Darla’s eyes shot open at the muffled shattering of glass and found themselves locked on the still-silent alarm clock at her bedside. 5:26 am. A bit early for a Monday. The unorthodox wake-up call should have been more upsetting, but she knew it wasn’t from some psycho sadist trying to get in through the window to have his way with her. Darla Morris knew what had prompted this staring contest that, thanks to her heavy eyelids, she was currently losing with the worn face of the ticking clock. Emmett Morris had found his way into the kitchen cabinet for a coffee mug. Whether coffee was the hangover cure that Emmett—or Em as he preferred—considered it to be was a mystery to his wife Darla. It had been 19 years since she’d had a glass of champagne at their wedding reception, though Em took it upon himself to see that the bottle didn’t go to waste. Regardless, this was not the first coffee mug to fall victim to his stumbling feet and shaky fingers. A few minutes later, the bitter scent of Em’s hangover cure rambled through the halls.

Darla had been there before, trying to will herself out of bed and into the haze of Pall Malls currently roosting in her kitchen with her husband. She always found some relief he was home safe, but would be lying if she said she didn’t feel a tinge of disappointment. Fact was, aside from the weight of worrying where he was, mornings without Em were just easier. She’d learned to manage that stress because he always found his way home, in varying degrees of sobriety. In the early days of Em’s drinking, he would stumble in at the crack of dawn to Darla shaking with uncertainty. She’d hug his neck, he’d throw some seemingly genuine remorse her way, and all was well. But the drinking got worse, and with it, his homecoming grew more hostile. They would yell, often in hushed tones so as not to wake their son Frankie, Em making excuses and Darla rejecting them with fury. As the years went on, they both grew tired of the fighting, and for better or worse, they stopped putting in the effort. They settled into a disturbing familiarity with Em’s habit. He’d barrel in the door, sandy blonde hair haggard and matted, cigarette hanging from his mouth, stale stench of bourbon on his breath, and she would go about her day making Frankie’s breakfast, pressing his clothes, maybe tune the radio to a Motown station. Her mother-in-law called this “enabling.” Darla called it “surviving.” It was exhausting. She and 50 felt far closer than the decade between them, and she often found herself musing that her stress would kill her long before Em’s drinking got him.

After 15 minutes of listening to Em clunk around the kitchen with the subtlety of a toddler on roller skates, Darla pried herself from the sheets, slipped into a timeworn robe, and trudged down the hall to the kitchen. The glass from her morning alarm was kicked into a vague pile. Em was glaring out the window, cigarette in one hand, a half-eaten and scorched piece of toast in the other. Darla got the broom from the pantry and began sweeping the remnants of the mug.

“Stop. I’m going to get it,” Em slurred, bits of toast flying past his lips.

“It’s fine. Just get something on your belly, and please turn the stove off,” Darla replied as she noticed that Em had once again left the front burner going on the stove. He often used it to light his cigarettes, and on more than one occasion left it on all night. Em reached over and turned the switch.

“Damn thing is faulty,” he claimed. Em had put some harsh stuff in his body over the years. Blame wasn’t one of them.

“Maybe so. Need me to press a work shirt for you?”

“I ain’t got work today. It’s Saturday. Station is closed.”

“Em, honey, it’s Monday.” She tried to mask her thin patience.

“Darla, sweetie,” he groaned condescendingly. She rolled her eyes as she filled the dust pan. “I was at Bill’s last night after work. Poor bastard is having problems with his old lady again. Stayed there, woke this morning and hurried home so you could start in on me.” A sense of déjà vu hit Darla, one she could gladly do without.

“Em, you ain’t been home since Friday before work.” He stared at her glass-eyed for a moment. Darla reciprocated expressionlessly before crouching for the dust pan and dumping it in the trash. The clatter of the mug broke the uncomfortable silence to which the Morrises had grown accustomed.

“Well…did you miss me?” Em chuckled with grating self-amusement as he popped the rest of the toast in his mouth and made his way into the living room. Upon his departure, Darla took his place at the sink, listlessly looking out the window. She watched as a blackbird rummaged its beak around the soil in search of a grubby breakfast. Darla, however, didn’t have much of an appetite. She poured a cup of coffee and headed back to her bedroom to get dressed, glancing down the hall at Em, head back, upright on the couch. She closed the door with a sigh.

