Wayne leaned back on the rock where he was kneeling next to Mandy when she told him she was pregnant. He could feel the cool moss seeping dampness into his jeans. He saw Mandy looking and acting older after having a baby. His nose crinkled at the thought. He never minded that with other girls, most of the girls he had dated had kids, but Mandy was different—young as he was and pure as the first winter snow.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Mandy’s blue eyes were wide, and she used the baby voice that before he found cute.
“Oh. Congrats, I guess.” He sat back further and took a swig from his beer, then pulled his fingers through his beard. He told people he had a beard to get girls, but the truth was it so he could buy beer.
“What’d L.J. say? Guess he’s happy,” Wayne said.
“Oh, I ain’t told him yet.” She rubbed her hand across her belly.
Wayne stared at her. “Why didn’t you tell him?” He looked back into the woods, shifting position on the rock off of an area that was poking his hip.
“You know he and I ain’t been hitting it. You’re the only one, Wayne.” She bit her lips. “I haven’t told him cause you’re its daddy.” Mandy looked at Wayne, then down at the ground. She picked up a beer, popped it open and took a long swig. “Guess I have to quit drinking.”
He swung his boots around the rock and looked into the ravine. They spent most of their time together there. Sometimes they’d risk it and go to Mandy’s, but they never knew when L.J. might stop by. Sometimes he came by the house for lunch or made an early day of it. Once they nearly gotten caught, but Wayne jumped into the shower, and Mandy told L.J. Wayne’s water was turned off so he was borrowing theirs.
Wayne lived in his mother’s basement and he could do almost anything he wanted there, with one exception: he couldn’t bring married women around. Every girl he took over there, his mother would poke her head down the steps and yell, “Come here, you married?” She would have to look his mother right in the eyes and say “No ma’am.” Then his mother would pick up the girl’s left hand and look for a ring or marks where one had been. It’d gotten to be such a pain that unless a girl actually was single, Wayne didn’t take her there. And since nearly every girl he had been out with was married in one form or another, he learned to be creative.
He looked into the ravine, thought about jumping off the edge of the cliff, but figured with his luck he’d just wind up paralyzed. “A kid, huh?” His back was toward her.
“Yeah. A kid.”
“Well,” he cupped his lighter to the wind to light a cigarette, “I guess we can get married and all. I could probably get on full time at the track.”
“Oh, well, there’s something else I have to tell you, too, Wayne.” She paused. “Could I have a drag?” She pointed to his cigarette.
“The pack’s there, get one.”
“No. I gotta quit. Just one drag.” He handed her the cigarette, watched her wine-colored lips curl around the end. God, she’s sexy, he thought, eyeing her mouth as she exhaled smoke. When she gave him the cigarette back, her lips had made a dark burgundy kiss on the end. “Like I was saying, there’s something else. L.J. got transferred.”
Wayne paused, looking out over the rocky hills. “Hmmm. Well, at least we won’t have to see him around everywhere.”
“Wayne, I’m going with him.”
Every day, Wayne replayed in his mind the day Mandy told him she was pregnant with Feather. Sometimes he made changes, things he wished he said like, “If it’s my baby, you’re staying here. The hell you’re leaving!” He didn’t realize how much he wished Mandy was with him in Kentucky until he got the first letter from Alabama with baby pictures of Feather tucked inside, a coral-colored kiss on the envelope’s seal. Mandy’s changing and I’m not even there to see it, he thought, looking at the lipstick color on the envelope.
He put one of the pictures of Feather on his bathroom mirror and one in his wallet so he’d see her every day. So that he’d know just why he was working fifty hours a week cutting meat at the track—the steaks and chicken for the people upstairs, where he could never afford to go. Why he put up with his boss yelling at him that he wasn’t cutting the meat perfectly, with bones slicing into his hands even though he wore thick, hot, black gloves made to keep just that from happening. Every week he sent a third of his check to Mandy and Feather at the post office box L.J. didn’t know about. He knew it wasn’t anything compared to what L.J. gave her, but at least he was giving them something. At least maybe Mandy could get Feather a toy or herself a new pair of jeans. The rest he split into three parts. One part he put in an old mayonnaise jar next to his bed to save for bus fare and hotel money for Alabama. Every time he got enough saved, he figured he’d go spend a week or so with them. At least be in the same town as them. One part he gave to his mama to help out with paying for the house and bills, the other part he used for beer, cigarettes, and food.
