FICTION – Wheel of Fortune

by Lynn Bryan Johnson on January 24, 2014


wheel of fortune graphic copy

Before Shirl even got to the front door, she could hear George’s wood saw buzzing hard. She let herself in and went straight down the hall toward the open basement door.

The buzzing of the saw subsided.

“Hello!?” she yelled down. Shirl was pissed.

The smell of sawdust combined with the mildew engulfed her sinuses and was both inviting and stale, just like George. At least George had been more or less inviting, until Thursday. Now it was three days later on Sunday afternoon.

Shirl waited for a response from George that came in the form of a grinding shriek from his saw. She fought back tears and tried to employ the breathing tactics that she learned in her yoga class. Shirl hated yoga class because of the way the tight leotard hugged the fat on her stomach, coupled with her inability to maneuver her bloated limbs in the necessary way.

I simply cannot relax when this friggon leotard is strangling me she thought, while fidgeting herself hopelessly into a Downward Facing Dog. She tried relentlessly not to fart in class, but she usually did, relentlessly.

Shirl’s coworker Linda in Accounting suggested that Shirl try yoga. At first Linda in Accounting suggested antidepressants, but Shirl didn’t like to swallow pills. She wouldn’t even take vitamins.

The buzzing of the saw subsided once more.

“Don’t forget to take your belongings there on the kitchen table,” George hollered up in lieu of any sort of greeting. “And leave your key.”

George regretted giving Shirl his extra key but she was uncompromising about him giving it her, so he acquiesced just to cease the annoying conversations surrounding the key. Anything to shut her up.

George had been anticipating Shirl’s arrival that afternoon. He had left her a message on the answering machine in her apartment during work day hours knowing full well that she wasn’t home. His message advised Shirl to collect her things from his house on her way home from church that Sunday. He didn’t have time for her to come by before then. He really didn’t want to see her at all to tell the truth.

It really annoyed Shirl that George called her apartment instead of at her job. After all she was the receptionist at the only mortuary in a town of two thousand people, so it wouldn’t have been too difficult to get her on the line.

So there she was standing at the top of George’s basement stairs. She looked down into the dusty basement with a furrowed brow, and then over to the kitchen table where she saw her belongings in a frumpy pile.

“George!” she yelled with a fury.

George started with the buzzing again. Shirl couldn’t understand why he spent so much time grinding wood in his basement when he did the same thing all day at work as a carpenter, but George was building a sleigh bed for his elderly mother and he was determined to finish the job by Mother’s Day when he would deliver the bed to her at the nursing home.

Shirl hated George’s mother. Her name was Tilda Jessup and the sound of that name alone sent cold chills up Shirl’s slumped over spine.

“This is who all the fuss is about?” Tilda said to George when he brought Shirl to meet his mother for the first time. “Hasn’t she got any earrings? She’s not wearing any earrings. It’s Easter for Petesakes!”

Shirl was very offended by Tilda Jessup’s comments. She stood and looked out the window of Tilda’s room so that she could roll her eyes into her own transparent reflection. She gazed over the nursing home grounds and fantasized about pushing Tilda Jessup and that God damned wheel chair of hers right into the fountain. She held back a crooked smile at the thought of it.

Shirl noticed the young tulips blooming around the fountain.

They bloom so quickly, and die the same way. They have to get their say in while they have the chance.

“I don’t have pierced ears,” Shirl responded in self-defense. Shirl hated needles. She folded her arms and turned to face George and Tilda, both of whom stared blankly back at her. Shirl raised her chin and took a deep breath. George’s eyes twitched downward. He studied the carpet.

“And if you must know,” Shirl continued, “clip on earrings always give me a terrific migraine.”

“Well Sheryl,” Tilda said, raising her posture in her throne of a wheel chair. “Don’t you know that they have these tattoo artist ladies now and they’ll come right to your house and tattoo any cosmetic embellishment that you fancy. You’ve never seen such a thing!”

Tilda Jessup looked to George who was still looking at the floor, and she told him as if he cared that Pearl Hargrove from down the hall had eyeliner tattooed on the base of her eyelid. “And I mean to tell you Georgie,” she said, “She looks just like Katharine Hepburn now. You’ve never seen such a thing.”

