It had taken Vaughn Oliver close to two years to bank away the six grand he’d need to buy Jolie the ring she’d wanted—one and a quarter-caret pear-shaped diamond set in a white gold band, size seven—and exactly two minutes to lay it down for a mint—mint—1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS. 75,000 original miles, eight cylinder engine, white white white with the pencil-thin burgundy racing stripe slicing down the sides and those easy-in/easy-out tinted T-tops. Not a flaw to be found. Not a crust of rust on the outside or ring of an accidental cigarette burn inside. Sun exploding off the hood and windshield like the car’s own self-sustaining energy. He hadn’t even tried to bargain with the guy. Fifty-five hundred bucks. Let me go to the bank I’ll be back in a minute.
“I don’t get it. So what’s this mean?” Bess always sounded condescending when addressing him. He told her that all the time, but she’d just say that he was being insecure. He hated that he felt like her younger brother even though he was five years older. She looked down at the car, eyebrow wrinkled, Ben propped on her hip, fidgeting to get down.
Vaughn punched an oversized button on the wall with the side of his fist and the garage door grumbled closed. “What’s what mean? It’s just a car.” He could almost feel the escaping weight of that lie, leaving his head buzzing, full of helium. Just a car, he’d said. The words would’ve sounded dead even to an untrained ear, a stranger walking by. How could it be just a car? He’d owned the exact same one when he was twenty years old. Dropped out of college to pay for it. Drove it halfway across country after Jennifer Decklyn broke up with him. Any random handful of photos scooped out of the picture box up in his mother’s attic was bound to include a few faded shots of a skinny version of Vaughn standing pseudo-casual in front of the SS with his arms folded, one foot probably resting on the other. Maybe shades on his face, a sweep of light brown hair layered over his forehead. Even as he’d forced the lie his eyes kept falling to the car, its shiny chrome, the hood ornament. Monte Carlo. Swirling letters glimmering as if forged in ice. Jolie, not an hour before, had kicked him out over this.
Bess shook her head. So did Ben. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Vaughn lifted his hand, surprised at its weight, and placed it on his nephew’s head. His hair soft, full of static, clinging to his fingers. She’d said it, he was sure, because she knew full well that he did not, at all, know what he was doing. But the truth was, well, maybe he kind of did. No, it hadn’t been planned—you can’t plan something like this. Driving by a mint ’87 Monte Carlo on the way back from getting scratch tickets and a Dr Pepper. He hadn’t even really debated the decision or questioned it in the slightest. There it was. It existed. It was for sale. And he had the cash. Even without consciously admitting it, he’d certainly known he’d be forcing Jolie’s hand. And somewhere, down in the recesses of his gut, he must’ve been okay with that.
When his mother pulled open the back screen door of the garage, Vaughn was sipping a Dr Pepper on the mangy sofa that the day before had been covered in trash bags full of old clothes, two flat lawn tractor tires, and a box of partially used paint cans. He’d flipped the cushions, batted out the dust best he could, misted it good with one of those spray fresheners that smell like clean laundry, and moved it to the back wall where it faced the rest of garage. Next to it he’d stood an old lamp—all it needed was a new bulb and some masking tape over the crack in the cardboard shade—so that he didn’t have to use the bank of cold overhead fluorescents all the time. From the old shed he’d salvaged a mini-fridge, wiped it clean of spider webs and mold, and stacked it on top of the work bench. He’d thought about going home—home to the apartment, Jolie’s technically, since it was in her name—and getting his iPod dock, but on the closet shelf in his old bedroom that his mother now used as an ironing room he’d found his stereo. AM/FM, dual cassette deck, and turntable with a broken arm. He didn’t own any records, and couldn’t remember ever using the record player, but he still had a box of cassette tapes, bricks of them, and so took the box into the garage with the stereo.
His mother looked from him to the car to the sofa and back to him. Her mouth was moving but Vaughn couldn’t hear her over Sammy Hagar. The tapes sounded pretty decent, but he was surprised at how noticeable the underlying hissing noise was. He wondered if it was because the tapes were so old and worn, or if cassettes had always sounded that way. “What?” he yelled, pointing to his ear.
His mother frowned, said something again. This time Vaughn got up from the couch and went to the stereo. Did this thing used to have a remote? Or had they not been invented yet? His fingers were tacky with Turtle Wax.
“What are you doing? Moving into the garage?”
