Joshua Caleb Wilson: A Man Named Karen (fiction)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: What on earth is a “Southern Legitimacy Statement” ??? I”m only typing in this box because it’s required. *ah ha! Someone didn’t pay attention to the directions, Ed.
A Man Named Karen
Karen’s name had never really bothered him. He knew that eventually it wouldn’t be that interesting to people. He knew that the way he knew everything, because he knew it. Although he couldn’t remember realizing that he knew things, he could remember the first time he decided not to tell someone something he knew.
His mother had been cutting up a watermelon on the counter and talking to the room almost like he wasn’t even in it.
“Your dad should be home soon,” she said.
“No he won’t,” he heard, from somewhere inside of him. “He’s with your sister.” His big wet eyes looked up at her, listening to the voice. It wasn’t really a voice, not really. It was like, the impression of a voice. Like the imprints of the foot steps left in the flat part of the beach. As the wave slid back into the ocean, he kept staring at his mother.
“Karen, what’s wrong?” she asked. She stopped pounding the counter with her butcher’s knife and looked up at his quiet eyes. He wasn’t anywhere old enough to understand why his mother wouldn’t want to know where his father was, but he did know it, just as sure as he knew his father was going out for ice cream with his aunt, even though he had said this morning he had a lot of things to get done at the office.
“I’m fine,” he told her. “I love you.”
She sighed and went back to chopping the watermelon. Before this moment, it had always been a cute sort of party trick when he had known things. “Karen was right,” his grandpa would say. “Karen is always right,” and the family would laugh. But this was different. This was not to be known. This was going to ruin her. And six months later, it did.
She had insisted on taking him out for ice cream since daddy was working late again. Why ice cream of all things? He knew they would see his father and his aunt because he always took her there. Karen knew his mother would see them there and understand whatever it was that he did not understand. He pleaded to her that he didn’t want any ice cream today. But he also knew there was no way to convince her not to go without telling her what he knew, and so they went. And as they stared into the confused and embarrassed faces of her husband and her sister, he knew he would only ever see his father eleven more times for rest of his life. And that’s when he began to hate knowing things.
It wasn’t always terrible, if he could keep from thinking about it too much, without realizing he was trying not to think about it. And if he mostly stayed away from other people, then he might only notice the little things. How long until this light turns green. When will those jeans go on sale. Who’s going to win the Super Bowl. This cashier’s hair is actually red.
Someone sat a watermelon down on the conveyer belt behind him. The woman in front of him was writing a check to pay for one gallon of ice cream. It will still be eleven more years before checks are made illegal, so here he was watching this woman use a stupid way to pay for her stupid ice cream as a watermelon lurked behind him on the conveyer belt. He continued to think about his mother pushing down his aunt in the parking lot of an ice cream stand.
The cashier, who’s black hair was actually red, ran the check through the scanner and handed it back to the woman. Karen’s beer began sliding up the conveyer belt. When it stopped, the watermelon rolled forward into the beer. He glanced at the woman behind him, and then turned to speak to the cashier.
“This is everything,” he said, before she could ask.
“Wow, six six packs,” she said. “Having a party?”
“Good job counting,” he said. “It’s just for me.”
She stared back at him and nodded. “Okay,” she said, countering his impatience with an obstacle. “Can I see some ID?”
He rolled his eyes a little and got out his wallet. She looked at the tiny picture and raised her eyebrows.
“Yes it’s my real name,” he sighed.
“Neat,” she said with a smile, and began dragging the beer across the scanner. “You know you could always change it if you don’t like it,” she said.
“I don’t not like it,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me.”
“It just seems like you don’t like it.”
“So, should I just change it? Like you changed your hair?”
“My hair hasn’t been red since I was 13,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
“I had to dye it…”
“Because your uncle has a thing for redheads,” he said quietly. “I know.”
His tone was both rude and calm. His voice seeped into her ears as her eyes widened. No one had ever known that. Only her mother had known and they hadn’t even told her father or her blonde sisters. Karen did not move. She broke away from his stare and hurried through the rest of the beer. She stepped back as far from him as her small workspace would allow. He paid with his watch and gave one more glance to the watermelon behind him, and tried to ignore the sound in his head that wasn’t really a voice.
