Tar or Oil, Stained Either Way / by Roy Miller

            Hot summer days were always a breeding ground for fights between Dale and his wife, Nadine. Nadine always said that heat ran in her family so the hot days were miserable. She sat in her blue recliner on the right side of the living room, away from the door, chain smoking cigarettes with a tall glass of ice water.

            Sweat would pool up around the bottom and leave rings on the table, and one afternoon she dropped a full glass in her lap because of the moisture. Dale was out working in the garage, trying to piece together an old ‘71 Nova he re-homed from a vacant house in the country, so she quickly grabbed a hand towel from the kitchen to sop up the mess before he had a chance to notice. Little things like that were an easy argument starter.

            The old television set hummed along at a low volume. Reruns of Supermarket Sweep complimented the dated decor of their one story home on highway 80. Tobacco-stained tartan wallpaper ran floor to ceiling in the living room, along with dirty brown shag carpeting that screamed of the disco era. The colors clashed horribly and random assortments of flea market knickknacks weren’t helping the situation.

            Several homemade shelving units containing everything from glass cherubs to painted rubber unicorns spanned all four walls. To top it off, they all bore their own layers of cigarette ash and dust, siphoning any gleam their appearance may have had.

            Dale eventually made his way into the house and headed for the kitchen. He liked to wash his hands out there instead of in the bathroom, mostly because the kitchen sink was bigger and had a window above it. Nadine would constantly nag him about this, saying he would splash oil and grease all over the appliances that sat out on the counter, but Dale just shrugged her off and dried his hands on a towel. More often than not he would get a little grease on the towel, too.

            After he cleaned up he would pour some coffee and take a look at the paper. There was never anything good in it, but he only wanted it for the Classifieds, anyway. People out that way were constantly selling all kinds of tools and equipment. Last winter he bought a chainsaw off his old boss Hank’s boy Randy for sixty dollars. Not bad for a working piece of machinery.

            The bird clock that Nadine had picked up from the flea market two summers ago chirped at six o’clock, and when she heard it she got up and headed into the kitchen to make dinner. Dale stayed in place, not looking up when she entered the kitchen. He was still a little sour from the night before, being told he should sleep on the couch because of his snoring. He told her if she would get a job maybe she would be tired enough to sleep, and to get off of his back.

            She rolled over and didn’t say anything else. Couple’s counselors always tell you you shouldn’t go to bed mad. It seemed like Dale and Nadine rarely went to bed anything but, yet they managed to stay together for thirty seven long years.

            Hamburger patties sizzled on the stove and when Nadine started to unwrap some slices of cheese, Dale got up and grabbed condiments from the fridge, along with a beer for himself. Nadine didn’t drink, but he liked the taste of beer. She hated kissing him after he had had a few, since she said she couldn’t get the taste out of her mouth afterward.

            It didn’t matter much to him, since he hated the way she tasted from all of her smoking and it seemed like an even trade. He’d tried to get her to quit a dozen times by cutting back on the beers, only having them on nights she was out with friends. She had success once or twice, but it only lasted a handful of months each time before she was sneaking a smoke in the bathroom at night. Eventually she would stop trying to hide it, and they would be back at square one.

            With Dale having his nose buried in the paper and Nadine staring out the window above the kitchen sink, the burgers on the stove charred too much on the bottom and started throwing off smoke. The detector above the ceiling fan beeped loudly, and when Dale looked up from the paper at a startled Nadine, he was overcome with a familiar feeling of irritation.

            “Can you pay attention, Nadine?” asked Dale. “You’re gonna take the whole house down.”

            “Well if you feel you can do better sweetheart, I’ll let you cook next time.” Nadine’s tone dripped with sarcasm.

            She used a spatula and a cheese grater to knock off some of the overcooked patties and then spaced them out on a serving plate. Dale looked on top of the fridge for buns but didn’t find any. With a sigh, he took down the half loaf of wheat bread he did find and tossed it onto the table. The thud made Nadine jump a little, but she didn’t turn around.

            Once the stove was turned off she brought the plate to the table and set it in the middle, next to her twice blown glass ashtray she’d gotten as a prize for winning Bingo night at the Eagles. Dale looked between the ashtray and the plate, his face turning sour at how close her disgusting habit was to his food. She didn’t miss the look.

            They ate in silence for the next twenty minutes. Dale switched on the radio that sat on a small bookshelf next to dining table so he wouldn’t have to listen to the sound of chewing. He looked over at his wife. She sat there, eating slowly with a blank expression on her face.

            He used to think she was really something, but looking at her now just made him wonder where he would be if he had chosen another life. If he had maybe gone to Alaska to work on the pipelines instead of staying home to help his father out with the auto body shop, he could have met a nice Eskimo woman and went on seal hunting trips.

            Instead, he had three ungrateful kids that never called and a wife that was so busy daydreaming about whatever it was that took her away she almost burned the house down. He suspected she knew how he felt; their seldom eye contact held a certain discontent.

            Nadine got up and ran herself a glass of water. No ice this time. She drank half of it while standing at the sink then filled it up again and took it back to her seat. Dale continued to eat silently. The ticking from the bird clock seemed to echo throughout the kitchen, even over the fake excitement of the announcer for a firework ad on the radio.

            The bang bang noises behind his voice reminded her of gunshots, and she thought fleetingly of a dream she had where one of her old high school boyfriends had come around, killed Dale and took her away to a new life. She knew how it would sound to someone that didn’t know them. Two people that basically hated each other, living day after day under the same roof while barely tolerating the other’s existence.

            Truth was, they stayed together because it was easier than splitting up. Neither of them wanted to have to pack their things, find another place and worry about rebudgeting their money. Besides, marriage was a life-long commitment, and Nadine’s father would have nothing to do with her if she got a divorce.

            “You know,” said Nadine, “your old pal Ken told me if I ever wanted a taste of the good life I could go with him and he would take care of me. He ever tell you that?”

            “That’s great, dear,” said Dale. He didn’t look up from the paper.



Roy Miller is a midwestern cinephile and book fiend. He enjoys watching and discussing film, reading anything from short stories to screenplays and listening to music, mainly post-rock and modern classical.