Authors: Steph Post
A Tree Born Crooked
By Steph Post
© 2014 by Steph Post
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pandamoon Publishing. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Jacket design and illustrations by Marc Sokolay and Zara Kramer © Pandamoon Publishing.
Pandamoon Publishing and the portrayal of a panda and a moon are registered trademarks of Pandamoon Publishing.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
For Ryan and Janet,
and for Hoss
Welcome to Sunny Florida!
A sunburnt man in a Crocodile Dundee hat poses in front of the Citrus Travel Shop. With one hand on his waist, the other raised and dangling a shellacked baby gator, the man in the postcard grins unnaturally and beckons the hapless tourist to come and visit beautiful Crystal Springs.
James turned the postcard over.
Your daddy’s dead.
You might want to
Come on home now.
There was a red smear on the bottom corner of the card that could either have been tomato sauce or blood. James figured it was most likely the sauce. There was no signature, but from the slanting and rounded letters, James knew who had sent it. Birdie Mae loved her Chef Boyardee.
The sun was low in the hazy sky and struck James directly in the eyes as it skimmed over the top of the bank of mailboxes. He squinted, then folded the postcard before shoving it into his pants pocket and reaching back into the narrow box to drag out the rest of his mail. He pulled out a flyer from the local Baptist church advertising their annual Presidents’ Day cookout, another overdue-bill notice addressed to the previous tenant, and a glossy circular with a buy-one-get-one-free hot dog coupon for 7-Eleven. James threw the flyer into the trashcan next to the mailboxes, where it joined a pile of identical pale green sheets of paper, and stuck the coupon onto the cork notice board next to ads for lawnmower repair and massage services. Someone would use it. He swung the little door to his mailbox shut and turned the key, pulling twice to yank it out. Taking the bill notice with him, he headed across the White Oleander trailer park to his singlewide.
James had only been living in the park for six months, but already he’d seen so many tenants come and go, he didn’t bother to learn their names or make acquaintances. He just waved back if they did first. A heavy man in tight jogging shorts and nothing else nodded to James from the plastic lawn chair he had set up in front of his trailer door. The man raised his beer can as he passed by, but James shook his head and kept walking. He could see the outline of a woman standing at the ripped screen door, and he had been assaulted by her ear piercing condemnations before. He did not want to be part of it this time.
Outside of James’ trailer, two boys were fighting over a yellow plastic tricycle. The younger one looked as if he had been socked in the face by the older one. James raised an eyebrow at the children and they quickly took off, dragging the tricycle between them. When James got to the steps, his neighbor’s Pomeranian rushed out from underneath the trailer and jumped between him and the door, yipping furiously. The dog’s fur was darkly matted all along one side of its tiny body. James knew better than to just step over it. He already had a rip in one pair of pants from trying that approach. Instead, James kicked one of the many nearby beer cans and the dog leapt off the steps to chase after it. He could hear the little dog’s teeth trying to puncture the aluminum as he closed the front door behind him.
James tossed the bill on the orange Formica counter next to the microwave and pulled the postcard out of his pocket. He bent it backwards to straighten it out and set it up against the coffee pot. He stared at it and then turned around and pulled a Budweiser out of the fridge. He twisted the cap off, flipped it into the brown plastic ashtray, sat down on the couch, and drank. Nothing in the trailer really belonged to James. The coffee table, the appliances in the coffin-sized kitchen, the sagging bed with the mattress still wrapped in plastic; all of it had been here when he moved in and would stay when he moved out. There was a television, but no cable, and over the stove hung framed prints of mushrooms, onions, and peppers all painted in browns and oranges and labeled in curling script, as if the viewer might forget what he was seeing if not reminded. The only real rooms in the trailer were the bedroom in the back and the bathroom with a stand-up shower stall: a place to eat, a place to sleep, a place to sit, and a place to piss. James didn’t need much more.
