I know he's coming. His sentence was seven years, but after less than three, he's made parole. Mama sends me the news on one of her yellow stickies: FYI, with the date he's being released -- June 3, 1991 -- circled several times in thick black pen.
On the phone I remind her of the letter I sent him after Willie was born, explaining I wouldn't be writing anymore, it was over between us. I talk as though I believe the letter convinced him, and change the subject while she's still feeling relieved.
For weeks I expect him to show up at the club. Sometimes I peer out into the blackness of the audience, wondering if his eyes are on me, if he is listening. Once, I'm sure I hear him laughing right before the first set and I screw up one of the verses of our big opening number: a medley of oldies we call "Yesterday Once More." Our keyboard player, Jonathan, frowns and later, grumbles to the other guys that I'm an airhead. He doesn't like me, none of them really do. Before I came along a year ago, they were the Jonathan Brewer Quartet, no chick singer, strictly jazz. They didn't make any money as Fred Larsen, our manager, likes to point out. Fred likes money and he likes me just fine.
Fred renamed the band, making me the primary attraction, the name on the marquee and the face in the advertisements. At the time I felt flattered; now I realize this means it will be easy for Rick to find me. And he does, but he doesn't come to the club. We're doing a two-week stint in Paducah, Kentucky; it's the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday in July so hot the blacktop feels soft under my sandals. I've been down the road at the drugstore, picking up chewable vitamins for Willie, and as I round the corner, I feel my breath catch as I see him, slumping in a lawn chair outside of my motel room with his head against the green concrete wall. Asleep.
He looks paler, a little thinner, but otherwise the same. His hair is still long with a few curls; he still has a gold earring in his left ear, and he still has the stubble on his chin that's become the style for guys now but he's had ever since I've known him. Even the clothes he's wearing are familiar: black cap pushed back a little, tight, faded blue jeans, white T-shirt advertising Lewisville Motor Sports, a place he used to work years ago, before he met me. In a way, I'm relieved -- I imagined terrible things happening to him in prison, things that would mark him, change him -- but I'm also more nervous.
Asleep, he looks younger, almost innocent. And so much like Willie, that's what hits me the hardest.
He hasn't heard me coming, I could still back away, but I don't. Willie is with my friend Irene for the next few hours and this is as good a time as any. I say his name and he wakes up so suddenly that he bangs his head. And then he rubs his eyes and looks at me.
Instinctively, I cross my arms. When he last saw me, I was so skinny I could hide an ounce of weed in the waist of my junior size five jeans. Having Willie made me fill out everywhere. Now I wear a misses size eight.
He stares at me for a minute, and then he's standing and mumbling, "Patty, Jesus," as he reaches for me so quickly that I drop my package.
His skin is hot and sweaty but I don't pull away. He's trembling and his voice is soft, telling me he's missed me so much, please don't make a scene, he's violating parole to be here, out of state. But he had to see me, just for a little while. He can't stay long; he has to see his parole officer back in Kansas City first thing Monday morning.
When I finally step back, I'm shaking too because it has occurred to me that I smell like Willie. And because I know we're standing two feet from the door to my room, and on the other side of the door is the evidence: diapers, Willie's clothes, stuffed animals, Ninja turtles, and Matchbox cars.
The thought that Irene and Willie may come back early makes me decide what to do. I pick up my drugstore bag and shove it in my purse. "Let's go to the coffee shop across the street," I say, already moving in that direction.
I look back and see him still standing by the door. I know he wants to go to my room so we can be alone. "Patty," he mutters, but when I turn back around and begin walking, I hear him following me.
At the restaurant we order too much food to distract ourselves from the awkwardness. He sips his coffee and says he doesn't want to talk about prison; then he asks me questions about my job.
I tell him we're a cover band, playing pop and rock songs, old and new. I tell him about Jonathan's original pieces, how beautiful they are, no words, just the richest melodies and a deep, complicated interplay between the instruments, and how if the crowd is small, the group gets to play some of those songs in the last set.
I'm still describing one of the songs when Rick interrupts. "I've never heard you talk about music like this before."
He's leaning back, looking straight at me. I tell him I've been with the band for almost a year; I've picked up a lot of the language. I don't say that nearly everything I've learned I've had to overhear, since none of the guys will talk to me about music. Jonathan resents me even being on stage when he plays the instrumentals, even though he knows it's not my doing. It's Fred's biggest rule: "The Patty Taylor Band has Patty Taylor on all night." When I'm not singing, he wants me to shake a tambourine and smile, or dance a little in the tight gowns he has me wear. Once Jonathan complained that having a chick gyrating distracted the audience from his art, and Fred snapped, "You better get over your problem with her if you don't want to find your ass on the street."
