Jeff Stayton


Pepper


 The live oaks and the pin oaks and the dogwoods passing in the headlights are the nerve endings of a frosty night. Ann-Marie drives along a meandering country road, with both hands on the wheel. Nothing but slash pines blot out a flood light flickering through the sparse thicket from one remote house. Ann-Marie leans forward but still listens for her children in the backseat. Her three-year-old Arianna has just plugged her ears to make her whispers loud while Conor, the baby, sleeps.

The flood light follows Ann-Marie while holding steady with each dogleg turn and hard right home; an unavoidable light she ignores by tuning the radio to the nearest soul station. She dials and finds a singer whose faraway voice escalades into a toppling, harrowing chorus. But Ann-Marie knows this woman couldn't be Motown, she's Stax. She cannot name the singer or the song but can pick up enough harmony to sing a faint back-up, after notching down the volume. She has been stilled by that light entangled in the winter trees, or maybe by that song. Ann-Marie's voice trails into half-audible whispers not even her daughter could make loud.

Her windshield bursts solid bright before she pulls into the dirt drive. She must park again behind Thomas's gleaming truck, because his father has parked his own truck beside it, in her space. In the past three weeks her father-in-law has yet to park anywhere else, but in the morning Bob's truck will be gone. Ann-Marie leaves him plenty of room to get out.

Bob is arched over a rail on her L-shaped porch, smoking: a preoccupied silhouette, who tugs down his cap and remains curled in blue smoke. Bob rises and takes a last puff before flicking his cigarette out into her yard. He turns, raises his hand without waving, then strides forward leading a ghost train of exhaled smoke into her house. Arianna cries out Papa! and Ann-Marie cannot unbuckle the child fast enough. She bolts from her mother, out the car door, and leaves Ann-Marie alone with a purse, a diaper bag, and a heavy baby seat to carry.

Now she thinks, Thomas better get his butt out here, and gets the backseat somewhat organized before waiting where the light is best. Ann-Marie had picked up the day's mail before turning down her road and she inspects it by using the light flooding the drive. She peers through belated Christmas cards, bills, and a New Year's wish or two but spies no mystery letters addressed to Thomas. She restacks the mail on her thigh and turns--Conor, brindled with light, is awake. He has been awake. Conor is always a watcher, and the baby watches his mother now with his brown expectant eyes. From his baby seat Conor holds Ann-Marie's glances with a plain expression that she is convinced he has learned from watching Thomas.

She stows the mail in her purse and reaches in the car without looking at him. She does not take her baby but rises out of the car with his diaper bag and listens to the evening stir, then nothing. The cold woods surrounding their home seem too concave and sound empty, though not still. Ann-Marie thinks, That stillness in the car, but hasn't thought, it's gone.

Thomas crosses in front of his wife and relieves her of the diaper bag. He slings the purse over his shoulder like a manly knapsack and quick she snaps back to herself. Ann-Marie kisses Thomas with a smack and watches him duck halfway into the car, where he kisses a big wet mm-maw! on Conor's licks of blond hair. Thomas lifts the baby seat and hands over the baby like a fruit basket.

"Wow," Thomas tells her. "You got your hair cut."

"Johnnie did it," she says and fiddles with the bobbed ends of her ash-blond hair. "I mean, what do you think? Too short?" She reads his face, studies him and tells him flatly, "Not wife-hair."

"Wife-hair?" Thomas says. Wife-hair is his term, not hers, for married women who crop their hair short after the salad days of the marriage are over. "Grounds for divorce," he would say, not exactly laughing.

But here, as they lumber toward the house, he says, "No. Definitely not wife-hair. Naw." After another beat he says, "I think this is the first time I've seen you with short hair."

"You've seen me with short hair."

"Naw. Just pictures. Tell Johnnie she did a good job. I'm not used to it, but I like it. Like it a lot."

"I'm not used to you without your glasses," she says, scratching the side of his head. Thomas grins and Ann-Marie bumps him when they step onto the porch. In the porch light his hair looks as root-beer brown as Arianna's. A black shar-pei scuttles out its dog door. Ann-Marie chimes, "Hey Raisin," and Raisin paws at her shins.

Once at the door, she faces her husband, alluring him with the full power of her own brown expectant eyes for a kiss.

With a blank expression Thomas says, "What?" Ann-Marie waits for his milk-blue eyes to register. He fakes sexy and tells this cut-and-bobbed version of his wife, "Looks like I get to cheat on my wife with you awhile, baby." He hugs on Ann-Marie and smacks her on the cheek. Before pushing open the door with his back, he says, "Yoga go all right?"

"No. Your hair smells like smoke."

