By LEE JOHNSON
The ratchet strap unlocked its front door, and Jack the Uncle and I made our way into the air-conditioned barroom, took our stools. We mopped our faces with napkins from the rail and left them crumpled there in front of us. Skip was in the kitchen taking his time checking keg levels. “I need one now,” Jack the Uncle said. He twisted his fingers together and held back the shakes. “All this waiting around,” he said, “it ain’t right.”
The TV hanging over the west side of the bar was showing some pitcher beaning a batter. After getting hit, the batter tossed his bat aside, rushed the mound, and busted the pitcher in the face with a solid right hand. “There you go,” Jack said.
I couldn’t tell if the pitcher meant to bean the guy or not. It looked like he’d thrown a knuckleball. Sometimes those things just happen.
The station played it again in slow motion and I couldn’t watch anymore. I’m a big guy, but fighting was never my thing. I stayed away from the men who waltzed around each other late at night in the parking lot. Men who liked to beat each other’s brains out. Men like my brother.
Jack the Uncle loved watching the pitcher get knocked down. He kept saying, “That’s what justice looks like, son.” Then he held out his hands and weighed two invisible things and said, “I ain’t the one made the rules.”
“I’m not your son,” I said.
A slow clock hung on the wall behind us. I could see it in the bar’s long mirror. The clock almost never showed the right time, but when it did, the Uncle got a free drink. Something about the real world lining up with this one.
“Son nothing,” Jack said. “I’m the daddy. We need nooky.”
I glanced at the TV, expecting to see some beauty in a bikini top holding out sweaty silver cans, but it was still the same beaning.
The Uncle groaned and concentrated, like he was about to manifest in front of us the very thing itself. I didn’t know his actual years. He was allowed to act however and say whatever he wanted here. Senile, drunk, and often mean— the only reliable things about him were his problems. But he did have one talent. He could predict when somebody new was about to walk in.
“Let it be nooky,” Jack said.
The strips of tire screwed into the frame for hinges allowed the door to swing open without a sound. The Uncle looked over his shoulder, and his face went blank. “Nope,” he said.
A man sat down beside me. “Can I get us a pitcher?” he said toward the kitchen door. Skip came into the room, wiping his hands back and forth across the lap of his jeans.
“Batter already got him for you,” Jack said.
The guy elbowed me in the side. I looked up into the mirror and saw a familiar face next to mine. I couldn’t say his name at first. Then I said, “Andy.”
He winced, like I’d just guessed the answer to a question he now wished he hadn’t asked. He was older than me, came from Nitro Hill, the son of coal money, drove a brand-new jeep, dated lots of women. I knew him only through my brother, Ray, who I hadn’t seen in nearly a year. Ray and Andy were as far apart as you could get in blood and money, but they’d gone to high school together and run with the same pack after graduating. They never liked me.
I paid for classes at the community college, because my dad once told me that would take me somewhere. It didn’t. He’d spent his life on his knees, crawling across beams above drop ceilings, running electrical wire through drywall and wood and asbestos, and breathing in glass dust. And I’ll be Jesus Christ drinking a Bloody Mary, he always told me, if the only one of my sons with any direction is old knucklehead Ray. He’s going down quick, and you need to find a way to pick him back up.
That was the last thing I heard my dad say. The day after he said it, I went over to his duplex to check on him, and I found him sitting there on his couch, his pants unzipped to let out his belly. I held my mouth from the stink of his shit. The TV was muted and flashing colors across him. His head hung down, like he was so disappointed in everything.
I started working long, odd hours, pushing power sweepers across endless floors of department stores. Those huge rooms were lit from above with trays of fluorescent lighting my dad had hung. I walked beneath his work. I imagined him up there. I thought about what he’d told me, and I decided that my one goal was to help save Ray. I didn’t care much for the job, but having something to work toward felt good. I thought I was going somewhere. Ray was getting worse, always just about to fuck up, and I knew we would need some money when he did.
