This time it’s come down to a pack of cigarettes.
His son is on the bare floor, coloring hard. A picture of a chicken. He looks at the dirt stuck on the boy’s chubby, rash-reddened leg and in his white hair. He sees the boy miss the page and make waxy yellow loops on the linoleum.
He hears his wife behind him in the kitchen boiling something. He could go out for cigarettes and never come back. He could. He might. It’s out of his hands. He’s already started feeling sorry for her.
There’s a sour soup smell in the air. Baby urine. The ground wood of cheap furniture. Towels that never get dry all the way. Moist baby powder.
He puts his hand between the sofa cushions where the more vulnerable packs sometimes get captured. Grit but no cigarettes. He scans the floor, picturing how this will turn out.
The reasons come. The fat pinched under the sleeve of her dress. The metallic smell of her cycle through her clothes. She had been a cum-on-the-face slut. A roulette wheel that local boys and men played. He’d gotten her pregnant. He was just unlucky.
The reasons try to persuade him to work up some momentum, but he will not. He’s not a bad man. Only a victim of lost cigarettes.
Find them? she says.
He flattens himself against the armchair like a criminal in an alley. He leans around to see if the coast is clear. Naw.
Silence. He takes another step. I’mo go git another pack. More silence. You want me to bring you somethin’ back?
Weekday afternoons are the hard time. He’s going to pick up his son at Cheryl’s illegal day care on the edge of town. The edge of town goes like this: House. House. House. . . . House. . . . . . . House. . . . . . . .
Every day the road yawns a little farther past the edge of town, the sun pulling the pickup like it’s riding on the curtain of failing light.
There’s the sign. The next town is 30 miles away; 119 miles away is an actual city. He always liked that number. The two ones are so upright and respectful, but the nine likes to have fun. He plays the accelerator game. He lets his foot get heavy on the pedal. The city is less than two hours away.
Occasionally people from here go there. That’s the problem. He doesn’t want to look up and see parts of his old life. It would taint his new life and make it smell just like his old one.
There’s another city. Bigger. Seven hours past the first city. No one from here goes there. He could get lost in that city.
The speedometer gives a slow wave.
House . . . house. . . . He feels excitement fear excitement fear. He can’t go to the city without a plan. He doesn’t have a plan. He can’t make a plan.
Is the boy waiting in the window? What if the truck with daddy in it just kept on going down the road? The boy can’t take it personal. That’s why he can’t make a plan. A plan would make it personal.
He imagines puppet strings lifting his foot off the accelerator.
This happens one night: He’s at the Six Shooter bar. Ophelia, a waitress, is slanting her intentions his way. With a quick look around the bar for anyone who might break the unspoken rules of a small town, he leans forward to talk. Ophelia asks the kind of questions it makes a man feel good to answer.
His wife sure was something in her day, yeah? Didn’t she used to work here a long time ago before he made an honest woman out of her? How come they didn’t have no more cute little boys with that pretty blond hair? How come a fine man like him is at the bar by hisself?
He tells her he’ll come back around to pick her up after she gets off. So they can talk some more.
On the way home in the morning, he loads up a lie: he just slept one off in his truck over by Telly’s gas station. He drinks a beer to give the story some credibility. He also had a washup in Ophelia’s sink–clean, but not too clean. A little motor oil on his hands made it look good. No woman would’ve let him touch her with hands like that.
He feels good about taking the extra steps. Some of the men he knows don’t even try–one guy got caught with pussy on his breath. That was disrespectful.
At least he’s being respectful. At least he’s coming home.
Some men don’t.
It’s Sunday. Today he watches a football game. If his team makes a touchdown he’ll take it as his sign to go. He watches and waits. He stops cheering, so as not to influence fate.
They don’t score. He stays.
Today is his wife’s birthday, and he remembered.
They are beyond presents now. At best, it’s dinner. He takes her to Ike’s. People like to say they’ve been to town when they eat at Ike’s, but Ike’s is so far on the outskirts they only really graze it. A big lit-up sign on the highway pulls people to the restaurant, but there’s nothing to tug them down into the actual town.
He’s in his uncomfortable dusty brown leather shoes so she can wear one of her floaty dresses with the big flowers. He thinks briefly of her days in short skirts and tight jeans and feels a flash of affection. Not because of those days. Because of today. Her making the effort to try to look like somebody’s wife.
Some of the local boys slink around the edges of the parking lot. They’re smart. They’ll choose their moment. They’re snatchers of shopping bags, suitcases, things that are small and electronic, change. Things folks won’t notice till it’s too late.
That’s how you do it, he thinks, while he walks with his wife across the lot. Pinch a little of their fat. They can afford it, these rich travelers. They’re free, but free like lambs in a jungle.
He opens the door for his wife, big and comical. The bored hostess takes them to a booth made of plastic wood and sits them down with menus and water. They face each other. She grins and ducks her head down to the menu.
Yesterday he saw Ophelia, and she told him how she had always admired him. How her aunts had always said he was a good man because he did the right thing when that woman came up pregnant. That he was a good daddy and man, even though his wife let herself go.
Sometimes he thinks people laugh at him because he did the right thing when she got pregnant. But maybe some folks think of him as noble. And good. And that makes him feel like acting like he is noble and good. So after he and Ophelia did it in the back of his truck, he decided to take his wife out for her birthday.
He gets up and slides next to her in the booth because he’s feeling generous.
Today he’s working on his truck. He keeps it in perfect condition in case he has to leave. He picks up a wrench and has a new thought: he’s no prize himself.