"I can't wait to hear you," Rick says, tapping his fingers. "I always knew you'd be a star."
I don't bother telling him that the most I ever make -- at the top clubs, the ones Fred has to sweat to get us in -- is four hundred dollars a week. I'm hardly a star.
I ask him if he has a job yet and he shrugs. "I've only been out a few weeks." He smiles. "I've been busy...busy thinking about you."
Both of us are finished picking at our food when he lowers his voice and tells me he still has it. One of his friends kept it for him while he was in jail. And he can give me some. He can give me as much as I need.
I know he's talking about all the money he had: thousands of dollars he kept in a blue duffel bag in the bedroom closet, next to the other bag, the one that said Reebok, which he used to carry his guns. I'm surprised; I figured the cops confiscated all the cash when they tore our apartment to pieces the morning after he was arrested. I stare at the wall behind him and think about what that money could mean for Willie. But then I think what Rick might mean for Willie, and I don't respond.
"Come on," he says, and smiles a half smile. "What do I have to do? Stick the money in your hand?"
He's trying to remind me of the day we met. I look away, pretend to be interested in the old couple who've just sat down at the next table -- but of course I'm thinking about that day now too.
It was late fall, my freshman year. Mama had gone on another of her drinking binges, and I was sitting on the bleachers of the deserted baseball field, trying to decide where to go. I didn't have any real friends; I couldn't bring anyone to my house, knowing how Mama was. I was tired of going to the Baptist church shelter, tired of having to tell them the same lie, that I'd run away, and then be forced to listen to the counselor telling me how worried my family had to be.
By the time Rick came along it was nearly dark. I might have been crying a little. I prided myself on my ability not to cry when Mama threw me out, but this time was different. This time she'd pushed me out the door before I could grab my Walkman. I had nothing to listen to but the sound of my own lonely breath.
He parked his car by first base and walked over and stood in front of me.
"I've driven by here three times tonight," he said. "You haven't moved. Are you all right?"
I mumbled, "Yeah," and tried not to look at him. I knew who he was, even though I didn't know his name. He and his friends had fancy cars and bad reputations; of course they stuck out in a town as small as Lewisville, Missouri. One of the girls at my school said they were a gang of big-time drug dealers, but I figured she was making it up. This wasn't New York or L.A. Our local paper covered Cub Scout food drives and car washes, not gangs and drug busts.
I heard him exhale. "You need a place to stay tonight." When I didn't answer, he opened his wallet and started pulling out twenties. "Go to Red Roof Inn. Debbie works there. Tell her Rick sent you."
I shook my head, but he stuck the money in my palm and told me to do it. Then he said, more quietly, "I'm not going to hurt you."
He left before I could give the money back, and I didn't see him until the next morning, after I woke up in the beautiful Red Roof. I was never sure the hotel was a good idea, but I got cold. It was a few blocks away. I wanted the clean sheets and the TV.
He was waiting in the lobby. When he asked if I wanted some breakfast, I was floored. I hadn't had anybody offer me breakfast since I was seven years old.
Later, Rick admitted it was partly charity but not just that. He thought my hair was absolutely gorgeous. From the road, when he was driving by, he could see it was blond and very long, way past my waist. And when he saw the rest of me, he thought I was like a girl in a dream he had, a girl he'd always been looking for. To me, he was like the big brother and uncle and boyfriend I'd never had, all rolled into one. Meeting him, I'd finally found my luck.
I wait for the waitress to pour more coffee and take our plates before I change the subject, away from money and our past, back to the band. Rick listens to me talk about the places our band has been. I tell him we're based in Kansas City, but we're on the road most of the time, playing hotels and little clubs. I'm in the middle of a story about a wedding we played in Fayetteville, Arkansas, when he tells me he has to know.
I give him a startled glance.
"What did you name him?" He clears his throat. "Or is it her?"
I feel like I've just been punched. I was so careful not to be in Lewisville the whole time I was pregnant. I lived in a home for pregnant girls down in Kansas City. I never saw anyone who knew us, or so I thought.
I force a confused look, insist I have no idea what he's talking about.
"Just tell me the baby's name, Patty," he says, his voice urgent, his hands flat on the table. "Please."
"He's not a baby. He's almost two and a half." I pause before whispering, "William."
