by Sean Jackson
Mershaw has that peaceful look on his face when he cuts the grass, like an Italian marble, as serene as any half-slain saint or grieving mother. In his cutoff jean shorts and filthy old Budweiser Frogs tee, he is what Mae has heard called “a man in remission from the cancer of women.”
Her ex was good at coming up with things like that. If it tarnished a lovely, honorable woman’s reputation, Todd put his name on it. If it elevated a man—be he a crook, drunk or thieving lowlife—Todd gave his approval. If it hurt somebody, you knew Todd was involved. And those were just with his words.
Mershaw says a man’s work feels as good to him as the foreplay to sex or even the sex itself, depending on the work, the man, and his woman. Lots of variables. Mae believes he means it, considering the satiated look on her landlord’s face as he mows a ditch choked with sorrel weed and fire ants. He patiently wipes a cloth at his gray handlebar mustache, rubs it over the scraggly new beard that crawls down his throat into his shirt collar.
He favors that old actor, Lee Marvin. Same black eyebrows pitched like tents above piercing, hot-blooded eyes. Then Mershaw yells at something in the ditch. He brakes the push mower by yanking it up the slope. It’s a snake. A brightly colored corn snake.
“Git!” he hollers, the motor rumbling to a stop and the silence suddenly profound, hazy, as thick as the spaces between whispers.
Mae gets her air rifle from above the trailer door and steps out into the white heat of July. She strides briskly across the freshly mowed yard, then whistles to get his attention. He waves her off, saying it’s not a poisonous snake and just needs to get out of the ditch and across the highway to the other mobile home park, which is full of Mexicans and meth addicts.
“I can get him with one shot,” Mae says coolly. But he waves her off again, spits in the grass cuttings.
“No need, darlin. Its life ain’t worth taking.”
They watch as the snake coils, loosens, a palpable paranoia to its movements as it finally slithers up onto the asphalt and works its way to the other side of Route 13, a two-lane with grooves mashed into it by farm equipment.
Mae’s grandfather used to mess with serpents in the Holiness Church. That’s not unusual around here. Folks still do it, though only in winter when the snakes are drowsy and not mating or raising young.
“I got a letter for you,” Mershaw says before he brings the mower to life again. Her mail is being forwarded by the post office while Todd is still out there trying to figure out where she and little Hunter have skedaddled off to. Mershaw is having it put into his box for now, to keep her lot number private.
“It’s from your daddy,” he says after she doesn’t say anything. “According to the address, he’s in Winston-Salem.”
For a split second Mae has the urge to raise the rifle and take a shot at something, anything. Her father has been crisscrossing the country for ten years. This would be the first time he’s landed in North Carolina since her mother died and they had a time of it burying her in the family cemetery, due mostly to the fact that her AWOL husband had recently burned down two—not just one—family barns.
He didn’t even show up for the funeral service. He just sat in a grimy motel on the edge of town and drank. Mae’s sister Lydia said he got beat up by someone in their mama’s family when he tried to get on a bus to Texas. Got his nose broken in two places.
“That ain’t far enough away,” Mae says as they watch a semi blow past on the highway, its trailer filled with feather-flying chickens—headed straight for the Perdue plant in Okisko. Mershaw says to come to his trailer after lunch and he’ll hand over the letter. And if she won’t come, he’ll just slip it under her door.
“People change,” he says as he yanks the pull-cord and resumes chewing at the foot-high weeds.
Mae clucks her tongue and goes back in, fiddles with the thermostat on her window unit and settles into the loveseat with a fresh glass of ice water. And this is when Hunter calls out from his back bedroom to say that he has just thrown up on the floor.
“People in the emergency room is raunchy.” Her sister Lydia frowns at a young guy with a framing nail in the bottom of his dirty foot, the blood still oozing. But he is careful to keep a wad of gauze they gave him perched under the drip.
Mae watches vaguely, her mind set on the early prognosis: chickenpox. If Hunter has it, how can she go to work? She’s got the next three nights at Loomis by herself, answering the phone and directing trucks here and there. They’ll fire her if she can’t go in, surer than shit.
