The sun was fast slipping on its night gown when she found him. Janey pulled off the road and trotted away from the truck.
She tiptoed around a flower anointed wooden cross as she made her way to the tree, heaving an audible sigh of relief when she found him slumped back against the trunk. His hat tipped forward, shielding his eyes from her view.
“Heeeyy.” His words slurred, voice raspy as Jim nodded at her knobby knees.
She slid down the oak tree bark and crossed her legs. Placing her dark hand on his thigh, Janey gave it a quick squeeze.
“What daya doin’ out here again baby?”
His breathing become ragged as he reached down and grabbed the half empty bottle of liquor. She snatched it from him and he whined.
“What are ya doin’ Slim.?” she whispered more to herself.
What am I doin’, she thought. She looked at the bottle and took a swig. It burned all the way down.
“Woo, that’s strong.”
She glanced at the proof. Jesus. She didn’t realize there was such thing as 175 proof.
Of course, Jim found this hysterical.
“It ain’t even night and you are drunk as a skunk! Hell you are a skunk.”
She heard him smile in spite of himself, and glanced down at the flowers he clutched. He smelled like worn leather and whiskey. She inhaled sharply. And piss.
“Slim. Honey. You do stink.”
He threw his head back and laughed, his hat smashing against the tree, a lone tear sliding down his cheek. She resisted the urge to brush it away, instead watching it trail into his poor excuse for a beard. God it needed trimming.
“Yeah. Guess I do.”
They stood in silence until her ears hissed with white noise.
“Come on Slim, let me take you home.”
She struggled to haul him to his feet. He pitched forward wildly.
“Soooorrry Darlin’.” He snorted and giggled.
He shuffled, leaning heavily on her. For every two steps they took, he would teeter too much to either side, threatening to take her down with him.
“Couldya try to fuckin’ help me boy? You’re too damn tall to handle.”
“Wait-wait wait. I gotta give this to her.”
He half dragged her to the cross and dropped the flowers. A soft wind wrapped around them, and frost acne broke out on her arms. She swallowed thickly, bracing herself for his raging, and was surprised when he looked back at her.
Ten minutes later, following a cursing contest that she won, Jim was sprawled across the passenger side of her pick up truck. He nodded off before they made it a mile down the highway. She sighed softly, a dull ache building in her chest.
“Why do you keep doin’ this Slim.” Her words echoed off the cab walls, mixing in with a Hank Williams song.
With one hang on the wheel, she rubbed the back of his left hand absentmindedly. She missed him jerk his head up, glance at their hands and lay back against the seat again.
“You’re gonna kill yourself.”
His right hand twitched. Johnny Cash serenaded her the rest of the way home, the clinking of the bottle against the gear box keeping time with the music.
She chewed her lip as she pulled into the drive. The old Ford had a power steering column out, and she turned the wheel hard to the right to compensate, hit the overflowed trash can. It spilled its guts all over the hood and concrete slab. Fuck, Janey thought. One more sad sack to pick up tonight. Killing the engine, she poked Slim. Once. Twice. Slapped him. He groaned.
She ended up dragging him through the finely aged garbage juice. Gonna have to wash these jeans in bleach, she noted.
The trailer entrance was clogged with beer cans, newspaper clippings, and cigarette butts. She booted them across the linoleum, cheering as they hit the battered kitchen cabinets. Dropping Slim on the couch, Janey took a quick survey of the place. Or attempted to, she could barely walk without stepping on papers and discarded manuscripts.
Jesus. He was an alcoholic packrat skunk.
Well, at least she would remedy the last part. She ran the shower, drug him into the bathroom by his feet, and dunked him in the water, clothes and all.
“EEGWERWE! JANEY WHAT THE HELL?!” he sputtered.
“Least you coulda took my hat off!”
It smelled like fresh shit, and she told him as much.
Eventually he wrestled out of his shirt and jeans, Janey looking the other way while holding her hands out. She was going to burn them. As she turned, he snaked a wirey arm out and grabbed her, yanking her into the tub with him. Janey concluded that he had a death wish tonight.
“Oh that’s funny?” She scrambled out and turned on the cold water.
He yowled, while Janey busied herself pouring half a bottle of shampoo over him and demanding he scrub himself. In the meanwhile, she hunted down a razor, and ended up nearly hog tying him to get a shave.
