|Walnut Street Books
|5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)
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Andrew staggers into the dark apartment. He pauses, catches his breath, and tries to elbow the door shut. A second try produces a clumsy slam. He fumbles at a light switch and gets it to work. The sudden bright light dizzies him as he tries to focus on the kitchen clock — is it really 4:00 a.m.? This isn't the first time he's come home drunk and unreliable.
The previous year — his senior year of high school — he stopped going to class as fishing and drinking trumped biology and geometry. A smart kid, he still passed his tests, but the high school required class attendance for graduation. He dropped out. With no studies to worry about, he stepped up his drinking. This late night out with buddies is no different than the last six weeks of nights.
He shakes his head to clear it. From the kitchen he trudges to the hallway that leads to the bedroom he shares with his girlfriend Krista. She tries to sleep amid his commotion and the dread that prowls about in her mind. Yanking off the top blanket where Krista lies, Andrew drags it to the living room. He crashes on the couch and sleeps the few hours before daylight.
The sun will rise at 6:32 a.m. this Saturday morning in Austin, Texas. The temperature will climb to 91 degrees. The sun will set at 9:04 p.m., giving way to a night sky speckled with clouds underneath a nearly full moon. But none of this matters to Andrew, lying face-down on the couch. He has no inkling that this date — June 29, 1996 — will indelibly mark the rest of his life, precisely at 10:41 p.m. As if a tattoo carved by the angel of death, this branding will scar and inflict many others as well.
* * *
"Hey, get up! It's time to go. We've got to do this today," Krista demands while kicking the couch where Andrew has crashed as if comatose.
She has an appointment at a clinic for 10:00 a.m. Last evening when she got home to their apartment, her entering call — "Hey, I'm here" — fell empty with no response. While Andrew was out with his buddies, she spent the evening alone, nervous and apprehensive about the next day and what it would bring.
This morning at the clinic, a doctor will administer pain medication to Krista. Someone will have to drive her there and bring her back home. Andrew promised to do at least that much.
Krista is almost three months pregnant. Neither of them has slept very well in the six weeks since they discovered their unplanned pregnancy. They don't know what to do.
High school sweethearts, they've been together for the better part of four years. Krista, at twenty, is a year older than Andrew. Could they raise a child responsibly? With this dilemma ever-present in her mind, Krista occasionally steals glances at him. She's looked into his deep brown eyes many times to catch a glimpse of his sweet soul. But in the last few months, eye contact has been rare between the quiet blonde and the guy who drinks too much and can't keep a decent job.
Toward the end of Krista's last year in high school, they promised each other that they'd marry and have a family. Krista was the good girl and Andrew the bad boy rebel. Together they had so much fun: hiking trips, swimming in rivers, hunting — things Krista never would have done on her own. Andrew bought Krista a gold ring with an emerald stone, and when things were good they told their friends they were engaged.
After graduating from high school, Krista moved to San Antonio to attend college with the goal of becoming a forensic scientist. She and Andrew, though, missed each other desperately. He spent as much time in San Antonio as in Austin, which didn't help either of their studies. She quit college after a year and moved back to Austin. They began to share an apartment when Andrew dropped out of high school. He passed the tests for his GED and began volunteering once a week at a local fire station with the hope of becoming a firefighter. Krista worked for a computer software company, and Andrew delivered pizzas and occasionally fixed cars for additional money. They scraped by. With Andrew's increased drinking and irritability in the last six weeks, however, they've seen much less of each other. When they do see each other, it only verifies for Krista that scraping by together is no longer worth it.
* * *
Scared, Krista hasn't said a word to her parents about the pregnancy. She reached out to a friend at work who knows Andrew. Woman to woman, the co-worker insisted that Andrew wasn't ready to be a father. Who knew if he'd be around after the baby came? Krista nodded, and then and there decided to terminate her pregnancy, telling her friend she did not want to raise a child with him. Her coworker gave her a hug and called the clinic on Krista's behalf.
Three days before the appointment, Krista asked Andrew to sit down. She informed him that she had scheduled an abortion. Starting to cry, she told him of another decision she made.
"I'm thinking we're done as a couple." Her voice shook. He hung his head and looked away.
Unable to raise his head and look at her, Andrew said he wasn't ready to leave her. He told her he wanted to be with her at least during the procedure. They agreed to stay together through the weekend.
She awakes this Saturday morning with an overtaxed mind and a vague memory of Andrew having come in sometime during the night. Noticing the missing bed cover, she rises quickly and darts through the kitchen to the living room. There the young drunk slumbers on the couch, fully clothed with one boot hanging halfway off his foot. Kicking the couch, she demands that he get up — today's the day and it's time to go.
* * *
Andrew rouses himself to drive Krista to the clinic. It's twelve miles north on a highway that parallels the old Missouri-Pacific rail line — the locals call the highway MoPac. Andrew's head hurts and his hands shake as he drives Krista's black 1991 Acura Integra. He wanted to take his pickup, but it was in the shop. When they pull into the clinic's parking lot, Krista touches Andrew's arm and holds it.
He half-cocks his head to look at her out of the corners of his eyes as she gives his arm a gentle squeeze and says nervously, "Andrew, if you can stick with me through this and turn your ways around, maybe there's still a chance for us." He nods and bites his lip. He doesn't want to say anything to upset her, not now.
In the clinic's waiting room, Andrew and Krista sit uneasily. Their grim decision hangs over their heads like a dull machete. Others also wait for their appointments. No one says a word. A nurse breaks the silence and calls Krista's name. Standing up, Krista nods goodbye to Andrew and slowly follows the nurse into a room to undergo a procedure that will unburden the young couple of some of their worries, if not all of them.
As soon as the nurse closes the door behind Krista, Andrew bolts from the clinic. His sour stomach churns from a combination of last night's drinking and thoughts of what the procedure will be like. He decides to go to Papa John's, a mile away, for some breadsticks to calm his stomach. Halfway there, he pulls into a gas station and slams the transmission into park. Forcing the car door open with his shoulder, he stumbles out sideways and pukes out his guts on the concrete. He shakes uncontrollably. This isn't his first bout with delirium tremens, but this case bends him over and blinds his eyes with tears and sweat. There he is in broad daylight — for anyone who cares to see — a young man lost and reeling. Gasoline fumes and the smell of vomit choke him into a coughing fit. A recurring thought crosses his mind as he hacks: My life is a complete joke.
When Andrew stops drinking, the shakes come. This day is no different. Slumping back into the car, he curses under his foul breath and grabs the wheel. Breadsticks? I need a beer. He revs the Acura out onto MoPac and floors it to their apartment. The Acura skids as it enters the parking lot. He hurries inside and scours his usual stashes. He grabs a bottle of beer that he's hidden inside one of his cowboy boots. He twists off the top and takes a swig of the warm swill. Sinking into the same couch where he slept only hours before, he closes his eyes and cradles the bottle to his chest with both hands. A moment of apparent peace, it's simply one part of the enslaving cycle that has become his daily routine.
Anger is a hot flame in the center of his being, influencing most of his decisions and interactions with others. He doesn't know why, but anger fueled his decision to drop out of school, it led to a falling out with the captain and his dismissal from the firehouse, and it fuels his reckless driving and arguing with Krista.
Earlier this week, Andrew started a new job. This is it. Not some fast-food restaurant job but a decent paying one, finishing out custom homes. To keep the job, he knows he has to make some changes, starting with drinking fewer beers and controlling his temper. If he's ever to become a father, he knows he needs to change his ways. But not yet. Not now. Drinking beer is the only thing that seems to soothe his raging core.
It's time to get Krista. He drains the beer and rubs his eyes. He finds a clean shirt and makes his way out to the car. He fires it up. On his way to MoPac, he stops at a red light on the northernmost stretch of Brodie Lane. As he waits, he notices adolescent girls and their parents waving signs in the median — a fundraiser for a girls' softball team. Raising money for some type of trip, one of the girls approaches Andrew's car. Rolling down his window with his left hand, he reaches into his pants' pocket with his right hand and grabs every bit of cash he has. He stuffs it into the coffee can the girl holds. She smiles and says thank you. He doesn't acknowledge her but stares straight ahead. What does it matter? My life is a wreck.
Back on MoPac, Andrew holds it to the floor the whole way. The Acura tops out at 120 mph. He doesn't see any cops and neither does he care if any see him.
Two nurses guide the medicated Krista out of the clinic in a wheelchair. Andrew releases the passenger seat to full recline so Krista can lie down as he drives her home. At their apartment, he helps her into bed. She needs to rest. Intending to go to his mom's house to do laundry, he gathers up their dirty clothes. Andrew's parents divorced years earlier — messily — and he hasn't seen his dad much lately. His mom's house is less than ten minutes away. After asking Krista if she needs anything, he says he'll be back soon. After carrying out a second load, he slams shut the rear hatch. They haven't done any laundry in almost three weeks.
Andrew's folks divorced when he and his younger brother, Dave, were little boys. After two bruising custody battles, the boys lived with their dad and his new wife, Cathy. A few years later, when he was fifteen, Andrew got busted for shoplifting some music CDs and then for joyriding the car of a friend's mom. After his dad sternly let him know that type of behavior wouldn't be tolerated, Andrew and his dad stopped talking. Andrew moved out and went to live with his mom.
Peeling out of the parking lot, he heads two blocks north where he waits at a red light. To go to his mom's house, he needs to take a left. Instead, he turns right and heads east. It's not the type of turn Krista had in mind when, in the clinic parking lot, she gave him and their relationship one more chance. After making a few lights, he accelerates away from his problems. It's 2:00 p.m.CHAPTER 2
Andrew has some friends Krista doesn't know much about. Younger girls in high school. They think Andrew's cool — he smokes, drinks beer, and drives fast. A cigarette in his left hand and a large cooler heavy with ice and beer underneath his bent right knee and boot, Andrew laughs with three girls — two of them sisters — at a rural property east of Austin. As Andrew takes a final drag of his smoke, he invites the girls to drive back into town with him. They shoot out on Texas State Highway 71. An open beer can, beaded with condensation, dangles in Andrew's right hand. Aggressively he weaves in and out of traffic, eventually getting stuck behind two cars. Tailgating the car in the left lane, he slams on the horn with his beer in hand. As beer suds drip off his forearm, the offending car moves over into the right lane. Finally in the clear, Andrew floors it. He calls out his speeds: "100! ... 105! ... 110! ... 115!"
The girls yell at him to slow down. Robbyne, the older of the sisters and seated up front, knows Andrew better than her younger sister and her friend in the back seat.
"Let me drive, Andrew!" she shouts as she digs her nails, more from instinct than spite, into his arm.
"No! This is Krista's car and I'm not letting anyone else drive it. What if something happens to it?"
Andrew slows down to 80 mph. He softens his approach and tries to reassure Robbyne, telling her that he knows what he's doing. "I can handle this," he manages to say before finishing off his beer.
Arriving in Austin, they exit off the highway. Late afternoon fades into early evening. They stop by a park with a creek. Staying in the car, the girls fight over which radio station to listen to as Andrew ambles down to the water with his troubled mind and a fresh can of beer.
He sits down on a rock at the edge of the creek. Staring blankly as water trickles past, he continues an internal conversation he's had ever since he dropped out of school: You're such a loser. Can't you do better than this? After draining the beer, he stands up and stomps the can under his boot heel. Kicking it into the creek, he curses and walks back to the car for another beer.
* * *
Krista stirs and wakens. With the medication still in her system, the numbers on the clock radio blur as she tries to figure out the time. It's a bit after 7:00 p.m. Andrew ... where is he? Is he in the apartment? He should be done with the laundry by now. She calls out to him. Again, like the night before — no response. Pushing herself up slowly from the bed, she stumbles out of the bedroom and inches toward the kitchen.
After finding a chair, she picks up the phone, its receiver heavy in her hand. She dials Andrew's mother, Jan, at her house, but there's no answer. Krista then calls Jan's parents' house and finds her there. Jan says she hasn't seen Andrew. Knowing about the appointment at the clinic, she asks Krista how she is doing. Jan, tall and blonde just like Krista, has always told her son that he's lucky to have Krista. The women talk a few moments longer, and Jan says she'll go home and see what's going on. As Krista puts down the receiver, she starts to worry. Something isn't right.
* * *
Just south of Austin, off Farm to Market Road 1626, the setting sun colors the scattered clouds crimson-orange as activity slows on the Kitchen Field baseball and softball diamonds after a full day of games. Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and friends cheered on the boys and girls playing today. Concession stand volunteers, having sold all of their prized hamburgers, wipe the counter clean. The south wind flaps an American flag directly behind the stand.
The ballfield's lights, outshining the retiring sun, illuminate the diamond. Crickets chirp as one last game carries into the night. A scrimmage game, the competing teams are prepping for an All-Star travel tournament. Coach Bob Thonhoff and some of the other dads decide the teams will play two more innings. Their ten- and eleven-year-old boys will miss some sleep, the dads banter, but they'll learn something about the benefits of hard work and practice.
Bob's wife, Kim, seated in the stands, enjoys watching their son play baseball. Eleven-year-old Travis plays shortstop with flair. Kim, however, is ready to get home. Looking at her watch, she lets out a slow sigh. Two more innings means they won't get home until at least 10:30.
* * *
Faint starlight blinks through a few stray clouds. Andrew and the girls near the house of D.R. — Derrick Roberts — a friend Andrew knows from high school and pizza delivery work. They haven't seen each other in more than two weeks. D.R.'s mom told her son not to hang out with Andrew after the two of them got in trouble with the Travis County sheriff for vandalizing a car.
Andrew and the girls pull up close to the house, parking on the street. Robbyne runs up to the house while Andrew stays by the car. D.R. lies to his mother, saying he's going out with Robbyne in her car. His mom says to be home in an hour, no later than 10:30. The front door slams.
D.R. and Robbyne run to the car where Andrew stands by its hood, drinking a beer under the nearly full moon. Andrew tosses him a beer and slaps him a high-five. The three girls hop into the back of the car and the two guys in the front. As clouds veil the moon, Robbyne says something to Andrew about letting D.R. drive.
"Maybe," he replies, "but not yet."
They peel out, drive a few blocks, and then drop off the two younger girls at Robbyne's dad's house. While Robbyne's inside, Andrew kills the engine and tells D.R. about Krista's abortion, confiding that he's had more than twenty beers that day. As they talk, they empty the last of the beers from the cooler. Andrew says it's still early — time to make a beer run.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "There Is a Balm in Huntsville"
Copyright © 2018 T. Carlos Anderson.
Excerpted by permission of Walnut Street Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Characters and Acronyms 9
Part I The Road to Huntsville 11
Part II An Open Letter 108
Part III Face to Face in Texas 122
Part IV More Letters 160
Part V Balm 198
Part VI Reunion 246
Epilogue 1 Andrew and Krista 293
Epilogue 2 Others 299
Epilogue 3 Author's Note 307
About the Author 320