Punch Drunk: Short Fiction

Nearly anything sounds like a good idea when you’re starched up with five or six shots and a couple beers and your buddies are clapping you on the shoulder and shouting your name. Hell, yeah, it had been a good idea then. Go get her, they said. You can do it, they said. She’d be a fool not to take you back, they said.

But at half past the rooster’s crack with a backpack over my shoulder and a bus ticket in my hand, I felt kind of stupid. I was thinking about cashing it in, when I turned toward the counter and wham! my arm bumped into this little old lady.

She was all blue eyes and white hair and smoothing out invisible wrinkles in my shirt even though I should have been the one apologizing, because she was such a tiny thing. I hoped I didn’t hurt her. My gran got laid up with a broken hip for just stepping off the sidewalk wrong, and here I was, this big lummox not watching where I was going. Story of my life.

“Ma’am, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Oh, there’s no need for that, or that ma’am business, but thank you.” Her little blue eyes twinkled. “You going to Albany?”

“Yes, I’m—”

“Good, then you can carry this for me. I’d put it in the baggage compartment but I’m so afraid of what might happen down there.”

I followed her pointer finger to a blue gift-wrapped box big enough to hold a punch bowl. But before I could say no—as if I would—I was carrying it in one arm while she held on to the other and I was seeing her up the stairs into the bus. The only two empty seats were together, so I put my pack on the overhead shelf and started to put the box up there, too, but she stopped me.

That was how I ended up with a punch bowl sized box on my lap as we pulled out of the station and started for the highway. I couldn’t look away from that box and the silver ribbon around it and couldn’t stop thinking of what might have been. It wasn’t heavy enough for a punch bowl. I kept seeing Diane’s face. Kind of angry and disappointed at the same time. Like “who is this bull in a china shop and why am I marrying him?”

“It’s not gonna bite you, you know.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

The old lady waved a hand toward the box.

“Would you feel better holding on to it yourself?” I asked. She would, and I let her. I knew this routine. Diane knew all the steps. Asking me everything without actually asking. Like it was some kind of game to get it out of me without using the words. Only I didn’t figure it out until she’d already won. Or I’d lost. Didn’t matter. Maybe getting on this bus to go charging up to Diane’s house had been a stupid idea. There were other people I could visit in Albany. She knew all of them, of course, and word would get back to her, and then—

The old lady rested a withered hand atop the blue striped wrapping paper, realigned the ribbon. “So who’s in Albany?” she said. “You’re going to visit your girlfriend?”

How the heck—? “Fiancée. She’s my fiancée. Or at least she… But I… And we… I mean, we’re supposed to get married, but…now I don’t know. I don’t know if she still wants…”

She laughed. Blood rushed to my face so fast I swore it might burst out the tips of my ears, and that only made me madder. “It’s not that funny.” I said.

“Oh. I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. You remind me of my grandson. All tied up in knots wondering whether a girl likes him without actually asking her.”

That shut me up. Mainly because she was right. Diane and I had a fight, and I’d just walked away. And I really didn’t want to have this conversation with a stranger. I didn’t want to have it with anyone. “So what’s in the box?”

That shut her up. Then I felt guilty. I could hear my gran scolding me in my head. “Sorry. None of my business.”

She sucked in a long breath and let it out just as slowly. “If you must know, it’s my husband.” A sharp look followed. “Oh, put your eyes back in your head. The way you’re staring it’s like I’ve murdered him and chopped him up into little pieces.”

Had she? Maybe I should have turned in my ticket when I had the chance. “You mean, like, his ashes.” I’d never seen what a human being amounted to. Gran wanted to be buried in the old cemetery next to Pop, and my folks obliged. I’d helped carry Gran, and that casket was heavy. This box couldn’t have weighed more than four, five pounds.

“Not so loud,” she said. “Or they’ll make me buy an extra ticket.”

For a second I almost believed her, and she met my sly smile with one of her own. I tapped a finger against the box. “Not a bad way to travel,” I said. Nobody would ever suspect. I could see why she didn’t want him in the baggage compartment, or in the overhead rack.

“He always liked buses,” she said. Then her smile fell as she turned toward me. “What’s her name?”

“What?”

“Your fiancée. Or the girl you’re not sure is whatever you think she is.”

I slunk down a couple inches. “Diane.”

“Well, when we get to Albany, you tell that Diane—” Then a phone started ringing. It wasn’t mine, ’cause I didn’t have one. Not since one of my buddies swiped it from me last night and threw it in the lake when I was trying to call her drunk. Turned out five or six shots and a couple of beers weren’t such a good idea in a number of ways.

“Is that yours?” It sounded like it was coming from her handbag, and she frowned into it. Then I noticed the ribbon on the top of the box was vibrating.

She giggled and gave the box a playful tap. “Now, Bertie, you stop that. You know how expensive those roaming charges are.”

“You wrapped it up in the box on purpose and set an alarm or something,” I said.

Her mouth pursed. “Aw, you’re spoiling my fun. Maybe that’s your trouble with this Diane person. You have no sense of humor.”