Ann-Marie teaches yoga most Tuesday nights to the Holly Springs Junior Auxiliary. Though never mean, they are sometimes impossible. Tonight they made it hard. They were incapable of doing Downward Dog, Crane Pose eluded them, and their Warrior's Stance was nothing but a big fat sissy. One of the girls even managed to call more attention to herself during deep-breathing (sighing, really). They made it hard on her, and because it was the first of the month Ann-Marie had to wait on checks written largely by osmosis.

She doesn't tell Thomas any of this. Ann-Marie tells him it's cold but hooks her arm through his arm before they go in and pulls him back to ask, "How was the trip? How was Bob?"

Thomas and his father had gone to Mammoth Cave and to a Civil War battlefield together. Thomas answers by holding his free hand level, palm-down. Then he wobbles it like an egg he's balancing. Thomas slants the hand and watches his imaginary egg fall and break, then flips over his hand and shears a Charlie Chaplin smile across his face. When he is gingerly pushed into the house by his wife, he practically pratfalls.

"There they are," Bob says. There they are, Arianna parrots. She is wrapped around Bob's left leg, sitting on his foot.

"Arianna quit playing with Papa like that."

"Oh I don't mind," Bob says. I don't mind, she echoes. Bob turns left and drags his new clubfoot into the living room. The clubfoot laughs, especially when Bob manages to lift her up once and say, "Boy this foot is sure heavy!" This foot is heavy, she says, laughing, Papa is silly.

Ann-Marie and Thomas hear the whole thing from the kitchen as she drops Conor into his highchair and makes toward the stove. Thomas says, "So what happened at yoga?"

"Nothing."

"Come on." He smirks and delivers, in his worst Irish brogue, "Did the banshee clan of country club women forget to invite us to mixed doubles again?"

"That's not funny," she says while stirring a pot already going on the stove with a wooden spoon. "They drum up plenty of business for you," she says. "For us."

Thomas has been part owner of the Laugh it Off! Defensive Driving School with a partner who is not that funny. His partner had to resign himself recently to handling the business end of things, leaving Thomas with just the teaching, just the comedy. The girls at yoga have told Ann-Marie many times how funny he is. Fun-ny, they all say, and she agrees. Thomas is a royal ham with a crowd of strangers, and since he doesn't take driving defensively all that seriously he gets repeat business.

They get by. The business affords him time to commute to Ole Miss, where Thomas teaches freshmen history and chips away at a dissertation on Mao Tse Tung's Great Leap Forward. "When we want the little extras," Ann-Marie once told her Tuesday night girls, "Thomas goes to Amateur Nights in Memphis and cleans up the competition." I'll bet, they all said.

Thomas stops joking now and sits. "No really. What happened?"

Ann-Marie unbuttons her coat, turns around and opens it up to show him that she leaked. She turns back around and says, "It happened in the middle of class." She hears him say, "Is that all?" without sarcasm or concern but also hears him tell the baby, in a cute voice, "No sense crying over--"

"You say that," she whips around, threatening him with the spoon, "I will kill." Just Nature, they said. Just happens, they kept saying. The entire Junior League was determined to make Ann-Marie feel more comfortable after class. They had similar stories to tell--long ones. She wanted them all to leave, them all to stop. The badge of milk, now dry on her left breast, gave her no authority whatsoever.

But with a spoon aimed at him Thomas holds up both hands and says, "Yes ma'am." Conor flaps his arms and Thomas picks him up, saying, "Hey buddy."

Ann-Marie turns back to the stove and tells her husband, "Check him." Thomas sniffs Conor. He calls him a stinker. Ann-Marie smiles. Your turn to change, she thinks, while Thomas lugs their baby down the hall without argument.

"Bob?" she calls into the living room.

Bob drags his new clubfoot into the kitchen and plants it. Arianna tumbles off, giggling.

"Arianna, go hang your coat. Bob could you stir this a minute while I go change?"

"Where's Thomas?" he asks.

Old man would you just--she thinks but says, "He's changing Conor. Do you mind?"

"No. Nu-huh." Bob goes nowhere near the stove. The two remain silent awhile. Bob inspects her hair without comment. Ann-Marie buttons up her coat.

She says, "How was Mammoth Cave?" She watches Bob eke his way toward the bubbling pot she knows he will never stir.

"Well," he says, optimistic, "I never have to go into another cave for the rest of my life." Ann-Marie courtesy-laughs.

"Naw," Bob says, "the cave was fine. Too much ducking though. I'm surprised I didn't run into Osama and the Forty Thieves down that hole."

"I'm glad you liked it," she says, leaving. She tells the house, "Dinner in five minutes!"

"My dad's your landlord the minute he walks in your house," Thomas had once typed in an e-mail, when he and Ann-Marie were first dating. She still lived in Austin back then, he was in Baton Rouge, and e-mail kept them together.

That particular message piqued her curiosity. She began calling it: "her curiosity" during her visits to Baton Rogue, those times when she would snoop through all of Thomas's "Sent" and "Deleted" e-mail messages while he was away at work. She was looking for important things: downloaded porn, mystery messages to or from other women, or any statements Thomas might have made about her or about their relationship or about anything else that would incriminate him. One message read: "I'm not ready for Ann-Marie to meet Dad. And vice versa." But since it was not what she hunted for, the message was duly noted and soon forgotten.

Bob would not resurface until months later, when Thomas visited her in Austin. Thomas and Ann-Marie had gone out to celebrate his quitting A.A. after five years of continuous sobriety. They had to call a cab home. Thomas bounded back into her apartment half-drunk, she followed him in a little stoned. They herded each other into the bedroom and soon began roughhousing and smooching and cackling on her bed, making up elaborate and outrageous reasons not to have sex yet. When they would break off each other, Ann-Marie would curl into Thomas and try to pretty-please her comedian to do some of his imitations. Thomas had some superstitions about his comedy, like never performing offstage, and Ann-Marie knew this.

"Okay," he conceded after stroking her long ash-blond hair. "Who do you want me to do?"

Whenever people find out Thomas does imitations, they say the same thing. "Do me," they say and he does and sometimes they get mad. So when Ann-Marie told Thomas, "Do me" and after some heavy innuendo from him got Thomas to agree, she was surprised when he reversed himself and rose from her bed, saying, "Naw. Never mind. I can't. I don't want to do you. Pick someone else."

So she did--Samuel L. Jackson auditioning for the role of Batman, Richard Dreyfus speaking at a high school graduation, Tom Brokaw biting into a York Peppermint Patty. Thomas negotiated voices, and facilitated body language with such completed gesture, it felt as if he had become this giant toy Thomas, built just for her. This toy turned her around (no peeking it said from over her shoulder) and Ann-Marie faced the barest wall in the room. Thomas tilted the lampshade into a spotlight on her bedside table to grow shadow puppets on her wall and perform what seemed like the entire cast of The Muppet Show. Statler and Waldorf heckled him the whole time.

"Now do your family," she said, high with glee. Ann-Marie had already met his brother and sister, and recognized both instantly. Thomas then patted her forearm like packing dirt and smoothed Ann-Marie's bangs over her ears with exaggerated tenderness. He became his own mother, whom she hadn't yet met. They discussed bridge.

"Now do your dad," she said, lighting a cigarette. Ann-Marie had not met him either.

"Who? Thing-a-ma-Bob?" he said. "I'm pretty drunk, Ann."

"Oh, come on." She folded her hands and faked a frown. "Please."

"All right," he said. "Be back soon." Thomas left the bedroom for about ten seconds. It seemed longer. In came this man who was not her boyfriend. He did not bother to look at Ann-Marie with more than a few suspicious glances. His face wore the dissatisfaction of an English baron surveying his land. He took long, metered strides, strides that made him move faster than the sum of his steps and gave him a kind of glide. Like a shark cutting through water, Bob emerged.

Bob would not look at her directly but inspected all the items on her chest of drawers, her vanity, her nightstand. Everything Bob touched fell like a trinket from his hand. Bob scratched through her jewelry box, and Ann-Marie didn't tell him to stop. He opened her underwear drawer and shut it without comment. Then Bob strode to the edge of her bed.

"Move over," he told her. He sat where Ann-Marie had been then pointed down to her pack of cigarettes. She pulled him one and handed it over. Bob lit it and absorbed the room with each drag. After two puffs he said, "I'm Bob. People call me Cub." Instead of extending his hand, he leveled a two-fingered gun at Ann-Marie with his cig still wedged between his fingers, and in a high tenor told Ann-Marie, "Why don't we talk about all the little extras around here you seem to think you need."

Ann-Marie didn't laugh.

"Good food," Bob tells Ann-Marie at the dinner table, even though Thomas cooked the meal. Bob's smoky glasses catch light and tint when their eyes meet. He sips his sweet tea and says, "Ann-Marie, you need to be sure to teach Arianna how to make Mildred's yeast rolls when she's old enough. I'd hate to see them leave the family."

On hearing her own name, Arianna looks at her mother. Ann-Marie looks at her husband, and Thomas says to Bob, "What time you heading out tomorrow, Dad?" He has been feeding Conor strained carrots. The baby gets fussy and socks Thomas on the side of the face.

"Oh he'll be a scrapper all right," Bob says. "I can tell." He looks first at Ann-Marie, sly, then says to his son, "You remember when you and Wilson used to wrestle out in Amarillo?" He looks back at Ann-Marie. "Wilson was a scrapper, too," he says. He points to Thomas. "When his brother used to wrestle, he made all those little Mexican kids cry for their papasitos--Ayi!" Bob clutches his stomach and fakes injury in Spanish.

Bob appears to address the whole table now. He asks, "He wasn't but, what Thomas? Six or seven when y'all started?"

"Something like that," Thomas says. The baby spits carrots back onto the spoon. Thomas tries again.

"Maybe not," Bob says, "Maybe older; because if I remember you were about twelve, right." He unprongs the holder from his half-eaten corncob and wedges it between his two fingers, not unlike a cigarette. He smiles at Ann-Marie. "Oh you should've seen Thomas, though." Bob looks at his son. "You were awful, son! Terrible!" He raises his hand: "One, two, three--pin! One, two, three--pin!" rapping the table twice. "I don't know what it was. We did everything with you."

"Daddy wasn't good at wrestling," Thomas coos to Conor. "Or football, or tennis, or--"

"But you were good at baseball," Bob says. He turns to Ann-Marie. "No kidding, he was. He was something else. Conor's gonna be something else, too, when he starts playing." Bob Somersett looks at Conor, his first Somersett grandson, already proud.

For Christmas, Bob had bought her baby a baseball glove. A Pee-wee mitt bigger than Conor's face, signed: Jeff Bagwell. Bob had brought with him another mitt too--bigger, older, and this one signed: Jose Cruz. That Christmas morning Ann-Marie's father-in-law had told Thomas, "You can oil his up now. So by the time it fits him, it'll be ready." And her husband had the nerve to thank him.

Later, in bed Christmas night, Ann-Marie had asked Thomas, "Why does a baby need a baseball glove?"

"To play baseball, Ann," he said with a grin.

She balled a fist and frogged him.

Ann-Marie decides Bob's last meal will not devolve into another night of baseball, at least not over dessert. She asks Thomas, "Did you get to show Bob the battlefield?" She clears dishes from the table. Thomas helps.

"Yeah," Bob answers, "we found it all right. Just a field and some fairgrounds split by a two-lane road."

An obscure battle fought near Mammoth Cave, The Battle of Woodsonville was nonetheless turned into a decent-sized thesis while Thomas was at LSU. Bob's grandfather's grandfather, Henry Clay Somersett, received his first wound there, riding with the Eighth Texas Cavalry. Terry's Texas Rangers fought that battle, lost their colonel, and both sides claimed victory.

Ann-Marie places two bowls of neapolitan ice cream in front of Arianna and Bob. He nods his thanks. "Woodsonville," he says. "Kind of a nothing-of-a-battlefield, really. But any battle with three different names can't be all that important, right."

Scraping the strawberry and the vanilla aside, Bob muses over the chocolate ice cream. He looks at Arianna and, while playing with his bowl and his spoon, recites the story: "The War is hardly started in Kentucky. Col. Terry, this sugar planter from outside Houston, is attached to an Arkansas general named Hindman. Hindman is supposed to scout around Green River, where Yankees multiply daily, but he is not to engage the enemy. He goes off on his own of course and sends Terry and the Rangers further out with orders not to engage the enemy without him.

"Monkey see," Bob says, taking his last bite of chocolate, "monkey do--Terry rides off on his own with only a quarter strength, since most of his regiment was left behind in Nashville with the camp sickness. Half his captains and the Lt. Col. Lubbock call in sick too." Arianna watches Bob blend the strawberry and vanilla slowly into a pink lather. Ann-Marie watches her daughter do the same.

"No matter," Bob continues. "Terry tramples upon a complement of German immigrants from some Indiana regiment and says to himself, Well, I'm outnumbered, so I guess I oughta charge in there and get myself killed. He kills two, someone kills him, bunch of nonsense happens all over the place."

He looks at Arianna with big eyes, takes her spoon, makes it dance and says, "Your daddy's great-great-great grandfather, Henry Clay the Ancestor, rides into the fray, saying to himself, Well, if Terry can get killed, I guess it's time for me to get grazed in the thigh and fall off my horse." Bob drops the spoon.

Arianna giggles. Bob's bowl of lather is now a pink soup. He clinks the bowl with his spoon and says to anyone listening, "The whole thing was ridiculous. Ole Henry Clay's letter says there was a skirt of blackjacks, but I didn't see anything much like trees out there. And all for a patch of worthless land. Low cash flow. Land better suited for trailer parks and fireworks stands. But that was the War I guess."

"You want coffee Bob?"

"I'll make it," he says, rising.

"It's okay," Ann-Marie says from the kitchen counter. "I'll do it."

"Naw. I got my own coffee. Got it on the road. It's no trouble."

It had been no trouble for Bob to get Ann-Marie coffee, his coffee, when they had met for the first time in his apartment several years ago. Everything had gone well before then. She had ridden with Thomas back to his hometown in Conroe, Texas, to meet his dad. Important, she knew, but Ann-Marie had always been great with parents. They loved her.

Bob seemed to have adored Ann-Marie. The father and son rivaled for her attention in the living room of Bob's efficiency. She could call him Cub he told her, and Cub had opened up his Brag Book and would have shown her the more embarrassing pictures of his sons and his daughter all day if Ann-Marie had let him. Meanwhile, Thomas rummaged through cardboard boxes until he could, in retaliation, carefully drape across Ann-Marie's palm an old newspaper clipping.

The headline had read: Cub Somersett Throws Another No-Hitter with a grainy photo underneath of Cub the Little Leaguer trying to look determined on the pitcher's mound. Like Thomas, Ann-Marie had thought. The father sat in his chair, waving away his glory days with exaggerated discomfort, while the son and his girlfriend snuggled deep into the couch to recite the highlights of the article together.

It had all been a success. With coffee brewing and smokes lighting around her, Thomas's girlfriend had never been made to feel more at home. Cub couldn't help but love her. She was particularly Ann-Marie that day.

Then he caught sight of her ankle and his face changed permanently. No sock covered it, her tattoo. Though high around her ankle, it had appeared for Thomas's father to see when Ann-Marie had crossed her legs without giving it so much as a thought. In the light of the living room, her tattoo had shone like the links of a slim anklet but soon felt locked around her like a shackle. Ann-Marie recrossed her legs too late. The coffeemaker beeped twice from the kitchen.

Thomas's father pawed his armrests. Ann-Marie assumed he would lift himself up from his chair but he leaned forward instead, sly, to ask her, "So you work at UT…but don't want to go there any more."

Bob emerged.

He strode toward the kitchen area. She heard Bob pour them two cups of coffee. "Didn't like college," he pronounced while handing her a cup. Thomas grew invisible.

Bob pulled a cigarette, lit it, exhaled and took on the whole room. Ann-Marie continued to pretend she didn't smoke, though Bob would have gladly bummed her one. It would have been no more trouble than it was to offer her his coffee. For the duration of his cigarette, in fact, his questions were put just as politely:

"How long have you lived in Austin?"

"All my life."

"And your parents . . . what is it they do?"

"My mother is a nurse. My step dad, he's in landscaping."

"Landscaping. His own business?"

"No."

"Ah . . . and your real father?"

"I don't have . . . I haven't--I don't talk to him anymore."

"I'm sorry," Bob said with all the concern of a talk-show host, while his son played neither the sidekick nor the guest on his couch.

"And you said you have two sisters," Bob said.

Ann-Marie nodded. "That's right."

"But not step-sisters," Bob said.

"No. They're half-sisters, my sisters."

Bob leaned toward the coffee table in front of Ann-Marie and tapped the last ash off his cigarette that largely missed his amber glass ashtray glowing with sunlight. He took a last puff and said, "But you're the only natural child."

"Natural child! Natural child!" she would hear Thomas repeat, onstage, in Ann-Marie's own voice. The audience will not laugh. It will be the first time she watches her husband bomb as Thomas alternates between driving and riding in an imaginary car, spotlighted and performing for the audience the argument that he and his wife had after they had left Bob's apartment. "What? What?" he shrills, "My sisters are somehow unnatural, Thomas? Natural child?"

The audience may have granted him a few chuckles, but they would soon grow restless. Thomas would play Mr. and Mrs. Somersett with equal cruelty. While playing himself, Thomas would morph into a classic sad sack--one who pretends to drive rather than confront his mean, mad wife riding shotgun. While playing Ann-Marie, he would become a monster, rattling off and ranting in a tantrum of:

"You need to tell your father . . . !" and

"How could you just sit there and let me . . . !" and

"Who the hell does he think he is . . . ?" and all the while Ann-Marie had to sit there with the audience, ready to heckle Thomas herself just to get him to shut up; because the sound of her own voice mimicked was the worst sound she'd ever heard.

And Thomas would continue to bomb. So much so that he had to pull his imaginary car over, step out of character and say to the audience, "All right, this sucks."

They might have giggled some, watching Thomas park. Although he got nothing from them when he said, with plain expression, "Someone call a tow truck."

"Leave it on the road!" a heckler crowed.

The audience laughed.

Thomas grinned wickedly and waved for the spotlight to drift off him and shine on the heckler, who wriggled in his seat and adjusted his baseball hat. When the spotlight drifted back onstage, Thomas had on a similar hat. He scrunched his face like the heckler's and crowed in the same stoned voice, "Leave it on the . . . ro-oad!"

The audience laughed again. Thomas strutted around outrageously, sometimes bobbing his head like a chicken. Every time the heckler said a word from then on, Thomas put him back on the ropes. He baited him. He thrived off the guy until the heckler became the caricature of Thomas's imitation.

The audience was his. All Thomas had to do was choose when to say "good night," push an imaginary button, drop his head down, and flash all ten fingers, flash all ten fingers, flash all ten fingers above his head like the hazards of his car, to crow the top of his lungs: "Leave it on the ro-oad!" over and over, faster and slower, while the audience roars and his wife doesn't laugh.

After dinner Ann-Marie puts Conor to bed while the rest of the family watches TV. She leaves the baby's room and turns into her bedroom for something that she immediately forgets once there. She sees Thomas's wallet on the dresser and picks it up. Ann-Marie stands still and listens to the house but then places the wallet back where she found it, pressing it down like a lid.

Back in the living room, she sits next to Thomas on the side furthest away from Bob. Bob sits upright in their reclining chair. Arianna has been coaxing him to play games that still allow her papa to sit. This is okay, Ann-Marie thinks and knows she would even refill Bob's coffee cup just to keep it like this. Her husband, however, takes the remote and changes channels, leaving it on the last documentary she wants to watch with her father-in-law: Civil Rights.

For Bob there is nothing duller than the Civil Rights Movement; but he is in a congenial mood. Bob turns to his son, sly, and sings in a rich baritone, "Get on the bus…Rosa."

"Quit it, Dad," Thomas says, but a smile breaks out anyway.

"Get on the bus," Bob sings, clapping twice. He waits almost a half-minute before singing, "Rosa!"

"Serious, Dad." Thomas says but can't stop smiling. "Really, I'm trying to watch this."

"Trying to watch Rosa get on the bus I know, son," Bob says, smirking. He looks at the TV. With his top lip tucked under his gum, Bob says, "Get on the bus, Rosa…Rosa, would you get on that bus?" Then Bob resumes clapping like a gospel singer, singing: "Get on the bus…"

"Rosa!" Arianna jumps up and yells.

Bob doesn't see it, Thomas would not care to (or does not dare to) see it either; but Ann-Marie has been slugged silent. Bob continues passing his Negro wisdom onto his granddaughter. He levels his two-fingered gun at her, wags it, and tells the little girl, "Would you get on that bus, Rosa!"

"You get on the bus!"

"I'm not Rosa! You get on that bus, now." Bob looks away, then swivels back to sing: "Rosa!"

"You're the Rosa!"

Arianna!--Ann-Marie thinks, but doesn't say a thing.

"If I was the Rosa," Bob says, "I'd get on the bus . . . Rosa." Bob claps his gospel and even makes up a slow dopey medley for the child: "Oh Camptown Races sing this song . . . Get on the Bus, Rosa!"

Arianna says, "That's not how it goes!" She is laughing. Papa is silly.

"The Camptown racetrack five miles long--"

And it is as if everything Ann-Marie hates about Bob visiting her house happens all at once in one sharp chord. Two years ago, a year ago, she might have said, "That's my daughter, Bob!" but she says nothing, she does nothing; nothing becomes of it. It just tumbles in her head like shoes in a dryer. Her husband continues watching his documentary. His father, now bored, returns to the porch for a smoke. Ann-Marie does nothing. She doesn't even put her daughter to bed.

In the dark back bedroom, where even the baby monitor remains quiet, only one parent sleeps. Ann-Marie rolls to her side and whispers, "Tommy, I've been thinking . . . Thomas?" Her husband is on his back. The red glow from the digital alarm clock on his bedside table creates a weak horizon behind his face, enough light though for Ann-Marie to see him swallow.

"And I don't want you to oil that glove," Ann-Marie says, "Tommy. Or any other glove. Conor is a baby. Thomas?"

"Huh," he says, peeking at her, then rolls over toward the clock. "Go to sleep. We'll talk about it tomorrow."

"I'm serious." She frogs him and says, "Thomas!"

He rotates over, awake. "We have to talk about this now?"

"Or we can talk about how Bob taught our daughter to make fun of Civil Rights songs."

"Oh Jesus!" He rolls on his back, pinned. "I knew it. I knew you wouldn't leave it alone. You'd have to take it like that. She's three, Ann, three. She won't remember what songs she sang, only that she sang them with her papa who loved her and made her laugh. God, Ann."

"You don't see it." She rolls onto her back, then over and away from him.

After giving him what she hopes feels like a long silence, she hears Thomas say, "All right, I'll bite. What don't I see?"

"The glove." She says to the wall. "That's just what he did to you."

"Did to me? Excuse me Ann-Marie? Did to me? Dad didn't do anything but teach his son to play baseball with that glove." Thomas rolls back over. "You're in a mood. I'm going to sleep."

"A mood?" She rises, still in bed. "No, don't you mood me, Thomas. I want to know: What's going to happen if Conor quits sports?"

Thomas does not answer.

"--if our son tries to quit like you did?" she says.

More silence from Thomas. Ann-Marie murmurs, "--or supposed to do when his father writes him a letter?"

The letter. Two months ago Ann-Marie had snooped in what would be the last personal item of Thomas's she still held sacred, a cardboard box with MY JUNK written on the side in black magic marker. Inside the box, among his other mementos, she pulled an envelope marked Thomas's Inventory in a messy script. Ann-Marie knew that Thomas had been sober long enough to write a searching and fearless moral inventory of himself and that an A.A. inventory would catalog her husband's worst secrets for her, if she read it.

She pulled out from the envelope several pages of yellow ruled notebook paper. It was dated ten years ago and Ann-Marie flipped through every page, apprehending every word. It was an itemized account, snide and cruel when at its most comical, that crunched out the numbers of everything Thomas had done wrong that year; but it was not underwritten by Thomas. Someone else had taken his inventory.

Ann-Marie didn't need a signature to name who. She recognized the high-tenored tone within the first sentence and read all the way through to the final tabulation:

What it would Take From you seems out of your reach--a self discipline That Focuses on a goal with a passion That Nothing will stop you. I personally don't see those qualities To Have matured in your personality. Through your stubbornness you allow people To push you around like a harmless lamb--because you will Not Fight For your place in line you Make it easy For society To Herd you into The lower class pen of life.

I would Hope This condensed review of '92 Might Help you be More realistic in your own evaluation of progress rather Than a Hidden Fantasy of What you chose as Truth

Happy New Year,

Dad

--and Thomas caught her reading it, caught Ann-Marie snooping for the first time, caught it from her hand and hurled back the pages. Her husband punched the door nearby, appalled and yelling as if he had caught his wife cheating. That whole day and night Ann-Marie had made repeated promises never to snoop.

But not to ever bring up the letter again.

"Get up," Thomas says in the dark, while his feet pad across their bedroom floor. He flips on the light and hunts down his glasses. Ann-Marie isn't about to get up, so Thomas drops down at the end corner of the bed and says, "All right, I'm up. Let's hear your theory."

"No. You're not listening," she says. "Now you're just being mad."

"Mm-hmm. So you listen then." Thomas has wedged his right thumb between his fingers. His flinty voice goes up a step when he speaks: "Let me tell you what the son does, Ann-Marie. He has two choices when he gets a letter from the father. Two choices: feel sorry for himself and extract all sorts of pity if he's shrewd. Or pony up and be a man--"

"That's what I'm talking about," she says, pointing her own finger-gun at him. "Pony up and be a man. Do you hear yourself Thomas?"

"Let me finish. Let me finish, Ann," Thomas says, although Ann-Marie is done talking. "That letter you read, which is still none of your--was exactly my business, Ann, mine to the dollar. Nothing Dad says in there is untrue, Ann-Marie. I could've chucked it and nobody would've blamed me. But I made it part of my tenth step--"

"--tenth step," Ann-Marie mouths, no longer listening.

"Tenth step," Thomas repeats and then recites, "Continued to take personal inventory . . . my account of myself, to myself. And don't get me wrong, Ann, I hated that son-of-a-bitch-letter. Hated that thing and didn't talk to Dad for nothing, not for months. And was prepared to write him off if it came to that. But not it, not that. Not that balance, not that letter. That letter was mine."

Ann-Marie no longer listens. If she plugs her ears, his voice might become less faint to her. All she hears now are words aped from this shell of her husband. Thirty-years-old and still doing his parody of a prodigal son.

Thomas says, "And maybe Conor might quit baseball, okay, fine. But he'll at least know how to play, Ann. I owe him that much as a father. You want to know what happens to boys who become bench-warmers, Ann-Marie? A.A. is filled with bench-warmers. So all Dad did to me was teach me to play. Me with my Jose Cruz mitt, him with his Whitey Ford glove. I wasn't much of a pitcher, but I pitched a game. But I became enough of a ballplayer for Dad to pass me his glove when my hand fit. We practiced all the time. I became a power-hitter. We practiced and we played Pepper--"

"Pepper," Ann-Marie says, not asking.

