The Merry Go Round
Nicole M. Bailey
I came back to Little Tree to live with my brother, Grover. We’d decided to move our father into a home. Not because he was old, but because he’d been a drunk for over thirty years, and his brain amounted to a pile of ooze inside his skull. My brother had dealt with enough over the years, so I came home. I thought I could help him make ends meet. I knew he couldn’t afford Dad’s room at Vida! – neither could I – but at least we could split the mortgage, and maybe I would figure out what I was going to do with myself.
My brother managed the discount department store in Little Tree known as Acheson’s. Acheson’s had almost everything you needed as far as clothing and housewares. The nearest Sears or JC Penney was an hour away, which made Acheson’s convenient and necessary. Grover offered me a job at the store while I looked for something permanent. I’d been a legal assistant in a small law firm, but Little Tree had only one law office, and it wasn’t hiring. Besides, I hadn’t really enjoyed that type of work. Coming home was going to be a fresh start for me. That’s what I told myself.
I’d been home for two weeks when I met Linda. She came in to Acheson’s with her boyfriend, Russell, one Saturday while I was restocking the Fiesta Ware. Grover was behind me with a clipboard counting the dishes as I unpacked them and arranged the display in a happy, ceramic rainbow.
“I’m looking for one of those juicers,” she said. Linda had a nasally voice with an unnatural pitch.
Grover turned around, and looked over his glasses. This small gesture made him look much older than his twenty-eight years. “Hey, Linda,” he said flatly. “Hey, Russell.”
Grover shifted his weight to his heels, a subtle nervous habit I recognized.
“What kind of juicer?”
She was reapplying a terrible shade of orange lipstick. Her hair was a faded lilac, and the eyeliner on her left eye was smudged all to hell. “The one that’s always on TV – what was it called, Russell?” Russell’s phone was inches from his face. He didn’t answer. Linda turned around and slapped the phone out of his hand. “What the fuck?” he said. Linda smiled and said, “Baby, what was that juicer called? The one on TV?”
He bent down to grab his phone, and said to the scuffed linoleum, “How am I supposed to know?”
“I think you’re asking about a Nutribullet,” I said. Grover turned to me with relief. “Would you show Linda where the Nutribullet is?” he said.
I nodded. “Follow me.” She looked to be in her thirties at least. She was wearing a potent citrusy perfume that itched my throat. Russell trailed us. As we were winding through the department store, Linda said, “You must be new around here.”
“Not really,” I said. “I was born here. I moved away for a while. Grover’s my brother.”
“Oh, you’re Elaine.”
“Yep,” I said and pointed to my name tag. It was a sarcastic gesture, but she didn’t get it.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” She chewed on her bottom lip, studying the box and the surrounding juicers. Russell’s head was down, his thumbs flying across the screen of his phone. No one answered my question.
“Well, I guess if you need anything else, you know where to find me.”
I walked back to Grover, puzzled. “That was weird. What was that about?” He did not look at me. “It’s not important.”
“Come on tell me.”
He sighed and took off his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose. My brother was so clean-cut he looked like he walked off the set of Leave it to Beaver. Not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle anywhere. “I’ll tell you later. Let’s finish this and get out of here.”
At the end of our shift, we climbed into dad’s muddy, dented pickup.
“So…” I prodded.
“The thing is Linda’s kind of my ex.”
I couldn’t help it. I started to laugh. Grover rolled his eyes and yanked the truck into gear. “I knew it,” he said. “I can’t tell you anything.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I said, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand.
“You dated her?” I tried to keep disdain from my voice. I heard it anyway.
“A year ago,” he said.
“You might have noticed she’s a bitch,” he huffed.
“Yeah,” I said, “but what happened?”
During my fifteen minute break earlier that morning, I was thinking about the way we’d left our father at Vida! a week before. No one was more relieved than Grover to have Dad out of the house. Dad’s mind was so deteriorated I was convinced he was not a wet brain but rather in an advanced stage of dementia. The doctors at Vida! and my brother assured me that this was not dementia. His mind really was goo. His coherent moments were unpleasant. My dad was calling Grover “Pussy Pants.” Since I’d been home, my father had not used Grover’s name. I determined then that something must have really gone off the rails while I was gone. Grover was the kind of person who kept his emotions balled up in his fists. I couldn’t ask him where this new name had come from. Even as we left our broken down father in his new home, his face so worn, his nose a red beacon, he’d called out after us, “So long, Pussy Pants. So long, Sweet Pea.”
“The Linda story is a long story.” I got the feeling he wanted to talk about it anyway.
“Let’s hear it.” He cleaned his sunglasses with his Acheson’s polo shirt, and put them on his face with a deliberate flick of his wrist.
