The Rellies

          Bodie has studied them all. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, The Rock. Men with physiques as good as his, but without half his acting ability.
          “It all comes down to luck,” he tells Deidre. 
          She’s too happy to challenge him, too content to comment on the clichés. They’re on their way north, driving up I-95 toward Millinocket, Maine for her annual family reunion. It’s a tradition that Deidre has happily participated in since her second birthday, an event Bodie has suffered through during the six years they’ve been married.
          “Not to jinx it,” he says, “but if things work out with Manhantra, we could be vacationing in Paris next summer.”
          “I don’t have any relatives in Paris,” Deidre says.
          Bodie almost says, That’s the point, but holds back. He doesn’t like his wife’s relatives and still has difficulty recalling their names, remembering who belongs to whom. He refers to them collectively as “The Rellies,” and they all gather for the last two weeks in June—upward of forty people—in a string of four small rental cottages on Maple Lake. Each cottage has a name over the door—Moose and Birch and Badger and Loon—and The Rellies squeeze into them like Vienna sausages.
          They come from places like Erie and Rochester and Rutland, Vermont. The men are correction officers and salesmen and restaurant workers, their wives boisterous and as thick as hassocks, their kids loud and insolent. There are a few old-timers including Frank, his hunched-over father-in-law, and twin aunts with skin as weathered as old leather handbags. 
          After breakfast, The Rellies all congregate on the manmade beach, sit in plastic chairs, stare out at the water, and talk about whoever isn’t there. A makeshift bar has been set up on the seawall that separates the beach from higher ground, and many of the men are already drunk by lunchtime. Occasionally a few of the women will wander out into the cobalt water, wade in up to their knees, and giggle-whisper back and forth. The teenagers disappear, the younger kids throw Frisbees and float on the surface of the lake like bars of soap, and Bodie—wandering alone, or reading a magazine, or throwing a stick for some dog—counts the days they have left.
          At night, The Rellies withdraw like bats returning to their caves. Walk in a cottage sober, and you’ll be handed an alcoholic beverage and told you have some catching-up to do. They eat and play cards and the men urinate in the woods just beyond their back doors. By this time, Bodie has usually convinced his wife to offer their goodnights. Then it’s time to walk through the gathering dusk, find their car, and return to some semblance of civilization. It’s the one concession that Deidre is willing to make: a room at the Micmac Motor-Inn a few miles west. She tells the family that Bodie, somewhat claustrophobic, is unable to relax among so many bodies and so much noise. He needs his own bathroom, and his idea of dinner is a bit more structured than several pounds of boiled spaghetti with sticks of butter melted on top. Bodie’s sure they all snicker at him, this thirty-four-year old man still trying to be an actor in New York City, this loser who allows his wife to work as a physical therapist while he goes to auditions, does meaningless temp jobs, and acts in plays nobody has ever heard of.
          “Just promise me one thing,” he says to Deidre as he watches Bangor fade in the sideview mirror. “Don’t leave me alone with them.”
          “Maybe if you tried a little.”
          “I have tried,” he says.  
          “Try harder,” Deidre says. “Initiate a conversation. Tell them how your year went.”         
          His year hasn’t gone particularly well and Bodie compounded it last summer when he ignored The Hex. The Hex warns actors against announcing the fact that they’ve landed a part before they’re officially cast. Bodie—fed up with tales of how much money cousin Bobby was making, and how niece Sheila had become a vice-president at age twenty-three—blabbed to The Rellies that he’d nailed a role in a major Hollywood movie scheduled to shoot in L.A. He had reason to feel confident; two callbacks for a muscle-bound firefighter with fourteen lines and a decent mini-monologue. A perfect fit. 
          “The project is in turnaround,” his agent, Mat, told him a month after he’d shot his mouth off. “It’s not dead, but there are hands on the plug.”
          This summer he thinks he has something more solid. Two days before they left, Bodie read for one of the major pharmaceutical companies. A product called Manhantra that promises relief from erectile dysfunction.
          “We’re not just looking for a one-timer,” he was told. “We’re looking for a national spokesman.”
          The client promised a decision within a week, shook hands with Bodie, and then man-hugged him.
          All good signs.
          On the subway, he called Deidre and told her he felt like this was pretty close to a for-sure thing. But he made her promise not to say anything until it became an absolute certainty.
          “Let’s not jinx it,” he warned.

