I’m not there five minutes and Cici’s going off on me: Big college boy. Too smart to clear a few tables. Too good to work in the kitchen. I thought she’d go after me for wearing a shirt with a collar, but she didn’t go that way. That’s not how it was going to go down.
“Why you giving me shit? Why you gotta be that way?”
She grins as if it’s supposed to disarm me. It makes me even more pissed, but she is surrounded by a bunch of volunteer firefighters moving cases of soda and beer in from a truck. Church ladies are straightening their blouses every time they do anything. One is stacking napkins. One is making piles of ones and fives for change, and another is taking the cellophane off stacks of playing cards. Night’s coming, and I can see that they are all working hard and don’t care to notice me one way or the other.
“What do you need me to do?”
She nods her head toward the front of the restaurant. “Sweep,” she says. And I do. I tap myself a pitcher of beer for inspiration, and before long, it’s easy to sweep in long, easy pushes, like I am getting all Zen in a world competition of sweeping. For the first time in weeks it feels like I am good at something.
* * *
I’m at Lackawanna now. Everybody asks me what I’m studying, and I don’t know what to say. I don’t feel like I’m working on anything. I’m just going to the classes they set me up with when I got there. About a week before school started, I met with a lady who sat me down and said, “Let’s just think business, okay?” and told me to take an intro to business class, a math class, a writing class, and a psych class.
They are interesting enough, I guess. And there are breaks between, so I can do work if I need to or just hang out and not have to fill my time or get a hall pass or all the stuff of high school. But it’s also a lot like high school, only with just the dumb kids left. It’s like all of us who decided too late to get it together wound up here. There are other kids from my high school, but they’re all younger, and we don’t hang out. When I see somebody, it’s like they pretend I’m not even there. Which is fine, because sometimes so do I.
* * *
The place starts looking good. The church ladies have tablecloths straightened, there are some streamers draped over the game tables. They have blackjack, a craps table, a roulette wheel, some poker tables, the whole deal. Miniature Atlantic City right here. Two guys in ties have shown up and they are hanging Kiwanis banners and signs. Cici has yammered for years about helping the children and shit like that, and now here we are, decorating the place to lure in the bingo crowd and help some children. Those shits better be grateful. I never got a handout, but hell, I’ll play along.
I stop sweeping for a minute to look around, at all the activity, at all these people here to do something at a place that twice before was on the skids. Cici doesn’t know shit about business, never has, but it’s hard to screw up pizza. She’s lucky her staff knows what to do, and that we’re pretty much the only game in town that isn’t a shitty diner. But she’s come a hell of a way to have the Kiwanis come here and use her place for a casino night. As I am thinking about this, leaning on my broom, I catch her looking me over. It’s like she has it written on her face: How are you going to fuck this up for me tonight?
I grin at her, wave a hand at all this stuff set up. She scowls and pretends to push a broom. So I push a broom toward the kitchen, where I get myself another pitcher of beer.
* * *
Bess answers on the first ring, like she knew I’d be calling, like she was waiting there the whole time. I tell her where I am, what I’m doing. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask about school, doesn’t sound surprised that I’m back, nothing. She just tells me she’ll be over.
The parking lot is filling up, and as I hang up and hear the phone eat the quarter, a Cadillac slows down and stops right by me. I recognize Judge Grines when he steps out of the car and stretches to put on his coat—tall, impressed with himself, doing that thing where he seems to scowl and smirk at the same time, like I remember from court. He turns to me, not a clue who I am, and tells me the keys are in it. It’s still running and he walks toward the door.
“What’re you telling me that for?” I say.
Grines turns, pulls his suit coat closed and buttons it, then grins at me like I’m his dog. “So you can park it.”
I think, Does he have any fucking clue? I could drive this car away. I could ram it into a telephone pole. I could take a shit in the trunk. I almost say, “You have no idea who I am,” but what would he say?
I get in the car. The engine is so smooth I’m not even sure the thing is on until I put it in drive. A woman’s voice tells me to fasten my seatbelt. I grin despite myself.
I park it real close to a pickup truck with a Semper Fi bumper sticker and an NRA decal.
* * *
Cici is at the front. She’s changed her clothes, and she is wearing a flashy blue dress, earrings, pearls. I’ve never seen her look less like herself. She looks like she is from another planet more than the woman who was wearing an AC/DC t-shirt and telling me This is a big fucking deal and I don’t need you fucking it up somehow, OK? She’s not standing there talking to these people like that. She’s not saying Welcome to fucking casino night for fucking charity, you fucking losers. She’s so fake I want to puke. Instead, I get another pitcher of beer.
In the kitchen, the guys are pulling pizzas out of the oven and instead of cutting them in regular slices, they cut them in little squares. Frankie is cutting vegetables and putting them on big platters. A couple of guys I’ve never seen are wrapping something with bacon and sticking toothpicks in it.
I go to chill in the walk-in, drinking beer and eating grated cheese out of a bag, sitting on an overturned bucket, trying to calm down.
Grines was known throughout the county as one of the old school, hard-liner guys who would lay into people for shit like truancy and jaywalking, and he had a special hatred for kids. The defender who worked with me said he was a big minimum sentence guidelines guy, and so while my distinguished criminal career consisted of tagging shit, a few fights, and getting nailed carrying a couple pounds of bud, lack of a family, lack of money, and lack of wits got me into juvie. Mitch said watching Grines take care of business looked like he was just sitting there with his dick hard that he was saving the world.
Frankie comes in for something and sees me sitting there with my face full of cheese and my ass on a bucket.
“Zeke, man, what the hell are you doing?”
“Hanging. This shit is lame.”
“Your aunt needs you, man,” he says. “This is important. This goes well, maybe we get another one. Get some catering.”
“The fuck do I care?”
Frankie’s shoulders slump. “Come on, man. Just lend a hand. It ain’t the end of the world.”
I drain the rest of the beer. “You guys got this covered. She just wants me around to clean the shit up after everybody leaves.”
“Watch yourself,” he says, looking at the pitcher.
I leave the walk-in, fill another pitcher, and head to the lot to keep an eye out for Bess.
* * *
Cici’s in the kitchen now, hissing at us, giving me the stink eye and every time she barks at somebody these ridiculous earrings she’s wearing wag and bat against the side of her neck.
“Zeke, you have got to get your shit together. I need you to bus the glasses out there,” she says. She points at the kitchen door. “The trays are gonna fall over there are so many dishes on them.”
“I’m not going out there,” I say, trying hard to speak clearly.
“Yes, you are,” she says. “Oh yes you are. I need your help. This is your college money, right here, smartass. You will get out there.”
“Do you even know who’s out there?”
The question stops her. I’m not sure if it’s because she is just surprised by what I said or if she actually knows who I am talking about. The kitchen gets quiet suddenly, and I look to see if we are being watched, but everyone is working. Knives are going, pizza is sliding into the oven, the place has a kind of hum. I hear the murmur of people and bursts of laughing and the sounds of the party. And then Cici shakes her head. “What are you talking about?”
She wouldn’t know. Why would she? She wasn’t there. Too drunk to see straight, out of touch with me and the family where I landed, unaware of where Edith got to, by the time I stood in juvenile court, by the time things had gotten out of hand, like my foster mom liked to say, she was out of it. High all the time, partying with different guys. From what I was able to piece together, she probably had even forgotten Edith or I ever existed.
“The judge is out there,” I say. I say it low. I want the kitchen guys to keep at it. I want this between her and me, but if I don’t say anything, she pitches a fit. So here I am, talking low, telling her, “Grines.”
She lowers her head, eyes me. “Who is Grines?” Maybe she’s just doing it because I am, but she is talking low.
“Grines. The judge. The guy who”—I glance over at the cooks, who are still busy—“the guy who sent me to juvie.”
She looks at the cooks herself, then down, and then back up to me.
“You did that to yourself, buddy,” she says, softly, almost like she is taking pity on me, even though she’s not, even though what she’s saying is bullshit. “I need your help, so work it out.”
She looks me in the eye for another second or so, then turns and walks back out front.
* * *
I grab a black tub, fold a towel over my shoulder, take a deep breath, and push through the kitchen door. Keeping my eyes on the floor, I walk behind the tables, trying not to look around. It’s too loud to pick out any voices, and when I pile glasses and little plates in the tub, the noise is all I can hear, all I focus on. I start dropping glasses in the tub, each one a little harder, wondering when one will break.
Somebody’s yelling in the kitchen. Then it sounds like plates are breaking. Cici is at once a blue streak at the edge of what I can see, beelining for the kitchen. I move to another tray, and I see Bess’s busted wood-panel minivan tear-ass into the parking lot. A few of the heads in the room spin in her wake, looking out the front windows, where the drive comes near the building, wondering at the busted muffler noise of her dramatic entrance. It’s apeshit in the kitchen, so nobody back there hears when I drop the tub and a couple of glasses shatter.
Pushing through the crowd toward the front door, I see Grines with a big grin on his face, shaking a pair of dice in his hand like he thinks he is all winner.
* * *
“I’m not gonna get towed, right?” It’s the first thing she says, pointing back at her van parked cockeyed by the Dumpster.
I chuckle. “Not tonight. Not with what’s going down in that fucking place.”
We look at each other. She looks like she dressed in a hurry, Eagles jersey kind of crooked, jeans not pegged, shoes untied. She lifts her chin and says, “You called?”
“Yeah,” I say. “What are you doing?”
She crosses her arms and says, “Standing here talking to you. Wondering what there is to drink.”
“We’ll have to figure something out, ‘cause I can’t go back in there and get anything,” I say. I stick my hands in my pockets, and when I do, I hit the keys to the Caddy.
“Hey,” I say, “you want to see something?”
Without uncrossing her arms, she shrugs and says, “Whattaya got?”
“You’re not gonna believe this.”
I wave at her to follow me, and as she walks next to me, she leans into me, gives me a shoulder, and stays there for a minute. She smells different, a new perfume, a new shampoo, something. Older, somehow.
When we get to the Caddy I stop and hold my arms out, like ta da!
“Is this yours?” she asks.
“Fuck no. You will not believe whose it is, though,” I say. “This piece of shit car,” I say, then I kick the bumper, which hurts without having any visible effect on the car, “this piece of shit belongs to Judge Grines. And Judge Grines is the piece of shit that sent me to juvie.”
Bess looks around then, as if she has just realized how full the lot is, how much light is pouring out of the pizza joint, just how much noise is surrounding us. “What’s the deal about tonight?” She looks back at me. “And why is he here?”
“Kiwanis thing. Cici’s all hobnobbing and shit, having rich people here for charity,” I say. I describe how Grines showed up and thought I was the valet, at a charity event at a shitty pizza place, as if this happened all the time.
Bess looks down at the car and says, real slowly, like she’s figuring things out as she says it, “And you have the keys to his car?”
Grines’ keys. I start thinking of the possibilities: take it for a drive, piss all over the steering wheel, break off the rearview, see if I can talk Bess into screwing in the back of it. I remember when he arrived, I thought, Shit in the trunk, and I laugh. Bess laughs, too, but she does it looking at me. She doesn’t know what’s going on. The possibilities are bright and fun.
As I am just about ready to act, I hear Cici’s voice, yelling my name, and for a minute there is no other sound.
“I’ll be right back,” I say.
* * *
When I walk into the kitchen, a bunch of steel bowls are on the floor, the cooks are quiet and still, and Cici is by the big walk-in, the heel of her hand pushed into her forehead, her eyes closed tightly. And I can see the mascara trails starting. The front is loud, party loud, like things are really cooking. The cooks notice me first, and the guy nearest to me starts shaking his head at me, his eyes getting wider as he does it.
