Make it easy for me, please. It's too hard right now, in these supermarket aisles, with stacks of paper towels and rows of rubbing alcohol. It all looks the same and it's too hard to care. I stick my fingers in my belt loops. It's my day off, so my wife's sent me on errands. My wife is Marise—my wife, I guess. We never had a dapper wedding with any white silk. The county clerk had a sunburn on his nose and no sense of compassion. Marise wanted to take a Polaroid and I swear the clerk was thinking of snuffing Cheese-Wiz or something.
Now Marise has sent me shopping. I cashed my paycheck from the cannery and made sure to get rent money. I'm alone. Marise is at home with her sister Carla, and they're taking care of our little girl. My baby girl is three years old and her squeals just kill me. She doesn't talk yet, and I want to buy a tape recorder before her first word. Alma, her name's Alma. "I love her," I say out loud. People give me funny looks.
Let's get it out of the way: I don't think I love Marise. Isn't love where you cram down every glance? You're greedy, you can't resist it, like eating just one more little peach. I feel that with Alma. Can't stop looking at her. But I feel this soldier bond with Marise. It's like Alma came first, and then us under her.
I know I will mouth the word Alma into the bathroom mirror. When she first hides makeup in her bag. When she buys black panties. When she sniffs that you and Mom smoke, hell, why can't I? Any one of these little bastards, these little towheads riding in shopping carts—they could be my downfall. You there, begging for a Hershey bar, will you cart my Alma off in your red Camaro? The one you'll give a name?
I gave my car a name. It impressed the hell out of Marise. When we had to name a baby we'd made in my red Camaro, that's when things fell apart. I woke up like a kitten in a tower of wet cardboard.
Now everything I buy cleans something. Wipes for baby butts, spray for shower curtains, cigarettes for my lungs. I never smoked before I had Alma. Now I do it to steady things. My cashier is an old man with gray teeth and yellow jowls. I ask him for a book of stamps, but I really want to ask him if he killed his daughter with secondhand smoke.
I carry out my bags and stuff them into my Camaro's trunk. Her name is Betty, my Camaro. She's got a few dents. She's still a Camaro, right? We've got a two-bedroom place on a complex of rental cabins. Me and Marise and the baby sleep in one; Carla sometimes sleeps in the other. It's in a dingy neighborhood. The youngest kids play that football where they elbow you in the ribs. Older brothers cut symbols into their skin and sneer down passing cars. Daddies sit in busted green lawnchairs and snort shit, shit, shit—like the husk of some forgotten prayer.
In another town, a younger me had a garage, not a driveway. I had tall trees. But I moved here with Marise because it was the only place we could afford. Our landlord suggests not watering the dirt troughs or the brush because cops are suspicious and think we might be growing something. It's probably a good idea. If I get frantic for something green, there's a fourteen-year-old two houses down who sells crates of pot. Here, people twist up beer cans when they can't pay. People shed themselves of hope.
I dump the groceries next to the telephone, which sits on the carpet. Carla's dog scurries over, a ratty Pomeranian. I grab up my bags and kick the dog. Carla and Marise are on the couch watching primetime television, zombied out and passing a bag of cheese puffs back and forth. Both have plump cheeks. They're practically twins, except Carla has freckles and better hair. Her hair is up and defiant, while Marise's hair sags over her face. The room smells like fast food and mothballs. Sweat dribbles off the couch. The swamp cooler's broken, but the window's closed—so Alma won't catch a chill, I guess. I swat away a fly and kick the goddamn dog.
"Bobby, you dumb shit, stop kicking my dog," says Carla.
"Hi to you too, Carla."
"Did you take the coupons with you?"
"We cut out some coupons this morning. You were supposed to take 'em."
Her eyes never touch me; they whirl into the television. She's got this globby hand she shakes at things, though she knows I'm stupid and I need exact directions. She shakes at the kitchen. Somewhere in there's some coupons, I guess. I peek around the corner and there they are, chewed up on the floor inside the veins of a cigarette burn. There must be a hundred cigarette burns on our kitchen floor.
"Your dumbass dog chewed up the coupons," I say.
"What? Bad dog. Whatever. We're out of milk."
"I bought milk. Hey Marise?"
My wife whines out through her nose. She has two mechanical hands. One strokes Alma's infant curls, the other pops cheesethings. It's all gears. I work so long at the cannery that I end up seeing everything on assembly lines. I get this sick idea of the old television, my wife's hands, and the dog's yap, all lining up on a conveyer belt. Drips from the bathroom sink tick the beat. Maybe there's a light flashing out in the hallway. Our factory is on. Raw goods come in. We slouch out.
I ask Marise, "Did you talk to Mr. Bussing about cleaning the hallways?"
"Yeah. He'll pay me twenty dollars."
"Okay. Was he an asshole?"
"He made some stupid joke. I didn't say anything, you know?"
Mr. Bussing is our landlord. Always has a beer and never shares.
I ask, "Is he gonna get somebody to fix the washing machines?"
"Nah, he's getting rid of 'em. Says the power bill's too high."
Carla says, "You sure as hell don't help, Bobby. You're always watching this goddamn idiot box. Besides, it's too much violence. It's not good for the girl."
She frowns and burps at my television habits. The goddamn dog's on my chair, so I swipe him off and crash. I scratch my temples and finger my wallet in my back pocket, thinking about what I'll do on my one night off. There's what I won't do. Call my parents. Go swimming at the lake. Empty a rope down a window and scramble off the fire escape into a new jingle.
But I wouldn't want to: there's Alma. I'm helpless. God took a fat yellow peach and shoved it into Alma's eyes. Now every time I stare at my little girl, I love. Like now, where she's up on the arm of the couch like a hounddog, a random smile tweaking the edges of her lips, engrossed in her world at some tiny play act. In third grade, we could recreate movies on the bars of the jungle gym. But Alma's only three. I can't remember how little it took to charge me when I was like Alma, young and tender, made up more of light than anything else.
Carla grabs a pack of Marlboros off the top of the TV. She shakes her hand for my lighter. I go for it and discover a hole in my front pocket.
I check again. The hole's still there.
Again. Still a hole.
Everything goes small. My ears start buzzing.
I mumble, "Shit."
"What?" Carla asks.
"These pants ripped. The pocket's gone."
"So? Don't you have other pants?"
"I had all the change from the groceries in there. And the cash. The cash for the rent."
That gets them. Carla turns off the television.
"The rent money?"
"Look, it's not my fault . . . It's not like I got money for new pants."
Carla snorts. "Money for new pants? We're sitting here all day taking care of your little brat. She puked in the kitchen. We had to clean it up. We ran out of paper towels and the kitchen's still all nasty."
I stare at Alma. She giggles. I refuse to imagine my goofy redhead puking. I can see her singing about tomorrow and handing me a glass of milk. I try to ignore Carla.
"I got all that," I mutter. "Towels and stuff."
Now Carla groans and starts yelling. "Yeah, then you lost the rent money? Fantastic. Just fucking great."
She really gets uncorked. Her words take her straight off the couch and into my face.
I can smell her breath and she can see my scars. Now Alma starts bawling, of course, and Marise tucks her down into her lap, tapping her back. Marise looks like she's about to jump off a bridge. She stares at her red-faced sister and her dopey husband. Her husband, I guess.
I say, "Carla, lay off us, okay?"
"Us? Don't drag my sister into this. She's a fucking saint."
Carla snorts. "Like hell. You know what you bought your family for Christmas, you sonofabitch?"
Sure I know.
"A subscription to TV Guide. A basket full of broken fucking toys. You know what a nice dinner is? You know what a nice fucking, I don't know, a park or something, every now and then?"
I press my hands on the chair. "I haven't been out in months. You know how much it's going at the place."
Carla snorts again. She taps her cigarette on the arm of the couch and the ashes coast down. "You're fucking disgusting, that's what you are."
A man takes this. It's silly to think he won't. A man is a blubbery sack of a thing. Can't feel like a man for anything, even a Camaro. Balls constantly cupped by utility bills and diapers. He fires down his punch clock lever and buys his groceries, and you think he never cares how his face is always scummy? How he never knows if he's dirty because he looks like a man, or he's dirty because he is?
Oh, Alma's spitty fingers, her huge brown eyes—if she sits in her Marise's lap like that, I can almost love Marise. At least she's got more balls than me. She called up my dad last week to beg him for a loan. I stared out the kitchen window, twisting up an empty Budweiser can, listening to her get cut off, listening to her lungs go red. She's got more balls than me, but a man can only take so much of this Carla bullshit.
I think all this. Then I say, "My landlord's been on my ass about you for months, Carla. When's the last time you put in a little rent? When's the last time you opened some goddamn doors around this place?"
Carla's freckles look like islands. "You're insane, you sonofabitch. I don't know what you're talking about."
"Okay." That's all I say is okay.
Carla lurches up. She bends over, grabs her dog and points it at my face. "You think you can run this? Call your daddy, why don't you. Hey, you know something? Fuck you, honey." She spins over to Marise. "Sister, you married an asshole." Then her Pomeranian yips and Carla storms out, slamming the door. They're sturdy, these doors.
The slam echoes. The bathroom sink drips. Alma is still crying, and Marise looks shriveled.
I say, "Alma, baby. Marise. Marise, I'm sorry."
This happens every couple weeks.
It's silly to think it wouldn't.
"It's okay," Marise murmurs, like the lie of a century.
I go through the kitchen into the bathroom and flick the switch. The mirror's not very nice. Or I guess I look that bad. I look like I'm gonna kill my daughter with secondhand smoke. I look clueless in a ratty green T-shirt. I try to look fierce, but my eyes stay somewhere deep, somewhere crusty. It figures.
I whisper, "Whoop-dee-do."
"What'd you say, Bobby?" Marise asks.
"The sink drips."
I ask, "That diner ever call you back about the dishwashing job?"
"Couldn't you lie or something?"
Then I want to leave. "Let's go to the park."
"I don't feel like going to the park." She's turned the TV back on.
Suddenly, I feel hard about it, like it's all her fault. I shout, "Can I at least take my fucking daughter to the park?"
"I'm tired, Bobby."
"Take a nap! Shit."
"I can't. You know that."
"I can take care of my daughter for thirty fucking minutes, can't I? Can't I!" Can't I hits the chipped paint in the bathtub, can't I rings the toilet whose knob is broken and we flush with a string, can't I lilts to the teenage pot dealers floating some odd doors down.
And Marise sighs, "Sure, baby. Sure."
I go back into the living room. "Alma, honey. Daddy's gonna take you to the park."
Alma squeals. She was just crying a few minutes ago. She kills me. I have to buy a tape recorder for when she says her first thing. Daddy, mommy, piss, couch, puppy, anything.
"What'd you get for dinner?" Marise asks.
"Hot dogs and a can of green beans."
"I'll cook them up later, I guess."
"We can go to the park?"
Marise stares up at me for a second as I hover over. Then she giggles, nervous. "What, I can stop you, Bobby? I can't stop shit." She tugs stuffing from the couch. I tuck my shoulders in. We're separate glass dolls, I think, and if we tried to get too close, we would cut each other on our edges. Yet I guess I should hold her. Maybe there are still a couple of those wooly magic words. But she rises, grabs the groceries and carries them into the kitchen. I don't touch her at all.
I sit down next to Alma.
We don't drive to the park. It's getting late. The air around the streetlamps has gone frothy. Crickets pepper the bushes and the sundown slows everything. Some houses have these teenagers sprawled on truckbeds in the driveway, listening to rap music. "You bastards," I want to shout. "You'll steal my daughter. You'll get all cocky in the face, and then something happens, and you'll get all numb in the eyes." I can't shout stuff like that. Because I'm fucking cracked, is how Carla might put it.
We drive to the cannery. The last shift is closing up. Arturo, the young security guard, waves me past the gate into the back parking lot. He's got a big grin. "You got your little Alma with you," he says, and I nod. He thinks her name is really funny, but I think her name is just my high school Spanish and the spindles of my crazy hope. We drive past and park.
"Careful now," I whisper to Alma. We climb the stairs to the cannery roof. It's a long climb, and Alma holds my hand.
Once we get up there, it's safe: it's got huge fences. They put them up because I guess some people used to jump off. That's the rumor anyway. Doesn't shock me. Not one bit.
"Take a look, baby girl. Take a look."
She puts her tiny fingers through the fence links, eyes soft and wide. I can't imagine what she's looking at in this dingy town. I light a cigarette. I'm sorry God, but I think I'm killing my daughter with secondhand smoke. Killing her with a life bumbled through in cheap, torn jeans.
Then Alma turns to look up at me and points at me and says, "I'll ma."
I'm floored. "You'll what?"
She's saying her name. Holy shit. She's saying her name. With peaches in her eyes and everything. I think of the way rivers used to feel before I knew fish existed. I think of my first all-nighter dawn. I think of a woman's back in the shower. "Alma," I say.
"Alma," she says, pointing at me. I shake my head, pointing back at her. She shakes her head and runs to the fence. We don't have money for a tape recorder, and now I wish Marise were here. And I don't know if it's because I love her or it's for her balls. Alma starts chanting her own name like a Barney song. "Holy hell," I mutter. It's like my life has gone all movie-weird. Alma hasn't seen that many movies, since they're ten bucks a pop, but maybe that's the only thing that lets her look this dorky. I light another cigarette. Now Alma coughs, but she keeps at it. I suck and sigh smoke, and it will probably kill my daughter, but it steadies things. I stare over my town. Everyone looks like someone I know but have never bothered to care for. Cannery workers punch out for the day. They sit down on the pavement and litter soda cans, like most every night. Alma keeps coughing, but she keeps at the chant.
It's like my life has gone all movie-weird, which turns me a burnt sort of lucky.