Spring 2019, Volume 26

Fiction by Jim Powell

Sex Addict

Amid the confusion of hungry mourners who’d invaded her father’s house, Liz watched her husband Ben help the pretty girl gather a plate of finger sandwiches, salads, and chips. If a funeral didn’t stop him, what would? Take some shrimp, too, Ben urged, his words clear to Liz even across the room. What was her name, daughter of her sister-in-law Charlene’s second husband? Jenna. Liz had stopped by her college graduation party a year ago.

Ben held the girl’s arm directing her to the split-level living room, one of his fantastic stories no doubt spinning. Liz turned away into the jalousied porch, wishing a deer might grace the backyard, her father’s spirit somehow returning to check up on her. At the end of summers, deer habitually gleaned the garden’s leftovers. They’d been raiding the property so long her father claimed they’d lost all fear.

No fear either among the family as they traded stories about her dad and congratulated one another on recent successes. Even Ben’s gay brother and cynical sister received approval though they had stayed in Georgia. Their mother Margaret had flown up to brag on her brood, treating Ben like he was still an Eagle Scout. Liz’s mother-in-law had the solid build of a wrestler and the southern accent of a belle. She was updating a second cousin on Ben’s flying career—Navy Top Gun, United, now private jets for his boss, a big shot tech inventor, as if the boss’s genius attached to Ben. She failed to mention Ben’s exciting run-ins with jealous husbands, angry fathers, and the occasional pimp. Her mother-in-law knew all about Ben’s addiction and that Liz balanced its costs in the household’s ledger. What other wife calmly budgeted for STD tests? At least with Margaret around, Liz needn’t be the one to defend him though his problem was such old news that was rarely needed.

Margaret seemed also interested in items of greater value. She casually asked Liz what a mid-century modern house on three wooded acres in gated Dune Acres on the Lake Michigan shore was worth these days.

Liz sighed. “Oh, we’ll worry about that later, Margaret.” For now, she intended to hold onto her dad’s house. No need for Margaret to know the property was worth at least a million, though Ben must realize its value.  

Like the estate, the family had become complicated, her brother Mark dead ten years now and her sister Lynette so uninterested she hadn’t even flown in for the funeral from the yoga retreat she owned in Bali. And with her father buried, this house now emptied of its real life. Her prayers that her nuclear family find peace—their two boys civil if not loving, and Ben satisfied sexually with Liz—had gone unanswered. He was an addict. It was a sickness. He deserved forgiveness, but she found little left to give.   

But Margaret, widening her smile, would provide plenty. “Oh, goodie, Ben does so love this place.”

In the kitchen Liz circled the table, pretending to want more. She glanced into the living room where Ben’s chatter held Jenna rapt. Liz imagined the girl’s thighs warming, her mind losing logic. She’d been there herself, all those years ago. He knew how to pick ’em.

Charmer. Sweet-talker. Thief of hearts. Ben played the attractive older man like a pro—attentive to women, well-heeled, welcome anywhere. Her senior year, over her dad’s warnings, Liz fell hard for the handsome and well-liked pilot-in-training. And, true, the sex was great and lots of it. Even as Ben’s problem showed, her father encouraged her to stick with the marriage. Forgiveness was divine and Ben became her father’s favorite through his cheerful help with the house and garden and with steadying Liz. She’d made it for twenty-five years and their second son just graduated college with honors. She hoped her father wasn’t watching from heaven as Ben patted the young woman’s knee.

Even for Ben the seduction seemed bold. The girl’s giggles supplanted what would more aptly be screams. Liz cringed. He knew no restraints. With their boys out of the house, divorcing him became plausible. But he’d chosen her well. On the day she buried her father, how could she imagine herself also without Ben?

Someone nudged up beside her and Liz smelled her sister-in-law Charlene’s perfume, too sweet for her matronly body. Since Liz’s big brother Mark had died—quick T-cell leukemia—Charlene had gone to pot, the cooking pot that is. Somehow she’d attracted a new husband before getting so big, and now the little man stood beside her, his head bobbing. Both looked stern and Charlene glanced to the living room as if to ask, what is going on with your husband and my stepdaughter? Liz had heard that the girl was no angel herself.

But most of the family accepted the reality of Ben’s problem as disease, not promiscuity. On such a large extended quilt, many squares bore red letters for a host of sins. As bad to have a drunkard falling over tables. Liz smiled grimly at Charlene—please understand—but earned only a twisted smile in return. Liz packed a plate with desserts and floated toward the living room. If Charlene wanted the dalliance broken up, she’d have to do it herself.

Liz stopped on the last step and Ben’s hand rose from Jenna’s knee in a subtle wave and the girl blushed. He gave her knee a father-like pat and stood. She saw his erection soften as he rose. His peck to Liz’s cheek implied more sister than wife, though the one benefit of his lust was her own well-maintained body—in as good shape as this twenty-something’s. He seemed still to desire her, but had he contemplated divorce himself?