Back then, I rarely drank. I worked and saved each dollar. I flinched every time Ray shouted or made a fist.
The last time I saw Andy was the last time I had seen Ray.
Ray had been standing in a courtroom with his hands cuffed behind his back. It was his first time getting caught. He wore a wrinkled suit, tight at the shoulders. The right side of his face was covered in tape and gauze, and the reason he was here was for winning a fight. With his hands behind his back and the swelling in his jaw pulling his mouth into a crooked smile, he looked proud.
Andy and I had shown up to get one last look before they took Ray from us. I’d blown my savings on court fees and a lawyer named Weston Weston, this ageless old guy from California who chewed gum in the front of his mouth while he talked. I had failed to protect Ray, and I was embarrassed for even trying. With our dad gone, I needed him around. Not to see him and be near him, but just to know that he hadn’t finally left me and that I hadn’t failed. Ray and I shared a lot, not our personalities but our pain, and it was reassuring to know somebody else carried around similar burdens. But he didn’t look like himself up there in front of the judge that day. I kept staring, saying, Goodbye, you, goodbye, you. Beside me, Andy was checking his cell phone. We were sitting in the front row. I didn’t realize I was talking aloud until Ray looked at me, grinned, and said, “Ain’t nothing good in the bayou.”
The judge was already turning pages in a black book.
Andy and I had refused to testify. We didn’t want to lie. And that was the only honest way we could’ve helped him.
Ray’s ex had wanted to be in court that day too, but I didn’t let her. No way. All she’d have done was make a scene. The girl was impossible. Chopped white hair, black at the roots. A tired little tattoo around her belly button. Always holding her breath, like she was about to scream. I told her the wrong date
When the false date came, she called me and said they’d already booked him, locked him up. “I mean, hah, I don’t get it,” she said. “I mean, you said, hah, the fourth of.” She kept putting these confused laughs between her words.
I told her I’d lied to her. “You’re impossible,” I said.
“I’m more possible than you think,” she said. “Can I, hah, come over?”
We watched TV, skipping from commercial to commercial, making sure we didn’t invest in anything too long-term.
Her name was Tamra.
Half of Ray’s sentence passed, and I got nervous. I couldn’t sleep. He would be back. I hadn’t written to him since he left. I started hanging around The Ratchet Strap. One night, drunk, I talked to Skip about what Tamra and I had done together, our noncommittal nights. He said it was probably ’cause I hated Ray so much. That’s why I’d done it. Probably just my way of hurting him after he had hurt me so many times. “You know, basic bullshit,” Skip said.
“He doesn’t know about me and her, though,” I said.
“But it is hurting him.”
I turned into a regular. I could walk into the place at any open hour and get the beer of my flavor handed to me before my eyes adjusted to the darkness. It was an embarrassing luxury. If my glass was more than half done, there was always another one waiting behind it. Sometimes I’d see Tamra on the weekends when bands played. We talked about how good the music was, even when it sucked. And it always sucked.
One night she had come in wearing colored contacts. They were gold and made her pupils look like a wildcat’s. She was with one of the dudes, Lance, and she walked right up to me. I asked her what she wanted, and she said, “Don’t worry. I already got it.” Then she grabbed my hand and held it to her belly. It was big. “It’s yours,” she said. “It’s your baby, baby.”
She was drunk. “You’re sticking it out,” I said. I pulled my hand out of her grip and then touched her elbow. Lance stepped at me. He had gelled hair and was drinking light beer. “’Sup, fuck?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s mine.”
“You see this?” he said, pointing at the top of her head and then to the bottom of her heels. “All this’s mine.”
“Cool with me,” I said and turned around.
Later on in the night, Tamra found somebody else it belonged to. From my seat, I watched the whole thing go down. Chairs and stools screeched and fell over, and men stood up. They respected Skip and took it outside. I stayed sitting, drinking.