          The blackflies, they’re informed by the girl at the motel desk, are “biblical” this year. She offers to sell them “bug jackets” at $29.50 a pop, and Bodie promises he’ll think about it. They settle into their musty room after ten hours on the road, and while Deidre eats a double order of poutine, Bodie does his nightly regimen of push-ups, stomach crunches, and squats. 
          By 9:30 the next morning, Deidre has packed a cooler and slipped a yellow-and-white sundress over her two-piece bathing suit. Bodie avoids lake water, but puts on a pair of black gym shorts and a powder-blue tank top that makes him look even more ripped than he already is.
          They find the closest off-road spot available, unload their stuff—folding canvas chairs and towels, the cooler, a beach umbrella, and all the lotions needed to lessen the chances of cancer—and lug it like refugees fleeing a civil war. The girl at the desk wasn’t exaggerating. Blackflies, deerflies, mosquitoes, and no-see-ums hover like fog on the moors. 
          On the beach Deidre is embraced by her father, then held at arm’s length and examined as if she’s some record-breaking trout. Other Rellies swoop in with hugs and exclamations. “Oh my God,” somebody laughs. “It’s Miss America.” A few hands shake Bodie’s, someone actually claps him on the shoulder, but generally he’s ignored.
          Deidre makes the rounds, and as Bodie finds a spot and spears the umbrella into the sand, a woman wanders over and asks how the film is going. She wears a pink bathing cap and a nose clip and Bodie has no idea who she is.
          “It never left the ground,” he says.
          “Oh,” the woman says, and Bodie pictures her back home this past year, telling her friends she knows an honest-to-God movie star. “I’m having my hip replaced in September,” she tells him.
          “Good luck with that,” he says, and they both stand silent for a moment until the woman says, “Well let me stretch it out a bit.” 
          Bodie hasn’t been sitting five minutes—hasn’t even dug his Diet Peach Snapple from the cooler—when he sees her. She’s strolling along the edge of the lake in a modest black one-piece, looking down as she drags a long stick through the sand. Her body is gymnast-firm, her hair as platinum as Edgar Winter’s.
          “Who’s that?” Bodie asks his wife when she comes over to retrieve a pair of sunglasses.
          “That’s Theo’s fiancé,” Deidre says as she squints. “He stuck pictures of her all over Facebook.”
          Moments later, Bodie watches his wife accept a mixed drink from her father and notices—perhaps for the first time—that her stomach slightly overhangs her swimsuit bottom. As if he needs company, Theo rolls over, Speedo-clad and as hairy as a neglected poodle. He takes the unfolded chair next to Bodie.
          “Hey, Brady!” he laughs. “I watched TV all winter and guess who I didn’t see? You!”
          Bodie ignores the mispronunciation and instead points to the woman by the lakeshore.
          “You got engaged,” he says.
          “Yep,” Theo says. “That little lady saved my life.”
          Bodie’s not anxious for the details, especially when he smells gin and notices a cocktail the size of a pickle jar in the man’s hand.
          “Ailina,” Theo adds. “She’s Russian. Hardly speaks a word of English.”
          “How do you communicate?”
          Theo smiles at this. “We speak the language of love,” he says.
          Bodie sees her an hour later as he heads toward one of the cottages in search of a bathroom. Ailina is just stepping out onto the porch, raking at the back of her neck with blue-painted fingernails.
          “Hi,” he says pointing to his chest with an index finger. “Bodie.”
          “Hello,” she says.
          “Nastrovia.” Bodie’s not even sure what the word means, but it makes Ailina smile and she repeats it. Encouraged, he points at her and then to himself. “Outlaws,” he says.
          “Ah,” Ailina says. “Yes.”
          Even though it’s pouring the next morning, Deidre insists on going to the lake. “We can hang around the cottages,” she says. “Get in a game of bingo, maybe watch a video with the kids.”
          “I think I’ll pass,” Bodie tells her. “I might walk into town and visit the clock museum.”
          “Okay, king-of-fun,” she says. 
          The rain lets up around noon and Bodie decides to go to The Naughty Fryer, a combination snack bar/laundromat/general store. He’s sitting at the counter, reading the local paper and drinking his second cup of herbal tea, when he spots Ailina inspecting a display of tubes and jars.
          Bodie settles his bill, then walks over. “Hello again,” he says.
          She looks up, recognizes him, smiles. “Bodie,” she says, and dressed in jeans and a lime-green t-shirt she’s even more attractive than he remembers.
          There’s a cardboard sign set up on the display table. It shows a gigantic grinning insect hiding behind a tree and spying on some unsuspecting family as they picnic. “FIGHT THE MAINE ITCHIES,” it says. Bodie points at the bug in the picture. “Mosquito,” he carefully pronounces.
          Ailina glances around, then leans in toward him. Her accent is heavy, but unhesitating. “I speak English,” she says.
          “Sorry,” Bodie says. “I thought—”
          “Is okay,” she says. “Our secret.”
          Ailina steps over to the counter and pays for a tube of ointment she’s selected. Outside, the rain has started to fall again, and when she finds out that Bodie’s on foot, she insists on giving him a ride. He thanks her once they reach the motel, and she surprises him by saying, “Can I come in for second? You could maybe help me.”                                           
          Bodie’s embarrassed by the untidiness—the unmade bed, the messy bathroom, the open suitcase on the chair with clothes spilling out like some weird cornucopia—but Ailina doesn’t seem to notice. She hands him the tube of liniment, turns her back, pulls the tail of her shirt up to her shoulders. “I cannot reach all of them,” she says.
          Her back, he notices, is covered with welts. Some are small, but others are inflamed and the size of grapes. A white bra strap, like the interstate highway on a map, cuts straight across.
          “Wouldn’t you rather have Theo do this?”
          “I don’t want Theo touching me,” she says.
          “What about getting married?” Bodie says as he begins to spread the salve.
          “Not my idea,” Ailina says.
          “What do you mean?”
          Ailina reaches behind and undoes the bra strap. Several more swellings are hidden beneath.
          “Is what you call financial arrangement,” she says. “Theo makes football bets. Loses. Viktor give him choice. Pay money or marry sister.”
          Bodie’s heard of this kind of thing. Green card scam. Woman on temporary visa marries some sap, gets legal status, then divorces the guy.
          “One problem,” Ailina says. “Theo fall in love like school boy.”
          She lets her head loll to one side as Bodie massages in the cream. His fingers have moved up to one of her shoulders where the skin is smooth and unswollen.
          “Ah,” she says. “Feels good.”
          Neither of them hears the car, but they do see Deidre simultaneously as she walks in.