"Pepper," he tells her. Thomas swings an imaginary bat. "Dad hits it and I field--a grounder, a pop-fly, a line-drive--then I pitch it back and he hits it again. Pepper. Over and over, never slows down, it's quick." He snaps twice for emphasis, but Thomas has to stand directly in front of Ann-Marie for their eyes to meet.

"And if we hadn't practiced like that," he says, "I'd still be stuck in the outfield somewhere with a glove on my head. That's all he did to me. I shagged grounders and enough bad hops to put me infield. I could fire a ball, so they put me on third. I wasn't much of a pitcher, but I'll teach Conor what Dad taught me, that baseball's a pitcher's game. The pitcher makes it happen, he's the one in control."

Ann-Marie pretends to listen but won't until the lights are finally clicked off and her husband is asleep. In the dark all she hears is a coach called Dad, something borne out in a game of Pepper. She can see the two of them: Bob chopping grounders to his son, a little Thomas, like the one in his Brag Book. Thomas hustling after the ball, trying. Ann-Marie can see the little boy throw his ball back to his Dad, his Dad hitting it somewhere else for the son to fetch.

She can see this Dad is still Cub to Thomas. Not the Bob who coached him around like a harmless lamb, or the Bob who coached him around on his inventory, peppering up his son, regardless of Cub's transgressions, Dad's own account.

Now she sees a grown Thomas with a bat, their own son with a glove. Conor throwing, running, catching for his father. Her own son throwing, running, catching…but one day hitting. Ann-Marie cannot bring herself to sleep.

Her eyes pop open and Ann-Marie thinks, The baby. She rises and sleepwalks toward Conor's room, but something stops her and she wakes. There are noises on the baby-monitor. She hears animal-whines, almost like the baby. Is it Raisin? Raisin waking up the baby? she thinks, but it isn't Raisin. Ann-Marie darts absent-minded out of her bedroom without her terrycloth robe, thinking, It better not be Raisin.

She practically bolts into Conor's room, but Ann-Marie halts when she hears the sound again, this time clearly. Bob, she thinks. Is it Bob? she wonders, because Bob never held a baby he didn't return to its mother.

What if it is Bob, she thinks, not quite thinking, Come to take baby away. From outside of Conor's room, Bob's voice becomes clear. It is tender. That's tenderness, she thinks. No, that's Bob.

Peering through the crack in the door, underneath its top hinge, Ann-Marie sees a bear of a man dappled by the luminous ether of her baby's clown-faced night-light. He is all-swaying with Conor, this Bob, and a shushing kind of him does the swaying. Talking with the gentlest voice, another timbre, another Bob, who holds Conor like no other baby, like a baby all his own, but not like a father, not like a father.

In his low voice now, Bob says, "Oh Tommy never cried like you, baby. No he didn't, never did. He didn't--but cried longer than you, he did. Yes, he did."

Bob holds the baby as far away as he can, his arms so outstretched he's barely able to say, "Let's get something straight, kiddo, you're a nice baby. But not as nice as your sister." Then he reels Conor in close to his chest again, hugging, rocking and swaying and saying, "No, you knew I was lying, you knew. Yes, you did. You did know. And I watch Tommy hold you and know you got a daddy. Yes you do, and a mommy, mm-hmm. I watch your mommy hold you. And know you got a mommy and a daddy. Yes you do . . . Yes, yes you do."

Conor practically pops out of his papa's arms and laughs with all his vowel sounds.

"Look at you," Bob says, transfixed. "Look at you." Ann Marie, transfixed.

Conor balls a fist but paws at his papa's right shoulder instead. His papa says, "Are you a cat? Are you a cat pawing your Papa?" Bob hoists Conor and bounces the baby, saying, "You're not a cat, though, are you? Not like a cat at all. You hold on tight but don't have any claws. You don't have any claws at all to hold with, do you? Little orphan-claw cat."

Ann-Marie stands there, a spy without a robe to cloak her. Her baby burrows deep into Bob's left shoulder but doesn't see her, doesn't see anything but love. The hardest thing for her to do now is walk back into her room, silently, and leave it alone.

* * *

Jeff Stayton's story "Pepper" won 2002 Bondurant Prize for Short Fiction. His other work includes a novel, Silent Comedians (www.contextbooks.com). He has been an editor for The Yalobusha Review and the managing editor for a forthcoming anthology of contemporary Southern fiction and poetry entitled: Counterclockwise. He is currently working on his next novel, This Side of the River.

"Pepper" copyright 2003 by Jeff Stayton.