All this had happened since I’d last seen Andy, and I hoped he wasn’t wincing now because of the baby situation.
He rested his elbows on the bar and put his hands together in front of his face, like he was praying. He looked hungover, and I thought maybe for once I’d get some kindness from him. “Your bro’s an okay dude,” he said and filled our glasses.
“But,” I said.
“Y’all starting a tab?” Skip asked.
I told Skip to put it on mine, but Andy slapped a card down onto the bar and told Skip to keep it open. “When I drink, I pay for it,” he said.
“Don’t we all,” Jack said.
“No,” Skip said. “You don’t.”
Andy kept touching the bill of his hat, looking around the room, bouncing his knee and shaking my seat. I took my pint in a few deep swallows, filled it back up. The Uncle cleared his throat, and before he said anything, Andy had already bought him a tall yellow draft. “You stay quiet,” he said. “Shut up and leave us be.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jack said in what was supposed to sound like a baby’s voice. He walked his pint over to a table in the corner.
Andy leaned toward me and asked, “You seen Ray yet?”
I laughed. “How, break into jail?”
He pinched his eyebrows together with his fingers. I almost said my brother’s name aloud. Just the thought of Ray screwing up his life, our life, even more. I drank and held it in.
“He was almost out. It was going to be easy probation.”
“Since when did Ray ever choose the easy way out?” Andy said.
“Did he end up losing that eye?”
Andy cooled our glasses with the pitcher. He set it down and tapped his finger above it, like ashing a cigarette, motioning Skip for another one.
“We had a crowd drinking at the reservoir last night,” he said, “when this Chevy Celebrity thing comes up the access road. Stupid flames spray-painted on the hood and the sides. Ray steps out, carrying a screwdriver in one hand. A handle of Crow in the other.”
“So he’s all right,” I said. “What about his eye?”
Andy scooted up to the bar when Skip brought us another full pitcher. The door to the outside opened. The sun came in again, hitting the jar of pickled eggs on the counter’s far end and sending little broken skeletons of light across the wall. It was just the Uncle going out to smoke. But before the door closed, he stopped it with his foot, leaned against the doorframe, and looked back in. The brightness behind him turned his body into a flat shadow. Andy was still talking about Ray. The Uncle pretended to watch TV, but I knew what he was doing.
Andy kept going. “We all cheer, and Ray stumbles around the car. Now I think of it, his eye did look funny. Maybe he wasn’t drunk as I thought. Maybe it was his eye.”
“Maybe it was both. Why are you here?” I said.
Andy crossed his arms and looked down at the floor. “I don’t know how Ray escaped or where that car came from. But he was running, man. And he ended up taking Lance’s truck. Just drove off with it. And Lance’s dog, that Doberman.”
“Wait,” I said, and he stopped. “Jack,” I said, “close the damn door and mind your own.”
The Uncle blew air through his lips, sending into the room a visible spray of spit, and then he walked out. The door sucked shut, and things went dark again.
“That dog. Sheba,” I said.
“She was chained to the truck’s trailer hitch when he did it.”
We weren’t done with the pitcher, but I couldn’t drink anymore. I felt everything coming down. Ray would find me. And this time I’d have to help him.
“You okay?” Andy said. “Want a cigarette?”
He walked to the door and pulled it open. The Uncle was out there with his hands in his pockets, watching the sky. He grabbed the door and came back in. He started talking. I tried not to listen. I balled up one of the napkins in my fist, dropped it back down in front of me and let it bloom.
“’Scuse me,” Jack said. “Could I get a little of that pitcher there?” He held out his empty glass.
Before Andy returned, I got up. “Let me settle with you, Skip,” I said, and I paid my tab in full. I asked him if he’d do me a favor.
“If you see my brother,” I said. “If you see my brother. Will you tell him to come find me? Tell him he doesn’t need to be running around like this.”
