by Daniel Davis
Vicky started texting me again thirty minutes ago. I don’t think she knows what we’re doing; I think she’s just naturally in tune with my schedule, so that she instinctively knows when it’s inappropriate to snatch my attention. She doesn’t come right out and say she’s going to kill herself this time, but she’s heavily implying it.
I’ve got my phone on vibrate in one hand and a bottle of cheap wine in the other. Ron’s in the driver’s seat with a forty of King Cobra and a cigarette with something I don’t want to know what rolled up in it. Lance is in the seat behind me, wedged in the space reserved for a medium-sized child, with a piece of cardboard on his lap and something stuck up his nose. I don’t know why we have to get high for these sorts of things; maybe we aren’t really cut out for it after all. We’re just the right men in the wrong place. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Vicky thinks I’m sleeping with Amanda. I’m not. She thinks I want Amanda more than her. I do. I don’t feel guilty about this; I can’t help my urges. I feel what I feel. I spent twenty years watching my father restrain himself, watching him fight off his baser needs in an attempt to be an upright businessman and a doting parent. He ate the barrel of a shotgun one semester while I was away at State. It all just built up inside him until he felt like the back of his head was going to explode. Which it ended up doing. Since he was the cause of this, I’m not sure you can call that irony.
I sat Vicky down three days ago and explained that this wasn’t healthy. I’m twenty-nine, she’s twenty-six. Yes, we’re young, but we aren’t kids anymore. You can’t go around threatening to off yourself just for attention. She said it isn’t that. She said she’s actually going to do it some time. She’ll take a handful of sleeping pills, she said, and she’ll slit her wrists with a razor blade. Vertical cuts so the blood doesn’t clot. If she survives this, she’ll shoot herself after rehab. After counseling. She knows how to hold a grudge against herself; no therapist will talk her out of it. She’ll find a gun, not hard to do in our town, and put the barrel in her mouth angled upward, and pull the trigger.
She doesn’t want to do this first because of my father. She wants to hurt me as little as possible. She says.
“Try some,” Ron says, and tries to pass me the cigarette. I wave him away. Once, only once, I tried something harder than alcohol. I woke up in a jail cell, with a sheriff’s deputy standing over me, laughing. I’d fondled myself while I was unconscious. Got harder blacked out than I had in a long time sober. I said something about him watching me and he stormed out. I’m proud of that. I’m usually not good with comebacks.
Lance snorts from the backseat, a long wet one that makes me think he’s bleeding. I sip my wine. On these runs, I’ve tried all sorts of alcohol. Pot once, too, but I couldn’t take anything seriously, and I hate the smell. I started with beer, because that’s what I drink normally. Problem with that is, I just felt normal. You can’t feel normal while toting a gun, at least guys like us can’t. Normal guys, regular guys. So I switched to vodka, cheap stuff, but that just gave me the shakes. More expensive vodka hardly seemed to affect me. I tried Jack Daniels, and I passed out in the front seat, came to with Ron poking me in the arm telling me they’d done the deal without me. Didn’t make any money from that. I tried rum, too, but the rum around here tastes like sunscreen and is just as potent.
Wine gives me a solid, steady buzz. I’m good for a while. It’ll hit me later, and hard, and my head will swim and I’ll float about a foot off the ground, but for as long as I need it to, it works for me. I smile. Smiling is important for me on these runs. I look normal when I smile; I look like I can only be happy. People look like they could be anything when they frown. That’s why I worry about Lance. He has a natural frown, and whatever he puts up his nose in the backseat doesn’t change that. I guess I should be grateful he’s not using needles anymore, at least he says he isn’t. He wears long sleeves, but I’m not sure I could tell new track marks from old track marks. Mostly, I believe him. He’s erratic, but not in any unusual way.
My phone buzzes in my hand again. Vicky likes to abbreviate. She thinks it’s cute. I have to take a few seconds to decipher her messages, except I usually know what they’ll say. It’s like reading a word when the letters are all out of order. You can still make sense most of the time, but occasionally you have to pause and configure the whole thing. Vicky’s like that. I’ve known her since high school, but every now and then I think she’s someone I just met.
