As promised, here is an excerpt from Back To Normal
(releasing from Loose Id October 5)
Greg Capello’s late Aunt Coco had taken up residence in his head twelve years ago. Today her voice still rumbled roughly from too many years of too many cigarettes. “You know it’s all for the best,” she said as Greg rested his forehead on the window frame. “She wasn’t right for you.”
Everybody had thought Coco would die of lung cancer, but it was a brain aneurism that got her. Her death was not only a surprise but also an eerie coincidence in that Coco’s brain blew up at nearly the same moment that an errant golf ball smashed into Greg’s.
While Coco’s body had given up, her spirit hadn’t. Greg had tried getting professional help to understand and eradicate the raspy voice of his fifty-two-year-old red-haired aunt, the woman with four cats, thirty-two scarves, and one rhinestone cigarette holder. When he’d realized that the fearful specter of St. Dymphna Mental Hospital loomed over him, he’d learned to accept Coco’s company with a sort of horrified good humor.
At a carnival one summer, Greg had visited a fortune-teller, who explained that when he got hit with that golf ball he must’ve died, if only for a few seconds. Because Coco died for keeps around that time, her spirit and his met somewhere in the afterworld, where she latched on to Greg. When his heart started beating again, Coco was along for the ride.
Ever since then, she came and went as she pleased. He’d stopped asking where she disappeared to when he realized she’d only answer in the most obtuse terms. He’d learned to live with Aunt Coco. Occasionally she brought home a guest, though, which just made him twitch. When that happened, he did everything he could to help the visitor move along to where he or she needed to go. One person in his head he could handle. Any more than that was asking too much.
At this moment, it was just the two of them, watching from the living room window as Greg’s newly-ex wife, Liz, drove away from the house.
“I know, Aunt Coco.” Greg sighed. “But it still hurts.”
Liz drove behind the moving van that carried her share of their worldly possessions. The leave-taking had been quick and without rancor, as they’d been saying good-bye to each other for at least the last year. The drama was long past over.
The front lawn was a muted green, emerging from Pennsylvania’s winter dormancy, except where it was worn in spots from the roots of an old maple tree. The tree dropped helicopter seeds, which twirled away in the wind, and the limbs full of budding leaves swayed like lithe dancers on a backdrop of gray-washed sky. Once Liz’s car and the truck turned at the end of the street, the neighborhood was quiet, nobody eager to be active on this dreary Saturday.
Greg sighed again and turned to look at the empty room and the clean fireplace. A large, overstuffed sofa had occupied the prime spot in front of the hearth. The space looked forlorn.
“Now that’s a sad picture,” Aunt Coco murmured.
Greg nodded. “I loved that couch.” He’d read books, graded papers, and fallen asleep there, lost in worlds of his own making. Liz had companionably shared that space with him before she grew tired of trying to change him.
This house was a testament to his efforts to give her the life she’d wanted. They hadn’t even been shopping for a house; she drove by, saw the sign, and was hooked. Greg went along with it -- as he usually did when it came to Liz’s ideas -- because he wanted her to be happy. It wasn’t that he was uninterested; he just didn’t have it in him to be as passionate and engaged in things as she was.
One of their final discussions took place right there, more than a year ago.
* * * * *
Liz paced in front of the hearth, a blazing fire her backdrop. Greg sat on the couch, touched by the cool air drifting in through the leaky windows.
“You know you make me crazy, right?” Liz asked.
“How is that possible? I’ve tried to give you everything you wanted,” Greg said reasonably.
“That’s just it. You give me everything and somehow manage to give me nothing. I feel like I do all the living for the both of us and just drag you along.” Her ponytail swung wildly as she paced the room.
He leaned back into the cushion. “That’s not true. I enjoy being with you.”
“It is! Damn it, Greg. You have no passion, no highs or lows, no excitement about things. You just stand back and let it all happen. You observe your own life, but you don’t participate.” She clenched her fists. “You won’t even argue with me!”
Greg didn’t think she’d hit him, but hoped his calm voice would soothe her just in case. “I’m no different now than when we met, Liz. I don’t understand why this has become an issue.” He ran his fingers through his hair, feeling the carefully styled strands go awry. He actually did understand. But he wouldn’t tell her that.
