“A Hell of a Thing” was first published in Pembroke Magazine
A Hell of a Thing
I flat don’t want Lynne’s sister Rena coming and I say so. I say, “I flat don’t want her coming.” It’s not just because Lynne doesn’t like me drinking when Rena’s here either.
I’m doing it for Lynne, and I think she knows that. Rena has only been off the drugs for about a year, and that’s not long considering all the heartache she’s caused Lynne and her family—lying and stealing and betraying—not long at all. Lynne was the one who told her she couldn’t come back, after finding Rena’s mirror and razorblade on the ottoman one morning. There they were plain as day, beside an ashtray sprouting cigarette butts like a hedgehog’s head, and Rena passed out on the couch with her jeans unzipped. This was before Lynne’s thirteen year old Cody moved to his dad’s, so he was right down in his bedroom the whole time.
Rena was just passing through that time, and that’s why Lynne let her stay. “No more than one night,” Lynne told her over the phone. Rena said it was all she needed, she was going to a job interview in Richmond—where nobody knew about her addictions, is what I thought. She got the job but lost it in four months, and then—add injury to injury—we found out she’d stolen all their family silverware—old stuff, real silver, from near the time of the Civil War, all wrapped up in ratty maroon felt—while she was here and she pawned it. It had been appraised at over four thousand dollars. She never admitted to stealing it, but it was her. I remember Lynne crying, saying over the phone, “Just admit it,” then listening, then saying, “Fine. Whatever. But you and I both know the truth. You can’t stay here anymore. Don’t come back.”
Now Lynne tells me Rena’s coming for a social visit. Bringing her boyfriend.
Lynne says, “She’s only going to spend the night. She’ll be leaving Sunday morning.”
I’ve just been laid off after running my machine nonstop first and second shift both for six weeks, getting out the Penske order. A temp they got from Labor Ready to help with the extra work, seemed like he was trying to kill me the whole time: almost crushed both my arms in my machine one afternoon, and another evening he nearly knocked me off the rack with the loading crane, not watching to see who was up there. So it was a stressful few weeks for me, and when it was over, Ron, my supervisor, just came up on my platform and told me they were going to have to let me go for a little while, till they got another big order. “For how long?” I wanted to know. Ron’s a biker, wears a thick handlebar mustache that, frankly, makes him look more like a leather fag than the kind of biker look he’s going for, but whatever. He rubbed that mustache and said, “Boss is trying to nail down a couple big contracts. Could be big. I’ll let you know.”
Things are tight at home; Lynne and I don’t need Rena right now, I am thinking.
Lynne is all dressed up to sell houses today. It’s Friday. She took the test and got her real estate license six months ago, and she’s already sold one house, for a friend of hers, but still. She’s bought all new clothes, even new sexy panties. I’m not complaining, that’s for sure. Every Sunday she does open houses; every Sunday before she leaves all dolled up, she stands in front of the hall bathroom mirror and chants this little thing to herself: “You’re ready for this. You look like a million bucks. You’re going to make that sale.”
She does look like a million bucks too in her new black suit. She’s all woman. You can have your stick-thin models, man. Give me curves. Give me boobs with real butt-crack cleavage in that jacket with no blouse underneath. She’s on her wobbly way in high heels, has a trunk load of for sale signs to jab down into front yards.
“I guess you want me to not drink while she’s here,” I say. Rena had a drinking problem too, along with the drugs. Vodka all day long. Before Lynne told her not to come back that was kind of an issue between us, my drinking around Rena when she was here. Why, I’d ask, should I change the way I live to accommodate her problem? This is my house. I still feel that way.
“If you can handle it for one night.”
“I can handle it,” I say. “If I want to.”
She clacks to the door in her new heels with her hands up like she’s walking on a frozen pond, goes out and closes the door.
Nothing to do on a Friday afternoon makes me jittery. I sit in front of ESPN with the sound off and 96 WROV rocking it out on the stereo, and drink a few Coors Lights. I go out to my truck to check and make sure I put my fifty foot rope back in behind the seat before I left work, and get a couple good swigs out of the Turkey bottle I keep back there. Lynne comes home late, carrying her shoes and thumping flat-footed and tired across the carpet.
“How’d it go?” I ask.
“It went.” She goes on down the hallway to the bedroom.