“Hey,” I say. Just loud enough.
Her head snaps up and her eyes open, but her face is calm.
She pinches a hair from her forehead, moves it to the back of her head, and then dabs once at an eye before saying, to no one in particular, “This was a mistake.”
She takes a few steps toward me and rests a hand on my shoulder. She turns to the cooks. “We are overwhelmed. We can’t do this.”
The cooks look at their feet. One clatters a knife onto the table.
“Forget the fancy shit,” she says. “Just keep pizzas coming. Everybody’s drunk anyway.”
She turns to me. I expect her to say Where the hell have you been or something like that. Instead, she pats me again on the shoulder, and then runs her hand down my chest before dropping it to her side. “Fun night back, huh?”
I don’t know what to say. I want to hit her and hug her at the same time.
Then, without thinking, “You need me to go back in there and pick up?”
She clearly thinks about it for a second. “Nah. Nobody is paying any attention any more. As long as we don’t run out of beer.” She laughs, a scraping sound. “As long as there’s beer we’re fine.”
“You just called me,” I say.
She nods, the kind of slow nod that comes before she says something crazy or mean. I even take a step back. But she looks up, calm.
“I did. I did—but . . .” She looks at me for a long time. “You’re a man now, right?”
She crosses her arms and pushes her shoulders back. “You’re a man, of age. Capable of handling your business.”
“Yeah. I guess. Sure.”
She looks at her feet and then straight at me. “Then be one. Don’t come back. You can stay the night, but have your stuff out of the house. Find an apartment, get a job. Do something, but don’t do it here.”
I don’t know why, but I think of my dad, his ridiculous Volkswagen bus, the collar up on his shirt, and that I will always see him grinning, will always remember him as happier than shit when he was just about to disappear. I want to be happy, because I know I am about to disappear, like everybody does, but she is making it hard.
Cici continues when I say nothing. “I can’t depend on you. I can’t rely on you, and you don’t step up until I lose it, until it’s too late.”
My dad was always happy on the run. How did he do that? Why didn’t I get that—to know how to leave?
Cici says, “I’m done with you.”
Frankie starts crashing pizza trays into the washer. The other guys follow him, banging things around, a flurry of action to cover the fallout where Cici and I stand, Cici rooted to the floor, me floating, melting, scattering.
“How much of my beer did you drink tonight?” she says. “How much of my food did you eat? How much of my stuff will be in your bag when you clear out tomorrow?”
It has long stunned me the things she thinks I do, the wickedness she finds in the fact that I am even around her. I have never known what to say to show her.
At the moment, I can’t even speak to her. And I have to watch her figure that out as guilt, to look at me as dirt, to watch me disappear in front of her.
* * *
Bess is sitting on the trunk of the Caddy. She is grinning until I get closer and she sees my face. “Get off the car,” I say. “Let’s see what’s in this fucking thing.”
I pop the trunk, and it’s a mess in there. He’s got jumper cables, a golf bag, muddy shoes, a couple of life jackets, a tool box, and a big white box labeled MARINE CRUISER EMERGENCY KIT. It’s like it’s singing to me: shit in the box. Shit in the box. I know normally I’d laugh about it, but I don’t.
When I open it, Bess says, “What are you doing?”
“Gonna shit in the box,” I say. She starts howling with laughter.
“Oh my god! Not here,” she says. “Oh my god.”
I chuckle, reluctantly. “Not here, no.” I look around, a hedge, back by the dumpster, somewhere away from the lights. The nearest building is the auto body shop at the end of Cici’s parking lot.
“Where can I go?”
“Take it inside,” she says. “Just head to the restroom.”
“Right,” I say. “Just waltz in with a big fucking box. No one will see that,” I say. “I can’t go back in there, anyway.”
“It’s not that bad,” she says.
I toss the box, open, back into the trunk. Stuff flies everywhere—bandages, bags of food, some cord, and a bright orange flare pistol. I look at the pistol and Bess says, “What?”
