Even before the cash changes hands Ard is thinking of how quickly the eight ball will be gone. The count looks light but it always does any more. He unwraps the twist tie, touches his little finger to the rock, then to his gum and his brain measures: one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four. He clicks his front teeth with each number and on four the only feeling that reverberates into his gum is the sound wave to his inner ear. Good. Ard drops four hundreds on the table and picks up both bags.
Outside the August sun is white and stifling. The glare from the pearl hood of the Caddy shocks him and Ard slips on his shades before he eases out into the street. He wishes it were February and raining.
Three blocks down he turns right on Ashland, goes a half a block and pulls into the lot, checks his watch. 3:55. He waits. Checks the dial again. 3:58. Across the lot and up the marble steps, through the heavy oak doors. He moves to the last door on the right, checks his watch again to assure himself its four, goes inside.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been a week since my last confession.”
“I fail to see the humor. And it’s getting a bit old.”
“Ah, my big brother’s in a mood. Confessional stress? I might have a little something for that.”
“Shut up Ard. I don’t know about this anymore.”
Ard pauses. “About what, Jamie?”
“This. I am a priest, you know, we’re not teenagers. I have responsibilities, vows. I’ve got an obligation; to you, even.”
“Don’t start. Not everybody wants to be saved, Padre. Besides, there’s some in your religion that have worse habits.” Ard pulls one of the bags from his shirt pocket.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the assignment here. I thought moving back would be good for us, for you. You and Rosa were the only family I had.”
“I don’t need you deciding what’s good for me, Jamie. Now do you want the blow or not?”
“That night after Rosa Lee’s funeral, I drove you to the bar because I was worried about you; what you might do. All you wanted was to cop a gram, and then I let you talk me into doing it again.”
“And I got the flake right now. Come on, big brother; hear it calling you? Besides, you’re the one got me started way back when. I was just returning the favor. So, you want it or not? It ain’t like I can’t put it to good use if you don’t.”
The pause lasts too long, gives Ard time to think. These secrets thread between the two brothers like an old tapestry, worn but somehow still intact. Growing up with the town drunk colors the perspective on things; weaves a patchwork version of history and events into both of them so deep they don’t notice anymore. If Jamie cleans up Ard is afraid the last of those strands will unravel.
“When we were kids, teenagers, nothing made any sense to me. The Church gave me answers, made things clear. Lately, I’m not so sure.”
“Well, you know what they say—God’s just an imaginary friend for grown-ups.” Ard leans to the edge of the bench. “So make a choice, you in or out? Daylight’s wasting.”
The pause is shorter this time and Ard grins when the curtain shuffles and two hundred and fifty dollars appear beneath the cloth. Ard counts it, then gently slides one of the bags back under the curtain before folding the bills into his shirt pocket.
“Glad to see the parishioners have been generous again this week. Always a pleasure, Padre. See you next week, same time, same weight.”
Back at the apartment Ard is impatient. He unlocks his door and goes straight to his desk, gets the mirror and the blade, shaves a corner from the rock, chops it, cuts out two lines, rolls a hundred and they’re gone. He waits for the drain to hit the back of his throat and when it does he smiles and cuts out two more lines that disappear neater than the first. He chops about a gram from the rock and carefully dumps it into the vial that he puts in his right pants pocket before tucking the rest of the bag in his left. Ard taps the razor on the mirror and lines up the residue. For an instant he thinks about Jamie and then frowns at his reflection before inhaling the last line. Ard sits back, rubs both eyes with the heels of his hands and then stares at the framed photograph on his desk. “Everybody has a story,” he says to the image. His words sound hollow even to him and he thinks of heat and humidity and Hell before he rises to leave. He wishes it were February and raining.
Ard curses the heat and flips the Caddy’s AC on high but he knows it needs freon. He drives through town, keeps an eye on his speed, then opens it up a bit after he crosses the railroad tracks, has it humming by the time he passes Charlie and Linda Wrenn’s place. Ard pulls over just before he gets to JoJo’s and scoops two more hits from the vial. JoJo and him were neighbors, before. He was an all right guy but he never bought blow. Never seemed to mind doing somebody else’s though. When he pulls in the yard he sees JoJo at the edge of the woods behind the farmhouse, swinging a pick ax at the dirt.
“What you doing, Jo?”
“Gotta bury George Bush. Fucking ground’s hard as a brickbat. Christ, we need some rain.”
“GB’s dead?” Ard sniffs and thumbs at his nose, hopes JoJo won’t catch it.
