Margaret Malone’s writing has appeared in The Missouri Review, Propeller Quarterly, Coal City Review, Swink, Nailed, latimes.com, and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission and Literary Arts, two Regional Arts & Culture Council Project Grants, and residencies at the Sitka Center and Soapstone, she lives in Portland, Oregon, where she co-hosts the artist and literary gathering SHARE. Learn more on her website.
Excerpted from People Like You
©Margaret Malone 2015
From the title story, “People Like You”
The invitation is from a friend, though I use this term loosely: we have no friends. We have acquaintances from work, or old friends who live in other cities, or people who used to be our friends who we either borrowed money from and never repaid or who we just never bother to call anymore because we decided we either don’t like them or we’re too good for their company. We are not perfect.
Along with the invite is a small slip of paper with typed directions to the party at their house and one phone number, the cell, to RSVP to, and one phone number, the land line, to absolutely not RSVP to.
The rest of the mail, all advertisements and credit card offers in white envelopes with plastic windows, I dump onto the kitchen table next to my gin and tonic.
“Another party,” I say. “How will we ever find the time?”
Bert says, “Be nice.”
Bert is lurking at the other corner of the kitchen table in running shorts and tube socks, finally reading this morning’s newspaper, drinking root beer from a can. He sticks a Post-it on an article he wants to remember to come back to later and read.
He says, “Whose?”
I will never understand why he doesn’t just read the
newspaper article he wants to read when he wants to read
it. If we ever actually divorce, this will be a big reason why.
“It’s a surprise party,” I say. “For Gerry, from Nan.”
I sip my gin and tonic. The ice cubes jingling against the glass.
Then I say, “We have to go. We never go anywhere. We are going.”
It is up to me to RSVP to the party, and I don’t like talking to people on the phone: no facial gestures or body language, just one voice, then another voice, then the first voice again. So I wait to call and RSVP as long as I can.
I wait until the morning of the party.
When I call the number to RSVP to, Nan’s cell, Nan is curt, using monosyllabic responses that have nothing to do with what I am saying.
“Sorry to RSVP so late,” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “Okay.”
“But we’re definitely coming tonight.”
“Uh huh,” she says. “Yes. No, I can hear you.”
I say, “It’s Cheryl and Bert.” It’s been a long time since we’ve seen them. I say again, “Bert and Cheryl. It’s Cheryl.”
“Great,” she says. “Yes, I hear you just fine now.”
“Okay then,” I say. “So, bye.”
Bert and I decide we need to leave early because we are always late and it’s a surprise party and we don’t want to ruin it like we joke that we might.
We are getting dressed. Bert is in his beige dress socks and worn plaid boxers, and I am putting on my black stockings and watching my boobs in the mirror. My boobs are just hanging there, swinging around a bit, waiting to have their bra put on. And Bert says, “Watch. Something will happen and we’ll end up getting there at the same time as Gerry. And he’ll be like, ‘Hey guys? What are you doing here? This is so weird.’ Then Gerry’s voice will drop an octave,” Bert says, “and he’ll be like, ‘Oh my god.’ And we’ll be like ‘No, no. We’re here looking at a … house to buy in the area.’”
I’m putting a leg into my skirt and I say, “Yeah, then Gerry will be like ‘A house. Around here? Oh, with the money that you never paid back?’”
Bert puts on his pants. He says, “Right. And then he’ll be like, ‘It’s a surprise party isn’t it. It’s a goddamned surprise party and now I know.’ Then he’ll be like, ‘Thanks a lot, you jackholes.’ Gerry always says that. ‘You jackholes,’ he’ll say.”
And I’m brushing my teeth and Bert’s in his slippers running mousse through his hair and we both start laughing. These are the best times. I love these times.
We’re in the car. We’re on the freeway. For once there’s no tension. I am me, driving, and he is him, sitting there.
“Which exit?” I say.
Bert checks the small white slip included in our invitation and says, “Canoga Park Boulevard. Where the hell is that?”
I cordially suggest he consult the Thomas Guide but Bert refuses.
“It’s coming up here,” he says. “No, wait. That’s Canoga Ave.”
“Right,” I say.
“That’s definitely a different exit,” says Bert.
“Yes,” I say. “Altogether.”
We drive in silence for minutes, the inside-car hush of our motion, all the best-times feelings dissolving, the thick familiar air starts up between us. Me, driving. Him, sitting there.
“Watch,” says Bert. “That was probably the exit. There’s probably the wrong directions printed on all the invites.”
“That’d be funny,” I say.
We drive to Thousand Oaks before Bert looks in the Thomas Guide, finds the street index in the back of the spiral-bound atlas, and sees there is no Canoga Park Blvd. exit anywhere in southern California.
We turn around.
“Of course,” says Bert. “Of fucking course.”
