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John the Drunk is a Thief

Tess goes home

By Suze KayPublished 3 years ago 10 min read
John the Drunk is a Thief
Photo by Aditya Vyas on Unsplash

After Tess's mother died, she lost herself for a while. She found this confusing because they did not like each other very much, and Tess had considered herself estranged for almost a decade. Nevertheless, upon becoming an orphan, her drinking consumed her. She slept fitfully and woke fretfully, heart rate high and hands shaky. She stopped showering and ignored phone calls. Her writing was at first slow and uninspired, then nonexistent. She and her editor made a mutual decision: Tess would take a leave of absence from the magazine, indeterminately long, and "get her shit together."

So far that absence has been eight months. There's no end in sight. The drinking isn't so much a problem anymore, but the writing hasn't come back. The blinking cursor of a blank word document gives her a shivery feeling and makes her fingers jam up. She tries paper again, pulling out an old journal, but is still unable to string more than a few hackneyed phrases together. Nothing salvageable. Thank God money isn't a problem anymore either, as it seems her mother never got around to writing a new will.

But nothing's getting better. Tess swims through time like a murky pool, no borders to be found. She spends the summer with the shades drawn, bathed in the flat light of her massive TV - the one indulgent purchase she's made with her blood money. In late October, the landline jangles and shakes her out of another hazy, meaningless day on the couch. She picks up the phone to the greasy slide of Chief Poitier's voice.

"Hello, do I have the pleasure of speaking with Teresa Brunel?" For a second, she can't answer. She is thrown back to the last time that greeting oozed through the landline, when he called with news of her mother's passing.

"Um, Yes."

"Chief Poitier here, of Fletcher's Grove? I'm calling about your house up here. You see, there's been an incident. Your alarm went off last night."

"Oh. OK. Well, there's a local woman who watches the house. Mabel-"

"Mabel Cunningham? Yes, I thought that might be the case. She was unavailable to respond to the alarm company last night. On a cruise, says her daughter. So I need to inform you that your house sustained significant damage last night during the storm." When Tess doesn't respond, he continues. "A fallen tree. Into the greenhouse."

"The solarium," she corrects him automatically.

"Certainly. Regardless, I believe you will want to arrange for repairs."

"I'm sure Mabel can arrange something with a local contractor. I'll reach ou-"

He interrupts me again. "She'll be gone a month yet. And ma'am, frankly, this should be managed with some haste. The house and all its valuables are wide open to the world right now." He sounds disapproving, until his voice shifts into something almost pitying. "Time has passed, but - well, your father was not the most popular man in these parts. Sentiments run deep. And I fear Shirley Cunningham, that's Mabel's daughter, may already have lit up the phone tree with news of your house's unfortunate circumstance. I've posted a deputy at the gate, but I can't spare him for long."

Tess sighs. Rubs her forehead. Can she just tell him that she doesn't care? She imagines the house, with all its gilded corners and flourishes, cracked open on the hillside like a Fabergé egg. She feels nothing. The house could be a sooty smudge on the hill and mean no less to her. But something inside her will always be a pleaser, is terrified of the inconvenience that her existence exerts on others, and that part speaks first. "Understood. I can be there by sundown."

By Joris Berthelot on Unsplash

There are small, quiet moments in every person's life where they meet a precipice and teeter there. The ride to Fletcher's Grove was hers. For months Tess had felt the emptiness growing inside herself, watched the whirlpool-suck of dark thoughts twist her away from the world. She could see clearly now that there weren't any more safety nets. Her inheritance could not save her from a mind that worked like this. It was necessary to fix this feeling, and she thought the only way might be to return to the source: the house, and the burnt husk of the barn beside it.

Fletcher's Grove is the red end of New York's northern border, tucked around the edge of Vermont. It's so far North it seems South again, especially when Tess notes the Confederate flags that fly off some of the more crumbly porches. The two decades that have passed since she left did not register here. She recognizes all the names on the mailboxes, and the houses themselves haven't changed much either.

As Tess rolls through the center of town, she sees that one of the old mills has been converted to a bar. A lurid neon sign blinks "The Wetstone" over the parking lot. That's not the sign that makes her slow down, though. A haphazardly supported plywood board at the mouth of the parking lot has been hand-painted to read "JOHN THE DRUNK IS A THIEF." Tess snorts. But she doesn't pull in to the parking lot to find out what John did, not yet. She has a deputy to relieve before she can get oblige the small voice in the back of her head wheedling for a vodka tonic.

At the wrought iron gate of the Brunel Estate, a man leans against the hood of a squad car. He doesn't turn from watching the sunset over the hills until Tess gets out of her Lexus to greet him. The man turns out to be Chief Poitier himself. Tess suspects he may have relieved a lowly deputy just minutes before her arrival.

"Ms. Brunel, I assume? My, you look more and more like your mother each time I see you." Tess grits her teeth in a smile. Her mother was beautiful to look at but hell to know, and she can't help but feel there's a zinger somewhere in that compliment. Comments like this were why she left Fletcher's Grove in the first place.

