6.16 / December 2011

Then Come Home to Settle

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They called them the Curdies.  This white trash family always came in and asked for free courtesy cups so they could split a refillable Coke six ways.  Once they were out of the lobby, the employees would all grumble: “Annoying,” the ticket taker would say.  “You know they just spent half their income.”

“At least you don’t have to clean up their shit between shows,” the projectionist would answer.

Miller didn’t mind them when he first started work at the Stardust, Issaqueena’s run-down theater.  Selling tickets was easy, and he wanted easy.  He sat on a stool and counted ones and quarters for minimum wage five nights a week.  Then he moved up to concessions and had to deal with the Curdies without a pane of glass as a barrier.  Their mess of kids would all bang on the counter at once, yelling, “Curdy cup!  Curdy cup!  Curdy cup!”  All except the young teenage girl who stood in the corner with her arms crossed and blowing hair out of her face.  She would go from child to jailbait by next summer.

The kids still drumming on the glass counter or running through the lobby, Miller would ask the parents if they wanted butter on their popcorn, and the mother would always reply, “Yes, sir,” her eyes downcast, and the father would pull out two sweaty twenties, his hands gravelly and brown.  All the city papers said Reagan was turning around the economy, but the movie-goers who came in off the farms were clear evidence the boom hadn’t hit the small textile towns in the Carolina upstate yet.  The Curdies probably lived way out in the country and didn’t get out much, which reminded Miller of his own parents, their trips to the movies years ago, before his father died, before his mother moved to Charleston with her new rich husband, and before his sister moved to Nashville to become a country singer.

Miller was twenty-three that fall.  No one had ever called him sir before, and he liked the mother’s hushed courtesy.

Since he wasn’t in school, had unlimited availability, and needed money, he moved up to shift leader in January.  He got a raise to four-fifty an hour and was the master of ceremonies two days a week for management wages, fifty dollars a day.  He ran projection full time, which meant he had to clean up the theaters.  The Curdies left their corner a landfill: half-empty and knocked over popcorn bags, popcorn splattered across three rows, empty drink cups in the armrest holders, wet napkins wedged in below them.  His shoes stuck to the floor, and for the first time since he’d been on the job he worked up a sweat.  People trickled in early for the nine o’clock show, and he yelled up from the front rows at them, “I’m cleaning.  Give me a minute.”  They stood like uncertain cows.  He sighed and quit sweeping, dragged the trashcan back up the aisle, and slammed it into a corner.

Come spring the Curdy daughter no longer looked like a child.  She walked in one Saturday afternoon wearing a low-cut blouse and blue-jean cut-offs that sagged to expose her pink panties and the top of a scar on the front of her hip.  Never mind that she was maybe sixteen at most.  The copper gloss on her lips, her sleek skin, and the sliver of white spilling out of her blouse from her bikini top tan line-it all said, I’m old enough.

“Where did she come from?” he asked the manager.

In the booth he worked without turning on the lights.  He wanted to be able to look in on this girl without her being able to see him.  By the lights from the theater window he spun the platter and wrapped the film around the network of spools, then pulled the reel to the projector.  The Curdies sat halfway down, the girl in an aisle seat.  She propped her thin bronze legs up on the seat in front of her.  Her short-shorts stretched to expose thigh, and he grew hard as he threaded the film, locked the gates to hold it in place. A sheen of oil shined on the greasy film, and when he hit start, photoelectric blue light flared on the walls in time with the click-click of the machine.  Here he was a God, the invisible man in charge.  He adjusted the focus, then sat back on a stool and smoked a Camel, alternated tugging on his goatee and ponytail.

He liked this work, the mechanical tasks, the solitude and the dark.  His father had died when he was sixteen, worn himself out on the night shift at a cotton mill in Seneca.  Miller had played by the rules since then, not doing much with his life but staying out of trouble.  His stepfather of five years cut him off when he turned twenty-three, saying, “You’ve had time to go to college,” and he sent Miller a check.  Miller hadn’t spoken to his mother or stepfather since last summer.  That money was gone now.

