By Julia McBryant
One night, when it’s really bad, Audie goes downstairs and does something he hasn’t in a long time: he hits the bourbon, and he hits it hard. He doesn’t turn on the lights. He never does on nights like this. He sits at the battered farmhouse table he loves so much, rests his elbows on old nicks and scratches and divots, and imagines the families that ate there. It belonged to a doctor once. Likely surgeries were performed on that table, babies born, folks died. He feeds them there on that history. Morbid, but he loves it. Another story not his own, a story he can tell himself in the dark and quiet of a Savannah night. He drinks straight from the bottle. On these nights, simple appliances take on portents, meaning. The pie left wrapped with a butter knife inside the clear plastic; the butter in the glass butter dish; the kitschy mugs hanging from hooks. They have assembled these things into a home, down to the super-absorbent dish towels and Calhoun’s Wizard of Oz apron. He loves The Wizard of Oz, a gay cliché if Audie ever knew one, but Audie forgives him for that. It always scared Audie, the flying monkeys, and the sequel with Mombi, who could take off her own head. He keeps hitting the bourbon, and hitting it, and hitting it again, until the sounds of his father’s belt go away. Carefully, he puts away the liquor. Then he crawls back up to bed with Calhoun as the sun rises and the birds tune up. Calhoun has become a warm, innocent bundle, a face like a child’s. Audie kisses his forehead and a small smile flits across his face, quick and fleeting. Audie fits around him and passes out cold.
He wakes to an angry voice. “You drank all the goddamn liquor again!”
Audie stumbles downstairs, pounding headache and all. “It wasn’t Monroe. It was me. Don’t be so quick to blame my cousin.”
“You drank a whole goddamn bottle of bourbon?!” “Well, I didn’t pour it down the fucking drain. And you can stop yelling now. It hurts my goddamn head.”
“Yeah, I bet it does.”
“You’re out? What does that even mean?”
“It means I’m getting dressed and I’m heading out. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Monroe, you wanna come?” Monroe eyes Calhoun. “Yeah. But I have to be back for work.”
“Then just stay here and stay out of his way.” Audie heads upstairs. Calhoun follows him. “I don’t wanna talk to you.” Audie downs too many ibuprofen and some Alkaseltzer.
“You’re mad because no one lies at four in the morning, Audie. And my Gran wants you to come over and read to her today. She called this morning before you woke up.”
Audie sighs. “Tell her I’ll be over this afternoon.”
“She wants you over for lunch.”
“It’s eleven. She eats at noon.”
“You better get dressed then.”
Audie calls over to Calhoun’s father’s. “Could you please ask Mrs. Chatterton if she would like to join me at Sandkirk’s for lunch?” The answer comes back: Mrs. Chatterton would adore lunch at Sandkirk’s, if Mr. Currell would not mind picking her up at 12:30 pm. So Audie puts on a light blue seersucker suit, a Gamecock bowtie with matching Gamecock socks, Gamecock belt, white bucks. He adds a boater hat that Gran will die for and leaves fast enough to pick up yellow tulips.
“You look adorable.” Calhoun’s eyes go soft.
“Don’t.” Audie slips his silver monogrammed flask in his pocket.
“Look at you.” Gran smiles when DeMarcus shows him up to the living room where she’s waiting, dripping in pearls and a feathered hat. Audie slides into himself again, finally. So easy to slip into the veneer of Southern gentleman the way he slips into his seersucker. “Ma’am.” He offers her an arm. “I hope you like fast cars.”
“You do have a fast car, don’t you?”
“One of the fastest.” He helps her into the Porsche and drives way too fast over to Sandkirk’s, the old guard restaurant in Savannah, while she cackles with laughter. He valets, helps her out, and takes her in on his arm. “Currell, party of two,” he says, and turns every head in the goddamn restaurant. He enjoys the scene. So, apparently, does she.
“You are a terrible boy with beautiful manners.”
“Your grandson likes me that way.”
“So do I. You know every old woman in Savannah will hear about this.”
“Oh, I’m aware. I know you love a scandal, Gran.”
“Call me Poppy while we’re out.”
