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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Whiskey

A Novel

Bruce Holbert

MCD

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1


EXODUS

August 1991

This time, Claire did not depart all at once but after a series of diligent, daily efforts to prove her affection to Andre—notes in his lunch pail, fruity desserts he favored, VCR Mafia movies, bubble baths, a ferry cruise to Alaska, and a television the size of Rhode Island—all of which moved him tremendously, though he couldn’t escape what motivated her largesse. She would argue through the morning hours he was reason itself for her heart to beat, but the necessity for her to pursue her case proved more evidence against it. There was no last straw, no camel’s spine, no argument or slammed doors or broken saucers or vases, none of the theater one associates with a marriage’s dissolution. Instead, their home darkened until neither of them could light it alone or together. One weekend during which he’d scheduled a fishing trip, she, with his blessing, boxed his books and clothes and organized his papers in a suitcase and added a share of their photographs. Two high-school boys toted the lot to a pickup truck and transported it to an apartment Andre had rented a week earlier. She paid them ten dollars each.

After, Andre would encounter his brother, Smoker, at the tavern each evening. They drank beer—Andre was off whiskey once more—and dined on Smoker’s tab, which Smoker squared each sitting, an inclination Smoker entertained only recently.

Their last evening in the tavern commenced like any other: Andre entered the place and Crazy Eddie peered up from his novel and slapped the griddle with a burger for Andre and another for Eddie’s dog, Desdemona, a mixed basset with legs no taller than beer cans and a long fat tube of torso that serpentined as she tottered inside. Her head, though, was as square as a Labrador’s.

Grease popped and a meaty aroma rose from the grill and reminded Andre of his childhood; he had no fondness for his youth, but he appreciated the meals. Eddie spatulaed the patty onto a bun and extracted tomatoes, lettuce, and sliced pickles from a Tupperware box. With an ice-cream scoop, he plopped potato salad on a plate and added the sandwich. The dog took it bread and all but had no inclination for toppings or fries, so Eddie ladled her the chicken and noodles remaining from the lunch special so as not to short either of them.

By then, the old-timers had yielded their booths to the pool players as the clientele’s volume had bested the TV’s. The juke was full of quarters, which meant Andre must endure metal-clang and pop tunes that sounded like TV commercials before his Merle Haggard hit the spindle. He poked his meal and glanced at the mirror while the evening regulars milled about the billiard table or piled behind a pair of upright video machines. He could have ordered to go and at home played tapes, but alone and off whiskey the songs just cooked him into a stew.

Desdemona, beneath the stool, feasted until she cleared her plate then harassed Andre until he surrendered the remnants of his hamburger.

“Goddamned communist,” Eddie scolded.

The dog retreated to the door and Eddie put her out. No more than a minute later, Darrell Reynolds, one of two lawyers who served the coulee, allowed the dog back inside. Reynolds rotated his head to scan the room, an act that appeared rehearsed, then ordered a beer. Eddie poured and placed the full glass on the bar. Reynolds chose a stool beside Andre, where Desdemona had curled beneath his stool.

“Is that your dog?” he asked.

Andre shook his head. The man wore pressed gray slacks and a blue polo shirt and leather loafers with wine-colored socks.

“Seems friendly.”

“Anything’s friendly if you feed it.”

Reynolds laughed and inspected a scar in the wooden bar.

“I’m Darrell Reynolds,” he said. He maintained a mustache to fit in, but trimmed it too carefully.

“I’ve seen your ad in the paper,” Andre said.

“I’ve been doing some work for your wife.”

Andre pointed at the bar then held up two fingers.

Eddie blinked. “You sure on that?”

“I am,” Andre said.

Eddie delivered a pair of jigger glasses along with the whiskey under the counter.

“Oh no,” Reynolds said.

“You work for free, Reynolds?”

“I charge a fee,” Reynolds said.

Andre poured whiskey into the shot glasses and shoved one toward Reynolds.

“What’s this?” Reynolds asked.

“It’s the fee.” The glass had spilled a little. Andre hooked his finger across the puddle and dangled it for the dog, who showed no interest, then downed his glass.

The lawyer smiled and drained his whiskey too then wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist.

“Your wife wants to dissolve your marriage.”

“It matter what I want?”

“Of course, there are two sides to anything like this.”

“Good. I want to stay married. Tie score keeps the game on.” Andre replenished the glasses. His stomach fluttered awaiting more alcohol.

“I’m afraid the law doesn’t see it as such,” Reynolds said.

Andre hoisted his glass and indicated Reynolds do the same. They drank. Andre poured and lifted his glass again.

“Fee’s doubled,” he said. “After hours. Pick up your liquor.”

Reynolds relented and drank.

“I don’t want to see you in court, Mr. White,” Reynolds said.

“Well, you won’t want to encounter me out of it, I guarantee you.”

Eddie threw Andre a warning look. Andre ignored him. Reynolds unzipped a cowhide purse and carefully placed a blue envelope on the bar.

“You can sign these and avoid the courts or hire your own lawyer.”

Andre poured two more. “I’m hiring you,” he said. “Drink. That’s an order.”

“You can’t hire me. Your wife already has.”

“I’ll pay more.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“Goddamnit, how does it work then?”

Reynolds tapped the envelope with his index finger. “You sign the papers. That’s how it works. You save yourself some money. You get divorced.” He excused himself for the bathroom.

Andre plucked matches from a wicker basket between the salt and pepper shakers and set the envelope on his dinner plate. He struck a match then admired the flames. Only ashes remained when Reynolds returned. He clasped his hands before his chest to demonstrate his patience. “It cost money to draw up those papers,” he said. “The courts have to process them.”

“Guess she’ll have to pay for another time through.”

