Cooler by the Lake

by Jane Finlayson

Nicky peels the skin off the chicken in one slick move, like she’s undressing some squirmy little kid before it makes a getaway.

“Stay put, you twisted bag of bones,” she hisses, holding the bird upright and slapping onion halves and rosemary into the cavity before wrestling the entire slipperiness into the slow cooker.

Dave’s kids are coming for Sunday dinner before they head back to college tomorrow, and she’s determined to make it nice. She knows they don’t like her because they ignore her and look right through her even when she’s speaking to them. Unless their father is in the room and then they pretend to be interested. But tonight she knows they’ll be polite and suck up to him until he makes a big deal of picking up his wallet from the hall table to hand over some extra cash for a taxi—and then some—when they leave.

Nicky never leaves her own wallet lying around anymore, not since she figured out that she was always short a couple of twenties (sometimes more) after the kids visited. What bugs her most is that the culprit thinks she is Just This Stupid and doesn’t even notice. She doesn’t tell Dave because she knows he wouldn’t believe her. My kids? No way! Like she’s making it up for some bad reason. Besides, she can still remember swiping coins from her own mother’s purse that sat like a fat, brown Buddha on their hall table, inviting happiness. Nicky didn’t do it because she felt malicious or entitled, which is how Dave’s kids seem to be. Entitled. No, she was just greedy and in a big hurry to buy the latest CD or fruit-flavored lip gloss to fit in with the kids at school who got everything new the minute stuff hit the shelves.

Her brother, Todd, was just as sneaky, even braver, filching bills so he could buy the next Transformer or video game to keep up with his own rich buddies. Anything to be cool; it drove them to distraction. How they both wanted to be living a different life. Getting what they wanted instead of only what they needed. They wished for parents who would drive them all over the place instead of making them walk or take the bus. Parents who wouldn’t make them clean up their rooms before they could go out. Dave’s lumpy kids, on the other hand, wouldn’t recognize a Swiffer if it fell on them. She checks the clock and turns on the slow cooker—Why do people even have kids in the first place? —and decides she still has enough time to grab a few things at the store before she heads down to the lake to meet Deb for brunch.

Dave and Nicky have been in the house for more than a year, but it still feels new, in a good way. They’re friendly with Deb and Doug, the couple next door who welcomed them the day they moved in but haven’t really met too many other neighbors since then. Maybe they needed a dog to get to know the other neighbors, who all seem to have a cute breed always decked out in some type of seasonal neckerchief. Still, it’s a great neighborhood. Lots of big, old, gnarly trees and gardens full of the kind of hardy perennials she vaguely remembers from her grandparents’ backyard. Butterfly bush and honeysuckle. Hollyhocks. Glads. Forget-me-nots, lily-of-the-valley. Rhubarb in the corner by the garage. On weekends the neighbor on the other side is up with the sun, endlessly weeding, digging, and hauling organic junk around. He’s widened the thin strips of the original flower beds into interesting winding shapes and mounds, removing most of the old, weedy lawn in the process, and planted unexpected combinations of waving grasses and wildflowers. When he does take a break, he drops like a stone into a fake wicker lounger and hunches over his phone to create enough shade to check his texts. He might as well hang a Do Not Disturb sign because if he does notice Nicky or Dave, he barely nods. There’s never any chit-chat with this busy-busy guy. Still, his grasses and flowers are a beautiful, soft sight, swaying and brushing against the fence like they’re painting it over and over again.

Nicky likes hanging out with Deb. They hit it off right away, yakking over a decent bottle of French rosé about a quick-and-dirty goopy Nigella dessert recipe.

“Super simple,” promised Deb. “Meringues, pomegranates, and whipped cream all kind of mushed together? To die for.”

The week after they met, they started walking around the reservoir together before work. By the third week they skipped the walk entirely and went for skim cappuccinos at the nearby espresso place with the large, welcoming, wraparound patio. All through the fall they still sat outside, near the man-sized heaters that kept the chill away until the first snow, when the owner finally put the tables away. Now, a year later, they don’t bother anymore with workout clothes and just hang out in their jeans and Ts. Once in a while they split a low-fat Morning Glory muffin, no butter.

Nicky and Deb are not the starter wives, for which they are eternally grateful.

“Yeah,” snorted Deb when they discovered their mutual non-starter status. “At least he already knew women actually do fart!”

“And I’m basically the pension plan,” laughed Nicky, who’s twenty years younger. Maybe his kids will appreciate her someday when she’s the one looking after a dying, drooling old man barely shuffling along. Not that she dwells on that thought, of course. But sometimes she wonders what it would have been like to be the dewy-eyed first bride; the innocent couple, invincible, starting out with untarnished hope. She wishes she had been adored by a guy with undiluted dreams instead of ending up with Dave and his bottomless bucket of resentment against his ex. He won’t even say her name. Instead it’s “what’s-her-name” (in bitter moments), or “the mother of my children” (in polite company), or, to his kids, “your mother” (most of the time). And too often dripping with sarcasm that makes the kids wince. Nicky thinks he should just keep quiet when his nasty mood hits and could almost hug his kids when he uses that tone. It makes Nicky sad, knowing that Dave and the ex were once that shiny, young couple shimmering like figurines on a wedding cake.

