I sobered up quick then, waiting desperately for Pearl to move off so I could get hell and gone from there before she considered the cops’ story and my red-stained shirt and put two and two together. Didn’t help that Pearl picked that moment to get back to her crossword puzzle just a few feet down the counter from me.
Torturous minutes passed. My mind began to reel, recalling what all had transpired in the past thirty-six hours … or at least those parts I could remember.
I went back to the moment I’d returned to town the night before last. It had been well after dark. Minus the odd stop for gas and food, I’d been driving for more than fourteen hours and had gone long past road weary.
After grabbing a drive-through Dairy Queen burger and a bottle of Wild Turkey at Floyd’s, I’d decided to post up somewhere for the night and plan my next move. When you’ve run out on your family for a stretch of months, leaving them with no idea where you went to, it can be a tricky deal crawling back to ask forgiveness. I figured if I was going to pass the night in my truck, thinking and planning, I might as well do it in a familiar setting.
I parked some seventy-five yards down the street from the house on Shady Glen, just past the bend in the road. The spot offered a good view of the house but was far enough away not to draw suspicion. Good thing was, I was driving a truck that no one would recognize. My old truck had given out weeks back. The new one I’d won in a card game back in Pewly Flats.
Staring at the place through the bug-stained windshield for hour upon hour, I had plenty opportunity to take in every detail of the house and yard. The dogwood I planted the day we moved in. The sun-cracked garden hose I’d been meaning to replace, but hadn’t. The waterlogged Nerf ball Sam Junior always leaves on top of the holly bush just off the porch. I took some comfort in seeing that not much had changed in my absence.
It was near midnight when I first caught sight of George’s silhouette moving past the living room drapes. After sixteen years of marriage I could make a pretty good guess that she was heading to the kitchen for Lucky Charms. George always ate cereal when she got hungry at night. I couldn’t make out any details in the silhouette, but I figured she’d be in one of her tank-top-and-shorts combos that she sleeps in. Just the mental image of it was enough to get the old flame burning again.
My wife, George, has the kind of looks that could inspire epic poetry. Red hair. Green eyes. Freckles between her bosoms. Skin that looks tan even in the winter. Her shape hasn’t changed a lick since her days on the high school drill team, either.
I took a healthy belt of Wild Turkey, hoping it might douse my arousal, but it proved to have the opposite effect. By the time George’s silhouette moved past the window again, I’d been worked into quite a lather. My hand went for the door handle. It was all I could do not to jump out of the truck right then, go ring the bell, and get started on setting things right.
But I resisted.
I hadn’t thought it all through yet. A situation like this has to be handled just right, I knew, and I needed a plan.
I took another drink. Then another.
A plan never came. But sleep soon did.
I don’t know what time I awoke in the morning, but the sun was out and the morning dew was beaded up on the windshield. I rose stiffly on the bench seat and popped my neck and back. My head throbbed. My mouth tasted sour. My eyes were caked with crud.
The bottle lying in the floorboard was empty.
I pulled a Salem from the box on the dash, got lit, and flipped the wiper switch to clear the dew off the glass.
No sooner had I done it than movement caught my eye—Sam Junior bounding out of the garage on the side of the house. He was riding a bike I didn’t know he had. First thing I noticed was how big he’d gotten, looking every bit of his twelve years and then some. He was still scrawny, but there was some shape to him now. His limbs had stretched, and his shoulders had taken some form. He wasn’t just knobby knees and elbows anymore.
Second thing I noticed was how good he rode that bike. Ball cap turned backward, hair blown back; he was hopping curbs and riding wheelies like him and the bike were a part of the same well-oiled machine.
I slumped low in the seat and watched him do a few turns and work some tricks. Once, he passed no more than twenty feet in front of the truck, and I had to duck so as not to be seen.
For some time the boy put on quite a show, until he came up short trying to curb jump the fireplug next to the driveway. The cigarette fell from my lips as I watched him sail over the handlebars. I was out of the car and running at full stride by the time his head hit the ground.
