Great Alcoholic-Owned Bed and Breakfasts of the Eastern Seaboard
by John Jodzio
Me and the boy are out back shooting holes in the rusted out johnboat when I hear the wheels of a suitcase bump over the cobble of the front walk. It’s still light out and I’m halfway through my bottle of Beam, which if I’m pacing myself correctly, means it’s five or six o’clock.
“Hop to it,” I tell the boy.
The boy isn’t mine. He’s my dead wife Sandy’s, from her dead ex-husband, Jerold. He’s blond-haired and fine-boned. The house we live in is a weathered Victorian that Sandy and I bought to fix up into a bed and breakfast. I got about as far as painting the sign out front with a couple of intertwined roses and the word “Bed,” before Sandy died. There was talk after the funeral that the boy would go to some of Jerold’s relatives in Ohio, but when it came down to it none of them would actually drive here to pick him up.
I watch the boy skip off. He’s eleven and he runs like he’s got a corncob up his ass. I try not to hold that against him. I don’t run like that and I do not look like him in the least, but he hasn’t ever called me anything other than Dad. I’ll tell him about his real father very soon, I suppose. I’ve thought the conversation all out. I want to do it when I am sober, which usually means right away in the morning. I’m planning on telling him over steak and eggs. I’ll sit him down at the kitchen table and tell him I’ve got something important to say. He’s smart, this boy, very inquisitive. I know how the conversation will go. He’ll start in with the questions before I’ve even started saying what needs to be said.
“Is this the sex talk?” he’ll ask.
“More or less,” I’ll say.
I lean the rifle against the woodpile and walk around to the front of the house. There’s a woman standing there. She’s in her late thirties, wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses. I can’t see her eyes, but I can tell by the tilt of her head that she’s glancing up at the gable, looking at how it is leaning some, not ready to fall or anything, but nowhere near straight. The boy does exactly what I’ve taught him to do any time someone shows up on our doorstep – he grabs her luggage and hauls it up the stairs before she can change her mind.
“What brings you here, ma’am?” he asks.
The boy is having trouble lifting her suitcase. He’s bouncing it up the staircase and so I grab onto the handle and help him out. I can understand why he was struggling. It’s heavy as hell; it must weigh a hundred pounds.
“Are there gold bars in here?” I ask the woman. “Or a dead body?”
The woman gives me a wincing smile. She hardly has any legs under her. She got these stubby things, hardly worth a glance. Sandy, now that was a lady. Long legs and a mouth that could let out a deep and powerful moan.
“I’m writing a travel guide,” the woman says.
I don’t know what that has to do with a heavy suitcase, but I don’t press her. I’ve only got two rules to stay here. Number one, you pay what you owe and number two, don’t shoot, stab or poison me or the boy.
“I’m staying at all of the B & B’s up and down the Eastern seaboard,” she says. She takes another look up at the roof, right near that hole in the soffit where the raccoon lives. “And this place is on my list of places to review.”
We haven’t had a guest in a month, but the boy hasn’t forgotten the protocol. He asks her for a credit card for room deposit and incidentals. He runs an imprint on our credit card machine. He looks at the name on the card, hands it back.
“Thank you, Ms. Brunell,” he says.
The boy is well-mannered and does excellent in school. When I go to teacher’s conferences I can’t get his teacher to say anything bad about him. He does his homework, shares, makes friends easily.
“Can I have a room with southern exposure?” Ms. Brunell asks.
I pluck a room key from the board underneath the till.
“Let’s put Ms. Brunell in the Grover Cleveland Suite,” I say.
The boy likes presidents so we named all of our rooms after the fat ones. While the Cleveland Suite isn’t as big as the Taft Room, it’s the quietest. If I would actually get around to trimming the dogwood out back, the room would have a great view of the river. Right now about the only thing you can see is the swing set in the backyard of my neighbor Masoli’s house. I really hope Ms. Brunell takes into account all the potential we have here. I hope she can see what we could become, even though we won’t.
