Whiskey (a novel in stories)
He glanced up and saw her dry lips open a bit, whispering, he thought. He bent to hear. Her breath wet his face. She stroked the fleshy underpart of his jaw, then his throat. His blood circled beneath her fingers, his air passed. She was making herself like them.
Pork slanted his head to accommodate hers. He shut his eyes as her mouth descended. She kissed him, tenderly and for a good while then took a breath and clobbered him with her mouth hard and wounded his lip, which was little enough to pay for such a kiss. He pressed on, but she drew herself back. Her lips were rosy with his blood.
“You take it, but you won’t dish it out,” she told him. “That’s your problem.”
The flashlight beam crossed the dumpster Andre had stowed himself behind, then found him. He hoisted his hands and stood, legs aching from the tight place.
“What are you surrendering over?” the cop asked. He’d been two years behind Andre in high school. Answering to him seemed one more injustice.
“You decide,” Andre said. “I’m not up to an argument.” The cop waved the beam across him. In the light, Andre’s bloody hands looked only pale and dirty.
“You know the woman in that house?”
The cop wagged his light at Andre’s cleft scalp. “She does that?”
After dark, he’d sunk himself into the alley’s shadows, where he could view Claire through her front window. He’d unwrapped a meatloaf sandwich for his dinner and ate, comfortable, until she gully-whomped him with a four-foot icicle. He recalled feeling stunned, then not, as her soap smell passed, a scent so simple it seemed impossible.
The cop saw no need to cuff him nor offer Miranda. He’d not even made a successful crime of it. Claire opened the door, pouring oily light onto the frozen yard. She proceeded in her slippers directly to them, looking more angry than afraid, which demoralized Andre further.
“He’s bleeding,” she said.
A pint was what the blood bank drew and Andre guessed he’d leaked nothing less. It warmed his cheek but froze his hair. The light glinted in Claire’s eyes then went different as she recognized him.
“You,” she said.
“You deserved to be hit.”
“I know it.”
The cop didn’t move. He was enjoying himself.
Claire’s brow creased and she blinked.
“Head wound,” Andre told her. “They always bleed worse than they are.”
Andre met her when he was, of all things, sober. They both taught in the primary school and Claire had lurched into him in the hall her first day. On the top of her binder, she’d scrawled her name. He’d never known a female to have such poor handwriting. She was new, and occasionally would ask him about reporting attendance or handling milk money. The third week, they sorted through a playground row together. At lunch that afternoon, Claire put herself at his table and made a pass at conversation. Behind her was a long window and Andre’s reflection. He was an ugly man. It left him little to say.
Faculty meetings, though, he began arriving after he was sure she was seated, risking his principal’s ire to seat himself behind and across from her. Making notes, she used pencil but never erased, just crossed through words and wrote on. Her mouth whispered when she read handouts, a practice common to reading teachers. She was thin in places where it counted for a woman and in places it counted against one, too. Her high cheekbones and narrow jaw pinched her mouth a pretty way when she spoke, though, and her nose kept out of the way, which was the best that could be said of any nose. Chestnut hair hung to her shoulders. It curled when she used an iron and hung straight and parted in the middle when she didn’t. She was fine either way; he wished he could tell her so and save her the trouble.
Nights, when he’d get himself far enough into the bag, he’d press his hands together like they were praying, then undo them slowly until his palms separated and he could conjure her face shape between them. He’d seen prettier women, but none that made him hurt so clearly for a life other than his own.
After the solstice had greyed the evening light, he’d trailed her up Roosevelt Hill to her duplex a half mile behind the school. She studied themes while she hiked the incline, chewing a red pencil between marking, and didn’t stray from the chore, even unlocking her door.
The dull sky was spitting snow, but Andre lingered outside until she stopped at the window to gaze at the lights of a passing car. She had changed into a t-shirt and sweat pants. Her hands went to her hair and roughed it like maybe she’d had a nap or been stirred from a book, and, though he’d imagined taking a long look and enjoying her at his leisure, seeing pressed him a step back and dropped his head into his jacket and pitched his eyes down the hill where the house roofs below looked like geometry colliding.
