The Invitation [Short Story]

This is a short story by Michael Chin.

Central New York in the wintertime, people stay indoors, conscious of wind chills and ice-plastered sidewalks. Parents bundle their children in ski caps and scarves before they leave the house to wait for the school bus. I recall fleeting moments of building snowmen and sledding, but that as I grew older all that winter fun receded in favor of darkness and shivering from the car to the front door and back again. Strings of Christmas lights and the occasional snow days—these small favors offered some reprieve, but it was always fleeting.

One winter night, well after most God-fearing, good people had gone to sleep, flashing red lights stabbed at the darkness, reflecting off the wet white surface of snowbanks as an ambulance sped down French Road, past the garage, past the playground, hanging a left on Main Street toward the school district’s administrative offices. The boys inside turned on the siren—unnecessary in the absence of traffic, but they could hardly help themselves in the thrill of the moment, called to the scene in a matter of life and death, and not on account of one of the senior citizens they were always too late to help. Holly Meacher had called them and explained in teary, breathless sentences that her husband—a man who, by all accounts, was in the prime of his life—wasn’t breathing, dear God, he wasn’t breathing.

At the trial, the old bird who lived next door to the Meachers testified that she hadn’t exactly known anything was wrong until she heard that siren, and that the red light had flashed straight through her bedroom window. She said the Meachers were always friendly enough neighbors, but not ones to engage past a Hello, how are you. She had heard them arguing once on a summer evening, when she sipped iced tea on the front porch. Just that once, but they’d been so violent about it—you lying whore from the man, I wish you’d crash your car and die from the woman—that she never altogether trusted them afterward.

Especially Holly Meacher.

The way news reports stitched together the Meacher murder story, Holly bought a canister of peanuts she knew full well her husband was allergic to, ground them to dust, and mixed them with the cheese in their canister of parmesan. They ate spaghetti that night. He went into anaphylactic shock, and she had already hidden his Epipen under their bed where he would never find it in time. Holly Meacher called 911, but the coroner’s report suggested that she couldn’t have done so until he was already dead for an hour.

I grew up in Shermantown, New York, but went out of state for college and rarely looked back. I may never have given much thought to Holly Meacher (Holly Stewart when I knew her) and Dave Meacher, had I not been visiting a University sixty miles west of home the night Dave died, and were it not for my shame about the whole business.

Holly was a high school friend who had never left town, got married after community college, and suffered a series of disappointments that she had unabashedly notified the world about via Facebook—that she lost her secretary job for repeated truancy, a hostess gig after she slept through a shift job after job; that her husband had been caught skimming petty cash in his office and lost his job, too. Holly reported that she had proven unable to conceive and then experienced difficulties with the red tape of adoption agencies given their erratic employment history and income. Holly’s updates provided a window into a life I imagined I might have had were I never to have left home—a series of accidents too embarrassing and catastrophic for me to look away.

It should have occurred to me, of course, that just as I peered into her world, she might have savored glances into mine. Four years of college, capped with pictures of mortarboards. A series of boyfriends with a range of hair colors and skin pigmentations. A vacation in London. PhD studies. And when I posted that I would be visiting so close to home to give a conference talk, she commented that I had to come over for dinner.

I was evasive. I have to check my schedule, I said. I have all of these people I’m supposed to meet with–you know how busy these things. I checked myself.  She wouldn’t know. Also, so little of what I said was true, because I was not keynote speaker, no special guest. My commitments at the conference ended at five, and then I had nowhere to be, so I sat in my hotel bed with a fast food salad perched on my lap and HBO on the cathode-ray tube TV. I looked at my smart phone, only to find another post on my Facebook wall from Holly to ask if I were coming.

I did consider, momentarily, if I ought to abandon the hotel and make the drive, but the thought of going back outside; brushing off the rental car; driving through the squeal of windshield wipers against glass when the snow flurries were too steady to ignore, too faint for any regular interval of the wipers to tend to them quite right—it all seemed like a terrible burden, and inside a couple hours I’d have to do it all again to get back to the hotel, or else, more likely, get convinced to stay the night on whatever futon or air mattress they had lying around, only to scramble to get up and back to the hotel early in the morning to collect my things and catch my flight home. It all felt unreasonable. I considered ignoring Holly’s newest post but, instead wrote back, I’m sorry. I can’t this time. But the next time I’m in town, for sure.

Two minutes later, she commented back, Next time. I’m going to hold you to that.

And at those words, I recalled a moment when Holly and I first bonded as a pair of chubby girls in junior high. I remembered talking at Abigail Fesnaught—my social equal and best friend through all of elementary school, who in the summers between sixth and seventh grade had grown two inches taller, lost some of the baby fat from her cheeks, and perhaps most importantly sprouted the beginnings of breasts. When the school year started up, Abigail never sought me out, it was always me following after her—her and the girls I didn’t remember being her friends before. The cloudy autumn day I’m thinking of, we stood at recess on the gravel track that surrounded a football field where the boys played. I tried to tell her about my mother’s catastrophic attempt at a sweet potato Alfredo sauce the night before, when all a sudden she ran. Ran far too fast for me to have caught up. Ran with her new friends, giggling, and very literally leaving me in the dust that they kicked up from the ground in their wake.

