The widow was demonstrating how to feed the dog by dipping a cup into the bag of kibble, bringing it up empty, then putting a can of wet food on the counter and moving the can opener around it like a pantomime, before finally circling the empty bowl with a spoon—all of this as if Josie were stone dumb, never mind the torture this pretend feeding was on the poor dog, Blue. Josie could hear him behind her in the doorway: his wet breathing and the slap of his tongue to teeth, his provoked hunger. He was some kind of long-haired gray mutt. When Josie had left for college, less than a year ago, the widow had not owned a dog. But here he was now looking as old as the widow, only slightly more upright. The widow let the spoon clatter in the metal bowl, saying, ”not too much, not too little,” lifting one finger up to some God of knowledge. The gesture reminded Josie of her college professors. Josie hadn’t liked being told what to think and that’s all college seemed to be, however sideways they came at it.
Blue barked once, a raspy impatient bark. The widow turned and scolded him with her eyes, then opened the backdoor to the thin strip of yard. Blue reluctantly lumbered outside, turning around to face them as the door closed.
“He’ll need to be walked,” the widow said, “not just left in the yard. Not everyone’s gonna shit where they eat.” The widow always spoke this way, leaving Josie insulted, though she was never sure an insult was intended.
“Walk the dog,” Josie said. ”Got it.” Josie had agreed to watch the widow’s house and the dog for the month of July and into August, while the widow traveled. There wasn’t any money in it, but Josie was glad to be out of her mother’s house for a while, and maybe, Josie reasoned, Tim Gibbons would spend the night with her there.
“So where are you going?” Josie asked.
The widow was picking up small pictures and little china figurines off of the tables and mantel, then setting them inside a cabinet, as if to protect them from Josie. “I have six children,” the widow said.
For a time, the widow had had cats and there was a bright white bird kept in a cage at the living-room window, but in the ten years that Josie and her mother lived next door to the widow, Josie never saw any children, grown or otherwise. The size of the widow’s house made more sense now. It was as dilapidated a house as Josie’s mother’s, but it had multiple floors and the windows were bigger and more frequent, and that made it seem better somehow, more desirable, even if it was just a larger mess. But that these rooms had once held children, years ago, before Josie was even a thought—the quiet in this house must be that much larger too.
The widow was still setting away pictures. “Six. Wow. I didn’t know,” Josie said.
Josie was an only child with a long-gone father, though her mother had been married to Hank for a time. Josie liked Hank. He had kept horses and taught her to ride. Since he’d left, Josie had gotten used to a certain amount of quiet—a quiet that college had disrupted. She had still not told her mother, Miriam, that she wasn’t just home for the summer, that she had in fact dropped out of college altogether.
“It seems neither do they. Promises are easily made. So I’m going to them. Hurrying, before I keel over. Michigan, Kansas, Houston. My youngest in Houston can help with the driving.”
“You’re driving?” The only car in front of the widow’s house was the same Chrysler sedan as always, more yellowed than painted yellow. Josie had been tempted to kick at the side panel when she’d come up the drive, see if it gave. “I’m dating this mechanic. I mean, if you wanted him to take a look before you go.”
“A mechanic? Yes, I’m sure you are. There’s no time for that.”
Outside, Blue was staring at a squirrel balanced on the phone wire. The squirrel frozen still—a practiced stillness, an attempt at invisibility. “How old is Blue?” Josie asked. “You just get him? You had that white bird when I left.”
Josie thought she’d feel at home, dropping out and coming back, but she felt just the opposite. It was as if the house, her mother, even this dog of the widow’s were all part of a slightly off replacement of the life she thought she’d been living. College was confusing, even disconcerting, but wasn’t that expected? Her boxes unpacked, she was considering this, she knew, too late.
“Well, that bird,” the widow said. ”The cage, the seed, the feces. The squawking! The dog is new. And, yes, old.”
Josie was looking at the yellow sedan again, worrying for the widow, feeling that someone should.
