When he was lying still, he could feel every ounce of blood running through his head. Most of it seemed to pound through the swollen bruise above his eye. He thought he could actually hear the blood fall loose from its capillaries and into his skin with every whoosh of his pulse. The bed was as bare bones as they come. Just some cloth, covering a bit of filler, that was never intended to support a man's weight. But it was good enough for County. If you didn't like the accommodations, you were more than welcome to not come back. Eric had been reminded of that on a number of occasions. He couldn't remember how he'd gotten there, or what he'd been doing just prior that had piqued the interest of the local law enforcement community. But hazy as he was on the details, he was clear about one thing. It was Gina's fault. A thud echoed down the corridor, followed by the familiar footsteps of Deputy Daniel Moran. Eric stayed still to avoid the pain of lifting his head, but looked at Deputy Moran out of the corner of his eye. "I'm innocent, Danny," he said. "No," the deputy answered, "you're not." "Well shit," Eric sighed. He looked back at the ceiling and furrowed his brow. "Then what'd I do?" "I already went through it once, Mercer," he muttered over the clang of the opening cell door. "I'm not reliving it for your benefit."
Eric slowly swung his feet to the ground and hefted his head upright. The pain was offset by a quick flash of light-headedness. "Well if I'm not innocent, why are you opening the cell?" "Deke posted bail." He hooked his keys back onto his belt and walked into the cell. "I don't know why that half-wit gives two squirts about springin' you all the time, but I'm glad he does. Spares me the trouble of having to clean up after you when the booze or that shiner finally turns your insides out." He stood, held still for a moment to steady himself against the air, then walked toward the deputy, through the barred door. "I'm not gonna puke" he said. Deputy Moran smirked. "You always puke." "We'll see there, Danny," Eric said as he slugged down the hall. "I'm not as predictable as you think." Eric swung open the door to the lobby and was greeted by a one-man debacle. Deke Williams stood at the front desk, pressing his fingers into an ink blotter, making fingerprints on a scrap piece of paper and a mess of everything else he'd touched. "Now Deke," Eric sighed, "you know Danny ain't gonna like this." "What?" Deke said. "I never been fingerprinted before. Just thought I'd try it out. That's what it's here for." He held up the piece of paper, displaying two even rows of five smudged fingerprints along with a batch of other prints around the edges where he'd steadied the paper. "Pretty good, huh?"
The door to the cell block swung open and Deputy Moran looked at Deke and the fingerprinting workshop that used to be his desk. "Aw dammit, Deke! What in the hell's the matter with you?" he said. He hustled over to his desk, looking for something he could use to clean up Deke's mess. "I swear to Christ, you two are purebred derelicts." Deke began wiping the ink from his fingers with the paper he'd been using for his prints. "Oh relax, Danny. I was just foolin' around. Besides, Eric didn't have nothin' to do with it. He's no derelict." "Is that right?" The deputy smirked and shook his head. "Then what the hell was he doing back there in that cell? Again." Eric pulled his coat on and walked over to the desk. "C'mon Deke, let's get out of here. We'll see you later, huh Dan?" "I'm sure," he answered as Eric pulled open the door. The bell above the doorframe let out a clang as the autumn air blew into the room. Eric reached over with his foot to catch a few leaves that blew in with the wind, then pulled the door closed behind him without looking back.
Deke was over beside his truck, wiping his ink-stained hands on his worn-out jeans. "How's come Danny's so wound up all the time? Ain't like he's saving the goddamn world in there." "I don't know, Deke. Maybe he's just sick of seeing us every other weekend." Deke made a face like he'd just smelled a dead animal. "Why would he be sick of us? We're nice guys." "Yeah, we are. But when your job's the law, we're just work." Eric climbed into the truck and slammed the door shut. Deke's truck was the kind where you had to slam things to be sure they were closed. The doors, the glove compartment, the tailgate. Deke had once lost a whole case of beer when the passenger door popped open in a tight turn, sending the best part of his paycheck spilling out onto the road. Eric was sitting in that seat now, looking in the little mirror on the visor, checking out the monstrosity that was once his right eyebrow. Deke was driving along the river on Route 2, a road that had been in need of some new pavement slightly longer than Deke's truck had been in need of a new suspension. So the constant jostling around didn't give Eric much of a chance to get a good look at his wound. He finally stopped trying and flipped the visor up with the back of his hand. "Who the hell punches someone in the forehead?" he asked. Deke just glanced over at him, then back at the road, trying to concentrate on his driving. These roads could get curvy before you knew it, and his truck didn't handle like it used to. When he glanced back over and realized Eric was still looking at him, he shrugged his shoulders.
"Well hell, I don't know," he finally answered. "I reckon he was probably aiming for your eye." Eric flipped the mirror back down to take another look. "Well he sure as shit missed, didn't he." Deke glanced over again. "Pretty close though. I mean, an eye ain't very big. If that's what he was aiming for, he damn near got it." In the mirror Eric could see the spot above his eyebrow was pretty red, almost brown in the middle, and half-swollen. He imagined it was going to be a long time going away. He'd never been punched in the forehead before. Plenty of other places, but never the forehead. Once he'd gotten kicked in the shin with full force. It swelled up and turned about every color imaginable before it finally settled on black and started creeping into his foot. Since a forehead and a shin felt about the same, Eric imagined he might just get a black eye out of this yet. For a twenty-four-year-old man, Eric felt awfully worn down. Especially when it came time to get help with his memory. On the larger scale of things, he didn't know why he got into fights and thrown into jail. The best he could do was find out why he'd gotten thrown into jail on any one particular occasion. In this case, Deke knew. But he wouldn't bring it up until Eric did. He'd just drive the truck, look out at the river and, think about fishing. It was a simple bliss Eric had been studying in Deke since they were kids.
"So what happened Deke?" he finally asked. "What, you mean last night?" said Deke, still looking at the road. Eric stared at him for a second. "Yeah," he answered with a shake of his head. "Well, you know this time wasn't so bad. I mean, this guy was definitely lookin' for trouble." "Who?" "Just some hoopie from out Stern Grove. You was playin' pool there and he come up and said somethin' bout how he heard you like to fight." Eric moaned.
"Yeah but here's the thing. You didn't even do nothin'. You just told him that wasn't you and kept on shootin'." Eric could hardly believe the story as it was being told. "Doesn't sound like me." "Yeah, he didn't think so either. So he just kept at you, saying how you didn't look like much of a fighter at all and how he'd come all this way just to find out what you was made of. But you just kept on like he wasn't even there. Then finally I guess he'd worn his welcome, because he was just standin' there, runnin' his big ol' hoopie mouth like he had been for the past five minutes, when you took the cue ball up in your hand and punched him square in the face." Eric flexed his fingers into a fist and released them. There was a cut on one of his knuckles and a tenderness in the bones. "Well that musta fuckin' hurt," he said as he rubbed his fingers with his other hand. Deke chuckled. "It musta, cause he went down like a turd in a toilet. That's when his buddies came in, swingin' their paws around like they was defending the hoopie universe. After that, it was just your standard Saturday night clusterfuck." Eric let out a deep breath and allowed the disappointment in himself take hold. "So if there was this big pack of trouble, why was I the only one in jail?" "Cause you were the only one who didn't run away," said Deke. "So that made you the only one staggering around with your tackle out, pissin' upside the building, telling Deputy Danny what a fuckin' pussy he is." Eric put his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes with his palms. His hands smelled like stale beer, and nausea crept up on him slow. He wanted to lean on Deke's door in the hopes that it might pop open and spill him out over the ridge, down to the railroad tracks below. His muffled voice crept out from behind his hands. "Fuckin' Gina."
Deke looked over at him, confused. "Naw, she wasn't there." Eric sighed, "But I was." Deke tried to keep his eye on Eric, looking for a clue, but he had to keep turning back to the road to be sure they didn't veer into the hillside. "What do I owe you for bail then?" "Aw, I don't know," shrugged Deke. "I still owed you some for helping me roof ol' Taggert's a while back. Buy me breakfast and we'll call it even." Eric nodded his head and thought it over for a minute. The sun was reflecting off the river with an eagerness reserved for morning-time. The light flooded into his eyes and filled his swollen head, which made his stomach turn on itself. "Can we do that tomorrow?" he asked Deke. "If Abby puts some of that mess in front of me right now, I could upchuck. And she'd probably take a thing like that personal." "Yeah, tomorrow's good," he answered. As they came over the crest of the little hill that brought them into their town, they could see green and white flags hanging from all the telephone poles that ran along the highway. Homecoming was Friday, and the whole town was crazy with the idea that they might just beat Cedarsville this year. The Pinely Wildcats had a lot of potential, people would say. That 2-4 record didn't really reflect the quality of the team, they'd argue with whoever would listen. The team's coming together just in time for Cedarsville, they'd declare among their friends and neighbors. It was an annual state of collective delusion that had been validated just once in the past twenty years. Which would be enough to keep it going for at least twenty more.
"You want me to just take you home then?" asked Deke as they got about a mile into town. "No," sighed Eric as he leaned his head against the back window of the truck, "I need to go by my folks'."
The town of Pinely was barely two miles long from end to end, cradled in the valley between the mountainside and the Ohio River. There was one traffic light at Main Street. But since there was no real traffic to speak of on Main, it was widely believed that the light existed solely for the purpose of giving directions to out-of-towners. As in, "If you reach the red light, you've gone too far." When the town first sprung up, it was because of industry. They were drilling oil down the river in Cedarsville, mining coal further north toward Weirton, and right there in Pinely they were making glass. The river was a good, cheap route to transport materials. And once the railroad came in, there seemed to be no end to the possibilities there in the Ohio Valley. It was as though their little corner of West Virginia might just lift itself out of the poverty that had plagued the state since it first staked out on its own during the Civil War. But eventually the economic boom sounded more like a thud. West Virginia coal was deemed too dirty to burn. Cedarsville's oil fields were judged too small. Pinely glass became a mere collector's curiosity. So Pinely itself was left without a purpose. Now the jobs were all at the chemical plants just north of the Mason-Dixon. While there in Pinely, folks worked at the schools, for the city, in the stores, for the church, or in the bars. The ratio of the churches to the bars was one of particular contention to Eric's dad. "When I first came to this town, there used to be ten bars and three churches," he would say. "Now there are only three bars, and I've lost count of how many goddamn churches we have." One of the remaining bars was the American Legion. As they drove past it, Deke glanced over at Eric who looked like he was asleep. "You workin' the Legion tonight?" he asked in a voice loud enough to wake him up. Eric opened one eye, looked at Deke, and shook his head, no.
The truck made the left onto Shales Avenue and pulled up into the driveway of Eric's boyhood home. Eric opened his eyes when he felt the truck come to a stop. He put his hand to his face, as though the rest might have miraculously healed his wound. Finding that wasn't the case, he looked over to Deke. "How do I look?" he asked, opening the door. "Like shit," Deke answered.
"Great," he grunted as he eased himself down out of the truck. He stood there for a second with the door open as he thought it over a little more. "Fuckin' great," he finally exhaled. He slammed the door shut and walked to his parents' front porch. The truck squeaked out of the driveway, into the street, and with a quick honk of the horn, was off. Eric pulled open the storm door to the house, causing the main door to slam from half-ajar to completely closed. The effort required to open a door that had just shut, seemingly for no other purpose than to spite him, felt like more than he could muster. But he took a deep breath and managed to work his clammy hand on the doorknob. The air in the house felt warmed over and pre-breathed, a disappointing contrast to the brisk air outside. His mom and dad were sitting at the kitchen table having breakfast. His dad looked over the top of his glasses and watched his son amble forward. Sitting between them at the head of the table was a little girl wearing a crown made of yellow construction paper. She looked up from her waffles and gave Eric a look of equal parts fear and surprise. "Hey Mom. Hey Dad," he said, stopping in the doorway to the kitchen. He glanced at the girl then bowed his head in mock esteem "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were entertaining royalty this morning." The little girl smiled as her hand absently touched the crown atop her cinder hair. "Daddy, what happened to your head?" Eric walked over to her, took the crown in his hand, and kissed her on the forehead. He rested the small crown on top of his own head as he walked over to the empty chair at the other end of the table. "See, you've been hanging out with Grandpa for too long," he said nodding in his dad's direction. "He's been asking me that for years now." "Still valid," his dad mumbled before shoving a bit of sausage into his mouth. Eric smiled out of resignation and looked back at his daughter. "I just had a little accident, baby. Did you have a good time last night with Grandma and Grandpa?"
"Uh huh," she answered while cutting off a piece of her waffle. "We made cookies and we made a crown out of the colored paper. And Grandma and I played your old records and danced on the bed." His mom smiled at the girl then looked at the wound above Eric's eye. "What about you, did you have a good time last night?" she asked. "Not as I heard it described," he said with a weak smile. "Well, would you like some breakfast?" "I could try to put back a waffle if you have any left." His mom got up and went to the freezer. "Just one?" she asked as she pulled the frozen waffles out of the box. "That should do," he answered, watching her drop it into the toaster. He looked over at his little girl, whose mouth was full with her breakfast. She squinted a smile at him with her big brown eyes. "Pretty good?" he asked her. "Mmm-hmm," she answered. "Very good."
"Yeah?" he laughed. "Well, no one toasts a waffle quite like Grandma." The little girl kept her eyes on her plate as she worked the fork to cut off another piece. "I know," she said with sincerity. Eric watched her intently as he settled back into his chair. He'd been doing this for the past five years, watching this little girl as she walked, talked, learned, and took on a life of her own. Like no other mistake he'd ever made. He watched until she finally managed, using a combination of the fork and her fingers, to get a piece of waffle free from the rest and into her mouth. Pulling the crown down off his head, he turned to look at his father. "How are you this morning, Dad?" His dad nodded his head indifferently and took a sip of coffee. "Better than you, I imagine." His weathered eyes shifted in their crow's-feet settings, from his coffee to his boy. "Where'd you sleep last night?" "Dan fixed me up a bed at County." The old man put his fork down and looked at his son. "Jesus Christ, Eric-" he started before his wife shot him a look and nodded toward the girl.
"It's fine, Dad," Eric said flatly. "Deke said I didn't even really do anything this time." "Oh Deke said so, huh?" he laughed. "Well I was just hanging out here last night not doing anything either. How come they didn't come bursting in and drag me off to County?" Eric's head was beginning to throb. It wasn't even 9:00 a.m. and he'd been sprung from jail straight into an argument with his dad. His mom walked over and put a gentle hand on his shoulder as she set a plate with one dry waffle in front of him. "Leave him be, Dave," she whispered to her husband. "Do you want anything to drink, Eric?" "Some milk?" he said, pouring syrup on top of his breakfast and cutting into it with his fork. He crammed a huge bite of waffle into his mouth, then looked back over at his father. "It's fine, Dad," he mumbled through the food, "It really is." He listened to himself chew for a while, trying to pretend he wasn't upset with his dad for nagging, or upset with himself for giving him a reason to. The waffle scratched its way down his throat, half-chewed, and he packed another chunk into his mouth. He stared at his plate, gauging how much more waffle stood between him and any more unpleasantness in his parents' house. "Gina called last night," his mom said from the kitchen. Eric tried to swallow, but found he'd either severely misjudged the size of the last bite, or his mouth had gone dry. "Did you hear me?" his mom asked from just ten feet away. "Yes," Eric managed to reply through the choking hazard in his mouth. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "What did she want?"
His mom shrugged. "Just checking in." Eric looked across the table at his daughter, hoping for more information. She just smiled. But there was something in her eyes that made it seem like she knew more. A trait she got from her mother. His mom put the milk on the table in front of Eric, then put her hands on her hips as though she were about to announce she'd found the cure for cancer. "Well, I'm going to go get ready for church! Would anyone like to come with me?" Eric winked at his daughter. "You're a big girl now, Grandma. You should be able to get ready for church all by yourself." She smacked him on the shoulder with her dishtowel and leaned down to him. "You could use some time in church, young man." "Maybe," he answered, "but I'm still gonna pass. My little girl and I have plans. Ain't that right, Tess?" "What're we gonna do, Daddy?" Eric stuffed the last of his waffle into his mouth and stood to go to the other side of the table. "I don't know," he said as he put the paper crown back on her head. "But we'd better get started." He lifted her up out of her chair into his arms and then down on her own feet. "So go get your jacket." She ran around the table, then scurried off to a bedroom around the corner. "Thanks for watching her last night," Eric said to his mother as he gave her a hug. "Deke was starting to feel neglected." "You know it's our pleasure to have her around, Eric." She crossed her arms across her body and brought her thumbnail to her teeth. "To have both of you around." He turned to his dad and gave him a slight wave. "I'm on at the Legion tomorrow night. You think you'll come by?" "Probably so," he answered. "Probably so," Eric mocked. "Aren't you coy?" "What?" "Free hotdogs, that's what," Eric smiled. "If you aren't there I'll know to fill out a missing persons report." Tess came around the corner wearing a patchwork jacket with gloves buttoned to the sleeves. "I'm ready, Daddy." "Well that makes two of us." He held his hand out for her to hold and they made their way to the front door. Eric glanced back at his parents-his mom waving too enthusiastically, his dad sitting, arms crossed, shaking his head-and walked out into the brisk morning air.
This had been Eric's neighborhood for nearly his entire life, from the day he was born until he turned twenty-one. Even though he couldn't really afford it at the time, he moved out when Tess was two. That was when she started to understand the world around her a little more, and he didn't want his daughter asking questions about why she lived with Mommy while he lived with Grandma and Grandpa. Plus it made it difficult for him to feel like much of a parent with his own parents around all the time. As they walked past Jean Walton's place on the corner, Tess started one of her "remember when" stories. For someone with so few years from which to draw, Tess managed to drum up an astonishing number of stories. On the walk from his parents' house to his place, he could almost guarantee to be asked if he remembered when the two of them had picked apples from the Waltons' tree, or the time they'd built an igloo with the kids who used to live in the red house by the highway, or when they'd found that dead robin under the tree and buried it out in the pines under a popsicle stick cross. Always the same stories, but always told like they were brand new. His dad suffered from a similar affliction. His stories could be told as many as three times in the same day. Eric always figured he was above such blatant repetition. But now, seeing it have its way with both his father and his daughter, he'd come to realize that he wasn't so much above it as he was between it. When they got to where they could see Eric's house, Tess started running, trying to pull her dad behind her. "C'mon, Daddy!" she shouted, her little legs pounding the sidewalk but taking her nowhere. The idea of running, even half a block, was more than Eric's hangover could handle. So he held her hand and kept her moving at his pace. "The house isn't going anywhere, Tess." She just laughed and ignored him. "C'mon, Daddy! Run, run, run, run, run!" When Tess got an idea in her head, it was like gravity. You couldn't ignore it, and you couldn't explain it away. But like a pioneer of aviation, Eric had learned that he could bend the rules a little.
"Okay then, let's race!" he said as he let go of her hand. Her stumpy walk became a full-fledged, stumpy run as her body fought against itself with every step. Eric watched her arms and legs refuse to synch up, but still manage to make good time. He knelt down on the ground and shoved the palms of his hands into the wet grass. "Daggonnit!" he yelled. Tess looked back over her shoulder and laughed. "Daddy, you fell!" she shouted as she romped up onto the porch. Eric picked himself up off the ground and wiped his hands on his pants. "Yeah, I did," he hollered at her. "Lucky for you, cause I was just catching up." He made his way to the porch stairs and ambled up to meet his daughter. "How'd you fall?" Tess asked, looking at the grass stains on Eric's hands. Eric took one of his hands back from his daughter to dig his keys out of his pocket. "I'm not sure. I was just hitting my stride, when all the sudden I was down in the grass." Tess shook her head as she watched him open the front door to the house. "Prolly them ol' boots, huh? They prolly ain't no good to run in." "They probably aren't," he corrected as he ushered her out of the cold and into the living room.
Eric's place was a good-sized house. Certainly more than he needed. But it was nice to have the extra space for Tess. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a big back yard. All for a price that left him enough on which to eat. And drink. The brown shag carpet was in need of a cleaning. It smelled like pets. The folks who had lived there before Eric had cats, and Eric had a dog for a couple of years before it finally got fed up with Eric's absentminded feeding schedule and ran away. Eric undid the laces on his boots and sat them beside the door. Tess was sitting on the floor taking off her own shoes, giggling. She reached over and grabbed him by the toe, which had worked its way through his sock. "This little piggy's going to market," she said, shaking his toe back and forth. "Honey, I wouldn't touch that if I were you. Your daddy's in desperate need of a cleaning." She just laughed at him and said, "Yeah, you're dirty from head to toe!" Eric winced at his daughter's attempt at humor. Sometimes having her around was like hanging out with a member of Hee-Haw. "Good one," he said. "Now let go of my toe and wash your hands. You don't know where that thing's been." Tess got up and made her way to the kitchen sink. As she climbed up on her footstool and turned on the water, Eric went over to the stereo in the living room. He didn't realize the settings were the same as he'd left them from the night before, so when he turned on the power, the music blasted out at an ear-shattering volume. He heard a crash in the kitchen as he quickly turned the volume knob all the way down.
