(Originally published in Midnight Screaming)
“Hey Jane Fonda, get in here,” Al bellowed like a bull in a branding chute. “I’m out of beer!”
Peg ignored her husband; there was more than enough beer to last him through a full afternoon of football in the cooler she parked beside his Barcalounger before retreating to the basement.
Peg didn’t want to lose momentum. She was four sets into a challenging routine of bicep and tricep curls. She fought through the last few repetitions by mentally squashing Al’s screaming face between the heavy plates of the weight machine then reconfigured the weights for her lower body routine. Peg kept her equipment lovingly lubricated and maintained. Before Al lost his job at the waste management facility ten months ago, the complex series of weights and pulleys had been gathering dust in the basement. Al bought it, in six convenient payments, used it twice and never touched the machine again.
At first, Peg looked forward to having Al around the house while he looked for another job. He worked third shift for years and they’d rarely seen each other awake for over a decade. She imagined them talking over long leisurely meals instead of exhaustedly bolting down fast food in front of the television, but Al didn’t want to spend quality time with his wife. When he received his severance check, Al spent every penny of it on the largest television Costco sold and cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He now left his Barcalounger only to use the bathroom and change the batteries in the television remote.
Within a month, Peg stopped trying to get Al to eat at the kitchen table and stocked the freezer with Hungry Man dinners. Around the same time, Peg started working out three hours a night in the basement. Al could choose to wallow in defeat, but she didn’t have to watch. Initially she retreated to the basement to escape Al’s constant whining but Peg quickly began to crave the physical release she got from pretending the punching bag was her husband’s face. By the time Al had been out of work for six months, Peg had dropped four dress sizes and could lift twice her weight.
“Peggy, get your ass up here!”
“There is beer in the cooler next to you,” Peg called as she started a set of hamstring pulls.
“Not anymore, dumbass.”
She would have to go upstairs and deal with him if she wanted to finish her workout in peace. Walking up the stairs was like walking into a sauna. Al liked to watch football in his boxer shorts even in November. Judging from the cans he had thrown at the television, the game was not going well. Cans dripped beer on the carpet and a liquid had pooled in Al’s slippers. Peg hoped it was beer.
She opened the cooler and saw the two six packs she deposited there that morning were gone.
“Maybe you’ve had enough for today.” She began to gather the empty cans. “How about a Coke?” Peg dropped the cans into the empty cooler and looked at her husband. She hadn’t been this close to him in weeks. Dandruff speckled the tops of his shoulders, his nose was crusty and hair sprouted from his ears like tufts of grass.
“How’s the game?” she asked.
“We’re losing,” Al sighed.
“I didn’t know you were on the team.”
“Shut up! Just get me another beer.”
“You know where the fridge is.”
Al snuffled the air and declared, “You stink.”
“I’ll take a shower later,” Peg replied, which was more than she could expect from her husband. Al hadn’t showered in days. He reeked of preservatives and despair.
“Whatever, and bring me those cheese balls I had you to pick up at Wal-Mart.”
Peg stepped into the kitchen and opened the three-pound container. “Why don’t I put some in a bowl for you,” she called.
“Bring the damn cheese balls. Now!”
Peg brought him the tub of cheesy chemical orbs and a paper napkin she knew he wouldn’t use. The arms of his Barcalounger were permanently stained fake cheese orange and ketchup red. She stopped trying to clean the chair in the third month of Al’s “sabbatical” and started spreading old hand towels over the arm rests.
“You forgot the beer, stupid,” Al roared when she stepped back into the kitchen to change laundry loads. Al could wait while she carefully draped her brightly colored spandex shorts and athletic bras over a drying rack. She threw a load of Al’s boxer shorts and grimy undershirts in the washer with a splash of bleach and set the machine to hot before retrieving another six-pack from the beer fridge in the garage.
When she returned to the den, Al was clutching his throat and orange dust sprayed out of his mouth as he struggled to shout at her. He flailed his arms toward her and Peg rushed forward thinking he was reaching out to her, his long suffering wife of twenty-six years, in a moment of crisis but then realized he was reaching for the beer in her hand.
At that precise moment, the heat kicked on and a blast of cool air-dried the lingering sweat on Peg’s body leaving her tingling all over.
Peg stood in the doorway and calmly watched Al’s face turned from red to purple. She cracked open one of the cans in her hand and, just before he lost consciousness, took a long sip. The beer was bitter but satisfyingly cold.
When Al stopped moving, Peg gathered up the remaining empty cans and wheeled the cooler out to the recycling bin. She then took a long shower, dressed and put on makeup before calling the paramedics. While she waited for them to arrive, she wondered how long she should wait before dragging the Barcalounger out to the curb.