“What’s he doing here?” Eleanor said as she threw her cigarette into a glass of water. “He’s not welcome here.” Eleanor clenched her fists and moved in for the kill. Jenna stood directly in front of Eleanor, placing her upright palm on her chest. “What’s gotten into you, Mom?”
“Don’t backtalk me,” Eleanor said. “You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”
“Can’t a girl just—”
“Cut the shit, Jenna.”
“Pregnant”—Eleanor threw her hands in the air—”you’re pregnant.”
“It’s not like you give a damn.”
“And you.” Eleanor pointed. “You got her pregnant; you black son-of-a-bitch.”
“Don’t play the victim,” Ben told Eleanor.
“Guys!” Jenna said.
Eleanor slammed her eyes shut. “Let’s start over.”
Her mom picked up a rag to surf across a spotless counter. The aura of sweet strawberry jam Eleanor had jarred one after the last, lingers throughout the immaculate mansion, and the burning firewood ignited a smothering sense of normality. Eleanor slid a dry rag across a dry counter.
Eleanor cleared her throat and wrapped her arms around her stomach. “What are you doing here, Jenna?”
Jenna’s head dropped. “You ain’t gonna like…”
“Spit it out,” Eleanor said, drying her hands on her apron. “Whatever it is you need to say, just say it.”
Jenna scratched her nose. “It’s about my period.”
Ben drew a sharp sigh, blowing out a deep breath. “What she’s trying to say…”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Eleanor said, stretching out her hand, her palm blocking his face. “Stop with the tears, Jenna.”
“Give her a break,” Ben said.
Eleanor slammed her fist on the counter. “Spit it out, goddamn it. What is it?”
“Mrs. Jane, she’s…”
“I said, shut up, Ben.” Eleanor’s bug-eyes went cold.
Jenna slouched, appearing small.
“Stop twirling that damn phone,” Eleanor said.
“I’m pregnant, mom,” she blurted out. “There, I said it.”
Eleanor slapped her palm against her forehead. “I figured as much.”
“Oh, please, don’t you go looking down on me.”
Eleanor dropped her dead weight head, breathing into her hands to warm her fingers. “Are you gettin’ back at me for something?”
“I feel sick,” Jenna said as her eyes blur she reaches, feeling for something, anything to hold on to.
“I got ya, hun,” Ben said as he bent his knees to a squat, hurling her arm around his neck, guiding her to her seat. “Morning sickness at night, babe?”
“Morning sickness is a cliché. Pregnant women throw up morning and night,” Eleanor said.
“You gonna give me a hand, Eleanor?”
“Sit,” Eleanor said as she pulled a chair out from the table, guiding her to rest her legs.
“Ouch, not so fast, mom,” Jenna’s eyes said louder than her voice.
“You out of shape, Ben?” Eleanor said.
Jenna covered a smile, slamming her eyes shut, hoping he hadn’t noticed her cackling.
“Better get in shape, kid.”
“Gonna have me work on the farm? Is that it?”
“I ain’t… Jim is.”
Ben dropped his head, slouching, shoving his hands in his back pockets. “Me? Work on a farm?”
Eleanor folded her arms around her stomach, shifting her thin frame to her back leg, maintaining unbreakable eye contact with him.
“Ain’t happenin’. Hell no,” Ben said.
“Ben, what the fuck were…”
“Mom, excuse me. No cursing.”
“What the hell were you kids thinking?”
“Don’t pretend that you ever liked me.”
Jenna sunk in her chair, laying her head on the table with her legs crossed.
“And you. I don’t know what the hell Jenna sees in you,” Eleanor said—as she raked her fingers through her hair—as if to search for the answer in his eyes.
“I ain’t sleepin’ with you, now am I?”
Eleanor’s jaw fell open and her wide eyes stopped blinking.
Jenna straightened her back as she slapped both hands on the table and slapped both hands on the table and slapped both hands on the table. “If I weren’t a Christian, I’d say Jesus fucking Christ you two deserve each other.”