He decides he could have been a better man if he’d married a better woman. If he’d gotten the right kind of support or had a family reputation to live up to, then maybe he could’ve tried harder.
Under the truck, he makes a quick list of girlfriends.
Real girlfriends. Olivia Hanging. Carrie-Ann Nolan. Lena-Anne Whiting. Sarah Sails. Every one of them better than his wife. He imagines their faces. He thinks about why he didn’t marry any of them.
Not Olivia Hanging because he was 19 and she was 15 and he had just found his way into the real live, grown-up afterlife. Beer. Parties. Drugs. And while her parents were willing to overlook the difference in ages, her curfew remained a solid 11:30. He got tired of always having to take her home just when the party got interesting.
Carrie-Ann Nolan had caught his ear with her big laugh. She laughed so hard people stared. At first he’d thought she was common and loud. Not girlfriend material. But it had turned out that she was uncommon–a college girl. He even went to visit her. But there she was ashamed of him. He could tell. So he did it with her roommate and came home.
Lena-Anne Whiting dated him to get at her rich parents. The fun eventually wore off for her, and she moved on to other ways to piss them off. When she met that fancy black son of a bitch from the city, Lena-Anne was gone.
Sarah Sails. Sarah Sails, Sarah Sails. Now that was a true lady there. Proper, but not too proper. She could have a beer with you, but she crossed her legs when she sat and drank it. She would whisper that she loved him and that he didn’t have to tell her back. But he did twice. He always thought he could do better, though. After all, he’d gotten all the way up to her.
She’s a teacher over at the elementary school now. Married. Now that he thinks about it, he’s glad he didn’t marry her. She turned into a bitch.
He slams the hood of his truck shut and decides to drive for a beer.
This morning he’s in the shower, looking at his son’s dirty rubber duck rolling over and over in the murk at his feet. He has a thought: He could take his son with him. He could start over as a single dad.
Single. Dad. That sounds . . . right. The idea of it makes him momentarily stop dragging the holey washcloth over his body. No. She’ll look for him if he takes the boy. He moves back under the dribble of water.
Today his wife is pissy. Slamming cupboards. Being irritated with her hair and twisting it into balls on top of her head. What has she got to be pissed about anyhow? He should just go. He doesn’t have to put up with this.
She won’t yell at him right off. She’ll do this. He won’t ask her what’s wrong. Asking will open it up for yelling. If he never asks, she’ll just slam about. So he never asks. He just waits for whatever it is that’s bothering her to stop bothering her.
He wonders if she ever thinks about leaving him. That makes him turn a tight, suspicious eye her way.
But he’s still not asking.
This is the Saturday they thought the boy might be dying. He’s coming back in from a smoke. The children’s clinic is full of greenish light and starved-looking females. Eyes blackened by lack of sleep, or too much drink or husband’s fists, swing toward him when he comes in the door.
He takes the only seat left. Rubs his wife’s arm. His son is better. Doesn’t have that dazed look in his eye anymore. All the throw up has soaked into their clothes and stiffened them up. The boy is strong enough to pull toward a little girl with a bloody dishrag on her arm.
His wife watches the boy like if she takes her eyes off him he’ll collapse. He reaches down and lifts the boy into his lap. He reaches around his wife. The boy squirms, then relaxes into it.
This is a play he puts on for the husbandless women. He feels them thinking how lucky his wife is. He continues, careful not to look to see who is admiring him.
He hopes his wife understands that were it not for him she’d be here with this boy in one arm and a shit-filled diaper in the other. By herself.
Three in the afternoon on a Saturday. The trailer’s clean, and he has no idea why. Usually there are bits of other days in the air, on the table, on the walls. Today is mostly just today.
His wife comes in from the back. Smiling. Hey sweetheart, she says.
A voice floats from around the corner. Girl, is that your husband? And here his first impression of your friend Nellie is Nellie using the toilet? Graaay-t.
A scrawny little woman comes around the corner. When she sees him, she gobbles a bunch of air, then hollers, Oh my gawd!
His wife is smiling. First at the woman. Then at him. Then back at the woman. She comes closer, still buttoning her jeans, looking up at his face like it was fireworks night.
She says he looks just like her husband, who’s sleeping off the drive in the den. She wants to know who and where his kinfolks are.
He opens his mouth but his wife is already answering.
She rubs his arm as she answers, then looks at him. Like asking if she got it right. He nods.
Why are they so happy their husbands look alike? People are always trying to find something in common. A boot thuds on the hollow floor in the other room. The ladies smile at each other. If the guy looks anything like him, he thinks, he might have to leave.
Today it’s the earring. It drops out of her ear and rolls under the dresser. He imagines it hiding under there, disgusted by her fingers calling it to duty.
From the bed, he watches her on her hands and knees.
She’s ugly when her face slumps fatly toward the floor. He considers leaving. She’s on her way to work. He could have the leisure of packing. He could take things with him.
If the earring had dropped out of his sight, he wouldn’t have even looked for it. If something good is in his hands, it’s good. If it’s not in his hands it’s worthless. He’s disgusted by need.
She’s rooting around like a hog. He should go.
Thinking of her as an animal helps. This is just like dropping a dog off on the other side of town. They would find a replacement. Actually it’s kinder. He’s leaving them the house and dropping himself off on the other side of somewhere. He feels mildly heroic at the thought.
It’d be her fault, anyway. His secret spreads across his face, carried in a smile. She turns suddenly with a gaze that is so human he’s surprised.
Got it, she says.
I’mo go git some cigarettes, he says.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Wesley Bedrosian.