The boy shows her to her room and then I hear Ms. Brunell drawing a bath, the pipes hissing and clacking.
“What do you think she’ll write about us?” the boy asks over the noise.
“Only good things,” I yell back.
How Sandy died was a dumbass thing. One night, on her way to meet me at the Keg n’ Cork, she tried to go around a railroad barrier. Her car was speared by the front of the train, pushed all the way through our town, sparking and screeching, right past the courthouse and right past my barstool where I sat waiting for her. She went past the Riverwalk Mall and into Halsford before the conductor could get that fucking train stopped. The police report said she died in Halsford, but the coroner’s report said that she died on impact and while it can’t really be both, it is.
The boy was two when that happened. Up until that point, I hadn’t done much for him other than read him some bedtime stories and change an occasional diaper, but over the next few years, I did it all. My grief was not helped by the fact that each time I looked at the boy’s face I saw Sandy and each time I thought of Sandy a curl of pain rippled across my chest – a feeling like something had been ripped out of me and then that very same thing had been rolled in glass and shoved back in me upside down.
“That’ll go away,” my sister, Marlene, told me. “It just takes time.”
“If it was going away it would have gone away by now,” I told her. “I’m stuck with it.”
I stopped drinking cold turkey after Sandy died, but when the boy started Kindergarten, I started up again. I ended up drinking on the job and I got fired when I cut off the tip of my pinky with a band saw. This started a long period of the boy and me making due, of one day melting into another, of the occasional guest or two to stumbling onto our doorstep. By now, the boy and I have developed a solid routine. He knows that he can count on me to make him breakfast and hand him a bag lunch on the way to school. When he gets home, he knows that he’ll be the one making dinner and helping me up to bed.
The boy chops up some onions for a stew and I go back out and shoot some more holes in the boat. While I’m out there I see Masoli and his six year old daughter, April, smacking a beach ball back and forth in their front yard. When Masoli first moved in we got along; I borrowed him my socket set and he lent me his hedge trimmer. One night I invited him over for a barbeque. While our kids played together, we ate ribs and talked about how my wife was dead and how his ex-wife was batshit crazy.
“After I got custody she was so angry she burned down our garage,” he told me. “My ’77 Corvette that I spent ten years restoring was sitting in there. Burned it to a crisp.”
I imagined Masoli and me becoming good friends, continuing to shoot the shit on our porches a couple of times a month. I pictured us commiserating about being single parents; sharing tips and keeping each other sane. Unfortunately it never happened. A few nights after our barbeque, I got wasted and walked into his yard without any pants on and he punched me in the face and broke my nose.
I hear April squeal as Masoli bats the beach ball way over her head. Sometimes when they’re out in their yard, goofing around, I grab the boy and we stand on our driveway and laugh really loud so Masoli knows we’re having fun too. I go inside now and pull the boy onto the porch and we fake laugh loud enough to drown out April’s giggling.
“You ready for dinner?” the boy asks when we’re finished.
I pump a couple more shots into the hull of the boat and then I pick up a few rocks from my yard and chuck them over into Masoli’s so they’ll fuck up his lawnmower.
“Now I’m ready,” I tell him.
The next morning I make red eye gravy and biscuits for breakfast. Sandy and I started dating when we were working together at a diner in New Orleans called the HunGree Bear. She was a waitress and I was the cook. We lit out of there just before Katrina, grabbing everything we could and throwing it in the back of my truck. All three of us got out of there just in time, but there was a dog named McGruff that we couldn’t find before we took off. Sometimes at night, I dream McGruff’s on one of those incredible journeys. In the dream, he always shows up on our porch with a bunch of burrs and sticks matted in his fur, thinner, but not all that worse for wear. I’ve been thinking about getting another dog for a while now, but for some reason I still think McGruff’s going to come back. I don’t want him to be pissed that I thought he wasn’t.
“I trust your night was pleasant,” I say to Ms. Brunell as she sits down at the breakfast table.
“Pleasant enough,” she says.
She’s wearing a track suit. She still has on her sunglasses. I can’t tell if she’s got a decent body underneath her baggy clothes, but I’m leaning toward no.
“Are you going to look around town today?” I ask while I stir the gravy. This is a good batch, thick enough to be not run everywhere, thin enough to get into the nooks and crannies of the biscuit.
“I might lay low,” she says. “I’m not feeling the best.”
I put a plate of biscuits in front of her and she takes a bite. There’s a spot on of mold on the wall above her head that I keep painting over, but that keeps coming back.
“I wasn’t expecting much,” Ms. Brunell says, “but these are damn good.”
I wonder if she should be taking notes for her review, but maybe she’s got a better memory than I do. I’m going to try and be on my best behavior for however long she stays, drink a little less. Maybe my breakfasts will be the thing that wins her over; maybe my cooking can make up for everything that’s fucked up around here.
I get the boy off to school and then I spend the rest of my morning napping under the dogwood. When I wake up, I see Ms. Brunell standing in the window with a pair of binoculars.
Great, I think, she’s into birds. Maybe we can take a stroll along the trail and I can point out where all the reticulated woodpeckers nest. Maybe we’ll take a walk through the marsh and I can show her that family of owls that lives inside that hollowed out sycamore.
When I get back inside, Ms. Brunell is sitting in the living room in front of the fireplace, staring into its blackened mouth. I would love to light it for her, but a dead squirrel got stuck in the flue a couple of days ago. The smell is not bad unless it gets really windy. Just in case she’s got a really sensitive nose, I light a scented candle.
“Which other bed and breakfasts have you stayed at?” I ask her.
“I’ve been up and down the coast,” she says. “Tons of places.”
I mention a couple of other B & B’s around here — The Carriage House, the Mount Angel House, the Geffon-Buckley Bed and Breakfast. These places are clean and quaint, full almost every weekend. Those places are how our place was supposed to turn out. I can only imagine what they say about us if anyone asks them. Or if they even know we exist.
“All of those places are on my list,” Ms. Brunell says. “I’m going to stay at Mount Angel House right after this.”
“I saw you with your binoculars earlier,” I tell her. “There’s good birding around here – I could show you some owls later tonight.”
I’m trying to go the extra mile for Ms. Brunell so she’ll write something decent in her book, but I suspect she’s used to better offers. At the expensive places she probably receives a watch or bracelet to help her remember her wonderful weekend. Unfortunately, all I can bribe her with is dumbass owls.
“Yes, that might be nice,” she says me as lies down on the couch and closes her eyes.
I’m shooting some bottles off the back fence with my pump rifle and the boy brings home his report card for me to sign. The thing is perfect, straight A’s. His teachers have filled up all the comments sections with great things to say about his attitude and work ethic. I hand him a twenty dollar bill from my wallet. I tell him to spend it on something frivolous, like candy or fireworks, like I would’ve when I was young.
“Sure,” he tells me. “Okay.”
Even though he says this, I know he won’t spend it on anything good. He’ll tuck it away in that shoebox he keeps under his bed for household emergencies. If I want him to have fireworks or candy, I’ll probably need to buy them for him myself.
While we’re resetting the cans up on the fence, I hear a loud squawking near the house. The boy and I run over and see a hawk fighting with the raccoon that lives up in the soffit. A family of hawks nested there before the raccoons and now I suppose one of them has returned to find someone else living in their home. The hawk and the raccoon are really going at it, the hawk flapping and screaming and the raccoon clawing and hissing. I fire my gun in the air to break things up, but it does nothing. I fire again, this time a little closer, and while my shot scares off the hawk, I accidentally hit the raccoon. It quickly scrambles back up inside my roof and then it starts to bellow and then a shitload of raccoon blood pours out of the soffit, a river of red running right down the side of the house, right over Ms. Brunell’s window.