She came for a refill when he was on break and hanging around the concession stand.  The manager was counting money in the office, and Miller had been waiting for the girl to come out-one of the Curdies always did.  When she came, her skin looked soft, like the flesh of an apricot, and she smelled of strawberries.  She cocked her head to the side and twirled her hair while he shoveled more popcorn into the bag.  She nodded, but didn’t speak, when he asked if she wanted more butter.

“How’s the movie?”

She sighed.  “It’s what my parents wanted to see.”

They were watching Police Academy, a tacky slapstick comedy for tacky slapstick people, he thought.  He understood.  “I understand,” he said.  Then, as she took her popcorn and turned to go he asked, “Do you drive?”  He wanted to know how much trouble he was setting himself up for.  Fourteen or twenty, he couldn’t tell the difference.  His manager joked that you could tell the college girls because they’d all developed beer guts.  This girl was lean.

“I drive,” she said.

“Come back at 11:30 some night, if you can.  I’ll run up one of these other movies after we close.”

Her name was Candace and she returned the next night.  He had a twelve-pack of Bud Light in an ice chest waiting on her.  When the movies ended, he locked the doors, threw most of the breakers, and threaded the latest Friday the 13th.  The lights dimmed and they sat together and drank the beer.  She had on the same blue jean cut-offs, and kept her feet propped on the seat in front of them.  Her body was frail beside him.  She let him feel up her legs, stippled with goose bumps, but she stopped him when he slid his fingers too far.  He kissed her neck and put his other hand down her top.

She came back the following Saturday, and this time she didn’t stop him.  Back at his house, tangled up in the covers, he was just as awkward as she, if not more so.  He rubbed his hand over a two-inch scar on her hip.  A shark bite, an appendectomy.  She said she was a virgin.  As soon as she left he checked for blood on the sheets, but all he found was a yellowed stain marked with her scent.  His place was trash, a rented house near the spinning factory.  He had two roommates who always stayed with their girlfriends, leaving him alone with the roaches and dirt-musk smell that seeped up from the basement.

Her parents knew they were dating, and they didn’t approve of his age, but they also knew that he worked, knew where he worked, so they put up with him.  “He’s a white boy with a job,” her father’d said.  “I’m happy enough.”

In the summer, she came over several nights a week, sometimes leaving at four, sometimes staying all night.  She said she’d told her parents she was at a slumber party, but he figured they knew where she was.

Fate had it in for both of them.  She was pregnant by August.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Well shit.  You got to get rid of it.”

She didn’t want to get rid of it.

“Are you fucking kidding?”  They were in his house, just the two of them.

“No, I’m not kidding.  Baby, I love you.  When I found out we were going to have this child, it made me so happy.”  She’d just turned seventeen.  She had two years left of high school.

“Happy?  Your parents’ll kill me.”

“Baby, what are they going to do?  I’ll just move out.”

“Move out?  Move where?  You can’t move out.  Shit.”

She sat on his unmade bed, crossed her legs.  She wasn’t showing, wouldn’t for several months.  She said, “Come on, baby, this is a good thing.”  She leaned back, uncrossed her legs, spread her knees enough so that he could see the darkest shadows up her skirt.  She said, “Come on over to my house for dinner tomorrow.  I want us to tell my parents together.”  After an afternoon in bed, her moaning louder than usual, he found himself agreeing to it.

He went to work and spent most of the night in the projection booth, chain-smoking Camels in the dark amid the clatter and hum of the machines.  He alternated between gripping a fistful of his goatee and tugging on his ponytail.  Then he rested his head in his hand, mashed the next cigarette butt into the carpet, and rubbed at a scar on his forehead.  When he was nine, he’d fallen off the back porch, cut his head on a rock.  He and his younger sister May had been playing hide-and-seek, and he was trying to hide.  That was back when things were peachy, before the mill transferred his father onto the night shift, and before his mother began calling up old boys she knew from high school.  May brought him flowers at the hospital.  She was seven, and crawled into bed with him, put her head on his shoulder, and held his hand while he dozed from the painkillers.