The cop signed Andre in at the emergency desk, and, seeing the wait, suggested he remember his manners and departed without citing him. An hour after, the doctor sewed fifteen stitches into one of Andre’s eyebrows, then sheared half his scalp so he could knit twenty more. Andre listened to him work and contemplated the four miles home. There was family he could phone, but only after assembling a tale justifying his wounds. By the time he pushed the exit door, he’d narrowed it to brawling Californians or crossing the street and getting creased by a slow-moving four-by-four.
He squinted up the sidewalk, considering whether to walk to his truck at the school. The light was out so he saw only a shadow of Claire until she’d closed the distance, ruining any escape. He considered returning to the lobby where there might be witnesses.
“Should I be flattered?” she asked him. “Or were you just in it for an eyeful?”
Andre tested the stitches with his fingers, then bent to make a snowpack for the wound, but the cold ached him like a bad tooth. “I hope you’re not armed,” he said.
She undid her pants pockets to show him, but there was still the coat, so Andre steadied his feet and set off in a lope toward town. Twenty yards and the frozen sidewalk put him on all fours. From behind, Claire hooked his elbow with her hand and steered him upright.
“I’ll see you home,” she said.
In her car, he pointed toward his trailer court, but she headed them to a market, where she bought tall coffees, which left Andre the prospect of bearing his wound and embarrassment both awake and sober. Claire dipped her face into her coffee cup, while Andre waited for the cream to cool his own.
“Our first date,” she said.
“This isn’t a date,” he told her.
“Because if it was, I’d be worried about getting kissed at the end of it.”
Claire arched an eyebrow at him and winked. She had to bend across the emergency brake and ash tray. Their lips clobbered and Andre lost a good share of his coffee in his lap. Scalded, his legs straightened and his wounded scalp scuffed the roof.
Andre clamped his eyes shut, worried he’d cry or swear, and Claire retreated under the steering wheel. She tipped herself over her legs, hands latching her knees. A long hair clung to her ring finger. It twisted in the heater’s blowing. The window light flickered brown and gold upon it. He lifted his hand for it. She hurried hers farther into her lap. His empty palm lay open until she changed horses and filled it with her own, which was so perplexing he himself drew back.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not accustomed.”
“Me neither,” Claire told him. “Don’t think I am. Please.”
The market lights made the snow more starry than the sky.
“I’ll think whatever you want me to,” Andre said.
Claire fidgeted her coffee top and slipped the straw through it. “What does that mean?”
“Means I never saw you naked.”
Her hands gripped the steering wheel, then let loose.
“I went home early. Before eight always.” He rubbed his itching stitches.
“You scared me is all.” Claire turned toward him, and started her hand for his split hairline. He winced and it quit halfway between them. He wanted her to finish it, to doctor him.
“I used to pinch my brothers until they’d bleed,” she said quietly. “I guess I got my mean streak back.” She smiled and returned her hand to the shifter ball. Her fingers tapped her thumb around it. “What are you going to say?” she asked.
“I’ve got no couth. That’s plain to see.”
“I meant to others.”
“Lie seems more convenient than the truth unless you’re going to argue.”
She smiled. Her teeth were straight but bent inward in the manner that old ladies claimed came from keeping on the tit too long.
“You spied on me in school,” she said. “I didn’t know about the other.”
“I guess I’m none too sly.”
“Someone else pointed it out to me.”
“Stack Edwards.” He was in charge of P.E. and wore T-shirts, even winter. Andre hadn’t seen them as much as sit together.
She took his hand, then raised them both.
“He didn’t like public displays of affection.”
They were quiet awhile. “Who chased who off?” he asked finally.
“Me,” she said. “It’s the first time since grade school I wasn’t the one left crying.”
