saw this situation clearly. Grover’s last boyfriend left him humiliated, the warts collected around his asshole reminding him constantly of the betrayal. He spent several months alone, not even a quick romp with one of his fuck buddies. Grover always informed me when he got laid. He probably stopped in the restaurant one morning without me and spied this good-looking boy, his pen poised and tie straight, ready to supply anything my best friend wanted.
“Age is just a state of mind,” I said, ignoring the charged atmosphere. “Look at me. I’m not a day over twenty-five.”
Grover pounded the table, doubling over with laughter. I turned thirty-one last month. Bart chuckled softly. He cut his gaze from Grover to me. I felt disoriented, exposed. He’d probably ignore me if he caught me stocking Hamburger Helper.
* * *
Suzanne carried Ariel in one arm, the baby resting on her hip. Her eyes were bright and her mouth puckered like she’d just sucked a lemon slice. “It’s been a goddamn hour and a half, Jill,” she said.
Since kissing Grover goodbye and watching his tan Escort rumble down the highway, I’d fought like hell to squelch the sadness surging inside me. I didn’t have the energy to fight with my sister. I simply told the truth: “Grover introduced me to his new boyfriend.” I looked down at my shoes, realized I hadn’t bought new ones in two years.
“A boyfriend?” she spat, as if that were obscene. “Guess he won’t have time for you anymore.”
“Stop it, Suzie.”
“Now you can pick up your damn kid on time.”
I held out my arms for Suzanne to hand over my daughter. I couldn’t meet her gaze. She shifted Ariel into my arms then stomped toward the kitchen.
“She vomited three times last night,” she said, her voice trailing. “Get her to a doctor, pronto.”
I inspected my daughter. A brief, hacking cough erupted but her smile returned immediately after. I didn’t look forward to hours in the emergency room, waiting for some asshole doctor to shove antibiotics down Ariel’s throat then send us away with the rest of the trash. I’d have to make it through the next day on maybe five hours’ sleep. Ariel just needed a long nap, that’s all.
“Thank you, Suzie,” I called out. She’d disappeared.
I waited for her to answer but heard nothing. As I closed the front door and stepped into the blinding autumn sunshine, my cell phone rang. Ariel cooed and clapped her hands. She adored the clickety-click sound of my ring tone. I glanced at the caller ID and smiled with relief.
“I thought you were still drooling over your waiter,” I said.
“Get home and get some sleep,” Grover said. “You have a dinner date at six.”
“I want you and Bart to gossip about me. I’m cooking meatloaf.”
“I can’t. Suzie’s on the rag. She’d never agree to take Ariel that early.”
“Then bring the kid over here. I haven’t seen her in a while.”
Grover doted on Ariel, made faces while she lay in her stroller, sprayed a dab of perfume on her jumper as he changed her. He liked to joke that we should claim her as our love child and make everyone at work pass out from shock.
“I’ll be very tired and cranky,” I warned him.
“That’s what happens when you never have sex.”
“Fuck you, manwhore.”
“Swing by and pick up some wine if you can.”
Outside, I took a moment to experience the joyous October sunshine, how it basked both my face and Ariel’s. Maybe Bart would be good for Grover, give him things I never could. Determined to stay positive, I loaded Ariel into the car and started home. I hoped she wouldn’t keep me from my precious few hours of sleep.
* * *
When Grover’s last boyfriend left him, Grover kept the apartment. The extra bedroom made a perfect nursery for Ariel. While Grover and Bart fussed over the cooking, pinching one another and giggling, I tucked Ariel into her stroller. She beamed, the very picture of contentment. I kissed her forehead then slipped into the living room. As if on cue, the two men hushed their flirtation and met me with expectant looks.
“She’s going to be fine,” I said, quietly closing the door.
“If you need me to wait with you in the ER, just ask,” Grover said.
“It’s no problem,” Bart added.
These men, the sacrifices they were willing to make for me. A wave of nausea surged through my stomach. The trouble about accepting help is you’re forced to admit you’re helpless. Grover wore a long white apron, its strings tied behind his back. He placed his hand at the small of Bart’s back, guiding him to the meatloaf on the counter.
“Is it ready to cook?” Bart asked.
“This is so exciting,” Bart chirped, flashing me an excited glance. “Grover’s been teaching me to cook all sorts of things.”
“If he tells you the recipe calls for booze, don’t believe him,” I said then rocked my head back, laughing. Grover made a face then poured another glass of red wine, his fourth since I’d arrived. I figured the drinking had started long before I knocked on the door.
“Think you can help out?” Grover asked.
“Sure, whatever you need.” I joined the men at the counter. Brad pried open the oven door and reached for the aluminum pan holding the meatloaf.
“You’ll need both hands for that,” Grover said. He slurred his words, the vowel sounds flat and dull.
“Let me handle the rest of this,” Bart countered. “I remember what you told me.”
