Fall 2010, Volume 9

Fiction by Corie Adjmi

That's How It Was With Howie

Howie reached for the pack of Marlboros on his night table and lit up. He leaned back against the headboard, and exhaled. Smoke billowed in front of him. It was already ten, and he was due to pick up his daughter, Olivia, from his ex-wife’s apartment in Manhattan. He knew he should call to inform her he was running behind schedule, but he dreaded that. He envisioned his ex-wife, Lori, rolling her eyes. “You’re late,” she would say as if he didn’t know, “Olivia’s been waiting.”

Howie reminded himself he hadn’t intended to be late. He also hadn’t intended to be divorced. He never intended to drink too much or stay out too late either, and yet here he was on Saturday morning, sporting a tremendous hangover, alone.

Howie reached for the ashtray, and it slipped from his hand. He peered over the edge of the mattress to assess the damage like someone staring into a bottomless pit. Cigarette butts and ashes littered the floor. He blew, scattering the mess.

He couldn’t believe how Lori had ended up in Manhattan  and how he was left behind in New Jersey. Originally, when they conceived Olivia, Lori was the one who wanted to live in the suburbs, believing that children had a right to play outside in their own backyard. But at some point, she craved the energy of city life and couldn’t tolerate the solitude any longer. Howie knew it was really him she couldn’t tolerate, but he didn’t want to think about that. He took a drag. “Fuck her,” he said out loud.

He threw the covers back, got rid of the cigarette, and hauled himself to the shower. He stood under the water, letting it get hot, and watched his skin turn red. He stepped out of the shower, wrapped a towel around his waist, and cleared a spot on the mirror with his fist. He slicked his hair back using gel, brushed his teeth, and leaned in to take a good look. “You’re the asshole that was left,” he said, jabbing his finger at the mirror. He shook his head. “I’m talking to myself. I can’t believe I’m fuckin’ talking to myself.”

He walked to the window and stared at the hole in the ground. He’d intended to put a pool in, but it never got done. Howie was known to be a workaholic, and he rarely spent time at home. Lori was ruthless in her badgering. She said she didn’t mind if he didn’t want to be around all summer, but the least he could do was get the pool finished so she and Olivia could enjoy hot days together; and yet over two years had gone by. Lori expressed her dissatisfaction along the way, and watched, from the kitchen window, as workers slowly dug up the yard. She paid attention as the green grass disappeared and the black hole got bigger. Then, one day, nobody showed up for work and everything just stopped. Their backyard, dangerous and off-limits, was protected by yellow tape and a temporary chain-link fence.

The irony was that Howie was a builder; that’s what he did for a living. And he was good at it. He developed multiple properties simultaneously—some twenty stories high, some sprawling for acres. But he wouldn’t take care of the pool.

One night, while he lay in bed, Lori yelled at him. “It’s not the Empire State Building for Christ’s sake. What’s taking you so long?”

 All he wanted, he remembered, was to be left alone. And now, he was.

His eye caught the picture of Lori that sat on his dresser. He left it there because he hoped she’d be back, and up until that moment, he wanted her to know she was welcome. But now enraged, he hurled her picture into the garbage can. “I don’t need you.”

He put on a white Lacoste shirt, khaki pants, and navy Todd’s. He grabbed his car key, passed the kitchen, and did a double take not believing what he saw: dried eggs stuck on a skillet, and on more than one plate, an uneaten bagel, hardening, with cream cheese, and red wineglasses half full. On the stove sat a mountain of pots encased with tomato sauce from when he attempted to make pasta earlier in the week. Empty Campbell’s Soup cans and a heap of bowls he’d used for cereal lined the counter. He didn’t want his daughter to see this mess, but what could he do? He could hear Lori’s voice as if she was standing right there, and a vision of her flashed before him. “Fuck you,” he said, walking out to his car. “I’ll clean it when I’m good and ready.”

He revved the engine in his black Corvette and lit up. He wondered how it was that Lori always made him feel bad about himself. She had something to say about everything, even the car he drove. The night he brought it home, he was elated and couldn’t wait to show it to her, but he was embittered when she freaked and asked when he planned to grow up and act his age.

He turned the volume on the radio up high, and as if he and Lori were still discussing the car, he said, “I’ll drive what I fuckin’ want.” He glanced in the rearview mirror and peeled out of the driveway.

He stopped at Starbucks, and stood in line. Impatient, his head ached, and he needed coffee badly. He looked around. People sat alone, at round tables, and sipped coffee. Some read the newspaper, but others stared off into space seemingly content with lethargy. Maybe they were slow moving because it was Saturday, Howie thought, attempting to cut them some slack; but deep down he was certain laziness imbedded their souls, and it bothered him. Worse than that, he couldn’t imagine being in public alone. Didn’t they have friends? Howie had never been one of those people who could be alone. His BlackBerry served as a constant companion.