Their coffee was gone and Andre went to refill the cups. The Williams girl tending the till had a gabby bent and the line went three deep. When he returned to the car, Claire’s eyes were closed and her head rested against the window glass. He stood above her car window, cups held out. The temperature had settled near zero, a hard freeze that would leave farmers axing creek beds to water their stock and everyone with a basement thawing pipes. Breathing stung and walking sounded like a sawyer’s sawing.
A yellow labrador mongrel crossed the highway in the streetlight. She sniffed the ground. Her ribs fluttered with her breaths. For a moment she raised her head, then circled wide into the darkness, keeping sideways to watch him. Andre set the coffees on the car top and returned to the grocery. Inside he paid for a handful of jerky, then fished five long straps from the jar.
They kept the dumpster within reach of the back door. The dog was leaping at the cover, its claws scraping the metal, the sound doubling in the stillness. When Andre closed the door, she paused, then backed from the light. Andre skidded a jerky piece across the snow. The dog halted with the scent. She inched herself to the meat and ate. He threw out the rest, each closer to him than the next, until she was at his feet.
The dog stared at him, waiting for more food. He held out his hands and she sniffed, then licked them clean. Above, the night was as clear as he’d ever seen it. His father had shown him the constellations a few times as a child, but he rarely could recall how they were situated. It’d been years since he’d even looked. He found Orion’s belt, though, and the rest of him, and both the bears, and Cassiopeia and Andromeda and Perseus, as well as the twins, Castor and Pollux. A piece of him knew Claire would be asleep in the warmed car when he returned and it would be as if he’d never left her, while another remained just as certain she’d be off as if what had happened had not.
She awoke an hour later, his shoulder pillowing her cheek. He watched her turn on it and, saw the wet line her mouth left against his sleeve, then felt it cool his skin.
“Your coffee’s bad,” he told her. “You want more?”
Claire shook her head. “It keeps me awake, as you can attest to.” She yawned. “Do you see anyone?” she asked him.
“Just the doctor there when I’m down with something.”
“To date, I mean.”
Andre pointed to the cars two miles below them inching across the reservation highway. “That’s the road to the old man’s place.”
“Your father Indian?” she asked him.
“Used to be,” Andre said.
“Did he pass away?”
“No. Just stopped drinking.”
He piled the two empty cups on the floor into his own, then stuffed them with the napkins left.
“You do,” Claire said.
Andre laughed. Claire wrapped herself in the arms of her jacket.
“Why are you cleaning my car, if not to go?”
“I told him to shove off because of your watching,” Claire said. She dipped her shoulders under her coat, then offered her hand to shake and make an end of it. Andre took it. Her skin was smooth as when he first touched it and his as thick. Her words were all he’d had of a woman’s voice outside grocery checkers and barmaids in two years, and the kiss his first not inflicted by alcohol or mistletoe since middle school. He worried he’d remain the same man as before, stitches and blood excepted.
The wadded napkins had unfolded looking like a petaled flower on the cup’s edges, their slumping middle soaked with the dregs. He undid one and let it float to the carpet, then another, until she joined him, and soon the floor was cluttered with the mess, along with other scraps they’d rummaged from under the seats and plastic shifter cover, until they were both laughing.
After a time, Andre returned inside for fresh coffee. In the bathroom, he turned the water hot, then clamped his eyes shut and scoured his face near bloody with the powdered soap, and looked again. Once, he had scored eighteen points in a basketball playoff, yet, near the game’s end stood at the free throw line, certain he would miss. In the second before he pressed the shot forward and watched it careen off the rim, everything about him came clear and he understood that he’d come to the boundary of himself and would progress no farther.
Next to the restrooms was the back door and he used it again, first swapping the two coffees for a six pack of stout to stoke him through the walk. A new checker was on, and he stared at Andre’s head.
Andre didn’t answer. He’d forgotten those injuries in the light of others, old as his name. Outside, the dog looked at him, hopeful. Andre opened a can and ignored her. He filled his pockets with the rest, then lit out across a field for a road that led to another that led to his house and the liquor there.
