Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton
When you wake up on your 40th birthday living in a rented trailer when you recently lived with your wife and kid in a house, you definitely want to savor the moment. With a caress or two beneath your shorts, you want to pay your respects to your half-limp dick, which is only taking any stand today because of the occasion. You want to hit your head so hard on the ceiling, you shout, "Surprise!" Next, take stock of your surroundings: the potty inside the closet, the grimy carpet patterned with what you think are balloons, the plastic coffee cups so they won't break in a brawl or a bust, until you can taste the "L" forming loser on your tongue.
Of course, you can see those cups as half empty, half full, your choice all the way, according to your sponsor, Ricky, who explained his earth-rocking theory the other night when he came by unannounced, right before he Chapsticked his mouth and let out a polite little fart. By the time you remember Ricky's condescending smile, if you're as pussy-weak inside as you are big and tall on the outside, you're crying in your sweet instant coffee, lukewarm and full to the spilling brim.
Buck up because 40's nothing on a guy, according to your sister who made her annual call last night—before your phone ran out of minutes, she said, "Forty's the new twenty."
"Twenty's the new newborn, I gather," you said, but she was gone.
Birthdays never mattered before. Before, everything seemed to be getting better, like a dramatic TV movie with a fair ending. If you look back at 33, you see yourself on the rig, with more hair in front, a nice-looking, overgrown guy with a shit job; at 35, you see the start of a gut, but you also see Gail and your infant son waiting for you at home; you see yourself managing the hotel restaurant—how Gail and you felt rich. For you, personally, 40 should have meant doing things like starting Ned to preschool, starting him on reading, if he wanted—not living in a cell on wheels smelling chronically of cat piss.
Move. Shave your big face. Go all out and slap it with cologne. Wear the white shirt Ricky brought over wrapped in cellophane. Clean jeans for pants, fine: he said so.
It won't be the jeans. It'll be your words when he or she asks about last year's "felony assault," and the restraining order, that's where you like to lose.
"Get your act together," you say to the mirror after gluing a scrap of TP to your jaw, but you don't mean it in AA terms, and you know it.
You're not even an alcoholic, and you don't mean that in the cliché-ass way every alcoholic says it—the proof is you never were one before Ned hit the ground.
Ricky's hatchback feels luxuriously warm, and he's got an extra Dunkin' Donuts coffee for you he bought with a coupon.
"I am super excited about this opportunity for you, Laird," Ricky says. "I really am. Listen, the food's good at this place, it really is. And the staff's nice people."
"Thanks for setting it up, man," you tell him. "I'm psyched."
"Happy birthday, by the way. How's your coffee?"
"Tastes like scalding ice cream," you say. "Just the way I like."
"Got enough room for your long legs? Move the seat!"
Ricky, his round gut caged beneath the steering wheel, sucks his coffee and tries to act nonchalant when he says to you, "You don't have to discuss the trouble at length, you know? I think they need to hire somebody pretty quick."
"In other words, they're desperate. Why else interview me on Sunday?"
Ricky means well. Even his Darwin beard bothers you today.
"It's just, if she mentions the record... I'd play it cool, I really would."
"You can tell me the story again any time you feel like it."
"Check," you tell him, remembering how mechanically he nodded and winced, like an android grief counselor, when you described Ned's accident in brief.
"So it's a she?" you hear yourself ask him.
The restaurant, Jerry's, an outhouse with windows, is such a downer you have to will yourself to leave Ricky's sauna and walk inside. You know Denny's. This is Apocalypse Denny's: grease-scented, the walls covered in framed photos of fried eggs and cold fries like they're famous dead people. You're interviewing for junior wait staff—a guy who used to manage a restaurant serving the best seafood in Galveston.
You observe a handful of solemn diners at flatware-clinking work. When the manager sees you, she makes a no-nonsense salute with two fingers.
The only good surprise is this chick's eyes. She's not hot by TV rules—not young, not dolled up—but her eyes are green-blue and her skin is milky with two tiny, enhancing moles like constellations on her neck. Red work shirt with a nametag saying, "Sammy Lee." She's 40-plus because you can see pencil lines near her mouth. Her ponytail is honest without anything else going on, which you like. She's the kind of person you realize is actually more beautiful than almost anyone else you've ever met, but it takes a minute to register because she hasn't painted any obvious signs.
