My mother doesn’t see how Red can be good for me. That’s what she says as she drives me to the dentist. It’s her usual ass-first way of speaking her mind. She can’t just say: “I don’t like him,” like a normal person. No, she has to make it sound as if she’s looking down on my life from a mountain with my best interests at heart. This as we roll in her rotting VW down Main Street, Buckley, Missouri where she raised me, to the extent she did.
She just met Red for the first time outside Shay’s where he and I work. He came out to thank her because she’s driving me so he doesn’t have to give up half a day’s pay, which he would have done even though he and I aren’t speaking at the moment. He texted that meeting my mother’s the right thing to do, as if that’s how he makes his choices in life, by what’s right. She shook his hand wearing the smile she uses when she’s behind the pharmacy counter, the one where her eyes get that I-hope-you’re-not-contagious look.
He turned on the full Red charm: crooked grin showing off his silver-edged tooth, head at the angle his fused vertebrae command, a slight bow of respect. “I’d better get back before they dock me for a break,” he said. “Nice meeting you.”
My mother glanced at me as if I should notice something about Red I hadn’t seen before.
Now in the car I consider telling her how it is in bed, where he has a way of engulfing me, one hand sliding over my shoulder stretching down my back, the other reaching to meet it from between my legs, a clutch that drains the rawness from my spine, that constant irritation I can never relieve on my own. Instead I say: “I thought you’d be happy I have someone to help me out when I need it.”
“You make it sound like I don’t support you and yet, I feel that’s about all I do.”
I choke on thank you. I don’t think a person should have to thank her own mother for help in times of need, though I know it’s what Sally’s angling for. She says if I were a little more grateful, she wouldn’t mind so much doing for me. I don’t see it that way. It’s Sally’s nature to help people, and to believe that entitles her to advise them how they should live. She’d call this her mothering instinct. I think she left off a letter. She feels particularly motherly toward me right now because I’ve been staying with her since I walked out on Red day before yesterday. She expects me back tonight, but I’ve got another sofa in mind. I tell her she doesn’t need to pick me up after the dentist. She thinks that’s because Red’ll be off work by then. I don’t correct her.
I lower the window and light a cigarette. Though my mother’s a big believer in the danger of second-hand smoke, she doesn’t ask me to put it out or wave her hand in front of her nose like she would if we were eating. Even Sally understands there’s only so much you can kick at once.
This knowledge doesn’t keep her from her usual routine as we ride along the state road. “I don’t see how it is that a person with a steady job, working a full week can’t afford her car payments.”
She thinks my car was repoed last week because I told her I’d missed a couple payments. I don’t outright lie to Sally, but I do mislead her now and then to protect myself. I said that about the payments to keep her from asking where the car is. Now I can’t get her to stop going at me about my spending. I’m thirty-six and it’s none of her goddamned business where my money goes. Or if I loaned my father my car.
I refuse to tell her things that involve Del. She doesn’t even know I see him now that he’s back living out by the lake. She’d get all worked up, want to know what he’s doing, about his health, things he’d rather keep to himself. What went on between them’s from a time so long ago you can’t even dig up the bones.
As she pulls into the parking lot, she turns the wheel with her old hand-over-hand move, like she’s afraid it’ll spin out of control. That’s Sally. Never fully lets go.
I come out of the dentist with my lip bulged from novocaine. My car’s parked out front, my father’s head collapsed on his chest like it would be if he were dead, but I’ve seen Del nap so I know he probably isn’t. I knock on the window and he raises his head as if it has the weight of a bowling ball. I sashay my finger, suggesting he switch seats to let me drive. He waves for me to get in, so I do.
“How’d it go?” He clears his throat roughly.
“Shot me full of juice. Can’t feel a thing.”
“Did you get the good stuff?”
“Nah, they save that for when they have to pull.”
“Too bad.” Del’s not into drugs, but he’s always grateful for whatever pain meds doctors throw his way. Told me once there’s enough hurt in life that can’t be relieved, so there’s no reason not to take what comforts the good Lord provides. Not that he’s a believer of any sort. That’s just how he talks.
