When did everyone get married? When did they all have kids? Suddenly there’s no room for me. I spend an hour on the pay phone trying to wrangle a couch to crash on, and all I get is “Sorry,” “Sorry” and “Really sorry.”
Fan-fucking-tastic. In-fucking-credible. The cops show up to put me out of the apartment, and it starts to rain. I can’t hold a thought in my head. My unemployment has been used up, and I’ve sold everything but my television.
The bartender gives me a look when I come dripping in with my suitcase, the Zenith twelve-inch tucked under my arm. I put the set on the floor next to my stool. It’s just past noon, and I’m down to my last fifty bucks.
“Bring it on,” I say.
For every three drinks I pay for, the bartender slips me a freebie. I buy him a few, too. He warms to me when he realizes I’m not a bum. The day passes at a slow trot. I’m up, then I’m down. A good idea, a fresh start. Something. Anything. Please.
I drink through happy hour, the shift change, the after-work rush. Nobody knows me here. I go to put a dollar in the jukebox, but one of the regulars reaches out and grabs my arm and pleads, “No, man, not now,” and what can I do? It’s his hideout.
A stranger listens to my troubles. Antonio Alfredo Blah Blah Blah. Not to worry, he says, I can sleep in his toolshed. We seal the deal with decent tequila, but he’s nowhere to be found at closing time.
I spend the rest of the night cradling my TV in the doorway of a beauty supply store. The rain is still coming down. There’s thunder and lightning, and big black bugs emerge from the cracks in the sidewalk and scurry for dry ground. Even with all the booze in me, I can’t sleep. Right before dawn I see bats circling the streetlights.
I’m waiting for the bartender when he opens at six. The first drink warms me up, the second makes me puke. By noon I have just enough money left for bus fare and a phone call to Riverside. “Mom,” I say — the receiver shakes – “I’m coming for a visit.” I change my shirt in the bathroom, and the bartender treats me to one for the road. I’m teetering, I’m teetering, I fall.
I’m not going to fight the old fights this time. We’re a family; that’s all there is to it. It takes her a while to unlock the door. Her hands are hurting her again. I had a key, but I lost it. She hugs me around the neck, trying to smell my breath.
“You know the rule,” she says. “Not in my house.”
What did she do to her hair? Something funny. “It looks good,” I tell her. She’s put clean sheets on one of the beds, but my brother’s high school golf trophies are frosted with cobwebs. He and I shared this room forever. Mom hasn’t changed anything. It’s as if we died, and she’s honoring our memories.
I open a drawer filled with comic books, grab a few, and sit at the desk where I did my homework and built model cars. I swore it wouldn’t happen, but here I am again. My mouth is dry, my head throbs. The first twenty-four hours will be the worst. It takes time to get used to having a body again. I turn the pages. The Incredible Hulk bounds across the desert, covering miles with each leap, a soaring green cannonball.
Everything about this place makes me sick. It struck me when I was twelve, and from then on I was miserable. I don’t know what it was — the dust, the crowded church parking lots, the way any kind of decent plan fell apart. The one teacher I could stand in high school said that everybody hated their hometown when they were my age and that I’d grow out of it. But not me. Never. I left for the first time at seventeen, and I left running.
Hollywood, baby. I slept on the floor of a guy who had moved from Riverside a year earlier to start a band. He got me a job busing tables at the restaurant where he worked, and within a month they made me a server. I blew my tips on beer and ecstasy and dated a rich girl who lived in the Hills.
It’s hard to recall how happy I was. I don’t let myself get that excited anymore. Everyone I knew was on the verge of something big. And me, too — why not? You could see it in the double takes we got when we walked into the clubs. “It’s you,” said the music. “It’s you,” said the lights. “It’s you.”
Mom makes me lunch. Tomato soup, grilled cheese, and a tall glass of milk. She washes dishes while I eat. The TV is blaring in the living room, one of those court shows people love so much. Mom’s robe is pink silk. Her toenails are pink, too. She keeps herself up, that’s what everyone says. I think she’s sixty, sixty-one. My brain can’t do the math right now. She was a schoolteacher for thirty years.
“So, the whole world’s against you, huh?” she says.
“That’s one way of looking at it.”
“How do you look at it?”
“That way. Sometimes.”
Mom laughs, but if she wants trouble, she’s out of luck. I’m fading fast. I count the crumbs on the table, gathering them with a moistened fingertip. My headache has sharp spines that gouge me when I swallow. The tile is cracked, the wallpaper moldy. Mom spends all her money on clothes.
“Tell me again how it’s not your fault you were evicted,” she says.
I can’t even hear her. I’m too busy trying to keep my food down. She’s not being cruel; she thinks she’s funny. All her friends tell her she’s funny. All those friends of hers. She wasn’t around much when we were growing up. I feel so heavy, I have to use both hands on the tabletop to lift myself off the chair.
The sheets burn. I curl my fingers and toes, and my breath roars in and out. The shadows of the trees outside stroke the ceiling. I put all my faith in them. It’s not right for a grown man to be back in the bed that he wet until he was ten. Part of me wants to work on a plan, but the rest of me shuts down and bows again to the leafy shadows. We need sleep. A bird sings, and the sun slides lower in the sky. I’m losing another day.
I loaded trucks, I tended bar. I got my head shots done. Nothing happened the first year or the year after, but I still believed. People gave up and moved away, and new people arrived to replace them. There was always someone hopeful to talk to. “You’re dreaming,” Mom would say when I called, but what was wrong with that? It was a good life for a young man. The big thing wasn’t money, the big thing wasn’t cars or clothes.
And then — wow! One of the regulars at the club I was working at in those days was a half-assed agent named Rusty, who was always mouthing off about who he knew. I finally got fed up and said, “Rusty, you’re so full of shit. Why don’t you send me out on some auditions?” He did, and I got the second thing I was up for, two lines in a straight-to-video quickie.
We shot on the patio of a mansion in Malibu. The guy playing our boss paced back and forth, reminding us of the insults, the lies. He wanted us to make things right. He wanted us to go to war for him. “Can I trust you, Frankie?” he asked. “Absolutely, Vito,” I replied. The lights were hot on my face. The camera dollied toward me, and the assistant director pointed. “It would be an honor to die in your service,” I said. One take. One. The other actors said I was a natural. They had all been on TV and drove new cars. I felt like I’d finally turned a corner.
The glow lasted months. I took acting classes and went on dozens of calls. I spent hours at the gym — me and everyone else. Nothing came of it. Then Rusty went to jail, and I couldn’t get another agent to see me. Extra work didn’t pay the bills. I began to doubt myself, which is deadly in that business.
Hulk is in love with a shapely green girl who’s just as strong as he is. Together, they defeat the bad guy. I’m missing the next issue, but in the one after that the green girl is dead, and Hulk is alone again. Mom busts in and whips open the curtains and the window. She wrinkles her nose at the smell. I’ve been lying here for days, but I think I’m over the hump now.
“I need help with the groceries,” Mom says.
It’s windy outside. Fallen leaves school like fish in the street, following each other from gutter to gutter. The mailman passes by, keys jingling. I carry the bags into the kitchen. Mom’s on the porch, all bundled up in a hat and scarf. She smiles at the bare trees.
“The most beautiful time of year,” she says.
We’re deep into fall. Nights are cold, and everything that dies is dead. I’m a summer man, myself.
SpaghettiOs, bologna, pot pies — all my childhood favorites. Mom’s proud that she remembered, but I haven’t eaten this shit in years. We put it all away, then watch TV. There’s a car chase on every channel. The driver makes a big loop, the police right on his tail, from the Hollywood to the Harbor to the Century to the San Diego. People crowd the overpasses to cheer him on. He waves and honks his horn. Mom and I split a box of macaroni and cheese.
“Your dad used to do that, the way you chew with your hand over your mouth. Do you remember?” she says.
“I was maybe six, Mom.”
“I remember things from when I was six.”
“You think you do.”
“The neighbor boy did magic tricks. He could make bottle caps disappear.”
Dad died of cancer. He smelled like medicine. From pictures Mom has, I know he played golf and rode a motorcycle.
