Today was the third day in a row that Everett was over at Lamar’s inherited house installing new cabinets in the kitchen. Lamar usually preferred to hire true professionals to work on the house since he couldn’t use the inheritance money for anything else anyway, but he’d gone with Everett this time as a favor. Lamar had met Everett at church. One of the assistant pastors had introduced them and told Lamar that Everett was going through a rough patch, had a family to support, couldn’t find steady work, and was an excellent handyman.
It now seemed that “excellent” may have been an exaggeration. Those cabinets that had already been installed looked a little crooked to Lamar’s eye. And he had not expected it to take this long. He was glad he wasn’t being billed by the hour.
But it was on the afternoon of that third day of cabinet-installation that Everett stopped working on the cabinets, which were still not all installed, and clutched his head, complaining of a debilitating migraine. Lamar took pity on him.
“You can’t tell anyone at church about this,” said Lamar. “And don’t tell your family either.”
“I won’t,” said Everett, his face pale and fixed in a wince-state, incapable of displaying understanding even if there were any understanding to display.
“It’s just like medicine,” said Lamar. “That’s all medicine is, really.”
Everett held out his hand. “This will cure my migraine?”
“It might,” said Lamar, and he handed Everett the mug filled to the brim with a cold, grayish-green liquid.
Everett took the mug and drank it down in several long gulps.
“Wow,” said Lamar. “No one’s ever taken one of my potions so fast before. Usually there’s a bunch of questions.”
“I trust you,” said Everett, smiling. “You’re a good guy, you wouldn’t give me something dangerous.”
“You didn’t think it tasted bad?”
Everett shrugged. “I didn’t drink it for the taste.”
“And how does your head feel?” asked Lamar.
“Better,” said Everett. He looked around the kitchen, cluttered with the many elements of cabinetry-in-progress. “I should be able to finish sometime in the next couple days.”
“Ah,” said Lamar, barely keeping his sigh internal. “That soon?”
“I think so,” said Everett. “I really think so. But do you think I could get some of the money now? Maybe, let’s say, half? We’ve got some struggles at home, as you know, and it’d help out a lot if I could get half now, the family would really appreciate it.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Lamar, feeling guilty about begrudging Everett his slowness. He retrieved his check book and wrote Everett a check for half of the agreed-upon price for the cabinet installation. “And how’s your head now?” asked Lamar as he handed Everett the check.
Everett looked startled, then grinned. “Well, you know, I’d completely forgotten about the migraine. It’s gone! Completely gone!”
“Good,” said Lamar. “But remember not to tell anyone, too many people hear ‘potions’ and take it the wrong way.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” said Everett. “See you tomorrow!”
It wasn’t until a few minutes after Everett left that Lamar realized he’d quit working an hour and a half earlier than usual.
Lamar, wearing a white apron and a black bandana, loaded dirty glasses into the large commercial dishwasher in the back corner of the Backup Paradise kitchen, a sheen of sweat on his broad face, a trickle of sweat running down the back of his thick neck, beads of sweat accumulating on his upper lip, which was of average size.
He closed the dishwasher and switched it on before turning to see who was talking to him. It was Faye. She wore the long, brown men’s trench coat that Lamar left hanging on a hook just inside the kitchen door for the dancers to wear over their provocative work outfits if they wanted to talk to him.
“Hey, Faye,” said Lamar. “Got a problem customer?”
Faye nodded. “He’s being a total jerk, Lamar.” The girls knew Lamar didn’t like coarse language either.
“Doesn’t seem like he’s leaving soon?”
“No,” said Faye. “He’s entrenched. He’s already been here for two hours. I can’t take anymore, Lamar, he’s being a total jerk.”
“All right,” said Lamar. “Is he still buying drinks?”
“Yeah,” said Faye. “But I’ve had it with him.”
