A drunk approaches a policeman and says his car has been stolen. The cop asks where the last place he saw the vehicle was. “Right here at the end of my key,” the drunk says, holding a ring of them up. “Okay,” says the cop, “but you might want to zip up your fly before we go looking for it.” “Damnit!” says the drunk, glancing downward, “they got my girl, too!” – ghost of Townes Van Zandt; Mission Beach, San Diego; 2000 A.D.
My ex-wife, who never bothered to legally become “ex,” let herself into my apartment with my extra key and slid into bed with me. She does this when she’s between boyfriends. I wasn’t actually between girlfriends at the moment, but she didn’t ask, and I didn’t volunteer it. We got to going, the first time in a while. We know each other’s buttons better than the rest do. She started making a racket until the bums in the alley below eventually called up, “Get a room!” About a million clever and witty rejoinders flooded my brain, but then she came again, and the sensation of her pussy locking down on my cock like a vice squeezed it out of me and I blew it deep inside her.
We lay there, me still in her. We heard our daughter, safe in her bedroom, roll over and clunk the bed against the wall, but she didn’t wake. I always turn on the fan in her room so she doesn’t hear anything if unexpected company arrives. As my erection melted inside my ex, and I prepared to exit, she grabbed my cheeks between her thumb and fingers and forced me to look her in the eyes, which she knows is no longer my favorite thing to do.
“Someday,” she said, “you can write about this. It doesn’t have to be the point of the story, just a telling detail.”
“Yes, dear,” I said, and went to the bathroom for a piss and a few gulps of water palmed from the sink. No condom. Everyone but her.
The next morning, I pretended to sleep through her leaving. When our daughter woke up and toddled into my room, no sign of her mother remained. I dressed her, brushed her hair, set her up at the breakfast nook with cornflakes and Sesame Street. Slapped a coat on her and walked her to pre-school. On my way back, the call came to my cell. I checked the caller ID, then ignored it, careful to not hit the button that would send it to voicemail automatically. Lily must have taken this as encouragement, though, because she immediately called again and then again.
Lily was the one after the ex-wife, but two before the current girlfriend. Ish.
She waited awhile before calling a fourth time, and, out of respect for her persistence, I picked it up.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Not really,” she said.
“605 West 4th.”
“Christ,” I said. “Again?”
“I’m out front,” she said. “I’m discharged. You don’t have to sign anything or vouch for me. Just come pick me up.”
“And go where?”
“Try again,” I said. “The little girl is home the next two days.”
“How is she?”
“That’s the age.”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“Chris is probably still out at the KOA.”
“Nothing. I admire your guys’ consistency. I’ll be there in 30.”
I picked up my pace slightly to get back to the apartment. Upstairs, I stuck my Sig-Sauer into my IWB holster and then tucked the holster into my jeans. This was an overabundance of precaution. The gun did not belong to Chekhov.
Lily was as good as her word, standing outside the drunk tank, or “Detoxification & Sobering Center,” as the euphemism would have it. She looked tired. She was a few years older than me; she had a younger sister my age that I’d never met. Anyway, what was a three-year gap could easily have been ten looking at her exhausted, makeup-smeared face. She smiled wanly as I got out of the car to open the trunk for her backpack. She hugged me before putting it in.
“That looks full,” I said, referencing the hiking pack. “Where have you been staying?”
“Nowhere good,” she said.
“Is this all that’s left?”
“No, I have a storage locker still.”
“And how are you affording that?”
“You know, month to month. Kindness of strangers. Mom put a few months’ worth down in July.”
“Do you need to run by it before we go to the KOA?”
She shook her head “no,” eyes downcast as she swung her pack into the trunk. She never looked me in the eye anymore. It always seemed like she was intent on a point just below my left ear. It gave the impression there were things she was trying not to say.
“I’m sorry you can’t stay at mine.”
“‘Everyone knows what your priorities are,’ right?” She quoted me back to myself. There was no anger in it anymore.
“All right, then,” she said.
“What kind of mood has Chris been in lately?”
“Haven’t seen him.”
“I’ll drop you at the entrance and spare all of us the social niceties.”
“What do you care? You brought your gun, right? Back slumming among the dirtbags? Doesn’t he still owe you money?”
He did, in fact. To overcome a particularly severe case of writer’s block, I’d bought some shrooms from him, only to find out after consuming them that they had been laced with PCP. It was a bad trip, about as close as I ever got to killing myself, and he’d said he’d give me my $20 back, but we’d fallen out of touch. While $20 wasn’t going to make or break my week, there was the principle at stake, and it irked me that I was out of pocket for the bar-none worst experience of my life.