It seemed foolhardy to wonder where Em got to on these weekends, and there had been plenty. He usually claimed he was at Bill’s, though sometimes he would say he stayed late after his shift at Big George’s Auto, playing poker with the boys until the early hours of the morning before deciding—responsibly, he liked to add—that he would get some sleep in his office so he wasn’t a danger on the road. That sounded just dandy, except he wouldn’t come home for days at a time, and when he was home, he had a bottle of bourbon doing time in his hand before serving its sentence in his gut. If Darla hadn’t heard the same story so many times, she’d be prone to believing him. Em may have been a drunk, but he was a grade-A smooth talker. She supposed that was part of the reason 16-year old Darla Kiser had fallen head over heels for Em when he would come down the twisting dirt road to her parents’ ragged farmhouse many moons ago. Those had been good years, distant as they were.

Darla felt the weight of those years with each passing day. Looking in the mirror over her vanity, she spied more than a few grays peeking through her chestnut curls and took notice at the developing lines on her pale complexion. A youthful glow had never escaped her, despite the many times it could have headed for the hills. Throwing on the khakis she wore the day before and a faded gray blouse, she heard a bump through the conjoining wall. Frankie was up. She offered a “good morning” through his door as she passed, and he reciprocated with a well-meaning “sure.”

Em snored dully from the couch as Darla opened the curtain, sunlight ribboning across the living room. He didn’t stir, and she was thankful. Her son was unfortunately well-versed in his dad’s behavior, and while Frankie was a sharp, patient young man, his teenage spirit didn’t mix well with Em on a kick. He had her looks, but his father’s mouth. In the kitchen, she turned the dial on the worn out FM radio next to the stove to the sounds of “Hello Walls” by Willie Nelson and cracked a couple of eggs into a butter-drenched pan. Frankie entered a few minutes later, shooting a quick look at his sleeping father. “You going to get him up?” he asked, tossing his hair from his eyes.

“I reckon I should. I’ll wait ‘til you head out to school.”

“Yeah, that’d be good,” he murmured as he sat his bag down in the floor.

“How’s Annie?” Darla asked, hoping to illicit a conversation with the moody boy. Wasn’t always easy, but she made the effort.

“She’s cool. We’re actually supposed to go see ‘Jaws’ after school with Albert and Donna,” he replied excitedly. The change in his demeanor was a welcome sight to his mom.

“The shark movie? Lord, y’all have at it. Looks too violent.”

“I’m sure it’s no ‘Dr. Zhivago’ if that’s what you mean,” Frankie toyed, donning a not-terrible posh British accent. Darla snickered as she heaped the eggs on the plate. Placing them in front of Frankie, she joined him at the table.

“Thanks, Mom,” he mumbled with a forkful already in his mouth. “You think I could stay at Albert’s tonight after the movie?” The question didn’t surprise her. Frankie had been spending more and more time away from the house. She knew it was the nature of him growing up, but suspected that Em’s habits had much to do with it. She could understand that, and even though the prospect hurt her, she rarely said no.

“I suppose that’d be fine. As long as you are actually with Albert and not Annie.”

Frankie laughed heartily, proudly displaying the bits of egg in his mouth. “Don’t know how that would fly with Annie’s old man. He’s a mean SOB. Ain’t lightin’ that firecracker.”

“No breakfast for me?” Em’s uncouth bellow erupted as he stood and stretched from the couch. He slogged into the kitchen, lazy eyes aimed at his son’s vanishing breakfast.

“You had toast. Thought you were ok. I’ll get you some eggs go—“

“Aw, hell…don’t worry about it now. God forbid I get a proper breakfast,” Em growled.

“Maybe if Mom knew you would be here for breakfast she would have something ready for you, too,” Frankie chimed in, head down bashfully at his empty plate. His dad ogled him with a look of disgust.

“Shut the hell up and mind your business before I mind it for you,” Em hurled the fiery words at his son. Darla glared at her husband with firm disdain. Em threw his hands up dramatically. “I’ll just get out of y’all’s hair. That suit everyone? Head down to George’s. Them eggs didn’t pay for themselves, you know!”

Darla sighed as Em turned to leave. “Don’t you think you out to clean up and change first? You’re still in Friday’s clothes.”

