issue 51: January - February 2006 

| author bio

Caroline Kepnes

It was two days before Christmas and Jane Keith wasn’t going to sit here feeling guilty for making her son see The Hours with her. How dare Bubba act like such a martyr? So she sipped her gin rickey in silence. She’d show him who was boss. If only there was a crowd, she thought, everything would be fine. The Sandwich Tavern was usually popping this time of year, wasn’t it? Or was that many years ago? One of the ways she knew that she had gotten old was that it was impossible to know if her impressions of places were up to date.
      Bubba ate peanuts and stared at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He’d hated The Hours—the self pity, the pointlessness of depression and most of all, the way the filmmaker made two girls kiss. It was an insult. As if guys were so stupid as to think that a movie could be totally redeemed by chicks locking lips. Bubba didn’t like being manipulated. Something about that movie created an enormous hole in his belly and he fought the urge to lift the bowl of peanuts and swallow them all in one choking gulp. The damn movie; he didn’t need this many nuts.
      "You don’t understand it because you’re a man," said Jane.
      "Oh, it’s because I’m a man?" Bubba laughed. "You can’t admit that was a boring pile of dog doo?"
      "You don’t spend enough time with women."
      Bubba couldn’t argue. Though he saw many women in his daily shifts at the mall where he worked as a security guard, he very rarely spoke to them. Ladies grew more self-sufficient all the time. It seemed that when he first started at the mall women were always locking their keys in their cars. They called him, he came; he helped. But today’s women had cell phones and they were all so suspicious. Bubba resented the way they looked at him as if he was some sort of a defect just because his uniform wasn’t issued by the local police station. The worst was when they asked questions. "Why not just become a cop?" said one woman who’d lost her car in the lot. And what gave her the right to wonder? She couldn’t even remember where she parked. The trouble was that he wondered the same thing. But every time he’d signed up for the state exam, some greater force kept him from walking through the motion sensitive doors. Test anxiety, he figured.
      When he returned from these failed attempts at becoming a real cop, his mother always made him popcorn. "There’s always tomorrow, honey," she’d say, and immediately he would feel better, hopeful.
      She was amazing, his mother. She could talk to anyone about anything. When Bubba talked, he had a hard time finding that even keel. He seemed to always insult people—"You got promoted to jewelry manager at Macy's? Well good for you! That’s great"—by pouring too much flattering chocolate syrup on their single scoop of ice cream; or degrade them—"That’s nice for you, marrying Kim Erickson. I bet she’ll be good to you. It’s good you found her." Bubba hoped that by spending so much time with his mother, who looked as good in Jordache jeans today as she had twenty years back, he’d pick up some of that flair. It hadn’t happened yet, so in her presence, he let her take the lead in conversations. And if she wanted to kick his butt about The Hours, he’d bend over and take down his pants.
      "Aaw, Chuck, you got to get some more customers in here. I’m telling you—Keno. Keno will bring them in."
      Chuck the barkeep shrugged. "Two days before Christmas, Jane. Good to have anyone in here the way most people are so busy with Christmas parties and whatnot."
      "Of course," Jane said. Must not show hurt, must smile and flip the hair; she knew that, idiot. She knew that. "We just wanted a night off from parties."
      Chuck smirked, as if Jane had said something funny. "Whatever you say, kid."
      She felt like one of those women in The Hours. Yet Chuck hadn’t meant to insult her, had he? How could he know that she’d only been invited to one holiday party? She had to drink up and simmer down. The bar, which had the same five outcasts in it as it had one hour ago, was emptier now, even though no one had left. She turned and looked down the other end of the tavern where Stogie Wilkes started into the fuzzy efforts of It’s a Wonderful Life. Stogie, she thought, would have been so much better off if he’d been born in the 1800s when a man could avoid life by going to sea. Her son burped, loudly.
      "Bubba. What are you doing to me?"
      Chuck laughed and set a bowl of damp pretzels before the Keiths. Jane bit into one and spit it out. Bubba opened his mouth to alert Chuck and his mother grabbed his forearm, shaking her head no, "Don’t be such a fuss."
      "Sorry mom."
