I’m in my room. Through the thin, rotting trailer walls, I can hear the muffled sound of the television preachers on The 700 Club. I know my parents are in the next room sitting on our mismatched furniture, watching the TV that is on top of a larger TV that broke many years ago, but never got thrown away.
My father, in his boxer shorts, lies on the vomit green corduroy couch that the dogs tore up and lifts his long white hairless legs up only occasionally to pass gas. His stomach hangs and peeks out from under his Raybestos racing shirt. My mother sits on an orange La-Z-Boy in the sweat pants that she wears now because nothing with a fixed waistline seems to fit.
In the glow of the TV, her face looks like something other than human. The years-deep lines in her face make her look like a gargoyle designed to scare away happiness.
I’m dressed in slacks and a white button-down shirt. I look down at the piece of paper that I’m holding. On it is scrawled a date and a time and a place. It’s the reservation I made for dinner tonight. Tonight is my anniversary. I think for a moment about the word and it bothers me. Anniversary. I know that the word is supposed to also mean that there’s some sort of celebration. But as I think about it all I can feel is dread. And beyond that, I don’t feel anything at all.
I slide the plywood board I use for a window up and prop it open with a book, an old Boy Scouts manual I found in my father’s things many years ago. I slink out into the high, wet grass of the dark front yard and run the 1,248 feet to the end of my driveway, hoping that the dogs don’t bark. When I get there, my girlfriend Jamie is waiting for me in her car with the lights out. I hop in and we drive off down the bumpy dirt road. We ride in silence for some time. I think about how pathetic I feel, having her drive us to our anniversary dinner, even if I don’t want to go.
. . .
After dinner, we drive out to the woods to the spot where my old Chevy van sits abandoned and silent like a tomb. It’d stopped running a long time ago, but since it was the place where we’d first had sex, Jamie wanted to go there tonight, to celebrate.
I take a few pulls from a joint I’d brought and we take off our clothes. She lays down on the dirty shag carpet of the van and pulls me on top of her. There’s no lights except for the moonlight coming in through the windows. Even still, I can see her face, pale and pallid in the moonlight and it finally occurs to me: My girlfriend is only barely attractive. I close my eyes and she pulls me closer. All I can think about is anything but this. Anyone but this. Anywhere but this. With my eyes closed she could be anyone. We could be anywhere. And that is enough to get me through.
When it’s done, she goes:
—Does this mean we’re in love?
And I don’t know what to say, so I just answer with a shrug. The entire van smells like sex. In the hot summer heat it hangs over us like velvet death. On my radio, Creedence is doing their thing. We sit there and I stare up at the rusted-out roof, the Jimi Hendrix posters, the Eminem posters, the Limp Bizkit posters, and all I can think about is lighting the rest of the joint.
Jamie lays one of her stumpy, yeasty arms across my chest. I can feel her sweating flesh bonding like sticky latex to mine. Her entire body feels like a radiator and in the sickly sweet humid air I feel as if I can barely breathe. I scooch to the side to move her slab of an arm off of me.
—What’s the matter?
—I’m sorry, do I smell?
—A little, yeah.
She sniffs her own underarms. It disgusts me every time she does it. She has a thing about the way she smells. She goes:
—What would you name a kid, you know, if we were to have one?
—Nothing, I suppose. I wouldn’t wanna name it anything.
—But what if you had to?
—What do you mean, “had to?”
—Like what if I got pregnant?
I look at her for a hard beat. It’s painful to imagine us having a kid together. This of course is coming from someone who doesn’t know if he wants to have kids. I figure my parents messed me up really good and Jamie’s already got two and maybe it’s best just left alone. Whenever I come over they’re always screaming. Raging little sucking mouths. She always apologizes and takes them up into the thick of her arms, carrying them off to the bedroom. It doesn’t matter. In bed I can always hear them screaming. The walls of her trailer are like rotting paper. They eventually stop. That’s when we light the joint. I exhale, look at her, and it’s bearable.
. . .
I sit at the small, vinyl-covered table and she puts down the plate of food in front of me. I swear to god she cooks to make me fat like her. It’s all deep-fried pieces of chicken, fried potatoes. Eating this shit is silently killing me. Outside there is nothing for miles. The trailer is situated in the woods, far from anything important. It’s the kind of place spaceships would seek out to abduct cattle, or whatever it is that spaceships do to poor people who live in the woods.
—Why are you so quiet?
—I’m not quiet.
—You haven’t said a word since you came in.
—I just got off work.
And I need to unwind. Doesn’t she understand that? Okay, it’s not that I need to wind down from my taxing job at the Cellular Mart in the plaza. I just need a moment. I need a moment to accept that this is my life right now. Eating fatty food, listening to your kids scream, wondering if I’m going to be able to stay awake tonight through what is sure to be one of our more forced “love making” sessions.
Across the table Jamie attacks her food. She stabs it with her fork, tears it apart with her knife, and chokes it down with a mouthful of Mountain Dew. Outside a dog starts howling, jumping at something. His chain crashes like a rattlesnake as he lands against the fence. I try to pretend she doesn’t exist for a moment. I pretend that if I can squint my eyes hard enough, she might disappear, but she doesn’t.Instead she goes:
—How’s your sister?
—She got arrested.
—Mom doesn’t wanna get her a lawyer.
—Does your mom still hate me?
—We’re not talking about that.
—You know exactly why.
—You hate my mother. She hates you.
—Why should that change soon?
—I don’t want your mother standing between us.
And we both jump.
With each knock the smoke-stained trailer door buckles a little more. Jamie looks at me like she can explain, but doesn’t. All I can hear is the sound of my fork scraping against my plate. I choke down another mouthful and want to throw it back up before it slides halfway down my throat. My insides feel as if they are shrinking into a void.
And she looks at me like I’m supposed to act like a man now. As if this plate in front of me is some kind of certificate proving to me she’s done her womanly duties. I push myself up to standing.
Through the glass slats Ted’s face is a gnarled blur of trucker cap, dirty beard, and chest hair exploding from a tight, sweat-stained shirt. I answer.
Ted stands outside, in the gravel patch at the base of the trailer steps. He smokes in the amber security lights. He exhales heavy blue smoke everywhere. The brim of his hat casts a shadow over his narrowed eyes. I can feel them leering at me from behind this darkness.
I only know Ted as Jamie’s psycho ex-boyfriend. On his back he has an India-blue ink tattoo of his ex-wife being hung in the gallows. She says he was bad in bed but knowing this doesn’t make me feel as good about it as she thinks it does.
—I don’t give a fuck what that bitch says. She’s a goddamned liar!
—You can’t come in here, Ted.
—That shit ain’t, and I mean motherfucking ain’t mine!
—Close the door on him!
—What’s this shit? Huh? In the mail?
He balls up a pink carbon form and hurls it into the trailer. It swooshes past me and lands right in Jamie’s soppy cleavage. She snaps it out of her chest—ka clack—with her long, hawkish nails. Ka clack! And my heart is fucking pounding. The form is that thin, smelly carbon kind. The kind that are printed out in government offices at the rate of a thousand per second and for some reason are always bad news. I say:
—What isn’t his?
And in one quick black flash my head is on the dank matted carpet, along with the coffee stains, cigarette burns, rusted out air vents, gusting with cool moldy air from under the trailer. There’s lots of yelling. Ted’s boots are those hulking CAT boots and the entire trailer seems to warp as he tromps around.
. . .
My mom and dad are yelling at each other in the kitchen. The trailer walls are thin and warped and I can hear everything. I hide under my captain’s bed. I’m eight years old.
I put my hands over my ears but that doesn’t work so I just begin to hum. I don’t know what song. I try to sing something happy but I’m too worked up to remember any happy songs. I settle on the theme from Batman. At any moment I’m expecting the door to crack open. I’m waiting on that white triangle of light to come sweeping across the floor. But it doesn’t. I hear something break. My mother screams. I hear an engine kick over.
The next thing I remember I’m riding in the car with my mom and my sister up to Baltimore. I’m still wearing my pajamas and though I really want to be in bed there is something comforting about the warm, velvety strips of black highway in the wet Florida night.
We ride along in silence. Sometimes the turn signal comes on and clicks. We pull over into a truck stop and I turn to see that my mother is crying. My sister is asleep in the back seat. I try and stay awake because I think that’s what I’m supposed to do.
