Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
4817 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010


Sandra Rouse

Across the parking lot, Monday afternoon, she watched him. Judging by his police uniform he was on duty. A limp dog’s tail hung below the wrapped bundle that he held against his broad chest. She knew the solid comfort he could offer. In his steady walk toward the door of the clinic, which she held open, it was hard to see the guy who’d ditched her.

“He was dragging himself across East Main Road. Hit by a car.” When Ray spoke, his eyes did not meet hers.

“I think you missed your calling,” Stacy said, coming around to the front of the check-in desk of Johnson Veterinary Clinic. She tried to dampen the enthusiasm in her voice. After all, he was here just doing his job.

Once when she and Ray were on a Sunday drive, he had pulled his car to the side of the road and got out without explanation. He detoured oncoming traffic while a turtle sat with its neck pulled into its shell. Finally, the turtle took Ray’s offer and hobbled across the road. They watched it disappear into the underbrush of the woods. Later, with a captive audience sitting around a bar, they had fun mining the story for Ray’s expertise in traffic control.

The mutt, part-terrier by the shape of his head, was in shock and one of its back legs was bloody. Her own dog, Major, was a throwaway, a greyhound who no longer ran at lightning speed for the racetrack in Lincoln. In a brief pause, like a prayer, they focused on the motionless dog Ray held without effort. She lost track of the number of days since he’d told her he’d changed his mind after living together fourteen months, and that he was returning to his wife and kids who meant more to him than he’d realized. She’d felt rotten trying to compete with that. He moved closer and handed over the dog. The callous of his hands rubbed against the smooth part of her wrists leaving a raw, tight feeling at the base of her throat. A rush of air from his nostrils sounded like relief but, still, he did not look at her. To avoid embarrassing him, she did not stare.


Late that night, the phone rang. Through the blur of her dream vision, her mind swam to the surface. She sensed it was after midnight. Stacy unclenched her teeth; her jaw was stiff. The only night owl who’d be calling was her sister. For that reason Bette was a natural at waitressing; not for the servitude and measly tips, but for the late mornings and the after-hours social life. She lived across the bay in Jamestown.

“I hope I didn’t wake you, Stace,” Bette said.

“Well, you did,” Stacy replied good-naturedly. “What’s up? Aren’t you working?”

She wanted to come over for lunch. Stacy would never refuse a visit from her sister, or a phone call that dragged her out of her dreams. It was mid-January. Arctic air from Canada was settling in for a spell. She pulled the goose down quilt tight around her neck to cut the draft in her bedroom.

The Peckham sisters were very close but looked nothing alike. Stacy was the younger by twelve months but because she was taller, she was always mistaken for the older. At first, they shared everything: friends, love of animals, clothes, even boyfriends through their junior year in high school. Until one afternoon after school when their mother met them with her suitcase parked by the door of the kitchen. She’d told the girls that they could manage without her. Nothing was clear to them, even the stiff hug she’d given them before walking out the door. When their father came home, he spoke without emotion and said it had been expected. He hired a private detective to find her to seal a divorce on grounds of amiable incompatibility. Six months later he remarried.

Unlike Bette, Stacy had missed her mother terribly, crying into her pillow at night. Soon after she’d found an envelope addressed to her father in her mother’s handwriting. She wrote back using the return address, but the letter bounced, stamped “no forwarding address.” Bette rarely spoke about their mother. She found comfort in the rough crowd that year, dazzled by their provocative pairings and the hardened veneers on their faces, testimony to their fearlessness in the face of high risk intoxications and survival of multiple break-ups.

Whenever Bette broke up with a boy, she refused to cry. Her cheeks would flush and her eyes widen as if to hold all the pain. Stacy told her it was better to cry, but all she could do was soothe her sister with a cold washcloth pressed against her swollen face. Eventually, in spite of sharing their bedroom and disdain for their stepmother, they grew apart and no longer dated the same guys. Before graduation, Stacy found her dream job at the vet clinic. Eight years later she’d made herself indispensable, securing a paycheck and a vocation. Bette had tried cosmetology school but never finished. She took up waitressing, and not long after she moved south with an ex-sailor.


Alone in bed, after hanging up with her sister, Stacy sunk into her pillow exhausted but oddly awake. When she closed her eyes, she welcomed the image that emerged on the back of her eyelids. It was a silhouette of Ray in the car just before he pulled out of the clinic parking lot yesterday, his broad shoulders and the way he tipped his head slightly to the left. She imagined the relief he must have felt in getting rid of the dog. And the relief, too, he must have felt in leaving her without a scene. Her mind was stirring with thoughts of Ray and preventing sleep. She didn’t want to work in the morning with Bette stopping by. That’s when she decided to call in sick, a first. She reasoned it was after the holidays when the clinic was slow and the kennel had emptied out, except for the one dog recuperating from surgery. Dr. J could manage without her for one day. She just didn’t feel like going in.