Josie had started seeing Tim Gibbons the same week she came back home. He was fixing up the truck that Hank had left behind. Josie thought about Tim often, but anxiously, like an obligation, a test for which she had yet to prepare. Tim had an apartment that he shared with another mechanic. The place had the sour odor of feet.
The widow was touching a piece of paper on the mantel. “These are the numbers you’ll need. My children. The veterinarian.”
“There won’t be any problems,” Josie said.
“Of course not,” the widow said. “You promise, I’m sure.”
For the first few days Josie stayed at the widow’s house she left the television on whether she was watching or not. She sat outside in her underwear, in the sunshine, eating bowl after bowl of cereal and drinking from the juice carton. The dog followed behind her every step and he was, after all, perfectly happy to shit in the small rectangular yard. The widow said Josie could help herself to the pantry and whatnot, but had insisted she sleep in one of the downstairs bedrooms. When Josie came back inside, when the sun had begun its descent, Josie took naps, often lying down before her eyes even adjusted to the dim interior of the house, feeling full and light all at once, waking when it was near dark and then remaining up for half the night. She had quickly found a level of contentment with doing nothing for which she knew she ought to feel guilty. From the bedroom she’d chosen she could see the dirt turnaround in front of her mother’s house and so she knew which of her mother’s boyfriends was there to visit, when.
The guy who came in the first half of the week was the married one. Brian or Rick or Dave. Josie had talked to him only once, but she preferred him to the other one because he was married and therefore quiet, neat, and polite. He drove an American car, a Chrysler LeBaron, white with a moon roof, and he always left before dusk, usually straightening his tie.
The second guy was an operating room nurse and he rode a Japanese motorcycle. He stayed for entire weekends, drinking every last drop of beer and eating anything Miriam hadn’t hidden. Miriam joked that the first half of her week—Rick, Brian, Dave, whatever—paid for the second half. Josie didn’t put it past her mother to be extorting a married man. In fact, if she was, Josie applauded her—in part for the wife. But this other guy, this nurse, left Josie in disbelief. The gluttonous, sloppy, owner of a Honda motorcycle who spoke to her mother as if she were just another piece of household technology which he found frustrating to operate.
Tim Gibbons worked solely on American cars.
By Thursday, rations had thinned at the widow’s, and Josie went down to her mother’s, knowing the nurse was there. Miriam was in the kitchen, washing dishes by hand—given the state of the dishwasher. Before agreeing to dogsit, Josie had made a list of the things that needed fixing around her mother’s house. She was planning on fixing them, to make herself useful, before she mentioned that bit about dropping out.
“You steal from her yet?” Miriam asked, tossing her head in the direction of the widow’s.
Josie slid into the kitchen booth, avoiding the end where the vinyl had begun to crack. ”Not yet,” she said. ”What’s for dinner?”
The nurse walked in and handed Miriam a plate. “What’s she doing here?”
“I live here, Eric,” Josie said. The nurse’s name was Stan, but Josie called him any name except his own, usually names of Miriam’s former boyfriends. Except Hank. She never called him Hank.
Stan rolled his eyes. He was short, with the body of a gnome, packed into his pit-stained nursing scrubs. Josie found him equal parts comical and offensive. He pulled out a beer and twisted it open. “Miriam,” he said, wiping his mouth, “I thought we had the place to ourselves.”
“We’ve already eaten, Josie. You’ll have to fix yourself something.”
“You ought to make her pay for the food,” Stan said, moving back into the living room, settling into the big chair, into the groove where Hank had liked to sit.
“He’s the one who should pay.” Josie lowered her voice—asking through her teeth, “Why do you put up with him?”
“I like him,” Miriam said. She had turned around, leaning against the sink and toweling off the plate, but she didn’t look up at Josie. ”Honestly, Josie, it isn’t your concern.”