My mother looks at me and tussles my hair.
—My little man.
And I just smile and pretend not to be scared, for my mother. I don’t know what it feels like to be a man because I don’t know what that means. It’s only something I’ve heard on TV, but I decide that this is it.
Seven years later I’m at home, playing on the computer, when I get a call from my father:
—Is your mother there?
—Can you meet me?
—Is it a surprise for Mom?
—I don’t want you to tell your mother that you’re meeting me.
—Just do what I tell you.
And we hang up.
I make the forty-mile drive from Dunnellon to Ocala, which is the nearest actual city. It’s just a small place, full of backwards ass-wads, stupid bars, and run-down hospitals. Our town has nine funeral homes, but the nearest hospital is in Ocala. It’s morbid, I think.
The place my father wants to meet is The Square. It’s a two-block area of Ocala with trendy restaurants, cigar shops, bars, and a thrift store that’s only open on Sundays. I check the address and name of the place on a piece of paper. It’s a tavern called The Pig.
I see my father immediately. He waves me over. He’s at a table with a stunning redhead. She’s wonderfully tall. Her face is bony and elongated into something more gothic and frightening than a normal face. I can’t tell how old she is. I see my father holding her hand under the table. I get it.
—This is my son, Joseph.
She beams at me. I realize that my father never calls me by my full name. I can’t help but feel that I’m at some kind of job interview. I wonder if she’s feeling the same way.
At home, my mother is probably getting back from work. She probably has a headache from driving the bus all day in the oppressive heat. Meanwhile, my father is in Ocala, at a nice restaurant. My father has only ever taken my mother to a Sizzler, now and again, on their anniversary. It makes me feel like shit for even being here.
The redhead is into Buddha, she says. Charkas and healing modalities and stuff I don’t understand or necessarily believe. She claims it helped her get over cancer. My father met her while he was getting his degree at the local community college, expanding his mind, which is also where I guess they get shit like Buddhism. She tells me that rubbing huge metal vats of water on the rim produces these healing chakra sounds. She says that’s what fixed her cancer. This makes no sense to me but she believes it and I don’t care one way or the other.
One year later Kate had to be committed because the cancer spread to her brain. She began seeing demons when she closed her eyes. One night she tried to stab my father over dinner with a ten-inch carving knife. That was pretty much the end of Kate. My dad and I have never really talked about it.
. . .
When I wake up I’m not in the trailer. I’m back in my bed at my mom’s.
My room always smells so weird. It’s a queer musty smell and I fear it’s because I jerk off too much in here. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who notices or if none of my friends say peep because their rooms smell the same way. Mothers are innocent, however. They don’t suspect anything. When my mother comes in with some pills I briefly wonder if it disgusts her.
—Here, take this.
It’s a Xanax, half a mil. She hands it to me with the glass of stale water that had been sitting on the floor from the night before.
I take it, but I can’t help but wonder what it will do to my brain. The more normal they say I get with these drugs, the sicker I feel. My life feels like some kind of gigantic telescope, slowly losing focus. I used to look up into the sky at some brilliant constellation. Now one blur is just the same as any other blur or any of those that came before.
—How are you, baby?
—I was worried about you.
—You’ve been sleeping.
—A few hours.
—That girl is bad for you, Joe.
My mother runs her hand over my head, smoothing out my hair. She lights a cigarette in the dark. The flair of the smoldering ember dies down and it’s dark again. We’re in a soft cloud of smoke and all I can hear is the sound of her breathing and the wet cricket noises coming from the woods.
. . .
In the morning the light feels blue and steely when it hits my eyes. I’d say it’s the drugs, which would maybe make the docs take me off of them, but I’d have no way to prove it. I don’t know how to prove anything.
I check the clock. It’s seven. There’s a TV on in the living room. I know without looking that it’s little Allen, my sister’s kid. She had him a few years back, before her husband went to jail. He was arrested for attempted murder, which got him ten years on account of the fact it was during a drug deal. No one cares about drug dealers, I guess. Little Allen barely sleeps. He likes to watch the all-night infomercials. By seven am, he’s up to the late-late ones. The ones so desperate, it’s impossible to tell what they’re selling.
