A Good Deuce

by Jodi Angel, recommended by Tin House

AN INTRODUCTION BY Rob Spillman

Two years ago, at the Tomales Bay Writers’ Workshop, north of San Francisco, I went to a reading with Tin House favorites Ron Carlson and Dorothy Allison, both of whom we’ve published multiple times, beginning with the very first issue of the magazine fourteen years ago. Another author was sandwiched in between whom I had never heard of — Jodi Angel. Carlson and Allison are both astonishing, captivating readers, yet Angel somehow upstaged them both with her reading of “A Good Deuce,” her story of a rural California teen dealing with the aftermath of a mother’s overdose. She pulled us into a lower-class world of emotionally stunted teens, a bleak yet vibrant land a million miles away from the shiny, happy America of TV and advertising. I was blown away.

Click to purchase the Kindle edition

But I wondered if it was only her delivery — deadpan, direct, through a veil of dark hair hanging over her face, her leather jacket adding to her overall vibe of “Why’d you drag me out of the biker bar to make me tell you this story?” Afterward, I took the story out of Angel’s hands to see if it was as good on the page as it was in the ether. It was. And is. Later, she told me she wrote the story in one sitting, only a few days before, because she needed something new to read. Angel works stories over in her head, sometimes for months at a time, without writing down a single word, then, when she can’t take it anymore, gets it all down. “A Good Deuce” needed hardly any edits or copy edits. Her “first draft” was nearly flawless.

We are so taken with Jodi Angel’s writing, we’re publishing her new collection of stories, You Only Get Letters From Jail, next summer.

Finding Jodi Angel is one of the great pleasures of continuing to produce Tin House. While it is always wonderful to publish the recognized masters at the height of their powers, there’s nothing like finding a dazzling new voice.

To learn more about Tin House and sample our first fifty-five issues, go to tinhouse.com.

Rob Spillman
Editor, Tin House

 

A Good Deuce

I WAS ON MY SECOND BAG OF DORITOS and my lips were stained emergency orange when my best friend, Phillip, said he knew a bar in Hallelujah Junction that didn’t card, and maybe we should go there. We had been sitting in my living room for eighteen or nineteen hours watching Robert Redford movies, where Redford had gone from square-jawed, muscled, and rugged to looking like a blanched piece of beef jerky, and we had watched it go from dark to light to dark again through the break in the curtains. The coroner had wheeled my mother out all those hours ago and my grandma Hannah had stalked down the sidewalk with her fists closed and locked at her side, insisting that a dead body had every right to stay in the house for as long as the family wanted it there. My mother was no longer my mother; she had become Anna Schroeder, the deceased, and my grandma Hannah had been on the phone trying to track my father down. The best we had was a number for the pay phone at the Deville Motel, and only one of two things happened when you dialed that number — either it rang and rang into lonely nothing or someone answered and asked if this was Joey and hung up when the answer was no. My grandma called the number twenty-two times, and the only thing that changed was the quality of the light, and my mother went out, and Phillip came in, and my sister, Christy, packed her things so she could go, and I did not.

I understood why my grandma didn’t want to take me. There had been that time when I was eleven and smart-mouthed and full of angry talk and I had made her cry. I still thought of that sometimes, what it looked like to see her in her bedroom, staring out her window in the half darkness, and how I walked up beside her and said her name and then realized that she was crying. I can still smell the room she was standing in, talcum powder, stale lace, but I try very hard to forget what I said, though it hangs in my mind like the dust caught in the weak shafts of sun. It did something to my heart to see her like that, something that I can’t explain, and it did something to hers, too, I guess, because after that she never looked at me directly with both of her eyes. And now Christy was handed a suitcase and I was handed a brochure for the army recruiter office in the strip mall by Kmart and told I could take my mother’s car over as long as I gave it back when my bus left. Christy was thirteen, and I was seventeen, and what she had was no choice, and what few choices I had were being made for me.

“It doesn’t smell,” Phillip said. He was standing in front of my mother’s room, both of his arms braced in the doorway so that he could lean his body in without moving his feet. From over his shoulder I could see the bed against the wall, and the flowered mattress stripped and the blankets on the floor. The bed stood empty and accusatory, waiting to be made.

It was Christy who’d found her, and I wished it was me — not because I wanted to spare Christy the sight of what she had seen, but because for the rest of Christy’s life she could fuck up or give up or not show up, and nobody would hold it against her because Jesus Christ, you know her mother died, and she was the one who found the body. Christy had a free ticket to minimum. I came in when Christy called for me, but when your mother dies, there is no prize for coming in second. No one was ever going to keep some slack in my rope. The one who comes in second is the one who is supposed to spend the rest of his life cleaning up the mess.

“I keep feeling like I’m waiting for something and it isn’t coming,” Phillip said.

“I wanna go out,” I said. My fingers were stained yellow, like weak nicotine or old iodine, and I thought about all the ways that iodine could cover and stain — clothes and fingertips, forearms that had gone through bedroom windows, scraped knuckles from walls. My grandma Hannah kept a jug of it under her bathroom sink, called it something in German that I could not understand.

Outside, a dog started howling, and I listened to its voice rise and fall, over and over again, and then I remembered that Oscar had been chained to the back fence since the paramedics came, and he had cried like that at the sound of the sirens, even though they were all for show and not for need, because my mother’s lips were blue and there hadn’t been breath between them for a while. I went out back and saw that his water bowl was tipped and his chain was wrapped around the post, and when he saw me he started straining at the clasp and coughing out barks because his throat had gone hoarse from the spilled bowl or the tight chain or a combination of both.

My mom’s car was cold inside and smelled like tired cigarettes. Phillip wanted to drive, and I didn’t care enough to fight about it, so we put Oscar in the backseat and I leaned against the headrest and closed my eyes. It was the first time I had done that in more than half a day and I realized my pupils felt grit-rubbed and sore. Phillip cranked the engine over a few times, pumped the gas pedal, and the car started and he gunned it a few times so that I could smell smoke from the tailpipe coming through my window. There were lights on in houses and my watch said six and there was a second when I couldn’t decide if it was A.M. or P.M., and I thought maybe I could just make myself faint if I thought hard enough about it. It was a tempting thought, but Phillip couldn’t handle surprises well, and I knew that if I fainted and let the whole damn mess go, when I woke up I would still be in my mom’s car, breathing in the smoke stain that she had exhaled, and we would still be in front of the house, and it would still be this day, and nothing about anything would be changed.

“Let’s roll,” Phillip said, and he dropped the stick on the tree to drive, and when we pulled away from the curb, the wheels caught the wet leaves in the gutter and we spun in place for a minute, the back end trying to fishtail, and then the tires gripped the street and we put the neighborhood behind us, and in twenty minutes we put the town behind us, and if Phillip kept the car pointed east, we could put the state behind us, too, but east kept bending north, and then we finally turned west and the thought of escaping faded from a spark to an ash.

There had been rain, and the road was hard obsidian that threw back the reflection of taillights every time Phillip came up on a car. Hallelujah Junction was ninety minutes out of town and nothing but a general store full of hunting and fishing supplies and a roadside bar and a place for people to stop on their way to Bear Lake for ice or more beer.

Oscar ate dog chow from his bowl on the floorboards in back, and every now and then the radio picked up intermittent stations that came in when we broke through the pine trees for a minute or two, then turned to static over a voice as the signals blurred. The tape deck was broken, just like the heater and the window crank in back and the speedometer, but Phillip was able to wedge a Van Halen tape in place with a crumpled Viceroy pack, and we listened to side one over and over again as the road hairpinned and climbed until the asphalt thinned out and there was a gap in the trees and the sudden neon promise of cold beer. Phillip did not talk to me and I was grateful for that.

We got out of the car and stretched and kicked at the gravel for a minute. Neither of us wanted to be the first one through the door, and even though Phillip had been positive that we could drink here without a hassle, I could tell that he wasn’t so sure now, and maybe he wished he hadn’t opened his mouth back at the house and we were still watching movies in the dark and debating over a pizza, because when push meets shove, it’s a lot of responsibility to have an idea.

“Let’s give it a try,” I said. The air was crisp and it snapped at my clothes in long sighs. I was showered and clean and new, and I had the bottle in the front pocket of my jeans, an amber cylinder with a name on it that was not my mother’s shoved deep in the cotton that my shirt hem covered, half full of blue ovals the innocent size of Tic Tacs. When me and Christy had rolled my mom over, not for the first time, she still had the bottle in her hand, and I had to pry it loose because I didn’t want her to be seen like that. People are quick to judge because sometimes it is easier to not understand.