The clouds on the horizon looked like bruises. The low sun was a black eye. I walked down Old Lebanon beneath it all, taking the long way back to my apartment in the abandoned shopping center, hoping that a place like this was not where we’d meet, when a pickup tore to a stop against the curb.
“Better get in,” Ray said. He didn’t even turn to look at me.
My brother’s shaved head, his stubbled square jaw, the high, sunburned cheekbones, and the clothes that didn’t fit him—none of it looked out of place. But he did have a glass eye now, the color of lake ice. It made him look lost.
I couldn’t believe he was still loose. He would make the news in no time. Jack the Uncle used to say, God loves drunks, and though I never knew who else he was talking about besides himself, I believed this was true for my brother. It was a miracle to have him here in front of me. God must have loved him. How else? The heat came off the truck’s engine. He’d been driving all night and all day, no rest. I got in.
Ray pushed the gearshift into first and we rolled out into the road. He gave it too much gas and jumped over second into third. He looked ridiculous with his little buzz cut on top of those wide shoulders. Who the hell did he think he was? I wanted to ask him, because I didn’t know. But I could tell he did not give a shit what anybody thought.
“Turn yourself in,” I said. “Make it easy.”
“Want to listen to some radio?” he said. He turned it on and found some guy singing about a sunset and a dog and a truck and a girl.
“This is shit,” I said, and I turned it off.
He pulled out a cigarette from a pack in the cupholder. “You got a light?”
“I wish.” I had a lighter in my pocket, but I wasn’t ready to give him anything.
Then he looked at me and smiled the saddest smile I’d ever seen. “How long you guess we got together?” he said.
“Better ditch this truck first,” I said. “Find you somewhere safe.”
“Okay, accomplice,” he said.
We went under the 29 Bridge and followed the highway to the interstate. The wind took the hat off my head and spun it out the window. I grabbed for it, looked back to see where it went, and saw Sheba. She was on her side against the tailgate, wind flicking her ears. The skin from her chest dropped off the muscled shoulders. A white bone stuck out of her front leg. The tall lights along the interstate kept showing her situation in yellow flashes. I took a cigarette from the pack and lit it with the lighter I’d lied about.
“There’s actually some good tapes in here somewhere,” Ray said. “Check your door.”
I handed my cigarette to him and lit another one for myself. He squinted while he blew out smoke. The sun was entirely gone, heating another world now, and I watched my brother’s face in the green glow of the dashboard light. His glass eye was on the right side of his face, and I figured if he wanted to see me he would have to turn and look straight on. But while I was studying him and realizing how strange he looked, he told me to quit staring. Without ever turning to me. I felt a tingling wash go over my scalp and freeze to ice in my stomach. We were connected by things we could not see. The power was there because we were blood, and our ability to hurt each other was huge.
“I’m just trying to assess,” I said.
“Assess this,” he said, and he put his cigarette out on the bench seat between us. “Whatever you’re doing right now in your head,” he said, “don’t.”
Finally, I asked him to tell me what it was like in prison.
“Jail’s awesome,” he said. “Reason I split was just to see if I could do it. I was picking trash in a cemetery when the feeling hit me,” he said. He leaned forward, steered with his elbows and started drumming on the dashboard. “Felt like I was hearing music for the first time. I wasn’t in chains cause I’d been a good boy, acting like you.” He laughed, leaned back, and punched the horn. “I threw down my picking stick and said fuck it and jumped the fence. Nobody even followed me.”
“Why would they?” I said. “They could never match what you do to yourself.”
And he knew what he was doing. He’d been doing it for years, encasing himself in his own pain, staying untouchable by beating himself harder than anybody could ever beat him. The first fight I ever saw him get into was hardly a fight at all. Some guy kept pushing him, yelling at him. Then Ray punched himself in the nose, hard enough to freckle the other man’s face with blood and make him stumble backward.