Eleanor threw her hands in the air. “Now you’re a victim?”
Jenna cupped her mouth. “I can always have an abortion.”
“Shut up, Jenna,” Eleanor and Ben say in unison.
“Well.” Ben motioned. “You gonna call Jim in to tell him how much of a fuck up I am?”
“You’re a screwup. Always have been,” Eleanor said as she scurried to turn off the steam-gurgling coffee maker.
“From what I hear, you weren’t the best mother.”
“Jenna, is that what you told this idiot?” She asked as she pours a cup of brew. She flings the cupboard, standing on her tiptoes, shifting coffee creams. She pulled out a vodka bottle, twisted the cap, and emptied the last shot in her mug. “Sit down,” she said as she opened the cupboard under the skin to hide the bottle.
“I’m fine standing.”
Eleanor blew the hot steam from her cup.
Jenna raised her voice a pitch. “Don’t be hardheaded, Ben.”
Eleanor dragged a chair from under the table and lowered her body. “This ain’t gonna go over well with your father.”
Jenna pulled out her pregnancy test and placed it on the table. “The test says it all.” She drew a deep breath and exhaled a sigh through her nostrils.
“Ben, sit.” Eleanor pointed. “Now…”
“Just to hear you rip out my throat?” Ben said angrier than anxious. “I’m fine standing.”
Ben’s hunched posture didn’t escape her attention. Lit cherry scented candles crackled on the table. And the smell of the warm fireplace burning fresh wood gave a homely vibe.
“I’m not asking,” Eleanor said.
Jenna turned to Ben. “Just do it.”
Ben threw up his hands. “I’m standing damn it.”
Eleanor’s piercing green eyes told him she wasn’t asking again. “You win,” Ben said as he yanked a chair, turned it around, and plopped on it, holding his hands to his cheeks.
“Jim, get your ass in here,” Eleanor called out.
“Busy. I’m busy—”
“I don’t care whether you’re busy or not.”
“I’m fixin’ to watch the game.”
“I don’t give a fuck what you’re watching.”
“I ain’t never get a chance to…”
“I said, now.”
Ben drummed his fingers on the edge of the table, his head deadweight, choking back spit, and a lump in his throat. “It’s a habit,” Ben said, holding his hands in the air.
“Like screwing my daughter without condoms is a habit? That kind of habit?”
“Mom, enough!” Jenna said, holding her hand over her heart, intertwining her other hand in his hand.
Eleanor drew a deep breath, staring through Ben as she exhaled a—you son of a bitch through her nostrils. She swallowed a lump in her throat. The cherry scented candle burned Jenna’s innocence beneath its wicker.
“I’ve missed every damn game this year.” Jim’s deep voice faded to a silent whisper. “This can’t be what I think it is.”
Jenna panted, whispering words she couldn’t make out as she extended her left arm, pushing the pregnancy test across the table. She dug her right-hand fingernails in Ben’s forearm.
Jim reached into his breast pocket to pull out his glasses. “Are you serious right now?” Jim held the test inches from his face, hoping the red should have been blue, and the red should have been yellow. “No way in damn hell.”
“You”—Jim lunged toward Ben, grabbing his throat with one hand; the other hand clenched to a fist inches from Ben’s face—”I should kill you, you son-of-a-bitch.”
“Back the hell up,” Eleanor said, yanking Jim by his shirt, putting distance between the two.
“Shit. Grow up, dad.”
Ben stumbled to his feet. “We’re in love.”
“What the hell do you know about love?”
“More than you do…”
“This… Whatever you kids got goin’ on here, is over,” Jim said, bearing his yellow teeth.
Jenna threw her head back, pounding both fists on the table, tipping an empty coffee mug over. “The hell it is.”
“You’re not breaking us up, Jim.”
“We’ll gonna see about that, partner.”
“Try it and you’ll lose me,” Jenna said as her flying spit hit Jim’s cheek.
Jim dropped his head, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Is this your way of getting back at me for drinking?”