“You’re worse than I am.”
“Why d’you think I like you so much? So what did you want to talk to me about so pressingly?”
Audie’s stomach drops. “What d’you mean?”
“Oh, Calhoun said you needed to talk.” She waves her arm. “So talk, boy.”
“I think Calhoun was mistaken, ma’am.”
“He was quite adamant, darling.” Audie shifts on his chair and looks out at the river. “I don’t know what he could possibly have been talking about.”
“Calhoun says you’ve been beside yourself. Now you’re going to tell me why or I’m going to make a scene.”
“Excuse me, ma’am?” Audie stares at the gray-haired woman across from him, her deep wrinkles and ostrich-feather hat.
“You’re the one who wanted to go to Sandkirk’s, darling.” They pause to order. Audie gets another bourbon. She orders a bloody Mary. “I won’t be the first to make a scene in Sandkirk’s, and I won’t be the last. So talk.”
Shit. He’s cornered. “My cousin’s here.”
She waves her hand. “I know all that.”
“He was — do I need to tell you all this? I’m sure Calhoun already has.”
“You can leave out the gory bits.”
“It’s like looking in a mirror.”
“So you’re swinging wildly between depression and letting him run wild, I hear.”
Audie stares down at the Vegas-style carpet, all swirled geometry patterns. He tries to form them into shapes, to make sense of them, to find order in the seeming chaos.
“I’m going to tell you what I told Calhoun a long time ago. You can carry it around or you can realize —”
“You can realize it brought you to where you are, and you can’t hate yourself for the person you’ve become. I get it.”
“Don’t interrupt an old woman. For all your good manners and your veneer of civility, you still hate yourself.” She calmly butters a piece of bread and pops it in her mouth.
“I don’t hate myself ma’am.” Audie gathers all his politeness. When the world is falling down, civility will cushion the blow. The band played the Titanic down.
“Don’t contradict me.” Contradictions are ruder than lies, which slide society along.
“You do hate yourself. You’re your father’s son.”
“I beg to differ, ma’am.” Audie forces himself to sit up straight.
“Until you let go of his hold on you, you’ll always be your father’s son. In Savannah or Charleston or Timbuktu. My grandson deserves better than that.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’m unsure of how to do that.” Audie takes a healthy slug of bourbon.
“Well, you can stop that, to start. Don’t you love my grandson?”
“Then why can’t you understand, you stupid boy, that you wouldn’t have him without everything that came before it? Be angry. Be enraged — God knows I am on your behalf. But don’t let it control you.”
“I didn’t. And then my cousin showed up.”
“Then you still did. You just hid it well.” Their food arrives. Audie picks at his.
“I expect you to eat, young man.”
“This lunch is not as much fun as I expected it to be. You’ll please excuse my lack of appetite, ma’am.”
“I will most certainly not. You’re too thin.”
Audie sighs and begins eating. The steak tastes ashy in his mouth, the potatoes overdone. God, Sandkirk’s makes awful food.
“You will deal with this for my grandson’s sake. You love him. You can’t have room to love someone if you hate yourself. So figure that part out, sir.”
“But ma’am, I can only assure you that I don’t hate myself.”
“And I can only assure you that some part of you thinks you deserve everything your father dished out. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t carry it around this way.” She looks up. “Now take an old woman home. Sandkirk’s does have the worst food.”
Audie forces himself to laugh, pays the bill, and escorts her out. But he’s dying. Oh god, what’s coming is going to gut him, but he has to do it. He drops Gran off and comes home to Monroe and Calhoun eating lunch. He pretends to smile and enjoy their company — the seersucker helps; he should wear it every day, or maybe it would lose its magic — before saying he’s gonna get changed, would Calhoun like to join him? Calhoun of course follows him upstairs. When Audie shuts the door, Calhoun manages to look very, very guilty.
“I had to. You wouldn’t listen to me. I thought you might listen to her.”
“You sicced your grandmother on me.”
“You told your grandmother what happened to me.”
“Audie, I —”
“That’s fucking unforgivable, you know that, don’t you?”
“I thought that —”
“You thought nothing.” Audie speaks in an angry hiss, untying his bowtie, taking off his bucks, pulling off his socks.
