Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Sorry




It’s the only house he’s ever lived in; Kenny Meaux moves with the aid of his walker to the kitchen to check on the progress of two crawfish pies. He’s in his eighties now and moving slow. An old poodle-mix, whose brown eyes are layered gun barrel blue with cataracts, blindly follows Kenny from the other room. Kenny gently nudges the frail little dog aside before opening the oven door. A wave of 425 heat meets Kenny’s face and for a second he can’t breathe. He sees that the pies still need a few more minutes. The edges of the crusts aren’t browned the way he likes. He’s particular like that.

In the dining room Kenny sets himself a place at the long table. He lays out one of the formal place settings he always uses, even though he’s alone -- the way he is for most meals at home. And, as he did for his three previous poodles, Kenny lays out an identical place setting for King Louis IV on the floor. Sometimes Kenny has to help the dog find the plate and the food on it. Along with sight and sound, the dog’s sense of smell faded long ago.

The dining room looks like something out of a magazine. In fact, it is something out of a magazine, down to the crystal chandelier: Architecture Illustrated, page 76. The October, 1963 issue.

Nearly forty years before, when his parents were still alive, Kenny tried to modernize the old house. Just because they lived in Abbeville, Louisiana, he’d reasoned with his mother one morning over coffee and the open magazine, didn’t mean they had to live like it. She didn’t see it that way. As far as she was concerned, there was nothing wrong with the yellowing wallpaper or the worn carpet. The mishmash of cheap furniture was fine the way it was. Kenny realized his parents were far too practical to appreciate the kinds of change he had in mind. So he’d held off on the major renovations, happy to buy art with gilded frames for the time being. Vases and lamps. A hall tree. He would hold off on the Persian rugs, the heavy furniture and the interior paint that would truly transform the house into the vision in Kenny’s mind.


* * *

 One Sunday, when Kenny was seventy years old, he walked out of the pew at the front of church. Early morning Mass had just ended and he made his way with everyone as they moved toward the open doors where the sunlight poured in bright and blinding.

“Kenny, I’m so sorry.” It was Mrs. Toups. “We just heard the news this morning.”

“Thank you, Marjorie” Kenny said. It seemed like a natural reply, even if he didn’t have any idea what Mrs. Toups talked about. It’d be too awkward asking her why she was sorry. When Mrs. Toups didn’t say anything more, Kenny didn’t either. Then she walked off to meet her husband who was already heading for the steps.

No longer dark the way it had been at six when Kenny arrived at Mass, he could see his neighbors, Tommy and Mary LaCroix. Both with glum looks on their faces.

“Oh, Kenny,” Mary LaCroix said when Kenny reached them. She touched his arm lightly, leaving her hand there as she spoke. “We just heard.”

“Will the funeral be here or in Dallas?” Tommy LaCroix said.

That’s when it occurred to Kenny that his oldest brother, James, had died. He’d been sick for some time. Kenny’s other brother, Charles, who lived just outside Abbeville, had kept Kenny up to date on their brother’s condition, even though Kenny took no interest in anything about his brother in Dallas, the progress of his health or otherwise. Kenny knew this brother would probably die soon. He’d been fighting cancer. And now he had died and Kenny wasn’t sure how he felt about it. Kenny hadn’t expected to feel anything, though, so he chose not to feel anything now. Later, when he was alone, he’d reassess the way he truly felt. Before he could do that, though, he had to get away from Tommy and Mary LaCroix.

“We were wanting to send flowers,” Mary LaCroix said. She’d been talking that whole time.

“Thank you, Mary,” Kenny said.

“Let us know if there’s anything we can do,” Tommy LaCroix said.

“I know,” Mary LaCroix said, “why don’t you come over for dinner today, Kenny? We’ll be sitting down at the usual time, about 12:30.”

“She’s making shrimp and crab etouffee,” Tommy LaCroix put in, temptation in his voice.

Mary LaCroix had made Kenny etouffee only two weeks earlier, for Kenny’s seventieth birthday. “Thanks, Mary,” Kenny said. He realized he was happy to be receiving the attention. Still, he managed to show the least amount of emotion necessary to pass as sorrow, but not so much as to feel like he was in any way betraying himself. Because deep down—now that Kenny did think about it—he wasn’t sorry. He could dislike his brother in death just as much as he’d disliked him in life. Kenny saw no reason to veer from that stance. And he didn’t.