They shared sweets by the fireplace, Ben even feeding Liz a miniature creampuff. Suggestively? She led him back to the kitchen but could not help glancing back. Jenna was talking to others but her scouting eyes meant the connection remained unsevered.

Liz gathered more desserts for the porch and set the plate on a table in front of Margaret. Ben sank into the cushiony couch beside his mother. To two female cousins Margaret announced, “And here is Liz, even on this sad day caring for us. And, in the flesh, my boy Ben.”

Years ago, Margaret seemed shocked when her baby boy was revealed to be an addict. She declared Liz a saint for sticking to the marriage vows. But she never ceased the enabling praise, elevating her offspring to a virile god. The woman was as addicted to bragging as Ben was to sex. “Tell them about Iraq.” Ben had flown in the first Gulf War.

Ben gave Liz’s hand a squeeze, small penance paid. Liz wondered at the connection of mother and son and its effect on Ben’s condition. Margaret fed his narcissism. Ben began every quest for self with much to prove. Sex, both seduction and act, became compulsive, disordered. Even as he talked about airstrikes, hardened bunkers, a fallen comrade, his tales seemed ritualistic, his excitement practiced. But Liz was no longer addicted. Having delivered him from Jenna, she’d done enough today to preserve their marriage. Had they all forgotten what the day meant for her?

Liz left the glassed porch by the stairs to the yard. Neither Ben nor Margaret acknowledged her departure. When mother and son were together, Liz went unnoticed. She surveyed the garden, abandoned for the several weeks she’d tended to her father’s final illness. The deer had been here all right, and rabbits too. Who knew what other creatures foraged in a drought year? The tomato plants were rumpled, the squash leaves gnawed, the beans picked clean. She felt herself untended and used. She’d stuck by Ben through counseling, his weeks in rehab facilities, group meetings with other spouses, all intended to break any chain of codependency. Had her attraction to his god-image and his flattering interest somehow served her own needs? More likely—and she had thought about this a lot—her good-daughterliness, her wish to please, some desire for attention, even if scandalous, drove her. But she’d survived.

A muggy breeze blew in from the lake and something stirred in the woods. She shook her head at the wasted garden—let the scavengers come—and went back inside. Sister-in-law Charlene had replaced Ben on the porch, laughing with Margaret. These two surely must be bored by funeral duty by now. What new topics had they taken up—Ben’s seduction of Charlene’s stepdaughter? Surely she’d warned the girl off. But where were the lovebirds now?

Before Liz could go inside to search, Margaret waved her over. “I’m so glad you aren’t planning to sell this wonderful house. You know how much Ben loves it.”

Charlene ahemed and Liz caught her look. “As does everyone. Maybe the family will keep it for vacations?” They must have been discussing the will.

Her father’s house sat only three hundred yards from the Lake Michigan beach. A golf-cart path cut through the woods onto the rolling dunes. It wasn’t the house she’d grown up in. Her father was hardly sentimental and the minute he could afford it—kids out of college—had moved from Hammond over her mother’s qualms into this extravagance. Ben had helped with the search. Now all of them associated the property with the vacation lifestyle her dad embraced when he retired, more so after her mother died. He’d thrived on his new leisure as much as he had his work.

“Oh, Charlene, we can’t be making those decisions right now.”

No kidding, Liz thought. Not you, dear mother-in-law, or you, sister-in-law, merely the wife of my long-dead brother, remarried to that little man whose name everyone forgets, who makes big money as a tax attorney. What do you care? My father’s house should be mine.

 “Uncle Terrance is the executor,” Liz informed them. Her dad’s responsible brother. “He’ll help us sort everything out before probate.” It occurred to Liz that Charlene might be due for a third of the estate, Mark’s third. Would she have to share this house with Charlene and what’s-his-name … and Jenna? Might Margaret become a permanent summer guest?

Charlene and Margaret dithered, their greed showing. Liz felt some plot afoot to take her world from her. In the kitchen the crowd thinned and the living room showed no sign of Ben or Jenna. Liz’s sons, James and Kyle, sat in a corner exhausted. All afternoon they’d greeted family friends outside and toted food in. Let us represent, they said, meaning, you watch dad and deal with the relatives. They’d never been their father’s keepers—Liz’s tough love insisted on their escape from Ben’s condition. But in many ways, Ben’s addiction had replaced—stolen—her own life.

She checked the garage and killed time straightening the kitchen. She’d bought too much food and questioned the etiquette of sending home care packages from a wake. The booze had taken a substantial hit, especially the good wine. Still, when they got around to culling her father’s artifacts, there’d be liquor to help her through. She anticipated the need to escape. She set out clean glasses and headed down the hall toward the bedrooms. If, in her father’s house, on the day of his funeral, with his mother, not to mention his children and his wife so close at hand, he’d brought the girl, nearly a relative, back here … well, no court would convict her.