"You okay in there, Tess?" He heard her stacking dishes back in the sink. "Yeah. The plates . . . ," her little voice called. Then, to herself, he heard her mumble, "That was loud." His head hadn't cared for that surprise one bit, so he took a deep breath as he scanned his music for something appropriate. He set the volume at a loud, but tolerable level and made his way to the kitchen door. Peeking around the corner he saw Tess on the footstool, washing her hands and shaking her behind to the music. "Honey, will you be alright if I go take a quick shower?" he called out to her. "Yep." He watched her for a minute, but she didn't turn around. "What are you going to do?" he asked. "Just dance a little maybe." She seemed to be true to her word. As soon as she finished washing her hands, she boogied her way toward the paper towels, then over to the garbage. Feeling fairly secure that a five-year-old girl couldn't possibly dance her way into trouble all by herself, he headed off to the bathroom.
The water stung against his eye. That was expected. But the hot water also pointed out other scrapes and wounds. Bar fights weren't like fights in the movies where guys stood there and traded blows. Eric would get into the guy hard and fast, wrap him up, get him on the ground, then punch, kick, bite, and do whatever he had to. That sort of full-body, no-holds-barred action left lots of room for random injuries. And a hot shower would find them fast. Eric noticed he had quite a few scrapes on his back. Lying on his back had never proven itself to be a winning position, so he figured he must have been at a severe disadvantage at one point during the brawl. He also noticed a pretty good cut on his ankle that looked like it came from a blade or something sharp. This one confused him, since his ankles had been protected inside his boots. He was thinking about the cut when he felt a breeze pull in through the open window and heard the music get louder and more clear. He stuck his head around the shower curtain and saw a little boy standing there with the bathroom door wide open. "Hi Ewic," he said. Buddy Piles lived across the street. On top of having a speech impediment that made him sound a little like Elmer Fudd, he also had a social impediment that made him completely unable to feel discomfort in any situation. If Eric didn't know Buddy so well, he'd have been amazed that the kid could casually stand there in a neighbor's bathroom and talk to a grown man taking a shower. "Hey Buddy," Eric answered. "What are you doing in my bathroom?" "Can Tess come out and play?" was the closest thing Buddy had to an answer. "Buddy." "Yeah?" "Get the hell out of here." Buddy turned and walked out of the bathroom, leaving the door wide open. Eric took a deep breath, then summoned his daughter. "Tess!"
She ran around the corner and stood with her eyes darting from her dad's face to the wall then back again. "That was weird, huh?" he asked her. "He didn't want to wait," she said, knowing it wasn't a very good excuse. She looked at him, but didn't really say or do anything. Finally she looked up at the ceiling and said, "Can I go outside and play with Buddy?" Eric wanted her to go outside and play. He wanted the house to himself for a while so he could lie down and maybe take a nap. He also wanted to make sure that Tess understood that letting Buddy come into the bathroom while he was showering wasn't a good idea. But the cold air was easing in through the window, creating a plume of steam, and Eric didn't feel well enough to try to make an ambiguous disciplinary point involving a kid that wasn't even his. So he just waved his hand at Tess and pulled his head back behind the curtain. "Yeah. Go play with Buddy," he said through the plastic. "But make sure you wear some play clothes. And a jacket. And not the nice jacket you wore on the way over here." He heard little footsteps stamping away. "And Tess?" he shouted. "Yeah?" she answered. "Don't go very far." "Okay."
He heard her footsteps again, then all he heard was the music. Loud and clear. And the wind was still cutting through the window and across his wet body. He peeked his head out from behind the curtain and shouted for her again. "Tess!" She quickly came to the door of the bathroom and stood there with her arms hanging at her side. He looked at her blankly, then pointed. "Could you shut the door?" She nodded her head, grabbed the doorknob with her tiny hand and backed out of the bathroom, pulling the door closed behind her. The music was suddenly muffled again and the air from the window slowed down. He stood there in the shower taking deep breaths of moist air. His head didn't feel much better, but now, Buddy Piles willing, he was going to have time to take a nap. As he rinsed the last of the soap from his face, he felt a sudden shudder in his body. He quickly opened his mouth and took in a huge breath of air. Leaning forward with his hands on the tile in front of him, Eric steadied himself against a world that had just gone topsy-turvy. Sweat rushed to his skin, was quickly washed away by the water, and hurried down the drain. His stomach heaved against itself, expanding his ribs in a way that helped him discover yet another wound. He moved his hand to his side to feel out the bruise. Just then, a convulsion ran through him with enough violence to make him briefly lose his vision. When the blood rushed back from his face and his eyes cleared, he saw the last bits of bile and waffle swirling down the drain.
He would have been more comfortable lying down in his bedroom, but with Tess out there under the influence of Buddy Piles, he wanted to nap in a more central location. Just a few months prior, Buddy had convinced Tess that she could get water to come out of her ears if she squirted the garden hose up her nose. Buddy was the same kid who'd once deafened himself for two days by shooting himself in the ear with a cap gun, so his intelligence was well documented. But what he lacked in brilliance, he made up for in bullshit. So that afternoon Eric had tried to comfort a daughter with water pouring out of her nose, tears coming out of her eyes, and a headache that lasted well into dinnertime. The couch in the living room suited him fine for this nap. He turned off the stereo and listened to the pseudo-silence. The house had its ambient noise, he could hear Tess and Buddy playing across the street, and he could hear Buddy's mom bark out the occasional, "No, Buddy!" like she was training a dog. Which was oddly more comforting than jarring. But for the most part, it was quiet. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears slowing as his body began to let go of consciousness. A twitch. A strange shudder that seemed to settle in his spine. A soft, cottony sense that muffled his connection to the waking world. And he was almost. Asleep.
The phone rang like a blow to the skull. It was beside his head on the end table. Eric shot upright and knocked it off the table with his arm, bringing it to the floor with a crash of cheap plastic. "Fuck," he said as he reached one hand for the phone and the other for his head. His breathing got a little exaggerated for a second as he tried to get his bearings. Finally he lifted the receiver to his ear and spoke. "Hello?" "Eric?" "Yeah," he grunted before he recognized the voice. "Are you okay?" He knew who it was now and tried to come across as alert. "Oh yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. I was just . . . taking a little nap here." "Are you hungover again?" "No, Gina. I'm just resting," he answered. "Well where's Tess?" "She's outside playing with Buddy." "Oh . . . Buddy." Her honey-tone couldn't mask her judgment. "You know," Eric deadpanned. "From across the street." "I know Buddy," she said. There was a pause while she thought of the most motherly thing to say. "You're aware he's a menace?" "I'm the only guy in town who has to lock his doors at night," Eric said. "I'm painfully aware." "Well where are they now?" she asked. Eric was already tiring of the sad attempts at kindness, wrapped in judgment. Or vice versa. "Last I saw them, they were up on the roof. I'm sure she'll be down any minute now. You want to talk to her?" "That's not funny." "It's a little funny," he insisted. There was silence on the other end of the phone. "You know, I think Buddy's providing a service," he finally said. "Thanks to him, Tess won't have to do a good sixty percent of the stupid things she would have done otherwise. He does them for her. Look at all the things she's learned so far. Don't cram metal into an electrical outlet. Don't hook your sled up to the mail truck. Don't stick your finger up a dog's ass." "Well," Gina interjected, "obviously you have your hands full. Which is why you're letting the six-year-old delinquent from across the street watch our daughter. So what time do you want me to come by and pick her up?" "Anytime after dinner, I guess," he answered. "That'll give us plenty of time to play in traffic, run with scissors, and go introduce ourselves to strangers."
Gina's voice got a little more abrupt. "I'm just making a point, Eric. You don't have to be a smart-ass about it." "Apparently I do."
"Alright," she said. He could tell he'd pushed her too far. "I don't want to get into it with you. So I'm just going to let you get back to your nap, and I'll come by around seven to get Tess. Okay?" Eric thought he might want to apologize, but he wasn't really sure what he'd be apologizing for. His mind scoured for an angle. Something he could offer as an olive branch, without giving any ground. An innocuous statement that could sugarcoat the whole situation. But he was too tired. It would probably be easier to just say he was sorry and get it over with. He sighed into the phone as he spoke.
"Could you make it eight?"
Gina was silent for a moment. "Okay." The next pause was even longer. "I'll see you at eight o'clock." "We'll be here," he answered just before she hung up. Eric put the phone back on the end table and put his head back on the pillow. Fucking Gina. The hangover. The head wound. The couch that smelled like a dog that didn't even live there anymore. All of it was her doing. How was he ever going to explain it to Tess? Someday it would come up, and he'd have to inform her that her one-and-only mother could erase the future, sully the past, and render the present mundane, lifeless, and generally void of meaning. His mind got so worked up, he wasn't sure he'd be able to get to sleep. Luckily, his body was in charge. It forcibly overtook his poor, scattered brain, and smothered it into the throes of slumber.
He heard footsteps. He had no idea how long he'd been asleep, but he knew there were now children in his house. The nap was officially over. It was upsetting, but he didn't feel the need to open his eyes just yet. He admired Tess and Buddy's attempts at being quiet, whispering loudly as they made their way into the kitchen. Even factoring in his bias, Tess was doing a much better job, whispering and tiptoeing far more softly than Buddy. Which really wasn't saying much, because Buddy's idea of whispering was talking at full volume in a raspy voice. And tiptoeing was pretty much out of the question in his junior hunting boots. Eric kept his eyes closed when he spoke. "Hey guys?"
The whispering and walking immediately stopped, but there was no answer. Eric continued. "I don't know what's going on in there, but I'd like to recommend that anyone who's wearing dirty boots inside my house get their ass back outside."
Again, silence. Then the sound of one little set of boots made its way across the kitchen, through the living room, and out the door. A moment passed before the door creaked open again and Buddy's "whisper" carried across the room to the kitchen. "I'll see you latew, Tess." Then the door closed behind him. It was quiet again, and Eric stayed there on the couch with his eyes closed. He could hear Tess moving, but knew she was still doing her best to stay silent. Surely she knew he wasn't asleep anymore. She'd just heard him speak. He listened to her footsteps squoosh across the carpet toward him and stop when she was near him, maybe even right beside him. For a moment, it was so peaceful he felt the nap try to creep up on him for a reprise. It was a welcome feeling, but he was too curious about what his daughter was up to. He was just about to take a look when he felt a sudden pain above his eye. Shooting up on the couch, his eyes wide open, he saw Tess standing beside him, index finger extended, with a look of shock on her face.
"Jesus, Tess! What are you doing?" he asked, exasperated. "I wanted to see what that thing felt like." "It fuckin' hurts, that's what it feels like!" She winced at the sound of her dad swearing at her, but she didn't mind correcting him. "No, I wanted to see what it felt like with my finger."
He looked at her blankly for a second, then thought it over. His hand reached for his eye. "What does it feel like?" he asked her. "It's kinda puffy," she answered. "Yeah," he confirmed, "it is kinda puffy." He took his hand down and leaned toward her a little. "What color is it?" She put her hands on either side of his face and squinted her eyes. "It's like brown. And then a little purple around the outside." "Hmm," Eric said.
"Yeah," she continued, "and your eyes are all red too." "It's like a rainbow, huh?" She smiled and shook her head. "Like a rainbow in those spots in the driveway from your car." Eric sat up on the couch and looked out the window. "I have oil slick eye?" Tess giggled, "I guess so." He reached out and pulled her up into his lap. "Well, you know, the best thing for that is probably some exercise," he told her. Tess frowned at him.
"What's the matter? Don't you like to exercise?" "I don't know," she shrugged. "I've never done it." "You've never exercised?" he asked. She shook her head and pointed, "Not like Mommy does, in front of the TV." "Your mother exercises in front of the TV?" Tess nodded.
"Well, she's screwed up," he told her. "The TV isn't for exercise. In fact, the TV is the arch-enemy of exercise. And I'm not sure she should be going around mixing up the two. It just ain't natural." "It just isn't natural," she corrected.
Eric looked at her, caught a little off guard. "You're absolutely right. It isn't natural. That's why we're going to go outside and exercise in the fresh air."
She jumped down from his lap as he stood and looked around the room. "Let me just get my coat and boots and I'll meet you out in the yard," he told her. Tess nodded and turned to walk through the kitchen to the back door. As he was leaning over, putting on his boots, he saw her reach for her hood, then stop. She turned her head to see if Eric was looking. Seeing that he was, she made a disappointed face, pulled the hood over her head, and opened the door. Eric laced up his boots, grabbed his jacket out of the closet, and headed for the garage.
In the far corner of the garage, past a box filled with football trophies and high school yearbooks, he found a rake. Right next to another rake. Eric couldn't recall why he had two of something that he only used once a year, but he was fairly certain it involved his mother's hell-bent obsession with yard sales. Just as he was appraising the merits of each rake, he got an idea. He took the extra rake to his makeshift workbench, pulled out a hacksaw, and cut the handle in half. Holding it up to his leg he checked the height, then, satisfied with his work, headed out to the back yard. Tess was sitting on the concrete step of the porch, waiting for him. He handed her the sawed-off rake and walked toward the tree. "What are we gonna do, daddy?" she asked, dragging the rake behind her as she walked. "Exercise," he answered.
He started by the outer edge of the yard and raked the leaves back toward the center. Tess watched him for a while, then started trying to use her half-rake. She had no cadence to her work. She simply dragged the rake across a particular patch of grass until there were no more leaves on it. Whether it took three swipes or thirty, she kept at it until it was done. Then she stepped over to another area. She never stopped looking down, even when she spoke to Eric. "How come all these leaves came down off the tree, Daddy?" "Happens every year," he answered. "Is the tree dying?"
"No. The tree's fine. Only the leaves are dying." "But they're part of the tree." Eric didn't want to get into this explanation right now. It was far too technical and scientific. If he tried to simplify it, it was just going to come out as "sometimes a part of something has to die so the rest of it can live." And while that was true to his personal experience, it seemed a bit melodramatic for a Sunday afternoon with a five-year-old. So he decided to skirt around the whole issue.
"Well, they're not a part of the tree anymore, are they?" This was the way it was going to be, he was afraid. These weren't the sorts of big questions he thought he'd be discussing at this point in his life. He'd imagined a lecture hall led by a scholarly mentor and filled with his intellectual peers. Not once did he picture himself leading a backyard classroom with one small, overly inquisitive pupil. Eric didn't know whether to admire her curiosity, or fear her relentlessness. She was a one-woman inquisition. It would have been intolerable if Eric didn't know that time was on his side. Because, eventually, her onslaught of questions was always undone by the same, inevitable statement. "I'm hungry."
