He can eat an apple pie
And never even bat an eye
He likes everything from soup to hay
Roly Poly, Daddy’s little fattie
Bet he’s gonna be a man someday
“Roly Poly,” Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, 1945
(written by Fred Rose)
Two days before Thanksgiving, over pork chops and spinach salad, Charlie said, “I’m heading to my brother’s place up in the Panhandle early on Thursday. You know what you’re doing yet?”
Philip didn’t have to ask what he meant; Charlie wanted to know if he’d talked to Julie. He hadn’t. “No, not yet.”
“If you want,” Charlie said, chewing, “you can just hang out here, but you’re more than welcome to tag along. It might do you some good to get away for a while.”
As tempting as it sounded to escape temporarily, particularly with the alternative being several silent days in the bleak, drippy-fauceted apartment of a recent divorcé, Philip declined. Because if Julie called, and then he had to confess to being out of town . . . that wouldn’t go over well. And rightly so. He had no business doing anything other than sitting in Charlie’s apartment and thinking about what he’d done.
“Well,” Charlie said, suppressing a belch, “if you change your mind, let me know. I could use the company on that boring-ass drive.”
“What about that, though?” Philip pointed at the walking cast on Charlie’s left foot.
“My truck’s an automatic, you dipshit.”
Three days earlier, lying together in bed, Julie had asked him to leave.
“For a few days.” Her quiet voice floated around him. “I don’t know, maybe a week. Long enough for you to think about whatever’s going on with you.”
He pleaded with her to change her mind, but she didn’t waver. He apologized. And it wasn’t empty talk. He meant it. He was sorry. He hated himself. Clenching his fists in frustration, he tried to keep himself from shouting and waking Asher up. “Please, Julie,” he hissed. “Goddamnit!”
“See?” she said. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Do you hear how angry you are?”
“Of course I’m angry. What do you expect? My wife is kicking me out of the house.”
“I’m not kicking you out. I’m asking you to take a break from us for a few days and take a look at yourself.” She sighed heavily, her face invisible in the bedroom darkness of three o’clock in the morning. “I mean, seriously, something’s going on with you. I know staying home with Asher has to take it out of you, but you—”
“You’re right,” he said, ready to concede anything that might save himself. “Just name it, and I’ll do it. Just don’t make me leave.” He could feel the elements of his body straining—his muscles and skin, his blood and organs—as if every bit of him were trying to sacrifice themselves to demonstrate his seriousness. “It was an accident. A terrible, terrible accident! I don’t know what came over me, but it’ll never happen again, I swear. Don’t you believe me?”
“Don’t you know I want to? But Asher’s my priority right now, not you. Don’t you understand that?”
Despite how upset he was, and despite how lousy hearing this made him feel, he actually did understand. Asher did take priority. In comparison, he was nothing.
Something had changed. Things should have been getting better, not worse. Now two and a half, Asher was getting more self-sufficient every day. He was able to feed himself with a spoon and fork without making too terrible of a mess, he ate pretty much anything put in front of him, including such surprising things as hummus and raw fennel, and he’d gotten to where he could dress himself fairly well, just as long as his clothes were set out for him and didn’t involve buttons, snaps, or zippers. Best of all, though, he was starting not to be so okay with the feel of his pull-up once it filled with poop or tinkle, which meant potty training might be coming soon. So, for the most part, the stress of being a stay-at-home father had shrunk considerably since the days when he’d had no idea whether Asher’s tears were caused by hunger, fatigue, boredom, or pain.
But, along with the stress, something else had faded: the magic. Philip no longer found himself standing back and marveling at his situation—a baby! a son! I have a baby son! I’m a father!—half a dozen times a day. The big milestones—the first smile, rolling over, the first tooth, sitting up, the first solid food, crawling, the first word, standing, walking—as wonderful as all of that had been, they were all in the past now. He’d once felt as if he moved through his clockless days in a golden glow, but that glow had dimmed considerably. What once had been miraculous had become hum-drum. No longer having to worry about frightening things like Asher putting a quarter in his mouth and choking, he’d come to grow relaxed and comfortable in their routine, which was great, in its way—wonderful, really—but it was also dull: Sesame Street, a morning snack, a walk around the neighborhood (weather permitting), playtime in his room (blocks and trucks and dinosaurs), lunch, naptime, an afternoon snack, a second playtime session, a few books (Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak and Eric Carle), and then a bit more PBS while they waited for Julie to get home.
Over time he’d even stopped feeling bad about having not been making enough money to allow Julie to stay home with Asher instead of him. As the guilt faded, however, resentment had taken its place. Sure, he understood that this arrangement had always been the only logical choice. Since they hadn’t wanted their child to rot away in daycare for forty hours a week, what else could they have done? And it wasn’t as if he’d enjoyed his job. But he’d begun to grow tired of sacrificing; he’d grown tired of being the good guy who always did what was best for everyone.
But even this souring might have been manageable if his generally amiable son hadn’t become someone different. Now, instead of Yes, Daddy, it was I don’t want to or I don’t like it or I don’t have to. Now, instead of putting his hand in his father’s at intersections, he ran off, zigzagging and twisting beyond the reach of Philip’s grasp. Now, he tore pages out of books and laughed, knowing full well it was wrong. Now, everything that he could hold in his hand became a gun, which Philip found utterly bewildering, considering how diligent he and Julie had been about keeping anything that even slightly suggested violence away from their son, whether it be toys, in books, or on television.
“I die you, Daddy,” Asher said, aiming a stick at him, squinting his eyes threateningly.
Philip made frequent use of the time-out chair, and early on it had worked fine. Asher would sit quietly and wait for the microwave’s timer to go off, signaling his release. But then he figured out that there really wasn’t anything preventing him from getting up before the timer went off, so Philip had to start holding his son down by the shoulders. Asher would thrash and cry until the snot flowed. Nevertheless, determined not to be defeated, Philip continued to send Asher to time-out whenever he disobeyed or acted out, which meant that they spent large portions of their day together wrestling in the sunny corner of the kitchen.
But this was nothing compared to the tantrums. Crimson-faced, Asher cried and bellowed and slapped and kicked with what seemed like impossible volume and strength. And there was absolutely no predicting what might bring one on. It might be the television being turned off. Or turned on. When they first started happening, he tried comforting his son, but Asher would have none of this—scratching and biting at his father’s hugging arms and stroking hands—so Philip left him alone, though he made sure to keep an eye on him so that he wouldn’t do something harmful, like pull a bookcase down onto himself.
Knowing that, at least developmentally speaking, these fits were perfectly normal, Philip didn’t worry too much about them; they were just maddening, that’s all. But what was even more maddening was that Asher never exploded or lost control around Julie. In the evenings and on the weekends? Well, he was just the perfect little charmer. He was all smiles and hugs and kisses, all Yes, Mommy, all I love you, Mommy. And Mommy, squeezed breathlessly by her honey bunny, never seemed quite able to believe the stories that her husband would tell her about his days with their son.
“Why should you be the one who gets him on his best behavior instead of me?” he wanted to ask but didn’t, hating the petulant sound of his voice, even in the privacy of his own head. “Why do I get nothing but ungratefulness after all that I do for him day in and day out?”
Nonetheless, he kept telling himself that all of this was just a stage that Asher was going through, one that, like the individual tantrums themselves, he just had to wait out.
So he waited. But the tantrums and the misbehaving continued. They intensified, in fact. As did Philip’s frustration, which began to grow into raw anger. In the past, upon feeling his blood rising slightly, all it had taken were a few deep breaths to calm himself. Gradually, however, he found himself not really wanting to calm down. It felt so good to shout, to roar inches away from Asher’s face or to snarl threats through clenched jaws and curled lips. In fact, it almost seemed therapeutic, as though doing so helped him to release all of the poisons building up inside. In the middle of one of these bouts, though, he once caught a glimpse of his reflection in the oven door’s glass as he struggled on his knees to remove a steak knife from Asher’s meaty grip, and he hardly recognized the glowering, almost maniacal face staring back. But instead of being horrified at the sight of himself in such a state, he liked it. He liked how he looked like someone no one would want to mess with.
While Charlie was at work, doing whatever it was that he did as a drug rep for Pfizer, Philip watched cable—CNN and The Weather Channel, mainly. Suicide bombers in Iraq and big snowstorms in New England. Mostly though, he spent his time zoned out, staring at the nothingness hovering halfway between his eyes and the television. Despite avoiding PBS, knowing that seeing Dragon Tales or Caillou would make him feel rotten, he did nothing but think of Asher and Julie, and how much he missed them. What were they doing right now? Who was watching Asher? Julie had refused to tell him what she was going to do about that.
In fact, she’d laughed harshly when he’d asked. “It’s a little funny, don’t you think, you worrying about Asher like this?”
Never had he wanted to strike his wife as much as he’d wanted to at that moment. She acted as if she actually believed that he didn’t love his son anymore. He could almost feel his fist rocketing forward, could almost see and feel its impact, followed then by her bruised and swollen shock as she tumbled backwards, wide-eyed.
He told himself to stop thinking about it, but he wished he knew how long he’d have to wait. Julie had said that she’d call when she was ready to talk. Each day, he thought, This will be the day, but not even when it came time to turn off the living room’s one lamp and climb onto the couch’s lumpy fold-out did he lose faith. She’ll probably call tomorrow, he’d tell himself before eventually falling asleep and then having dreams about Asher in which nothing much happened: Asher pouring sand from a bucket, Asher eating a sandwich, Asher standing motionless in the middle of his toy-wrecked room. In none of them did Philip feel himself present. He wasn’t sitting in the grass next to the sandbox. He wasn’t in the kitchen pouring a glass of milk. He wasn’t on his hands and knees retrieving blocks from beneath the bed. And Asher didn’t feel him there watching, either.
Regardless of how he spent his daytime hours, however, he was always in the kitchen to make dinner by 4:30, if not earlier. Upon seeing Charlie’s freezer crammed tight with microwaveable burritos, he’d figured it was the least he could do. And besides, over the last couple of years he’d grown to enjoy the routine of being in charge of the nightly meals. The dicing of vegetables, the broiling of meats. He’d also discovered that he had a modest amount of talent in the kitchen. And now that he was at Charlie’s, the heat of the burner and the rolling boil of the water, the cold flesh of the chicken and the sharp tang of the green pepper—it all made him painfully, sweetly nostalgic for a life that he’d been living only a week before with no notion whatsoever of its vulnerability.
Not all that long ago, they had been a foursome: Philip and Julie, Charlie and Tessa. They’d bonded at the very first meeting of an infertility support group. Soon enough, they were going out to eat and seeing movies together, but mostly they just sat around at each other’s houses talking about egg harvesting, the nasty side effects of hormone injections, and Dr. Przybylinski. Or at least that’s what Julie and Tessa talked about. Philip and Charlie frequently found themselves not doing much more than listening quietly and nodding in agreement.
Occasionally, however, particularly when they were over at Charlie and Tessa’s house, Charlie would pull Philip away, sometimes out to the garage to show him some recently purchased tool or bit of hunting gear, while other times he’d lead him back to his office simply to say something out of the earshot of their wives, like, If I have to hear them bitch one more time about Dr. P’s receptionist being rude, I’m going to shoot myself in the head.
Philip didn’t always know how to respond—he had no idea what made a laser compound miter saw so cool, much less what to do with it, and he had to agree with Julie and Tessa about Dr. Przybylinski’s receptionist, she was rude—but he tried his best to seem interested and agreeable, because he couldn’t help it: he wanted Charlie to really like hanging out with him, even if that meant occasionally pretending that he’d watched some game the night before, or that he shared Charlie’s frustration when it came to the difficulty of trying to wire a new kitchen stove. He did wish, though, that he could just be honest and open—he didn’t like watching sports, and if a household repair required more than the hammering of a nail, he immediately (though shamefacedly) called a professional—but he knew that Charlie would think less of him if he were ever to do so, because Charlie was definitely the sort of person who had very particular notions about what a guy was supposed to be like. And not like. Normally, this judgmental aspect of Charlie would have been enough for Philip not to care much for him—after all, this was one of the qualities that Philip hated most in his father—but since he somehow continued to measure up to Charlie’s rigid standards, it didn’t bother him.
Though Philip and Julie got lucky with their second round of in-vitro fertilization, Charlie and Tessa didn’t get pregnant until their fourth. On the day that Tessa’s first trimester ended, complication-free, the four of them celebrated—beer for the boys, sparkling cider for the girls. Then, eighteen months after Asher’s birth, Tessa delivered a boy as well, eight weeks premature. Travis died within a week, never leaving the NICU. There had been something wrong with the little boy’s heart, something the doctors couldn’t do anything about. Afterwards, Charlie told Tessa that he wanted to keep trying, but Tessa hadn’t wanted to—Travis’s death had taken too much out of her, she said—and eventually she left, moving back in with her parents in El Paso, saying that she didn’t love Charlie enough to stay with him without children. Besides, she said, all she could think of when she looked at him was their dead son lying intubated in the plastic shell of an isolette.
