THE BROWNINGS never felt quite right in the company of the Happars, who made no effort to hide their superior financial stability, the overwhelming success of their adult children (John, a prominent Wall Street broker, and Emily, a renowned cosmetic dentist) compared to the childless Brownings, and their overall happiness with each other in contrast with the Brownings, who, at most generous description, tolerated one another. Still, despite the disparity, the Brownings once again found themselves arriving to watch the NCAA basketball finals at the Happars’ plush New York City high-rise as they had done every year since both couples were married a few months apart in 1982. Standing on the Happars’ plush purple Welcome mat, Dale Browning, with wife Beth latched apathetically to his arm, straightened his Target brand tie as he knocked on the door. He had a bottle of wine in hand, also acquired at Target, as a customary party-warming present. “I don’t know why you brought that cheap wine,” Beth said. “You know they can tell the difference.” Dale fidgeted and withdrew his arm from her grasp, his gaze staying locked straight ahead as the door opened. “Dale, Beth, so great to see you,” Leo Happars said as he gestured them inside, accepted the wine with a disapproving look and helped them remove their coats. “I didn’t think you’d show this year, Dale, considering how busted your bracket is.” He smiled wryly at him. Dale scowled. “Anything hard to drink?” was his only retort. “Of course,” Leo said. “Will whiskey do? We’ve got a bottle of Glenfiddich ’37 Rare. Some fine stuff.” “Ya, sure,” Dale said. “Neat.” “Great. Beth, anything?” “Yes, please. On the rocks.” “Okay, coming right up,” Leo said. “Audrey’s finishing up with the appetizers. Feel free to make yourselves at home.” He made his way through the swinging door into the kitchen to finish preparing for his guests, and before it closed completely Dale saw him stash the wine away in a corner cabinet. Once he was gone, Beth hissed at Dale. “Why are you being such a downer?” “I’m not being a downer.” “Yes, you are. You’re downing the whole atmosphere, and the game hasn’t even started yet.” “I’m not being a downer, but you saying that is enough to make me a downer, I’ll tell you that much.” They sat down on each end of the couch, a three-seater, leaving a cushion vacant between them as the Happars made their way back into the main room. Leo handed the Brownings their drinks. “Beth, Dale, wonderful you could make it,” Audrey said, smiling as she set a tray of jalapeño poppers on the chestnut coffee table. “How have you been, Beth?” “Your teeth look so white,” Beth replied. “Have you been whitening?” “Oh, dear, thank you so much for noticing. I’ve had Emily do some work for me. She is the dentist to the stars, as you know, can you believe that just last week she fixed a chipped tooth for Neil Patrick Harris! But somehow she still finds a way to sneak her mum in the schedule.” She smiled another huge smile at the Brownings, and Beth turned away as if she were looking into an alabaster sun. Dale knocked back his whiskey, finishing it all in one swallow, and set the glass down on the table away from all available coasters. Leo had been busy turning on the TV and tuning it to the game, which was just about to tipoff. He turned to face the party, glanced at the empty glass on the table, glanced at Dale, and moved the glass onto a coaster. He and Audrey squished together on an oversized recliner beside the couch, and the game got underway. More petty chitchat was made about the Happars’ lavish life, most of it concerning John’s latest real estate acquisition, an extravagant mansion in the Hamptons, before Dale realized there was something missing on this particular visit to the high-rise. “Say, where’s that pussycat of yours?” Dale said with a crude tone to his voice, already having poured himself several refills of whiskey. “Dale!” Beth said, appalled. “Stop that.” “You stop being a nag,” Dale said. “Oh, it’s fine, Beth,” Audrey said. “We forgot to tell you, Abracadabra’s at the vet right now.” “Very serious kidney condition,” Leo added. “We just hope she pulls through.” He took Audrey’s hand and squeezed it as they looked at each other endearingly. “That’s a shame,” Dale chimed in, zero trace of sympathy in his voice. “Another whiskey, anyone?” He rose from the couch and headed into the kitchen before anyone could take him up on the offer. “Downer,” Beth said after him, but he was already through the door. Then there was a silence as a tense moment in the game occurred. There was a scrum for the ball and one player appeared to be badly injured from it, having to be shouldered off the court by his trainer and coach. “Oh, that’s just terrible,” Audrey said as Dale reappeared from the kitchen and plopped down in his spot at the end of the couch. “You hate to see someone get hurt like that.” “Yes, especially Brewer,” Leo said. “He’s a senior this year.” He squeezed his wife’s hand once again, as if to affirm to himself that no matter the outcome of the game, no matter how many players were helped off the court in pain, he still had his love nestled right beside him. Everyone settled back in to watching the game without conversation. Dale and Beth did not so much as look at each other, with the exception of the glares she shot him each time he went to help himself to a refill of a whiskey he could never afford. Near halftime, the phone rang. Audrey