Sal opened her eyes. Maggie was standing in the doorway of the bedroom holding a dress suspended from a hanger. Sal closed her eyes again and rolled over onto her side, away from the door.
"Get up Sal, for Chrissakes," Maggie barked. "The kids are already in the car. The least you could do is haul yourself out of bed and say goodbye."
Sal heard Maggie's footsteps approach her bed, felt a sharp whack against her calf. She stirred, but kept her eyes closed until she heard Maggie heave a sigh of disgust and leave the room.
Against all desire, Sal got out of bed. Her head felt thick. Too little sleep. Too much drama. She pulled on a pair of cut-offs and followed her sister out to the driveway.
Even at this early hour the windows of Maggie's Geo glared in the August sun. Sal bent down and dodged her own reflection until she could make out the ghostly forms of her two children sitting in the backseat.
"I pulled together enough of their clothes to get through a day or two. You can bring some more of their stuff over this evening," Maggie was saying. "I'll swing by Costco if I need anything before then. Ed and I will swap being at home to look after them, but it's the busiest time of year for us, Sal for godssake this is a hell of a pain in the ass I don't mind telling you—" Maggie wore a white visor with the words "Snyder & Son—Contractors" written in red across the bill.
Sal leaned against the car. The hot metal seared the skin below her cut-offs. She flinched and pulled away, but a moment later forgot and did it again.
"Get yourself up to Monticello this afternoon. Check in with Social Services. I left a clean dress in your room. Hotel's opening up in Bethel. Check that out." Maggie jangled her keys and got into the car.
"How are they doing?"
"What?" Maggie squinted at Sal.
Sal lowered her voice and leaned down. "How are they doing?" She glanced at the two children in the back seat. Jack was sitting pretty still, staring straight ahead. Lil was bouncing up and down, trying to get him to watch her make spit bubbles.
"Oh, fine, I guess," Maggie said. "They didn't say much."
Sal tapped Jack's window and twirled her finger so he would roll it down.
Once it was down, she was at a loss.
"Lil, you make sure you brush your teeth."
That was the best she could do.
Lil opened her mouth. A bubble of saliva filled the opening and popped. "Mind your Aunt Maggie and Uncle Ed. I'll come by to see you later on today. Bring some of your stuff over."
Sal turned to Jack. A sling cradled his right arm. He held it in front of him as if it was an injured creature he'd rescued in the woods. The swelling on his forehead had gone down a bit, but the black thread, still crusted with dried blood and disinfectant gave it the appearance of bruised fruit. She longed to whisper an apology to it. Kiss it.
"Jack, you watch out for Lil, will you?"
Jack nodded, his eyes locked on the back of Maggie's headrest. Sal ducked her head in and kissed his cheek. She leaned past him to kiss Lil, who wrapped her arms around Sal's neck, tight.
"Hug—hug," Lil insisted. Sal gave her a quick squeeze and pulled away.
Maggie turned on the ignition. "Clean this place up. Smells bad. Anything you want to get rid of, leave out front. Ed'll come by later and haul it away."
Maggie stopped. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. Then she reached out the window and squeezed Sal's arm.
"J.T. shows up, you don't let him in. I mean it. You can't let him in."
Sal looked down at Maggie's hand and noticed that her eczema was acting up again. She relaxed her arm so Maggie would let go.
After they pulled out of the driveway, Sal stood by the side of the dirt road and watched the car fade into a cloud of dust. Then she turned back to the house and tried to see what Maggie must see.
It looked tired. It leaned to one side, as if it was deciding whether to lie down or stay standing. The mustard-colored paint was peeling, and a dark stain crept from the foundation up the sides of the house. The porch, hemmed in by a frail wooden railing, was cluttered with junk J.T. had collected from various yard sales and roadside dumping grounds.