The first time that Philip really scared himself: Asher had stripped off his pull-up and then, laughing while Philip warned him not to tinkle on the carpet, tinkled on the carpet. This would have been bad enough by itself, but before Philip could even get to him, Asher had then danced and stomped on the soggy spot. Screaming—Look what you did! Look what you did!—Philip took Asher by the arm and jerked him into the air with such force that his son’s feet flung out horizontally, knocking a vase of dried thistles from a nearby bookshelf. Howling, Asher looked up at him, and Philip saw something in his son’s face that he’d never seen before, at least not directed toward him: fright.
Almost as quickly as it had taken to snatch Asher from the floor, however, Philip’s fury dissolved. He cradled Asher’s naked, damp bottom in the crook of one arm and hugged his body tightly with the other, apologizing and kissing him until the tears and the shrieks subsided. His head now clearing, Philip knew that what he’d done was wrong, terrible. Tinkling on the floor was minor, just part of the whole process—it was something that frequently happened when a boy was making the transition from pull-up to toilet; he understood this from the books he’d read. But he kept seeing that mischievous glint in Asher’s eyes as the tinkle had streamed out, and he got angry all over again. Asher had known it was wrong; he had known his daddy would get mad. And that was exactly why he had done it.
But this is what scared Philip: it wasn’t so much that he’d done what he’d done to his son, it was that it had felt so good. Yanking his son up like a rag doll had felt good. With that one quick, furious movement, he’d felt weeks of exasperation release into the air, leaving him feeling almost deliciously cleansed, flushed pure.
After dinner, they silently watched a couple of crime dramas and the ten o’clock news before Charlie stood, stretched, and said, “Time to hit the hay.”
“Good night,” Philip said, trying not to hear in his head how, to Asher, he’d then always say, Sweet dreams.
He watched the rest of Letterman before tossing the couch’s cushions onto the floor and pulling out the bed. He was still thinking about Thanksgiving. The year before they’d had a quiet holiday, just the three of them. In the morning, while Julie cooked, he and Asher had watched the Macy’s parade together, at least until Asher got bored with the slow progress of the floats and the marching bands. At mealtime, he remembered flashing the knives flamboyantly in the air before carving the bird, telling Asher that, one day, he’d be standing at the head of his own table doing the same thing.
Regardless, he was tired of waiting for Julie to call.
After pressing his ear to Charlie’s door and hearing snoring, he turned out the remaining lights and dialed Julie’s number.
“Philip?” He could tell that she’d been asleep for a while.
“I’ve been waiting for you to call,” he said, commanding himself to sound steady and purposeful, but also calm. “Were you planning on calling soon?”
“I don’t know.” He heard the rustle of sheets. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Thanksgiving’s the day after tomorrow. Were you going to call me before then?”
“Maybe when we got back. Asher and I are driving to Tyler to see Cynthia.”
“Oh.” He hadn’t expected her to want to leave town. “Is Asher excited?”
“I haven’t told him yet.”
“How’s he doing?”
“He’s fine.” She coughed. “Philip, it’s late. I’ve got to get up early so that I can drop him off at—” She cut herself off.
“Drop him off where, Julie?”
“It doesn’t matter where.”
“What do you think I’m going to do, kidnap him?”
“It’s somewhere that he’s happy and safe, okay?”
Happy and safe—he didn’t appreciate what she meant by that. “I can’t believe you won’t tell me.”
“I can’t believe a lot of things. I can’t believe that—” She cut herself off again. “It’s too late for this. I’m worn out.”
“You’re leaving him with Annette, I bet.” Annette was a good friend of Julie’s who was—unlike Julie—now a stay-at-home mom. When Julie didn’t respond, he said, “It’s Annette, isn’t it?”
“We’ll talk after I get back from Cynthia’s, alright?”
Before he could say anything more, the line died. Hoping that she would change her mind and call him back, he got into bed with his phone tucked beneath his leg, but nothing woke him before Charlie turned on the kitchen lights the next morning.
It continued to get worse. As soon as Julie left for work in the morning, it was if a switch flicked on inside of Asher. He crawled under the bed and refused to come out. He wrapped himself in toilet paper like a mummy. He fished dried turds out of Midnight’s litter box. But the worst thing was that he simply wouldn’t listen. No matter what Philip said, Asher ignored him. Philip tried distracting him, negotiating with him, but nothing worked. Nothing pleased him. Nothing appeased him. And alone in the struggle, Philip felt trapped; he had no one to talk to other than Asher. And himself. Occasionally he would call Julie when he felt particularly distressed, but rarely was she available to talk for very long, if at all, and even when she was, he could sense what felt like her silent judgment, especially when she’d ask if he’d tried doing this with Asher or doing that. Usually he hadn’t, which exasperated him even further. Not all that long ago, he had been the unquestioned authority on Asher; now, despite all of the time that he spent with their son, he seemed to knew no more about him than she did. Maybe even less.
“Of course I’ve tried that,” he’d say bitterly.
What he found odd, however, was this: late in the evening, hours after Julie had put Asher to bed and he had shed the tensions of the day somewhat, sometimes he found himself thinking fondly of the day’s battles, unable to restrain himself from smiling at the thought of what a belligerent little terror Asher had become. Though he wasn’t looking forward to the morning’s inevitable headaches, he proudly pictured his son a few years down the road: envied by the boys, loved by the girls, so tall and big and strong, slugging his way across the playground, impervious to all.
They left for the Panhandle early on Thursday, just as the sun rose pink and silent over the parking lot of Charlie’s apartment complex.
“Good driving weather,” Charlie said. “Supposed to get nasty by tomorrow, though. At least where we’re headed.”
After talking to Julie, Philip had decided that if Charlie didn’t mention it again he wouldn’t bring it up, but if he did, he’d accept. He had no idea what might happen after Thanksgiving, but not thinking about it began sounding pretty good, and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to do that—not think—sitting alone in Charlie’s empty apartment. So, on Wednesday, when Charlie asked him if he’d changed his mind about going, he said, “I think I have, if you’re sure no one will mind.”
“Are you kidding? The more the merrier.” He slung his arm across Philip’s shoulders. “We’ll make it a party. You’ll forget your troubles. Hell, maybe I’ll even forget mine, too.”
In Charlie’s truck, which was big, black, chromed, and loaded with what seemed to be every last factory option, Philip buckled in and adjusted the vent next to the window so that it would blow its pleasant heat against his face.
“Feel free to kick off your shoes and make yourself comfortable,” Charlie said, sliding a CD into the player. “We’ve got a six-hour drive ahead of us.”
Philip tried to place the music that began playing, but he couldn’t. It was country, he knew that much, and old, but that was as far as he could get. “Who’s this?”
Charlie stared at him with a look of exaggerated shock. “Son, that’s Tommy Duncan singing with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Where’d you grow up, anyway? Minnesota?”
Charlie shook his head, but with a smile on his face. “Same difference. Might as well be Minnesota. Nothing but fast-food chains, strip malls, and cookie-cutter subdivisions out there.”
“That’s not my fault, you know. I can’t help it if I was born and raised there.”
“Yeah, but you still live there.”
Philip remembered having had this same discussion with Julie years ago, except that he’d been the one arguing for somewhere new and different, though not too new and different since they both had commutes to consider. This was when they’d been looking for their first house. Richardson had won because of low taxes, low crime, and good schools. Years before their son, when the details and particulars of parenthood had still seemed to Philip so far away and deferrable, Julie had already been thinking ahead.
“We thought it would be a good place to raise a family,” he said.
“Oh, well,” Charlie shrugged, not acknowledging the painful irony of this observation, for which Philip was grateful. “And I guess not everyone has to know every last Bob Wills song by heart like me. That’s him whooping and hollering in the background, by the way. Tommy Duncan’s the one singing. Bob plays fiddle.”
“What about Hank Williams, Junior?” Philip asked, hoping to redeem himself a little by naming the first country singer to come to mind. “Do you like him?”
Charlie took his right hand from the wheel and set it on Philip’s shoulder. “Normally I’d pretend I didn’t even hear that question, but since you’re clearly out of your element, let me put it this way: things would’ve been a lot better all-around if it had been the son and not the father who’d died in the backseat of that Cadillac back in fifty-three.”
With almost no discussion, he and Julie had agreed that they would never spank Asher. Philip couldn’t imagine ever doing so, anyway; he’d never been spanked even once growing up, so when he did spank Asher for the first time (for breaking open a bag of flour and flinging its contents around the kitchen in puffy handfuls), he felt almost as guilty as if he had cheated on Julie with another woman. Oh, but it had felt fantastic, the sharp swat of his hand against the delicate skin of Asher’s bare ass! And then hearing his son’s shocked, outraged blubbering—that had been nice, too.
Most definitely, though, he was grateful that Asher hadn’t yet figured out that he could tattle on Daddy to Mommy. To make doubly sure that Asher wouldn’t give him away, he had spoiled his son for the rest of the day with ice cream and extra television, hoping to overwhelm any memory of the incident with an overload of sugar and cartoons. But even if Asher had said something, Philip felt comfortable in knowing that it would be his word against the word of a boy who still didn’t know enough yet to feign innocence or ignorance when asked if he’d been the one who had scribbled on the wall with crayons. All Philip would have to do was shake his head in disbelief—Where does he come up with this stuff?—if Asher were ever to say anything.
Not that it was a big deal; it was just a harmless little spanking. But Julie didn’t need to know about it. This was just between them, father and son, and so far the spankings had been working. Things were getting better. Asher had a new, fearful respect for him. When Philip warned him that he’d get a spanking if he didn’t stop doing whatever it was that he shouldn’t be doing, he stopped most of the time. And when he didn’t, Philip now spanked him. Afterwards, he would hold him until the crying faded, and once that happened, it was nice. Usually Asher was happy to sit in Philip’s lap and listen to him read Hop on Pop or The Very Hungry Caterpillar. And it was during these times of reconciliation, with Asher shuddering against him as his breathing returned to normal, that Philip felt his love for his son swell to its fullest.
Traffic was heavy with holiday travelers until Denton, where they left the choked lanes of I-35 for the calmer straightaway of Highway 380 headed west toward Decatur.
Charlie, blowing out a deep breath, slumped a few inches. “Now this is more like it. God-damned Metroplex traffic. Never have gotten used to it.” He shook several pills into his mouth and chewed them up. After swallowing, he said, “My ankle’s killing me. Don’t want you to think I’m some sort of addict.”
Though Philip didn’t say as much, he was entering a part of the region entirely new to him. He’d been up to Denton and east toward McKinney with Julie a few times to go antiquing, but that had been it. For the most part he’d rarely strayed far from Richardson, particularly since Asher. Frankly, he was ashamed of how pitifully little he knew about the state that he’d been born and raised in. His father, who’d only come to Texas because of a university position, had had no use for what he’d always called “this backwoods, backwards state we unhappily call home,” so Philip understood the reason that he’d been exposed to so little of the state as a boy, but what was his excuse as an adult? Just plain laziness, he guessed. Or, more likely, just the easy security of the familiar.
Charlie drove with his left wrist hooked loosely over the top of the steering wheel, passing slower cars while the fingers of his right hand tapped his thigh to the rhythm of the music. Philip peeked a look at the speedometer; it was quivering at eighty. In Decatur, they took Highway 287 north, which Philip noticed simply because he didn’t want to get caught looking foolish if Charlie happened to ask him a question about their whereabouts.
“How about some coffee?” Charlie asked. “I could use a jolt.”
They stopped at a donut shop in Alvord, a town that seemed to be nothing more than the houses and buildings visible from the highway. Inside, while the elderly woman behind the counter filled two Styrofoam cups, Philip watched a table of regulars huddled over their mugs, talking and gesturing, and he wondered what they were doing here on a Thanksgiving morning. Why weren’t they home? He knew what he would have been doing: trying to get Asher to sit still long enough to watch the enormous balloons of the Macy’s parade with him. Julie would be busy in the kitchen, filling the house with the smell of turkey and half a dozen other dishes, her cheeks rosy from standing over the steaming pans on the stove . . . .
In the mirror running the length of the back wall, he caught a glimpse of himself while he sugared and creamed his coffee, and he wondered if he looked like what he was, a man who’d been kicked out of the house by his wife.
Listening to Charlie talking to the old woman, Philip noticed that his accent had changed since leaving Dallas, and he wondered if this was intentional, or if his tongue had somehow sensed where he was headed and had begun to slow and thicken. Earlier, when he’d said, We’re making pretty good time, We’re had become whir, pretty perty, and time Tom, which certainly wasn’t how he’d sounded the few times Philip had overheard him making early-evening phone calls for the pharmaceutical company he worked for.
Back in the truck, Charlie said, “You were making those folks in there nervous, the way you were staring at them.”
“I was just looking around, that’s all.”
“Well, all they saw was a stranger giving them the hairy eyeball.” Charlie pulled back onto 287, right behind a truck hauling an empty horse trailer. “It’s time to put the hammer down.”
They passed through flyspecks on the map—Sunset, Bowie, Jolly—while Tommy Duncan sang about deep water, staying up all night, and time changing everything. Occasionally Philip would look over to say something to break the silence that built up over the miles—Did you see those wood crosses on the side of the road back there, the ones like they put up after a bad wreck? One of them said Keith, and the other said Tooter—but each time he did, Charlie seemed to be immersed in thoughts beyond just staying in his lane, so he kept quiet, wondering what it was that Charlie was thinking about, whether it was Tessa, Travis, going home, the drugs he was selling, the pain in his foot that he’d broken after dropping a tool box on it, or nothing at all.