“Here,” Grover said, ignoring him. “Let me get a hold of that.” The men’s competing grasps caused the pan to tilt dangerously low, some of the sliced vegetables spilling onto the open oven door. Finally, the two men successfully maneuvered the meatloaf into the oven. Bart picked up the spilled vegetables from the open door before shutting it. Grover rocked back against the counter, done with the arduous task. I caught a glimmer of aggravation in Bart’s eyes. The three of us said nothing until we sat down at Grover’s small, uncovered table to eat.
* * *
Ariel began hacking not long after we started dessert. Bart looked startled, wondering what to do. I smiled and lifted the fork to my mouth. That’s one thing about babies: panic over every unexpected noise, and you’ll never find a moment’s peace. I had brought the dessert along with the bottle of wine Grover finished an hour ago. He asked if I bought the chocolate cake at Wal-Mart. We all laughed when I said certainly not. Since finishing the wine, Grover had moved onto straight up scotch.
Even after we were done, Ariel wouldn’t stop coughing. The eruptions grew more frequent, louder. I’d been looking forward to relaxing on the sofa with Grover and Bart. The waiter from IHOP had proven to be a nice guy: witty, polite, kind. I had no reason not to like him. My peaceful time with them, however, would have to wait.
The odor hit me the moment I stepped into the room, a disgusting sourness. Holding my nose, I hurried to Ariel’s carriage and found she had vomited all over herself. Worse yet, the puke had dried on her clothes. She sputtered then spit another mouthful. I threw open the bedroom door and called out to Grover, “Can I use your bathtub?”
“What’s going on?” Bart asked.
“Ariel got sick all over herself.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Bart asked, clearing the table.
“I don’t fucking know.”
Grover took it all in, glass of scotch in his hand. With a swift, deliberate gesture, he set it down and crossed the room. To my shock, he wrapped me in a rough embrace, resting his chin on my shoulder. He whispered, “You call a doctor, I’ll get Ariel cleaned up.” Booze bloomed on his breath.
I slid out from his arms, placed my hand on his chest. “No, sweetie, it’s my kid. I’m responsible for her.”
“You need to call a doctor,” he replied. “I’ll get Ariel ready to leave.”
I hesitated. All throughout our friendship, Grover prided himself on how well he treated me, his beautiful girl. He wasn’t like a lot of the faggot assholes that ditch their best friends whenever they find a dick to suck. He treated me like I’d always hoped Ariel’s father would, if I decided to track him down. Sure, I could call the doctor and wash my daughter, but why deny my best friend this opportunity to help me?
“There’s a new outfit in the baby bag,” I told him, gesturing toward a canvas sack by the front door.
“She’ll be fine,” Grover said with authority, his slur less obvious.
I lifted Ariel from her carriage and gave her to Grover. He carried her into his bedroom. The bathroom led off from there. I heard Grover’s occasional coos and whispers meant to calm my child. I didn’t know if Ariel’s silence was a good or bad sign. Finally, I heard water splash.
Throughout all this, Bart stood stunned. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Finally, he recovered his voice. “Who can you call?”
“I saw a billboard once for some dial-a-nurse thing,” I said. After a few false starts, the operator connected me with the nurses’ hotline. I spent five minutes on hold while elevator music blared until an elderly-sounding woman came on the line. I described Ariel’s symptoms and listened as she guessed what might be wrong. Ariel hadn’t coughed or cried the whole time I’d been on the phone. That worried me. Tired of the old woman’s bullshit, I flat-out asked if I should take Ariel to the hospital. Never losing her sweet tone, she said it couldn’t hurt. She called me precious.
I called out, “Grover, hurry up and get Ariel dressed. We have to go to the ER.” Only the soft chatter of pouring water came in response. I called his name again. No answer. Bart shot me a worried glance. I strode across the living room, through Grover’s bedroom and found the bathroom door closed. I knocked, hearing nothing but water. I knocked again. Spooked, I turned the knob.
Grover lay heaped over the edge of the bathtub. He snored softly. His fingertips grazed the surface of the bathwater. The water poured from the faucet. It had risen almost to the rim. Ariel, my beautiful girl, sat upright in the tub, the water almost to her chin. She gaped about the bathroom, her warm hazel eyes wide and searching. Relieved, I shut off the tap. I crouched upon the tiles, arms wrapped around myself. It was all too much. Grover might have drowned, drunk and passed out by the water. I had to look out for him. I was his beautiful girl and he was the man I loved most.
Thomas Kearnes is a 35-year-old author from East Texas. He is an atheist and an Eagle Scout. His fiction has appeared in Ampersand, PANK Magazine, Storyglossia, Night Train, SmokeLong Quarterly, Temenos, 3:AM Magazine, LITnIMAGE, Knee Jerk, Underground Voices, The Pedestal and elsewhere. He is also a regular contributor to the small pocket of queer publications scattered about. He is a columnist for Flash Fiction Chronicles and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee.