The front fairing and headlight of the Yamaha were torn off and cracked, its windshield splintered and electric green paint scuffed in patches not unlike the road burns on Jesse, his son. The front wheel was bent, kicked out.
“Not what I’d hoped to see in my garage,” Luke said. He remembered the moment he said it that he and Leanne were separated. He remembered the phone calls from her lawyer he’d not returned. Looking around the garage, he took note of what was his, since he wasn’t sure how much longer he would own the house. Without Leanne’s income, he wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage.
Leanne held a lit cigarette to her side between her fingers. Smoke coiled up her wrist before thinning out. “You think we can afford to fix it?” she said. Her delicate left hand trembled when she brought the cigarette to her lips—a tremble that had not gone away since the incident. Her dark hair was done up in a bun with two long strands framing her handsome face, and a beauty mark was penciled onto her chin, a thing she’d been doing the last few weeks. Luke didn’t ask. She wore the white chiffon shirt and khaki shorts, the beige heals. She looked as good as any of those sitcom wives on TV.
Luke shrugged and passed a hand through his graying black hair. He took his wallet from his pocket and opened it. Thumbing through a few business cards, he found the one from the bike shop and slid it out, stuck the wallet back into his jeans. “I’ll call and get an estimate, but that’s the best I can do right now. I’d just assume he never got back on the thing.”
Leanne looked across the street. Parked cars had crowded near their neighbor Eli’s house for a crawfish boil. She drew from the cigarette, breathed out a jet of smoke toward the ground. “You know that’s not an option,” she said. “He loves racing.”
A white pickup came up the packed street and almost passed the house before slowing. Leanne waved an arm at the truck. “Over here, sweetie,” she said. The driver, a male, backed up the vehicle and eased into Luke’s driveway and parked. A kid—no older than thirty—stepped out of the truck and approached them. He wore blue jeans and boots, and a vest like the bull riders Luke had seen on ESPN. He had a crew cut, a sharp nose runneled down the middle. From being broken, Luke figured: he’d boxed, knew the look.
“You in the rodeo?” Luke said.
The guy grinned. “I am. Chet Ray,” he said, and offered a hand.
Luke shook Chet’s hand. “Are you going to ride a bull right now?”
Chet laughed. “The rodeo’s tomorrow; the vest’s for luck.”
Leanne came over and put an arm around Chet’s neck and hugged him. “Hey, sweetie,” she said.
“You’re not at the party?” Chet said. He touched the small of Leanne’s back.
“I’ll be over in a minute,” Leanne said. “Me and the man here have to talk.” She tilted her head toward Luke.
Luke was “the man” now, whatever that meant. This whole thing felt like it was taking too long, and Luke wanted Chet to go on.
“I meant the rodeo,” Chet said.
“Oh, well—we’ll see. You know Jesse’s bummed up upstairs.” She waved a hand dismissively at the wrecked motorcycle. “I don’t know that I can leave him.”
“I got you,” Chet said. “Well, let me know if you decide to come, we’ll get you in for free. And don’t worry, Jessie will heal up. I can’t tell you how many times I should have been done riding. You just have to get back on the bull, or—the bike in his case.” He shook Luke’s hand again. “Good to meet you.”
The two of them went back into the garage, and Luke stood and looked at the motorcycle again. Leanne stayed in front of the door opening, watching Chet cross the street to the neighbor’s house. The day was bright and she was black against the sun-drenched street. “You were saying,” Luke said. “‘Not an option’?”
“He loves the sport. He’s been talking about going pro. You want to tell him he can’t do that?” Leanne said. She took to Jessie’s futon that had been there since May when he graduated from college. She let the cigarette fall and pressed down on the embers with her heal.
“He could have been killed,” Luke said.
Leanne nodded and crossed her legs. “I know that. I was never crazy about the bike, Luke. I was never crazy about you putting on those gloves, but you did. You stopped when the time came. It’s Jessie’s life and he wants to take risks.”