After a while, though, despite the coffee, he felt himself growing heavy-lidded. At first he fought it, not wanting to abandon Charlie, but the struggle became just too difficult—he’d slept terribly every night since leaving home—so he finally allowed himself to sag and surrender. And though he wouldn’t remember this when he woke up, he dreamt of home, but only in peculiar fragments: Asher running bow-legged down the hall with a heavy diaper sagging to his knees, Julie coming out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel and brushing her teeth, Asher stacking blocks in a teetering tower, Julie in the dark living room, her face shining in the cool nimbus of light cast by the screen of her laptop.
When he woke, his face numb against the cold glass of the window, his mind sluggishly rising from far-down depths, he didn’t know where he was. But then he remembered—and why he was there instead of somewhere else—and he wished that he’d never fallen asleep; the weight of the reality that came with the return wasn’t worth the brief escape.
“Welcome back,” Charlie said.
“How long was I out?”
“Well, we’re almost to Wichita Falls.”
Philip nodded. He only knew Wichita Falls from the times that the television weathermen mentioned it.
“You know about the falls of Wichita Falls?” Charlie asked, looking over.
Philip hesitated, not knowing whether this was a question like the one about Grant’s Tomb or whether it was just more of Charlie playing the role of native guide to his novice. “No, I guess not.”
“A flood wiped them all out on the Wichita River before the turn of the century. Later on the city built artificial ones just to shut all those people up about the fact that Wichita Falls didn’t have any.”
“Hmmm.” What was he supposed to do with this information? What was anybody supposed to do with it?
The silence from before returned. Bob Wills kept playing his fiddle while Tommy Duncan sang about his Rose of San Antone.
Yes, Asher made Philip lose his temper, made him crazy, made him scream and stomp in fits of frustration like a toddler himself. Yes, he spanked Asher, and yes, he enjoyed it. But he loved Asher—much more desperately than he ever was angry with him. Most of the time he was just so proud of him, just so in love with him, his very own son walking down the sidewalk in a floppy hat and puddle stompers like some strange, shrunken man. His very own son coloring a picture for him, wanting to share the last of his snack with him, or just sitting quietly with blocks or books, talking to himself in a square of warm sun on the floor, oblivious to being watched by his father from the doorway.
Yes, sometimes, in his blackest, foulest moments, Philip did wish that he and Julie had never had a child, that his life could return to its former carefree days and ways when weekends meant fun outings and sleeping in rather than simply more of the same care-taking duties that filled Mondays through Fridays, but he also knew, without even the flicker of a conscious thought, that he would sacrifice his own life to save Asher’s. Lying in bed, sometimes he imagined leaping in front of a crazed assassin’s bullet. Under the steaming shower head, he pictured his body transforming into sheltering armor as a May tornado tore away the world around them. Brushing his teeth, he foresaw himself sacrificing organs—kidneys, liver, lungs, heart—to resurrect his comatose son, flatlining and beeping in a darkened hospital room with a tube down his throat and painkillers dripping into his arm.
His nose pressed against Asher’s, he stared into eyes the same as his, and he thought about how blessed he was; science, in a quiet Dallas lab, had grown him a son of his very own.
After they left Wichita Falls behind, Charlie said, “Well, that’s it for the excitement for the next two-hundred-plus miles, I’m afraid.”
Though Charlie said this as if he couldn’t believe how awful this part of the state was, Philip could see by the look on his face that he was happy to be returning to it; his usual tightness had loosened like an unclenched fist.
For the next thirty miles, Philip watched what he’d thought was already flat and empty land flatten and empty even further, so much so that it seemed as if he could almost see the curvature of the earth along the horizon. Except for the occasional peeling billboard, the perpetual fence of barbed wire undulating alongside the road, and the scraggly, shrubby trees that Charlie referred to as “goddamned mesquite,” there was nothing to look at except dirt, which he now realized had bled from brown to red somewhere along the way, and sky—lots and lots of sky. It was like an immense, overturned bowl the color of morning glories, visible from lip to lip.
Charlie yawned and stretched, leaving the steering wheel free to its own navigation for a few seconds. “My daddy liked to say that the only things vertical to find out here was windmills, pump jacks, lightning bolts, tornadoes, and dust devils. I don’t know if he came up with that himself, but I always thought it was kind of smart. He left out grain elevators, though.”
Philip noticed that Charlie had said liked rather than like. “Is he not still around?”
Charlie shook his head. “No, and I still miss the hell out of him. Your father’s still around, though, right?”
Philip stared out at the train rumbling along beside them. Somewhere along the way, every one of its cars had been defaced with broad, colorful loops of illegible graffiti. He wondered what any of it meant. “Oh, yeah, he’s still around.”
“You don’t sound exactly thrilled.”
Philip felt a ripple of emotion, of sadness, pass through him. “We’re just not that close.”
“You know,” Charlie said, smiling, turning Bob Wills down until he and his band disappeared, “me and my daddy had our fair share of scrapes during my teenage years, but we were like best friends by the time he died. I’d been living on my own quite a while by that time, of course, but I was still in town—I didn’t move to Dallas and meet Tessa until after he died—so we used to do shit together all the time: hunt, fish, play dominoes, sling horseshoes . . . you name it.”
Once he realized that Charlie wasn’t going to continue, Philip said, “You know what my father liked to do with me?”
Philip knew he was being childish for suddenly feeling sorry for himself, but he kept on. “Nothing. Because it wasn’t like we were going to bond over British poetry from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which is all he cared about. All he still cares about. That and being a professor.”
“Well, that sucks. How is he with his grandson?”
“Other than the fact that he moved out of state when Asher was only a few months old, pretty good, I guess.” He thought about his father’s visit the year before, how happy he’d looked while reading to Asher, and he wondered if, as a boy, he himself had ever brought pleasure like that to his father. For a while, he supposed.
“Man, I can’t even imagine leaving like that. And not seeing family more than once a year or so? No way. I get up to Amarillo at least six times a year, but I still feel like a shirker.” He cleared his throat, lowered the window, and spit. A puff of cold air stirred his hair and then died away as the window closed. When he spoke again, his voice was lower, softer. “On the day me and Tessa found out we were having a boy, one of the first things I remember thinking was how excited my daddy would’ve been. And then on the day when Travis was born, God, I was so excited, but at the same time I was sad that he’d never know his granddaddy except for what he’d learn about him from me.” He lowered his window and spit again, then he turned Bob Wills back up. “None of it mattered in the end, though, of course.”
Philip wished that he knew what to say, but he didn’t. After all, what could he, a man who’d done to his son what he had, say to a man who’d lost his own son before ever getting the chance to know him?
Asher had done worse things so many times before, so why Philip reacted as he did he didn’t know. The day had actually been going fine, other than when Julie had called to remind him that one of the partners at her firm would be coming to dinner the following evening, so he might want to start thinking about what to prepare. After Clifford the Big Red Dog ended, they got dressed in warm clothes and went for a walk. Along the way, Asher collected acorns and colorful leaves. They made their slow way to Miles Park, which was empty.
“Where are the other boys and girls?” Asher asked, waving his hands in an impatient gesture that Philip recognized as his own.
“I guess it’s too cold for them.” Philip watched his son nimbly climb to the top of the slide. “But it’s not for us, is it?”
After Asher got tired of sliding, they moved over to the swings, where he wanted to be pushed harder than Philip felt comfortable pushing.
“Higher!” yelled Asher, furious, his face suddenly looking much older than its years.
After denying the request several times, Philip eventually conceded, though he knew that he was being a bad parent by backing down from his original stance. But he didn’t really care, not today; it was exhausting doing the right thing all the time. Besides, it was nice sometimes to give Asher what he wanted, and to make him smile rather than scream, no matter how wrong it might be do so at times.
From the swings they went to the seesaw, and from the seesaw they went to the wooden fort. And still no one came, much to Asher’s annoyance, so they walked home. For
lunch, Asher requested tomato soup and crackers. Later, Philip would remember how peaceful it had seemed as they sat across from each other at the tiny table where Asher liked to eat his meals. Sitting in the toddler-sized chair made Philip’s back ache after a while, but he liked that Asher enjoyed having him join him.
“Hot!” Soup dripped from Asher’s open mouth.
Philip checked the soup with his finger; it was fine. Unlike his own bowl, he’d only barely heated Asher’s. “Blow on it.” He demonstrated with his own soup and spoon.
Asher raised another spoonful to his mouth. When he blew, no air reached the soup, but Philip knew it didn’t matter; just making the effort was all that was important. He encouraged him to taste it again. This time Asher spit the soup back into his bowl in a stream.
“Don’t spit your food out, Asher. You know better than that.”
Asher was giggling now. “But it’s hot.”
“It is not. And it isn’t funny.” Philip retrieved an ice cube from the freezer and dropped it into Asher’s bowl. “There. Now it’s definitely not hot.”
Asher spooned more soup into his mouth. Philip waited for him to spit it out again, but he didn’t. But he didn’t swallow it, either; he was holding it in his cheeks, trying not to laugh.
Philip knew that if he didn’t stay calm that this would just get worse. “Swallow what’s in your mouth, Asher.”
Soup splattered on the table between them. Asher squealed and bounced in his chair.
“Are you ready for time out?”
“I like time out,” Asher said, still giggling.
Philip stood now, hitting his knees against the edge of the tiny table. “Okay, then. If you do that again, I’ll spank you, how’s that sound?”
Asher stopped giggling. His face flattened and grew serious. “No. I’ll be gooder.” He raised another spoonful to his lips.
“Better. You’ll be better.” Philip lowered himself into the tiny chair again, proud of himself for having defused the situation so quickly and quietly, but then he saw that Asher, his eyes twinkling with laughter that he was struggling to suppress, was holding soup in his mouth again. “Asher, I told you—”
The soup hit Philip between the eyes, and he slapped Asher hard across his laughing face, knocking him from his chair. As Asher disappeared from view, Philip heard a hard thump followed immediately by a high wail. Frantic, desperate, he rushed around the table and scooped Asher up, moaning his son’s name over and over like a two-syllable prayer. Cradling the heavy body of his son, Philip sat on the floor while gently stroking Asher’s face and hair. He’d hit his head against the wall, and already there was a swelling above his ear that felt like a warm egg against Philip’s fingers. His lower lip was bleeding, as well, where it looked like he’d bitten himself.
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” Philip whispered, wiping the tears from his son’s eyes and the soupy blood from his mouth. “But you shouldn’t have spit that at me, you know that, don’t you?”
Within five minutes Asher was nearly back to normal. After he quietly finished his lunch, he said that he was ready for naptime, so Philip followed him into his room and tucked him into his miniature bed, which Julie had painted to look like a race car. But then Philip remembered how you weren’t supposed to let someone with a head injury fall asleep, at least not for a while. A nap could turn into a coma. But Asher’s bump wasn’t that serious, was it?
“Your head doesn’t still hurt, does it?”
“No.” Asher closed his eyes and pulled his favorite bear to his chest. “Go away now, Daddy.”
Watching his son already sinking into sleep, he wondered if Asher would remember anything when he woke up. Probably not, thank God. But would his bump have shrunk? And more importantly, would the red handprint on his cheek be gone before Julie got home?
Electra. Armadillo roadkill and lonely windmills like enormous dandelions far off on the horizon. Vernon. Truck dealerships and Churches of Christ. Chillicothe, which Philip learned was pronounced with four syllables, not three. An ancient man in overalls and a cowboy hat at a pay phone outside of an equally ancient Texaco station. Quanah, which was apparently named after a chief of the Comanche whose mother had been a white woman captured in a raid on Fort Parker. Acme. Vast expanses of dead grass broken up by occasional clumps of cattle. Kirkland. The desiccated pelt of a coyote hanging from a fence post, left there to warn off its brothers and sisters. Childress. Tumbleweeds the size of tricycle tires, car tires, tractor tires. Estelline. More cattle, some of them longhorns. More tumbleweeds, and yucca. Newlin and Memphis. Nests of prickly pear cactus and signs for beef jerky. Giles. Wind so strong that he could feel it nudging Charlie’s truck toward the shoulder. Hedley. Feed lots that stunk up the air for long minutes after passing them, despite the windows being rolled up and the heater’s button on recirculation. And then Clarendon, where they passed a sign indicating that the town of Turkey could be found forty-two miles to the south.
Charlie pointed down the road that looked to Philip to be headed to more of the same nothingness. “Guess who’s the pride of Turkey, Texas?”
“Why, Mr. Bob Wills himself,” Charlie said, and then the silence returned, not to be disturbed for miles and miles.
Lulled by the monotonous landscape sliding past, the drone of the tires on the asphalt, the steady shushing breath of the wind over and around the truck, and Bob Wills’s far-off fiddle, Philip sunk into another warm, sleepy daze. It was almost as if they were just taking a fun road trip, and nothing bad had ever happened.