He put the beer in the trunk of his car and took out his headphones from his pocket. He answered his phone the moment it rang.
“Hello Henry,” he said.
“Holy Hell Karen,” Henry said. “Why do you always answer your phone so fucking fast? I wasn’t ready to talk yet.”
“I guess you’re worried about the Dodger’s bet tonight?” Karen asked.
“Yes Karen,” Henry said. “You throw away more money than anyone I know. Of course you make more money than anyone I know too, but still, sometimes I wonder why you can’t tone down some of this shit.”
“I would think that a bookie would be glad to take terrible bets,” Karen said.
“Of course I am,” Henry said. “I always am. And really every bet I take is a terrible bet. But as the closest thing you have to a friend, I just wanted to do you the favor of double checking that you actually want the Dodgers to win by 11 runs in 21 innings. 11 runs in 21 innings Karen? How do you even make this shit up?”
“Oh come on,” Karen said.
“Oh come on,” Karen said. “Anybody else you know have the Super Bowl right at halftime and the end of the game last year? 28-3 Henry. It was 28 to 3”
“I’ll give you that Karen. Hell of a bet. Hell of bet. But it’s not that crazy to bet on Touchdown Tommy… Winning by 11 runs in 21 innings doesn’t even make sense. You really think the Angels are gonna play it all square, then suddenly give up 11 runs in the top half of the 21st?”
“What can I say?” Karen mused. “Inter-league play is a bitch.” Henry ignored this absurdly specific attempt at a joke and continued his lecture.
“You know that Dean hates these kinda props,” Henry said. “And you haven’t won anything in 10 or 12 weeks. All these made up bets just keep getting dumber and dumber. He probably wouldn’t even want this action if you didn’t lose so fucking much. You know he doesn’t do this for anybody else.”
“Yes you’ve mentioned that. But amazingly, you always end up taking my money. Have I told you that I don’t care if you tell him that I’m a man. Does he think that some day at the bar he’ll see some beautiful woman named Karen yelling at the the TV, and say ‘You’re the Karen that got the Super Bowl right last year’ and then she’ll just giggle and start taking all her clothes off for him? He’s gonna take the money either way, even if he finds out it’s not coming from some dumb woman.”
“Karen listen,” Henry said, changing his tone. “It’s just a lot of money to throw around for 100 to 1 odds okay? Even for you. And I don’t want to be the one that has to come visit you when you can’t pay Dean 10,000 dollars. ”
“Go to hell Henry,” he said. “Just make the bet first okay?”
“Whatever you dumb fuck. It’s your funeral. Just don’t ever say I never did anything for you.”
“You never did anything for me,” he said, and hung up the phone.
He stopped the car at the end of his driveway and took out a bottle opener from the center console. He popped the trunk, and got out to check the mail. On his way back to the car, he lifted the trunk and took out a beer and opened it. He sat back down in the drivers seat and flipped through some credit card bills until he found an envelope from the state. He opened it up and glanced past the letter. He peeled away the concealed carry permit from the bottom piece of paper and put it in his wallet. He pushed the button to open the gate and took a swallow of the beer that wasn’t quite cold anymore.
He pulled into the garage and got out his phone. He opened the draft of an email he had written that morning and copied the text. Then he opened the most recent email in his inbox.
Just wanted to make sure you were serious about this 10,000 on the dodgers tonight. Not too late to change your mind sweetheart. Let me know kiddo.
Karen hit reply and pasted the text. All these bookies were the same.
Lol I know it sounds crazy sweetie. Go ahead and do it for me.
He finished the beer and tossed the bottle into the recycling bin on the other side of the garage. He took the rest of the beer inside and put it into the fridge. As he opened another one, the phone rang on the wall. This historical mansion had come with a landline and he had never bothered to turn it off. It was convenient in a circumstantial sort of way. He lifted the receiver and then hung it right back up as he took another big swallow of beer.
He walked into the living room and turned on the TV, he flipped around and found the Dodgers game just as the president was throwing out the first pitch and smiling at the crowd as if he had invented this game.
“Best pitch. The greatest pitch ever, believe me,” he said to the TV. “God you’re an idiot, even if you did make me a closet full of cash.”