I leave the TV and follow her. I watch while she takes off her suit and hangs it up. When she gets to her pantyhose and bra, I make my move, go in all gentle and start kissing the back of her neck. She can’t resist that, never could. Her pantyhose waistband is cutting into her middle, so I hook my finger underneath and pull them down. Her beautiful white flesh spills out. She marches them to the floor and steps out of them.
“Problem is, you’re too sexy and nobody can keep their eyes on the houses.”
“Yeah,” she says, “right.”
We go to the bed and screw, and after that, lying beside her, I say, “I won’t drink while she’s here, if you don’t want me to.”
“Actually, she’s doing great,” Lynne says. “Do what you want. It won’t matter.”
So I think it might not be so bad. I’ll have to deal with Rena, and she is annoying as hell, and I can’t imagine her boyfriend won’t be too, but at least I can buffer it with a little Turkey.
I run out to the Walgreens on Saturday for a couple packs of Camel Lights, and I swing by the ABC next to the Food Lion for a fresh bottle of Turkey to get me through Rena’s visit. I crack open the new bottle and have a little slug. Then I polish off the old one, which only has a couple ounces left. A woman comes out of the ABC and sees me standing there with my two bottles. She has silver hair and a red face. She holds up her shiny blue bag and says, “Cheers.” I raise my new bottle to her.
I toss the old bottle in the can out front of the Food Lion and replace it with my new one behind my truck seat. I’ll keep it hidden from her, then everybody’s happy. I drive over to the Flea Market on Fort Avenue and bum around for a couple hours, shoot the shit here and there. Old Ralph Coats, who sells knives and Japanese throwing stars and fake brass knuckles, offers me a slug off his flask. He drinks some rotgut, bottom shelf shit, but I take a pull or two just to be polite. We get to talking about knives and weapons in general, and I tell him I’m a pretty good amateur gunsmith, and he says we could go into business together selling old refurbished guns, and that sounds like a fine idea to me. After the flea market closes, we stop over at the Pub Down Under and have a couple Coors Lights, so we can talk about our new business venture.
When I get home, Rena’s car is in the driveway, and a U-Haul rental van is behind it. No fucking way anybody’s moving in, I think. Not going to happen. Her car is a little green Geo Metro hatchback, with clothes stacked in the back on hangers like she’s moving. Hell no. Hell no. On top of the clothes is a capless blue Secret deodorant can. What a slob.
From the driveway I can smell food cooking. Rena is a good cook. She learned it from the Food Network those months she crashed on our couch several years ago. Got to where she was making us some great dinners, but costing us a shitload of money. That was back when I was getting steady overtime and Lynne wasn’t working at all. Had to make her stop all that cooking. Lynne doesn’t cook anymore. She’s a career woman now. One good home-cooked meal will be nice.
I park on the street so they can get out. I look at the house, at the door. The front door is standing open, with the screen door shut, but nobody’s standing in it. All the windows on this side of the house are dark. I take a couple good pulls off my bottle of Turkey to steel my nerves. I go to the side of the house and in through the kitchen door, like I always do. I’m feeling good and relaxed.
Lynne and Rena are standing side by side with their asses against the kitchen counter, holding glasses of sweet tea. The boyfriend is sitting at the kitchen table. He stands up and reaches out to shake my hand as Rena arches her back and pushes away from the counter toward me. “This is Randy,” she says to me. We shake hands and say our nice-to-meet-yous—his forearms are tattooed up and down, and he has little washers for earrings that make 3/8” holes, maybe 7/16”, in his earlobes. You could dangle a Sharpie marker from them. Rena gives me a long solid hug. She smells like that dirt perfume hippies wear. “It’s good to see you,” she says.
“You moving somewhere?” I ask.
“Oh, the U-Haul?” She laughs. “That’s Randy’s. Randy’s driving that.”
“Rena and Randy,” I say. “Has a ring to it.”
“Does doesn’t it,” Rena says.
“Rena and Randy,” I say. “Rena and Randy.”
They laugh and nod.
Lynne asks me, “You go to the flea market?”
