Bottles on the Shelf

Fiction by James D.F. Hannah

Brenda’s stomach sank with the knock at the front door. The phone had been ringing all morning—collection calls—so this had to be someone coming to turn something off. Plus, the kids were getting hungry, and the refrigerator was as empty as her checking account.

But no, it was Ellen McCoy from down the creek. Brenda almost didn’t know her, with her hair done and her pants suit the color of lime Jell-O. Avon books in her hand, a samples case on her shoulder.

Ellen was into the wind up on her sales pitch, Brenda already preparing a polite “No, thank you,” when Ellen said, “I could probably help you cover up that bruise.”

The bruise had bloomed angry and purple underneath Brenda’s left eye. From her husband Jeff, after he’d been fired from the last mine willing to hire him. He’d nursed this failure the way he did every victory, defeat, or day that ended in “Y”—on a bar stool. He had come home full of rage, ready for a fight, and not when he didn’t find one, instead beat the shit out of his wife.

Brenda and Ellen sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and smoking Marlboro Lights. Ellen looked like a page from a Sears catalog. Brenda tried to finger-comb her unbrushed rat’s nest of hair, hoping Ellen wouldn’t notice the holes in her dress. Besides, Brenda knew Ellen’s husband. He and Jeff could have been one another’s shadows, so much they had in common.

Ellen struck a match and lit a cigarette and said Brenda shouldn’t buy makeup. She should sell it.

“These men, they’re mad at the world, and they act like they got to put it on us. A day’ll come you won’t wanna be where someone’s anger lands. It’ll be good you have a few dollars of your own then.”

God knows Brenda needed the money. The bills alone, never mind the twins in hand-me-downs handed down a few times already. Tommy squeezing his feet into last summer’s sneakers because the department store stopped taking her credit.

So, she loaded the kids into her Buick and headed holler to holler, proselytizing perfume and makeup, junk jewelry and soap on a rope–nothing but a script and a bag of samples that more often than not earned a door shut in her face and a long walk back to the car.

Then came the day when she saw herself in the same tired eyes and barely concealed desperation of the woman on the other side of the threshold, and she said, “Honey, who do you wanna see when you look in the mirror?”

The trip back to the car was different this time. Her head high and the order form filled out. Something clicked inside Brenda—change she didn’t have words for.

Jeff, though, kept on being Jeff. Jockeying gas pumps or re-shingling roofs until he got bored or tired of showing up. Sometimes he came home, but more often than not, he didn’t. He floated in and out of their lives like black squiggles swimming though their vision, the thing they couldn’t blink away.

Brenda threw herself into business the way others did religion or romance or college football. When she couldn’t handle all the orders, she brought others into the fold. Women with stories similar to hers. They met at the house, and the conversations about the terrible men in their lives turned into talks of sales and successes.

The first collectible perfume bottle she bought was a treat for herself. A reward for her hard work. A cardinal, heavy red glass, perched atop a branch, its pointed wings extended for flight. She couldn’t look at it without thinking how a bird was never too far away from freedom.

Then, she bought another, and another. Decanters shaped like barber poles and antique cars and old-fashioned dolls. She didn’t care about the perfume in the bottles; it always smelled cheap, nothing but alcohol and funeral flowers.

Brenda lined the bottles up on the shelves, in view of Jeff’s shotgun, still there on the rack above the console TV. She dusted them regularly, rearranged them to her own amusement, and snapped at the twins one day for playing too close to them.

It was another of the Avon ladies who told Brenda about what happened to Ellen.

“She and her husband tried things again, but then, he went on a bender, and she’s in the hospital. Doctors sayin’ she won’t make it.”

That day, Brenda changed the locks on the doors.

Jeff showed up on what should have been nothing but another Wednesday night. His truck’s transmission cried like a warning. Brenda met him outside before he could reach the door.

He turned on a smile, and for a second, she imagined a third or fourth chance, more time with the man she’d fallen in love with all those years ago.

