Awesome Nuts & Chews

“Trish had come back from New York to Wellsboro, devastated by her failed marriage, and there was Kevin, smiling in a doorway. He called her his ex-actress, Trish the Dish.”

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Trish pursed her lips and blew a long, thin plume of cigarette smoke out her bathroom window. She didn’t mind having to hide the smoking. In fact, she was pleased her children had been so brainwashed by the nuns. Cigarettes, booze, blow — it was all the same to them.

Outside the day was bright and silent, the rural street blanketed with snow. Carly, the baby, was asleep in her crib. John Michael, age 11, and the twins, 8, were out selling holiday candy for their school. She disliked these fundraisers even more than the bake sales and wreath sales. There was something indecent about children selling door-to-door. But her opinion carried no weight. At St. Michaels, the candy sale was a fact of life. Treats & Treasures, Season’s Delights, Holiday Cheer; cheap candy, fancy boxes, the same as she’d once sold.

Mayhem erupted all at once, Carly shrieking to get her out of her crib, the three boys yelling and pounding on the back door. Trish tightened the drawstring of her sweatpants, threw the half smoked cigarette in the toilet and flushed.

She scooped her 2½-year-old daughter up from her crib. Five years after she’d thought she was through having babies, then along came Carly. The thought of having another child horrified her. But Kevin dreamt it would be a girl and told her “God has his ways.”

She changed Carly’s diaper, trotted downstairs with Carly planted on her hip, and opened the door. The boys exploded into the kitchen. Under their woolen caps, they all had the same small diamond-shaped face as Trish, the same dark eyes shot with streaks of green. Carly was fairer, blonder, fleshier, like her father.

“Don’t you dare come any further with those wet snow boots,” said Trish, pining for the next cigarette.

 

At five-thirty, her husband, Kevin, manager and part owner of the Friendly’s in town, strolled in. When Mork & Mindy ended everyone headed for the dining room table: Kevin at the head, Carly and Sean on one side, John Michael and Lucas on the other. Trish served meatloaf and potatoes swimming in thick brown gravy. The children had plastic cups of milk. Kevin had Mountain Dew; Trish, her bottle of Perrier.

“I don’t want meatloaf. It looks like dog food,” said Lucas.

“It’s delicious,” said Kevin, raising his fork to his mouth. “Your mother is a wonderful cook.” When Trish got up to get the ketchup and white bread, he patted her on the rear end. She turned, ready to scowl, but his round baby-soft face and playful eyes made it impossible for her to be annoyed. The meal progressed with finger pointing and name-calling while Trish doled out the warnings.

“You know my cousin Eddie, the one who lived in Essex?” said Kevin. Kevin had hundreds of cousins. “The one with the earring. He called me. He lives in New York now, got a job at MTV. They’re having some sort of blowout Christmas party and he wants us there. To give him moral support, I guess. Anyway, I said okay.”

“You hate New York, Kevin,” said Trish, unable to ignore a stirring in her blood, a rich soft wanting of her past.

“I figured you’d be thrilled. Kevin smirked. “Hey, wouldn’t it be a hoot if we ran into Ethan?”

“That’s ridiculous, Kevin. There are ten million people in New York.”

“He’s some kind of famous sound engineer, isn’t he?”

She hoped her face wasn’t as red as it felt. Kevin got a kick out of teasing her about her first marriage. The little he knew about the time she’d spent in New York with Ethan titillated him. She suspected he was secretly proud of having a wife with such a thorny past.

“Who’s Ethan?” said Sean.

“Never mind. You have two peas left,” snapped Trish.

“Will you buy some candy from me?” said John Michael, breaking the silence.

“What are you selling?” asked Kevin.

John Michael whipped the brochures out from under his seat.

“And me,” shouted Carly, tipping over her cup of milk onto Lucas.

“Whoa!” shouted Lucas. Kevin sprang up for a dish towel and winked at Trish.

She scanned the brochure absentmindedly. How ironic, that the love pats and winks that first attract you to someone, inevitably become the gestures you dislike the most, thought Trish.

“I’ll take the Awesome Nuts & Chews,” she said with a weary smile.

 

They’d been married for 12 years. Trish had come back from New York to Wellsboro, devastated by her failed marriage, and there was Kevin, smiling in a doorway. He called her his ex-actress, Trish the Dish. They’d dated in high school. Even then, he didn’t make the earth move, but he was comfortable and dependable. A year after her return, she was married in the blue steeple church where she’d once taken communion. Within five years they had three boys. They moved into a sage green shingled colonial on a windy country road, two miles from her parents, three from his. She drove the station wagon; he, a tomato-red Mazda. Eventually the memories of her days in New York and the late nights got folded away like heavy blankets in spring. She’d packed away Ethan and the divorce until everything from her former life was safely out of sight.