Liz entered the nearest bedroom, the one she’d used while caring for her father. Sun created shadows through drawn curtains. Arranged on a chest of drawers, photos of herself and her siblings seemed glyphs of another life. As children they’d played in the small fenced yard of the city house. Fortunate thanks to her father, secure under her mother’s eyes. But heading for what futures? Mark’s early death, Lynette’s distance. Her own hopes rocked by Ben’s compulsion. Liz looked at the bed. How many times had they had sex there, made love. If she fell asleep, would anyone come looking for her in this room, in this house she could hardly call her own?

She sat on the bed. Tears came and she tightened her eyes. She heard a clatter against the wall. And little sputters, words muted into coughs. The bastard was fucking the little bitch, up against the wall or pressed onto the headboard. It sounded like a muffled fight for domination, the way he liked it when driven, as if one more thrust of hip, one more clamp of hand, another desperate moan, would set him free. She dizzied and prayed for his release. When the sounds ceased, Liz imagined Ben’s grin, Jenna’s sigh, and wanted to be outside, to join the deer, to forage in the garden’s detritus.

She waited ten minutes after the adjacent door clicked closed then reapplied make-up. She would reappear, as her normal self.


Margaret still regaled Charlene—the little husband settled beside her—and a flushed Jenna who squinted in the slanting sun. Liz could easily lower the blinds on the west side, but she enjoyed the sun’s glare as a weapon. She would not play victim.

Ben remained absent, probably outside the garage sneaking a cigarette. Sex energized rather than sapped him—the rush lasted hours. At home, finished with Liz, he’d bolt to his man-cave, spin the fancy globe she’d bought him, search exotic destinations, his close-to-home world never enough. Even released, he could not escape his compulsion. Did her patience enable him?

She nodded past family and friends that weren’t really hers and went to the garden. She looked over a patch she’d turned back to earth last week as her father declined. Sore muscles, sweat, and distraction. Liz inhaled a mix of sandy soil and musty lake. She imagined the water, a horizon that seemed vast. Her legs wobbled. They hadn’t become boat people though docks were nearby. Her father preferred to fish from the community pier, catching peace. She’d sometimes joined him. Or perhaps now she’d dive beneath the surface to find renewal.

Dry brush rustled and Liz saw two deer, a doe and fawn, staring at her from the woods. Nothing leafy remained to pick in their yard. The deer looked miserable, huge eyes unblinking. It had been a hard year on them, too. She bent down and yanked a fruitless pepper plant from the ground, held out its roots toward them.

Both deer twitched then bolted in a flash of brown. How did they move so fast in the thicket? She wanted to run after them, through the dark grove to the beach.

“Were those the deer?” Margaret, snuck up behind her, asked. “Worthless plot. Did they do that?” The brown earth suddenly reminded Liz of her father’s grave. “In Georgia, we’d use raised beds, and wire around them would be smart.” She smiled and tapped Liz’s elbow. “Someone needs to be here to keep it up. Who’s got the greenest thumb?” They both knew that only Mark had inherited her father’s true interest in gardening. But Ben often bragged he loved planting, too, more than the cultivation or harvest.

Charlene plodded down the porch steps as Jenna stood in the doorway, framed by glassy sunbursts as if she were on fire. “Why, Liz, people are leaving,” Charlene said as she neared. She looked aghast at the wasted plants. “My God, how’d you let this bed go to pot? I’m glad Mark isn’t here to see this mess.”

“Now, Charlene,” Margaret said, “Liz isn’t to blame. She was here to take care of her dad, not the garden.” Even her solicitude condescended. “Ben would clean it up, if he moved in here.” Her eyes swept the yard. Ben claimed to love the house and certainly loved the lake. Thank God Margaret would have no say in dividing the estate.

 “Well, I can’t stand to look at it.” Charlene backed away so quickly Liz thought she might trip on the uphill slope. “Liz, I’m sorry, but we have to go.” Though Char managed not to stumble, Liz saw Jenna tense on the stairs as Ben appeared behind her shoulder. “When’s the probate? We’ll all getting together again then, I suppose?” Would she drag the girl along to the hearing?

Charlene heaved across the yard and up the steps. Next to Margaret Liz felt unsteady, unprepared for whatever might come next. Jenna moved away from Ben, waved a weak goodbye to all, with a guilty look at Liz. Ben kept smiling.

Margaret said, “Liz, you need to go in and say goodbyes. Don’t leave that to Ben and the boys.”

Liz stiffened. “I’ll be coming along, Margaret. I need another minute alone.”

Her mother-in-law’s gaze seemed wicked with pity before she marched uphill and through the porch door.

Liz turned to the woods. Nothing moved. No cool wind from the west, no scent of chlorophyll from the lake. She wished her father would appear to tell her how to reclaim her life. The garden held only brown plants, dry earth. She knelt and raked the hard soil with her nails. She looked back up to the house, taken over by so many strangers it might as well be empty.




BIO: Jim Powell holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and recently retired from teaching creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI). He founded the non-profit Writers’ Center of Indianapolis (now the Indiana Writers Center) and served as its director from 1979-99. His fiction has recently been published in Bartleby Snopes, Crack the Spine, Flying Island, Storyscape, and Fiction Southeast..