Lamar walked across the kitchen and into the break room with Faye following close behind. The girls had their own dressing room, but Lamar’s locker was in the break room next to the refrigerator. He entered the combination on the lock he always brought with him from home, opened the locker, and extracted a small, black drawstring bag from which he withdrew a tiny glass vial plugged with a tiny rubber stopper. The vial was filled with a clear liquid. “You know the drill,” said Lamar, handing the vial to Faye. “Empty the potion into his next drink, serve him the drink, bring the vial with the stopper back to me.”
“I know, I know,” said Faye. She gave Lamar a relieved smile. “Thank you. I know it’s only supposed to be for emergencies, but this one’s an emergency, I’ve been so close to snapping for the last 45 minutes.”
“Well, we can’t have you snapping,” said Lamar. “Better if he just takes a nice nap.”
After Faye left the kitchen, Lamar stepped out the back door for some fresh air, which he hoped would also be crisp, and it was. Faye was the only dancer Lamar trusted not to tell anyone about his potions, but she watched out for the other girls too, and if she saw a customer giving one of them an especially hard time, Lamar would give her a potion-vial and she’d find a way to empty it into the customer’s drink on the other girl’s behalf. And then the customer would drift off into a peaceful sleep until one of the bouncers roused him and sent him on his way home. Lamar may not have approved of the stripping and all that, but most of the girls were nice and friendly and he had nothing but contempt for any customers who decided they had the right to be nasty to them. And the side effects of the short-term knock-out potion were no different than the bad hangovers most of them would have had anyway.
Lamar took off his bandana, turned it dry-side-in, and re-tied it around his head. Then he went back into the Backup Paradise kitchen to wash dirty glasses.
Lamar, Faye, two bouncers, and a few other dancers stood looking down at the unconscious man tilted on his side in the booth. The unconscious man was Everett and Lamar was worried.
“I’ve tried everything,” said Barry, the smallest bouncer employed at Backup Paradise, maybe the smallest bouncer in all of Multioak. “I’ve been yelling at him, shaking him. I slapped his face, I poured cold water on his head. He’s out.”
Lamar wished Faye would stop shooting him nervous looks. There was no reason for anyone to think Faye or Lamar had anything to do with Everett’s unresponsive state, everyone just assumed he’d had way too much to drink or been taking pills or something, people would only become suspicious if Faye or Lamar gave them reason to.
“We’re gonna have to call the cops,” said Jared, Backup Paradise’s smiliest bouncer.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” said Lamar. “I know this guy. Help me get him into my car and I’ll take him home to his family.”
“I dunno,” said Jared. “What if something happens to him? We’ll be liable if he dies and we didn’t call anyone. He looks like he’s in pretty bad shape.”
“Yeah,” said Barry. “I slapped him pretty hard.”
“No, no,” said Lamar. “This is actually pretty normal for him, unfortunately. Just trust me, if anything happens I’ll take all the blame, I promise. Just help me carry him out to the car.”
Jared and Barry looked at each other.
“You really think Sam wants us getting the cops over here again if we can solve this without them?” asked Lamar.
Invoking Backup Paradise’s owner’s name and alluding to his not-infrequent run-ins with the law did the trick.
As Barry and Jared dragged Everett out of the booth and carried him toward the front door, Barry holding Everett’s legs while Jared held him by the armpits, Lamar caught Faye’s eye and gave her a reassuring nod, tapping his index finger to his lips. She still looked nervous but she nodded back and headed for the dressing room. Lamar just had to hope that Faye’s apprehension would keep her afraid of being held responsible for Everett’s condition and wouldn’t turn into feelings of guilt that would make her want to confess to someone. Lamar needed time to figure this out. It was never a good idea to take a potion while you still had another one in your system and Everett had taken two within nine hours of each other. Lamar had no idea what the combined effect of the headache-curing potion and the short-term knock-out potion would be. Maybe this deep sleep-state would be the full extent of it. Or maybe it wouldn’t.