“You know what I mean?” Lydia says, a sneer on her face like their grandmamma used to have whenever she came to their house and their daddy was laid out on the couch drunk and their dear sweet mama was in the kitchen trying to sop up his mess.
The fella looks up from his wounded foot and gives them a sad look.
“This happened at work,” he says in a thick drawl. “At least I work.”
“I work,” Lydia scoffs, folding her arms so that her bracelets clack. “I work too, son. Just so happens I ain’t on a shift today.”
Mae hears a siren as an ambulance makes its way toward the hospital. There were days when she thought she’d be a nurse or, at worst, an EMT or something. It’s holy hell trying to dodge the paws of both Loomis brothers and then young Jack, the nephew of one of them and the son of the other, when they are roaming around the dispatch office in the evening. And the lady who talks to the Mexican drivers, Corazana, is just plain hateful.
The hurt-foot fella is alone and he keeps looking at his phone as if wondering why nobody is calling to check on him. At times he seems to be in some pain.
“Does it hurt?” Mae asks.
“Of course it hurts,” he says, screwing up his bony face.
“Asshole,” Lydia hisses. “Serves him right. Part of God’s great plan.”
Then they call Mae so she can take a look at Hunter. He’s finally stopped throwing up now that his fever is down. One of the nurses is mad as hell that Mae brought him in with the chickenpox. Another woman, a saintly old chubby gal with long lips and sad eyes, gives Mae a smile. The nurses are discussing whether they will have to scrub the whole ER before they can call any more patients back. Hunter is quarantined in a small room around by the emergency exit. It’s where they often put the drunks and the psychos who drag in on Friday nights with stab wounds or needles hanging out of their arms.
He is pale, clammy, his legs slung out like he ran and jumped onto the gurney and passed out as he landed. A clear, plastic tube is taped to the top of one hand.
“He’s asleep,” the kind nurse says. “It would have been just as fine for him to stay home and sleep like this. All he can do is rest and let it pass its course. All we’ve done is give him some aspirin and an IV.”
“Oh,” Mae says. She touches his damp forehand. It feels like her mama’s when they called Mae in to say her last words. There are little pink spots forming all over his arms and up his neck. But his chest rises and falls normally.
There’s a bit of commotion up the hall, a soft holler and a woman’s call to grab somebody before he falls off the table. They’ve pulled the nail from the fella’s foot. Mae asks when she can take Hunter home.
“If it was up to me,” the frowning nurse says, “you could take him right now. But it ain’t up to me. Dr. King says he can go home soon as we get his fever under a hundred.
The kindly nurse clears her throat. “Probably before supper time or right after.”
Mae goes to get McDonald’s coffee while Hunter naps on and off. She wears dark, oversized sunglasses like a vintage Italian actress on the Riviera. All she needs is the scarf wrapped loosely around her big blonde hair. Lydia has told her to watch out for Todd. Villains like him are always on the prowl, scouring parking lots for revenge. When a kid with a bunch of shoulder tattoos goes up to the counter, she double-takes. He is a tall, bony country boy in a wife-beater who smells like something the cat drug in. But he’s got a wispy beard dangling from his chin, just like Todd. Only he ain’t got no knife crammed in his shorts pocket, from what she can tell. Nor are there cuts and bruises on his hands from fighting.
She takes her to-go cup outside and sits in the play area. Somebody’s little girls are tussling over a bouncy ball. The bigger of the two bites the upper arm of her opponent, sending the littler one into a tortuous spasm accompanied by frightening screams. A young woman on a metal bench gives the girls a bored look.
“Don’t fuckin’ bite her like that, Angel,” she says, then lights a cigarette and glares at Mae.
Just as the cicadas begin to shriek they tell Mae to bring her car around. Hunter kept his Jell-O down and his fever’s been under a hundred for a couple hours. Mae cranks up the air-conditioning in her Toyota, crosses her fingers that it won’t overheat the damn thing, and goes in to help them wheel her little fella out. His face is sprinkled with ugly welts now. The doctor says he gave him a cortisone shot, along with a prescription for some steroids, which should help it start to go away in a day or two.
“What do I do till then?” she asks Lydia as she’s driving home in early twilight, dodging slow old-timers who are rolling in and out of edge-of-town barbecue joints, the phone held in front of her face like it’s a walkie talkie. Lydia says she and Jake are going out of town to the mountains for a weekend rodeo that he’s been looking forward to for months. She wishes there were more she could do.
“Ask old Mershaw,” Lydia says as Mae checks the mirror to see if Hunter is still lying down despite the hard braking she’s had to do at stoplights. She is trying to hustle home because the temperature gauge is creeping up. “Your landlord,” adds Lydia. “He’s got a thing for you, Mae. You know? Ask that fella and I bet he’d say yes before you can finish saying it.”
Mae hopes Hunter can’t hear this. Hunter likes to watch Mershaw mow grass, paint shutters, and take target practice at beer bottles on the fence behind the trailer park. But he’s shy, and Mershaw is old like a granddaddy, and they really haven’t had any exchanges other than a few hellos and goodbyes across the yard.
“Ask him!” Lydia giggles. “That old coot.”
She dials him as soon as she hangs up with Lydia. They’re on country roads now, and it is all blue haze, fireflies, and the dry whistle of the tasseled corn as she flies down Route 13. There’s a yellow scythe of moon crawling up toward a few early stars, and she has cut off the air and cranked down a couple windows.
“Darlin’,” Mershaw says, “I’d be glad to do it. I had chickenpox when I was a boy—twice.”
She gets Hunter tucked in and chases a nasty water bug across the floor, then settles down with low-volume TV for a while. That letter from her daddy is on the coffee table now. It has his curly Rs and Ps, those jagged cuts that pass for numbers. And he still misspells the name of this town.
This is what she’d forgotten to ask Lydia about. Had she found a letter like this in her mail? Mae figures if she had, she would have mentioned it. More like ranted about it. Lydia, being older, took it to heart when their mother died and their vagabond father—who liked to send occasional postcards from “exotic” places like Vegas and Hilton Head—made a supreme ass of himself like that. Lydia swore never to set on eyes on him again, alive or dead. She’s had her number changed twice. And her new boyfriend, this Jake who claims to have ridden in Wild West shows some years back, promised to pop the gizzards out of the old bum should he ever come around again.
Mae knows he won’t. Her daddy’s a coward, a drifter with the sandy heart of a man who shirks responsibility like these young people nowadays—not so much younger than she is—who do nothing but wait on food stamps and take drugs, burn down old homeplaces for insurance money. Shit like that. Same as that shitty baby mama at McDonald’s who was too busy smoking her Camels to step between her ratty little girls when they were brawling like stray dogs in front of people. Who does that? And why are there so many now who seem to think this an all right thing to do? It’s nonsense, Mae thinks. Or worse, much worse. It’s a kind of evil spreading across the county, the country, the globe. It’s what that sad teacher, Mrs. Morgan-something, in high school said … humanity. Where’s the goddamn humanity anymore?
Then suddenly there’s lights in the trailer. From outside, headlights. A grumbling motor that revs in the way a dog growls at an unknown in weeds or darkness. Todd’s truck, that saltwater-rusted hulk of a thing and its tractor tires with those Confederate flags painted onto the rims. Always a rifle in the cab, a knife in his pocket, and a crazy grin shining through his dirty beard.
Someone hollers, though clearly it’s Mershaw because people in this trailer park don’t come out of the chute threatening to call 911. There’s some shouting back and forth. Men claiming their rifles are loaded and ready for bear. Cussing. Then Todd lays on his horn (“Dixie”) and goes squalling out—in reverse, no less—like a demon.
