Threes 

by Christina Dalcher

There were five of them, five bottles of beer on the fridge shelf just behind the orange juice. Five. I know, because I bought a six-pack and drank one, and I can still do math. Janie kissed me in the morning, said I tied one on and forgot.

“There were five,” I said over coffee. “Five.”

Little Emma, our youngest, held up a pudgy hand and spread the middle fingers to make a W. “Three!” It was her first and only word.

“That’s right, honey,” I said, pulling her pinky and thumb up to meet the others. “There are three now. But there were five last night.”

She wrinkled her nose and put her hand down. “Three.”

We all—stupidly—laughed.

*

Work was work, same old-same old, at least until Bud stormed into my office while I was shrugging on my overcoat and getting ready to leave for my five-o’clock with our top client.

“Where the hell were you, Jack?” Normally Bud was fine, good guy, easy to work for. He didn’t sound good or easy right now.

I hesitated long enough to miss my beat.

“They waited a fucking hour for you. An hour, Jack. You don’t answer your phone when a man calls?”

I held out my phone. “No messages, no texts.”

Bud shook his head. “No job.”

That was Monday, the day the beer went missing, my phone number changed to 333-3333, a client meeting got pushed up by a couple hours, and I watched my train leave from a platform I wasn’t on.
It was a shit day, but I’d soon think of Monday as the best day of my week.

*

Janie sat hunched over the checkbook and her laptop when I finally made it home, eyes crossed and forehead creased. “What happened to the money, Jack?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “It’s gone. All of it.”

I checked over her shoulder. Janie was wrong. The ten thousand we had in our account wasn’t gone.

The statement showed we had three dollars left. “Three,” I said.

Little Emma echoed me, her hand high in the air, her pinky and thumb held down so the middle fingers made a W. “Three!”

This time, none of us laughed.

*

A man does what he needs to do. He mans up, he pounds the pavement in the city and scours the job boards in the ether. He calls his old college mates and leaves pathetic, incoherent messages. And then, when he’s pounded and scoured and begged everyone he knows, he waits.

While he’s waiting, he counts.

Three eggs instead of the half-dozen in the fridge. Three chairs around the kitchen table. Three sets of plates and silverware in the drawer.

At dinner on Tuesday, I watched my wife and my girls. Janie stared down at her plate. Sarah and Melanie talked about boys and grades and dances, wondering how they would find money for new school clothes. Only Emma looked happy, bouncing in her booster seat, arranging pieces of food in perfect little piles: three peas, three bites of meatloaf, three carrot sticks.

“Enough,” I said, and added more to her plate. I turned my back for a minute, no—a second, and when I turned again, there were three of everything.

Emma cocked her head, and I saw her eyes move from me to Janie to her sisters. Her lips moved while she counted.

*

I called in a favor and took out a loan to cover Sarah and Melanie’s burials. Even then, things got fucked up. The bill came back for three caskets instead of two, and the obituary notice went out with the wrong time for the service. Emma sat between Janie and me in the front row of the empty chapel, her head resting on the swell of my wife’s stomach. Three curlicues of blonde fell in fat loops over the black material, less like threes and more like sixes. When Emma laughed during the eulogies, I wanted to tug them taut, pull them out by the roots. My hand crept to the right, fingers stretched and tense, but when Emma stared up with wide eyes, I let that hand go limp.

*

On Saturday night at dinner, the three of us sat around food long grown cold. Little Emma bounced and giggled in her chair.

“Three,” she whispered, looking from me to Janie to the growing bump under my wife’s apron. “Three.”

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