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Like most bum decisions, I agreed to go to Transformation Baptist when I was four beers lit. I was flush from some unexpected overtime working construction on a new development outside of Cato, so I was drinking Guinness, not my normal domestic swill. Luke was a sheetrock guy, so the invitation was one of those slick inevitabilities. It’s all a script, you see. You’re standing on tamped, Cat-tracked earth, leaning against a temporary chain-link fence at the end of the day. You ask about kids if you have them, sporting events, plans for the weekend and such. Having complimented my shingling, Luke stomped out his smoke and asked me what I was up to that evening.
I told him I was heading to The Raven. I liked the place because the music is hard but not too loud. The bartender knows me and has my beer poured by the time I shimmy onto my stool. You might think that I hate the yuppies who show up in their button-down shirts, who go into The Raven to pretend they’re still part of the lower-middle-class they escaped when they got their law degrees at SU. They bring in a higher grade of woman, so I don’t mind. You got all kinds, from good women just getting divorced to the slick-pantied college girls they compete with for looking space in the bathroom mirror. Some of those young co-eds dress like they don’t know what goes on in a man’s mind. So yeah, I like the place well enough.
Luke squinted and said he might show up. He strode in after I’d had a couple and kicked ass in a game of darts, so I was emboldened enough to ask, which I did while he sipped his Bud Light. “Didn’t know you could drink.” I pointed to the silver cross on his chest. The chain was lost in the curly hair that bushed up under his unbuttoned collar. “I thought it was something like a sin.”
“Naw,” he said. He sipped as though he were demonstrating. “Jesus made wine, right?”
He was already testing the limits of my Sunday School education. “And the fish, too, right?”
“Yup. There’s no problem until you get drunk. Until you do things you regret.”
I tipped the glass of Guinness to my lips and thought of the women they had once kissed. “Regrets? Wouldn’t know what that word means.”
We changed the subject quick. There’s a time for drinking and thinking, but I usually tie them on to still the churning in my brain. That’s the same reason I like working construction. You can’t be in your own mind when you’re holding a nail gun, or you’ll get one through your palm or worse. I seen it happen and wished I hadn’t.
So like I said, I was finishing my fourth when Luke mentioned his church. We were outside so he could dirty up his lungs in the dark little parking lot behind the bar. He offered me a smoke, but I declined and told him that one addiction was plenty, thank you very much.
It was cooler outside than in The Raven. “Me and some of the guys at Trans Bap get together. Guess it’s easier when you do things together.”
“You know what they say, a shoulder to lean on keeps everyone standing up.” I become a philosopher when I’m sideways.
“My wife seems happier since I’m hanging with them. Used to be I would belt back more than you. No more.”
Even in my state, I felt those tendrils snaking around me. “Hey, you trying to get me to church it up with you?”
He exhaled a long stream, watching as the cloud rose to the low street lamps. “Hell no. That’s not my job. I came out with you because I wanted to get out for a drink. You’re my alibi.”
I pictured his wife, the perm-and-tan type, frowning on him until he told her about the dangerous state of my soul and how he could help. And I believe to this day the sumbitch was telling the truth, that he wasn’t trying to trick me into a pew.
But damn if I didn’t end up there anyway. Trans Bap looked strange at night with half the lights on and no sunlight to beam through the stained glass. My feet made a rude sound on the carpet in the aisle. Like God was telling me my workboots weren’t acceptable, but he’d let me by my first time.
They were in the front pews, near the glass altar. The big, old cross hung from the rafters. I admired the construction of the beams in the ceiling. They were easier to look at than those six sets of eyes laying on me as I walked up.
I would have thought that Luke was the Head Dude in charge, but he wasn’t. When I walked up, a bearded, soft man shook my hand. From the lack of calluses on his palm, I was guessing insurance agent. He said he was glad to meet me.
“This is Mark,” Luke told everyone. “I know him from building jobs, and I thought he might get something from being here.”
The bearded guy agreed and told me his name was Pastor Hocking and that he was the man in charge at Trans Bap. My guess of insurance agent wasn’t far off. He’s writing people’s policies for the afterlife.
They did a prayer, and I was a little worried, but it was your standard “God help us with what we’re doing” thing. I couldn’t find fault with that.
Pastor Hocking told me how it goes. “We’re here, Mark, because today’s men face a unique set of challenges. Through fellowship with other men, we can be better husbands and fathers.”
“I gotta check ‘none of the above’ on those, Pastor.”
“For now,” he said. I couldn’t tell if it was a promise, a threat, or something I didn’t expect.
He started talking, and I looked around. Me and Luke were both blue-collar humpers, like a couple of the other guys. Beside the pastor, the other two wore what I always called funeral clothes.
The big business went by fast. Trans Bap’s Men’s Group was putting on a picnic for everyone week after next. That meant the parishioners, of course, but anyone else who wanted to have a burger. Maybe, just maybe, the pastor said, they’ll see what good living in Christian love can be and show up at service on Sunday. Everyone but me took jobs: grilling, setting up games for the kids and such. They felt safe enough, so I said why the hell not and volunteered to cook and clean up. There’re worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Then we talked about straight-up guy stuff. One of the suits confessed to a little pornography, and I was damn glad no one could see under my bed. One of the hard-working men said he wished he wasn’t so short with his wife and his kids. He didn’t hit them or get long out of line—he just didn’t love them like he felt he needed to.
Pastor Hocking clucked his tongue like it didn’t matter that this guy wasn’t putting anyone in the hospital. “We make promises,” he said. “We have to fulfill our ends of the bargain. It’s not enough to bring home a good paycheck and put a good supper on the dining room table. We have to prove that we deserve our gifts every single day.”
Pretty soon, we were all talked out, and Luke walked me to my truck. “I hope that wasn’t too rough,” he said, lighting up.
“Naw,” I said. “’S good to do new things once in a while. Seems like a good bunch of guys in there.”
“Think so?” he asked. “Yeah, we all do it right or try.”
“Guess I’m seeing you at that picnic,” I said. “You know how to make a burger?”
“What I do best.”
I unlocked my truck. “You think Pastor cares I haven’t been to church here?”
“Don’t think so,” Luke said. “He says he’s a fisherman with bait but no hooks. He can lure you in, but you gotta get yourself in the boat.”
So I got in the damn boat that Sunday. I say it was because of my great honking hangover. The kind where you force yourself to get up and do stuff, then spend the whole time squeeze-brained, regretting it. I didn’t know what I believed, but I didn’t much mind the soft music and Pastor Hocking’s friendly sermon. I don’t think I would have taken too well to a fire-and-brimstone guy. Pastor shook my hand on the way out. Don’t you worry. I have long practice keeping a hangover inside when I need to. If I could hide it from someone who was looking for a reason to rain shit on me (Angela, four women ago), then I could hide it from someone fixing to speak to whatever kind of soul I may or may not have.
So I met Luke’s wife at the picnic, and I just as quickly wished I hadn’t. She had that former-beauty-queen look. She was definitely world-class early on, but had flaunted what she got too much before settling down. Still, if I saw her in the soft lighting of The Raven, I’d have asked her her name. (Okay, fine. I would have asked her no matter.)
“Nice to meet you, Mark,” Gloria said. She had that same cross necklace as Luke, but it looked much more appealing on her, bobbing away only inches from her lady pillows.
I told her Luke had said kind things about her. Heaven would be pretty lonely if God hated half-lies.
“How nice.” She pointed toward a couple of rugrats chasing each other around a tree. “Those are the boys. Ethan and Isaac. We call him Izzy.”
“They look like you,” I told her.
Luke jumped in, flipping a couple burgers. “I hope they got her brains, too. Mine’s so empty, I’m scared I might float away.”
Gloria slapped her husband’s arm. “You stop that. I wouldn’t’ve married a guy with no kind of brains.” She kissed his cheek and took off with the kids, and I thought of Sally (16 women ago), who wouldn’t leave my sight without a kiss and an I-love-you-too.
“You won the lottery, huh?” I watched Gloria and the boys melt into the crowd. The church lawn was full. The kids were playing games, the adults just sitting and sipping. (No booze, which I expected.)
“I did. I still don’t get why she married me. Especially nowadays. Women have options. There’re no more shotgun deals.”
He was right about options. I wasn’t planning on saying nothing about Patty (nine women ago) and the trip to the clinic she took on her own without telling me. She said she thought I’d be mad, which I had to pretend wasn’t funny.
So I helped Luke serve the burgers. I cleaned up after him, trying to make everything easy.