People sometimes think Nicky and Deb are sisters. For Nicky this is weird because she always wanted a sister but has no idea what it would have been like. A sister probably wouldn’t have pinched her budding tits and mocked her pimply-faced boyfriends like Todd had. So she’s leery of the sibling thing, even though he appears to have turned out okay after all, decked out in his fancy bank office downtown in the corporate canyon with a clear, wide view over the lake. Not quite a corner office, but close, and up so high that her ears pop in the elevator whenever she goes to see him there.

Since Deb is twenty years older, Nicky worries that she somehow looks old enough to actually be her sister. Not because she’s vain but because she’s noticed that Deb’s getting a saggy-baggy ass no matter how much she walks, as well as the odd stray facial hair that sproings neon-like in the bright sun and, lately, a little belly pooch that she sometimes pats affectionately, depending on how much wine she’s had with dinner the night before, and calls her menopot. Apart from these physical horrors that Nicky intends to avoid, when she steps back from the aging thing, she can see how much she and Deb seem alike. They cheerily bounce along together—Saturday ponytails high on their heads swinging like pendulums across their long necks. They hug hello and good-bye, order the same extra-hot, non-fat, no-foam cappuccinos, and bitch about always being the ones who have to organize everything. They both wonder if they’ve just settled because they’re too afraid of being alone again, as tempting at that can be some days when they compare their lives of less frequent sex, more sports channels, and many irritating, late-night emails from the boss.

* * *

This has been one weird year so far. Rainy summer weekends, a garbage strike, tornadoes, and now, after Thanksgiving, an infestation of kamikaze wasps in a too-little-too-late heat wave. Trudging home from the store with her groceries in a five-cent plastic bag and carrying a big bottle of bleach, Nicky hopes she doesn’t meet any neighbors walking the other way with their eco-friendly, reusable totes. She never remembers to take her own because most of the time she heads out with zero intention of shopping until she’s right by the plaza and then suddenly remembers a few things she needs to pick up. Crazy to apologize for carrying eggs and toilet paper home in a bag. But she does. Sorry, forgot my bags! she says cheerfully to the weird gardener neighbor’s wife walking a goofy chocolate Lab who likes to tear up the grass in the triangle park down the street and takes dumps the size of bricks. Which get picked up in purple plastic bags and carried home like a prize.

Nicky is hurrying now. She puts the eggs in the fridge, dumps the other stuff on the counter, and heads out again to meet Deb. The plan is to walk along the boardwalk to the boathouse and back, then head up to Queen to the good omelet place. They pretend to take turns choosing the restaurant but always end up at the same place. Nicky grabs her light jacket because it will be cooler by the lake. She hopes it’s windy too so the waves build and crash against the tame shore and make it feel more like a real beach, a vast ocean spilling its secrets from the other side of the world. When she puts her keys in the jacket pocket, she yanks out a fistful of crumpled paper—grocery receipts, a faded packet of Splenda, a couple of twenties. She smoothes out the bills.

* * *

“Hey, Deb. Here I am.”

“Hey, Nicky!” They hug like they mean it.

The lake is flat calm today after all—boring, colorless—so they just do a quick loop around the bay and decide to hightail it up to Queen in search of caffeine and food. On the narrow street they pick their way single-file through the strolling throng of young families fully loaded—toddlers, buggies, dogs. Near the library Nicky notices the new bistro where she met friends from work for a drink last week.

“What about this new place? Wanna give it a try?” Deb asks. She saunters up to the front door to read the menu posted there.

“Wraps, curries, fish tacos, warm goat cheese salad, spinach salad with strawberries and pecans. Yum! Sounds pretty good. Price looks right. Interested?”

“Nah, let’s do the usual. I want that omelet,” says Nicky.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I know it’s your turn to choose but hey, why mess with a good thing.”

“Okay then, whatever. Makes no diff to me.”

“Great. Thanks. My treat.”

“Your treat? C’mon. No way. That’s not our deal.”

“Today it is because I found a couple of scrunched-up twenties in my pocket. Guess I forgot about them last time I wore this jacket.”

“Okay then. Count me in. A freebie! My lucky day.”

Nicky turns away and starts walking fast up the street to the next block. She resists the urge to run, tries to seem chill.

“Hey, wait up. Why the rush all of a sudden?” asks Deb, puzzled by the burst of speed.

“Caffeine. Gotta get some. Now!” It’s half-true so Nicky hopes she sounds convincing.

She decides she will never tell Deb that she was at the new bistro last week with her work buddies. That she saw Doug there, tucked in the corner booth at the back, oblivious to the rest of the room, sitting close, sharing a bottle of wine with somebody else. Leaning in close, nuzzling her tawny hair, smelling new skin.


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing