20170510

Dennis Vannatta


Mann and Wife

Herby Mann

                Herby Mann had had the blues all afternoon, ever since Don Keck turned him down for a loan at the bank. Work—by bad coincidence helping Chris Underwood put a new roof on Don’s son’s house—held no joy for him, and way before he should have knocked off for the day, Chris told him, “Hell, Herby, Stevie Wonder could do a better job of nailing shingles than you’re doing. You might as well get your lazy ass on home.” So Herby went home.
                His mood didn’t improve there. Why should it? He was forty-one, on the downhill side of a life that’d never had much of an uphill. He couldn’t see things ever getting any better—part-time work, doing a little bit of this and that, getting bossed around by somebody barely out of short pants like Chris Underwood. That’s why when the idea had come to him yesterday afternoon it was like the clouds parting and the sun shining down, shining down, for once, on him: why not be his own boss? Start up his own business! He even knew what the name was going to be, “Herby’s Round TU-It.” It was his cousin, Lyle Stephens, who’d said to him one day, “Say, Herby, you ever had something you needed to get done but you just couldn’t seem to get around to it?” And of course Herby said why sure he had, and then Lyle handed him a wooden coin the size of a half-dollar with “A ROUND TU-IT” printed on it and said, “Well, now you’ve got one.”
                Everybody had trouble getting around to those little jobs at one time or another. Why couldn’t Herby be the one to help them out? He could do a little carpentry, a little painting, a little plumbing, a little electrical. He’d leave the big jobs for the fellows with the resources, but the little ones, why, they could add up to a by-God business. He’d need to do a little advertising, of course. He’d run an ad in that giveaway Weekly Shopper out of Monette. Probably get most of his jobs up there. He’d need to buy some tools, too, because now he mostly used tools owned by whoever hired him for part-time work. Eventually he’d need to buy a pickup, but he could make do with the old Saturn until things really took off. For now, he thought $2,000 would get him going. Maybe even a thousand would do the trick. One-thousand dollars. That was all that stood between Herby and a better life. And that shit-licker Don Keck . . .
                Herby’s mood wasn’t helped even a little bit when he opened the pantry door—he’d broken a shoe lace on his right sneaker and thought there might be a spare in there —and discovered a cake with HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DUMB-ASS on it, orange letters on chocolate icing. Herby loved cake, chocolate cake especially, but he didn’t get it often because his wife, Ginger, worked as a cook at the high school, and didn’t like to do more cooking than she had to when she got home. Baking? She hardly ever baked except once in a while to sell a cake to some woman too lazy to do the baking herself.
                He turned to Ginger, who was standing at the stove frying something, grease popping, steam rising around her.
                “Who’s ‘dumb-ass’”? he asked.
                “Huh?”
                “Who’s this one for? This cake?”
                She looked away from the frying for just an instant, saw him at the pantry door, and said, “That’s for me to know and you to find out. Now shut that door.”
                He shut the door and sniffed at the air.
                “What the hell’s that?”
                “Supper.”
                “Supper? My supper?”
                “Well, I’m cooking it. Unless you can find somebody else to do your cooking, I guess this is yours.”
                “It smells like dog shit.”
                “Ought to be right up your alley, then.”
                “What the hell is it?” It smelled familiar.
                “Liver.”
                Liver! He remembered his mother cooking beef liver when he was a boy, on his plate a grayish slab of something that looked like it’d been cut off a tractor tire. Tasted like it, too. His father had taken his outside and thrown it to the dog, came back in and said the dog wouldn’t eat it.
                Herby was standing there trying to think how he could get out of this when Ginger told him it was ready and to come sit down. He sat down. Ginger took the skillet off the stove and set it on a wooden cutting board in the middle of the table. It didn’t look like the liver his mother had made. The pieces were smaller, about the size of golf balls, and there were sliced onions in there, too. Ginger set a plate of biscuits next to the skillet—the odor of frying liver had been so strong he hadn’t smelled the biscuits baking—and the plastic tub of margarine.
                Ginger pulled a biscuit apart with her fork, buttered one side, heaped liver and onions on the other to make a little fat sandwich. Took a big bite.
                “Mmm.”
                Herby followed her example. It was so good he wanted to cry.
                “Damn, Ginger baby, damn.”
                “Taste like dog shit?”
                “I say damn. I’ve sure never had liver like this before. . . . Wait a minute. Yes, I have. This is chicken livers, ain’t it?”
                “Yes, it is.”
                “Chicken livers and onions. I have had this. Not for a good long while, though. Hey, wait a minute, I think I had this for my birthday supper last time, didn’t I? How long ago was that?”
                “Oh, about one year.”
                “One year—as long as that!”