Vaughn looked around, pleased. “No, but I could, huh? Not a bad little set-up.” Two bags of clothes sat on the bed in the guest bedroom, which was actually his bed once upon a time. It was a small room, depressing. Antiques and shit. A wall clock that tick-tocked way too loudly. If he was going to be staying here a while—he didn’t want to use the word living—then he knew he’d have to take over the garage, turn it into some kind of man-cave. Something to call his own. For sanity’s sake.
“I think Ben’s trying to take a nap,” she told him, pointing in the general direction of a small rectangular vent in the corner of the garage ceiling. “You should turn that music down. Bess didn’t come down and say anything?”
Three months earlier Bess and Ben had moved into the small apartment above the garage. If he’d done this just a few months earlier he could’ve taken dibs on it. But Bess’s husband Stephen had been deployed to Afghanistan right after Christmas, so Bess had decided to sublet their condo for a year and come back home to be near Mom. Their father had passed away a little over two years ago.
Vaughn smiled. Turn that music down—he loved it. ’87 Monte Carlo. Sammy Hagar. Turn that music down! He took a slug off his soda. “What’s so funny?” Mom said. “I didn’t say anything funny.”
They’d thrown Stephen a surprise going-away party back in January at the local Knights of Columbus. Catered with lasagna, salad, finger sandwiches, deli platters, and a cake to end all cakes. Stephen’s brother played with his band Karate Chop Action and nobody could believe how good they were and why in the world weren’t they on the radio already. Vaughn thought they were all right. A little like Blues Traveler or Huey Lewis or something like that, something with a lot of annoying harmonica.
He and Jolie had been fighting during the car ride there, he remembered, and it had spilled over into the party. Stephen was the bigshot hero in the family these days, even though Bess had had to call the police on him at least once before that he knew of, and maybe more than that. The kind of townie fuck who got into bar fights and bounced from shit job to shit job, then joined the Marines at 26 and has been worshipped ever since. Meanwhile Vaughn had put himself through school on his own dime while tarring driveways, taking classes on and off throughout his twenties, enrolling when he had the time and the money, finally securing a degree in Exercise Physiology at the age of 31 to no particular fanfare. No Knights of Columbus. No Karate Chop Harmonica Douches. No deli platters. So, yes, he got a little pissy whenever the family’s attention turned to Stephen and what a guy he was. Jolie accused him in the car of being jealous. Whatever, maybe he was. He’d heard that Stephen had signed up for the Marines after drunk-driving his father’s boat into a dock up at Winnipesauke. Thirty-five thousand dollar boat, gonzo.
Vaughn’s online class had just started that week and already he had fifty pages to read and a small paper to write for Monday. The last thing he needed was to spend a Saturday night kissing Stephen’s ass. Sunday was football playoffs and he knew he wouldn’t be getting any reading or writing done then. “Everything’s everyone else’s fault, isn’t it?” he remembered Jolie saying in the car, the sarcasm front-and-center. “We’ve known about this party for two weeks.”
“I’m just thinking out loud. Don’t listen to me if you don’t like it.”
“Well let me turn the radio on and I won’t have to.”
“The radio is on.”
“I mean music. Not sports talk.”
Vaughn braked to a stop light and cracked his window open, even though it was ten degrees outside. For some reason he felt hot. “Fucking Bess. She’s got good taste, doesn’t she?”
Jolie looked across at the open window but didn’t say anything.
“Yes she does.” He answered the question himself.
“He’s a good dad, Vaughn. He’s so good with Ben.”
Vaughn pushed out his lower lip as though considering this. “Yeah, that’s why he’s leaving for a year. Because he’s a great dad.”
Jolie shook her head. “That’s not fair and you know it,” she told him. “Can you close the window?”
His trouble may have really started when he’d begun taking grad classes, right around the time he’d also begun trying to save for that ring. Back when life had promise, when it was actually fun to plan, to commute home from work and let his mind drift to the future, to what’s next, what’s possible. The days of spreading black tar with a mop, heat coming at him from the July sun above and the hot stink below, were over. Jolie was a great girl, smart and ambitious and, let’s face it, pretty hot. And he had a good job now. Well maybe not good, that’s why they paid you. But an easy job. Middle school phys ed. He put nylon warm-up pants on in the morning, a pair of running sneakers, a comfortable sweatshirt. Shorts and flip-flops in the spring, even if the principal didn’t really like that too much.