"William Malone," he says, but I correct him. Willie has my last name. Mine.
"Right," he says. Then softly, amazed, "I have a son...Does he know about me?"
I feel tears in my throat as all at once I'm remembering when Willie was born. I was alone in the county hospital. My counselor from the home didn't show up and there was no one else to call; Mama hadn't even spoken to me since I'd thrown away the pamphlets from the clinic and refused to get an abortion. When the pain got bad, I started screaming for him. Rick, help me. Rick, it hurts. Rick, I need you, please come. The nurse gave me a shot of Demerol and I got confused and thought he was on his way. I asked her, "Is he here yet?" over and over. When the doctor came in, he looked at me as though I was pathetic, slightly nuts. I'd already told them the father was dead; I didn't want to say he was in prison.
Remembering this is too hard; I can't sit in this restaurant anymore. I tell him good-bye, and then I'm running between the booths and outside, across the street, back to the place Willie and I call home for now.
"Patty," he says, touching my elbow. He has caught up with me outside of my room door, and he's so close I can feel his breath on my hair.
"Go away," I stammer.
"You don't want that." He turns me around to face him; his hands are on my shoulders. "You don't want that," he says again, looking in my eyes as though he's willing it to be true.
I don't pull away when he gathers me in his arms and whispers, "I love you." I know he means it. For so many years, his love was the one thing I could count on, the one thing I knew would never change. And he let me get closer to him than anybody ever had; he let me see him be weak. Only I knew that he sobbed for fifteen minutes when his best friend got his throat cut in a bar fight. Only I knew that he fell on his knees and screamed to God for help when I was standing on the rail of the Lewisville River Bridge, about to jump, because I couldn't live without him and I couldn't stand our life.
After a while a businessman drives up in a dusty Plymouth. He's fiddling with his bags, trying not to stare at us. Rick lowers his voice and says, "Let's go in your room. Just for a few minutes," and I put in the key as an answer. But before I open the door, I look at him, remind him this is just for a few minutes, and he nods.
The hotel room is small and cramped with ugly, square furniture, but the mess of Willie's toys and clothes make it seem softer, more colorful. His little blanket is lying in a heap on the floor between the bed and the dresser. Rick picks it up, quickly passes it over his face, inhales, before setting it on the dresser. Mama bought the blanket and Willie's favorite stuffed animal, the green beagle with the blue-and-white cap he sleeps with while I'm at work -- even though she didn't want me to have Willie. She was holding the presents when she showed up at the hospital when Willie was two days old. She'd joined AA; she said she was there to take us home.
"He's beautiful," Rick says, as he fingers a picture of Willie and me that sits by the bolted-down television. "He looks like you."
I know that isn't true but I don't say it. I'm sitting on the edge of the bed, watching him. He's moving towards me and I know he will touch me if I don't stop him.
Mama used to say that Rick and I were nothing but a physical attraction -- this was whenever she was sober enough to remember who he was. She was wrong, but the physical attraction was undeniable. Even after three years of living together, we still fell on each other pretty much every time we were alone.
He's kneeling in front of me; his hands are resting on my hair. He's mumbling, "You look so good," and he's leaning forward, but I'm telling myself I'll stop him before it goes much further. But I don't stop him as he puts his lips on my neck and down to my shoulders and then down lower, giving soft kisses through my shirt to my breasts. After a while his hands are moving on my thighs; he whispers, "This is my dream," and I realize I'm losing the will to stop him. Then I hear Willie's laughter and I go rigid. He and Irene are at the door.
"Shit," I mutter, and jump up. My hands are straightening out my shirt and shorts; Rick is standing too.
"Well, hey, it took you long enough," Irene says, when I throw open the door. "It sure is gloomy in here," she adds, walking to the blinds and pulling them open with a screech. She spins around and sees him but he doesn't look at her. He's too busy watching Willie, who has run over and is hanging on my leg.
I pick him up and he feels heavy, sleepy. I ask Irene if he had a nap and she shakes her head. "I drove him all over town, but he never conked."
"Mama," he says, and buries his face in my shoulder as he points his little finger at Rick. They have the same eyes, eyes so big and brown and soft they seem to absorb you when you look at them.
After a minute, I snap on the TV and set him in front of it. When I introduce Rick to Irene, she walks over and sticks out her hand. "So you're Willie's father," she blurts out, and I want to kick her, but Willie doesn't notice.
Rick nods and shakes her hand but he doesn't say anything. He stands with his arms crossed while Irene smiles and talks and tries to figure him out.
