“Stick to the straight and narrow,” Randle told me as we rode in his truck. He was my mother’s current boyfriend, and his Chevy smelled like breath mints and sweat. “That means no hooch. Not until you get your sea legs. Till then, find a cheap beer you can stomach.”
“Right,” I said.
“I myself am a Heineken man, as you know.”
He lifted the center console to show me some old empties. Then he cornered briskly, and the buckets and cooler in the bed slid around like dead fish on deck.
Randle had been bringing me along to paint houses with him since school had let out for the summer. Said he wanted to give my mother some space. She was recovering from back surgery, which for some time now had involved shuttering herself in his bedroom, emerging only at odd hours to eat bowls of Corn Pops over the sink.
At least it was all temporary—that’s what my mother’d promised me back in March. We’d stay for a while with Randle in his bunkerish rambler downstream of Seattle, then we’d move back to the city. Have our own place again. And I’d believed her—because I knew temporary. I didn’t trust my mother, but I trusted temporary. Temporary was every living arrangement we’d ever had. Temporary was each of her previous boyfriends—Derek, Keith, Leon—those brief interludes of mustaches and know-how, hazy in my memory.
But Randle stands out clearly. I can still picture him that morning in the truck—his sunburnt face. Earth-tone flecks of paint on his forearms. Tawny shorts that rubbed a hairless patch into his thighs. His t-shirts he bought by the rack from the Goodwill, ravaged one per day with sweat and spatter. That week he’d already been a volunteer for a diabetes walk, a fan of John Cougar Mellencamp, and a member of the Delta High varsity fastpitch team: district champs.
Now, in simple black sans serif, his chest read, I’m awake. What more do you want?
“You don’t say much,” he told me, pinching me on the arm. “That’s good.” Then he knocked on his forehead, right where his hairline might’ve been. “Means you’re observing. You’re cunning. How old’re you now, Bern?”
Randle always called me Bern. Or worse—Bernie.
“I’m thirteen,” I answered. “Almost fourteen.”
“That’s good,” Randle said. “That’s real good. You like dogs?”
“Learn from them. The biggest dogs don’t get the most respect.”
* * *
Randle drove us to the house we’d been working on for the last few days—a meteorite of American prefab. Molehills pocked the lawn, and the concrete foundation showed like chalky midriff. The house belonged to an old lady—basically bald, white as death—who glowered at us from the upstairs window. She clearly didn’t want us there, but her middle-aged son had hired Randle for the job. The son wanted the house market-ready for the day the old lady knocked off, and he called Randle that morning to remind him to prime the stains beneath the gutter and tarp over the rhododendron under the front window.
“Not doing that,” Randle had said to me after he’d hung up. “Asshole’s not paying us by the hour.”
Randle lifted the sprayer first out of the truck bed, then together we ferried the five-gallon paint buckets to the side of the house and lined them up. He took the wooden mixing stick from me and carved deep into the first bucket, lacquering his fingers to the knuckles.
“Bottom to top, so the thinner doesn’t separate out. We need the paint to spread as far it can go. And then, when it gets down to about half—” Randle cranked the spigot on the side of the house. “Bring it back up with some water. Less paint. Less overhead.”
“The paint might crack by next summer, but whose problem is that? Whose problem is that, Bernie?”
I looked up toward the window of the house to see if the old woman was watching. No one was there. “Not ours,” I said.
Randle clapped me on the shoulder. Then he knocked again on his forehead. “You, sir, have a future as a contractor.”
* * *
I worked for an hour—less, probably—listening to Randle’s portable radio spazz with static and blues rock and news of the latest local kid drowned at the water park. Every few minutes I’d give the bucket in front of me a half-hearted swirl, then return to the business of watching cloudforms drift overhead. I looked for shapes—castles, swans, etc.—but I only saw things that were already pretty cloud-like—cotton gauze, cauliflower. Finally, I called up to Randle, told him I needed a break. He peered down from his ladder and saluted the sad fruits of my labor.
I took the rest of the morning off to wander the neighborhood. I walked in the middle of the street, without direction, spurred by nothing but my own boredom. We’d driven ten minutes from Randle’s house but hadn’t escaped this tract of residential torpor—neglected houses, lots overgrown with feather grass, one concrete apartment complex where a grown woman with pigtails watched me from her balcony while draining her cigarette. On the next street, an old man in flannel pajamas nudged his walker towards a row of mailboxes. I stooped for a plastic Dr. Pepper bottle and threw it at some crows, but they scattered, and I found them again a couple blocks down disemboweling a garbage bag in the street.
Before we moved here, my mother had described this area to me as a “suburb.” That couldn’t be right. Suburbs had cul-de-sacs rimmed with beauty bark. Kids jumping through sprinklers on green lawns. Buxom stay-at-home moms pruning their flower beds. This? This was a forgotten place. There was nothing here. Nothing but the shameful droning of private lives.
And yet, this was where temporary had come to rest. For my mother, anyway, and so for me. As usual, I had no say in the matter. A mute witness to my own life. I could feel myself disappearing already while, as if taunting me, the new streets echoed with nothing but my own silence.
The only exceptions were the watch dogs, who snarled and bayed as I passed. They were rottweilers and mastiffs and mongrel beasts, two or three per block, staked to the ground on khaki lawns amid rusted-out vehicles. I finally stopped walking in front of a fenced yard where a dog lounged like a Roman on a moldering suede sofa. A pit bull bare with mange. The house was a rambler with no vital signs, another pillbox abiding some unseen siege. As I approached, I picked up a stick and dragged it across the chain links of the fence along the sidewalk. Sensing me, or hearing my footfalls, the dog slunk off her perch. I stood and waited as she drew up to the fence, close enough that I could see the mucus encrusted to her eyes. Her udders were withered, fleshy bulbs. She had puppies somewhere, dozens of them surely, and some of those puppies probably had puppies.
I smacked the stick repeatedly against the outside of the fence. I closed my eyes and waited-waited-waited. She spurred to insanity. She gnashed her teeth against the chain links, and her barks broke up the silence in the street. I managed to gouge the stick once into her throat before she got her teeth into it.
I let her hatred sink in before I started walking back the way I’d come.
* * *
In the afternoons, on our way home for lunch, Randle liked to talk to me about my mother. “That woman is a bobcat,” he said. “I never had a chance. I fall in love too easily.”
He tossed a handful of coffee beans into his mouth like peanuts. He ate his coffee raw workdays so he didn’t have to piss when he was up on the ladder. He’d given me a handful too, but the beans stayed in my fist, sweating inky residue into my palm.
“I spent a lot of money at that shitty bar your mother worked at,” Randle continued. “What a dive. She was the only thing it had going. I used to follow her out to the parking lot during her smoke breaks, find her leaning against that old Camry. You’d be waiting out her shift in the backseat, playing your Game Boy. What ever happened to that car?”
“Figured. You were smaller then. She had me bring you out baskets of french fries that got sent back to the kitchen. You remember that?”
I nodded, but I didn’t remember.
The truck had slowed down enough that I could hear the loose gravel crunch beneath the truck’s tires. I stared at the hairy back of Randle’s hand wrapped around the wheel. I realized then that I wanted to pry his fingers from the steering wheel, slowly and firmly, and take hold of it myself, drive us both into a nice, reliable telephone pole. It would be doing us a service, preventing a whole lot of pain.
“Now she’s having a hell of a time, your mother. She’s not getting any better, Bern, as I’m sure you can see. The back pain is still there, and now she’s always complaining of these migraines. Worst of all, she won’t listen to me. She needs to get it all looked at. Again. I keep telling her—”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said, interrupting Randle, surprising him. Myself too.
He sucked in his cheek, cast me a puzzled look. “What’s that now?”
I hesitated, playing with the plastic buckle for a missing seatbelt. “She’s not going to listen,” I said.
“She’ll listen when she realizes—”
“Nope,” I said. “She’s never listened to anyone.”