Lamar lay in his bed, exhausted but not asleep. He could hear Everett breathing on the floor next to his bed. Lamar had started by hauling Everett into the guest room, but he soon realized that he’d be up and down checking to make sure Everett was still alive all night so it made more sense to have him in the same room where he’d have a better chance of noticing if there were any changes in Everett’s condition.
How soon would Everett’s family start looking for him? Lamar hadn’t seen Everett’s car in the parking lot at Backup Paradise, only the cars of the bouncers and the dancers. Maybe someone had dropped Everett off? Lamar didn’t know where Everett lived, maybe he lived close enough to the strip club to walk? Maybe all this worry was for nothing, maybe Everett would just sleep it off, wake up, and be fine. And then Lamar could ask Everett why he’d spent his night blowing the cabinet-installation money Lamar had advanced him so he could deal with his family’s many “struggles” at the strip club. Lamar was starting to wonder if Everett might actually be more of a source of his family’s struggles. Maybe the source.
And then Everett stood, his silhouette rising up next to Lamar’s bed.
Lamar jolted in surprise. Then he sat up in bed. “Jeesh, Everett, you scared me.”
Everett, saying nothing, strode out of the bedroom and into the hall. A moment later, the hall light came on. And then, a few moments after that, from the kitchen came the sounds of cabinet-installation.
Lamar stayed up for the remainder of the night with Everett, who was completely non-communicative as he worked on installing the remaining cabinets. By the time the sun was fully up and beaming its cheerful morning light through the kitchen window on the east side of Lamar’s house, the cabinets were all installed and even the ones that had looked crooked to Lamar yesterday looked good and straight today.
Lamar had tried telling Everett to stop, that 3 a.m. wasn’t a good time to install cabinets, but to no avail. It was as if Everett couldn’t hear Lamar at all. Everett hadn’t spoken, hadn’t even looked at Lamar, had kept his focus entirely on the cabinets and the installation thereof. The one time Lamar had put a hand on Everett’s shoulder to try to guide him back to bed, Everett had frozen until Lamar, concerned that Everett had stopped breathing, took his hand from Everett’s shoulder, at which point Everett went back to work on the cabinets as if nothing had happened. So Lamar had let him work. Everett was clearly manifesting the combined effects of the potions in some way, so it was probably best to just let it run its course. And while he wasn’t pleased to be missing out on an entire night’s sleep, Lamar couldn’t feel too disappointed about the fact that the kitchen cabinets were now, at last, installed.
And once the work was completed, Everett, still in some kind of waking stupor, walked down the hall to the guest bedroom he’d started the night in, lay down on top of the covers, and fell asleep. Lamar was relieved. Maybe now Everett would sleep off whatever of the potions remained in his system. And, while he was doing so, Lamar could finally sleep too. And the cabinets got finished, and he’d successfully stopped Everett from harassing Faye all night. Maybe this was the best possible outcome. Lamar, having never changed out of his pajamas after Everett got up during the night, crawled back into his bed and fell asleep.
Lamar awoke a few hours later to the sound of someone ringing his doorbell. He got up, put on his robe, and looked in on Everett, who was still asleep in the guest room, before stumbling down the hall to the front door feeling groggy and off-balance.
When Lamar opened the door, it took him a few moments to realize who the girl standing on his front porch was. She was Everett’s daughter. One of his daughters. Lamar had been introduced to her at church but he could not remember her name. Lamar guessed that she was 15. No, there was a strange car in the driveway, she must have driven here, she had to at least be 16.
“I’m looking for my dad,” said the girl. “When was the last time you saw him?”
“Yesterday,” said Lamar. “After he finished the cabinets.”
The girl looked surprised. “He finished the cabinets? Like, he actually finished the job?”
“Yeah,” said Lamar. “They look great.”
The girl seemed very thrown-off by this. “Can…I see them? The finished cabinets?”