“You don’t understand. Once they’re processed, they belong to the court. I served them to you. They’re your responsibility now. You’ll have to pay for another summons.”

“For what?”

“The documents.”

“Documents?”

Reynolds smoothed his mustache with his thumb and forefinger. “There are witnesses. They will testify to what occurred. You,” he said to Eddie.

“We don’t do that here, mister.” Eddie opened the sink spigot.

“If I subpoena you, you damned sure will. I’ll be prepared with perjury or contempt charges, otherwise.”

Eddie withdrew a plate from the soapy water and rinsed it, then another. “You thought you were prepared when you walked in here, didn’t you?”

Reynolds switched his attention to Andre. “I’ll serve you at work, in front of your students.”

“It’s summer,” Andre said.

The lawyer drew a deep breath. “I can see why she’s leaving you.”

“So can I,” Andre said. “I just don’t want her to.”

“It’s my job,” Reynolds said. “Nothing personal.”

“No offense taken. A little more fee?”

“My wife’s going to shout bloody murder.”

“Better make it a double, then.”

Eddie let the dishes sit and paged through the phone book nailed to the wall. He punched some numbers.

“Mrs. Reynolds,” Eddie said. “This is Eddie at the tavern. Yeah, Crazy Eddie, though I’m not much crazy anymore. Your husband, he wanted me to inform you he’s with a client.”

Reynolds pleaded for the phone. Andre hushed him.

“No, I’m not covering for him,” Eddie said. “He’s a good man, now, everybody with any sense knows so. He’s with this hard drinker is all, and they’re working something out, so he’s indulging him to grease the skids. You’ll want to taxi him home when he finishes here. I won’t have an educated man arrested for drinking on my watch.” Eddie paused to listen. “No, ma’am. If there were women, why would he ask you to pick him up? He’d have one of us drop him off. That’s how it’s done. Thank you, ma’am. I’ll call you when he’s ready.”

Reynolds whistled.

“He don’t cost a hundred dollars an hour, either,” Andre told him.

They had put a significant dent in the bottle when Smoker arrived and sat on the opposite side of the lawyer. Eddie retrieved him a beer. Smoker nodded to the whiskey bottle and Andre slid it past the lawyer to his brother. Smoker hoisted the bottle and pulled.

The brothers were heads and tails on the same coin. Andre had trouble meeting another’s gaze. His eyes drifted about a room, measuring occupants uneasily. His rounded shoulders folded forward over his chest like he expected a blow, though his reputation made the event unlikely. He cut his black hair short to disguise a stubborn cowlick. As an adolescent, he’d suffered acne. He still washed his face three times a day, but his skin shone with oil in any light. His brow shadowed his eyes and a bent Roman nose. He had straight teeth; still he rarely smiled; he appeared at times pensive and at others bilious. Living alone had left him with intuition like a woman. Sometimes it served him well. Others it hardly mattered.

Smoker shared the same black hair, though not the cowlick. He wore it nearly to his shoulders. In certain lights it appeared purple. Stronger lines than Andre’s delineated his face, as did a genial countenance. He was as tall as his brother, but he carried his shoulders more horizontally. Though Andre was a capable high-school basketball player, Smoker was the one who looked the athlete. He walked like his limbs were half air, and if he decided to leap it appeared he could decide when to come down.

“Seen my good-for-nothing woman?” Smoker asked.

“Not since the last time you asked,” Andre told him.

“Check with Eddie,” the lawyer suggested.

Smoker lifted an eyebrow. “How’s he know about Eddie?”

Eddie wiped the counter under his glass. “Every sinner finds the Lord sooner or later.”

“What about it, Edward?”

“Haven’t seen her since Flag Day,” Eddie told him.

“She’s probably just making a wide loop,” Andre said. He reached across the lawyer and confiscated the whiskey.

“I ain’t finished with that,” Smoker complained.

Andre paused. “You stop to wonder why a lawyer is my drinking partner tonight?”

Smoker stared at the french fries in ketchup and the lettuce leaf blackened with the letter’s ashes. He didn’t reply. They listened to the beer lights tick.

“Who’s watching Bird?” Andre asked. Smoker’s twelve-year-old daughter was named Raven, but Smoker called her simply Bird.

“Dede’s got her.”

“You never said nothing about that up till now.”

Smoker shrugged. “Didn’t know till this afternoon. I thought Vera was watching her.”

Andre glanced at Smoker. “Where you looked?”

“At that biker she used to shack with and Vera’s, like I said.”

“Neither’s seen her?”

“That or ain’t saying.”

“There’s a child missing?” Reynolds asked.

“Damned straight,” Smoker told him.

“Is there something I can do?”

Smoker pursed his lips. “Might be good to have a member of the bar in our corner. We could roust Vera and Biker Bump again.”

Smoker bummed Eddie’s cigarettes, lit one, and put it between Reynolds’s fingers. “It’ll make you look meaner.” He hooked the lawyer’s arm and steered him to the door. Andre followed. Outside, Andre paused at his rig for a .38 pistol. In Smoker’s pickup cab, Smoker unholstered a snub-nosed Luger then tossed Reynolds a twelve-gauge from the window rack.

“Don’t shoot it,” Andre said.

“But if you do, get close,” Smoker added.

The lawyer crawled into the pickup bed and propped himself on the wheel well. Andre joined him.

Their first stop was Smoker’s live-in’s sister. Vera was as husky as Dede was thin. She looked like a legged ham. Twice she’d whipped her husband into the emergency room. Finally he countered by half scalping her with a posthole digger then lit out for Ephrata and the county hoosegow where he awaited the morning turnkey. But Vera declined to charge him and they had lived amicably since.