"Kind of you to meet me here, Chief," Tess says, lying. She knows it's curiosity more than anything else. Like clockwork, he offers to escort her to the house and show her the damage. She refuses.

"Well, if you should need anything while you're here, please give the station a call. I've left a list of recommended contractors on the table in the gree - er - the solarium. They won't take you for a ride." At that, Tess immediately regrets her uncharitable thoughts. Maybe she is just like her mother, always looking for the wrong in people. She thanks Chief Poitier profusely before he drives away.

It's a beautiful, chilly night. The leaves have already turned up here, probably past their peak but still fiery in the day's last light. Tess leaves her car at the gate, shoulders her small backpack, and starts along the gravel path. The house looms on the hillside before her. Its many wings and gables sprawl across a patchy lawn like a humped beast. Tess can just see the splintered branches of a fallen tree around the back edge.

She hesitates at the last small hill on the path before the big climb. To her left, the ashy bones of the old barn poke into the horizon. The red gleam of the sun through the stark, black beams reminds Tess of the last time she stood on this path, watching the gasoline-soaked shingles catch. Tess can't believe her mother left it like this for all these years. Then again, her mother had always treated the barn like a shrine. That was why Tess burned it down.

In Tess's mind, the house had become dusty and dilapidated. The truth is that Mabel has kept it spotless and serviceable, has even kept a stock of non-perishable goods in the kitchen. She wanders the hallways, flicking chandeliers on and off. Her feet remember the soft creep she adapted in her childhood, always terrified that her footsteps would give away her presence to her parents. The door to their bedroom is closed. Tess leaves it that way.

The solarium is ruined. Torn leaves and shards of glass make her every step crunch. Most of the orchids are still fine, but Tess thinks they won't make it if there's another freeze before the roof can be fixed. Whatever. She's never had a green thumb. The Chief's list is short, just three names, but the last one is underlined. I would try Mark first, he wrote. That's who Mabel would call. Tess brings the note back to the kitchen with her and leaves it by the phone. She considers the soup in the pantry. Decides on a different kind of liquid dinner.

Lit by the neon sign, The Wetstone's parking lot looks like it belongs on the set of some 80's movie. She recognizes the bartender, Len, as a former classmate of hers.

"Tess," he nods. She orders a vodka tonic, and another (and so on). He doesn't say much. She sees his disregard for what it is: kindness. A good bartender knows when talking won't help. She's in a mood. Any conversation would likely open up that dark little stitch in time, her father's body hanging from a beam in the barn on a creaking rope. She orders another.

"Sorry, that was last call," Len says, nodding at the empty glass in front of her. "You drove here?" Tess nods and wipes her face, a little ashamed. She's sweating through her silk shirt. Len thinks for a second and pours her another. "Let me clean up here and I'll give you a ride home, OK?"

Kindness from strangers. Well, near strangers. What a concept. "OK," she agrees.

On the ride home, Tess finally asks the question that's been burning inside her all night.

"What did John do?" Len gives her a strange look.


"John, from the sign."

He laughs. "Oh, John Muller! Come in tomorrow. Ask him yourself. He sits in the corner booth by the pool table every night." He pulls up to the gate.

"I'm not staying," Tess says. "Just gotta make a few calls then I'm going back home."

"That's a shame," says Len. "We could use some new blood around here."

"Too many bad memories. Too much..." she trails off. He nods, understanding her perfectly.

"Maybe there just hasn't been enough good here yet. You seem good, Tess." She laughs bitterly.

"What seems good?" Embarrassingly, she starts crying. Len turns the car off.

"You know, we don't lump you in with them. We all heard about you burning down the barn. Thought it was amazing. But then you left." He sounds a little exasperated. "Your dad did a shitty thing, taking those pensions and killing himself before giving anything back. Your mom locked herself up there and gave nothing back either. And you've turned your back on us too, Tess." Her tears turn into drunk, ugly sobs. "No, that's not the point. Shut up. Stop running. Make it better."

"I don't know how."

"You were always a smart girl. You can figure it out." He reaches across her seat to open her door. "Start by coming to see me tomorrow. Ask John what he did." She sniffs, nods, and gets out of the car. Before she slams the door, he adds with a smile, "It's worse than what you did, I promise. And he's still allowed to drink with us."

In the morning, Tess's head is throbbing. She sits with a cup of coffee by the phone in the kitchen and taps in Mark's number. A gruff voice answers.

"Mark here."

"Hi, this is Tess Brunel."

"Ah-yup, the Chief thought you might give me a call. Got a greenhouse needs fixing?"

"Yes. But first, I need an old barn gone."

Short Story

About the Creator

Suze Kay

Pastry chef by day, insomniac writer by night.

Find here: stories that creep up on you, poems to stumble over, and the weird words I hold them in.

Or, let me catch you at

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