Tilda Jessup held her veiny, rigid fingers over the real estate that was once her eyebrows. Shirl was nauseated by their remnants, the three or four prickly hairs that struggled to sprout from underneath a thickly applied brush stroke of bluish-brown liquid eyeliner. Shirl thought of Liberace.

“I’m thinking of having my eyebrows tattooed,” she announced.

“Ma!” George snapped. The last thing he needed was something else to worry about.

“Oh Georgie it’s fine,” she said waving him off. Tilda Jessup then redirected her cataract polluted eyes over to Shirl. “Men don’t get it do they Sally?”

Shirl mustered a phony smile. “No, they don’t.”

“You might consider having some round, blue circles tattooed on your earlobes to look like sapphire studs,” Tilda Jessup advised Shirl while tugging on her own stretched out lobes.

Shirl bit her lower lip and stared out at the tulips again while Tilda kept her sales pitch going.

“She could also get her lips tattooed,” she said to George now. “She could do a nice rose color. She really could use some liner, especially on that upper lip. She’s hardly got one for Petesakes.”

Shirl couldn’t listen to anymore of this. She secured her handbag to her shoulder and marched out the door without so much as a word.

“I don’t know why she clung so fast to that pocket book George,” Tilda said coupled with a hazy eye roll. “It’s the ugliest thing I ever saw.”


Shirl pulled and twisted on her key ring until George’s house key escaped from its grip. She started to lay it on the kitchen counter, but then a beautifully manic plan came over her, and before she could weigh the options, Shirl hurled the key down the basement stairs and yelled, “Here’s your friggon key, needle dick!”

She was hoping that her insult, garnished with a dramatic clang from the key hitting the concrete floor, would rattle George. Nevertheless, his buzz saw shrieked in tandem with Shirl’s tantrum, and her theatrical adieu went completely unnoticed.

Shirl looked over at the kitchen table and noticed that George had compiled her casserole dish, cleaned, which surprised her, and a Wal-Mart bag full of her dirty underpants.

George hated that Shirl left her underpants on the carpet next to his bed. If she was going to do this, couldn’t she get some pretty ones?

Shirl’s underpants were smoker’s teeth white. There were tears and stains and loose elastic here and there, and they were wide and long. Her underpants were twice the size of his, and while he enjoyed having sex, he couldn’t stand the yellowing pile of polyester gut huggers that accumulated in the corner of his bedroom. He was glad to see them go and lifted them one-by-one into the Wal-Mart bag with the end of Shirl’s toothbrush, which he tossed in the bag, too.

Shirl set her purse on the kitchen table, scurried over to the pantry and pulled out a Hefty bag. She opened the refrigerator and began removing all of George’s Miller High Life bottles, and one-by-one, placed them in the Hefty bag. She counted sixteen.

George’s saw made so much noise that she didn’t even need to be quiet about it.

Shirl slung the Hefty bag full of beer bottles over her shoulder, picked up her purse, her casserole dish, and the Wal-Mart bag full of dirty underpants, and headed for the front door. She stepped outside and started down the concrete walkway towards her car when she remembered the rhododendron she planted for George only a week prior.

“You really don’t have to plant that, Shirl,” George said when he found her forcing the shrub into a weedy flowerbed.

George scratched his head and noticed that Shirl was wearing gardening clogs. He thought they were the ugliest shoes he’d ever seen. They were even uglier than his mother’s bone colored orthopedic slip-on loafers.

“Oh I’m glad to do it,” she said cheerfully, “Ever since I moved into my apartment; I’ve missed getting my hands into the soil.”

Shirl was glad to do it, and she hoped that George would notice and appreciate the aesthetic value of a woman’s touch.

Shirl’s gardening campaign was followed by dinner. George had cooked hotdogs on the grill and Shirl brought over a squash casserole. They ate in front of the television and watched Shirl’s favorite program, Wheel of Fortune.

George sat back with his feet up in his putty colored pleather Lazy Boy. Shirl hated that Lazy Boy and couldn’t wait until the day when she could redecorate that house and burn the Lazy Boy in the back yard, if it would even burn; it might just melt.

Shirl sat as close to George as she could get from her place on the couch. She envisioned having a large, leather sectional one day where she could watch television with her head in George’s lap. She pictured him twirling her hair in his fingers. She knew he would be that comfortable with her one day. He just needed some urging. He was that type.