Smoker pounded the door and Vera answered.

“You should keep an eye on them better if you want a family, Smoker.” Vera was loud enough for the neighbors to come to their windows.

“She’s got the child.”

“Girl’s as much hers as yours.”

“And if you were God above, who’d you want looking out for her, Vera?”

“Neither of you.”

She shoved by Smoker and marched to the truck. She inflicted a curt look upon Andre then bored her eyes into Reynolds. The lawyer opened and closed the breach of the double-barrel.

“That don’t scare me,” Vera said.

“I wasn’t trying to,” the lawyer told her.

“Good, because I’m sure armed threats are against the bar.”

She turned and found Smoker. “I don’t know where she is,” Vera said. “I’d get the girl myself if I did.”

“You see her, that’s what I want you to do,” Smoker said.

“It would be for the child’s sake,” Vera told him.

“I don’t care why,” Smoker said.

Smoker turned for the pickup.

Vera raised her voice. “You know our mother’s place?”

“Up Metaline?”

“Still summer,” Vera said. “The roads are manageable.” The place had been Dede’s parents’. The old days, their father skidded logs the warm months and winters tugged green chain at the mill, and their mother cooked in the school kitchen. Both passed some time ago; they left the place to Dede and Vera and a brother who manned a Louisiana oil rig and pronounced no word to the sisters even for the funerals.

Smoker reversed the truck from her driveway.

“You think bikers are tougher than fire?” he asked Andre.

“Tough ain’t the question. Stupid is,” Andre said.

“Let’s hope this Bump is a lot of one and not much of the other,” Smoker replied.

“You could drop me at home,” Reynolds shouted from the truck bed.

Smoker opened the back slider. “Not yet.”

At the trailer court, the biker’s porch light glowed. Smoker dropped from the truck cab and clubbed the front door. Bump Rasker opened it.

Smoker put the gun muzzle to his forehead.

“I ain’t seen her, goddamnit.”

Andre fished a gas can from behind the seat and soaked the skirting beneath the manufactured home. Smoker tossed him a matchbook.

“I’ll call the law,” the biker shouted.

“We brought us a lawyer.” Smoker aimed his flashlight at Reynolds. “I guess we’ll do as we please.”

Bump approached the pickup bed. “You a real shyster?”

Reynolds nodded.

The biker scratched his goatee. “I got to tell?”

Under the streetlight, Reynolds appeared white and holy. “It seems prudent,” the lawyer said.

“You won’t burn me down?”

“Not if I’m satisfied with your answers,” Smoker told him.

“Last I seen either Dede or the girl was three weeks at least. They was with Harold the Preacher and his whacked-out son.”

“I recognize that Harold’s name,” Andre said.

“First I heard of them was when they knocked on the door.”

Andre lit a match, which threw a watery light on the grass and low shrubs. “Seems to me a long way from answering my question.”

“Give me a minute, goddamnit,” Bump said. “They were hunting Peg.”

“She’s dead.”

“I told them. But they kept around. They had cocaine and money, so I didn’t argue.”

“So how do we find them?” Smoker asked.

Bump shrugged. “I don’t know. The boy’s drugs dried up and so did his money, but he claimed he had more. Harold read his good book and watched TV news the whole time. Drank a beer or two but didn’t put out spending money or partake in the cocaine. Dede decided to follow the son and took the kid. I wasn’t invited.”

“You’re not telling me anything useful,” Smoker said.

Bump eyed Reynolds.

“In Spokane. A place off Wellesley. Heroy, I think. Twenty something’s the address.”

“How do you come to know this?”

“Dede wanted her unemployment forwarded.”

“He spilled it all, you think?” Smoker asked Reynolds.

Reynolds said he sounded genuine.

Andre extinguished the match and pocketed the rest.

* * *

They returned to the tavern where Eddie phoned Reynolds’s wife.

When Reynolds’s wife arrived, she wore white, which left her tanned skin darker. She was fully aware of the effect. Her short hair was practical. She did little with it, maybe because she wasn’t required to. Reynolds kissed her hand like a sailor long at sea might. She laughed. A man could go a hundred years without hearing a sound so pleasant.

Smoker and Andre watched their lights go. A grassy strip lay between the curb and sidewalk. He walked to it and sat. The cool of the earth swirled around him like water. He wanted to slump into it and sleep. Smoker kicked him in the shin, hard. Andre rolled but Smoker booted him once more, then grabbed Desdemona and lobbed her at him. The dog yipped and her claws drew blood through Andre’s shirt. Smoker dodged backward but Andre caught his shoulder and thrust him to the pavement.

Smoker glared up at him. Andre punched his belly.

“That hurt?” Andre asked.

“Not as much as you want it to.”

Andre rose and kicked Smoker between the shoulders.

Smoker grunted. “Want to go for a ride?” he asked.

“Sure, why in hell not?” Andre replied.

* * *

Smoker navigated the truck through Grand Coulee’s Main Street. The place was a coupling of Colville Confederated Indians, construction men hard-hatting at the dam, and locals between jobs or disability checks. The coulee towns lost a kid every other year to poor driving and poorer drinking. The high school had exhausted athletic fields to name for them, so the last funeral paved the student parking lot.

They crossed the lit dam’s mile span then steered for a road few remembered existed. The truck wound between the riprap, stones bigger than the vehicle. Andre felt like a child in a dream of dinosaurs. Farther, a boneyard retired the contractors’ ten-foot cable spools, bent and rusted crane booms, and a scrapped loader minus tires, the Bureau emblem barely visible on the door. Another hundred yards, fifteen years of Christmas trees lay against an ancient retaining wall, their dead needles still piped with tinsel.