thrust herself up out of the chair and answered it. She gave a few murmured yeses, uh-huhs, and then her face became very pale right before she hung up the phone. “Leo, that was the vet,” she said. “We must come see her, he said, she’s, she’s in grave condi—“ She sputtered off on her sentence and began to cry. Leo bounded from the chair to console his wife. The Brownings remained in awkward silence on the couch—Beth looking toward Audrey with a pained expression in her brow and her hand over her mouth, Dale with his eyes still glued to the TV, taking in a pair of free throws as if they were Abracadabra’s dying breaths. “We have to be off,” Leo said, grabbing their coats as he talked. “Stay if you want, lock up if you leave, whatever.” By the time Dale turned around to begin to act as if he cared, the Happars were out the door. “Dale, that was incredibly rude,” Beth said, the empty cushion still between them like a wide-mouthed abyss. “What?” “You could’ve at least acted a little compassionate. They just got news their kitten is on its deathbed, and all you could do was stare at the TV.” “Those were big free throws, babe. And he made them, so now it’s all tied up heading into half.” “Some respect for our hosts would have been more appropriate.” “Now who’s being a downer?” he jabbed, and went to pour himself another drink. When he returned from the kitchen his demeanor had shifted. He snapped off the TV and settled into the middle cushion, rubbing up against his wife. He put his hand up her shirt. “Dale!” “Relax, babe, this is our apartment now. Just relax.” She gave him a quizzical look, but submitted. He blindly put his drink on the uncovered table while they kissed, and they made love for the first time in a long time. Afterwards, as they began to dress, Dale stopped them. He took Beth by the hand, squeezing it tightly, and led them, still naked, into the Happars’ room. “Dale, what are you doing?” “Let’s get dressed in here.” “But our clothes are out there, hun. Don’t be silly.” “Come on, it’ll be fun.” He was already sifting through one of Leo’s drawers, from which he yanked a pair of silk boxers and promptly stepped into them. By the time he had selected and pulled on a pair of classy dress socks, Beth was joining in, rifling through Audrey’s bureau. Undergarments on, they advanced into the spacious, walk-in closet. Dale began to sift through swanky button-down shirts, suites, ties, until he found a proper combination—blue pinstripe suite, yellow Armani power tie, powder blue dress shirt—that appeased him. Beth picked out an expensive-looking tangerine cocktail dress with a tiered, ruffle construction and a one-shoulder silhouette. She slid into diamond heels, then made her way to the jewelry box beside the bed to select a diamond necklace and pair of diamond earrings to compliment the shoes. She spritzed herself with Audrey’s Clive Christian Imperial Majesty perfume. Lastly, Dale donned the shiniest pair of loafers he could find, and the couple stood together in front of the elegant, mahogany-framed Cheval mirror positioned beside the bureau. They smiled into the mirror in unison for a long moment, as if they were holding a pose for the paparazzi at one of John’s exclusive Wall Street galas on the Upper East Side. “We clean up nice, honey,” she remarked. “Yes, yes we do. You look fabulous.” Then they turned their smiles toward each other, kissed passionately and stumbled toward the bed, quickly stripping themselves of the fine clothes they had just donned. They made love again beneath the giant picture of the Happars family that hung above the headboard. After round two concluded, they reluctantly replaced all of the Happars’ attire back to its original locations in the most undisturbed manner possible. Then, with even more reluctance, they headed back into the main room and dressed in the clothes they had arrived in. He smiled at her again, kissed her on the forehead, brought her hands up to his mouth and kissed those, too. He smelt the fancy perfume on her wrists, and smiled even wider. “Ready to go?” he said. She beamed back at him. “Yes, let’s take this… to our place.” She snorted in delight. They laughed, grabbed their coats, turned off all the lights, locked the handle from the inside, closed the door securely. Halfway to the elevator, still giggling, she stopped them abruptly, a look of panic overtaking her joyful face. “Shit, Dale,” she said, patting her neck and ears. “I still have her jewelry on.” They rushed back to the door, Beth in the lead. They tried the handle, but it did not turn. They looked under the mat, but there was no key. She gave him a desperate look, then covered her face with her hands and buried her head into his chest, sobbing all over his Target tie. “It’s okay, now, it’s okay,” he said. “Everything will be alright.” As the last word came out he caught another whiff of the perfume and suddenly felt a wave of nausea overcome him. Slowly, they dropped down to the floor in each other’s arms, she crying and he feeling quite sick. Sitting on the plush purple mat, they held each other as if at the end of a carpet ride, with no more wind forever in the forecast. — TREY COSTANZA
Trey Costanza is a short fiction writer, poet and teacher living in South Bend, Indiana. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Iowa University and has been published in dozens of journals worldwide. His debut collection of shorts is forthcoming from Hidden Peak Press.