Rena looks like Lynne, except she’s ten years younger, and she has her naturally strawberry blonde hair dyed the color of cherry wood. She’s skinny as a rail too, which I attribute to the drugs because it’s not a family trait. Her face, flushed at the cheeks and nose, is the texture of an overused paper grocery bag. Her eye shadow and lipstick are dark red-brown to match the color of her hair, and somehow, with her pale skin, it’s hot in a slutty way. On the counter behind Lynne is a pink slab of salmon 18” long with lemon slices and fresh sprigs of herbs all over it. It’s on top of a bunch of leaves.
“Dinner already?” I ask.
“Jeff, it’s almost seven.”
“You’re right,” I say. Where’d the day go? Almost six hours I’ve been gone. Shit. I say, “What’s with the greenery?”
“Banana leaves,” Rena says. We wrap the salmon in it. We’re having roasted root vegetables with it.”
I turned on the oven light and looked in. purple and white rutabagas, yellow turnips, orange sweet potatoes, white onions. “It’ll be a pretty meal, anyway.”
“It is,” Lynne says.
“Isn’t it?” Rena says.
On the kitchen table behind the boyfriend there’s chips and salsa, and toasted pita chips with a creamy dip. I go and start digging in to the chips and salsa. Suddenly I realize I’m starving.
“You want a glass of tea?” Lynne asks me. She knows I don’t drink tea.
“I’ll get something in a minute,” I say.
I sit down and chow on the salsa. It’s homemade, and delicious.
Rena wraps up the fish in the leaves and ties it off with twine. She moves the root vegetables to the bottom rack and slides in the green bundle, turning her dark raccoon eye sockets away from the blast of heat. The hot smell of roasting vegetables filled the kitchen. I polished off the salsa.
“Oh,” Lynne says, “I almost forgot. I have to show you that new set, remember?” She pads her bare feet down the hallway. She walks so heavy she rattles her knickknacks on the tables.
Rena tosses our red Santa Clause oven mitt with the black-stained palm onto the counter and follows. Lynne is saying down the hallway, “It was only fifty dollars at TJ Maxx. The comforter only has one little place, a bleach spot or something, but I can put that at the bottom and cover it…”
Alone in the kitchen with the boyfriend, I get myself a glass and go to the freezer for ice. Inside the freezer are two bottles of white wine, and in the ice bucket there’s a bottle of Captain Morgan’s spiced rum. I say, “What the hell’s all this?”
“That wine is particularly good with salmon,” the boyfriend says.
“And the rum?”
“That’s for desert,” he says. “Rena’s going to do bananas foster. Burn it, not drink it.”
I take the bottle out and hold it up. A little over half gone. “You guys been cooking a lot of bananas?” I ask. I open the bottle and gulp down a couple freezing swallows. I like my sweet Wild Turkey, but rum is too sweet, even ice cold. I offer the boyfriend a swig and he shakes his head and says no thanks and fingers at one of his gaping earlobes. I put the bottle back and there are melted spots on the bottle where my fingers pressed the outer film of ice.
I get some ice in my glass and shove the rum down deeper into the bucket. When I open the fridge I see that Lynne hasn’t hidden my Coors Light. The wine, and now this. It really is okay to drink around Rena. I crack myself a beer. I offer one to the boyfriend but again he declines and fingers at one of his ridiculous earlobes.
Dinner goes well. I even have a little glass of wine with everyone because they all talk about how good it is with the fish. So there I am at this fine dinner table, a glass of wine and a silver can of beer in front of me. It’s my house, I can be a redneck if I want. After dinner, Rena makes a big deal out of the bananas foster. They’re good, but not worth all the trouble in my opinion, but whatever. I step out to move the truck from the street to the driveway and get myself another couple of good long swallows of Turkey. When I get back in, the girls have both gone to pee, so I grab another swig out of the Captain Morgan’s. I offer it to the boyfriend, and this time, he peeks down the hallway, and then takes a good long swig. “Attaboy,” I say. “I ain’t telling.” He wipes his mouth and goes straight for the coffee pot.
