If we didn’t get evicted, I gave us until the beginning of January before we said fuck it and started smoking everything inside. I stopped coughing just long enough to pass the microscopic roach to Traci. Her fingers were colder than chrome.
“Nice not worrying about random drug tests,” she said. “Fucking ridiculous they could have fired me for this.”
“Yeah, well, enjoy it while it lasts.” I wished she hadn’t quit her job at Blue Cross. The fact that she had was a damp blanket on our party: the two of us taking a few hits of shake weed in the backyard after our eight-year-old daughter Jody had fallen asleep. “Chung was definitely not bullshitting us when–”
“I know he wasn’t,” Traci snapped. “Would you please stop saying that.”
But I wouldn’t stop. “Well, we miss rent one time” — I held up a finger – “one time, and we’re out on our asses. Me, you, Jody. All of us.”
“We won’t miss rent. I wish you’d stop saying that.” She bit her lip and turned her head away. Her strawberry hair swung long and straight below a graying Irish knit hat. She said something under her breath.
I pounced. “Hey, I’m just making sure you get the situation we’re in.”
“Oh, I get it okay: I have to find another job. I will. I will find another job. Christ.”
“Great then.” I rubbed my hands together. “Just so long as you understand what we’re up against.”
Traci laughed sarcastically. I could tell she was dying to, but she didn’t dare suggest I go out and get a job. That wasn’t the way it was with us, and at that moment I was proud of myself for setting things up the way I did at the beginning. Back when the idea of us getting married was just a germ, Traci said she definitely wanted a kid someday, and it was a deal breaker. (I wasn’t too into the idea of having a kid, but I knew I’d hit the jackpot with Traci when we first started screwing on a regular basis. She didn’t like mucking it up by talking things to death. And she’d fire up the TV literally seconds afterwards. If she knew “Twin Peaks” was going to be on, I wouldn’t even have to make her come.) I told Traci I was okay with having a kid, but that I had a deal breaker of my own: I wasn’t going to quit my job at the boatyard for any reason, period. I didn’t really give two fucks about the job, but I felt like I had to put my foot down someplace with her. Traci is no dope. She knew until James or Dogshit stopped working for Teddy — or until Teddy himself retired or better yet, dropped dead — I’d be low man on the totem pole. That meant the work was relatively steady from April to November. The winters were nothing but free, fuck-off time for me, and bone-dry money wise except for what I could suck from the unemployment tit. Traci promised me I could keep working on boats — or whatever — so long as I was happy. We’d get by as a team. More like two different teams locked in a tie.
“You going to take a hit of that, or what?” I nudged her arm. “Because if you’re not…”
We sunk silently into cold-stiffened vinyl chaise lounge chairs that came with the lease. My gums began to throb, in a nice way. I was watching the silhouettes of our predictable exhalations climbing toward the full, cough drop moon. In my heart I knew Traci would get a job — answering phones or doing accounts payable shit — and everything would probably go on like it always had. I should have apologized for pissing all over her night, but apologizing is dangerous — even when I’m not stoned. I’d shoot with a bazooka when all I needed was a spitball. If I wasn’t careful I might have ended up promising her I’d enroll in night courses at Cape Cod Community.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Danny,” Traci said.
“Forget about it, baby. I know you’ll find a job.”
She grabbed my hand. “Not that. Look.”
From somewhere beyond the six-foot picket fence that separated our place from Chung’s other rental property, a fire puked a spray of orange embers into the starlit sky. They corkscrewed up, and then latched on to an onshore breeze that sent them sailing over and into our yard. It was a pretty cool sight to behold, but I was not even remotely stoned enough to dismiss the threat of our house — Chung’s house, that is — going up in flames. I climbed to my feet and started stomping to death anything that glowed. Traci joined in.
“Where are they coming from?” she asked.
“The fuck do I know. Keep stomping.”
“I am stomping.”
* * *
Traci woke up in a shit mood.
“What’s stuck up your ass?” I asked as she closed herself off in the bathroom.
“Wrong hole,” she said. “It’s my aunt from Blood Bay.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” I said.
“Yeah, well how do you think I feel?”
I didn’t stick around to find out. I stepped into my sweatpants and work boots and hollered for Jody to shake a leg or she’d be late for school. I walked into the living room, and Jody was already waiting for me, all bundled up by the front door, half-heartedly watching “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” She looked like a moon bound astronaut. I took drag-number-one off a Merit, and my head tried to fly away.
“Hurry, Daddy. I’m hot.”
“Yeah, well, you won’t be in about two seconds.”
“Yes, I will.”
“No, you won’t.”