“Pretty sure. He ain’t moved in a day or so. Looks pretty stiff. Hand me that shovel.” JoJo tosses a small pile of dirt out of the hole and grabs the pick ax again.
“It’s too hot for this shit, let’s go get a beer.” Ard feels the sweat pooling in the small of his back, looks toward the pen. “GB’ll wait.”
“Go ‘head on, I got to finish here. You think it’s deep enough?” JoJo swings at the dirt again and the pick ax bounces back at him and nearly hits his bald scalp.
Ard looks at the hole while he struggles to keep his mind from racing back—back to her casket being lowered, disappearing below the surface, back even to the moment the fire started; but it’s no use, he’s there again and he can smell a brief hint of patchouli and jasmine that sends his fingers to the vial in his pocket, doesn’t realize how hard he is pressing it into the soft flesh of his thigh but thinking of the white powder all the same, hears it calling him, whispering, until a pain shoots up through his femur, along his spine and then spikes into his right eye. The pain is familiar and it brings him back. “No.”
“Shit.” JoJo swings again, this time sinking the blade into the clay and wedging a chunk out of the earth and into the thick air. He steadies himself for another swing. “You could help me, you know. Little hard work do you good.” JoJo grunts just as the blade strikes the yellow earth.
“Naw. Looks like you got it.”
JoJo grunts again without looking up. He starts another swing then stops to wave the back of his hand at Ard. “I’ll catch you at Red’s after while. Damn dog would wait until the ground was baked concrete ‘fore he decides to die. Asshole.”
Ard starts toward the Caddy, wonders whether JoJo was talking about him or George Bush. When he reaches the car he decides he doesn’t care. The dog was a big German Shepherd, dumb as cornflakes and always wanting to fight. He got into Rosa Lee’s flowerbeds once after she’d spent two days putting in new bedding plants and shrubs. Ard didn’t care for flowers so much but he’d sat on the back porch rubbing Rosa’s shoulders after the work was done, looking at her looking at the plants, and the light in her eyes sifted over him like silky beach sand and he knew it felt too good, knew even then the feeling would somehow slip from his grasp. The next day, when he came home and found GB digging in the beds and all the flowers destroyed, he went straight for his shotgun. He raised the gun to his shoulder and yelled, he wanted the dog to see what was coming, but GB turned and growled before he charged him. Ard was so surprised he couldn’t get off a shot and had to use the butt of the gun to knock the dog away twice before it finally ran for home. Ard’s glad the damn brute is dead.
He does two more hits before he starts the Caddy, closes his eyes and waits for the rush. He sees the gash of earth JoJo was standing over, how the packed red soil yields to hard yellow bull tallow a few inches down and feels himself falling into the hole, feels the weight of the soulless dirt pressing on his chest until he opens his eyes and backs out of the drive. The low moan of the big V8 washes over him, cleans the last of the vision from his head. As he pulls off he sees JoJo bent and dragging George Bush toward the hole, the dog’s legs sticking straight up toward the heavens, the two of them a struggling silhouette against the fading sun.
The gravel parking lot at Red’s is already three quarters full. The building itself is made of cinderblocks, low slung and nondescript, but recently Red hired somebody to paint a beach mural on one wall. Years ago, when Ard and JoJo first started coming, the place was no more than a beer joint that doubled as clubhouse for Red’s driving range. After the by-pass was finished and the new money discovered that land and taxes were cheaper out in the county and all the subdivisions sprang up, the place got trendy. Ard guessed the newbies figured it was safer driving a mile or two home from Red’s than navigating the Lexus through Charlotte traffic after several rounds of apple martinis. Red had no idea how to mix a martini but the PBR’s were ice cold and only a buck.
After two more quick bumps, Ard stashes the baggie in the glove box, the vial in his pocket and makes his way through the lot and across the new sand-filled patio area, winds around the wrought iron tables with umbrellas and sidesteps the moderately rich. Two guys in khakis and golf shirts stop Ard just as he makes the door.
“Nice ride.” First Guy tips his beer toward Ard. “Ford, right? About a 59, 60?”
Second Guy nods. “You restore it yourself?”
Ard stands with his hand on the screen door, looks at his Caddy, then back at the guys. He can feel his heart clicking and realizes he’s grinding his back teeth, the muscles along his jaw knotted tight. Needs a cold beer to wash the taste of benzene from his throat. Thinks he ought to smash his fist into First Guy’s bleached teeth for fun but says: “59 Caddy. Won it off two faggots in a crap game out back. Fucking aftermarket AC don’t work. When you guys see ‘em tell ‘em they owe me some freon,” and he walks into the cool stale air of the bar.
He knows he should eat but every nerve is up on edge now and his mind is moving one notch quicker than everything around him, out of sync but manageable. Preferable. No need to dull it with food. Red slides him a Miller, Ard takes one swallow and goes to the john, locks the door. He’s shocked when he sees the vial, empty to the point that he can’t scoop another hit from the bottom and he’s forced to dump what’s left on the back of the stained urinal. The line’s too thin and gone in an instant. The smell from the toilet makes him feel like he’ll throw up. He chokes back the rising bile and goes to finish his beer.
“Rosa Lee’s daddy and momma was in here the other night.” Red pulls the stool across the bar from Ard, settles in. Most of the crowd is outside and the waitresses are handling them.
“They say anything?” Ard rolls the Miller back and forth in his hands.
“Small talk. Had a couple of beers, watched some of the game. I ain’t seen them in here for a while. Wondered if they mighta been waitin’ on you, you know, maybe you all was okay.” Red winks at him with his good eye.
“I’m fucking fine. Can’t say about Ross and Eileen. Anything come up about the fire report?”
“Naw. I figured that’d be done by now. You ain’t heard nothing?”
“It ain’t back yet. ‘Sposed to be end of this week, I think. Thursday, maybe Friday.” Ard drains the last of his beer and tosses a twenty on the bar. “Listen, hold my spot, I left something in the car.”
Outside the two guys are standing beside the Caddy, nursing imported beers. Ard shakes his head and remembers when the only choices Red offered were Pabst, Bud and Miller. I ought to sell the car, he thinks, draws too much attention. He needs the guys to disappear, needs the Caddy’s privacy to cut out the rest of his blow, but he knows the type. He’ll have to humor them at least for a while or they’ll never leave.
“How long is this thing?” First Guy asks.
“Twenty-six feet, nose to tail.” Ard grins.
“And you really won it in a crap game?” Second Guy chimes in while First Guy walks the length of the car.
“Naw, I was just messin’ with you. Ain’t no gambling gone on here since Red closed the driving range. Used to keep a monkey in a cage out back, though. Monkey loved to smoke weed. We used to bet how many tokes before he went for his first banana. Damnedest thing you ever seen.” Ard bristles as he watches First Guy run his hand along the tail fin of the Caddy.
“So where’d you get it?” First Guy asks as he kneels to inspect the bumper.
“Old man Jenkins, used to live over by Alton. You wouldn’t know him; he was dead before all y’all started moving out here. Sat out behind his barn. I went over there squirrel hunting one day and saw it, bunch of weeds and briars grown up around it, going to rust. Said it was his boy’s, but I knew his boy had got his insides blown out somewhere up the Mekong Delta. Said the boy parked it right there where I found it, back in June of ‘67. Asked his daddy to keep it for him till he come back.”
Both men move to the front of the car, listening to Ard but never taking their eyes off the Caddy. Ard gauges the two men, wonders how long before they tire, how long before they spot the next best thing and leave him alone. He knows it won’t be long until the dull ache settles across his sinuses and everything slows to a crawl. But right now he still has a nice edge.
“So I told Jenkins, I said, hell, its 1999, I don’t much believe your boy’s coming back.”
“You didn’t. What’d he say?” First and Second Guy are working in tandem now, one asking right on the heels of the other and Ard’s not sure which one spoke first.
“Told me he didn’t expect he was, but that didn’t mean he was gonna sell his boy’s car. Told me he didn’t much think he wanted me hunting squirrel on his property no more, either.”
“So how’d you end up with it?” First Guy takes a long pull from his bottle and makes a bitter face.
Ard laughs. “Beer tastes that bad I believe I’d switch brands. Old man calls me in the spring of 2000, says come get the car if you want it.” Ard holds out his left arm and points to a small scar on his forearm. “Damn black snake had laid claim to it, bastard bit me when I went to haul it out.”
“Damn,” Both Guys in unison.
“Anymore old junkers over there?” First Guy laughs, “I might be willing to take on a black snake.”
Ard walks to the back of the car and wipes the edge of the tail fin down with his T‑shirt, leans to inspect it, wipes it again. “Nope. They found Griff Jenkins two days after I picked up the Caddy. Pistol still in one hand, picture of his boy in the other. Brains on the bedroom wall and blood all the way to his shoes.”