Offerings. Every time he came back, he'd bring her some goddamned offering. Like a semi-feral cat dropping the gift of a dead bird at her doorstep. Let me in. I have something for you. An orange and brown plaid sofa that smelled of piss and sank on the left when you sat on that end. An old Zenith TV—an antique, he'd insisted —that didn't work but had someone's initials carved into the woodwork. And, of course, the bumper pool table. All for her, he said, for the kids, even though they weren't his and he hardly paid any attention to them anyway.
Sal went inside and saw that Maggie has left $40.00 and a brand-new jar of Shur-Fine instant coffee on the kitchen table. She wandered into her bedroom and there was the dress, hanging from the frame of her closet door. It was a simple blue A-line, bland with white trim, probably run up on Maggie's sewing machine last winter. About three sizes too big for Sal. She had no panty-hose, and the only shoes she owned were sneakers and a pair of brown clogs.
She wandered back out to the porch and sat on the sofa. The buzz of the cicadas rose and sharpened, bringing the pine trees, the dusty scrub oak into focus. The day hung in front of her like a portrait. Her gaze shifted to the bumper pool table.
If only she'd said no.
She'd been doing so well. Four weeks without him this time.
Then the night before last, after she'd put the kids to bed and settled onto the sofa to watch TV, she heard his pick-up pull into the driveway. She heard the door slam and then the sound of something heavy being dragged off the truck bed, across the yard, and up the steps.
She got up and opened the screen door. Her in nothing but a tee shirt and a pair of underpants.
He was hauling a bumper pool table up onto the porch.
"What the hell, J.T."
He stopped and smiled. "Hey." He pushed the table up against the Zenith and leaned against it. "Look what I got for you."
"I don't want that."
He pulled his cap off and raked his fingers through that red hair of his.
"Kids might like it. All it needs is a cue and some balls."
"It's missing a leg."
"That's easy enough to fix. Jack and I can work on it."
"Jesus Christ, J.T."
He stopped and tapped his fingers on the side of the bumper pool table.
"Think I could come in for a little while?" J.T. cocked his head to one side and smiled.
"Just a little while?"
"C'mon, Sal." He stepped up to her and placed his hands on her hips. He gave them a little waggle and leaned his forehead against hers. His breath smelled heavy and medicinal. "Have a sit?"
"Dammit, J.T." Sal put her hands on his chest and pulled her head back. She tried to catch a breath of clean air.
"Just a sit. You watching TV?"
"Okay." His hands flew off her hips, and he took a step back. "Can I at least come in and wash my hands?" He said it cool and even, like he couldn't care less. "Then I'll go."
So, of course, like an idiot, she let him in. And he did wash his hands, but then he asked for a Coke, and when she brought it out from the kitchen, there he was, hunched over the coffee table with a zip-loc bag of pot and a pack of rolling papers. A hip flask of Old Smuggler stood next to them.
"Shit, J.T. What are you doing?"
"It's okay, Babe," he said. "Just one joint. For the road."
If she'd had any sense at all, she would have kicked him out right then and there. But instead, she sat there and watched him, watched his fingers, watched the reddish blond hair on his knuckles catch the light and gleam. Watched as he held one end of the joint in his mouth and touched the other with the flame from his lighter. Watched the end of it glow red when he sucked it into his lungs and held it there before letting it out with a satisfied sigh. Watched him hand it to her and watched her own hand take it while he reached for the whiskey.
Before too long they were laughing at something stupid on TV, and along came a commercial with this great music. Slow music. For a car or something. J.T. stood up and took her hand. He pulled her to him and swayed his hips, humming into her ear just enough to make it vibrate. His hand rubbed a little circle on the small of her back and he pressed into her so she could feel how hard he'd gotten. Leaned her down onto the sofa and pulled off her panties. And even though it felt so good, so sweet and good, Sal remembered thinking if she had held out for just one more week, it would have been her longest stretch yet doing without J.T.
~ ~ ~
J.T. wondered what time it was and reached for his cigarettes on the floor. Well past ten, that was for sure. Missed the Early Bird meeting.