Smoker maneuvered them along a wide trail to an abandoned park on the water. The government had let the place go after the third powerhouse. Water-blackened pylons held a log boom the drawdowns had stacked against a half-sunk swimming dock. Smoker and Andre listened to the water lap the park’s pebbled beach.

“You ain’t Jesus Christ, you know,” Smoker said.

Twenty feet upriver, a deadheaded tree lay sideways in the sand, its dry roots spread like a gray star against the water’s darkness. Andre chucked a stone at it and missed. Smoker tried with the same result. Andre lobbed another, closer.

“You got to turn everything around, don’t you?” Andre said.

Smoker sorted through a handful of gravel for the rocks that would fly best. He hit the deadhead on the bounce.

“Don’t count,” Andre told him.

“I know it,” Smoker said. He threw another, shorter still.

Andre plunked it his next try. Smoker emptied his hands.

“You’d have found someone else to drive the nails,” Smoker said.

“You saved me looking.”

Smoker lit two cigarettes and offered Andre one. Smoker exhaled. The smoke broke up around him. He was quiet awhile.

“Zebra can’t change its stripes, can it?” Andre said.

“Don’t make it right,” Smoker replied.

“No,” Andre said. “But it keeps it from being a surprise.”

A typical summer haze, wheat-harvest chaff and dirt trucks and combines in the fields smeared the halved moon. Its light winked in the reservoir waves.

“Don’t change the matter at hand,” Smoker said. “I can’t leave Bird in the wind. Dede alone, I’d not ask.”

Andre nodded.

“But this lunatic is religious to boot.”

“That’s troubling,” Andre agreed. Lately religions had become unruly. Most had organized into megachurches where hucksters suckled from the masses’ fears and otherwise normal people crowded into warehouses to shut their eyes and lift their quaking hands toward heaven as if their football team had just scored a touchdown. At the other end of the trough, a north Idaho sect was rumored to have eaten a wayward cross-country runner a few summers ago.

Andre listened to the wind press the reservoir waves into the bank.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Need,” Smoker said.

“Need, then.”

“Someone to ride shotgun.”

“What else?”

“Money. Couple thousand probably.” Smoker lit a cigarette. “I won’t pay it back.” He dragged from his smoke. “Even if I scraped that much together, I mean, something will keep me from getting it from me to you.”

“That ain’t news.”

“I’m tired of lying to you.”

“Maybe you ought to keep the truth easier to tell,” Andre told him.

* * *

Before light, Andre woke to eggs snapping on his stovetop. His head ached from the whiskey and too little sleep. The coffee had already perked when he discovered Claire at his stove at a quarter to four.

“Bacon’s in the oven,” she said.

“Smoker has visited you.”

She leveled her gaze at him from the stove. Andre sipped his coffee. She brewed it better than he could, though they had employed the same blend and kettle.

“You corrupted my lawyer,” Claire said.

“Only a little.”

“I told him you had a stubborn streak.”

She carried the pan to the table and slid two basted eggs onto his plate. “Can you get the bacon?”

Andre retrieved it with an oven mitt. He set two strips on his plate and left her the same.

“It doesn’t make any kind of sense,” Claire said.

“Keeping married?”

She nodded.

“You got prospects?”

“No,” she replied.

He drank his coffee.

“Do you see us together somewhere ahead?” Claire asked.

Andre peered into his cup.

“That would require too much, wouldn’t it?” Claire said.

“Too much?”

“I don’t know. Forgiveness. Optimism. Faith.”

“All words I can’t comprehend, you figure.”

Her brown eyes reflected the light, and the breakfast grease made her skin shine. “I don’t want to fight.”

“But you want to put me in the skillet then blame me for cooking.”

“No,” she said. Andre thought she might cry and if she did maybe he would, too, and if that happened, this moment might be the one to lift them past history, both recent and ancient. He heard the clock; waiting had become his lot and the rest was just supposing. He finished his coffee and Claire refilled the cup then poured more for herself. She sipped it then set the cup down and blew on the surface.

“Don’t let Smoker twist you into something you don’t want to do,” she said.

“There’s a child involved. My niece, in particular,” Andre replied.

“That child’s in trouble whether Dede or Smoker raises her.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Anyone with eyes knows it,” Claire said. She sighed. “Look at you.”

“I had a chance once.”

Claire surveyed their plates. “She’s not your daughter.”

“Child don’t need to belong to you to require your help,” Andre said. “I’d thought you might have considered that.”

Claire winced. “That is a mean thing to say.”

“It is,” Andre agreed.

“I suppose I deserve whatever hurt you mete out.” Claire rose and dumped her coffee in the sink then rinsed the cup. “I don’t guess there’s anything I can do to talk you out of it.”

“I been trying to talk myself out of it all night,” Andre said. “Part of me isn’t listening.”

“You need anything? I have some money.”

“No, I got enough. Smoker tell you different?”

“No,” she said. “He never told me as much as you thought.”

“Wasn’t about that, was it? Telling, I mean.”

“It wasn’t about that, no,” she said.

Andre nodded. “Have Reynolds make another paper. I’ll sign it if that’s what you want.”

A passing car’s light stretched their shadows on the wall. In it, Claire’s tight jaw and the tired corners of her mouth came clear then the light slid from her and she became the yellow of old paper. She bent and kissed his forehead.

LAMENTATIONS

September–December 1983

Andre met Claire when he was, of all things, sober. She accepted a teaching position in the middle school adjacent to the high school where Andre taught math. Her first day, she lurched into him in the yearly orientation. On her binder spine she’d scrawled her name. He had never known a female with such poor handwriting.