We walked across the short parking lot and up to the building, and there was the steady increase in volume of steel guitar and snare drum, and when we pushed the door open there was a moment of huddle and wait that we had to fight before we stepped in far enough to let the door close behind us, and both of us stood there, blinking into the darkness, as if we had come in late to a movie and we were standing in the back, waiting until our eyes adjusted before one of us finally took the lead and made the brave walk in the dark to find a seat. The place was small and full, maybe fifteen people along the bar to the left and knots of men around the pool table at the back of the room. There was a handful of tables against the wall opposite the bar, and the center of the floor was clear and big enough to dance on if maybe the night was right.

I was immediately disappointed.

I had wanted the stuff of movies and TV, the mountain bar, the big men with shaggy beards and leather vests and a band playing loose and loud and a barefoot lead singer and a sea of hats bobbing in time to the kick. I wanted a fight in progress, breaking glass, splintered pool cues, and a lot of ducking of punches.

But there was no band, and the men at the bar were old and thick and slow, and what few women I saw didn’t look as if they were in much need of having their honor defended. Phillip seemed as disappointed as I was, but he got over it faster and went up to a break in the barstools and leaned in far enough to get the bartender’s attention. Phillip was six months older, four inches taller, and thirty pounds heavier, with shoulders broad from the football he thought he might someday play. I watched his mouth move without hearing the sound, and the bartender adjusted his greasy baseball hat, and Phillip pulled money from his pocket, and two bottles of Budweiser were uncapped and set down in front of him, and that was that. No emergency, no joke, no get the fuck out of here, no bouncer gripping our collars and tossing us to the gravel outside. Phillip brought me a bottle, and I swallowed as much as my mouth could hold, and it was over. I had my first drink in a bar.

We found a table in the corner near the jukebox and we both slid in, and I sat back in my chair and surveyed the room.

“I didn’t know what beer to get,” Phillip said. “I thought I was going to blow it. The guy said, what can I get you, and my mind went blank and I panicked for a second. Then it just came to me. Budweiser. Thank God for all of the fucking commercials.”

Phillip raised his bottle in the gesture of a toast, and for a second I was afraid he was going to do it, drink to my mother or say her name or apologize and tell me how sorry he was about what had happened, and I braced myself, already uncomfortable and hating him a little bit for doing it now, like this and here, but instead he just held the bottle up by the neck, squinted at the label, and set it back down again. I drank as fast as I could, and hoped that the sooner the bottle was out of my hand, the less chance there would be for Phillip to make that toast and ruin everything. If he said one thing, even put her name in his mouth, I was afraid that I would drop my face to the table and press it to the sticky residue of the last beer that had been spilled and I would not be able to sit up again. It wasn’t exactly because I was sad, but maybe just because I had a feeling that even with my mother dead, there would not be a noticeable difference between the then and the now.

“You mind if we sit with you guys?”

I looked up and there were two women standing next to our table, both of them with beers in each hand, and then Phillip nodded and raised his eyebrows in a silent expression of why the hell not, and they slid in next to us, one beside Phillip and the other beside me, and they each put a bottle in front of them and slid the second bottles toward us, and it took me a minute to realize that they had bought us beers. When they were settled in and drinking, they both leaned toward us and asked our names, so we went around the table — Veronica, Phillip, me, and Candy.

Candy leaned closer toward me, and I met her halfway. She asked me what I did for a living and I said that I worked construction, and she thought that was pretty great. I had never worked construction, but I had always been fascinated with the guys who did, with their ragged T-shirts and tank tops and tattoos and dark tans from working in the sun, muscular and dirty and smoking and blasting hard music over the sound of their hammers. Maybe I would work construction if I could.

Candy told me that she waited tables in Battle Creek, but she wanted to move to Humboldt and go to school, but she was getting older and there never seemed to be the chance to go. Veronica was her best friend, and they worked together, and Veronica had a two-year-old daughter whose name I did not catch. After a while, Candy got up and put some money in the jukebox, and after she sat back down the music changed to the Eagles and Candy clapped her hands. “I really love this song,” she said. I could picture the album cover in my mind, one from the milk crate by the old stereo in the living room, eagle’s wings spread over a desert at sunrise or sunset, blue sky over pink, and not a lick of a hint to give away whether or not the day was looking to start or finish. I had stared at that album cover half of my life, looking for a sign.

Candy and Veronica liked to drink and they weren’t tight with their money, and the drinking led to talking and the conversation was as easily got as the bottles lining up in front of us. Candy had an open face and a wide smile, and when she laughed she had a tendency to bring one hand up and cover the top of her lip and look away.

The beer eventually got the best of me and when I got up to find the bathroom, Phillip slid past Veronica and followed me down the narrow hall until the smell of bleach and piss and mildew directed us to the right door and I pushed inside and was amazed at just how steady I could be on my feet.

“This is the best time,” Phillip said. He looked at his reflection in the mirror and let the water run in the sink so that he could wet his fingertips and smooth down the front of his hair. We had been friends for five years, and he knew more things than I wanted him to sometimes; he had been around when there had been a steady ride from bad to worse, and sometimes I resented him for that, for the easy way that he could slide in and out of my house and my life and stay only long enough to stand as witness to some kind of shit coming down and maybe eat some of the food out of the cupboards, or an order of takeout, and then he would walk back home to his leather-furniture two-parent slice of existence, and I was the one who had to stay behind and live what he only had to look at.

“I’m a little wasted,” he said. Someone had written asshole on the wall with one s. Part of me wanted to find a pen somewhere and correct it. “What do you think of the girls?” Phillip said.

I turned the water on in the sink and washed my hands. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw the dark circles under my eyes, and my skin had a shine that I had never seen before. “They’re nice,” I said.

“You like that Candy?”

I shrugged.

“You don’t want to trade, do you?”

The water got hot, fast, and I let it run so that it blasted the porcelain and the steam rose toward the mirror. “What do you mean?”

“You know, when we get back to the table, I can swap sides with you if you want. Sit next to Candy. You can take Veronica.” Phillip pumped some soap into his cupped hand and lathered up. The soap was a weak green color that looked toxic. “I mean, I’d rather keep Veronica, if it’s cool with you, but I figure, hey, your mom just died …” He paused for a second. “I mean, you should at least get first choice, you know?” He let the hot water hit his hands and jerked them back so hard that his fingers hit the edge of the sink. “That’s fucking burning.”

I thought about Christy calling for me, yesterday? The day before? Time had turned soft, and minutes and hours felt stretched and pulled. I was no longer sure if it was Thursday or Sunday or if it had been just five minutes ago that Christy had called to me, Roy, come here, and there had been no sense of emergency or fear, just a voice even as blacktop, come here, and we had done what we had done so many times before out of habit, the rolling and the looking at what we would find, only this time it was different, more than different, less than different. Maybe this was what indifferent really meant. And then we had been running hot water, so much so that the steam banked against the wall, taking turns running water and soaking towels and cleaning up. There just seemed like so much to clean.

Phillip pulled a couple of stiff paper towels out of the dispenser and rubbed his hands dry. “I mean, they’re about equal. Veronica’s got the bad skin and mustache, but Candy’s a good deuce, so I think it all balances out.” He wadded up the paper towels, threw them toward the trash can, and missed. He did not pick them up and try again. “You don’t mind a fat girl, do you?”

The room was hot and small and there was still steam in the air, and in my mind I could see Candy laughing with one dimpled hand hovering over her top lip.

“She’s nice,” I said.

“Yeah, she’s great. She’s funny, et cetera. It’s like that fat girl joke — Hey, why is fucking a fat girl like riding a moped? Because they’re fun to ride, but you don’t want your friends to see you on one.” Phillip laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. I stumbled forward. “But you know I don’t care.”

Phillip looked in the mirror and smoothed his hair again. “I would settle for a blow job from Veronica. I wouldn’t say no to that,” he said.

I didn’t say anything. I noticed that the floor was cement and there was a drain in the center and everything had a gentle slope toward it.

Phillip scooped some water into his mouth, rinsed, and spit it back into the sink. He squinted one eye closed and picked at a dry whitehead high on his cheek. “If it’s all right with you, I want to keep Veronica. I mean, no offense, but I can close my eyes and she’ll feel just fine. Fat girls don’t work that way.”

When we got back to the table, there were more beers and the jukebox was stuck on the Eagles album, and judging by the stack of quarters on the table in front of Candy, it would be for a while. The crowd in the bar had thinned and emptied, but when I looked at my watch it was blank-faced in the dim light.