What was it? What was it he had to do today?
Get to a meeting come hell or high water.
Hook up with Ed's friend for that job up in Liberty.
Don't drink. Don't smoke pot.
Leave Sal alone.
J. T. sat up, reached for his jeans, and fished a crumpled yellow brochure out of the back pocket. There was a midday meeting in the basement of the Bethany Church over in Narrowsburg. It was a shame to use the gas to get there; there were plenty of local meetings, but then that shot the whole anonymous thing. No such thing as anonymity in a town of three hundred.
He hated midday meetings. They were sparse, attended by the lowest of the low who had no jobs. Who walked from place to place because they had no wheels. No future. Down and out old men with bad teeth and leaky resolve. Old Bob—Hello, Bob. Welcome—who trembled when you held hands during the serenity prayer, then ducked into Paragon Liquors right after the meeting.
J.T. stood and realized he felt like shit. His head was throbbing, and the still air reeked of urine. A leftover from the previous boarder who hadn't bothered to walk down the hall.
Several months back, Sal had told him a story. Something about him coming in late at night—shit-faced, as usual—careening off the walls in the hallway and then standing over a pair of her slippers and pissing all over them. Her new, blue fuzzy slippers, the kind teenaged girls wore at slumber parties. She'd yelled at him - a kind of whispered yell so as not to wake the kids. What the fuck are you doing, J.T! You don't do that! You don't piss on people's slippers! And he had looked at her with his drunken, lizard eyes and tried to kiss her.
He couldn't remember. It was just a story.
But the next morning, there were the slippers hanging from the clothes line like a pair of drowned rodents. And Sal, moving silently through the house, not speaking to him, but watching him. When he trailed his hand along her ass as he passed her on the way to the bathroom, she moved out of reach, saying nothing. She just stood at the end of the hall with her arms folded, leaning against the door frame, watching him.
It took a few days for her to thaw out on that one. Even when she did, it came at a price. They would have gotten themselves back to some nice kind of rhythm with each other—laughing, playing, joking around—and right in the middle of a perfectly good time, she'd return to the event like it was a scab she needed to pick. She'd retell it. Act it out.
"And then you did this—" and she'd stagger over to a spot on the kitchen floor and sway in front of it, her right hand at her crotch holding an imaginary penis, her tongue hissing against the back of her teeth. "C'mon, you be me." She'd wave him up, and it was useless. He'd have to shake her by the shoulder, like he was supposed to and say his line. And she'd turn to him with her eyes half-lidded and mush up her lips for that oblivious kiss.
J.T. snubbed his cigarette out on the window sill and looked at the clock over the bank across the street. He tried to open the window, but it had been painted shut years ago. He rested his forehead against the wavering glass and closed his eyes. Its coolness eased the throb of his headache. He laughed.
It was always the little things, the little things that set you back. Forget about car wrecks and lost jobs. It was little things like pissed-on slippers that added up one by one, like delicate little nails tapped into the lid of a coffin, sealing it up good and tight.
~ ~ ~
Sal spent most of the morning picking things up and putting them down in other places. It wasn't until she drank a cup of instant coffee, acid and dark, that she was able to get down to some real work. She started in the bedroom with a trash bag, dumping J.T.'s clothes into it. It was astonishing how little there was to show for his life there: a few pairs of socks, some skivvies. A pair of greasy jeans.
She moved down the hall and stopped in the kids' room. The floor was an ocean of discarded toys and clothes. But Jack's bunk, above Lil's reach, was neat and smooth with the Batman comforter tucked at the corners. On top of the dresser, his action figures stood in rows: the wrestlers in front, then assorted mutants, then super heroes. Stuck into the frame of the mirror was his school picture. His strawberry blond hair slicked to one side. His arms clutching a composition notebook. So serious. Little man.
