Interlude 3 − Spring 1998
Joe Blankenship looked in the mirror and adjusted his tie and collar where it chafed against his neck. Too tight: he’d gained near enough to 30 pounds of solid muscle in the last six months, but the money wasn’t there for new clothes. Why Mandy had insisted on formal dress for this date he didn’t understand; but he did understand that when she wanted something important to her, he went along unless there was a damn good reason to do otherwise.
He sighed. After dinner the four of them, Joe and Mandy, Bobby and Zoe, were headed to a performance of some play by some godawful amateur playwright at the Charleston Players. A double date in the city was awesome. But he’d have been happier with a football game and some beer.
Ah, well. Make the best of it, Joe. He straightened up and loosened his top button just enough he could breathe, leaving the slightly loosened tie to hold his collar more or less closed. She’d live through the embarrassment he hoped.
Joe washed his hands and stepped out of the bathroom, back into the dimly lit restaurant. He was sure the food would be good, but not as sure it would be worth the outrageous prices listed on the menu. He walked back to the table where Mandy sat with her brother Bobby and his girl. Zoe and Mandy were giggling about something.
Joe caught his breath looking at Mandy. She wore a blue and white checked dress, with thick shoulder straps, and a tiny silver necklace and matching earrings. The dress had a form fitting bodice and a flared skirt. Times like this, she was amazing.
He sat down next to her, leaned over and whispered, “Have I told you tonight, you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life?”
Mandy’s face flushed red, and her smile grew as her eyelids fluttered. “No,” she whispered, “but don’t let that stop you.” Joe whispered something else, and her lips parted, moist. Her eyes darted to the table and she curled against him.
Naturally Bobby chose that moment to interrupt his sister’s slide into danger.
“Mandy, did I tell you I saw Dad the other day?”
She immediately tensed, put her palms flat on the table. “No,” she said in a cool tone of voice. “Where? DId you talk with him?”
Despite Joe’s silent barrage of complaints against his best friend, Bobby continued. “Downtown, he was coming out of the pharmacy. He ‘bout blew a gasket when he found out about your early acceptance.”
Mandy, prim now, back straight, replied, “Why? He’s off the hook for tuition, why should he care when and where I go to college?”
Joe nearly growled, but kept his irritation to himself. Instead, he gently took Mandy’s left hand in his own right.
Bobby shrugged. “Dad, you know? I don’t think he approves of either one of us going to college.”
“Fuck him. I don’t need his approval.”
Zoe gasped at the curt response as well as the uncharacteristic language. “Mandy!”
Joe’s eyes widened. Mandy didn’t use language like that, ever. Except obviously she did sometimes. Silently praying they could find a way to change the subject before it ruined the evening, Joe said, “Forget about him. I’m proud of you, Mandy. Amazed.”
Bobby responded, “Well, she’s a mental giant, especially next to you, bud.”
Joe shrugged. “True enough, though I was smart enough to fall in love with her.”
Mandy smiled at him and squeezed his hand. Bobby responded by sticking a finger down his throat and pretending to gag. Zoe slapped him on the shoulder.
“Seriously though,” Bobby said, “Dad’s … a mess.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Bobby,” Mandy blurted out. “He’s been a mess for years. What’s new about this conversation? Does he have to ruin our night out, just like he ruined everything else in our lives?”
Bobby’s lips tightened. “He didn’t ruin everything, and he is our dad. I don’t understand why you aren’t the least bit concerned about him.”
“That’s because you didn’t have to spend three years fending him off raping you, Bobby.”
Half the restaurant went silent at Mandy’s response. She looked around them, horrified that she’d spoken so loudly, then whispered in a tense voice, “Now can we please change the subject?”
Bobby’s face was red, and he responded in a loud voice. “How can you say that Mandy? He never once put his hands on you. He’s our father.”
Zoe leaned close to Bobby and whispered something urgently. Joe felt Mandy’s hand tighten on his in anger.
“No!” Bobby replied to Zoe. “It’s time I said it. It’s her fault we’ve been stuck in a foster home the last two years.”
Mandy gasped. “How can you say that?”
The hostess, a pencil-thin twenty-something woman in black pants and a tight jacket appeared the table. “Excuse me, would you all mind keeping it down? Your disturbing our other guests.”
Bobby gave a nasty look to the hostess, then muttered under his breath, “You know its true. Dad was crazy, but it was manageable. Then you had to ruin everything. Look at him now, he’s like a hobo, drunk all the time, living off his disability. You should have some feeling for your family.”
Joe leaned forward and said in a low, cutting tone. “Bud, you may be my best friend, but it’s time to shut your mouth. No one has a right to talk to Mandy that way.”
Bobby said, “You stay out of it, Joe. This is between me and my sister.”
The impulse passed from Joe’s brain to his fist before he had a chance to think of the consequences. He hit with a straight short thrust, clipping Bobby on the chin and knocking him out of his chair.
Someone in the restaurant let out a scream, and Joe found himself standing with no transition, looking down at Bobby on the floor.
A moment later, the restaurant’s manager, a large, big-boned man with red hair stood there. “That’s it. Get out now, or I call the cops.”
“’S’all right,” Joe responded. “I lost my appetite anyways. Let’s go, Mandy.”
Zoe kneeled down beside Bobby, who simply looked stunned. “Come on, Bobby, let’s go.”
Moments later they left the restaurant. Outside, Joe faced Bobby. His pulse still raced with anger. “Are you finished, damn it?”
Mandy took Joe’s arm, whispered, “Calm down, Joe.”
Bobby cupped his chin where it was bleeding and said, “Yeah.” He sighed, then looked at his sister. “I’m sorry, sis. I shouldn’t have said that stuff.”
Mandy burst into tears. “You’re sorry! Do you have any idea what a nightmare it was for me since Mom left? Every time Dad got drunk, I had to keep my door locked! I never knew when he was going to come around trying to paw at me. He wasn’t just drunk, he was wrong! Every night since then I’ve thanked God we don’t live with him anymore. You want me to have sympathy for him? No, thank you. Maybe one day I can learn to forgive him, but don’t you ever tell me it’s my fault. I was twelve years old when he started! Twelve!”
She turned and hugged Joe, burying her face against his chest and began sobbing; big shuddering sobs that shook her whole body. He put his arms around her waist and held her tight.
“Oh, shit,” Bobby said. He sat down on the curb, still cradling his chin. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He looked up at Mandy, pain writ on his face. “Mandy, forgive me. It’s not you, never was. Sometimes I’m just… so angry.”
Mandy broke away from Joe and sat down on the curb next to her brother, then put a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t blame you, Bobby. So am I. It’s not you, and it’s not me, and it’s not even Dad, I think. I’m sure he wasn’t always that way. It’s the town we live in, and the mine, and the accident, and everything. It made him crazy and … mad as hell. You protected me from him, and don’t think I don’t know that.”
Joe kept his mouth shut, but joined the party, sitting down next to Mandy. Zoe sat down on the other side of Bobby, took his hand. After all, he was the asshole of the night, so the girls gave him all the sympathy and attention. Joe didn’t want to call attention to himself at this point: when Mandy was on an anti-Whitesville rant, she would often remember that Joe hadn’t applied to a single college. Not that it would have made a difference, with his grades. But the odds of him finding work outside the mine were slim to none, no matter how lovely the economy looked.
Mandy suddenly smiled. “Do you remember before Mom left, when he used to come home from the mine with roses every Tuesday? There Dad would be, covered head to toe in black dust, but holding that red bouquet?”
“Yeah,” Bobby said. He took a breath, then added, “Sometimes I could kill her for leaving.”
Mandy’s smile turned bitter. “Me too. Not for leaving, I understand that completely. But for leaving us with him. I never understood why she didn’t take us.”
Silence settled over the foursome, then Bobby looked over at Joe. “No hard feelings, Joe? I’m not sore, I deserved it.”
Joe nodded. “Yep, you did. No hard feelings, bud, your still my best friend, even if you are a blockhead sometimes.”
Bobby chuckled, then replied, “Someday we’ll look back on tonight and laugh.”
“Well,” Zoe responded, “I won’t be laughing if I don’t get something to eat before the play.”
Mandy nodded. “Me too.”
“Well, since the fancy french restaurant we couldn’t really afford is out… how about pizza?” Joe stood, then took Mandy’s arm and helped her up. He grimaced, then looked at his hand, just beginning to really hurt from where he’d hit Bobby.
Mandy giggled, then gave Joe a kiss on the cheek. She whispered in his ear, “I haven’t forgotten to thank you for trying to protect me, Joe.”
Joe whispered, “I’ll always be there to protect you, Mandy. No matter what.”