He backs out, tapping the brakes at the curb then roaring into the street.
“You in a hurry?” I ask.
“You know how I drive.”
“This is the first time I’ve been with you when you’re driving my wheels.”
“Shouldn’t have loaned ‘em to me if you didn’t want me to clean out the carburetor.”
“You know there’s no carburetors any more.”
“Still good for the engine.”
I don’t argue. He doesn’t have much fun these days what with being laid off and his old rust bucket dying after twelve years of hard use. He’d buy another if he could. He loves tinkering. I learned everything I know about how a car engine works to impress him. He always said you shouldn’t get behind the wheel of something that’s exploding, even a controlled explosion, without understanding what sets it off. Course there are things you can’t keep from going haywire even when you know what sets them off. People, for one.
“How’d it go at Social Security?” He had to visit the office in Fenton, which is why he couldn’t drive me to the dentist.
“They said they already sent the papers to the lawyer.”
“That was a waste of gas.”
“I couldn’t get anyone to tell me that on the phone.”
I finger my lighter, but don’t pull it out. Del’s got the beginnings of emphysema or something like it on top of all his pains. That’s why he went to Social Security. He’s seeing a lawyer tomorrow to get on disability.
“Are you taking me to your place?” I ask.
“I’ll make you supper.”
“Then I’ll have to drive you home. I tend to fall asleep after I’ve eaten a good meal.”
“Who says it’ll be good?”
“It’ll be better than what I make.”
“So I’ll cook and then I can stay over.”
“What’d you want to sleep on a sofa for?”
“That’s where I sleep at Ma’s.”
“I thought you were out at Red’s.”
I let myself get evicted from my apartment and moved in with Red a couple weeks ago. I got a few free months out of the court process and it seemed to make sense where we were spending most nights together anyway, until two days ago when I came home from work and Red had a score laid out in the trailer’s kitchen.
“Mostly.” I don’t know how to explain why I’m not staying at Red’s tonight so Del won’t get upset with either Red or me. I’ve disappointed Del enough in life that I’d normally try to shift the blame, but Red and I are only on a break, so I don’t want to turn Del against him. Especially since Sally’s already on record not liking him. “Ma doesn’t approve of Red.”
“She didn’t much approve of me, but she married me anyway.”
It’s hard for me to picture how my parents got together, though I know a thing or two about radioactive connections. There had to be heat. Sally was pregnant with me on their wedding day. Gram Rice had a book of photos of the big day that I enjoyed paging through when I was over to her house, but after she died, I never saw those pictures again. The marriage lasted six or seven years, depending on which of them you ask.
Del isn’t driving to the lake. “Come on, Dad, I’ll make your favorite.”
“It’s too late for meatloaf.”
“How can it be too late?”
“Takes what, an hour? It’s nearly suppertime.”
He slows at the red at River Road. If he takes the turn, we’ll double back to the cabin and I’ll spend the night. I can see by his pulled in lip he’s considering whether to do that for me, so I press my tongue against my numbed tooth to keep from saying anything. Del believes he’s done his share of helping me, though he worries when I’m down I’ll never get back up. He’s the one steered me into rehab the third time after Sally gave up. Of course at my age, even I can see the argument for making me stand on my own.
When the light changes, Del shoots around the corner toward his place. He’s fifty-nine and if he’d rather eat his supper at the same time every day than concern himself with what’s on his plate, that’s up to him. Of course if he hadn’t taken the corner, I would have laid it on about how only old folks need to have their supper before it gets too dark to see it.
We stop at the Sav-Mor and I buy onions and peppers and ground beef to make tamale pie. It’s easy and the beef’s cheap. At this point I’d hock my silver earrings for a sirloin steak, if that’s what it took to avoid spending one more night at Sally’s.