Pastor Hocking glided over and encouraged me to mix around and meet someone of my other brothers and sisters. He especially told me there were sisters around who could do a lot of good for a man like me. I politely told him that I didn’t think there was a woman who deserved a punishment like me and vice versa. He laughed and said he hoped to see me again at Men’s Group. That we were starting something exciting. I didn’t ask him to define the word for me, ’cause I guessed we had different ideas what it meant.
I had every reason in the world not to go to Men’s Group the night things really started getting sticky. ‘Every reason’ was a twelve-pack of Bud Light chilling in the fridge. But I went anyway, and Pastor Hocking told me how happy he was that I had been going to church on Sunday. I was nice—I left out the part about how I really wasn’t feeling the Holy Spirit thing inside me like he said I should be. I sat near Luke, and he did the hello nod and smiled.
“Like I told you all,” Pastor said, gripping the glass podium like it was going to float away and carry him to Heaven. “Today’s meeting is something special. Last time, we heard about Dave’s problem with pornography. I prayed and thought about a solution, and it came to me. Who knows what an accountability partner is?”
I couldn’t let myself laugh when Dave raised his hand.
“You are each going to have a partner, and it’s your job to help them keep on that path. We’ve always been there for each other, but the same technology that brings filth into our homes—heck, even our cell phones—allows us to help each other with the problems of the flesh.”
He explained that each of us would install “Partner on the Path” on our computers. The program would monitor what we did. If we used a naughty program, our accountability partner would know. Most of all, with web sites. If something dirty came up, it would send an email to our partner. It would then be his job to sail over on a wave of sanctimoniousness and clap their back and say how can I help you brother.
Now, this didn’t bother me, and I already told you why. I’m not the kinda guy to do his dirty business on the Internet. Sure, I see the appeal. A world full of crazy possibilities and no heading to the windowless building up to Mattydale where the Chuck E. Cheese’s used to be so you can drop your copy of Black Jailbait on the counter in front of a stringy-haired loser who never got the memo about 70s cop mustaches being out of style.
In retrospect, I think Luke dashed over to make me his partner because he knew what kinda guy I was. That stick-up-the-ass Walter would give him a five-hour lecture if playboy.com came up. Me? I’d pull up a chair, crack open a beer, and say, “Dude. Chicks with horses? That’s fucked up, man.” I guess we can’t really choose the people who will help us the most. After all, if we know how to make good decisions, we don’t need help from outside or above.
Candy (seven women ago, and a regret; yes, she was sweet) forced me to get the cheap computer that took up space in my bedroom. She was out of town a lot and made the purchase worth my while after teaching me how to see the pictures she sent me. Luke had to show me how to install “Partner on the Path,” but I’m pretty good with the email and all that other basic stuff.
Updates came weekly for the most part unless there was something real bad going on on Luke’s end. I guess it gave me something to do on those nights. I’d attack a couple tallboys and see what was going down in Luke’s thought life. So I’m not one to talk, but I didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, like “Partner on the Path” did. He was looking at those celebrity web sites, checking out stories about all those no-talent skanks who pass for entertainers nowadays. (Give me Janis Joplin any day. Sure, she coulda chased a warthog up a tree, but shit, could she give you a song.) The only time I got an instant red-light update was when he saw a page with the word ‘atheist’ in one of the ads. After looking at the news, he would go to other sites and look at tons of pictures of them. Much to my own surprise, it didn’t do much for me downstairs to see a 16-year-old girl in a bikini hold a 10-foot python while singing about high school gym class.
You can’t say I wasn’t a good partner. I straight-up confronted him one Sunday after church. Gloria (maybe looking finer than she really should have in the Lord’s house) was talking to the day care lady who watched the rugrats too small to keep their mouths shut during an hour-long service.
“I’m not sure about the 10:30 Sunday service,” I told Luke.
He scratched the back of his head, like he knew I was going to do my duty and tell him what was what. “Too early after a drinking night?”
“Naw. All these families. And Pastor brings all the kids up to the altar. That takes forever. And then they go back to their seats.”
“Hell, I guess that’s why you never had yourself kids.”
“Probably why,” I said. We were in a quiet corner, and I was feeling some kind of thrill with something hanging over his head. That made me feel bad. “Look, I guess I should do it right if I’m gonna do it.”
“Say what you wanna say.”
“You sure you wanna be looking at those celebrity stories? The pictures? Those young girls running around in bras and singing about sex? Pastor just said that stuff isn’t good. Distracts us from the Lord or whatever.”
He looked relieved. “Hell, some of that’s Gloria reading news. I don’t care much about little sins. Don’t think God does, either, or He wouldn’t have put is in a world with so many of them.”
“Guess that makes sense,” I said. “Are you happy? Did I do my job?”
“Well, you didn’t chew me a new one, so I say you did.”
We gave each other pleasantries and such, and I left it at that, though now I know I shouldn’t have. I should have marched right up to Pastor, dragged him by the hand to his wife, and got it done right then and there.
But there’s not much you can do to change the past.
In addition to Men’s Group, I saw Luke on some other jobs. In a market like Central New York, we were right lucky to be working so steady. Everything was fine—great, until that shitty Wednesday. I spent the whole day doing a roof up in the new buildings sprouting up around exit 39 on 690. Then, the asshole owner chews out the contractor because he didn’t like how the shingles he picked looked on his roof. Business isn’t something you pass up on, so when a customer bitches, you say how high. I got that. But that doesn’t mean I liked tearing up a whole damn roof. And doing it carefully so I could reuse the shingles. And I had to come back the next day and do it all over again.
So I used the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. I started guzzling through the Bud Light at 6 p.m. because I like drinking. I got through ten of them in three hours out of spite. That much pretty much sealed the deal that I would sail to the job site late and move slow, at that.
I suppose it doesn’t much matter, but I wasn’t brain-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean drunk. From what I can remember, which was most of it, it was 9:30, and I was still going strong. Those Greeks said wine brings out truth, but for me, it wasn’t truth. It was regret. So I got to thinking about Marie (12 women ago).
Marie definitely wasn’t my first piece of tail. But she was the first one who made me think of sex as more than just going ball deep. I explored her soft topography like all the others, but in the sweat and stink of summer nights in the backseat of my dad’s Dodge Diplomat (three cars ago), I didn’t feel like Columbus, observing a land to make his own. I was Lewis and Clark, in awe of the loneliness and solitude and how the horizon fixed those feelings at the same time.
I was fooling around on the computer and laughed and slurred something about Luke looking at more pop tarts without panties. Remember, I was sheets to the wind, so I said, “He wants to fuck those bitches.” But it came out in one slurred syllable that only sounded crisp to my soaked-up brain.
And I got angry and sad. I admit that I’m pathetic, that my lapse in thinking was huge. But that doesn’t mean he should’ve given me shit for searching Marie out. I hadn’t done such in years, so I had to go on guesses to find her. She married that pencil-dick Harry Wright, and his Mr. Potato Head face had been plastered all over town ten years earlier. He was a realtor and stared back at you with that silly picture—calculated to highlight his strong chin and easy smile. The loose tie around his loose-skinned throat and that grin on his face that said, ‘I’ll put you over the barrel—that’s my job—but I’ll make you feel good about it.’ So I fucked up and searched for “Marie Harry Wright realtor.”
And goddamn if the first fucking site was what I was looking for and didn’t want to see. I expected he’d have a web site for his wares in this Internet-crazy time. So savvy young marrieds could swim around the pictures and imagine what the second bedroom would look like made up as a nursery. I didn’t expect to see something like “The Wright Way.” It was a journal for their happy family, packed with pictures of my Marie kissing his fat cheek at the Grand Canyon; one of her drained from labor, cradling a baby; one of her standing sideline at a Little League game with the little girl who won a trophy just for being there.
And the journal. She was the smart one between us, which wasn’t a hard thing to be. When we went to the small sand beach at Green Lakes, I would watch her bikini-branded body while she occupied herself with a paperback. I would visit her up at the dorms at Oswego, where she was studying teaching, and tell her how I understood she was distracted by her upcoming final but that shouldn’t stop you from getting frisky and naked and letting me do my thing.
Reading that Internet journal, I wanted to call up that toupeed prick and tell him how she laid out for me. That each time he tweaked those toughened nipples, he was sucking tits where I had already planted my flag.
I read as much as my wobbly eyes would let me. I was stuck there for hours, looking at pictures, reading about their trips to museums and domestic adventures inspired by the love of cooking she had picked up since she left me in that parking lot, screaming and swearing and throwing the pebbles that had flaked from the asphalt.
So I drank the rest of the 12-pack, said fuck you to the clock, and fell into bed.
Luke got funny at Men’s Group, and I should have known something was up. He was almost too friendly in that car salesman (or realtor) way, like he knew something you didn’t and was taking great pride in knowing that you didn’t know.
We went to The Raven one night and he had three, which should have clued me in, too. Probably I was too distracted by Pastor Hocking. I was walking out of church one Sunday afternoon, and he shook my hand. He’d done that plenty in the two months I’d known him. But then he took me aside and asked me to wait.
It wasn’t too hot outside, and I didn’t have too much of my hops-and-barley Prozac the night before, so I stood under the large, sad willow near the church’s purple double doors while he said goodbye to everyone else and thanked them for coming out.
“You know, Mark,” he said after the last one left. “You’ve been coming here and to Men’s Group regularly.”
“Keeps me out of trouble,” I said. “It’s nice being around guys sometimes.”
He nodded his well-coiffed head up at the spire on top the church. “But I can’t help but notice you haven’t come up during my altar calls. Have you been baptized?”
“Maybe as a kid. I never asked.”
“Are you feeling the presence of the Spirit? Do you think it might be time to get you saved? Bring you right?”
I was polite with him. His face was wilting like a picked flower in summer heat, but I kept saying no thanks, that my soul, if I had one, wasn’t in the place where it could be saved.
That’s when I started getting a shit-ton of red alerts about my accountability partner. Apparently, “Path” had a dim view of something called myspace.com. He was searching for ladies in our town. They didn’t have much in common, blond, brunette, black (race, not just hair color), short, tall, but they were all one thing: too young for guys like us.
Shit, I’m a red-blooded dude. Millions of years of evolution tell the testosterone coursing through my veins to fuck whatever’s grown enough to make a baby. (Evolution hasn’t figured a way around rubbers yet, thank God.) I’m not going to feel bad about the brain flashes I had looking through his roster. It was just natural: as I got older, the women I was with got a little older. I know it’s not PC or whatever to admit, but older women expect more, make you work for it and require a lot more priming before the pump splashes, if you get my drift.
He was sending messages to them, calling them sweetie and flirting and such. I’d done way worse than that in countless nights in The Raven, and I didn’t want to be part of a world where flirting is a capital offense. But still, it worried me. He would regret losing Gloria, if he did.
So I bided my time. In 20/20 hindsight, I should have nipped it in the bud instead of waiting for the right moment. One night, Men’s Group was really boring. Even Walter, in his suit like always, was fidgeting as Pastor kept pronouncing what we were supposed to be as husbands and fathers. Maybe I just didn’t relate, as I’ve never been either.
I took Luke aside after and made sure the parking lot was empty, so no one could hear. “Hey, bud. I gotta do my duty.”
He winced and smiled like a kid with cookie crumbs on his face hearing the crimes against him. “I know what you’re gonna say.”
“Impress me with your psychic powers.”
“The women, on the Myspace. The accountability thing showed it up, didn’t it?”
“My email box is close to exploding, Luke. You sure you’re doing right?”
He kicked the ground, shooting a rock across the pavement and into the grass. “I’m just talking. Just words. I’ll stop.”
“Don’t look at me like I’m Pastor. You chose me to look up on you. I don’t want you to lose nothing by being stupid.”
“You understand, though, Mark. I know you do.”
It would have been weird for me to lie to him while lecturing him on morality. “Sure as hell I do. I’m just guessing Gloria wouldn’t understand.”
His look turned cold. I’d seen it plenty before. Like when I would flirt in The Raven not knowing there was a boyfriend on the pot or playing darts. “You saying you would tell her?”
“Shit, Luke. Don’t get all pissy on me. Stand down. That’s not my job.”
“I can tell what you’re searching for, too. Maybe I should tell … whatsername … Marie. That you’re looking her up.”
Okay, so in reality, my name would register as a big, fat zero on her give-a-shit scale. I could see it. She’d get an email: “Ole Mark was looking you up.” And after she got over “Mark who?” she would go right back to sucking Mister Wright’s cock or packing a picnic lunch or baking cookies for one of the kids’ bake sales or all three at the same time, for all I knew. But reason was not exactly my friend. I wanted to slug Luke and fuck the fact I was in a church parking lot. “That’s how you wanna make it?”
Luke softened, and that made my fists soften, too. “Hell, I’m sorry. Sore spot. Just saying. Neither of us are misbehaving. We work out our issues on our own, right?”
He stuck out his hand, and I never refused that, so I shook it. “Right. Right. Just don’t add to the regrets we got.”
