The Suspect

The Word: Count

Deborah counted the money in her wallet again. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, a hundred, twenty, a ten, two fives, a couple of ones… she could have sworn she had two hundred dollars in that wallet. At least forty dollars missing–at least.

Oh, she couldn’t be sure. To be fair, she hadn’t really counted it. And people on vacation often spent more than they thought they had.

But after a lifetime of handling money, she always had a fair sense of how much cash she’d tucked into her green wallet.

Her mind went to Beth, Jill’s daughter, who had come home last night, bleary eyed, when she and Jill were ready for bed. Over the last week, Deborah had become accustomed to Beth’s catlike appearances and disappearances, her dramatic pose, red lips and fingernails, the black dyed hair, the nose ring, the vintage dresses and strange shoes. A little star in the household, sightings always a privilege, a conversation even moreso. Beth the artist, a photographer, wrapped in her own legend.

But there was something about Beth, the practiced winningness of the smile, the way her eyes slid across your face, like she knew something about you you didn’t know yourself, like your shirt was buttoned crooked or you had chocolate on your face.

Last night, they’d chatted in the kitchen, Jill and Deborah in the nook, Beth leaning against the counter drinking a beer–two years underage, but Jill never said boo to that girl–and talking about a band that was trying to get to hire her as a tour photographer. It sounded like a poor excuse for a job, traveling with a no-name band as their official paparazzo. But Deborah was flattened after the day sightseeing, then dinner and wine with Jill at one of those impossibly good San Francisco restaurants down an alley which only San Franciscans seemed to know about… maybe too much wine.

She swore there was two hundred left in that wallet.

At breakfast, Deborah studied her old roommate in the quiet light, the beautiful light of a San Francisco morning. Jill looked old, her crow’s feet ground into the once-smooth face, her curls turned wiry as chestnut locks gave way to gray. Beth had been such a handful, ever since she was tiny. A girl who could smile and chat gaily with you, and yet you were never sure if she turned around and said the most cutting things when you’d left the room. Not like Deborah’s daughter Norma, a sunny day of a girl, now a senior year at Holyoke.

How could she tell Jill about this? One more line on that dear face. But the thought that Beth assumed she was that stupid, that blind, infuriated her. Jill might deny any flaw in her pretty, difficult daughter, it was understandable, she had raised that child alone after Toby had left them, she had done her best–she ‘d been threadbare with the work and responsibility. But it wasn’t good for the girl to look down at everyone as if they were going to be as blind as her mother.

She knew she should just keep her purse in her room. And fifty dollars, what was that? Jill was putting her up for free.. Though it put an uneasy distance between her and her oldest friend–like knowing someone’s husband was cheating and not telling her.

The next day, Deborah took money out of the ATM. It was just that some restaurants, these small ones, often didn’t take credit cards, after all. And the vintage shops. She bought some shoes. She bought three bottles of red wine. She took Jill out to dinner.

Before bed, standing in the wood-rich hall of the Russian Hill house, she counted her cash. Two hundred and sixteen dollars, twenties tens and fives. So easy if someone were tempted, to pull a few twenties from the stack.

Just then, the key turned in the lock. Quickly, Deborah stuffed the money back in the wallet and crammed it into her purse. Beth stumbled in the front door, her ridiculous shoes, her enormous bag. She was crying. She tried to smile when she saw Deborah, but she wasn’t able to. She pressed her slender fingers with their red tips to the furrows between her eyebrows. “Anything I can do?” Deborah said quietly.

Beth shook her head.

And suddenly, she didn’t want to know if Beth had stolen the forty bucks. Who was she, Joe Friday? She didn’t know what it would have been like to be Beth, to be raised by Jill, a neurotic at best, to know your father was living in Hawaii and wouldn’t pay a cent of child support. To have refused to go to college and have a mother who allowed that. She saw how thin was the brave front Beth presented to the world, how fragile. “Hey, if you ever need to get away, come out to St. Louis.”

She was surprised to find Beth’s arms wrapping themselves around her. “We miss you,” she whispered. “You should move back.”

She held the girl, her shoulders sparrow-thin, so unlike Norma, the life so close to the surface, like a bird you held in your cupped hands, its little bones, its tremulous life.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: ROW

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5 Responses to “The Suspect”

  1. Great work as always, Janet. Ever since you told us about your blog, I’ve been saying I was going to write and post something. Finally did this week. Thanks for the inspiration (and the exercise). Keep ’em coming.

    One Date at a Time

    He’d said Dinner?

    Certainly. She couldn’t believe it.

    He’d said Thursday?

    Sure. She couldn’t wait.

    He’d said Ethiopian?

    Uh, okay. She didn’t want to be the kind of girl who, on a first date, made a fuss about the food. But she was exactly that girl. The one who preferred your standard American/Italian/Mexican spots. Who’d request grilled onions on the side, hold the pickles, water with lime not lemon, lowfat dressing unless you have honey mustard, extra butter on the bread, please. She had started to realize, however, that her picky days were numbered, that was if she wanted the marriage-baby-house-soccermom gig. Her finicky ways had cost her dozens of second dates.

