Troubles come in threes, Pa always said. I knew it was true. When my little brother Kenny broke his arm falling out of a tree, Pa said there’d be two more catastrophes before long, and sure enough, there were.
The very next day I cut my thumb on a tuna fish can and had to have three stitches, and a week later Ma lost a contact down the bathroom sink. We had insurance that took care of the emergency room charges on the first two, but we had to pay for the new contact, and it meant Pa couldn’t buy the boots he’d been counting on.
So I guessed, when Pa came home and told us a load of new TVs he’d been hauling had been swiped while he was parked in a truck stop, that we were in for a whole lot of trouble.
I hoped the next two things wouldn’t be as bad as the first one.
Pa was in a real bad mood when he told us. Ma licked her lips and asked, “Are they blaming you?”
His mouth was twisted and ugly. “Well, nobody’s given me any medal for it. The truck and the load are my responsibility, as dispatch pointed out.”
Ma pushed back a lock of dark hair with the back of her hand. She’d been stirring spaghetti sauce and was holding a wooden spoon, and she didn’t even notice when the sauce dripped onto her blouse. “Are they going to fire you?”
Pa kicked the leg of a chair so it came out from the table and sat down, scowling. “It wasn’t my fault, but when did that ever matter to E and F?”
E and F were Edward and Frank, partners in E & F Alberts Trucking. E was fat and always joking, and F was skinny and bald. Edward gave me gum when I went into the office with Pa sometimes, but I sort of liked Frank better. He remembered my first name and called me Rick instead of Sonny.
I stood in the doorway, waiting, because if Pa got fired it might mean we’d have to move, and I didn’t want to move. And it might even mean Ma would lose her job, too, because she was the bookkeeper at E & F Alberts Trucking.
Ma noticed the spoon was dripping and put it back in the pot. I could tell she was upset. “So they haven’t talked to you yet? You don’t know if they’ll fire you?”
Pa swore. “Who cares? A good driver can get a job anywhere,” he said.
Kenny came up behind me, his eyes wide. He’s only seven, and usually he’s not paying much attention to what’s going on with the rest of us, but nobody could listen to Pa’s voice and not realize it was something serious this time. Once he was out of work for more than a month, and it made him pretty bad-tempered.
Kenny looked at me, but I shook my head. I didn’t know how bad it was yet.
“Anywhere,” Ma echoed. She didn’t want to move any more than I did.
“Don’t sweat it,” Pa said, but now he sounded bleak rather than mad. “I’m not fired
yet. I had to talk to the cops for over an hour. Maybe they’ll get the stuff back.”
A whole semi-load of TVs would be worth a lot of money. It made my mouth dry to think about it. I hoped they wouldn’t expect Pa to pay for them. There was never quite enough money to go around anyway, without something like this going wrong.
Ma noticed us standing there. “Rick, you and Kenny go wash up. Supper’s almost ready.”
I wanted to hear what they were going to say, but in a way I didn’t want to. I heard Ma ask, “What happened? Where were you when they got it? Did they take the trailer and all?”
“What do you think?” Pa said. “They took the stuff off box by box without getting caught?”
Ma looked hurt, the way she did when he was sarcastic.
“Yes, they took the entire trailer, while I was eating supper! I stopped at the place I always stop when I go that route. There was this guy who had to tarp up. I helped him do it before his load got wet, and he offered to buy me a steak.”
“Was he anybody you knew?” Ma asked.
It seemed a simple question, and I didn’t quite understand why it made Pa more irritated.
“No. I never saw him before. I don’t even know his real name; he said they call him Bones. Because he’s so skinny, I guess. I helped him with the tarp, and then we went inside to eat. My rig was parked out back, the way it usually is. I wasn’t in the restaurant more than half an hour, and when I came out, my trailer was gone!”
Pa was so angry that I pushed Kenny ahead of me down the hall to the bathroom and shut the door behind us so we couldn’t hear the rest.
Supper was good, but nobody ate much of it. Nobody talked, either. I’d got an A on a math paper, and ordinarily I’d have bragged about it, but not tonight. It hurt to swallow, and an A didn’t seem to mean much.
I heard my folks talking after we’d gone to bed, though the only time I could make out the words was when they raised their voices. There was Ma’s soft murmur, and then Pa practically thundered, “What kind of question is that to ask your husband? No, I didn’t have anything to do with it!”
It took me a few minutes to figure out that she must have asked if he’d helped someone steal his trailer and load. Pa wouldn’t do that, I thought, he couldn’t steal. But she’d asked him, and now he was madder than ever.