Around noon, Major was pointing his pencil-thin nose in the air tracking the scent wafting from the oven when the harsh sound of a car engine distracted him. Cutting fresh loaves of bread from their pans, Stacy turned from the counter. In the open doorway holding a box up high out of Major’s reach stood Bette. Her straight black hair was brilliant against the fake white fur of her hooded parka. In his enthusiasm Major had blocked her at the open door.

Stacy called to him while Bette wrestled with the aluminum door of the trailer. With an extra push, she forced the latch to close securely. “God, Stacy, when are you going to get a real house?”

“This is a house,” Stacy replied. She hesitated to remind her sister how she had often slept in the new twin bed, which replaced the old bunk bed they had once shared. And, she didn’t want to give Bette the satisfaction of knowing that she had enough money toward buying a ‘real’ house. She’d make that decision when she was ready. Some things about her life were better kept unannounced.

“This is for you.” Bette extended her arms holding a poorly taped cardboard box. “I hope it survived the drive.” She giggled in response to Major’s long tail that whipped a rhythm against her thin legs covered in black leggings.

“It looks yummy,” Stacy said after looking inside. “I’ll put it in the refrigerator.” She was well practiced at keeping disappointment from her sister.

Bette’s delicate skin glowed on winter days. She had a wide smile as unselfconscious as a child’s and Stacy hoped she wouldn’t be staying overnight. After seeing Ray yesterday, she realized how sensitive she still was about the breakup. Bette’s presence seemed to recall the intense feeling of what she’d lost. Jealousy set in as she realized how her sister would handle the situation, releasing a dramatic cry of defeat and moving on to her next lover. The excitement projected into the room by Bette’s smile was a clue that she wasn’t spending the holidays alone.

The sisters propped themselves on matching recliners. The pair of ottomans popped out simultaneously with a thud and prompted them to reminisce about silly things over fresh bread and Scotch.

“Remember the time you walked across the kitchen floor after you cried and threw a glass because Bobby Webster broke up with you?” Stacy asked.

“I never figured that out; how I didn’t get cut,” Bette said, “but you cut the palm of your hand cleaning up.”

“Dad said you were naturally thick-skinned.”

“I never appreciated that,” Bette said. “And, I didn’t appreciate it when he gave you all of this.” Her arm swung out in an arc as if to scan the room; she managed to keep the drink inside her glass.

“Come on, Bette, you were living in New Orleans. He figured you couldn’t use it and I was here anyway.”

“And then you ended shacking up with Ray,” Bette said.

“What do you mean? You were already doing that with the guy you left with.”

“Maybe I was, but the guy wasn’t married,” Bette said. “I’d learned that lesson long before you. That’s why I’m Bette-r.” She gave out a spiteful laugh.

“Thanks for the sisterly advice,” Stacy said. There was no way Bette could understand. Married or not, kids or not, she and Ray knew how to connect with each other. On summer nights, they’d walk along the shore wrapped in the light of liquid gold spreading across the rippled surface of the bay and watched it turn to shimmering gray. Sparring with her sister was pointless. Bette wouldn’t understand, and he wasn’t coming back. Two days ago he had a chance to give her the signal, but he didn’t.

“Hey, I forgot about your job. You still have one, right?” Bette smiled, her attempt at humor seemed an afterthought.

“Of course. I took the day off to see you,” Stacy said. Typically on such visits, Bette came around for money to cover a temporary shortfall in her bank account.

Her sister’s smile stretched fine lines from the corner of her eyes to just below the temples. Stacy sighed at the creases recalling the times she had soothed Bette with a cold compress, and wondering if her sister realized how her young adult years were accelerating their forward pitch toward middle age. She recognized her own entrapment between youth and age, more often than not without love. With drink in hand, she concentrated on the imperfect edge of the glass. An irregularity at the rim, its smooth swelling, surprised her and she kept going over it with the tip of her tongue.

“What’s with the plastic?” Bette asked nodding toward the window.

“It was Ray’s idea, to keep out the cold.” Stacy said. “But it came loose. I just haven’t gotten around to re-taping it.”

“Speaking of whom, have you seen him since?” Whenever they got together, Bette always made a point of catching up on Stacy’s love life, or lack of it.