He finished the beer and went back into the kitchen. The postcard was still sitting there. James poked at the base of it and it fell over. He set it back up and straightened the angle it was leaning at before dumping his empty bottle into the sink and getting another. He walked the short length of the singlewide and sat down on the edge of the bed. He leaned over to pull off his boots, then stopped and took a swig of beer. James went back into the kitchen and looked at the postcard. It hadn’t moved. He tapped the bottom of the brown glass bottle against the edge of the countertop and took another drink. The postcard was still there. He turned around and rubbed his forehead back and forth with the palm of his callused hand. The last glimmer of evening sun was coming in through the smeared window over the sink, and in the fading light James could see the Pomeranian’s owner out in the street. She was talking to the guy with the motorcycle who had just moved in across the lane. She kept pulling at the hem of her red vinyl miniskirt as if trying to pull it down, but really just inching it up. The dog circled around her scuffed high heels and yapped. James pulled the blinds down on the window. He dropped the second bottle into the sink and turned around. Welcome to Sunny Florida! James opened the refrigerator again and then shut it. He glared at the card one last time before snatching it up and slipping it back in his pocket.
The screen door slammed behind him.
~ ~ ~
“Well, I know. And you ain’t gonna believe what she called me after that. Uh, huh. She did, I swear it. I know, right there in front of everybody.”
James crossed his arms and leaned against the warped doorframe. Shireen kept holding up her finger, motioning for him to hang on a second, but whatever lie she was telling must have been pretty good. Twice James had tried to walk out and twice she had pursed her lips together in a pout and then told whoever was on the other end of the line that she had to go. But she kept talking.
“Alright, but I really gotta go. No, somebody from the park. No, not like that. Are you seriously gonna ask me that again? Seriously? Well, if you don’t believe me, why don’t you just ride on over here and ask him? Oh really?”
James pushed himself away from the door and tossed the bill on the desk amidst a stack of
magazines, two open containers of hot-pink nail polish, and a scattering of mini candy bar wrappers. He smiled and turned to go. Shireen reached out and grabbed his wrist.
“Whatever. You do what you want. I’m hanging up. Yeah, if I feel like answering. Alright. Bye.”
She let go of James.
“Whew, honey. I am so sorry ‘bout that. I swear, sometimes I think God made men only for one thing. And half the time, that ain’t even good.”
“Well, God probably did his best with what he had to work with.”
Shireen leaned back in her rolling desk chair and lit a Capri cigarette. Only half of the nails on her left hand were painted. The others were an uneven, sickly yellow. She pulled a piece of dead skin from her bottom lip and studied it for a moment. Suddenly, she lifted her eyes up at James and grinned.
“Say, speaking of. Rent’s not due for another two weeks. There something else I can maybe help you with?”
“No thanks, Shireen. I’m not really in the mood.”
Shireen uncrossed, and then slowly re-crossed, her legs. James caught a flash of purple zebra print.
“I’ll give you a discount. Come on, first timers always get a discount. Why don’t you sit down and make yourself comfortable and we can have a little fun?”
James smiled, but did not sit down. Shireen sighed.
“Oh alright, fine.”
She sat up straight and began pushing around the mess on her desk. She screwed the cap back on one of the containers of nail polish and tapped it against the palm of her hand.
“That it? You come in here and got me all the way off the phone just to give me another piece of mail? Do you really think I forward these things on?”
“I don’t know. And no, I didn’t get you off the phone just for that. I came to tell you I’m leaving.”
Shireen had been about to open the nail polish again, but stopped. She set it down and cocked her head at him.
“I am. Got some place I gotta go to for a little while.”
“Want me to hold the place for you? I don’t mind, if you pay in advance.”
James poked at a run in the thin, industrial carpet with the toe of his boot.
“No. I don’t know when exactly I’ll be back.”
“You quitting over at Roy’s?”