Shirl and George ate on TV trays that Shirl despised. They would go into the bonfire alongside the Lazy Boy. The trays were plastic with duck prints on them. Shirl thought duck prints were dated and ridiculous and she never understood the whole hunting theme when it came to decorating and accessorizing one’s home.

“You don’t even hunt,” she nagged.

“I do too hunt, Shirl, Jeez.”

“When was the last time you hunted?”

“The night I picked you up at Cappy’s,” George teased, looking in her direction.

He was a few beers in. Shirl loved it when he was beer-buzzing because he was affectionate and most times horny.

“You didn’t need a gun that night at Cappy’s,” Shirl giggled. “You can’t rape the willing.”

Now George couldn’t stand it when Shirl talked that way. It made him feel uneasy. Sometimes she was the girl who headed up the bake sale at her church, and sometimes she was the girl who moaned, “Harder” when they were having sex.

George didn’t really like either side of Shirl. Why couldn’t she fall someplace in between and stay there like a normal gal?

Shirl loved to solve the puzzles on Wheel of Fortune and usually did so before the contestants. George didn’t appreciate the way she called out phrases and bought vowels with a mouth full of food.

He actually loathed Wheel and the way that annoying thing ticked around and the noise it made when someone landed on “BANKRUPT.” But George watched on because anytime Shirl was solving the puzzle or screaming “you friggon dumbass!” at the contestants, she wasn’t bothering him with all the questions.

When Jeopardy came on afterwards, Shirl muted the television and began what George considered an intrusive marathon of questions designed to exhaust him into compliance. There would be only so many times he could take it.

“Shirl, I’ve told you time and again, I don’t want kids.”

“We don’t need kids, George,” she lied. “We need each other.”

“Well, see that’s the thing here, Shirl. It’s not that I don’t like you or nothing, it’s just that I don’t see myself being someone’s husband or a guy who has to be somewheres at a certain time.”

George had resisted her neediness in the past, but he never used this kind of definitive language before, and this was a blow to Shirl. He utilized what Linda in Accounting called “I” statements, and there’s no arguing with a person when he uses “I” statements.

Shirl sat frozen in her chair. Her heart throbbed loudly inside her chest and each thump was really, the tick of a time bomb.

“Oh really,” she said with a calmness that George sensed would be like the calm in the sky before a storm that came through and took out the electricity three counties wide.

Then she asked him with increasing intensity in each word, “Why don’t you tell me why it is that I always attract the men who refuse to wear ties, go to church, and commit?”

“I couldn’t say,” George answered, gripping his beer bottle to brace himself.

Shirl had reached the end of her rope now, and every time she thought about the crust on her ovaries and the lowly egg that struggled down her fallopian tube to no avail, she wanted to scream at the top of her lungs. She had wasted nearly a whole calendar year on George.

“Well then FUCK YOU PETER PAN!” she screamed, and flipped her TV tray on to the floor.

A ketchup soaked remnant of a hot dog bun rolled across the carpet. She grabbed her purse and her shoes, flung the screen door out of her way and ran down the front yard crying, “You friggon asshole! I hate you!”

She threw herself into her old silver Ford Taurus and peeled out of the neighborhood, all before George could so much as react.

He wasn’t used to Shirl using this kind of profanity, especially hurled in his direction. If she wanted more of an explanation from George, she would need to calm down first.

Three days later found Shirl officially dumped by George and standing on the concrete walkway in front of his house with a Hefty bag full of Miller High Life bottles slung over her shoulder, her clean casserole dish, and a Wal-Mart bag stuffed with dirty underpants. She looked back towards the weedy flower garden.

That friggon rhododendron cost me a good thirty dollars.
She walked over to the shrub and secured her purse tightly on her shoulder along with the Hefty bag. The casserole dish was held between her other arm and her ribcage, and the bag of dirty underpants dangled from an index finger.

Shirl bent over the rhododendron, grabbed it in a bear hug, moved her face to the side to avoid being poked in the eye, and yanked it so hard she felt the muscles in her lower back stretch to dangerous lengths.

The roots surfaced a little, but it would need another significant heave.

She tried again, this time, moving closer to the bush, and squatting a little lower. She pulled that rhododendron with an estrogen infused force that almost scared her, and out the shrub came, roots, soil, fertilizer, and all. Between the time when the roots met the air and when she fell backwards on her ass, Shirl had nearly blacked out.