Her toe nudged something on the floor, and she stooped to pick up the top of Jack's pajamas. It was torn and stiff with dried blood. She must have dropped it there after coming home from the hospital the other night. She only remembered tucking both kids into Lil's bunk. Exhausted and drained, she had crawled in with them, needing to feel their warmth, the steady rise and fall of their breathing as they eased into the comfort of sleep.
Sal fingered the shirt.
Jack had seen her with J.T. He had climbed out of bed and wandered out to the living room. He had stood by the TV—real quiet— watching them.
When J.T. noticed him, he broke away from Sal and pulled up his pants.
"Hey, there, Buddy!" J.T. stumbled across the room and scooped up Jack, giving Sal a chance to pull on her tee-shirt. "Hey, there, Batman! I got the Batmobile! How 'bout that? Maybe I'll take you for a ride later on. I got it parked right outside." J.T. set Jack down and propelled him toward his bedroom. "You head on back to bed. I'll catch you later, okay, Buddy?"
And Jack went along. He nodded at J.T. and headed down the hall.
But he fooled them.
He must have snuck out just as soon as J.T. turned his attention back to Sal. He must have opened the screen door just right so it wouldn't screech, slipped down the porch steps and climbed into the back of J.T.'s pick-up. Later, when J.T. headed off for the Crossroads to top himself off, he fishtailed his truck into a tree. Jack flew fifteen feet across the road and bounced off a guard rail.
A man's voice.
Sal shoved Jack's pajama top into the trash bag along with J.T.'s clothes. She tied off the bag and carried it into the living room. Ed was standing on the porch, his form a blur through the screen door. Even in this heat, he wore plaid flannel down to his wrists.
"Hey." She pushed the screen door open to invite him in, but he backed away and smiled. His truck was idling in the driveway.
"Maggie said you'd have some stuff you might like me to haul away for you."
"It's not ready."
Ed nodded. His smile held, but there was no real joy in it. "Well. I got a couple of runs to make. Be happy to take some things off your hands."
Sal brushed past him down the porch steps and swung the trash bag into the back of the pick-up. She returned to the porch, grabbed one end of the bumper pool table, and pushed it over onto its side. A cloud of dust and brown pine needles exploded when it hit the floor. She dragged it to the stairs. The lame leg caught on the railing and jolted her. She pulled hard, snapped the leg off, and banged the table down the steps. Once she got it onto the grass, it dug into the sod and stalled. She tugged it, threw her whole body into it, but it wasn't going anywhere.
"Sal." Ed stood beside her. He wedged his boot under the end of the table and pried it up enough for him to slip his hand underneath. When she bent to lift her end of it, he told her, "Squat."
"Squat. Or you'll hurt your back."
They worked together without speaking, except for occasional grunts of exertion or clipped instructions: that way, up-end it, push. After an hour or so they had cleared the porch of everything, and Ed set about lashing down the load.
Sal stood by. She asked Ed about the kids.
"They're fine, Sal."
"They asking for me?"
"They're perfectly fine, Sal."
"They're probably going to miss sleeping in their own beds—"
"Sal. We talked about this. You got to get yourself back up on your feet first."
"They belong with their mother."
"It was us or Child Welfare."
Sal looked at the house, foreign to her now with the porch cleared.
"Why don't you come over? See how they're doing." He reached out to touch her elbow, but stopped himself. "C'mon over. See for yourself."
He took off his glasses and wiped sweat from the lenses with his bandana. His face looked strangely naked to her, as if his true feelings of pity and desperation could no longer hide. She saw how the reach of this thing stretched beyond her, beyond J. T., even beyond Jack and Lil, and grasped the lives of others.
~ ~ ~
J.T. cupped his hand, flicked his cigarette ash into it, and rubbed his hand against his jeans. Normally, he'd just flick it any old place, even leave his butts behind, but the lady who owned the house had already come out once to bawl at Craig about the mess his crew was making. J.T. glanced over his shoulder at the kitchen window, half-expecting to see the lady's moony face peering out at him.