No Slim, the 12 o’clock shadow ain’t in vogue. She threw his laundry in a burn barrel and cleared out the bedroom enough for him to not break his neck.
“We gotta talk Slim,” she said. She heard him sigh from the doorway, and pushed past him to retrieve two tumblers and the rest of the whiskey, hoping he would put some pants on before she returned.
He didn’t. Sometimes, she wondered if she –
Her heart stopped as she took in his silhouette. Shirtless and staring at a portrait on his bedside. God damn. He was gonna be the death of her. A pang of sadness mixed with jealousy shot through her, Janey wished he would look at her like that. Forcefully, she shut off those thoughts from their source, not wanting to speak ill of the dead.
He shifted and turned to face her, cornflower blues basking in the florescent suns. Handing him a glass, she poured herself two fingers of whiskey.
“What’s this?” He swirled his drink at her, the murky contents creating a whirlpool.
“Coffee.” She winced as the whiskey tore down her throat and chuckled at his confused expression.
“You didn’t have no clean mugs, Slim.”
“How come you get to drink?” He pouted.
“‘Cause you got a head start asshole. It ain’t even 8 o’clock. I’ll give ya some soon as I get nice and ready.”
“You look good Slim. Much better without all that there scruff, now you can go to church.”
He gave his coffee a bashful look.
“I’m ‘fraid the roof’ll fall in on me Janey. I’m not sure anyone’d want me there anyhow.”
Shuffling to the bed, he sat down, and she mirrored his actions.
“Oh, like they ain’t all a bunch of sinnin’ assholes anyway.”
She slurred her words.
“Wuttttt? Look, it ain’t ’bout that Slim! Its bout gettin yer head straight. And yer spirit right with Jesus.”
“I don’t need a preacher for that Janey. Ain’t you ever prayed in the woods? Nothin’ ‘tween you and your Maker? And you don’t need to hear all their snickering and see all their disapprovin’ looks. Janey, I ain’t as strong as you.”
“Who said I was strong?” Her voice was tiny then, her heart swelling with his praise.
“Ain’t you though? You made it through all this-” He stopped and watched her.
“You usin’ again, Darlin’?”
She shook her head and he heaved a sigh of relief.
“I miss you Slim.”
“I’m right here sugar.” He frowned up at her, teetering as he tried to sit up farther.
“That’s the problem Slim. You’re always here. ” Furrowing her brows, she pointed at the ground.
“Or at Gus’s. Or you’re with Lulu,” the tears came unbidden, as she thought of his late fiancee.
“And- and I feel like I lost you. All you do is, wallow in your pity. If I coulda died-“
“Stop.” His deep baritone cut through her words. “Don’t you say that. You’re all I got Janey.”
“Yeah, all I got is a stinkin’ drunk Slim.”
Shaking his head, Jim reached over for the whiskey. Janey jumped up and held it aloft. He huffed and stared up at her.
“Sugar, just one more shot, then I’ll call it a night.”
His blue eyes softened as he stared down at Janey, her head only coming up to his chest. Long fingers and arms wrapped around her quickly before Jim planted a kiss on her forehead. Stiffening, Janey’s eyes fell to half mast as she leaned into the embrace.
“I’m already home.”
She made a questioning hum, to which he answered with his lips caressing her forehead. And then her neck, shooting an icy thrill down her spine.
She moved to lie on the bed then, curling up on her side.
“Sing me a song.”
He scooted next to her, so they were facing each other.
“What? Am I a jukebox now?” she snorted.
His fingers were tangling in her neck hairs now, eliciting a groan. Nevertheless, she managed to croak out a few lines of “When You Say Nothing At All” before he joined in, punctuating the last lines with peppered kisses. She lay stock still, wondering if she was dreaming or if they’d really both had too much.
He started to work on her tank top then, and she sat up, downed her glass and flopped back next to him. And then he plucked her strings gently as she slid over him like a fiddle bow.
As they lay panting, he buried his face in her nape. The strong smell of whiskey and java reached her nostrils as he nipped her.
“Lulu,” he whispered and then succumbed to exhaustion.
Tears pricked her eyes again as she bolted from the bed as if stung by a hornet. She made it to the living room, shoved the papers off the couch and collapsed.