She lay on the sprouting grass, flat on her back hugging a rhododendron, looking up at her bloated ankles and the bright blue backdrop of the spring sky.

She blinked hard and shook her head like a wet dog to rid her eyes of the uprooted chunks of soil. She blew more of the same out of her mouth.

Shirl lay there listening to the suburban symphony of lawn mowers, sprinklers, and cars passing by at safe speeds. Children laughed and shrieked, a dog barked, a phone rang somewhere nearby and George’s saw buzzed on.

Her casserole dish was under her, which would leave a bruise, she was sure, and some of her dirty underpants hung from the branches of the rhododendron. Her toothbrush was on the grass next to her ear. The Hefty bag had slid from her shoulder and crashed onto the ground. Miller High Life bottles hissed and fizzed like a bag of angry snakes.

She did her best to collect her wits, and finally sat up, brushed herself off and gathered her loot again, this time adding an uprooted rhododendron to the mix.

George’s next-door neighbor, Evelyn Talbot was watering her garden and had been witness to Shirl’s theatrical exit from George’s house.

Evelyn Talbot was pretending like she wasn’t watching, or judging, but Shirl knew she was doing both.

“Got a problem, honey?” Shirl said. She couldn’t believe she’d said it. It was so rude; so unbalanced, yet incredibly rewarding somehow.

“Seems as though you have the problem,” Evelyn Talbot answered matter-of-factly. Shirl never knew such attitude existed in George’s neighbor; of course, they’d only ever discussed mosquitoes and ambrosia.

“Actually, lady, I do have a problem,” Shirl fired back. “I have a problem with crotchety old hens not minding their own friggon business!”

Evelyn Talbot stood frozen in her white Bermudas and her celery-colored golf shirt and corresponding visor. She held a garden hose in her petrified hand, which poured heavily and unsupervised into a flowerbed.

Shirl huffed down to her car, opened the trunk, threw the rhododendron in, slung the Hefty bag full of smashed Miller High Life bottles on top of it, pushed the Wal-Mart bag full of dirty underpants next to her tire jack, and slammed the trunk down hard.

She took her purse and her casserole dish with her into the front seat of her car and slammed the door shut so hard that she heard the Miller High Life bottles rattle from inside the trunk.

Evelyn Talbot shook her head as Shirl peeled out and left skid marks.

Two Months Later, on Mother’s Day Shirl felt the migraine coming, but it would only be for a few hours, and then the earrings could come off. She looked into the rear view mirror, puckered her lips and traced their perimeter with a nice rose-colored liner. She got out of her car, flattened the pleats on her lavender skirt with her palms, brushed the cat hairs from her blouse, and walked towards the nursing home entrance with a confidence that was new and exhilarating.

Although she was only nine weeks pregnant, Shirl could already feel the bulge in her belly and knew in her heart that it couldn’t be attributed to the pancakes she had fixed herself for breakfast. She was in very good spirits. It was the first morning all week that didn’t find her hovered over the toilet bowl vomiting until she thought her eyes might just pop out of her face.

She signed in at the front desk of the nursing home and made her way down the hall to Tilda Jessup’s room. She stood with her shoulders back and her chin up. She held a florist’s bouquet of exquisite tulips and knocked softly on the door.

Tilda Jessup opened the door and before she could even be surprised by her unexpected visitor, her breath was taken away by the sight of those flowers.

An unsuspecting George backed his truck all the way up to the entrance of the nursing home’s service elevator and, with the help of one of the male nursing home attendants, he slid the freshly shellacked sleigh bed frame out of the truck. The two men struggled to carry it off of the elevator and down the hall to his mother’s room.

When George approached her room, he found the door slightly opened. He noticed a vase filled with tulips on her bureau, and recognized the scent that escaped the threshold. It was the unlikely mixture of pinesap and talcum powder – a scent he hadn’t smelled since his break up with Shirl two months prior.

“Oh Georgie! Is that you?” Tilda called out.

“Hey, Ma,” he answered, pushing the door opened with the tips of his fingers.

He started to say, “Happy Mother’s Day,” but then he saw Shirl sitting on the edge of his mother’s bed.

“What in the hell are you doing here, Shirl?”

“Now Georgie!” Tilda snapped, “Is that anyway to speak to the mother of my grandchild?”