On our first date, this was after several years of being friends, I told her about my father, about my mother finding him. I knew, from the way her gaze darted away, that she’d been thinking of killing herself. Or that she had at some point in the past. Her face looked so guilty. I just changed the subject, because she looks cute when she’s happy and devastating when she’s anything else. She likes to wear pigtails. They make her look ten years younger at times. I don’t know how she can think she’s not beautiful. I’ve told her this, her friends have told her this, my friends have told her this. Part of her believes us, but it’s not the part that matters.
In the back, Lance says something about raining bitches. He’s never met Vicky. Ron has, because Ron’s basically an okay guy. Lance I don’t trust. Lance I think might make a move, then get angry when he’s rebuked. He’s hit women before. I was raised to believe this is one of the worst things you can ever do. Despite this, I kind of like Lance, because I’ve known him long enough. Funny how that happens. I can’t name one thing I like about him, but he’s been in my life so long that his presence is its own excuse. I think Lance would appreciate that logic, if I could ever articulate it to him.
I’m in this mess because Parker is my cousin. We grew up together, we were friends from kindergarten to the sixth grade, when he decided he was better than me. We started socializing again shortly after high school. I can’t say he’s my friend now, but he is family and he has kids to provide for. Three of them, from two different women, neither of whom are still with him. Parker sees his kids maybe once a month, but he pays alimony religiously. He’s got college funds for each of them, too.
Vicky knows I run around with some of my cousin’s friends a couple nights a week. She knows we drink. She might chastise me about it, but I don’t think she realizes the full extent. We’ve been together two years now, not nearly long enough to move in together. And she works late shifts at the nursing home, so we don’t spend as much time together as we did early on. I drink a lot. I know I do. I have to. I can go to the factory every morning and grind out a living, but the whole time I’m thinking about my other life. What I’ve started calling my Wine Life, because that makes it sound fancy, when the truth is about as blue collar as you can get. If denial was truly a river in Egypt, I’d get eaten by crocodiles halfway across it.
Knowing this helps me. I know it does. I just don’t know how.
“You gonna be okay?” Ron asks.
I don’t look at him, but I nod and put away my phone. I’m not sure what to say to Vicky when she gets like this. I know ignoring her is probably the worst thing I could do; in her mind, I’m only affirming her own sense of worthlessness. But what can I say that I haven’t said a dozen times already? It would help if she was drunk, but she isn’t. She’s a happy drunk. It doesn’t matter what she’s drinking or smoking. When she’s high, she’s happy. Sometimes, I think she was born to be a junkie. Some people are like that.
“Hey.” Ron reaches back and slaps Lance’s knee. “Put that shit away, man. Time to boogie.”
Lance takes one more snort. It hurts my sinuses. Then he shuffles around, kicking my seat several times. A little bit of wine spills on my leg. I stare at the spot, then take a swig. A quarter of the bottle left.
“Take it with you,” Ron says. “Just ditch it before we get there.”
We get out. This time of evening, near the edge of town, the smell of ragweed is like a dry slap across the face. Reminds me of my childhood when the carnival still came around. Paused at top the Ferris wheel and the odor still reaches you. You can look out across the countryside and breathe it in, too, all of it, the entire Midwest attacking your senses. Even as a boy I could appreciate it.
Ron has allergies, though. He hacks and spits phlegm onto the dirt. “Fucking Jerry,” he says. “Why’s he gotta live out here?”
“This is where the best trailers are,” Lance says, and he giggles quietly.
I’ve never lived in a trailer. I can say that and I do. My parents did, not together but separately, before they met. But back then, a trailer meant something else. Even in this town. Now, you can be rich and live in a trailer, and you’re still white trash. No way around it. You can wear Ralph Lauren and drive a Beamer, but if you pull into the court late at night, you’re just another yokel. I didn’t make it this way. Maybe it’s just us. We’re an enclosed community. There’s a college a few miles away but the students rarely wander over here. We’re a red state town in the heart of a blue state in the middle of a bunch of red states. Except from the sky everything’s the pale yellow of corn and wheat.