Randle laughed, full-throated and loud. He glanced back at the road and edged the truck around a basketball hoop with an oblong rim. “Well,” he said flatly. “I take your point.”
“Doesn’t matter though,” I said. “We’re living in your house, eating your food. Right now, she’s now sleeping in your bed. You don’t have to convince her to do anything. You can just tell her. Make her.”
“Oh, is that right?”
“You know your mother. You want me to just walk in and tell her to get her ass to the doctor?”
Randle laughed again, more quietly this time, a blast of air through gritted teeth. Then he shook his head, and it was silent in the truck while he picked at a shaving scab on his neck.
“Well I will be goddamned,” he said finally, smacking me on my thigh with the back of his hand. “And here all summer I thought I was talking to a zombie. But those are some thoughts, Bern.”
I looked back at him and knocked on my forehead.
* * *
After we arrived back at the house for lunch, my mother drifted out of the bedroom. She stood in the doorframe of the kitchen and watched me as I sat down at the table, pulled off one of my shoes, and let it drop to the floor. The red basketball shoes I wore that summer had become too small, and my toes curled inside them like shrimp.
I stretched my foot out in the air, cracked it loudly, and looked up at my mother. I hadn’t seen her in days. The side of her face was swollen with sleep. She wore a lime green fleece bathrobe spangled with a red mushroom decal. I’d given it to her for Mother’s Day—picked it out myself, actually, from the pop-up shop in my school’s gymnasium, bought it with a crumpled five that Randle had lent me. The coloring had reminded me of the time I ate too much Jell-O. My mother wore it now out of spite, knowing I’d given it to her out of spite. Or maybe it was just comfortable.
“How’d you sleep?” she asked me, pointing toward the living room, where my pillow and blanket were still crumpled on the sofa.
I pulled off my other shoe and let it drop. “It’s the middle of the afternoon,” I said.
“I know that,” she said, narrowing her eyes at me. Then she smiled, shuffled around the back of my chair. Before I realized what she was doing, she’d pinned my arms to my sides from behind and wrapped me into something resembling a hug. She pushed the hair out of her face and mashed a wet kiss onto my cheek.
“You’re grumpy, Bernard,” she said, hot breath on my face. “You’re always grumpy now.”
I slid my arms up through her grasp, and she let me go. As she gathered her robe around herself and drifted toward the opposite side of the table, I saw the surgical scar snaking halfway up her neck. Her once-long, black hair had been lopped short for the surgery, and she’d kept it that way. She wanted the scar to be visible, I think, to remind everyone in her world—Randle and me—of her suffering.
Meanwhile, Randle had entered the kitchen without a word. He pulled a sleeve of hamburger patties out of the freezer and coated a frying pan with a haphazard jet of Pam. Out of the refrigerator he retrieved a half rack of Heineken. As he took the seat next to me at the table, he installed the beer case as the centerpiece and removed a can for himself.
“I’m thinking Randle might need a break from you,” my mother said to me. “You’re driving him to drink.”
“No ma’am,” Randle interjected loudly, pitching mea a wink across the table. “I’m very self-driven in that regard.”
“Bernard, why don’t you call up some friends?” my mother asked me. “See if they want to come over?”
“Here?” I asked.
“This isn’t our house.”
“Right now it is,” she said.
I looked at Randle, but he’d grown distracted, sipping his beer and squinting out the window beside the table. The window looked over his yard—a sea of dirt, one archipelago of crabgrass, a collection of propane tanks, and a de-wheeled bicycle.
“Nobody wants to come way out here,” I said to my mother. “Wherever we are.” Which was true. If I ever saw my friends from Seattle again, I’d decided to tell them I’d spent the summer with my cousins in Spokane.
“Your boy works like a mule,” Randle said, still gazing out the window. “Couldn’t do without him.”
My mother didn’t respond, so the three of us sat uncomfortably together at the table, sharing only the mute, forward force of our circumstances. I stared at a swath of bald gypsum on the wall. The hamburger sizzled on the stovetop.