He dialed Lori to tell her he was on the way. He got the answering machine, and, relieved, left a message.

The cashier counted change from the register deliberately, and it was driving Howie crazy. “What’s the problem? This isn’t brain surgery.” At the sound of his voice, the woman in front of him turned around. Howie aimed his chin at the cashier and said, “This is the downfall of our country.” When he got to the front of the line he ordered black coffee. “The biggest you’ve got,” he said. He handed the cashier a five-dollar bill, and dying to get out of there, he said, “Keep the change.”


Outside, he rested his cup on the roof of his car and lit a cigarette. He reached for his cup and took a sip. “Ouch,” he said loud enough for a woman stepping out of her gold Lexus to hear. “Hot,” he said, hoping for sympathy, but she turned her head and kept walking.

He drove fast and got into the city in record time, but before he parked, feeling jittery, he smoked another cigarette. If he’d called Lori, she would’ve brought Olivia down, but Howie wanted to get Olivia himself so he could see their new apartment.

He knocked on the door, and from where he stood in the hallway he heard Olivia running to open it. “Daddy,” her voice tinkled. She jumped into his arms. Howie hadn’t realized how much he’d missed her.

Lori didn’t invite him in, but from the door he saw all he needed to see; blood-red roses bloomed in a crystal vase, the sun broke through clouds and now shined brilliantly through floor- to-ceiling windows, and coffee-table books were displayed and stacked in size order. In the corner, on the floor, there was a knapsack. And curiosity took hold.

“What’s that for?” Howie asked casually as if her answer didn’t matter.

“I’m going away for the weekend.”

“Where are you going?”


“Hiking?” Howie’s face reddened. He could feel the color like fire, traveling up his neck to his cheeks. The heat was overwhelming, but he tried to contain himself.

“Who are you going with?”

“A friend,” Lori said, in a way that begged him not to interrogate her further.

Howie felt his heart pound against his chest. Lori was moving on. She was now a woman who hiked. He also happened to know, because Olivia had slipped, that while Lori used to eat plain old scrambled eggs, she now shaved white truffles on top.

He thought about the Lori he knew, and how she used to get in bed at night, her feet colder than either one of them believed was possible, and how she’d slip them between his thighs. He’d arch his back as if in pain, and let out a playful scream, pretending that this was torture. But he treasured that he could provide for her in this way. He missed that.

The problem was he simply didn’t know what Lori wanted. If he had, he might have given it to her. Every time he thought he was doing things right, she made sure to tell him how he wasn’t. One night, they lay in bed in the dark, fighting, and discussing divorce. They’d just come home from a party where Howie had been flirting. Lori spent the night eyeing him, so furious, she’d forgotten to eat, and she was starving.

“Should I get you something?” Howie asked, rolling toward her.

Lori cringed and moved away. “I don’t understand. Just a second ago, you agreed that divorce was a great idea, and despite that decision, you want to get me something to eat at midnight?”

She was right, Howie thought. She didn’t understand that it was instinct for him to provide for her; protect her and Olivia. That came naturally. But she talked about him being present, and emotionally available, and he didn’t know what that meant. She said she wanted, no needed, intimacy, and he argued that if sticking his finger down her throat while she held onto the toilet with both hands after drinking too much at the Wilson’s party wasn’t intimate, he didn’t know what was.

Lori kneeled down and hugged Olivia. “I’ll miss you, Sweetpea.”

Howie noticed how Lori’s voice lilted, and he felt a pang of longing. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket.

“Oh, no. Not in here,” Lori said.

“Oh,” Howie retaliated, ready to explode. “I wouldn’t want to tarnish your precious paradise. Come on, Olivia. Let’s get out of here.”

With Olivia at his side, he exited the building. The sun shone brightly and he squinted, taking time to adjust to the light. Just weeks ago, he would’ve been playing golf. Now weekends were spent with his daughter.

He pulled her in close, kissed her head, and inhaled. She smelled like strawberry shampoo, and he thought there was no one more delicious in the world.

He threw her knapsack into the trunk and opened the passenger side door. “After you, Miss.”

“Thank you kindly,” Olivia said. She put her seat belt on and looked at him in the driver’s seat. “You smoked.”

“Me? Not me.”

“I smell it, Daddy.”

“Must’ve been somebody else.”

“Cut it out, Daddy.”

“Okay. You caught me.”

“You promised you’d quit.”

“I tried, sweetie.”

“You don’t try, Daddy. You just do it.”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

Howie intended to quit smoking. He’d tried numerous times, only to fail. But most recently he joined Smoke Stoppers, and he liked Dr. Frank Stern’s methods. “If you’re undecided, you’ll get nowhere,” Dr. Frank said. “In order to move forward in your life, you must find the courage to change. You’re not a victim. You have a choice.”