He was supposed to—by rule—enter a graduate program within three years of having a teaching job, and something like five years to finish it. Something like that. He wasn’t entirely sure. He’d taken a couple classes, one summer a couple years earlier, another on Monday nights a year or so later. But that was about it, and he’d been teaching seven years now. He’d thought, or hoped, he’d be able to slip on through for a while, since no one seemed to be asking him to hold up a diploma. But that didn’t last. Walter was nice enough to write him an extension not once but twice, and that bought him some time. As long as he was showing strong and steady progress, Walter would never cut him loose until absolutely forced.
Which brought him to this semester. He had seven classes under his belt but still five to go after this online class. Online classes, he was beginning to realize, were a mistake. At least for him. After teaching all day, running the weight room from 2:30 to 4:40 over at the high school, and then trying to squeeze in a couple rounds of golf here and there, it was tough to make himself log on and get much accomplished. Jolie saw it all, too. For a while she hadn’t said much about it, just let him do his thing, but that started to fall apart in the last month or so. He’d lie and say he’d logged in at work during prep period, answered the posted questions, skimmed through the required reading and posted comments on the other invisible students’ written responses. Truth was, sometimes two or even three weeks could go by without a single log in. And somehow Jolie knew it.
The research paper was due May tenth, five days away. Fifteen to twenty pages. Minimum of seven outside refereed sources. A week after that, his end-of-the-year final evaluation with Walter, when he’d be asked to turn in updated transcripts. He picked his head up from his laptop, drew a hard breath, and let his gaze shift to the car. The headlights stared back at him, stoic and still.
Monday was bright and dry, the air warm even with the spring breeze. The kids were crazed with spring fever, teachers too. Vaughn led them outside for kickball. They used the old softball field at the far end of the field even though it was riddled with crab grass and bore a wide swampy puddle between right and center field. It was easy enough to explain that he didn’t want the students ruining the good softball field. There were games left in the season, maybe even playoffs. Really, though, the far field sat alongside a grassy embankment that tilted toward the noon sun, a nice spot for Vaughn to lay back and keep an eye on the games, and if he caught a little color on his face, then that was just a nice little side perk.
Once the game got going on its own he could back off, fold his arms behind his neck, tilt his chin toward the sun. The winter had been long. It was nice to be out of the stale gym for a change. The grass felt prickly, lacking life, the ground cool and maybe even a little damp. Somewhere a plane was circling, its low drone growing heavy, trailing off, coming back heavy again. Once in a while Vaughn pulled one eye open and looked for it, but so far as he could tell it was invisible. Below and to his right, the kids cheered about something.
He noticed a hawk gliding way overhead on one of his brief airplane scans. It was high up there, just a dark something against the blue sky. Its spread wings gave him away. Vaughn didn’t know much about birds, but he knew a hawk when he saw one. When he was no more than six or seven his father had pointed to two of them sliding over the sky in almost a figure eight. Vaughn thought they had been the most graceful, calm things he had ever seen. And then his father told him that they were probably looking for food, mice or snakes and chipmunks. Just gliding above it all, doing their own thing.
And then his eyes would close again, and he’d listen to the far-off plane, the low drone, daydreaming about old summer days in the back yard with his dad, about sitting above the toy world in an aisle seat, about a mint Monte Carlo SS sitting in the garage like it somehow passed right through the fabric of time.
Kids yelling from the distance. An uproar growing. His name being called. The sun was bright even through his closed eyes, the back of his eyelids glowing red. “Mr. Oliver!”
“Mr. Oliver, he was safe!”
“I totally got him! Mr. Oliver!”
Vaughn lifted the back of his head off the grass and it was too bright to open his eyes. He unfolded his arm and pushed his thumb out, cocking it back and forth. “Out!” he bellowed, then eased his head back again, interlocking his fingers across his stomach. The kids erupted again, half in celebration, the other half in protest.
So much for writing a paper. Bess and their mother were working in the backyard, trying to breathe life into a garden that hadn’t resembled a garden at all these last couple years, not since their father had passed away. For some reason it bothered Vaughn that they were even trying. Dad had been the gardener. Everything green and tall and dense. How many times had he given Vaughn and Jolie bags of peppers or tomatoes or cukes because the garden was producing way too much? What his mother was now doing, and Bess, somehow came off as invasive.