“You didn’t fucking think, is what you didn’t do. That isn’t yours to tell. That is never yours to tell. Ever. I don’t care if Christ comes down in glory and asks you. It isn’t yours.”
“But it’s Gran!”
“And every time she looks at me she’ll see a bloody back. Every goddamn time. This was a terrible fucking idea. Audie carefully hangs his suit in the closet. “I got into Liston’s MFA program. It’s not too late to switch. They really wanted me.” He catches a glimpse of Calhoun, mouth open, eyes wide, as he throws on a button down and shorts. “I can start by moving the fuck out of here. I’ll take my pain in the ass cousin with me.”
Calhoun appears to regain the power of speech. “Audie, no.”
“I’m done. No one betrays me like that. Fucking no one. I don’t care who you are.”
“Audie, will you listen, just for a second —”
He rounds on Calhoun. “I gave you everything. Everything. I handed you everything I had and this is what you did with it. You spent years telling me you’d take care of me, you’d never hurt me, you’d never betray me, until I fucking believed you. That’s the goddamn worst. I fucking believed you.”
Audie starts throwing the clothes he’ll need for the next few days into a suitcase. He can have movers pack up the rest.
“Audie.” Calhoun seems small and scared. “Please don’t do this to me.”
“You already did it to me. You’re too goddamn late.” He slams one suitcase shut and starts on another. He ought to tell Monroe he’s leaving but he’ll deal with that later.
“I love you. Please. Lemme take you to Tybee —”
“I’m done with you fucking taking me to Tybee.”
“One more try, Audie. We’ve been under so much stress, and you’ve been under so much stress, love, you can’t make decisions like this right now. Don’t do that thing where you dig in your heels because you feel like you have to or you’ll lose face. You won’t, I swear. I know you meant every word of it. You’re not taking it back if you say we can keep trying.”
“No. We’re done.”
Calhoun takes a deep breath. “Okay. We can be done. But you have to do one thing for me before you go. One thing. Then I’ll help you pack, and I’ll stand back and let you walk out. Okay?”
“I won’t tell you until you agree.”
“No. I won’t play that game.”
“One thing. Then you can go. No fighting or begging.”
How bad can it be? What the fuck could it possibly, possibly be that would stop him from walking out?
“Fine. One thing.”
“You have to promise to do it.”
Audie sighs heavily. “I promise, Calhoun.”
“Move your suitcase and lay down on the bed. Take your shirt off.”
“Is that it?” Audie snarks.
“I’m not done.” Audie picks up his leather luggage, smoothes out the navy comforter, and shucks off his shirt. Calhoun pulls off his own. It hits Audie: but he promised. He doesn’t break promises. Calhoun pulls him close and
Audie automatically lays his head on his chest. He closes his eyes, and there it is: that perfect sound. The sound that says everything is alright, everything will be alright, everything will always be alright, forever and ever. The sound that promises he can always come back. He listens and listens, deaf to everything but that single rush and fall going on and on and on.
“Look at your seashells.”
“I didn’t sleep a lot last night.” It seems stupid. It’s not an explanation.
Calhoun understands. “I’ll stay here until you fall asleep, love.”
Audie holds Calhoun tight. Calhoun strokes his curls. “You’re okay, baby. I’m so, so sorry. And you’re okay. I’ve got you. I’m so sorry, love. I never should have. I’m so, so, sorry and I love you and I’ve got you.” He says it over and over, the way you’d talk to a little kid, the way no one ever talked to Audie. Audie’s shipwrecked, broken, like he’s washed exhausted onto an unknown shore. His eyes start to close. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”
Date Published February 13, 2020
About the Author
Julia McBryant is, as the saying goes, Southern born, Southern bred, and when she dies, she’ll be Southern dead. A resident of the prettiest city in the world, McBryant yearns for the slant of light in Rome, the taste of oxtail and grits in the winter, and giant moonsnail shells on the beach at Tybee. She is owned by three children and three dogs, and enjoys caffeine, unicorns, and unicorns on caffeine. When she isn’t writing, she’s writing.