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Where Did Everybody Go?
Brandon French

It was the fourth of July, and some of the regulars were missing. Rachel’s cousin Wynn had vowed that he’d never set foot in their house again after Ronald called his dead sister, Evelyn Foster Fuchs, a dilettante. Wynn had turned purple, choked on his own saliva, and had to be given the Heimlich manoeuvre by Ronald’s maths teacher friend, Duane.
   ‘But she was a dilettante!’ Ronald kept repeating, even while Wynn was choking. Ronald hated people calling themselves artists when they were really just dabblers or enthusiasts. ‘She was a phony,’ he added, squirting a little more oil on the fire.
   ‘Shut up! Can’t you shut up, for God’s sake,’ his wife Rachel yelled, grabbing the bottle of wine that was nearly empty and pouring what was left down the kitchen drain. But that was last July 4th and this year Ronald had promised he wouldn’t drink.
   Also missing was Valerie, Ronald’s morbidly obese  teacher pal who had an easy laugh and a robust appreciation of Ronald’s stories about motorcycling through the south of France, Tuscany and Machu Pichu, and who never told Ronald he talked too much or drank too much and never said, ‘For God’s sake, Ronald, get to the point!’ like Rachel did. Valerie had died of a stroke in May and Ronald was still in mourning.
   ‘She was a great gal,’ he said at her memorial service, and whenever anyone brought up her name, and even if no one did.
   ‘Val was a great gal,’ he said.
   ‘You’ve already told me,’ Rachel said, streaking past him on her way to another part of their house.
   Most of their conversations took place across rooms: Ronald, stocky like an English bulldog with a shock of silver grey hair and bright blue eyes, standing bandy-legged and perplexed in the dining room or the kitchen, while Rachel, small and fast as a Thomson’s gazelle, with a dyed black bob and dark deep-set eyes, transported towels, linens, dry cleaning, misplaced books or sweaters and handfuls of mail to the bedroom, the bathrooms, the daughter’s room, the guest room which served as their office, or the garage, where Ronald painted his garish canvases of nudes and astronauts and the Mayan ruins of Chichen-Itza, still hopeful that a Los Angeles gallery would finally grant him a show.
   ‘Ronald, I need you to carve the turkey,’ Rachel called from the kitchen, interrupting Ronald’s monologue about how the art world had been kidnapped by homosexuals.         
   ‘If you’re not a cocksucker or a buttfucker, you might as well kiss off any chance of getting a showing,’ he was telling Duane, the heroic Heimlicher from last year, and his mousy wife Marsha, as well as Frank, who had landscaped their patio, which overlooked the ocean from the San Pedro hills, and Dorothy, a newly divorced bookkeeper. Edward, the music teacher at Daniel Boone Junior High (where most everyone, including Ronald and Rachel, taught), was grinning at Ronald like a petrified monkey, for even the suspicion that you were gay in 1971 could lose you your job.
   ‘Ronald, I need you to—’
   ‘Okay! Jesus! I’m coming,’ Ronald said, padding in his flip-flops towards the kitchen, where Rachel was waiting for him to carve the 20-pound turkey. She had insisted on a turkey rather than hamburgers or chicken, because it was ‘a dinner party, not a backyard barbecue, for heaven’s sake,’ but she slathered the bird with barbecue sauce before shoving it into the oven as a concession to holiday expectations.
   Ivy, Rachel’s 15-year-old daughter from her previous marriage, followed Ronald into the kitchen. She had spiky bleached blond hair, cut like a boy’s, and wore a short black tunic with white lace tights and motorcycle boots.
   ‘Hey, Ronald,’ she said, lowering her voice, ‘it’s très rude to say all that shit about homosexuals. Don’t you know that guy, what’s-his-name, the music teacher, is gay?’
   ‘Edward isn’t a fag,’ Ronald said with certainty, taking hold of the carving knife and severing one of the drum sticks neatly at the joint.
   ‘Well, actually, he is,’ Ivy said. ‘Don’t you remember when I told you that your best buddy Angelo was gay and you said you’d known him for forty years—’|
   ‘Cut lots of white meat, everybody wants the white meat,’ Rachel said.
   ‘And after forty years you damn well knew he wasn’t gay and then you realized that he had never once in forty years been with a woman—’
   ‘You’re cutting the meat too thick, Ronald,’ Rachel said.
   ‘And then you said, “Say, maybe you’ve got something there,” remember you said that?’
  ‘Say,’ Ronald said, stopping his carving to consider what Ivy was telling him, ‘maybe you’re right, I think you may be onto something,’ he said. ‘He lives with another fellow named Harold. But I thought—’
   ‘Why are you stopping?’ Rachel demanded. ‘Everybody’s hungry. They’re waiting for the turkey.’
   ‘See, that’s what I’m trying to tell you,’ Ivy said.
   Ronald began to carve again, but his mind was elsewhere. ‘Jeez, I would never have said that thing about the, you know, Jeez, I feel bad now …’ That was the thing about Ronald. He never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings but he was, as Rachel often said, like a bull in a china shop.
   ‘Ronald, for God’s sake, pay attention, you’re cutting the turkey too thin.’