Wayne stared at himself in the mirror. God, I look thirty fucking years old, he thought, splashing water on his face. He looked around. He hated bus stations more than anything he could think of: they all looked just alike, they all stunk, and there wasn’t a damn place to sleep and be comfortable. He walked out of the restroom and found some old guy sleeping on his worn sleeping bag. He’d had it since the year he was in the Boy Scouts, before he got kicked out for smoking on a camping trip. It was way too short for him; if he put his whole body in it, his shoulders and head stuck out at least a foot. Usually he let his feet stick out the bottom instead. He watched the old man snore; he looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. Shit, I can’t just wake him up, Wayne thought, so he headed toward the bus station restaurant and ordered some overpriced coffee while he waited. By the time the coffee got there, the old man and Wayne’s sleeping bag were gone.
When he got to Alabama, Wayne looked around but didn’t see Mandy. He went to the ticket counter, “You seen a cute girl, blonde hair, carrying a baby?”
“No. You Wayne Frederick?” the man asked.
“Some woman called, said she can’t pick you up, but for you to go to the Motel 6 and she’ll call you.”
“Shit, what do I look like? An answering machine?” The man shook his head.
Wayne walked off toward the street. He looked up the address of the Motel 6, then found it on his map. He couldn’t walk that far so he hoped he could hitch a ride with someone. Once he got outside, he found the police station was on the same block as the bus terminal, so he went back in to call a cab. It cost fourteen dollars to take a cab to the motel—fourteen dollars he hadn’t counted on spending.
It was the next day before he heard from Mandy. She pounded on his door at eleven in the morning. “Ugh, what? Go away. No maid service.” He worked third shift. The trip had messed with his schedule.
“It ain’t the maid, Wayne. It’s me.”
He crawled out of bed. His hair stuck up like he had teased it with a comb and sprayed it stiff with hair spray. As soon as he opened the door, he went back to bed.
“You look like crap,” Mandy said, looking at him.
“One of us has to. I only look as bad as you look good.” He looked at her hair swept into a ponytail, her coral lips thick and pouty. “Where’s the baby?”
“She’s with L.J. right now. He wanted to take her to this baby-bed place that he sells to. They want a baby for a commercial, so he’s showing her to them.” She sat on the edge of the bed. “If you go get cleaned up, I’ll remind you why you missed me.”
That whole trip, it was like Wayne and Mandy hadn’t been apart. She brought Feather over every morning around ten with a tiny baby bed, and food and beer for them. They lay around watching The People’s Court making bets on who would win.
A couple years later, Wayne realized nearly two days had gone by that he didn’t think about Feather. His daughter. He was pissed that he forgot about her that long. He took his mayonnaise jar to Charlie’s Tattoos While You Wait. He walked in, looked around and said to the tattoo artist, who turned out to be Charlie himself, “I have a beautiful daughter, wanna see a picture?”
Charlie nodded and Wayne handed him the photo, curved and warm from his wallet.
“She’s cute,” Charlie told him. “How old is she? ‘Bout a year?”
Wayne flushed, “No, she’s two. This is an old picture.” He turned the picture over and saw the date printed in blue ink in Mandy’s bubble handwriting on the back, December 28, Feather’s first birthday. “Damn,” he mumbled, “the newest picture I have is over a year old.”
“Yeah, I got a couple of those around, too,” Charlie laughed. “You wanting a tattoo? You can look around. There’s lots of examples. Plus we got pictures of some of the custom ones we done.”
“I want a feather, with FEATHER written under it.”
“You like feathers, huh?” Charlie asked.
“It’s a name.”
“Aaah, a girl. Bet ya twenty bucks you’ll be back within two years to get it tattooed over.”
“No, it’s the baby’s name.”
“Aaah.” Charlie got his tattoo gun ready.
Over the next few years, Wayne kept up his trips to Alabama, and was still cutting meat at the track. He’d become a vegetarian because the sight of meat made him nauseous. The older Feather got, the less he was able to see her when he went to Alabama. “She’ll remember you. She’ll tell L.J.,” Mandy said after Feather learned to talk. If he couldn’t see Feather, it made it hard to see Mandy. And if he couldn’t see either one of them, it seemed pointless to go, but he did.
On Feather’s fourth birthday, Wayne sat in his bedroom after work thinking. It had been over six months since he’d seen her. Mandy hadn’t spent a lot of time with him last time. Shit, he thought, it’s my kid’s birthday. He took shots of Jim Beam, one for every year of Feather’s life, then started taking one for each year old Mandy was. He poured his mayonnaise jar of money out onto his bed and counted. Ninety-two dollars and eighty-seven cents. Not enough for bus fare and a hotel. “Damn.” He walked into the bathroom to wash away the stale smell of meat and sweat. He’d helped a buddy muck at the track muck a stall, so also smelled of hay and manure. When he saw the picture of Feather he’d put on his mirror years ago, he stopped. “Aw hell, I’ll fuckin’ hitch.”
