THE LAWS OF NATURE
The ceiling fan in the kitchen creaked as its blades whizzed through the air. Faye set a plate of blackened pork chops in the middle of the table. The smell of meat barely cut through the musk of Billy’s menthols. He coughed before reaching to put out his cigarette, clinking his sterling silver wedding band against the yellowed glass of the ash tray. He glanced at Faye and noticed her bare finger.
“Where’s your ring?” he said to her.
Faye ladled pinto beans onto Tiffy’s plate. Tiffy was nineteen years old, but still couldn’t say or spell “Tiffany,” the name she had inherited from her grandmother who had died five years ago in juke joint fire at the edge of town. Rachel was seventeen and had even less of a notion of why she came around the Pryors’ place these days. It surely wasn’t for Faye’s cooking, and Tiffy was getting too old for a playmate, in fact if not in mind. As Rachel watched the beans steam in a gloopy mess across Tiffy’s plate then across her own, she thought of the buckets of slop she’d bear to the troughs on her daddy’s farm, how her shoulders ached and creaked all the way there and how afterward the empty buckets felt as if they might float away.
“Took it off to cook,” Faye said at last.
“Mama’s got a boyfriend,” Tiffy said.
The scratch of forks against plates stopped. Billy’s arm tensed. Faye took a slice of cornbread from the middle of the table and continued to eat.
Rachel looked at Tiffy, then Billy, and said, “It’s really nice that y’all still call each other that.”
Billy clenched and unclenched his fist. “We don’t.” Faye scraped up a fork full of pinto beans and cornbread crumbs.
“Vince is Mama’s boyfriend,” Tiffy continued.
Rachel laid her fork on the table next to her plate, which had cracked, faded roses painted on it.
“Vince said he’s my new daddy.”
Even Faye stopped eating then. Billy ran his tongue across his teeth.
Rachel wiped her mouth and said, “I’d better go.” She reached for her wallet.
“Where you going?” Tiffy said. Rachel stopped and looked around.
Billy stared at Faye.
She did not look up from her plate.
“Well, I don’t care.” He pushed away from the table roughly, scraping up one of the peel-and-stick laminate tiles from the kitchen floor. He grabbed his keys off the end table by the couch and let the front door slam behind him. Tiffy started rocking back and forth, as she always did when she was upset. Faye began to cry.
“What’s wrong, Mama?”
Faye slapped Tiffy so hard across the face that she began to cry, too. Rachel flinched as if she’d been hit herself. Tiffy didn’t understand the slap any more than she understood how to count money or why her friend was trying to leave so suddenly. Faye stomped to the back bedroom and locked the door behind her. Tiffy continued to cry as Rachel tried to console her, patting her on the back and saying “I’m sorry” even though she hadn’t done anything. Tiffy cried and rocked for another twenty minutes.
Rachel said, “I really have to go,” once Tiffy’s sobs had turned to hiccups. Tiffy watched the taillights of Rachel’s beat up Ford Taurus fade away through the kitchen window.
Before this, there was a picture that sat in a photo album, somewhere between the pictures of her mother’s funeral and his seventh grade composite picture. It was taken in March 1996. On the left is Faye, newly eighteen, smiling, holding a bouquet of silk flowers from the dollar store. Billy, twenty-one, unsmiling, is on the right. His legs and arms are splayed apart, almost as if he’s preparing for a gun-slinging duel. He’s only drunk though, and trying to keep his balance. They know about Tiffy, though they haven’t picked a name yet.
Fifteen years ago, Billy and Faye sat in the office of the only preschool in their small town, holding hands on top of the rough wood of their chairs’ arms. The preschool director, Mrs. Bennett, sat across from them, rubbing at a stain on the lapel of her worn navy blazer. She gave up after a few minutes and cleared her throat, stalling. These situations were always hard for her. How could she tell them about their daughter’s slow progress? How she couldn’t write or say her whole name, “Tiffany,” and had settled for “Tiffy?” How she only knew a few shapes and colors?
“We think Tiffany might be a bit special,” Mrs. Bennett began.
“Yeah, she is.” Billy smiled.
“What I mean is, she’s not keeping up.”