She listens to the crickets and the murmuring TV until the air cuts on again. There is a loud sigh from the back as Hunter rolls over in his sleep. Then a tap at the door and Mershaw clears his throat. She cracks the door open and knows her eyes are wild from the look on his face.
“I don’t know how he found you,” he says, “but he did. I called the law, for what good it’ll do.”
She doesn’t have a pistol, but there’s no reason to tell Mershaw this. She doesn’t want a gun besides that little snake-and-rat air rifle above the door. But she senses Mershaw is about to ask her if she needs one. Even Lydia has tried to get her to tuck a little revolver into her purse or under her pillow at night. But Mae knows. She understands that you don’t get a chance to draw on a man like Todd. He won’t come at you that way. He will ooze between shadows, leap from behind a tree, or come barreling down a dark freeway with his lights off. He’ll do whatever it takes to nullify your chances at a fair fight.
He spent two years in state prison after Hunter was born. He had been out of work ever since smashing his hand on a bulkheading job and, seeming to become threatened by having another male of his species in the house (Mae thought of that old show, “Wild Kingdom”), Todd withdrew into a knot of narco-billies who made some money at crime. Burglary, robbery, holdups here and there. Also, the manufacture and/or sale of drugs. The police caught him climbing out of a snazzy riverfront house with an armload of watches and jewelry. He shot at the cops, a wild shot that zinged into the magnolia trees but brought the return fire of a trained marksman. He took a bullet in his side and laid there screaming for death and vengeance until he realized it was a better idea to holler for an attorney. The attorney got his sentence reduced, since the cop who shot him never once said drop your weapon.
Todd came out of prison worse than he went in. There were satanic tattoos scrawled all over his body, including a decapitated Jesus between his shoulder blades. Now he lives down among the shanties in a swamp fed by creeks where men still trawl for catfish and shad. Strange smoke scars the air, seething from meth cookers and shad smokers—the type of place where ghost stories have been drowned out by real-life horrors.
Before long the sheriff’s deputies are at her door and she invites them in to sit and talk quietly about her need to take out a restraining order. Both lawmen are short, overweight castoffs from army stints thirty years ago—fellas who went to Germany during the Cold War era. Now they’ve got wives and children in community college. And over the years they have seen things far worse than they were trained for in the military. Desperate people do the worst things. So they know it’s no use to give a bum like Todd the benefit of the doubt. He will only get more destructive, relentless. But they’re also certain that Mae will not take their offer.
She shakes her head and sees it is five a.m. The sun will be on its way up soon, and Hunter will be calling for breakfast.
“I’ll take my chances that he don’t come back,” she says, unable to keep the forced smile going for more than a couple of seconds. One of the deputies looks at the far wall where Mae keeps a row of family photos hanging. He seems really interested in them. He rubs his chin while the other deputy stands and stretches his fat little arms.
“Look at that,” the seated deputy says to his partner. “That’s out by Newland Holiness. Out where my wife’s folks is from. Lots has changed in the years since then.”
“Too much,” the other deputy nods, taking a moment to get one last look around. “Is that all the gun you got?” He points lazily and shares a blank look with his partner. When Mae says it is plenty of gun for what she needs to shoot they shake their heads and walk out into the humid morning darkness.
One of the deputies, she isn’t sure which one, asks her what she plans to do when her ex-husband returns. What can she do in the way of defending her home and her son with a rifle so puny that it ain’t even good for knocking tin cans off a fence post? They stand beside their cruiser, one on either side, their faces so dark that she can’t tell if they are making fun of her or being serious.
“I can kill a man with a shot to the eye,” she says and, with a little wave, closes her door. It’s not what she plans to do. She does not have much of a plan at the moment. She could run, try to stay one step ahead again. But you cannot run from anyone in this county. There are too many nosey folks and everyone knows everybody and there’s only so many rooms you can hide in in the first place. She might need to wander off a little farther. Maybe out West or up to the Great Lakes where her mama’s sister lives. Florida is a place where lots of people go when they run out of luck in other locations. And there’s beaches all over.
