Introduction by Halimah Marcus
“First and Second Children” opens at a police auction where a drug dealer’s possessions are being sold to the highest bidder. With the first exchanges of dialogue between Glover and an old coworker, it’s immediately evident that Matthew Neill Null is a master of understanding how people are shaped and made by the places they come from, how it affects their voice, their outlook, and their relationships. Some of the people at this auction know each other. Some of them know the incarcerated man whose belongings are being sold. At the very least their lives are intertwined by the sheer fact of this rural county. Glover has lived through the decades here. His daughter and her daughter are living at home, with him and his wife. It’s not clear who the father is, and after a bit of gossip, Glover is worried that Monica is pregnant again.
For Glover, driving through the county, a history plays before his eyes. The coal bust, a flood of Oxy, a mineral rights boom. Opportunities and tragedies that just missed him, or didn’t. “Glover had been born too early—or too late,” Null writes. “He was amazed when commerce began again, as if God had flipped the switch.”
Amidst all this chaos, Glover struggles to control the one thing he feels is really his, his family. His wife and children, now his granddaughter too. “His girls.” Glover loves them, is loyal to them, but his fear and frustration functions like an iron mask. He is incapable of saying what needs to be said. Here, Null achieves one of the most difficult and necessary feats a writer can try; he not only shows us who Glover is, but also who he wants to be. He enables the reader to peer around the flat face of Glover’s limitations and glimpse what might have been. An opportunity squandered yet recorded, regret frozen in a truck’s dome light.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor of Recommended Reading
In the Eyes of a Father of Daughters
“First and Second Children” by Matthew Neill Null
At the police auction, Glover ran into Jeff Daugherty, an old friend of his from the plant. “There ain’t no deals here,” Daugherty was saying. Word had gotten out—too many people. Three papers had featured the drug bust prominently. Daugherty had hoped for welding equipment; Glover heard seven vehicles were up for auction, and maybe one would do for Monica, who, at twenty years old, still lived in Glover’s home with a young child. Glover didn’t know who the father of his granddaughter was. His wife said, “Don’t you dare say a thing.” Some wouldn’t be brave enough even to come home, she continued; Monica might have ended up in one of them clinics. Glover held his tongue; as much as he adored his new granddaughter, he had a different opinion on said clinics. Today, he wanted to buy Monica a little car on the cheap so she could drive herself to work. Two sedans were on the block, but the one was bid out of reach before Glover could lift a hand. The other, plain rattletrap, went unbought. “I was under the impression that drug dealers was a little better off,” Daugherty said. “Watched too much Miami Vice. Not that I expected a cigarette boat nor nothing. And here I go, burning up another Saturday.”
Glover glanced around. The confiscated property filled an entire stock barn at the fairgrounds. “Had a lot of stuff.”
“Yeah, but it’s all junk. Look at them cars. Sell five and buy yourself one good one, you know what I mean?”
Even the auctioneer’s nonsensical droning could not entertain them. Glover bought a turkey leg off a vendor, and Daugherty treated himself to a roasted ear of corn. Men of their trade, both wore polka-dotted, short-brimmed welders’ hats, as if they had coordinated outfits. They sat on square bales of hay near the edge of an open barn, watching rain fall. Come October, the fairground would host the Black Walnut Festival—a meager, oily, acrid food that, once a year, everyone had to pretend to like. In terms of agriculture, it was the best that the county’s rocky, impacted clay could offer up. Glover doubted he’d bother coming back till then.
Laughing, two women carried a forty-two inch flatscreen through the drizzle, a coat flung over and protecting about a third of it. The wet screen shimmered like verdigris. Daugherty whistled. “Look at all this humanity, like you kicked over a damned ant hill.”
Glover was about to take another bite when Daugherty added quickly, “I got to tell you, I don’t like saying it, but I seen Monica last night. Riding in a truck with Brian Lassiter. Up on the ridge. I waved. She wouldn’t wave back at me.”
Glover chewed his lower lip, looking at the rain turn milky as it hit the fresh gravel. He had known about Brian Lassiter for a few weeks—like a firehose, Lassiter had scattered unclaimed children all over this county and the next one—but now Glover had to act surprised. With his free hand he rubbed his brow. “I’ll kill him,” was all Glover could find to mutter. He didn’t really mean it but didn’t know what else to say.
Through some tremor of the blood, Daugherty sensed his friend was aware of Lassiter’s exploits, but he was graceful enough to play along. “She’s young,” Daugherty said. “She ain’t the first. But Brian, hell, if the Lassiters are all bad, she picked the worst of the bunch.”
Glover was honestly sickened now. He tossed the uneaten turkey leg to someone’s dog, which rolled and groveled.
The grass of the overflow parking lot had been torn to mud. “Sold!” the auctioneer cried, banging the gavel so loudly that Glover jumped. Enough. He put his truck in four-wheel drive and wallowed out of there. He gave brief little waves to all he passed.
Brian Lassiter couldn’t be father to Monica’s child—Glover had done the math in his head. Thank God, Lassiter had logged a year at the prison farm in Huttonsville during the period in question. You could learn all about the sordid tale in the paper. Working as a repo man, Lassiter had been caught stealing stereos and other middling items from the cars he repossessed, perhaps the dumbest crime Glover ever heard tell of. Police didn’t exactly have to throw a dragnet. But Lassiter slithered out of a long sentence by agreeing to wear a wire and buy pills by the handful, and managed to put several local men and women in the penitentiary. Doty, Young, Postlethwait, Hamblin—all these families lost people to Lassiter’s testimony. The Grand Jury indictment read like the local white pages.
Yet the county had a grudging respect for Lassiter, for he had returned home after his reduced sentence, here where surely a family member of someone he’d imprisoned would put a bullet in his head. Lassiter had an aunt down in Florida—why not dart South and start over? But Lassiter was pure brass and swagger, always had been, a little redneck gamecock, and he’d picked up an Oxycontin habit while performing his civic duty. Daugherty had said that Monica’s new beau was cut-man on a timber crew, the lowest respectable job you could get around here, though after child support garnishment cut four-five ways, it was hard to fathom how it amounted to anything. Maybe just a way to get a W-2 in his pocket and the probation officer off his back. Lassiter would be stealing copper and selling pills in no time, if he weren’t already. Lassiter was the type to live forever and populate the earth. Or the county, at least.
Monica and Lassiter, alone in that truck. One child, out of wedlock, with some stranger, could have been a mistake, to be chalked up to bad luck, a fleeting poor decision, but two of them amounted to something, a pathology, some buried imperfection of blood or of raising. She’d be doomed to a certain type of life. And never leave Glover’s house. The path was branching in front of her—he had to say so.
When Glover pulled into the driveway, he could see his wife and daughter in the kitchen cooking together, the cakes and pies they sold to Internet strangers. He began to lose his resolve.
“Hi, there.” His girls were his pride, his granddaughter Virginia on a mat in the living room teaching herself to roll over, the TV glowing bluely on her face. He bucked himself up again: worth fighting for. “Monica, could I talk with you a minute in the other room?”
“Sure, Daddy,” she said, but not before exchanging a look with her mother. He knew this moment would be endlessly discussed later on. On a typical day, Glover might utter twenty words, and he was eating into his allotment—he’d always felt you oughtn’t reveal yourself too much or people’d find a way to use it against you. Monica wiped flour from her hands. They walked back through the modest house, to her teenage bedroom that she once shared with her sister Justine, the one place you could get a little privacy unless you were willing to go out on the porch or under the butternut tree. The crib stood in the corner.
“What is it?”