The car on TV spins out, and the driver makes a run for it. I want a drink. Not desperately, but a beer would be nice, and if I had a twelve-pack, I could bullshit with Mom all day long. She changes to a talk show, and I go to my room and read more comics.
My brother’s house is about a mile away. Paul. I walk over. He’s in his garage when I get there, working on his truck. I’m three years older. We’ve never been particularly close. He’s surprised to see me.
“Mom didn’t call?” I say.
He shrugs. We stand side by side, looking down at the engine. The fan belt is loose. All the men in the neighborhood took him under their wings when we were kids. He could catch a ball, swing a hammer. They loved him more than they loved their own sons.
His wife, Kelly, comes out. We’ve only met once before. Her dad owns the plumbing company Paul works for. I didn’t know she was pregnant. She asks the questions Paul won’t. I like that.
“How long are you staying with her?”
“It’s kind of open-ended.”
“Are you working?”
“Nah, taking some time off.”
“She must be so jazzed. She talks about you constantly, wondering why you don’t come see her more often.”
“She’s lucky she has you guys so close.”
This is a dig. Mom’s already told me they never visit. Kelly gives me a dirty look and goes back inside. I hold a flashlight for Paul while he tightens the belt. All his screws are sorted by size and stored in baby food jars. His tools hang on the wall above his workbench, each outlined in Magic Marker. I think he’s happy. He seems happy.
“Is that how you’re going to play it this time, that you’re visiting?” he asks.
“There’s some stuff to do. The house is in bad shape.”
“Good a place as any to dry out, I guess.”
I can take it; I’m a man. I ask him for some weed, a little something to smooth the rough patches. He still smokes — I know he does — so what’s with the disgust on his face? What’s with the sigh? He wipes his hands on a bright red rag before walking into the house. Growing up, I tried to be a big brother to him, but he wouldn’t have it. He scorned my advice, denied my wisdom. I never trusted him, either. We turned on each other all the time.
I’m playing with a vise mounted on the workbench when he returns. I put my finger in it and tighten it until it hurts. He passes me a film canister containing a fat green bud.
“Atta boy,” I say.
I stayed away those first few years, made all kinds of excuses not to come home. Acting in the movie finally gave me something to talk about, though, so I told Mom she’d see me on Christmas Eve. I don’t know why; we were never any good at holidays, Mom, Paul, and I. All the things you were supposed to say and do — one of us would invariably crack under the pressure.
Dinner went fine. Paul had a girlfriend over, and the three of us used her to keep our distance from one another. She was delighted by the attention. I’d stashed a bottle in the mailbox, and Paul and I took turns sneaking out to hit it.
Cheap whiskey makes me boastful; it always has. By the time we sat down to unwrap presents, I couldn’t shut up about myself. I said I was close to getting a TV series. I said I could see dolphins from the balcony of my apartment, when the truth was I’d been sleeping in my car for a week.
For gifts, I gave both of them one of my head shots, framed, and a funny little IOU I’d drawn up that promised something more when my money situation improved. They were unimpressed.
“Next time you’re going to cheap out, let me know,” Paul huffed. His present to me had been a beautiful leather wallet and silver wallet chain.
“Maybe next year we’ll get the Cadillacs,” Mom said with a smirk.
I snatched the photos away from them. I tore up the IOUs.
“This family is fucked,” I announced.
Paul went off, and the tree got knocked over. Mom threw me out. I drove a few blocks, parked in a cul-de-sac and finished the whiskey, then fell asleep listening to carols on the radio. In the morning my battery was dead.
I start with the gate. It’s falling off its hinges. Mom has a hammer and nails, so I straighten that out and then tack up a few boards that have come loose from the fence. The backyard has been invaded by the kinds of plants that creep in when your guard is down. Ivy spills over the retaining wall, and morning glory climbs the trees and chokes the rosebushes, flashing sickly purple blossoms. I wade in with a hoe and pruning shears, and by noon the flower beds have been liberated.
