Short Story: Buy the Lake
Short Story: Buy the Lake
Juniper hates poached plums. But nobody at the dinner table listened, least of all Gregory T. Swindells, who was spending a rare Sunday night in with his family, for there was an abrupt knock on the door that knocked the stuffing out of his chest. Which daughter was this for? He said more so than asked, leaping from his seat, studying his wrist. Quarter to seven. The second and third knocks were closely followed by two brazen ring-rings of the doorbell, which rang like Morse code, only for Gregory to go ahead and open the door regardless. A quick-witted Joyce T. Swindells, of slim and agile waist, nippily followed the slinking gait of her husband and greeted the knock before he managed to blurt a word out.
One Heartthrob and two bouquets greeted Joyce – wifely and onion-eyed, dismayed and delighted, cauliflower-blonde bob of hair bobbing up and down – and she blushed as though the flowers were for her. Overwhelmed. It’s so nice, she said. Floweret of a smile garnered by the grin of the Heartthrob – the two tall inflorescences of waxy wildflowers sat as still as a storm silently choked by the sticky-resin of his grip. Both bunched together when Gregory shook his clammy hand. Must not seem over the top, Heartthrob thought. Green as gangrene, Gregory thought.
These are for the madam, Heartthrob said. Joyce nodded and primed the red of her throat. Viv!? You’ve got company. Viv stomped her heels down the lacquered timber toes of the winding, creaking staircase. You’ve got some nerve, she said, running up to him and laughing, all grown up and bodacious, jokingly and passionately pretending to slam the door on her Heartthrob. Gregory glared: so, it’s that daughter. Heartthrob laughed and kissed Viv on the cheek.
Gregory stammered. Horrified at the kiss. Nothing a stern word can’t fix. Joyce keeping tabs on him. Glowering. Nip it in the bud, she said with her eyes. Gregory desperately held onto his tongue. Tongue holding onto something scathing.
Gregory retreated in the nick of time. Nearly kicked the bucket. Pensive approach tonight. Cold beverage, anyone? Joyce slunk off into the heat of the kitchen.
Ginger beers in the beige of the living room. Oatmeal-coloured carpet. Axminster. Plush. Palatial. Viv entertaining and so on. Gregory – already boldly reduced to a more casual ‘Greg’ by Heartthrob – smiled at the bouquets awkwardly, as if they were a nice touch. Viv delighted. Hugs and shrill thank you’s pervaded the living room. Dinner is served. Dining room now. Poached plums for all but Juniper. Knives and forks left cold in the cupboard. Spoons only. Grins only.
Heartthrob, oyster-eyed and excited excused himself from his chair, set about sinking his fleshy-pink fingertips into the ivory notes of the living room’s dust-collecting Bechstein. A one and a two and a one and a two-three-four and so on and so on. Only hitting the deeper keys on the third of each hum, making up for Gregory’s false semitone waver on the third of each hum. Brooding hum finally cracking in two.
Humpty-Dumpty Gregory ballooned into a red-faced rendition of himself. Must steer the ship, at least to the bridge. Desperation to salvage what was left of the darker more lowly note. Instantaneous key changes to cover up Gregory’s fleeting haste of hesitation leaves Heartthrob with no choice. Heartthrob lowers larynx. Bass. Matches it with a deep little lick on the piano, too. Gregory stands up like a stunned mullet. Proud gullet left hanging. Bass was his thing. Joyce glowered at him, again. Eyes said it all. Sits back down. How could he? Silently scolds himself. Supposed to disapprove. And sing bass. Joyce suspects something. She always suspects something.
She knew when Gregory was hiding something. And Gregory was hiding something. Two things: jealousy; mistress. Can smell the jealousy on him. Mistress, not so much. Joyce scowled anyway. Pensive approach nearly over. Two daughters smiled. Unsuspecting. Stew pot is cold. Soft skin of stewed plum sits just right on Viv’s front teeth. Viv ear to ear and so soft when trying to treble. Trebles well. Soft trebles. Hits all the right notes when she can which was when she wants. Said skin of plum still clinging in giant purple-red plumes on her front teeth. Juniper exempt. Doesn’t like poached plums, not even turkey. Fallen on deaf ears again. Talking to the salt on her cornbread.
Heartthrob doesn’t care about the revolting reddish speck glued to Viv’s front teeth. High notes take him somewhere else. Somewhere higher. Soprano. Viv was sweeter than plums. Falsetto. Fugitive plum skin now transported along the wet ridge of her salmon-pink tongue to the left side of her ever so slightly plaque-sodden posterior teeth. Peach-stained. Concealed at the gums. Crossroads of gingivitis. Early days. The Heartthrob side. Hardly matters, though. Heartthrob has his happy pants on. Bulging by the seams of his crotch. Covered up by the white ivory tusks of the bleached, oblong bones and black-minor rectangles of slivered timber that neatly and nearly make up the howling Bechstein before him, last and highest key ripped off by Juniper when she was nothing but a teething toddler. Learning to walk all by herself. Unannounced runt. Unaware of such a title. Twelve years never changes much.
Heartthrob busying himself at the beginning of the bridge. Bechstein in full swing. Not a bad tone to her, he thought. Haunting intonation. Slightly out of tune, mind you. But look at the sleek on that beech-wood forehead.