“I will so. Two seconds is fast.” She started to count out loud. I guided her down the icy steps and walkway, onto the sidewalk. I moved slowly, and Jody fell into a rhythm of small, sliding steps. She stopped counting when she reached thirty-something.
“How did Casper die?”
“Casper the Friendly Ghost.”
“He’s not real,” I said like she should know better.
“I know he’s not real.” She sounded just like Traci. “But he must have died in the story to be a ghost in the story.”
“Maybe they just made him a ghost from the beginning.”
“How?” she asked.
“They just did it.”
“But ghosts used to be people. And then they die and become ghosts. He couldn’t have been a ghost the whole time.”
“Fine then,” I said. “I don’t know how he died.”
* * *
I got Jody on the bus and started out on an unplanned walk. I wanted to keep out of Traci’s way — which was a lot harder to do these days now that she was home all the time. I was underdressed, but I headed in the direction of the ocean anyway. I lit a cigarette and took the path that cut across a two acre-wide stand of evergreens and leafless garbage brush that separated our street from Sand Piper Beach Road. At a point on the path sufficiently camouflaged from the street, I came across a small campfire pit. It was outlined with scorched-white cobblestones I figured some horny teenagers had carted in from somewhere else. There was a sour apple wine bottle and a partially charred foil safety seal from a jar of petroleum jelly in the ashes. I held my hand over the pit and detected a weak pulse of heat.
The woods were so quiet, I could hear the intermittent sizzle of traffic on Route 28 over a quarter mile away. I sat on a log that had been sawn off and positioned to optimize the campfire experience. I knew there was a roach somewhere in my pack of smokes. I emptied everything onto the closed crevasse of my lap and sifted through the contents like a chimpanzee that’s cornering a grub. I used the back of a match to gently tamp the stray brown-green hairs of herb back into the flattened roach. After two good hits I got freaked out that someone was watching me. At first I thought I was just high. I heard something that made the nearby underbrush crackle, so I got the fuck out of there. When I got back on the street, I slowed up my pace some and laughed at how scared I’d been.
I was literally feeding my key into the lock when the front door swung open from the inside. Our landlord Chung appeared. Traci was behind him, showing him out like he didn’t know the fucking way. Snow had just started falling. Chung was wearing a lightweight nylon baby-blue bowling jacket and no hat, no gloves. He looked unhealthy despite having enough cash to buy and sell my ass a hundred times over.
“Ah!” he said with an enormous, crooked smile.
“Mr. Chung,” I said. We shook hands, but I didn’t mean it. Chung was holding our rent check in his other hand. He waved it like it was the winning Mega Bucks ticket, and I was Jack Williams from Eyewitness News.
“You lucky,” Mr. Chung said. “Tomorrow December 2.” He held up two fingers.
Fuck you, I thought. I forced a smile of my own.
“You very lucky,” he added.
“Last time I looked, it was still December one, not two.” I held up one finger. “And it’s only 10 a.m. That leaves me what, seven, eight hours before rent’s late?” I made a false swipe at the check. Chung stuffed it in his pocket and laughed.
“You funny,” he said. “It’s okay. It’s okay. No need to bring. I came over. I pick it up.”
“Great,” I said. “Saved me a trip. If you weren’t in such a rush, you could come in for a cup of tea.”
Traci sneered at me.
“Next time,” Chung said. “Next time. I go now. Many, many rents today.” He made like he was wrestling with a steering wheel of a tiny, amusement park car.
“Next time then.”
Chung squeezed past me and waved without looking back. As he headed down the driveway he stopped and picked up from his property the clear plastic wrap some paperboy had let blow away. I went inside and slammed the door.
“You’re a dick for offering him tea,” Traci said.
“What, I meant it.” I walked across the matted tan living room carpet without taking my boots off.
“We don’t have tea, and you know it.”
“Then we should get some.”
“Where are you going?”
“Back to bed.”
The come down from the weed was making me sleepy. I flipped on the idiot box and watched a bit of a classic car auction on cable. I was doing research. Even though my Firebird was a rusted out butter face and not a very desirable year anyway — one thing was certain — they weren’t making any more of them. That meant it was just a matter of time before fashion swung her way and some rich collector — a dentist or a surgeon — some overachieving fuck like that — showed up wanting to buy her. And then I’d make that fucker bleed. I’d make him bleed some serious green.
* * *
I brushed the sickle-celled snowflakes off a large pair of vise grip pliers and clamped them tighter than as a dog’s ass around the abused, rounded-over lug nut.
“What are you doing?” Traci asked. She was standing behind the screen door, hugging herself for warmth. I was too into the job at hand to answer her. I took a deep breath and put everything I had into it. It wouldn’t budge.