He’d been lucky. Four more inches and his skull would have hit concrete instead of grass. By the time I’d hustled up behind him, he was already sitting upright and shaking grass out of his hair.
“You all right?”
“I’m cool,” he said.
He stood on unsteady legs. I saw that his top lip was already swollen. There was also a bruise above his left elbow.
“Should ice that lip,” I said.
“Huh?” Dazed, the boy dabbed the lip with his finger. “No, that … that happened yesterday.”
I could tell he was still rattled by the fall, if not a little embarrassed. He kept his body turned as he dusted himself off.
“We should get you some protective gear,” I said. “You nearly gave me a heart attack, Sam.”
He stopped, turned, and looked up. “Do I know you, mister?”
“Mister, hell … it’s me!”
His eyes blinked. “Dad?”
“Hell, yes, Dad, who’d you think it was?”
“I just wasn’t expecting … I mean … well, what’s with that beard?”
“You like it?”
The boy thought about it. “Kinda patchy.” He looked me up and down. His manner suddenly became guarded, like he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to react. “What are you doing here?”
Behind us, the front door of the house swung open. George stepped out, fumbling to tie her bathrobe over her tank top and short-shorts. She was barefoot. Her legs looked tan and silky.
“Sam!” she hollered.
“Yeah?” The boy and I replied in unison.
Georgia came marching down the walk.
“Hi, honey,” I said, smiling. “That bacon I smell in there?”
I never saw the punch coming. She hit me in the nose, hard enough to well tears.
“Mom! That’s Dad you just socked!”
Georgia told Sam Junior to get back in the house this instant.
Sam Junior stayed where he was.
I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and looked back at my wife. “Now I can see how you might be pissed—”
“I’d still have to care to be pissed,” she said. “I’m long past that. That punch was just fulfilling a promise I made to myself months ago.”
Her voice was calm. Calmer than I would have liked. I’d have much preferred anger to quiet resolve.
“Can I come in?” I said.
“If you’ll just hear me out—”
“I won’t. Nor will I let our son hear it.”
“Don’t you wanna know why I ran off?”
“It doesn’t matter why you ran off,” she said. “I can promise you, we’re the ones who are the better for it.”
Georgia moved Sam Junior in front of her and planted her hands on the boy’s shoulders. My vision had finally cleared. I noticed a small knot on George’s head, just above her eye.
“How’d you get that?” I asked.
“I got it opening the iron cupboard,” she snapped. “The door sticks, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“Been meanin’ to fix that,” I said. “Been meaning to fix all those stuck doors, in fact. Happens sometimes when a home’s foundation weakens.”
“Well, you didn’t fix them. You never fixed anything.”
“You let me in, I’ll get right to it. This is the new me, honey. A changed man.”
“Yeah? Then I take it that’s cough syrup on your breath,” Georgia said.
I shifted on my feet. “Now that I can explain.”
Georgia shook her head.
“Just tell me what you want me to do,” I said, “and I’ll do it.”
“Go back to wherever you’ve been hiding, and stay there,” she said.
“Where were you, anyway?”
This from Sam Junior. I looked at the boy. But before I could answer, Georgia told him again to get back in the house.
Sam Junior stayed where he was.
“Can I at least answer him?” I said. “I’d like him to know where I’ve been. I’d like you both to know.”
Georgia was having none of it. She spun Sam Junior around, and they started back up the walk.
“How ’bout if I just check in later, then,” I hollered.
“We’ve got plans,” Georgia hollered back.
I was about to ask if I might join them when an engine roared up behind me. The pickup that swung into the drive was a late-model Chevy with all the whistles and bells. The license plate read SLICK.
The man that stepped out of the truck was a square-jaw. Tall. Thick beard. Crisp white Stetson. Ostrich boots. There were creases down the legs of his Wranglers. A baseball glove was wedged under one of his armpits. In the opposite hand was a bundle of flowers.
Me and the man held eyes for a moment.