Smoking in the bathroom, Trish mentally flicked through her closet for an outfit. She imagined the floor-to-ceiling windows, tea-lights and top shelf liquor. As the week ground on, the anticipation grew. On the night of the party she shaved her under arms and legs even though Kevin never touched them when they made love. (Five minutes kissing on the mouth, five minutes per breast, and five minutes of rubbing between her legs; he was always on top.) It wasn’t fear but worry that made her keep her resentment of Kevin’s lumpy lovemaking to herself. There were too many more important things at stake. His dignity, her home, their family. She tried on a paisley mini-dress, then a pantsuit with padded shoulders, before settling on a black cocktail dress she’d worn to several cousins’ weddings and her diamond studded cross.

 

The party was in a loft on Prince Street. Kevin and Trish stood at the open door staring into the darkness. Paper lanterns were strung across the rough wooden beams. Pat Benatar’s voice whined overhead, the sound seeming to emanate directly from the pipes on the exposed ceiling. Yep, thought Trish, Love is a Battlefield.

“Is it safe to go in?’ asked Kevin.

Trish pulled him through the heavy metal door towards two catty-cornered couches piled with coats. Kevin kept his corduroy barn jacket on. Despite the draft rushing in through the casement windows, she laid her scarf and coat onto the heap of clothes. It was when she straightened up that she recognized Ethan sitting on an armchair underneath the row of windows. Her head snapped back towards Kevin. She wanted to look but didn’t dare turn back. She gripped his hand and steered him through the clusters of people towards the back of the room, her heart thudding hard and fast.

“Jeez, it stinks in here,” said Kevin. “Something is killing my eyeballs.” Trish inhaled the pungent Vics Vaporub odor. She led Kevin past a row of chafing dishes on the red and green linen-draped tables to the bar in the corner of the room and asked for a tequila and coke for herself and a Budweiser for Kevin.

“I wonder what that smell was.” said Kevin.

“Poppers,” said Trish, sipping her drink. Kevin’s forehead wrinkled. “Amyl nitrate.”

“Oh,” he said.

Kevin had no idea what she knew or where she’d been before they married. He knew nothing about rooftop parties, the ecstasy, the blow. He thought she left Ethan because of the abortion. Kevin didn’t know Ethan became a different person with each person he met. When Trish became pregnant, four years into their marriage, so much of her love had already been tainted by the booze and dope and their long-standing argument about having a baby. She’d fantasized sticking a pinhole in her diaphragm. Then it happened — the diaphragm failed all by itself. She begged him to keep the baby. He said he would leave her if she didn’t get rid of it. I can’t give you the white picket fence you want, he said. It was when he insisted on the abortion, she realized he was incapable of being an adult.

Trish met Ethan right after she graduated Rosehill College for Women. She’d come to New York with the dream of becoming an actress. The first time she’d spent the night they made love again in the morning and he brought her breakfast in bed, fancy coffee, fresh squeezed juice and a cheesy spinach omelet. She literally skipped across Central Park to get to an audition. She’d never experienced that kind of intensity with anyone, whether they were making love or screaming at each other on the top of their lungs, their passion was absolute.

But she hadn’t known then, that someone who drinks every day and calls it his relaxation, is an alcoholic. One or two was never enough, whether it was Absolut or Tuinols or lines of coke. When Ethan drank, he became another person, loud and self-pitying. He drank the morning he came home from the Lionel Ritchie tour and discovered Trish lying on the couch with warm blood oozing onto the hospital pad between her legs. He hadn’t thought she’d take care of it so quickly. He cried as he drank, saying over and over that he wasn’t good enough for her, banging his head against the wall. It sickened her to watch. She closed her eyes, the cramps bending her in half, reminding her how much she’d wanted that baby. That morning, she let him drink until he blacked out.

 

“Are you all right?” Kevin said over the blare of Prince’s Little Red Corvette.

“Of course, I’m just checking things out. Another tequila and coke,” she said to the bartender.

“Honey, don’t you think you should slow down?” said Kevin.

“Another, please,” she said, winking at Kevin. “Come on, let’s find Eddie.”

They moved diagonally through the crowd towards the other end of the loft. Trish lit a cigarette. Kevin frowned. A waitress wearing a miniskirt and an MTV Santa cap held out a tray of bacon-wrapped shrimp. Kevin stabbed three with one toothpick. They threaded past a cluster of people getting high, someone held out a joint to Kevin.