After his shift ended, he went down the street and bought a twelve-pack from the Citgo, then returned to the Stardust.  He switched off the breakers and drank ten of the beers before he passed out on the couch in the lobby.  He woke up at six in the morning, still woozy, drank the other two, and drove home, intending to skip out on dinner tonight.  He changed his mind when he got out of bed and showered that afternoon, thinking he was fucked either way, and if he went to dinner at least he’d get a free meal.  Maybe he’d get laid a few more times before he and Candace parted ways.

He rang the bell at ten after six and was greeted with a hug from her mother.  Standing a few inches shorter than Miller, her father shook his hand.  The house was quaint but messy, and smelled of mothballs.  Clumps of dirt and flecks of paper coated the yellow shag carpet.  Coffee-brown paneling covered the walls, which sucked away at the amber light and cast deep shadows in the corners.  A bookcase near the foyer, an encyclopedia set, a bible.  Shelves of family pictures going back several generations, each photo grayer and more stoic than the last.  In the den, three kids were watching TV.  Candace had five younger siblings who always seemed to be weaving in and out with their friends.  Tonight the table was set for eight and dinner was a green bean casserole.

“What movies are playing this weekend?” her father asked.

Miller didn’t know, and said so.  Though he was taller than this man, he felt fragile now that they were seated.  Her father’s sorrel skin and harsh eyes evidence that he worked harder than Miller, just like Miller’s own father.

“I would think that since you’re moving up in the ranks, you’d know these things.”

The kids cleared out, and Candace and her mother cleared the table, leaving Miller and her father to make conversation, their bellies full.

“You been keeping up with the NFL drafts?” her father asked, then sucked his teeth and swished his tongue around in his mouth.


“How long you going to stay at the theater?”  Her father leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table.

“I don’t know.  It’s easy work.”

“Easy work.”  He sat back.  “Well.  You ever looking for another job, I might could talk to someone at the plant, see if they have anything for you.”  He worked at the power plant in Oconee County.  Miller wasn’t interested in working in a plant.  His own father had worked as an electrician for those kinds of place, and came home with stories about guys getting hurt, losing fingers and having heart attacks, how Miller needed to go to college and find a better line of work.  “Jesus, Miller,” his father’d said a few months before he died.  “This new factory’s the worst.  I feel sick every time I drive up and see the steam rising up all over the parking lot, like I’m driving into hell.”

“I’m all right at the theater for now,” Miller said.

Candace and her mother came back in.  “Candace says she’s got some news for us.”

Candace sat beside him, held his hand, and her parents sat across from them.  The room seemed tighter, airless, warm.  “We’re going to have a baby,” she blurted out, and he twitched, tried to pull his hand away, but she wouldn’t let go.

Her parents looked at each other.  Her father didn’t move, but her mother put a hand on his and looked like she was about to cry.  Her husband sucked his teeth and asked, “Where do you reckon this is leading to?”

“Well, we’ve talked about it,” Candace said, “and the plan is I’m going to stay in school.  The baby’s not due until May, so I can probably finish up this year, have the summer free, and then go back and finish next year.  We’ll probably get married when I turn eighteen, and once I graduate we’ll be on track.”

Miller couldn’t think straight.  They’d sure as hell not talked about all of that.  Her father crossed his arms and said, “Well, Miller, I guess you ought to reconsider taking a job at the plant.  I don’t think the Stardust pays you enough to support a wife and child.”

Other things were said, but Miller didn’t catch them.  No way was he going to get married.  The dull light closed in on him, cut into his eyes and worsened his hangover.  He had a vision of himself in twenty years, married and living in a house like this, a swarm of children, shag carpet, days of labor all blurring together.  He said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” and everyone stopped talking.  “We’re not getting married here.  Who said anything about marriage?”

He looked at Candace, her eyes squinted as though she were calculating her next move, and he rose from his chair.  Her father said, “Hey, calm down.”

“No, you calm down.  I am calm.”

“Now listen,” her father said, standing to meet him.  His voice had grown loud and deep so that this small man boomed.  Miller listened.  “My daughter’s seventeen, and I don’t like this a goddamn bit.  I’ve let you into my home, shared my dinner, and now I hear you’ve knocked her up.  You want to yell at me and tell me you’re not marrying her?”