* * *

The week after his mother died, two years to the month after his father passed away, Kenny Meaux had gotten busy with the transformation. Kenny was in his early forties at the time, and he knew it would take years, even decades, to complete his plan. He was eager to get started. He began by removing all the furniture. He then stripped away the worn carpet, revealing hardwoods underneath. In essence, he gutted every room in the house, leaving only the things he’d been adding over the years. The matching faux Tiffany lamps, the big antique grandfather clock, the sconces in the living room, window treatments. He’d been patient and now was finally free to have the rooms painted in the vibrant colors he’d picked out years before. Kenny had always dreamed of having a green room, and that became the front parlor. Now he could say ‘Let’s retire to the green room for coffee and dessert.’ He’d installed mirrors on the entire east wall of the formal dining room—three large interconnected panels—at first glance doubling the room in size. The dinner party in his mind was a spectacle to behold. He always placed himself facing the mirrored wall, and thus able to observe himself entertaining. Kenny admired how elegant it was, how elegant he appeared at the center of it all.

Next, Kenny replaced his mother’s wedding china with a pattern more befitting the grand new room. Two candelabras sat at the center of the long table, each holding eight tall, slender candles. He’d succeeded in creating ambiance, a word he liked to say using the French pronunciation.

After that, Kenny turned his attention to the kitchen. He got some ideas from the pages of an interior design magazine. He’d had custom cabinets installed before buying a commercial-grade refrigerator he couldn’t afford and having it faced with wood matching the cabinets. He put in a large oaken island and positioned it beneath a heavy gauge steel pot rack from which he hung a complete set of copper-bottomed pots, pans and skillets of varying sizes. The 48” stainless steel range had six gas burners, a griddle, two ovens and heating lamps set inside a broad stainless hood. These were the features the dealer had talked on and on about; the things Kenny memorized, then repeated on more than one occasion to guests who happened by. The stove was much like the baby grand Kenny had positioned at an angle in the front room. Just because he couldn’t play the piano didn’t mean he couldn’t admire it for its presence. Anyone who visited might assume he played the piano, or cooked, for that matter. While he never claimed he could do either, he never saw a reason to deny it.

He couldn’t really afford any of it, but then that was Kenny Meaux. Impulsive where it mattered. Now, nearly forty years later and with the restoration complete, the house and everything in it reflects Kenny’s exquisite taste, as he waits for the minutes to pass and the crawfish pies to finish baking in the convection oven. He thinks he might open a bottle of wine. Something from the wine cabinet, a hall closet he’d had converted, complete with an intricately crafted wrought iron gate. Perhaps a bottle of Puilly Fuisse, he’s thinking.


* * *

In the beginning Kenny’s grudge was against both his brothers, Charles and James. It started thirty-one years earlier when they’d asked Kenny to repay them the money they loaned him to start up his financial services business. $10,000 each. They’d given Kenny the loan ten years before that, when Kenny was in his early twenties and not long out of college. The arrangement was simple: Kenny would pay back his brothers the money—interest free—ten years later to the day. Kenny remembered the day his brothers had asked for their money back. He reminded them of all the favors he’d done for them in that time. Picking them up from or dropping them off at the airport in Lafayette, for example. And babysitting their kids. Then there was all the tax and investment advice he’d given them. All free of charge. He’d never asked for anything in return. Not once. After all, it’s what brothers did for one another. So there was a double-standard, the way they suddenly teamed up against him. It seemed plain to Kenny that they merely wanted to profit from his good fortune. It was the principle of the thing.

 

* * *

After nearly two decades of steady renovations to the inside of the house, Kenny turned his attention to the outside. There was little he could do in regard to the old house’s simple exterior. So he did the one thing he could do: he gave it a fresh coat of peach-colored paint that Lester LaPierre from down the street said looked pink as a sow’s teat. And this after Kenny had showed him the color chip, clearly marked “Peach Cobbler.” But it did no good concerning himself with people like Lester LaPierre, and Kenny had the painters touch up the dark green shutters and that was that. It would always be a large wooden two-story house that stood indistinguishable from the other large wood frame houses up and down Eleazar Street; all of which were painted the traditional white and, in Kenny’s opinion, looking drab and dingy. At least the fresh paint job helped his house in that respect.

But the interior was another matter. That was the world in which Kenny dwelled. When he walked through the door it wasn’t difficult imagining himself entering a well-appointed Greek Revival on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, and not some hundred year old house on Eleazar Street in Abbeville, Louisiana.