“Yeah, I’ll tell ‘em tomorrow. They’ll be fine. Mechanics are a dime a dozen ‘round here. I plan on taking off Saturday.”
“You sure you ain’t want me to hold your place? If you just give me the money, I don’t mind.”
“I know. But think, this way you can keep my security deposit and get someone in there before the first of the month.”
Shireen considered this for a moment. She ran an unpainted fingernail through her brittle, bleached hair and pulled out a snag.
“Alright. This is mighty inconvenient, but if you gotta go, you gotta go.”
Shireen gave him one last sly look.
“Sure you don’t want to hang out a little while? I think I got some beer in the mini fridge. We could party a little.”
James raised his eyebrows.
“I’m good, Shireen. You take care of yourself.”
“You too. And honey, can you pull the chain on your way out? I got someone coming over in a little while and I don’t need no more good Samaritans dropping by with mail.”
He snapped the chain as he left and the pink neon glow disappeared from the window. James walked slowly back to his trailer, intending to sleep. Instead, he spent the whole night staring up at the water stains on the ceiling and wondering what the hell he was getting himself into.
~ ~ ~
James used his knee to steer the wheel of his pickup truck while he crumpled up a greasy A&W hamburger wrapper and tossed it to the passenger-side floorboard. He corrected the wheel and then reached up onto the cracked vinyl dash for a soft pack of Marlboros and a lighter. He lit the cigarette, only halfway watching the road, and inhaled. He rested his hand lightly on the wheel and set his elbow out the open window. Sliding down into the seat, he relaxed and got comfortable. He only had ninety more miles to go and he wanted to enjoy them.
The battered 1975 Ford F-250 raced along the subtle curves of Highway 301. Even though James was not in a hurry, he always drove at least ten over the limit. If the sign read 50, his foot automatically pushed the gas to 60. His truck was more beat-up than it should have been for its years. The original color had been baby blue, but by now it was so faded and scratched that it was more of a pale gray. The entire driver’s side panel had been replaced with a rust chewed piece that bordered on having no paint at all. Jealous boyfriends had keyed it down the side more than once, and the tailgate was tenuously held on by bungee cords. Empty tall boys rolled and clattered along the bed whenever it came to a stop, and the inside was no cleaner: slimy beef jerky wrappers, scratched off lottery tickets, and wax paper fast-food cups littered the floorboard. A piece of hard, yellow foam stuck out from a tear in the seam of the maroon bench seat. The whole interior smelled like cigarette butts and dried sweat. It was his baby.
James twisted the radio dial as far as it would go in either direction and found only one station that wasn’t mostly static. After an advertisement for “no down payments” at Vick’s Used Cars, a man’s voice came on and told listeners to repent now or forever burn in the sewers of hell. James clicked the radio off. He would wait until he got closer to Starke and try again.
James was a man who looked both older and younger than his thirty-six years. His hands, with scarred knuckles and smashed nails from years of working on cars for a living, added a good ten years onto his age. His smile was that of a flustered teenager. It was his eyes that were confusing to most, though. They were gray, sometimes green, sometimes darker, and could go from gentle to malicious in the span of a breath. The crow’s feet, stubble on his cheeks, and unkempt, short brown hair led many to believe that he was worn out, done in, and just didn’t care anymore. It was true; he didn’t care most of the time, but worn out he was certainly not. With a few shots of Beam, and an insult from three stools down, James could have his fists out before the other man even set his glass down. He was a good listener, but a better fighter, and many an unfortunate drunk had mistaken his disheveled appearance for weakness.
The early afternoon sun flashed off the green highway sign for Starke and James let off the gas. He had already received more than his fair share of speeding tickets in the innocent little town. If the traffic was slow, a local cop had no problem getting on a car’s tail and waiting for it to drift one mile over the speed limit. Aside from the occasional pot-smoking teenager, there wasn’t much action in Starke and tagging speeders kept the police awake and paid. With one eye always on the rearview mirror, James kept his speed steady and tried the radio again. The evangelical was still preaching about money and brimstone, but after running through the stations again, James found some Willie Nelson and left it alone. He was trying to keep his mind on something other than where he was going, and as soon as his truck cleared the city line he floored it, hoping that it would help. It didn’t.
James hadn’t been back to Crystal Springs in a little over three years. He called home every Christmas and April 22nd, his mama’s birthday, but that was about it. The last time he’d been home it was for his cousin Janie’s wedding and he had only stayed the night. Birdie Mae had given him grief for the first few years after he had left home at nineteen, but she had gradually gotten used to it. It just became the way things were; James had left town and everybody else stayed on. Whenever he spoke to her, though, Birdie Mae never missed a chance to get in a dig about how it had done him no good to leave Crystal Springs. According to her, all the folks back home were just having a party all the time and he was missing out on the fun. Everyone was having babies, getting married, getting married to better wives or husbands than the first ones, starting their own businesses, making lots of cash, and being down right successful for Alachua County. And what was James doing? Oh, that’s right. Nothing. This was generally about the time James said that he had to go do something important and hung up the phone.
His father had been different, though. Orville never spoke to James when he called. They never had more than a thirty-minute conversation in the front yard when he visited, leaning against the tailgates and kicking the tires of each other’s trucks as they discussed transmissions, exhaust pipes, and spark plugs. When he was a year out of high school, and James told his family that he was packing his bags and driving out to Phoenix East Aviation in Daytona Beach to learn to be a pilot, his daddy had been the only one who told him to go for it. Everyone else was disgusted with him, but the night before James left, Orville took him out to the citrus grove behind their trailer. James was expecting a sermon. He had already gotten an earful from Birdie Mae: he was selfish, shady, and unreliable. He was forsaking the family business and leaving his kinfolk without extra help. He was gallivanting off on the heels of the devil, and could he really be so stupid? Orville didn’t say much, though. He commented on the clear night, on the stars, on the rose beetles eating into the tangerine and grapefruit leaves. He carried a shovel, and when they got to the edge of the property, he pointed to a spot on the moonlit ground and told James to start digging. About two feet down, the metal struck glass and James lifted out a dirty mason jar with a rusted lid. Orville told James to fill the hole in and put the jar in his truck before he went back into the trailer. When James got to Daytona, he hauled the jar out from under the driver’s seat and pried off the lid with a screwdriver. James counted it out to be just shy of a thousand dollars, all in wadded up fives and twenties. That was Orville.
The last time James had seen him they had talked about football. Crystal Springs High versus Newberry. The rivalry between the Tigers and Panthers went back to Orville’s time when he had rushed eighty-seven yards to win the last game of the 1951 season. A framed newspaper clipping of a ring of teenage boys holding Orville up on their shoulders occupied a special place behind the cash register on the back wall of the Citrus Shop. The yearly high school contention was one of the few things to celebrate in Crystal Springs and, especially around November, it became a topic of serious discussion and fuel for numerous parking lot fights. Crystal Springs High had come out on top James’ senior year, but not because of him. He had spent the last half of the season on the bench with a torn hamstring. It had been a disappointment for Orville, but he had tried hard not to show it.
Still, even if he hadn’t been the best cornerback in his playing days, there was no getting away from being a Tigers fan in his household. James hadn’t known any of the players they were talking about on the last night that he had seen his daddy, though Orville had updated him on each boy’s stats and potential, but it had still been good to just shoot the breeze and laugh. That night, Janie’s front yard had been crowded with relatives and family friends, all getting wasted because the father of Janie’s two little girls had finally given in and married her. Neither of the newlyweds had seemed as excited as the rest of the crowd enjoying the free Pabst Blue Ribbon. Janie had spent most of the evening fighting with her sisters, still in their teal bridesmaid dresses, and the groom had puked up a whole bottle of Rebel Yell before passing out behind the lawnmower shed.