Randle, at last, turned to my mother. “How you feeling today, babe?”
“Same,” she said. “Like shit.”
“You know,” Randle said, “me and Bern were talking in the truck today—”
“Bernard? Talking? I don’t believe it.”
“—something he said got me thinking.” Underneath the table, I could hear Randle’s work boots sticking and unsticking from the linoleum. “I know you don’t want to go back in to see the surgeon. You don’t like him—”
“Oh no. Not now, Randle.”
“—more importantly, you don’t trust him. I can understand that.”
“Oh, you can? You can understand how I wouldn’t trust the doctor who took my fucked-up back and managed to make it worse?”
“I can.” Randle maintained an even tone, but he had to work for it. I could hear the strain in his voice. “Which is why I’m suggesting we take you to see someone else. Plenty of doctors out there. Some of ‘em good.”
“I’m still paying the bill for the bad one.”
“Well no, Jess, you’re not actually. Not at the moment anyway.”
My mother opened her mouth instinctively, but she waited, and bit her lip lightly. I watched from across the table as she threaded her fingers up into her hair and drew her eyes to the ceiling.
“And I’ll pay for the second doctor too,” Randle added. “If that’s what it’s about.”
“Like hell you will.”
“I’ll go with you then. Talk to ‘em with you.”
“Like hell you will.”
“Dammit, Jess—” Randle slapped his open palm on the table, and my mother and me jolted in our chairs. His face was suddenly flushed with blood, his cheeks redder even than usual. He drew his fingers back squealing across the plastic tablecloth. My mother studied him for a moment, a look on her face like she was almost impressed. That’s what I thought I saw anyway.
“Not happening,” my mother said. Her voice was oddly high, almost unrecognizable. “Sorry.”
Randle stood and walked across the kitchen, stopping to brace himself against the refrigerator door with an outstretched hand. Then he spun back and approached my mother, slowly, his head down. I watched her eyes widen as he knelt down on the linoleum, put his open hand on her bare, unshaven thigh. “You’re going to the doctor,” he said. “Or you can’t stay here.”
I closed my eyes and waited-waited-waited.
If I knew my mother at all, I was waiting for her voice to tell me to get up, to go pack my things. I would’ve bet my life, in that moment, that we would be leaving Randle behind that same afternoon, save for a bit of his cheek beneath my mother’s fingernail.
But there was only silence.
When I opened my eyes again, I saw my mother with her face in her hands, her head lolling back and forth. All the redness had drained out of Randle’s face. He stood up, steadied himself on the table. Then he walked over and grabbed his cigarettes off the counter and proceeded toward the backdoor. There was an empty paint can out on the porch he used as an ashtray.
The sound of the door closing behind Randle seemed about as good as anything I could say to my mother, so I just stayed quiet. She did too.
“Get up,” she didn’t say. “Go pack your things,” neither.
She just sat at Randle’s table with the same remote expression on her face. Her mouth, her brow, her eyes all looked drained of life, like they’d been vacuum-packed for storage.
After a moment I reached in and pulled a can out of the Heineken case. I tapped on the aluminum lid with my fingernail like I’d seen Randle do. It cracked just like a can of soda, and I took in two full swallows, kept my face as placid as I could. I was expecting something sharp. Whenever Randle took his first sip of a beer he grimaced with pleasure. I wanted that. A bit of pain—bit of pleasure. Instead, the lukewarm beer just entered me like mouthful of bathwater. I shivered despite myself. My mother broke into a smile, and a contemptuous laugh escaped through her nose.
I wiped my mouth, looking away from my mother’s face. Across the kitchen, whorls of black smoke had begun rising off Randle’s patties left on the stovetop. My mother must’ve forgotten about them too—or else she didn’t care. She leaned back and sniffed the air, which had grown thick and dark and hazy. She didn’t get up. I didn’t either, even when the smoke made my eyes water. I was determined to outlast her.
Michael Ruby lives and writes in Tacoma, Washington. His writing has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and he serves as a fiction editor for the Isthmus Review, a literary journal based in Seattle.