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Getting Over Gene

     That August Sunday in Beaumont, Georgia, Lisa Sue decided to get over Gene. On her day off from the Blue Moon Cafe, she thought hard in her small parlor while the feather duster caressed knotty pine furniture. The time had come, she realized, for looking at life realistically now that Earl was long-since buried and the insurance money spent on their children's education. And she didn't regret refusing Daddy's help; she wanted her independence. She dusted the knickknacks and sighed, remembering her obsession with Earl since high school.

     Folks had admired her long blonde hair and big blue eyes, but more than anything in the world she'd wanted Earl, a handsome, former classmate pursued by most of Beaumont's single females and rumored to be part Cherokee, although his daddy, a poor farmer with scraggy beard and stooped shoulders, claimed to be descended from Robert E. Lee.

     Unlike his daddy, Earl had broad shoulders, shiny black hair, heavy-lidded dark eyes, and a cockiness that women found irresistible. Lisa Sue enjoyed a challenge, and vowed to win him.

     One morning, he noticed her admiring him while taking his order for fried eggs and warm biscuits at the cafe. He'd looked up with white teeth against swarthy skin. "You want me, baby? Join the line."

     "You want me, you join the line," she'd retorted smiling sweetly. "How about bacon with those eggs?"

     He grinned as his gaze skimmed her curvy body in the tight jeans and ruffled blouse outlining her generous breasts. "Yeah," he said. "Whatcha doing Friday night?"

     After nearly a year of dating, she'd become pregnant. She'd happily used her pregnancy as a reason for marriage. As they sat in his Chevy in Lovers Lane, Earl had protested, "Baby, I don't want to be tied down with one woman when I'm just a few years out of high school. I'd like to shop around first."

     She'd entwined her arms about his neck and nuzzled his ear. "Honey, first off, with a wife you won't have to shop. You can get it anytime you want it. Second, and most important, think about our precious son, Earl Junior. He'll make you proud someday, bearing your name and looking just like you."

     After months of hearing her entreaties, touching her belly to feel his son kicking in her womb, he'd relented, but there had been talk that Earl had been sweet on a distant cousin. Lisa Sue considered the wedding at pretty Bethel Methodist Church her greatest victory. Finally, Earl Thomas Crawford was hers! She'd savored the fragrant gardenias adorning the stone church's altar, their family and friends enjoying the recreation hall's fried chicken, biscuits, peach cobbler, and liquor, while lively country music wafted through the opened arched windows to cheer the lawn's weeping willows. She'd smiled contentedly when she and her brand-new husband cut the triple-tiered wedding cake, everything paid for out of her savings.

     Scrubbing the scarred wooden coffee table, Lisa Sue now remembered the congregation's reproachful glances at her swollen belly under the lacy white gown. Let the women faint from envy, she thought, grinning. A baby had won her the grand prize! She'd marched down the aisle with Daddy, her shoulders back and head erect, proud at having persuaded Earl to marry her.

    The only blight had been Mama's absence. If Mama hadn't died years ago from leukemia when Lisa Sue started grammar school, the wedding would have been perfect. She still felt pangs of guilt, despite Doctor Coble's explanation back then that illness comes from nature, not from bad children.

     She and Earl had struggled to survive with his low-paying factory job and then his drinking that started about the time Junior was born, two months after their wedding. At first, she didn't concern herself about the arguments with Earl, figuring that most couples had money problems. Gradually, over the years, Earl's drinking increased; the arguments led to loud fights, and then beatings.

     One evening, awakening from a drunken stupor on the gingham sofa, he jumped up and swung at her face, blackening an eye. "I saw you take that money from my jacket pocket and I want it back."

     Lisa Sue shrivelled against the faded floral wallpaper. "I need to buy groceries and pay bills."

     He swayed over her, his large hands curled into fists. "Gimme my money, you bitch, or I guarantee you'll never rob me again!"

     She cowered beside the sofa, raising her hands to protect her face, and noticed their three childen crowding the parlor archway. She waved them away.

     "Children, go back to sleep! Go to your rooms!" 

     "Is Dada mad?" seven-year-old Junior asked, his blue eyes widened in fear.

     "Go to your room!" Lisa Sue yelled at  him, and watched the boy, trembling, return to the stairs, followed by the others, just before Earl's fist smashed into her face. "There, you want some more? Then gimme my money!"