I sat on the bleachers by myself. Holly joined me and we didn’t say much of anything at all, but I liked having her there. The next day, we sat together at lunch, and then back on the bleachers at recess. In the weeks to follow, we discovered we didn’t have all that much in common—I liked top forty radio music, she liked grunge; I watched the VHS recordings my mother had made of Days of Our Lives and read from The Chronicles of Narnia in the evening, Holly liked professional wrestling and once divulged that she kept a collection of dried boogers on the reverse side of her headboard. Just the same, we were companionable with one another in a time when the most an unpopular girl could really hope for was someone who didn’t mind being called a friend.

#

I went to Holly’s graduation party. By then, I had started to make new friends, but vowed not to abandon this one. Never to repeat the cruelties of Abigail Fresnaught, who I didn’t even dare ask to sign my yearbook by that point. Who had dated a boy from the football team all senior year.

It was a small party. Just Holly’s family, me, and Dave. A vanilla sheet cake with white frosting, on which the decorator had drawn sugary pink roses and green vines, and accidentally spelled the girl of honor’s name with an i at the end. Holly’s mother had done her best to fix it, but only made a mess of the latter half of her daughter’s name, and made whole cake look junky and repurposed.

Gray clouds and drizzle ushered us from the backyard into the house, where the kitchen counters were stained in a Rorschach test of grease stains and coffee rings. Holly’s pot-bellied uncle, clad in a plain white t-shirt and suspenders, offered her a tallboy and advised her to Drink up, this is as good as it gets.

Holly mentioned something to her mother about me going off to college. I tried to deflect the questions to follow in a series of yes and no answers, too short to engage, but they kept coming. Her mother beamed at the idea, gently nudging Holly toward giving community college classes a try. That she might be a nurse one day, or a hotel manager like her friend Rita’s daughter. Holly’s uncle snickered when I said that I intended to study art history with a minor in English literature. He rolled his eyes when I mentioned that my parents had set up a college fund for me when I was little.

Holly didn’t listen, or at least did her best to act as though she didn’t. She sipped from her beer slowly. I knew she hated the stuff from the time Dave had shoplifted the three of us a six-pack of Yuengling and driven us to the mall parking lot after the lights had turned off, and the shoppers had all gone home. Holly and I were both disgusted at the taste of it, and horrified at the way it foamed over brim of the cans after all that shaking in the trunk of Dave’s Civic, so Dave ended up drinking all of them himself, and ralphed up suds on the pavement. She must have been trying to please her uncle then, or else trying on her adult life.

“I’ll miss my parents. And having my own bedroom,” I said, and that much was true. I felt compelled to add more, though. To layer it on, in ways that couldn’t have rung true to anyone. “And who wants to do all that reading? And eat dining hall food? Honest, I’m just going to make my parents happy, but I’ll probably drop out after the first year.”

At a point in the Meacher marriage when the two of them were down on their luck, but still young, and when Holly was still in love, and the doctors hadn’t yet been conclusive about their suggestion the couple could never have children together, Holly observed the hickeys on Dave’s neck. They were almost, but not quite covered by the collar of his black and red checkered flannel shirt, and her daily, mostly playful naggings about him coming home late from work turned to accusations and interrogation.

In his defense, once the jig was up, Dave didn’t lie.

“Who is she?” Holly asked.

“The girl who gets my coffee at the Dunkin Donuts.”

“How did this happen?”

“I’d make small talk with her every morning. Then she wrote her number on my cup.”

Her voice grew shrill with the recognition that getting answers in such a cavalier fashion was little better than lies and equivocations. “And you slept with her?”

He didn’t bother answering. Twisted the knob over spigot on the box of cabernet on the counter to pour himself a yellow coffee mug full.

“You slept with her,” Holly said.

They both knew she wasn’t leaving. Dave owned the house and made the payments on the mortgage. Dave had rigged the trunk of her car so it would stay shut while she was driving, and only he knew how to get it open and shut when she needed it. Dave gave her two twenty dollar bills every weekend to buy the groceries. The most Holly could do was tell him to leave for the night, but he had already established he had someplace else to go and another body to keep him warm.

Dave kissed her forehead and went off to his thread-worn recliner to sip wine and traverse a constellation of TV stations.

Emily Chabot testified that Dave Meacher had seen it coming.

Emily had worked a stint, not dancing, but taking drink orders at The Tomcat strip club on Bleeker Street where Dave was not quite a regular, but stopped by often enough for her to recognize him. She found him charming in a way she never would have expected. It wasn’t unusual for men to leer at her, but Dave made eye contact, exchanged full sentences, and she never spotted any of his friends egging him on to engage her. Truth be told, she rarely he saw him with friends.

