Fiction: The Devil You Know
A version of this short story first appeared in Minetta Review, New York University's student-run art and lit magazine.
When I was a little girl, I don’t know that I dreamed of being anyone in particular—a princess, a policewoman, the first female President of the United States. My mother didn’t have much patience for what she called nonsense. She didn’t believe in test-driving a man, even though my daddy had turned out to be a lemon. Not long after I married Gary—got out from under her thumb—Momma and me watched The Bridges of Madison County, and all she could say at the end was, “About damn time Meryl Streep wised up.”
I was telling this to Tommy, and he quit kissing my nipples right then. He stuck his head out from under the covers with a grin. He had the biggest grin and the greenest eyes. “Does that mean I’m Clint Eastwood?” He scrunched up his nose real cute when he was being a smart aleck.
I told him he couldn’t be my Clint Eastwood with a wife and kids pulling him out of my bed. He went back under the covers and kept kissing me down there like Gary never did. I watched a blue jay fly by out the window, over the couple of acres of farmland that the landlord let me cut to keep the rent down. I’d put the bed in the living room, next to the wood stove, cause the bedroom in the rancher I was renting didn’t have any windows. It felt less lonely at night, looking out at the stars, or watching the headlights as they rolled by on the main road.
Tommy hit a spot that made my legs close up around his head. I lifted the covers and grabbed the sides of his face and told him I was sorry. He laughed. “Right button, huh?” He raised his eyebrows and went back to it. I knew it wouldn’t feel like this, this nice, if I had Tommy around for more than an hour at a time. I couldn’t say that I wanted him for a lifetime, and I doubted he did me either. But not having the worry of what might come next made it easier, knowing I could get what I needed, maybe even love him some, without having to worry about all that comes with it. Nobody ever bothers to tell you about all that comes with it.
When he finished, he just laid his head on my stomach under the covers. “What’s wrong, sweetie?” I asked and grabbed a fistful of hair on top of his head. “Come up here and kiss me.”
Tommy touched the tip of his nose to mine. I could feel his voice buzz against my lips. “Honey …” He pulled his head back and looked through me. “I’ve got to tell Jeanie—three kids, my beauties. And she’s their momma.” His nose wasn’t touching mine anymore. “I just don’t know how you can be away from your boy.”
I slid out from under him and stretched to the floor for my bra. “Just cause you go home to her bed doesn’t mean you’re any better than me.” I hooked it and put on my underwear. “My son knows I love him—he’s thirteen going on twenty-three. I gave him the choice, and he said his daddy wasn’t as strong as me.”
Tommy grunted and fell back on the pillow. “Why’d you leave him then? Gary, I mean. He’s a mess, honey, barely eating, tightening up his holster belt day by day.”
I stomped to the kitchen and filled the percolator with water. “Why don’t you ask him the last time he wanted to know anything other than what was for supper?” I tossed in three scoops of Folgers and plugged the percolator into the socket by the sink. “Hell, he’s your friend—might as well tell him, too, while you’re at it.”
November had been colder than we were used to in East Tennessee, and the rancher seemed to let the wind in through every nook and cranny, like the outside world could come and go as it pleased. But I didn’t put on any clothes. I knew Tommy couldn’t walk out the door without looking me over. Not like the men at McDonald’s where I’d started working breakfast to lunch, the ones just taking a snap shot for later. Tommy really took stock of me, like there wasn’t a stretch he didn’t like.
By the time the percolator quit sputtering, I smelled Tommy at my back, salty sweat that turned me on in a way few smells did. He ran his finger down my spine until his hand was between my legs.
“I’ll tell ’em both, honey, if that’s what you want,” he said through that smart aleck smirk I knew without even turning around. “We’ll get this untangled, straighten it out real quick.”
I opened the cabinet and reached for the black mug with “No. 1 Mom” in white letters on it, but thought better of it. I didn’t want to give Tommy the satisfaction. I picked the one my son had given me with a cowgirl on it instead and got a Styrofoam cup for him. I poured them full and stirred creamer in both and one packet of Sweet’N Low in mine.
Tommy was in uniform, the steam filling the space between us. I handed him his coffee and pressed up against his holster belt. “You sure you don’t want to get back in bed?” I watched his green eyes to see if I could change his mind, keep him from making me the slut in all this.
He slurped his coffee and it surely burned his throat, as fresh as it was. He shifted his belt and grinned, but his eyes didn’t light up like before, back when he wanted to be my Clint Eastwood. I grinned best I could and took a sip. The coffee scalded the tip of my tongue. Tommy turned his up again, like it was water. I wrapped his other arm around my waist and put his hand on my thigh.
“I’ll be the bad cop,” I said. “Don’t you see that, sweetie? You’ll get to waltz out of here, say your ‘I’m sorrys’ and get right back in bed.” I put my lips close to his, close enough to taste the grounds on his breath. “The man always gets of scot-free, don’t he?”
Tommy let me go and emptied his cup down his throat. He tossed it in the garbage bag I had hung on the door that led out to the back yard. He parked his cruiser out there so no one could spot it from the road. I watched him over the lip of my cup, his eyes darting up and down, like I was a statue in a fancy museum, just a body without a head. He rubbed his nose with his thumb and trigger finger, a tic I’d picked up on at a barbecue, back before I’d let life get out ahead of me.
Tommy’d been irritated at Jeanie over something, what I can’t remember. It was the first time I’d seen him out of uniform, white T-shirt and Wranglers that hugged him right. We cracked open the Jack Daniel’s once the sun had gone down and Jeanie and the girls had gone to bed. Gary had drunk himself into the bottom of his lawn chair.
“You sure are pretty,” Tommy said to me there in the moonlight, under the weeping willow in his front yard. I was wearing a favorite sundress of mine, blue with white trim. I don’t know that Gary had ever said that to me. Tommy did without flinching, like it’d been on the tip of his mind all night.
“Men get a pass, I’ll give you that,” he said now, standing in my kitchen, still eyeing me like a statue. “But I don’t make the rules—just live by ’em.” He grabbed the doorknob and glanced back, straightening the short bill of his hat. “What I got ain’t worth losing.”
I set my coffee on the counter and marched up to him, chest to chest, badge and all, took his face in both hands. “You really love her?”
He jerked away, rubbed his nose again, thumb and trigger finger.
“Gary never has loved me,” I said. “He loves our boy, but he never has loved me.”
“Better the devil you know, honey.” Tommy winked a wink that wrapped up everything I didn’t know about him in a bow. He slung open the door and slammed it shut.
I took my coffee to the living room and curled up on the side of the bed nearest the window—farmland and clear blue skies stretched for miles. A handful of cars rolled by on the main road. Tommy revved his cruiser, and then came the dust, floating by in clouds as he sped down the gravel drive.
I don’t know why he turned on the sirens, but I jumped, nearly spilled my coffee when they screamed out. Maybe he really had got a call, or maybe he just wanted to let me know trouble was coming, that my boy was going to grow up quick in all this.
Once the dust cleared, I could see that the cars had pulled to the sides of the road, half in and half out of the ditches, letting the blue lights blur past toward town.