We know we’re now going back the right way, but night is creeping up, and I am wearing a skirt, and we’re in a car on the freeway in the middle of the god-forsaken San Fernando Valley. On the little slip that says Exit Canoga Park Blvd. it also says Call if you get lost. This is the same number, the land line, to absolutely not RSVP to. I call. I want Nan to know that she screwed up the directions and hopefully feel bad and say nice things to us even though she’s in the middle of hosting a surprise party.
“Nan?” I say. “It’s Cheryl. We’re lost. There is no Canoga Park Boulevard exit.”
“Canoga Park?” she says. “You mean Canoga Ave.? Sure there is.”
I’m wanting to be nice, but I am driving seventy miles per hour and talking on the phone, and this is why we don’t leave the house. So what I’m also wanting is to say what’s the point of printing up directions to a place and including them in an invitation if the directions are wrong? You think someone would check a thing like that.
“We’re on our way,” I say.
“Watch,” says Bert. “We’ll get there and I bet nobody else had any trouble finding the place. They’ll be like, ‘No, not a lick of trouble. Found it fine.’ Bastards.”
Bert does not like to be lost. It’s the man in him.
We drive. Back the way we came. Headlights and tail-lights and setting sun all battle for my attention. We pass the same landmarks, the long perfect row of leafy eucalyptus trees, the lit-up cross on top of an empty hill, the dull box of a building with the banner saying If you worked here, you’d be at work by now.
Something is wrong.
“I checked every goddamn sign,” I say. “There was no Canoga Ave.”
“Me too,” says Bert. The overhead light comes on and he consults the Thomas Guide, finds the page with the map of where we are. “There is no Canoga Ave. exit in this direction. It’s only going the other way.”
I’m trying to stay calm.
We exit somewhere. We call again.
“Nan? Cheryl. No Canoga Ave. exit this way. We’re lost. I have no idea where we are.” I’m using the tone that Bert calls testy. “Is Gerry there yet? Did we miss it?” And I don’t even care. I hope he’s come so we can say we tried, we missed it, and turn around and go home.
“No, you’ve still got twenty minutes,” she says. “No, ten minutes now. Maybe you should wait. No. Just come. Look for balloons. If there are balloons out front, he’s still not here.”
“Not sure where we are,” I say.
I’m not trying hard enough not to be rude.
“Don’t know how long we’ll be,” I say. My phone snaps shut.
“Nan says to look for balloons,” I tell Bert. “If there are balloons then Gerry’s not there yet.”
“Wait,” Bert says. “What? Don’t you think Gerry coming home and seeing balloons is a dead giveaway? Don’t you think he’ll pick up on that?”
I contemplate how this might work. “No. Wait,” I say. “It makes sense. They take the balloons in before he gets back.”
“Who does?” says Bert.
“I don’t know. Nan does. Nan takes the balloons in.”
“How does she know?” says Bert.
“I don’t know. Nan is psychic. How do I know? Maybe they have a lookout or something. Fucking fuck!”
Under an overpass, there is a stop sign. We can go left, go right, go straight. It is dark. We are somewhere in the Valley.
I say, “Straight?”
Bert says, “Left. No, right.”
I go straight.
Two streets up, on the corner, is a giant neon bowling pin and underneath is a neon arrow pointing to a building that says Canoga Avenue Bowl. We go left. We go right, then right. There are balloons.
We try to get out of our croaky-doored Honda, but a car drives up behind us.
“Get down,” Bert says. “It could be Gerry.”
The car drives past. We try again. More cars keep coming.
Each time we see headlights we duck down in our seats so an oncoming car won’t see our heads. We’re determined to not ruin the surprise. Or maybe allow ourselves the opportunity to go home without being seen.
Twenty-seven pairs of headlights later Bert’s had enough. He yells, “Screw it.”
We get out of the car.
We walk into the party. We don’t know anybody. It’s a very small house.
Nan sees us. She waves a big wave in our direction from the snack table. Her voice singsongs over the noise of the people we don’t know talking. She’s still waving. She says, “Gerry’s on his way.”
I look around the party and realize two things. One, I hate parties. Parties are strangers and someone else’s idea of music and the overt pressure to talk to the strangers over the volume of the music while appearing to have a good time. Two, there are three other women present, and they are all pregnant. A tender spot: my eggs are no good.
We head for the booze.
This is when Gerry walks in and we all yell, Surprise! He looks awful. Gerry used to be really chubby and sweet, always smiling, the best man to hug. But he’s been dieting and exercising, getting into shape. Seeing the unfamiliar angles of his revealed chin, his jaw and cheekbones makes him unrecognizable. I can’t help but think he looks gaunt, almost unhealthy. When I go to say hello and happy birthday what I want to say is, “I liked you better before.” It takes all my willpower not to tell him this. When he smiles, I want to feed him.