“All right,” I said, realizing she was right, and that having the gun gave me an outsize, stupid sense that I could protect myself. And her. “I’ll stop in and say ‘hi’ real quick.”
“Good,” she said. “You can get material for your stories. It’ll be just like old times.”
This is what she had always said before convincing me to go on some batshit-crazy excursion to White-Trashville. And it always worked: I always went. And some of the stories turned out not too bad.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s have some grist for the mill.”
The campground sat along a slow-moving river. I hooked a left into the parking lot and winded my way down the serpetine drive to where Chris’s trailer had been the last time I was here. It was still in the same place.
I pulled to a stop in front of the trailer and put on the emergency brake. Lily was already halfway out the door, intent on retrieving her worldly belongings. She popped the hatchback and heaved the pack up over both shoulders. She cinched all the straps, though she was only walking about 25 feet along a dirt path to Chris’s door.
“Well?” she said, looking at me standing by the driver’s side door.
“Go knock,” I said, the hood of the car still strategically positioned between the front door and my lower body.
“Psh,” she scoffed, and made her way down the path and up the three stairs. “You don’t trust fuckin’ anybody.”
She knocked. Chris opened the door quickly and smiled, then scanned the surrounding area and, seeing me, unintentionally let the corners of his smile drop. He tried to recover quickly.
“Look at y’all! My ol’ fuckin’ friends!” he said. “C’mon in and let’s have a goddamn reunion.”
Lily wordlessly pushed him aside and went in the door. I stood there a moment, looking at him. He looked back, trying to remember what a faultless expression looked like.
“Que paso, vaquero?” he eventually said in an effort to break the tension.
“Nada,” I said, and began making my way up to the door. “Vamanos.”
Lily and I collapsed onto opposite ends of his filthy couch while Chris fished green Rolling Rock bottles out of his fridge and opened them with a bottle opener, even though they were twist-offs. I tried not to notice or care that she had casually deposited her pack in the back bedroom, which I knew to be his. That was Lily’s currency. If I let it continue to bother me, that was my fault.
“Where y’all been?” Chris asked, handing us the beers.
“Just around,” Lily said, gulping half the beer, seemingly afraid somebody was going to take it away from her. The shaking in her hand almost immediately and noticeably eased.
“How about you, Professor?”
“I’ll tell you,” I said, taking a swig and trying to broach the topic before we all got too friendly and my nerve failed me, “I’ve been looking for that $20 you owe me?”
“How’s that?” he said. He played dumb so well it inspired doubt he was playing.
“You sold me laced shrooms.”
“And I didn’t pay you for laced shrooms.”
“So you got a bonus, then.”
“You know goddamn well you said it was a mistake and you were going to give me my money back, Chris,” I said. “This one here heard you.” I gestured toward Lily with the longneck of my beer bottle.
“Hmmm,” he said, considering it. “Is that right?”
He asked Lily and cocked his head. She stared intently at a spot on the carpet, which was actually more spots than carpet, then took another long pull on her beer. She had about 10% of the bottle left. Apparently I wasn’t the only one she couldn’t look in the eye anymore.
“Well, I’ll tell you what, Professor,” he said to me, knowing I hated that nickname, twisting the dagger, “I’m not going to sit here and tell you I don’t have the $20. I’m not going to sit here and insult your intelligence. Because you are intelligent. I give you that.”
He smiled, and his meth-melted teeth reflected how little he cared about anything, how little he had to lose.
“But I’m not gonna give it to you,” he said. “I’m just not. You like hanging out with people like her and me because it makes good ‘copy,’ but I tell you what: you’re a fucking tourist. You know it. I know it. She knows it. That’s why she liked you. Thought you could get her out of all this. And that’s why you always bring your big shiny gun down to see all of us. Like we don’t have guns too, right? But not as nice as yours. Just like everything. Just like life.”
I nodded thoughtfully and took another sip off my beer. My sips were much smaller than Lily’s. I felt my throat constricting. I looked at the wall. I had to pick my daughter up from daycare in six hours if the clock was right. There was no way in hell the clock was right.
“Well, Chris,” I said, “much as I’d like to stay here and ‘slap leather’ with you and your less aesthetically pleasing firearm, I have to be on with my day.”
I put the beer on the floor next to the couch. I stood up. I watched him warily. He kept both hands on the counter, one on his beer bottle, one flat on the Formica. I walked slowly, no sudden movements. I got to the door and opened it and, while holding it ajar, turned around to face both of them.
“Now, I want you both to enjoy that $20 in good health,” I said. “I want you to use it to fix your fucking teeth, you stupid white trash.”