    And here was this guy who, for now, only knew her as a façade – the red-brown skin, curly hair with a little crunch, her forever glossy lips. They’d met at the library, him there for a book, her for a DVD. Chatting near the Information desk, she’d picked up someone’s literary leftovers just for show – the Count of Monte Cristo by some French guy and a travel book on Egypt. The books, she was convinced, are what set her up for Ethiopian. He must have figured her cultivated and unbiased.

    She flipped through the Egypt book while she waited for him, sitting near her front window. He arrived three minutes early, her street so quiet she could hear the crank of his parking break seconds after he turned off the ignition. Bookish and responsible. She was starting to have second thoughts.

    The sun hung heavy just above the two-story apartment complex across the street, still warm when she opened the door. One step inside, the overhead lighting colored his face a ruddy brown, painted pink-red on full lips. The dark, dark hair wrinkling and waving over his scalp. Bookish and responsible, but fine.

    Ethiopian.

    He followed closely behind her to the car and opened the door, her stomach twisted and tied. Worried, and she hadn’t even gotten a whiff of the place. Then he says something about the hole in the wall he’d noticed on the way over. He’d heard about their burritos.

    “Sure, that sounds good. We can get Ethiopian next time.”

    On a second date, it wouldn’t be so bad.

  2. Janet,

    Yours is awesome and I love these excercises more than a lot of things.

    Diane yours is pretty awesome too.

    Well…here’s mine:

    One. Two. Three. Four. Clare closed her eyes, whipped off her shirt, whisked off her pants and plunged into the November pool. Five. Six. Seven. She kicked up from the bottom, broke the surface of the water, and lost her breath to the raw chill. Eight. Nine. Ten. Her skin was all goosey. An upstairs light was on. Her mother’s silky silhouette paced the drapes. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.

    Baxter should be home any time now. Clare dog-paddled and listened out for his hand-me-down Chevy. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen.

    “Baxter?”

    Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen.

    Nineteen. Nineteen. Nineteen.

    “Yeah?”

    “You’re a dipshit. You should go tell mom you’re ok.”

    A passing wind tickled the bushes. They giggled. “What and ruin all the fun?”

    “I hate to piss on your parade, but you’ve been gone for two whole days and mom thinks you drove your car off a cliff… or something.”

    Twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two.

    “Baxter?”

    Twenty-three. Twenty-four. Twenty-five.

    “Baxter?”

    Clare jumped up as high as she could and dropped down as hard as she could. She was going to be a rock at the bottom of an ocean. Her hair haloed all around her.

    Twenty-six. Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight.

    Twenty-nine. Thirty. Thirty-one.

    “Where are you?” Clare bubbled her words into the water.

    A tiny blue fish answered. It swirled around her ankle, spiraled up her leg, braceleted her wrist and took a seat in her palm. It sucked at her skin with its thin kissy lips. Clare stroked its spine. She wanted to make it purr.

    Thirty-two. Thirty-three. Thirty-four. Clare’s body was panicking for air. She closed her fingers over the fish and came up.

    Her mother stood at the edge of the pool, her white robe fluttered a little at the bottom. “Clare?”

    Clare felt the fish wiggle and wriggle against her hand. But when she opened it up to show her mother it was empty. “Of course.”

    “Clare. Come on now. You’ll catch your….”

    Thirty-five. Thirty-six. Thirty-seven.

    Frozen, numb, red, and rubbery, Clare pulled and struggled her way out of the water and into the towel her mother held out for her.

    Thirty-eight. Thirty-nine. Forty.

    Clare shivered a convulsive series of shivers and tried to lurch her way toward the house.

    Forty-one. Forty-two. Forty-three.

    “I bet he just ran off with that girl,” Clare’s mother slid the glass door open. “I bet they’ll send us a postcard from Maui.”

    “Maybe.”

    Forty-four. Forty-five. Forty-six. Forty-seven. Clare stopped at the door.

    Forty-eight. Forty-nine. Fifty.

    “Clare?” Her mother looked so warm, inside the warm house, on the warm carpet, in her warm robe, waiting.

    Clare didn’t want to stop counting. She wanted to sift through all the stars in the sky, until she found that one point of light Baxter was hiding behind, until she knew where to look whenever she needed to remember that he had been real and solid and huggable and punch-able once upon a time.

    • Very nice work. You’ve got great verbs!

      • caroljeangavin Says:

        Thanks so much. These excercises are great for pushing and trying things out. I love the fact that by the end I’ve got a whole mini-story. I swear it takes me at least five years to write a story anymore. It’s amazing to just write and finish and have these.

  3. I love seeing these Word shorts! So glad you’re enjoying the exercise.

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