Mom brings me a sandwich and a Pepsi. I eat at the picnic table. The neighbor’s orange cat watches from under a bush. I dangle a shred of bologna and make kissing sounds, but he’s not buying it. There’s dried blood on my knuckle. I lick it off and reopen a little cut. A thorn must have hooked me. The birds are going crazy, talk, talk, talking among themselves.
“Hey, stranger,” Boots yells out the sliding glass door. Her rings catch the sun when she waves. Boots is Mom’s oldest friend. She taught me to sing “Folsom Prison Blues.” She and Mom are going to the movies. Every Wednesday it’s that and a cheeseburger at Carl’s Jr. “Don’t let her work you too hard,” Boots says. “Lincoln freed the slaves.”
I mow the lawn and edge it. I prune the skeletal peach trees and grapevines. The trimmings fill the trash can. Used to be you could burn this stuff. I remember flames snapping and smoke in my eyes. Was it Dad who lit the match? Two Mexican kids watch from across the street as I sweep the sidewalk, the driveway, the gutter. The fat one wrestles the little one to the ground, letting him up when he screams. The sun is setting by the time I uncoil the hose and wet everything down.
The shower needs to be caulked and the faucet leaks. I should start a list. I dry off, then wipe the fog from the mirror with the edge of my hand. A good shave isn’t in the cards, though — my razor’s for shit. I wouldn’t say I’m vain, but the web of tiny wrinkles around my eyes depresses me. At least my gut’s holding up.
Pork chops for dinner. Milk gravy. Mom tells me about the movie. “It was sad, but good sad. He loved her so much. Boots cried and cried.” I’m doing calculations in my head, tearing down walls. I could turn this house into something sweet. Mom agrees to give me the money for paint and linoleum to fix up the bathroom. She grabs my hand and presses it to her chest. “You’ve been sad, too, haven’t you?” she says.
I’m embarrassed. I pull away. “I’m fine,” I say. “Don’t get all worked up.”
Reed and Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four have a son named Franklin. Dr. Doom steals the kid, and they go to war. My mind wanders. I toss the comic and close my eyes. Someone once taught me a Buddhist chant to calm myself, but I forgot it a long time ago. I slide my hand down my pants. That’s a bust, too.
Mom’s asleep in front of the TV when I sneak out the door. I wait until I’m around the corner to light the joint. It’s been a while since I smoked. By the second hit, I could tell you everything you need to know about the neighbors simply by analyzing the cars in their driveways. It’s so obvious. The high intensifies, though, and turns creepy. A dog snarls at me. A Toyota makes a questionable left. And my heart. Man! It’s racing like a sonofabitch.
The kick came out of nowhere, catching me square in the mouth. I almost swallowed my teeth. That’s what you get for fighting in bars. A few years had passed since that Christmas mess. Mom gave me a little attitude but finally said I could stay with her awhile. I had to get out of Hollywood; I didn’t want anyone to see me like that.
It shocked her. My nose was broken, too. She sent me to her doctor and her dentist. She was still teaching, so I had the house to myself for most of the day during my recuperation. I’d take fistfuls of pain pills and watch TV, drifting in and out. Commercials made me cry, and I’d see old friends gasping and clapping in studio audiences. I couldn’t stop running my tongue over my new front teeth.
Mom tried to lay down the law when she found my stash. I was ready to go anyway. A buddy had called with a remodeling job in Brentwood, and they were holding auditions for some reality show. I left a note on the kitchen table, not thanking her for anything, but promising repayment. I was always hopeful on my way out.
Mom, Boots and some of their friends enjoy helping those less fortunate than they are. Once a month they volunteer to chaperone a dance for the mentally retarded at the community center. Mom thinks it would be good for me to come along. I’m not so sure, but she won’t take no for an answer.
“Look nice,” she says. I put on a dress shirt and my black shoes. Boots drives us. There are two other women in the car. Everybody picks up where they left off last time. The conversations have been going on for years. I taste perfume and hair spray.
The woman who runs the thing is all business. She doesn’t even thank us for coming. Mom helps with the last-minute decorations, and I’m assigned to the refreshment table. I arrange my Styrofoam cups in neat rows. I stack my cookies. They have a DJ and everything. The lights go down, and the music starts. The kids arrive all at once.
