Can You Beat It?

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7 June 2009 (1500 words)

My name is Christina Jacqueline Johns. This is a true story about a beginning AND an ending:

Nathan Johnson, on his front porch, in his housecoat and slippers, ran his hand along the top of the new puppy’s head and then picked up the Tallahassee Democrat.

He groaned as he straightened up. Bending over had become difficult. Squatting down had become damn near impossible.

At the golf course, he had amused himself with the thought of hiring a caddy just to pick up the ball. Then, he amused himself even more by thinking about a putter with a little wire circle attached to the end that would slip over the ball and contract so he wouldn’t have to bend over to get it out of the hole.

As Art Linkletter had said years before: Aging was not for sissies.

The puppy trotted behind Nathan as he shuffled toward the kitchen.

“Ain’t nobody fed you?” He asked the puppy, who wagged his tail obligingly.

As Nathan reached the kitchen, he could see that nobody had fed the puppy. Wanda must not be up.

He put the paper under his arm and walked toward the guest bedroom where Wanda often slept when she came home late.

The puppy put its tail down and followed, disappointed to be moving away from the kitchen instead of towards it.

Nathan open the door, but nothing was disturbed. The room was just like Wanda liked it. Looked like a frilly French whore house to him, but what did he know?

Wanda’d spent a lot of money redecorating the room. She was always saying now they lived in what she and the realtor called “an exclusive gated community,” she wadn’t gonna have the house couldn’t look country. He didn’t really understand what that meant except that the white guard looked at him like he was a burglar every time he came through the gate.

And, Nathan wasn’t looking forward to the entire house decorated with miles of shiny fabric, and not being able to sit comfortably anywhere with a cup of coffee.

The puppy brightened as Nathan headed back toward the kitchen.

Nathan lay the paper on the counter and moved away to get the dog food. The puppy started to wiggle and jump up on the side of Nathan’s leg as soon as his hand touched the handle of the cabinet where the dog food was hidden. A few drops of puppy pee leaked out on the floor.

“Oh, man,” Nathan said in mild rebuke. “You keep doing that, you and me both gonna be in big trouble.”

Nathan went to the overhead cabinets and got two bowls for the puppy. He stared at them, trying to figure out whether they were Wanda’s “good china” which he could not use, or her “regular china” which he could. For the life of him, he couldn’t tell which was which.

He filled one bowl with dog food and the other with water. He set them on the floor for the squirming dog.

“What she don’t know…” He said, enjoying his and the puppy’s offense.

He stood up, groaning and stretching his neck, tight from the night. He gazed out the window.

Row after row of corn. Tomatoes staked just so, beans running between neatly strung poles. The garden took up almost the entire side of their lot from back to front, nearly a quarter acre.

Nathan had gotten his brother, Howard to come over with his smallest tractor, a 60-year-old International Harvestor, and dig it up so Nathan wouldn’t have to use the roto-tiller.

But Wanda complained about it all the time. She said he wasn’t a farmer, had to grow his own food. But nobody in the suburb had a garden like it, not even the people in the biggest houses.

Nathan was dead proud of the garden, and bragged about it to his neighbors – when he could catch them in the yard. He thought they were jealous.

The puppy was still wolfing down the food as Nathan dragged the heels of his bedroom slippers over to the pantry.

Wanda used to keep the Mr. Coffee on the counter. But when they moved, Wanda banished the battered coffee maker to the pantry. On the grey, cement counters there sat a gleaming cappuccino maker that had more parts than a car. Nathan could never work it without Wanda.

He hated the inconvenience of having to get the little coffee pot out every morning and then put it back, but he didn’t say anything to Wanda. He knew better.

She hadn’t been so particular before, in the other house. But then, they were both working hard to build up the business.

As Nathan made coffee, he thought that things had been happier in the old house. Wanda wasn’t gone all the time.

“But, we alright.” He said to the puppy as he sat down at the kitchen table with his newspaper, the coffee bubbling behind him.

He spread out the front page. “Woman hires hit man to kill husband.”

He was interrupted by the telephone. “Now, who the…” He said to himself as he walked to the wall phone. “Yeah.”

“Nathan, you seen the papers?” It was Nathan’s brother, Howard.

“I was just sittin’ down.”

“Well, what you gone do?” Howard asked.

Nathan jerked his head back. Howard’s voice was so loud and high-pitched it hurt his ears.

“About what man?” Nathan answered.

“Wanda?”

“What about Wanda?”

“You ain’t read the paper? It’s Wanda. On the front page, man. They arresting Wanda.”

Nathan stretched the phone cord over to the table and turned the newspaper around so he could look at it. His eyes went to the photo. It was dark and there was a tangle of people, but he could make out a woman’s shape, her hand held up in an attempt to cover her face.

He ran his eyes back over the headline. “Woman hires hit man to kill husband.”

Nathan sat down slowly and put the telephone receiver on the table. The puppy was whining, looking up at him.

Nathan closed his eyes. He could dimly hear his brother on the phone yelling: “Nathan? Nathan, you there?”

It wasn’t Wanda. It was a mistake. He opened his eyes and tried to concentrate on the text beside the picture.

“Legal seketary and part-time law student, Wanda Johnson, was being investigated for stealing copies of examinations at the university and selling them to other students. During the investigation, police taped Ms. Johnson in a local motel room, planning the execution of her husband with what she presumed was a hit man. She paid the under-cover policeman $5,000 for the planned killing.”

It was Wanda.

Nathan looked up and stared off into space. The puppy was now busily humping Nathan’s ankle. Nathan looked down at him, but the puppy was lost in a world of his own. Nathan didn’t even bother to move his foot.

“Nathan. Nathan.” Howard’s strained tinny voice came from the telephone. Nathan picked it up.

“Nathan?” Howard said. “Man, you know why she said she did it? Nathan, you there?”

“Yeah,” Nathan answered.

“She said she did it because she didn’t want to share the money. The bitch didn’t want to share the money.”

“What money?” Nathan asked.

“The money she plannin’ to make as a lawyer.” Howard answered. “Can you beat that Nathan? Can you beat that with a stick?”

Nathan put the receiver back down on the table. His ankle was now dripping with puppy come.

He stared straight ahead of him, body tense. All he could see was that photograph of Wanda. And then, in his mind’s eye, he saw her sitting in her new study, head down, glasses on, working. She studied in the Florida State library late into the night, and then slept in town with friends.

“She been working too hard.” He said to no one in particular. “She gone crazy, that’s what she done. She gone crazy.” He closed his eyes tight, the way he did in church when he was trying to reach God.

“I got to help her – forgive her.”

The puppy had settled down on his other foot and gone to sleep.

Howard’s muffled voice continued to come from the phone. “Nathan, can you believe you can hire a hit man for $5,000? Can you beat it? Can…”

Nathan sat at the gleaming cherry wood table in the enormous perfect kitchen, inside the new house, in the upscale suburb, facing a lake, surrounded by trees and the houses of rich people, in the city of Tallahassee, Florida.

The moral of this story is that some people will forgive anything and other people will never have enough.

After my husband and I followed this story in the newspaper, I told him: “Let me make one thing very clear. You hire a hit man to kill me, you don’t have to even think about me forgiving you. I’m leaving your ass.”

Copyright 2009 Christina J. Johns

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