We play this game called Cranium, which somehow turns into more of a game of Pictionary and charades because boyfriend doesn’t like the word questions and the modeling clay is dried up. Every time Rena leans over to draw, I can see down her shirt, and she has the prettiest little tits. We’re all laughing and joking and I do this wild charade of a velociraptor running through the house with ass out and my elbows squeezed against my ribcage, like I’m hunting those two children in that movie. I do another one of the Titanic sinking that’s so good I break Lynne’s sweet tea glass on the floor. I slip back out a couple more times while the girls pee and get a gulp of Turkey. Finally I just sneak the bottle in; I take a quick swig and so does the boyfriend, then I hide it under the sink. I’m feeling great, the evening is a ball, and I’m thinking Rena is okay after all, and her boyfriend, though a little uptight, is okay too. I say it more than once. I say to him, “You’re okay.” I say to Rena, “I’m glad you’re okay. You’re both okay.” I say to Lynne, “They’re okay.”
After my last can of beer is gone, I figure what the hell, and I say to Rena, “So you really aren’t tempted to drink anymore? With people drinking around you?”
She says, “I’m doing good.”
“Well alright.” I get up and fumble around under the sink and produce my Wild Turkey, about half gone now. I say, “Then me and boyfriend are going to stop sneaking our nips like Baptists.” I hold up the bottle in salute to boyfriend. He looks away as Rena shoots him a glare.
She says, “You’ve been drinking with him?”
There’s her old animosity toward us, finally rearing its head.
“No,” he says. “I have not.”
“I can’t believe you,” she shouts, and she throws her red Cranium card at him, but it flutters off to the side and goes on the floor. She gets up and stomps down the hallway.
I follow her because I have to piss, and halfway down the hallway she spins around and almost knocks me over. I step aside and say, “Easy there, baby girl.” She doesn’t say anything to me, just goes back toward the kitchen with more to say.
On my way back from pissing, I hear them arguing in the kitchen, and I’m starting to get aggravated that Rena is giving the guy so much hell. Then I hear my wife’s hushed voice. Now it sounds like the two of them are ganging up on her for some reason, and that really gets my hackles up. The boyfriend says something. Lynne says something back. He raises his voice at her and says, “Yes you will.” My wife whispers something urgent back to him. He says, “Don’t be stupid.” Rena says, “You really are being stupid.”
Oh no. Not in my house. I stomp into the kitchen and over to his chair, and I stand close so I’m looming over his sorry ass, and I say to him, “Don’t ever talk to my wife like that again.”
They all look up at me. He’s scared. Lynne’s been crying.
I look at Rena and say, “I knew I shouldn’t have let you come. You’re nothing but trouble, and that’s all you’ll ever be.”
Lynne stands and puts her arms around my waist. She says all sexy, “Hey baby, let’s go to bed.”
“That’s not fair,” the boyfriend says. “Rena—”
I grab his throat in my left hand. I have a strong grip from working with my hands all my life. His face seems to swell like a finger with a rubber band around it, his eyes squint up. His chair legs scrape on the kitchen linoleum as he kicks himself back, but then he’s against the wall with nowhere else to go. He grabs my wrist. His grip is weak. I cock my right fist back. I’m going to break his nose for him.
Lynne hugs me tighter with two pulsing squeezes. She says, “Come on, baby.” She hugs and hugs. “Baby, it’s not worth it.”
“Go to bed,” Rena says to me. She looks at me with hard eyes. No remorse, never sorry for anything she does. Something about the look though—suddenly I’m not mad anymore. I even think we could patch this over, there’s more fun to be sucked out of this evening.
I let go of the boyfriend and he coughs. I say, “Sorry, dude. I overreacted.” I say to Rena, “You need to think about Lynne sometimes, stop making your sister’s life a living hell.”
Lynne pulls at me. She says, “Let’s go get in bed, baby.” I know she’s trying to defuse this—she’s always been a peace maker—but it also means we’re going to do it, so I go.
When we get back to the bed, my heart is pounding like it wants out from under my ribs. I’m thinking that this is going to be the perfect end to the evening. All in all, we had a pretty good time, except for that last little trouble, but that blew over with no harm, no foul. Then I see she’s crying.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
She shakes her head and tightens her lips so as not to burst out crying out loud.
“That’s it,” I say. “I’m throwing her ass out.” I turn to go back out, but she grabs and holds on to me hard.
She says, “I need you here with me more right now. Come to bed.”
I take off all my clothes and get in bed for sex. She undresses in front of me, finds her sleeping t-shirt and pulls it on. She crawls in on her side and tugs up the covers. I guess I’m more tired than I realize from the long day, because that’s it, I’m done.