 

* * *

Kenny liked sitting in the formal dining room watching himself eat. The room and everything in it was the perfect complement to the dinner parties he never had. Or hadn’t had since the first one he threw. Years earlier, as a sort of trial run, Kenny had invited everyone on Eleazar Street. He’d personally hand delivered the custom printed invitations, had addressed each one himself using a gold paint calligraphy pen. He’d hired a catering company and insisted they prepare everything at his house, wanting to demonstrate the functionality of his professional-grade kitchen, curious to see it himself. It was then that Kenny realized that while he could give the old house an urban sophistication, there was little he could do about the people he invited into it.

Still, to their credit, some of the guests clearly understood the meaning of soiree, the word Kenny had used on the invitation. They arrived dressed accordingly, albeit for the most part out of fashion. The men wore wide lapelled polyester sports coats that hadn’t been in style since the seventies. Some of the women actually wore open-toed sandals—so what if it was still hot outside, it was nearly October! Then there was Albert Broussard who showed up wearing the most hellacious red pants Kenny had ever seen, like he’d just walked off the golf course, as if that would’ve been an excuse.

Kenny had to ask Lester LaPierre twice to please not smoke his cigar in the house, that it irritated King Louis II’s eyes. King Louis II, looking dapper, was dressed appropriately, wearing a doggy tuxedo, resembling Kenny in his own custom-made tux.

And then they were seated around the big table, a moment Kenny had relished for the ten years since buying the table at an antique auction. But things only went from bad to worse.

“You’ll want to use the salad fork for the salad,” Kenny said to Johnny Dubois.

“What’s that?” Johnny Dubois said with a mouthful of field greens, mango vinaigrette shining the stubble of his chin. He sat across the table from Kenny.

“You’re eating a salad, Johnny,” Kenny said. “And you’re using the entrée fork.”

Still chewing, Johnny Dubois assessed the sterling utensils lined neatly beside his plate.

“What I wanna go and dirty all them forks for when the one I’m using is working fine?”

Lester LaPierre sat next to Kenny and Kenny could see his reflection on the mirrored wall. When Johnny Dubois looked at Lester LaPierre they shared a look that Kenny recognized as ridicule.

Kenny had picked out the wine himself. A Chateauneuf du Pape to go with the rack of lamb, a Riesling to go with the strawberry tortes, both recommendations of The Wine Connoisseur. Still, the women drank the wine like lemonade, the men like cold beer, and soon everyone was drunk, loud and vulgar. They were not like people in New Orleans, they were not like Kenny, and Kenny never again threw another dinner party.

* * *

When Kenny was in his late sixties, his brother Charles had phoned him out of the blue. Charles asked Kenny to come over. He said they needed to talk. Kenny remained silent on the phone, his mind racing. When Kenny hung up, he’d still not decided whether or not to see his brother. Actually, Kenny surprised himself a few days later when he found himself driving out into the country toward Erath with his dog King Louis III. As he turned into the long driveway of his brother’s ranch, he realized only then that he’d made the decision to go.

At first Charles didn’t seem like he would say he was sorry now that Kenny was at his house, holding King Louis the III. Martha, Kenny’s sister-in-law, sat on the sofa. A lone spectator with a look of apprehension contorting her face.

“Enough’s enough,” Kenny’s older brother said, having a hard time rising from his recliner. He then used a cane to help himself move across the living room carpet. He relied heavily on the cane to stand there unsteadily in the center of the room. Meanwhile, Kenny panned the room, noting the outdated décor. Nothing had changed. The room looked as rural as ever, even for a farm house. The only indication that any time had passed was his brother’s appearance. Kenny wondered how long he’d needed the cane to get around. Charles looked old. He’d aged much more than the twenty-five years that had passed between them. Kenny had seen his brother around town, usually in whatever filthy pickup he was driving at the time. At a stop sign or a traffic light. It’s impossible avoiding anyone in a town of 9,000 people. Still, even when catching a chance glimpse of Charles, Kenny was quick to look away, acting like he’d not seen him. They went to different Masses, Kenny had made sure of that in the beginning, so there was no likelihood of running into each other at church. In small towns people held true to the routines that guided their lives and Abbeville was no exception. So Kenny had only to alter his routine so that it ran contrary to his brother’s. Kenny might go weeks, even months without seeing Charles, without having to act like he didn’t see him when he did.

Now Kenny stood with his brother in the same room and Charles held out his hand. King Louis III growled. Against the tendency it had taken decades to build, to perfect, Kenny put his hand into his brother’s older, much larger hand, but he didn’t squeeze. Kenny wouldn’t give him that.

“Well?” Kenny said.

“Well, what?” Charles said.

“I’m waiting.”

“Waiting for what?” Charles said, distributing more weight onto the cane.

“Waiting for you to tell me what it is you asked me over here to say.”