“Jesus Christ. Risks. Is that what your rodeo boyfriend has been pushing?” He spoke as if the bike hadn’t been a leap of faith. The Yamaha was Luke’s attempt to show Leanne and Jessie that he could take chances. He wanted back under the same roof with Leanne, and thought that if they could spend time together watching Jessie compete in races and cheer him on from the bleachers on warm summer nights, things would get better. The way they were when their firstborn, Thomas, was alive and playing football.
“Leave Chet out of this,” Leanne said. “He’s just a sweet kid from Little Rock who rides bulls.”
Luke sat next to her. Jessie’s small refrigerator was plugged in and humming next to the workbench where Luke kept his tools. He took out a Dr. Pepper and popped the tab, sipped the foam from the rim. “Where’d you meet him?”
Leanne kicked her fingers through the tendrils of hair at her neck. “Eli brought him to Sam’s Lounge a few nights ago. He just moved here. He’s looking for friends.”
“So you’re just friends?”
“Luke, let’s not do this.” She glanced at the Dr. Pepper. “Do you want ice for that?”
He pushed out of the futon and got to his feet. “Sure,” he said. She wanted to get him ice. That was like her, and he was glad she wanted to.
They went inside the house and Leanne took down a glass from the kitchen cabinet and filled it with ice at the freezer, handed it to Luke. She slid open the windows above the sink that faced the street. The light was golden across the kitchen tile, pleasant, and the small curtains billowed at the window. Karaōke had begun next door, someone singing Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town.” Leanne leaned against the counter. “So are you going to help me and Jessie or not?”
Luke filled the glass and walked to the pantry to throw the can away. “Help you how?”
“Help pay for the repairs,” Leanne said.
“I’m not sure I can afford the repairs,” Luke said.
“The three of us go in on it the cost shouldn’t be that high,” she said. “He’s never been happier. He’s not going to quit.”
“Why are you worried about repairing the bike? He’s done for the rest of the year at least. We can talk about it later.”
She threw up her hands and sighed. “I knew you’d back out on this,” she said. “You’ve never let the boys hang on to anything.” She glanced to the side and her blue eyes met Luke’s before she looked away, tapped her heel once against the tile. He knew the look. It was a habit she had not broken, saying “boys.” Even four years after Thomas’s death, Leanne still referred to their children by two.
Luke brought a hand down over this face. “I’ll get an estimate. Maybe I can talk them into a deal or something. If he goes pro, maybe they’ll sponsor him; that’s got to count for something.” He crossed the kitchen and put an arm around her and she went stiff and stared out the open windows. There’d been a time when he’d know how to comfort her, but not anymore. They weren’t the same people. They had each responded in a different way to the death of their son, and they had grown around his absence in a way that made them strangers.
Leanne turned and walked toward the front door. “Jessie’s upstairs,” she said. She went out and passed between the parked cars and headed for the neighbor’s house.
The house was quiet and cool and Leanne kept it clean. The ceiling fan in the living room was whipping around, making white noise. Luke took the stairs to Jessie’s room. His door was covered in band sticker, names like The Lemonheads and The Replacements, stuff Jessie listened to in his car, some of it Luke liked. Luke knocked.
“It’s open,” Jessie said.
Luke turned the knob and slipped in, closed the door behind him. He sat down on the edge of the bed, careful not to disturb Jessie’s leg. The room was a mess with his son’s things: boxes not unpacked, a suitcase with his clothes spilling out of it, a crumpled fast-food bag on his desk. His crutches leaned against the wall. Jessie sat up on the bed, his leg propped, the TV on. The leg was in a pristine white cast, a single signature over the foot with an imprint of red lips on it, from Jessie’s girlfriend, Luke assumed. “Feeling any pain?” he said.
“Not too much right now, feeling more stiff than anything.” His black, short hair looked ruffled like he’d been sleeping, and a cowlick stood up in the back. Jessie had a soft face with green eyes and pointed nose.
Luke stood and went over to his son. “Here, take hold,” he said. He stuck out his arm for support. “You might get up an stretch, let the blood get to the rest of your body.”
Jessie reached up and gripped Luke by the forearm and pulled himself out of the bed. “It sucks. I had all summer to enjoy that bike.”
“I know it, me too,” Luke said. He realized when he spoke that what he had hoped for himself and Leanne this summer was gone. Leanne would be taking care of Jessie when she was home, and would likely want Luke to come by and take over so she could get out of the house. Jessie put a hand on Luke’s shoulder for balance, and Luke leaned over and took the remote from the nightstand and turned off the TV. There was the faint sound of music playing next door.
Jessie rotated his neck and shook out his arms, said, “You think it would be all right if I went next door?”
Luke shrugged. “I guess, if you can keep the leg up and have someone help you back upstairs.”
Jessie hobbled to the wall where his crutches stood. “I’ll get Chet to help me,” he said.
“Jess, ask anyone but the bull rider. Please.” He helped his son get the crutches under his arms.
“You don’t like Chet?”
“Not really. Who wears a vest the day before the rodeo?”
“It’s ritual,” Jessie said, his crutches clicked as the hit the floor. “It’s no different than when you’d pour ice water over your head before a match. I figured you’d like that.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little soon for your mom to be dating?”
They made their way down the hall to the stairs. Jessie handed Luke the crutch that had been under his right arm and took hold of the handrail, eased down one step at a time. “I think it’s all right for both of you to move on he said. He took a step down and pushed through the pain with a forced breath. “You guys are getting a divorce. It’s not like you’re cheating on one another.”
Luke felt the dread of change move up his stomach to his chest. The stairway was dim and at the bottom orange light tilted in through the back door, bright against the hardwood floor, pretty in a way he had no access to. Before long the house would be for sale, or Leanne would be living in it with someone else. He thought about the lawyer again, the calls he had not made.
They reached the bottom of the stairs and Luke handed the crutch back to Jessie before they made their way to the front door. Outside, more cars were parked along the street before the neighbor’s house. Luke stared at the open gate to the left of the house, where guests were shelling crawfish and drinking beer, where the music played out onto the quiet of the street. The spice from the boiler pots rolled to him on the air as he and Jessie walked toward the yard.
They went through the open gate, and Leanne’s eyes met Luke’s from her lawn chair next to Chet, and she got up and came over to them. Chet followed, reached Jessie and gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Let’s get you a seat, daredevil. You hungry?”
Jessie looked over his shoulder. “They’ve got it from here, Dad.”
“You’ll call me later?” Leanne said.
Luke nodded, turned and went out as he had come in. He pressed the button on his key and unlocked his car, got in. The air inside was warm, and Luke lay his head on the steering wheel and closed his eyes. Inside the car, the music from outside was muted, sort of like when he’d be in the locker room before a match, hearing the bass boom against the cinder block walls. But he wasn’t going out to win a match, he didn’t have that in him anymore, and all he felt was loss. He turned the engine over and pulled out into the street, pointed the car toward the highway.
When he pulled into the driveway, his neighbor Dunlap’s Rottweiler, tethered to a tree, strained against his chain and barked.
“Hush,” Luke said. He unlocked the front door of his trailer and went inside. Though Luke was out of the animal’s sight, the dog was still barking and the thin walls of Luke’s rental barely muffled the noise. The house was spare, and Luke stepped over the air mattress in his living room. He’d decided against buying a bed or much furniture since he had not planned on staying there long. A television sat on the floor, a dusty box deal he’d purchased at a Salvation Army, and Luke bent down and pressed the power button, lay back in the fold-out beach chair he’d brought from home. He checked his watch; he was due at work in four hours. He managed the night shift at Comfort Suites and also did the accounting and figured he needed a nap before he left. He left the TV on and rolled off the chair and crawled to the air mattress. The plastic was cool against his face and body and the air near the floor comfortable. He closed his eyes. Thought the TV made noise, Luke could hear the dog barking. The Rottweiler would stop for a few seconds, but Luke could not relax, knowing the dog would start up again. He got up and scissored open the blinds. A woman was strolling her toddler, the dog barking at them. Luke remembered strolling his boys. They had been born just a few years apart, and he thought about how good it felt to walk them down the warm street with Leanne, how it made a hard day at work fade from memory, his worry lifting as the sky reddened with dusk. Maybe he needed to walk.
He got up and went back out, stepped off the porch. He whistled, clapping his hands. The Rottweiler growled in Luke’s direction, but the closer Luke came the further down the dog cowered until his tail was tucked between his legs and he was pissing. “You want to go for a walk?” Luke said. He gave the skin on the dog’s neck and back a pull, and then went around the side of the Dunlap’s trailer to the front door and knocked. In a bracket bolted to the wall of the trailer, an American flag sagged, bleached from the sun.
Dunlap answered the door in wife beater and blue jeans. His gray-yellow hair was gelled back, face stubbled and expressionless. The outline of a tattoo beneath his shirt. He had a thick Cajun accent. “Champ,” he said.
“Don’t call me that,” Luke said. He motioned with his head towards the back. “I was wondering if I could walk your dog.”
“Andouille?” Dunlap said. “What’s he need walking for?”
“He won’t shut up for starters,” Luke said.
“Hell, if you need me to quiet him down, just say so, I’ll beat his ass.”
Dunlap made to walk out and Luke stepped in his way, held up a hand. “I’ll walk him.”
Dunlap’s face tightened, and he glared at Luke. “What’s it matter to you? I thought you were leaving soon.”
“Not likely,” Luke said. “So can I walk the dog or not?”
Dunlap stepped outside, looked around, sucked his teeth. Walking the dog was a bigger deal than Luke had anticipated. “All right, fine, but don’t be gone long, and put him back on the tether when you’re done. Come on, I’ll get his leash.”
Luke came inside and stayed in the living room while Dunlap went in the back to the kitchen. A throw of kudzu consumed the outside of the windows, making the room half dark. Dunlap came back with the leash and a Corona, handed the leash to Luke. He tipped his beer toward the backyard. “Like I said, tether him when you’re done.”
“I’ll bring him back,” Luke said. He opened the door and walked out and took the steps down. The dog hunkered down and pulled himself across the ground with his front paws. Luke unhooked the tether from the dog’s collar and secured the leash and they walked toward the alley behind Luke’s trailer. The dog began to run and Luke picked up his pace. The muscles in the dog’s legs went taut, showing groove, and Luke liked watching the dog’s movements. A pure-bred Rott probably cost somewhere between six and fifteen hundred dollars, and it seemed wrong to leave something that costly tied to a tree. Dunlap didn’t appear to have that kind of money, and Luke wondered where the dog had come from.
Up ahead, where the alley intersected with the street, a woman carrying a plastic bag passed by. She had long blonde hair that reached almost to her waist, blue jeans ripped at the knees and flip-flops. Her hair lifted lightly against her back as she walked. She looked at Luke and slowed and began walking towards him.
The dog began to run and jerked Luke’s arm and stopped in front of the woman and sniffed her leg. She set the bag down, crouching, and took both of the Rottweiler’s ears in her hands. Likely she was older than Luke by a few years, but she didn’t look bad. She had been prettier at one time, in college or high school. He liked her smile, her straight teeth, though one in the front was set further back, rimmed black. She had small mouth with full, red lips. “Look at this sweet boy. How old is he?” she said. Her voice was slow and sweet like honey.
“I don’t really know. He’s not mine.”
“Who does he belong to?” she said.
“Is he a rescue dog?”
“If he is, I guess he went from one bad situation to another,” Luke said.
She pursed her lips and looked to the side. “Yeah, I know how that is.”
He liked how her lips looked when she did that.
“Do you know where Eve’s house is?” she said.
He looked past her, ruffled the dog’s neck. He didn’t know an Eve. “They have a last name?”
She shook her head. “It’s supposed to be a secret.”
Luke brought up his phone from his pocket. “You have a number? You can use my phone.”
“I’ve got two, but no one answered earlier.”
“Try now,” he said.
She took the phone and dialed one of the numbers, hung up after a minute. Someone answered the second number, and after they spoke for a few minutes the woman handed the phone back to Luke, bit her lip and pushed her hair behind her ears. “Shit. Nothing’s easy,” she said. “There’s some kind of process.”
She was looking for a safe house.
“They need to do a get-to-know-you with me, there’s paperwork—” She rubbed the back of her neck and sat cross-legged in the street. “She said they can’t take me until next week.”
“What’s your name?” Luke said.