Sunday morning I wake up with a slight headache, but not too bad. It’s a bright morning out, and the bedroom is dark with the blinds pulled tight. Lynne isn’t in the bed. The bedroom door is closed, but I can hear voices down the hall in the kitchen: Lynne and Rena, and the boyfriend; and other voices. Men’s voices.
Right away I know something is fucked up. First I think it might be movers, something to do with that U-Haul the boyfriend brought. Then I smell bacon cooking, and I can’t figure what the hell’s going on. So I pull on my jeans from yesterday, and a fresh white t-shirt, and I go down the hallway to the kitchen, and I ask. I say, “What the hell’s going on?”
The table is set for breakfast, and there are people all around it. Lynne and Rena. The boyfriend. Ron, my supervisor from work, who has never been to our house before—this is so fucked up, I think somebody has died, something really fucked up has happened—and some guy I’ve never seen before. A black guy in a green polo shirt. He has those little white shaving bumps all over his neck. They’ve already eaten. The table looks wrecked and ready for a busboy with his gray tub.
“You save anything for the rest of us?” I say.
“There’s plenty left,” Lynne says. “Sit down and have some.”
“I don’t want any,” I say. What I want is to get out to the truck and get a little hair of the dog. Then I remember that I brought it in and put it under the sink. Then I remember that I pulled it out last night. I can’t remember where I set it down. I check around the counters, don’t see it anywhere. I say, “I want to know what the hell’s going on?”
“Jeff,” Lynne says to me all sweet, “this is Mark Washington.”
The black guy stands and reaches to shake my hand. I nod at him and look back at Lynne.
“He’s a professional interventionist,” she says. “Sit down,” she says. “Please.”
I do sit down now. I sit and look around. I say, “What the fuck is going on?”
Then Lynne flies into this whole speech about how I have an illness, how I’m very sick, and this black guy is set to take me to a treatment center, and then my boss joins in and tells me I’m not fired but I’ve been a danger to myself and to others, and I need to get some help and then he’ll see about getting me some shifts again, but that’s not what I need to be focusing on right now, and my head is all swimming still from the night before, and my stomach’s a little sour, and I need a drink, God I need a drink to clear my head, and Rena says how it was hard but it was the best thing she’s ever done in her life, and I’ll be happy after I do it, and Lynne pipes back in and says if I refuse to go down to Pathways Treatment Center with Mr. Washington—no promises; right now, this morning—she’s packing her things in the U-Haul out there—I look at Rena’s boyfriend and say, “So that U-Haul is empty?” and he nods his head and plays with his ear lobe hole—she’s packing up and leaving me because she can’t live like this anymore. “Today,” she says. “I’m going today.”
Everything is quiet then. That nice hot bacon smell has cooled into the sickening odor of cold grease. My stomach churns.
“That it?” I say.
“You rented a goddamn truck just for this?”
Nobody says anything.
My head is spinning. I look around and they’re all staring at me. Not the boyfriend. He’s looking down at the table. He picks up his glass of juice—that arm tattooed like a colorful sleeve—and chugs it. Gulps and gulps. Makes me think of when I was in the Army and we’d be in line at a drinking fountain after PT, and somebody would be taking too long, how we would yell and say, “Save some for everybody else. You can’t drink down to the whiskey. There’s no whiskey at the bottom.” I think about that and I shake my head and I laugh.
They all sit and look at me. The boyfriend puts his glass down and wipes his mouth. He looks at me too.
Jan held steady in the left lane. Beyond the gold-green shade of their neighborhood, the sun flashed in strobes between trees and buildings along the Kanawha River. Cars rushed up in the rearview, waited, waited, and then veered out and around her. She pulled down the visor and squinted, and maintained the speed limit of 45 MPH. The seat plastic had a crack from front to back and pinched at her leg when she moved.
Her son Jesse slouched beside her as if he wished he had a hole in his floorboard big enough for him to slide through and tumble under the rear wheels. Her husband Larry had wanted to make him ride the bus for the rest of the year but she couldn’t do it. She was already out every morning for the radio show anyway, so she’d decided to drive him to school herself in his own Volvo 240 wagon. Motorists were starting to ease off the gas in order to rubberneck and shoot her the stink eye.
“Mom?” Jesse said.
“Yes, baby.” She sat straight and gripped the wheel at ten and two.