He had to shake it. He had to shake this feeling of being watched. Haunted.
It was the waiting. The hurrying and the waiting.
The whole job had come to him in a rush. Ed had swung by the room, whisked him off to Craig's, who shook his hand and had him pile into a van with Craig's brother, Frank, and a Romania transplant named Boris. On up to a split-level in Liberty where he had a crash course in the basics of pouring concrete patios.
Craig had seemed like a nice enough guy, but he turned out to be a real son of a bitch. Barked orders, yelled at J.T. whenever he screwed up.
There was more to pouring concrete patios than he ever could have imagined.
There was digging out the bed, lining it with gravel, framing up the edges with two by fours, staking the corners, connecting them with taut strings. Then the cement mixer moved in. Churning, keeping the gravelly muck moving, keeping it liquid so it wouldn't petrify and become waste.
The precision of it unnerved J.T. So much depended on a moment. When the cement mixing truck backed into the yard, mashing a forsythia bush, J. T. stood by with Boris, rake in hand. As the cement heaved out of the mixer, Frank jimmied the chute to steer it into the bed while J.T. and Boris evened it out with their rakes.
They worked in sections. A piece at a time. J.T. was clumsy. He kept tripping over the framing, and once he almost landed in the pudding. Before long he was sweating and shaking like a drunk.
But when the pouring was finished, the water drained. The concrete settled. Craig reinforced the hollows, and Boris—an old hand at this sort of thing—scrimmed the surface. He moved with a purposeful, sweeping rhythm, efficient, trusting he had the time to get it right. It calmed J.T. Boris took it as it came, transforming rough to smooth, erasing all blemishes and offering to J.T. what seemed to him to be the closest thing to a clean slate that he'd seen in years.
~ ~ ~
The kids were in Maggie and Ed's living room sitting on a couple of bean bag chairs in front of the TV. A scatter of Legos lay on the floor in front of them, with a couple of half-hearted towers rising above the rubble. The TV hollered at them and flashed the rapid light of afternoon cartoons across their faces. It wasn't until Sal stood right in front of them that they registered her presence, and then all they gave her was a momentary flick of their eyes away from the screen.
She switched the TV off.
She had expected an outcry, but both children just looked at her. After a few moments, Lil pushed herself up from her Legos, walked over to Sal and stood smack in front of her, eyeballing her.
"Here, Lil," Sal reached into the paper bag. "Here's your monkey." She pulled out the stuffed toy and held it out to the girl.
Lil shifted her gaze from her mother's face to the monkey's. Then, she turned and went back to her Legos, shaking her head. Sal noticed Lil was wearing a pair of green overalls she had never seen before. They bulged around the seat and had a snap crotch.
Jack took the bag from Sal and dumped the contents onto the floor. He pushed his hand through the assortment of action figures she'd packed.
"Thanks, Mom," he said quietly.
Sal watched them as they stared at the blank TV, then at the Legos, then back to the TV. She turned it on and sat on the floor between them.
It was one of those new cartoons, so different from the ones she had watched as a child. The characters were aliens who could transform themselves into exotic insects and fighting machines. For all their special powers, their movements were stiff, awkward. Robots.
As they watched, Sal reached out and held hands with Jack and Lil. They let her do this, but when she gave them a squeeze, their hands remained as still as animals in hiding.
Later, on the back stoop, Maggie joined Sal for a smoke. For a long time, they pulled on their cigarettes and said nothing. Sal noticed that the marigolds in the flowerbeds along the walk looked scrawny, as if the hard, dry soil was squeezing the life out of them. She stepped down and started to pinch the shriveled blossoms from their stems.
"You get up to Monticello today?" Maggie's feet were tucked up near her butt, and her calves, still winter-white, splayed out like wings.
"Didn't get to it."
Maggie said something under her breath and mashed her cigarette out on the step. She opened her mouth to say something, but Sal got there first.
"How come Lil's wearing a diaper?"
"Lil. She's wearing a diaper."
"She wets herself, Sal. She wets herself all the time."
"She's a kid, Maggie. Don't most kids wet their pants sometimes?"
"Not on my furniture, they don't."
Sal continued to make her way down the walk, dead-heading marigolds.
"You're making a hell of a mess."
Sal looked at the walk. A long trail of brown, spent blossoms lay scattered on the cement.
"I was going to clean it up."
"I'm not going to do it, Sal. I'm not going to raise your kids."
"I'm not asking you to." Sal's face burned. She began to pick up the debris.
"We're not going to keep them."
"I'm not asking you to, Maggie."
"Then get your sorry ass up to Monticello."
"I am. I will." Sal's voice caught on a high note. She swallowed, trying to clear an ache from her throat. "It wasn't my fault."
Maggie stared at Sal for a moment, then got up and went into the house. The screen door banged in her wake.
The words had come out before Sal could stop them. She wondered at them. They stood like signposts leading to a road she had only recently abandoned. Its familiarity comforted her, but also filled her with a kind of despair. She could not go down that path again, but for the life of her, she couldn't get a clear view of a different way to go. All she knew was what lay immediately ahead of her: the quiet of her empty house and the sullen heaviness of time that opened up before her, a sinkhole too dark and bottomless ever to be filled.
~ ~ ~
J.T. knew Sal was at home. From under the pine tree near the driveway, he could see lights in the living room sharpen like stars as the evening darkened. The faint chatter of the TV escaped through an open window. He leaned against the tree and lit a cigarette. He felt old. His hands were swollen and nicked from the day's work. His body complained of new aches. But he had finished the day with an unfamiliar sense of satisfaction. He wanted to tell her about it, offer it to her.
It would be simple enough for him to cross the yard, climb the steps of the porch, and knock on the door. He didn't even have to come in. He would stay out on the porch, and they would talk.
J.T. up-righted Jack's bicycle, which had been left lying on its side near the driveway, and wheeled it under the porch. He stood at the bottom of the steps, put out his cigarette, and quietly knocked the gray dust of cement from his boots. He mounted the stairs, careful not to make any noise.
The porch was clear, completely bare of everything, even the brown pine needles that tended to collect in the corners. It was as if an old life had been swept away. And he, who took comfort in unblemished surfaces, was taking his first steps into a new, unmarked life.
He stood at the screen door for some time. He could hear the TV more distinctly, and Sal's voice, deep in the house, talking to herself as he knew she did when she thought she was alone. He listened and picked at a patch of blistered paint on the door frame. Rubbed it with his fingertips as if they were made of sandpaper and could sand it smooth.
Suddenly, through the window, he caught a flash of blue and white moving across the living room. It was Sal, wearing an oversized dress that hung from her shoulders, a shapeless thing. She had pulled her thin blond hair back with clips, and on her feet she wore her brown clogs. She stood right in front of the window, examining her reflection, tugging at the dress and smoothing her hair. She did not seem to recognize herself.
How he wanted to creep up behind her, snake his arms around her waist, deflate that tent of a dress and feel the contours of her true form. He would offer himself to her, his new self, so fragile, so promising, how could she turn it down?
As he moved forward to knock on the door, Sal's head snapped at the sound, and she came right up to the window. She cupped her hands around her eyes and peered through the glass. J.T. froze, hiding in the shadows, and watched her as she searched for whatever might be out there. Just as she was about to give up, she saw him. As she held his look, he watched her expression drain itself of all feeling, until it was as blank as a stone. Then she pushed the window down and latched it. She crossed to the TV, turned it off, and retreated to the depths of the house, turning off lights as she went.
As silently as he came, J.T. crept down the stairs and crossed the yard. The night sky was clear and studded with stars. A bright moon held firm. Shadows and pockets of blue moonlight spread across the dirt road, sometimes darkening, sometimes lighting the path ahead.