          “So I come back,” Deidre says as she paces the motel room like a prosecutor, “because I thought you might need lunch. I make up a nice sandwich. And what do I find? I’m not even sure yet.”
          Ailina left just moments before and now Bodie sits on the queen-sized bed like some high school kid caught drinking during prom. The interaction with Ailina has aroused him, and were circumstances different, he might wrestle his wife onto this sagging mattress and have a little fun. Instead, he explains one more time.
          “She had these bug bites she couldn’t get to.”
          Deidre stops right in front of him, hands on hips. “They make backscratchers for that, Bodie.”
          She shakes her head, turns and walks toward the open suitcase.
          “All morning I’m over there bragging about you. Telling everybody how my husband is lined up to be the new voice of Big Pharma.”
          “Wait a minute,” Bodie says, getting to his feet. “You told them?”
          Deidre shrinks back somewhat and begins to fold clothes. “I might have said something,” she says.
          “Damn it, Deidre! You could have just jinxed the entire thing!”
          “Well if you were there,” she says, “you could have stopped me. But you weren’t. You were here with my cousin’s intended practically topless.”
          Bodie shakes his head, walks into the bathroom, closes the door and begins to run the shower. The water starts out the color of unpeeled potatoes and smells like a mouse that’s died behind a wall.
          Deidre blames both an excess of emotion and the tuna salad sandwich she made for Bodie but ate herself. Whatever the cause, it’s given her diarrhea that hit shortly after Bodie’s shower and has continued into early evening. Bodie drove into town and brought back a bottle of Pepto Bismol—twice the price he would have paid at home and three weeks short of its expiration date—but it doesn’t seem to be helping.
          “We’ll sit it out tonight,” he tells Deidre. “Stay in and watch TV.” 
          “We can’t ‘sit it out,’” she explains from behind the closed bathroom door. “It’s Family Night and one of us has to be there.”
          Bodie immediately envisions Ailina, Theo nowhere to be found, he himself unattached for the night.
          “If it’s that important to you,” he says, “I’ll drive over and make an appearance.”
          There’s silence, and then Deidre—after a thunderous, echoing rumble—says, “Okay, but just watch yourself.”