“Sonuvabitch,” I said through tightened lips.
“I mean, what is it you’re doing exactly?” she asked.
“I’m paying the fucking piper. What does it look like I’m doing? I’m trying to get this tire off so I can put that snow tire on. And after I do that, I’m going to repeat the fucking process three more times. That’s what I’m doing, exactly.” I grabbed the vise grips with two hands and tried again. I was grunting like a well-matched arm-wrestler. The vise grips lost their bite, and I had to fall over awkwardly to avoid smashing my face on the on the wobbly jack’s lever arm. “Whore.” I picked up the vise grips and — from my knees — threw them as far as I could. They flew clear over our front lawn and walked end-over-end across a good chunk of Chung’s other tenant’s.
Traci waited for the dust to settle. “Um, what about the butter?”
“Yes. We still need butter.”
“Are you serious? Look at me here, for chrissake. Can’t you use oil instead?”
She stopped hugging herself. “Oil? For mac and cheese?”
“Honestly, Traci, I don’t care what you use it for.”
She shut the door in my face.
I pulled off my red, white and blue knit hat by its enormous pom pom and threw it in the direction of the ball-breaking lug nut. “You miserable cunt,” I said through my teeth. “You miserable fucking cunt.” A few minutes later Traci and Jody stepped outside, bundled up for a walk.
“Where you going?” I asked.
“The Bahamas,” Traci said.
“Christ, Traci, can’t it friggin’ wait until I finish here?”
She raised a hand. “Don’t bother.”
“Fine then. I won’t bother.”
“What’s Daddy doing?” Jody asked. She let go of Traci’s hand and ran to me. She was wearing ski goggles almost as big as her whole face. They had a single yellow lens that made her eyes look green.
“Come on, Jody,” Traci said. “I don’t have a lot of time to fool around.”
“Why don’t you chill out, Mommy.”
“Don’t you dare talk to me like that,” Traci said. “Ever.”
I don’t think Jody heard me chuckle. Traci did.
“Oh, that’s nice,” Traci said to me. “I’m her mother.”
“I can’t help it,” I said. “It’s funny.”
So Jody said it again.
“Fine,” Traci said. “The both of you can stay here.” She stormed down the driveway.
“Oh, please,” I called after her. “Can’t you take a joke?”
Traci stomped along the sidewalk into the white fallout coming from the homogenous gray nowhere.
“Chill out,” Jody sang. “Chill out.”
“Okay, that’s enough of that,” I said. I was still watching Traci.
“Chill out, Mommy.”
“I’m serious now.” I had a finger wagging in Jody’s face. She grabbed it, gave it a kiss and ran to catch up with her mother.
* * *
It was just shy of midnight by the time I got home. Traci was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, reading a People magazine with Kevin Costner on the cover.
“You drunk?” she asked without looking up. I’d planned on having beers at The Nail with Dogshit and a couple other guys laid off from the boatyard.
“I didn’t end up meeting up with them,” I said.
Traci dropped the magazine to the table. “Really?”
“I was going to, but I didn’t feel like it. I took a walk instead.”
“Where?” Traci chuckled.
“I don’t know. I just wandered around. Along the beach. Up to the point and back. All over the place.”
She was amused. “You strolled around for…” she looked up at the clock on the stove, “for two and a half hours? You don’t exercise.”
“The new me does.” I stuck my gut out as far as I could and rubbed it. “Well, ever since I got this beer baby to think about….” That made Traci smile even more. I was smiling too. I finally exhaled, and we laughed. “Oh, who am I kidding,” I said. “You busted me.” I held out my hands to be cuffed. “I was partying the whole time with some high school kids out in the woods.”
“High school kids?”
“Yeah, you know, jocks, cheerleaders. High school kids.”
“Oh, is that so?” Traci laughed and ran her index fingernail like a scalpel down my belly.
“That reminds me,” I said, pulling away from her. I went to the cabinet and stuffed two inches of Pringles potato chips into my mouth.
“Those are for Jody’s school snack.”
“There’s practically a whole thing left.” I shook the tube so she could hear how full it was.
“Just make sure you left her some.”
“I did.” I went to the fridge, twisted open a bottle of beer and took the seat across from Traci. I raised the bottle to her. “You want one?”
“No, but I’ll have some of yours.” I handed her the beer. She took a long pull and let her lips linger on the opening of the bottle before giving it back to me. “It’s kind of warm,” she said. She wiped her mouth, and then her hands disappeared into her lap. Her arms started moving like she was slowly grinding pepper. I kicked my boots off and worked a foot up between her crowded thighs.
“You want to?” I asked.
“But I’m a bloody mess.”