      But she couldn’t let it go. She had to be heard. "It’s all part of the same animal, Bubba. You think pretzels are what matter. You don’t like The Hours because you don’t understand women and you burp like some barnyard pig because no woman’s been good to you. Do you know what it does to me? To see you like this, all wrong and just," she pounded the bar. "Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! About so much."
      "I know I don’t have enough girlfriends."
      "Any girlfriends," said Jane.
      Now a silence set in. Bubba lived just down the street, though he wasn’t one of those sons always volunteering to mow the lawn or clean out the drains. He had to be asked to do those chores. And when he arrived, a few hours later than he’d promised, he never did things with a smile. Jane wished her son would move into Hyannis and live near the mall and the new bars where the kids went. That was a lifestyle more appropriate for a man in need of a wife. What was he doing here with her? Yet if he wasn’t here, she would be alone. And that would be degrading.
      Snow fell faster. Jane accepted a second gin rickey from Chuck and noticed that he didn’t wink at her the way he did sometimes. What had happened?
      "Why can’t you just say that The Hours was a good movie? Is that so much to ask two days before Christmas?"
      "What do you think, Chucky? Did you see The Hours?"
      Chuck motioned to the back door. "Be right back. You all set there, Ms. Keith?"
      Jane made eye contact and smiled. Bubba silently raged at Chuck, the way he blew him off, so cavalier.
      "Look, mom, even if I was married with three daughters I would hate The Hours. It sucked. It was pathetic and it was all about being pathetic." Bubba slammed his fist and Charlie pushed the tap on the Bud keg. The Keiths were always at it about something.
      "I’m not saying you have to enjoy it, Bubba. I only want you to appreciate that it was about the difficulties of being a woman." Jane paused to note that she might be the only woman in America on this evening sitting in a bar trying to make her son understand The Hours. She was original, at least. "We go through so much, you know, so much."
      "As if men don’t," he huffed.
      "Sure they do, but there’s a difference, between suffering and feeling pain. Men don’t feel the way women do." She sighed.
      Bubba smacked his glass on the table. "And what the hell was with Nicole Kidman? I mean, why didn’t she just suck it up? And the one who leaves her kids—oh yeah, that’s great."
      "See it did affect you." Jane’s heart raced. She was winning him. She’d make a man of him yet.
      "Yeah, it made me want to throw up."
      Chuck reappeared and looked up now, "Not on my shift, kid!"
      The men laughed, Bubba harder than Chuck. He could never hide his excitement at being let in on a joke.
      Jane interrupted. "It’s not easy being a woman."
      "It’s not easy being a man, but you don’t hear me bitching."
      Oh, but I do, she thought to herself.
      "Bubba, I want you to become more sympathetic. Being a woman means sacrificing yourself for others. When men go into bars, they look at women, find what they want. But when we women go into bars we look first at all the women, check out the competition. Don’t you see how a life like that, always on the defense, could hurt?"
      "Mom, I hated the movie. Okay? Can’t you just be happy that I went to see it?"
      Her son wasn’t looking at her as he spoke. He was studying Chuck the barkeep. She became very torn. On the one hand she wanted to lock Bubba in a windowless basement until he came to his senses and admitted that The Hours was a brilliant movie. On the other hand, it was just a stupid movie and maybe no man would like it, though she thought that professors, writer-men and maybe college boys would appreciate it. But they’d be namby pambies too and probably not very good at fixing things around the house. If a man liked The Hours, he’d be bad at being a man, which would make him kind of pointless. She realized she was chasing her own tail and suddenly had to pee.
      "Forget it, Bubby. I like what I like. You have yours."
      Bubba seemed relieved and fell into conversation about the Red Sox with Chuck. Jane squeezed her muscles and held the urine in. Years ago, on a night like this, snow falling wet and heavy on parked Chevys, she had sat at this very same bar with her husband and son. It was different then. You could come here with children for cheeseburgers and Shirley Temples. Now it was dirty, she had to admit. There was something sacrilegious about her every move. Since Tommy died, she'd lived alone, which seemed improper. Sitting in a bar drinking like this, very un-Christian. She’d raised a son who didn’t even bother to splash on cologne or tuck in his shirt. Yet they were very comfortable, she and he, in a way she supposed she’d never been with Tommy. Now she was depressed.