Candace sat quietly beside the two men.  Miller turned and stormed out of the room.

“Hey, goddammit.  We’re not finished here.”  Her father caught up to him near the front door and reached for his arm.  Miller rammed the man into the bookcase.  Photos clapped down.  Frames shattered.  Her mother screamed in the next room, and her father whispered, “You’re fucked, son.”

He pushed himself away from the bookcase and limped down the hall.

Miller slammed the front door and got into his car.  Candace ran after him and slid into the passenger seat.  The door creaked as she slammed it shut behind her.  “What are you doing?” he asked.  The weary engine chugged several times before catching.

“I’m coming with you.”

“No you’re not.”

“Goddammit, this is a happy time.  I love you.”

“Candy, I don’t want to turn into your parents.”

“We don’t have to.  We’ll start over.”  Her voice cracked, and her country accent thickened.  She was desperate.

“I’m leaving the state.”

“I’m coming with you.”

He saw her father walking out the front door, the gleam of a rifle in starlight.  Thick dark eyebrows angled up on his forehead, shadowed eyes.  Miller put the car in gear and stomped on the gas.  The tires spun as they wheeled out of the driveway and headed down the gritty blacktop toward his apartment.  He packed a bag, tried to ignore her whining.  “Where are we going?  You didn’t mean that back there, right?  You love me, don’t you baby?”

“I’ve got a cousin in Memphis.  We’ll go stay with him.”

They drove to the theater with a case of beer, unlocked the door.  Everyone had left for the night.  He opened the safe, stuffed the drawer money and petty cash-not more than five hundred dollars-into his bag, and then they got drunk while he set up a movie.  She sat on a stool, her knees together and her feet angled out behind her.  Broken in and submissive.  After a few beers, she parted her legs and he took note of the curve in her thighs.  He fucked her twice under the flickering lights in the booth and woke up at dawn, his back stiff and aching.  She stirred when he grabbed his bag, and she followed him out the emergency exit.

They were on I-40 west of Asheville before the sun had cleared the horizon, and he threaded the car through the mountain curves, out of North Carolina and into the cedar green Tennessee hills.  He pulled over in Knoxville, a trashy strip mall section on the north side of town.  He filled up the gas tank, sweating in the midday heat, Tennessee hotter than it ever got in South Carolina.  The fuel rippled in the air by his tank, and Candace went in for some M&Ms and a Coke.  He didn’t have a cousin in Memphis that he knew of, didn’t even know where any cousins were.  He thought his sister was still in Nashville, but he hadn’t heard from her in months.  His father was dead and his mother was in Charleston with her new family.

He got into the car and took off without paying.  In his rearview mirror, her saw her running out of the station, followed by the kid working the register.  He would never forget those bronze legs, those hiked up Daisy Dukes, that shark bite scar on her hip.

Three lights later he was back on the interstate, heading north toward Lexington.  He pulled over in Corbin, Kentucky, drove east on 25 until he found a mechanic shop-trailer-and-used-car-dealer in a coalmine town called Bailey’s Switch.  He bought a corroded gray Cutlass and offered the grimy mechanic an extra fifty to hold off on the paperwork.  Before he made it back to the interstate, the engine light flashed, the temperature gauge on red.  In a Texaco parking lot he lifted the hood and discovered the mechanic had clamped the radiator hose with a plastic ripcord.  He bought a roll of duct tape and a gallon of water, a pair of sunglasses and a box of red hair dye.  He got the bathroom key from the clerk and went to the shanty out back.  The room stank of urine and sweat.  Water leaked from rusty pipes.

While he waited for the engine to cool, he cut off his ponytail and chopped his hair short.  Then he clipped his goatee to stubble, ripped open the box of hair dye, and slathered goo into his hair, feeling like James Bond or the Terminator.  When he finished, the white slit on his forehead-his hide-and-seek scar-was visible for the first time in years.  His dark hair maroon, new aviator shades, anyone could have pegged him as a man on the run and a sloppy one at that, but at least if his face showed up in the papers no one would recognize him.  He patched the radiator hose, slammed the hood, and continued north.