“Could you at least get in the slow lane so we don’t cause a pileup?” His jeans were low on his hips, showing three full inches of his red and yellow tartan plaid boxers. His t-shirt was tight on his shoulders and chest.
“I’m going the speed limit.”
“You’re going twenty miles an hour slower than everyone else.” He waved his arm and looked out his window. The smell of his Polo cologne hummed around her head.
Before he heaved himself into the car that morning, it had smelled sour and smoky like a peed-on campfire. Jan had checked the ashtray, which only had coins in it. Jesse was an athlete, he wouldn’t smoke. It was his friends who worried her: they weren’t saved, and they were quite worldly, all of them. Jesse had stopped going to Youth Loft at church–and there was the incident with the vodka in the Gatorade. She feared she was losing him to the world.
She said, “You haven’t been late once since I started driving you. I’m not going to break the law.”
“Nobody goes the speed limit.”
“If everybody’s having an abortion does that make it okay?”
Jesse groaned and tugged at the strap of his book bag. It had a black and white patch sewn onto it that said KILL YOUR TV, with a picture of a stick man pushing down a TNT plunger.
He said, “Speed limits are arbitrary laws having nothing to do with morality. When arbitrarily set laws become ignored by the general population, it is the duty of their elected representatives to change them.” He held his palm out as if to offer her a mint.
A car zipped by and the man inside leaned and mouthed asshole at her. Jesse smiled at her while he acted like he was scratching his ear. He had braided leather bands on both wrists. Jan knew he was giving the man the middle finger.
She released her grip on the steering wheel, rubbed her fingers in her palms, and then re-gripped. The wheel’s rippled plastic grip was rubbed slick and shiny around the top. She said, “In Romans the Lord instructs us to submit to the laws of our government.”
Jesse rolled his head on the headrest and sighed. He said, “Yeah, and in Romans Paul says it’s the spirit of the law and not the letter that’s important.”
“Tell that to the officer.”
Jesse laughed. He said, “Appeal to authority. Logical fallacy. You just lost.”
Jan said, “This is not debate club, son.” She thought he was wrong about the logical fallacy but wasn’t sure why. She let it drop.
Jesse was on the debate team; he played varsity soccer, and hosted a radio show with another kid from ten to eleven every day (the broadcast reached a six-mile radius around the high school). Through middle school he had been best friends with Allen Green who lived across the street, but Allen joined the band, played drums, and was a surfer, so they split into different peer groups. Allen’s mother had come to Ladies Fellowship a few times with Jan. Jan had nearly won her to the Lord but she was too entrenched in Catholicism. Jan was glad now that the boys didn’t hang out. Allen was on marijuana.
That morning while she waited for Jesse in his car, Jan had watched Allen come out of his house, swinging his tangled mane of knotty hair and wearing those baggy brown shorts he sported in all weather, dangling his sunglasses from his mouth. He lobbed his book bag into the back seat of his little convertible that apparently had sat the night with the top down. He grabbed the driver’s door with his right hand and jumped, launching himself into the front seat, pulling up his knees as if he were doing a cannonball into the pool. At the end of the street Allen gunned his engine, sliding into a screaming fishtail on the smooth asphalt of the access road.
His driving had made her think of the way Jesse ran as a baby, just off balance, always on the cusp of a wipeout. Once he’d fallen down the basement steps and smashed his nose. Christmas pictures from that year showed his chubby face grinning around the nose, fat and red as a carnation.
Jan shook her head and laughed. She said, “The way you boys drive makes me think of babies running.”
Jesse let his head fall and his face lolled to a position facing her, chin pulled into his shoulder. “Babies?”
“Much better.” His voice was so deep now. Sometimes on the phone she mistook him for his father. “Toddlers. Much, much better.”
He reached into his back pack and pulled out Guitar Magazine. He flipped through the pages. The cover photograph was black and white, a young Jimmy Page swinging his long hair as he played.
Jan said, “Led Zeppelin.”
Jesse looked at her, astonished.
“I remember them,” she said. “I didn’t grow up under a rock.” She said, “Heavens, are they still around?”
He shoved the magazine back into his pack.
Jesse was not allowed to listen to secular music, but she knew from his radio show that he loved old rock and roll—he and the other kid on the show joked that country and rap went together to form co-rap.