“Well.” He looked past her, over her shoulder: picture of the graduating class. Was Lassiter in there? Lassiter with his sneering lip, like the purfling on a fiddle. Beside it, a bootcamp photo of Monica’s sister in front of the flag, hair in a single regulation braid. Glover said, “I didn’t find you a car. Sorry. Just had trucks.”
“I’d drive a truck,” said Monica, chipper now, relieved.
“Be great for winter. These roads.” True: Monica flagged on construction sites way back in the mountains while the crews knit together vast well pads that glowed like space stations in the night. Glover had seen his daughter at work with her hardhat and walkie-talkie, tossing her a grin and a wave. “And I wouldn’t have to hitch with Cassie no more,” she said.
Men saw her out there, too. On display. But he couldn’t shut her up in here, as much as he wanted to. Glover could hear his wife, whose name was Minerva, cooing to the baby. After a silence, Glover said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Monica gave him a hug. Something about that small room had sapped him. His other daughter, Justine, had died in a helicopter collision in Mosul, Iraq, not ten days into her deployment, and he sensed her there watching him. Justine was shaking her head, telling him to call a spade a spade, speak up, give her sister a healthy jolt of God’s honest truth. She was forever his tough girl, as tough as the boys.
A man like Lassiter reached out, Justine would have snapped his arm off at the shoulder, tell you that much. She would have seen his kind coming and going.
After the child was put to bed, and Minerva had retreated to her room and a library book, Glover and his daughter looked between the TV and their phones, as they did of an evening. A rerun of a talk show that was popular ages ago when the girls were in pigtails (the one on which a man once married a horse, complete with bridal veil) played on the screen. Glover wasn’t paying attention until the episode became too outrageous to ignore.
A smartly dressed account executive from San Francisco was explaining that she made her home with her husband and her boyfriend. Glover chuckled. “Would you look at that?” he said, making Monica glance up. Then the woman’s two children were trotted out, and the host asked them, these dewy-eyed middle schoolers, what they thought of it. We love having two dads, they cried. And now we’re gonna have a third! The audience gasped. “Bring him out!” the host boomed into the mic. “Bring him out!” A spindly, tattooed character strode on stage and kissed the executive on the mouth.
“And we’ll all be living together!” the children cried. The executive was pregnant again. The audience howled like wounded beasts. The meaty security guard warned them back.
“That’ll be you in a few years,” Glover said to Monica. “All them fellers you’re chatting with. Hard to pick just one!”
He meant it as a joke, but, after giving him a wounded look, she tucked her chin into her chest and began to weep. Glover blushed. When he tried to apologize, she scuttled back to her room. Should he follow? Doors opened and closed. He kept watching the show. Soon his wife came out.
Minerva turned off the television and said, “You’re gonna give her a complex, always bringing stuff up like this. You’re fixated on it.”
“Oh, I am not.”
She picked up Monica’s empty pop can to throw away. “We raised her. Now we got to trust her. Don’t you go saying another word to her.”
“How’re you gonna feel when she shows up with another baby? There ain’t nothing wrong with putting a little fear in these kids.”
“Dear, there are a hell of a lot worse things than a girl fooling around before marriage.”
“Not many, not around here!” he cried. He settled back into his own body, exhausted. “I’ll go back there in a minute, tell her what needs to be said.”
Minerva sighed. “No. No way. You worried over this? Then I’ll find a way to bring it up. You got a way of going off half-cocked. Then we got to live in an uproar a week. She ain’t like Justine. She ain’t tough like that. I’ll talk to her.”
Before leaving the room, his wife turned the TV back on, where the episode was rolling its credits and its outcome, for him, was left in doubt.
The time for talking was over. Later that night, Glover slipped out and drove to the trailer where Brian Lassiter lived. It sat where the two forks of Bear Run joined like a wishbone.
Glover had a .40 caliber pistol beneath a flannel shirt on the bench seat beside him.