“Exactly,” he said. “So I ran through a field of cows. Hit some tracks and followed those to a river. Swam that river, crawled up the bank, and got to some redneck’s backyard. The guy was painting a car. He was psyched to have me there, this soaking wet fugitive. I bet I looked badass. I told him to give me a pair of pants and a shirt. He did. And then we drank beer, and he got drunk and fell asleep. I went through his place, found whiskey under the sink, some cash. Screwdrivers. Hot-wired that car. Took off back home, baby.”
“You hot-wire cars?” I said.
“Teach you all kinds of shit in prison.”
Maybe it wasn’t so bad he ran off. I knew he was capable of worse. “You went and borrowed a junker,” I said. “What’s the trouble?”
“Well. When I got back to town, I found everybody up at the reservoir. They was drunk, all of them. I was too. I got out of that car, the engine just roaring and smoking. I’m surprised it made it. I walked up with this bottle, and Tamra squealed and was like, Holy shit, the love of my life. Love you too, bitch, I told her. And that’s when Lance got up off the bumper of his truck.”
I turned away from him and looked out the back window.
“There you go again,” he said. “Quit it. Don’t worry. She’s alive. She’s going to be fine.”
“But you’re not,” I said.
“Fine right now, ain’t I?” he said. “Lance just wants to put me back behind bars, that’s all.” He adjusted himself in the seat, sat up straight, and threw his head to the side a couple times. “Whatever. I deserve it.”
“When he finds you, he’s going to whip your ass.”
He shook his head. “He comes from lawyers. He’d rather send me away and not worry about it. He’d never mix himself with old Ray like that. Fighting’s a funny thing. Like fucking.”
“Cool it,” I said.
“Anyway. After I said that shit about Tamra, Lance just stood there blinking at me. He said, Watch your mouth, convict. I told him I couldn’t. It was too near my eyes. Then I pointed at Tamra and told everybody I squashed her first. Which is true.”
“You’re not good at keeping friends,” I said.
“But I did squash her first,” he said. “That’s the thing. She’s mine. And after I said that, everybody walked off. They went down the hill to swim. And then that feeling of music hit me again and I had to go.”
“Sheba,” I said.
“I didn’t know the dog was back there when I took the truck,” he said. “I swear.” He threw his hands in the air. “What’s it matter anyway?”
We smoked the pack, trying to decide where to go. The later it got, the less traffic there was. We had to figure out something fast. Ray got an idea. “We could drive into the mountains,” he said,
“live off the forest, and nurse the dog back to health. Bring it home, no harm done. Pesto.”
“It’s presto,” I said.
We talked for a long time, making circles around town on the bypass. I got him to agree that the first thing was to get rid of the truck. It was almost out of gas.
“How about your place?” he said. “You live alone.”
“You don’t know that.”
“It’s you,” he said. “Course you do.” He reached over and messed up my hair. I knocked his hand away. “Don’t touch me,” I said.
“Everybody calm down,” he said. “Let’s just go to Tamra’s. Mercy, man. I could tell by the way she was looking at me she’d like to help hide me.”
“She’ll be the first one to call the cops,” I said.
“No, she won’t. I love her.”
“You got her boyfriend’s dying dog in the back of his stolen pickup.”
“She is not dying,” he said, and raised his finger. “How many times I got to tell you that? I been feeding her water. She drinks, man.”
“You don’t know how that dog is doing,” I said.
“I know a lot more than you think.”
Then he told me to hush. He pointed ahead to a cop cruiser parked in the dark near the median. We passed it. We were doing a perfect fifty-five.
Tamra lived in a quiet low-income neighborhood. She had a small, overgrown yard, nothing in it but a scrub cedar that looked dead as a stick stuck in the ground for fishing. Her lights were off.
“Looks like Lance ain’t here,” Ray said. “I only see her car.”
I stared at him until he realized how stupid he was.
“Right,” he said. “You better go check. I’ll pull on down Cherry. You come get me when you find something out.”
“What if he’s here?” I said.