After we eat I go out on the porch to smoke. The cabin’s an old fishing shack on a bluff at the edge of the lake. It wasn’t meant for anyone to live in year round, which is why Del can afford the rent. The heater plugs into the wall. Slats are missing from the siding so it’s clear there’s no insulation. The porch tilts toward where the car’s wedged in between the trees.
Out on the water the moon’s a slit of gold. From inside I hear the whinny of TV laughter. I look up. There’s always more to see in the sky here than anywhere else. Few of the cabins are occupied in winter so there’s only specks of ground light. It’s as if the air’s been strained, the stars falling through the usual murk into a bowl of sheer black.
Del’s inside doing dishes. He agreed to do them since I’d done the ones that’d been sitting in the sink for who-knows-how-long in order for us to have plates to eat off of. I also scrubbed the counter that looked like every meal he had for a month left behind a souvenir.
He hasn’t said I can sleep here. I didn’t ask again, just told him I’d be outside for a while. I can sneak in after he nods off and take his bed if he’s still in front of the TV or the sofa if he’s not, though it’s too cold to stay out very long in just a jacket. My fingers are already white and raw. Sally’d say: wear gloves. I have a pair somewhere, either her place or Red’s. I’m a drifter in my hometown.
My phone chimes. It’s Red, but I answer anyway.
“Baby, come home.”
“You said no more shit and there it was.”
“I said no using. I’m just moving it. I got to get current with my child support or she’ll have my nuts in a wringer.”
“Get a second job.”
“I barely get a full week at Shay’s.”
“You could fix bikes.”
“I tried. Tommy says he can’t support himself. All the guys are doing their own work these days. Come on.”
I don’t give in. I’m not going back to Red just because he wants me. I know he’s screwed if they arrest him for not paying what he agreed to for his kids, but we’ve been over this before. He has to change his cell number so the guys who call him about the stuff can’t call him any more. I say good night and shut off my phone.
The stars pulse. It’s not the beer. I only had a couple. It’s like a warning light or a movement no one else can detect, a sign to me. I don’t understand it. The novocaine’s drained away leaving a spot that only hurts if I touch it. I’m determined not to take anything that could start me up again, though there are surely pain pills in Del’s medicine chest. I’ve got plenty of good reasons to leave that alone, not the least being disappointing Del again. I don’t know why his good opinion still means so much even now that he’s leaning on me. It could be in a person’s DNA to need a parent’s mercy, but I don’t feel the same about Sally, so that can’t be it. I check the stars one more time. They still seem to have more energy than their edges can keep in place. I go in.
In the morning Del can’t stand. Since he’s seeing the lawyer in a couple hours, maybe it’s good that it’s bad, but I can’t bear to see him struggle like an old man. I take his arm and get him full upright.
“This is why you can’t stay here,” he says. “I need my bed.”
“I didn’t want to wake you.”
“I got up ‘round one like always. That’s when I need to get where I can stretch out.”
“I couldn’t just take off in the car.”
“Could if you had someplace to go.”
“Then I’d have to come the whole way out here to bring it–” I don’t finish because he’s giving me a look that reminds me he’s been without wheels for nearly a week.
I move aside to let him into the bathroom. I do my hair by catching my reflection in a window no one’s taken a rag to in forever. The lake is murky and rippled, framed by frost at the edges of the glass. My eyes are puffed and I could pass for fifty easy. I slept some, but not enough and I’m now in full caffeine crave.
When Del comes out all dressed I tell him I need coffee.
“We can stop on the way.”
“I need it now.”
He points to the coffee maker. The pot’s cracked and the hot plate’s raised up like something’s growing under it. I’m desperate enough to open the cabinet to see if he has coffee beans I could suck on the way. All I find is a jar of instant. I shake it, but nothing moves. I crack it against the counter.
“What the hell?” Del pulls the jar from my hand and sets it back on the shelf.
“First stop,” I say.
He still has the car keys and walks unevenly to the driver’s side head down as if his only problem is avoiding tree roots. I offer to drive.
“I’m dropping you off at work.” We each slam a door.