“Two days ago. He brought in a dog hit by a car. Dr. J did the surgery.” Stacy said.

“On Ray, or the dog?” Bette’s self-conscious laughter reached a high pitch. “Just kidding.”

“I don’t want to talk about Ray, including any jokes.”

“Stacy, you need to lighten up. You spend too much time alone. By the way, it’s colder than a witch’s tit in here.” She pointed to the opaque sheet that billowed with the movement of escaping wind. “All you need is a thumb tack.”

“Okay,” Stacy said. “I’ll look for the tape.” She was grateful for an excuse to leave the room anyway. The air wasn’t so much cold as it was thick. It was bound to happen at some point. Their allotted time together usually ended abruptly. Sisterhood was a love-hate ride. She could go along with the overall direction but the inevitable potholes eventually wore on her nerves and it took courage and skill to wait for time to repair the damage. Right now, the bathroom offered some time.

She discovered his comb. Behind the duct tape at the back of the drawer where he once kept his things, she found his black vinyl comb. She held it to her nose. The oily scent of his scalp brought back a familiar pleasure. Her irritation with Bette’s arrival nearly vanished. Had he left this because he secretly wanted to come back? Why did he refuse to look at her yesterday? Was he holding back something he wanted to say? When she drew the fine comb through her thick, wavy hair it snagged and the tug felt good. She was not in the mood to play hostess to her sister. Even knowing she would feel relief after Bette left, wasn’t enough solace. She plunged Ray’s comb into her brush on the counter.

“How about another drink to warm up?” Stacy asked, returning empty handed to the front room.

Without moving from the chair, Bette’s words returned to the same topic. “There’s dirt blowing around town about Ray.”

“Bette, I’m not interested in dirt.”

“Okay,” she said, “but he filed for divorce.”

In silence, Stacy handed the refill to Bette and sat down with her own. The coldness of the ice cube hit her front teeth and sent a shockwave up through her forehead. But with one large swallow, heat bloomed through her chest. She leaned over the side table and opened a drawer. “By the way, Bette, Merry Christmas.” In her hand was a red envelope sprinkled with gold glitter.

“Oh Stace, I thought we weren’t going to do it this year.”

“You brought me a cake so we’re even. Besides, I don’t have anyone else to spend it on. Cheers,” Stacy said, regretting her words. She waited for her drink to drown out her guilt but instead the liquid seared at the back of her throat as if branding Ray’s name in unspeakable silence. Before she could take back her sarcasm, Bette was bending down over her in the chair offering a make-nice hug. The one thing that Bette had in unlimited supply was hugs.

“Stace, you shouldn’t have done this but I need to talk to you about something.”

Stacy wanted to believe ‘something’ wasn’t about cash. She stared at her glass because it was more pleasurable than listening to what Bette was going to say. Could it last just a moment more?

“I’ve paid my oil bill, but all I have left for the month are the tips I’ll earn. My shift begins tomorrow at lunch and January’s never known as a godsend for restaurants.” Bette stood beside the chair she’d been sitting in and her glance darted around the room, everywhere but at Stacy. Stacy knew she was the only person she could count on. The guys Bette connected with never stayed long. It was painful having expectations for her sister dashed. They both knew without saying that the current guy she was with couldn’t be counted on. Bette had come with a bright smile and that was sufficient.

While Stacy wrote the check, Bette slipped on her jacket and cooed over Major. From the open door, she watched her sister drive away in the beat-up Camaro that she’d inherited from one of her exes. Stacy wanted to believe that this current guy she was seeing wasn’t a loser because Bette needed someone who could keep her on an even keel. And didn’t she want that for herself, too? She breathed easy; they had survived the visit. When she closed the door, Canadian air was trapped inside. She might as well be living in a meat locker but Major fueled some warmth as he rubbed his lanky side against her thigh.


Light falling snow, the next day, cast a grainy texture in the parking lot beyond the clinic window. Even new snow couldn’t erase the imprint of Ray left there three days ago. All morning Stacy looked at her watch and counted the minutes to lunch. A number of clients had rescheduled because of uncertain weather, and only two brought cats for routine checkups. At noon, she drove to Joe Tremblay’s bar. She’d planned it that morning. She owed him her usual Christmas bread. More importantly, she wanted something from him. How much did Bette know about Ray? Joe had served her and Ray together whenever they ended up on that side of town. She hadn’t been there in over two weeks, afraid that she’d run into him. Ironically, Ray showed up on her turf.