“Wait? What?”—Jenna clenched her fists, shaking her head—”Dad, this isn’t about you!”
“What is it then? Tell me? Did I not take you fishing enough? What the hell is it?”
“I never fucking wanted to go fishing.”
“Giving up on school, too?” Eleanor asked.
“Night school or something. I don’t know, mom. There are plenty of options.”
Jim lowered his head, smiling. “Got it all figured out, don’t ya?”
“You need help on the farm.” Jen looked at her mom. “Isn’t that right?”
Eleanor placed her glasses on the edge of her nose, flipping page-by-page through the newspaper Jim placed an ad in for a worker. “Got it.” Eleanor tapped on the page.
Jim rested his hands on his hips. “Got any farming experience, kid?”
“I’m a fast learner.”
“No experience, though?”
“I catch on fast.”
“Why does this not surprise me?”
“Dad, stop it,” Jenna said, stomping her foot.
“Well, kid. Get ready to fix engines, feed animals, plow crops, and yes, shovel horse shit.” Jim spit tobacco into a red plastic party cup. “You sure know how to pick ’em, Jen.”
Eleanor placed her hands over her face, hiding a smile.
“At least I’m not a drunk.”
“Watch your big mouth, you son-of-a-bitch.”
Ben sucked a sharp sigh and puffed it out. What the hell did I get myself into?
Jim turned to Jenna, waving his arms. “Think about what you’re doing here.”
“Try all you want, but you’re not changing my mind.”
“So, what’s the plan, big guy?” Jim said as he shook off his torn leather coat, placing it on a closet hanger. “Gonna get on welfare?” Jim’s eyes shift to Eleanor’s lips as she mouthed, enough.
Ben clasped his arms behind his back, tilting his head with his chin raised. “People like me? I lived with white foster parents.”
“Ain’t gettin’ sympathy from—”
“I want no sympathy, and certainly not from you.”
“Not in control anymore, are you, dad?” Jenna snarled and then she smiled.
“Well, I gotta hand it to ya Jenna, these guilt trips…”
“Oh, stop. It’s not about me”—Jenna wrapped her arms around her stomach—”And it’s not about you.”
Jim tightened his lips, poking his tongue against his cheek. “You’re gonna start working.”
“Wait a minute… tonight?” Ben asked.
“That’s right, tonight,” Jim said in a drill sergeant tone.
Ben glanced at his watch. “Kinda late, don’t ya think?”
“Got somewhere to be?” Jim strutted to the window to peek through the blinds at the light where the barn stood beneath.
“You know, I really need to finish my…”
“I’ll answer for you”—Jim smacked his open-hand on the table—”you ain’t got anywhere else to be. Got it?”
“What are you some overlord now?” Jenna asked.
Jim locked eyes with Ben—neither turning nor blinking. “I got hay bales that I need rearranging in that there barn before winter comes.”
“But now?” Ben said.
“Go out there and stack the hay bales along the inside of the barn walls. Not the outside walls…”
“I’m not stupid,” Ben said.
“Coulda fuckin’ fooled me. While you’re out there, think about…”
“This is so damn unnecessary, dad!”
Ben’s knees knocked as he stood to his feet, buttoning his thin hooded sweatshirt to his neck.
Jenna raked her fingers through her hair, strands falling to her face. Ben gripped her shoulder as he shuffled to the door, before pulling the handle, he glanced over his shoulder. Eleanor jerked her head away, massaging the back of her neck. Ben inhaled a flat sigh, letting out an awkward gasp. He placed his hood over his wind-chapped ears. He started to move his lips but pulled them back together. The echo of his footsteps faded as the door shut behind him.
Ben’s bones and nerves shook with tremors, and the deafening silence bounced ideas, some good; some bad, off his immaturity. I can’t be angry with Jim. Fuck, I’d feel the same way. I’d be mad as hell if someone impregnated my daughter; someone, especially, someone—like—well, someone like me. Ben shoved his sweaty hands in his torn pockets. I’m a goddamn loser, and I know it.