Clay found the note in the cupboard, behind the spices but in front of the old margarine container where we kept the birthday candles. He might have been a no-good, wife-beating shithead, but he always remembered my birthday. A creature of habit.
He didn’t take too kindly to the note.
“Who the fuck is Duane?” he yelled at me, waving the scrap of paper in the air from across the room. I was waiting for him to bring my birthday cake over to where I sat at the table. My phone was ready, in case we wanted a few pictures as I blew out the candles.
“Nobody,” I said, still hoping my birthday would be a happy one.
“Nobody? Well, nobody says he can’t wait to see you again. Can’t wait to feel his lips on yours again. That sure as shit don’t sound like nobody!” Clay stormed over, leaving the cake behind.
“Just a guy I met. Nothing happened. He was making shit up.”
He got up into my face, his beery breath familiar. Sickening, yet familiar. “’Zat right? It don’t sound made up. Sounds like you been stepping out on me.”
Who would blame me if I did? I didn’t say nothing. I been around Clay enough when he’s like this. Next comes the back hand slap across the face. I braced for impact.
He wound up and smacked me. Creature of habit. I absorbed the blow best I could, stayed put in my chair. Clay stepped aside and admired his work, like he was proud of the fact he’d walloped a hundred-and-five-pound woman. One who’d kept her hands in her lap.
“Teach you to fuck around on me, whore.”
He’d called me whore so many times, I’d worry if he didn’t. “I wouldn’t have to fuck around, you treated me right.”
“I treat you right enough.” He inhaled through his nose, whistling slightly, and I pictured that tiny steam engine from the kiddie story, aiming to climb that big hill.
“Hell, you can’t even get it up half the time. Least Duane knows his way around a woman.”
I knew Clay’s tipping point, and it was in his rearview mirror. He slapped me again, harder. My head rang, and I bit back tears. It was shaping up to be one hell of a birthday, all right.
“Duane wouldn’t beat on a defenseless woman, you know. Wouldn’t need to in order to prove his manliness.” After a couple of slaps, it usually went one of two ways. A fist to the face, or a right-left combo to the gut. Since I was seated, I closed my eyes and steeled myself again.
Pop! A couple of knuckles found my right eye; luckily, the bone below took most of the impact. Nothing broken, but I’d have a shiner for nine or ten days. With Clay, even the healing time was predictable.
“That the best you got?”
“Taking it easy on you cuz it’s your birthday.” He laughed, and it sounded more like a donkey braying than a human.
“You’re becoming a pussy in your old age.” I paused, put a little panic in my voice. “Hey, don’t point that gun at me!”
I pressed the stop button on my phone’s voice recorder app. Then I tossed the phone on the floor, as if there had been a struggle.
Clay straightened, eyed me. “The hell?”
“I thought I deserved a nice present on my birthday.” I brought my hand out from beneath the table, the one holding Clay’s loaded Glock. “Last I heard, you were allowed to defend yourself if someone came at you with a gun. Even if you’re married to the asshole.”
“Now, sugar…” Clay held his hands in front of him like a shield.
“By the way, I always thought it was sweet how you remembered my birthday every year. With the cake. And candles, too.”
Clay’s eyes went wide as the tumblers inside his head clicked. “So that note…you wanted me to…”
I smiled. “Behind the spices, in front of the margarine tub.”
“You bitch!” He lunged forward.
I squeezed the trigger.
Happy Birthday to me.