This is Palace Park. It’s been around since my parents’ day. I don’t think it was once what it is now, but nobody remembers the past very well. It’s our answer to an urban tenement. The main road running through it is mostly dirt and gravel. Paved once, years ago, but it started to crack away and the city’s idea of fixing it was to pour gravel on top and walk away clapping each other on the back. Sometimes I feel bad for the people living here. Then I remember that most of them chose it. Usually by their actions. If you were to go online and pull up a map of the registered sex offenders in our county, a disproportionate bunch of them would be grouped at the very northwest edge of Foxcrest, right where the lines indicating city streets fade to the disinteresting gray of farmland and deciduous groves.
One of them was named Jerry Holland, and he had a habit of owing my cousin money. Usually from ballgames. Jerry played shortstop in high school. He wasn’t very good, but apparently during the three years before he dropped out, no one else wanted the job. This is the extent of Jerry’s experience with sports, but it doesn’t stop him from thinking he knows a sure thing from a money pit. He likes to bet on the Yankees, every year. During the late nineties he made decent money, I’m told. This was before Parker came into the business. Unfortunately for Jerry, the Yankees have been on a downward trend for the past decade.
He’ll bet on any sport, however. Sometimes he gets lucky. On the rare occasion, Ron will come out here by himself. When he does this, he brings an envelope of cash with him. May as well just bring the crystal itself, we all know where the money’s going, but there are formalities to keep up. A plain white envelope with twenties inside. Very rarely. When Ron comes out here with me and Lance or whoever else Parker has drafted for the job, we bring a camouflage backpack, one I remember Parker wearing when he was in grade school. It’s beat to hell, but it’ll hold what little money Jerry has to give us. Parker accepts installments from some of his more trustworthy associates. Jerry pays in full.
His trailer is situated in the middle of the park. Always, I wish Ron would drive up there. Nothing will happen to us. But he never does. He likes leaving the truck near the gate. I’m not sure if it’s a status thing, us walking through there with our heads held high like we own the property. Maybe he’s just afraid, despite my protestations, that the truck will get jacked. I keep telling him that’s ridiculous, everyone knows we’re armed, the truck’s more likely to be stolen where it is. But he just smiles and shakes his head like he knows something I don’t. Which is true, he’s one of Parker’s closest friends and has a lot of information I never cared to possess. But I don’t think this is one of those situations.
My phone vibrates against my thigh. I take another pull from the bottle. The sun is just a slim wisp over the horizon, which means shadows have taken over the park, but a few residents are out and they watch us pass. They don’t say anything, but these people rarely say speak unprovoked. I avoid eye contact like I would with a strange dog. I can feel the wine spreading through me, filling those nooks and crannies that only wine can. I don’t know why I ever tried this on beer. I’m nothing special when I’m drinking beer.
We reach Jerry’s trailer and there’s a light on, which means he’s up. We had to wake him once, three months back, and the encounter had been tense. Never rouse a sleeping junkie. He’d threatened us with a revolver that clearly wasn’t loaded, then when we laughed he swapped it out for a pistol, and we’d had no way of knowing if it was loaded or not. Best to play it safe, so we sobered up and kissed his ass a little. There’s nothing more humiliating than kissing a junkie’s ass for money, especially money that’s not yours. I’m not sure Parker understands exactly what we do for him, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t care if he did.
Ron knocks, because he’s the one who’s going to do the talking. Something rustles inside. We don’t call ahead; we don’t make arrangements. If you owe Parker, you know we’re coming eventually. I wonder what’ll happen if the door opens and Jerry has a woman in there. Implausible, but not entirely impossible. Some women go for guys like that. Vicky’s sister is like that. I’ve never met her, but from what I’ve heard, she would fit right at home in Palace Park.