Laughter rolls from the patio and all three men turn and look toward the knot of people there. Studying menus, ordering. Throwing recent slices of their lives across the table for entertainment, and Ard knows that even before the sound of their words die out they’re already thinking of the next amusing story they’ll tell. He can feel it, as if some unseen strand reaches from the crowd at the tables, stretches past him and anchors itself to the two guys in front of him, already drawing them back, pulling them through the uneasy silence that now surrounds them, surrounds Ard.
Ard cuts his gaze short and looks instead at the two guys. He knows them, hell, couple of choices here or there, he could almost be them. College boys, probably from New York, Jersey, maybe Pennsylvania or Ohio. Came down here to Duke or Carolina on their parents’ money, graduated, moved back North for awhile then followed the money trail and sunshine back to good old Carolina. Good money jobs either at one of the banks downtown or one of the new hi-tech companies springing up everywhere, maybe real estate. Not a hard day in their life.
But it always came back to the choices. His grades had been decent in school, at least until they moved him and Jamie into the Thompson Home. It wasn’t long after that he decided a sack of weed was a lot more interesting than a history book. And that Saturday night, the party. He should’ve left with Jamie, tried his luck sneaking past the nuns, but there was plenty of blow around and he didn’t see any point in calling it an early night. The next morning, while Ard was still in the holding cell for the DWI, Jamie decided he needed all that religion the nuns kept shoving at them. It wasn’t long before Jamie went away, studying to be a priest.
The only thing close to right after that had been Rosa Lee. He hadn’t made it easy for her, but she had managed to talk her father into hiring him in the Production Control Department at the plant. All he did there was get by; never got a promotion and never wanted one. It was hard enough cutting the weekend parties short in time for Monday morning. Rosa tried, but Ard never thought he had in him what she really needed.
He shakes his head, tries to focus. The report from the fire inspector flashes through his mind, distracts him. It would say what it had to say, one way or the other. What he needs now is to lose the college boys and get back to the baggie in the glove box, back to an answer he’s comfortable with.
“Fuck it, man. I’m Arden. Ard for short. You guys wanna go for a ride? I know where there’s a cock fight out by the State line.” He sees the fear flash in their eyes.
“Thanks, but we probably ought to stick around. We need to hold our table, our wives are meeting us here.” Both Guys turn toward the patio.
“Nice meeting you,” Second Guy speaks over his shoulder, already heading for his table. First Guy has his wallet out, fishes for his business card.
“If you ever decide to sell the car, let me know,” he says. “I’ll pay you top dollar. Here’s all my numbers.”
Ard looks at the card and says “Sure” but First Guy has already caught up to his buddy. He watches them disappear through the door of the bar, looks at the card again, then at the Caddy. It’s a choice he’s not ready to make, not yet. If the insurance money doesn’t come through, maybe, but right now the Caddy’s something he can count on, something permanent. The two of them have a nice understanding and Ard can’t imagine it any other way. He lets the card drop to the ground and his hand rests on the door handle for a few seconds before he opens it and climbs in.
Ard slides across the seat to the passenger side and drops the glove box lid, digs inside for the bag, glancing out both windows and checking the side view for people. No time to cut proper so he pulls out his license and smashes it hard against the glove box lid, crushing the rocks to powder, running the card back and forth until he’s sure its fine. He cuts out two more lines and scoops the last of the powder into the vial. He flips the empty baggie inside out, sticks it between his upper lip and gum and does the two lines.
“Thought you’d gone,” Red tells him when he gets back to the bar.
“Some of your new clientele wanted to gawk at the Caddy. Had to scare em off.”
“Yeah, ain’t like it used to be. Couple of them wanna buy this place.”
“Aw hell, Red, you can’t sell out. You want me to end up drinking alone?”
“I don’t know, Ard. I can’t stand this heat no more. Me and Charlene’s talking about moving to the mountains. Besides, place ain’t been the same since I closed the driving range and Monkey ran off. Little bastard’s probably in Mexico by now.” Red shakes his head and grins when he says it.
“Why don’t you open the range back up?”
“Shit, my heart ain’t in it. And you know Charlene wouldn’t stand for it after she knocked out my eye with that three wood. Would’ve been a helluva drive, too. Besides, after that I pulled everything left, and you can’t win a bet for shit if you ain’t hittin’ ‘em straight.”
“What’re they gonna do with the place?” Ard reaches and feels the vial in his pocket, wishes he hadn’t asked the question and thinks about going back in the john. Red shrugs and looks at two customers that have just walked up to the other end of the bar, then turns back to Ard.