James remembered that Janie’s girls had run circles around himself and Orville, waving sparklers and writing their names in the air with the glowing streams, until the younger one stepped her bare foot into a patch of sandspurs and started howling. Orville had picked the little girl up, swinging her by her armpits, and sat her on the open tailgate of his truck. While James made silly faces at her, Orville had gently pulled the sandspurs out of her tiny foot. Even before Orville was finished, the girl was laughing and squirming to get down and chase her sister. By the time James had picked his PBR back up, Birdie Mae was calling Orville over to the patio grill, screeching something about letting the coals go out and a dozen hot dogs sitting right there, waiting to go on. Orville had winked at his son before tossing his empty beer can into the bed of the truck and heading back to the grill.
James had watched his daddy, yelling back at Birdie Mae, pointing to the plate of dogs and buns, then at a cousin across the yard. Birdie Mae was waving a barbeque fork in his face and then tried to take a swing at his backside with it. Orville grabbed it out of her hand, grinning, and danced away from her. Birdie Mae’s hands were on her hips and she was trying hard not to smile back at him. James watched Orville let her have the fork back and then raise his arm to someone who was getting ready to leave. Orville had glanced for a moment back over at James, leaning alone against the side of the pickup, then had turned and walked away to say goodbye to his friend. James wished that he had come back to talk about football, about the weather, about anything. Somehow, they didn’t get a chance to speak the rest of the night, especially after Orville’s brother Cordie showed up with a jar of shine. When James had left in the morning, Orville was nursing a hangover and couldn’t get out of bed to say goodbye. The last clear memory that James had of his father was of Orville’s hands tenderly cupping the little girl’s foot and drawing the pain away from her.
~ ~ ~
James slipped the nozzle into the gas tank and flipped the catch on the pump. He leaned back against the side of his truck and watched the numbers on the gas pump slowly rise. He squinted toward the west, noting that the sun still had a few more hours to go. James looked back at the numbers flashing and set his jaw before reaching into his hip pocket and pulling out his cell phone to dial a number he knew by heart. He ground his teeth and waited. The line rang five times and then a voice, young and bored, answered.
“Crystal Springs Citrus Travel Shop.”
James unclenched his jaw.
“Who is this?”
“What’d you mean, who’s this? This is Lila. Who the hell is this?”
“Is that how you always answer the phone?”
The girl on the other end of the line huffed.
“Mister, you better tell me who you are.”
There was silence for a moment, as the teenage girl tried to decide if she should know who he was or not. It didn’t take her long.
“Well, what’s that supposed to mean? You some kinda perv? You the guy been sitting in that piece of shit Cadillac ‘cross the street all afternoon? If you are, I swear to God I’m gonna call the cops soon as I hang up, so you’d just better start your engine and get the—”
James cut her off.
“I’m Birdie Mae’s son.”
More silence and thinking. James watched the numbers on the gas pump and waited.
“Well, what’d you want?”
James turned around and kicked the fender of his truck. The right back hubcap was scuffed all around the edges and the tire could use some air. James gripped the edge of the truck bed with his free hand, leaning back and holding himself up.
“Where’s she at?”
“Went home early. I’m in charge. She leaves me in charge all the time. I got keys and everything.”
“Good for you.”
James scratched at a flake of gray paint with his thumbnail.
“Want me to tell her you called or something?”
He peeled off a thin strip of paint and then rubbed at the bare spot beneath with his thumb. There was an awkward silence before the girl responded.
James flipped the phone down and held it in his palm. He could still call Birdie Mae’s home phone. He flipped the phone open again, then snapped it shut. Screw it. The nozzle clicked off and James pulled it out and hung it back on the gas pump. He got in his truck and drove west.