          It’s still light outside at eight o’clock when Bodie parks the car. Family Night includes a children’s talent show, followed by a communal dinner and he’s already half-an-hour late. Beach chairs—each one occupied—have been turned away from the water and now aim at the seawall which serves as a makeshift stage. Over the years, Bodie has watched kids read poetry, sing show tunes, and perform magic tricks. Right now, some pudgy, sunburned preadolescent is doing standup.
          Bodie stands behind his father-in-law’s zero gravity chair, a sea of backs between him and the stage. 
          “Where’s Deidre?” Frank asks, turning his neck as far as it will go.
          “Not feeling well.”
          “You didn’t do anything to her, did you?”
          “No, Frank. I didn’t do anything to her.”
          “Uncle Toby over there is a real hunter,” the boy on stage says. “Any animal that moves, he’ll shoot.”
          From the corner of his eye, Bodie sees Ailina walk to the bar and pour vodka into a clear plastic cup.
          “One time he asked Aunt Jess if she wanted to fool around, and she said, ‘I’m game,’ so he shot her.”
          The kid’s timing is terrible and the joke is ancient, but it still makes Bodie laugh.
          Ailina takes the long way back to her chair, and as the boy on stage takes a bow to a smattering of applause, she passes in front of Bodie, stops, and presses her lips quickly to his. There’s a hint of tongue, not much, but sometimes even a quarter-inch can take a man a great distance.  
          Ailina moves on as all the children climb onto the seawall for the show’s finale, a poorly rehearsed version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A few of The Rellies stand, including Deidre’s dad, who again turns his head to give Bodie a peripheral glance.
          “I suppose you’ll be heading back now,” he says.
          “I might stay for a glass of wine,” Bodie tells him.

          The Rellies pack into Birch, the largest of the cabins, where a Formica table is covered with open bottles of booze, red and white wine with the corks reinserted, and a sleeve of plastic cups. On the stove, a huge pot of something the color of elephant skin bubbles.
          “There’s beer in the fridge!” somebody yells. “Next to what looks like butter!”
          Bodie looks around for Ailina, doesn’t see her, pours himself a glass of stale chardonnay. He notices Theo elbowing through the crowd in a pink sports shirt with two mammoth underarm stains.
          “Dee-Dee told us the good news,” he says.  “Mister E.D. Mister Ed. They’re not gonna make you dress as a horse’s cock, are they?”
          The remark brings laughs from the men and most of the kids while the women feign embarrassment. Bodie feels them all moving in on him like he’s a pedestrian who’s passed out crossing the street.
          “Actually,” he says, “I turned it down.”
          Faces fall. The last thing these people want is any semblance of bad news. They’re here to be happy. That’s why they’ve driven all this way, why they’ve put their own pathetic lives on hold. 
          “I had to turn it down,” Bodie adds. “I just got offered my own series and like who has time?”
          “A series of what?” one of The Rellies asks.
          “A television series. NBC. Primetime. But don’t tell Deidre yet. I want to make it my own little surprise.”
          The Rellies start buzzing around like wasps in a garbage bag. Everyone’s smiling again, with the exception of Theo and Frank.
          “What’s it about?!” one of the old aunts shouts from the refrigerator.
          Bodie hasn’t thought this out, but he knows how to improv.
          “I play this ventriloquist. With a dummy. Except the dummy is really a dwarf and we solve crimes together.”
          “Genius,” he hears someone say.                                                      
          He’s out of there within twenty minutes, just before the gruel on the stove is ladled into bowls, just as darkness begins to fall. He’s still hoping to find Ailina somewhere, and he’s not disappointed when he sees her sitting on a hammock inside the screened porch attached to Loon.
          “Did you like show?” she asks.
          Bodie, standing at the foot of the wooden steps like some backwoods Romeo, tells her he especially loved the way it ended. The remark causes Ailina to smile, get up from the hammock, and step outside.
          “Want to take walk and feed bugs?” she asks.
          “Come with me,” Bodie says.
          He takes her by the hand out to where his car is parked, removes two packaged bug jackets from the back seat, and gives her one. Then he grabs her hand for the second time, and leads her away from the light of the cottages.