“You know, me and Charlene, well, she’s put up with a lot of my shit over the years. A man needs something, Ard. Used to be, around here, you had a piece of land, some history, you knew folks and they knew you. I don’t much think I like it around here no more. Charlene either. She keeps talking about the mountains, Jonas Ridge. I figure I owe her a little peace. At the end of the day, she ain’t so bad to sit up in the hills and get old with.”
“I still say she hit you with that golf ball on purpose. She always was the better shot.”
“Yeah, probably. Having one eye ain’t been so bad, though. I don’t think I could take it if I was seeing things full on.” Red tilts his head toward the other end of the bar. “Let me get these assholes another designer beer.”
Ard locks the bathroom door behind him, stands in front of the mirror and gets two quick hits, then leans on the sink and studies his face. He looks older, old, for forty. The blue of his eyes looks more faded, weaker than he remembers. Checks his watch, decides he’ll lay out of work again tomorrow. It’s been a week and a half, what’s one more day? He’s probably been fired by now anyway, he hasn’t bothered to check messages or call in. Two more hits. Washes his face. Two more. Leans in close to the mirror and whispers “If he sells this place, you got nowhere else to go, nothing left in the world but that damn Cadillac. Christ, you’ll have to become a fucking priest.”
The bar is nearly full when he returns and Ard is confused. How long was he in the bathroom? The music has changed, it’s louder, he doesn’t recognize the song. Two girls are dancing together between the pool tables and from this distance the smoke hangs over them like a halo. It seems everyone in the place is talking to somebody and Ard strains to decipher something, anything, that’s being said. He makes his way to the bar, but it takes a few minutes before Red sees him. Red’s buried shoulder deep in a beer cooler when he yells to him.
“JoJo called and said he ain’t gonna make it, Kathy’s a little upset about George Bush and he better stay home. What’s wrong with GB?”
“Nothing now.” Ard shouts back but Red is already passing out more beers.
Ard scans the crowd, thinking maybe he’ll spot the two guys that liked the Caddy. The mosquitoes have chased most everyone in from the patio and now the bar is packed. Couples, tables of five, six people, clusters of the upwardly mobile around the bar, turning up drinks, laughing. He doesn’t recognize a single face. A guy bumps into him on the way to the bathroom, mumbles “sorry” as Ard elbows him away. Ard sees the car guys at a table in the corner and starts over. They’re with their wives, young, good looking, too thin. Ard approaches and raises his beer in salute. Both guys look up, one shouts “Caddy Man!” and leans back into their conversation. Ard waits, then turns back toward the bar, but a redhead already fills his seat, flanked by two guys hovering over each shoulder.
The vial is open in his left hand with the spoon in his right. Ard has no idea how long he’s been sitting in the Caddy, how many times he’s raised the spoon to his nose, how many people he’s watched file into the bar. The din from inside has been replaced by the cicadas and bullfrogs screaming from where the driving range used to be. The noise is deafening and relentless and Ard finally reaches to roll the window up and panics when he nearly drops the vial. What’s left will never last until Thursday, won’t last much past morning, and a new strain of panic grips him.
It’s nearly two a.m. when he pulls into Quinn’s drive and rings the bell. He rings, rings again, and sees a glow of light through the window. The door creaks open and Ard is greeted first by Quinn’s 9mm, then gradually Quinn’s arm, shoulder, and finally half of his face takes shape from behind the door.
“You don’t come by without an appointment, shit-fer-brains. What the fuck’s wrong with you?”
“Yeah, Quinn, sorry man. Listen I need another eight ball, two if you got it.” Ard reaches for his pocket, checks to make sure the cash from Jamie is still there. There’s only six, maybe seven hundred left from the bank accounts, and the insurance company won’t issue a check until after the fire report. Depending on which way that goes could make for a rough landing. Ard can’t think about that now.
“Get the fuck off my porch. I told you Thursday.” Quinn starts closing the door. Ard reaches out and stops it.
“You know anybody else that’s holding? I got to get through tomorrow.”
Quinn steps into full view. He’s wearing nothing but his boxers. “Ard, listen, we’ve known each other a long time, hell, since high school. You gotta slow down, man. Do the drug; don’t let the drug do you. You gonna get your ass killed pulling shit like this.”
“I got lots going on, Quinn. I need a little more to get through tomorrow, a gram or two even, that’ll hold me until Thursday. After that, I should be getting my insurance check. I can pick up some real weight, maybe a brick. Won’t be bothering you as often. I’m pretty sure work’s canned my ass; it’s a lot to deal with, you know? I just need to get by till the check makes it.”
“Sure you do. And if the check’s so certain, why they waitin’ on the report? Besides, you got the last of it this afternoon. My next order won’t come in until Thursday morning. And I don’t know if you ought to think about upping your count. You gettin’ a little carried away lately. Now I got to get back to bed before Annie gets up. Go home, go to bed, leave that shit alone for a day. I’ll see you on Thursday.”
Ard stands beside the Caddy and stares into the dark sky. He’s surprised that he suddenly remembers a class from high school and Mr. Hoskins talking about black holes. About how once something is drawn into one it’s never released, how it becomes anti-matter, as if it never even existed. Ard searches the sky and thinks about the absurdity of it all. If nothing exists in a black hole, then how can anyone know the holes actually exist? You can’t measure empty. Ard stretches both arms upward and gives the Milky Way the finger.
“A threat. You come to my house and deliver a threat? Okay, sure, I’ll drive. Maybe before we get to the bishop’s office we’ll make another stop, see how the sheriff’s doing.” Jamie doesn’t turn to face Ard; rakes a comb through his thinning hair.
“Come on, Jamie. Just let me have a gram or two. I’ll make it up to you after I see Quinn tomorrow. Besides, you gonna tell the sheriff old Ard here’s been selling you cocaine? Remember, I’m out, I ain’t holding, what’re they gonna do?”
Ard can see the priest’s reflection in the mirror but Jamie doesn’t return his gaze, occupied instead with adjusting his collar. Ard looks closer at his brother’s image. Same blue eyes, but stronger. Jamie’s chin is his chin, Jamie’s nose, his nose. Ard thinks of his best friend from childhood, the boy he grew up with, hunted and fished with, drank his first beer with. Thinks of how he loved him, how he hated him, and he suddenly realizes of all the assholes walking the earth, Jamie’s the only one with the same blood in his veins as his. So what was it Jamie had that he couldn’t find?
“Today would’ve been your and Rosa’s what, fifteenth anniversary?” Jamie says as he turns to face Ard.
“Fuck you, Jamie. Why you gotta bring that up?” Ard walks out of the bathroom hallway and sits at the table. Jamie follows him.
“How long since you’ve been to work?”
“I don’t know. Week, maybe more.” Ard rubs his eyes with the heels of both hands.
“Have they fired you?”
“Yeah, probably. I ain’t bothered to call.”
“Arden, you can’t just not work, you’ve got to get your shit together.”
“The fire report’s due this week. I’ll have the insurance money in a couple of days. Now come on, Jamie. I feel like shit warmed over.” Ard drops his head on the table. The laminated wood lies cool and foreign against his forehead.
“So take the money and start over. Get yourself straightened out. Our church has a program…”
Ard jerks his head up from the table. “So is this advice coming from my cokehead brother or the local cokehead priest? You don’t know shit, Jamie, you never did. Jesus Christ, we weren’t even fucking Catholic. Our old man a drunk. And hell, if the State hadn’t of sent us to the home after Momma died, you’d never of seen the inside of a church. You were the dumb ass that bought into all that shit they fed us. Look at you, you’re no different than Pop, no different than me. Use your own damn rehab clinic.”
“No. You’re wrong, Ard. I thought about what you said yesterday, what we talked about, what I’m doing. Becoming. Thought about it a lot. Maybe we aren’t any different, maybe you’re right. But I’ve found my place, what’s right for me. Not this. So can you. Love…
“Save the bullshit, Padre, I know the routine. I heard all the same fairy tales you did, but I ain’t stupid. Look around, take a good look. God is great, God is good—you remember when we had to say that blessing? My ass. Your God is one twisted, vindictive SOB the way I see it. Damn Jamie, you’re a fucking priest and you’re doing an eight ball of coke a week.”
“No. Not any more.” Jamie turns and stares out the kitchen window for several minutes and Ard can feel the air disappearing between them, finds each breath more difficult. When Ard hears the sound of Jamie sliding open the kitchen drawer he can feel the oxygen rush in to fill the space. Jamie faces him and tosses the eight ball of coke. It lands on the table and slides across the laminate, nearly falls off into Ard’s lap.
“I’m done. Never even opened it. There it is, now you make a choice. We’re brothers, Ard, we’ll walk away together.”
Ard looks at the bag, can already feel the surge and his heart quickens. He pauses for only a second before slipping the bag into his pocket.
“Cash is a little tight. Okay if I square up with you after the insurance check comes in?”
“Really, man. I’ll cover you, swear it.”
“No.” Jamie shakes his head and looks at his shoes, sighs and walks past Arden toward the door. Ard feels him pause just behind him but he can’t turn and face his brother, even as Jamie speaks to him. The words “I love you” filter over him but Jamie’s voice sounds a thousand miles away and echoes faintly until Ard hears the soft click of the front door.
Outside the sky has already gone white from the stale heat and humidity and it’sonly ten in the morning. The steering wheel is hot to the touch and Arden uses the heel of his hand to guide the Caddy into the street, not sure where he is going. He rides past his apartment, turns around and comes back, this time pulling into his parking space. He stares at his balcony window, thinks the Caddy is the only place that feels like home as he lightly touches the bag in his shirt pocket, then backs out.
The parking lot at Red’s is empty and Ard makes a wide turn, cuts the wheel hard left and throws a spray of dust and gravel toward the patio before coming to a stop. As he’s walking down the overgrown path behind the building, Ard decides there’s no sight more depressing than a bar in daylight. When he reaches the clearing he stops beside the wooden picnic table and stares first at Monkey’s empty cage, then the table. He thinks of the night he talked Rosa into doing it right there on the table and how Monkey screamed and rattled his cage the whole time. The scent of patchouli drifts up to him and he reaches to let his fingertips trace along the edge of the boards where Rosa, smiling, had pulled him toward her that night. Ard suddenly spins and kicks the cage with his right foot and nearly falls as it rocks back on two legs. He kicks it again and this time it tumbles into the weeds, the door pops its rusty hinges and swings free, slamming into his shin. Ard pulls up his jeans and watches the blood trickle down his leg until it reaches the top of his sock.
The inside of the Caddy is almost unbearable now and Ard can feel his shirt sticking to the back of the seat as he picks the cockle-burrs and beggar lice from his pants. His leg aches and the AC’s blowing hot air, the last of the freon gone. He looks around the empty parking lot, at the bar, at his reflection in the rearview, but only for a second. He takes the baggie from his shirt pocket and holds it up to the sun. He moves the baggie in front of his eye, further, then closer to his face until the bag blocks the ball of sun from his view. He reaches to open the glove box but slips the bag back in his pocket instead and drops the Caddy into drive.
Ard slows down as he passes JoJo and Kathy’s place but he knows nobody’s home. Before he realizes it, he’s covered the two miles and is parked in what used to be his drive. He wishes the big oak were still there but the flames jumped from the house to the branches and then it was gone too. The weeds and briars have taken over the twenty-three acres to the point that even the real estate developers that have started calling don’t realize there was a house there only six months earlier. Ard walks past where their porch once stood, through the remains of Rosa’s flower garden. The sun’s nothing more than a glare in the sky and everything in front of Ard appears to shimmer and he can see the waves of heat rising from the earth.
The dry weeds crunch with each step Ard takes and for a moment the sound reminds him of walking on snow. He can hear the insects buzzing and occasionally sees a grasshopper take flight as he approaches. The dog days. The time of year when you can smell the heat, and, when he was a kid, this was the time you’d see some stray dog come wandering up, its head low and swinging from side to side as it ambled forward, slobber and drool dragging from its jaws. Step after stiff-legged step, it would just keep coming at you like it wanted you, needed you to take the twenty-two from the rack and put a hollow point through its brain.
Ard keeps walking, covers the ten acres they planned to turn into pasture, passes the faded barn and its empty stalls. The land rises slightly here and the uphill steps shorten his breath. At the crest of the knoll Ard stumbles and falls to one knee, but catches himself before landing on his face. The pond is at the bottom of the hill only twenty or thirty yards before him and as he rises to his feet, the green water looks thick and solid.
There’s no shade anywhere and Ard sits on the low side, opposite the dam. He takes the bag from his shirt pocket and begins to unwrap the twist tie when he hears a voice behind him and quickly drops the baggie, still open, back into his shirt pocket.
“Those aftermarket AC’s never work on Caddy’s, huh?” The boy, about nineteen or twenty Ard guesses, stands over him. Ard doesn’t recognize the boy. He can tell he’s wearing fatigue pants and no shirt, but the sun distorts his view of the boy’s face.
“Hotter than a French whore in Saigon, ain’t it?”
Ard looks back at the pond, wraps his arms around his knees.
“I come down here for a swim, little R & R. How about you?”