"Well, I guess I better go wake up Harry," Irene finally says. Harry is her boyfriend, our bass player. It's three o'clock in the afternoon; as usual, the guys in the band stayed up all night jamming. Irene calls herself a day person and she likes me because I am too -- now that I have Willie.
When we get to the door, I thank her for taking care of Willie, but she grabs my arm and pulls me outside. "Wow, Patty," she says. "He's really something."
While she's telling me how cute Rick is, I'm looking through the door, trying to see what he's doing with Willie. I don't feel annoyed with Irene though. She's a good friend; six nights a week, she sits in my room and watches Willie while the band plays. She tells me she doesn't want to come to the club anyway, she's sick of music. She also says she's tired of being on the road with Harry, that she's going back to Kansas City soon and get herself a nice place, settle down, find a real job rather than making jewelry for peanuts like she does now. I listen but I know she isn't serious. Irene adores Harry. She says he's the only man who can make her laugh even when she's furious.
"I guess this is a lot for you to deal with, honey." She's squinting now, worried. She knows Rick was in jail but she doesn't know why. At some point, she thinks to ask if I need her to send Harry over to throw him out. Harry is six-three and weighs at least 250 pounds. Irene calls him her gangster boy because he's black and he's from New York.
"You know Harry won't really hit him," she whispers, "but he can look the part."
I tell her no, I don't need that, and she pats my arm. She says to give a yell if I need anything at all.
Before she walks across the parking lot, she turns back and gives me another worried look. I shrug like this is no big deal. I can handle it. I can handle anything.
When I get back into the room, Willie is lying flat on his back, sound asleep. The TV is off and the air conditioner has shut down; it's so quiet I can hear Willie breathing. Rick is sitting next to him, lightly stroking Willie's fine blond hair. Blond hair is the only thing Willie got from me, and Mama says it's bound to darken before he's much older. Willie's eyebrows are dark already, like Rick's.
"He's so little," Rick whispers, and smiles. "It's hard to believe he's two."
I tell Rick his birthday was back in February, but I don't talk about what it was like that day: miserable and raining and nothing like what I'd hoped for him. We had to make five hundred miles by six o'clock in order to have time to set up for the gig; Willie had to eat his birthday cake in the van. I told Willie we'd go to McDonald's for dinner as soon as we got into town but then there wasn't a McDonald's, at least not on the main drag. Harry tried to cheer him up, told him Burger King was better.
"This is no ordinary hamburger shack, Willie," Harry said. "It's a palace. We're in the presence of the Supreme Lord. The Burger Duke? No. The Burger Prince? No. The Burger Master himself. The Burger Emperor. The most holy, Burger King."
Willie looked confused but he laughed because Harry was grinning and wearing a cardboard Burger King crown. When he opened his toy though, he started crying again. It wasn't a Hot Wheels like they had at McDonald's, it wasn't even a toy to his way of thinking, it was just a coloring book.
Poor guy, I thought, as I pulled him on my lap. The only things he wanted for his birthday were a Happy Meal from McDonald's and a tricycle. He got the tricycle, but he hadn't been able to ride it yet; it was packed in the back of the van between Dennis's drums.
Later that night after the gig, I sat in our hotel room, drinking a beer, making a list of my accomplishments on the back of a napkin. I was desperate to convince myself that I was doing all right. That I was making a life for Willie and me, even if it wasn't perfect. Even if it wasn't close to perfect.
One: I hadn't touched any drugs, not even weed, since the day I found out I was pregnant. Two: I'd worked hard and completed my GED before Willie was born, so he'd never have to feel like his mother wasn't good enough. Three: I'd been there for him day in, day out for two years. Four: I'd supported the two of us.
I wrote down the number five but I was stuck; no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't think of anything else. I was near tears; I'd planned on a list of at least ten accomplishments. As I drank another beer, I stared at number four -- supporting the two of us -- wondering if it was the reason I was drawing a blank, if it was messing up my list the same way it had messed up Willie's birthday.
Rick is still running his fingers through Willie's hair. "You like all this traveling?" he says, looking around the room and then at me. "You always said you wanted to stay in one place. A home."
I did say that, Rick is right. I didn't even want to leave our first apartment, run-down though it was. He made me move to the new complex outside of Lewisville, so we could have a dishwasher and air-conditioning. I cried when his friends came to load up the furniture.
Of course he remembers that, but now I tell him the traveling isn't that bad. Then I shrug. "I don't have a choice."
