Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

King Mackerel

  

 

 

 

One day in early June of the summer I would turn fifteen, Aunt Lou and Mom had a confab at the kitchen table to discuss my future. Lou was a secretary at Chiquola before they shut down, and she had set up a job for me gathering bricks at the demolished mill.

 

As they talked I sat on my bed bouncing a blue super ball against the wall, imagining the fish I might catch that summer. I was working on a hundred in a row without a miss when the tenor of the conversation caught my attention.   

 

“It’s not a big deal,” Lou said. “It’s not unreasonable.”  

 

“He’s been such a good boy,” Mom said quietly. “I don’t want this to upset him.”

 

“I know he’s good. Good for now, anyway. But that’s not the point. You know you can’t keep babying him like you do. He’s gonna, what, bounce that goddamn ball all summer long?”

 

“I’m right here,” I said.

 

“We sure know it,” Lou sang back. She was staying with us for awhile, until her circumstances improved, whatever that meant. “How do you feel about making some money? Being a productive member of the household rather than a parasite?”

 

“I prefer to think of our relationship as symbiotic,” I said. “Like a shark getting dinner and then the pilot fish flossing the shark’s teeth. Wouldn’t you say that’s what we have going, Lou, us three? A big, happy, symbiotic household?”

 

“Smartass,” Lou said. “Just like . . .”

 

“Just like who?” I caught the ball and held it. My back was ramrod straight. I wanted her to say it, wanted some mention of him.

 

“Just like me,” Lou replied to staunch the silence. I eased out of bed and poked my head out the door. The crumbs from Lou’s Salem Light flitted on the Formica. Mom was shooting her a look full of daggers. “You think you could stand some honest work?”    

 

“As in not growing weed or cooking meth? Because those are my main career choices around here.”

 

“As in out in the sun, get sweaty work.”

 

“Well, when you make it sound so sexy like that.” Actually the prospect sounded fine to me. I needed to get my mind off the same ache that started up this time of year. And anyway, some money would come in handy.  I had my eye on a new rod, something flashy and totally unnecessary. Something better than my old Zebco at least. And a cane pole does only so well if you’re going after more than just bream and crappie. I was planning on some serious fishing that summer. 

 

“I just don’t think he’s ready,” Mom said.

 

Lou snorted. “You’re not ready. Nothing’s gonna happen. He goes over in the morning, does his job, and Ronnie pays him cash money. That’s all. That’s a promise.”

 

I didn’t know who Ronnie was.

 

Mom was brooding. “He has to promise.”

 

“It’s time to cut the apron strings, Cheryl.”     

 

“You know this is hard for me,” Mom said.  

 

“Your Mom is waffling here, sport. I’m thinking she’s worried you might get a hangnail.”

 

“Why not?” I said. “I’m already bored.”    

 

“Let the records indicate it’s two to one.”

 

Mom didn’t reply. Instead she got up and started to scrub some greasy dishes. She looked like she was strangling them. But I knew it was settled.

 

That next morning, my first day as a working man, I woke up well before six, with my heart racing. I couldn’t remember the dream that I’d just had, but it unsettled me. The same words, spoken in a wheezy, mocking voice, resounded in my head as I caught my breath:  “He’s up there waiting for you.”

 

I pulled on my old grass-stained lawn mowing Reeboks. Lou had made some comment about wearing “sensible shoes,” which I figured meant ones already beat to hell. Out in the hall, I listened to Lou snooze in the narrow room that Mom called “the study,” though its only function as far as I knew was once being the repository of Dad’s old bench and weights. They were maroon colored plastic and filled with sand.  For a long time, Mom just left them there and I would go and sit amongst them like an archeologist studying relics of a grand forgotten civilization. Then one day I opened the door and there was nothing but a double bed, the one Lou was stretched out on now. Some nights she didn’t make it home from Easy’s, the only bar in town. For such a petite woman she could really snore. I wondered if this was why she was always in search of new prey—they woke in the morning to discover a foghorn blowing beside them, warning them away from the dangerous shoals.  

 

In the den, Mom was crashed on the couch, which was not unusual. It was all she could do to make it in the door from her shift at Majik Mart. I thought about how every morning now we would pass each other, passing the baton, both of us doing our part to keep the family above water.  

 

Mom had her hair cut short. A pixie cut Aunt Lou called it, making it sound like she was still trying. She was balled up like a child, her slender arms engulfed by her royal blue Majik Mart jersey, a couple of sizes too large. Marianne was stenciled on the breast in delicate cursive, the only fanciful thing about it. They hadn’t bothered to order her a new one, just rummaged around in the back office. She accepted it the way she accepted most everything, settling for second–hand. “We make do,” she was fond of saying, especially after some fresh calamity: another layoff, another man disappearing from her life. “We play the hand we’re dealt.”       

 

The mill village was called the Downs, a fairly accurate name these days. I could barely remember when Chiquola was still running. When I was a kid it was just a presence, exhaling its arid breath like a dryer vent. Sometimes a mote of cotton would stick in your eye, irritate you all day long. Now the mill was a blight, the tall stack taunting us.    

 

All the houses in the Downs looked pretty much the same—slanted roofs of decaying terra cotta shingles veined with moss, purplish brick facades, window shades drawn up to keep out prying eyes. It wasn’t a friendly neighborhood, not anymore. It was filled with decrepit pensioners or sallow-eyed strangers who moved in and then left in the dead of night, leaving haphazard piles of junk behind them on the curbs.

 

Perhaps it was appropriate that the mill, once the centerpiece of our community, was now just a pile of rubble about the size of a football field. Only one wall of the main structure was still standing.

 

When I got to the job site, a host of mockingbirds were kicking their loop of chipper songs into overdrive and the sun was gathering itself, creeping across the broken roofs of the Downs. I put my gloves on, found a wheelbarrow, and headed into the mess.

 

I liked the work, though it was hard. I liked the heft of each brick in my hand. I liked how I’d pitch one at my wheelbarrow and then feel the lightness, the absence. I liked that moment when a brick seemed to rest in mid-air, frozen in its flight. Most of all, I liked to stack them, crossways and overlapping, so they wouldn’t shift. It made me feel like I was building something stable.

 

Later on Ronnie showed up, pulling a big flatbed trailer and a Bobcat with his diesel truck. For a few minutes, he inspected the pallets of brick. He counted them on his hands.

 

He walked over. “You Caleb?”

 

“Me? I’m just a concerned citizen trying to beautify the community.”

 

“That’d be like putting lipstick on a hog around here.” He spat a stream of tobacco juice beside my Reeboks. “I thought I told Lou that you should have steel toe boots.”

 

“I didn’t get the memo.”

 

“Don’t want no accidents, you breaking a toe or nothing.”

 

“That’s nice of you.”

 

“Nice, hell. Just go on to Majik Mart and get you some later today. Cost you maybe 40, 50 bucks.  I’ll kick in an extra 20.”

 

“Shouldn’t be a problem with my mom’s discount.”

 

“That’s right. Your Ma works over there now.”

 

“You know my mom? I thought it was Lou that you set this up with.”

 

A shadow seemed to pass over Ronnie’s eyes, which were the deep green of pond scum. “Know both, I guess. Let’s load ‘em up.”      

 

Ronnie got down to work. He maneuvered the Bobcat like it was ballet, scooping each pallet up, then raising the load and pirouetting towards the trailer all at once, a frenzy of motion that seemed to promise calamity but always came off fine. There was something admirable about the performance. 

 

When he was done, he paid me from a wad of worn fives and tens he kept in his back pocket. No wallet; a thick rubber band did the job. He made a show of it: unfolded the green bounty, then licked his thumb and slowly counted out my take.

 

“You want me to fill out some forms or something?”

 

“We’ll just keep it between us. A gentleman’s agreement,” Ronnie said. “Uncle Sam can go fuck himself.”

 

We shook on it.

 

As the summer went on, my life began to fall into a predictable pattern. I’d wake early, always from the throes of the same dream, the raspy words hanging there before me.

 

I worked until mid-afternoon, just about the time it got really hot and I could see waves emanating from the concrete and glass and bricks.

 

When Ronnie came, he said the same thing: “How come you ain’t got this shit cleared up by now?”

 

“Getting there,” I’d say.

 

“Well, you keep it up. Maybe sometime next century we’ll get it straight.”

 

“You know it.” I think he respected my Sisyphean labor.

 

After we settled, I was ready to fish by the dam. I walked down Filter Plant Road and stopped at Boscoe’s for a couple of Cheerwines. One I’d drink straight away, letting the sweet syrup settle in my stomach like a cold fist. The other I’d leave bobbing in the shade of a big water oak.

 

It had rained a lot in the spring and the water was stretched tight as a drum around the reservoir. I watched it slip over the dam and cascade down in foamy sheets, bubbling up yellow at the bottom.

 

I used my Zebco and set up a couple of stationary poles held upright in PVC pipe. I cast as far as I could out into the middle of the reservoir, but never caught much. I was still saving for my dream rod, a graphite St. Croix with a cork handle.

 

When I got home in the evening, Mom was often gone to start her shift. We were living in different time signatures, inhabiting the same house, but never really there together. Later on Lou would go out too, and then the house was mine completely.

 

I had a shoebox that I kept the cards my dad sent to me, and often I’d sit in bed and thumb through them. Some years they came late, well after my birthday. Sometimes they were a few weeks early. Maybe he couldn’t really remember the exact date anymore, so he approximated. Every time he included a sad, wrinkled five dollar bill. Some cards were embarrassingly childish, as if maybe he’d also lost track of how old I was. The one from two years ago had a picture of a bat and glove on a powder blue background and inside said, “You’re my number one slugger.” Daddy, he always signed them. Not even love. The bills were smooth and soft like old jeans that had been in the wash a thousand times. I kept them all and examined them the way an FBI man might study counterfeits. Sometimes I sniffed them to see if I could detect his blend of Aqua Velva and Wintergreen snuff. I didn’t get a card last year, and I wondered if that meant something. I wondered if he’d given up on even doing the bare minimum.

 

Otherwise, I had only vague memories to rifle through. Just like the weights, all the pictures were gone. I tried to hold onto the few I remembered. In one, Dad’s toting me in the crook of his arms. He’s doing the Heisman pose, his lips twisted into a mocking snarl. There’s a Budweiser in the hand that’s held straight back to ward off an imaginary defender closing fast. Mom stands in the background, caught in a moment of giddy uncertainty. She doesn’t know whether to snatch me away or break into laughter.

 

Sometimes it occurred to me that someone had to teach me the exact right spot to slip a hook through a cricket’s thorax so it would stay alive and float on the water’s surface, its legs pedaling furiously. Yet I can’t recall him showing me that. I can’t remember us doing anything together at all.

 

 From the back window of my bedroom, I once watched him flick a knife into the side of the garage. Methodically, he retrieved it. I studied his grim face, so intent on this one task. After awhile, I got bored and lay in bed, but still I could hear it—the knife’s impact, his tread across the gravel yard, the hushed moments of anticipation before it all began again. I drifted to sleep, waiting for the next strike.    

 

*  *  *

 

 

As the summer wore on, Ronnie took more of an interest in me. He finished with the Bobcat quickly. We knelt in the shade of his F-150 and shot the bull while he drank a few beers. He kidded me mercilessly, but I enjoyed it.

 

“What you gonna do with this fortune you amassing?” Ronnie asked one day in early July.  “Got some fine young thing to take to the picture show in Daventon?”

 

“Give it to Mom, mostly,” I said without thinking.

 

“Ain’t that sweet.” He spit. “Mostly. What about the rest?”

 

“Bait. Some hoppers. Catawba worms.”   

 

“So you a fisherman?”

 

“A bit.”

 

“Never much had the patience for it myself. Maybe someday when I get old and tired.”

 

“I guess it passes the time. I can think out by the water.”

 

“That’s exactly the problem. There are plenty of things I could stand not to think about.” Ronnie readjusted the chaw in his cheek and got a Heineken from his cooler. Without spitting out his tobacco, he took a swig. “I believe it’s gone skunky. Shit always tastes off.  Here, see what you think.”

 

He handed me the green bottle and I looked at it like it was an alien artifact. “I guess I don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like.”

 

“Hell, you’re about old enough. Go on.”

 

I hesitated. “Mom would kill me.”

 

“All right, you big pussy.” Ronnie yanked the bottle away and squinted as though he saw something in the distance that concerned him. “I’m trying to cut back. That’s how come I’m drinking this foreign shit. Figure I won’t drink so much if I don’t cotton to the brand. It’s like an experiment.”

 

“Is it working?”

 

Ronnie chuckled. “Not really. It’s kind of the worst of both worlds.” 

 

“Why don’t you stop if you don’t even like it?”

 

“That’s a good question and spoken like someone who’s never had a taste. That’s what my brother said the first time he tried Jack Daniels. ‘Why would a sane man willingly drink this stuff,’ he said. ‘It’s like sucking on turpentine.’  By the end of the night, he’d finished off a whole fifth by himself. And it finished him off eventually.” He rocked on his heels. 

 

I studied him.

 

“What you catching?” he said. “Out at your pond or whatever.”

 

“Nothing to speak of.  I’m saving up for a better rig, though. That might be the ticket.” I felt silly, as if I was five years old going on about some toy I wanted. I could have told him that my birthday was coming up, that I was saving up for the rod as a present to myself, but I knew he’d just give me more hell.  

 

“The big ones are out there, eh.” Ronnie reached to pat my shoulder. I shrunk back. He heaved his bottle. We watched it spin and catch the sun until it exploded against the mill’s remaining brick wall. 

 

Because we were alone together in the evenings and had nothing much to say to one another, Lou and I watched a lot of TV. Stupid stuff, mostly, shows about alien abductions on the Discovery Chanel or cheesy old horror movies on Turner Classics.

 

In one of the episodes on Discovery, two men in Mississippi were out night fishing on the middle of the Pascagoula and disappeared. Not a trace for years and their families feared the worst. Then they just appeared out of nowhere, telling a crazy story about getting beamed up by a spaceship, strapped down and having bugs put in their ears, made slaves until the aliens had no more use for them and dropped them off at a Waffle House on the interstate near Anniston, Alabama.

 

“What did the aliens look like?” the interviewer asked them. Kind of translucent, they said. Weird, like you could see things moving around in their system, blood pumping only not blood, but some kind of electric pulse.

 

“You buy this?” I said to Lou.  

 

“Sometimes I don’t know what to believe anymore. It seems like as good an explanation as any for where all the sorry men go. Beamed up by the mother ship.” 

 

“Well, I think it’s all a load of crap. The ear bug thing is straight from The Wrath of Kahn. The description of the aliens is a nice touch. But you and I know these guys just run off. Then when that wasn’t working out, they come back with this ridiculous song and dance. Or maybe they just got caught hankering for smothered covered hash browns.”      

 

Lou glanced over at me. She was doing needlepoint while we watched the show and had on some bifocals that made her look like a schoolmarm. “Since when did you become so cynical?”

 

“And you aren’t?”

 

“I have a right.”

 

“Don’t I, too?” I was beginning to see the word of every adult as a calculated lie. They were all in league—teachers, coaches, my mom, Lou, maybe even Ronnie, though I didn’t want to believe that. Maybe it was out of kindness, but all they wanted was to keep from me what I wanted to know.

 

“What if he were to come back?” I said.

 

Lou quickly looked down at her needlepoint.

 

“What do you think Mom would do? What kind of story would he have for us?”

 

Lou was quiet. “He’s not coming back, so don’t worry your head about it. It’s no good thinking about it. You know that, Caleb.”

 

“But I don’t know. That’s the point.” I stood up and left the room.

 

That night I had the dream again, only this time I remembered some of it.

 

I was walking down a path through some scrub longleaf pines and came to a clearing. I didn’t want to go farther, yet I knew I had to.

 

When I finally pushed forward, I saw a tree as wide around its base as a redwood. On every branch, men dangled like lost lures. Their hair was greasy and unkempt, their patchy beards dark as tobacco juice.

 

“He’s up there,” a voice whispered in my ear. I was paralyzed, the breath squeezed from my chest.    

 

When I awoke, Mom was beside me, smoothing my brow. She looked bedraggled and sleepy, but her face’s usual pinched intensity had softened.

 

“Have a bad dream, Boo?”

 

“What time is it?”

 

“Too early.”

 

“How long you been sitting there?”

 

“Just a little while. I heard you talking in your sleep.”

 

“Don’t worry about me.  You should go on to bed.”

 

“Sleep’s overrated.” She started to smile, but it transformed into a yawn. “I wanted to know what you were saying. You’ve been so quiet lately. Maybe I thought you’d tell me what’s been going on. Is it work? You getting on . . . with Ronnie?”

 

Even though I was slowly crawling out of my fugue, I registered the cautious pause. “Sure. It’s all good.” The dream was bubbling in the recesses of my mind, like a photograph being slowly eaten by fire. Soon, I’d start to forget, the way it always is with dreams.

 

“So it was just a bad dream? You have so many.”

 

I wanted to lay it all out there, ask her what really happened, to just hear the truth for once. I really did. “It wasn’t nothing. I don’t even hardly remember what it was about.”

 

“That’s good, I guess. Better to just forget it.” Mom stretched her arms and yawned again. “I’m done in. This shift is killing me. And I don’t get to see you off in the morning.”

 

“It’s alright. I like being the first to get up. It’s kind of peaceful.” Mom absently stroked my hair. I could have told her to stop, but I didn’t. “Except for Lou’s snoring.”

 

Mom laughed. “Lord, she’s been like that since we were girls. Imagine dealing with that for half your life.” 

 

Involuntarily, both of us got quiet, as though hearing Lou saw away would reassure us that everything was fine in our little household. Then we could rest. But there was nothing but the soft whirr of my fan. The open window carried in a few startled calls of birds, as if they too had been pulled out of sleep by bad dreams.        

 

“She’s shacked up somewhere, as usual,” I said. I didn’t feel like I owed any consideration to Lou. 

 

“Don’t be rude.”

 

“It’s just the truth.”

 

Mom’s frown came back. The cares of the day were seeping back into her. “I used to be able to keep her in line. I’ll have a talk with her soon.”

 

“What’s the point?” I sat up in bed, awake and antsy. “Some people don’t learn.” 

 

Mom grit her teeth, then seemed on the verge of crying. “Maybe so, but you have to make an effort.”

 

“Why, if all you get is grief?”

 

She patted my head. “You just do.”  

 

I stood up tentatively. My tendons crackled and my muscles ached from the previous day’s work. Still, I felt powerful somehow, like something inside of them was unknotting and expanding. “Might as well get up.” I left her rubbing her eyes and looking after me.

 

She seemed befuddled, as though she had something more to say.

 

 Lou’s man problems seemed to have reached some kind of crescendo. Now she was gone almost every morning when I left for Chiquola. These men never seemed to be what Lou wanted, though; they didn’t exactly fit the key-hole in her heart.

 

One night instead of going out at the usual time, she got a tub of Majik Mart Margarita Mix from the fridge and blended up a batch.

 

I would have preferred to be alone. By that point, I was used to it. I liked the settled quiet of the house when she was gone. I could sit there with my box; I could hear the knife strike the wood. Now she was sending out invisible ripples of distress that annoyed me, like a distant speedboat out on the lake.  

 

“You’re a good one,” Lou said. She was on her third margarita; the bottle of Señor Pepe tequila was three-quarters empty. “Don’t you change. Don’t become one of those assholes. It seems like around your age a boy just transforms. Like the wolf-man.”

 

Lou took a secret delight in horror movies, but preferred the old black and white ones to the current serial killer gore fests. She said a monster should look like a monster, not some pasty faced man who might check her out at the Dollar General.

 

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I don’t plan on it.”  

 

Lou was mercurial when she drank, apt to oscillate between emotional states. “Oh, you think you know, do you? You got the walking genes too. I see him in you.”

 

I must have given her a look then, some tightening of the corners of my mouth. 

 

“That’s him. The very same.”

 

“If you know so well, how else am I like him?”

 

Lou slumped back in our ratty Laz-E boy. She looked a little abashed that she’d even opened up the possibility of this conversation. “I don’t know, baby. Don’t listen to me when I get good and sloshed. It was unfair to say that.”

 

I thought about her slurring these same words to one of her lover boys. How pathetic it sounded. “Where is he? Maybe you can tell me that? I’ll just see for myself what he’s like.”

 

She sputtered. “It’s not a good idea.”

 

“Don’t make that decision for me. Maybe Mom’s made her peace, but I haven’t.” 

 

“All right,” Lou said. Her face was blank, but she seemed to spit the words at me. “Just go ask your friend Ronnie about your Dad. They used to be real tight back in the day. Maybe Ronnie can tell you something. Good luck.” She found her pocketbook and put on her high heels. I should have told her to stay when she staggered and almost tripped off the porch. Honestly, though, I was glad to be rid of her.  

 

The last time I saw Ronnie, I did ask about my father.

 

It was at the end of July. I had finally saved enough for my new rod. I was going that afternoon to get it off layaway.

 

Ronnie inspected the pallets carefully. Sometimes he took a short sledge hammer and chipped away at a layer of cement caked onto the bricks. It was like he was trying to delay the inevitable, like he knew what I wanted from him.

 

Ronnie got on the Bobcat. He seemed distracted, almost dumping one whole pallet as he wrenched it around too fast. A few bricks flew off the top, and the load slumped. I retrieved the bricks. Ronnie grimaced. 

 

Afterwards, we settled up. He counted off the bills the way a child does, drawing out the numbers. Suddenly he noticed something. “You ain’t fishing today?”  

 

“I’m going to get a new rod. It’s . . .” I stopped myself in time. I didn’t want to reveal how pathetic I was.

 

“Well, then.” Ronnie peeled off a few more bills.

 

“I didn’t earn it.”

 

“You been a good worker, Caleb. Couldn’t ask for better.”

 

I took the money. It felt hot in my hands, sweat slick.

 

Ronnie knelt down on his haunches. He wasn’t drinking today. “I been meaning to tell you. This will be it for the summer. You got school coming up soon anyway. What grade you gonna be?”

 

“Ninth.”

 

“A freshman.” He shook his head the way people do when they’re thinking how time does pass, even though he’d only known me for about two months now. “You worried?” 

 

“I guess not.”

 

“You’ll do fine.”

 

“Lou says my smart mouth is gonna get my ass handed to me.”

 

“Not if you hand it to them first.” He stood up and tussled my hair. I could tell he was getting ready to go. My opportunity was slipping away. 

 

“You heading over toward Majik Mart? Thought maybe I could catch a ride.”

 

Ronnie hesitated for just a moment. “Sure, I don’t have nothing calling my name. Hop in.”

 

The diesel started with a thunderous roar. Ronnie peeled out, seemingly unconcerned about his load.

 

“How’s the experiment been going?” I said.

 

“Better. I’m only drinking on the weekends now. That doesn’t hardly count.”

 

 “Is that how you know my dad? Drinking?”

 

“Your daddy?” Ronnie seemed dumbstruck. Maybe he didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Maybe he didn’t really have anything to say. Maybe he just felt bad for me. “We had a few rounds at Easy’s now and again if that’s what you mean. But I’m a few years older. Didn’t quite know the man, to be honest.” The corners of his mouth were drawn taut.

 

“That’s not what my Aunt Lou says. She said you two were good buddies.”

 

“Now, Lou.” Ronnie spat into a Mountain Dew bottle. “There’s a girl who likes her fun. But I won’t speak ill.” He leaned back in his seat and squirmed like he was trying to scratch an itch. “What you think you can learn from me? It’s been years.”

 

“I just want something. Please.”

 

“All right then.” Ronnie held the wheel stiffly and stared straight ahead. “We used to call him Nut, short for Peanut, on account of him being on the short side. He didn’t like that, but some nicknames stick.  He was a lefty, just like you. Had a wicked curve.”

 

“So he played ball?”

 

“Yeah. Could have gone far, according to the estimation of some folks around here. Knocked around the low A leagues. I saw him pitch against the Sand Gnats down in Savannah. Went eight innings for the win. Looked good doing it, too.”    

 

“So you were friends.”

 

“Yeah, we were tight for awhile. I didn’t mean to play it off. It’s just I told Lou . . . and your mom she . . .” Ronnie squirmed some more. “Someone besides me should tell you this stuff.”  

 

“But no one will,” I said, unperturbed. “What happened? With the baseball?”

 

He shrugged. “Nothing. One day he come back here. Said he was done.”

 

I could tell Ronnie was getting tired of my questions, but I kept going. “That’s it? Why didn’t he keep after it?”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe he didn’t have what it takes. Maybe he didn’t work hard enough.  Maybe he got distracted. What you want me to say, Caleb?” His voice had taken on a hard edge. 

 

We pulled into the parking lot, covered with cars from all over the county. Housewives pushed carts full of groceries. Some Mexicans were loading bags of mulch into the back of a pick-up. Ronnie waited impatiently as a fat woman and her passel of kids sauntered down the middle of the row. I looked about sourly, hating the place. 

 

“You go on and get your birthday present. I’ll park where there’s space.”

 

“Just head on back to the Downs,” I said. “I’ve changed my mind.” 

 

Ronnie narrowed his eyes. “You sure?”

 

I nodded.

 

We got back on the highway. Ronnie glanced over at me a couple of times. We didn’t speak for a few minutes.    

 

“Maybe I have something else for you,” he said hesitantly.

 

I felt light, as though I might float up and bounce around the ceiling of the cab if I wasn’t buckled in. I just nodded for him to go on.

 

“So one time we rode down to Myrtle Beach, him and me and a carful of guys. Stayed in some roach motel near the Pavilion with all the other rednecks. How he loved them rides. Couldn’t get enough. The Mind Scrambler, Hurricane, Mad Mouse. He was just a big kid. In the bumper cars, he’d ram you straight on, he didn’t care.”

 

Ronnie sighed, lost in the past. “Now you’d appreciate this. All the same duffers would come night after night to the pier with their big tall rods, talking about King Mackerel like it’s the Holy Grail. Never saw one. Sometimes, you’d see someone get a nurse shark, and everyone’d gather and watch it flop, white bellied with that dead look in its eye.” We passed by the mill. Ronnie glanced at the lonely stack; he seemed to be carefully placing his memories back in a box. “Listen. I don’t know what all you’ve been told about your Daddy. It’s not really my place. I won’t speak out of turn. That was Nut’s business, the way he did y’all. I can’t say I approve, but maybe he had his reasons. A man always does.”

 

We pulled up in front of my house. I looked at him, trying to sort through all my half-knowledge and conjectures. “Where is he, Ronnie? That’s all I want to know. I just want to see him.”

 

A weariness settled around him. “Don’t ask me that. Don’t make me say it. I told you I wasn’t the right person to be talking to.” Ronnie’s eyes wavered and he looked away.     

 

I stared straight ahead, but sensed Mom’s presence in the front window. “It’s my birthday tomorrow,” I said. “Maybe we’ll grill some weenies, probably even have a crappy store bought cake.”

 

“Sounds nice.”

 

“You could come over.” I knew how desperate I sounded.

 

“Listen, your Mom . . . I can’t be getting mixed up in all that again. She still holds me responsible for some things. Some deserved, I suppose. I’d just rather not.” He pinched my shoulder. This time I didn’t flinch. “For what it’s worth, I miss him too. And I’m sorry.”

 

After I leapt down from the cab, Ronnie waved. I turned to look in the mailbox, but stopped myself. Instead, I went around to our backyard.

 

The old garage had fallen down. It had tilted and tilted until it eventually collapsed under its own weight, its own rottenness. Now there was just an outline of the foundation, a mosaic of broken glass, and some stacked grey boards we used as lighter kindling in the winter.

 

I went over to the back stoop and saw my reliable Zebco and a leftover carton of worms, but didn’t feel the pull anymore. It wouldn’t make me feel better.    

 

Our house backed up to a pond that the mill once used to dump its runoff. Most days it was still and scummy as old dishwater.  I liked to watch the ducks make wide chevrons across the water. I looked back and saw my mother framed in the kitchen window. She stared at me, bewildered, the way she always looked in those old pictures, like she didn’t know what to do. Her hair was frayed on the ends, shorn by Lou to save money. She wore the same clothes I did, shopped for us both at the JC Penny boys department. It was cheaper. Anyway, she was done dressing up for a man. All she talked about were bills and schedules, what needed to be done for us to make it from week to week. I should have appreciated her grim fortitude.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andy Jameson lives in bucolic Greenwood, South Carolina, with his wife, daughter, and a passel of cats. He teaches writing at Lander University. His stories have appeared in many literary magazines, including Harpur Palate, Sixfold, and most recently, South Dakota Review.