“Go get the ladder,” I tell the boy. “Quick.”
By the time the boy comes back, the raccoon’s dead and the window’s caked in blood.
“Keep her busy,” I tell him. “Don’t let her come back to her room until I can get this crap off the window.”
The boy runs inside and I climb the ladder. While I’m up there, I can’t help but look inside Ms. Brunell’s room. There’s a bra hung on the doorknob. Her bird watching binoculars are on the bed. There’s other stuff there too, strange things. Laid out on her desk are a dozen pictures of Masoli’s daughter, April, when she was young. There are also a few pictures of Ms. Brunell, Masoli and April on the desk, one of them standing in front of the Grand Canyon, and another picture of them on a cruise ship. Her suitcase is open on the floor next to her bed and through the blood and glass I can see now why it was so heavy – it’s filled with canned food, a handgun, a tent. I drop the sponge to the ground and I scramble down the ladder to go tell Masoli that his ex-wife is here.
Before I can get over to Masoli, I hear him start up his lawn mower. And then I hear a loud crunch, one of the rocks I’ve tossed into his yard hitting his lawn mower blade. There’s a puff of blue smoke and the mower grinds to a halt. Masoli flips the mower over, sees a huge gouge in a blade and a rock that matches rock from my rock wall. He looks up and he sees me running at him — drunk, out of breath, raccoon blood smeared down the front of my shirt. April has stopped skipping rope; she is standing there in the driveway waiting to see what’s going to happen next.
“Get off my property,” Masoli tells me. He’s already balled his hands into fists.
“Hold on,” I tell him.
I’ve got my palms up to show I mean no harm, but I take a couple of steps closer to Masoli and when I do he rears back and hits me with a huge uppercut. I feel my teeth bite into my tongue and the bones in my jaw slide upward. I broke my jaw when I was young and I know immediately it’s happened again. I scream as I fall to the ground, but my mouth doesn’t open like it should. What comes out is some strange sort of yelp.
“Your wife,” I try to say as Masoli drags me by my legs across his yard and drops me in mine, but it comes out as a growl.
“What got into you?” the boy asks as he drives me to the hospital. He’s not even close to getting his driver’s permit, but he’s already been driving around town for a year or so. I don’t have to give him directions to the hospital, he knows the way.
I want to tell him, to explain how my intentions were pure, but it would be useless. Sometimes I wonder if he looks at me and thinks “What the hell is wrong with you?” or “I won’t make the same mistakes.”
The doctors wire up my jaw. They give me a pad of paper and a pen to communicate. When we get home I take a couple of the pain pills and pour a lowball full of Beam and drink it through a straw. I pass out on the couch in front of the television. I go upstairs to bed. It’s around midnight — it’s windy, getting ready to storm. The dogwood out back is heaving back and forth, its branches scratching against the house.
Ms. Brunell’s light is on when I walk upstairs. I take out my pen and I write the words “Good luck” on a piece of paper and slip it under her door. After that I walk into the boy’s room and stand over his bed and watch him breathe. I used to do this when he was young, right after Sandy died. I used to sit in the rocking chair next to his crib, sit there and make sure the next breath came. I take out another piece of paper and write “Steak and Eggs For Breakfast!” and I leave it on the boy’s bed stand. I go out in the hall and stand in front of the window and watch the rain grow harder and watch the wind stripping the leaves from the trees. I need to go down to the basement and spread out bath towels where the foundation leaks, I need to set up a bucket in the upstairs bathroom to gather the water that’ll drip from the ceiling, but I do not move from that window for a long time.
John Jodzio is a winner of the Loft-McKnight Fellowship. His stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, One Story, Barrelhouse, and numerous other places in print and online. He’s the author of the short story collections, “If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home” (Replacement Press) and the recently released “Get In If You Want To Live” (Paper Darts Press). He lives in Minneapolis. Find out more at www.johnjodzio.net.