It feels true. No question, it was worse the first year of Willie's life. Even though Mama had stayed sober and turned into a surprisingly good granny, it was still hard. I worked nights as a dishwasher while Mama stayed with Willie. My feet ached all the time, my breasts leaked milk, and my take-home pay wasn't even a hundred and twenty a week. But then I saw Fred's ad in the Kansas City Star, and I got up my nerve and went to the audition. By the time I told him about Willie, we'd been rehearsing for two months and were ready to hit the road. He frowned and shook his head but he didn't complain. I decided not to tell him that I wouldn't turn twenty-one for another month. According to the press release he sends out to the clubs, I've been singing professionally for five years, I studied vocals at the University of Missouri, and I won a singing contest in Kansas City while I was still a teenager.
Only the last thing is true. I did win that contest. Rick drove me to the auditorium and he sat in the front row. I'd been nervous all morning, but as soon as the piano started, I forgot everything but the music they'd given me to sing. It was a wonderful Gershwin song, "I Loves You Porgy"; I just wanted to do it justice, get it right. And I did get it right, I knew that when I hit the last note perfectly and the applause started, loud and furious, like a thunderstorm waking me from a dream. I was smiling, bowing. I felt alive.
All the contestants were supposed to wait in the hall while the committee decided the winner. I was standing down a little bit from everybody else when Rick came up. He hugged me and said how proud he was, but then he took my hand and pulled me around the corner and down another hall.
"I have to go back." There was no one around but still I whispered. "Rick -- "
"Watching you...I can't wait." He pushed my hand on the crotch of his jeans. "Feel that?"
Before I could object, he pulled me inside a janitor's closet and shut the door. I was still sweating but I shivered when I felt the cold steel bucket with the dirty mop against my leg.
I could hear the loud laughter of one of the other contestants, an older girl named Elizabeth. They all seemed to know each other -- most of them were friends, taking music classes at the college. When one of the guys had asked where I studied, I told him the name of my old high school. Then he asked me the name of the music teacher, and I found myself stammering like an idiot. I'd dropped out in the middle of freshman year, before I could try out for chorus.
"I don't belong here anyway," I said softly, more to myself than to Rick. He was kissing my neck. His response was a groan.
By the time I heard them announce my name over the loudspeaker, I'd forgotten that I cared. Rick heard it too and put his hand over my mouth. "Keep it down," he said, and laughed. "What will they think if they hear their little contest winner doing this?"
Afterwards, Rick went with me to pick up the certificate and the five hundred dollars I won. I was leaning against him when one of the judges asked what I was going to do with the money, if I would use it to further my singing career.
"She'll probably buy crap for the apartment," Rick said. He was smiling. "That's what she does with the money I give her."
I didn't say anything. I felt ridiculous, but it was true. Whenever I got any money, I ended up spending it on our place. It seemed like there was always something else we needed: spaghetti strainer, soap dish, laundry basket, welcome mat. Always one more thing and then our place would be a regular home.
It was less than a week after the concert when Rick and his friends were arrested during a heroin deal. And then, at the end of the month, my period didn't come. For a long time, I winced whenever I thought about the possibility that Willie had been conceived in a janitor's closet. Later I felt like maybe that Gershwin tune had something to do with it. Like one of my eggs came down, ready and happy, because it heard that gorgeous music.
"I can't believe he's real," Rick is saying, touching Willie's pink, dimpled knee. "Our kid."
Rick leans down and lightly kisses his forehead. After a minute, he sits up straighter, reaches for my hand, brings it to his lips. Whispers that he loves me. That he has to have me with him again. Me and Willie too.
I stand up and motion for him to follow me into the bathroom. When I shut the door behind us, I tell him it's time to leave now. He starts to reach for me but I back up against the wall. As he comes closer, I tell him I can't be with him anymore. I've changed. And when he grabs me anyway, pressing his body against mine, licking my ear, I pull away and tell him a lie. I say there's somebody else now, I'm sorry. Then I whisper that if he doesn't leave, I'll have to call the cops.
He drops his arms; the anger passes across his face so quickly that most people wouldn't see it. Then he slumps down on the toilet and puts his face in his hands. He stays there for a while, and I'm trying not to look at him, trying not to notice the slight movement of his shoulders that means he's crying.
Finally, he stands up and leaves without saying a word. I lock the door and collapse in the chair by the window, barely able to breathe. It isn't until later that I realize he took it with him. The picture of me and Willie.
Copyright © 2004 by Lisa Tucker