She flops into her loveseat again and this time picks up the letter that Mershaw slid under the door. Her father is probably asking for money. Winston-Salem is close enough that he could drive over and she could give him enough cash to get back out to whatever desert he’s been living in with his new Mexican bride. But she quickly finds out that his wife has left him. He starts off with it. By saying how alone he is. Not a hello or a how are you? but straight to the pity points. Then he says he is planning to kill himself in this seedy downtown motel in Winston-Salem and he wants her and Lydia to try and be there.
It is an assisted suicide, he claims. He has a box of toxic chemicals (they may be from a veterinarian, it is hard to tell what he is describing) and he is tired of cancer and loneliness and being unable to fulfill any single human being on this earth and he wants out on his own terms (what few he has) and thinks that maybe his girls can let some things go, for at least an afternoon or an evening, and come sit with him while he lets a dirty syringe do the damage that so many have wanted done to him over the years.
I know it’s asking a lot, but I hope you can get past some old pains and wounds and come see me off to the great beyond.
Your loving father,
Gerald M. Briley
Mershaw says it is not something he can offer sound advice on. He seems generally nervous that it might be some type of criminal act to watch another person take their own life. Lydia is dead set on going. She says she could think of no finer way to spend a Saturday afternoon—to hell with Jake’s rodeo.
Mae is sick about it. Hate is one thing (A grudge is more like it). But vengeance is something else altogether. This isn’t how she would have expected she would feel: nauseous, light-headed, practically dizzy with the absurdity and the macabre of the whole thing.
“I’ll bring us a bottle of rum,” Lydia says when Mae tells her, “and we can watch that bastard kick and have us a night out of it. You and me, sis. I’ll get old Jake to drive us over and wait in a room on the other side of this motel. Then we’ll all get drunk and hit up a few bars in town. How’s that sound? You in?”
To imagine her daddy would kill himself with what sounded like the same stuff people use to put a dog to sleep. And why would he want them there? To hold his hand, yes he had said that. To call the funeral home when he was done, he’d said that, too. (Lydia said to hell with either one, that she would do shots in the bathroom until he was gone.) But then what? Why couldn’t he just get some stranger to do those things? He had a brother in Tennessee or something. Why not him? It seems so emotional, too emotional. Mae can’t fathom it. She keeps texting Lydia to say she’s changing her mind. Lydia texts her back saying it is her choice, so do whatever feels right to her.
Mershaw won’t offer any wisdom. If fact, he might be a little spooked by the irreligious elements of it. It does seem to have some voodoo to it. There has been no talk of a pastor or even a Bible, save the one that might be in the nightstand next to the bed. Gerald hadn’t asked for them to bring anything. Just come and hold his hand while he dies.
“It’s more than he did for mama,” Lydia hissed. “A whole helluva lot more.”
Mae watches Hunter watch TV. He is still pale and runs a slight fever but says the oatmeal bath made him feel a lot better. Like good-enough-to-eat-ice-cream better. He rubs the nappy arm of the loveseat and smiles at some puppets carousing on a show that Mae used to watch when she was a kid. They are all trying to figure out how to make an unhappy puppet feel better. They put everything they have into it; more humanity than most people muster up. It makes Mae sad to think of it that way.
But then she gets distracted by Mershaw outside, clanking away at something. She peeps out the window and sees him stretching a heavy chain across the entrance trail. He is checking that it is long enough to hang between two light poles. Then he will go around and hand everybody keys to a heavy padlock he’s bought.
What good is that going to do? Mae wonders. A man with his mind set on getting in somewhere—some place like here, to her doorstep—will just cut those chains loose. Or drive through the ditch. There’s no stopping Todd. She knows that. Nobody else seems to get it, though. They all think you can barricade your doors or point a gun at him and he will stop. She remembers when he told the story of how he and another fella held this Honduran boy (maybe he was sixteen) down in the back of a truck and cut off parts of his fingers and toes with wiring snips because this boy had stuck his nose where it didn’t belong.