"We need someone for dinner which starts at four," she says. "Goes to midnight."
"That's a long meal."
Sammy Lee smiles professionally, without showing teeth. You sit across from each other in a booth that squeaks if you shift, which you can see she finds unfortunate.
"Would you be able to work nights and weekends?"
"Yeah, of course. I recently gave up world tours with my rock band."
"We don't serve here," she says, searching out the window as if trouble might be on the way, fanning her hands like wings she means to still. "Jerry's doesn't have a liquor license."
"Who is Jerry?"
Nearby, a hunched fellow drags his knife screaming against his plate, and everywhere the air smells like a calendar year of bacon.
Sammy Lee looks up at you. Looks out the window again. Hooks a stray hair behind her ear. She's wearing a honking wedding ring, too big like a toy.
"There is no Jerry," she says. "R.I.P."
"Oh sorry." R.I.P. is one saying you've come to detest—abbreviated condolences? But you let it go by.
"No... he was eighty. His son owns the place these days. Perry."
"You've got to be kidding me with these names."
She smiles urgently, and you see her skinny teeth she means to hide.
"You've got experience waiting—"
"My whole life."
"And I know you moved into management."
She's nodding. Amid the lull, you're on the verge of telling her why your career in management didn't last, in your own words. But she interrupts.
"Do you have any practical questions for me?" she says.
"How's the food?"
"Better than average, I think. We're always working to improve."
"Order the chicken fried steak; everybody likes it."
You laugh because she means well.
"Tips add up if you work a full schedule, which you will," she says.
"I see you're married," you say, eyeing her glass ring.
"Any job-related questions for me?" she asks, mouth tense, wrinkles darkening. She searches out the window again—for what? Somehow you think she isn't married.
"You look closely at my file?"
"How come I get this job so easy?"
"We're understaffed," she says. "That and Ricky's a solid reference."
Maybe you're wired, maybe you're weird, but you want her to ask you about your shit past. She doesn't seem to know how to broach it.
"Any other alcoholic on the job?" you come out and say it.
"Alcoholics are anonymous, Laird," she says—her voice is smooth, lovely.
She looks at her hiring forms, raises an index finger.
"But that would be me. Jerry helped me out a few years ago when I needed it."
She leads you to a small storeroom to get the black bolero tie you have to wear with black trousers and a turquoise shirt you'll have to buy yourself at Penney's.
In here you're forced together. You give her as much room as you can.
"What do I call you?"
"Captain for me." She won't laugh, not in here.
"Oh, wait, I meant to ask about—" Sammy says, and you think, "Here it comes," and your heart speeds up, and you wonder which part you'll start with.
Meanwhile, she grabs a steering-wheel-size roll of TP for the john.
"I need you to take out the garbage after hours," she says. "After dark, you'll be the only suitable male on hand—"
"I like being the only suitable male on hand," you say, feeling newly low.
You sit in the booth and sign forms, the toilet paper cradled in her lap. Then she says one word you've always hated. She says congrats, which sounds like the best you can do is not actually very good. Today it hits you like a curse.
Sammy's looks no longer interest her. Her daughter's beauty, which changes, matures, in the weeks between visits, moves her—frightens her, too.
Her own beauty, her ex said once, is false advertising. Maybe he had a point.
If she didn't look the way she did, maybe she would have been drawn to better people, and they to her—maybe. As she watches it fade, so what?
She'd prefer to become things she is not anyway: a master gardener, a mechanic, certified yoga instructor, sushi chef, someone expert, someone helpful—anyone, for whom the daily movement of life brings as much satisfaction as five or six martinis can do. But she is still Sammy: restaurant manager; twice divorced; textbook alcoholic with seven weeks clean since the last misstep; straight posture; clear skin; decent grill cook, in a pinch; adept at table-mapping and multi-tasking; and for better or worse, possessive of a memory like Superglue.
She's frequently displeased with Sammy. But sometimes, when she works hard enough, until her calves burn like they do tonight, she's comforted by her ability to lose herself in a hot bathtub and to rise up and look down at the pleasant space she has created—the shining porcelain, the hand towels, the glass seashell stuffed with cotton balls she never uses, and her form at rest in the center of it all—and to believe she's becoming someone better, or at least someone she can stand. To believe she deserves shelter, cute pillows from Target, body wash, a gym membership, and Netflix. Who deserves good sex. Who deserves not to get stalked but courted. Who deserves not to get wasted and not to get shut out by her own daughter, though that part always sinks her.
No, most women wouldn't allow a man with a criminal record—assault plus restraining order, issued from his spouse (she got the full-blown scoop from Ricky)—inside their place of business. But she has hired enough employees from AA, men and women alike—many with worse stains on their record—to wager a male with one assault charge isn't going to bring her grief. He's going to see this job as a chance to feel helpful and healthy, as a way to live better than he has been since his child fell from a swing, poor baby, then fell asleep and didn't wake up. A way to improve his behavior since he telephoned his estranged wife for repeat information about the precise minute the child died, since he hid in a dark yard, sprang up, and shattered her male friend's jaw.
She won't sleep with Laird, as appealing as he might be, but she will professionally befriend. If and when Cal comes around again and sits in his souped-up truck, like he did two days before, she won't panic unduly. She'll have Laird take out the garbage while she walks briskly to her car. Cal's got no clue where her new apartment's located. She'll slip away while he tries not to look suspicious to her employee, while Cal works to charm him.
If Cal pulls any drunken screaming-at-her shit, Laird will approach him and Cal will back down. If Laird does see fit to punch him, he's a nice guy; he won't hit too hard.
Cal's not built physically, but okay, too, he's crazy, and high-level conniving. For this last reason, she knows she ought to brief Laird ASAP on some of their freaking embarrassing backstory. First thing tomorrow, she tells herself like a schoolteacher.
As you try to fall asleep on your cot, you listen to your ex-drunk, old-man landlord calling to his missing cat, Jelly, whom he locates and chides, "Don't scare me like that, sweetheart!" and you think of other things likely to make you cry because that is deep down what you want for your birthday, which ends in ten minutes. Like you think of how unjust it is for you to be called an alcoholic, because you don't even want a drink tonight.
You want a huge sheet cake with a zillion candles Ned gets to blow out.
You want the clear summer night he came to the planet.
You want people to know: He should be here!
You picture the polite, self-satisfied faces of all the balanced ass wipes at AA meetings waiting on your story they don't want to hear except the alcohol-drenched parts.
"When I had a family, a house, and a car, I drank a beer after my day, or I didn't," you said to them. "Then one day I started to build my whole schedule around the beer."
You could hear people murmur, identifying, as if you were playing a song they liked.
"The day Ned fell off the swing I was at work. The lunch crowd could be insane. My wife, Gail—we were separated but she was my wife—put Ned in the backseat and let him lie down, skip the car seat. She called me at the restaurant, and as soon as I could, I sped to the emergency room to meet them. He'd need stitches, okay, we knew that much; his chin got split open by the gravel. When I got there, I found Gail on a bench outside the ER, wearing a T-shirt, no coat. It was cold out. She looked up at the white sky like somebody shot with a tranquilizer dart. I got back in my truck and tried to pretend I hadn't arrived. I tried to imagine Gail might be scared or on the drugs she used to take. That's when I saw Mark jogging toward her, and I understood immediately they'd been with Ned at the park together, failing to pay attention to a kid who weighed 30 pounds, probably kissing on a bench when he ejected himself like a missile, either intentionally or not. You'd know based on whether he called out Cowabunga!"
You thought you should explain Ned's autopsy, but Ricky clamped his paw to your forearm and whispered, "Maybe get back to the booze, or just talk about right now, man."
Instead you picked up your folding chair and threw it across the room.
"That's quite all right," said Ricky, which made you admit you liked him.
Cal's shiny black truck creeps past the restaurant while Sam is helping the lunch waitress close out at half past three. She finishes the sugars and Splendas herself and twists closed every blind.
Ten to four, her hands shaking, she trains Laird on the table map, the menu—which he has memorized—the dinner specials, the order shorthand, the cleanup routine, and she trains him on the garbage bin at the far end of the parking lot, which has to be unlocked with a code. Laird is a quick study. But tonight he's not making as much gung-ho eye contact and he hasn't shaved, which pisses her off because she'll have to correct him, thus compromising their rapport.
She's tense, and her hands aren't working well. She grips them in fists.
"You want to unlock it?" she asks him. "Give it a try?"
Laird enters the simple six-digit code, her date of birth—November 16, 1968.
"November 16, that's today," Laird says, faking cheer. "You've got four years minus a day on me—happy birthday to you. Can't think of a better place to celebrate."
Sammy can't make her facial muscles work a smile. The sky shifts to deep gray. Everything's empty to match. No diners on the scene. No cars in the lot. When Sammy hears hefty tires roll the gravel, she gasps audibly, whipping her head around. She waves a hand to the cook, Juanita. Tears come to her eyes. She knows she ought to tell Laird her story for practical reasons. But it's involved—heavy.
"What's up?" he asks her. "See a ghost?"
She blows her nose into a hankie. She's not sure what to say, how to start.
"Case of the Mondays, I guess."
He waits, looks disappointed in her vague choice of words.
"Well, okay, there is something a little wrong," she says.
But she finds she can't tell him about Cal just yet.
"I need you to shave each night before work."
"Okay?" he says, making it a question—trying not to sound pissed off.
"You're a guy who gets a beard, aren't you?"
"I do. I will."
She can feel Laird's eyes drilling in, as if waiting for her to ask him something.
"Hey, now," he says, because it must be obvious she might start to cry full on.
"I'm fine," she says, jumpy, a tear skipping her cheek. "Allergies."
He looks up at the sky, so as not to look at her, she knows.
"You got kids?" he asks.
She holds up one finger. Now is when she would ask him, but there's no asking.
"My daughter lives with her dad," she says.
"You got a kid, cool; I didn't know."
"Why would you?" she snaps, then feels bad. "She acts like she hates me."
"What is she, thirteen?" he says.
"My niece's age. Of course she's surly. Of course, she hates you."
"Well, it's more than—"
"But, no doubt, she conversely loves pizza and ice cream."
"I mean, I speak to her—ask a question—she acts like a dead girl."
There is a silence. Laird studies the ground. Sammy knows what she's done.
"Look—damn—I'm really sorry I said that."
"No. It's okay. I'm not afraid... to talk about what happened."
She blinks at him, meaning to exude kindness. But she's late for a list of tasks.
"No. You don't have to," she says. "It's awful, though, about your— R.I.P."
Now he isn't responding. Shit. She waits.
"I mean, we've got a busy night to prep for and all," she tells him.
"My advice to you?" Laird changes the subject, pretending to recover.
"Yes?" she says.
"Ask your kid over for pizza fully loaded."
Sammy tries to laugh—even though his expression doesn't match his easy idea.
Despite the episode, Laird works efficiently. He's polite to the diners without being in their faces, which she worried about. They come in hungry and tired after work, or they come in to avoid dirty dishes. They want their food piping hot. Most don't want to have to answer any questions beyond "More Pepsi?"
When the diner phone rings, Sammy tries to answer it if at all possible, but sometimes she's swamped, in which case Juanita typically grabs the line in the kitchen. If it's takeout, Juanita turns down her skillet and jots the order.
Tonight the phone rings just before their dinner rush. It rings and rings—Sammy doesn't get to it because she's teaching Laird to throw gravy in the take-home sacks, digging the salad-dressing cup-lets from the cabinet and instructing him to fill five or six.
"That's a surreal system," he says.
"Only do it if they ask."
"Who called?" she shouts to Juanita.
"Nobody," she tells Sammy. "I mean, I got to it too late."
"Fuck," Sammy whispers. "We need to get caller I.D."
"Want me to grab the phone if I'm close by?" Laird asks.
Sammy nods her head—she hands him a stack of dressing cups and strides to the front room to ask each table, "How's everything?" Then she sticks her finger in the blinds to make a peephole. Nothing—yet. But Cal won't let her birthday slip past unnoticed.
Sammy met Cal at an AA meeting where she was invited to stand up and speak but found she just couldn't. Because Cal asked if she had kids—at the coffee break—she told him about her girl who had just won a full scholarship to attend the best private school in Galveston. It felt nice to brag to somebody; it felt nice the way he took in the abbreviated specifics of what she said and understood enough to be impressed.
For a few weeks after that, they had fun the way people who think they're in love can. After less than a month, Cal asked her to get married, half-teasingly, but only half. He joked he'd make her a full partner in his dinky baseball-cap logo company.
It was that same night Cal mentioned about wanting to meet Megan, when she only got to be with her once a month at the freaking mall food court, that she started to feel like the love answer was no and asked him to go home so she could have "me time."
Only Cal didn't want to go. He got some ice water from the fridge and made plenty of noise doing it. He dragged Sammy's wooden chair back and forth across the tile floor to get a rise out of her or get her to say, "Go ahead, stay the night," which she finally did.
After that, their sleepovers felt tedious and ungainly; she went to work an inside-out mess. If she said she wanted a night off, Cal would be sweet on the phone, but he'd come over late wanting to take up the spot beside her on the couch and in the bed.
"I want to watch the news!" he whined one night. "Don't you care what I want?"
She thought about stitching "I don't give two shits!" on a baseball cap. Instead, she told him she was done in a short note.
For several weeks Cal let Sammy be. She walked the dog and hit her new women's gym every morning. She imagined calling Megan to invite her to be her guest.
One Saturday before Pilates, on a whim, Sammy dialed her daughter to do just that.
"Megan, are you still there?" she asked. "Meg?"
"It's not your Saturday," Megan said—flatly. But then she sounded almost friendly, somewhere in the neighborhood of warm. "So, what's up?"
Sammy froze at the question. She said she'd simply confused the dates.
"Whatever," Megan muttered, gone away again.
That same night Cal showed up in the restaurant parking lot with a truck cab full of flowers, and Sammy did a stupid thing. She knew as she watched herself do it: There she sat in his passenger seat burbling over her girl. Cal offered her a tall, cold beer and she drank it. Then she heard him click the childproof locks, and she stopped crying.
"Let me out, man," she said to him. "This isn't you."
By then Cal was driving her out of the lot, telling her how much he wanted to see her new place, which she refused to let him find. He locked her inside the truck and bought more to drink. They drank it. They drove the Interstate until the sun started to turn the sky a milky blue, both of them dizzy with drink because Cal wanted it that way. When he let Sammy out beneath a bridge near San Antonio, he told her, "This is where you live now, right?" And she nodded, praying to whatever he might throw her purse out the window so she could call the cops on her cell. But he did not.
She puked in a gully and got her head together. Then, "No cops," she said to herself, because with her history, with her blood alcohol level, they'd say Megan couldn't ever elect to visit. Seven a.m., Sammy walked up the steps of a farm shack and tapped at the door. Miraculously, she was allowed to sit outside in a lawn chair and telephone a cab to take her back home because she knew her credit card number by heart. She was allowed to drink a cup of black coffee and wait as a tiny boy watched her from the front window of the house. He waved; she waved. She turned her chair to greet the road.
When the phone rings tonight, you say, "Jerry's! What you hungry for?" It feels less depressing than hello.
It feels better to talk to diners than to not, especially when you're feeling sorry for yourself.
Sammy didn't mean to hurt your feelings tonight—but she didn't have to shut you up, either. She could have let you blab your insane mind two minutes, couldn't she?
It's not like you'd confide anything personal to any diner. You never have before.
At the hotel restaurant, most people dressed up and looked so serious while they ate. You'd walk around on a Friday asking, "Is everything tolerable? Fish ain't gone bad or nothing?" Some people laughed along and told you how much they loved the lobster; they told you how they'd been married 20 years; they told you they were stuffed but still planned on sharing chocolate peanut butter pie.
Others would try to send you on your way, especially after what happened to Ned. Sometimes they said, "T.G.I.F.," as if they could curl up and die now they'd said it.
"What is the soup of the day?" your senior customer asks, her hand balancing a bite of bright yellow egg on a spoon.
"Split pea," you say. "Want some?"
"I only eat once a day," she says.
"You'll never get fat."
The tiny woman laughs and shakes her snow-white head.