When he was a teenager, the last vacation he’d taken with his family had been to Chicago.  His father was on the night shift by that point, and neither of his parents seemed able to stand each other.  They’d saved up, and once they’d left South Carolina it seemed like a new beginning.  His mother wanted to drive through Indiana to see the cornfields, and his father was interested in the Speedway.  Miller and May knew more than their parents, knew that Indiana was just more country like South Carolina.  They were impatient for Chicago.  That was a different world, sophisticated, cool.  They rolled into Indiana near sundown, and the pumpkin-colored light glowed over miles of cornfields, the barns and tractors.  A rainstorm blowing in from the east made him thick in the throat.  He was gangly and awkward in school, but this land was wide open, free.  Up front, his mother gazed over the landscape, and when he saw his father laid his hand on hers in her lap, Miller almost cried.  This was home.

He sped through Indianapolis traffic and stopped in Lafayette the day after he left Candace.  He checked into a Super 8, spent several nights getting drunk at the downtown bars, and landed a job on the line at Staley’s corn syrup factory.  He worked long days, and coming home he smelled like grease and burnt potatoes.  Still, plant work wasn’t as bad as his father had said.  Staley’s was hot and rancid, but it was a long way from hell.  He rented a house north of town, on county road 240 West, and passed his days at work, his evenings getting drunk and watching the sun set over a nearby horse pasture.

Two months later, he came home to find a brown police cruiser in his driveway, an officer on the CB.  Miller’s feet crunched the gravel as he walked to the cruiser, and the cop got out, said, “You John Miller?  From South Carolina?”

Miller said he was.

“You’re going to have to come with me.”  He didn’t cuff Miller, merely opened the back door to the cruiser, and Miller got in.  A few miles down the road, he looked back in the mirror and said, “What’ll most likely happen, you’ll be printed and have to spend the night in a holding cell since it’s late in the day.  But you should be able to post bail in the morning, get back to work by lunchtime.  You’ll have to go to South Carolina in a few weeks to plead your case.”

“Thank you for not cuffing me.”  He’d been expecting drama, a herd of cops to show up at Staley’s, beat him down, and lock him up in a hole somewhere.

“Listen.  What you’ve done’s despicable.  If it was my daughter, I’d shoot you.”  He glanced in the mirror at Miller.  “But I’m a sheriff’s deputy, not a judge, and I was your age once.  We’ve all done things to be shot over.”

It happened like the deputy said it would.  He paid a fine and got an arraignment in South Carolina.  Since Candace was seventeen, the state wasn’t pursuing statutory rape charges, but her father was pushing for assault.  Miller skipped the court date.

An official notice came in the mail, then another.  He ignored them both, and eventually the deputy pulled back into his driveway, said, “Buddy, what’s wrong with you?  It would have been a steep fine, but that’s better than going to jail.”

He spent thirty days in the county lockup for contempt, another year for simple assault, no mention of the Stardust robbery.  His foreman at Staley’s told him he was a hard worker, wished him luck.  In jail he met a drug dealer named Alkali Jones, and Alkali gave him the number of a guy in Chicago if he needed some extra income.  Cocaine was in high demand, Alkali said.  Candace’s father wrote to him, “If I ever see you again, I will kill you.  Stay out of Issaqueena.”  Miller showed the letter to Alkali, who gave him another number, just in case.

Not having any more business in the south, he moved back to Indiana and bought a farmhouse five miles out of town.  He called Alkali’s friend, and once a month for eight years, into the early nineties, he drove up to Chicago’s south side, met a guy, and carried a duffel bag of coke down to Indy before returning to Lafayette.  In these years, he moved up at Staley’s, and then when they laid him off for a drunken brawl with a coworker, he got on at Frito-Lay.  Twenty-three years passed after he got out of prison, a marriage and a divorce, childless.  Akali’s friend was part of the problem, Miller’s drinking the other.  She was a big and forceful woman, not inclined to put up with what he had to give.