When Asher woke from his nap two hours later, calling for Daddy to come get him, Philip saw that three fingers of his handprint were still distinctly visible on his right cheek: Tall Man, Ring Man, and Pinkie. Lotion didn’t help.
Only after he’d spent fifteen minutes subtly trying to appeal to Asher not to say anything to Mommy about what had happened at lunch—We’ve had a really fun day today, haven’t we? Nothing bad or sad happened at all, right?—did he realize that he probably should just keep quiet about it. The more he talked, the more likely Asher would sense that something was wrong—he was definitely getting smarter that way. Besides, when it came time for Mommy to get her kiss hello from her son, what did it matter, really, what was said or not said if Asher’s cheek still glowed from his father’s blow?
“I gotta piss like a racehorse,” Charlie announced, pulling over at a rest stop.
Philip’s knees ached and popped as he straightened them and stepped out of the cab. The icy wind cut at him, whipping inside his unzipped coat. The temperature had fallen considerably since Alvord. He quickly zipped up, but it made no difference. Charlie was already hurriedly limping across the empty parking lot toward the rough stone walls of a building decorated with horseshoes, wagon wheels, and raised, rusted stars. He followed him.
Inside, his footsteps echoed as he looked around, examining the historical maps and the blown-up photographs of dead-eyed cowboys lined up in rows on their horses, all in sepia or grainy black and white. He moved to the center of the room, where there sat what Philip assumed to be a replica of the sort of covered wagon that the early pioneers had come in to settle here. To see if he was right, he stepped over to the kiosk beside it. What he was actually looking at was a chuck wagon, which had been invented by a man named Charles Goodnight.
“There’s the man I’m named after,” Charlie said, stepping up next to him and pointing at Goodnight’s severe, white-bearded face. “My daddy’s great-granddaddy’s brother.”
“The inventor of the chuck wagon? That’s pretty cool.”
“Hell, that’s just the beginning.” He went on to tell Philip how Goodnight had been the first white man to see Palo Duro Canyon (the second-largest canyon in the country, don’t you know), how he fought the Comanche with the Texas Rangers, drove thousands of head of cattle from just south of Wichita Falls to Wyoming, founded a million-acre ranch that spread across six counties, bred the cattalo, which was the offspring of buffalo and Angus cattle—
“Come on,” Philip said, interrupting him. “You’re just making stuff up now.”
“I shit you not.” Charlie’s face was utterly serious. “Looky here.” He took off his coat, un-buttoned his shirt far enough that he could lift his shoulder free from the sleeve, and then pointed to the wavy design tattooed on his arm. “This here was the brand of his ranch. The JA.”
Philip had briefly glimpsed the tattoo for the first time a few days earlier as Charlie had stepped from bathroom to bedroom with a towel around his waist after showering. He’d wanted to ask what it was, but he hadn’t wanted Charlie to think that he’d been secretly eyeing him. “Don’t tell me your middle name’s Goodnight, too.”
“And damn proud of it,” Charlie said, clearly not realizing that Philip had meant that as a joke. “The man is as close to a god as a person can get in these parts. Got a town named after him, too. We’ll be passing through it in a few miles. A long time ago it was pretty good-sized, but it’s tiny now, so don’t blink.”
“Okay, I won’t,” Philip said, and he followed Charlie back out to the truck, wishing that he too had something cool like “JA” to tattoo on his arm, even though he knew he’d never do it.
A solitary house seemingly devoid of life slid past, but leaning against its side was a cowboy with his face hidden beneath the lowered brim of his hat. Only after staring at him for several seconds did Philip realize that he was looking at nothing but the black silhouette of a life-sized figure cut out of metal, just like the one of a dismounted horseman that he’d seen a dozen miles back, kneeling hat-less before an enormous cross.
“Oh, man, there’s one more thing Goodnight came up with,” Charlie said after they passed the sign for Goodnight, Texas, population eighteen. “But it’s not something you’ll ever see on a roadside plaque, that’s for sure.”
“What’s that?” Philip asked, wondering when they were ever going to get to Amarillo.
“You’ll love this.” A smile broke across his face. “You see, bulls had a really hard time of it on those long cattle drives. After walking hundreds of miles as they had to do, their balls would be in pretty bad shape. Just banged up and bruised all to hell. So much so that sometimes they’d swell up so bad with infection that it would kill them. So, to keep them from losing all those bulls, which were damned expensive, Goodnight knew that he needed to figure out a way to solve the problem. After thinking on it for a while in the middle of one of his drives, he finally came up with an idea. There was this one bull that’d just about had it by this point, so he roped him and brought him down. And what he did was this: he pushed that old bull’s testicles up into his body cavity, cut away his scrotum, and then punched holes in the skin so that he could sew up the wound with a bit of grass rope. Within a week that bull was back to being king of the herd, and most importantly, still able to breed, which was the main point of it all, of course.”
“Damn.” Philip felt a watery fluttering in his guts. When he closed his eyes, the unpleasant sensation passed, as did the image of Goodnight, looking just as mean as he’d looked in the picture at the rest stop, crouched between a bull’s legs, sawing and slicing away with a knife.
“When the procedure caught on with other drivers and ranchers, they started calling it good-nighting, since he was the one who’d invented it.”
“How do you know all of this stuff, anyway?” Philip asked, partly out of true curiosity and partly to distract Charlie away from more talk of testicle surgery.
Charlie laughed. “It’s not like I’ve ever done it or anything. It’s just a story that gets passed down like everything else gets passed down in my family.”
Philip didn’t mean just the goodnighting story, though; he meant something else, something larger, though he was fairly sure that, even if he tried, he couldn’t convey what he was feeling, not exactly. What did he have to claim deep in the roots of his family? Nothing but ordinariness and mediocrity, as far as he’d ever heard, excluding his father’s two books on old poetry, which no one but other old professors had ever read. And all that he himself knew about anymore was sippy cups, string cheese, and twenty-piece puzzles of dinosaurs.
After yet more miles of silence and flat nothingness, Charlie yawned and then swatted Philip’s arm. “So, what’s going on?”
Philip surrendered to a yawn. “Nothing. Just relaxing.”
“No, I mean what’s really going on?” He turned Bob Wills off. “When you first came over, I figured you’d talk if you wanted to, but I’ll be honest, I thought for sure that whatever it was that was going on was gonna get worked out before today. Before Thanksgiving, you know?” He swatted Philip again. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy you came along, but being with me’s probably not the place you most want to be. Or need to be, am I right?”
Philip felt what seemed like something the size of a doorknob bloom in his throat. He tried to swallow but couldn’t. “You’re right.”
“If you’d rather not talk about it, though, I completely understand.” Charlie raised his hand as if he were taking an oath. “I just thought maybe you’d like to get some stuff off your chest. Who knows, maybe I could even be of some help. What not to do and shit, you know what I mean?”
Only now did Philip realize that he’d been waiting for days for Charlie to ask. As dispassionately as he could manage, he tried to explain what had happened, what he had done. He told him about the red, hand-shaped welt on Asher’s face, and how Asher had said, “Daddy was mad,” when Julie asked him if Daddy had hit him, and then pulled down his bottom lip to show Mommy the cut and said, “I bleeded.” He told Charlie how Julie had said that she couldn’t trust him with Asher. At least not for a while. But what he didn’t tell Charlie was what Julie, at the height of her anger, had then spit at him: “What would you call someone who hits his tiny, defenseless son like that?” It was here that she’d started crying, really crying, for the first time—awful, body-wracking tears. “A father? A man? I don’t think so.”
After several quiet seconds, Charlie said. “I like Julie, and you know that. But, I’m sorry, that’s just fucking horseshit.”
Philip felt tears swelling, lapping like waves at the backs of his eyes. When he started talking again, his words sounded to him as if they were leaving his mouth in wet, painful bubbles. “No, she’s right. I screwed up. I don’t know what’s going on with me, but it’s like I just can’t control myself when I get mad at him.”
Before calming down and becoming almost frighteningly expressionless, Julie had raged, red-faced, and he’d taken it without a word, understanding—hoping—that it was the heat of the moment behind the words, not her truly-felt feelings: “You think that you’re always so responsible and mature, but you’re a fucked-up mess inside. You’re so, God, you’re so . . . pent up! You shut everything off that you can’t handle. Why can’t you just admit it to yourself already that you’ve got issues that you need to deal with? Especially with your anger. You think it’s frustration or annoyance or irritation or whatever you tell yourself it is, but it’s anger. I mean, Jesus, look what fucking happened!”
“You only slapped him,” Charlie said. “Okay, sure, it left a mark, but so what? Did he have to go to the doctor to get stitches? Hell, no. And it’s not like you’ve ever hit him before, right?”
“Correct,” he said, assuming that a man like Charlie wouldn’t consider spanking to be hitting.
“And she kicked you out of the house for that, correct?”
“Then horseshit. She’s taken this too far.”
Despite the remorse he felt, and despite believing that he probably deserved his punishment, Philip appreciated hearing this, especially since it was coming from someone like Charlie, who knew what it was like to be married. “You think so?”
“Of course I do. You didn’t break his arm or put a cigarette out on him or scald him with boiling water. You just slapped his face, that’s all. Hell, if my mother had kicked my daddy out the first time he hit me, I’d have never known the man. I’d have never known my mother, either, for that matter. They both beat me with whatever they could get their hands on—belts, fly swatters, wooden spoons, shoes. You name it, I got whooped with it. But you know what? It did me good. It taught me to behave. It taught me right from wrong. And if you ask me, that’s what’s wrong with kids today. They’re fucking running roughshod. No manners, no respect for their elders, no morals whatsoever. Meanwhile, all their parents do is shake their fingers at them and say, ‘Now, now, little so-and-so, it’s not nice to tell me to fuck off or to take a gun to school so you can shoot your teacher.’ I guaran-damn-tee you if the liberals hadn’t brainwashed everyone into believing that a hard swat on the ass is no different than chaining a kid up and starving him to death, we’d all be doing a hell of a lot better right now.”
“Maybe so,” Philip said, knowing that he’d always believed himself to be one of those liberals.
“A slap across the face. Shit.” Charlie rolled down the window and spit. “You need to do something about that, sir.”
“I know,” Philip said, but he didn’t know what.
A little after two, they drove past the sign for the Amarillo city limits.
“There’s the world-famous Big Texan,” Charlie said, nodding toward Philip’s window at a sprawling restaurant with a full parking lot and an enormous, smiling cowboy towering over it all. “If you’re feeling hungry on the way back, maybe you can take a shot at the seventy-two-ounce steak with all the fixings. If you finish it in under an hour, it’s free. I know a few guys who’ve done it.”
“I think I’ll pass.”
“Maybe a big, heaping plate of prairie oysters, then.”
“What are those?”
“Seriously? You heard of calf fries? Sometimes they get called that.”
“Sorry,” Philip said, feeling stupid. “Still in the dark.”
“We’ll you’ll just have to stay there, then, because I can’t tell you anything until after you’ve had your first one. They’re damned good, though, I’ll tell you that much.”
After pointing out the Crystal Pistol, the garishly colored strip joint that his daddy had taken him to when he turned eighteen, Charlie exited the highway and weaved his way through his old neighborhood, cheerfully identifying landmarks: his elementary school, the fields where he’d played football and baseball, the intersection where he’d gotten pulled over and arrested for driving drunk, the house of the guy he used to buy pot from, the cemetery where his father was buried, the house of the girl he lost his virginity to when he was fifteen.
“Well, here we are,” Charlie said, parking at the end of a long line of trucks and cars on an upscale-looking street called Harmony Lane.
Philip didn’t know what he’d expected to see, but it wasn’t the impressive two-story structure that he and Charlie walked up to. Furthermore, having imagined a gathering of maybe a dozen or so, he was surprised to walk into the noise, laughter, and cigarette smoke generated by at least forty people, if not more. Charlie introduced him first to his mother, a tiny bird of a woman propped up on the couch by half a dozen throw pillows. From there, Charlie led him around until he found Everett, who was playing pool with one of their cousins. Had he not already known that Charlie was older, Philip might have thought the brothers were twins. Both were broad across the shoulders, narrow at the hips, gray at the temples, dimple-chinned, and handsome in a hardy, inconspicuous sort of way. Everett had a moustache, however—a Fu Manchu that extended slightly below the line of his jaw in wiry tufts.
“This here’s Phil,” Charlie said after hugging Everett for several long seconds, “a good buddy of mine from Dallas. He was planning on being by his lonesome today, and I just said, ‘Like hell you are. You’re coming with me.’”
Hearing the alone-for-the-holidays part was like a thumb gigging him between the ribs, but the good-friend-of-mine part dulled the sting a bit. Everett greeted him with a stiff handshake that threatened to grind the bones of his hand together. Everett’s wife, Jennie, however, surprised him with a warm hug of welcome.
“You don’t sound like you’re from Dallas,” she said. “You from there originally?”
Once the introductions dwindled, Charlie set out for the kitchen to get a drink. “What do you want? Beer, wine, whiskey . . . ?”
“I’m fine,” Philip said, shaking his head. Even though he guessed that he was disappointing Charlie, the last thing he needed was alcohol. He knew himself well enough to understand that, after three drinks or so, he’d be a moist lump of tears that would have to be carried out on someone’s back. Nodding and grinning as naturally as he could manage in a roomful of strangers, he drifted around, sidestepping happy clusters of conversation, determined not to follow Charlie into the kitchen like a puppy or some new girlfriend.
“Food’ll be ready right before the Cowboy game,” Charlie said, upon returning. “Usually we just load up our plates and park in front of the TV.” He took a long swallow from what Philip assumed was whiskey in his glass. “If you haven’t figured it out yet, we aren’t a crew that’s much for formality. Thanksgiving’s just an excuse to get together and eat and drink too much.”
As Charlie had predicted, it wasn’t until three that Philip heard someone yell Food’s on! loud enough to be heard throughout the house. Since Charlie had disappeared again, Philip followed those nearby into the kitchen, where everyone was lining up to serve themselves. After piling his plate high with turkey, slices of cranberry sauce, dressing with giblet gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans, and some jiggly, lime-colored dish with pecans that he’d never seen before, he returned to the crowded living room and found Charlie perched on the edge of the coffee table, a full plate balanced on his knee and a drink between his feet.
“They’re already down by seven,” Charlie said around a mouthful of food. “Got the god-damned kickoff run back on them.”
“You’re kidding.” No matter how many times he had tried to get interested in football, if for no other reason than to give himself something to talk about with other men when small talk became a necessity, Philip just hadn’t been able to manage it—not because the violence bothered him, but because he simply found it boring. Unlike his father, however, who proudly proclaimed his contempt of all sports to anyone who would listen, Philip knew better than to ever confess as such. Nevertheless, feigning interest got exhausting sometimes, especially when he knew that he could get unmasked as an impostor so easily and at any moment.
After a while, after the men who were lined up on the leather sectional began dozing off while others stretched out on the carpet to do the same (the Cowboys were losing badly), Philip slipped away, telling Charlie that he’d be back in a few minutes, though Charlie, intent on the game despite the score, didn’t seem to hear him.
The noise of the television faded as he moved down the hall and stepped into what he assumed to be Everett’s office. On the wall behind the computer hung an enormous print of a stage-coach, orange in the fading light of dusk, being attacked by Indians in war paint. Sitting there listening to Charlie’s family joking lovingly with each other, Philip had felt a sudden desperation to call Julie. He hoped that this would be a good time. Everyone at Cynthia’s would be stuffed and content by now. Asher would be playing with his cousins, and Brent, Cynthia’s husband, would probably have the game on, but Julie and Cynthia wouldn’t be paying attention. Maybe they’d be playing Scrabble, or just talking, catching up, enjoying the strangely disembodied feeling that seemed only to happen during the quiet, somnolent hours after a holiday meal.
He wondered how Julie had explained his absence. Had she invented something harmless—an illness, or something to do with his father—or had she told the truth? He flipped open his phone. Since leaving home, he’d never once let it leave his body except to take a shower, and then he’d kept it on the closed lid of the toilet, within easy reach. Each night he’d charged it (leaving it on and using an outlet close to the couch), and during the day, at least once every few hours, he’d checked to make sure that it hadn’t turned off somehow and that the volume was all the way up as well as set on vibrate. But Julie hadn’t called.
Julie’s voicemail came on immediately: Hi! You’ve reached Julie . . . .
Her voice sounded so chipper, the way he always thought of it sounding. If only he could hear her like that again in real life, in person. Oh, how he wished that he’d never served tomato soup for lunch, never sat at Asher’s little table with him! If only he’d walked out of the kitchen or . . . . Despite having heard it hundreds of times before, the beep caught him by surprise. The phone was quiet against his ear. He imagined spools of audio tape rolling somewhere, recording his silent unease, even though he knew that it didn’t work that way anymore now that everything had gone digital.
“Julie, I just wanted to wish you and Asher a happy Thanksgiving. I hope you’re both having a good time at Cynthia’s. Did you watch the parade? I missed it. Um, I’d try you at her number, but I don’t have it on my phone. I miss and love you both, and I hope to see you soon.”
Pressing End with his thumb and flipping his phone shut, he thought about what he’d said. Had he sounded desperate? Overconfident? Indifferent? No, he didn’t think so.
When he returned to the living room, he found that Everett had taken his place next to Charlie; they were talking. Philip sat on the floor nearby, but not too close, not wanting to interrupt them.
“I was thinking around three,” Everett said.
“Shit.” Charlie rubbed his jaw. “That’s early.”
“Hey, you lazy cripple, you’re welcome to leave as late as you’d like since we’re not going together, but I—”
“Yeah, I know, I know. Okay. We’ll leave at three.”
Everett cocked his head in Philip’s direction. Quieter now, but still loud enough for Philip to hear, he said, “Is he coming?”
Embarrassed by their talking about him as if he weren’t there, Philip quickly looked away, pretending that he hadn’t been listening or paying attention.
“Hey, Phil,” Charlie said, “in the morning we’re heading out to our deer lease over in Collingsworth County.”
“Oh, yeah?” Philip felt stupid for not having expected something like this. How many times had he heard the guys at work (back when work involved something other than child care) start talking as early as September about going hunting at Thanksgiving?
“You a hunter, Phil?” Everett asked.
Before he could say anything, Philip saw that Everett already knew the answer. Not only was Philip not a hunter, he’d never even held a gun, much less shot one. His father hadn’t even let him play with toy rifles like all the rest of the boys, saying that they encouraged a numbing of the moral senses. “No, not really.”
Philip caught Charlie glance at his brother before turning his eyes back to him and saying, “Well, you don’t have to hunt, you know. You could just come along. Just as long as you don’t go hooting and hollering, scaring away the deer, of course. Or you could just stay here. Jennie wouldn’t mind, would she, Ev?”
“Hell, are you kidding? Someone new to chew an ear off of? She’d love it.”
Philip needed to say something quickly, to make a decision. He definitely didn’t want to stay all day in a house full of people he didn’t know, but the thought of making a fool of himself out in the country with Charlie and Everett sounded even worse. “But all I brought were clothes like this,” he said, plucking his fingers at his cream cashmere sweater (his favorite—a Christmas gift from Julie) and his chocolate-brown corduroy pants. “And these shoes.” He raised the loafer on his right foot into view. “I can’t imagine I’d get very far.”
Charlie looked at Everett. “He’s about Lloyd’s size, don’t you think?”
Though he turned his attention to the football game, Philip sensed Everett’s eyes scrutinizing him.
“Last time he hunted with us, sure,” he heard Everett say. “Lloyd’s bigger now, though.”
“Who’s Lloyd?” Philip asked, just to interrupt their conversation about him.
“My son,” Everett said. “He prefers to spend the holidays with his mother and her new pretty-boy husband.”
“Oh, hell,” Charlie said. “Don’t start getting all maudlin on us now. We’re talking about Phil here, not Lloyd. Besides, it’s not like you never see the boy, you big pussy.”
Everett pointed at Philip without looking at him. “He can use Lloyd’s gun, too, for all I care. Last time I talked to him he said he was thinking about turning vegetarian, so I doubt he’ll be hunting with us anymore, anyway.”
“Would you shut up already?” Charlie said. To Philip, he said, “It’s settled then, bud.”
“Great,” Philip said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “But what about your foot? Can you—”
Charlie shook him off. “I’ve already resigned myself to the fact that I’ll have to hunt from a blind. It’ll suck, but it’s better than nothing.”
That night, in Lloyd’s bed, with his cell phone balanced on his chest, Philip lay awake listening to the ticking silence of the sleeping house, wondering what he’d gotten himself into. For the rest of the evening, all that Charlie and Everett had talked about—rutting, rubs and scrapes, variable scopes, senderos—had sounded no less alien to him than Charlie’s pharmaceutical talk of DTC marketing, formularies, and Phase III clinical trials. He now wished that he’d stayed at Charlie’s apartment instead of coming along. Had he done that, he could have even gone home while Julie and Asher were in Tyler. It wouldn’t have been the same as being there with them, but it sure would have been better than this.
Drifting into unconsciousness, he imagined there being a terrible hunting accident the next day, one that would involve either Charlie or Everett mistaking him for a deer and putting a bullet through his head. Then at least Julie would feel awful for the rest of her life for having deprived Asher of a father.
“Get up and get dressed, lazybones,” Charlie said, nudging Philip awake. “We’re loaded up and fixing to head out.”
In the dark, Philip pulled on Lloyd’s clothes that Everett had laid out for him the night before—wool socks over liners, goose down long johns, flannel shirt, heavy wool pants and fleece jacket in camouflage print, olive rubber boots—and stumbled toward the kitchen. All of it hung slightly loose on him, especially at the shoulders and crotch, and with all the layers, he felt stuffed and thick, like a boy going as a fat man for Halloween. Everett and Charlie, looking thoroughly comfortable in their identical but better-fitting gear, were drinking coffee and eating donuts at the table.
“Well, look at you,” Charlie said. “You look ready to bag a monster buck.”
“Yeah?” Philip didn’t understand the reference, but he could tell it was meant as a compliment, which made him feel better.
Everett stood and zipped up his jacket. “I don’t want the sun coming up while I’m still driving. Besides, the sleet’s coming down harder now.”
“Sleet?” Philip said, after Everett left the room. “We can’t still go, can we?”
“Are you kidding? Bad weather’s the best. The deer come out thinking it’s safe. Believe me, they’re not stupid. They know when it’s hunting season. And they know when most hunters won’t bother.”
Through the peaceful streets of early-morning Amarillo, Charlie followed Everett’s truck, which was identical to Charlie’s, except silver. They were driving separately because Everett was continuing on to Oklahoma afterwards to do some more hunting on a friend’s land south of Hobart.
“Hunting’s a bigger deal with him than me,” Charlie said. “He never misses a season—dove, duck, pheasant, quail, turkey. I used to be more like that, but just getting out there in the quiet for a few days is enough for me now.”
“How long will we be gone?” Philip asked, realizing that he’d unthinkingly assumed that this was only going to be a one-day thing, there and back before the ten o’clock news.
“I thought we’d head back on Sunday.” Charlie looked over. “You don’t need to get back any earlier than that, do you?”
“What do I have to hurry back for, right?”
With no Bob Wills playing, it was quiet except for the silvery plinking of ice pellets on the windshield and the gusting of the heater. Charlie, sipping at his thermos of coffee, started talking about the lease. “It’s about two hours from here, right along Buck Creek on the Okie border. It’s beautiful out there. Lots of juniper and locust. Nice stands of cottonwood trees along the water where the deer like to bed down. And Mr. Kern, the owner, he’s the orneriest old fart you’ll ever meet.”
The wipers smeared the watery ice into clumps of slush, and Philip stared out at the tiny bit of the world illuminated by the truck’s headlights, watching the white seeds of sleet slicing across the blackness.
“What about a license?” Philip asked, still searching for something that would snuff any expectations of his involvement beyond merely tagging along. “Don’t I need one?”
“Not as long as you don’t shoot anything.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that.”
“If you do happen to, though, don’t sweat it. We’ll work it out.”
“I’ll be fine,” Philip said, while wanting to say, If there’s one thing in the world that I’ll never do, it’s shoot a deer.
“You ever shot anything before?”
Philip thought about lying, but feared that he’d get tripped up by a detail and found out, which would make him feel like even more of a fool. “No.”
“Not even grackles or blue jays? Or squirrels?”
“You have shot a gun before, though, right? At cans and bottles and shit like that, right?”
“Not even a little ol’ BB gun?”
“My father wouldn’t allow it.”
“Let me guess: he thinks hunting is barbaric.”
“You could say that, yeah.”
“What about you?” Charlie asked. “You think it’s barbaric, too?”
Though Philip had little use for most of what his father believed or valued, he had always agreed with him that hunting seemed to be little more than an opportunity for men to strut around like roosters in an effort to demonstrate their authority over a dumb animal, even if—or especially if—they didn’t possess much authority in other aspects of their lives. However, he also realized that his opinion probably had just as much to do with wishing that he could be one of those guys smiling at the camera with an arm slung over a bloody carcass but knowing it to be an impossibility. “No, I’ve just never been exposed to it much, I guess.”
“Well,” Charlie said, and then he went on to justify deer hunting as a necessary means of wildlife management, which Philip had heard his father ridicule a number of times as fatuous rationalization. The sleet was coming down harder, and even though all that Philip wanted to do was let the sleep that he felt tugging at him take him, Charlie kept talking: “It’s especially important now that so much of their habitat is gone—urbanized—because not only are more of them wandering starving into towns and cities to get hit by cars, there are hardly any natural predators left to thin them out. Except us.”
Eventually, however, Charlie’s defense ran its course, and a dark silence returned to the cab. Philip’s eyelids slid slowly, heavily shut. When Charlie spoke again, his voice was that of someone who had been thinking awhile. “You’re an odd bird, you know that?”
Philip, waking up, briefly didn’t know where he was or who was talking to him. But then, once the alien became familiar again, he said, “What do you mean?”
“You’re just different.”
“Yeah? How so?” Though immediately feeling defensive, Philip hoped he didn’t sound so.
