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Jul/Aug 2014 Fiction

At the End of the World

by Reid Douglass

Image credit: Jonathan Bailey, NHGRI, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov

Image credit: Jonathan Bailey, NHGRI, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov


When I got home, the door to me and Dad's apartment was open. I could see light ghosting out through the slit into the moist air. Inside, our stuff was scattered out. We didn't have much to steal, but it looked like whoever had broken in had gone through every single thing just to make sure. I had to step between it all to avoid walking over anything. Our Christmas tree had been tipped over and was lying on its side through the middle of the living room. At first, I thought Dad had made the mess, that he'd finally lost his mind, or else he was looking for something we didn't have any more and he'd forgotten we had gotten rid of it, whatever it was. I even thought for a second it could have been Mom. She had come back, and the two of them had fought it all out, finally. Maybe she was just looking for something she had left behind. But I realized, no, she wouldn't know where to find us even if she wanted to, and we didn't have anything of hers anymore anyway.

She hadn't taken much with her when she left. At the time, I thought she had left Corpus Christi, maybe Texas, maybe even the country. She took her clothes, only some of them, and her car, but that's about it. She didn't take her piano, even though she used to teach lessons out of our living room. Dad was the one who had gotten rid of everything. Instead of going to his engineering job, he would stay home and pack her stuff up into boxes or take it out as it was and put it by the curb or in the trunk of his car to sell at the second-hand stores. Pictures, the clothes she hadn't taken, her books of sheet music, even down to just ratty dish towels she had bought. He moved it all out. After he lost his job, we started selling some of our stuff, too. A few months later he got a job in insurance sales, and we moved from our house into the apartment. He said there was good money in insurance, though, quick money.

During the summer, I got work helping out at construction sites for Billy's dad, and then I started up there again after football season ended. By that point we were doing a lot of backlogged roof work from hurricane season.

Our television was gone. I looked at where it had been and imagined what the room would look like reflected in its screen: smaller, the colors all washed out, distorted at the edges in the convex glass. Both chairs at the small breakfast table were turned over. Sports Illustrated magazines were spread out. In the kitchen, cabinets were open, and there were broken dishes across the counter and in the sink, and the microwave was open. The refrigerator was, too. I reached in and felt the outside of the milk carton. It was still cold. I took a sip, and it tasted fine, so I set it back and closed the refrigerator door. This wasn't the first time it had been left open. There had been mornings when I had woken up and found the TV on and Dad asleep on the couch in his clothes, the fridge wide open, with something like a half-made sandwich sitting on the counter.

I went into my room, and there it was, all my stuff, spread in disarray. I sat on my bed and tried to take stock of it all, of what was still there, what might be missing. Old trophies were knocked over, lying sideways on the top of the dresser and down on the floor. Seeing them like that, I thought it was silly I had ever kept them. My clothes had been strewn across my bed and over the carpet. I was surprised they hadn't stolen those, but maybe they weren't the right size, or maybe they had taken some. It was hard to remember what all I used to have.

I had started keeping my room clean when we moved into the apartment back in July of that year. Everything organized, fit into its right place. I felt a great pressure, like being strangled from within. Something in my stomach wrenched, and my breath went short. I felt the need to put each thing back where it was supposed to be, like somehow in the process I could make sense of what had happened and why. I felt there must be some kind of story in the mess, and maybe by putting all the items in the right order, I could find it, that story, and what it meant. But I figured the right thing to do would be to wait until Dad got home before I touched anything.

They hadn't gotten my fishing pole, at least, because it was in my truck. Same with my granddad's old Mark 2 knife from the Navy. That was locked up the cross-bed toolbox, along with cleats and work-out gear, a tackle box, and tools for work. Earlier in the day, my friend Ty and I had taken my truck down to the seawall to fish for redfish, but nothing was biting. We'd gone straight from the wall to a party Billy was having out on one of the vacant lots his parents were trying to sell. It was a cleared space where they hadn't laid the foundation yet. There were already stacks of softwood lumber for the framing. Loose tubes of PVC pipe were lying around.

In a tent I fooled around with Ashley from school, and I could hear the land breeze flapping the tarpaulin.

"Don't you hate the smell here?" she asked. "It smells like fish everywhere you go."

"I've never really thought about it," I said.

"It does," she rubbed her nose against my shoulder and sniffed. "It's like we're at the end of the world. Like the garbage dump."