He flew to Charleston to visit his mother twice, once for her brother’s funeral, where he’d stood by while his stepfather acted as one of the pallbearers, then held his arm around Miller’s mother.  She wore a sharp navy blue dress and a pearl necklace, a society woman now.  He returned later that year for a stiff Thanksgiving.  No one had heard from May, and Miller felt like part of a life his mother wanted to forget.  His stepfather, who had a lot of money in real estate, offered him a job doing maintenance for a series of rental properties on Folly Beach.  “Good money,” he said.

“It’s a good project,” his mother said.

Without responding, Miller walked out of the house for the last time.

In his late thirties, he took night classes at Purdue until he had a degree in management, a raise, and a foreman position at Frito-Lay.  He cut back on his drinking and began driving around Tippecanoe County roads, watching the sun settle over the cornfields.  He rented old movies, bought DVDs of every Humphrey Bogart flick he could find.  Terrorists bombed New York.  Gas prices rose, so he quit driving around at night.  He took up walking, found the cornfields loud: crickets chirred like locusts, and when the wind blew the stalks whooshed like the tide coming in.  Candace wrote to him on occasion, unanswered letters: Your daughter is asking questions about you.  Come for a visit.  Then, I’m getting married to a man who loves me.  No need to send any more child support.  He’s adopting your daughter.  Miller sent a check every month anyway.  She wrote, Boomer left me.  Your daughter is graduating this spring.  Come for a visit.  Then, Your daughter got a scholarship.  Your checks won’t be cashed any longer.  The checks weren’t cashed.  He remarried.

Her name was Lorrie.  She had that plain Midwestern look about her, freckles and earthy skin and straight chestnut hair.  They’d met in a video store, both of them scouring old releases for something new, and had spent their early years together at home, watching movies and drinking wine.  Their love settled in slowly like water through a filter, so that when they’d been married nine years, he felt more stability with her than at any other point in his life.  She was the kind of woman he imagined May would turn into when they were growing up.  When his sister moved to Nashville, he hoped for years that she hadn’t been sucked into that culture, that she would enjoy herself and then come home to settle down.  Even though she’d never gotten famous, she resigned herself to stay in Nashville for session work, and Miller had spent his entire adult life yearning for home.

Now he was with a woman he trusted, and who trusted him.  She knew some of his past, that he’d spent a year in jail for assault.  She’d waited for him to volunteer the story, and he told her it was booze-related, old history.  He was in AA when they met, sober now ten years.  He told her his mother was dead, he didn’t have family left.  Life was calm, though a part of him sorely missed the sexual heat he’d felt with earlier women, the drunken roughness, the juices flowing hot and loud.  Candace and his first wife had been alike, as had the girl before Candace, a brief fling when he was eighteen and living briefly with his mother down in Mount Pleasant.  He still felt those primal urges now, though he suppressed them with Lorrie for the sake of security.  He was worn out from years at the plant, his skin callused like those of a field worker, his eyes crow-footed and baggy as catcher’s mitts.

During the week of his forty-seventh birthday-the first truly warm day in April of that year, everything ripe, in bloom-he came in feeling good from piddling in the yard and found Lorrie at work on a cross-stitch in the living room.  She wore a light cotton dress that melded to her legs and showed the kind of curves that could still arouse him.  Watching her, he decided to spend the rest of the day taking off her clothes, rubbing ice on her skin, and finding those fitted positions in bed they’d discovered.

“Hey, sexy.”  He sidled up next to her on the couch, smelled the nutty scent of her skin that was so familiar to him.

But instead of responding the way he’d envisioned-putting down her cross-stitch and throwing herself at him-she jabbed the needle through a hole in the fabric, then repeated the motion to form an X.

“Hey, what is it?”

She shook her head, continued stitching.

“Hey, come on.  Something’s on your mind, I can tell.”  He still believed he might talk his way into an afternoon lay before dinner.

“Your mother called.”

He stopped, the vision of his afternoon dissolving.

“We’ve got some things to talk about.”  She finally looked up at him, her plain eyes cold and still.  This was not a look he’d seen in her before, but it somehow fit her face.  She’d always been a little frigid, he decided, and now that she was into her forties, she was taking on the shrewish, leaden look of a farmer’s wife, like the cold women who used to come into the Stardust.  A harbored feeling flooded him, it was like a drug he’d not had in years and couldn’t stop once it came on.  If things went south for him this afternoon, he decided he’d go out, get good and drunk, and go home with some cheap and lonely woman, a woman with wide hips that he could pound his anger into and come away purged.