     Finally, heeding Daddy's warnings, Lisa Sue gathered her children one night after Earl passed out on the sofa, snoring loudly. In the attic bedroom, she shook ten-year-old Junior sleeping in his lower bunk bed. "Wake up, honey, we have to go to Granddaddy's."

     He rubbed his eyes and stared at her, pouting. "Is it Dada again?"

     "Yes. Don't change your clothes. Help me wake Philly and Lela."

     Eight-year-old Philip, already awake, stuck his head down from the upper bunk. "Why we going to Granddaddys'?"

     "Shhh." She put a ragged fingernail over her lips. "Keep quiet, or we'll wake up Dada and he'll be mad."

     Gently she shook her six-year-old daughter lying in the next bed, the small mouth slack, the plump arms bent over the patchwork quilt. "Wake up, honey, we're going to Granddaddy's." 

     Quietly Lisa Sue herded them outside, still in their pajamas despite the October chill, and drove the old Buick to her father's large house with its columned porch and neatly-trimmed front yard.

     After she'd put the children to bed upstairs, Daddy begged her to leave Earl, but she refused.

     "Lisa Sue, did I raise you to be a dummy?" Her stocky father paused in his paneled living room, and stared at her sitting on the black leather sofa, frowning. "Your man's ruining your life and your children's, and you refuse to leave him?"

     "I still love him. He's a good person, it's just the drinking--"

     Daddy scowled. "His drinking's going to kill the children if you don't get them out of there." He paused, his knobby fingers nervously mowing his thick gray hair, and then thrust his hands into jeans pockets. "Move in with me, like I been asking you all along. There's plenty of room. I could make part of the porch into a separate bedroom for Junior."

    She shook her head, the ponytail laced with gray though she hadn't reached her thirties. She set her coffee mug on the glass table and leaned forward. "I'll always love Earl, and I know he loves me. He feels awful about the drinkng. When he's sober, he apologizes, says he can't help it--"

     "Oh, yes, he can! He should join Alcoholics Anonymous, like I did. Remember how I started drinking after your mama died? But then for your sake, I pulled myself together. Earl will just make you miserable."

     They chatted until sunrise pinked the horizon, but Lisa Sue wouldn't change her mind. 

     She shook her head now as the feather duster flicked over candled sconces. She should have left Earl for the kids' sake, but she'd loved him and promised herself to make their marriage work, hoping that her devotion would ease his stress. Instead, the fights continued, with drunken Earl screaming that she'd tricked him into marriage when he'd wanted somebody else; maybe Junior wasn't even his son! She'd refused to end their relationship. It would be like giving up!

     Daddy had taught her guts. She'd practically grown up in his downtown saloon, learning how to smart-talk the alcoholics into leaving. By age ten, she'd tugged at their trousers and steered them toward the heavy oak door, cajoling and joking while they burst into laughter.

    "Look at that, cute as a button!" they'd exclaim. "Wish I had me a daughter like that." Their whiskey breath engulfed her like the garbage stench from Demsey's Creek winding behind the tile factory several blocks away.

    She finally learned to calm Earl when he became vicious by just stroking his face and speaking softly to him. "Earl, honey, you know how much I love you. You mean more to me then anybody. You wouldn't hurt someone who loves you so much."

     One evening he lowered his fist and burst into tears. "I'm turning into an old drunk. What am I gonna do? I'm sorry, baby, so sorry I hurt you. I do love you. Please don't leave me, Lisa Sue. I couldn't stand it." He buried his grizzled cheeks against her stomach and she caressed his balding head, thinking with satisfaction that she just needed patience, pour out enough love and he'd stop drinking. Daddy remained unconvinced the marriage would work but Lisa Sue felt certain that Earl was controllable, despite the continued threats.       

     Then, one spring evening, the problem was resolved; Earl died from cirrhosis of the liver, an ailment, Doctor Coble said, that many drinkers got. Her husband was only forty-four.

     Lisa Sue didn't cry at the funeral. Under the black veil, she held her gray head high, just like at the wedding, her cheeks prematurely creased, and felt it was her second victory. She no longer had to fear her own husband.