We left it there, and I think we both knew I wasn’t going to darken the door of that church for a while, if ever again.
I hated having that Marie shit known by someone. I hate writing it down, too, but that’s the only way it makes sense that Luke had one over on me, even if it was in a jackass way.
I didn’t show up at Men’s Group, and I slept in on Sunday mornings for a good while. I’d pretty much forgotten about the whole shitstorm until I got that call on a Thursday night. I was only a couple beers into my one-man celebration, so I was fine to drive. Marie would not have thought so. She always got on me about it, and that was even in the days it wasn’t a huge big-time deal.
I did a double take when I saw the name on my cell phone. Why would Luke call me?
“Hey, buddy. Missed you lately.”
“I been busy,” I lied. Why rock the boat? Besides, I was still getting reports on him, and it seemed he was keeping his nose clean. “What’s up?”
“I’m at The Raven.” He sounded so calm. It should have been a hint, like the eerie calm before a storm. “Thought you might like to have a couple with me.”
I did, so I went. I got there and went inside and didn’t see him. So I went out back, guessing he went out for a smoke. I guess I was half-right.
“Hey, Mark. Mark!” He whispered my name, and I headed for his truck. I thought it was weird he was sitting in the driver’s seat, until I got close enough to see he wasn’t alone.
She was slumped across the bench seat, her stringy blond head lying in his lap. I was willing to bet my meager net worth that he had zipped up and buttoned up for my benefit. Her tiny body was wrapped in a little halter thing made of stretchy fabric that wasn’t doing a good job of covering her back. In the dim security light, I could see the butterflies tattooed on the skin buttons just above her ass. She wasn’t moving that I could see.
I caught a whiff and just barely stopped before I stepped in the throw-up on the ground outside the passenger door. “What the fuck, man?” I kept my voice down. I didn’t know who else was around.
He put his hands under her head and put it down soft on the seat and got out. I couldn’t believe a real woman could disappear so quickly in such a small space. “You gotta help me, brother.”
“What the fuck you talking about? Is she okay?” I couldn’t say ‘dead.’
He opened his palms to me like you would to an angry dog. “She’s fine. She just had a little too much to drink.”
“I can’t see her face, but I can guess she’s not old enough to buy a beer here.”
Luke shrugged. “She showed the bartender two forms of ID: a fake license and a twenty.”
“Why the fuck did you call me?” It was so hard not to shout.
“You have to take her to your place. Let her sleep it off and fix her up.”
“You’re out of your mind. Take her home.”
His eyes bugged out a little. “I don’t know where she lives. It’s not like I can fucking ask her, right?”
I never saw a man pleading so much to me. Or a woman, for that matter. I took a lot of pride in making sure no one needed me for real. Shit. I should have left there and then and told him to man up and call 911. Take her to the hospital, whatever. Shit, a man could come up with plenty of excuses that would satisfy a woman who wanted to believe.
He could see I was wavering. “Come on, partner. I’d hate for that Marie to find out how hard you’re pining on her.”
Normal time, I would have got in his face. Told him where he could cram his threats, brother. But this was a pretty special situation. Seeing slumped dummy form made me want to help her. I was no doctor, but I know about recovering from a night of too many. Luke knew I did, too. “Fuck. I’ll pull my truck around.”
I parked beside him, happy the space was open and that no lookie-loos had come out to suck down a cig or shoot the shit. We threaded her through the driver’s side. Luke tried to work me to the side where I’d have to get her arms and wash myself in the demon breath, but I put the kibosh on that shit.
She was heavier than you’d think, but only because she was in no position to move on her own. Ninety pounds of dead weight is still dead. We belted her in and tried to make sure she wouldn’t collapse and smack her forehead on the dash.
Luke tried thanking me or swearing he’d hit me back, but I was in no mood. I peeled the fuck out of there with a quickness.
It was even harder getting the girl out of my truck and into my ground-level apartment. By now, I could tell she was but a girl. Around the age of 22 or so, a woman’s features start firming up, the first signs of youth slipping away. Hers would have looked just right on a yearbook picture. She wore too much makeup, and the parts of her that didn’t smell like sick smelled like cherry body lotion she had applied for reasons I didn’t want to know.
I locked the door after laying her on my sofa. Maybe I should have done so earlier, but I stuck my ear next to her nose to make sure she was breathing. I pinched her arm and she moved just a little, so I thanked Pastor Hocking’s god for that.