He threw down the remote and checked his watch. He walked over to a table next to the stairs in the front entryway. He opened the drawer and took out a large, antique revolver with a sandalwood grip. He finished his second beer and went back into the kitchen for a third. He took it upstairs along with the gun and went into the master bedroom. Behind the bedroom was a secret room the plantation owner had wanted built as a kind of personal safe. The secret door was open and Karen leaned against it, casually holding the revolver at his side and drinking his beer. He waited for the man to look up from his duffle bag full of cash.
“There’s no drugs here,” Karen said.
“What?” He looked up. “Oh god. Mister please. No, I’m sorry.”
“There’s no drugs here Eddie, and I just can’t let you take all my money.”
The man was confused to hear his own name, which frightened him even more. He started speaking faster than he could think.
“Look. I’ll put it back, see?” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. My sister used to clean this house and told me all this was up here. Said you always go to the Dodgers games on Saturday afternoons. My kids got a tumor I swear. We got no insurance mister. Please I’m so sorry.”
Karen stood still and gazed into the man’s eyes like he was looking out across the ocean. He listened for the voice, or the not voice. It would fade away if he paid too much attention to it, the way footprints are made smooth by the waves sliding in and out. He felt something he hadn’t felt since the day he and his mother had barreled into the parking lot of an ice cream stand. He didn’t know.
“No,” he said. “You’re here looking for drugs. You need money for drugs.”
“No. No sir,” Eddie was almost crying, as if he somehow understood the misunderstanding. “No I gotta sick kid, please. We gotta have money for the medicine. The government pays for surgery. We gotta have money for the treatment. For the drugs.”
“No,” Karen said, almost whispering. “That can’t be true.” He began to squeeze the trigger. Eddie fell backward into the giant pile of cash behind him. Karen took a big drink of his beer and held the gun down below his waist. He dropped it and turned around into the bedroom. He walked back down the stairs and into the kitchen. He took the phone off the wall and dialed 911. He explained that his house was being robbed, but that he had shot the intruder. Everything was fine, he just didn’t know who else to call. He opened another beer and walked into the living room. He sank down into his giant armchair and hung one leg over the side. The Dodgers and Angels were tied 0-0 in the 3rd.
The day after he had ridden shotgun as his mother went blazing down the highway towards an ice cream shop, the day after he had watched his mother push her sister to the ground, the day after she had slapped his father hard, because for some reason he had tried to comfort her in this moment, Karen walked into the living room where she was folding the laundry. She was forcing the clothes to fold with the same intensity that seemed to control all of her household chores these days, as if all of her anger and frustration could be smoothed away like the wrinkles from a gabardine skirt, She just kept pressing them down, harder and harder.
“Mother, may I make some dinner?” he asked.
“Karen please just wait,” she sighed. “I’m almost finished. I’ll do it.”
“Okay great,” he said, forcing a smile. “I’ll set the table. Should I make a place for daddy? Will he be home in time for dinner?” This question was sincere. Even before yesterday’s confrontation in the parking lot, everything about his mother had been hard to read, or see, or however it worked, and yesterday had nearly all but blocked her out. He certainly didn’t realize what she was about to say next.
“Karen, he’s not your dad, okay? I mean he is your father but he’s not my husband. He’s never home because he doesn’t live here. Your aunt didn’t even know until yesterday, you understand that?” She crammed all the clothes into the basked and picked it up. “He only comes over now and then for…” She stopped talking and bumped into the door as she walked out of the room. “Oh Christ,” she yelled, “I don’t know why we thought we could ever hide this from you. I knew that was never going to work.”
He stood alone in the living room, trying not to cry and trying harder to understand what she had said, as if he hadn’t known it all along. It crashed down around him all at once, like a tidal wave he had known was coming but didn’t want to hide from. He had done everything he could to keep from hearing it, and now he knew it just the same. The impression hadn’t been wrong, the impression was never wrong. But he had only seen what he wanted to, just like everybody else.
The landline phone on the table next to him began to ring. He reached over to pick it up and before he could slam it down, the voice on the other end paralyzed him. The tiny sound filled the giant room.
“Karen? Karen honey please it’s me. It’s your mother.” The little voice was a thousand miles away.
“I’ll never be sorry enough,” she said. “I love you Karen.”
“That’s not true,” he said. “That can’t be true,” and hung up the phone. The Dodgers struck out the side in another scoreless inning.