Ben, as usual, was pretty much left unsupervised, wandering in through the back door of the garage, trying to show Vaughn a rock he’d been sucking on. Vaughn, sitting in the back seat of the Monte Carlo patching a tiny rip in the vinyl with clear fingernail polish, thought for sure that Ben was going to throw the rock at the car.
“No no no no no no no!” Ben said, mimicking Vaughn’s panic. It might’ve been funny if he wasn’t so sure this was going to end with his car scratched, or dented, or at the very least smudged with spitty fingerprints.
“Ben, put that rock down nice, okay, buddy? Be a good boy.” Ben showed Vaughn the rock, then put the edge of it back into his mouth. Up close, Vaughn could see that it was gritty with dirt. “Bess!”
“Yeah, car,” Vaughn said. “My new car. Don’t touch it though, okay?”
From the corner of the garage, one of his hissing mix tapes made the clunky switch from Sammy Hagar’s “I’ll Fall in Love Again” to Billy Squier and “My Kinda Lover.” Not a seamless transition, as the end of the Hagar song got cut a little abruptly. He remembered how much time it’d taken to lay out the playlists, the strategy involved. The tempo of the song, the genre, how one ended and another began. A long fadeout followed by a startling and sudden kick start into the next song. For instance, “I’ll Fall in Love Again” had that decrescendo, the gradual fade into nothing, the song getting further and further away until there was nothing left but that ever-present hiss. And then those signature guitar chords that unmistakably open “My Kinda Lover.” That had taken some time for him to match up. Too bad for the crack and bang of the tape recorder stopping. Sliding the nail polish brush back and forth over the final corner of the seat tear, his nose inches above it, a headache starting to form either from the concentration or the fumes or the stress of Ben and his rock, Vaughn couldn’t help but smile at how obsessive he used to be about that kind of stuff.
Ben stood at the open car door now, licking his lips and then sucking them in, craning his little head to watch Vaughn in the back seat. Vaughn blew gently at the fresh mend, twisted the cap back onto the polish. He handed it to Ben. “Go give this to your mum, okay? Give that to Mummy.” Ben looked at it, shook it, looked at it again. Stuck the bottom of it into his mouth. And then, thankfully, trotted away. Crisis averted.
Karate Chop Action, the way he remembered it, had played three originals in a row, grinding the party to a halt. Three in a row. Who does that? Cleared the dance floor faster than a fire alarm. He’d had little else to do except drink. The night was a loss. No online class work tonight. No reading. Instead he was stuck listening to Karate Suck Assholes and about half a dozen rambling amateur toasts, mouths too close to the mic, lips smacking, nose air amplifying over the room.
He hadn’t seen Jolie in a while. Well, yes, he’d seen her. He could see her right now, standing in a group of girls, Stephen’s sister and sister’s friends. But she’d been avoiding him most of the night, ever since he called Stephen a phony and his brother’s band a bunch of pussies, and then called Bess insecure and desperate for taking him to begin with. She could do better. She could do a lot better, he’d kept saying. And Stephen wasn’t really all that good looking, with a long forehead and bad skin, and now she’d bred with him and poor Ben had half those bad genes. Cute kid but cute like all kids were cute. Not cute in any standout, particular way. Cute like two year-olds are cute. Vaughn had shot four beers the first half hour, then Stephen’s buds had bought shots and he’d happened to be there, so he tossed back a shot of 151. And somewhere in the middle of all that Jolie had slipped away from him.
Over the next four days he put new rims on the SS bought off Craigslist, had the front windshield replaced, changed the filters and hoses under the hood, tried not too successfully to tape a good-sized hole in the exhaust, and wrote two paragraphs of the research paper that was now due the next morning.
From where he was sitting he could see it outside in the parking lot, actually gleaming, luminous at the edge of a high streetlamp’s swath. It was the first time he’d taken it out of the garage since its purchase. Sipping a rum and Coke, he couldn’t tell if he was eyeing it with pride or unease. He’d tried to park it where it would be away from other cars but at the same time within sight from the front window of the Gas Station. It was a shithole bar a lot of young kids infested, but it was close to home. The SS wasn’t quite registered yet.
Wendy DeCordova was talking in his ear, her breath hot and spiced with tequila, her hand pushing on his shoulder. He thought she was telling him about the new job she took as shift supervisor at the Deck Lounge over on route 4. Something like that. He wasn’t really sure. Outside, a few kids leaned on the railing smoking. Vaughn watched them, made sure they weren’t eyeing his car or anything.
“You still with that girl? Wendy asked in his ear too loudly. Vaughn recoiled a little, raised his shoulder to his ear for some reason, wiping it at his earlobe. He’d known Wendy a long time, though he hadn’t seen her in what seemed like years. In fact, he wasn’t even sure who she was talking about. Jolie? How would she have known about Jolie? Had he even crossed paths with Wendy since they’d been together? Maybe she was asking him about someone else, like Tara Beeds or something, someone from the old days. When was the last time he’d seen Wendy?
“You mean Jolie?”
Wendy shrugged, her shoulders loose and head rolling untethered from one too-many drinks. Her eyes, he now noticed, were glassy and blinked slowly. “I guess. That girl, I dunno. Mark said you were living with a girl.”
Mark was Mark Talbonne. Vaughn guessed it was safe to say that they had been friends once upon a time, but it wasn’t entirely accurate. They’d hung out at bars, like this one, the Gas Station, or Juniper’s up the street a ways, the Tide. But they weren’t friends. They didn’t watch football together or shoot the shit on the phone. Just a bar acquaintance, really. They’d both banged Wendy though. He knew that much. Vaughn had fucked her probably half a dozen times over the course of three or four years, always late at night or even early in the pre-dawn hours, always after drinking at a place like this. Then he’d start seeing someone and steer clear of her for a while, then a year and a half later he’d be single and sipping a beer at Juniper’s and there would be Wendy coming through the door with one of her ugly friends. Usually he’d tell himself, not this time. Stay away from her. He always regretted it after because he could do a lot better than her, had done a lot better than her, and it always made him immediately miss the girl he’d just broken up with or been dumped by, and he’d go home feeling shitty, trying to stand balanced at the sink while he wiped himself off with a wet towel. He was glad, then, when Mark started taking her home. It was a line he could draw for himself in the sand and stick to.
They sat in the Monte Carlo, the passenger window down while she puffed a cigarette. He kept looking at her sidelong, making sure she pointed that smoke out the window, swallowing back his rising temper. If the car stunk tomorrow he was going to be pissed. At her. At himself for letting her stink it up like this. In between long draws she talked about some painting class she was taking, but Vaughn wasn’t listening much. Instead, he kept eyeing the cigarette. “Watch that ash, it looks like it’s about to fall.”
Wendy held her hand out and looked at it, then flicked the side of the cigarette with her finger. “Take it easy, V.” She took one more long drag, then tossed it, only half-smoked, out into the parking lot. “So nervous about your pretty little car.” She’d tried to say this in a cute way, saddling up next to him, putting her chin on his shoulder and looking at the side of his face, running her hand from his knee up his thigh, lingering there, back to his knee for a minute, then suddenly to his crotch. Vaughn turned the radio down a little, so he could concentrate, slouched a little. Through the windshield he watched someone crouch down, holding her own hair back from her face, her back and shoulders heaving as she vomited.
For a fleeting moment he thought of the research paper, the three or four paragraphs on his laptop, not much more than a page, unedited, zero references from which to work. He’d told himself earlier that he was going to pull an all-nighter tonight and belt it out. Just like the old days. Couple energy drinks. Some Van Halen or Motley Crue or maybe .38 Special slicing through a set of headphones. But he pushed the thought away, put his head back against the headrest. His jeans were now partway down, bunched at his pale thighs, Wendy leaning on his shoulder, fisted him in her hand. “It’s been a while,” she breathed, looking at him, her hair falling from her ear and over her cheek. Suddenly she was tugging on him fast, her hand firing up and down like a piston. Vaughn grimaced, uncomfortable. “I miss this,” Wendy said, her open mouth against his cheek, not kissing but breathing, gasping. She was going too fast, sometimes hurting him. He squeezed his eyes, going limp in her hand.
And then, a minute later or maybe five, he pulled his head forward and stopped her, knocking her hand away at the wrist. “Okay, okay,” he said, turning from her and fumbling with his underwear, putting himself away. “That’s good, that’s enough.”
Wendy pushed her hair from her face, mouth open, her chest heaving for air. The front windshield had begun to cloud over. “What?” she asked, looking a little stunned, then hurt. “What’s wrong?”
Vaughn zipped his fly and in just a few seconds it was as though nothing had ever happened. “Nothing…”
The girl who had been puking next to the building was now sitting on the steps smoking a cigarette. Someone had come out to join her. Vaughn couldn’t tell it was a guy or a girl. He started the SS, the engine grumbling the way cars nowadays just didn’t do, and swatted the defrost lever all the way to the right. The blast of air drowned Wendy’s breathing. “I gotta go. I got a paper due in the morning.”
Wendy looked at him. He felt it but didn’t look back at her. Her chest was still puffing and collapsing. His car smelled of sour tequila and smoke and, from the opened vents, dust. She reached down for her pocketbook and pulled it against her torso. “Oh. Okay…”
Vaughn looked out the side window at some crab grass along the shoulder of the road, cigarette butts and bottle caps peppering the sand, laces of rotted wrappers entwined in the long blades. “I gotta go.” Now he glanced at her, showed her his eyes so she’d know he was serious. Then turned on the radio, punched in the cassette tape that had been sticking out, the tape deck swallowing it with a thunk that rattled through the speakers.
Wendy looked at him and puckered her lips in thought and then, blinking, swiped at the door handle, struggling to find it, then finding it. The door groaned open. She stepped into the parking lot, her dangling earrings flapping side to side, glinting under the street lamps. “Whatever,” she said, and then the door banged shut, rocking the car.
Easy with my door, he’d wanted to yell at her. But she was gone. And for some reason he felt like there was no voice there anyway. Nothing in his lungs but weak air, empty air.
Through the first spit of fine rain he watched her light up another smoke, taking a long, distracted drag, watching him as he cranked the car into reverse and backed away. He saw her shake her head, judging him, so he gunned it, tried to leave a loud little patch, maybe kick up a few pebbles in her direction, but the ground was too dry, his tires too good, and the car lurched back, heaving his body forward off the back of the seat. He took his foot off the gas but before he could find the brake or even so much as swing his head around the car crunched against a fire hydrant and even seemed to momentarily lift off the ground. The noise was loud, a gut-wrenching crumple of metal and glass. Heads from the smoking crew under the awning of the bar turned to look. Wendy turned around too. She put one hand on her knee and pulled the cigarette from her lips with the other. He thought she might have been laughing, but maybe her mouth was just open. Vaughn, his scalp itchy with fury and embarrassment, banged the shift down to drive and gunned out of the parking lot, glass and plastic still tinkling in his wake.
Driving along Sleigh Road with its snaking and narrow course, he realized he was probably a bit more drunk than he’d realized. He checked the speedometer and made sure he wasn’t going too fast, something he often lapsed into after a few pops. His head felt heavy, almost as if he had a cold. Unclear. Maybe it was just the booze, but he wasn’t sure. This felt strange, like he was watching himself, a mere passenger. Watching him struggle to maintain the road. Watching as Wendy attempted a clumsy hand job. Even that crunch of metal seemed far away now, and he’d somehow convinced himself that it had just been a light tap with little to no damage. Happened all the time. Always sounded worse than it really was. He’d probably just find a minor scrape that a little swipe of touch-up paint would take care of.
But of course he wasn’t that drunk, not drunk enough to lie to himself that blatantly. The back of the SS was crushed. His nonexistent paper was due in hours, and it wasn’t going to get finished. The online class, he knew—had known now for weeks, if not months—was going to end with a quiet F. And in a few weeks time he was going to sit down with Walter during that last week of school, everything boxed up and stored away, the temperature pushing the seventy or even eighty degree ceiling, and Walter was going to shoot the shit with him for a few minutes about summer plans, about the fall schedule, about how slim the budget was going to be and looks like there will be no new jelly balls and no new hula hoops being ordered, and then he was going to ask Vaughn for his updated transcripts, a thin manila folder rustling on Walter’s bouncing knee. Vaughn could see it all playing out. And then, well. And then there would be no updated transcript, and then Walter would sigh, and sit quietly, and sigh again, and re-cross his legs the other way, and then tell Vaughn that he’d put him in a tough situation. And Vaughn would know, of course he would know, that he wouldn’t be leaving that room with his job.
He thumbed the garage door opener, headlights sweeping across the driveway and house and he aimed the car into the bay, creeping slowly, certain that with his bad luck he was going to knock a side mirror off or something. Then he was in the shadow of the garage and the door was grinding closed behind him. The headlights shown bright on the old sofa, dusty and stained, his laptop computer sitting askew between a cushion and the armrest, virtually untouched these last few days. Empty Dr Pepper cans stood like burgundy bowling pins, on the garage floor, the small warped table next to the sofa, and along the workbench near the silver boom box with the duct taped cassette door and aluminum foil antenna. His tapes were scattered along the work bench; he’d been too lazy or too distracted by God-knew-what to put any of them back in the fake wood case. And the tools—wrenches and ratchet sets and pliers—strewn about, nothing where it belonged. His father would’ve killed him.
The car was still running. He thought about punching the garage door back open and driving to Jolie’s. Driving home. He still had his key. Step quietly into the condo, toe his sneakers off, down the dark corridor with one hand against the cool wall, guiding him. Smells of Yankee candles and whatever that laundry detergent that was so unmistakably Jolie. The smell that more than once stopped him in a store or even at a ball game and always made him think of lifting Jolie’s tank top up from her stomach. He wasn’t sure why. Into the bedroom, three or four silent steps and then slipping into bed, the sheets clean, the bed practically still made because she hardly disturbed the sheets at all when it was just her. Tucking his hand around her ribs and cupping her hip, forming to her shape as she breathed, pushed her ass against him, not even awake but fitting herself automatically into him like memory foam.
But it wouldn’t happen like that, he knew. His head was heavy and he was tired, no shape to drive, and he probably shouldn’t have driven himself here to begin with. Too far away. And anyway there’d be no silent reconciliation. It wasn’t their style, never had been—and certainly not his style. He’d left a dent in the plaster wall right next to the door the last time he’d been there, like a sideways sinkhole framed with zagging cracks, two or three smudges of blood centered in the dent from that second and third punch making it look like some kind of fucked up flower. He’d scared the shit out her, made her sink to the floor in tears. She hated to cry, absolutely defied tears in all the time he’d known her. There’d be no rewind.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting slumped in the car but he thought the radio station he was not really listening to had rolled through three or four songs. Maybe more than that. The engine still running, a grumble pumping rhythmically from below. He didn’t want to go inside, out the back door of the garage, through the breezeway, trying not to wake his mother as he drunkenly fumbled for his room. For the guest room. Imagining it made his chest feel hollow. The echo of the mostly empty room. The mustiness of the sheets. The ticking of that obnoxious antique clock. Then his mother waking him up for school in just a few hours. The raging pain behind his eyes. The sour stomach. Coming back out to the garage to find the smash rear bumper and trunk that he’d no doubt forgotten about.
He listened to another song, something 70s maybe—he didn’t quite recognize it. Reminded him of being a kid. A passenger in his father’s Buick. Steely Dan or Bread or Jim Croce on the radio, his father with his elbow out the window and his father blowing bubbles and crackling his gum because he’d quit smoking for the tenth or fifteenth time. On their way perhaps to the store for the Sunday Globe, and probably a Three Musketeers bar or Chicklets gum for Vaughn. The men taking their Sunday ride while Mom stayed home with fussy Bess.
Vaughn’s eyes were closed now and he listened to the radio and thought about the smell of the Sunday paper on the car seat next to him, and wouldn’t it be so easy to just sit here and pass out, and as the thought crept over him he let his fingers find the buttons to the automatic windows and they hummed down, and suddenly the engine sounded loud, grumbling and hitching and he could already smell the exhaust. He focused his attention to his breathing, to his chest rising and falling like a hypnotic watch. He’d be fast asleep in no more than ten or fifteen breaths, and so what if he passed out drunk and asphyxiated himself on the fumes. An accident. Slip out of this world like a wisp of smoke. Like he had never been here at all.
Then The Carpenters came on the radio and he smiled because it was perfect. Lullaby music. Music to fall asleep to. Only he didn’t quite smile because he was so tired now, too tired to actually move his lips. Tired, and just the right kind of buzzed, and high now too, his body dissolving into smoke. And he thought of his sister and mother tending to the garden, nurturing it back to life, and he thought of Jolie crying at the news and crying for the second time this week, and he thought of his father and his green gum and his Sunday stubble and Jim Croce and that piano intro to “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and Vaughn thought without a shadow of a doubt that this cool song was about the guy next to him, the guy tapping his fat football ring on the steering wheel, cracking his gum and singing over his shoulder at Vaughn in the back seat.
