This story is by Bernadette Conroy and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I slid out of my truck into a snowdrift, dragging the precious sack of Johnny Black Annie talked me into charging on credit. The half empty, dusty bottle of scotch, left over from better days, sitting in the basement near shelves of her peach wine reclining like peaceful larvae, wasn’t good enough for dinner guest Larry. I secretly hoped this Nor’easter, this snow, would make him cancel coming out. But nope, Johnny-on-the-spot he was, for a free meal.
On top of this freeloader my sister was feeding for dinner, my grant to import Asian stinging wasps into the county to help control the stink bug infestation had been turned down again today. We stayed on top of the devastation at our peach orchard by turning infested fruit into peach wine. Annie’s idea. Most families hadn’t fared so well, including Larry’s, as he told her. She felt so bad for him when she saw him at the mall where she was returning some expensive nonsense face cream she did not need, that she invited him over to eat. He was so charmed, he went into the store and shoplifted the jar of cream back for her. Then he talked her into spending the rest of the day drinking Johnny Black in a mall bar with him.
I was looking forward to soothing my disappointment, losing the grant, with a nice glass of scotch. I’d toast another year of stink bug infestation and Larry, the loser. I should have left room for Larry to pull in the driveway behind, but I didn’t. If he couldn’t remember not to park on the main road after dark because of night plowing, it wasn’t my problem. He could ask me to pull in the driveway when he got here. Nothing better for the deputies to do than drive around the woods giving out tickets and calling for tow trucks at night. I decided to take our dog out for a quick walk now so she’d leave us alone during dinner, poor Peaches. She was mixed up by so much snow too, could barely find her favorite spot. The hydrant in front of our house was buried in the snow.
I stamped the snow clumps from my boots and opened the front door, calling for her to come on. The house was warm and steamy, and smelled of food, of Annie’s homemade sauce. It was nice to notice the hominess, as Annie and I are not big cooks, but then I felt annoyed that Annie was catering to another mediocre guy. I lay the bottle of Johnny down flat on the foyer table.
I opened the hall closet for Peaches’ leash. Several stink bugs launched from the closet’s deep recess, across the foyer and plopped onto the white liquor sack and begin to climb like clumsy snow-shoers. Peaches went for them.
“No, girl, no!” I still had my gloves on and palmed them before Peaches could eat them. I tossed them out into the snow where they struggled and petered out. Stupid bugs.
The first one out of hibernation showed up two weeks ago, on Annie’s toothbrush. She screamed, flicked it into the toilet, squirted hand soap at it and flushed. I made up spray bottles of soapy water before I left for the lab. As much as we sealed the house in the fall, they found their inside. We hated using chemicals in the house. Our family orchard was known for organic fruit. The Asian wasps were a natural solution, but the funders felt the poisons were effective enough. Keeping the stinks out of the fruit meant using pesticides.
Peaches was Annie’s birthday present when her wine became successful. I watched her now, bounding around the snow like the little lamb she resembled. The county had taken down the Paulownia and Moutain Ash trees around our home, but left the peach orchard alone. I looked at where my truck was parked. I wasn’t moving it.
When I came back in, Annie was in her room, wearing her good party dress, the one showing her shoulder bones and the tops of her breasts. She was putting red earrings into her ears. She had got one side in and was working to find the hole on the other side, pulling on the lobe and jabbing, jabbing the sharp post, but not finding the piercing. She sighed and started over, pulling the lobe taut between her thumb and finger, dragging the stem across her skin. It caught.
“I guess this hole’s almost closed off. I should wear earrings more. Not just company.”
I looked down at my bulky, wintry sweater and wet jeans, my thick socks. “Are you expecting me to dress up too?”
“Your jeans wet? You tired? Oh, how was your day?”
“Looks like the county, the Extension’s, not going for the wasps.”
In front of her mirror now, Annie rustled the soft dress, crushing the big roses on the black background into folds. I didn’t want to change. I thought about what was in the back of my closet, what I possibly felt like wearing, that could stand up to that dress.
“Why are you getting all dressed up for this guy, Annie?
“What do you care what I’m wearing, just cause you don’t care about him?”
“He just sounds like the same character he was in high school, ditching school and not serious. Now he’s telling you all his sad stories, his cheating wife, violating orders of protection, missing child support. He’s no dashing prince on a white horse.”
“Listen, things happened to him. I just wanted to make dinner for him, no big deal, we haven’t had anybody new over here in a while.”
“And shoplifting. Just seems you’re making a big fuss over another guy who might not be the best person to let in, you know?”
“I need friends, you know. Not just a dog friend.” She shrugged away from me and walked to the kitchen.
“I’m sorry.” She was poking a skewer in the bubbling lasagna, bent over the open oven.
“About what?” My jeans were damp from the snow, chilling me.
“Your wasps. Oh, just so you know, there’s sausage in the lasagna, and not vegetarian sausage. He said that his mother always put sausage in. You can pick it out, it’s big pieces.”
“You couldn’t just leave it to one side?” I thought about how my plate would look, like a little kid’s, sausage hunks picked out, piled to the side.
“What, like, serve Larry from only one side, us from the other? Like something’s wrong with it?”
“Just be truthful. Vegetarian.” I grabbed the bottle from the foyer and put it on the counter. I took down rocks glasses, dumped a couple of hibernating bugs down the sink. I’d planned to wait on Larry before pouring our first drinks, be polite. I changed my mind on that, too. I cracked the seal on the bottle.
“Oh, no, crap! Look, dinner’s ruined!” Annie pointed to a colony of crisped stink bugs on the oven floor. We cooked in the oven so seldom, Annie forgot to check.
“Not if we don’t tell. It’s not like we use poison in here. Just brush them out.”
“We’ll have to call for take out.”
“No, we’re not spending any more money on this guy, Annie. We’re doing enough. We’re giving him dinner. Just let it go. Besides, they’ll blend in with the sausage.”
I bounced lots of ice in a glass. I splashed a deep glass full and swirled. Before I could take one sip, the doorbell rang.
“I’m letting him in.” Annie stalked to the foyer, her nice shoes clacking. She let Larry in. Peaches was right behind, sniffing at his feet. I took a deep swallow from my glass.
“I’ll have what she’s having, bartender,” Larry snorted, “No ice!” He downed it, one shot. He slapped the glass down, slid it to me for a refill. Watching his deep wrinkles work as he laughed at his own wit, I didn’t care where he parked. I thought of the bottle in the basement, how the dust could have been wiped off.
“Why don’t we sit down to dinner?” Annie offered. She kept an eye on her dish, swiping at it with a dishcloth. “Just cooling it off, it’s a little hot.”
Halfway through dinner, the doorbell chimed again. I could see the county deputy’s red car lights flashing on Larry’s car parked out front and hear the beeping of the car’s open door warning. I opened our door for the deputy. I hoped they at least let Larry put his jacket on before they cuffed him.
“Evening, Professor,” the deputy said, squinting in the porch light, “Sorry to bother you but thought you’d want this as soon as possible. It’s a warrant from the TBB and ATF, the government, to investigate levels of pesticide and insect debris in Annie’s Country Peach wine.”