Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Roustabouts

 

 

 

Though it had been ten years since he’d worked on an oilrig and he’d held half a dozen jobs since, my stepfather Ray Ressler always told people he met that he was a retired roustabout. Said he worked out of Galveston, a town that was as rough and ready as any you’d ever see. “I was coming up for roughneck when my accident finished all that,” he told me right off. “That’s the real deal. Somebody call you a roughneck, you tell them there’s such a thing that’s worth a good goddamn.”

I liked the sound of roustabout, but roughneck was even better. “All right,” I said, though I was imagining gangsters or bandits or even the highwayman we’d read about in a poem in my eighth grade English class. You had to be a tough guy who could take charge, somebody, though I was far from it, I thought I wanted to be.

My mother, as if she could read my mind, told me that roustabout jobs were “at the bottom of the pile out there in the Gulf.” When I asked how big the pile was, she shook her head. “Big enough to smother you if you don’t get out from under, but Ray says it paid good.” 

“Wet and dirty” is how Ray put it when I asked. “Unloading crap. Carrying it around. Cleaning up after everybody. Maybe fix a few things if you’re handy that way. But it was two weeks on, two weeks off, the way to do it. Like one of those regular puny vacations most get only they come around every month.” He was standing outside smoking like he always did because my mother wouldn’t put up with it inside. He took a long drag and grinned. “There’s no sissies stay long out there,” he said. “You need to have some balls, Wayne, that’s God’s truth. And there I was a few days, maybe a few weeks, from being promoted to roughneck and my car wreck ended all that. “

Ray was about fifty when he married my mother, which would have made him fifteen years older than her, but still a young man when it came to all his retirement talk a year after their wedding and I turned fourteen in Front Royal, Virginia where we moved at the end of April, 1962. Because we lived outside of town and I didn’t own a bike, Front Royal didn’t seem to be much except a place where tourists passed through on their way to the Skyline Drive and the Shenandoah National Park. I had a month of junior high school to finish, so short a time nobody paid much attention to me. But it wasn’t so bad in the tiny four room house with no basement, a sight better, at least, than Ray’s crummy apartment in Hagerstown we’d moved into when my mother married him, three rooms with families on either side always loud with radios, televisions, and angry voices. And it was way better than the two rooms and the shared bathroom my grandmother let us live in at her run down house for the six years after my father got killed because of what my mother called a “misunderstanding.”

What I hated about the new house was the water that came out of the spigots. It stunk like rotten eggs. Sulfur, Ray said the first time I complained. Like he was letting me in on a secret. “It don’t hurt you, so get yourself used to it,” he said every time he saw me making a face. “It tastes the same as what comes from that fountain you love at the A&P.”

He’d seen me go back to that fountain three times while my mother went up and down every aisle loading up a cart with all the things we needed to get us started in the house Ray told us he’d gotten “for a song.” It was the only time he ever came along to the A&P, but he seemed to know I drank my fill every time I kept my mother company when she shopped.

Because it was the only refrigerated fountain I knew of. Because it wasn’t room temperature like the school fountains that, by second period, were clogged with gum wads that encouraged puddles that showed globs of mucus-laced spit. For the five weeks I attended after we moved, I never took a drink except before my first class of the day.

Ray, it turned out, was on disability, a monthly check my mother called small but steady. He was still doing maintenance at the Kmart in Hagerstown when we met, but by the time they were married and we were settled in his place, he said he was on his way out and was looking around for a new start for all of us. “Thank the good Lord for my disability that comes regular,” he said as if God had a plan for us.

“Your new Pop’s too banged up to work at anything he’s good at,” my mother said a few days later.

“What hurts him?” I asked.

“Everything you need to do a man’s work—shoulders, knees, back. Don’t you be bellyaching to him about anything that ails you unless it’s deep inside.”

So by the time school ended, my mother was cleaning houses three afternoons a week, all she could manage because Ray had to drive her to and from, and her back, she explained, was starting “to go south.” Ray chipped in by being a paperboy. He left the house at six a.m. and was home by nine. “If folks wasn’t so scattered out this way, you could deliver too,” he told me. “If they had lawns they loved, you could babysit them, but we’ll figure something before too long a fourteen year-old can do to help out.”

I had plenty to do for a while. We had a yard that looked huge because the lots on either side were vacant, but all of that space was over grown from a spring of being uncut. Ray set me to work with a rusty scythe and a pair of old gloves to get all the lots presentable. “Good, honest work,” he said every time he came outside to smoke. Right before school ended he brought home an old power mower he said he’d found along his paper route, the thing laying across the back seat like he’d told it to keep its head down. “You keep that all cut and you got yourself a park to play in,” Ray said. “Baseball, football, you name it. Just make sure the mower’s under that there tarp when it’s not running.”

Which I did. I wanted the grass and weeds as short as I could keep them. I had a couple of old golf clubs my mother had kept in the back of her closet since I could remember, and now, she said, there was room for me to give them a try. Right away, Ray noticed that one had a wooden shaft. “Antiques,” Ray declared. “Maybe worth something.” But after he showed them around, he stopped imagining any windfall out of the two of them. No luck either with the burlap sack full of balls my mother fished out for me like an early birthday present. Eighty-six balls in that sack, half of them cut, which meant Ray couldn’t get a quarter for them or even a dime, what he marked the cut ones down to for the yard sale he put together in June to get rid of anything worth a damn that we didn’t need laying around. “Go ahead then, all yours to waste your time with.” I almost agreed with him about the waste of time because all I did, mostly, was smack line drives that hooked left if I swung any harder than half speed. There was a secret to those clubs that kept me coming back though, and I had forever to learn before ninth grade started up at Warren County High School.

Ray was short and wiry. A banty rooster, Mom called him when she was upset. “You settle down, you banty rooster,” she’d say. More like Jack Sprat and his wife, I sometimes thought. I loved Mom enough to keep that to myself, but Ray was all the time acting like skinny was something to be proud of, explaining his side of things like the one time in July when he called out, “Your Momma was a looker when we got hitched, just a little extra meat on her bones, but she’s taken to forgetting about herself.” He was smoking out back, and I gave him distance, but soon enough he waved me closer and started in on roustabout, acting like that was all there was to talk about besides finding some work for me to do that paid.

Ray moved his neck around the way he always did, acting like his t-shirt collar was too tight. I’d never seen him in anything but t-shirts, almost all of them the white underwear kind. My mother had told me he’d let slip that his first wife had broken him of forever tugging at his shirts because it ruined them. “But now he wears that crick-in-the-neck habit,” she’d said.

Your Momma says you’re one of them that’s scared of being up high,” he started in.

“A little,” I said, as far as I wanted to admit. Right about then I didn’t have anything particular enough to be doing except listening.

“A little’s too much out there on the rig. Lots of working up high when you’re a roustabout, and for starters you’re way up over the water to begin with. You go out on the walkways and you get yourself a good look down to where hell’s waiting for the careless. You fall in the water and it’ll kill you fast with cold, most of the year, and kill you slow with it the rest.”

It sounded like something I’d never want to do, another reason to be a roughneck, somebody in charge, somebody with enough of a reputation he’d get to keep his feet right up close to the ground, even on an oilrig. “I’d get used to it,” I said for something to say besides admitting I couldn’t even climb the ropes in gym class without thinking about wetting my shorts. I wasn’t ever going to mention that to Ray. Sissy was just about the worst thing there was to be this side of getting paralyzed or going blind. I knew Ray thought golf was a sissy game, that if I was going to end up being friends with boys who were on their way to being real men that football was what I needed to try, and practice was starting in a couple of weeks.

“Get used to it or get the fuck out,” he said, and then he added, “You want to try one of these here smokes?”

“That’s ok,” I said, but Ray tapped one out and handed it to me like he knew I’d started stealing one almost every day since school had ended.

“It’s like being up high,” he said. “You get used to this here too.”

A few days after that, my mother out cleaning, Ray returned with a trunk and back seat full of plants. I watched from the kitchen as he emptied them onto our scraggly lawn, and then he called me outside. “Your Momma laid down the law about all this here,” Ray said, his hands motioning toward the base of the outside of the house. I counted eight bushes sitting nearby, their root balls snug and moist looking. I recognized four rhododendrons; the others looked like they were related to pine trees only smaller and rounder. “We got work to do.”

I had to admit that with the plants sitting there, the house looked even uglier than usual, like it might pick up and sail away in the wind because nothing held it to the earth. Ray dug in with a shovel, turning up mostly rocks and clay. For a while he looked like someone else, a man concentrating hard on doing things right, somebody who had planned this out and had thought about improving the way the house looked in ways that I never would.

There were bags of topsoil so dark and rich it looked like it came from another planet. There was peat moss and fertilizer. We had never done any work together, but now I cut open the bags and dumped part of their contents into the first three holes Ray dug. I carried cans of our smelly water and poured it into each hole. Ray set two of the rhododendrons on each side of the front door and one of the bushes farther along the outside wall.

After that he stopped to smoke, lighting one for me off the first. “You do the next ones,” he said. “Build you some muscle. ‘ When I hesitated, making what he called “my beat-dog face,” he added, “and maybe you find yourself some fancy rocks to read about,” because I’d shown him a brochure for the Skyline Caverns I’d picked up at the A&P and told him about the anthodites in one of the pictures, crystals you could only find right there in the Skyline Caverns and a couple of other caves in the whole country.

I started in on trying to dig a hole then, showing him it wasn’t about being weak and lazy, but he disappeared into the house like I was on my own for the next five bushes. I was down about six inches into the dirt when he came back with a beer and a soda for me that he set on the front stoop.

And then he watched. “Get used to this roustabout business,” he said. “It’s coming right on down the highway.”

A half hour later I’d dug five holes and raised blisters on both hands. “You oughta put on them gloves I gave you first,” Ray said as he lit a cigarette and inspected the holes. “And you think on this while you’re wishing you had your hands back--all these here stones you have in a pile, they bringing you nothing but sweat and blood. There’s no cash money for knowing their names. For goddamn sure, nobody cared if I knew geology out there on the rigs.” I waited, keeping my hands on the shovel, until he said, “I’ll finish this here, and you find that whisk broom your Momma has and get to work on the inside of the car. She’ll have herself a fit if she has to ride home on filth.”

Instead of handing over the shovel, I leaned on it, imagining I looked like somebody who was used to work. “There had to be some men out there who knew all about geology,” I said, and for once Ray looked thoughtful, like he was considering on whether I might have learned something about drilling for oil.

Finally, he said, “That’s them, not us.”

“I could go to college.”

Ray took a drag and let the smoke out slow and easy. “I seen your grades.”

“It’s just high school that counts.”

“Right now it’s this here that counts. You get that bitty little broom now and bring me out another of these cold ones on your way back.”

When I handed him the beer, he nodded. “That’s the stuff,” he said. “You know what science they should be teaching you?” but me not answering didn’t slow him down. “You don’t need chemistry and physics and geology, you need to know the ins and outs of what’s happening to you.”

“That’s not science,” I said.

“Yes, it is,” Ray said. “Don’t you be fooling yourself.”

“My boys,” my mother said when she saw the shrubbery all in place, neat and green.. “Thank you.” She fished around in the fridge and came out with a beer for Ray and a soda for me. Ray grinned and tapped his can against mine.

“Right about now I feel just a little bit like I did after we rode out the big one in the Gulf back a ways,” Ray said.

“Hardly,” my mother said right off, surprising me.

 “You oughta be up in among the scaffolding looking down. Skyscraper window washers got nothing on that all harnessed in and back inside as soon as the weather turns.”

“I meant the other way around, Ray,” my mother said. “This is nice; that’s something else entirely.”

Ray downed a big gulp and touched cans with me again. I thought he was going to hug my mother, but he started in with “You damn betcha” and kept right on going. “This beauty of a storm blew across the Gulf and was working its way up to hurricane force with just me and a few others stuck out on a rig. There was nothing to do but ride it out. Ready to keel over, it was. The whole shootin’ match. There wasn’t none of us wasn’t cursing Texaco for a few hours. But Wayne, let me tell you this about that—there ain’t nothin’ like it, knowing the next minute you might be done for. There’s nothing like it you’ll ever feel for yourself anywhere near here.” 

He slapped my back, drained his beer, and tapped out a cigarette, but he didn’t take another beer out to the porch with him as he stepped outside to smoke. My mother followed him with her eyes and stepped closer to me, lowering her voice to say, “Before you go on and think your stepdaddy lived through a hurricane out in the middle of the Gulf, you should know that was a tropical storm he was stuck in. That don’t make light of it, but there weren’t any big ones around where he was that summer. His old rig buddy told me that at our wedding reception. I thought he might take his fists to his friend, but all he said was, ‘Anybody think it’s a joy ride out there should go out and wait his turn.’”

“It would still be a big deal,” I said. “The rig would still feel like it could collapse.”

“Maybe so,” my mother said, “but Ray is all the time wishing it was a full-fledged hurricane he could have ridden out, one with a name. Back then the big ones were named like how the army does it—Abel, Baker, Charley, Dog.” She picked up Ray’s empty beer can and tossed it into the trashcan beside the sink. “‘Dog,’ she said, that had to sound dumb for a hurricane even at the start. And 'Easy.’ Imagine those that went through that hurricane and how they felt.” She walked over to the window and looked out as if she thought Ray might be listening at the door. “Look at him out there. A regular chimney, he is.” She turned back to me and smiled. “You know your stepdaddy smokes more than he drinks. Trust me, that’s a blessing. Some have it the other way.”

“Like my real Pop?” I said, and she laughed and brushed her hand in front of her face like she was fanning herself.

“We had ourselves some good times.”

“And bad?” I started, but when her smile disappeared, I didn’t know what came next.

“Nobody wants to be alone,” she said. “You settle for what comes your way.” 

A week later, for my birthday, my mother gave me two tickets to the Skyline Caverns. “I know you’ve been looking at that pamphlet you grabbed at the grocery,” she said before she added the real surprise: “And Ray’s ready to take you whenever you’re up for going. He’s been underground and can tell you stories.” 

Ray moved closer to me and punched my shoulder just hard enough to make me grimace. “And one to grow on,” he said, like we’d turned the corner onto Good Buddies Street while my mother beamed. Right then I was sure my mother had told him to make nice if we were going to be under the same roof from now on.

Just like that, before the week ended, Ray and I were on the way to the caverns, him talking the whole way about how his Daddy was a coal miner. “My Pap took me down just the one time to show me why I should never grow up to be him,” Ray said. “He already had the cough that comes with the dust. He took me to where they were working a seam, sometimes on their knees where the ceiling was so low you’d be better off being a midget. He turned off my helmet light and his own, and we were in the dark all hunched over like that ugly fucker who rang the bells in the big church. Never ever work underground is my advice. Pap was dead at forty, almost twenty-five years down there is what killed him. I was in the Navy by then, so I was used to being out where you can’t see anything but water except right there where you’re standing. It made it easy for me to go out on the rigs in the Gulf.”

“I bet they turn out the lights when we get way down under,” I said, and Ray snorted.

“I bet they do, too, boy. I bet some tourists squeal like pigs when the lights go out.”

It turned out about a dozen of us followed a guide for a while where stalactites and all that were lit up by colored lights. Nothing looked real until we were in plain old white light and the guide said, “See the eagle?” And there it was, a feathered wing formed so clearly in the rock I wanted to reach up and run my hand over it. “Isn’t it wonderful,” the guide said, “this formation right here and it being so close to Washington like we are?”

Ray leaned over and whispered, “They want us to feel like God made this just for the good old US of A.”

The pretty, crystal-like anthodites were bathed in white light, too, but I knew enough not to ooh and aah over them around Ray. The rest of everything interesting was all in color. A chandelier. The Fairyland Lake. It reminded me of the wheel of three-colored cellophane that circled a light bulb every year near the base of the silver artificial Christmas tree my grandmother put up. A little thing about four feet high she stuck on her coffee table after she moved it into a corner. “Just right for a growing boy,” my mother said every year, even when I was taller than it, table and all.

Our group walked about a dozen steps away from the Fairyland Lake before the guide said, “I want everyone to stand still for a moment like you’re getting your picture taken. Ready?” All of the lights went out, and I heard Ray clear his throat, spit and whisper, “Now we’re talking.”

I waited for my eyes to adjust, but nothing changed. The guide didn’t speak. A woman’s voice went “Ohhh,” startled and nervous like she’d felt a hand on her. And just about the time when I thought of the nearby lake and how somebody in a panic might walk right into it trying to get above ground, the lights came on and a ripple of undertone went through everyone but Ray and me. The woman who had called out looked like she was brushing something off her blouse. A woman beside her watched, and I wondered, for a moment, whether the nearest man had brushed her body as he reached out to steady himself in the dark.

After we came back out into the sunlight, Ray tapped out a cigarette and held it up as if he needed to inspect it. “You been sneakin’ these again?” Ray said.

“Not since.”

Ray chuckled. “Already a liar,” he said. “Your Pap must have been a pistol. I bet we’d a been friends. Here, take one. Let’s talk about ways I’ve been thinking to make spend money.”

I inhaled and held the smoke like I’d been smoking for a lifetime. “You’re fourteen now,” Ray said, “starting at the high school in a month. Maybe you want something special, save up for a car you’ll be driving soon enough. Maybe you want real golf clubs for next summer. You want to putt on those carpets at the golf club you’re always staring at when we pass? Well, there’s nothing you can do at fourteen to make any part of that happen.”

“I don’t get it then,” I said.

“You will,” Ray said, “but first let’s learn you how to drive. All that’s anywhere tricky is learning the stick shift. We’re not going out in heavy traffic. It’s thirty-five tops and just a little coming and going up there on the Skyline where what we need you to be doing is waiting for you to show up and be ready.”

A week it took me to make Ray believe I could be trusted not to stall his car or over steer it into a ditch. All that time he put me off about what he had in mind. It was like I had another birthday coming, a surprise I couldn’t quite imagine. Finally, he drove into the national park and started up the Skyline Drive a few miles before he pulled off at the first overlook and told me to show the road who’s boss. “Easy as pie, right?” he said after a couple of miles. “Speed limit like we have here suits a beginner and keeps the hurry-ups from boiling over.”

I nodded, happy not to have any trucks or horn-blowers on my tail, but I kept my eyes on the road, and Ray laughed, short and almost a cough, before lighting up a cigarette like he’d done all week about the time I’d driven a couple of miles without anything going wrong. “Let me show you something right up around here. Pull into that there lot coming up.”

There were three other cars, plenty of room for me to swing in ten feet from the nearest one. “I’ve been sniffing around and know not many stop here to do their hiking because it’s so close to where the park starts. They figure there’s better up ahead, you know?” 

He had me walk into the woods with him, passing, five minutes in, a man and a woman who were taking pictures and a family with small children. “Down here,” he said at last, “there’s a little bitty path you can barely see the start of that looks to be going nowhere. Folks going that way know right off they made a wrong turn and give it up, but you set your mind to it, you can cut back through the woods here and go straight to the road without making the big loop they have marked on the signs.”

I peered down the narrow path like I might learn something worth remarking upon. “I don’t think anybody would think this was the way they were supposed to go,” I said.

Ray slapped me on the back. “Yessiree, boy, that’s just what this here doctor ordered. Follow me.”

Two minutes of scrambling over downed trees and through briars got us to the road. “Just us and the animals come that way,” Ray said. “It’s a half-mile hike up the hill back to where we parked, but we can use the time for me to tell you exactly how me and you are going to be a team. 

Ray talked as we hiked along the shoulder. “Listen. Here’s the plan. You drop me off up ahead at that lot and then drive back down this way ten minutes later and pull off where we was just standing. Anybody passing will think it’s some animal you’re seeing in the woods, but any kind of good timing will make it me coming out like I’ve been on bathroom break. I can’t be prancing around in that parking lot after, that’s for damn sure.” 

I felt my heart racing, but I said, “I don’t get it” to buy some time before I knew for certain what Ray had in mind.

“I thought you was smart,” Ray said, “but I’ll lay it out for you. I’ve had me a pistol since my roustabout days. I ain’t never fired it and don’t intend to now, you can be sure of that, but I aim to scare a few rich people shitless. It’ll be easy. They think being in a park means there’s nothing could hurt them here. Like the bears are toys. By the time they follow that trail back up here and find a phone, we’ll be back to Front Royal. They ain’t none of them going to miss what I take. It’ll end up like they paid to have a story to tell back home and we’ll be a step ahead of wishing.”

Instead of “count me out,” I heard myself say, “Don’t you need a mask or something?”

Ray smiled like he knew secrets. “I got me sunglasses and a ball cap like a tourist. You saw that outfit your Momma bought me when she thought I needed something besides jeans and a t shirt. Bermuda shorts and that shirt with a collar like I was fixing to play golf. I’ll look like nobody I’d ever be and that’s good.” He looked me up and down, making sure I understood what he thought of my own khaki shorts and raggedy polo.

“And I’m driving getaway?”

“All them that hands over their cash will be scrambling back to that parking lot we just left behind. That trail loops big and bendy so they’ll never know where I’ve been or where I’m gone to. Meanwhile, you’re picking me up like a taxi driver.” Ray pulled out two cigarettes, but he kept on walking and didn’t light them. “I bet you like that fella Robin Hood. It’s no different right here. We’re poor as all get out.”

“I don’t think so. 

Just then the parking lot showed itself as we came around a bend, and Ray lit both cigarettes, handing me one. “You don’t like spend money, you don’t have to do more than the once, but you got to drive like I told you so we learn how good this can be before you make up your mind.”

Ahead of us, after getting out of a car, two women in shorts put on sunglasses and visors. Ray whistled softly. “I’ve seen women up in here by themselves while I was doing the look-around, but I ain’t that kind of man. What we’re doing is strictly business.”

“One time only,” I said.

Ray laughed, full-throated this time. “That sounds like a boy about to spark up his first cigarette.” Then, before I could open the car door, he stepped up close and his eyes went to slits. “We’re on for tomorrow. I don’t need my partner mulling things over so long he gets hisself religion.”

The next afternoon, Ray not saying a word all the way to the park kept me quiet too. Just as well, since all I wanted to say was “Let’s not do this.” I felt like I did every time I had to start over in a new school, only worse. Like maybe how I’d feel in a couple of weeks when some senior would pick me out of a crowd because I’d give off some kind of fear smell. Maybe, I started hoping, Ray was thinking along those lines, but when he pulled into the lot and there were two cars, both station wagons, he said, “Good, families,” and I started concentrating on doing things right.

Ray handed me the keys and put on his sunglasses and Oriole’s cap. I had to admit he didn’t look like Ray Ressler the roustabout. In his getup with those dark glasses, he looked blind. “Ready, hoss?” he said. “I’m countin’ on you.”

 “Ready,” I said, and he disappeared down the trail.

Three minutes to the second I was out of the car because I couldn’t think of a reason, if anybody drove up, I could give for sitting by myself in a hot car in full sun. I walked just far enough to be in the shade and checked my watch, waiting for the sweep hand to announce four minutes. I kicked an old pinecone around the lot and checked my watch. Kicked it some more and saw eight minutes had passed, close enough to let me get behind the wheel, start the car, and wait a full minute before pulling out.

I thought I’d be early, but there was Ray stepping out of the woods as soon as I eased the car to a stop. “Jackpot,” he said, climbing inside. I got to do a two-for-one.”

I didn’t say anything, concentrating on the road, but Ray didn’t need any prompting.

“Both families were down the trail aways and together when I come up on them. One fella was taking a picture of the other family, kids and all, by some tree they must have thought was special. Who’d a thought there’d be a traffic jam up in there, but a break for us, just double the cash, no trace.”

I drove slow, glancing down at the speedometer to make sure I wasn’t going over the limit, but no cars caught up to us and only one passed going the other way. “Pull in here,” Ray said when we got back to the first overlook. We switched, Ray getting behind the wheel and lighting a cigarette and offering me one, saying, “Here you go, partner” before he pulled out, both windows rolled down to ease the smoke, me having the time to wonder if I was already acquiring that smell Ray had of sweat and cigarettes.

“Damn,” Ray said as he looked at me and smiled. “Damn!”

Back at the house, my mother not needing a ride for another hour, Ray showed me $320. “See? What did I tell you? Easy pickings. And here’s sixty for you,” he said. “Driver’s pay.”

“I don’t want it,” I said.

 “You too good for it? You all high and mighty now?”

 “I was just helping out.”

Ray took my hand and laid the bills on my palm. When I didn’t let them fall, he said,

“That’s it. Take it. You and all your bellyaching, but I knew you was cut out for this here.”

 

Ray was so sure of me I started thinking of alibis and denials, but what I knew right then was that I was afraid this was something like smoking, that once this guilt and fear passed, I’d look forward to it. When he left to pick up my mother, I put the six ten dollar bills, spreading them out every twenty pages in one of the set of Chip Hilton books my father had given me for Christmas just before he was killed, the only book where Chip’s high school sports team doesn’t win the championship. Ray was right. We were partners. He thought he’d seen something in me that I’d grow into. I was just the bellyaching one who worried all the time about what other people would think and then acted high and mighty. 

My mother looked tired when she walked in with Ray, but she settled in on making dinner. Ray sat down to watch the six o’clock news, but nothing came on about the Skyline Drive. “You getting interested in where we live now?” my mother said.

“Yeah,” I said, and Ray snapped me a look like I was introducing a confession.

At eleven that night, my mother asleep for an hour by then, Ray switched to the news, and there it was, a report about armed robberies in the Shenandoah National Park, a few seconds of footage taken from the parking lot where I’d dropped Ray off. “Ok,” Ray whispered. “Now we wait until nobody cares anymore that this ever happened.”

For a week I spent all my time outside, staying away from Ray and trying not to smoke. I’d changed my grip on the clubs, getting rid of holding them like baseball bats, what felt good at first but led to all those low line drives that hooked, or just as likely skittered and bounced if I swung as hard as I could. 

Once I moved my hands, I loved hitting with the pitching wedge. It didn’t seem that hard to loft most of the balls into high arcs that the angle of the club provided. My best shots carried the length of the three lots and scattered just short of the road, and when, the few times a ball carried to the road, it bounced high and ended up in the yard across the highway, I pretended I’d made a hole-in-one on a real course.

“You’re getting so good at that,” my mother said one afternoon. “You could show the rich boys a thing or two about their game.” I was using the sand wedge, which, even though it had a metal shaft, looked older, and the club face was thicker and heavier in a way that made it harder for me to loft the ball unless I placed it on a tuft of sparse grass like I’d just done while my mother watched.

“Maybe so,” I said, half-believing her. It didn’t seem that hard and surely would be easier hitting off the perfect-looking grass at the local course. 

“Remember when we used to live by the Bon-Air Golf Course? Your Daddy found those clubs after men left them on the course. He told me he expected to find a full set like that after a spell, and there might come a day when you had a use for them. I never saw him even swing one. And all those golf balls in that dirty old sack, most of them all cut up and scuffed like somebody wanted to murder them. And now here you are.” 

“I was too little to do much except slap the balls around the yard.”

“Speaking of swinging, do you remember how scared you were of that bridge they had up there on the course?”

“Sure. I always thought it would throw me off into the creek when it moved.”

 “The golfers would walk across that with their clubs and nobody ever fell.”

“I didn’t know that. Back then I was small enough to fit underneath the railing.”

My mother picked up the pitching wedge, and for a moment I thought she wanted to give it a try, but all she did was hand it to me like a caddy. “You know what your Daddy said hurt him most in his life?” she said. “Being fingerprinted. He was a prideful man.”

It’s hard for me to remember anything about how he felt,” I said. 

“He told me it all come about after a fight with a man over his first wife. He couldn’t abide a man taking her clothes off with his eyes.” My mother seemed out of breath as she talked, but now she relaxed and spoke evenly. “And it cost him dearly the second time,” she went on. “You should know how much a woman is floored by such a devotion. One important thing like that matters more than a fistful of flaws.”

Ray stepped outside like a man who’d been listening to every word. “Having a problem?” he said, and my mother’s expression changed.

“I know Wayne’s been smoking,” she said. She looked at Ray and me like she was adding up the sum of her disappointments.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You’re so smart,” she said. “It’s what fooled me for a while.” Ray grinned like he was about to do a little dance.

“I’ll leave you to it,” he said, and he got into his car and drove off.

My mother watched the road for a few seconds before she turned back to me. “Such a filthy habit. I have to believe that brains are stronger than desires in the long run. Can I believe that?”

“Yes,” I said at once.

“You know Ray’s not perfect by any stretch, but he’s never laid a hand to me. Don’t you think that of him.”

“I’ve never thought that,” I told her, which was true. 

“He keeps his filth outside our house.” She sounded so awkward that I knew this was about sex.

“You don’t have to tell me.”

“Yes, I do, or I’m going to burst.” She took a deep breath. “Whores,” she said, the word a near whistle. “There, now you know. He spends his money on their privates. A paper boy, and that’s where the money goes.” 

“How much does a paper boy make?” I said, but instead of answering she began to cry.

I didn’t mind her not saying. I was sure a paperboy made next to nothing. What I really wanted to know was how much a whore charged, how many days Ray had to deliver to pay for one.

Like Ray expected, the park robberies disappeared from the news after two days. He waited another week before he drove into the park to sniff around for stakeouts, and then he waited two days more before he said, “By now the cops think the bandit was just passing through. And we need to do this before Labor Day when the traffic starts to thin.

“No,” I said. “I’ve had enough.” I felt committed. I hadn’t even smoked a cigarette for two days.

“Hard to get, huh? You took that stash of bills after acting the saint. Like some cunt saying no until your balls deep in her.”

I pulled myself up straighter and said, “Your whores always do whatever you want, don’t they? 

I thought Ray would look embarrassed or angry, but his voice stayed even. “You want to spend some of that loot to find out?”

“No.”

“Maybe you’re wishing you could charm some young thing. You’re going to be in ninth grade. All you’ll get is something to imagine from while you play with yourself.” 

“Last time,” I said then. “For absolutely sure, and anyway, school’s starting, and I won’t be around when Mom’s out working.”

“There you go,” Ray said. “We’ll reconsider on everything when the time comes.”

So I went, driving slow after I took the wheel in the first overlook, looking like I was wishing for deer or bears to wander out along the road. Ray smoked and said nothing, his window closed, I thought, to punish me for acting like a sissy. There was just one car in the lot, perfect for what we were up to. Ray put on his sunglasses and ball cap and got out without saying a word, dropped his stub and stepped on it before he hiked into the woods in his Bermudas and golf shirt.

I wound down Ray’s window and lit the cigarette I’d stashed under the seat, telling myself I was creating a reason to be sitting in a parked car. I didn’t want to get out like I had the first time and show myself as a kid who had no business driving. When I finished, I let a few more minutes pass before I drove back to the meet spot, but Ray wasn’t in sight, and every time a car passed I thought it was a park ranger or an unmarked police car.  

I started thinking of how stupid it was to go back to the same trail and all that. I pulled out and drove a mile, turned around and drove back, but Ray still wasn’t there. I told myself I was being smart, smarter than Ray at least, and when I turned again, facing the right direction to leave the park, I checked my mirror and saw nothing behind me so I could go really slow, school zone slow, I-saw-a-bear slow, until, from a quarter mile away I could see Ray standing on the shoulder.

With the late August sun nearly behind me, I thought Ray might not be able to make me out for sure, and I pulled off to the side and stopped like I could be the police. I saw him light up, turn, and go back into the woods. I wanted him sweating in there, maybe scrambling up that narrow path like he was a lost tourist, his eyes off the road. When I thought he was deep enough, I drove up to the meet spot and parked like I was just late. It took him a minute to come out, so I was pretty sure he didn’t see it was me sitting back up the road.

“Jesus Christ, where were you?” he said, flicking his cigarette onto the road. 

“There was a car parked up there,” I said. “I thought this place might be staked out.”

“I saw it,” Ray said. “Just a minute ago. I was waiting for it to pass.” He looked back. “It’s gone,” he said, “but I never saw nothing go by.”

“It u-turned. It went by me going the other way. I was worried whoever was in it might be wondering what I was doing pulled off the road up a ways.”

Ray looked puzzled, like he was working out the scenario. He laughed then, short and air-filled, like he’d made up his mind that I was somebody who understood so little about the science of experience that I could believe in heaven.

“Step on it,” he finally said. “Christ. I thought two weeks would put them to sleep about this.” I drove right at the speed limit for a minute, Ray glancing around like he thought the trees were full of eyes. “$78,” he said then. “I had time to count it back in there. I was ready to hide it and just walk out clean as a whistle. It’s practically nothing that guy had on him.”

“You keep it all,” I said. “You earned it.”

“I should have kept that card I saw in that fellow’s wallet, you know, what some people have nowadays to buy things without handing over their money.”

“I think a lot of people have credit cards,” I said, though I had no way of knowing that for sure.

I slowed when I saw the first overlook, but Ray said, “Keep going.” He was breathing hard. “I should burn that little box we live in and let the insurance company buy us a new one.” He seemed to be talking to himself now, making plans he’d never put into any kind of motion. He’d gone out and followed through on one crazy idea, and here we were leaving the park with $78 and him all panicked about the police knocking on our door. “Get ourselves a place where the water don’t stink to high heaven, right?” he finally said.

“Sure,” I said.

“You damn betcha,” he said, but I knew Ray was scared. Adult scared, like what he was afraid of was here to stay, and I understood then that Ray had done a lot of talking to himself to come up with the robbery plan, that he’d coached himself up the way Mr. Glass, back in Hagerstown, got our junior high basketball team to run out onto the court believing we were better than we were, and now he could see he was losing this particular game.

“Your Momma never knows about any of this,” he said then. “Understand?”

“I get it,” I said, suddenly happy I had something Ray had to depend upon.

“I love your mother. Don’t you forget that. She told me all about giving you the lowdown, but that other stuff is just entertainment, like going to a ball game. Understand?”

“I think so.”

“You will. Just wait half a lifetime and it’ll come to you.”

Ray, for once, didn’t light a cigarette. It seemed like he’d forgotten his habit because he wasn’t driving on the way out of the park like he always did, that he was out of sync with who he was. Like he’s a boy, I thought, and then dismissed it when he grabbed my thigh hard and hissed, “You keep your damn eyes on the road. No fuckups allowed.”

I didn’t say anything then. We were out of the park and I was still behind the wheel. Ray said, “Take us home, you know the way,” and I did, though I was sweating so much the whole way that I thought if I had to turn the wheel hard my hands would slip off and we’d end up going straight ahead until we ran into something that wouldn’t budge.

 

 

 

 

Gary Fincke's latest collection is The Out-of-Sorts: New and Selected Stories, just out from West Virginia University Press. Two of his other seven collections won national book prizes--Sorry I Worried You (Flannery O'Connor Prize, 2004) and The Killer's Dog (Elixir Press Fiction Prize, 2016).