“Fine. You know the Merry Go Round?”
The Merry Go Round was a well-worn establishment in Little Tree. The bar was filthy, the floor sticky, and it wasn’t common to leave before midnight. Linda was starting to make sense if this story began at The Merry Go Round.
“Well, they’ve got a karaoke night now. I was pretty into it. Don’t make that face, Elaine. We both were. I mean every Friday and Saturday that’s where me and Linda were – singing karaoke. It was a nice release. You weren’t here. You don’t understand how bad Dad was getting. He could barely put a spoon to his mouth without dribbling everywhere and mumbling some goddamn nonsense.
I was spending a lot of time with Linda, sleeping at her place. I started to feel guilty because I was pretty sure I’d come home to him dead. Then I started hoping I would come home to him dead. That’s beside the point. I’m talking about the karaoke. We would pick some songs during the week and practice our asses off. We would bring the house down! I mean it – we were very popular. All the sudden, Dad stopped drinking. Maybe something inside him was waking up. Maybe he felt his own mind slipping. He hadn’t had a drink in two weeks!”
Grover was so earnest his voice had a tug to it. The longer he talked the less I wanted to laugh. Inside my throat, the little pebble I carried around grew into a boulder. Grover pulled to the side of the road. I suppose he was getting emotional. He was difficult to read, his emotions opaque and distant, but there was a tension rising in the car so unfamiliar I was haunted by it.
“So why’d you break up?”
“One afternoon, we stopped by the house so I could check on Dad. I was trying to encourage him, keep him accountable. I’d also been policing the house for booze. I wanted to help him. My phone rang. It was my salesclerk, Jerry. He’d stepped out for a cigarette. The shit head locked his keys inside the store. So I told Linda to go in and check on Dad while I went all the way back to the store and let that asshole in.”
Grover took his hands off the wheel. He opened and closed his hands. Maybe part of my brother’s impenetrable personality was the result of his name. A name like Grover did not go unpunished in Little Tree. It was our father’s name.
“I was gone an hour and a half at the most. When I got to the house, I saw Dad and Linda on the balcony.” Grover scratched at a blister on his palm.
“What? And it didn’t collapse?”
The balcony off the second floor bedroom was an addition my mom demanded over twenty years ago. Our Uncle Bud added it to the house. Uncle Bud wasn’t exactly a professional and the balcony was deemed unsafe around the time our mother left to live with her sister in Los Angeles.
“Yeah, they were on the balcony, six shot glasses and a bottle of Early Times lined up in front of them. Dad was leaning on the balcony rail and hollering gibberish as I came up the drive. I was so angry. I was sweating. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe I trusted her, maybe even loved her. And him! Where had he gotten that booze? Still a mystery to me. And yeah, Linda’s trashy, and she’s crass, and the karaoke thing was dumb. Still, I enjoyed it. For a little while, it was nice. When I saw her up there drinking with him, something in me snapped.” His voice had gone low and cold.
“What did you do?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
“Well, I went up the stairs and out onto the balcony. Dad was bent, leaning over the rail and trying to tell some joke, I guess. Linda was giggling like an idiot. It happened so fast, but the next thing I know I was holding the son of a bitch by his waist over the railing. Linda was behind me screaming and clawing at my shirt, trying to stop me. I kept dangling him over the rail. I wanted to drop him like a sack of rocks. I was shaking him out like he was full of change. And all the while, the only lucid thing to leave his gummy lips was, “Go ahead and do it, Pussy Pants.”
My brother had taken his sunglasses off. He was squinting through the windshield.
“I wish I would have dropped him.”
Two times in my life, I’ve been at a literal loss for words. Once on a camping trip, my father was drunk and angry because we’d been playing while we were supposed to be packing. He got in the car and left my mom, Grover and me behind. I remember the truck squealing and swerving away, the sound of the creek singing behind us. When he came back an hour later, I wasn’t sure what to say to him. I wasn’t sure I would ever know what to say to my father again.
In the silence of this moment – as my little brother told me about the time he tried to drop our father off the balcony – it wasn’t that I could not understand him any longer, but that I truly did.
“I guess you broke up with her after that?”
“No,” he said. “She broke up with me.”
“And the karaoke?”
Grover started the truck again and pulled back onto the road. I thought about offering to sing with him at The Merry Go Round some time. But how could I make that offering? We passed flower beds, children on bikes, and dogs tethered to yard stakes. I wondered how different life could have been if our father was someone else.
Sometimes there isn’t a right thing to say. Sometimes you can’t have a fresh start.
© 2015 Nicole M. Bailey