Lamar was worried that Everett might wake up and come out of the guest room while his daughter was in the house, but he couldn’t think of a plausible-sounding reason to not let the girl into the house, so he said, “Sure, come have a look. There’s not much to see though. Just cabinets. And you didn’t see how it looked before.”
“I know,” said the girl. “I’ve just never seen a job that my dad’s finished. Usually he does about half of the job, asks for an advance on some of the money, and then goes and blows that money and only goes back to the job long enough to lie about needing his tools for an emergency at home and then he never goes back.”
“Well,” said Lamar. “He definitely didn’t do that this time. Maybe your dad is changing.” The girl stepped into Lamar’s house and he led her down the hall to the kitchen. “There they are,” said Lamar. “All the cabinets, expertly-installed.”
The girl looked incredulous. “My dad did this? And he never asked for any of the money before he finished?”
“Nope,” said Lamar.
“His stuff is still here, though,” said the girl, looking around at the various tools scattered across the kitchen floor.
“He said he was going to come back for them this afternoon,” said Lamar, fully aware that he was risking becoming ensnared in his own web of lies. “I was going to pay him when he came to pick up his tools.”
The girl turned to look at Lamar, considering him, evaluating. “We can’t find my dad,” she finally said. “We don’t know where he went. But if you haven’t paid him for the finished job yet, you could give the money to me and I’ll make sure it gets to my mom.”
“Um,” said Lamar. “I think I’d feel more comfortable giving the money to your dad.”
“But we don’t know where he is,” said the girl. “He may have run off somewhere, he might be dead. And we need the money at home, that’s why he claimed he was doing the job anyway, right? Even if he does show up for the money later, if you give it to him, he’ll waste it on strippers and alcohol.”
“I…don’t think that’s true,” said Lamar. “Your dad doesn’t strike me as that kind of guy.”
“I know him a lot better than you do,” said the girl. “I’m actually headed to Backup Paradise next to ask if they’ve seen him since yesterday afternoon. If they haven’t, then I’ll start asking at the liquor stores.”
Lamar said nothing, trying to quickly analyze the situation to determine the least disastrous course of action. “OK,” he finally said. “OK, OK. But you can’t tell anyone. Promise?”
“How long has he been like this?” asked Everett’s daughter. She stood next to Lamar at the foot of the guest bed, both of them watching her father sleep.
“Well, it depends what you mean,” said Lamar. “He was working on the cabinets, he complained about the migraine, so I mixed him up a headache-curing potion, he drank it, his migraine went away, I told him to be sure not to drink anymore potions for a few days, but then while I was in the bathroom, he must have sneaked down to my laboratory in the basement and drank another potion because that’s where I found him unconscious. So I brought him up here, but then in the middle of the night, he got up and started working on the cabinets, and then when he got them all installed this morning, he just came back here and went to sleep.”
“So it isn’t the potion you gave him that did this to him,” said the girl. “It’s the combination of the one you gave him and the one he took without permission? That’s what you’re telling me?”
“Yes, exactly,” said Lamar. “You’re very astute. And please, don’t tell anyone that I make potions, most people just don’t take it right.”
“So how are you going to fix this?” asked the girl.
“What’s your name again?” asked Lamar.
“We’ve been introduced,” said the girl. “You don’t remember it?” Her tone was getting colder by the second.
“No,” said Lamar. “I don’t. I’m sorry.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Karen.”
“We’ve already met. Are you going to make a potion to clear the effects of the potions my dad drank or not?”
Lamar chuckled uncomfortably. “Well, it isn’t that easy, Karen. It’d sure be nice if it were that easy, but such a potion just doesn’t exist. Not to my knowledge, anyway.”
Karen walked around the side of the guest bed and stood next to her father’s head. “Dad. Dad!” She shook him but he didn’t respond. “Help me carry him out to my car,” said Karen.
“Why?” asked Lamar. “Where do you want to take him?”
“I can’t tell you,” said Karen. “Just help me carry him.”