Ard looks back at the boy but the sun is directly behind him now and he still can’t make out any of his features. He’s nothing more than a dark silhouette and his shadow stretches over Ard, but Ard doesn’t feel any cooler. He shades his eyes but the boy still doesn’t come into focus.
“Fire’s a helluva thing, ain’t it? Cook your meat, burn your house.”
“Who the fuck are you?” Ard tries to get up but his legs have fallen asleep and he has to roll onto his knees and then tries to push himself up but can’t.
“Napalm; now that’s a fire.”
“Get off my property.”
“Fire’ll burn itself out. This heat just keeps on, don’t it?” The boy shifts to one side and the glare of the sun blinds Ard and he quickly turns his face away.
“Need some rain,” the boy says, drags the toe of his boot in the packed dirt. “I heard there was a house up yonder. Burned down first day of March, what I heard.”
Ard tries to stand again but his left leg is still stiff and heavy, feels like it’s separate from his body and he raises on his good leg while he rubs his hand over his other thigh, trying to get the blood moving.
“Guess they coulda used some rain that day too, huh? Mighta been able to save the woman what was in the house to slow that blaze some. Well, shit like that’ll happen, can’t say the reason why. Coulda been her husband was trying to cook up a little hash oil. You look surprised there, brother. Ah, I know all about that. Take a little hooch, mix it in with a couple of buds and boil it down. I seen it done in a field helmet, though, never on a stove or nothing. You got to tend it close either way, that stuff’ll flame up in a second. Course, it coulda been some bad wiring, it was an old frame farmhouse and you know how those are. Tinderbox, and probably ain’t no insulation on the wires, house that old. You don’t ever know.”
“Something like that get in a body’s head and just eat away, best not to even dwell on it. I seen plenty I ain’t got no answer for. Seen this VC come running across a field and a 50 caliber cut him plum in half, right at the waist. His legs just kept on running like ain’t nothing happened. Heard this thump one morning right beside of me. Looked over and damned if my best buddy’s head wadn’t gone and him still holding his rifle. Go figure.”
“I said get off my property.” Ard’s teeth are clenched, the muscles along his shoulders taut.
“Course I guess that VC and my buddy was both just trying to hold on to something. Bout like the old man used to have that Caddy. The answers don’t matter one way or the other. Just like that old car, none of it really stands for no count, huh?”
Ard lunges at the boy, swings wild but the boy glides out of the way. When the boy turns, Ard can finally make out part of his face. The features are blurred and for an instant he thinks its Jamie, even calls out to him twice, but the boy shows no sign of recognizing the name.
Instead, the boy looks across the water and stretches. “Damn hot, ain’t it? You know, if I was you, I’d go on and sell that Caddy. After market AC won’t ever be right, no how. Ain’t no point thinkin’ it will.” He stretches again and cocks his chin toward the pond. “Yep, think I’ll take that swim now,” he says, then runs past Ard and dives headfirst into the water, barely making a splash.
The ripples spread across the pond and Ard waits for the boy to surface. The last of the tiny waves reach the far bank and still no sign of the boy. Ard calls out to him, begins to panic, yells again. Wonders why the boy looked like Jamie, only for that second, and the thought tightens his throat. He looks around, half expecting to see someone, anyone, that might help but he’s alone and his voice echoes against the trees at the far side of the property.
In an instant, Ard breaks for the pond and dives just as he reaches the water’s edge. The water rushes over him and he’s amazed at how cool it is, how he can feel it gliding over every inch of his skin. He strokes twice, three times, heads for the deepest part of the pond, but he doesn’t see the boy anywhere. He turns all the way around, looks everywhere but sees nothing in the murky water. Ard dives deeper still, finds the muddy bottom. Nothing. His lungs are aching now. He opens his mouth and yells but the only sound is his heartbeat. He turns around once more and then he no longer feels the water on his body, forgets about his empty lungs.
The water around him is clearer now and he sees a shadow floating near him. When he moves closer and tries to grab the form it’s gone. He realizes he is screaming and as he feels the water rush in his lungs he’s certain he smells wood smoke. Ard looks up, calmer now, and sees Rosa Lee smiling and slowly moving toward the surface. The baggie floats out of his pocket and hovers in front of him, the cocaine briefly clouding his view of Rosa before it dissolves into nothing. When the water clears again he can only see the yellow sun perfectly formed above him, its rays soft and light, cascading through the water. Ard rises toward it and as he breaks the surface the air washes over him, carrying the clean scent of jasmine across the pond.