“Go on,” he said.

“For starters, your stepfather’s dying.  Lung cancer, I think.  And your mother wants you to go see him before he dies.”

“Hell, I’m not going down there.”

“Why not?  You seemed to have thought she was dead all these years.”  She got off the couch, walked across the room, and put her needlepoint on the shelf near the window.  Peach light painted her face, and she put her chin in her hand and sighed, then turned to him.

“You could have told me she was still alive.  It’s not like I ever would have pushed you to introduce us.”

He gnawed the inside of his lip, but didn’t say anything, thinking she had notably unattractive teeth.  Large and sallow, a beaver, a donkey.

She moved her hand to rest on the side of her neck.  “She also had some disturbing news about a woman named Kendra.”

Miller blinked a few times as the name pinged around his memory, then he said, “Candace.”

“Yeah, John, Candace.  This woman’s been calling your mother drunk at all hours, accusing you of owing her child support money.”  He and Lorrie had never fought violently, but in his drinking days he’d beat up on his first wife, and heard the same tone in Lorrie’s voice now that suggested it was going to take something ugly to turn it off.  As if she were genuinely perplexed by human nature, she quietly asked, “What kind of man abandons his pregnant girlfriend three states from home?  Who are you?”

That was the question.  Years together, and they didn’t know the first thing about each other.  Maybe if they’d met in their twenties, when they were young and had their entire lives ahead of them, they could have filled each other in on the past and built a future.  Now he felt that old mean streak rising up in him.  If only she would have closed her mouth.  Her jaw hung open, those tusks jutting out over the bottom lip.  A jaundiced glow in the spring sunlight.  He picked up a small table beside the couch and heaved it at the wall.  It cracked the drywall and clattered to the floor.  She screamed, and without thinking he walked out the front door and headed north.

In need of a place to stay, he called an old number that hadn’t changed in twenty years, and the man directed him up 65 to a neighborhood near Bronzeville where he could hide out.  Spring corn rows rippled like a wave on the side of the freeway, and the rust belt skyline snuck up on him: abandoned factories, old railroad tracks elevated above houses packed together like those old mill neighborhoods in South Carolina.  On the Skyway, a sign from Mayor Daley welcomed him to Chicago, and he paid two dollars in tolls to get into the city, eased his way between five lanes of dump trucks, construction, and BMWs.  The sky clouded over to a dark steel.  He filled up at a gloomy Amoco near 35th Street.  As gas funneled into his tank it began to rain, and he remembered that old deputy.

Rain sluiced through the gutters, streetlights gleamed orange on wet concrete.  Water pinged on fire escapes of looming buildings, spilled off rooftops and splashed into puddles on the pavement.  Under an awning across the street, hooded figures in baggy clothes huddled together.  Time had caught up with him.  Once again he deserved to be shot, only this time he wasn’t twenty-three-year-old.  What’s wrong with you? he could hear the deputy saying.  I understand a kid in trouble, but I don’t understand you at all.

He went into the station and bought a case of Bud Light, downed one of the beers before getting back into his car, and two more as he slushed through the grimy Southside.  That familiar beer fog clouded over and numbed him, just as it had once numbed those old wounds in his youth, his rendered family, May leaving.  The last time he’d seen her she’d been wearing a sapphire skirt and white blouse, her hair dark and wavy, her skin golden and her dimples showing.  How far he was from that sunny, southern girl, here where strangers in rags slept in alleyways and rummaged through rusting garbage cans, and where gangsters threw dice under streetlights.  Broken people.  He popped another beer and searched for a certain house, wishing that the rain drumming on his car could penetrate him, reopen his wounds and restore life to his body.

Jon Sealy grew up in South Carolina and currently works as a copywriter in Richmond, Va. His stories have appeared recently in South Dakota Review, The Normal School, and The Sun.
6.16 / December 2011