There was a green SUV behind her so close that she couldn’t see the license plate. It filled her rearview.
She said, “I haven’t said anything son, but I wish you would respect our rules about secular music.”
“I love music, mom. What am I supposed to listen to?”
Jan reached out and turned on the radio. The seat pinched her leg. The SUV pulled out and went around her and pulled back in front of her so close she had to touch her brake and it made her swerve just a little. Jesse sighed heavily. She found 96.4. A song was on and a guy rapped some, but it was a white guy, not the ghetto kind of rap, and he started singing eventually, Next thing you know, I’m high and flying, Next thing you know, my heart is in your hand… The music was catchy, she thought. The guy said, What’s your story, about his glory…
She said, “How about this?”
“It blows,” Jesse said.
The song went off and the DJ said, “A positive alternative. Encouraging. Uplifting. Spirit FM.”
They were in the thick of the morning rush now. Cars were stacked up behind them, weaving and craning to look. Jan focused ahead and tightened her grip.
Jesse said, “Contemporary Christian music is a stench in the nostrils of God.”
“It’s just plain bad, and surely God has to find bad art offensive. Never mind the irony of rich, rock-star Christian ministers.”
He sounded like he did when he was on the air talking about country music, or rap. Every morning since he’d started the show Jan had driven out to the Hardee’s, where she was within its broadcast range, got a peach milkshake and listened to his show in the parking lot. She planned her days around it, the way Larry did with “Car Talk” on Saturday mornings. Once she laughed a chunk of peach out her nose when Jesse said death metal singers sounded like demons with impacted bowels.
“This is sinful.” He flipped the radio off. “It’s crap.”
“How can you say that? The Lord uses that music.”
“You’re making people late for work.”
“They could have left their houses earlier.”
“They weren’t counting on you.” His Adam’s apple slid up and then down; his jaw flexed and his lips pulled thin.
When he was younger, he’d sat there beside her, laughing and talking away, smelling like grass and dirt and sweat and watermelon Bubble Yum, mud-stained shin pads and cleats between his rubber-sandaled feet, socks hanging loose around his ankles. When she’d had to brake, her arm always flew out and barred his chest. She’d seen a driver’s ed. movie back when she was in high school that proved arms were no more useful than wet noodles for restraining loved ones in a crash. It was instinctual.
Now Jesse was the big one. He rode with his knees high, filled the car like a man, his elbow on the console, energy emanating from him almost like a threat of violence. He smelled like too much cologne.
After a long pause, she said, “Please don’t be impertinent.”
Three more lanes of traffic appeared to the right, on the other side of a dividing wall, and ran for a mile; the dividing wall dropped away and the lanes swung over. Jan was now in the far left of six lanes, and more than double the traffic swarmed in around her. Sunlight flashed off cars and buildings.
Allen Green pulled alongside them in his convertible, surging as if his toy car were being borne along in traffic like an empty jug on a flooded stream. He smiled and waved, all sunglasses and teeth and wind-whipped hair—a life-sized Muppet doll.
Jan took a deep breath and readjusted her grip.
Allen surged along beside them, smiling, paying no attention to the truck bearing down on his rear end, threatening to crush him. Jesse gave a single wave with his index finger and thumb out like a gun. When Allen’s car surged forward, the truck pulled even with them. Jesse rubbed his face with both hands. The side of the truck had a picture of glistening fruit. Water drops as big as light bulbs glistened on a red apple three feet high.
“Drive however you want,” Jesse said. “You shouldn’t try to regulate everyone else’s driving. Obey the Apostle Paul in the slow lane.”
She said, “Last I checked, the speed limit applies to all lanes.”
He worked the leather bands around his wrists like worry beads.
A whole string of cars weaved behind them now. As cars moved out and around them, the drivers who didn’t shoot the stink eye or mouth something rude stared ahead with stone faces, expressionless as porcelain dolls. Jan held ten and two. A UPS truck sped past with two trailers on back, then another semi with a low trailer carrying two massive wooden spools of black industrial wire.
“Mom, please.” Jesse’s deep man-voice had pinched into an adolescent whine. He looked up and lifted his leg as if he had a charley horse, then let it drop.
They rode silently. The cars in all five lanes to the right flowed past; the cars in their own lane pulled up, waited, leapfrogged to the side of them. More glares, mouthed obscenities, hand motions, middle fingers. Jan maintained 45 MPH. Jesse’s jaw tightened, relaxed, tightened.