Liz deflated a bit. “I thought…I hoped that would change. I figured once you were secure with me, you’d open up and let me in. Let some of yourself out.” She puffed out an ironic laugh. “I should have known that Cosmo was right with those articles about how you shouldn’t marry someone thinking you’ll be able to change them. I thought our love would be enough to…” She left the sentence unfinished.
“To turn me into someone I’m not?” He crossed his arms over his chest.
“No. Not someone else. Just more of yourself. I know there’s more to you than what you show the world. I wanted you to let me in, to share that with me.”
“I don’t know what to say. You’re angry because I’m still the same guy you married.”
Liz huffed with exasperation. “You are. The problem is mine. I know that.” She wiped her eyes; the tears that had been threatening overflowed. “I can’t do this anymore.”
* * * * *
It wasn’t long after that conversation that, at Liz’s request, Greg had moved out. He found a small apartment and carted over most of his belongings and some furniture. They’d managed the mortgage payments on the house with their two salaries. When he’d discovered the income of a second-year teacher wouldn’t stretch enough to pay half the house bills plus the apartment costs, Greg found part-time work at a restaurant.
The separation culminated in a quiet divorce. They sold the little bungalow quickly, discovering that starter homes were popular despite the recent economy. The whole divorce had been easy -- from a financial and physical standpoint, anyway. Hell, maybe even from an emotional one. He’d built such strong walls between his inner self and the outer world that very little could penetrate. He loved Liz as much as he could love any woman. She was passionate, energetic, and independent, and when he married her, he’d thought she wouldn’t need much from him to be happy. He’d been wrong.
A noise from outside caught his attention. He returned to the window and saw Joe’s black Jeep pulling into the driveway. Greg met him at the kitchen door, and before any words were said, he was engulfed in his brawny brother’s warm embrace. They were both a little over six feet tall, but Joe outweighed him by about forty pounds. Of muscle.
Running out of air, Greg pushed back. “Were you waiting around the corner?”
“No. Of course not.” Joe smiled.
“Uh-huh.” Greg closed the door before any more cold air could flow in. He was glad he’d worn a sweatshirt.
“Okay. I was two streets down, one across,” Joe confessed.
Greg raised one eyebrow at him.
“I didn’t want you to be alone too long. Is it a crime to care about your brother after he’s been majorly dumped?”
“That makes me feel so much better.”
“You know what I mean.”
Greg did know, and he was grateful. His family had been supportive through the whole ordeal, even though his mother and grandmother had to first get over the blemish of divorce on the Capello name; they still periodically offered unwanted advice on how Greg might win Liz back. Aunt Coco didn’t bother him about it because her ideas had always been at odds with those of her sister-in-law.
“You almost done here?” Joe asked.
“I want to take one more look around; then we can go.”
Joe shrugged his coat off and hung it on a hook. “Wow. This place didn’t sparkle as much when you bought it.” Joe turned in a circle. “Impressive.”
“When I told Liz I would help clean, she said she wanted to do it herself, that she needed the therapy.” The homey smells that used to fill the room had been replaced by bleach and lemon.
“How was she today?” Joe propped himself against the counter.
“She was fine. She’s moved on. Sees it as a failed effort, and she’s cut her losses.” She’d never been one to linger over past mistakes and done deeds. Liz felt everything deeply but didn’t hold on to any of it.
“How are you?”
Greg could feel a headache starting, but he knew that wasn’t what Joe meant. “Relieved, mostly. The last year’s been rough. She deserves better than I gave her, so I hope she finds the right guy.” He’d been grasping at a pretty thin straw when he married Liz, but he’d thought he could manage it. He felt lighter now and realized that the guilt he’d been carrying had dissipated when Liz walked out the door today.
Joe drummed his fingers on the counter. “You know it takes two to make a relationship work. Or not work.”
“It does.” Greg nodded. “Her expectations were different than mine. It took us a while to figure that out. That’s all I’m saying.” And that’s all he would say. He moved on to the dining room. “We had good china that Liz brought out for holidays and birthdays. And once when her book club was here.” He shook his head. “It had to be hand washed. The glasses and the silverware too.”
“I remember it.”
“I…” Greg scratched his head. “She got so excited about so many things, and I just didn’t get it.”