I put a bucket near the sofa. Put my pillow under her tiny head and my blanket on her up to her chin. If I woke up in a place I didn’t expect, I would want everything as tight as possible to know no one had gotten loose with me.
I laid on the floor for a while, but I wasn’t going to sleep. Tired and unhappy, I tidied up a little. I didn’t want her to wake up and think she was in one of those sex dungeons. This 68-year-old man in DeWitt was keeping women prisoner in his basement for years, trapping them along with his world-class beer bottle collection. My buddy, Tommy, was on the crew who took all the bottles from the basement, and he said it was pretty frightening. So all the beer cans went into a big, clanking trash bag. I put a magazine from the shitter on the end table next to a glass of water she’d want at some point.
With the lights out, I looked up at the form on my couch. And yes, I thought about how I hadn’t touched a 19-year-old since I was 19, too. I thought about Marie showing me the secrets of her body and how scared she was because it was the first time she did it. That moist, soft skin glowing in the moonlight streaming in through my bedroom window. Marie used up a lot of firsts with me. I couldn’t sleep until I realized how many I think I wished I could give back.
The little girl gurgled and moaned, and my heart tripped into overdrive. Put that kind of terror into an alarm clock and you’re rich. I snapped up and stood over her. She was squeezing her eyelids, and her jaw was wobbling in that unguarded fashion you only do when you’re alone or think you are. I wet a clean washcloth and swabbed her forehead with it. “You awake?”
Her eyes opened up like a flash. Her hands squeezed the sofa cushion, and I got the look I’m guessing Ted Bundy saw several times. “Don’t worry. I’m Mark. You tied too many on with Luke last night, and I took care of you. You’re 100-percent safe, swear to God.”
She slumped. Her head was feeling so heavy, she had no choice.
“You’re not gonna want to, but you should drink this.” I tipped the glass to her lip. Lipstick was smeared around her mouth and part of her lips were bare and much lighter. She forced the whole glass down, and I told her good girl.
“What the fuck?” She said it to the universe in general.
“Just relax. I’ll fix you up and take you home when you’re up to it.”
My cell phone buzzed, and wouldn’t you know it was the foreman on the job down to Springfield. I answered it anyway.
“Where the hell are you, Mark? What are you doing?”
“Shit, I’m sorry, Bob. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Bull the fuck shit. You’re sleeping it off.”
I just told him sure. Even I knew that sounded like me.
“Douchebag. I have to shift everyone around on account of you.” He hung up on me.
“Who was that?” the girl asked. Her voice was full and sweet and as yet untouched by whatever else damage she was doing to sabotage her body.
“My boss. He’s pretty pissed.”
She tried keeping her eyes open, but it was too much of a trial. Even half-closed, I could still see they were laserbeam baby blues destined to bore through men’s souls. “I’m still thirsty.”
I gave her the half-gallon of OJ I had been saving for a future hangover of my own. She uncapped it and drank like she had spent a week in the desert.
We just sat there for a while. I gave her the remote, and she locked it on one of those shows where your friends sell you out for not dressing the way they think you should. Lucky I had no friends, or I’d be on it, too.
Without her asking, I made her some scrambled eggs, nice and bland. She ate them lying down and without a thank you. I guess she didn’t need to give me one. I liked that she just lay there on my flat, smelly sofa and felt safe enough to melt into it when her brain contractions told her to.
After a good while, she sat up. The blanket fell from her chin to her lap and she pronounced the world’s greatest truth. “Men suck.”
“The younger you believe that, the better.” The straps of her halter top fell around her arms and I could see her shoulders, and I won’t lie that they would look good right under me. Her hair was tousled around her face and just too much of her cleavage was showing. With her face swollen and red, it looked like I already got to her.
“He didn’t force me to drink so much,” she said.
“I didn’t ask. I don’t care.”
“He didn’t make me go to his truck with him, either. I know it’s what he wanted in the first place.”
I squinted and scratched my temple. “I don’t want to know. You keep that for your scrapbook.”
She rubbed her arms. “Can I take a shower?”
I got it all ready for her. My bathroom wasn’t woman-level clean, but she had bigger problems right then. She stumbled through my living room and closed the door behind her. I listened in case of emergency; she pissed so long I thought she was never gonna stop. With all she drank, that made sense.