Josie caught sight of the car headlights just before they swept through the kitchen, whipping around the dirt turnaround. Tim Gibbons didn’t have his own car, so Josie never knew when she’d see him, when he’d pick her up. He drove the cars he was working on. Tonight he had a red Chevy. He stopped, the engine running. He wasn’t going to get out or come in. Things weren’t like that.
“I’m going out,” Josie said.
She started for the door, then stopped to look in the long mirror, where other people might keep a coat rack, something sensible, but this was Los Angeles: you needed a mirror, not a coat. She could see Stan behind her in the mirror, his back to her, the television lit up and spitting basketball plays.
“You’re fucking kidding me,” Stan shouted, slamming his beer up then down, letting it slosh out.
Josie jumped. She could feel her mother watching her. Tim honked. “I have to go,” she said.
“Who’s stopping you?” Stan said over his shoulder.
Josie turned to Miriam, to find her eyes, to see if she was going to let him talk to her like this. Miriam looked back at her, but said nothing.
“Really?” Josie asked.
Miriam set the dried plate on the counter and began to towel another. Before going, Josie opened another button on her shirt, exposing the slope of her breasts.
* * *
Josie hadn’t known Tim was coming, but she’d been hoping, and then there he was, like an epiphany—a relief. Blue was barking above, behind the widow’s fence.
The handle was missing on the outside of the passenger door; Josie reached for it twice before Tim leaned across the seat. “You gonna fix that?” she said, getting in. “You’re a mechanic, right? ”
“Girls like it when a guy opens the door.”
His cigarette was teetering on the lip of the ashtray, stringing smoke through the car. Josie took a drag, then handed it back, saying, “different girl.”
Tim studied the cigarette. “Nasty,” he said. He swerved left.
“Would you slow down?”
“It’s not a pacifier. You don’t have to put your tongue on it.” He lit a new cigarette off the old one, steering the car with his knee.
Their go-to discussion was always whether or not Tim had any memory of her in high school. He said he’d found his senior yearbook yesterday, where she was a freshman. “I do remember you in high school,” he said. “You were cuter than I remembered, though.”
“Dill used to spit on my lunch tray.” Dill was Tim’s best friend, then and now. Josie wondered why she wasn’t this way, why she’d never hung on to friends. She always felt a little bit liquid. Her full name was Josie Post, a name from a man whom she had no memory of. Dill had turned into a tag line for just about anything he felt the need to mock: ain’t that as dumb as a Josie Post.
“You’ve blossomed. What can I say?” Tim had his hand on her thigh, kneading the muscle above her knee. The first time he’d grabbed her like this she’d yelped, but now she didn’t mind. She practiced relaxing toward the pain.
Tim would never have noticed her return home—let alone her—if she hadn’t had Hank’s truck towed into the shop where he worked. The truck had been sitting under a tarp for years. From the reception area she saw Tim slide out from under a Buick, oil running down his arm like a long black glove. She asked the receptionist if he could be the one to give her the estimate. “Whatever,” the woman said, smacking her gum, and called Tim over. Josie had recognized him. She remembered him, of course. He was familiar, something unchanged. And dating him, that he’d taken an interest in her immediately, made her feel she wasn’t so wrong to have come home. Six weeks later and Hank’s truck was still sitting in the back of the auto shop. They didn’t talk about it, but Josie felt that the truck’s still not being fixed somehow defined their present and future, like something of a promise ring.
If he ever fixed it, they were over.
Tim pulled off at the lookout, as usual. Josie opened the glove box to find the bottle of Jim Beam he stashed in whatever car he took. She uncapped it and slipped her shoes off and cranked the seat low enough so that all she could see were the two or three stars visible behind the screen of smog. Josie had wanted to leave L.A. so badly, get as far as she could, filling out only out of state applications, but here she was all over again. The whiskey warmed her: down her throat, inside her chest, moving through her until the whisper of its heat rested between her legs. The first few swallows always did this, but if he didn’t touch her soon enough she grew irritable, solitary. She put her feet up on the dash and tapped her toes to the glass, pinning the stars.
“Kiss my ankles,” she said to Tim. “Then my calves, my wrists, then this dip in my arm.” She mapped a finger over the blue vein that ran from her wrist clear along the line of her bicep. “How am I still pale?” she said, almost laughing—riding that first quick, dip toward drunk.
Tim hadn’t moved toward her. She looked at him. His lips shone wet with the whiskey. His hands and face were always a little bit dirty.
“Look, there’s a fire,” he said, squinting one eye. “I think it’s that clapboard house next to school.”
Josie remembered hearing rumors about Tim and Dill shooting up rats in the clapboard. She knew Tim didn’t remember her from high school. “Good,” Josie said, closing her eyes. “Maybe the whole school will catch.”
While Tim fucked her, Josie made moans of encouragement, but he’d waited too long and she kept thinking of the list of things that needed fixing in her mother’s house. The vinyl in the kitchen booth. The dishwasher was the most irritating; scrubbing dishes while right there stood that useless hunk of plumbing. Josie adjusted her hips to shift some of Tim’s pressure—he wasn’t so drunk. She bit down on his shoulder. There were the mini blinds, too, in her mother’s room. They’d been bent in half somehow—a somehow Josie didn’t really want to consider. They needed replacing.
There was little different about her mother after Hank left. A veneer hardened, maybe, gone matte. Josie wanted to be away from all her stiff silences, but then once gone, she was always turning around in her mind, looking back home, thinking about her mother in particular, about her being alone, missing her. But she wasn’t alone at all. Miriam was never alone.
Tim arched his back and Josie saw the hairs of his nose quiver with his exhale. What was Josie doing with herself, here, watching the widow’s dog? There was a fist in her belly, an ache. Tim moved from her, back behind the steering wheel. Then he thanked her, as he always did.
“For what?” she said, this time.
He reached for his shirt. “I dunno. Seems like I should.”
The dog woke Josie, looking at her like he knew something, like an earthquake was coming. Josie fed him, but he wouldn’t eat, whimpering and circling, making Josie uneasy. The TV was still on. It was a drought year, like all the rest, but the fire at the clapboard house had not spread. It took only one fire truck and two men half-heartedly arching water into its center to put it out. Josie went down to her mother’s to tell her about the fire, Blue following behind, shadowing her as he did now.
Miriam made her breakfast. ”Why’s that dog smell wet?” she asked.
“He’s being weird. You want him outside?” Josie offered. Stan was still asleep, upstairs.
“No, it’s fine. Kinda nice to have a dog in the house again,” she said. Hank had taken their dog when he left; injury to insult. ”Too bad the school didn’t catch,” Miriam said, surprising Josie.
Some days this happened. Some days they could fall back toward one another, when there was room for them to do so. Maybe this was what Josie was back for, for these moments when Miriam looked at her and they both said I’m sorry and I forgive you and I love you with only their eyes and maybe half a smile, and Josie felt seen. They finished their eggs and sat, Miriam sipping coffee. It was growing hot already.
“You want my car?” Miriam said. ”For the day? If you want to get out for awhile.”
In this, her mother’s contented company, the uneasiness Josie had woken with turned to a giddy kind of bravery. She would go and see Tim at the shop, unexpectedly, unannounced—the way he came to her.
Halfway out the door, Josie stopped, ”I can fix the dishwasher when I get back.”
“Leave it to Stan,” Miriam said, ”it’s the least he can do.”
* * *
When Josie pulled up, Tim was sitting in a car outside the shop, a Honda—of all the cars. There was a girl, a redhead, in the driver’s seat.
Tim was kissing her.
First, Josie’s breath deepened, her heart slowed, a primal reaction: flight or fight. But then a quiet vindication moved in. Josie knew this already—an expectation was being met, a primitive script enacted. It was why she hadn’t wanted to go and see him, she realized this know. This was the same kind of understanding she’d had away at school, an awareness of the futility underneath the brick and ivy, the desks. This, she knew, was the kind of wisdom that went hand in hand with a unique sadness. Finally, she leaned on the horn of her mother’s car. In the backseat, Blue started barking.
Two mechanics came out, looking around, in their coveralls. Tim jumped out of the Honda and waved at Josie, smiling, earnest as ever. He waved off the other mechanics to go on about their business. Then he leaned down, into the open window of the Honda and said something to the redheaded girl, something that made that girl smile a big rabbit-toothed smile, before she drove off waving in Josie’s direction.
“She’s my cousin,” Tim said.
“You kiss your cousin?” After the girl had gone, Josie got out of Miriam’s car, leaned against it, arms crossed. Blue was panting in the backseat, watching them.
“Her cheek, Josie. We’re close.” He put his hands on Josie’s hips and wiggled her, as if they might dance.
“You were all over her,” Josie said.
She knew better than to believe him and she told him so. She pushed his hands away. She got back into her mother’s car, slamming the door, and drove away with Blue barking out the window.
Her cheeks were flush. Her foot and knee began shaking against the gas pedal. She was, possibly, more exhilarated by acting jealous than she was actually jealous. His cousin was pretty, in a peculiar way. In the kind of way girls at school had been, comfortable and confident, despite a pimple, despite tangled hair, and unafraid when Josie looked at them a little too long. Toward the end of the year, at a party, after Josie had already failed to secure her loans or register for new classes, a girl had leaned over and kissed Josie on the mouth. Josie had, briefly, kissed back. There was nothing quiet about college.
When Josie returned the car, Stan’s motorcycle was gone. Inside, the dishwasher was open and its door was halfway dismantled from its frame, a crescent wrench left on the counter. Josie called for Miriam though she could tell her mother wasn’t there, that she was somewhere on the back of that motorcycle, her arms around Stan.
The widow’s house was bigger, quieter, and that much more empty.
Blue looked at Josie.
“What now?” she asked him. His tail thumped the floor.
Josie looked at the classifieds and ate soup crackers for awhile, then brushed herself off and went to the cabinet where the widow had tucked away most of the frames and figurines. She set a few of the photos back out. They were, Josie realized, the widow’s grown children, with their own children, no longer feeling the pull of this house on them, if they ever felt it at all. On the mantel, alongside the list of telephone numbers the widow had left a road map. Surely she had another. Josie spread it open on the coffee table, driving a finger over the threading of highways, finding Houston—where the widow might be—then to Wyoming, looking for the dot of the town where she knew Hank had moved.
Blue didn’t bark when Tim came up the road, but stayed asleep, finally having eaten his well-mixed food. Tim was in one of the shop’s trucks this time. She’d told him she had the widow’s place, before she knew about the other girl, but Josie was too bored to stay mad or to pretend to stay mad, so she went to the mailbox at the end of the widow’s driveway, collecting the mail she had yet to collect. Tim unzipped his blue coveralls and tugged on jeans before circling a clean white tee over his head, swinging his hips. “You home all alone, little girl?”
Tim was ropey thin, with a mop of brown hair. Josie was never sure if she wanted to touch him or laugh at him. She kicked at the dust of the road and averted her eyes, playing along. She liked that he was here, that he was here instead of with her. Tim grabbed her by the hips and walked her backwards through the door, saying, ”You ain’t mad at me,” without any hint of it being a question.
Josie shrugged. What had made that other girl laugh?
“Jesus,” he said, “old people’s places give me the creeps.” He sat down on the couch and lifted up the afghan, peering under as though something dead might be beneath. “Stinks like oatmeal in here.”
She sat down across from him. “It’s better than your place.” She folded up the map on the table.
“What are you doing way over there? Come sit on grandpa’s lap.”