After they had gone several miles this way, without warning, Jesse pounced. He slammed his fist into the dash and shouted, “God damn it, get over.”
Jan gasped. The silent instant after his outburst felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the car. She glanced into her rearview and started her shift across the lanes.
A brown Honda Civic had been approaching fast and had pulled even with them when she veered. A man’s astonished face was inside the car, now beside Jesse’s head, so close to the glass that if the windows had been down Jesse could have given him a wet-Willie without leaning out. The man’s face wasn’t looking at them though. He was staring down at the fender of Jesse’s car, the point where the two cars were about to make contact. The entire order of objects in space was off kilter, like a stranger lunging into her personal space.
Jesse yelled, “Shit, mom,” right as she braced for impact.
They careened across all the lanes. Cars swerved to miss them, screeching tires, flashing sunlight, car horns wailing. She veered into the emergency lane and braked to a stop. Traffic rushed on. There was no accident.
“Thank the Lord,” she said. Out her window was a gravel hill down to a highway department fence. Beyond that an overgrown field the size of two soccer fields led to a decrepit housing project. The school was only a few miles away, out highway 114 toward Coonskin State Park.
“You okay?” she said. She put her hand on his forearm.
Jesse laughed and said, “Guess I’ll be late for school today.” He pulled his arm away and opened the door. He stepped his right foot out onto the ridged concrete emergency lane. A short piece of truck tire retread was by the guardrail, curled like a hand around a cup, stringy at the edges. He stood and looked over the car roof at all the traffic. He hitched his jeans so the tartan plaid boxers barely showed, slung his book bag over his shoulder.
She said, “You sure you’re okay?”
Jesse leaned in and looked at her. He said, “You okay?”
“Just shaken up.”
“Okay,” he said. With that, he walked around the car, slid on his feet down the gravel and grass hill to the highway department fence. He walked along the fence.
“Jesse,” Jan called. She shouted out his door, “Where are you going?”
He walked on.
She got out of the car and ran after him.
He walked along the chain-link fence. It was as high as his shoulder. Grasshoppers were jumping away from him as he waded in the weeds.
“Jesse,” Jan yelled. “Baby, stop.” She followed him: she had to make sure he was okay, keep him out of trouble, get him to school. She stood up and put her hands on her hips and yelled, “You stop this instant, young man.”
Without pause, Jesse tossed his bag over the fence, grabbed the top of it and launched his legs over as gracefully as a gymnast. As his body swung over, his shoulders bulged and moved under his thin t-shirt like a racehorse’s muscles slide under its own smooth skin. He walked straight out into the field, shrugging his book bag back onto his shoulder. The bag bounced gently against his hip as he sauntered off, cock-sure and fearless as a giant striding across the curving earth.
She started down the hill for the fence, slipped and landed with a heavy jolt on her butt, slid the rest of the way down. She yelled, “Jesse.” She got up and started climbing the fence. Her sneaker slipped and she fell. “Baby boy,” she hollered. Her voice vibrated, sounded like a kazoo inside her head. She tried the fence again. Her toe slipped out and the sharp top of the twisted link gouged a strip of skin off her palm. The cord was snapped and he was moving away from her; she had the sudden sensation of falling backward as her end went slack. She turned and looked up the embankment: traffic as unbroken and relentless as the crashing white water of the New River. What would she do now? What could she do?
When she turned back, Jesse was halfway across the field already, a shining apparition, a shimmering mirage. The long wet grass flipped as he kicked on, and grasshoppers jumped from him in the sunlight. They made an undulating aura around his legs, as if his heels were scraping up showers of green and golden sparks. He moved up and down, up and down, dew and grasshoppers and light and energy coming off him, a green halo of life that emanated from him and pulsed with his every step.
The traffic rushed on. His radio show. She would go to Hardee’s and listen for him. She stumbled up the hill and ran for her car. If she could just hear his voice over the air, she would be okay. She pulled forward, accelerating to 45 in the emergency lane. Her scraped palm stung as she gripped the steering wheel. She put on her blinker and watched in her rearview for someone to slow down and let her merge.
“Centrifugal Child” was originally published in The Dos Passos Review.