He pumps the gas pedal and grimaces. “God damn it.”
The engine turns over so I know it’s not that. “Your knee?”
“I have to drive or how’m I gonna get to the lawyer?” He puts it in reverse and starts to back out, his face turned away, though I can see his determination reflected in the wing mirror.
“Did you take something?”
“You drove yesterday.”
“I hadn’t slept all night with my leg fixed in one place.”
“So it’s my fault.”
He brakes with his left foot.
“Let me drive. I’ll take you to the lawyer and wait with you.”
“You need to go to work.”
“I’ll say I overslept.”
“Appointment’s not ‘til 10:30.”
“If I miss a half day it’s not the end of the world.” I push down the memory of the hours I missed yesterday leaving early for the dentist. “We can go for breakfast.”
I hold up my bag. There’s enough left from last week’s check for me to tell him I can handle it.
“Didn’t know I was with a rich gal.“ He opens the door and shifts around slowly to get out. As I pass him I touch my hand to his shoulder. He shakes it off. I don’t know how I got born to people who are so hard.
We sit in the lawyer’s waiting area watching Ma’s friend Nita at her desk. She’s nice enough when we show up, says she knows Del’s got an appointment, but the lawyer’s in court and she’ll be back soon. I see today’s pay flying out the window. I go outside and call my boss to tell him I’ll be later than I thought when I called the first time. He says: “Not this again.” The puffs of my breath are white against the gray of the courthouse across the street.
Back inside, I don’t mention the call to Del. Now that we’re both pretty much relying on my paycheck, he wouldn’t be happy to hear my boss is upset. Far as I know, Del worked hard in all the jobs he had, but he had a lot of ‘em, so he never worked his way too far up any ladder. He left the area looking for something better and to get away from Sally. He came back when I called him to come get me. I was fifteen and Sally’d locked me out because of coming home late too many nights and skipping more than a day or two of school. Del took a job at the Chrysler plant in Fenton, about thirty miles each way. He and I moved into a trailer out by the lake until Sally got a lawyer to help her “enforce her rights.” After that Del made sure to see me every week, which is how I made it through high school.
Sitting beside Del across from Nita, I feel like we’re in a line up. If she had to pick which of us is guilty, I’m sure she’d pick me. Sally probably tells her every time I do something wrong, wrong in Sally’s world being anything that requires her to continue to act like a mother. She wasn’t that into it when I was young. It’s not like she has what you’d call a career, though she has spent years behind the pharmacy counter handing over pills and ointments to help folks feel better. She likes people in general, she says. I tell her that she likes them when they accept a little white bag for their troubles and don’t bother her again.
I check my phone. We’ve been sitting like this near a half hour. When Nita hangs up from her call, I ask if she has any idea when the lawyer will get here.
“No way to say for sure. She has to be there until the hearing ends. She has no control of that.”
A lot more control than we have sitting here in these plastic seats, I think as I crank out a smile. I don’t want to say anything to piss Nita off, so I go out for a smoke. The clouds have lifted. When the sky is this sun shot, it’s hard for me to remember the stars are still up there bleached to invisibility.
Back inside Del’s nodded off. He wakes and tugs on his jacket like he’s been roused by the cold I brought in on me.
I blink in the neon glare. Usually as much coffee as I’ve had holds a migraine at bay, but shining flecks signal one coming on. Sometimes it’s a false alarm, just the eye wiggles, but I’m not sitting there long before the pain erupts like a shot in my forehead. I had a prescription, but it turned into one more pill I don’t want around. I dig in my purse even though I know I cleaned it out sixteen days ago.
I nudge Del. “You got your pain meds on you?”
“My head’s exploding.”
He nods toward Nita. “Maybe she’s got something.”
“Nothing that’d work on this.” I know this pain. The regular stuff can’t touch it.
“I’ll be back.” I go out to the car. Inside my duffel bag is a pink plastic case, my last chance, but I’ve done such a good job cleaning there’s nothing in there. I open the glove box half hoping I haven’t left anything inside. And I haven’t, but someone has. I pull out a baggie rattling with orange plastic bottles. I zip it open and read the labels. A couple mean nothing. Then I find the Oxy.