Ginger Mann

                Herby didn’t realize it was his birthday until Ginger brought out the cake and set it before him. Not even precisely then, in fact, because she hadn’t put 42 in the middle on top like she’d planned. After she’d printed HAPPY BRITHDAY DUMB-ASS in a circle around the top edge, there wasn’t enough icing left for the 42, so she’d put the star-tip on the tube to make a star in the center. Only there was more icing than she’d thought, so the star turned out to look more like a dollop of orange bird dropping.
                Normally something like that wouldn’t have bothered Herby, but today he was obviously in a foul mood, which Ginger didn’t connect to his visit with Don Keck at the bank for the simple reason that she’d forgotten about it. He’d told her about his plans last night, kind of shy and excited like a little boy telling his mommy about wanting to be an astronaut, and Ginger figured he had just about as good a chance. Not that his handyman business was a bad idea. Ginger had been surprised to find herself thinking, in fact, that, hey, this might work, this makes some sense. But making sense didn’t make Herby Mann anything other than Herby Mann, and Ginger knew that no banker, certainly not Don Keck, was ever going to give a business loan to Herby. “Sure, sure, Herby, you go do that,” she’d told him, and then went back to doing her Word Search puzzles.
                It wasn’t until she put the cake on the table and started cutting into it, and he said, “What are you doing?” and she said, “Slicing the cake,” and he said, “But who’s going to buy a cake you done cut into?” and she said, “Well, hell, Herby, who’s going to buy a cake with ‘dumb-ass’ on it?” that it finally occurred to him whose birthday it was.
                “How do you like that? I forgot my own birthday.”
                “Dumb-ass.”
                Her original plan had been to put Happy Birthday, Herby, on it, but yesterday afternoon Herby had changed the oil in the car, got oil all over his hands, tried to wash it off with a little bit of soft-soap, then dried his still-oily hands on that pretty hand-towel Tara, their daughter, had given Ginger for Mother’s Day. Ginger had soaked it down with Spray ‘n Wash, and she was going to let it sit another day or two before laundering it, so it remained to be seen if the oil would come out. This afternoon she’d seen the hand towel draped across the top of the washing machine right before she started to decorate the cake. Hence: DUMB-ASS.
                If Herby minded the “dumb-ass” Ginger couldn’t tell. He loved chocolate cake and tore right into it. Herby was an old softy, rarely complained, just took what came along.
                It was then that Ginger remembered his plan to see Don Keck, which might have accounted for his mood earlier. She felt sorry for him—not for not getting the loan so much as for wanting it in the first place. Ginger was a strong woman because she knew precisely who she was and what she was, and she never wasted time on desires beyond her scope. Usually she’d just laugh at people and their foolish dreams and any other day would have laughed at Herby, too. But he’d had the double-bad luck to dream on his birthday, so she didn’t laugh at him. She felt sorry for him.
                She watched him finish a second slice of cake, and then she said, “Well, I guess you want your present now.”
                He looked confused. “You mean I get a present, too?”
                When Tara got all smarty-pants on them and announced she wanted to try college, they helped her out all they could with tuition and room and board. There wasn’t much left over, so they’d decided to stop giving each other birthday presents. Anything that cost, money, anyway.
                “Sure. I always give you a special present. Don’t you remember?”
                “But I thought we agreed . . .”
                “Come on. I’m not going to give it to you here in the kitchen,” she said. She walked around the table to where he was seated, reached down and grabbed him by the belt, her fingers around the buckle, knuckle pushing against the button on his fly, and pulled him to his feet.
                He blushed. He tried to say something but couldn’t manage it.
                “Come on,” she said, pulling him after her out of the kitchen, shaking her head all the way to the bedroom, thinking, Men. Why is a little thing like that so important to them and wondering which was more important to Herby, his “special present” or the bank loan but knowing the answer to that, too, the big baby. How did men ever get along without women? But then she thought, That’s the most obvious thing of all: they don’t.




Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including Otoliths, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.
 
 
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