People would suppose an imprisoned man’s relative had drifted out here to the trailer: tooth for tooth. The Youngs spoke openly about wanting to shoot Lassiter, the father braying it down at the tavern, saying the kid ought to watch himself. Glover felt himself change, rising like a fiery bird to the occasion.
As he passed through the notch in the ridgeline, the black sky flared orange and blue with burn-off, where long-neglected farms had sprouted industry. The bands of color flashing on his face, he drove through the county that had been his home forever, that he hardly recognized. The doldrums of the 1990s and 2000s were imprinted upon him, when work was scarce and coal prices low, when Oxycodone scythed down the young people and an expensive war lured away many of the rest including a child of his, but now they had the boom, with Chesapeake Energy drilling fresh wells on every ridge and all the work a man could want, the galling agent and ethylene pumping into the busted shale, the Schlemberger trucks crowding you off the roads and the courthouse packed every day with land agents. One-eight hundred signs on the roadside begged to be called if you owned mineral rights (Glover’s people, of course, did not). Glover had been born too early—or too late. He was amazed when commerce began again, as if God had flipped the switch. Chain hotels and restaurants, EPA inspectors and pilot cars, Texas roughnecks and lines out the Post Office door for money orders.
If only it had been like this when Glover was in his prime, his thirties and forties. He still worked hard but, paunchy, breathless, diabetic, he couldn’t pull time-and-a-half like a young dog. Ten hours on the torch wore him to a nub. He had been lucky to wriggle into the pipefitters’ union back in ’81 when apprenticeships were scarce; the son of a shade-tree mechanic, he had wanted nothing more than to be respectable, and a union job accorded respect. Even if he lacked seniority. But reality was unkind those years: drive out at six a.m. to the Clarksburg labor temple, wait for the steward to call out jobs, get sent home half the time. He might bank twenty hours a week at a chemical plant, with healthcare and benefits, true, but no real money to speak of. Breaking contract, he took side jobs for cash like other guys did. Cut grass. Bale hay. Mark timber. Two daughters to feed. What else could he do? Minerva had run an unregistered daycare out of the house until a disgruntled parent reported her to the state; after back taxes, it caused more heartache and aggravation than it was worth. Yes, with today’s money, they could have had more children, a big house, and really set the kids up in the world.
They wouldn’t have had to scrape by. Bought new cars instead of prowling auctions. Justine wouldn’t have needed army money for college—she wanted to go to the state university, be somebody.
Two spike bucks appeared in the roadway and leapt to either side, like ballet dancers. Glover didn’t even have to tap the brakes.
“She don’t know how hard’s raising a kid,” he had said the night he learned of Monica’s pregnancy, true fear on his face. If only they had infinite money…
“Oh please,” his wife had said. “You’d be kicking up a fuss either way. Always worrying over what people think of us.”
“I just wanted better for them.”
“We are what we are,” she whispered.
No. That he could not accept. He reached over to touch the pistol, to make sure it was still there. A good Sig Sauer, bought when pills and break-ins hit the county.
His plan for tonight was vague. He would show Lassiter the pistol and say, “See here?” hoping the fellow would understand, drift off from their little lives. But he knew enough that someone like Lassiter might not let it stop there, that Lassiter would crave the final word.
But time for talking was over, he reminded himself. In a bitter turn, Glover found himself hoping that Lassiter didn’t rate Monica too highly, that he wouldn’t want the hassle. Just another lay. Glover shook his head, sad for her. In all his life, Glover had slept with a single partner and couldn’t understand why that wasn’t enough for everybody. He had never been able to understand a life other than his own.
When his daughter swelled with child, friends like Daugherty looked askance. Acquaintances laughed. Teachers smirked. In a small place, everyone knows everything. And his wife acted like nothing could be more natural. “It’s common now,” she’d said with a shrug. “We wanted grandchildren, we got one, ought to count our blessings.” Unsaid: Now we got something to think about other than Justine. Oh, at least Justine was spared all this. He could hear her sardonic voice: “I’m not surprised in the least!” Justine had never rated her younger sister too highly. Father and Justine, mother and Monica—only now did he understand how it had played out in that small house, how his alliance had crumbled.