     But then it seemed that right off she invited another problem: Gene. The small clapboard house containing a lone widow stood isolated beside a garage at the end of a long, dirt road, the entire property surounded by a high picket fence. The situation begged for disaster. Suppose a town bully dropped by to rob her, or worse?

     Gene had seemed necessary, an enormous mongrel, part Great Dane, part St. Bernard, with shiny black hair, sleepy dark eyes, and huge paws, looming like a fortress between her and potential danger. He was already a year old because nobody had wanted to adopt him at the dog pound. The nice boy who worked there, Skip Merklein, said they'd had trouble with the dog whose moods swung suddenly: one minute wanting to be petted, and the next minute, growling. To Lisa Sue, he seemed friendly enough, nuzzling her hand for food, and she decided to take him. Skip drove them in his truck.

     "Being so big, he's kinda hard to handle!" Skip shouted, tugging at Gene's leash as they entered Lisa Sue's back yard. Finally freed from the leash, the dog ran about, sniffing the weeds and barking at squirrels scurrying from his scrutiny. "Well, he might make a good guard dog, once he gets used to your place," Skip added.

     "I sure need a good guard dog." Lisa Sue extracted a five-dollar bill from her jeans pocket. "Take this. Appreciate your help." 

     "No, thanks, Ma'am." Skip smiled politely, waving away the money. "I'd like to repay your daddy's kindness, helping me with my rent after Ma died so I could get back on my feet. Ma always said your daddy was the best boss she ever had."  He turned and headed back toward the truck. "You have any trouble with Gene, call me!" he shouted. "He's rambunctious but he might work out!"

     She fed the dog from a large plastic bowl and smiled as he licked her hand and sat in her back yard as she'd ordered. He'd work out fine.

     Most people, like the mailman, feared the new occupant, and approached the house gingerly, head swerving about to keep an eye out for Gene eyeing the stranger suspiciously from his fenced-off area in the front yard, but to Lisa Sue the dog was like having another baby. She bought him a dog house, and bathed him with the hose, but she never petted him nor allowed anyone to become friendly with him, not even friends or neighbors who dropped by occsionally. She felt that a guard dog would provide better protection if its only contact was with its owner.

     Carefully, Lisa Sue now wiped her children's framed photos on the fireplace mantel and smiled back at the young blond adults smiling at her--Junior already married and the other two in college, all of them miles away from Georgia. Then, frowning, she remembered her troubles with Gene. Lately, he was getting worse. No more wishing it away. After two years, her dog had become unmanageable. Just last week, she'd warned him that if he didn't obey her, she'd abandon him, pick herself up and move, maybe to a big city like Atlanta. She was bored anyway. Daddy had died recently from cancer, leaving her some money, and there were no decent unmarried men left in Beaumont. Might as well start fresh somewhere else. She'd do it, too. She could handle most anybody but Gene refused to be handled.

     Lately, as if realizing the honeymoon was over, he'd started snapping at her. Becoming fearful, Lisa Sue stopped bathing him and entered his area cautiously with the dog food, edging along the fence with the outstretched bowl. "Now, don't you bite the hand that feeds you!" she urged, and backed away as he approached, snarling. The next day, she even changed the food brand, but it didn't help. His behavior got so bad, nobody would enter her yard. Finally, the Merklein boy arrived one afternoon, wearing a padded uniform and heavy gloves. 

     "Ma'am, it might be best if I brought him back to the pound," he said, tying Gene to the fence with a sturdy, leather leash. "Looks like he's getting vicious."

     She watched the snarling dog and sighed. "I hate giving up on anything."

     "I dunno," the boy said, mopping his damp face with a tissue. "He was always pesky. I figured he just needed a good home." 

     "I can handle it." She smiled to reassure him.           

     "Well, let me know if he's any more trouble," the boy said and she nodded.

     She endured Gene's disobedience for another week. Then, much as she hated getting rid of him because she considered herself loyal, Lisa Sue decided that Sunday that enough was enough. Monday evening, after returning from work, she threw some steak coated with rat poison at him. Gene pulled at the leash, snarling at her, but stopped to eat the meat. Panting from  exhaustion, she dragged the body into the back yard behind the garage where she buried him, and shoveled dirt on the grave, pausing occasionally to wipe her damp face in the August heat, her jeans bulging over plump thighs.  

     Afterwards, though, she regretted getting over Gene. He reminded her so much of Earl.