Jerry finally answers and he’s thinner than last time, if such a thing is possible. He’s grown a beard to hide some sort of rash, and he grins at us and waves us inside, mumbling something. It’s not a happy grin. It’s an angry junkie grin, and the small pistol tucked into the small of my back burns against my flesh. I’ve never fired it. Not even on a firing range, though I tell Parker I have. I’ve never even pulled it on someone. They know it’s there, and that’s usually enough. If it isn’t enough, then all the wine in the county won’t make me the right man for the job.
The trailer is crowded and dirty. I try not to look at anything in particular. Jerry and Ron sit down at a card table; Lance and I stay by the door. Lance turns away from everyone and leans forward, arm held across his chest. He sniffs a little. I realize I forgot to ditch the bottle, so I finish it off and set it down on the floor out of the way. It blends right in. I disturb a beetle of some kind. It waves its antennae angrily at me, then scurries beneath a McDonald’s wrapper.
Ron and Jerry talk. Small talk, the kind you do to pass the time. Ron doesn’t want to be here longer than he has to, but he, too, senses that Jerry’s on edge. Sometimes you have to placate them. Ron’s good at that. It doesn’t seem to be working his time, but usually he’s pretty good at that. He’s one of the most level-headed people I know. Strange that he’d wind up in this business. He’s a janitor at the high school. Doesn’t have a record. Even I have a record, and my mother still refers to me as “the good son.” She knows the trouble I’ve been in, or at least she used to. I’m not so certain of her memory these days. I think she might be slipping.
Vicky texts me again. Twice; two sharp buzzes against my thigh. Jerry looks at me as though he heard it. Maybe he did; junkie ears are not normal ears. He glares at me. I look back only for a moment, then stare at the floor. Ron’s chair squeaks as he turns around to see what I’m up to. Jerry says something to him. The conversation resumes.
I tried to convince Vicky to see a therapist. Even a priest, though she’s never been religious. I’m not qualified, I told her, I don’t know what to say to you to make you see. See what, she asked, and I couldn’t think of an answer. What there is to see. I wanted to say see what I see, but I’m not sure I want her to picture that. My opinion of Vicky has changed; I’ve fought it but I can’t help it. Amanda had something to do with this; I knew as soon as she started at the factory that I was heading down a road I didn’t want to take. She’s younger than Vicky, just twenty-two, but that has nothing to do with it. You could argue that she’s not even as attractive as Vicky. But there’s something about her I crave. I haven’t done anything, and I won’t as long as I’m with Vicky, and not just because I’m sure she’ll kill herself if I do. Despite the gun tucked in my waistband, I’m a man of principle. I have never cheated on a girlfriend. No one believes me when I say this, but it’s true. I haven’t. I’ve left women to be with others, but I did not consummate one relationship while I was still involved with another. The thought of cheating sickens me, much like the thought of hitting a woman. It churns something over in my stomach, makes me sick, makes me feel like the world is slipping out of my control.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been cheated on. I don’t want to know. Ignorance isn’t bliss, not anymore, but it’s one less burden I have to worry about at night.
Ron and Jerry stand. The run took longer than usual because of Jerry’s ill mood, and he doesn’t seem to be in a better place, but at least we’re leaving. Ron turns, nods at me. I poke Lance on the shoulder; he sniffs and turns around, wiping at his nose. I open the door and lead Lance outside. Ron follows, slinging the ragged backpack over one shoulder. He says a few parting words to Jerry. I don’t catch the junkie’s response, but I assume it isn’t cordial.
As we walk away, Ron in the front and Lance beside me, my pocket vibrates again. As Lance says, “Sweet Christ,” and Ron says, “We dodged a bullet, fellas,” I pull out my phone and flip it open. Light blinds me; I have to squint to read the text. Lance says something, he chuckles, but I’m struggling to interpret Vicky’s words. They read like her last. They aren’t, I’m sure of it, this isn’t the first time, but I still get that hollow feeling in my stomach. I’ll have to call off drinks with the guys. I am sure Vicky is okay, but I can’t really know until I see her. It’s like this every time.