“Tell him you’re looking for me,” he said. “Tell him you heard I was back in town. Tell him you know what I did and you hate me for it,” he said. “Anyway, he won’t be here. I love her,” he said. “Tell her that.”
She opened the door right away. “Oh my god, Ricky,” she said, and pulled me inside and hugged me. Her hair was tied in knots. I could see that familiar place just below the ear, where only lovers are allowed to touch. Had Ray kissed her there? I had. What was he like to her? She smelled like lotion and cigarettes. The whole place did.
“Where’s he at?” she said.
“I don’t know. Is Lance around?”
“Me and him ain’t nothing.”
A voice came from the bedroom. “The hell was that?” I said. It didn’t sound like Lance. It made me think of the Uncle.
“Quit worrying,” she said. “You ain’t heard?” She led me back to the bedroom. It was messy and dark in there. The ceiling fan clicked around and stirred the window shades. A bare queen mattress took up most of the floor, and on top of a pile of clothes lay a naked baby boy. Big eyes pressed into a shapeless face of putty.
“What is that?” I said.
“Yours,” she said. “Or somebody’s.”
“That’s not what I asked,” I said.
She hugged me again, took me into the living room and sat me down on the couch. “You look a lot like your brother,” she said, and touched my face. “Where’s he at?”
“Is Lance coming round?” I said. “I need to know that.”
She looked away from me, reached for some bobby pins on the coffee table, put them in her mouth, and started fixing her hair. “I ain’t seen him since last night.”
“We’ve got the dog,” I said. “She’s not dead, yet. We need to put her somewhere.”
“I love him,” she said. “Ray, I mean.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He loves you too.”
She took the pins from her mouth, told me I was too young. She touched me again and told me to go get him. “And the dog,” she said. “Bring them both to me.”
He was at the bottom of Cherry, sitting in the cab with the lights off, the engine off, and the music on. I stood there on the side of the road in the shadows, watching the silhouette of my brother’s head nodding along to the music. I almost fell into his dream, a place where consequences are only as real as you make them, where tomorrow won’t happen if you never go to sleep. I went over and tapped on the window.
I told him everything she had told me, and he listened, like he was taking directions from a coach. He made me repeat her words, swear on them.
“Whelp,” he said, and got out of the truck. He dropped open the tailgate and told me to help him. Sheba tried to look at us and see what was going on, but she shuddered and went back down.
“Pick her up with me,” he said.
“No way. She’s in bad shape.”
“She’s friendly,” he said. “I been feeding her water. She knows me. I’ll take her front.” He slid his hands beneath her throat, cupped the underside of her face. She let out a weak cry. His other arm went beneath her side, and he told me to take her back end.
“You feel that?” He took my hand and held it against her ribs. “You feel that? That’s her heartbeat,” he said. “And that’s her breathing.”
I could feel him shaking with joy for what the dog was able to do. It was hard for me to understand that kind of happiness. Forget the dog—he was going to get caught. I knew that. We carried the dog up the hill, and it felt good to be with him.
“Man,” Ray said. “Sometimes I wish I had a family. People taking care of each other and shit.”
“I’m right here,” I said.
“I know that.” He adjusted his arms under Sheba while we walked. “But it’s never enough,” he said. The hill was steep, and the dog was heavy, the size of a young buck. Ray put his mouth close to her ear. “I’m going to save your life,” he said.
A car idled in front of her house. Jack the Uncle leaned out the driver’s side window. “Just here to watch,” he said.
The security light above Tamra’s garage clicked on. Lance stood beneath it, holding a baseball bat.
“Take the dog,” Ray said. “Don’t drop her.”
I took her. I held her. I looked around for Tamra. She was back there in her doorway, hugging her blanket-wrapped boy. I saw the orange glow from her
cigarette brighten. Her face looked like a mask. Ray stepped away from me and opened his arms.
Lee Johnson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, Appalachian Heritage, Salamander, and The Mississippi Review.
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