Then, he opened his mouth, and slurred words spilled into the air in a jumbled mess. He had a thing, he said. He needed cash, but he’d pay her back. He promised.

Brenda stopped seeing who she thought he’d been and saw the man he was now.

“I got nothin’ to give you, sorry,” she said. Except she wasn’t sorry.

“Bullshit,” he said. “I hear you’re the goddamn queen of the Avon ladies, since Ellen McCoy got hers. You got cash ‘round someplace.”

Brenda pushed her heels into the porch.

“Go on now. Sleep it off somewhere.”

Jeff cranked up his sloppy smile. “Been a while, baby. Let me sleep it off here.”

She sucked in a deep breath and said, “I ain’t tellin’ you twice.”

Jeff staggered to his pickup, and she watched from the kitchen window as he tore out of the driveway, bald tires marking the blacktop as he peeled away.

It was on the far side of midnight when Brenda woke to furious pounding at the back door. Jeff’s fists hammered at the glass, as he called her every name under the sun.

Brenda swept the twins from their beds, handed them off to Tommy like sacks of groceries. “Don’t let him in no matter what,” she said and pulled his bedroom door shut.

Jeff punched through the back door window, jagged glass ripping his flesh. Blood trailed behind him, and he greeted Brenda at the living room doorway with a slap that sent her to the floor. She crawled backwards, trying to get away, stopping only when she ran into the wall.

Jeff’s sight drifted to the bottles on the shelf. Whiskey-dulled eyes flickered with anger, and he smashed a cologne decanter against the floor. The smell of the perfume singed Brenda’s nostrils, made her head swim.

“What a goddamn waste of money,” he said, as more bottles came off the shelves, popping like gunshots as they shattered against the wall.

“You ever think about what I wanted in life?” he said. “No, you didn’t. You never gave a shit. You don’t even get it’s you making me do this.”

Bile pushed into Brenda’s throat. Jeff reached for her, missed, nearly fell over, righted himself, curled hands into fists.

“Get the kids out here,” he said.

“They’re in bed,” she said

Jeff shook his head. Took the shotgun off the wall. Opened the stock, slipped in two shells. “Fine. I’ll get ‘em myself.”

Perfume and tears burned Brenda’s eyes as Jeff thundered towards Tommy’s room. She flung herself toward the shelves, reached blindly for something, anything, raced behind him, and smashed the object into the back of his head

Jeff fell to the floor with a thump, like dropped concrete. Brenda wiped her vision clear. Jeff was face down amid the busted bottles, shards of bright glass decorating the floor like New Year’s confetti. The shotgun had fallen out of his reach.

And the cardinal bottle, one wing outstretched, reaching toward the ceiling, ready for escape. Blood poured from the place where the other wing was buried into the base of Jeff’s skull.

She floated past this unmoving shape, into Tommy’s room, sweeping the twins into her arms, carrying them as she herded Tommy out of the house.

“Don’t look,” she said, when he began to turn toward the body on the floor. “Just. Don’t look.”

They crossed an ocean of darkness to her Buick. She buckled them in and said she’d be right back.

The sulfur of the freshly struck match cut through the tangle of smells as Brenda tossed it onto the floor. She watched it ignite the alcohol-soaked carpet. Watched flames spread like a fiery tide.

She could already smell the smoke as she got into the car. She never, ever looked back—even as the blaze turned night into dawn. She only smelled smoke as sweet as perfume. As sweet as any flowers she’d ever know.

James D.F. Hannah

James D.F. Hannah is the Shamus Award-winning author of the Henry Malone series, including the novels Because the Night and She Talks to Angels. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery and Suspense 2022, edited by Steph Cha and Jess Walter; Playing Games, edited by Lawrence Block; Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression, edited by S.A. Cosby; Vautrin; Rock and a Hard Place; Shotgun Honey; The Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where all the bourbon is