They’re teenagers, I think. It’s a big deal for them. Most of the girls wear dresses, and the guys have on ties. The parents and chaperones have to pull them out on the dance fl oor and start them moving, but after a while they get the hang of it. The deejay yells, “Whoo whoo!” and all of them repeat it, lifting their hands in the air and jumping up and down.
One kid keeps coming over for punch every five minutes. Little bitty eyes, great big head. “I hope you’re not driving,” I say.
He purses his lips and wrinkles his nose. “Do you want to dance?” he asks.
“We’re not allowed to date customers,” I reply.
He laughs, but who knows why. A retarded girl moved into the neighborhood while I was growing up. Leah Leah Diarrhea. She used to French-kiss her dog. We conned her into taking off her clothes once. Her mother caught us in the alley. We were just boys, stupid boys, but the look on her mother’s face has never left me.
When it’s time for my break, I lock myself in a bathroom stall and suck on a roach I brought just in case. I can’t hear the music, but when I lean my head against the wall, the bass jiggles my eyeballs. I’m confused about what kind of person I am. Good or evil doesn’t get to the heart of it. Someone has carved a big squirting cock into the toilet paper dispenser. They’ve tried to paint it over, but I can still see it.
Paul knows his way around Home Depot. We’re in and out in half an hour. I can’t even pause to look at a plumbing display or the circular saw on sale without him saying, “Focus, dude, focus.” I don’t let it bug me, though; I’m used to being hurried along. It’s like I get hypnotized sometimes, by the bustle, by the crush.
There’s money left after paying for the stuff to fix up the bathroom. I make Paul stop at the hot dog cart in the parking lot. I want to treat him to lunch for bringing me here in his truck. Two cars get into a honk fi ght over a prime space, and I watch a girl smoke a cigarette and stare at the endless empty sky. The peppers I put on my dog burn my tongue.
“You like that, huh?” Paul says, talking about the girl.
“It’s her eyes. The shape, the color.”
Paul is going bald; I’m not. Funny. I wish he’d stand up straight. He eats with his hand over his mouth, too, like Mom
says our father did.
“Hey, I might have found a car for you,” he says. “Can you scrape together eight hundred dollars?”
I loved that Honda they repoed. Leather seats, sun roof. It’s just as well they took it back, though. It was dragging me down. To make the payments I had to tap the till at the shoe store where I was working.
The bathroom keeps me busy for a week. I rip up the old linoleum and lay down new stuff. I paint the walls pale pink. I even replace the shower curtain. It tires me out. There’s no time for cravings or regret. I dream about drinking once but wake up feeling guilty.
The last time I was here, Mom wasn’t around. I made sure of that. I climbed in through a window I knew about that wouldn’t latch. A bad guy was after me because of some money he claimed I owed him, and I was behind on rent. The idea was to make it look like a stranger had done it.
I went through her jewelry box, her dresser, her closet. I looked under her mattress. The house creaked and groaned in protest. Everything made me jump. I unplugged the TV and the microwave. There was also a clock radio by her bed. Sweat ran down my face and dripped on the fl oor, and I wondered if that’s how the cops would catch me.
And then I put everything back. Every bit of it. I crawled out the window empty- handed and got in my car and drove away. We were in the midst of a heat wave. As usual, poor people and animals suffered most. I passed sweaty families playing mini-golf and crazy bastards crouched in the shadows of telephone poles.
The sun beat down on all of us like it had a monstrous grudge. Riverside, California.
Mom loans me her car to drive to a comic book store that I find in the phone book. It’s in a strip mall past the railroad tracks. The kid behind the counter perks up when he starts looking through my box. He pulls out a price guide and says it’s going to take a while.
There’s a doughnut shop next door. I order coffee and sit by the window. I used to envy guys like me, relaxing in the middle of the day, reading the paper. And me busting my ass, I’d think. Christ, things get away from you.
The kid tries to hide his excitement when I return to the store. He has the comics stacked on the counter in various piles. His T-shirt has a picture of a fist on it and the name of a band. I thought metal died out years ago.
“I can give you six hundred dollars for everything,” he says.