I heard the splashing of the water and an angry-at-herself sigh. She sang a little bit of a pop song I didn’t know. Then, she got real quiet. I knocked and asked her name.
Her voice was echoed and muffled. “What was that?”
“Your name, little girl. You got one?”
I put my mouth to the jamb. “Name. Handle. First and last. What’s on your birth certificate?”
I heard a splash and a trickle and was a hundred percent unprepared for the door to open. But that’s what happened. She was dripping onto my tile, but she was correct in guessing that I wouldn’t give a shit. Her body was prime and the kind of majesty that just doesn’t translate in my dirty books. She had a little red heart tattooed on her tiny, round hips and skinny legs with perfect skin that prickled in the slightly steamy atmosphere of my bathroom. I knew that those breasts had plenty of fingerprints on them, but I also knew they hadn’t been touched by someone who knew what he was doing. She mustered a smile and told me what I wanted to know. “Melody.”
I’m not going to stop being honest now. I wanted what she thought she wanted, too.
When I hadn’t talked for a while, she took my hand with her wet one and planted my hand on that sacred heart on her hip. “Did you want your reward?”
You can tell I’m telling the truth because I would have made up something better to have pretended to say. “Time was I would, but I guess I’m not a man anymore.” I still don’t know what that means.
She frowned at me and dropped my hand. She shut the door and finished her bath. When she got out, dry, in last night’s clothes, she told me she was still pretty fucked but wanted to go home. Her roommate would worry.
I took her home. She fiddled with the radio, stopping on 93Q or one of those other stations I can’t stand. I listened to the rumbling of my truck’s engine and thought about what I would tell her. We passed some small houses in a suburb that wasn’t as good as it was when I was growing up. Half the houses were filled with people who were working hard to improve themselves and the other half were coasting on what was earned in the past. From what I hear, one of the residents of the block is a singer from a 90s band who had a pretty big mid-life crisis and settled down with a single mom. In the end, the best advice doesn’t come from pretty words, but from a sincere heart.
“It’s right up here on the left. The green house.” Melody sighed hard and her breath fogged up the passenger side window. She saw it and drew a heart in the mist.
“You know, young lady. You have to believe you deserve what you really want. Even if it’s hard to settle for at first.” I put the truck in park.
She added an arrow at an angle through the heart. She ran her fingers through her still-wet hair. “How are we supposed to know what we want?”
“I don’t know.” My rough fingers tapped a beat on the cracked vinyl of the steering wheel. “It’s like doing construction. You can always cut a little more off a shingle or trim the side of a piece of drywall to make it fit. But once it’s gone, you can never put it back.”
With her head cocked to one side, it looked as though she were considering my well-intentioned advice. I wished her luck as she jumped out of the truck and slammed the door behind her. She jogged—didn’t walk to the green house with the bald spots on the lawn. She disappeared into the garage door.
I’ve thought a lot about how she’d never have someone turn down her offer in the future. I thought about her going with Luke again, even though it makes no sense for either of them. I didn’t check his accountability again. I gave that damn computer away to Elizabeth’s (three women ago) son. She wouldn’t have been too pleased to see me, but I knew the boy wanted a computer, so I left it on the stoop and beat feet.
I guess I should have called Luke right away to let him know shit was cool. But I didn’t. I saw him on a job two weeks later, and he approached me with a sheepish grin. He got the pleasantries out. “You’d have told me if something went wrong, I guessed.”
“I would have,” I said. I didn’t want him to know how pissed I was.
“We miss you down to Men’s Group,” he said. “Pastor asked about you.”
I squeezed the hammer on my belt. “I’m about through that. I’m doing better on my own.”
“Fair enough,” Luke chuckled.
“One thing,” I said. It must have got his attention because he squinted at me, wondering what was going to come. “Why me? How come you make friends with me? Asked me to be your accountability partner?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I guess I chose right.”
We said goodbye and good luck, and I thought about other things I’d do if I had the chance.
♥ End ♥
Kenneth Nichols received his MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State (Go Bucks!) and teaches playwriting at Oswego State and composition at Cayuga Community College in Central New York. His creative work is forthcoming or has appeared in Main Street Rag, theNewerYork, Crimespree Magazine, Suss, and Big Pulp. His nonfiction/incisive cultural criticism has appeared in print and online publications, including Skeptical Inquirer, Ohioana Quarterly, and PopMatters. He also reviews literary journals for NewPages and can be found at Great Writers Steal.
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