Em pivoted shakily and scoffed, releasing a still noticeable scent of bourbon in the air. “Ain’t nobody at that station going to give a damn what I’m wearing. I ain’t hocking perfume at Sears.” With that, Emmett Morris, voted Most Popular and Most Likely to Succeed some 24 years before at Mason Valley High, lurched back out the door he’d entered not an hour prior. Silence returned to their home, broken only by the slamming of a car door and the screech of the tires on Em’s ‘67 Impala. Frankie, shaking his head, stood up from the table, offering a consoling hand to his mother’s shoulder as he grabbed his bag. With that, he quietly headed out for the short walk to Mason Valley High, where he was unlikely to win any superlatives, but everyone knew his drunk old man behind the counter at Big George’s Auto. Darla placed Frankie’s plate into the sink, and again found her eyes fixating out the window at the blossoming morning. The blackbird perked its head and flew away.


The tension of the morning’s events hung in the air as Darla did her daily chores. She was good friends with the discomfort Em’s drinking conjured. They lived with it, an unwanted house guest who had long wore out its welcome. It had been this way for over a decade now. The first few years of Frankie’s life had been good ones, with most of the Morris’ fonder memories being yielded from that harvest. Em had always drank, but seemed to have dominion over it in those days. Since then, the charming and surprisingly witty Emmett Morris would occasionally stick around for a few fleeting days, maybe even weeks, but a Jekyll/Hyde-like transformation always occurred, leaving behind a bleary-eyed, clumsy, and hateful creature.

Darla put the last of the freshly washed linens away, and needing a break, wandered out to the back patio, welcomed by a brisk-for-May breeze. The rustle of anxious squirrels thieving fallen birdseed ambled through the yard as Darla eyed the lush bouquet of flowers she had spent many afternoons laboring over in her garden, briefly free from the turmoil of her husband. Taking a seat on the slate bench, she tried to offer her mind some relief from Em’s outburst. A song from a nearby whippoorwill found her as she closed her eyes, relaxation making an honest—though vain—attempt at settling in. The moment proved brief as she was startled by the jangling of the thrift store rotary phone beckoning her from the den. A groan not unlike one Frankie might throw her way in all his teen angst left her as she went inside to indulge the caller.

“Hello?” Darla greeted with forced civility.

“Darla, it’s Maggie,” the ragged, always-alarmed voice of her neighbor said. Darla could have guessed as much. More often than not, the other line was occupied by Maggie Wilcox, self-appointed guardian of Wilmer Lane. Maggie had called her at least every other day since Darla first waddled in the front door, belly full of baby Frankie.

“Good morning. Everything alright?” Darla asked, trying to mask irritation.

“You tell me. I saw Em leaving all red-faced and flustered earlier. Looked like Hell.”

“Nothing we ain’t dealt with before,” Darla assured. Maggie harrumphed on the other line. Darla could never tell if Maggie wanted bad news when she made these calls.

“Now Darla sweetie, you can tell dear old Maggie anything. He ain’t hitting you is he?” Maggie asked with an apparent morbid excitement in her tone.

“Lord, no. Em knows better than that.” Truth was in his younger days, he had taken a few swings at Darla, and she had swung right back, but these days he preferred the time-tested storm-out-and-stay-gone approach. Darla wasn’t sure which she preferred. “You know how Em gets, Mag. He’s all bark.”

“Yeah, but he barks with the best of them. I can hear him plum over here some days.”

“Well, Frankie is getting older. He has a problem keeping his thoughts to himself.”

“Good! Someone should say something to him. You let too much go. Yell. Use your big girl voice. Fire with fire.” Maggie herself was barking a bit now. Darla rolled her eyes at the suggestion. “That’s what I used to do with Howard. He’d get mouthy, I’d give him a piece of my mind and then some.” Darla could picture Maggie wagging a wrinkled finger in the face of the late Reverend Howard Wilcox now, all five foot two of him.