“Hey, you know what? Roy’s grandparents were Nazis.” Phillip leaned back and took a drink from his beer and put an arm around Veronica. “I’m not even kidding. Tell them. Tell them about that time you found the swastika armbands and all that shit in your grandpa’s closet.”

It was something I thought I had seen once, and maybe I had or I hadn’t, I wasn’t sure, and when I tried to remember what I had seen in that closet, and I put myself back in that room, all I could smell was talcum powder and see my grandma standing at the window, stiff and straight, staring out at nothing in the weak light, her back to me, the tears streaming because I had said it, I had said names, called her things, told her how my mother would disappear every time she got off the phone with her, my grandmother with her thick accent and twisted language, harsh, guttural, clipped through the phone, and for seventeen years I never once remembered my mother asking me how I felt — not once — how do you feel? Because feelings, she said, were lies. The only truth was in what you could see.

“Were they really Nazis?” Candy asked. “That’s crazy.” Her blue eyes were wide and filled her face.

“Did they kill people?” Veronica asked.

“Kill people!” Phillip yelled. His voice put the music to shame. “Probably. Of course. Hey, tell them about that time you had to help your grandma kill all those kittens.”

“Oh my God,” Candy said. She was staring at me with her mouth open. I could see the way that her lipstick was cracked around the corners of her lips.

“His grandma made him put them all in this sack. This burlap sack, right?” Phillip didn’t want the answer to his question. He just wanted everyone to settle in to what he was saying.

“So he puts them in there — there’s like what, ten or something?”

“Seven,” I whispered.

“And he has to throw the sack into this pond out on their farm, so he does, you know, puts these baby kittens in this sack and knots the top and throws them out in the pond.”

Candy had closed her mouth, but she wouldn’t look at me. She was staring at Phillip and Phillip was smiling as though this was the funniest fucking story he had ever told, and he was taking his time getting to the punch line.

“The only problem is, though,” Phillip took a swig from his bottle and ran the back of his hand across his mouth. “His grandma didn’t tell him that he had to weigh the bag down. You know, put some rocks in it or something. So when he throws it out there, it just floats on the surface with all of these kittens screaming and trying to swim, but they’re trapped in that bag, you know.”

“Screaming?” Candy said.

“Fucking screaming. All ten of them. Roy told me that it was like hearing a baby’s cry.”

“But he swam out and got them, right?” Candy asked. She turned toward me at the table and her thigh touched my leg. “You swam out and got them right?”

Veronica had the same look on her face that Phillip did, and I realized that they were meant for each other and it was perfect that she’d found him.

“There was nothing I could do,” I said.

“But you could swim out and get them,” Candy said.

“My grandma wouldn’t let me.”

“His grandma wouldn’t let him. Fucking Nazis.” Phillip slammed his bottle down on the table and beer foamed and ran over the top.

“What happened?” Candy asked.

“They died,” Phillip said. “What do you think happened? He and his grandma stood there and watched the bag thrash around until they finally drowned.”

“God,” Candy said. She was looking down at the table, and there was something in her voice that made me want to put my hand over hers and let her know that I was just as sorry as she was. “How long did it take?”

Everyone around the table looked at me. Veronica had her head cocked against Phillip’s shoulder.

“Twenty minutes,” I whispered.

No one said anything. I could remember watching that brown sack take on water, and I could remember how the pond smelled with all of its black mud and fish and water grass and the summer heat pulling mosquitoes off its surface. I had started to take off my shoes and wade in to get the bag, but Grandma Hannah had put her hand against my arm and stopped me. She didn’t say “no” or “stop.” She just kept her hand on my arm, not tight, not gripping, just present, and we stood there and watched the sack together and listened to the kittens crying on and on until one by one they tired and drowned and the last one that held the sack above the surface finally gave up and went down with the weight.

Candy’s thigh was warm against me. I couldn’t remember what she was wearing, if she had on jeans or not. The more I thought about the weight of her thigh, the more I could feel her taking up the table beside me, spilling over the invisible line down the middle, until she absorbed me.

Phillip leaned his head in toward Veronica’s and whispered something in her ear, and she laughed and pulled back and hit him lightly on the chest, but did not move away from him. She stood up slightly so she could lean across the table and cupped her hand around Candy’s ear, and Candy nodded and pulled at the disintegrating label on her bottle, and when Veronica sat back down, there was a spark that jumped around the three of them and I was the one breaking the circuit.