Andre stood in the dark living room of his mother’s trailer while the headlight beams sprayed him with light. They were supposed to move her at eight. Smoker, his brother, had scrounged a racked one ton for the job. All that she had cluttered the floor, grocery store boxes with odds and ends: her shot glass collection, ancient encyclopedias, worn winter coats losing their ticking. The truck door slammed and Smoker’s breath fog swam in the night air outside. He opened the trailer without knocking.
“What’re you doing in the dark?” His hand felt for the switch.
“Don’t,” Andre said.
She was nearly finished when Andre found her. There was no note. Explanation, like endearments and apologies, was a rider she’d thrown long ago.
Smoker stopped in the window’s light. His profile was not the broad Nez Perce dish so familiar on the Colville Reservation. Instead, he was sharp-featured, what white folks called rakish. His looks sneaked in from their mother’s French blood. He blew out a breath.
Andre said nothing. Smoker lit a cigarette. “She never mentioned feeling ill.”
“She wasn’t from what I could gather.”
“That old snub .32.”
“Jesus. In the head?”
“Didn’t want to go ugly, I imagine.” Smoker said. He made a try at laughing. “I hope she was drunk.”
“Bottle’s on the end table.”
Smoker found his way through the dark, then lifted the bottle and took a long pull. “Damn, this is her holiday jug.” Andre could hear the whiskey against the glass. He hadn’t drank in eight months, and had just come to where he could enjoy his sobriety a little. Smoker’d let him alone about it, but his mother took him not drinking like a hard slap.
“Least she didn’t leave a big mess to clean,” Andre said finally.
“Yep, that’s Mom. Thinking of us till the end.”
“How do you know she wasn’t?”
“Same way you do. I seen her raise me.”
“Christ, she’s dead. I’d guessed you’d let her off the hook this once,” Andre said. Smoker lit another cigarette. Their mother lay on the sofa behind him. Her face appeared and vanished in the match flash.
“Wouldn’t be the first time you were wrong,” Smoker said. “You call the old man?”
“Phone here’s disconnected. I haven’t even called the police.”
Smoker drank again, then rolled the bottle across the floor to Andre.
“You see this coming?”
Andre lifted the bottle by the neck, enjoying the liquid weight in the glass. He uncapped it and smelled.
“She’s over there,” Andre said.
“I don’t want to see her. You gonna answer?”
Andre said. “I guessed.”
The last month she’d tended the horses and meandered their father’s ranch in a bumperless pick-up. She’d always hated the place. When the old man inherited it, she made him lease the ground and let the house go vacant. Years later he set up housekeeping there despite her, and she’d filed papers. Over the years they had watched their father in his middle years put on age like a coat that kept out the wild weather of his youth, and they watched their mother shuck that same jacket off nearly every day.
They’d been divorced twelve years, but he took her in all the same. He’d got her fishing even some evenings. Andre and Smoker straggled along if Smoker could get his dinner quick enough at Crazy Eddie’s Tavern and if Andre didn’t have too many junior high math papers to correct. No one said much, but Andre knew she’d turned up some road strange to her. She wasn’t a worrier, but she rested those cool days on the gravel banks and studied the current like it was sketching out pictures, though not the right ones.
“You never said nothing,” Smoker said. He drank, then put the bottle in his lap. Andre reached for his turn with it, but Smoker kept it back.
“You never said anything, either,” Andre told him.
“From me it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Smoker surrendered the whiskey. Andre closed his eyes and drank and the feeling of liquor was on him again, more certain than anything would be in his life. The past year, five days before Christmas, he’d married. The church, dolled up with holiday trimmings, made it a fine affair, and the Poinsettias were already there for free. The reception, though, quickly turned family bender. His mother drank like it was work that wouldn’t last, and Claire was on all fours in the parking lot by morning the second day. Andre’s mother was the best of the three at driving drunk, so Andre packed Claire fireman-style to her four-door. The last he saw of his wife was her flattened mouth and cheek against the window glass and one unseeing eye.
Two days later, the mill two-checked Smoker, and, for solidarity, their mother abandoned her job at the dime store over a pay phone, leaving only Andre employed, as school had let out for the holidays. Out the tavern window, people passed quickly, stocking caps screwed down tight. Six inches of snow covered the country a week after Halloween and the weather hadn’t melted but an inch of it, which only thawed then froze again, making the streets fit for hockey or figure eights. They shone like rubbed silver and the shoppers and ambling children minced their steps trying to keep upright.
Andre noticed three from his homeroom, a boy and two girls, polite children. He was glad to avoid them, though he wondered if they’d recognize him in his state. He was bearing a year’s worth of drink in a short week and flagging considerably not much past Claire’s departure. He felt the man in him she married yielding to the one stacked out of the years without her. He’d contemplated calling from the time she’d gone. At first, he worried over waking her, later, that he’d come too undone for her to make right and just hearing his voice, she would know it.
Smoker lay his head on the formica table. It cooled him, Andre knew, having done the same an hour before.
“Go home,” Andre told him.
“You go home,” Smoker said. “She’d blow right through me leaving.”
Smoker had always bristled that Andre was the one she was most inclined to. Smoker figured it was because Andre was oldest, but Andre knew different. His mother had always been drawn to ugly men. She’d come up Catholic, where every sin required penance, and she took them on as if she’d earned their mean spirits and bent teeth. When he was born, she’d loved him like a burden, but Smoker was too handsome to make much of a load. It went both ways, Andre understood. Beauty he’d never know, but watching her allowed him to feel at least cousin to it.
By the night after Christmas they’d run enough tab the taverns cut them off. When Andre finally opened the door to their apartment, he saw Claire had left him. Everything about her was gone. She was the only woman that had demonstrated any regard for him and he loved her, though not for that alone. He hadn’t drank since. He’d done little, really, except teach school and watch TV.
He asked Smoker for a cigarette. Smoker tapped the pack on his knuckle until one slid loose. The smoke lightened Andre’s head. “You gonna call the cops or me?” he asked.
“Not calling any cops.”
“We need a death certificate for the funeral. They got to sign it.”
“Funerals cost money and it’ll take into next week. Besides who’d come to the funeral?”
“You and me.”
“That’s right, and you and me don’t need nothing but a shovel.”
Andre said, “It’s not legal.”
“I don’t care. I’m not waiting.”
Andre argued some more, but Smoker was hearing none of it, and, when he switched the light and worked to cover her in an old Indian blanket he found in the closet, Andre lifted her legs and rolled her aside so she could be wrapped. Pooled blood blackened her sweatshirt, though there was none on the couch. He found a towel and cleaned her up, then let Smoker fold the blanket on top of her. Andre closed her eyes, but lifting her opened them again.
She was awkward as a bar drunk to tote. They lugged her through the door, then swung her over the porch railing so they could navigate the steps in the dark. At the truck’s endgate, Smoker arranged a logging chain and a spare tire to leave room for her. They wrapped her in duct tape to secure the blanket.
Once they’d backed from the driveway, Andre turned himself to check how she was riding. Her gray hair twisted across her mouth. She’d ceased fighting it these past months, leaving her looking senior citizen and living like a fourteen year old boy on a dare, though the contradiction wasn’t lost, even on newcomers. To them, though, she appeared simply tapped out. Only the regulars and old timers knew how much beauty she’d squandered and how gloriously she’d managed to do it.
Of course, after their father, and during likely, the men were steady. He and Smoker had cottoned to few of them. She didn’t seem to mind. In fact, those who might play ball or take them bottle shooting at the dump she broke to lead quickly and they had no more use. It was the bad ones who stayed, those who kicked the cat just to see it cut and run or busted up the house when she talked back.
When he got to the age of interest, Andre made a study of his mother’s suitors. He was acquainted with children who had dinner times and parents who didn’t circle one another like dogs in season. He could feel his desire for their lives setting in him like bone. The beginning place was a wife, and he knew his face meant he’d have to go some other way.
Andre’d never said a word about it, not even to Smoker, especially not to Smoker, who he’d caught in a thicket near the park only two months before, wrestling the shirt off a girl in Andre’s own class, one of the prettiest.
Late at night spring of that same year, Andre woke to discover a friend of his father’s rocking over his mother who was on all fours gazing at the television light. The man flailed like a hooked fish, his jeans trapped at the ankles by his work boots. Her bra had been jerked to her shoulders, and her breasts swung in the TV’s gleaming. When she finally looked up and blinked Andre into focus, her brow furrowed like she was thinking some important thought, and he waited for her to speak it, but she only shooed him away before the man could see.
After he’d gone and she was sleeping, Andre went to her room. Her breast nipples poked her nightgown and made static sound with each breath. His erection pressed his linen pajamas, aching like a twisted arm. She woke and saw, and he waited for the thing he needed to know. She said nothing, just rolled, leaving him the bones of her back to look on, no heart nor lungs breathing, just hard shapes. There was a window in her room and he could see his face in it. He touched his thick lips, his broad nose and the brow that hooded his eyes, turning himself ugly again and again.
There was another way to recall her, he knew. Winters as boys, Andre and Smoker split wood and cleared driveways, then hoarded their pay in a half gallon whiskey jug. She shucked in her tips from Crazy Eddie’s and cut back on cigarettes and liquor, too. She’d gorge on four meals a day but stayed gaunt as a blade, as if what she was eating was eating her right back. Once a week, she’d leave for home early and stop for a can of whipping cream and powdered chocolate at the market. Andre and Smoker would dump the change on the table and count as she heated the milk. Spring vacation, they’d spin a nail on a road map and head the direction it pointed until the money ran out, then their mother would turn them around and start in on the charge card for the trip home. Once, they’d made it to the Redwoods.
Pork answered the door with a 30.06 leveled at their waists.
“It’s late to be calling,” he said, then set the rifle inside.
“Got some bad news,” Smoker said.
“Well spill it out.”
“Momma’s dead. She killed herself.”
“Christ, I knew she didn’t like me no more than before.”
He took off his glasses and rubbed the welts they cut into each side of his nose.
“Well, come on in out of the cold.”
“We’re gonna bury her,” Smoker said. “We need a shovel and a good place.”
Their father’s mouth opened and his jaw set.
“She’s in the truck,” Smoker said.
“That truck?” Pork pointed.
Smoker said. “See for yourself.”
He wandered to the endgate of the truck and looked a long while. “I guess you ain’t just woofing.”
“You going to lend us a hand?” Smoker asked. The driveway light poured over their father’s face.
“I’ll lend you some advice,” he said. “Take her home. Let them that know how to handle it”
“Can’t go that way,” Smoker said.
“You will. And you’ll do the same for me when I go.”
“She ain’t you.”
Pork walked to him. He stooped and dropped his face a half-foot from Smoker’s. “You put too much stock in her.”
“I don’t put no stock in her,” Smoker said.
“She ain’t nothing anybody ought to miss,” Pork told him.
“If nobody misses her, nobody should care where she’s buried.”
Pork spat. “You don’t get it, do you? I don’t want her here. You understand? I don’t want her on my land. You neither for that fact.” He went into the house then stood guarding the doorway with his rifle. Andre listened to the bolt clear and a bullet fill the chamber.
“She’s our mother,” Smoker shouted to the house.
Pork answered, “She was her ownself and nothing to nobody besides. She was never my wife. I know that for sure. She brought me two sons and look at you. You should be mad as me.”
“She’s dead,” Andre said. “We’re finished being mad.”
“I ain’t done.” He huffed for breath. “She brought everything bad I ever felt. You two included.”
“You’re a rotten talking bastard,” Smoker said.
“If I’m a bastard, the whore that mothered me’s sleeping in the back of that rig, same as you. I just ain’t willing to thank her for it. I’d shoot her myself if she’d come back and let me.” He shook his gun at the sky. “I ain’t gonna be spending one second grieving her. You understand me. I ain’t gonna ride my country. My country, goddammit, worrying what pile of rocks is covering her.”
He fired two or three shots over their heads. Smoker raced for the truck and crawled into the passenger side. Andre labored behind and started the engine. A rain gutter clattered and they heard cussing. When Andre glanced into the mirror, his father was peering straight up through the scope at the sky left uncovered. He sighted and squeezed off a round and shouted. Andre listened to another shot crack, then the report shudder down the river. He studied the sky, waiting for a vanishing star or planet, or maybe a bead of blue day dripping like blood from the night.
“What’s he whooping for?” Smoker asked. “He didn’t hit nothing.”
Andre shrugged. “Maybe that’s what he aimed for.”
They drove for an hour. Town lights disappeared altogether and all that was left was black horizon and clear night sky. One dirt road led to another, Smoker directing, unhooking barbwire gates that marked each ranch’s borders. The heater clattered and blew dusty air from the vents. Cattle lowed and wandered toward the lights, thinking it was a feed truck. It was lower and rocky, river country. They hit a washboardy stretch, and he listened to his mother bang the truck bed.
“Old man was right,” Andre said. “She was just entertainment. Even to herself that’s all she was.”
“I ain’t losing any sleep over it,” Smoker told him.
“I’m up all night.”
“It’ll make you loony as the old man.”
“And you’ll be crazy like the back of the truck.”
“No,” Smoker said. “It don’t have to be like that.”
Smoker told him to stop on the hillknob. He lit another cigarette from his second pack. The headlights hit the high yellow ditchweeds. Below was a corral and a tiny ranch house and a rusted Nova under a tin carport. Barking came from the house. Smoker told him to cut the engine and the dog quieted. Andre could see the black curve of the river a hundred yards behind and hear its moving despite his closed window. Smoker lit him a cigarette and Andre took it.
“You missing your wife?” Smoker asked.
“I am.” What he was missing, Andre knew, was being a person who could have a wife.
The cold was beginning to crawl over them. Andre was near shivering and slapped his hands together to warm himself. When it was clear they weren’t going to start the truck and the heater, he wrestled some work gloves from the jockey box along with a Luger pistol. Smoker pointed to the house below.
“See that window upstairs?”
“Got a little light to it?”
“That’s a night light,” Smoker said. “There’s a little kid in there sleeping. A girl.” Smoker tipped forward, his hand tapped the dash then wiped the window glass where it had fogged with his breath. “The light’s a miniature of them Disney dogs. Dalmatians. She’s got a bedspread, too. Did you hear that barking when we came up? That’s the real thing, the dog-movie dog.”
Andre cocked one eyebrow. “Sister?”
Smoker nodded. Dede’d been Smoker’s roomer or him hers for three years. They’d shared keys and a daughter, but bent themselves at one another often enough to keep a locksmith operating in the black. But both their places were in town.
“Why you leaving them out here?”
“I married her. We needed new rules. I’m not allowed to talk to them except Sundays. If I got a present or a load of groceries for any other time, I drop it in the car while she’s working and leave a note. I’m poison in large doses, just like the old lady.” He nodded toward the light. “Out here they can stay clear of me.” Smoker stared into the flat below, guarding his family against himself. “You ain’t the only one broke by her, and we’re both due some mending,” he said. “It ain’t ill will. I never wanted her dead. She was mom. How can you not love your mother? It’s against some rule, isn’t it?” Smoker’s face was drawn and around his mouth pocketed with a wrinkle. It was the first age past sixteen Andre’d ever seen in him.
“Probably,” Andre said, “But I doubt they looked ahead far enough to see her coming.”
“You know why we got to bury her tonight now.” Smoker said. He pulled his cigarette ash bright until it lit his face. Smoke filled the cab, then broke up. Behind it, was his brother. It had been a long time since Andre’d felt kin to anyone in this world. In the pickup bed, their mother was not much more than blanket and wind-tossed hair. They’d never been able to get her that small, not while she was living. Smoker passed what was left of the whiskey and leaned back and studied her through the rear window. Wind from the river rippled the blanket portions they hadn’t taped.