“No, thank you,” he said, guiding Trish forward by the waist. “Are all New York parties like this?”

The tequila was starting to mellow her. “Only the good ones,” she said.

Near a side wall, Eddie was holding court. He slapped Kevin on the back and pumped his hand. Trish got an enormous bear hug and a kiss on the lips that lasted just a little too long, reminding her what it was she didn’t like about him. He asked about their kids, the mortgage, the Mazda. Kevin seemed visibly relaxed to be with someone he knew. Trish tossed back her drink and excused herself, Eddie pointing the way to the bathroom.

Out of their view, she lit another cigarette and headed back towards the bar. She was feeling good, but hardly good enough. Tonight she wanted to be a younger version of herself, the hot party girl she hoped she’d been years before when she had married Ethan. And she wanted to glow, for Ethan to know how content she was now.

It wasn’t long before she spotted him again, his back to her, at the opposite end of the food table. Though he no longer had a ponytail, she knew it was him by his short, compact build. His hair was clipped in a crew cut and he wore a tight fitting white T-shirt. A few years ago, she’d found out from a friend she still kept in touch with in New York that he’d given up the drugs and stopped drinking altogether. She also knew from his elderly mother in Albany, whom she still spoke to, that he’d become a health nut. Why not back then, when it would have mattered, she thought.

Trish stared at his back and willed him to turn around, to look at her, still eye-catching, still fun-loving, a mother of four children. A woman glided up to him and slipped her arm around his waist. She was petite and dark haired, like Trish, wearing a sleeveless red dress and thick gold bangles. Trish felt like she’d been hit in the head with a metal swing.

She walked into the bathroom holding her third, or was it her fourth drink? The room reeked of hairspray and smoke. Trish gazed at the women on either side of her, their faces reflected next to her in the mirror, heads tilted up as they painted their eyes. Three other women huddled together by the last sink near the huge window, getting high. Marijuana smoke snaked around her, rising above the stall doors. A woman with a masculine build, pancake makeup and fiery orange hair, turned and handed her a joint. She accepted gratefully, inhaled and closed her eyes. It was potent, smoothing out the heavy alcoholic high.

The first time she’d ever smoked weed was on a date with Kevin. They were both seventeen, parked in his Camaro in a deserted Dairy Queen lot. She remembered the way he carefully removed the tiny forbidden reefer from the baggie and presented it to her in the palm of his hand as if it were a rare, precious jewel. Everything became more. Their tongues in each other’s mouth hotter, the speckled stars brighter, the smell of the summer heat richer. She let him touch her breasts, and they rubbed each other over their clothes, all the while wondering whether she’d fallen in love.

“You all right, honey?” said the woman with the burlesque makeup plucking another joint from her cigarette case.

“I’m good, thank you. Do you think I could possibly buy another one of those from you?” she asked.

She ducked into a stall. The blunt felt natural in her hand. She smoked quickly, leaning against the stall door. An image of the three boys as toddlers crammed together in the bathroom with her flashed through her mind. By now, they would be on their third or fourth Goonies video. Kevin’s sister would be squirting whipped cream on their hot chocolates.

She wandered back into the loft. The air clung to her body. Her arms felt damp, her lips chapped, despite the Barbie pink lipstick. She needed a drink to dull the heightened sense of herself. “Hello again,” said the bartender. The tequila and coke disappeared in two gulps, transforming her into a carefree spirit. She turned and swayed, remembering this same light, dreamy feeling with Ethan, lying in the crook of his shoulder, sipping Dom Perignon, snorting grams at twilight on their rooftop, evenings at the Beacon, Village Vanguard, Arlene’s Grocery, Bowery Ballroom. He got comped for every show in town. She remembered his generosity, the instant parties with dozens of friends radiating around his inexhaustible stash. Making love on satin sheets in executive suites at the Fountainbleau, the Drake, the Wilshire Grand. Ethan used to say he knew when she was about to come because her tongue got cold and her fists tightened against his ribcage. She would never fit into someone that way again, never again come with someone’s face between her legs, never love anyone that much or be hurt that badly.

Now, where is my Kevin, she thought, peering into the oily faces of punk artists, roaming into another room where beams of colored light spun across the floor and a handful of people were dancing.

“Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you,” said Kevin, clutching the sleeve of her shrug. “I waited at the door of the ladies room forever.”