The crap he’s watching now is about a real estate selling technique that will make you instantly rich. All you have to do is by houses on the cheap, fix them up, and sell them for major bread. What’s better is that you don’t even need any money to get started. I ask:
—Are you going to be rich? Like the man on television?
He nods quickly, never taking his eyes off of the TV. The family secretly thinks that he’s slow. I don’t know if he knows we talk about it, but we do.
—Joe? You want coffee?
My mom is standing in the kitchen, holding a pot of coffee. The pot is stained brown around the edges, partially from the bad water.
—We don’t have any milk…
—Never mind then.
—You could go get some…
—You could just drive out to the Kwik King, come back, get ready for work…I’d hate for you to not have your coffee today.
—I don’t want to. I’ll get a coffee at work.
—And spend more money.
Almost on cue she starts doing that thing with her hand on her hip. She looks so dissatisfied with me for some reason. In her robe she looks like some sort of hippopotamus. A pink, white trash hippopotamus. Seeing that makes me want to scream at her and tell her how stupid this all is but I don’t. I hold it in. Out of respect, mostly. Because I know if I ever yelled at my mom, she’d tell the whole town what a bad son I was.
—I gotta go.
—What car you gonna take?
The tone in her voice tells me what’s coming next: the emotional ransom, the morning begging. It’s the part of the day when she deflates me before I go out into the world. It gets so bad some days that I feel as if I never have the guts to do anything but cower and hide.
—Do we have to do this? I don’t feel too good.
—Well, with all that drama you got yourself into last night…
I look at the clock. I have forty-five minutes to get to work. It takes about fifteen to get there but I need the extra time to clear my head. I quickly do the math, knowing that my mother will win. She always does.
. . .
I make the run down to the Kwik King, which is down the dirt road, across the railroad tracks, then three miles north on highway 40. It’s a little yellow and blue deal with a decaying plastic sign that used to belong to a corporate outfit. I got caught stealing cigarettes there once on a dare. On the way back, I ride with the milk between my legs. I alternate taking swigs from the carton and snacking on powdered donuts. I drop the milk off on the back steps and make the drive to work. The whole way, I stare out at the decrepit Jack Oaks that line the side of the road. They look like they’re covered in snow, but I know it’s just the limestone, kicking up and falling like fine dust, gently choking the trees. It’s a wonder they stand at all.
. . .
Cellular Mart is in the middle of town, in the only shopping center, sandwiched between a Winn-Dixie and a Dollar General store. In a given day about half the town rolls though here. It’s how I met Jamie. She ambled in one day around closing. Said she was looking for a phone. The first thing I noticed was that she had something weird going on with her mouth. It was like her lips had caved in and were being sucked down into her throat. When she spoke, she barely opened her mouth. As we talked about the phones and plans, she muttered a few words, enough to get the meanings across and clear. I’d later learn that Jamie had no teeth. After she failed the in-store credit check, she confessed that she’d only been looking at the phones to talk to me. “No one really buys anything here, anyway,” I said.
She asked me out and when it came time to exchange numbers, I wrote my number on the back of the failed credit application and gave it to her.
I didn’t intend to actually go out with her, on account of the teeth thing, but I’d never had anyone go out of their way for me like that. The day supervisor, Aaron, said I should look past the physical and go on a date with Jamie. Aaron had big plans after graduation. He planned to get out of here, go to Harvard, and study to be a Psychologist. I sometimes think he thought of me as an experiment. He was always a little too concerned with what was happening in my life. He moved away to Cambridge a year ago.
. . .
Toward the end of the day, Mom shows up. She’s wearing stained blue sweats and a white t-shirt with some sort of offensive neon-colored flower pattern on it. She’s gotten so big in recent years that all she can wear are sweats and oversized shirts. Even still, she’s self-conscious. She continually pulls at the waistline of her sweats and readjusts her shirt. I never joke about her weight, but everyone else does.
She comes up to me.
—Hey there, little man…
I am less than thrilled to see her, but I try to hide it.
—You forgot this when you took off this morning.