Every day for two months, Howie woke and faced himself in the mirror. He chanted:
       I hate cigarettes.
       I quit.
       I will never smoke again.

He liked the ritual and was beginning to believe in himself when Lori moved out, taking Olivia with her.

“Promise me you’ll stop, Daddy.”

“I promise, sweetie.”

They drove in silence and Howie glanced at her. She was dressed in pink, and he was overcome by how small she was. He remembered the day she was born, and how he loved her immediately. He recalled holding her in his arms, awed by her frailty, wanting to take care of her.

He stepped on the gas, and zoomed into the Holland Tunnel. Olivia slid down low in her seat. “It’s spooky in here. I hate it.”

“You don’t have any reason to be afraid.”

“Yes I do. What if it collapses?”

“It won’t collapse.”

“What if it floods?”

“It won’t flood.”

“What if we get trapped in here forever?”

“Olivia, stop it. Nothing bad is going to happen.” He turned on the radio, and the news announcer reported that a man in Monmouth County had been charged with sexually abusing children. He used his job as a handyman to gain access into homes where children lived. Howie didn’t want Olivia to hear. He shut the radio.

Olivia turned to him. “What was that about?”

“A bad man.”

“What did he do?”

 “He hurt children,” Howie said tentatively not sure how much to tell her. He wanted to change the subject. It was making him angry. He thought of the children, innocent victims, and wanted to kill the guy who’d harmed them. He wondered how a grown man could hurt a helpless child.

“Is he a daddy?”

“What makes you ask that?”

Olivia shrugged. “Just curious.”

The car in front of them came to a stop. Howie hit the brakes and simultaneously swung his arm across Olivia’s chest. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Look at this traffic. Must’ve been an accident.”


“Yes, sweetheart.”

“I have to pee.”

“Didn’t you go before you left?”

“I forgot to.”

“Well,” Howie said, “you’re going have to wait.”

“I can’t. I really have to go.”

 “Olivia, stop it. There’s nothing I can do.”

Tears welled in the corners of her eyes. “I’m gonna pee.”

“Don’t you dare pee on my new seats.”

“You only care about your car. You don’t care about me.”

“That’s ridiculous. Of course I care about you. Just because I don’t want you to pee on my seats doesn’t mean I don’t care about you.”

“Help, Daddy, really. I can’t hold it in. I’m going to explode.”

Howie looked around. He couldn’t pull over. He couldn’t move forward. He was stuck. He took a deep breath. “Olivia, you’re a big girl.”

She braced her hands on the dashboard, grasped the handle on the door, smacked at the roof, clinging to whatever she could find. “Daddy, do something.”

They inched forward. “Here.” Howie said, handing her his empty coffee cup. “Pee in this.”

“What? No.”

“I won’t look.”

“I can’t do it.”

“You can, sweetie. I’ll help you.”

Olivia took off her seat belt and then squatted. With one finger she pulled her panties to the side, and together they held the cup.

“Is it in the right place?”

“I don’t know,” Olivia cried.

Howie adjusted the cup, but Olivia moved it back. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to help.”

 “I can’t do this.” She pushed the cup away and sat down.

 “Look, we’re moving,” Howie said.

They came up behind the car that was stuck because of a flat tire. Hazard lights flickered on and off.

“Here’s the problem,” Howie said as he drove around the car and picked up speed. “It’s behind us now.”

Howie pulled into a gas station, and Olivia ran to the bathroom. He stood outside the restroom and waited for her. He filled his car with gas and bought her a pack of gum. Smiling, they both got back into the car. Howie stepped on the accelerator heading south on the New Jersey Turnpike. When he reached 90 mph, he whipped out a cigarette and lit it. He inhaled deeply.

Olivia turned to him. “What are you doing?”

“I’m smoking.”

“But you promised.”

“Listen you, it’s been a rough morning.” Howie exhaled and reassured himself that there was nothing more he could do.


BIO:  Corie Adjmi was raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and received his undergraduate degree from NYU. He attended graduate school at the Bank Street College for Teachers, and his graduate school thesis was titled "Family Folklore and the Role of Storytelling: The Study of a Family and the Syrian Jewish Community in Brooklyn." He was accepted to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference for the summer of 2001, attended the Zoetrope Short Story Writers' Workshop in Belize during the summer of 2003, and has worked with Tom Jenks on several occasions since February 2004. He worked with Amy Bloom at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in 2005, and has been an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine (2007-08). Presently, He works as an environmental consultant for an apparel company.

His work has been published in Crucible, The Distillery, Indiana Review, Licking River Review, The North American Review, Out Of Line, Pangolin Papers, RE:AL, Red Rock Review, Red Wheelbarrow, RiverSedge, South Dakota Review, and Whetstone. His story, "The Devil Makes Three," received the 2004 first place prize for excellence in prose by Whetstone.