“I asked you over here so we could talk,” Charles said. “You have to stop this, Kenny. Before it’s too late. I don’t guess you’ve heard about James?”

“I haven’t heard from him in over 20 years,” Kenny said.

“Well, he’s got cancer, if it means anything to you.”

“Why should it mean anything to me? It’s got nothing to do with me.”

Kenny’s sister-in-law huffed on the sofa.

“You don’t mean that,” Charles said.

“The hell I don’t.” Kenny let go of his brother’s hand. He thought about turning around and walking out.

“Kenny, you have to stop this,” Charles said.

“I have to stop this?” Kenny said. “I’m not the one who started it. Remember?”

Kenny’s sister-in-law huffed again, only louder, like she wanted to remind them she was there.

After seeming to consider something Charles said, “if that’s the way you want it, fine. We have to stop this, okay. It’s been, what…twenty-two, twenty-three years now? Hell, maybe longer. We’re brothers, Kenny, and I think it’s time we started acting like it. We’re getting too old for this. James has cancer. As you can see, I’m not doing so well, either. And from the looks of it, neither are you.”

Kenny took offense. True, he had high blood pressure, and recurring numbness in his swollen hands and feet. Maybe his weight had gotten out of control, but that was expected of a man nearing seventy.

Charles must have detected Kenny’s anger. “C’mon, Kenny,” he said. “Don’t be like that. Let’s put an end to this once and for all. We can get James on the phone right now.”

“Then I’m waiting.”

“Waiting for what?” Charles said. “You keep saying that.”

“Are you going to apologize or not?”

“That’s it.” Kenny’s sister-in-law erupted. She’d been sitting quietly on the sofa, clearly agonizing. “Get out,” she shouted.

Kenny wondered if she’d start crying, if she might attack him.

“It’s okay, baby,” Charles said.

“No it’s not okay,” she said to Charles, then to Kenny, “I can’t believe he even asked you over here, Kenny. And this is the way you act?”

Charles didn’t say anything. He just looked at Kenny, seeing him, as if finally understanding him. He nodded.

“Okay, if that’s the way you want it,” Charles said.

“Charles, you can’t,” his wife pleaded. She had risen from the sofa, like that might give her more leverage.

“I’m sorry,” Charles said and Kenny could tell it wasn’t easy to say. Kenny tried not to smile.

“I can’t believe you,” Kenny’s sister-in-law said to her husband. She sounded profoundly disappointed, appearing disgusted.

“I’m sorry,” Charles said again to Kenny, as if finding it easier now that he’d already said it once. “There. You happy now? I’m sorry.”

Kenny’s sister-in-law left the room in tears, moving to the kitchen. She slammed a cabinet door.

Then Kenny, still looking at his brother, did smile. “Well, you should be,” he said.

* * *

Renovating the bathrooms was important. Especially the front bathroom, off the living room. You could tell a lot about people by the bathrooms they allowed you to use. He chose a design that was tasteful. No less stylish than he himself, no less than the picture on page 45 in a December issue of Distinctive Home. He’d found the wallpaper, a pattern of delicate primrose, at a store in Baton Rouge. The flecks of pink complemented perfectly the shag rug, and matching toilet shag seat cover. The motif continued throughout the curtains and the votive candles that Kenny lit only when company was expected.

The master bathroom at the back of the house was a project all its own. He’d had the contractor knock down a wall. The additional space to his closet allowed plenty of room for the many suits he owned. For all his sports coats and slacks. He was without a doubt the best-dressed CPA in town. People told him so. He bought matching cedar hangers and displayed his clothes spaced an inch apart on the rod, like in the high-priced haberdasheries in New Orleans.

* * *

“You didn’t have anything against Laura,” Charles said to Kenny. “So why don’t you call her? Just to acknowledge that you heard the news?”

Charles had come over to Kenny’s house. Just popped in the way he used to every day before they’d stopped talking all those years ago. When their mother was still alive. Charles and Kenny sat in the breakfast nook drinking coffee. Kenny wondered when his brother would comment on the house. It was his first time back since Kenny started the restoration over three decades earlier. Charles still hadn’t added Kenny’s address to the list of houses he visited for coffee every morning. But Kenny assumed this would eventually become part of his brother’s morning coffee calls the way it once had been. He hoped so. It was good having people drop by for coffee without an invitation. Not enough people did. In truth, it sometimes seemed excessive using the silver tray and the demitasse coffee set when alone. Kenny had given the set to his mother before she died, knowing it would be his when she was gone.