And she slips a wad of dirty ones into my hand. She does it secretly, but I miss this, and end up dropping the bills all over the floor. I scoop up the money and tuck it into my pocket.
—What’s this for?
My drug test. I’m currently one piss test away from being in the Navy and gone from here. All I need is one clean test. But lately, I’d been getting high on anything I can get my hands on. I feel guilty taking her money knowing I’m going to fail.
Needing it makes me want to cry.
—I’m not taking it.
—I had a burger for lunch. Had some sesame seeds in it.
—Throws off the test…It shows up as heroin.
—Oh my god, are you on heroin?
—No, Ma. I’m not on heroin. It’s late. I just wanna get home.
—Jamie’s gonna pick you up.
—I need my car. I’m having Jamie pick you up. She wants to talk to you.
—Yeah, I bet she does.
—You know, Joe, that’s a terrible thing you did to her.
—I didn’t do anything.
—You should have thought about that before you took your clothes off.
—I did. We used a condom.
—Well, you weren’t married. Maybe God’s punishing you.
—Getting married wouldn’t make her unpregnant, Ma.
—Don’t you start…
—What? The thing is barely even a cell. Have you seen them? You’d need a microscope!
—You want me to marry her? That’s insane! My life will be over!
—Your life is here!
—My life is anywhere but here!
—We’ll talk about this later.
—Tell her I get off in an hour.
—You tell her. You work in a cell phone store.
Just like that she’s gone.
I try to think of someone else I can call for a ride home. I can’t think of anyone so I call Jamie. I get her machine.
At seven, she pulls up and honks.
. . .
—The thing you have to understand is that I’m not the only one. Other people think it too.
Jamie is driving very fast now. She’s taking me to this place up in Yankeetown called “The End of the Road.” That’s exactly what it is. The road winds out until it hits the edge of the gulf and stops. In the distance, you can see the power plant. At night the smoke is purple. If you can ignore that it’s coming out of a nuclear power plant it’s almost romantic, too. Apparently Elvis filmed some famous movie there. There’s a plaque and everything. We all talk about it but no one seems to know the exact movie.
When you drive out there, you feel as if you’re driving off the edge of the earth. I try to smoke out the window but the air is too cold. Jamie tries to hold my hand. I don’t want to but I let her.
—Who else thinks that?
—Your mother. We talked this afternoon.
—You’re friends now?
—She told me how to go down to the Women in Crisis centers. They have free food there.
—I can help support you, you know?
—I don’t want your support.
—Well, what do you plan on doing then?
Jamie throws the car into park. We get out. The wind is cold and heavy. The smell of saltwater burns my nostrils. Jamie leaves her lights on. We stand in front of them. It looks like we’re being run down.
—Let’s get married.
—I don’t want to get married.
—Is that why you brought me here? To tell me this?
—If you were gonna propose, this is where I’ve always wanted someone to do it.
—I can’t have a kid, Jamie.
—If we get married, we can skip the kid.
—I’ve already got two.
We agree that I’ll think about it. We load into the car and head back down the road. We pass through a nice area filled with stilt houses that overlook the Gulf. In the moonlight they look like palaces.
—You think we’ll ever have a place like that?
And I want to say, “Don’t you understand? We’ll never go anywhere.” It’s a horrible thing to say but it’s exactly how I feel. We were born with broken wings, bad hearts, bad genes, and bad habits. People like us aren’t even allowed to enter the property line of a house like that. We’ll probably live in Jamie’s trailer until it falls apart, or my mom dies, and then we’ll go live in hers until it does the same. Then, I don’t know what will happen, but since we’re so fucked up, you’re so fat, we’ll do enough drugs and you’ll eat enough fat and grease to end us before the wood begins to rot. We were born with rot.
But that’s not what she wanted to hear, so I didn’t say it.
We listen to the car rattle along. I have her stop at a 7-11 so I can get a pack of smokes.
That night, I go home to her place. I click the TV on. It’s the Discovery channel. The show is about bucks who get their antlers permanently stuck together while fighting over a female deer. They usually just die where they decide to stop struggling. They starve after a few days. Who knows what the female they were fighting over does. But she’s likely doing it with someone else.
I look over at Jamie on the couch. I think she is sleeping. For a moment, she looks peaceful.