At this, Lily finally looked up. There was no anger in her eyes, only sadness. Chris’s right hand tightened on the beer bottle, but his left stayed flat on the Formica.
“You,” I said, looking at Chris, “I’m lucky to be quit of for the low, low price of $20. And you,” I said, meeting Lily’s eyes, “the next time you’re in the tank, you call somebody else. Because he’s right: I ain’t about this shit. I got enough imagination to write stories without you fuckers and your dipshit shenanigans.”
I turned quickly and shut the door behind me. I didn’t run to the car, but I didn’t walk slowly either. I was glad when I was sitting in the driver’s seat with my gun on my lap and a clear view of the front door. No one came out. No one followed me. It didn’t mean that much to any of us. I put it in reverse, backed onto the street, and wound my way out of the trailer park.
I woke up in the morning in my bed next to the current girlfriend, with only about a 40% recollection of how I’d gotten there. I snaked my arm around her waist and went to kiss her neck, but she shoved me off.
“Un-unh,” she said emphatically, in spite of still being half asleep. “I’m sore. Go take care of yourself in the bathroom.”
“Do you remember any of last night?”
“Sure,” I said, convincing neither of us.
“Okay, well, I picked you up and we came back here and we did it once, which was nice.”
“And then you immediately tried to get it back up again for more. And once you did, it took you fucking forever to come. At which point you tried to get it up again for even more. What the fuck happened yesterday?”
“Nothing,” I said, thinking about the emasculating feelings my inability to recover my money from Chris had brought up, and how the lizard part of my brain must have reacted to that impotence when let loose by a surplus of booze.
“You said you called Leah and asked if she could pick up Saoirse because you had an emergency?”
Guilt and self loathing flooded my brain. I’d left Chris’s and gone straight to the bar. Upon realizing I was too drunk to pick my daughter up, I’d concocted an excuse and begged her mother’s forgiveness. Then, after a few more, I’d called Sally. And she’d picked me up. And brought me here.
“I was just having a rough day,” I said. “Emotionally.”
“Well, I know you don’t want me to ask about it.”
I didn’t. I was half wishing she’d get up and leave and half wishing she’d stay. I knew the self hatred would crescendo once I was alone. Half of me wanted to procrastinate. The other half wanted to get it over with. And have coffee.
“Do you have to work?” she asked.
“I have an article and feature due.”
“All right,” she said, collecting her clothes. “Don’t thank me for the rescue. You’re more than welcome.”
“I could have walked,” I said, defensively.
“Yeah, you’re self contained.”
“So let me ask you this, then,” she said. “What are you trying to prove?”
“Nothing to nobody,” I said. “Anymore.”
“I’m not sure even you are self delusional enough to believe that,” she said. She had pulled on her clothes while we talked. She hoisted her purse. She bent over and kissed me on the forehead.
“Give it a few days, okay?” she said.
She nodded and walked out. I pretended I didn’t know I was supposed to say something, chase after her. I turned on the espresso machine, put on the kettle for the French press. I sat down at the computer.
The article took 80 minutes. I was halfway through the feature after another two hours when my cell rang. Caller ID said Lily, again. Disgusted with the whole charade, I just picked it up and waited.
“You could have stuck up for me, y’know?” she said without prompting. “If not yourself.”
“I took you exactly where you asked to go, and he didn’t say an ill word about you the whole time I was there,” I said. “How did you need sticking up for?”
“And do you think that luck held after the bullshit you pulled?”
“Hey, you knew I was going to bring it up,” I said. “If you thought it was going to go bad for you, you could have taken me up on my offer to drop you in the driveway.”
“I didn’t know you were going to piss him off so bad,” she said. “You have such a gift for being a dick.”
“Tell you what, next time, just call him directly, and we’ll skip the middle man. Okay?”
“No, I’m calling you.”
“Because you’ll show up.”
“The fuck I will.”
“No, you will,” she said. “It’s some fucked up thing you have with your mom and your wife and your daughter. You’re a fucking people pleaser, and a million times worse if it’s a woman. You can’t help yourself.”
“Bullshit,” I said. “My mom’s dead. And ex-wife.”
“And you still love both of them. And that’s all the more reason. You always say you’re about ‘Oracle-of-Delphi’ knowledge and ‘capital-T’ truth, so let’s not bullshit each other: You’re still coming next time I call.”
“Baby,” I said, “wait and see. Where’s your boy right now?”
“He ran out for smokes,” she said. “Thanks for the rescue, cowboy. Didn’t get the chance to say it as you made a hasty retreat. See you next time.”
I hung up abruptly. When she called back, I didn’t answer. Any of the times. All of the times.
Tom Hoisington is a journalist living in Eugene, Ore., with his daughter and cat.