I turned to George. “He here to make repairs or something?”
The man’s thin smile revealed store-bought teeth. He stepped forward, brushing past me like I wasn’t there, and started up the walk. He tossed the baseball glove to the boy.
Sam Junior didn’t thank him; he just kept looking at me.
The man gave the flowers to George. He said he hoped they’d make her feel better. He gave the knot on her head a tender touch, then pivoted around in such a way that his hand wound up on the small of George’s back.
Everyone was quiet.
“Am I reading this right?” I asked.
“You’re reading it right, Bonham,” the man said. “Isn’t he, George?”
“That’s Georgia to you,” I said. “And as she’s my wife … I’ll thank you kindly to unhand her.”
The man said nothing. He pulled a Marlboro out of his shirt pocket and put a flame to it. Smoke trickled through his thin smile.
Georgia folded her arms across her chest. Her eyes fell to the ground.
I approached her up the walk. “Don’t do this,” I said.
“It’s done, friend,” the man said. “You best be getting on now.”
I cut my eyes over to him. “I ain’t your friend. And no one tells me to get off my own damn lawn.”
Sam Junior started to say something, but the man stepped forward, closing the distance between us, and Sam Junior held his tongue.
“We’re not gonna have trouble here, are we?” the man asked.
His tone was level, but I noticed a fist coiling at his side.
I had to crane my neck to look him in the eye.
Georgia answered his question before I could.
“There’s not gonna be any trouble, Slick,” she said. “Sam was just leaving.”
I looked at her. “George, you gotta believe me now. I’ve changed. Just give me the chance to show you.”
“It’s too late,” she said.
“It ain’t,” I said. “You just gotta take a leap and trust me.” I raised her chin with my finger. “I leaped a cliff for you once upon a time, didn’t I? All I ask is that you do the same for me now.”
The man moved my finger off of George’s chin.
I jerked my hand away and drew it back, ready to swing.
“Don’t …” The man’s voice was deep. His cigarette still hung limp between his lips. “That’d be a big mistake, I can promise you.”
Now the man had both fists coiled. His breathing was still slow and steady.
“He’s right, Dad,” said Sam Junior. “Get on outta here now. It’s best for everyone.” I looked at the boy. He looked back at me. “You should know there are no more doors need fixing in this house, anyway.”
The man tipped his Stetson to me. He turned Georgia and Sam around and led them both up the walk. I went back to my truck, gunned the motor, and drove like hell. Minutes later I was in Floyd’s parking lot, cracking the seal on that bottle of Wild Turkey.
That was yesterday morning, and that was still the last thing I could remember before waking up in the alley behind the Rack ’Em Up.
A bell dinged. I looked up to see Pearl set her pencil down on her crossword puzzle and retreat into the kitchen at last. I tossed a few wrinkled bills onto my plate and hustled outside. Two minutes later I was speeding through town in a hot-wired Buick, taken from the Whataburger parking lot across the street from the diner.
I didn’t stop until I reached Charon’s Bridge, which crossed the Trebok River on Welshland’s north side. I parked in the center of the bridge and barely made it out of the car in time to chuck what little I’d eaten over the bridge rail. I sent the fillet knife into the river right behind it.
The world seemed to be spinning around me. My limbs felt numb. My breath was short. Thinking I might faint, I planted my elbows on the rail, lowered my head, and took a few deep breaths.
My head was filled with too many thoughts to process at once. I just couldn’t believe that I had it in me to do such a thing. No doubt the square-jawed cowboy had pissed me off something fierce, stepping up to me like he had, belittling me in front of my boy, taking all that was mine for his ownself. But Christ, could I have really been pissed enough to go back and gut the son of a bitch in a blind drunk?
A siren wailed in the distance, and my body went rigid.
I looked at the stolen Buick parked behind me, door open, engine running.
I scanned the length of the bridge in both directions.
One way led east, back toward Welshland, from where there were now two sirens screaming.
The other way led west toward … everywhere else.
West it was.
© 2011 Ryan Brown