Faye frowned. “What do you mean?”
“She doesn’t know any of her letters yet, and she refuses to talk to the other kids.”
“She’s just shy,” Faye said.
Mrs. Bennett shook her head slowly. “Now, we can’t test her here, but I have some pamphlets--”
Billy stood up and leaned over Mrs. Bennett’s desk. “Are you saying something’s wrong with her?”
Mrs. Bennett stammered, “Not wrong exactly, but--”
Faye stood too and said, “We’re not listening to this.” She grabbed Billy’s hand and pulled him from the room. He slammed the door behind him so hard that Mrs. Bennett’s framed junior college diploma fell to the floor and the glass cracked.
Ten years ago, Tiffy was nine and about to finish third grade. She had improved a lot already with her special teacher’s help, though “Tiffy” had stuck, and it was still hard for her to talk to the other kids. She had made a new friend, Rachel, who was two years younger. The two of them went to the same church, and sometimes Rachel would ride the bus home with Tiffy. They spent hours together, Tiffy playing Faye’s Lynyrd Skynyrd CDs and Rachel showing Tiffy her Easy Bake Oven. Rachel enjoyed playing with Tiffy, but she found comfort in Faye too; her own mother had died the year before in a car wreck.
Billy was the only mechanic in town. Professional training? No. Experience fixing up junkers? Absolutely. There was no one else who could hold radiators together with rubber cement. It was a job, undocumented, dealt through cash. Faye had just started working at a nursing home in the next town over. She did not yet know how hard the job would be.
Billy was working on an old station wagon when he had his accident. It was just an oil change, but the jack slipped and the car crashed down on him. It was the hospital then -- needles and disinfectant and monitors. Faye took care of him at home, alternating between ice packs and heating pads. Tiffy played Go Fish with him and they watched the Barrett-Jackson car auction on TV together, when he felt like it. He healed after six months, but he couldn’t work anymore. Thirty minutes of bending over an engine block sent him straight to the couch for hours. He gave his tools to his brother and started washing cars when he had good days.
Five years ago, Faye was tired of working at the nursing home. Days of trudging through halls of screaming elderly patients put her on edge, and she wondered if her thinning hair had anything to do with it. She had stopped scrubbing at the stains on her uniform because new ones would replace them. When someone suggested she go back to school to become a registered nurse, she only shook her head.
Sometimes her shifts were from early hours until the afternoon, and she would come home to find Billy snoring on the couch while Tiffy watched her favorite Dukes of Hazzard episode again.
“You need to vacuum,” Faye would say to Tiffy.
“Yes, ma’am,” she would say, getting up immediately.
When the whir of the vacuum would wake Billy up and he would be irritable, Faye would shrug and say that the carpet looked dirty, then add that there was a pile of clothes in the bathroom that could use a washing.
Sometimes, though, Faye would come home to a cheeseburger and potato logs from the hot box at the gas station. Billy would rub her shoulders while she ate and she would tell him about the nursing home, the good things, like the free sodas in the staff kitchen and the patients that still knew her name. After she finished eating, Billy would whisper in her ear that Tiffy was at Rachel’s house, and they would go to their bedroom, pretending they were young again.
Two years ago, Faye’s mother passed away. She sat on the couch and stared at nothing while Tiffy rubbed her back a bit too roughly. Billy sat on the other side of her and patted her knee. He said something about it being God’s plan. Faye didn’t listen.
The nursing home gave Faye enough time off to go to the wake and the funeral. She and Tiffy stood by the casket while church members and old friends made rounds to hug them. Billy stayed home -- it was a bad back day. Tiffy hugged Rachel tight and cried on her shoulder. Rachel patted her back gently. They had spent much less time together in the past few years than they had in elementary school; until Tiffy graduated, Rachel found herself ducking into rooms or walking the other way whenever she saw Tiffy in the hallway at school. It made her feel just guilty enough to spend every other Saturday at the Pryors’ house.
Faye shook hands and accepted hugs, not really seeing individual faces, until the last person came by.
“I’m really sorry about your mama,” Vince said as he wrapped his arms around her.
“Me, too,” Faye muttered.