Also, he doesn’t look surprised. Nan notices.
She says, “Did you know? You didn’t know.”
And Gerry says, “Well, there are balloons out front. Also, Bill told me on the way.” Gerry points to his brother Bill, who is a younger and shorter still-pudgy Gerry, with long hair pulled back in a ponytail, and who is so drunk his feet shuffle like he’s on the deck of a ship caught in a storm. “I didn’t even ask,” Gerry says. “We were at a stoplight coming back from sushi and Bill turns down the radio and yells ‘Surprise! It’s a surprise.’”
Nan is calm. Then Nan punches Bill in the neck. He falls over, smiling, too shit-faced to have any idea how many things he’s just done wrong. Nan gets him some ice.
She says, “It’s a party,” to remind me and Bert and the other people why we’re here.
I pretend I’m standing here drinking a beer, but really I am surveying the landscape. A clump of people on the couch, more in the hallway, and a cluster of the rest of everyone standing at the snack table. Bert and me, we are in the cluster. There is music coming from the bedroom in the back of the small house, and a potato-looking guy in a faded Rush tee-shirt is next to me, talking and talking, the kind of person that talks about whatever is on his mind, no matter who he is talking to. He’s telling me and Bert and whoever squeezes past us for a pig-in-a-blanket about his car, a Grand Am, and what it can do.
“If I had to, in an emergency, I could roll it, and the car would be fine.” He raises his eyebrows to emphasize how serious he is. “Seriously,” he says. “Fine.”
I make my eyes really big, like wow, Grand Ams, awesome, and then he starts to laugh and I don’t know if he’s laughing at himself or at me, but he laughs so hard his laugh turns into a cough. While he is coughing, I excuse myself without saying so. Bert is right behind me.
We head away from the snack table, somewhere safe. Wending our way through the living room, Bert says, “At least now I know I’m not the biggest asshole here.”
There is no line for the bathroom, so we walk right in, lock the door. Bert closes the lid of the toilet and takes a seat on the shag cover, his feet on the matching rug. I lean against the cabinet of the sink. It’s always a good idea to have a destination at a party, some specific location in place of the headless wandering from one point to another trying to find the something you have in common with someone else.
The last person in here splashed water all over the counter. “People are pigs,” I say. I mop up the mess with a terry cloth hand towel.
I say, “I think I left my drink somewhere.”
I say, “Should we have sex?”
Bert throws some beer down his throat. He says, “I’m missing Law & Order right now. I don’t know. Do you want to?”
“Sure,” I say. “In a second.” Bert selects a magazine from the reading material in a basket on the tile floor.
Above the sink is a mirror that is really a medicine cabinet. I look inside. There are Q-tips and orange pill bottles and toothpaste and a razor dirty with stubble bits and tweezers. The top shelf is all make-up. I close my eyes and rub silvery shadow in the soft crease above my lashes.
Bert does not look up from the magazine. He says, “It says that horses sleep standing up. That’s not right. I’ve seen them lying down. This is wrong.”
There are Band-Aids and nail polish remover and dental floss, and even though I don’t know what else I’m looking for, nothing looks good. I unspool some floss. “Want some?” Bert says no. He reads and I floss between my teeth. There is a knock at the door.
Straight for the bar, that’s where I head. Bert, of course, right behind me. The bar is really the kitchen counter, which is where the bottles and red plastic cups are set up. I am running my tongue over my teeth, which feel so clean now. Next to me and Bert is one of the pregnant women, pouring herself a club soda.
“The bubbles,” she says. “You know.” She points to her stomach.
Somewhere I heard pregnancy makes women kind of stupid, the body so busy doing other stuff it doesn’t have time to send smarts to the brain. So, I’m not missing out on that. But Bert and me, our life is at a standstill. A baby would really be something. To the pregnant woman, I want to say, If I wash my hands can I touch your big belly?
“Watch,” Bert says. He is reaching over me to grab the plastic bottle of vodka. “We’re going to be stuck here for, like, two hours.”
I want to say, Because maybe some of your babyness will rub off on me.
Bert is muttering. He says, “The house is so small, we’ll never be able to leave.”
I want to say, Or maybe when your baby is born, I could come over and hold her in my arms, and your baby could tell my unborn baby that it’s okay to come down now, it’s okay?
Bert sticks his face into his red plastic cup and sips. He says, “I should be in my pajamas right now.” He heads back for the snack table.
Standing next to the front door, by a long, narrow table with presents on it, is Nan, and this reminds me that we didn’t bring a present for Gerry. I grab a beer from the fridge and head right for her.
I hug her when I get there, because that’s what people do. Maybe Nan will apologize about the directions. If she doesn’t mention it, I’m not going to either. I’m going to be big about it.