Later, after the turkey had been served and eaten, along with the Honey Baked Ham for people who didn’t like turkey, and the potato salad and the tossed salad and the crescent rolls and the sweetcorn and peas with pearl onions and the coffee and all three pies, although Rachel had thought that the peach and the apple would be plenty, Ronald decided to propose a toast to Valerie.
   Most of the guests, including Frank the landscaper, who was pruning the Sago palm, had adjourned to the patio, where they could sit around or stand and appreciate the sunset and the cool ocean air and get positioned for later when the fireworks started. Ronald joined them and began herding everyone he could get hold of into a circle.
   ‘Come on now. Let’s join hands,’ he said, ‘because there’s someone missing this year and we need to say something about that.’
   Ivy quickly ducked back inside, where she found a half-full bottle of Michelob. After checking to see that her mother was loading up the dishwasher, she poured the beer into a plastic cup so that it could be mistaken for lemonade.
   Outside, Ronald had already begun his oration, forcing everyone in the circle to lift and lower their arms in rhythm with what he was saying. They lifted up for ‘we should all be’, and dropped down for ‘grateful that we knew Val,’ raised up again for ‘but we mustn’t forget her,’ and down for ‘because she was a’, followed by two quick ups and downs for ‘great’ and ‘gal’.
   In the kitchen, Rachel’s cousin Judy was regaling her with the details of her wrongful death suit against the surgeon who’d operated on her deceased husband.
   ‘I hired a Beverly Hills Jewish lawyer, the hell with the expense. If Barry had picked a Jew to do his surgery, he’d still be alive today. “Why are you letting some Iranian in Santa Monica cut your heart open, Barry?” I asked him. “Who knows where he went to medical school, it could have been a tent in the desert, for God’s sake.”’ She scooped the leftover potato salad into a plastic storage bowl and handed it to Rachel.
   ‘Oh, I know,’ Rachel said, putting the bowl in the refrigerator after rearranging several items to make room. ‘When Ronald had to break his apartment lease after we got married, he hired an Irish attorney from Hermosa Beach to defend him and he lost his shirt.’

Ivy, sipping her beer in the shadowy haven of the dining room, watched Ronald’s circle slowly shrink as one person, then another, gently pulled their hands loose, reattaching the remaining captives to one another. Ronald was now telling the entire story of his life before he met Valerie in the teachers’ lounge at Daniel Boone. He was a long way away from the meeting, somewhere in Guadalajara, where he had travelled in his mid-thirties to study mural painting with José Clemente Orozco, when suddenly Dorothy the bookkeeper pulled loose and fell in a heap on the gravel.
   The woman next to her cried out and kneeled down to help her. Two other women joined her. The only people left in what was now no longer a circle were Duane’s shy wife Marsha and Edward the gay music teacher.
   Daylight leaked from the sky, rendering the patio an amethyst purple, except for a few silvery geometrics that spilled out the windows from the living room lamps. Ronald, still holding the wife and the music teacher hostage, doggedly ignored the fallen bookkeeper, who was now being helped up from the ground and half-carried inside the house. Ronald’s lips were moving silently, as if he was trying to remember where in the story of his life he had left off.
   ‘Oh my God!’ Rachel cried from inside the living room. ‘Oh, poor Dorothy! Should I call an ambulance?’
   There was a series of gunshot pop-pop-pops and the first of the fireworks exploded in the sky, opening up like three successively larger umbrellas and showering fuchsia-coloured jewels onto the inky surface of the ocean. A chorus of appreciative ooooohs and aaaaahs travelled across the hilltops, acquiring volume and density as hundreds of homeowners, drawn out onto their patios for the show, joined in. Ivy slid open the screen door to the patio and stepped outside, walking over to Ronald and placing her hand on his shoulder.
   ‘Hey, Ronald,’ she said gently, ‘they’re dropping like flies out here.’ She felt sorry for her stepfather, even though he could be an asshole and sometimes he bored and annoyed her. For she was grateful to have a dad at all after having lost her biological father to leukemia when she was seven.
   ‘I know,’ Ronald said, finally letting go of Edward and Marsha, who vanished into the shadows like fleeing deer. ‘Where did everybody go?’ he asked, thankful for this stepdaughter who understood things and who he could talk to about art and politics, and who would sometimes even share a beer with him when Rachel wasn’t looking.
   ‘I don’t get it,’ he said, looking around helplessly.
   For years, he had made the rounds of the galleries with his primitive, subtly coloured Mexican paintings, and they’d told him that his work was dated, out of touch with the current trends. He spent a decade transforming his style into a mélange of Cubism and splatter art and they dismissed that also, deeming it too derivative. The sons of bitches were like a moving target he wasn’t fast enough to nail, and he felt spun around and flattened like a kid on the Rotor when the bottom drops out.
   ‘What happened?’ he asked, as gargantuan gold and silver parabolas sailed into the stratosphere, shrieking like teeny boppers at the sight of a rock star.
   Ivy realized that he wasn’t just asking about this one night but about all the nights, and the days too, like his heart was a little broken about something, or maybe a lot of things, but she didn’t exactly know what.
   ‘Where the hell did everybody go?’

(Issue 32)