At Tremblay’s, cars and trucks were parked nose-in facing the building away from the waterfront. A crushed clamshell mote ran along the foundation. “Look what just blew in before the nor’easter,” Joe said as he wiped the counter that shone with a caramel light.

“You know better than to look a gift horse in the mouth,” she said and pushed the bread across the counter. It was wrapped in cellophane with a big, red bow.

Joe nodded his head, his way of saying thank-you, and drew her beer from the tap. Some loud contractors dressed in camo pants and sweatshirts were drinking and eating at the other end of the bar. In a booth, a young couple sat so close they must have been recycling the air between them.

“Herb Beasley treating you okay?” Joe asked, sliding a coaster toward her before placing the beer down. She raised her eyebrows in response to his question and noticed the pink scalp under his thinning white hair.

“Because he just sold all of Sunny Acres to two New Jersey developers,” he said with the tone of a reporter announcing bad news. “All those trailers will have to hit the road, including yours.”

“Beasley hasn’t said a word to me,” she said. Joe placed the burger and steaming fries in front of her. Inhaling the salt and the fat gave rise to a comforting pleasure. When she reached for the ketchup, she blurted out, “Has Ray been around?” But she nearly choked on his name. The look on Joe’s face told her he knew something, a look as if he’d bitten into a lemon.

“What are you asking about him for?” His sudden change in tone suggested Bette had heard right.

She shrugged, feeling her neck sink between her shoulder blades, like that turtle declining rescue. She felt hurt the way he said ‘him’ with disdain. He slid on his sleeved forearms leaning closer to her across the bar. His eyes were the color of the ocean on a stormy day, hostile and gray.

“You’re barking up the wrong tree, Stacy. He’s acting foolish, in and out of here with a different gal every time.” His look of disdain was enough to charge Ray with a sentence without a trial. Joe claimed that he stayed out of other people’s shit. It was, he often said, his job to keep his customers happy. But Stacy also knew what kept people coming back: to pry from him the intimate details of what he knew about everybody else.

One of the guys at the end of the bar was making noise about service. “Put your energy into real estate,” Joe advised her. “Something with a permanent relationship to the ground. A trailer doesn’t speak stability.” The tail of a white rag from the back pocket of his black pants swung as he turned to serve the others.

She sat back feeling the pleasure of her meal wear off. And then she felt the judgmental look of a guy as he passed behind her on his way to the men’s room. It seemed that some men enjoyed measuring a woman by a crisp visual model they conjured in their head, allowing an easy ‘yes-no’ fit. Did it happen only to stocky girls like her, alone in a bar, declared open targets for cruel scrutiny?

Bette, she knew, would have handled the situation differently. She’d no doubt catch the guy’s eye in the act, flash her smile and laugh in his face as an insult or an invitation, depending on how she wanted things to go. Even at the clinic, people saw Stacy only as the reliable assistant to Dr. Johnson.

But with Ray, it had been different. She loved walking with him at night, cooking for him at her place, or just puttering around enjoying each other. The next morning, she’d be all business at the clinic with a talent for sick animals. With Ray in her life, it didn’t matter if others saw her only for how competent she was.

Easing toward the door, leaving untouched half the fries, she heard Joe’s parting advice: “Sell that tin can! Buy a house before ol’ man Beasley takes off for Florida.”

Confusions about Ray and her trailer were spinning inside her head on a brew of beer, burger and fries. Joe wasn’t much help. Closing the door of her car, it struck her she could be shut out of a place by spring if she didn’t take the initiative to move. Starting the engine, she had a sense of purpose fueled more by a conviction to leave Tremblay’s than where she was headed.

Snowfall had progressed to thick and heavy. The storm that Joe mentioned had arrived. From the look of the line of cars on the hill, it would take a little longer than she’d planned. Her cell rang and it was Dr. J. He told her he had to close up. The schools were letting the kids go early, and he had to pick up his daughter. The anxiety in his voice made her felt guilty about her excursion to Joe’s. She told him she was headed over there right now and for him to leave things to her. She would close up and check on the dog.

The fan in her car was grinding away. Traction was difficult on the slick incline of the road. While the town’s road crew was hitting the main roads on the crest of the island, down here by the shore it would be a while. She couldn’t go faster than the cars ahead of her.

Straining her eyes through the slanting snow between partial wipes on the windshield, she felt claustrophobic. Impatient, she turned off the road and found herself on a familiar side street, Fountain Avenue, and parked in front of a white cottage with yellow trim. It was the house on the water where she and Ray had spent some time last summer.