Another time they drowned a pair of horses in a hog lagoon because this uppity white boy had decided not to pay them for drugs on account of his uncle was a county official. Both horses belonged to this so-called powerful uncle. That boy had to join the navy to get away. The uncle eventually paid Todd and his awful buddies. The horse bones were taken out of the lagoon and Todd bleached them and now drives around with a mare’s skull bolted to the hood of his truck, like Blackbeard’s skull was used to make a fancy punch bowl.
You can’t defeat that level of crazy. You can only dodge it, shake it from your shadow and hope you’re able to run far enough, and fast enough, to be rid of it for a while.
Hunter is too little for her to even try explaining her daddy to him. He knows she has one, and that’s about it. He has seen a picture of her as a little girl on a man’s lap beside the Pumpkin Queen Pageant stage. She was crying and the man was laughing. He had dark curly hair and wore thick glasses. His name tag said “Gerald.”
So she gives Mershaw a list of instructions: when to apply cream for his blisters (they are healing, but she doesn’t want them to get infected); when to administer aspirin (liquid, through a dropper); when to dose him with steroids (same dropper, rinsed out). Then there’s the oatmeal baths and the fact Hunter won’t eat without the TV on. And he needs twelve hours of sleep a day while he’s getting over these chickenpox.
“Darlin’,” Mershaw grins, his beard and mustache trimmed and some kind of tonic in his hair, “I helped to raise three girls and have, um, a grandson … a bit younger than Hunter. My daughter was young to have him … um, so he’s in proper hands. You could say I have more experience at this than even you.”
Mae thanks him and wonders if his sudden nervousness is a result of this forced intimacy—him being chosen to watch over her son and to do it, according to her wishes, in her home. She has made sure her underclothes are all put away and not drying on towel bars. That sort of thing. Her tampons are even tucked under her bed. But there was only so much she could do on short notice. Hunter’s room is clean, thank god. There’s food and drinks in the fridge.
They blast out of town, heading west in Jake’s truck with a cooler of beer and bottles of rum and bourbon. Like college kids on a spring break junket. Jake settles in behind an oversized steering wheel (which is needed, he says, to navigate his oversized Dodge when pulling horse trailers) and starts talking on his Bluetooth. Lydia leans between the seats, one hand on Jake’s knee and the other holding a bottle of rum that she pours into cups of Diet Coke and ice.
“Cheers,” she grins and turns back to the windshield and the whizzing cornfields, thick kudzu draped around utility poles and climbing the walls of abandoned tobacco barns. On the other side of Greensboro she asks Mae what the plan is. A very casual approach to the topic, like they’re just going to peruse antiques or pick up some things at an outlet mall.
Mae admits she’s only been communicating with their daddy through the motel desk clerk. And he’s a foreigner. But it is pretty straightforward: they stop at the desk when they arrive (suggested five p.m.) and then the clerk (Shankar) will take them to Gerald’s room; from there, Gerald will take over.
“He’s gonna kill himself with what they use to put down rottweilers and pit bulls,” Lydia tells Jake. She takes a slug from her cup and watches a tiny roadside church sail by. “Something-barbital.”
Jake says he’s seen it done with horses. It is peaceful and painless, he tells them just as he gets a call on his earpiece.
“What do we do after he’s dead?” Lydia asks, already sounding tipsy. “Order up a pizza?”
Mae thinks about this again. Of all the forthcoming events, this is the one she is having real trouble with. She will call the funeral home; there will be a number on a card he will give her. Nothing has been said as to whether she should contact the police or a hospital or anyone like that. She figures the funeral home will decide that. All in all, it seems they will just go on about their business once the hearse comes.
She’s debating if she should say something on behalf of everyone there or even quote the couple lines from scripture that she knows. Lydia shakes her head and waves to Jake so that he won’t miss their exit.