~ ~ ~
Crystal Springs, population six thousand on a good day, hadn’t changed much over the past thirty years. It wasn’t that it was a town stuck in the past; it just didn’t know what to do in the present. The town’s single claim to fame was that Elvis Presley had once spent the weekend there on his way to Orlando. The motel where he had stayed, the Sweet Dreams Lodge, still charged extra for tourists to rent out the room he had slept in, but no one came to Crystal Springs because of Elvis. The town was a place to pass through. On the route from Gainesville to Lake City, college kids and exhausted tourists stopped to get gas, eat a quick meal, and buy some cheap souvenirs. Most didn’t stay through the night.
“Can’t you guess? He blew himself up. And three tangerine trees back there, too. The fire truck even showed up.”
James’ eyes were wide. He gripped the corduroy armrests, digging his nails into the upholstery.
“Not that it did no good. Still lost them trees. And your daddy, too. Ambulance men said he was gone in a second. Not a whole lot of pain, considering. I guess there’s something to be thankful for.”
James leaned forward until he was at the very edge of his seat.
“Are you trying to tell me that his oxygen tank caught fire?”
“Isn’t that what I just got done saying? Jesus. It were really more of an explosion, though. Neighbors said they could hear the boom all the way down the road. It were a pretty big fireball. They said he must’a turned the knob too high or something. Said something ‘bout maybe he were feeling out of breath and didn’t pay no attention to the numbers. Maybe he had been drinking too much. Doctor warned him ‘bout trying to smoke ‘round that damn thing. Orville just wouldn’t listen to nobody.”
James stared at Birdie Mae with his mouth open. He had been expecting to hear about a heart attack or a car accident. Who the hell blows themselves up in the middle of a tangerine grove? His daddy, that’s who. James got up quickly and walked into the kitchen. There was still no beer. He stopped in the middle of the linoleum and put his hands into his hair. He pulled for a second and then let go.
“When’s the funeral?”
He hadn’t turned around, so he couldn’t see Birdie when she answered. For that, she was grateful.
“Two weeks ago.”
Her voice was flat. Not apologetic, not anything. He whirled around, incredulous, but she eyed him back with a blank stare. Her cigarette had gone out in the ashtray. He took two long strides toward her, unsure what he was going to say. What he was going to do. Birdie Mae’s pink lips began to part, but before any sound could come out, the trailer door rattled open. He twisted his head, still incensed, and was prepared to let loose a fury on whoever dared to interrupt him, but the face his eyes met changed everything. James’ breath caught in his throat as a man banged through the door and stomped his dirty Converse sneakers on the flowered welcome mat.
“Mama, did you know there’s a piece a shit truck parked out front that looks just like—”
He froze when he looked up from his shoes and saw James, but it only took him a second to recover.
“Whew-eee! Look what the cat dragged in. Been wondering when you was gonna show up.”
James narrowed his eyes.
~ ~ ~
“Weren’t a bad ceremony, really. Most folks said it were real nice.”
James grunted, but didn’t say anything. He dug the toe of his boot into the dirt, uncovering small rocks and tiny snail shells. He took a drink from the plastic bottle of vodka and handed it back. James let Rabbit prattle on while he took the opportunity to get a good look at his younger brother. Ezra Hart was three years behind James and at least a good three inches shorter. In photographs, people could tell that they were related, they had sort of the same bone structure in the face, but side-by-side in real life they looked nothing alike. Rabbit was pale, his skin almost completely devoid of color, with white blond hair and small eyes set too close together. He had long, ghostly eyelashes that blinked constantly. His eyes alone would have been enough to earn him his nickname, but on top of always blinking, he couldn’t sit still to save his life. He was forever fidgeting, picking things up and setting them back down, shifting from one foot to the other, always in motion. Even in his sleep, some part of him would be twitching. When he was four, Orville had said that he looked as nervous as a wild rabbit in a field full of hunting dogs. The name stuck.
Despite his small size and skinny frame, Rabbit had been a much better football player than James and never let him forget it. Though not quite living up to Orville’s fame, Rabbit had been MVP of the high school team three years in a row. He was fast and quick, feet always dancing beneath him, eyes always searching the field. He was the starting quarterback his sophomore year and those last three years of high school were the best of his life. He was popular, had girls all over him, and his teachers looked the other way and passed him so he could stay on the team. Most importantly, his older brother had left town and his cousin Delmore had just landed in the state pen. He was the only Hart boy who really mattered around Crystal Springs then, and he had relished it.
After high school, Rabbit had planned on being a Gator and playing for UF. He hadn’t won any football scholarships, but still thought he had a chance of making it in the big leagues one day. He drove over to Newberry on a Saturday and took the SAT, but did so poorly that he had to rethink things. His guidance counselor at Crystal Springs High, knowing Rabbit’s true academic potential, hadn’t wanted to break his heart by explaining how getting into college really worked. The counselor had neglected to tell Rabbit that he had to be smart to go to college. A buddy from school was going to Alachua Community College, so Rabbit signed up, hoping to move on to the University in the spring. After realizing, though, that he didn’t stand even a chance of passing Math for Morons or Literature for the Illiterate, Rabbit gave up on his football dreams. Fifteen years later, the bitterness, and vague sense of being cheated out of his future, still lingered, eating him up inside.
“I thought it were right nice, myself. Course, it were a closed casket and all. They couldn’t show what he looked like on account there weren’t too much left, but there was white flowers all over the box. Mama fixed it up so it looked okay.”
“And yet, somehow she didn’t get around to calling me.”
“Now, I don’t know nothing ‘bout all that.”
Rabbit stood up from the back steps of Birdie Mae’s trailer, passed the bottle back to James, and walked out into the yard to take a leak. He had come by to see if his mama could lend him fifty bucks, just for a couple of days, of course, and hadn’t been sure what to do or say when he found James standing in the middle of Birdie Mae’s trailer with a look on his face like he was about to spit nails. He and James had stood staring at each other for a moment before Birdie Mae took advantage of the opportunity and told Rabbit to take James on outside and catch up for a little while. Birdie Mae could have told Rabbit to go jump off the Highway 27 bridge and he would have done it, so he just shrugged his shoulders and went through the trailer to the back door, stopping in the kitchen to pull the plastic bottle of vodka out of the back corner of one of the bottom cabinets. Even though he didn’t live there anymore, he always knew where the liquor was hidden. James had no intention of going to catch up with Rabbit, but Birdie Mae had already taken up the remote and the television was back on, the obnoxious laugh track blaring. James tried to step in front of the television, but Birdie Mae had her mouth set and her eyes away from him. She was done. He wanted to kick in the screen of her beloved black box, but checked himself. He wasn’t going to get the answers he wanted that way. And he really needed a drink.
“You didn’t think maybe to ask Mama to try a little harder? Or tried calling me yourself?”
James took another swallow and squeezed the plastic in his hand. Rabbit was still pissing off in the darkness.
“I mean, for Chrissakes, Rabbit. Daddy dies and no one gets around to calling me? It’s too goddamn inconvenient for everyone?”
“Whoa there, buddy.”
Rabbit came back toward the steps and the edge of light from the trailer windows crept up his jeans as he zipped them. James couldn’t stop himself.
“He was my daddy, too. And it’s all real nice that you had a beautiful funeral and everything was so goddamn pretty and all, but he was my daddy, too. And none of you assholes seem to have remembered that.”
Rabbit took the bottle from James’ shaking hand and stepped back away from him. In the yellow light, his eyes appeared almost translucent.
“I wouldn’t open that can a worms if I was you, ‘less you was ready to eat it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
James stood up and Rabbit took another step backward, his eyes darting back and forth between James and the trailer windows. He shifted his feet, leaning his weight from side to side, and tried to change the subject.
“You know where you staying tonight?”
James took a step closer.