The owner—it must be him—looked motionless bending over the open trunk of his car to retrieve grocery bags. The normally unobstructed view from the picture window that ran through the back of the house was now blocked on the beach side by a blur of falling snow. She and Ray had rolled around on the warm sand there, and slept partially hidden in the sea grass. She remembered waking in the morning protected by the rise of a sand dune and Ray’s warm body curled behind her. Her first glimpse of morning light was a slip of blue water suspended magically; no sky, no horizon, no headlands. Only the infinite bay and the feelings she had for Ray.

“Excuse me!” she shouted, running hatless from the car. He turned toward her as she stood at the end of his driveway. He was balancing three grocery bags whose edges began to wilt against the slick material of his parka. She raised her voice. “Someone told me you might be thinking about selling your house.”

“That’s right. We’re thinking about it. Come back in April.”

She watched snowflakes land and melt on his brow. He raised one arm to close the trunk. By this time, a woman opened the door to the house.

When she got back inside her car, Stacy peeled matted strands of hair from her forehead. Her cheeks felt warm with excitement. The quietness that comes with new snow sealed her with infinite peace. If Ray knew she had this house, not a trailer on blocks that could be hauled away on the whim of a landlord or a storm, they could make permanent what was right between them.

She edged her car onto the main road still slick without a layer of sand or salt. She could barely see through the veil of snow clouding her vision but she concentrated on the groove of tire tracks and the nervous pull of the steering wheel. Suddenly it struck her that she’d forgotten the dog. Her mind had been in such a whirl.

Her father’s keen sense of weather began to broadcast like filaments of conversation inside her head. When a nor’easter approaches, he’d taught her, it comes without the discernible eye of a hurricane. It’s an amorphous storm that loses energy as it veers off coast and out to sea. But the surprise when it returns to land is the wallop of moisture it brings that bumps against frigid air howling from the north. When those two collide, they leave an unexpected storm in their wake. Life is full of surprises like that. Just when you think you’ve seen the end of something, it returns.

The minute she put her key in the door, he was yelping. She recognized the plea in the dog’s voice as if he understood the danger of being stranded in a snowstorm. As he hobbled on three good legs and wagged his tail furiously, she felt like a hero. She’d bring him home until the roads had cleared. Tomorrow, Sunny Acres would be socked in, waiting for Beasley to plow them out. She gathered some towels and managed, with his cast, to put him in a cardboard kennel. In a bag, she stocked his canned food, his antibiotics, and extra bandage. If she hurried, she could navigate the main road and make it home okay.

From the open door of the kennel, she was startled to see a car in the parking lot. It hadn’t been there before. She turned to lock up. A familiar voice broke clearly through the silence of the snow.


The voice was Bette’s. She ran toward Stacy leaving behind her car headlights that were dim through a curtain of snow while exhaust fumes rose eerily in a funnel shape above its roof. Through the defrosted windshield, Stacy saw a man. The breadth of his shoulders and the way he angled his head slightly to the left rendered no doubt.

“Stacy, we saw your car and pulled in,” Bette said.

Stacy walked faster carrying the kennel and bag. With each step her blood pumped hard inside her chest and throbbed against her temples. She placed the kennel and bag on the passenger seat of her car and walked around to the driver’s side without a word, but Bette intercepted.

“The Jamestown Bridge is closed,” she said. When Stacy tried to slide into the car, Bette’s moist breath with the unmistakable odor of wine assaulted Stacy’s cold nostrils.

“Smells like you missed work today,” Stacy said.

“We’re stuck. We can’t drive off the island,” Bette said.

She looked foolish with her white fur parka unzipped and exposing the bare skin of her neck and cleavage to falling snow. What was her sister thinking? That she could come yesterday to clear the air about Ray and ask for money? To buy what, drinks? Bette may be foolish but Stacy was the fool.

By this time Ray left the car and he stood looming over her sister. Fixing her gaze on Bette, Stacy said, “I don’t have a bed big enough for both of you. Besides, I’m busy taking care of the rescue dog that Ray left behind.” She slammed the door and started the engine. She had no regrets about leaving them. They’d figure out a solution.


On the ride home, she struggled to see beyond the windshield between the wiping of the blades. On the side of the road, cat-tails and their laces of snow were illuminated under the glow of her passing headlights. The turnoff for Sunny Acres Trailer Park was barely visible. Snow had already begun to drift across the entrance. As she slowed down to make the turn and plow through, the dog in the crate began to whine. Beasley, the park owner in the first trailer on the left, was at his amber-lit window peering out as her car crept by. She didn’t bother to wave. She knew he couldn’t see her any better through his cataracts than she could make out the end of the road.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury