Bad Apples

By Lisa Gracyalny Strandberg

By the time Sheridan and I arrive at the party, it is throbbing. We can feel it even from outside the back door — the only door anyone ever uses at the Mirandas’. Music shakes the windows. Abandoned drinks line the candlelit sills. People with flushed cheeks lean to shout into each other’s ears.

“We timed this just right,” I say to my friend. “Everybody’s drunk. We won’t have to talk to anyone.”

“In and out in 15 minutes, right?” she says.

“I hope so.”

A fallen evergreen wreath trimmed with faux fruit reclines against the wooden door. I pick it up and hang it on a nail teetering in its hole. The wreath stays in place for a second or two and slides to the stoop again, a glittery apple rolling off into the dark. I push the wreath aside with the toe of my black pump, its fake needles tickling the top of my foot.

There’s no point in knocking, so we let ourselves in. Two unfamiliar faces turn toward us from a lit doorway leading to the kitchen. The pair, a man and a woman, raise their glasses in our direction without breaking their conversation. He wears a concert T-shirt touting Gwar, a band I’ve never heard of; she’s in a nautical-striped knit dress, wild orange tights, and fur-lined boots that look meant for chopping wood. The black silk trousers that seemed just elegant enough at the country club now make me feel ridiculous. I take a deep breath and step ahead of Sheridan, climbing a short flight of stairs toward the glow and the hum.

The kitchen bulges with people. A glance through the shifting landscape of bodies tells me why: an army of liquor and wine bottles stands in loose formation beside the sink. The revelers are coming here to refuel, and Ali, their hostess, is keeping their tanks filled.

Ali leans against the stove in a ribbed tank top and jeans. When she reaches halfway across the room to refill a just-drained wine glass, the muscles in her slender arm flex and the bronze owl hanging from a long chain around her neck swoops in alluring little circles. My pulse quickens. This is the first time either Sheridan or I have set foot in José and Ali Miranda’s place. James, on the other hand, has spent plenty of time here this fall.

Three nights a week within minutes of tucking the kids in, he grabs his guitar, brushes my cheek with a kiss and dashes across the street to Ali’s to play ’90s covers with another neighborhood dad on bass and Ali on drums. He comes back late — sometimes midnight, sometimes after — with beer on his breath and an unfamiliar intensity about him. After 12 years of marriage and the hell of residency, I thought I’d seen his full emotional spectrum — good, bad, ugly — but this was new. The three of them have played a couple of what they loftily call gigs — another neighbor’s 40th birthday bash, the Eleventh Street block party — but none of it justifies nine hours a week of rehearsal.

Ali spots me across the kitchen. I force the corners of my mouth up and lift my chin in her direction. She waves at me and shoulders her way through the crowd.

“Amy! Sheridan! Glad you could make it this time,” she says.

“Thanks. We are, too,” I say. I smile around the room at constellations of people I can identify but do not know. “It got dull at the club. Not here!”

“The party gets bigger every year,” Ali says. “What would you like to drink? Beer? Wine? We have just about everything.”

“Nothing, thanks,” I say. “I’ve had too much already.”

“Me, too,” Sheridan says, waving her refusal. “What we’d really like is to see your house.”

“Of course. Just a sec,” Ali says. She turns to excuse herself from a loud and formless conversation.

I survey the kitchen. Gaps show between the cabinets and the walls. The hardwood floor isn’t really wood. The laminate countertop beside the door to the dining room has an unfinished edge, like someone sawed it off, desperate to get to the kitchen for another beer.

Discharged by her other guests, Ali squeezes my forearm and heads for the dining room. I follow her with Sheridan close behind me. As I pass through the door, I reach back and slide my palm along the countertop’s raw edge, tapping my index finger to be sure Sheridan won’t miss it.

Ali pauses beside a long harvest table. It is laden with holiday treats — spritz cookies, shortbread, white chocolate-dipped pretzels with red and green sprinkles — and littered with empty beer bottles and plastic cups.

“The lady who owned the house before us left the table here,” Ali says. “She didn’t really leave it here on purpose. She died and none of her kids wanted it. At least that’s what the Realtor told us.”

“You mean Mrs. Hauser?” Sheridan asks. “You know her grandfather built this place, right? He farmed all the land around here.”

“Really,” Ali says. “Who was he?”

Sheridan raises her eyebrows. “Francis Johnston,” she says, each word an incredulous sentence of its own.

Ali’s own eyebrows rise. “Johnston. As in Johnston Paper? Johnston Homes?”

“Yes,” I say. I glance at Sheridan, who is mid-eye roll.

“I guess I’m an idiot for not knowing that,” Ali says.

“No,” I say. “I think it’s sweet you didn’t know.”

Ali looks at me without a word. Sheridan sidles up and pokes me from behind.

“Well, that’s about all that’s interesting in here,” Ali says, leading us a few steps further on. “Here’s what you probably really want to see.”

The living room yawns before us, large for a century-old farmhouse. Four people sardine themselves on the sofa. Two women perch next to men I assume are their husbands on the arms of overstuffed chairs, wine glasses in hand. A 50-something man inclines himself toward a woman 20 years younger, his left elbow resting on the mantle, the fingertips of his right hand holding the rim of his drink like a hawk gripping prey. Across the room in a wide alcove, a drum set squats between an amp and a tangle of music stands. A keg is just visible through a doorway off the alcove. Men encircle it like transients warming themselves around a trash-barrel fire. José Miranda is among them.

Sheridan steps from behind me, feigning interest in the books on the shelf beside the fireplace. As she brushes by, she says under her breath, “Look up.”

On the ceiling, a torn piece of notebook paper with the word gullible written on it flutters from a strip of masking tape. A couple of dozen glow-in-the-dark plastic stars – the self-adhesive kind I only let our kids put up inside their bedroom closets – are stuck to the ceiling around it.

Ali is looking right at me when I lower my eyes from the ceiling. I have my cover ready. “What an interesting light fixture,” I say. “Is it original to the house?”

“I don’t know,” Ali says. “I don’t really pay attention to that stuff.”

“Too busy with the café?” Sheridan asks, looking sideways at me.

“Owning a business is tough. My boss can be a real bitch,” Ali smiles. She walks toward her drums. “This helps me unwind.”

She taps the nail of her middle finger on the edge of a cymbal in higher and higher strokes so the ringing swells, then diminishes her strikes so the sound recedes and dies out.

“I guess James thinks so, too. He’s really gotten into music in the last couple of months.” I study her face. Her expression doesn’t change as she responds.

“The nights we play just evaporate. You get your mind off whatever shit you were thinking about all day, and hours go by like that.” Ali snaps her fingers. She looks happy, not guilty.

Suddenly Ali’s looking over my shoulder instead of at me. I turn to see what’s caught her attention. James is walking toward us. He grabs a cutout cookie from the dining table as he passes.
“Hello, ladies. Fancy meeting you here.” He squeezes me sideways around my waist and kisses my forehead.

James reaches to hug Sheridan, dips her with a flourish, rights her again and kisses her cheek. She giggles. He gives Ali a playful punch in the arm. I hold my breath as she punches him back.

“What are you doing here?” I ask as he wraps my waist with his arm. My voice is squeakier than I mean it to be.

“I was invited, too,” he says, grinning at Sheridan and me, his eyes just staying afloat in a pool of alcohol. “I saw the two of you slip out of the ballroom at the club and wondered what you were up to. So I hopped in the car and followed you here.”

I give Sheridan a look. She is looking at James. He’s no longer wearing his sport coat. He’s loosened his red paisley tie and undone the top button of his white shirt, the one I ordered from England for his last birthday. His pants are cut slim enough to show a hint of his runner’s thighs, and his hair is mussed. He reminds me of a Beatle in the early days of the invasion. It annoys me.

“We left for a real party,” I say with a smile at Ali that feels fake. I try again. “This is the place to be, isn’t it?”

I look once more at Sheridan. She is riveted to the bookshelf again.

“Maybe you should go get your guitar. I don’t ever get to hear you play at home,” I say to James. I turn to Ali. “I think I’ll have a drink after all. Anything red.”

Ali departs through the alcove, pecking José on the cheek en route to the kitchen. Sheridan has never in her life been so interested in books. James faces me and rests his hands on my shoulders. “What’s the matter?” he asks.

I remember last Tuesday night, when James and his guitar disappeared at nine and our youngest son, only 3, threw up in bed — minutes after I’d gotten into my pajamas, poured myself a glass of wine, and nestled into my favorite chair. I’d cleaned him up, tucked him into James’ side of the bed, rinsed the soiled sheets in the utility sink, started the washer and come back to the living room just in time to see the dog, happy I was back, knock my wine off the coffee table with her wagging tail. After I sopped up the mess, I called Sheridan to vent. She wasn’t home.

“Nothing’s the matter,” I say. “I’d just like to see for myself how much all this rehearsal is paying off.”

He looks at me for several long, silent seconds.

“You’re drunk,” he says.

“You’re drunker.”

James turns me toward the bookshelf, drapes an arm over my shoulder and puts his other hand low on his hip. “Sheridan, you be the judge. Which of us is drunker?”

She straightens up, her shoulders rising and falling in a sigh. Seconds tick by. At last she turns toward us. Her eyes are sad and her jaw set as she looks from James to me and back to James. She fixes her eyes on him.
“You are,” she says. Without another glance at me, she turns and stalks out of the room, passing Ali and my glass of wine in the dining room doorway. For a moment Ali stops in place, as confused as I am by Sheridan’s departure.

Ali hands me my drink and stands beside the drums, tapping the cymbal again with her nail. “So are you going to get your guitar? Everyone would love it.”

James is still watching the door through which Sheridan left, his brow furrowed. He lets his arm fall from my shoulders and looks at me as he answers Ali. “Not tonight. I have a headache.”

He pulls off his tie with one hand, folds it in tidy halves and lays it on the back of the sofa. In long strides, he walks past Ali to join the ring around the keg.

Ali, still standing beside the drum set, forges into the awkward void. “Do you play?”

“I used to. Viola. Nothing so exciting as drums.”

“You should join us sometime. Viola would be interesting.”

“It’d be pretty hard for both of us to leave with the kids at home in bed.”

“It’s just across the street. Don’t you think they’d be OK?”

I shake my head. “That doesn’t work for me.”

“I guess.” Ali shrugs. We’re quiet for a few seconds too long. “Want to come back to the kitchen with me? I want to make sure the sloppiest drunks haven’t set fire to anything.”

“Thanks. I think I’ll get going. I told the sitter we’d be back around now.”

“Sure. Of course. Thanks for coming. I’m glad you finally got to see the house.” She shrugs again. “Part of it, anyway.”

She gives me a quick half-hug and walks past the keg toward the kitchen. I watch James as she passes. He’s talking to some guy in a fedora and doesn’t even look up. No one stops me to say hello as I make my way through the dining room to the back door.

I escape into the dark. The wreath slumps where I left it. As I start down the walk to the driveway, I step on something and lose my balance. My right foot comes down sideways and I hear the snap of my heel breaking off. I lift my feet in turn to take off my pumps and bend to find whatever I stepped on so no one else will fall. It’s the runaway apple I ignored on my way inside. I throw it into the old tree in the front yard and listen as it tumbles through the bare branches.