“I’ll keep that in mind, Maggie. I hate to rush—“

“I know, I know. Don’t hesitate to call me if something happens!” Darla clanked the handset down on the base muttering “You’d love that.” Maggie’s five years as a widow had only fine-tuned her tuition and sharpened her mind, it would seem. Everyone knew her late husband Howard as a tender-hearted, soft-spoken, but well-read man. He and Em had been unlikely friends, though his influence had no perceivable effect on Em’s drinking. The good Reverend had tried to sway him into a “more righteous path,” but Em had no use for church, though that did little to stifle Howard’s efforts. The last service Em attended had been Howard’s funeral for which—to his credit—he managed to stay sober.

Hands stinging under the water from the kitchen faucet, Darla scrubbed dishes. The FM radio was in active duty, though it played like white noise on her distracted mind. Her thoughts were on Maggie, who Darla saw was currently peeking through the blinds in search of something to occupy her prying eyes. She felt a swell of pity in her throat. Perhaps all the snooping and gossip were just a means to overcome the inherent loneliness she must feel. Howard and Maggie blissfully shared nearly 40 years of marriage before a heart attack in his sleep brought him home to his maker, still clutching Maggie’s hand when she woke. Darla was sure Maggie must have rarely had to fight “fire with fire” as she had advised, a tactic that had borne no fruit with Em.

A stronger, certainly a shrewder person may have left long ago, but truthfully, Darla loved Em. She rationalized his ways by assuring herself that just because he did bad things didn’t mean he was a bad person. Em was a dream when sober. She longed for his charm, teetered just on the brink of arrogance, his dry and spirited sarcasm, and more than anything, his companionship. When Frankie was younger, she often felt like a single parent, seeing that all his needs were met, hauling him to baseball practice, helping him study. These days her son was much more independent, and she did not prefer the solitude his teenage years had brought her. These years were meant to be hers and Em’s to regain, the start of the golden years, and she was at a loss on how to move on with the possibility of that day never arriving.

She had combated her husband’s habit in all the ways she could muster, and none had proved remarkably effective. A string of AA meetings years ago had teased her and Frankie with a rejuvenated Em. They cautiously enjoyed the consistency and welcomed the attention he paid them. Family dinners were lively with laughter and honest-to-God discussions. Em would join Darla on the patio in the morning, and over steaming cups of coffee, they would discuss the day ahead. It was beautifully mundane. However, after a couple of months of sobriety, he was laid off from the textiles plant where he had worked. He dove back into the bottle on his way home, pink slip in hand. From that point, the other folks in his AA group were “losers with nothing to worry about but booze.” For Darla, those wonderful months of normalcy had poisoned her with hope, and it seemed that hope had no use for her.

Since then, it was nearly unheard of for Em to not have at least some bourbon in his belly. A string of jobs since the plant closed had only exacerbated his drinking, and his drinking only lengthened the string of jobs. A couple of years ago, he had been offered his current job managing Big George’s Auto for the shop’s aging namesake, an old friend of Em’s dad. George himself had spent some time battling a nagging alcohol problem. Darla assumed he had given Em the job out of misguided pity. Nevertheless, Em held it down, in part thanks to George’s absence at the shop, and Darla had to admit that Em had gotten quite good at functioning under the influence. The job didn’t require much from him but to delegate work to a small team of foul-mouthed and equally hard-drinking mechanics and occasionally soothe the ruffled feathers of some perturbed blue-haired old woman threatening to take her business elsewhere.

Darla threw the damp dish towel over her shoulder as she placed the last of the dishes in the cabinet, barely recalling the last 15 minutes of cleaning. Frankie had recently said that she seemed increasingly distant, and she knew that to be true. Living with Em made her keep her guard up, so in his frequent absence, she let her thoughts meander through the hand life had dealt her. It always came back to the uncertainty that surrounded her. Would Em scream at Darla over some inane mishap? Maybe he would try and get Frankie to go out in the yard and fight since “the boy thinks he’s a man now.” Some nights he would pass out eating dinner, others he’d stay up into the early hours of the morning muttering frustrations at his lot in life, littering the floorboards with heavy pacing. That was all dependent, of course, on whether he even graced them with his presence. She lived in a perpetual summer storm, the air hot and tense, and an imminent gloom overhead with no clear skies on the horizon. Darla watched as Maggie’s detective work ceased behind a closing curtain. She was a sweet woman, but her heavy-handed style of neighboring was enough to make Darla want to take up drinking. With that, her head cocked as an idea took the reins.


For all installments of “Fire with Fire,” click here.