I was picking at my bottle label and trying to peel it off in one piece because I could, and Candy put her hand over mine and I let her, and she squeezed my hand and I could tell that her palm was cool and damp and soft and so much different from the thigh pressed tight and hot beside me. Phillip and Veronica were kissing; I could see the silhouette of their tongues moving back and forth between them.

“You ready?” Candy asked. “We’re first,” she said.

I took a swallow of beer and it was warm and hard to get down. The table was covered in bottles and I tried to line them up in rows like fence posts. I didn’t look at Candy. “First?”

“Phillip said we can have the car first.”

For a minute I was confused, and I was back in my living room and in the corner by the front door were two black garbage bags with the sheets and the hot-water towels that we had used to soak up what had come from our mom, Christy and me, before anybody came, and the first thing I had to do was get rid of them, throw away the evidence, everything except the narrow bottle in my front pocket.

Phillip pulled back from Veronica and there was a glazed look in her eyes that threw back the overhead light like the wet road had done up the mountain. He dug the car keys out of his front pocket and slid them across the table toward me. “Thirty minutes,” he said. He smiled at me, and then Veronica slipped her hands around his neck and pulled him back toward her and her mouth.

Candy slid out of the booth and stood waiting for me to follow. The keys were cold and I looked at each of them and knew what they were meant for — the car, the front door, the door to my grandmother’s house. I could tell the difference just by touch. Candy took my hand as we walked across the empty floor. When we were outside and the door closed behind us, the Eagles were muffled and the night air hit us. I took a deep breath and swallowed the taste of rain and pine and forest. Underneath it all I could smell a campfire, and I wondered how far away it was and wished that I could sit beside it.

The gravel crunched and shifted under our shoes, and I walked toward the car and led her behind me, leashed with my arm. “It’s cold,” she said. There were no cars on the highway, no distant drone of a truck coming through. I wanted to run down the white center line as fast as I could, run between the trees and suck down the air until my lungs burned and I had to run with my mouth open just to keep my breath.

When I put the key in the door, Oscar jumped up off the backseat and started barking and lunging at the glass, and Candy screamed and jerked her hand out of my grip, but then Oscar saw that it was me.

“My God, that scared the shit out of me,” she laughed. “Is that your dog?”

“He was my mom’s dog,” I said. The past tense had caught up with me and it had taken only a day and a night and already it came second nature.

“He’s cute,” Candy said. She knocked on the glass and Oscar let out a sharp whine and tried to lick her hand through the closed window.

I opened the door and Oscar jumped over the seat and tried to jump on me. Candy kept holding her hand out toward him and saying things in a singsong voice that I couldn’t understand. “He probably has to pee,” I said. I hooked my fingers into his collar and pulled him down from the seat, and when he was out of the car, Candy started rubbing his head and scratching behind his ears, and he rolled over in the dirt.

“He is so sweet. I love him. What’s his name?”

“Oscar,” I said. I gave a sharp whistle and Oscar jumped to his feet and tried to sit without touching the gravel. “Go on. Go pee,” I said. I pushed at him with my knee and pointed him toward the brush that edged the parking lot in front of the car. There was a low scrub of bushes and tree trunks, and then the land sloped up and away from the parking lot and became a hillside and then a mountainside as the ground cover fell away in favor of rocks. Oscar put his nose to the ground and disappeared toward the trees.

“Go ahead,” I said. I pulled the driver’s door wide and swept my arm toward the seat.

She sat down behind the steering wheel and tried to slide to the other side, but there wasn’t an inch of slide to be had and she was firmly wedged between the wheel and the seat. To get her to the passenger side from there was going to take a lot pushing. “We’d be more comfortable in the back,” I said quickly, and I reached around her and pulled the lock on the back door. She stood up and smoothed her shirt front, and then she was able to get herself onto the backseat and with some hard breaths and a few kicks against the floorboards was able to move to the other side and make room for me.

I shut the door, and we were in the quiet, and the car smelled like dog and dog food. The combination reminded me that my stomach was full of nothing but cheap beer and distant handfuls of Doritos, and my stomach did a slow turn that made me swallow hard. I reached for the window crank and then remembered that it was broken off. “Can you roll your window down a little,” I said. She turned the crank a couple of times and the air came in and cooled the car and cleaned out the smell in one breath. Outside the car I could hear Oscar’s tags rattling and the occasional sound of snapping brush as he walked around in the bushes.