“I was just wondering what other things you haven’t done that I’ve always sort of assumed most guys our age have done, that’s all. I don’t mean that in a rude way, I’m just curious.”
“So you’re just curious.” This time Philip knew that his voice was betraying him, but there was nothing he could do about it.
“Yeah. You know, like, have you ever been in a fight?”
All his life Philip had lived in fear of getting beaten up, and somehow, miraculously, it had never happened. “No.”
“Really?” He sounded amazed, as if Philip had just confessed to having inherited a millionaire’s fortune. “I started my share, of course, but there’ve been plenty that I didn’t start and wished I could’ve avoided, let me tell you. How’d you manage that, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Philip said, thinking of all the times that he’d debased himself in order to avoid a physical confrontation. “Lucky, I guess.”
“You ever done any drugs?”
“No.” He’d always been too worried about what they might do to him, or what they might make him do.
“Not even one, itty-bitty toke of weed at a party?”
“Wow. I can’t even imagine.” He raised a pretend joint to his mouth, sucked in a lungful of air, held his breath with his cheeks puffed out, and then blew a leisurely stream of invisible smoke through his lips. “Ever cheated on Julie?”
“No. And I never would, either.” Saying this, he felt his chest constrict in that painful that made him think it was the actual muscles of his heart reacting, though he knew this wasn’t the case. “Did you ever cheat on Tessa?”
“A few times, yeah. Just quickies that didn’t mean anything. Drunk fucks at conferences, mostly. God knows I had plenty of opportunities to do it more than I did.”
Philip pictured Charlie in a bathroom stall, sweaty and disheveled, thrusting and grunting against a statuesque blonde bent over the toilet, her skirt flipped up onto her back.
“It’s funny, you know,” Charlie said, adjusting his rearview mirror, “how different we grew up and all. I can’t imagine you’d’ve gained much by being more like me, but I probably would’ve had an easier time if I’d been a little more like you.”
Surprised to hear such a remark, Philip strained to think of something to say, but nothing came to him. Nothing at all.
By the time they reached Mr. Kern’s place, the sleet had softened into snow. Everett stopped at a gate blocking a gravel road that continued past a dark house. Charlie pulled in behind him. Both honked.
“Isn’t he asleep?” Philip asked. It was a quarter after five and no less dark than it would have been at midnight.
“He knew to expect us.”
A minute later, an old man in a bathrobe and boots shuffled out to unlock the chain and walk the gate open wide enough to let them drive through. He stopped at Everett’s window for a few seconds, then made his way back to Charlie’s after Everett inched his truck forward around a line of black brush.
Charlie lowered his window, and a tail of snow curled into the cab to fall across the dashboard. “Morning, Mr. Kern.”
“Good to see you, son. It’s been too long.” He patted Charlie’s shoulder. “You got the place to yourself for the weekend, it looks like. A few boys left last night, and a few more called to say they ain’t coming. Scared off by the weather, I suppose.”
“Pussies,” Charlie said. “How’d the ones who left do?”
“No luck. That’s why they left.” He shrugged. “Don’t know whose fault it was, theirs or the deer.”
“Let’s hope it was theirs.”
“First-timers out here, so it probably was.”
Charlie nodded. “That fourteen-pointer still giving you fits?”
“I saw him not two weeks ago. Of course I had nothing on me but my hat.”
Mr. Kern brushed flakes of snow from his bushy, silver eyebrows. “By the way, after you told me on the phone about your foot, I fixed up the blind by that one Moultrie feeder for you.”
“I hope you didn’t go to too much trouble. I do appreciate it, though.”
“Hell, it was nothing. It needed doing anyway. You remember how to find your way out to it?”
“You know my father didn’t raise no dummies.”
“No, I guess he didn’t, did he?” He raised a hand and cupped it like a cap’s brim to shield his face from the snow, which was coming down harder now. “Well, good luck to you.”
Charlie gestured toward Philip. “Hey, I hope you don’t mind, but I brought along a friend of mine.”
“Makes no difference to me. Just as long as y’all don’t try sneaking out with more than two bucks, because you know I won’t be afraid to charge you extra, no matter how many years I knew your daddy.” He extended his arm past Charlie and shook Philip’s hand. “Welcome to the homestead. I hope you enjoy freezing your ass off with this damn fool here.”
“Thank you, sir,” Philip said, but he doubted Mr. Kern heard him because he’d already turned away and was heading back through the snow toward his door.
The camp house, which was a ten-minute drive from the gate, was nothing more than a dilapidated trailer with a sign slung over its door that read Old Hunters Never Die, They Just Stay Loaded. Inside, there wasn’t much more than a few cots, a hot plate, a couch hemorrhaging stuffing, a couple of space heaters, a rusted refrigerator, and a bare light bulb hanging forlornly from the center of the ceiling.
After spending ten minutes applying camouflage paint to his face, Everett slung his pack over one shoulder and his rifle bag over the other. “I’ll see you girls at sundown.”
“Drive some trophies our direction,” Charlie said.
“I will as long as you promise not to give me a gut shot.”
“Wear your orange vest, you idiot, and I won’t.”
“I don’t care what they say, deer can see those goddamn things.”
Philip wished him luck, but Everett left without responding. “Your brother doesn’t like me much, does he?”
“Oh, he likes you fine,” Charlie said, gathering gear. “He just doesn’t have much use for anyone he hasn’t known his whole life, that’s all.”
Philip pulled on Lloyd’s gloves and woolly ear-flap hat once Charlie was ready, and they stepped outside. After watching Charlie struggling a bit with the gear weighing him down, Philip offered to carry something.
“Appreciate it,” Charlie said, handing him a bag. “It’s hard enough walking with this goddamn cast under the best of circumstances.”
Only once Philip had slipped the strap over his shoulder did he realize that he was carrying the rifle bag. He wondered how many it held, one or two.
During the brief time that they’d spent in the trailer, the snow had thickened from a dusting to an unbroken draping. And though it was still fairly dark, a dim, white glow seemed to come from the snow itself, lighting their way just enough. After a few steps Charlie flicked off the flashlight, and then, as if Philip had just announced his decision to try his hand at bringing down a deer after all, Charlie quietly started talking: “If he’s broadside to you, hit him right behind the shoulder, and if he’s coming at you, hit him in the center of the chest. If you do that, you’ll hit the lungs and get the quick bleed-out you want. If you strike low, you’ll hit the heart, which isn’t as good, but still fine, and if you strike high, you’ll hit the spine, which’ll paralyze him. If you strike behind the lungs, you’ll hit the liver, which’ll give you a bleed-out almost as good as the lungs.”
“Okay,” Philip said, not knowing what else to say. Regardless, he knew now how many rifles were probably riding on his back.
After a few minutes of silent walking, Charlie pulled up. “From here on out,” he whispered, “we don’t talk unless we have to, okay? The snow’ll mute us quite a bit, but still try to watch where you step. It diffuses our scent, too, the snow does, which is good because we smell about as strong to them as a skunk does to us.” His bad foot, which he’d taped over with several trash bags to keep dry and then tied off with a flannel shirt, slipped in the snow, nearly causing him to fall. “And no stupid shit like that, if you can help it. They bolt at the flutter of a leaf. But that’s what makes it fun.”
Philip nodded, bewildered by what he realized was his mounting anticipation. A smile curled at his mouth at the thought of Julie seeing him creeping through the snowy, blowing darkness with a rifle riding across his back, but he smothered it, knowing that he needed to stay all business. With delicate care, he placed his feet in the impressions left by the boot on Charlie’s right foot and the wrapped cast on his left. Already he could tell that he’d have blisters at the end of the day, but he didn’t care; in a way, they’d be badges, evidence of his good sportsmanship that even Everett wouldn’t be able to deny.
The trees and brush thickened as the ground rose and dipped slightly beneath them. The chilly air felt clean against Philip’s face, and sucking it in, he sensed each breath scouring impurities from the sacs of his lungs. He imagined himself as a fur trapper in a time before automobiles and electricity, alone in the wilderness with no one around for miles. He gave himself the pale blue eyes of a killer and a bushy beard unlike any that he could ever grow, no matter how long he might go without shaving.
When Charlie finally stopped, it took Philip a few seconds to see the blind, which was nothing more than a box made of boards hammered together. About the size of a tool shed, it was painted in camouflage colors and draped with tree limbs and swatches of dead grass. Stooping inside behind Charlie, Philip took a seat on a bench just long enough for the both of them and looked through the eye-level rectangle raggedly cut out of the wall in front of them. Beyond the gulley or dry creek bed or whatever it was that they were perched above, there was nothing to take note of but snow, trees, brush, and the gray sky lightening above.
After unpacking the bags and getting the cramped space organized, Charlie placed Lloyd’s rifle in Philip’s hand and whispered, “Just aim and fire. Don’t worry about me. If you see something, I’d rather you tag it, okay?”
With his heart hiccoughing, Philip rested the rifle’s barrel on the bottom lip of the rectangle and peered through its scope. The tips of a far-off branch leapt into crystalline focus so quickly that it startled him. Sliding his finger back and forth over the trigger guard, he found himself suddenly thrilled at the weight and power of what he held in his hands.
“Use these to glass the area,” Charlie whispered, pushing a pair of binoculars toward him with one hand and pointing toward the far end of the gulley with the other. “Most likely they’ll cross down there where the feeder is. It drops corn once early in the morning, probably pretty soon, and again late afternoon.”
Philip took the binoculars with his free hand and looped the strap over his head.
Charlie gave him the okay sign with a camouflaged glove. “Your safety’s off, so be careful,” he whispered. “Now we just watch and wait.”
Philip wanted to say, You know I’m not going to do anything, right? But when Charlie reached over and patted him on the back with a muffled thump, he kept quiet, basking both in the glow of his friend’s good spirits and the thought that, just maybe, he could do this, after all.
As the last of what little light the day had made available retreated, Charlie said, “Well, so much for that.”
Disappointed that the day was over and that nothing had happened, but also relieved that he hadn’t screwed anything up or embarrassed himself, Philip tried to massage the feeling back into his numb rear as his icy feet followed Charlie’s limping figure back to the trailer. For the first hour or two, he’d eagerly expected to see a deer at any moment, but nothing had moved except for a few crows, looking like dots of ink flung across the snow. For an entire day the world around him had remained incredibly still and silent, almost unnervingly so. For much of the time the only sounds had been the pulse of blood in his ears and his own breathing. Soothed by his own body’s rhythms, he’d gradually relaxed, then grown drowsy. By early afternoon, despite the painful numbness of his feet, it had taken all of his might and focus to keep from falling asleep. Not until he glanced over at Charlie and caught him dozing did he then allow himself to succumb, hoping only that he wouldn’t drop from the bench in a dead heap.
“I never heard a shot,” Charlie said as they neared the trailer, “so I guess Ev didn’t have any better luck than us. Hell, I even fell asleep there for a bit. In all the years I’ve been hunting, that’s never once happened to me before.” He shook his head and laughed. “It’s a good thing my daddy wasn’t around to see it, that’s for sure. He would’ve woken me up with a rifle butt upside the head.”
Inside, they found Everett stretched out on the couch with a bottle of whiskey within arm’s reach. His paint-smeared face flickered orange in the light of the nearby space heater. A welcome curtain of heat fluttered against Philip’s raw cheeks.
“Nothing,” Everett said, lifting the bottle to his mouth. “No fresh rubs, no tracks, no spoor. Not a goddamn thing.”
“Damn.” Charlie sat down and started undoing his tied and taped foot.
“If you ask me,” Everett said, sitting up with a groan, “I think they stayed away because they could smell the city on Phil.”
Philip didn’t know whether this was a joke or not, so when Everett snorted and Charlie laughed, he felt as if he’d somehow passed a test without realizing it.
For dinner they ate tortilla chips and cans of Wolf Brand chili heated on the hot plate and passed the bottle of whiskey around. The first time it came to Philip he almost passed it on to Charlie, but not wanting to jeopardize the camaraderie by rejecting the offer, he took a swig—the smallest he could manage without looking as if he were merely wetting his lips—after fighting the powerful impulse to wipe the bottle’s mouth with his sleeve. Though it left an awful aftertaste and scorched his chest worse than the chili, he couldn’t dispute the whiskey’s effect: after the bottle had made it around to him a few times, he most certainly felt better. Loose. Almost happy. And even though he didn’t talk as much as he listened—mainly to Charlie and Everett’s stories of their visits to Mr. Kern’s over the years, many with their father—he felt included, which was a wonderful sensation.
“Okay, enough of this shit,” Everett said, taking the bottle from Charlie. “It’s time for the question of the night. Now that you’re single again, how much play are you getting?”
With the hint of a smirk on his face, Charlie shrugged. “Let’s just say that when I make my office visits now, the nurses tend to notice that the ring is gone.”
“I knew it,” Everett said, smiling. “You dog.”
Philip imagined trading his life—his life before this last week—for Charlie’s. He wouldn’t want to have lost a son as Charlie had, and he wouldn’t want to be divorced, but he wondered what it would be like to walk into a doctor’s office looking suave and sophisticated in one of Charlie’s expensive suits, leaning in through the receptionist’s window and being met with smiles from the attractive staff. And then . . . what? A few witty remarks, a phone number scribbled on the back of a business card, and then a romantic dinner followed by a hotel rendezvous? Or was it just a quick tryst in a concrete stairwell that smelled of cigarette butts? Having never flirted with anyone since falling in love with Julie, he couldn’t envision how this sort of thing happened any more than he could envision ever growing a moustache like Everett’s. But it was certainly exciting to think about.
“Hey,” Charlie said, taking the bottle back, it’s not like the ring stopped most of them before, you know. But now they’re all just a little quicker with the smiles, you know what I’m saying?”
Everett belched. “I bet those nurses know their way around a cock too, am I right?”
“Right you are, brother. And let me tell you, they can do things to your prostate that you wouldn’t even believe.”
Hoping that Everett wouldn’t prod Charlie to elaborate, Philip tried to think of something to say that might move the conversation in a direction that would make him less uncomfortable, but he wasn’t quick enough. Everett prodded, and while Philip wondered how it was that he was so different from other men, Charlie’s provided a detailed account of what one nurse had been able to do to him with just a single finger.
At ten, Everett announced that it was time to get some shut-eye.
“Yep,” Charlie said, dragging a cot closer to a space heater. “We’ve got an early wake-up in the morning.”
Philip watched the brothers get ready for bed—stripping down to their long johns, taking turns in the curtained-off bathroom, sliding into their sleeping bags unrolled on Mr. Kern’s army cots. He wasn’t ready to sleep yet. Rather than making him more sleepy after the tiring day, the whiskey had energized him. “I think I’m going to step outside and make a call.”
Charlie looked up at him from his pillow, which was a couple of balled-up shirts. “Two things: turn the light out and take the bottle with you. And, hey. Good luck. Give her what for.”
Outside, the snow had stopped and the clouds were gone, leaving a much blacker and starrier sky than Philip was used to seeing in the light-polluted nights of the Metroplex. He recognized constellations that he couldn’t remember having seen or thought of in years—Orion, the Big and Little Dippers, Cassiopeia. Walking away from the trailer, he followed his sharp-edged shadow as it moved across the whiteness, which glinted with crystals in the moonlight. Thinking of the word fortify, he took a big drink before he flipped open his phone, which, cupped in the pocket of Lloyd’s big pants, had remained lifeless against his thigh the entire day. The signal was weak but sufficient.
Unlike the last time, this time when he dialed her number her voice mail didn’t immediately pick up, which meant that her phone was on. Which meant that she might answer. And she did.
He couldn’t decipher anything from her voice; it was as flat and blank as her face had been the morning he’d left. “Did you get my message yesterday?”
“I did.” He waited for her to say more, but she didn’t, so he asked her how Thanksgiving had been at Cynthia’s.
“Asher ate too much pumpkin pie and threw up all over Brent’s shoes.”
“Oh, man, are you kidding?” Certain that she wouldn’t have mentioned something like this if she were determined to stay mad at him, he fought to control the excitement in his voice. “What a mess.”
Julie didn’t immediately respond. When she did, though, he felt as if she’d punched him in the stomach. “I thought we agreed that we weren’t going to talk until I got back to Richardson.”
“I didn’t agree to that,” Philip said, feeling a swift anger that he knew was stoked considera-bly by the whiskey. “Just because you said that doesn’t mean that I agreed to it.”
“Well, well,” Julie said, her voice tinged with a bitter laugh. “Listen to you. I didn’t realize you had much of a say in any of this.”
He thought about telling her where he was, what he was doing, but he decided against it, at least for now. He liked that she still pictured him sitting in Charlie’s apartment, only a few miles from home, stewing and crying. How stunned she’d be to know the truth! “You know what Charlie said?”
Philip felt the heaviness in the pause, though only a second passed before Julie responded. “Tell me, what did Charlie say?”
At this point, having noted the prickly tone of her question, he knew that he should just say Nevermind and save himself, but he didn’t; he went on, feeling suddenly that it didn’t much matter what he said, anyway. “He said that you’re overreacting.”
“Did he? But you know what, Philip? You’re not married to Charlie, you’re married to me, so what he thinks is irrelevant.”
“It’s not like I put a cigarette out on Asher’s arm or poured boiling water on him, you know.” He looked back at the trailer; the windows were black.
“No, you didn’t. You only slapped him across the room, split his lip, gave him a nasty knot on the head, and chipped a tooth. Anyone not married to you would’ve reported you to CPS. You know that, don’t you?”
“Chipped a tooth? What are you talking about? I didn’t chip one of his teeth.”
“I didn’t notice it until the day after you left. His right eyetooth’s got a chip missing out of it, and I know it wasn’t like that before.”
Picturing his son’s beautiful smile, he felt the whiskey’s sparkle and courage fade. As soon as he’d heard Julie’s voice, the crunching snow, the moonlight and shadows, the heavy blackness of the sky had disappeared, but now it all returned sharp and clear: he was standing outside in the middle of the night and in the middle of nowhere, in a friend’s brother’s son’s clothes, drinking whiskey out of a bottle while his wife was . . . where? Still at her sister’s? Or was she back home in Richardson? In the living room in front of the television? In the warm, quilted safety of their bedroom? He didn’t even know.
“Hello?” she said. “You still there?”
“I’m still here,” he said, and he thought about how badly he now wished he were not.
“Asher said that you’ve hit him before, too.”
An iciness distinct from the cold outside seeped into his skin. “And you believe him?”
“He doesn’t lie, Philip. He can’t. He doesn’t know how yet.”
“He’s always going to tell you what he thinks you want to hear, Julie, you know that! If he said nothe first time you asked, when you asked him again—Are you sure, honey?—he said yes because he knows you wouldn’t have asked him again if he’d given the right answer the first time.” He took too big of a swig from the bottle and nearly retched.
“I can’t believe you just said that.”
Philip could hardly believe it either. He believed what he’d said, but saying it was another matter. It was bound to make things more difficult for him rather than less, but he didn’t care. At this very instant it felt good to say whatever came to mind with no consideration of the consequences. “Believe it. Are you denying that you did that?”
“He said that you hurt him and make him cry.”
“I do.” He looked down and saw that he was pacing, that he’d been pacing the whole time, stomping the snow down to a muddy strip of grass. “I torture him. I tie him up with extension cords and then clip battery cables to his nipples. If he misbehaves, I turn on the juice.”
He waited for her to tell him that he wasn’t being funny, not at all, but she didn’t say anything. Only after he pulled the phone from his ear and looked at it did he see that she’d disconnected the line in the middle of his joke. His bad, stupid joke.
As he’d expected it would, Philip’s head hurt when he woke, though he couldn’t tell Charlie, who seemed to feel perfectly rested and ready to go, as did Everett. He took slow, deep breaths as he dressed, hoping that he wouldn’t have to run outside to vomit whatever was left of last night’s chili into the snow, and just as he’d done every one of the few times that he’d had too much alcohol, he swore to himself that he’d never swallow another disgusting drop. He was thankful for the water faucet, which he drank from until his stomach sloshed. Gradually, the oversized pulse thumping at his temple shrunk enough to be bearable.
Just as he had the day before, Everett left first, his face deadly serious beneath its freshly applied war paint. On his way out the door, he said, “If I don’t see something today, I’m going up to that house and shoot Mr. Kern.”
Charlie was sitting on his cot with his back to Philip, wrapping and taping his foot. “I don’t know about you, but I’m moving a little slow this morning.”
“Definitely,” Philip said, hoping not to sound too enthusiastic in his agreement.
“And not that I’m not up for another day of this, but I’ll be honest. This is the first time that I’ve come up here since Travis died. I thought it would be good to get back to normal, but yesterday, even though the whole time I was telling myself that I need to just get over this already, all I kept thinking about while I was waiting to see something was how I won’t get the chance to pass all of this down to a son, you know? I won’t get to blood him after his first kill like my daddy did me.” He went back to work on his cast, so Philip assumed that he was through talking, but then he continued: “Man, I’ll never forget that. I’ve been a God-fearing Baptist all my life, but I swear to God, that was the most religious experience I’ve ever had. It was only a six-pointer, but I felt like I’d brought one down for the ages. Since I was only eleven, I wasn’t nearly old enough to give it a decent field dressing, of course, so my daddy took care of that. After making the first cut, he dipped his fingers in and said to me, ‘Charlie, you’re a man now,’ then smeared the warm blood across both my cheeks. I knew it was coming, of course—I’d been waiting for it my whole short life, after all—but it was still . . . it was all I could do not to cry.”
Though both disgusted and envious, Philip only said, “I’m sure that was a very special moment for you.”
“And even if Lloyd never hunts again, at least Ev got to have that moment with his son, and that can’t ever be taken away from him. From either of them. But I’ve got nobody.” With a sheepish look on his face, he glanced over his shoulder at Philip. “Sorry to get so sappy on you like that. This place just brings it out in me, I guess.”
“Hey, please, no,” Philip stammered, embarrassed by Charlie’s discomfort. “I understand. Really. I do.”
Unlike the morning before, by the time they finally left the camp house the sun had already begun to pinken the sky.
Glancing over at Charlie as they stepped through the snow together, Philip saw by the look on his face that he was still thinking about Travis and all that would never happen. “So, you stud, how many nurses have you been with, anyway?”
“Oh,” Charlie said, the fog clearing from his eyes and a delicate smile curling his lips, “probably not as many as Ev would like to think. Just a few, really.”
“What, like a dozen?”
Charlie laughed. “Half that. Maybe. And I know what you and Ev are fantasizing about, and it’s nothing like that. We’re not talking teenaged candy-stripers in white stockings. We’re talking lonely, middle-aged divorcees. There’s nothing sexy about it, really. It’s probably more sad than anything.”
Seeing how the smile had faded from Charlie’s face, Philip said, “Come on, now. Stop pretending to be humble.”
The smile returned. “You’re right. Lonely, desperate middle-aged pussy is still pussy. It beats jacking off to porn.” He cleared his throat and spit into the snow, the smile now gone again. “Anyway, we should stop talking now, otherwise we’re not going to do any better than we did yesterday.”
By the time they reached the blind, the sun’s light had already made its way down into the gully. On the ground, the snow was thinning, and in the trees it dripped from where it had settled on the branches the day before. Occasionally Philip would see a flicker of movement in the distance, but it was never anything more than a branch briefly jostled by either a bird or the wind. Regardless, unlike the day before when he’d felt slightly menacing—a silent figure in camouflage watching the terrain with his deadly gun at the ready—he now only felt bored, and hungover. Soon it would be time to go, though, and they’d be driving back to the Metroplex, with Charlie having no reason to think any less of him.
And if anyone asked what he’d done for Thanksgiving, he could justifiably say, “Oh, I went deer hunting with my good friend Charlie up in the Panhandle.”
He thought it had only been the white flash of a mockingbird’s wing that he’d seen, but when he peered through the binoculars to check, he made out what looked to be the brown, gray, and white of a deer’s hide amidst the brown, gray, and white of the snow and foliage. He assumed that his tired eyes must be creating things for him to see in the late afternoon’s fading light, but then he saw the unmistakable flicker of a surprisingly fluffy white tail.
Did Charlie see it, too? He was afraid to check. If he were to move his binoculars away from his eyes to glance over, he might startle the deer, and then, boy, would Charlie be angry. So he watched, feeling his body tensing in expectation, waiting to hear an explosion at his left shoulder, to see a red flower erupt in the distance.
But nothing happened. So he continued to watch and wait, assuming that Charlie was doing the same, hoping for the deer to shift in some way to give him a better shot.
But still nothing happened. Though he hated to move, Philip knew now that he had to. Too much time had passed. Did Charlie not see it? Carefully, slowly, he moved the binoculars away from his eyes just far enough to turn his head.
Charlie was asleep, slumped against the far wall.
Philip returned his eyes to his binoculars. The deer was still there, eating contentedly at the feeder, entirely unfazed and unaware.
It was his shot to take.
Until now, he realized that he’d never really considered the possibility of taking a shot—not really. Like a boy playing Cowboys and Indians, he had enjoyed pretending to be someone brave and strong, but Lloyd’s rifle had never been anything more than a prop that he’d aimed to stay in Charlie’s good graces, he knew that. Besides, with Charlie at his side, he’d assumed that, even if he’d wanted to take a shot, he wouldn’t have gotten the chance.
But now he had the chance.
He could do nothing, just wait for the deer to wander off, as he assumed it would do eventually. But what if Charlie woke up, saw it, and wondered what the hell Philip was doing just sitting there? He could also make some sort of noise that would scare it off, but doing that would certainly wake up Charlie, who, regardless of whether he saw the deer or not, would then get pissed off at how careless and disruptive Philip was being.
Very very slowly, he lowered the binoculars to his chest, raised the rifle to his shoulder, and bent his head down until his eye was at the scope. Now he had to find the deer all over again. Bare branches flickered by in thick close-up. There it . . . no . . . there it was. He could see the bristly hide, the slight movement of its side as it breathed. He dragged the crosshairs along its body, trying to remember what Charlie had told him about where to aim.
