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FICTION / Making Ends Meet / Richard Dokey


Billy took the part-time job working the register at Family Dollar Store. That was okaybecause Liz Sproat let Billy use the spare bedroom that was for the kid Liz and Charlie Grayson were supposed to have when Liz told Charlie she was pregnant, but it was a lie, because Liz was lonely and just wanted someone around, so Liz and Charlie rented this place over on East 56thwith two bedrooms, and, when Charlie found out that Liz wasn't having any kid, he lit out of there and didn't look back. 

So Liz said, “Billy, live here with me. Why not? You won't even have to pay rent. It's no fun being alone.” 

Billy said, “That's what the doctor ordered,” and moved in, which made working part time at Family Dollar tolerable, since working there and living in Liz's spare bedroom was enough to make ends meet.

Billy had a lot of ends. There was the end with Terry McKeegan, whom she was married to for four years and who paid everything, because he was a welder, and a damned good one at that. Terry paid for what she needed at Ross Department Store and the occasional eyebrow wax at Abigail's on East 23rdand what they needed from Food-4-Less and going out to dinner sometimes. There was the end when her mother died and nothing was left from her father's pension. Her mother spent every damned nickel of it on trips with her friends to play roulette at State Line or to take bus tours along the coast and stay in motels. Billy had a garage sale, with all the crap in the driveway and strangers picking through it the way they picked through the junk they had in bins at Family Dollar to get rid of it at seventy-five percent off, and Billy not making much more for her effort. Her father could have bought the house for a song, but never got around to it, because he bought fishing boats with inboard engines to troll for striped bass and drink beer with his buddies in the delta, like any self-respecting laborer who had worked his ass off for thirty-two years driving a road sweeper for the county. On Saturday night he took over the kitchen to get drunk and play stud poker with the same buddies. They made so much noise that Billy had to go next door to Nora Stapleton's house just to hear herself think. And thank you, one and all, for the end to beat all ends, for not being able to take those classes at the community college to pick up a skill—any kind of skill—like nursing or accounting or maybe something with computers in wholesale or retail. Now she was part-time at Family Dollar, and barely making ends meet.

Billy thought that living in Liz's spare bedroom was a godsend, just at this particular moment, because, with the pay at Family Dollar and no rent, she might just catch her breath and figure something out. What there was to figure, she had no idea, and where to get help, she had no clue. How can you know where to go, when you don't know where you're going? Billy and Liz sat around the kitchen table talking.

“It's awfully good of you, Liz. I mean, I don't know what to say? I don't know what I'd do. Honestly.”

“What's to say?” Liz said. “The room's there. It's not being used. Anyway, you help with the food and utilities. I get something out of it too. Money-wise, I mean, if that's what you're concerned about, Billy. As far as doing something, how can either of us do anything, if we don't know what we want to do?”

“Well, I don't want to take advantage.”

“What advantage? We're here together, aren't we? We get to talk, don't we? There's the advantage. I can bounce it off you, and you can bounce it off me. Maybe, together, we can figure something out and bounce the hell out of here.” She chuckled. “More coffee?”

Billy pushed her cup across the table.

“Wouldn't it be nice if we could do something together, Liz?”

“Together? What do you mean?”

“Together. You know. You and me. Some little business or something, where we'd work together and be our own boss and not have to kiss anybody's ass. Aren't you tired of somebody always telling you what to do?”

Liz thought about her job at the mini-mart. They wouldn't even let you have a Hershey bar or a diet Pepsi without paying full price.

“What would we do in this business? What the hell do we know to do anything?”

“Well, we're just talking here,” Billy said. “Mrs. Fields has those cookies. Jenny Craig helps those fat people. How about Mildred Hopper, who used to work at Applebees on Pacific Avenue? She does that cosmetic thing now, where she goes around to people's houses and they have parties and people paw through all the crap she sells. She makes a nice living doing that.  She told me so. She was in the store the other day.”

“Yeah, well, she drives all over the county too, doesn't she? She's on the road all the time, isn't she? Maybe that's okay, if the money's right. But I wouldn't do it. No matter what you paid me.”

“Me neither,” Billy said. “I hate driving around. And with the price of gas?”

“Well, what, then? What would two slobs like us do? And where would we get the money to do it anyway? We haven't got five hundred dollars between us in the bank.”