Their classrooms were opposite each other, and early on she inquired about attendance reports and lunch-money accounting. October, they sorted through a playground row together. At lunch that afternoon, Claire sat at Andre’s table and attempted a conversation. Behind her, in a long window, was Andre’s reflection: He was a homely man; it left him little to say. He lumbered through his life’s social burdens as someone might morning traffic, acknowledging the red and green lights and free right turns, distracted and polite. Occasionally, though, Claire observed students enter Andre’s classroom after the last bell, sometimes in pairs or groups of three. They conversed about personal concerns: parents who hollered too much, boyfriends too needy or inattentive. He countered with pragmatic suggestions they thought wise or comic but avoided judgments, which put them at ease. The other teachers knew Andre as broken; to his students, however, his wounds were noble and his suffering added gravity and comfort to his advice.

Faculty meetings, Andre tarried until Claire entered the room and then hunted a seat behind or across from her. Making notes, she employed a pencil but didn’t erase, instead slashed through words and scribbled on. She whispered as she perused handouts, a habit common to reading teachers. Her high cheekbones and narrow jaw pinched her mouth in a pretty way when she spoke and her nose remained out of matters, which was the best that could be said of a nose. Her chestnut hair was cut to her shoulders. It curled when she rose early enough to use an iron and lay straight when she did not. She was appealing either way; Andre longed to say so and save her the trouble.

Nights when he’d climbed far enough into the bag, Andre would press his hands together as if in prayer, then undo them until his palms separated and he could conjure her face between. He had encountered prettier women, but none that made him ache so clearly for a life other than his own.

* * *

After the time change, the evenings grayed early and, from a quarter mile behind, distance enough to argue denial or coincidence, Andre began to trail Claire to her duplex two hills behind the school. She marked themes while she hiked the incline, chewing a red pencil between notes, and didn’t divert her attention, even while she unlocked her door.

Soon, despite cold winds or spitting snow, Andre lingered in an alley’s shadows where he could view Claire’s front window. Evenings she often halted before the glass to gaze at passing cars or her neighbors exercising their terrier. She typically changed to a T-shirt and sweat pants. Her hands clawed her hair like she’d had a nap or been stirred from a book. Seeing her embarrassed him and he pitched his eyes away, down the hill where the house roofs below collided geometries.

A month into his vigil, he unwrapped a meat-loaf sandwich for his dinner and ate, comfortable, until Claire gulley-whomped him from behind with a two-foot icicle. His stunned skull sang like a tuning fork as Claire’s soap smell passed, so simple it seemed impossible. He lay bleeding until police tumblers approached. A cop’s flashlight wand striped the dumpster where he’d taken refuge. Andre stood and hoisted his hands.

“What are you surrendering over?” the cop asked. His name was Marcus Popp and he was two years behind Andre in high school. Answering to him seemed one more injustice.

“You decide,” Andre said.

The cop wagged his light at Andre’s cleft scalp. “You know the woman in that building?”

“Yes.”

“You going to have a go at me?” the cop asked.

A minor tavern legend to regulars, in a scrap Andre accepted blows without regard and offered his own until he grew too tired to lift his hands. Recently, he’d pinned an ironworker’s ears to his skull with a stapler. While the man attempted to claw the staples out, Andre splattered his nose and uprooted his front teeth with the handle. The honyocker was new to town. No one local or sober had tried Andre for years.

“I’m inclined not to.”

“Okay,” the cop said. By then Claire had pulled open her door. Oily light from inside spread across the snow-blanched yard. She proceeded in slippers toward them.

“You,” she said.

Andre nodded.

“You deserved to be hit.”

“I know it.”

The cop didn’t move. He was enjoying himself.

Claire’s brow creased and she blinked. The blood bank took a pint and Andre guessed he’d leaked nothing less. It warmed his cheek but froze in his hair.

“I did that?”

Andre shrugged. “Head wound,” he said. “They always bleed worse than they are.”

* * *

The cop signed Andre in at the hospital emergency desk then suggested he review his manners. He saw no need to cuff him or offer him Miranda. Andre had not even made a successful crime of it, which demoralized him further.

Despite much study, Andre had not acquired the element most necessary for romance in this world: the capacity to appear detached in the tragic and compelling manner that presses a woman to discover why. Instead, women saw Andre as plain country, a flat lot on a town road, like any other. An abundance of heart and a scarcity of self-regard served him poorly, but a man suffering such who hadn’t swallowed a gun barrel was likely not just dirt and rock and scrub.

An hour later the doctor knit Andre’s eyebrow with fifteen stitches then sheared half his scalp so he could add twenty more. Andre listened to the scissors snip and contemplated the four miles home. He could phone Smoker but only after assembling a tale that justified his injuries. He’d narrowed the possibilities to brawling Californians or a slow-moving four-by-four on the icy streets by the time the hospital released him and he found the exit. Local urchins had shot out the parking-lot lights with pellet guns so Andre didn’t recognize Claire’s approach until she was too close for escape.

“Should I be flattered?” Claire asked him. “Or were you just in it for an eyeful?”

“I hope you’re not armed,” Andre replied.

She reversed her jeans pockets to demonstrate she was no danger. But there was still the jacket so Andre steadied his feet and loped for town. Twenty yards and the frozen sidewalk spilled him to all fours. Claire’s hand hooked his elbow and steered him up.

“I’ll see you home,” she said.

In her car, Andre pointed toward the trailer court, but Claire traveled another direction and parked at a Stop-N-Go. Inside, she bought tall coffees, which left Andre the prospect of bearing his embarrassment both awake and sober.

Claire dipped her face into her cup, while Andre waited for the cream to cool his own.

“Our first date,” she said.

“This isn’t a date,” he told her.

“Why not?”

“Because if it was I’d be worried about getting kissed at the end.”