“She fucked you,” Smoker said.
“She fucked up everybody.”
Smoker shook his head. “Annette,” he said. “I heard.”
Two weeks past his seeing her on all fours, Peg stirred Andre awake. She’d primed herself and Annette The Pet with most of a whiskey fifth and made him join her. Andre recalled the whiskey first time in his belly, And later Annette heaving uneven breasts over him. The brownness of the nipples was like his own, just stretched. Her face in the light was more real than any he’d ever stared into, but she kept his legs pinned with hers, leaving it so far off he couldn’t even feel her breathing. Her eyes closed, and Andre thought of the man before, mounted on his mother’s back where she couldn’t see. He wondered if that’s how women managed it, just by not looking.
After he’d finished, she bent forward, put her hands on both sides of his head, and lifted herself free of him. Her hair was long and it dangled onto his face like his mother’s had when he was a child. He twisted the slick strands with his thumb and forefinger. They shone in the little light she’d left.
When he looked at his mother, she was grinning and crying. She swiveled her head no. A tear hit her face then another, and he was certain he could place a finger over where they’d landed and the path they’d taken leaving her, even now.
“It was the nicest thing she ever did for me.” Andre laughed. “Least I thought it was at the time.” Even then, he’d begun to realize that he could never be right from it, because he didn’t want to take it back and knew he never could.
Smoker jarred his shoulder and Andre gave up the whiskey, but Smoker shook his head.
“What do you want me to say?” Andre asked.
“Uncle,” he said.
“Because you can’t find no way to take her part.”
Smoker drank then and fingered the clouded glass which turned out to be a well-endowed Stick Indian.
“It isn’t like you weren’t plowing them fields.”
“You can’t see the difference, you’re not sharp enough to be teaching other people’s children,” Smoker said.
Andre nodded. Smoker was staring at the lights below. Their glows were lemony and warm-looking. It was November Andre realized, and he thought of snow.
“Uncle,” he said.
The road wound a half mile on the ridge, then switchbacked for the house. Andre started them off slowly, though not the plain way. He shifted gears, to keep the speed. They barreled down an old cattle path. Smoker opened the window and fired the Luger into the sky. The cold seared Andre’s face, making it hard to breathe. His eyes teared and he could feel his teeth, cold as rocks.
They passed the house and flattened the wood corral gate. The truck’s headlights spilled onto the little ranch house and off it. Andre would have liked to see it longer. A few seconds and the truck nose dipped then bucked, and they were midair. Smoker, green in the dashlight’s glow, whooped, and above the cab, their mother rose like a pagan goddess.
The impact shoved Andre out his window. When he surfaced from the river he was on the hood, chest-deep, freezing. His mother floated near. He reached for her, but caught only the blanket’s edge, and the current took her away.
From below, came an air bubble, then Smoker. His head bobbed as he tread water. A gash had laid open one cheek. Andre offered him a hand and tugged him to the truck hood.
“Miss the brake?” Smoker asked.
“Just forgot to,” Andre told him. He pointed out the drifting body.
Smoker nodded, seeing. “Remember that barmaid from Tri-Cities. Lynn, I think her name was?”
“I was tenth grade,” Smoker remembered. “She’d worked the day shift then drank her way through Mom’s closing. Mom carted her home and poured her into bed with me to sleep it off. She woke up about three and about pulled my dick off. She didn’t even know where she was until Mom called us out for breakfast.” Smoker shook his head
“That makes us even,” Andre said.
“I wish it did,” Smoker told him.
He ducked into the water and swam and Andre followed. They clambered up the bank together and emptied their boots. Andre had never been so cold. His clothes stuck to him like houndskin. He watched Smoker strip to his skivvies, then did the same. They walked toward the house and the faint orange light in the window upstairs. There were other lights now and a womanly figure silhouetted on the porch. Smoker’s pace quickened until he was jogging and Andre loped to catch up. They were too numb to feel the rocks and thistles slashing their feet, too numb to feel the wind. They ran flat out, while the dog barked his warning.