“Well,” Billy said, “I don't know. I just don't know. We've never thought about it before, but it's a thought, isn't it, and we're thinking.”

Liz filled the cups. The afternoon light on the oil cloth was muted by dust. Billy made a line with her finger.

“Hey,” Billy said, “how about a cleaning service? Why not? All we need are mops and brooms and a can of Pledge. We've got all that. Why not? Liz and Billy's Spic and Span. It's got a ring to it.” She laughed.

Liz and Billy's Mops and Brooms.”

“Too blunt. But something like that. How about Liz and Billy's Merry MaidsFree Home Estimates.

“You're nuts,” Liz said.

You Get It Dirty. We Get It Clean. We're One Mean Cleaning Machine. Come on, Liz.”

Liz shook her head, but she was grinning.

“Or this one,” Billy said. “Billy and Liz. We Clean in a Whiz. Huh? Right?”

“You are nuts.”

“We'd have cards made. Staples does it. They do a good job and cheap. Mildred said so. She showed me hers. She leaves them wherever she goes. People spread the word. She doesn't even advertise.”

Liz felt some enthusiasim. “After a while we'd have people working for us. We'd tell them what to do.”

“And a website. We'd have to have a website. Edna Johnson's son Carl could make one for us. He's good at that crap.”

“Blue costumes and white aprons.”

“That's it. Little caps that said, Liz and Billy. Kiss Dirt Goodbye.”

“Jesus,” Liz said. “Kiss dirt?”

“I'm just saying. You know what I mean. Something like that. And those plastic panels for the car door that say who we are and a phone number.”

“My phone number and everybody calling?”

“A business phone. We just add it. And an answering machine that says, 'Leave your name, number and message, and we'll get back to you.'”

Liz went to the drainboard for a few more of the sugar cookies she had made the night before. She returned, sat down and put the cookies on the porcelain plate.

“I hate cleaning,” she said.

Billy said, “As far as that goes, I hate it too. Only thing is, we'd get paid for doing it.”

“I get paid for doing what I hate now. And I can't keep this place clean.”

“Yeah, well, you've got a point. Anyway, we're just talking. It's just an idea.”

They sat quietly. Billy made another line on the oil cloth. She crossed two more lines and put an Xin the middle.

“We could sell it on the street,” Billy said.

“What was that?” said Liz.

“Sell it,” Billy said. “You and me. We wouldn't have to learn anything or buy anything or do any work.” She winked.

“You mean hookers? Like Arleen Watson?”

“That's a high-priced hooker, Arleen is. She's got a fur coat.”

“Who needs a fur coat in this damned valley? My god, Billy.” She laughed.

“Oh, I'm just kidding. You know I am. It's a joke.”

“Arleen Watson is the joke.”

“Arleen doesn't think so. She's having a grand old time. I saw her at CVS the other day. She had a cold.”

“I'll bet that's not all she had.”

“Well, anyway, she's choosy. She can afford to be. She still doesn't look a day over thirty. Well, maybe thirty-five. And those boobs. Who wouldn't go for those boobs?”

“Boobs aren't everything.” Liz passed a hand across her chest.

“It's what you are, you're going to say,” Billy said. “All the books say it. Anyway, they say it's not how you come on.”

“I don't come on to anyone, not yours truly.”

“Not even when you were married?” Billy said. “Not even with Charlie?” She winked.

“Why do you have to come on when you're married? Anyway, that wasn't the problem with Charlie.”

“I always wondered, Liz—if I'm not being too nosey, I mean—what was the problem?”

“I don't want to talk about that,” Liz said. “What about you and Terry? You haven't said a word about you and Terry.” 

Billy said. “I'm not a dog, Liz. I don't smell my  vomit. Some things, maybe, you should take to the grave. I'd like to tell you, though. Life's no secret.”

“I'd like to tell you too,” Liz said. “Maybe there'll come a point, when I'm lying in bed, too sick to get up, and I'll tell you all about it. Maybe I'll take an ad out in the  paper and tell the world about it, when it's too late to care about what anyone says. Anyway, if you don't hold something back, you don't have anything to tell. Get me?”

“I don't get you,” Billy said. “What are you talking about.”