Kenny stirred sugar into his coffee, the tiny sterling spoon clinking against the insides of the fragile little cup. He’d always liked that sound. Kenny still hadn’t said anything and his brother began talking again.

“It breaks my heart that you missed your chance with James. Please don’t let it happen again. Not with Laura. She’s devastated, Kenny. It’d really mean a lot if you’d just tell her you’re sorry for her loss. We need to put this behind us before it’s too late.”

“Before what’s too late?” Kenny said. “I swear, you can be so overdramatic, Charles.” Kenny reached down and placed a piece of biscuit on the floor next to King Louis III.

Charles didn’t say anything.

“Besides, I’m not sorry,” Kenny added, and he meant it. He’d gone to high school with Laura, had graduated with her. He remembered how excited they both were when she’d started dating James. Kenny had personally welcomed Laura into the family.

“You’re not sorry for her loss?” Charles said. “I have a hard time believing that, Kenny.” Charles paused. Then he continued, “I really worry about her. She’s crushed.”

Charles’ hands had always been big, a rancher’s hands. But they seemed bigger still handling the little demitasse. He didn’t hold the cup properly by the ear, but rather in the way he might a shot of bourbon. Kenny thought about his sister-in-law in Dallas. How she’d always relied on James. Kenny could see how she’d feel devastated by the loss of his brother.

“Well, maybe I’m sorry about that,” Kenny admitted, spreading fig preserves on a biscuit with a sterling silver butter knife.

“I know it’d mean the world to her,” Charles said.

“You don’t know that,” Kenny said. “She sided with him the whole time. We were friends before she ever met James, and that’s the way she acted?”

“She was his wife, Kenny. What’d you expect her to do?”

“I expected her to treat me better than she did. I haven’t heard from her or the kids in over thirty years. I’ve not received a single birthday or Christmas card in that time. Can you believe it? Not a single picture.” Kenny knew as he said it that he’d not wanted their pictures or greeting cards. Again, it was the principle.

Kenny got up and moved to the kitchen with the silver platter. He went to the stove and to the tin sheet resting on the rack beneath the heating lamp that glowed red and hot. With a spatula, he piled the remaining biscuits on top of the ones already on the platter.

“You put the kids in that position,” Kenny heard his brother say from the other room.

“You forced them to choose sides and they did. You can’t blame them for that.”

Kenny returned to the breakfast nook with the biscuits. “Want another one?” Kenny asked, holding the spatula ready. “They’re still hot.”

“Don’t change the subject, Kenny. We need to talk about this.”

Kenny took his seat after placing another biscuit on his plate. He reached for the fig preserves. They sat quiet and Kenny knew his brother was waiting for an answer. Under the table, the old poodle hacked up something wet onto the rug.

“Poor King Louis III,” Kenny said.

“Well?” Charles said.

“Well, what?” Kenny said.

Charles shook his head. He slowly rose from the table. After draping his starched monogrammed linen napkin over the back of the chair, he moved toward the door, leaning heavily onto the cane as he went.

“You really should try these fig preserves, Charles,” Kenny said.

* * *

“You’re going to die a lonely old man,” Charles told Kenny one day. “Do you realize that? You’d better hope I don’t die before you, because there might not be anyone at your funeral.” Kenny wanted to point out that he wasn’t alone. He thought to bring up King Louis IV, but saw the hopelessness in it.

That was the last conversation Kenny had had with his brother, who had died not a week later.

Kenny thinks of that conversation now. He isn’t in the best of health, his brother was right about that. He’s been sick off and on for years. Now Kenny needs a walker to get around. For a moment, Kenny allows himself to envision the funeral home. An open casket and him in it, looking elegant in a blue suit. Make-up on, hair combed over, defying age even in death. And the rows of empty chairs. But Kenny stops the thought before it gets to that, before he can ponder it. Instead he pictures the mountains of flowers set up around the casket. He won’t allow the beauty of all that to be tainted in any way with the idea of empty seats.

Besides, he has to check on the crawfish pies. He can tell by the smell that they’re on the verge of over baking. He reminds King Louis IV that, as hungry as they are, they won’t eat the pies if the crusts are too dark. They’d have to start all over again.





David P. Langlinais’ work has appeared in South Dakota Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Los Angeles Review, Prick of the Spindle, Dos Passos Review, Big Muddy, The MacGuffin, and others. He’s from southwest Louisiana and lives with his wife and daughter in Dallas, where he works as a freelance copywriter. When not writing, David is likely cooking a gumbo. UL Press has just decided to publish his second collection of short stories, What Happened to All the Dogs? and Other Stories.