“She’s not ‘this Diane person.’ She’s my fiancée, and I’m…” A jerk. That’s what I’d been. A big oaf and a jerk. That was why I knew about boxes big enough to hold punch bowls. It had been the first wedding present to arrive. And the last thing I broke before I walked out. I could still hear the shatter of the glass exploding on the tile, and the echo of the awful things we called each other. I felt like an idiot for leaving her to clean up the mess.

“And?”

“Nothing.” I slumped down more. At least the phone had stopped ringing. That was creeping me out.

“Say you’re sorry.”

“Fine. I’m sorry, Bertie. I’m sorry I’m sucking all the fun out of your bus ride.”

“No. Say it to Diane.”

“I don’t… I don’t know if she’s even interested in hearing it.”

“I see. You didn’t call first.”

“I tried. Sort of. And I’d ask to borrow your phone, but I don’t think Bertie is finished with it yet.”

She laughed. “I guess I was wrong about the sense of humor. But I was a little bit right about you.” She made a sweeping motion with one hand. “You thought you’d just ride into town like a knight on horseback and surprise her. The grand romantic gesture.”

“Kinda. Sorta.” I tapped a finger against my leg. “Just. You know. Hypothetically. If I was going to do something like that, what should I do?”

“You could bring a nice gift, for starters. Then just say you’re sorry and tell her how you feel. Easy as pie.”

Not so easy. Not the way I’d left. She had every right not to answer the door. She had every right not to marry a big oaf who—

“There ya go, thinking too much. I can almost smell it.”

Then I didn’t feel much like talking anymore, either. We didn’t speak for the rest of the trip, and when we came to a stop at the Albany station, I took the box from her lap and turned toward the aisle.

I got up to let her exit ahead of me. Then I saw Diane. Through the window on the other side of the bus. I saw her standing in the small knot of people waiting by the door. I couldn’t take my eyes from her delicate face, as if she were an exotic flower poking out of the weeds. Passengers started streaming out. I tried to stay out of their way, but my eyes were glued to that window. Like we were back in junior high and I was seeing her for the first time—a heart-thumping dream with her long red hair and turned-up nose and cute little cheerleader skirt—while the big football jock I’d been felt as weak as a baby.

“She’s lovely,” the woman said, and nudged my arm. “Go talk to her.”

“But I don’t have a gift…”

“Oh, yes you do.”

I glanced at the box in my arms. Bertie? And her cell phone? I turned to tell her that she must have been crazy, but she’d already left. Maybe I could still catch up to her. I grabbed my pack and hustled off the bus. She was nowhere. I never thought she could move that fast. And how could she just leave Bertie—?

But then Diane was there, her green eyes staring up at me, and I couldn’t move at all. All I could think was what an idiot I’d been and that I’d do anything to fix this.

“What’s that?” she said.

Oh. The box. “I don’t know… There was this old lady from the bus…” Nope. Nowhere. Maybe I should have gone to lost and found inside the station, see if—

“But my name’s on it.” She gave me a little teasing grin. “Maybe you’re still a little drunk from last night. Eddie told me about your phone.”

I looked down again. And, indeed, “Diane” was written on the wrapping paper. With a heart around it. When did she—? “No, I’m, uh, fine.”

She hooked her arm through mine. “Hon, you’re looking a little pale. You want to go somewhere and get a cup of coffee and talk?”

I nodded. More than anything, I wanted to talk to her. Or at least try. I let her lead me to the diner across the street, a favorite of ours. She ordered us some coffee and before I could protest she had the box on the table and started opening it like a kid at Christmas. My heart was hammering and I wanted to stop her but what could I say? No, it’s not for you? That some crazy old lady left her husband’s ashes in there with her cell phone and wrote your name on the wrapping, maybe while I was daydreaming and maybe—

It was a punch bowl. My throat went dry. That old lady was nuts. Or I was. Maybe I was still drunk. I gulped my water, buying a moment for some kind of excuse. She’d put Bertie’s ashes in a punch bowl? But the box hadn’t been nearly heavy enough…

As she opened the top, I glanced up, preparing to say—I had no idea what. But she was smiling.

“It’s perfect,” she said. And took it out so I could see. No ashes. No cell phone. Just a bowl. “It’s acrylic.” She tapped a polished nail against it. “Unbreakable.”

Unbreakable. How the heck did she know about… “Unbreakable?”

“Yeah.” She turned it around in her Tinkerbell-delicate fingers. “This was the one Aunt Mary was supposed to have sent. Kinda glad you broke it, tell you the truth. If people would only use the registry. I specifically picked out things that weren’t so…fragile.”

“You picked…” But half my brain was still thinking about my seat mate. Damn, why hadn’t I even asked her name? Now all I wanted to do was thank her. “Did you see a little old lady get out of the bus, maybe a few people before me? Tiny thing, blue eyes, white hair…she’d been sitting next to me by the window all the way up.”

Diane’s mouth softened. “I watched your bus come into the lot, circle around and park. Nobody was sitting next to you that I saw.”

Nobody was sitting… She was tiny, but she wasn’t that tiny.

Diane pressed her cool, pretty hand over mine and gave me a patient smile. “Maybe you are still a little drunk, hon. Come on, let’s go back to my house and you can take a nap and I’ll put this with the rest of the incredibly unbreakable gifts and we can talk later.”

I nodded dumbly and picked up the bowl. I didn’t even like punch. Maybe I could learn to.

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