      She'd meant to become a proper old lady who likes to knit and check out mystery novels from the library. She never meant to develop such a taste for gin rickeys. She never meant to not mind seeing her grown boy-man son talk freely about great ass with a barkeep—right in front of her! And yet she cringed at the thought of the old snots in proper Osterville, with their pastel Nantucket bags and blue hair. If they could see her now, they’d be horrified. But knitting bored her. So did photographs of other people’s grandchildren.
      She looked out the window. Snow everywhere, not good for driving. She did not want to wait for the car to warm up. She did not want it to be two days before Christmas and to sit alone at the bar, small talking with Chuck about townies and after Christmas sales while her security guard son brushed off the windshield. She hated that the rest of the night was so predictable. That
      Bubba would brush off the snow, warm up the car, hold her elbow as she made way for the passenger door and drive the 1.3 miles to her two-bedroom ranch. She hated that on the way home she would remark on the divine individuality of snowflakes and soften up. She hated that by the time they pulled into her driveway the rickeys would keep her from seeing anything wrong with the fact that she lived alone in a ranch house and that her one son was an unmarried security guard. She knew love and forgiveness were coming, and it pissed her off, the inevitability of lightening up. She thought of those women in The Hours and how they fled from monotony. She’d felt ashamed in the theater. Those women had made a choice between the right path and the wrong. She’d put off all decisions and elected to drink through her problems some days and let the answering machine take calls on others.
      The snow was falling fast. She kicked her son and nodded toward the window. "I don’t think we’re going to get home safe at this rate. Look at all that snow."
      "We’ll be fine, mom. They only forecasted three inches."
      "I can tell they were wrong."
      "No they weren’t wrong."
      "It’s snowing fat cats and salty dogs, honey." Bubba hated his mother’s riff on the cliché and drained his beer.
      "You wanna go home?"
      "No. I’d just feel better if you went outside and brushed off the windshield and warmed up the car."
      "I don’t need to do that now."
      "But I’d prefer it if you did." She tipped her chin at Chuck. "Any idea how to get the smell of broccoli out of a kitchen floor?"
      Without turning around Chuck shook his head no. He had no idea. Maybe she was boring.
      "Mom, I'm not going to warm up the car. I think I know enough about cars to know that it’s gonna be fine." Bubba laughed; he loved his mother for worrying so much about everything.
      "Please Bubba. Do I ask so much of you?"
      "Well, you made me see The Hours."
      Chuck laughed heartily at this remark. And because it was two days before Christmas and her son could be such a cut up sometimes, Jane laughed too. She looked good tonight; there was that. Sure she knew what the men around town said. She was aware that they found her hard to peg. Back in the day she’d worked a swordfish boat for a fortnight or two. But her eyes were always skating all over the place. She’d be talking to someone and find it impossible not to look away to see who was coming into the bar. She’d been wide-eyed in a way that was rude. But she couldn’t have helped it. All her life she’d had the sensation that something better was just about to show up. And the idea of missing whatever or whoever that was because she’d been feigning interest in something lesser was frightening. Worse was the idea that she was here, now, which somehow implied that in spite of all her searching she had missed her big moment.
      She raised her glass. "C'est la vie."
      "What mom?"
      "Merry Christmas, Jane," said Chuck.
      Yes, she did think she was smarter than most people around here. That’s why they didn’t invite her to Christmas parties. Her women friends were just acquaintances. Nobody really knew her. She liked it that way, being a small town celebrity in some way. How many times had she told Bubba that her mystique was her Achilles’ heel?
      And yet, because of all her philandering and odd jobs and that mouth that never quit, she had no mystery anymore. She’d gone down on other women’s husbands in 1975 and years surrounding. If there was a fourth of July party and some unhappily married sap accidentally (they always cried accident) walked in on her in the powder room, she would do him. She’d done that.
