It’s been a while since I’ve posted a short story. Time to rectify that.
This short story is called “Stray”. I can’t say there was much inspiration behind it other than the opening sense of smell of vanilla and grill smoke. The rest came out of the characters themselves.
This one goes back a good ten years or more. It was published by a one-and-done literary journal called the “Literary Bone” back in 2005.
I hope you enjoy it.
By Scott Lyerly
The little girl’s hair smelled like smoke and vanilla: smoke from the great cloud of gray that billowed upward as the hamburgers barbecued; and vanilla, from the butter-cream frosting she was allowed to smear on her face, her hands, her hair in celebration of her first birthday. She clapped her hands together with glee as partygoers batted the helium filled balloons toward her that brandished happy birthday messages. Her father held her in his left arm, his right arm free to tend to the grill or sip his drink or perform whatever single-handed action needed doing. For now, he was embroiled in a superficial conversation with his mother-in-law regarding the recent weather: hot today, cooler yesterday, thunderstorms due for tomorrow. The mundanity of the topic drove him slightly mad while other guests continued to entertain and be entertained by the little girl, whose eyes sparkled when she smiled.
Past the chattering head of his mother-in-law stood his wife, appearing for the room like the queen of the beehive. Around her swarmed friends and colleagues, attracted to her by both her smart wit and stunning beauty. He watched her throw back her head in a laugh that rang out, not too loudly, and charmed the surrounding entourage. But the charm was less like a barebacked and tanned old man with a flute and a basket; it was like the snake, having fled, cornered a terrified mouse, hood up, tongue out, eyes swirling.
Jake turned away from the tableau before him and focused again on the weather.
“Yes,” he said absentmindedly, “it has been an unusual spring. At least the mosquitoes have stayed away.”
“Oh yes,” replied his mother-in-law, her helmet style of hair waving its fastidiously black dyed color at him, like a teacher wagging her finger. “It’s been lovely without the miskeetos”—she made a point of elongating the “ee” sound—“but I suspect they will return with the rain tomorrow.” Her hair, gray at temples despite her zeal with the dye bottle, bobbled in place, reminding Jake of a sports collectable. “Well,” she said, “I see some cake that has my name on it. Please excuse me.” With that she turned, as if departing for a long awaited vacation, and went three feet to the dining room table.
Jake felt a sense of relief at her departure, only to have it usurped by the presence of his wife, silently standing next to him.
“I didn’t see you there,” he said, the apologetic tone long since engrained.
“You weren’t looking very hard,” she responded, the disdainful tone long since instinctual. There were chuckles from a few of her admirers who had followed her across the room.
She reached out and took the baby from Jake’s arms. The little girl’s smile widened and the party-guests smiled in spite of themselves. She made happy noises and said “mommy” as Jake’s wife hefted the girl into her arms, eliciting cutesy sounds and remarks from the onlookers.
“She’s getting hungry,” Jake said, to which his wife snorted so softly that only he heard.
“I know, that’s why I came over to get her.”
Jake watched as his wife and her circle moved away from him, his daughter in her arms. He picked up his drink, a red beer in a tall glass, and placed his other hand in his pocket. He had nearly made the decision to seek shelter from his wife’s beauty outside, when his mother-in-law cornered him, cake escaping the corners of her mouth in little moist driblets, as she descended into a fresh tirade regarding the weather.
Later that night, Jake undressed in his closet, taking care with his clothing, hanging his pants, racking his shoes, hampering his shirt and socks. He unbuttoned his pants first, his belly, which until now had been pushed up and over his belt buckle like three pounds of clay in a two pound pot, dropped with relief as he lowered the zipper. He stripped his feet of the socks, little tufts of black fabric clinging between his toes. Lastly he unbuttoned his shirt and then quickly covered his soft pear shape with his pajamas.
Peeking out of the closet first, he spied his wife sitting at her vanity, a thickly headed brush with fat bristles making its way through her long auburn hair. He stared at her for a moment. She wore a pink nightgown with spaghetti straps that roped their flimsy way over her shoulders like the corded lifelines of lonely mountaineers. Jake’s eyes took in the entirety of his wife in a single glance but came to rest on the back of her head, her hands moving through her hair like a shuttle through a loom.
“Are you planning on sleeping in there?” his wife asked, not turning around. Jake brought his eyes to the vanity’s mirror and realized that she was watching him; her yellow-green feline eyes a stark harsh contrast to her soft auburn hair. Her mouth, a steady straight thin line across her face, the corners tucked down slightly under her crescent moon cheekbones, showed no emotion towards Jake. Indifferent he had used in the past, a sad but accurate way to describe her feelings towards him. Apathetic might be another.