“I must have missed you,” she said, smiling at the crazy patterns on the dance floor. The lights made her dizzy, but she liked them.

“What’s the matter with you? You look funny.”

“I’m drunk.”

Eddie bounded his way towards them.

“Oh, there you two are,” he yelled. “Kev, dude, I want you to meet my buddies. This is Roger, the fastest drummer in New York. And this is Ethan, the most awesome soundman in the business. He did the show for Arcade Fire and Billy Joel at the Garden. Kevin and Trish came down from the boonies for our little holiday bash.”

Trish’s face bloomed red. “How the hell are you, Ethan?”

Ethan nodded with a kind of detached cool.

“You know each other?” said Eddie.

“Oh Eth and I go way back. Kevin, this is Ethan, the man you’ve been dying to meet. Ethan. Kevin. Kevin. Ethan.” The girl in the red dress strolled up to Ethan holding two bottles of Tab. “And this must be Suzie, or is it Sherry. Or is it Shirley bringing you a Shirley Temple,” said Trish stiffling a giggle. She snatched the beer bottle out of Kevin’s hand and threw her head back. The beer dribbled down her neck. “Whoops. No point crying over spilled beer, huh Eth?”

“Honey, I think it’s time to go home. It was a great party.” Kevin gripped Trish by the elbow.

“I want to dance,” shouted Trish, twisting away, out onto the dance floor. “Come on Kev, it’s a slow one, just the way you like it.” Be a man, she thought. I want to self-destruct.

Grudgingly he took hold of her. She gave him a wet sloppy kiss. He pulled his face away. Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you she sang along with the music. But then she had to stop. Her head slumped onto Kevin’s shoulder. Ethan stood like a state trooper watching her. She knew he was watching. She knew she was wrecked. The room spun around Ethan, the colored lights shooting out in all directions, exploding against him and the girl in the red dress. Aren’t I still pretty? Still amazing? she wanted to ask Ethan. The last thing she remembered was throwing up on the door of the Mazda.

 

Trish awoke in the family room feeling crumbs under the cushion where she’d buried her toes. It was bitter cold and pitch black. Her ears rang, her throat was raw, her head hot and prickly. Gradually familiar shapes emerged from the dawn shadows. Socks. Jeans. Chutes and Ladders. Double Trouble. An empty bowl. She let out a sigh. But the room started turning so she closed her eyes and hugged her purse, which was wet from her saliva.

Carly burst into the room demanding breakfast. Trish staggered into the kitchen.

Life, Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Total, Special K. “Which one?” she mumbled with one eye squinting open. “That one,” said Carly pointing to the Fruit Loops on another counter. Somehow she opened the refrigerator. The gallon of milk shook in Trish’s hand, gushing into and over the bowl as she poured it.

“Mommy you spilled.”

“Shsh. It’s okay, Boo. You can help me clean it later. Go watch Scooby Doo.”

Fighting to keep her eyes open, Trish stumbled out of the kitchen towards the stairs. On the fourth step up her legs gave way and she crawled the rest of the way up. She fell onto the bed where she slept on and off until late afternoon.

When she awoke, she felt shrouded in guilt and, despite the hangover, turned into a cleaning machine, tearing through every room in the house, dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, sponging. She did three loads of laundry, cooked a tuna casserole, baked a loaf of banana bread, and later that night after the kids were in bed, sat on the white rocker in Carly’s room and rocked.

A week later, the candy arrived: three huge cartons of it. Kevin had sold at Friendly’s, Trish to relatives, both hers and his. Everyone gathered together in the family room to sort and label the candy. The toys and games had been neatly stacked on the shelves of the white, laminated wall unit. Not only had Trish dusted underneath the TV and VCR but she’d climbed on a chair to wipe off Kevin’s model cars and the boys’ soccer trophies. Through the sliding glass doors, it was snowing; snow zooming sideways in great sheets, the trees at the edge of the property invisible in the white wind.

“Where are they? Where are the order forms you dumb-butts?” said Sean, rifling through one of the small drawers in the wall unit.

Trish glared at him from the gingham couch where she’d been playing thumbsies with Lucas. “Dumbutts, dumbutts, buttmuts,” mimicked Carly, who was perched on her father’s lap in the chair at the desk.

“Get out of the way. Let me look,” said John Michael.

“Hey, I was sitting there,” Sean said, plopping himself directly on top of Lucas.

“No you weren’t. You were looking.”

“Move over.”

“They’ve got to be there,” said Kevin calmly. “They’ve got to be here somewhere.”

“There’s plenty of room for both of you,” said Trish, rising.