Claire arched her eyebrow, then bent across the emergency brake; their lips clobbered bluntly and Andre lost a good share of his coffee in his lap. Scalded, he gasped and his legs straightened, which scuffed his scalp against the roof. He put his hand to the wounds, but the stitches seemed to hold.

Claire retreated to her seat. She tipped herself over the steering wheel and her hands latched her knees. A long hair clung to her ring finger; the other end twisted in the heater’s exhaust. Light through the window flickered in the strand. Andre extended his finger to touch it. Claire hurried her hand away then changed horses and plunked it in his.

“I’m sorry,” Andre said. “I’m not accustomed.”

“Me neither,” Claire told him. “Please, don’t think I am.”

Claire fit a straw through her coffee top. The radio played a commercial, though Andre couldn’t make out what for.

“I never saw you close to naked,” he said.

Claire gazed out the windshield. The market lights made the snow more starry than the sky.

“I went home early. Before eight always.”

“You scared me is all.” Claire unjoined their hands and stroked a finger on his split hairline. He winced.

“I used to pinch my brothers until they’d bleed,” she said quietly. “I guess I have a mean streak.” She returned her hand to the shifter ball. Her fingers tapped the enamel. He wanted them to doctor him.

“You spied on me in school,” she said.

“I guess I’m none too sly.”

“Someone else pointed it out to me. Stack.” Stack Edwards was in charge of PE and wore T-shirts, even in winter. Andre hadn’t seen them as much as sit together.

Claire took Andre’s hand in hers then raised them both.

“He didn’t like public displays of affection.”

Their coffee depleted, Andre excused himself to refill the cups. A Williams girl tended the till; she had a gabby bent and the line went three deep, and when Andre returned, Claire’s eyes were closed and her head rested on the window. The temperature had dropped near zero, a hard freeze that would require ranchers like his father to ax creek beds to water stock.

A yellow mongrel crept from beneath the streetlight; her steps rasped the still air like a sawyer’s saw. She paused to sniff an empty can and her ribs fluttered. For a moment she eyed Andre, then vanished in the dark. Andre perched the coffees on the car top. Back in the grocery, he paid for a handful of jerky then fished five straps from the jar. He exited through the back door and sat on the concrete steps.

Outside, Andre regarded the highway from the coulee out. He’d traveled it a hundred times, if once. College returning home, Highway 2, first, you hit the air force base, then Reardan, then the Lincoln county seat of Davenport, then Creston in the scablands. Andre recalled seventh-grade basketball, a balcony extended over one of their gymnasium’s corners, where the Creston team would force the ball out of bounds then blanket the inbounder with their tallest player. Opponents had to bounce a pass between his legs or risk the balcony. Eight miles later, Wilbur, and more wheat country, million-dollar land. From Wilbur, you divert for the coulee through more wheat until the highway descended into the rocks. Once an Ice Age glacial dam near Clark Fork stopped a Montana full of water. A thaw blasted the country into a mile-wide gutter. The place looks ravaged by giants.

The highway drops and the coulee walls rise and the sky becomes just a block of blue. Then you see the river, the reservoir, and farther, a mass of concrete that backs the Columbia into Canada.

The dog whimpered in the shadows then squatted and leapt for the open dumpster. Her claws scraped the metal. The sound doubled in the cold stillness. Andre skidded a jerky piece across the frozen lot. The dog halted. She inched herself to the meat, sniffed then ate; he offered her more, each closer until she arrived at his feet. Andre held out his hands and she licked them clean. A piece of him knew Claire would be asleep in the warmed car when he returned and it would be as if he’d never left her, while another remained certain she would be absent and whatever had happened between them had not.

* * *

Claire awoke an hour later, Andre’s shoulder pillowing her cheek; her mouth wet a line on his sleeve.

“Your coffee’s bad,” he told her. “You want more?”

Claire shook her head. “It keeps me awake, as you can tell.” She yawned. “Do you see anyone?”

“Just the doctor there when I’m down with something.”

“To date, I mean.”

Andre didn’t reply. Finally he piled the two empty cups on the floor into his own then stuffed them with the napkins that remained.

“You do,” Claire said.

“What?”

“See someone.”

Andre laughed. Claire wrapped herself in the arms of her jacket.

“Why are you cleaning my car, if not to go?”

Andre stopped.

“I told him to shove off because of you. Stack, I mean,” Claire said.

She dipped her shoulders under her coat then offered her hand to shake and make an end of it. Andre took it. Her skin was as smooth as when he first touched it and his as thick. Her words were all he’d had of a woman’s voice outside grocery checkers and barmaids in two years, and the kiss his first not inflicted by alcohol or mistletoe since high school. The wadded napkins had unfolded inside the cup like petals on a flower, their slumping middle soaked with the dregs. He undid one and let it float to the carpet then another until she joined him, laughing, and soon the floor was cluttered with their mess and more when they rummaged scraps from the glove box and under the seats.

After a time, Andre returned once more to the market for fresh coffee. In the bathroom, he twisted the water to hot, then clamped his eyes shut and scoured his face with powdered soap and stared into the mirror over the sink. Once, in high school, he had scored eighteen points in a basketball playoff, yet near the game’s end stood at the free throw line, certain he would miss. In the second before he directed the shot forward and watched it careen off the rim, everything came clear and he understood that he’d arrived at the boundary of himself and would progress no further.

The back door was next to the restrooms and he employed it again after swapping the two coffees for a six-pack of stout.

Outside, the dog looked at him woefully. Andre opened a beer and ignored her. He filled his pockets with the others then lit out across a field for a road that led to another that led to his trailer and the whiskey there.