“I’m sorry. Miranda,” she said, holding out a hand.
“Luke,” he said, and she used his hand to get back to her feet.
“You mind if I walk with you guys a ways?” she said.
“Yeah, you want me to carry that?” He motioned toward the bag. “You can take the dog for a while.”
Miranda handed the bag to Luke and took the leash. They walked past a cathedral and toward the highway. They didn’t talk about much. An old, mustard yellow mustang passed them with its windows down. From inside the car, music played that Miranda recognized. “I love this song,” she said.
“I don’t think I’ve heard of it,” Luke said.
“You don’t know The Replacements?”
Luke looked past the glare in her glasses, to her eyes. “I know that name. My son likes them,” he said.
She asked him where his son was, and he told her with his mom, at their house a few minutes north. Miranda nodded. She understood.
“Keep in touch with your kids if you have them. Even if there’s no custody battle the distance will change things.”
“He’s nineteen,” Luke said.
After a while they came to a series of restaurants and fast food chains that faced the passing cars on the road, and seeing a Mexican place, Luke became aware of his hunger. “You want to eat?”
“I was hoping you’d ask. I’m broke,” she said.
They crossed the road over onto the new asphalt of the restaurant. The lot was warm with the heat of the day, and full of cars. “Are you running from their father?” Luke said. He tied the leash around a bar on the outdoor patio.
“No, I’m not running from him,” Miranda said.
Luke held up two fingers to the hostess, and when they were seated, he said, “Then why are you trying to find a safe house?”
Miranda sat back and brought her legs to the side in the vinyl seat. “I moved here for the wrong reasons. Andy turned out to be a meth addict. When I told him I was leaving, he put all of my things in the bathroom and locked himself in there with a shotgun.”
“Jesus. You didn’t know he was an addict?”
“Not before I moved, no,” she said.
“How’d he convince you down here?”
“He made me laugh,” she said. “For a little while, I guess that was enough. Some people just can’t help themselves, the world doesn’t work for them. I get it; I think I’m like that, too, I just, never did drugs.”
“I didn’t either. I boxed,” Luke said. “I liked the idea of going into the ring and only one person coming out. You get into the ring, you get a knockout, you go home, you heal up. Everything you did was for the one problem down the line: the match, and if you lost the match, well—you trained for another one.”
A waiter placed chips and salsa in front of them and they gave their drink orders.
“You won a lot?” Miranda said. She bit down on one of the chips.
“Enough, but after a while they just paid me to make the young guns look good. I was fine with it for a while, but then I had kids, and didn’t want them seeing their father busted up all the time.” He was sitting across from a stranger, but he didn’t mind. Talking with her had shown him how lonely he’d really been, and when she spoke, he didn’t feel as alone. Buying her a meal was fine, but he was thinking about letting her stay at his house, just until she figured things out. Maybe that was dangerous, but he didn’t care, and liked not knowing how things would unfold. “So you never did meth with him?” he said.
“I told you no,” she said.
“I know. I’m just trying to figure out how much help you need.”
“How does anyone know how much help someone needs?”
The waiter brought their waters and Luke squeezed the lemon into his and let go of the rind. “We’ll look into the safe house again next week. Do you need a place to stay until then?”
“Yeah. I do,” she said.
The waiter came back and they put in their orders, and when the waiter inquired if that would be all, Miranda asked if she could order a beer. Luke wasn’t sure it was a good idea; he didn’t know her history. She could’ve been an alcoholic, but the beer might help her relax until he could get her into the shelter. He’d take care of her. “Sure,” he said. She ordered a Corona in a bottle and they gave the waiter their menus.
Miranda took off her glasses and set them on the table, rubbed her eyes. She pinched the red ovals on the sides of her nose where the glasses had been. “Do you work?” she said.
“I do,” he said. “I manage the night shift at the Comfort Inn and Suites. I do the accounting as well.”
She took her glasses and cleaned the lenses with her shirt. She smiled with her eyes. “Can you stay anywhere in the world for free?”
Luke nodded. “If there’s a Comfort Inn, I’m welcome, as long as I have reservations.”
“Do you ever go anywhere?”
He studied the dessert menu by the salt and peppers shakers. “I haven’t really. I’ve been too busy trying to make things right here.”
Miranda pulled on her water through her straw. “My parents never took me anywhere. The one time we went to the beach my daddy acted like such an asshole that we left two days early. He didn’t get to take me crab hunting. Have you ever been crab hunting? At night on the beach?”
It seemed like such a simple thing, something he should have done in his fifty-one years on earth. “No. I don’t know why, but I haven’t.”
Their food was brought the table. Chorizo tacos for him, chicken enchiladas for Miranda. Steam whirled and hissed off of her plate. She started cutting into her food. “We should change that. I remember a little girl, the day we left she had been crab hunting the night before and had caught one. Said she threw sand over it, then plucked it out. She’d kept it in a clear plastic cup, filled with a few inches of sand and seawater. Its bleach-white shell stuck out from the top of the sand.” She put her silverware down and chewed at her lip. “I wanted to touch it, but we had to go.”
The house was dark when they reached Luke’s place. He attached the tether to the Rottweiler’s collar. He started to take the leash to Dunlap, but Miranda asked him to open the door. “I really need to pee,” she said. They went inside and Luke crouched down and switched on the lamp on the floor next to his mattress. He went to the kitchen and did the same for the overhead light. “I’m sorry there’s not more,” he said.
She furrowed her thin brows. “You think I’d have a problem?” she said, closing the door behind her.
He went to the bedroom and stood outside the bathroom door. A line of light came into the bedroom from under the bathroom door. “Take anything you need in there,” he said.
“Thank you, hon,” she said.
Luke checked his watch. He needed to start getting ready for work. She’d been in there about ten minutes, and he’d started to fear something was wrong and knocked. “Are you okay?” he said.
“Yeah,” she said. She sounded distracted. The door unlocked and opened a few inches, and there she was, standing in front of the mirror in a cheap cotton bra that held up her small, pale breasts. She turned her back to the mirror and there was a deep bruise across her shoulder blade, and a few inches over, a strip of gauze kept in place with first aid tape. She peeled the bandage off and underneath the skin was busted, scabbed black and in need of cleaning. There was the sound of her shorts sliding down her legs, and she opened the door wide and filled the room with light. She sat down next to him on the bed, brought his hand up her cool stomach, his thumb sinking into and then passing over her navel.
After, he made her sit on the bathroom counter while he opened the cabinet under the sink and took out the rubbing alcohol. He reached over and pulled a length of toilet paper and folded it and dabbed it with the alcohol.
Miranda put her hand on his upper arm: the arm with the tattoo of a small boxer with the words “Glory Bound” over his head. She studied the tattoo, whincing every now and then, and let him swab the cut. “My daughter, Elise, she races horses. Her horse is named Glory.”
“Do you ever watch her?”
She kept talking, but he was paying attention to the cut. The dried blood broke up as he daubed the skin and the paper became dirty and began to wear. He placed the tissue in the trashcan and took up a few more sheets. He tilted the bottle and the alcohol swishes against the sheets and he cleaned the gash with gentle strokes until the wound was pink and clean. “I need to get to work,” he said.
“Maybe you could call in?” she said.
He thought about that. “Probably not a good idea. You’ll be fine here, though. You can call me if you need anything.”
Miranda put her shirt on. The leash sat coiled on the kitchen counter. Luke grabbed it and the two of them made their way to the door. Once outside, headlights from Dunlap’s driveway flared into Luke’s yard, and Dunlap stood with another man in front of the vehicle.
“Oh, shit,” Miranda said and pulled Luke by the shirt back inside.
“What?” he said.
“That’s Andy, and that’d Dunlap, his dealer. If he sees me here it won’t be good. Christ.” She put a hand to her forehead and leaned down against the front of the kitchen counter, held in a sob.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Luke said. He crouched down and she leaned into his body. He thought about being in the ring: how he’d close his eyes deep into exhaustion and lean into his opponent, trying to get a breath, one more swing.
Ellis Purdie is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing at The University of Southern Mississippi. Previous work has appeared at Magnolia's Press and Dew on the Kudzu. He lives in Petal, Mississippi.