“I won’t help you carry him unless you take me with you too,” said Lamar. He was worried about what Karen might say to the wrong person, he wanted to make sure he was on hand to tell his side of the story in case it seemed like the blame was going to fall on him.
“He’s my dad,” said Karen. “You can’t just keep him here.”
“I’m not keeping him here,” said Lamar. “He can leave anytime he wants to.”
Karen rolled her eyes. “All right,” she said. “You can come.”
“Stay in the car with my dad,” said Karen.
“No,” said Lamar. “I’m coming with you. I’m the one who knows what happened.”
“You don’t even know what we’re doing here,” said Karen.
“That’s why I have to come with you,” said Lamar.
Karen’s car was parked in the driveway of a small, shabby, yellow house. Lamar sat in the front passenger’s seat and Everett was sprawled across the back seat, still very much unconscious.
Karen made an exasperated noise with her mouth and got out of the car, slamming the door. Lamar got out too and followed her up the sidewalk to the front door, standing a few feet behind her as she rang the doorbell, waited, rang the doorbell again, waited again, and reached to ring the doorbell a third time just as a woman in her 60s wearing jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt spattered with brown paint answered the door.
“Karen,” said the woman. “Hello.” Her eyes fell on Lamar and stayed there. “And who’s this?”
“I’m Lamar. And you are?”
The woman ignored Lamar’s question.
“We need help, Grandma,” said Karen.
“Is it about your dad?”
“Yeah,” said Karen. “He drank two different kinds of potions and now something’s wrong with him.”
“Potions, you say?” Karen’s grandma’s confusion was obviously feigned. “What do you mean by potions? Why would you bring him to me?”
Karen sighed. “It’s fine, Grandma, Lamar makes potions too.”
“You make potions?” asked Lamar.
“No,” said Karen’s grandma.
“Yes, you do,” said Karen. “That’s why we brought dad to you.”
“Karen! You weren’t supposed to tell anyone!”
“It’s fine, Grandma! He makes them too! Who’s he going to tell?”
“Karen,” said Lamar. “I asked you not to tell anyone.”
Karen’s grandma, whose name was Tabitha, had her laboratory set up in her basement too. Lamar was pleased to see that Tabitha’s laboratory was significantly less orderly than his was. Her equipment and supplies were spread out over three large, wooden tables arranged in a U-shape in a small room illuminated by two bare fluorescent lights on the ceiling. The floor was carpeted, which Lamar considered an amateurish mistake. Although he was willing to admit, though only to himself, that he did not recognize many of Tabitha’s potion ingredients and the glass jars in which they were contained were all unlabeled, which could be either amateurish or expertish depending on how you looked at it.
“Which two potions did you say he drank?”
Lamar looked at Tabitha and tapped his chin. “Well, the first one was a migraine-curing potion, but I can’t be entirely sure about the second, but I think there’s a strong chance it may have been-“
“Listen, Lamar.” Tabitha’s irritation was not feigned. “I’ve got a big, big fence to paint in my back yard and I’ve barely started. I don’t want to stand down here all day listening to you pretend to not know the other potion you gave to my son.”
“It may have been a short-term knock-out potion,” said Lamar.
“So headache-curing and short-term knock-out,” said Karen. “Can you undo that combination, Grandma?”
“That depends,” said Tabitha. “Did you use Bertha’s Bloom or Grinner’s Weed for the knock-out potion?”
“I’m afraid I’m hesitant to reveal my formulae,” said Lamar.
“Oh, come on,” said Karen, covering her face with her hands.
“And I’m also unfamiliar with both of those ingredients,” said Lamar. “I’m…mostly self-taught. So I don’t know a lot of the official potion-ingredient names.”
Tabitha waved a hand at Lamar dismissively. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I think I can clear it.” She turned to her tables and began to select ingredients from the jars.
“So,” said Lamar, “what’s that-”
“Karen, get him out of here.”
