Before and After

by M. David Hornbuckle


The wedding photo hides behind what Keener’s southern belle mother would call a chifforobe, one of those heavy wooden behemoths with a chest of drawers on one side and a wardrobe on the other. When the movers brought it in, they complained bitterly. The wardrobe partly houses Keener’s ties and dress shirts. He keeps his socks and underwear in the top drawer, his t-shirts in the second. Underneath his t-shirts is where he keeps the Stoeger Luger .22 his father gave him when he turned fifteen. The other two drawers are Renee’s, and he doesn’t know what she keeps in there.

Keener sits on the bed and stares at the chifforobe, thinking about the picture stashed behind it. It’s too big to display—it would be impossible, ridiculous. It has been hiding there for more than a year, and just knowing it is there bothers him. The frame measures more than forty inches tall and thirty wide, bigger than the widescreen television Keener’s parents got them as a wedding present, which they also consider to be too large for their four-room townhouse, which Keener’s mother calls a starter home. The camera’s eye bloats the young couple to monstrous proportions, and every acne scar on his face, every nuanced crack and texture in her makeup, comes into clear focus.

Renee studies in the den, her nursing textbooks laid out before her like tarot cards. Her final semester is well in progress, and she’ll soon be able to start paying the copious student loans, which she wouldn’t need if Keener would just ask his parents to help out. She’s not thinking about the photo, but when she does think about it, she mainly thinks it is hilarious. Since her uncle Ray gave it to them as a wedding present, and he’ll be in town in a few days, they’ve talked about trying to display the photo somewhere. Renee thinks this gesture unnecessary, but Keener insists that it would be an afront to keep it concealed, hideous as it is.


Renee’s uncle Ray became a photography junkie when he came back from Vietnam and had also been an actual junkie for a while. He’s been clean for some years now, but most of the rest of her family is crazy in one way or another. Her mother, a librarian, is a drunk and an addict, and after Renee’s father died, her mother took up with other drunks and addicts. Growing up, Renee would often wake to the remains of a party, some stranger crashing on their sofa, cans and bottles strewn around the floors and countertops. An aunt of hers had what they used to call a nervous breakdown when Renee was six or seven and later killed herself. Her other uncle was schizophrenic. This was her legacy and inheritance.

The chifforobe was a castoff from Keener’s grandparents, who had sold the family mansion in Jasper a few months ago when it finally became unmanageable. The once stately home was now crumbling in places and had even been featured in an article on the “creepiest houses in Alabama.” His family had expected Keener to take over the lumber business from his father and were shocked when he decided to become a high school English teacher instead. He tried to explain that he wanted to do something that mattered, but it was kind of like talking to the chifforobe.

His parents tolerate Renee as one tolerates unpleasant weather—mild complaints laced with a sense of fatalism.


While they are getting ready for bed that night, Renee and Keener will argue about her student loans, credit card bills, and the cost of running the air-conditioning during the day. She will remind him that he could always go to his family if his teaching salary isn’t enough, but he never will ask them for money, just like he will never ask her about what’s in her two drawers of the chifforobe.

When they are making up afterward, he will be annoyed that she wants him to use the Hitachi Magic Wand. He will do it begrudgingly, believing his body alone should be enough to satisfy her. He will add this to a growing list of grievances he will never fully express because his deepest fear is that she will leave him for someone more adventurous and interesting. She will tell him, as she has told him on other nights, that it isn’t any fault in him; she’s always needed additional stimulation to get her there. Not just any vibrator would do it either, no weak plastic toys that used AAA batteries. She needs something that plugs into the wall. A power tool.


The dinner dishes are soaking in the sink. The aroma of roasted garlic pervades the residence, even the gravel driveway. It seeps into the bedroom in back where the cheap gray wall-to-wall carpeting has permanently taken on notes of chocolate, cotton candy, and patchouli from Renee’s favorite perfume.

While thoughts about what to do with the wedding photo still hang in the air, Keener quietly seethes. His mind keeps rattling back to Renee’s aptitude for making inappropriate comments in mixed company, such as the other night when she told Ryan and Edie at a dinner party that Keener was boring in bed.

She has already forgotten that she said it and is more concerned with memorizing lists of diseases. She worries if she’ll be able to properly stick a needle in someone’s arm.


Keener and Renee met at a show in some warehouse out in Avondale. Keener’s friend Ryan was in one of the bands. Renee overheard someone ask Keener if he “had any smoke” and he’d said, “I have Marlboro Lights and Swisher Sweets.” Renee thought that he was so tragically preppy with his thin-framed glasses and oxford shirt at a rock show, it was adorable.

She was a perpetual college student, first studying English, then philosophy, then political science, and finally settling on the practical occupation of nursing. She had been to three other colleges before transferring to UAB, having read how the medical industry in Birmingham was taking over from the failing steel mills. And then she remembered that her grandfather had, for some time after World War II, lived in Alabama and had worked in steel. It had almost seemed like fate for her to go there.

She just had to get through this semester, and then she planned to go straight into grad school to become a nurse practitioner. Her goal was to work on a psych floor. Crazy people fascinated her, so long as they weren’t related to her. She was well aware of the cliché that people go into psychology in order to find out what is wrong with themselves, and she didn’t consider herself an exception.


The following day, Keener will make a space for the gargantuan wedding photo by removing the coatrack that hangs in the foyer and putting it in the shed. The next week, when he stops by their house before taking them to dinner, Renee’s uncle Ray will see the picture as he enters the house. He will say this is a perfect place for it, and he’ll marvel at how handsome of a couple they are.

After he drops them off afterwards, Renee will want to take the photo down again immediately and replace it behind the chifforobe. Keener will say that they should leave it there a while, that he is kind of getting used to it. Besides, he’ll say, it will be a conversation piece. Renee will disagree and take it down anyway.