After a moment of mutual contemplation, Joe asked, “You think Jingle’s gonna get all hung up on the crockery if she gets married?”
Greg snorted a laugh, imagining his tattooed sister following a matronly saleslady around the china department at Macy’s. “You forget. She swears she’s never going to indulge in the” -- he made air quotes -- “anachronistic ritual of a male-dominated society intent on keeping women in psychological shackles.”
“Right. No wedding, no good china for baby sister. Mom’s not going to like that.”
“No, she’s not.” Greg pulled the curtains shut.
“She’ll have a shit fit is what,” Coco chimed in. Greg laughed.
“What’s funny?” Joe asked.
Greg shrugged and pointed to his head. “She thinks Mom’ll be upset too.”
Joe nodded. “Yep.” Of his family members, only Joe and Jingle thought it was cool that Greg had an ongoing relationship with their dead aunt. The rest of the family referred to it as his “oddity” and generally didn’t like to be reminded. That had actually been a good thing. He didn’t want to be the go-between for his mother and Aunt Coco.
Joe chuckled. “At least now I won’t have to listen to Mom lecturing me.” He pitched his voice an octave higher. “Joey, when are you going to grow up and find a nice girl like your brothers? Pete and Greg are so happy.”
“And when she gets on your case, you cannot use my line.”
“Yeah, you know. ‘Oh, Ma, the nice girls are taken. All that’s left are the naughty ones.’”
Greg rolled his eyes. “Like I would ever use that cliché.”
He took a quick look at the bedroom he and Liz had used for an office. Two teachers generated copious paperwork, needed a lot of reference material, and acquired all sorts of odds and ends. In clearing this room, Liz had found two boxes of stuff he’d forgotten he even had.
“Hey…” Joe snapped his fingers. “I can get you dates.”
“No, thank you.” Greg cringed to think of some of Joe’s dates.
The bathroom was clean, the fixtures shining. The flowery wallpaper in the master bedroom still looked new. Liz had picked it out, Greg never told her he hated it, and they’d worked together to hang it. His feelings about this room were mixed. He’d loved Liz and enjoyed making love with her, mostly. But even though he had tried very hard not to, he kept wishing she had less soft breast, more hard muscle, and a penis. It had become second nature to compartmentalize and close off those desires. They did still crash through his walls from time to time. But when Liz’s soft, curvy body had been in his arms, he’d worked hard to focus on the familiarity of her scent, the warmth of her affection, and her joyous take on life -- instead of wishing for what he couldn’t have.
He rubbed his temple with the tips of two fingers.
“I’ve got some meds in the car. I’ll get them in a minute.” His head injury had not only left him with Aunt Coco; he still experienced nasty headaches. Naproxen helped the headaches at least, but only if he took it in time.
“You gonna check the basement?” Joe rattled the knob of the door at the stairs.
“No. It’s good.”
“What about this?” Joe started to open a bifold door on a large cedar closet.
Greg pressed it shut. “The closets here are all empty.”
Aunt Coco snorted. “I wouldn’t say that.”
Greg ignored her.
“Why won’t you let me fix you up?” Joe asked.
“Because all the girls you know are sluts and skanks,” Aunt Coco said. Greg shook his head as if that would jounce her loose from his brain.
“I appreciate the offer. Being a detective has its perks, I’m sure. But attracting smart, sophisticated women hasn’t been one of them.” They were back at the kitchen door.
“Besides, I am not at all ready to get back into that game.”
They slipped into their coats. “So you’re just gonna sit in that crappy apartment and otherwise work your ass off?”
“It’s not crappy.”
Greg blew out a breath that ruffled his bangs. The glimpse of his dark hair reminded him he would need a cut soon. “It’s not what you’ve gotten used to, is all. It suits me fine.”
“And the working your ass off?”
“We all have our niche in life.” He poked Joe’s rock-hard chest. “You’re good at catching bad guys, helping little old ladies cross the street, and scaring kids away from drugs. I do what I’m good at, which happens to be teaching the little boogers readin’ and writin’, and serving dinner to big spenders.” He opened the door and gestured for his brother to precede him. Greg made sure the lock was engaged, then shut the door firmly. The real estate agent had said to keep his keys; the new owners would change the locks right away. “Are you buying me lunch?”