Karen and Lamar sat in Tabitha’s kitchen without speaking for almost ten minutes before Tabitha came up the stairs with an old glass pop bottle half-filled with a cloudy, red liquid.
“How will we make him drink it if he’s asleep?” asked Karen as she and Lamar rose from the table and followed Tabitha to the front door.
“We’ll pour it in his mouth and hold his nose,” said Tabitha. “I made a lot more than we need, he only needs to get a few drops down.”
Outside, the back passenger’s side door of Karen’s car stood open. Everett was not in the car.
“Don’t panic,” said Lamar.
“No one’s panicking,” said Karen. “Where do you think he went, Grandma?”
“He may have just woken up and been confused,” said Tabitha. “But he should have recognized the house he grew up in, I don’t know why he didn’t come in or knock.”
“We don’t know when he got out of the car,” said Lamar. “It may have only been a few seconds ago. He might not be far.”
“Look,” said Tabitha, pointing to the gate leading from her side yard into the back yard. “The gate’s open.”
And that’s where Everett was: in the back yard, painting the fence using the supplies Tabitha had left sitting out when she’d heard the doorbell ringing.
“Everett,” said Tabitha. He didn’t stop painting, he didn’t even look at her.
“Dad,” said Karen. “Dad!” Again, nothing, just painting and painting and painting.
“This is what he was like with the cabinets,” said Lamar. “Totally zoned in on the work.”
“What cabinets?” asked Tabitha.
“Dad did Lamar’s cabinets,” said Karen. “He finished them and did a good job and everything.”
“He did?” asked Tabitha.
“Yep,” said Lamar.
No one said anything for a while. They just watched Everett work, watched him apply the brown paint to the fence smoothly and evenly, making the fence look great.
“And what does he do when he isn’t being handy?” asked Tabitha.
“Just sleeps,” said Lamar.
“Any other side effects?”
“Not that I’ve noticed.”
Tabitha looked at Karen. “He’s your dad.”
“How long could he be like this?” asked Karen.
Tabitha shrugged. “Could be a long time. You never know what’s gonna happen when you mix them together. Could be forever. Until he dies. If he dies.”
“But you could make another clearing potion, right Grandma?”
“I could,” said Tabitha. “If you changed your mind.”
“He’s always been a problem,” said Karen. “He drags the whole family down.”
“I told your mom not to marry him,” said Tabitha. “I told her I knew him better than her.”
“All right,” said Karen. She nodded at her grandma.
And, as Everett, eyes vacant, painted the fence, Tabitha upended the bottle in her hand and poured the red potion out onto the brown leaves scattered across her brown lawn.
Lamar loaded dirty glasses into the commercial dishwasher in the kitchen at Backup Paradise. Sweat beaded on his face and neck but it did not drip. He heard the kitchen door swing open but he did not turn to see who it was until Faye said, “Lamar?”
“Hi, Faye,” he said, guarded. She looked concerned.
“I was just gonna ask you about what happened,” said Faye. “If everything is OK.” She pulled the trench coat tighter around her as if she were cold, although she couldn’t have been.
“He’s back with his family,” said Lamar. “He’s awake. Everything is OK.”
“Oh, good,” said Faye, the tension in her posture falling away. “I was so nervous. I know you told me not to tell anyone, but you know I live with my mom, I tell her everything.”
“I asked you not to tell anyone,” said Lamar.
“But, no,” said Faye, smiling, take a step toward him. “No, it’s OK, she already knew, Lamar.”
“She already knew what?”
“That you make potions,” said Faye. “To help people. You made one for her Lamar. 22 years ago. A fertility potion.”
Lamar said nothing.
“I’m 22,” said Faye, smiling, eyes wet.
“Well,” said Lamar. “I’m very happy I helped.”
As Faye hugged him, Lamar patted her back and wondered what potion he could have possibly given Faye’s mom. He had no idea how to make a fertility potion.