GENESIS

October 1941–November 1950

Neither Andre nor Smoker had access enough to their mother’s history to determine where the conflagration she was began. And she was as confounded as the boys.

As a child, summers, Peg spent many days with her mother’s aunt. In a small house overlooking the dam, her great-aunt baked or steamed or braised exotic foods for her neighbors just to satisfy her curious palate. All hours, she maintained a picnic table lined with meals and quantities a business concern would envy. She had cut back the lawn to construct a series of gardens, which held leeks, cabbage, jicama, radicchio, peppers, legumes, squashes of many kinds, turnips, yams, carrots, radishes, onions, chives, endive, dill, sage, turmeric, fennel, and marjoram. Peach and apricot trees shaded carrots in rows and a potato patch. Each summer evening with an air rifle she plunked the raccoons that ventured up the cliff’s twilight to rob her. She reared chickens in a roost on a fenced side lot and two goats for cheese and fried kid. She had tried sheep awhile and a Guernsey but could not hush them enough for the neighbors.

As a toddler, Peg pulled weeds for quarters and when she wanted to ride the carnival coasters. Perhaps, if she had lasted longer, she may have kept Peg sorted out, but she died from a brain aneurism before Peg enrolled in first grade.

By then Peg’s first-blood aunts had scattered like dandelion hair under a hard breath: Bernie, the oldest, into three short-lived marriages and, finally, the low-level political toil in which widows and intellectual divorcées engage to remain of consequence. She once said men were far more satisfying as well-dressed ideas than hairy-legged chimps with no pants.

Martha, the youngest, as dramatic as Bernie was aloof, her mouth a lipstick smear and her mascara-penciled eyebrows wings in flight over smoky gray eyes, burned through her days like a prairie fire with a tailwind. She clipped flowers and put them in her hair and donned loud-print blouses and frightened everyone but her children, whom in summers she deposited with her mother for the season. Peg’s father would permit her to camp with them under the stars where they smoked and hyperventilated and sniffed model glue from paper bags.

Together, the sisters were open wounds and Peg’s father, born in the middle, would flit from one end of the yard to the other at family gatherings, like a bee trying to pollinate warmth between the two. Their hard feelings troubled him more than either of the principals, who counted their anger as only another fact in the world and saw nothing lost in saying so.

Peg had a series of uncles, as well, though none were blood: mechanics and construction cohorts of her father without children of their own to stir or coddle. Edgar, her father’s best friend since grade school, was an orphan. He collected Peg three times a week after dance classes when her parents were otherwise occupied. Peg was a beauty already and aware of it. But when she flirted with him, as prepubescent girls will do, he simply offered her a Tootsie Pop and tuned the radio and sang in falsetto to Frankie Valli, all of which struck Peg as strange as most of her father’s friends leered at her from behind beer bottles and harassed her with Indian burns and tickling if her parents left the room. She prepared for such visits by stuffing her blouse and underwear with toilet paper. As a last resort she pissed her pants and hurried off to change.

* * *

Another uncle, Quantrill, limped as if tipped forward into an ever-present wind, due to a bullet Owen the Cop planted into his spine years before. The month following the shooting, the doctors expected Quantrill to die, then, after he was out of the woods, to remain wheelchair-bound. But fishing season Quantrill hobbled to Osborn Bay and cast in a line. Two hours later he’d landed a stringer of crappie.

By then he was out of surprises, though. Using a shovel was impossible and driving heavy equipment for more than ten minutes numbed his legs so he couldn’t operate pedals. He was a skilled engineer and accepted occasional state survey contracts, but smoked and drank coffee on his house’s covered porch mostly, alternating between two chairs and a swing to remain comfortable. He once attempted to coax Peg to jerk him off, but she found his hairy fist of balls and dick humorous and laughed, and he quickly zipped his canvas trousers and neither the subject nor his loins were raised again.

When Peg was eight, a neighbor woman hired Quantrill to paint her living room. Quantrill delivered Peg a brush and paint-filled coffee can, told her to go at the walls, then left for the tavern. Peg coated anything within reach. The woman lit into her but Quantrill claimed she was just being thorough. Quantrill did not appreciate argument. The next weekend, Peg found him by the fire pit in his back lot. Next to him was a matchbook and a heavy family Bible. He snapped a stick on a stone edge, watched it light, and then tossed the match into the pit. It died at the hole’s bottom. Quantrill ripped several pages from the Bible and sailed them into the pit, then struck another match. It caught. The pages yellowed with heat and released granite-colored smoke. Quantrill added more then tugged his lower lip like he was figuring. The flame burned low. He wadded several pages into a ball and tossed it at the coals.

“This book, it means something to that woman,” Quantrill explained. He tore another page. “Burning it means something, too.”

Quantrill arranged kindling sticks over the blaze and, when it pinked to coals, added a quartered tamarack. His skin appeared to soften as morning lifted. He set a grate over the fire and a skillet on it then added two ropes of sausage and scrambled the better part of a dozen eggs, then divided them onto paper plates and they drank orange juice from the carton and they breakfasted like gladiators.

* * *

On the other hand, Peg’s parents’ home appeared to possess a stability many of her peers’ lacked. The police only visited to inquire concerning Quantrill’s whereabouts. Her father drank occasionally and her mother not at all. Alcohol made her violently ill. The two spoke to each other civilly and when they disagreed didn’t empty the cabinets or clobber one another with frozen hams or ketchup bottles. Her mother grew petunias and dug weeds because the neighbors expected it. Her father rose at the hour the auto parts manager demanded and returned when the man turned him loose. He derived his most pleasure Saturday mornings, when, in jeans and a plain T-shirt, he tugged at bolts and hunted sticky lifters or bleeding gaskets under the hood of his ’41 Mercury Straight Eight. Several times locals offered twice what it booked and once a collector put up a ’45 Chevy and a ’38 Pontiac Streak to no avail.