“You get me, Billy,” Liz said. “You're damned right you get me.”

The light had moved. The lines on the table and the Xin the middle were a smear.

“Do you think you could ever get married again?” Liz asked.

“Married again? Not yours truly.”

“Really? Why not? It's natural to be married. You wouldn't be alone. You wouldn't work, if he had any kind of decent job, that is. I'm telling you, Billy, I've thought about it.”

“You'd go out and do it all over again? You really would?”

“Sure. Why not, if Mr. Right came along? Hell, Billy, being dead is the only thing you do once. Everything else, you get a second chance. And we're a long way from dead.”

Billy thought about it. “What was Charlie, then?”

“Mr. Wrong,” Liz said.

“I dont know how you can tell,” Billy said. “Terry was sure Mr. Wrong for me.”

“Thing is, you just can't know until you're married to them and live through everything with them, and it all comes out in the wash. Then, there you are, eight years down the road, working at a mini-mart to get by.”

“Working at Family Dollar,” Billy said. “Think of the life wasted, the time and effort you put in with someone to have something in the bank and a little future. Then, whamo, everything crashes down. You're back at square one, and not even enough for a movie once in a while. You bust your butt just to make ends meet.”

“That's why I'll probably end up getting married, Billy. One of these days, it's down the aisle again for yours truly. I don't know who. I don't know when. I don't where. But I am checking it out.”

“You've got somebody going?”

“Not any somebody. Not any particular somebody. But  there will be somebody, some day.”

“Checking the herd.”

Liz laughed. “I suppose you could say that. Watching them graze, anyway. Getting ready to put the ol' brand down.”

“I guess that means I'll be moving out some day.”

“Some day is maybe a long way off.”

“Some day is tomorrow, Liz. The day after, at the latest. How can you know? It depends on Mr. Right, doesn't it, whoever he is. Me? I'm not watching. I don't think there is any Mr. Right. There's just everybody, and you pick one because you like the way he smells or what he looks like in a t-shirt, or he was at the party and you were lonely enough to let him pat your ass. It doesn't make any difference, Liz. They're all the same.”

“I can't think that way. I fight thinking that way,” Liz said. “I'd go crazy otherwise. I want someone to be with and get along with and have someone want to be with me and get along with me. It's supposed to be like that, Billy. It's not too much to ask that life should make some sense.”

“I think that way myself, sometimes, when I'm not thinking about work. Anyway, I don't see how one person can do that for another person. When you do find Mr. Right, I hope you'll keep me in mind. I'd like to meet him. Maybe he's got a brother”

“I will,” Liz said, “if I can recognize him myself, when I meet him.”

They sat at the table. The cookies were gone, all but one, broken in two unequal pieces, so that neither had the courage to choose one piece and leave the other.

“I suppose,” Billy said, grinning, “this is the end of The Merry Maids.

“We can always be merry,” Liz said, “even if we're not maids.”

“Honey,” Billy laughed, “we stopped being maids a long time ago.”

“Somebody stole it. That's what happened.”

“Hell, no,” Billy said. “We gave it away. Gladly.”

Liz grinned. “Okay. Okay. Maybe so. But I'm checking anyway. I learned one thing in eight years. This time I'm keeping my big mouth shut. What's on HBO tonight? Let's call in a pizza. How about a pineapple and pepperoni? What do you say? Billy and Liz. Mr. Right Will Get His.

Billy laughed. “Practice makes perfect. What else can you do?”

“That's it,” Liz said. “It's the only thing you can do.”    

The sun was down. They sat at the table. 

“Oh, Liz,” Billy said, “I do hate my job.”

“Honey,” Liz replied, “don't we all?”

Liz watched and worked at the mini-mart. Billy worked at Family Dollar and watched nothing. 

One day, after closing, Billy stood at the corner of Madison and Pine, looking for the crosstown bus. A metallic red Cadillac DeVille came toward her. The Cadillac had a personalized license plate. The plate said, CHUZME. Billy made a smile, stepped from the curb and raised one hand.

Richard Dokey's stories have won awards and prizes. They are frequently reprintedin both regional and national anthologies and texts. He has novels and story collectionsto his credit, and his earlier collection "Pale Morning Dun," published by University ofMissouri Press, was nominated for the American Book Award.