I unscrew the lid and shake out a pill I shouldn’t swallow, but after sitting in that office like a fucking beggar waiting for the lawyer to appear and give us a few minutes of her time while I’m earning nothing, and my boss is beyond pissed and my head’s hammering, temptation cracks me like a whip. If I give in, I could erase the pain. I deserve that much while I’m doing right by Del. I say these things to myself sitting in the cold car, my breath warm dots on the glass, but I know better, much better.
The sixteen days loom up, more than two weeks, less than a month, more than halfway to a month and a full month is near impossible to get to. I know that. I know it time and again. My hand trembles. If I do this, what I’ve done so far is gone, flung out like a piece of trash, but it’s not, it’s worth something. It is. I know it is. I close my lips, let spit puddle on my tongue and as I’m about to pop in the pill, I stop. Could Del have done this on purpose, left this here so I’d find it? Could he want me out of his place so bad he doesn’t care if I end up on Sally’s couch for the rest of my life? I drop the pill in the bottle, screw the cap on, and seal the bag. I’m on fire.
I book it to the lawyer’s office, yank open the door and I’m about to let Del have it, when the lawyer steps in behind me. Del shoots up out of the chair as if he’s been holding out on me about his knee. Probably just his usual way with people he views as successful, but this is not a moment to forgive him anything. The lawyer says she needs a minute, which fries me. I hold in air, let it out, pain knifing my skull. Nita is staring at me and all that keeps me from slugging Del is knowing that as soon as we’re out of sight, she’ll be on the phone with Sally.
Del waves away the bag. “It’s not time yet. I don’t take anything more until after lunch.”
I press my lips to his ear. “You said you didn’t have anything.”
“You knew I was going out to the car.”
“I thought you went to smoke.”
“I just had a cigarette five minutes ago.”
“It’s my fault you found something you were looking for?” Del takes the plastic bag of pills and stuffs it in his pocket.
Nita tells us we can go in, but I’m not through.
“Did you want me to find it?”
“I was hiding it from you.”
Tears well so fast I don’t have time to reach in my bag for a tissue, so I use my sleeve. What a fuck-up I am, assuming the worst when my father is looking out for me in the little ways left open to him. How do I get myself so twisted around? I catch Nita as she turns her head away. So much for my hope all she’ll tell Sally is that she saw me and Del together. Crying will definitely make the full report.
Del moves toward the lawyer’s office. “Can we do this? We’re paying by the hour.”
I pull myself together in the only way I know how. “’We,’ Kimo Sabe?”
Del tucks his chin as he leads the way into the office. The lawyer’s taken off her coat and is dressed in what might be considered a sharp suit if you think a woman should look like a man in a blouse and heels.
Del and I sit across the desk from her.
She stares into a folder. “I see you were denied at your first hearing.”
I guess it’s good she’s all business since we’re paying by the hour.
She says she most always can get a person disability even after they’ve been rejected, but it’s tough where Del doesn’t have one big thing wrong with him. The lawyer’s cell phone hops around on her desk. She ignores it like a teacher looking over the hand of the me-me girl in the front row. “It would be helpful if we could identify your main complaint.”
“My main complaint is I’ve got no job.” Del says.
“Unfortunately, they don’t give disability checks for that.”
“No sh—“ I catch myself. “Kidding.” That’s the trouble with Del’s respect for those who’re successful. It’s hardly ever mutual.
The lawyer swivels toward Del. “Will you be able to set up doctors’ appointments and have them send over their reports?”
Del looks at me. His insurance ended when he got laid off and he’s run through the extra time. Alive to the shift in power between us, I nod. If I’m going to be giving him more than occasional handouts, he can’t turn me away from the cabin even if we have to get up and do-si-do every midnight. I see myself stretched out on the porch above the lake, watching the moon grow and ebb, studying the clouded Milky Way, the sky alive with stars.