“The what…of who?” George asked. He wasn’t sure if he just got kicked in the balls or if he’d imagined it.

“The mother of your baby then,” Tilda said matter of factly. “If you must take away all of my glory.”

She was sitting in her wheel chair with a blanket in her lap. In her veiny hands she cradled a dried, positive pregnancy test with a pink bow tied around it. George couldn’t recall a time when he saw a smile so wide on his mother’s face.

“Shirl,” George said firmly. “Can I please talk to you out in the hall?”

Before Shirl could stand up or answer, Tilda stepped in.

“Georgie, come in here all the way and take off your ball cap. I haven’t gotten my Mother’s Day sugar yet.”

“Just a minute, Ma,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on Shirl’s. His eyes said, “What the hell bitch?” and her eyes said, “Shouldn’t have messed with me, buddy.”

“Georgie, now enough with the talk,” Tilda said, “Get in here. I’ve got something that I’ve been waiting for just the right time to give you.”

George cringed. He had a feeling, knowing his mother, what she was about to do and he nearly fell to his knees and begged for mercy, but there was no stopping Tilda Jessup. This scenario had been well-rehearsed since the day he was born forty-two years ago.

“Tilda rolled her wheelchair a few feet over to her dressing table and opened her jewelry box.

“Maaa,” George groaned.

“Hush,” Tilda hissed.

She reached her bony, shaking little hand into the jewelry box and pulled out a platinum and diamond engagement ring.

She rolled over to Shirl, who was sitting lady-like on the bed clasping her hands to her mouth like a contestant on Wheel of Fortune who had just won a new car.

“Here you are, dear,” Tilda said, holding the ring out for Shirl to take.

“It’s just beautiful, Missus Jessup,” she said. “I’ve never seen such a lovely ring!”

“Well now, that’s going to have to change,” Tilda said warmly, “please call me ‘mother’.”

“Oh mother,” Shirl cried “Thank you so much.”

“It was my mother’s,” Tilda said proudly.

Shirl slid the ring onto her left ring finger and held it out to admire. It only slid down as far as her pudgy knuckle, but that was okay, she would get it sized to fit first thing.

The diamond twinkled; Shirl gushed; Tilda clasped the pregnancy test to her chest, and George held on to the wall. He wasn’t sure how his life had changed so drastically without his having a say in any of it, but George knew one thing was for sure: he just got engaged.

“I’ll call Father Doyle and see about his schedule for next Saturday,” Tilda said, rolling herself over towards a desk across the room. She began looking around for her address book.

“Next Saturday? Ma!”

“Hush, Georgie,” Tilda said, looking over her shoulder at her only son. “We haven’t got the time for your leisurely ways right now; Shirl will have a bump soon.”

George looked over at Shirl. She sat quietly on the bed, smiled at George and shrugged her shoulders.

George squinted at her coldly.

“Get up,” he said, “Help me carry this bed in from the hall.”

“Oh Georgie, she shouldn’t be lifting anything,” Tilda interrupted.
“She’ll be fine, Ma, trust me. That baby ain’t going nowheres,” George replied, staring down at Shirl. “If it’s anything like its mother.”

Late November Shirl stretched her massive body across the leather sectional. She was tired and bloated and only had three more weeks until her due date, and she was hell bent not to move a muscle until then.

She spent those days reclined and eating leftover Thanksgiving plates and piece-after-piece of pumpkin pie.

She was trying to watch Wheel of Fortune, but she was having the most difficult time with all the noise George was making down in the basement with his saw. He had already finished making one crib, and was nearly done with the second.

George had never heard of twins running in his family, nor did Shirl have any in hers. Tilda explained that it was an absolute miracle and a gift from God.

Shirl would never fess up to the fertility drugs. No one ever had to know, and who was she to spoil Tilda Jessup’s gift from God?

When the buzzing of the saw subsided, Shirl yelled with all of her furious, pregnant might, “Can you hurry the hell up down there, George? I’m trying to watch Wheel!”

“What?” he yelled back.

It was hard to hear her when she yelled from all the way back in the den.

She screamed again, but this time louder and with more fury, “I’m trying to solve the puzzle and I can’t think straight with all of that friggon racket you’re making down there!”

George looked down at his saw and turned it on. He held his breath and ran his thumb lightly across the blade as if to admire it. Then, he lowered his head, exhaled, and ran his throat right over that blade.

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