“No, I was just looking for…” but he nothing to fill in the space. The sentence died on his lips and he had nowhere to go with it. His wife continued to stare at him, emotionless, the brush with its fat bristles sliding through her hair. She made no effort to help him find the words he had lost and eventually he gave up hoping she would. He changed course.
“She went into her crib pretty easy tonight,” he offered about his daughter.
“Of course.” The reply was terse but soft. At least if her voice had been harder it would say that she was mad at him, but with this, nothing.
Jake, having nothing left to do for the night and no more conversation to make under false pretenses, climbed into bed, pulled up the covers and turned out his light, the soft swishing sound of a brush following him into his dreams.
The bar had a seedy quality that Jake didn’t really appreciate; but then again, he wasn’t staying in what could be considered the lap of luxury. The accommodations were cheap but clean; the rental car was older and the cloth interior exuded the odors of previous users and their filthy habits. Asking the hotelier in the front office the best place to go a have a beer was not likely to elicit the most upscale place in town. Like his room and his car, it was clean but smelled like smoke and sickly sweet perfume.
Jake had removed his tie before coming out to the bar, but left his jacket on. It could be cold later. Now he would have to send it out to be cleaned before returning home. If he came back to the house with a jacket smelling like a bar, he might not be able to hold his daughter for nearly a week. Punishment was subtle but devastating. He made a mental note to check the phone book for a dry cleaner, rather than ask about one at the desk.
He removed his glasses and palmed his eyes forcefully. The flight had been bad, the car smelled and the business trip was going to be a marathon of presentations.
His head came up from his hands, where he had not realized it had come to rest in an odd tableau of prayer. He reached for his glasses but a hand lay down on top of his, halting his action.
“No, keep them off for now. You have nice eyes.”
He turned and found that a woman, maybe in her mid thirties, had sat down on the barstool next to him. She was pretty in a chubby way. Her figure was fuller than it needed to be, but there was enough shape left to remind Jake of what her figure had been when younger. Her hair came up just off her shoulders, a dirty streaky blonde that would have looked unwashed at a distance but rather nice up close. Her eyes were too close together; not so much that she appeared cross-eyed, but just enough to be noticeable. They were blue, like her shirt. Her lips with stained a darker shade of red, like the bra strap visible at the edge of her scoop-neck collar. They were full and stretched easily from ear to ear when she smiled.
Jake shook his head. “I’m sorry, are you talking to me?”
“Yes, silly” came a reply, tinkling with laughter.
“And you are…?”
“Sylvie.” Out came her hand, which Jake looked at apprehensively, then decided it was safe enough to take.
“Jake,” he managed, cautiously.
“Very generic,” she smiled. He smiled weakly back.
The introduction lagged as each one waited for the other. Sylvie took a long pull from a half-full tumbler, replacing it on its soaked napkin. Jake sipped his beer, looking straight ahead.
“So,” Sylvie said, “where are you from?”
“D.C.,” answered Jake too quickly.
“Oh,” she replied.
The uncomfortable paused hung limply and the bartender smiled at the scene.
“So are you here on business, or—“
“Look, I don’t want to seem impolite,” Jake interrupted, “but I’m really very tired. I just want to sip my beer and then go back to my hotel and sleep.”
Sylvie’s face soured. “There’s no need to be rude about it,” she said. “I was just making conversation. I’ve no one else to talk to in this place.”
“Sorry,” answered Jake, not feeling that way.
“What, are you afraid that I might come on to you? Afraid I might try to make a move?”
“No, no,” Jake answered, shaking his head.
“Cause that’s not who I am.”
“I didn’t mean to imply, it’s just, you see….” But he couldn’t find the way to describe his fatigue. The exhaustion came from being an outsider in his own life. A controlled distance was constructed between him and his daughter. A means to an end, that’s how his wife viewed him. She had her child, her lifestyle, her doubtless affairs; her soul was complete. Jake’s grew emptier.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, this time with sincerity. “I just don’t have a particularly good home life right now.”
“So you’re lonely?” Sylvie asked, her icy tone melting.
“There are all kinds of ways to cure loneliness,” she answered, her voice dropping in tone and volume.
“Yeah,” said Jake. “There are. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to my room.”
Sylvie’s mouth hung open in surprise as he dropped a five on the bar and walked out. The bartender suppressed a laugh as Silvie’s face changed from stunned to incensed.