Eleven’s too old to cry, but it was hard not to. After that they went in their own bedroom and the murmur grew so low that I couldn’t make out any of it.
It was a long time before I went to sleep, wondering what awful thing was going to happen next.
I found out first thing in the morning. While we were eating our oatmeal with brown sugar on it, Ma told us Pa was gone.
I put down my spoon, feeling all still and sickish inside. “Gone?” I repeated softly. “Gone where?”
“I don’t know where,” Ma said. Her voice was flat, and her hand trembled when she picked up her coffee cup. She tried to smile, but it didn’t work very well. “It looks like it’s going to be just you and me, boys.”
I struggled with panic. “You don’t mean Pa’s left? For good?”
“I’m afraid so.”
She looked at me then, and put down her cup to reach for my hand. “Rick, you know we haven’t been getting along so well for a long time now.”
I knew. I’d heard them arguing after they thought I was asleep.
“But he can’t have gone!” I protested hollowly. “Not without even saying good-bye to Kenny and me!”
“I’m afraid he did, Rick.”
I remembered all the things Pa and I were going to do together. Like the trips he’d promised me, one to Wyoming sometime when he had a load out there this summer, to where you could still see wild antelope grazing on the hills. Or maybe to Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico, where he’d seen dolphins playing in the surf off the beach.
Kenny was starting to cry. He went over to Ma and she hugged him.
I wanted to be hugged, too, but I just sat there. First Pa had his load and his trailer stolen, and now he was gone. My throat hurt when I swallowed. I reckoned there couldn’t be anything much worse that could happen.
Or could there? I was almost sick to my stomach, wondering what the third big trouble would be.
I could never have guessed it would be as bad as it was.
• • •
For a few days I kept hoping that Pa would be there when I got home from school. He’d been mad enough to walk out and slam the door before, but up to now he’d always come home, late, not so mad anymore.
He didn’t come, though. Once I walked into the living room in the evening when Ma was talking on the phone to her friend Sally Pope and I heard her say, “I hope he cares enough about the boys to send me part of his paycheck to take care of them. I can’t swing the rent on this apartment all by myself for very long.”
I backed out before Ma saw me. Kenny wanted to know what was the matter when I walked into our bedroom, and I shook my head. “I’m just missing Pa, I guess.”
Kenny was building a spaceship with Legos on the floor between our beds. “I miss him, too. He was going to bring me a real turquoise belt
buckle the next time he went to Albuquerque. Do you think he still will, Rick?”
“Sure, probably,” I said, but it was more to make him feel better than because I believed it.
We were used to Pa being gone, because he drove an eighteen-wheeler all over the country and was only home between trips. Sometimes he didn’t bring anything but an empty Thermos bottle and his dirty clothes. But we never knew when he might show up with a bag of kiwi fruits from California, or grapefruit from Arizona, or T-shirts from anywhere.
The neatest shirt he ever brought me made Ma roll her eyes. It was white, and there was a big black shark on the front and the words Shark Attack! The best part was the red splashes of “blood” all over, and the hole in one side with jagged teeth marks, like a shark had torn it out. When I wore it to school, Mr. Mellon suggested that now everyone had seen it, I should save it for weekends. The kids thought it was neat, except for Emmy Lou Wiggins. Emmy Lou said it was gross.
It wasn’t just for the presents I wanted Pa
back, though. When he and Ma weren’t arguing about something, we played Pictionary or went over to the park and played catch. Sometimes we’d go to the lake with a picnic lunch and swim.
It made my throat ache to think of never doing those things anymore, and I kept hoping Pa would at least send a postcard with palm trees or mountains or something on it.
Ma went to work every day, and Kenny and I went to school; there was no word from Pa until one day when I took the mail out of the box and there was an envelope that had his handwriting on it.
I couldn’t wait for Ma to get home from work to give it to her. “It’s thick,” I pointed out. “Maybe he wrote a big long letter.”
“Richard Van Huler, write a letter?” she asked, but I could see she was hoping he had.
There wasn’t any letter, though. Just a stack of twenty-dollar bills. The paper folded around them was blank.
Ma sighed as she counted the money. “Well, at least I can pay the rent for this next month. Where was it mailed?”
I’d already looked at the postmark. “St. Louis. That’s not so far away. Maybe he’ll come home soon.”
Ma looked at me sadly. “Honey, don’t count on it,” she said.