“So, we’re family now, too?” She was smirking, but got up and moved over beside him. “This house makes me kind of sad.”
Before the widow had demonstrated feeding the dog, she had taken Josie down the hall, toward the master bedroom, but then stopped short of opening the door, as if just remembering something. “I’d prefer you sleep in one of the spare rooms,” she said. “I won’t have time to tidy up in here and the linens are clean in all the other rooms.” Her tone changed. ”I insist you stay in another room.” This was fine with Josie. She hadn’t had her heart set on sleeping in the old lady’s bed. She’d looked in all the spare rooms, the grown children’s rooms, before choosing the only one with the queen bed and the view to the driveway below, but then she closed them up again, unnerved.
She touched the curl of hair behind Tim’s ear, than rested her head on his shoulder, inhaling the burnt scent of him. Blue waddled in, sniffing his boots.
“There’s that dog,” Tim said. ”Not barking at me now, are you, mutt?”
Josie heard Stan’s motorcycle returning down below. She listened for her mother’s voice, if she could hear them talking, laughing. Nothing. “His name is Blue.”
“Bluesy-woozy,” Tim said, taking the dog’s head in his hands and rattling it back and forth. Josie closed one eye and slouched down, making it look like Tim was wearing the lampshade from the lamp across the room.
“What are you doing?”
“Giving you a hat.” That girl, her smile; she hadn’t cared who Josie was at all.
“You’re a strange one, Josie Post,”
“Am I?” Josie smiled, then moved her hand from his thigh, up to the button fly of his jeans, fingering the lip of fabric, the cool metal of the buttons. When she first arrived at school, a slumped nosed woman in the registrars’ office had asked—as if reading the question off a grocery list, “Who do you want to be?” The woman’s dispassionate cadence, the way she seemed to wait for a response as if there were only wrong answers; Josie had shrugged. That girl, Josie thought now.
Tim stood and took her by the hand. “Let’s do it on the old lady’s bed.”
She led him around the corner, down the hall, stopping at the same door where the widow had stopped, and leaned against it, letting him rub between her legs until she was suffering the seam of her shorts hard against her pelvic bone. She felt for the doorknob behind her, twisting and pushing until they fell inside.
The room was enormous and unusually bright, the openness of the space, the blank white palette—they were quickly distracted from one another. Tim moved to the armoire, flipping open a polished silver box, smashing down the bristles on a horsehair brush. This was, by far, the largest room in the house. It was as if the widow had walls knocked down and built herself a sanctuary. Josie understood why the widow had not brought her in, proud of it, but more protective in the end. The room was very clean. The dog wandered in, smelling the carpet as if he’d never been inside. Tim lit a cigarette.
“I don’t think we should smoke in here,” Josie said. The dog seemed to hear something and ran from the room. Josie heard the crack of the back door hitting the brick she’d propped it open on.
Tim sat on the bed. He ran his hand over the twisted black wrought iron of the bed’s frame. “We shouldn’t be in here at all,” he said. “But this,” he blew smoke toward Josie’s face, “would be the perfect place to tie you up. Make you bark.” He made a snarling face, his lip curling up, exposing his teeth.
Josie laughed a high, nervous laugh and turned away from him, moving toward the window. She stood there, feeling him behind her. All the muscles, the skin of her back, the fine hairs at her neck, aware of him, so much so that she did not yet see beyond the yard. First she watched Blue—he was poised beneath the phone line, another squirrel clinging to a phone wire above, trying desperately to be still, to wait Blue out. All animals, Josie thought, must know this waiting, how to steady the breath, stiffen, one anticipating the chance to have the other. And then there she was. Above the low, thin tines of the widow’s flaking red fence—there was Miriam, her mother, behind the broken mini blinds of her bedroom, bent as they were, like a set of white metal wings, turned at just such an angle that, from here, Josie could see in, see her mother and Stan—clear enough.
Josie turned away, feeling the pressure of Tim’s fingers curling against the bone of her hip. He was always grabbing her fucking hips.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, and pulled the lace of the widow’s curtain back more. “Fuck,” he said. “Is that your mom?”
“Stop looking,” Josie said. She touched his shoulder, wanting to turn him back to her, but she felt the determination, the weight of his lean toward the window. She took the cigarette from him. She drew the smoke into her mouth, felt the burn of it and let the curling lip of ash fall to the carpet. She sat on the bed. What, she thought, was lost in him seeing? ”Please, stop looking,” she said, again.
“You jealous?” he asked.
“I’m bored,” she said. The cigarette was a nub of fire. She considered what it would be to press it into her palm, building a well of singed flesh in the middle of her hand.
“He’s got her—” Tim started. “Fuck. He is rough.” Tim was quiet for a minute, watching, then he said, “Josie,” just her name, and then, finally, almost asking, but not: “She likes that.”
“I wish you wouldn’t curse,” Josie said. She let saliva pool in her mouth, before letting it fall to her palm. She set the cigerette there, drowning it out.
“I mean, she must, right?” He let the curtain fall closed. His face was flushed.
“That girl,” Josie said, ”That other girl isn’t your cousin, is she?”
”Caroline?” he asked, sounding interrupted.
Josie hadn’t really wanted to know her name. Caroline. Tim sat on the bed beside her. She held the blotted cigarette in her cupped hand. She touched it with one finger, rolled it over, as if trying to revive a small fish. She wondered if the lines in her hands meant anything at all, if a palm reader could tell her something she didn’t already know.
Tim was looking at his own hands, the black-rimmed beds of his nails. “You still wanna,” he said and nodded toward the waist of his jeans—the still open button there. He had an erection.
“You’re hard?” Josie asked. There was an empty water glass at the widow’s bedside; Josie scraped her palm clean against its edge. She wiped her hand dry on her jeans and motioned as if to reach for him, to open his pants. He leaned back, bracing himself, waiting. Then Josie stopped. She stood up, over him. “You’re actually hard? From my mother?”
“Whatever, Post,” he said, “It’s all good,” he straightened, running a hand through his hiar. “I just came to tell you I’m nearly done on that truck of yours.”
Josie sat back down. ”Hank’s truck?”
He stood and hitched up his pants, nudging the button through its slit. “Your truck now. It’s not like I’m gonna charge you, if that’s what that face is about,” he said. He stood there for a minute, in front of her, not going—“I just need one more day on it.”
He stayed there, standing above her, just long enough for Josie to feel like she did want to, like she needed to.
The sky went gray late on Saturday, the air heavy and wet, and by early Sunday rain was coming down in unpredictable smatterings. Rain in July.
Josie looked at Blue, wondering if this was what he had known.
She waited until Stan had gone altogether and then went down, midday, to tell Miriam that Tim had fixed up Hank’s old truck finally and she needed a lift to go and pick it up. Miriam had the news on, newscasters standing around in excessive yellow rain gear.
”You believe this?” Miriam said.
The dishwasher was still open, still broken.
They drove without music, Miriam seeming lost in her own concerns, the car rattling. Tomorrow, the married guy would come over. Miriam would act amused with herself, showing him the half-dismantled dishwasher, acting like she’d been the one trying to fix it. He would pat her shoulder, kiss her. He would hire a handyman.
”I bet I can fix it,” Josie said, trying to navigate the silent distance between them. Blue had his head on the console.
”I bet you could,” Miriam said in that hollow, distracted tone. Miriam stopped the car halfway across the shop’s driveway. “You’ll have better things to do with yourself soon enough, Josie. Finish school,” her mother said. She looked tired.
Josie leaned over and kissed her on the cheek then, hoping it might mean something, that they might say something after, but it seemed only to startle her.
Josie knew this was Tim’s day off.
* * *
Only one of the truck’s windshield wipers worked, luckily on the driver’s side, but it was running well enough. There was a low hiss somewhere under the hood.