He grabbed a blanket and stuffed some clothes into a duffel bag, collected the money on his bed, and stopped on the way out the door only to grab an apple out of the fridge and write his mom a note.
He didn’t have a lot of luck hitchhiking, and since he didn’t shower before he left, when he did get picked up, people made him get out about a mile down the road. Just past Nashville, a guy in a truck picked him up.
They rode in silence a few minutes, then the driver looked over at him. “Hey man, you fucking stink!”
“Yeah, I got off work and I’m going to see my kid,” Wayne said. He expected to be dropped off, but was hoping to draw it out as long as he could. It was colder than the ice box at the track outside, and damned depressing sitting on the side of the road waiting.
“Look buddy, I can’t take that smell. You’re welcome to hop in the back if it isn’t too cold, but I can’t stand you up here.”
Wayne got out, glad to at least he’d still be moving. He huddled close to the cab of the truck, pulled his blanket around him, and fell asleep.
When he got to Alabama, the guy dropped him at the exit a couple blocks from the Motel 6. As he checked in, the woman eyed him like she’d just seen him on America’s Most Wanted.
He shut the door to his room and was going to go back to sleep. “I smell like I fucking killed somebody.” He took his clothes off and threw them in the sink. He started the shower, but then called Mandy.
“Hi!” she said when she answered the phone.
“How’d you know it’d be me?” he asked.
“Hell. Wayne, that you? Shit, what are you doing?”
“Came to see my daughter. Brought her some stuff for her birthday.” He looked down at the Kentucky Wildcats baseball cap and pen with a velvet rose cap that opened like a jewelry box with a little “pearl” necklace inside. He’d picked them up at a Super America on the road. “Well, it’s not much,” he said.
“That’s real sweet of you,” Mandy said. “Wayne, I have a new friend here. He’s coming to get me and Feather and take us to Wal-Mart. We could stop by.”
He knew it would happen sooner or later, another guy would come along. He even wondered if there’d been one the last time he was here because Mandy wouldn’t even kiss him. She said it was her time of the month, but that wouldn’t have stopped them kissing. “That’s fine.” He hoped he’d get to see her more than just for stopping by. “I gotta shower. I stink like something dead’s been out in the sun too long.”
“Yeah.” He hung up the phone, then called work. “I’m sick as a mangy street dog. I’m gonna be laid up a while.” When he got off the phone, he opened a beer and took a gulp, then took a shower.
Wayne didn’t get to see Mandy or Feather without Mandy’s new boyfriend, Rick, being around, but he and Rick got to be pretty good buddies. Every night when Rick got off work delivering chicken, he’d get a bottle of whiskey or a case of beer and go over to the Motel 6 and he and Wayne would stay up drinking till morning.
Since neither of them could be with Mandy at night, they figured they might as well keep each other company. New Year’s morning, they sat outside the hotel room with bedspreads wrapped around them, smoking cigarettes. They watched the sun come up over the gas station.
“Hey man, you love her?” Wayne asked.
“Aw, hell, I don’t know. Yeah, I guess,” Rick said. “I don’t know. Look, I got to be going.” He got up and headed toward his ‘70 Challenger.
“You got the coolest fucking car, man, the coolest,” Wayne said, then lie back on the sidewalk and fell asleep.
That morning Mandy showed up and woke Wayne up from outside his room. “Don’t tell me you done spent the night out here.” She helped him up and over to the bed. “Look Wayne, we have to talk. There’s something I gotta to tell you.”
Wayne got off the bed and walked over to the sink. He grimaced when he saw his reflection. He looked like hell. He turned on the tap and filled a plastic cup with water, swished some in his mouth and spit, then poured the rest of the water over his head. “Shoot.”
“Okay. Well, it ain’t good news.”
“You’re pregnant and the baby’s mine.” He tilted his head back and laughed. When Mandy didn’t make any noise, he looked at her. “Sorry. It’s a joke. I’m glad we have Feather.” He wanted to touch her, put his hand on her shoulder, but she sat abruptly in one of the vinyl chairs near the window.
“Well it’s about her. You know how I said L.J. and me wasn’t making love back in the days when you and me was?” She got up, paced for a minute, then sat on the edge of the dresser.