We lay there together, warm in the tent until almost her curfew. Then she sat up and stared down at me.

"What?" I said.

"What if I had something to tell you?"

"What kind of something?"

She shook her head, and hair trailed behind each movement. "I shouldn't." Then she stared me in the eye and held it, her face shrouded in the shadows.

I sat up, too, so our noses were almost touching. Then I scooted back. "What is it?" I said.

She sighed and looked over her shoulder at the tent opening, then down at her lap. "I know where your mom is."

After she and the girls left, Ty and Billy and I sat around the fire and finished off what beer was left. Billy had used his older brother's ID to get the drinks. His brother was a supervisor at the construction company. I bet he's running it now, if it's even still a thing to be run. I was trying not to let on that Ashley had told me anything like she told me. That she'd seen my mom, at a house, a house in Ashley's neighborhood.

Billy tipped his cap back on his head and leaned back in his lawn-chair, pushing off the rocks we had used to surround the fire. "Do you think this here is what your dad does every night?"

Ty was standing up and holding his palms over the fire to warm his hands.

"I bet it is," Billy said, keeping his eyes on the fire.

"I don't know what he does," I said.

"Grown ass women, too. Isn't anyone to tell him what to do. That's the life right there." He took a sip from his can and shook his head, and I saw something in his face I didn't like, something like a shadow passing over it, though the light hadn't changed. He added, "Your mom was hot, though."

"Billy," Ty said.

"I guarantee you he misses tapping that," Billy went on.

I didn't answer. I could hear the ocean from the lot, but we were too far away to see it, and there wouldn't have been anything to see, just some white froth from the waves, everything else slate gray in the night dark. Billy tipped his beer to finish it off and then stood and wandered away.

"He just likes to see what he can get away with," Ty said.

Ty looked younger than he was. I don't think he even needed to shave yet. We had been friends since elementary school, and he had even taken piano lessons with Mom. Out of all my friends, he was always Mom's favorite. I used to be in honors classes with him, but that year I dropped out of them and instead goofed off in the regular classes with Billy and Ashley and all them.

"He won't push too hard with you, though," Ty added.

"How come?" I said.

In the firelight, I could see Billy pick up a short piece of the PVC pipe. He tossed his can straight up and swung the pipe at it as it fell. He missed. He bent down to pick it up and tried again.

"You know how come." Ty smiled. "Dang, I wish I could've been there."

"It wasn't anything to see," I said. "We got broke up real quick."

Billy stumbled back with a new beer. "Who broke up?" He plopped down into his chair. "Did you dump Ashley's ass?"

"No one broke up," Ty said.

Hearing Ashley's name only reminded me of what she'd told me. So I changed the subject to football. We had only gone four and seven that year, but next year we would be seniors, and it would be our team. I realized I was going to miss being tackled, strange as that may seem. To be driven down, forearms scraping through the dirt. The hard plastic padding, uneven impact from a facemask.

I stayed out there as long as I could, adding wood to the fire, talking football and fishing. We blamed the winter for the lack of fish. Since Mom had left, I hadn't caught a single one, but I didn't tell them that.

"It's just been bad luck this year, is all," Ty said.

Down the hall, Dad's door was open. Normally he kept it closed. From the doorway I saw spread across his bed open magazines with naked women in them. Empty liquor bottles formed a trail across the floor. He'd been hiding those, I guessed, but I wasn't surprised to see them. I reached in and grabbed his doorknob and pulled the door shut. I went back into the living room and pushed an upended couch cushion back into place and sat down on it. With my foot I nudged the Christmas tree. Its lights were still on. We didn't have any ornaments. Dad had gotten rid of those, too. I got up and squatted to pick the tree up, the pine needles brushing my forearms, its trunk sticky with sap. When I stood it back up, I could see the presents were gone.

The tree wouldn't balance on its own. It would have tipped over if I let go, so I guided it down and let it lie again on the floor. I stretched my legs across the couch and waited for Dad to come home.

When Mom was still around, Dad used to take us out on the boat, and once we got out past the bay, we could go so far out into the gulf you couldn't see back to shore. I loved fishing in the gulf channels, and the motion of the boat and the way the air was all thick and sticky, and how it fingered through your hair and the water misted into the boat when the bow crashed into the wave crests. Dad would crank the engine, and I would yell to floor it and he would, and Mom would hold onto her floppy sun hat or else take it off and shake her head in the wind, her cheeks flushed in the heat.

But I didn't like when we couldn't see the shore. Dad had said that was the best part. You were free out there, with nothing tying you to any other thing. He said that's what draws us to the ocean in the first place, guys like us. The boundless freedom of it. It gave me a feeling I didn't like, though. I didn't feel like I was myself, was what I used to say. There wasn't any way to orient yourself that far out. Not just by looking, anyway.

Mom would pull me up right next to her when I was younger. If the boat jerked in the chop, I would get pressed into her, and I could feel her light, flaxen hair whip against me. It tickled and stung at the same time. I could smell her sweat and the sweet scent of her sunscreen. That was how she kept her skin so white, the sunscreen. She didn't brown over like me and Dad. He and I were just dark all around, everything, hair and eyes and skin, and together we made for a dark presence. It's hard to tell sometimes what parts of her I got.

Dad and I caught big redfish out there. Outside of the bay, the bull reds can get up around 30 pounds. We used live mullet as bait with slip-sinker rigs, just like Granddad had taught Dad and Dad had taught me. He always cleaned the fish on the boat, Dad did, slicing the fillets away from the backbone and then sawing the meat off of the skin. He never showed me how to do it, but I tried to learn by watching him. He sold the boat that June, just a couple of months after Mom left.

I guess I had drifted off to sleep on the couch waiting for Dad, because when I woke up, I saw the wall clock said it was almost five in the morning. I must have heard Dad's keys jingling in the lock. Then his thick, square head poked through the doorway, and he looked around the apartment and wrinkled up his forehead. He hadn't seen me yet.

His head disappeared, and the door closed, and I could hear him say something outside, though I couldn't make out what. He sounded confused. The door opened again, and this time he walked all the way in. He looked at everything once more, like he was seeing it for the first time. Then his eyes scanned over to me sitting on the couch, and he said, "The hell happened here?"

"Some assholes, I guess."

"God damn it," he said. He shook his head. "Where were you? You should've been here." He was stepping in the space between the stuff, just as I had done, lolling his head.

I didn't answer. I got the impression he wasn't really talking to me. He was just saying it to say it. So I asked, "What are we going to do about it? Should I call the police?"

He closed one eye tight, contorting his whole face into a grimace as though he were thinking hard about the question. "I don't know, bud," he said. "I guess there isn't anything to be done at this point."

He was grinding his teeth and clenching and unclenching his fists. He looked bigger than usual, though he was already tall, with broad, squared shoulders. In the kitchen he grabbed an already broken plate and smashed it on the oven. I jumped at the sound.

"God damn it," he said again. He shook his head.

He disappeared around the corner, and his door creaked open. There was no sound for a moment, and then the door eased shut. When he came back into the living room, he glanced at me and looked all around the apartment and then flicked his eyes back to me. He let out a deep breath. "Come on," he said. "Let's get out of here."

At the diner I had a plate full of pancakes and another with scrambled eggs that I had poured salsa over, and I had bacon and sausage, too. Dad just had a coffee. The waitress had known Dad's name, and he acted like he knew hers was Rosa, but I saw his eyes drift down to her nametag before he said it. Each time Rosa refilled his coffee, she leaned over his shoulder and placed her free hand on his back.

"I ate like that when I was your age," he told me. "Bulking up for football." He nodded, fixing his eyes on my plate. "I had to especially," he said. "They had me out of position. See, I should've been a safety, with my speed. Plus I was thin like you. I could hit, though. I could hit. They had me playing at linebacker, and I'd just get pushed up and down the field by the big boys. We didn't run these spread offenses like now with these big old playbooks like your all's. Most times you knew what play was coming, and they knew you knew, and it was just, you try and stop it. It was just all about execution."

I cut loose a bite from the stack of pancakes. This wasn't the first time he had told me about that. "I know," I said.

"Well."

I offered a slice of my bacon to him, and he waved it off, so I dipped it into the syrup and bit a chunk.

"You boys throw the ball a heck of a lot more than we ever did," he said. "I'd have lit it up nowadays. Blitzing. Hanging back in coverage. I just played at the wrong time, I guess."

"I guess so," I said. Out the window, the parking lot was empty except for a couple of semis parked around the side. I figured they must be heading from Kingsville up to Houston. Past the parking lot was the frontage road and then I-37, which leads up to San Antonio.

Rosa came by again to refill Dad's cup. She winked at me. After she left, Dad said, "I'm not drunk, if that's what you think."

I took a big bite of pancake and dipped bacon into the syrup again and took a bite of that while my mouth was still full, so I wasn't able to answer.

He glanced back at Rosa, who was taking an order from one of the truck drivers. He tipped his head toward her. "Old girl over there went to high school with me. I didn't even know her then, but she always says she remembers me."

"She looks younger than you," I said.

"Now, when your mom was in school, she was a swimmer. Can you imagine such a thing?"

I shook my head. I couldn't imagine it. Mom had slight, narrow shoulders and didn't like to get her hair wet. That was the first time he'd mentioned her directly since we moved to the apartment.

"Me, neither," Dad said.

"They took the Christmas presents." I felt the words crawling up my throat and jumping out of my mouth. "Did you see?"

"She won district back in high school," Dad went on. "How about that."

"I had one for you," I said. "A present. Saved up for it. I bought it myself. My own money."

Facing the window, Dad turned his coffee cup around by the handle.

"Do you want to know what it was?" I asked. I could see his reflection in the window glass. He scrunched his face up, closing his eyes tightly, like he was trying to squeeze out a thought from his head.

"I don't guess that I do," he said. He turned back to me, and the look on his face made me think he was going to be sick. "Can you understand that?"

"I think so. Yes, sir."

All I could think, though, was how hard I had worked, how I had gotten up early on weekends to make the money for it. I had helped to fix roofs on houses people weren't even going to live in. They would be rentals for tourists or vacation homes for Houston businessmen and their families. And I'd put up with Billy's crap, done twice the work to cover for him while he goofed around and got away with it because his dad was the boss. Except for the one time when he went too far, asking what's her number, hey, can I give her a call now, can you set us up, until some soothing violence swelled in me, and Billy went down, and all it had taken to shut him up was the one punch, a dull smack of flesh and bone.

Afterward I felt relaxed, covered in a numb warmth. I stood and waited for him to get up. That wasn't what I was supposed to do, I knew. It wasn't what Granddad had taught me about fighting, anyway, but it's just what I did. Billy stared at me for a moment, blankly, as if he were trying to figure out what had just happened. Then his face transformed, and he stood up and said something, I don't know what, and I could feel that warmth blooming. I realized later I wasn't scared, or angry even, just excited, like when you're lined up for a play and just before the snap you recognize something in the alignment, and you know just what is about to happen, can see the whole thing playing out before anyone has even moved. We both got some good shots in, and a minute or so later, I was pulled away from him, laughing wildly, blood lining the gaps of my teeth. It coated my mouth, warm and metallic, though it wasn't as thick as people always say.

"It's a hard thing, bud," Dad said. He was looking out the window again. He took a sip of his coffee and set the cup down on the saucer and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

"What is?" I said.

"A damn hard thing," he repeated, more to himself than to me, I think.

After I finished eating, Rosa brought the check, and Dad asked if she was trying to get rid of us. Rosa swatted the meat of his arm with her notepad. "You know I wouldn't never want to do that," she said. She laughed as she walked away.

Dad turned to me. "What if we just didn't go home?" he asked. "What if we don't go back there?" He laughed. All of a sudden he seemed to be in a good mood. He asked, "Where do you want to go?"

"You mean to live?"

"Sure," he said. He laughed again. This time his laugh went on for too long, until it started to sound strange, like the echo of a laugh in a cavern. He said, "Let's just do what we want. How about that."

I thought about all the places I knew of. We had gone camping in Louisiana once, near Alexandria, the three of us all in a tent together, kept warm overnight by the trapped heat of our bodies, a tent for two people, theirs from before I was born. So I said that, I said, "Alexandria." Then I thought of places I hadn't been. I thought about what sounded the furthest from where we were, and I said, "Maybe Alaska."

His eyebrows arched up. "Alaska, huh," he said. He nodded. "Alaska," he said again, like he was testing out how it felt. "Not a lot of football up there. Texas football, anyhow. And we haven't had to deal with cold before, not the real cold." He leaned back in the booth. The linoleum seat whined under him, and he laced his fingers behind his head. "Yeah," he said. "We'll just do whatever. Right, bud?" He stood up and patted me on the shoulder hard enough that it shook me. "Let's just do whatever the hell we want."

By the time we got back from the diner, it was a little after six in the morning. Instead of going inside with him, I got out of his car and went straight across the parking lot to my truck.

"Hey," Dad called after me. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Work," I said.

"You don't get time for the holidays?"

"I'll have tomorrow off."

"Well," he said, "you're going to help me with all this when you get back. All right?"

"Yes, sir."

He shrugged and turned, silhouetted in the morning darkness. Then I got in my truck and started it up and sat there, letting the engine warm up. It seemed like the only thing any of the radio stations were playing was Christmas songs, so I shut the radio off and listened to the engine hum. Mom used to play Christmas songs on the piano around that time of year. Other times she would just sit and play Debussy pieces without the sheet music, and she would close her eyes, and when she was done she would fold her hands in her lap and stare at all the keys. I could sit at the top of the stairs in the house and watch her play without her knowing it. Or she never let on that she knew, if she did.

After she left, Dad sold the piano and used part of that money to get the truck for me. It was this old third-generation Chevy C-Series that had been beat all to hell. To get it to start, I had to rev the engine while I turned the ignition, and when the weather was cold like it was that day, I would always have to sit there idling for ten or 15 minutes or else it would stall out. But it ran. It wasn't anything to complain about.

I thought about going to see Ashley. Work wouldn't start for a couple more hours, really. Maybe we could just drive around and she could sit right up next to me, soft and warm. She actually lived in the neighborhood that me and Dad and Mom's old house was in. But she would still be asleep.

Then I considered heading back to the seawall. Granddad had helped build it, the seawall. He was one of the engineers on the project. Before that he had served in the Navy during World War II, in the Pacific, but he never talked about those things. He would rather tell you about fishing. He always liked Mom. He had passed on before she left, but I don't think he would have blamed her.

Near the seawall, commercial shrimp and fishing boats would be heading out through the jetties. I could picture it. I can picture it even now. Barges cutting thick furrows through the brine. Bulbing the horizon would be the hulking steel bones of abandoned oil platforms. Or no, they weren't abandoned then, only now, so they would have been haloed by beacons. There are steps on the seawall leading right down to where the surf laps against the concrete. I don't know if Granddad had anything to do with that part. They disappear right down into the roiling bay, full of dark mystery, like the watery mouth to an endless cave.

There was somewhere else I could go. I didn't want to, I didn't think, but I couldn't help it. I drove over to Ashley's neighborhood, my old neighborhood, past our old house, all decorated for Christmas by its new owners, some new family, its lights all off. I circled back around and sat in my truck across the street and stared at the house, waiting for something, but I didn't know what. Maybe to catch a glimpse of the family that lived in it, to see how they were living there.

Then I kept driving to where Ashley had told me she'd seen my mom. The road by this point was flat and straight, and I could see refineries in the distance with their steady foams of white smoke. And as I drove closer, I was struck by what Ashley had said, that it did feel like the end of the world there, as if by some tilting of the earth's surface, I would have no choice but to roll toward it, and even if I tried to turn around, it would be too steep to climb back.

I parked across the street, a few houses down, and cut the engine, even if it would be a hassle to start up again. And eventually, she came out. To get the newspaper. Such a mundane thing. A daily ritual. She was wearing a robe I'd never seen before, clutching it together at her chest. After she picked the paper up, she looked right at my truck. Only for an instant. She must not have been able to see through the window glass, because she turned away and went back inside. She wouldn't have recognized the truck, I realized. I'd gotten it after she left.

Maybe I'd go to the door, I thought. Maybe I'd confront her about it, about everything. I'd make a scene, point the truck out, tell her how the piano was gone, how we'd gotten rid of it. Then I'd go back and tell my dad about what happened, start saying the things we weren't saying. But I didn't. I never even told him I'd seen her.

This was all before I moved further inland to go to college, before I got married and had a son of my own, and then another one, and a daughter, too. Before we all moved to Round Rock, outside of Austin. It was before I told my kids that their mom and I had tried our very best, even if that wasn't perfect. We tried. We tried to do things differently than our own parents had.

After I left that house, I headed back over to our apartment. From the parking lot, inside my truck, still idling, I could see Dad. He had opened up the apartment door and was standing in the living room, all the lights on. Maybe it was too much for him to be closed in there with all that junk everywhere. I thought again about going to tell him what I had bought him for Christmas, but then I changed my mind. He had gotten out a trash bag and shaken it open, and he was trying to sort through the mess. I shut the truck off and went inside to help, and together we started picking out the pieces of what was broken.

 

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