Eric cleaned up from dinner while Tess took a bath. She'd only just learned that you're not supposed to swim right after you eat or you'll get stomach cramps and drown. So it took quite a bit of parental ingenuity on Eric's part to convince her she'd be okay to take a bath with a belly full of dinner. Her argument was so impassioned and long-winded that Eric settled on a compromise. He found an old whistle in a drawer and told her to wear it around her neck. At the first sign of stomach cramps, she was to blow the whistle and he'd come running in to save her. He could hear her sloshing around in the tub, giving the whistle tiny toots every now and then to be sure it still worked. He was wiping down the range with a dishrag when he hollered back to the bathroom. "You bout done in there, Tess?" He heard the whistle scream back at him. "Was that an 'Oh my God, I'm suffering tremendous stomach cramps and about to drown' whistle, or a 'Yes, Daddy, I'm almost done' whistle?" he hollered back. He heard her pull the plug up from bathtub drain as she called back, "The second one." "Good," he answered. "If you hurry and get done back there, we might have some time to read before your mom shows up." A few minutes later, Tess came running out from the back hallway, fully dressed with the wet towel flapping behind her like a cape. Her bare feet thumped across the floor as she "flew" through the living room. Her laughter propelled her as she ran around the couch, past the front door, then suddenly screamed in genuine terror. Her body folded to the ground. Eric was surprised to hear himself cry out a little as he rushed over and took her in his arms. "What's wrong, baby?" he asked.
"My foot, Daddy! My foot!" she wailed.
Eric looked down at her feet and saw blood trickling out from one. He took it in his hand by the ankle and noticed a piece of glass jutting out from it. Tess was pitching a fit, the likes of which he wasn't going to be able to calm. So he decided to roll with it. "I want you to scream really loud for me, baby." She obliged with more furor than he'd anticipated. But he kept at it. "Come on now, I know you can do better than that. Doesn't it hurt more than that?" Again she let loose with a scream of a pitch and intensity exclusively reserved for little girls in pain. "Okay, honey, I think one more scream ought to do it. I'll count to three and you scream all the pain away. Ready? One. Two. Three!"
On three, he grabbed the glass and pulled it out of her foot as Tess screamed with all her might. He reached for the bath towel and wrapped her foot in it to suppress the bleeding, then looked down at her tear-stained face. "Better?" he asked. Tess just looked up at the ceiling, breathing heavily. "Yeah." Eric took a hard look at the glass shard in his hand and thought it over. As his eyes glanced around the room, they stopped on his boots sitting by the door. He pulled up his pant leg and looked at the cut on his ankle, the one he'd discovered in the shower. Wiping away the blood on the glass, he held it up to the light to see it was brown. Beer-bottle brown. He looked back at his little girl and kissed the bloody towel around her foot. "I'm sorry, Tess."
By the time the knock came at the door, the entire trauma was nearly forgotten. Eric had cleaned the wound, relieved to discover it wasn't as extensive as all the bleeding had implied, and bandaged it up. They were lying on the floor, reading a story, oblivious to the world around them. The knock brought them back as Eric shouted toward the door, "Come in." Eric was always startled when he saw Gina walk into a room. She was tall, shapely. Her long brown hair cascading over her shoulders. Her clothes hugging in all the right places. She was a walking, talking feminine ideal. To anyone but Eric. "What happened to you two?" she asked. Eric looked up at her. "What do you mean?" "What do I mean?" she blurted. "Your head. Her foot. It looks like you beat the crap out of each other!" He looked at Tess's foot as he reached for his own eye. "Oh," he said. "Y'know, tough love." Gina walked over to Tess and picked her up. "What happened to your foot, honey?" "I stepped on some glass," she answered matter-of-factly. Eric stood up and put his hand on her bandaged foot. "Apparently it fell out of my boot earlier and she kinda stepped on it." He thought about it for a second, then added, "After she'd taken her bath," as though that might win him points. Gina just shook her head as she looked at Eric. "What about you? What happened to your head?" "I'm not sure," he answered. She shook her head and looked at him like she might like to help. If she only knew how. Which was one thing she and Eric had in common.
"Big game on Friday, huh?" Gina said as she helped Tess with her jacket. "That's what people are convincing themselves," he answered. "You don't think we have a chance?" "We never have a chance against Cedarsville." "Well," said Gina, "they're gonna have the bonfire rally on Thursday and I thought I'd take Tess along. You think you're gonna go?" "Yeah, I'll probably see you there," he answered. "Oh, okay," she said with some hesitance. "Or I was thinking maybe we could all go together. The three of us." She stopped for a second, then continued. "Like a family." Eric leaned over and picked up Tess. "Okay then, honey, you've gotta go with Mommy now. But I'll see you later, okay?" "Tomorrow?" she asked. "No, I have to work tomorrow," Eric answered. "So sometime after tomorrow." She gave him a big hug and he handed her over to Gina. Then he looked Gina in the eye and said, "I'm probably going to go with Deke. So I'll just see you guys there."
Lying in his bed, reading, Eric tried to focus on his book, but kept thinking back to what Gina had said. "Like a family." What in the hell did she mean by that? Did she think a synchronized appearance at a high school pep rally was going to turn them into the goddamned Brady Bunch? That's when the puzzle started in his head again. It always started with the same question: What would I have done different? By the time the puzzle kicked up he didn't even realize he'd stopped reading his book. In fact, he didn't realize he'd set the book down and closed his eyes. Which made it easier for him not to realize he wasn't even working on the puzzle anymore. Because at some point that he didn't even realize, he had fallen asleep.