“Cici threw me out,” I say, then I grab the flare gun. It has a tear-away piece of plastic at the trigger guard.
“She’ll calm down.”
I could clarify for Bess, but I am not in the mood. I am in the mood to fire the fucking flare gun. I am now in the mood to shoot some shit, up in the sky, across the street, into the woods, somewhere, to make a noise. I remember the night years ago when a bunch of us got a quarter stick and set it off in a gravel pile at the end of a cul-de-sac of new homes, how it rained gravel and lights went on at the other end of the street, new homeowners in those dinky little homes wondering just what the fuck was going on as we scattered, rats in the street, running back toward the dark, the ringing sound of gravel dying.
When I pull the plastic piece away from the trigger, I nearly drop the gun, and as I fumble, the thing fires off to my side. Bess squeals, and I turn to see its white light flare to red just at the top of the trap in the grease dumpster where it lodges, sparks flying everywhere. Pools of grease around it start licking with little orange flames.
Bess breathes, “Fuck.”
“Get your fucking van,” I say, and she is gone.
* * *
Bess is laughing and shaking and driving like hell. I am twitchy, sick, and seriously ill at ease. She keeps asking me what I want to do, and I have nothing to say, no ideas, no answers for anything happening.
As we tear-ass out of there, nothing is happening in the dumpster. The flare just burns, lighting up the whole place. I don’t know if I thought there’d be some kind of explosion, some kind of raging fire, but the flare just hisses and screams light.
Bess bottoms out coming out of the lot, and we almost swerve into the other lane, but she rights the thing and we are halfway out of town by the time she says anything.
“Where are we going?”
“Stop asking me that. I don’t know. Just fucking go.”
After a minute she says, “Do you still have that guy’s keys?”
I pad my jeans. “No. Must’ve left them in the trunk when I popped it.”
“Don’t you think it’ll be weird when you don’t show up?”
I roll the window and let the air rip through my hair. “I am not going back. She threw me out. I told you.”
“I didn’t realize you meant, like, out,” she says. “I thought she just told you to get lost tonight or something.”
“Nah,” I say. “She told me she’s done with me. She made it pretty clear.”
She pulls into a Wawa and parks on the side of the building. It’s lit up, but it still looks closed. We sit there for a minute before she turns in her seat and looks at me.
“Do you need to go back and get your stuff before she gets to the house?”
I shake my head. My eyes start to sting so I inhale deep.
“All that’s there are clothes. And not many. My books are at school. They give commuters lockers,” I say, then laugh. “It’s just like fucking high school. Except you pay for it. Well, she pays for it. But not any more.”
“What about your car?”
It dawns on me how little I actually have in this world. She holds the title to my car. All I can do is shrug.
“What are you gonna do?”
I have no fucking idea.
Bess climbs between the seats then and flops into the back. The van rocks a little and then stills. Like always, she is going through the motions she knows well. She says, “Come back here. I can take it off your mind for a little while. I’ll help you out. Be your partner in crime.”
I try to be game. I chuckle. “Yeah, I am now a fugitive arsonist on the run. I got no home, no place to call—” and I stop. I can’t even speak. I crush my fists into my legs and will myself not to break, and then I feel her hand on my neck, and then she is pulling me toward her in a way she never has. Something simpler, something more generous than she has ever been, and so I lay into her and stay there for quite some time.
Gabriel Welsch writes fiction and poetry, and is the author of four collections of poems, the most recent of which is The Four Horsepersons of a Disappointing Apocalypse (Steel Toe Books, 2013). His fiction has appeared widely, in journals including Georgia Review, New Letters, Mid-American Review, Ascent, Cream City Review, Quarter After Eight, Chautauqua, Tupelo Quarterly, The Collagist, and Pembroke Magazine. His story, “Groundscratchers,” originally published in The Southern Review, was a “Distinguished Story” in The Best American Short Stories 2012. He lives in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, with his family, works as vice president of advancement and marketing at Juniata College, and is an occasional teacher at the Chautauqua Writer’s Center.