“There’s good stuff here.”
“Like what, for instance?”
He points. “Amazing Spider-Man 129. The Punisher’s first appearance. It’s near mint, so we’ll go one hundred.”
I pick it up, thumb through it. One hundred dollars! My lucky charm. “I’ll hang on to this one,” I say. “The rest are yours.”
I stop by Paul’s place and give him the money. He agrees to float me a loan for the three hundred more it’ll take to buy the car. Maybe we could have been friends, if we hadn’t been brothers. I hug him when I leave, just to watch him flinch.
We have a party to celebrate the new bathroom. Mom makes cupcakes for it. Boots stops by, but Paul and Kelly have other plans. The fixtures sparkle, the tile shines. Boots wants to know how much I’d charge to remodel her kitchen. We drink hot chocolate and play hearts. Mom loves cards. Poker, canasta, bridge. “It takes a certain kind of mind,” she says. I don’t have it. I lose every time.
The storm they’ve been talking about for days is fast approaching. A black roil of clouds bears down on us, and the trees twist in the wind, as if they want to run away. Boots cuts the game short. She doesn’t like to drive in the rain. Mom and I step out onto the porch to wave. The fi rst fat drops whisper in the grass.
We get ready for the news, Mom in her recliner, me on the couch. Her constant sniping is getting on my nerves — the dead girl was stupid for hitchhiking; the corrupt politician looks like a rat fink. I go into the kitchen for a glass of Pepsi.
Dad drank. That’s why Mom can’t stand drinkers now. He hit her once, when I was a baby. Divorce never came up, though. She says they were made for each other. What do you call that? Love? It’s pouring outside. The wind fl ings rain against the window. I rinse my glass, dry it, and put it in the cupboard.
Mom is staring at the TV. There’s a magazine in her lap, People. She runs her finger over the face of the movie star on the cover and says, “I actually believed I’d see you here someday.”
“Don’t count me out yet.”
“Come on, kiddo.”
I shrug. Who knows? What I can say for certain is that whatever needs to happen next isn’t going to happen here.
Let’s just say a woman was involved. She wasn’t the only reason I pissed everything away this time, but she was there at the start and not at the end, and it killed me that I couldn’t keep her. Jenny Pool, Jenny Pool, Jenny Pool. We did our best, right?
I’d pulled myself together and was doing the job thing and the exercise thing and the early to bed, early to rise thing. I got a callback for a play — a small role, but a good one — and went out to celebrate. Jenny was the hostess at the restaurant. My buddy knew the owner, and we closed the place. The staff joined us at the bar. Jenny told me a joke I didn’t get. She danced with a lonely Guatemalan dishwasher and brought tears to my eyes. By morning I was convinced that she was the missing piece of the puzzle.
Her dad was an actor, so she swore she’d never date one. Of course that’s all she dated. We both went into it like it was our last chance. It was a moony, miserable teenage kind of whirl. I said things like, “I wish I could crawl inside you,” and, “How many lives did it take us to get here?” She bought me a puppy that my landlord wouldn’t let me keep. I snuck it to the pound and told her it ran away.
I got the part, but the play fizzled in rehearsals. This made me a little introspective. Jenny took it as something else. She had abandonment issues, what ever that means. All of a sudden we didn’t see eye to eye on anything. Picking out fruit at the supermarket was a goddamn prizefight. Someone said she’s in Sedona now. The love of my life, quite possibly.
The route to Paul’s house passes by my high school and the burger stand where I got my first job. Mom says a Korean family owns it now. Change upsets her, but I couldn’t care less. Last night’s storm has left the street a mess. I step over fallen palm fronds that resemble dried sea creatures. The clouds have blown away, and the sky is as blue as it gets.
Paul’s at work. On a Saturday? An emergency call. Kelly asks if I want to come in. I sit on the couch. A picture of them on their wedding day hangs over the fireplace.
“Where’d you guys get married?” I ask.
“I’ve got to get over there someday.”
She stands in the doorway to the kitchen, holding the phone. The baby is coming soon. Every little twinge inside probably stops her in her tracks. Her friends have told her how much it’s going to hurt. She’s waiting for me to explain why I’m here.