      And women here judged her. She was an old-fashioned gal; she objected to this modern mode of telling all. Was there any difference between hypocrisy and complication? She didn’t think so. Some of the girls who were now grandmothers couldn’t excuse themselves to hit the ladies room without saying "I have to pee." Jane loathed that sort of talk and made it known, pleading with women to keep their business to themselves. But they didn’t take her seriously. She’d been too randy in her day.
      She tapped the edge of the bar and thought of all the Christmas parties about town right at this moment. How had all this not occurred to her? Of course there was nobody in the bar; this was invitation season. What a fool she must seem to Chuck—people must have been in here all month, going on about their parties; he'd known all along, since the moment they walked in, that Jane and her son were excluded. She stood, dizzier than she should be after two rickeys. It was too much, being this age. "Excuse me, boys. I’m gonna go powder my nose."
Jane had been gone an hour when Bubba finally got around to walking outside, plowing his rubber boots through the new wet snow and pounding on the window to the ladies restroom.
      This was just like her. Finally, here he was, talking like one of the guys and she probably ran away because she was jealous. He pounded but the window was so high that he had to leap before each hit like some sort of a basketball player making a dunk. He looked around the lot and spotted a crate.
      Standing on the crate gave Bubba a glimpse at the ceiling of the restroom. He saw her shadow up there and when he got on his tippie toes, he could see her purse on the sink. "Mom!"
      She didn’t answer. He could hear the bar talk going on inside. Damn her, damn her, damn her. Oh, the things he would say. Fed up, he took a deep breath and boosted his upper half through the tiny window. Somehow he’d managed to finagle his head and arms through the space. And then he saw her, on the toilet, a Woman’s World magazine on her lap. Dead. Dead. Dead.
      Bubba shrieked, but nobody heard him. He tried pushing himself all the way through the window but he couldn’t fit. And doing that made it impossible for him to slide back out the way he came. His belly was exposed and the snowflakes made his lower back tingle. He knew that he'd be stuck here until Chuck got fed up and came outside. It was impossible for Bubba not to look at her, at her stillness. And when he tried to look away, all he could do was picture what he must look like to someone in the parking lot. A tall, fat guy’s legs hanging out of a window. He was tired, exhausted even.
      Worst of all, he wouldn’t get to go home and tell his mother about this. She wouldn’t be able to tell him that there is always tomorrow as she stood by the microwave waiting for the popcorn kernels to slow down to a rate of two pops per every three seconds. He closed his eyes. There were questions from the police force written exam to which he knew the answers. He knew them the way a religious guy knows his prayers. So he asked himself the questions and murmured the answers. There they were, in his head all this time. He knew speed limits, he knew speeches and he knew what entailed a common law marriage. She was right. He could take tests. He could use a number two pencil to fill in the answers and become a policeman and carry a gun and let the mall become a place where he went when he needed to buy his mother a birthday present instead of some daily destination.
      Except that now she was dead. And he wouldn’t need to buy her things.

© Caroline Kepnes 2006

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author bio

Caroline Kepnes
Caroline Kepnes
lives in Los Angeles and works for a gossip column at E! online. This native Cape Codder is thrilled to have her second story in The Barcelona Review. Her work has also appeared in Brown University’s Clerestory, Carve, Duck & Herring’s Pocket Field Guide, Eclectica, Elixir, Eyeshot, Hobart, Monkey Bicycle, Thieves Jargon, Word Riot and Yankee Pot Roast. In the coming months, she has stories running in Spoiled Ink and The Blue Moon Review.

See also My Son, the Priest, issue 47

Contact the author


issue 51: January - February 2006


Niall Griffiths: Coming of Age
David Ramos Fernandes:
Nora Pierce:
Guess Who Loves Me Now?
Caroline Kepnes:
Katie Arnsteen:
Long Ride Home

picks from back issues

Pete Duval: Fun With Mammals
Adam Johnson:
Trauma Plate


James Meek


Harold Pinter
answers to last issue’s quiz, Harry Potter

book reviews

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
The Blind Rider by Juan Goytisolo
Borrowed Light by Joolz Denby
Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol

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