“This is how you were sitting with your legs all spread apart. You’re taking up the whole couch.”

“I was here first.”

“Shut up. I can’t find the forms,” said John Michael.

“I saw papers in the wagon,” said Carly. The twins sprang up and dumped over the wagon full of Barbies and stuffed animals.

“Well they’ve got to be somewhere,” said Kevin again. “How will we know who bought what?”

“Half the people haven’t paid yet,” said Trish. She thought about her cleaning rampage, but she would never have thrown out the order forms. Or would she? “They’ve got to be somewhere!” She went over to John Michael and nudged him aside to search the drawers herself.

“Let’s look upstairs,” said Sean. He popped up, trotted out of the room, but before he reached the doorway, Lucas grabbed his sleeve, yanked him back and took off.

“I find them,” yelled Carly.

Trish felt like strangling Lucas.

“Look, if it comes down to it and we can’t find them, we can always put up a sign in St. Michael’s asking people to come and claim their candy,” said Kevin.

“What if they don’t remember what they bought?” said John Michael.

“What if someone claims they paid and didn’t?” said Trish.

“In Wellsboro?” said Kevin.

He’s so naïve, thought Trish. “Do you have any idea how much money we’ll lose if we don’t find them?”

“I’m making a sign,” he insisted.

“No you aren’t. You are not going to embarrass this family in front of the whole town. We’ll look like idiots,” said Trish. John Michael started yanking records from a shelf. Kevin swiveled around to face Trish. His usually happy eyes were hurt-looking, as if the blue had run out of them.

“Why’d you do it? Why’d you have to ruin everything?”

Trish froze.

“What are you two talking about?” said John Michael.

“I already told you, I wanted to have a good time. That’s all.” She knelt down by the cartons and began removing candy boxes, stacking them in piles.

“A good time? You were shitfaced, Patricia.”

“Make a sign, Dad. You have to do it,” whined John Michael.

“He is not making a sign.”

“Where are those freaking forms,” cried John Michael flinging a record at the pile of boxes.

“Pick that up,” growled Trish.

“It’s okay for you and Daddy to yell and swear and wreck everything. But not me. Right? Right?” he shouted.

“That’s enough. Go to your room.” John Michael stared defiantly at her. “Now,” she shouted.

Trish turned to Kevin. “I can’t explain it,” she said.

“You disappeared and got stinking drunk and God knows what else, and you can’t explain it!”

Carly lay down in the middle of the doorway with her hands clapped over her ears, yelling. “Stop, stop, stop.”

“Not in front of Carly, okay?” said Trish.

“Of course not, honey. Never in front of the children,” said Kevin and stalked out.

 

They made the children go out in the snow, at least to the people they remembered selling to. Ten boxes went to neighbors and a dozen more went to family members. One night Lucas busted Sean’s lunchbox claiming the forms could have gotten stuck in it. Trish flew into a rage. “He’s your brother and you torture him,” she cried, slapping him hard on the bottom. She rarely hit her children, a pat on the rear every now and then. Having lost control, she was beside herself with shame and remorse. Forty-six boxes of unclaimed candy sat in four neat piles by the sliding glass doors in the family room.

 

Late that night Carly screamed out. Trish bolted upright. “I’ll go,” she said, throwing on a flannel shirt and racing into Carly’s room. Kevin patted her shoulder tenderly and rolled over.

The shrieking and thrashing didn’t stop, not after Trish bent over the crib to rub her daughter’s back, not after she turned on the overhead light and picked her up and paced the room, gently pressing her damp head against her shoulder, murmuring, “It’s okay Boo, it’s okay,” thinking don’t let it be a night terror like the ones Sean used to have.

Trying to calm her, Trish wandered from room to room on the first floor, balancing Carly on her hip, pointing and peering out each window, soothing her child, wiping her nose and mentioning several times that children around the world were asleep in their beds. Then, without warning, Carly dropped off to sleep. Too exhausted to climb the stairs, holding a limp toddler, she collapsed on the couch in the family room and fell asleep with warm little Carly lying on her chest.

When Trish awoke, the room was bathed in purple-pink light. The TV was on low. Carly sat on a candy box sucking her thumb, hypnotized by the TV.

“I want candy, Mommy.”

“So do I, Boo,” said Trish leaning over to grab a box. She tore off the cellophane and plucked out a peanut butter cup for herself and her daughter. Then another and another and another. Outside, the deck and backyard were covered in snow as fine as baby powder. Simple and white, all the edges gone from the world.

Featured image:  Angel McNall Photography / Shutterstock

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