They hadn’t seen each other in years -- since before the nursing home or Tiffy or Billy. They’d been young and silly, conspiring to run away to a state where they could get married at fifteen without their parents’ signatures. When they were seventeen, Vince had moved to Tennessee with his family without saying goodbye.
“Daddy never did tell us why that was.” Vince shrugged. “Military secrets, I guess.” He smiled, and for the first time in days, Faye did too.
They exchanged phone numbers with promises to catch up sometime. Vince gave her a bundle of black-eyed Susies -- half, he said, for her mother’s grave, and half to put in the kitchen in a jar.
One year ago, Tiffy and Faye left the house to run errands while Billy was out visiting friends. They didn’t like to leave Tiffy at home alone; the last time they’d done that, she’d nearly set the house on fire trying to make macaroni and cheese. After Faye dropped checks off at the power and phone companies, she drove them north to a town Tiffy had never seen. They pulled up at Vince’s mobile home, which had dark wood siding that he had put up himself. After Vince hugged Faye hello, Tiffy hugged him, too, though she didn’t remember seeing him at the funeral.
Vince had made lunch for them all: fried bologna sandwiches with corn chips. Tiffy asked for a plain sandwich with mayonnaise and no bologna. She played Tetris on her phone while Vince and Faye talked about the weather and how much Faye hated working at the nursing home. When the food was gone, Faye turned the television to The Dukes of Hazzard to keep Tiffy busy. She and Vince retired to his bedroom, where sounds Tiffy didn’t understand floated to her between revving engines and gunshots.
Six months ago on a rainy Saturday afternoon, Rachel was painting Tiffy’s nails a bright, glittery red — the same color she always wanted — when Tiffy said, “I sure do love you.”
They had said that a lot to each other when they were little. As they got older, Rachel said it less and less, until she stopped altogether unless Tiffy said it first. Still, she would often change the subject.
“I love you, too,” she said finally, not looking up. Tiffy stared at the top of her head while she bent over Tiffy’s hand.
“I won prom queen,” Tiffy said, reaching for the heart-shaped scepter she’d been given. She usually kept it close by.
Rachel nodded. “I remember. That’s great.”
“Vince made us bologna sandwiches and corn chips.”
Rachel glanced at the clock. “That’s nice.” She picked up a clear top coat to go over the red sparkles, thinking that she could leave in fifteen minutes.
Tiffy nodded. She reached for her phone and began playing the same ringtones for Rachel that she had on the last visit.
A month ago, after supper, Faye left her phone sitting on the windowsill in the kitchen when she went to the bathroom. It buzzed and fell to the floor. Billy bent and scooped it up, trying to make sure it hadn’t broken. It hadn’t, but the preview on the screen showed a text message from Vince that said, “U still comin 2moro?”
Billy said, “Who the hell is Vince?”
Tiffy looked up from her phone and frowned.
“I work with him.”
He showed her the message. “Where the hell are you going with him then?”
Tiffy shook her head at all the cussing.
Faye squinted at the screen. “He’s checking on my schedule. I told him I’m off tomorrow. I don’t know why the fool forgot.”
Billy, not entirely convinced, handed her the phone and went to bed. Faye told Tiffy to put the food up and wash the dishes as she grabbed her keys and left for the night shift.
Two days from now, Billy will bring home boxes that the dollar store let him have. He’ll say, “Get your shit and get out of my goddamn house.”
Tiffy’s mouth will hang open because they go to church, and no one in their house ever says that word.
Faye will say, “This is my house,” because she has made many of the payments.
Then there will be a lot of yelling, mostly Billy calling Faye a whore and a fucking liar. Faye will say over and over, “I’m not leaving” and sit on the couch with her hands in her lap while Billy rips apart the wedding pictures, including the one where Faye is smiling. After Billy throws the scraps of the pictures in her face, she will leave, without Tiffy, and she won’t come back. There will be a lot of crying, mostly from Tiffy, who will not understand, and who thinks yelling always means someone is mad at her. She will call Rachel and say to the voice mail, “Rachel? You there? Please call me.” But no one will.
E.O. SHOUP is currently enrolled in fiction workshop at the University of Southern Mississippi.