“I wouldn’t say anything,” she tells Mae. “But that’s me. I hate that bastard with the passion of Christ himself. But you can say what you want, sis. I’d pump the brakes on any ideas of quoting the bible, though. That sonofabitch … right here, baby … follow that Jeep …”
Mae leans against her door and watches out the window. Her head is already warm with rum and she remembers what her mama used to say about drinking before supper. But this is an occasion which warrants becoming less vulnerable to the lion, should the lion be a state of mind such as a panic attack. It is a soothing buzz, though it worries her that Jake has been drinking with them this whole time.
They find the motel not far from an old baseball stadium where a game is being played. The motel is a dump. Dead weeds in sidewalk cracks, broken glass in the parking lot, and what looks to be at least two winos hanging out on the upstairs breezeway.
“Nice,” Lydia says.
Shankar is a tiny man, and younger than Mae thought, based on his voice. He has bright eyes and a vivid smile, though his handshake is a bit sweaty. He limps a little and it seems unnatural because he is otherwise quite healthy. He explains that he scuffled with a “guest” two nights ago. The police came. It was a whole thing.
“Your father drinks a lot,” he says without looking up from the paperwork for their own room—the only suite in the place. The clerk’s shining eyes flicker as he checks their reaction, which is none. “Lonely men who drink so much often end up in dire situations,” he says. “Just so you know.”
Jake unloads the truck (the booze and a couple backpacks with clothes jammed inside) and Lydia scrolls through the short list of cable channels and finds a cooking show to leave it on. A matronly Brooklyner twists her own pasta while hawking a brand of sauce that she claims her grandmother fed to FDR. An old recipe, family lineage, with enough Americana about it to sell in the South.
“Huh,” Jake says, stopping by one of the beds to drop his and Lydia’s bags onto a floral comforter. “Why do they always cook spaghetti on this show?”
“It’s not spaghetti, baby,” Lydia says. “It’s ziti. Baked ziti. Have you brought the hooch in yet?”
He points to the cooler on the sink counter.
“Good. I’m going to fix me another drink. Want one, Mae?”
Mae is nervously folding receipts into her wallet, which is a perfect, smaller replica of her purse. She is conjuring order into this misshapen hour of pretense, like she did when Todd tried to break out of prison during her one and only visit. On that day, there was loud and violent action and reaction. The good men were easily separated out from the bad. Here, now, it is murky—like the swimming pool out front with its trash in the corners but with fat little brown kids still paddling around in the water. Confusing elements mixed with soothing ones.
Mae says it is almost five and she is going down to their daddy’s room. She has a flashback—a dim one, maybe half of a flashback—from a stay in a motel when they were down in Florida on vacation. Or maybe it was from when they moved there for that month. Her daddy in a white dress shirt and dark slacks, combing his hair in the unlit TV screen. Saying he wanted fried chicken for supper. Don’t forget his beer.
“I’ll be right along,” Lydia says as she digs through one of her bags for makeup. “You go ahead, sis. Tell him to start without me if he needs to.”
She hates the hot city air, the weird bugs that crackle on the pavement and the horns from beat-up cars blaring in the street. Shankar is pulling trash bags from dented cans, whistling like a kid. He sees her and smiles. Her daddy’s room is No. 148. The door is deep blue and scarred from men punching it: restless men, enraged men, men hurt by women and life and whatnot that rots a man’s whole heart. They do it because they are driven to physically manifest their fury at even the smallest of failures, such as forgetting to bring the room key while fetching a bucket of ice.
She knocks. After a moment, a bent old man answers the door, peeping from under the chain. Failure.
His hands are wrinkled and thin like chicken feet. The room has an odor of beer, rubbing alcohol and cigarettes. He holds one between his shaky fingers while he talks. His voice still growls a little even though the strain of dying has forced him mostly into a whisper. Her ears ring as he goes on about this and that, mostly complaining about missed chances here and overrunning his luck there. He says he never had any other children. Never loved another woman besides her mother.
“I let it go,” Gerald coughs, some type of dirty hospital bracelet around his wrist. “All of it. Whoosh. Like leaves, like you see in the fall. Every bad thing I ever did or was done to me. I just let it tumble out the door. I forgave everyone, and forgive myself. But I don’t ask you to forgive me. That’s not why I asked you here. You or your sister. Is she here?”
He looks around the poorly lit room slowly, as though Lydia might be hiding behind a chair or the drapes.
Mae remembers he used to smell like mint in the morning, right after shaving. By the time he got home at night he reeked.
“She’s on the way.” She decides not to tell him that his oldest daughter is a dozen rooms down, doing shots of rum with her third boyfriend in under a year. He looks at a leather bag on the bed beside him. He is clearly in no mood to wait.
“I hope she makes it,” he says. He puts out his cigarette in a bottle of half-drunk beer and opens his bag. He slowly attaches a dark-brown vial to a syringe, fills the clear tube with a liquid the color of lemonade. Then he makes a fist.
“You ever shot dope?” he asks.
Mae looks at her phone. It’s been twenty minutes. Mershaw has just texted her HUNTER ATE ALL HIS MACK AND CHEEZ :).
“Well, okay. You can turn your head if you want to.”
Mae gazes at the crack under the door, hoping to see Lydia’s shadow any second. And when she does it is the exact moment that he exhales loudly and falls back into his pillows. She watches the door open and Todd burst in, his nose bleeding and a large knife in his hand.
“I killed that fucking bald dude,” Todd beams before he sees what is going on—which is nothing he can figure out, what is going on or not going on. His face twists. He steps in and closes the door, fastens the chain and pushes the deadbolt. He walks over, pointing the wet end of his knife at Gerald.
“Wake him up,” Todd orders.
“Wake that old fucker up so he can watch me cut you open.”
“I can’t wake him up, Todd.”
Todd is wild. He has scratches on his face and what looks like a clump of Lydia’s hair between two bloody fingers.
“He’s dead,” she tells him.
“Well,” Todd says, “there’s a lot of that going on today.”
And he steps toward her, his boot snapping a pencil Gerald had been using to do crosswords, and holds the knife at her. As he grins, opening his mouth to say her name, Mae stabs the needle into his leg and empties the rest of the syringe. Todd staggers so that the bloody toes of his boots point inward and his knees wobble. Then he is backpedaling like a shortstop until he finds a natty chair by the bathroom door and falls into it. His face has calmed considerably, though he is uttering curses like the ones Mae has heard so many times before.
He promises to kill her as soon as he can get up. She watches as his eyes begin to flutter.
“You tell my son what you did to me all these years, Todd. You tell him, so that he can know what kind of man you were.” She can barely hold her phone but she raises it up so that Todd can see the screen in his last moments. She shows him a picture of Hunter. Todd bares his teeth.
“Say it,” she says as she taps the button to record these last, vile words of his. “You’ve never missed a chance before.”
A line of spit forms along one side of his mouth, disappearing into his beard. His breathing is hard and slow.
“Love,” he gasps toward the phone, his eyes blind, “ain’t easy, son. Make sure you get yourself a better woman than I did.”
And then his head rolls back and his fingers drop the knife. She hears Shankar yelling outside. He is screaming about the police, but he is obviously too afraid to come near the room. She steps outside into the sun-scorched parking lot and sits (practically squats) on a concrete stop. It must be ninety degrees, if not a hundred. Mershaw has texted her again. He says that Hunter is having a good nap now, how are things there?
As the sirens get closer, so near that she can hear them ricochet off nearby buildings, Mae types back that she is in a situation that seems to have been constructed without any help from God. Satan, she says, has clearly been involved.
EXCUSE ME FOR A BIT. AM ABOUT 2B SICK IN PARKING LOT.
Sean Jackson’s latest stories have been published in Cleaver Magazine, Main Street Rag, The Potomac Review, Niche, Sliver of Stone, and Prick of the Spindle, among other literary magazines. He was a 2011 Million Writers Award nominee. His debut novel, Haw, will be published in the summer of 2015 by Harvard Square Editions. He lives in Cary, North Carolina.