The next morning, while Keener is at work talking to ninth graders about Harper Lee, Renee will go through the photos and letters that she keeps in her drawers of the chifforobe and daydream about having a secret life.


Keener sits behind the desk in his classroom the morning after Renee has moved out, his face buried in his hands. His school-issued computer displays the attendance roll for his first period class. The rest of the desk is covered with folders full of graded and ungraded assignments. On the white board behind him, he’s written a mnemonic device dealing with paragraph structure. “PIE,” it says, “Point, Illustration, Explanation.” There’s a roughly drawn jagged circle around the words that resembles an amoeba more than it does a pie crust. On the sidewall white board, he has the agenda for each of his classes. A small wooden crucifix hangs on the wall opposite underneath the requisite small American flag. Posters of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Walt Whitman decorate the rest of that wall. The suffering Jesus and the great writers of the English language are the citadels of the classroom.

The pounding in his head distracts him from the larger upset of his marriage falling apart. The membranes in his brain have swelled as a result of waste products left over from the metabolism of alcohol, and free radicals formed from toxins in the alcohol he consumed produces oxidative stress, making him foggy and irritable. The dehydration doesn’t help. It’s sort of like his central nervous system, liver, and kidneys are littered with the plastic cups, bottles, cans, and cigarette butts left after a raucous house party, and his brain doesn’t have the power to wash all that detritus away.

So he sits behind his desk in deliberate silence and stillness, awaiting with impatience the inevitable sounds of the 7:50 bell and the morning chatter of the students. He wishes above all that he could stop time and just linger in this noiseless moment for a little while longer. It is 7:46 a.m.


He’d considered calling in sick that morning, but then he thought he’d rather be distracted by work than wallow in his stupid townhouse all day. He had stayed away from the house the day before as long as possible, to give her time to move her things out. He came home around midnight, too tired and intoxicated to notice whether she’d left anything behind or taken something she shouldn’t have.

He’d spent the evening at one of the new bars that recently opened downtown. His other friends—the ones who aren’t Ryan—had circled around him at a table and plied him with expensive drinks with mysterious ingredients that he’d never heard of and wouldn’t remember seconds after the cocktail waitress sauntered away.

All he could think about or talk about at the bar was how this had all taken him by surprise. When Renee’s affair with Ryan had first started, Keener thought it wouldn’t last, that she would “get it out of her system.” He had never imagined that he would find himself in this situation, less than three years into the marriage, dealing with not just a divorce, but also the breakup of a friendship that went back almost a decade. He has known that was the worst part of it, that he’ll miss Ryan more than he’ll miss Renee.

His other friends dutifully swore that they were no longer friends with Ryan either. There were three of them there with him in the bar. One was Kaleb, a friend from work who had only met Ryan briefly a couple of times and said he’d gotten a “bad vibe from that guy” all along. Lance, who had recently married Keener’s cousin Tara, also knew Ryan only slightly. It was rare for Keener and Lance to hang out without Tara there also, and Keener was pretty sure Lance had only showed up here at Tara’s insistence. Clearly Forrest was talking out of his ass about not being friends with Ryan anymore because he’d known Ryan even longer than Ryan and Keener had known each other. Anyway, Forrest lived in New Orleans so there was little risk about the three of them being around each other at the same time.

Around midnight, Forrest suggested they all go to “a titty bar.” Keener demurred and asked to just be taken home, which they did. Forrest and Lance almost certainly went to the strip club afterwards anyway.


Later, the students will come in with their green and blue tartan Catholic school uniforms. He will go through the routines of the day. He’ll try to keep a neutral face on, but throughout the day, a few of the students who like him best will ask him if he’s okay. He will play it off as just being tired. He will finish the school day exhausted, go home, and fall into bed. Only after he gets up a couple of hours later, he will remember that there are two drawers inside the chifforobe that used to contain some of Renee’s belongings. He’ll open the drawers just to check that they are empty, and they will be. Empty, that is.

He’ll also remember the Stoeger Luger .22 stashed inside the chifforobe behind his underwear. He’ll think about that thing that Chekhov said about guns in stories, which he’s mentioned to his students, that if a gun shows up in a story, someone will use the gun before the story is over. He’ll pull out the gun and regard it with some unease. He had owned a lot of guns in his life, but as he got older and his political views about firearms evolved, he’d gotten rid of all of them except this one, his first. He’ll check and verify that it is not loaded, but he’ll find a small box of bullets in the kitchen junk drawer.

He’ll call Forrest and ask him to come over and take this gun away. While he’s waiting, with the Luger tucked into his jeans, he’ll return to the bedroom and find the oversized wedding photo that Renee left tucked behind the chifforobe. He’ll drag it out to the back of their townhouse by the dumpster. He’ll prop the photo up against the dumpster and walk backwards twenty paces. The first bullet will make an eraser sized hole in the glass and then ricochet off the dumpster with a loud gong-like pang and shatter the picture frame into dozens of rough shards. The other five will tear holes through the photo paper, and the clamor will ring out against the metal and echo through the dusk.

An orange and purple sunset will begin to form on the horizon. Keener will feel the blood draining from his legs and his breath quickening. There will be police sirens in the distance. The next thing he will be aware of is a tear-blurred vision of Forrest leaning over him, telling him it will be okay, it will be okay.

M. DAVID HORNBUCKLE’s most recent novel is The Fireball Brothers (Livingston Press, 2019). His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in dozens of publications both in print and online. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where he teaches English and is also the Managing Editor of the Steel Toe Review. He is currently an MFA candidate in fiction writing at the University of the South. You can find him online at