The first bullet whizzes past my right ear and hits Lance dead center in the back of his head. He folds instantly, gray and red matter splashing back onto my face as he crumbles. Even in the darkness, I can see the hole, gaping and cavernous, leading to depths I’d previously never imagined. It’s a perfect shot, except I think it was meant for me.
A dull roar follows. I feel it caressing the back of my head, like ripples on a pond. Ron’s turning, he’s not even reaching for his gun because this can’t be happening. He flinches; this is how I know a second shot has been fired. Now Ron goes for his gun, but it sticks in his belt. He’s shouting at me, I think, but my gun hand is clenched tight around my phone. I couldn’t open my fist if I wanted to, and right now I don’t want anything. Dirt kicks up next to my foot, a third shot. Ron finally has his gun out. He fires back.
I do not make a conscious decision. One moment I am standing still, partially deaf, feeling something warm sliding down my face. The next, I am a few dozen feet away, in a part of the trailer park I’ve never been before. Shadows all around me. I bump into something hard and plastic, a tricycle perhaps. I kick it aside. Another shot, this time I can hear it, but I don’t know whose it is. I can hear Ron shouting now, and Jerry too. Their voices dance with each other, like some macabre duet. A few residents chime in for the chorus.
I’m all turned around. I don’t know where I’m going, but I don’t slow down. I just run straight. This makes the most sense. The cornfields north of the park beckon. I can’t see them yet, but I can see the empty sky above them, stars somewhere beyond the glow of lights, up there in the vast darkness. I want to lay beneath them and point out shapes to Vicky, characters we learned about in grade school. Great hunters, killer crabs, doomed princesses and holy fish. I think she would like that. She’s always been a fanciful person.
The uneven pavement gives way to uneven soil. I feel the gun slip out of my waistband. It whacks my ankle as it falls. I consider stopping to grab it, but not until I’m almost to the corn. By now it hurts to breathe, and as soon as the corn and ragweed envelop me, I pause. My chest aches. The back of my throat burns. I wipe tears from my eyes and saliva from my lips. The latter mingles with pieces of Lance, and I lean forward and vomit. Nothing comes up but wine.
I think I hear sirens in the distance. I want nothing but to be alone. No, that isn’t true. I want nothing but to be alone with Vicky. My finger stabs at my phone. I haven’t replied to her when she’s like this in a long time. I type, Help me, and I miss you. I listen for the plop that tells me they sent, followed by the visual confirmation. I type, Something happened, except those words are too big and they come out too garbled for autocorrect to fix.
I take a step and something catches in my shoe. I fall forward, my face slicing against cornstalks. I land on my stomach, inhaling the dry earth. I spit it out of my mouth and push myself up, only to realize that I can’t feel my legs. I can see them; I can move them. But I cannot feel them, which means I have run as far as I am going to.
I text Vicky again, but my vision is blurry and I can’t see the screen. I wait for her to respond but she doesn’t. Maybe she meant it this time. I have no reason to think so, but I have no reason not to, either. I can only hope, but such a concept seems so foreign at the moment, it makes me laugh, even if my laughter is only the scratchy, mad barking of a dying old dog.
I lean myself against a cornstalk that somehow manages to hold my weight. I hear footsteps somewhere nearby, the sound of something cracking. Light washes through the corn rows, dull and yellow, a flashlight with a dying battery. I am not sure if I should call out or remain silent, but I can’t speak and can’t move, so I just watch the light draw closer, until it finds my shoe and slowly travels up my leg. I wish I could feel it searing my flesh. I wish this felt as bad as I know it to be.
The light finds my face. I hold up my hand, the one clenching the phone, and cover my eyes. Footsteps draw closer. “Help her,” I say, but the words barely leave my mouth. Something clicks. It could be the sound of a hammer being cocked back, or just a dry cornhusk snapping underfoot. It could also be the sound of Vicky texting me back. I turn my hand over to check my phone. What I see makes me smile. It feels good to smile.
Daniel Davis, a native of rural Illinois, is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. His own work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at facebook.com/DanielDavis05, or @dan_davis86 on Twitter.