“What was that supposed to mean, Rabbit?”
James wanted nothing more than to tear someone apart right then and there. Rabbit knew it. He had seen the look in James’ eyes all through their childhood. Rabbit liked to run and James liked to fight. Rabbit would rather talk it out, make an excuse, buy someone a drink, whereas James would rather just hit something and walk away. It had been years since the two brothers had come to blows, but it always played out the same. James usually ended it after one punch. Out of pity.
“It just means, well, come on, man. You can’t blame everybody else all the time.”
Rabbit took a step back and James followed him.
“Who are you suggesting that I blame, then?”
Rabbit stepped back one more time. He was now almost completely in the darkness. For a moment, it felt like they were kids again, ready to duke it out over who called who a retard first. Rabbit always tried to get a word in and run before James could swing.
Rabbit had one foot behind him, ready, but he didn’t have to worry. The light went out of James’ eyes. It took a second, but James slowly loosened his fists. He stared at his brother for a moment, anxious in the shadows, and turned away. He started walking around the trailer. Rabbit relaxed.
“Wait, where you going? Are you leaving?”
James didn’t stop walking.
“This place? Tonight? Yes.”
Rabbit followed him and stood outside James’ truck as he got in. Rabbit winced when the door slammed.
“You got someplace to stay? You can stay with me at Delmore’s if you want. It’s just out past Beggar’s Creek. We got a real sweet set-up out there.”
James turned the key and revved the engine. He looked in his rearview mirror, away from Rabbit.
He put the truck in reverse.
“Well, how ‘bout I give you my number? I got one of them prepaid phones now, so my number’s changing all the time. We can get breakfast tomorrow or something.”
“I’m not much for breakfast.”
Rabbit held onto the truck’s open window and tried to put his foot on the running board. James stepped on the gas for a second and the truck jerked backwards.
“Hey, yeah, me neither. Never really understood things like waffles and shit. Too much syrup. Likes me some eggs, though.”
James stuck his head out of the window and looked at his brother, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt in the headlights.
“You got something else you want to say?”
Rabbit looked up, flinching against the glare.
“No. Just, if you’re still in town tomorrow night, well, it’ll be Sunday. I usually go up to The Blue Diamond for karaoke and they got a pretty good wing special, too. You can get a whole basket for, like, three dollars. If you’re still ‘round, stop by. I’ll buy you a beer. And some wings, if you want some. They’re good. Messy, but got a good heat, you know? I’ll buy you a basket.”
James wanted to say that he would think about it, but didn’t. He looked in the rearview mirror and hit the gas. He left his brother standing in the dark.
James pushed the empty Budweiser bottle off the coaster.
James nodded to the bartender, an older man who looked vaguely familiar. He didn’t seem to recognize James, so he assumed the man wasn’t a friend of Orville’s. Maybe he was just someone from around town, a fellow who had become part of the landscape itself, as much a piece of downtown Crystal Springs as the cracked sidewalks and bad parking. James had already encountered many faces that gave him the same feeling.
The heavy woman with a leathery face and thin, lizard lips who had checked him into the Sweet Dreams Lodge the night before had said hello to him as if she recognized him, but then couldn’t remember his name. James felt that she might have been the mother of someone he had gone to school with, but he wasn’t sure. The way she slowly dragged her arm across the counter to reach him his key, as if even moving her muscles would be too much for her to be expected to do, recalled in his mind someone’s mother passing him a paper plate of chicken nuggets across a Formica dining room table. Aside from the motel clerk, the only other person he had encountered last night was a strung-out truck driver who accosted him at the ice machine. The man was clearly just passing through town and had no idea who James was, but had still done his best to convince James to come back to his room and get high. The truck driver had seemed offended when he declined, but left him alone. When James returned to his own room, he had turned on the television to one of twenty random channels and fallen asleep with his boots still on and the unused bucket of ice melting on the sink counter. He had slept for twelve hours.