Candy put her hand on the seat between us, and in the half-light from the parking lot I could see how white her skin was. I reached out and touched it with my fingertips. It was warm, and I could feel the uneven ridges of veins, but they were soft and rolled away from the pressure of my fingers and I knew that I would have to press hard to find her pulse.

Candy turned toward me, but there was a lot of her that had to come between us and it was going to be hard for me to reach her with my mouth if kissing was the next thing to do. I would have to get up on one knee on the seat and climb up a little, but she seemed okay with that and helped me get into position, and I closed my eyes and fumbled through the best that I could. Her lips were nice, and she was comfortable and slow and when she kissed me I stopped thinking about all of the things that were demanding my time. She slid her hands down my ribs and pulled at the bottom of my T-shirt, and for a second I thought that I would feel her hands on my skin, but then they dropped my shirt hem and moved down and she fingered the fly on my jeans and her left hand started rubbing at the crease, and then it moved to the right and started squeezing the bottle in my pocket up and down and up and down and I knew the rhythm she was trying to rub and I realized that what she had in her hand was not what she thought she was gripping.

I pulled back from her and she tried to keep me from going but I rolled back enough to get a hand down to my jeans, and she put her hands on my shoulders and pulled me back toward her and said, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

I fished the pill bottle from my pocket and held it up to her. The light from the single pole in the parking lot caught the amber and made it flash like a turn signal. She took it from me and squinted at it to read the label. “Oxycontin?” she said. Candy held the bottle up to the shaft of light. “Who’s Sharon O’Donnel?”

I leaned my head back against the seat and wished that there was no top on the car and I could look up at the stars and find Orion because he was always there when I needed him. I could always take comfort in the three stars for his belt. “Sometimes my mother,” I said.

“Was she sick?”

I remembered the nights of crying in the bedroom, the muffled sound of her pillows taking the brunt of her sobs while Christy and I sat in the living room, inches apart, the TV on in front of us, blank-screened and throwing back light, and the only thing we moved was our eyes.

“Yes,” I said.

I nodded and stared out the windshield toward the tree trunks and buckthorn that I knew were somewhere in front of me.

She handed the bottle back to me but I couldn’t make my fingers close around it, so we held it between us together. “She’s been dead for twenty-six hours,” I said.

She was quiet for a minute and when she spoke it was barely a whisper. “Phillip told me,” she said. I felt her hand slide up to my wrist. She took the bottle from me and I let her. “Come here,” she said.

She pulled me in toward her and undressed me in layers, and she was so careful and soft that I hardly felt her. I closed my eyes and let her move me, lift my arms one by one, raise the T-shirt, pull it over my head, take the jeans and the socks and the shoes. Every time she took something off me, she pulled me closer to her so that the heat from her body held me like a blanket. I tried to talk to her, tried to apologize, but every time I found my voice, she said shhhh against me and lifted a finger to my lips.

When I was undressed, she unbuttoned her shirt and pulled me to her and wrapped the open sides of the shirt around me, and she slid down against the door so that we were both lying across the seat and I wasn’t so much against her as settled into her, pressed in below her surface. When I opened my eyes, she was looking up at me, and I could see the creases in her brow, the lines on her face, and I knew that the parking lot light was showing her age. She raised her head a little and kissed both of my eyes and went back to work, moving me, burying me, guiding me, drowning me, and from that height above the seat rocking and rocking, I could see over the door panel and out into the darkness, and smell the mountain grape and deer brush leaking in. Far away I could hear a dog barking, faint clips of sound breaking the heavy stillness of the highway and moving away from me. I knew that soon Phillip would be at the car, and he would want inside, and I would have to come to the surface again. I didn’t know for just how long I could stay.

About the Author

More Like This

The Book That Defined My Teen Anxiety Turned Out to Be a Lie

The sobering message of "Go Ask Alice" had a huge effect on my life—and then I found out the real story

May 22 - Sloane Tanen

Going from Cocaine to Novels, with the Help of “Novel with Cocaine”

This mysterious Russian fictionalized drug memoir spurred me to rethink my past—and write a new kind of character

Apr 23 - E.P. Floyd

“Group” Therapy

Growing up, finally, with Mary McCarthy's 1954 novel "The Group"

Apr 9 - Alba Wagtail