When Peg was nine, her father fell from a ladder. With no insurance, he was compelled to sell the car to Quantrill, who let it sit in his driveway. Her father, though, walked the ten blocks separating their houses and ratcheted the braces and nursed the water or fuel pump just like he still possessed it. It was the history he could not face: the parts missing, the misfiring motor of his life.

* * *

By fifth grade, though, Peg either rained vitriol and blows on any adult or child who twisted her tail or stewed at her desk and piled bilious clouds in her mind in order to do so. She was mean weather, not a misguided urchin. Her teachers, good women, attempted to coax potential from her. She loathed the word. She’d rather be called an elephant, rather be an elephant—then she’d only have to pack weight, which was not nearly as bulky as other people’s convictions.

The principal resorted to a retired crone who isolated Peg inside a tiny room for special-ed kids. The woman hissed and plunked Peg’s ear with a ruler whenever she lifted her gaze from her worksheets. “I’ve set straight the likes of you many times, dear,” the woman told her.

The second day Peg sniffed at the woman when she neared her desk.

“What,” the woman said.

“I smell something spoiled,” Peg told her.

“You smell nothing of the kind.”

That evening Peg rustled half a dozen bad eggs from her uncle’s refrigerator. She hid two in an unused desk.

“It’s you,” Peg told her. “You smell like female problems.”

“I do not.” The woman huffed, but any time she approached, Peg grimaced. The woman spent twenty minutes searching the room for odors.

After class, Peg added two more eggs to the radiator vents. Next morning, the woman lined an air freshener and two cans of Lysol on her desk. Peg twisted the thermostat to high.

“Don’t you bathe?” Peg asked the woman.

“You just keep to yourself,” the crone replied, but the authority in her had departed. The next morning she arrived in disarray and applied her lipstick skittishly in front of the coatroom mirror, then rearranged her gray hair and bobby-pinned it in place, but it fell apart before she crossed the room. Peg walked to the board. DOUCHE, she wrote in perfect capital letters.

The woman scurried from the room. Through a window, Peg saw her enter her car and drive from the parking lot. Peg collected the eggs and threw them into the back lot. An hour later the principal escorted her to her regular classroom.

That evening, after an hour detention, the high-school sports bus delivered her home. An overcast sky drizzled. Peg traversed the damp lawn to her family’s front porch and shook herself dry. In the big window, she recognized her parents’ heads. Her father nursed a beer and nodded with the TV news. Her mother scratched at a crossword puzzle. They were accustomed to Peg’s late returns and teacher’s notes and principal’s phone calls.

The end of the light leaked from the sky. Inside, her parents and the room grew yellow and warm in the house lights. Her father extended his arm across the recliner arm and held her mother’s hand, his thumb circling the tiny bones in her mother’s wrist. Peg locked one hand upon the other and searched out the same places, but finding them, felt nothing.

The television anchorman talked but from outside he was just a huge, understanding face she couldn’t hear. Her parents’ hands remained joined and Peg recognized, with the kind of sudden intuition children possess, that her parents, unlike the newsman, were genuine and ordinary, a thing to be proud of compared to a man in makeup reading news at a camera. They aspired nothing past tending each other’s needs and looking after her. Peg knew, if she decided to, she could come through the door and crawl into her father’s recliner and he would loop an arm over her so she could burrow into him and be less separate. And her mother would scurry into the kitchen and fetch her a meal with a glass of milk. Peg would devour the food while they peppered her with questions about her day and she would have a different life, one with quiet and holding hands. It was not some promised land a desert and forty years off. All it required was to twist the knob and lean on the door. Part of her wanted to be warmed and fed by these good people. They were strangers, yes, but everyone was a stranger to everyone else. Her mother and father didn’t intend their strangeness toward her nor she to them and perhaps faith and goodwill could wear a path to each other.

Peg remained on the porch a long while. Her parents’ hands separated. Her mother set out the TV trays and delivered silverware and salt and pepper to her father, then a plate full of roast and potatoes and carrots in gravy. Then she did for herself. They ate carefully, as if eating mattered, and it did; everything mattered for them: the garden, the carburetor float, the silverware in order, and the end wrenches lined accurately in the shop cabinet. And Peg, she mattered as well, most of all, maybe. Each night, separately or together, her parents entered her room after they thought she was asleep. They straightened the dresser drawers, lined underwear and socks in one, blouses in another, T-shirts and pajamas in another yet. They organized her disheveled knickknacks on shelves her father had constructed and tested monthly for level. They repeated the behavior like prayer. And like prayer it was as much for them as for her, Peg knew.

She circled to the backyard and smoked a cigarette. The neighbors’ tabby cat leaped from the slatted fence and approached. It rubbed her legs and purred. Peg scratched it and the cat tipped its nose to the sky with a look past joy—not ecstasy, she knew about that from Quantrill’s stag films—it was, she decided, certainty. The animal was happy and before or after did not penetrate now.

Peg backhanded the cat and watched it roll then scramble to its feet and examine her, blinking. Then it trod forward and again wound through Peg’s ankles. That was what hope looked like. Peg petted the cat for half an hour until a noise inside startled the animal and it bolted for the fence and home.

Peg checked the kitchen from the back window. Her mother had lined the dishes to dry in the Rubbermaid rack and retreated to the living room. Peg carefully inched open the back slider and descended the stairs to her room in the basement, where she turned the music up and leafed through a Cosmopolitan. Above she heard her parents’ footsteps and felt their worry and it didn’t much concern her.


Copyright © 2018 by Bruce Holbert