This was it. He moved his finger to the trigger. All he had to do was squeeze. But did he want to? Never in his life had he imagined shooting an animal. It seemed so cruel and heartless. But he knew how hypocritical it was of him to think like this—how cowardly it was, really—to be revolted by the notion of killing an animal when he never suffered any pangs of conscience upon sitting down in the evening to a dinner of beef, chicken, or pork. Just because he didn’t participate in the slaughter, did that make him a better person than someone like Charlie?
If he made the shot, if he brought the deer down, as they said, he knew how proud Charlie would be of him. Everett would be impressed, too. The three of them, they’d celebrate at the trailer, maybe even until dawn.
He traced the scope along the deer’s body, watching it continue to eat. You’re a hungry fellow, he thought.
Just one quick shot. Just the gentle movement of one finger.
An hour later, they were making their way back to the trailer, hauling all of their gear and trash. More clouds had pushed in, and the air felt damp with impending snow.
“I can’t believe I fell asleep like that again,” Charlie said. “Two days in a row. Unbelievable.”
“Maybe those pain pills are knocking you out.”
“Maybe. Still, though, it’s pitiful. You should’ve woken me up.”
“You weren’t out for that long. Maybe ten minutes.”
“You know what I really can’t believe, though? That we didn’t see a single, goddamn deer in two whole days. In all my years, I can’t remember ever feeling so alone out there.”
Philip was only half-listening; he was thinking about what he’d done—what he’d not done—and how it wouldn’t mean anything unless he confessed to it. Just as he had convinced himself to be a man, to take the shot, to earn Charlie’s respect, an odd sense of calm had come over him. Why did he care so much about what Charlie thought? Julie had been right; what Charlie thought—about anything—was irrelevant. Who was Charlie to him, anyway? A good friend? Not really. It was pathetic how much he worried about what Charlie would think if he said this or that, did this or that. Asher and Julie were who he needed to be thinking about, not Charlie, who had almost had him believing that what he’d done to Asher had been okay. And no matter how nice it was to think of that as the truth, it hadn’t been okay.
“I saw one while you were sleeping,” Philip said.
Charlie looked over at him, smiling. “Don’t fuck with me, boy.”
“No, I did.” Seeing Charlie react just as he’d expected, Philip felt his determination strengthen. “It was eating at the feeder. I had it in my scope.”
“Right,” Charlie said, still smiling, but less so now. “Not funny.”
“I’m not joking.” He couldn’t believe how calm he was, how assured he felt. “I had my finger on the trigger, but I didn’t pull it. I decided not to.”
Charlie stopped, and as he did so, he grabbed the sleeve of Philip’s jacket and pulled him to a stop, too. “I’m not in the mood, all right? I know none of this means anything to you, but it does to me.”
Philip knew that he could still say that it was just a joke, but it wasn’t about taking the easy way out at this point. “I had the crosshairs all lined up, just like you said.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Charlie’s voice was quieter now, but his eyes were no less angry. “After me telling you about Travis?” He waved his arms at the world around them. “Why are you telling me this?”
At the sight of Charlie’s anguish, Philip felt his resolve wavering. “Why does it matter, Charlie? It’s not like I snatched something away from you. You were asleep. You couldn’t have done anything.”
“You could’ve fucking woken me up!” he shouted. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“If I’d woken you up, I would’ve scared the deer away,” Philip said, struggling not to blurt out an apology. “The movement, you know. The noise.”
“Not if he was at the feeder. All you had to do was nudge me in the ribs. Goddamn. And if he was eating—” He shook his head in disbelief. “How many points was it? Eight? Ten? Fourteen?”
“It was hard to tell,” Philip said, having no idea what Charlie was talking about.
“Hard to tell, huh?” Charlie moved closer. “Is that because you didn’t get a good look at his rack, or is that because you don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about?”
Philip felt himself growing angry, though still fighting the urge to take a step backwards. “You know what, Charlie? You’re right. I don’t know. I have no idea. And I don’t care.”
“It’s the number of tines on the antlers, you fucking idiot. You goddamned fool.”
Philip knew that there was more to Charlie’s anger than just what was going on between them—it was about Travis, and Tessa, too, and being back in Amarillo without them—but he didn’t care. “Don’t call me that.”
“Tell me this, Phil. Did it even have antlers? You do know what antlers are, right? They’re those bony things that grow out of their heads? They look kind of like tree branches?”
Philip realized now that it hadn’t had antlers; in his excitement at seeing a deer, he hadn’t even noticed the most basic thing. “Of course it had antlers.”
“You sure about that?”
“I think you’re a fucking liar. I bet it was a doe. I bet all you saw was a stupid, goddamn doe.” He spit violently into the snow. “You better hope that’s all it was, because if I’d woken up and seen you twiddling your thumbs with a broad-beamed buck standing there begging to be taken down, I would’ve shot him first and then you.”
Charlie marched off, and because there was nowhere else for him to go, Philip followed, though he made no effort to cut the distance that grew between them.
Later, Charlie said he’d rather head back at night instead of waiting for the morning.
“I just want to get the fuck out of here,” he said.
Since Everett had offered to take all of Charlie’s gear along with him to Oklahoma, there was no need to return to Amarillo, so they headed south on 83 toward 287 and Dallas.
The drive was a quiet one. What had been said earlier filled the cab like the headlight beams of the northbound eighteen-wheelers. Philip stared out into the blackness, his eyes drawn to the few lonely house lights that drifted by in the distance. Though he certainly didn’t want to talk, he was still discomfited by the lack of conversation, so he was thankful for the diversion created by Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan, who sang about the alley across from the Alamo, a ding dong daddy from Dumas, and a big ball in Cowtown.
They rolled quietly through towns already asleep for the night, their few traffic lights swinging in the wind, blinking yellow. But mostly there were the dead, empty spaces in between.
When they got back to Charlie’s apartment, it was three in the morning. A stray dog ran across the quiet parking lot to greet them as they climbed out of the cab.
“Hey there, buddy.” Charlie said, rubbing its head.
Philip took his bag from the bed of the truck, hating how he felt as if he were nothing more than a nameless hitchhiker picked up along the way, but he couldn’t allow himself to buckle, to patch things over simply to make life easier and more pleasant. He reminded himself that Charlie had called him a goddamned fool, and that was unforgivable. He could still hear those two words in his head, could feel the venom behind them.
“You leave anything inside that you need to get?” Charlie asked.
“No, it’s all in here.” If anyone should apologize it was Charlie, not him.
“All right, then.”
Philip watched Charlie continue to pet the dog, heard him ask it where it belonged, and then he walked to his car, not even letting himself say See you later. Whatever friendship they’d had was now officially and completely over. This would be the last time they ever saw each other. It was sad—he would miss the feeling of knowing that a guy like Charlie thought of him as a friend—but he also felt at peace, as if he were already moving into the future. He only hoped that he could keep this feeling alive and make it work for him once he got home, this feeling that he’d finally slain the quivering worm in his gut that controlled too many of his thoughts and actions. Because he was convinced that having not shot that deer meant something. That having sacrificed his relationship with Charlie, his only real friend, meant something.
Philip parked in front of the house. He’d already been around back to peer through the windows of the garage door; Julie and Asher were home from Tyler. He had decided that just as soon as he saw the light go on in Asher’s room that he would walk in. That would be at around seven, most likely. The security alarm would go off when he pushed the door open, which would scare them, but he wasn’t going to knock, not at his own house. He was going to let himself in with his own key. He’d just tell Julie that they both needed to accept the fact that he wasn’t cut out for being a stay-at-home father anymore, that it was probably time for him to get back into the real world, even if that meant no more than going back to his lousy old job.
It was almost a quarter to four now. Unless Asher woke Julie up before his usual time, Philip had at least three hours to wait. He reclined his seat and stared out at the stillness—a sheriff on a stakeout, scanning the dark lawns and windows for movement, for danger, but there was nothing. Everything was in its place, just as it should be, and everyone in every house was asleep—mothers and fathers and children—all buried warmly beneath their blankets and comforters, dreaming of a Thanksgiving now past and a happy Christmas approaching. Soon, the decorations would come out: colored lights on the eaves, plastic snowmen on the grass, fake snow in the corners of windows . . . .
It was a noise, not the morning sun, that woke him. He jumped in his seat, knocking his knees against the steering wheel. Disoriented, he fumbled and jerked, searching with jittery hands for his phone. At the same time that he found it and answered it, he looked up at the house and saw Julie staring out at him through the storm door. She was on the phone.
“Philip,” said her voice in his ear.
He got out of the car and began walking toward the house. “I’m ready to come home and make this right.”
“How long have you been out there?” She was wearing the yellow furry robe that Asher had given her for Mother’s Day.
Philip looked at his watch. It was nine. “Five hours.”
“What the hell’s going on?” She said this on the phone even though by now he was on the porch. “Are you stalking us now?”
“Turn your phone off, Jules.” He turned his off, and he tried to open the storm door, but it was locked. “Please let me in.”
Through the glass she said, “I’m not unlocking the door. I don’t like the way you’re acting.”
“You know I’ll never do anything like that again.”
She was only inches away from him. They stared at each other through the glass.
“But this isn’t only about you,” she said. “I’m a part of this, too, and so is Asher, and there are things that I need to think about on my own. And you’re not letting me do that.”
Philip needed to say something that he hadn’t said before, that would make a difference. “You know how you told me that what Charlie thinks about all of this is irrelevant? Well, we’re not friends anymore.”
“I’m shutting the door, Philip.”
“We went hunting in the Panhandle.”
“I’m shutting the door.”
“I could’ve shot a deer, but I didn’t. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to. And that pissed him off. But I didn’t care.”
Julie shut the door.
Philip walked back to his car, trembling. In the time that it took to swing an arm across a child-sized table, everything had disintegrated. And even as sick as it made him, he understood that his hitting Asher had probably had less to do with getting hot soup spit in his face than with never having had the guts to strike out against anyone any larger. And he’d known this all along, he realized, but only now did he really see it, the unpleasant, yellow-bellied truth. Asher had been the first in his life who couldn’t hurt him back in some way, the only one who’d ever made himself available to receive his anger so submissively.
He looked back up at the house, hoping to see the door open again, but it stayed closed, locked securely behind the already locked storm door. Wishing so many things, he got back into the car, and though he didn’t quite understand why it continued to seem so important, he thought again of the deer—the sweet, oblivious deer—and how proud he’d been of himself for not shooting it and killing it. What had he been thinking, believing that this meant something? It hadn’t meant anything. The only thing that meant anything was that he’d hit Asher, the person he loved the most and deserved the least. Asher, who was probably already getting used to just Mommy in the house, even after only a few days. A terrible sadness filled him as he imagined Asher’s life without him, and his own life without Asher. The gray days just going by.
Staring blankly through his windshield at the early morning tranquility of Fannin Street, he saw the deer, in his scope, eating corn so contentedly. This time, though, he pulled the trigger, and the deer fell, dropping slowly to the snow like a penitent.
Tomorrow is Monday, he thought as he drove away. The holiday would be over, and Julie would have to return to work. And Asher? He would go to Annette’s again, right? Philip thought hard, trying to retrieve a picture of Annette’s place, which he’d been to only a couple of times, for parties. Her husband’s name was Byron. No, Brian. A professional photographer. Their house, it was on Goliad Avenue. At the end of the block. With a big cottonwood tree in the front yard. And a red-capped gnome standing sentinel at the door.
“Hi, Annette,” he said, several hours after having watched Julie walk Asher up to the door from his parking spot three houses down. “I’m here to pick up my son.”
Annette blinked, opened her mouth, shut it, and then said, “I don’t think Julie wants you to have him.”
Over the last twenty-four hours, Philip had thought all of this through. “I know she doesn’t, but there’s no legal way that she, or you, can keep him from me because I’m his father.”
“But you hit him.”
He stepped closer, preparing himself in case she tried to shut the door in has face. “Asher!” he shouted. “Daddy’s here!”
She tried to shut the door, but he stopped it. They stared at each for a few quiet seconds, and then Asher appeared, still in pajamas.
He peered around Annette’s legs. “Daddy!”
“Hey, buddy!” It was so, so good to see him. “I’m here to pick you up.”
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t know. Where do you want to go?”
“Umm, the park?”
“Okay, we’ll go to the park.”
“Asher,” Annette said, hooking her fingers inside his collar, “Mommy’s got a surprise for you.”
“Let him go, Annette. I mean it.”
“I’m calling Julie.”
“Go ahead. But right now you’re letting Asher go.”
For a few seconds, nothing happened. He watched her thinking. Then, gently, she let go of Asher’s collar, and he hopped out. Philip scooped him up and ran with him to the car.
“Where’s Mommy?” Asher asked as Philip hurriedly buckled him into his car seat.
“At work. Just like always.” He hopped out of the back seat, slid into the front seat, buckled up, turned the key, and adjusted the rear view mirror until Asher’s eyes appeared. “You ready?”
“Then let’s go.” He put the car into drive.
As he stomped on the gas and squealed away from the curb, Philip wondered what sort of legal ground he stood on and for how long, but this is what he’d done. He didn’t know where they would go, but they could go anywhere. Maybe Amarillo, since he knew the way now. With a full tank of gas, they could make it halfway there without stopping.