“But you were.” He took his shirt off to get ready for a shower. He knew what was coming next and he’d be damned if he would spend New Year’s Day in Alabama.
“Yeah,” she said. “Look, I didn’t lie about Feather. I think she’s yours. It’s just that, well, I’m not for sure.”
Wayne walked into the bathroom, got in the shower, and felt the hot water sting his skin that was still rosy cold from sleeping outside.
Mandy followed him. “Wayne, I loved you. I didn’t want to go off to some other state and never see you again. I knew what you’d do if we had a baby. I knew I’d see you.”
Wayne stood in the shower and thought about the ravine where he and Mandy used to go and wondered if he should have jumped when he had the chance.
He could see Mandy sitting on the sink counter patterned into a thousand pieces by the cloudy fragmented glass of the shower door. He wished he had made her stay in Kentucky, that they’d raised Feather together. He wanted to make her move back with him, or at least have Feather with him. He barely knew Feather, but everything he did for the past four years centered around her. “Can we have tests done?”
“Paternity tests?” Mandy asked.
“Yeah, do you know a doctor around here that’d do them?”
“Well, Feather’s doc could, I guess.”
Wayne paused. He let the shampoo fall into his open eyes, stinging them before he rinsed it out. He’d hitchhiked down with hardly any money. He didn’t have enough to pay for expensive testing.
He stuck his head through the glass. “I guess we’ll have to do it next time. I don’t have the money, and it’s not like you can go up to L.J. and ask him for it.”
She was quiet for a long time. “You sure you want to know?”
“Well, I have something for you anyway. If you want to know, just use it.” She disappeared, leaving Wayne in the cooling water. After a minute, she came back with an envelope in her hands. “This is for you. It isn’t all there, but most of it. I was saving it for Feather to go to college because L.J. doesn’t believe in it, says he’s done just fine without it, and how can you argue with that because he has.” She stopped and bit her lip. “I want you to have it back. There’s a lot there, definitely enough for a test.”
“When do you think the doc can do it?” Wayne asked. He rinsed the soap from his tattoo.
The test was a few days later. Wayne had to use part of the money Mandy gave him—Feather’s money—to stay on at the motel. It was the only way he could afford it. When he saw Feather in the doctor’s office, he couldn’t imagine she wasn’t his. Look at her hair, he thought, it’s my color. And her eyes, they’re shaped just like mine. He stared at her, then abruptly walked over and picked her up and squeezed her.
“Mama!” she hollered. Wayne set her down, and walked across the room where he wouldn’t frighten her, but could watch her through the water of a large aquarium.
After they got the test results, he took enough money from the envelope to get a bus back home, then handed the envelope back to Mandy. “Keep it for her. It’s her money really.”
“No, Wayne, I can’t.”
“It’s hers.” He walked off through the sleet headed for the bus that would take him back to Kentucky.
He kept sending money, and every now and then found himself in Alabama in the Motel 6. Sometimes he called Mandy’s number, but no one ever answered. Eventually the number was disconnected. He went back to Kentucky, feeling stupid to be in a state where Feather and Mandy may not even live.
One day Wayne got back, a new guy—Del—started work at the track. Wayne taught him how to cut meat in ways least likely to slice his hands on the bones. New guys always cut themselves a lot more than Wayne, who’d been around the longest except his boss.
When they got off work, Wayne asked if Del wanted to go get a beer.
On the way out of the track, they took off their sweat-soaked shirts.
Del nodded at Wayne’s chest, “So who’s Feather? Your girlfriend?”
“No.” Wayne looked down at the hay they walked over to get out to the gravel lot where their cars were.
“No,” Wayne answered, kicking gravel and hay with the toe of his boot. “I guess I’d rather not talk about it.”
“All right man, that’s cool. Painful break up?”
Wayne nodded, and picked a piece of straw out of his boot.
“Yeah, those suck.” Del said. “Thought it wasn’t an ex-girlfriend. Oh man, ex-wife?”
“No.” Wayne paused at his car, and looked around. “Hey man, let’s get that beer tomorrow. I don’t feel like it right now.”
Wayne got into his car, and slowly rolled down the window, rolling each half turn as if the roller were hard to turn, though he had just taken apart the door and oiled it so it glided down easily. He looked at Del, and then said, “Ex-daughter,” rolled up his window and drove away.
Elizabeth Glass holds Masters degrees in Creative Writing and Counseling Psychology. She has received grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council, and won the 2013 Emma Bell Miles Prize. Her writing has appeared in Still: The Journal; New Plains Review; Writer's Digest; The Chattahoochee Review; and other journals. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.