Then you spot Sammy observing your exchange in near delight, you can tell—and it makes you sore she suddenly bothers to see you close-up, you don't know quite why.
"You're tall," says the old gal.
"I should lose a few inches from the top."
"I'd like soup and crackers. Please!"
Your customer looks even happier. Sammy's no longer on hand, but she's definitely aware you wait a table with flying fucking colors—she's aware of that much.
For whatever reason, you get a fleeting impulse to sit down with your very old patron and guzzle her orange juice and bang your fists like a monkey, not that you do. What you do instead is ask her, "May I join you?" to which she says nervously, "I suppose so." Then you fucking sit down, which you would grant is weird as hell.
Except you stand in a hurry when a strange, crumpled dude enters the restaurant clanging the bells on the door harder than they ought to be played. He's carrying a couple of balloons, and he's wet from rain you didn't even know to be coming down. One of his eyes is bruised and squinty. Possibly he's drunk; maybe he's nuts.
Sammy's already moving toward him like a blur of light, arms extended, more in hostility than hospitality. She knows this guy. Maybe they're family because she leads him to a table in your section, which happens to be the designated place to roll napkins.
Ding, your next order's up, so you grab it.
There's a man and woman with a young kid in your section, which is unfortunate because the boy won't stop staring at the crumpled guy. He says to his dad, "What's wrong with his eye?" His dad gives him a crayon and flips his paper placemat so he can draw. Same time you're trying to find a spot to place this kid's chicken fingers.
The boy claps in delight as he spies his food. The fat mom sips her baby's Sprite.
If you chose to, you could squeeze in the booth beside this youthful mother, with her greasy hair and double chin, and tell her how Ned almost lived.
Now you know, chubby mommy! Now you know he would have lived if they hadn't let him lie down in the backseat of the car. The doctors confided in us. The autopsy said so. Now we all know, you'd scream. Gail's asshole boyfriend knows, too—he was eavesdropping.
You want to tell this mommy you're sorry you broke the guy's face, but not that sorry. In fact, you can lower your heart rate remembering.
"Tell the man thank you," says the little boy's mama, but he's shy.
"Chow down!" you tell him. In the same beat, the rained-on fellow asks about you. "Who's the overgrown hire?" he says to Sammy. Then louder for your benefit: "Who's that handsome devil?"
You linger at the family's table in case you're called to help your boss. You wait, wanting that.
Sammy sits across from Cal, thinking to herself she's over it now. She'll call the cops, fuck it. She hasn't had a drink in almost two months. Maybe she'll tell Laird low and quiet to dial 9-1-1 or write it on a scrap of placemat.
The restaurant phone rings.
"You haven't been answering tonight," Cal says.
"You called me?"
"No," Cal says. "She did."
"Who do you think?"
Sammy doesn't want to answer. Her hands are shaking as she fans them out.
"Megan," he says.
"I picked her up from her fancy school."
Sammy's on her feet, bouncing like a fighter.
"Where?" she says, sprinting for the door, releasing the balloons as she runs.
"Bloons!" says the little boy.
"Where?" Sammy shrieks.
Cal's running now, too.
"Out in the cab."
"Everything okay?" calls Laird with genuine worry.
Something's way wrong, you know it, but Sammy tells you with her face to chill.
What do you do? Maybe it's not your place.
The phone is ringing again and Juanita's on break, so you answer.
"Jerry's," you say—that's all you're up to. But maybe nobody's there.
After you ascertain the identity of the caller, you say, "Okay—hang tight!"
The sky claps and sends cool rain to the parking lot, which isn't lit well enough for a respectable establishment, but seems about right for this shithole. Sammy is leading the sad man to his dark truck, parked oddly with its driver-side door against a concrete wall. He cups his arm around her shoulders and pantomimes for her to look inside the passenger window. You're chasing them, your turquoise shirt already clinging to you.
The man unlocks his passenger door so Sammy can climb inside, then he locks everything up while keeping himself sealed against the door, in the power shower of the unexpected storm. Sammy knocks on the glass. She keeps at it—a knock that hurts.
As you grab the fellow's slick raincoat arm, you hear his car keys land a few feet behind. You scramble to find them here in the wet lot, and there they are. But he's on you already, with his teeth in your neck giving you the sad, crumpled guy vampire virus as if you weren't already crumpled enough.
Let him chew that meat—feels good. You're going to kiss him back in a minute.
The sound of Sammy's escaping feet skips past in sync with the rain.
"Megan's not in the truck!" Sammy says, shrieking, crying. "She's not there!"
"Not in there?" Cal asks, clearly super drunk. "Maybe I put—misplaced her."
Your neck hurts like a bastard. But you can still say what needs to be said.
"Megan's on the phone for you," you yell. She cocks her head in confusion.
As she flies inside the restaurant, the sad guy punches you low. It connects.
"Well done," you offer, and you're mad enough to cry, which is appreciated.
You're bleeding at the neck; you're dizzy. You hear yourself grunt.
Now the guy walks away turtle-lazy toward his truck, but he takes the time to turn and call you a fucking alky, his speech slurring. And you know what kind of conversation you both need to have. You know what he needs to be told to stop sniffing Sammy out, so you do him a big favor and run at him like a shot.
You run at him and take his greasy arm for a dance, then pop him between his ugly eyes. He's still on his feet, but shaky—weak.
You pop his mouth, deleting a tooth. Your own voice is a foreign roar.
It all feels so good, you sledgehammer his jaw, this time taking him down.
You pant. You feel—you're not sure now.
At least this post-surgery way, he's limp and easier to carry to the trash, the code of which is today in 1968.
"You okay, baby?" Sammy keeps asking her girl on the telephone.
"Mom, I'm fine, I said. What's up with the panic?"
She pictures Laird, wet and injured. But he's a big boy—he can take care of himself. After she hangs up with Megan, she will call the cops. She'll have Juanita cook Laird a chicken fried covered in gravy. She'll sit tight and drink a Coke with him. Give him a chance to get a thing or two off his chest.
"Listen—just thanks so much for remembering my birthday, baby."
"Dad reminded me."
Sammy sees herself from above in the bright light of the kitchen, her hair wet and matted; she imagines her kid curled sweetly on the sofa, wearing white socks. And she hears herself spit it out, invite Megan for a sleepover the following weekend.
"We could order pizza fully loaded."
"I might have plans Friday," Megan says. "But, I mean, I'll check and see."
Heart racing, Sammy pictures Laird and Cal out there in the wet dark—they're still out there, but doing what? She says goodbye to her girl and runs.
Now that you've hurt him, he's going to rest on the floor of the walk-in trash bin; he's going to barf his beer then roll his head in it. He's going to speak tongues because he hasn't regained full consciousness. With your neck a bloody mess, you decide you'll rest inside here as well; sit down hugging your knees, taking a load off.
You know the gate locks solidly and the code box is on the outside, Sammy explained all that, but you let the door shut tight just the same.
"Samm-until-that-day-is-what-I-know," says the man on the floor of the bin.
"Well, I've got a story for you," you say, realizing now is the time. Now you get to make somebody listen to the motherfucking truth about the whole idiotic crime. "Try this one on for size."
Rain again on the plastic roof: that's nice. Lump in your throat: check.
Man's breathing heavy, but then he's on his back, closing his eyes, mouth open.
This might be the perfect time to begin.
"You awake?" you hear yourself ask. "You listening?" No response. You wait.
"That's quite all right," you say to him, sounding tense.
You could go ahead and tell him everything right now, all of it—including how there's still one thing you'd like to know but never will.
But the guy can't hear, which could be bad.
The gate rattles—maybe it's the wind.
"Laird, you okay in there? You're not hurt? Laird... I'm so sorry about this—"
She sounds sorry this round. But you don't have time for talk after all.
Plan B is this: Prop the man up; hold him there.
Touch his sticky, red face. Pinch those cheeks; slap them. Say something at top volume, anything. Repeat all steps, until he smiles like a bloody jack o'lantern. Because if you've learned one thing: Don't let a person get lulled all numb and dozy after he takes a hit that topples him flat. Slap him again. If he still doesn't wake up, you holler once more in his ear, like this. Say what comes to you like you mean it, like every last part of your 40-year-old bag of meat and bones means to jump from the flying swing: "Hey! Mister! Wake up! Cowabunga! Cow-a-bung-ahhh!"