The living room harmonically unfolded into a steadied, cadenced rush. Heartthrob up to his usual tricks. Major seventh on the turn around. Gee, I love this number. And on the third, too. Never played it this way before. Could play it with my eyes closed. I’m running away with it now, I know I am. Viv, too. Voice of an angel. Greg looks pissed, though. I wonder if he will let me stay tonight? Maybe, he pondered, mid-chord. Maybe, she wondered, a tad bored. Viv’s soft vocals climb staircase after staircase, reaching their sweetened end:
Bravo, bravo, Heartthrob slams, staccato. Everybody slaps each other on the back, bar Gregory. So good, Joyce laugh-smiled. So good. The gang – Viv, Juniper and Joyce – giggle with everything they’ve got. Gregory – deep breath, deep breath, deep breath – emptied his vacuum-sized oesophagus by coddling himself at the waist and regurgitating his very own slow-dance-in-a-burning-room decrescendo; key of C majorish, wide-set throat perched and gurgling a grandly-merged-bass-driven rhythm stacked layer upon layer with daddy-sang-bass-squawks he didn’t even know he had within himself, ending the already dead hook as though his manhood was on the line: ‘SoOOoo000ooo 00000000 Oo00oo go0d’.
Joyce retired to the kitchen to scrub the turkey skin off the saucer just as Gregory finished up his solo. Awkward silence. Slumping of the sofa. Usual seats. Iced teas and time-wasting tactics on Heartthrob’s behalf. He wants to stay over. Everybody knows it. Even Juniper guessed as much.
Heartthrob proceeded to lower his voice and talk about the work site and all that jargon. Concerns himself with cheap talk regarding the construction of a certain coal-plant colliery along the escarpment of Rattle Creek. Hardly stimulating enough for the master. Gregory the master pretended not to care all that much, like a master ought not to. Even though he had his finger in that pie. O’ course he did. Penal servitude allowed him that. Cheapest wages since slavery. It was extremely stimulating for him. Succession clause in his Warden’s contract. That old chestnut. Served him well. Extremely well. Thank God for deviant lawyers. Finger in every scheming pie from Rattle Creek and you know the rest. Embezzlement included. Mortgage paid and poached plums now a staple. Back to coal dust and drain pipes and railroad delays. Same old. Heartthrob grasped at straws. One last ounce of conversation. One last wheeze. C’mon. Squeeze. One more.
‘And Greg, erm, just out of curiosity, how much of a wage do you actually pay these prisoners? You know, erm, the ones who graft all day long in those collieries?’ he gasped.
Gregory had quite clearly stopped listening at Greg. Posture to prove it. Slumped at the waist. Half-collecting his thoughts. Biding his time. Looked down at his shoes, his pants, his straitjacket, his wrist. Half-nine. Cab rank closed after 10pm on Sundays. No taxis unless you’re a prostitute. Or a mistress, mind you. Gregory knew so well. Sunday was his day. Sinking into the green of his couch with a vacant look in his eye. Buried in thought. Must I always pay for her pleasure?
Heartthrob counted down the seconds, watched the lattices of his ice cube melt. One more half-lap around the lament of the clock and he was home and hosed. A safe bet. Cab rank closed after that. His mother told him so. Safe and sound in Viv’s single bed. No room for space. Must cuddle each other to stop from falling out of the bed all night. Cold tiles will make sure of that. Porcelain. Abrasively cold. Viv said so herself at the tilers when they were bought. She always told him funny little snippets of her day like that. You know, the boring details. He held onto them the most.
Gregory took a long time to answer, as though he was carefully unpacking what Heartthrob had asked. Heartthrob, Heartthrob. Thumbs, thumbs. Seconds, seconds. Gregory stared at himself. We pay them handsomely, he joked, to himself. All in his head. Still hadn’t said a word yet. Thinks. Long. Hard. Our wages are in accordance with industry standards, he finally said aloud. He said that one from time to time at county jail board meetings. Public holiday rates, too, he added aloud, as though he was watching the words pour out of his own mouth. Thought to himself. Gloated to himself: It’s amazing what you can achieve when you believe in everything you say.
Jolts back to his senses. Come to think of it. Was Heartthrob having me on there? Running his mouth like that? Sticking his damned beak in my books? Why does he care? Does he think I am a bad man? A bad man for providing bad men with good jobs? Honest, hard-working jobs? To hell with him! Coming into my home like that. Rubbing his tongue where he so pleases. Damn him! Scathing remark finally escapes from the tip of his tongue. Only, it didn’t. Only in his imagination. Only in his temptations. Joyce brings him back to the real world.
‘Sweetie, what else?’
Gregory remained paused. Repository of thought.
‘Well… He weighed in, ‘Being the Warden of the Diamond County Gaol, it was my job to make good men of bad men. Now, being a Warden does come with some of its own… Perks,’ he grumbled. ‘And it just so happens that I am a stakeholder in a handful of collieries up west way. Just a handful here and there. You know, mostly coal and iron ore and steel slag and all that. And it only makes perfect sense that I give these men a job on the collieries, a new opportunity, you know, a fresh start in life, no matter how frugal or even basic the wage may seem at fir-’.
The rest being drowned out by nothing. Boring, wasn’t it? Heartthrob listened as the seconds swam by. Tongue eventually relaxed. Gregory’s, of course. Who else? Heartthrob doesn’t even have a tongue. Lost it down Viv’s throat seconds before he arrived at the door at quarter to seven, seconds before he stood awkwardly greeted by the warmth of Joyce’s smile, seconds before they all feasted on poached plums and sang like the times of old.
About the Author
Aside from studying law and science at university, Alex writes fiction in his spare time. As a boy, he spent most of his time reading anything from Mark Twain to zoological paperbacks concerning big lizards with funny-looking tails. His writing weaves in and out of fragmented thought and rhythmic dialogue. He believes the key to writing a good story is… A full stop.