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Close Quarters

Bridgeport, suburb of Chicago, seventeen years ago




Last night Katie had gone through her usual routine of sitting on the edge of the tub to read so she wouldn’t wake her sister, then crawling into her sleeping bag on the floor in the front room and readying her clothes for the morning by touch. Rosie had left for the office and Mom and Dad had still been shut in the bedroom by the time she woke and went into the bathroom.

Now, after her shower and dressed in her bra and jean shorts, Katie was holding a pair of cotton gym shorts instead of a t-shirt. She couldn’t peek out to see if her parents were up; there was only room for the door to be either open or shut. She would just run real quick out to the living room and grab the shirt out of the duffel under the coffee table.

Her scheme failed as soon as she opened the door. Straight across the room facing her, Dad stood at the sink with his coffee.

“Well good morning there, Coppert—” His attention rapidly returned to the folded newspaper in his hand.

Groaning “Katie,” her mom dashed from the seat at the dine-in table that also acted as the kitchen counter to snatch a t-shirt from the duffel and toss it to Katie.

“Sorry, Dad. Thanks, Mom.” Katie pulled the shirt on.

“You should have your things ready before you go in for your shower,” her mom said. She then repeated the suggestion she had made several times since the night they’d arrived from Beemer. “It should be you girls in that bed. There’s no reason your father and I can’t sleep out here. The hard floor might actually help your back, don’t you think, Hal?”

“It’s Rosie’s place and Rosie’s bed, Jeanette,” her dad said yet again. “If she wants us in there, we’ll stay in there.”

Still not looking up, Hal moved to the couch to give Katie room in the “kitchen”: a fridge, a stove, and a sink. Not even a microwave. Katie split an English muffin for the toaster on the table.

They’d been living in this basement apartment for three months: Rosie’s whistling teapot at five in the morning; Dad nearly tripping over Katie for his nighttime visits to the bathroom; Mom loudly whispering for him to remember to put the seat down. Every. Fucking. Time. And Katie couldn’t utter a word of complaint, because it was all her fault.

Katie thought her mother had Mondays off, but Jeanette had already dressed in the uniform for Jewel-Osco grocery stores: a maroon polo and black slacks. “Are you working today, Mom?”

“Full shift,” Jeanette said. She stacked a folded towel on the coffee table. She had already done a load in the laundry room in the other half of the house’s basement. She must have been up a lot earlier than Katie thought. “Earl wants to start training me in the deli.”

Hal looked at his wife with furrowed brows. “Oh yeah? You still think you can make the appointment at twelve?”

Jeanette gasped. “Oh, was that today? Gosh, hon, I don’t know. I hope it won’t upset Earl if I take a long lunch on my first day in the deli.”

“Well, no,” Hal said. “I don’t want you getting in trouble. But I wonder if we just take a quick look see. We’ll both get back to work lickety-split.”

“What’s going on?” Katie said. “What’s at twelve?”

“Mr. Antonik told me about a little place down the street from the store,” Hal said. “One of his regulars wants to retire pretty quick and move out to Arizona. Thinks the house could go for a good price.”

Resentment doused any excitement Katie felt of being sprung from this refugee camp. Hal Banach had been self-employed longer than he’d been a father. Now, to shelter his family, he had to rely on his apathetic boss’s off-hand gossip.

“Why doesn’t old man Antonik retire himself?” Katie said. “You could totally double the business. Add a lumber yard.”

Hal peered over his reading glasses in top censorious form. “Now, Coppertop, that’s pretty disrespectful. Mister Antonik was kind enough to give me a job right off the bat. Hired me as a manager, too. He didn’t have to do any of that, you know.”

Katie had been to the dumpy neighborhood hardware store near a vacant lot next to the highway. She’d seen a flea in a dusty corner. “He should be grateful that you’re willing to run his dinky store.”

Jewel-Osco should be grateful for her mom, too, who hadn’t taken a paycheck since Rosie was born, yet was the best employee they had. Which was why they were training her in the deli after only two months. “Tell Earl you’ll be back to slice pastrami when you’re good and fucking ready.”

“Catherine Elizabeth Banach,” Jeanette hissed. “We don’t talk that way in this house!”

“You don’t make the rules in this house, Mom. Rosie does.”

Jeanette jammed the stack of towels into the basket on the floor. Making it clear she was speaking only to her husband, she said, “I’ll be out front right at twelve. Don’t be late.” Hal stood while Jeanette picked up her purse. She pecked him on the cheek and left without looking back.

Katie hadn’t been spanked since she was seven, a whole decade ago. She expected at minimum a stern look and a harsh lecture from her dad. He just stood there, looking down at the coffee table with his hands deep in his pockets. At least Mom had gotten angry, finally. But Dad just looked…sad.

The toaster popped. Katie plucked the muffins out and dropped them on a plate. You don’t deserve nooks filled with melted butter. Just the thought of it made her want to puke, anyway. She picked one up and crunched into it. The hot bread burned her tongue, the unbuttered edges cut the roof of her mouth.

She tucked the dry lump into her cheek and said, “How upset do you think she is?”

Hal shrugged.

Katie chewed some more. “I hope this house pans out for you guys.” She managed to swallow the muffin. “And before, what I meant was that you both work really hard for—”

“Yup.” Dad walked his empty cup the few steps to the kitchen. “We’ll be glad to get out of Rosie’s hair.” He squeezed Katie’s shoulder as he rounded the table to the sink. “So what’s on your agenda for today, Coppertop?”

And just like that she was his little girl again instead of the ghoul she actually was. How any of this angelically patient man’s blood ran through her… The least she could do was pretend everything was still normal, too. “I thought I’d go down to U of C. See if I can get a jump on next year’s financial aid.”

Katie could have gone to the community college this year. The next year, too. She could have worked at Subway. Her dad wouldn’t let her. Though her parents needed every penny of what they had left for themselves he made sure her first year’s tuition at the University of Chicago had been covered.

“Oh hey,” he said. “That’s a terrific idea! Tell you what, I’ll drop you off right now. Rosie can give you some pointers, I’ll bet.”

“Sure. She’s pretty busy, though.”

Between Rosie’s work at Krondyke & Associates and her graduate seminars at U of C, Katie rarely saw her sister awake. A small mercy because, unlike their parents, Rosemarie’s steely stares pinned blame for all of this exactly where it belonged.

Categories: Better Angels M.J. Ortmeier Novel Romance

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Michael and Julie write separately, but when they write together they are...M.J. Ortmeier!

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