Maybe soon there’d be five under his roof. The thought made him wince.
He knew there was a chance that, no matter what he did tonight, Monica would begin to show in the months ahead with the second child. Too early, too late: Glover almost had to laugh at himself. He should have done this weeks ago.
Maybe he should take Lassiter aside, offer him the right path, mention marriage, put in a word for the boy at the Pipefitters’. Working overtime for Chesapeake, a young buck on the welding torch could pull in eighty thousand dollars a year, easy. But no. The Pipefitters’ wouldn’t take a felon. Glover was thinking crazy, thinking himself out of his decision—a Lassiter won’t change.
He didn’t pull into Lassiter’s drive but into a clearing across the way—Tom Beverlin owned that clearing, he wouldn’t care. Indeed, Beverlin would welcome the killing. Someone sharp would buy the trailer for scrap and haul away the junk cars that Lassiter foundered there during his incarceration. It would be as if Lassiter had never existed. The low meadow would bloom again, then turn to briar, to laurel, to red oak. Time would rewind like a YouTube clip, Glover’s hand dragging the icon back. No one would miss Lassiter except for weeping, half-known children who couldn’t understand that fate had done them a favor by sparing them decades of disappointment. Indeed, they could live on under the illusion that Lassiter had been a decent man, a tragic loss, no trifling reality there to prove them wrong. Maybe Glover’s own grandchild would come to think that way. He parked the truck, checked his pistol once again (yes, a round pulled into the chamber), and took it out, still wrapped in the flannel.
He was amazed when no dogs barked out his presence. This was the one trailer home in West Virginia with no dogs. Only the tree frogs sang.
Maybe he wouldn’t have cared so much if Justine were living. Justine would have taken care to marry in church, raise right the children, pay off her mortgage, parlay her service into a career. At least one part of the family would branch right. Even as a little girl, Justine seemed to sense a shining path in front of her, and she followed it down. All Glover had to do was stand in silence and look on, cheer in his heart.
Glover stalked through the high grass, seeing himself like a man in a movie. The porch light was off, what luck! He navigated by a moon near full—a cloudless evening, so rare here, with its humid spring and curtains of rain. It was as if God had made this night for him. For once God had him in mind. Glover rapped on the back door, where no one could see him.
When no answer came, he pounded.
Only then did he notice the broken shutters, the open window and the curtain lifting gauzily on the breeze. Even in darkness, he could sense the rot and abandonment inside. No one had lived here for ages. The car in the driveway, he now saw, was up on blocks. Glover couldn’t help but blush. He didn’t know the county as well as he thought. Out there on ridges lit by burn-off and floodlight, Lassiter was driving.
Glover wouldn’t try again. He knew it the moment he backed away from the trailer, shuddering at what he’d almost done. Another way of living flickered in front of him. Now it was gone. Would anyone be waiting up for him at home? Surely, in that small house, they had noticed him missing.
They should have talked, father and daughter. “Don’t worry,” Monica would have comforted him, had she known of his concerns. She would have said, “Brian’s just a friend of mine.” There would be no second child. Even up here on the ridge right now, as Lassiter took her elbow in his hand and turned her arm slightly, she had no romantic designs on him, he was like a little brother more than anything. She leaned forward, to be closer to him here in the truck, in this bubble of light. “Feels good to be out of that damn house,” Monica was saying. “Everybody watching you. Feels good to relax.” She and Brian would always be close, she suspected. He would figure prominently in the next two years of her life. Gently, he slid the syringe into her arm, not too far, the orange cap in his mouth like a tiny cigar. “You good?” he asked. In just a month or so, she’d be up to doing this on her own. He might try and kiss her afterward, but that meant nothing, compared to the everything that she felt right now.