“I need to ask you a favor,” I say. “I want you to make sure Paul visits our mom more often.”
“Shouldn’t you talk to him about that?”
“I need you to work on him, too. She had that party the other day, and it was nothing, but you guys didn’t even stop by.”
“We had things to do,” she says. “We’ve invited her here plenty of times, you don’t know.”
“She’s getting old. Look in on her once a week or so. No biggie.”
“You should hear her. She’s not exactly nice to me.”
I raise my hand. “Once a week or so.”
Kelly has more to say, but I’m done. No need to go in circles about it. She gives up and walks into the kitchen. I watch HBO until Paul gets home. His face is dirty, and he seems tired. I don’t have the heart to start in on him. I pretend I dropped by to see what’s up with the car.
The back door sticks. I fix that and clean out the rain gutters. Mom is angry with me. She thinks my leaving so soon is a mistake. I tell her she can come visit when I get settled, make sure I’m on the straight and narrow. We eat a silent dinner. I notice she’s having trouble with her fi ngers, uncurling them, but she won’t answer my questions about it.
I lie awake in the dark, trying to see the future. I’ll find a job, get an apartment. Something good will finally happen. The silence is broken by sobs. I pull on some pants and hurry to Mom’s room. She sits up at the sound of my voice but looks right through me. Tears shine on her cheeks.
“Please don’t die in the ice,” she cries.
“Mom,” I say. “Mom.”
Her eyes begin to focus. The fear drains from her face, leaving it gray and devoid of expression. You poor woman, I think, as if she were a stranger.
“I’m fine,” she says, coming back to herself. “Let me be.”
The car is a real beater, an old Sentra, but the engine is in good shape. Paul gives me the keys, and the title is in the glove box. I can live with the dents and dings for now. Mom and Kelly are standing on the porch. Paul watches them, ignoring what I’m saying. Mom reaches out and touches Kelly’s stomach. The baby is kicking.
We sit together at the kitchen table and eat lunch. It’s been a long time. Mom is nervous. Her hands shake when she passes the coleslaw, and she laughs at anything even vaguely funny. Paul shows us a scar on his leg, where he was burned by a motorcycle muffler. Conversation goes here and there, just like it should. We help each other along. I’m antsy, though. I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping tonight, and I’d like to get a move on.
Paul wants to see what I did in the bathroom. The bead on my caulking is a little crooked, and I also didn’t do the greatest job matching the pattern on the linoleum in a couple spots. He tries to be funny when he points these things out. I turn on the shower, and the pipes rattle and groan.
“There’s a project for you,” I say.
“Don’t worry about it,” he replies. “Don’t worry about anything.”
“Oh, so you’re the big daddy now.”
“What do you mean ‘now.’ ”
I pretend to swing at him, and he pretends to block my punch.
Everyone walks me to the curb. I put my TV in the trunk. The lock is broken, but it shuts tight. Mom presses some money on me. I take it without counting it. She tells me again I’m making a mistake. That’s fine. That’s her part in this thing. I promise Paul I’ll pay him back. The three of them are waving as I drive off. My people.
You pick yourself up and go on. That’s what you do. Over and over and over. The big drunk Limey wants to know where the movie star footprints are. Three blocks west, I tell him. Across the street. Can’t miss them. I draw him another Guinness.
Martin’s drinking rum. He’s a director. Videos, I think. A nice kid. I show him the Spider-Man comic, my good luck charm. I keep it in a Ziploc bag behind the bar. “Ever seen one of these?” I say.
When my shift is over, I walk the Boulevard. I’m still not drinking, so I try to keep myself occupied. It’s Friday night, and the tourists are out. I offer to take a picture of a German family crouched around Clint Eastwood’s star. Music blasts out of a souvenir shop, and there are so many lights my eyes hurt. Dizzy, dreamy, I flop down on a bus bench and smile at the passing cars. Sometimes happiness sneaks up on you like a piece of a song on the wind. Just that random, just that rare. Jenny Pool, Jenny Pool, Jenny Pool. Hollywood sends its love.