The lawyer dismisses us by lifting her twitching phone.
Out at the car, Del insists he can drive. I shouldn’t let him, but for the first time I feel pleasure in handing over the keys. With the rush of being the one in charge, my head pain subsides. Maybe it’s not a migraine after all.
I don’t see much need to get to work, but Del insists. “There’s a whole half a day left.”
I offer to drive him home so he doesn’t have to pick me up at five.
“I thought you’d stay out at Red’s.”
“My knee can’t take another eight hours on that sofa.”
“We’ll trade places when you wake up.”
“I can’t be doing that. I barely wake up. I just kinda feel my way to bed.”
“I’ll move when I see you coming.”
Del doesn’t smile. He hunches over the steering wheel and starts it up.
“You mean after all I agreed to do for you in there, you won’t let me stay over?”
“It’s not that kind of deal.”
“What the hell kind of deal is it?”
“You said you want to help me.”
“I said I don’t want to see you sleep on the street.”
“That ‘d be my only other choice.”
“You’ve got Red.”
“What you mean is I’ve got Ma.”
“Why shouldn’t she take you in if things with Red aren’t going good?”
The power or adrenaline or whatever I felt is gone. Pain stirs behind my eyes. I think I’ve got things under control, that I’m doing the best I can, the best I could possibly do considering the shit I have to put up with and I can’t convince my own father to give me a place to sleep. I should’ve taken the fucking Oxy when I had the chance.
Del races onto the highway and veers into the high-speed lane. The Toyota hesitates then shifts into overdrive bouncing on shocks I’d replace if I had the cash. I think for a second he means to kill us, ram into a guardrail, get it over with, but he’s hunched over the wheel as if driving is the only thing that matters. I lean against the headrest and try a trick they taught in a rehab I went to for a while. I close my eyes and pretend the windshield doesn’t exist, feel a rush of air wash over me blowing my hair back. I inhale the speed, the whine of tires, the sweetness of Del’s aftershave. On the black of my eyelids I picture a meteor shower I caught sight of once, light bullets racing through the dark, flying past me with purpose and purity.
The pain resists. I open my eyes. Daylight slaps me as if I just took off dark glasses. We’re on the highway, speeding past the exit for Shay’s.
“What’re you doing?” I ask.
“What if my knee were frozen like this?”
“Is it? What can I do?”
“Don’t go all Sally on me now. I might just be enjoying the ride.”
The Toyota bobs down the highway.
A laugh wells in me. “You know what Ma would say if she were here?”
“Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Pull over. Pull over.” Del has her frenzy, but not her pitch.
I inch my voice up and do a slightly better Sally. “You’re not fit to drive and you know it. I should’ve never let you behind the wheel. Give me that wheel. Give it to me.”
Del mimes handing over the steering wheel. I start to laugh. By the time he joins in, I’m to where I can’t stop. Then I’m crying, more than in the lawyer’s office, more than I can remember since I was a kid.
“It’s OK, Gwennie,” Del cradles his knee between his thumb and forefinger. “I’ll get it loose in a minute.”
“It’s not that.”
“I know. But for now, we just keep driving. Where would you like to go?”
His offer is small, but it’s something. I latch onto it. “I hear Jeff City’s nice this time of year.”
“I haven’t been to K.C. in forever,” Del says.
I consider how far what’s left in the tank could take us. Of course there’s no need to limit ourselves like that. “If we get all the way to Denver, there’d be no end to the stars out there.”
“That’s my Gwennie,” Del taps his knuckles on the back of my hand. “Never satisfied with the usual sky.”
Ellen Davis Sullivan’s fiction includes a prize-winning story, “Yiddish Land” published in Moment Magazine. A member of the Dramatists’ Guild, her plays have been on stage in Boston, Denver, D.C., Florida, New York City, Provincetown and Vermont. She is completing a novel.
Featured Image photograph by E.B. Bartels, www.ebbartels.com.