He could actually feel some deep part of his being trying to wrestle itself out of this dream. Like someone in the fog of a coma listening to and trying to follow the voices out of that fog. Only instead of voices he thought he heard the wail of a guitar. In the dream the guitar had belonged to Ricky Heathers, his long-ago high school friend. A knock-off Gibson with lime green flames and, inexplicably, a magic marker hand-drawn skull. Ricky was working the whammy bar, making it squeal in a high-pitched shriek. But as he came out of the dream the sounds lingered like an echo. He shifted in his seat, his back tight and sore, his neck crackling when he tried to move it. A headache pulsed behind his eyes. Parting his stuck lips, he realized how thirsty he was, how dry and raw his throat felt. When he peeled his eyes open at last, he saw through the blur and sting that he was still sitting in the car. It had stalled out in the night, its dashboard red warning lights still illuminated but falling dim with the battery certainly drained. It was daylight. The garage reeked of oil, a veil of smoke sitting in the air like netting. He could still hear the guitar. Now he smelled a hint of vomit, then stronger. When he shifted his shirt crinkled, drying throw up splashed down its center. His stomach constricted.
He felt himself shoulder the car door open though he didn’t recall making the decision to move. His legs ached. Now his head ached even more with the movement, a bloom of white pain obstructing his vision, then dissipating. It stunk in here and he could hardly draw a full breath. His head cloudy and hurting, his body hurting too, he hardly remembered what had happened, why he was sleeping in the car, why the garage was polluted with fumes. Black bands encircled his vision and began closing. He needed air. Another waft of vomit hit his nose and he thought he might get sick again. The guitar, somewhere above him, continued to wail, but now the dream was far away and he started to think that maybe it wasn’t a guitar squealing after all. Now, as he stepped toward the back door cupping his forehead in his sweaty palm, he thought it was an animal in pain.
He swatted the door’s handle, missing it the first time, then caught it and stumbled into the brightness. It was early, the sun low, the air cool and sweet in the afterglow of dawn. He pulled a hard breath and then started coughing. Definitely not a guitar. Or an animal. Something else.
A force welled inside him, squeezing his guts, doubling him over and bringing forth a series of dry heaves. The wailing continued on and on, but now a door from above swung open and someone was on the deck, the pads of bare feet slapping the boards, frenetic and loud, too loud for this early in the morning. Someone was in a hurry. Vaughn planted his fists on his thighs, swallowing back a heave, lifting his head to see Bess in a plaid pair of pajama bottoms and a cream-colored bra, hurrying first left and then right up on the deck, going nowhere, acting crazy. Vaughn squinted at this and the low sun was making his headache explode through his sinuses. For a moment he thought maybe Bess was being attacked by bees. Scurrying and flailing about, acting like a whack job. Then Vaughn realized, and this was where things turned, began to draw into focus, that the strange sounds were coming from her, loud and wildly high, and now she was bounding down the crooked steps and she was lugging something in her arms, something flopping and swinging. He thought for some reason that she held a stack of towels, that she was going next door to use the washing machine. But what was her hurry and why was that noise coming out of her? And if she was in a hurry to get somewhere why was she not moving in a straight line? Why was she zig-zagging and turning in an aimless circle? The towels, now that she was at the landing, were not towels at all but something else, something oddly pale but also tinged blue, like a robin’s egg blue. Another door opened and he looked left, saw his mother pulling her robe tight and looking wide-eyed, her hair wild. Everything flashing in fast-forward while he felt muddled and slow and unable to so much as turn his head quick enough to keep up. The towels that weren’t towels bounced and flapped loosely about, and he saw with a new clarity that those were skinny arms hanging, a small head lolling side to side with no more direction than Bess seemed to have. Vaughn lowered himself to one knee, the ground damp and cold, braced a hand flat against the grass so he wouldn’t fall.
His mother was trying to follow Bess but Bess wouldn’t stand still, kept pin-balling back and forth, the endless scream impossibly high and unfiltered, a piercing siren sounding from hell itself. Vaughn, from his knees, found a way to stay on Bess, his eyes locking, focusing. The arms flopping loose, Ben’s little head bouncing against her chest. When it fell to the side, he saw the half-open, glassy eyes, a white tongue falling loose. Vaughn blinked, deliberate and slow, pain slicing through the center of his head. To the right, just above the tree line, a sliver of motion in the sky caught his attention. He lifted his chin toward it, catching breeze on his cheek like a feather, and watched a hawk gliding in an arcing semicircle, wings at full sail, turning carefree toward the morning sun.