He was the one and only customer Emily ever took home.

Afterward, Dave told her about Holly. “I’ve given her a thousand reasons to hate me, and haven’t given her a damn thing she can do about it. One day she might explode.”

Did he seem worried about that?

“Not worried.” Emily crinkled her brow and looked down. “It’s more like he was sure. Like it was inevitable.”

#

I can only speculate what those final minutes of Dave’s life were like.

He must have sat across from Holly at the little card table, repurposed as a kitchen table, with wooden salad bowls, mismatched cups of wine. Paper napkins. Space left for the candle Holly used to light. She’d given up on candles because she had found it easier to quit smoking in the absence of a lighter and matches in her home.

Ceramic plates heaped high with spaghetti. Store-bought sauce, sprinkled with oregano and parmesan cheese.

He tried to make small talk. To ask how Holly had spent her day, not in the accusatory way he used to, with the implication that she got to relax while he was hard at work. With interest. He was trying to get better at that. To notice when she scrubbed the toilet. To thank her when she washed their bed sheets.

But the words were harder. At first he thought he was tired. Then there was something stuck to his tongue. Then he realized his tongue was swelling. He got to his feet, to the second kitchen drawer to the right of the sink. He kept an epipen there at home. An epipen in the second, right desk drawer at work. But it was nowhere to be found. The thought occurred to him that Holly might have moved it in one of her cleaning and reorganizing spells. He turned to her. Frantic. Where is it? His last, frenzied words, obscured by a tongue that filled his mouth by that point. Where is it?

The cat watched this all with interest. He didn’t occupy the same space as the man often—found him too clumsy, too loud, not to mention that he consumed too much of the woman’s attention when he was around.

But something was wrong with the man. He had turned red in the face. He coughed. He fell to the floor. The woman didn’t react. For years, she had fawned over him and though the cat had recognized, with appreciation, that she grew less beholden to the man over the passage of time—that she would not, for example, abandon her stroking to rush to the door to greet the man anymore when he came home—this failure to react nonetheless seemed strange. The cat brushed against the woman’s calf, where she sat in the chair, and then ran to the man’s side, to ensure the woman noticed the man’s body. The cat circled the man’s head until a foamy wetness bubbled from his mouth, and then the cat fled to the corner between his bed and the wall in the next room. The space where only he went. The space where he was safe.

The cat fell asleep there, only to be woken by wailing noises outside, followed by more men, tracking dirt into his home as they stomped through the door, through one room and into the next, and crouched by the man as if they might still save him.

It’s foolish to think that I might have changed the fates of the Meachers had I accepted Holly’s invitation and come to dinner that night. The thought has occurred to me that she may have invited me in order to have someone to corroborate the faux-accidental quality of the evening’s events—to suggest that none of us could find the epipen. Maybe she had some half-baked scheme to frame me for poisoning her husband.

But in another version of that night that I replay in my mind, I make the drive to Shermantown. I stop at a liquor store on the way and pick up a fifteen-dollar bottle of merlot, and when I arrive, Holly is touched at the gesture and pours us each a glass. Dave gets home from work and is surprised to find company, but he remembers me from high school and after a glass of wine, the three of us laugh about the time Johnny Reds unscrewed the cap to Mr. Garfinkel’s coffee thermos, and he ended up soaking himself mid-lecture. We conjure stories of the time Chris Tavern threw Joe Wychowski across a library table in a wild brawl, and the hall monitor who dashed into the fray lost her wig and looked so damned humiliated. Stories of sneaking into the faculty lounge to buy sodas from the vending machine students didn’t have access to. We remember the way we all laughed at the tacky disco ball that hung over the gymnasium for our senior prom but how, after the sun had set, and it caught the fluorescent lights from the hallway, it sparkled and gave us all the sense that something magical was happening, even if we were too conscious of looking grown up and cavalier to admit it at the time.

And in my presence, the Meachers are Holly and Dave again. They acknowledge the tough times they’ve gone through, but, just the same, interlace fingers with one another and hold on tight through coffee and a pecan pie dessert. They insist that I spend the night, but understand when I have to go. Holly hugs me, long and tight. Recognizing a handshake as too formal and a wave as impersonal, Dave hugs me, too.

And I don’t even know that I’ve saved them. That my visit staved off any homicidal whims that crossed Holly’s mind, and that the night they needed—of old friends and better wine and laughter—came at just the right moment.

For me, it is just a good night. A reminder that it is better to accept invitations. To keep in touch. Not to lie to old friends.

I remember this version of the night. Reiterate it until it feels like truth. Remember Holly standing by the window, watching to make sure my car will start. Remember Dave hugging her from behind. Remember their faces whitening in the glow of my headlights before I back away.


Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is an alum of Oregon State’s MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Iron Horse, Front Porch, and Bellevue Literary Review. He works as a contributing editor for Moss and blogs about professional wrestling and a cappella music on the side. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin. 

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