          A mile from Maple Lake, Bodie—dirty and insect-bitten despite the bug jacket—pulls over and invents a story.  It involves hearing this scrapping sound, parking on the side of the road, lying on his back and reaching underneath the car to remove a dragging tree limb. He even searches with a flashlight until he finds an actual branch, which he tosses into the backseat. It’s during this time that a dark-colored SUV roars by as if it’s on the way to Daytona.
          When Bodie gets to the Micmac around ten-thirty, he recognizes Frank’s black Dodge Caravan, parked in front. They’re both inside—his wife and her dad—sitting at the small round table holding cans of beer. Bodie smiles, but father and daughter remain as still as a snapshot. 
          “Feeling better?” he asks.
          “Congratulations on your new series,” Deidre says.
          “Oh,” Bodie says. “That.”
          “I never realized my husband found it necessary to lie in order to try and impress people who are totally willing to accept him as he is.”
          “Sorry,” Bodie says. “I flaked.”
          Deidre stands and grabs a plastic bag from the floor next to the bed.
          “Let’s go, Papa,” she says.
          “Wait,” Bodie says. “Go where?"
          “I’ll be staying with my family tonight,” Deidre says. 
          “You go,” Frank tells her. “I’ll be right out.” 
          Deidre leaves the unit, and in a second or two the Dodge Caravan’s passenger door slams shut. 
          “I may have also mentioned to her that you and the Russian gal were last seen making your way into the woods dressed in mesh suits.”
          “Thanks, Frank.”
          “Just so you know, Theo wasn’t that thrilled, either. I imagine by now he’s packed up the bride-to-be and started back to Syracuse.” 
          Frank rises and steps forward and although Bodie doesn’t consider himself violent, he pictures cutting the man’s throat and drinking the blood.
          “Do yourself a favor, boy,” Frank says. “Reposition your oars.”
          “What the hell does that mean?”
          “Call me when you get home. I know people in the upholstery business. You’re never too old to learn.”
          “I have a job,” Bodie says. “I’m an actor.”
          “Apparently,” Frank says as he picks up two unopened beers still in their plastic collars, “it’s not a job you’re all that good at.” 

          Bodie is in the car the following morning, three hours of sleep under his belt, the rest of the time spent going over what he plans to say.
          It seems pretty simple. He’ll drive to the cottages, admit everything, apologize to Deidre, beg her forgiveness. They’ll finish out the two weeks—he the lying adulterer, she the crucified innocent—all under the judgmental eye of The Rellies.  
          When Bodie’s phone chirps on the seat next to him, he pulls over.
          It’s Mat, his agent.
          “I don’t mean to bother you while you’re on vacation,” Mat says, “but I thought you might want this out of the way.”
          “The pharmaceutical thing?” Bodie says.
          “They decided to go more ethnic.’”
          Maybe Frank was on to something, Bodie thinks. A 9-to-5 life has its rewards and there’s always community theatre if…
          “I don’t know if you’re still interested,” Mat says, “but I also got a call about a film you read for last year. The California fire thing? They want to know if you’re available.”
          “I thought they were in turnaround.”
          “Different studio,” Mat says. “Thing is this. Your part was rewritten. It’s now U-5.”
          U-5, Bodie realizes, is acting parlance for a character with under five lines. One step above an extra.
          “When?” Bodie asks.
          “That’s the other thing. They’d want you out in L.A. for a read-thru in four days.”
          He hasn’t looked at a map yet, but Bodie figures it’s probably faster to drive past the Mass Pike and pick up I-80 West. 
          “Tell them yes,” he says.
          As he passes Maple Lake, Bodie can see The Rellies beginning to congregate. Someone is pushing an inflatable raft out onto the water, somebody else is hanging wash on a clothesline strung between two cabins. Deidre and her dad are in web chairs, side-by-side, facing the water and looking as if they’ve been there since long before the sun rose.
 

Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, published in 2015 by Whitepoint Press. More recent fiction has appeared in New Ohio Review, Eleven Eleven, 2 Bridges Review, Bird’s Thumb, and The MacGuffin. Z.Z. teaches creative writing at Western Connecticut State University.

ZZ Boone (1).jpg