The needle was hovering above empty when Josie pulled into the gas station. She ran across the street to the liquor store while the truck filled up.
The guy behind the counter was wearing flip-up sunglasses, which he flicked open to ring her up. A television on the back counter was on and he was half-distracted watching the coverage of a mudslide on Pacific Coast Highway. Then making change, he smiled. “Where’s the party tonight?” he said and touched her hand, before handing off the bottle.
Josie pushed through the door, twisting the top of the paper bag, yelling back, “I’m only nineteen, asshole.”
The rain had swelled into a torrent. She ran back across the street, pulling her sweatshirt up around her head. She capped the gas tank and quickly fixed the passenger side mirror, which had been tilting downward as she drove, like a tired eye. Blue was in the backseat with his nose pressed to the glass. He whined and turned a circle, watching as she ran around to the other side, getting in.
She was starting the truck up when she noticed the girl, Tim’s cousin, Caroline, standing at the pay phone, half soaked by rain, digging in her pockets for change. She looked up and saw Josie looking at her. A shy, tense smile passed between them.
* * *
The city lights of the valley were streaking under the sheet of rain. Josie steered the truck slowly up the canyon. Too slowly. People honked, made gestures against the glass of their windows, and then passed on the shoulder, spinning muddy rocks up from their wheels. One hit the windshield. Caroline didn’t flinch.
“How’d you meet Tim?” Josie finally asked.
“How does anybody meet anybody? ” Caroline said, not smiling, but showing the ridge of her teeth.
“I don’t know, ” Josie said.
She pulled over at the lookout and parked. The rain was slowing. There was a patch of open night where the moon was waning. Josie opened the bottle, drank, then passed it to Caroline. She watched Caroline tip the passenger seat back the little it would go. She raised her feet to the dash as Josie sometimes did, though she drank more, leaving the mouth rimmed with the stamp of her lip gloss. She turned in the seat to look at Josie, asking, “Where should we go? ”
“We just got here, ” Josie said, looking back at her, curiously.
“I’ve got so many places I want to go, ” Caroline said, her eyes shifting onto some place in the unfocused distance. The rain had stopped and the clouds were thinning, separating like white curtains drawing back for a show.
Josie smiled. “Right, ” she said. “Me, too. ”
Blue had begun to whine in the backseat. Josie left the bottle on the seat and got out and opened the door for him, and stood there in the lingering mist. Blue lifted a leg again and again, marking. He sniffed about, then picked up something up—a stick perhaps, a rock of clay—which he gnawed and slobbered against. What if she just let him go, let him fend for himself? There was the snap-fire of a pistol in the distance. Then another. Josie looked toward the burned-out shadow of the clapboard house. She pictured Tim there, firing into the sea of rats, their bodies black and sodden, scorched from the fire of the other night. Tim would be with Dill. Only firing cap guns, but trading stories: Tim’s being about Josie’s head in his hands, moving her mouth over him while, given the occasional breeze, he caught glimpses of her mother.
Caroline rolled down her window and handed the bottle out.
“You don’t care that Tim’s been seeing both of us? ” Josie said then.
“Were you hoping to fight over him? ” Caroline had fine-boned feet and ankles. She was wearing sandals and her toes were flecked with mud.
“I guess not, ” Josie said. She hadn’t asked where Caroline was going, or whom she was calling or what had happened to her car. They’d just agreed to take a drive. They were like a couple of thieves in a movie, Josie thought, like friends.
“So, let’s not, ” Caroline said.
“Okay, ” Josie said.
“Okay then, ” Caroline said. She leaned over and turned the key in the ignition.
Blue looked up as the engine started. He’d staggered partway up the hillside. The stars were a careless white stitchwork in the now clear, dark sky. Blue would never know how to hunt and kill, but he could find his way home—he had that much animal left in him. He’d go back, Josie thought, his belly empty, and wait for someone to open the door.